A Smattering Of New Blu Ray & DVD Reviews

THE RUNAWAYS (Dir. Floria Sigismondi, 2010)


“Jail-fuckin’-bait! Jack-fuckin’-pot!!” – Kim Fowley as played by Michael Shannon.

Not exactly. When this film came out last spring it cherry bombed at the box office.

This absolutely by-the-numbers music biopic only comes alive when Michael Shannon is onscreen. As infamous record producer Kim Fowley, Shannon steals the film away from Kristen Stewart who does a convincing Joan Jett and an all angsty Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie. Despite the title Stewart and Fanning are the only members of the legendary ’70s all girl punk band that the film chooses to focus on – you can count the lines Scout Taylor-Compton as Lita Ford has on one hand and Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development) as Robin the bassist barely registers. Ditto Stella Maeve as drummer Sandy West. West died in 2006, but you wouldn’t know that from the film’s ending wrap up of only Jett, Currie, and Fowley’s fates.

Still it’s fast paced and filled with a lot of great music. In the mix of the Runaways greatest hits you get David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Sex Pistols, and weirdly Don McLean blaring throughout the movie. It will most likely be remembered for being the movie that Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning made out in, but if that’s what your looking for, those scenes are blurry in a manner mistaken for artsy, and there’s little emotional conviction to make anyone care. Overall THE RUNAWAYS resembles the VH1 produced rock biopics that dramatized Behind The Music episodes and rerun constantly on VH1 Classic. That undoubtedly will be where this ends up.

ENTRE NOS (Dirs. Gloria La Morte & Paola Mendoza, 2009) This Spanish drama, produced and distributed by IndiePix Films, was one that didn’t visit Triangle area theaters, but is now out on DVD and available for streaming on Netflix Instant. Paola Mendoza plays a Colombian immigrant who in the opening scenes is left by her husband (Andres Munar) to fend for herself and her 2 children in New York City.

All she seems to have going for her is that she can make great empanadas, but she can’t seem to sell those on the street corners so she takes up aluminum can recycling. It’s a tale of struggle and hardhip loosely based on a true story that has several incredibly moving scenes. The strength of Mendoza’s performance creates much empathy for the severe situations she faces. Sebastian Villada Lopez and Laura Montana Cortez as Mendoza’s children also register highly. Though some of the suffering may discomfort some folks, this is definitely worth a rental.

MOTHER (Dir. Bong Joon-ho, 2009) This gritty yet crisp looking thriller from South Korean writer/director Joon-ho only came as close as Cary to the Galaxy theater last spring. When she believes that her slow daft son (Won Bin) is innocent of a murder he’s accused of, Kim Hye-ja investigates the crime on her own.

The murder is of a school girl (Moon Hee-ra) who as the rumors say was very promiscuous and has a cell phone full of pictures of possible suspects. Hye-ja fiercely fights through the elements and, of course, gets more trouble than she bargained for. “Mother” is immensely entertaining with true feeling for its characters, particularly the admirable lead. It also looks beautiful on Blu ray.

PRODIGAL SONS (Dir. Kimberly Reed, 2010) Another film that didn’t play in the Triangle – a documentary about and by transsexual film maker Kimberly Reed (formerly Paul Reed) who returns home to Montana to face family and friends. Adopted brother Marc, who has brain damage from a car accident, is a big obstacle as he’s never accepted his sibling’s sex change.

“I just wanted us to be able to move on, but before I knew it, we ended up exactly like we used to be.” Reed says on her more than abundant narration. For the first 20 minutes or so it feels like a typical fish out of water/culture clash but when Marc finds out that his grand parents are none other than Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth things get considerably more interesting.

The take away amounts to more than that as we see Kimberly deal head on with his/her past rerunning old football footage and facing old photographs. Marc meanwhile has some scary outbursts which results in jail time. Film of Welles, mostly from his last film F FOR FAKE decorates the second half of the film in morbid tribute. A worthwhile yet disconcerting doc – PRODIGAL SONS is available on DVD and streaming from Netflix Instant.

A TOWN CALLED PANIC (Dirs. Stéphane Aubier & Vincent Patar) This French stop motion animation movie only played for a week at the Colony Theater in North Raleigh last spring which is a shame because it’s a fun absurd romp that deserves bigger audiences. Little plastic figurines, simply named for what they are – “Cowboy”, “Indian”, and “Horse” are the protagonists of this beyond silly plot involving 50 million bricks, thieving blue pointy headed fish folks, and a gigantic penguin robot.

As ridiculous animated features go it’s way better than DESPICABLE ME.

PANIC has more than enough laughs and ideas in it to be worth and hour and 15 minutes of your time so see what too many people missed last spring theatrically as its now on DVD and also available streaming on Netflix Instant.

More later…

A Swell Welles Period Piece

ME AND ORSON WELLES
(Dir. Richard Linklater, 2009)

To be a young actor in the hustling bustling Big Apple of the 30′s, cast by sheer chance as a player in an Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater production is a dream many aspiring thespians have no doubt had, but is it believable that it would be a dream shared by “it” boy Zac Efron? Sadly no, he’s a blank slate of an actor who makes for a weak protagonist, but this period piece by cult director Richard Linklater is royally saved by Christian McKay’s pitch perfect performance as the genius wunderkind Welles. It’s a role he was seemingly born to play thanks to his uncanny likeness and delivery honed from over half a decade on stage in the one man show “Rosebud: The Lives Of Orson Welles”.

As a wide eyed high school student, Efron is overjoyed to be cast in the small but crucial role of Lucious in Welles’ controversial 1937 production of “Julius Caesar”. It was controversial because Welles staged Shakespeare’s play as contemporary commentary outfitting his performers in modern dress – specifically uniforms that resembled those of the Nazi party. Efron is paired with a production assistant played by Claire Danes as a rehearsal partner and immediately falls for her. He also falls for the world of the theater; a world that Welles rules with a mighty swagger.

McKay’s Welles highjacks the film from Efron and breathes life into the predictable proceedings with every entrance. His powerful presence not only makes us forget Efron is in the room, it helps us forget he’s in the movie. When McKay isn’t on screen the film suffers from the lack of chemistry between Danes and Efron and the simplistic nature of their relationship. It’s funny (or more accurately damaging) that the excellent casting of McKay would be offset by the misguided miscasting of Efron. Luckily other members of the cast fare much better – James Tupper as a the wise witty Joseph Cotton, Eddie Marsan as the exasperated John Houseman, and Ben Chaplin as George Coulouris who has an effective scene dealing with stage fright right before going on as Marc Antony.

Linklater has one of the most intriquing and diverse filmographies of any working director out there. Since his brilliant breakthrough SLACKER (1991) his work has gone from indie (BEFORE SUNRISE) to mainstream (THE SCHOOL OF ROCK) and back again (BEFORE SUNSET) with mostly successful results. His previous period piece effort, THE NEWTON BOYS, was one of his only major stumbles so it’s wonderful to report ME AND ORSON WELLES is absolutely a superior and more assured work in the same arena. The brisk pacing and solid structure show off Linklater’s strengths as do the astute recreations of the original stage show – at times I wished the film would throw out the backstage bickering and just give us the play “Julius Caesar” in full.

Although my reaction to Efron and the presentation of the love triangle arc is decidedly mixed, this is still a worthwhile movie largely because of McKay. His Welles definitely deserves an Oscar nomination and that’s quite a compliment considering that this is his first film. A best-case scenario would be that HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL fans that follow Efron will see it and they’ll walk away under the spell of McKay. I know that’s just wishful thinking, but it sure would be nice for all those teenyboppers to actually get a whiff of what real acting is all about.

Post note: Christian McKay appeared previously on this blog in a post entitled “A Birthday Tribute To Orson Welles With 10 Welles Wannabes (May 5th, 2008). He would definitely rank much higher if I did the list today.

More later…

Another Round Of Great DVD Commentaries

Several years back I posted about great DVD commentaries with a top ten list of my favorites (“Let Them All Talk” Sept. 29th, 2005). Since then I’ve been collecting notes every time a new (or new to me) commentary was particularly interesting. I’d thought I’d share them in yet another patented Film Babble Blog list. Now, I know a lot of folks don’t listen to commentaries but I thought talking about some really notable ones would encourage folks to give them a try and turn that track on – if only just to sample. So, here goes:


10 More Great DVD Commentaries

1. THE PASSENGER (Dir. Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975) A rare feature-length solo commentary track by Jack Nicholson puts this at the top of the list especially as he declares: “This picture, ‘The Passenger’, was probably the biggest adventure in filming I ever had in my life.” His involving comments are helpful because without them the film can be a long haul. Most compellingly is Nicholson’s breakdown of how the final sequence was filmed (contains Spoilers!):

Nicholson: “Now, that shot was the reason they built the hotel. The hotel, in order that the camera be able to dolly out through those bars and out the window…why I hope Michelangelo doesn’t mind my revealing of the magic of his work…was that the entire hotel could be mounted on a crane and broken in half so that they could go out into the courtyard, shoot film back towards the hotel, after they exited, with the hotel having been pushed back together again and reconstructed for the remainder of the shot.”

Whew! Hope Jack sees fit to do other commentaries ’cause that one’s a keeper.

2. FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (Dir. John Hughes, 1986)

This customer review on Amazon says it best:

“Film buffs, DVD collectors, and John Hughes fans beware! The “Bueller…Bueller…” edition DVD does not include the commentary track by writer/producer/director John Hughes which was included on the original 1999/2000 DVD release. It is a great commentary and is sorely missed from this edition.”

That’s right, even the new Blu ray of this 80′s teen classic is sans Hughes commentary and the DVD I was recently sent from Netflix was the “Bueller…Bueller…” edition. The Hughes track on the 1999 edition is well worth seeking out because it truly is one of the most insightful listens all the way through. Some sample quotes:

Hughes: “After the film wrapped, Mr. and Mr. Bueller (Lyman Ward and Cindy Pickett), in real life, got married. At the time we were shooting this, Jennifer Grey and Matthew (Broderick) were dating. It was kind of a strange situation because everybody in
this scene is in love.”

And my favorite bit is the art gallery scene:

Hughes: “And then this picture, which I always thought this painting was sort of like making a movie. A pointillist style, which at very very close to it, you don’t have any idea what you’ve made until you step back from it.

I used it in this context to see that he’s (Alan Ruck) looking at that little girl. Again, it’s a mother and child. The closer he looks at the child, the less he sees. Of course, with this style of painting. Or any style of painting really.

But the more he looks at, there’s nothing there. I think he fears that the more you look at him the less you see. There isn’t anything there. That’s him.” Watch the scene sans commentary here.

Used copies can be found fairly easily of the 1999 version with the commentary as its only special feature (what more do you need?). Just look for the one with the cover pictured to the left.

3. TOUCH OF EVIL: THE 50 ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Dir. Orson Welles, 1958) The packaging is mistaken when it lists the “Preview Version feature commentary” to be Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh and Restoration Producer Rick Schmidlin. It’s the 1998 “Restored Version” that contains their commentaries. The other versions – the theatrical and preview cuts have fine bonus audio tracks with writer/filmmaker F.X. Feenet and historians Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore, but it’s the Heston/Leigh/Schmidlin track on the first disc of the wonderful 50th Anniversary Edition that I strongly recommend.

Wonderful moments abound: Schmidlin pointing out: “When you see Joseph Cotton listen to the voice but it’s not Cotton…” Heston: “It’s not Cotton?” Schmidlin: “It’s, uh, Orson’s voice.” Heston: “For Heaven’s sake.” Leigh: “Orson did Joe’s voice?” Also its amusing to hear Schmidlin call out which shots are Welles’s from which are Harry Keller’s later inserts to the repeated rekindling of Heston’s and Leigh’s memories. “You’ve really done your homework” Heston remarks with a slight chuckle in this charming and essential commentary.

4. BLOOD SIMPLE (Dir. Joe Coen, 1984) This beyond odd track features audio commentary by “Kenneth Loring”, the “artistic director” of “Forever Young Films” (a fictional gig – but whatever). Maybe the most surreal listen on this list.

5. TROPIC THUNDER (Dir. Ben Stiller, 2008)

As 5 time Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus in a tense moment making a Vietnam War movie, in black-face mind you, Robert Downey Jr. declares: “I don’t drop character till I done the DVD commentary!” You know what? Like a real method actor, he keeps his word.

In this free form three way between Downey Jr., Stiller, and Jack Black, the snark level is high which is way apt considering the over the top tangents of said film. One such sample bit during the opening mock trailers – specifically “Satan’s Alley” with Downey Jr. and Tobey Macquire as tortured homosexual monks:

Stiller: “Sort of an alternate universe for Spiderman and Iron Man.”
Downey Jr.: “I was trying to ride Tobey when we was shooting this thing but he wouldn’t have none of it. Talkin’ ’bout happily married.”

6. I’M NOT THERE (Dir. Todd Haynes, 2007) Haynes’ odd yet transfixing meditation on “the many lives of Bob Dylan” (one of my top 5 films of 2007) confused a lot of people, particularly those unfamiliar with the troubled troubadour’s background. Haynes delivers a commentary that should clear up that huge cloud of confusion as he sites references and breaks down various inspirations for every detail in every scene. Some sample quotage:

Haynes: “This is the entrance of Cate Blanchett in the film. The role of Jude was something that I’d always planned, from the very first concept of the film that I gave to Dylan in 2000, that it would be portrayed by an actress. And the reason for this was really for me to try to get to the core of what this next change really looked like and felt like to audiences at the time. How he became this sort of feline character offstage and this sort of bouncing marionette onstage. Full of all these extravagant androgynous gestures that we’d never seen before and we’d never see again after.

The commentary is filled with so many more elaborate descriptions, or justifications, for every aspect of Haynes’ challenging anti-biopic.


7. SUPERBAD: UNRATED EXTENDED EDITION (Dir. Greg Mottola, 2007)

Every Judd Apatow production’s DVD commentary is entertaining, from Freaks ‘N Geeks to PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, but this group cast track with director Mottola, screenwriter Evan Goldberg, actors Seth Rogen, Michael Cera, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jonah Hill, and producer Apatow is IMHO the best of the bunch. Largely because Apatow brought along his nine-year-old daughter Maude. Apatow tries to get the guys to keep it clean but it doesn’t last long. A sample exchange:

Hill: “This scene is fuckin’ hilarious, man.”
Apatow: “Jonah, Jonah…”
Hill: “Yeah?

Apatow: “Maude’s over there.”
Rogen: “You keep swearing, stop swearing Jonah!”

Hill: “Dude, what is this, bring your daughter to work day? I mean…”
Apatow: “Just be cool man, be cool! This is the only way I could do it…I don’t have a
babysitter, I’m in New York City here to do Conan and Colbert by the way…I don’t have a babysitter so what am I gonna do? Leave her like, uh, with the concierge?”
Hill: “I dunno, dude I’m not…”

Cera: “Like “Home Alone 2!”
Hill: “It’s “Superbad”! I curse the whole movie…the commentary, I mean, it’s like…whatever.”
Apatow: “You know, I’m not trying to ruin it…I’m not trying to ruin it…”
Hill: “Let’s just go back to the movie; let’s just go back to talking about the movie…”
Rogen: “It’s kinda ruining the commentary Judd, if Jonah can’t say
what the fuck he wants to say.
Hill: “Yeah! I can’t curse, why don’t you just…”
Apatow: “You know what? I’m not 15 years old and don’t have a kid – I’m an adult like Greg, I have a child. This is my reality.”
Hill: “If I had a kid I wouldn’t bring it to work with me.”

Whoa – some actual drama there mixed with the laughs. Let’s minus the laughs for this next one:

8. TAXI DRIVER (Dir. Martin Scorsese, 1976)

Writer Paul Schrader sounds a bit hesitant upon first opening up (“whatever comments I have…are really not from inside the director’s vision”) about the film and his screenplay’s seminal 70′s statement about urban alienation but once he gets going it’s quite a cutting companion piece. Sample quotage:

Schrader: “What happens at the end happens at the beginning.”

“When Marty first told me that he cast Albert (Brooks) I was sort of surprised because, you know, it was a nothing character. Well, that’s the secret: cast the comic in a nothing character and you get somebody interesting.”

“I don’t believe the script should have any references to camera angles whatsoever. There’s only one camera angle in the script, and that’s the tracking shot at the very end, and I put that one in there because I thought that it was important we see this crime scene from the eye of God. And the only way we could make that point is if we put the camera on the ceiling and track.”

9. LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE FABULOUS STAINS (Dir. Lou Adler, 1982) In the interest of space I’ll refer you back to this post (“Talking ‘Bout A Generation Gap” Oct. 3rd, 2008) in which I first babbled ’bout Diane Lane and Laura Dern’s very funny commentary.

10. NASHVILLE (Dir. Robert Altman, 1975)

Luckily before beloved “New Hollywood” auteur Altman died he recorded a number of worthwhile commentaries but this one is absolutely essential for his magnum opus. As rambunctious as Altman was infamous for being, his gruff ingratiating commentary makes you feel like you’re sitting on the couch with him as he rambles. Some random rambles:

“When this film first came out, they hated the music. They said this wasn’t real country music. But I wasn’t looking for good music, not that they make a lot of it there…”

“We cast these cars as carefully as we did the people who drove them.”

“Since we knew that I had no way I could control the palette of this film, the color of this film, because I knew I was going to be dealing in real situation for we were just invading an event. Even though if we created it, we had to deal with…we weren’t paying these people as extras we just had to go where they were.”

Special TV Series DVD Set Honorable Mention: Spaced (Dir. Edgar Wright, 1999-2001) This short lived but brilliant BBC series is outfitted in a nice 3 DVD set with multiple commentary tracks featuring guests like Kevin Smith, Diablo Cody, Patton Oswalt, Bill Hader, Matt Stone, and Quentin Tarantino sparring with Wright and various cast members including, of course, Simon Pegg and Jessica Haynes. Great stuff.

Okay! I hope that’ll point out some good commentaries out there. I’d love to hear your thoughts on essential bonus audio tracks so please send ‘em on. You know where to find me.

More later…

X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE: The Film Babble Blog Review

X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE (Dir. Gavin Hood, 2009)

Warning: This review may contain Spoilers!

The title would best befit a comic book; I know that’s the point but it’s clumsy as a movie title even for a big blustery comic book movie like this. 

No one will use the full title though, I’m sure as Hell not planning on on using it again from this point onward. The film itself gets off to a clumsy start with a cold opening set in 1800′s Canada with our wolfish hero as a kid (Troye Sivan) witnessing his father’s murder, or who he thought was his father – you see, it’s complicated. The kid has the infamous bone claws which can protrude from his knuckles at will and he’s working on the screaming: “no!!!” at the sky in a ascending camera crane shot, something he’ll be an ace at a lot later in life. 

Lil’ wolf boy and his likewise indestructible brother (Michael-James Olsen) run off into the night and into seemingly every war in history as they grow into Hugh Jackman and the fierce growling Leiv Scheiber. This montage credits sequence recalls the jaunty sweep through time opening that WATCHMEN employed but here it comes off as more then a little forced.

After surviving a military style execution, the brothers, one good and one bad (guess which is which) are recruited by Danny Huston as a conniving Colonel who is putting together an elite team of mutant folk for a mysterious mission.

The supernaturally skilled group (including Ryan Reynolds, Dominic Monaghan, Kevin Durand, and John Wraith) is immediately too much of a kill crazy crew for Jackman and he quits to live a normal life as a lumberjack in his home country. After 6 years of peace with a school teacher girlfriend (Lynn Collins) in an idyllic cabin in the mountains, Huston again appears to warn our constantly scowling protagonist that his former team mates are being hunted down and murdered one by one. 

We know, of course, that it’s Sabretooth Scheiber and that a huge confrontation fight set piece is coming with him. It’s one high octane fuelled fight action scene after another and, yeah, that’s what I expected with all the players in place and the pulse pumping perfectly but inspiration was sorely lacking. 

There was not a single shot that surprised or excited me. The tried and true frantically running, or at one point walking casually, away from a gigantic explosion shot has been done so many times that it’s beyond redundant here (you’d think that the countless Simpsons satires of said effect would’ve killed off this cliché). The plot is pretty standard stuff too with themes like revenge and betrayal banally balancing everybody’s motivation. 

Still, the tone of the previous X-MEN movies is replicated convincingly and I’m sure many will find plenty of worth between the lines. Jackman undoubtedly owns the role with a presence that grows in every scene while the dynamic between him and Scheiber has a effective edge albeit being far from fleshed out. 

Because of the foul stench of early bad reviews I went in with low expectations and that definitely helped. It’s not a badly made or boring movie by any means, just a mediocre super hero movie throwaway that I believe only fanboys will remember with much affection in the near future. 

Post note: Incidentely Scheiber and Huston have both played Orson Welles in previous projects. They’re both listed on a post I did a year ago about Welles wannabes (May 5th, 2008).

More later…

The Alphabet Meme

I was tagged by Ibetolis from the great blog Film For The Soul to take part in the Alphabet Meme that has been going around started by Fletch at Blog Cabbins. The basic idea is pretty self explanatory but rules are below anyways.

Here goes:

A is for ABOUT SCHMIDT (Dir. Alexander Payne, 2002)

Just watched it again a few days ago and still love every second. A career best for Jack Nicholson.

B is for BARFLY (Dir. Barbet Schroeder. 1987)

C is for COOLER, THE (Dir. Wayne Kramer, 2003)

D is for DEFENDING YOUR LIFE (Dir. Albert Brooks, 1991)

E is for
ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (Dir. Michel Gondry, 2004)

F is for FLETCH (Dir. Michael Ritchie, 1985)

G is for GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (James Foley, 1992)

Speaking of a career best, in an incredible cameo Alec Baldwin offers an alphabet meme of his own.

H is for HEAD (Dir. Bob Rafelson, 1968)

I is for I’M NOT THERE (Dir. Todd Haynes, 2007)

J is for JFK (Dir. Oliver Stone, 1991)

K is for KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMEN (Dir. Hectoer Babenco, 1985)

L is for LADY FROM SHANGHAI, THE (Dir. Orson Welles, 1947)

M is for MAGNOLIA (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999)

N is for NETWORK (Dir. Sydney Lumet, 1976)


You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it! – Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty) Guess I’m all about the powerful cameo speeches, huh?

O is for OH, GOD! (Dir. Carl Reiner, 1977) See 10 Reasons The 30th Anniversary Of OH, GOD! Should Be Celebrated (Oct. 3, 2007)

P is for PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (Dir. Woody Allen, 1986)

Q is for QUADROPHENIA (Dir. Franc Roddam, 1979)

R is for ROMEO IS BLEEDING (Dir. Peter Medak, 1993)

S is for SMOKE
(Dir. Wayne Wang, 1995)


T is for TIME AFTER TIME (Dir. Nicholas Meyer, 1979)

U is for UNREASONABLE MAN, AN (Dirs. Henriette Mantel & Steve Skrovan, 2006)

V is for VISITOR, THE (Dir. Thomas McCarthy, 2008) See A Marvelous Minimalist Movie Before The Blockbuster Bombast Begins May 2, 2008).

W is for WAKING LIFE (Dir. Richard Linklater, 2001)

X is for X-FILES: FIGHT THE FUTURE (Dir. Rob Bowman, 1998) Actually this is far from one of my favorite movies, but as X movies go I like it better than X-MEN and XXX.

Y is for YELLOW SUBMARINE (Dir. George Dunning, 1968)

Z is for ZOOLANDER (Dir. Ben Stiller, 2001)

That’s right. Take that ZELIG!

Now here are the rules for this Alphabet Meme:

1. Pick one film to represent each letter of the alphabet.

2. The letter “A” and the word “The” do not count as the beginning of a film’s title, unless the film is simply titled A or The, and I don’t know of any films with those titles.

3. Return of the Jedi belongs under “R,” not “S” as in Star Wars Episode IV: Return of the Jedi. This rule applies to all films in the original Star Wars trilogy; all that followed start with “S.” Similarly, Raiders of the Lost Ark belongs under “R,” not “I” as in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Conversely, all films in the Lord Of The Rings series belong under “L” and all films in the Chronicles of Narnia series belong under “C,” as that’s what those filmmakers called their films from the start. In other words, movies are stuck with the titles their owners gave them at the time of their theatrical release. Use your better judgement to apply the above rule to any series/films not mentioned.

4. Films that start with a number are filed under the first letter of their number’s word. 12 Monkeys would be filed under “T.”

5. Link back to Blog Cabins in your post so that I can eventually type “alphabet meme” into Google and come up #1, then make a post where I declare that I am the King of Google.

6. If you’re selected, you have to then select 5 more people.

So, these are the folks I’m tagging:

TheSophomoreCritic
Sara Forbes at SARANOMICS
Dean Treadway at filmicability
::: The Playlist ::: *
TLA ATTACKS THE MOVIES
Moviedearest

Hope they play along.

* D’oh! ::: The Playlist ::: already made their meme – check it out here.

More later…

An Orson Welles Wannabe Responds

I got some cool comments on my post A Birthday Tribute To Orson Welles With 10 Welles Wannabes (May 5, 2008) but the one that really takes the cake is from one of the Orsons – #10. Jean Guérin to be exact. I had written that I could find very little info about Guérin’s 2 performances of Welles in HEAVENLY CREATURES and LA VENGEANCE DE LA FEMME EN NOIR so it is great to get it right from the source. Here’s what he wrote along with a few great photos he sent along as well:

————————————————————————————————-

Hello,

Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Jean Guérin. I am a film teacher/writer/actor residing in Montreal, Canada.

Recently, I was alerted to your blog’s posting regarding fake Orsons where I made #10.

Thank you for giving me credit. A recently published book states that Peter Jackson used computer technology to bring Orson back to life. Seems I don’t exist but am some sort of virtual construct.
Coincidentally, this pic was taken on OW’s birthday 15 years ago.

Creatures was a silent part in a fantasy sequence. Jackson & Walsh recruited me at a film festival in Montreal, where I had volunteered to drive them around. I wasn’t an actor at the time. I got teased a lot in film school about my resemblance to OW but hadn’t heard it in a few years until Fran Walsh brought it up. Originally, the plan was to pull OW out of footage of The Third Man but PJ found himself limited in his action choices.Our chance meeting not only saved the scene but enabled Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh to play with it and expand on it.

The scene involves notorious teenage lesbian schoolgirl murderers Parker and Hulme, played by Kate Winslet and Melanie Linskey going to see The Third Man and pretending Orson is stalking them outside the theatre. They run home where Mel morphs into Orson and seduces Kate (technically making me the first guy to kiss Kate Winslet in a movie).

In order to further the illusion, PJ made OW “monochrome” and shot close-ups of me to substitute for those of OW in the Third Man footage. As a film buff, this was totally cool. Especially when I got to shoot “M” (Bernard Lee).

The subterfuge worked. At the 1994 Venice film festival , Robert Zemeckis approached PJ to ask him how he managed to do the reverse of what he had done in Forest Gump. It was an ice breaker which led to RZ producing PJ’s next feature, The Frighteners.

The best part of working on the film is that no one believes it. On occasion, I do get a student inquiring if it’s me and I tend to brush it off by saying “I get that a lot”.

I do get a great kick out of mentioning the movie in a context where people think I’m joking and/or won’t believe me. “The director of Lord of the Rings flew me to New-Zealand to play Orson Welles in a lesbian love scene with Kate Winslet”. When you phrase it like that- who would?

As a lifelong Orson buff, this remains one of the best experiences of my life.

The same cannot be said of my other Orson portrayal.

La Vengeance De La Femme En Noir is a 1997 Quebec production directed by Roger Cantin. It is a sequel to his popular L’Assassin Jouait Du Trombone.

Again, Orson is used as a figment of the character’s imagination. In the film,the main character Marleau (Germain Houde), imagines his conscience (himself) talking to him. In the climax, his conscience abandons him, leaving “Harry Lime” in his place. It was supposed to explain the character’s change of heart in the unfilmed sequel. Only a few people got the reference , and even then, it’s because the director explained it to them personally. The film is full of visual references to classic film noirs which are wasted in this broad humour farce.

The film is in French. Despite doing a really good Orson voice (deviated septum and all), I was re-dubbed over because Welles’ real voice is not familiar to French speaking audiences. The result is awful, with Orson sounding Haitian. The director has since apologized for the choice but the damage is done and the scene is a cringer- especially to Orson buffs.

Fortunately, the film played less than a week theatrically and was never released on DVD. It does show up on late-night cable in Quebec from time to time to haunt me.

On the practical side, it allowed me to break into the local actor’s union.

However, it does give me the distinction of having played OW twice and in two languages.

I actually played OW a third time on a segment of a local magazine show where I finally got to do the voice.

Hope this was informative or at least entertaining.

Regards,
Jean Guérin

————————————————————————————————-

Wow, that indeed was incredibly informative and extremely entertaining! I emailed Mr. Guérin to thank him for writing and ask for his permission to post it here which he nicely allowed. He also added that in the color photo above he had “prosthetic makeup on this film which made me look more like Karl Malden as the day progressed. The New Zealand make-up artist did way better with stage makeup than all that rubber.”

Man, what it takes to recreate Welles!

More later…

A Birthday Tribute To Orson Welles With 10 Welles Wannabes

“I’m not very fond of movies. I don’t go to them much.” - Orson Welles

Tomorrow is Orson Welles’ birthday (May 6th, 1915). Since he died of a heart attack hunched over his typewriter in Los Angeles in 1985 his legend has grown immensely. The accolade “cinematic genius” as well as sayings like “larger than life” feel like they were coined for him. CITIZEN KANE still tops critics’ lists, including mine, of the greatest movies ever and the rest of his fascinating filmography (what’s available, that is) is both passionately studied by scholars and enjoyed by movie-lovers by the millions. Along with his birthday there are also a few notable anniversaries this year to pay tribute to – the classic thriller TOUCH OF EVIL turned 50 a few weeks back (it was released on April 23rd, 1958), his magnificent MACBETH hits 60 (Oct 1st, 1948), and this Halloween will be the 70th anniversary of the famous War Of The Worlds broadcast (Oct. 31st, 1938) that put Welles’s name on the media map.


Since, as the saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery I thought it would be fun to look at Orson Welles as played by others. Many films and television shows – both live action and animated, have had actors portray the mighty moviemaker. IMDb even lists a separate page: Orson Welles (Character). Some of course pull off the impression better than others but they are all amusing attempts to capture the offbeat charm of one of the most well known figures of the 20th Century. So let’s take a look at the men who would be KANE:


10 Orson Welles Wannabes

1. & 2. Maurice LaMarche & Vincent D’Onofrio - Why am I listing 1 & 2 together? Because LaMarche and D’Onofrio have both played Welles more than once and one time they played him together! LaMarche, a gifted mimic, has provided his pitch perfect approximation of Welles’ voice to The Simpsons, The Critic, and his character of the Brain on the cult favorite cartoon Pinky And The Brain is heavily based on Welles. D’Onofrio who has a striking resemblence to Welles also played him in the short film FIVE MINUTES, MR. WELLES but in Tim Burton’s 1994 tribute to the twisted filmmaker ED WOOD, D’Onofrio appears with LaMarche’s voice dubbed in – that’s right it took two people to play Orson Welles. Tempting to make a fat joke here but I’ll let it go. Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) spies Welles sitting at a table in a bar nursing a cocktail, smoking a cigar, and working on pages of a screenplay.

Wood introduces himself to Welles and shares his movie production frustrations with Welles who sympathizes offering: “I’m supposed to do a thriller at Universal, but they want Charlton Heston to play a Mexican. It’s a good line but highly inaccurate – Heston insisted on Welles directing the project which was TOUCH OF EVIL but this doesn’t marr the scene. Wood’s meeting with Welles is relevatory to the aspiring director – the light of inspiration that glows in his face when Welles tells him: “Ed, visions are worth fighting for, why spend your life making somebody else’s dreams? is a nice touching effect. Burton pulls off a bit of movie magic – for a brief instance we have Welles back and it’s the young robust Welles not the bloated wine swigging caricature that most people think of when his name is dropped. Watch the scene on YouTube.

3. Angus Macfadyen in CRADLE WILL ROCK (1999) Far from as convincing as D’Onofrio & LaMarche, MacFadyen does have plenty of Welles’s theatrical flair as he moves like a storm through Tim Robbins’ romantised re-creation of the world of the theater in 1930′s New York. Based on the true story of a troubled production for the Federal Theater Project, Welles with the aid of John Houseman (more accurately portrayed by Cary Elwes) he fights to get the play of the title staged. Macfadyen does at key moments have the right Wellesian swagger though as Roger Ebert, a huge Welles scholar himself, wrote “Welles comes across as an obnoxious and often drunken genius in a performance by Macfadyen that doesn’t look or sound much like the familiar original.” Very true and also Macfadyen is too Scottish for the part too. Still though in the context of Robbins’ fine film he somehow makes his Welles work.

4. Liev Schreiber in RKO 281. This a bit of stretch but a tasty one. This telefilm made for HBO tells the story of the making and aftermath of CITIZEN KANE. Schreiber is in way over his head for the role and the facts are fumbled with ferociously. Still, the talented Schrieber does a fair impression of Welles speaking voice though only when imitating his soft spoken tones. RKO 281 (named after KANE‘s studio issued working title) is so littered with annoying inaccuracies and cheesy cliches that Welles expert (and longtime friend) Peter Bogdanovich said that it “was poorly acted by just about everybody” and that It had about as much connection to the Orson Welles I knew as the man in the moon. Ouch! Okay, let’s move on…

5. John Candy on Second City TV (1976-1979) – Of course the obvious reason that Candy was cast as the later day Welles in many SCTV sketches is his ginormous girth. He didn’t really look like him facially and his voice doesn’t quite sound like him but the material was funny and Candy could definitely bring the battered bombast. Check out this clip of Candy as Welles in a bit based on a tape of Welles recording a British frozen-peas audio advertisement (which you can listen to here).

6. Eric Purcell in MALICE IN WONDERLAND – I haven’t seen this TV movie from 1985 about the gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper played respectively by Elizabeth Taylor and Jane Alexander. Obviously I can’t judge Purcell’s performance – nor can I find any info about it online but I’m including it here because the film has Tim Robbins as Joseph Cotten! Maybe it’s just me but that sounds like pretty juicy casting. Anybody out there seen it?

7. Danny Huston in FADE TO BLACK (2006) – Another I haven’t seen but did locate the trailer. Judging from the preview Huston doesn’t really seem to have the Welles vibe going. That’s only based on 1 minute 46 seconds of footage mind you. From one of only a few reviews that are online of this British production set in Rome, Xan Brooks of the Guardian U.K. writes: The role of one great director falls to Danny Huston, the son of another, who comes weaving through the action with his theatrical bearing and disreputable air, a cigar between his teeth and his pockets rattling with slimming pills; every inch the faded Hollywood idol. Sounds like it may be worth a viewing – that is if it were available on NetFlix.

8. Paul Shenar in THE NIGHT THAT PANICKED AMERICA - I saw this TV movie years ago and I do recall that Shenar did a pretty decent job of mimicing the master. He should also get props for being the first actor on film to play Welles. Dramatising the historic War Of The Worlds broadcast inside and out this sadly isn’t available on DVD but I hear that it pops up on TV from time to time. That’s good ’cause I’d love to see it again.

9. Christian McKay in the upcoming ME AND ORSON WELLES – Richard Linklater’s next film (set for 2009) like CRADLE WILL ROCK depicts the theatrics both onstage and off of Orson’s literally go-for-broke 1930′s lifestyle. McKay has portrayed Welles on stage and the word is that he has got the delusion of grandeur goods. Of McKay’s performance in the Broadway production of “Rosebud: The Lives Of Orson Welles” The Daily Telegraph wrote: “Christian McKay plays this celluloid colossus to perfection… anticipating the many facets of Welles’ personality that then sparkle through the show… The stories are so fantastical and various that Rosebud would mesmerise someone unacquainted with his work as much as a film buff. The arc of his career, from overachieving wunderkind to an overweight clown who endorsed frozen peas in television commercials, has the simplicity of classical tragedy and makes for compelling theatre.” Since Linklater is one of my favorite current directors and Orson is a ongoing obsession for me I’ll be really looking forward to this one.

10. Jean Guérin in HEAVENLY CREATURES (1994) - It’s been a while since I’ve seen this movie and to be honest I don’t remember Guérin as Welles in it. He makes the list because he also played Welles in LA VENGEANCE DE LA FEMME EN NOIR (1997) - another film I haven’t seen and can find very little info on. Sigh.

There you go – 10 Orson Welles impersonators. It should be noted that Linklater’s film isn’t the only Orson related activity on the horizon. Reportedly Peter Bogdanovich is looking to finish work on one of Welles last films – THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND. The excellent site Wellesnet has this insightful article about the project.

That’s all for now – Happy Birthday Welles wherever you are! Such a great if compromised career – from Martians to the Muppets! Hope you’re grandly laughing it up at the great moviehouse in the sky.

More later…

Catching Up With The Classics

A young filmmaker recently put this forth to Roger Ebert’s Answer Man column:

Q:As an aspiring young filmmaker, I watch and rewatch as many films as possible, around seven to 14 a week (which is tough with college and work). A lot of the time I feel like because I haven’t seen every classic or obscure film, I’m less of a director because I never gleaned that knowledge. I‘m young, but I love film and I hate when that love is questioned because I haven’t gotten to a certain film. What are your thoughts on this whole neurotic mess of mine? Can someone of this generation, so far removed from the birth of film, still make something as good as “Citizen Kane,” even if they haven’t seen it? (And yes, I’ve seen it several times. And no, I do not think I could match Welles’ genius.)”
Roy Hatts, Warwick, N.Y.


Ebert’s Answer: “Join the club. I feel the same way you do. Friends of mine like Jonathan Rosenbaum and Dave Kehr seem to have seen every film ever made — and David Bordwell, Bertrand Tavernier and Pierre Rissient probably have. There is a suspicion in Chicago that members of the University of Chicago’s Doc Films, the first campus film society in the nation, are born having seen every film. But keep on watching good movies. And don’t feel insecure when you make them. After all, Orson Welles watched John Ford’s “Stagecoach” 100 times before making ‘Citizen Kane.’”

This Q & A hits upon a point I’ve been noticing a lot lately – we, that is film buff folk, are just as obsessed with what we haven’t seen as we are with what we have. This is, of course, silly – there will always be movies we’ve never seen – many of which will be essential classics to uh, somebody out there so fretting over it will get you nowhere. Better to enjoy the process and keep on watching like Ebert says.

I usually mostly write about new movies, whether they are at the theater or new release DVDs but I thought I’d catch up a few older films in the spirit of trying to round out my film education. First off, a film I caught last week on TCM:

BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (Dir. John Sturges, 1955)

The opening has a powerful modern (for the mid ’50′s that is) steam engine storming down the tracks shown from every conceivable angle. The vivid urgency of each shot immediately pulls us in to this undoubtable classic. There is one incredible full-on “how the Hell did they do that?” shot in the train opening montage that I won’t reveal because even though it’s a film well documented from over 50 years ago I still promise no Spoilers. The train, we’re told for the first time in 4 years, stops in a tiny town literally out on the middle of nowhere and Spencer Tracy gets off. He is a well dressed one-armed man with a stern determined nature and immediately is noticed by the townfolk. An ominous group of cowboys led by Robert Ryan attempt to intimidate him. When you roll with a posse that includes such heavies as Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine you can be sure that intimidation of a high order comes pretty easily.

Tracy ignores any obstacles and checks into a hotel. We don’t know what his deal is – is he a cop? A detective? An insurance salesman? What? We just know he is trying to find somebody – a Japanese farmer named Komoko. We know from the reaction to his arrival that his inquiries threaten to shine a blinding light on a dark secret and will place his life in danger. What we don’t know is how much of a badass Tracy is under his calm demeanor – but again I won’t give anymore away. The town isn’t all scary hoodlum types; Tracy does makes a few friends – Walter Brennan as the jaded town doc, Dean Jagger as the alcoholic town sheriff, and Anne Francis as well, the only woman in town it seems.

Howard Breslin’s screenplay, adapted from the Don McGuire short story “Bad Day At Hondu” is excellent with great lines like: “Tim, you’ve got the body of a hippo but the brain of a rabbit; now don’t overtax it” and “You’re not only wrong. You’re wrong at the top of your voice.” Building on a brilliant beginning the second half of BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK is a scorcher with no wrong turns. If you see this coming up on TCM’s schedule make a note of it. It’s definitely more that worth a rental too – I may put it in my Netflix queue to watch again especially since I heard director Paul Thomas Anderson praise the DVD commentary by film historian Dana Polan. Sturge’s film looks great for its age (it was the first MGM production in Cinemascope) and in these days of likewise lawless desert epics (NO COUNTRY, THERE WILL BE BLOOD et al) it holds up incredibly well.

THE NAKED PREY (Dir. Cornell Wilde, 1966) This film just got a fancy schmancy Criterion collection special edition with a newly restored high-definition digital transfer, commentary by film historian Stephen Prince, soundtrack cues, original theatrical trailer, and the icing on the cake – the original 1913 written “John Colter’s Escape”- a document of the trapper’s flight from Blackfoot Indians which was the inspiration for the film read by Paul Giamatti. These bells and whistles decorate what is a pretty dated exercise – the opening credits tells us “The music in this motion picture is African Music, played by Africans on African instruments.” I can’t imagine seeing that notation in a film today.

The plot has a 50′s B-movie thing goin’ on but fleshed out with real locations rarely seen before on the big screen. In Africa, called “the land of aboriginal tortures”, an ivory hunter (Wilde), who is only identified in the credits as “The Man” gets captured by a large tribe and after watching his fellow men tortured (one is covered in mud and baked alive) is stripped down except for his tied hands and given a running head start before the tribal warriors catch and kill him. He outwits them one by one and fares equally well against the harsh jungle animals and terrain. Colorful and creative in it’s use of the before mentioned African music – THE NAKED PREY is ultimately a contrived conceit, I mean there’s no way this guy would escape alive in this world better known by his pursuers. Still it’s a fine ride through what would soon be action movie clichés and the Criterion treatment yet again works it’s magic on its claim to classic status. It is impressive that Cornell Wilde was 50 years old when he made it. His lean killing machine of a body almost adds plausibility to this star vehicle vanity piece. Almost.

Post Note: According to Wikipedia “As teenagers, Joel and Ethan Coen shot their own version of THE NAKED PREY on a Super-8 camera. They called it Zeimers in Zambia and cast a neighbor, Mark Zimering, in the lead role.” Man! I’d Sure like to see that!

OTHELLO * (Dir. Orson Welles, 1952)

I’ve been on an Orson Welles kick for the last several months. I’ve been plowing through Simon Callow’s lengthy bio “The Road To Xanadu” (which at 578 pages is only Volume 1!) and ordering up DVDs from his canon that I hadn’t seen before including essential classics as THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI and THE TRIAL, as well as lesser known treasures like THE STRANGER and F FOR FAKE. The crucial thing one learns over and over in reading Welles’s story is that his filmography has been horribly mishandled and few of his films were truly finished. They were either taken away from him and retooled (mostly mangled more accurately) by the studio (best example – MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS ** which isn’t available on DVD in any version) or he ran out of money during production and had to scrounge around to complete the project most likely not to his satisfaction. Put this epic Shakespeare adaptation in the latter category. It was filmed over 3 years during which Welles took acting work in other’s films to pay for the project. The DVD I got from Netflix (from Image Entertainment) had only a photo gallery as a bonus feature and an awful transfer. The picture is often blurry and the sound is so bad that a lot of the dialogue is indecipherable. Much of it was latter dubbed and redubbed by Welles and the synch is often way off.

If you can get past that, and that is quite a task, this is a grand albeit hammily acted production with much of the picturesque style of CITIZEN KANE in its wide shots and deep focus (murky as it is in this edition). Welles stalks through the shadows and chews scenery with a cagey charisma that only a trained Shakespearean stage actor could possess. His sweaty wide-eyed performance is far from flawless, mind you – in some cringe worthy moments he appears to be wrong at the top of his voice (as Spencer Tracy in BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK would say) as if he’s trying to reach the patrons in the cheap seats. His fellow cast members Micheál MacLiammóir as Lagos and Robert Coote as Roderigo also overact but this material calls for it, actually it broadcasts for it like on a megaphone. As the object of Othello’s obsession Desdemona, Susan Cloutier pretty much just lies there but she’s a victum of the Bard’s weak writing when it came to strong female characters as much as she is a victum of the plot conventions. This particular edition of the film has the feel of a work print rough cut – reportedely Welles’s much criticized business mogul daughter Beatrice Welles had her paws all over this reissue. Well, there’s a great movie in there somewhere so when it comes to a proper restoration I hope next time out somebody will take a better stab at it – pun intended. Paging Bogdonavich…

* Full Title: THE TRAGEDY OF OTHELLO: THE MOOR OF VENICE
** MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS is on TCM on February 26th at 8:00 AM. Pencil that in!

Okay! Next time out I’ll cover some movies actually made this decade.

More later…

20 Great Modern Movie Cameos

Soldier (Fred Smith) : “Well, what did you think of the play?”
Boris (Woody Allen) : “Oh, it was weak. I was never interested. Although the part of the doctor was played with gusto and verve and the girl had a delightful cameo role.”
- LOVE AND DEATH (1975)

A cameo is defined as a “brief appearance of a known person in a work of the performing arts. Such a role needs not be filled by an actor: short appearances by film directors, politicians, athletes, and other celebrities are common.” (Wikipedia, of course)

As we all know sometimes one of the only good things in a particular film is a juicy unexpected cameo – not that all these were all unexpected, a number were highly publicised or widely rumoured way in advance. So many movies have cameos that it was very hard to pare down the best from all the multiple Ben Stiller, Austin Powers, and Zucker Bros. genre (AIRPLANE!) but I settled for a nice smattering that doesn’t deny those films their cameo cred but includes some overlooked surprise walk-on gems as well. I decided to not include the many Hitchcock cameos or any other directors who often appear in their own films but made an exception (#18) when a director appeared in someone else’s film. So don’t go to the bathroom or blink ’cause you may miss them here goes the cameo countdown :

1. David LettermanCABIN BOY (1994) Adam Resnick and former Letterman regular Chris Elliot’s spotty yet not un-likable silly high seas saga featured the veteran late night host in his one movie role not playing himself as a stuffed- monkey peddler. As “Old Salt in Fishing Village” and credited as Earl Hofert, Letterman seemed to be enjoying himself as he badgered Elliot’s fancy lad character – “Boy you’re cute – what a sweet little outfit. Is that your little spring outfit? (laughs) you couldn’t be cuter!”

2. Orson WellesTHE MUPPET MOVIE (Dir. James Frawley, 1979) THE MUPPET MOVIE and all subsequent Muppet movies have been crammed with cameos (Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Mel Brooks, John Cleese, Elliot Gould, Cloris Leachman, etc.) but Welles’s appearance is a stone cold classic. Why? Because it introduced generation after generation to a true cinematic genius, at a low point in his career it briefly restored a sense of dignified power by casting him as studio head Lew Lord (based on mogul Lew Grade), and because nobody but nobody could give such an elegant reading to the line “prepare the standard ‘Rich and Famous’ contract for Kermit the Frog and Company.” That’s why.

3. David BowieZOOLANDER (Dir. Ben Stiller, 2001) All of Ben Stiller’s movies have A-list cameos but Bowie is the only one who gets his own freeze frame flashy credit and a snippet of his hit “Let’s Dance” to frame his intro when he steps out of the crowd to volunteer his services as judge for the crucial walk-off between Zoolander (Stiller) and his rival Hansel (Owen Wilson). With very little effort Bowie shows everyone in the room and in the audience what real screen presence is all about.

4. The Three StoogesIT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD (Dir. Stanley Kramer, 1963)
Talk about very little effort! The famous slapstick trio only appear for 5 seconds as firemen at an airport. In a movie that may as way be called Cameo City they just stand there in the middle of the choas saying and doing nothing and are funnier and all the more memorable for it. IT’S A MAD MAD… practically invented the modern celebrity cameo – hence it making this so-called modern movies list.

5. Keith Richards PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN : AT WORLD’S END (Dir. Gore Verbinski, 2007) Definitely not a surprise cameo - Richards was supposed to be in PIRATES 2 but had Stones concert commitments so the word was out was beforehand. The joke of course is that because Johnny Depp modeled his Jack Sparrow character on the behavorial nuances of Richards it’s apt to have the craggy decadent guitarist show up as Sparrow’s father. It’s predictable but pleasing how it goes down even if it is the cinematic equivalent of those Saturday Night Live sketches like “Janet Reno Dance Party” or “The Joe Pesci Show” where the real person walks on to stare down their imitator.

6. Martin SheenHOT SHOTS! PART DEUX (Dir. Jim Abrahams, 1992) In what may be the funniest cameo on this list Charlie Sheen takes a break from the Rambo-styled action to write his tortured memoirs complete with intense voice-over to parody his role in PLATOON. Suddenly another intense voice-over overlaps and we see his father Martin Sheen in army duds obviously parodying his role in APOCALYPSE NOW. As their riverboats pass they point at each other and say in unison – “I loved you in WALL STREET!”

7. Roger Moore CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER (Dir. Blake Edwards, 1983) Now this may be the most ridiculous cameo here. Get this – Roger Moore (sorry, Sir Roger Moore) plays Inspector Clouseau after plastic surgery at the end of the second Panther movie made after Peter Sellers death. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t fit at all into the continuity of the series – even at its best there have been character and narrative inconsistencies throughout – it’s still a highlight. Moore does a passable Sellers impression and appears to be having a ball. For the first time in the almost 2 hours of this tedious unneccessary sequel we are too.

8. Shirley MacLaineDEFENDING YOUR LIFE (Dir. Albert Brooks, 1991) When recently deceased yuppie Brooks has to go on trial for his existence it’s only fitting that Shirley MacLaine would show up to spoof her reincarnation-obsessed image, isn’t it? She nails it as the tour guide at the Afterlife Pavilion that Brooks and his date Meryl Streep attend.

9. Ethel MermanAIRPLANE! (Dirs. Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, 1980) When seeing this movie as a kid and naturally thinking every single thing in it was a joke it was even funnier when a friend pointed out “that really was Ethel Merman”. In a wartime hospital room flashback Ted Striker (Robert Hays) comments about one of his fellow wounded – “Lieutenant Hurwitz – severe shell-shock. Thinks he’s Ethel Merman.” Cut to : Merman bursting out of bed singing – “You’ll be swell, you’ll be great. Gonna have the whole world on a plate. Startin’ here, startin’ now. Honey, everything’s comin’ up roses…” As she (he?) is sedated by staff Striker remarks “war is Hell.”

10. Rodney Dangerfield NATURAL BORN KILLERS (Dir. Oliver Stone, 1994) Presented as a flashback the surreal sitcom satire “I Love Mallory” serves as a commentary on the murderer’s memories being corrupted by too much TV but it’s really a showcase for the most savage acting Dangerfield has ever done. As Mallory’s (Juliette Lewis) abusive incestuous and just plain gruesome father Dangerfield steals the movie while repulsing us and there’s an innocuous laugh track punctuating every line. The most perfectly unpleasant cameo here for sure.

11. Bruce SpringsteenHIGH FIDELITY (Dir. Stephen Frears, 2000) Like Keith Richards, Springsteen had never acted in a movie so it’s pretty cool that the Boss would appear in a day dream of protagonist Rob Gordon (John Cusack). Plucking some notes on the gee-tar he inspires Rob to hunt down his ex-girlfriends. “Give that big final good luck and goodbye to your all time top-five and just move on down the road” Springsteen advises. Sigh – just like one of his songs.

12. Elvis Costello SPICE WORLD (Dir. Bob Spiers, 1997) As a bartender and credited as ‘Himself’ Costello plays a nice tongue-in-cheek note as the Girls talk about their possible flash-in-the-pan prospects. It should also be mentioned that Costello also made cool cameo appearances in AMERICATHON, STRAIGHT TO HELL, 200 CIGARETTES, TALLADEGA NIGHTS, and AUSTIN POWERS : THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME.

13. Gene Hackman YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (Dir. Mel Brooks, 1974) Great uncredited cameo in which Hackman plays a bearded blind man named Harold who gets a prayed for visit by Frankenstein’s monster (Peter Boyle). Harold serves the monster soup, wine, and cigars but fails to teach him that “fire is good” prompting a sudden exit. Harold exclaims – “Wait! Where are you going….I was gonna make espresso!”

14. Marshall McLuhan ANNIE HALL (Dir. Woody Allen, 1977) The best example of one upmanship in a cameo that I can think of. At a theater in Manhattan (where else?) Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) is annoyed by the loud mouth pretensious rantings of the pseudo intellectual (Russell Horton) behind him and Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) in line. Alvy argues with the guy – “…and the funny thing is – Marshall McLuhan, you don’t know anything about Marshall McLuhan.” The guy responds “really? I happen to teach a class at Columbia called ‘TV, media and culture’ so I think my insights into Mr. McLuhan have a great deal of validity.” Alvy then says “I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here” and presents him from offscreen. McLuhan eyes the guy and says “I’ve heard what you were saying. You know nothing of my work…” Alvy looks at the camera and says “boy, if life were only like this!”

15. Kurt Vonnegut BACK TO SCHOOL (Dir. Alan Metter, 1986) Overage college student Rodney Dangerfield enlists Kurt Vonnegut to write his term paper on - yep, Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut shows up at Dangerfield’s door and has only one line which is just introducing himself but for our purposes that’s all he has to do. When Dangerfield’s paper gets an F (teacher Sally Kellerman : “whoever did write it doesn’t know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut”) he curses the famous author over the phone and adds “next time I’ll call Robert Ludlum!”

16. Jim Garrison - JFK
(Dir. Oliver Stone, 1991)
The definition of
an ironic cameo. New Orleans District Attorney and controversial conspiracy theorist Garrison (who is portrayed by Kevin Costner in the film) does his only acting ever * as his chief rival Chief Justice Earl Warren. As the entire movie is an elaborate rebutal to the Warren Report’s conclusions on the assassination and largely based on Garrison’s book (On The Trail Of The Assassins) this is pretty juicy indeed.

* wait! I’m wrong – he did a cameo in THE BIG EASY (1987). My bad.

17. Stan Lee MALLRATS (Dir. Kevin Smith, 1996) The Spiderman creator and Marvel Comics main-man has done cameos in many comics adapted or related movies (SPIDERMAN, THE HULK, X-MEN, FANTASTIC FOUR, etc.) but this one set the standard for the Stan Lee cameo. He plays himself so he’s treated as a God by comic book collector geek Brodie (Jason Lee) and as such he rises above the base level humour even when saying lines like “he seems to be really hung up on super heroes’ sex organs.”

18. Martin ScorseseTHE MUSE (Dir. Albert Brooks, 1999)
In a movie in which TITANIC director James Cameron also cameos and a number of Hollywood folk play themselves Marty sure has a nice bit – blabbing to struggling screenwriter Brooks – “I want to do a remake of RAGING BULL with a really thin guy. Not just thin, but REALLY thin. Thin and angry, thin and angry, thin and angry. Can you see it?”


19. Spike Milligan MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN (Dir. Terry Jones, 1979) Like the 3 Stooges this is a blink and you miss it cameo. While filming in Tunisia the Pythons found Milligan vacationing and got him to do a scene. For those of you readers who don’t know Milligan – he was a huge influence on Python as a member of the Goon Show (which also featured Peter Sellers) and various other radio and TV programs. When the crowd following the reluctant Messiah Brian (Graham Chapman) flocks off into the hills, Milligan’s character, named Spike in the credits, walks off shot not following them. He never was one to follow the latest trends.

20. Frank SinatraCANNONBALL RUN II (Dir. Hal Needham, 1984) Without a doubt the worst movie on the list but one that made it because it’s the Chairman of the Board we’re talking about here! I’m highly amused at this cameo ’cause it’s so cheap and cheesy how it’s done.

Roger Ebert described it best in his original ’84 review :

“There isn’t a single shot showing Sinatra and Reynolds at the same time. Also, there’s something funny about Sinatra’s voice: He doesn’t seem to be quite matching the tone of the things said to him. That’s the final tip-off: Sinatra did his entire scene by sitting down at a desk and reading his lines into the camera, and then, on another day, Reynolds and the others looked into the camera and pretended to be looking at him. The over-the-shoulder shots are of a double. This is the movie equivalent to phoning it in.”

- Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun Times Jan. 1, 1984)

You nailed it Roger! Only Frank could get away with that action! At least they got him to pose for the publicity still above.

Have a favorite cameo you thought should have made the list? Bob Saget in HALF BAKED? Howard Cosell in BANANAS? Alice Cooper in WAYNE’S WORLD? Tom Cruise, Gwenyth Paltrow, or Danny Devito in AUSIIN POWERS IN GOLDMEMBER? Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts, or Burt Reynolds in THE PLAYER * ? Tom Petty in THE POSTMAN?

* THE PLAYER was left off the list despite (or maybe because) it being almost completely constructed around cameos by countless celebrities but for the record my favorite cameo in it is Buck Henry as himself pitching “THE GRADUATE PART II” to Tim Robbin’s slimy studio exec character.

Send your cameo ommisions to :

boopbloop7@gmail.com

More later…

Let Them All Talk

Last night my brother and I were watching the new DVD – THE RIGHT SPECTACLE – THE VERY BEST OF ELVIS COSTELLO – THE VIDEOS (sorry – no IMDB link yet) and discovered that it has subtitles for Elvis’s commentary track and not for the song lyrics in the videos. I thought that was odd at first but it seemed preferable to watch the videos with the subtitles on but Costello’s voice commentary track off so the music wasn’t obscured. It reminded me of that VH1 show – Pop Up Videos. My brother Dave said it was like what geeks at conferences call the backchannel – people attending a public event with laptops, meet in a chatroom to talk about the presentation/talk or whatever possibly ragging on the speaker/band/whatever. Sometimes, not often, the backchannel chatroom is displayed on big screen for all to see. He concluded by saying that commentaries are kinda like a backchannel, but later after the fact. This got me to thinking about commentaries. That and listening to the delightfully pretentious commentary on the DVD of Igmar’s Bergman’s 1967 classic PERSONA by Bergman historian Marc Gervais (“oh my goodness, personality disintegration!”). A lot of people never turn on the commentary track – indeed many directors, actors, and other participants can be heard saying “do people really listen to these things?” Well after getting a number of emails from film babble blog readers who said they were offended by my calling listening to commentaries “an extremely geeky process” in my August 28th post I see that many do actually listen to these things and I decided to pay tribute by listing :

10 Great DVD Commentaries

This is by no means a ‘best commentaries ever’ deal. I haven’t listened to enough to judge that – I just enjoyed the Hell out of those below. Some great movies have bad commentaries I must say – GOODFELLAS has a track patched together from interview soundbites (to be fair the other track has the real Henry Hill with his actual arresting officer and that’s actually pretty cool), THE PLAYER has a verbal tug-of-war between director Robert Altman and writer Michael Tolkin, and Quentin Tarantino can’t seem to give commentary to save his life! Plodding through anecdotes unrelated to the action on the screen, Tarantino offers very few insights into RESERVOIR DOGS except to why his other films on DVD are commentary-less.

The best commentaries make it feel like you’re hanging with the directors, actors, crew members or critics watching the movie
while absorbing conversationally juicy back stories. Here’s my 10 favorites:

1. CITIZEN KANE (Dir. Orson Welles 1941)

Yes, you should be skeptical of any movie list that begins with this movie but damn it this DVD has good fuckin’ commentary! Whatever you may think of Roger Ebert, his spirited narration is surprisingly a lot of fun while being informative as Hell. Ebert offers that “oddly enough because it broke with all the traditions of editing and photography up until that time many audiences found that it looked anything but realistic. They were put off by the deep-focus photography, the use of long takes, the lack of cutting in order to tell the story, and the relying on movement within a scene” and that because of that “you have to be an active viewer when you look at CITIZEN KANE – it challenges you”. Director and Welles friend Peter Bogdonovich presents a more scholarly and insiderly take on the film, while not as entertaining as Ebert’s, is still worthwhile.

2. THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE (Dir. Joel Coen 2001) Just a few Coen Brothers movies have commentaries (BLOOD SIMPLE has Kenneth Loring of Forever Films delivering an odd play-by-play, while director of photography Roger A. Deakins does FARGO) but this track with Joel and Ethan Coen chatting it up with Billy Bob Thornton is absolutely hilarious. Notable because the movie alone is anything but hilarious. Discussing the stoical mannerisms of his barber character Thornton says “I know we’re doing a DVD commentary but it’s hard not to laugh about Ed Crane. Joel, Ethan, and I have a sort of weird relationship with Ed Crane. He’s become this guy to us that just exists in our lives.” He goes on to point out the “Ed nod” – Thornton: “Ed would always just accept the most horrible things with a tiny little nod.” Joel remarks that the nod is “the biggest outward manifestation of Ed’s personality.” So as the movie goes on charting the “Ed nod” almost becomes a game – “here comes a classic Ed nod”. Also amusing is when over a shot of Thornton sitting listening to Scarlett Johansson playing the piano, he asks “you notice something? Ed has a boner!” They all giggle. A lot of laughter for a dark morbid film noir piece from the Coens – seems oddly appropriate doesn’t it?

3. MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (Dir. Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, 1975)

2 audio tracks split between the directors (Gilliam, Jones) and the performers /writers (John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin) all the currently existing Pythons enhance this comedy classic with wonderfully amusing tales about where jokes originated, the hassles of cheap location shooting, and the contagious laughing at material that amazes them as well as us that it never gets old. Some random quotes -

Gilliam: “in England blood is called Kensington gore”. (a simple google search confirms that this is indeed theatre slang about stage blood).

Palin: “Llamas – another Python favorite like moose, Nixon and fish of any kind”.

Idle: “Michael Palin clearly had a very bad agent because he gets no close-ups whatsoever in this scene.”

4. THE WAR OF THE ROSES (Dir. Danny Devito, 1989) You may scoff at this appearing on this list – but this being one of the first commentaries ever (recorded for an early 90′s laser disc release if I’m not mistaken) Devito made the most of the warts-and-all approach for an essential listen. Consider how he starts off : “In 1933 this famous fox logo theme was written by Alfred Newman. In 1990 Alfred’s son David Newman re-recorded it for WAR OF THE ROSES enabling it to have the final note of the theme segue into the overture of our
film.” Very few commentaries begin with that sense of purpose. It also seems appropriate that this Michael Douglas/Kathleen Turner dark marital disaster comedy is decorated by occasional Devito self-criticisms : “boy, do I look fat – look at me!”

5. JFK (Dir. Oliver Stone, 1991) The grand-daddy of all conspiracy films gets a passionate paranoid Stone audio guide that goes through its whole damn exhausting 3 hour + run. Theories on top of the theories in the movie abound : “If for example the hit had taken place in Miami it is quite possible what I’m trying to say that there was an Oswald that could of has a Miami identity in the same way that Oswald had a New Orleans and Dallas identity. They have people who have patsys ready to go.” I’ll take your word for it Oli
ver. Also you hear career defining statements like : “I don’t care what they say, this is my GODFATHER! As far as I’m concerned NIXON is GODFATHER II for me and this is my GODFATHER I. I feel good about it even if nobody agrees.”

The often un-remarked upon sentiment in JFK comes out best when Stone recalls that he wrote much of his own life strife with his soon to be ex-wife into the arguments that protagonist Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) and his wife Liz (Sissy Spacek) had over how JFK assassination obsession had come between them. After Liz has stormed off, Jim escorts his kids (Sean Stone, Amy Long) out the front door and onto the front porch swing comforting them by saying that telling the truth can be a scary thing. Stone chimes in : “It’s my Norman Rockwell scene, so leave it alone! Everyone has a right to their Norman Rockwell moment.”

6. ELECTION (Dir. Alexander Payne, 1999) Payne gives good commentary. This is interesting from start to finish – the comparisons to the original novel, the pointing out of the “obsessive use of garbage cans”, and most surprisingly his admitting when talking about Matthew Broderick – “his casting has for a lot of people played with his image, almost his iconography as Ferris Bueller, but not for me because I’ve never seen the film (FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF).” Another great commentary moment comes when Reese Witherspoon is setting up a table in the High School lobby by extending the legs one by one – “Tracy is introduced with straight lines – the chair legs. Careful viewers may want to go back and count how many chair legs.” He says chair but it is definitely a table she’s setting up and there are 5 separate shots of individual legs being extended – on a 4 leg table. Oh Alexander, you wacky cinematic prankster!

7. The Simpsons (1989-1996 Seasons 1-6)

I figured one TV show DVD set ought to make this list and while such worthy shows as The Sopranos, Mr. Show, Six Feet Under, and even Newsradio have fine commentaries – the chaos, the camaraderie, and fly-on-the-wall fun Simpsons commentaries contain blow them all away. Usually populated by series creator Matt Groening along with writers, producers, show-runners, voice-actors, and other relevant parties they come packed with statements like:

Jon Vitti:
“You guys were very specific that we shouldn’t come up with clever original tag-lines for Bart Simpson – they were supposed to be things he had heard from TV and repeated and then when the show got so popular it somehow seemed as if we were claiming these were original sayings. So I’d like to say that at the outset we never thought ‘eat my shorts’ was an original tag-line.”

James L. Brooks:
“I thought we weren’t going to do mea culpas!”

A early classic – Bart Gets Hit By A Car – epitomizes how the show’s themes have changed drastically from the financial pressured world the Simpsons used to live in as opposed to the pop culture parody social satire status of recent years. Marge blows a huge cash settlement and Homer goes into a dark funk. Confronted by his wife at Moe’s Tavern Homer even says that he may not love her anymore. A dramatic moment is finally punctuated by his declaration: “Oh who am I kidding? I love you more than ever!” Mike Reiss (I think) responds “the writers being very offended including John Swartzwelder who wrote the episode saying ‘why does he love her more than ever? We’re happy to see it, ah – life goes on but why does he love her more than ever?”

But the cream of the commentary crop is “Marge Vs. The Monorail” from the 4th season – mainly because it was written by Conan O’Brien who contributes (albeit on satellite from New York while Groening and the other participants are in LA) a consistently funny commentary:

Conan: “I am the author of this episode. I created the character of Bart.”

The stories about the conception of the episode get increasingly more amusing as the show progresses:

Conan O’Brien:
“Originally when I wrote the episode the guest star was supposed to be George Takei (Sulu) from Star Trek. We contacted George Takei, just certain he would do it ’cause this was after Michael Jackson…I mean everybody was killing themselves to be on the Simpsons. We contacted George Takei and he told us he wouldn’t do it because he was on the San Francisco Board of Transportation and he didn’t want to make fun of monorails. We were just stunned and I was heatbroken. Then I came into work and Al said ‘hey, we just got a phone call and George Takei and he won’t do it but Leonard Nimoy will’ – I remember thinking that’s better!”

It sure was, Conan It sure was.

8. AIRPLANE! (Dir. Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, 1980) This is a particularly funny commentary because after describing how much of the film was based narratively and shot-wise on the 1957 airport disaster movie ZERO HOUR and making fun of the cheap production values – “you can see tape holding the set together there!” – the directors (the Zucker bros. and Abrahams) run out of things to talk about and even start discussing other movies – “I saw GALAXY QUEST yesterday.” Also notably towards the end of the flick they all state that they made a pact to never see AIRPLANE II – THE SEQUEL which was made by others. Wish I had made that decision.*

9. BOOGIE NIGHTS (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997) Paul Thomas Anderson opens before the movie has properly begun with “Hey roll it – ’cause I’ll tell you, you’re listening to a guy who learned a lot about ripping off movies by watching laser discs with director’s commentary. My favorite is John Sturge’s BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK.” Man, I’ll have to check that one out. Interestingly enough after acknowledging the influence of Scorsese over the first scene with the long tracking nightclub shot Anderson declares that Jonathan Demme is his “most profound influence”. There’s a separate track with Anderson and various actors (Mark Wahlberg, Julliane Moore, John C. Reily, Melora Walters, Don Cheadle) recorded at diferent times – at Anderson’s apartment with phones ringing, lighters flicking, and a lot of alcohol being consumed. While I don’t usually like commentaries that are hodgepodges of different recordings – this one works because of actors comfortably speaking over their specific scenes relaying that apparently everyone enjoyed their wardrobe fittings as much as the actual shooting and the constant questioning by P.T. Anderson of the cast “was Luis Guzman stoned during filming?”

10. THIS IS SPINAL TAP
(Dir. Rob Reiner, 1984)

Just to get it straight there are 2 different DVDs of this movie with notably different commentaries. How notably different? Well I’ll tell ya – the CRITERION (1998) version (you know the company that does high-brow deluxe DVD editions of classic cult movies) has a commentary by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer as well as a separate track by Rob Reiner with producer Karen Murphy and a few editors. The MGM special edition (2000) has a commentary by Spinal Tap (that is Guest, McKean, and Shearer in character). Since the Criterion one is out of print and copies of it go for $85.00 and over on Amazon we’ll just concern ourselves with the MGM version.

Approaching the film with the oft-repeated “hatchet-job” accusation on its maker Marti DiBergi (Rob Reiner) – Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins, and Derek Smalls (c’mon play along) have a lot of axes to grind 16 years later. On their first interview session in the film:

Nigel: “you know when he was asking us these questions you you remember we didn’t know what he was going to say…
Derek: “and he had notes!”
Nigel: “yes, he had notes.”
David: “That’s not fair. That should have tipped us off.”
Derek: “It’s cheating! He had an agenda.”

On David’s current stance on his astrologically guided controlling girlfriend Janeane who shows up mid-way in the tour – “a turning point” says Derek:

David: When the millenium changed so did she.”

On Derek being trapped in the stage pod which sabotaged the number “Rock ‘N Roll Creation”:

Derek: “This only happened once – why doesn’t he (DiBergi) show any of the other nights?!!?”

When band manager Ian Faith and Nigel leave because of tension within the group, horribly mangled gig scheduling, and Janeane’s ambitious infiltration David has this to offer about his girlfriend’s managerial style when she took over from Ian:

David: “Things went more profressionally wrong.”

In the final segment at one of the last shows on the tour Nigel returns to tell them that “Sex Farm” is a hit in Japan and would they consider regrouping. After some harsh words the band leaves with David and Nigel sharing a silent stare at each other. In the now reflective commentary which also is silent for a moment, St. Hubbins breaks the mood:

David: “You had me at hello”. *

Post Note: The Zucker bros. and Jim Abrahams commentary for their follow-up to AIRPLANE! – the Elvis meets World War II spy thriller satire TOP SECRET! plays like the Onion’s “Commentaries Of The Damned” – you know the AV Club’s feature about less than worthy films adorned with inappropriate commentaries. For TOP SECRET! the filmmakers/writers complain about the movie never making a profit, how the slow pace ruins the jokes, and most amusingly they forget why they originally thought certain material was funny – a theater marquee for the film’s protagonist Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer) says beneath his name “with time permitting – Frank Sinatra”. “Why did we pick on Sinatra?” one of the Zuckers (I think) wonders out loud. Good question.

More later…

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