Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My Ten Best Films of 2008...

Okay, I lied…. this isn't a "10 Best" list. It's a "10 Favorite" list.

I always feel that as soon as you introduce the word "best," everyone feels compelled to pick movies with important themes, weighty subjects and serious performances.

Which isn't to say I don't think these films are top of the line: Everyone of them stuck with me in one way or another. It's just by way of explaining why some of the films that seem to be on everyone else's lists aren't here.

Oh, and they're not listed in order of preference or importance. I love them all.

Let the Right One In

Jar City

The Fall

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

The Bank Job

American Zombie


Diary of the Dead

Slumdog Millionaire

Azur and Asmar

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom II... This is not a joke!

I'm sure there are Phantom lovers everywhere whose hearts are already leaping at the news that Webber is well into writing the sequel, Love Never Dies to his insanely popular Broadway show, as reported in this lengthy piece from the Times of London.

I confess, I never saw the show on stage, only as the 2004 movie Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera. But I don't think it would have made a difference, because my biggest complaint is that the only memerable scrap of music in the entire score is the six-note Phantom theme. And there's no blaming Joel Schumacher for that.

I do like the rumor that Torchwood's John Barrowman is in the running for the role of the Phantom, though. Let's hope his nude swim in Webber's swimming pool gives him an edge.

Goodbye, Ann Savage, noir's most fatale femme...

In a shadowy sea of seductively lethal ladies, Detour star Ann Savage, who died on December 27th, two months shy of her 88th birthday, was the most poisonous of them all. An exterminating angel hitchhiking on a desert highway, her hard-bitten, predatory Vera thumbs a ride with a failed New York jazz pianist who just wants to join his girlfriend in California; by the time she's done with him, he's passed rock bottom and gone straight to a sunwashed living hell.

Born Bernice Lyon in South Carolina, Savage changed her name when she became an actress and worked her way through a series of small parts in undistinguished movies. Poverty-row thriller Detour was shot in a breathless four days on sets so cheap they're barely there, but Savage's seething performance helped make it a film noir classic.

She made a dozen some odd films after Detour and did some television, but her career peaked with the b-movies she made in the 1940s and by the late '50s she was all but done. Married since the early '40s to agent-turned-financier Bert D'Armand, Savage devoted herself to her marriage, which ended with his death in 1969.

In 2006, Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin, a lifelong fan, persuaded Savage to appear in his phantasmagoric, semi-autobiographical My Winnipeg (2007) as the fictional "Guy Maddin"'s shrewish mother. Thank you, Guy Maddin, for giving Ann Savage the gift of one last memorable part.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Shhhh, Shhhh... Bang, Bang!

Not that I would ever advocate pulling a gun on that son of a bitch who's been talking all the way through the movie you paid $11.50 to see, but this article does touch a certain nerve:

Movie Theater Shooting

I grew up loving the experience of going to the movies, but more and more I'd rather just see them at home, and a big part of the reason is that most people now treat movie theaters as an extension of their living rooms and feel free to argue, whisper, eat — and I'm not talking popcorn; I'm talking full meals, with all the noise that entails — ignore their crying babies and and chat/text on their cell lphones the entire time.

Movie theaters aren't churches, but they also aren't basement rec rooms, thank you very much.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

New reviews: The Spirit and Last Chance Harvey

My reviews of The Spirit and Last Chance Harvey are now live.

Check them out if you have a chance...

Friday, December 26, 2008

Farewell, Eartha "Catwoman" Kitt....

The sultry singer, dancer and actress Eartha Kitt, whose shamelessly materialistic "Santa Baby" (1953) trumped "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" by adding a velvet-throated streak of holiday dyspepsia, died on Christmas day, aged 81.

Born in South Carolina in 1927, Kitt escaped a grim childhood to join the pioneering Katherine Dunham Company, which showcased the talents of African American dancers, musicians and choreographers at a time when they were generally relegated to small, stereotyped comic roles.

Kitt's carefully crafted persona — sexy, sophisticated and devestatingly self-aware &madash; played equally well on Broadway and in cabarets, on TV and records and in movies. In 1967 she took over the role of Catwoman in TV's Batman after Julie Newmar left the show, and seduced a generation of comic book fans.

Throughout her life and career, Kitt defied racism, sexism and ageism to exactly as she wanted. She embraced the role of sex kittne, but never hid her formidable intelligence or well-thought out political opinions, even when she paid the price: Her opposition to the Vietnam War relegated her work in Europe and put her on the FBI's radar.

Eartha Kitt was a true diva, not a spoiled, sulky little girl; she built herself from the ground up and earned everything that ever came to her.

She will be sorely missed.

Watchmen Christmas news!

I confess: I didn't read the papers yesterday because I was busy cooking.

But what a Watchmen bombshell lay buried in the business section of the New York Times: On Christmas Eve, Judge Gary A. Feess (what a name!) announced his ruling that 20th-Century Fox has the right to distribute Watchmen. Merry Christmas Warner Bros., and here's your lump of coal as big as the Ritz.

This Variety article is a good introduction to the legal morass in which Zack Snyder's much-anticipated adaptation of the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel is now mired.

All I can say is, I'm so happy I'm not a Warners executive right now.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Chipmunks Christmas Quiz!

What band just covered the Chipmunks' "Christmas Don't Be Late?"

a.) They Might Be Giants
b.) Flight of the Conchords
c.) Jars of Clay

If you guessed, you probably got it wrong.

Not only did Christan rockers Jars of Clay cover "Christmas Don't Be Late," as part of the multi-band Love Came Down at Christmas Tour, but frontman Dan Haseltine called it "one of the most important Christmas songs ever written." Really. I read it in The New York Times.

I hearby officially take back anything I've ever said about Christian rockers having no sense of humor. And if Jars of Clay cover the Hampster Dance, I might even buy the album.

And now, on a trivial note, the Chipmunks were created by 50 years ago by musician Ross Bagdasarian, who was going through a bad patch and came up with the idea of a novelty recording using sped-up voices. The result, "Witch Doctor," was a hit:

Okay, maybe you knew that. But did you know Bagdasarian was in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window? He appears about halfway through this trailer, as the voice over narrator intones "…the songwriter who plays the same melody over and over again… genius or insane?"

Insane all the way to the bank, I'd say.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Prefiguring 9/11 in movies and on TV...

Back when I was a, some three iterations before the current site, we did a prominently placed news item about the pilot of X-Files spin off The Lone Gunmen. We posted it some six months after the pilot aired and a good two months after it was canceled.

The pilot debuted on March 4, 2001, and the last aired June 1st — apparently viewers just weren't getting with eccentric sidekicks steeped in conspiracy theories. But after 9/11 that first episode, which revolved around a plot to fly a commercial airliner into one of the World Trade Center towers, took on a whole new significance.

Flash forward to December 2008. It's late, I'm half-watching an episode of the old UPN sci-fi series Seven Days (which ran from October 1998 to October 2000) and suddenly I'm seeing smoke pouring from a ruined segment of the Pentagon. Eek.

The episode, "Pinball Wizard," first aired on October 6, 1999, and involves a disgruntled super-programmer who decides to show the US government just how big a mistake it made when it rejected his anti-terrorist defense system. If there's a clip online, I couldn't find it. The episode itself is pretty clich├ęd stuff, but I don't remember anyone ever pointing out how disturbing the Pentagon footage looks in retrospect.The military's much-derided post 9/11 decision to invite Hollywood filmmakers to meet with representatives of army intelligence and discuss terrorist scenarios seems more reasonable with every passing day.

And now for a bizarre coincidence. A couple of years ago I watched the 1975 thriller The Human Factor, in which programmer John Kinsdale (George Kennedy), who's in Naples tweaking a supercomputer designed to run war-game simulations for NATO, loses his family to political terrorists and takes bloody revenge. It's standard-issue Euro-thriller stuff, even if it was directed by late great Edward Dmytryck (Crossfire, Murder, My Sweet, The Sniper, The Caine Mutiny), except for the name of the computer: 911.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Bollywood gets serious with movies about recent "siege of Mumbai..."

Apparently Bollywood producers are falling over each other to develop films about the three-day terrorist attack on two luxury Mumbai hotels that killed more than 150 people and injured scores of others.

Frankly, I'm a little surprized — the industry isn't big on grim films about politics and war — for one thing, they don't lend themselves easily to all-singing, all-dancing production numbers. Movies like Black Friday, a non-musical about the 1993 Mumbai bombings, are few and far between.

On the other hand, "torn from today's headlines" is a good hook, and however much Indian audiences love movies, there are a lot of them jostling for a finite number of rupees. So stay tuned...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Hooray for Bollywood!

I've just added a seperate Bollywood area to Miss and I hope you'll take a look...

I see a lot of mainstream Indian movies — or at least, I see a lot for an American critic — so I figured I might as well showcase them.

Right now there are only two reviews up — the new Rab ne Bana di Jodi and the gender-bending comedy of sexual manners Dostana — but I'm going to spend the weekend posting such delights as the 2003 Bhoot (imagine The Exorcist in Mumbai...), the sumptuously Moulin Rouge-like Saawariya (2007) and the just plain astonishing Road (2002), in which an eloping couple pick up the wrong hitchhiker on their trip from Delhi to Jodhpur.

I have such sights to show you...

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The decline and fall of the English language: Screening invitation edition

"You are invited to a special advanced screening of title omitted to protect the guilty.

So, just how advanced is it?

Is a placement test necessary? Do I need to bring proof that I hold an advanced degree? Will there be a quiz following the screening?

I don't want to be a super language geek, but certain things drive me crazy.

It's and its. The phrase "based of off." Closure vs. closing (as in, "...and now from shadow traffic, we have multiple closures on the L.I.E...").

And advanced screenings. They're "advance screenings," meaning "in advance of release."

I sometimes feel as though this is Humpty Dumpty's world and I just live in it.

To quote from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."

"The question is,' said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master — that's all."

That was, by the way, written in 1865. Plus ca change..."

Monday, December 15, 2008

And the winners are... the EDA Awards for 2008 films

I'm just back from my second critics' awards-oriented event in two days. In addition to being a member of the New York Film Critics Online, I'm vice president of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, which just announced its 2008 awards and then threw a party to celebrate.

AWFJ is an organization of professional female critics, journalists, reporters and academics; it was founded in 2006 to spotlight both women who make movies and women who write about them. This is our third year of giving awards, and in addition to the usual citations we have special categories for films by, about and of particular interest to women, as well as a couple that never fail to provoke um, interesting conversation. Best Depiction Of Nudity or Sexuality, for example... if you want the skinny on that one, scroll down.

Circa Tabac partners Lee Ringelheim and Brian Michaels provided specialty cocktails inspired by four of this year's film honrees: The Slumdog Millionaire mango martini was my favorite, but I saw a gaggle of guests hoisting unrepentently blue Frozen Rivers. Yum. Speaking of guests, they included Frozen River writer-director Courtney Hunt and co-producer Molly Conners; Trouble the Water producer Tia Lessin; Adriana Shaw, President of WomensFilmNet and one of our sponsors; and a cross section of our esteemed colleagues.

And now, on to the awards:


Best Film
Slumdog Millionaire

Best Direction
Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire

Best Screenplay, Original
Wall-E, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter and Jim Reardon

Best Screenplay, Adapted
Frost/Nixon, Peter Morgan

Best Documentary (Tie)
Man On Wire, James Marsh
Trouble The Water, Tia Lessen, Carl Deal

Best Actress (Tie)
Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Kate Winslet, The Reader and Revolutionary Road

Best Actress In Supporting Role
Viola Davis, Doubt

Best Actor
Sean Penn, Milk

Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

Best Ensemble Cast
Rachel Getting Married

Best EditingThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall

Best Foreign Film
Tell No One


Best Woman Director
Courtney Hunt, Frozen River

Best Woman Screenwriter
Jenny Lumet, Rachel Getting Married

Best Breakthrough Performance
Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky

Best Newcomer
Misty Upham, Frozen River

Women’s Image Award
Kristin Scott Thomas

The Hanging in There Award for Persistence
Melissa Leo, Frozen River

Actress Defying Age and Ageism
Catherine Deneuve, A Christmas Tale

2008 Outstanding Achievement By A Woman In The Film Industry
Sheila Nevins, Producing/Programming at HBO

Lifetime Achievement Award
Catherine Deneuve

AWFJ Award For Humanitarian Activism
All the Women featured in the documentary Pray The Devil Back To Hell


AWFJ Hall Of Shame Award
27 Dresses

Actress Most in Need Of A New Agent
Kate Hudson

Movie You Wanted To Love But Just Couldn‘t (Tie)
Mamma Mia!
The Women

Best Of The Fests

Unforgettable Moment Award (Tie)
The Dark Knight: The Joker’s first scene
Slumdog Millionaire: Young Jamal jumps into the poop

Best Depiction Of Nudity or Sexuality (Tie)
The Reader

Best Seduction
Vicky Cristina Barcelona

The Sequel That Shouldn’t Have Been Made Award (Tie)
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Saw V

The Remake That Shouldn’t Have Been Made Award
The Women

Cultural Crossover Award
Slumdog Millionaire

Bravest Performance Award
Mickey Rourke, The Wrester

Best Leap from Actress to Director Award
Helen Hunt, Then She Found Me

Most Egregious Age Difference Between Leading Man and Love Interest
The Wackness, Ben Kingsley and Mary-Kate Olsen

My review of Doubt is live...

...and you can read it here.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

I'm just back from the annual meeting of the New York Film Critics Online to vote on the most distinguished releases of 2008.

Here are the results — if you have any thoughts about the selections and/or omissions, I'd love to know.

Best Picture
Slumdog Millionaire (pictured above)

Best Director
Danny Boyle (with Loveleen Tandan), Slumdog Millionaire

Best Actor
Sean Penn, Milk

Best Actress
Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky

Best Supporting Actor
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

Best Supporting Actress
Penelope Cruz, Vicki Cristina Barcelona

Best Cinematography
Anthony Dod Mantle, Slumdog Millionaire

Best Screenplay
Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire

Best Foreign-Language Film
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days

Best Documentary
Man on Wire

Best Animated Feature

Best Score
Slumdog Millionaire, A.R. Rahman

Breakout Performance
Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky

Best Directing Debut
Martin McDonagh, In Bruges

Best Ensemble Cast

Top Ten Films of 2008
A Christmas Tale
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Rachel Getting Married
Slumdog Millionaire
The Wrestler

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Jingles of Yesteryear: "Don't Cross the Street in the Middle...:

New Yorkers of my generation will get a chill from hearing the traffic-safety PSA "(Don't Cross the Street) In the Middle, In the MIddle, In the Middle, In the Middle of the Block."

Here's the cool thing, though: I had no idea it was written by veteran Brooklyn-born TV and movie composer Vic Mizzy, whose credits include the theme songs for The Addams Family:

and Green Acres:


I forget the lyrics to everything, but I can remember every word of "In the Middle"... that's how many times I heard it as an impressionable child.

"In the Middle" was covered by They Might be Giants, and this clip juxtaposes the original vocals with footage what I take to be LA traffic. It cuts off abruptly, but you'll get the gist:

Mizzy is alive and well, by the way. If you want to reach him, you can do so at

Friday, December 12, 2008

Opening Today: Gran Torino and Time Crimes

My reviews of Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino and the Spanish time-travel movie Time Crimes are here.

Look for more soon!

Bye Bye, Bettie...

1950s pin-up extraordinaire Bettie Page died yesterday at the age of 85; she had been hospitalized for the better part of a month, first with pneumonia and then a heart attack.

She spent a few years in the spotlight — a notorious spotlight, to be sure — and decades in obscurity. She wasn't a b-movie starlet or a burlesque queen: She just posed for pictures, professional and amateur, and made spicy loops sold through the back of magazines. She couldn't dance for the life of her, though she made plenty of short films in which she gives it her game best, like this one:

But Page sold men's magazines like a champ, a raven-haired siren with a handsome but human-scale figure in an age when pneumatic blondes were all the rage. And after the old pin ups were supplanted by the ever-more explicit erotica of the 1960s, she continued to inspire paintings, comic strips, tattoo art and fan magazines. Bettie Page was a bonafide star, and women are as captivated as men.

It's all about that wide smile and good-natured sauciness: Page did pictures that would be deemed too mild for Maxim; goofy "comic" spreads that attest to an admirable willingness to look like an idiot while wearing a French-maid outfit; and boondage/fetish photos and films that are pretty racy even by today's standards. But she never had that vacant look that hints at a lifetime of damage, despite the fact that she had more than her share. Page never looked like a hardened gold digger, parlaying what she had into what she wanted; she might have been better off if she'd been more tough-minded about getting paid, but she wasn't.

Page genuinely looked as though she got a kick out of posing in naughty costumes, many of which she designed and sewed herself. She made posing for dirty pictures look like good fun.

Page's self-confidence and can-do optimism were an illusion; much of her later life was blighted by poverty and mental illness. Enterprising fans tracked her down in the mid-1990s, and she finally saw some income from the lucrative industry that had grown around her old pictures. But Page stayed in the shadows, telling interviewers she didn't want to be photographed as an old lady.

She wanted to be remembered as she was, and she is.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

"VD gets around" -- my favorite PSA ever

This PSA used to air on the New York area's channel 9, which also showed tons of horror movies, especially late at night.

So I saw it more times than I can remember, and it lodged itself in my brain. In recent years I began to think I'd imagined it. I mean, it seemed so bizarre: Funky music, brassy singer, lyrics warning about sexually transmitted diseases...

But here it is, courtesy of YouTube:

Now try to get that song out of your head. I dare you.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Play us a song, you're the banjo man...

Have you seen Deliverance (1972)?

It was a formative experience for me and, like countless others, I was mesmerized by 11-year-old "banjo kid" Lonny, the clearly damaged Appalachian youngster featured in the film's "Dueling Banjos" scene.

I'm the first to admit that my fascination was more than a little voyeuristic and creepy, and I also have to confess that this scene sends chills up my spine to this day, years after I worked on the Deliverance special edition DVD.

So imagine my surprise when I logged into AOL and found a "where are they now" link to the 52-year-old Billy Redden, aka "creepy-banjo-kid."

The past is always with us, I guess.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Another sad goodbye: Actresses Nina Foch and Beverly Garland

They were like chalk and cheese.

Beverly Garland was a busty, B-movie starlet and more. She had a successfult TV career, including stints on the 1960s-spawned My Three Sons, '70s parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, '80s light mystery Scarecrow and Mrs. King and '90s prime-time soap Port Charles. But she was much loved for her regular-gal appearances in '50s exploitation pictures like The Neanderthal Man and Problem Girls (both 1953), Killer Leopard (1954), Swamp Woman (1955), It Conquered the World (1956) and Not of This Earth (1957).

Elegant, Dutch-born Nina Foch was a concert pianist before transforming herself into a clasically trained actress. She glided through b-movies of every stripe, including Return of the Vampire (1944) and Cry of the Werewolf (1944), with the slightly distant air of someone destined for bigger and better things. The bigger things never materialized, but she worked steadily in movies and TV until the end of her life, gracing episodes of Navy NCIS and The Closer; that's better -- much better -- than most actors can say.

Two very different actresses, and I'll miss them both.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

When the legends die -- RIP, Forrest J Ackerman

A fond farewell to "ultimate fan" Forrest J Ackerman, whose magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland was required reading for a generation of horror and science fiction fans.

Ackerman, 92, died on December 4th, after years of ill health, and 50 years after the first issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland was published. I was never a Famous Monsters reader: I preferred my genre-movie writing a little more serious. But Famous Monsters blazed the trail that produced everything from Cinefantastique to Video Watchdog, driven by the once-revolutionary idea that far from destroying the magic, examining the behind-the-scenes details of moviemaking only enhanced it. Famous Monsters is often rememberd — fondly and not-so fondly, depending on your predilections — for its lame puns and goofy jokes. But it also published phots of make-up artists, actors, special effects crews in the process of creating the movies so dear to genre fans' hearts. Ackerman was devoted to the first wave of classic American horror films, moody, B&W Universal pictures like Frankenstein and Dracula (both 1931). But Famous Monsters gave equal time to AIP's teenage monster movies, Toho's kaiju eiga and Hammer's gothic revamps, all of which spawned their own cults.

Ackerman worked as a literary agent specializing in science fiction, and his client list included Ray Bradbury and L. Ron Hubbard, back when Hubbard was pretending that what he wrote was anything but fiction. Ackerman's fans became filmmakers themselves, Ackerman was given bit parts in dozens of movies, including John Landis' Innocent Blood, Jim Wynorski's Vampirella &mdash Ackerman co-created the blood-drinking beauty from the planet Drakulon — and several each by Joe Dante and Fred Olen Ray.

Ackerman was a collector extraordinaire who started accumulating movie-related materials as a child; while still a teenager, he badgered Universal Studios head Carl Laemmle into giving him the sound disks from Frankenstein and Murders in the Rue Morgue. Ackerman gradually filled the Los Angeles home he dubbed "the Ackermansion" with hundreds of thousands of pieces of movie memorabilia, many donated by friends ranging from Ray Harryhausen to Bela Lugosi, and cheerfullyopened his collection to the public. Sadly, most of his books, props, stamps, paintings, models and posters were later sold to pay medical bills and legal fees (he was enmeshed in a long-running lawsuit with a onetime business associate).

This video interview with Ackerman includes a brief tour of the Ackermansion:

They don't make 'em like Ackerman anymore, and his death makes the world of fandom a poorer place.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Nudie bars and The New York Times

Okay, times and The Times have changed.

Granted, "Fire Damages Landmark Strip Club" doesn't have the gutter panache of the New York Post's legendary "Headless Body in Topless Bar," but still...

I don't think I ever imagined that L.A.'s Body Shop would rate mention in the Times, let alone designated a "landmark." Amazing.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Frost/Nixon... it's beginning to look a lot like awards season

My review of Frost/Nixon is here and critics are abuzz about Frank Langella's chances at a best actor nomination.

Please check back soon for Changeling and Milk, two more films I think are likely to figure prominently in the next few months' endless speculation about who's due for a turn in the Oscar spotlight.