Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Best Movies of the 2000s

The headline says it all. The top choices are placed in order of preference, with their directors in parentheses. The runners-up are listed alphabetically. The list will be updated as I see more movies from the era. Get your Netflix queue ready and enjoy!!

You Can Count On Me
(Kenneth Lonergan)
The House of Mirth (Terrence Davies)
Dancer in the Dark (Lars Von Trier)
George Washington (David Gordon Green)
O Brother Where Art Thou? (Joel & Ethan Coen)
Requiem for a Dream (Darrin Aronofsky)
In The Mood For Love (Wong Kar-Wei)
Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsay)
Waking the Dead (Keith Gordon)
Chuck and Buck (Miguel Arteta)
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee)
Traffic (Steven Soderburgh)
Unbreakable (M. Night Shamalyan)
Amores Perros (Alejandro Gonzalez Inurritu)
Bring It On (Peyton Reed)
Cast Away (Robert Zemeckis)
Wonder Boys (Curtis Hanson)
And I Will Not Leave You Until I Die (Maciaj Ademek)
The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola)
Best In Show (Christopher Guest)

OF NOTE: American Psycho, Beautiful People, Boiler Room, The Color of Paradise, Dracula 2000, Duets, Erin Brockovich, Final Destination, Frequency, Gladiator, Hamlet, High Fidelity, Jesus’ Son, My Dog Skip, Pollock, Shadow of the Vampire, Sound and Fury, State and Main, Thirteen Days, Tigerland, The Whole Nine Yards, X-Men

Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann)
Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch)
Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly)
In The Bedroom (Todd Fields)
Memento (Christopher Nolan)
Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott)
Monsters Inc. (Andrew Stanton)
Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff)
Thanksgiving (Alex R. Johnson)
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell)
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg)
That Fateful Day (Eric Forrest)
Series 7: The Contenders (Daniel Minahan)
Buffalo Soldiers (Gregor Jordan)
Lantana (Ray Lawrence)
Wet Hot American Summer (David Wain)
The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson)
Friction (Robert Ellmann)
Amelie (Jean-Claude Jeunot)
Gosford Park (Robert Altman)
Japanese Myths (Eric Forrest)

OF NOTE: Ali, Bully, Conspiracy, Crazy/Beautiful, The Deep End, The Devil’s Backbone, From Hell, How High, Iris, Legally Blonde, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Man Who Wasn’t There, The Others, Session 9, Sexy Beast, Spy Kids, The Tailor of Panama, Training Day, Under The Sand, Waking Life

Russian Ark (Alexandr Sokurov)
Catch Me If You Can (Steven Spielberg)
Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Time Out (Laurent Cantet)
All or Nothing (Mike Leigh)
Y Tu Mama Tambien (Alfonzo Cuaron)
Max (Menno Meyies)
Signs (M. Night Shamalyan)
12 (Lawrence Bridges)
8 Women (Francois Ozon)
Enigma (Michael Apted)
Lovely and Amazing (Nicole Holofcener)
The Hours (Stephen Daldry)
Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore)
Born in Beirut (Liliane Matta)
Talk to Her (Pedro Almodovar)
Spider (David Cronenberg)
Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes)
Adaptation (Spike Jonze)
Jimmy's Story (Billy Yeager)

OF NOTE: 28 Days Later, Ablution, About A Boy, About Schmidt, The Barbecue People, Blue Crush, The Bourne Identity, Changing Lanes, Chicago, Clockstoppers, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Femme Fatale, Frailty, Frida, The Good Girl, Igby Goes Down, Incidental Park Zones and You, The Kid Stays in the Picture, Minority Report, Morvern Callar, The Movie Hero, Narc, One Hour Photo, The Pianist, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Road to Perdition, The Salton Sea, Secretary, Solaris, Spiderman, Spirited Away, Stevie, Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election

Elephant (Gus Van Sant)
In America (Jim Sheridan)
All The Real Girls (David Gordon Green)
Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen)
Mystic River (Clint Eastwood)
City of God (Fernando Merilles)
The Brown Bunny (Vincent Gallo)
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir)
Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki)
The Fog of War (Errol Morris)
Bad Santa (Terry Zwigoff)
Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)
Shattered Glass (Billy Ray)
21 Grams (Alejandro Gonzalez Inurritu)
American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini)
Goodbye Day (Dan Bush)
Phone Booth (Joel Schumacher)
Kill Bill (as one movie) (Quentin Tarantino)
House of Sand and Fog (Vadim Perelman)

OF NOTE: The Cooler, The Core, Dark Blue, Dirty Pretty Things, Down With Love, Holes, The Human Stain, Irreversible, Love Actually, The Magdalene Sisters, A Mighty Wind, Monster, My Life Without Me, School of Rock, Swimming Pool, Together

Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood)
Vera Drake (Mike Leigh)
Napoleon Dynamite (Jared Hess)
Sideways (Alexander Payne)
Before Sunset (Richard Linklater)
The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci)
Birth (Jonathan Glazer)
Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright)
Dogville (Lars Von Trier)
Broadway: The Golden Age (Rick McKay)
Blind Shaft (Yang Li)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry)
Primer (Shane Carruth)
I Heart Huckabees (David O. Russell)
The Machinist (Brad Anderson)
Brave New York (Richard Sandler)
The Incredibles (Brad Bird)
Teacher’s Pet (Timothy Bjorkland)

OF NOTE: The Assassination of Richard Nixon, The Aviator, The Bourne Supremacy, In Good Company, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Maria Full of Grace, Open Water, The Notebook, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Spiderman 2, Team America: World Police, Touching the Void, The Village

The New World (Terrence Malick)
Nobody Knows (Kore-eda Hirokazu)
Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog)
Cache (Michael Haneke)
L'Enfant (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
Hustle and Flow (Craig Anderson)
The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach)
Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee)
The Constant Gardener (Fernando Merilles)
Good Night, And Good Luck (George Clooney)
Junebug (Phil Morrison)
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Tommy Lee Jones)
The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Judd Apatow)
Capote (Bennett Miller)
Saraband (Ingmar Bergman)
2046 (Wong Kar-Wai)
Shopgirl (Anand Tucker)
Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan)
Bubble (Steven Soderburgh)
Wallace and Grommit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Nick Park)

OF NOTE: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Everything is Illuminated, Head-On, A History of Violence, Jarhead, Kung Fu Hustle, The Matador, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Mirrormask, Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic, Stay, Syriana

The Fountain (Darrin Aronofsky)
Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt)
United 93 (Paul Greengrass)
Children of Men (Alfonzo Cuaron)
The Lives of Others (Florian Henkel von Donnersmark)
Little Children (Todd Fields)
Borat (Larry Charles)
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (Michael Winterbottom)
Inland Empire (David Lynch)
Munich (Steven Spielberg)
A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman)
Inside Man (Spike Lee)
Letters from Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood)
Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (Albert Brooks)
Maxed Out (James D. Scurlock)
Friends with Money (Nicole Holofcener)
The Departed (Martin Scorsese)
Casino Royale (Martin Campbell)
Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (Adam McKay)

OF NOTE: Babel, The Break-Up, Closing Time, CSA: The Confederate States of America, Days of Glory, The Descent, Factotum, Find Me Guilty, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Half Nelson, Hot Fuzz, Idiocracy, An Inconvenient Truth, The Little Death, Marie Antoinette, Notes on a Scandal, The Prestige, The Queen, Rocky Balboa, Sherry Baby, Who Killed The Electric Car?

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominick)
There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)
No Country For Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen)
Grindhouse (Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez)
Zodiac (David Fincher)
Sunshine (Danny Boyle)
No End In Sight (Charles Ferguson)
Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog)
We Own The Night (James Grey)
Sicko (Michael Moore)
Scott Walker: 30 Century Man (Stephen Kijak)
This is England (Shane Meadows)
Day Night Day Night (Julia Loktev)
Jesus Camp (Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady)
Away From Her (Sarah Polley)
La Vie En Rose (Olivier Dahan)
Ratatouille (John Lassiter)

OF NOTE: Alpha Dog, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Black Book, Jindabyne, Lars and the Real Girl, The Lookout, The Mist, Superbad, The TV Set, 28 Weeks Later

The Fall (Tarsem Singh)
Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt)
Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh)
The Wrestler (Darrin Aronofsky)
Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)
John Adams (Tom Hooper)
Synecdoche, NY (Charlie Kaufman)
Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant)
The Promotion (Steve Conrad)
In Bruges (Martin McDonagh)
Abel Raises Cain (Jessica Abel)
Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller)
What Just Happened (Barry Levinson)
Empire II (Amos Poe)
Red (Trygve Allister Diesen and Lucky McKee)
Smiley Face (Gregg Araki)
Blindness (Fernando Meirelles)
W. (Oliver Stone)
Changeling (Clint Eastwood)
Nights and Weekends (Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig)

OF NOTE: The Autuer, Baghead, Be Kind Rewind, Doubt, Dying Breed, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Gran Torino, Iron Man, JCVD, Last Chance Harvey, Mona, Run For Your Life, The Strangers, WALL-E, The Wild Man of the Navidad

Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
Bright Star (Jane Campion)
The Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)
A Prophet (Jacques Audiard)
Anvil!: The Story of Anvil (Sacha Gervasi)
A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen)
The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
Somers Town (Shane Meadows)
Still Walking (Hirokazu Koreeda)
Julia (Erick Zonca)
The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke)
Big Fan (Robert Siegel)
(500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb)
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog)
Trucker (James Mottern)
Star Trek (J.J. Abrams)
Up in the Air (Jason Reitman)
Collapse (Chris Smith)
Adventureland (Greg Mottola)
Drag Me To Hell (Sam Raimi)

OF NOTE: Away We Go, Beeswax, The Blind Side, Coraline, Crazy Heart, An Education, The House of the Devil, The Informant!, The Invention of Lying, Moon, The Road, Zombieland

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Richard Sandler's Brave New York and Sway

New Yorkers, especially the seasoned ones, will be in for a bittersweet taste of the city's old way of doing things when Richard Sandler's artful documentaries Brave New York (2004, 56 minutes) and Sway (2006, 33 minutes) screen at the Sixth Street and Avenue B Community Garden on Friday, August 22nd, starting at 8:30 pm. Given Sandler's singular talent behind the camera, this is truly an event you won't wanna miss seeing projected big as life. (You can see some of Richard glowing black-and-white photography here.)
In Sandler's words, Brave New York "is a free-form documentary that loosely chronicles the last 12 years of intense change in the East Village. From the reopening of a newly curfewed Tompkins Square Park to the destruction of the cherished Loisaida Community Gardens, to the first yuppie invasions of the dot com years, to the present." Sway, meanwhile, similarly covers 14 years of camcorder-recorded subway rides.

For nearly ten years, I've been a fan of Richard's work, and I'm lucky enough to call him a friend as well, now that I've moved back to New York after a 15-year absence. I'm thankful for Brave New York because it tells me precisely what went on, at least in the East Village, during my absence. Like his amazing The Gods of Times Square (read my review here), the new video chronicles the effect Rudy Giuliani's policies had on the singular character of one legendary part of our city.
I have to very briefly address here my feelings on the subject of gentrification. They are, of course, mixed. On the one hand, I sort of am thankful for the Giuliani change. When I was living here in 1986, and again from 1989 to 1992, I found NYC to be a fascinating but often depressing place to live. One story I have to illustrate this will never leave me.

I was sitting in a moving subway train. Across from me was a thirtysomething blond-haired, suited-up guy, obviously some sort of professional. Back then, riding the subway would often be a long endurance test because you couldn't take any substantial ride without being set upon by some down-and-nearly-out homeless person with a sad story to tell for tears and profit. These stories were yelled out to a captive audience, and they would often make you wanna get a handgun and put a bullet through the back of your throat (especially if you were an empathetic, overworked person who still had no money to give, as I was).
Anyway, here we were, in this sparsely populated subway car. The door leading to the car next to us opened slowly and in rolls a guy with no legs, bedraggled, making his way through the world with one of those boxes on wheels, and with two handpieces designed to help him drag his body to and fro. The suit across from me impatiently rolled his eyes. The legless man started into his schpiel: "Ladies and gentlemen, I don't mean to bother you. As you can see, I have no legs..." and on it went. The suit started to get more agitated and, as the train came to a stop, he stood up violently, obviously at the end of his tether.

"Godammit, I can't stand anymore of this FREAK SHOW. Fuck, I can't BELIEVE this shit!" And with that top-of-the-lungs exclaimation, the suit rushed out of our lives. I felt bad for both men. And I'll never forget it.

Now that kind of public scene has largely gone by the wayside and I'm left wondering what's happened to all the homeless people and legless men. Of course, you see a few nowadays, but it ain't like 1989, lemme tell ya. Now, of course, since the city has become a safer place to live, we have yuppies and rich kids all over the godamn place. They are just as irritating to me, with their conspicuous consumption and smug smiles. But I have to admit, they are easier to block out of my mind. As for the disappearance of the amazing displays of public performance, artful graffiti, and local characters---this I truly do mourn. I want to again see unparalled sights like, as Sandler catches, the Ransom Corp (who invade a subway car and quite literally transform it into a party zone, to which one somewhat dazed rider says he is "indifferent"), or Gene Pool, the crushed-aluminum-can- covered unicyclist zooming serpentine through 2nd and 11th.Brave New York, in Sandler's unique, poetically quiet way, documents this not-so-old but seemingly ancient way of life through masterfully edited montages (by Sandler's main collaborator Daniel Brown). We get to see brilliant but unrecognized public speaking from the likes of Johnny Sloth, Karen Zusman, Pitts (a homeless man who delivers a fervent rant called "The Masquerade is Over"), and my favorite: Steve Ben Israel extolling the virtues of American Flag Condoms as if he were hawking them on a TV commercial! Exquisite.

And though much of the film is scored only with found sound, there are memorably spirited musical performances by the likes of the Hungry March Band, The Pink Pony Improv Orchestra, Jewish entertainer Seymour Rexite, and a climactic version of "Frightening, Love is the Hardest Thing" by a man named Sandy, whose truthful insights stunningly cap the film with hope. How Sandler gets these flashes of honesty on camera, I'll never know. He is indefatigable.Mark Twain, who visited an older New York often, said the key to happiness is to "dance like no one is watching, sing like no one is listening, and love as if you've never been hurt." There's a lot of happiness--and misery--in Brave New York and, I'm sure, in Sway. There's nothing, I repeat, nothing like a Richard Sandler documentary; he is one of New York's most valuable filmmakers.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Farewell, Black Moses: Isaac Hayes (1942-2008)

A few months ago, in my town of New York City, I wandered into the Caffe Reggio. I love that place. It's a beautiful little coffee grotto on well-traveled MacDougal Street, near Washington Square Park. It's always supremely relaxing for me to sit there in its low light and contemplate the taste of a black espresso while basking in the outside street scenes, the rich-toned woods, the antique pictures, the deep red walls, and the unmistakable whiff of history that surrounds us all there. But I must admit, one thing about it has always irked me.

The twentysomething waitress brought me my second coffee. I asked her: "Have you ever seen the movie Shaft? The '70s movie, not the Samuel Jackson one..."

"No," she said. "I've always been meaning to..."

"Did you know that a good part of it was filmed here?" I pointed my index finger downwards--RIGHT here...

"Wow, I didn't know that."

"Yeah, there's even a few tracks on the soundtrack named after this place."

"I'll remember to check it out. Thanks." She tried to get away. But I said:

"You know, you should at least have a copy of the album up on the walls. It's one of the greatest albums of all time. You should be proud you guys're tagged in it, y'know?" I mean, I know they like old stuff in there, but the record is approaching its 40th birthday soon.

She said she'd pass it along, but I don't think she did, and it sort of always gets to me. The cafe plays a big part in the movie--it's Shaft's favorite watering hole--and the song "Cafe Regio" (as it's spelled on the album) happens to be the score's best cut. That is, next to the Oscar-winning song that started it all. Take a look at this invaluable footage from the Turner vaults that has Isaac Hayes and his band running through rough versions of both compositions. That's director Gordon Parks giving Hayes direction, and John Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree, is seen in the Village's Caffe Reggio, boldly bashing a bottle over a white gangster's head.

Isaac Hayes, who sadly died at his Memphis home on August 10th, pioneered the art of the rock soundtrack with his work on Shaft. The theme to this MGM film was a masterfully engineered blend of proto-disco beats and bass, shredded by an insistent wakkeda-wakkeda guitar riff and seasoned with sly strings and confident Memphis brass. Once the long, unforgettable intro is truly done kickin' in, in comes the silky, almost rap-like vocals from Hayes himself. The lyrics were sexy, tough and smugly humorous, even including a call-back part for a trio of female singers (written here in caps):

Who's the black private dick
That's a sex machine to all the chicks? 
Damn right!
Who is the man that would risk his neck
For his brother man? 
Can you dig it?
Who's the cat that won't cop out
When there's danger all about? 
Right On!
They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother-
Well I'm just talkin' 'bout Shaft.
He's a complicated man
But no one understands but his woman 

For the song and album Shaft, Isaac Hayes netted Grammy nominations for Best Album, Record, R&B Performance (Duo or Group), and Instrumental. He ended up taking three awards home: for Best Original Score, Instrumental Arrangement, and Engineered Recording (Non-Classical). Even more amazingly, Shaft was nominated for the Best Original Score Academy Award and Golden Globe and ended up taking home both organizations' award for Best Original Song. There had never been an award winner like it--we weren't in "Chim Chim Cher-ee" mode here--and there wouldn't be another one again for almost 25 years when Three-Six Mafia took home the Best Song award for "It's Hard Out Here For A Pimp," the centerpiece to 2005's fantastic Hustle and Flow...which co-starred Isaac Hayes as a benevolent bar owner!

The moment Isaac was carted out on stage at the 1971 Oscars to perform his most famous song--surrounded by keyboards and dancers, fog and lights, and bedecked in his trademarked ensemble of torso-wrapping gold chains--was a unprecedented one. Surely old Hollywood knew a new day was upon them. And I have to wonder if some of those people in the audience were scared shitless. As gentle as Hayes was in real life, he could look real imposing.

It was this look--the coolest fucking look in the world, in my opinion--that would have made him perfect for the role of John Shaft, and he really wanted the part, badly. But director Gordon Parks tagged Richard Roundtree, and Hayes happily took over the scoring duties instead. Which is just as well, because Roundtree's cat-like on-screen moves and Hayes' ripping sounds are perfection in tandem. In large part because of Isaac Hayes' musical contributions, Shaft resides at the apex of the 1970's black film movement, along with Jack Hill's Coffy, Barry Shear's Across 110th Street, and Michael Schultz's Cooley High. AND one more movie...

We would have to wait three years, until 1974, to see Hayes in front of the camera. But when we got him, we really got a treat. Another of the very best blaxploitation actioners of the 70s was the bold, exciting Truck Turner, another baaaadasssss detective movie with Hayes as the man John Shaft might've found a little intimidating. After creaming some of the hitmen that have been put on his trail, Hayes brandishes his gun and exclaims "Anybody ask you what happened, tell 'em you been hit by a truck: Mac 'Truck' Turner!" With two great actors as his nemeses--the regal Yaphet Kotto and Star Trek's Uhura, Nichelle Nichols, in a rare down-n-dirty turn ("I haven't had to sell my pussy since I was fifteen and found out I could sell other bitches instead!"), plus roles for Paul Harris (Do The Right Thing), Scatman Crothers (The Shining), Stan Shaw (The Great Santini) and Dick Miller (every other movie ever made)--PLUS another fine director (Jonathan Kaplan of Over the Edge and E.R. fame) and a snappier, less plot-heavy script than Shaft had...AND an Isaac Hayes score as well? Shit, nee-gro, you couldn't ask for more. Truck Turner puts a foot in yo ass and leaves the boot inside!

Of course, we all know about South Park, the wise Chef and his famous "Chocolate Salty Balls." This would be arguably Isaac's most famous post-1970s song. Bit we should also recall John Carpenter's Escape From New York, where Hayes played the sadistic, kingly Duke of New York, the man who pulled all the strings to a future city long left for dead. Here's Isaac arriving on the scene in style:

We should additionally note his sweet role as reporter Angel Dupree in the pretty wonderful Nicholas Cage/Bridget Fonda romantic comedy It Could Happen to You (Andrew Bergman, 94). And I have a special affinity for his recurring character Gandolf Fitch on TV's James Garner vehicle The Rockford Files, as well as his membership in the Wayan Brothers' all-star blaxploitation spoof I'm Gonna Git You, Sucka!

The progenitors of Memphis' Stax Records sound, from left: Sam Moore (with cigarette), Isaac Hayes, Andrew Love, Wayne Jackson, Dave Prater, Jim Stewart (sitting) and Steve Cropper, 1970.

But, musically, we need to be reminded of all the ubiquitous Sam and Dave songs he co-wrote with David Porter like "Soul Man," "Hold On I'm Comin'," "I Thank You," "Wrap It Up," and the devastating "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby." And we need to stand in awe of his heavily-narrated, epic-length cover versions of 3-minute-pop songs like "Misty," "By The Time I Get to Phoenix," "Walk On By," and "Ain't No Sunshine." How about taking a real good listen to his "Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic" from the album Black Moses and realizing its distinctive piano chords form the basis for Public Enemy's "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" off the landmark It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Or listening to his score for Tough Guys and realizing you've heard these tunes Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill series. We should remember albums like Hot Buttered Soul and Presenting Isaac Hayes, and songs like his "Never Can Say Goodbye" and "Soulsville" or Dionne Warwick's "Deja Vu," or Carla Thomas' "B-A-B-Y." And we should remember Wattstax, the 1972 concert event (released as a film in 1973) that he headlined and helped organize, with his Stax Records buddies, to benefit the then-decimated-by-riots L.A. neighborhood of Watts.

Here he is at that famous concert, introduced by Jesse Jackson (who only WISHES he could be as cool as Isaac). The great Richard Pryor takes us into the clip:

With all this you think he deserved to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Well, he was, in 2002.

I'm think I'm gonna go downtown real soon, buy a vinyl copy of Shaft, place it softly in the hands of the Caffe Reggio guys and say "Here. I love you. This is a gift. Frame it and hang it. 'Cuz Isaac goddamn deserves it, man."

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Paul Newman

There is no celebrity calamity in my recent time--and I am including Stanley Kubrick--that has affected me more deeply than learning of Paul Newman's recently announced, soon-to-be fatal bout with lung cancer. It's difficult to imagine a world without Hollywood's greatest humanitarian and actor, but I suppose it's a feat we're all going to have to achieve. Today, it was announced that soon we will be without the director of Rachel Rachel, Sometimes A Great Notion, The Effect of Gamma-Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, Harry and Son, and The Glass Menagerie, and the indelible star of Hud, Harper, Hombre, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, Nobody's Fool, The Hustler, Somebody Up There Likes Me, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, The Towering Inferno, The Left-Handed Gun, Cars, Road to Perdition, Slap Shot, Twilight, Pocket Money, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Buffalo Bill and the Indians or: Sitting Bull's History Lesson, Absence of Malice, Sweet Bird of Youth, Paris Blues, Winning, Fort Apache The Bronx, The Long Hot Summer, WUSA, The Drowning Pool, Torn Curtain, and one Oscar-winning performance in Martin Scorsese's Hustler sequel The Color of Money, and his crowning cinematic achievement: his role as Frank Galvin in Sidney Lumet's The Verdict.

It's mind-boggling what this man has done for the craft of acting. It's possibly more mind-boggling (or at least surprising) to note what he's done for the act of eating with his unassailable line of food products--salad dressing, lemonade, cookies, popcorn, salsa, and the like. And absolutely drop-dead astounding is the fact that he's contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to various charities around the world.

Paul Newman is not only a film figure. He is a good man. A good husband to his wife of 50 years, actress Joanne Woodward (they are the entertainment's industry's most perfect celebrity couple). And a good father to his children.

Filmwise, you could always ensure that, no matter the quality of the movie, Newman's presence would make it all the better. And that's taking into account the quality of his choices has been, more often than not, superlative.

I refuse to look at any pictures of the sickly Mr. Newman. I prefer to remember his visage as the vital, stunning actor who helped usher in a new style of performance--one that changed the craft forever.

He has displayed integrity and class in everything that he has attempted. I will mourn the day, truly, that he is absent from this realm.

My heart goes out to him, Joanne, and his family. I am hoping against hope for a miracle. Because no one deserves one more than Paul Newman.

Monday, August 4, 2008

!!!My 100th filmicability Post: Side Orders #5

Thought I'd celebrate by keeping my post brief. Here are some of my favorite scenes:

The truly creepy, nightmare-causing dungeon elevator ride taken by Hans Conried, Peter Lind Hayes and Tommy Rettig (where can I get a beanie like that?) in Roy Rowland's adaptation of Dr. Seuss's The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T. This is kind of a scary movie for kids, I think, but it's cool because of that. Imagine watching THIS as a tyke:
Here I highlight the work of special effects master Ray Harryhausen in one of his best films: the 1969 classic The Valley of Gwangi. Here, after lovey-dovey stuff between James Franciscus and Gila Golan, we get what we came for: cowboys fighting dinosaurs. Check this out:

The greatest stage play-to-film adaptation: Mike Nichol's version of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The whole thing's available on YouTube, but you should really DVD it if you've never seen it. It's one of the world's most beautiful black-and-white films, photographed by Haskell Wexler. Here's a ten-minute chunk starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as the perpetually battling George and Martha, and Sandy Dennis and George Segal as their confused guests. The scene begins brilliantly with Martha's revelation of undying "love" for her put-upon-pie George.

Now I'm posting a clip from Dziga Vertov's silent classic Man with a Movie Camera. No story to recount, except to say that this experimental documentary photographs men photographing the day-to-day industrial workings of 1920s Russia. Amazing editing that works well with any piece of music you choose to accompany it. This is the silent era precursor to the MTV style of editing. Here, the pictures are seen with the Alloy Orchestra as score.

Finally, I'm featuring a short film by Simon Tofield called Simon's Cat: TV Dinner . It's the best representation I've ever seen on film of both cat and cat-owner behavior. If you don't have a furball that purrs, it's just like this, my friends. I love my fuzzy gray ones Marty and Angelo despite of and because of it all.

Film #73: Used Cars

Years before his Forrest Gump became the cultural touchstone that it is, director Robert Zemeckis was assaulting movie audiences with a recognizable, hard-edged yet invariably slapstick form of comedy. His first film, I Wanna Hold Your Hand (soon to be reviewed here on filmicability) frantically followed a bunch of New Jersey Beatles lovers and haters as they travel to New York to see the Fab Four on Ed Sullivan's stage. Zemeckis' second film, 1980's Used Cars upped the ante considerably but, like I Wanna Hold Your Hand, ended up hardly making a dent at the box office. Now it's a cult classic.

A plaid-jacketed Kurt Russell, in his first substantial adult role (after playing the lead in a few goofy Disney films like Now You See Him, Now You Don't and The World's Strongest Athlete), stars as Rudy Russo, the unctuous, unscrupulous salesmen with political ambitions who works at an L.A. used car lot owned by Roy Fuchs (Jack Warden). Roy's twin brother Luke (Warden again) owns the flashier lot across the street and, eager to expand, hungers for Roy's lot as well. When he tries to put Roy out of commission, Rudy and his crew use their most conniving moves to keep their lot from falling into Luke's greedy hands.

The rapid-fire laughs have a decidedly dark flavor to them in this, one of late New Yorker film writer Pauline Kael's favorite movies of 1980. Written with ongoing Zemeckis collaborator Bob Gale (both of whom would get Oscar nominations in 1985 for their Back to the Future script), Used Cars has some of the most cogent things to say about capitalism running rampant, but you hardly notice that subtext cuz yer laughin' so hard. Gerrit Graham is largely responsible for this. As Jeff, the superstitious salesman with a cool beagle dog named Toby (hilarious animal performance!!!) and a thing again red cars, Graham stands out as the film's MVP. His onscreen energy is tremendous, and should have netted him an Oscar nomination, if the Oscars weren't so inexplicably down on comedy. Frank McRae is also uncommonly funny as Jim, the lot's foul-mouthed mechanic (whose spirited reaction to being peed on by Toby is a highlight of Used Cars). Jack Warden is great in his demanding double role, and the film even has a smart female presence in Deborah Harmon.
Used Cars also has an amazing collection of familiar late 70s/early 80s faces in supporting roles. Look for: Al Lewis (Grandpa Munster, unmistakable as the judge in the picture), SCTV star Joe Flaherty (in an unfortunately humorless role as Luke's lawyer), Happy Days' Lenny and Squiggy themselves Michael McKean and David L. Lander as master technicians Freddie and Eddie, Mark McClure (from Superman and Back to the Future), the late Wendy Jo Sperber (from I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Back to the Future, and TV's Bosom Buddies), Scorsese and Corman regular Harry Northup, Like Water for Chocolate actor-turned-director Alphonso Arau, and character actors Woodrow Parfrey, Dub Taylor, and Dick Miller too!!!
It has some incredibly amazing spoof car commercials in it (including one I previewed on my post for Dad, Can I Borrow The Car, another Kurt Russell-related car movie that would go well as a short to see before Used Cars; see it here). That bit there is one of the greatest comedy sequences ever filmed. It not only has surprises for us, it has surprises that really register on the faces of its lead characters!! Explosive and incredible. But there are also great chase scenes (including a 200-car one), car jokes (and I hate cars), sex jokes, money jokes, bad luck jokes, and dog jokes. If "Wow, I might have to see this" is all you can say after hearing that, hear this: Used Cars is definitely one of the top 25 comedies ever made. Trust me: Dr. Dean says have a few beers, get the DVD spinning, and you'll be laughing your ass off posthaste. And you won't feel bad in the morning.

Film #72: It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, director/producer Stanley Kramer was well-known for his more socially-conscious brand of moviemaking, signified by heady "important" films like Judgment at Nuremburg, The Defiant Ones, Inherit the Wind, On The Beach and The Caine Mutiny. However, in 1962, he was itching to do another movie with his favorite leading actor Spencer Tracy. But Tracy was fighting a long illness (death wouldn't claim him until 1967) and he didn't want a role that would require him to carry the whole movie. AND he wanted to do a comedy. So Kramer jumped into the comedic waters (with a then-breathtaking budget of $7 million, or about $75 million by today's standards) and came up with It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, an epic-scoped ode to all thing slapstick that was the first offering of a genre I like to call "The Chaos Movie."

In this 1963 movie, gangster Smiler Grogan (Jimmy Durante, the first in a long series of komedy kameos) literally kicks the bucket on a California highway and, with his dying gasp, lets go of his secret to the spectators watching him expire: There's $350,000 in stolen moolah buried under a 'W' in Santa Rosita State Park and it's now up for grabs. Thus begins one of the cinema's most outlandish chase sequences ever--three full hours of eye-popping stunts (Kramer utilized over half the members of the Stuntman's Association of America), memorable visual effects (including some funny stop-motion animation), sharp sound (for which it won an Oscar), fast editing, star cameos and yuks galore.

Let's cover the people racing for the gold. In one car, there's Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett. In another, Sid Caesar and wife Edie Adams. In another, Milton Berle, wife Dorothy Provine, and mother-in-law Ethel Merman (in the movie's best performance). Finally, alone in his truck, we have Jonathan Winters (also not bad)! Along the way we pick up Dick Shawn, doing a dry run for his L.S.D. character in The Producers by playing a beachcombing, womanizing mama's boy! Then we pick up schememeister Phil Silvers, gap-toothed Brit Terry-Thomas, and soon-to-be-stranded Gilligan's Island millionaire Jim Backus. And, all along the way of this 200-mile journey to the 'W', in alphabetical order, we see: Eddie "Rochester" Anderson and his buddy Jack Benny, Ben Blue, Joe E. Brown, Howard DaSilva, William Demerest, Andy Devine, Norman Fell, Stan Freberg, Leo Gorcey, Sterling Holloway, Edward Everett Horton, Marvin Kaplan and Arnold Stang (as shocked gas station attendants, in the film's best scene), Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Jerry Lewis, Zasu Pitts, Carl Reiner, Doodles Weaver, Jesse White, and The Three Stooges as flummoxed firemen! Only Harold Lloyd, Jackie Gleason, Groucho Marx (or any of the Marx Brothers), Mae West, Mel Brooks, the Little Rascals, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce and Charlie Chaplin would have made this unparalled cast complete. Damn, the movie's even got a Saul Bass credits sequence and Mad Magazine's Jack Davis as its poster artist!

It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was one of the first movies to cut back and forth between competing storylines since D.W. Griffith's 1916 classic Intolerance. And it's a technique that wouldn't be practiced again until George Lucas cemented its cinematic presence with his massive American Graffiti in 1973. Now, it's a movie staple with entire careers--like that of Robert Altman's and Paul Thomas Anderson's--being built on its foundation (don't forget the blah, multi-storied Crash won Best Picture in 2005, and 2008's winner, No Country For Old Men, like Fargo before it, had competing storylines, too).

It was also, barring the silent era's Keystone Cops and the like, the first chaos movie--that is, a movie in which everybody is trying to reach the same goal at once and is willing to kill everybody else competing with them in the process. It's not a very good genre. Peter Bogdanovich's What's Up, Doc? might be the best one. Norman Lear's Cold Turkey, about an entire town trying to stop smoking for monetary gain, comes to mind. Million Dollar Mystery, the pathetic 80s Mad Mad World, is another (this film is especially memorable to me as the only film inspired by a TV commercial: Tom Bosley's 80s ads for Glad trash bags; believe it or not...). Million Dollar Mystery's cast? Eddie Deezen, Rick Overton, Rich Hall, Kevin Pollack and...yes, Tom Bosley. Wanna see it yet? Then we have the 90s version, called Rat Race. It was terrible, too, and featured Whoopi Goldberg, Cuba Gooding Jr., Seth Green, Breckin Meyer, Jon Lovitz, Rowan Atkinson, John Cleese, Kathy Najimy, Dave Thomas and Paul Rodriguez (at least they ATTEMPTED to get a good cast). I'm sure I could think of more chaos movies but...

...None come close to the greatness of It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Watching it now on DVD will dwarf its once-immense size (graced with perfect photography by Ernest Lazlo, Mad World was a Cinerama release, an ultra-widescreen format that used three camera/projectors to compose the image). If you choose to watch it, remember that it's best on a big screen, with an audience to goose you. And, hey, for fans (and this movie does have a sizable cult), check out the site Road Scenes from It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. It takes you on the scenic real-life California tour that our "heroes" take, such as they are.  And it says so much about the American chase for the Almighty Dollar. 

Film #71: The Last Waltz

After a lifetime on tour and in the studios, The Band--Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson--decided to call it quits on Thanksgiving Day, 1976. But before they blew the scene, they staged one massive goodbye party at San Francisco's Winterland Theater...and Martin Scorsese--devoted fan and confidant of Robbie Robertson--was invited to film it all, lucky for us.

As it stands, The Last Waltz runs a close second to Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense as the best concert film made to date. Once you turn this sucker on, you can't turn it off, it's so emotionally involving (and I'm including Scorsese's probing back-stage interviews as part of the package, too). The Band invited a slew of their friends to perform as part of The Last Waltz, and they all seemed to show up to support five of the hardest-working men in rock history. The Band themselves perform "Up On Cripple Creek," "Don't Do It" (the rocking opener), "It Makes No Difference" (with that insanely heartbreaking vocal by Danko, and Garth Hudson's saxophone solo, so emotional it makes tears shoot out of my eyes), and Levon's impassionate "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."

Meanwhile, scattered about are performances by Neil Young ("Helpless"), former collaborator Bob Dylan (all of the Band except for Levon Helm got the crap booed out of them by the audience at the famed Royal Albert Hall performance where Dylan got drubbed for going electric, so Dylan repays them by doing "Forever Young" and Royal Albert Hall favorite "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down"), Van Morrison ("Caravan"), Neil Diamond ("Dry Your Eyes"), Muddy Waters (a sizzling "Mannish Boy"), Eric Clapton ("Further On Up The Road") and, in haunting, studio-shot sequences, Emmylou Harris ("Evangeline") and The Staple Singers ("The Weight"). Also contributing their musical sensibilities: Dr. John ("Such a Night"), Ronnie Hawkins, Ringo Starr, Ron Wood and Paul Butterfield. Plus poems read by Michael McClure and Laurence Ferlenghetti!! My favorite, though--perhaps not cinematically, but certainly musically--is Joni Mitchell doing "Coyote" with incredible verve. 

Scorsese painstakingly storyboarded The Last Waltz, placing 15 cameras at strategic locations so everything he wanted could be caught on film. The concert itself was a headache sometimes--Neil Young came on hammered on coke (Scorsese famously covered up his white-dusted nose with a special effect then called a traveling matte), Bob Dylan threatened to drop out, and the Band threatened to drop out when Muddy Waters was almost cut from the bill--but somehow it all got on record and is here for us to enjoy again and again. I should note that The Last Waltz contains one of my favorite quotes of all time. Discussing the appeal of New York City, Levon Helm states "New York, it was an adult portion. We got an adult dose. So it took a couple of trips to get into it. You just go in the first time and you get your ass kicked and you take off. As soon as it heals up, you come back and you try it again. Eventually, you fall right in love with it." So true.

Finally, the opening of this expertly photographed (by Michael Chapman) and designed (by Boris Leven) film instructs the viewer: "THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED VERY LOUD." Again, so true.

Film #70: Voices

This is a short review of a film I haven't seen in a long time, and would like to see on DVD as soon as possible. It's 1979's Voices, the only big-screen effort from television producer/director Robert Markowitz and TV writer John Herzfeld. Now that I think about it, given this pedigree, I suppose the film is a little tv-movie in quality--the visuals don't pop out at me much as strong memories.

But I do recall being touched deeply by this love story between an aspiring musician (Michael Ontkean) and a deaf dancer (Amy Irving). I know, I know--the possibility for cliches are endless here. But I stand by my memories of Voices being a legitimatly-earned-tear-inducer. To boot, it also has a memorable score by Jimmy Webb, the songwriter behind "By The Time I Get To Phoenix," "MacArthur Park," and "Wicita Lineman." His song "When Will I Touch You Again?" is one of the film's highlights (but I won't tell you anything else). More music is provided by Willie Nelson, Burton Cummings, Tom Petty and the Atlanta Rhythm Section.

It's Ontkean and Irving together that set this movie sailing. Both are lovable and real, end of story. There is definite emotion laid into this film on their parts. Barry Miller, Alex Rocco, and Herbert Bergof play the three generations of men at home who build up and tear down Ontkean's dreams of becoming a professional musician. They're good, but their parts are overwritten. Voices, which I have not seen since I caught it on cable in the mid-1980s, works best when its two attractive leads are snuggling together on-screen. If you ever see Voices langishing in some box of VHS tapes, or on Ebay, get it. You won't be sorry.