Friday, March 31, 2006

Jeffrey Tambor's new gig

I guess you could call this the first "Arrested Development" alumni update.

Just after that series got what seems to be its final order to cease and desist, Jeffrey Tambor has been cast in the NBC comedy pilot "Twenty Good Years," according to the always-reliable Hollywood Reporter.

Tambor will co-star with John Lithgow in the project about two men in their 50s who experience personal epiphanies and decide to make the most of their next 20 years. The comedy was penned by Michael Leeson, who is executive producing the pilot along with Tom Werner, Eric Gold, Jimmy Miller and Mike Clements.

I don't watch much sitcom TV these days beyond "My Name is Earl" and "Everybody Hates Chris," but this sounds like it could be fun. I've loved Tambor's deadpan delivery ever since his run on "The Larry Sanders Show," and Lithgow is solid. It will be interesting to see how they play off each other.

Though the ages are different, this reminds me of the great BBC sitcom "Waiting for God." It used to run on PBS' British night, and starred Stephanie Cole and Graham Crowden as nursing home residents struggling to keep their spirits up. Sounds like a bit of a drag, I know, but trust me, it's wickedly funny.

Plus, on a tangent, there's just three days until opening day! If you want some enjoyable reading, check out new Oriole Kevin Millar's diary. Among the latest gems is that, having already convinced pitching coach Leo Mazzone to get a tattoo, manager Sam Perlozzo is next on his list. I sure do like him a lot more than Sammy Sosa.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

R.I.P "Arrested Development"?

There are few current TV shows I love more than "Arrested Development."

"The Sopranos"? Sure, when they bother to make new shows. "Gilmore Girls"? Definitely.

But there's something about "Arrested Development" that I just loved, which makes this news just painful.

For months there were rumors that Showtime was going to rescue the show after Fox pulled the plug, but Wednesday, creator Mitchell Hurwitz said he would no longer continue with the series. This likely means the end is here.

This is all the more frustrating because Twentieth Century Fox and Showtime were set to announce a deal for 26 episodes to run on the cable network starting next year.

News like this makes me angry in many ways, but not at Hurwitz. The way he was jerked around by Fox, with the show being preempted by baseball, football and anything else the network could find. was inexcusable. I can't blame him for being fed up.

"The fans have been so ardent in their devotion and in return ... I've given everything I can to the show in order to try to live up to their expectations," Hurwitz told Daily Variety on Monday. "I finally reached a point where I felt I couldn't continue to deliver that on a weekly basis."

A sad day indeed.

Why do I love "Arrested Development" so much? For many reasons, from the great cast and deadly funny writing, to the pacing that kept us unsure what would happen next. But most of all, I think I saw in the Bluths the dark side of all of us, how we would behave if we could finally get rid of our pesky consciences for good and do exactly what we wanted to all the time.

There is one small glimmer of hope. Hurwitz has said he will hold off on a final decision to let Fox and Showtime negotiate the final details. Keep your fingers crossed, fans.

And remember, next week brings the start of another baseball season, meaning that for at least one day and by sheer benefit of alphabetical order, my beloved Orioles will be in first place.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Just say no to "Gnomeo"

We knew there would be casualties when Disney acquired Pixar, but who imagined the first one would be Sir Elton John.

John, who with Tim Rice penned the great music for Disney's "Lion King," had pitched what can generously be called an oddity to the giant mouse, and was well on his way to production until the rodent apparently spit it up.

His creation, entitled "Gnomeo & Juliet," was to be an animated musical based - of course - on the bard's tragic romance and featuring - of course -little animated people in the main roles. Sound bizarre? Well, I thought so too until I read about a musical version of "Lord of the Rings" being staged in Toronto. Good grief.

On Monday, Disney abruptly announced that "Gnomeo" is no longer in production at the studio. This even after Sir Elton appeared at the Walt Disney Studios Showcase in September to promote the film and marked the occasion by playing "Crocodile Rock" on a trademark red piano.

All of this info, by the way, comes from the Hollywood Reporter via Entertainment Weekly.

On my end, I can't say this is anything but good news. Though I have loved many Disney animated films over the years, my favorites being "Pete's Dragon" and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," Pixar is clearly miles ahead of the curve in both creativity and technical prowess.

Logically, the more Disney backs Pixar's projects, the more often we will get them. Coming soon is "Cars," which looks fairly promising. Even better is the news that "Incredibles" director has been recruited to direct the upcoming "Ratatouille," a trippy-sounding tale about a mouse who wants to be a gourmet chef, I believe. All good stuff.

As for Sir Elton, well, I think his pocket book can take the hit.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Tom Hanks and Starbucks vs. America

This caught my eye today as possibly the worst idea for a movie ever. And believe me, there has been plenty of competition.

According to the always reliable Hollywood Reporter, Tom Hanks is attached to star in "How Starbucks Saved My Life," a fiction book proposal by Michael Gates Gill that was sold to Universal. Gus Van Sant is in negotiations to direct.

The story centers on an older ad exec who loses his job and family and has to go to work at Starbucks to pay the bills. He befriends the young manager and learns about life and love.

As I read this early this morning, I had the same reaction as that adorable Christine Taylor when she tells hubby Ben Stiller, in "Dodgeball," that she just threw up in her own mouth.

Although the contrarian in me has always rooted against Tom Hanks, I used to have loads of love for Gus Van Sant. His "Elephant," an elegaic look at a Columbine-type situation with sparse but very effective dialogue, is close to a masterpiece. But he's also capable of making garbage like "Finding Forrester" and that inexcusable shot-for-shot remake of "Psycho".

As for Hanks, I really can't explain it. Maybe it was when people started calling him the next Jimmy Stewart. I love Jimmy Stewart, so why would I want to replace him? The only movies I can recall unconditionally liking Hanks in were "Big" and "Toy Story." But don't get me started on "Forrest Gump" ...

As an aside, I had long ago decided not to see the "Da Vinci Code," but have recently started to waver. I've never been one in favor of boycotting movies, even one with a premise as revolting as this one. And I just have unconditional love for Audrey Tautou and Jean Reno.

As for "Starbucks," someone explain to me why anyone would want to see this. To be told by genius-turned-hack Van Sant that there are life secrets to learn from ditching your chosen career path to toil for peanuts in a coffee shop? To see this formerly great director make, what will have to be, essentially a two-hour advertisement for the corporation least likely to need one?

Maybe its just me. I'm already a fairly cynical person, and I just get grumpier when I write early in the morning. That said, this just sounds plain awful, no matter what time it is.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Anticipating "ATL"

I was really excited about this one until I saw that rather ridiculous three-letter title. Let's hope the movie itself, opening Friday, delivers a lot more.

From looking at the trailer, I think it can. With rapper T.I. as its primary star, it appears to be boys in a different hood, which might be a good thing.

You can say many things about T.I., but you can't say he's not sure of himself. His modestly titled "Urban Legend," along with being one of the best rap albums of the last five years, is an exemplary exercise in ego. I'll be interested to see if he can take that dynamism onto the big screen.

According to the press release sent to Telegraph entertainment writer Maggie Large last year, T.I. was filming a "hip-hop and roller skating" movie. Well, in reading the synopsis on the Warner Bros. site and watching the trailer, it seems writer Antwone Fisher and director Chris Robinson have since decided to toughen things up.

In a nutshell, the plot centers on T.I.'s Rashad, a 17-year-old who is head of the household and trying to keep his younger brother Ant (Evan Ross) from joining the local drug trade. Trying to lure our young lad to the dark side is Antwan "Big Boi" Patton, who apparently brought along some of his own pit bulls to add menace to his presence. Patton and Outkast partner Andre Benjamin will finally see their own movie, "Idlewild," released this summer (assuming there are no further delays.)

Tacked on to this rather familiar plot is a Romeo and Juliet-style romance with foxy newcomer Lauren London, who crosses over from the right side of the tracks to slum with her new man T.I., much to the chagrin of her father.

I'm not sure why, but I'm really holding out hope for this one. I guess it's mostly because since moving down here, I've fallen hard for Southern hip-hop, and though Scarface and UGK are still the kings in my mind, T.I. is definitely rising fast.

Anyways, check out the trailer and decide for yourself here.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Inside Man

I never thought I would see the day that Spike Lee, of all people, would take NYC for granted.

I suppose we should thank him for actually shooting in the city instead of, as they did with the even worse "16 Blocks," shoot in Montreal and then insult us by calling it New York.

But that's about all I can give him credit for with "Inside Man." From there it's an empty flick from start to finish, bereft of any of the potent issues that drove his best films or any of the dramatic tension needed to sustain a good heist flick.

In case you've somehow missed the commercials, here's what setup there is: Clive Owen and co-conspirators holdup a crowded bank in downtown New York, taking all the customers and employees and customers hostage. Denzel Washington and his partner Chiwetel Ejiofor are assigned the task of bringing this to an end without any bloodshed.

A promising enough premise, I guess, but the first thing we see is Clive Owen talking into the camera to tell us how fiendishly clever his plan is. Without revealing what it is, I'll just tell you they're in the bank within 5 minutes. No planning, no scheming, nothing that I like to see in a great heist flick. If you want to see one, Netflix "The Great Train Robbery."

On top of this enters Jodie Foster to do, well, I'm still not sure what. It turns out that bank bigwig Christopher Plummer, a welcome sight even in fare as slight as this, has something he doesn't want anyone to find out about, and he hires her to keep it secret. And, it is a serious issue, the kind Spike used to enjoy exploring instead of, as he does here, just letting it hang there, an unexamined, seemingly tacked on plot point. Worse, the plot makes next to no sense at all.

What made it worse for me was that, throughout, there were signs of the old Spike I know and still love. The bank customers and beat cops look and talk like the kind of people you might actually meet in New York, and there is some choice humor in their encounters.

One other scene that struck me was when Owen takes a break from trying to be menacing to talk to his youngest captive, a youngblood of about 10 who already talks like he's 20. As the kid's talking tough, Owen takes a look at the game on his PSP, an ultraviolent street shoot-em-up. As our young friend explains that you get points for selling crack and jacking cars, we see, on the game screen, someone's head being blown off and the phrase "Take dat, nigga" written on top.

It's jarring and more than a little uncomfortable. It's also the kind of thought-provoking scene Spike used to deliver with regularity.

Maybe this was just the wrong week for me to see any Hollywood movie that's supposedly about cops, given what happened this week in the real world of Macon, Ga.

In an early-morning drug raid on a house a couple of miles from mine, a sheriff's deputy was fatally shot. In the aftermath, two young men, among five arrested, have been charged as the trigger men, and may now face the death penalty.

It's the kind of situation where nobody can possibly win, the kind where only a director like Spike Lee would even try to look for answers. Or at least he used to, before he lost his nerve and decided to sell us garbage like "Inside Man."

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Sons of Buena Vista

There are few documentaries I have enjoyed more than "Buena Vista Social Club," Wim Wenders' welcome journey into the world of Cuban music.

Along with great songs, what really made it work was the cast of colorful characters, including Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo and Eliades Ochoa, who were more interesting than most fictional creations we see on the big screen.

One of these musical giants, composer and performer Pio Leyva, shown above, is back as the tour guide for an upcoming sequel of sorts, "The Sons of Buena Vista." Described as a docudrama, it introduces us to the next generation of Cuban musicians on the rise.

Though Wenders is along this time as a producer, the movie will be directed by German Kral, an Argentinian whose IMDB credits feature movies I had never heard of. "Sons" has been picked up for North American distribution by Cinema Libre Studio, which plans to release it sometime this summer.

On a sad note, I just discovered Leyva died yesterday of a heart attack, so take this promising flick as a sort of parting gift from him to music and movie lovers everywhere.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Rap Sheet: Hip-hop and the Cops

This promises to be one of the least objective, but possibly most entertaining, doco features in years. And, given the subject matter, one that's almost certainly going straight to DVD.

Tyro documaker Don Sikorski has completed "Rap Sheet: Hip-hop and the Cops," which shows that law enforcement has been compiling secret dossiers on hundreds of hip-hop artists and execs for years.

Duh, you say? Of course the cops hate on rap artists, and many rap artists bring on that hate through their actions, but it's a vicious circle worth investigating anyway.

To give credit where it's due, much of this comes from Variety.

The film will feature interviews with artists including Russell Simmons, Kanye West, Busta Rhymes, Ja Rule, Snoop Dogg and Damon Dash about the so-called hip-hop cops. There also are performances by Eminem, Fat Joe, Jadakiss and Lloyd Banks of G-Unit, among others, in case the interviews start to drag. Not a marquee lineup, especially since Banks, in my opinion, just sucks.

It features NYPD surveillance footage obtained by Sikorski, who received his first break in researching the film when Miami police responded to a request he made through the Freedom of Information Act, a tool I never managed to master in my brief career as an actual reporter.

Other law-enforcement authorities involved in the surveillance activities include the FBI and LAPD, along with a nationwide task force set up by the Drug Enforcement Agency, according to the film.

I love conspiracies because, as I'm sure this film will once again prove, they usually turn out to be true.

And while we're at it, if there are such things as "Hip-hop cops," shouldn't their first order of business be finding out who killed Tupac and Biggie?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Pedro Almodovar back in a big way

In typical Hollywood hyperbole, about a year ago Sony Pictures Classics announced that 2006 would be the "year of Almodovar." While that probably won't happen, what will should be a blast.

Almodovar's upcoming movie, "Volver," due for a June release in America, will very likely be added to the competition roster for the Cannes Film Festival.

While his recent movies have been more serious and, it must be said, very gay, this looks like a return to the form of his earlier "female comedies" such as "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown." I can't wait.

It will also bring back two of Almodovar's best leading ladies, the always stunning Penelope Cruz and his best discovery, comic genius Carmen Maura.

Set in Madrid's working class neighborhoods, the movie is described by SPC as the story of "three generations of women who survive wind, fire and even death, thanks to audacity, goodness and a limitless vitality." The film will be a "meeting of 'Mildred Pierce' (Michael Curtiz) and 'Arsenic and Old Lace' (Frank Capra), combined with the surrealistic naturalism of Almodovar's fourth film, '¿QuĂ© he hecho yo para merecer esto!!' (What Have I Done to Deserve This?)."

Not one word of this is bad news. When he wants to be, Almodovar can be a very funny guy, and for a very gay guy he knows a lot about women and how to write and direct for them. While I enjoyed "Bad Education," a return to comedies like "Women on the Verge" will be welcome.

And it just keeps getting better. If you live in one of our bigger cities, you will, come April, be treated to an Almodovar retrospective, featuring new and improved prints of the following eight films: "Law of Desire," "Matador," "Women on the Verge," "Flower of My Secret," "Live Flesh," "All About My Mother," "Talk to Her" and "Bad Education." I like all of these, and absolutely adore "Matador" and "Live Flesh."

What better way could there be to spend a spring day then watching a great Almodovar film then an Atlanta Braves game? For me, there certainly aren't many.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

From "Murderball" to "The Every Boy"

I'd have to list "Murderball" as my nicest movie surprise of 2005.

My dad and I were in Atlanta with nothing else to do, so we decided to check out this engaging documentary about quad rugby. I had no idea that quadraplegics played anything resembling rugby, or that their story could be so compelling.

The reason it works so well is a refreshing lack of sentimentality and a built-in, real-life "Rocky"esque saga about the summer paralympic games. If you haven't seen it yet, I'd recommend renting the DVD, for both the movie and the laugh-out-loud extra featuring the movie's stars taking on the "Jackass" crew in a rugby game.

Now comes news about one of the directors of "Murderball" that just makes me smile.

According to Variety, Dana Adam Shapiro has signed with Paramount to adapt and direct "The Every Boy," based on his debut novel of the same name, and set it up with Brad Pitt's company Plan B to produce.

I was unfamiliar with the book, so I peeped this summation at publisher Houghton-Mifflin:

"A fifteen-year-old boy dies mysteriously, leaving behind a secret ledger filled with his darkly comic confessions. Whether fantasizing about being a minority, breaking into his neighbors’ homes, or gunning down an exotic bird, Henry Every’s wayward quest for betterment sometimes bordered on the criminal. Alone now in their suburban house, his father pores over the ledger in a final attempt to connect with the boy he never really knew - and, more urgently, to figure out how he died. As Harlan Every learns the truth about his son’s many misadventures and transgressions, he also discovers the part he unwittingly played in Henry’s tragic death and the real reason his wife walked out years ago. The story grows into two parallel love stories - one past, one present - with drastically different outcomes.

Whew. Sounds like a very ambitious first novel, but a great idea for a story. I love movies about the power of imagination, like "Big Fish" and "Everything is Illuminated," so this sounds right up my alley. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got some reading to do.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Paul Mooney

Of all the great things Dave Chappelle has accomplished (and yes, there is more than one), bringing Paul Mooney to the world may have been the greatest one.

If you watched "Chappelle's Show," you know that Mooney appeared in two incarnations: first as himself, in the great "Ask Paul Mooney" segments, and later in the even better sketches as Negrodamus.

When I first saw him I had never heard of him, but I was instantly intrigued. Then, while shopping at the fabulous Agora in Athens, I found a used copy of his album "Race" on cassette. It's not the kind of thing you want to listen to on a crowded street, but as long there aren't a lot of easily offended people within earshot, Mooney's standup is fearless, very foul and often very funny.

Think of how far Chappelle pushed the envelope on his show, and then just keep going, going and going. Eventually, if you go far enough, you'll reach the end of the fringe and meet Mr. Mooney. And he'll probably have something insulting to say to you.

Mooney has been observing the role of race in America for more than 30 years now both on stage and as a writer for Richard Pryor and others. Remember how Pryor shocked the world with his liberal use of the "n-word" on stage? Mooney is 10 times more in your face and, in my opinion, even funnier.

The comedian I would most closely associate him with is the late Bill Hicks, as they both spared noone and nothing in their monologues.

If your sensibility can take it, Mooney's "Analyzing White America," a standup performance, is out Tuesday on DVD and is available for only $9.99 at Amazon. Check it out.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

V for Vendetta

Is it OK to laugh as you're watching the British Parliament building being blown to smithereens? It's been about a half hour or so since I did (on screen, of course), and I still can't decide.

In my mind, at least, that's what the Wachowski brothers, in cahoots with first-time director James McTeigue, must have been going for with "V for Vendetta." A beautifully constructed movie that, if you think about it too much, can be deeply disturbing, but still immensely entertaining.

"V" was originally a graphic novel by Alan Moore written during the days of Margaret Thatcher. Moore, as many Britons at the time, must have been a very angry, yet creative, young man. Instead of blowing up the Parliament building or anything quite that dramatic, he created a fantasy world and a fantastic hero to deliver vengeance for him.

As it was a fantasy, he took the worst impulses of Thatcher's regime and played them to the hilt, creating a fascist nightmare that holds the people in an iron fist.

It's always tempting to read too much into what is essentially a big ball of popcorn, albeit one peppered with powerful ideas. I'd advise against it as you go into "V." While our current leader definitely is more than a tad power-mad, he is not a fascist, and if you really thought the Wachowskis were trying to paint him as one, you must have, somewhere deep inside, thought that yourself already. Besides, as fascists go, John Hurt as the high chancellor Sutler is just scary as hell.

But enough on that; how's the movie? For one where you're asked to identify with a hero who is a terrorist, remarkably good. It flows along smoothly as we learn why the masked man played by "Matrix" alum Hugo Weaving is so angry at his government, and as he manipulates young Evy Hammond, a fierce Natalie Portman, in his plot.

Portman is solid, but it's Weaving that manages to sell us on this oddity, spouting often ludicrous lines like "ideas are bulletproof" with a Shakespearean ease. You get the impression he must have been smirking under that mask the whole time, but we never get to find out.

What keeps things running smoothly is that the Wachowskis and McTeigue held back on much of the theatrics that marred the second and third "Matrix" movies. After we're introduced to V and his reluctant partner, it develops into what's almost a police procedural in a parallel universe, with the always reliable Stephen Rea in pursuit of V and his growing army of anarchists.

In the end, "V" accomplished what a lot of the best pop art does - create an outlet for our darkest urges so we don't act on them ourselves. It's why I fell in love with punk music and, now, rap music, genres in arms that let you feel you're acting out while you're actually just being entertained. What more can you ask for?

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Big news on Tyler Perry

How can Howard Stern call himself the king of all media with a straight face? Especially when compared to the seemingly omnipotent and still rising Tyler Perry.

Today from Lionsgate comes word on Perry's next big-screen project, "Daddy's Little Girl." It's described as a reverse Cinderella ("Cinderfella") tale about a young, beautiful, successful female attorney who falls in love with a janitor and single father of three daughters. Despite strong objections from the attorney's father, love, of course, triumphs in the end.

Without the presence of Perry himself I'd run screaming from such a story, but with him in control I'll keep the faith. Even though, horror of all horrors, pistol-packing grannie Madea apparently won't be making an appearance in this new flick.

The film has been fast-tracked for a June start and like "Madea's Family Reunion" and "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" is set for a February release.

Never one to stop and smell the roses, Perry is also busy on other fronts. Next month, he will release his first book, "Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea's Uninhibited Commentaries on Life and Love." Brace for the requisite Oprah onslaught, but at least this should be one she shouldn't have to apologize for.

Perry has also recently inked a deal to distribute his TV series "House of Payne" in first-run syndication.

Whew. I get tired just thinking about all that, but it should be fun.

Lionsgate is enjoying a well-deserved payoff from its realization that black people don't always have to play pushers and hos. Coming at the end of April is "Akeelah and the Bee," starring the much-missed Laurence Fishburne as a teacher who inspires a promising young girl to compete in the National Spelling Bee.

I love the drama of a good spelling bee, and the trailer for this one looks pretty good to me. Decide for yourself here.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Paul Haggis and George Bush

Is Paul Haggis intent on becoming the next Michael Moore? Unfortunately, it certainly appears so.

Where Haggis once had his Hilary, he just might now have his Hillary. And just as Moore took on George W. Bush for the war on terror, Haggis is set to travel down this same tired path.

According to my favorite daily newspaper, The Hollywood Reporter, Haggis is in final negotiations to direct and produce "Against All Enemies" for Columbia Pictures.

To quote THR, “Based on Richard A. Clarke's best-selling memoir, "Enemies" chronicles how the Bush administration handled the al-Qaida threat before and after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Clarke, a former U.S. terrorism czar, offers the ultimate insider's account into the nation's security apparatus, featuring a cast of power brokers that includes President Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld and Clarke.”

So why does this news leave me at least a little bit queasy? First of all, because Haggis is a heavy-handed director who enjoys preaching much more than entertaining. He almost managed to drain the life out of "Million Dollar Baby," based on a short story by the great boxing writer F.X.Toole, and he managed to render "Crash" unwatchable.

Second, when has Hollywood ever had a positive impact on a presidential election? Michael Moore couldn't do it in 2004, and Warren Beatty certainly couldn't do it when he tried to foist George McGovern on the world. Ironically, the only president truly driven to the White House through Hollywood was Ronald Reagan, a man most of these high-minded cineastes reviled.

About the only fun in this is speculating who might get to play the power players. Timothy Bottoms of "The Last Picture Show" would make a great Bush, as he already did on the short-lived but very funny Comedy Central show "That's My Bush."

Sam Neill would do fine as the crusading Clarke, but even more fun would be seeing Paul Giamatti transform himself into Dick Cheney or maybe Thandie Newton minxing things up as Condy Rice.

You see, if you try hard enough, you can find a silver lining in anything.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

After having his mummified corpse dragged through the desert by a seriously sadistic Tommy Lee Jones, it looks like Melquiades Estrada will have a short life on Middle Georgia movie screens.

I'm not certain since I like to sit in about the fifth row and didn't look behind me, but I think I was the only person who had to sit through this cinematic version of water torture Sunday at noon at the AmStar.

Tommy Lee Jones could have learned something about elementary filmmaking from the recent Hollywood issue of Vanity Fair. Along with Keira Knightley and Scarlett Johannson in the buff on the cover, a definite plus, there's an article inside about the making of "Reds," Warren Beatty's great ode to Communism.

After recruiting historian Trevor Griffiths to help with the script, Beatty rejected his first draft as being "humorless," a sensation I felt watching "Three Burials."

Granted, it's a fairly somber story, that of cowboy Jones, whose mexican compadre on the range is accidentally killed by border guard Barry Pepper. We find out that Pepper is the bad guy because, of course, he enjoys beating up people trying to cross the border illegally. Through it all, the only time I laughed was at that joke about the old blind guy, which is, of course, in the trailer.

It doesn't help that much of the story involves Jones dragging Pepper's character and his dead buddy through the desert to his burial site - for what seemed like at least five hours. In all this time, you would think maybe he was teaching Pepper something, but as far as I could tell he just wanted to torture him and us.

After about 45 minutes of the three of them traveling through the desert, my mind began to drift like Skip Caray's in about the sixth inning or so of a lopsided Braves game.

I thought how nice it was to see Melissa Leo again (as a waitress of rather loose morals,) and how she had starred in my two favorite, back-to-back episodes of "Homicide": the one where she goes home to the Eastern Shore only to find a waterman she knows involved in a killing, and the one where Pembleton (the great Andre Braugher) says as a Catholic he can't attend the funeral of a comrade who committed suicide. Simply two of the best hours of television ever made.

I also thought how it was nice to hear that cheatin' hotel song by Hank Jr. about a half hour earlier, and how I should listen to that album tonight. I wondered why, if all Barry Pepper's character wanted to do was beat up on people of color, he couldn't have just stayed in his hometown of Cincinnati and become a cop.

And I thought that Pepper, who was great in Spike Lee's underrated "25th Hour," deserves much, much better than this fairly awful movie.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

Is Gillian Anderson that one from "Baywatch"?
- One of Steve Coogan's agents in "Tristram Shandy"

Is there such a thing as a sophisticated dick joke? Thankfully, Michael Winterbottom and his co-conspirators on this little oddity think there are several, most of them very, very funny.

Before I go any further, let me say that this is being shown Sunday, April 9, by the Macon Film Guild, a real coup since it is still in theaters in Atlanta.

I swore off the conceit at the center of "Tristram Shandy," the idea of a movie about the making of a movie, five years ago after suffering through the usually reliable David Mamet's horrible "State and Main." I'm glad I finally came back.

What makes "Tristram" work so much better than that ensemble disaster is Steve Coogan, who is all misguided ego played just to, but not over, the top. I would have hated him if I weren't laughing so hard.

The fictional production here is a movie of the novel "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy" by Laurence Sterne, described in the flick as "unfilmable" and "postmodern before there was even any modernism." Jeremy Northam stands in for Winterbottom as the fictional director, and look out for great cameos from Gillian Anderson, Stephen Fry and a host of other British actors I'm not sophisticated enough to identify.

Best of all, though, is the dynamic between Coogan and his "co-lead" in the production, played gamely by Rob Brydon. The interplay between the two of them as it slowly dawns on Coogan that he has the title role but the much smaller part is simply sublime. The best is a running gag about the height of Coogan's heels so he can appear higher in "stature" than Brydon.

If you saw Coogan's vignette with Alfred Molina in Jim Jarmusch's "Coffee and Cigarettes," you know how good he is at playing the jerk. That was just a sample of this blusterous buffet.

As I warned, some of the humor is fairly crude, but it's all ribald rather than blue (I guarantee you'll gasp early on when a young man has a rather unfortunate encounter with a falling window.)

Looking at Winterbottom's filmography on IMDB reveals he likes to move from genre to genre, and I'm ashamed to say the only other of his films I have seen is "24 Hour Party People." Also starring Coogan and, I believe, Brydon, it's an electric look at Manchester's brief moment at the center of the musical universe. I've already rearranged my Netflix queue to see some more of his work.

I'll close with a plea for peace. We at The Telegraph couldn't help but notice, as I'm sure many other people did, that the Capitol Theatre scooped the Film Guild by a couple of weeks in showing "The Squid and the Whale," easily one of my favorite films of 2005.

In the vein of Best Picture winner "Crash," a movie I more than mildly detested, can't we all just get along?

There's more than enough good movies to go around. Peace out.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Mos Def, Sophie Okonedo and the Black Panthers

Halfway through the rather wretched "16 Blocks," I couldn't help but start thinking how great it would be if Mos Def got to play the lead role in a good movie. Apparently, I've finally mastered the fine art of mind control.

Word comes today from the Hollywood Reporter that Mos Def and the simply stunning Sophie Okonedo from "Hotel Rwanda" are in final negotiations to co-star in the indie period drama "Stringbean and Marcus," which was written and will be directed by first-time feature helmer Tanya Hamilton.

The film takes place in 1978 and focuses on the broken love affair between two former Black Panther Party members (Mos Def and Okonedo) and is told through the eyes of an adolescent girl. "It's not so much about the idea of race," Hamilton said. "I just wanted to show this world of ordinary people living under extraordinary circumstances, trying to outrun this past they all have."

That's about all we know right now, but I'm still jazzed. The Panthers have been popping up in the news a lot lately, mostly thanks to Fred Hampton Jr. He had the only truly dischordant moment in "Dave Chappelle's Block Party" when he took the stage to rant about political prisoners, and then the New York Times featured a story about his efforts to get a Chicago street named for his father, slain Panther leader Chairman Fred Hampton.

Politics aside, it's a fascinating subject with two top-tier actors attached. I've loved Mos ever since seeing him in Suzan-Lori Parks' disappointing play "Top Dog/Underdog," and Okonedo burned up the screen in "Dirty Pretty Things".

Good news indeed

Monday, March 06, 2006


News like this just makes my heart sink.

Being a devoted lover of what was once known as Charm City, I also almost always adore John Waters. Though it's far from his grossest or most spirited work, "Hairspray" has remained my favorite of his films. But even I have to wonder, how many lives can it have?

Along with the classic movie, there is the megahit musical, which I had the pleasure of seeing on Broadway. No one will ever be able to replace Divine, but Harvey Feirstein did a fine job standing in as Edna Turnblad.

Now, however, in the vein of "The Producers," "Hairspray" is getting a third life, as a movie version of the musical (is your head spinning too, or is it just me?)

The bad, no, I mean horrendous, news is that, according to Variety, John Travolta is set to play our beloved Edna. Why is this so bad? Tell me one time in the last 20 years or so that John Travolta has been remotely funny. I don't even count "Get Shorty," which I found to be mildly amusing at best.

Even worse is the news that additional singing and dancing scenes will be added to beef up Travolta's character. Heresy. My view of the world may be warped, but I consider Waters' vision of "Hairspray" to be a small classic, not to be tampered with by charlatans. I just hope he got a fat check for all this.

The news from Variety, however, wasn't all bad. Queen Latifah has apparently signed on to play Motor Mouth Maybelle, the dance show host turned civil rights activist played in the movie by Ruth Brown. Latifah was great in "Chicago," and she has just the right spirit to pull this off.

Even better is that Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who wrote the music and lyrics for the musical, are on board and will write some new songs for the movie. And, at least part of the movie will be filmed in beautiful Baltimore. It is scheduled for release in summer 2007.

Still to be determined is who will play our heroine, young Tracy Turnblad. She may be too old by now, and who knows if she can sing or not, but I would see Thora Birch as the perfect choice, or even better, Marissa Jaret Winokur from Broadway.

Now, if someone would just take out Mr. Travolta ... I'm not a wealthy man by any means, and I'm planning to blow most of what I have going to the World Cup with my brother, but you will have my undying gratitude. That and 50 cents, as they say, can still buy you a copy of The Telegraph.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

16 Blocks

Aging Hollywood starlets must just hate Bruce Willis. As he gets older and more bloated, they just write it into his parts, trying to find some kind of nobility in playing the same alcoholic, way-over-the-hill cop time after time.

His part in "16 Blocks" is much the same as his part in the vastly superior "Sin City." Except for this time, we're supposed to believe he finds redemption in the form of Mos Def, acting way beyond the meager bites he's given here.

This movie left so little of an impression on me that it's almost hard to write about it, but I will trudge on.

It's at its best when there's just Bruce and Mos, brought together because Bruce's cop has to get Mos to the courthouse over the titular 16 blocks to testify against some crooked cops who, not terribly surprisingly, don't want him to get there. You can see where this is going, but it doesn't even come close. It just meanders through a series of routine action sequences under a hail of bullets and even deadlier cliches.

There are elements of two much better Pacino cop dramas at work here. When our duo are on the run, they manage to hijack and crash a city bus, giving this movie what little tension it musters in the vein of "Dog Day Afternoon." As our supposed hero Bruce takes on his fellow cops, there's also a very dim shade of "Serpico."

But after borrowing (a nicer way to say stealing) these two motifs, director Richard Donner adds nothing else to "16 Blocks."

Mos and Bruce fight hard to get through this unscarred, and they mostly succeed. Mos is a first-rate actor who will, I'm certain, get to play the lead in a good movie very soon. But here he sinks under the weight of tedious dialogue that almost drowns him.

It's hard to pick out the worst example, but I'll try. When Mos returns to the bus to help out his embattled buddy, he says something about how Chuck Berry and Barry White committed crimes early in their lives, but they changed, so why can't he? Well, I don't know about Barry White, but I have it on pretty good authority that Chuck Berry is just of much of an asshole now as he's ever been.

How do I know? Because Chuck Leavell, keyboardist for the Rolling Stones among many other accomplishments, wrote an entire memoir in which he pretty much had kind words to say about every person he ever met. Every single person in the world of rock was just as kind as could be, except Chuck Berry, who even Leavell had to concede is a royal jerk.

Why bring this up? Because, if a movie is going to try to teach us lessons, it should at least have some clue about what it's talking about.

But, I've wasted enough energy on this truly mediocre flick. Spend your money at Dave Chappelle's big party, or just keep it for yourself.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Dave Chappelle's Block Party

Every couple of years or so, I see a movie that I'm convinced was made just for me.

They usually center around music, like "Almost Famous" and "O Brother Where Art Thou?," or geeks like me, such as "Napoleon Dynamite." It happened again this weekend with "Dave Chappelle's Block Party."

Especially in the beginning, as we see Dave at home in Ohio, where one white woman invited to the hip-hop street party Dave is staging in Brooklyn actually remarks that she'll have to buy a thong, the movie is very, very funny. My personal favorite joke was Dave on the mic, after asking if there are any Mexicans in the audience, doing his Mexican Lil Jon: Que? Like he did on his show, he trades in stereotypes by proving that, while they're almost always wrong, pointing that out can be hilarious.

A word of warning: As for the music, if you don't like hip-hop, you will be bored for long stretches.

About a week ago in the Telegraph, we ran a headline in the sports section that, unfortunately, both Jay Leno and Dave Chappelle would have found very funny. After the first woman, who had a role in the negro leagues that preceded the integration of Major League Baseball, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, we referred to it in the headline as the "Negro Hall of Fame."

Seeing Dave beaming on stage with so many people he clearly admires, I had to smile myself as I thought he probably would laugh out loud if you called his block party just that. With hip-hop now 30 years old, this first concert movie from the genre to play in theaters everywhere felt like a much-deserved coronation, albeit strictly with a New York accent.

Most critics have hailed Lauryn Hill's crooning "Killing Me Softly" reunited with Pras and Wyclef as the musical highlight, but I beg to differ. For me, the reunion of Mos Def and Talib Kweli as Blackstar topped the bill, barely edging out a clearly amped-up Dead Prez. As he does almost everywhere, Kanye West just made a jerk of himself, but luckily he was gone early.

With the exception of Kanye, the music is great, and Michel Gondry films it all as the loose affair that it was, letting you feel the party vibe throughout.

As it was all coming to an end, I flashed back to that scene in "Amelie" where Audrey Tautou turns around in a packed movie theater to look at the people's faces.

If anyone had done that Saturday afternoon, they would have seen a goofy white guy with a big grin on his face, bobbing his head in the white man's version of dancing and loving every minute of it.

Thanks for the invite, Dave. Now, please settle your differences with Comedy Central and get back on TV as soon as possible. We all need you.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Zach Braff and Gael Garcia Bernal

Before I go any further, allow me to give full credit for both these news nuggets to The Hollywood Reporter. That said, they're both pretty cool to me.

I've never really been able to embrace romantic comedies, except for the rare exception like "Say Anything" or "Garden State."

The latter, from Zach Braff, ranks among my favorites for many reasons: Natalie Portman as cute as she's ever been, Peter Sarsgaard as funny as he's ever been and Braff as a surprisingly sure-handed director, writer and actor.

According to THR, Braff will take time off from "Scrubs" to follow this up with "Open Hearts," a remake of a Danish film, for Paramount Pictures.

The story is about a man who is paralysed in a car accident and his fiance who ends up having an affair with a doctor in the hospital where he's recovering. To complicate matters, the doctor's wife is the one responsible for the accident which paralysed the man.

Given what Braff has been able to do with the hospital setting in writing and directing for "Scrubs," I'd be amazed if this turned out bad. It will also, according to THR, be a return to New Jersey, for which Braff showed such an innate empathy and understanding in "Garden State." All-around goodness here.

Garcia Bernal directing first film

THR also reports that Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal will make his directorial debut with a low-budget feature film that focuses on class differences in Mexico.

Upstart shingle Canana Films, run by Garcia Bernal, his "Y Tu Mama Tambien" co-star Diego Luna and producer Pablo Cruz, will produce the drama, which remains untitled. Garcia Bernal will star alongside Camila Sodi, Luz Cipriota and Tenoch Huerta.

The story is an adaptation of an episode of "Rute 32," a series that Canana has been developing for television, which stars Garcia Bernal. Kyzza Terrazas, who directed a short titled "Birdkillers," penned the script.

"It has been quite an organic experience to start directing," Garcia Bernal said in an interview. "I'm discovering a new world."

All that is from THR, but this short note is from me. I don't buy nearly as many movies as I used to, but one I'm glad I did spring for was "Y Tu Mama Tambien."

Along with being a great road movie filled with humor and humanity, it's a knowledgable indictment of the current state of Mexican society. If Bernal can take what he learned from that for this new work, it should be great. We'll see.