Item 1. Letterman introduced Nicolas Cage Wednesday night as an actor whose films have made $3 billion worldwide. Not as the man who made Moonstruck, Leaving Las Vegas and Adaptation (each a shining achievement in their respective decades), but as an actor who can really rake in the dough.
The point: Culturalists are talking too much about movies and movie people in terms of dollars. I know the film industry is a business; money must be made, and the financial success of a movie can serve as a kind of cultural barometer. But Letterman isn't Sherry Lansing and EW isn't Variety. Let's keep our eye on the ball, folks. I understand there are corporate interests at work here, but Letterman on TV and EW in print and on the Web have tremendous power to point people to quality material. If only they were using that power for good.
Following the example set by the X-Men trilogy, the third installment of Spider-Man returns the franchise to the shithouse it started in. It's an indefensible heap of misdirected garbage. Laughable. Very, very laughable. No grace. No wit. The CGI -- which accounts for more than half the movie -- looks absurd. Bright spot? J.K. Simmons, who seems to be in his own movie (and it's a better one).
I have not been watching movies lately, so we have a little diversion here. My patron, Middento, answered five questions on his blog a little while ago. So I asked for five for mine.
1. I first met you in your freshman fall in college, both of us new arrivals to D.C. Given a time machine (just like Bill & Ted), what item of wisdom would you like to tell that kid from six years ago? (Optional follow-up: what bit of fool-hardiness should that kid remind you of now?) I have grown less mature and more foolhardy as I've gotten older, so I'm not sure if it's possible to answer this question without going cross-eyed. But: I would tell my younger self to drop the journalism major and make better use of his time. Or drop out of school entirely and come back when he's ready to actually learn and stop wasting people's time and money. On the flip side, I would not be interested in anything my freshman self would have to say. He was a stupid boy.
2. Describe your feelings toward book paper (as opposed to, say, the gloss of magazine paper). It's about smell, not texture. Sometimes I smell the pages of a book -- riffle the leaves in front of my nose and inhale -- and can remember exactly how that book made me feel as I read it. In fact, you could blindfold me, pick my five favorite books from my shelf, flutter them in front of my nose and I'd be able to tell which is which. Magazine paper is less evocative.
3. Captain Renault has just told you to round up the usual suspects. Who are they -- and where? They are a DVD at Blockbuster.
4. Apparently, these quizzes have questions involving identification with inanimate objects. In which case -- poof! you're a desk! Describe yourself, and what's on/in you. I am a desk from the future -- a future where desks are not made of metals and woods but of highly-pressurized and dense air. So one does appear to be, in effect, writing on nothing at all. But this ether-desk works beautifully and is solid and smooth and functional without being apparent. The only downside is that the desk has no drawers. Which is typical of me as a human, since I eschew pants.
5. You've clearly been a bad, bad boy and are going straight to hell. When you arrive, you'll be strapped into the chair akin to that used to change Alex in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, so that you will be forced to watch something. Happily, however, you are given a choice. Which would you choose first: Xanadu, Gigli, BloodRayne, Kazaam or Bolero? I have never seen any of these, so the whole experience would, at the very least, be a new one. And I like new experiences, so this isn't hell at all! Is it? Is it?
Bonus: Have you ever danced with the devil by the pale moon light? In October 2005, I peered down the chasm of eternity and saw the face of forever, but there was no dancing involved.
Now do you have any questions for me? Until I post next, I will answer with sharp honesty any question written in the comments. Upcoming: I see Spider-Man 3 on Thursday.
I'm busy. Too busy for blog. Instead of reading this, you should read this and this. The first is a grand writing experiment, from both a humanistic and journalistic perspective. The second is one of the finest pieces of breaking-news journalism I've ever read. It is stunning and heart-stopping and fills me with pride to be working in the same building as the author and the people who helped him build this masterpiece.
For months now, New Line has been zealously showering the press with a confetti of (unsubstantiated) good buzz on Hairspray, the movie adapted from the musical adapted from the movie (yes, another one of those). Yesterday I saw 17 minutes of footage -- a mix of scenes and numbers assembled by the director Adam Shankman. If one can purport to conclude anything from seeing a clip reel of a film's best moments, I purport to conclude this:
Michelle Pfeiffer is going to be delicious as the icy Velma Von Tussle, and John Travolta (above, at left) is going to be unwatchable in drag as Edna Turnbland, the Baltimorean matriarch of Brobdingnagian proportions. Travolta looks like an alien or a theme park mascot or a CGI creation. A Macy's parade float, if you will. The getup (no attempt to mask the gnarled manhands?) and the act (is that a Minnesotan accent?) doesn't work. His scenes were uncomfortable to watch. Seems like a miscalculation.
But! I only saw a bit of the film. Maybe Travolta is sensational. I'll leave the rash, obsequious conclusions to The Baltimore Sun's Michael Sragow, who went simply ga-ga over the footage. Without seeing the complete version, he's already christened it a huge smash. Note: The film does not open til July. Yet he writes: "Credit director and choreographer Adam Shankman for Hairspray's success." What success? Sragow hasn't seen the film yet. It hasn't opened. Good grief. New Line is probably loving it.
Other thoughts: Can't wait to see Pfeiffer rev her comic chops -- the crowd of critics were hanging on her every word. Amanda Bynes seems like she's going to be funny too. Queen Latifah passively plays herself, as she always does, in anything she's in. Seems like newcomer Nikki Blonsky was a wise choice for the lead. It's nice to see James Marsden not looking aggrieved. I'm concerned that Hairspray will pull a Dreamgirls -- will it just be catchy music with no swell of drama or comedy?
For a true appreciation of Vonnegut, go here. As for me, I like the crap he wrote for women's journals. My aunt turned me on to the short story "Long Walk to Forever," which I read every now and then because it's an arm wrestling match between Vonnegut's writerly sensibilities and his deference to the target audience. (The match is an electric stalemate -- here's a shoddy transcription of the story.) The heart of the matter: I always wanted to make a short film of it, but just found out that has already been done. Denis Leary made his acting debut in the 1987 film version.I want to see this. Has anyone seen it? Heard anything about it? Being a short film from 20 years ago, I'd imagine it's simply unviewable today. Not on DVD. Not on eBay. And so on. Next post: I got a look at 20 minutes of Hairspray footage today. Reactions tomorrow.
BUFFALO -- The last truly great film shoot here was The Natural in 1983. I wandered around the set in utero. My aunt and grandfather were extras in War Memorial Stadium (built in '37, demolished in '88). The director's cut DVD was just released. It's $24.95 and, according to The Buffalo News review, only mentions this fine city in the context of its unpredictable and chilly weather. Typical.
The film owes much to Buffalo, which was able to provide it with a stadium and vibe that fit the Depression-era time period (location scouts had searched everywhere, including Puerto Rico, but found nothing suitable). I have not viewed the new DVD, but it may wind up in my Netflix queue. To tell you the truth, I was devastated when I read the book (by Bernard Malamud) a couple years back. It has the exact opposite ending of the movie. It's unfathomably sad. It knocked the wind out of me. The movie's climax is exultant and mythic, buoyed by one of the greatest film scores of all time (Randy Newman's career zenith). The book is piercing -- a sharp requiem for a dream.
Read the book. Then watch the movie. They're equal in tone and plot until the end. Then Hollywood takes over. If life were only like that! Link buffet:My grandfather's memories as a stand-in. / The next Buffalo-shot movie is Linney and PSH's The Savages, out in September.
My grandmother -- who died yesterday after enduring a host of ailments for longer than anyone should've and with a quiet resolve few could've mustered -- always reminded me of Bette Davis. Not in attitude; she was a kind and deferential woman in her role as Grandma Pat and was without a trace of Davis' acidity or self-importance. But in the early days of my life (the mid-'80s), she bore a slight resemblance to that great player of unsympathetic characters.
It was the eyes, I think: wide, walnut-shaped. And the lid and eyebrow area: a weighty crescent (I'm loathe to say "droopy" or "sagging" because that denotes lethargy, of which she had none, but you know what I mean). The eyes were the focal point of a woman who was once full-figured and statuesque. A stroke or two changed her appearance dramatically and the "extended stay" in a nursing home in the last chapter of her life dulled her features. In my head I'm picturing a photo of her, my grandfather and me when I was maybe 1 year old, and the Pat I saw this past Christmas was not the same Pat who's in that photo. Life has a way of wearing you down, I guess. If it can wear the immortal Bette Davis down (and boy did it ever), it can wear anyone down. I wish I had that photo in my possession so I could post her opposite Davis.
Anyway. The great thing about memory is also the great thing about movies: We can envision people in the prime of their lives, in moments of clarity and beauty. We can afford the dead a certain immortality. Davis has been dead for almost 20 years, but I can pop in All About Eve and suddenly she's here, in the now now now: 42 years old, crackling with life, enduring. We can skip the memories of her when she was old and infirm and confused, making those embarrassing appearances on awards and talk shows.
And as I remember Davis poised on the stairs in All About Eve, so too do I remember Grandma Pat in those quick, slight moments. Screen captures, if you will: how she used to wear these flannel skirts held together with a massive safety pin, how she made dark chocolate mini turkeys for Thanksgiving and how she always kept a tin filled with M&Ms, how I distinctly remember when she told me her favorite color was yellow (and how my 8-year-old self was fascinated by that choice, since I was convinced everyone's favorite was boring old blue), how her drink of choice was a Manhattan, how she grew mint in the backyard and gave us stale bread to place around the nearby St. Francis bird fountain, the way the stroke made her seem distant and alien but then how she tenderly and covertly stroked my grandfather's thigh last Thanksgiving as they sat side by side.
Last night I went across the street to hear some bluegrass. I ordered a Manhattan, winced with each sip -- I see now why she liked it -- and left the two cherries speared and uneaten.
I'm still addled with fatigue from being an extra this past weekend for National Treasure: Book of Secrets, the sequel to the 2004 Nicolas Cage action extravaganza. We shot in the reading room of the Library of Congress (pictured) for about 20 hours -- from Saturday evening to Sunday morning, and then Sunday afternoon to Monday morning. A good friend of mine is writing a newspaper story on the experience, so I will surely direct you to it upon publication April 29. All the scandalous on-set gossip will be included there. (But one thought for now: Cage's hair is an engineering marvel.)
Cashier: I'm sorry, but weren't you in that movie? With Kevin Costner? Joan Allen: Yes, The Upside of Anger. Thanks. Cashier: I knew it was you! Last time you was in here I kept staring 'cause I knew it was you -- remember, I was staring at you? You was so good in that! Joan Allen: Oh, thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it. [pays and leaves] Cashier: [to next lady in line] Yeah, last time she was in here I stared at her forever -- she must have thought I was crazy. Lady in line: What movie was she in? Cashier: The Other Side...of the Angel, with Kevin Costner! She was that lady! Lady in line: I never saw that movie. I thought she was on Lost. I thought she was the lady on Lost -- you know, the teacher. Cashier: Nah, she was in that movie! The Other Side of the Angel. Lady in line: The Upside of Anger? Cashier: No! It's called The Other Side of the Angel, look it up! Lady in line: Oh. Never seen it.
-- Duane Reade, 94th & Broadway
Now accepting speculation about the plot summary of a movie called "The Other Side of the Angel." Ideas? Mine: Joan Allen plays a heroin-addicted prostitute named Theresa Mothers who has an ecstatic religious experience whilst in the throes of withdrawal in jail. In this hallucination (or...is it real?), she has intercourse with Gabriel the Archangel (Costner). None of her buddies in jail believe her -- until, that is, a routine medical checkup reveals THAT SHE IS PREGNANT. How could that be? She's in a solo cell surrounded by women! I won't reveal the ending or the twist, but let's just say it involves one or two big speeches about redemption, plus a thrilling courtroom scene with a paternity test that finally gets to the bottom of this immaculate conception. Co-starring Roma Downey as Theresa's court-appointed psychologist, Della Reese as her compassionate lawyer and Christopher Lloyd as the crusty but benign prison warden. James Ivory directs.