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14th-May-2008 07:53 pm - Delirious Revisited
Last August, Deb and I had the opportunity to attend a special screening of director Tom DiCillo's Delirious. I wrote about the film the next day (which, if you check out the comments, generated a response from DiCillo himself). In subsequent weeks, due to lousy distribution (think Katrina-relief-effort lousy) and despite a rave review from Roger Ebert, Delirious came and went, lasting only a month in New York, a week in Los Angeles, and appearing on less than two-dozen screens in the entire U.S.


Last week Delirious was released on DVD. I encourage you to run out and buy, rent, or steal a copy immediately. You won't be disappointed (especially if you're a fan of the great character-study films of the Seventies). Rewatching the film today, I was once again blown away. Not only does it boast fantastic performances (by Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, and Gina Gershon, to name the obvious few), it's also a stunning piece of cinema.

Fortunately, the DVD transfer captures the movie's rich colors; scenes like the one where the Pitt character, walking through the streets of New York and realizing he's in love, are nothing short of visual poetry. Plus, there's a great commentary track by DiCillo, who has crafted a film, despite all third-party efforts to the contrary, worth remembering.

13th-Feb-2008 03:10 pm - Cancel the Bigger Boat
Roy Scheider died yesterday. Damn. He was one of those actors who was often much better than the material he was given (a curse that followed him from his first screen credit: TV's The Edge of Night).

But all that's moot, because he appeared in one of the most entertaining films ever made (Jaws, where he ad-libbed the line "You're gonna need a bigger boat"), one of the most exciting (his reaction shots behind Gene Hackman lent humanity to the often cold and heartless French Connection), one of the most overlooked (William Friedkin's difficult and uncompromising Sorcerer), and two of the most daring (David Cronenberg's version of Naked Lunch and his narration for Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters). Most importantly, he starred in (and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for) Bob Fosse's brilliant All that Jazz, which is just flat-out one of the best movies ever made.

Roy Scheider was a classic example of one of those actors, like Bogart, who always, regardless of circumstance, rose to the occasion; so that, in those those few-and-far-between instances when the occasions rose to him, he was ready.

He is already missed.
15th-Aug-2007 10:57 am - Delirious
I've got this camera click, click, clickin' in my head.
"I'm Not Angry"

Although it doesn't appear until the end credits, Elvis Costello's classic 1977 spitfire anthem serves as one of the best movie theme songs—theme in every sense of the word—of recent years. Jealousy, voyeurism, paranoia, acceptance, rejection, denial, the potential for violence, the recognition that it's all so damn unfunny that it becomes funny—Costello's song has it all, and so does the fine film to which it's now been wed.

Director and writer Tom DiCillo's Delirious, which had a special screening last night in Manhattan at the Angelika, works effectively on so many different levels that it gives new meaning to the term cross-genre. At once a comedic and dramatic Midnight Cowboyish character study of downtrodden friendship, it's also a love story, a meditation on fame (those who have it vs. those who want it), and a potential stalker flick. Despite its vastly disparate characters, shifts in tone, and wildly divergent plot lines, the movie hangs together remarkably well. Its debts to Michael Powell's Peeping Tom and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver aside, Delirious is the best movie about wanting to be famous since that other great Scorsese paean to obsessive behavior, 1983's The King of Comedy. (Both Scorsese films starred Robert De Niro, who receives mention several times in Delirious.)

"Sometimes I see too much," says Steve Buscemi's Les Gallantine (even his name is a worthy successor to Rupert Pupkin and Travis Bickle) to Michael Pitt's Toby Grace. What he doesn't see is how his chosen profession—that of paparazzi—with each click of his shutter takes something away from his subjects. He proudly displays on his apartment wall two long-range photos of Elvis Costello (who effectively appears as himself in the movie) as if they were big-game trophies.

Following last night's screening, Tom DiCillo spoke about the making of Delirious, which he spent the last six years bringing to fruition. He couldn't say enough good things about his star Steve Buscemi, who delivers what might well be the best performance of his career (right up there with his starring role in DiCillo's 1995 indie classic, Living in Oblivion).

One thing DiCillo couldn't stress enough about his new film and whether or not it succeeds: "Tell your friends about it." Indeed, in a movie marketplace where big-name films boast advertising budgets larger than what it cost DiCillo to make his movie (he had to reduce his budget from five million dollars down to three million), word of mouth is more important than ever.

DiCillo told The New York Times last week: "'Look at the movies people are watching.... They’re about nothing. You invest nothing.'"

Not so with Delirious.

14th-Jul-2007 10:04 am - Shopsin's
I learned about Shopsin's last year when I visited Evergreen Video to interview owner Steve Feltes for my book about Paul Nelson. Deciding we'd eat while we talked, we walked across the street to Shopsin's, at 54 Carmine Street in the West Village, where we were presented with menus the length of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novella (there are supposedly over 900 dishes listed).

On the way over, Steve told me that the restaurant's proprietor, Kenny Shopsin, was somewhat legendary for yelling at — and even tossing out — his customers. He also mentioned that someone had made a documentary about Shopsin.

Now that film from 2004, I Like Killing Flies, is out on DVD (I watched it online yesterday via Netflix). Lo and behold, Kenny Shopsin is indeed a veritable Soup Nazi (his refusal to seat parties of five or more is only one of his endearing predilections), albeit one with a fouler mouth and a more philosophical bent. Imagine a cross between a kinder, gentler Charles Bukowski and perverse, dyspeptic Mortimer J. Adler — then stick a spatula in one hand and a flyswatter in the other, and voilà! you have Kenny Shopsin.

Director Matt Mahurin's documentary is about as bare bones as you can get, and the pace is rambling and frenetic at the same time; all of which serves his subject well. And, indeed, Shopsin likes killing flies, which functions not only as a metaphor for how he treats his customers but also for the United States' terrorist problem and for the human condition as a whole.

The day I was there, Shopsin was on his best behavior, occasionally emerging from the kitchen to sit down and visit with a customer, and the food was great (reminding me of one of my favorite restaurants from Salt Lake City, Over the Counter). And, perhaps because it was late in the year, there were no flies.

29th-May-2007 12:35 pm - Reading Mr. Mamet
David Mamet's latest collection of essays, Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose and Practice of the Movie Business, zeroes in on the subject of moviemaking — Hollywood moviemaking, in particular — and, as is his way, manages to make the reader feel a) pretty damn smart for understanding what's being set at our feet, b) dimwitted for sometimes not knowing what the hell he's talking about, or c) both a) and b) at the same time.

Reading Mr. Mamet is not unlike drinking a dose of cherry-flavored cough syrup: you don't necessarily enjoy it at the time you're downing it, you wonder where they picked these particular cherries, but afterwards, if its desired effect is successful, you're glad you took the measures.
(I speak here of Mamet's prose writing, not his playwriting. In that respect, I have nothing bad to say about the man who wrote Glengarry Glen Ross, nor, with few reservations, about the man who wrote the screenplays for The Verdict and the Untouchables, and who wrote and directed House of Games and State and Main. This hereby ends the world's longest mea culpa.)

That being said, the sections of the book devoted to "The Screenplay" and "Technique" prove invaluable reading for any writer. "Storytelling: Some Technical Advice" begins: "Storytelling is like sex. We all do it naturally. Some of us are better at it than others." Mamet goes on to say that all successful stories utilize the same form: "Once upon a time, and then one day, and just when everything was going so well, when just at the last minute, and they all lived happily ever after. Period."

He misses the boat, however, with the book's appendix, which consists of over 30 pages listing the films referenced throughout the book. Rather than enticing us with descriptions of the movies that are salient and incisive, after providing the year the film was made, the principal actors, the director and writer, he boils the plot lines down to their bare bones (sans any marrow whatsoever) and presents capsule reviews that make Leonard Maltin sound like Shakespeare. (For example, his entry for Taxi Driver: "Isolated in New York City, a Vietnam vet takes it upon himself to violently liberate an adolescent prostitute from her pimp.")

If his goal was to demonstrate how the plots of even classic films can be reduced to a single sentence, he succeeds. But in doing so he also shows why so much of what comes out of pitch-happy Hollywood these days is devoid of mystery, poetry, character, or any trace of art.

16th-May-2007 04:52 pm - Last Days
Director Gus Van Sant's fictionalized take on Kurt Cobain's suicide is similar in tone and execution (pun unintended) to Elephant, his fictionalized take on Columbine; which is to say, the film is virtually devoid of dramatic narrative, offers little if any understanding of its characters or their motives, and, though its art-film pretensions insist otherwise, ultimately exploits the hell out of its subject matter. Which would be okay if either film were at least entertaining, but, given their source materials, they're not because that would be, well, exploitative. Both movies are basically punchlines we already know to jokes that were unfunny to begin with.

Anybody can point a camera at someone pulling a trigger; making us understand why and allowing us to experience the sense of loss that comes from pulling the trigger, that's a different matter. There's more I'd like to say about Last Days, but, honestly, the movie already robbed 97 minutes of my life. I'll be damned if I'm going to surrender any more to it.

26th-Apr-2007 10:16 am - Gun Crazy
I'm not sure how this one escaped me for so many years. Directed in 1949 by Joseph H. Lewis from a screenplay by MacKinlay Kantor (based on his 1940 Saturday Evening Post short story) and blacklisted Dalton Trumbo masquerading as Millard Kaufman, Gun Crazy reset the standard for film noir and paved the way for the attractive, sympathetic -- albeit sometimes psychotic -- antiheroes that showed up two decades later in movies like Bonnie and Clyde (whose real-life characters inspired Gun Crazy's lovin' couple on the run) and The Getaway.

Cinematically, the film's often expressionistic; its startling and (then) innovative use of extended "backseat driver" takes, shot from within the getaway car, and get the viewer caught up not only in the characters' predicament but the sexual excitement their larceny generates. And Russell Harlan's black-and-white cinematography is right up there with his work on Red River, The Thing from Another World, and Blackboard Jungle.

Not again until Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway would the screen see crooks as charismatic as Peggy Cummins and John Dall. Director Lewis told critic Danny Peary in 1981: "I told John, 'Your cock's never been so hard,' and I told Peggy, 'You're a female dog in heat, and you want him. But don't let him have it in a hurry. Keep him waiting.' That's exactly how I talked to them and I turned them loose. I didn't have to give them more directions."

23rd-Apr-2007 11:02 am - Year of the Dog

For his directorial debut, Mike White chose to make a movie (based on his own original screenplay) that's a treatise about loneliness and people who have love but can't find a place to put it. Like many of the characters in White's previous scripts (to name a notable few: Chuck and Buck, School of Rock, Orange County, three episodes of Freaks and Geeks, and one of my all-time favorite films, The Good Girl), Year of the Dog's Peggy (played by Molly Shannon) doesn't quite have a sense of herself; her strong feelings and opinions locate her a little outside of the mainstream. The thing is, the people in the orbit of her life who don't get her, whose eyebrows and judgment she raises, are no less idiosyncratic.

Following the surprising but inevitable course that Peggy's life takes, Shannon is excellent, as is the rest of the cast, with the ever-dependable John C. Reilly, Peter Sarsgaard, and John Pais particularly outstanding.

As exemplified by a user comment at IMDb, the film is far from the chick flick that its plot and advertising suggests: " I thought I was going to see a funny movie. I came home feeling suicidal. If I wanted to see a pathetic over-40 woman who has bad dates and lives alone with the pets she dotes on too much, I woulda stayed home and stared in the mirror!" Year of the Dog -- the chick flick from hell?

Regardless, by movie's end, as in all of White's work, he manages to humanize his offbeat characters so that we, too, can understand and perhaps even identify with them -- if we hadn't already all along.

23rd-Apr-2007 11:01 am - We Don't Live Here Anymore
"Too sad," Mark Ruffalo's character says toward the end of this film from 2004, succinctly summing up the preceding hour and a half of marital warfare. Arguably, director John J. Curran's greatest accomplishment is managing to end the movie, which is sometimes almost too painful to watch, on a hopeful note without resorting to maudlin platitudes or a song by Sarah McLachlan. 

Woody Allen's Husband and Wives without the laughs, Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage without the subtitles, and Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut without the masks, We Don't Live Here Anymore boasts terrific performances from Ruffalo (fine in this year's Zodiac), Laura Dern, Peter Krause, and co-producer Naomi Watts.

Larry Gross's screenplay, based on Andre Dubus's novella We Don't Live Here Anymore and short story "Adultery," guides -- but doesn't drag -- the viewer through a psychic minefield fraught with every imaginable method of harm we humans can inflict upon one another without actually drawing blood.

3rd-Mar-2007 07:56 pm - Zodiac

The criteria one uses for determining whether or not a film is good, or by which one would recommend said film to someone else, is far from scientific (Siskel and Ebert's thumbs up or thumbs down being on the low end of the scale and Paul Schrader's canon somewhere out there in the ether); but today Deb and I happened upon a yardstick that seems as reliable as any. It being a fairly nice, hinting-at-spring kind of day, we decided to walk to the theater and back. Three miles to, three miles back. Six miles total. And, having done so, and having just taken the obligatory prophylactic Ibuprofen to assuage my already achy, exercise-deprived legs, I can honestly say that yes, I recommend Zodiac.

Though in my mind director David Fincher's Se7en is a modern classic, two of his subsequent films, The Game and Panic Room (sorry to say, Fight Club has thus far eluded me), left something to be desired script-wise. No such trouble with James Vanderbilt's screenplay (based on Robert Graysmith's book) for Zodiac, a police procedural which, at 158 minutes, never bores. While it could be convincingly argued that this is just an $80 million version of a particularly compelling Law and Order episode, Fincher's direction and the ensemble acting take it up several notches. Jake Gyllenhaal is fine as the cartoonist-turned-journalist Graysmith, Mark Ruffalo suitably dumpy as Inspector David Toschi, and Robert Downey Jr. splendid as Paul Avery, the doomed-by-his-own demons journalist. Among the several laudatory supporting performances, Elias Koteas, Dermot Mulroney, the always excellent Philip Baker Hall, and, coming out of nowhere, Candy Clark, all stand out. Chloë Sevigny, unfortunately, is wasted in the thankless role of Graysmith's wife.

While I wouldn't walk a mile for a Camel, I would walk six miles for Zodiac.

22nd-Oct-2006 12:17 pm - Pauline Kael, Reviews A-Z

Some lunatic has put online all 2,846 of Pauline Kael's capsule reviews from her fine compendium, 5001 Nights at the Movies. While I don't advocate the unauthorized hijacking of anybody's copyrighted works (the site's been out there for a while now, so who knows whether or not it's been sanctioned), it's indeed handy having these insightful cinematic kernels available at one's fingertips. (Which is to say, it saves me the arduous task of getting up off my butt and taking the book itself off the shelf.) Such is the insidiousness of the Internet.

On paper or in cyberspace, one thing these reviews reveal is that Kael was at her best writing in the long form. Reduced to the amount of space usually permitted in Entertainment Weekly, often lost are the insights, the snap of her words, and the sense of enjoyment that shone through her writing. Kael, like Paul Nelson, was as much a stylist as she was a critic, in some cases rendering the reviews she wrote better than the films she was writing about.

10th-Oct-2006 02:55 pm - The Abominable Snowman

While it certainly wouldn't qualify for Paul Schrader's canon of great films (or anybody else's, for that matter, including mine), whenever I happen across this 1957 movie (sometimes calling itself The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas) when it airs on Turner Classic Movies, I inevitably watch until the end. Director Val Guest treats screenwriter Nigel Kneale's intelligent script so matter-of-factly that parts of the movie achieve a documentary feel (helped along, admittedly, by the wealth of stock footage of the Himalayan mountain range and avalanches). 

I remember staying up late one night to watch this, for the first time, as a child, and being absolutely mesmerized by Peter Cushing's long-awaited face-to-face encounter with the Yeti. The effect remains the same for me today: menace mixing with mystery as the unbelievably tall beings step from the shadow into the light, finally revealing the eyes of the Yeti. Those age-old eyes. 

7th-Oct-2006 01:35 pm - The Rules of the Game

"You see, in this world there is one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons."

I've known that quote well for many years, thanks to the writings of Paul Nelson (who referenced it often), just as I've known that the man responsible for originally uttering those words was Jean Renoir. But until last week, when I watched his fine film The Rules of the Game for the first time in over twenty years, I didn't know (or I'd forgotten) that the quote emanated therein. Spoken by the pivotal character Octave, played by Renoir himself, hearing the words spoken aloud, in French, was a surprise and a revelation.

(In writing a biography of Paul Nelson and collecting his best writings into book form, and trying to understand how someone so talented and so loved came to an end that few of his old friends could comprehend -- living a life that was solitary at best, lonely at worst, while no longer writing for publication -- I've been tempted to rely on Renoir's words to explain and excuse what happened. Thus far that strikes me as too easy; but then, I've more than once used Renoir's quote to explain my own actions.)

In the September/October 2006 issue of Film Comment, director Paul Schrader writes an ambitious, lengthy (the longest article the magazine has published in its 42 years), erudite, and sometimes impenetrable piece entitled "The Film Canon" (the introduction to which may currently be found online). Supposedly sans favoritism and "taste, personal and popular," based on "those movies that artistically defined film history," he cites The Rules of the Game as the number one greatest film of all time.

According to Schrader: "For me the artist without whom there could not be a film canon is Jean Renoir, and the film without which a canon is inconceivable is The Rules of the Game."

It is no doubt a great film: funny and poignant and heartbreaking and, ultimately, very moral (thus satisfying Schrader's dictum that "no work that fails to strike moral chords can be canonical"). But even if it were not, if it were only a so-so movie that happened to contain Renoir's memorable quote, which spoke to me last week as if it were Paul Nelson trying to help me understand, there'd be a place in my heart for The Rules of the Game.

16th-Aug-2006 07:32 am - Edmond

When this film first opened in Manhattan, its run was so short that, by the time I read about it, it was gone. So it was with considerable delight when I discovered the film had returned, this time to Brooklyn, last week. 

Edmond seemed to have everything going for it: a script by David Mamet, based on his 1982 play of the same name; starring the incomparable William H. Macy, always marvelous but especially so in Wayne Cramer's wonderful 2003 film The Cooler; and director Stuart Gordon, who did HP Lovecraft proud with his adaptations of Re-Animator and From Beyond. On the surface, this film seemed like a winner. 

Therein lies the problem: Edmond is all surface. 

Edmond is the same character at the end of the film as he is at the beginning -- but it's not Macy's fault. The way the story is written, we don't know if the racial epithets Edmond spews are a sudden eruption or part of his daily routine, whether he's at the tail end of a journey toward violence or whether it's a destination he's inhabited for some time. It's not a one-note performance but a one-note character, devoid of any sense of what, if anything, has been lost. Just as Gordon's direction plods from one scene to the next, Edmond is a dead man walking from the first shot to the last (where he becomes a dead man lying down). Because we are not permitted to experience his fall, but rather just follow his somnambulistic walk on the wild side, there is no tragedy. We, like Edmond, feel nothing. 

Unlike Cape Fear's Max Cady, who promised, "You're gonna learn about loss," Edmond offers no such lesson. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker's famous obvservation, the film runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.

Similarly, a litany of usually fine actors are put through their paces so quickly and without distinction that often they're gone from the screen by the time we realize who they were: Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator), Dule Hill (fine here in a role that's about as far from The West Wing's Charlie as he can get), Joe Mantegna (always amazing, but especially so as Dean Martin in The Rat Pack), Denise Richards (the Charlie Sheen-Denise Richards divorce), Julia Stiles (so memorable in Mamet's State and Main), Mean Suvari (the American Beauty herself), Rebecca Pidgeon (also fine State and Main -- and married to Mr. Mamet), and Debi Mazar (not used nearly enough in Entourage). Despite all this thespian firepower, the only onscreen chemistry occurs in the scene between Macy and Stiles in her character's apartment, when, for a fleeting moment, it seems as if she and Edmond might have found in each other a twisted kindred spirit. Alas, even that spark is extinguished before it can ignite anything else.

A gentleman, a few rows ahead of us, served as spokesman for the sparse audience when the film faded out and the lights came up. "That's it?" he said. Indeed.

11th-Apr-2006 07:55 am - cinema's biggest badass
steve mcqueen
okay all, since no one has written on this yet, besides me, i'm going to start an interesting discussion:

who is cinema's biggest badass?

i vote for gene hackman or michael ironside.

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