Deciding that more than a year would just be too long to make us wait, Woody Allen presents Scoop, coming not so long after his critical smash from last year, Match Point. The latter was a complete break for Allen, not just by being set in London but by completely eschewing any kind of comedy and going for a straight morality play. But with Scoop, Allen has no such intentions, aiming for nothing more than straight screwball comedy mixed in with a light murder mystery. Pretty people (Scarlett Johansson, Hugh Jackman), cornball jokes (“My religion? I was born to the Hebrew persuasion, but later converted to narcissism”), and most importantly, nothing too serious. And it almost works, more’s the pity — the mood is perfect, the cast great, and the locations just right, but sadly the script remains a little thin on the comedy, which is fairly inexcusable for Allen.
Scoop opens today, Friday, July 28. My review is at filmcritic.com. Link.
If you’re interested in how the grand White House experiment in Iraq went so wrong so quickly, a worthy book to pick up now, even though it came out last summer and has already gone to paperback, is Larry Diamond’s Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq. Diamond is not just your usual left-wing agitator saying “I told you so,” however — a Stanford professor and international advocate for pro-democracy movements, Diamond was brought on board by the U.S. to help build something in the wake of Baghdad’s fall. Obviously, it didn’t work out. Diamond’s book is heavy with detail and regret, and one hopes that it’s on the reading list for anybody trying to plan something like this the next time.
My review, titled “Original Sin,” first ran in In These Times last year. Link.
While not exactly new on DVD — it’s been released several times before by Universal, who know how to squeeze every last dime out of a popular film — it is nevertheless news that Dazed and Confused has finally been issued in a properly high-class and worshipful package from the folks over at Criterion. The extras tend more to gushings about the film’s coolness (a booklet of fanboy essays and a foldout poster come with) than Criterion’s specialty of academic writings. But there’s also some fascinating deleted scenes and audition footage here which gives you a broader idea of the generational, fly-on-the-ceiling, night-in-the-life epic that Richard Linklater was going for in his second film, a world away from the random and out-of-focus Slacker. A worthy addition to anybody’s film library.
My review of the Crtierion DVD is up at the PopMatters website. Link.
The busy little industry out there concocting new theories to explain the spider-web of half-truths, speculation and plain old strangeness around the JFK assassination has utilized pretty much every tool at its disposal to find out whodunnit. Of course, there’s always a new villain or wrinkle in the elaborate story to be found. This time out, it’s Marilyn Monroe.
Industrious comics author/publisher Gary Reed heard once about Marilyn keeping a diary that wasn’t found after her death, and (remembering how she’d had those affairs with the Kennedy boys) figured that the missing diary could provide a fairly plausible motive for a big old coverup — who took the diary, what are they trying to hide, and how far will they go to keep its secret? In any case, that’s the theory behind Reed’s graphic novel The Red Diaries, which takes a noir-ish, X-Files-style approach to the material.
I interviewed Reed about his new book for a story that’s running this week in Publishers Weekly‘s PW Comics Week supplement. Link.
The alt-music documentaries just keep coming — of course, at some point you knew that they would run out of steam. S.A. Crary’s Kill Your Idols, now in a limited release, is a case in point. Ostensibly a film on the anti-music No Wave scene in New York during the early 80s, where a small knot of determined agitators in the downtown scene flailed at their instruments and screamed filthy fury at audiences in an attempt to completely sever ties with the musical past. “No Influences” the scene could have been better labeled. Unfortunately, Crary lets go of this gold-mine of material to make a weak link to Brooklyn poseur bands twenty years later (Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the like), to which no real connection seems to exist. But at least the interviews — with Glenn Branca, Lydia Lunch, Thurston Moore, and others — are good.
My review ran in Film Journal International. Link.
So it’s not exactly new this week, actual release was last week, but this still deserves a mention. Marc Levin’s powerful documentary Protocals of Zion packs a mean double-punch. On the one hand, it’s a smart history lesson on the ever-multiplying racist conspiracy theorizing behind the legendary anti-Semitic hate tract that gave the film its name. On the other, it’s also a snarky personal essay about the insanity of conspiracy nuts and the filmmaker’s heroic but often doomed attempts to reason with, or at least enter into a dialogue with them. In the end, it’s somehow just as amusing as it is chilling — even if your laughter has a bitter tang to it.
My review ran on filmcritic.com when the film was released last year. Link.
At the Movies
While most films and TV shows (even journalistic reports) about the Mafia (usually American, but occasionally Italian) just can’t help themselves from romanticizing the violent galoots, some of the more honest writers out there covering them don’t indulge in such fantasties. Such is the case with Excellent Cadavers, Marco Turco’s supremely and righteously furious new documentary (now playing at New York’s Film Forum) about the bloodthirsty Palermo mob and the long, heroic but ultimately (maybe) futile struggle against them by some heroic Italian judges. My review is being run by Film Journal International. Link.
The film is based on Alexander Stille’s fantastic book of the same name. Stille has a new one just out, whose sad title tells it all: The Sack of Rome: How a Beautiful European Country With a Fabled History and Storied Culture was Taken Over by a Man Named Silvio Berlusconi. It’s related somewhat to the film, in which Stille hardly shirks from linking Berlusconi and his government quite blatantly with the Mafia.
Earlier this year (before his uneven and rather unfairly praised Road to Guantanamo), Michael Winterbottom released his exquisitely confusing and chaotic adaptation (of sorts) of Laurence Sterne’s rambling 18th century novel, Tristram Shandy. Like the book, it wandered all over the place, messed with the form, took long and pointless detours, and was quite frequently hilarious. The result didn’t really make much sense, and you could easily argue for it being completely useless, but there’s little arguing its value as entertainment — and isn’t most of the best art useless, anyway? As the lead actor in this film-within-a-film says of Sterne’s work: “It was post-modern, before there was any modernism to be post of.”
My review originally ran on filmcritic.com. Link.
At the Movies
Since you probably won’t be able to get in to see that Johnny Depp pirate flick for a few days, content yourself with Richard Linklater’s beautifully confusing and spot-on adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s classic novel A Scanner Darkly, also opening today.
I’ve got a review of the film up at PopMatters — in short, it’s a rave. There may have been some good films from PKD’s novels and stories before, but none have previously understood his jokey, terrified, paranoid mindset quite as organically as this one. Plus, it has Robert Downey Jr. Link.
Also opening in theaters today (a touch late to take advantage of World Cup publicity) is the fun documentary Once in a Lifetime, which chronicles the doomed attempt in the 1970s to bring professional soccer to the United States, specifically in the Yankee-like superteam the New York Cosmos. At one point the Cosmos were actually selling out Giants Stadium, a feat hard to imagine being repeated in today’s world. Film Journal International has my review. Link.
This week, City Pages is running my review of Alison Bechdel’s wonderful and very moving graphic memoir Fun Home. Link.
It’s a fairly dramatic story, following her life growing up with an exacting and emotionally distant mother and similarly cold father, who was also closeted. But Bechdel outdoes most of the recent woe-is-me memoir crowd by not going for a sob story or to try and seek revenge on a bad childhood. There’s a lot of compassion here, as well as humor (of the extremely dark variety); deserves to be a big hit.
Bechdel’s doing a book tour now as well, check out the schedule here.