Thursday, December 04, 2008

Oh Sister James...

I have doubts. I have such doubts.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Fix Is In: Election Reflection

I have only one memory of the 2000 election. This may be because I was a senior in high school and the world outside of me didn’t exist. The memory is from the limbo between Election Day and the Supreme Court ruling that finally gave us a president-elect. One of my Jesuit teachers plodded around the hallways of my Buffalo school mumbling, “The fix is in.” Every day. “The fix is in.”

He was talking about the election. I didn’t really know what he meant, until “the fix” turned into the next eight years of life.

I turned 18 on Sept. 11, 2001. It was my second week at college in Washington.

I have three memories from that day. I remember seeing, from the top floor of my dorm room, a spire of black smoke on the horizon. I remember, like everyone else, a blinding blue sky. I remember, at night, watching a man walk on the giant granite world map on the Navy Memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue, where the streetlights went from green to yellow to red to green even though there were no cars. The man flicked on his lighter over New York, then did the same over the Middle East, then sat down in the south of Spain.

The next seven years, for me, were like a prolonged vacation. College was fine. I lived abroad. I spent the best summers of my life at home, with friends, doing theatre. I interned at three fabulous publications before settling at the most fabulous of them all, where I have been gainfully employed with benefits. I have friends and a family who have provided for me. I have, in essence, skipped like a stone over the muck. I have been care-free, careless, as self-involved as I was in high school.

During this time, the country got away from me, from us. I blame myself. But I also blame the political climate in which I came of age. It was fearful, muddled, cynical, backward, conducive to complacency, unresponsive to the needs of the people, predicated on vulnerabilities sprung from a cataclysm. The climate appealed to the worst in us, which made a lot of us remain on the sidelines; who wants to play a game that is rigged from the start? Among all of our breathtaking national failures, the worst is still, I think, the episode of prisoner mistreatment at Abu Ghraib. Invading another country, arresting people, depriving them of due process and humiliating them — all under the guise of spreading a democracy that we ourselves don’t wholly practice — simply invalidates the United States of America as an idea. And without that idea on which we were founded, we don’t have much. How did Abu Ghraib happen? Complacency. We do what we want, consequences be damned.

It doesn’t make sense to blame one person. Sure, George W. Bush can be faulted for allowing corruption to smother him and his country. His was a poor example. But he was not the lone actor. Everyone who stood and watched can be faulted too. The United States of America has grown rich enough to allow many of its citizens to create their own self-sufficient worlds, cut off from circumstance. Wrapped in these cocoons, we have ignored those who need our help, our power and our voice. We have ignored ourselves. We let government get away with things because we thought it wouldn’t affect our own lives.

I became an adult on Sept. 11, but almost immediately I reverted back to the pupa stage, which is where I’ve remained. Until, I think, now. A prolonged war and an imminent depression has snapped me out of it. We created a savior when we needed one, and Barack Obama has gamely played the part. There appears to be, to our great luck, a good deal of substance behind his spectacle.

If I wasn’t a pseudo-journalist, I would express the elation of witnessing the election of a new president after being slowly and systematically beaten down by the current political climate. I would express the thundering wonder of watching a nation of PEOPLE — not inherited wealth or age-old political machines — launch a candidate to the the land’s highest office. I would express the admiration for a man who, if nothing else, appeals to the best of us. And that's a great start.

When the election was called last night at 11 p.m., I was at 14th and U streets, ground zero of the 1968 race riots of Washington. Forty years after buildings were burned, an entire city took to the streets with unchecked jubilation to celebrate the election of a biracial president. A drum circle on the corner reached a fever pitch, and passersby swarmed. Inside bars and restaurants, patrons pounded against the windows at the those watching the TVs from outside. Any object available to stand on was stood on, and the blare of car horns almost drowned out the repeated shouts of "Oh my God!" as strangers high-fived each other and fell into embraces. I have never seen or felt anything like it. I will keep three memories from yesterday: the sound of the car horns, the smell of damp pavement, and the sight of “Barack Obama Elected President” first sweeping onto the TV screen and sending a giant tremor up and down the street.

After absorbing the scene, I cabbed back to the Post to write three sentences of copy that wouldn’t be used. The frantic newsroom paused to watch Obama’s midnight speech at Grant Park and then resumed the work of stilling history into words and images.

Then I went to the White House, where hundreds pressed toward the gates. The mansion was dark both inside and out. Versailles was finally surrounded. The people have acted to protect themselves. A crowd of young people sang “God Bless America” toward the White House. The last time I witnessed a similar scene, it was 2001, days after 9/11, when the city converged on the Mall to mourn. Eight years later, something is finally worth celebrating. Most of the crowd appeared college-aged. How nice to become an adult on a promising note. Let’s not squander that promise.

In spite of the stunning errors of the current government, this election was not really about the issues. A president cannot solve a problem with a scribble of his pen. This election has always been about empowerment. Barack Obama won the presidency because he recognizes that a nation operates best when entrusted to the industry, altruism and vision of its citizens. And we needed to be reminded of that.

We worked together on these past eight years. We made them miserable for ourselves. Maybe it was necessary to our evolution. Maybe the first decade of the 21st century was equal to a young person’s adolescence, when bad decisions are made from a position of intense self-involvement. Everyone is forced to grow up sooner or later.

I said before that it doesn’t make sense to blame one person for a nation’s ills. It also does not make sense to invest hope in one person. Chants of “Yes We Can” turned to “Yes We Did” last night, and that made me nervous. The reparation of the country is not over. It has barely started: California voters, led chiefly by minorities, defeated same-sex marriage yesterday. Separate-but-equal. Still. Even on this momentous day. This further proves the election of a president is, at the start, an inspirational formality. Obama may be a great leader, but the country will not meet that standard unless its citizens do.

Perhaps today is a first step toward national adulthood, but it must be a collective step. The American people have proven they can send a man to the White House against all odds. Now, we must realize our powers do not stop there. The fix is in, but the fixing is ours to accomplish.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Station identification

Sometimes my professional life demands that I write about movies, so that's where I've been this past week: watching a crap-ton of apocalyptic flicks and writing down errant thoughts. Apologies for not keeping up. However! Last night friends and I watched both Ghostbusters movies back to back. We used a projector and aimed it at a big wall in the house, so it was a borderline theatrical experience. So I hope to continue with the Ghostbusters@25 series soon.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Bette without a butt

Roger Ebert is flourishing as a blogger. The freedom agrees with him. Currently he has a great post on the new Bette Davis stamp, for which her ever-present cigarette was erased: (look at that pose! The erasure is laughably obvious):

Look, I hate smoking. It took my parents from me, my father with lung cancer, my mother with emphysema. [...] On the other hand, I have never objected to smoking in the movies, especially when it is necessary to establish a period or a personality. [...] If virtually all actresses smoked, Bette Davis smoked more than virtually all actresses. When she appeared on the Tonight Show the night after she co-hosted the Oscars, she walked onstage, shook Johnny's hand, sat down, pulled out her Vantages, and lit up. Tumultuous applause. I would guess it is impossible for an impressionist to do Bette Davis without using a cigarette.

Related post: The censors take on filters: Casting a pall (mall) on the alluring, noirish cool of the movies.

Friday, October 10, 2008

This weekend, vacation in Crawford

Hulu is out with its first movie premiere: Crawford, a documentary about the Texas town in which Bush "lives." It's a small masterpiece -- a short, sad, clear-headed look at how the sentiments of a small town are italicized (and then eroded) by the residency of a sitting president. It starts off slow but picks up around minute 30, when Crawford reveals itself as a pressure-cooked microcosm of a divided U.S.A. It turns heartbreaking in the last 15 minutes, when we see what the withering blast of "with us or against us" does when trained on only 700 people. Bravo to director David Modigliani (his first credit) and his crew.

Via The House Next Door.

Marge Gunderson interviews Sarah Palin

This mash-up needed to be done. But the scene in which Marge Gunderson sautées Jerry Lundegaard in politeness would've been a better pick. Couldn't fine the scene on the YouTubes, dammit. Someone get on that.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

We're in the middle of a drought, and the water commissioner drowns. Only in L.A.

New banner courtesy of Beedow, a former blogger who should blog again. He's a natural writer. But he's also a working actor, so time is short. At this point I'd name his favorite movie, just to keep in line with the mission of this blog, but I actually don't know what his favorite movie is. So I'm just going to guess Singin' in the Rain. Thanks, Beedow.

Ghostbusters @ 25: Ernie Hudson, Winston Zeddemore and the fourth wheel

In Ghostbusters: Winston Zeddemore is hired a half hour into the movie, and for what? To carry the workload? He has no special skills. He doesn't seem to be compelled by the job, either, but answers an ad in the paper and is screened by Janine Melnitz simply because he needs work.

Janine: Do you believe in UFOs, astral projections, mental telepathy, ESP, clairvoyance, spirit photography, telekinetic movement, full trance mediums, the Loch Ness monster and the theory of Atlantis?

Winston: Ah, if there's a steady paycheck in it, I'll believe anything you say.

Why would Stantz and Spengler hire someone who doesn't share their passion for the paranormal? Maybe it's because Winston is the only person to show up for the interview. Or the only person who is open-minded enough to believe in the work. (Wikipedia says Winston was a firefighter, which has a passing relationship with ghostbusting I guess.) When Ray first meets Winston, he treats him with a certain dismissive acceptance. The most we know about Winston is that he's a bit religious, if not superstitious. Winston loves "Jesus's style," which maybe prepares this newbie for facing a demon. Winston does get some good lines ("That's a big twinkie," "Ray, if someone asks if you're a god, you say YES," "I've seen shit that will turn you white" and the final line of the movie: "I love this town!"), but he never grabs for the movie's center. He just adds a little bit of color (excuse the pun) and flexible skepticism to the otherwise academic trifecta of ghost-obsessed white men. Notice the blocking in the screenshot at the top of this post.

The biographical rundown: The Ghostbusters series was obviously Ernie Hudson's one-and-only huge hit. He made the first when he was 39. The Yale graduate subsequently appeared in The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and Congo. He's often cast in roles of authority: a sergeant in both The Crow and Airheads, the warden on "Oz," FBI assistant director in Miss Congeniality, detective in "Desperate Housewives" and a doctor in several other minor movies. Today, at 62, he seems to be a regular on the comic convention circuit and is, with the other members of the original cast, lending his voice to the newest Ghostbusters video game.

What it all means: One wonders how the franchise might be different if Eddie Murphy had accepted the role. The dynamics certainly would've changed. In the '80s, no one was a bigger comic star than Murphy. Ghostbusters 2, especially, would've probably been all about Murray and Murphy battling for screen supremacy. But with an unknown like Hudson in the role, the franchise started as a buddy comedy between three white guys. The first movie's poster did not include Winston Zeddemore. The trailer didn't mention Ernie Hudson. This would be rectified when the sequel came out. Either way, Hudson and Winston always felt like the fourth wheel on a tricycle. This wasn't an entirely bad thing. It was just curious. I assume Hudson will be asked back for the third movie so the purists do not erupt with anger. Here's hoping. And to close, here's how the original movie's trailer would've looked if Hudson had been the star:

Upcoming: Bill Murray, Annie Potts, Harold Ramis, Sigourney Weaver. Previously: Dan Aykroyd, Rick Moranis.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Marathon movie-watching, catheter optional

Two people have broken a Guinness World Record by watching movies for 123 hours inside a transparent plastic box in Times Square. Apparently they could not divert their eyes from the screen (makes sense) but they could have a 10-minute break between movies, which seems like cheating until you realize 123 hours equals about five days, and when else are they going to sleep? I could not do this. I fall asleep easily, and I am virtually incapable of watching more than two or three movies in a row except when in film-festival mode (and even then it gets tiresome).

I've thought about doing a straight sit-through of the Alien franchise. I'm sure many people have watched all six Star Wars movies in a row. I myself have never engaged in a marathon of anything other than "Arrested Development." Although on Sunday I plan to watch Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters 2 back-to-back. But that's not quite a feat.

Anyway, the news story does not say what the record-breakers watched, other than Iron Man to begin and Thelma and Louise to end. Did they have options? Or was the lineup pre-programmed? Estimating a total of 10.25 hours of breaktime leaves 112.5 hours for movie-watching. You could probably fit 56 movies in that time, figuring an average of two hours for running time. If I had to perform this feat and could choose the movies, I'd want a heart-racer or spine-tingler every third or fourth movie, just so I'd stay in the game. Here would be my 15 picks to split up the slog, in order of intensity:

Hour 8. The Innocents. Just enough silence and dread to perk me up.
Hour 16. Michael Clayton. I would not miss a frame of this delicious movie.
Hour 24. Changing Lanes. Same here. Gorgeous, suspenseful drama.
Hour 32. Wild Things. A little titillation after more than a day of watching.
Hour 40. True Lies. Lots of fun, with great pacing by John Cameron.
Hour 48. The Game. A tense mindf*ck. A clamor for relief.
Hour 56. The Fugitive. Harrison Ford carries me all the way.
Hour 64. The Shining. There's something about long, straight tracking shots.
Hour 72. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Quintessential bruised-forearm movie.
Hour 80. Open Water. You can't fall asleep while treading water.
Hour 88. The Silence of the Lambs. Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock.
Hour 96. The Blair Witch Project. This is the only terrifying movie on here.
Hour 104. Requiem for a Dream. Can't imagine what this is like to watch on no sleep.
Hour 112. Speed. A movie with three great climaxes. Bam bam bam.
Hour 120. Alien. To look away or fall asleep would be like plugging one's ears during a Beethoven symphony.

What movie always makes you perk up? What is the most intense movie you've ever seen? My answer to the latter question (right now, anyway) is Training Day, which completely gutted and drained me even though (or because) I didn't really like it.

Monday, October 06, 2008


I first got wind of the new Kirk Cameron marriage-in-peril Christian movie Fireproof a couple weeks ago, when I saw the trailer.

This parish-financed movie has won the praise of Mike Huckabee, the archbishop of Louisville and Bubba Cathy, the churchy senior vice president of Chick-fil-A. Now The New York Times has picked up on it, noting that it's so far made $12.5 million at the box office (set against its $500,000 budget). As much as I want to mock this movie, I will not. I haven't seen it. Maybe it's good. Religious-themed movies can be excellent. The Mission, for example, is one of my faves. But The Mission does not evangelize. Based on its trailer, I'm worried that Fireproof is doing exactly that, and only that. I'm worried that it will inspire couples to stay in failing marriages -- unions that will combust with or without God's help because sometimes, regardless of holy matrimony, people aren't meant to be together. I'm worried that a struggling couple will see this movie, and force themselves to stay miserable together rather than do what's best for both of them: divorce.

Blasphemy! I can see Bubba Cathy brandishing a chicken nugget at me and smearing her palms, feet and side with BBQ sauce and screaming "Stigmata!" Perhaps I'm being unfair. It's just that the political climate has made me frightened of religious messages, regardless of nuance. Too much badness has been waged in the name of monotheism. War, for example. Or futilely clinging to a dead relationship and doing emotional damage to oneself, one's partner and one's children.

Anyway. Might I suggest a great double-billing? Fireproof, followed by Bill Maher's Religulous. Or vice versa. Room for everyone! Except the crazies.


I may continue my Ghostbusters @ 25 series today, if I finish the post on Ernie Hudson. Or I may spread the series out over this month. We'll see. In the meantime, peruse the My Best Post Blogathon at He Shot Cyrus, a new-ish blog that's a lot of fun. The proprietor certainly knows more about the realm of blogging than I do. Exhibit A: He seems to be cultivating an actual readership, and the headlining banner at the top of his homepage is pretty stunning. Anyway, my submission for the 'thon is my Triple Crowners series, which is technically seven posts, but whatever. I swear I'll get to the next series installment before the end of the year. Really.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Ghostbusters @ 25: Rick Moranis, Louis Tully and country music

Rick Moranis is not dead. In 2004, a friend assured me he was. Someone started a rumor on the Internets. Maybe it was Moranis himself. Maybe he wanted to remind people he was alive (irony!) and planning to release a comedy album the following year. Either way, he retired from the movies in 1997 and hasn't been seen since. But he's been heard from. You'll see what I mean.

In Ghostbusters: Moranis plays Louis Tully, the wimpy accountant living next to Dana Barrett in an apartment building constructed as a conduit for demons. In the first film, we see him whenever he pops out of his apartment to say hello to Dana. Inevitably, he locks himself out. Eventually, Moranis gets to shine while hosting a cocktail party. He flits between guests, dropping uncouth information about new arrivals as if that's what a host is supposed to do. Soon there is a growl from his bedroom, allowing Moranis to utter a line for the ages: "Oookay, who brought the dog?"

It gets ugly from there for Louis Tully, who is posessed by the dog and becomes the Key Master. One of the movie's gags comes from the odd pairing of short, stooped Moranis and the tall, statuesque Sigourney Weaver. Seeing them make out while posessed on a pile of rubble is exceptionally funny. The whole posession thing sets up one of Louis's great little punchlines in the sequel, in which Tully defends the Ghostbusters in court:

Your Honor, ladies and gentleman of the audience, I don't think it's fair to call my clients frauds. Sure, the blackout was a big problem for everybody. I was trapped in an elevator for two hours and I had to make the whole time. But I don't blame them. Because one time I turned into a dog and they helped me. Thank you.

In the sequel, Moranis gets even more to work with. Louis gets the girl (Janine Melnitz!) and he gets credit for saving the world at the end of the movie. Moranis's performance in the court-room sequence is great comedy. He stumbles over every legal convention ("My guys are still under a judicial mistrangement order -- that blue thing I got from her!"). It's very winning. Moranis took Woody Allen's stock character from the '70s and turned up the volume and the anxiety for the '80s. It worked. It works.

The biographical rundown: After starting as a player on SCTV, Moranis spent most of the '80s and '90s as a sort-of movie star. Ghostbusters propelled him to starring roles in successful vehicles like Little Shop of Horrors, Spaceballs, Parenthood, Honey I Shrunk the Kid and its sequels. His wife died of liver cancer in 1991. He gave up the movies in 1997 to focus entirely on his kids. And then he reinvented himself as a singer-songwriter. Take a look at this. Yep, that's Louis Tully doing his best John Mellencamp pose. Moranis was nominated for a Grammy in 2006. Make sure to read this profile from The Independent, which has this nice biographical nugget midway through: How the now 53-year-old actor ended up quitting a successful movie career, writing and recording a colourful collection of country songs, and latterly penning comment pieces for The New York Times, is a tale that has its roots in tragedy.

The profile also goes on to say Moranis has an "obscenely spacious" apartment overlooking Central Park. I find this oddly comforting. I don't know why. I'm just glad he's not a washed-up actor renting a bungalow in Venice Beach. This man made a conscious decision to change his life, though he still has the spoils of his career to keep him comfortable.

What's it all mean? It means that another Ghostbusters needs Louis Tully. And maybe Rick Moranis needs another Ghostbusters. Yes, he has sworn off acting. But to be back in the improvisational arena with Murray and Aykroyd and Ramis? I hope there's a part for him in the script, and I hope it lures him out. And it's not just me who wants to see him again:

Monday: Ernie Hudson. Upcoming: Bill Murray, Annie Potts, Harold Ramis, Sigourney Weaver.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Ghostbusters @ 25 and the lost Dan Aykroyd interview

Next June is the 25th anniversary of the release of Ghostbusters and the 20th anniversary of Ghostbusters II. Both were a big part of my movie-watching childhood. And now Ghostbusters 3 appears to really be in the works, and set for a release in 2010. Two guys from "The Office" are writing it for the original cast. As it should be. The last thing I'd want to see is Ghostbusters 3 headlined by Seth Rogen, Michael Cera, Jay Baruchel, Nick Cannon and Megan Fox. Can you imagine? Yech. Let's take a look at where the original cast is today. They're all still alive (even Alice Drummond, who played the hyperventilating librarian in the opening sequence!). We start today with:

Dan Aykroyd

In Ghostbusters: Aykroyd played Ray Stantz, the wide-eyed, child-like nerd and PhD. If Egon is the brains and Venkman the nerves, Stantz is the heart. He's an expert on paranormal psychology and metallurgy, and is responsible for unleashing the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man on Manhattan.

The biographical rundown: Now 56. Wrote and starred in Ghostbusters at the tender age of 31, four years out of SNL. After, he continued double duty on both Spies Like Us (1985) with Chevy Chase and Dragnet (1987) with an about-to-go-supernova Tom Hanks. He delivered a selfless, horrifying performance in Caddyshack II (1988), effectively canceled out with his 1990 Oscar nomination for Driving Miss Daisy, effectively canceled out by his panned sole directorial effort Nothing but Trouble (1991), effectively canceled out by his successful, sensitive starring turn nine months later in My Girl. He rode out the rest of the '90s with bit parts and a failed Coneheads adaptation. He hasn't written a movie since Blues Brothers 2000, focusing primarily on performing and building his House of Blues empire.

What's it all mean?: I spent a couple hours with Aykroyd in April 2005. He was working on a special 25th anniversary DVD of The Blues Brothers. What was supposed to be a 10-minute magazine Q&A turned into a two-hour ride around Manhattan in Aykroyd's rental car. At the time, it was the coolest thing ever. He came across exactly as he described himself to me. "I was a warrior then," he said of the SNL and Ghostbusters years, and "Now I'm a Roman general looking back at his great campaigns and saying he needs to tend the pastures." He seemed very content to live in the present and enjoy the echoes of the past. But now it seems the general is bringing the action to his pastures for old time's sake. He's not writing Ghostbusters 3, and maybe that's for the best. He can act out the success of his past with the fresh ideas from the present. And that sounds great.

Bonus: I recently discovered the entire transcript of our conversation. Since the magazine only printed three or four truncated snippets of our conversation, I thought I'd run most of it right here. There's some really great stuff in it. The conversational English is not cleaned up. Enjoy.

[We're sitting in a hotel lobby.]

JJ: I'm wondering how the trademark Blues Brothers dance came about -- the kind of having-a-fit-on-hot-coals, toes going everywhere -- is that something that happened because of the music?

Dan Aykroyd: I think you're probably right there. Just because of the music. That's just what I did at the time. Now, of course like, you know, I mean, so many great dancers -- the Nicholas brothers, Fred Astaire, Donald O'Connor, "Singin' in the Rain" -- I mean, being exposed to all these great choreographers and choreography and dancing would tend to try to, I guess, inspire us. Now we had a great choreographer on the film, Carlton Johnson. That was just what the music did to me at the time. I don't think I could get the knees up that high now. Maybe...

You were talking with the woman up there [in the hotel room, filming a DVD interview] about how to classify whether it was comedy first, or musical comedy. What I thought watching it was "epic comedy." It seemed kind of epic to me because it's a road-trip movie, it's a buddy movie, there's chase scenes, there's big musical numbers, there's Nazis -- I mean, Illinois Nazis, but still -- and this kind of vengeful love story subplot. Do you think "epic comedy" is a good term?

Epic's a good term for it. It really is. Because it had big scope and big scale and Landis is a filmmaker who loves David Lean.

It came to me kind of like a Lawrence of Arabia --

In an urban scape. Yeah, I think you can say it was an epic piece. That's a good application of that term, for sure.

From the average Joe on the street, what do you get most? Do you get "Hey, Elwood!" or "Hey, ghostbuster!" or "Hey, Bassomatic 76!" What do people seem to know you most for these days?

I don't get much. The most recognition I get are from 18- to 25- to 30-year-old young women for the father in My Girl. I have this other demographic of women: 47 through 75, who like The Blues Brothers and Driving Miss Daisy. So I got this young female demographic that recognizes me as the father in "My Girl" -- that don't know "Ghostbusters" or "Blues Brothers," it's not their type of film -- and then I've got the older female demographic that's "Driving Miss Daisy" and "The Blues Brothers." And otherwise I'm not -- most people say "Love your work" or something. Other than those specific references, it's older woman love "Driving Miss Daisy," younger women "My Girl."

That's amazing.

Oh yeah.

If I saw you on the street I would go "Ray Stantz."

Oh yeah.

Because I was a Ghostbuster for many Halloweens, not to date you.


I just find that so strange.

You know, the recognition factor is kind of diminishing a little bit.

Is that something you welcome?

Oh that's fine. I think it's just a factor of you know, there's a whole new generation watching new people come up. And guys my age on the swing either way, older or younger, are just recognized and people say "love the work."

[At this point, we move to the front of the lobby and an older woman comes up to him and says "I love your work," and Aykroyd looks at me with a knowing "told you so" smile. She proceeds to say that she loves "That film with that woman," and Aykroyd says "Driving Miss Daisy," looking at me again, and she goes "Yeah, that's it!" We walk outside onto Park Avenue looking for the rental car.]

Do you catch any "SNL" these days?

Oh all the time. I'm a faithful, faithful fan of the show. I watch the live broadcasts when I'm not there. And nipping in and out of New York as I do, when they're doing a show here, when I have friends that want to go, I bring them over and I sit with Lorne.

What do you think of it these days?

I think that the girls are strong. The girls are strong. Rachel [Dratch] and Amy [Poehler], strong, strong. I love the new cast. I think they're great. Love the writers. Jim Downey is a master of political writing.

[The valet brings the car and we slip inside.]

What was I saying?

The women are strong.

Oh yeah, the women! And the writing! And Jim Downey -- he's the greatest political writer. You know James Downey.

Sure. [I didn't.]

He does all their political humor. Spectacular writer. Great artist, and love his work. Steve Higgins, the head writer/producer, is a great guy, he has an incredible sensibility. And so I'm a fan, a continuing fan. I went back and hosted a couple years ago, the May 17 show two years ago, and wrote with Tom David my older partner. We used to write the Coneheads together. It felt good, and that was a good show.

Is the sketch-writing something you miss a lot?

Mmm, I think I've pretty much explored the three-minute television sketch format for life, basically.

So is the newest thing continuing to perform?

It's getting the House of Blues company where we're really a meaningful brand in the concert business. We're the third biggest in the world now. So we'll stabilize and get some more venues open. There's people clamoring for it -- every city you go to, "please put one here, please put one here." So we have to make the selections properly, finance, capitalize it properly, and not spend too much like we used to. We spent too much on the early ones and now we have to be sensible and rein things in. And then it's the concerts with Jimmy [Belushi]. So that's basically where my whole thrust is right now: House of Blues, performing, music. I would say it occupies a lot of my time now. I'm on the board of the company and I'd like to see my investors get some of their money.

So how's the time divided then?

It's pretty much half-focused on opening clubs, board meetings, and half concert dates and -- well let's see. I'd say a third concert dates, a third House of Blues-related activity, publicity, board meetings and calls, and a third personal. A third trying to raise my girls.

And city-wise?

City-wise it's mostly I would say on the road, according to my calendar, it's mostly on the road. Two-thirds on the road and then we have my home in Canada where we go for the summers and then my wife has the kids in school in New York City. And when I'm not here they travel with me. And they work. When they come to a concert, they dance, they all come up onstage. Wear basic black, put the earplugs in. And I have those girls working.

Do they wear sunglasses?

They wear sunglasses, yep, they do.

How old are they?

I've got a 15-year-old, a 12-year-old, and a 7-year-old. And oh no, nobody rides for free.

So where's your place in Canada? Near Ottawa?

It's near Ottawa. It's what they call the Thousand Islands up there. I have an island up there.

What's it like weather-wise this time of year?

It's, huh, beautiful. Beautiful now. Just really, just breaking. It's just cool and sunny. Of course, a month ago it was hang out the meat to freeze.

Same here.

Oh yeah, yeah. Where were you born?


Oh wow. You know [he slips into a growling voice] the Canadians. You know Toronto then.

Oh yeah, I spent summers in Canada in Thunder Bay. Not [Paul] Shaffer's Thunder Bay. In Ontario.

Really, wow? Well Shaffer's from there. He's from Thunder Bay.

I think it's a different Thunder Bay. It's the one just over the border from Buffalo.

Oh, oh, I see. Ah, yeah, OK. No, he's way up there.

Right, right.

Isn't that fun in the summer, the boating?

Yeah I grew up there across the border.

Cottage country, yeah.

Yes, it's beautiful.

Cool. Where'd you go to school?

American University in Washington.

Great. You writing books yet?


Do you like the writing?

I do. I actually just got out of college in December. And just moved here in January.


So 1980 -- because I've been a fan of the first class of SNLers, and I think there're the only class worth anything --

Well, Will Ferrell, he's pretty -- you know, Old School, great film, great film. And Lovitz, the devil that Lovitz used to do.

I like the Pathological Liars Association.


I was looking at 1980 and I think Caddyshack came out within a month of the Blues Brothers. And those to me are the two archetypal comedies of that era.

Caddyshack was prior, it was before. I believe it was before.

It was the same year.

Because Caddyshack sort of -- it might of been. Well that's one of the greatest comedies ever written. Animal House, Caddyshack, Old School, Blues Brothers, maybe Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, Uncle Buck. The Candy movies with John Hughes, I like them a lot. The Great Outdoors. I did a good picture with Candy. The Great Outdoors, if you like cottage country, that was the definitive cottage country movie.

I'm partial to Uncle Buck myself.

Uncle Buck was -- see this was John Hughes, a tremendous writer. What a vibrant, beautiful writer he is. Prolific, amazing.

So what was the mood like, because I know you've got Bill and Chevy in Caddyshack at the same time you and John were in Blues Brothers. What was the feeling? Were you guys like, "We're golden gods now, we've got it."

Oh yeah, we called ourselves "living media gods." Small "g," though. Small "g." We were bratty, ratty, little tyrants, of course, at the time. But we supported each other. We loved to see the success of our colleagues, you know. Chevy was my biggest cheerleader at SNL and we loved Murray of course. You know, who doesn't to this day? He is universally revered. He had such an influence on all of us at Second City. Just his boldness, his style. His character the Honker that he sort of does in Caddyshack -- all of us at Second City were doing the Honker onstage and off. We used to go after work and go to the Old Town Alehouse and [at this point, Aykroyd spits out unintelligible Honker phrases, reminiscent of Murray's character in Caddyshack]. And Billy would do the Honker in Times Square. And in Chicago. And everyone did the Honker. And to this day.

I admit to doing the Honker. You know, anytime the Dalai Lama comes up. "The Lama."

"Uh yes, uh, hehh." That whole announcing thing that he does where he's addressing the ball.

"About to win...the Master's Championship."

Yeah. Everyone loved it. So there was a lot of universal love around. We were riding high. But we also had a fear of the future, what's going to happen after this. And thank God that phase of my life's over.

Yeah, it's all held up. How often do you see those guys?

I see Billy and Chevy more than Jane or Laraine. I see Billy and Chevy frequently, a few times a year. Billy I seek out for little mini-adventures.

Like what?

A visit up to his house, or have him come and see me, you know, have a House of Blues music night if possible.

Do you golf?

I am not golfer, I'm a golf cart mechanic. I can fix the batteries.

So where are you off to next? You said this was a rental car?

Yeah, this is -- oh boy. I'm of the Hunter Thompson School of Rental Car Occupancy. I'm rough on them. We had this one off-roading this weekend in Martha's Vineyard. It's got the Sirius -- I love this satellite radio.

So you were in Martha's Vineyard then, over the weekend?

I was there. You know, John and I bought a house there with our first checks from Atlantic Records in 1978. And we had a home there every since. His wife, his widow, the new Mrs. Pisano, lives up there full time basically.

So you drove down here then?

I drove the car. I had to go up there. My wife and I have been thinking of tearing down a wall or two so we drove up there and drove back. This is not my regular ride. My regular ride is either the Harley in the summer. I got a police bike that Willie Davidson commissioned for me right from the factory floor. Dead stop, policeman's seats, special, beautiful. There's that, and then I have a very environmentally incorrect Ford Excursion, 10-cylinder.

Is it a good car?

Well the thing is I have a family of five and a bird and a dog and luggage. I would need two of these Lincolns, 16 cylinders, to hall what I do with the truck at 10. So that's how I rationalize that. And then my favorite ride of all, my favorite car of all, is my 1932 Pierce Arrow limousine, built in Buffalo. You know Pierce Arrow?

Absolutely. The building still stands.

It's still there. I have a 1932 factory limousine Pierce Arrow.

Do you drive it at all?

All the time. I drive it all summer. And then I have a 1941 Buick limousine, straight-A, overhead valve, dual carb, Rochester fuel carbs. So those are two old limos I bang around with in the summer.

You keep those in Canada?

Those are my favorite rides. My wife's due for a new car. I bought a Mercedes V12 for her in '94 but I'm not going to buy a V12 again. Not in the ages of $2.50 gasoline [editor's note: ha!], global warming, air pollution. If I buy her a car, I will buy her an 8-cylinder something, whatever that might be. Maybe one of those Cadillacs. I don't know. She deserves the best. She lives with me.

Must be twenty-some years.

Twenty-three married, twenty-four together I think.

So how much of the stunt driving did you do on Blues Brothers?

Blues Brothers I did...I would say...probably 30 percent of it. You know, some spins and stuff. I didn't do the jumps. But a lot of driving. And just a lot of driving behind the camera car.

That car's not in a museum anywhere, is it?

I think the original one is owned by -- well, the original one where we shot most of the interior scenes like where we're together in the car, which I think would be the one that if you'd want to own the car, it would be the one that John and I spent the most time in -- that one is owned by a police officer in Illinois. [Then, speaking to a careless driver in another lane:] This guy has gotta decide what he's doing.

You think Blues Brothers it the only SNL adaptation to a movie that's worth a damn?

Well I like The Coneheads, you know? I did. I liked The Coneheads. I thought it was a good family picture. But you know, a lot of artists and filmmakers, they say "Oh they marketed it wrong." Well in that case, they really did. It came out in the summer. It shoulda come out at Halloween like we planned. At Halloween it would've worked beautifully. So I really regret that that wasn't handled better. And I'm trying to think of the other incarnations...

Well I'm trying to think of ones that were around when Blues Brothers came out. It was all kind of a mid-'90s thing I guess, when they started come out with the later cast, with "It's Pat" and Molly Shannon's thing. I can't think of anyone in the '80s. Well, Coneheads was the '90s, wasn't it?

Coneheads was early 90s or late 80s. It was after Driving Miss Daisy. So it was early 90s. Well I don't think you can speak of the attempts that the girls made with those two movies in the same breath as Coneheads and Blues Brothers. Those were really great, you know, we had great really strong directors and great writing. The other efforts came up a little short, although the characters are very appealing. You can't take away anything from Molly at all, or the Pat character. But I just think in terms of story and execution -- Coneheads and Blues Brothers are pretty strong, if you can compare them.

I just can't get the David Lean image out of my head, just in terms of the epic. It's the opening shots that struck me.

Landis is a great, great filmmaker. No matter how you cut it or look at it, he's just a great, great filmmaker. Starting with his references to silent comedies, his knowledge of filmography, and the knowledge of the work of these directors. You know, stealing from the best. He just knew how to do that. And knows how to do that.

[We pull into Hertz, drop the car off and then walking West on E. 91st Street, talking about putting a House of Blues in Washington, D.C.]

There's a market for it there I think.

Well House of Blues, we're a house of all music. You know, who'd of thought that you go and see KC and the Sunshine Band have a full house and have an incredible night of entertainment? Incredible. We do Tom Jones, we'll do Little Richard when he's touring, Johnny Winter. We have tribute bands, Latin bands, we have all hip-hop and rap artists, anybody breaking a new record. It's a house of all music.

So are you in the midst of a tour?

I'm in the midst of the San Diego opening in the Gas Lamp District on May 15. And then our July opening of the House of Blues boutique hotel, poker room, slot room, with Harrah's -- we have a co-venture with Harrah's.

Is this in Vegas?

This is in Atlantic City at the top of the boardwalk. Incredible partners there. So I've got two big club openings coming up and about seven concerts -- some casinos, one corporate, a charity. The band's going to be pretty busy. Jimmy loves it. So don't have to convince him. And while the knees and the hips and the ankles respond well to the binding, I will continue to do it. Because it's just fun. The music is just these great American songs that we get to sing. We sing songs from 1948 right up through the '70s. We bring people up onstage to dance with us.

Does Goodman ever join you?

Goodman will join us for San Diego, yeah. But he's not on the rigorous --I wouldn't want to do that to the man. Jimmy and I could take it because we're so used to it, but it really is work.
[There is a blip in the tape.]

[...] the other daughter, and we go to the Museum of Natural History for the Young Scientists class, which she's been enrolled in the last couple of years. She loves that. It's an aerospace --

Is this the 15-year-old?

No, this is the 7. I'm meeting the 12, picking up the 7, and then the 7's birthday is today so we're going to have a little birthday dinner. I might call Downey. I have an idea for a piece we were talking about.

For SNL?

Yeah, I occasionally will come back and slip something in. So I'm going to talk to him.

Any hints?

Well it's sort of a political satire piece, I'm still fleshing it out. But we'll utilize Darrell Hammond's impeccable Rumsfeld.

So when you show up on the SNL set, do you find people distance themselves in reverence or do they flock to you for advice?

No they're too busy doing their work. It's only afterwards at the party that I can get up and tell them how much I love what they're doing. And they have to say, "Well, thanks Mr. Aykroyd." Little Rachel Dratch -- what a find. I kind of helped get her hired.

Did you?

Oh yeah.

Thank you for that.

I mentioned her name and I also underwrote her hiring by the recommendation of seeing her at Second City, "what do you think of her" and stuff. And I actually did mention her name.

So nothing planned for film, TV?

Pretty much gotta get these clubs open. I'm going to take the month of August off and then we are looking to Europe for House of Blues. London, Paris, Berlin. Maybe Moscow. Australia, they're dying for us there, we want to come down there. So I think the New Year will be focused in on-site planning, studies, approvals, financial approvals, meeting and greeting the people who are going to be supporting us in each town, lining up friendly investors and people who hold real estate who want their places to have a nice tenant like us. You know, I mean, look: If Spielberg or Reitman or one of the Scott brothers or Peter Weir, a great director, calls me, or Phil Robinson, and says "We'd like you to play the U.S. marshal who loses a leg in a train wreck," of course. I can always work as an actor. But the writing I used to do -- I think I got seven or eight scripts made. It's pretty good, considering.

Tomorrow: Rick Moranis. Next week: Bill Murray, Annie Potts, Harold Ramis, Sigourney Weaver.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

I have vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals

That's a quote from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Doesn't make too much sense if you think about it, but you get the idea. Paul Newman saw the world with a clarity that was foreign to most in Hollywood. The best-looking, arguably-most-complete man in the movies died yesterday at 83 of cancer. I'll leave the official eulogizing to the pros. Instead, some memories of Paul from my life, apart from the fact that I always always buy his pasta sauces:

His performance in 1982's The Verdict is a rhapsody, the crown jewel of his career, and should be part of any acting school curriculum. I will never tire of watching him in that movie. With grit and grace, he pilots Frank Galvin from the depths of alcoholism to the ridge of redemption, and is smart enough to bring his character to a place of truth rather than a place of resolution. Watch him closely in the summation scene, as Sidney Lumet slowly moves the camera in on this man -- this man who started so meek but who is now towering in this moment in time, for perhaps the first and last time in his life.

Of course, like any good man, he was a sucker for and splendid practitioner of comedy. He was a vulgar marvel in 1977's Slap Shot. I'd never seen him in an out-and-out comedy, and was continually astonished by the ways he appropriated his dramatics to the business of the low-brow.

I remember the serious silliness of 1974's The Towering Inferno and the cool mugging -- long before Clooney -- in 1973's The Sting. His youthful prime was in the 1960s, with The Hustler (drool) and Hud (see clips in my appreciation of Melvyn Douglas), where he appeared to mature into the man James Dean might've been, but with less suffocating Method and more personality. I'd never accuse Newman of being a chameleon; I've never seen him in a role that required an extreme transformation; he didn't suffer for his art. I've only seen a quarter or third of his filmography, but it seems that he never went that route. His craftsmanship blended his star power with an inner fire, which burned as blue as his eyes and which he could set to simmer or boil, depending on his assignment. If I could live my life over again as a movie star, I'd want to be Paul Newman. He just makes sense to me. The way he worked...the way he lived outside of work...his unyielding self-deprecation and disregard for his looks and talents. Right now, I can hear the talking head on CNN in the background. She's saying he will be remembered for more than just his movies. Which is exactly what he wanted.

I saw him once, in person, at a show in New York. Was it at The Apple Tree? I can't remember. But I remember him, and his wife Joanne Woodward, sitting a couple rows in front of me. In real life, he was a white-haired old man, a dutiful husband, unremarkable in appearance. But I remember thinking, "I'm seeing Paul Newman in real life. I'm seeing him. Remember this." And I have. Now he is dead, but that blue fire ain't. It's forever, like the movies. Here's a nice montage to close the matter for now:

Thursday, September 25, 2008

This is mass madness, you maniacs

It's my favorite movie. And every year it gets less hyperbolic and more real. Except for one thing: No one is yelling yet. No one is listening to Howard Beale. Today, there are no mass protests, no swell of angry popular movement against the utter mismanagement of this country. Today, we watch the TV and the Internets as people tell us about bad stuff. But we don't get mad.

Financial institutions run everything. They can make us. They can ruin us. And they have ruined us. And now we're paying for their mistakes. But we don't get mad. We won't get mad. We will sit and watch our screens, as we have been doing for 30 years, and think, "Gee, this is bad. I hope things get better."

Case in point: I will publish this blog post, then return to work, happy to collect a paycheck while they still come to me. I will pick up some dry-cleaning, go to a show tonight, go home, watch TV or the Internets, sleep, get up and do it all again. I will pray that things stay okay, or I will ignore the distinct possibility they will not. But I won't do anything to affect the outcome. I will merely stay in bomb-drill mode, hands over my head, against a wall.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Someone grant sainthood to Cloris Leachman immediately

She's on Dancing with the Stars. In one 8-minute stretch, she foxtrots, gets two standing ovations, drapes her leg on the judges' table, spills out her cleavage, and calls one of the judges a "shit" on live national television. The woman is a goddamn national treasure.

And for some contrast:

Friday, September 19, 2008

How to go from Teddy Barnes to Alex Forrest in two years

As long as we've been talking about Glenn Close and Jeff Bridges: I'm having a hard time with Jagged Edge. It's a 1985 thriller starring Bridges as a newspaper editor accused of muder and Close as the attorney who defends him. Naturally, romance develops during the trial. The plot -- by B-list writing god Joe "Basic Instinct" Eszterhas -- choo-choos along as an effective whodunnit right up until the last shot. But the Close character, Teddy Barnes, gave me a lot of trouble. Is she an incredibly complex, strong character, or is she a weak pushover who just needs a man? Eszterhas and Close shows us both sides, and it's hard to reconcile one with the other. Oh, Teddy Barnes. Sweet-voiced, then steel-tongued. Indignant, then weepy.

That's humanity, right? We swing from one extreme to another, and Teddy Barnes is no different. A week after meeting an alleged matricidal maniac, she shacks up with him and gets all lovey-dovey. She's also a hard-working single mom who frosts over when a witness calls her a bitch. In the end, though, she's revealed as something different, something...more. Or less? The final scene shows us neither the soft lover nor the tough cookie. Close greets the film's climax as a woman numbed in the wake of a quiet nervous breakdown -- one that occurs offscreen, or at least inside her. She wins the day, plot-wise, but her faith in the legal system (and in herself) is shattered. See the video below (spoilers included).

I've never seen anything like the final scene of Jagged Edge. It has all the elements of a standard thriller climax, but the Teddy Barnes character is definitely not the standard heroine. She's something weaker. Or stronger? She has a gun in her hand, but it's not a show of defiance or revenge. It appears to be some sort of psychosis -- some villainy -- that we can't understand; Eszterhas hasn't given us enough to work with. But we do see, in Teddy Barnes's eye, a glimmer of Alex Forrest, whom Close would give us two years later in Fatal Attraction. Can someone please write a thesis on these two wildly confounding female characters, both of whom have male names?

Glenn Close was riding the peak of her celebrity with these two roles. Two thrillers in the mid-'80s, when she was racking up Oscar nomination after Oscar nomination. I would kill to sit her down now, watch these two movies with her and ask her where the hell she found these two fascinating, unsettling, confounding characters.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Joan & Glenn as female VPs

It's a short list. Female vice presidents in the movies. Two. Joan Allen in The Contender in 2000. Glenn Close in Air Force One in 1997. Can anyone think of others? Watch this trailer for Air Force One, and revel in popcorny pre-9/11 nostalgia.

The Contender, my favorite movie ever about politics, has more serious things to say about the Woman-as-VP concept. Or does it? Watch below.

Sarah Palin has received some of the same criticisms that Gary Oldman lobs at Allen here. People just think Palin is a "groovy chick," and selfish because she wants to assume a gigantic responsibility she knows she's not ready for. Sexist? Yeah, probably...even though Allen's Laine Hanson could run circles around Palin.

Let's not discredit the subtlety of Air Force One. (Yes, I used "subtlety" and "Air Force One" in the same sentence.) The movie presents Close as VP, simply and without fanfare. She commands F-15s. While Harrison Ford is held hostage, she is the president. But no big deal is made about it. She is not a woman; she is the vice president. In The Contender, it's all a big deal. A woman is ascending to the nation's highest office and -- gasp! -- she may have had some fun sex in the past.

Which movie was, at the time, more healthy for our collective perception of a Woman in Power: a movie that agonizes over a woman's hurdles even as she clears each one, or a movie that shows a woman deftly commanding a nation without distraction or doubt?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Explaining the Holy Trinity

Roger Ebert called Nuns on the Run "funny only if you find nuns funny." Which I do.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Moratorium: Titles with "Bees" or "The Secret Life of"

Is it just me, or is anyone else tired of titles that start with "The Secret Life of..." or include the word "Bee" or "Bees"? An IMDb search of "The Secret Life of" or "Bee" brings up hundreds of hits, with a special concentration over the past five years:

The Secret Lives of Dentists (2002)
The Secret Life of Words (2005)
Bee Season (2005)
Akeelah and the Bee (2006)
Bee Movie (2007)
The Secret Life of the American Teenager (2008)

Which leads us to the The Secret Life of Bees, opening next month. I guess we had that one coming. But can we have a moratorium on these titles, please? Thanks. This also goes for book titles that pair a possessive noun with the word "wife" or daughter." Like "The Bonesetter's Wife" or "The Alchemist's Daughter." Those are horrifyingly unimaginative titles.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Coens have their first No. 1

Burn after Reading is the first Coen Bros. movie to occupy the top spot at the box office. This probably has something to do with its aggressive marketing campaign, George Clooney, Brad Pitt and the fact that it had the widest opening in the bros' careers (2,651 theaters). I'm sure fans of One Fine Day and Meet Joe Black were blindsided by what they saw, but by the time they got to their seats they had already paid for admission. The Coen Bros. beat another movie with a sterling cast: the poorly-received remake of The Women, with The Bening, Debra Messing (still?), Jada Pinkett-Smith, Meg Ryan (alive?), Eva Mendes and Candice Bergen (yum). That one came in No. 4, after Tyler Perry and the De Niro-Pacino rematch.

"Clearly, [Burn after Reading is] a smash, and it's obviously a reflection of how much more commercial the Coens have grown," said Jack Foley, distribution president for studio Focus, quoted in The Guardian. I'm sure this quotation sent Joel and Ethan into apoplexy.

So it took Clooney and Pitt to give them a distinction that's been missing from their mantle, which is lined with eight Oscars: box office champ. Here's the rundown of how their last seven movies opened. Note: Dollars/profit aren't at issue here; popularity/visibility is.

No Country for Old Men (2007). Opened 15th in 28 theaters. Reached No. 5 when it opened wider to 1,348 theaters. Its best-picture Oscar didn't raise it higher than there.
The Ladykillers (2004). The closest they'd previously gotten to No. 1. Opened 2nd in 1,583 theaters. Tom Hanks was the draw.
Intolerable Cruelty (2003). Opened 4th in 2,564 theaters, by far their widest open pre-Burn.
The Man Who Wasn't There (2001). Opened 19th in 39 theaters; climbed to 13th when playing in 250 theaters.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). Opened 27th in 5 theaters. Climbed to 9th when in 835 theaters.
The Big Lebowski (1998). Opened 6th in 1,207 theaters.
Fargo (1996). Opened 6th in 412 theaters. It's amazing it never climbed higher, but also keep in mind it was released in March 1996, so it was already on video by the time is got Oscar attention.

Source: Box Office Mojo. Rankings prior to 1996 aren't available, but I'm going to assume Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy didn't get anywhere near No. 1.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Why do motorcades upset me?

On my way back to work from a midday walk, I found cop cars blocking each cross street of 16th Street, which is a north-south boulevard leading to the front of the White House. Auto and pedestrian traffic was halted in all directions. Sixteenth Street was eerily barren, with people tapping their feet on the sidelines. The president, you see, was returning to his house. The parade, in order of appearance:

9 motorcycles in a row, spaced 100 feet apart
3 black SUVs
1 armored conversion van
2 black limousines (one presumably carrying POTUS or his deputy)
1 ambulance
1 helicopter
3 black SUVs
3 police cars

This list does not include several police cars that zoomed down side streets, as if to flank the president in case of an attack from the side.

Whenever I see a motorcade, I'm left with the same thoughts: Is this really necessary? What does this accomplish, other than making a spectacle? If the president really wanted to be protected, wouldn't he travel in a single, quiet, nondescript, armored car rather than in a blaring Macy's Day parade? The president might as well be waving from the limo's sunroof. And shutting down a major urban thoroughfare for 10 minutes seems like an intensely irreponsible thing to do. It's very Triumph of the Will-ish, except the citizens lining the motorcade are grumpy, not ecstatic.

Monday, September 08, 2008

"We know drama"? Nope, you don't

Finished watching Fox's newest game show "Hole in the Wall" (excellent), switched to the VMAs (bleh), got bored to tears (save for Russell Brand's subversive hosting behavior) so channel-surfed my way to TNT. On which was playing United 93. Which is fine. As the best movie of 2006, I think everyone should see it. TNT was playing it with "limited commercial interruption," which turned out to be an interruption every eight to 10 minutes or so.

Many movies can be interrupted by a word from the sponsors, and no one's worse off. A League of Their Own was on earlier today, and I was happy to use the commercial breaks to check on my laundry, and still was moved, as always, but that film's end. But United 93 -- sensitive topic aside -- must be viewed continuously. At least in its final stretch. TNT could've run the last 20 minutes commercial-free without detriment to their finances. They did not. They broke for commercial as the passengers readied their first and final mutiny.

It's classless. And clumsy. And it made me feel angry and cheap, like the film's engrossing craftsmanship was exploited to make me stew through commercials. Grumble.

Anyway, you should see the movie continuously and in its entirety. Don't stop and watch it if you catch it on TV. For what it's worth, here is my essay after viewing it for a second and third time on DVD.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Telluride: Wrap up

This year's guest curator Slavoj Zizek -- described by a festival goer as monstrously self-centered and by a festival director as "the greatest living philosopher" -- provided a slate of movies that blew the minds of absolutely no one. Perhaps I'm applying my experience to everyone else's. But whatever. Let's not indulge the lesser aspects of the fest. Here are the five things I liked about the 35th Telluride Film Festival, in order from less to more.

5. Slumdog Millionaire. Met by ovations and cheering. It is the ultimate feel-good film, made by erstwhile feel-baddie Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later). An Indian boy goes the distance on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" His success on the game show is rooted in seemingly random experiences in his childhood. It's a kinetic, Dickensian adventure movie, flashing backward and forward but never losing its firm, steady grip on a contrived-yet-compelling story. This should be a hit.

4. The Last Command, a 1928 silent film featuring a live original score by the Alloy Orchestra. Emil Jannings won the first-ever Oscar for best actor for his larger-than-life performance as a mutinied Russian general who ends up playing a background soldier in a Hollywood war film. One of the title cards says (and I'm paraphrasing): "From the backwash of a crumbled nation comes another extra who is hungry for a bite of Hollywood." It's all very savvy and self-reflexive, even though studios themselves hadn't been around that long. Did I mention the live accompaniment rocked? The Alloy resurrects ancient movies one by one.

3. Kristin Scott Thomas in I've Loved You So Long. A tricky role, a home-run performance. It's all internal here. KST plays a woman fresh off a 15-year jail sentence. And boy, she does not want to talk about it. But the ways in which she keeps herself walled off and then lets in a little light...well, it's elegance and control and precise execution.

2. Jean Simmons. I knew next to nothing about this British actress going in to her tribute, but felt enlightened and grateful (and heretofore ignorant) coming out. Simmons got her big break as a teenaged Estella in David Lean's Great Expectations and deserves to be 100 times more famous than she is today. Maybe her looks were too much like Vivien Leigh's or her voice too much like Audrey Hepburn's, but Simmons' past stardom didn't evolve into sacred legend. It's tempting to define her by the men she has played against -- Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry, Paul Newman in Until They Sail, Marlon Brando in Desiree and Guys & Dolls, Laurence Olivier in Hamlet, Kirk Douglas in Spartacus, Dick Van Dyke in Divorce American Style, Gregory Peck in The Big Country, Cary Grant and Robert Mitchum in The Grass Is Greener -- for who can match this list and still be as unfamous as she? But Simmons, with the aura of a child and the snap of a python, holds her own against each. The festival showed a medley of clips, but the most arresting was from The Happy Ending, in which she plays a bored housewife. Couldn't find a clip of it on the YouTubes, so here are some from Guys & Dolls (1955), Until They Sail (1957) and, to shake it up, Star Trek: The Next Generation.

1. Prodigal Sons. If you see it under the right circumstances, this one could be life-changing. The film's greatness comes not from the craftsmanship (it was shot and edited cheaply, as if on a whim), but from the content. Director Kimberly Reed has so, so much to work with here. She hit documentary gold. The film's site has no word on future screenings. Hopefully it'll arrive at a theater near you sometime before the world ends.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Telluride: Day 3

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- The documentary Prodigal Sons is the only new film I've seen here that the Telluride Film Festival deserves. There is so much I want to tell you about it, but there are two "secrets" revealed during the movie and you should experience the shock/delight yourself. Suffice to say it is a documentary about family and the search for (or flight from) one's self. Sounds very broad, yes, but the context in which this search is conducted is truly amazing. If you want to read all about the film, do so here. Knowing some background won't sabotage the film's effectiveness, but it's still nice to go into a movie without knowing where it's taking you. And this one takes you to some pretty remarkable places.

The Telluride experience magnified the film. The doc ended, I was exhilirated, and then the emcee pointed out that the entire featured family is sitting in the audience not two rows behind me. Having just seen their lives laid bare onscreen, it was a special privilege to see and thank them in person.

As far as I can tell, Prodigal Sons has no distribution. But given the exuberant reaction here, it will no doubt continue to play at festivals to packed houses. If you get a chance to see it, drop everything and make it happen. I wish there was a way they could stream the doc online for a small fee. Everyone should see this movie.

There are other things to talk about, but I haven't the time. The festival ends in a couple hours. I'll be posting later about Jean Simmons, Mary Pickford, Josef von Sternberg's The Last Command and Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire (surely the fiction crowd-pleaser of the fest).

Also, I served popcorn to Greg Kinnear and Salman Rushdie. Also, I am tired.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Telluride: Day 2

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- Before the world premiere of his movie Everlasting Moments at 8:30 a.m. yesterday, director Jan Troell said, "I would never voluntarily come to a film at this time. Not even my own. Try to stay awake." I did.

Everlasting Moments. Epic domestic drama from Sweden with a grounded lead performance by Maria Heiskanen, who looks and sounds like a working-class Ingrid Bergman. Spans 10 years. A quietly moving fable about seeking the perfection of life through a camera's viewfinder. How we forge everlasting moments of goodness in a fleeting second from life's boredom, unpleasantries and unfairness.

Critic and filmmaker Richard Schickel -- red-faced, purple-shirted, tweed-jacketed -- received the silver medallion of the festival at the Sheridan Opera House. Watching Schickel, who is lively but old, makes me think that the age of the esteemed critic-historian is ending. Schickel and Ebert might be the last of the breed. What is it being replaced by? Perhaps film appreciation has been institutionalized by academia, and it will live on, for better or worse, there.

Schickel: "I have had young people come up to me and say 'I've never seen a black-and-white movie and I'm like, 'Are you out of your fucking mind? It's not something to be proud of.'"

Schickel's documentary on Warner Bros., You Must Remember This, will play on PBS soon.

Happy-Go-Lucky. By Mike Leigh. How happy people make us miserable. How we make our own luck. Winning performance by Sally Hawkins as the most joyful woman alive. Great cameo by Karina Fernandez as a flamenco teacher perhaps too invested in her art. Q&A after. Leigh is slight, stooped, suspendered, bearded. Small. "For me, filmmaking is all about discovering what the film is."

Philanthropy. A dark Romanian comedy that looks and feels like Scorsese's After Hours. By turns funny and boring. From 2001.

Seen: Laura Linney, defacto mayor of Telluride during the festival, conferring with friend over the program. I also served Mike Leigh a bottle of water. Michael O'Keefe ("Noonan!"), the bad guy in American Violet.

Crowd-pleasers: Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, which got a rousing ovation last night. Also, the documentary Prodigal Sons is the most-loved show at Telluride (and it doesn't even have an IMDb page). Also, Fincher didn't show up to host or introduce his director's cut of Zodiac. Bitch.

Everyone is mumbling about the lacklusterness of this year's slate of new movies. The vintage offerings are top-knotch, though I probably won't be able to make any of them. They are showing Troell's The Emigrants and The New Land back to back tomorrow. And the Alloy Orchestra is providing a live, original score for The Last Command (with Emil Jannings).

Drizzly and overcast today. I'm off to catch the gondola to the tribute to Jean Simmons.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Telluride: Day 1

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- Bronze sunsets. Chapped lips. What I saw yesterday:

The David Fincher tribute. Clips of Se7en, The Game, Panic Room and Zodiac (which is also playing in full in a director's cut -- with six additional minutes -- tomorrow). Regrettably, no Alien3. A very tense medley of movies -- all about people who are wrapped in an inescapable situation. Fincher talking with Todd McCarthy of Variety afterward. A poor interview. Oh well. Fincher is a San Francisco kid. Inspired to be a director after watching a making-of of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: "Blow up balsam wood trains, scout locations out West and hang out with Katharine Ross? Good deal." Worked with George Lucas. Boyhood friends shaved their heads to be part of THX. Did music videos with Madonna, Michael Jackson and Iggy Pop. Fincher came off as a bit of douchebag, as my friend Tom said, but that was probably because he was annoyed with the inane, disinterested "discussion points" that Todd McCarthy dribbled out.

Flame & Citron. Introduced this movie last night at the Nugget Theater. Most expensive Danish-speaking film ever made. Budget? $9 million. Extravagant! Intricately epic 2.5-hour espionage flick, dirge-like, monotonous, incessant, featuring assassinations every scene by the title characters, two Danish operatives working against the Nazi occupation in Copenhagen. Citron is played by Mads Mikkelson, who was the villain who wept blood in Casino Royale. I introduced the director, Ole Christian Madsen, who shot the movie in Prague. Flame & Citron just got U.S. distribution on Thursday at the festival, so you'll be seeing it sometime next year I bet.

Notables in attendance: Jeff Goldblum (here with Paul Schrader's Adam Resurrected) holding court on Main Street. Peter Sellars, Ken Burns, Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. Greg Kinnear and Lauren Graham here with Flash of Genius. Salman Rushdie too, sans Padma.

Looking forward to: Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky, which has been irking people here, as rumor has it.