Wednesday, July 25, 2007


Speaking of Allen Coulter, DAMAGES, the new F/X legal series, is gritty, disturbing, twisting and twisted--which, of course, makes it great fun. Glenn Close could well be tired of playing iron maidens of dubious personal character--is EVERY strong woman selfish and evil at heart? Nonetheless, she does it so well and they're no doubt fun to play. (Meryl Streep did a similar turn in THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA--but there, the stakes were in high fashion versus murder--okay, I guess that's the same thing!) Rose Byrne holds her own as a young associate who works for Close's super lawyer, Patty Hewes, who has to adjust her own moral sense to keep her job while balancing the loved ones in her life. (Oh, and did I mention the show starts with a bloody, half-naked Byrne in a police interrogation room, needing a lawyer herself?) A superb theater-trained supporting cast includes the always protean Tait Donovan, Zelko Ivanek, Phillip Bosco, and, in a role that finally taps a deeper vein in his talent, Ted Danson as a wealthy Enron-like executive. (Before getting trapped in TV comedy land, Danson was riveting on the big screen in character roles in films like BODY HEAT.) The camera work is dark and foreboding, the editing edgy, and the scripts witty and terse. This nasty series (it is F/X, after all) will keep you biting your nails wondering what's to happen next--and wondering who is a good guy and who is a bad guy. Damages, Tuesday nights at 10 pm, F/X Channel.

For those high-minded, low-motivated souls who want to see the latest (and best) movies of 2006 & 2007—but somehow can’t rouse oneself out of genetically-planted inertia—it is a boon thing that On Demand services were created. (Can’t wear out our tootsies braving a trip to a video store, or even to the mailbox, for Heaven’s sake!)

Two flicks (among millions) that I previously missed I’ve now had the chance to catch up with—and though I may be the last soul on the planet to view them, I can now recommend them to you.

HOLLYWOODLAND: The sad, mysterious death of George Reeves, TV’s Superman, is grippingly re-visited (without any firm conclusion) in this wonderfully noir feature by one of cable’s best directors, Allen Coulter (THE SOPRANOS, SIX FEET UNDER, DAMAGES). Ben Affleck gives the performance of his career thusfar, stunningly lacking in vanity, as the tragic Reeves, an actor who aspired to serious consideration and yet felt like a clown in a stretchy jumpsuit, playing a superhero in this cheap and pathetic new medium called television. (Whether this is truth or conjecture is the filmmaker’s prerogative—Reeves death was ruled a suicide, but to this day, questions remain, which is precisely where Coulter wants us for this outing.) Diane Lane is stunning as a Hollywood mogul’s wife who pretty much “keeps” Reeves, and Bob Hoskins and Joe Spano are appropriately menacing as studio men with shady reputations to uphold. Yet the film is told in flashback and really belongs to Adrian Brody, the Oscar winner for THE PIANIST, who is still slowly unveiling his talents to the public. Brody is a poet of moral conflict. As the hapless detective tracking the case, his face is an increasingly dented mask that nonetheless reveals a wide range of contrasting emotions as he pieces together a case while barely holding his own life together. HOLLYWOODLAND is fascinating, knowing the ways in which show business and television now operate—and the continuing obsession Americans have with stars and their pursuit of stardom. (Have Lindsay, Brittany or Paris seen this one? They might think twice before some of their choices if they did!)

THANK YOU FOR SMOKING: in the 80s and 90s, Ivan Reitman made a name for himself as one of the most successful directors of light comedies with a vaguely political edge. Now his son, Jason, seems to have taken up the mantel, with a slightly darker edge and a less glossy veneer. The results are quite positive. THANK YOU FOR SMOKING (based on the novel by Christopher Buckley) is sitcom-quick but subtly more stinging. Aaron Eckhart, by stealth the most versatile leading man in Hollywood, gives one of his sharpest turns yet as Nick Naylor, a tobacco industry lobbyist who takes pride in both his ability to spin and his love for his young and impressionable son. He is shameless as he defends an industry he fully recognizes as evil and self-serving, and yet (as he explains to his kid), EVERYONE in America deserves a good defense. His chief antagonist is the wonderful William H. Macy as a Vermont senator currying favor with a rabid anti-smoking/pro-Cheddar platform, and there are numerous star cameo turns from Robert Duvall, Maria Bello, Joshua Jackson, J.K. Simmons, and Mrs. Tom Cruise (Katie Holmes). Young Cameron Bright, seemingly the successor to Haley Joel Osment in the deep-thinking kid department, provides a great moral tent post to the piece as Naylor’s young son, and Rob Lowe is once again effectively glib as a power broker who never lets a care crease that pretty face of his. But it is Eckart’s film and he has never been more affable, even as he approaches total moral bankruptcy. This is a fun summer watch that also manages to be a good litmus test of American marketing and mores.

Friday, July 13, 2007


No, I'm NOT referring to Dubya seemingly missing the point that Al-Quaeda's gained strength, we've lost thousands of lives, and that Scooter Libby's punishment was not harsh but on the most forgiving end of the federal guidelines, nor that the government is here to serve the people versus his personal business interests and those of his friends. ("When you come down to visit me in Texas in retirement, you'll find me proud to see I acted on principle, not politics." Yeah, right. How about acting on FACTS?!)

Believe it or not, today's column is not political. (And those arty types know that the above quote is from SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE.)

Riding the subways of New York these days, look around you--IF you are able to pull yourself away from your ipod. More and more people are wired, literally--earphones, headphones, peering into tiny little screens to watch some downloaded video. These devices are wonderful, mind you--small, compact, light, usually good sound fidelity.

But are we isolating ourselves into oblivion? Are personal entertainment devices and cellphones and blackberries and gameboys causing a social breakdown (not to mention severe neck injuries, thumb injuries, and hearing loss)?

It's often said one shouldn't speak to strangers and to a certain extent caution is wise and prudent. But simple social interaction, an exchanged glance or smile on the subway, even a simple courtesy seems to be getting rarer and rarer. People are retreating into private worlds even when crammed into a world of many physical bodies and, whatsmore, they are refusing to acknowledge their very environment. Like many poorly-advised young acting students, they are so busy negating what they're given and replacing with "substitutions" that they're not giving real life a chance. In doing so, an individual's very humanity dies by degree. Not healthy for the society. Not healthy for the individual.

We are enriched by social interaction far more than we are ever depleted. And while I'm not advocating banning miniature electronics by any means--hey, I still love my little Zen and enjoy having Jennifer Hudson ripping through "And I am telling you" while I demurely hold onto the subway bar--I think we need to remind ourselves not to retreat so far as to miss the wonder of ongoing life happening right in front of us.

Oh, and while Dubya's brilliant foreign policy continues, we need to remain ever vigilant.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


At the risk of sounding like an old fart--which is little risk at all, since I usually do!--there's precious little in film comedies these days for thinking adults (versus protracted adolescents). And why would there be? Folks who are entertained by reading and by Bill Moyers don't spend as much time or money at the movies these days. (HAROLD AND KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE, anyone? Not a slam, mind you--I haven't even seen it.) But the fact is that an intellectual, literate comedy is generally not what brings them in by the carload to the local box office. Stars, therefore, go slumming in "art house" films when they want to do something presumably more thoughtful, taking a cut in pay in order to save their souls (so to speak).

The effect when that film is a) risky in style, b) released by a major studio on a larger scale, and c) literate (God help us) is more chilling than the air-conditioning in a freezing multiplex. Sometimes the film itself doesn't really work--RUNNING WITH SCISSORS, for example, despite some wonderful work by Annette Benning and especially Jill Clayburgh. (If you can get past some serious tonality problems, this is a fun flick for a weekend night in front of the home tube.) And the word of mouth on the star-laden EVENING from the pens of Susan Minot and Michael Cunningham is deadly. But sometimes, a marvellous film was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and no one knew what to do with it--but they went ahead and made it anyhow. Sometimes the right things just happen, even for the wrong reasons.

And so my nominee for most overlooked, most ignored, and perhaps most undiscovered gem of 2006--and thereby now available on cable and on-demand in 2007, is . . .


See, many of you don't even remember the title. But under the direction of Marc Forster (MONSTER'S BALL, FINDING NEVERLAND, and the forthcoming KITE RUNNERS), a diverse team of actors (Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, and Queen Latifah, among others) turn in wonderfully honest and engaging performances in a truly different and thought-provoking (but never knee-slapping) comedy.

Will Ferrell (who's done his share of populist comedies plus a few under the radar indies) is marvellously sweet and understated as Harold Crick, an IRS auditor living a mundane life--until he suddenly hears his life being narrated by an unidentified female narrator. He realizes he is a character in her book (even though he's actually alive and real), and while he is at first annoyed by her commentary and her familiarity with his mundane habits, he becomes alarmed when she speaks of his imminent demise! After consulting two different psychologists (Linda Hunt and Tom Hulce in lovely cameos), he ends up with a literature professor, played with charming discretion by Dustin Hoffman, in an attempt to track down just whose book he is habituating. (We are already ahead of him by this point, as blocked writer Emma Thompson has shown us her dilemma in trying to figure out just HOW to kill off Harold Crick under the watchful eye of her publisher-assigned assistant, Queen Latifah.) And wouldn't you know that all of this pressure would happen just at the point when Harold's life may change, thanks to a protesting, tax-evading baker (Ms. Gyllenhaal)?

I can't tell you more. Or I'd have to kill you. I can tell you that you will identify with Harold, as we are all the central characters of our own stories. This is not a new idea, to be sure, but the various takes on it in STRANGER THAN FICTION are achieved with charm and flair, and the film raises questions that will have you scratching your head about your own life. And when the company is this enjoyable, it makes for a lovely ride. Forster's touch never falters nor hits a wrong note, resulting in a whimsical but not annoying tale that takes you on a most enjoyable ride.

Overlooked in 2006? You bet (despite some awards for screenplay and a few passing nods for Ferrell and Thompson). But then, if there weren't overlooked films at the Box Office, we'd never have those little gems to discover on the quiet nights at home. So now's the time to catch up.

Monday, July 02, 2007


We must be pretty dense as a people--after all, how many times and in how many ways do they have to give us the same message? "We will do whatever the hell we want."

Bush has commuted the sentence of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Dick Cheney's former Chief of Staff who leaked the secret identity of a CIA agent to get at her husband, a political rival of the White House Boys and then lied to cover it up. Found guilty, he owes $250,000 (which his cronies will pay), and his 30-month sentence was commuted by Dubya. In short, he gets a slap on the wrist. Like the MasterCard commercial says, priceless.

This comes, of course, on the heels of Dick Cheney trying to close down the government office that wanted to subpoena his visitor log because he feels its no one else's business but his own whom he consorts with (and who, of course, contributes to his causes and benefits from his political largess).

All this while we supposedly fight a war for our freedoms, our democracy. Well, I suppose if you define democracy as the right to do whatever YOU want while others pay for it, I suppose they would consider it worth fighting for after all. Selfish men, unfortunately, can flourish under a democracy as easily as in any system, IF they control the keys to the kingdom.

And then, of course, they have freedom of speech--to decry any one who protests their war-like actions as being unsupportive of the troops. (Need we remind anyone that the contracts for rebuilding Iraq were not sent to open bid but given directly to Haliburton?)

This is, of course, primarily an arts column. It just goes to show how soulless the times are that even an arts maven cannot go unscathed by the selfish actions of selfish men. It is theater, of a sort--pretending to lead a country for the country's good, but like Richard III, they almost dare us to marvel at their greed, their evil deeds, their selfishness. They're not partisan, oh, noooo . . . indeed, what they do benefits neither Republicans nor Democrats, neither Liberals nor Conservatives. It supports business, their business, and it crosses multinational lines. This is not about religion. It's not about countries, philosophies, forms of government. It's strictly business and you're either part of the team or you're there to be strip-mined.


If not thrown in jail for having an opinion, we'll get back to talking about art eventually.


On cable: If you haven't seen it yet--and I'm always the last to see everything, I fear--Tod Field's LITTLE CHILDREN is powerful, engrossing, steamy and disturbing. It works well on the small screen, capturing the small, trapped lives of small people in a small town. Oscar-nominated performances from Kate Winslett and Jackie Earle Haley in no way disappoint, and rising-star Patrick Wilson successfully plays yet another beautiful young man who has lost his moral compass. Not a fun movie, perhaps, but it will keep you on the edge of your chair with unease for the full 2 hours & 18 minutes. Now available on demand and in your local video store.

On disc: Barbara Cook hits her 80th year soon and shows no signs of slowing down, bless her. Like the late Rosie Clooney before her, each year brings more color and warmth into each and every syllable. What is traded in crystalline clarity (though she sounds damned good!) comes back a thousand-fold in nuance. NO ONE IS ALONE, her latest album, is a version of her most recent Carnegie Hall concert, but for various reasons is recorded instead in the studio, and the relatively relaxed situation makes a lovely contrast from her excellent but highly theatrical concert recordings. An intimate performer as always, this really feels like a private conversation, a sharing of favorite songs, and if none of them feel new, well, hey--sex with a great lover who knows you can be a wonderful thing, too! Available in most stores, on the DRG label.