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  1. Hollywood Teeth: The Early Days
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  5. Jean Harlow Was Nice-Looking, Actually
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  9. Discrimination in the Theater
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Movies, Television and Video

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Hollywood Teeth: The Early Days
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- One of the things I notice when looking at pre-1930 or thereabouts photos of movie actresses, chorus girls and others in the show biz beauty trade is that their teeth are normal. Not perfect, in other words. Here are some pictures I tracked down on the Web. They aren't the best examples, but will have to do for now. Gallery Marion Davies Nowadays best known for being William Randolph Hearst's squeeze, Davies was a fine comedic actress according to some observers. But we're interested in teeth. Hers don't present a solid-looking front (most apparent in the lower photo), and there seem to be some alignment irregularities (top photo). Vilma Banky Banky shows slight splaying along with some irregularity. Later photos of these actresses suggest that cosmetic dental work was done, a Hollywood studio practice common by the 1930s. Some other images I came across on Google were publicity photos where the teeth seemed to be retouched to look whiter and more regular. Apparently, once the studio system was firmly in place and stars were keys to business success, the companies strove to enhance or protect their investments. This "research" of mine was made more difficult because most publicity photo poses from the 20s stressed glamour, and glamour normally requires closed lips, not a flashy smile. Or possibly the mouths were closed because the teeth were substandard. In any case, toothy pictures were hard to find, especially where the teeth weren't up to par. Toothy smiles are largely absent from portrait and other paintings before the age of publicity. Again, in some cases, this fortuitously eliminated the need to show bad or even normal teeth. A case in point is Napoleon's Empress Josephine who is known to have had unattractive teeth (though I've never read exactly what her problems were). Full disclosure: I never had orthodontia, so my top front teeth are splayed (think David Letterman or 1960s British comic actor Terry-Thomas). Most of my other teeth aren't impressive either. Too bad I never worked for MGM. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at October 15, 2009 | perma-link | (5) comments

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Joe Valdez Guest Post
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Today we continue our guest-posting series. Our blogger is Joe Valdez whose name is in the Culture Blogs section at the left where you can link to his This Distracted Globe site. Below he writes about, uh, well .... Er, take it away, Joe. * * * * * The N-Word If -- like me -- you make an effort to see movies in a theater, you might have missed Surveillance, an American made serial killer thriller that was released in Portugal, France, Germany and Austria in the summer of 2008 and quietly ushered onto Video On Demand stateside in May 2009. Starring Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond as kooky FBI agents interviewing witnesses of a gruesome murder, the movie itself is ridiculous and in my opinion, barely worth the postage to send back to where you rented it from. What’s worth mentioning about Surveillance is that it was co-written and directed by Jennifer Lynch, whose only other picture was one you might have heard about. Featuring Julian Sands as an architect who abducts the object of his desire (Sherilyn Fenn) and amputates her arms and injured legs, Boxing Helena (1993) may be the most critically reviled movie of the Information Age. Its subject matter was never going to win over feminists, but a highly publicized lawsuit by Main Line Pictures against Kim Basinger (for reneging on a verbal commitment to star in the film) nullified any positive word of mouth the movie could have possibly generated. Ironically, the quality that helped draw attention to Jennifer Lynch would turn her into a target. Lynch is the daughter of David Lynch, cartoonist, amateur meteorologist and the Academy Award nominated director of The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet. The master filmmaker was not involved in the Boxing Helena fiasco, but when his daughter’s efforts to get a second feature off the ground faltered, Lynch lent his name -- as executive producer -- to help finance Surveillance. Some might see this as a clear-cut case of nepotism in an industry where this n-word has never inhibited anyone from career opportunities. Darryl F. Zanuck co-founded 20th Century Fox in the 1930s and late in his career, would name his son president of production at the studio; Richard D. Zanuck went on to win an Academy Award for producing Driving Miss Daisy in 1990 along with his wife, Lili Fini Zanuck. Wendy Finerman was married to Mark Canton, chairman of Columbia TriStar Pictures when she won an Oscar for producing Forrest Gump in 1995. Jon Peters got his foot in the door as the hairdresser and boyfriend of Barbra Streisand; Peters later produced The Witches of Eastwick and Batman. The list of goes on and on. Contrary to conjecture on the Internet, actors are the least likely group to reap the benefits of their family tree. Casting directors would rather not be accused of favoritism, one reason Nicolas Coppola -- nephew of director Francis Coppola -- became “Nicolas Cage”... posted by Donald at October 4, 2009 | perma-link | (7) comments

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

DVD Journal: "Gilles' Wife"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Emmanuelle Devos plays a loving working-class wife and mother in a small city in 1930s France who begins to suspect that something's not quite right in her marriage. Directed by Frederic Fonteyne, "Gilles' Wife" initially seems about as undramatic as can be. It's a very slow, very deliberate, very beautiful accumulation of sensory details and psychological moments. (Filmgeeks may be reminded of a cross between the austere experimentalism of "Jeanne Dielman" and the impressionism of "Elvira Madigan.") But this study of domesticity and infidelity sucked me in and fascinated me. If it works for you as it did for me, you'll find that despite its quiet and oblique ways it accumulates terrific power. The details convince on what feels like a pre-verbal level, and Fonteyne and Devos are quite amazing in the ways they find to convey this inarticulate woman's intuitions and discoveries, and their effects on her. I recommend Fonteyne's 1999 "An Affair of Love" too. It stars Nathalie Baye as a lonely middle-aged woman -- I suppose that her character qualifies as a cougar, though I don't think the term was around in the late '90s -- treating herself to an affair with a studly, if similarly lonely, younger guy. Don't be afraid -- the film isn't "empowering" or "political" in that rousing and inane American way. It's a melancholy-yet-erotic entry in the small, stylishly "objective," psychological-study French mode -- a beautiful example of the kind of film that Woody Allen wishes he could make. Fast-Forwarding Score: Not a painstaking, crystalline moment Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 9, 2009 | perma-link | (5) comments

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Bill Links
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Bill Kauffman celebrates the just-deceased Western novelist Elmer Kelton, and the hillbilly actor and '70s movie icon Warren Oates. Bill Kauffman himself is an exciting and significant cultural figure. Access all five parts of our interview with Kauffman from this posting. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 26, 2009 | perma-link | (0)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Jean Harlow Was Nice-Looking, Actually
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Jean Harlow was the first Blonde Bombshell movie star, dominating the Thirties scene until her death in 1937, shortly after her 26th birthday. Her only true successor in the Bombshell department was Marilyn Monroe. That's the legend, anyhow. My problem was that I couldn't quite buy it. Yes, Harlow had a nice shape, but her facial features seemed a little too soft. And then there was the 1930s fashion of plucked eyebrows replaced by a thin, penciled line. Not to mention the watered-down holdover of the 1920s' bee-sting lipstick application that narrowed the mouth while exaggerating the thickness of the lips near the mouth's midpoint. Yesterday I stumbled across the "real" Jean Harlow while reading up on the movie "Hell's Angels". It was released 15 November 1930, before the plucked eyebrow fad started. Let's make a comparison. Here are some photos of Harlow later in her career George Hurrell's classic bearskin rug photo A "glam" pose with penciled eyebrows Frontal pose with penciled eyebrows Here are photos from 1929 or the very early 30s Autographed photo Publicity photo "Hell's Angels" still - two-negative Technicolor From our 2009 perspective, Harlow looks more "natural" and, to me, far more attractive in the early photos than in the later ones. Fashion being what it is, there's a risk that I'm blinkered by current standards of beauty. Even so, I'm pleased to know what Jean Harlow really looked like before 1930s glamorization took hold. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at August 18, 2009 | perma-link | (15) comments

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Budd Schulberg R.I.P.
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A quick posting to note the passing of filmworld legend Budd Schulberg. Schulberg was probably best-known for writing the classic Hollywood novel "What Makes Sammy Run?" and the screenplay for "On the Waterfront." He was 95 years old. Carrie Rickey's short obit of Schulberg is very informative. Back here, I shared a few thoughts about "Sammy," which as far as I'm concerned is a great (and underappreciated) novel. It's also -- hallelujah -- a fast, smart, dirty-minded, and suspenseful read. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 6, 2009 | perma-link | (3) comments

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

In The Times ...
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Time to generate even more debt, or to fret about the debt we've already created? * Hard to believe, but the people who make porno movies are once again throwing out storylines and plots. * It's Google vs. Microsoft. * Designers and builders continue indulging their bizarre obsession with glass. I bitched back here about how sicko it is, the way architects over-do the glass. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 8, 2009 | perma-link | (18) comments

Friday, July 3, 2009

Coming Soon: "RoboGeisha"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Opening in the U.S. this fall, "RoboGeisha." Here's an NSFW trailer for the film: Yeah, baby! I'm genuinely eager to see "RoboGeisha" -- I think that Noburu Iguchi, the film's director, is a real talent. "The Machine Girl," his last picture, was by far the funnest newish movie that The Wife and I have watched in a long while. It's scrappy, giddy, hilarious, and hyper-outrageous -- a great new entry in the "Dead Alive" / "Re-Animator," low-budget splatter-satire, gross-out horror-comedy sweepstakes. Plus it features loads of that daffily mashed-up, 22nd-century quality that the Japanese sometimes bring to their films. Not for the first time do I find myself wondering why the rest of the world doesn't give up and leave moviemaking to the Asians. How can we compete? Here's a trailer for Iguchi's "The Machine Girl": You go, brilliant young Asians. As a consumer advocate, I'm duty-bound to report that, sadly, not all recent Japanese splatter satires are created equal. Despite wonderful titles and heaps of far-out ideas, for example, "Tokyo Gore Police" and "Meatball Machine" both put me to sleep. Thanks to the numerous visitors who have sent along links to the "RoboGeisha" trailer. By the way, what is it about me? Do I really have "fan of Japanese splatter satires" written all over my blogface? Hmmm .... RELATED: I wrote about some other wonderful Japanese movies. If you aren't already 'way ahead of me on this: Why not get to know the movies of the amazing Takashi Miike? I think he's a plausible contender for the title of "most talented filmmaker working right now." Start with "Ichii the Killer" and brace yourself for a seriously wild ride. PBS this ain't! DIMLY RELATED: Learn about the diffs between movie people and book people. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 3, 2009 | perma-link | (6) comments

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Discrimination in the Theater
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Relatively few plays written by women are produced. Can we take this as definitive evidence of discrimination against women? Research has been done: More men than women write plays, and the men are also often more prolific. Taking these numbers into account, plays by men and women are in fact produced at the same rate. Plays by women do seem to need to be better (or at least more commercial) than plays by men in order to receive productions. But who enforces this state of affairs? As it turns out: women artistic directors and women literary managers. Ladies: Sometimes you do it to yourselves. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 24, 2009 | perma-link | (71) comments

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Movie and Video Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Reid Rosefelt confesses that he tried to persuade his boss not to produce "My Dinner With Andre." Great to see that Criterion is bringing out a classy new DVD of the movie on June 23. That'd be today. Hey, Andre Gregory is one of the people who have given The Wife and me a blurb for our raucous and satirical audiobook. * Cool demo. * A time-does-pass note: "Purple Rain" was released -- get this -- 25 years ago. And I still haven't made up my mind about Prince ... * Good lord! * British advertising vs. American advertising, a comparison. * Jeremy Richey notices that Cinema Libre will be issuing some slick new DVDs of movies by Jean-Jacques ("Diva") Beineix. Check out that trailer for the director's cut of "Betty Blue." Mad love, baby! * MBlowhard Rewind: I raved about the work of the filmmaker Robert Siodmak. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 23, 2009 | perma-link | (14) comments

Friday, June 12, 2009

Pauline Turns 90
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I just noticed that, if she were still alive (she died in 2001), the movie critic Pauline Kael would be turning 90 in a week. She was quite a cultural figure once. Here's an interview with her from the late 1980s; here's one of her best essays, a long profile of Cary Grant. Charlton Griffin points out that Wikipedia's entry on Pauline (everybody thought of her as "Pauline") is awfully good. I hear that Brian Kellow -- a biographer and an editor at Opera News -- is preparing a biography. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 12, 2009 | perma-link | (34) comments

Sunday, June 7, 2009

What We've Come To ...
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I wonder if we're entering into a great era for political satire. Link thanks to Charlton Griffin. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 7, 2009 | perma-link | (9) comments

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Guest Posting: Jake Thomas on "Tango & Cash"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- One of the smartest -- and certainly one of the funniest -- pieces of filmyak that I've read in a long time is something I found not in the pages of Slate or The New Yorker but on Facebook, posted there by an actor-friend named Jake Thomas. After smiling my way through it, I asked Jake if it'd be OK with him if I Guest Posted it here on 2Blowhards. He was happy with the idea, so here it is. *** WHY "TANGO & CASH IS MY NOMINEE FOR MOST 1980s ACTION MOVIE by Jake Thomas First of all, let's define our terms here. When I say "most" definitive film in regards to a decade/era, I'm not talking about quality, or "best," nor am I talking about most indicative of the zeitgeist. What I'm thinking of is how movies were made and why they were made. I want a movie that WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN MADE in another decade. For instance, if we were talking about just regular old movies and I asked what movie would be "most 80s" a frequent contender is "The Breakfast Club." Now, "The Breakfast Club" is definitely a very 80s movie, however, if it had never been made and someone pitched that movie at a studio (updating a few cultural references, of course), people would make that movie. However, "Adventures in Babysitting" is another story. There's nothing you could do to update the trends or cultural references that would make that movie any less 80s, it is 80s in its bones, and they wouldn't have made it the 70s or the 90s or any other era. Only in the 80s. This means that most of these movies aren't "brilliant." A lot of them are, or at least feel like they are, written by committee. And as we all know, when people do something by committee it usually aims to the lowest common denominator, plays it safe, thinks in terms of marketing as opposed to art and they frequently attempt to be "hip" while actually being as edgy as a guidance counselor. However, fortunately for us, and fortunately for "Tango & Cash," sometimes committees also go absolutely INSANE. How did they go insane in this particular instance? Let's break it down, 80s style. COCAINE Tons and tons of cocaine. I'm frankly amazed "Cocaine" does not receive a writing credit on this movie. This is a staple of the 80s. Everything feels rushed and excited and AWESOME and extreme, because everyone had cocaine pouring out of their eyeballs. This also causes movies to feel a little erratic. Or, in the case of "Tango & Cash," all the hell over the place. HOW THIS MOVIE IS MORE COCAINE THAN OTHER 80s ACTION MOVIES Have you watched it? You can practically hear the coked up pitch while you do. "There's a tanker truck, and a sports car and a helicopter! And then Sly... SHOOTS THE TANKER! And there's COCAAAAAAAINE!!!! And then Kurt Russel... posted by Michael at June 6, 2009 | perma-link | (26) comments

Monday, May 25, 2009

Movie and Video Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Cleveland: Hilarious. Sad. Hilarious. * Coming soon: a documentary about American film critics. * The top ten time-lapse nature videos. * A gorgeous short video starring crowds of jellyfish. * After failing to generate much enthusiasm at Cannes for his new film "Inglourious Basterds," Quentin Tarantino makes his case to Anne Thompson. * MBlowhard Rewind: I introduced visitors to the overlooked work of director Alberto Cavalcanti. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 25, 2009 | perma-link | (5) comments

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

DV Improvements
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Some more landmarks to take note of in the ever-ongoing digital-video story: The Red One (base price: $17,500) creates imagery so sharp and rich that stills drawn from it can be used as magazine covers. Here's the site for Red Digital Cinema. Here's a good hands-on report about what it's like to use the Red One. Here's some sample footage. Panasonic's recently-announced Lumix GH1 is a pseudo-DSLR (base price: $1500ish) designed to capture snappy video as well as dandy stills. The first reviews are now coming in, and the consensus is that the GH1 is wonderfully easy to use and creates video that is near-movie-quality. David Pogue calls the camera "the real deal ... The footage looks jaw-droppingly good, like a hi-def loop playing on the $4,000 flat panels at Best Buy." Here's some sample footage. Interesting to learn that some independent filmmakers are already shooting feature films with video-capable DSLRs. Incidentally: If there's a part of you that would love to play with these cameras and maybe assemble a little edited something from their footage, dream on. Digital-video formats are an as-yet-unironed-out nightmare, and editing footage that's as high-quality as what the Red One and the GH1 output requires a much more powerful computer than what you have on your home desk. Next year, maybe. Small MBlowhard reaction: Though I've found most movies shot on videocams to be sadly lacking when projected onto a movie screen, the latest high-quality footage when viewed on the HDTV in my bedroom looks darned good. It's more than up to the challenge of creating moods and casting a spell. Besides, since I do 99.9% of my movie-watching these days at home, why should I care about what this footage looks like on a movie-theater screen? Come to think of it, the last time I went to a theater wasn't to watch a movie, it was attend a Metropolitan Opera presentation in HD. Recommended: world-class productions and singers, big images, and Dolby sound, all for around 20 bucks. It's such a satisfying way to see opera (and it has been so successful an innovation) that you worry a bit about the fortunes of local theater companies. How can they compete? Check out the Met's schedule here. The Wife and I are seeing "La Cenerentola" this Saturday. Related: I bitched back here about that lousy "Star Wars" movie that was shot on video, and back here about a shot-on-video Robert Rodriguez western that looked like crap. Recently I confessed that I've been finding what amateurs are doing with home video these days more interesting than what the pros are doing anyway. My favorite source for news and thinking about movies and technology is the journalist and blogger Scott Kirsner. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 5, 2009 | perma-link | (0)

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Tom Naughton and "Fat Head": A Revisit
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Some months back I managed to get hold of a DVD workprint of what sounded like an intriguing new documentary: Tom Naughton's "Fat Head." Although the film was still being edited and polished, I found it fun and fascinating -- and for a number of reasons. For one, it's a very effective takedown of Morgan Spurlock's popular anti-McDonald's movie, "Super Size Me." For another, it's an amazingly fast and effective intro to the low-carb / Paleo / Primal critique of establishment diet-and-eating advice. For a third, the film is an example of a newish and fascinating development in the history of filmmaking: the homemade, completely personal, yet fullscale movie. (Realistically speaking, it's only in the last few years that digital videocams, computers, hard drives, and audiovisual programs have evolved to the point where non-professional people working in their kitchens can create ambitious, inventive, and / or expressive work. For more about how these factors have affected this longtime moviebuff's view of movies and video, read this recent posting.) Curious and enthusiastic, I got hold of the film's creator, Tom Naughton, and did an interview with him. Here's Part One; here's Part Two. Tom is smart, funny, and down-to-earth; he's also an unusual new figure on the filmmaking scene. He gave us a very generous interview, so I urge you to click on the links above and give the q&a a read. Now finished -- and polished to a high shine -- "Fat Head" is available for purchase at Amazon and for rental at Netflix. I recently watched the film again, liked it even better, and got back in touch with Tom Naughton to bring myself up-to-date with his adventures in filmmaking. *** A Revisit with Tom Naughton 2Blowhards: You're a real film director now. How has becoming a film director affected your life? Tom Naughton: I don't think having a credit as a director has changed my life much. Well, I did grow a beard. And I wear a safari jacket. And after reviewing the video footage I shot at Christmas, I shouted "This isn't right!" and made everyone go through Christmas morning again so I could use more creative angles. It was tough re-wrapping all the presents. Plus I fired my daughter from the role of "daughter" and hired another girl whose head is larger in proportion to her body. But other than that, no, life is pretty much the same. 2B: Great to see the movie available to the public. How did you arrange distribution, and get from "a guy with a movie" to "a guy whose movie is on Amazon and Netflix"? TN: I was turned down by all the film festivals I entered. That may sound discouraging, but I wasn't discouraged. It's kind of what I expected. The film-festival crowd, like the Hollywood crowd, is almost uniformly left-wing. Many of them talk about their commitment to "diversity" in their guidelines, but in Hollywood-speak that means "We want films made by... posted by Michael at March 31, 2009 | perma-link | (34) comments

Monday, March 23, 2009

Movies and Video, Pro and Am
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Back in around 2000, Apple introduced an iMac that they called the "video iMac." The machine was supposed to be an easy-to-use darling that was up to the demands of video editing. Apple produced a blizzard of stylish, warm-'n'-huggy ads suggesting that you could now create movies that would be as slick as anything a pro director might put together. I sprang for a video iMac instantly. As it turned out, the machine was a very nice little computer -- but, where video went, it was a long, long way from living up to Apple's claims for it. The hard drive wasn't nearly big enough; the processor wasn't nearly fast enough. Despite the sluggishness of the process, I spent some time playing around with video on my video iMac, getting to know the then-current version of Apple's video-editing-for-hobbyists program iMovie. It was more fun and instructive as a taste of what might one day be than as a satisfying experience in its own right, to put it mildly. The experts were able to envision a time when everyday people would be using video freely. Heck, I was too. But it hadn't arrived yet. More interesting to me than the experience of making video on the video iMac were the feelings and thoughts that monkeying around with iMovie set off in me. I had myself a big wrestle with the word "movies," for instance. Movies ... Movies ... What does that word really signify anyway? Apple (and many journalists) yakked freely about using home computers for "moviemaking." I balked at this, mainly because what the word "movies" calls up in my brain isn't home footage of adorable kids, riotous dog-bathing sessions, and blissed-out ski vacations. What the word "movies" means to me is Takashi Miike, "Rules of the Game," "Casablanca" and the like: elaborate, enacted, visual / narrative experiences of some length and complexity. Now, I know perfectly well that the word isn't as restrictive as I'm using it here. Home movies, experimental movies, industrial and educational movies, and short movies have been part of the "movies" cosmos for a long time. Still, on an instinctual level I couldn't help feeling some exasperation with the claim that the couple-of-minutes-long jumbles of informal clips set to pop music that iMovie was usually used to create qualified as "movies." And I felt indignant that Apple was trying to convince people that they'd be able to create anything resembling real movies on an iMac. So, what was I to do about the word "movies"? I chewed this question over for a long time. Finally, as far as home iMovie-style creations went, I found myself thinking of them not a "movies" but as "personal videos." With this decision I breathed a sigh of relief. Rather than resenting these little nothings for not being "movies," I was able to start enjoying them as creations in their own right. I was also able to let go of my protectiveness about "movies"... posted by Michael at March 23, 2009 | perma-link | (9) comments

Friday, March 13, 2009

New York City Movie Prices
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- And the movie was a great big bore too. The characters completely failed to engage me ... The story didn't really kick in until the movie was nearly over ... Tell me again what I was supposed to find interesting and fun about this experience? Semi-related: I wrote about another Zack Synder-directed movie, "300." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 13, 2009 | perma-link | (15) comments

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Rhythm
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I guess everybody enjoys moving to The Gap Band! Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 9, 2009 | perma-link | (2) comments

Thursday, March 5, 2009

"Vanishing Point" Fails to Vanish
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A general cultural point that movie history often drives home is this: You probably aren't a good predictor of what the future will make of the culture of your own time. Richard Sarafian's 1972 "Vanishing Point" is one of a zillion examples. At the time of its release, the film was largely taken as a fun exploitation pic for stoners. A long life was not predicted. These days, though, it's still influential, as well as a big fave with such cultureshaping coolguys as Richard ("Donnie Darko") Kelly and Quentin Tarantino. Had you watched the film back in '72, would you have predicted that? Come on, be honest. The film's director Richard Sarafian recalls making the film. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 5, 2009 | perma-link | (5) comments

Movie Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * David Chute sees a lot going on in the work of the overlooked-by-the-mainstream Tyler ("Madea Goes to Jail") Perry. * Whatever happened to femmes fatales? * Lemmus Lemmus watches some thrillers. * Film journalist Anne Thompson has been giving her own FlipCam a workout. * Fave-of-mine Bill Kauffman considers the basketball movie "Hoosiers" one of the few American movies to get small-town America right. (FvBlowhard and I both agree: here and here.) * Roger Ebert rhapsodizes about French filmmaker Agnes Varda, who is now 80 years old. I like a lot of Varda's work too. * New York magazine profiles loose-cannon film critic Armond White. * Toby Young wonders why documentaries are often so much better than fiction films. * MBlowhard Rewind: I watched (and recommended) some trashy-arty movies. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 5, 2009 | perma-link | (0)

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Mickey for Best Actor
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I didn't see a single new movie in 2008. But, now that I've watched Mickey Rourke's acceptance speech at the Independent Spirit Awards, I have a favorite for Best Actor anyway. NSFW for mucho-con-gusto dirty language. I would sooo love to watch this crazy bastard be set loose on the Academy stage ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 22, 2009 | perma-link | (4) comments

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Pat Condell on the Geert Wilders Affair
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The British government preventing Geert Wilders from entering the country? Pat Condell has a few words about that decision: Let me put off debate about the subject matter of Condell's video for just a second in order to ask: Is that man a great ranter or what? Articulate, funny, impassioned yet under sly control ... What a virtuoso. OK, now back to the substance of it ... Possibly related? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 17, 2009 | perma-link | (4) comments

Friday, February 13, 2009

Movie Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * The actress Caren Kaye -- a soulful beauty remembered fondly by many for her role in the surprisingly-pretty-good softcore '80s teenflick "My Tutor" -- shows up in the Comments on this YouTube tribute to her. "You really made an impact on my generation," writes one admirer. * Arbogast wonders why '70s B-movie honey Angel Tompkins never became a bigger star. After watching her last night in the 1974 "The Teacher" (terrible movie, but Angel shines), I do too. Wow! Plus she had a fizzy spirit, and could act a little too. * English film critic Philip French writes a nice appreciation of Catherine Deneuve. Deneueve tells Laura Barton that she'll be pleased if she's mainly remembered for "Belle de Jour." * Mike Jada sits through a 25 hour Horrorthon in Philly. * Has Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon" been insufficiently appreciated? * MBlowhard Rewind: I wrote an Introduction to Enjoying Black and White Movies. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 13, 2009 | perma-link | (8) comments

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

New Sony Gizmo
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I've bought a few of these myself. (NSFW language alert.) Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 10, 2009 | perma-link | (4) comments

Monday, February 9, 2009

Jimmy and Tom
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The invaluable Jimmy Moore podcast-interviews Tom Naughton, director of the fun and startling new documentary "Fat Head." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 9, 2009 | perma-link | (0)

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Ramesh on Bollywood 2
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Back here, Ramesh reviewed 2002 in Bollywood. Today, he shares more observations, links and clips about this super-popular movie form. *** Ramesh on Bollywood Part II : Bollywood the Show As a Preview to the Oscars, where a certain "Slumdog" seems to be shaking up the wigs, I thought I’d dive headlong into the stage, trumpet in hand. This is an R. D. Burman classic from "Apna Desh." Bollywood is influenced from musicals, whether they be the films of Busby Berkely -- -- or from shows in London’s West End -- -- or Broadway. Some comparable Indian productions would be and: The show tune production has been one of the Indian film Industry’s continuing motifs. In reality a Broadway chorus line -- -- is very different than the rows of dancers in Indian films: The former draws from the French revue and New Orleans shows, not to mention the British West End, while the latter draws from Indian folk dances as well as Broadway. The following is a second generation of Bollywood show tunes. Many of them are post 1990 and reflect a high degree of polish and a sensitivity to the Broadway and musical tradition they draw inspiration from: A. R. Rahman (who is currently nominated for three Oscars) did this in Mani Ratnam’s "Iruvar" as a period piece about Indian films in the 1960’s. I thought the other song in the film was more sophisticated if somewhat messily picturized: Close on its heels was Anurag Basu’s "Murder," a Bollywood take on the Richard Gere / Diane Lane film "Unfaithful." It featured this song: It was topped only by a yesteryears actress Rekha doing a very Shanghai show tune: By no means are production numbers exclusively the “let's outdo the west in stairs and choruses” alone. Bollywood has evolved its own logic to doing show tunes. This is from the Shahrukh Khan starrer "Dilwale dulhaniya le jayenge": Or this lush production of Sharmila Tagore in ostrich feathers. (MBlowhard note: the video is too wide to be embedded in this blog's column, so you'll have to click here to watch it. Recommended!) We can't conclude a short presentation without Helen, the queen of the Mumbai cabaret, doing a femme fatale -- Bollywood taught me how well cabaret went with Noir: In her iconic Carvan song: And in what must be the most popular song in the whole world: Shout out to A.R. Rahman! My Chennai homie should win two Oscars this year!!!! WooHoooo!!!!! Ramesh out. *** Many thanks once again to Ramesh. Visit Ramesh's blog here. Fellow Bollywood connoisseur David Chute offers a generous and informed guide to Bollywood for the rankest beginner (that'd include me) here. Print it, save it, and consult it the next time you decide to top off your Netflix queue. Visit this posting of mine for more links to Chute-ian Bollywood tips. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 8, 2009 | perma-link | (18) comments

Friday, February 6, 2009

"Fat Head" Now Available
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Back here and here I interviewed Tom Naughton, a standup comedian and software guy who was in the process of finishing his first movie, "Fat Head." Amusing, likable, and amazingly informative, "Fat Head" is both a documentary response to Morgan Spurlock's "Super Size Me" and a muckraking expose of the lowfat-eating dogma. (You think this is a trivial matter? One doctor involved in researching the supposed benefits of eating lowfat called its theoretical basis -- the "lipid hypothesis" -- "perhaps the greatest scientific fraud of the 20th century.") "Fat Head" is also, IMHO, a triumph of self-financed, hands-on, DYI filmmaking, plain-speaking funny-regular-guy division. I'm glad to learn that "Fat Head" is now finished and available. Though I don't see it listed at Netflix yet, you can buy yourself a copy at Amazon. Dr. Michael Eades -- a luminary in the low-carb-eating cosmos (buy the excellent "Protein Power Lifeplan" here). and a generous and enlightening interviewee in "Fat Head" -- interviews Tom Naughton here. Here's the website Tom has made for his movie. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 6, 2009 | perma-link | (2) comments

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Video Goodness
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Colleen is a motivator. * The Christian Bale Remix. (NSFW for language.) * L'il O'Reilly evaluates Obama's first week in office. (Link thanks to Charlton Griffin.) * What's the latest in sex toys? (NSFW, as if you needed telling.) * Guy Clark loves Texas cookin'. * A well-done parody of a certain kind of French musical-film style. (Thanks once again to websurfin' virtuoso Charlton.) The real thing. * Nonvideo Bonus: How much of a geek are you? I didn't make a dent on that scale. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 4, 2009 | perma-link | (4) comments

Monday, February 2, 2009

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Amazing that this kind of thing doesn't happen more often, isn't it? (NSFW) Vaguely related: Some inspired hacker mischief. (Link thanks to visitor William S.) Austin, TX, has a very cute Spokeswoman for Public Works. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 2, 2009 | perma-link | (2) comments

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Movie Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * David Chute is surprised to find himself lovin' the most recent "X-Files" movie. * Steve Sailer does a great job of nailing and evoking Baz Luhrman's talent. * Film director Danny Boyle tells Anne Thompson that he likes limits. * Dennis Cozzalio writes a definitive history of the drive-in. Dennis maintains a wonderful and very personal movieblog here. * Ramesh compares "Gran Torino" to "Diary of a Country Priest" and makes it sound plausible. * An excellent interview with nature-doc legend David Attenborough. Attenborough deserves far more appreciation as a filmmaker than he has received, IMHO. I've found many of his shows really thrilling. * MBlowhard Rewind: I rhapsodized about Spy Mom Carla Gugino. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 24, 2009 | perma-link | (13) comments

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Podcast Recs 2
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Having been on a podcast-listening bender over the last few months, I'm recommending the ones I've especially enjoyed. Back here I linked to a talk by the behavioral economist Dan Ariely. Today my tip is ... * Lance Weiler talks to Joe Swanberg. (Go here. Now, in the "This Conference is Being Recorded" box in the webpage's upper-right, scroll down and look for "Joe Swanberg: DIY filmmaking." If you see a better way of getting at this podcast please let me know.) This conversation is a great introduction to how new-media creators -- webseries makers, for instance -- think and talk, as well as an informative stroll through their concerns and interests. A quick explanation: We’re all familiar with old-media conversation topics. Let’s take movies as an example. The usual conversation might include riffs about: How hard was it to find financing? What battles did you have with your producers and stars? How screwed-over did you get by distributors? We've all read articles and/or have attended panel discussions that have focused on these questions. In the world of new-media creation, nearly all these concerns have been left behind. Why? Well, the new digital tools enable people to make movies for almost nothing. Really-truly they do: The Wife and I are friendly with a guy who makes feature-length movies -- on weekends, with friends -- for less than a thousand dollars each. The webseries that The Wife and I co-created ourselves with a young director friend was, by new-media standards, incredibly ambitious. We like to describe it as a cross between “Barbarella” and “The Matrix.” Yet its total cost was a mere $12,000. If you’re working without producers and stars, then you aren’t subject to producer/star battles. And, because internet connections and downloads are getting faster every year, moviemakers can now put their work on public display without relying on any distributors at all. Hence: no reason to agonize about financing, producers, stars, or distributors. So far as new-media filmmaking goes, in other words, those familiar old article and panel-discussion moviechat topics are now kaput. But it isn’t`as though life in the new-media world, however free and loose, is entirely smooth sailing. The old-media obstacles and hurdles may not be issues for people working independently, using Macs, and shooting on digi-videocams. But life under the new conditions presents its own challenges. New media filmmakers love to get together and compare notes -- they just aren’t comparing notes about what filmmakers used to compare notes about. A few examples of typical new-media filmmaker conversation topics: How might we get paid for our creations? (No one has an answer for this one yet, alas. In fact, it seems as though the freer the new tools make independent filmmakers, the less likely independent filmmakers are to get paid.) How to handle the challenges of making collaborative work when no one involved is receiving a salary? (Example: It’s hard to yell at someone for screwing up if that person... posted by Michael at January 22, 2009 | perma-link | (3) comments

Monday, January 12, 2009

It's An Audio
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The Michael Blowhard creativity onslaught continues. Back here I wrote about co-creating a trash novel in two months with The Wife. Back here I wrote about co-creating a webseries with The Wife and a young director friend. I’ve just finished another deeply satisfying adventure in co-creation: The Wife and I have co-written and co-produced an audio extravaganza. It’s a raunchy satire of the movieworld -- and, as we like to say to each other, it isn’t “just an audiobook.” Instead, we roped together more than 30 actors, we utilized real audio production values ... Episodic, satirical, and ultra-raunchy, it’s like an audio version of a Showtime or HBO series, or like a dirty-minded and up-to-date season of the kind of audio plays that used to be common on American radio. (I say “not just an audiobook” with the greatest fondness and admiration for good audiobooks, by the way. I also hereby acknowledge the masterful audiobook creator Charlton Griffin as the godfather of our project. Without Charlton’s tips and encouragement we’d never have known how to get started with our own project. In case you’re unaware of his work: Charlton, who often drops by 2Blowhards -- and who is now Friendable on Facebook too -- produces and narrates some of the best audiobooks out there. Check out Charlton's product line at Audible by typing his name into the Search box.) A handful of observations about the making-audio process. It’s a performance. When The Wife and I kicked our project off a couple of years ago, the plan was to emerge from the process with a novel, not an audio entertainment. Not having an actual book contract to enforce a deadline on us, we set up our own deadlines by arranging readings in downtown bars. The readings became our deadlines. We raced to complete sections of the project in time to put them up in front of live audiences. But something unexpected happened. As we did the readings, we found ourselves writing less and less in the way of on-the-page style prose and more and more in the way of dramatic/comedic material for actors. Writers reading on-the-page prose are usually a drag, after all, where actors reading dramatized comic material are often enormously entertaining. The Wife and I? Well, we’re opportunistic enough to go where the applause and the laughter seems loudest. By the time we’d rounded the live-presentation phase of our project off, what we had in our hands wasn’t a novel at all but instead a collection of related audio plays. We looked at each other and said, Hey, so far as setting-this-in-stone goes, what do you say we skip the turning-it-into-a-novel thing and produce it as a recorded audio entertainment instead? The performance side of the project had taken over. I wrote back here about touring our stories around the country. Why don’t more writers do audio? As everyone knows, reading time is diminishing; even interested and devoted readers are finding less time... posted by Michael at January 12, 2009 | perma-link | (5) comments

Friday, December 26, 2008

DVD Journal: "B. Monkey"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A small-scale London-set gangster romance about a sexy young burglar (Asia Argento) who wants to go straight, and the low-key teacher (Jared Harris, Richard's son) she fastens on. Beautifully designed and lushly shot, it's an enjoyable, if somewhat lightweight, film in the movie-dream mode of Godard's "Breathless" and "Band of Outsiders," What gives "B. Monkey" a lot of tang and makes it memorable is Asia Argento. 22 at the time the film was made, she's like nothing you've ever seen: reactive and passionate, a Wild Child who knows only how to be true to herself and do things her own way. If she recalls anyone it's such other sui generis performers as Belmondo and Brando. Props to director Michael Radford for creating such a gorgeous cinema-reverie showcase for her. Movies would be a far less interesting medium than they are if it weren't for attractive and distinctive performer-personalities, and the talented people who figure out effective ways to show them off. Semi-related: Buy a copy of "B. Monkey." Back here I wrote about Asia's loony and fascinating first film as a director, "Scarlet Diva." Back here I confessed that I only semi-enjoyed Argento in Breillat's "The Last Mistress." Back here, I reviewed a bunch of sexy movies, including Michael Radford's "Dancing at the Blue Iguana." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 26, 2008 | perma-link | (11) comments

Monday, December 22, 2008

More Debbie
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- In final excerpts from an interview, horror-movie queen (and genuinely fab actress) Debbie Rochon tells what she thinks a real independent movie is, and talks about the perils of being a scream queen. I wrote an appreciation of Debbie Rochon back here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 22, 2008 | perma-link | (0)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Debbie Rochon
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Have you heard of the actress Debbie Rochon? She's one of the great figures of the current exploitation and cult cinema. Now 40, she has appeared in over 150 movies, none of which you've ever heard of -- at least, if you aren't a low-budget sleaze and horror fan. Sample titles: "Corpses Are Forever," "Playmate of the Apes," "Vampire Seduction." But while many of the movies she has acted in have been forgettable quickies, Debbie Rochon's talents and performances are anything but. In fact, she's a dynamite actress. (It's a tribute to the discernment of exploitation buffs that many of them recognize Rochon as the real deal.) In cheesy movie after quickie movie -- often working with directors who have no idea at all what they're doing, and opposite performers who are barely performers at all -- Rochon delivers balls-out, fully-felt, and surprisingly sophisticated and touching performances. (Not that there's anything wrong with sleazy and / or quickie movies, god knows! If there's one lesson movie history drives home over and over again, it's that movies that are dismissed as shallow popular trash when they're released sometimes turn out to have more staying power than movies that initially seem far more plausible. Some major examples: '30s monster movies, '50s sci-fi, film noir, and Italian giallo films.) Petite and spunky, tough yet vulnerable, Rochon has a stylized waif / gamine quality that reminds me of the French actress Elodie Bouchez, and a rueful, wised-up soulfulness that puts me in mind of Diane Lane. She combines a bruised, wild-child, rock-chick spirit with a European art-movie-diva aura -- she's half Skid Row bohemian, half "Jules and Jim" / "La Notte" tragedienne. Rochon also has a scrappy and amazing, go-it-her-own-way life story: She started out as a street kid in Vancouver, stumbled into movies, moved to New York for training, opted for the exploitation track rather than the mainstream career track ... Truly independent, she works without an agent, maintaining a close relationship with Troma mastermind Lloyd Kaufman ... She writes for exploitation-cinema magazines and co-hosts a Sirius radio show with the rocker Dee Snider ... Given that Debbie Rochon is one of the underappreciated treasures of contempo American popular culture, a major mystery to me is why the hipsters who work in the big-budget movie world -- guys like Tarantino, Rodriguez, Linklater, Fincher, etc -- haven't pounced on Rochon and turned her into a mainstream icon. Dudez: time to show a little of your canny-casting stuff, please. is spending the week running an interview with Debbie Rochon in short excerpts: part one, part two, part three, part four. In addition to her other virtues, Rochon turns out to be far more down-to-earth, articulate, and thoughtful than actresses usually are. Watch, listen, enjoy, learn. Here's Debbie Rochon's own website. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 18, 2008 | perma-link | (12) comments

Sunday, December 14, 2008

More Lloyd
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Troma legend Lloyd Kaufman finishes off a week of talking to with some thoughts about microbudget moviemaking, and about the future of movies. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 14, 2008 | perma-link | (0)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

More Lloyd
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Today, Lloyd Kaufman talks to about the current movie trend known as "torture porn." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 11, 2008 | perma-link | (3) comments

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Ramesh on Bollywood 1
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Filmbuff though I am, I'm a complete blank where India's Bollywood tradition is concerned. Not only do I not know the lore, I'm unsure of what the values are, and I have no idea where to start. So I asked Ramesh if he'd be willing to explain some context, and to make some recommendations. Here's the first of two postings that Ramesh has been good enough to write for us. It's always good to receive coaching from an expert. I see that both Amazon and Netflix carry a decent number of Bollywood titles. *** 2002 When Bollywood said “Yes We Can” (Part I) This is a tribute to the three years bordering 2002 (1 &3) when Bollywood had its global coming-out party. This essay is in two parts and I have hyperlinked to YouTube videos of songs from the films, and to other resources in case you are curious to explore further information about the personalities or films involved. In many respects, these years represent a creative and business peak that Bollywood films will need to strive to equal in the future. Devdas (2002) To watch a clip from "Devdas," click here Sanjay Leela Bhansali's extravaganza that featured Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai and Madhuri Dixit was a tribute to the largeness and over-the-top-ness of Bollywood in every way. The costumes and the sets were like never seen before (except in "Mughal e Azam," "Pakeeza," "Razia Sultan," "Anarkali" ...) and sparked jewelry and clothing sales all over the US. Men wanted to be with Madhuri Dixit, women wanted to be like Madhuri Dixit. And then there was Aishwarya Rai. It seemed the gift that was "Devdas" wouldn’t stop giving. The film went to Cannes and had a special screening (and birthed the Indian pavilion there), at which it is reported there was a stunned silence from foreign audiences that hadn’t quite seen anything like it since Satyajit Ray’s "Devi" ("The Goddess"), in a year when the exquisite corpse film "Sud Sneha" from Thailand won the Un certain regard and Elia Suleiman’s Yadon Illeha ("Divine Intervention") won the Jury Prize. Sanjay Bhansali went on to direct operas and a Bollywood version of Dostoevski’s "White Nights," produced by Sony Pictures; Shah Rukh Khan stayed the ruling monarch of all he surveyed in Bollywood; and Aishwarya Rai, after a brief Hollywood career, became Ms. Rai Bacchan (marrying the superstar Scion Abhishek), with a thriving Bollywood career. Lagaan (2001) Considered the "Seven Samurai" of Bollywood, this film can be credited with teaching the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (in the other film industry) the rules of Cricket. It won a foreign Oscar Nomination. To watch a clip from "Lagaan," click here "Lagaan" -- which was three and a half hours long and featured seven five minute songs in an eclectic movie soundtrack by superstar composer A. R. Rahman -- was not your grandfather’s Satyajit Ray art-house Indian film. The director Ashutosh Gaurikar went on to make... posted by Michael at December 10, 2008 | perma-link | (7) comments

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Lloyd Kaufman Interviewed
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- has been running an interview with exploitation filmmaker Lloyd Kauffman in very short chunks, an inspired way to showcase interview material on the web, IMHO. In yesterday's installment, Kaufman talked about how he dislikes the way the word "exploitation" is so often used as a putdown. In today's installment he complains that horror and humor don't get the respect they deserve. I don't know if you're aware of Lloyd Kaufman. If you aren't, perhaps you should be -- he's certainly one of the most influential popular-culture figures out there today. Don't think so? Consider this: his company, Troma, has produced around a hundred movies, including such inspired blowouts as "The Toxic Avenger," "Tromeo and Juliet," and "Poultrygeist." (As you might be suspecting, one Troma trademark is never to pass up a joke or a wisecrack -- especially the obvious and poor-taste ones.) Troma also distributes hundreds of mini- and micro-budget movies made by others. A good way for the greybeards among us to conceptualize what Lloyd Kaufman represents might be: He's a combo of Roger Corman, Rodney Dangerfield, and Mad Magazine's William Gaines -- a go-it-his-own-way, never-sufficiently-respected, full-of-mischief bomb-thrower. In fact, Kaufman works with a partner, Michael Herz. Herz, though, prefers to stay out of the public eye, where Kaufman is a born showman. He has developed a very amusing and effective public persona, which you'll get a taste of at's interviews. Here's one man who really really loves the camera and who isn't afraid of showing that love, whether he's behind the cameras or in front of them. Kaufman is also something that isn't rare in the movie world: a lowbrow trashmeister who's at least as smart as the respectable people he mocks and defies. He's a Yale grad who -- like many of his generation -- got biten by the art-and-trash movie bug while at college. Oops, there I go mentioning an Ivy League school yet again. Damn, I really gotta stop doing that. It isn't as though the Ivies play a discernible role in our cultural dramas or anything. Kaufman is such a hero in the micro-budget movie world that he has also made guest appearances in several hundred low-budget movies. Micro-budget filmmakers love Kaufman and want to show him off; they also hope that his presence in their movies will attract viewers. Kaufman makes a point of obliging whenever he can. While the usual movie press coverage refers to the likes of Miramax as "indies," Kaufman and Herz have been going their own Troma way, producing and distributing exactly what they have wanted to, for nearly 40 years now. They may well deserve the title The Indie-est of the Indies. "The Fold" is one ambitious and unusual webseries, by the way. Why not stick around and give it a try too? Click on an episode in the left-hand column and enjoy. Some passages of "The Fold" are NSFW, so consider yourself warned. I wrote about Lloyd Kaufman's excellent... posted by Michael at December 9, 2008 | perma-link | (5) comments

Thursday, December 4, 2008

American Manhood, R.I.P.
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- These days we can't even breed our own movie heroes. “Hollywood is great at producing male actors, but sucks at producing men,” says graphic novelist/director Frank Miller. “I found them all too much like boys.” Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 4, 2008 | perma-link | (67) comments

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Jean Rollin
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Jeremy Richey's "Fascination" is a beautiful blog as well as a first-class introduction to the French filmmaker Jean Rollin. Rollin, who did his most memorable work from the '60s through the '80s, is a fascinating case: his pictures bordered on porn and sleaze, yet they were also poetic and art-aware. (There's a lot of Cocteau in his movies.) They're slow, gauche, silly, and pretentious, but many of them also cast a powerful spell. I like Rollin very much -- but Jeremy knows the oeuvre a lot better than I do. So, where titles to start with go, you'd do well to take Jeremy's advice. By the way: If in 1975 you'd asked the quality film critics if Rollin's movies would last and prove influential -- and, as it turns out, they have -- the know-it-all intellectuals would have called you an idiot. Moral: You can't predict with any kind of certainty which contempo culturethings will prove to have staying power, you just can't. So why fret over the question? Unless it amuses you to do so, of course. Related: Wikipedia's entry on Rollin is a good one. Here's the Jean Rollin website. Here's a posting I did raving about the semi-similar, inadvertently-brilliant-or-maybe-not, sleaze / art / poetry specialist Jess Franco. Some more arty and sleazy movies. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 29, 2008 | perma-link | (2) comments

Friday, November 28, 2008

Infinite Cuts
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- As many of you know, I'm no longer much of a movie viewer. But yesterday my wife and daughter dragged me off to see Quantum of Solace, the latest James Bond flick. Now I feel even older and more out of touch than usual. That's because I found the plot difficult to follow (something to do with my hearing?) and, especially, the many action sequences were chopped into teeny weeny itsy bitsy miniscule nanocuts. I'm guessing that young viewers who are used to fast-action computer games and quick-cut advertisements on television are able to grasp details better than I can. And for all I know, lots of action movies these days reduce things to a seqence of two-second scenes. (I don't know, 'cause I almost never see such films.) The link above mentions that the action stuff generally won praise from critics. This puzzles me. My take was that the quick cuts destroyed viewer orientation because the physical layout of the setting was poorly established in the first place and because the camera position often changed radically from cut to cut. In several places the cuts were between virtually unrelated events; one instance was the Palio horse race in Siena and Bond chasing a bad guy under, around and over Siena. For me, the action lost excitement because I was lost. I had a poor idea regarding what was where. I had little clue as to where the actors were going in chase sequences. I had found it hard to grasp, in some cases, the degree of danger Bond was in if the setting is part of the mix along with his antagonists. Worse, the action was just that: all action. No dramatic arc. No tension required on the part of the audience. So why really care what happens; Bond's gonna survive anyway. Let the guns fire, the roofs collapse, the airplanes crash. Compare this to the classic Goldfinger Bond film of 1964. The climactic seqence in the Fort Knox gold repository where Bond has to defuse an atom bomb plays out over many minutes and the tension rises scene by scene. No flurry of quick cuts here. The audience is totally in the picture, stomachs knotted as Bond overcomes obstacle after obstacle while the bomb's timer counts down to zero. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at November 28, 2008 | perma-link | (9) comments

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

DVD Journal: "Who Gets to Call It Art?"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Geldzahler, painted by Alice Neal Peter Rosen's 2006 documentary "Who Gets to Call It Art?" tells the story of NYC artworld taste-maker / power-broker / connoisseur Henry Geldzahler. A buddy of Warhol and Hockney -- and, yes, since you may have been wondering, most definitely Ivy, Jewish, and gay -- Geldzahler was curator of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum in the 1960s, and he played a major role in getting a ponderous NYC art establishment to embrace the whimsies and playfulness of Pop Art. A happy networker and politically very astute, Geldzahler was an outsized version of a not-uncommon NYC type: the gayguy who lives for his taste and his friends, and whose personality is as much a work of art as any actual artist's creation. The film? Well, it's more of an art-thing in its own right than I generally like docs to be. But -- if you don't mind the pretentiousness and can forgive some huge gaps in information and exposition -- it's there to be enjoyed as a fact-based evocation of an epic time in American art. All that said ... The inbred-ness of the NYC artworld, eh? What I mainly came away from the DVD musing about was this: Isn't it funny how someone like Geldzahler could make a huge reputation for himself as a savvy, open, daring and refined bad boy by getting the artworld to accept Pop Art? What's so impressive about that? To me, getting the fine arts world to accept a new kind of fine art is like getting the French cooking world to accept a new kind of cream sauce, or the fashion world to embrace a new trend in necklaces. It's some kind of achievement, I guess. But perhaps the people who find it a hyper-impressive one are also people who take life inside the Charmed Circle a little too seriously. Meanwhile (and please heed a grumpiness alert here) it isn't at all uncommon for civilians -- people like, say, the inhabitants of this blog and many of its visitors -- to gab happily and un-self-consciously about book jackets, suburbia, cars, movies, fine art, ads, magazine design, skateboard photography, and thongs. It's all visual culture, folks. As for which culture-things from our era will last: Well, Time will tell, and will then probably change its mind. And -- since we won't be there to enjoy its verdict anyway -- why over-stress the question? No disrespect meant to Geldzahler, who was certainly an impressive phenomenon of some kind. Still: Who really deserves the rep as the more open-minded, free-thinking, visually-aware-and-responsive creature: the guy whose twinkling eyes and mind inflicted a little snuggly mischief on the inner circles of the self-declared art world? Or the interested and enthusiastic civilian whose brains and senses are open to a far wider visual-culture field? Here's Paul Goldberger's good obit of Henry Geldzahler, who died in 1994 at 59 years old. Fast-Forwarding Score: A tenth of the movie. The... posted by Michael at November 26, 2008 | perma-link | (1) comments

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Cheapo HD
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- David Pogue likes Flip's new $229 Mino HD. Andy Ihnatko thinks that the Flip delivers a more subtle picture than Kodak's $179 Zi6 does, but that the Kodak's sound is better. What I can't figure out is why people in the market for cheapo HD aren't buying this little Kodak camera instead. It does HD video; it's cheaper than both the Mino HD and the Zi6; it has an optical zoom; and it takes perfectly nice stills. But maybe there are good reasons why nobody's paying me to be a technology pundit. What do you lug around with you in the way of a small and cheap day-to-day snapshooter / videocam? Is now the moment to upgrade or not? Bonus link: Speaking of video ... One of the biggest differences between happy and unhappy people? Happy people watch less TV. Doing my manly best to resist buying a new camera because they're always getting better, Michael... posted by Michael at November 22, 2008 | perma-link | (8) comments

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Aging Giants
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Mick Jagger reflects a little on what it's like to be 65. If I'm counting right, Jagger is the father of seven kids. Here's a track from one of the Stones' better periods: Hard to ignore how un-PC the lyrics are by today's standards, isn't it? At the time they were enjoyed not as offensive but as sweetly risque. * Legendary film composer Ennio ("The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly") Morricone turns 80. In this clip, Morricone conducts some of the music from the film: What are the odds that Morricone's film scores will be remembered for longer than much of the era's "serious" standalone music? I'd guess they're pretty good. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 12, 2008 | perma-link | (16) comments

Monday, November 10, 2008

Mood-Lift for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Funkiness, good humor, krazy kolors, and some of the biggest Afros ever seen -- that's right, it's 1973, and Billy Preston is stomping out "Will It Go 'Round in Circles": Whoo! Happy music indeed. Here's the Billy Preston Website. Billy -- who enjoyed a few years as a headliner as well as a long career as a superb sideman, performing with an amazing array of artists that included Mahalia Jackson, The Beatles, Jackie Wilson, Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, and Aretha Franklin -- would have turned 62 this year. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 10, 2008 | perma-link | (9) comments

Monday, October 20, 2008

Underground Puppets
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- There's been a paucity of what used to be known as "underground art" in recent years. Is this because access and electronics have rendered the aboveground / underground distinction useless? Have corporations rendered people stupid and life bland? Are taboos out of date? Beats me. Even Pedro Almodovar -- whose early movies combined casual surrealism, impish insolence, and beyond-camp absurdism -- has gone staid. The Wife and I caught up with his recent "Volver" and found it a stodgy (if elegant) yawn. But I've been bored by every Almodovar film that I've seen since "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown." Almodovar seems to me a bottle of champagne that has gone flat. If his early films were topnotch Cole Porter, full of sparkle and fizz, his recent ones are like droopy dirges composed by Stephen Sondheim on a gloomy day. Maybe whatever it was that once made the idea of an "underground" meaningful has simply been lost. Still, I miss the racy, irreverent, drop-out spirit of much of that art. In fact, one of the motivations behind the webseries that I co-wrote recently was to revive the scrappy, sexy, woozily satirical spirit of the '70s "midnight movie." So I've been very pleased to catch up with FurTV, an MTV-UK series about three layabout puppets sharing a squalid house in some godforsaken part of London. Mervin's the clueless punching bag; Fat Ed is the beer-swilling, heavy-metal-lovin', American bully; and Lapeno (a frog with sunglasses) is a suave, ever-ready-for-love DJ from Brazil. Cue numerous bad jokes about "Brazilians." (Gotta love the human actresses who play romantic and erotic scenes opposite Lapeno, by the way.) Their adventures are pleasingly aimless yet enjoyably orchestrated; the action mostly veers between hanging out, grotty sex, and senseless violence; and drugs, alcohol, and profanity are insistently foregrounded. The characters are hilariously designed and wittily moved-about, and the camerawork and cutting are often inspired. These are fabulous furry freak brothers indeed. YouTube uploader piterr82 has done a heroic job of making a lot of FurTV accessible. "Fat Ed's Furry Fucking Guide to Metal" is a raucous little classic. Of the longer episodes that I've watched so far, this one is my favorite, particularly for its well-done '60s-esque drug-hallucination scene. I'm willing to concede, though, that "Hot Pussy" may prove to have more lasting power. I'm a lot happier watching this kind of thing than I am watching Pixar movies or "Shrek," let alone recent Almodovar. Is there a lot of underground-ish entertainment around that I just don't know about? "South Park" and AdultSwim seem to me to be the closest things we have to FurTV. Bonus point: Chip Smith keeps the spirit of the '80s 'zines scene alive at his blog Hoover Hog. Don't miss Chip's interview with the outrageous Peter Sotos. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 20, 2008 | perma-link | (11) comments

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Toronto is New York
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- So we're strolling in Toronto a few weeks ago and discover that Front Street is closed for a block near the Royal York Hotel. Oh, it 's a crew filming a movie. What's that yellow thing over there? Why it's a taxi. A taxi decked out like a New York City cab. And the roof is smashed it. Here's a view from the other end. Looks like it got hit by a giant wedge. Half a block a way where the crew is filming, there's a nearly identical cab with nearly identical damage. So I suppose they were filming the hit and wrecked two cars to ensure that they got usable footage. I'm about as far as one can get from being a movie buff. That and my usual laziness means that I have no idea what movie was being shot in Toronto-subbing-for-NYC, and I' won't bother to track down what the title is. I'll leave that for any fans in the readership. So my parting shot for this post is the following spoiler: The Taxi gets it. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at October 14, 2008 | perma-link | (6) comments

Monday, September 29, 2008

Toby's Movie
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I've been looking forward to the film "How to Lose Friends and Alienate People." It's an adaptation of the British writer Toby Young's memoir of his wildly unsuccessful years in New York City, on staff at Vanity Fair. Though the book is nonfiction, it's personal, fleet, funny, and touching -- as engaging and easya read as "Bright Lights, Big City." These days Toby's book looks even better than it did initially; indeed, it looks as though it may be the definitive book about an era in the NYC media life that I think of as the Tina-and-Graydon years -- that's Tina as in Tina Brown and Graydon as in Graydon Carter. And if you don't think that nailing a big-city media era is a significant literary achievement, please recall that one of the ways we value F. Scott Fitzgerald is as a chronicler of the Jazz Age. I've been enjoying the warmup to the film's release in the States: one example, another. Have the filmmakers taken the material in the direction of character-driven, glam, and gritty, a la "Withnail and I"? I imagine that such would be Toby's preference. Or have they steered it in the direction of rom-com formula? Here's the movie's website. Simon Pegg: good. Kirsten Dunst? Hmmm ... But I'm really looking forward to Jeff Bridges as Graydon Carter, though the casting seems so dead-on that I'm also feeling wary of it. Toby's wife writes about what it was like to see herself played onscreen by Kirsten Dunst. So I was double-glad this morning to see that Toby has written a smart piece -- frank, provocative, and fun, in the Toby manner -- for The Guardian ricocheting off his experience as a movie journalist and movie reviewer as well as his more recent adventures in moviemaking itself. What has Toby learned about movies and moviemaking that he didn't fully comprehend as a reviewer? And how has it affected his attitudes towards and thinking about movies? A great passage that ought to be handed out to beginning film journalists and beginning filmmakers both: I now realise that describing someone as the "director" -- or "screenwriter" or "producer" -- is completely misleading, in that there are no clearly circumscribed areas of responsibility on a film set. Those official titles are, at best, starting points, guideposts that sometimes point you in the right direction, but equally often lead you astray. Film-making is a fluid, mercurial process in which power is constantly changing hands, not just between individuals, but between groups of individuals, creating makeshift alliances that can dissolve at any second. I was struck by much the same thing during my recent adventures in no-budget moviemaking. (Read one of my postings about it here.) Basically, we were all there to get the damn film -- er, webseries -- made. If an electrical cord needed plugging-in, then someone did it. If toilet paper needed fetching, then someone did that too. The titles that appear on... posted by Michael at September 29, 2008 | perma-link | (10) comments

Thursday, September 18, 2008

DVD Journal: "Marie Antoinette"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Sofia Coppola's 2006 biopic of the Austrian-born French queen is sporadically amusing, occasionally pretty, and not-too-annoying, at least if you can take it as a sassy, indie-chick, art-school-style costume party. It's pretty much a yawn otherwise -- and, needless to say, a complete wipeout as a trad-style movie. For one thing, it's story-free. The film couldn't care less about "what?" or "how?" questions. It's entirely concerned with "What did it feel like for her?" As The Wife said, "It's like eating cookies with your girlfriends and mulling someone over together. 'Was she really so bad?' 'It wasn't her fault she was rich.' 'I could see myself doing that.' 'I don't know, she didn't have a good marriage. She deserved to take a lover.' 'So what's wrong with liking to shop?' 'I don't care what anyone says, I feel sorry for her'." For another, there are no performances to speak of. What the performers are doing here is something more like "lending their looks and spirits to the general mood" than anything like acting, at least in the reading-lines-and-pursuing-objectives sense. It's like they're all -- major characters included -- extras in a director's crowd scene. For a third, it's drama-free. Suspense? Involvement? Setups and payoffs? No thanks. What you get instead are "sections," as in "This is the cheesy-horror-movie, blue-lit, meeting-the-scary-relatives section"; "This is the ironic-but-fun, cut-cut-cut, Paris-Hilton-goes shopping section"; and "This is the gauzy, hippie-chick, 'Elvira Madigan,' free-love section." It's a kicky 123-minute long, ultra-feminine video mood piece, in other words. In the making-of material on the DVD, Coppola can be overheard saying delightedly, "This could totally be an Adam Ant video!" So how well does "Marie Antoinette" come across as a frou-frou, kooky-performance-art, hip-fashion-magazine spectacle? YMMV, of course, but I was a little startled by how charmless much of the movie felt. It felt like one of those offbeat college productions whose appeal doesn't extend much beyond participants, friends, and parents. I didn't love Sofia's earlier movies -- "The Virgin Suicides" and "Lost in Translation" -- either. But in them Sofia did show some dreamy if solipsistic talent. As narcissistic reveries, they worked. Here her filmmaking seems flatfooted and uninspired -- as a postmodern ringmaster, she has a ways to go before she becomes her generation's Fellini, at least if my responses are worth paying attention to. Perhaps it takes more in the way of dynamism than Sofia seems interested in coming up with to put this kind of show over? But maybe this is just the impatient-for-more-action male in me speaking ... All that said, the rococo clothing, hair, decor, and foodstuffs are to die for, it's fun spending time in and around the actual Versailles, and I'm always happy to hear a little Gang of Four and Bow Wow Wow. A few questions the film left me thinking about: Coppola certainly has a lot of taste, of a mix-and-match, downtown-trust-fund-kid sort. But is taste the same thing as talent? What is... posted by Michael at September 18, 2008 | perma-link | (15) comments

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Hot Latins
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Chile: World leader in youthful sexual adventurousness? Here and here. New term to be mastered: "Poncea!" (Translation, apparently: "Make out with as many people as you can!") * Is there such a thing as a Spanish movie that doesn't feature a lot of nudity? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 16, 2008 | perma-link | (2) comments

Monday, September 8, 2008

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Colin Mulvany -- who has produced over 75 online slideshows himself -- offers a lot of good tips for making better online slideshows. Colin really knows his stuff. Check out his visit with artificial-eye maker Kim Erickson. It's a new-media beauty that packs an awful lot of story, character, and information into a quiet and understated two minutes. Lots more here. Colin reviews the basics of visual storytelling here, and offers some anyone-can-use-'em tips for livening up your video footage here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 8, 2008 | perma-link | (0)

Monday, September 1, 2008

More Self-Promotion
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Another enthusiastic and insightful review for the webseries that The Wife and I helped create has just appeared. No link, as I'm still being a little coy about my real identity, but here's a brief excerpt from it: The humour is bold throughout. The blend of sci-fi and sex comedy come together in a way that seems designed for the exciting new medium of the web serial ... And the homage to stylistic genres of art movies is cleverly compiled and adds another level of enjoyment to the whole experience. [Webseries title here] is already becoming cult viewing that needs to be seen. Campy, sexy, a little intense, funny, and seething with kooky ideas -- that's our webseries! Let me know if you'd like a link to the series' website, where three of our six episodes are now viewable. And -- ahem -- if you're someone who's interested in getting involved as a producer / financier in the low-budget movie world, don't be shy about saying hello. Me and my posse have some dy-no-mite ideas that we're raring to put into production. My email address is michaelblowhard at that gmaily place. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 1, 2008 | perma-link | (3) comments

Monday, August 25, 2008

Manny Farber, RIP
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I was very sorry to learn that the painter and film critic Manny Farber has died. He was 91. I loved his art (a few examples are here) and his criticism. The Wife and I spent a little time hanging out with Manny and his wife, the artist Patricia Patterson (they often wrote together), and I can report that I found him a lovable guy: spikey, difficult, and maybe even a little paranoid, but brainy, funny, and soulful too. There can't be many critics who made as big an impact on a medium with a single volume of writing as Manny did on movies with his legendary "Negative Space." But, as far as I could tell, his heart was really in painting. Half of him may have been a wisecracking, off-center, neurotic intellectual -- but his bigger half was a color-drunk west coast sensualist. Some highlights from the press and the blogosphere: David Chute offers some personal reflections, a lot of quotes, and a sensible evaluation. A 2006 Duncan Shepard memoir of his friendship with Manny and Patricia is also a fine snapshot of an amazing era in American art. Michael Sragow recalls his own friendship with Manny. Carrie Rickey recalls Manny's influence, as well as his impact as a teacher. Robert Pincus offers an appreciation of Manny's art and supplies a good short biography of him too. Green Cine Daily rounds up many more links. In sadness, Michael... posted by Michael at August 25, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

DVD Journal: "Youth Without Youth"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Tim Roth and -- inevitably -- a mirror Have there been many movie directors as obstinately wrongheaded in their evaluation of their own talents as Francis Coppola? As far as the world is concerned, Francis Coppola is someone who occasionally -- all-too-rarely, in fact -- delivers rounded, worldly, stately narratives that feature a moving amount of warmth, mass, and dignity. He's a grownup entertainer / artist -- William Wyler with some additional splashes of blood and tomato sauce. But as far as Coppola himself is concerned, Francis Coppola is an enthusiastic, inventive kid, amusing himself with dolls and toys -- a born innovator bounding between surrealism and the early New Wave, playing mischievously and irrepressibly with ideas and styles. Oh -- and not only that, he's also misunderstood. In the world's eyes, the first 2/3 of "Apocalypse Now" was pretty good -- too bad Coppola blew it in the final third. In Coppola's own view, the last third of "Apocalypse Now" was what the film was all about. Why doesn't anyone get that? His recent "Youth Without Youth" was the first film he'd made as a director in ten years, and it's the latest in a long string of movies Coppola has done in pursuit of his image of himself as a childlike visionary / charmer, a string that includes "You're a Big Boy Now," "One from the Heart," "Rumble Fish," "Tucker: The Man and His Dream," "Dracula," and "Jack." The main thing these films share -- in addition to an addiction to stylistic hijinks -- is an almost complete absence of emotional impact. As a style-noodler Coppola is unquestionably some kind of talent. Yet what's most striking about these movies is how little they convey in terms of human presence. Nothing counts, nothing takes; everything seems unanchored and arbitrary. They spin, they throw off a few sparks, and then -- pfffft. What? You were hoping for something more? In terms of its style, "Youth Without Youth" -- set in Romania from the 1930s through the 1960s, starring Tim Roth as a nerdish old scholar who's struck by lightning and regains a second chance at life, and taken from a Mircea Eliade novel -- is melancholy as all get-out. But it's basically as weightless as "One From the Heart." The '30s-ish title cards, the never-quite-a-melody old-Hollywood-style score, the self-conscious touches of movie magic ... They don't illuminate the material or promote engagement with what's onscreen. They register as mere style choices, which means they feel contrived, troweled-on, and about a quarter-inch deep. In the case of this movie, what Coppola mainly wants us to do is think about ideas. Our experience of time, mainly: cyclical vs. linear time seems to be what's fascinating him these days. Story, character, visuals, involvement -- these are there simply to get us thinking. I'm OK with playing with ideas, strangely enough. What I'm less OK with is the way that Coppola seems to have lost interest in "selling"... posted by Michael at August 25, 2008 | perma-link | (19) comments

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Genre Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Polly Frost bemoans "audio overload" in contempo horror films. One especially concise, "I wish I'd said that myself!" passage: "A person’s nerves can only take so much before they tune out entirely." * Vince Keenan is dazzled by a new Lawrence Block novel. * Andrew Klavan makes some good psychological-crime novel suggestions. As it happens, psychological suspense is my own favorite narrative genre. I wrote about the genre back here. * I see that New York's legendary Mysterious Bookstore has just started a blog. Many of the entries are written by crime-fiction dean Otto Penzler himself. * Listen to an interview with Otto Penzler -- who is, IMHO, a major figure in contemporary American book-fiction -- here. Is it a complete coincidence that the interview was published by a rightie outfit? Sigh: Why doesn't the leftie-arty set see more in genre fiction? It may be worth pointing out that genre fiction is, in the U.S. at least, the book-fiction of "the people." Hey, didn't lefties used to make a big deal out of their commitment to "the people"? * MBlowhard Rewind: I raved about two novels that struck me as genuine 20th century greats -- but that you won't find on any official canon: James M. Cain's mean yet fullbodied "Mildred Pierce," and Francis Iles' sly, creepy, and beyond-brilliant "Before the Fact." (UPDATE: Mr. Tall enjoyed "Before the Fact" too.) * A fab bit from a recent Robert Townshend comment about American crime writing: There are no grand moral backgrounds, no straining for hard-boiled glamour. The prose is level, which always helps. The evil is shabby and domestic. I feel relaxed-in-a-good-way when I pick up a Goodis or James M. Cain, also Woolrich, Fredric Brown, others. The quality is very uneven -- nearly all these guys died of the booze -- but I usually pick up their works with a sense of relief and refreshment. And ain't that well-said? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 20, 2008 | perma-link | (10) comments

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Movie Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * David Chute suspects that Asian Westerns may be the next hot movie thing. * Bay Area film buffs: Get thee to the Pacific Film Archives, where a series of films based on the writings of noir god David Goodis has a few more days to run. Kelly Vance writes a helpful intro to the series, and to Goodis too. * Supersmart Ramesh Ram enthuses about about "HellBoy II," and is lovin' his Kindle. * Anne Thompson notices that celebrity noses are growing smaller. Sigh: Must everything in America always evolve in the direction of corporate cookie-cutter blandness? Life needs more tang, not less, dammit. * Michael Bierut raves about a new documentary about Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers. * Costume-lovin' blogger The Costuminatrix loves the coats in "Brotherhood of the Wolf." * MBlowhard Rewind: I rhapsodized about the French actress Sophie Marceau. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 19, 2008 | perma-link | (9) comments

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Actress Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Being asked -- or expected -- by filmmakers to take her clothes off quickly became abhorrent to Greta Scacchi, fondly remembered by arthouse-goin' filmbuffs for her classy / luscious / racey turns in such '80s films as "The Coca-Cola Kid." Sadly, two of her best -- "White Mischief" and "A Man in Love" -- aren't available on DVD. This is mean of me, I suppose, but I never thought Greta had a lot to offer the audience beyond her beauty and her physical audacity. But reports from England say that she has become an imposing stage presence. Enjoy a little of what Greta so disliked doing here. (NSFW) * Sigourney Weaver never felt like the pretty one. People who know Sigourney only through her strong-jawed uber-woman (and often humor-free) film performances usually aren't aware of her gifts as a cut-up and and a comedienne. Too bad the movies so seldom made good use of her comic talents. Glamorous, bigger-than-life, and funny -- now that's a great combo. * MBlowhard Rewind: I rhapsodized about the super-talented, very sexy B-movie Euro-diva Joanna Pacula here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 6, 2008 | perma-link | (16) comments

Monday, August 4, 2008

More Self-Promotion
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Returning home after a day on the road, I was delighted to find two more voices praising the kooky webseries that I helped make. A brainy and supercool sci-fi site says of our creation, "It's probably going to be either too racy, or too weird, for most science fiction fans. But a vocal minority of SF viewers will embrace [it] with wanton glee." A "vocal minority" -- that's my kind of people! And one of the best movie critics writing has compared our series to early Almodovar. What makes this compliment doubly special is that the critic in question has repeatedly shown an inspired feeling for exotic popular entertainment. "Exotic popular entertainment" is exactly how we were hoping to be taken. We are not worthy of such attentions -- but that's certainly not gonna stop us from bragging about them. If you'd like a link to our webseries (and to the two above-mentioned pieces about it), shoot an email to me at michaelblowhard at that gmailish place. Related: I wrote about our adventures making our webseries here, here, here, here, and here. Back here I wrote about touring the country putting on live shows with The Wife. Three good early Almodovars are this one, this one, and this one. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 4, 2008 | perma-link | (1) comments

Friday, August 1, 2008

Another Self-Promotional Break
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- That webseries I helped make? More people are enjoying it. A well-known horror-movie blog says this: "Snappy and sexy ... The characters are colorful and over the top ... Addictive ... I am completely and totally hooked." If you'd like a link to the series' website -- so far only the trailer can be watched (Episode One goes up next week) -- shoot me an email at michaelblowhard-at-that-gmaily-place. Our goal (I mean, of course, in addition to being entertaining) was to use the webseries format as a way to revive the '70s-style Midnight Movie. So if you don't like naughty words, scrappy production values, gratuitous nudity, and daffy ideas, I urge you to skip our production. Now back to our regular programming. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 1, 2008 | perma-link | (3) comments

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Moviegoing: "The Last Mistress"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- As big a fan as I am of the films of Catherine Breillat, I only half-believed her latest movie. Her first costume drama, her first period piece, and her first adaptation, it's like a very quiet "Dangerous Liaisons" -- the catch here being that the film is set in the early 19th century (the age of the bourgeois) rather than the aristocratic 18th century. I'm pretty sure that Breillat wouldn't be displeased to hear that I take her to be saying something about how the present day stacks up compared to the 1960s and 1970s. The setup, roughly: An impoverished, serial-seducin' Parisian aristocrat has lined himself up a choice marriage with a virginal heiress, yet can't keep his mind, his feelings, or his body off of the coarse Spanish spitfire he has been sleeping with for a decade. It isn't just about emotional gamesmanship, le jeu de l'amour, in other words; it's about money. The film isn't very dramatic. It plays like the novel adaptation that it is -- in other words, like a miniseries that has been condensed into two hours. And Breillat's decision to have Asia Argento's post-punkette aggression and gaucheness stand in for the senorita's fire and allure didn't seem to me to work out very well. All that said, the film still delivers a lot. There's acres of spare / opulent visual and aural beauty to be enjoyed; a reckless and headstrong sensuality at satisfying war with a love of formality and restraint; a tender yet objective attentiveness to the translucency of flesh that's especially startling in the context of today's movieworld; and a lot of cineaste poetry involving imagery of silent-movie vamps and film noir spiderwomen. And Breillat comes through with some moments of her distinctively loony intensity. Let it be noted too that Fu-ad Ait Aattou -- the nonactor whom Breillat spotted at a cafe and chose to play her hero -- makes an amusingly haughty and androgynous cad. Tall, prettier than any girl, and blessed (or cursed) with the Cupid's Bow pout of a Fragonard darling, he's a seductive freakshow all by himself. I sat through the film quite happily, though The Wife did a fair amount of impatient squirming. In any case, I'd urge those new to Breillat to start with one of her other films -- "Fat Girl," perhaps, or "Romance." You'll love it or you'll hate it, but you'll certainly have quite an experience. There's no one out there quite like Catherine Breillat. Semi-related: I enjoyed Breillat's brilliant chamber drama "Brief Crossing" (here). Back here, I was agog at Asia Argento's "Scarlet Diva." Watch a trailer for "The Last Mistress" here. Read some interviews with Catherine Breillat, who recently suffered (and has recovered from) a major stroke: here, here, here, here. She's an amazing interviewee. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 31, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

Lowering the Boom (Microphone)
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- There was life before videotape. And that life was live! ... unless it was a kinescope film of a live television broadcast, that is. [Pause for distracting scholarly footnote and CYA ...] Late 1940s TV shows came from: live broadcasting; a film taken of images on a TV monitor showing a live broadcast intended for rebroadcast to off-network stations (kinescope recording, it was called); or content filmed earlier such as a cowboy adventure show. The pre-filmed stuff could be edited like any other movie. The live TV was just that -- whatever was before the camera with the red lights on was broadcast at that instant for good or ill. Even though kinescope recordings could, in principle, be edited to eliminate really embarrassing unintended content, my impression was that lots of small gaffes were ignored and there were few if any re-takes for the distribution market. What this boils down to is that 11 or 12 year old me got to see a lot of interesting things on TV that modern viewers seldom or never do. Those old TV studios had plenty of hot lights, so showing actors dripping sweat wasn't uncommon. Nor was hearing an actor flubbing a line unknown. One of the fun things was the intrusion of a boom microphone. Tiny lapel microphones were far in the future in 1948 or 1951, so most TV studios used microphones attached to the ends of telescoping tubes or beams, these mikes (I don't like the "mic" spelling ... read it as "mick") being positioned above the speaker's head and out of the camera frame. Unless something went wrong. Here's a picture of a 1950 vintage studio. The boom operator is at the left, the boom extends across the top of the picture and the microphone is above and in front of the cowboy. Occasionally, the shadow of the mike and/or boom could be seen against a backdrop. The following picture might be from a cheap movie (I'm not sure), but I used to see such shadows often enough. And if I got really lucky the mike would drop into the upper part of the viewing frame. The picture of Dave Garroway, below, was probably staged; an accidental mike showing might have only an inch or two exposed. I find current TV too slick. In the good old days the medium could be really sporting. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at July 31, 2008 | perma-link | (2) comments

Friday, July 25, 2008

Audiovisual Through Time Entertainment Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Anne Thompson takes a look at the team that will be replacing Ebert and Roeper. * The Headless Werewolf writes that giallo star Edwige Fenech is one of his very favorite Scream Queens. As well as one of movie history's raving beauties, I'd add. (That last link is NSFW.) * Video Twitter. * Angry black man Chris watches/listens to some current hiphop videos and feels his spirits sink. * An inspired video mashup. * I'm reconsidering my childhood ambition to become a race car driver. (Link thanks to Charlton Griffin.) * MBlowhard Rewind: I woke up to the one movie ad-line that makes me absolutely certain I don't want to watch that movie. Commenters on the posting are hilarious. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 25, 2008 | perma-link | (6) comments

Friday, July 18, 2008

Music Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Some confident and powerful grooves from Mississippi blues outfit Homemade Jamz: In case you haven't read about Homemade Jamz ... The three main members are siblings: Ryan Perry on vocals and lead guitar, Kyle Perry on bass, and Taya Perry on drums. Ryan is 16 years old, Kyle is 13, and Taya is all of 9. Here's their MySpace page, where you can listen to a few more tracks. Type "Homemade Jamz" into the YouTube Search box and riches will emerge. Read about them here, and watch a news report about them here. Fans of "Mustang Sally" (written by Mack Rice, made famous by Wilson Pickett) can enjoy a satisfyingly funky Homemade Jamz version here. Lots of closeups of the ultra-cute and talented Taya. In a very different vein: Thanks to The Fredosphere, who links to OC Times, the winners of this year's Barbershop Quartet competition: They're pretty soulful in their own way, no? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 18, 2008 | perma-link | (2) comments

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Time to See "Tell No One"?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Frequent visitor Bryan emails me that he enjoyed the French thriller "Tell No One." I do love me the occasional Euro-crime movie. A good one is Dominik Moll's low-key- in-a-frightening-way, beautiful-to-watch "With A Friend Like Harry," currently buyable on DVD for $9.99. David Chute also enjoyed "Tell No One" -- which, interestingly enough, was adapted from a Harlan Coben novel. Has the time come for a trip to an actual movie theater? Here's the trailer for the film. Fair warning: a buttcrack goes on display briefly, and elegantly. Oh, those incorrigible Euros. Such sophisticates. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 16, 2008 | perma-link | (2) comments

An Actor's Life
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- And say those lines with real feeling, goddammit! The multitalented Kate VanDevender has websites here, here, and here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 16, 2008 | perma-link | (2) comments

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Ready for Viewing
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- About a year ago I wrote a series of postings about my adventures making a no-budget video webseries in collaboration with my wife and a gifted young director friend: here, here, here, here, here. (Short version: What a lot of work it is to make even a tiny movie!) I'm tickled to announce that our webseries is now ready for prime time. It's a cheeky, scrappy, and (we hope) amusingly audacious little thing. Online thus far is the website and trailer. Episode One (of six) goes public early next month. If you'd like to take a look at the trailer, shoot an email to michaelblowhard at gmail dot etcetera, and I'll send you the link. Thanks in advance for any interest. Press inquiries are encouraged, it goes without saying, and will be responded to with some p-r material and a DVD. The Wife, our director buddy, and I are all fun interviewees. Fair warning: The trailer is NSFW, though in a goofy and affable way. And a small hint to anyone considering making a gift of "friendly criticism": Skip it. When a friend or acquaintance goes to a lot of trouble creating an entertainment or an artwork, what the moment calls for is congratulations and applause. Best, and glowing with artistic-paternal pride, Michael... posted by Michael at July 8, 2008 | perma-link | (7) comments

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Movie Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Thomas Roche raves about Michele Soavi's philosophical / poetic zombie picture "Cemetary Man." As a huge "Cemetary Man" fan myself -- I do love it when trash, art, poetry, sex, and ideas coexist happily -- I found it pleasing to learn from Thomas that Martin Scorsese once called Soavi's beautiful, demented, erotic and funny film one of the best movies of the 1990s. * Michael Wade volunteers an excellent 10-Best-Westerns list. * Tony Sclafani revisits some of the lesser-known teen comedies of the 1980s. * A while back I wrote a blogposting praising the Joey Lauren Adams /Ashley Judd drama "Come Early Morning." The Holzbachian recently watched the movie and wrote me a wonderful email about it. A brief passage: I just watched it tonight. Excellent, excellent recommendation. There were so many delicate small moments; they added up to more than any big moment ever could. Damn, I haven't seen a movie this caring toward its subject in a long time. It also strikes you -- are people in the South really that god damned NICE? It seems like the kind of nice that would be scoffed at by the coastal dwellers. But, I'm old enough to realize it's real and trumps all of the poseurs any time. * In Paris, film director David Cronenberg has collaborated with Howard Shore to create a stage-opera version of "The Fly." * MBlowhard Rewind: I took a re-look at "The Passenger," Michelangelo Antonioni's early '70s arthouse darling, a chic and desolate study of alienation. To my surprise I loved it. You can buy what I hear is a good DVD of the movie here. (Used copies are available for $2.99.) Get out your hookah, put on your beret, and enjoy. Best, Michael UPDATE: The Daily Burkeman offers a conservative take on Anne Thompson's 10 Best Western theme. "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean"!... posted by Michael at July 6, 2008 | perma-link | (1) comments

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Top Westerns
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Anne Thompson is rightly indignant at a new (and very square) Best Western Movies list issued by the Western Writers of America, and proposes a much more satisfying Top Ten list of her own. Anne also points out a fascinating diary of the making of "48 HRS" by one of the film's screenwriters, Larry Gross. Start here. Semi-related: Back here I wrote a blogposting about Westerns, and celebrated the first version of "3:10 to Yuma." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 5, 2008 | perma-link | (9) comments

Friday, July 4, 2008

DVD Journal: "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is a crime-caper- gone-wrong thriller that has been turned into a trying-awfully-hard Greek myth / Biblical-family drama by its director Sidney ("Dog Day Afternoon") Lumet. The emoting -- the cast is led by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, and Albert Finney -- never, ever stops, and the emotions expressed come from a big but narrow range, running from anguish to desperation to sorrow. It’s lugubrious and grim -- like a bin full of painful outtakes from “The Departed.” And the film is bafflingly unexciting. What an odd choice to make a crime film but forgo nearly all suspense and thrills. It isn’t heavy on the atmosphere either. But it’s fairly absorbing anyway, at least for those in the mood for a pushily overdone, '70s-ish, hyper-psychological, gritty, masterclass-style actorfest. It has got to be dreamily fulfilling being a performer in a Sidney Lumet movie. He’s enthusiastic, he’s knowledgeable, he knows what his actors are up to. You’re working with someone appreciative, and who’s always on your side. Albert Finney may have become a bit of a grotesque these days. But Ethan Hawke gives a daring performance as a spineless screwup, and Marisa Tomei is appealingly worn-and-torn as an aging pretty woman who thinks that her life should be working out a lot better than it is. (New flash just for da boyz: The lovely Marisa finally delivers some substantial nude scenes.) Now, all that said, I have something I do need to get off my chest. I really-truly don’t get the greatness of Philip Seymour Hoffman. He always seems to me to be “indicating” -- actor-talk for showing what your character is feeling rather than feeling it and letting the audience discover it for themselves. Now, I recognize that Hoffman does all kinds of things that we sometimes associate with great actors. He lumbers around like someone with a lot of presence, he takes oddly-placed pauses that may or may not seem brilliant, he plays tricks in order to dominate scenes ... But acting like a great actor isn't what makes someone a great actor. In Hoffman's case, he’s never not acting, and doing so quite furiously. And none of it works for me -- none of it -- either as dramatic acting or as enjoyable hamboning. There’s a scene in this film where Hoffman's character is semi-conscious and being wheeled along by ambulance assistants on a gurney. “He’s overacting being almost-dead,” I whispered to The Wife. But perhaps I'm the phony here, and not him. How do you react to Hoffman's acting? Fast-Forwarding Score: Nothing. Semi-related: Back here I wrote about Method acting. Here's a good intro to that actor no-no, "indicating." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 4, 2008 | perma-link | (13) comments

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Chute's Bollywood Tips
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- David Chute writes very amusingly about a Bollywood epic called "Sivaji," which sounds like it might very well be the greatest movie ever made. One of many fond and funny passages: I say without irony that the constinacy and conviction with which the filmmakers have labored to make every speck of this movie eye-gougingly super-collossal deserves nothing but respect. Ranji and company make the act of driving an audience half crazy with entertainment seem the noblest calling on earth. But read the whole posting, which is full of information, perceptions, and felicities. Buy a copy of "Sivaji" here. For those who may not know: David Chute is the critic who has been most instrumental in opening up the Asian popular cinema to American audiences. Hong Kong action? David was the Western critic who was there first, and his writing on these films has never been surpassed. Semi-serious filmbuff though I am myself, Bollywood has always been a baffling closed book to me. Where to start? What game is being played? What values are being tendered? Since I don't take to these films naturally I need guidance. So I'm very happy that in the comments on his posting David has included links to many of his own pieces about Bollywood: here, here. A fun and twisty passage from this excellent survey: For the last two decades, domestic distributors have tried to woo the art-house audience with "transgressive" films like Takeshi Miike's Audition (or anything by Guy Ritchie). Such an approach is hopeless with Bollywood, which is a radically conservative cinema not of unease, but reassurance. Still, the very things that make it seem square could potentially attract the hipster audience that loves Gilligan's Island. David also recommends this book. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 2, 2008 | perma-link | (3) comments

Thursday, June 26, 2008

What It Was Once Like
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Tim Appelo's interview with film journalist Peter Biskind is smart and amusing. It's also quite the reminder of a not-so-long-gone era in film-buffdom -- even two or three such eras. Maybe you had to be there yourself, but the following passage made me laugh out loud. Appelo asks Biskind -- who'd been pre-med as an undergrad -- what happened to his med school aspirations: Biskind: I liked English, and I got a lot of encouragement, so I went to grad school in English at Yale. I didn't like Yale much, and ended up doing yet more of what I did at Swarthmore: going to a lot of movies instead of going to my classes. I got into Russ Meyer films and drove into New York to see Juliet of the Spirits. There was a lot of that around. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 26, 2008 | perma-link | (5) comments

Monday, June 23, 2008

Which to See?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- N.P. Thompson posts a smart and funny wrapup of the recent Seattle International Film Festival. Movie he mentions that I'm most eager to see: Nina Paley's "Sita Sings the Blues," which sounds beautiful. Or maybe Alan Ball's "Towelhead," which N.P describes as world-historically bad. I don't know about you, but I try to catch a good number of hyper-awful movies. Are you really a moviebuff if all you pursue is high-quality experiences? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 23, 2008 | perma-link | (2) comments

DVD Journal: "Shoot 'Em Up"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- This supercharged and hyperbolic action spoof is like a James Bond, showy-action-sequence extravaganza done to a punk-metal soundtrack. It exists in the same unreal gunplay-and-stunts universe as a John Woo movie, and features a hero-villain pairing deliberately reminiscent of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. Yet despite the absurdity it's played with straight-ahead intensity. And a glamorous, mischievous, and skillful cast that includes Clive Owen, Monica Bellucci, and Paul Giammati gives the film a lot of grit and allure. You want quirky, kickass, dirty-minded, bad-boy hijinks, in other words, you've come to the right place. Written and directed by Michael Davis, who perfected his craft and his tricks in a bunch of no-budget indie pix before coming out blazing with this spectacular thing. Fast-Forwarding Score: Not a blam-blam-blam-blam frame. Semi-related: A couple of recent thrillers that I've loved were "Cellular" and "Red Eye." In this blog posting I wrote about a handful of edgy-crazy-sexy films. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 23, 2008 | perma-link | (3) comments

Sunday, June 22, 2008

DVD Journal: "The Seven Little Foys"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A squaresville musical drama (spiced up with many bitter wisecracks) about the real-life Irish-American vaudevillian Eddie Foy, and how -- despite being a tough-guy, driven loner -- he came to head an act consisting of him and his seven kids. It's material that seems to want to be something like "Gypsy" -- a horrified, semi-satirical homage. Given what we're told about him, Eddie Foy was almost certainly a self-centered bastard. But the film presents its story in a mostly heartwarming way, as the tale of a performer who, despite his failings, finally comes to embrace his fate as a family man. Disconcerting. All that said, I still had a pretty good time watching the movie. I love Bob Hope (odd choice though he is to play a tough, ever-embattled Irishman); Jimmy Cagney has a sensational scene playing (and dancing!) George M. Cohan, and sharing jokey insults and a duet with Hope; and the snapshots and glimpses of vaudeville -- one of the greatest American entertainment forms, IMHO -- are a treat. The more that Americans are aware of the richness of their vaudeville tradition, the better. Fast-Forwarding Score: Nothing. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 22, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

Friday, June 20, 2008

"Mommie Dearest"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- When Christina Crawford published "Mommie Dearest" in 1978 the book caused a sensation. Christina -- who had been adopted and raised by the movie star Joan Crawford -- accused Crawford of having been a drunk, as well as a physically abusive parent. The book was one of the first warts-and-all celeb-offspring memoirs, and it was soon followed by many others. (It was a major publishing event, in other words.) Christina had herself a bestseller, and was celebrated for her courage. She was also accused of exaggerating and even lying about events. On the 30th anniversary of its publication, "Mommie Dearest" is being reissued. Christina has given The Guardian's Elizabeth Day her first interview in a decade. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 20, 2008 | perma-link | (6) comments

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

DVD Journal: "I'm Not There"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- An arty dud. Nothing so familiar as a biopic, Todd Haynes' film is like a John Ashbery poem on themes suggested by the life and music of Bob Dylan, especially Dylan's impossible-to-pin-down quality. It's about all the crazily ingrown and fancy things that Bob Dylan makes Todd Haynes' brain do. I wasn't annoyed by the effort. Hey, I'm someone who loves "32 Short Films About Glenn Gould," "Let's Get Lost," "The Color of Pomegranates," "Be Here to Love Me," and "The Last Bolshevik" -- unusual and subjective film biographies is my middle name. I just found myself wishing that Haynes had more talent. Ashbery has music and magic in his soul. Like 'em or not (I don't, much), his poems sweep you along. By contrast, Haynes is flat-footed and, for all his sophistication, literal-minded. The film feels terribly academic, gay-conceptual / po-mo division. Elusiveness for the sake of elusiveness, and very unentrancing. Fast-Fowarding Score: Nothing, but then I didn't finish watching the film ... Semi-related: I wasn't crazy about Haynes' neo-Sirk melodrama "Far From Heaven" either. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 18, 2008 | perma-link | (20) comments

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Charlton Goes to BEA
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- So far as trade book publishing goes -- "trade book publishing" is the branch of book publishing concerned with the kinds of books that you run into in typical bookstores -- the main annual event is Book Expo America. BEA is a trade convention where publishers display their upcoming wares to buyers and to the press, and where agents and representatives dicker over publishing rights. BEA is always quite a spectacle. Around 2000 exhibitors show up; around 30,000 people attend. Authors shake hands and sign books, freebies are handed out, and parties aren't in short supply. I've been to around 15 books conventions myself, and I always enjoyed them. People wear badges, swap stories, catch up with gossip, and have adventures. The Expo floor is full of zany displays. Extra added attraction: There's no better antidote to the lies you may have been fed as a literature student. My main reaction the first time I attended a books convention? "Oh, I get it now. It's a business. Sort of." This year, BEA took place in Los Angeles, and frequent 2Blowhards visitor and commenter Charlton Griffin was there to capture some of the action with his digicam. Explore Charlton's record of the BEA here. Here's my favorite of Charlton's BEA vidclips: One of the best readers and producers of audiobooks out there, Charlton has just released his version of Polybius' "The Histories." Buy a copy and download it here. Charlton also points out that Mikhail Gorbachev, the USSR's final Commie leader, has outed himself as a Christian. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 11, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

Monday, June 9, 2008

And the Award for "Best Trailer" Goes to ...
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- ... this giddy and gorgeous teaser for the upcoming "Black Dynamite": Wow, is that well-done: It hits all its marks (and then some) while adding loads of fresh sweeteners, twists, and sparklies. Here's what the trailer has me hoping-against-hope: that "Black Dynamite" will manage a rare trick -- to be spoof, homage, and thing-in-it-own-right. Fond though I am of goofs, when it comes to entertainments that last longer than ten minutes it never hurts if a project has a little identity and excitement of its own to share. I enjoyed the blaxploitation spoof "Undercover Brother," though (like too many spoofs) it ran out of gas after a half hour. I majorly didn't enjoy the Tarantino / Rodriguez '70s-trash homage double-bill "Grindhouse." But Tarantino's "Jackie Brown" -- which had a '70s side as well as a blaxploitation side to it -- was my favorite of Tarantino's movies. I'm hoping that Tarantino will abandon the stylistic grandstanding of "Kill Bill" and "Grindhouse" and return to working in the the more straightforward mode of "Jackie Brown." But maybe I'm being a sap. Back here I panned Rodriguez' "Grindhouse" contribution and praised a Japanese genre gem: "Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs," which I loved. It's both a campy hoot and an exciting and beautiful piece of popular entertainment in its own right. I rolled my eyes at "Kill Bill" here. Hey, that's a pretty good opening line I came up with in that blog posting. Have I ever mentioned that one thing I'd love to do before I die is to play one of "the bad white guys" in a blaxploitation movie? I think that my beady, mean eyes and thin, snide voice would work perfectly. I wrote an intro to blaxploitation here. If you've never watched a blaxploitation movie, I suggest starting off with "Coffy" and "Cleopatra Jones." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 9, 2008 | perma-link | (8) comments

Friday, June 6, 2008

DVD Journal: "Stranger Than Fiction"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Pretentious drivel: A whimsical metaphysical comedy that's both a Michel Gondry-comedy wannabe and an attempt at a metaphorical statement film like "The Truman Show." The idea is that an IRS agent / bachelor / lonely-guy (Will Ferrell) starts hearing a voice in his head, narrating his life, and even hinting that his death is soon to come. It's the voice of a famous, blocked, long unheard-from author (Emma Thompson). (Incidentally, all this info is given away very early in the movie, so I'm not spoiling much.) Confronted with the fact that his life isn't under his own control, the IRS drone starts to live, live: takes up guitar; stumbles into affair with hippie baker Maggie Gyllenhaal. Confronted with the fact that a character she's been marionetting has a real existence, will the author start re-think her fanaticism about fiction? Dustin Hoffman plays a literature prof who tries to help Ferrell puzzle out what's happening to him. The main difference between "Stranger Than Fiction" and a tearfully life-affirming Meg Ryan weeper is that this movie has had a tricky "conceptual" frame placed around it. But all the folding-back-on-itself script stuff -- and all the arty-deadpan directorial trickery (which comes right out of blissed-out, New Agey, high-end TV ads) -- can't conceal the hackneyed thinness of the characters and the rote schlockiness of the central story. A sign of how lame the movie is is the way the major question about the central conceit is completely dodged: Why has this connection between writer and real person / character occurred? The film is beautifully-done in some out-of-time, out-of-place, fairy-tale ways. But emotionally and imaginatively it feels beyond arbitrary. Fast-Forwarding Score: Nothing -- I watched the movie with a bunch of other people. Had it been up to me I'd have shut the disc off after half an hour. Semi-related: I enjoyed disliking "Monster's Ball," another film directed by "Stranger Than Fiction"'s Marc Forster; I just plain enjoyed the rowdy Will Ferrell NASCAR comedy "Talladega Nights." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 6, 2008 | perma-link | (11) comments

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

DVD Journal: "Exterminating Angels"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Naughty games at a restaurant -- how French Pretentious, intense, and very, very sexy, this high-toned piece of loony self-absorption by Jean-Claude Brisseau tickled me no end, and for a variety of reasons. Conceptually it's a kooky but daring idea. Brisseau -- whose "Choses Secretes" I also loved -- was taken to court by some actresses who accused him of abusing them during auditions. He was semi let off, but he then chose to make this film, which is partly about that experience. It's a kind of apologia for his conduct as an artist and a director. In other words, it's a sexy arty film about auditioning actresses for a sexy arty movie. In that way it's rather like Catherine Breillat's "Sex is Comedy," which was based on the difficulties Breillat had shooting a sex scene for an earlier movie. Yeah, baby. In its realization, "Exterminating Angels" is a jaw-dropping combo of refined, spare French elegance; dreamy surrealism a la Bunuel and Cocteau; extended suspense a la Hitchcock; and voluptuous and intense sex fantasies. The director figure in the film puts his actresses through sexual trials and messes with their emotions, yet he never actually has sex with them -- something a few of them find hard to forgive. A couple of chic yet malevolent angels (really!) preside over the director figure's fate. Meanwhile, of course, you're watching the film thinking (among other things, such as "Wowee!"), "Holy shit. He had to audition actresses for the film we're actually watching, which is largely about auditioning actresses for the previous film. I wonder what that was like. And how crazy are the actresses we're watching, who are portraying crazy actresses?" It's one of the sexiest games of mental ping-pong I've ever had the privilege of taking part in. Brisseau is an unquestionable talent, yet he's a strange one -- as much an obsessed autodidact as Ed Wood; an elegant and innovative stylist; a man with sex, actresses, beauty, transcendence, religion, and cinema on his mind ... Film Comment's Gavin Smith has written that he thinks Brisseau may actually be deranged. That's certainly a possibility too. Even if you don't enjoy Brisseau's movies, you've almost certainly never seen anything quite like them. FWIW, as pretentious arty-sexy movies go, I found "Exterminating Angels" far more enjoyable than "Eyes Wide Shut." Breillat's "Sex is Comedy" is also very worth a watch. I should add that The Wife, who loved "Secret Things," was mostly bored by "Exterminating Angels," and that she's a defender of "Eyes Wide Shut," which she considers misunderstood as well as a lot of fun. * Here's an interview with Brisseau. * Here's a good Frédéric Bonnaud introduction to Brisseau's work. * For those who can manage some French, here's an interview with the film's three main actresses. * I wrote about Catherine Breillat's films here and here. I love many of them, but they certainly ain't for everybody. Fast-Forwarding Score: Are you kidding? I look... posted by Michael at June 3, 2008 | perma-link | (2) comments

Monday, June 2, 2008

DVD Journal: "American Pie"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Squaresville, inane, childish, sappy and obvious, it's like one of the drearier John Hughes movies spiced up with a little Farrelly Bros.-style raunchiness, though a very mild version of it. It took me four nights of trying to get through the film, and watching it left me wondering gloomily about why so many Americans are so fixated on their teen years. As kids, they can't wait to be teens; then they're teens, and it's amazing and it's horrifying; and then they spend their adult lives repeatedly revisiting their teen years. Which is a weird and unfair objection, because I have nothing against teenflix, and because the ones that I've enjoyed ("Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Valley Girl" come to mind) haven't left me pondering such questions. Fast-Forwarding Score: Very little, but only because I was trying to figure out why on earth the film was such a big hit, and why in the world it had meant anything to anybody. Semi-related: Here's a posting I wrote about the history of the teenager. Short version: Believe it or not, not so long ago being a teenager wasn't a big deal, and the experience of teenagehood was thought to be of no interest to anyone. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 2, 2008 | perma-link | (13) comments

Friday, May 30, 2008

The Camera Was On
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I assume that you've already seen the infamous Sue Simmons outburst. But why not enjoy it again? I certainly have, and will again too. Her performance of the f-word -- such conviction! -- is a classic that gets me laughing every time. '70s and '80s anchorgal Jessica Savitch shows how meltdowns were done back in the day. The on-camera fun continues here. (Links thanks to Charlton Griffin.) Bulletin to TV anchors and reporters: Hencefoward, your every misstep will be immortalized on YouTube. But I suppose they're aware of that already. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 30, 2008 | perma-link | (0)
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Another inspired video-news clip from The Onion: Bring Your Daughter to War Day. (Link thanks to Charlton Griffin.) Does anyone dispute the notion that The Onion is one of the premier culture-achievements of our time? Where contempo canon-formation goes, "South Park" gets my vote too. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 30, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Film-World Decadence
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- If you can overlook all the tut-tutting, Liz Jones' Cannes Film Festival diary is an entertaining snapshot of the carryings-on of the glitzy filmworld set. Funny passage: But the most important fixture and fitting on a yacht off the coast of Cannes? 'Hot and cold running supermodels,' says my date. 'You cannot, as a man, turn up without a supermodel on your arm. They simply won't let you on.' Link thanks to Anne Thompson. Don't miss the photo of Quentin Tarantino that Anne includes in this posting. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 28, 2008 | perma-link | (3) comments

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Fact for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- More video material has been uploaded to YouTube in the past six months than has ever been aired on all major networks combined. My source for this is Michael Wesch, a Kansas State University cultural anthropologist. A project that Wesch runs called Digital Ethnography can be explored here. Who says we aren't living through an astounding period in cultural and media history? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 22, 2008 | perma-link | (5) comments

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

More on Movies
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Here's another visit with Marcia and Lorenzo, YouTube's cranky, smart, and amusing Reel Geezers. * Jon Hastings writes that "Speed Racer" doesn't deserve its bad reviews. * Patrick Goldstein thinks that Pacino and De Niro are disgracing themselves. * TUAW interviews Dennis Liu, the young filmmaker who made that OSX-besotted music video I linked to a while back. The facts that interested me most: It took Liu a month to plot out the vid; three months to execute it; and it cost him $100. * David Chute provides a funny look at "geeksmanship." * MBlowhard Rewind: I tried to figure out why Spy Mom Carla Gugino isn't a huge star. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 20, 2008 | perma-link | (3) comments

Monday, May 12, 2008

"Again and Again"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards By The Birds and the Bees -- co-starring Mac OSX: Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 12, 2008 | perma-link | (5) comments

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Video Everywhere
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The whole world is going video. YouTube ... Video comments on blogs ... For a while now it has also been possible to use video to review products at Amazon. If you haven't yet run across a Customer Video Review at Amazon, here's an example. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 10, 2008 | perma-link | (0)
Weekend YouTube Finds
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Speaking of art that lasts ... Did anyone in 1965 think that "Shotgun" (by Jr. Walker and the All-Stars) would still be enjoyed more than 40 years later? Read more about Jr. Walker here. Question: When he was creating "Shotgun," was Jr. Walker aiming for a place in the Western Civ canon? Or was he trying to come up with a way to get an audience dancing? Plus: Sigh, if I only had one-tenth the personal style of Willie Woods, the All-Star's guitar player, I'd do a lot better in life ... Here's another All-Stars track that's bursting with more than its share of funk. * Did you continue watching the clip above? If you got a kick out of the smooth moves of The Temptations, perhaps you might enjoy learning a bit about Cholly Atkins, the man who was Motown's house choreographer during the label's peak years. Yes, that's right: There was one guy who was responsible for giving Motown's stars their gorgeous and influential moves. Is there any way to argue that Cholly Atkins wasn't a major culture-figure? The man choreographed The Temptations, The Miracles, and The Supremes, for God's sake. Forgive me for thinking that Cholly Atkins deserves a place on the same shelf where Jerome ("West Side Story," NYC Ballet) Robbins has already been placed. Back here, I raved about a documentary focusing on the guys who played in Motown's house band. * One of the misleading things that's often said (or unconsciously maintained) about the arts is that they're automatically progressive. To make good art is to be progressive -- that's just how it is. Few fields are more infected with this loony idea than jazz, whose story is often presented as a series of innovators, one after another doing what they could to move the music in the direction of "freedom." Psychotherapeutic and political overtones have most definitely not been run away from. What then to make of a phenomenon from more than 50 years ago: the Dixieland Revival? In the midst of all the "progress," one of the most important developments in jazz from 1940 right through the '50s was a revival of the very earliest jazz styles. Here's one of the most prominent of the Dixieland Revival bands, Eddie Condon's: And don't they swing hard! Though that clip is from 1952, and though that's quality jazz, that most definitely ain't bop. Deal with it, dogmatists. RedHotJazz writes this about Eddie Condon: In 1938 he led some sessions for the Commodore label and he became a star. He had a nightly gig at Nick's in New York City from 1937 to 1944. From 1944 to 1945 he led a series of recordings at Town Hall that were broadcast weekly on the radio. Condon opened his own club in 1945, and recorded for Columbia in the 1950s. In other words, during a period when orthodoxy would have us convinced that what was going on in jazz was... posted by Michael at May 10, 2008 | perma-link | (2) comments

Friday, April 25, 2008

"The Last Bolshevik"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Thanks to visitor Ron for pointing out that a wonderful but formerly hard-to-find movie is now available on DVD: Chris Marker's "The Last Bolshevik." FWIW, I'm a fairly serious Chris Marker buff -- back here I recommended a new-ish DVD that includes his movies "Sans Soleil" and "La Jetee" -- and I consider "The Last Bolshevik" to be one of Marker's very best movies. Now that I think about it, I also consider "The Last Bolshevik" to be one of my favorite artworks of the last 20 years. A rare photo of Chris Marker Chris Marker (a Frenchman who uses a pseudonym and who is now in his late 80s) is a unique figure in film history. He started out as a traveler, a journalist, a photographer, and a writer. When he turned to movies, he worked as personally and quirkily as he had done earlier, using the film camera as a poet might use a notebook, making notes and sketches, and inhabiting the editing room in a meditative spirit, not building dramatic points but instead taking note of (and bringing out) relationships and qualities. His movies are generally categorized as documentaries, or maybe "personal essays," and while that's helpful it also doesn't begin to convey how complex, subtle, and poetic they are. They weave together elements of letter-writing, music, fantasy, documentary, journals, and poetry -- they're the film equivalent of a belles-lettres approach to art-making. I don't know of any movies that convey the feeling of what it's like to think and imagine as thoroughly as Marker's movies do. In their effect the best of them are quite transporting. Like Oliver Sacks' best essays (start here), or like some of the books of (undoubtedly heightened) reportage of Ryszard Kapuscinski (try this one), Marker's movies deliver more of a sense of the marvelous than 99% of fiction does. In fact, his movies are rather like fairy tales for adults, with real life instead of fiction being what's marveled over. If your idea of a hip, adult, or advanced documentary is Erroll Morris or PBS, in other words, prepare to have your head explode. In truth, Marker's movies don't even seem to inhabit the world of movies, let alone documentaries. Instead, they seem to belong to the region of Culture inhabited by the likes of La Rochefoucauld, Baudelaire, Mme. de Lafayette, and Montaigne. A self-indulgent paragraph that might be best skipped ... So far as my own approach to nonfiction goes, I've taken a lot of inspiration from Chris Marker. Marker creates film-essays -- but they aren't essays in the usual driving-a-single-point-home sense. Instead, they're open, poetic, and exploratory. He works by association and analogy rather than by reason and logic. (For all of Marker's brilliance, when he speaks in interviews he often comes across as insubstantial and even rather silly; he's a poet and a philosopher, in other words, not an academic or a journalist.) In his movies, experiencing the getting-there and the spaces-in-between... posted by Michael at April 25, 2008 | perma-link | (13) comments

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

DVD Journal: "Come Early Morning"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Come Early Morning. This small drama -- written and directed by the actress Joey Lauren Adams -- is a soulful, understated sweetheart. Set near Little Rock, it stars Ashley Judd as a contractor with issues. Her dad is beyond-uncommunicative; her mom’s in a bum marriage; and she herself is caught in a spiral of drinking recklessly and bedding whomever. The film has a lot going for it: tons of small-town/small-city Southern atmosphere; a first-class cast doing sensitive work; feelings and emotions — some of them harsher than contempo viewers are probably comfortable with — swirling this way and that; and Ashley Judd at her real-girl best. Fondly and patiently, it delivers heaps of what movies these days seem so often to have given up on: respectful and sympathetic observations of and insights into how real people really live. Extra bonus points for the way Adams and her cinematographer Tim Orr portray the flesh of the women characters, with all the little bumps, nicks, scars, and bruises alongside the smoothness, the translucency, and the curves. Why does female flesh bruise so easily? A vital question the film leaves unanswered: How does Ashley's character -- a woman in her mid-30s who smokes, drinks, eats any old thing, and takes no care of herself whatsoever -- still manage to have the nicest figure in town? But maybe that’s part of why we love the movies. "Come Early Morning" is a film for everyone who recalls early Jonathan Demme movies with pleasure. (Me, I really-really, triple-love "Citizens Band," which isn't available on DVD, and "Melvin and Howard," which is.) Fast-Forwarding Score: Not at all. Semi-related: I gloated over the time I met Ashley Judd. Here's an interview with Joey Lauren Adams and Ashley Judd. Here's a video interview with the two women. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 23, 2008 | perma-link | (10) comments

Friday, April 18, 2008

DVD Journal: "Twentynine Palms"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Twentynine Palms: A real snoozer of a Euro art film, American road-movie division. Two chic Euros take a drive into the California desert, stay in crappy hotels, eat awful food, and swim in tacky pools. Every now and then they pause to argue or to have sex, or both. It takes nearly-forever for next-to-nothing to happen in Bruno Dumont's film. Oh, the emptiness of it all -- and, of course, Oh, the crudeness and brutality of America. Easy joke: Makes “Zabriskie Point” look like Busby Berkeley. Fast-Forwarding Score: One-half of the movie. Preferred arty-erotic purchase: Clement Virgo's seductive and very alive "Lie With Me," with daring and attractive performances by Eric Balfour and Lauren Lee Smith, now on sale for a mere $7.99. I wrote about "Lie With Me" and some other arty sex films back here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 18, 2008 | perma-link | (9) comments

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

DVD Journal: "Oldboy"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Back here I watched the primitive 1970s horror picture "The Last House on the Left" and ventured some hunches about why it is that some of today's young and edgy filmmaker-types love the movie. Today, another film that's a favorite of the hot-to-make-movies crowd, a 2003 Korean picture by Park Chan-wook called "Oldboy." Intense, extreme, and claustrophobic, the film didn’t speak to me, mainly because I found the storytelling uninspired and the tone finesse-free. But I also knew that in reacting that way I was missing the point entirely. I was reacting to the film as though it were a traditional movie, and it's anything but that. Its appeal has nothing to do with traditional movie allure -- with glamor, romance, personality, point of view, warmth, depth, provocation, humor, identification, Hitchcockian suspense, any of that. This simply isn't a traditional movie. Instead, it's an example of what I like to call an audiovisual-through-time media experience. As such, "Oldboy" is really something. Even I could see that. And I could certainly guess why many kids find it a major turn-on. Here's my hunch: What appeals to the kids is partly the film's skill and dynamism -- but mainly the way it pulls together elements of their media experience into something shaped, paced, exciting, and long-form. Traditional movies inhabit, express, and come out of a world consisting of other movies, of novels, of plays, of songs, and of pictures. "Oldboy" and the kids who love it come out of a different stew altogether. It's all "media" now, baby: videogames, TV ads, websurfing, mashups, cellphones, IMs, flipping through magazines, texting, "tracks" instead of songs ... Zip-zip-zip. Whap-smack-kapow. Nearly everything in the movie is souped-up, conceptualized, and constructed for maximum impact. Impact, in fact, is what the movie is entirely concerned with. The film doesn't have a story in any normal sense: instead it has something like a videogame's concept. (Roughly: "I, everyman, was plucked out of life, imprisoned, and driven mad for years. Now that I've been released, I'm still being toyed with. What's going on? I have three days to find out, or a pretty girl dies. Now, go!") The film is as free of psychology and emotions as a first-person shooter. What it wants to deliver instead is a back-and-forth between excitement and exhaustion in a physical and nervous sense. Hey, it's time for a Larger MBlowhard Point: We analogue-era types often bemoan the way popular culture today seems rude, cold, shallow, and crude. I think that part of what we're responding to is the way that emotions and emotionality play zero role in these new-media works. Videogames slap you around; they don't move you. TV ads are groovy and catchy; they aren't involving. In the new-media world, "levels" have nothing to do with psychology and everything to do with unearthing gold rings and zooming off into hyperspace. The emotional-poetic dimension of life seems to have been pancaked out of existence in today's popular culture,... posted by Michael at April 9, 2008 | perma-link | (14) comments

Monday, April 7, 2008

DVD Journal: "The Devil Wears Prada"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A month into ownership of a ritzy new HDTV, I'm still in the grips of HDTV-mania. So far it has been the technology that devoured my brain. If it's on HDTV, I'll watch it. Let me cite as evidence ... The Devil Wears Prada. I don’t usually bother with what I think of as mall movies, let alone chicklit movies. So I watched this adapatation of Lauren Weisberger’s novel about an earnest girl who tumbles into a job working for the editrix of a Vogue-like magazine in a state of complete stupefaction. Are there really movies that exist -- and that are meant to be experienced -- on only one level? Is it possible for a movie to spell out everything it's about in bold tones? And is this really the kind of thing that mainstream America considers to be entertainment? Help me emigrate now. At the same time, I couldn’t help feeling some admiration. The professionalism level is high, and the film does indeed hit all its marks, if 'way too hard. But what kept me watching -- aside from the brain-paralyzing hyper-clarity of the HDTV image -- was the way the actors pitch in with such good-natured enthusiasm. As the bright young woman in a bind, Anne Hathaway is adorable; she’s half sophisticated Euro-tragedienne, half Jersey girl. Meryl Streep scores confidently with her weirdly quiet portrayal of an editor willing to sacrifice everything for her career. Stanley Tucci (wearing Philip Johnson eyeglasses) is likable and amusing as the magazine’s style chief. And, as Hathaway’s rival assistant, Emily Blunt shows a lot of high-style comic flair. Best of all, everybody involved seems to have done their homework. If in a sitcommy way, the film does a genuinely good job of conveying what the loftier rungs of the women’s-mag world look and feel like. I have friends working in the glossy style field, and the film's portrayal of how tense, glam, and high-strung those lives are is right on the money. Still, this is me ... Me ... Michael Blowhard ... A longtime film maniac whose current cinema passion is Japanese "Pinky Violence" movies ... And I just sat through "The Devil Wear Prada" ... [Sob] Damn you, HDTV. Somebody stop me before I turn that machine on again. Semi-related: I raved about Anne Hathaway in "Havoc," and about Emily Blunt in "My Summer of Love." Anne Hathaway confides that finding the right shoes helps her get in character. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 7, 2008 | perma-link | (15) comments

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

DVD Binge
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- As newish owners of a snazzy 47" LCD HDTV, The Wife and I have been indulging in a whole lot of moviewatching recently. Good Christ, that screen ... It's gorgeous ... It's hypnotic .. It occupies and then devours the brain, leaving nothing but cinders in its wake ... Thought for the day: An HDTV is something to be managed as well as enjoyed. Anyway, some fast responses to some of what we've watched: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. Loads of bright colors and scattershot silliness in this Swingin’ England, James Bond spoof. I was up for it, but I only chuckled once -- at the climax, when Johnny Rivers' version of "Secret Agent Man" came up loud on the soundtrack. I do love that song. Fast-Forwarding Score: a quarter of the DVD. Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs. I found this 1974 thriller by Yukio Noda loads of satisfying fun. A lot of the Japanese exploitation movies from the "pinky violence" era are spoofy and campy, likable mainly for being bizarre, extreme, and a hoot. This one’s a surprise because -- though its script is like an episode of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” or “Mannix” -- the film itself is genuinely intense and dramatic. It’s a trash idea that has been turned into a real movie. It’s a little disappointing that the Zero Woman figure herself doesn’t take much action. Mostly she looks hot and evil, and gets beaten up and raped. But the film is so flamboyant and beautiful -- and so full of acrobatics, editing, and blood -- that it didn’t matter much to me finally. “Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs” struck me as the Japanese equivalent of one of Sam Peckinpah's commercial projects, like “The Getaway” or “The Killer Elite,” and I enjoyed it a lot. Fast-Forwarding Score: not a minute. Grindhouse Presents: Planet Terror. As ever, Robert Rodriguez shows off a lot of talent, tons of bad-boy enthusiasm, and superb taste in lowbrow pleasures and films. For me, though, this mishmash of ’60s and ’70s sleaze and exploitation movies never took on its own life. It didn’t come to life “Airplane!” style, or pastiche style, or New Wave poetic-hommage style … It was so lacking in life that it left me wondering: Well, why not just rent a George A. Romero or Jack Hill movie instead? With Rose MacGowan, who Rodriguez sees a lot more in than I do. I like the idea of “Rose MacGowan,” and god knows that her public appearances aren't short on entertainment value. But her actual onscreen performances always disappoint. I blogged back here about Rodriguez's "Sin City," and here about his "Once Upon a Time in Mexico." Fast-Forwarding Score: 3/4 of the disc. My Summer of Love. I recorded this picture off of Cinemax expecting a tacky nudiefest. Imagine my surprise when the film turned out to be a quiet, sensitive, beautifully-acted, lusciously-shot English art movie. I loved it. In a small British town, an... posted by Michael at April 2, 2008 | perma-link | (5) comments

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

DVD Picks for the Week
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- "Padre Padrone" and "Night of the Shooting Stars." Two movies by an Italian-brother team, the Tavianis, that are barbaric, stylized, poetic -- and as charged-with-discovery as silent movies sometimes were. The first is based on the memoir of a boy who grew up as a shepherd in beastly conditions on Sardinia. It's a little like "The Wild Child" reimagined as a Brechtian musical. The second is an epic fantasia based on stories and themes from Italian peasants' experiences of World War II. In tone, it's horrifying yet magical -- like "Open City" meets "E.T." At their best, the Taviani Brothers are magnificent artists who make harshly beautiful movies that are both hard-core avant-garde and directly, accessibly populist. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 1, 2008 | perma-link | (1) comments

Friday, March 21, 2008

More on Gal Performers, Exploitation, Etc.
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I can't let the topic go by without reprinting a couple of great comments that visitors have left behind. First, from PatrickH: I've gotten an enormous erotic charge out of pics of women from olden times...more or less pre '90, perhaps earlier. The dames of yore, you might say. The women of the seventies in particular still give me a real sexual jolt. The sight of imperfect teeth, maybe a blemish or two, breasts just ever so unpneumatic, and especially, some softness, some roundness, some juice -- all the signs of a real woman, alive and warm and breathing, ah, they got me going, those seventies girls, and they still do. (BTW,apparently the cast of LHotL was doing the seventies thing off-camera, what with massive drug use and apparently non-stop you-know-whatting.) The eighties saw the emergence of the type of female body I found utterly uninteresting, the manufactured hair, the harsh makeup, the growing trend to fake breasts, and above all, the increasing dominance of the hardbody aerobicized ultra-toned look...tense, harsh, unfeminine, and really really unsexy. The nineties and beyond have just made it worse, what with CGI manipulation of images, Photoshopping, and yes, the continued dominance of the over-exercised and under-feminine "ideal". The deadness, the anti-sexiness, the sheer unhumanity of the erotic imagery (of men and women) in today's pornogrified culture is one of its most interesting and troubling aspects. Odd, how America can somehow be so sexually overwrought and yet so utterly unsexy. Yeah! Next, from Ron: This post, along with Michael's post about down-and-dirty '70s pictures and PatrickH's related comment about '70s women (I love them too!) has put me in an exploitation-movie kind of mood -- which is a mood I like a-plenty. I had a nice email conversation with a friend not too long ago about the joys of '70s exploitation actresses. I spent most of it name-checking the many lovely, fearless ladies that have provided me with some low-down viewing excitement and pleasure over the years, as well as lamenting the fact that these types of actresses just aren't around anymore. Michael's comments regarding the effects of agents and careerism on current actresses has me thinking about this all over again. Hmmm...sad to think that movies today haven't given us anyone to take the place of Pam Grier, Roberta Collins, Barbara Steele, Edwige Fenech, Camille Keaton, Monica Gayle and countless others. Barbara Crampton is another good one. Has a cuddlier woman ever been assaulted by zombies? Even the more respectable actresses of that era, women like Susan George and Colleen Camp, could act in memorably unpredicable and vibrant ways--almost as though they were laying their sass, their verve and of course their bodies on the line in a winner-takes-all sort of bet. This sort of performing is sexy, of course, but there's something endearing about it as well. In fact, it's not off-base to say I feel genuine warmth and affection for all of these ladies. I feel... posted by Michael at March 21, 2008 | perma-link | (5) comments

Thursday, March 20, 2008

DVD Journal: "The Last House on the Left"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I've just finished watching a couple of movies recommended to me by the talented and dynamic young dude who directed our own movie. For the sake of a couple of blogpostings, I'm going to take my young friend's tastes and enthusiasms as 1) interesting in themselves, and 2) indicative of what young guys who are hot to make it in the movies these days enjoy. In other words: As youngdudez like my buddy begin to find actual positions in the filmbiz, moviegoers may well be seeing more of the kind of thing these films represent showing up on their local movie screens. First up: Wes Craven's 1972 horror film "The Last House on the Left." This was Wes Craven's first feature, and to call it primitive would understate matters by a ton. For starters: lousy sound, nonexistent production values, amateurish acting, and a script no first-year screenwriting prof would allow to see the light of day. But -- for all its crudeness and cluelessness -- the film is also powerful and fascinating. Until the early '70s, horror films had tended to be theatrical, super-stylized, artificial contrivances: Think "Frankenstein," think Hammer horror. “Last House on the Left” was one of the early films to break that mold. (Another: George Romero's 1968 "Night of the Living Dead.") Like Romero, Craven avoided English accents and period settings, put recognizable people onscreen, and let in a lot of the real world. The story and images in "Last House on the Left" bounce off of the violence and slaughters of its time -- Vietnam, Manson, etc. Craven's distinctive contribution was to humanize both victims and killers; while the bad guys are most definitely bad, they aren't one-dimensional. He also threw in a couple of really big narrative jolts. The result was a film that felt raw and immediate to many people. You knew the characters onscreen; they were like your parents, your friends, and the scary hippies camping out in the park. You recognized the America up there; it looked both like your cozy neighborhood and like the carnage you witnessed on the TV news. And the pain onscreen took you by surprise, and in shocking ways. All that said ... For any of this to matter much to you, you probably do have to be a horror buff. I'm not one, and I fought sleep through much of the film. As far as morally dicey ’70s cult classics go, I’m more of an “I Spit on Your Grave” kinda guy, I guess. Here's a bit of what I imagine turns on my young director-buddy: "Last House on the Left" is scrappy, intense, and anything but respectable. It also doesn't fall into either of today's two familiar camps: It's neither a big, hygienic corporate theme park, nor is it an undernourished high-minded indie. Also, the '70s ... Wowee, what a kooky time. The huge and awful cars, the daffy hairstyles and clothes -- they all have their campy appeal.... posted by Michael at March 20, 2008 | perma-link | (7) comments

Showbiz and Seediness
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Ah, Alexandra Dupre, my heart and my muse ... (Here's the website of the NY Post, where I found the image above.) I don't know about you, but Friedrich von Blowhard and I are both having an awfully good time following the news stories about the Jersey rapper-wannabe-turned-callgirl who was caught with NY's ex-Governor Eliot Spitzer. Here's the latest bulletin. It's the story that just keeps on giving, isn't it? Not since the Amy Fisher / Joey Buttafuoco case have I been quite as happy buying taboid newspapers. My favorite detail to emerge so far: On her MySpace page, Alexandra made reference to incidents of deprivation and abuse at home that prompted her to run away to the big city. In actual fact, Alexandra grew up prosperous on the New Jersey shore. So much for the deprivation angle. As for the abuse? 1) Alexandra was given a Porsche by her stepdad, 2) Alexandra proceeded to crash and total the Porsche, and 3) her stepdad then refused to buy her another Porsche. This appears to have been the incident that Alexandra transcoded into "abuse." Rough life! It's funny the way some people who want a sexier, hotter existence than they have in the 'burbs turn their biographies into melodramas that, funnily enough, just happen to justify running off and joining a fast crowd. Why do they bother mythologizing their backgrounds? Seems like a lot of bother to me. Still, as silly as she is, Alexandra is also pretty sexy. Apt FvB comment: "This girl really missed her era. She should have been a temple prostitute in ancient Sumer!" I wrote FvB a response I'm going to reprint here. Quick word of explanation: I'm not exactly responding to FvB's remark. Intead, I'm treating myself to a rant that was prompted by some recent adventures with performers. BTW, I like performers! What follows should in no way be taken as a diss. Sign me up for a spell in ancient Sumer! Somewhat more straightfacedly, I'd maintain that the temple-prostitute thing is a prominent side of showbiz. (And when it isn't, it should be.) This Spitzer girl lived out the hooker thing more than most do, god knows. But bits and pieces of hooker-ish-ness are commonplace in showbiz. The girl who comes to the city to make it ... And she can't stand living in a studio apartment in the boonies ... So she moves in with a director ... Or she works her way through a lot of young bankers ... Not uncommon! Sleeping with producers, sometimes deliberately to get roles, sometimes not so deliberately, but maybe it results in roles anyway ... Sometimes the bankers and producers and actresses actually like each other, and living together is convenient, and life seems to be taking a nice turn, so ... And somehow the bills get paid. Is it kind to look too closely at how that happens? Plus there are shadey guys everywhere (nightclub owners, haha; guys... posted by Michael at March 20, 2008 | perma-link | (18) comments

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

1000 Words: Naomi Tani
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Welcome to another entry in "1000 Words," a series of postings where I explore underknown and/or quirky cultural phenomena. Previous installments here, here, here, here, here. Today: the Japanese movie actress Naomi Tani, who was a star of what's known as the Japanese "pink cinema." A quick word of explanation. The pink cinema developed in Japan in the 1960s, flourished through the '70s, and died out in the '80s. It was, as its name may suggest, a sex-and-violence movement. It came about because of the way TV and American films were hitting the Japanese film audience. With theater audiences for mainstream Japanese films shrinking, independent production houses saw an opportunity to make money by producing low-budget exploitation pictures. It was a gamble that paid off. By 1970, even the big studios (Toei, Nikkatsu) had joined in the fun, putting aside most of their larger ambitions to make instead cheap and dirty movies that were heavy on the sex, the violence, and the kinkiness. Some of these pictures were flamboyant action pictures. Some of the films belonged to new or oddball genres -- I wrote here about a beautiful and poetic (if trashy) film in the "nunsploitation" genre. Others were straightforwardly porn, or near-porn. When Nikkatsu took on the sex-film genre, the studio gave its directors a little more money to play with than other porn-filmmakers had access to. These slightly-higher-budget Nikkatsu sex films became known as "romans porno." They were shot quickly, often in a week or less, and for very little money. They typically had a runtime of only 70 minutes. They were thrown together like Roger Corman's movies were -- with relative freedom so long as a concept was adhered to and a specified number of whammies (in this case, sex acts) were delivered. This being Japan, bondage, schoolgirls, and torture played a large role in the proceedings. This being Japan, large dots or blobs were inserted in the imagery to cover crotches and pubic hair. Despite the dots, though, the films were quite explicit -- what we'd consider today hard-R, or maybe even NC-17. (By the way: talk about rapid cultural change. Kissing wasn't seen on the Japanese movie screen until 1946. By 1970, theatrical films in Japan were showing everything but hardcore closeups. From the first onscreen smooch to a flourishing sex-film business in 24 years -- now that's a culture that was moving very fast.) The roman porno films were hugely popular, and remained so until the mid-'80s when the home-video revolution wiped out the theatrical porn-film business. But for a couple of decades, paying audiences were back in the movie theaters, and business was flourishing. A galaxy of stars emerged. Directors and writers got work and cashed paychecks. As it turns out, some of these hastily-shot, trashy movies have lived on. Some of the films are now respected; some of the stars are now in the reference books; some of the directors and writers are now recognized for... posted by Michael at March 12, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

R.I.P.: Sorrentino, Yang, Ichikawa
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- When you aren't a devoted newsbuff -- and I'm not -- contempo events sometimes just slip by you. It was only recently that I caught up, for instance, with the fact that three artists whose work I'm very fond of died in the last few years. * The novelist and critic Gilbert Sorrentino. Sorrentino was as experimental and hardcore-modernist as it gets: For him a piece of fiction wasn't a story with characters, it was a construction of words and letters. Downside: His books often lost themselves in intellectual gamesmanship. But -- perhaps despite himself -- a few of his novels delivered real guts and feeling. They paid off emotionally; in them, the modernist strategies felt like fresh ways of presenting juicy subjects. Born in Brooklyn, Sorrentino taught in later years at Stanford, and the longer he was a professor the more ingrown his fiction became. Still, in "Aberration of Starlight" and "The Sky Changes," he combined virtuosity and sophistication with a lot of earthy Brooklyn soul and humor. He was also an excellent critic of modernist poetry. * The filmmaker Edward Yang, who died in June of last year at 59 of colon cancer. Although Taiwanese, Yang worked in the tradition of the Euro-American cinema. No kabuki here, and no crazed action or fable-like ghost stories either. Instead, he made films that feature three-dimensional "humanity" in the western sense. (Yang grew up on Taiwan; went to college at the University of Florida, where he earned an engineering degree; and was living in L.A. when he died.) The film of Yang's to start with is the 2000 "Yi Yi," a quiet, expansive-yet-intimate work that bears comparison to Chekhov and Renoir in its patience, its unforced curiosity, and its willingness to let characters and situations reveal themselves in their own time. * The Japanese filmmaker Kon Ichikawa, who died in February at 92. I'm not as crazy about some of Ichikawa's more famous movies ("Fires on the Plain," "The Burmese Harp") as many are. But I love-love-love many of his other films, and am happy to think of him as one of the true giants of the Japanese cinema, the equal of Ozu, Kurosawa, and Mizoguchi. If Ichikawa wasn't as well-known as the Big Three perhaps it's because he worked in a really wide variety of genres and styles, and that made him a hard one to nail down. But to each of the films of his that I've seen he brought a distinctive technical brilliance, a snakecharmer's psychological insight, and a wicked perversity of attack. My viewing tip: Start with his documentary "Tokyo Olympiad" -- genius stuff. And hope that one day his brilliant Tanizaki adaptations "The Key" and "The Makioka Sisters" will be brought out on DVD. * MBlowhard Rewind: I raved about Mizoguchi's "Sansho the Bailiff" here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 11, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

Sunday, March 9, 2008

It Ain't Over Till There's Blood All Over
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- "It ain't over till the fat lady sings" goes the saying. I'm not so sure. Granted, I'm no big opera fan. It's my wife who sees to it that I go three or four times a year. And after a few years of this, I've gotten a fair number of operas under my belt. Often enough, it's not the fat lady that sings to end the performance. Rather, it's an emaciated heroine who expires after withering away from a disease during the last act: think La Bohème and La Traviata. It can get worse. The last two operas I saw ended in bloodbaths. Pagliacci's curtain dropped after a cuckolded clown stabbed his wayward wife and her boyfriend. Not all clowns are funny, it seems. The heroine in last Wednesday's Seattle Opera production of Tosca leaped to her death after her boyfriend was shot by a firing squad. This was after she had stabbed to death the local police boss. And here I thought Italians were basically a happy, life-loving bunch. Good thing I hadn't seen Pagliacci and Tosca before last fall's trip to Italy: I'd have worried about poison in the spaghetti. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at March 9, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Star Wars by Saul Bass
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Thanks to visitor Bryan for passsing along a link to this really well-done video: "The 'Star Wars' Title Sequence, Had It Been Designed By Saul Bass." There's a lot of humor, talent, and skill in the world, isn't there? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 6, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

Federal Objectivity
Michael Blowhard says: Dear Blowhards -- Who says personal tastes and opinions don't play an important role in governmental rulings and judgements? Hmm: Who's cuter? Alyson Hannigan or Jennifer Grey? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 6, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Random Video Finds
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The only reason these two clips are making an appearance in the same posting is that I ran across both of them for the first time today. Standup comedian Demetri Martin has a silly-ingenuous schtick going on that's pretty irresistable: Demetri Martin Stand Up Presentation on For me, the 1987 movie "Dirty Dancing" was 96 minutes and 15 seconds of cringe-making drivel inexplicably interrupted by 3 minutes and 45 seconds of bliss. Here's the bliss part: What a gorgeous depiction of a proper girl discovering how sweet wantonness can be. A big hat-tip to the dancers and actors, to director Emile Ardolino, to choreogapher Kenny Ortega, and to The Contours for their version of "Do You Love Me?" Just one big "But": Man oh man, why wasn't I invited to that party? OK, so I also enjoyed watching Jennifer Grey go around in those just-longer-than-knee-length blue jeans and white tennis sneakers ... Fashion at its best, no? Fun Facts for the Day: "Dirty Dancing" was the first movie to sell a million copies on video. And the song "Do You Love Me?" was written by Motown CEO Berry Gordy, Jr. I wrote about Motown's immortal Funk Brothers back here. Best, Michael UPDATE: I'm sorry to learn this morning that Patrick Swayze -- who is only 55 -- is fighting pancreatic cancer. That's one of the toughest cancers to do battle with.... posted by Michael at March 5, 2008 | perma-link | (8) comments

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Pulp and Hardboiled Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * PJ Parrish has been lovin' "The Big Book of Pulps." * Dark Party Review interviews the great mystery-crime bookstore owner / editor Otto Penzler. * Joe Valdez revisits "Blue Velvet." You don't think there could have been a "Blue Velvet" without pulp fiction, do you? * August West recommends a couple of hardboiled noirs by Dolores Hitchens. * Classy genre writer Dan Simmons has been reprinting a book about the book publishing biz by literary agent Richard Curtis. I enthusiastically recommend it -- Richard Curtis is one of the smartest and frankest bookworld people around. I recommend the fiction of Dan Simmons too -- I praised a Buffalo-set hardboiled Simmons novel back here. * A great line from pulp writer and former peepshow girl Christa ("Money Shot") Faust, who has written some novelizations: I love tie-in work and have infinitely more respect for hard-working writers like Lee Goldberg and Max Allan Collins than I do for self-styled literary geniuses who are still sitting in mom’s basement polishing their unpublished masterpiece. Here's another interview with Christa Faust. Here's Christa Faust's very amusing website. * Scottish crime novelist Allan Guthrie offers a list of his 200 favorite noir novels. * The Telegraph runs a list of 50 Crime Writers You Should Read Before You Die. * Bill Crider recommends a new Stark House volume of Peter Rabe novels. If I remember right, the great Donald Westlake is also a Peter Rabe fan. * Ed Gorman thinks that crime-movie fans should keep an eye out for the Robert Ryan / Mary Astor vehicle "Act of Violence." Those with a few bucks to spare can buy the movie here. * Vince Keenan enjoys a couple of movies with Robert Siodmak's name on them. I raved about the brilliant Siodmak here. * MBlowhard Rewind: I wrote an introduction to the pulp publisher Gold Medal Books. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 2, 2008 | perma-link | (1) comments

Friday, February 22, 2008

Frozen Mischief
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Another excellent large-scale prank from ImprovEverywhere. My favorite overheard remarks: "It's some kind of protest, probably." "Either that or an acting class." Very Dada, no? Here's a sensible look at a new Dada exhibition from the Times of London. Verdict: A fun moment of wild mischief -- but what kind of sense does it make to give Dada a lot of museum space? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 22, 2008 | perma-link | (1) comments

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * "I definitely think pageants define me as a person." (Link thanks to Charlton Griffin.) * The greatest duets of all time. (Link thanks to the Communicatrix.) * "Sweet Child of Mine" -- on the sitar. * The Beatles perform "Stairway to Heaven." (Both of these links from Will S.) * Michael Bay doesn't just blow shit up. Michael Bay is awesome. (Link thanks to Bryan C.) Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 20, 2008 | perma-link | (2) comments

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Some of the most undersung contemporary culture-heroes -- IMHO, of course -- are YouTube music-video uploaders. Just think of it: At no previous time in all history have we had anything like this kind of easy access to such a wealth of fabulous music performances. And we owe it to the voluntary efforts of a lot of amateurs, motivated by love, generosity and enthusiasm. It's enough to make a person believe in anarchist theory. (Incidentally, that's a first-class essay.) A few of the uploaders I rely on most heavily: rockabilly buff Gatorrock786; country-music lover Genewatsonfan2; Rolling Stones champion Ghostryder4067; StAlphege, surely in the top tier of the world's Emmylou Harris admirers; and the classical-music connoisseurs Judicaelp and Tbromley. Here's some footage of the legendary Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli playing Chopin: And a clip of the brilliant Maurizio Pollini performing Debussy: Pollini's Chopin is a modern legend in its own right, and there's a lot of it on YouTube. Here's one good example. A couple of recent discoveries have also been making me very, very happy. Oldtimer (456 vids uploaded so far -- imagine the time and effort!) Ultracoolsixties has an eclectic collection of '60s pop music clips that must be peerless -- it includes performances by Marianne Faithful, The Byrds, Francoise Hardy, and a longtime fave of mine, the high-octane, midwestern R&B group Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels: And doesn't that take you back to the glory days of AM radio! When I'm the mood for workingman's rock, I'll take Mitch Ryder and the boys over Bruce Springsteen any day -- in my value-set, raucous party spirit always prevails over mythos and bloat. Here's Mitch Ryder's website Why not spring for this best-of collection? Newcomer Musicfirstlove has been sharing a priceless collection of alt-country clips, including many I hadn't even known existed of someone I never tire of going back to, the angelically-gifted Texas depressive Townes Van Zandt: Well-synch'd-up-with-its-sound or not, that's some precious footage. I wrote -- OK, I raved -- about Townes Van Zandt back here. Here's the Townes Van Zandt website, run by his widow Jeanene. Jeanene sent 2Blowhards a very moving letter that we were honored to reprint here. Buy a copy of "Be Here to Love Me," Margaret Brown's evocative and poetic documentary about Townes, here. Do you have some favorite YouTube uploaders that you can pass along to the rest of us? It seems to me that the urge to share our pleasures is a lot of what makes the Web the glorious place it is. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 17, 2008 | perma-link | (8) comments

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

"El Cid" on DVD
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Glenn Abel recommends the new DVD of Anthony Mann's costume epic "El Cid," and talks with the son of one of the film's producers. I love "El Cid" myself. It has pacing and focus -- I find it one of the few spectaculars from the '50s and '60s that are rewarding in non-ponderous, non-camp ways. But I love many of Anthony Mann's other movies too. In fact, as far as I'm concerned, Mann is a major and underappreciated movie artist. I recommended a few of Anthony Mann's movies in this posting about Westerns. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 5, 2008 | perma-link | (9) comments

Monday, February 4, 2008

I Caught Maybellene At the Top of the Hill
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- 1965. France. And Chuck Berry was in an especially exuberant mood: Have there been many greater lines written in America than "Rainwater flowin' all under my hood / But I knew that was doin' my motor good"? OK, maybe "As I was a-motor-vatin' over the hill / I saw Maybellene in a Coupe de Ville." But not many others. It seems to me that Chuck Berry's wordplay and rhythms have done a lot to shape American English. Hard to believe that Chuck Berry is now 81 years old. He's wearing it awfully well. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 4, 2008 | perma-link | (3) comments

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Banks As Graphic Design
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Another gargantuan blockbuster from that unstoppable movie-production titan ... Well, I blush. You do know to be kind, don't you? Previous efforts can be watched here, here, here, and here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 3, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Schoolgirl Musical
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It seems that Koreans love the "schoolgirl" thing -- skirts, haircuts, uniforms, adorable knock-knees -- as much as the Japanese do. Or is the following clip simply referencing the Japanese fetish? Gosh, but it can be hard to know what's authentically "meant" these days ... "Dasepo Naughty Girls" -- Could be the movie of the year. Ain't It Cool News' Quint caught it at the Santa Barbara Film Festival and has this to say: "I don’t know what the fuck DASEPO NAUGHTY GIRLS is, but I do know that I love it." That's a rave! Here's the movie's trailer. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 2, 2008 | perma-link | (3) comments

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Continuing with examples from our "American popular culture allows men zero dignity" series, here's a bit from a National Geographic Channel promotional ad. Now, this ad is apparently supposed to be cute and funny, and ruefully-recognizable too. But what are we being shown? Wifey is disciplining Hubster like The Dog Whisperer corrects a dog. Which means that the wife-husband relationship portrayed here isn't even mom-child, as insulting as that would be. It's wife-equals-dog-owner and hubby-equals-dog. Am I allowed to wonder how this ad would be received if it showed a man treating his wife like a pet in need of correction? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 30, 2008 | perma-link | (21) comments

Monday, January 28, 2008

Mississippi Blues, Courtesy of YouTube
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I just realized that you can create yourself a decent intro to the Mississippi Delta Blues by typing the right names into the YouTube Search box. Here are a few clips to get you started. R.L. Burnside T-Model Ford Cedell Davis Junior Kimbrough And here's Pinetop Perkins at 94: Big personalities, raw sounds, mind-and-ear-bending music ... Semi-related: I blogged about Mandy Stein's good Mississippi blues documentary "You Hear Me Laughin'" here. I wrote about taking the Wife to the King Biscuit Blues Festival here and here. Explore the website of the great Fat Possum Records. I'm especially fond of this one-of-a-kind Asie Payton disc. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 28, 2008 | perma-link | (3) comments

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The New Cinema
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- These days you can make it up with pixels: (Link thanks to Judith Sears.) Or you can hand craft it at home: Is it the end of movies as we've known them, or the beginning of a great new do-with-the-medium-what-you-will era? See more short, no-budget videos by the cheeky and droll young supertalent Lasse Gjertson here. I especially like this one. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 27, 2008 | perma-link | (5) comments

Friday, January 25, 2008

Jon and The Nicholas Brothers
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Speaking of Tumblr blogs ... Jon Hastings has been having a most excellent time with his new Tumblr blog. The highlights of Jon's Tumblr efforts, as far as I'm concerned, have been links to performances by the Nicholas Brothers: here, here, here. What's that? You say you don't know the Nicholas Brothers? Can that really be so? Then it's high time you made the acquaintance of Harold and Fayard Nicholas, a dancing-brothers team who started out as child performers in the vaudeville years, appeared regularly at the Cotton Club, were headliners in movies, and were still creative and active into the 1990s. (Harold died in 2000, Fayard in 2006.) Michael Jackson is one of many younger dancers who learned from the Nicholas Brothers, and Harold and Fayard are gods of the current tapdance-revival scene. Their work is known not just for its style, its class, and its acrobatic virtuosity -- watch those trademark leaping splits! -- but also for its high spirits, its humor, and its exuberance. It has got to be some of the happy-making-est art ever. The Nicholas Brothers were (as far as I'm concerned) Genuinely Great American Artists, and were certainly in a class with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly -- with the very best popular American dancers ever. (Jon also linked to a priceless scene of Tommy Rall and Bob Fosse dancing together. Rall is really something, isn't he? A friend of mine studied tapdancing with Rall in college; she tells me that he was a dynamite teacher. And Fosse: Now there's another Great American artist ...) One of the highlights of my own culture-spectating life was attending a tribute to the Nicholas Brothers around 1990. The brothers themselves appeared in person after an hour's worth of dance clips had left many in the audience sniffling tears of happiness. Seldom have I applauded with such heartfelt enthusiasm as I did when the Brothers stepped before us in the flesh. It's amazing that one act can have given so many people such a great deal of pleasure. Read more about the Nicholas Brothers here. Here's an especially good-quality version of their legendary number from the 1943 film "Stormy Weather." Speaking of happy-making performers, dig that wonderful Cab Calloway. Has American culture hit many peaks as glorious as the Big Band years? Hey, I just remembered that I can embed the clip myself. Here we go: If you're tempted by blogging, do consider signing up for a Tumblr blog. Tumblr-style blogging is an awful lot of fun. I wrote back here and here about some more happy-making art. Thanks to Jon Hastings. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 25, 2008 | perma-link | (2) comments

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Q&A With Tom Naughton, Part Two
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Back here, I introduced Tom Naughton's inventive, informative, and generally excellent diet-and-eating documentary "Fat Head." In that posting, I interviewed Tom about the film's subject matter. In today's posting, I talk to Tom about making the film -- which he did in total freedom, all by himself. *** The 2Blowhards Q&A With Tom Naughton, Part Two 2B: What was the impulse behind the movie? Was it more a matter of having a message you wanted to convey, or more of wanting to make a movie? TN: It was a mix of things. As a writer, I felt the need to sink my teeth into a full-length project, no pun intended. I was actually starting to work on a humor piece about the ridiculous prejudice we have in our society against fat people, and I watched “Super Size Me” as part of my research. When I saw how much bologna [Morgan] Spurlock was serving up in a film that attracted so much attention, I felt the need to reply. I don’t harbor any animus toward Morgan Spurlock. He took a simple idea and made an amusing film out of it, and I applaud him for that. He’s a talented entertainer. But I don’t agree with his point of view. In “Super Size Me,” he asked the question, “Where does personal responsibility end?” My answer is, it doesn’t. Ronald McDonald can’t make you eat anything. 2B: Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker? TN: No, I never set out to be a filmmaker. My plan was to write scripts and pitch them to real producers. But I was inspired by my sister-in-law, Susan Smiley, who made an acclaimed documentary about schizophrenia titled “Out of the Shadow.” Seeing her pick up a camera and make a film de-mystified the process for me. Suddenly it seemed possible to just produce my own work, instead of hoping someone else would. She also lent me her camera and her advice, which was a huge help. 2B: What was your budget? My wife and I took part in making a low-budget movie with a friend last year, and our budget was $8000. But to get the film done we've relied a lot on friends and buddies who aren't getting paid. Ah, the actual "economics" of low-budget filmmaking ... TN: I didn’t really establish a budget. I bought what I needed when I needed it. My two biggest expenses were flying around the country to interview people and paying an After Effects artist to do the animations. I also bought a wireless microphone, lights, a new computer, software, stuff like that. I think I’ve spent about $30,000 so far. 2B: What was your physical-technical setup for putting the film together? TN: I borrowed my sister-in-law’s Sony PD 150 camera, and I used Adobe’s Production Studio Pro for editing sound and video on a maxed-out PC that I bought just for the film. My wife posted ads on Craig’s List for an... posted by Michael at January 15, 2008 | perma-link | (3) comments

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Q&A With Tom Naughton, Part One
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- When I read about Tom Naughton’s as-yet-unreleased food-and-diet documentary "Fat Head," I was instantly interested, and on two counts. In the first place, Naughton sounded as fascinated as I am by the way that the official health-tips class has put a lot of bad eating advice over on the public during the last few decades. How did this happen? In the second place, I was eager to learn more about Tom's experience as a first-time filmmaker. We're witnessing a major shift occurring in the world of audiovisual-through-time entertainment. As digital technology grows ever cheaper and ever easier-to-use, moviemaking has ceased being something that only fulltime professionals can afford and manage. Tom Naughton made his own feature-length movie almost entirely by himself. What was this like? So I contacted Tom and talked him into sending me a copy of his movie. I enjoyed it very much. Framed as a response to Morgan Spurlock's headline-grabbing, eating-all-month- at-McDonald’s film "Super Size Me," "Fat Head" is humorous, engaging, and informative. In only 80-odd minutes, Tom brings you up to speed with a lot of science and history -- and he does it all without strain, which is quite an accomplishment. Trust me on this, by the way: I've read a number of the books that cover this material, and I've done some professional writing myself. It's quite miraculous how efficiently and enjoyably Tom has conveyed the essence of a lot of very dense and dry work. Concision and easygoing-ness only look easy. But "Fat Head" is more than just sharp and entertaining. It's also resourceful, straight-shooting, and direct. Tom -- who has worked as a health writer and as a standup comedian -- is a very smart, droll, and agreeable host. As a filmmaker, one of his smarter choices was not to compete in the slickness sweepstakes. You might say that "Fat Head" is to the usual contempo documentary what a great blogposting is to a Vanity Fair production number: twice the substance presented with a tenth the clatter. And with graphics by his wife and a few appearances by his kids, "Fat Head" is nothing if not pleasingly handmade, and full of real-people personality and "touch" of a sort that we don’t often get from movies. Tom’s gimmick is that, like Morgan Spurlock, he too is going to eat at fast food places for a month. Will the experiment lead to a Spurlockian weight-gain and health-decline? At the end of the film, Tom caps this stunt by going on an Atkins-ish low-carb diet to see what ingesting all that saturated fat will do to his cholesterol profile. Not to give anything away, but ... Well, let’s just say that Tom’s doctor was surprised by the results. You may be too. I’m very glad that Tom Naughton has agreed to be interviewed by 2Blowhards. I wanted to ask him about the diet-and-health subject matter of his film as well as about his adventures as a first-time filmmaker in... posted by Michael at January 13, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

Thursday, January 3, 2008

A Little YouTube Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Philip Murphy thinks that British Conservative pol David Cameron is a master of online-video communication. * Philip also offers a lovely video tribute to recently-deceased jazz-piano giant Oscar Peterson. * David Blaine, that bitch, is back. * Here are some YouTube resources for lifetime learners. * The Communicatrix points out a sweetly funny and naughty song about a girl with a special kind of fetish. (NSFW) * David Chute links to a lot of scorching Bollywood clips. It seems fair to say that the Indian film industry has no fear of color, and even more of a taste for sexy navels than we do. * Thanks to Anne Thompson, who points out the-hard-to-resist filmchat duo ReelGeezers. Executive Marcia Nasatir and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. are both longtime filmworld vets, and are both as smart as can be about movies. It's as much fun, though, to observe their outsize personalities and their cranky-loving friendship as it is to listen to their observations about the films they've watched. Marcia and Lorenzo -- who were introduced to each other by the late New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael -- may be in their 80s, but they're definitely YouTube naturals. Patrick Goldstein calls ReelGeezers "the coolest new critics on the block," and who could take issue with that judgment? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 3, 2008 | perma-link | (5) comments

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Best of the Best-Ofs, 2007
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Here are my nominees for the Best of the "Best Of" Lists of 2007. * Publishingdude John Williams runs through his 2007 movie faves. * Yahmdallah sums up the high points of a very busy culture-consuming year here. * WhiskyPrajer puts together his dream mix tape. * Alex Billington reviews "the best 19 movies you didn't see in 2007." Semi-related: Back here, I gabbed a bit about what I look for from a best-of list. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 25, 2007 | perma-link | (6) comments

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * A brave legislator in Alabama takes on a risky cause. (NSFW.) * Bartenders report that doctors and lawyers are "cheap bastards." * Why do many men find yoga more difficult than women do? Maybe it's because they're physically tighter, because they have a hard time letting go of their competitive drives, and because their mirror neurons are lame-o. * My inner trash-movie fan can't decide whether it's looking forward more to this film or to this one. Those are a couple of dynamite trailers, in any case. Today's MBlowhard Half-Baked Theory&trade: Movie trailers have become a far more vital and important art form than the movies they're meant to advertise. How soon until people wake up to this fact, skip the "creating movies" stage entirely, and begin putting all their energies into making trailers? Is there any reason not to bypass the boring stuff? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 23, 2007 | perma-link | (8) comments

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Bah and Humbug
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Here's a list of the best Christmas movies for the Grinches among us. Me, I'm soooo not into the season that I don't even want to watch the anti-Xmas movies. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 22, 2007 | perma-link | (5) comments

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Jamie McDonald Responds
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Back here I wrote a blogposting about "Pulp Fiction Art," a documentary that I'd watched on DVD. I enjoyed the film but also expressed some quibbles with it. Jamie McDonald, who directed the film, sent me an email about my posting: Now for my review of the review. As the filmmaker of this documentary, I take exception to a few things. You say there is a lack of attention put on the illustrators themselves. I don't see how you could come to that conclusion considering that an artist is profiled an average every 6 minutes in the film. Also, all experts who worked on this film agree that I have included all the major artists of the genre in this film. As for your comment that there was not enough info or footage of the artists. That was one of the main points of the whole documentary: First, only a handful are still living. Out of the four I found, only two wanted to talk. Which is the other point of the film. They didn't want to be known for this art, thus many are unknown. You also called the film zig-zaggy and disorganized. Others have commented just the opposite -- telling me I have given a linear quality to a art form/business that is hard to catagorize. The very nature of the art form, its history and definition, is by its nature very unorganized. Many of the conventional facts about the genre are still argued by many of the experts in the field. I'm proud to say no one has argued with the facts as I have put them down on the film. As for the length of the film. Two things; it was made for television. Second, most art history films are 60 minutes because of the subject matter. Though I think Jamie may have overlooked the part of my posting where I urged visitors to put his film near the top of their Netflix queues, I'm glad he took the time to send me his thoughts. In the pre-web days, it used to be massively frustrating for artists that they almost never got a chance to respond to critiques of their work. I think it's a great development that, where discussing art goes, electronics allow for a much more freewheeling to-and-fro. Do be sure to give Jamie's film a watch. Whatever my quibbles with it were, I got a lot out of it, and you'll almost certainly get a lot out of it too. You can buy a copy of "Pulp Fiction Art" here. Jamie's website for the film is here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 19, 2007 | perma-link | (0)

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Hollywood Starts to Crumble?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The LA Times reports that striking moviebiz writers are "are negotiating with venture capitalists to set up companies that would bypass the Hollywood studio system and reach consumers with video entertainment on the Web." Creative people are shaking off the middlemen and taking their products directly to the people, in other words. Bottleneck? What's a bottleneck? But isn't this development almost exactly the kind of thing that Marc Andreessen predicted would be the result of a Hollywood strike? Marc elaborated here. Short version: The entertainment biz is likely to be reshaped in the image of Silicon Valley. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 18, 2007 | perma-link | (7) comments

Fab Freebies
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Lexington Green points out an amazing free resource -- the website of Alan Macfarlane, a topnotch British prof and anthropologist with a special interest in economics. Macfarlane, who is well-known in Britain for his popularizations as well as for his academic achievements, has put an almost overwhelming amount of his work online: books, lectures, interviews, research, and more. I've only begun to scratch the surface of what Macfarlane has made available but my head is already spinning in the most pleasant of ways. Check out this jaw-dropping collection of interviews with prominent anthropologists and sociologists, for just one instance of what's there to be explored. Download 'em and put 'em on your iPhone. I'm looking especially forward to the talks with Clifford Geertz, Mary Douglas, and Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. Lex describes Macfarlane as "anti-Marxist" and "sensible and empirical," and he calls Macfarlane one of his own intellectual heroes. That's one terrific recommendation. Lex suggests starting with this TV series, as well as this collection of downloadable e-books. * Thanks to visitor Brian for pointing out this Paul Cantor lecture series about culture and the market from the Ludwig von Mises Institute. (Where has Brian been recently? I miss his brains, humor, and spirit.) I'm about midway through the series and I'm enjoying it thoroughly. Cantor is brainy, exuberant, and very likable -- a wisecracking and irreverent, yet truly culture-entranced, guy. He's a spritzer, and he's very spontaneous, so the talks are alive. Yet he manages to keep his material organized too. To do Cantor a small injustice, his theme here is, "Commercialism ain't bad." And his main goal in the series is to get people with an interest in culture over the cultureworld's usual anti-commercial bias. In this, his series resembles Tyler Cowen's "In Praise of Commercial Culture," a book that looks with every passing year more and more like one of the most important arts books of the past few decades. (Here's a semi-informative review of Cowen's book.) Cantor is very generous in acknowledging Cowen's work, as well as the contributions of other researchers and writers. Hey, here's a discovery that you make if / when you go into the cultureworld: Most of what you wind up talking about with other arts and culture types isn't ideas and aesthetics. Conversation inside the NYC cultureworld is often anything but highflown, in fact. Usually what you wind up talking is jobs, money, grants, and gossip. Nothing wrong with that, of course. Artspeople gotta pay the bills too, and this is their shoptalk. Still, it's one of those disappointments that culture-besotted newbies have to look forward to. The sad fact is that if you're hungry for sizzling yak about the arts, generally speaking you gotta turn elsewhere. Cantor is sensible and vivid on some really important questions: The market as a feedback mechanism, for example. It's common to think of "the market" as something that degrades the purity of aesthetic creations, and there's no question... posted by Michael at December 18, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

John Stossel Interviews Ron Paul
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- What to make of the fact that ABC's execs won't be broadcasting an interview that John Stossel has done with Ron Paul on TV, but will release it on the web only? Have they made a wise, considered, and responsible news judgment? Or are they demonstrating once again what enemies of freedom they truly are? Watch the first part of the interview here; read an opinion about what seems to be turning into a controversy here. Links thanks to Andrew Sullivan. Best, Michael UPDATE: I, Squub thinks Ron Paul is great -- but maybe only in theory.... posted by Michael at December 12, 2007 | perma-link | (14) comments

Friday, December 7, 2007

Final-Reel Flopping
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- If I were a student of movies, something I'd be inclined to research is the matter of successful comedies. What do they possess that almost-successful comedies don't? I have no answer, just now. The only reason I'm mentioning it is that I've been thinking about three comedies that, while being very good (in my opinion, natch), shared a common flaw: They got sidetracked and, because of that, ran out of gas. Sorry, but none of these are recent movies, and that's my fault, I suppose. It's just that I'm down to seeing perhaps two or three movies a year and have been in that mode for a long time now. That said, here are my examples. M.A.S.H. About a wild army hospital unit during the Korean War. When I saw it, I was about six years away from the Army and was in hysterics over what the personnel were getting away with; a totally different atmosphere from the uptight, disciplined, rule-following units I had served in (which briefly included an evacuation hospital). I don't remember ... halfway through? ... it began falling apart. Crumbling started when some of the characters went to Japan for an R&R trip. Later, a sizable chunk of time was spent on a football game between the MASH troops and some other outfit. The Tokyo and football sequences weren't necessarily bad, but they were far removed from the inspired insanity that took place in the hospital setting. Help This was my first Richard Lester-Beatles movie. I was charmed. Forty years on, Lester's visual schticks are commonplace because they've been recycled or riffed-on. But when they were new, they astonished and delighted the 26-year-old me. Help began to crack when the Beatles were using Buckingham Palace as a safe-house and disintegrated when they went to Bermuda where the final segment took place. (Yes, Help might be considered a musical of sorts because it serves as a framework for Beatles performances. But that framework is a comedic one. Droll, wry, amusing, satiric in places -- low-key Brit stuff, and quite different from this final example....) Animal House This call might be more controversial than the others because Animal House seems to be in the Gross Comedy Pantheon. Having been a member of a decidedly less than top-drawer frat myself, I found it easy to connect to the movie. And the pace was fast enough that the details that bothered me (Rotsy-guys as fascists) blew by quickly and juicy grossness continued. Animal House slipped when the scene shifted to the roadhouse where the Black band was playing. Suddenly, we were no longer at college. Thereafter, things never got back on track. The parade scene at the finale did nothing to help. In each instance, the movie began in a well-defined comedic setting -- an overworked army hospital not far behind front lines, swingin' Sixties London, a dysfunctional private college -- and in each case the setting was abandoned or watered down well before... posted by Donald at December 7, 2007 | perma-link | (16) comments

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Opinions About Movies
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- David Chute offers a dissent on "No Country For Old Men." Jon Hastings defends "The Mist." Prairie Mary thinks she'll watch "Indochine" one more time. The Communicatrix raves about Julian Schnabel's new movie "The Diving Bell & the Butterfly," and asks for help with her mission statement. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 4, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

DVD Journal: "Pulp Fiction Art"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Given its title and its publicity material, you might expect the documentary "Pulp Fiction Art" to comprise a quick intro to the era of pulp-magazine fiction followed by interviews and encounters with, and bios and appreciations of, the artists who created the era's visuals. The film turns out instead to be more of a jumble than that: a zig-zaggy, 55 minute-long survey of the pulp fiction era generally, with some minutes with the artists (Norman Saunders, Ernest Chiriacka, a few others) crammed in here and there. But as modest as the film is -- and, yes, it did feel a bit like an opportunity lost -- I enjoyed it anyway. The overview it provides of the pulp-magazine era may resemble a disorganized term-paper, but it's still informative -- and newbies to the material will learn quite a lot. Many of the interviewees (especially some collectors and fans) are amazingly articulate about and appreciative of the art. And if the time the film spends with the actual artists and illustrators is 'way too small, that's still a lot better than no time spent on them at all, which is the treatment you'll find accorded to pulp-fiction artists in most histories of American art of the 20th century. Jamie McDonald, who made the film, never loses track of his subject's central irony: Although this really was an amazing episode in American visuals, almost no one was aware of the fact at the time. Highbrows of course turned up their noses. The artists thought they were doing mere commercial work, cranking out tawdry paintings for a sleazy market. Many of them had their sights focused on higher, fine-arty things; they often didn't even bother to sign their pulp work. Yet these lewd, exploitative images are turning out to be the art that they'll be remembered for. It's sad to be reminded of the fact that nearly all of the original paintings were simply thrown away once they'd been reproduced. Today the work of people like Rafael DeSoto and Margaret Brundage is much loved, enthusiastically enjoyed, and widely influential -- and collectors pay big bucks for the handful of originals that still do exist. As for the self-consciously significant work of that era? Well, some of it's still enjoyed too. Since the film is so skimpy and modest, it's a little hard to recommend a purchase. But why not put the film near the top of your Netflix queue? I'm very fond of this book, which includes lots of excellent reproductions of pulp fiction art. H.J. Ward, who specialized in illustrations for the "spicy" market and who made the image at the top of this posting, is a particular favorite of mine. (I found the image above at this website.) Someday I'm going to buy a copy of this book about the art of the "girly pulps." Semi-related: I wrote about the film "The Notorious Bettie Page" here; Donald wrote about pin-up art here and here; Friedrich wrote... posted by Michael at December 4, 2007 | perma-link | (1) comments

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Moviegoing: "Beowulf"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I found Robert Zemeckis' 3-D "Beowulf" movie so lifeless that I'm too depressed even to bother cracking a few jokes about it, let alone saying anything helpful. To cheer myself up, I'm treating myself to a musing-a-thon instead. Funny, isn't it? Some people really do change. In the days of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," "Used Cars" (a steal at $9.95), and "Back to the Future" (all three episodes for a mere $13.49), Robert Zemeckis was an exuberant satirist. But mucho time has passed since then. And where he was once a malicious entertainer, these days he just seems to want to play with machines. I skipped Zemeckis' previous experiment in motion-capture filmmaking, "The Polar Express," because -- semi-curious though I sometimes am about what Hollywood gets up to with its money and its computers -- the previews for the film freaked me out. Motion-capture=major creepiness, I concluded. Those wooden limbs, those near-featureless faces, all of it crossed with the fact that the awful creatures unquestionably bear some resemblance to real humans ... If I were a kid I'd have gone home after a couple of hours in motion-captureland and had myself a really horrendous nightmare. Thank heavens: The semi-digital / semi-real characters who inhabit "Beowulf" aren't nearly as disturbing as the ones that spooked me in those "Polar Express" previews. Some problems have clearly been ironed out. But the "Beowulf" humans are spooky enough in their own right. Instead of "Polar Express" devil dolls, the "Beowulf" beings are like overblown videogame creatures, their limbs and gestures showing no trace of where any physical (let alone emotional) impulse might start. Freaky! The weakest element in the mix seems to me to be mouths and teeth. A character's mouth seems to have a life apart from the face it inhabits. The teeth -- well, the best I can say about them is that the character designers are clearly hoping no one will take too much notice of their creatures' teeth. If you can't solve a problem, bury it. In any case: The "people" onscreen in "Beowulf" are still creepy-creepy-creepy. Since I guess there's no avoiding the fact that we're going to have this technology in our entertainment lives, I hope it'll become cheap and accessible, and very soon. Only that way will we get to watch a motion-capture movie made by a team that isn't weighed down by budget and strain. For one thing, the irreverent dirty-joke possibilities seem endless. Since the creature onscreen that looks like Angelina Jolie isn't really Angelina, why stop with having her be naked? Why not have her go porno-wild? There's a long tradition in cartooning of this, after all. The porno-cartoonists who made Tijuana Bibles had lots of fun with celebrities. In their crude drawings, they'd have Bogey, Hepburn, and Harlow -- as well as characters out of straight-world comics -- perform all kinds of X-rated actions. Why settle for a PG-13 mock-Angelina? But I'm ignorant of where the... posted by Michael at November 28, 2007 | perma-link | (14) comments

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Natalie vs. Jennifer
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Natalie Portman certainly doesn't seem to enjoy being a movie star, does she? Well, the feeling is semi-mutual, if that makes any sense. The only film that I've ever really enjoyed watching Natalie in was the 1996 "Beautiful Girls." 15 at the time, she upstaged everyone else in the cast with her childlike transparency, eagerness, and impulsiveness. Since then, though ... As pretty and chic as Natalie has become, and as intelligent and worthy as she apparently is as a person, as an onscreen presence she has also grown more and more self-protective. She radiates nothing, at least nothing that my antennae can pick up. So I'm unable to follow her career with any interest. I tend to slot Portman in the same category as Jennifer Connelly. Like Natalie, Jennifer comes across as a bright, pretty co-ed type -- a dull good girl, attractive but remote, even wooden. But with Connelly the intelligence and the earnestness are accompanied by a spilling-over physical lushness, as well as by some appealing waywardness; both of these qualities keep me looking forward to her next performance. While most of Jennifer's films are a drag, every now and then she'll sign on to play the vamp or the bad girl, and she'll do her (admittedly clunky) best to put over the hot moments and the shock scenes. Vavavoom! In "Requiem for a Dream" Connelly gives a performance that's not only terrific (it's maybe her only terrific performance) but genuinely edgy. Where Portman is like a bright girl happy to intern for an anti-famine group, Connelly is like an employee of the same nonprofit, but one who on the weekend enjoys getting drunk and indulging in some sexy misbehavior. Why not have a little fun with life as it is, and with the gifts God has given you? If I'm to be stuck in the company of intelligent good girls, I'll choose to spend my time in the company of the one who has at least a streak of mischief in her. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 27, 2007 | perma-link | (18) comments

Thursday, November 22, 2007

DVD Journal: "Tristram Shandy, A Cock and Bull Story"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Michael Winterbottom's take on the legendary 18th century Laurence Sterne novel "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy" is nothing if not playful and spirited, and complicated in a fun way. Sadly, it's also not very compelling; it comes up short on the buccaneering exuberance and audacity you might expect from such a project. Some friends I was watching the DVD with had a perfectly fine time, then turned it off midway through and never gave the film a second thought. If I went back the following night and finished watching it without them, it's probably because the film is like catnip for filmbuffs. Thoroughgoingly silly and prankish, the film is both a film of "Tristram Shandy" and a film about a cast and crew making a film of "Tristram Shandy" -- it's "Day for Night" as remade by a cheery and loose version of Jean-Luc Godard, in other words. Where the novel starts with Tristram's birth and then nearly fails to work its way back up to that moment, the Winterbottom film starts with Tristram's birth and works its way backwards, right into the story of the people making the film in front of you. "Birth" and "creation" are major themes (and major jokes) in the film. Two examples of the film's humor, both of which you should imagine being tossed-off in the most casual of ways. In one, Steve Coogan (playing a character named "Steve Coogan," but also in costume as Tristram Shandy) is interviewed by a journalist, who is played by the real-life model for the character the real Steve Coogan played in Winterbottom's "24 Hour Party People." In the other example, Coogan's "Coogan" character is hugged and kissed by a pretentious young female film buff who is overcome by lust because Coogan recognized the name of the German filmmaker Fassbinder. Coogan declines her advance with a line beginning like this, "You're incredibly attractive, and your knowledge of the German cinema is second to none, but ..." If moments like that give you a giggle, well, don't expect the film to deliver much that's better, but you might find the DVD worth a rent. The hyper-talented Michael Winterbottom is by far my favorite of the neo-'70s filmmakers who are around these days. I like his work sooooo much better than P.T. Anderson's, for instance. And he certainly keeps this film on the move, cheerily semi-parodic, beautiful to look at, and breezily postmodern. Postmodernism becomes a meta-joke in its own right, in fact: "Tristram Shandy" the novel is often celebrated as the first postmodern novel, though historically it was of course premodernist. Which means that this film is a postmodern game that's being played with a postmodern/premodern novel. "Tristram Shandy"the film throws off more involuted, spiraling jokes-about-jokes in a minute than Spike Jonze and Charlie Kauffman come up with in 90. But the film also falls into the trap of much postmodernism. Cut free from tradition on the one hand and from... posted by Michael at November 22, 2007 | perma-link | (5) comments

My Biggest Thanksgiving Peeve
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- [Non-American readers have my permission to skip this post because it's about today's Thanksgiving holiday, a secular celebration that has its roots in the earliest days of colonial settlement.] This is no hit-piece on American history that some Howard Zinn-inspired writer might churn out. Nope, no complaints about injustices to "Native Americans." No rants about this annual exercise of over-eating -- wastefully pillaging the planet via depletion of everything within reach of obese, materialistic, mouth-breathing simpletons oblivious to the rest of the world's misfortunes. Nope. No ritualistic dissing of the usual targets from me. My complaint is truly serious. It has to do with New York's traditional Macy's parade. And how television ruined it -- for TV viewers, anyhow. Once upon a time, perhaps in the mid-1950s (I forget exactly when), television coverage was simply of the parade itself: the bands, the floats, the huge balloons. Then Show Biz crept in. Instead of showing only what spectators farther north on Broadway were seeing, the coverage tended to focus on Herald Square where singers, dancers and other entertainers from Broadway shows would sweep onto the street and do numbers from various productions. By the 1970s it got to the point that I thought that they might as well have skipped the actual parade and done the whole thing in a TV studio. Since then the network showing the parade -- besides publicizing Broadway musical shows -- took to publicizing its own lineup of programs. Actors on one show or another are somewhat awkwardly introduced in order to generate hype. The parade is on TV as I'm writing this. Since a Broadway stagehand strike is in progress this year, the stage content is down. So the audio I'm overhearing seems to be focusing on promoting the network's forthcoming offerings. And they had Mayor Bloomberg on and asked about his political plans. I suppose they'll cut to the occasional balloon if they run out of other, more important things to flak. Happy Thanksgiving. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at November 22, 2007 | perma-link | (6) comments

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Moviegoing: "American Gangster"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Is there something in the air? A few days ago I watched and blogged about Robert De Niro's somber CIA movie "The Good Shepherd." Today I watched a very similar movie, Ridley Scott's equally somber "American Gangster," about a real-life 1970s black NYC drug kingpin (Denzel Washington) and the lawman (Russell Crowe) who took him down. It really is bizarre how close the two movies are in tone and approach. They're both slow, dark, and "Godfather"-ish in style and ambition. "American Gangster" even has the same running time (2 hours and 50 minutes) that "The Good Shepherd" does. What's weirdest of all is that I found both movies completely uninvolving, and for semi-similar reasons. In "The Good Shepherd," dramatic-narrative immediacy is sacrificed for the sake of telling the story of how elite WASPs made the CIA their own club. In "American Gangster," dramatic immediacy is sacrificed for the sake of ... Well, to be honest, I'm not entirely sure what. An important statement always seems to be on the verge of being made -- the movie is entitled "American Gangster," after all. But what this important statement might be remains a mystery. Nonetheless, there are many, many cutaways to TV news shows reporting how badly things are going in Vietnam. Something is clearly being said. In any case, the film muffs basic storytelling over and over again. (At one point I whispered to The Wife, "I wouldn't have let this script in the front door, would you?" "No way," she whispered back.) Just a few of many examples: Because we see so little of his rise to the top, we're never sure what to make of the Denzel character. One face-off, one rival murdered -- and voila, it's settled. Denzel the chauffeur has become Denzel the king of Harlem. Since we never see his struggle, we never know whether to take him as a rousing but scary anti-hero or as a role model operating in a tough environment. But simple logistics don't play a big role in this movie generally. When Denzel wants some face-to-face time with his Southeast Asia drug connection during the very week Vietnam is collapsing -- hey, no problemo, he's there. I'd have loved to be told which airline he flew in on. The Russell Crowe character, meanwhile -- well, what on earth is he? There are times when he seems to be a cop and others when he seems to be a D.A. Yet if he's a cop, why is he acting as a D.A. at trials? And if he's a D.A., what is he doing with gun in hand leading on-the-streets investigations? Crowe's character's inner life is also a mystery. His honesty and passion for justice are remarkable -- yet where do they come from? We're given only a few shots of him in his working-class element, and almost nothing of him at home. It's hard to know what to make of the fact that the Crowe character... posted by Michael at November 17, 2007 | perma-link | (9) comments

Monday, November 12, 2007

DVD Journal: "The Good Shepherd"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I don't think I've watched an American movie as slow, as solemn, and as hushed as Robert De Niro's "The Good Shepherd" since ... well, guess. A few hints: In "The Good Shepherd," beautifully detailed period homes contrast with beautifully-detailed period workplaces. Years pass while underlit men confer in hushed tones about sinister and dangerous things, and loyal but in-the-dark wives grow emotionally desperate and finally tip over the edge. Loyalties are tested. What ought to be kept impersonal becomes, inevitably, all too personal. That's right: "The Good Shepherd" is not only aiming for "Godfather" status, it's also using a "Godfather" strategy. Where in "The Godfather" Francis Coppola used the Mafia as a metaphor for American capitalism, in "The Good Shepherd" De Niro is using the history of the CIA as a way to talk about contemporary American politics -- the Bushies and their elite-WASP style of ruling more specifically. (Coppola is credited as an executive producer on the film.) The picture is certainly beautifully crafted in many ways, as well as acted with mucho conviction. And the lighting, costumes, and sets all contribute to a sumptuous, dignified realism of a type we haven't been able to enjoy in movies much recently. Bravo to all that. Even so, I found the movie a near-total snoozefest. Main complaint: What on earth is the film's story? Matt Damon plays a Yale poetry student who's recruited first into Skull and Bones, then into WWII-era government intelligence, then into the early days of the CIA, then into intrigue within the CIA. Some devious shit happens. Some more devious shit happens. Finally the deviousness and the shit hit home. And that's it -- that's all, storywise, this two-hour-and-40-minute long film gives us. Its energies, in other words, are far more focused on what's being said thematically than they are on telling us a crackling yarn, let alone with introducing us to juicy characters, or inviting us to explore charged situations. The film's "story" is so general and abstract that, for all the darkness and the brooding, little seems to be at stake. Well, scratch that -- "America" is what's at stake, we're meant to understand. Up on screen are a lot of preppy WASPs trying (in their chilly, controlling, proprietary way) to look out for what they feel is "their" country's best interests. It all slips out of their control just as it seems to have slipped out of the Bushies' control. The ruling-class blood not only runs thin; it runs out. But the film's characters? "Underimagined" doesn't begin to describe them. Although he seems meant to start off as someone with a few ideals -- a poetry student, etc -- the Damon character in fact plays onscreen as a near-complete cipher. Since he's masked and ungiving right from the get-go, we don't care if and when he loses the soul we've never seen anyway. As his wife, Angelina Jolie at least gets to cut loose in an early... posted by Michael at November 12, 2007 | perma-link | (17) comments

Friday, November 9, 2007

DVD Journal: "Spider-Man 3"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- "Spider-Man 3" is the kind of calamitous misfire that makes you gasp, "What on earth were they thinking?" -- except that in this case it's all too clear what they were thinking: epic solemnity with a message, reluctantly enlivened with occasional special-effects firestorms. Say farewell to your hopes for an evening's fun entertainment and brace yourself instead for themes and lessons; unresonant villains; 134 plot turns too many; a complete absence of subtext; an almost two-and-a-half-hour running time ... Though they do come up with some beautiful and / or amazing special effects, the talented Sam Raimi and his team couldn't have done a better job of killing off my interest in their successful movie franchise if they'd tried. The love-interest character -- Mary Jane, played by Kirsten Dunst -- suffers worst. She comes across as a tedious, high-maintenance pain who's sooooooo not worth the effort. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 9, 2007 | perma-link | (9) comments

Thursday, November 8, 2007

DVD Journal: "Hot Fuzz"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- With "Hot Fuzz," Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright -- the British cut-ups who were behind the zombie spoof "Shaun of the Dead" -- generate a few exuberantly silly, high-low comedy moments, but mostly come a-cropper. (I liked "Shaun of the Dead" and wrote about it here.) "Hot Fuzz" is an attempt to bust open the pokiness and eccentricity of an Ealing-style comedy with a lot of go-go-go, Simpson/Bruckheimer, MTV aggressiveness -- think of "Bad Boys 2" ramming into "Passport to Pimlico." But since the two tones never really come together, the film plays like an amusing-enough ten-minute skit that 'way overstays its welcome. With his lowkey deadpan, his pushy brashness, his old-man / little-boy face, and his compulsion to see his ideas and predicaments in comically overblown, American-movie terms, Simon Pegg is the Toby Young of actors. "Shaun of the Dead" can currently be bought for $9.49. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 8, 2007 | perma-link | (2) comments

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

DVD Journal: The Notorious Bettie Page
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'd been semi-dreading Mary Harron's biopic "The Notorious Bettie Page." Although I hadn't seen either of her previous films -- "I Shot Andy Warhol" and "American Psycho" -- I'd read about them, and I knew a little about Harron's background and interests too. Given what I'd picked up, I expected the Bettie Page film to be theoretical, intellectual, post-modern, and "daring" in predictable leftie-feminist, if (yawn) Sex Positive, ways. In other words: While the Bettie Page subject matter certainly had its juicy appeal, I was certain that the film would be a dreary exercise in PC edginess. But I do love Gretchen Mol, who stars as Bettie Page ... The price of a used DVD kept creeping down ... When it hit six bucks, I couldn't resist any longer. The One-Click button was pounced on, and The Wife and I settled in to watch the film. Was I ever surprised. Although the film is nothing if not post-modern in style, its spirit is flat-out appreciative. I'm sure a determined intellectual could roll up his sleeves and tease a lot of mallarkey about "power" and "gender" out from the film, but those words don't indicate how the film actually plays and feels. It's a genuinely sweet, touching, and sexy picture: open to contradictions, unresolved, and full of charm and humor while never surrendering to naivete. Hey, a few films that I was reminded of as I watched "The Notorious Bettie Page": "Fallen Champ," Barbara Kopple's documentary about the boxer Mike Tyson. Kopple may be the most PBS person on the face of the planet. But she's also talented, and in this project at least was able to let go of her usual agenda and give over to her subject matter. The result is a complex and moving look at Tyson, one that's not at all marred by feminist limitations. "Auto Focus," Paul Schrader's movie about the TV actor Bob Crane. Like Harron's film, "Auto Focus" has an off-off-Broadway, quotes-around-everything, po-mo quality. (I wrote about the Schrader picture here.) But Schrader took a jaunty and disengaged tone. There was nothing about Bob Crane that he could respect, or that he even seemed to find interesting. By contrast, Harron (with co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner, and Gretchen Mol) takes on Bettie Page with real commitment. "32 Short Films About Glenn Gould," Francis Girard's very unusual biopic of the Canadian pianist, which features a fractured, multifaceted point of view. While it's far more determinedly experimental than "Bettie Page," it's full of a similar kind of humor and wonder. "Ed Wood," Tim Burton's biopic about the legendarily untalented director of such works as "Glen or Glenda" and "Plan Nine from Outer Space." In his picture, Burton moves through irony and camp to a state of sincere admiration. In "Bettie Page" Mary Harron moves through po-mo into something genuinely loving too. One quick caveat: "Bettie Page" doesn't have a lot of dramatic drive. The Wife -- a dramatic-drive junkie -- liked the... posted by Michael at October 31, 2007 | perma-link | (9) comments

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Adventures and Recommendations of David C.
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Bollywood aficionado David Chute takes off a few pounds, lands a new gig, and reviews some intriguing new Asian movies. Does anyone in America know more about Asian movies than David Chute does? David also tipped us off to Neal Stephenson's brilliant essay "In the Beginning was the Command Line," a piece of writing that should fascinate anyone with an interest in computers 'n' culture. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 19, 2007 | perma-link | (1) comments

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

"Absinthe" 1: Performers
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A couple of days ago The Wife and I attended a performance called "Absinthe" at Spiegelworld, a touring circus group that had set their tent up at Manhattan's South Street Seaport. In fact -- and despite the tent and the ringmaster -- "Absinthe" wasn't a circus performance at all, at least not in the usual three-ring, elephants-and-tigers, clowns-shot-out-of-a-cannon sense. It was instead ... a show. For adults. This was one evening that was definitely not meant for the kiddies. Full of bawdy language, sleazy glamor, campy drag performances, and outrageously filthy jokes, "Absinthe" featured ghoulish and obscene pranks, as well as some all-but-the-cork nudity. Yeah, baby. It'd probably be fair to describe the show as part burlesque and part cabaret, with a few circus elements mixed in too. You've seen the movie "Cabaret"? (If you haven't: Do!) Well, "Absinthe" was far, far closer to the decadent and lewd shows put on in the KitKat Klub than it was to Barnum & Bailey. It was loads of lowdown fun. I think I laughed loudest during a parody number spoofing the artsy pretentions of Cirque du Soleil. I've never even been to a Cirque de Soleil show, yet I was wiping laughter-tears away anyway. "Absinthe" was also an interesting show in an art-anthropology sense. For one thing, I was fascinated by how small-scale it was. There were no more than 10 performers in the entire show, and a mere 350 people in the audience. The "ring" in which most of the acts were performed didn't measure a dozen feet across. Very cool to be part of such an event. For another thing, I was surprised by how much the tent itself was a major part of the show. Outside was a casual beer-garden-like space. Inside, all was opulent-tacky beauty, full of wood, antique colors, and sexy mirrors, like something painted and lit by Toulouse-Lautrec. You can see the interior of the Spiegeltent here. Although I took my surroundings in and enjoyed them, I'm afraid that I could have done a better job of it. I didn't fully appreciate the tent until I researched the topic of "Spiegeltents" online after seeing the show. Spiegeltents turn out to be extraordinary cultural creations in their own right: showbiz and architecture melded into one spatial-material thingamajig. Hmm: I'll remember to be more aware of this the next time I go to one of these shows. Not for the first time do I feel sorry that my knowledge of circus lore and circus history is as beyond-thin as it is. I have so many questions. I'd especially love to know how the circus-circuit works. Who books 'em? How many weeks a year are they on the road? Do subsidies play a major role in today's circus economics? And I'd love to know how revues like "Absinthe" get cast and developed. Is a conventional director-figure involved? Are the various acts allowed to do entirely what they please so long as they stay... posted by Michael at October 3, 2007 | perma-link | (5) comments

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Moviegoing: "Eastern Promises"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- My first time to a movie theater in months and it's a dud: David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises." Set in a grimy present-day London, it's a crime melodrama about an earnest blonde midwife (Naomi Watts) who stumbles into an underworld of violent yet mysteriously attractive Russian (and Chechen, and Ukrainian, etc) thugs, played by Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassell, Armin Mueller-Stahl, etc. Viggo, Naomi: To trust, or not to trust ... The film's main purpose seems to be to showcase this seedy underworld -- to lift up the boulder of respectability and inspect the squirmy and slimy cosmos that thrives beneath it. To that extent -- as a piece of pop anthropology -- the film has its fascination. These dangerous and ambitious immigrants have their own rituals, their own pleasures, and their own business networks. Musings about globalization and its consequences are definitely being encouraged here. The film's main problem is its turgid and ponderous tone. In the creepy-crawly, trippy-erotic horror films that Cronenberg is best-known for -- "Videodrome," "Crash," "eXistenZ", etc -- the clinical, slow-motion, metaphysical-dread thing that is his specialty can hypnotize and horrify. Something appalling yet alluring always seems to be on the verge of being disclosed. Existence itself seems to be in the process of cracking open; the true horror that lies beyond pop horror will be there for us to inspect. Here, though, Cronenberg's tone just seems clunky, pretentious, and perverse. Although the material being presented (needy girls sold into prostitution, ancient vendettas between mysterious ethnic groups, etc) is certainly dark and scary, the script (by Steve "Dirty Pretty Things" Knight) doesn't have anything like the imagination or resonance it would need to justify the turgidity with which it's presented. The immigrant gangsters are sleekly repulsive / attractive -- Mortensen and Cassel have worked out a bizarre and sinister rapport, that's for sure. And Cronenberg and his art director are pretty effective at conveying the allure of tribal food and "ethnic"-style family rituals. But the film's only real bit of freshness is limited to one scene: a fight-in-a-Turkish-bath scene. The choreography, camera, and editing are effective at conveying the mass and weight of flesh and bone, the pain inflicted by knives and fists, and the unwillingness of bodies to die. The power and vulnerability of all this are heightened immensely by the genuinely brilliant idea of having Mortensen play the scene completely nude. But that's it for "memorable." The film generally is such a ponderous and earnest drag that I sat there getting ever more irreverent. "What is the big, dread-provoking deal anyway?" I kept wondering. (I also kept wondering: "Wow, can you think of a less-enticing way of using the wonderful Naomi Watts?") My guess is that the film's message -- because the film certainly feels like a solemn message-movie -- is intended to be something like "The children will pay for our sins," or maybe "Sexual slavery is a bad thing." Not exactly shocking news on either count. But... posted by Michael at September 25, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

DVD Journal: "The Comeback"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Inspired by Mike Hill, who wrote the excellent blog Sluggo Needs a Nap until real life demanded his attention, I picked up a copy of HBO's Lisa Kudrow vehicle "The Comeback." Over the weekend The Wife and I opened the package up and dug in. We watched the whole thing too, I'm pleased to report, even though we aren't TV-series fans generally. We didn't make it through out of duty and curiosity, either, as we did with Joss Whedon's "Firefly." We were genuinely held, even though we found it a pretty painful experience, and not entirely in the painful-good way that the show's creators intended. Still, we genuinely loved a lot of things about "The Comeback." For one, we're both big fans of satire, which strikes both of us as one of the ultimate art challenges. (You're aware, aren't you, that Americans are notorious for having a hard time with satire? George S. Kaufman: "Satire is what closes on Saturday night." We're too square to enjoy stylish malice; we're too eager to identify with heroes to want to follow people who are being made fun of. Exceptions allowed for, of course.) And "The Comeback" is nothing if not a stylish high-wire act. But part of what kept us watching was trying to figure out where the show had gone wrong. (It never gained much of an audience, and HBO canceled it after just one season.) That may be a weird reason for finding a show compelling, but there you go. A small aside: This strikes me as an example of one of the kinds of culture-experiences that traditional criticism and reviewing aren't good at dealing with. The pro reviewer has to read or listen to or watch the work under consideration all the way through. We'd throw tomatoes at him if he didn't. Yet a lot of the viewing and reading and listening we do is half-assed, fragmentary, incomplete. Should it be off-limits to compare notes about these experiences? Let alone to treat them with some respect? I can't see why. It strikes me as a legitimate, and certainly a commonplace, part of culture life -- the book we leafed around in at the bookstore, the movie we fast-forwarded through, the music we half-listened to at the gym. Openly acknowledging and discussing this aspect of interacting-with-culture is one of the ways that the blogosophere has enriched the general culture-discussion. For example, Yahmdallah here does a good job of discussing a book he both disliked and felt some enthusiasm for. "Compelling yet boring" -- Yahmdallah's words -- is something certain artworks have struck me as too. Yet how many pro critics have taken such a reaction into account? Anyway. Created by the actress Lisa Kudrow (who stars) and the writer-director Michael Patrick King (well-known for his work on "Sex and the City"), "The Comeback" puts loads of virtuosity, brains, humor, perceptiveness, and talent on display. As well as daring. It's a far more audacious and... posted by Michael at September 18, 2007 | perma-link | (13) comments

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

"Cruising" on DVD
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Peter Debruge notices that the dark and brutal William Friedkin / Al Pacino gay-sex thriller "Cruising" -- much maligned when it was first released in 1980 -- is finally being released on DVD. Peter thinks the movie stinks. I reacted differently -- I found it an imperfect film but also a very powerful one. It offers psychology, atmosphere, and suspense, as well as some frank glimpses of the more extreme edges of New York's late-'70s gay underground. (If you want a look at the kind of carrying-on that led to AIDS, you could do worse than watch "Cruising.") And Pacino was fab. Slate's Trenton Straube recounts the story of "Cruising"'s beleaguered production and controversy-addled reception. In its day, "Cruising" was quite the cause celebre. Semi-Related: I wondered what ever became of Extreme Faggotry. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 12, 2007 | perma-link | (2) comments

Friday, August 17, 2007

On Sale
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Always fun to highlight culture-bargains. * Wes Craven's "Red Eye" is now $5.99 -- I wrote about this clever, well-acted, and exciting thriller here. * "Cellular," an L.A.-set thriller that showcases a lot of ingenuity, professionalism, and bravado, now goes for $7.99. If you liked "Speed," you'll probably enjoy "Cellular." I raved about this resourceful and exuberant picture, which was directed by David Ellis, here. * J.S. Cardone's "8MM 2" -- which, amusingly, has zero to do with the original "8MM" -- is on sale for $5.99. I found "8MM 2" to be an inspired, moody, and sexy B movie; I wrote about it here. * Michael Bay's 2005 bomb "The Island" is nothing if not overblown, hectic, and pretentious -- a philosophical thriller for MTV-addled frat boys. I enjoyed it nonetheless, if in a half-camp way. Nothing wrong with enjoying a movie in a half-camp way, is there? I wrote about "The Island" here. * Will Farrell's NASCAR comedy "Talladega Nights" starts out slow but gets wilder and wilder as it goes along. And what a cast! I wrote about "Talladega Nights" here. * Annette Bening is perfectly amazing in the satisfying backstage period drama "Being Julia," from a novella by Somerset Maugham. My blogposting about the movie is here; I wrote about the masterly Maugham here. * The Berry Gordy-directed Diana Ross showcase "Mahogony" is a classic example of "perfectly awful and terrifically enjoyable." It's soapy / campy, over-the-top -- and non-ironic -- melodramatic bliss of a juicy and absurd kind that they really don't make any longer. * Mariner Software sells a first-class word processor for the Mac called MarinerWrite. Why hand hundreds to Microsoft for Word when you can download MarinerWrite for just $34.95, its current on-sale price? I blogged about some other excellent and cheap writing tools for the Mac here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 17, 2007 | perma-link | (3) comments

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Video Notes
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Shouting Thomas takes his videocam for a walk around Woodstock's beautiful Cooper Lake. * Learn about the not-rare phenomenon of "Lesbian Bed Death" direct from the source. I enjoyed both of these videos and salute their makers. Nice work! They've also got me thinking about a couple of things. It seems to me that the advent of cheap videocams, computer video editing, and the web has rendered about half of the old film avant garde's program obsolete. Among the many things that film avant gardists hoped to do was to use film in as personal and direct a way as a writer uses a quill, er, a keyboard, or as a painter uses a brush. The thinking behind this dream was that the industrial-scale processes -- crews, equipment, financing -- required by narrative feature movies meant that the final results were often impersonal. Wouldn't it be great if such a beautiful and exciting medium could be made to yield works as suffused with personality, mind, and point of view as the traditional arts? In the old days of celluloid, Moviolas, and repertory theaters, there was no way to accomplish this simply. Equipment was cumbersome, fragile, and expensive, and distribution was next-to-impossible. All the more reason to celebrate the artists who did manage to use film in a super-personal way, of course. I've blogged enthusiastically about a few of them: Kenneth Anger and Chris Marker. These days, by contrast ... Hit the "On" button, tweak a bit in iMovie, upload, and voila: Direct personal expression via audiovisual-through-time means. What has come as a surprise is that this work has almost no kinship with traditional movies at all. It's naked of the rest of the film avant garde's program; it's more like email than it is like Cocteau, or even oldtime home movies. "What's become of the poetry?" is a question that can arise. And while I'm often quite the whiner where that kind of thing goes, for some reason in the case of the new amateur-video-makers I'm not even tempted. Instead, I'm thrilled. I find myself fascinated by the new techniques, genres, and conventions that are emerging: teengirl webcam-karaoke-dancing, for instance, or "owned" vids, or the jump cuts some videobloggers use to hop over the dull parts of their rants, or video responses to other videos, or "unboxing" vids, or the titles that vloggers superimpose to comment on what they're already saying. We're witnessing the birth of a whole new audio-visual-through-time language. Not just that: It's all happening unconsciously. There's no art-program, let alone school-program, behind this activity at all. People are finding their way on their own, fumbling, experimenting, doing what they can, and then (often) moving on. Which (if I'm on to anything here) makes this a funny time artwise, because what's being done spontaneously and unconsciously by amateurs is far more interesting than what the pros are doing, even though the amateurs have no aesthetic goals whatsoever. It's like the early... posted by Michael at August 9, 2007 | perma-link | (12) comments

Friday, August 3, 2007

DVD Journal: "Auto Focus"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It seems to me that a key issue that movie critics drastically underdiscuss is what I think of as "the audience sense." Discussions about film tend to launch quickly into matters of themes, judgments, and techniques, and to bypass entirely the question of whether or not the people onscreen and behind the scenes have an audience sense. There's a tendency to think that the people who put on shows are just showing off. And there's certainly something of the exhibitionist to most show people. (A director friend likes to say that actors are attention-craving showoffs -- but ones who, unlike so many in civilian life, "are willing to sing for their supper.") But most of the time the grandstanding is accompanied by something else too. What is it? An audience sense isn't quite the same thing as moviemaking (or acting, or technical) talent. Instead, it's an ability to sense how people are reacting to you and to what you're doing. Instinct and imagination seem to be involved. So does empathy: How else can someone so involved in attracting and commanding attention spare a few watts for how the show is being experienced by others? Are the people with the most acute audience sense -- with the greatest ability to inhabit the moment from the inside while also observing it objectively and opportunistically from the outside -- standup comedians? When a standup act is really rockin', after all, the comedian can seem to be igniting firecrackers that are lying in wait in pockets of your brain and spirit. As gifts go, an audience sense can seem like a cheap, low thing. After all, the artist who is calling on his audience sense isn't at that moment acting in strict accordance with expressive need, intellectual brilliance, or aesthetic theory. He's treating the people he's entertaining as his material, or as his equals, perhaps even as co-participants. Where's the art-purity? It seems plainly clear that Hollywood entertainment greats such as Michael Curtiz, William Wyler, and Anthony Mann had an audience sense. How else could they have provided such a lot of pleasure to such large crowds? At their best, they seemed aware of how your body temperature was changing, and of how fast your heart was beating. Among the crowd more commonly thought of as film artists, the flamboyant ringmaster-magicians like Welles, Fellini, and Altman obviously had their own kind of audience sense. For each of these directors, "putting on a show" itself eventually became a major theme. But what about the more austere and difficult film artists? Just to pick from among the recently deceased: How about the likes of Antonioni and Bergman? Magnificent and often difficult artists, of course. No matter what your reaction or my reaction to their work was, were there many 20th century artists who were more significant, or more widely-influential? One small for-instance: Alexander Payne is a big fan of Antonioni's, and certainly the Antonioni influence can be felt in Payne's... posted by Michael at August 3, 2007 | perma-link | (22) comments

Thursday, July 26, 2007

DVD Journal: "Sansho the Bailiff"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I wrote recently about a new Criterion DVD of several previously hard-to-find Chris Marker movies. Another new Criterion disc is worth paying attention to as well: Kenzo Mizoguchi's 1954 "Sansho the Bailiff." By contrast to the informal, handmade "Sans Soleil," "Sansho" is a lush, full-dress, fictional period tale. Part magical fable and part popular epic, it's enchanted yet harsh, and not in the least cartoony. It's rather like a late Shakespeare play, only coming out of that strange folklore-and-abstraction Japanese tradition. A quick context-setting note: In the old days of Great Movies, Mizoguchi was known as one of the Three Geniuses of the Japanese cinema. Kurosawa was extraversion and action; Ozu was Zen stillness; and Mizoguchi made transcendent women's pictures. That still isn't a bad way to characterize the work of these guys. Though I took instantly to Kurosawa and caught on quickly to Ozu, when I treated myself to a Mizoguchi bender I found many of his movies hard to take. Despite the beauties of his lighting, his actresses, and his tracking shots, Mizoguchi was drawn to sad stories of female degradation that I often found tedious. The masochism and weepiness in many of his pictures can get mighty thick. But, but ... then there's "Ugetsu" and "Sansho," for my money two of the most moving of all films. "Ugetsu" -- also available on Criterion -- is set during some medieval civil wars, and concerns a pair of brothers whose ambitions cause havoc: It's part war epic, part ghost story, and pure magic. "Sansho" tells the tale of a family that has been arbitrarily broken-up. As in "Ugetsu," Mizoguchi gives the medium the kind of complete workout that such other masters as Hitchcock and Welles do, but with his own distinctive delicate / magnificent touch. It has been many years since I've watched "Ugetsu" and "Sansho," so I won't embarrass myself by trying to be too specific in my praise. But I'm going to treat myself to this little one-sentence rhapsody: These two films -- both poetic and operatic -- can park themselves in your brain like dreams you're unable to forget. Hmmm: Pre-digital cinema history itself is starting to feel like a beautiful, hard-to-shake dream, isn't it? What a lovely world it would be if only Criterion would charge a reasonable price for their discs, no? Maybe that's why God created Netflix. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 26, 2007 | perma-link | (5) comments

Friday, July 6, 2007

Matte Painting
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm re-reading this book about matte painting, a form of movie special effects that is almost as old as the industry. Modern matte "painting" is usually done on a computer. But into the 1980s it involved artists mostly using brushes and oil paints on sheets of glass. During the heyday of Hollywood's studio system, major studios maintained matte painting shops -- and never publicized them. Matte painting saved studios large amounts of production money because sets didn't have to be comprehensive (that is, a complete room or building, say, didn't have to be built) and some location shooting could be avoided. The reason why this good thing was hushed up was that the moguls were afraid that the public would feel cheated because what they were seeing wasn't "real." Quite a difference from today where effects are an important reason for going to movies for many people. Here is an example from Earthquake of the work of Albert Whitlock, perhaps the greatest matte painter of all. This is the scene filmed on the studio backlot. Note the trees at the left -- they're not wanted. Nor are the upper parts of the buildings. Here's Whitlock's matte painting. And this is the blended shot seen by audiences. Not all of the matte is seen here. Whitlock was English, as was Peter Ellenshaw, who was just about as good. Here is a Leonard Maltin piece on Ellenshaw that is worth reading. Matte painters normally used large brushes and painted freely -- not what one might expect considering that the painting and the live-action setting need to mesh imperceptibly. The reason it works is because the camera is viewing the painting from a distance -- much like a gallery viewer might observe a painting from across the room -- and the rough-seeming details blend into something that appears realistic. Sometimes matte paintings are not supposed to look realistic. An example is the pastel mattes used to depict the Emerald CIty and countryside in the The Wizard of Oz; here the concept was to give the movie a "storybook" feel. Even with a top-notch matte painter wielding the brush, the artwork can become apparent to audiences if given enough time. For that reason, matte shots are usually kept under five or six seconds duration. Occasionally, the matte art simply isn't right and its fakery is instantly obvious. Let me cite two examples from historically-important films -- not low-budget jobs. More than a year ago I wrote here about Chesley Bonestell, best known today for his paintings of other planets and spaceships. He also was a matte artist. One of his better-known mattes was the moon panorama from Destination Moon (1950). Bonestell did a good deal of the matte work for Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. I saw Citizen Kane only once, about 40 years ago. But I remember that some of the matte work was painfully obvious. In particular, I'm thinking of outdoor scenes looking up at New York... posted by Donald at July 6, 2007 | perma-link | (7) comments

Monday, June 25, 2007

My Stacks
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Over at Querencia, Steve, Matt, and Reid have all posted photos of their book-heaps, those end-tables-full of books that you're in the middle of reading, or that you're maybe on the verge of cracking open, or that you're about to get back to. Amazing how many books a single person can consider "in process" at a given moment, isn't it? Inspired by da boyz, I let myself get a little carried away: Lights, camera, video! After hours of frenzied wrestling with iMovie, I came away with a hot 'n' seething document about the movies and audiobooks that I'm in the middle of, or at least plan to get around to soon. Check out the editing on this sucka. Marty Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, watch your backs. During the final credits you'll notice a tip of the hat to The Wife. Therein lies a small tale. Proud of my initial storyboad for the project, I showed it to her. She looked at it and gave a laugh, if a fond and Wifely one. Where was the arc?, she wanted to know. What was being built-to? And where was the all-important final whammy? Wounded, I responded by pointing out the many Kieslowskian complexities I'd woven through my masterpiece. This only made her laugh louder, and say that it was OK with her if I really wanted to make the only movie in all movie history that would put audiences to sleep despite being a mere 90 seconds long. I writhed, I went on a bender, I gave an anonymous interview to the New York Times about dissension on the set. Producers, eh? Always interfering. And so crass. What about the art? But, y'know, I finally had to admit that she had a point. The audience deserves its chance at pleasure too. I mean, for whose sake are we showpeople putting out all this effort? You! You! The great entertainment-hungry public! So I took The Wife's suggestions, being careful to figure out ways of doing so without compromising my essential vision. I learned a lesson from the experience: Clashes can be creative things, so long as they're resolved in creative ways that move the process along in creative directions. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 25, 2007 | perma-link | (13) comments

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

DVD Journal: "Open Range"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- "Open Range." Kevin Costner's Western is about what happens when a group of "free-rangers" -- cattlemen with no fixed abode, who graze their small herd of cattle on open land -- are assaulted by frontier-closing empire-builders. The film is over-long, slow-moving, mournful, obsessed by mortality, and underbudgeted -- you've never seen a cattle-raising movie with so few cattle. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the movie quite a lot. It delivers solid moral dilemmas of a perennial, man's-gotta-be-a-man sort; mucho powerful acting (of a restrained, minimal sort); and a lot of blue-green landscapes, magnificent horses, and guns, of a sculpturally beautiful yet deadly sort. With her careworn beauty, her erotic daring, and her forthright emotionality, Annette Bening gives the film a strong and poignant sense of something at stake. And Costner himself is awfully good, in a dignified / introverted way, as a Civil War vet who has had to turn himself, with many regrets, into a killing machine. And then there's Robert Duvall. As a shrewd old geezer who's tougher than he looks, Duvall is beyond-good; he's perfectly magnificent. Duvall is so reliably superb that it seems to me we may be in danger of taking him too much for granted -- "Oh, there he is, he's always amazing." He has got to be one of the least showy major actors ever. But, though he may play his cards close to the vest, he does so very resourcefully -- and they're some high-ranking, soulful cards. His ability to bring an idea to gritty, full-bodied life is awe-inspiring. His character here isn't some lovable old cartoon coot content so long as he remembers to take his fiber powder. Instead, he's a canny son of a bitch, full of gristle, and with a lot of ornery living and enticing plans left in him. Duvall gets my nomination for Greatest Living American Actor. A couple of notes: The film's climactic showdown struck me as awfully well-done, and brilliantly sustained. It isn't anything like what we're used to these hyperkinetic days; it isn't full of slow motion, tricky "Matrix"-like camerawork, or Joel Silver pyrotechnics. Instead, it's formal and distanced, almost stately (all of which makes it all the more terrifying). The guns pop, the bullets ricochet god knows where, the townspeople want to watch but need to hide ... Costner and his cast really make you feel how heavy and slow those beautiful old guns were. They also drive home the fact that the guys handling them aren't all in the best shape imaginable. These aren't athletes and stuntmen. They're aging businessguys and tired workers hauling around big guts and heavy limbs while fighting uncomfortable clothing. I may not be the hugest fan of Costner-the-actor, but I confess that there are a couple of things Costner is drawn to that I admire, applaud, and root for. First: He wants to revive and depict heroism. This was true even in semi-comic, romantic turns like "Bull Durham." Though he doesn't do dashing,... posted by Michael at June 20, 2007 | perma-link | (12) comments

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Dog-Training Video Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I blogged recently about a dog-training reality-TV show that I love, "It's Me or the Dog," starring the glamorous and expressive Victoria Stilwell. It's a wittily entertaining half-hour series that provides nifty clips of dogs learning how to behave as well as suggestive, touching, and hilarious footage of the lives and souls of dog owners. TV's real dog-training hit, though, is Cesar Millan's "The Dog Whisperer," which runs on the National Geographic Channel. The two shows -- and the two stars -- make for quite a contrast. Where Victoria is theatrical and quicksilvery, Cesar is blunt and direct. Where Victoria's likely to make a toy-breed intervention, Cesar generally grapples with the hard cases, physically powerful and aggressive dogs that have taken over households. Cesar is a bit of a street dog himself -- an impressively charismatic, tough, and insightful figure who masters difficult situations and dangerous animals amazingly quickly. If Victoria is like a slightly camp diva, Cesar reminds The Wife and me of a great, perhaps somewhat authoritarian, acting teacher. If his show is a little too souped-up for my tastes, and if it isn't quite as alert to household and personal dynamics as Victoria's is, it's full of its own kind of pugilistic drama. He does great dog impersonations too. Cesar Millan turns out to be quite the controversial figure in the dog-training world. Are his methods sensible or cruel? Is he giving people the skills they need to live with their dogs peacefully and rewardingly? Or are his methods not only not-transferable, but even dangerous? But perhaps those who carp about him are just jealous ... On this issue, I'm goin' with Terrierman -- a blogger I discovered thanks to the dog-lovin' boys at Querencia. Terrierman writes, "If a dog is going to learn anything it needs a calm, assertive and not-too-verbal person who consistently does the same thing over and over again. In fact, this is exactly what Cesar Millan offers and when he teaches -- along with a good dose of 'Your dog is not your child,' and 'this is a choke chain -- learn how to use it'." What possesses so many people to acquire high-energy, difficult, and belligerant dogs anyway? You can watch some clips from "The Dog Whisperer" here. * Train your whippet to slalom. * Cowtown Pattie sent along an irresistable snap of her dog -- and you better spell that d-a-w-g -- Rusty: Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 19, 2007 | perma-link | (3) comments

Thursday, June 14, 2007

DVD Journal: Chris Marker
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I see that Criterion is about to release a disc containing two of my favorite movies: Chris Marker's 1962 "La Jetee," and his 1982 "Sans Soleil." I adore both of these films, which also happen to be two of the most distinctive movies in all of film history. "La Jetee" -- the only fiction film Marker ever made -- is a 20 minute-long, no-budget, time-traveling, Moebius-strip narrative told almost entirely via still photos and voice-over. "La Jetee" was the inspiration for Terry Gilliam's not-bad feature-length "12 Monkeys," which co-starred Madeleine Stowe at her most gorgeous. "Sans Soleil" is a feature-length .... well, what descriptive label to give it? "Documentary" sort of fits, as does "travelogue." But neither word really does the film justice. It's part diary, part blog-before-the-fact, part essay, part poem, part sci-fi fantasy. It's mainly personal musings that ricochet off of many, many subjects: our move into an electronic media universe; the connections between dreams, memories, and movies; Tokyo as a 21st century city; the many forms that our fantasies of utopia take; the enduring fascination of "Vertigo"; revolution in Africa; our relationship to the animal world ... In one sense it's nothing but a big bag of loopy free associations. In action, though, Marker makes it all make a kind of swirling poetic sense. A little note here, as well as fair warning: Chris Marker's work is nothing if not complicated, as well as modernist / post-modernist -- "Sans Soleil" in particular is as four-dimensional and dense with allusions and connections as "Ulysses." His work also comes out of a froggy-lefty intellectual matrix. But I urge even the most froggy-averse and modernist-averse to give the disc a try. Despite the complications, watching a Marker movie is anything but heavy going; he's also the rare lefty of his generation who woke up out of the dream, er, delusion, er, whatever. His tone is mainly light and poetic: amazement, melancholy, playfulness, surprise, lyricism, and heartbreak abound. And he moves fast. His films offer all the complexity and lyricism of Jean-luc Godard's movies, minus the snottiness and the pissiness. (I blogged about a Godard movie here, and provided some Godard linkage here.) It's interesting that, while an infinite number of brain-splitting volumes have been penned about Godard, the intellectuals and academics have never made much of Marker. I'm not entirely sure why. I suspect that it may be because his work isn't primarily intellectual, let alone scolding or strict. Though he's mainly a diarist and an essayist, Marker works via intuition and imagination: His movies make me think of a cross between the philosopher Montaigne and the surrealist poet Charles Simic. But who knows: Perhaps the intellectuals don't make much of him simply because he has moved on from his early leftism. Marker, who is now well into his '80s, is a cat-like, elusive creature himself -- one of the more unclassifiable figures from film history. Although he's often associated with the New Wave... posted by Michael at June 14, 2007 | perma-link | (17) comments

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- My current favorite TV show: a British import that's broadcast on Animal Planet called "It's Me or the Dog." (Actually, my real-real favorite TV show is the History Channel's great "Modern Marvels." I've spent more hours watching "Modern Marvels" than any other TV show ever. These are clear, straightforward documentaries about down-to-earth subjects like bridges, pumps, and water, done mostly from an engineering point of view. I don't bother with the numerous military-hardware shows myself; my own favorite episodes have concerned topics like tea, concrete, coffee, bricks, ice, nuts, and bathroom technology. How the people behind the show keep the quality as high as they do while being as productive as they are I can't begin to imagine. In any case, since "Modern Marvels" rates as my all-time favorite TV show, I've unofficially made it hors de concours.) "It's Me or the Dog" is dog-training reality-TV -- is this a popular genre generally? This being a British show, it's crisp, fast, and amusing in a way that makes much American TV look overproduced, pushy, and bathetic by comparison. Another dog mastered Each 30-minute episode features a family having trouble controlling the family dog or dogs. To the rescue comes dog-trainer Victoria Stilwell. Victoria spends a couple of days with the family, first diagnosing problems, then helping the family members grasp the basics of living-sensibly-and-rewardingly-with-dogs. Often, she returns a few weeks later to see how everyone's faring. I enjoy the show for any number of reasons. First is the spectacle of how flat-out clueless some folks are about living with dogs. You'd think that people signing up for 15 years with an animal would first learn a thing or two about what might be involved. You'd also think that they'd take care with their dogs if not out of respect for themselves then out of consideration for neighbors and friends. But noooooo. Dogs are cute, people want love, so self-restraint flies out the window. And in no time at all, the mess, the noise, the relationships, and in some cases even the neighborhood are outta control. The glimpses of family life that the show affords often transfix. The sociological details are fascinating: the carpets, the fashions, the accents, the kitchens ... The glimpses of psychology and family dynamics can fascinate as well. It's amazing how self-centered and crazy some otherwise-presentable people can be, isn't it? A common case seems to be the mum whose kids are growing older yet who wants still to be the sun around which all love revolves. And if this love entails slobber and wagging tails, well, so much the better. In one episode, a woman living with her family in a small suburban house had acquired six dogs -- she was clearly using the dogs to immerse herself in love and fuss. Given how badly behaved the dogs were -- the household was a hurricane of barking, fur, and agitation -- she might also have been using them as a... posted by Michael at June 13, 2007 | perma-link | (24) comments

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

DVD Journal: "Murder by Numbers"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I had a good time trying to figure out why "Murder by Numbers," a well-turned psychological thriller from 2002, didn't work. It occurs to me as I type that that's a strange way to enjoy a movie -- to have a good time trying to figure out why a movie wasn't working. But, given the genre, it also makes sense. Brief aside: For suspense buffs, a big part of the appeal of thrillers, mysteries, and suspense stories is that they have an intellectual, game-playing side, but they're also completely dependent on audience response. It's a nice chemistry, I find: The mind is engaged, but it mustn't be dominant. The intellect is under an obligation to submit to the gut's responses -- and that's a dialogue that can keep you interested even when the outcome is unfortunate. In this case, my mind was quite happy. The performers (Sandra Bullock, Ben Chaplin, Michael Pitt, Ryan Gosling) were excellent -- attractive, full of personality, into their characters, etc. Barbet Schroeder's direction, if not very energized or stylized, was intelligent, sophisticated, and well-paced. Tony Gayton's script -- which takes the Leopold-and-Loeb crime, sets it in a contemporary coastal California town, and pumps up the class-conflict angle -- hits its marks, and introduces a fair number of interesting wrinkles and twists. (I see on IMDB that Henry Bean did some uncredited work on the script too.) Sandra and Ryan: Is it guilt? Or lust? The film's strategy is to divulge whodunnit at the outset, and to let the suspense concern the revelations of character as the investigation proceeds. That's a characteristic psychological-suspense move; I wrote about the psych-suspense genre here. What this means is that you don't spend the movie trying to guess a factual solution; you spend it instead wondering about what's going on in the characters' heads and souls, and about how and whether these drives and needs will find expression. Yet, despite all the good work, my gut was unhappy; the effect of the film was to leave my reptile brain wondering, "What's this offering that I can't find cheaper on TV?" Some element of intoxication, bliss, or even sleaze wasn't there; if you can imagine a "Vertigo" that lacks any compulsiveness, or dreamlike allure, you'd about have it. But what was this missing element, exactly? I'm sorry to confess that I'm unable to do any better than to say things like, "Gosh, some spark or other was missing," and "I guess this is a case of 'well-done but lacking an indefinable something'." There's a more-general question I was left with too, which is: Why does Hollywood seem to have lost the knack for creating satisfying adult thrillers? There was an era not so long ago when the business came up with juicy suspense pictures on a regular basis: "Unlawful Entry" (which I blogged about here, and which is buyable for $6.98), "Basic Instinct" (which I blogged about here), "Single White Female" (directed by Barbet Schroeder),... posted by Michael at June 5, 2007 | perma-link | (15) comments

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

DVD Journal: "Miami Vice"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Miami Vice. A slickly-done Michael Mann fiasco. His digital experiments -- Mann shot the film in high-definition video -- are much more pervasive than they were in "Collateral" (which I wrote about back here). The Caribbean is black; cars and flesh both have a silvery sheen; shoot-outs and facedowns are done in a strange half-film / half-video style that evokes both "Cops" and "Saving Private Ryan." But Mann seems to have spent all of his energy on production design and digital tomfoolery. The film's narrative is beyond-murky; the dialogue is thrown-away or muttered, and is deliberately swamped in background noise; and Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell appear -- though we're asked to take them as loyal buddies -- never to have bothered making each other's acquaintance. Visually and aurally the film is a twinkly miracle. But it makes no impact whatsoever on the emotions. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 30, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Meat, Movies and Mortality
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- This morning Terry Teachout does a riff starting with Seventh-Day Adventist meat substitutes and winding up dealing with death. In the midst of all this he brushes past the film industry. Following a John Simon quote, he tosses off the following generalization. Simon got it on the nose: in Hollywood, ordinary middle-class life is a state to be escaped, not examined. The only thing missing from his pithy indictment was the reason why. Today, the answer is plain to see: even more so than in 1974, American movies, like Trix, are for kids. The business of Hollywood is business, and since teenagers go to the movies far more often than their parents, they are the audience for whom those movies are made. Grownups stay home and watch workplace sitcoms; teenagers go to the mall and watch films in which none of the characters is married or has a real job. That is the world they know, and they expect to see it on the screen. Michael is the movie maven hereabouts, so I won't offer my two cents other than to say that most of the previews I see when I'm in a theater (which is seldom) seem to fit what Terry's talking about. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at May 30, 2007 | perma-link | (12) comments

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

DVD Journal: "The Aviator"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- "The Aviator." I watched this Martin Scorsese biopic about the engineer, aviator, and tycoon Howard Hughes thinking "Good lord, but Scorsese seems like a spent volcano, doesn't he?" But I also didn't mind sticking with the film all the way through. Final verdict: dull but watchable. The film's main inspiration is to use the trappings of Hollywood period spectacle -- crowds, cars, costumes, etc -- in the service of what's meant to be an intense character study. Its main shortcoming is that the character study isn't very compelling. The film's primary drawback is that it has a narrative angle that imposes repetitiveness. The picture -- which stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes -- confines itself to a relatively brief stretch of Hughes' life: from his early years in Hollywood making "Hell's Angels" to his triumph / failure with his giant wooden airplane, the Spruce Goose. (There's nothing of Hughes' later years as a legendary recluse surrounded by tissue paper and Mormons.) During the 20ish-year stretch that the film covers, Hughes achieves great things. He's also first touched by, then eaten-away at by obsessive-compulsive behavior. The film's dramatic idea is that, as Hughes' mental illness grew worse, he channeled more and more of his creativity and his brains into managing an ever-shrinking personal world. As valid or not-valid as this idea is in psychological terms, it means that the film has nowhere to go that you can't see coming. One after another, gorgeous new planes are wheeled out of hangars; one after another, Hughes' obsessive-compulsive behavior problems grow more dire. That cycle -- a new engineering triumph that's contrasted with a new pitch of madness -- repeats itself over and over until, you know, things finally get really bad. And that's all the 2 hour and 50 minute long film has to offer in the way of dramatic development. I'm sympathetic to the need filmmakers have to shape something narratively coherent out of the infinite bundle of facts that is a biography. But I wonder if in this case the filmmakers (the movie seems to have been mainly DiCaprio's project, with screenwriter John Logan and Scorsese coming on board along the line) didn't over-restrict their possibilities. They opt, for instance, to forgo spending much time on Hughes' romantic life, although he put a considerable amount of his energies into playing Hollywood Lothario. (Some of his conquests, according to Wikipedia: Billie Dove, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Gene Tierney, Ava Gardner, and Olivia DeHavilland.) More time spent on his luvvv adventures would have provided contrast, shadings, and relief from the cycle of plane / madness / plane / madness that bogs the film down. Even so, the film might have worked in some monomaniacal way had it achieved more intensity. It got me remembering Truffaut's brilliant "The Story of Adele H.", which told a similar, fact-based story of relentless drive and deterioration. (The Wife was reminded more of Rossellini's "The Rise to Power of Louis XIV," which doesn't... posted by Michael at May 29, 2007 | perma-link | (16) comments

Monday, May 28, 2007

DVD Journal: "Talladega Nights"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Talladega Nights. For the first 20 minutes of this NASCAR-themed comedy hit I was in agony. The filmmaking was so flimsy, cheap, and hectic that watching it was like being trapped in a big-box store on kiddie-special day. But then the improv-style comedy grew wilder, the ideas revealed barbs and fangs, and -- what the heck -- I gave over and had myself a good time. This was my first Will Ferrell movie, so I could be completely wrong in my view of him. But he struck me as midway between Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey, goofily wholesome as well as unstoppably bullish -- he's likable, but he's a little frightening too. The inspired weisenheimers who make up the rest of the film's cast include John C. Reilly as Ferrell's worhipful / resentful best buddy and second banana; Gary Cole as Ferrell's never-to- be-tamed rapscallion dad; Leslie Bibb as a redneck honey whose eyes and chest always find their way to where the money is; and the weird Sacha Baron-Cohen as a gay Frenchman who conquers NASCAR -- he amuses himself behind the wheel reading Camus' "L'Etranger" as he suavely whips the uncouth Americans at their own game. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 28, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

DVD Journal: "Shaun of the Dead"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Shaun of the Dead. This British take on the George Romero horror-zombie movies surprises by being a satisfyingly intense horror picture in its own right, as well as the expected well-turned spoof of the genre. The film's exuberant masterminds (and co-writers) are director Edgar Wright and star Simon Pegg. Pegg and his fellow performers (including Kate Ashfield, Nick Frost, Lucy David, and Dylan Moran) deliver eccentricities, polish, energy, and droll humor galore. "Shaun of the Dead" is currently on sale at Amazon for $6.99. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 28, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

DVD Journal: "Wordplay"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- In honor of an especially DVDish stretch around the Blowhard household, I'm treating myself to a DVD roundup. First up: Wordplay. Filmmakingwise, Patrick Creadon's documentary about crossword-puzzle fanatics is a competent exercise from the school of PBS. (Those damn solo-piano scores ...) But it's a very enjoyable -- moving, engrossing, and suspenseful -- look at a special kind of nerdiness anyway. The film's central figure is Will Shortz, the New York Times' crossword-puzzle editor, and the storyline builds towards a get-together / competition that Shortz hosts at a Marriott Hotel in Stamford, CT. Along the way, we meet celebs (Bill Clinton, Ken Burns) whose days aren't complete until they finish the Times' puzzle, as well as high-end competitors who are able to whip through the toughest crosswords Shortz can dish out in under ten minutes. What I found especially fascinating was the intensity of the relationship that puzzle buffs have with their puzzles. These people possess brains that are wired in very special ways, and Creadon does a good job of conveying the concentration and energy that obsessive puzzle masters bring to bear on their puzzling. (The film makes nothing of the fact, but it's clear that most of the freakishly gifted puzzlers are male.) It's interesting too what a wide range of personality and physical types are represented among the buffs -- as with child molestors, you apparently never know who's going to turn out to be a crossword-puzzle whiz. My least favorite celeb appearance was by Jon Stewart, whose evening comedy-news show I've never watched. What a disagreeable and overbearing beast he seems to be. Do people really find this guy funny? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 28, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Monday, May 21, 2007

Why Read?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- There I was not so long ago, flying Business class on American. (Thank you, Frequent Flyer miles.) Cruising altitude had been attained. I was leaning back, about to settle into the book I'd brought along, when a steward-person held out one of these to me: It took me a few seconds to make sense of what was was being proposed. My steward-person was wheeling a cart laden with a number of these devices, each one zipped into its own little gizmo-bag. The machines had hard drives loaded with movies, TV shows, and music. In other words: We ritzy biz-class types were being offered the chance to use a snazzy media device for the duration of our flight. Looking around warily -- surely there was a catch -- I accepted the gizmo and plugged it in. The device proved friendly enough; dimwitted me was able to find my bearings quickly. Wariness now allayed, I set my book aside and started surfing programs, music, and movies. I found watching a movie on the device to be a surprisingly satisfying experience. I'm film snob enough that I never, ever watch a movie on an airplane. I find the watery, dim, poorly-aimed video image that front-of-the-cabin airplane screens offer an affront. On this little gizmo, though ... Well, its six-ish inch screen was bright and clear, and the sound was luscious. There was no hope of being ravished by the kind of dreamy hugeness and engulfing hyperreality that actual movies offer, of course. Still, the film's moods came across, the framing was razor-sharp, and the performances were more-than-adequately conveyed. And the suit-yourself intimacy of the device was its own major plus. I loved being able to surf, start, stop, pause, and rewind as I saw fit. No passengers walked between me and the gizmo's screen. The gizmo was as convenient to use and as eager to please as the book that I'd stowed away and forgotten about. One final factor made the device seem plausible: It felt semi-important to me that the gizmo wasn't a mere DVD player, but that it instead contained a library of various media offerings. There was no need to exit the device's thought-space in order to fumble around with something physical, like a disc. Being able to select from among a bunch of already-in-there media options made me want to get to know the device a lot better. As you might be able to tell from my lousy photos, the device is about the same size as a modest hardcover book. Even so, handling it isn't quite the unself-conscious thing that handling a book is. The device is considerably heavier than a book, for one thing. For another, despite its ironclad chunkiness it still feels breakable. Maybe that's partly a function of having a screen; maybe it's also partly a function of me knowing that there's a spinning hard drive inside. (You can feel the battery heat up and the hard drive whirr... posted by Michael at May 21, 2007 | perma-link | (7) comments

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Guerilla Filmmaking 5 -- Reading List
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Since co-writing and co-producing an ambitious, independent movie short, I've treated myself to a few spates of musing about the experience. Previous installments here, here, here, and here. This time around: essential reading. Let me start by saying that I've tried many times to come up with an interesting or at least clever way to present this small reading list, and have failed completely. No attitude, no thesis, no argument, no cute concept, not even any bitching about modernism this time around. Still, it'd be a shame not to pass the info along, so I'm doing it anyway. Forgive the lack of dazzle here. Anyhoo ... The two books that the young filmmakers who worked as crew on our movie recommended as the books to read about microbudget moviemaking are Robert Rodriguez's "Rebel Without a Crew," and Lloyd Kaufman's "Make Your Own Damn Movie!" "Those are the Bibles," our filmgeeks said. Now that I've been through both books I see what they mean. Though different in many ways, both books convey both a sense of what making a low-budget movie is like, as well as a lot of "been there done that" information and tips. Rodriguez's book is a scrapbook / diary about making his first feature movie, "El Mariachi." It's a great yarn in its own right. Rodriguez made the film with a few buds, some borrowed video-editing equipment, and a lot of unpaid help for a grand total of $7000. Its intended destination was rental shelves in Mexican grocery stores, and its intended purpose was to give Rodriguez some practice so he could bring some skill and experience to a projected "real" first feature film. Instead, "El Mariachi" miraculously ended up on the desk of someone at a Hollywood agency and became a sensation -- the object of bidding wars, a phenomenon at Sundance, and written-up in laudatory terms in magazines and newspapers. Rodriguez has since gone on to a prolific career. What's sweet about the book is that Rodriguez doesn't stop at telling the tale. He really wants you to understand that if he could do it -- if he was able to make a feature-length movie for seven grand -- so can you. He genuinely seems to want filmmaking to be a more accessible, democratic artform than it generally is. So the book is full of tips and hints, as well as slaps at film schools (Rodriguez himself never got a film degree). And the stories and anecdotes are almost all shaped as demonstrations of how to wind up with decent-enough footage while spending minimal dough. Our crewguys were right: It's a fun and helpful little book. (Though I confess that I admire Rodriguez as much for getting a book deal out of his experience as for the book itself. That's a man who knows how to maximize his opportunities!) That said, I'll differ from my young filmbuds in one respect: I'd suggest skipping the book and renting the DVD... posted by Michael at May 16, 2007 | perma-link | (3) comments

Monday, May 14, 2007

Maugham Moment
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Without intending to, I've stumbled into a Somerset Maugham phase over the last few months. I read Maugham's novella "Up at the Villa," I saw the movie that was based on it, and just yesterday I watched the film of Maugham's novel "The Painted Veil." Two out of three ain't bad. The dud of the bunch was the movie of "Up at the Villa." Its dudness came as a surprise partly because the novella was so darned good. Maugham's insight and command are extraordinary in the book, which is set in pre-WWII Italy and which concerns a young English widow in need of both a husband and some love. Although Maugham tells the story with nary a wasted motion, and using a calm and controlled surface, he generates tons of charged emotional drama. The other reason the dudness of the movie came as a surprise was that its makers Philip Haas and his wife Belinda Haas had made a very stylish splash with the 1995 "Angels and Insects." I didn't enjoy "Angels and Insects" much -- I don't care for conceptual / intellectual entertainments generally. But it certainly wasn't short on snazz or brio. "Up at the Villa," by contrast, has zero style and brio. It's conventional and unremarkable, a movie for the least adventurous of the arthouse / foreign-movie crowd. The Haas's open up the novella's story with some unncessary plot complications and with a lot of emphasis given over to the era's looming fascism. Were they imagining that they were saying something, or perhaps making some kind of statement? Or were they run roughshod-over by producers or moneypeople? In any case, the film (which features one of Sean Penn's more flagrantly bad performances, and that's saying a lot) doesn't come off at all, The only real reason to see it is for Kristin Scott Thomas, who's miraculous: womanly, daring, elegant, impassioned. That woman can veer back and forth between poised and desperate like no one else. Besides the novella, I also loved the film "The Painted Veil." Produced by and starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, and written by Ron Nyswaner, it's brilliant. Or perhaps I should just say that I found it involving, moving, and surprisingly intense. It's a romantic melodrama, centered on a spoiled upper-class brat (Watts) who lets herself be won and married by a middle-class doctor who's working in China. Once there, her egocentricity starts to find itself challenged in all kinds of unexpected ways. Let me list some of what's remarkable about the film: Its sense of scale. Though it's a period costume drama and was filmed in China, and though it certainly has its share of sets, landscapes, hairdos, and even a few crowd scenes, it's one of the least "sweeping" romantic costume movies ever. (It was directed by John Curran, who previously directed Watts in a movie I didn't care for, "We Don't Live Here Any More.") It's focused almost entirely on the psychologies and... posted by Michael at May 14, 2007 | perma-link | (19) comments

Thursday, May 3, 2007

DVD Journal: Renoir on the Cheap
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Some good news for movie nuts: a 3-disc collection of some of Jean Renoir's rarer movies has just been published, and the price is very right -- $19.95. Extras are slim, but reviewers report that the prints are first-class. The less-good news: These are movies best reserved for the already-convinced. I've seen most of the movies in this set, and I do love "The Little Match Girl," a beautiful semi-experimental treatment of the Anderson story. But the other films aren't so successful. As a major Renoir nut, I wouldn't have missed them for the world. (My fellow Renoir nuts will know what I mean.) But they're hard to recommend to anyone who isn't already pretty far gone. Those who haven't caught the Renoir bug yet would probably do best to start with "Rules of the Game" and "Grand Illusion," his most celebrated movies, before exploring the more uneven stretches of his work. But it's all to be savored, IMHO: A deep immersion in the work of Jean Renoir can be one of the most rewarding of all art experiences. It certainly has been for me. He's also a crucial figure in film history. You wouldn't know it from the movies that are yakked about and produced these days, but Renoir has been one of the most influential of filmmakers. The French New Wave guyz saw themselves as Renoir's spiritual children; Orson Welles called him "the greatest of all directors"; Altman, Coppola, Satyajit Ray, and Bertolucci revered and learned from his work. The most democratic and least domineering of major film artists, Renoir represents an approach to moviemaking as something tentative, humane, free, and open. You don't get to call yourself a bigtime filmbuff, let alone a cineaste, without spending a lot of time on Jean Renoir. Sorry, you just don't. Early Renoir If anyone has sampled Renoir and has come away puzzled by his reputation, I'd be happy to take a swing at explaining what many people find so special, even lovable, about him. First hint: Newbies are often dismayed by what seems like a lot of awkwardness in Renoir's movies. How about considering the possibility, just for a minute, that these awkwardnesses might really be something more along the lines of "direct encounters with our essential humanity"? Those moments you're wincing at and looking away from? What if they aren't embarrassments? What if instead they're some of the high points of 20th century art? Also enthusiastically recommended: "Boudu Saved From Drowning," "The River," and "The Golden Coach." Why aren't "Toni" and "The Crime of M. Lange" available on DVD yet? Those are topflight Renoirs too. Here's a 1960 interview (audio included!) with Renoir. His appreciativeness, gusto, and enthusiasm -- as well as his childlike, soulful, big-bearish playfulness -- are all on full display. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 3, 2007 | perma-link | (6) comments

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Mormons on PBS
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I got an early look at PBS's current two-part American Experience documentary about the Mormons and found it very worthwhile. It certainly has plenty of the PBS-docu tics that I mocked back here: over-solemnity, slowness, humorlessness, draggy music. But it redeems the form by being surprisingly multidimensional, nuanced, and open. If Mormonism sometimes looks as bizarre as Scientology, it has also done a lot of people a lot of good. If Mormonism can seem as square as the Chamber of Commerce, it has also had to survive as much persecution as any radical group. If Mormonism looks as sci-fi and made-up as "Star Trek," well, how did other major religions look when they were only a little over a century old? It's a great story, thoroughly researched and quite decently told. Check your local public TV station for a schedule, or watch the entire thing online here. Related: I raved about Patrick Allitt's Teaching Company series "American Religious History" here. Currently on sale, Allitt's series is full of all kinds of great, crazy stories. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 2, 2007 | perma-link | (28) comments

Friday, April 27, 2007

Women in Hollywood. Or Maybe Having Left Hollywood ...
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Sharon Waxman is often a valuable and informed showbiz reporter. But her current piece for the New York Times -- "Hollywood's Shortage of Female Power" -- earns a 2Blowhards Award for Most Content-Free Piece of Showbiz Reporting of 2007. The urgent news that Waxman and the Times are peddling? (The piece is a looooong one, and is featured on the front page of the Arts Section.) As far as I can tell, it's that a bunch of rich and powerful gal execs have either failed, quit, or left the business. A whinefest ensues. We're supposed to care about "how some women in Hollywood are feeling these days." It turns out they're feeling "nervous." Say it ain't so! Waxman's determination to file a lengthy, important-seeming story despite having nothing to report is really awe-inspiring. Has the non-crisis she's non-describing been caused by sexism? Nope, not even according to the gals Waxman interviewed. Has it affected the films that are being made? Nope: "Hollywood has not stopped making films appealing to women." So what's the problem, exactly? Waxman generates some real jaw-droppers as she dodges her lack of anything better to say. My personal favorite: "Studio executives, both men and women, have shown themselves to be pragmatists above all, choosing movies that they believe will make the most money for their corporate parents." Hmmm ... Hollywood executives are paid to do their best to make money for their bosses, have I got that right? I don't know about you, but I'm feeling most enlightened. "Still," writes Waxman hopefully, "some long-time Hollywood producers feel that something has shifted." That may be a little vague, Sharon ... Still, why not assume the best? Why not assume that there's something to whatever it was that Waxman meant? Can we expect a little substantiation? It turns out that romantic comedies aren't being made as often as they once were. The explanation, though, has nothing to do with sex or gender. It has to do with the fact that romantic comedies are hard to sell overseas -- and that studios have grown wary of shelling out the $20 million that stars like Julia and Meg apparently demand. I've seldom watched a newspaper item self-destruct in such a variety of self-inflicted ways. Wobbling around in desperation -- having conked herself on the head while tripping over her own feet several times too often -- Waxman attempts to regain her focus: "While the shift in the hierarchy may just be the normal turning of Hollywood's fickle wheel of fortune, it is still worrisome to women here who are eager for role models and a mentoring system to compete with the well-established boys' club." As far as I can tell, Waxman's story boils down to this: Some ambitious Hollywood gal wannabes are "feeling nervous." Now that's certainly a matter of intense concern to all of us, isn't it? I'd love to have been present as Waxman pitched this story to her editor. "Tell me... posted by Michael at April 27, 2007 | perma-link | (10) comments

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Bob and Gwen
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Another YouTube treat: Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse doing an informal presentation of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross' "Whatever Lola Wants," from "Damn Yankees": I love the combo of salaciousness and innocence, of delicacy and obviousness. It's all so vulgar, so vaudeville -- so icy-hot, so sleazy-lovable, and so sweetly insolent. I love Verdon's confidence and mischief. And I love the fact that an artist as erotically-driven as Bob Fosse took a goofy girl like Gwen Verdon as his muse. Talent was what turned him on. Well, one of the things that turned him on. A friend of mine who adores doing Fosse-style dance tells me that the thing that surprised her when she started to do Fosse was how held-in his movements are. "The impact is big," she says. "But the hip thrusts, the pelvic wagging, and the shoulder rolls are actually physically very tiny. You clear out a lot of space around them. And the fun is in building up such a big charge beneath them that these little movements knock the viewer over." As far as I'm concerned, Bob Fosse was a genius. Does American art get any better than than the "Steam Heat" number from "Pajama Game"? Did Toulouse-Lautrec ever do anything as mockingly deadpan and juicy -- as exhausted yet provocative -- as "Big Spender" from "Sweet Charity"? The immortal song was written by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields. Not all that long ago, Fosse -- who died at 60 in 1987 -- was a huge figure, famous for stage and screen productions, as well as for winning eight Tony awards. These days ... Well, do young people even know his name at all? They might enjoy exploring his work. Much contemporary pop culture comes out of Fosse -- the choreography in music videos, for example, as well as the way music and dance are typically edited. The stop-and-start fireworks in "Big Spender"? The writhing ecstasy that slams into sudden languors? Movies had never moved like that before Bob Fosse came along. Some more glimpses of Fosse's work are here, here, and (oo-la-la -- corny but hot) here. Here's the Bob Fosse website. Wikipedia's entry on Fosse is first-class. The Fosse film to start with is "Cabaret." Here's Wikipedia on Gwen Verdon. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 26, 2007 | perma-link | (8) comments

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

DVD Journal: "Amelie"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I finally caught up with Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 2001 "Amelie." It's a French movie for people who prefer movie trailers to actual movies: an ad for itself, basically -- an overblown, synthetic collection of generic Froggyfilm high points, generic Froggyfilm Big Moments, and generic Froggyfilm swoopiness. In America -- where movies and their ad campaigns have been merging for years now -- we're semi-used to this. What's odd about watching "Amelie" is seeing this approach applied to the themes and tropes of traditional French entertainment -- quirky heroines, cigarettes, Montmartre, love, charm, food, accordion music. All that duly grumped-about, I also found "Amelie" surprisingly enjoyable. It's, y'know, a very effective and cheery 122-minute-long trailer-for-itself. Its overbright, pushed-up-against-the-screen approach may derive from rock videos and TV ads -- but (I found myself musing) perhaps that's the contemporary form of the musical comedy. And the film's tone of bittersweet, romantic rue isn't all that different than the tone of early Rene Clair. "Amelie" in fact is like an MTV remix of a Rene Clair movie. The film is also, as a production, a pretty stupendous piece of work. Good lord, the intricacy and scale of it! Entire Parisian blocks, entire train stations, and hordes of chic and picturesque extras were commandeered into service, and drilled into snapping-to with Rockettes-like precision. On the disc's commentary the full-of-himself, worldly, and amused Jeunet confides that he's a "control freak." I'll say he is. Which brings me to another thing. Like many of these new concept-over-content extravaganzas ("Run, Lola, Run," the Charlie Kaufman movies, "Moulin Rouge"), "Amelie" left me feeling buzzed but exhausted. There's something in me that can't help responding to what I imagine the circumstances of a film's production were like. In the case of "Amelie": All that energy ... All that stressful effort ... All that cleverness ... (I'm not a big fan of cleverness, myself.) How can the people involved in these movies get out of bed in the morning, facing the mountains of tricksily demanding work that they have assigned themselves? Every day must be the busiest, most head-achey day of their lives. I'd love to see easygoingness make a return as a value that movies peddle, and (even better) that audiences demand. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 25, 2007 | perma-link | (10) comments

Thursday, April 19, 2007

For Altman Buffs
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Although the film director Robert Altman died a short while ago, Altman fans have a few new (or new-old, or newish) Altman treats in store anyway. * Altman's 1974 "Thieves Like Us" (from a first-class novel by Edward Anderson) has just become available on DVD. One of the least well-known of Altman's movies from his great '70s period, "Thieves" is small-scale, atmospheric, and gorgeous. (It's also one of my all-time favorite movies.) Although a Depression-era-set gangster movie, in feeling, tone and approach it has more in common with such patient, unwinding-naturally-through-time neorealist works as Jean Renoir's "Toni" and Satyajit Ray's "Pather Panchali" than it does with anything pile-driving and hard-hitting like "Little Caesar" or "Scarface." I once took a young friend to see "Thieves Like Us" at a New York revival in the 1980s; he was amazed that such a quiet, rich, and unhurried movie had ever been made in America. Carradine and Duvall inhabit the rural South The film has always been hard to find. Despite good reviews, it received a very small-scale initial release, and by the 1980s it had been all but forgotten. Over the years a few editions of the movie came and went, barely-noticed, on videocassette. But this is the first time that it has been issued on DVD. (I think it is, anyway. Please correct me if I'm wrong.) Though I'm sorry to see that the disc seems to have no extras, the price on it is very good. "Thieves Like Us" is a wonderful and very sensual movie, featuring an inspired (as well as an appropriately raw-boned and eccentric) cast of Altman finds and regulars: Shelley Duvall, Keith Carradine, Louise Fletcher, Bert Remsen, and John Schuck. Gould emerges from the Pacific in "The Long Goodbye" * On the occasion of a revival of Altman's 1973 "The Long Goodbye" at New York's Film Forum, the Village Voice's J. Hoberman recalls the early '70s years when Elliott Gould was king. (Altman's movie was a series of essayistic riffs on Raymond Chandler's luscious late-period detective novel, starring Gould as a very unlikely Philip Marlowe.) Although Hoberman spoke with Gould (who is now almost 70) for his piece, what he wrote is more nostalgic film criticism than a feature article. Still, it's also a vivid flash back to a very different movie era. I confess that I was such an unworldly rube at the time that I barely registered that Gould was/is Jewish. Hoberman makes Gould's Jewishness the backbone of his article, though, even referring to the era (during which Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, and Mel Brooks also emerged) as Hollywood's "Jew Wave." Interesting to read too that working with Ingmar Bergman on "The Touch" nearly drove Gould crazy. Literally crazy: He didn't work for 18 months after filming "The Touch," and when his name was floated for "The Long Goodbye" the studio demanded proof from docs that Gould was sane before they let him be hired. Those who can't make... posted by Michael at April 19, 2007 | perma-link | (17) comments

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

What Kind of Helicopter?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A few irresistable YouTube links courtesy of Charlton Griffin: * Here's a very endearing blooper. Nice to know that the MSNBC gal-reporter was enjoying a pleasant on-the-job daydream ... * Young men will perfect the most amazing -- and amazingly useless -- skills, won't they? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 17, 2007 | perma-link | (1) comments

Movie Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A couple of lifts from the excellent Anne Thompson: * Here's an interesting Variety article about how the craft of movie acting is being affected by the changeover to digital technology. Short version: Some people believe we're witnessing the biggest shift in movie acting since the deveopment of The Method in the 1940s and '50s. I wrote a blogposting about The Method back here. * We all know what an absurd enterprise feature-film-making often is. Still, it can be startling to encounter hard facts. This L.A. Times piece by Glenn Bunting about the making of 2005's "Sahara" -- one of the biggest commercial disasters ever (it has lost around $100 million) -- made even my jaded old eyebrows raise a bit. $2 million for a plane-crash scene that wasn't included in the finished movie. An $8 million paycheck to Michael McConaughey. A cast-and-crew totaling 1000 people. A screenwriter-roster of ten people -- fun to see that David S. ("The Sting") Ward was among them. A bribery budget -- Morocco, you know -- of almost a quarter of a million dollars. The article's best detail is saved for last: "The production firm owned by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz got $20.4 million in government incentives to film and edit parts of 'Sahara' in Europe." Talk about government subsidies to the arts! * I kinda enjoyed Mel Gibson's 1997 film "Payback." Adapted from the same Donald Westlake novel that inspired 1969's legendary John Boorman / Lee Marvin "Point Blank," it was no-nonsense action absurdism with a gritty look, a lot of twisty velocity, and a cast of juicy actors playing brutal, far-out, sexy, and hard-bitten characters. DVD Spin Doctor brings news that "Payback" was in fact a tampered-with film. The studio took it away from its director (Brian Helgeland), subjected it to reshoots, and gave it a different third act than what Gibson and Helgeland had intended. DVD Spin Doctor also reports that a Mel-and-Brian-approved Director's Cut of the film has just been released on DVD. I'll be renting it. * I raved about Donald Westlake (and many others) back here. To be honest, I think Westlake isn't just one of the best book-fiction writers alive, I think he's a genius. Newsweek's Malcolm Jones reports that Irish lit-fict eminence John Banville considers Westlake one of the "great writers of the 20th century." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 17, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Monday, April 16, 2007

Moleskine Videos
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Showing off what you've done in your Moleskine sketchbook seems to have become a YouTube genre of its own. This guy has some serious drawing chops. I love this guy's illustration-style images. I wish I could draw like this guy, or paint like this gal. MattiasA is quite a talent. Here's his blog; it's a sketchbook in its own right, and it's full of whimsy and sophistication. His visit to a fondue restaurant gave me a good case of the giggles. Buy your own Moleskine notebooks here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 16, 2007 | perma-link | (0)
The Hunting and Gathering Instinct, New-Media Edition
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm a little bleary today from too much time spent surfing YouTube last night. Sigh: The male instinct to track down and drag home game is a powerful force that drives us to do a lot of dumb things. Still, I made a few finds! * Leaping shampoo! * Gay dolphins! * Kinky kitty! * The subtext of car-dealership TV ads finally rises to the surface! (NSFW for language.) Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 16, 2007 | perma-link | (1) comments

Friday, April 13, 2007

Moviegoing: "Black Book"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A fast posting to take note of the fact that I enjoyed watching Paul Verhoeven's WWII thriller "Black Book," which is currently in theaters. The film centers on a Dutch-Jewish woman in the closing days of WWII, and is basically a thriller for adults. It has plenty of scares, surprises, twists, and chills, as well as a big cast of good guyz and bad guyz. But it has a surprising amount of depth, moral ambiguity, and complexity too. The film is an interesting challenge to digest. My impression is that we're used to adult thrillers being low-key -- detailed, thoughtful, and novelistic. I wrote here about "Enigma," an excellent WWII thriller scripted by Tom Stoppard and directed by Michael Apted; it's very much in the quiet, literary mode. "Black Book" surprises because there's nothing bookish about it. Instead, it's done in Verhoeven's usual intense, melodramatic, movie-movie way. This description may make the film sound less appetizing than it is, but Verhoeven -- a Dutchman who had worked in Hollywood for 20 years (often in action or sci-fi) before returning to the Netherlands to make "Black Book" -- seems to have wanted with this film to blend "Schindler's List" with a Garbo espionage thriller. It's like a Hollywood version of a large-scale foreign film, in other words. Some people might wince -- and apparently some critics have, finding the film over-the-top, artificial, even laughable. FWIW, I thought the approach worked great, and the audience I saw the film with certainly wasn't cringing or protesting either. But I'm someone who doesn't find melodrama and movie-movie-ishness automatically crass or degrading. "Black Book" is a very impressive production in terms of scale, costumes, design, and effects -- who knew that the Netherlands had the resources and the skill to pull this kind of Great Big Thing off? Mucho fabulous acting, especially from Carice van Houten, the foxy Dutch actress in the lead, who is phenomenal. She makes her character chipper, gallant, brave, bold, and earthy, but with a tremendous current of need and sadness underneath. (I used to date a lot of Jewish gals who fit that description.) One hyper-minor cavil: Many of the film's props -- the trucks, clothes, and magazines -- look old. I know that there's a movie convention that films set in the past should be full of things that look old. It seems to help set a mood. But, y'know, back in March 1944 a March 1944 magazine didn't look yellowy and wrinkly; it looked bright, snappy, and new. I remember an interview with Robert Zemeckis about his movie "Back to the Future" where he said something similar. He said that one of the things he wanted to do in that film was to make sure that everything in the '50s scenes looked gleaming -- because on that day in the past, those things were gleaming and new. But that's really of no importance. "Black Book" gets my enthusiastic thumbs-up. It'll make a... posted by Michael at April 13, 2007 | perma-link | (6) comments

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Shooting in Public
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Ever since getting a digital camera I've wondered what my legal rights with it are. Can I shoot anywhere in public? Who can legitimately -- let alone legally -- protest my picture-taking? Is, say, snapping away on the sidewalk one thing while taking pix in a store is another? Come to think of it: Is a store a public or a private locale? An example: Once when I tried to shoot some photos in a Whole Foods branch some staffers told me to put the Kodak away. Were they within their rights? Or was I within mine? This article from USA Today helps explain some of the ins and outs. Only some of them, though, darn it. Has anyone else run across a better, more authoritative source? Best, Michael UPDATE: Steve Kapsinow has a dust-up with the crew of "The Apprentice," and links to an informative article (PDF alert) by attorney Bert P. Krages II. Know your snapshootin' rights!... posted by Michael at April 11, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Friday, April 6, 2007

Landscape, Movies & Modernism
Friedrich von Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards: Does it ever strike you as odd that movies focus so little on landscape? I know, some films engage landscape extensively, but by and large it seems kind of used as little more than a backdrop, or as symbolism. I wonder if that is at least partially because conventional movie language prefers to fragment space (to say nothing of time). Think how rare it is in a movie that the action takes place in any truly coherent space. By coherent space I mean, a situation in which it actually matters in what precise spatial relation people are to one another, or to things. Of the basic w-type questions, movies are big on who, what, why and how; not so much on when or where. I wonder if that's one reason I like Buster Keaton movies. Slapstick comedy definitely requires spatial coherence, and he takes this to a very high level in many of his films. His movies are among the few in which spatial coherence really counts for something. Of course, that may also explain something profound about modernism in art generally, for as we know, movies are the modernist art form par excellence. To wit, modernism claims to be rational (truth of materials, form follows function, no shenanigans about ornament) and yet modern art forces you to interact with it in a fragmented, chopped up way, forcing you to make it all add up in your head. Modern architecture notoriously photographs better than it feels in person, a very "cubistic" quality if you think about it; whereas walking through classical buildings makes sense in person, and requires very little conceptual fancy-dancing. Hmmmm. Any thoughts on this? Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at April 6, 2007 | perma-link | (20) comments

DVD Journal: "5x2"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Because I was such a fan of Francois Ozon's "Swimming Pool" and "Water Drops on Burning Rocks," I'd been looking forward to catching up with his recent "5x2," an episodic marriage drama that starts with a couple's divorce and then moves backwards in time. Verdict: it's a nicely-done exercise, no more. It has been discussed as being half Bergman's "Scenes from a Marriage" and half Pinter's "Betrayal," and that's about right: It's an analysis of one relationship's stages of romance, tension, arousal, misery, betrayal, and failure. What makes it distinctive is its determination to thwart interpretation and frustrate your desire for answers. The thing you anticipate with this kind of backwards narrative is learning how and why everything went wrong. (Mysteries often work this way too: They move forward by uncovering the past.) So why did the marriage come apart? And how did the relationship become impossible? How can you not want to find out the answers to these questions? But here, there's no way to tell what they are. You expect that the episodes being presented will reveal hints: they don't. You anticipate that the arrangement of the episodes will convey a larger truth: it doesn't. At first I watched the film wondering if I was just being dumb. Then the penny dropped and my dim brain awoke to the fact that "5x2" is one of those so-fis-ti-kated movies that isn't going to present a key to its mystery, let alone build to a revelation or (heaven forbid) a climax. So I shifted into appreciator-of-modernist-art mode -- hey, I can do that! -- and ... well, I still found the film unsatisfying. Though I often adore art that leaves a lot to the imagination, leaving everything open to intepretation was a little much even for me. The events the film portrays don't just seem barely-linked, but tenaciously (if hyper-subtly) arbitrary. It's all very tantalizing, and then it isn't any longer. If you were in an uncharitable mood, you could say that "5x2" is a gay man's -- Ozon's -- doomy view of straight marriage as a hopeless mess. Women and men will never understand each other; their drives are at such odds that it's miraculous they ever cross paths. Why does the husband seem so withholding? Why is the wife such a weeper? And what, in any case, did they see in each other in the first place? I was OK with the fact that the story and characters didn't come to anything, really I was. But I was less pleased by the fact that the nothing the film came to was as un-resonant as it was. All that said, I sat through "5x2" in a fairly pleasant state and even found the film piquant. That's because of the commitment of the actors (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and Stephane Freiss), and because of the stylishness of Ozon's work. He makes the film a miracle of concision, design, wit, and paradox. It may be nothing more... posted by Michael at April 6, 2007 | perma-link | (10) comments

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

"STBD" is Back
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm happy to see that -- after a wee break -- the affable and excellent comic soap opera webseries "Something to be Desired" is once again posting new episodes. (The latest one is here, but why not enjoy all of Season 4?) This Pittsburgh-made microbudget production is an irreverent marvel, full of likable wits, fizzy cut-ups, and outsized personalities. It also has an easygoing and winning personality of its own, half slick (in a good way) and half homegrown (also in a good way). Unlike many TV sitcoms, it's easy to grow fond of; it doesn't out-hip itself, and it doesn't take your reactions for granted, let alone try to boss them around. It goes its own merry way. I celebrated "Something to be Desired" back here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 28, 2007 | perma-link | (2) comments

DVD Journal: The Extras on "The Dreamers"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I spent a few hours the other night exploring the extras on the DVD of Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Dreamers" and had a very good time. They aren't extensive, and there's no pressing reason to go out of your way to indulge in them. But I was beguiled anyway. The DVD's making-of featurette provided many glimpses of the moviemaking process -- as always, my main reaction was "What a lot of work!" -- as well as some documentary reminders of '68 in Paris. The featurette is also a chance to meet the movie's screenwriter, the English novelist/critic Gilbert Adair; the film's classy producer Jeremy Thomas, who has worked with Rafelson, Roeg, and Cronenberg as well as Bertolucci; and to catch up with Bernardo Bertolucci, a one-time enfant terrible (he made "Last Tango" when he was only 31) who these days is looking quite pampered, regal, and rueful. Adair is the standout on the disc's commentary track. He's an articulate wonder, and he's also the rare writer who got a chance to provide source material for a movie, to write its screenplay, and to stay with the film throughout filming. He's appreciative and shrewd, as well as eager to share what he learned from the process. Unlike many writers, he seems to have no trouble with the idea that a movie might belong to its director. "I always have the novel," he says. Jeremy Thomas is nothing if not a producer, constantly recalling how hard it was to line up money, assemble extras, and obtain locations and permits. Bertolucci himself is sly, vain, pretentious -- someone who's clearly always the star of his own movie. He's somehow rather likable anyway. He's a courtly mischiefmaker; he retains much of his old sensuality and perversity, but he seems to have learned how to see through much of the era's political fog. He seems mainly to have been concerned with giving his movie a certain kind of fairy-tale reality, as well as a mythical and psychological dimension. For Bertolucci these days, the mythical and the psychological seem to be merging. It's a very pleasing disc. Even the DVD's menu is a druggy-sexy beauty. I tried to find out who designed it. Remember how, 10-12 years ago, movie titles became very stylish? Think "Se7en," for example. More or less overnight, it became a common experience to find a movie's titles far more intriguing and creative than the movie they adorned. Well, that was a wonderful era in recent design; there were a lot of hot young designers around who for some reason were using movie titles to make their mark. I have a hunch that DVD menu-design might well be a similarly happenin' field these days. But despite my best Googling I was unable to find out who made the menu for "The Dreamers." Drat. I yakked with Turbokitty about "The Dreamers" here. Short version of my own reaction: The film is lightweight, but it's also hypnotic, dreamy, and sexy.... posted by Michael at March 28, 2007 | perma-link | (9) comments

My Heart Belongs to ...
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Pussy Galore -- or rather Honor Blackman, who played the immortally-named character in the 1964 Bond film "Goldfinger" -- may be 79 years old these days, but she's as up-to-date as ever, and she still carries herself with an inspiring stylishness and confidence. She's a dynamo too. Blackman recently appeared in her own one-woman show, she conferred some glamor on a reality-TV series and, at the moment, she's about to step into a London production of "Cabaret." About Sean Connery she tells Stuart Jeffries: "Everybody thinks he was playing himself, but Bond isn't exactly an Edinburgh milkman. He's a fine figure of a man, sexy beyond belief." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 28, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Guerilla Filmmaking 4
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Ever since The Wife and I co-wrote and co-produced a microbudget movie -- it's a short one, but it's a very ambitious one -- I've been treating myself to occasional reflections about the experience. (Previous installments here, here, and here.) Today, a way in which the activity has affected how I, gasp, see myself. * I'm a producer. When I first met photographers who spoke not about "taking a snapshot" but instead about "making a photograph," I found them affected and pretentious. But I quickly learned better. Because of course there's usually a lot more involved in creating professional or artistic photographs than just feeling inspired and pressing the release button: finding a subject, developing a career, choosing the film, keeping your interest alive, playing with lights, working out ways for your images to be seen ... A serious photographer isn't merely someone who has a knack for snapping nifty pix, he / she's also someone who leads a dedicated creative life. Come to think of it, and not that anyone asked, but ... I'd suggest to author wannabes that they stop thinking in terms of "writing books" and start thinking more in terms of "making books." It's a common delusion among wannabes that they can, by sheer force of writin' talent and effort, will books into existence. (And that the publishing industry -- and, beyond it, the world at large -- will just have to take note.) Nononono. There's much else that's involved. A few unavoidable stages in the book-making process: coming up with an idea, researching it, conceptualizing your project, pitching it, sharpening your angle or hook, finding a place for yourself in the publishing world, design questions, publicizing your story, maintaining a relationship with your audience, etc. It seems to me that if you think of "making a book" you'll set the writin' part of the activity in perspective. Writin' is an important stage in book-creation, god knows. (Though editing and designing have been gaining in importance in recent years.) But it isn't the only one. Thinking in terms of "making books" might serve as a regular and healthy reminder that bringing a book to fruition involves many different activities. Anyway. Although it's been a looooong time since I've had stars in my eyes about the culture-game, the experience The Wife and I had co-producing our movie brought the above lesson home with extra-special vividness. It turns out -- surprise surprise -- that the "filming" part of creating a film is just one of many stages you need to go through if what you want to wind up with is a finished movie. Knowing this in advance is one thing; it's another thing to live through the process. And we aren't done with our movie yet. Post-production and seducing the public into taking note still lie before us. I think the reason the lesson hit home hard in this case is that making a movie is such a get-your-hands-dirty process. It's... posted by Michael at March 27, 2007 | perma-link | (3) comments

They're Watching Me
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I didn't know there was a security cam pointed at me, honest to god I didn't! Best, Michael UPDATE: Bryan outdoes me with a link to the not-to-be-forgotten Pickle Girl. I guess the easy joke would be: It reminds me of my wedding night ... Meanwhile, the Manualist gets funky.... posted by Michael at March 27, 2007 | perma-link | (2) comments

Monday, March 26, 2007

Poster Brilliance
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The genius of Polish movie posters! Visitors to 2Blowhards compared notes about favorite movie posters back here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 26, 2007 | perma-link | (1) comments

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Lily Vs. David
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Actors: You can push 'em only so far ... Directors: You can push them only so far too ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 25, 2007 | perma-link | (5) comments

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Movie Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Shelia Whitaker writes a lovely obituary of the British cinematographer and director Freddie Francis, best-known perhaps for his work with David Lynch and Karel Reisz. * Three examples of hardworking Bollywood bliss, courtesy of David Chute, who has the Bollywood bug bad. * Speaking of Orson Welles, as we were, much of his radio work with the Mercury Theatre is now online. * The legendarily combative and grandstanding screenwriter Joe ("Basic Instinct") Eszterhas is now living the quiet life outside Cleveland. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 21, 2007 | perma-link | (2) comments

Moviegoing: "300"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- What does it matter if the cyberspectacle "300" makes my thumb point up or down? When you don't have any feeling or sympathy for the kind of thing that an artwork represents, it's usually best to shut up and try to learn from those who do. Yet "300," which has been a big and surprise success, clearly speaks to a lot of people. Who'd have guessed that a film about the Spartans' stand against the Persians at Thermopylae would conquer the contempo American box-office? And while popularity probably shouldn't be allowed to dictate much of anything beyond the results of popularity contests, "what works with the popular audience" is an interesting topic in its own right, as well as one that's an important element in the larger question of how culture evolves and develops. Besides, seeing a movie means that it's time for moviechat. It just does, dammit. Moviegoing (or moviewatching) without moviechat is like dinner without dessert. It's uncivilized. And I'll be gosh-darned if I'm going to miss out on dessert. So here are a few contributions to the yakfest ... * Michael Blowhard, the detached and educated observer, sez: While "300" certainly represents what big-budget studio-style movies are turning into, it doesn't have a lot to do with what movies have been. I found it helpful to think of the film less as a film than as a gigantic electronic-media-creation. That freed me to experience the film for what it really is -- far less traditional than "Alexander" or "Troy," a mashup combining "Gladiator"-style spectacle, videogames ("Halo" and "Age of Empires"), and the techniques of whooshy high-end car ads. It's a whole new / old language of in-theater, over-time entertainment. The soundtrack -- in a state of near-constant shuddering, Dolbyized ecstasy -- is like one long fanfare. Kaaaa-runch! Thwickthwickthwick ... Saaaaa-wooosh! Rumblerumblerumble ... The visuals are glisteningly hyperreal and completely fabricated, hallucinogenic in their overblown intensity as well as their morphiness. (The film was shot against green screens in studios, with the backgrounds later painted-in in computers.) Facial skin looks like the expensive leather you see advertised in luxury magazines. The mayhem takes place all over the screen, from top to bottom. Flames shower through the air and twinkle as they die. Clouds of arrows darken the sun. The big visual production numbers feature a lot of those shots (accompanied by deafening Thwacks! Zips! and Whooshes!) where the camera speeds up then suddenly slows down then speeds up again ... Does this technique have a name? Help me out here. I first took note of it in "The Matrix," and it's become a standard feature of TV advertisements ever since. I'd love to be able to refer to it by name. Anyway, the constant factor in these big-studio new-media creations is relentless stimulation by cyber-means. Something's always swirling or backlighting or twisting or roaring or de-saturating. In "300," even the quiet passages feel throbby and heavily processed. The rhetoric-dial, in other words,... posted by Michael at March 21, 2007 | perma-link | (54) comments

Genius of the People
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Isn't it great that the people no longer have to put up with what the big media conglomerates think they should be watching? Thanks to advances in technology, the people now have the tools to make for themselves the movies that they really want to see. Don't miss the sequel. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 21, 2007 | perma-link | (2) comments

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Schwartz on Welles
Michael Blowhards writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm not entirely sure what the "line" (ie., the argument) of Sanford Schwartz's NYRB piece about Orson Welles is. I'm also sorry to see that he has his reservations about Simon Callow's biography of Welles. (Though I've only read volume one of this projected three-volume work, I found it the most convincing of the books about Welles that I've been through.) And, to be honest, I'm not the world's biggest fan of "Citizen Kane," which Schwartz considers the greatest of Welles' movies. Count me as a "Magnificent Ambersons," "Touch of Evil" and "Chimes at Midnight" kind of guy. Still, some of the passages in Schwartz's piece are plain wonderful. For example: In their roller-coaster speed and the way one dynamic, startling image follows the next, in their highly individual sense of how a story is told on film, and in their feeling for shadows and mirrors, odd angles and voices that come at you in a rush or are oddly disembodied, his pictures are trickier, more artificial and abstract, even, than those of most other directors. Yet Welles's movies, with their sense of one man calibrating the effect of every split second of screen time, are unusually object-like, too. He makes it seem as if fashioning a film is as physical and sensuous an experience as playing with a piece of clay. And if that ain't what it's like to watch a Welles film, I'll rip up my former-film-buff credentials. Which reminds me: So far as criticism goes, I'm more than happy to settle for breathtakingly good descriptions. What critics say in the most direct sense often strikes me as complete nonsense -- or, to be a little more fair, as threads in a conversation that I find unappealing. I tend to be far more interested in down-to-earth observations about what's-going-on-here and far less interested in debating whether a work is good or bad than most critics seem to be. But the good critics -- by which I mean, of course, the ones I enjoy -- deliver many goodies anyway. Schwartz, who generally writes as a visual-arts guy, is freakly gifted. Though he seldom seems interested in discussing the external world and though he's far more willing to accept the art world's self-evaluations than I usually am, his evocations and explorations of what it's like to experience art are unmatchable. At his worst he tends to the solipsistic; he overfondles his own responses. But usually he's awfully good. And unlike the pro critics, who are obliged to deal with the market as it comes at them, Schwartz wanders about under his own motor. He isn't contending heroically with what the culture spews out; he's following his own responses and interests. And, in doing so, he makes his own contributions; he turns up unfamiliar artists, he comes at topics from fresh and very personal directions. He's a considerable literary artist in his own right. I've loved this collection of Schwartz essays and reviews, and this... posted by Michael at March 20, 2007 | perma-link | (2) comments

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Anne Thompson Blogs Again
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- When Anne Thompson, my favorite filmbiz reporter, recently left the Hollywood Reporter, I was afraid I'd lost one of my favorite bloggers too. At her Risky Business blog, Anne had been fizzy, informative, and freewheeling; she'd also been generous with gossip, opinions, and speculation. Visiting her was like spending dinner with an old friend who's smart, intuitive, and knowledgeable, as well as (even better) likably, rowdily indiscreet. So I'm super-glad to notice that Anne has re-surfaced. She's now reporting and writing for Variety; here's hoping a nice big pay-hike plays a role in that arrangement. She muses about the success of "300" here; she suspects that the film may prove to be "a shapeshifter movie for the new millennium." (Haven't seen it yet myself, but certainly won't miss it.) She has a new blog too, and she has hit the blog-ground running. The excellent Gregg Killday is now doing most of the writing at the Hollywood Reporter's Risky Business blog. Me, I'm breathing a big sigh of filmbuffy happiness and relief, and have re-set my links. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 17, 2007 | perma-link | (0)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Steven on Leni
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- For film and art buffs, the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, who died in 2003 at the age of 101, is a scab that it's hard to stop picking at. How to sum her up? If you care about beauty, it's impossible to deny her filmmaking ambition, talent, and achievements. If you care about cultural history, there's no getting around her importance and her influence. (Present-day sports and political iconography both owe a lot to her work.) Yet, if you care about humanity, how can you not be horrified by someone who made gloriously beautiful Nazi propaganda films? What kind of responsibility should she be made to bear? How harsh and relentless does our condemnation of her need to be? She was anything but a thinker; she didn't create Nazi ideology. She didn't run death camps either; she made films. She was one of the Third Reich's decorators and salesmen, in other words, not one of its trigger-pullers or financiers. Dreadful as her actions were, how hard do we owe it to ourselves to come down on such figures? And, among all the people who did aesthetic work for the Nazis, what's special about her? After all, if we're to spend many decades and many heavythink volumes exploring and condemning Leni, don't we owe it to ourselves to make similar efforts to denounce Hitler's favorite graphic designer, whoever that was? Where's that person's biography? Why isn't he/she debated-over repeatedly in the NYRB? As far as I've been able to tell, Riefenstahl was a talented, sexy, and narcissistic opportunist. She certainly appears to have been completely unprincipled -- something that, in my experience, makes her anything but unique among artists. But if it's true that her only real devotion was to herself, then it would follow that her attachment to Naziism was opportunistic, and not deeply-held. Could this have been the case? I wonder. Had she come of age in a different environment, perhaps she'd have made Communist films, or Catholic films, or Hollywood action-adventure films; perhaps she'd have done whatever it took to get to the top of those worlds too. So: Was Leni Riefenstahl really evil? Or was she an ambitious, self-regarding, talented idiot who happened to do her striving in the world the Nazis made? Perhaps the inner Leni Riefenstahl was no more (or less) evil than Madonna. But perhaps not. There's something unavoidably peculiar about the way Riefenstahl's love of dynamism, animal spirits, and physical beauty jibed with Nazi creeds. And cozying up to Hitler ... Not appetizing, to say the least. All the above statements seem to me to be true, and (in my view, anyway) none of them cancels the others out. Is there any one easy statement that can be made about such a person? I mean, besides "Fascinating! Horrifying!" Although I'm glad to see that the subtle and intelligent Steven Bach has just published a biography of Riefenstahl, Richard Schickel's review of the book makes me feel a... posted by Michael at March 15, 2007 | perma-link | (50) comments

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The DVD Release
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- DVD versions of movies are being released ever-more-quickly and movie-theater owners are worried, reports the LA Times' Claudia Eller. A fun set of figures from her good piece: "Box-office sales make up about 30% of a studio's worldwide revenue pie, with DVD sales accounting for 45% and TV 25%." Link thanks to DVD Spin Doctor, who adds a key additional point to the discussion: Exhibitors would rather beef about their shortened period of exclusivity with new movies than address the real reasons adults are fleeing theaters: soaring ticket prices, obnoxious ads, cell phones, dirty theaters, ripoff concessions -- and the existence of a clear alternative, the home-theater experience. Badgering the studios is a lot cheaper than cleaning up their own mess. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 14, 2007 | perma-link | (9) comments

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Kiddies' Serials - Late 1940s
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Serials have been around a long time, but the genre strikes me as fading. Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Dolye in the 19th century were serialized in magazines. Today there are still some daytime television soap operas. Those were for adults. But what about serials whose audience is young children? I'm admittedly out of touch -- my kids were young in the 1980s -- but it's my impression that children's serials are essentially dead. The main medium is TV and for whatever reasons (production or re-run considerations?) episodes seem to be self-contained. (Yes there are Japanese multi-episode Anime animations, but aren't these aimed at people older than 10? I don't watch them, so could someone please help in Comments.) Though I'm ignorant of today's serials, I was plugged into that scene in the late 40s, when serials were still in their glory. Although there might have been print medium serials, I wasn't aware of them. Where one usually found them was in movie theaters, on the radio and to some extent television. Some theaters catered to the kiddie audience with Saturday matinees. Normally there would be a feature film -- perhaps a cowboy movie -- and the lead-ins would be a cartoon and a serial. Sadly, my parents seldom were willing to haul me over to the theater for the Saturday entertainment so I never got to see many episodes of Batman (let's say) in sequence. I'd be left hanging at the end of the reel with the hero or another important character in seriously serious trouble, seemingly with no possible hope of survival. And I seldom found out how they escaped alive. I'm more familiar with radios serials because I got to listen to them daily. ABC and, I think, the Mutual network had kiddie serial ghettoes filled with 15-minute programs that ran from around 5 to 6 in the late afternoon: after school but before dinnertime. Programs I recall hearing included Superman, Terry & the Pirates, Jack Armstrong (The All-American Boy), Captain Midnight (an aviation theme), Hop Harrigan (ditto) and Tennessee Jed (a western). Half-hour-format kids' programs such as the Lone Ranger, the Cisco Kid and the Green Hornet were aired after dinnertime, at 7 or perhaps 7:30. These half-hour shows ran weekly (I might be wrong on this) and normally had complete episodes for each airing, so they can't be classed as serials. As you can probably tell, these serials were aimed more at boys than girls. I have no idea what girls did if they didn't want to listen to Hop Harrigan, et. al. And I can't recall the sex split of the audience for Saturday matinees. The content of the radio serials included a lot of action and gunplay -- probably enough to make today's gender-blenders and safety freaks wet their pants -- but it wasn't hardcore. For example the Lone Ranger (okay, not a serial, but with the same kind of audience) would blaze away with the result... posted by Donald at March 13, 2007 | perma-link | (14) comments

Video-Biz Mayhem
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Does the advent of on-demand, online video spell the end of traditional audiovisual-through-time entertainment-providers? We can certainly hope. But we wouldn't expect the likes of Viacom to go down without putting up a fight, would we? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 13, 2007 | perma-link | (3) comments

Friday, March 9, 2007

It's a Wrap
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The Wife and I -- OK, really our dynamic and gifted young director-buddy -- have finished shooting the film the three of us co-wrote. It's in the can, or whatever it is that experienced filmpeople say when they've come to the end of the "shooting it" part of making a film. I blogged here and here about some of my reflections and observations about microbudget filmmaking. Now that our shoot is over, I've collected a few more notions to pass along. For today: * Boys and Girls. A question that comes up regularly in journalistic discussions about filmmaking is: Why are there so few female film directors? According to this Salon article, around 95% of American films are directed by men. Can the usual catch-all explanation -- ie., sexism -- explain that big a difference? Going into our film shoot, my feeling was that sexism can't possibly explain why so many film directors are male. But my explanation went in this direction: "After all, women aren't in short supply in high-level positions in the movie business. They've run studios, production houses, and agencies. Female stars have acquired tremendous power. Unless you want to accuse Sherry Lansing, Amy Pascal, and Drew Barrymore of being anti-woman sexists, other elements must certainly come into play. There must be good, or at least understandable, reasons why even women usually choose men to direct movies." Now that our own little film has finished shooting, my preferred explanation has shifted somewhat. I still look at the "sexism" explanation skeptically. (Not that I doubt that sexism plays some role. But how big a one?) But now my own preferred explanation has become a little more down-to-earth. It goes this way: "So very many film directors are men because making an ambitious narrative movie requires a great deal of" -- tender sensibilities please leave now -- "dick energy." Being a director of ambitious narrative movies is rather like being a general. It requires a kind of maniacally focused drive. You have to be pushy, somewhat myopic and blinkered, maybe a little autistic, and incredibly determined. Making an ambitious narrative movie -- and our film, however micro, is nothing if not ambitious -- takes glee, directedness, and drive. Ego, foolishness, and maybe some recklessness don't hurt either. You have to be willing to let go of a lot of the rest of life in order to get your film in the can. These are, generally speaking, penis virtues, not vagina virtues. Directing a film is for single-track minds, and for action-oriented, dynamic bodies -- our own young director-buddy collaborator, for instance. During our shoot, he was quite a phenomenon to witness: focused, tense, happy, and sweaty. High on the excitement of it all, he grew leaner and leaner as the two weeks passed. He was so single-minded about achieving his goals that he needed to be reminded to eat. This isn't to say that filmmaking itself is, let alone should be, closed to... posted by Michael at March 9, 2007 | perma-link | (24) comments

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Moviegoing and DVD Journal: "Inland Empire" and "7 Men From Now"
Michael Blowhard writes: Daer Blowhards -- * Funny, isn't it, how the unfolding of David Lynch's unconscious once seemed fascinating, and even seemed to have some cultural significance? What did people think they saw in his work? These days it can be hard to remember. As for myself, I loved his work up through "Blue Velvet" and some of the early episodes of "Twin Peaks." The naivete, the straightforwardness, the visions ... His movies were like primitive paintings, only dignified and calm: finger-paintings with genuine gravitas, powered by a child's fascination with gruesomeness yet also an artist's responsiveness to beauty. Since then, for me anyway, it's been a different ballgame. Although often technically beautiful, his films long ago turned into caricatures of themselves. Identity-swapping ... Grinding slow-motion heavy-metal music ... And all that stupid cool-kid stuff: the "nice" girls who turn tricks, the orgies by the lake ... Lynch came to seem to me like someone who couldn't let go of his years as a junior high school nerd obsessed by fantasies about what the bad boys and the bad girls were doing with each other while he was home watching TV. Incidentally: This is fine, and it certainly has potential. I kept attending his movies because they were beautiful and because people talked about them, but largely because so many of them had an erotic scene or two that struck me as genius. Patricia Arquette with a gun at her head in "Lost Highway" -- whew! Naomi Watts and Laura Haring crossing boundaries in "Mulholland Drive" -- goodness gracious! But my main complaints about Lynch's post-"Blue Velvet" movies are that they're so repetitious and so very slow. What became of the Victorian gentleman-weirdo who made "The Elephant Man"? In his new movie, "Inland Empire," Lynch is re-shuffling the same deck of cards he's been playing with since "Blue Velvet," only he's doing it less beautifully, less erotically, and even more slowly. In the film, Laura Dern appears to be an LA actress who wakes up in an Eastern European movie. And there it all is, all that familiar Lynchian stuff, all over again: the sinister laugh tracks, the red curtains, the is-it-camp-or-not? moments, the deafening electronic music, the is-this-a-movie-or-not? loop-the-loop tricks, the identity games. And all of it so slow, so very slow ... What distinguishes the film is its hyper-experimental quality. Lynch shot it on a tiny budget, on a home-video-quality DV camera, and over the course of several years. Lynch had been playing with no-budget handheld filmmaking at his website when it occurred to him that he might shoot a feature-length movie on DV. I'd been looking forward to experiencing the aesthetic qualities Lynch would find in the DV medium. Sadly, "Inland Empire" mostly looks plain awful. Either I'm blind or all Lynch has done is wander around his sets and performers with a handheld camera using lots of wide-angle lenses. What this means for the viewer is lots and lots of wobbly, looking-at-yourself-in-a-doorknob imagery. It's all... posted by Michael at March 6, 2007 | perma-link | (13) comments

Friday, February 23, 2007

Tech Support, 1100 AD
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 23, 2007 | perma-link | (5) comments

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

DVD Journal: "This Film is Not Yet Rated"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Despite my love of racy movies, I don't have anything against the idea of film ratings, or a film board, or a film-ratings board. In principle, anyway. Parents should have a reasonably accurate idea of what the kiddies might be seeing, and grownups deserve to know what might be in store too. How else to convey these facts at a glance but with ratings? Far be it from me to cry "censorship" when a film is slapped with an R or an NC-17. I root for a sensible ratings system for the sake of the movies themselves too. I want movies to flourish -- I sure do love that artform. And I want people's appreciation for movies generally to broaden and deepen. I don't think that can happen in the absence of a sensible ratings system. Throughout their history movies have often attracted immense criticism. They're big, they're a popular artform, and they're overwhelmingly immediate and sensual in their impact. Squaresville people (from both the right and the left, by the way) can get really worked up about them. Society often seems to be on the verge of cracking down on movies, and the films they seem determined to give the hardest time are often the very movies I prefer to watch. Besides, when too many people get indignant, moviemakers become cautious, and caution often equals boring. So, before putting the DVD of "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" -- Kirby Dick's documentary about the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board -- into the DVD player, my only complaints about America's film ratings system were three. Along with a zillion other people, I'm baffled by the way the MPAA cuts violence a lot of slack while dealing harshly with portrayals of sexuality. Whose idea of a good idea is it to say: "Hey, violence is fun! It's great material for entertainment! Sex? Gee, I just don't know ..."? America, eh? I'm miffed as well by the way cartoonishness is cut more slack than realism, let alone emotional resonance. Per the MPAA, it's fine to blow something to smithereens so long as the action is exaggerated and no one's hurt. This seems a strange lesson to convey to kids. Don't we generally want the impressionable to understand that certain actions will result in pain and misfortune? The leeway shown cartoonishness prevails where sex is concerned too. Teen comedies feature extremely smutty imagery and behavior yet are dealt with more leniently than are films that feature resonant portrayals of sex. Whose idea of a good idea is it to say: "We're happier if and when you treat sex irresponsibily than we are when you acknowledge that sex has some power"? America, eh? My third quarrel with the ratings system is another "America, eh?" objection. It has to do with the NC-17 rating. The trouble here has nothing to do with the MPAA or with the rating itself. Certainly an "adults-only" rating makes sense and has... posted by Michael at February 21, 2007 | perma-link | (6) comments

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Guerilla Filmmaking 2
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The Wife, our director buddy, and I are now midway through our two-week microbudget-movie shoot. Going very well, thank you. A comic-erotic-philosophical masterpiece is making its way into the world. And quite an adventure too: Remind me to tell you about the subfreezing evening when our actors spent three hours naked in an outdoor hot tub. God I love actors! At least when I don't want to kill them ... A few more observations about the process: Peanut butter. What is it about young men and peanut butter? One of The Wife's duties on our set is to supply the day's food. She does a swanky yet informal job of it, coming through with soups, salads, excellent coffee and tea, tasty pasta dishes, and endless amounts of high-class nibbles. What could be better eatin' than that? But the food that consistently makes the young guys working on our film happiest is peanut butter. Peanut butter on bread, peanut butter on toast, peanut butter on crackers ... Even peanut butter eaten directly from the spoon or knife. I should add that the couple of European young people on our crew have no interest in peanut butter, and that I've always avoided the stuff myself -- it makes me thirsty, sticks in my mouth in gluey ways, and usually leaves me with a case of the hiccups. But I'm an exception, I guess. (I recall that in his younger days, fellow Blowhard FvB was quite the peanut-butter consumer. His other main food groups were hot dogs and mayonnaise.) Does anyone have any theories about why it is that young American guys -- and perhaps especially young American guys with an interest in filmmaking -- so adore peanut butter? One of our actresses has ventured the guess that it's a "Mom is taking care of me" thing. Petty cash. It's quite amazing how the fives and twenties disappear when you're making even a small movie. The cash vanishes on swarms of minor, barely-noticeable expenses: parking, cabs, cold medicine, bulbs, train tickets, wigs, equipment failures, makeup. It seems to be a given of filmmaking that a plethora of tiny things is forever going wrong even when things generally are going very well. As a consequence, quick and frequent outlays of cash are a standard feature of the filmmaking process. I gotta say that fives and twenties are miraculous in their power to solve, avoid, or at least deflect minor calamities. Would films get made at all if the machinery weren't being oiled in this way? I wonder if there isn't another element that comes into play too. I wonder if the exhilaration and the high of filmmaking -- and filmmaking is indeed a high -- gets to people. Or maybe it just gets to me; perhaps I've developed a small case of big-shot-itis. In any case, making a film is a silly, quixotic, yet intoxicating activity; it seems to require and encourage a certain heedlessness of attitude. And... posted by Michael at February 20, 2007 | perma-link | (11) comments

Monday, February 19, 2007

DVD Journal: "I Spit on Your Grave"; "Blood and Roses"; "Vampyres"; "Bare Behind Bars"; "Tarnation"; "Lie With Me"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Prior to going into production on our own tacky / arty microbudget masterpiece, The Wife and I logged in some serious time watching tacky and arty DVDs. We weren't exactly preparing, though -- our script was already written. The trashy-arty DVD-viewing just happened. Hmm: Maybe tacky and arty are just where our minds live ... * "I Spit on Your Grave." Low-budget '70s revenge / horror that fascinates many viewers. It's a violent, cheesy, no-class film, no question about that. Yet -- like "The Honeymoon Killers" -- the film transfixes because of its "objective," non-judgmental point of view. Is the rape horrifying or a turn-on? Are you rooting for the heroine to take revenge, or are you appalled by her extreme violence? You can't be sure whether the flatness of the presentation is a function of ineptness or of artistic intention. Is the film sick exploitation or a feminist masterpiece? But does it even matter? As the city girl subjected to country sadists, Camille Keaton (a grandniece of Buster Keaton) is terrific. The film's '70s color and '70s styles are a lot of fun too. (Netflix, Amazon.) * "Blood and Roses." Sophisticated vampire erotica from French director Roger Vadim's best period. Its French title ("Et Mourir de Plaisir") means "And To Die of Pleasure" -- yum yum! Vadim was notorious for his way with the ladies (he made the early careers of Brigitte Bardot, Jane Fonda, and Catherine Deneuve) as well as for his flair with jetsetting sex fantasy. He's less well-known for two things I really love some of his work for: his appreciation for women and his alertness to the erotic dimension. The film's stylishness may well be a little tacky, though I found it a likable kind of tacky. What's remarkable about the film though are its women (Elsa Martinelli and Vadim's wife at the time, Annette Vadim), who give themselves to the camera in many-sided ways that are unusual and pleasing, not to mention rare to find in present-day movies. Are we more liberated or less liberated now than we were in 1960, when Vadim's touch was at its best? (The film isn't on DVD, but you can sometimes find a videocassette of it at Amazon. If anyone's curious about sampling what Vadim was capable of, let me also suggest trying the very decadent "The Game is Over": Netflix, Amazon.) * "Vampyres." Passersby are lured into a country manor only to encounter two gorgeous and hungry lesbian vampires (Marianne Morris and Anulka). Yeah, baby! Cool as a cucumber English producer Brian Smedley-Aston and madman Spanish director Jose Larraz violate lots of vampire-genre rules and struggle with basic narrative coherence. Yet they deliver an excitable, hot-hot-hot movie that's primitive and surreal all at once. One fun angle that adds a lot to the creepy erotic delirium: Larraz has his actors play up the sucky/slurpy sounds whether they're kissing fondly or sucking blood hungrily. The DVD itself (put together by Blue Underground)... posted by Michael at February 19, 2007 | perma-link | (11) comments

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Guerilla Filmmaking
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Have I mentioned that The Wife and I are shooting a film? Well, we are and we aren't. In fact, a super-talented dynamo of a young director-friend is. But it's a kind of collaboration between the three of us nonetheless. The three of us co-wrote the script, and we all contributed cash to our movie's epic budget. Please don't ignore the ironic tone. That's "epic" as in "mid four figures." We're actually in production right now, midway through a two-week shoot. And we're really in production too. We have call sheets, a rented van, lights, production assistants (four), performers, and everything. These days, thanks to video and computers, it's amazing what you can do for next to no money -- provided, of course, that you're able to bum apartments, offices, and props, and that you can find talented crew-people and performers who'll work for free. In any case, expect the occasional bulletin from me over the next ten days about what I'm finding guerilla filmmaking to be like. First point: I've learned that what we're making isn't in fact a "low-budget" movie. One of our production assistants has informed me that the term "low-budget" these days means a movie that costs from 500 grand to ten million dollars. Our pocket-change production is more accurately referred to as a "micro-budget" movie. My main reaction to the adventure so far has been: Wow, what an exhausting lot of work it is to make a movie! Thank god our young director is such a well-focused powerhouse. Even for something as small-scale as our movie project, there's a tremendous amount of labor to do: making arrangements, getting people to show up, wheedling and cajoling, etc. Not to mention the physical work of laying down cables, moving lights and cameras from place to place, and covering every available surface with gaffer's tape. Thank god for ambitious young people. Without 'em, would we have movies as an art form at all? Although the film is by now 110% in the hands of our director, The Wife is fully involved with the filmmaking too. She helps hash out details and arrangements, and she contributes to the production by playing caterer as well as producer. "Good food is key to a happy set," one of our more experienced actors told me on our first day of shooting. Since The Wife is an excellent cook and a firm believer in large servings and ever-present and plentiful grazing matter, our sets have been very cheerful ones. Me, I show up when my work schedule permits. When present, I mainly try not to trip over cables. When the time seems right, I haul something from here to there. I've made a few bottled-water runs. In between these crucial contributions, I hang with the actors and the crew and do what I can to help people feel cheery and loved. It isn't hard, given how appreciative I genuinely am of their efforts and talents. Here's hoping... posted by Michael at February 15, 2007 | perma-link | (10) comments

"Shoes!" And More
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Judging by the numbers on YouTube, I'm the 10, 942, 402nd person to discover "Shoes!" So you may well be ahead of me on this. But what a brilliant bit of high-camp silliness "Shoes!" is. Gotta love that apocalyptic finale. The video is the creation of Liam Sullivan, an L.A.-based comic actor. Here's his website, where he shows off a bunch of other comic videos too. I got an especially big kick out of "Text-Message Breakup." You just don't do that! The visuals on these vids aren't NSFW, but the soundtracks certainly are. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 15, 2007 | perma-link | (1) comments

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Video Resume
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I suspect that most visitors are ahead of me on this, but I've just caught up with the case of Aleksey Vayner, a Yale business student infamous for sending out what has quickly come to be known as "the worst video resume ever." Here's the video, and it is indeed priceless. Aleksey has a considerable entry in Wikipedia, so immortality is his. Question: What does someone who makes an immense public ass of himself even before leaving school do with the rest of his life? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 6, 2007 | perma-link | (6) comments

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Driving Lessons
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- T'warn't a fit night out for man nor beast in Portland last Tuesday ... Vidclip found thanks to Philip Murphy. "Fit night out for man nor beast" lifted from W.C. Fields. You can watch the great film moment here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 24, 2007 | perma-link | (1) comments

DVD Journal: Kenneth Anger
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I posted back here about Bernardo Bertolucci and his legendary thriller "The Conformist," a film that had been unavailable on DVD (and hard to find in any form) until very recently. Another rarity is about to go on sale in DVD form too: the short avant-garde movies of Kenneth Anger. Film buffs, as well as those simply interested in how our culture became what it is, might enjoy giving Anger's movies a look. Born Kenneth Wilbur Anglemyer and turning 80 this year, Anger might well be almost as big an influence on popular culture as Andy Warhol. He's perhaps best-known for his 1958 book "Hollywood Babylon," a volume of salacious and amusing "inside" gossip and fantasies about the American movie world. The book -- available in Europe for many years before it was finally printed in the U.S. -- helped make indulging in sleazy and bitchy gossip seem deadpan cool and hip. His almost-no-budget films have been just as influential. Not many filmbuffs would disagree with the statement that Anger has been one of the most important American film avant-gardists, along with Maya Deren, Bruce Connor, Stan Brakhage, and a few others. In his films, Anger barely bothers with narrative at all, cutting instead straight to the erotic chase. Typically, he fetishizes youth, bikers, blue jeans, hot rods, and Lucifer, and he sets the lip-smacking, montage-y, hyper-eroticized stew to rock and roll and opera. Don't say you weren't warned He was one of the first, in other words, to fixate in frankly seamy ways on the hot-'n'-throbbing quality that's such an important part of the appeal of pop music, opera, and movies. As the underground maestro of near-camp sensationalism and lasciviousness, he was a big influence on devil-tempted artists as diverse as Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese. I see that Scorsese has in fact has written an intro to the booklet that's packaged with the new Anger DVD, and fans of "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver" who watch Anger will certainly learn where Marty lifted a lot of his early moves from. (Other main early-Marty source: John Cassavetes.) And, yes, in case you haven't picked up the clues, Anger isn't just gay, but gay-gay-gay! The sensibility that he has brought to movies and to popular culture is gay-gay-gay! too. And no, it wasn't a coincidence that the French gay-gay-gay! genius Jean Cocteau was one of the first to discover and encourage Anger. In many ways, that's what Anger's movies are like, come to think of it: rock 'n' roll versions of Cocteau's freakier efforts. I look forward to watching Anger's work again. Do his films seem laughable these days? Do they retain their old power to disturb and upset? The movies are -- why not be honest about it? -- basically homoerotic hallucinations. I'm curious to see what they look like now that the homoerotic-hallucination approach to imagery and popular culture so permeates the mainstream. Will Anger's films still have their power to derange,... posted by Michael at January 24, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Watching Habits
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The New York Times' David Cay Johnston reports that growth in the porn biz -- or, as Johnston labels it, the "sex-related entertainment business" (hey, isn't that all of show business?) -- is slowing down. In 2006, porn grew at slightly under the rate of inflation. Interesting fact for the day: "For every dollar Americans spent buying tickets to Hollywood movies last year, they spent about 90 cents viewing sex movies in various formats." I wonder what these ratios would be like if time-spent-watching were compared. For every minute the average American spends watching mainstream movies, how much time does he / she spend watching porn? And how would this change if you included surfing-the-web-for-porn in the "watching porn" column? According to AVN's Paul Fishbein, the most remarkable area of recent growth in DVD-style porn is in movies featuring older women -- gals who are in their 30s or even, gasp, older than that. It was evidently a scene in "American Pie" that set this "MILF" trend off. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 24, 2007 | perma-link | (5) comments

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Mayhem junkies might want to explore Liveleak, a video-sharing service known for running the clips that YouTube deems too gruesome. For classier fare, why not visit the best-of-the-web-videos site The Daily Reel? (Link thanks to Cinematech.) An inspired home-made stop-action epic can be enjoyed here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 23, 2007 | perma-link | (1) comments

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Too Prudish?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards-- The familiar thing these days is for people to complain that biographies have become far too invasive, unkind, and salacious. Who needs to know all these seamy details, what's the world coming to, etc. But perhaps it's also possible for biographies to be too prudish. The Wife and I just watched an A&E Biography of the actress Vivien Leigh, for example. Intelligent, informative, well-done. Yet -- while perfectly frank about Leigh's mental troubles -- it ventured not one peep about Laurence Olivier's gay adventures (Sir Larry was the love of Vivien's life), or about Leigh's own compulsive promiscuity, which apparently rivaled that of one of her best-known characters, Blanche DuBois. Given that their marriage was the central event in Leigh's life -- she preferred to be addressed as "Lady Olivier" even after they divorced -- you'd think that two of the main reasons why their union experienced the tensions it did would have merited at least a quick acknowledgement. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 21, 2007 | perma-link | (5) comments

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Hanks. Tom Hanks.
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Mash-up maestros Dan Perrault and Matt Dahan come up with another slick job: Viewer-altered movie trailers: the premiere artform of the 21st century? Link thanks to Anne Thompson. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 11, 2007 | perma-link | (2) comments

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Kodak Moment
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Good to see a big corporation having a little irreverent fun at its own expense! And what a heroic performance from that actor-guy. FWIW, I'm a fan of Kodak's digital point-and-shoot cameras. Good prices; nice pix; superb color; excellent digi-cam video (640x480 30 fps with MPEG-4 compression, which in English means that you can fit an hour of passable-quality video on a 1GB SD card); and the best-designed menus in the business. Even I can find my way around a Kodak camera's electronic innards without suffering brainstrain. They're the friendliest digicams in the biz, and for a technical numbskull like me friendly means a lot. Hey, check out the fab price on this very nice camera. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 10, 2007 | perma-link | (3) comments

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

DVD Journal: "The Conformist"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I just noticed that Bernardo Bertolucci's legendary 1970 film "The Conformist" can now be obtained on DVD. (Amazon, Netflix.) This is a pleasing cultural event for two reasons. One is that for much too long the movie has been almost impossible to find, even at colleges and rep houses. So, let's indulge in a big sigh of long-time-coming relief. The other is that "The Conformist" is both a wonderful (IMHO) and an influential (objectively speaking) movie. Watching it can be a sexy, moody high; it can also make you go, "Oh! So that's where that came from!" a large number of times. An Art Deco / Freudian thriller starring Jean-Louis Trintignant and Dominique Sanda, "The Conformist" has an orchestrated elegance and a flowing sumptuousness that's part Josef Von Sternberg, part Jean-Pierre Melville, and part "Pierrot Le Fou." The film's combination of fantasy and funk, politics, sex, psychology, and thrills hits many moviebuffs like a ton of bricks. Although dismissed by some as a chic Vogue layout, "The Conformist" has seemed to many others to be a culmination of the Great Tradition in movies -- a blend of high and low, and an extraordinary demonstration of the ways movies can combine many different art forms: acting, design, writing, music, dance. The film has all the overstuffed, hyper extravagance of opera while being as slick and tight as a film noir. (In fact, despite its visual opulence, it was produced for only $750,000.) It also has a three-dimensional human intensity that sets it apart from such current is-it-ironic-or-not? exercises in movie delirium as "Moulin Rouge." Here's a mini-gallery of memorable images from the movie: As far as influence goes, well, where to start? The film's brilliance entranced young American filmbuffs, and inspired '70s American directors to kick their work up a few notches. Coppola hired Vittorio Storaro, the cinematographer of "The Conformist," to shoot "Apocalypse Now" and "One From the Heart." Storaro went on to photograph such mainstream movies as "Reds" and "Bulworth" for Warren Beatty, and "Dune" for television. Paul Schrader hired production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti to art-direct "American Gigolo" and "Cat People." Laugh if you will -- they're bad movies indeed. But the Italian-GQ imagery of Richard Gere, L.A., Nastassja Kinski, and New Orleans that these films featured had an immediate impact on what Americans expect of luxury and style. Brian De Palma's over-the-top, decadent "Scarface" was designed by Scarfiotti too -- and "Scarface" continues to influence popular imagery to this day. In the art houses, current fave Wong Kar-Wai is working rhapsodic-reverie soil first turned over by "The Conformist," albeit in more nonlinear, halting ways. The influence of the film can still be seen in ads and music videos as well as in movies too; fashion magazines (and Armani-like imagery generally) have been far more influenced by "The Conformist" than vice versa. Let's just say that "The Conformist" woke a lot -- a lot -- of people up to the power of sleekness,... posted by Michael at January 9, 2007 | perma-link | (7) comments

"Inland Empire" and TM
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Weirdo genius auteur David Lynch has a new digital-video experiment, "Inland Empire," making the rounds of the arthouses. (Haven't caught it yet myself.) Here's the official site, where you can find the film's release schedule. Wikipedia's entry on the film is informative if a little spoiler-ridden. From the trailer, "Inland Empire" looks a little "Twin Peaks," a little "Lost Highway" ... like a handheld version of what Lynch has already done a half-dozen times. Still, I may go see it anyway -- I do love Laura Dern, who I find both passionate and hilarious ... These days, Lynch sometimes seems to be more interested in Transcendental Meditation than in filmmaking. Here's his TM foundation. I notice that Lynch will soon be making TM-proselytizing appearances (with the folksinger Donovan, also a TM buff) at Lincoln Center, at the Kennedy Center, and at L.A.'s Kodak Theatre. Lynch also has a new book out discussing meditation and creativity. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 9, 2007 | perma-link | (5) comments

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Screens Everywhere (Cont.)
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- In a posting not long ago, Donald bemoaned the way that TVs are becoming more and more common in public places. I'm 150% with Donald on this point. It isn't just that TV screens (and bad music and bad radio) are well-nigh impossible to avoid at many bus stations and airports these days. In New York City, where I live, it's even worse: TVs are beginning to appear in elevators and on sidewalks. Are some people so terrified of boredom that they need distraction via CNN while on the elevator? And out on the streets ... Where once you'd see a poster (over the entry to a subway, for instance), that space is now sometimes taken by a flickering video screen beaming advertisements. Is this fair? After all, there's little that can more perfectly exploit our innate tendency to look around in alarm than a flickering, beaming light. Now comes the sad news that TVs will soon be installed in New York City taxicabs. To my mind, the whole thing raises a variety of interesting econ / poli-sci questions about choice and freedom. To riff on one such: Although I'm grateful that that the option to turn the cab-TVs off will be available, cab riders won't be able to avoid encountering cab-TVs in the first place. The creation of one chioce-set (TV on or off) will completely eliminate another choice-possibility (avoiding TV entirely). How do econ textbooks cover this very common development? Small prediction: However free we'll be to interact with the new cab-TVs, one choice that won't be available will be the one I'd most prefer -- to pull the damn thing out by its wiring, dump it out the cab's window, and enjoy watching it shatter into smithereens. Here's a fascinating bit of info from the article I linked to: An earlier experiment with TVs in NYC cabs didn't go well. Taxi Commission polling revealed that most people were either indifferent to or downright hostile to the presence of TVs in cabs. Yet the upshot is that we're going to have TVs in cabs. Is the New York City Taxi Commission now in bed with the TV industry? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 23, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Thursday, December 21, 2006

DVD Journal: "Writer of O"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Pola Rapaport's "Writer of O" -- a documentary about Dominique Aury, the Frenchwoman who, under the pseudonym Pauline Reage, wrote the 1954 erotic classic "Story of O" -- is a much more peculiar affair than the Bukowski documentary I wrote about recently. Peppered with filmmaker autobiography and staged tableaux vivants, it's part chic performance piece itself. And, even at its most straightforward, it maintains a tragic and solemn tone that suggests a collaboration between Ken Burns and Pina Bausch. Still, I found the story of Dominique Aury fascinating, and I'm glad to have watched the film. Are you familiar with the novel? Or with the meta-story about the novel? Those who are may want to skip the next few paragraphs. As for the novel, "Story of O" is about a young woman fashion photographer. Identified only as O, she's taken by her boyfriend to a mysterious chateau outside Paris where she is bound, beaten, and used, until -- it's presumed -- she becomes more truly herself. Or does she? On its publication, the book became an immediate bestseller and scandale. It won a French literary prize while at the same time being the object of obscenity charges. (Ah, the French, so much more comfy with paradoxes than we are ...) There are obvious reasons why this should have been the case, of course: sex, sex, and more sex. But there were more subtle reasons for the worldwide fascination with the novel too. (The novel has sold millions of copies and has never been out of print.) One was the way the precise, clinical, "objective" language contrasted with and brought out the vulgarity, brutality, and subjectivity of the experiences portrayed. Another was a simple sociological fact: The novel wasn't just the usual sex-book thing -- a sweaty tale for lonely guys to jerk off over. It had sophistication, style, and content, if of a hard-to-nail-down kind. It was also embraced and celebrated by modern women, who -- as far as da boyz could gather -- saw much of themselves in it. And what was the book's purpose anyway? Is O -- who is at every moment free to cast off her chains -- determined to prove her love? Or perhaps her boyfriend, in submitting her to these trials, is proving his love for her? Is the author arguing that masochism is at the heart of female sexuality? Perhaps. Yet there's no question that, despite her tribulations, O is in charge of her fate as well as the center of her own universe. It would have been hard in any case to persuade the crowds of dynamic women who loved the novel that they were identifying with weakness. Feminists were understandably baffled by the whole affair. Should they celebrate the woman author's triumph, and the way O managed to be both her own subject and object? But there was that awkward bit about the heroine being repeatedly beaten and violated ... Even the main character's name... posted by Michael at December 21, 2006 | perma-link | (22) comments

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

DVD Journal: "Bukowski -- Born Into this"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The biggest surprise of John Dullaghan's excellent documentary "Bukowski -- Born Into This" is that Charles Bukowski appears to have been not-all-that-bad a guy. He was certainly capable of self-centeredness, misbehavior and testiness; he did his share of brawling; and the camera does catch one awful moment when Bukowski works up an abusive head of steam towards his wife. God knows that, for much of his life, Bukowski was one seedy, sad, and lower-depths figure. But most of what we see and hear suggests that Bukowski was a hyper-talented, go-it-his-own-way writer who -- despite the booze -- remained about as true to his muse as a writer can be. Friends show up from Bukowski's childhood, and from his years at the Post Office -- people who knew him when he was trying to get published and from after he'd become a cult star. They testify that he liked booze, that he was devoted to art, and that he worked on his writing really, really hard. That wife Bukowski mistreated? She tells the filmmakers that she never let her husband get away with crap like that again. Good for her, of course -- but good for Bukowski for taking it and shaping up too. Given how autobiographical much of Bukowski's fiction is, the film doesn't supply a lot of surprises. The fun and interest is in meeting and seeing the man himself, his haunts, and his people. Bukowski, who died in 1994 at the age of 73, was born in Europe, arrived in America in Baltimore, and grew up in L.A. His parents were strict, working-class Europeans; if Bukowski is to be believed, his father doled out numerous vicious beatings to his son. Young Hank suffered from horrendous adolescent acne, dropped out of college, wrote a bit, then bummed around the country, doing odd jobs and living a rooming-house kind of life. With his scarred face and his lousy education, he didn't exactly have his pick of the dames and the jobs. In the 1950s he returned to L.A. and took a job at the U.S. Post Office. A near-fatal case of bleeding ulcers seems to have turned him around. After recovering, Bukowski began writing poetry and trying to publish fiction. Still at the Post Office, he became a regional small-press regular. By the late 1960s, his reputation had grown a little. Among the people wowed by Bukowski's writing was John Martin, a businessman in the process of becoming a publisher. Martin felt that Bukowski was the real thing, a writer whose work would last for centuries, and he arranged to give Bukowski $100 a month, enough to enable Bukowski to quit the Post Office and write full-time. Bukowski, already 49 years old, delivered his first novel to Martin in less than a month. By the mid and late '70s, Bukowski had become near-legendary, especially on the west coast. Poets, actors, filmmakers, and writers revered him. His public readings were mobbed. Sexy chix were suddenly... posted by Michael at December 19, 2006 | perma-link | (9) comments

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

"Straw Dogs," the Board Game
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Can you believe that people went to this kind of trouble? I'm glad they did, though. That's pretty well-done, as well as pretty funny. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 12, 2006 | perma-link | (0)

Thursday, December 7, 2006

More Vid Nuttiness
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * May a thousand YouTubes flower: here's China's premiere video-sharing site. * YouTube diva Emmalina has been struggling since making her recent return to the YouTube stage. She came back from retirement after vowing to the b.f. that she'll never pole-dance or do yoga onscreen again. But what else does a girl have to offer? There's always the winks and squinches, of course, as well as the haircuts and the adorable Tazzy (ie., Tasmanian) accent ... Still, how does a girl keep everyone's attention when she's being held back from doing what she does best? In a recent effort, Emmalina takes the radical step of cutting away from herself for a few seconds. It's like watching the cinema be reinvented! I notice that, during her own minutes onscreen, Emmalina manages to sneak in a few wriggles and head-shakes, so maybe there's hope for those of us who enjoy her is-it-lewd-or-not dancing; maybe she's won some concessions from the b.f. I notice as well that, after pulling all her early vids from YouTube, Emmalina has begun sneaking a few of them back online. For views of classic Emmalina, click here and here and here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 7, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Saturday, December 2, 2006

Are Videodiscs Going Extinct?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- So, high-definition videodisks, eh? Two competing DVD formats, wouldn't you know it. Which to choose? ... Slate's Sean Cooper argues that it's a moot question. His bet is that before either format can establish itself we'll be happily downloading high-def movies onto hard drives. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 2, 2006 | perma-link | (6) comments

Friday, December 1, 2006

A Regional Cinema?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I've been having a good time following "Something to Be Desired," a Pittsburgh-set and Pittsburgh-made web-based dramedy about a group of young and funky media kids. It has twisty storylines, saucey and vivacious performers, lots of well-observed, satirically-portrayed behavior, and scrappy-fun production values. It's absorbing, perceptive, and amusing in equal measure, and it works well on a three by four inch computer window. Watching it is like watching a cross between "Sex in the City" and "The Office" performed by your friends. Episodes even arrive complete with extras and outtakes. Despite its many virtues and charms, what "Something to Be Desired" mainly has me thinking about is the future of movies. Context-setting time: A frustration shared by many movie fans throughout the years of the traditional cin-e-ma was that movies were so damn centralized. Such a beautiful, lavish, and promising artform ... But wasn't it a terrible pity that it depended so much on money and industry that movies were produced in a mere handful of locales? In the U.S., for instance: How bizarre and distorting always to see ourselves through the lens of LA and NYC. Wouldn't it be liberating and exciting to have a New England cinema, a Texas cinema, a Puget Sound cinema, a Finger Lakes cinema? Now that a thousand such micro-cinemas are finally in fact blooming -- which is great, of course -- the question arises in my mind: Does it make sense to refer to these creations as movies at all? I remember wincing when, early in the iMovie days, Steve Jobs referred to edited-together iMovie videoclips as "movies." "No they aren't," the longterm moviebuff in me huffed. "Movies are an art and entertainment form with a history and language all their own. These are just ..." Well, what are they exactly? More important: Why look down on them? In the last few years I've found myself far more fascinated by developments in the edited-together-amateur-video world than in the pro/ trad-movie world. YouTube ... Playing with iMovie myself ... Videoblogs ... Emailing clips to friends ... Video playlists ... These creations and phenomena may not emit stardust or come wrapped in a dream-nimbus. Yet they have their own virtues. And what's not to be dazzled and amused by? Perhaps convenience, accessibility, and informality can have their own poetry. But what to call this new work? "Something to Be Desired" isn't "a movie" or "a TV show" in any traditional sense as far as I can tell. In fact, I confess I don't have any brilliant suggestions. To myself, I think of all this stuff as "audiovisual-through-time entertainment," a term I agree is severely lacking in the catchy department. I also find myself musing: Hmmm, perhaps what made traditional movies so stupendous and hypnotic -- in fact, so movie-like -- was a consequence of everything the radicals (myself occasionally among them) bemoaned: the money, the effort, the hierarchies, the industry ... Perhaps even the geographical centralization. God knows it... posted by Michael at December 1, 2006 | perma-link | (12) comments

Monday, November 27, 2006

More Tributes to Altman
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Garrison Keillor recalls Robert Altman. (Link thanks to Anne Thompson.) Lots of sweet and heartfelt tributes and notes of sympathy can be read here. My favorite: "For everyone who really loves art (movies, books, whatever), there is always at least one person out there who means more to you than is rational. For me, Robert Altman was that person. He was a man I never met, yet I feel as if my father has passed away. I will miss him terribly and always." I feel that way myself. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 27, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- One of the nicest consequences of the YouTube-ization of the broadcast world is the way that lo-fi animation is staging a comeback. Enough with network glitz and gloss, with committee caution, and with defensive overproduction. Let's use ever-higher technology to connect with the human touch once again. The Post-It Boogie: post-itUploaded by sabo-tage Whiteboard Dreamin': Some people have a lot of imagination, resourcefulness, talent, and patience. And, of course, time. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 26, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Friday, November 24, 2006

Sexy Movies Cheap
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Eva and playmates Amazon is currently selling Bertolucci's Paris-in-'68, movies-and-sex reverie "The Dreamers" for $4.97. $4.97!! Now that's a steal and a half. M. Blowhard verdict on the movie: Not really very good but sexy and enjoyable anyway, as well as an effective mood-setter. Must-see viewing as well for Eva Green fans. Jolie and Mitchell share a vibe I see that Amazon has also put the unrated version of "Gia" -- the 1998 HBO biopic about a coke-snorting, edgy model -- on sale, in this case for $7.47. This is the film that made Angelina Jolie's reputation, and there's no denying her power or her impact. Overflashily directed, but with a shrewd script co-written by Jay McInerny, and full of gutsy performances in addition to Jolie's. I've wondered what has become of Elizabeth Mitchell, for instance, who gave a daring performance as Gia's mustn't-go-there / can't-resist-going-there girlfriend. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 24, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

A Film Canon?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Those who like bickering over canons should enjoy Paul Schrader's reflections about movie greatness, as well as his readers' responses. Schrader responds to his readers here. Me, I'm temperamentally averse to canon-warfare except when it's conducted in the most lighthearted kind of way. Where this particular discussion was concerned, I found myself rooting for David Chute's reaction: "I've never been this kind of critic, the kind who hands down value judgments from on high. In fact my career has probably been hampered by (among other things) my underlying 'who the hell am I?' frame of mind." I did some musing of my own about the greatness thang long ago. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 24, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

DVD Journal: "MPD Psycho"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Takashi Miike's Japanese cop show "MPD Psycho" is the most mind-bending TV series that I've watched since "Twin Peaks." On the literal level, it's a crime drama along the lines of "CSI": cops, murders, investigations, up-to-date visuals ... But that's where the similarity ends. Miike's show, adapted from a popular manga, is anything but slick and banal. Instead, it's a visionary, five-minutes-in-the-future, low-budget freakout that rolls together cellphones, reality TV, grotesquely beautiful murders, soul teletransportation, dream logic, touches of animation, dementedly commmitted performances, fakey but beautiful video effects, mind-reading, a barrage of inspired style choices, and poetic ultraviolence that'll make you gasp. I'm not at all sure I understood what was going on onscreen, but I was beyond-riveted anyway. Miike's got the best antennae in the movie business, IMHO. He's also a fireball of talent who seems determined to use moviemaking as a form of self-immolation. I don't know what he's on, and I wouldn't be surprised to hear tomorrow that he's turned into a cold lump of cinders. Yet what a show he's been putting on for the past 12 years. His films haven't all been fully successful, god knows. But The Wife and I haven't watched one yet that didn't strike us as crazily audacious, in an exciting way. When we watch his movies together, we sometimes dare to use the word "genius." I wrote a bit about Miike's wild-ass yakuza thriller "Dead or Alive" here. Those curious to sample Miike's movies might want to start with the insanely-brilliant "Ichi the Killer" or the quietly terrifying "Audition." I've written postings about a few other burn-it-all-up / rip-it-down / die-laughing artists too: Townes Van Zandt and Shane MacGowan. Where do these creatures come from? I wrote about some other X-treme movies here and here and here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 24, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Robert Altman
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I was very sorry to learn that the film director Robert Altman has died of complications from cancer at the age of 81. Only last month he'd been able to attend a tribute in the Hamptons. Of all the people in the arts whose lives have overlapped mine, I've felt closer to Robert Altman (and to Pauline Kael) than to anyone else. Although I met him a couple of times, I never really got to know him. Far from it; I was just a lucky fan. But I was quite a fan. In fact, I'm one of those X-treme Altman nutcases you sometimes run into. The Altman doofus in this hilarious Onion piece, the one who's reminded by everything of an Altman film? That might have been me. Altman's early movies "M*A*S*H" and "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" turned me into a film buff; loving movies led me to explore the arts more generally. Whatever shape my life has taken on has been because of my love of the arts. The Wife -- flighty, goofily overpassionate, very L.A., and physically a blend of Sally Kellerman and Daryl Hannah -- is herself like something out of an Altman movie. You should have seen him light up when he set eyes on her! I even married an Altman woman. Where the arts and the bohemian life go, Altman and Kael were my guides, even my surrogate parents. Nothing special about this: I suspect that they played this role in many thousands of people's lives. Still, I've sometimes wondered what kind of life I'd have led had I not early on encountered those two Altman movies, and had I not read what Kael wrote about them. It certainly would have been a very different affair. I've loved many Altman films with a special fervor. For all their facetiousness, their bleariness, and their fleeting casualness, they seemed to me to have a resonant poetic texture -- to connect with, or evoke, or represent a level of existence where dream, fantasy, and daily life all intermingle. I suppose that what I'm describing was nothing more than an illusion that I experienced. But, hey, this is the arts. The feelings and the sensations that Altman's movies elicited in me were very real, and in the arts it's the experience that finally stays with you when everything else washes away. Altman's movies delivered many of the experiences that I've valued most in my culture-going life. Robert Altman's career was as long and as productive as any American movie director's (possible exception: John Huston). And, IMHO of course, he created as many art-entertainment triumphs as any other filmmaker too. While the Boomer movie directors nearly all burned out young, Altman had several slumps and numerous comebacks. He must have been a freak of nature in terms of resilience, energy, and stamina. While many film directors quit, exhausted, by 60, he continued creating rich experiences into his 80s -- and he did so despite... posted by Michael at November 22, 2006 | perma-link | (13) comments

Thursday, November 9, 2006

"Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- After its strong showing in our recent "Your Favorite Movies from the Past 25 Years" poll, I figured the time had come to catch up with "Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle." Enjoyed it! It's a remarkably sweet-natured entry in the raunchy-teen-boy / road-comedy genre, made fresher than most by its ethnic element. Harold and Kumar are both Asian-American -- a group that hasn't been as prominent as you might hope in American movies and entertainments. Harold is a Korean-American grind, chained to his laptop and anxious unto complete terror around girls; Kumar is a smooth, sly Indian-American dude, in full slacker rebellion against his family's success-and-profession expectations. Both have some deadlines that need attending-to, and both have some personal issues that demand facing. A few tokes, a case of the munchies, and the boys' adventures are underway. Watching the film left me with one observation and two questions. The observation: Did anyone else notice how the film portrays white Americans? Namely as sometimes sexily-attractive, definitely spoiled, often gross, and deeply committed to the process of throwing away their patrimony. It makes a lot of sense that that's how the children of immigrants might see us vanilla folks, doesn't it? My first question is simply: Are the Asian-American archetypes and predicaments that the film traffics in true to life? I'm sadly deficient in Korean-American and Indian-American young-guy friends, and I'm a little wary of taking the film as authoritative on the topic. Its creative team -- Leiner, Hurwitz, Schlossberg -- is notably short on Asian-seeming names. Can any visitors with some experience of Asian-American life let me know their opinion of the truth-content (comic exaggeration allowed for, of course) of the movie? My second question is: Was I the only viewer to be struck by just what good boys these two kids are? They may be raunchy screw-ups, they may have some acting-out they need to do, they may find some temptations all-too-hard to resist. But they're nothing if not good-hearted, nice kids, asking for little more than to be allowed to do well and have a pretty good time. As a fan of comedies, I'm not sure whether I found this authority-accepting thing slightly disappointing or refreshing and invigorating. Best, Michael UPDATE: Thanks to visitor Not Gandhi, who left this very interesting and helpful comment: I'm East Asian (I prefer the term Oriental) and teach a fair number of top notch Asian kids in my classes. I would say that the film (taking into account exaggerations) gives a fair view of many of the central preoccupations of middle-class Asian-Americans, especially in the burbs. There's the tension between the need to do well in school and the fear of not being cool. There's dealing with the pressure from parents to go to the top 10 universities while fighting against the first generation immigrant view that anything other than doctor, lawyer, or Google engineer are not worthy careers. At the same time, I notice... posted by Michael at November 9, 2006 | perma-link | (18) comments

Friday, November 3, 2006

Godard Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Jean-Luc Godard -- earth-shaking genius or perpetually annoying loose tooth? The artist as a radical young pistol What remains today ... * Raoul Coutard, the cinematographer who shot many of the films of Godard's glory years, tells the Guardian that Jean-Luc was prone to temper tantrums. A talented boy, clearly, but also one seriously spoiled brat. (I've often wondered if Godard didn't spend the '60s on speed.) A funny passage from the very caustic Coutard: After finishing Weekend in 1967, Godard made a dramatic announcement. "Jean-Luc rang and asked me to come over," Coutard says. "When I arrived at his apartment, he said to me, 'I've had a revelation. I am a Marxist-Leninist so I can no longer make films with capitalist money.' Actually, it is the leftists who rip you off. If you want to get paid, you work for a good capitalist company, like Gaumont." * IMDB informs me that Coutard recently turned 82 years old. Godard himself will soon turn 76. * Here's a 1973 talk with Godard. Always a peculiar guy, he has a deranged and robotic quality in this interview. Related to the fact that he was in the midst of his Marxist-Leninist phase? * Here's some fascinating if choppy 1980s footage from an interview with Godard and his onetime muse / girlfriend Anna Karina. And doesn't she seem like a hyperdramatic handful! Even so, Karina looks rightly hurt and reproachful as Jean-Luc talks about their life and collaboration in rather callous terms. Finally she gets up in tears and leaves. Looking all too human -- like every guy who has ever stepped on a woman's toes, in fact -- Jean-Luc wears a frozen, defensive, and abashed expression. Asshole! * I wrote about Godard's recent "In Praise of Love" here. This guy's overview of Godard's 1980s work isn't too bad. * Anne Thompson points out that Godard's hard-to-find '60s classic "Two or Three Things I Know About Her" -- a film many Godard buffs consider his best -- will be screening in a new 35 mm print in Los Angeles in late December. * Unrelated but what the heck: Anne links to this hilarious remix of Babs' immortal "STFU." If there's justice in the world, it'll be Streisand's biggest hit in years. * If you've never had the pleasure but are curious about the Godard thang, let me suggest starting with this movie, and then moving on to this one. There's good reason for even squaresville film fans to taste-test Godard. His experiments, while often annoying, were often fascinating, beautiful, and moving too. And, highbrow and radical though he often is, he has been one of the most influential of filmmakers where popular culture is concerned. Quentin Tarantino, for instance, is a fan, and even named his own production company after this Godard movie. But exercise caution, please. Godard's movies can be like a seductive drug, one that feels blissful but that consumes your brain and transforms you into... posted by Michael at November 3, 2006 | perma-link | (5) comments

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Movie Poll Results
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Inspired by Andy Horbal, I recently ran a "Best American Fiction Movie of the Last 25 Years (the Critics Be Damned)" poll. Results are now in and -- shamed into action by Annette -- I've finally pulled them together. Some technical notes. 41 different participants took part -- an excellent turn-out. So as not to give too much weight to the votes of those (er, those of us) who listed dozens of titles, I decided to grant each person a maximum of ten votes; I simply took the first ten movies each person named. I made one substantial ex-cathedra decision: that no movie by the Coen Bros., Woody Allen, or Tim Burton would be allowed. After all, the Coen Bros., the Wood-man, and Mr. Burton are nothing if not critics' darlings. Other judgment calls required finer discrimination. "Body Heat," for example -- was it enough of a popular/anti-critic movie to belong on this list? If so, then how about "Bull Durham"? I tried to err on the side of generosity, but in some cases lowered the boom anyway. Finally: How exactly do we count 25 years? Should the films of 1981 (the year of both "Raiders of the Lost Ark"and "Body Heat") be included or not? I decided to let 'em in. A few observations that occurred to me as I did my tallying: Boys love voting for these kinds of lists more than girls do. The top crowd-pleasin' auteurs of the past 25 years appear to be James Cameron, Tom Shadyac, and the Farrelly Bros. Many Americans aren't as fond of sex-themed films as I am. What's wrong with you people? Sci-fi wasn't as prominent as I'd have expected it to be either. Comedies especially are more highly valued by us Real People than they are by the critics. Action-adventure movies and romantic comedies are too. Are you listening, Critical Establishment? As Ron wrote in a comment: "One thing that strikes me as I look at these lists is how influential many of these movies have been. Internal Affairs, Basic Instinct, Evil Dead, Die Hard, The Terminator, Point Break, Dumb and Dumber, Speed, Fast Times at Ridgemont High: for better or for worse, these movies have cast long, long shadows." The biggest surprise for me: "Ishtar" receiving not one but two votes. The Profile in Courage Award for most-embarrassing / revealing choice took a lot of consideration. It was nothing if not a close race. Annette's fondness for the Brat Pack special "About Last Night" was certainly a hard one to beat. But the very sensitive and cultivated Flutist loves "Meet the Fockers" ... Dan confesses to being a fan of "Con Air" ... And Jewish Atheist loves "Karate Kid." A tough set of competitors! J. Goard signed on for "Frankenhooker" and "Home Alone," and Dr. Weevil nominated "Cherry 2000" and "Killer Klowns from Outer Space." Striking choices -- but, shhhh, I suspect them both of amusing themselves making filmbuff-style mischief. Andy Horbal... posted by Michael at November 1, 2006 | perma-link | (25) comments

Saturday, October 28, 2006

DVD Journal: "Ask the Dust"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Were you as fascinated as I was by the way Robert Towne's film "Ask the Dust" (based on the novel by John Fante) came and went without leaving a trace some months back? The Wife and I caught up with the DVD of the film over the weekend. We didn't love it, but it did get me thinking -- as, admittedly, I'll tend to do anyway -- about now and the 1970s. A bit of filling-in-the-blanks for starters. First, the film's screenwriter / director, Robert Towne. From the the late '60s through the 1980s, Robert Towne was probably the most mysterious and legendary of all working American screenwriters. He had an uncredited hand in gestalt-shifting landmarks such as "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Godfather"; he was a famously shadowy script doctor; and he was the main or only writer behind "The Last Detail," "Shampoo," and (most famously) "Chinatown," a script still used as a model in many screenwriting classes. Robert Towne More than that, though, Towne became a kind of professor / philosopher of the movie business -- an articulate thinking man with access to filmdom's higher truths. Born in 1934, Towne grew up in San Pedro, a port near L.A. He became something new in American culture: not a real-writer wannabe who sold his soul to the movie business, but instead a brainy real writer whose main goal was to write movies. The persona suited the times. In the 1960s and 1970s, art-mad people were taking movies seriously in ways few ever had before in this country. With his professorial, Euro-intellectual's beard and face, his intense-yet-confidential manner, his L.A. connections, his golden touch, and his access to fast-track types (and buddies) like Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, Robert Towne established a new archetype: the backstage-mover-and-shaker / serious-writer / moviemaker / L.A. guy. He seemed an emblem of a new seriousness and depth -- a new adult-ness -- in movies, perhaps even in the culture more generally. How nice too that he moved well, spoke thoughtfully, and looked sexy. What he radiated was "Nobel winner who gets laid a lot," not "introvert-loser with an Underwood." A sexy thinker-creator! You had the feeling that if you could only spend a few minutes with Towne, you'd finally find out how the movies -- the myth and the reality, as well as the love and the money and the dreams ... -- really worked. Then, as the '80s turned into the '90s, Towne began to stumble. He turned to directing and -- though I liked his first two movies, "Pesonal Best" and "Tequila Sunrise" -- they weren't exactly earth-shakers. And the films whose scripts he worked on seemed to get cheesier. He attached his fortunes to Tom Cruise. Fine, of course, but hardly the stuff of misty legend. And "Mission: Impossible"? "Days of Thunder"? Robert, please. Well, a man's gotta pay the bills somehow. Still, his myth-sized reputation never crumbled; everyone seemed to find it convenient to... posted by Michael at October 28, 2006 | perma-link | (15) comments

Monday, October 23, 2006

Movie Polls
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Andy Horbal reports the results of his "Best American Fiction Film of the Last 25 Years" poll here. Messrs. Scorsese and Tarantino will not be displeased. Have you voted in the 2Blowhards' own "Your Favorite American Fiction Film of the Last 25 Years, The Critics Be Damned" poll yet? I'll keep the lines open for two more days and then total the results up. Vote here. Me, I'm rooting for "Showgirls." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 23, 2006 | perma-link | (0)

Thursday, October 12, 2006

David Koepp's Track on "Stir of Echoes"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Back here and here, a bunch of us swapped recommendations of DVDs with worthwhile commentary tracks. I have a new one to add to the list, David Koepp's track on "Stir of Echoes." (Amazon, Netflix.) The film -- which Koepp wrote and directed from a Richard Matheson novel -- is well worth a look in its own right: an understated and gritty little horror movie, with effectively-sprung and resonant scares; scads of working-class Chicago atmosphere; and super-committed and first-class character work from all the actors, led by Kevin Bacon and Kathryn Erbe. Koepp's remarks and observations add a lot. Though he's a well-known and successful screenwriter who has worked with Steven Spielberg and Brian De Palma, "Stir of Echoes" was only his second time out as a director. He talks about the film from the point of view of someone who's still a learner, still unsure of himself. And he's open, frank, and articulate about his discoveries, successes and failures. Not yet a Recognized Master, Koepp keeps the pretentiousness to a minimum and instead wonders out loud about practical narrative-entertainment matters. Why do so many digital effects seem so weightless? What's the difference between shooting a two-person scene conventionally and getting it all in one shot? How to deliver the expected (and needed) genre elements with enough of a twist to make them feel fresh? When to jump into a character's point of view, and how to justify the move? What can a director do to keep the screen alive and the audience awake when he has an awkward chunk of exposition that needs relating? Where moviechat goes I usually love discussions like these far more than high-falutin' "criticism." Critics often seem to enjoy the fantasy that filmmakers have ideas on their minds. They want to think of their favorite filmmakers as philosphers, or as giants with visions. But as far as I've ever been able to tell, it's the mundane, "Good lord, how do we put this across?" questions that consume 95% of a filmmaker's brainwattage. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 12, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

"Prairie" on DVD
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I notice that the Robert Altman / Garrison Keillor "A Prairie Home Companion" is now available on DVD. (Amazon, Netflix.) I loved the movie and wrote about it here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 12, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Digital-Movie Future
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Interesting thoughts about the digital-movie future from George Lucas and Matt Hanson. Time to get used to the term "Cinema 2.0," I guess. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 11, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Another Movie-List Game
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- What's your favorite WWII movie? Link thanks to Anne Thompson, who comes up with some inspired candidates. Hmmmm: I'm offhand tempted to vote for Peckinpah's "Cross of Iron," or maybe Boorman's "Hope and Glory." Have you voted yet in Andy Horbal's "Best American Fiction Movie of the Last 25 Years" poll? Then go here. Or in my "Your Favorite American Fiction Movie of the Last 25 Years, Critics Be Damned" poll? Then go here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 11, 2006 | perma-link | (25) comments

Monday, October 9, 2006

Chute Links
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- David Chute swaps some emails with "Santeria" director Benny Matthews, and points out that the top-drawer film scholar David Bordwell is now blogging. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 9, 2006 | perma-link | (0)
Simon on Rupert
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Although Simon Callow thinks that Rupert Everett's new book is the best theatrical memoir since Noel Coward's, he doesn't fail to get in some sly digs too: We goody-goodies are inclined to believe that it is the audience's fun that matters more than the performers', but Rupert's commitment to his position is absolute and principled: in the end, for him, all that matters is that the actor should blaze with unfettered charisma. The moment he saw the film of Mary Poppins, a "giant and deranged ego was born" and he knew, he says, that he must find a new personality to express it. Miaow! Callow is an amazingly canny writer-about-acting, btw. There are very few who are in his class. Writing well about acting is a hard (and rare) thing to do. For Callow at his best, try his classic biography of Charles Laughton. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 9, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Saturday, October 7, 2006

Films for Men
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I found Jeremy Knox's annotated "Top Ten Movies for Men" true to the Testosterone Within, as well as pretty fuckin' funny. "Fuckin'" is key, btw. Real men say "fuckin'" a lot. Nice passage: Women have never been able to accept that guys do stupid things. They've tried for centuries to reign in that mad energy and they've never been able to. Feminists say that women can do anything a man can do. Fine ... let's see Gloria Steinheim drive her car while lying on the hood and having to reach inside the car with her right arm to steer (after she flicked on the cruise control of course). No. Only men can do, and think up, shit like this. Women think it's crazy, men think its fun ... All real men are nihilists. We don't have causes and we don't believe in the future that will never come. If we fight it's only to show off how tough we are. Women plan for tomorrow, men blow shit up today! Cojones-clacking Real Men struggle with the apostrophe-thang occasionally too. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 7, 2006 | perma-link | (17) comments

New Oscars
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Given that movies-watched-on-DVD now outnumber movies-watched-in-theaters by a factor of roughly ten billion, hasn't the time come to create Oscar categories for the likes of "Best Menu," "Best Extras," "Best Outtakes," and "Best Performance on a Commentary Track"? Yours, Michael... posted by Michael at October 7, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Bizarre Animation
MIchael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- This strange and brilliant computer-animated short is a little Pixar, a little "Triplets of Belleville," and a little Jan Svankmeyer: >Baginski - Fallen Art - video powered by Metacafe Thanks to Charlton Griffin for turning it up and passing it along. (Charlton also turns up a hilarious Bollywood spoof -- at least I take it to be a spoof -- of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video.) Here's a website that was created for the film, which won a BAFTA award for best animated short. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 4, 2006 | perma-link | (0)
The Polls
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Have you cast your vote in Andy Horbal's "Best Film of the Last 25 Years" poll yet? No? Well, then, get thee hence. Have you made some nominations yet in my alterna-poll, "Films You Enjoyed Most From the Last 25 Years, Critics Be Damned"? No? Well, then, head there now. Civic duty calls. It's crucial to let your voice be heard where important issues are concerned. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 4, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Sunday, October 1, 2006

Andy Horbal's Best-Of Poll
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- At his movieblog, Andy Horbal is running a "What's the best American fiction film of the last 25 years?" poll. Lots of fun nominations in the comments. Anne Thompson muses a bit and finally casts her vote for "Unforgiven." I pitched in with a couple of semi-meant / semi-spoofy candidates: "Ace Ventura, Pet Detective" (because I couldn't think of another movie from this stretch that made me laugh as much, and because I think comedy is always undervalued), and "Basic Instinct," mainly because, critics be damned, I think it's pretty great. I wrote about "Basic Instinct" here. Go here to place a vote in Andy's poll yourself. I had two main thoughts on following the posting and the nominations. The first was how out of tune I've grown with the kinds of American movies that today's filmbuffs prefer. I nearly always don't care for them. It's really remarkable how consistently I diverge from typical film-buff opinion: the Coen Brothers; Steven Soderbergh; Todd Haynes; "Fight Club"; Todd Solondz; the Charlie Kaufman movies; most David Lynch (some sexy scenes excepted); all of Erroll Morris; 99% of Spike Lee; everything Wes Anderson has ever done, thought, or touched ... I just haven't had a good time at these movies. Well, perhaps the time has come to consider the possibility that I no longer qualify as a filmbuff. My second thought was the usual one I have when encountering such a poll: What's really meant by it? Incidentally, I like following such polls, and I'm a fan of arts-lists. But part of the fun of them for me is fretting over them, not to say nitpicking. So this posting is intended as an extension and elaboration of Andy's poll, not as a refutation or critique of it. Go, go, entrepreneurial bloggers! What's really meant when someone says, "This is the best film of the year?" Is some lofty Considered Critical Judgment being laid on us? That just makes me want to burp, fart, and throw mud. Or is filling out best-of lists simply another way some people have of saying "Hey, here are some films I enjoyed a whole lot"? If so, then why not be more direct about the fact that personal preference is at work? I find myself wondering about the psychology of critics. What on earth could motivate anyone to even want to elevate personal response into historical ranking? Doesn't scrambling the "Is it good?" question with the "Did I enjoy it?" question do a disservice to many other potentially rewarding culturechats? I can, after all, recognize that some films (or paintings, or symphonies, etc) are "good" or even "great" without caring for them much myself. That's a fun conversation I'd hate to see fail to take place. And isn't another super-common culture-life experience that of having a blast at a, say, movie that you can't imagine anyone calling "good," let alone "great"? For me, keeping in touch with the junk I enjoy (and musing... posted by Michael at October 1, 2006 | perma-link | (49) comments

More YouTube
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Thanks to Dave Lull, who passed along this excellent Terry Teachout piece for the Wall Street Journal. In it, Terry rhapsodizes about what a gold mine YouTube is for music lovers. 2Blowhards has, of course, been posting links to terrific music clips for a while now. (Here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here.) At his own blog, Terry has created what's unquestionably the ultimate music-lover's guide to YouTube -- in the right-hand column, about halfway down, you'll find a very lengthy list of links to music clips. I've watched and listened to mucho great stuff, and I've only just begun to make a dent in it. A sample quote from Terry's piece: By posting this list of links, I have, in effect, created a Web-based fine-arts video-on-demand site. The irony is that I did so just as network TV was getting out of the culture business. And isn't there a lot of valuable culture-watching behind those two sentences? In celebration of YouTube, of music-on-video, of Terry in the WSJ, and of a real nice autumn day, here's a YouTube discovery of my own: that hard-swinging, sweetly-eccentric keyboard gent Erroll Garner, performing "All the Things You Are" in 1972. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 1, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

It's Chevrolet Time
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Lex turns up a clip on YouTube that'll ... Well, if you spent any time during the '60s watching television, these are names, faces, and voices that will bring it all back. Now, whether that's a good thing or a bad thing ... And those "Jetsons"-era wheels! I remember owning a Corvair, and thinking a Chevelle was a pretty hot number. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 1, 2006 | perma-link | (6) comments

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Best-Of Vids
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Here's a nice resource: someone's list of the Best of Google Video. No webcam pole-dancers, no laser pointer/kitty clips, and no skateboard crashes, just real brain fodder -- Richard Dawkins, Amartya Sen, Milton Friedman, and Richard Feynman, among others. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 27, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Rewind: The History of The Director
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Thumbing through our archives, I ran across an old posting of mine that I'd since forgotten. Since the information in it still strikes me as pretty interesting, I thought I'd give it a re-run. EZ blogging! Here goes: I found myself the other day wondering for the first time: when did the job of "the director" get created? I'm surprised the question never occurred to me before. After all, these days we take it for granted that behind any theatrical/film production there must be a director figure. But has this in fact always been the case? Was the initial presentation of Mozart's "Idomeneo" pulled together by a director, for instance? Were Shakespeare's plays put on the boards and given a style by a director? And if so, who were these people? I spent a little time websurfing and thumbing through history and reference books, and came up with what appear to be the basics. The date "the director" first appeared? Not until the mid-1800s. The Greek tragedies, Shakespeare's romances, Mozart's operas, etc -- all were put on without a director. Theater and opera were performer-, playwright-, and impresario-driven things for centuries. (A stage manager often helped pull the shows together, but always from a subservient position.) Then, in the mid-1800s, for reasons I don't fully understand yet, it began to be felt that things were getting out of hand. Actors were out there too much on their own -- some coordination was needed. Within a few decades, the job of "director" as we know it today came into being. In opera, Wagner orchestrated his productions (theatrically as well as musically) in ways that had never been done before. In England, a playwright named T.W. Robertson started doing something that we might today think of as directing his own plays. One source credits him as the first director, and nails the date this way: "In 1864, at the Prince of Wales Theater." Another source argues that the director evolved in response to the entertainment demands of the new urban middle class, who didn't like aristocratic theater and yet who didn't want to rub shoulders with the burlesque-lovin' proletariat either. In Germany, the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen devoted himself to the idea of ensemble work, and sponsored a troupe that toured Europe during the 1870s and 1880s. The Russians were especially impressed -- hence Stanislavsky, and, via turn-of-the-century immigration, hence the American Method too. The challenge was initially thought to be to get the showoffs and prima donnas, er, the actors and performers to work together instead of competing. Soon, though, directors began to coordinate the other production elements too (costumes, design, lighting, etc). Was this a Good Thing? A power-grab? I find it interesting that these developments were taking place not too long after the role of the orchestra conductor took shape -- orchestral music of the 1600s and 1700s was generally presented conductor-free -- and that it overlaps the period during which Impressionism was finding... posted by Michael at September 23, 2006 | perma-link | (9) comments

Friday, September 22, 2006

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- So Kate and Spencer were both bi ... ? (Link thanks to Anne Thompson.) Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 22, 2006 | perma-link | (11) comments

Moviegoing: "The Black Dahlia"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Do we all have a geeky side? Ie., some topic or subject in which we so love to lose ourselves that we just don't care whether it speaks to -- or is of any conceivable use to -- outsiders? My own geekiness has to do with movies. Oh, I can be (and I enjoy being) an adult about movies. I'm interested in the art, the craft, the audiences, the technology, the history, the experience, etc. And my responsible artsguy side is ever-wary of over-specialization and ingrown-ness. I'm convinced that artforms thrive only when sparky exchanges are taking place between artists, audiences, businesspeople, critics, etc. Still, still ... I do have my reckless-film-geek side too. It doesn't matter to me in the least, for instance, that Robert Altman hasn't connected with a big audience since "M*A*S*H", or that almost everyone despises the films of Catherine Breillat. I love some Altman and Breillat movies with an unreasonable passion, and that's all that really matters to me. In fact, I'd hardly have any interest in movies at all if it weren't for the highs of such experiences. (I wrote here about the joys of indulging my edgy-movieguy side; here about "Brief Crossing," a Breillat picture that I adored; and here about Altman's recent, and lovely, "A Prairie Home Companion.") Josh and Scarlett Which leads me to "The Black Dahlia," Brian De Palma's film of James Ellroy's novel. Amazon viewer-reviews are barely nudging into the three-star region; mainstream critic-reviews have been lukewarm at best. I have no trouble understanding why most moviegoers would leave the film feeling dissatisfied. On a conventional story-and-character level, the film is clearly both hard to engage with and tough to follow. 90% of the time, I'm someone who's eager to argue that the story-and-character level is the most fundamental level that a work of narrative fiction exists on. But, y'know, I have (and had) no interest in judging "The Black Dahlia." What am I, a critic? I should think not! And I can report that I watched "The Black Dahlia" in a state of near-complete bliss. Narrative, character, and clarity -- pffft to all that! With the film's opening shots, my Inner Film Geek kicked in. I spent the next couple of hours completely absorbed in abstract film-geek concerns: staging, lighting, editing, composition, style, film-history mischief, movement. What could be more fun? Among directors of big-budget, narrative-driven films Brian De Palma is a unique case. Though he has an avant-garde mind and talent -- he's a film geek himself, and nothing if not provocative and style-obsessed -- he's also drawn to large-scale popular entertainments. For a few years, he had the public's pulse. The hits he made during that stretch ("Carrie," "Dressed to Kill," "Scarface") made him a major director of commercial films -- a status he still enjoys even though he has since lost his feeling for the taste of the general public. These days, he makes big narrative movies that are... posted by Michael at September 22, 2006 | perma-link | (25) comments

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

"A Little Princess" On Sale
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- This week's 2Blowhards-endorsed onsale DVD is Alfonso Cuaron's magical 1995 version of Frances Hodgson Burnett's "A Little Princess," now available at Amazon for $6.97. A sweeping, imaginative, and touching (grown men have been known to sniffle) children's film set in England in the early 20th century, it somehow merges Dickens and the Ramayana. Sticklers for faithfulness to Burnett's original novel will be displeased, but others might find this sensual, audacious, and intoxicating film a candidate for a place in the best-ever kids'-film pantheon, alongside "National Velvet," "The Wizard of Oz" and "The Black Stallion." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 20, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Gap Defaces Movie History
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Sheigh thinks that The Gap ought to be ashamed of itself for what it has done to the work of Audrey Hepburn, Hubert de Givenchy, and Stanley Donen. Paramount, who leased the rights to use "Funny Face" in this way, ought to be double-ashamed, IMHO. With a score (mostly) by the Gershwins and a story said to be inspired by the career of Richard Avedon, "Funny Face" is stylish, touching fluff, and one of the most charming of the big splashy '50s musicals. The DVD version of the film can be bought for $9.95. Best, Michael UPDATE: Thanks to Ken Hirsch, who points out a good and informative obituary of the film's screenwriter, Leonard Gershe.... posted by Michael at September 15, 2006 | perma-link | (5) comments

Thursday, September 14, 2006

More DVD Bargains
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- OK, so I spend more time than is healthy browsing the online bargain bins. Still, I turn up some finds. Why not pass 'em along? "Vanya on 42nd Street" is Louis Malle and Andre Gregory's informal-yet-spellbinding version of the great Chekhov play: $8.47. Michael Tolkin's "The Rapture," a quietly freaky, one-of-a-kind little picture about sex and redemption: $7.97. Andrew Fleming's "Threesome" has been described (approvingly! by me!) as "'Jules and Jim' meets 'Porky's'": $8.47. Anh Hung Tran's Vietnamese family drama "The Vertical Ray of the Sun" may be too exquisitely poetic for its own good, but its perfume-ad gorgeousness still casts a sensual spell: $8.47. Those are some fine movies, and some goooooooood prices. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 14, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

TV Alert -- "Sunrise"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards-- F.W. Murnau's silent movie "Sunrise" will be shown on TCM on September 17 at 12:00 a.m. Set the DVR: Though it has been an influential movie, and though it has often been proclaimed one of the best-evers, "Sunrise" has for many years been one of the hardest-to-find-and-see of all the great movies. Quick film-appreciation lesson: Murnau (who worked in Germany, came to America, and died young) was worshipped for the eloquence and virtuosity of his tracking shots, for the soulful beauty of his use of light and shade, and for the way he tied all the elements of film together -- at a very early stage in the medium's history -- into a pulsing artistic unity. This is a rare chance to catch a genuinely legendary movie. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 14, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Saturday, September 9, 2006

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Who are the people who make up the MPAA, the movie industry's rating board? And what qualifies them to rate movies? Filmmaker Kirby Dick had the inspired idea not just to ask these questions but to make a movie about them. It's entitled "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," and it has just been released with an NC-17 rating of its own. The answer, by the way, is that the MPAA is mostly made up not of parents, psychologists, etc, but of film-industry people. Dick speaks to C.H.U.D. about his discoveries. In one passage, he clears up a lot of mysteries: This is not a moralistic ratings structure, it's very much bottom-line driven. I think the MPAA, if they had their choice, wouldn't have any ratings at all. But if there is going to be one, they want to control it because they want to make sure their films get out to the widest possible marketplace, and to do that they want to make sure their films get the least restrictive ratings. Which explains why violence gets off so easy -- their target audience right now is adolescents, and violent films appeal to adolescents. That's why they make sure those films get off easy in the rating system. But look at their competition, which is independent films and foreign films -- they tend to make films with more mature themes and more adult sexuality. It's those films that get the NC-17 rating. I wrote a posting about America's embrace of adolescent values here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 9, 2006 | perma-link | (10) comments

A New "Blair Witch Project"?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Is star YouTube videoblogger (200,000 views per posting) LonelyGirl15 a real live lonelygirl or just someone's publicity ploy? Doubts have arisen. UPDATE: Doubts have been confirmed. Best, Micahel... posted by Michael at September 9, 2006 | perma-link | (6) comments

DVDs On Sale
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Those who, like me, enjoy snagging bargains on DVDs can treat themselves to good Netflix deals on a few of the movies that I've praised here at the blog: "Red Eye," "Being Julia," and "Overnight." They're currently $5.95 each -- the kind of price that makes my Inner Primal Hunter emit sighs of very deep satisfaction. I wrote about "Red Eye" here; "Being Julia" here; and "Overnight" here. Netflix's sales page is here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 9, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Wednesday, September 6, 2006

"The Legend of Hell House"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The film I enjoyed most in the past few weeks was John Hough's 1973 "The Legend of Hell House." (Amazon, Netflix.) Despite a title that suggests scares for teens, it's a subtle and classy haunted-house movie for grown-ups -- something akin to "The Innocents," or to the recent Nicole Kidman-starring "The Others." Pamela Franklin -- self-possessed yet vulnerable as a dewy, straitlaced medium -- is the standout in a very good cast that also includes Roddy McDowall and Gayle Hunnicutt. The film is a reminder of how adult genre movies could once be: erotically aware (in a discreet yet intense way), psychologically shrewd, and put together with quiet flair and surprising sophistication. Is it really true that even trashy, commercial movies once took it for granted that the audience's antennae would be able to register undertones, hints, and major/minor shifts? I guess so. If the film's climax isn't much more than serviceable, well, the journey getting there provides a lot of chilly-spooky fun. Question for the day: What is it about '70s lighting and design that can be so hypnotic? Here's a look at the films of John Hough, who also directed one of my favorite B road movies from the '70s, "Dirty Mary Crazy Larry." I notice that Pamela Franklin started off as a child actor, appeared in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brody," and quit show business in the early 1980s. Here's a small picture gallery of Pamela Franklin in "The Legend of Hell House." Ever-so-slightly NSFW, I guess -- but in 1973, this combo of nudity, intensity, and lusciousness was labeled PG, not NSFW. Different times ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 6, 2006 | perma-link | (8) comments

Monday, August 28, 2006

Film, Digital Video, Effects
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I've made two minute-long YouTube digital video masterpieces (here and here) ... I've just watched "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," an all-digital fantasy spectacle from 2004 ... Why, it must be time for some Immense Thoughts about the nature of film and the nature of digital video! Quick version: Film. The upside: The results, even when awful in many respects, often have something of mystery and eros about them. The downside: As a process, traditional filmmaking is beyond cumbersome, intransigent, expensive, and remote. Digital video. The upside: As a process and a medium, it's relatively easy, inexpensive, and convenient. The downside: The results tend to the flat, the literal, and the charm-free. Film has poetry in it. As we stare ever deeper into the light, bewitched by the crystalline organic nature of the medium itself, the experience can be like staring into a lover's eyes, or having a religious vision. Incidentally, feel free to laugh at my little prose rhapsody. But this characteristic of film has been noted since the beginning of film history. It can also be worth remembering that -- however tacky a thing a bad movie can be -- the 20th century is probably more likely to be remembered as the era of movies than of any of the more lofty arts. It can be fun to muse a bit about what it was about movies that so fascinated so many for so long. Despite its irresistable attractions, digital video delivers nothing but information. It's bizarrely literal-minded, registering nothing but the empirical facts, and oblivious to auras and inner lights. You might say that it's an autistic medium. Laugh at the generalization -- but as moviemaking goes digital, these are some of the issues that cinematographers and manufacturers of cameras, etc., are actually wrestling with. Is video's flatness a consequence of its restricted lattitude? Will tape shot at 24 frames per second (ie., at film-speed) cast more of a spell than tape shot at 30 fps (the usual speed of videotaping)? Or perhaps digital video should just give up the quest to deliver more film-like results and try to be itself instead? Yet even there ... Well, what to make of the fact that, while film grain has properties that many people find arty and attractive, almost no one finds digital-video "noise" anything but headache-making? These are all lively and current debates. Film often seems to pick up the ineffable -- the core of Being. Looking closer, you enter (for better or worse, btw) into the Self, into love, into the nature of film itself. With digital-video ... Well, you harvest a lot of pixels, then bring the information into your computer and start playing with it there. A word about "Sky Captain": I didn't mind it. Like Robert Rodriguez's "Sin City," the live action was shot in HDTV entirely against green screens; backgrounds and surroundings were composited and painted in digitally after the fact. The film (written and... posted by Michael at August 28, 2006 | perma-link | (6) comments

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

People in Public
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm having occasional fun messing around with Apple's mom-and-pop video-editing software iMovie. My latest creation, currently moving up the charts at YouTube: My previous effort can be watched here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 22, 2006 | perma-link | (6) comments

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Who Needs TV?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Will the YouTube awesomeness never end? Lex turns up a high-energy -- and genuinely rocking -- ukelele-based version of "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker": Colleen unearths some staggering (and, apparently, all in one shot) treadmill-choreography: I'm beginning to consider unloading my conventional Sony ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 16, 2006 | perma-link | (7) comments

Monday, August 14, 2006

Spotted: Oldie on YouTube!
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- 78-year-old Geriatric1927 brings some of the ol' cranky-'n'-peevish to a new-media landscape otherwise dominated by ADD-afflicted 14-year-olds: Show 'em the way, gramps! Best, Michael UPDATE: I'm so yesterday -- here's a Reuters piece from Sunday about Geriatric1927. Interesting fact: 100 million clips are now watched on YouTube every day.... posted by Michael at August 14, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

The Cultural Significance of Webcam Girls, Part One
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I received a fun email from a visitor -- I love it when that happens! -- asking, in a friendly way, why I keep linking to inane YouTube videos featuring webcam girls. Aren't there more important cultural developments, and even more important movie developments, to be taking note of? This posting is Part One of my response to my correspondent's question. Hard though it is for me to write in straight-faced earnestness, I'm going to give it a real try. First off: Well, sure, maybe, who knows? But since when does 2Blowhards get hung up over what's important and what's not important? Who knows which developments from 2006 the future is going to look back on and dub important anyway? Predicting the future is a mug's game, if an often enjoyable one. Second off -- and don't let the rubes and the saps know about this, but -- despite the carryings-on of the official cultureworld, very, very few cultural developments are of real importance. Styles and trends come and go; they resonate with you or they don't. Which is great and cool ... But how many are make-it-into-the-history-books important? Let me suggest visiting your local library's archives and leafing through some of the highbrow magazines from, say, 1970 or 1940. 99.9% of what preoccupied the culture-chat set then has been forgotten. (Incidentally, some of it might well be worth taking a fresh look at too.) My response to this fact is to wonder: So why do the culture-chat authorities carry on in such puffed-up ways? And why do the rest of us take them so seriously? Tentative answers: Many members of the culture-set are over-intellectual people desperate for gigs as professional taste-commissars. Many of us seem to want Voices from On High delivering enlightenment, and -- sadly -- we turn to these fools for our guidance. Tragic, no? Funny, no? The notion that there are crucial "issues" in our era that artists and intellectuals need, simply need, to be "dealing with" gives me the giggles. And the idea that our culture-chat set is able to locate and nail down these issues has me on the floor cracking up. Are they really that perceptive? And are we really that un-perceptive? If the culture-chat crowd has some contributions to make, then great. But why should we let the profs, flakes, eggheads, and critics get away with bullying -- with dictating which developments and works are to be taken note of, let alone how we discuss 'em? As to why I feature webcam girls: Let me be upfront about the "cute" factor and the "novelty" factor. Never underestimate the cheesy and exploitative character of your friendly blog-host! Anyway: What a funny world we live in, eh? Where kids in bedrooms broadcast themselves to the world. I enjoy taking the occasional peek into these goings-on, and I assume a few visitors might too. All that said, I do have some convictions -- er, hunches -- about what really... posted by Michael at August 14, 2006 | perma-link | (16) comments

Wednesday, August 9, 2006

3 Signpost Movies
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards-- Girish's list of "signpost films" -- films that have been moviewatching turning-points for him -- got me wondering about my own. I chewed on the question for a while and came up with three: "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" -- sold me on movies as a great art and entertainment medium. Prior to seeing "McCabe," I was curious about movies but as yet unconvinced. Afterwards, I was one hungry moviebuff. "Claire's Knee" -- sold me on the foreign-film thing. Prior to seeing "Claire's Knee," I'd found foreign films disappointing. I think I was looking for them to be like American films, only better. Watching "Claire's Knee," I woke up to the fact that, no, they aren't the same only better, they're different. Okay, so I was a very dumb kid ... "Being John Malkovich" -- made me realize that I'd lost the pulse of new movies. Prior to seeing "John Malkovich," I was still keeping up with new movies, if at increasing personal cost. Watching the film, I realized that -- if this was what bright people thought was a cool and smart film -- the time had come for me to get off the bus. The winner for "signpost film" originality is Andy Horbal, who lists three surprising but plausible non-films. Alton Brown: auteur! Fun to see that Girish is every bit the Altman and De Palma nut I am. I wrote about "Femme Fatale" here. What have been some of your own signpost films? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 9, 2006 | perma-link | (25) comments

Friday, August 4, 2006

That Mel Thing
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- What to make of Mel's drunken anti-Semitic spoutings? For one very basic thing: Are we justified in assuming that what people say when smashed always represents their real views? For another: Do his remarks provide definitive proof for those who accused "The Passion of the Christ" of anti-Semitism? More generally: How much are we entitled to read into the art what we think we know about the artist? I'm not generally of the "alcohol-fueled ravings reveal the Real Truth about a person" school, are you? A nice passage from Laurence Auster: Alcohol not only releases the unattractive and disorderly sides of ourselves that we normally keep in check, it may introduce aggressive and belligerent impulses that we normally don't feel at all. To conclude that what a person says while in a state of extreme intoxication when his faculty of self-control has been suspended is what the person "really" believes is to cancel him out as a moral being. Judgment is part of what makes us human. It is wrong to judge a person for what he says when his judgment has been removed. I haven't watched "The Passion of the Christ" and may never do so (the story doesn't speak to me); and my main reaction to the brouhaha has been to think, "Wow, can you come up with many movie stars as handsome as Mel who have lost their looks as young as he has? Is that what booze can do?" So my views aren't to be paid attention to. Rod Dreher's ruminations, though, are well worth a wrestle: here, here, here, here, here, and here. Rod's visitors add a lot to the discussion too. Best, Michael UPDATE: Anne Thompson recalls meeting Gibson a few times.... posted by Michael at August 4, 2006 | perma-link | (27) comments

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Singing Nun
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The things you run across when you research a topic! Nuns, for instance. Remember the Singing Nun, aka Soeur Sourire? "Dominique-nique-nique," etc? The song was not only the #1 pop hit in 1964, it prevented "Louie Louie" from getting to #1. It was also the only Belgian pop tune ever to make it to #1 in America. In 1965, Debbie Reynolds portrayed Soeur Sourire in a popular movie, "The Singing Nun." Swingin' Chicks calls Soeur Sourire "the unlikeliest pop star ever." I can't say that I'd given Soeur Sourire a thought in decades. But now I know her life story: Art school, then the convent. Urged on by fellow nuns, she recorded "Dominique." She left the convent and shacked up with a girlfriend -- there's apparently some controversy about whether the two women were sexually involved. Her record contract was canceled after the Singing Nun novelty-thing wore off. She started and ran a school for autistic kids. And -- when the Belgian government pursued her for taxes they said were owed on her Singing Nun earnings -- she and her girlfriend committed suicide. Here's the bio. Here's Wikipedia. Here's a site devoted to her. Here's an interview with a fan and author. Here's a YouTube video of Soeur Sourire in action. Here she sings her big hit to a disco beat. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 27, 2006 | perma-link | (7) comments

DVD Journal: "School of the Holy Beast"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- One of the reasons that becoming a movie buff is appealing is that it's so easy. Especially these DVD days, watching movies doesn't involve the hard work of plowing through books, let alone making pilgrimages to museums or concert halls. Another appealing factor is that movie history is finite. With an artform like music: Well, who knows where it starts and ends? But movies have only been around for a little over a hundred years. It's a manageable field; it can be done. A couple of years of intense movie-watching enhanced by wrestles with a dozen-ish books of history and criticism, and you emerge a fully certified cinephile. Yet even an artform as recent as movie history has its oddball nooks and crannies, and even as longterm a moviebuff as I am can still encounter the unexpected -- even an entirely unfamiliar genre. The other night, tipped-off by a young friend who loves stylish movie schlock above all things, the Wife (also a longterm moviebuff -- talk about a marriage made in heaven!) and I watched Norifumi Suzuki's 1974 "School of the Holy Beast." (Amazon, Netflix.) Together The Wife and I have put in over 60 years of regular filmgoing, yet "School of the Holy Beast" was an entirely new one on us: our very first exposure to a trash genre known as "nunsploitation." As the name suggests, nunsploitation films focus -- in (it's hoped and expected) reprehensible ways -- on convents, novices, mothers superior, crucifixes, wimples, spiritual agonies ... corruption ... lesbianism ... flagellations ... horny priests ... pits of hell ... Yeah, baby! Gotta love those oversexed, exhibitionistic, and self-torturing Catholics. Where would movies be without 'em? Given my near-total inexperience with the genre, I'll refrain from generalizing any more about it. The curious can find out more here and here. "School of the Holy Beast" is cherished by nunsploitation aficionados -- ain't it great that such a thing as a "nunsploitation aficionado" exists? -- as one of the most extreme examples of the genre ever, and The Wife and I had a wonderful time watching it. Mainly we were experiencing camp/schlock bliss: The movie is nothing if not a straightfaced, overheated, peculiar, unselfconsciously zany piece of outrageousness. Its story involves a swingin' 1970s chick who enters a convent in order to discover the secret of her background. Nasty secrets are unearthed, believe you me. Part of the film's zaniness is a function of the 1970s: the fashions, the hairstyles, the attitudes ... The zooms, the lighting, the jumpcuts ... Is there a piece of '70s exploitation cinema that doesn't make you exclaim, "Hey, I bet Tarantino was ripping this off when he made 'Kill Bill'!" Another contributor to the zaniness is the film's Japanese-ness. The Wife and I stared at the Sony thinking, "A Japanese convent? A Japanese mother superior? What can Catholicism mean to the Japanese?" It turns out that there was a fairly successful Catholic movement in Japan beginning... posted by Michael at July 27, 2006 | perma-link | (11) comments

Friday, July 21, 2006

DVD Journal: "8 MM 2"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- There's little I enjoy more than scavenging through the bargain and used bins at DVD stores. Any disc that costs less than $10 is something I consider fair game. My reasoning goes this way: If I watch a ten dollar DVD with The Wife, that's a movie we've been able to see for only $5 per person. Even if I watch my $10 disc alone, the experience has cost me no more than a NYC movie-theater ticket. Plus I then get to give the disc away to a friend or relative. Greedy, cheap, and generous -- hard to resist a chance to embody that combo of virtues. The other night, The Wife and I watched one of my bargain-bin finds: "8 MM 2: Unrated and Exposed." We put it in the player anticipating something cheesy, tacky, raunchy, and -- with luck -- hot. In other words, something to pick apart and to be catty about. In fact, the film turned out to be not only not-bad but pretty good. Despite what struck us as some goofs -- the main one being the unrelievedness of its somber tone -- we both watched the film alertly and with interest. We liked what the filmmakers were doing, and we liked that they were doing it with conviction. And, yes, it had a decent number of hot moments -- an achievement I have the highest respect for. Although a sex thriller, and despite its cheeseball title, the film (which stars Jonathan Schaech and Lori Heuring, and which was directed by J.S. Cardone) isn't what you'd expect: a zero-budget, talentless "Basic Instinct" ripoff. Amusingly, it turns out that the film wasn't even made as a sequel to the original "8 MM." Its working title was "The Velvet Side of Hell." It seems that someone behind the film decided at the last minute to market it as a sequel. Some of the angry reviews at Amazon indicate that this was in fact a dumb idea. Many of the reviewers pan the film simply because they were angered to discover that it isn't a genuine sequel. Fair enough. But, hey, the people who actually made the film (director, actors, etc), didn't know it was going to be marketed as a sequel either. The Italians do movie posters soooo much better than we do ... Despite some flubs and weaknesses, "8 MM 2" has a lot going for it: tension 'n' atmosphere, opulent Euro-cinematography, classy/sinister Eastern European locales (you can apparently get a lot for your production dollar in Budapest), daring performances and -- what's rare these days -- some commitment to the project on the part of the whole team, who cook up a handful of tangy and provocative situations and then present them with real heat. (If the plot sags ... Well, I cut any film that isn't afraid of quiet, anticipation, desperation, mood, and fear a lot of slack.) It didn't come entirely as a surprise to hear --... posted by Michael at July 21, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Video Highlights
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- ChicagoBoyz enter the very crowded videoblogging space with a rueful charmer. Four stars and two thumbs up. Emmalina, a recognized YouTube master, sets a dancehall tune repeating "Money, success, fame, glamor" to images of herself feeding her guinea pigs. Take that, David Lynch. This is certainly one of the weirdest and most irresistable teen-bedroom-webcam works I've ever watched. Take that, Tim Burton. Here's a supercute way to refresh the lipsynch-a-pop-song bedroom-webcam subgenre. 1,216,003 views so far! That's not a small audience. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 19, 2006 | perma-link | (5) comments

Crunchy Film Criticism
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Rod Dreher suspects that film critics are not like other people. I wrote on a similar topic here. In another posting about movies, Rod muses about how having kids has affected his thinking about popular culture. With all respect for Rod's experience, I ventured this in his comments-thread: All true and good points. At the same time ... I guess I disagree that sex 'n' violence are per se bad things in art 'n' entertainment. "Macbeth," Delacroix, etc ... And I don't think it's "aestheticism" (or at least aestheticism per se) that's to blame for much of the aggressive crappiness of popular culture. Er, commercial imperatives (crossed with a general licentiousness), anyone? Most of the aesthetes I know -- and I guess I'm one of them -- are as appalled by the aggression and intrusiveness of much popular culture as Jerry Falwell is. And I don't think it comes from a lack of respect or concern for kids. We're a culture that's obsessed with children, and with being kid-friendly. Seriously: I haven't traveled a real lot, but in my limited experience Americans put kids at the center of everything in a way most other cultures don't. In most cultures, the adult stretch of life is considered much more important than the kid stretch. And, good lord, look at the number of kiddie movies the filmbiz creates. I'd like to see Hollywood make more adult films. But genuinely adult, with a sense of weight and gravity (or a nicely-judged sense of levity). I'd be happy if they were serious about keeping under-16s from these films too. I dunno. I find it useful to compare popular culture to industrial foods. They're everywhere, they're (generally) awful, it's a real wrestle (though a worthwhile one) to avoid 'em. But what's behind junky popular culture is the same thing that's behind junky food: commercial pressure, political connections, technology, big money, career dreams, the hope of making a ton of dough. All of it "enabled" by our willingness to put up with it. If we'd stop consuming the crap culture that's being peddled at us, they'd stop creating it. I used the junk-culture/junk-food analogy to launch into a lot of musings here. Best, Michael UPDATE: And then I added this to Rod's comments-thread: Sigh: One reason I can't be a full-fledged Crunchy is that I kinda like titillation, exploitation (in the film sense), and the rousing of lower emotions for no particular reason than the sheer thrill of it ... Watched an erotic suspense movie last night whose sole entertainment purpose was to push a few boundaries, and to do so with some real commitment. Enjoyed it! A-OK adult entertainment. God, how I despise the kiddie-fication of American culture. That said, I also agree that it's a problem when the whole culture seems eager to participate in Guilty Pleasures, and I can certainly understand it when parents especially feel concerned about tackiness, raucousness, vulgarity, etc. My dream world: sensibly conservative... posted by Michael at July 19, 2006 | perma-link | (6) comments

M. Night
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Anne Thompson reports on a screening of "Lady in the Water" that didn't go too well. Nice line: "Most of them [bigtime film directors] are parented badly by Hollywood, coddled, indulged, and ego-inflated by agents, producers and studio executives into believing that they are, in fact, God's gift to filmmaking." She also writes about the prospects for the digital downloading of movies. (I like the way she refers to one source as "one Sony digital executive.") Key passage: The reality is that the studios are so invested in such brick-and-mortar video retailers as Wal-Mart and Best Buy and Target that they can't afford to alienate them. The big box retailers represent about 60% of the studios' $24.5 billion in annual DVD revenue. At the recent quarterly meeting at Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., where the studios bid for positioning in their stores, Wal-Mart made clear to the assembled studio home video reps, according to sources, that it does not view digital downloading favorably. And the prospect of Wal-Mart ordering fewer copies of just a title or two sends a chill into studio hearts. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 19, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Saturday, July 15, 2006

"The Sicilian"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Have many filmmakers had careers as peculiar as Michael Cimino's? Cimino started out with a bang. A degree from Yale ... A successful career making TV commercials ... A move to Hollywood that resulted in script sales and a job directing a Clint Eastwood movie ... In 1978, Cimino made a Vietnam epic entitled "The Deer Hunter." The film was a genuine triumph for him. Many people found it to be a beauty; they were moved by it; they took its themes as large statements. Journalists and critics debated the film over and over again. It was a sensation; organizations showered it with awards. Amidst all the respectful controversy and the genuine passions, one thing seemed indisputable: A new Major Filmmaker was among us, one who was set to go on to ever greater things. Move aside, Marty. Make room, Francis. Ever since, though, Cimino has done nothing but stumble. His overblown, cocaine-and-ego-fueled Marxist Western "Heaven's Gate" earned a place in the film-history books as a landmark fiasco. It was a critical disaster, and was so expensive yet unpopular with the public that its failure brought down the studio that produced it. "Heaven's Gate" is even sometimes said to have put the definitive end to America's '70s "personal filmmaking" era. Here's a clip from the film. That's a lot of large-scale, elegiac filmmakin' for the sake of very little in the way of story or character. Cimino licked his wounds for a few years. When he returned in 1985, it was with an Oliver-Stone-scripted Chinatown cop thriller, "Year of the Dragon," that was clearly intended to establish his bona fides as a filmmaker who could work on schedule and on budget. Yet, although the film did OK with the public and was nothing if not convincingly professional, Cimino himself didn't really bounce back. The mojo was gone. The critics stopped making a case for him. The public stopped caring. The movie world generally had moved on too, into the post-great-filmmaker era. Cimino -- nothing if not a great filmmaker wannabe -- has since dribbled out a movie every five years or so, to wider and wider yawns. When "Sunchaser" was released in 1996, hardly anyone noticed. Michael Cimino had been swept under the rug. As far as I can tell, Cimino these days spends his time accepting awards from the French -- the French think "Heaven's Gate" is a masterpiece -- and getting his body and face retooled. He hasn't made a film since "Sunchaser." Perverse creature that I am, my own feelings about Cimino have followed the exact opposite direction. I didn't care for "The Deer Hunter"; it struck me as a bloated, draggy crock. But I've grown very fond of his work since. I'm hardly a fanatic, but watching a Cimino film is something I really look foward to. They're so over the top and full of themselves that I watch them in a state of transfixed and awestruck happiness, much the... posted by Michael at July 15, 2006 | perma-link | (10) comments

Friday, July 14, 2006

WhiskyPrajer's 15 Faves
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- DarkoV issues the challenge and WhiskyPrajer steps up to the plate! WP is currently reviewing his 15 favorite movies. It's a good, idiosyncratic list -- "Star Wars" is right there, but it's next to "The Filth and the Fury," which is next to "Gidget." (If 'fessing up to loving "Gidget" doesn't take some courage, I don't know what does.) And it's a list that makes no boring pretence to be a best-of list -- we've had enough of those for a while, no? WhiskyPrajer keeps his writing modest and personal. "My only criteria for these fifteen," writes WP, "is their watchability factor -- in other words, these will be movies I don't hesitate to turn on and watch yet again." Which means that reading his postings isn't another wade through someone's opinions; it's more like reading a memoir, or maybe a passage from Nick Hornby. Great sentence (re "Gidget"!): "Think of those heady, crazy days when the two of you were so insanely in love, you were convinced you weren't just beating the odds but breaking the law." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 14, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Saturday, July 8, 2006

Breaking, Skipping, Killing
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The very smart and savvy Anne Thompson breaks down the thinking (and the numbers) behind the new "Superman": thinks that she'll skip "Pirates 2,"; and notes that, in his new film, M. Night Shyamalan kills off a film critic named Farber. Hmmm: Would that be Stephen or Manny? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 8, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Thursday, July 6, 2006

New-Style Video Stardom
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- As the video universe moves onto the web, we're seeing a new kind of video stardom emerge. Amanda Congdon and Rocketboom may have parted ways but, with more than 400,000 hits so far, YouTube cutiepie Emmalina is taking up some of that slack. Much-loved for her sweetly goofy overbite, her Tasmanian accent, her sincere Christian belief, and her tendency to "dance like a strippa," Emmalina posts a new videoblog around once a week. In my favorite so far she expresses her reservations about looking at pornography and confesses that amateur porn suits her tastes the best. I can't make sense out of MySpace pages -- they hurt my eyes -- but, fwiw, here's Emmalina's. I have no idea what this is about -- a dating site maybe? -- but there it is. (Does Emmalina's b.f. know about it?) Emmalina wants the whole world to understand that, appearances to the contrary, "I'm naturally a private person." On her LiveJournal blog, Emmalina confides a piquant fantasy that ran through her mind the other day ... I notice that Wikipedia has immortalized Emmalina, and that the Washington Post has covered the Emmalina phenomenon too. Self-described "YouTube loser" LazyDork made a hilarious rap video about Emmalina. He also sings an ode to "Emmalina time" here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 6, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Friday, June 23, 2006

"Bollywood Comedy"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- David Chute reprints a good article by Lisa Tsering about non-Indians who have fallen under the spell of Bollywood films -- Chute himself is one of the smitten, and is quoted in the article ... And Tsering mentioned a Bollywood parody video that has been a hit on YouTube ... And I wound up laughing a lot watching it. Here's comedian Winston Spear: Don't skip the Tsering article, which includes the titles of many promising-sounding Bollywood films. I've put them on my DVDs-to-watch list, and I'm eager to hear MD's evaluation of them. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 23, 2006 | perma-link | (8) comments

YouTube Questions
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Watching an old video of some yoga immortals that someone posted on YouTube, Alan Little wonders what kind of legal ground is being trod. Watching some videos of the Harlem Globetrotters posted on YouTube, Bill Gates wrestles with the same question. Great Gates quote: "Stolen's a strong word. It's copyrighted content that the owner wasn't paid for." I've been telling young people for years to go into copyright law. There isn't going to be a shortage of work in that field for a long time to come. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 23, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Polly Frost recalls a dear friend of hers, the late film critic Pauline Kael, who would have turned 87 the other day. Another friend of Kael's, Craig Seligman, talks about Pauline with Julie Copeland. (Everyone who read Kael's reviews thought of her as "Pauline.") Funny and sad to think of that whole generation growing so old. It's funny too to encounter, as I often do these days, young film buffs who have never heard of Pauline Kael. * David Lynch thinks we should all take up meditation. Watch and listen to him here. * I'm one of the few people you'll ever meet who will say that one of his favorite filmmakers is Marco Bellocchio. Even among hardcore filmbuffs, Bellocchio's work isn't very well-known. Now in his 60s, Bellocchio emerged in the middle 1960s with an amazing first movie, "Fists in the Pocket." For a few years, he was celebrated alongside Bernardo Bertolucci as a brilliant young prodigy. Bellocchio grew more and more radical, though, and as he did his films grew prickly and ingrown. (I like a bunch of them anyway.) In recent years, he has emerged from this psychoanalysis-and-Maoism stretch, and has entered into a period of reflecting mournfully and ruefully on the costs of extremism. His film "Good Morning, Night," a small-scale chamber fantasia about the Red Brigades' kidnapping of Aldo Moro, is quietly devastating; it's also one of my favorite new films of the last five years. I saw it at a film festival, though, and thought it would never be commercially released in this country. So I'm surprised and happy to notice that it's now available on DVD. (Amazon, Netflix.) I wrote about the film when I first saw it here. I'm even happier to notice that Criterion has brought out a deluxe DVD version of "Fists in the Pocket" that has been embellished with some tasty-sounding extras. (Amazon, Netflix.) The film is often described as a savage and satirical attack on the Italian family, but it strikes me as more useful to think of "Fists" as a punk-rock-like frenzy of youthful movie talent. * New on DVD too is Michelangelo Antonioni's "The Passenger." (Amazon, Netflix.) I wrote about this austere and slow-moving yet magnificent (in a backpackin'-hippie kind of way) film here. * Anne Thompson reports that Seattle-ites see more movies per capita than people in any other U.S. city, and that she loved the new Brazilian film "House of Sand." * Word comes from pulpier parts of the cinema universe that you can now buy or rent a freshened-up DVD version of the scrappy, funny, and sexy Italian zombie thriller "Cemetary Man." (Amazon.) Director Michele Soavi demonstrates that beauty, poetry, and audacious emotional effects can be achieved on a tiny budget. * I got half a kick -- and that ain't bad! -- out of Rob Zombie's "The Devil's Rejects." (Amazon, Netflix.) The film is an attempt to do a wild-ass, hell-for-leather, ridiculous/absurdist, get-high-on-excess variant on... posted by Michael at June 21, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Theatre, Cinema, Roles and ... Race
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- From time to time I stumble across the assertion that a good actor (regardless of his race) should be able (and be allowed) to play any role (regardless of any stated or implied race). I have no problem with having actors of any race playing characters of undefined race. That is, if a script calls for the part of a police inspector (with no other qualifications imposed) then it's okay with me if a white/black/Asian/you-name-it is cast in that role. But I would be troubled if the white/black/Asian/you-name-it actor was 17 years old. That would be unbelievable, because police inspectors normally don't get their job unless they have had a lot of experience: you don't find any 17-year old police inspectors in the real world. This potential tension between good intentions/political correctness/whatever and real-world believability became manifest for me a couple years ago when I saw an outdoor production of Hamlet on the campus of hyper-liberal University of California at Santa Cruz. The actor playing the king of Denmark was black. And the people playing his children were white. I suppose the actor did a good job as the king. While it's likely I can spot a really bad job of acting, beyond a certain point I lack the ability to distinguish "acceptable" from "great." Anyhow, so far as I could tell, the guy didn't muff any lines or do anything else to demonstrate that his performance was anything but competent. Still, casting him in that role was wrong because the man was unbelievable, and it took my (doubtless vile, racist) mind off the play itself. Empirically, kings of Denmark have never been black. And black males are highly unlikely to have natural children looking as white as the actors playing the king's children. I suppose an intrepid director might have taken one edge off by simply replacing the word "Denmark" with some contrived name. The remaining credibility problems might then be cured by casting blacks as the children. All a bit odd, but such changes might have allowed me to better enjoy the content of the play. Actors of one race playing the part of characters of different race are nothing new in theatre or cinema. But this was seldom like the Hamlet situation just described. Why? Because the actors usually were disguised as members of the other race. Blackface, whiteface -- all a matter of makeup. Here are some examples from movies. Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer. This is a classic minstrel show type of blackface performance. Laurence Olivier in Othello. It's Shakespeare, but blackface all the same. Paul Muni and Luise Rainer in The Good Earth. Here two whites are cast as Chinese. Warner Oland as Charlie Chan. Oland is an interesting case. Yes, he was a Swede playing the famous Chinese detective. But Oland apparently appeared without special makeup. His heavy eyelids came naturally -- from Russia and possibly points east on his mother's side, he claimed. On the... posted by Donald at June 21, 2006 | perma-link | (13) comments

Monday, June 19, 2006

YouTube Update
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- For those curious about what the world -- and the entertainment industry -- is making of YouTube ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 19, 2006 | perma-link | (0)
Moviegoing: "A Prairie Home Companion"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Although I've never enjoyed the radio show, I loved -- and make that triple L-U-V'd -- Robert Altman's new film, "A Prairie Home Companion." I found it magical and transporting: touching, funny, engrossing, conceptually daring, and "alive" to the max. Rich in detail and filigree, full of seductively intimate golden-crimsons and emeralds, it has enough aural texture and visual sumptuousness for ten films. (Cinematography: Ed Lachman. Production design: Dina Goldman. Costumes: Catherine Marie Thomas. I'd like to list a sound person too, but IMDB is unclear on who was in charge of film's sound department.) For the Altman buffs out there: "Prairie" is like a warm-and-sweet, chamber-dramedy version of "Nashville," only with metaphorical-Americana touches resembling those in "Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean," and tonally in the retrospective, allegorical, fable-like mode of "Cookie's Fortune." Though the film -- half cultural anthropology about how Midwesterners deal with life's big moments, and half a melancholy backstage musical comedy -- is set almost entirely inside a theater, it's also a loving sweep through a lot of American art history: Twain, Fitzgerald, and the hardboiled dick; the western and the tall tale; Reginald Marsh and Edward Hopper. Weak on storyline and action, it's nonetheless focused and controlled -- more a "Tempest"-like poetic picture of life than a narrative: We live among spirits and archetypes; death and beauty are never more than a few steps away; gallantry, generosity, humor, and belief carry us through ... It's a jewelbox and a metaphysical romance, yet it's fully inhabited and embodied, and it never stops rolling along. Lindsay Lohan and Meryl Streep Filmgoing tip: Watch how Altman gets you focused on his performers' flesh, and how he uses performance as his central metaphor -- he has his reasons for suggesting how much a theater can resemble a church. There are moments when Meryl Streep's face seems to have collapsed. Yet at other moments -- especially when she's belting out a song (who knew she was such a good belter?) -- her face is radiant and transformed by joy. Despite life's trials, most of us somehow find ways to keep moving forward, and even to give a little more than we take. Garrison Keillor -- with his bulldog head, his massive physique, and his out-of-it moonchild manner -- moves through the movie surprisingly delicately. He's like a benevolent visitor from another planet -- an Asperger-y Prospero, never blind to the depths below yet unable to understand why anyone should choose to spend too much time dwelling in them. I loved the film so much that I was surprised, when I caught up with its reviews online, by how many of them seemed grudging and condescending even when they were positive. Here's a typical example. It isn't "The Player," it isn't "McCabe" ... Do the reviewers think that, in his 80s, Altman should be making the kinds of movies they loved him for making when he was 50 and 60? Yet... posted by Michael at June 19, 2006 | perma-link | (13) comments

Friday, June 16, 2006

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Anne Thompson tips us off to "Young American Bodies" -- a new (and popular, and NSFW) example of the latest audiovisual-through-time storytelling form: the ongoing webshort video series. I didn't love "YAB" myself, but it did leave me convinced that the webshort-series is a super-promising new format. Looking into the official Blowhards crystal ball, I see much ferment and excitement in the field, and I predict that great things will come of it. I was much happier watching Neal Medlyn's zany and sweet "Land of Make Believe," a free-associating, eerily-comic performance-art jamboree. Medlyn's imagination is something to behold; his show (also an ongoing webshort series) is like "PeeWee Herman's Playhouse," but on a billionth the budget and with the perversity worn on its sleeve -- and proudly so. Kinky! Bizarre! Fun! Speaking of web-video ... I continue to spend far too much time digging up old music-performance clips from YouTube. One of my favorite recent finds: the tough (look at that plaid shirt), hard-rockin' Big Mama Thornton doing her formidably funky/swampy version of "Hound Dog." You don't mess with Big Mama! -- who, by the way, recorded the song three years before Elvis Presley did. I notice that surfing for and watching video on the web is already beginning to seem natural to me, while the ritual of sitting down before the TV has begun to feel staid and archaic. I wonder if the suits at the networks are terrified of what YouTube represents. Here's Wikipedia's entry on Big Mama Thornton. Best, Michael UPDATE: Agnostic has been prowling YouTube too. You can enjoy what he's turned up here, here, and here. Don't miss this one, which pretty much embodies all of today's visual / conceptual language. It has everything: lip-synching, thong-flashing, mugging for the camera, cute Japanimation eyes, MTV cutting, with all the ingredients Cuisinarted together on iMovie ... It's a bedroom-webcam aesthetic. It's also a whole new world, one that doesn't belong to anyone over the age of 25. To be fair, the clip is also amusing, cute, and well-done. Small discovery for today: As far as I've been able to tell, the song that has been lip-synched more often than any other is "Hey, Mickey." I wrote a little item about Toni Basil here.... posted by Michael at June 16, 2006 | perma-link | (9) comments

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Hey Miike
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Over the weekend, the Wife and I were dazzled and amazed by Takashi Miike's beyond-brilliant, beyond-edgy yakuza thriller "Dead or Alive." If your experience of extreme cinema has been limited to the relatively-mainstream likes of "Natural Born Killers" and "Pulp Fiction," you owe it to yourself to sample Miike's best work, which makes Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino look like kids playing make-believe with nursery toys. Miike, by comparison, knows how to make a movie sting. The Wife and I are big fans of "Dead or Alive," "Audition," and especially "Ichi the Killer," which has to be one of the most galvanizing yet hard-to-take movies ever made. Friends who are even bigger filmgeeks than we are tell us that Miike has made more than his fair share of stinkers. (He tends to direct four to even eight movies a year.) But these are all buckle-your-seatbelt performances that are likely to leave you gasping. I wrote about other extreme movies here and here and here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 14, 2006 | perma-link | (6) comments

Friday, June 9, 2006

Manny Farber
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- As a big fan of both Manny Farber's paintings and Manny Farber's film criticism, I was thrilled to read that a new show of his visuals was recently on display in La Jolla, and that a new collection of his writing about movies will be coming along soon. (He has often co-written with his wife, the artist Patricia Patterson.) Duncan Shepherd's memoir of being a student and a friend of Farber's is a bit scattershot, but I also found it touching, as well as very good on the kind of boho, freeform lives many filmnerds and artnerds lead. Hard to believe that Manny Farber will soon turn 90 ... Best, Michael UPDATE: I just this minute stumbled across the blog of David Chute, one of the very best of the Boomer film critics. As a reviewer, Chute is supersmart and perceptive about movies; as a blogger, he's all that, plus frank about the pleasures and travails of the critic life. A few good passages: I've found myself wishing many times over the years that there was something else I had learned along the way that people were willing to pay me to do. (Folding socks? Reading detective novels?) ... If the day ever comes when I cobble togethr 40 whole hours of remunerative employment I imagine it will be sweet to pursue writing, if I decide to do so at all, strictly as an amateur activity in the best sense, as a labor of love. When I changed the course of my life in the mid-1980s by leaving a full-time job as a critic at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner I was moved as much as anything by disgust at the level to which second-string critics have to stoop, writing for weeks on end only about the purest, dullest trash. One's job in a case like this becames a mad tap-dance, trashing the film as entertainingly as possible so that at least the experience of reading about it wouldn't be a total loss ... I think only a bully could sincerely enjoy doing this work week in and week out. And there is likely some connection between the state of mind required to feel self-righteous while humiliating people, and how notoriously thin skinned many critics are when they find themselves on the receiving end.... posted by Michael at June 9, 2006 | perma-link | (0)
Film on Friday
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I've been playing with iMovie, Apple's mom-and-pop film-editing program. After a week of intense study, I've mastered precisely four skills: importing footage, splitting clips, arranging them on the timeline, and importing a sound file. OK, "mastered" may be overstating the case. And dig that zany score! Betcha can't guess who has been messing around with Apple's groove-based sound-editing toy GarageBand too. Danny Elfman, watch out. Blushing like a shy virgin, I hereby present my very first YouTube. The money boys back at the studio tell me that my masterpiece still needs trimming and punching-up. But screw them, man. Even if -- OK, sure -- there may be some longeuers, I'm taking a stand for the artist's creative freedom. There are some things you just can't compromise on. Anyway, I encourage my fans to consider this the Director's Cut. The Wife tells me that watching this video was exactly like walking around NYC by my side. I'm not sure she intended her remark as such, but I'm taking it as my first rave review ... A short list of iMovie skills that elude me: How to fade music out. How to shorten the black bit that comes after the white letters on a title card. And what on earth are those little strobey flashes doing in some of the cuts? Sigh: time for a visit to the local Apple Store for advice. Still, whatever my beefs with Macs and with Apple's software, I do keep in mind that they enable even the likes of me to have fun with computers. Roger expresses gratitude to a certain Mr. Jobs, reminding me of how much those of us born without the tech gene owe to The House that Steve Built. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 9, 2006 | perma-link | (11) comments

Friday, June 2, 2006

Movie Reviewing and the Web
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm tickled pink to find that my name, er, pseudonym got a mention in Anne Thompson's latest Hollywood Reporter column. Her topic is film reviewing in the age of the internet, and it's an excellent piece. Which I say partly out of peacock pride and groveling gratitude, of course. But the truth is also that I've followed Anne Thompson's reporting enthusiastically for several decades now. She both delivers the goods and sets them in context. She's the rare business reporter whose movie-buffery is the equal of any critic's. She isn't just good at finding out what's happening, she's also terrific at puzzling out what it might mean. Movie-business reporting doesn't get any snappier, smarter, or better-informed. Anne Thompson expands on her piece a bit and provides a nice bouquet of links at her blog -- itself a real treat for film buffs and movie fans. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 2, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Movie Reviewing: Job? Career? Calling?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A couple of lifetimes ago I might have become a movie reviewer. I was well-positioned to make a stab at it, anyway. I had movie-reviewer friends, I'd published writing about movies in a variety of legit publications, and I knew some of the arts-and-entertainment editors. During a few stretches I'd worked as a regular movie reviewer for small publications. (Big bucks, lemme tellya -- $50 a column.) So I was on all the screening lists and I was friendly with the publicists. I attended or at least was invited to many of the promising-young-writers-about-the-arts parties. Back then, you didn't just need energy and a Blogger account to start yapping in public about the arts. You needed access. Almost despite myself -- I never intended to become a reviewer, I just happened to stumble into these circles (a long story) -- I found myself with access. The time was right, the moment had come, and friends and colleagues were urging me on. So I scrunched my face up into a tight little ball and made a few attempts at putting myself on the market. My energy flagged almost instantly. Yikes! Where was my enthusiasm? What could be holding me back? Like Tom Cruise at the beginning of the third act, I confronted myself in the psychic mirror. Unlike Tom Cruise, after a few seconds I shook my head, said "Fuhgeddabout it," and abandoned the attempt. What I admitted to myself was that I not only didn't want to win the ballgame, I didn't even want to be in it. As the years went on, I wrote and published pieces about movies as the muse and opportunities presented themselves. I seemed to have a knack for moviechat; once in a while it was fun to let it rip in venues the public might run across. But I never gave another thought to taking part in the pro movie-reviewing game. A recent posting by the movie critic Dave Kehr has me revisiting this particular micro-drama. In his posting, Kehr bemoans the recent semi-firing of the New York Post's movie reviewer Jami Bernard. (CORRECTION: Whoops, make that the Daily News, not the Post.) Kehr wrote an interesting follow-up posting too. At the time, I wasn't entirely clear about the reasons why I bailed. It simply felt right. I gave one of those sighs of relief whose hugeness indicates that you've made a decision that's a good one for you. Now, though, a couple of decades later, the reasons why my decision felt right have become semi-clear to me. There were a number of things about "being a movie reviewer" that didn't suit me. One is that that there are no objective standards in the field. What might be a reasonable set of qualifications, beyond "being able to turn in peppy copy on time"? There are no even semi-objective standards. What makes one person a better movie reviewer than another? I know what I think is worthwhile and who... posted by Michael at May 30, 2006 | perma-link | (29) comments

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Kong and Class
Friedrich von Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards A few months ago I posted on how watching a movie at an upscale movie theater led me to think about the issue of class in art. The notions I was noodling around with were reinforced recently when my four-year-old son demanded that we purchase a DVD of the Peter Jackson version of King Kong. Having watched the new version, I wanted my son to see the Merian Coopers and Ernest Schoedsacks 1933 version. I remembered the black and white original as a much more powerful, poeticand certainly more concisefilm. I also wanted to see the old Kong again myself and see if I thought it held up to my childhood memories of watching it on T.V. So I rented King Kong via Netflix and popped it into the DVD. To my pleasant surprise, the original version of King Kong was just as punchy and pungent as I remembered it. What I hadnt realized as a child, however, was that its punch comes from its wonderfully pulpy mix of class, race and sex. My disappointment with the Peter Jackson version stems from the way he remakes the material for a, well, middle-class audience. Kong in the original is a larger-than-life merger of natural man with proletarian. Kong in the Cooper version is so obviously negroid that theres no question that the filmmakers intended that Kong should to be read in terms of the movie as an unusually powerful black man, not as an animal. (The films insistence on Kongs blackness is underlined by the fact that the human inhabitants of Kongs island home, ostensibly located in the south Pacific, are not Polynesian but African.) Kong is shown in the first part of the film as the heavyweight champion, the toughest man in the house. He dominates brutish lower nature by out-wrestling, out-boxing and, of course, out-thinking the hulking dinosaurs and other mindless reptiles that surround him. Although hes not anatomically correct, Kongs sex is by implication on a par with his fists. He is so rampant that the human inhabitants of Skull Island can only keep him at a safe distance by shoving a maiden out beyond their enormous perimeter fence every so often to slake his uber-masculine drives. (The white adventurers arrive to find that the locals have tied up a fetching local girl and are making preparations for just such a sacrifice; they decide on reflection that exotic Fay Wray would do even better.) Kongs drives are of course so undomesticated and natural that none of these poor girls will ever survive the big apes sexual attentions. After Kong is subdued by modern technology, he becomes symbolic of the enslaved proletariat, his very body being commoditized when the films capitalist entrepreneur, Carl Denham, puts him on display in a New York theater. Of course, Kong goes on strikesmashing his way out of the theater and naively climbing to the highest peak of Manhattan to assert his unconquerable virilityat least until his revolution... posted by Friedrich at May 18, 2006 | perma-link | (20) comments

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Alberto Cavalcanti
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The movie I've enjoyed most in recent months is one that I wasn't even aware of until I ordered it up from Netflix: the 1947 British gangster-noir, "They Made Me a Fugitive." (Buyable, Netflixable.) A downbeat, atmospheric chase thriller, the film stars one of my favorite leading men, Trevor Howard, in a beautifully hard-bitten performance. But what's most striking about the film is its brio. The film has scads of silent-movie-like visual excitement as well as an evocative and experimental audio track. It's startling to watch postwar British subject matter presented with this kind of surreal and poetic yet fast-paced extravagance. What a great combo: All those British actors, as proficient as ever but more physical and lowdown than they usually are; a screenplay that's eloquent and witty yet not in love with its own fluency; a juicy and striking mise-en-scene (film-geek talk for, roughly, the "production" part of a movie -- settings, lighting, costumes, etc.) that doesn't bog the action down; a driving and tense narrative ... Escapes, quick character sketches, wet alleyways, foggy waterfronts ... Memorably snarling offhand dialogue ... A whip-cracking pace ... Violence that leaves a real sting ... The film is tough and dark, but it's a turn-on too. It's that filmbuff ideal, in other words: a wide-awake dream. I liked "They Made Me a Fugitive" as much as I liked the similar but much-better-known Britnoir, "Night and the City." The film was written by Noel Langley from a crime novel by Jackson Budd -- I was amused to learn that eight years before, Langley had adapted "The Wizard of Oz." And it was directed by one of my favorite "minor" film artists, the Brazilian-born Alberto Cavalcanti. I'm a fan partly because of his talent. Cavalcanti's rhythms were distinctive: flamboyant yet dark, angular yet sexy -- I think of his touch as "bongo Expressionism." He was playful, yet not in a skating-over-the-surface way; he dug into his material looking for its sensitive spots. And Cavalcanti had an unmatched talent for hyper-stylized caricature: for pushing actors and performances to the point where they're as extreme and as funny-sinister as figures in Hogarth. The villain in "They Made Me a Fugitive" is one example among many. A smalltime criminal boss played with cocky assurance by Griffith Jones, he's both absurd and terrifying. But Cavalcanti is a fave of mine as well for the way he keeps turning up, Zelig-like, throughout film history. He was born in Rio in 1897, and studied to be an architect in Geneva. He made it to Paris while still a young man, and hung out with avant-gardists, working as a writer and art director on silent movies. One of his early films was a "symphony of the city"-style documentary that is said to have inspired Dziga Vertov's legendary "The Man With a Movie Camera." Cavalcanti moved to England at the invitation of the documentary guru John Grierson; he worked on numerous films in a variety of... posted by Michael at May 17, 2006 | perma-link | (0)

Friday, May 12, 2006

Callow on Welles; Server on Hayward
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Of the books on Orson Welles that I've been through, the standout (IMHO, of course) has been volume one of Simon Callow's biography of Welles. Callow dealt with Welles as a man, not a myth, and he cast a realistic yet appeciative eye on Welles' work as a performer and director. (As his classic biography of Charles Laughton confirms, Callow -- an actor himself -- is one of the best writers ever on acting.) Needless to say, the Welles cult rose up in outraged anger. Volume one, which covered Welles' life up through "Citizen Kane," was published 11 years ago. So I'm pleased to see that volume two has just come out in England. Philip French likes Callow's work as much as I do. (Link thanks to ALD.) The book will be published in the U.S. in September. Here's an amusing interview with Callow, who is quite the outsized personality himself. Speaking of film biographies, have you bought your copy yet of Lee Server's "Ava Gardner"? FvB and I are both big fans of "Danger is My Business" and "Over My Dead Body," Server's books about pulp magazines and hard-boiled fiction. They're inspired blends of history and criticism: insightful about the fiction and the writers, yet wised-up and low-down about the business and the market. They're also fabulous and earthy introductions to a couple of key eras in American culture. Academic is one thing that Lee Server ain't. I can also recommend Server's first-class "Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers" and his magnificently tough-minded biography, "Robert Mitchum: Baby I Don't Care." As far as I'm concerned, Server is an ideal writer about popular culture -- responsive to its rough poetry, unafraid of (and even drawn to) the often-squalid, often-nutsy conditions it's born out of. Here's a very likable interview with Lee Server. I'm pleased to note that Server and I share some tastes. He's a fan of some of the same crime writers I love most: Donald Westlake, Charles Willeford, and Patricia Highsmith. Here's Peter Bogdanovich raving about the Ava Gardner bio. Here's some colorful praise for the book by The Guardian's Carole Cadwalladr. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 12, 2006 | perma-link | (0)

Monday, April 24, 2006

Bill Forsyth's "Comfort and Joy"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Scrolling through the TV schedule, I noticed that a too-rare treat will be showing on the Sundance Channel at 7 a.m. Eastern time this Wednesday: Bill Forsyth's 1984 Scottish comedy "Comfort and Joy." Set the Tivo. The movie -- a small-scale but sweet and moving gem -- isn't available on DVD in this country, and hasn't been easy to find generally since its original theatrical release. It's a movie with a distinctive and unusual tone. The tone is, in fact, the real point of the movie. Where the entertainment business today is selling empirically-obvious, easy-to-categorize experiences -- effects, technology, star power, concepts, themes, edginess -- "Comfort and Joy" is a bemused tone poem with many loose ends. Another thing that makes the movie unusual by contempo standards is how hard it is to describe or capture the movie's tone. Bittersweet? Melancholy yet optimistic? In any case, the film is an oddball work, and maybe even a one-of-a-kind small classic: eccentric yet subdued, quiet and realistic yet full of beauty and mood. Part of the reason it's so hard to fix a label to the film's mood is that its mood is unstable -- it's a shifting mixture of many different moods. Back in the day, we filmbuffs often said about movies like "Comfort and Joy" that they were about "fugitive" moods and moments. By this, we meant to suggest tones, moods, and moments that were slippery -- ones that by their nature came and went. Robert Altman, for instance, often describes what he tries to do as "capturing lightning in a bottle." It was even thought by some buffs that this was part of the strange and marvelous nature of movies: that, despite the money, the clunkiness of the technology, and the egos, the occasonal movie still manages to capture and convey something of the slipping-through-your-fingers quality that's such a touching and essential part of life. (A question that has come up recently, during the computer years, is whether this magical ability is dependent on celluloid. I'm not alone in wondering whether video picks up and passes along poetry in anything like the same way that celluloid sometimes does. Video and computers are, of course, perfectly amazing where effects and information are concerned. But do they resonate to the very nature of life as celluloid once did?) In any case, it's this kind of of fugitive emotional music -- a music that happens as much in your imagination as it does on the screen -- that is what "Comfort and Joy" is selling. I hope a brief bit of reminiscing and pontification will be indulged. (I promise it leads back to "Comfort and Joy.") There was a lot to dislike -- as well as a lot that was ego-and-drug-fueled and plain crazy -- about the movies of the 1960s and '70s. I'm happy to join in the occasional bout of jeering myself. But there were some lovely things about the popular culture of the... posted by Michael at April 24, 2006 | perma-link | (15) comments

Wednesday, April 5, 2006

The Future of Movies 1
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Despite the title of this posting, I have to report that "Basic Instinct 2" almost certainly doesn't represent the future of movies. It's in fact such a glum thing that it probably represents the present of movies all too well. Catherine Trammell's confrontational style You may have read reports about what a disastrous first weekend the movie had, despite Sharon Stone's heroic p.r. efforts on the film's behalf. Bad first-weekend business indicates that moviegoers haven't given a film a chance. Big fans of the first "Basic Instinct" movie and of the erotic-thriller genre generally, The Wife and I headed to the local theater in the hopes of discovering that the American public had made a mistake. But the American public was right this time; the movie is a downer. Set in London and directed by Michael Caton-Jones, it's proficient and chic in a heavy-spirited way. It has the somber, silver/blue, glossy/translucent look of high-end car ads. But despite its stylishness, it has none of the shameless and lewd, semi-porno joyousness of the first movie. (Here's a posting I wrote about the prevalence of silver in recent car ads. Here's a re-visit to the same topic. Here's a piece I wrote about Paul Verhoeven and Jan de Bont's commentary track on the DVD of "Basic Instinct.") For the first 2/3 of the movie I thought the script -- by Leora Barish and Henry Bean -- was a decent try at reviving Catherine Trammell. During the film's last third, though, the sly and tense doublecrosses piled up so high that I was left wishing that the filmmakers had taken a "Scary Movie 3" approach to their project -- doing a Mad magazine version of the first movie instead of keeping a straight face and aiming for hotsy-totsy intensity. The film's worst flaw, from this filmgoer's p-o-v anyway, was how unsexy it is. It's seriously unsexy in even the most literal-minded ways. It's hard to believe that the filmmakers didn't know that more screentime should have been devoted to depicting sex acts. Ah, the web ... Here's a threesome scene that was cut from the film. It's much sexier than anything that remains in the film. On a slightly less-dumb level, the film's look-and-feel is unsexy. The cinematography is over-rich, and the set design, while impressive, lacks sparkle. And all those hyper-competent, lowkey British actors ... There's nothing provocative about what's onscreen, or even about what comes from the speakers: Jerry Goldsmith's great score from the first movie is simply recycled here, in an uninspired way. The film isn't a lush and over-the-top fever dream. It's a dignified and under-the-top episode of quality TV. In any case, the film is far kinder to its production design -- to its interior decoration and its architecture -- than it is to its performers. (The film dwells a lot on Norman Foster's phallus-shaped "Gherkin" building.) While the glass and steel look fabulous, "flaws" doesn't begin to describe what it finds... posted by Michael at April 5, 2006 | perma-link | (13) comments

Friday, March 31, 2006

Movie Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * What to do if movie-theater ticket sales are dropping while DVD sales are booming? Why not release your films straight to DVD? * Joi Lansing is trapped in the web of love. * Thomas Groh enjoys showing off tacky and sensationalistic movie posters from eras when movie posters were really movie posters. (Link thanks to Colby Cosh.) Check out this scandalous beauty -- now that's the kind of ad that can get me to a movie theater pronto. * Ilkka predicts -- convincingly, to my mind -- that in five years no more physical video stores will remain. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 31, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Thursday, March 30, 2006

"Be Here to Love Me" on DVD
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I raved recently about the music of the Texas folksinger Townes Van Zandt, and about "Be Here to Love Me," Margaret Brown's moody and evocative documentary about Townes. I notice that the film is now available on DVD: Amazon, Netflix. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 30, 2006 | perma-link | (0)
"Ugetsu" on DVD
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I just woke up to the fact that Kenji Mizoguchi's "Ugetsu" has become available on a Criterion DVD. That's a long-in-coming treat: Mizoguchi is one of the most underrepresented-on-DVD of the genuine filmmaking giants, and "Ugetsu" is one of his two or three best-known, and best-loved, movies. Me, I'm a bigger fan of "Sansho the Bailiff" than I am of "Ugetsu." But dickering over which is better is like arguing about whether "Hamlet" or "Lear" is greater -- a dumb waste of time. Why not enjoy both? In any case, "Sansho" isn't on DVD yet. Back in the days of Standard Film History, Mizoguchi was considered to be, alongside Kurosawa and Ozu, one of the icons of the Japanese cinema. Each director's work had its own distinctive style and flavor; together they were thought to define the range of Japanese movies. Kurosawa's movies were usually dynamic and hyperdramatic; Ozu's were quiet, still, and melancholy. Mizoguchi's movies typically merged the qualities of fables with those of women's pictures. They were painful but transporting, in a poetic and magical way. And, oh baby, those tracking shots! I watched a lot of Mizoguchi in college and found many of the films both beautiful and draggy. But "Ugetsu" and "Sansho"? Perfection/rapture/bliss. Criterion seems to have loaded the package with goodies, which is nice -- though, given the price Criterion is asking, maybe the film is better rented than bought. How does Criterion continue to get away with charging such outrageous prices? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 30, 2006 | perma-link | (11) comments

Monday, March 13, 2006

Actress Notes
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Over the weekend I spent some time trying to pull together a deep, indeed definitive, posting about the economist John Maynard Keynes. In this epic, I'd have linked to this Paul Krugman intro to a new book about Keynes. I'd also have linked to Tyler Cowen's musings about Krugman and Keynes, and to a commentsfest at Brad DeLong's blog. I'd have recalled the JFK-era Keynesianism that poisoned economic thinking and policymaking (as well as economic teaching) in the 1970s -- "fine-tuning the economy," anyone? And I'd have mentioned how much I've learned recently from looking into the group known as the Post-Keynesians. (Thanks to Jimbo for pointing them out to me). But the posting ground to a sad halt as I ran up against a sad fact: I simply don't have much of anything besides links to add to the conversation. Still, may the conversation roar on! Me, I wound up watching DVDs and surfing showbiz websites instead. The results: I caught up with "A Mighty Wind," Christopher Guest's satirical mockumentary about a folk singers' reunion. As usual with Guest's movies, I wanted the film to be better: Would it have been so hard to come up with a couple of witty plot turns? But, as is also usual with Guest's movies, I had a good time anyway. The film is brimful with tonal touches and behavioral observations, and it features enough creative performing for ten movies. What especially caught my interest was one of the film's actresses, a comic knockout named Jane Lynch. Tall and blonde, and equipped with a killer mouthful of forthright and wholesome teeth, Lynch plays a squeaky-clean folksinger with a background in pornography. Lynch makes her character so over-vibrant that her righteousness becomes hilariously lewd. Watching Lynch's performance, I remembered that she played one of the lesbian lovers/dog-handlers in Guest's "Best in Show," and that her performance in that film k.o.'d me too. Here's an After Ellen interview with Lynch. A nice passage: I think if you can do comedy, you can do anything, because you can pick up the ironies in life better. It takes a little more investigation into your own heart with comedy; I think you can get away with a lot more in drama. I think youll find that a good actor usually does comedy really well. Here's an interesting PlanetOut interview with Lynch. (Hmm, I guess Lynch won't be dating me any time soon.) Reading it, I learned that Christopher Guest directs a lot of TV commercials. Asia Argento is currently promoting "The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things," a movie she has directed based on a book by J.T. Leroy. She tells Daniel Robert Epstein that she had no idea that J.T. Leroy was a fraud/ put-on/ performance-art-piece/ whatever until, along with the rest of us, she read about the hoax in the NYTimes: I had to ask myself a lot of questions why I wanted to believe this so much. I dont... posted by Michael at March 13, 2006 | perma-link | (13) comments

Sunday, March 5, 2006

Moviegoing Note
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Donald's recent posting about how he barely bothers with movies these days has got me thinking about my own movie-watching habits. I think it's natural for movie-watching rates to decline with passing years. Energy flags, for one thing. Plus, many people find that they lose some of their appetite for fiction experiences as time passes. My theory about this: To some extent, fiction is play -- it's both fun and rehearsal for life. The love of fiction is also, to some extent, a function of self-exploration. With age and experience, "fun" per se becomes less important, the rehearsal period comes to an end, and the self recedes in importance. Real life becomes more pressing, as well as more fascinating. Result: a lot of older people reading history and watching nature documentaries on the Discovery Channel. Still, even allowing for age-related changes, the advent of digi-tech is having a dramatic impact on my movie-watching life. Back in fizzy youthful celluloid years, FvB and I were college-buddy movienuts, in love with the medium, gobbling up its history as quickly as we could -- absorbing "the movies" the way a 3 year-old kid absorbs language. Most weeks we managed to see 5 to 7 movies; it wasn't unusual for us to take in two or even three movies in a day. (And this in pre-video days! We both owe a lot to college film societies.) During my young/mid-adult years, I was on screening lists, was buddies with film critics and journalists, and continued to make it to two or three movies a week. These days I'm in a different phase entirely. I love movies, but not in the old ravished-by-the-experience way. I'm curious and comfy where I was once passionate and headstrong. I'm off screening lists, and I'm barely in touch with the filmbuff world. The velocity of my moviewatching has declined a little. But the bigger difference is in where and how I watch. I barely go to movie theaters at all -- probably fewer than a half a dozen times a year. Instead, I rely on the DVR, on Netflix, and on finds from the bargain-DVD bins at Amazon, Blockbuster, and Virgin. (Once the price of a DVD I'm curious about sinks to lower than 10 bucks, I have a hard time resisting the purchase.) God bless big screens. If you're a devoted film-nut, a high-quality TV isn't a luxury, it's an investment. Donald's posting and the comments on it woke me up to a consequence of my new movie-watching habits. It's this: Because I no longer bother with seeing movies at theaters, I no longer follow movie coverage in the newspapers or in the magazines. Picking a movie to watch for me has become a matter of scanning suggestions, links, sales, and IFC schedules. I don't take my lead from what's being released. Instead, I follow my tastes, my interests, and my whims, and I pull the movies I might want to watch from... posted by Michael at March 5, 2006 | perma-link | (25) comments

Thursday, March 2, 2006

Watching (Almost No) Movies
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I don't need to convince you that it's very good that Michael set up this blog and churns out post after post after ... Better yet, he has a broad range of interests. Far broader than [ahem] mine. For those of you who don't keep score, I have not written a single post about movies. And for good reason: I almost never watch them any more. As best I remember, these are the movies I saw in theaters over the past two years or so: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire The Incredibles Master and Commander Spiderman 2 Not a long list. Thirty or 40 years ago, it would have been a lot longer. I was never what might be called a film fanatic, but my viewing habits were closer to the norm until I was in my mid-20s. As a kid I saw most Walt Disney movies and those classic John Ford/John Wayne U.S. Cavalry movies plus a lot of other age-appropriate stuff. In the mid-50s MGM released its pre-WW2 library to TV, and I was able to see The Thin Man and other classics on the tube. Towards the end of high school and into college I saw a fair number of foreign art films. This was easy because Seattle had a handful of art houses even back in 1960. One theater (the Varsity) near the University of Washington campus tended to show lots of English movies, which for me meant not-so-arty "Carry-On" fare and Alec Guiness comedies. And in other theaters I got to see some Fernandels along with the more intellectually-respectable Jacques Tati. Not to mention a lot more Ingmar Bergman films than anyone in his right mind should be subjected to. Maybe I figured art films were like distance-running; you have to break through a pain threshold (sorry, Bergman fans ... they were pretty boring to this 20-year-old, though I did sit through them till the end). I continued seeing movies when I was Stateside in the Army because (1) there wasn't a lot else to do and (2) post theater prices were dirt cheap -- 25 cents, I think, back in 1962. My spiral away from movie-watching accelerated during the 80s partly because I was was now a free-lance consultant and didn't have much discretionary money. On the other hand, my TV-viewing also tapered off a lot during this same period. Fast-forward to today. Why don't I go to see many movies and how do I select those I do see? Partly it's price. I'm not inclined to bet even $10 against a movie I'm not sure I'll like. So if I have some doubts, that's usually enough to nix the deal. Another factor is time. Like price, I try to weigh whether a movie is worth 2-3 hours out of my life to see. This means there are actually two costs -- a monetary cost and a time cost. Combined, they rule out nearly all movies... posted by Donald at March 2, 2006 | perma-link | (8) comments

"Basic Instinct"'s Commentary Tracks
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The first time I saw "Basic Instinct" was at a screening in early 1992. What a different moviegoing era it was. At the time, Sharon Stone was a barely-known minor starlet. The movie itself had already, before its release, been the object of all kinds of unpleasant press. Because the screenwriter, Joe Eszterhas, had made some multimillion-dollar deals, he was despised by the press as a bad-guy vulgarian who was degrading movie culture. (Between you and me, I think many people in the press were jealous of Eszterhas.) Paul Verhoeven, the film's director, had stirred up lots of strong reactions with his earlier films "Robocop" and "Total Recall." The PC gay and lesbian crowd had obtained "Basic Instinct"'s script, and had decided to protest what they thought was the film's unfair treatment of lesbians. They'd done their best to disrupt shooting in San Francisco, and were continuing to apply pressure as the film's release date approached. Perhaps most amazing of all, none of the media people going into the screening had any idea that Sharon Stone -- er, Sharon Stone's character -- was going to uncross and recross her legs in quite that way. It's safe to say that the people at the screening were primed to be appalled by the movie. They weren't disappointed. The film was outlandish, exciting, stylish, upsetting, and extreme. It was lewd and unrelenting yet sophisticated. Me, I loved it. As far as I was concerned, Michael Douglas had given the Michael Douglas performance to end all Michael Douglas performances. The Ezsterhas script had its holes and couldn't exactly be said to be about anything. But it also had tons of crude drive, and a sneaky and filthy mind. Verhoeven's direction married high gloss with trashy, amoral relish. And Sharon Stone! Who knew she commanded anything like that kind of killer poise and power? Her performance was a classic, one for the film-history books: the pornographic apotheosis of all the self-possessed, scary-erotic blondes who had ever stalked across a movie screen. The media people I chatted with after the screening didn't see the film my way. As far as they were concerned, the film was every bit the un-PC, horrifying and despicable thing that they'd looked forward to. And Sharon Stone? Well, surely I was kidding. I only enjoyed her performance because she had shown her pussy. So you can imagine my quiet pleasure when the film became a big hit. Picture me snickering in smug self-satisfaction as the much-anticipated lesbian outrage failed to materialize. I rejoiced particularly when word emerged that, as far as many lesbians were concerned, the reaction to the film wasn't indignation but rapture. "Butt out, protesting PC gayboys," the lesbians were saying. "Let us enjoy our movie. This Catherine Trammel bitch is one hot mama!" (Please indulge my self-congratulations here, btw. I don't get so many chances to gloat that I'm going to turn one down when it comes along.) I'd been eager for... posted by Michael at March 2, 2006 | perma-link | (28) comments

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Arts Connoisseur? Or Dirty Old Man?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The Wife and I recently watched the straight-to-DVD problem drama "Havoc." Have you caught it? It's a strange one to have gone straight to video. The film had been widely anticipated for a variety of reasons, two of which were its classy writer and director: script by Steve "Traffic" Gaghan and direction by the well-known documentarian Barbara Kopple. As a nonfiction-filmmaker, Barbara Kopple is very talented if relentlessly earnest. I liked "Harlan County USA," her account of an Appalachian miners' strike, and I loved "Fallen Champ," her nuanced and thoughtful film about Mike Tyson. Given Kopple's NPR/Nation orientation, she's surprisingly easy to take. She doesn't make agitprop and she doesn't sermonize. She's also consistently open-minded. Despite being political, her first loyalty seems to be to what she encounters while filming. She's also alert to moods and feelings in ways that too few documentarians are. Hey, fact-oriented filmmakers: Moods and feelings are as much facts of life as numbers and actions are. Directing her first fiction film -- she has directed some episodes for fiction-TV series -- Kopple shows a a talent for texture, both of the audiovisual kind and of the texture-of-characters'-lives kind. Unfortunately, she also shows a heavy spirit and zero flair. Although it's set in L.A., "Havoc" is a primo example of what I think of as the School of Upper West Side Concerned Filmmaking. [A small break here for those unfamiliar with New York City. New York's Upper West Side is its own peculiar timezone and mind-zone. With Lincoln Center on the south and Columbia University on the north, it's the favorite neighborhood of prosperous New Yorkers with cultural interests. Book and magazine-publishing people like the UWS, for instance. It can also be a very dull caricature of itself: Woody Allen-ville, only minus the satire. Academic credentials count for a lot, and people seem to enjoy imagining that their personal sufferings are emblematic of something much larger. Think "Live from Lincoln Center"; think PBS; think the NYTimes' Arts and Leisure Section, and you've got the Upper West Side in a nutshell. The Wife and I enjoy our visits to the UWS. We have some good friends who live there, and many of the blocks are beautiful. But when we run home at the end of the night, we feel very pleased to be Greenwich Village people. ] "Havoc" is a small indie problem drama. It's the film equivalent of one of those lifestyle-section stories that feature well-off kids wasting their lives, black and white photographs, and teens looking with hurt and accusing expressions at the camera. Obviously, these teen screwups are indictments of us! In "Havoc," too-rich-for-their-own-good, snarkily-ironic Pacific Palisades kids act out rapper and gang-banger fantasies. What else have they got to do with themselves? But what would happen if they encountered the real street thing? Parents: You're too self-absorbed! Your kids are out of control! And America -- an uncaring society of haves and have-nots -- is finally to... posted by Michael at February 22, 2006 | perma-link | (26) comments

Monday, February 13, 2006

Vignettes of Early Television
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I have mixed emotions about writing memoirs. One the one hand, I worry that readers will slap their foreheads while saying "Omigod! Not more of that tripe!!" On the other, I think it's a good idea to get personal experiences recorded so that future historians won't go too far astray in the What It Was Really Like department. For what it's worth, here are some remembrances of television in the early 1950s when things were so crudely done that it's considered a Golden Age. You need to bear in mind that TV in those days was broadcast in black and white and often viewed on screens that measured 14 inches diagonally. Videotape wasn't yet in use so programs were either presented live or on film. There was an in-between thing called a kinescope recording. Live programs would be filmed by pointing a movie camera at a TV monitor. The film would be reproduced and distributed for (days or weeks) later showing to stations not linked to microwave or coaxial cable networks. As you might imagine, image quality often suffered. Seattle didn't get linked electronically to the East Coast (via California) until the summer of 1952, so live TV was strictly local; all other programming was from film or kinescope. A significant share of live shows originated in New York. Los Angeles was the source of filmed shows such as Dragnet. But LA wasn't linked to the east until 1951 so it took several years before a lot of live programming originated there. Actually, the rise of LA TV roughly coincided with the advent of video tape which yielded images indistinguishable from live pictures. What this boiled down to was that many early drama and series programs had a New York City setting -- Manhattan for sophisticated themes and Brooklyn where the subject was blue-collar folks. Nowadays nearly everything seems to be non-stop LA. Live TV meant that if actors blew their lines, there were no re-takes. It wasn't like Broadway where there was a comparatively long time for a show to get shaped up before its debut. Consequently muffed lines could be expected fairly often. Oh, and it was fun to see the beads of sweat on actors' faces. Most of this was likely due to the hot lighting but some might have been related to the pressure of performing "without a net." Pressure was even worse for programs such as serials that had episodes broadcast 2-5 times a week. The actors had almost no time to learn lines and rehearse before going live. I remember a Life magazine article about a sci-fi kid-program (can't recall if it was "Space Patrol" or "Tom Corbett, Space Cadet") showing how scripts or dialogue cheat-sheets were taped to the visors of space helmets or other handy objects to prevent a complete acting melt-down. Another fun thing was seeing microphones accidentally appear on-camera. Standard practice was to attach microphones at the end of telescoping "booms" -- they were... posted by Donald at February 13, 2006 | perma-link | (9) comments

Friday, February 3, 2006

"Shag" on Sale
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I just noticed that Amazon is offering the 1989 comedy-drama "Shag" on sale for $8.97. That's a very nice price for a sweetheart of a movie. Have you caught the film? It's a small-scale charmer with a lot of hard-to-resist fizz -- something light, girl-centric and touching, for the crowd that loved "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," "Mystic Pizza," "Dirty Dancing," "Valley Girl," and "Mermaids." It's set in the early 1960s and stars Phoebe Cates, Bridget Fonda, and Annabeth Gish as Southern college girls who head to Myrtle Beach for one last blow-out before settling down. Love, heartbreak, dance scenes (the film's title refers to a dance of the era), and showdowns ensue; the hairstyles, cars, and fashions are fabulous without being camp. All three actresses are in tiptop -- ie., eager and charmingly absurd -- form, and the direction, writing, and music provide a lot of buoyancy. It's one of those small-scale movies that lingers warmly in some people's memories. Small question? Why didn't Annabeth Gish become as big a star as Julia Roberts? Here's a page of screencaps from the movie. Here's an Annabeth Gish fansite; here's one for Phoebe Cates; and here's one for Bridget Fonda. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 3, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Surroundsound Blues
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The Wife and I have been working our way through the Joss Whedon sci-fi/Western "Firefly" (buyable, Netflixable). The show, which aired on Fox for only one season in 2002, has a passionate cult of admirers. It has collected over 2000 five-star reviews on Amazon, and it inspired Whedon (and a movie studio, of course) to make "Serenity," a movie version of the same material. The Wife and I are 2/3 of the way through the series now. Not our cup of tea, but we're watching in order to observe and learn, not to judge. We're ever-curious about the state of long-form storytelling, and we enjoy trying to figure out what people get out of the TV-fiction that they love. There's much about the series to be admired. Whedon's ability to pace and vary a season's worth of shows is certainly impressive. He has a likable talent for creating a party-food cosmos consisting of of crunchy pop-cult refs and chewable pop-cult characters -- in this case, Harrison Ford meets "Starship Troopers" meets Tantric sex meets the new butt-kicking gals, etc. Whedon is Mr. Flair when it comes to cross-breeding genres. And he seems eager to feed Americans' insatiable appetite for workplaces presented as extended families. Does anyone have a theory about why Americans are so fond of the fantasy that the workplace should function as a kind of idealized family? My own theory: we expect too much of work, and we spend too much time at the office. But I could be wrong. We are family. No: make that co-workers ... Like I say: nothing that speaks to us, but intriguing nonetheless. Watching the show, though, the main thing that's hitting me is this reflection: Wow, are my sonic-environment tastes different than those of many Americans. "Firefly"'s soundtrack is the TV equivalent of what's so often marketed to us at the multiplex these days: an ever-throbbing electronic gumbo of growls, roars, rumbles, and shazaams, all providing a heightened audio backdrop to the "you're inside the instruments" score, and to the muffled and underplayed (and so, I guess, "real"-seeming) dialogue. And all those karate-chop sounds ... Watching kung-fu movies back in the '70s, would you have guessed that, as cool and funny as they were, the Bruce Lee sound effects -- the swishes, ka-thunks, and yee-hahs -- would still be such presences in popular culture come 2005? The only sins in these kinds of pop-Wagnerian soundtracks would seem to be simplicity, clarity, and silence. It's a kind of pinging/rumbling jumble that I suppose a lot of people like, or at least have come to expect. Perhaps this kind of sonic texture feels familiar to them. Perhaps it's comforting. Maybe it gives them a lift too. Maybe it signals "entertainment!" As we watch "Firefly," all these pinging-growling sounds are coming at The Wife and me impressively reproduced by our surroundsound home-theater system. I blogged here about how I'd had to equip our new TV with a sound... posted by Michael at January 31, 2006 | perma-link | (15) comments

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Video Blogging
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The digital tsunami has rolled over the print, music, and still-imagery businesses. Now -- what with fast connections and the video iPod -- it has reached the video and movies businesses. These two articles in Business Week seem to me to do a good job of sketching out the state of the web-video thang. Interesting times for the media-middleman world, no? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 26, 2006 | perma-link | (7) comments

Friday, January 13, 2006

Townes Van Zandt
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The price we pay for art? Or what a lot of hard living will do? I was expecting to be annoyed by "Be Here to Love Me," Margaret Brown's new movie about the late Texas folk/country troubador Townes Van Zandt. I had read that the movie wasn't meant to be anything so banal as a straightforward documentary, and that had gotten my hackles up. What could possibly be wrong with simply telling the Townes story, introducing Townes' people, and including a lot of performance footage? Just the facts -- and the music -- ma'am. God damn arty filmmakers, always trying to put themselves between me and the information I want ... As it turned out, I experienced the annoyance I was anticipating only a couple of times, and then only fleetingly. I spent most of the movie feeling blissed-out, in a hurts-so-bad-it's-good kind of way. Is "Be Here to Love Me" the downbeat, elliptical, artily hard-to-categorize movie I was expecting? Sure. Does Margaret Brown leave big parts of the Townes story blurry and unaccounted for, just as I feared? Yup. But, as it turned out, this was all fine by me. Enough of the information comes across; enough of the key people make substantial appearances; enough of Townes' music is heard. Margaret Brown didn't try to make the definitive Townes Van Zandt biography; she's leaving room for others to do that. What she made instead is a glancing and touching mood piece -- a movie that's half about Townes Van Zandt and half about how his music can make you feel. This dreamy, half-story/half-mood approach makes sense given how powerfully Townes Van Zandt's music -- given, in fact, how powerfully the whole Townes Van Zandt thang -- can hit a person. Van Zandt, who died in 1997, was an underground legend. He was a songwriter's songwriter: Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Steve Earle, the Black Crowes, Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, the Cowboy Junkies, and Gillian Welch have all spoken about his brilliance as a songwriter. He was also a charismatic and low-key performer. And, although he never had a hit of his own, he was loved for the purity and beauty of his records too. "Townes doesn't have non-obsessive fans,'' Margaret Brown said to one interviewer. Count me among them. I stumbled across his music in the early '80s and have been hooked ever since. I've played his music more than any other artist's, and it's a big regret of mine that I saw Townes perform live only once. But what a beautiful show it was. Townes was on a double bill with his buddy and fellow Texas singer-songwriter Guy Clark. Both men performed solo, Guy first then Townes, walking out alone, telling their stories and jokes, singing their songs while playing guitar. On stage, Guy Clark was solid, craftsmanlike, companionable, and down-to-earth -- an old shoe, but one with a lot of grit and soul. I love Guy Clark's music, by the way.... posted by Michael at January 13, 2006 | perma-link | (18) comments

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Maybe the Sky Really is Falling
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It seems as though the ground beneath the traditional movie and TV businesses is turning to sand, doesn't it? Two recent, telling announcements: * Google will be competing with iTunes in delivering video. * And a witty idea: The newest film festival in town limits submissions to films that are playable on an iPod. Fans of fiction set in the traditional movie world shouldn't miss Anne Thompson's posting about her favorite Hollywood fiction-books. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 10, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Whither Movies?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Will 2005 go down as the beginning of the end of movie history as we once knew it? Anne Thompson takes a look back. Budd Schulberg takes the long view. I notice that a revised musical-theater version of Schulberg's wonderful novel "What Makes Sammy Run?" opens in NYC on January 16. I consider "Sammy" a masterpiece of modern on-the-page narrative fiction, and wrote a few words about it here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 3, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Future of Entertainment
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Edward Jay Epstein predicts that the near future will deliver dramatic surprises in the movie and TV worlds. Scary fact: Wal-Mart now accounts for 30% of DVD sales, and "the studios dance to Wal-Mart's tune." That can't be healthy for entertainment. Meanwhile, Friedrich von Blowhard alerts me to some happy entertainment news: Disney will produce a new season of "Kim Possible" cartoons. FvB posted about his own love of the series here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 29, 2005 | perma-link | (4) comments

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Day TV Came to Town
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- For most Americans under 50, television has been around as long as they can remember. But for those over age 60, say, there was probably a first-time experience of television. If you're curious what the first encounter between Blowhard and "idiot box" was like, read on ... Experimental television dates back to the 1920s, but broadcasting did not start in the United States until 1939 at the New York World's Fair. World War 2 and the high price of TV sets kept commercial television on hold until the later 1940s, when slightly more than 100 stations had been licensed by the FCC. In 1948 the FCC declared a halt to licensing that stayed in place until 1952, after which stations proliferated like mildew. One of those early stations was KRSC, channel 5, in Seattle. Programming debuted Thanksgiving Day (25 November) 1948 with a telecast of the state high school football championship game. For a screen shot and other information, click here. That first telecast took place less than a month after my ninth birthday, which meant I was old enough to be really excited about the coming of TV. Of course I had been hearing radio all my life and been to plenty of movies as well. So the idea of having something like movies in one's home sounded super-neat. Nor were television sets a complete mystery. I had been seeing advertisements for sets for a couple years in magazine as well as articles about television with photos in those same magazines as well as the newspaper. Still, I had never actually seen television and was eagerly awaiting the Big Event. Fortunately, my best grammar school buddy's dad owned an appliance store and was adding TV sets to his wares. Besides a set or two at the store, Mr. Stewart had installed one at home as well. For a few days before the big broadcast I had been seeing test patterns, which only whetted my appetite. When the telecast started, the appliance store had collected a crowd of about 30 people including me and my dad. As it turned out, the images were really awful -- not sharp, instead blotchy and snowy (see the link above for what it looked like). Besides the expected teething troubles of a new medium and an inexperienced broadcast crew, matters were made worse by reflections off water puddles on the playing field (this is Seattle, remember) that caused image "burns," forcing cameramen to keep panning even when there was no action to show. So TV was a Big Disappointment, at least for the afternoon of the football game. Once the football was done, the station switched over to broadcasting "kinescope" recorded shows that had somewhat better quality. But not really good quality because a kinescope recording was a fancy term for filming a TV monitor in 16-millimeter at the time of the live broadcast and then projecting the result before a live camera days or weeks later at... posted by Donald at December 18, 2005 | perma-link | (6) comments

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Moviegoing: "The Passenger"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Of the major post-World War II film directors, Michelangelo Antonioni was never one of my favorites. I found his films gorgeous and impressive, but I also found them slow, pretentious, and affected. Watching Antonioni's films, I alternated between dozing off, getting the giggles, and feeling hypnotized by so much austere beauty. So the question arises: What was I doing at Manhattan's wonderful Landmark Sunshine art-cinema-plex the other night watching the rerelease of Antonioni's 1975 "The Passenger"? And what accounts for the way I spent the film's two-hour running-time feeling so very blissed-out? Nostalgia and curiosity certainly had a lot to do with it. When the film -- which stars Jack Nicholson and Maria ("Last Tango") Schneider -- was originally released, I was a college kid who had only recently grown interested in movies. Well, not just interested: I was deep in a head-over-heels-in-love phase. Lordy, what a lot of arty and funky filmmaking was around at the time. I tumbled for the work of many of the Europeans -- Eric Rohmer, Francois Truffaut, Godard, Bertolucci -- as well as many of the Americans who were inspired by Euro-filmmaking: Peckinpah, Altman, Coppola ... So, although Antonioni was never one of my faves, watching "The Passenger" 30 years after it was initially released was like remembering what it was to fall in love for the first time. There's no disputing that Antonioni was one of the giants of the post-World-War-II art scene. Older than most of the filmmakers whose generation he was part of, Antonioni grew up in the '20s and '30s in Emilia-Romagna, and was already in his 60s by the time he made "The Passenger." He studied economics in college; he spent time painting, working on scripts, and making documentaries. Maria, Jack: Where are they going, man?I mean, really going? By the early 1950s, when he began making his own feature films, Antonioni had a developed point of view and an already well-developed style. Although his work grew out of neo-realism, his style always tended towards the architectural, the painterly, and the abstract. Right from the outset, his films were enigmatic, high-art mood pieces. The subject Antonioni focused on was the alienation -- "ennui" and "anomie" were words much in use in those days -- some people were feeling in the post-war world. What this generally translated to onscreen was unhappy marriages; failures of communication; mysteries that were never solved; and spiritually void people moving through concrete and industrial wastelands, or through landscapes that mirrored their confusion and barrenness. And, often, a sense of romantic/erotic yearning. With three films in the early 1960s -- "L'Avventura," "L'Eclisse," and "La Notte" -- Antonioni's reputation was set. He became as widely recognized a master as Fellini, Rossellini, Visconti, and De Sica. He may have become even more influential than any of them, and remains a major influence today; among his fans are Robert Altman, Wong Kar-Wai, Steven Soderbergh, Alexander Payne, Jeremy Podeswa, and Atom Egoyan. With 1964's... posted by Michael at November 30, 2005 | perma-link | (12) comments

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

For Film Lovers
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The more film-besotted among our visitors won't want to remain unaware of some high-end moviechat sites: The shrewd and seasoned industry observer Anne Thompson blogs here. The NYTimes' civilized (if auteurist) film critic Dave Kehr has started blogging here -- although enough already with white-on-black type used for lengthy posts. Hey world, here's a little lesson from Graphic Design 101: Readers' eyes can typically make it through only a paragraph or two of white on black (or "reversed-out") text. Filmmaker magazine's staff blogs here, and points out a wonderful website devoted to Polish movie posters. Eastern European graphic design was, for a number of decades, one of the splendors of 20th century visual art, IMHO. For those who truly can't get enough, there's always Green Cine Daily, which delivers links, links, and more links to reviews, features, gossip, newly-released product, and you-name-it of any kind, so long as it has to do with edgy movies. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 23, 2005 | perma-link | (4) comments

Friday, November 18, 2005

DVD Journal: "Being Julia"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- My DVD find of my current vacation has been the sumptuous period romp "Being Julia." Although it's chickflick enough that many straight guys will probably prefer to avoid it, I can report that my very manly stepfather-in-law found the picture as touching and funny as I did, and as The Wife did too. It's a comedy-drama set in the theater world of 1930s London, with plenty of is-it-reality-or-is-it-make-believe metaphysics-lite to chew on -- something along the lines of "Shakespeare in Love," if less playful and more emotionally substantial. Full of gorgeous old cars, richly appointed lodgings, and extravagant backstage scenes, "Being Julia" is the kind of beautifully upholstered, cleverly-turned entertainment that people used to call "delicious." Annette Bening plays a legendary British theater diva who, moving into her 40s, is having herself one heckuva crisis. Julia is still a great -- if fading -- beauty, but she's painfully aware that she's no longer young. Life is taking some kind of turn for her. Where has the passion gone? Julia and her producer husband have a marriage of mutual respect -- ie., they're devoted, but they both screw around. And the starring roles? Well, these days they kind of come and go. Is anything she's feeling real, or at least any more real than anything else she's feeling? What does any of it -- the fame, the roles, the art -- really mean? And where has the spark gone, dammit? Julia needs to revive herself, in other words. Given that she's an actress, the agent of her revival is a new love affair. Yet love is never as simple as it first appears, is it? Working from a novella by Somerset Maugham, Ronald Harwood has devised a sweet and malicious script that is full of scenes so actable that they ought to be used as examples in intro-to-playwriting classes. Istvan Szabo directs with a lot of fondness and respect, and gives the film a rich, Visconti-goes-to-Prague mise-en-scene -- no surprise to learn that much of the film was in fact shot in Eastern Europe. But you watch movies like this one even more than most for the actors, and the cast in "Being Julia" really sings. Jeremy Irons is suave and witty as Julia's matinee-idol-turned-producer husband. Lucy Punch is a hilariously in-over-her-head combo of glamorous and gauche as Julia's ambitious young rival. Michael Gambon turns on a lot of stirring hamminess as Julia's deceased first mentor, a provincial director who made her a star, and who visits in spirit to supply coaching even now. Nearly everyone in the cast turns in a charmer of a performance; they keep in constant contact with both earnestness and a sense of the absurd. At the center of it all is Annette Bening, who I found staggeringly good. Helplessly overdramatizing everything, Julia is a diva to the ends of her fingernails, and Bening doesn't shy from showing what an exhausting life-destroyer a diva can be. But she also finds... posted by Michael at November 18, 2005 | perma-link | (8) comments

Monday, November 14, 2005

Toga Movies
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I've never been a huge fan of classical epics. Spectacle isn't generally my thing, I don't think marble looks good on film, and the diplomacy-love-and-battles storylines that are usually featured don't tend to hook me. Even so, I approve of such films. I'm glad when they're being made and watched. Rightly or wrongly, I take their existence as a sign of movieworld health. The talents of designers, costumers, and technicians are being stretched. Directors are putting large-scale craft to use. Actors, god bless 'em, are keeping straight faces while wearing silly costumes and ridiculous hairstyles. And audiences are arguing over casting choices and historical veracity. These are all good things. So, despite my lack of enthusiasm for most such movies, I cheer the genre on, and I check in on a decent number of such films. Over the weekend, The Wife and I caught up with a couple of recent attempts. "Troy" was first up. Watching "Troy," the two major facts you're forced to wrestle with are the computer effects, and Brad Pitt as Achilles. Are you adapting well to the new world of computerized crowd scenes? I'm still struggling. Watching a crowd scene in a pre-digital spectacle, you knew that the people had actually been assembled in front of the camera. When a horizon line was spanned by rows of warriors, you knew that thousands of real people had been costumed and put in place. If the moment was right in dramatic terms, you might have the fun of gasping both at the story point and at the sheer human effort involved in achieving the shots that told it. Computer-generated crowd scenes hit me very differently. They can be nifty to look at in a dazzling-computer-game kind of way. But watching a computer spectacle, I don't think I've ever felt anything resembling awe. I know that a lot of computer work and computer ingenuity has gone into creating the shots and the scenes. But it all feels so small-scale -- more like needlework than like general-ship. Which isn't to diss needlework, just to dramatize the tension I feel between how I'm asked to take the scene and how the work that has gone into the scene actually feels to me. Even watched on DVD, the crowd scenes in "Lawrence of Arabia" feel huge and expansive. The crowd scenes in "Troy" feel like they take place on a 15" computer monitor. Plus, it all seems so arbitrary. 50,000 warriors? Hell, why not clone 'em a few more times and show 500,000? That said, some of the computer effects in "Troy" were neat enough. The shot of hundreds of triremes on their way to the Dardanelles made me go "Cool!" And "Troy"'s CG soldiers have a lot more individuality than computer-generated figures usually do. Not that watching crowds of them hurry around seemed any less like watching an ants' nest than it usually does ... Brad? Well, along with many sensible people, I'm happy... posted by Michael at November 14, 2005 | perma-link | (20) comments

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Nonlinear Storytelling
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The Wife and I made it to the movie theaters a few times recently. First we took in Tony Scott's "Domino." The film is loosely based on the life of a woman named Domino Harvey. The daughter of a Vogue model and the dashing British star Laurence Harvey, Domino grew up angry and a little crazy, and became a bounty hunter. Yup, although it sounds Too Good to be True, she really did. The film is a frantic, hallucinatory, cyber-fantasia based on a few episodes in Domino's life. Before anyone asks what we were thinking, attending an obviously appalling movie like "Domino," let me say that The Wife and I sometimes enjoy seeing obviously-appalling movies. There's the fun of tuning into the zeitgeist. But there's also mucho fun to be had in gasping in horror at what the media have become, and where life generally seems to be heading. In the case of "Domino," we thoroughly enjoyed being appalled. I don't know when I've seen such a foaming-at-the-mouth commercial film. Always flashy and aggressive, Tony Scott seems to have spent time recently studying at the "Natural Born Killers" finishing school. Imagine a cable service whose every channel is broadcasting something about Domino Harvey: on one channel a documentary; on another a movie of the week; on a third the rock-video version; on the fourth a drug-trip account, etc etc. Now imagine spending two hours surfing randomly among these many stations. That's what watching "Domino" is like. It's more about the twitchy fun of channel-surfing than it is about its ostensible subject. There was some non-campy pleasure to be had watching the performers. Nearly all of them show enjoyable "what the hell?" attitudes, and nearly all pitch themselves into the punkish attitudinizing with likable ferocity. I'd never watched Keira Knightly before, but I'm a fan now. She's cute as heck, of course. But she also shows a lot of zest, and a lot of uninhibited and naughty-spirited avidity. As Domino's mentor, Mickey Rourke does his specialty -- seedy-and-bemused -- and he flexes a lot of reluctant charisma too. Keira and Mickey both do excellent jobs making the filthy bluejeans they wear seem recklessly glamorous. Playing their opposite number -- an opportunistic reality-TV producer in a business suit -- Christopher Walken is even more wackily Martian than usual. I felt very happy when the credits at the end of "Domino" visually showed the film's lead actors. I often wish that movies would all show images of the performers they name during their credits. It's a nice tribute to the performers as well as a service to viewers. Anyway, at the end of "Domino"'s credits, the actual Domino Harvey shows up for a few seconds. She's smiley, tough, careworn ... And her presence answers a lot of the questions that the film raises. All along, you've been wondering what kind of woman would become a kickass bounty hunter. The film tries to give the impression that the... posted by Michael at November 8, 2005 | perma-link | (25) comments

Thursday, November 3, 2005

Q&A With George Hunka, Part One
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I wrote recently about seeing and enjoying "In Private / In Public," an evening of George Hunka plays that The Wife and I attended. We both found the show -- which was staged by Isaac Butler at Manhattantheatresource -- funny, moving, spare, and elegant. George's work got me wondering about many things -- love, betrayal, eroticism, art. But the evening also got me wondering about the theater more generally. How does writing for actors compare to writing for the page? And what is the playwriting life like? So I asked George, who I know slightly, if he'd mind answering some questions about his experiences as a playwright, and about what it was like putting "In Private / In Public" up on its feet. I was pleased when he graciously agreed. George and I have edited our e-chat into a two-part q&a. Today, George talks about how he got into playwriting, and what the world of the theater is like. *** 2Blowhards: How long have you been writing plays? George Hunka: I've been writing plays since I was 14 or so. 2B: How did you get started? GH: I grew up in a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania, where there weren't many opportunities to see live theater. Thank god for television -- not an exclamation you expect to hear when you're talking about theater. Around 1975, HBO had just started and was running Ely Landau's American Film Theatre series at the time. I managed to see the AFT's versions of Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming," David Storey's "In Celebration," Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" and Bertolt Brecht's "Galileo." I guess something in me said, "Well, I could do this, too." At that time, PBS also ran a production of Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," with Ralph Waite, the paterfamilias of that legendary mid-1970s family "The Waltons," as Pozzo. If you had cable then, it was easier to keep abreast of contemporary theater than it is today! [Editor's note: DVDs of the AFT shows can be bought here and here.] 2B: When did you first make it to the big city? GH: A year later I started going to New York City once in a while. That was the first time I went to the Public Theater -- on one stage was Sam Shepard's "Curse of the Starving Class"; on another, George Dzundza, Jeffrey DeMunn and Laurence Luckinbill were starring in Thomas Babe's extraordinary "A Prayer for My Daughter." I saw them both in one day. And on Broadway? On another visit, I went to an afternoon matinee of Harold Pinter's "No Man's Land," starring John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, then that night at the Beaumont I saw Richard Foreman's production of "The Threepenny Opera" with Philip Bosco, Caroline Kava and Blair Brown. Now that's a Broadway I would visit again. You'd be insane if you didn't want to be a playwright after that. 2B: What was the first time you saw and heard your own words spoken... posted by Michael at November 3, 2005 | perma-link | (10) comments

More on Digital Cinema
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I just noticed that Tyler Cowen linked to my recent piece about digital movie projection. (Thanks, Tyler!) Moviebuffs should enjoy the commentsfest that follows. Some commenters think I'm an arty pseud; others agree that movies projected digitally lack a certain je ne sais quoi. But they're all funny and/or interesting. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 3, 2005 | perma-link | (0)
"Hopeless Pictures"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The Wife and I recently caught up with our first episode of the Bob Balaban-created IFC series "Hopeless Pictures," and we both thought it was terrific. An animated show for adults, the series is a satire set in the film business and is centered on the head of a small Hollywood movie studio. He's saddled with an idiot nephew ... An out-of-control director ... A nagging wife ... An unhelpful shrink ... Oy! "Hopeless Pictures" is a little like "The Player," in other words, only even more uninhibited, and with slyly childlike, cheery-nightmare visuals in the style of Maira Kalman. The vocal performances -- by such wits as Michael McKean, Lisa Kudrow, Jonathan Katz, and Jennifer Coolidge -- are, every one of them, wild and brilliant. I'd have loved to be present as the vocal tracks were taped. The creativity-dial was clearly turned to Extra-High that day. Balaban, who is best-known as an actor, has also turned out to be a very gifted, and often very far-out, creator-director. He worked behind the scenes with Robert Altman on "Gosford Park"; his black-hearted 1989 horror-comedy "Parents" has a well-deserved cult reputation; and The Wife and I loved a hilariously demented, scary-funny-touching, off-off-Broadway theater production that Balaban directed back in the '90s. Here's IFC's page for "Hopeless Pictures." IFC has posted episode one of "Hopeless Pictures" on its site, so you can watch it on your computer. The colors may not sing as vibrantly as they do on cable, but that's still pretty cool. You can search through the series' airtimes here. I notice that you can rent the entire series from Netflix too ... Interesting. As the traditional movie business continues to crumble, places like IFC and Netflix are beginning to partner up to produce entertainment. And as the action-adventure, teen-centric formula of the last 30 years loses its mojo, sophisticated and innovative hybrids -- for adults! -- like "Hopeless Pictures" are beginning to emerge from the new-media flux. The king is dead/Long live the king, I guess. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 3, 2005 | perma-link | (1) comments

Friday, October 28, 2005

Mike on "Slings and Arrows"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Many thanks to Mike Hill, who emailed me to to give a thumbs-up to "Slings and Arrows," a six-part Canadian production on Sundance. The series is set at a theater festival, features a lot of actor-hysteria, and is still in rotation. (Do a search on the Sundance website to find upcoming showtimes.) Being a huge fan of high-pitched, behind-the-scenes comedy-dramas, I'll certainly be setting my DVR. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 28, 2005 | perma-link | (0)

Thursday, October 27, 2005

More on Digital Movie Theaters
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It's been talked about for years, and now it looks like ... Well, like it's going to be talked about for a few more years. Movie studios want movie theaters to convert from film-based projection to digital-based projection. From the studios' point of view, computer projection has many advantages. Distributing films would become far cheaper and easier. A physical print of a film weighs about 175 pounds and has to be shipped from the lab to a movie theater. Moving a digital file from one hard drive to another hard drive is much more easily and inexpensively accomplished. And storing films on computers would enable studios and theaters to respond more effectively to market developments. If a film tanks, it could be pulled instantly. A surprise hit could be moved onto multiple screens with a few mouse clicks. Hard drives are now up to the task ... Digital projectors are better than they once were ... But digital theaters are still few and far between. Why? The answer is a question: Who's going to pay to convert the movie theaters? A traditional film projector costs around $20,000. Converting a movie theater to digital projection costs around $100,000. Why should movie theaters volunteer to make investments that will mainly benefit the studios? The Wall Street Journal's Sarah McBride reports that discussions between studios and theater chains continue, and continue, and continue continuing. Her article -- not online, as far as I can tell -- is full of interesting tidbits. One movie-chain source maintains that the conversion to digital won't occur until prices come much further down -- which he says will take another three years. Improvements in digital projection technology are another hangup. At the moment, hard-drive-based theater projectors can manage 2000 horizontal lines. But machines capable of projecting 4000 lines are soon to go on sale. Why should theater owners be expected to invest in a technology that's guaranteed to go obsolete? But my favorite details from McBride's piece are a couple that remind me of what it's like being a day-to-day computer user: While traditional movie projectors can last for decades, the computers that store and distribute digital movies will probably last no longer than three years. A traditional movie projector typically needs around $1000 worth of maintenance per year. Digital projectors? McBride writes that they're "likely to bring maintenance costs of several thousand dollars per year because, like computers, they may develop glitches that require an expert to fix." As far as I can tell, what McBride means is that the local multiplex will soon be supporting its own IT department. What McBride doesn't mention -- and what few articles about converting movies to digital seldom mention -- is the question of visual quality. I've searched out theaters that are equipped to project movies digitally, and I've watched a half dozen movies in them. It's a strange experience. Movies projected digitally are bright, and blemish-free. Yet they feel ... odd. Digital projection... posted by Michael at October 27, 2005 | perma-link | (17) comments

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Stealthy News Distorting
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Political blogs pig out on examples of how The Other Side distorts news reporting / presentation. We aren't a political blog 'round here (though our views seep into our postings). But we do examine the news media, and if our searchlight picks out some juicy examples of manipulation, well, why not pass them along? I'll offer up two examples. Both are from local Seattle television news shows and neither is recent. However, I wouldn't be surprised to find the same sorts of things going over the air now. The Typical Teacher When a school district was experiencing a "job action" (teachers aren't allowed to strike in these here parts, so they simply job-act) the TV reporter put one of the actors on-camera. Shown was a woman who looked to be in her mid-late 30s. She said that she was a single parent with two children, and went on to say that she was having trouble surviving on an annual salary of X thousand dollars. The casual viewer would likely feel sympathetic to this woman and draw the conclusion that all teachers in the district were grossly underpaid and that the "action" was well justified. I'm almost certain this was exactly the response the reporter was trying to elicit. So, just what was being distorted? The key item is the X-dollar annual salary. That amount happened to be pretty close to entry-level pay for schoolteachers. Entry-level teachers are likely to be around 23 years old, single, childless and able to exist on what they're paid. Fifteen years later, when they reach the age of the televised job-actor, their pay would be substantially higher than entry-level. The reporter distorted the report by showing an untypical example and not telling the viewers that the example was not typical and why it was not typical. I had no idea if the teachers had a legitimate case, and the TV news report gave me no useful information on the issue. Old Fogeys and Sweet Young Things Another time a local station was covering a partisan issue and the report showed brief interviews with a Democrat and a Republican. The Democrat was a young, attractive, energetic, articulate woman. The Republican was an old coot aged about 75 who hemmed and hawed his thoughts. The not-so-subliminal conclusion our friend the casual viewer would likely draw would be that Democrats are with-it and Republicans are old f**ts. I imagine that, if confronted regarding this, the reporter would have claimed that these were exactly the sorts of people he had to deal with or maybe what got on-air was simple happenstance. Yeah, sure. Happy viewing! Later, Donald... posted by Donald at October 25, 2005 | perma-link | (18) comments

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Going to Hawaii to Jump the Shark
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Michael really ought to be writing this because he's the Main Media Maven here at 2Blowhards. On the other hand, as I've been known to remark, what's the point of having ignorance if you don't give it the chance to shine? Ever read/hear the phrase "jumped the shark"? I first came across it a couple years ago on National Review's Corner blog when Jonah Goldberg started using it. It refers to the point at which a television series demonstrates that it has passed its peak and is now on the skids. And it can be generalized to such points in the real world. The phrase was inspired by an episode of the Happy Days sit-com where the Fonzie (Harry Winkler) character is water skiing and leaps over a shark. The television aspect has its very own Web page which you can visit here. For more background, check the Wikipedia entry here. Wikipedia mentions that the phrase has been around since the 90s and provides examples of shows' changes in, among other things, Premise Setting Cast/star Main characters Production Also noted are the introduction of special, issue-oriented episodes, the appearance of celebrity guests who play themselves, and a miscellaneous category of changes. I got burned out on television ages ago -- haven't regularly followed a series since the late-80s. But I do remember shark-jumping moments back before the term was coined. Back then my tip-off that a series had been drained of its creative juices was when an episode was set in Hawaii. I think I saw this happen a couple times, but I can't remember what shows were involved. Hawaii episodes embody the break-from-the-past shark-jumping characteristic because the physical setting is far removed from that of regular episodes. If a show has made use of running gags tied to a setting (as opposed to character traits), these are disrupted. Further, unless characters possess strong traits, the change in venue might leave characters characterless, if you get my drift. The Hawaii episode, at its core, is a crutch for the writers. It offers a clich-rich environment for the show's characters: have a beach scene, a hula scene, a surfing scene, a luau scene, a Don Ho type guest appearance, etc., etc. And of course a Hawaii episode means a great junket for the cast and production staff. The only loss is the future of the show. But then, everyone was probably suspecting that the jig was up anyway. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at October 19, 2005 | perma-link | (12) comments

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

TV Alert
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I notice that some good viewin' is nearly upon us. * The Trio network is re-running a four-hour, four-part documentary called "Lost Highway: The History of American Country." It's an English production narrated by Lyle Lovett, and it's intelligently informative, stylish in a non-obtrusive way, and helpfully organized. It's as full of vintage footage, sincere interviews, and heart-rending, real-people music as you could hope. Bluegrass, singing cowboys, big hair, honky-tonk, hippie-outlaws -- all are present and all are very well-accounted-for. Is there a better video overview of country music than "Lost Highway" available? I'm not aware of one. The first episode of "Lost Highway" will be broadcast on Trio tonight, Tuesday, from 9-10 pm EST, and later at midnight. The subsequent episodes follow on the following evenings: episode two on Wednesday; episode three on Thursday; and episode four on Friday. * This Wednesday evening, TCM celebrates the film producer Val Lewton by broadcasting some of the horror pictures Lewton is famous for. Working in the 1940s with tiny budgets and on short shooting schedules, Lewton became a legend for creating quiet, small movies that got their scares via suggestion and mood. A few shadows ... Some well-chosen rustling noises ... And chills run up and down your spine. If you don't know Lewton's movie work, I urge you to give a couple of these films a try. As far as I'm concerned, "Cat People" and "I Walked with a Zombie" -- both of them directed by the sophisticated Jacques Tourneur -- aren't just neato scare movies; they're eerie and erotic poetic gems, as stylized, exciting, and altered-state-inducing as expressionist operas, or the best silent movies. "Cat People" will be broadcast on TCM Wednesday, from 8:00-9:15 pm EST. "I Walked with a Zombie" screens Wednesday from 10:30-11:45 pm EST. Here's a good website devoted to Val Lewton. I notice that Warner has just released a boxed DVD set of all of Lewton's horror movies. * I wrote enthusiastically about the 1957 Elmore Leonard/Delmar Daves western "3:10 to Yuma" here. Short version of a long posting: I found the film very enjoyable -- tense and turbulent, fast and brilliant. If these judgments were up to me, I'd call "3:10 to Yuma" a classic. TCM broadcasts "3:10 to Yuma" Saturday, from 2:30-4:30 pm EST. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 18, 2005 | perma-link | (4) comments

Monday, October 17, 2005

On the DVR
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I wonder if people who haven't yet sprung for a digital video recorder -- a Tivo, or maybe a box that your cable company will rent you -- understand how dramatically using one can change your experience of television. Being able to zap commercials is of course a wonderful thing. And watching sports via DVR is quite nice too. During the recent U.S. Open tennis championship, for example, I learned a lot by rewinding back through interesting points and studying them in slow motion. But for me what's been most wonderful is the way the DVR -- essentially some software and a hard drive -- becomes the TV equivalent of your book or CD library. When The Wife and I settle in to do a little tube-watching, we don't see "what's on television." Instead, we check out what's waiting for us on the hard drive. You can accumulate an amazing collection of shows with only a minimal amount of programming effort. It used to be common to say that TV was the enemy of true culture. These days ... Well, if you use your DVR wisely, watching TV can become a rewarding part of a classy cultural life. For an example, here's what's waiting for The Wife and me on our DVR's hard drive right now: A look at Hindu art and architecture A documentary about Hitler's family An episode of "What the Victorians Did for Us" A documentary about the early women of rockabilly A show about the engineering challenges involved in constructing a Frank Gehry building A couple of Alton Brown's "Good Eats" programs from the Food Network A number of "Modern Marvels" episodes from the History Channel: one about axes, swords, and knives; one about paint; and one about sewers. Laugh if you will about the apparent banality of these subjects -- but the "Modern Marvels" episodes that I've watched about plumbing, basements, and bathroom technology have all been really interesting. An episode of Melvyn Bragg's history of the English language A documentary about the French filmmaker Claude Chabrol A tour of the South of France A look at ancient Japan A Mario Bava thriller A documentary about three small, independent record companies A show about airships. Sigh: blimps and dirigibles put such a smile on my face ... A documentary about Art Deco buildings A history of San Francisco A biography of the genius choreographer George Balanchine The award-winning French film "To Be and to Have" And, at the moment, our hard drive is only 67% full. Our DVR costs us a mere 10 bucks over and above what we normally spend on cable. The Wife and I have become so hooked on the DVR that -- who would think this would ever happen! -- our Netflix-watching has suffered. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 17, 2005 | perma-link | (11) comments

Friday, October 7, 2005

Moviegoing: "A History of Violence"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards I'm happy to report that my first trip in months to a movie theater -- to see David Cronenberg's "A History of Violence" -- was a semi-success. I found the movie interesting enough. It was yummily projected, thank heavens. And for once the audience itself was a pleasure: absorbed, engaged, quiet-but-responsive. Viggo, solaced by Maria Have you caught the picture? It's a peculiar affair. Taken from a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke (haven't read it), the storyline is the kind of simple, settling-accounts affair that could have provided a workable spine for a Roger Corman quickie. Cronenberg's treatment/direction of this material is something else entirely: somber, magnificent, timeless. So watching the film is a little like watching "Jackson County Jail" if only it had been directed by Ingmar Bergman or Andrei Tarkovsky. Cronenberg talks to Cinema Confidential about the film here. I was taken by the project as a kind of oddball moviemaking experiment, and I had no trouble watching alertly. David Cronenberg is peerless at establishing a tone of spiritual-yet-very-physical, modernist dread. He convinces you that something inconceivably awful is about to erupt while keeping you hoping that, despite everything, it won't -- and then he sustains that queasy, gut-and-brain sense of imbalance seemingly forever. Mystery, horror, and metaphysics all congeal into one pulsing heap of beautiful-repulsive unresolvable fascinatingness. Much of the story here is set in a small town in the midwest, but David Cronenberg's midwest looks and sounds like no midwest you've ever seen in a movie before. This ain't "Jack and Diane," sunny-cornfield, sock-hop territory. Instead, it's gray, it's quiet, and it's damp. It's also plump with a churning sensuality. With their fair coloring, clear faces, and plaid shirts, the characters look heartland-familiar, but messy sex and dark anger come just as easily to them as being-nice does. What's held at bay is made as palpable as what's openly acknowledged. And what might erupt probably will. I was only semi-convinced by the film, not that I minded this. After all, how often do we get to experience a real filmmaking experiment in a mainstream movie theater these days? Cronenberg adds to the low-key dissonance by casting those ecchht-Wasp actors Ed Harris and William Hurt in roles that seem meant for Italians or Jews. What the hell? Yet why not? And why should anything gel anyway? I was also thrilled that the film gave the heavenly Maria Bello a chance to show off her range. Despite her beauty, Bello is an amazingly frank and direct performer. She's got the acting gene (and the acting drive) in spades, heedlessly playing the extremes of anger, mischief, betrayal, and defiance as avidly and skillfully as she does desire and friendliness. (She was pretty stunning in "The Cooler," too.) Plus, as she nears 40, Maria Bello is hard to beat for careworn-but-fresh sexiness. She talks to MovieWeb about "A History of Violence" here. Nice quote: "Since I first started acting, I never separated... posted by Michael at October 7, 2005 | perma-link | (24) comments

Thursday, October 6, 2005

Jim Carrey/Tex Avery
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A brilliant golden-age cartoon, free for viewing on the web! Check out the character of the Wolf. Perhaps Jim Carrey should do the honorable thing and send a few royalty checks along to the estate of Tex Avery, the animation genius who created this little masterpiece. (Link thanks to Sex 'n' Fun. The cartoon is perfectly safe for work. Sex 'n' Fun is no such thing.) Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 6, 2005 | perma-link | (1) comments

Sunday, October 2, 2005

Tivo Alert
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A short note to alert visitors that IFC is broadcasting Mandy Stein's terrific "You See Me Laughin'" many times throughout the month of October. The film, which I blogged enthusiastically about here, is a documentary about the Delta blues. It's specifically about some of the Delta bluesmen who form the lineup for Fat Possum Records: Johnny Farmer, Asie Payton, T-Model ("Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl") Ford, Cedell Davis, Junior Kimbrough, and R.L. Burnside -- giant talents with raw, one-of-a-kind personalities. This is brain-scorching, category-dissolving stuff, music that seems to issue from a planet where there's no distinction between dreams and nightmares, and where the words "sex," "humor," and "horror" all describe the very same thing. It's also music that makes my jaw drop, created by artists who make my heart burst with pride and gratitude. And -- oh yeah -- don't forget to pass the whiskey bottle. Cedell; T-Model; R.L. Broadcast dates include: * Tuesday, Oct 4 2005 4:45 PM * Wednesday, Oct 5 2005 8:15 AM * Wednesday, Oct 5 2005 2:45 PM * Monday, Oct 10 2005 12:00 PM * Monday, Oct 10 2005 6:30 PM * Tuesday, Oct 11 2005 8:00 AM * Tuesday, Oct 11 2005 8:15 AM * Monday, Oct 17 2005 4:30 PM * Tuesday, Oct 18 2005 10:00 AM * Thursday, Oct 20 2005 12:00 PM * Thursday, Oct 20 2005 6:00 PM * Friday, Oct 21 2005 10:00 AM * Wednesday, Oct 26 2005 12:00 PM * Wednesday, Oct 26 2005 5:20 PM * Thursday, Oct 27 2005 8:15 AM IFC's website is here, Fat Possum's is here. You can buy the DVD of "You See Me Laughin'" here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 2, 2005 | perma-link | (2) comments

Saturday, September 17, 2005

DVD Journal: "Overnight" and "Z Channel"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- What does it mean that so many of the most enjoyable movies of recent years have been documentaries about the movie life? Perhaps this is just the way of all postmodernism: These days, the thing that is the thing-about-the-thing trumps the thing that is the-thing-in-itself. But perhaps there's more to it than that. I'll venture a small-t theory: It's a symptom of the current state of the movieworld. The movies themselves have become less important not just as elements in the general media mix but even in that smaller complex of things we call "the movies." Where once the movies were the central event of "the movies," they often now function merely as pretexts for an avalanche of other media events: articles, ads, campaigns, careers, profiles, DVD extras. As the business, the deal-making, the careers, the packaging, and the technology have moved to center stage, the movies themselves have receded into the shadows. Quite a change! When "Nashville," for one example, opened in 1975, The New York Times ran at least eight pieces about the movie itself, and editorial writers and critics weighed in with interpretations of the film for months after. These days, who cares what some moviemaker has done in an artistic sense, let alone what he has to say? Let's cut to the chase instead: How has the film done at the box office? Who's hot and who's not? So it makes sense -- if only to me -- that the most interesting movies these days would often turn out to be movies about movie processes and movie developments: movies about the movie life itself. But of course I could be wrong about all this. I could also be seeing the whole deal through (gasp!) my own limited eyes. Eager to hear competing theories, as always. Although Mark Brian Smith and Tony Montana's "Overnight" isn't (IMHO) one of the best of the recent movies-about-moviemaking, it's certainly one of the most irresistable. "Overnight" tells the true-life, rise-and-fall story of Troy Duffy, filmmaker wannabe. And filmmaker-wannabe extraordinaire. Duffy doesn't just have a wonderful name, he's an amazing character: a self-confident, macho, egomaniac blowhard who stumbles into and lives out an almost unbelievable Hollywood fantasy/nightmare. Troy Duffy, player It's the late 1990s, and the moviebiz is in an especially manic state. "Pulp Fiction" has been a big hit, Sundance is booming, and the business is hungry for the next edgy young indie talent. A nobody bartender in a nowheresville L.A. bar, Troy Duffy is a 25-year-old with dreams of stardom in the big leagues. He plays in a band called The Brood, and he has written a guns-and-guys-and-attitude script called "The Boondock Saints." And then, one day, he gets The Phone Call; Miramax has bought "The Boondock Saints" for three hundred thousand dollars. In no time, Duffy and Miramax's legendary boss Harvey Weinstein are bonding. They're on each other's wavelength -- tough, streetwise, savvy to the whole movies thing. As the deal shakes out,... posted by Michael at September 17, 2005 | perma-link | (23) comments

Friday, September 16, 2005

More About Kate Moss' Nose
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Fans of the Kate-Moss-caught-snorting-coke-on-video story won't want to miss today's followup. One of the story's highlights: "Looking at pictures of his daughter handing round lines of coke to friends, Kate's grey-haired father Peter said: 'It doesn't surprise me'." Did I ever tell you about the friend I once had who worshipped supermodels; who thought of them as intelligent, thoughtful, and creative creatures (hey, just like him!); and who steadfastly insisted that drugs don't play much of a role in their world? Best, Michael UPDATE: In further pressing arts news, the man who took topless photos of Cameron Diaz and then tried to sell them back to her has been found guilty, and has received a three-year sentence for forgery, attempted grand theft, and perjury. Damn: I guess we won't be seeing those photos on the web anytime soon. Also found guilty and sentenced: the teenager who hacked his way into Paris Hilton's cellphone.... posted by Michael at September 16, 2005 | perma-link | (8) comments

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Sophie Marceau ... And Group Characteristics 5
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- One of my current performer-faves is the French actress Sophie Marceau. She has some of Isabelle Adjani's dark-eyed, ethereal, doomed lyricism, but in a less high-strung and more kissable way. She's able to indulge in flights of French chic while never losing track of the earth beneath her. She's as funky and practical as a Cosmo girl, yet she's respectful of and tuned into the aesthetic dimension. Poetic yet companionable, Sophie is one of my favorite performers -- despite the fact that I've seen very few of her movies. Not many of Sophie's French films have made it to the States, and the kinds of English-language movies she has appeared in haven't generally been movies I've been able to face. So I know Sophie's work mostly through photos, through articles, and through interviews. I'm as charmed by Sophie and as interested in what she's up to as I am by any performer whose work I know well. Yet, while I may be losing filmbuff cred-points by admitting this, that's OK with me. Who says you actually have to watch the films of your favorite performers? How many Elke Sommer movies have I ever seen, for another instance? Four or five? Yet I'm glad to to be an Elke fan. (Fun to learn via Google that Elke -- famous in the '60s and '70s as a Euro sex kitten -- is active these days as a painter.) I'm in fact a little apprehensive that, if I were to see Sophie in the movies that I imagine I'd enjoy her in, my pleasure in her existence might be spoiled. And why risk that? (Small thought: Maybe being-a-star is as much a matter of performance as any other role is. And maybe being able to play that role well is a rare talent. How many people have managed to act out being-a-star in ways you've enjoyed?) So what I love about Sophie is Sophie's existence/performance on the public stage -- Sophie as a star: the fact that she's a star, and the career and life that she has led, at least as it has been portrayed in the Euro media. I love many of the photos that have been made of Sophie, for instance. She lends herself to fantasy, glamor, eros, and beauty almost as generously as Monica Bellucci does, yet with a lighter touch. However classy, arousing, or tragic the pose Sophie strikes, she seldom loses her scrappiness or her girlishness. Sophie's soap-opera, actress-star life enchants me too. The daughter of a truck driver, Sophie became a French teen-queen star in the '80s; she was something like a cross between Phoebe Cates and Molly Ringwald. As she grew into a young woman, she partnered up romantically and creatively with out-there madman-filmmaker Andrzej Zulawski. Under his guidance she began making far-out and daring films. Sophie and Zulawski were famous for their outrageous films, as well as for their high-drama relationship; and Zulawski (a Pole) was sometimes accused... posted by Michael at September 14, 2005 | perma-link | (4) comments

Thursday, September 8, 2005

Epstein on Sex at the Movies
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Slate's Edward Jay Epstein writes about the economics and the business arrangements that explain why sex and nudity are in such rare supply in American studio movies today. Some facts from Epstein's enlightening piece: In 2004, none of the six major studios' top 25 grossing films contained any sexually-oriented nudity. No studio has released an NC-17 film since 1995's "Showgirls." "As one Paramount executive suggested, because of their sexually-related nudity, movies such as Louis Malle's 'Pretty Baby,' Bernardo Bertolucci's 'Last Tango in Paris,' and Stanley Kubrick's 'A Clockwork Orange' would not even be considered by a major studio today." "If a film receives an R rating, many television stations and cable networks, particularly teenage-oriented ones, are not allowed to accept TV ads for the movies." How about those tie-ins? "An R ratingespecially for sexual contentwill preclude any of the fast-food chains, beverage companies, or toy manufacturers that act as the studios' merchandise tie-in partners from backing the movie with tens of millions of dollars in free advertising." And then there's the Wal-Mart factor. Wal-Mart (and its Sam's Club stores) accounted for over 1/4 of all DVD sales in 2004. No surprise to learn that Wal-Mart avoids offending mommies. Epstein: "It guards against this risk with a 'decency policy' that consigns DVDs containing sexually related nudity to 'adult sections' of the store, which greatly reduces their sales ... These guidelines, in turn, put studios under tremendous pressure to sanitize their films of sexual content." A bitter/rueful note here: The kinds of movies that the studios wouldn't consider making these days are the very kinds of movies that interested me in movies in the first place. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 8, 2005 | perma-link | (7) comments

Tuesday, September 6, 2005

"Red Eye"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Thanks to Brian for recommending Wes Craven's "Red Eye," which The Wife and I caught up with over the holiday weekend. It struck us both as a first-class B movie: a shrewdly-judged, unpretentious, and expertly-engineered piece of suspense, full of energy and surprises. Terrific performances from everyone; the movie heightens the male/female contrasts between its stars, Cillian Murphy and Rachel McAdams, very effectively. And while the film's portrait of McAdams' character is a long way from "King Lear"-deep, it's valid, and it's right on target. She's a type of young woman who's much in evidence these days: hypercompetent yet scared, girlishly anxious yet also extraverted and rowdy. What a surprise to see a Wes Craven movie that isn't teen horror; "Red Eye" is a psychological thriller. And what a surprise to see Craven working with such finesse. His camera partners the script and the acting with lickety-split alertness, and his pacing sweeps you past most of the unlikelinesses -- thrillers always have unlikelinesses -- wittily and effectively. And Craven and his performers and writers (Carl Ellsworth and Dan Foos) play a cat-and-mouse game with the audience that's entertainingly unstable. There's daring and virtuosity in the way much of the first half of the film takes place in the confines of a passenger plane: It's a chamber thriller! And one that's full of subtle, even elegant, tonal shifts! As the film's credits rolled, I spotted a name that I'm fond of: Dey Young. In "Red Eye," she played such a tiny role that I'm sorry to say I didn't notice her. Back in the late '70s and early '80s, though, I noticed Dey Young a lot. She was a graceful, charming, and mischievous comedienne, appearing in "Rock 'n' Roll High School" and "Strange Behavior," among others, often as a nerdy good girl with a sexier-than-you'd-expect spark in her eyes. Later, she gained a little notice as the nasty shopgirl in "Pretty Woman," and she memorably gave her all in this otherwise-awful thriller. I always looked forward to Dey Young's appearances, and always wanted to see more of her. Dey Young in "Rock 'n' Roll High School" But her movie appearances seemed to grow more and more rare. What becomes of people? IMDB tells me that Dey Young has continued appearing in lots of movies, though mostly not of the type you'd take much notice of. Snooping around online, I learned that Dey Young is the younger sister of '60s and '70s hippie-sexpot Leigh Taylor-Young; that she's the aunt of Rebecca De Mornay; and that she married someone from the Ladd (as in Alan Ladd Jr.) family. I also learned that Dey Young is a very accomplished professional sculptor. Here's an interview with Wes Craven; here's another, and another. Fascinating to learn that Craven, the 66-year old master of teen horror, was inspired to become a director by the films of Ingmar Bergman and the French New Wave, and that he has experienced as much in... posted by Michael at September 6, 2005 | perma-link | (7) comments

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Acting, Again
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I have an unwieldy set of small-t theories about acting. I'm not sure I can justify any of these theories, but there they are. Actors are the purest of all artists, for instance -- "pure" being understood in this case to mean something like "most genuinely driven by the need to express themselves and to give pleasure." Another is that acting is the most mysterious of all the arts. How are some people able to interest the rest of us so directly in stories, characters, and situations? What gift is it that enables them to insert themselves so completely into make-believe that the rest of us follow, and find ourselves involved in make-believe too? Another theory: Everyone ought to study acting for a few years. It can introduce you to such helpful-to-all-the-arts concepts as subtext and being-in-the-moment. Studying acting can be useful in many real-world ways too. It can help you learn how to read (and respond to) behavior. It can help you get a lot more comfortable thinking, speaking, and behaving on your feet. It can help you past a lot of uptightness and inhibitions; you learn daring, and how to trust your instincts. It can turn you into a more positive and appreciative person. And, of course, acting -- even in the most modest, going-to-an-acting-class sense -- can be a heckuva lot of fun, despite the humiliations and tribulations. Plus, hey singledudes: Going to an acting class is an unbeatable way to meet entertaining, sexy, and otherwise appealing women. I spell that t-r-o-u-b-l-e, and mean it in the best possible way. Small tip for anyone interested in giving acting a try: Start out with a good intro-to-improv class. You'll get a taste of what "acting" is all about a lot faster in an improv class than you will in any other kind. If you enjoy the experience, then think of moving into a more conventional intro-to-acting or scene-study class. Being a mysterious thing, acting is one of the hardest of the arts to write about. How many essays or books have you read that helped you understand what performers are really up to, or how they go about achieving their effects? So running across people who are informative, honest, and sensible about performing can be an especially rewarding culture-chat experience. I read some bloggers and I think, That's the spirit! I love it when Mike Hill, for instance, recalls his days as an actor, or discusses a performer friend. The way Mike processes his experience is the way a real actor does it. The Communicatrix doesn't just recount her adventures as a go-getting performer-about-L.A., she does so in the way a performer does. (That's a real writing achievement, by the way.) It turns out that Samizdata's Brian Micklethwait has heard the siren song of acting too. Not a surprise, come to think of it: Brian's postings are almost always performance pieces in their own right. Brian, who did some acting in college,... posted by Michael at August 31, 2005 | perma-link | (18) comments

Monday, August 29, 2005

TV Alert
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Time once again to do some Tivo-setting. * America's most self-consciously self-important moment in the artistic sun may have been the years following World War II, when some talented and ambitious artists, a few bossy and aggressive critics, and lots of media cheerleading combined to create (and put over) the style and movement known as Abstract Expressionism. What did AbEx really represent -- overblown, kiddie-Romantic nonsense? Or the glorious epitome of art-as-self-expression? The Biography Channel broadcasts an hour-long look at uber-Ab-Exer Jackson Pollock from 4 to 5 a.m. on Thursday morning. * I just caught up with "Heaven on Earth," a thoughtful and excellent three-part PBS documentary about the history of socialism. Adapted from the book by historian Joshua Muravchik, it's both concise yet informal, and comprehensive without being exhausting. It's also frankly conservative and skeptical -- ie., sensible -- in its assessments of socialism. But it isn't pushy about its point of view, and it's remarkably even-handed in its general attitudes: Everyday people are treated as the equals of leaders and thinkers. Robert Owen, Marx and Engels, Communism and Democratic Socialism, experiments in Africa, Israel, and Asia ... great stuff. Youngsters should appreciate the information -- context and background are good! -- while oldies should enjoy seeing this semi-familiar material brought together and made sense of. I note that even The Wife -- who generally falls asleep during any documentary whose subject isn't food or a serial killer -- watched "Heaven on Earth" with interest. High praise! Here's the documentary's PBS website. You can check for broadcast times in your area here, and buy a DVD of the show here. * The story of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge is a moving and exciting one, and the no-nonsense documentary series Modern Marvels tells it well. The History Channel rebroadcasts the episode from 7 to 8 a.m. on Wednesday morning. You can buy a DVD of the show here. Wouldn't it be lovely if the prices on A&E and PBS documentaries were half what they are? I'd buy tons of 'em. * I blogged enthusiastically about Wes Craven's 1987 Haiti-set zombie thriller "The Serpent and the Rainbow" here. Short version: cheesy exploitation-horror, yet hypnotic and provocative anyway. The Sundance Channel broadcasts the movie from 12:30 a.m. to 2:15 a.m. on Thursday morning. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 29, 2005 | perma-link | (10) comments

Lynch Goes Digital
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * In digital-cinema news, I found it interesting to learn that naif-surrealist David Lynch -- who is making a movie entitled "INLAND EMPIRE" (all caps, if you please) -- has become a convert to Digital Video. "For me, there's no way back to film. I'm done with it," he told Variety. "I love abstraction. Film is a beautiful medium, but it's very slow and you don't get a chance to try a lot of different things. With DV, you get those chances. And in post-production, if you can think it, you can do it." During a documentary extra on the DVD of Robert Altman's "The Company" -- a film he shot on HDTV -- Altman says that using HDTV completely changed his way of working. What did he mean by this? The documentary doesn't follow up. Damn. (I blogged about "The Company," which I generally liked, here.) But David Lynch is feeling a similar new-media high himself: The change in media has completely altered Lynch's way of working (as it's wont to do). He says that Laura Dern has responded especially well to the differed demands of digital, and he even embraces the "bad" look of video. "Some would say it looks bad. But it reminds me of early 35mm, that didn't have that tight grain. When you have a poor image, there's lots more room to dream." * Many thanks to Robert Nagle, through whose very interesting blog I discovered some blogs devoted entirely to up-to-the-minute cinema technology, and what the switchover to digital might mean for the artform: Cinematech, HD For Indies, and FreshHDV. Robert himself has plans to shoot a documentary using HDTV -- I'm eager to hear what he has to say about the experience. And don't miss Robert's smart and frank discussion about what being an artist can do to your thoughts and plans about marriage. Talk about a great theme ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 29, 2005 | perma-link | (3) comments

Thursday, August 18, 2005

"The Conformist"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Paradoxical-seeming but true: One of the most influential movies of the last 35 years has been one of the hardest to get an actual look at. Bernardo Bertolucci's extraordinary political/psychological thriller "The Conformist" has had a double-H huge impact on the look of contemporary dramatic movies and television shows. (It was shot by the great Vittorio Storaro, then only 30 years old.) Yet it has turned up only rarely at repertory houses, and it has never been issued on DVD. New York City filmbuffs are in for a rare treat: New York's Film Forum is showing a restored print of the film through August 23rd. Here's a BFI interview with Bertolucci, Gilber Adair, and David Thomson on the occasion of Bertolucci and Adair's recent "The Dreamers." Here's an interview with Storaro. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 18, 2005 | perma-link | (6) comments

"9 Songs"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I blogged here about how much I was looking forward to Michael Winterbottom's new film, the unrated, digital-video, art-porn experiment "9 Songs." I caught up with the movie recently and was glad I did. It's small, intense, poetic -- and, to be truthful, a little vague. The earth may not have moved, but still I wasn't sorry to have spent the time watching the film. A London-based scientist (Kieran O'Brien) who studies Antarctica meets a waifish American art student (Margo Stilley) at a rock concert and has a brief romance with her. We're given the story in a nonlinear, formalized, yet improvisational package: nine rock performances; aerial shots of Antarctica with voice-over musings; messy, spur-of-the-moment domestic and sexual scenes. I didn't find the results as memorable as Winterbottom probably hoped they would be -- the affair doesn't seem momentous enough to justify the case the film makes for it. But the film is still pretty haunting. The film is also remarkable as a DV experiment. The usual thing for directors contending with the challenge of trying to wrest some visual interest out of digital video is to try to make DV deliver film-quality beauty. Winterbottom took a different tack: He used DV to make a kind of project that probably can't be made these days using actual film. (What with budgets, experimentalism, and the difficulties of filming real sex.) Rather than elevating the technology to the level of "movie-ness," in other words, Winterbottom made a movie project that suits the DV medium. Smart one! Downside: the video imagery isn't very sensual. Still, the actors are attractive and game, and demonstrate a lot of conviction. They also give the film their all, in many senses. Although much of the sex is hyper-explicit, the most eyebrow-raising moment, art-porn-wise, comes when Stilley is on her knees, straddling O'Brian. Up and down she goes. The camera tracks around behind her ... And we get a clear view not just of the actors' genitals doing their hydraulic-copulating thing, but of Stilley's butthole. Could this the first time a legit, nonporn movie has shown off its lead actress's butthole? (A cute one, by the way.) Let's see ... There was that "almost" moment in "Two Moon Junction" ... And did Stefania Sandrelli and Tinto Brass grant us a similar view in "The Key"? ... Hmm. IMDB seems to have nothing to say about the question. This calls for further research and reflection. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 18, 2005 | perma-link | (1) comments

Friday, August 12, 2005

More on Digital Tech and Creativity
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- We've often yakked about the impacts the shift to digi-tech is having on the various artforms. Despite how seductive the gadgets are and despite how mind-bending some of the effects can be, the results often seem ... a little artificial, even a little dead. More evidence comes from a conversation with the cinematographer Mauro Fiore: "Don't get me wrong, I love to use all the newest technology because it helps make a picture better. However, that said, some of the new technology makes us distance ourselves from creativity as well. Now that we are doing DI [digital intermediates], work print dailies are archaic and I don't know why. Today, everyone gets a DVD or HD of the dailies that are projected in a little trailer. People look at them solo on different monitors that aren't adjusted. Making aesthetic choices based on these versions can be wrong, or at least difficult. "I miss working with a lab. I would rely [on lab techies] to talk about how the negative looked -- about light and exposure. Now, digital printers make whatever they have look 'best' and we don't know about the exposure or the state of the negative. This makes it difficult to gauge or take a risk. You can't push the photography to interesting places, because you don't really know what you have. One of the things that I don't enjoy is playing it safe. And, sometimes, when you're looking at digital dailies, that's all you can do." That hollow, soul-less feeling you often get looking at (or listening to) digital media products? There are reasons why you feel that way. I found the Fiore quote in ICG magazine, published by the International Cinematogaphers Guild. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 12, 2005 | perma-link | (6) comments

Tuesday, August 9, 2005

DVD Journal: "Abandon"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I wonder if a new category of film is emerging: the film that isn't all that fabulous in its own right, but whose DVD package makes for a rewarding experience. So far, I've run across three examples. I blogged some time ago about "Scarlet Diva," a low-budget, DV, autobiographical fantasia by the cult actress Asia Argento. I liked the film-by-itself well enough. It's nothing if not outrageous, campy, vain, sexy, and far-out. But the film viewed conventionally and then viewed with Argento's commentary track over it is far, far more satisfying. In fact, Argento's commentary so enhances the experience that it delivers what the film promises: the full dose of narcissism; the canniness of borderline insanity; the shameless exhibitionism; the completely amoral and self-centered determination to be found fascinating � Gadzooks. "Scarlet Diva" with the commentary track on is like a compilation of best-of moments from Warhol's Factory films. Michael Radford's strip-club drama "Dancing at the Blue Iguana" is another such DVD package -- one that's far more interesting than the film viewed on its own is. (I reviewed "Iguana," along with some other movies, here.) The film itself is passably enjoyable, at least for those with a fondness for acting-workshop-style marathons. It's also intriguing as a filmmaking experiment. The film was made semi-improvisationally, in Mike Leigh fashion. Radford brought his performers together for three months; he had his actresses do research and take part in epic acting exercises. They worked characters and situations up from what emerged from their improvs; Radford and his cinematographer recorded much of these explorations on video. Radford then let the team scatter, disappeared back to England, edited the video footage into a two-hour-long sketch, then gathered his team together again and -- using the edited videotape as a kind of script -- put the movie together on 35 mm film. A genuinely interesting way to generate a movie, as well as an inspired way to incorporate digital and video technology into a creative filmmaking process. The movie has a lot of atmosphere and a lot of immensely-committed acting. It's like a Cassavetes film, only with a mostly-girls cast and a lot of nudity: Sandra Oh, Daryl Hannah, Jennifer Tilly, Sheila Kelley and Charlotte Ayanna all give it up for their art. Too bad that the film is also almost storyfree, and is often grueling and tedious. Confrontations go on forever; performers spend agonizingly long periods of time searching for words, motivations, and feelings � As a creative process, working on the film must have been very satisfying. But the film is more a record of that process than it is a snappy story picture in its own right. Cassavetes fans -- as well as people who have spent a lot of time in acting classes -- should have a field day, but those who don't share these tastes will probably suffer. (Before anyone is tempted to Go Political on the rest of us, let it be known that... posted by Michael at August 9, 2005 | perma-link | (10) comments

Saturday, August 6, 2005

Marilyn and Arthur and More
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The recently-deceased playwright Arthur Miller was married for a brief while to the movie star Marilyn Monroe. It was a classic matchup in many ways: Miller was Jewish, intellectual and controlling, and New York; Monroe was blonde, instinctive and messed-up, and very L.A. Miller based several plays on the relationship. What would he think and/or feel if he were to discover that the intense feelings ran in only one direction? Robert Welkos reports for the L.A. Times that, according to a source, Monroe may have told her shrink: "Marrying [Miller] was my mistake, not his. He couldn't give me the attention, warmth and affection I need. It's not in his nature. Arthur never credited me with much intelligence. He couldn't share his intellectual life with me. As bed partners, we were so-so." Come to think of it, what will drama critics make of this statement, if it turns out to be a genuine one? Miller wasn't shy about using his marriage to Marilyn as a metaphor, and as a pretext for large statements about the American Dream. Did he make a bit more of what was there than was warranted? Was there -- perhaps, just perhaps -- a little bit of projection going on? Welkos's article is full of other irresistable tidbits too. My fave: Monroe had a one-nighter with Joan Crawford. When Crawford suggested a repeat performance and Monroe turned her down, Crawford "became spiteful." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 6, 2005 | perma-link | (10) comments

Friday, August 5, 2005

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- How important is it to you that you and your thing -- whatever that is -- be reflected in popular culture? Perhaps better put: How important is it to you that you and your thing be among popular culture's explicit focuses? I find myself wondering about these questions because I've been -- in my usual shambling and formless way -- poking around the blaxploitation cinema. A brief pause for those not in the know: The "blaxploitation" moment in film history happened in the late '60s and early '70s. It was an interesting time in many ways. Politically, the era was still "the '60s," with all that implies of race consciousness, civil rights, youth protest, sexual acting-out, etc. In terms of popular culture, think soul music, black pride, drugs, pimp chic, and theatrical attire. As far as the movie business went, it was a time when the movie studios had fallen out of touch. The generations that had created and established the business were coming to the end of their careers. TV had taken over many of the functions movies had previously served. A generation that had grown up on TV (and, in some cases, on foreign films) was yawning in the face of the movies Hollywood was producing. These were the conditions that gave rise to the well-known and legendary art explosion of '70s American movies: Altman, Mazursky, Coppola, Peckinpah, etc. They were also the conditions that permitted another and very different movie explosion, this one of low-budget B pictures aimed at black audiences and featuring black performers. Up to this time, black people showed up in American movies in basically three ways: as supporting players in movies about white people; as civil rights cases in seriously-intended movies ("Guess Who's Coming to Dinner"); and as the cast and crew in a very low-budget, black-made and black-distributed cinema world that I know far too little about. (Oscar Micheaux was the giant figure in this world.) It seems bizarre in a post-Richard Pryor, post-Eddie Murphy, Denzel/Halle world, but until the late '60s, black American movie audiences had only seldom had the chance to enjoy the spectacle of black people starring in good-natured, nonserious, nonpolitical mainstream movies that were aimed specifically at them, the black audience. In the late '60s and early '70s, Old Hollywood crumbled. When that happened all kinds of things emerged and found eager new audiences. Among them were "Bonnie and Clyde," "Easy Rider," "M*A*S*H," "The Godfather," Jack Nicholson, Elliott Gould, and blaxploitation. In many cases, the blaxploitation films were every bit as commercially successful as the legendary "white" pictures. The blaxploitation pictures were movies like "Shaft," "Cotton Comes to Harlem," and "Sheba, Baby": cheap, quickly-shot crime pictures about pushers, pimps, drugs, and hookers that meant to sell in movie terms what the music business had been selling successfully for some time: soul, style, and funk. Several hundred blaxploitation films were released before the bottom dropped out of the market in the late 1970s.... posted by Michael at August 5, 2005 | perma-link | (50) comments

Monday, August 1, 2005

Moviegoing: "The Island"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- In terms of silly-fervent, earnest pretentiousness, there's the movie of "The Fountainhead" and then there's everything else. Some pinnacles can simply never be scaled again. That said, Michael Bay's new meatball epic "The Island" plants a flag a respectable way up that same mountainside. It's a very long summer blockbuster -- 148 minutes -- and god knows it has its longueurs and its uninspired touches. Still, there wasn't a minute of it I didn't find richly entertaining. Until now, Michael Bay has been known as the over-the-top egomaniac who has directed numerous Jerry Bruckheimer action-adventure spectacles: "The Rock," "Armageddon," "Bad Boys II." Bruckheimer and Bay are loved and loathed for MTV-i-fying the action-adventure movie. Cut-cut-cut. Strobe-strobe-strobe. Dolby-dolby-dolby. Bay has been seen as either delivering exactly what teen boys everywhere have always wanted or as dragging the art of the movies into the toilet. With "The Island," Bay has gone out on his own, and in true egomaniac fashion has made an over-the-top sci-fi chase fantasy that is also a personal statement. In a computerized, biotech future, Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson and lots of other workerbees in white pyjamas are tending to cyberdrudgery while spending their spare time keeping fit, eating fake food, and playing overblown videogames. So what are these funny glitches in the system ... ? It's all getting out of hand, Michael Bay is saying: the glitzy gadgets, the modernist architecture, the biotechnology, the virtual this and the cyber-that � It's driven by greed and vanity. And the mess we're driving ourselves into? We're doing it to ourselves. Most important: In the midst of it all, what's becoming of our humanity? Are we really living, or are we just holding on until we finally attain a reward that -- shhhhh! -- doesn't really exist? (I pause briefly to blush and admit that I agree with much of what Bay is saying.) Part of what makes "The Island" delicious is that these observations are made and these questions are asked in the form of a Michael Bay movie. If "The Fountainhead" was a melodrama of ideas, then "The Island" is an MTV-style action-adventure sci-fi chase movie of ideas. Aside from giving evidence of having something on his mind, Michael Bay does nothing in this movie that he hasn't done in all his previous movies. Cut-cut-cut. Strobe-strobe-strobe. Dolby-dolby-dolby. His action scenes still consist of a lot of flashing lights, crunching sounds, whip-panning, and frantic Kodo-style drumming. His change-of-pace passages still look like perfume ads or hunky spreads in Maxim. For no good reason, standoffs still take place in glamorously decrepit, large vaulted spaces. Hordes of sinister black helicopters still swerve and duck. Tough guys still throw guns and hardware to each other and then yell "Go! Go! Go!" The backlighting budget on "The Island" was as generous as it was on all of Michael Bay's other movies. Watching "The Island" is like discovering that a guy you vaguely know who has always done nothing... posted by Michael at August 1, 2005 | perma-link | (23) comments

Friday, July 29, 2005

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Many thanks to Brian, who pointed out that Carroll Ballard's new movie, "Duma," will be released on August 5. Released, but in a very limited way: The film's official website has some information about the very few theaters and cities where the film will be viewable. I hope the film is a doozy, and I hope it makes Warners look like jerks for not giving it more enthusiastic backing. Ballard -- who is best-known for "The Black Stallion" and "Never Cry Wolf" -- is an amazing filmmaker. He's of the George Lucas/Francis Coppola generation, and he attended film school with these guys. Coppola -- who produced "The Black Stallion" -- has gone on record with the opinion that Ballard was clearly the most talented of the bunch. Yet Ballard has never received anything like his critical due. This is probably for a number of understandable reasons: Ballard is an ornery, headstrong guy who avoids the limelight; he has made movies that focus on children and animals; he isn't great with narrative; and a number of his feature movies haven't worked out very well. Still, that's no reason not to do what you can to see his new one, or to catch up with his earlier movies -- especially "The Black Stallion." (Pauline Kael once wrote that "The Black Stallion" "may be the greatest children's film ever made.") And why hasn't Criterion anthologized Ballard's legendary early short films on DVD? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 29, 2005 | perma-link | (9) comments

Thursday, July 28, 2005

"House of Flying Daggers" and "The Mystery of Rampo"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A couple of days ago I wondered out loud why so few films take interesting chances with color. As it happens, the two films I've watched in the days since I wrote that posting have both showed a lot of daring with color. Now don't I feel like a foolish whiner! Yesterday we caught up with the widely-praised Zhang Yimou martial-arts period drama "House of Flying Daggers." As a production, "House" is nothing if not astounding. An emerald-green ambush in a bamboo forest ... A swordfight between love-rivals in a storybook snowfall ... Lovely, and gasp-eliciting, scenes. Still, I found "House" a bore. Its story, situations, and characters seemed as remote to me as those of every other Chinese film I've seen. And Zhang Yimou's direction, however effective, struck me as heavy-handed -- stiff and regimented, and far more redolent of the will than of the imagination. Still, that production ... those colors ... OK, so the film's look is like Asian calendar art gone cyber-gargantuan. That ain't nothin'. Tonight we watched a Japanese movie I hadn't heard of before, the 1995 "Mystery of Rampo." It's an elaborately produced art-thing: an involuted, Cocteau-esque, reality-and-fiction game that improvises on the life and work of a Japanese novelist who idolized and emulated Edgar Allen Poe. I stayed alert through most of the film thanks to its audiovisual design. Where "House of Flying Daggers" is a hyper-squaresville (if impressive) crash-and-slash action opera, "Rampo" is decadent, arty, languourous, and fetishistic. Unfortunately, the film is also overdetermined, slow, and stilted -- I found it as unengaging on a story/situation/character level as "House." But as a ponderous flip through an especially sumptuous issue of Tokyo Vogue, the film is quite something: Bertolucci meets Miyazaki, at least in terms of look-and-feel. The light, the fabrics, the decor, the compositions, the ultra-subtle sounds ... Lordy, lordy, where "evocative" and "exquisite" go, the Japanese can make the French look like Americans, if that makes any sense. "Rampo" manages to be both amusingly overwrought and annoyingly over-delicate. Yet as a showcase for the kind of poetic things modern film stock, CGI enhancements, and sound recording are capable of, "Rampo" is hard to beat. The Wife reports that she preferred "Daggers," thanks to its kickass action. Arty weirdo that I am, I had an easier time sitting through "Rampo." But anyone curious about the kinds of fun Hollywood might be having with color, light, computers, and sound could do worse than check out these films. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 28, 2005 | perma-link | (5) comments

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

DVD Journal: "Cellular"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm not sure why the small action thriller "Cellular" wasn't a big hit. Right from its opening couple of minutes, I found it whizbang enjoyable. It delivers a pinpoint focus on great-ride style entertainment; hypercompetent chases and crowd scenes; and fun and attractive performers showing off lots of performing pizzazz. I wonder if the film's marketers made the film appear to be too edgy. In fact, it's a squarer, more eager movie than the film's campaign made it appear. It seems, in other words, like the kind of film audiences love to make their own. For one thing, of course, it has a fabulous exploitation-style thriller hook: A kidnapped woman frantically dials a random number and connects with a shallow beachboy. To try to save her (and, later, her family), these two strangers have to stay in touch via his cellphone. If their connection breaks, it's all over. Wowee: This hook is cheap, it's sleazy, it's too clever by half -- and, I don't know about you, but it's got me watching. Good grief, but I do bow down before an effective narrative hook. Larger question: What's not great about a great hook? Is the creation of an effective hook a trivial achievement? I can't see why we should think so. And "Cellular"'s hook strikes me as being in a class with such classics as "D.O.A." and "Speed." ("D.O.A." -- he's been poisoned; he's got only two hours to live; but in those two hours this hero who, for all intents and purposes is already dead, is going to track down the man who killed him. "Speed" -- if the bus dips below a certain velocity, the bomb goes off.) So: a great hook, a lot of professionalism and energy � But, as it turns out, more than just that. The movie is also full of ingenious twists, turns, double-backs, and surprises; it hustles you past the unavoidable implausibilities very enjoyably; it's canny about judging its changes of pace; it knows when and how to jack the stakes up; and it maintains a cheerfully knock-it-around and enthusiastic tone. It's lean and fresh; it's short, it's exciting, and it's occasionally quite funny. It ain't much -- a B movie with a live spark. But that's a kind of ain't-muchness that I adore. "Cellular" may just be a nifty thriller-exploitation concept well-fleshed-out. But this movie makes that kind of plot-and-concept-driven approach look like the way to go. The writers, directors, actors, and stunt/action teams all gave the film much more than they needed to. David Ellis -- a longtime stuntman, stunt coordinator, and second-unit guy -- directed with a lot of alertness to where the fun might be found. Chris Morgan wrote the superduper, resourceful final script from an original idea by Larry Cohen, with input from the director, some of the actors, and -- who knows? -- maybe the film's caterer too. All the film's participants seemed to be having a virtuosic amount of creative... posted by Michael at July 27, 2005 | perma-link | (20) comments

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Gavin Lambert
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A moment of silence, please, for the under-recognized passing of Gavin Lambert, who died several days ago at the age of 80. Lambert was one of those brilliant, elegant, gentlemanly, and dapper-but-tough figures the arts can't live without. And, yes, you bet he was gay. As far as films went, Lambert was a critic; he edited Sight & Sound magazine; he worked as a flunky for Nicholas Ray; he wrote award-winning screenplays. But he was a beyond-excellent journalist, biographer, and fiction-writer too. I'm a huge fan of his book-length interview with George Cukor, of his biography of the exotic Russian diva Nazimova, and of his story collection "The Slide Area," which seems to me as good as the best of Christopher Isherwood, as well as one of the best-ever evocations of the movie life. Here's Lambert's entry on IMDB. Here's a nice photo of him. Here's an interview with him about Natalie Wood, the subject of one of his biographies. Dennis McLellan's obit in the LA Times is a nice one; so is Sharon Waxman's in the NY Times. The film critic David Ehrenstein, who knew Lambert, recalls his friend here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 21, 2005 | perma-link | (0)

Friday, July 15, 2005

Ewan on Acting in Front of a Blue Screen
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- In movies that make heavy use of computer-generated imagery, the actors spend much of their time acting in unreal environments, or even opposite vacant space that will be filled in by computer only later. How can such conditions not contribute to the hollowness so many people complain about when they watch today's movies? After all, it's the people onscreen -- the actors and their acting -- who have traditionally given audiences their most direct way into films. If we're charmed by the performers and if the performers manage to generate some sparks -- and, of course, if the camera happens to register these sparks -- then we're turned on and borne along by the fiction. But if the spark isn't there? Then you've got echo-chamber emptiness -- movies like so many of the ones we endure these days. Since performing in front of a blue screen (or opposite thin air) gives an actor nothing specific to respond to, he/she tends to wind up doing schtick or being very general. The performers become Photoshop versions of themselves. The human content evaporates, and abstraction takes over. But don't trust me on this. Here's Ewan McGregor on the same subject. Playboy asks him what he has found it like to act in a few "Star Wars" movies. McGregor responds: They were horrendously difficult because you do so much of your work in front of a blue screen. Backgrounds and effects are added later. It's tedious, and there's no soul to them. By the nature of those movies, all the creative work is done afterward. They don't spend nearly as long on the acting as they on everything else. How long do you think it will take the mainstream arts press to understand this point? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 15, 2005 | perma-link | (16) comments

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

"Point Blank"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Finally available on DVD: John Boorman's legendary (and trippily amazing) "Point Blank." It's a near-abstract crime thriller starring Lee Marvin in an iconic tough-guy role; with John Vernon and Angie Dickinson first-class in hardboiled supporting roles; and featuring some of the flashiest camerawork and editing of the 1960s. Very little that goes on onscreen makes much sense, but the film is satisfyingly sleazy, pungent, and intense anyway. Fans of "Kill Bill" may enjoy "Point Blank"'s somewhat similar style: hallucinatory, over-the-top, getting-high-on-itself. The film was based on "The Hunter," the same Donald Westlake novel that served as the basis for Mel Gibson's 1999 "Payback," which I didn't think was all that bad, really. Boorman is one of the most verbally articulate of all film directors; he published an excellent diary about making his film "The Emerald Forest," and he has edited one of the best movie magazines ever. So I'm looking forward to sampling his director's commentary. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 13, 2005 | perma-link | (3) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The other night, The Wife and I watched "3:10 to Yuma," a 1957 western directed by Delmar Daves, adapted by screenwriter Halsted Welles from an early Elmore Leonard novel, and starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin. Have you ever caught the film? Both of us found it engrossing, exciting, even galvanizing. Did you know that Elmore Leonard started out writing westerns? I recently got around to reading a volume of his early western fiction: this collection of stories. It's terrific. I love Elmore's current affable shaggy-dog mode. His recent novels strike me as the pulp-fiction equivalent of such sunny, late-in-life wonders as Bunuel's "The Phantom of Liberty" and Altman's "Cookie's Fortune." But early Elmore is something else: tense, dynamic, juicy, full of suspense, jaw-droppingly well-devised, and shrewdly constructed. How could a movie made from this kind of material not be a humdinger? An old videotape copy of "3:10 to Yuma" was gathering dust, so I pulled it off the shelf and slipped it into the VCR. Bingo: loved it. It's probably too scrappy, amoral, and B-movie-ish ever to be thought of as a classic. That's OK by me; many of the official western "classics" strike me as snoozes. "3:10" has carefully-honed, one-step-ahead-of-you dialog; tersely moody and sumptuous black and white visuals; subtle but burly pacing that ranges from the snappy to the quietly explosive; and tremendous non-Method performances from the main actors right on down through the cast-list. It also has storytelling and plotting that strike me as pure genius. First you stare in fascination -- at least I did -- as the full-of-dramatic-potential pieces are moved into place. Then your heart starts to thump as Fate sets about tightening the screws. [SEMI-SPOILERS GALORE START HERE ...] The film stars Van Heflin as a struggling family man, and Glenn Ford as the suave leader of a pack of outlaws. Glenn dallies a few minutes too long with a saloon cutie and gets himself arrested. But he isn't much worried. His band of thieves swings more weight than any law agency in the territory does, and they're sure to spring him soon, if not now then certainly tomorrow. The good guys are terrified: What to do with their dangerous captive? They decide to ship him out of the territory, and pronto. Van -- who needs money to buy water to feed his cattle -- signs on to escort Glenn along his way. Van and some deputies will get Glenn on the 3:10 train to Yuma. Ford -- who was best-known for trusty square roles -- is staggeringly good as a seductively calm bad guy. He's slow-moving, confident, and courtly in a likably insolent way -- a charming snake. Life in a lawless land suits him. When he wants sex, he knows how to warm a girl's heart. When he needs money, he knows where to steal it. As Heflin prods him towards the train stop, Ford keeps up the digs, the teasing, and the taunting.... posted by Michael at July 13, 2005 | perma-link | (16) comments

Thursday, June 30, 2005

More Movie Notes
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Some smart observations from professional movie people. George Lucas: "Box office numbers have been going down since World War II. They're on a slide and will continue to be. The profitable areas are now television and DVD, and the entire paradigm is shifting dramatically," Lucas said. "People will always go to theaters, because they will always like a social experience, but I don't think it's going to be as big as it is now." Lucas said he will not be alone in Hollywood. The growth of home theaters, new delivery mechanisms and alternative viewing devices like mobile phones will inevitably alter moviemaking. "The big tent-pole movies will be the first victim of the rapid technological changes we're seeing now," he predicted. "We're just not going to see those being made anymore." The shift from big-screen epics toward television and mobile devices is also inspiring an aesthetic shift, Lucas said. "There is a difference between how you make things for big screen and small screen. When you're designing for DVD, you tend to end up with more close-ups, and your wide shots aren't so wide. I don't subscribe to that stylistic shift, but a lot of kids making movies now grew up on TV and DVDs -- not films in theaters -- so that's how they make movies. I prefer to make them for the big screen, and they tend to work out alright." James Toback: I think that the independent movement today is a glorified audition to be co-opted by corporate benediction. It really started with Paramount and my dear, late friend Don Simpson this idea that the poster is the movie, the concept is the movie. That thinking has had and I say this with due respect to Don, whom I loved a devastating effect. It created a world in which every movie must be viewed in terms of how it will be marketed and what the distribution concept will be. Because the money is so huge and because its so difficult to exist below the radar screen cinematically, you can get a movie made. But to get it distributed and to get any attention is extremely hard the seduction, the idea of directing a $100 million movie, is too strong for most young filmmakers to resist. I dont think the power of conglomerate corporate distribution stops movies of originality from being made altogether, but what it does is stop careers of real originality from being noticed and developed. The climate isnt there for the kind of flourishing there was in the 70s. Were now in a corporate culture where the idea of money and a materialistic notion of life are so widely taken for granted that youre considered naive if you dont genuflect beneath it. Whereas, in the 70s it was the reverse. It was the idea of subverting those values that, if you had any self-respect, you took for granted. That was your price of admission. From... posted by Michael at June 30, 2005 | perma-link | (25) comments

Movie Elsewhere
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Yahmdallah and Jon Hastings both enjoyed the new "Batman" movie. Here's an interview with the film's director, Christopher Nolan. * Halliwell's Film Guide has named Yasujiro Ozu's "Tokyo Story" as the greatest film of all time. I'm only a semi-fan myself. I recognize how remarkable many of Ozu's pictures are, but few of them move me deeply. (The Wife adores Ozu's work, especially the earlier films.) Still: essential viewing for all would-be filmbuffs. A group of famous directors -- including Quentin Tarantino, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Catherine Breillat -- come up with their own lists of favorite movies. * A trailer for the upcoming, Peter Jackson-directed version of "King Kong" can be watched here. Short version: a buncha actors on the run from CGI and Dolby effects. Naomi Watts looks mighty cute in her period costumes, though. She does "sexy distress" awfully well. It's funny how Peter Jackson has become a director of overblown, drippy epics, isn't it? Not so long ago, he showed a wicked sense of humor. Try his 1992 splatterfest "Dead Alive," for example. It's a hilariously over-the-top, low-budget satirical zombie thriller. * Tyler Cowen notices that movie box-office receipts are down all around the world, and wonders why. One possible reason: A given movie's DVD is now available on average only 2-4 months after the film is first released. In any case, the theatrical business for American movies is off 25% worldwide. I loved this quote from one Hollywood executive: "The product has not resonated as much internationally." It hasn't been resonating much chez moi either. The Wall Street Journal reports that AMC Entertainment's movie theaters will offer money-back-guaranteed tickets to "Cinderella Man" this weekend. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 30, 2005 | perma-link | (1) comments

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

War to KO competish but still may face non-boffo business
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, It will be interesting to see how War of the Worlds does at the box office. This article points out that it has opened to generally disappointing reviews and that it is not selling out in major cities. How does 9/11 figure into this, if at all? I wonder if it has anything to do with Spielberg's apparent sympathy for the idea that America might actually have an enemy, and that if might need to be killed. The reviewer for the Newark daily--where much of the movie was filmed, in the shadow of the twin towers--was appalled and offended by the 9/11 theme. Is that a fair take, or is there a political tinge to this objection? Whether liberals are put off or not, it does seem that the reverse might be the case. The National Review loved it, as did Nathan Lee in the New York Sun. I guess we'll have to see how vox populi unfolds. Best, Fenster... posted by Fenster at June 29, 2005 | perma-link | (12) comments

Friday, June 24, 2005

Trio Country-Western Documentary
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I notice that the Trio network is throwing a country-western weekend, with broadcasts of concerts by that melancholic angel Alison Krauss, the rowdy wildman David Allan Coe, the touchingly canny and boobalicious Dolly Parton, Nanci Griffiths, and others. Even though I haven't seen any of these shows yet, I have seen another C&W show Trio is broadcasting this weekend that I can happily recommend: a four hour, four-part part documentary called "Lost Highway: The History of American Country." It's an English production narrated by Lyle Lovett, and it's intelligently informative, stylish in a non-obtrusive way, and helpfully organized. It's as full of vintage footage, sincere interviews, and heart-rending, real-people music as you could hope. Bluegrass, singing cowboys, big hair, honky-tonk, hippie-outlaws -- all are present and all are very well-accounted-for. Is there a better video overview of country music than "Lost Highway" available? I'm not aware of one. Film noir, hardboiled fiction, gangster movies, jazz, and now C&W: sometimes them furriners really do seem to know how to appreciate American culture a lot better than we natives do. Trio's online schedule isn't the most helpful. For showtimes, look for the titles of the series' episodes: "Down from the Mountain," "The Road to Nashville," "Sweethearts of the Rodeo," and "Beyond Nashville." All four episodes are being broadcast on Sunday. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 24, 2005 | perma-link | (2) comments

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Older Than Mrs. Robinson
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Anne Bancroft was only 35 when she played "The Graduate"'s Mrs. Robinson. As for me, when I saw the movie I was a teenager who was attending one of his first R-rated movies. To my very young self, Mrs. Robinson seemed both sexy and frighteningly mature. Now that I'm in my 50s, 35-year-old women look like they're barely out of girlhood. Yet at the same time, Mrs. Robinson seems forever lodged in my brain as the timeless and eternal, predatory and self-confident "older woman." This aging thing can be confusing. When Anne Bancroft's obituaries appeared recently, I wondered if I was the only person doing the adding and subtracting. My other small discovery: although in "The Graduate" he played a wet-behind-the-ears college kid to Bancroft's mature housewife, Dustin Hoffman is/was in fact only six years younger than Bancroft. I see that the resourceful Colby Cosh not only did similar math, he has also made a list of current female personalities who are older now than Bancroft was when "The Graduate" opened. Since I can't figure out how to link to individual postings at Colby's site, I'll copy and paste his list, thank him, and urge to you visit regularly. Here they are, contempo women who are older than Mrs. Robinson: Jennifer Aniston Christy Turlington Debra Messing Catherine Bell Lucy Liu Olivia Williams Jill Hennessy Parker Posey Naomi Watts Chastity Bono How interesting that none of them have yet begun to play "older woman" roles. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 23, 2005 | perma-link | (24) comments

Friday, June 17, 2005

Adults and Moviegoing
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The good showbiz analyst Anne Thompson provides some enlightening perspective on the movie audience in this Hollywood Reporter piece about adults and moviegoing. Sample passage: Through the late 1970s, [the frequent-moviegoing category] was dominated by adults. Movie critics wrote their reviews for adults. TV, radio and print ads were targeted at adults. Movies were constructed by adults for adults. Sure, there were always youth-market movies, but they were always ancillary, not primary. Then came the wide-audience marketing revolution. With each succeeding decade, the Hollywood studios, driven by the relative ease of selling their movies to the dominant demographic (young men under 25) that showed up on opening weekends, increasingly aimed their movies at less demanding kids. Slowly but surely, they decreased the number of movies for more discerning grown-ups, leaving that headache to the likes of Miramax Films' Harvey Weinstein, who specialized in building the drumbeat of year-end accolades that accompanies an Oscar campaign. Not so long ago, most movies were made for adults -- hard to believe but true. Which makes me wonder: what do movies represent to you? I don't mean generally speaking, but in terms of your own personal history? I wasn't a moviewatcher until I hit 14, the same age when I started to wake up to the charms of girls and French art. ("Claire's Knee," sigh.) And as a result -- surprise, surprise -- movies have never meant "action," "party-time," "spectacle," or "kiddie fun" to me. Instead, they've always meant adulthood, sex, art, and women. There isn't enough of that package around these days. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 17, 2005 | perma-link | (11) comments

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Movie Recommendations from Near and Far
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * The Communicatrix makes "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" sound like a classic chickflick. * Steve found "Batman Begins" perfectly respectable. * Martine enjoyed -- no, make that loved -- the kids-dance documentary "Mad Hot Ballroom." Me, I haven't been to a screening or a movie theater in months. The hot summer weather is starting to make industrial-strength air conditioning look mighty good, though. Best, Michael UPDATE: Cowtown Pattie found "Cinderella Man" involving and rewarding. She praises Russell and Renee, and was relieved not to be bombarded with excessive CGI effects. * Jon Hastings enjoyed "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," however "silly and shallow," and even thought Brad Pitt didn't do too badly.... posted by Michael at June 15, 2005 | perma-link | (2) comments

Mike Hill on Acting
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I love checking in with Sluggo Needs a Nap, Mike Hill's blog. Mike offers a very agreeable and fun-to-attend-to combo: he's well-seasoned and skeptical, but an interested and curious free-thinker too. It's a treat too that -- as a writer and former actor -- Mike brings a lot of culture and experience to the table. I like spritzing about acting, but my rants are informed by little more than a couple of years of acting class and a bunch of friendships with actors. Mike's been there and done that many times over. When he talks and writes about acting, he's doing it from the inside out. Being able to do so intelligibly is a rare gift -- as anyone who's spent time watching "Inside the Actors Studio" knows all too well. I recently swapped notes with Mike about acting's relationship to story. I found Mike's observations and thoughts really interesting, so I was pleased when he told me that I could reprint them here. Here's Mike Hill: One of the reasons I love 2Blowhards is that whatever the topic -- architecture, graphic design or nude modeling -- much of the discussion centers around story, plot and character, the basic communicative tools we dragged out of the caves. The Blowhards and their commenters seem just as obsessed with how we communicate as they are with what and why. I was an actor for more than 25 years and I haven't been one for more than 10. This is the corner of the discussion I know a little about. Obviously, an actor is professionally interested in story and action. If a character's development has been badly imagined or constructed by the playwright or the overall narrative line is flawed, one notices; simply because if it's done well it's easy, and if it's not it's well-nigh impossible. The patches and pastework needed to invent a logic from A to B may get you through, but it's like running over the same speedbump every night, two inches higher than your clearance. People do astonishing things and people use their lives in the most outrageous ways, so the word "logic" in terms of character does not mean "reasonable." When you're moving characters from one set of circumstances to another the test of the choices you have your characters make is not "have you ever heard of such a thing?" It's what happens after they make the choice. In other words, it's like scoring a spare in bowling. You'll get credit for the most unbelievable event in a character's life to the extent, in the next frame, the character adjusts to the event in a recognizably human way. It's not the boom, but the echoes that make characters live. What, exactly, is a talent for plot? I know I can write prose all day, sometimes very well. But if you read my novel on my site you'd see that I'm not strong there. I think of poetry and physics as... posted by Michael at June 15, 2005 | perma-link | (1) comments

Friday, June 10, 2005

DVD Sale
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Another sale on DVDs at Amazon. I've heroically resisted pressing the One-Click button, but you may not want to. I can recommend some titles. I'll spare everyone the usual verbose write-ups, supply links instead, and let Amazon's descriptions let you know whether these are movies you might enjoy. Dog Day Afternoon Deep Cover Devil's Advocate Copy Cat City Hall Local Hero Night Shift The Wild Bunch Bitter Moon Don Juan de Marco Beetlejuice Five Senses Home Fries Body Heat Wide Sargasso Sea An Affair of Love The Searchers Good (and pretty good, or at least enjoyably interesting) movies, and each one buyable for less than the price of a movie ticket. A New York City movie ticket, anyway. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 10, 2005 | perma-link | (1) comments

Friday, June 3, 2005

Moviegoing: "Kill Bill 2"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I just caught "Kill Bill, Volume 2," which struck me as tiresome beyond the call of duty. After snoring through "Ocean's 12," I feel like I've become the official Sequel Sourpuss. Although I shrank from the first "Kill Bill," at least it had a lot of showy (if stiff-jointed) action, and I loved watching a wonderful-looking young Japanese actress, Chiaki Kuriyama. But Volume 2? Overbearingly long-winded and gruelingly overdeliberate. The idea seems to have been to set aside most of the action and go into character and story-mythology instead. Given how wooden the film's characters are and how derivative the film's mythology is, this was a very dumb decision. Tarantino's Mr. Self-Important Coolguy tone encases the action in block after block of slow-moving ice. Tarantino grants every cock of an eyebrow its own tracking shot, and gives himself a good half hour to establish each and every plot point. He seems to have taken for his basic template those crime movie scenes where the villain has the hero in his claws, and instead of killing him, pauses, trims the end of a cigar, and tells an endlessly circuitous parable. The awful monologues in "Kill Bill 2" never stop coming. I can't think of another filmmaker who watches himself writing and directing with such intense self-admiration as Tarantino does. The movie-geek hijinks and the operatic '60s-'70s pop-culture echo-chamber thing that Tarantino seems devoted to creating seem self-conscious and juvenile to the max. I suppose I might find Tarantino's hyperbolic geek-diva act amusing. I'm not entirely sure why I don't. Maybe it's simply because I so seldom find his work convincing, let alone dazzling. While he's obviously talented, I simply don't find Tarantino all that talented. Even in brash, youthful-outrage terms, he seems to me a long way from playing in the same league as such real prodigies as Takashi Miike and Ryuhei Kitamura. By the way, am I the only person who thinks Michael Madsen may be the worst actor in all god's universe? He has exactly six acting moves, and every one of them is fraudulent. In "Kill Bill 2," Michael Madsen is at the center of a lot of scenes. I beefed about "Kill Bill 1" here. I confess that The Wife enjoyed both "Kill Bill"s. She tells me that -- although she thinks Tarantino should never, ever write original scripts -- she does enjoy watching the way he gets away with shit. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 3, 2005 | perma-link | (25) comments

Wednesday, June 1, 2005

"Ocean's 12"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Until tonight, I'd been under the impresssion that the least engaging don't-take-me-seriously buddy-heist movie of all times was the Clooney/Pitt/Soderburgh remake of "Ocean's 11." Tonight I watched "Ocean's 11"'s sequel, the Clooney/Pitt/Soderburgh "Ocean's 12," and learned better. Well, to be honest, I watched about 20 minutes of "Ocean's 12." Then I fell asleep. As far as I could tell, the movie consisted entirely of two kinds of passages: one a barely-staged, badly-acted -- in a really annoying, "we know we're being bad," nonwitty mock-witty way -- expositional passage; the other a barely-staged, badly-acted action montage set to hysterically-pitched bongo-electronica. Every time I woke up for a few seconds, the movie had grown even more contrived and antic, and even more pleased with itself. I hope all involved enjoyed cashing their over-large paychecks. George Clooney bobbed and weaved his head in Clooney-esque, teeny-tiny ways; reaching for something fresh, he also made the choice to speak in Clooney-esque, roguishly sexy, tolerant/impatient vocal patterns. Brad Pitt phoned in a Vanity Fair version of "Brad Pitt," volunteering that racy Brad Pitt thing of wearing tacky '70s clothes, flaunting thick Method lips, rubbing too-short hair, talking while eating, and wearing godawful sunglasses. Second and third-stringers vented and bickered, hoping to contribute to the hoped-for tone of "spontaneous" and "offhand." BTW, if God were kind He'd spare me any more scenes of characters venting in wannabe-amusing ways. If there's anything I'm temperamentally prone to find reprehensible, it's someone who vents, then looks shit-eatingly pleased with himself. Venting alone is hard enough to put up with. Zany camera angles and a lot of image-processing for the sake of image-processing contribute to a most unwelcome Maxim-does-George-Peppard atmosphere. What a chaotic wallow in self-congratulatory clever-cleverness and charmless charm. But I understand the picture was a hit. Evidently it's exactly the kind of movie some people want to watch. I wonder if they take it as glamorously playful trash. Can't they see how truly weird the film's offkey, thrown-together quality is? But then I've been pretty much immune to the appeal of all of Steven Soderburgh's movies. I find him one of film history's most tone-deaf, least-engaging directors. And I find his movies to be very peculiar artifacts: Shootshootshoot. Cutcutcut. Deaddeaddead. Soderburgh has whatever the film director's equivalent of echolalia is. I'm grateful for any insights anyone might have into the film's appeal. My guess is that "Ocean 12"'s fans experience Soderburgh's tin-eared, autistic-geek obviousness as a fresh kind of semi-put-on, cool drollness. But I could certainly be wrong about this. Please: no "it's just a movie" lectures. I've got absolutely nothing against meaningless fun, the occasional wallow in glossy media trash, or the don't-take-me-seriously buddy-heist genre. But "Ocean's 12"? Damn near beyond forgiveness. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 1, 2005 | perma-link | (21) comments

Monday, May 23, 2005

Weird Netflix Recs
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm a completely contented Netflix subscriber. What's not to like? A wide selection ... Prompt service ... A demento suggestions engine ... Recently The Wife and I have been watching Japanese horror, '60s and '70s erotica, and blues and C&W music documentaries. Based on our rental patterns, here's what Netflix thinks we might want to watch next: "Anne of Green Gables" "Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie" "Agent Cody Banks" Question: if you knew that a buddy of yours was into Takashi Miike, Merle Haggard, and Radley Metzger, would you cheerily suggest that he give "Agent Cody Banks" a try? Hmm. I wonder if Netflix is trying to tell us something ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 23, 2005 | perma-link | (11) comments

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Moviegoing: "Sin City"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The Wife and I just caught the Robert Rodriguez/Frank Miller movie "Sin City." MB quick verdict: I was perfectly happy to be in the theater watching the movie. I like what the movie represents: Xtreme punk noir, with thrills, sex, and violence pursued for the sheer, rip-it-up thrill of them all. The film is dirty-minded, semi-experimental, and up to no good whatsoever -- and I'm happy just to be around such a movie. That said, I didn't find the film itself thrilling. I enjoyed checking the film out 'way more than I enjoyed what I thought it actually accomplished. For one thing, I found Rodriguez's ambition bizarre. He seems to have been motivated by awe for the Frank Miller comic books. I'm with him on that, by the way. But he seems to feel such awe that he didn't do the sensible thing. He didn't try to find a way of translating the comic books' appeal and allure into movie terms. Instead, he simply tried to make a movie that is the comic book, up there on screen. You were maybe hoping for "Touch of Evil" plus a lot of nudity? Tough luck: "Sin City" the movie offers what "Sin City" the comic books do -- and not just in terms of the occasional comic-book touch, but pretty much frame-by-frame. I had no trouble accepting this as an interesting filmmaking experiment, by the way. What happens when you try to reproduce a great comic book on the screen? Like most experiments, though, it doesn't work out well. For one thing, there's the question of story. The stories Miller tells in his comic books are sodden, juvenile gloom-noir. But Miller's visuals are so eye-poppingly brilliant that the stories don't matter; they're just so much mood music. On screen, though, the lousiness of the stories does matter, and matter bigtime. Watching a movie, you can't flip around inside it, and you can't read it at your own pace either. You're stuck paying attention to the story you're given, in the order and at the pace the director and editor have determined. Sad fact of filmgoing life: feature films generally need halfway decent stories in order to draw you along and keep you alert. And, strange as it seems, even the film's visuals are a problem. They're amazingly close to the comic books' visuals, and it's a fantastic look. But Miller's comic books are like deranged impressions of movie frames, edited for maximum retina-searing impact. Move that strategy back into an actual movie and it seems beyond-stilted. The movie stops seeming like a movie; there's no flow, and not much room for the actors either. The movie starts to seem like a trailer for itself. You may blink in amazement at the visuals, but your soul waits and waits for something to get involved with. I watched the movie with curiosity and sympathy, the way I watched Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot remake of "Psycho." What a silly... posted by Michael at April 28, 2005 | perma-link | (22) comments

Friday, April 22, 2005

Movie Descriptions
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I was flipping through the discount DVD bin at a local video parlor. Clatter clatter clatter -- and I'd pull a movie out and give it a closer look-see. Then I'd repeat the sequence. What caught my attention was less the question of why some discs caught my attention than the question of how it was that I knew to give so many discs an instant pass. Flipping through the losers, I was moving much too fast to be making conscious decisions. Yet ignore them I did. What enabled me to do this? (And what an interesting state of mind you enter -- OK, I enter -- when flipping through possible-purchase books, CDs, and movies, no? Glazed-over but interested; purposeful yet daydreaming ...) I've got nothing interesting to report: sometimes the cover art puts me off, sometimes a general gestalt does. Usually the whole feel of a DVD package is what makes the decision for me. Funny/adorable suburban-papa comedies? (Bright colors, "hilarious" expressions -- Steve Martin in "Cheaper by the Dozen.") I don't have to think about it, I've got no interest. Goofy teens on a comic rampage? (Bright colors, "hilarious" expressions -- "Dodgeball.") On to the next disc. For all I know, my unconscious's rules of thumb may be making me overlook movies I'd enjoy. Maybe there's one dorky-dad comedy that would really speak to me. Perhaps there's a misbehaving mall-teen picaresque that would crack me up. I guess I'm OK living with that possbility. After observing myself at the DVD bin for a few more minutes, I came up with the one DVD-package element that turns me off a disc most conclusively. It's when the descriptive text on the back of the DVD box starts this way: "Four generations of the eccentric Baxter clan gather in Maine to bury their patriarch, and long-concealed resentments and unexpected family secrets begin to -- " Oh god, no, my unconscious seems to think: two hours of hashing-out-emotions! Plus tears, hugs, and moody walks on the beach! No, no: anything but that! The prospect of watching such a movie makes me want to plunge into a bath of utter sleaze. (Don't ask me why I'd be reading the back-cover copy of such a movie in the first place ...) I start to feel the need to buy entire stacks of sexy '60s splatter-exploitation movies. Wait, it occurs to me there's another flip-by-it-fast contender: the DVD package that goes with "middle-aged Boomer love story" -- plaid shirts, Lifetime-TV photography, autumnal colors, biking and walking ... Which DVD-package elements turn you off most quickly? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 22, 2005 | perma-link | (20) comments

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Delta Documentary
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- "Best music in the world," I muttered happily as Mandy Stein's Delta blues documentary "You See Me Laughin'" began. While I have no desire to stand by that as a considered critical judgment, I do really, really love the Delta, and I do really, really love the Delta blues. Earthy, rhapsodic, trance-inducing, full of myths and legends, mud and whisky ... It's music that makes me want to sit in a mildewed sofa on a sagging porch, drink moonshine, watch dawgs and children whose names I can't remember run around, and spend a few lifetimes swapping stories and jokes. This is just a brief posting to alert anyone who might be interested in (or curious about) the Delta blues that Stein's 2002 documentary -- which I hadn't been aware of until I Tivo'd it off the Independent Film Channel -- is a good one. Stein appears to have spent years visiting the Delta and getting to know such homegrown giants as Johnny Farmer, Asie Payton, T-Model Ford, Cedell Davis, Junior Kimbrough, and R.L. Burnside -- all of them artists who make me want to say: Anybody who claims that American art is short on genuine greatness can KISS MY ASS. (Incidentally, not a considered critical judgment either, just a direct expression of how this music makes me feel.) Stein assembles her movie from performances, archives, interviews, and just letting the camera run while she hangs around. Much of what she includes is priceless -- early footage of Burnside when he was a slim, handsome, sly dude with beautiful teeth; an informal solo performance by that exuberant oddball, Asie Payton; T-Model's matter-of-fact, you'd-have-done-it-too account of how he came to kill a man. Stein uses old footage, image processing, and some comic-book effects to give her film a homespun, sensual quality, but she does so in a way that doesn't overshadow her subject matter. Stein keeps the proceedings laid-back, rough-hewn, and casual -- and, given the ultra-organic nature of her material, this was a wise and appropriate choice. What a collection of titanic talents, each one with his own sound, and each one's sound capable of creating a distinctive emotional-acoustic universe. Newbies to the Delta, or to the Delta blues, can find it shocking how much a world unto itself the Delta is, how rich and fragrant Delta culture is, and how powerful a spell Delta life can cast. The accents, for one small example, can get unbelievably thick -- how is this possible in modern-day, TV-and-pop-culture-saturated America? Yet there it is: a living, poetic dialect that makes you want to whip out a Sony and hit the "record" button. Stein occasionally resorts to subtitles to make her interviewees comprehensible to those of us who don't speak Delta; I found myself wishing she'd used subtitles more often. Only an hour and a half from Memphis, the Delta seems like a world out of time, if with antennae, pickup trucks, and other bits and pieces of the... posted by Michael at April 19, 2005 | perma-link | (14) comments

Friday, April 8, 2005

Peckinpah Moment
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Bloody Sam I just noticed that we're in the middle of a Sam Peckinpah moment. A new DVD of his much-maligned "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" has just been issued; it features commentary from the very classy Paul Seydor and Garner Simmons. When it came out in 1974, "Alfredo" struck me as an unredeemable disaster. It felt flatfooted, dead, and obvious. All Peckinpah's moviemaking magic -- his touch, his instinct -- seemed to have deserted him. But, while the film never did find an audience, it has also had its defenders, who make it out to be a modern film maudit -- filmbuffspeak for, more or less, "a movie the general audience hated when it was released, but we who know better think it's hot stuff and won't let go of it." I'm curious to check "Alfredo" out again. Is the film as much of a stinker as I remember it to be? I've certainly goofed on first viewings before, most notably with Jonathan Demme's almost-perfect "Melvin and Howard." The first time I saw "Melvin and Howard," it seemed like nothing at all; it just went right past me. Friends shamed me into seeing it again, and when I did I woke up to its wonders. Ever since, "Melvin and Howard" been one my very favorite movies. (I've also felt more modest about the infallibility of my first judgments.) Maybe I was wrong about "Alfredo" too. Perhaps it's something bitter, twisted, and brilliant, like a movie equivalent of one of Jim Thompson's novels. Meanwhile, New York City's Film Forum is currently showing a semi-restored version of Peckinpah's legendary "Major Dundee." The film -- a corrosive and epic cavalry Western starring Charlton Heston -- is famous for its many brilliant scenes and sequences, and for having been taken away from Peckinpah during editing. The version showing at Film Forum is said to restore all but a few minutes of what had been hacked from the film back in 1965. Back for seconds Even butchered, "Major Dundee" was one of my favorite Peckinpahs. Ferociously lyrical yet also absurdist, full of hilarious yet moving juxtapositions and dissonances, it put me in mind of one of Charles Ives' symphonies. It's interesting to read that Heston -- who has a reputation as a terrible square -- was, so far as the production of "Major Dundee" went, a good guy. He stood up for Peckinpah; he volunteered to forfeit his salary when the film went over budget; and -- when the studio took the film away from Peckinpah -- he tried to buy it back with his own money. Heston once said something about how he had no idea what Peckinpah was up to, but it felt exciting and worthwhile -- talk about being willing to go with your instincts and your feelings! And Heston is in fact amazing in the movie: grand, commanding, more than a little mad. Non-Manhattanites needn't despair: Sony will release a DVD of... posted by Michael at April 8, 2005 | perma-link | (10) comments

Tuesday, April 5, 2005

Fonda vs. Vadim
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A Pope's death ... Battles over Social Security... War in the Mideast ... Heavy days. But what this particular Blogger of Substance has been most deeply concerned about is Jane Fonda's tales about life with Roger Vadim. More specifically: did Vadim really force Fonda to organize and take part in group sex sessions or didn't he? And, in either case, why wasn't I invited? A short pause for the benefit of those whose grasp on '60s movie history is uncertain. Roger Vadim was a French filmmaker notorious for his sexy movies, which included the South-of-France romp "And God Created Woman", and a ski-chalet-set, modern-dress version of "Dangerous Liaisons." But Vadim was equally famous for his magic way with starlets and other beautiful women. In the 1950s, Vadim discovered Brigitte Bardot -- which means that he was responsible for creating and establishing a type that has been with us ever since, namely the tousled-hair, trampy blonde sex kitten. In the '60s, Vadim had an affair with and gave a boost to the career of another legendary beauty, Catherine Deneuve. Vadim was, in other words, a world-famous seducer and pop-era Svengali. First there was Brigitte ... In the middle-'60s Jane Fonda was in a rebelling-against-Hollywood mood and relocated to Paris. There she met Vadim. They soon moved in together, and Vadim cast Fonda in four movies, the most famous being the 1969 sci-fi spoof "Barbarella." In the early '70s, Fonda left Vadim as well as that period of her own life behind and became an Oscar-winning Very Serious Person -- actress, protestor, and feminist role-model. Vadim for his part continued seducing women and making arty softcore movies, but the larger world soon passed him by. As the sexual revolution percolated through to middle America, Vadim and his movies began to look as quaint as an early issue of Playboy magazine. When he made his final theatrical film, a 1988 semi-remake of "And God Created Woman" starring Rebecca de Mornay, it was laughed-at in the press and did virtually no business. I liked the film myself. Silly and out-of-date though it was, it still had some rare virtues. Vadim had a wonderfully suave way of appreciating women's many qualities -- he was like an experienced and loving horseman with an ability see a horse for what it really is. And De Mornay really puts it out there: with Vadim's encouragement and direction, she's sexy, she's dynamic, she's touching, she's scary. She's one all-American creature, that's for sure. "C'est come ca," you can imagine Vadim saying with a shrug and a smile. Sadly, the film's commercial failure seemed to kill De Mornay's brief bid to be a mainstream star. The current Fonda/Vadim tale is a little more complicated than most tacky newsbytes are. What's certain is that Fonda has an autobiography going on sale any minute now; that the British press has run items about forced group sex that are said to be based on an advance copy... posted by Michael at April 5, 2005 | perma-link | (18) comments

Friday, April 1, 2005

Video Elsewhere
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It saddens this longtime film buff to say it, but I'm having a better time these days browsing video clips on the Web than I am watching most new movies. * An octopus walks on two legs. (Link thanks to Attu.) * Watching this Gumbyish break dancer made me feel like someone had slipped something funny into my drinking water. Perhaps human beings are merging with computer animation -- every person his own Pixar movie, or something like that. * As Snacknuts wrote in a comment on a recent posting, art in the digital age is all about the database. I found the break-dancer video above at this site -- essentially a database of clips, photos, jokes, etc. You'll find no shortage of car crashes, Webcam girls, skydiving disasters, TV embarassments, chickfights, skateboarder wipeouts, and teen girls stripping and/or kissing. (In the world of webclip-watchers, Hannah seems to be becoming a bit of a star -- for very good reason, IMHO.) Do today's teens experience a videoclip like this one with the same sense of ownership and excitement that previous generations felt watching "Rebel Without a Cause" or "Easy Rider"? There are many other sites like it: here, here, and here, for instance. Has anyone come up with a catchy name yet for this genre of website? And who runs these places anyway? Ambitious, clever fratboys? * Here's a serious, helpful version of the heap-o'-goodies-style website. At it, you can watch videos of car crashes. In fact, you can find the car you drive, and see how it (and you) will fare in a crash. * Here's a brilliantly straightfaced short satire of life at an ad agency. * And thanks to the Fredosphere for pointing out this Onion-worthy video parody of a Ken Burns documentary. Be forwarned: it's in very dicey taste. Which doesn't stop it from being hilarious, of course. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 1, 2005 | perma-link | (8) comments

Friday, March 18, 2005

Finding a Job in the Arts
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It's such a strange time, isn't it? Electronic media-making devices have become affordable ... Self-expression has become prized above all other activities and values ... And finding employment doing something that you love -- and that results in satisfaction, fame, and money too, of course -- is felt by many young people to be a birthright ... Yet, realistically speaking, how many well-paying openings are there in the arts? Here's a glimpse of the practical state of such things from ICG, the magazine of the International Cinematographers Guild. The speaker is Sandi Sissel, a cinematographer who teaches lighting at New York University: There was a period of time where getting to be a filmmaker was something that you did by meeting other filmmakers, getting to know people, having a knack for it and finding a niche. When I was starting out, it wasn't a matter of me thinking, Wow, how do I get into the business? It was just a smaller industry back then ... These days there are about 1300 kids in film school at NYU. I don't mean to sound callous, but do I honestly think that more than 20 of them are going to make it? Probably not. Repeat: maybe 20 out of 1300 are going to find gainful employment in the movie business. (Apologies: couldn't resist the boldface.) Now imagine what the odds of making it in the moviebiz are for people who don't go to film school. I can't help thinking about a question that Sissel doesn't raise: How satisfying will the 20 lucky kids find their moviebiz jobs? If they wind up like many of the moviebiz people I've met, they'll spend their careers fighting high blood pressure, wrestling with horrifying mood swings, and boasting about how glamorous their work is while fantasizing about the calm and peaceful normal lives they might have led instead. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 18, 2005 | perma-link | (2) comments

"9 Songs"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Does it amuse or interest you that there's a small group of semi-young filmmakers who are in love with '70s movies, and who also love the idea of being a rampaging, art-plus-pop-culture-equals-Gesamtkunstwerk, '70s-style filmmaker? I'm thinking of Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, P.T. Anderson ... Come to think of it: are there others? Bully for them, in any case, for having an interest in the art and history of film -- there isn't enough of that around among young filmmakers these days. (For those who haven't run across the term before: "Gesamtkunstwerk" means "total artwork," and is often associated with the beyond-ambitious opera-composer Richard Wagner, whose dream was to create immersive art that encompassed and/or engulfed all the arts. '70s filmmakers often approached filmmaking in similar terms. They did their best to affect audiences on many levels at once, and their movies were often found to be, and were often described as, "operatic.") But -- sad confession -- these filmmakers aren't a group whose work I'm crazy about. God knows they all have their talents. But I no longer have much appetite for '70s-style filmmaking -- perhaps I burned it up in the actual 1970s, my own coming-to-artistic-awareness days. As far as new movies go, I'd rather see something ... different; when I do want a blast of '70s-moviemaking, I'll rent the DVD of a real '70s movie. I know I know I know that the existence of neo-retro-wannabe-'70s-movies represents something interesting about our own era. I just don't find it a terribly compelling something-interesting, if that makes any sense. The neo-'70s filmmaker I like best is England's Michael Winterbottom, less for any individual movie than for the lack of stress in his work. I can't be the only moviebuff who feels dragged down instead of buoyed up by the ambitions of Tarantino, Russell, and Anderson, can I? It often seems to me that what these filmmakers hope to be and what they want to achieve carries more weight than what they actually deliver. The only Tarantino I've straightforwardly enjoyed, for instance, is "Jackie Brown," his most relaxed performance. Winterbottom's maverick, go-his-own-way attitude seems, by contrast, far more natural. He's got technical skill and pizzaz to spare, but he seems to want to put them to use depicting (and conveying) states of genuine emotional rawness -- states he seems relatively comfortable with. I can't remember a moment in the films of his that I've seen that struck me as whipped-up or hysterical. Thank heavens too that Winterbottom avoids getting bogged down in melodrama, or in '70s-Method pacing. His films move crisply enough -- they have their own beat and their own drive -- even while the situations, characters, and actors are brewing up their various storms. "Butterfly Kiss," "I Want You" (a film Rachel Weisz fans won't want to miss), and especially "24 Hour Party People" are moody, wildass movie experiences that don't ask to be taken for anything more than what they are... posted by Michael at March 18, 2005 | perma-link | (14) comments

Friday, March 4, 2005

"The Kumars"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- My quest for something worth watching on BBC America continues. Last night I sampled "The Kumars at No. 42," a partly-improvised high-concept sitcom about a quarrelsome/loving Indian-English family who run a TV talkshow out of a studio in their backyard. The episode I watched was energized, rude, and funny. I found it fascinating that nearly all the humor came at the expense of the heavily-caricatured family members: Mom is obsessed by weddings and babies, Dad tells pointless stories and thinks of nothing but money, Grandma embarrasses everyone, and the flashy talkshow-host son is grandiose and vain. The show doesn't hesitate to elicit laughs from Indian accents. I have no idea what the cliches of Indian-immigrant life are, but I roared at many jokes anyway. My main reflection on watching the show: how much I miss good-natured ethnic humor, and thank heavens for it when it does come around. Ethnic humor used to be -- for better and worse -- a rowdy staple of everyday American life, where it served not just as entertainment but also as a safety valve for the pressures generated by a nation made up of many ethnic groups. Then came the the '70s, the '80s, the '90s ... Ethnic humor was vilified as insensitive, and then as un-P.C. And publically acknowledging ethnic characteristics became something that only members of the ethnicity in question were allowed to do. Black rappers could make a show of their "blackness" and call each other "Niggaz," but everybody else had to watch their step. A hip Jewish publication could name itself "Heeb" -- but no one who isn't Jewish dares to speak the word in public. Awkward, awkward, awkward. The old arrangements had their crudeness but they didn't seem to leave everyone feeling touchily defiant, the way our new understandings do. Besides, what's the point? Like sex, ethnic humor will survive any attempt to suppress it. Attempts at suppression can make humor take nasty forms -- and it seemed to me that the ethnic jokes that people did tell (behind closed doors) got nastier and nastier. Perhaps -- and who could have anticipated this would happen? -- people resented the attempts at Thought Control; perhaps their resentment at PC boiled over into the jokes themselves. New York has been a fascinating place from which to watch these developments play out because the city is an endless parade of ethnic types, if not outright stereotyypes. There's no pretending otherwise: rapper kids use up too much sidewalk space; earnest Asian students ride the subways comparing SAT scores; Jewish children boss their kvelling parents around; WASPs stick their noses in the air and do their best to hide from everyone else ... Yet nicely-behaved people must, they simply must, act as though none of these highly-visible goings-on are in fact taking place. Like I say: awkward. But perhaps people are ready once again to loosen up about stereotypes and ethnic characteristics. (May we do so cheerfully, modestly, humorously,... posted by Michael at March 4, 2005 | perma-link | (10) comments

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Moviegoing: "Sideways"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- You can count me among the fans of Alexander Payne's "Sideways," which I caught up with the other day and found very funny and very touching. I thought Payne mixed tones, balanced psychology and action, and used grace notes and indirection much more satisfyingly than he did in "About Schmidt," his previous movie. (What did that poor Schmidt do to deserve all the pain and humiliation that were heaped on him?) I enjoyed his witty ingredients list -- the washed-out, reddish visuals that suggested the overused print of a '70s road movie; the droll, carefree-but-wan "Pink Panther"-style score; the foregrounding of bodily and temperamental types (for all his emotionality, Payne's primarily a satirist); and the cross between sensitivity and physical rowdiness. The film's mood of satire, romance, and melancholy remained movingly open, and stayed with me for a few hours after the film was over. It's been a long time since a new American film's mood stayed with me. It's been a long time since a new American film (at least one that I've seen) had much of a mood to speak of in the first place. Look at the way the film has got me chatting -- like the film-pedant equivalent of the film's wine-pedant main character. I'm raving about the balance of this, the freshness of that, the bouquet of such and such ... OK, that's another thing I liked about the film: I enjoyed the way Payne had me experiencing his movie as a kind of gustatory creation. My favorite moment in the film [nothing but SPOILERs to come] occurred at Sandra Oh's house. Paul Giammatti and Virginia Madsen are comparing notes about one of Sandra Oh's rare wines. Giammatti, ferociously aggressive about his sophisticated palate and his wine knowledge (and displacing too much personal frustration onto his wine pride), starts to wake up to the fact that the sweet-natured Madsen has a good palate. A very good palate. And that she's articulate. Very articulate. There's a moment when you're apprehensive; Madsen's happy, direct, rich sense of pleasure might elicit something nasty -- some competitiveness -- from Giammatti. He might feel the need to take her down. But he's able to pause, let go of his pride, and open up to Madsen instead. He even starts to play with the notion that Madsen's palate may be better than his -- and he finds himself enjoying that possibility. He's surprised by Madsen, he's surprised by the moment, he's surprised by himself, and he's surprised to be experiencing pleasant surprise. A light goes on in him. He might not be the totally lonely and unappreciated person he imagines himself to be. And life might not be the totally sealed-up, bitter, and finito thing that he has convinced himself it is. One small movie-buffish reflection? I was grateful to be reminded by the film of how powerful movie closeups can be. Sandra Oh isn't in the movie as much as I hoped she'd be.... posted by Michael at February 27, 2005 | perma-link | (33) comments

Saturday, February 19, 2005

BBC America
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- BBC America has been one of the bigger disappointments of my cable-surfing life. I signed up hoping to watch a lot of older dramas and documentaries. (I think what I was really hoping to find was the David Attenborough Channel.) Instead, BBC America's programming execs think that what Americans want is larky new sitcoms, smashing new talk shows, and brilliant new mystery dramas. As though keeping up with my own culture's brash and flashy popular culture isn't already too much ... A small exception to my general displeasure has been the sitcom "Coupling." The Wife hates -- hates -- the show. But the couple of episodes of "Coupling" that I tried made me laugh more than "Friends" ever did. Granted that I only watched "Friends" twice, and that I didn't make it all the way through either show. Watching one episode of "Coupling," I had a wonderful time getting intrigued by a talented and beautiful actress named Emilia Fox, who did an amusingly Gen-Y version of that poised-yet-daring, proper-yet-sensual thing English actresses often specialize in. Emilia Fox is a slim strawberry blonde. She's one of -- or was she playing one of? -- those smoothed-down women who looks like she never has to battle her weight or her mood, and who emerges from every restless night's sleep perfectly groomed. Yet she has a devil in her too. It comes out in her calmly assertive body language, and in the wry mischief in her aristocratic eyes and slender mouth. How amazing is the Web? I managed to find images from the very episode of "Coupling" that I watched. Emilia Fox seemed to me to radiate "princess who can romp with the people"; she seemed like everything that spoiled, clueless Gwynnie ought to be. Alfred Hitchcock would have known how to make shrewd use of Emilia. Hitchcock of course was famous for his love of cool-looking blondes, at least the ones who seem to have banked-up fires behind their reserve. He once said that voluptuous Latin actresses didn't interest him because their sensuality is already out on the surface; he couldn't figure out where else he might help them take it. A hot-ice blonde, on the other hand, holds out promise. She might spend dinner buttoned-up and serene -- and then unzip your pants in the back of the cab on the way home. Or so Hitchcock enjoyed imagining. By the way, and as far as I've been able to tell, Grace Kelly (who Hitchcock used a number of times) really was such a creature -- a charming Main Line pet who enjoyed nothing more than being smooched-up by a hunky guy. She loved being loved, to put it mildly; Grace was legendary in the movie business for the number of affairs she had with co-actors. But the gossip-tidbit about her that I've found most endearing was told by a guy who was her lover before she became a star. (This Mr. Lucky was -- wouldn't... posted by Michael at February 19, 2005 | perma-link | (18) comments

Thursday, February 17, 2005

DVD Journal: "Secret Things"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- "Choses Secretes" ("Secret Things") delivered everything that I want from a French movie. Everything and then some, in fact: sex; philosophy; erotic desperation; spare visual beauty; classic hotel particulier rooms with well-dressed walls and bare floors; bored and perverse decadence; elegant people fascinated by the game of l'amour ... It also delivered a French-art attitude that I adore: the conviction that "la femme" is life's great adventure, and that a culture's women are its greatest works of religious art. I spent much of the movie in a state of French-film overload, not that you'll catch me complaining. Despite being Franco-erotic-philosophical in an almost generic sense, "Secret Things" is a very odd, one-of-a-kind viewing experience. On the one hand, it's full of wit and observation; much of it is made with precision and sophistication. Interesting to learn that Eric Rohmer -- Mr. Less-Is-More himself -- has been a major sponsor of Jean-Claude Brisseau, the writer-director of "Secret Things." (Oh, the hell with it. I'm going to refer to the film as "Choses Secretes." There are moments when it's more fun to give in to pretentiousness than to resist it.) On the other hand, "Choses Secretes" also has a driven and compulsive quality that's unusual in French films. It's there in the films of Maurice Pialat and Andrzej Zulawski. But I can't offhand think of another French filmmaker who brings anything entirely similar to his or her work. And I know of no one -- French or non-French -- who makes sex-and-death films that resemble this one. Catherine Breillat's sex/art films, many of which I love, express her erotic monomania. But Breillat keeps her films spare and chic; good or bad, they never sprawl. "Choses Secretes," well ... When it isn't being well-pulled-together, the film lurches about with the kind of huffing-and-puffing obviousness that suggests "overheated autodidact." Despite the modesty of the production and the low-key naturalism of much of his style -- despite the Rohmer-esque, Whit Stillman-esque surface of the film -- Jean-Claude Brisseau makes films like a man possessed, swept away by his ideas and his fantasies. Although he's made a number of movies, Brisseau has none of the professional artist's agility with the rules of art. (He worked as a schoolteacher for many years before getting his first chance to make a movie.) An example: Brisseau has no instinct for the timely delivery of information. Characters are picked up and dropped almost at random. Explanations don't come when you need them; often they don't come at all. The usual dramatic contract between filmmaker and audience is something like, "I promise to address nearly all the questions I raise, and to do so at more or less the moment when you need me to do so. And I promise to take on these questions in ways that will provide, at a minimum, some surprise and delight." Brisseau's many, many violations of this contract don't seem to be part of a conscious artistic strategy. He... posted by Michael at February 17, 2005 | perma-link | (4) comments

The Shawshank Celebration
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, Continuing the film thread from below. Under Michael's post "Repeat Viewings", Nick writes: Azad mentioned The Shawshank Redemption and Office Space as movies that everyone of a certain generation (the tail end of Gen-X, I guess) has seen many times. Which got me thinking. I only recently became aware that Shawshank is a legitimate phenomenon--not a cult movie adored by a self-selected slice of the population, but an honest-to-god big deal for an entire cohort. And further, that there is a generational aspect to the thing. To me, an almost embarrasingly stereotypical boomer, it seemed like a pretty good movie. Better than most, but nothing to write home about. And certainly nothing that I would have considered bound for glory. It's not that I am unaware of the appeal of certain films to generations. Me, I date the End of the Sixties to my first viewing of Chinatown. No countercultural themes there, pro or con. But, as I wrote here previously, until around 1974 I was still unconsciously hanging on to certain Aquarian delusions, and Chinatown shook me violently awake, reminding me that the world is composed of prosaic things like water systems and municipal finance, and that no amount of wishing and hoping will change the basic way the world goes round. So in that sense, Chinatown spoke to me generationally at a precise generational moment. Might I ask those assembled how they reacted to Shawshank? Why did it speak in a special way? Best, Fenster... posted by Fenster at February 17, 2005 | perma-link | (13) comments

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Repeat Viewings
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- In the comments thread on Fenster's recent posting about movies and plots, Rodney Welch admits to having watched Elaine May's "Mikey and Nicky" "at least 50 times," and Bryan 'fesses up to having seen "A Clockwork Orange" 13 or 14 times. It's an interesting cluster of questions: which films have we watched the greatest number of times? Why do we re-watch certain films numerous times while watching other films -- even films we love just as much -- only once? What is it about the films we've watched multiple times that drew us back to them? And what was it about us that played a role in this? After all, no one (or almost no one) watches a movie 50 times just because it's the greatest movie ever made. There's something in the viewer as well as something in the film that creates this kind of extreme chemistry. In my own case, my most-rewatched movies are "Rules of the Game" and "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," both of which I've seen around 17 times. "Rules" struck me at the time I was studying it as combining depth, humanity, and technique in way that pretty much summed up all of what movies at their best can be. Understand "Rules of the Game," and you'll understand much about life and everything about the movies, or so I felt at the time. And I was eager to use movies to get a bit of a grip on life. My infatuation with "McCabe" was more self-indulgent. "McCabe" was the film that hooked me on movies -- an event that struck me at the time as being of world-shattering importance. And why not go back to worship at the Source of All Good Things yet again? To be a little less harsh on myself, I also loved the film's mood -- its melancholy and its absurdism, its bleak romanticism. Watching "McCabe" over and over was like putting my favorite Van Morrison album on the turntable for another spin. Cosmic-woe-crossed-with-a-dreamily- funky-beat suited my adolescent soul's appetites, to put it mildly. I'm not sure what to make of the fact that, since college, I almost never re-watch movies. (Though I've treated myself to Catherine Breillat's "Romance" four times -- a rare exception.) Is it a matter-of-fact function of being pressed for time? Or is it that these days I "get" the movies I enjoy quickly and thoroughly, and so have no need to rewatch them? Curious to hear from Blowhards and visitors about what their own most-viewed movies are. Curious as well to hear musings about what it might have been about these much-loved movies that hooked, held, and re-fascinated. Hey, ain't it going to be a weird world when the children of the DVD era grow up? They'll be responding to questions like the one I've just asked with answers like, "I saw 'Little Mermaid' 234 times." "Well, I've got you beat. I saw 'Toy Story' 522 times." Good lord: what... posted by Michael at February 16, 2005 | perma-link | (26) comments

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Who needs plot in film, anyway?
Fenster Moop writes: Dean Blowhards, OK, OK I know you need plot. But I am personally feeling a little tired of it. Maybe it's just getting older, and sensing that there are only so many stories to go round. Maybe there's just a natural process whereby genres deplete themselves, and it takes a while for culture to catch its breath and to invent new and original ways to tell the same old stories. Maybe it's just that the dominant story-teller, Hollywood, sucks. It's probably some of each, including the getting old part. But Hollywood sucks is definitely part of it. When I was a kid I was pretty good at predicting for my family from the first five minutes of a television show what would happen by the end, but film was usually capable of throwing me a curve. No longer. Just once--just once, dammit!--I'd like to see a bomb get disarmed when the timing device is still at three minutes and fifty seconds, rather than right at zero. Just once, I'd like the plot contours to be less than completely predictable. It must be the effect of those damnable screenwriting courses, with film now requiring a conventional three act structure, every bit as rigid as the "well-written play" of old. My views on the matter are gentle, however, in comparison with the writer and film professor Ray Carney, who is interviewed by Movie Maker Magazine here and here. An excerpt: MM: Sometimes it seems like so many films are becoming more like roller coaster rides of stimulation rather than windows into human experience. Even so-called "art films" many times gloss over the interior life of their characters and become cynical reflections of the moviemaker's unwillingness to grapple with deep questions. Why do you think this is? RC: How beautifully you put that. I couldn't agree more. Of course, cynicism never goes by its own name. It is always called something else: smartness, stylishness, coolness, playfulness, wit. Look at L.A. Confidential, which David Denby thought was one of the best films of the decade. Or Pulp Fiction, which every critic in American had multiple orgasms over. Or the complete works of John Dahl and most of what the Coen brothers have done. All those hard, tough, mechanical film noirs. Look at Mulholland Drive. All those smart-ass tricks and games. Big friggin' deal. That's the best we can do with a couple million dollars? I don't care how the New York critics revel in it; it's cynicism. And, in comparing Pulp Fiction (unfavorably) with Mikey and Nicky: If you want a crash course on the difference between gimmicks and revelations, watch Pulp Fiction and Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky on successive nights. May creates characters who have a superficial similarity to Tarantino's in their guttersnipe jitteriness, and scenes that similarly defeat our expectations, but she does it not to astonish us, but in the service of showing us astonishing things about ourselves. She's not playing with genre conventions. She doesn't use... posted by Fenster at February 15, 2005 | perma-link | (19) comments

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Movie Posters 'R' Us
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Yesterday I asked visitors to volunteer a movie poster or two that really marked their imaginations, and I promised to put images of these posters up in a blog posting. A fun, if movie-addled, way to get to know each other! As well as a dandy excuse to liven the blog up with some visuals. (By the way, clicking on some of these images will bring up bigger versions of the posters.) So far, two brave takers. Ricpic admits that he found this Saul Bass classic "very powerful": Annette confesses to having been stirred by these hunky images: Style and chic also speak to Annette, who still recalls this poster: And I can testify that Annette isn't alone in remembering the campaign for "Blow Up" fondly: What are those sexy, chic "Blow Up" people doing? And why wasn't I invited to their party? UPDATE: Blowhard Francis Morrone writes that he had this alienated beauty on his bachelor-pad wall and then one dumb day "unaccountably" gave it away. Bridget goes downhome, remembering a lusty Burt Reynolds special: ANOTHER UPDATE: I haven't heard from Friedrich von Blowhard in a few days, so I'm going to treat myself to the liberty of putting up a few posters that I know perfectly well once rocked his world: Steve Sailer dug the poster for "Pulp Fiction," which he says "looked far more glamorous than the actual movie, which looked an awful lot like what you'd expect for only $8 million bucks": Tatyana saw a poster for Saura's "Carmen" when she was 17 and hasn't gotten over it yet. No finding that specific image online, alas. But it looked something like this poster for a Fellini picture: The psychedelic vibes given off by these images (one a record jacket that looks like the poster for the movie) spoke dark volumes to George Wallace: Brian cites some Saul Bass masterworks. Is Brian confessing to what once moved him deeply? Or is he showing off his current (and very good) taste? No matter. These are amazing images: Searchblog 'fesses up to having this Ed Wood treat on her refrigerator. "They'll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands," she writes with her characteristic combo of wryness and extravagance. And guess who designed the great "Bonjour Tristesse" poster that made Searchblog's heart sing? Hint: his initials are "S.B." I'm beginning to wonder if Saul Bass' influence on the Boomer imagination might not rival Elvis': Being a proprietor of this blog, I'm going to treat myself to another beauty. (What's the point of having power if you can't abuse it just a little?) This elegant poster for the movie of "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" came along too late in my life to have the character-shaping impact on me that images seen in childhood and adolescence can have. But it certainly suited my already-formed taste-set to a T: ANOTHER UPDATE: Tatyana did some heroic websweeping and finally located the poster that so struck... posted by Michael at February 10, 2005 | perma-link | (17) comments

Wednesday, February 9, 2005

Rohmer Posters
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Francis' recent mention of Eric Rohmer brought back memories of my early foreign-filmgoing years. Ah, what those films meant to me ... And what their posters meant to me too -- in some cases, more than the films themselves. I've never been anything like the Rohmer fan many are. But the posters for some of his films -- now those I really, really liked. Paris; art; les vacances; l'amour ... Whatever the hell that was all about, I was eager to know more. Not long after, I went off to spend a schoolboy year in France. Coincidence? Je pense que non. I wonder if my parents suspected ... Sadly, I have no idea who created these great, great posters. I'd like to credit him/her but can't. Sadly, too, the publicity piece for "Chloe" isn't the original poster but is instead the cover of the film's DVD box. But the poster was similar, I'm sure: I remember the girl (one of those French actrices who goes by one name, in this case Zouzou); I remember her nakedness and delight; and I remember that bed ... in the corner ... of that small apartment. Hey, could it really be that someone had rented an apartment strictly to have a place for making zee luvvv!?!?! Whew: Gettin' mighty sophisticated around here! I own a couple of visual books on the theme of film posters: this one devoted to film posters of the '60s, and this one devoted to film posters from the '70s. They're well-done browses, and so evocative that you can almost hear the films' theme music, or at least the music that was used in their trailers. Were your imaginations marked by any movie posters? Were the imaginations of any visitors? If anyone should care to send me reasonable-size jpg's (say, a maximum of 300 pixels high) of movie posters that made an impact on him/her, I'd get a kick out of putting the images up on the blog. The address to use is michael at 2blowhards dot you-know-what. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 9, 2005 | perma-link | (11) comments

Robert Siodmak
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Robert Siodmak These days, my appetite for blow-the-roof-off, one-of-a-kind works of filmmaking stupendiosity is occasional at best. What I'm more often in the mood for is storytelling done with crispness and economy. (All due acknowledgment paid to the fact that, if you're going to be a longterm filmgoer, you have to be grateful for whatever of worth happens to come along.) I haven't watched a Welles in years, for instance. Good god but many of his movies look like an awful lot of unnecessary carrying-on to me now. Yet I'm happily exploring the work of Robert Siodmak. Do you know Siodmak's movies? An amazing talent: one of the guys who was reponsible for establishing and developing the film noir style of the 1940s, one of Hollywood's greatest achievements. Born into a banking family, Siodmak was a German Jew who found his way into the moviebiz, where he began as an editor and a writer of title cards for silent movies. He worked with the likes of Edgar Ulmer, Fred Zinneman, and Billy Wilder; fled Germany in 1933; and wound up in Hollywood in 1940. Robert's brother Curt Siodmak landed in Hollywood too, where he made a name for himself as a screenwriter, with "The Wolf Man" and "I Walked With a Zombie" among his credits. Don't laugh: both are first-rate movies. Three of the Siodmak movies I've seen from the '40s -- "Phantom Lady," "The Killers," and "Criss Cross" -- are real gems. Siodmak was one of the exiled filmmakers who brought the style and mood of German Expressionism to bear on Hollywood genre stories, one of movie history's happier merging of elements. "Phantom Lady" "Phantom Lady," from a Cornell Woolrich story, is a small, early film noir about a man convicted of murder and the woman who tries to prove him innocent. The film's narrative is as compact and elegantly-turned as "Laura"'s, but the film's visual style (which is comparable to Fritz Lang's) is something else entirely. It's a knockout combo. "The Killers" (from a Hemingway short story) and "Criss Cross" -- both of which star the charismatic young Burt Lancaster -- are intense and enjoyable crime pictures. Both are legendary for their pacing, their moodiness, and their spectacular action sequences. But they're remarkable as well for blending a focus on psychology with extraverted action stories. We often imagine a psychological story to be one thing and an action story to be another. ("About Schmidt" is all psychology with very little action; "Die Hard 3" has mucho action but its psychological dimension is minimal, to be kind.) And often attempts at joining the two leave viewers feeling that the two sides are at war with each other. "Criss Cross" and "The Killers" show that that doesn't have to be the case. Both films are fast-moving yet moody; suspenseful yet full of depth -- shadows, geometry, and ambiguity. And, like "Phantom Lady," they also have a sophisticated erotic awareness that's unusual in American pictures... posted by Michael at February 9, 2005 | perma-link | (4) comments

Wednesday, February 2, 2005

Rohmer and Rubio
Francis Morrone writes: Dear Blowhards, I recently learned--where I don't know--that the Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill is married to--or perhaps is just the s.o. of--the Mexican pop chanteuse and sex siren Paulina Rubio. ( gives Paulina a 95 rating for sexiness: "Paulina, it can be argued, is the most sensual artist on the pop charts today. She's incredible to watch, with her sexuality oozing off every video clip, every photo shoot, and every television appearance. She's not only the bomb, but the nuclear kind, a one-woman wrecking machine of men's hearts." Makes you wonder what a girl's got to do to get a 96. Anyway, lest any of you think to be part of my regular Internet browsing, I swear I'd never heard of the site until I Googled Paulina Rubio.) Well, good for Ricardo Bofill. Do any of you remember him? He was quite a hot architect in the 1980s. During that decade of what the media labeled post-Modernism (which in this usage did not always have anything to do with that term as philosophers and literary theorists used it) the cultured public grew besotted with architecture, which took over the cultural mantel that film had occupied in the 1960s and 1970s. We got the cult of the celebrity architect--a cult that has only grown greater, though by now the freshness and excitement have worn off. Anyway, not all the big reps of the 1980s made it intact into the new millennium. Bofill, it seems to me, is seldom discussed these days, though perhaps I'm just out of the loop. I thought of Bofill recently when we undertook an Eric Rohmer festival. I know people who can't stand Rohmer's films, and I don't hold such a view against anyone. (Whereas I would have serious doubts about the sanity of someone who disliked Preston Sturges or Jean Renoir.) I, however, revel in the talky Frenchiness of Rohmer's world. Now, I have seen most of his films as they have been released theatrically. But over the years, it's occurred to me that I can't--not for the life of me--remember one from the other. So we conducted an experiment. We rented every Rohmer we could lay our hands on. We'd seen them all, some multiple times. Now, however, I'd take notes. I would master this oeuvre. I would tell one from the other. I'd make a Rohmer database. I'd quiz myself. I'd read up on each film and its performers. (We all have fun in different ways.) I had no trouble with the early cycle Rohmer called Six Moral Tales. My Night at Maud's is very distinct in my mind from Chlo in the Afternoon. And the historical films and literary adaptations stand out, too. It's the later cycles, Comdies et Proverbes and "Contes des quatre saisons" that are all jumbled up in my poor head. Now, Rohmer makes the talkiest films in creation. And, as I said, I like the talk. But I like other things as well. I like... posted by Francis at February 2, 2005 | perma-link | (16) comments

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Moviegoing: "The Cooler"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Have you caught "The Cooler"? I found it sweet and absorbing. Praise the lord: it isn't a flashy electronic-media thing. And, although it was shot in six weeks for very little money, it's full of real acting, real writing, and real filmmaking. It's an experience to sink into, not to be wiped out by. Whether or not you enjoy the film may depend on how well you tolerate several things: the neonoir form; and fairy tales about little people, Lady Luck, and Vegas. I fell for the whole package. William Macy gives his most William Macy performance ever as an uber-loser who's such a sadsack that he's employed by a casino to ruin people's luck. He's The Cooler: all it takes to cool someone's good run is for Macy to walk on by. Maria Bello plays a gorgeous ragamuffin whose hopes have come to naught but whose emotions aren't yet extinct. Alec Baldwin is the scummy oldstyle casino owner whose schemes throw Macy and Bello together. As far as I was concerned, the film isn't in the same class as the best of the semi-recent neonoirs, "The Grifters" and "Croupier." Main reason: an overlong third act, during which the filmmakers run their characters through every possible narrative variation, a few of which struck me as skippable. But I was very happy spending a couple of hours in the film's world. The actors, who let it all hang out in many lovely ways, show a lot of talent, skill, and gusto; the smallscale, bluesy atmosphere is enchanting; and the tough/tender, make-believe tone is pitch perfect. "The Cooler"'s website, where you can watch a trailer, is here. The film is buyable here and Netflixable here. Maria Bello tells Carrie-Anne Moss that she hopes her ass will be a good role model for other women. I hope so too. "The Grifters" can be bought here and Netflixed here; "Croupier" is here and here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 26, 2005 | perma-link | (13) comments

Friday, January 14, 2005

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I love hanging out at the evo-bio-themed blog GNXP: brainy people; hot and often dicey topics; lots of rip-roaring enthusiasm and spirit ... Hats off to Razib and Godless, blog-proprietors and posters extraordinares. Running such a blog must be like riding a mustang -- a challenge just to stay on top of it. Part of what I love about visiting GNXP is getting to play the role of Mr. Arty in a crowd of science-and-tech brainiacs. (When I'm among ultra-hardcore, artsier-than-thou artsies, I'm often cast in the role of Mr. Practical or even Mr. Hard Science, neither of which I have any qualifications to play.) It's not like I have any choice. I'm the only arty guy within shouting distance, and I certainly don't have science chops. But trying to find something to contribute -- as well as trying to frame what I've got to say in a way that science-y types will both understand and not sneeze at -- is a challenge I enjoy. I don't do it well, but I get a kick out of trying. I found myself earlier today writing a few comments about the topic of acting in the thread attached to this Razib posting. I hope I'll be forgiven if I copy and paste my musings here. I've dolled them up a bit and corrected typos too. None of the usual sourcing or linking I try to provide in postings. Instead, just bald assertions, unfounded speculations, and promiscuous reflections on personal experience. Here's hoping no one minds. Hanging out with actors is great fun, if a little bewildering at first. It's also quite sexy. Back in the days when vaudeville troupes toured the country, fathers would lock their daughters up when the theater people came to town. Why? Because the actor-guys could be seductive. Because they were actors, they could convincingly put on the kind of suaveness, savoir-faire-ness, etc, that smalltown girls found irresistable, even though these actor-dudes were in reality pretty seedy characters. The actors could make the smalltown daughters think they'd fallen in love. And, being actors (ie., professional seducers and enchanters), the actor-dudes loved seducing and having a good time. So they were prone to leaving many heartbroken, sometimes pregnant, lassies behind them. As well as outraged daddies. In fact, it wasn't all that long ago that actresses and prostitutes were considered close kin. Grouping them together made intuitive sense to most people: actresses and hookers were both understood to be professional seducers, who could make you believe in an illusion ("we're in love!"), and who could do so at will. (One way to make historical sense of the 20th century acting school known as The Method, btw, is to see it as an attempt by theater performers to assert themselves as more dignified than they'd been seen to be before. They were fed up with being seen as clowns and hookers. They wanted to be seen as professionals. So they put on their eyeglasses,... posted by Michael at January 14, 2005 | perma-link | (5) comments

Thursday, January 13, 2005

It was forty three years ago today . . .
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, It was twenty years ago today that Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play, but forty-three years ago today it was something else. Late in the afternoon of January 13, 1962, Fenster returned from skating with his friends at a pond behind his house to find his parents waiting for him, somber but composed, in the living room of his home. At his tender age--not yet a teenager--Fenster had no experience at all with the death of family or friends, but he could tell from the demeanor of his parents that something was amiss, and that it probably had something to do with that remote land. Sit down, they said, we have something we have to tell you. Fenster sat down, sensing that the request had deeper implications but uncertain of the exact meaning. Fenster, they said, we know this will be hard for you to understand but . . . Ernie Kovacs is dead. He was in a car accident. Cut to present day. Yup, that's what happened. The TV comic Kovacs indeed perished on that date, and, yes, my parents fretted about how to break the news to me, a youngster with no personal knowledge of the man--only an affection from his TV persona. It's easy to chuckle over their behavior--and mine--so far after the fact, but, as I recall the moment, their hesitance was justified. I was upset, devastated. Kovacs . . . dead. . . ? How was this possible? So the anniversary of his death obliges me, as a tiny form of payback after all these years, to note the date in passing, and to bring his particular genius to the attention of those not familiar with him. It's not fair to say that without Kovacs there would have been no Saturday Night Live, stupid pet tricks or Andy Kaufman, as this article suggests. These things probably would have happened anyway. But there's no question that Kovacs was there first. It's tempting to conclude that Kovacs integration of nonsense and irrationality with humor as far back in the 1950s was sui generis. But while it was new to TV, it was not new to culture. Heck, as far back as the mid 1940s, Hitchcock had already popularized surrealism in Spellbound. Under the middlebrow rules then prevailing in the popular culture, the gap between dada in museums and Daddy in his living room was smaller than you might think, from the point of view of today's narrower, narrowcasting, standards. Leonard Bernstein did his Young People's Concerts; Kovacs, while clearly wacky, brought a touch of highbrow, under the guise of lowbrow, to the tiny black-and-white TV screen in my middlebrow suburban neighborhood. Even at my tender age, the frisson of highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow; and of sense, nonsense and nonsensibility, was simply irresistible. Best, Fenster... posted by Fenster at January 13, 2005 | perma-link | (5) comments

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Sexy vs. Smutty
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards: Sex has always been central to advertising but it's only been recently that we've embraced two separate but related ideas. The first is bluntness about the act. Viagra and Cialis ads are not always sexy in a traditional advertising sense, but all that talk about four hour erections and quality sexual experiences is new. Then there's smutty--a quite different concept entirely than sexy or blunt. Explicit smuttiness has tended to be a no-go on TV. Better an oily, near naked body than too clear a reference to what might be done with it. That seems to be changing. A while back I wrote (here) about a TV ad for Las Vegas. The ad--still running, by the way--is not really sexy, in any conventional sense, but it's definitely smutty. I found the ad humorous and some of you questioned that reaction. One way or another, there's no doubt about the basic character of the ad (the link to the Vegas site is still up at the old post, but I don't think you can see the ad on-line at the moment). Next: Slate magazine has an article up on the porn-like attributes of a new Wendy's ad for big meat--that is, a large new burger. You can see a pretty model sell this product by stuffing her fist into her mouth here. Do you suppose if the ad is successful, Wendy's will offer foot-long hot dogs? Next: Now comes the new ad for Hyatt hotels. You can see it here (you'll have click through the button for the new ads, then selecting the ad entitled "Gold Passport "). You have to watch this one carefully to see its clever, smutty side. Watch the couple in the pool, with the man first warning the woman to behave herself followed, after a few quick cuts, by her arm plunging down into the water toward his . . . um . . . mid-section. Listen to the woman getting a mud rub-down ooh and ahh, and then refer to a "little piece of heaven between my . . . ", only to have it cut away and someone else finish the sentence innocently "toes". Back in the early sixties my mom had a letter published in Time magazine. She was distressed over what she considered the then-rampant smuttiness in Hollywood films. In that era, you may recall, tinseltown was concerned over the competition from television and felt it needed to offer "more" than what you could find on the boob tube. As it sexed up its movies (tame by today's standards, obviously), it launched an ad campaign under the banner "movies are better than ever". Mom's Time magazine tirade was headlined "movies are bedder than ever." So are today's ads I guess. As for me, I find the Hyatt ad, like the Vegas ad, clever . . . but I do wonder what mom would think if she were still around. Best, Fenster... posted by Fenster at January 12, 2005 | perma-link | (5) comments

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

DVD Blowout
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Enough with lightweight topics like diversity in the academy. It's time for a meaningful posting! How about bargain DVDs? I just noticed that Amazon has reduced prices on lots of DVDs. I thought I'd pass along the titles of some of the on-sale movies that I've enjoyed. Maybe a few other people will enjoy them too. At these prices, what's the risk in giving a few of them a try? Besides, I love opinionating about movies. $5.99 will get you: Sweet Dreams. A touching and intense biopic about the country singer Patsy Cline, with terrific performances by Jessica Lange and Ed Harris, and a script by Robert Getchell that's a canny and insightful piece of engineering. Getchell and the film's director Karel Reisz chose not to do the usual biopic thing -- to tell the story of Patsy Cline's entire life. Instead, they focused on one clear dramatic arc: Patsy's relationship with her husband. Set against lush country music, some of the film's scenes are as wrenching as anything in Strindberg. I found the movie an amazingly emotional experience. Home Fries. This Drew Barrymore movie wasn't one of her more popular movies, and you can see why: it's darker, more sophisticated, and more dramatic than what her fans expect. But it's also a rewarding sad/sweet film, with a lyrical fondness for lower-class, country-white life that Hollywood rarely shows; it's reminiscent of some of Jonathan Demme's early movies. Playing a hopeful mess, Drew herself is awfully good; it's my favorite of the performances of hers that I've seen, not that I've seen many. Directed by Dean Parisot, who also directed the very funny GalaxyQuest, now on sale for $9.74. City Hall. It's certainly imperfect, but this New York-set political melodrama has grit, suspense, tiptop performances, and a number of sensationally well-written and well-acted scenes. Do many movies offer half as much? (I can never understand people who beef more about a half-satisfying movie than they do about a stinker. Half-satisfying's pretty darned good.) Al Pacino delivers one of his best performances, IMHO. He's as full of zest as ever, but he shows how subtle he can be too. Working with dialog by Bo Goldman, Pacino gives a masterclass in subtext. Watch how he brings out layers and layers of it that you never saw coming. What an actor! Gia. I couldn't tell whether Amazon is offering the R-rated or the Unrated version of this HBO movie. If it's the R-rated version, then skip it and rent the Unrated version instead; you don't want to miss the film's farther-out moments. Based on a true story, the film stars a young Angelina Jolie, was co-written by Jay McInerny, and is about a hard-living model who became an addict and died young. It's directed in a gimmicky, over-flashy way. But it's also smart about the media life, and it's harshly sexy; it's one of the two or three movies that made Angelina Jolie's reputation. For my money, she... posted by Michael at December 15, 2004 | perma-link | (17) comments

Wednesday, December 8, 2004

1000 Words -- The Fartiste
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Have you ever run across the 19th century French music-hall star Joseph Pujol? He was quite a phenonemon, a huge star who was known as "le petomane," or "the fartiste." That's right: Pujol was a specialty act, and virtuoso farting was his specialty. He had a long and busy career, and performed his act all over France. He had his greatest success at the Moulin Rouge, where he outgrossed (if that's the right word) the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt. Here's a description of Pujol's opening night at the Moulin Rouge: Then Le Petomane performed some imitations, using the simple, honest format of announcing and then demonstrating. He displayed his wide sonic range with tenor, baritone, and bass fart sounds. He imitated the farts of a little girl, a mother-in-law, a bride on her wedding night (tiny), the same bride the day after (loud), and a mason (dry-- "no cement"). He imitated thunder, cannons ("Gunners stand by your guns! Ready-- fire!!"), and even the sound of a dressmaker tearing two yards of calico (a full 10-second rip). After the imitations, Le Petomane popped backstage to put one end of a yard-long rubber tube into his anus. He returned and smoked a cigarette from this tube, after which he used it to play a couple of tunes on a song flute. For his finale he removed the rubber tube, blew out some of the gas-jet footlights from a safe distance away, and then led the audience in a rousing sing- along. Here's one account of Pujol; here's another; here's a third. Those funky Frenchies: Marseilles even commemorates its native son with a "Rue Pujol." All this reminds me of a passage in Jean Renoir's biography of his painter father. (A wonderful book, by the way.) Jean, who spent many childhood hours hanging around his father's bohemian models -- lucky boy -- wrote that one thing he recalled about the bedrooms of these legendary 19th century love goddesses was that they often smelled of full chamber pots. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 8, 2004 | perma-link | (23) comments

Tuesday, December 7, 2004

Without Preconceptions
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, Some years back, I was fortunate for a time to have a film critic as a friend and was therefore able to get into some opening night, and pre-opening night, screenings in New York. These were really interesting because they let you approach the film with virtually no preconceptions. Obviously there was "buzz" to contend with, but at least you didn't go in with the plot memorized and with a mental crib sheet firmly in place as to what the major reviewers thought. Also, these events gave you an unvarnished look at how the attendees themselves reacted. * I recalled this the other day with a slight shock when I read that Michael B. attended the opening night of Heaven's Gate. Darned if I wasn't there as well. Small world, Mike! It was a fascinating experience. I came to the film expecting the best, having fallen head over heels for The Deer Hunter, Cimino's earlier hit (I had not seen, and still have not seen, his first, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot). I recall the intermission, at which the champagne flowed freely, to be extraordinary sociology: all these semi-bigwigs walking around not knowing whether to trust the "buzz" or their own instincts (as the old saying goes "who are you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?"). And to tell the truth, I found myself having the same ambivalent reaction myself--"hmmm, Christopher Walken wearing a ton of makeup in the old West, maybe this is somehow . . . significant????" Anyway, just for the record, I saw 1941 this way, too, at a pre-opening night screening. And my reaction was much the same. Initial excitement, anxiety and confusion as the film unfolded and a final determination by the end that it was indeed a disaster. At the time I chalked it up to a feeling that comedy is simply ill-served by a big budget approach. While I still think there's some truth to that, it strikes me now that it was more the case that Spielberg himself just has a limited comdedic sense. So, while Michael may have found the original, long-version Heaven's Gate to have significant redeeming qualities, I ended up concluding that the problem with the film went way beyond the version. But, in the absence of preconceptions formed by critical commentary, not without some doubts and some heavy reflecting on my own instincts. Which reminds me that the best film critics must be very brave indeed. Best, Fenster * [note: the use of the term "you" in first paragraphs cribbed from Kael.]... posted by Fenster at December 7, 2004 | perma-link | (14) comments

Friday, November 26, 2004

Ed Wood Found
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- What makes the films of the director Ed ("Glen or Glenda?") Wood fascinating is that they aren't simply bad movies. They're also passionate and sincere; they have obsessions and a vision. They have, in other words, just about everything you might want from a work of art, if only you don't count "skill" and "believability." And is it really Ed Wood's fault that he had no talent? (Tim Burton caught some of this conundrum in his movie "Ed Wood.") The New Yorker announces that an Ed Wood porno movie once thought lost has now been found; I see that Fleshbot is offering it for sale here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 26, 2004 | perma-link | (3) comments

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Micro-Movie Distribution
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- In a commentsfest a while back, J.C. raised a good point: even though digicams and tabletop movie-editing are making certain kinds of moviemaking financially do-able for amateurs, what difference does this make if the resulting films can't be seen? Distribution, as ever, is key. It seems that the distribution and enjoyment of at least small, short films over the Internet is becoming more and more viable. (And, perhaps, less and less exclusively the domain of rabid IFC-style filmfans and pornfans.) For evidence, take a look at what Amazon is offering this Xmas season: a series of five short movies which can be watched on the store's homepage or from this page here. Only one of the films is up at this point. Although it stars Minnie Driver, and I'm a fan, I found it uninteresting except as an example of what the Internet can currently deliver. The sound quality? It's fine. The image quality? It blows. The only real surprise the film delivers comes in the final credits. Click on some of the credits and you'll be taken to other Amazon pages. A new -- and upside-down/inside-out -- way of doing product placement? Freaky. Amazon: the new Paramount? Best, Michael UPDATE: I just noticed that Ifilm has made the murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh's film "Submission" available for viewing here. Here's a prose account of Van Gogh's funeral. Newsday reports that Van Gogh's murder has set off a wave of violence in Holland.... posted by Michael at November 10, 2004 | perma-link | (7) comments

Sunday, November 7, 2004

TV Alert
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It's time once again to set your Tivos. Broadcast dates given here are EST. Hugh Grant on "Inside the Actors Studio." I've been reasonably amused by a handful of Hugh Grant's movie appearances. But, IMHO, his best performance by far has been this hilarious interview on "Inside the Actors Studio." As ever, the show's host James Lipton tries to be admiring and solemn; Hugh Grant will have none of it. He admits that he's a lousy actor who loves applause; he teases Lipton and flirts with the audience. The whole Grant package glows: the floppy-haired sheepishness semi-disguising the boastful rogue beneath; the bashful stuttering that contrasts with the whopping vanity. Grant manages to dodge Lipton's obsequiousness for a half hour; then Lipton's tongue finally does manage to snake its way up Grant's ass. But what a funny first half-hour it was. Bravo; Sunday, November 14 at 6 a.m. and noon. Secret Honor. After doing a scorched-earth number on Hollywood in the 1970s, Robert Altman seemed to lose both his luck and his magic touch. No longer able to get a job in Hollywood, he moved to New York and directed theater and opera; he moved to Paris and made tiny films, many of them adaptations of stage plays. A few of these are worth searching out. The 1984 "Secret Honor" is one of them -- a virtuosic movie adaptation of a one-man off-off-Broadway monologue about Richard Nixon. It's near the end of his Presidency; Nixon is pouring himself drinks as he prowls his office, wondering whether he should resign. [CORRECTION: Tim points out that the film's action "takes place after Ford pardoned Nixon, not during the Nixon presidency." I've seen the movie three times, and misremembered it anyway. Welcome to middle-age.] Altman retains the one-character, one-set framework, and adds subtle audiovisual fireworks of his own; if you respond to Altman's good movies, you'll know what I mean when I say that this is one of those Altman films that transports you off into Altmanville, a submarine-seeming and elastic four-dimensional space-time that's uniquely his. (If you don't respond to Altman's movies, you won't have a clue what I'm talking about and should probably skip this movie.) The firstclass horror-comedy monologue was written by Donald Freed and Arnold Stone; as Nixon, Philip Baker Hall gives a performance that's a brilliantly effective impersonation and then some. What a portrait of a certain kind of paranoid derangement. "Secret Honor" is one of those amazing small movies, like "My Dinner With Andre," that shows what a substantial piece of movie art can be made with the tiniest of resources. Here's a long Salon appreciation of Altman's movies. Sundance: Friday, Nov. 12 at 6:30PM; Tuesday, Nov. 16 at 6:30AM, and 3 PM; Sunday,Nov. 21 at 12:05AM. The Stepfather. In pop-movie-history terms, the '80s are remembered as the decade when Hollywood turned away from the experiments of the '60s and '70s and got back to genre basics, giving them an MTV-inspired... posted by Michael at November 7, 2004 | perma-link | (5) comments

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

A Taste of Video
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Some people collect books, some collect ceramics, and -- now that digital technology is here -- some collect video clips. I've been exploring some online collections, and can report that the people who collect video clips share a taste-set; they're drawn to funny commercials, celebrity sex videos, skateboarder wipeouts, fistfights, and car crashes. This is not the Pacific Film Archives, in other words. A fast connection is required for optimum viewing, of course, and a few of the following are NSFW. Here's a reminder to wear your damn seatbelt. A former Miss New York can't have wanted this going public; Miss Venezuela at least keeps smiling. It's amazing that boys survive adolescence, isn't it? Some people sure do have a different idea of how to have fun than I do. In Prince Charles' immortal phrase, "There almost went the dynasty." The new, uninhibited young woman is free to act out as she pleases. Sometimes the subtitles are better than the action. Surely no one can deny that an inescapable connection exists between new technology and sex. Those little wisps of chic fabric the catwalk girls wear? They come off a whole lot faster than they go on. Today's Little Red Riding Hood is a Riot Grrrl. Hey, dude -- that's not the finish line. So I guess this one doesn't go in the record books? I'll spare you my rant about how today's avant-garde cinema isn't to be found at Anthology Film Archives, but on "America's Funniest Home Videos" instead ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 27, 2004 | perma-link | (7) comments

Friday, October 15, 2004

Breillat Alert
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Bitter experience teaches you to avoid recommending some of the things you love most, doesn't it? I've taken three people to Bikram yoga classes, for example; while Bikram works magic on me, every single one of my buds hated it. And I've urged numerous friends to see the films of one of my favorite filmmakers, Catherine Breillat; not a soul has offered thanks. Still, though I've learned to shut up about it, I do love Breillat's films. So I'm happy to see that the next few weeks will be a boon time for NYC fans of her work. Surely there are other fans? Or perhaps not. Perhaps, and not for the first time, I'm doomed to be the Cinephile Who Walks Alone. Starting next Tuesday, Film Forum presents Sex is Comedy,