Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Bending Reality: HAPPY ACCIDENTS

As far back as I can remember, I've always been a sucker for a good time-travel story. If the time travel is wrapped around a convincing romance, even better. Literary standouts of the genre include Time and Again, Bid Time Return (which became the movie Somewhere In Time), and The Time Traveler's Wife. Movie-wise you've got Time After Time, 12 Monkeys, the obscure but great 12:01, and last year's Safety Not Guaranteed. On TV the grandaddy of them all was the first-season Star Trek episode, "The City on the Edge of Forever," written by Harlan Ellison and considered among the best Trek episodes ever made (of any generation).

Brad Anderson's Happy Accidents (2000) juggles elements from many of its predecessors yet manages, in its grounded, low-budget way, to make an impressive contribution to the time-travel-romance. You can tell this movie--written, directed, and edited by Anderson--was made with far more love than money. It's sci-fi of the mind, with nary a special effect to be seen. Imagine (if you will) a feature-length episode of The Twilight Zone, only shot in a realistic New York setting with quirky humor and bucketloads of heart.

Over the Top: DHOOM 2

Bollywood movies are an acquired taste. You don't go into them expecting realism and subtlety. Having seen only half a dozen or so, I'm hardly an expert, but one thing I've learned is to toss out my assumptions about what a movie should be the moment I start watching. Designed to appeal to the broadest possible demographic (kids, parents, grandparents, uncles, the family goldfish), they follow the maxim of "more is more." Or in the case of a big-budget action-comedy-musical-romance like Dhoom 2 (2006), "more is lots more." Got a kitchen sink? Go ahead, toss that in, too--maybe someone will need to wash up.

Friday, April 26, 2013


Misjudged as a slap at his fans and widely panned on its release in 1980, Woody Allen's Stardust Memories finally seems to be escaping the tarnish of its initial reception. Even without considering some of the director's shakier misfires to come, this arty, funny take on one filmmaker's struggle with his own limitations deserves a place among the Flawed Classics in the Allen pantheon.

A serio-comic homage to '60s European cinema, Stardust Memories tracks a day or two in the life of Sandy Bates, a successful comedy director overwhelmed by the world's suffering, his own mortality, and his inability to do a thing about either—in other words, the usual Allen preoccupations. Caught at a crossroads in both his personal and professional life while attending a filmmakers retreat with adoring critics and fans, Sandy seeks escape in surreal reveries about his past and in the allure of a pretty cellist (Jessica Harper). She reminds him of a past love, the troubled Dorrie—played in flashbacks by a luminous Charlotte Rampling—who Sandy has never entirely gotten over. This of course complicates things with his current girlfriend, Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault), a French earth mother of two who represents sanity and stability but also a level of commitment he's not sure he's ready for.

Getting Animated: A Secret STAR TREK

For me one of the great pleasures of streaming services like Netflix Instant (or Amazon Prime) is the ability to quickly indulge a nostalgic twinge by calling up a favorite episode of a fondly remembered TV show—say, The Twilight Zone or Columbo or Star Trek. If you're a Star Trek fan you already know what a godsend these sites are to Trekkies: all five live-action series can be found there—in HD, no less—with every episode available to be queued and streamed quicker than Scotty can beam down a redshirt to his untimely demise. (True ST fans, of course, already own their series of choice in at least one DVD edition, and would rather mix matter with antimatter than give up their slick Starfleet packaging and requisite bonus features.)

The crew returns (minus Chekov, plus a couple of weird aliens)
But what a lot of fans of old-school Trek may not realize is that there was another Star Trek, one that holds its own with much of the existing canon but gets little recognition outside of hardcore ST:TOS fans (that's Star Trek: The Original Series, for you non-Trekkies). This was Star Trek: The Animated Series,—a.k.a. ST:TAS. Produced for Saturday morning TV in 1973 and 1974 to placate the growing base of increasingly rabid fans, it utilized the voices of nearly all the original cast. Kirk, Spock, Bones and the rest were back, ready to complete the Enterprise's aborted five-year mission. Only Walter Koenig as Chekov was M.I.A. (one actor too many for the show's tight budget), replaced by an odd, long-necked creature named Lt. Arex.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Expiration Watch: INSERTS

You'd never guess that Richard Dreyfuss' first project after shooting Jaws would have been an X-rated black comedy that takes place entirely on one set. But that's exactly what the film Inserts was when it briefly hit theaters in 1975. Also notable for giving Bob Hoskins his first film role, this daring little indiscretion (since downgraded to a more palatable NC-17) is a provocative timepiece that's Exhibit A for the types of extreme subject matter filmmakers and actors were game for in the first half of the 1970s.

The film itself takes place in the early 1930s, soon after sound has hit the movies and the resultant industry fallout is still being felt. One of the talkies' casualties is a young superstar director known only as Boy Wonder (Dreyfuss), an artiste of silent cinema who refused to compromise his vision for Hollywood's bean counters. Reduced to an impotent, disillusioned alcoholic afraid to leave his mansion--which itself will soon be paved over to make way for a freeway--the Boy Wonder now plies his trade shooting no-budget stag films financed by low-rent producer Big Mac (Hoskins). Aiding and abetting him are lead actress Harlene, a living kewpie doll played by a surprising (and surprisingly sexy) Veronica Cartwright, and a dense leading man referred to disparagingly as Rex, the Wonder Dog (Stephen Davies). Rounding out the quintet is Big Mac's "maybe fiancee," one Miss Cake, an aspiring actress (Jessica Harper) who may or may not be as clueless as she seems.

Expiration Watch: TWO FOR THE SEESAW

There's a lot to be said for blunt, literate dialogue between two characters--something more common to plays, books, and high-caliber TV dramas than today's big-studio releases. Equally refreshing are movie romances minus the pinches of Hollywood fairy dust that often cloud the screen, especially if you prefer to see relationships with some semblance of real life. Functioning as a kind of companion piece to Billy Wilder's The Apartment, only less witty and with a narrower scope, Two for the Seesaw thrives in its carefully observed portrayal of two lost souls learning to trust each other in 1962 New York.

The details are what sell it. From the Oscar-nominated location photography to the peeling paint inside the cramped and sagging downtown dwellings, this is a world that's been lived in. Not that the film is some gritty kitchen sink drama soaked in gin and reeking of broken childhoods. But director Robert Wise seems to have taken great care to dispense with movie shorthand and actually show what living in New York was (and still is) like for the average striver. Accounts are regularly tallied, dollars saved, geographical integrity honored. Given the film's pedigree--from the director of West Side Story, starring Robert Mitchum and Shirley MacLaine, shot in gorgeous widescreen black and white--such fidelity comes as a refreshing surprise.

Friday, April 19, 2013

May Expiration Watch: Death by Twos

If the latest list is correct, a substantial chunk of Netflix's MGM/UA catalog is set to expire on May 1. Sadly that means a lot of great titles will be disappearing--including films by some of cinema's top directors. Many of the films represent these filmmakers' only Instant choices and, for whatever reason, seem to be leaving in groups of two (and occasionally three). So if you're a fan of--or just curious about--the work of any of the below directors, you'll want to consider pushing these titles toward the top of your queue. (Comments accompany films I've seen and can personally vouch for.)

Other departing titles include those of a few big-name bombshells (hint: initals B.B.), and yes, the increasingly slippery Mr. Bond. (Update: titles that stuck around past 5/1 have been noted accordingly.)

Not Your Average Britcom: SPACED

Let's get Spaced
If you like your comedies smart and zingy and fueled with pop culture riffing, you're due for a visit to Spaced. Written by and starring Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson, Spaced is a British TV series that ran from 1999 to 2001 and still plays hummingly over a decade later. Long a cult favorite among geeks and filmmakers, it was well ahead of its time and credited as a major influence on the pace and comic style of such shows as Arrested Development, 30 Rock, and Community. What made it unique was not just the way it was made--more like a short film than a situation comedy--but its ability to mash together an offbeat, often surreal sense of humor with the pop culture-soaked psyches of its twenty-something leads.

Set in a suburban North London flat, the show's 14 episodes follow platonic roommates Tim (Pegg) and Daisy (Stevenson) as they learn to deal with living together, their oddball friends, and their larger place in the world. On its face that could describe any number of stories about slacker youth. But with its clever, finely tuned scripts and clueless yet sympathetic characters, Spaced brought a topical freshness to the drab sitcom world not unlike Quentin Tarantino's pop makeover of crime films.

Along with Pegg and Stevenson's scripts, equal credit goes to series director Edgar Wright, who went on to make Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. His resourceful touch utilized every ounce of ingenuity to give practically every scene a visual zip or ping, turning an ostensibly low-rent sitcom into a charmingly baroque cinematic funhouse.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Car Wreck Cinema: THE APPLE

There are guilty pleasures. There are movies so bad they're good. And there are those that, like a five-vehicle pileup on the interstate, you can't take your eyes off of. Welcome to Car Wreck Cinema.

Watching The Apple, a 1980 sci-fi disco opera, I couldn't help thinking of that brief period in the 1970s when porn films actually had a sliver of ambition. Some were entertaining enough that you wondered just how good they might be if the sex had been dropped entirely.

The Apple is the best porno musical ever made, without the porn. It's a movie that gives Can't Stop the Music a run for its money as Gayest Musical Ever--without having any Village People--and makes even Xanadu look like a pretty good idea. For the movie's writer-director, Menahem Golan, you wonder if it was the most elaborate tax dodge in history or, possibly more depressing, the realization of his life's dream.

Written as a Hebrew stage musical in 1977, it so impressed Golan, the co-head of Cannon Studios (purveyor in the 1980s of all things crap), he had it translated into English with the goal of producing the next Grease or Rocky Horror Picture Show. If only he'd aimed lower. Instead of making the best gay porn musical in movie history, he concocted something more resembling the cracked fever dream of a small-town Lady Gaga impersonator.

Set in the glitzy, square-shouldered future of 1994, The Apple spins an Adam and Eve allegory about two naive young folkies from Moose Jaw, Canada, who in their pursuit of pop fame must struggle to save their souls from BIM, a world-dominating music corporation run by a Mr. Boogalow (who's really, you know, Satan). The future, we're shown, will include lots of triangular drinking glasses, star filters, face paint, and baggy silver tunics in a proto Duran Duran style, not to mention young men with pants so tight they actually sport cameltoes. (A gay friend informs me the technical term is "bull's knuckle.")

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Erotic Musing: SEX AND LUCÍA

Original Spanish poster art
It's funny the tricks memory can play. I saw Sex and Lucía when it was first released, in 2001, and I loved it. Then I saw it again a few years later on DVD and loved it even more. I found myself impressed with not only the bravery and conviction of the film's actors, who really put themselves out there, but with director Julio Medem's ability to paint a complex and romantic tale that, even if it doesn't entirely add up, is so beautiful and intriguing you mostly don't care.

And yet when it came time to write about the film here, I realized I remembered little beyond a few key scenes--mostly involving sex--and the simple fact that I really loved it and wanted to share it with others. Yes, I could recall (more or less) the basic characters and their function within the story. But the plot itself? Not so much. My memories instead were more emotional, imagistic, as if drawn from a distantly lived experience of youth.

Giving the film a third look, I can understand why. There's a lot going on. Lots of past events overlapping with present, fact with fiction, passion with reflection. One moment you think you've got it figured out, the next you're not so sure. It pulls you in and challenges you while mostly avoiding being frustratingly opaque.


"It's a habit with me, like breathin'... If I skip one night a week I wake up the next morning with such a headache." -Dino (Dean Martin), on his daily need for sex

Anything to avoid a headache
If you're at all familiar with classic Hollywood movies, you probably know the work of Billy Wilder. He was the director and co-writer of some all-time gems, including Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, Sabrina, and The Apartment. Less well known is his 1964 sex comedy, Kiss Me, Stupid, a raunchy poke at showbiz sleaze whose subject--small-town songwriters do whatever it takes to convince a visiting superstar to buy one of their songs--would be right at home on today's reality TV.

But at the time, the movie proved far more risque than audiences (or critics) were equipped to handle. Even today there's something distinctly dirty about it. Aside from the illicit spark that comes with seeing undisguised innuendo in an old Hollywood movie, Kiss Me, Stupid is marked by a cynical leering quality that covers it like a crusty coat of pollen. With every lewd zinger and suggestive image, you can't help wondering, "How did they get away with this?"

Friday, April 12, 2013

Tales of the '70s: Freaks, Geeks, and Slums

Whether by coincidence or fate, two of the titles I decided to review today are late-1990s takes on growing up in the late '70s. One is a snappy indie comedy, the other a painfully honest (and funny) TV series that continues to deserve all belated praise hurled its way.

Slums of Beverly Hills (1998) - EXPIRED

For a long time I avoided this movie. A long time. Like, since it was first released, which goes back 15 years now. Why? I remember the positive reviews when it came out, and it still seems well regarded today. But despite that—and the fact that it co-stars my alternate-reality future wife, Marisa Tomei—I just never felt drawn in enough to give it a shot.

Maybe it was the title. For whatever reason, titles are important to me, and the word "slums" has never exactly squeezed my happy gland. (Come to think of it, that may be why I still haven't seen Slumdog Millionaire.) And though I'd loved Paul Mazursky's Down and Out In Beverly Hills (and liked Beverly Hills Cop well enough), as a devout New Yorker at the time I may have simply had my fill of things L.A.

I was wrong. Twenty lashes for Past David. This brash little comedy/drama is that all-too-rare coming-of-age story told from the girl's point of view, and unlike a lot of American films on the subject, it's not afraid to push a few buttons. That's attributable not only to its indie outlier status, but to writer/director Tamara Jenkins, who based much of the film on her own nomadic childhood. This isn't a rose-colored portrait of (cue violins) "one girl's coming of age." There's little sentimentality here—at least when it comes to the kids—even if it's not as comically merciless as 1995's Welcome to the Dollhouse. Still, any film that depicts its 14-year-old heroine on a bathroom floor experiencing her first vibrator gets big points in a film industry still notoriously squeamish dealing with young girls' sexuality.

Gallic Smackdown: DISTRICT B13

The French aren't usually known for action movies. More often the words "French cinema" evoke long, talky scenes of love, existentialism, or family strife accompanied by lots of smoking and shrugging, topped off by one character's inscrutable decision leading to an ambiguous or depressing conclusion, often resulting in death. In other words, my kind of movie.

But 2004's District B13 is a bête of a different color. It actually kicks some serious ass--French, American and otherwise. Taking place in an Escape From New York-like dystopia where large chunks of Paris have been walled off to separate the criminal element from its Perrier-sipping overlords, it uses a familiar storyline (elite cop teams up with inner-city hoodlum to save the city) to showcase a series of intensely choreographed fight scenes and a then-new form of gymnastics called parkour.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

New April Titles, pt. 2

Continuing this month's rundown of notable flicks now available for streaming:

King of the Hill (1993)

(FYI, no relation to the Mike Judge cartoon series)

Following the success of sex, lies and videotape and the mess that was Kafka, Steven Soderbergh's third film received glowing reviews (it was nominated for the Palm d'Or at Cannes) but almost no audience. Based on a memoir by A.E. Hotchner, this coming of age tale set in the Great Depression follows a 12-year-old boy (played by a young Jesse Bradford) who has to fend for himself in a seedy St. Louis hotel after his mother ends up in the hospital and his salesman father has to hit the road to make ends meet.

Jesse (Taylor) Bradford
Granted, it sounds depressing, but it's enlightened by Bradford's spirited, fast-talking performance (think Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun, only less wide-eyed) plus a fine role call of supporting players including Spalding Gray, Adrien Brody, Elizabeth McGovern, and Karen Allen. As always, writer/director/editor Soderbergh knows how to keep things moving, but there's also that warmth and passion he's been accused of lacking in some of his more recent work. For some reason this title has never been available on DVD in the U.S., so this is a great chance to see a movie for which the words "criminally underseen" were invented.

Pi (1998)

And the magic number is...
Before he became known for directing Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, and Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky concocted this no-budget black-and-white yarn of paranoia, mathematics, supercomputers, Hassidic conspiracies, Wall Street and...well, I'm not really sure what else, even though I've seen the movie twice. I know it's intense and visceral and the very definition of old-school indie filmmaking. Shot guerilla-style on black-and-white 16mm film, it uses inventive camerawork and quick cutting to turn New York's Lower East Side into its own Kafkaesque playground. Reminiscent of an amped up, stripped down Cronenberg film by way of Jim Jarmusch, Pi is not for everyone. But if you like your movies fast, weird, dark, and borderline incomprehensible, you'll get a kick out of this. I'm hoping by the third viewing to actually figure out what it means.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Romance with a Touch of Smut: CASHBACK

If you like your romantic comedies with more of an adult sensibility than today's Hollywood usually allows, take a look at 2006's Cashback. Despite its unassuming title and a plot description that does it no favors, the film manages to combine romance, whimsy, and a bit of healthy European randiness with an artistic sensibility that never interferes with its off-beat humor. This is owed to fashion-photographer-turned-director Sean Ellis, around whose Oscar-winning short of the same name the film was based (a short whose fantastical conceit--a young artist with the ability to freeze time--is incorporated here and successfully deepened). If you're familiar with the '80s films of Bill Forsyth--Gregory's Girl and Local Hero being two personal faves--then this has a similar sensibility, only with a bit of magic and a lot of breasts.

This overlooked charmer stars Harry Potter's Sean Biggerstaff and a cast of fellow Brits, including the lovely Emilia Fox

Yes, there are a fair number of beautiful ladies doffing their kits (as they say in the U.K.) throughout the film. So if that kind of thing frightens you, or if naked ladies are against your ideals of Art, Cinema, and Good Taste, then by all means dial up something with Julia Roberts or J-Lo. Otherwise, this slow-burn examination of a young artist's fascination with love, beauty, and the female form offers many small and satisfying rewards.

New April Titles, pt. 1

This monthly feature spotlights a number of titles that recently debuted on (or returned to) Netflix Instant.

For April, a bunch of great movies are now streamable (is that a word?), from classics to Bond to sexy foreign and indies. Today we'll look at a few of the classics:

Carrie (1976)

On March 31, Brian DePalma's Carrie came online. This 1976 classic, based on the Stephen King novel and starring an Oscar-nominated Sissy Spacek and a young (pre-Kotter, pre-Saturday Night Fever, pre-Pulp Fiction) John Travolta is an over-the-top coming of age gothic horror tale that uses blood and religion the way most teen comedies use boobs (although, this being DePalma, there are plenty of those, too). A remake—likely to be far more politically correct—hits theaters later this year, so you've got a few months to bone up on the original and get one up on the inevitable "Which is better?" debates.

April 1 brought a number of other queue-worthy classics. Among them:

Thursday, April 4, 2013


To kick off this blog, I thought I'd start with one of my all-time favorite classic comedies.

There have been many attempts to bring Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's 1928 Broadway play, The Front Page, to the big screen, but the only one anyone talks about is Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (1940). And for good reason: it's one of the fastest, funniest, most perfect comedies ever produced. And while it certainly doesn't qualify as "neglected" or "underrated," it's worth noting for anyone born after, say, 1970 who might otherwise overlook a black-and-white movie. If that's you--or if you've simply never gotten around to seeing this paradigm of comic timing--then put it near the top of your Netflix queue, posthaste.

No, it's not a gross-out comedy. There's no cartoon violence or computer-generated talking wombats. But it's got Cary Grant at his sneaky, conniving, rascally best, with Rosalind Russell, as career-gal (and ex-wife) Hildy Johnson, matching him line for line. There's also hapless Ralph Bellamy (one day to appear in Trading Places) in what became forever known as "the Ralph Bellamy role"--i.e., the poor third wheel found in pretty much every romantic comedy ever.


Thanks for taking a peek at this, my humble attempt to guide you past that awful, head-gouging moment when you realize you've seen every movie ever made. It happens to all of us:

"What do you want to watch?"

"I dunno. What do you want to watch?"

"Let's see what's on Netflix."

[Forty-five minutes and several heated discussions later]

"Forget it, we've seen everything!"

"Wait...what about that one?"

"Nude Nuns with Big Guns?"

"Well? Have you seen it?"

"I just remembered, I need to get my teeth cleaned."

[A sudden whoosh followed by a cut-out human silhouette in the door]

"Hey, wait for me!"