Friday, September 29, 2006

The Gambler

California Split (1974), at Film Forum from October 13-19, is one of Altman’s lesser-known films; the script is the only one Joseph Walsh ever wrote (or, at least, got produced). Despite its obscurity, the film is pretty incredible even if it’s not quite a masterpiece. The irrepressible Elliott Gould gives a performance on par with his classic roles in MASH and The Long Goodbye and George Segal is great as—would you know it?—a magazine editor.

The film is essentially a series of scenes of Gould and Segal riffing (and usually drinking) as they place wagers at casinos, race tracks and anyplace else that takes bets. Gould’s character, Charlie Waters, lives with two “ladies of the night” and meets Bill Denny (Segal) at a poker club. The plot doesn’t develop very much from there. Charlie and Bill become fast friends and there’s an ill-fated romance between Bill and one of Charlie’s roommates, a sweet, lovesick prostitute who falls for most of her johns.

The highlight of the uneventful film (besides the garish ‘70s interiors and wardrobes) comes when Charlie gets held up after a successful night at the casino and drunkenly tries to negotiate with his gun-wielding mugger. Charlie offers the stick-up artist half of his winnings and the bewildered thug accepts the offer before scurrying away.

A one-man acting tornado, Elliott Gould (seen most recently in the unfortunate Ocean’s 12) is the dominant presence in the film, and one is left wondering what happened to him. Besides his collaborations with Altman, he rarely seemed to find projects that fully utilized his comedic gifts. That’s a shame but it also seems somehow appropriate to the lazy, underachieving style of his on-screen characters.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

fright moves

It’s been a long time coming … but you knew a change had to come.

Who the hell am I, you wonder? Good question. I don’t have an easy answer and you probably don't want to know, but I’ll say this: I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have something important to unload. I’m a serious-minded individual ... probably why I've avoided this forum for so long. Anyway, it’s not just anything that’s got me in a tizzy - this is serious business.

Here goes: last night’s performance by Bob Seger on the Dave Letterman program deserves a special mention in the history of unintentional comedy. It was really something else (I don’t have a clip but the one above seems a fair substitute). Bob, bless his Motor City heart, sang a terrible song with unintelligible lyrics; he was backed up by a drummer sporting a curly, silver mullet (you're in the Silver Bullet Band, compadre), a risibly flamboyant lead guitarist, and a guy playing the biggest saxophone I’ve ever seen. So am I just writing to make fun of a poor, over-the-hill artist who's lost all sense of fashion? No sir. In fact, I’d like to use this parasitic canvas to defend the right of the elderly to rock out with their … okay, to rock out.

Several years ago I had the privilege of seeing the Rolling Stones play a show that literally knocked my socks off (very unusual) and rewrote my definition of ‘self-indulgent.’ It was over-the-top and beautiful, ridiculous and thrilling; I had never before been emasculated so definitively by a sixty year old libido.

Look, I don’t listen to a lot of the new music. I pick my spots (love the new M. Ward, Post-War). But really, new rock music is, for the most part, a sick joke. For every Wolf Parade there are a dozen Panic! at the Discos (picked at random from list of MTV:VMA nominees). I say, if the kids don’t know how to rock, let’s leave it to the old folks who actually know what a draft is. By golly, some of the best shows I’ve seen have been guys who were supposedly past their primes: Mick and Keith, Neil Young, Chuck Berry, and Ray Charles, to name a few.

(Bonus credit: my favorite band of the moment is the brilliant funk/rock/pop dinosaur with a name inspired by a dildo in Naked Lunch … can you guess who it is?).

The point is that what Seger’s performance lacked in blood sugar, it more than made up for in pure rocker emotion. Bob’s still a little bit too tall even if he couldn’t really use a few pounds. And he’s still Seger, people, still Mr. Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll. And, above all, he still believes in what he’s singing, even if I don’t understand what that is.

Do I regret not seeing Seger in his prime? Of course I do … I’m only human. But at the end of the day I’d rather see Seger in his sixties than watch The Killers flit foolishly around the stage at the height of their career.

So there you go. Maybe I'll post again in six months. Oh, and go see The Queen (this is a movie blog, after all).

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Best Comedy of 2006

If the true measure of a comedy is how much it makes you laugh, then, to my mind, there is no better comedy this year (so far) than Jackass Number Two. I laughed, pretty much constantly, from credit sequence to credit sequence. The only movie that made me laugh more this year is The Wicker Man, but that's a horror movie and all the humor is uninintentional, so it doesn't count.

People call the Jackass guys dumb — they are wrong. They have very poor judgment, they're a bit masochistic, and they are often off-puttingly grotesque (no one wants to see you put a fishing hook through your cheek, Steve-O, not even Chris Pontius). But they are not stupid. They are craftsmen, and they take what they do — even if what they do is figure out inventive ways to hit each other in their nether regions — very seriously. Without ruining the stunt, "The Strongman" gag is a great example of the group refusing to settle for a simple joke, and their willingness to continually tinker and improve something that isn't working until it is. In their own way, the Jackasses are perfectionists.

After ample success in traditional movie comedies, Jackass ringleader Johnny Knoxville could coast along on his infectious cackle and devil-may-care attitude — hell, he's so big he could have sat out the sequel. But it's clear time and again that Knoxville is giving the project every ounce of his creativity and energy. Throughout he brings new meaning to the phrase "fearless leader": when the boys visit a shooting range and watch a display of a stun weapon, Knoxville convinces the timid Ryan Dunn and Bam Margera to take the hit (ironically, it's also Knoxville who is the least injured by the assault).

The boys enthusiasm is infectious, so it's difficult for me not to discuss a lot of it, but a lot of the fun is based on the element of surprise, so I'll hold my tongue. But let me say this: the musical number replete with intricate choreography, blasts from fire hoses, and headers from great heights at the end of the film is brilliant. Not stupid. Brilliant.

The title's all theirs for now, though a certain Kazakhstanian reporter looming in the distance may yet challenge for the crown.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

Guillermo del Toro's new film is a fabulous bit of storytelling - in form, narrative, and performance. It tells the tale of a little girl named Ofelia (the wonderful Ivana Baquero) whose father, a tailor, died during the Spanish Civil War, which has just recently ended. Her pregnant mother takes up with a brutal Captain in Franco's army to stay alive. The film begins as they travel to a remote outpost where the remnants of the resistance hide out in the forest. The Captain's job is to destroy these last pockets of troops. The narrative heads off on two prongs - one is the story of the Captain's crusade against the resistance, and the other is of Ofelia's fantasy life amidst these horrors. Directed to a labryinth on the property by an insect/fairy, she discovers an abrasive/sarcastic/tender satyr (Doug Jones) who tells her she is the reincarnation of Princess Moanna, who ruled an ancient underground kingdom. In order to retake her throne, she has to fulfill a series of dangerous tasks - involving magic stones, giant frogs and baby-eating grotesques.

del Toro elegantly shifts between these two stories by cutting on motion, between the Captain's huffing steed and Ofelia's tentative gait. The contrast is simple and highly effective - Ofelia escapes her repressive, violent life by imagining a fairy tale for herself where she is heroine. But as it is a reflection of her real life - it is seeped in violence, mud, and blood. It's Grimm's instead of Disney. The creatures are strikingly inventive - the baby-eater calmly stuffs it's eyes into its palms, sticks the hands up by its head like ears to see, and staggers drunkenly towards its prey, with zombie-like patience. Other tiny details - like a root that cries like a baby, the insect-fairy that gorges itself on meat, and Jones' fabulous creation - the goat-man with creakingly wooden appendages, create a world of the fantastic seething with menace.

The soothing power of the imagination is paramount throughout, whatever its ultimate failure. The most beautiful piece of the film occurs when Ofelia's mother asks her to calm her unborn child by telling him one of her stories. Ofelia obediently bends her mouth to mother's belly, and tells a story of a flower that blooms on top of thorn covered mountain, that if picked gives immortality. del Toro dissolves to the fetus listening with rapt attention as the image of the flower is superimposed onto the background. It's an unexpected and stirring moment, the calming power of storytelling never so concisely displayed.

It's structure is expertly organized, with both strands peaking and meeting in the final sequence, as death and dreams meet in a scene of bloody, devastating beauty.

Stuck Inside The Rage Cage: The Wicker Man (2006)

Outside of John C. Reilly's turn as dim-witted sidekick Cal Naughton Jr. in this summer's Talladega Nights, Nicholas Cage's performance as dim-witted cop Edward Malus in the remake of The Wicker Man may be the funniest of the year. The only real difference Reilly is in a comedy and Cage is not.

From the opening moments, when Cage and his laughably bad hairpiece return a lost doll to a young girl, only to watch the girl and the car containing her get slammed off the road by a truck, burst into flames, then explode (Note to car makers: stop using lighter fluid as top coat!). He follows an impeccably written letter to a mysterious island and a colony of man-hating goddess worshippers and really, there's only one way to deal with a colony of man-hating goddess worshippers: by beating the crap out of them. And I don't care what you say, Nicholas Cage punching old saggy women in the face will always be funny. Kicking Leelee Sobieski in the neck is very funny too, and he does that as well.

As Cage's search for a missing girl (not related to the one from the car and the prologue, but sort of supposed to remind us of her maybe?) grows more frantic, so does Cage's acting. Cage can say a lot with a little — see Adaptation — but he can also say way too much with a lot. Cage can get dangerously hammy, and unless the role calls for it (like in, say, Face/Off) that spells trouble, the kind of trouble that I find very funny.

Then again, perhaps my reaction to the film was fueled in part by the audience I saw it with, a large group of men I'd guess were from a homeless shelter or poverty outreach group, but who acted like a bunch of tubercular junkie pirates who just escaped from a mental institution. Even though there were five seats between me and the next party in my row on my left, one obese gentlemen (wearing sunglasses in a movie theater) decided to take the seat right next to me. The dude on my right? Spent the movie eating hot dogs and sleeping. Someone behind me refused to turn off their cell phone, which kept ringing throughout the first act. And then there was the guy in the front who enjoyed Cage's misogynist beat-downs a little too much, who was verbally cheering him on.

Nicholas Cage your Razzie awaits. Audience at the AMC Loews 34th Street, your straitjackets await.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Yet another reason to miss Mystery Science Theater

Spotted this link on Movie City News. Nobody ever talks about the writing on this bad movie and puppets show, but they should. It was amazing.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Termite Television: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

The first best show of the 2006-07 season is Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. In a nutshell, the show is Sorkin's The West Wing set backstage of a Saturday Night Live-ish comedy series, though since I've seen maybe half of one of The West Wings 156 episodes, that's sort of an educated guess. Both were created and written by Sorkin, both directed by Thomas Schlamme, both co-starred Bradley Whitford, both involve people walking a lot while frequently talking.

Several websites referred to how autobiographical the show is — do a Google news search, you'll find them. Frankly, I don't know and couldn't care less about that. Wherever the material is coming from, it's good: crisp, smart, and funny. The opening sequence of the pilot is an all-timer: Wes Mendell (Judd Hirsch), the fatherly producer of the show-within-a-show has an edgy sketch cut by the network censor just before broadcast. When the show goes live, Mendell jumps in front of the cameras and starts a Network-esque meltdown (acknowledged as knowingly Network-esque in a very funny sequence several minutes later). Mendell, sick of the way network pressure has watered down his beloved show, wants to get fired. So he does what no one on television does: he speaks honestly. Here's some highlights from the speech:

This show used to be cutting edge political and social satire, but it’s gotten lobotomized by a candy ass broadcast network hell-bent on doing nothing that might challenge their audience...We’re all being lobotomized by this country’s most influential industry. It’s just throwing in the towel on any endeavor to do anything that doesn’t include the courting of 12 year old boys. Not even the smart 12 year olds, the stupid ones, the idiots. Which there are plenty, thanks in no small measure to this network. So why don’t you just, change the channel, turn off the TV. Do it right now, go ahead...There is a struggle between art and commerce. Well there has always been a struggle between art and commerce. Now, I’m telling you, art is getting its ass kicked. And it’s making us mean. And it’s making us bitchy. It’s making us cheap punks, that’s not who we are! People are having contests to see how much they can be like Donald Trump. [Inaudible] We’re eating worms for money. Who wants to screw my sister! Guys are getting killed in a war that’s got theme music and a logo. That remote in your hand is a crack pipe...

I don't care if Sorkin is doing this with a bit of a wink, or if the show distracts from Mendell's speech to some degree by intercutting with the network censor's attempts to pull the plug on the live broadcast. Putting this on HBO, no matter the context, is edgy. Putting this on broadcast television, but particularly NBC — the network that airs Saturday Night Live AND The Apprentice — is ludicrous. NBC must be as deseperate for a hit show as the "NBS" channel that broadcasts Mendell's Studio 60.

The rest of the episode wasn't quite as riveting as the opening, but it establishes one of the best cast ensembles in television, including Steven Webber as the jerkstore head of NBS and Amanda Peet as his newly hired and somewhat enigmatic V.P. Whitford and nominal lead Matthew Perry play a writing team that Peet wants to get to replace Hirsch's character, and both already pop with a nice friends-for-life chemistry.

Another feather in Studio 60's cap: not afraid to be melodramatic. Sure, having Perry's character be the ex-lover of Studio 60's most popular female star is contrived but you know what: it creates the perfect soapy tension that these sort of hour-long dramas thrive on. I'm not ashamed to say I look forward to many will-they-won't-they moments for months or hopefully years to come.

If you missed the pilot episode, it's playing on Bravo this week. Get in on the ground floor.


Monday, September 18, 2006

TerMET Art: 2006 NL East Division Champions

It took a couple extra days, but it was worth the wait. The team went nuts, Shea Stadium (a heavily underrated ballpark, thank you very much) was rocking, and the players even came back out onto the field to celebrate with the very deserving fans (see above). For the first time since 1988, the New York Mets are National League East Division Champions.

We haven't covered the Mets much since that cold evening way back in April when Sweeney and I braved the elements for Pedro's first outing of the season. But that doesn't mean we haven't been watching; I've seen far fewer movies this summer than I might have had the Mets not continued to play exciting baseball month after month. The thing that's excited me the most? That adversity — so long the Mets' undoing — has frequently proven just how tough this group of Amazin's are. When Sanchez went down, Heilman stepped up. When they lost Nady, they found Green. 2006 has been nothing less than electric.

With the Mets entering the playoffs in just two weeks, expect more posts of this sort. We can't help it. We love these guys.

The image is from Yahoo! Sports -- click over there for the game recap and an amazing gallery of images from the celebration. I hope it's the first of many.


Sunday, September 17, 2006

Gentlemen Prefer Howard Hawks: Ball of Fire (1941)

My continuing reevaluation of Howard Hawks finds me totally bedazzled once again, this time by the director's 1941 comedy Ball of Fire starring the completely mismatched on-screen duo Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. But that's the point: Cooper is a starchy scholar working with seven stuffy colleagues on a new encyclopedia, who realizes that he is completely out of touch with modern slang. In order to make the grammar portions of the encyclopedia relevant, Cooper hits the streets of New York searching for street talk, and who better to provide it than Stanwyck, a gangster's moll who moonlights as a cabaret singer. When Stanwyck's sugar daddy needs her to lay low for a while, she shacks up with Cooper and the seven profs (explicitly designed to resemble the seven dwarfs), and unlikely romance begins brewing.

As I've discussed before, I was never one for director Howard Hawks. Maybe I simply resisted him because everyone claimed he was so "important" while all his most "important" films left me flat. But the more I watch of the "lesser" Hawks of bubbly romantic comedies the more I admire him. As the Snow White allusions emphasize, Ball of Fire is a fairy tale: sweet and innocent and very charming. Show me the man who doesn't smile at Ball of Fire and I will show you a man who is dead, if not literally, then emotionally.

I could analyze the movie, I suppose, but why force myself to pretend that the movie was an intellectual exercise? What analysis could I provide, what praise could I bestow, that would be more enlightening than revealing that the movie is so delightful, so seductive, so entertaining, that it moves the most critical viewer (i.e. me) to put down the pen and paper and just enjoy. Why not instead fess up, and say that for 110 blissful minutes I was simply putty in the hands of a master. Hawks' style jives particularly well with screenwriter (and future director) Billy Wilder, whose perspective is all over the script — the notion that Cooper's encylopedia is being funded by a dead millionaire who left part of his estate to the project simply because he was miffed he was left out of the old version, strikes me a particularly Wilderian observation of life.

Though I've wavered on Hawks, I have been, and ever shall be, a charter member of the Barbara Stanwyck fanclub. She wasn't the most beautiful actress in Hollywood, but for a good long while there she was certainly the sexiest, and maybe in a way her slightly imperfect features (particularly that distinctive nose) made her more alluring — there is a genuineness to Stanwyck, as well as an attainability, that's in stark contrast to Monroe or Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, who from a man's perspective may as well be another species, let alone a different gender. Movie stars of all generations are terrified of seeming human — in the movies, they always wake up in bed with perfect hair and makeup — but Stanwyck isn't. She's down-to-earth and relatable, and that's part of her unique charm.

But there I go analyzing again. Enough out of me.

Sweeney's discussed the film before, in a short post back in April.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Borat Prompts Diplomatic Summit

From The Daily Mail, click over for the full article:

Bush to hold talks on Ali G creator after diplomatic row

US President George Bush is to host White House talks on British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.

Cohen, 35, creator of Ali G, has infuriated the Kazakhstan government with his portrayal of Borat, a bumbling Kazakh TV presenter.

And now a movie of Borat's adventures in the US has caused a diplomatic incident.

The opening scene, which shows Borat lustily kissing his sister goodbye and setting off for America in a car pulled by a horse, had audiences in stitches when it was first shown last week.

But the film, which has just premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, has prompted a swift reaction from the Kazakhstan government, which is launching a PR blitz in the States.

Kazakhstan president Nursultan Nazarbayev is to fly to the US to meet President Bush in the coming weeks and on the agenda will be his country's image.

President Nazarbayev has confirmed his government will buy "educational" TV spots and print advertisements about the "real Kazakhstan" in a bid to save the country's reputation before the film is released in the US in November.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Rosetta (1999)

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are the greatest directors of close-ups in the world. The close-up, so conventionally used as a crutch by lazy filmmakers, is elevated to a work of art in the Dardennes films; I could watch a Dardennes close-up for hours, which is fortunate because when you watch one of their movies, you essentially watch a Dardennes close-up for hours. The brothers don't have much use for any other sorts of shots.

I'm trying to invent a pithy term to describe their aesthetic. The best and most descriptive I've come up with is "anti-point of view." In a point of view shot, the camera assumes the perspective of the character and we see what they see (there is a very good, very lengthy one in The Black Dahlia, which I saw earlier this evening, for example). In Rosetta, we almost never see what the title character sees; in fact, we almost never see anything but Rosetta herself. Aside from the obvious intimacy such a shot creates, the Dardennes unblinking camera is so close to their subject that her face frequently fills the frame to the point of blocking out most of the details of the world around her. In several scenes, they build suspense of the simplest and most natural kind simply by having us observe Rosetta react to something off-screen but refusing to cut away or pull back to let us see what she's observing. If the cinema makes us all into voyeurs, the Dardennes fluster audiences by refusing to indulge that most primal of urges.

This is only the second film I've seen by the Dardennes. The first, L'Enfant remains my favorite film released theatrically in 2006. Rosetta is, I think, a slightly weaker film, but I must say that the final, wordless shot, which consists of a simple, wordless gesture, moved me more than anything in the last dozen films I'd seen before it.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Rufus Sewell: Pompous Dickhole

Look at that. There is nothing I could say about Sewell's delectably evil (say with me, with a slight sneer: "EEEEEEE-VILLLLLLLLLL") performance as Prince Leopold in the surprisingly solid The Illusionist that isn't already said, better and more concisely by his single assholic look in that still. The slightly upturned nose, the ever so haughty moustache (I would KILL to have a moustache like that!), and his handle on a cigarette that only a royal (or a royal douchebag) could pull off. Ladies and gentlemen, that is how you convey sympathy for the devil.

Bravo, Rufus.

What I Think when I Listen to The Rock's audio commentary from Walking Tall (2004)

This is not the place for me to discuss what a fine performer Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is. As I'm sure you've noted, I've limited myself to his audio commentary from his solid turn in 2004's remake of Walking Tall. So that's where we'll stay.

He's still tied to "The Rock" character from his WWF/E days, a cocky, eager-to-please, and often self-deprecating dynamo that rocketed him to stardom in the late 90s. He punctuated every motion with a flourish, generally involving a shimmy, a shake, or a combination there-of. He's still held a lot of that character over to his film roles - and his commentary is no different - at the beginning of the track he tells the viewer if they want an art-house commentary they should rent Gosford Park. The pleasures in the track are the numerous cracks he makes at the film itself - including his insistence that there were 194 producers in the film, and about just as many writers.

His most brilliant joke though, is continually referring to John Beasley (who plays his father) as George Foreman (to whom he bears a passing resemblance). He does it ceaselessly for the entire track - including a description of why the Foreman Grill is the gretest invention of all time (it cooks lean burgers). He also says his character learned who to take punches because of his dad's skills. The fact he sustains this joke for an hour and a half is impressive, more impressive is the fact that it's hilarious the entire time.

He points out multiple errors in the film - like how he's hammering out a board from the stairs that has no nails in it - and compares one of the final fight sequences to The Godfather Part II.

Another running joke involves his makeup artist - who he always mentions as "Academy Award wining makeup artist Jeff Dawn who usually does a poor job but did well here." He says this each time a scene involving serious makeup comes up. His commitment to sarcasm is admirable. At one point he calls the Special Forces tattoo they put on him as "8 miles of dogshit." He also keeps making fun of his film nephew's hair - noting each time he appears that he hadn't got it cut yet.

As a Hollywood star he covers his bases by verbally fellating everyone who had anything to do with the film, saying how "great" everyone is about 5,000 times. But whatever, if it lets him keep making movies, I'm all for it.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Artists And Models (1955)

One scene encapsulates the varied glories of Artists and Models, a Frank Tashlin beauty from 1955. Let's deal with backstory first: Jerry Lewis plays Eugene Fullstack, an aspiring (poor) writer obsessed with the "Bat Lady" comic book. Shirley MacLaine plays the sprightly Bessie Sparrowbrush, who models for the creator of "Bat Lady" (Abby: Dorothy Malone) - and who decides Eugene should be her husband based on his astrological sign.

OK - after Fullstack's roommate Rick Todd (Dean Martin) woos Abby on the roof by pretending to be Dean Martin (always self-reflexive, our Tashlin) - Bessie decides to take his lead and do the same with Eugene. She enters the apartment - and picks up Todd/Dean's lyric from "Innamorata", clumsily posing herself cheesecake style on the stairs. Then Fullstack walks in, holding the remnants of a day at the beach: folding chair, bucket, sunscreen, etc. When Bessie hits the chorus - he drops everything. And it begins - a stunningly choreographed symphony of awkward motion - all done on a staircase and its landing. Bessie swings under the rail, to block Eugene's exit - he scurries off - she hits the chorus - he drops everything again. The timing is astounding - it's a perfect inversion of the lovestruck ballad in musicals with woman pursuing man and the body an impediment of and not the cause of union. And yet it creates the same feeling of euphoria that it's template does. A testament, I think, to the limitless likability of Shirley MacLaine in her prime.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

You can ignore this post if you so choose

It's for a game I'm playing online, and I need to upload a photo and this seemed like the quickest way. Feel free to guess what movie that image is from, that's the point.

Have You Seen My Childhood?

My digital cable provider includes a channel called Nick GAS, an acronym for "Games and Sports." Essentially, the channel plays the Nickelodeon live action stunt and game shows of my youth: GUTS, Nick Arcade, Get the Picture and others.

Most of these shows were recorded (in front of a live studio audience, we were always told) at a place called Nickelodeon Studios, what was essentially a grandiose theme park attraction at Universal Studios in Orlando. Every show ended with a spot telling the viewer that the show was filmed at Nickelodeon Studios, and included this iconic image.

Nickelodeon (channel 14 back in the day, if memory serves) played a crucial role in the development of my consciousness and my sensibilities: long before I fell in love with Mel Brooks or Jerry Seinfeld I found my first true comedic obsession in the form of a Canadian sketch comedy show for children called You Can't Do That on Television. It was the first television show I truly loved.

I was already starting to grow out of Nickelodeon worship by the time the company opened Nickelodeon Studios, but that doesn't mean I wasn't beyond excited to visit there: the way every single show ended with that shot of the Slime Geyser and the Nickelodeon Studios promo built it into a place of near mythic stature in my young psyche. I visited it a few times on my family's occassional trips to Orlando, Florida (and once with camp); on one such trip, I sat in the studio audience of a taping of Legends of the Hidden Temple. It was, unquestionably, one of the most exciting moments of my life up to that point, even though I was confused (and slightly disgusted) by my first taste of "Hollywood magic": for reasons beyond my comprehension, the audience was only brought in to watch the taping of a single ten minute segment of one episode, before we were shuffled out to make way for the next batch of tourists. (Me and my DVR, coincidentally, are on a quest to find that ten minute segment and catch a glimpse of audience member self via the wayback machine)

I don't watch Nickelodeon anymore, haven't for years, but flipping to Nick GAS gave me a twinge of nostalgia, and I grew curious about the state of Nickelodeon Studios. I had a feeling that in the age of Spongebob Squarepants there was little need for a fully functioning live action recording center in the middle of or central Florida, and I was right. Nickelodeon Studios closed in April of last year. The final show at the studio was recorded in the spring of 2004 and everything else slowly faded away. Even that stupid, glorious geyser is gone.

Coincidentally, the green splotch in the right foreground of that image was a timecapsule, buried in 1992, that was supposed to be opened in 2042 — since that picture was taken, it, too, has been removed. Gifts to the future, it seems, mean very little in the grand scheme of things to corporate theme parks.

It's strange what will make a person sad; I feel far too young to get nostalgic for my youth to the point of remorse, particularly for a place I visited a handful of times more than a decade ago. Yet here I am, looking at pictures, and writing of things. The children of 2042 face sad times indeed.

(Researching this post I found I'm not alone in my Nick Studios nostalgia. Here's a video that takes it to an almost unhealthy extreme:)

Sunday, September 03, 2006

In Praise of DVR: Arabesque (1966)

Part of a series celebrating the random movies I tape off television at 4 in the morning using my digital cable's DVR recorder

I'm a great admirer of Stanley Donen's Charade, starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. It's often described as the best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never made, and let's call that a compliment: there are moments, particularly in the brilliant climactic standoff between Grant and the movie's shadowy villain (saying who it is will ruin it for those of you haven't had the pleasure of seeing the movie), that rank with the Master of Suspense, and there are times — mostly when I'm substantially inebriated — that I think some of the editing in Charade rates it ahead of some Hitchcock.

Donen is mostly known as a musical director: he did Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Singin' in the Rain, and one of Sweeney's ten favorite movies of all time It's Always Fair Weather (the latter two are co-directed by Gene Kelly). As a thriller, Charade was a bit of a departure, but it was a terrifically made departure, and it was also a hit, and so Donen got the chance to make a second one. Donen's second crack at the genre, Arabesque, was also supposed to star Cary Grant, but, having heard too much criticism about being too old to romance his Charade co-star, he passed, and the role went to Grant's good buddy, Gregory Peck. By the by, I know all this because Robert Osborne on TCM told me this — the DVR records his delightfully insightful introductions too.

Arabesque isn't Charade — Gregory Peck isn't Cary Grant — but it's a strong follow-up. Peck is a professor of linguistics specializing in hieroglyphics, pressed into service by a Middle Eastern Prime Minister looking to stop a group of terrorists who wish to see him dead. The painfully sexy Sophia Loren is involved with the terrorists, though her true allegiance is hazy. Charade fans may recognize a similar framework with the gender roles flipped: in the earlier picture, it's the female Hepburn whose thrust into intrigue and it's the male Grant who she's never quite sure she can trust.

The stakes are never quite as real as Charade: Arabesque misses George Kennedy and James Coburn as menacing heavies even more than it misses Grant (Peck's character is a bit of a fuddy duddy, and Peck's ramrod straight posture works for it). The villain in Arabesque is like something out of Inspector Gadget with wraparound sunglasses and a pet falcon he keeps permanently perched on his arm. But Donen seems more at home in the genre, and his camerawork is even more expressive than before. He constantly plays with mirrors or other objects that distort the camera's vision — concave lenses, huge glass orbs, and, in a particularly moody scene, a chandelier in the middle of a spiral staircase, which refracts and divides Peck and Loren as they dash down it. With Loren's character constantly redefining who she works for and a McGuffin that is a cipher for a secret code, Donen literalizes the idea that appearances cannot be trusted and by constantly shifting the camera image before our eyes. The voyeuristic aspects of the film, with characters constantly watching or being watched, will particularly appeal to Hitchcock fans.

Some of the work with the onscreen mirrors is devilishly clever — one shot where Peck hides from pursuers and watches them in a mirror he sees through a cracked door must have taken days to choreograph — and the suspense sequences are equally witty. In a desperate gamble, Peck hides the cipher in a piece of candy where he thinks the villains won't find it. And they don't: they search him and dump the candy, but before he can retrieve it someone else does, forcing he and Loren to follow the candy stealer, picking each wrapper as he drops it. Imagine: the fate of a nation rests on a character being a dependable litterer! One of the wrappers gets stepped on by a guard at Buckingham Palace, who, as you know, cannot move for the duration of their entire shift. Luckily Sophia Loren is painfully sexy.

Arabesque is class. It's never been released on DVD. Thank you DVR!