Monday, April 25, 2011

SOME ODDS & ENDS, FROM HUSTON TO HESTON

Today friends and followers, I’m posting some thoughts on a range of topics, from my caricature contest winner to that caricature of a presidential candidate Donald Trump.

THE “10 THAT TERRIFIED ME” CONTEST

My follower Jeremy won with his selection of John Huston in CHINATOWN (1974) as the villain that terrified him the most. Inspired choice, Jeremy! And I hope you like the drawing I did of him. Indeed, Huston’s turn as the string-pulling, incestuous power broker Noah Cross is one that gave me the willies as well. He has only three scenes in the movie but manages to paint a vivid portrait of malevolent hubris marvelously. The way he uses his large hands to express his character’s amorality is something to see. They’re like the arms of an octopus - long, gangly, threatening, and their reach is staggering.


(BTW, John, another of my followers, won the Oscar predictions contest but has yet to pick the subject for his caricature prize. When that one is drawn, I will post it here as well. JB…we’re waiting!)

THE FUNNIEST MOVIE OF THE YEAR SO FAR

Morgan Spurlock of SUPERSIZE ME fame has a new documentary out THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD and I saw it this past weekend. It explores product placement in movies from a unique perspective - it’s been entirely financed by product placement and marketing deals. And it’s easily the most hilarious film so far this year. What makes it so amusing is the utter earnestness of some of the straight-faced marketers Spurlock interviews that aren’t quite in on his comedic slant. When he asks the executives at Ban what their brand stands for, they sit there stymied, unable to answer right away. They’re worried about how serious he takes their deodorant and of course, they take it very seriously. One exec offers up the phrase “advanced technology” to describe the state-of-the art deodorant, but it’s finally the CEO who decides that “freshness” is probably the right answer, as it sure beats unattractive words like “anti-perspirant” that conjure up thoughts about arm pits. Hilarious! 

Marketing was my profession for many years so of course I’d find this all too funny, but the other members of the audience were eating it all up with a spoon too. By the end when Spurlock visits Jimmy Kimmel in a suit decked out with all of his corporate sponsors, you can’t help but guffaw at the human Nascar he’s become. If that’s what it takes to make a movie these days, so be it. Just as long as they’re as entertaining as this one!

CHUTZPAH TRUMPS SUBSTANCE

I may be proven wrong at the end of May, but I believe that all of Donald Trump’s political posturing is not to become a legit contender for the GOP nomination but rather to simply ensure ratings for his show CELEBRITY APPRENTICE and guarantee NBC’s renewal of it. I seriously doubt such a thin-skinned celeb as Trump could stomach the scrutiny of a presidential campaign. And you watch, he’ll find some cockamamie reason to not enter the race. Like his casinos need him or his children need him. (Of course they do, they wouldn’t have careers without him.) Trump’s only interest is self-interest. America will have to wait, as he’s too busy marketing himself. He even shows up in Spurlock’s doc, talking about how to sell your brand. He knows little about securing oil fields in Libya, but a lot about snake oil. And let’s hope if another celebrity wants to follow in Ronald Reagan’s footsteps it’s someone of the caliber of George Clooney. He’s a lot smarter and tougher than The Donald, and God knows he’s got a more legitimate hairline.
ARE MOVIES TOO SHORT THESE DAYS?

A while back, when the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy was taking the world by storm, critics started to wonder if movies were becoming too long and self-indulgent. Each of those brilliant films clocked in at well over three hours, but to this enthralled viewer, they didn’t feel burdensome at all. Still, I wonder if those questions about movie length worried some studios enough to start shortening their films.

I saw Robert Redford’s THE CONSPIRATOR two weeks ago and thought it needed another good half hour to tell its story. When John Wilkes Booth gets only a smattering of screen time, and he was the foremost of the conspirators, you know that movies need more minutes to tell their stories. I thought the same when I watched HBO’s TV-movie CINEMA VERITE this weekend. The documentary of the Loud family, America’s first reality series if you will, originally took up 10 hours of time on PBS back in 1974. In 2011, the TV-movie of their story took a little over an hour and a half. It’s good, and has terrific performances by Diane Lane and James Gandolfini, but I think it could have been great if it was a half hour longer. Are audiences today all stricken with attention deficit disorder?  Or just the studio heads greenlighting such projects?
IF YOU DON’T LIKE THE TRAILER, WAIT 10 MINUTES

Films like THE GREEN LANTERN, THOR and CAPTAIN AMERICA have changed their trailers multiple times since they started being marketed. Apparently audiences have not responded well to them. Or is it perhaps that the American audience is starting to get exhausted watching all these superhero movies? I like comic books a lot but even I am leery of the glut of them about to open in the next few months. One trailer that does excite me is the one embedded below. It’s for a new character-driven comedy called BEGINNERS and it stars Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer. Looks super to me. How about you?



THE TEN COMMANDMENTS AIN’T SO COMMANDING

I have not seen this classic from Cecil B. DeMille in years but managed to catch it this past Easter weekend. It’s not aged well. In fact, it’s actually quite awful. Sure this 1956 holiday perennial has some great special effects, a sumptuous score by Elmer Bernstein, and clever performances by Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Vincent Price and Nina Foch, but everything else in it seems to be covered in cheese. The writing is ham-fisted and one-dimensional. The dialogue is LOL atrocious. This is one turgid passage between the two ingénues in the movie, John Derek and Debra Paget. Paget plays Lilia, a slavegirl providing water to the thirsty stonecutter Joshua (Derek):

Lilia: Does it take the entire Nile to quench your thirst?
Joshua: No, only your lips.
Lilia: Be careful, my love. Dathan's eyes can see through stone.
Joshua: Dathan is a vulture, preying on the flesh of his own people.
Lilia: When he looks at me, I... I am afraid.
Joshua: If he touches you, I'll strangle him with his own whip!
Lilia: And bring death to a thousand others?
Joshua: Is life in bondage better than death?

Ouch. That’s terrible writing. And in his sweaty, strutting performance as Joshua, John Derek proved why he was better off as a photographer rather than an actor. DeMille was so over-the-top about everything having to do with this movie he himself provided the voice of God. (Now there’s a filmmaker Donald Trump would love!) But perhaps worst of all, the movie just goes on and on and on. It’s 220 minutes long. Long, long, long! Sometimes it felt like DeMille was in the desert as long as the children of Israel. And I can’t help but wonder if this film prevented Charlton Heston from being awarded the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award. It was either Chuck’s wooden stoicism as Moses here or his asinine posturing as NRA president later in life that did in his chances.

Those are my thoughts today. Thanks for following and watch for new caricature contests in the weeks ahead. Become a follower here so you are eligible. It’s the only way your messages get posted here. And your thoughts are important to me.
 

Friday, April 22, 2011

OSCARS FOR ELEPHANTS?


There’s a great love story in the new movie WATER FOR ELEPHANTS and it’s not between Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon. The one I’m referring to is between the audience and Rosie the elephant. She’s a big character, literally and figuratively, in this epic melodrama set against the backdrop of a depression era circus. And she steals the film right out from under the noses of her young co-stars. 

Tai the elephant plays Rosie and she’s been a movie star for a few decades now. Tai’s been in everything from THE JUNGLE BOOK (1994) to OPERATION DUMBO DROP (1995) to last year’s EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP. (She was the pink elephant in the room, for those who saw it.) As the animal act brought in to save the dying circus in this adaptation of Sara Gruen’s bestselling novel from 2006, Tai gives one of the greatest animal performances ever captured on film. Her Rosie becomes not only the centerpiece of the story but the emotional core as well.

Rosie is an ugly, old and supposedly not very smart elephant who is bought to turn around the fortunes of the Benzini Brothers circus. So hopes August, the owner and ringmaster, played as a complex villain with a hair trigger temper by the estimable Christoph Waltz. He believes that Rosie needs to be dominated to perform her tricks on cue, and thus beats her to bend her to his show’s will. These scenes are very hard to watch, even though there’s no real abuse going on, as the Humane Society was present throughout the shoot. They are so wrenching because of the work done by Tai and her marvelous trainer Gary Johnson. Tai as Rosie gives an adroit and moving performance in these scenes, and throughout the rest of the movie. And the director Francis Lawrence deftly captures the elephant, not in cloying close-ups but in long shots that show the animal’s size and full-bodied performance.

There is likely some CGI work blended into Tai’s performance, but I doubt it was the scenes where Rosie tugs affectionately at Pattinson with her trunk. Or where she steals a drink of pink lemonade. Or where she raises a leg or nuzzles Witherspoon or follows Pattinson as he dutifully carts around her buckets of booze. (Rosie fancies the hard stuff over water.) Rosie turns out to be anything but a dumb elephant. And Tai makes Rosie compelling throughout with her intelligent and delighting performance. She’s so good frankly, it’s hard to watch anyone else on screen with her. Even just standing there, Tai makes the character of Rosie riveting.

As I thought about it, I had to go back to MY DOG SKIP (2000) to remember a movie with a central animal performance that moved me so. In many ways, both that film and WATER FOR ELEPHANTS are old-fashioned in their filmmaking, akin to something like the LASSIE series or NATIONAL VELVET (1944) or OLD YELLER (1957). They invest a great deal of emotion into the story, skirting close to maudlin, but negotiating just shy of it because the animal performers are so deft and nuanced. Those films contained extraordinary animal performances as well, every bit the equal of their human co-stars. In the case of WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, Tai is so good as Rosie you feel more emotionally invested in her than in Robert Pattinson. (Sorry, TWILIGHT fans, but here too Pattinson is quite remote. It may be that he’s simply not that expressive of an actor.) 


There is much to recommend WATER FOR ELEPHANTS. The performances are all quite good except for Pattinson’s okay one. It has gorgeous production values on display in everything from the elaborate 10-car train to its cheeky circus costumes to the exquisite hair and make-up (Witherspoon’s Jean Harlow-esque blonde look is breathtaking.) And it is sure to be remembered in many technical categories come Oscar time next year. Wouldn’t it be delightful if the Academy saw fit to somehow award Tai and her trainer Gary Johnson with a special award as well? I’ll drink a bucket of booze to that!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

WHERE HAVE ALL THE SEX SYMBOLS GONE?


Marilyn Monroe once said, at the height of her fame, “Being a sex symbol is a heavy load to carry, especially when one is tired, hurt and bewildered.” We know how that burden took a toll on her. Nonetheless, almost 50 years after her suicide, her stature as the very definition of “Hollywood sex symbol” remains unchallenged. The Raquel Welch’s and Farrah Fawcett’s have come and gone, but no one has ever really equaled Monroe.
Today, sadly, no woman seems to even be trying. Not in the movies anyway. Sure, on TV there have been various women inclined to take a run at the sex symbol mantle. Pamela Anderson certainly did her part during her BAYWATCH years. Today, Sofia Vergara does a curvaceous, witty turn each week as Ed O’Neill’s trophy wife on MODERN FAMILY. And of course, reality TV has produced a few sex symbol wannabe’s in Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian. But we seem to have hit a vast drought regarding cinema sirens.

It appeared for a while there that Angelina Jolie might be willing to fill the need. But today the only place she regularly exploits her looks and sexuality is on the red carpet. On screen, she’s more apt to completely downplay her feminine wiles. In her two spy romps last year she whiffed the opportunity to play the sexy Mata Hari type. In THE TOURIST she was so chaste, Johnny Depp had nothing to play off of and their chemistry fizzled, along with the film’s box office. Even worse, in SALT, she spent the better part of that film running around dressed as a man. If I’m going to pay 10 bucks to see Jolie play a spy, I don’t want to see her in drag. Do you?
I remember in my teens Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel spent an entire program of their PBS show SNEAK PREVIEWS discussing sex in the movies and specifically, what films aroused them as men and critics. (Ah, the seventies and eighties…) Hollywood used to produce a lot of sex-themed major motion pictures. Films like LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1974), BODY HEAT (1981), 9 ½ WEEKS (1986), FATAL ATTRACTION (1987), THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING (1988), and BASIC INSTINCT (1992) were all huge hits and made the likes of Kathleen Turner, Kim Basinger, Lena Olin and Sharon Stone into stars and sex symbols. The closest we’ve come to a new sex symbol being created by the movies today seems to be Megan Fox. In the kiddie flick TRANSFORMERS (2007). Ugh.

And I don’t buy the argument that the reason for the decline in female sex symbols is that the Internet now serves up endless offerings of such 24/7. If that’s true then explain to me why the movies can still create male sex symbols like Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner. And they seem to be a lot more willing to play sexy than the likes of Jolie. In fact, it’s today’s male screen stars who are more likely willing to be seen as eye candy. Why is that? It’s either a sign of the equalization of the sexes or perhaps more likely, the unwillingness of the serious actress to be exploited in any way as to endanger her credibility. All I know is I miss the potential new Marilyn’s.

And boy is the male sex symbol filling the void by appearing everywhere these days. Just look at all the new comic book movies due out this summer. The previews for THOR, CAPTAIN AMERICA and THE GREEN HORNET promise the endless fetishization of beefcake. Look at Ryan Reynolds’ Green Hornet suit. Does it leave anything to the imagination? How far has cinema sexuality shifted when Reynolds is willing to be photographed like that?

I hope the female sex symbol returns, and pronto. The modern actress should realize she can be fierce and feminine. Actors like Jason Statham and Daniel Craig take off their shirt at a moment’s notice, so why can’t women embrace their sexuality on screen just as much? If you saw the stunning Jennifer Lawrence at the Oscars you know she is one talented actress whose looks could also stop traffic. And now she’s going to lose all her curves to play the starving Katniss in THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy. Bring on the glam.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

THE PROBLEM WITH REMAKES


I had so hoped that the remake of ARTHUR would be better than it is. I like Russell Brand a lot, and still believe he can be a movie star, but this misbegotten remake does him few favors. As I sat watching it, mostly looked at my watch hoping that it would soon be over, I actually started to get very angry. This woefully unfunny romp makes so many mistakes, from keeping Arthur an alcoholic, unbelievable in this day and age, to making manservant Hobson now Arthur’s nanny, that it made my head spin. Remakes are always a crapshoot, but why did this get shot and end up so crappy?

Remakes are always a mixed bag. For every OCEAN’S ELEVEN (2001) or THE FLY (1986) that is infinitely superior to the original, you get a god-awful re-do like THE STEPFORD WIVES (2004) or THE PLANET OF THE APES (2001) that makes the originals seem like masterpieces. Of course so many remakes are made because it’s easier for Hollywood to sell an audience on a title that they’re familiar with. But therein lies the problem. A movie that most people have heard of was probably a hit, and more than likely a movie that is a hit is also a pretty good one. To remake something that has a good reputation already is just asking for trouble. 

The original ARTHUR (1981) was a big commercial success and even netted a couple of Academy Awards, so why remake it? Is alcoholism funnier today than it was thirty years ago? The answer to that is obvious. Is there any part of Russell Brand’s persona that is analogous to the idealistic naiveté of Dudley Moore’s? Quite the contrary, Brand looks like he could give the devil himself a few pointers on debauchery. (I think Brand should play a Bond villain. Now that I’d believe him in!) And is the story of a spoiled billionaire sure to resonate in a down economy? Hell no! This remake was made without proper consideration of the components at play. And it fails utterly.

For my money, I think there is only one reason to greenlight a remake. It’s not to introduce a new audience to the material. And it’s not to cash in on a known property. It should only be done if the original wasn’t particularly good.

When I think of the best remakes, they are invariably the ones that had rather cheesy predecessors. Or movies that at best rated a “Meh.” The production values and cast of the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) were strictly those of a cheapie B movie. The 1978 remake was a sprawling and expensive production with an A list cast headed by Donald Sutherland. 1951’s THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD was another B movie that could only be sharpened by an A+ remake. The original had terribly cheap special effects and an embarrassed looking James Arness (a few years before he’d become Marshall Dillon in GUNSMOKE) portraying the alien in giant head make-up and a shiny tunic. So when John Carpenter remade it in 1982 as THE THING, not only was he able to bring expensive state-of-the-art make-up and special effects to the production, he chose a superb cast of character actors to make it believable, including Kurt Russell, Richard Dysart, Keith David, Wilford Brimley and Richard Masur.

It’s easy to remake a cheesy horror movie. It’s also a lot easier to make a superior remake when the original just didn’t mesh with the public. Bad casting can often be blamed for an audience not responding to the story being told. If you don’t believe the people saying the words, you’re not going to buy any facet of it, no matter how much time and money was spent. Steve McQueen was no one’s idea of a businessman in a three-piece suit when he played the elegant thief in THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR in 1968. But an actor like Pierce Brosnan looked like he was born on Savile Row and therefore helped make that 1999 remake of CROWN so much more believable. 

There has yet to be a definitive screen rendering of the classic novel THE GREAT GATSBY mostly due to the fact that previous film versions, starring Alan Ladd and Robert Redford respectively, suffered from their leading men being wrong for the role of Gatsby. Both were far too patrician to play the dark and desperate outsider, and also way too old. Let’s hope that Baz Luhrman, in his remake scheduled to start shooting this year, gets the casting right. With Leonardo DiCaprio set to play Gatsby it appears to already be a step in the right direction.

The next two calendar years will supposedly see releases of over two dozen remakes including: AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, CHILD’S PLAY, FOOTLOOSE, EXCALIBUR, FRANKENSTEIN, FRIGHT NIGHT, THE THREE MUSKETEERS, THE WARRIORS, TOTAL RECALL, and TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY. All of those originals were pretty darn good, so the odds are against them. Let’s hope Hollywood gets lucky and makes the gamble worth everyone’s time. Particularly the audience.

I’d love to hear what you thought was a good remake and why, so please share your picks with all of us here and keep the discussion going!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

A SALUTE TO SIDNEY


Hollywood just lost one of its greatest directors. Sidney Lumet died April 9th at age 86 of lymphoma. Not only was he one of film’s greatest artists, he was one of those with a strong social conscience as well. When you think of his movies you realize how many important films from the sixties, seventies and eighties were his. And they were about something. Movies like NETWORK, THE VERDICT, DOG DAY AFTERNOON, 12 ANGRY MEN, SERPICO, FAIL SAFE and PRINCE OF THE CITY. Lumet once wrote, “While the goal of all movies is to entertain, the kind of film in which I believe goes one step further. It compels the spectator to examine one facet or another of his own conscience. It stimulates thought and sets the mental juices flowing.” He certainly got our juices flowing. His films were testaments to the times we lived in.

And angry times they were. Lumet was a New Yorker and perhaps that’s why his films were always about people on the edge: a concentration camp victim losing his mind and morality in an increasingly nasty city (THE PAWNBROKER); a young cop endangering his life by ratting out his on-the-take brethren (SERPICO); a troubled lawyer shunning the easy money settlement and instead standing up, albeit shakily, to the corrupt Archdiocese (THE VERDICT). Lumet was always itching for a fight. He knew the world was dirty and liked shining the light on it, exposing the filth. More often than not he preferred to shoot in New York City. It was gritty, it was real, and it was his home.

He made his last picture just two years ago with BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD. It was a cynical story about two brothers plotting to rip off their own parent’s jewelry store. Of course in the Lumet world, the heist goes awry, people end up dead, and the actors play out the most dramatic of emotions: grief, rage, terror and frustration. Lumet loved the big emotions. He loved the big speeches. Man raging at the machine. Man raging at “The Man.”

And actors loved working for Lumet. Of course they did, as he was an actor’s director. He directed Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, Beatrice Straight, and Ingrid Bergman to Oscars; and Rod Steiger, Al Pacino, Chris Sarandon, William Holden, Albert Finney, Richard Burton, Peter Firth, Paul Newman, James Mason, Jane Fonda and River Phoenix to nominations.
Peter Finch in NETWORK (1976)
He made two movies that now seem prophetic. The first was NETWORK (1976), a dark satire that warned that TV news was starting to veer dangerously close to becoming entertainment. Its story was about Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a news anchor who gets fired and decides to exit by blowing his brains out on TV. That promise raises his ratings and the greedy network execs keep the unstable Beale on air. It isn’t long before Beale is railing at corruption five nights a week, and quickly turns into an uncontrollable religious zealot. His famous line you'll recall was, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” NETWORK forecast the tsunami of cable news punditry drowning out legitimate news and the likes of Bill O’Reilly, Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck becoming the verbose and loud voices of a new generation of 'anchors.' NETWORK also predicted that it wouldn’t be long before reality TV started dominating programming. Lumet was both ahead of his time. And of his time.
Paul Newman in THE VERDICT (1982)
The second prophetic movie Lumet made was THE VERDICT (1982). In this courtroom saga Paul Newman played a burnt-out drunk of a lawyer seeking redemption by taking on the Catholic Church over a wrongful death suit. It was a long way from the typical Newman role or how Hollywood usually portrayed the legal profession. Here, practically everyone was on the take in some way, even the good guys. Lumet was willing to point an accusatory finger at the less than idyllic side of America. Now, that seems par for the course on TV in such fare as LAW & ORDER, but then it was quite revolutionary. But that's how Lumet operated. He slew the Goliaths.  And wasn't afraid to wield a rock or two. 

Lumet sometimes attempted lighter fare in his career, with varying degrees of success. He directed a misbegotten version of the Broadway musical THE WIZ (1978) and flailed at big screen comedy a couple of times with the likes of JUST TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT (1980) and GARBO TALKS (1984). His most successful film that was a big stretch for him was MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974). This effervescent and star-studded cocktail of a murder mystery was a huge commercial hit and a critical favorite as well. Agatha Christie called it the best of any of the movie adaptations of her books. Lumet considered that to be his Oscar that year. 

Lumet never won an Oscar in competition, though he was nominated five times. He was given a richly deserved honorary Oscar for his career in 2005 and he accepted it with the same candor and energy that he brought to all his work. He lived a long life and made over 40 films. Sidney Lumet will be greatly missed. There's one less guy to fight the good fight now. I’m very sad that he’s gone. And more than a little “mad as hell” too.

Friday, April 8, 2011

TWO NAUGHTY BOYS IN HOLLYWOOD


As I sat through the execrable JUST GO WITH IT, the latest Adam Sandler “phone in” job, I realized how much that I never really wanted to see him in one of his lame comedies again. Sure, I’ll pay to see him in something that’s challenging, like the terrific drama PUNCH DRUNK LOVE he did with Paul Thomas Anderson in 2002, but not in these tepid yuckfests. (Emphasis on the yuck.) They insult my intelligence and seem to serve as nothing but easy paychecks for stars like him who stopped being compelling in this kind of material a long time ago. (Same with Matthew McConaughey, Kate Hudson, J-Lo, and Jennifer Aniston as well.)

Thankfully there are a couple of new comedians who I do find immensely compelling: Russell Brand and Zach Galifianakis. They give me a new hope, Obi Wan Kenobi, and I hope they have long careers in Hollywood. Both are engaging, hysterical, as well as naughty and wild and dangerous. And I think they’re exactly what the all too predictable world of movie comedies need these days.

British comic Russell Brand first made a huge splash in movies on this side of the pond in FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL (2008), one of the decade’s funniest and sweetest romantic comedies. He played Kristen Bell’s new boyfriend Aldous Snow, a hedonistic rock star vacationing with her in Hawaii, while her ex (Jason Segel) vacationed there as well, still not over her. Brand stole every scene he had, and was such a natural that it appeared his entire performance was ad-libbed. (If you’ve seen the extras on the DVD, indeed he did ad-lib quite a lot of his part.) It was a supporting role but it made him a star. 

Brand looks, talks and dresses like a rock star. But his music is comedy. And he’s everywhere these days, and when he shows up, be it in movies, on talk shows, hosting gigs on MTV, or handing out Oscars with Dame Helen Mirren, he is always Russell Brand. Candid and lurid, commenting on the Emperor’s new clothes with a razor sharp wit, he’s clearly having a ball being his bawdy, blunt self. And it’s contagious to everyone he encounters. (He even relaxed the hackles of Elizabeth Hasselbeck when he guested on ABC’s THE VIEW last year. Not an easy task that.) Brand might be the closest thing we have to a Groucho Marx in our midst today. Like Marx, Brand is a leering, playful cat, albeit one with claws. He’s both predator and spectator, in the action and commenting on it at the same time.

Brand is about to open in the remake of the Dudley Moore classic ARTHUR (1981). Hopefully he won’t be playing the title role as an alcoholic, not only because drug abuse isn’t particularly funny anymore, but mostly because such mood manipulation isn’t necessary for Brand. Katy Perry’s husband is high on life and by watching him one gets a contact high. His is a welcome new presence in movies, and I for one hope he’s around a long, long time.

And then there is the short, chubby, surly, and hirsute Galifianakis. Doesn’t he look like an angry lawn gnome to you, a psycho leprechaun carrying his pot of gold under his beer-stained T-shirt? He seems to be a borderline personality. You don’t know if he’s f**cked up or just f**cking with you. Maybe a little of both. All I know is that when he’s on the screen, it’s difficult to watch anyone else. Crazy sure does get your attention.
Galifianakis had been a favorite in the stand-up world for a good decade before he broke through in 2009 with THE HANGOVER. Finally movie audiences could see what comedy club patrons had known for some time. Galifianakis was dangerous, truly out there, a gruff man-child who was both vicious and vulnerable. His unhinged performance drives the lunacy of the movie. And he became the breakout star of it. He may be the most unusual A-lister since Christopher Walken, with his heavy beard, bed head hair, protruding gut and SoHo bum wardrobe, Galifianakis actually kind of looks like a hangover! And yet there’s a great deal of lively mischief in those lidded eyes glaring out from under those two bushy awnings for eyebrows.

If you’ve seen him in his supporting role on HBO’s BORED TO DEATH, or watched his short talk show spoofs on FUNNY OR DIE, or enjoyed him hosting SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, you know that Galifianakis can get more laughs by remaining perfectly quiet than most comics can with 10 minutes of jokes. He, like the great silent screen comedians, is hilarious simply standing still. And in last year’s IT’S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY, he used that same sullenness to dramatic advantage in the more serious role of a mental ward patient struggling with depression. This time his brooding intensity made audiences laugh and cry.

One of my all-time favorite actors is Gene Wilder. I’ve always wondered who might be the next of his kind, an actor capable of changing emotions on a dime. One who can be mean, and then in a flash, turn kind. One who could, like Wilder, portray both a fully sexualized adult as well as the virginal naïf.  Someone who could explode like a volcano one minute, then convey shyness worthy of a church mouse the next. I think both Brand and Galifianakis have the stuff to be heir apparent to Wilder. (If they ever do a musical of Willy Wonka on Broadway, they should cast Brand, don’t you think?)  Like their predecessor, both Brand and Galifianakis are quirky and unusual leading men. They’re comics with a frightening edge. I look forward to both of them kicking the hornet’s nest of Hollywood for some time to come. And imagine what Brand or Galifianakis could do with a rom-com role opposite Jennifer Aniston. Now that I can’t wait to see!

Friday, April 1, 2011

TEN THAT TERRIFIED ME

INSIDIOUS, a new horror film opens today and the buzz has been good. (You can check Fandango.com for listings at a theater near you.) Whenever I go to see a new scary movie I hope, first of all, that it is scary because too often they are not. And secondly, I hold out the hope that it will be something more than just a fun way to spend a couple of hours in the dark; that it will be truly special, a memorable monster movie that rattles around in my brain and my nightmares for many full moons.

Over the decades I have seen a lot of horror movies. Some good, some bad, some schlock that’s so terrible it’s good. But when I think about the best films I’ve seen in the genre, my mind readily calls up two dozen or so classics. And there are some characters in those movies that I’m still being haunted by. In a good way. Here then are the 10 characters from the world of horror films that give me the willies. And I’ll bet if you experience them, you’ll be tossing and turning in your sleep too.

10.) ANTON CHIGURH (No Country For Old Men 2007)
Can a bad haircut be terrifying? Yes, when it is so unusual and disturbing, just like everything else about this psychopathic killer, brilliantly essayed by Javier Bardem. Chigurh is an assassin with his own offbeat code. He’ll chase after a helpless naïf (Josh Brolin) who’s unwittingly run off with bad money like he’s hunting for the Holy Grail. And he’ll apply the same intense dogging of a hapless old gas station owner who’s reluctant to call a coin toss. He casually kills anything in his way in this horror western, like a cowboy Jason Voorhees. And when Chigurh shows up in a scene, chances are someone is going to die.
9.) ALEX FORREST (Fatal Attraction 1987)
She’s the other woman, the one who “wouldn’t be ignored” and boy, did she scare the bejeesus out of the male species throughout the land. Married men probably tried a little harder to be faithful to their wives after seeing what happened when Michael Douglas thought he could get away with cheating on Anne Archer with Glenn Close this seminal eighties movie. I originally saw the movie together with a married couple. The man and I were horrified throughout the entire thing. His wife just laughed. To us it was a horror movie but to her, and many other women out there, Alex Forrest was an avenging angel not about to let any bad boy get away with his sin. Not for nothing is Alex always dressed in white throughout.

8.) CESARE THE SOMNOMBULIST (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari 1920)
This silent film will haunt your dreams because it looks like one, with impressionistic sets and stylized landscapes and horrifically ugly denizens of a repressed society. (It was a foreshadowing of the German psyche turning to fascism, and one of the first things that Hitler did when he came into power was ban this film.) Cesare is a ghoul in a circus act, popping out of the cabinet of Dr. Caligari to predict the fate of those brave enough to ask. When he tells one man that he will die at dawn, Cesare makes sure his record is 100% accurate and strangles the man in his bed. Try sleeping after seeing that. I didn’t for weeks.
7.) DOMINIQUE BLANCHION (Sisters 1973)
In the SUPERMAN movies, Margot Kidder gave me fantasies. When I saw her in SISTERS she gave me nightmares. I told her so when she appeared at Wizard World/Chicago a year ago. She was breezy and cordial and funny, and we talked for some time.  She confessed to me that she was dating director Brian DePalma in the early seventies when he wrote SISTERS for her. She was amused that he saw her as mentally disturbed twins. When you see what she does with a cake knife in the movie, you won’t be amused. You’ll be terrified. And you may never be able to see her as Lois Lane again.
6.) JOHN DOE (Se7en 1995)
Earlier that year Kevin Spacey played Keyser Sose in THE USUAL SUSPECTS, but he was even more chilling here. As the serial killer who has it in for those guilty of the seven deadliest sins, emphasis on the word deadliest, he only shows up for the last 15 minutes of the film. But what an incredible impression he makes in that short time. Doe is a religious zealot and has created theatrical, truly out there ways of punishment for his victims. But at the end, for his final flourish, he’s an entirely in-the-box thinker.


5.) THE GUNSLINGER (Westworld 1973)
How brilliant that the robot gunslinger at the adult theme park in this movie is played by Yul Brynner, in the iconic all-black garb he wore in seminal western THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960). Tourists Richard Benjamin and James Brolin enjoy winning shootouts with Yul until the theme park wiring goes haywire and the robots start fighting back. Soon the unstoppable gunslinger is stalking Benjamin through hill and high water. He’s like the Terminator in the desert, and James Cameron must’ve loved this movie to pay such homage to it a decade later.

4.) JANOS SKORZENY (The Night Stalker 1972)
All right, I’m cheating here a bit by including a TV movie, but this film is so expert at scaremongering, it easily could have been released in the theater. A vampire is loose in Las Vegas and the only person who believes it is Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) a muckraking reporter for a tabloid newspaper. Character actor Barry Atwater brilliantly portrays the vampire Skorzeny. And he’s the only vampire that has ever scared me. That’s because there is nothing sexy about him. He’s a coldblooded killer who’s even got one victim rigged to an IV in his home to serve as his own private blood bank. Team Edward doesn’t stand a chance against Team Janos.

3.) THE GREAT WHITE (Jaws 1975)
To me, my all-time favorite horror movie simply gets better and better with each viewing. Steven Spielberg couldn’t show much of his temperamental mechanical beast and it renders the tension even more palpable. Because we can’t see what is out there, the entire oceans becomes a deathtrap. JAWS is a rollercoaster ride that is terrifying and exhilarating. Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Bill Butler’s revolutionary underwater photography, John William’s pummeling score, Verna Field’s deft and witty editing – they’re all sublime. At the end, Brody implores the shark, “Smile, you sonuvabitch!” Every time I watch it, which is at least once a year, I smile too.


2.) THE ALIEN (Alien 1979)
Director Ridley Scott took a cue from the success of JAWS and teased us with only glimpses of his creature until the very end. It was all the more brilliant because what we did see was freaking weird. H. R. Giger designed the monster to look like one part Sasquatch, one part giant phallus, and one part Hoover vacuum cleaner. (What was the deal with all those hoses and wires? Some skeletal structure!) I love many things about this film including Jerry Goldsmith’s pulsating score and the claustrophobic production design. I also love the logic that the alien does not kill the ship’s cat. The orange feline is no threat, and since they are both beasts the kitty is spared. (Or perhaps the alien had read Blake Snyder’s screenplay writing book.)

1.) THE DEMON (The Exorcist 1973)
The scariest movie for a lot of people is also the scariest one I’ve ever endured. Maybe it’s because a devil’s minion is such a huge adversary. Perhaps it’s because the first hour is played realistically as Ellen Burstyn tries to figure out what’s driving the psychosis in her daughter Linda Blair. An hour in, all hell breaks loose, literally, as the demon takes full hold of the young girl and the story becomes absolutely harrowing. The violence, the obscenities, the sexual provoking…it’s hard to believe any studio greenlit such a project. But thank God they did. This is regarded by most as the best horror movie ever made. And that’s because the power of THE EXORCIST compels us!


I am sure I have left one of your favorite monsters off my list. Please share your pick (or picks) and tell us why he/she/it is the one that scared you the most. The best post will get a caricature of said beast done by yours truly. (In case you didn’t notice, all ten caricatures here were done by yours truly.)

NOTE:  I’m posting this same entry at Examiner.com, as I am now their new horror movie examiner/critic/gadabout, so I hope you will follow me there too!