Category Archives: The Viewing Life

Fanboy fiddles

The rules of film publicity went out the window in the late Nineties when fanboy websites like Ain’t It Cool News started publicizing movie-set gossip and the results of the surveys studios distributed among audiences at preview screenings. I remember that when James Cameron’s Titanic was getting that dreaded “bad word of mouth within the industry” buzz, AICN had been reporting that preview audience responses were going through the roof, which made the film’s phenomenal success a lot less startling.

Since then, it seems to me, filmmakers have been responding to Internet fanboy espionage in three ways. Some, like for example George Lucas, tried to block it out completely, with spotty results. Others, like Peter Jackson, welcomed fanboy attention and catered to it with video diaries and on-set visits — when the first Lord of the Rings film opened, there was a remarkable amount of good will in the fan base.

The third, much smaller group, consists — as far as I can tell — of Brad Bird and J.J. Abrams, who are playing the fanboys like fiddles over their upcoming projects. Bird, who directed The Iron Giant and two of Pixar’s best features before moving successfully into live-action films with Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, is using selective leaks to generate levels of fanboy analysis that would do Borges proud. And J.J. Abrams is using spinoffs like the comic book prequel to Star Trek Into Darkness to keep everyone talking. It even amuses me, and I couldn’t care less about a new Star Trek movie.        

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Robert F. Chew

CHEW

Robert F. Chew, the Baltimore-born actor and teacher, just died of heart failure at the very premature age of 52. Not only was Chew a superb actor — his character Proposition Joe was a mainstay of The Wire — but he was also a mentor to many of the young actors who filled out the show’s huge supporting cast. In interviews, Chew said that some two dozen of his students had roles in the show, including the four young men — Michael (Tristan Wilds),  Namond (Julito McCullum), Randy (Maestro Harrell), and Dukie (Jermaine Crawford) — whose fates are determined in the show’s harrowing fourth season. He also helped Felicia “Snoop” Pearson shape her amazing performance as an enforcer for drug lord Marlo Stanfield, a role Stephen King called one of the most terrifying female villains he’d ever seen.

I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say Proposition Joe is one of the show’s most beloved characters, a Dickensian figure with Falstaffian girth and plenty of salty wit. Though Joe is a presence in all five seasons, he really came into his own in the third, when his maneuvering to keep the street-level drug trade quiet and bloodless mirrored Bunny Colvin’s plot to channel drug dealers into nonviolent “free zones.” With his inch-thick Bawmer accent and droll manner, Chew could inject humor into any exchange.

Dave Simon, the show’s co-creator, was shrewd enough to alter the show in response to what the actors were doing, and he wrote scenes to spotlight Chew’s acting chops, such as the hilarious bit in which Prop Joe adopts four different voices and personae to track down a police officer with a few phone calls.

I’m not sure who should get credit for some of the other character touches for Prop Joe, but I always thought it was interesting that of all the high-end drug dealers using legitimate businesses to conceal their operations, Joe’s base was a repair shop. Time and again, we get glimpses of Joe working on small appliances, acting as a fixer in more ways than one. Joe also seems emotionally invested in bringing old things back to useful life. It makes his final conversation with his nephew, Cheese, all the more poignant. 

I recently sprang The Wire on another unsuspecting soul, who unsurprisingly ended up completely gripped by all five seasons. What did surprise me was a subtle detail that I managed not to see until now, even though I’ve watched the whole thing several times over. As the final cut in its running critique of the drug war, The Wire ends with the same bloody ecosystem in place, only with new faces. Michael takes Omar’s place as a stickup man plaguing the dealers. Marlo has moved into Stringer’s slot as the gangster trying to go straight, though his volatile temperament makes success far less likely. Bubbles has cleaned up his act, but Dukie, school dropout and addict-in-training, will follow his old downward path. Randy is on his way to becoming another Bodie, a child of a barely functional group home who has learned to hide his decent impulses under a rock-hard mask. And Kennard seems destined to become an even more vicious version of Marlo.

But even as the partners change and the dance continues, nobody seems ready to take the place of Proposition Joe. (The only possible contender, Slim Charles, for all his street smarts and loyalty to his old boss, doesn’t have the organizational savvy to run his own shop.) So the only player not replaced is the one who exercised some ameliorating effect on the savagery of the game. I guess that says everything we need to know about where the story will go from here.       

 

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I got your Oscars right here

Back in the 1980s, the hilarious British puppet show Spitting Image tried to establish a beachhead in the colonies. It didn’t pan out, but it did leave behind this glorious trashing of the Academy Awards. The victims include Sylvester Stallone, Tom Cruise, Sigourney Weaver, Laurence Olivier, and above all, Leonard Nimoy.

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Piety pimps

This morning, the twinkies on the Today show leavened their standard mix of blather — vapid analysis of the “fiscal cliff,” weight-loss advice, celebrity gossip — with a rundown of the movies opening today. Naming Texas Chainsaw 3D, one twinkie said “some are questioning its release so soon after the Newtown shootings.” I don’t know what’s worse: the weasel-word evasiveness of “some are questioning,” or the hypocrisy of someone tut-tutting the fictional violence in a horror movie from his perch at a TV network that spent weeks sucking every last tear off the face of anyone in the vicinity of Sandy Hook Elementary School. 

I get the same sense of exasperation while while listening to Terry Gross’ interview with Quentin Tarantino, in which the filmmaker gets audibly testy when Gross clumsily links the violence in his films to the real-life carnage in Newtown and too many other places where psychos did their bloody work. And while I’m no great fan of Tarantino’s work — Death Proof was dull as dirt, and Inglourious Basterds struck me as juvenile gamesmanship with history — I’m with him when he chides Gross for the offensiveness of her comparison, and describes the differences in the ways violence can be depicted on page and screen. The fact that he’s entirely correct won’t make a bit of difference in this discussion, but I salute him for the effort.

We are a species that searches for patterns and connections everywhere, and this leads to a propensity for magic thinking. In this case, it’s the notion that writing about bad things (or showing them on a screen) will make bad things happen. Piety pimps like Joe Lieberman (now gone from the Senate, praises be, but certain to return as a talking head on the cable shows) build whole careers on this kind of witch doctor talk. Taking away Quentin Tarantino’s fake blood squibs won’t keep real blood from being shed, any more than inflicting parental advisory labels on musicians keeps teenagers from learning cuss words, but it does create a semblance of action for people who are unable or unwilling to deal with the real sources of what’s ailing society. I would venture to say that’s part of what makes Tarantino so testy, and I know exactly how he feels. 

   

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My movie year

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham LincolnSince most of my reading in 2012 was work-related, I can’t talk about most of the books published last year. I can’t even offer a complete rundown of movies for 2012, but the ones I did see left a strong impression, for better or for worse. I write narrative history books, so I guess it’s to be expected that my two favorite movies of 2012 took on much-debated, ideologically contested chapters of the American story.

MY FAVES: Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln can be nitpicked on this or that point, but the fact of the matter is that this chamber epic about Lincoln’s last months — and the bare-knuckled fight to win passage of the amendment banning slavery — got more good history on the screen than any other Hollywood film. Tony Kushner’s script was excellent, Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln was astonishing, and the supporting cast kept every frame bursting with talent. Argo managed the impressive trick of balancing an exciting story (the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction rescue of several Americans from Tehran during the Iranian revolution) with unblinking acknowledgement of the political blowback that created the situation. A jingo movie this ain’t. Hooray for Canada!

RUNNER-UP FAVE: Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Actually, it’s every bit as good as the two top picks: a fascinating companion piece to There Will Be Blood, about the strange relationship between a traumatized WWII veteran and a cut-rate cult leader loosely modeled on L. Ron Hubbard. Anderson is the most original and adventurous filmmaker in America right now.

THE BEST MOVIE NOBODY SAW: Joe Carnahan’s The Grey, not advised for PETA members but highly recommended to anyone interested in a spare, moody survival tale about a man whose inner demons are almost as dangerous as the wolves pursuing a band of survivors through the frigid north. RUNNER UP: The Innkeepers began as a slacker comedy and ended as a gooseflesh-laden ghost story, short on gore but long on atmosphere.

THE WORST MOVIE EVERYBODY SAW: The Dark Knight Rises. Noisy, incoherent junk. Lame writing, indifferently staged action sequences, and a hectic, overstuffed storyline with too many plot twists and two few genuinely interesting setpieces. Bane was never going to be as fascinating as the Joker, one of the greatest pop-culture villains of all time, and Tom Hardy had to deliver his lines through a mask that made him sound like Darth Vader doing a Sean Connery impersonation. But any worthwhile ideas Christopher Nolan had for Batman were used up in The Dark Knight. RUNNER-UP NON-FAVE: Prometheus. Was it a prequel to Alien? A lateral sequel? Geeks who’ve gotten tired of debating whether Rick Deckard was a replicant can muse over the details of this handsomely made, brain-dead movie. There’s gonna be a sequel? Great — I’ll boycott it now and avoid the rush.

MOST OVERRATED: Even though hardly anyone saw Killing Them Softly, many who did praised it in John-the-Baptist terms because of fleeting moments that carried the gritty tang of its source material — Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, the great forgotten American crime writer. Unfortunately, writer-director Andrew Domink never saw a thematic point he couldn’t pound with a Thor-sized hammer, and as a director he loved Tarantino not wisely but too well. (People who love to watch glass shattering in slow-motion will cherish the Blu-Ray.) The biggest disappointment of the year, for me at any rate. Because it was a leaden bore from start to finish, it edged out the wildly overpraised Looper, a moderately clever time-travel story that got dumber as it went along, but managed to be pretty entertaining along the way.

BEST MOVIE FOR TEENAGERS: After the twin fiascoes of The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited, Moonrise Kingdom showed Wes Anderson returning from the far frontiers of Tweedom without watering down his beguiling style. A charming movie about a pair of dreamy kids who raise all kinds of hell simply by being their unconventional selves.      

BEST ARGUMENT FOR KICKSTARTER: Absentia, produced with the help of a Kickstarter campaign, was a character-driven indie with a strong Ramsey Campbell flavor, a monster story focused on the psychological wounds inflicted by a menace that remained largely unseen, though the few glimpses we got were plenty hair-raising.   

BEST USE OF 3D: Vanessa Hudgens falling off the giant bee in Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. Can’t remember what else happened in the flick, though the sprout said she liked it. 

BEST USE OF ROBERT DOWNEY JR.: Marvel’s The Avengers would have been unwatchable without his Tony Stark. I’m glad Joss Whedon hit the jackpot, but I liked the story better when it was called the Season Five finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

BEST IN-JOKE: James Bond threatening M with the ejector-seat button of the old school Aston Martin in Skyfall. Judi Dench’s delivery of the comeback line.

BEST PIXAR MOVIE RELEASED UNDER THE DISNEY NAME: Wreck-It Ralph was officially a Disney release, but its creation of a universe for video game characters, and the wit with which it showed them functioning within the rules of that universe, recalled Pixar’s Toy Story movies, even if it didn’t come anywhere near their emotional heft. Meanwhile, Brave, the official Pixar release, played like just another Spunky Princess story from the Disney mill. Since the founder of Pixar, John Lasseter, is head of both animation shops, the distinction may not amount to much. But still.

BEST ANIMATED MOVIE NOT RELEASED BY PIXAR: The Secret World of Arietty. I love Miyazaki movies, even when Miyazaki doesn’t direct them. And ParaNorman had a freaky intensity the trailers never hinted at.

WORST MOVIE I’M GLAD I SAW: David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis. All the tedium of a Tarkovsky film at only half the length. But I’m still glad I saw it because, after all, who else but Cronenberg would even think of making a film like that?

BEST REUNION: I haven’t seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 3D, 48 fps, Imax, Smellovision, Feelie-rama, or any of the other formats of the future. The conventional 2D version was overlong, badly paced, too obviously padded, and loaded with too many dwarves that could be distinguished only by their hairstyles. (Tolkien didn’t do much better.) But the film came alive in its second half, and I was happy to be back in the Middle-earth Peter Jackson envisioned in his brilliant Lord of the Rings films. I’ve come to the conclusion that Jackson was put on this earth to show up Ralph Bakshi, Stanley Kubrick, John Boorman, the Beatles, and everyone else who took a run at Tolkien’s work and fell flat.          

MUST CATCH UP WITH SOON: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Killer Joe, Rust and Bone, Antiviral, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Samsara, Damsels in Distress.

I’LL GET AROUND TO THEM SOMETIME: Django Unchained goes on the back burner because Death Proof was dull as dirt and Inglourious Basterds pissed me off. So does Zero Dark Thirty, because I don’t like torture porn.   

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Back, and there again

GOLLUM“I feel thin, like butter scraped across too much bread.” That line, and the way Ian Holm delivered it, was the moment I realized that The Fellowship of the Ring was going to be a lot better than I expected, back in 2001. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first installment of Peter Jackson’s new Middle-earth epic, brought that line to mind again, but not in a good way.

I was actually pleased to hear that Jackson and his writers would be expanding their planned two-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel to three full-length features. After all, in their adaptation of The Lord of the Rings the same team had shrewdly brought forward story elements Tolkien left buried in the back matter of The Return of the King.

But for all the talent on display here — and there is a great deal that’s likeable about this film — this initial Hobbit feels like 90 minutes of story rattling around in a nearly three-hour shell. Of course the story doesn’t have the same emotional weight as The Lord of the Rings, but still. The pacing is off. There are long stretches of wheel spinning, and an extended visit to Rivendell that only adds to the sense that the filmmakers are twiddling their thumbs instead of getting on with the real business. Jackson’s lavish take on King Kong had the same problem — he took too long getting started, and then didn’t know when to stop.

On the plus side, however, Jackson hasn’t repeated his biggest casting mistake from King Kong. Jack Black was never for a moment believable as a charismatically roguish filmmaker, but Martin Freeman is the distilled essence of Bilbo Baggins, and even when The Hobbit was at its logiest I kept watching just to see what subtle character touch was coming from him. The film picks up considerable steam at the halfway mark, and the “Riddles in the Dark” sequence with Gollum — more convincing than ever, thanks to improved special effects, and more affecting than ever, thanks to the consistently remarkable Andy Serkis — moved from comedy to menace to pathos with complete mastery. The genuinely emotional finale ended the movie on an undeniable high note. I still wish Jackson and company had stuck to the idea of making two films, but reservations aside, I’m on board for three.  

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Hobbitunes

Howard Shore’s extraordinary music was a big part of why I fell hard for all three Lord of the Rings films, so I was delighted to hear that Shire was on board to score all three installments of The Hobbit, due to hit the cineplexes  in about a month. His music for the first film is streaming here. Shore is still the perfect composer for Middle-earth. 

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‘Girl’ talk

It’s hard to imagine anyone other than a hardcore movie buff getting much out of The Girl, the new HBO drama about the disturbing mid-1960s relationship between filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock and actress Tippi Hedren. “Disturbing” may be too mild a word: Hitchcock, coming off the phenomenal success of Psycho and his hit television show, plucked Hedren from semi-obscurity (she’d been a successful model) and apparently came to see her as a puppet to be used as he pleased. Her resistance to his increasingly abusive sexual fixation led him to cripple her budding career, which should have soared after her starring roles in The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964). Just how far she would have gone is debatable — among Hitchcock’s leading ladies, Hedren was no match for Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, or Ingrid Bergman — but there’s no question she deserved better than she got.

The script draws from Donald Spoto’s book Spellbound by Beauty and, judging from some of the details, Me and Hitch, Evan Hunter’s amusing account of what it was like to work with Hitchcock 0n the two Hedren films. (Hunter took rueful credit for the idea of making The Birds a screwball romantic comedy that abruptly morphed into a horror film.) Spoto first delved into the director’s creepy behavior in his earlier Hitchcock biography, The Dark Side of Genius, and the revelation crystalized much that had been bothersome about the treatment of women in his films — a nasty streak partly concealed by the sexual mores of the era, but made clear in the rape-as-therapy plotline of Marnie and the misogynistic humor in Frenzy. Hitchcock was an innovative virtuoso of film technique and his gallows wit remains bracing to this day, but there were some pretty dark alleys in the back of his mind, and Tippi Hedren had to make her way through the worst of them.

Film buffs already know most of the details, and The Girl dutifully ticks them off, but for anyone not immersed in cinema history the film will come off as little more than an extended PSA on the evils of sexual harassment in the workplace. During this period Hitchcock was at the peak of his career, completely at home in the endless technical details of making big-ticket movies, but The Girl gives no sense of him as a master of a hugely difficult craft. Toby Jones gives an utterly uncanny impersonation of Hitchcock’s inimitable voice and delivery, but he captures none of the maestro’s drollery and outward charm. With his bulging forehead and fixed stare, Jones looks like he just chewed his way out of John Hurt’s chest. By playing Hitchcock as deeply, obviously weird right from the start, The Girl loses the shock of seeing a man who personified dry British wit turning into a coarse, perverted bully. And contrary to what the closing note would have us believe, Marnie is not “hailed as Hitchcock’s final masterpiece” by anyone other than the most hero-worshipping auteurist. If anything, it’s marked down as the film that showed the old man going off the rails. Whether you think he got back on track depends on your view of the last four films: Torn Curtain, Topaz, Frenzy, and Family Plot.     

As Tippi Hedren, Sienna Miller does solid work in an underwritten role — paradoxically, it takes real talent to play a believable mediocrity, and Miller gives Hedren plenty of emotional shading beneath the icy blondness. As Hitchcock’s reserved but not entirely submissive wife Alma, Imelda Staunton makes the most of her few minutes of screen time — it’s obvious she’s seen this grubby embarrassment on the horizon for a long time. But screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes and director Julian Jerrold leave them adrift. The casting couch was nothing new in Hollywood, and in the early Sixties unwanted sexual attention was usually considered the woman’s problem — if it was even seen as a problem to begin with. A typical episode of Mad Men gives a better evocation of the time and place. Instead, Jerrold gives us clever-clever visual quotes from Psycho and Vertigo, which serve as unfortunate reminders that as bad as he could be in private, Alfred Hitchcock was still ten times the filmmaker anyone involved with The Girl can hope to be.

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Look what your brother did to the door

Here’s a Halloween thought for the day: John Larroquette, prior to becoming an Emmy-winning television actor, did the opening voice-over for the seminal 1974 horror movie The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a favor to the director, Tobe Hooper. He was given a joint as payment. Years later he was hired to do the narration for the revamped 2003 version and had himself a nice fat payday. I’m trying to think of a suitable variation on the idea of casting one’s bread upon the waters. Scatter thy headcheese upon the roadside? I’m open to suggestions.

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Meeting on the fringe

Apropos of yesterday’s review of The Master, here’s an out-of-the-blue New Republic article about the growing relationship between Scientology and the Nation of Islam. I almost wrote “unlikely alliance,” but as the article makes clear, there’s a lot more overlap in their worldviews than you might think.

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