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March 31, 2009 · Posted in SideBlog  
    

March Exits

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Horton Foote

(March 14, view 1916-March 4, sildenafil 2009)

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Betsy Blair

(Dec. 11, 1923-March 13, 2009)

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Ron Silver

(July 2, 1946-March 15, 2009)

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Millard Kaufman

(March 12, 1917-March 15, 2009)

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Natasha Richardson

(May 11, 1963-March 18, 2009)

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Steven Bach

(April 29, 1938-March 25, 2009

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Maurice Jarre

(Sept. 13, 1924-March 29, 2009)

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Andy Hallett

(Aug. 4, 1975-March 29, 2009)

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March 31, 2009 · Posted in Exits  
    

For Want of a Nail

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You’d think a story about people barely hanging on by their fingertips to the rudiments of survival would be pretty tough going, viagra but Wendy and Lucy manages to transform its simple tale of not-quite-making-it into one of the most uplifting films in recent memory.

Wendy (Michelle Williams) is a young woman who’s driving from Indiana to Alaska in hopes of scoring a summer job and – more importantly – an escape from her dead-end life back home. Her budget is obsessively calculated and stretched to the last penny, remedy she’s sleeping in her car and getting by on cheap junk food and restroom sponge baths, mind but she has her beloved dog Lucy for company and no one to answer to but herself. Life could be worse.

…Until she pulls into an unprepossessing little town in Oregon and everything goes to hell.

Her old beater breaks down, and the only garage in sight keeps such 2008_wendy_and_lucy_002eccentric hours that it seems for a while that it’s never open at all. A self-righteous young prig of a grocery clerk catches cash-strapped Wendy shoplifting dog food and has her tossed into the local jail. And when she reluctantly parts with the cash the law requires to get back on the street, she discovers that Lucy has disappeared.

The rest of the film details her search for her dog in this unfriendly little town of sad cinderblock buildings and cookie-cutter chain stores. No one there means her harm; it isn’t that kind of simplistic drama. This down-on-its-luck burg is just where Wendy happens to be when the law of averages catches up to her, and there’s no one around with both the energy and the wherewithal to give her the help she needs.

Director Kelly Reichardt and her co-writer Jonathan Raymond have crafted a film that at first appears unpolished and artless – but it isn’t long before we realize that there’s a high degree of art at work here on an almost subliminal level. Using a near-verite warts-and-all style, for its brief running time (80 minutes), Wendy and Lucy effortlessly drops us into its characters’ lives and reveals all that we need to know about them without ever resorting to traditional expository devices.

As the camera remains with Wendy from beginning to end, most of the other characters are glimpsed only briefly…but the performances are solid throughout. The most fully realized is Wally Dalton’s turn as a sympathetic security guard whose life has been reduced to staring at a deserted parking lot for minimum wage. Recognizing a fellow stray, he gives Wendy someone to talk to and points her in potentially useful directions in her search for Lucy. In the end, though, it’s up to Wendy to chart her own course with the toughest decision she’s ever made.

Williams is a low-key revelation as she wanders from one disaster to the next, alternately forlorn and hopeful, but always determined to keep her chin up and find a way to steer her life back on course. Williams is too attractive to completely vanish into the role of ill-kempt vagabond – on her, the character’s ragged home-made haircut becomes reminiscent of an Audrey Hepburn gamine ‘do – but her acting is flawless and her character one to cherish.

For such a short film, Wendy and Lucy is a lot of things: an exemplary gem of independent filmmaking, a quietly dramatic glimpse of lives that have been put on hold, an unsentimental celebration of hope and endurance…but most important of all, it’s 80 minutes of Michelle Williams letting us into the life of a character who becomes unforgettable by the time the final credits roll.
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Rating: R (language) Running Time: 80 minutes

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March 31, 2009 · Posted in DVD  
    

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It was the fall of 1957, and in America there was fear and wonder in the air. For those who kept up with current events, what made the blood run cold was the faintly glowing progress of Sputnik beyond the clouds, and the indecipherable beeps which that orbiting ball sent back to short-wave radios around the world. For those too young to be swept up in Cold War paranoia, it was a signal of a different kind, beamed directly to the rabbit ears of their families’ black and white Philcos, a new national craze called Shock Theater that brought the chills directly into their living rooms.

Shock Theater was the name of a package of 52 classic Universal horror movies from the ‘30s and ‘40s, many released to TV for the first time, and their appearance on the home screen kicked off a monster mania that’s never completely died out since. Perhaps even more important than its introduction to all those shambling monsters and Gothic laboratories from an earlier day, Shock brought with it the horror hosts whose dopey gags and bizarre appearances would remain fond memories for its young viewers for decades to come.

dvdcoverAmerican Scary, a labor of love by filmmakers John E. Hudgens and Sandy Clark, is a direct-to-DVD documentary celebration of that long parade of vampires, mad scientists and assorted geeks. Combining vintage clips with reminiscences by surviving hosts and their fans (a number of whom have gone on to become horror hosts themselves – rarely have so many talking heads come equipped with fangs, fur and scars), it relates the rise of performers with unlikely names like Vampira, Zacherley, Ghoulardi and Elvira from their modest beginnings to the status of cult celebrities and, eventually, broadcasting legends.

The film devotes a fair amount of time to pre-Shock host Maila Nurmi, whose oexotic Vampira created the basic template on Los Angeles TV in 1954. In a wry latter-day interview conducted a few years before her death in 2008, Nurmi describes how she cobbled together her performance from equal parts Morticia Addams, Norma Desmond and fetish imagery, and relates how the concept for her show evolved from a proto-“Addams Family” sitcom to the solo hosting duties that briefly made her a national phenomenon. Her segment is accompanied by astonishingly high-quality clips that demonstrate what a hypnotic presence she projected over the air.

The same can’t be said for the clips representing Zacherley, surely the most famous of the Shock-era hosts. But even viewed through the filter of blown-out kinescopes, the manic energy and infectious sense of humor that made him a sensation on the East Coast is evident. A member of Philadelphia station WCAU’s stock company, actor John Zacherle became an instant sensation when he shrugged into his dusty frock coat and ghoulish makeup and first took to the airwaves as “Roland.”

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Addressing the home audience with a baritone bark punctuated by one of the heartiest phony laughs in the business, Zacherle appeared to keep the show afloat on a bubble of sheer nerve. If he appeared to be making it up as he went along, he largely was; unlike the scripted Vampira show, Zacherle’s Shock episodes were improvised on a premise and a prayer. When his fame brought him to New York’s WABC the following year, he changed his character’s name but otherwise kept the act the same. As Zacherley, he rode the added exposure in the Big Apple to national fame. Kids who lived far outside the WABC viewing area knew him as “the Cool Ghoul,” and bought piles of Zacherley masks, records, books and a popular full-length poster perfect for hanging on young viewers’ bedroom doors.

Zacherley (and Roland) invented much of the schtick that became standard for the horror hosts that followed. In his weekly attempts to “add a lot of fun to it all, and take the curse out of the commercials,” he and his crew pioneered the concept of the host inserting himself into the featured films for comic effect. Working with a restrictive budget, he nevertheless managed to give himself other characters to react to by turning inanimate objects and offscreen voices into permanent sidekicks. In the process he created a characterization so distinctive that he’s revived it numerous times over the last 50 years.

Many of the early horror hosts doubled as local kiddie show stars, spending marvin11weekday afternoons chatting with puppets and introducing cartoons, and late-night weekends trading quips with skeletons and introducing hoary monster flicks. One of the most versatile of the early Shock-era hosts was Terry Bennett, whose demented beatnik character Marvin is still fondly remembered by Chicago viewers. Though he and his wife Joy (whose face was never revealed until the final broadcast) were wildly popular, there’s apparently little of their show that survives. Marvin is represented in American Scary by a pitiful few seconds of silent footage that gives scant indication of his distinctive brilliance.

terryjoyAt least Marvin is given some attention. Too many of the early hosts receive no mention at all. The Shock Theater package created a nation-wide phenomenon by inventing itself one city at a time, but the documentary never quite succeeds in suggesting the scope and spontaneous grassroots appeal of those pioneering programs.

Miami’s M.T. Graves, Wichita’s The Host, Tulsa’s Igor and Indianapolis’ Selwin were major regional players in their day, but they don’t receive so much as a mention. Oklahoma City’s Count Gregore and New Orleans’ Dr. Morgus are equally ignored, though both of them rival Zacherley in longevity. Running time considerations were undoubtedly part of the reason for some omissions, and it’s likely that footage of some of those pioneers no longer exists…but one can’t help wondering if more of the time devoted to talking head interviews would have been better spent on clips of the performers who brought the Shock craze to life.

One host who gets plenty of screen time is Ernie Anderson, whose trash-set1talking Cleveland hipster Ghoulardi kicked off a second wave of horror hosts in 1963. Though he was on the air for only three years, Anderson’s character remains the gold standard among Midwestern hosts. Eschewing the horror persona altogether, Ghoulardi spent his time dissing the dreadful movies he was saddled with, making fun of local culture and getting away with murder on the air. Bristling with off-the-wall catch phrases rendered in a bizarre patois, Anderson’s edgy act was sui generis (Tulsa’s Mazeppa was perhaps the only later host to approach that level of attitude and invention), and the seemingly countless Cleveland hosts who came after him – as popular and impressively long-lived as some of them have proven to be – opted for a safer slapstick approach.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The documentary offers looks at many of the hosts who arose in the ‘60s, ‘70s and beyond, their venues gradually shrinking as networks took over increasing amounts of late-night weekend time, and the easy profits from airing infomercials made it easy for stations to abandon local programming.

Even so, there are entertaining segments devoted to such genuinely funny and creative folk as Chicago’s original Svengoolie, Philadelphia’s Stella, and the plainclothes appeal of hosts like Chilly Billy (Pittsburgh), Big Chuck and Little John (Cleveland) and the endearingly straight-arrow Bob Wilkins (Sacramento).

ishot1aHudgens and Clark follow the evolution of the form from those frequently improvised, always under-rehearsed, live local broadcasts of the early days into the scripted and (relatively) polished productions on nationwide cable stations such as Elvira, Joe Bob Briggs’ MonsterVision, and Joel Hodgson’s Mystery Science Theater 3000. And while current practitioners find their broadcast options restricted increasingly to public access stations, it’s no shock to learn that a new wave has begun carving out a niche for itself on the internet.

The uninitiated may find themselves overcome by a sense of too much information, while aficionados will at times mutter about the important hosts who were left out. (Where’s Seymour? Dr. Madblood? Jeepers Creepers? Graves Ghastly or Sammy Terry?) But it’s an entertaining package nonetheless, with surprising appearances by comic Tim Conway (Ernie Anderson’s former comedy partner from the Cleveland days) and fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, who describes his one-shot experience as a cable horror host in a segment that perhaps takes up a disproportionate amount of screen time, but is too charming and articulate to have been left out.

Overall, it’s an amusing and often fascinating look at a piece of Americana that not only endures in the memories of the last three generations, but has proven to be remarkably durable to this day. More than a simple history lesson, American Scary is an unabashed love letter to the great American freak show that once ran wild on late-night TV.
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DVD extras: Trailers, the original pitch reel, bonus extended interviews, a look at other regional hosts and footage of a bona fide horror host wedding.

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March 23, 2009 · Posted in DVD  
    

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March 17, 2009 · Posted in SideBlog  
    

Botching the Watchmen

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Once the dazzle of its special effects has faded, Watchmen turns out to be one of those movies that disappoints the more you think about it.

Both newcomers to the concept and those familiar with the landmark 1986 graphic novel may find it easy to be seduced by the superficial faithfulness of the adaptation, but it’s an attraction that fades in short order and leaves you with little more than the memory of a few good performances and some flashy visuals.

Filmmakers have tried for years to adapt the story, but it’s always eluded them. Even the fearless Terry Gilliam walked away, pronouncing it impossible to do justice to this thick and ambitious work by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons. There’s simply too much ground to cover, and it’s the kind of intellectual terrain where most box-office-driven movies are reluctant to tread.

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At first glance, screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse seem to have boiled the tale down to a version of itself that’s simple enough to work as a commercial film while still hitting many of the high points of the source material. But adaptation is a tricky thing, and in a collaborative medium like film the script is too often only a blueprint reliant on the contributions of those who come after.

In this case, Zack Snyder simply wasn’t the director to build from that blueprint. As might be expected from the man who gave us the cinematic cheeseball 300, his recreation of many of the book’s visual moments goes beyond faithful and approaches the slavish – but rarely does his film come close to recreating the parts of Moore’s story that matter.

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Unlike most of the comics works that have made it to the big screen in recent years, Watchmen isn’t about the flashy high concept moments one expects from stories about Spider-Man or the X-Men. The strength of Moore’s story lies in the small details of stage business and characterization, the sideshows and apparent grace notes that are the first thing to fly out the window when moviemakers lay hands on someone else’s work. The Watchmen of Alan Moore exists to comment on the hyperactive flash of its characters’ actions, while the Watchmen of Zack Snyder exists largely as a context-free showcase for those actions alone.

Artist Dave Gibbons’ meticulous drawings and designs frequently come to Watchmenlife on the screen, but the taste and discretion underlying his rendering of the story’s various action scenes have been so thoroughly abandoned that the fidelity is often meaningless. While much of the original story’s violence is either suggested in subtle images or communicated through artful misdirection, Snyder chooses to show every possible violent encounter in over-the-top graphic detail.

When the graphic novel did resort to brief bursts of ugly action, most of those moments were restricted to the pathetic and addled hero-gone-to-seed Rorschach – but the movie, anxious to dazzle, turns everyone into larger-than-life homicidal vigilantes. The relatively benign characters Dan and Laurie, confronted by muggers, respond by snapping some attackers’ limbs in two and leaving the rest of the gang dead in an alley. With everybody equally capable of over-the-top mayhem, the impact of Rorschach’s pathology is effectively blunted. It’s no surprise that in Snyder’s world, Rorschach is transformed from a sick and creepy nutjob into Dirty Harry with a mask, the kind of antihero we’re expected to cheer when he commits horrible criminal acts in the name of justice.

Nor is it a surprise that, under Snyder, all of these costumed characters are capable of superhuman feats. The book tells the story of a bunch of average – i.e., non-super-powered – schlubs whose personal kinks have led them to opting for a violent and exhibitionistic lifestyle, and the price it exacts from them. But in the movie,  the opening struggle which propels the resulting murder mystery storyline is punctuated by fists smashing through walls and a marble bench dented by impact with a man’s skull. Rorschach practically break-dances his way through a small mob of cops armed with billy clubs, and everyone leaps and kicks like Jackie Chan on steroids. For all the lip service it pays to Moore’s dystopian tone, Snyder’s film is really just another superhero movie. If he had deliberately set out to make a film whose message was the opposite of its source material, the end result would have been much the same as what ended up on the screen.

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Several members of the cast are quite good, though – unsurprisingly – those who play the most violent and antisocial fare the best. Even in a role that’s been emasculated and dumbed down, Jackie Earle Haley is wonderfully effective as Rorschach. He’s rivalled in impact by Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the opportunistic sociopath the Comedian. Morgan dominates all of his scenes with a charisma that makes one long for the small humanizing moments given him by Moore and Gibbons and thoroughly ignored by Snyder and the screenwriters.

Patrick Wilson is effective as Nite Owl, the sad-sack Batman surrogate who’s walked away from the life of costumes and masks (though, naturally, he’s portrayed as considerably more svelte and handsome than in the original). Billy Crudup provides the voice of the story’s only literal superman, Dr. Manhattan, represented here as a CGI animation; playing a man who’s slowly losing his humanity (if not his manhood), Crudup falls back on a vocal delivery reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL 9000 computer, but it’s not an unreasonable choice.

Malin Akerman’s performance as Silk Spectre is the film’s weak link; though she moves beautifully and looks like a dead ringer for Dave Gibbons’ design, her flat delivery is particularly noticeable among the larger-than-life characters who surround her. Matthew Goode’s turn as Ozymandias is problematic, but no less so than in the graphic novel; in creating a character who’s alienated himself from the rest of the world through his own physical and mental perfection, Moore wrote him as a man with such an impenetrable facade that he became unknowable. Goode and the filmmakers have made him no less so.

Fans of the original have been torn over the changes made to the story’s Watchmenclimax, but the outrageous situation dreamed up by Moore could have worked only on a comic book page. The screenwriters have taken a path that works nearly as well in the more unforgiving literalness of movies, but the specifics of it weren’t thought through completely. The notion of substituting Dr. Manhattan for Moore and Gibbons’ goofy giant squid may have sounded good in the conference room, but – given the attention devoted to Manhattan’s role as a highly publicized asset of the U.S. military – asking the audience to believe that America’s enemies are likely to join hands with us against a threat that had apparently been grown on our shores strains even the credibility of a movie populated by people in masks and silly costumes.

In the movie, the superheroes call themselves the Watchmen, apparently because the filmmakers think that a team has to have a name like Justice League or the Avengers. In the book, however, the title is a reference to the Roman poet Juvenal’s phrase “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (“Who watches the watchmen?”) – a comment on how its fictional world has been transformed by the presence of ungovernable vigilantes. Though a minor change, it’s further proof that in its translation to the screen, nobody was watching out for Watchmen where it counted. Watchmen Rating: R (strong graphic violence, sexuality, nudity and language) Running Time: 162 minutes

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March 17, 2009 · Posted in DVD