Thursday, May 29, 2008

Harvey Korman (1927-2008)

Sad to hear that Harvey Korman passed away Thursday at the age of 81. He had a long and successful career, and he's perhaps best known for his contributions on The Carol Burnett Show but for me he'll always be Hedley Lamarr, the moustache twirling villain of Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles.

Hedey ("That's Hedley!") is an Attorney General who tries to use his proximity to a boobish governor (played by Brooks himself) to snatch the land (" snatch!") of the town of Rock Ridge in order to run a railroad through it and make himself a bundle of money. Though the entire cast of Saddles — Cleavon Little, Slim Pickens, Madeline Kahn, and, of course, Gene Wilder — is aces, Korman owns the movie and all of its best scenes. When he rustles up a posse of the worst hoodlums the West has ever seen, he motivates them for their big assault on Rock Ridge with, "You will be risking your lives, whilst I will be risking an almost-certain Academy Award nomination for the Best Supporting Actor." When Pickens' right hand man Mr. Taggert suggests they scare away the citizens of Rock Ridge by slaying the first born child of every house Korman pauses then shakes his head. "Too Jewish," he says.

Korman gave Hedey ("That's Hedley!!") a straight face through even the most ridiculous lines of dialogue ("Gentlemen, please! Rest your sphincters!") and in a way he was the perfect Brooks villain: evil, but mildly so, in a way that encourages the audiences to hate him; hate him so much, in fact, that they enjoy when he reappears because then it's time to hate some more. Korman and Brooks worked together again three more times: in High Anxiety, History of the World: Part I and Brooks' last film, Dracula: Dead and Loving It. Though all three of those films are uneven, Korman's great in all of them.

Korman never did get that "almost certain" Academy Award nomination (though he did win several Emmys for The Carol Burnett Show) but in my book Hedey ("That's Hedley!!!") is one of the great movie villains. I've seen Blazing Saddles at least a dozen times, and just caught it again at Cannes the annual Cinema de la Plage, where it was my pleasure to watch the movie with a couple hundred French people who clearly didn't get half the jokes but who loved Korman and delighted in his schemes and his delicious comeuppance (spoiler alert: Little ultimately defeats him by shooting him in the balls). Wherever Harvey is now, I hope he is doing that voodoo that he do so well.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Man vs. Bear

I don't know. I think I'd vote for the bear. Unless it's against Terrence McGee. I wouldn't mess with the Bills special teams. But otherwise, bear all the way.

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Friday, May 23, 2008

Images from Cannes 2008: Part the Triple

Surveillance director Jennifer Lynch was on 20 minutes sleep when we interviewed her. She stayed up all night eating kebabs after her premiere.

The President also came to me, looking for my advice on the situation in the Middle East.

Ok so it's just one of the many puppets on the amazing French TV show Les Guignols. We've been watching every night after our webshows and even though I can't understand a word, I love it. We got backstage and got to watch a dress rehearsal. Kind of the coolest thing in the world. This is me with the host of the show, who is a puppet of a French journalist who hosts the nightly news on another channel at the same time a puppet of him is making fun of him on Canal Plus.

And now a parting shot from the puppet labs:

Screw clowns, puppets are where the real nightmare fuel's at.


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Images from Cannes 2008 - Part the Twice

French sandcastles kick American sandcastles' ass:

Inside the Marche Forville:

Film critics and journalists (see which ones you recognize!) love karaoke:


Friday, May 16, 2008

Termite (Sequential) Art: The Man With No Name #1

Yeah, it's a film blog. Guess what: I like comics too.

Written by Christos Gage
Illustrated by Wellington Dias
Lettered by Simon Bowland
Colored by Bruno Hang

The movies has never been busier poaching comics for adaptable material — in the next ten weeks there's no less than five different movies directly or indirectly inspired by graphic novels — so it's only fair for comics to do the reverse. Licensed comics have rarely branched out beyond the Lucasfilm stable of properties, or whatever is the big movie this summer: a trip this week to the local comic store could net you plenty of recent comics about Indiana Jones or Speed Racer; last year, you would have had your pick of half a dozen Transformers books. But I like what publisher Dynamite Entertainment is doing by picking out some older properties that might lend themselves to graphic storytelling. They've done books about Zorro and The Lone Ranger, Re-Animator, and even projects based on comics-friendly Sam Raimi's movies like Evil Dead and Darkman. Their newest series, The Man With No Name, based on the trio of iconic spaghetti westerns from Sergio Leone, is their most inspired choice yet as it's the most ideally suited to the comic book format. But the execution has a long way to go before it can be considered a worthy successor to Leone's work.

When you think of think of those classic Leone films, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars Movie (1965), and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966) your mind immediately fills with indellible images. Leone's camerawork is even more exciting than the gunfights in these movies: the composition, the angles, there really is nothing else quite like it. When you see a Leone movie of this period, you know from the visuals alone. A quick Google Image Search yielded a bounty of beautiful examples:

If you can tell a story in pictures, as the great comic book artists can, Leone's mythic canvas would be a great place to start from. Additionally, the way that Leone shot his action, elongating the stillness and silence before gunfights until the audience was boiling over with suspense, also seems suited to the comics page, where time can dilate as far as the artist sees fit. The Man With No Name comic, to my mind, should be filled with huge scenic vistas, speckled with tiny men, wide angle frames with lots of play between foreground and background, huge double-page spreads that would fill my eyes with a vision of the Old West, and lots of gritty, sweaty close-ups of sweaty brows and itchy trigger fingers. This would be a comic book I would love to read.

The Man With No Name book I did read earlier this week left me a bit disappointed in comparison. The writer, Christos Gage, has delivered a premise suitable for the character. It's entitled "The Good, The Bad, & The Uglier" (though it also has a totally unnecessary subtitle called "Saints and Sinners" — just pick one guys) and it is a sequel to the final film of the trilogy. The Man With No Name — who does, in fact, have a name in all three of the pictures — is on the run from the Confederacy, who want their gold back, and the Union, who don't take kindly to people who blow up their bridges. A chance encounter with a dying priest sends him off to San Antonio to defend a helpless mission. I buy the concept, and even the dialog though there is far too much of it, particularly at the very end of the book where the normally reticent The Man With No Name starts talking out loud to himself. But I'm having trouble reconciling the artwork, by Wellington Dias, with the source material. Here's an example page I pulled from comics website Newsarama (Click to enlarge):

The image is basically identical to the printed version, save for the fact that it's missing the dialogue ballons, which are minimal (two in the third panel, one very brief one in the fourth). The problem — beyond the fact that The Man With No Name looks nothing like Clint Eastwood — isn't that the art is bad, merely that it is generic and totally indistinguishable from any other action sequence in any other comic. For my taste, it's a bit too cartoony and nearly all of it exists in the bland middleground, not in the exciting extremes of perpsective where Leone staked his claim. Leone was great at making you feel the depth in his two-dimension artform; Dias, regrettably, does not share that skill and his work has a flatness that doesn't fit the material. The only portion of the book that really approaches Leone's vision is the end, where a makeshift cross in the extreme foreground marks a grave that weighs on The Man With No Name's conscience as he gallops back and forth through the background on his horse (it's still hampered by the aforementioned soliloquizing).

Again, not the worst comic I've read but one that is busting at the seems with potential that it's not reaching. And that, sometimes, can be even more frustrating than something really bad.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Images from Cannes 2008 - Part the One

The eye-catching entrance to the Carlton Hotel.

The view from IFC's balcony on La Croisette (home to's live webcam of the Red Carpet, The Cannes Cam).

Jack Black and forty poor schlubs in panda suits grovel for press attention.

All images taken by Matt Singer


Monday, May 12, 2008

The Kids Are Alright (1979)

"Rock and roll's never ever stood dissecting and inspecting it at close range. It doesn't stand up. So shut up."

Jeff Stein's documentary, The Kids are Alright, lives up to that statement from The Who frontman Roger Daltrey, who shares it near the climax of the film in a chapter the DVD calls "Final Words." There isn't much interview footage in Kids, and what there is is mostly rather silly - the band standing on their hands, or taking the piss out of each other, or joking about their "medicine" with Ringo Starr. The rest of the movie is a collection of the band's live performances. The combination of tracks is nonchronological, which fits The Who's style: wild, haphazard, reckless and, above all, exciting because you're never sure quite what will come next.

I say "The Who's style" like I've got a great idea what that is when, in fact, I don't own a single Who album even though my iPod is littered with all the other great lost gods of classic rock. Renting this movie, and discovering this band in full for the first time is due to a performance included in the film, from The Who's appearance in The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, which I recently watched for a piece about the Stones on screen for That film went unreleased for decades because, rumor has it, the Stones didn't appreciate getting upstaged in their own movie; as a result, no one ever saw The Who doing "A Quick One While He's Away" until it appeared in Stein's documentary. The performance lived up to the legend and a little research on the song pushed me to this doc, which is about to push me headlong into the band's discography.

In honor of Mr. Daltrey I'll stop myself there except to add that the movie ends with a rendition of "Won't Get Fooled Again" which may be the greatest rock performance I've ever seen on screen. It's conventionally — even a little boringly — shot, intentionally, I suspect, to best appreciate The Who's flamboyant stagecraft. Then, a flurry of inventiveness at the song's famous climax: during the extended synth break, the band disappears completely into a fog of psychedelic laser lights that practically scream "Hey! You know that last joint you were saving for the best part of the movie? Hit it NOW!" The camera swoops down just as a spotlight picks up Moon for his drum solo, then pulls back to show Daltrey in shadow thrusting his arms to the beat. Just as he lets loose with that famous vocal chord shredding yell we cut to a shot from the side of the stage in super-slo-mo — the only shot of the whole movie, I think, that's not played at normal-or-faster frame rate — of Townshend sliding on his knees as he strikes a chord to match Dalrey's howl. For my money, it's got all I want from a band: big sound, utterly pointless — and therefore utterly cool — physical theatrics, a little self-deprecating humor, and enough sloppiness to remind you that it's really live and not a bunch of guys lip synching to a prerecorded track. Plus there isn't even a whiff of self-consciousness or analysis. I just watched it four times in a row. Think I'll go once more before bed.

Friday, May 09, 2008

YouTubeArt: Tom Waits Press Conference

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Peter Hutton

Of all the experimental films I saw during my undergraduate "studies" at SUNY Binghamton (an avant-garde film hub - the dept. was founded by New American Cinema's eminence grise, Ken Jacobs), Peter Hutton's work is always the first to leap to my memory when I think of those lonely gray days. I think it was "Time And Tide" that set the hook, a bleached out look at ice-breaking ships, structured around meditative, static long takes. It required patience and an active eye - and the climax was worth it: this B&W world is shown to be shot in color in a beautiful slow reveal.

I always kept my eye out for his work, but to no avail. Now the Museum of Modern Art is here to solve all my problems with a wonderful retrospective that kicked off with a conversation with the director this past Monday night, moderated by Luc Sante. Hutton, currently a professor at Bard College, joined the merchant marines when he was 18, and then traveled by water for ten years. His films are heavily influenced by this experience, often taking the passive perspective of a man on a ship, just viewing the landscape as it passes. Hutton traces this aesthetic to the Lumiere Brothers, who, he says, fucked everything up by dabbling in fiction with that water hose movie. An even greater influence, he says, was Gaston Melies, brother of Georges, who traveled the world filming actualities which were then screened to the local audiences. Gaston's motto was "the whole world within reach", which Hutton engraved on his first 16mm camera.

Evasive about his process of working - he brushed off questions about his editing technique by saying he "ends shots when the film runs out" - he was expansive about his reasons for shooting, which involve dreams of sinking ships (he wants to "save the images before they dissipate"), and above all a photo album. His father was also a merchant marine, and told him stories of his journeys growing up. Without a TV, his dad's photo album became his entertainment, and he went on to draw a connection between his use of black leader between shots and the way he read the album - each shot/photo is a discrete image with its own story to tell.

It's a cinema of patience, and for those who seek it, incredible beauty. Go see Skagafjordur for his obsessive views of the Icelandic coast, Two Rivers for a compare/contrast between the Hudson and Yangtze, the New York Portraits for a Hutton version of a noir (no people really, but their traces), and Images of Asian Music for an impressionistic jaunt through his seagoing days in Southeast Asia. Good times all around.


Glenn Kenny, proprietor of the most entertaining film blog around, In the Company Of Glenn, has just had his contract terminated by Hachette, the publisher of Premiere Magazine. This is, of course, bad news for those impressed with his broad wit that hid an equally wide breadth of knowledge about film history. Well, it's bad news for those who like smart writing at all. But luckily (for us) he's already started another blog, entitled Some Came Running, after the sublime Vicente Minnelli film. More and more, it seems like intelligent film criticism will end up being a part-time gig. Hm.

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Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)

This movie review starts with the discovery of a dusty book in my parents' basement.

On a recent trip to idyllic Central New Jersey, I was rummaging through the various piles of crap that is all that remains of my college experience, and stumbled across a used copy of The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe I'd purchased at the Syracuse University bookstore. I cannot tell you what class it was for because I don't remember. This, I'm sure, is due in large part to the fact that though I bought the book for a class, I never actually proceeded to read it. Oops. For some reason this omission wracked me with great pangs of guilt, so I tucked the book into my bag and brought it back to the Big Apple.

Once I cracked it, I found it to be a wonderful novel, funny and true. That led to a second old book, one I bought at a used bookstore and read immediately. That one was called The Devil's Candy by Julie Salamon, and it detailed the process by which Wolfe's beloved book became Brian De Palma's befuddled cinematic adaptation. Salamon's book doesn't shy away from the poor and very often illogical decisions that De Palma and the executives at Warner Brothers made during the process of turning Bonfire into a veritable cinematic conflagration, one that nearly torched many of the careers involved with it. But she also paints many of the men and women involved, particularly De Palma and his assistant director, Eric Schwab, with a kind of gritty integrity. They may have made some poor decisions, but they made them with the best of intentions. This fine reading experience made me even more curious to see the Bonfire film, which I had also avoided during my tour through the American educational system (at least I can say it was never a class assignment I skipped out on). Surely, I felt, there would some redeeming things about the movie. I sort of hoped and even believed I would actually like it, and be the only person who could defend it, which is always a fun position to be in.

But for the most part, De Palma's Bonfire of the Vanities is the mess I'd always been led to believe it was, and very much the product of the confrontational creative process that birthed it. As a general rule, it's a waste of time to bemoan the ways in which a movie is unlike its source because, as Wolfe points out in Salamon's book, the book is the book and the movie is the movie and both should be judged on their own merits. It's somewhat valid in this case because the changes De Palma and Warners made to Bonfire all undermine things that Wolfe put into the original material, which thus weakens its overall impact.

Take, for instance, the film version's most infamous change: removing Alan Arkin from the role of Judge Kovitsky and replacing him with Morgan Freeman. The Kovitsky role serves a few purposes in the narrative; he presides over Sherman McCoy's trial and is a rare voice of integrity and nobility amongst the otherwise venal cast (admittedly, that voice is rather vulgar). Kovitsky is also Jewish, which serves to further emphasize the fact that the Bronx Courthouse where much of the action takes place is ruled entirely by whites, even though the men and women whose cases are being heard there are almost entirely black or Latino. Freeman was hired as a preemptive method to undercut potential controversy about the film's sensitive racial material but really all it does onscreen is neuter a good deal of Wolfe's acidity, something the movie does repeatedly to its own detriment.

Offscreen, Freeman's casting had other effects. The producers had originally turned down Walter Matthau, an inspired choice, for the role because he asked for too much money; it was at that point that they settled on the much cheaper Alan Arkin. When they hired Freeman, they had to pay him a good deal more than Arkin — while still also paying the original actor's salary as well — and his busy schedule at the time meant they could not shoot the film's crucial courtroom scenes in Los Angeles as originally intended. Finding a courtroom near New York City proved exceedingly expensive and drove a acrimonious wedge between De Palma and his bosses at Warner Brothers, who grew angrier with their director with every cost overrun.

De Palma's Bonfire isn't so much an adaptation of Wolfe's novel as it is the Cliff's Notes version of it. My copy of the novel ran well over 600 pages; and only the bare bones of it actually fits into the two hour movie (more potentially could have, if executives didn't demand that their expensive movie be made more accessible by keeping the running time down before 130 minutes). Even when De Palma and screenwriter Michael Cristopher play things faithfully to the novel they really don't capture the true flavor of the book. One of my very favorite scenes from Wolfe's Bonfire is the one in which the police, who are routinely checking every black Mercedes in New York State, come to question Sherman McCoy. McCoy, knowing he is involved in the hit and run accident they are investigating, tries to play it cool but completely tips off his role. Narratively, Wolfe's and De Palma's version are almost identical, right down to the way one of the detectives casually sits on McCoy's desk as he reads him his Miranda rights. But Wolfe's version is longer and richer, because it exists inside McCoy's head and lets us see his tortured thought process in all its squirmy glory.

This gets at a larger flaw in the cinematic Bonfire. Wolfe's narration is omniscient, and it permits us entry into many of the characters' mental states. The only narrator of De Palma's film is Bruce Willis, who plays alcoholic journalist Peter Fallow (in yet another departure from the source, Fallow is no longer a snobby Brit). The film opens with a sloshed Fallow arriving at a press conference celebrating the release of his book all about McCoy's case; De Palma presents the scene in one long uninterrupted take. Technically, the shot is miraculous — according to The Devil's Candy it was so difficult, in fact, that De Palma appears on screen, in the role of a security guard on a walkie-talkie not out of his desire for a cameo but because there was simply otherwise no way that the director could stay with the Steadicam and communicate the cues to the rest of the crew — but it doesn't tell us anything about Fallow that a similar series of edited shots might have conveyed. De Palma and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond employ a lot of flashy camera work but very little of it has any textual motivation. In a movie like Blow Out, which is about the very nature of moviemaking, severe angles or lengthy tracking shots all serve a purpose. Not here.

Perhaps even more importantly, Fallow narrates the movie, providing us with glimpses of scenes he couldn't possibly know about and never witnessed. I guess we're supposed to assume that, at some point he sat down with McCoy and learned about all these private moments but no such scene appears in the film and Fallow event makes a point of noting that McCoy disappeared after his trial and hasn't been seen or heard from since. Further, Fallow's insight as a narrator is about as deep as you'd expect to come from a disinterested, boozy bumbler. This sort of lack of insight, and the overall removal of Wolfe's carefully crafted ambiguity, plague Hollywood's version of this tale. Wolfe never tells us the motivation of the black teens who approach Sherman's car, perhaps as a way to let the reader's own racial biases influence his reading of the encounter; De Palma takes a similar approach through most of the scene, but closes it with several shots and lines that make the kids' criminal intent quite clear. The book's third main character after McCoy and Fallow is Larry Kramer, a talented young assistant district attorney obsessed with his muscular physique and hitting on hot women in his juries. Kramer's tour through the heavily political Bronx judicial system the racial and ethnic politics of the NYPD are another flavorful element of Wolfe's metropolitan stew. The movie Kramer (Saul Rubinek), who's first name is Jed for some reason, is reduced to a bumbling neophyte who gleefully and unthinkingly carries out the marching orders of his boss, D.A. Abe Weiss.

Still, I enjoyed the process of reading the novel, reading about its adaptation, and then viewing the finished version, comparing how I'd imagined the book looking to how Salamon described De Palma's take, to finally watching it myself. Rarely, is one given the opportunity to see the creative process from such a wide-ranging perspective. Even if the end result was rather disappointing, the journey was a great one to make and I'm quite glad I stumbled on that old book I bought and never read.

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

What I've been up to...