#0021 - DOUBLE HAPPINESS - Phil Dellio has a (typically) good piece on the art of the movie double bill in rockcritics.com, a kind of detailed fantasy of his dream job: rep house programmer. A sample:
"Any Sam Peckinpah film makes a good double-bill with the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which the then-obscure director appears briefly as a meter reader. And Joe Dante's Matinee, a fictionalized account of gimmicky shock-director William Castle, would play well with Rosemary's Baby: besides producing Polanski's film, Castle has a cameo as the man outside the telephone booth whom Mia Farrow initially mistakes for Ralph Bellamy, one of the film's tensest moments." (posted 08:36pm EST | 07.02.02)
05.23.28 - 06.29.02
#0020 - COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS - Rosemary Clooney had a short movie career - six films between 1953 and 1955, including White Christmas, the film that ensured she'll be remembered as a star, and not just another girl singer doing an inevitable, contractually obligated, usually forgettable movie role. After that, there was a lot of t.v. work - variety specials, mostly - and The Radioland Murders, which despite a George Lucas script (or maybe because of it), will probably remain of interest only to Brian Benben fans.
What Clooney had, though, was a life, something which would be obvious to anyone who's sat through White Christmas and been charmed by - perhaps even a bit attracted to - her nonchalant, slightly hard-edged performance, definitely not the work of a great actress, more the record of a professional doing her job, pasting on a smile and getting on with it, laughing off the treacle and the schmaltz. She certainly had enough experience with schmaltz - her career at Columbia records was overseen by Mitch Miller, a man whose love of novelty records had no apparent bounds. Clooney applied her rich mezzo and effortless tone to crap like "I'm My Own Grandpa", "Litte Johnny Chickadee" and, most famously, "Come On-a-My House". By the time she got around to "Mambo Italiano" - the calling card for which anyone under forty probably knows her, thanks to Stanley Tucci's Big Night - she was something of a musical alchemist, turning lead into, if not gold, then at least shiny tinsel.
Later, there would be drugs and booze and mental problems, including a public breakdown that began when she personally witnessed Robert Kennedy's assasination at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. I saw her a few years back, doing a saccharine touring Christmas show, duetting with her daughter-in-law Debbie Boone, as big as a house and joking about it, the drugs and the booze. I'd prefer to remember her as she was in the photo above, a real tomato, as they used to say, back in the day when girls looked like women, or at least tried to. (posted 10:36pm EST | 07.01.02)
#0019 - THEY'RE HE-ERE - US electronics retailer Circuit City is discontinuing sales of VHS tapes and machines, according to the Washington Post and the NY Times. It was only a matter of time, and for some reason I don't think there are any VHS-ophiles out there who'll champion its superior fidelity or inspire a "VHS revival" the way that vinyl records have managed to maintain a redoubt. Say goodbye now, and don't look back.
Jonathan Yardley's Post piece is a bit precious, written with the wistfully querulous tone of an old cineaste that recalls, with conspicuous erudition, the introduction of the videocassette recorder...
...a mysterious machine right out of Jules Verne by way of H.G. Wells that promised what until then had seemed impossible: It would bring the magic of the movie theater right into your own home! No more people with big hats in the seats in front of you, no more strangers coughing and whispering sotto voce, no more odor of stale popcorn.
It's a marvellous, even quaint performance, right down to a reference to "the beloved Thalia in New York, where, shoehorned into the tiny theater with a capacity crowd of three or four dozen, I first saw The Third Man and Jules and Jim." You almost expect Yardley to recommend a delightful chianti he once had while "trekking through the land of la dolce vita."
It seems like only yesterday that big rental chains like Blockbuster were loathe to stock DVDs, afraid of scratches and the pawprints of customers they clearly regarded (with probably some good reason) as slope-browed neanderthals. No more - even in my local Blockbuster, the DVD section has steadily encroached on the tape shelves, even in a poor neighbourhood where you assume that hardware sales aren't quite at a saturation level. At Queen Video, the film-freak rental store a streetcar ride away, DVDs took a while longer to get a foothold, abiding sullenly on a single shelving unit for a year before exploding across the store.
The Times piece contains an interesting sliver of fact:
"With DVD wholesale prices lower, dealers need to rent a disc fewer times to turn a profit. And after a couple of weeks of renting, they can sell the disc used. (Typically that process takes about 30 days for the higher-priced VHS copy.) Being digital, the DVD is still in relatively pristine shape compared to a washed-out videotape."
Which explains why you can get a full-feature DVD for less than $30(Can.), while in their heyday, catalogue VHS tapes could set you back twice as much for a low-quality, pan-and-scan copy. In their eagerness to get the DVD market rolling, manufacturers priced discs reasonably, and have had to stick to a lean pricing scheme. Quite unlike music CDs, which now cost pennies to produce, yet are still priced at the same exhorbitant mark-up with which they were introduced. Which would explain why the music industry is in trouble, while the movie divisions of entertainment conglomerates have seen double-digit growth since the introduction of DVDs. Whether this is a repeat of the music industry's boom years, before CD sales tanked and the market saturated with endlessly repackaged reissues and recycled musical trends remains to be seen. (posted 09:30pm EST | 07.01.02)
#0018 - A BELATED FINISHING SCHOOL - Great article in Slate about Gilbert Adrian, the only Hollywood costume designer who gave Edith Head sleepless nights. My wife is a big Adrian fan - she'd love to live in a "World by Adrian", I think - and I don't think she's alone in missing the days when movie glamour was impossible without a really well-cut gown. I'm not sure if the Met show of Adrian's work is connected with the really lovely book I gave her for Christmas last year, but I know it's probably the first thing in a year or two that's made me want to visit New York City again.
Kate Taylor, the writer of the Slate piece, makes a nice point:
Today, celebrities are hard-pressed to admit that their success and fame have changed them; they're always insisting that they haven't changed from their younger, pre-famous selves. We're contemptuous, and a little suspicious, of people who recreate themselves: Celebrity profiles praise those who stay in touch with their roots and "keep it real."
...which is, of course, a load of rubbish, and one of the great fallacies of our age. If you've spent any time in the company of celebrities, particularly movie stars, you'll have some sense of the unreal world they inhabit, the constant atmosphere of deference they live in. Not all of them are as obligingly wack as, say, Jane Seymour was when I shot her portrait for a local fashion magazine years ago, pre-"Dr. Quinn", and talk about themselves in the third person, discussing their "sex appeal" with the same authoritative disinterest that a capitol hill pundit dissects foreign policy.
Taylor also takes a shot at the hideous get-ups that Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Connelly wore to this year's Oscars ("...made their wearers look more like little match girls..."), but wrongly interprets their awfulness as a misguided attempt to "let celebrities go in drag as poor folks". The outfits were astoundingly ugly, to be sure - I remember thinking that Paltrow's gown made her look like a boiled chicken caught in a fisherman's net - but that kind of high-concept ugliness has become the province of haute couture, an audacious unsightliness that's actually a kind of statement, since no "poor folks", or anyone else without their own production company, would be caught dead in something whose frightfulness is only matched by its price tag. (posted 09:11pm EST | 06.26.02)
#0017 - LIES, DAMNED LIES, AND DEVELOPMENT DEALS - Hayden Christensen is apparently going to play disgraced journalist Stephen Glass in an upcoming film to being made by his own production company. Greg Kinnear is in negotiations to play New Republic editor Chuck Lane, according to the Hollywood Reporter. According to the Washington Post, which had a lot to do with breaking the Glass story back in the early summer of 1998, the reaction from various real-life players in Glass'fall has been dismissive - perhaps a bit too stridently dismissive:
...Washington lawyer Gerson Zweifach, Glass's former attorney, pooh-poohed the project: "I frankly think somebody must have run out of compelling movie ideas. But I didn't say I won't go see it. I see a lot of bad movies."
Sure thing, dude. You are like, so going to be there opening night.
I have a personal interest in the Glass story, having maintained an index of Glass' career and the press coverage of his disgrace for four years. It remains one of the most consistent hit-magnets on my site. For at least two years now, I've been getting e-mails from people wanting to get in touch with Glass, quite a few over the last year or so saying that they're working on a screenplay, inquiring about rights to the story (sure, just send me a cheque for a few hundred in the mail and I'll write you something on this napkin) and, of course, wanting to know if I knew how to contact Glass (which I don't). Someone, at some time, probably surfed my site while researching the picture - perhaps even Anakin Skywalker himself. Good luck to them - it's a great story, and I look forward to sitting down to watch it. And then complaining about how they ruined it. (posted 06:01pm EST | 06.26.02)
#0016 - SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME - Reviews of Minority Report have been almost uniformly positive - suspiciously so, as if some kind of collective critical will to really love the new Spielberg film is being exercised. I didn't love it, alas, but that certainly doesn't mean I didn't think it wasn't interesting.
How can a Steven Spielberg film not be interesting? If you're less fascinated by movies as art and more as artifacts - which pretty much sums up my position - then how can the latest film by the most successful director in Hollywood be anything less than essential viewing? In the past - Amistad, the Jurassic Park films, Hook - it seemed like he was slipping into a non-essential status that he'd manfully fight against with movies like Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, films that telegraphed their importance without delivering on it.
Spielberg has always fought a tendency to the trivial, a tendency that can be overwhelming to someone as succesful as Spielberg. During the first, great stride of his career, when films like Jaws, Close Encounters and E.T. made it obvious that he really was a rare talent on the order of the Johns Ford and Huston (even if you hate his work, I think that talent has to be acknowledged), there were lapses like 1941. With films like The Color Purple and Schindler's List, Spielberg decided that he was obliged to make important films, a brief but notable period in his career where he seemed to lose confidence in his talent. He didn't know - how could he know? - that just being Steven Spielberg meant that he made important films, much as everything a king does, regardless of its value, or the king's own worth, ends up as some kind of historical moment, a landmark of some notable shape or size.
Which might explain how Minority Report, a sci-fi chase flick acutely aware of its own, carefully cultivated resonance, elicited praise like "a triumph" from Roger Ebert, "Spielberg's sharpest, brawniest, most bustling entertainment since Raiders of the Lost
Ark" from Time's Richard Corliss, and "full of the pleasure this most proficient director feels in stretching himself", according to Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times. Make no mistake - Minority Report is a well-made but minor film, smarter than your average summer blockbuster in the same way that 24 is smarter than VIP.
Andrew O'Hehir, in Salon, is pleased with the dark, Kubrickian new Spielberg that's emerged with A.I. and Minority Report, grateful that the "earnest drudgery" of his uncertain middle period is gone:
"No one's going to miss that latter quality, but some critics and viewers are likely to feel that the warm and fuzzy Spielberg is somehow more genuine than the contemporary icy-genius version, and that some fulsome ideal of popular cinema has been sacrificed to phony notions of art, blah blah blah."
O'Hehir can sleep easy, as almost no critic has voiced any nostalgia for the warm and fuzzy Spielberg - quite the contrary - and Minority Report landed firmly at number one in the weekend's box office. Many, like Ebert, use him as a stick to beat George Lucas, while others - Jeremy Lott and David Edelstein, notably - are impressed by his savvy, anticipating concerns about privacy, technology, and the reach of the law that have become urgent in the Ashcroft/Rumsfeld state. Like any popular director worth the name, Spielberg seems almost magically in tune with the zeitgeist. It's a dark, uncertain time, and Spielberg has made - what's for him, at least - a dark, uncertain film. Genius, if you believe most film critics, is as much instinct as purpose.
By critical consensus, the most inspired thing about Spielberg's film is the way he turns product placement into a vital, active piece of plot machinery. In Slate, Rob Walker describes the film's space-age advertising, the moving billboards and packaging that surround Tom Cruise, powered by omnipresent surveillance technology that principally tracks consumer spending habits, as if Big Brother were created not by George Orwell but by an Advertising Age staffer on sabbatical. The products pushed in Minority Report are real - Revo sunglasses, Pepsi, American Express, the Gap - with the ads for them created by 3 Ring Circus, a real ad agency. Lexus and Nokia have launched tie-in ad campaigns. Alone among the film's press, Walker's piece wonders what Minority Report would have been like if a more critical director like Paul Verhoeven had taken on the project, and concludes that Spielberg, far from embarking on a new, dark vision, has really acted true to form, ameliorating the future into a "brand-friendly place".
Unexploited by Spielberg - and unnoticed by most critics - is the fascinating premise that the trio (trinity?) of pre-cogs who predict the crimes Cruise has to stop have begun to be worshipped by a grateful population obviously as spiritually starved in 2054 as today. Colin Farrell's Witwer, an ex-seminarian who reflexively kisses his crucifix during chase scenes, broaches the subject with Cruise's Anderton early on, but Spielberg seems as unwilling to explore it as Anderton. Later, a sleazy virtual reality enterpreneur falls on his knees in front of Samantha Morton's pre-cog, crossing himself and begging for absolution: "I'm sorry for what I'm going to do,a nd I swear I didn't do any of it!" If Paul Verhoeven might have made a bit more of the film's technological backdrop, it's also worth speculating what a religiously-obsessed director - John Woo, say, or Neal LaBute - might have done with this aspect of Minority Report. As with any major piece of Hollywood product, it's interesting to imagine the dozen or so different films that could have been made. (posted 12:15pm EST | 06.25.02)