Monday, February 27, 2006

I Heart Don Knotts: 1924-2006

Don Knotts is one of my all-time favorite comedians and his character Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show is without a doubt the most beloved character in TV history for me. The first time I went to Hollywood, the only star on the walk of fame I had a picture next to was Knotts. I've been watching and rewatching his characters over and over since I was a kid and didn't really even know how to spell his name. So, when I found out that he’d passed away at the age of 81, it left me kind of stunned and heartsick.

What was strange about the timing is that on Friday night I was at the Circle Cinema midnight movie of The Big Lebowski. After it was over I was out in the lobby talking about various film related topics with my friend Cameron. We started talking about Knotts as Cameron is a big fan as well and he was telling me about Knotts on episodes of Scooby Do that I can’t remember for the life of me. Since we were talking after the film, Knotts was already dead as we talked about him, so maybe we were just "aware" he was gone but not really "knowing" it yet.

Then Saturday afternoon I watched 3 or 4 episodes of Andy Griffith as I just got Season 2 as a birthday gift—I still didn’t know Knotts had passed away. Later in the evening I found out and just couldn’t believe it since I was talking to Cameron and watching some of the old episodes. Weird.

I’ve talked to people over the years about Knotts and unfortunately people get kind of snobby about him, which is a shame. Maybe they see him only connected to the Disney family films he did and he’s not “cool” enough for them?

That’s too bad as Knotts in my opinion was one of the best physical comedians of all time and his Barney Fife character will be watched for decades and decades and decades.

His comic timing is an incredible thing to watch when playing Fife and his influence on other comic actors who use their faces, bodies and speech is seen everywhere. If you don’t think this is true you either haven’t watched Knotts as Fife enough to see how many people have soaked up his mannerisms. His influence ranges everywhere from Michael Richards as Kramer to Jim Carrey to Billy Bob Thornton and on and on.

I truly believe that the Don Knotts’ era of The Andy Griffith Show is the greatest TV comedy EVER. One thing that makes it so special is it isn’t just about jokes jokes jokes. Yes, it’s funny but the humor is attached to something more important: human characters!

The characters on that show have been created by a tremendous amount of love, intelligence and depth. They have a warmth, openness and emotional honesty that perfectly blend together that it will be difficult for any show to create those same elements and duplicate them.

Knotts’ Fife was the bedrock of the show as when he left in 1966 the show went downhill in a hurry. Knotts was nominated for five Emmys and won all five times for Fife. It’s a character that is so perfect that it will truly live on well after I’m buried in a pine box in Eastern Oklahoma.

***Virginia Hefferman writes about Knotts and his life and career in New York Times*** Highly recommended for fellow Knotts fans!

Monday, February 20, 2006

New Pink Panther: unfunny disaster or genius propaganda?

Peter Sellers must be spinning in his grave right now. Why? Because Hollywood has decided that people can’t watch his films via DVD and they’ve remade a film character that no one else should ever touch. I’m talking about Inspector Clouseau, the lovable, bumbling French detective.

Hollywood will remake anything they are so out of ideas. They’ll re-do b-films or horror films from the ‘70s (A Race With the Devil, The Omen, The Hills Have Eyes), bad ‘70s TV (come on, did we really need to see Bo and Luke Duke jump over trains and bodies of water while yelling “Yeehaw!” on the big screen?) and even classics like Charade, Psycho and The Pink Panther have been redone.

I guess the target audience is people that have never seen the originals, but in this day and age of home theatres and more avenues to rent films that recreate the theatre experience—there’s really no need at all for this many films to be remade.

Hollywood wonders why box office is plummeting? The product is nothing but sequels, remakes, bloated action films and movies so chopped up while they try to achieve as many target audience checkpoints as possible that movies ends up bland and uninteresting. These remakes do not engage or take the audience new places—they are just treading the same manufactured path that’s been filmed over and over and it has to stop!

It’s sad that these movies keep getting made and it’s even sadder that films as wretched and unfunny have a lot of people going to see them as just one hit from a remake or sequel will spawn a dozen imitators. But the general public have low standards I guess, as people were saying that this was funny as I left the theatre. That makes me question the future of our nation as a whole if people like this garbage.

The 2006 Pink Panther has Steve Martin taking over for Peter Sellers. Martin, who used to be funny, has decided he wants to make only the blandest, most unoriginal comedies possible. Maybe all his banjo playing and writing novellas has zapped the funny right out of him? Something has caused him to go downhill and in a hurry.

The story is just a collection of obvious physical comedy bits that makes Clouseau to be an even bigger nitwit than the Blake Edwards’ Clouseau. Sellers Clouseau was not stupid but a bit clumsy and a bit obtuse. Martin plays Clouseau as someone slightly deranged who might struggle to defeat Forrest Gump in a battle for who has the top I.Q.

Martin’s fake French accent is annoying from the first word he utters. Beyonce shows up to wear slinky dresses, sing a few songs and whose role is evidence of exactly what I was talking about earlier—target audience marketing. Her scenes were more like a video or commercial than an acting performance. The script probably described her character as "famous singer" and only later did they even attach a name to it.

But was there another, more sinister force at play regarding this latest version of The Pink Panther? I got the feeling while watching The Pink Panther that it was made by George W. Bush and the current administration as payback for the way the French acted in the early days of the Iraqi War. Remember the way the French acted all high and mighty?

Think about it for a second as it makes perfect sense. Bush, Cheney, Rove etc are masters of the slight of hand. How else can you explain how these people get away with all their shady shenanigans over and over? The release date for The Pink Panther is perfect. Cheney shoots some old Republican flunky in the face with a shotgun and what happens? Bam. The Pink Panther comes out making the French look like idiots, diversion successful.

What better way to make a country look foolish than making a movie full of nothing but French imbeciles (played by American actors adopting goofy French accents) who spend ninety minutes going on about French this and France that while wearing berets, funny socks and acting like morons? Millions of Americans and others around the world would see it in a theatre or buy the DVD no matter how unfunny it is. A simple press conference knocking the French would disappear quicker than snow in the Sahara but unleashing Clouseau onto an unsuspecting world? That’s genius.

So, as an unfunny propaganda film full of furious payback for French actions regarding complex political, military actions the new Pink Panther is quite a success. If you don’t buy into that, it’s just another lame, unfunny remake of a far superior film that people should avoid if at all possible. It's your choice.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Cronenberg does dragster

I have a real soft spot for 1970s cinema of every stripe. This includes drive-in style films that are pulpy, sort of cheesy, yet fun as all get out. Director David Cronenberg is normally connected to strange horror films in this era but in 1979 he made the straight up drag racing picture Fast Company that is unlike any of his early films.

In the 1970s drag racing was a bit of a cult sport with regional strips all over the country and Fast Company tries to tap into that sub-culture. Cronenberg films some intimate, noisy, up close and personal drag racing sequences despite the pure TV movie story about a drag racer who has seen better days and who is trying to rediscover the magic.

Cronenberg likes cars—that much is evident in the way he films them in this and in his later work, Crash for example—and Fast Company is worth seeing for watching Cronenberg’s terrific eye for detail even in a world unlike his usual bizarre universe.

There were also some terrific ‘70s locations as we get a realistic dose of drag strips in Spokane, Helena and other western locales, pool halls and highway after highway with beautiful scenery drifting by outside the windows as the dragsters go to another race.

But this is a pulpy drive-in styled b-film and therefore Cronenberg fills the film with elements that are so natural that a checklist is warranted.
***Dragsters exploding? Check.
***A dose of T + A? Check.
***Bearded pit crew drinking cans of Bud while trading insults? Check.
***Loud engines revving up over and over? Check.
***Threesomes in semi while driving to next race? Check.
***Motor oil poured over a perky naked bosom while engaged in said threesome? Check.
***Funny cars spew white smoke while peeling out? Check.
***Multiple shots of engines being fine tuned while bad ‘70s style rock music about racing plays? Check.
***Fisticuffs and getting smacked in the head with a tire iron while in the pit? Check.
***Over the top acting by unknown cast? Check.
***Dialogue such as: “oohh whee, side by side flame burnout!” or “boy, he’s got more balls than brains” or “it’s a car idn’t? we’re gonna drive that sucker out!” or the classic “where the hell’s Meatball?”

If these are things you are eager to see or want to watch David Cronenberg do dragster, Fast Company is for you, as it's enjoyable '70s drive in all its glory.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Last Android, best picture

The final installment for my favorite movies of 2005 and winner of best ANDROID...

3. Me and You and Everyone We Know. This was one of the most refreshingly different films I saw all year and the first film from performance artist Miranda July. The film follows a group of people—in various stages of isolation and ages, from kids to adults—as they attempt to connect with one another. The film is unabashedly romantic in a quirky kind of way and seems to scream out that to find connections with others in the lonely, isolated world we live it—we will have to be brave and take chances. Me and You and Everyone We Know is not for everyone (I saw it at a free public/press screening and people walked out left and right) but those who are daring will get a sweet, strange and romantic film they aren’t likely to forget.

2. The Squid and The Whale. This film, the most venomous film I’ve ever seen about divorce is this set in ‘80s Brooklyn comedy/drama from Noah Baumbach. It makes seem like a dated, silly piece of Disney fun. Divorce is most often fueled by bitterness so the acerbic quality in this I found refreshingly dark and full of barbed-wire hostility. It’s also one of the smartest scripts you are likely to have the pleasure of hearing all year. These are smart people who get to unleash intelligent diatribes on one another as their family lives crumble. This film makes Kramer Vs Kramer seem like a dated, silly piece of Disney fun. Jeff Daniels gives a career performance as the head case of bitterness. The Squid and The Whale is dark, funny, smart as a whip and honest.

And the ANDROID goes to...

Capote. Capote is not only a riveting story that chronicles how the writer, Truman Capote, wrote his legendary book In Cold Blood, it also tells how the project damaged the man beyond repair. At the heart of the film is a mesmerizing performance by one of the best American actors working today—Philip Seymour Hoffman. It’s a complete transformation by Hoffman that doesn’t have him imitating a character like some recent high profile biopic roles have embraced (Johnny Cash and Ray Price for example) but sees him completely becoming Capote on screen with such a depth it’s hard to believe. Hoffman’s performance is that good. Luckily, the film isn’t just about Hoffman—it’s got a great ensemble cast and is told in an assured, confident and artful way by director Bennett Miller. Terrific in every aspect.

Whew! No more ANDROIDS to hand out.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The rest of the androids minus best picture

Let's just give out the rest of the ANDROIDS right here and now...all except best picture, I'll do the final three and hand that one out tomorrow.

Best Actress, nominees: Rachel Weisz/The Constant Gardener, Amy Adams/Junebug, Joan Allen/The Upside of Anger but the winner for best actress ANDROID:

Catherine Keener! A long time favorite of mine had a great 2005 by appearing in four films and delivering the goods in all four of them. Keener was in The Ballad of Jack and Rose, a drama that had her sharing the screen with the best actor alive, Daniel Day-Lewis. Next was The Interpreter, where Keener played an FBI agent and shared scenes with maybe the second best actor on earth, Sean Penn. The 40 Year-Old Virgin came next and Keener showed she could deliver some comedy zingers in one of my favorites. Lastly, she plays Harper Lee in Capote and is solid yet again. Makes my heart swell to see her give such varied, interesting performances.

Best Director, nominees: Paul Haggis/Crash, Ki-duk Kim/3-Iron, Bennett Miller/Capote, Jim Jarmusch/Broken Flowers but the winner for best director ANDROID:

Ang Lee! Ang has made some terrific pictures in the past but he’s never been in such utter and complete control as he is in his heartbreaking neo-western love story Brokeback Mountain. There’s not a single wasted image in the film and he gets great performances out of the entire cast.

Best Cameo: Kentucky singer Will Oldham shows up at the start of Junebug, bushy mustache and all, and delivers a couple of lines about an outlaw artist in North Carolina. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw Oldham appear on screen. I kept hoping he'd show up again but it's a brief cameo.

#8 to #4

8. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Shane Black’s noir satire was a complete and utter surprise when I watched it. The film has a real dark and nasty streak in its barbs and one liners as it really takes on the whole Hollywood mentality as a petty criminal gets involved in murder mystery. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang takes the buddy-crime genre and twists it upside down as Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer trade acerbic one-liners while coming across dead bodies. This was a bomb when released but I'm hoping people will discover at home.

7. Hustle & Flow. This gritty tale set in run down Memphis about a low-rent pimp who dreams of becoming a rap star is just one film with the charismatic Terrence Howard in the cast (Crash is the other). Kind of “Rockyesque” as this small time rap wannabe dreams big. Profane and captivating slice of life story in a world of pimps, rappers, prostitutes and others who dream of making it out of the ghetto.

6. Crash. This is a complicated and challenging film about race in America set among multiple individuals in Los Angeles. Crash is a brave film that has a terrific ensemble cast and a great story that weaves in and out of various characters lives that exposes the prejudices a lot of people still hold onto in this day and age. This is much in the same terrain as other multifaceted and "epic" Los Angeles tales such as Robert Altman's Short Cuts.

5. Brokeback Mountain. While this has a lot of controversy around it in some circles—anyone who’s seen it can’t deny its artistry. Director Ang Lee has crafted a pitch perfect film with near obsessive attention to detail and some of the most beautiful western imagery since the days of John Ford. I love westerns and this film takes the entire genre someplace it has never been before with a heartbreaking story of forbidden love and heartache from multiple characters. One of the most socially important films in years and it took a man from Taiwan to make it.

4. The 40 Year-Old Virgin. Hands down the funniest film released this year is this ribald tale chronicling one man’s attempts to lose his virginity goaded on by less than qualified co-workers. Yes, this film is often pretty filthy, but it’s not only funny it has a very sweet and romantic love story that is actually pro-celibacy when you get right down to it. Dirty, romantic and funny—a wonderful combination in a comedy. All hail the R-rated comedy!

Monday, February 06, 2006

Top 11 films in 2005--#11, #10, #9

As a tribute to the 'Tap, I'll make a Top 11 films for the year as I countdown to the best film ANDROID.

11. A History of Violence. Directed by David Cronenberg and at times a black comedy and a taut, suspenseful film about identity and the hidden nature we all bury below the surface. On first look it's a departure for the notoriously quirky Cronenberg, but if you look beneath the first layers, you’ll see a film with all the complexities he’s been exploring for decades now. A History of Violence is an assured, confident film that never blinks once as it takes you down its path.

10. Serenity. The best science fiction film in years—and this includes the bloated, past its prime Star Wars mess of a franchise—is this film based on the beloved TV series Firefly. I loved Firefly so I was either harder to please as a fan or easier to please because I already loved the characters and didn't want to see them ruined. It is the closest thing to a true western in space you’ll ever see. Serenity is tense, full of adventure, surprising and funny and will live on as a cult classic to those who’ve embraced it.

9. Broken Flowers. Bill Murray gives another stoic performance as a man looking for a possible son in a road trip film from the wonderful and odd Jim Jarmusch. I’m not sure Murray can take this silent act much further but placed in Jarmusch’s world it’s a perfect fit. The usual Jarmusch deadpan comedy and slowness that often feels more like a foreign film than an American one. Broken Flowers is one of Jarmusch's best.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Scorecard for 2005

Call me a film buff, geek, nerd, cineaste, cinephile or cinerobot, I don't care. It's true. Since 1998 I've kept a detailed record of every film I've seen, who I was with, where it was at and other items. Here's the scorecard for 2005. I'll post the career #s for 1998-2005 one of these days.

2005: 228 films seen.

By Month: January--21, February--16, March--20, April--21, May: 12, June--22, July--25, August--14, September--19, October--18, November--20, December--17.

By Decade: 1920-29--1, 1930-39--1, 1940-49--3, 1950-59--1, 1960-69--7, 1970-79--21, 1980-89--16, 1990-99--25, 2000+--154.

In A Theatre: 103

Documentaries: 35

Where I Saw 'Em: Tulsa, Okla.--139, Norman, Okla.--39, Oklahoma City, Okla.--24, Pryor Creek, Okla.--12, New York, NY--7, 1 for Branson, Missouri, Siloam Springs & Springdale, Arkansas, Ft. Worth & Dallas, texas.

By Country: USA--190, England--8, France--5, South Korea--4, 3 for Germany & Thailand, 2 for Italy, Hong Kong & Hungary, 1 for India, Mexico, Japan, China, Sweden, Chile, Denmark & Israel.

Who I Was With: Alone--211, Lillian H--10, Gunter B--7, 4 for Donnie B & Rob S, 2 for Kylie B & Paige B, 1 for Kelly H, Shawn S, Sheri B, Scott B, Shane D, Chuck I & Cameron M.

Tearjerkers: 13

Drive-In: 2

It was a real low year for seeing foreign and older films while also seeing way too many films alone. All things I'm trying to alter in 2006's scorecard.