Monday, June 30, 2008

I Wanna Be An Atlantis Interceptor!


Ranging from a few to several times a year I get what I like to refer to as ‘completely burned out’. It’s a particularly daunting feeling that hits me hard and when it does I don’t want to read, listen to music, watch movies, communicate with friends, work or honestly even get out of bed. To snap myself out of these particularly dreadful moods I have several things I do, most of which I am not going to go into here, including watching a certain number of films that for whatever reason help to bring me back to normalcy.
There isn’t any rhyme or reason to the films that help me out…what exactly the common ground is between Clive Donner’s What’s New Pussycat, Stuart Rosenberg’s The April Fools, Francois Truffaut’s The Man Who Loved Women and George P. Cosmatos’ Cobra is I just couldn’t say but it doesn’t matter as there is something in each that brings a feeling of relief to my dragging spirit.
I love nothing more than stumbling onto a film that promises to be one I can turn to in these dark moments and they typically turn up in the most unlikely places at the most unlikely times. Recently I discovered a new one for me that I can safely add to my list of films that will no doubt bring a little sunshine to my darkest and dreariest of days.
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Now I am not going to sit here and write that Ruggero Deodato’s 1983 film L’Predatori di Atlantide (The Raiders of Atlantis or, as I prefer, The Atlantis Interceptors) is what you might call a ‘good’ film but Deodato’s delightfully goofy follow up to the grueling one-two knockout punch Cannibal Holocaust and House on the Edge of the Park goes way beyond the definition of ‘good’ into a whole other realm of greatness. This is the kind of gloriously off the wall movie that people simply don’t make anymore…it’s the kind of film the recent Doomsday wanted to be but you simply can’t recapture this kind of magic with a lot of money, a big cast and CGI effects.
The Atlantis Interceptors (currently wearing a solid 2.9 rating at IMDB proudly on its sleeve) concerns the lost city of Atlantis suddenly re-appearing off the coast of Miami after some goofball scientists go and spill some nuclear waste into the ocean waters surrounding it. Arriving with the legendary lost city is a group of crazed motorcycle riding tattooed Road Warrior rejects (the kind that populated so many of these early eighties spectacles) who are fought off by our ready for action heroes struggling to save the world from total disaster. It is awesome.
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Our heroes are led by Christopher Connelly, the late and beloved genre favorite who brought so much to many Italian horror and action films in the eighties. Joining Connelly is everyone from Cannibal Apocalypse’s Tony King to future directorial giant Michele Soavi to the badass team to beat of Ivan Rassimov and George Hilton. In other words, The Atlantis Interceptors is an Italian film fanatic’s wet dream.
Scored by the mighty Guido and Maurizio De Angelis (under the great pseudonym of Oliver Onions!!!) and directed with the kind of ‘go for broke even though I have no budget’ inspired mania that Ruggero Deodato thrived at, The Atlantis Interceptors is just an absolute blast and more than any other ‘great’ film I have watched recently reminded me of why I love cinema so much. Add on one of the most simultaneously irritating and catchy theme songs in cinema history and some truly insane stunt work (I was struck watching this film just how boring and safe modern action films typically are) and you’ve got all the ingredients for a real camp classic…forget The Rocky Horror Picture Show, let me dress up for a midnight showing of The Atlantis Interceptors and I’m online!


By the end of its 89 minute running time (my copy was cut which made me feel like I had rented it back in the day) I was totally refreshed and ready to take on the world again (in an albeit illogical and badly dubbed kind of way).
The Atlantis Interceptors can be seen on the budget box set The Grindhouse Experience Volume Two in a decent enough print ported over from an old British VHS tape that is missing 3-4 minutes of gore including an unforgettable decapitation that can be seen in the trailer I have attached. I would sell a couple of pints of blood in a New York minute to buy a special edition re-mastered copy of this monster as it’s that amazing.
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Even the most narcotic coated and hazy mind couldn’t even begin to dream The Atlantis Interceptors and if I ever get to the point where I don’t enjoy a movie like this then I will hang it all up for good and surrender myself to a cinematic world obsessed with logic and ‘good’ taste…what a horrifyingly dull place that must be.

A Double-Dip You Can't Refuse


Paramount has officially announced the new five disc Godfather Collection and the details can be read here at DVD Active. The set includes everything the older one did as well as a bonus disc of all new featurettes. The first two films have reportedly been completely restored and the third film has been remastered. This is frankly one of the no-brainer purchases of the fall for me.

Here is a trailer advertising the upcoming release:

Computer Vs. Banjo


One of the most surprising and adventurous albums of the year is out now courtesy of a Nashville act called Computer Vs. Banjo. The group, a duo consisting of Beau Stapleton (formerly of Blue Merle) and Johnny Mann (Gran Torino's inventive guitar player), is an odd and invigorating mixture of electronics and cosmic folk that sounds like nothing else out there right now.
Opening up with a meditative and lovely keyboard instrumental reminiscent of some of David Holmes work, Computer Vs. Banjo's first full length LP kicks off with the gloriously off the wall "Jubilee", a song asking to "keep your enemies near" while delivering some of the most exuberantly American music I have heard in a long time.
Stylistic similarities to everyone from The Flying Burrito Brothers to Pere Ubu to the more recent Arcade Fire pop up through the album, but Computer Vs. Banjo manage to sound defiantly individualistic throughout the 12 tracks on offer here.
Highlights of the record include the quirky but melodic "Outerspace" and the beautiful "Low", a track that owes more than a little to the David Bowie album as well the underrated Minnesota act who mined similar ground in the mid nineties.
The album works best in its further out electronic moments and only falters slightly in the more traditional sounding numbers like "San Joaquin". Still, minor quibbles aside, Computer Vs. Banjo's first LP is a resounding success and fits in nicely in a year that has been marked by albums celebrating the outskirts of traditional sounds ranging from Portishead's astonishing Third to Goldfrapp's marvelous Seventh Tree.
More information on Computer Vs. Banjo can be read at their official site and at their MySpace.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Mimsy, Morricone, Melt-Downs and Madness All This Week At Harry Moseby Confidential

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My week long celebration of Dario Argento's Four Flies on Grey Velvet begins tomorrow at Harry Moseby Confidential.

Overlooked Classic: Laetitia Colombani's He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not (2002)

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After her infectious turn as the title character in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s worldwide smash hit The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain (2001), talented actress Audrey Tautou suddenly found herself as one of the most in demand young actors in Europe. She followed up Jeunet’s instantly iconic film with an impressive flurry of roles that would show off her abilities as a comedian (2001’s God Is Great and I’m Not), an ensemble player (2002’s The Spanish Apartment) and a dramatic force (2002’s Dirty Pretty Things). Between Amelie and the release of the unfortunate The Da Vinci Code in 2006, Tautou impressively appeared in nine films, all of which (despite their varying quality) marked her as one of the most talented and creative young actors in France. None of these projects were more interesting than Laetitia Colombani’s 2002 production He Loves Me He Loves Me Not, a sly and subversive genre hopping film which finds Audrey giving perhaps her greatest performance outside of Jeunet’s modern classic.
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Colombani got her start in French film as a camera operator in the late eighties. In 1998 she released her first film, a short entitled Le Dernier Bip, in which she functioned as writer, director and star. The film would help her get financing for her first feature length project, an inventive paranoid thriller masquerading as a romantic comedy.
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He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not tells the tale of a young art student named Angelique and a married doctor named Loic. The film’s story of their relationship is effectively told twice through both of their vastly different points of views and is followed by a chilling little coda that helps to subvert everything that has come before it. I’ll not go into plot specifics for people who haven’t seen it as the mysteries at the heart of He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not are among its biggest assists.
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Photographed beautifully by Hate (1995) cinematographer Pierre Aim, He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not is one of the most colorful meditations on obsessive love ever filmed. It’s opening shots of flowers in bloom to the final chilling Pharmaceutical Mural that closes the film show Colombani as having a true painters eye for how her films should look. The costume designs for Tautou by Cesar nominated Jacqueline Bouchard are equally dazzling and work well into the more than slightly twisted psychology of the piece, as the seemingly naive and innocent Angelique is rarely seen in anything that doesn’t at least carry a trace of scarlet red.
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Colombani’s first feature film as a director is refreshingly un-showy but is propelled by a palatable motivation, both of which mark her as one of the most interesting talents to emerge from this decade. Her direction just tells the film’s story and she doesn’t fall into the trap of letting the film’s plot get lost among all of a novice filmmaker’s new toys. He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not is a smart and ambitious film that works throughout its rather slim running time even when Colombani’s screenwriting sometimes slips, as in the first half when a little too much of Angelique’s neurosis is revealed.
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The cast surrounding the luminous Tautou resonate quite nicely with special note going to Samuel Le Bihan as Loic, who is effectively the star of the film’s second (and more effective) half. Bihan, probably best known for his work in Kieslowski’s Red, had worked with Tautou early in her career on Venus Beauty Institute and he delivers a nicely tortured and paranoid performance for Colombani as does Isabelle Carre as his pregnant wife Rachel. The film also features several up and coming young French actors all in good form, including Clement Sibony and Elodie Navarre in a small but scene stealing performance as Loic’s incompetent secretary Anita.
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The film belongs to Tautou though, who delivers a sublimely chilling, and at times heartbreaking performance centered on the idea of unrequited love. Audrey is at turns delightful and terrifying in the role and is never less than utterly convincing. Hats off to her as well for taking on a star role that essentially disappears for a good portion of the film. Tautou’s work here is strikingly unselfish and seems motivated by a strong personal force, and was entirely deserving of the acclaim in received upon the film’s release in Europe and the States.
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He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not falters a bit here and there, more due to Colombani’s script than direction, but it’s a of little matter when listening to the striking Pino Donaggio styled score by Jerome Coullet or just watching Tautou delightfully subverting everything that was expected of her after Amelie.
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Colombini’s film would receive a mostly positive critical reaction when it was released in France in the spring of 2002 and it would perform well at the box office. It would take a couple of years to reach American shores but it was mostly greeted positively here as well, with Mick LaSalle from The San Francisco Chronicle perhaps best summing it up best when he said, “This is an acerbic examination of erotic obsession, told from different perspectives, with wit, suspense and cold-blooded detachment. It's the first feature from 26-year-old Laetitia Colombani and represents about as assured a debut as they come.”
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The film is available looking DVD from Columbia TriStar but unfortunately has no extras, not even a trailer. The French version, which I haven’t seen, reportedly has a commentary and deleted scenes.

Colombani is currently wrapping up production on Mes Stars et Moi, a sure to be intriguing film featuring the combined talents of Catherine Deneuve and Emmanuelle Beart.
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My Look at Waking The Dead at The Amplifier


My look at Keith Gordon's Waking The Dead (2000) starring Jennifer Connelly and Billy Crudup can now be viewed here at The Amplifier for those interested.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Jesus and Mary Chain Get Boxed

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I was thrilled to hear yesterday that the long awaited Jesus and Mary Chain Box Set, The Power of Negative Thinking: B-Sides & Rarities has been finally granted a solid release date. The 4 CD Rhino produced set streets on September 30th and promises to be one of the most intense and powerful of all time. Long time fans of the Brothers Reid will know that, like Siouxsie and the Banshees and My Bloody Valentine among others, a lot of their best material was relegated to b-sides and compilation albums. I've waited for years for this stuff to be compiled together and can't wait to get my hands on this monster. The full track listing and press release can be viewed here but I haven't yet found a link to the artwork. There's some stuff on here I haven't heard before and some favorites like their Syd Barrett cover "Vegetable Man", a beautiful acoustic take of the sizzling "Teenage Lust" and their explosive Elvis tribute "Guitar Man" are reappearing for the first time in years...I can't bloody wait.

Ebert's Take on Harry Moseby


Although I have never really stated completely why I named my seventies blog Harry Moseby Confidential, the reason is actually fairly simple. Arthur Penn's 1975 film Night Moves is my favorite American film of the seventies. There, I said it and I will stand by it.
The film obsesses me and has for many years now. I find myself watching it more than any other and certain scenes (and its extraordinary unreleased Michael Small score) play in my head constantly. I love the film and regard Gene Hackman's performance as Private Detective Harry Moseby as one of the best I have ever seen, so I was thrilled to see Roger Ebert including his original 4 star 1975 review in his Overlooked DVD of the week column. Check it out if you haven't read it before or if it's been awhile.
As to why I haven't written on the film or posted much of anything on it. Well, it's just one of those handful of films like Kieslowski's Red or Figgis' Leaving Las Vegas that just feels too damn personal to me. I really wouldn't even know how to begin writing on it but who knows, maybe one day I'll give it a shot.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Blondie at the Louisville Kentucky Center

"Blondie were so much more than 70's punk-poppers with a cute singer. Their influence on three decades of sound and vision can still be felt strongly today...musically Blondie went beyond punk to continue New York's classic pop tradition, while introducing underground art and black music forms to the mainstream. Their records might now sound like signals from a lost world but the reception will always be brilliant."
-Kris Needs, Mojo (2008)-

Last night’s Blondie show at Louisville’s Kentucky Center was one of the most powerful and moving I have ever witnessed…the kind of transcendent rock and roll concert that I frankly didn’t think was possible anymore. Playing with the kind of determination and power that only a group truly possessed with greatness could muster, Blondie’s 90 minute set last night was simply stunning and I only wish I could have had some of the remaining naysayer’s with me to show them something that I have always believed…namely that Blondie is one of the great acts in rock history.

For reasons that I am not going to be able to fully explain, their was something overwhelmingly emotional about last nights gig and I don’t think I was the only one in the audience who felt that. The entire room bristled with an excitement that I haven’t felt in a very long time…there was something positively soulful in the air and that feeling never let up through the show from the opening instrumental jam to the final strain of The Rolling Stones “Get Off Of My Cloud” that they closed with.

Last night as Debbie Harry sauntered on stage and the entire crowd stood up screaming like a giant invisible hand lifted us out of our chairs I thought of something John Waters said about ten years ago…about how for many people of my generation Debbie Harry meant the same thing as Elvis did for his, and that really came out last night when she seemed to float onstage by her sheer coolness alone. Dressed in black with a baseball cap on and looking about half of her 63 years, Debbie Harry’s entrance last night was an absolute event and it’s not something I will ever forget. Even after seeing her a handful of times live and getting to meet her once, I still teared up when she came out of the wings last night…like a extraordinary ghost from my past had entered the room and was preparing to sigh that dream that Bruce Springsteen recalled Elvis whispered to him as a young man discovering the power of rock and roll.


Playing in front of a huge Parallel Lines styled banner with the word BLONDIE stretched across it like a call to arms, Debbie Harry without a word launched into “Hangin On The Telephone” with an unnerving intensity that took effortlessly everyone in the room back to a time in our lives when we all perhaps believed in something a little more than we do now.
Throughout the show Debbie never missed a step and she sounded wonderful with the last thirty years seeming to make her voice even more distinctive and richer than the records on which it became famous on. Powering through the entire Parallel Lines album and then a stunning set of classics, covers and new material, Debbie Harry once again showed that she is still one of the most commanding figures in rock history….projecting the kind of strength that only a handful of her peers can even begin to come close to.

The band backing her was equally jaw dropping. Guided by the masterful Chris Stein (a heroic player who has never fully gotten his due as one for the key figures that came out of the punk movement) on guitar and the legendary Clem Burke (a.k.a. GOD) on drums, the band rocked with a loose and ferocious intensity like they had their backs against a wall in an after school street fight while secretly packing switch blades that they could use at any given moment. Watching Stein and Burke work their brutal and seductive magic was awe inspiring and the rest of the band (made up of Leigh Foxx on Bass, Paul Carbonara on guitar and Matt-Katz Bohen on keyboards) matched the two legends every step of the way. The only missing ingredient was the great Jimmy Destri who was at least represented in spirit throughout the evening as some of his best songs filled the hall and weaved the same distinctive spell they have since he first penned them.

The evening did indeed consist of the entire Parallel Lines album, played reverentially in order to an audience of adoring fans from 10 to 70 who all sang along like the songs were a part of their D.N.A. Highlights included the whole damn album, but if I had to choose then “Picture This” was particularly inspired as was “11:59” which saw Debbie defiantly screaming “I Wanna Live” over and over again which probably brought the biggest reaction of the whole night. One track I was particularly keen to hear was “Fade Away and Radiate” since the studio version depended so much on Robert Fripp’s legendary guest turn but the band handled it perfectly and I dare say that it sounded so good that the King Crimson axe-man wasn’t even missed.
The Parallel Lines portion of the evening wound down with a lovely and surprising reworking of the once vicious closing “Just Go Away”, a song which got the biggest makeover of the night. After finishing the album Debbie thanked the crowd over some deafening screams and announced the band were then going to do some newer material and some more not so distant classics which is what they did.

The evening’s second half was made up of a mixture of the expected hits (a gloriously extended “Rapture”, Destri’s “Maria” and the inescapable “The Tide Is High”) along with a couple of stunners off Debbie’s newest solo platter Necessary Evil, which sounded like new classics in the hands of Stein and Burke. While Roxy Music’s “More Than This” was sadly missing from last nights set list, the choice of covers, including a short but powerful “Hey Bo Diddley” and a surprising blues jam where Stein showed off his still undervalued chops, were perfect choices.

Sharing the superstar aura and charisma of Debbie Harry was Clem Burke. Burke, one of the truly great rock drummers, was a force of nature all through the night. Looking just like he did thirty years ago and controlling the skins with the same kind of wild intensity that the likes of Keith Moon did, Burke was a masterful and mesmerizing presence and I was frankly envious of the people who got his drum sticks that he tossed out before the first encore.
The night was filled with so many memorable moments that it is hard to recount them…from Debbie taking off her shoes, throwing them out into the audience and dancing barefoot on stage to the moment at the end of “Call Me” when it sounded like Burke was going to make the walls of the place totally collapse. It was among the most captivating 90 minutes I have ever seen.

Since the botched release of their audacious The Curse Of Blondie five years ago, everything has been golden for Blondie as their stock has considerably rose due to their justified induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the fact that more and more young people have discovered their magical legacy (one of the most astonishing things about last nights show was that there were more young people there than there were nearly ten years ago when I saw them on their No Exit tour). For me though the most exhilarating, surprising and resonate moment came during the weekend CBGB’s closed its doors for the final time when a visibly moved Patti Smith dedicated part of her set to Blondie…a remarkable show of solidarity from the woman who once told Debbie Harry that rock and roll didn’t need her.

Blondie’s legacy will continue to grow and if last night’s performance is anything to go by then the band incredibly have creativity to burn. Debbie Harry recently told Mojo magazine that she still felt “vital” and that was the word that kept going through my head last night…a vital band playing vital music to a crowd that remained on their feet through the whole show..

The biggest musical influences of my early life (Elvis, The Beatles, Rick Nelson) were due to my parents but Blondie was my first discovery. They were MY band and watching and listening to Debbie Harry last night I felt the same way I felt that first time I heard them as a young man nearly three decades ago…and I was very, very moved.

***Pics from this show have already popped up and they can be viewed here and here.***

Blondie Review From The Louisville Courier Journal


I will be posting my thoughts later today on last night's performance by Blondie at the Kentucky Center, a gig that was among the best I have ever seen. In the meantime, here is the rave review by Jeffrey Lee Puckett from the local Louisville paper.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Remember Adrienne Shelly Today

Take a moment to remember Adrienne Shelly and send a good thought to her family and friends. She would have turned 42 years old today.
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Monday, June 23, 2008

Rumble Fish at Radiator Heaven


J.D. at Radiator Heaven continues to write some of the most interesting and insightful articles online and his most recent post on Francis Ford Coppola's ridiculously underrated Rumble Fish is one of his best.
J.D. gives a sharp critical analysis of the film, provides some fascinating history and reminds me that I need to do a Diane Lane tribute here soon. It's a great piece of writing and I ask everyone to visit the link above to check it out.

Alexandre Aja's Upcoming Mirrors

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I must admit that I am a little underwhelmed by the teaser trailer of the upcoming Alexandre Aja film Mirrors but I am still extremely excited about the film as Aja is one of my favorite filmmakers who has come out of this decade.


Here is the official poster to the new film by the High Tension masterminds as well as the link to the official site and a short interview with the director.
Aja's Mirrors, a remake of Geoul Sokeuro, comes out in August and it stars the sometimes reliable Keifer Sutherland and the always great Amy Smart. Aja's next project is yet another remake, but if anyone can handle a big budget 3D Piranha it is this undeniably talented young French filmmaker.

Mixtape Madness: An Alison Goldfrapp Collection

"To me, making a tape is like writing a letter — there's a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again. A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You've got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention (I started with "Got to Get You Off My Mind", but then realized that she might not get any further than track one, side one if I delivered what she wanted straightaway, so I buried it in the middle of side two), and then you've got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can't have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music, and you can't have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you've done the whole thing in pairs and...oh, there are loads of rules."
-Nick Hornby, High Fidelity-
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I've been mix tape crazy since I first got the capability to make them back in that late eighties while I was in high school. I've made hundreds throughout the years (although the cassettes have of course switched to CDs) for friends, girlfriends, former girlfriends, former friends and myself and I still find a sense of excitement in introducing people to an artist or a group of songs designed to send a message or just to introduce them to something new.
I also love making artwork for the mixes so I thought I would occasionally start sharing some here (the artwork, not the mixes themselves). My most recent one is designed to work as an ideal introduction to the world of Alison Goldfrapp...nothing fancy, just four songs off each album in chronological order.
This particular design came originated from a wallpaper design I found online...the original version can be looked at here.

George Carlin (1937-2008)


Controversial...Necessary...Missed.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

A Youth Nabbed As Sniper At Harry Moseby Confidential

***My visits at Harry Moseby Confidential doubled this past week due to my tribute to Sergio Martino's Torso. Thanks for all that visited. I had to go out of town this weekend so I was unable to deliver all I wanted on the film but I hope what I did proved interesting...I will be finishing it up in the morning.***

I realize this would be the perfect time to pay tribute to Blondie's landmark 1978 album Parallel Lines at Harry Moseby Confidential. After all, this week marks the arrival of the special edition of the album and I will also be having the pleasure of witnessing the band perform it live in just a couple of days.
I decided to pay tribute instead to the often forgotten powerhouse of an L.P. that proceeded Blondie's Parallel Lines, 1977's Plastic Letters. Featuring some of their greatest songs and most spirited playing, Plastic Letters remains one of the seminal New York Punk albums of the seventies...a savagely infectious comic book for the ears performed by a band and singer on the brink of stardom.
I will be paying tribute to Blondie's Plastic Letters all this week at Harry Moseby Confidential and will be offering up a review to their concert Tuesday night in Louisville as well. Thanks to Jimmy Destri, Clem Burke, Chris Stein and especially Debbie Harry for continuing to provide me so much inspiration after so many years.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

"Hell does not always look like Hell"


“A wretched Tarantino rip-off, this trashy thriller aspires to flip black comedy but manages only moments of unintentional hilarity…Duchovny doesn’t so much sleepwalk his way through the film as remain in a coma.”
-Liese Spencer, Sight and Sound-

Playing God is David Duchovny's first starring role, unless you count Showtime's Red Shoe Diaries episodes. It seems crafted to match his new stardom on The X-Files, and it does: He has the psychic weight to be a leading man and an action hero, even though his earlier TV and film roles might not have revealed it. And he also has a certain detachment, a way of standing above the action, that stars such as Clint Eastwood and Robert Mitchum have.”
-Roger Ebert’s Original 3 Star Review-
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It’s funny when you find out that a personal favorite film of yours was almost universally hated by both the critics and public when it was released. I actually just recently began to comprehend how much I should probably consider Andy Wilson’s 1997 feature Playing God starring David Duchovny, Angelina Jolie and Timothy Hutton a ‘guilty pleasure’ but since I really don’t believe in that whole idea, I will just celebrate it as a film I like very much…a hyperkinetic B-movie that has always reminded me of the kind of vehicle Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney might have made together early in their careers with one devastating girl thrown in for good measure.
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David Duchovny had certainly done a lot of work before his iconic and much loved Fox Mulder came into view on The X-Files, but by 1997 Mulder had became virtually all the talented actor was known for. Playing God was to mark Duchovny’s breakthrough role on the big screen and his first major step away from the character that had made him a household name. Unfortunately Playing God, a miserable failure financially and critically, did neither and it is often overlooked by even the most rabid Duchovny and Jolie fans…a mistake as it is a key work for both of them.
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Playing God marked the American and big screen directorial debut from British born Andy Wilson, a man who had previously only had his hand in some British television (Cracker being one series) and a handful of music videos (with the band Underworld being most prominent). Wilson directs Playing God like a love letter to the kind of modern neo-noir genre that began to populate American cinemas soon after Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs first began to make a major impact. Bloody, brutal and using every trick in the book (from slow motion shoot-outs to classic car chases), Playing God is very much a film aware of the trappings of its genre but it delights in playing directly into them, making it a much more watchable and successful venture than some of the more pretentious offerings from the period.
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Working from a script by relative novice Mark Haskell Smith, Wilson’s Playing God is a successful hard boiled adrenaline ride fueled by three incredibly charismatic performers that is only marred by a last act that has studio interference written all over it. I have always suspected that if Wilson was able to revisit this film for a Special Edition DVD and reinstate the original darker ending then the picture would have a shot at becoming a small cult film instead of the footnote it is usually labeled as.
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Future Traffic Producer Laura Bickford reportedly put a lot of time and energy into Playing God, a project she was excited about in the mid nineties but one that would cause her to nearly reconsider her career all together (according to Sharon Waxman’s book Rebels on the Backlot) and that makes sense as Playing God does have a compromised feel about it (part of which is due to the fact that the film's original backer Columbia Pictures stepped out just two weeks prior to shooting leaving the production in total distress before the camera's even rolled) but I will stand behind my opinion that Playing God is a very successful and tough modern noir that despite the flawed last act works as well as any other ‘Tarantino knockoff’ from the mid to late nineties you care to name.
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Playing God’s plot, one that allows its leading man to be a heavily flawed and easily corruptible junkie, is an intriguing one. Centering on a destroyed doctor named Eugene Sands who has lost his license due to having a patient die during a routine operation because of his addiction to Phenolcitrate (synthetic heroin), Playing God begins after Sands saves a man’s life who has been shot at a club where he buys his drugs. Sands is then brought fairly willingly into a life of crime by a hot shot schemer with big ideas named Raymond Blossom (Timothy Hutton) and by Blossom’s smoldering girlfriend with a big secret named Claire (Jolie).
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As clever as the set up is for Playing God and as great as everything is from the Trip-Hop inspired soundtrack (a real keeper) by Richard Hartley to the kinetic cutting style of former Coppola and Roeg collaborator Louise Rubacky, Wilson’s film is basically a showcase for three extremely charismatic and distinctive stars…it’s the kind of film that helped shape Hollywood…Playing God is an old fashioned Star driven piece and Wilson clearly realizes and plays into this making his film a much smarter production than it might have been in more experienced hands.
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Even though he has an Oscar sitting on his shelf (for Robert Redford’s superb Ordinary People), Timothy Hutton is almost always overlooked as one of the great actors of his generation. I’ve always though that if Playing God would have found an audience back in 97 then Hutton’s career would have went into major turn around mode, as his delightfully over the top work as Raymond Blossom is a real blast…the kind of bombastic Molotov Cocktail performance that you typically only see an Al Pacino or Eric Roberts delivering and Hutton really sells it. He’s great as Blossom and it’s an infectiously fun performance to watch.
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Roger Ebert would write in his positive review of the film that, “And the surprise in the movie is Timothy Hutton, as the villain. I sense the curtain rising on the next act of his career. Having outgrown the sensitive-boy roles that established him (Ordinary People, Made in Heaven), he returns to his dark side, to notes he struck in such films as The Falcon and the Snowman and Q & A. He shows here what sets the interesting villains apart from the ordinary ones…Hutton creates a character instead of simply filling a space”. I agree completely…Handsome, charming and sinister to the max, Hutton’s Blossom is one of the most memorable villains of the nineties and the fact that he makes you like him in the process makes the performance even more resonate.
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Angelina Jolie was at the dawn of her significant career in 1997 and with Playing God she asserts herself as the most fascinating American actress of her generation. Never mind that she is essentially just playing ‘the girl’ here, Jolie is fantastic in the film and like Marlon Brando at the beginning of his career it is impossible to take your eyes off her. She would call the film "very rock n roll and fun and loud and say-what-you-want-to-say, dress wild and love wild", which of course goes a ways towards describing her performance in the film itself. Co-producer Melanie Green was quoted as saying that Angelina has "the wisdom of an old soul...the grace and style of an older woman" but in Playing God she is vitally young and in her role as "the girl" she manages to project that certain vitality that can only happen in your twenties incredibly well.
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Within a year a Playing God’s release, Jolie would strike gold with her devastating turn as doomed model Gia Carangi in Gia and she would be the highlight in Playing By Heart, a film that included everyone from Sean Connery to Gena Rowlands to Duchovny’s X-Files co-star, Gillian Anderson. Playing God would mark the last time Jolie would be cast as just “the girl” and it remains one of the most important if little seen of her early roles.
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Wilson’s film belongs to David Duchovny though. Featured in nearly every scene and playing Sands with the kind of understatement and subtlety not seen since the likes of McQueen, Newman and Redford in the seventies, Duchovny is fascinating as the addicted doctor who is “always looking for a new way to fuck up.” Showing off his natural humor while still managing to interject a lifetime worth of hurt into Sands, Playing God should have been a major coup (as his follow up film, the wonderful and endearing Return To Me should have been) for the talented actor but most critics (Ebert and a few others accepted) didn’t seem to know what to make of Duchovny’s un-showy performance. It’s a captivating and extremely interesting performance that I think will surprise people who have always put off watching this film due to the reception it got.
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Playing God appeared a couple of weeks before Halloween in 1997 and was out of the theaters by the time the trick or treater’s were finishing up their yearly bag of candy. Making less than five million at the box-office and being savaged by the critics, Playing God proved to be one of the biggest bombs of the year and it failed to make David Duchovny into the movie star a lot of us have known for a long time that he should be. The film faired a bit better in Europe but not much and it appeared quietly on home video in the early part of 98 where it didn’t find much of an audience either.
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Duchovny was reportedly unhappy with the final product due to the studio forced ending (he admitted later that it was "not the movie I wanted to make" and that "the character is redeemed because it's a hollywood movie...I didn't want to redeem him, but there were other people involved.") and Wilson went back to working in British television shortly after but Playing God is a film that I’m not guilty about loving. It’s a classic genre piece told in a distinctly nineties style and I haven’t tired of revisiting once a year or so in the decade that has passed since it was first released. I’d love to see what the film was supposed to have been originally, but I must admit that I’m really happy with what it became…even if it is a lonely club to be a member of.
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