Thursday, December 18, 2008

Six Flick Picks Plus Mannix

The Independent -- Didn't even know this 2000 film existed, but this satire of indie movie-making stars Jerry Stiller as Morty Fineman, a washed-up director looking to finance one last film, and Janeane Garofalo as his estranged daughter. In spots it was laugh-out-loud funny, which has always been my personal favorite kind of funny. After all, why hold it in? Perhaps I'm dating myself in some strange way, but give me a movie with 90 minutes of Jerry Stiller over any amount of time with his son Ben Stiller (who makes a mercifully brief appearance in this movie) any day of the week and twice on Sunday. The best moments here come via a faux retrospective of Director Fineman's more tasteless works, movies with titles like Ms. Kevorkian and Bald Justice. The Independent at its best holds its own with mockumentaries like Waiting for Guffman and A Mighty Wind, if not as consistently brilliant, and effective cameos by the likes of Andy Dick, John Lydon and Fred Williamson help carry a film well worth checking out, especially if like me you can find it for free in your local public library, and let's face it public libraries are by far the best kind of library.

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead -- Loved this movie on so many levels. Didn't even know it was by the legendary Sidney Lumet until I looked at the cover AFTER I had watched this terrific caper-gone-wrong movie. Lumet, of course, only made some of the great motion pictures of all time (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, 12 Angry Men). As in 2003's underrated Owning Mahowny, Philip Seymour Hoffman again plays a down-on-his-luck embezzler trying desperately to maintain his lifestyle and, more importantly, keep his young wife, played by George Costanza's fantasy woman Marisa Tomei. In fact, the first shot in the film is a real attention grabber: Tomei getting fucked up the ass by Hoffman. How European! How French New Wave circa 1968! Anyway, I imagine this is one case where Hoffman probably said to the director, "No need for the stunt double here, Sid baby; let me take a few whacks at this scene myself." After getting your attention carnally, the rest of the movie unfolds in effective but predictable ways, then this 2007 release gets all History of Violence on us as a desperate Phil Hoffman tries to shoot his way out of the mess he's gotten himself and little brother Ethan Hawke into. The mess involves a poorly planned and badly executed jewelry store heist, a half-assed cover-up and a no-turning-back-now denouement that leaves the by-now-all-too-familiar American cinematic backdraft of blood splashed across the screen serving as plot cleaner-upper.

A Shot in the Dark -- The 1964 movie that cemented the Inspector Clouseau franchise may be the funniest of the series. The Pink Panther itself was also released in 1964, before the concept was put on hold until being resurrected to perfection for the 1970s. More to the point, Shot in the Dark is vintage Peter Sellers, who quite simply cannot not be funny. 1964 was a pretty good year for Peter Sellers, seeing the release of these two Pink Panther films as well as a little movie called Dr. Strangelove. If you're not amused by Sellers' Clouseau, just turn in your Blockbuster card and your DVD remote.

Inspector Clouseau -- This 1968 take on the bumbling French detective does not feature Peter Sellers in the title role, nor is it directed by Blake Edwards. Instead, it's American actor Alan Arkin aping many of the same mannerisms and tics that Sellers employed, but unfortunately to little comedic effect. Somehow this movie should be funnier than it is, but the Alan Arkin of The In-Laws, Catch-22 and Simon -- some of my all-time favorite films -- is nowhere to be found.

The Big Clock -- This classic had until now somehow escaped me. No longer. Like most movies of the Film Noir genre, the plot involves a guy getting framed for a murder he didn't commit, but nobody believes his innocence, least of all the coppers, except maybe his dame, so he's forced to try to solve the crime himself and catch the crooks before the whole sticky web closes in on him. What helps to set this movie apart is the cast, the acting, and the script. Little things like that. Ray Milland is good as the newspaper writer trying to clear his name, but Charles Laughton steals scene after scene as an eccentric publisher making sure that doesn't happen.

Annie Hall -- Back in 1978 when Annie Hall came out, it was hailed as one of the first serious Woody Allen movies, and looking back it was indeed a transition from almost surreal comedies like Take the Money & Run, Sleepers and Bananas to the relationship-based Manhattan and Hannah & Her Sisters. My verdict 30 years later is that Time has not served the Woodman all that well. From Diane Keaton's iconic '70s wardrobe to the director's even-then-shopworn bag of cleverly presented neuroses, the film has its share of charming moments, even though the Allen character comes off as a repressed, shallow putz. His constant griping about Annie Hall having to smoke pot before sleeping with him comes off as just plain nagging. I mean, who can blame her if she needs a little self-medication before a sexual encounter with the Woodman. The very notion of a schlemiel like Woody Allen cast as a leading man in a romantic comedy is perhaps his lasting contribution to pop culture.

Mannix: Season One -- Anyone who like yours truly was born around 1960 has to remember Joe Mannix, a blue collar James Bond played like he was born for the role by Mike Connors. Tough guy Mannix punched out bad guys and foiled up-to-no-good spies over the course of 60 suspenseful minutes every week on TV. For some reason my local library has entire seasons of cop shows like Cannon, Jake & the Fat Man and Streets of San Francisco on DVD, but I liked Mannix far better than all of them, even though it's likely I haven't actually seen an episode since junior high school. Well, I pulled the 6-disc set off the shelf, and even though I had a week to return it, I barely made it through the first two shows. Unlike, say, classic Kojaks, Mannix has held up worse than an electric blue leisure suit and has stood the test of time worse than a broken Timex. It was dated and not in a good way like the first few years of The Odd Couple, which are emblematic of the period. The problem could be that in 1967, the show had yet to cast Gail Fisher as Peggy, Mannix's young, attractive and black assistant, but so much more. Not sure what year she came aboard the series, but she's nowhere to be found here in Season One. Mannix ran until 1974, so I'd be interested in the later seasons as an exercise in pure nostalgia, but even in 1967 the show had the catchy theme music and great opening sequence.

Bonus: Kojak Season One
I canceled my satellite dish a few years ago and never got cable so I don't know if this show is currently running anywhere on cable. But the picture quality on this show is unbelievable. Yes, there are no extras per se and no booklet or extra info included, but the teleplays themselves are the thing! Great plots, a lot goes by that you miss, so watching an episode a second time is not a waste of time. Season One was filmed entirely on location and so has great views of 1970s New York City. The character actors and guest stars are also first rate. All in all, an awesome package. Put me down for the second season. Watched about 12 or 13 of the episodes over the first 3 or 4 days I had the set. Being Greek-American, it gives me goosebumps when I hear Greek being spoken or references to his Greek heritage. Yasou! Again, great colors. Remember, this show was on in the early '70s, so before cable and digital. This is like watching the show all over again for the first time! Again, the best DVD purchase I ever made, even better than seeing The Twilight Zone on DVD. Season One highlights include a villainous James Woods and menacing Harvey Keitel foolishly butting heads with Theo Kojak.

See also:

Grizzly, man...

More Buscemi

Saluting Bruno

Desultory Row

Shoot 'Em Ups

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