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Archive for September, 2011

As I may have mentioned before, I watch very few television shows, devoting most of my limited viewing time to movies, so I usually greet the advent of the fall season with indifference at best. This year, however, there were a handful of new shows in which I had at least a passing interest, but while the reasons for this are varied, and not always explicable, I cheerfully credit one of them to the marketing department at NBC. They scheduled the premieres of two of their new Wednesday-night shows, Up All Night and Free Agents, during the Thursday-night blocks when I am customarily taping Parks and Recreation and The Office while we’re at choir practice, so why the hell not try ’em out?

Free Agents places Hank Azaria of Simpsons fame into a When Harry Met Sally scenario where he has to deal with the ramifications of falling into bed with another newly single co-worker; Azaria is always fun, and I enjoyed it, but not enough to add another night to my recording schedule. Not so Up All Night, with Will Arnett as a lawyer who leaves his firm to play “Mr. Mom” while wife Christina Applegate returns to work at an Oprah-like show, hosted by Ava (SNL’s Maya Rudolph). I didn’t like the way the pilot was shot or directed, the parents are—to be blunt—yuppie scum to whom I can’t possibly relate, and the self-absorbed Ava is so thoroughly annoying that I can’t see watching the show again.

An actual addition to NBC’s Thursday-night schedule is the relentlessly (and, in my case, successfully) promoted Whitney, detailing the romantic escapades of the eponymous star, creator, and co-executive producer, Whitney Cummings, and her live-in boyfriend, Alex (Chris D’Elia). It doesn’t hurt that the presumably fictional Whitney is a fairly hot chick who is actually interested in getting it on with her man [insert rimshot about this being a TV show rather than reality]. She has a very appealing vibe and sensibility, and the pilot made me laugh consistently…bringing us to CBS’s 2 Broke Girls, of which Whitney is—perhaps not coincidentally, since I like them both—also a creator and executive producer.

Notwithstanding the title of this post, an irresistible allusion to an obscure Western that I didn’t even like, Kat Dennings has neither joined nor replaced the likes of Angelina Jolie or Nicole Kidman (let alone Rita Hayworth or Grace Kelly) in my personal pantheon of screen goddesses. That said, she made an indelible impression on me in Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and remained endearing with her brief role in Thor, so when I heard she was getting her own show, that was all I needed to know. I learned about it too late to see the premiere, and in the old days, that would have killed it for a die-hard like me, but the miracle of the Internet allowed me to see the pilot online, and I taped the second episode.

The premise is similar to that of The Odd Couple, which I regard as the greatest sitcom in history, with Kat (who has a guy’s name, Max, always a plus for BOF) working as both a diner waitress and the nanny for a wealthy space cadet, who named her twins Brangelina. Caroline (Beth Behrs) is a Paris Hilton-type heiress who attended the Wharton Business School, but lost everything when her family’s assets were frozen because of her Madoff-style father’s Ponzi scheme. They become unlikely friends, co-workers, roommates, and potential partners in marketing Max’s awesome cupcakes; so completely has Behrs nailed the whole vacuous-rich-blonde-tart thing that I initially thought she really was La Hilton.

The show is imperfect, e.g., we are asked to believe that among those few items Caroline salvaged is a horse, now living in Max’s postage-stamp-sized yard and, so far, serving as little more than an excuse to get Caroline covered in dung in the second episode. But Kat is her usual appealing self, and watching as little TV as I do, I’m surprised at their sexual frankness: after Max stumbles on Caroline’s soon-to-be-fired predecessor getting nailed in the storeroom, she is asked by a patron, “Where’s my waitress?” and—as an orgasmic moan emerges from the storeroom—replies, “She’s coming.” So score me as 2-for-4 on the new shows, and until further notice I’ll continue watching Whitney and 2 Broke Girls.

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Lagniappe

Overheard at the church fair:

“Okay, Erin, I’ll talk to you later.  Or something.  I don’t know.”

Sounds like a plan.

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Maiden Effort

What I’ve Been Watching: The Maiden Heist (2009).

Who’s Responsible: Peter Hewitt (director), Michael LeSieur (screenwriter), Christopher Walken, Morgan Freeman, and William H. Macy (stars).

Why I Watched It: Cast ’n’ caper.

Seen It Before? No.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 8.

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 5.

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 8.

And? The conventional wisdom is that, despite all of his enormous talent, Christopher Walken makes a lot of crappy movies in between the good ones, and for a change, I’m not going to challenge the conventional wisdom. That said, however, I love him enough that I’ll watch him in almost anything—this is, after all, the guy who with a single word (“Represent”) almost made me want to see a movie about ping-pong—and I’m pleasantly surprised more often than you’d think. “Pleasantly surprised” also sums up, or perhaps I should say “barely does justice to,” how I felt when I spotted Macy’s name in the credits since, as regular readers know, my DirecTV guide provides only the two top-billed stars.

I love a good caper movie (albeit with conspicuous exceptions like The Brink’s Job and both versions of The Thomas Crown Affair), be it serious or comic, and with those guys plus Freeman as our would-be thieves, I knew I was in for quite a treat. Roger Barlow (Walken), Charles Peterson (Freeman), and George McLendon (Macy) are all longtime museum security guards, each obsessed with one particular painting or statue, who learn that the exhibit has been sold to a museum in Denmark. Since relocating to Denmark is not a realistic option, they plan to steal the pieces, first with a straight snatch and then, to decrease the odds of being caught after the theft is discovered, by substituting forgeries.

Hewitt, with whose mostly youth-oriented work I am largely unfamiliar (although I note he worked on the forgotten SF miniseries Wild Palms), brings some nice flourishes to the material. For example, Roger’s rapt contemplation of “his” painting, The Lonely Maiden (the film’s working title), is interrupted by armed thieves who crash through the skylights to steal it, in what turns out to be his fantasy. When Charles creates a scale model of the museum to plan the heist, with Scrabble tiles to identify key points and chessmen as their stand-ins, Hewitt uses stop-motion animation to visualize Roger’s and Charles’s schemes, which George—a veteran of the Grenada invasion—soon dismisses as totally impractical.

I recommend this movie highly to fans of the stars and/or the subgenre, so I will not ruin for you the satisfyingly absurd complexity, or the concomitant potential for disaster, of George’s plan (which he hilariously dubs “Operation Urgent Fury”) to swap the fakes for the genuine articles while the exhibit is being packed up for relocation. But I will reveal, as it were, that George’s unique response to “his” statue, a naked bronze warrior, plays an important role in how the plot unfolds. The statue’s effect on George is so strong that he is compelled to get naked in its presence, and Macy, as fearless a performer as ever, duly spends a good deal of the film’s running time starkers…if stopping short of a Full Monty.

Marcia Gay Harden is a talented actress who usually seems to be on the periphery of my radar, although I see she was in such fine films as the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing, W.D. Richter’s Late for Dinner (which probably didn’t even receive enough attention to be underrated), the great Ed Harris’s Pollock, and BOF fave Lasse Hallström’s The Hoax. As Roger’s wife, Rose, she must be exasperating enough to come—unwittingly—close to scuttling the plan several times, yet his devotion to her must be genuine, and she pulls off this difficult role beautifully, with a delicious final payoff. This is a wonderfully offbeat film, and in some of the early scenes, I was laughing so hard I couldn’t hear the dialogue.

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King for a Day

While working at Viking Penguin from 1990 to 1996, I had the honor of being Stephen King’s hardcover publicist for Four Past Midnight, Needful Things, Gerald’s Game, Dolores Claiborne, Nightmares & Dreamscapes, Insomnia, Rose Madder and, in the preliminary stages, Desperation. It was a unique assignment: we certainly had no trouble getting reviews, which was just a matter of sending out endless copies, but Steve declined virtually every request for interviews; it almost seemed the hardest part was dealing with all the inquiries about the Dark Tower books, which we didn’t publish. Ironically (and, I’m sure many would say, inexplicably), I was not a reflexive fan of Steve’s when I got that gig, nor am I now, although I do think he grew a lot during that period.

Steve’s refusal to do publicity meant that I usually had very little contact with him, with notable exceptions such as the ten-city motorcycle tour he did to promote Insomnia (exclusively at some of the better independent bookstores), which I helped coordinate. But some of the fringe benefits were quite memorable, like attending his and Tabitha’s 25th anniversary at the Civic Center in Bangor, Maine, with Madame BOF and a big Penguin contingent, or the time we took an entire day at work to watch the miniseries of The Stand, which Steve screened for us before it aired. I have warm memories of my relationship with Steve, which sadly did not outlive our professional association, and in honor of his 64th birthday today, I present my personal list of the Top 10 King films:

Carrie

The Shining

The Dead Zone

Christine

Stand by Me

Misery

Needful Things

The Shawshank Redemption

Dolores Claiborne

The Green Mile

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It’s Milla Time

Quite by chance, I am in the midst of watching a Milla Jovovich double-feature, consisting of her back-to-back 2010 efforts Resident Evil: Afterlife and Stone; in fact, I didn’t even know she was in the latter when I taped it, having only a one-line description and the names of its leading men, Robert De Niro and Edward Burns. This will be neither a review of those two films per se nor a detailed rundown of her career, but rather a brief celebration. And yes, I’m aware that—as with my post on Das Boot (1981)—although I couldn’t resist it, my title is something of a cheat, since La Jovovich apparently pronounces her first name to rhyme not with “vanilla” (as my Sigourney Weaveresque mentor at Trinity College, the great Professor Milla Riggio, did) but with “tortilla.”

Unsurprisingly, Milla is best known through her work with two filmmakers for whom she served as both muse and mate, writer-directors Luc Besson (some of whose efforts I greatly admire) and Paul W.S. Anderson (not so much). Besson gave her both her breakthrough, as the flame-tressed object of the exercise in his delirious SF oddity The Fifth Element (1997), and the to-die-for title role in The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999). Milla’s pre-Besson oeuvre is an eclectic array of television and such features as exploitation-maestro Zalman King’s Two Moon Junction (1988), Return to the Blue Lagoon (1991), Richard Attenborough’s biopic Chaplin (1992)—each of which I have yet to see—and Richard Linklater’s ode to slackers, Dazed and Confused (1993).

Despite a reflexive aversion to films based on video games, I recommended Anderson’s Resident Evil (2002) to my zombie-fan friends, who rejected it because it lacked the gut-munching gore of a George A. Romero or Lucio Fulci. After serving only as a writer-producer on the first sequels, Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004) and …Extinction (2007), PWSA reclaimed the megaphone for …Afterlife, and has another, …Retribution, in pre-production. While some effort has been made to differentiate the entries, as was done much more successfully in the Alien franchise, the series has undergone a steady and perhaps inevitable decline, although I would not lay this at the feet of Milla, whose character of Alice forms the connecting link and epitomizes the ass-kicking female.

This persona, originated with Besson, was no doubt responsible for Milla’s casting in Ultraviolet (2006), reportedly written by director Kurt Wimmer with her in mind, but the result, if not a total waste of time (as no film with Milla kicking butt could be in this writer’s opinion), is generic and superfluous. Alas, the same is increasingly true of the Resident Evil movies with their huge slabs of largely plot-free action scenes, thus making Jovovich the only reason to watch them. Luckily, Milla has managed to diversify with an enviable variety of projects, following The Fifth Element with a film for writer-director Spike Lee, He Got Game (1998), and The Messenger with one for BOF favorite Wim Wenders, The Million Dollar Hotel (2000), co-written by Bono of U2 fame.

I have yet to see Milla in the Thomas Hardy adaptation The Claim (2000) or the spoof Zoolander (2001), which would seem to exemplify her range even further. But I found her delightful in her next effort, Dummy (2002), with Adrien Brody as Steven, a young man whose social skills are so stunted that he communicates largely through a ventriloquist dummy, and has a decidedly rocky relationship with his love object and unemployment counselor, Lorena (Vera Farmiga). Milla is hilarious as his friend Fangora, who is so desperate to get a gig for her punk-rock band that when she learns his sister, Heidi (the always awesome Illeana Douglas), needs a klezmer combo for the wedding she is planning, she assures Heidi that is her specialty, despite having no idea what it is.

A side note on Farmiga, who was profiled by Time for her recent directorial debut, Higher Ground, and had appeared opposite George Clooney in Up in the Air (2009), which I am eager to catch. Recognizing her face, I looked her up on the IMDb, but at the time, the only film I specifically remembered her from was Dummy, although I discovered that I had seen and then forgotten her (sorry, Vera) in 15 Minutes (2001), Jonathan Demme’s underrated remake The Manchurian Candidate (2004), and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008). Only later, having forgotten the somewhat nondescript title, did I realize that she had also impressed me as the Valerie Plame character in Nothing But the Truth (2008), which fictionalizes the case and gives it a devastating final twist.

Stone depicts the interrelationships among parole officer Jack Mabry (De Niro), inmate Gerald “Stone” Creeson (Burns), and their respective spouses, Madylyn (Frances Conroy) and Lucetta (Jovovich). Convicted of setting the fire that consumed his grandparents, who were killed by a fellow addict, Stone uses his hot-blooded wife to try to influence Jack in his favor, and although the story lacks a satisfying climax or resolution, its intent may be simply to show lives spiraling out of control. Like De Niro, Milla gets a welcome opportunity to do a little acting for a change; meanwhile, I see that Anderson has cast her as the villainous M’Lady De Winter in this year’s umpteenth version of The Three Musketeers, so now I suppose I’ll have to watch that one, too…

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“About” Time

No new post per se (sorry, this Bond stuff is eating up most of what little time, energy, and motivation I have) but, for those who are interested, a major expansion of my “About” page in which I reveal myself–as it were–in new and different ways.  Enjoy.  Bradley out.

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While preparing Richard Matheson on Screen, I had some very enjoyable correspondence with Christopher Landry, who produced the soundtrack CD for the Matheson-scripted miniseries of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, released on the Airstrip One label in 2002. Chris was kind enough to give me permission to quote some material from his excellent CD liner notes, and recently sent me the following, which he has generously allowed me to reproduce here verbatim:

“I wanted to let you know that I finally obtained a copy of your excellent book, Richard Matheson on Screen. Reading it cover to cover, I found it thoroughly enjoyable. Congratulations on a job well done!

“While you only asked me about The Martian Chronicles, I have a couple of other tidbits of information that you might find of interest…

“First, regarding What Dreams May Come—I was an assistant director on that film (though I think I am credited as ‘producer’s assistant’ because they didn’t want to pay union wages). During the prep of the film in 1996-1997 and up until very close to the time of shooting, we were told that Annette Bening was cast in the role of Annie. Not sure what happened, but Annabella Sciorra seemed to be very much a last-minute replacement. Also, [German filmmaker] Werner Herzog’s cameo in the film [as part of the “sea of faces”] came initially through a request to use footage he had shot in Kuwait during the first Gulf War of the burning oil fields. This was intended for use in a documentary that was ultimately shelved when the similar IMAX Fires of Kuwait came out first. Herzog’s footage was used as VFX plate elements in many of the Hell scenes in What Dreams. It turned out that Herzog was a big fan of Matheson’s book and was eager to do a cameo when [director] Vincent Ward offered it.

“Second, about The Last Man on Earth—there has always been debate about which portions of the film were directed by Sidney Salkow and which were directed by Ubaldo Ragona. There was an Italian DVD boxed set of this film released [c.] 2008 that as a bonus feature shows a number of scenes in split-screen showing a comparison of Salkow’s and Ragona’s direction of the same scene. There are numerous differences, but essentially it’s the same story. There is also a unique bonus feature where you can scroll around a map of Rome, showing the various filming locations used in the film, with then-and-now photos and a clip from the film showing each location.

“Maybe you know about all of the above, but if not maybe it is of interest. Again, great job on the book.”

Actually, I didn’t know about ANY of that, and wish I had in time to use it in the book, but better late than never. Thanks, Chris!

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