Saturday, December 25, 2010


I know I'll be accused of regifting, and those who would say this would be right, but it's such a great picture (one brought to my attention by the equally great Larry Aydlette, who is hopefully by the tree with his family as I write this) that I can't resist showcasing it again this season. The director of such mighty cinematic treats as 200 Motels and Baby Snakes would like to wish you a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year! Not sure why, but I always think of a particularly warm and sentimental FZ ditty this time of year, one which handily balances the good cheer, no doubt so welcome, with a little astringent elixir of societal good sense to carry us into the coming year. So, from FZ's brilliant 1981 NYC Palladium concert (in large part segmented and televised via the long-missed weekend late-night variety show Night Flight, here is "Dumb All Over."

"Dumb all over/Yes, we are/Dumb all over/Near and far/Dumb all over/Black and white/People, we is not wrapped tight..."

Regardless, Merry Christmas, everybody!


Friday, December 24, 2010


The Horror Dads over at TCM’s Movie Morlocks (of which I am one) have decided that the best way to move on up through the last hours of Christmas Eve and beyond is with a discussion of the sort-of holiday-oriented Val Lewton classic Curse of the Cat People (1945). Ladle up a steaming cup of wassail, snuggle beside the fire or the tree (but not a tree on fire, please) and enjoy the dads as we dissect the pleasures of this unsung treasure and wonder if we would have been as angry in 1945 as many patrons were when they ponied up to see a sequel to Cat People that had no cat people or curses, a movie that turned out to be less horror film than a psychologically acute fairy tale. It’s a fun discussion, brilliantly moderated and edited as usual by our grand overseer Richard Harland Smith. Click now before Santa stumbles in!

Merry Christmas, all, and to all a good night!


Thursday, December 23, 2010


Good news, friends!

It’s the return of the most popular quiz for which there are NO PRIZES, NO GLORY and NO TIME LIMIT! Just in time for the holiday break, the hallowed halls of SLIFR University have regurgitated yet another staff member to unleash a questionably scholastic movie quiz effort for your amusement, delectation and possibly obsessive attention. That staff member’s name is Professor Hubert Farnsworth, and considering his usual field of quantum physics and the fact that he has beamed here from the 36th century specifically to proctor this little enterprise (cheap sci-fi reference), it is, I suppose, only slightly odd that his questions rely so much on the past and not on the future of our most favoritest artistic medium. But then, how much fun would a holiday quiz be that was loaded with the kinds of questions Prof. Farnsworth originally submitted? Some examples culled from his time/space continuum-abusing travels: Favorite recurring digisexual motif of the holographic vibrofilms coming from Antares in the 32nd century? (Hint: It’s a trick question) Or, worst performance by a Neptunian millipede (non-fiction division)? Now you’re glad we made him write all-new questions, aren’t you? Well, if you aren’t now I suspect you soon will be. Professor Farnsworth has been instructed to keep everything more or less related to the human movie-going experience, so the questions should be well within the average viewer’s capability of answering, being as they are as subjective as ever and lacking the one thing found on most college exams: a single true, definitive answer.

As always, the only rules are that when you submit your answers in the comments thread below, you do so having cut and pasted the questions to go along with them. It’s much more fun and far less confusing to read a string of answers if they are preceded by the questions that inspired them. I will also include my now-laughable but also traditional pledge to actually undergo the quizzing process myself, something I once had lots of time and energy to do, both of which have escaped me handily for the last two quizzes. I continue to make the usual bold proclamations regarding my participation—I’M DOING IT THIS TIME, HONEST!!! This while acknowledging that it seems increasingly difficult for me to sit down and submit to the grueling torture I expect you to happily lap up. There’s something wrong there, isn’t there?

Enough blather. Time to press on. So sharpen your #2s (or fire up your LCD Nambrutron laser-etching devices) and get ready for a holiday quiz to end all this year’s holiday quizzes. Equivocations, ramblings and other long-winded type of answers are heartily encouraged. I give you Professor Hubert Farnsworth’s Only Slightly Futuristic Holiday Movie Quiz!

PLEASE NOTE: Blogger is doing something funky when you attempt to post long comment responses right now. You are likely to see a warning asking you if you REALLY want to navigate away from the page without saving changes. I don't know why this is happening, but since I have been forced by spam lately to moderate comments you have no way of knowing that your comments ARE BEING POSTED, even though you are seeing these weird warnings. I will try to be vigilant about moderating and publishing comments so you'll know sooner that your words are there. To everyone who posted multiple times yesterday, before I was aware of the problem (Thanks, Edward!) and could fix it, my apologies. And my apologies too for the bizarre typos in the quiz which caused people to speculate if I ws asking them to declare the winner of Best Director Ever or who was going to die in 2011. Those have been fixed too (Thanks, Marc and Peter!) and all should now be well and sensical in the classroom once again.

1) Best Movie of 2010

2) Second-favorite Roman Polanski Movie

3) Jason Statham or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

4) Favorite movie that could be classified as a genre hybrid

5) How important is foreknowledge of a film’s production history? Should it factor into one’s reaction to a film?

6) William Powell & Myrna Loy or Cary Grant & Irene Dunne

7) Best Actor of 2010

8) Most important lesson learned from the past decade of watching movies

9) Last movie seen (DVD/Blu-ray/theater)

10) Most appropriate punishment for director Tom Six

11) Best under-the-radar movie almost no one else has had the chance to see

12) Sheree North or Angie Dickinson

13) Favorite nakedly autobiographical movie

14) Movie which best evokes a specific real-life place

15) Best Director of 2010

16) Second-favorite Farrelly Brothers Movie

17) Favorite holiday movie

18) Best Actress of 2010

19) Joe Don Baker or Bo Svenson

20) Of those notable figures in the world of the movies who died in 2010, name the one you’ll miss the most

21) Think of a movie with a notable musical score and describe what it might feel like without that accompaniment.

22) Best Screenplay of 2010

23) Movie You Feel Most Evangelistic About Right Now

24) Worst/funniest movie accent ever

25) Best Cinematography of 2010

26) Olivia Wilde or Gemma Arterton

27) Name the three best movies you saw for the first time in 2010 (Thanks, Larry!)

28) Best romantic movie couple of 2010

29) Favorite shock/surprise ending

30) Best cinematic reason to have stayed home and read a book in 2010

31) Movies in 2011 could make me much happier if they’d only _______________

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays everyone!


Friday, December 17, 2010


I’ll have more to say about Phil Karlson’s The Phenix City Story soon—it’s a raw, infuriating, brutally effective picture drawn from a real-life case centering on the murder of a local lawyer and politician who attempts to restore order to an Alabama town suffering under a century-long submission to an increasingly violent underworld gambling and prostitution syndicate. Karlson’s work as a director is as potent as ever, maybe more so, and there are intriguing connections between this film, made in 1955, and his last great popular success, Walking Tall (1973), another story adapted from a documented case history centering around vigilantism and a polarizing local sheriff who took cleaning up his town as a personal mission.

While watching this film the other day, I was immediately caught up in the emotion and the immediacy of the filmmaking, and also in noticing how packed to the rafters each frame is with indelible, memorable character actors. There’s long-time favorite John McIntyre as the ill-fated Albert Patterson (his unctuous syndicate enemies disparagingly refer to him as “Pat”); a youthful Richard Kiley as his war veteran son, enraged by what he sees upon returning home from Germany and compelled to take up the fight; Edward Andrews, never greasier or more seductively repellent as crime boss Rhett Tanner; Biff McGuire, in name and in visage seemingly a Disney stray as hometown crusader Fred Gage, whose father Ed is the recipient of one of the movie’s most chillingly innocent queries; Don Siegel favorite John Larch as the murderous Clem Wilson, an unmitigated bastard with a sneer that could knock over fire hydrants; and the Audrey Totter-esque Jean Carson, tough and nasty as Cassie, overseer of the town’s main sin parlor who smokes her butts underhand and doesn’t hesitate to come after innocent creatures hiding in the shadows, claws extended.

But who was the dark-haired, friendly beauty who played Fred’s girlfriend Ellie Rhodes, a card dealer in the syndicate club who begins feeding information to the Pattersons when the shit really starts to hit the fan? I was mesmerized by her and caught up in her fate, but this veteran of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad failed to recognize a young Kathryn Grant (who would become Mrs. Bing Crosby) in one of her very first roles. As Ellie, she has eyes that look as though they couldn’t possibly reflect some of the things she ends up seeing in this movie, and she marks herself here as a real up-and-comer, even though she never really blossomed into a major presence in the movies. She’s just one of many good reasons to see The Phenix City Story, a major achievement that really should be more widely recognized. More to come soon, once I stop reeling.



“These are the directors who fall short of the Pantheon either because of a fragmentation of their personal vision or because of disruptive career problems.”

--Andrew Sarris, assigning Edwards to the category of directors called “The Far Side of Paradise” in his seminal 1963 book The American Cinema

Of the films I’ve seen that Blake Edwards made in his long, sometimes successful, sometimes troubled career, there are three that I can look back on with something like love-- A Shot in the Dark, The Party and Victor/Victoria. For me, his second collaboration with Peter Sellers in the Inspector Clouseau series remains the purest, the most graceful and delicate-- if those are words that can be applied in a sentence that also uses the name “Clouseau”-- and overall the funniest of a run of films that were not lacking in individual moments of oxygen-depleting hilarity (The wonderful but uneven The Pink Panther Strikes Again undoubtedly rules in the oxygen-depletion department.)

The Party, one of the most relentless slapstick features ever made (and I mean that in a good way), was a gateway for this eight-year-old’s eyes to a whole history of physical comedy. Edwards and Sellers’ shameless and giddy accessing of that history wouldn’t be enough to warrant the film its own place at the pantheon table, were it not for the fact that it also has the crack timing of a classic that hasn’t worn thin or given up many of its secrets over time, even if perhaps its bedrock of racial caricature has. (However you slice it, though, Hrundi V. Bakshi is no Mr. Yunioshi, and that may have everything to do with the one-sided war for comic supremacy waged between Sellers and Mickey Rooney.)

And Victor/Victoria was not only enjoyable for its expansive cabaret energy and cross-wired Rubik’s cube approach to sexual role playing, especially valuable during the nascent dawning hours of Reagan’s American morning, but also because it felt like a re-energizing project for Edwards, buoyed by the game energy of James Garner, the twinkling bombast of Robert Preston, the screwball abandon of Leslie Anne Warren and a never-better Julie Andrews, sporting androgynous echoes of Weimar decadence that would have had Bob Fosse, Luchino Visconti and Tinto Brass (but perhaps not Walt Disney) giggling like dirty schoolboys. Victor/Victoria marks one of the only times I’ve ever really enjoyed Julie Andrews as a screen presence, Maria von Trapp being one persistent and difficult albatross to shoo away. But in fact, the entire cast of Victor/Victoria shares Andrews’ anything-goes vibe, and that vibe is central to why the movie worked so well in 1982 and continues to do so. Victor/Victoria felt like a welcome creative respite and renewing in between increasingly desperate Pink Panther sequels, the timid sexual politics of 10 and the sun-blanched bile of S.O.B., a sour Hollywood reaming sullied by desperation of an entirely different stripe— here’s a movie whose transgressive sensibility and blunt satirical points, rooted in distress and anger that were undoubtedly quite real and vivid for Edwards, feel beamed in and unadjusted straight from 1971.

As Edwards’ films became more nakedly autobiographical—beginning with 10 and including S.O.B., The Man Who Loved Women and especially That’s Life!, they became increasingly marked by an uncomfortable kind of sad-sack entitlement which, however it relates to Edward’s creative state of mind, never resulted in a crucial translation of those midlife worries and insecurities into a definitive cinematic statement. The increasingly insular environment of That’s Life!, in which real family members were cast in a tale of a rich Malibu citizen’s reckoning with mortality (the movie was even shot in Edward’s beachside home) seemed to allow Edwards to take for granted that his privileged worldview would be one easily related to by his audience, a crucial misstep, it seems to me. And it didn’t help that the movie was as draggy and mopey as Jack Lemmon’s protagonist, bereft of much of the wit and buoyancy that were hallmarks of his previous films. (June Werrett, in her January 2003 Senses of Cinema profile of Edwards, provides a more sympathetic, and certainly more detailed overview of this period in Edwards’ career, and of his work in general that is highly recommended reading for fans of the director’s work.) Sunset was at least an attempt to work out the distrust of the machinations of the film industry that Edwards spewed in S.O.B. in a more palatable format—Werrett called this detective mystery set in 1929 Hollywood “the search for film-truth and that truth manifests in the running joke, ‘And that’s the way it really happened – give or take a lie or two.’” If it is also is ultimately unsatisfying as critique and a mystery, you can still feel Edwards, the filmmaker of vitality and curiosity, peeked through the scrims and constructs of the Hollywood façade. Conversely, pictures like A Fine Mess, Switch, Skin Deep and Son of the Pink Panther, the ill-fated attempt to resuscitate the Clouseau franchise with Roberto Benigni replacing Sellers, seem defeated from the get-go, retreats into patented realms of cable-ready “dirty” comedy and the desperation to refit tired slapstick games into new jackets.

It’s worth noting that my ambivalence about Edwards’ career is likely not universally shared, especially in these days after his death. Even Andrew Sarris eventually upgraded Edwards and began viewing his films through a much more serious prism. (His Village Voice ten-best list was probably the only one from 1982 which included Edwards’ Trail of the Pink Panther, a sloppy, occasionally hilarious compendium of Sellers outtakes intended as a tribute to the recently deceased actor that were cobbled together into a plot of sorts and peppered with in-character tributes from the likes of David Niven, Richard Mulligan and Joanna Lumley.) But even though the value of much of his work is tarnished for me, he remains a filmmaker whose charge to reinvigorate and reshape the boundaries of slapstick comedy is one that I respect, and one to whom I will always be grateful for the pleasures cited above which I have returned to time and time again and to which I will continue to revisit. I also look forward to catching up to the early Blake Edwards films that have so far remained on my to-see list, including Operation Petticoat (my childhood memories are far too vague for me to pretend I’ve really seen it), Days of Wine and Roses, Wild Rovers and most especially Experiment in Terror. It has also been far too long since I’ve seen The Great Race, and although I’d prefer to wait for a revival screening my daughters received the DVD for Christmas last year, so what better time to pop that one in than now, as a remembrance of a dedication to a brand of film comedy that, in this age of overbudgeted overkill may be as endangered as the long takes Edwards so often skillfully employed to record his shenanigans.

Blake Edwards died Wednesday evening at a Los Angeles hospital as a result of complications from pneumonia, his wife Julie Andrews by his side. He was 88 years old, and though it’s more fitting to celebrate the life of a man who lived so long and made such an indelible mark as an artist in the form that he loved, I’m grateful that his suffering, which included difficulties with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and depression, has now ended. My last image of Edwards is probably shared by many—shooting across the stage, in a wheelchair, in a parody of his slapstick style during the 2004 Oscar ceremony, where he would later receive a Lifetime Achievement Award—and it’s one I’m grateful for. It was a happy, surprising display of spirit from a man who had long been out of the spotlight, embodying as it did the kind of energy that propelled his best work, and it makes me smile to think of the possible metaphysical reunion going on right now (relatively speaking, of course) as Edwards and Sellers begin plotting slapstick antics for a whole new dimension.


Thursday, December 16, 2010


(This piece originally appeared, in an only slightly altered form, on October 13, 2009 to celebrate the final night of Freebie and the Bean's brief engagement at the New Beverly Cinema. It reappears now in celebration of Freebie's return to the New Beverly this coming Sunday and Monday, December 19 and 20, along with its director Richard Rush.)


American moviegoers take the buddy action movie for granted. After two episodes of 48 Hrs. and four incarnations of Lethal Weapon, after everything from The Blues Brothers to Bad Boys (parts un and deux) to long-forgotten comedies like Dan Aykroyd and Gene Hackman in Loose Cannons and Martin Lawrence paired with Luke Wilson in Blue Streak, it is, I think, assumed that the comedic formula of two guys bonding together over a cocktail shaker filled with mutual distrust and respect-- all mixed up by the perpetual motion and turbulence generated during nonstop pursuits by foot and all manner of vehicles-- is one that is as old as the movies themselves.

But the popularity of the modern buddy action comedy as we know it today can probably be traced straight back to what director Richard Rush, writer Robert Kaufman and stars Alan Arkin, James Caan and Valerie Harper et al did on their summer vacation back in 1974. Released later that year as a Christmas present to unsuspecting moviegoers, Freebie and the Bean became a smash hit, despite the multiple warnings heard emanating from a dog pile of bad reviews. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby decried the movie as the worst of the year’s crop of flop cop comedies, “probably because it has a cast of otherwise good actors doing bits of business (sometimes called acting) as if they thought they could upstage all of the movie's automobiles, which are seldom still.” The cherry on top of Canby’s dismissal came when he admitted “finally get(ting) the feeling that a car directed the picture —it’s as sensitive as a door knob and as witty as a bumper sticker — and maybe one did, though the title credits list Richard Rush,” who, as Canby is quick to point out, earned his reputation in Hollywood directing low-budget motorcycle dramas.

Canby’s point of view was not uncommon among people who were paid to see movies back in 1974. But as far as the public was concerned (and even some directors—Stanley Kubrick was an out-and-proud fan of the film) Freebie and the Bean was gold. In an era when such matters didn’t much concern either the intelligentsia or the great unwashed, Freebie and the Bean was about as un-P.C. a comedy as one could possibly imagine. The movie is a product of a time that recognized the reality of an emerging multiculturalism and the relatively unquestioned societal bigotry that was all tangled up with that new social reality. Yet Freebie, unlike, say, All in the Family, wasn’t a satirical attack on those prejudices. It existed, then and now, as a reflection of them, of how people (and filmmakers) recognized, ignored, and sometimes reveled in the impatience and fear and anger people from opposing points of view had for each other, fearlessly spelunking for the comedic tension that arose from those conflicts, and from the mutual respect that struggled to balance them out. Arkin and Caan artfully walk this tightrope while blasting each other with the funniest bile-soaked, rapid-fire, semi-improvised dialogue ever to grace an action comedy. These two really seem like they’ve spent an adult lifetime dodging each other’s verbal onslaughts. And their partnership is one with real dirt under its fingernails, a long-abandoned model of movie friendship cut from the moth-eaten cloth of interpersonal paranoia, suspicion, respect and, yes, the sneaky subtext of homoerotic romance and, of course, panic-- exactly the kind of treat most often flattened-out or outright buried underneath the THX Dolby super-soundtracks of modern play-it-safe crash-and-bang contraptions.

One of the great stunt sequences in a movie loaded with them. Screen grabs can't do justice to the momentum of this bit, but here they are to enjoy anyway. Note the little ballerinas on the wall of the apartment as The Bean (Arkin) gropes his way out of the car in shock, an inappropriately frilly grace note with which to cap the otherwise hilariously deadpan images of destruction.

And make no mistake-- Freebie and the Bean is a crash-and-bang contraption. All that talk of social reality is neither to try to pretend that the movie was ghost-written by Athol Fugard nor to ignore the exhilaratingly high percentage of vehicular mayhem that it showcases. Indeed, some of the funniest, most breathtakingly hilarious car stunt work in the history of the movies is contained in this picture. But what’s ultimately rewarding about the movie is that the struggle Canby suggests the actors are engaged in, trying to upstage Rush’s constantly accelerating automobiles (Is there a more aptly named moviemaker?), is one that, through their own accelerated interaction and awareness of each other as performers, and their own brand of sensitivity to what the other is doing, the actors win hands-down. Nothing in Freebie and the Bean is as chokingly funny as Caan and Arkin, as the two eponymous and antagonist detectives, pitching the movie’s central plot mechanism—a proposal to protect a local crime boss from an impending hit just long enough so they can get the evidence to arrest him themselves—to the apoplectic San Francisco D.A., played with brilliantly discombobulated disbelief by Alex Rocco. These two are their own multi-car pile-up, walking all over each other, finishing each other’s sentences, stutter-starting and stopping mid-sentence as they try to weasel Rocco and avoid yet another in what one suspects is a long line of shout-downs from a superior. And nothing in the movie is as moving or engaging as Arkin’s scenes with Valerie Harper, the two decidedly non-Latino stars expertly play-acting married urban lower-middle-class Mexican-Americans who can’t decide if they love each other more than they are impatient with or suspicious of each other. How the two of them avoided Oscar nominations is probably written in the fine print of the marketing of this loud, obnoxious, hilarious picture, the kind which the Academy Awards are likely contractually predisposed to ignore.

The relative depth of Arkin and Harper’s work together comes in a movie that is, above all, a love story. (It says so right on the one-sheet.) But the undercurrent of love in Freebie and the Bean is subtext, and of the dare-not-speak-its-name variety. What’s genuinely outrageous, especially for 1974, is how that subtext slowly becomes text as the movie progresses. We’re ultimately encouraged to view Freebie and the Bean as the male version of a warring married couple, the kind with the sort of passion to live out their lives in arguments as well as romance—or, um, mutual respect, you know. More problematic for some viewers is the movie’s portrayal of one of its peripheral villains, a transvestite by whom the boys are clearly repulsed. Paul Matwychuk, in his positive assessment of the film, is of two minds about the movie’s portrayal of this character. He writes: “The character is portrayed as an object of disgust; but on the other hand, he nearly beats up Caan without thinking twice — and in high heels to boot.” I think the movie’s “disgust” with the character is one that, like its racism and sexism, is very typical of the time, and certainly Rush doesn’t over-exert himself trying to challenge the attitudes the two cops display toward their threatening (in more ways than one) nemesis.

But given that typical representation in movies of the day, Freebie has been hastily singled out and misrepresented, most notably by the documentary made from Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet, as Exhibit A in the case against Hollywood’s history of homo hatred. And Paul’s point that the transvestite does put some serious hurt on Caan’s ass shouldn’t be discounted. The gay villain’s physical prowess, coupled with the emerging comic subtext of the homoerotic tension between Freebie and the Bean, lifts the portrayal of this transvestite baddie out of the realm of the typical macho fear of faggotry (and the need to amplify that fear for anyone who happens to be within eyesight or earshot) and onto a plane where the two characters must interact with equal ability and strength. The villain’s fate isn’t portrayed as anything more or less typically violent than what ‘70s baddie Paul Koslo undergoes earlier in the picture—the transvestite isn’t killed, as he might have been in other pictures, because he was a “fag” and threatened James Caan’s manhood, but because he was a force that had to be dealt with the same way Caan would deal with anyone trying to take out his kidneys and break his neck in a public restroom. Yet The Celluloid Closet takes the gory clip of this guy bloodied against the bathroom wall, in a dress and high heels, and uses it to make its not-unnecessary point that Hollywood has historically gone out of its way to marginalize and/or punish homosexuals. There’s a difference, however, between integrating gay characters into the world a film conjures (and all that is possible in that world) and simply punishing them for having been there in the first place.

There are so many elements of Freebie and the Bean that are disarming, foremost of which is its own forward momentum, the relentless insanity of the way Rush makes a crash-bang universe out of the streets of San Francisco (no stranger to car chases even without this classic), and the way Caan and Arkin live in the skins of their characters, performing the way two aggravated brothers do who are forced to spend too much time together, unsure of their desire to keep company with anyone else. Of all the movies that have come in its 35-year wake (35 years?!), only Michael Bay’s underrated Bad Boys II comes close to capturing its unique mix of wanton (yet spectacularly choreographed) destruction and the rat-a-tat byplay of its lead characters. But even so, there is and can be only one Freebie and the Bean, a great, cacophonous, hilarious ‘70s artifact that might play even better now than it did when it was first unwrapped on Christmas Day 1974.


Speaking of Christmas, one of the best early holiday presents you’re likely to receive gets unwrapped this coming Sunday afternoon and evening, December 19, as the New Beverly proudly welcomes director Richard Rush in person to screen his two most celebrated movies. Number one on the bill is the critically acclaimed existential slapstick of The Stunt Man (1980), which heralded not only Rush’s obvious talent with the camera but also a second wave of popularity for one Peter O’Toole, whose not-quite-dormant career enjoyed a potent upswing in the wake of this picture’s release. (O’Toole was nominated for an Academy Award, as was Rush for best director and best screenplay, a nomination he shared with cowriter Lawrence Marcus.) To these eyes, The Stunt Man’s twisted sleight-of-hand plays a little more unevenly than it did in 1980, but there is still much to marvel at here, including the surreal conviction of the movie’s central conceit—a escaped convict named Cameron (get it?) finds refuge on the set of a movie where he gets work as a stunt man and begins to believe that the picture’s all-knowing, all-seeing megalomaniac director Eli Cross (get it?) means to kill him while the cameras are rolling. There is no questioning, however, the brilliance of the cast, including Steve Railsback as Cameron, whose psychological state is just as slippery as that of Cross’s, Barbara Hershey as the conceited, soul-heavy actress who serves as muse to both men, and Allen Garfield (here billed under his given name Goorwitz) as the film’s battle-fatigued screenwriter. Rush, Railsback and Hershey are all set to appear at the New Beverly, schedules permitting, to discuss the film on Sunday night, so this really is the double bill you shouldn’t miss this weekend.

Did I say double bill? Oh, yeah! Turns out the second feature is the picture that best encapsulates the full-throttle aesthetic of Rush’s head-first style, which was also pointedly blessed with exactly none of the critical hosannas bestowed upon The Stunt Man. There’s a certain irony in noting that a big, loud commercial hit like Freebie and the Bean has certainly held up better than Rush’s most acclaimed movie, perhaps because it is clearly less thematically ambitious (therefore less weighed down by the sort of concerns that make the later picture play slightly ungainly today). But I think at the heart of Freebie’s freewheeling pursuit of a joyful noise there is a purity of purpose, an unflagging belief in the comic energy of chatter, cacophony and constant forward motion that threatens to burst the edges of its every wide-screen frame. Stanley Kubrick and Francois Truffaut both hailed it as a masterpiece without having to concoct highfalutin reasons for doing so, and it’s truly gratifying to feel the general consensus on the film beginning to swing more toward that kind of admiration. The key to the brilliance of Freebie and the Bean lies beyond its magnificent crash-and-bang auto choreography; it can be found well-cradled in the care of its actors-- Caan and Arkin, without doubt, but also Valerie Harper, Alex Rocco, Jack Khruschen and even bleached-blond ‘70s villain nonpareil Paul Koslo. There’s a loopy, improvisational spirit gracing Freebie and the Bean that has been largely beyond the capability of its many imitators to capture and rebottle diluted for future generations. No, there really is no substitute for the real thing, and for connoisseurs of carbureted, rubber-burning, metal-misshaping comedy that somehow finds room for the crass electricity of recognizable humanity, Freebie and the Bean is the pot of gold at the beginning of the rainbow.

(Freebie and the Bean screens with The Stunt Man on December 19 and 20 at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. Please note, however, that Richard Rush, Barbara Hershey and Steve Railsback are scheduled to appear oonly during the Sunday night, December 19, program. Please refer to the New Beverly Cinema Web site for the most current information on scheduling, show times and advance tickets for this and all shows on the monthly calendar.)


Here's Josh Olson giving Freebie and the Bean the old Trailers from Hell treatment! (So big and wide one blog couldn't contain it!)


And it case you can’t make it out Sunday or Monday, here’s a taste of what you'll be missing, just to make you squirm!


Here’s another perspective on Freebie and the Bean courtesy of my good friend, celebrated blogger Farran Smith Nehme. I somewhat nervously coaxed Farran out of her classic Hollywood comfort zone last summer for an experience with these foul-mouthed San Francisco cops, and she recorded her reaction with her usual style, wit and grace, qualities not unbecoming this crazy-ass movie, just largely unprecedented in this movie’s history with the chroniclers of American movie criticism. I suspect you will enjoy Farran’s take as much as I did.


Finally, look what I got for Christmas! A couple of weeks early, but no less happy am I about it for that. Longtime SLIFR reader Patrick Robbins was shopping around somewhere in the town in Maine in which he lives when what to his wondering eyes did appear but two long out-of-print treats which he said made him instantly think of me. So I am now the proud owner of an original Freebie and the Bean novelization and another one, for 1941, written by Bob Gale himself! What a wonderful display for generosity on Patrick's part, a person it should be noted, whom I have never met and with whom I have only communicated through this blog and our mutual love of the movies. Patrick also sent along a Christmas card and in it he expressed something that truly has been the highlight of my holiday season. He wrote, "It's been a real treat reading your blog, and this is just a small token of thanks for all the joy it's brought me." Patrick, I can honestly say this is one of the most thoughtful things anyone has written to me about what goes on here that its been my pleasure to read. The writing that get posted here isn't posted in the hope of snagging swag or gifts or screeners or publicity or Web hits, and certainly not for the money, which there has been next to none to speak of. Not that those things aren't a wonderful, welcome surprise when they do come, but they aren't the reason these virtual scribblings exist. They really are here out of a love for the movies, and for the chance to connect with people who share that love. Thanks, Patrick, and everyone else for helping me to remember the most important stuff. And thanks for the excellent reading. Would I be too insufferable a nerd if I brought my Freebie novelization to Sunday's screening?


Tuesday, December 14, 2010


The Dude a-bytes... (Sorry...)

I feel like I really should apologize to anyone who has visited this site in the past week or so and come expecting something decent and/or diverting to read. Many of you are probably already aware that the old paradigm for life that I've been used to working with vis-a-vis maintaining this site has been tinkered with slightly, and only temporarily. But still, the specter of guilt over not being very productive here at SLIFR in the weeks before the holidays is hanging kinda low, and try as I might to whisk it away it is persistent, like one of those wispy Death Eaters from those Henry Porter films that are all the rage these days. Truth is, I've seen plenty of things of late that I want to write about-- Black Swan, or as it is none-too-affectionately known around my house, Blecch Swan, but also I Love You, Philip Morris, The Warrior's Way, Another Year, Carlos (the 5-1/2 hour roadshow version) and even The Tourist, a slight confection, no question, but one with more juice in it than the near universally dismissive reviews have suggested. I have even made some progress on cherry-picking questions to respond to from the last two quizzes (I've taken a incomplete on them so far), and am readying the annual Holiday Quiz as we speak. There is another Horror Dads convention on the way, and the annual year-end piece to contemplate, which I hopefully will get to before February this year. Finally, look for something else extra special that I hope will also become a yearly tradition for this site sometime around the second week of January.

So no, this site has not been abandoned, nor is it wood any deader than usual. The quiet is just a symptom of me trying to maintain an upright keel during a very unusual, trying, hopeful and, of course, joyous time of the year. I do appreciate your continuing to look in and check up on SLIFR. It is my sincere intent to have something worth looking in on for you in the next couple of days.

Until then, this upcoming weekend is the one we (and by we I mean, of course, the Great Geek Nation) have been anticipating for some 28 years. In 1983, a year and a half or so after it first arrived in theaters to very little acclaim and a whole lot less world-changing box-office than Disney was counting on, I showed a dubbed VHS copy of Tron to my best friend and his older, tech-savvy brother. This was the movie that really marked the beginning of the departure of the Disney company from the Ron Miller era, a period dominated by the smeary visual aesthetic of endless romps like Snowball Express, Superdad, The Apple Dumpling Gang and, of course, the would-be grandeur of The Black Hole. Tron was something new, and if it looks a bit leaden now in comparison to other visual effects epics that have come in its wake, that's more due to the rapid development of effects themselves than to the movie's vision, which was singular and far ahead of its time. Tron's concurrent music video equivalent might be such cutting-edge eye-catchers as The Cars' "You Might Think" or Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing," which took MTV and the music clip into new dimensions then but look mighty tiny now, and they don't have Tron's acute projection of an entire society built on computer dependence and integration to fall back on. In fact, when we finished watching the movie on VHS (I'd seen it about six times by then), my best friend's brother turned to us and said, "This movie is about 15 years ahead of its time. It might be a flop now, but it's speaking a language that one day everyone is going to understand."

Well, here it is, four days before the release of Tron: Legacy, the highly anticipated sequel to a 28-year-old movie that no one (except, apparently, Bruce's brother Ray) had any clue would hold such dominion over the imaginations of a generation of techie nerds, or that techie nerds themselves would become so well-woven into the fabric of society, brought from the edges of the cyberquilt to its very body by the ascendancy of the computer age. Computer geekdom is mainstream these days, dude. Everybody has a Best Buy or a Fry's rewards card, and they're not afraid to use them. And the massive Disney marketing campaign is geared up to a level usually reserved for bespectacled wizards or-- to avoid further crossing of the studio streams-- mincing, besotted pirates based on lizard-skinned rock stars, so that they might take full financial advantage of the fact of the domination of American movies by the tastes of fanboy/computer geeks.

And a few of my friends, my daughters and I will be standing amongst them in unity this weekend, ready to be plunged once again onto the mainframe and submitted to the cyberwhims and the cyberwill of the Master Control Program. (Or MCP, as we who will silently be mourning the absence of David Warner will insist on referring to it.)

So while I and all of the Tron: Legacy hopeful work the week toward Friday and a full-scale IMAX 3D (possible) bliss-out, some of my friends in other geographical places around the world are helping to foster the spirit of excitement over the prospect of even higher-tech light-cycle racing in their own ways. Old pal Larry Aydlette posted the poster you see above on his Facebook account this morning, which handily imagines a universe where Kevin Flynn, just a pocketful of quarters away from being the Dude himself, languished in virtual imprisonment inside that computer where his duderosity was allowed to emerge full-fledged, despite the disciplinary actions of the MCP. (I love that the Dude, locked inside that videogame as he has been, doesn't even know how long it's really been-- he's off by three years.) And Ross Ruediger provides a link where you can get T-shirts that reflect the mash-up between the world of Tron with that of the Little Lebowski, Walter, Donnie and the whole gang.

This is all not even to mention that Jeff Bridges is also starring in the new Coen Brothers picture which comes out next week, itself based on a beloved book-- and not so much on the somewhat beloved 1969 movie that was spawned from it. (Oh, this is all just too meta for me. Where's Christopher Nolan, for Christ's sake? Oh, yeah, getting his awards-season tux pressed. This rambling post has come to an end. See you at the movies this weekend, and beyond, I hope!)


Tuesday, December 07, 2010


If you Google the words "Fake Criterion Covers" you'll get a whole passel of wonderful projects from people well versed in Photoshop who have taken the time to design their own covers for prospective Criterion releases they hope one day to see come down the pipe. Most of these are sincere efforts in wishful thinking designed for the fun of it, sure, but one also suspects there's a undercurrent of hope in them that the good will of the dedicated fan designing great fake covers will somehow, by the company's noticing or simply by the Power of Positive Thinking, prompt Criterion into considering that title for the royal DVD/Blu-ray treatment.

But there's another vein of Criterion covers and these (one hopes) really are just for the fun of it. If you've ever dreamed of what that Truffaut-ized Criterion box for Gigli might look like, or what the company might do for Hudson Hawk or Bio Dome, dream no further. Just click here for a whole gallery of Fake Criterions that will tickle your funny bone and maybe even make a chill run down your spine-- after all, if Armageddon can get the Criterion treatment... I also get a kick out of imagining the filmmakers of some of these movies getting the opportunity to see what a DVD of their movie, which may well have been made with an outpouring of talent and love, might have looked like were it released by a company who cares as much about the work as the dollars it might bring in. (There's even one in there that good friend Jim Emerson might especially enjoy!)

The main joke, and it's a good one, is the disparity between the artsy, often spare aesthetic of the Criterion design, which often has nothing to do with the original marketing campaign of the film, and the films themselves, none of which seems to actually exist outside of that crass opening weekend marketing mentality. Thus The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift gets a colorful retro-Japanese cover that resembles one that might have been designed for a Seijun Suzuki spectacular, while Ernest Goes to Jail suddenly looks as though it could share a bill with Bresson's A Man Escaped.

Click through and discover for yourself your own favorites. I like The Golden Age of Television Volume II and the Melville-esque rendering of Cop and a Half, amongst the newest of the site's offerings which hopefully will get updated with frequency. Enjoy, and imagine what could be if only "high" and "low" art ever could really meet!

(Many thanks to Robert Fiore for pointing out this site over the weekend!)


Friday, December 03, 2010


There will be some real (not imaginary, not hoped for) writing planned for this weekend! Until then, in lieu of actual content, I tip my hat to The Great Listmaker for his idea and offer you my favorite Netflix Instant Play choices, culled from a currently bloated queue of 500-- the numerical limit imposed by Netflix itself to discourage serial queue collectors from gross overindulgence. These films may or may not be ones I’ve already seen, but to a title they are ones I am most grateful for having become available through this service. Yes, I know that the current list of available titles is not as wide-ranging as those available on DVD, but Instant Play affords easy access to a lot of marginal titles or titles of mysterious quality that I might not be so quick to send away for on a physical DVD. (If it's instant play, it's also instant dump if the title is no good.) Also, the quality of streaming image is variable and sometimes unsatisfactory, and I do try to avoid the blurry “Starz Presentations” that look like second-generation dubs off of a DVR. But more often than not the service comes through with visual presentations of at least 720p resolution, which is more than sufficient for these as-yet-not-quite-jaded eyeballs. Here then are my 10+ Reasons Why I Am Thankful for Netflix Instant Play, in no order whatsoever:

1) LAND OF SILENCE AND DARKNESS (1971; Werner Herzog) Really a choice that encompasses four movies instead of one, this haunting film from Werner Herzog—his first feature-length documentary—chronicles the activities of Fini Straubinger, an advocate for the deaf and blind citizenry of Germany who is herself deaf and blind. The amazing story of how this woman wrested herself from the confines of her own disability is certainly the stuff of a solid film, no doubt, but Herzog’s connects on an almost genetic level to Straubinger’s obsession with communication, to the degree that it becomes for the director and us, as David Coursen wrote, the film’s central mystery and driving force. In the same collection, we also get Herzog’s exhilarating portrait of The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner, the impish deadpan comedy of How Much Wood Can a Woodchuck Chuck, in which Herzog soaks in the linguistic headiness of auctioneering, and his haunting document of a town threatened by volcanic eruption, La Soufriere.

2) THE CHRONICLE OF ANNA MAGDELENA BACH (1966; Jean-Marie Straub, Danielle Huillet) Straub has said that the creative point of departure for his film was the use of music not as accompaniment, aural adornment or commentary, but as the central aesthetic material. And so it is that the movie, ostensibly an inquiry into the life and creative mechanics of J.S. Bach, filtered through the personage of his second wife, Anna Magdalena, holds you with an almost hypnotic spell as it combines formal detachment with historical detail, effectively using Bach’s own voice, his music, as the expressive avenue to tell his “story.” Straub and Huillet use long takes of musicians, shot with precision and acuity, but also anchored in perspectives that accentuate the elements of performance that heighten the music’s seductive power. Through their comparatively cool technique, Straub and Huillet underscore the emotional currents coursing through the music and just beneath the surface of the placid tableaux. The occasional narration from Anna, the obvious avenue for biographical detail in a more conventional biography, emphasizes her devotion to her husband, but the film itself devotes its spare verbiage to observations regarding Bach’s business and musical theories while the music weaves its way into the audience’s collective subconscious. It’s an unsettling, mysterious film that trusts viewers to plummet and soar along the lines of its subject’s complex artistic sensibility by way of a cinematic style diametrically opposed to both Bach’s mathematical, spiritual fulsomeness and the audience’s expectations for the form.

3) DRUM (1976; Steve Carver) Seeing Mandingo as an adult has turned out to be a crucial experience for me, in that the film was revealed after all these years to be not a piece of campy trash, as is the common characterization, but instead a serious look at the roots of racial hatred and exploitation in this country. (I always liked the movie, but as a teenager I clearly misunderstood the level on which it works.) It's probably too much to ask that seeing this sequel again, a movie rushed into production when Mandingo became an unexpected box-office smash, would hold any similar revelations— my chief memory from seeing it on its theatrical release remains John Colicos’, um, overripe performance as a French slave trader with unusual sexual predilections. Nonetheless, I am grateful to Netflix Instant Play for making it available at all, as much for the tantalizing possibilities as the inevitable reality of the thing. It would be a happy surprise if the transfer were anything better-looking than the usual dull VHS-level image I’m used to seeing. But even that wouldn't match the pleasure of discovering that Drum is better in 2010 than the ramshackle exploitation film I remember it to be on its original release. A connoisseur can hope, can he not? (For more on Drum and the whole Mandingo phenomenon, I heartily recommend Paul Talbot’s thorough and thoroughly entertaining Mondo Mandingo: The Falconhurst Books and Films.)

4) 10 RILLINGTON PLACE (1971; Richard Fleischer) There are some stories, some films, in which too much art would get in the way of what makes the whole enterprise work to the degree that it does. For many Richard Fleischer’s is the directorial face of Old Hollywood crumbling at the feet of Warren Beatty and Dennis Hopper (Doctor Dolittle or Che!, anyone?). But a close look at 10 Rillington Place proves him to be the perfect director—unassuming, deceptively straightforward, with an unadorned style—for this bleak, kitchen-sink tale of real-life horror ripped from post-war British tabloids. Sir Richard Attenborough, another pleasant, unassuming type, is bone-chilling as John Christie, an outwardly humble and garrulous apartment manager whose own flat, located at the titular address, he uses to murder unsuspecting women lured there by the promise of illegal abortions. When a couple renting another flat in the building become pregnant Christie cannot resist the sexual impulses that propel him toward another crime, one which entangles the woman’s husband (John Hurt, suffering early in his film career, and magnificently) in the killer’s ever-tightening web of improvised lies and deception. Fleischer lets the sickening claustrophobia of the apartment squeeze the audience with dread, all the while leaving Christie’s murderous demeanor up front, barely concealed by his unctuous manner and deadened eyes. Where many an actor might play to the rafters, Attenborough’s approach is, like Fleischer’s, unmussed by tics and affectation—this portrait of evil is relatively quiet and genuinely skin-crawling. Thanks to it and the director’s crypt-still, matter-of-fact gaze, 10 Rillington Place emerges as one of the most ghastly (though not graphic) and wrenching true-crime films I’ve ever seen.

5) BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON (1977; Tom Laughlin) There is no embarrassment (well, maybe just a little) in admitting that my generation composed the target demographic that sent Billy Jack through the box-office roof in the early ‘70s. The character, a half Indian-half white ex-Green Beret first introduced in a biker pic Laughlin directed called Born Losers (1967), tapped into the ‘60s zeitgeist and craftily embodied prevalent and divisive attitudes about Vietnam—pacifism versus the corrective power of violence. Laughlin, under a litany of behind-the-scenes pseudonyms, milked two major hits from the formula-- Billy Jack (shot close on the heels of Born Losers but not released until 1971, and The Trial of Billy Jack (1974), a bloated epic which virtually introduced the concept of releasing a single film simultaneously on thousands of screens that is the Hollywood model to this day. But his fourth Billy Jack movie remained largely unseen until it was packaged with the others in a DVD box several years ago. This final chapter remains unknown to me, but there it sits in my queue, with the other three films, in the hopes that I will be able to see it soon and write something about all four. The story of our anti-establishment hero managing to find his way into the U.S. Senate, where echoes of Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra ring free, and where our hero redefines, with kicking feet, slicing hands and barbed tongue, the very concept of the filibuster, never found either much in the way of a general release, Laughlin’s special magic in this arena having apparently vanished by the time the movie was finished. BJGTW is a rare instance of a sequel, thought to be awful, which has the luxury of being assessed completely outside its time, apart from expectations or prevailing attitudes about the manifest destiny of its creator’s ego. I’m looking forward to it.

6) 99 RIVER STREET (1953; Phil Karlson) Phil Karlson is a name that has, in the past few years, finally been getting the kind of respect it deserves, for he is responsible for several key works in the American postwar film noir movement. Growing up I knew him from titles like Walking Tall, The Silencers and Ben, the hit sequel to that boy-and-his-rat classic Willard. But as I’ve gotten older it’s been a real pleasure to introduce myself, and even my movie-loving daughter, to some of his hard-boiled cinematic knuckle sandwiches. She’s not ready for the grim documentary realism of The Phenix City Story (1955), but she loved a Karlson double bill we recently took in-- Kansas City Confidential (1952), which served as her formal introduction to Jack Elam, and 99 River Street, a lesser-known treasure starring John Payne as an ex-heavyweight boxer whose shrewish wife is murdered by her jewel thief lover. When he’s blamed for his wife’s death, the boxer goes on a search for the real killer, leading him and a struggling actress friend (Evelyn Keyes) into an ever-murkier underworld populated by some truly memorable fiends. (The supporting cast includes Brad Dexter, Ian Wolfe and, most remarkably, Jay Adler as a fence with a very unflinching attitude about retribution.) The tension Karlson manages to pack into the nasty fabric of this movie is impressive, and it makes me wonder why the movie isn’t more often celebrated as a highlight of its bleak and shadowy genre. Maybe a long stint on Netflix Instant Play will begin to remedy that situation.

7) FALL FROM GRACE (2007; K. Ryan Jones) I think I must have inherited my fondness for watching documentaries whose subject matter tends toward the outrageous and the enraging from my dad. We used to spend Sunday evenings together watching 60 Minutes (the only real time our divergent tastes allowed us to spend together with anything on TV), discussing the stories and often expressing our disbelief at what we were seeing. K. Ryan Jones’ blistering documentary, in which the infamous pastor and head pimple of Topeka, Kansas’s Westboro Baptist Church, Fred Phelps, hangs himself in real time with his vicious hate-singed brand of Christianity, made me think of all those Sunday evening discussions and how a single subject could eclipse them all. Phelps and his family of like-minded loudmouths had me screaming at my television in anger, so smug and self-righteous is their campaign of terror against fags and anyone else who doesn’t subscribe to their white-hot, biblically-inspired rhetoric of hate. The twisted knot of logic that finds Phelps and clan protesting by burning the flag within sight of military funerals held me rapt with a similar fury, but it’s the delight in which members take in celebrating the fates of gay-related bashing and murders, as well as victims of the AIDS epidemic, that really had me questioning not only the intelligence of these arrogant bastards, but also their basic humanity. Jones simply gives Phelps and his suffocatingly smug followers the floor, and documents with an admirable clarity and calmness I doubt I could find in myself the various events which the group attempts to hijack to their own ends. The result is an American embarrassment, but one for which we should be grateful on grounds of simple free speech— that of Phelps to present his ugly views for everyone to evaluate on their face, and that which results in the kind of film which brings the hate front and center, balanced to a degree by the testimony of disbelieving Topeka citizens and government officials. (These folks surely wish the rapture would just come already and afford their corner of the world if not a little peace and quiet, then at least blessed separation from these dogmatic pit bulls who besmirch their city.) Fall from Grace is one of many great documentaries, well-known and relatively subterranean, that Netflix Instant Play has made available on my queue. My sense of outrage, for better and for worse, is nowhere near being quelled.

(Another documentary on Phelps and his clan, Hatemongers, is available through YouTube and other sources.)

The remaining three blessings from Netflix Instant Play are films I have yet to actually see, three among hundreds that hold that distinction. These, however, are the ones I’m looking forward to most:

8) RED RIDING TRILOGY (2010; Julian Jarrold, James Marsh, Anand Tucker)

9) SWEETGRASS (2010; Ilisa Barbash, Lucien Castaing-Taylor)

10) HARLAN: IN THE SHADOW OF JEW SÜSS (2008; Felix Mueller)

What are the treasures of your Netflix Instant Queue?