Friday, March 30, 2007


In New Jersey, anything can happen

NOTE: Ranked No. 12 on my all-time top 100 of 2012

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Screenwriting Blog-a-Thon being coordinated by Mystery Man on Film.

"I just met a wonderful new man. He's fictional but you can't have everything."
Cecilia (Mia Farrow)

The Countess (Zoe Caldwell): "Go with the real guy, honey, we're limited."
Rita (Deborah Rush): "Go with Tom! He's got no flaws!"
Delilah (Annie Joe Edwards): "Go with SOMEBODY, child, 'cause I's gettin' bored."

By Edward Copeland
Maybe if you're a character such as Delilah, especially a Depression-era stereotype, trapped in a movie that's stalled because one of the characters has stepped off the screen and into the real world, you'd be bored as well. However, if you are a moviegoer lucky enough to be watching Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo, boredom should be impossible. As far as I'm concerned, this film is Allen's masterpiece. Others will cite Annie Hall or Manhattan or some other titles and while I love those films as well, over time The Purple Rose of Cairo is the Allen screenplay that has reserved the fondest place in my heart. The screenplay isn't saddled with any extraneous scenes and no sequence falls flat as it builds toward its bittersweet ending. For me, it's Woody Allen's greatest screenplay and one of the best ever written as well.

The Orion logo, a circle of stars in a starry sky, appears on the screen, followed by the official AN ORION PICTURES RELEASE. The screen goes black-and-white, credits pop on and off. All the while, Fred Astaire sings "Cheek to Cheek" in the background.
ASTAIRE'S VOICEOVER: (singing) Heaven, I'm in heaven/ And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak./ And I seem to find the happiness I seek/ When we're out together dancing cheek to cheek ...
While Fred Astaire continues singing in the background, the credits fade out, replaced by a large, old-fashioned movie poster, a montage of drawn faces and scenes: In the shadows, to the left of an elongated black shape, is a man wearing a pith helmet; next to his face is the Sphinx, complete with a palm tree. The camera moves past the Egyptian scene, past the black shape, to a drawing of two men in tuxedos. One holds a champagne glass. Behind them is an elegant car, a hint of city glamour next to a streetlamp in front of a faint city skyline. The camera next moves up the elongated black shape to reveal an oversize sophisticated woman; the black shape is her long slinky dress. Above her sleek, bobbed hairdo is the movie's title, THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO ... As Fred Astaire croons in the background, the film cuts to Cecilia's face, staring dreamily at the now offscreen movie poster. Behind her is a parked car in the street; pedestrians pass on the sidewalk. As she gazes, lost in her own world, one gloved hand to her lips, a loud clunking sound is heard; the song abruptly stops...

That thud that interrupts Cecilia's reverie is a letter from the movie theater marquee announcing the next week's movie, The Purple Rose of Cairo. It also firmly establishes us in Woody Allen's look at Depression-era New Jersey and the escape movies offered for those barely scraping by. The Purple Rose of Cairo happens to be the first Allen film I saw in a theater, but it didn't immediately leap to the top of my list of his best movies. It took time and repeat visits to truly appreciate what a near-perfect specimen this bittersweet comedy is.

I think part of the reason is that it is truly the only Woody Allen film that, if you took those familiar black-and-white credits away, you wouldn't recognize as coming from the writer-director. He's not aping Bergman. There is no character serving as the Woody surrogate either in a good way or an embarrassing way (think Kenneth Branagh in the god-awful Celebrity). It's the perfect blend of comedy, fantasy and realism and one of the greatest depictions of the magic of movies ever put on film.

Buster Keaton might have mixed the real world and the movie world in Sherlock Jr., but it was all a dream in the end. In The Purple Rose of Cairo, when Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) and his pith helmet step off the screen, the repercussions end up being both hilarious, touching and painfully real.

Allen manages to create several complete universes within his 1930s New Jersey. There is the comedy of the characters trapped in the black-and-white world of a movie story that has nowhere to go when Tom departs. There is the drama of Cecilia's bleak existence with her abusive husband Monk (Danny Aiello). There is the romance of Cecilia's adventure with the fictional Tom. There is the blend of satire and straight story as Hollywood descends on the town to try to put a lid on a brewing scandal and to stop Tom Baxters from leaping off the screen elsewhere in the world.

The merging of these worlds create a most unusual love triangle as Cecilia is torn between the perfect but two dimensional Tom and the real-life actor Gil Shepherd who brought him to life. Either one would be an improvement over life with Monk. Don't get me wrong that this is a "serious" Allen. There are a multitude of laughs, but very few seem to come from his usual sensibility. There are ample laughs wrung from the situation of a the fictional Tom wandering around New Jersey and encountering prostitutes and the need for real money. The characters still trapped in the film also provide plenty of opportunities for laughs.

The person though who keeps the entire film centered and deepens it beyond mere comedy is Farrow. She gets some laughs, but her plight is heartbreaking. Cecilia always found her escape from her miserable life of poverty and an abusive husband in the movies and now the movies offer her a chance for true permanent escape, either with a character who doesn't really exist or with the actor who could show her an entirely new life in Hollywood.

Daniels has the most difficult role and he handles it well. Tom is truly guileless and naive because the actor who created him just isn't that good an actor. On the other hand, Daniels' performance as the actor shows how far charm can carry you even when you're obsessed with your career. In the end, when Cecilia sees that her only future lies with Gil, not a two-dimensional character come to life, her blinders don't allow her to see that she's being played, though even Gil seems to have regrets as he quickly gets the hell out of New Jersey.

What really lifts The Purple Rose of Cairo into the realm of the transcendent is its ending. Certainly, it's sad that Cecilia loses both her leading men and has to return to Monk, but it shows the true love of her life is the movies as she wanders, despondent, into the theater and sees Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing up a storm again. However, she's saved by the movies and her sadness lifts, if only for that brief time that she's safe there in the dark.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007


Swear to tell the truth

By Edward Copeland
Everyone has them. Call them guilty pleasures or whatever else you want, but everyone has them: Movies you really like but that you feel you'd be ostracized or ridiculed for if your affection became common knowledge. Not today. We are all under oath, myself included, and it's time to give these films our due. It's not a time for mocking others. This is a time to come clean. Besides, if you are like me and insist on broadcasting your opinions to the entire world, you shouldn't hold some back for fear that you stand alone. That also goes for you, politicians. Opinions are subjective, so no opinion of something like a movie can be wrong. (Opinions on political issues can be wrong, but you should still stand by your opinions if you enter the political arena.) Still, I'm withholding the names of the handful of movies I've selected to mention until after the jump, just to be safe.

What prompted this little column was the habit of TNT of showing the same movie multiple times in a short period of time. Catching pieces frequently and remembering how much I love My Best Friend's Wedding. Then I anticipated what would happen if I wrote of my affection for the film and the fusillade of anti-Julia Roberts missiles that would start flying in my direction. I'm not ashamed to admit it: I'm a sucker for My Best Friend's Wedding. It gets me every time. Put aside your Julia prejudices out there for a moment: Can't just about all of you identify with a friendship that you wished could be more and been saddened when you realize that opportunity is about to be lost forever? Granted, most of us don't engage in some of the downright despicable things the unstable Julianne Potter (Roberts) does to try to sever Michael and Kimberly (Dermot Mulroney, Cameron Diaz) ahead of their wedding, but still you can identify with her.

On top of that, the film also is damn entertaining, thanks in no small part to Rupert Everett as Julianne's best gay friend George. He's not only there to provide plenty of laughs but to act as the voice of reason. In the film's climax as Michael chases an upset Kimberly and Julianne chases Michael, it's George who asks Julianne the crucial question, "Who's chasing you? Nobody. There's your answer." Then he's still there in time to shore up her lagging spirits post-wedding. As he tells her, "Maybe there won't be marriage, maybe there won't be sex, but by God there'll be dancing" and My Best Friend's Wedding is a film I never tire of taking a turn on the dance floor with.
Myra: Is it really that good?
Sidney: I'll tell you how good it is. Even a gifted director couldn't hurt it.

When I decided to expand this post beyond My Best Friend's Wedding, I thought I'd try to limit myself to one film per decade, but I'm skipping the aughts, the 1930s and the 1940s. My pick for the 1980s couldn't be more different from My Best Friend's Wedding. There isn't an ounce of sentiment in Deathtrap, but damn if it isn't fun.

I'll admit it, though it's probably not nice to say so, Christopher Reeve isn't very good in this movie, but Michael Caine, Dyan Cannon and Irene Worth more than make up for it. I can see how the twists upon twists upon twists might grow tiresome after awhile, but I think Sidney Lumet's version of Ira Levin's play proves infinitely more fun than Sleuth.

As we turn the clock back to the 1970s, my hidden joy returns to the land of schmaltz in the form of Same Time, Next Year. Even from my grade school years, this adaptation of the stage comedy was nearly a yearly ritual. Ellen Burstyn is great, even if the sudden shifts her character takes defy reason and she pretty much wipes the screen with Alan Alda. Still, the romance, the passage of time and the low-rent Neil Simon-esque comedy get me every time. Though, what I think really is the key to the spell this film casts on me is that damn sappy song: Johnny Mathis and Jane Olivor singing "The Last Time I Felt Like This" over montages of crucial events in each time period always gets to me. Plus, it was easy to win an elementary age kid over in the late 1970s when the last pivotal historical photo is one of C-3PO and R2-D2.
"And then they decide I'm supposed to get a smaller share, like I'm someone extra special stupid. Even if it is a democracy, in a democracy it don't matter how stupid you are, you still get an equal share."

Contributor Jeffrey has written at his blog Liverputty about The 90-Minute Rule, which essentially says that no comedy really should go past the hour-and-a-half mark, or it's pressing its luck. By and large, I agree, though there certainly are exceptions. The 40-Year-Old Virgin neared two hours and still managed to maintain itself. Still, though I know the length of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is comedic overkill, I'm still a softie when it comes to this movie. It's another film that I formed a bond with at an impressionable age that is difficult to break. That cast! It's absurd, it's too long and I still love it, especially for the priceless Ethel Merman, Jonathan Winters and Dick Shawn and for that insane ending with the fire engine's ladder. I used to recreate that in my younger days with Tonka trucks and Fisher-Price Adventure People, flinging them to various spots around my room. Just about any criticism that can be made about this film I know is right, but I still can't help it.

My final confession concerns another film that hooked me at an impressionable age and that's White Christmas. For years, I always heard people say that it wasn't as good as Holiday Inn, which introduced the classic yuletide tune first. Once I finally saw Holiday Inn, I couldn't believe anyone could ever say such a ludicrous thing. For one thing, the earlier film didn't have the tag-team comedy/matchmaking pairing of Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen or the sardonic touch of Mary Wickes. Even more importantly, White Christmas doesn't contain a salute to Lincoln's birthday with Bing Crosby in blackface which would be appalling if you weren't so shocked by what you're seeing in the first place. White Christmas is just plain fun. I still laugh when Bing and Danny lip-sync to "Sisters."

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Monday, March 26, 2007


Cute kid sans rose-colored glasses

By Edward Copeland
Over the years it seems as if there has been a nearly bottomless well of foreign language releases arriving on U.S. shores that revolve around cute kids to some extent with varying degrees of sugary sentiment.

They'd span the quality of great (Central Station) to good (Kolya) to unbearable (Burnt By the Sun).

That's why the Russian film The Italian (or Italianetz) seems a refreshing change of pace, even if it's not as good as some of those other films.

Part of the strength of the film is the kid himself, Vanya (Kolya Spiridonov), a resident of a horrid Russian orphanage who is on the verge of being adopted by an Italian couple. A series of events convince the orphans that not only might their real parents return for them some day but that the owners of the orphanage might be selling them to the highest bidders so their organs can be harvested.

It's Oliver Twist meets Dirty Pretty Things. Convinced that he shouldn't go with the couple, though he thinks they seem nice enough, Vanya runs away from the orphanage on a quest to find his real mother.

That's basically the simple story. There aren't any twists or tricks, just a gritty slice of life in contemporary Russia.

In addition to the talented Spiridonov, who ably carries the film on his small, young shoulders, there also are fine turns by Mariya Kuznetsova as Madam, who runs the seedy orphanage but doesn't overplay her role as the film's main villain, and most especially by Sasha Sirotkin as her sidekick, who often ends up on the wrong end of a beating.

The Italian marks the directing debut of Andrei Kravchuk from a script by Andrei Romanov and while it's far from a great film, it is a good one.

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Friday, March 23, 2007


Freddie Francis (1917-2007)

The great, two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis has died after suffering a stroke in December. He made his reputation in some of the top British films of the late 1950s and early 1960s such as Room at the Top and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. His second Oscar win was for the great look of 1989's Glory, prompted Haskell Wexler, a fellow 1989 Oscar nominee for Blaze to tell me in a 1990 interview that he was "so relieved that Freddie won."

Francis also worked as a director, but got typecast as a horror filmmaker and grew frustrated before eventually returning to cinematography and working with such modern greats as Martin Scorsese and David Lynch, whom he worked with three times, including on the last film he served as d.p. on, The Straight Story. From the LA Times obit:
Freddie Francis, a British cinematographer who won Academy Awards for Sons and Lovers (1960) and Glory (1989), died Saturday in London, British media reported. He was 89 and had suffered a stroke in December.
Known for his exquisite black-and-white photography in such British films of the 1950s and '60s as Room at the Top (1958) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), as well as Sons and Lovers, Francis finally got a chance to direct.
But he grew dissatisfied and returned to cinematography when David Lynch hired him to photograph The Elephant Man in 1980. The success of that project led to jobs with other prominent directors, including Karel Reisz for The French Lieutenant's Woman in 1981 and Martin Scorsese for Cape Fear in 1991. He was director of photography for Lynch two more times, in 1984 for Dune and in 1999 for The Straight Story.

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If you lose the war, don't blame me

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the 1927 Blog-a-Thon being coordinated at Goatdog's Blog.

NOTE: Ranked No. 18 on my all-time top 100 of 2012

By Edward Copeland
1927 offered quite a few of silent cinema's undisputed classics but when I thought about what to write about, I had to go with Buster Keaton and his largely unheralded co-director Clyde Bruckman's The General.

I'm sure it will be one of the more popular subjects this weekend but hell, when else was I gonna come up with a good excuse for writing about it? Rewatching the movie ahead of this, I was struck once again by what a masterwork it is.

Keaton and Charlie Chaplin seem permanently linked together as silent film's two great clowns but, though The General provides plenty of laughs, it should really be classified more as an adventure than a comedy because it produces just as much suspense as silliness.

It's also striking for a degree of realism in its Civil War setting that you wouldn't expect your run-of-the-mill comedy to take the effort to realize. What's even more fascinating is that even though Keaton's character of Johnny Gray is from the South and longs to help the Confederacy against the Union, neither side is portrayed in a particularly villainous light.

Of course, much of the humor of the film stems from Johnny Gray's two loves: Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) and his train engine The General. When the Confederate Army refuses to enlist Johnny, saying he's more valuable as an engineer, Annabelle's father misinterprets it as Johnny being a coward and tells Annabelle so, prompting her to tell Johnny she can't love him until he's wearing a soldier's uniform and disbelieving him when he tells her the real reason.

Honestly, it makes you wonder why he'd even care about someone who demands such a silly thing. However, when the Yankees steal his beloved train, Johnny rises to the occasion to retrieve it, unaware at first that they've taken Annabelle as well. The rest of the film is one long, funny and riveting chase.

When I think about it, many of my favorite comedies of all time really contain as much tension as gags such as Dr. Strangelove, His Girl Friday or After Hours.

I've always hated the great Keaton vs. Chaplin debate, as if it's impossible to love them both, which I do. It's also like comparing apples and oranges. The General vs. City Lights? Sherlock Jr. vs. Modern Times? Why be forced to pick? In a way, it's like Fred Astaire vs. Gene Kelly, with Chaplin taking the more stylish Astaire role while Keaton displays Kelly-like athleticism. I don't want to pick between those two either.

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Thursday, March 22, 2007


Animation with an edge

By Edward Copeland
It's always seemed to me that the entertainments I remember most fondly as a child, whether live action or animated, always had something scary about them. I know many a child who feared that those damn flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz would really come to get them or who truly felt it when Snow White died or Bambi's mother got shot. So how is it that most of what's perceived as "family films" have become so bland and nonthreatening? Thankfully, that's not the case with Monster House which I just caught up with and truly made me feel like a kid again without condescension.

Directed by Gil Kenan with a story and screenplay by Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab and Pamela Pettler, Monster House provides one of the most breathtaking fun rides I can recall recently.

It was one of the three nominees for this year's Oscar for animated feature. I still haven't caught up with Cars but I have to admit that I gave up on the winner, Happy Feet, after about 25 minutes. Monster House grabbed me from the beginning and held my interest until the end with its simple tale of the creepy house across the street and the mean old man who wants the kids to stay out of his yard (well voiced by Steve Buscemi).

What's great is that all of the characters have development that seems unusual for an animated work from the kids on the verge of puberty, to the young budding entrepreneur, from the goth baby sitter and the clueless cops to the spacey parents (voiced by Fred Willard and Catherine O'Hara, whose brief appearances here serve them better than For Your Consideration did).

If the story lags a bit in the final act, so much of what went before more than compensates. On top of that, the look and animation of Monster House is damn amazing.

From its opening shot of leaves falling that you would swear were actual leaves, the film perfectly bridges the gap between realism and fantasy in its animation. Monster House truly is fun, no matter how old or young you are.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007


Calvert DeForest (1921-2007)

You probably know him better as Larry "Bud" Melman, a staple of Late Night With David Letterman and Late Show With David Letterman, making many memorable and sometimes truly bizarre appearances. There isn't much to say about his passing, other than to acknowledge it. Ken Cancelosi has an excellent remembrance at The House Next Door that says everything about what Melman meant to people of a certain age better than I ever could. RIP Calvert. RIP Larry "Bud."

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) — Character actor Calvert DeForest, best known for his dead-pan appearances as the pudgy, bespectacled everyman Larry "Bud" Melman on David Letterman's late-night TV show, has died at age 85....
With his thick glasses, pasty complexion and spacey demeanor, he went on to make dozens of appearances as Larry Bud on Letterman's NBC program, assigned such oddball chores as handing out hot towels to arriving passengers at New York's main bus terminal and pamphlets urging defection to passers-by outside the Soviet Consulate.
He continued to show up on the Late Show with David Letterman after the host jumped to rival network CBS in 1993, but DeForest dropped the Larry "Bud" Melman moniker, which NBC claimed as its own intellectual property....
His last appearance on the Late Show was in 2002, celebrating his 81st birthday.
"Everyone always wondered if Calvert was an actor playing a character, but in reality he was just himself — a genuine, modest and nice man," Letterman said in a statement. "To our staff and to our viewers, he was a beloved and valued part of our show, and we will miss him."

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Perhaps I was too hard on Helen Hunt

By Edward Copeland
Earlier this year when we conducted our survey of the worst Oscar choices for best actress, I was surprised that Mary Pickford's win for Coquette managed to make the top 10 because I figured if an Oscar fanatic such as myself hadn't managed to see it, few others would have either. Thanks to TCM's annual 31 Days of Oscar, I managed to record Coquette and I finally got around to watching it. I have to think if more people such as myself had seen it, Pickford's atrocious performance in an even worse film would have landed even higher.

To say this 1929 film is creaky is to do a disservice to creaky films that are at least still watchable. This awful Southern melodrama concerns Norma Besant (Pickford), the daughter of well-to-do Southern doctor (John St. Polis) whose preoccupation with social image leads him to frown on the budding romance between Norma and Michael Jeffery (John Mack Brown).

Dr. Besant doesn't think Michael is worthy of his daughter or his family and demands an end to the forbidden romance. Of course, it's hard to keep lovers apart so I'm going to spoil the rest for you in the hopes you never have to endure this mess.

Dr. Besant goes out to confront Michael and ends up shooting him to death, making Norma torn between telling the truth of what happened or lying to say the shooting was justified in order to save her father.

Of course, in the courtroom, Dr. Besant can't stand to see his daughter torment herself by lying so he tells the judge to ignore her testimony and confesses everything before grabbing the pistol from the exhibit table (which for some reason is still loaded in the middle of the courtroom) and killing himself.

Pickford's silent beginnings are quite evident as every movement is overwrought and flamboyant and her wandering accent is laughable. However, she's hardly alone. Everyone in the cast is subpar, especially William Janney as her brother Jimmy who I swear looks in one scene as if he's reading from a Teleprompter.

Still, Pickford is the star and she's the one who picked up the second best actress Oscar ever, the first for a performance in a talkie. Of course, all the nominations were "unofficial" for 1928-29 and I've only seen Bessie Love in the awful best picture winner The Broadway Melody. I'll give the other unofficial nominees — Ruth Chatterton (Madame X), Betty Compson (Carrie), Jeanne Eagles (The Letter) and Corinne Griffith (The Divine Lady) — the benefit of the doubt and say that surely one of them had to be better than Pickford and Love.

I will give Coquette one minor bit of praise: director Sam Taylor's final shot of Norma leaving the courthouse as each passing street light illuminates when she passes was quite nice.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007


Catching the Big Fish by David Lynch

"Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you've got to go deeper."

By Edward Copeland
That's how David Lynch opens his charming and very quick read Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity. Ostensibly, the book tells of Lynch's journey through creative life and how he's been helped by Transcendental Meditation, but it's hardly a how-to guide. As one might expect from one of the most idiosyncratic American filmmakers, it's more stream of consciousness, sharing anecdotes from his life and his work.

I have an admission to make: I'm a sucker for books with short chapters. For some reason, if the chapters are shorter, I'll end up flying through the book faster than I would if the chapters were longer. I like frequent stopping points and Lynch's book provides ample opportunities for those but its short bites create a pace that's so quick, it's easy to finish in one setting.

One of the worst (as in arduous) reading tasks I ever endured was Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet, which not only lacked chapters, it didn't even have little spaces of breaks in the narrative where one could easily put it down if they had to sleep, go to the bathroom, work for a living, etc.

However, I digress and I shouldn't be concentrating on negativity while writing about a book devoted to bliss. (Though the factual error freak in me has to ask how when he mentions actors he works with a lot such as Kyle MacLachlan, he manages to misspell his last name.)

The book in no way serves as a sales pamphlet for TM, just tells how meditation helps Lynch, both in terms of making his art and surviving rough patches (such as Dune). One thing I found particularly interesting is that for someone such as Lynch who is so closely associated with dreams and dream-like images, the director says he's seldom been inspired by a dream when it came to making one of his films.

There are plenty of interesting tidbits from his many works. For example, who knew that he came up with the idea of the Red Room from Twin Peaks simply by touching the warm metal of a car on a particularly hot day.

He also gives many examples of how accidents on the set often seem to happen for a reason and should be embraced, the most famous being seeing set dresser Frank Silva on the Peaks set and coming up with the idea of BOB.

Lynch also shows he's still a fan, singing the praises of filmmakers such as Federico Fellini, Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock and sharing the glee he felt when he learned that Stanley Kubrick claimed that his favorite movie was Eraserhead and would often show it to people in his London home.

Lynch also declares that he's done with film now that he's discovered digital video and believes movie theaters are going away anyway as screens get smaller and require headphones, which he says is good in combat against the preponderance of talkers to be found at any public movie screening. I knew we were kindred spirits on some level, but when are you bringing INLAND EMPIRE where I can see it, Mr. Lynch?

He also vows never to do a commentary track for any of his movies because he feels that explaining anything would unfairly color the experience for the viewer. For any Lynch fan, Catching the Big Fish is well worth the read.

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Monday, March 19, 2007


A race of peeping toms

NOTE: Ranked No. 9 on my all-time top 100 of 2012

"We've become a race of peeping toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change."
Stella (Thelma Ritter) in Rear Window

By Edward Copeland
Sometimes, offhand statements can hit you like a ton of bricks, as if something you've always held to be true suddenly is revealed not to be the universal fact you always believed. This happened in the past week or so as several people, whose opinions I respect, suddenly (and not all in the same place) expressed beliefs that Rear Window is one of Alfred Hitchcock's weakest efforts. I was shocked because I honestly don't ever remember anyone ever saying much against this film, which I consider a masterpiece and which has long held a spot on my all-time Top 10 list. In his great and legendary book of interviews with Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut said that Notorious and Rear Window were his two favorite Hitchcock movies. I re-watched Rear Window to see if I'd missed something and to bolster my case for this as my top Hitchcock achievement.

"I love Hitchcock. Rear Window is a film that makes me crazy, in a good way. There's such a coziness with James Stewart in one room, and it's such a cool room, and the people who come into this room — Grace Kelly, for instance, and Thelma Ritter — it's just so fantastic that they're all in on a mystery that's unfolding out their window. It's magical and everybody who sees it feels that. It's so nice to go back and visit that place."
David Lynch in Catching the Big Fish

I'm pleased to report that Rear Window riveted me as much as always and I even found new things to admire in what I still insist is Hitchcock's greatest film. Rear Window plunges you into its mood immediately with its memorable credit sequence set to Franz Waxman's jazzy score, raising the shades to allow the viewer to gaze at one of the best sets ever built for a movie. We get glimpses of most of the stories taking place across the courtyard before we even meet a sleeping L.B. Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart), making us complicit in his voyeurism and invasion of privacy before he even takes up the hobby. Of course, we also get Hitch's great wordless opening that explains Jeff's broken leg and lets us know that he makes his living as a photographer. One thing that I always forget about Rear Window until I watch it again is how the bulk of its suspense is packed into its last half-hour. This isn't to say it doesn't hold your attention until then, but it's more domestic comedy and an exploration of ethics until that point.
"She's too perfect, she's too talented, she's too beautiful, she's too sophisticated, she's too everything but what I want."
Jeff talking about Lisa (Grace Kelly)

Part of the brilliance of John Michael Hayes' screenplay is that nearly every story that Jeff spies on through his window presents some aspect of his ambivalence toward marriage and toward Lisa. Before he even suspects that Lars Thorvald (Raymond Burr) has killed his wife, Jeff is resisting constant entreaties that he should wed: From his nurse Stella, from his editor and, eventually, from his police detective friend Lt. Doyle (Wendell Corey). Even though the laid-up Jeff exists in "a swamp of boredom" thanks to his injury, he still seems to prefer it to giving up his freedom and privacy for Lisa or for anyone. In his phone conversation with his unseen editor, Jeff expresses misgivings about life after marriage that will eventually be a possible motive for Thorvald.
Editor: It's about time you got married, before you turn into a lonesome and bitter old man.
Jeff: Yeah, can't you just see me, rushing home to a hot apartment to listen to the automatic laundry and the electric dishwasher and the garbage disposal and the nagging wife...
Editor: Jeff, wives don't nag anymore. They discuss.
Jeff: Oh, is that so, is that so? Well, maybe in the high-rent district they discuss. In my neighborhood they still nag.

As Jeff's boredom turns to outright peeping, he can see part of his life in nearly every story: His inability to work is expressed by the frustrated musician, the Thorvalds squabble, two newlyweds indulge in the bliss of their new beginning and another married couple live for their baby, who happens to be a dog. He also spots Miss Torso, who parades an endless series of men through her apartment, something Jeff fears Lisa would do if they got hitched and he was constantly away on photography assignments. Last, there is Miss Lonelyhearts, who represents a sad singlehood, though Jeff doesn't seem to see himself in her, though Lisa finds more to identify there than with Miss Torso, though neither woman seems an exact match for the gorgeous and cultured Lisa. In fact, you have to ask what Lisa sees in Jeff in the first place. As pointed out in Hitchcock/Truffaut, the film sets up real symmetry between the Thorvalds and Jeff and Lisa in that Jeff is an invalid and Lisa can move about while Mrs. Thorvald is an invalid and it's her husband who has the freedom of movement.
"Intelligence. Nothing has caused the human race more trouble than intelligence."

Stella isn't talking about WMDs or attempts to acquire uranium from Niger. She's referring to Jeff's tendency to overthink things, especially related to Lisa and marriage. Soon, his tendency to overanalyze starts the engine on the film's main thread as he suspects that Thorvald has killed Mrs. Thorvald. (He hears an unidentified scream 30 minutes in). Hitchcock actually makes his requisite cameo around the same time, appearing in the musician's apartment winding a clock, as if he's manually starting the plot. In that same opening shot where we first meet the sleeping Jeff, we see the thermometer indicating that it's an extremely hot summer day in New York, giving rise to the idea that heat could be allowing his imagination to get carried away just as 35 years later a hot summer day in Brooklyn would give rise to the tensions that propel Spike Lee's great Do the Right Thing. In fact, before Jeff convinces Lisa and Stella that Thorvald might have offed his wife, even the audience is led to think that perhaps it's all in Jeff's head. Hitchcock shows us Thorvald leaving the apartment with a woman presumed to be Mrs. Thorvald, but only the audience sees it because it happens while Jeff sleeps.
"People do a lot of things in private they couldn't possibly explain in public."
Lt. Thomas Doyle

Of course, Jeff isn't alone with his suspicions about Thorvald for long. Soon, Stella and Lisa are eager participants in his window sleuthing. He gets Doyle curious enough to do some leg work, but not enough to sell him on the idea that the sudden disappearance of the wife, the saws, the late night trips, etc. add up to proof that Lars Thorvald is a wife killer. Doyle even returns with witnesses who claim to have seen Mrs. Thorvald get on a train and a postcard from the wife telling Lars she'd arrived safely. For a moment, Jeff and Lisa think they've been wrong and are, as Lisa asks, "Jeff, you know if someone came in here, they wouldn't believe what they'd see? You and me with long faces plunged into despair because we find out a man didn't kill his wife. We're two of the most frightening ghouls I've ever known." It even gives Jeff pause to question his own ethics. "I wonder if it's ethical to watch a man with binoculars and a long focus lens. Do you, do you suppose it's ethical even if you prove that he didn't commit a crime?" Jeff wonders. However, when the couple across the way finds their cute little dog strangled to death after it had been poking around Thorvald's garden, they are certain they were right before, especially as the mourning woman accuses everyone of not knowing how to be good neighbors and not caring if anyone even lives or dies, even a poor friendly pooch, and everyone comes to their windows to look except Thorvald. Jeff and Lisa decide to be more proactive. Jeff scribbles a note to Thorvald asking where his wife is and Lisa slides it under his door prompting Thorvald to give the "kind of look a man makes when he thinks someone might be watching him." Joined by Stella, the trio get more daring, deciding to trick Thorvald out of the apartment so they can see what was buried under that plant. From this point out, the movie's tension tightens like a vise as Lisa decides to go further (after Jeff makes an anonymous phone call to lure Thorvald to a hotel) and climbs into his apartment to search for clues. Stella returns to Jeff in his apartment and Lisa gets trapped as Thorvald returns as Stella gets distracted by noticing that Miss Lonelyhearts appears to be about to kill herself. Thankfully, the police arrive before Thorvald can throttle Lisa (but not before she discovers his wife's wedding ring and spots Jeff across the way). As for Miss Lonelyhearts, she hears the composer's music coming from his apartment and decides to live. Ah, the healing power of art.
"Nobody ever invented a polite word for a killin' yet."

though the peepers do end up sending a murderer to jail and escape from their own fates, they still pay a price for their privacy invasions. Jeff's encounter with Thorvald leaves him with two broken legs instead of one and it looks certain that Lisa is in his life to stay whether he wants her or not (or whether marriage is in the offing). A return glance at the thermometer shows that the temperature has cooled down and every life and apartment has changed: Painters fix up the Thorvalds' apartment for the next tenants, Miss Torso welcomes back her true love, a nebbishy-looking enlisted man, the married couple get a new pet, Miss Lonelyhearts and the musician unite, the honeymoon appears to be over for the newlyweds as the young bride begins to nag her husband (Or are they discussing?) and Lisa makes certain to pull the shades down as Jeff naps and she secretly pulls out a fashion magazine.

"It was the possibility of doing a purely cinematic film. You have an immobilized man looking out. That's one part of the film. The second part shows what he sees and the third part shows how he reacts. This is actually the purest expression of a cinematic idea."
Alfred Hitchcock to Francois Truffaut

Truffaut wrote in his book The Films in My Life, "...I am convinced that this film is one of the most important of all the 17 Hitchcock made in Hollywood, one of those rare films without imperfection or weakness, which concedes nothing." I concur. For me, Rear Window nearly is perfect and revisiting it only strengthened my resolve on the matter. It is the ultimate exploration of film as voyeurism and the most triumphant example of Hitchcock's attempts to use a confined setting for a movie as he tried in Lifeboat and Rope. He truly was in control of his full faculties as a director in terms of pacing and just about everything else you can imagine. On top of that, there is always the great sequence of the kiss. I'm as puzzled now as I was when I first heard the naysayers express their lack of love for this masterpiece.

"Rear Window is a film about indiscretion, about intimacy violated and taken by surprise at its most wretched moments; a film about the impossibility of happiness, about dirty linen that gets washed in the courtyard; a film about moral solitude, an extraordinary symphony of daily life and ruined dreams."
Francois Truffaut from The Films in My Life

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Friday, March 16, 2007


More than a documentary

By Edward Copeland
In an interview with Roger Ebert for the DVD release of Michael Apted's 49 Up, the seventh installment of his documentary series that began in 1963, the director acknowledges how the project has changed from what began as a leftist attack on the British class system into something much larger and moving as it checked in every seven years on the lives of people viewers first met at 7 years old, many of whom are now grandparents.

Several of the interviewees compare the project to current reality shows, but it has become much deeper than that, and really can hardly be classified as a mere documentary anymore. This isn't just a film anymore: It's life.

In the conversation between Apted and Ebert, they talk about how DVD has made the series such a different experience. Whereas people such as Ebert actually waited seven years between installments, it's possible for someone to go through all seven films and 42 years in a a couple of days.

For me, I saw 7 Up through 35 Up in a short span of time, but have had the requisite gap between the latest two installments. It's fascinating to see as these people you first met at 7 grow older, marry, divorce, have kids and grandkids, change jobs and attitudes.

Except on rare occasions, such as mentions of Tony Blair, there is little to even pinpoint the time being depicted, making the lives seem universal and timeless. For the most part, this is the first installment where most of the participants seem happy. In the interview, Ebert and Apted discuss the approach of mortality and what Apted would do should one of his subjects start to die between the seven years or if Apted himself should predecease his subjects, who would carry the project forward?

It's a question that's probably crossed the mind of any viewer of the Up films but seems particularly poignant since the question comes from Ebert in a June 2006 interview, not too long before the last time anyone outside his family and friends have actually seen the ailing and recovering film critic.

Still, it's nourishing to revisit these people and glimpse their lives. You would think that eventually an element of boredom would set in, but nothing is further from the truth. Each new installment seems to deepen the entire project's scope and meaning.

Very little happens in the way of fireworks except for one scene where one of the subjects accuses Apted of misjudging her and misrepresenting her through his editing. Otherwise, what's so extraordinary about these people is their ordinariness. Even when one of the subjects admit he's only still participating to promote a pet cause, it doesn't seem crass.

None of them achieved fame (or infamy). They just live their lives and allow us to peek in every seven years. The Up project truly is one of a kind.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007


Nails on a chalkboard

Everybody has them, whether they admit it or not: Actors and actresses whose mere presence set your teeth on edge because something about them, whether logical or illogical, whether you think they just suck or whether there is something more intangible. (NOTE: I just included the above photo of Robert Shaw from Jaws to illustrate the title, not to reflect an opinion of him, whom I like a great deal). Of course, they often spark fierce debates as proponents of one actress duel with her opponents and vice versa, so I figured the time was ripe to discuss this in more depth. Yes, I am going to bash on Danny Huston some more. You've been warned.


Since Huston currently occupies the top spot among actors who set my teeth on edge because I don't think he can act. At his best, he's a nonentity who doesn't harm a movie much, at his worse (think John Sayles' Silver City), he can destroy an entire film. Silver City might not have worked with anyone in Huston's role, but he certainly didn't help. His scenes in Birth, an embarrassing excuse of a movie to begin with, are even more cringe-inducing. When he goes after the kid, his acting is so atrocious, it reminded me of those worst Kevin Costner moments when his limited ability to express emotion catapults you out of any movie he's in. I know people who are convinced that I'm wrong about Huston, so I decided I'd start sleuthing the only way I could think of, namely perusing critics' comments on his work. To my surprise, no matter what film or what critic I looked up, most of the time, Huston barely gets any mention, negative or positive, beyond a sentence telling the role he plays in the film in question. It seems to back up my theory: He's so uncharismatic that he leaves no impression at all most of the time. Not many people say he's bad because most people suffer amnesia when it comes to remembering he was even in any given movie to begin with. It was a bit of disappointment: I wanted to find some nice slams but not much is written about him at all except in reviews of The Proposition, which I admittedly gave up on before he even showed up.


Speaking of Kevin Costner, he's a more unusual case. When he first came to my attention in The Untouchables, I thought he was bland and milquetoast but the film itself was so much fun and everyone else made up for his weaknesses, that I didn't think about him much. Though admittedly, Wagstaff and I used to have a running gag about that hysterical Sean Connery death scene where Costner's Eliot Ness keeps asking the poor dying man what he wants, picking up item after item off the apartment floor. Then Costner did some really smart things. First, he got cast in Bull Durham. My argument has always been that you could take just about anyone off the street, give them Ron Shelton's lines to read, and they'd probably come off as well as Costner did, but at least he did summon charisma and again surrounded himself with great actors such as Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins. He followed this strategy again the next year with Field of Dreams, where the strong script and great cast covered up his lack of acting prowess. Then, however, Costner got careless. Revenge was the first sign. Despite his Oscars for Dances With Wolves, it was clear to me how bad he was in it. Imagine an actor with talent playing that part. Did anyone really believe he was suicidal in the film's opening sequences? Then came the horrors of Robin Hood and his first in repeated bad attempts to do other accents. The spell was broken and I couldn't not see how bad he was, even in movies I might otherwise like such as Oliver Stone's JFK, with another bad accent and really laughable "reaction" shots. Watch him when he learns Robert Kennedy has been killed and try not to giggle. Then, as if he hadn't inflicted enough damage on his career, came Waterworld and The Postman. (One of my favorite all-time Simpsons gags: the DVD commentary for The Postman which consisted of Costner on a split screen just repeatedly saying, "I'm sorry.")


I imagine someday if there is some kind of reference source that explains the origin of the phrase "nails on a chalkboard," the photo that accompanies it will be one of Lori Petty. Unlike Huston (or Costner), I've never found anyone who defends this freak who can make any movie she's in unbearable. Even the watchable A League of Their Own was undermined by her casting as Geena Davis' sister. She's so annoying in it, who has any sympathy for her complaints? In fact, more likely they are hoping a drunken Tom Hanks will go out and bash her head in with a baseball bat so she shuts up. He may think that there's not supposed to be crying in baseball, but there really shouldn't be acting this bad in movies about baseball either. For that matter, movies about killer whales, Army comedies, comic hostage situations in car dealerships and anything else Petty has appeared in. The last time I saw her she was ruining a short commercial for horse racing in the Tri-State area. I haven't checked, did she destroy pari-mutuel betting as we know it from people afraid she'd be at the track?


Picking on Shore is almost too easy, but when I actually found online a photo of the movie scene that scarred me for life from Bio-Dome with Stephen Baldwin chewing off Shore's toenails, I knew he must be included. Besides, he co-starred with the aforementioned Lori Petty in In the Army Now, so it seemed a natural segue. Of course, why kick a freak when he's down? I know why: Because I can. There was a time when people inexplicably enjoyed this moron who managed to make buddy into a five-syllable word. Of course, his time mercifully passed and other savvier film killers such as Adam Sandler sprang to prominence (and as bad as Sandler is when he does one of his patented annoying characters such as in The Waterboy or Little Nicky, he's even more insufferable when he tries to turn "serious" in things such as Punch Drunk Love or Spanglish. Thankfully, I think he may be subsiding as well. At least I can hope so.


In an appearance on one of the Oscar broadcasts in the 1980s, Liberace said, "I've done my part for movies — I've stopped making them." Thankfully, Kate Capshaw has pretty much done that as well. Hell, if you're married to Steven Spielberg and can't act your way out of — well, anything — why keep working and making the rest of us suffer? She ruined Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (though I can't prove that it would have worked with an actress playing her role either), although I admit I would have liked it better if Mola Ram had pulled her heart out when she was on the sacrificial altar. Capshaw gave an impressive list of awful performances in movies that were sometimes even worse such as Spacecamp, My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys and Black Rain. Still, my favorite Capshaw story always will be her work on the late soap opera Edge of Night. She was hired to play a character who only had six months to live — but she was so awful they fired her almost immediately because they couldn't handle her stinking up the screen for even that short a period of time. Stay at home Kate. Even your husband has been wise enough not to cast you in any of his movies since you snared him away from Amy Irving on Temple of Doom.


Now, there is hope for some of these performers who grate on me (well, maybe not for Lori Petty) and Douglas is evidence of that. As Josh R wrote in an earlier post Is Michael Douglas a male chauvinist pig?, for most of his acting career, I just found Douglas to be intrinsically unlikable in just about anything he made. No matter whether his character was the "victim" or not, I found myself rooting against him in movies such as Falling Down, Disclosure and Fatal Attraction. He even teamed with another acting demon on this list, Kate Capshaw, in Black Rain, where he played a horrendous American cop in Japan. When his partner Andy Garcia got killed, I lamented in my review that the wrong officer got killed since that meant Douglas would stick around. The only time I found that my resistance to him worked was in War of the Roses, where it helped that he was a bastard. However, Douglas managed to turn me around with his great portrayal of Grady Tripp in the adaptation of Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys. Not only did Douglas give his best performance, I went from periodically railing against his Oscar win for best actor for Wall Street to railing against his snub for Wonder Boys. So, there is hope for getting off my shitlist.


Another example of someone who won me over is Kim Cattrall. She was just awful in films ranging from Big Trouble in Little China to Bonfire of the Vanities. She even sucked in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, where she was assigned the task of playing a Vulcan, who presumably should show no emotions and she couldn't even pull that off. In fact, for a long time I even offered a theory that any actor with the initials K.C. must suck (Kevin Costner, Kirk Cameron, Kate Capshaw, Kim Cattrall. Only Keith Carradine seemed to be a possible exception, unless you saw him in The Ties That Bind). Then came HBO's Sex and the City and Cattrall's role of Samantha. My dislike of Cattrall made me avoid the show for a long time for fear that I couldn't possibly like it with her in it. However, I eventually caught up and she proved me wrong. Perhaps it was a case of the perfect merging of an actress and a role, but Cattrall was great as Samantha. Now, I haven't seen her in anything since Sex and the City (I missed that Britney Spears movie. Damn!) Maybe Cattrall will revert to being on my list of actors who grate on me, but for now I'll give her the benefit of the doubt because as Samantha she was damn good.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007


Betty Hutton (1921-2007)

“I am not a great singer and I am not a great dancer but I am a great actress, and nobody ever let me act except Preston Sturges. He believed in me.”
Betty Hutton in 1971

I fear already what will happen later today as my young co-workers wander into the office and I sadly announce the passing of Betty Hutton and they inevitably will say, "Who?" She may have faded from the pop culture landscape except for film buffs such as myself, but Hutton certainly deserves salute and remembrance. From her great work in my favorite Preston Sturges' comedy, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, to her fun turn in The Perils of Pauline, Hutton was a spunky powerhouse of a presence.

I regret that I never got the chance to catch up with her work in the film version of the musical Annie Get Your Gun, where she replaced Judy Garland as Annie Oakley, and you can't blame her for being stuck in the Oscar-winning turkey that is The Greatest Show on Earth. According to IMDb, her last appearance as an actress was in an episode of TV's Baretta in 1977. Her output might have been slim, but it was hardly paltry. RIP Ms. Hutton.

For the full Washington Post obit, click here.

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Monday, March 12, 2007


Deja Tru

By Edward Copeland
Poor Douglas McGrath. Taking an oral history of Truman Capote's life by George Plimpton as his starting point, he set out to make a movie that focused on Capote writing In Cold Blood. Unfortunately, there was another little movie called Capote about the same time period percolating and it managed to get to a boil faster and earned its star, Philip Seymour Hoffman, a well-deserved Oscar for best actor. McGrath's version, Infamous, came out the following year and was inevitably compared to the much-lauded earlier version. It's a shame because while both movies are good, Infamous actually is the better of the two.

In Infamous, the role of the famous writer/social gadfly goes to British actor Toby Jones. It's a tough call on who wins the Capote battle between Jones and Hoffman. Jones certainly looks the part more than Hoffman and his imitation really is a more accurate one, but I think Hoffman gets underneath Truman's skin a bit more.

Still, Infamous as a movie is better than Capote. While Capote tugged more emotionally, Infamous has sharper writing, more wit and though I liked Clifton Collins Jr. as killer Perry Smith, I think Daniel Craig's portrayal in Infamous is vastly superior.

Collins played the killer too softly and with too much delicacy. Craig makes Perry a hardened killer without sacrificing his character's complexity or making it difficult to see how Capote falls for him. To see the same basic story told in two different ways in such close proximity to each other actually is quite fascinating.

Whereas Capote used such washed-out color that it almost appeared black and white, Infamous embraces color vibrantly, only slowly washing out the images as the film turns darker. It also benefits by the inclusion of "testimonials" by people playing figures in Capote's life such as Diana Vreeland (Juliet Stevenson), Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver) and Bennett Cerf (Peter Bogdanovich).

Of course, there is one other pair of performances to compare: The battle of the Harper Lees, and I think Catherine Keener in Capote bests Sandra Bullock in Infamous, if only because her role seemed more fleshed out in the first film and Keener didn't try to tack on a Southern accent.

While I think I might give a slight edge to Hoffman's portrayal, this is no slight to Jones, who really should have been considered for this year's best actor prize. Still, I was pleasantly surprised by how much more I enjoyed Infamous than Capote. Though it's been more than a year since I've seen Capote, Infamous to me seems to paint more clearly the slow unraveling of Truman Capote the man than the earlier film did.

In a way, it's like the tortoise vs. the hare except, unfortunately, in the film industry, it's nearly impossible for the tortoise to prevail. One thing this double-barrelled look at this period in time has accomplished, at least for me, is a desire to re-read In Cold Blood.

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Friday, March 09, 2007


She saved TV a lot

"Trust me, only someone who had lived underground for ten years would think that was still the look."
— Buffy Summers, "Welcome to the Hellmouth" (March 10, 1997)

By Edward Copeland
Ten years later, Buffy the Vampire Slayer still looks as stylish as ever to me. Admittedly, I was a latecomer to the Buffyverse, catching up out of order with reruns on FX and only watching Season 7 as it actually aired. (Actually, I did see one Buffy before FX. I watched the delayed premiere of Season 3's "Graduation Day Part 2" because of all the hubbub when they pulled it because of Columbine. Funny, I don't remember the killers at that Colorado high school transforming into giant serpents and using an army of vampires. I must have missed that part of the story). I never had much interest, no matter how many people I knew said good things about the show, because the taste of the lame 1992 theatrical movie still lingered in my mouth. How wrong I was and how great Joss Whedon was in translating a movie misfire into a classic television series. Has there ever been another instance of a so-so movie spawning a really good TV show? If so, I can't think of one.

TV's M*A*S*H was a watered-down but still good facsimile of Robert Altman's great movie MASH before it became too self important and went on long past its prime. I can think of countless examples that didn't work or were fair at best, but Buffy is the only one that I can think of that improved on its film source. Admittedly, I'm not as obsessive as other fans are about the show, but despite some real clunkers of episodes (Am I alone in being bored silly by any episode that mainly focuses on Angel's past in Europe? By the way, why did his accent vanish but Spike's remain?) and nearly one entire season that could be thrown out (I'm looking at you Season 4), Buffy became one of my all-time favorites. It's worth noting that I'm somewhat odd when it comes to DVD collecting (or maybe I just think I am). Some shows, I have to have the entire run (such as The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Soap, Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm) but Buffy falls into the same category as The X-Files (I only have Season 6) and Homicide: Life on the Street (I stopped with Seasons 1-3) for me: I only collect my very favorite seasons.

I only own two seasons of Buffy on DVD: Season 6 and, in my opinion, its very best one, Season 3. I might get Season 2 someday (How can you not love Angelus? He made David Boreanaz much more interesting.). Season 1 is a possibility as well to get to see Mark Metcalf as The Master, though I still wish he could have said something akin to "a pledge pin! On your uniform!", but I doubt I'll ever get 5 or 7 (even with the fun of Glory (Clare Kramer) and the heartbreak of "The Body") and I KNOW Season 4 will never take up shelf space ("Hush" or no "Hush"). I know some big Buffy fans who disagree with me about Season 4, but I found most of that season to be a waste. Sure, "Hush" was fun and Spike (James Marsters) really started to come into his own, but the whole story with The Initiative, Adam and the bland Marc Blucas, you can keep those. Skip from Season 3 to Season 5 and I don't think you'll miss much that's vital. Since this post really is to mark the 10th anniversary of the show as a whole, I'm going to concentrate on Seasons 3 and 6, since those are my favorites.


I realize that not everyone was crazy with Season 6 as a whole but if the only episode it offered was the incomparable musical extravaganza "Once More, With Feeling," that alone would be worth a DVD purchase. However, Season 6 offered much more than just that. Rewatching Season 6 recently what struck me most was that while it's often painted as the series' darkest season, it's really the most deft blend of all the elements that made Buffy great. What's spectacular about Season 6 is that while the usual supernatural elements are there, the focus really is on living in the real world and the ostensible "big bad" for the season are the comical trio of nerds (from left, Danny Strong, Adam Busch and Tom Lenk), quite human, only able to use supernatural things for their diabolical ends, usually with mixed results. It's only as the season progresses that you see that the three, particularly Warren, can be just as deadly as The Master, the Mayor or Glory, only they have to rely on common weapons such as firearms and the damage left in their wake turns out to be even more heartbreaking because of it. In fact, the trio are more annoyance compared to the problems the Scooby Gang face for most of the season. Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) turns to fast food because of money problems. Willow and Tara (Alyson Hannigan, Amber Benson) have problems over Willow's growing addiction, not to drugs or alcohol but to magic. Xander and Anya (Nicholas Brendon, Emma Caulfield) move toward the altar before Xander has second thoughts. Even Spike has to cope with being lovesick for his immortal enemy, the slayer.

The masterpiece of this season and, perhaps, the series is "Once More, With Feeling," the best attempt any television show has ever made at having a musical episode, something made more amazing when you realize that Joss Whedon who wrote all the songs was really trying it for the first time. The score is so good, it's worth buying the episode's CD just to listen to. Compare it to the recent musical episode of Scrubs, which while entertaining did little in the way of advancing story or character. "Once More, With Feeling" actually is able to do something normal stage musicals can't in that all the songs are driven by the characters and the plot. Since it's coming well into the series' story, no exposition is necessary. The episode also excels at what Season 6 as a whole does, perfectly balancing the sudden swings between humor, pathos and horror. Every time I watch this episode, it's more impressive than the last. It also sets up what may be the most heartbreaking moments the show ever produced.

The death of Joyce Summers (Kristine Sutherland) in Season 5's "The Body" certainly was sad, but it doesn't come close to preparing viewers for the death of Tara, the emergence of "Dark Willow" and Giles' return. The final three episodes of this season are breathtaking, none more so than its conclusion when a grieving Willow is determined to destroy the world and no magic in the world can stop her, only the humanity of the love of her longtime friend Xander (Brendon's finest moment in the series). Television doesn't make me cry often, but watching this conclusion between Xander and Willow always gets to me. It even adds on Buffy's realization that she's glad to be alive again and tosses in the cliffhanger of Spike regaining his soul to boot. As I'm writing, I'm liking Season 6 even more than when I began this post.


The fun of Season 3 is much more conventional when compared to Season 6, but it always stands out for me because of two actors, neither of whom were series regulars before the season started: Eliza Dushku as Faith and the Emmy-robbed Harry Groener as Mayor Richard Wilkins. Groener has to go down in television history as one of the most unique and sunniest of villains to ever grace any show. Obsessed with cleanliness and good manners and downright square at times, he also happens to be making deals with demons to ascend into a demon form himself — and he's hilarious doing it. Dushku adds spice as well as another slayer who turns to the bad side and who represents the flip side of Buffy, the bad girl she'd like to be at times. Still, the arc of the Mayor and Faith aren't what make this season the standout.

Aside from the season premiere "Anne," which bored me, the Buffy staff nearly hit every episode out of the park. In fact, I think I enjoy this season so much because so much of it is played for laughs (the same reason X-Files Season 6 is my favorite). You get Buffy and Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) battling to become homecoming queen while new vamp in town Mr. Trick (K. Todd Freeman) sets up a "SlayerFest" and the participants assume Cordi is Faith. That's followed up with the hysterical "Band Candy" where the town's grownups start acting like teens, with Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) returning to his delinquent days and fooling around with Joyce. We even see a new side of Principal Snyder (Armin Shimerman). Then we're treated to the arrival of the new watcher in town, Wesley Wyndam-Price (Alexis Denisof, whom I'll always resent for wooing Hannigan in real life. Bastard), followed in short order by the return of a drunken, lovesick Spike who has been jilted by Drusilla, the introduction of Anya in her vengeance demon mode, Xander's inferiority complex and the return of Vampire Willow from the alternate universe in "Dopplegangland."

Then, before we're able to have too much fun, we're treated to "Earshot," where Buffy can hear the thoughts of a student planning to mow down his classmates and has to rush to stop him. The season ends with the one-two-three punch of the devil dogs of "The Prom" and the sweet tribute Buffy gets from her classmates and both halves of "Graduation Day." I'm glad I got to see the show later, because I think seeing "Earshot" and the finale out of order would have ruined the rhythm of a nearly perfect season. I just thought of something else that connects Seasons 3 and 6 that might not occur immediately even to the most rabid Buffy fans: Amy (Elizabeth Anne Allen) becomes Amy the rat in Season 3's "Gingerbread" when the adults go on a witchhunt and she doesn't turn back into a human until Season 6's "Smashed," when Willow finally figures out how to return her to human form.

I'm sure by now most Buffy fans realize that a Season 8 is about to be upon us. Alas, it won't be in the form of film or TV, but rather comic book as Joss Whedon has written the story and the first few installments of a comic series that picks up where Season 7 ended and which premieres from Dark Horse Comics next week. I'm ready to leap back into the Buffyverse. Happy 10th anniversary.

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