Saturday, August 30, 2008

The House Bunny (2008)

I caught one of those movie review shows over the weekend and the two critics were debating The House Bunny. They both agreed the movie was "intermittently funny" but "insulting to women" and that the portrayals of the female characters in the movie provoked "shock and disgust." One of the critics wanted to blame this perceived sexism on Adam Sandler, one of the film's producers.

No mention was made of the fact that the film's writers, Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, are women. Or that as a team, these talented ladies have been involved in a series of movies that, like The House Bunny, address and critique the way women navigate a male-dominated world. They include 10 Things I Hate About You, Legally Blonde, and Ella Enchanted which I just happened to watch last night and is an altogether delightful fairy tale and a thoroughly empowering one to boot.

The House Bunny stars Anna Faris as Shelly, a Playboy bunny whose 27th birthday present from Hugh Hefner is a swift kick to the curb (27, you see, is 59 in Playboy bunny years). Despondent, Shelly wanders aimlessly into fraternity house row at a local university and declaring that they look like "miniature Playboy mansions" sets about trying to find out how to secure lodging within. After she learns that each one has its own house mother, Shelly secures a position watching over the disheveled girls of Zeta House (whose Greek letters, zeta alpha zeta, form a unmissable reference to the great titans of idiot humour, the Zuckers, for those in the know). The Zetas are in danger of losing their spot at the school because of a lack of pledges; Shelly teaches the girls to be hot in order to drum up interest.

So, the path to success in life lies in stripper heels and micro minis? Of course not, but The House Bunny isn't prudish enough to reject stripper heels and micro minis either. Shelly's lessons on the timeless art of seduction take, but a little too well, and eventually the Zetas realize they've become the thing they hate the most. Being true to (and proud of) yourself is the ultimate message and if the girls do come out the other side of their ordeal with a kicking makeover it's mostly an outward reflection of their newfound confidence. To call this movie sexist is to call Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder a racist. Using the language of racism or sexism to make a point about it is not racism or sexism.

Sadly they did not get it. Nor did they get the appeal of the divine Ms. Faris, claiming she's rehashing the same character she's played before, which is obviously not true (The only thing Shelly and Jane F. from Smiley Face have in common is the color of their hair). And I'm sure at the end of a very comedy crowded summer, The House Bunny is going to get lost in the shuffle. But I encourage you to seek it out, at least when it comes to DVD. Don't listen to the naysayers -- after all, just a few segments later one of these same critics was railing against the onslaught of product placement in the upcoming James Bond sequel about four minutes after he'd introduced a segment called the "Netflix Video Pick of the Week." Right.

NOTE: For more on the endless appeal of Anna Faris, enjoy R. Emmet Sweeney's piece about the actress' charms at


Thursday, August 28, 2008

By One Woman's Request: The 12 Movie Meme

'Meme' is one of those words I was perfectly happy living my life not knowing about two years ago. Now everybody and their sister's got these memes all over their blog and I have been blackmailed, emotionally physically and mentally into joining in. I am nothing if not a follower.

One P.L. Kerpius charged us here at Termite Art with creating a 12 Movie Meme in the style of the one first posted here, wherein I imagine I'm programming a twelve part movie series at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. Ms. Kerpius' own list, a cinematic tour of the world, is here.

The rules state any 12 movies can be used, and any theme or themes are fair game. So my film series, "Matt Singer: A Narcissistic Tribute," will run only movies that have meant a great deal to me. No additional or individual explanation is required, though I have provided specific screening instructions when necessary. My twelve films, to be screened in this order on consecutive nights (except where noted) are:

Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

Gimme Shelter (Albert and David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin, 1970)

Take the Money and Run (Woody Allen, 1969)

My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2008)
-With Guy Maddin in attendance and providing narration

Spaceballs (Mel Brooks, 1987)

The Sting (George Roy Hill, 1973)

L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997)

Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967)
-Screening in 70mm

Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
-Screening in the most worn 16mm print available

The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (David Zucker, 1988)

Gymkata (Robert Crouse, 1985)
and The Apple (Menahem Golan, 1980)
-A Midnight Double Feature. Audience Participation Encouraged

And there you have it. Now I'm supposed to rope five of my friends into doing this, like some impossibly nerdy chain letter. But the Pamma Jamma already named the only friends I have with blogs. So the chain ends here. Unless Rob wants to do one of his own as well.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008


From Jonathan Rosenbaum. No words needed.

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In Praise of Acting: Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder

Basically all the jokes in Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder comes at the expense of Hollywood actors. They are stupid, they are vain, they are heroin junkies who will blow a man for a fix. Stiller makes particular sport of mocking a character named Kirk Lazarus, an Australian and five-time Academy Award winner who gets so deeply into his roles that for his turn as Sgt. Osiris, an African-American member of a platoon of soldiers in the Vietnam War, he undergoes a controversial pigment augmentation surgery and who refuses to break character when the cameras stop rolling, at least until he records his DVD commentary.

The irony here is that Robert Downey Jr., playing Lazarus playing Osiris, is so good in the role that he eventually turns this send-up of actors and their petty bullshit into a celebration of truly great acting. The movie is far from perfect and all the characters, including Lazarus, are painfully underdeveloped. I suppose you could make the argument that Tropic Thunder's laughably thin characters are just Stiller's way of satirizing the half-wits that populate most Hollywood blockbusters, but that still doesn't make them any more interesting, and it keeps most of them from being anything more than joke machines.

But Downey Jr. is so good he overcomes the movie's limitations. As Osiris he has a way of delivering lines that are deeply offensive, hilarious funny, even intensely moving, all at once. Consider his confrontation with Tropic Thunder's real African-American Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson). Lazarus commits yet another sin of racial stereotyping, announcing his intention to cook up some greens and some ribs, then reluctantly acknowledges that he can't stop talking like Osiris and isn't entirely sure why. It's sort of sad, yet it's all the funnier because he's doing his soul searching in this ridiculous cartoon accent.

Downey Jr.'s only been nominated for an Oscar in real life once, for 1992's Chaplin. Kirk Lazarus should be number two.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Play Misty For Me (1971)

When Clint Eastwood made Play Misty for Me he was a cowboy. He got his start on television with Rawhide and of course became an international star in Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns. In the six years between the final Leone movie and Misty, Eastwood played four more cowboys (Hang 'Em High, Paint Your Wagon, Two Mules for Sister Sara, The Beguiled), a couple soldiers from World War II (Where Eagles Dare, Coogan's Bluff) and a cop out of the west who wore a cowboy hat (Coogan's Bluff). Interesting, then, that when he got his first opportunity to direct one of his own pictures, he made something so different and so contemporary as Misty.

The picture is a romantic horror film. Eastwood plays Dave Garver, the night disc jockey at a jazz radio station in Carmel, California. Each night he gives his listeners "a little verse, a little talk, and five hours of music to be very, very nice to each other by" and every night an anonymous caller rings him and coos "Play 'Misty' for me." One evening at a bar, Dave picks up a woman named Evelyn (Jessica Walter) who turns out to be his loyal fan. He thinks he's had a fun one night stand but Evelyn isn't so quick to let go and she's quickly worming her way into his every nook and cranny of his life. When Dave tries to distance himself so he can reconcile with an old flame (Donna Mills), Evelyn's attraction turns fatal. I love the way Roger Ebert described Evelyn in his original review of Misty from 1971: "She is something like flypaper; the more you struggle against her personality, the more tightly you're held."

There are some Hitchcockian elements, some themes that call to mind Eastwood's previous picture as an actor, Don Siegel's The Beguiled, and a couple good scares, but beyond the slasher elements, Play Misty For Me is sort of a love letter to Clint Eastwood by Clint Eastwood. This is a movie in which a woman paints a portrait of Eastwood that wouldn't look out of place on the cover of a romance novel, and a totally different woman would rather die than live without Clint.

As we'd eventually come to expect from Eastwood's work, the technique is strong and unfussy. In the murder scenes the camera gets very close to the victims; technically speaking it's probably too close for clarity's sake. But the effect is a disquieting one, as if Eastwood is quite literally rubbing our noses in the gore (the fine documentary that comes on the Misty DVD describes how Eastwood's special effects man came to the set with an eyedropper full of fake blood and Clint told him not to come back until he had a couple gallon jugs worth of the stuff). My favorite moment comes at the climax, when Dave realizes where Evelyn is and races off to stop her and Eastwood cuts back and forth between oddly angled shots of Dave motoring down the highway and Evelyn taking a pair of scissors to the painting of his face, a nice way of heightening the tension before the finale while simultaneously suggesting the fragile nature of Dave's mental state.

Watching Misty, I wondered why I never read Eastwood's name in articles about the New Hollywood period of the early 1970s. To my mind, Misty fits in well with the films associated with that term: like them, it's shot on a low budget, entirely on location, with no sets and very limited art direction. The extended sequence with Dave and his buddies wandering the Monterey Jazz Festival feels like a direct descendant (albeit a very sober descendant) of the Mardi Gras scenes from Easy Rider. With Leone, Eastwood even made a couple of the European movies that influenced the New Hollywood movement.

His exclusion probably has more to do with his personality than his work: unlike so many of the New Hollywood directors, Eastwood wasn't prone to wild flights of druggy inspiration and always brought his productions in on time and on budget. The fact that Eastwood was a huge movie star, and thus seen as an actor first and a director second, certainly hurt his perception as a "young artist." His politics, or at least his presumed politics, after appearing in movies like Siegel's Dirty Harry no doubt distanced him as well. It's worked out in the end; while so many New Hollywood directors crashed and burned along with the linings of their nasal cavities, Eastwood's matured into a director the equal or superior of those who hogged all the early acclaim.


Monday, August 18, 2008

Manny Farber (1917 - 2008)

Manny Farber has passed away at the age of 91, according to David Hudson of GreenCine Daily. Devastating news. The greatest prose stylist in the history of film criticism, bar none. His painting career (Rohmer's Knee, 1982, above) needs to be investigated more fully. His essay, "White Elephant Art Vs. Termite Art" , is this humble site's namesake. More to come...


Mike & The Mad Dog (1989-2008)

If you follow New York sports you know that Thursday afternoon, WFAN announced the end of the 19-year partnership between Mike Francesa and Christopher Russo on their afternoon drive time radio show Mike and the Mad Dog. I've been around a little longer than the show, but I can't really remember a time when they weren't on. It'll be weird to live in a world without this show which I show enjoyed listening to even though I wouldn't necessarily say I liked it.

Theirs was an odd appeal for sure. Francesa's a die-hard Yankees man, Doggie a die-hard Yankee hater (and not even a Mets fan; he prefers the Giants) a true oil-and-water mix for a New York sports talk show. As far as their on-air personalities I can't say I cared for either one's: Mike is a flagrant know-it-all, Dog a pathological yes man. Most conversations fell into a dependable pattern: Mad Dog would set up a topic, Mike would break it down invariably ending with his favorite phrase "and away we go," which would lead right into Dog's favorite phrase "Ah Mike, you're absolutely right." That dynamic that often yielded hilarious results when they strayed off-topic into the world of popular culture, a field in which neither knows anything about but Francesa in particular remains convinced he's an expert in. In what ultimately turned out to be their last full show together, Francesa, fresh off a long vacation, began talking about the modern classic The Other Boleyn Girl, raving about it like it was Citizen Kane.

Still, I must admit there were certain things they did better than just about anyone else. Both shared a unusual mix of fan and journalistic instincts: they were as passionate about sports as their listeners, but they never pulled their punches in interviews. Wherever their own allegiance lay, there's no denying the pair cared and their opinions were informed even when infuriating. And their audience cared too; they were the #1 show in their time slot for the better part of 19 years. That sort of loyalty is really remarkable. I haven't even been reading Spider-Man comics that long.

I am going to miss the show a lot; the banter, the arguments, the times when they clearly had no idea what they were talking about (The Other Boleyn Girl?!?), and maybe most of all those great retro jingles that opened and closed each segment ("Miiiiike -- Mike Fran-CES-a / and the Maaaaaad Dog -- Chris ROOO-so / On the Fan! / W-F-A-NNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN!"). In the last couple years I've started working a lot at home and I've begun putting on Mike and the Mad Dog's YES television simulcast in the background. Their discussions and squabbles have become my favorite background noise while writing. It didn't really matter what they were talking about. Even if I didn't like what they were saying, I always enjoyed hearing them talk.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Step Brothers (2008)

Step Brothers was made by free men. Gloriously anarchic, it's the purest distillation of the Adam McKay-Will Farrell aesthetic, which values combative performances above all else, a kind of actorly one upsmanship. After completing the relatively large-scale Talledega Nights, McKay wanted to, as he told The Oklahoman: "do a film that was almost all about characters and dialogue — no action and no '70s nostalgia, just straight-up, nonstop riffing." Enamored with the improvisatory nuggets mined by the team of John C. Reilly and Farrell on Talledega, McKay conceived of a plot that would have them together on-screen for an entire film, hence the step-brotherdom. The movie, then, is a scrim for a feature-length improvisation session, which was how Farell and McKay were trained: McKay at the Upright Citizens Brigade, and Farrell with The Groundlings, before they both teamed up on Saturday Night Live.

Reilly is the outlier, the one with dramatic chops whose id was let loose by the Apatow gang. He's quite wonderful in Walk Hard, probably the most underrated of the Apatow comedies, but there's a peculiar sophmoric magic that occurs when he spars with Farrell, a matter of timing and sensibility. They key off each other's self-absorbed personas, trading insults so absurd it turns into a battle of the non-sequitor ("The last time I heard that I fell off my dinosaur."). Their delight in performing with each other is contagious, spreading to the staighter-laced parents, played by Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins. Steenburgen savors each curse word, while Jenkins turns in a performance that is close to madness. His shit-eating grin while being seduced by Ferrell's yuppie brother Derek (Adam Huff) edges into the grotesque, while his improvisatory (I assume) monologue about his teen T-rex impersonations is pure Dada.

The plot totally falls apart during the sublimely ridiculous ending, at the incessantly repeated "Catalina Wine Mixer". The phrase in itself is rather banal, but intoned ad nauseum by the main players, it becomes pure nonsense, a children's game, until the "fucking Catalina Wine Mixer" had me in tears. This "nonsense" spreads through the whole sequence, incorporating dreams, fantasies, and the solid organizational structure of Enterprise rent-a-car. The film would make a great double-bill with Howard Hawks' (admittedly greater) Monkey Business, another film which reverts to childhood. It's critical of its adults-turned-kids, while Step Brothers revels in the pre-self-consciousness of children. But both films are unafraid to look silly for the sake of a laugh and refuse to condescend to the innocence and destructiveness of youth.

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YouTubeArt: McDLT Commercial

I need this song on my iPod.


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Paradine Case (1947)

Look, I'll be honest. I barely made it all the way through The Paradine Case. There were a couple moments there around the one hour ten minute mark where I was strongly considering turning it off; if I didn't want to be able to say I had seen it and thus knock another of the remaining Alfred Hitchcock films off my "must see list" (or, in this case, the "must endure list") I almost certainly would have turned my attention to another delightful episode of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares.

The movie follows a married British lawyer (Gregory Peck) who falls for his vampy client (Alida Valli), who may or may not have killed her blind old husband. Though it's basically a courtroom drama, and ultimately something of a murder mystery, The Paradine Case rests on the tension between the characters: Peck's troubles with his wife (Ann Todd), his lust for his client, the client's manipulation of Peck. But all of the casting is off (something Hitchcock himself acknowledged in his book-length interview with Francois Truffaut) and so's the chemistry: Peck claims that he's "fallen in love" with Valli though her looks certainly aren't the type to drop your jaw and their brief conversations in her jail cell have all the sexual tension of a Walmart employee training video.

Valli's performance may be the worst of anyone in any Hitchcock movie I've seen. She's got two expressions: stiff intensity and intense stiffness. Hitchcock liked his women mysterious, and the suspense in many of his best movies rises out of our trying to suss out a female character's true intentions and motivations. Valli's Mrs. Paradine is passive in the best of times, resigned to death at the worst. In his discussions about the movie with Truffaut he notes that one of the things that interested him about the story was the idea of an ordinary (and, potentially, innocent) person being sent to jail; watching a person who isn't accustomed to being locked up having to struggle with the brutal conditions of incarceration. I'd guess that Hitchcock's much longer original cut included a great deal more material of Mrs. Paradine's time in prison but the theatrical print (whose editing was supervised by Selznick after he didn't want to keep paying Hitchcock his going rate of $1,000 a day) removes all but a few faint traces of this theme from the story.

Some of the familiar Hitchcock archetypes are off as well. Hitchcock continually returned to people getting wrongfully accused (which, of course, plays off that fear of being wrongfully imprisoned) but (SPOILERS) Mrs. Paradine ain't so innocent. She's also not blonde -- which is typically a big deal in Hitchcock's pictures. Here the blonde is Peck's wife and she's frumpy and boring, instead of alluring and mysterious (basically what Mrs. Paradine is supposed to be). I also couldn't help but notice that many of my favorite Hitchcock pictures — Psycho, The 39 Steps, Frenzy — are all about characters near the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. Everyone in The Paradine Case is a lord or a lady, and they've all got incredible suits, and butlers and maids, and gorgeous houses. It's all a bit too stuffy for really juicy Hitchcock.

Speaking of stuffy, that leads me to the one thing that really impressed me about The Paradine Case. The film is shot entirely on soundstages, something not all that unusual for Hitchcock, who preferred the control afforded to him by studio shoots. But it's almost claustrophobic in its near total lack of exterior scenes. The setting doesn't really afford Hitchcock much room for elaborate camera moves, and the subject doesn't lend itself to flashy special effects shots. So Hitchcock focuses instead on lighting. The way he uses light and shadow on certain characters faces is really quite remarkable; in this YouTube clip (which is grainy, but does a better job of showing you what I want you to see than any pictures I could find online) you can see how he highlights Mrs. Paradine's importance, as well as her emotional distance from everyone around her, by constantly bathing her face in these early scenes with harsh white light. Even when she's standing very close to other characters whose faces are either partly or completely engulfed in shadow she remains perfectly — and somewhat ominously — lit.

There's some similar work in the climactic courtroom scenes where the frame is filled with maybe a dozen actors but the light seems to shine only on Peck. It's a marvelous way to focus an audience's attention on one actor without having to resort to a close-up where you'd lose the geography of the setting. I have to tell you there were times I hated The Paradine Case but seeing Hitchcock's visual mastery shine through the drab performances and screenplay and a producer's unnecessary meddling made it worth my time.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

Isaac Hayes, 1942 - 2008


Sunday, August 03, 2008

YouTubeArt: Step Brothers of Earth-2

Last night we had a Termite Art field trip to the Regal Union Square to see the latest Adam McKay-Will Ferrell triumph, Step Brothers. I'm not going to write about it now -- given that Sweeney called it "the best American movie of the year" I suspect I should leave that honor to him. But I will share this, one of the better scenes in the movie that is, fascinatingly, in a completely different form than the one in the movie. This clip is very funny, and other than its bare bones structure (Ferrell asks to run the exclusive "Catalina Wine Mixer," Rob Riggle is nervous about it, Adam Scott enters and decides to let him do it) it's an entirely different sequence.

Often on the Apatow and Ferrell DVDs you get a really enjoyable special feature called "Line-O-Rama" where they cut together all the different improvised lines into one humorous package. I'm awaiting the day when they release an entire movie in a totally different form with totally different jokes than the theatrical ones. Given the way Step Brothers is built and the way it practically spits on its own narrative on its way to maximum comedy, this could be the ideal time.