Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Double Feature: Michelle Pfieffer and Al Pacino

Revisiting—or in a few cases, watching for the first time—and celebrating the work of Michelle Pfeiffer, the best actress of my lifetime.*

If you've been paying attention around here lately, you know that I adore Michelle Pfeiffer. She's likely my favorite actor, hands down. Al Pacino, however, also sits right there at the top of my personal pantheon. So it's no surprise that their two film collaborations are extremely special to me. They first starred together in Scarface (1983), Brian De Palma's wildly ambitious and searing critique of power, avarice, and the American Dream, as told through the rise and fall of a drug kingpin. That film belongs to Pacino, with Pfeiffer in a smaller, yet crucially important role. Eight years later, they shared the screen again in Frankie and Johnny (1991), Garry Marshall's warm, tender, and honest look at two damaged people falling in love. This time, Michelle's Frankie is the film's real focal point, with Al's Johnny very much supporting her throughout.

It's interesting to note the differences in their careers at the time they made each film together. In 1983's Scarface, Pacino was the legend, long established as one of the finest film actors of his generation, if not the very best. By the time he played Cuban gangster Tony Montana, he had already solidified his reputation with a string of spectacular performances in 1970s films like The Godfather (I and II), Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon. Enter, a relatively unknown and heartbreakingly beautiful Michelle Pfeiffer, as Tony's girlfriend, Elvira Hancock. Pfeiffer was fresh off a critically panned sequel to Grease, (unfairly criticized, to my way of thinking) her first big starring role. She was young and hungry, ready to show she had more to offer. Elvira became the role that changed her career--it made her a star and also announced her as a prodigious acting talent. Unfortunately too many critics and fans only noticed her astonishing beauty.

Skip ahead eight years to 1991's Frankie and Johnny: Pacino was still a star, but one who struggled in the '80s with a series of subpar films (Revolution, anyone?), and dropped out of movies for five years. His comeback began alongside the scorching hot Ellen Barkin in Sea of Love (1989), and by Frankie and Johnny he was on a roll again. Pfeiffer, on the other hand, went from a near-unknown to a superstar in her own right by the time she played Frankie. She spent the '80s methodically building an impressive body of work in films like Tequilla Sunrise, Married to the Mob, and The Witches of Eastwick. This led to her breakout role as Susie Diamond in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989). By that point, her talents and versatility were finally being appreciated, after years of having been dismissed as just another pretty face.

In Scarface, Pacino is all manic energy, madly ingesting mounds of cocaine one minute, sulking like a child the next, all while dropping F-bombs like they're going out of style. As the icy trophy wife Elvira, Pfeiffer counters Pacino's raving lunacy with a controlled, subtly nuanced performance. Elvira becomes the film's lone voice of reason amidst all of the insanity and chaos of Tony's drug empire. Pacino's lines in the film are absurdly memorable—"Say hello to my little friend" tops among them—but its Pfeiffer who sneaks in one quotable sly dig after another. From "Can't you stop saying fuck all the time?" to "I don't fuck around with the help" to "You're always hungry. You should be starving" to "Don't call me 'baby.' I'm not your 'baby'", Elvira is merciless, verbally eviscerating Tony over the course of the film. He's a terrible husband, and Elvira's not much better as a wife, but she's at least aware of how screwed up their relationship is and won't be silenced about it.

The animosity that develops over the course of the film between Elvira and Tony feels palpably real. He looks at her with contempt, she at him with total disdain. Pfeiffer is pure ice cold white gold, shooting daggers with her eyes (those eyes!) when not verbally berating most everyone around her, especially Tony. For Pacino's part, the hammy acting is a facade, built by a small, selfish man who wants the world to think he's the most powerful person alive. He's faking it until he can make it and Elvira calls him on his bullshit over and over.

Pfeiffer has said in interviews that working Pacino in each film was a vastly different experience. He was playing a metaphorical, toxic male monster in Scarface, and some of that method acting carried over onto the set. He was in character, distant and difficult. Pfeiffer was playing a woman who's tough exterior masked an inner turmoil and depression that threatened to overcome her at any moment. It's no wonder it was a tough shoot for her. Talking with Darren Aronofsky for Interview earlier this year, she said of the film,
“How’d it happen?” she said of her Scarface performance. “I’m very willful, you know. I’m a survivor. It’s in my nature. I don’t look so tough, but I am. And I think I was able to hide behind the tough exterior of that character, who was just sort of tuned out and tuned off, drugged.” She continued, “I can tell you that I was terrified. And it was a six-month shoot I think. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and I were really the only females. It was a boys’ club. And it was also the nature of the relationship, for Tony Montana to be very dismissive of my character. So I would go to sleep some nights crying.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum lies the warmth and tenderness of Frankie and Johnny. It's like comparing night and day when looking at each Pfeiffer-Pacino film. As Johnny, Pacino is a man who's lived through some extremely difficult times, including a prison sentence. Yet he's emerged from it all a new person, resolved to be more present to his life and the people in it, to simply be, to let the wonder and awe of the world wash over him. Consequently, when he falls hard for Pfeiffer's Frankie the first time they meet, he never questions it; instead, he pursues her with all his heart, unashamed to express his true feelings to her, repeatedly, despite her reticence. It's one of Pacino's most soulful performances. He's simply magnificent here.

Pfeiffer is the true star of the film though, turning in what might be the most exceptional work of her career. There was some doubt when she was cast—yet again, critics said she was "too pretty" to play a depressed and long-suffering diner waitress, as if life only hurts average looking people. Pfeiffer made the criticism look absurd she delivered what I've long believed to be her best performance. Frankie has been through enough emotional turmoil in her day that she's basically forgone a love life as a means of self-protection. She simply can't face the possibility of being hurt again.

The verbal jousts between Frankie and Johnny are delightful, full of heart and soul, opening windows into each character's inner conflicts and emotions. Contrast that with the mean spirited antagonism between Elvira and Tony, and you have two distinctly different pairings between Pfeiffer and Pacino. The drastic differences in each film showcases both actors' unparalleled range and versatility. Not only do they have terrific chemistry in each film, but that spark is more than just a physical attraction; their words and inflections and facial expressions combine to form fully realized portraits, one of a couple in a deteriorating sham of a marriage and another experiencing the emotional twists and turns of falling in love.

Johnny is compassionate and patient, but he's also not shy about telling Frankie that he can wait for her because fate has brought them together and will keep them together. Frankie's reactions to Johnny's sunny optimism are usually cynical and sarcastic—"I'm a BLT down sort of person, and I think you're looking for someone a little more pheasant under glass." Pfeiffer is brilliant here, from her nervous rebukes of Johnny's affections, to her eye-rolling dismissals of anything remotely sweet or heartfelt, to the moments when she blows up at Johnny because she simply can't hold in her anguish anymore.

The film carefully teases out elements of Frankie's backstory that allow us to understand why she struggles to believe that love is an option for her. Then, towards the end of the film, Pfeiffer delivers a tour-de-force monologue that lays bare all of Frankie's fears and anxieties, as well as her traumatic history with an abusive ex. The film was building to this moment; every subtle and lived-in acting choice Pfeiffer makes up to that point helps us understand and connect with Frankie more by the time the dam finally bursts, and the tears start gushing. Pacino is wonderful in the scene as well, being supportive, allowing Pfeiffer to let it all out, just holding her and telling her he'll be with her when bad things happen from now on. It's a multiple-tissue box kind of scene, and it wrecks me every single time I watch.

In two films together, eight years apart, Michelle and Al were able to showcase not only their unmatched versatility but also their deep emotional connection as actors that allows us to believe in them as a couple. They each share an important physical characteristic that makes audiences believe in their performances: big, beautiful, and expressive eyes. You can read their characters' thoughts—whether it's Elvira or Frankie or Tony or Johnny—simply by watching Michelle's and Al's eyes. They do more acting with their eyes than some actors do with their entire bodies. When they look at each other with anger or loathing in Scarface, we believe they mean it; when they stare into each other's souls in Frankie and Johnny, we see the tentative early stages of love between them, and we believe it. Hopefully, some day soon, we'll be treated to another memorable onscreen pairing of Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino, and witness their wonderful chemistry together, one more time.


*This post is part of the Double Duo Feature Blogathon, co-hosted by the wonderful folks at the blogs Phyllis Loves Classic Movies and The Flapper Dame. Visit their sites for links to all of the posts from the various blogs participating in this event. Thanks for allowing me to be part of your blogathon, Phyllis and Emily!

Monday, September 11, 2017

An Appreciation: Terry (Belinda Balaski) in The Howling

Terry's determined investigation into the Colony provides the film's most heroic moments.

Oh, Terry. You were so full of spunk and wit and had such incredible hair.

Every time I watch Joe Dante's seminal 1981 werewolf film The Howling, I want to warn Terry of the dangers that lie ahead—namely Robert Picardo's unnervingly deranged serial killer-cum-werewolf Eddie Quist—and beg her to just drop the amateur sleuthing, turn around, and skedaddle out of the woods and back to L.A. Sadly, every time I watch, her fate remains the same.

Belinda Balaski turns in a remarkable performance in a supporting role as Terry, the best friend to star Dee Wallace's character, Karen White. Whenever she's on screen it's impossible to take your eyes off her. She's a dynamo, full of magnetic charisma. She breathes such tremendous life into the role and I doubt most actresses could've done any better with the part. Balaski imbues Terry with attractive qualities, like tenacity, pluckiness, and charm. Following her as she investigates the mysterious goings on at the Colony is like tagging along with a wise-cracking Nancy Drew. At one point, while under attack in a creepy cabin in the woods, she uses an ax to chop off her wolf-assailant's arm to break free. Badass. That Terry's dogged pursuit of the truth in order to protect Karen leads to her doom only further cements her appeal.

We know Terry's doomed, but this only makes us identify with and admire her even more.

Horror films are littered with the dead bodies of forgotten victims, but sometimes we find one that we care deeply about. Balaski's Terry belongs in the latter category for me. During my first viewing of The Howling as a young boy, she left such an impression on me that her murder actually emotionally devastated me. "No!" I shouted out loud. I had to stop the VHS tape for a moment to collect myself. That's rare in the pantheon on horror movie victims. Belinda Balaski's Terri is one of the best of an oft-ignored group. She'll always hold a coveted spot on my list of personal favorite horror characters, for her bravery and loyalty to her friend, her cynical smart-ass quips, and of course her glorious head of effervescent hair.*

Oh, Terry.

* Unintentionally, hair is becoming a theme when discussing horror film legends. See also: Heather Langenkamp. I suppose you don't have to have to great hair to be a scream queen, but it certainly doesn't hurt if you do.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Michelle Pfeiffer: Wolf

Revisiting—or in a few cases, watching for the first time—and celebrating the work of Michelle Pfeiffer, the best actress of my lifetime.

Mike Nichols' Wolf (1994) utilizes classic werewolf tropes to segue into a smart and slyly funny exploration of the crisis of masculinity. Jack Nicholson's character Will, in the midst of a midlife crisis, begins to feel like a much younger man again after he's bitten by a wolf. Plus he meets a much younger woman played by Michelle Pfeiffer, who becomes the symbol of all that's missing from his life, and so of course he must have her. The film flummoxed audiences and critics in '94, yet it holds up magnificently today. It's beautifully filmed, with a memorably vivid Ennio Morricone score, and terrific performances by all involved, especially from Pfeiffer.

Pfeiffer has a lot of fun being the object of Nicholson's affection here. She makes acting choices that help reinforce the film's harsh critique of the male ego. Throughout, Nicholson's Will and James Spader's Stewart (in a howlingly delicious turn as a creep coworker at Nicholson's publishing firm) are always mansplaining everything to Laura. Pfeiffer's reaction shots provide many of the film's most delightful moments—bemusement, disdain, and exasperation are just a few of the emotions she conveys with a piercing glance or a subtle lift of an eyebrow. Laura is the sort of role Pfeiffer's always excelled at playing, a woman primarily defined (by men) for her beauty, yet one who is also fierce, intelligent, and wields a whip-smart sense of humor.

That the film's climactic—and entertainingly ludicrous—battle between Nicholson's and Spader's wolfmen ends with Pfeiffer killing Spader in a hail of bullets is fitting. Then, the film's final scene is a zooming closeup of Pfeiffer's intensely expressive eyes, signaling a shift in the film's male-female power dynamic. Laura's put up with the men's nonsense for the last two hours, and now it's her turn to be the predator. Ultimately, the film offers a prescient commentary on the resilience of women in a patriarchal society. In a film that often straddles the line between high and low brow, Pfeiffer makes it all work with a finely drawn and nuanced performance that resonates more with each viewing.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Writing Roundup: Summer Edition

Over The Edge (1979)

Summer is almost over, and I'm ready for fall. I'm not ready for winter though, and I will miss summer, but fall is my favorite time of year, for many reasons. We're having unusually comfortable weather in the Northeast for this time of year, with temps in the 70s and nice cool overnight lows this week. All of which makes it feel even more like fall is already here. How about a nice pumpkin ale? Yes, please.

Still, I have no doubt we'll see a return to hot and humid weather before summer's officially done. But those days will become fewer and farther between as we move into September. So, get outside, enjoy the last days of summer while you can.

Speaking of summer, I contributed some articles, reviews, and interviews at other sites this summer. Here are some links, for your perusal and enjoyment. Feel free to comment here with your thoughts on any and all of these pieces.

Tim Hanley on The Many Lives of Catwoman

"What I do is not up to you": Respect and Agency in Wonder Woman

Mike Deodato's Wonder Woman in the Extreme '90s

74 Years of Bobby D - Mickey C's Top 10

Over The Edge (cult classic film review)

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Barely Making a Dent: August 2017 Books

In which our narrator tries to read his way through the endless stacks of books that are slowly overtaking both his bookshelves and his life.

Did you know that Christy Turlington is not your average supermodel? She has run marathons, is an avid practitioner of yoga, and used to be a vegetarian? Well, that's what Wikipedia tells me, at least. Good for her. For a split second, when I first saw this photo on a random Pinterest board, I remembered her as the supermodel trapped in an ATM vestibule with Chandler Bing in that memorable early episode of Friends, but then Chandler's line instantly popped into my head, "I'm trapped in an ATM vestibule with Jill Goodacre!!" Silly me, confusing my '90s supermodels. I bet Goodacre doesn't hunt down rare books with the same sort of dogged determination as Turlington. Plus, Turlington was in George Michaels' "Freedom '90" video, so she straight up wins for that reason alone.

How did this turn into a battle of  '90s supermodels? My brain frightens me sometimes. I think this series is now as much about the vintage photos of books, bookstores, and readers I keep finding as it is about the books I'm reading, have read, and am about to read. Speaking of those...

Currently reading:

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. This is absolutely delightful so far. A dark comedy about the end of the world, from two writers at the peak of their witty, sardonic powers. Soon it will be an Amazon Prime miniseries starring Michael Sheen (love him) and David Tennant (my favorite doctor ever and just basically one of my favorite human beings, period). I've owned book for at least a decade, and the adaptation news prompted me to finally pull it off the shelf. My only regret is it's taken me this long to finally read it. It's fantastic so far.

Brian De Palma's Split Screen, by Douglas Keesey. Another in a long line of informative and entertaining film books from one of my favorite university presses, the University Press of Mississippi. I've always been fascinated with De Palma's films and, love him or loathe him, there's no denying his films are usually interesting, at least. The book is terrific, exploring all of the director's films and digging deep with extensive critical examinations of his sometimes troubling reliance on violence against women as a narrative device. I'm currently revisiting the films of Michelle Pfeiffer, so the chapter on Scarface and its interview snippets with Pfeiffer concerning the role of Elvira were particularly timely and enlightening.

Image courtesy of the publisher's website.

Paperbacks From Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror Fiction, by Grady Hendrix. This is an advance copy, so look for a review of it somewhere down the line. For now I'll say this: if you love horror (films and books) from the time period the book covers, then just pre-order it today. You're guaranteed to love it. Not only is it gorgeously designed, the sort of coffee table book you want to proudly display in your home (it's from Quirk Books, so of course it looks amazing), but it's also going to become the historical overview of the '70s-'80s horror novel boom. No other book will come close. Hendrix provides detailed synopses of the books covered (and there are hundreds and hundreds included here) along with critical analyses, and author and cover artist spotlights throughout. Hendrix has written a few horror novels himself, which I wasn't aware of previously. I've already picked up a copy of one of them (see below) and hope to read it in time for Halloween. To sum up: buy this book. Now.

Recently read:

The Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri.  I first read this about fifteen years ago. Lahiri's short stories of hurt and broken souls stuck with me over the years. A recent reread only reaffirmed my love for these stories. One of these days I'll get around to Lahiri's novels.

1984, by George Orwell. Choosing this time in history to reread Orwell's dystopian classic may not have been the best thing for my mental health. The depressing and frightening parallels between the book's story and the imperial rule of the Mango Mussolini make clear that it remains as relevant today as when it was published in 1949, or when I read it as a young, impressionable high school student in the early '90s.

Recently acquired:

More reading to add to the ever-growing stacks of books around the house. I'm hopeless.

--My Best Friend's Exorcism, by Grady Hendrix
--On Writing, by Stephen King
--The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin
--The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin
--Bloodchild and Other Stories, by Octavia Butler

Does Christy Turlington also acquire books at a faster rate than she can read them? I hope so. I don't want to be the only weirdo with this particular affliction.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Michelle Pfeiffer: Married to the Mob

Revisiting—or in a few cases, watching for the first time—and celebrating the work of Michelle Pfeiffer, the best actress of my lifetime.

Jonathan Demme's satirical tale of one woman's quest to free herself of the mafia life, Married to the Mob (1988) is an underrated gem, an absolute joy to watch, and at times riotously funny. Everything about it is subversive and smart, nothing more so than the tremendous lead performance by Michelle Pfeiffer.

Pfeiffer is electric as Angela de Marco, a recently widowed mob wife trying to restart her life and make a clean break from her husband's mobster ties. She uses her best physical asset as an actress—those big, expressive blue eyes, as deep and as calming as an ocean—to expose Angela's vulnerabilities early and often. It's in the way she looks sad and adrift in a room full of (crazy) people, or in how a longing glance reveals her interest in a sweet FBI agent, played wonderfully by Matthew Modine. Pardon the cliche, but Pfeiffer's eyes truly are a window into both her soul and the souls of her characters.

The film also allows Pfeiffer to show off her gift for comedy. She's the centerpiece of this madcap romp, with both the mob and law enforcement trying to control her, and she rolls with the film's manic energy with aplomb. She's hilarious here, full of New Yawk toughness and grace under fire, but all the while showing us Angela's tenderness and her very real desire to live a better life. It's a terrific film, full of life and energy, and featuring a beautifully realized and touching performance from Pfeiffer. Both the film and her work in it are worth revisiting and celebrating all over again.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

It Came From the '90s: Essential Films of 1997

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

I love lists. Anyone who really knows me knows this. When I feel inspired by something, I'll drop a top five or ten list on you at any time, without warning, like that time I ranked all of the X-Men films (before Logan came out, so today that film would top the list). So I'm a sucker for lists like the one The AV Club compiled for the best movies of 1997. It reaffirmed something I felt twenty years ago, which is that 1997 was an exceptional year at the movies.

After you've read the AVC's list, come back here and I'll opine on some of the choices, probably argue with the rankings, and finally mention a few films from 1997 that didn't make the cut.

18. Grosse Point Blank. I might rank this one higher, but my love for this film is widely known. I was about to graduate from college when I saw it, and Cusack's portrait of a man faced with an uncertain future finding some strange comfort in his nostalgic past strongly resonated with me. The killer soundtrack doesn't hurt, either.

Kevin Kline in The Ice Storm.

14. The Ice Storm. Like many of the great films on this list, Ang Lee's hauntingly beautiful meditation on 1970s suburban ennui remains powerful today. In some ways, it's even more so now that we've had two more decades to further marinate in the specific sort of privileged American malaise this film chronicles. If you grew up in the 1970s through the 1990s, in other words if you are a member of Generation X, then so much of this film will be eerily familiar. From the drab and dreary late-fall setting, to the pitch-perfect period details, to a morose Tobey Maguire reading Fantastic Four on the commuter train, the film remains a deeply affecting work without being sentimental or cloying. The AV Club says it best,
The suburbs roiling with bad behavior and dirty secrets was a long-standing cliché well before The Ice Storm arrived on the scene, but Lee, Moody, and adapting screenwriter James Schamus observe every character in the pair of intertwined families with a clear, sharp vision of behavior that vacillates between soul-searching and self-destructive.
The Ice Storm ranks in my personal top five for 1997.

10. The Game. It's good to see this oft-neglected David Fincher film (released between two of his most memorable works, Se7en and Fight Club), as I've always had a soft spot for it. Still, I wouldn't rank it #10 for that year. Quibbles with rankings aside, the film's stature certainly has grown over the years, and deservedly so. It just proves that Fincher's body of work is so strong that a movie this good still probably wouldn't crack a top five list of his films.

8. L.A. Confidential. Look, #8 is absurd. This one should be in the top five for 1997, easy, maybe even top two or three. I'd rank it in the top ten of the entire decade. This reminds me, I need to revisit the film again, it's been far too long. 

6. Titanic. Look, it's been twenty years but I still haven't seen this blockbuster in its entirety. Every time I've caught portions of it on cable I've wanted to barf. At this point, I think I'm avoiding a complete viewing out of spite, and that's fine with me. I have as little interest in the film today as I did in 1997, which is to say I have no interest in it. So it's no surprise that it wouldn't make my top twenty of 1997. Sorry, Kate and Leo fans.

5. Starship Troopers. I think Paul Verhoeven is an underappreciated cinematic genius, and I've written about his films twice recently, here and here. So I won't wax rhapsodic about this movie's brilliant satire of the military-industrial-media-complex, just know this: Starship Troopers, like many of Verhoeven's films, was woefully misunderstood upon release but eventually people caught on to what he was putting down. Some works of genius are only fully appreciated with time and distance, it seems.

That scene in Boogie Nights.

4. Boogie Nights. This one was rightly celebrated in 1997 as an audaciously ambitious powerhouse ensemble piece that left you breathless throughout. While I've heard some grumblings about it being overrated since then—a friend once laughed derisively when I declared the infamously insane "Sister Christian" scene to be one of my favorites in all of film—it still more than holds up today. Don Cheadle's cowboy hat wearing stereo salesman? Brilliant. Heather Graham's iconic Rollgergirl? Heartbreaking. Burt Reynolds' porn king, Jack Horner? Hilarious yet highly disturbing. Mark Wahlberg, of whom I'd previously had a mostly low opinion, was spectacular. Boogie Nights is Paul Thomas Anderson's first true masterpiece.

1. Jackie Brown. The AVC and I are in complete agreement on the #1 film of 1997, no question about it. I remember loving this movie so passionately back then, and feeling like no one else seemed to get it like I did. I recall an awful lot of complaints from friends and critics that it was a letdown after Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. "It's too long" and "It's too slow" were the primary reasons given by these folks for disliking the film. Today it seems obvious, in a career filled with several excellent films, Jackie Brown is still Tarantino's best. So it's good to see the critics finally coming around to it these days. I have so much I could say about it that I'd like to write an entire piece about the film instead. For now I'll note that it's one of the most poignant portrayals I've ever seen of two adults navigating both life and their mutual attraction. Pam Grier and Robert Forster are magnificent, each turning in career-best work. And, of course, the film is a beautiful love letter to Grier from superfan Tarantino, which only enhances its appeal. She never had the opportunities to star in truly great films, but this one will always stand as a testament to her charisma, charm, and underrated skills as an actress.

Pam Grier owns the screen no matter the role, but especially as Jackie Brown.

There are so many more great films from 1997 not included on the AVC list, including Cop Land (featuring an all-star cast and Sylvester Stallone's tour-de-force work)Chasing Amy (Kevin Smith's sweet and sometimes naive look at love)The Fifth Element (Luc Besson's manic sci-fi romp)Devil's Advocate (Al Pacino setting the screen on fire with a ferociously fun performance as the Devil)Donne Brasco (featuring another gem of a performance by Pacino), and Lost Highway (one of David Lynch's most disturbing films, which is saying an awful lot), to name a few. Clearly, 1997 was a very good year at the multiplex, and I was fortunate to see many of these films that year. I idolized (and still do) the films of the 1970s, Hollywood's last true Golden Age. So in 1997, I recognized and appreciated the inspiration of 1970s cinema on the new movies I was then watching in the theater. It certainly was a glorious time to be a young film fanatic.

Lastly, let me say a few words about another 1997 film, Anaconda. 

J Lo: bored and a little embarrassed. Cube: cashing in. Voight: batshit crazy. 

Ahem, okay, this one shouldn't be anywhere near a top twenty (or thirty or forty or...) list, but I don't care I love it anyway. It's so outrageously bad, so gleefully absurd, that I can't help myself. For god's sake, it stars J Lo, Ice Cube, Owen Wilson, Eric Stoltz, Kari Wuhrer, and Danny Trejo! And, turning in an all-time great terrible performance, Jon Voight. I'm not sure we've seen a cast this magnificently bizarre since. Plus, let's not forget the giant killer snake. 'nuff said.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Michelle Pfeiffer: Frankie and Johnny

Revisiting—or in a few cases, watching for the first time—and celebrating the work of Michelle Pfeiffer, the best actress of my lifetime.

And then there was the time my two favorites starred in one of the most starkly honest and mature films about grownup relationships this viewer has ever seen. Frankie and Johnny (1991) is a beautifully melancholic tale, laced through with rich and sincere humor aimed at adults—people who've lived long enough to have loved and lost and felt real longing and despair.

Al Pacino is fantastic as Johnny, the new short-order cook at the diner where Michelle Pfeiffer's Frankie works. Johnny is a good man who truly believes that he and Frankie are meant to be together. Johnny is fully alive now to the realization that life is short, so he's resolved to cherish every minute of it moving forward. Frankie is the cynic, the beaten-down diner waitress who masks the pain of previous relationship failures with biting sarcasm and avoidance. She's the emotional core of the film. Pfeiffer makes us believe just how badly Frankie has been hurt before, how frightened and damaged beyond repair she feels. Her performance is simply heartbreaking, so nakedly raw and thoroughly believable. At the time she was cast, there were grumblings about her being "too pretty" to be convincing as the world-weary Frankie. With this ferocious, committed performance, she put those doubts to rest.

Late in the movie, Pfeiffer sobs, almost uncontrollably, through a devastating monologue that guts me every time—"I'm afraid to be alone, I'm afraid not to be alone, I'm afraid of what I am, what I'm not, what I might become, what I might never become." It's truly a tour-de-force moment, the kind that will forever be included in highlight reels celebrating her work.

Frankie and Johnny is an all-time sentimental favorite of mine, one that will always hold a special place in my heart. Sometimes you connect with a film, or with a character, in such a deep and meaningful way that they become an integral part of you. That's my experience with both this film and the two lead performances, but especially with Pfieffer's work as Frankie. She's a revelation here. Some days, I even believe it's her very best work.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

It Came From the '90s: The Hope and Heartbreak of Riley's New York Knicks

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

Pat Riley's New York Knicks broke our hearts, every single yearNot only did they break them, but they ripped them out of our chests, stomped on them, tore them in half, and then tossed the pieces in the river. And we loved them anyway.

I grew up in the shadow of Schenectady. In the shadow of the men born and raised on its city streets, including Riley, and most importantly, my father. These were men who didn't complain about life's heartache and misery, but instead just lived, motivating those around them by their work ethic and their true and unwavering principles. Certainly, Riley's Knicks (1991–1995) were the perfect team for the tough 'n' gritty New York City of that era. Yet they were also bruisers, uncompromising, relentless. They beat you by out-hustling and out-working you. In other words, like their coach, they were Schenectady.

Patrick Ewing was their superstar, yet one who'd never tasted much success. Otherwise the roster was stocked full of NBA journeymen, former minor-leaguers, and grocery store baggers. Yet early on these assorted losers and oddballs gelled under Riley. They went from nobodies to serious title contenders by his second year on the bench. Rejects and has-beens like Anthony Mason, John Starks, Greg Anthony, and Derek Harper played their hearts out for Riley. It also didn't hurt they had grizzled vet Charles Oakley to help set the tone and style Riley was after, one that favored tenacious defense over fluid offense. Riley was smart (duh, he's a Hall of Fame coach)—he knew he didn't have an offensive powerhouse so he played to his team's strengths on defense instead.

Tenacious D: what Riley's Knicks lacked in offensive firepower they made up for with smothering defense.

That Riley inspired these misfits to (almost) greatness was astonishing then and remains a minor miracle today. In his four years they won 51, 60, 57, and 55 games. Three out of four of these years they were knocked out of the playoffs by one of their two hated rivals, the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers. I can still see the heartbreaking endings of games, series, seasons, as if they were happening in real time today: Charles Smith blowing what felt like a dozen layups against the Bulls in the final seconds; Reggie Miller shocking New York and the world with eight points in nine seconds to steal a win; Ewing's missed gimme of a finger roll at the buzzer against the Pacers, this one the final nail in the coffin, as Riley left for Miami soon after.

One year stands above all others though, in terms of pure Shakespearean tragedy. In '94, the Knicks finally made it past the Bulls (who, it must be stated, were missing Jordan, inexplicably off shagging fly balls in the deep south). The '94 Finals against Hakeem's Houston Rockets was an ugly yet absurdly addictive series, filled with grueling basketball, amounting to more of a war of attrition than anything. The Knicks went back to Houston with a 3-2 lead and a championship within their grasp. Then it all fell apart. The Rockets, rejuvenated at home, squeaked out wins in the final two games, assisted greatly by Hakeem's last-second block of Starks' jumper in game six, and then Starks' horrific 2-18 shooting performance in game seven. It was painful to watch.

Even today, this screen capture breaks my heart.

It wasn't supposed to end that way. The NHL's Rangers and the Knicks had each been marching towards greatness all season, and watching their twin playoff run concurrently still remains quite possibly the most intoxicating sports viewing experiences of my life. All of New York seemed electrified by these two long-suffering franchises that summer, all of us seemingly living and dying with the outcome of every game. The Rangers upheld their end. The Knicks almost did, but almost doesn't count in the end.

Yet, looking back on it now, I think New Yorkers from across the state loved those Knicks, not despite their falling apart at the end of big games, but because of it. In some twisted way, we identified with and even saw ourselves in their imperfections. Ultimately Riley's Knicks overachieved. Their roster wasn't nearly as talented as the Pacers or Bulls, yet they fought tooth and nail against those squads in some of the NBA's hardest-fought playoff series of the era, maybe ever. I still ache for the championship(s) they almost won, but I also continue to be inspired by how much effort they expended trying to scale that mountain, year after year. It was a wild four-year ride, during which time the Knicks ripped out our hearts often, but dammit if we didn't still love them anyway.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Michelle Pfeiffer: The Fabulous Baker Boys

Revisiting—or in a few cases, watching for the first time—and celebrating the work of Michelle Pfeiffer, the best actress of my lifetime.

Here it is, the iconic performance that made Michelle Pfeiffer a breakout star and a household name while also earning her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) is an intensely intimate film with some terrific insights into what it's like to be lonely and feel unworthy or unloved. I hate to use this cliche, but it's the kind of film we don't see nearly enough these days. It focuses on a lounge act trio—two piano-playing brothers, Frank and Jack Baker (real-life siblings Beau and Jeff Bridges) and the inexperienced yet undeniably charismatic singer who shakes up their humdrum existence, Susie Diamond (Pfeiffer).

It's no surprise Pfeiffer was celebrated when the film opened to glowing reviews—she's pure electricity here, especially on stage where Susie quickly develops into a stunningly confident singer, putting her entire body and soul into the performances. In the film's most famous scene, when she's wearing that red dress and slinking and writhing atop Jack's piano while singing "Makin' Whoopee," Pfeiffer provides one of the most indelible moments in film history, one that will be played forever in montages celebrating the magic of the movies.

Pfeiffer is equally adept at dishing out Susie's razor-sharp wit, as in this memorable scene:
Frank: Okay, let's hear it. We trashed the Avedon, the Luau Lounge—what's our beef with 'Feelings'?
Susie: Nothing... except who cares? I mean, does anybody really need to hear 'Feelings' again in their lifetime? It's like parsley, okay? Take it away, nobody's going to know the difference. 
Frank: 'Feelings' is not parsley!
Susie Diamond: Frank, to you 'Feelings' may be goddamn filet mignon, but to me, it's parsley. It's less than parsley.
The real magnificence of Pfieffer's performance is in how she allows us inside Susie's delicate vulnerability. She's overcome a lot in her past (she was a prostitute), protecting herself from the pain with biting sarcasm off stage and sultry seductiveness on stage. When Susie finally expresses herself to Jack with heartbreaking honesty, it's devastating to watch. Pfieffer makes us feel Susie's pain. Her speech about how we tell ourselves that we have an empty place inside us to hide away the pain culminates with a devastating truth: "But you do it long enough and all you are is empty."

In 1988, Roger Ebert famously raved about Pfeiffer's performance. He said:
"This is one of the movies they will use as a document, years from now, when they begin to trace the steps by which Pfeiffer became a great star." — Roger Ebert
And also:
"This is the movie of her flowering—not just as a beautiful woman, but as an actress with the ability to make you care about her, to make you feel what she feels."
Ebert was correct. This is the film that launched her career into the stratosphere, and forever after people would point to it as the moment when audiences and critics realized she had not only the raw talent but also the charisma and dedication to become the best.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

An Appreciation: Nicola Scott

Nicola Scott. Photo: Cole Bennetts.

For my money, Nicola Scott is the finest comic book artist working today. Certainly, she's been an excellent artist for a while now, since she first entered the field about fifteen years ago, but recently she's emerged as a truly special artist, with a style all her own. Make no mistake: she's outrageously good now.

Her recent work, especially on DC's Wonder Woman and Image's Black Magick, is astonishingly impressive—seriously, drop everything and pick up the trades for these series right now. These books make it clear that Scott is in the midst of a major moment, and she's grasping those opportunities and making the most of them. Thanks partly to a unique confluence of events, including Wonder Woman's (brief) United Nations Ambassadorship last fall (for which Scott illustrated the jaw-dropping poster), the character's 75th anniversary in 2016, and the new Patty Jenkins film starring Gal Gadot, Scott's work is now reaching a larger audience than ever. In many ways, she's become the definitive Wonder Woman artist in recent memory.

Scott seems to be in total command of her artistic repertoire now, while also continually evolving into something even greater, with each successive issue. There's no one better right now at portraying the full extent of human emotions. When she draws Wonder Woman looking solemn or joyous or determined, you can see each clearly through Scott's emotive illustrations. It's in the way she draws Diana's eyes slightly downcast, or how she might make the Amazon's mouth break into a smile so broad it could light the world, or when she furrows her brow and directs those piercing blue eyes at the reader. She breathes life into her characters, making them feel like so much more than just lines on a page. Like all great art, Scott's work burrows straight into your soul and makes you feel, deeply.

As a lifelong practitioner of art whose true artistic love is portrait drawing and cartooning, I'm inspired by Scott's work. When I sketch now, it's her faces that I see in my head. When she recently talked with W about her philosophies and goals when drawing comics, my appreciation for her work only further deepened. Before you click over to that interview, let's end this appreciation with some examples of Scott's exquisitely beautiful artwork. These images, like my gushing words above, don't completely do her justice; for that, you really need to seek out her work in book form, recline in your most comfortable chair, and simply luxuriate in the glow of an artist at the top of her game.

Scott's ability to convey emotions through her characters' eyes is second to none. From Wonder Woman.

Scott's iconic UN poster art.

A visual feast, a tour de force, from Black Magick.

Nicola Scott with her lifelong hero Wonder Woman.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Michelle Pfeiffer: Batman Returns

Revisiting—or in a few cases, watching for the first time—and celebrating the work of Michelle Pfeiffer, the best actress of my lifetime.

Sometimes in movies, an actor or actress gives such a charismatic and fully realized performance that it rises to the level of high art itself. Case in point: Michelle Pfeiffer's legendary performance as Selina Kyle/Catwoman in Tim Burton's Batman Returns (1992). Burton's second Batman film is delightfully weirder than his first—it's chock-full of a deliciously twisted black humor and everything feels more loose and assured. Make no mistake though: twenty-five years on, it's Pfeiffer's embrace of that weirdness in her quintessentially fierce and sexy turn in the catsuit that remains the movie's most lasting legacy.

What's most rewarding about Pfeiffer's work here is how much nuance she brings to Selina's arc, from meek and mousy secretary to ferocious and extroverted antihero. Early on, while establishing Selina's depressing life, she's endearingly funny while also making us keenly aware of her loneliness, vulnerability, and self awareness. We're not laughing at Selina; we're just laughing to keep from crying. Then, after her transformation—"I am Catwoman. Hear me roar."—she's pure animal magnetism, prowling seductively through the rooftops and streets of Gotham. One moment she's licking herself clean like a cat (such a fantastically funny moment) and the next, she's besting every man in her path. The feminist commentary is unmistakable throughout—Selina is abused by the patriarchy, gets woke, and then spends the rest of the film equalizing the playing field between her and a cast full of (mostly bad) men. It's glorious to behold, with Pfeiffer reveling in every minute of it.

There's a lovely and tender scene late in the film, where Selina and Bruce (Michael Keaton) realize each other's costumed identities at the same exact moment. It's exquisitely intimate, with tight closeups and real heat generated between Pfeiffer and Keaton. Her reaction to this sudden realization is devastation: tears welling in her eyes, she looks shocked, shaken to her core. After they embrace tightly—as if holding one another will make them forget the truth—Pfeiffer asks, with a flawless mix of dry humor and heartbreaking sadness, "Oh my god. Does this mean we have to start fighting?" Moments like this make Pfieffer's performance one for the ages.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

An Appreciation: Richard Hell

Writer. Street poet. Heartbreaker. Blank generation. Voidoid. Fashion icon. Bassist. Neon boy. Punk.

Richard Hell (né Richard Lester Meyers) was everywhere and everything all at once in the nascent punk rock scene in 1970s New York City. During the decade he was in several seminal bands: the Neon Boys, Television, the Heartbreakers, and the Voidoids. Hell played bass and sang (if one can call it that) with a warble and a sneer, all furious punk fury just barely masking a sensitive songwriter's ethos.

Hell is responsible for the famous ripped clothes, spiked hair, and overall fuck-you style of early punk rock. When you see a wannabe punker sporting the look these days, four decades on, realize it's Hell to whom they owe a debt. Back then, he managed to seem more alive than almost anybody else while looking like he'd just been mugged, beaten, and left for dead. Malcolm McClaren was inspired by and lifted the essence of Hell's couture for a new band he was managing over in London, the Sex Pistols. The rest is history.

Across all of the bands and clubs and parties and scenes, "Blank Generation" will likely always stand as Hell's major musical contribution to punk. The title says it all, doesn't it? Rarely has a songwriter better defined a collective sense of ennui and apathy.

I belong to the blank generation and
I can take it or leave it each time
I belong to the generation but
I can take it or leave it each time

Hell was always a writer-artist first, a musician second. He mostly left music behind decades ago, only rarely returning to it, and instead focused on his lifeblood, the thing that made him tick, his writing. Back in the '70s though, during the infamous Taxi Driver era in New York, when the streets were seemingly a cesspool of crime and despair, he helped ignite a movement through music, which quickly grew beyond that to signify an attitude and a way of life.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017


Our mothers had recently become friends, through the PTA I think, so her parents invited us over one Friday night. Jackie was a grade behind me in school; we knew each other but rarely talked. She seemed shy. I was shy. While our parents talked and laughed in the kitchen over drinks, we were in the living room, watching something inane on television. We sat on the couch in silence for several minutes. I started to wish I'd just stayed home.

At one point we each snickered at something on the tube. Then she muttered a few sarcastic asides and the entire tenor of the room changed. I can't remember now what she said, but I'll never forget how it made me feel: Alive. I replied with an equally dry comment of my own and we were off to the races. In that instant, I knew she and I were the same. We saw things from a slightly skewed perspective. We felt like outsiders at school. We each had some friends, sure, but not many close ones. I think we both felt misunderstood, maybe even a little unlovable, in that unreasonable way only teenagers can.

We spent the rest of the night quipping, laughing, and snarking our way through a variety of topics—mostly school related, and especially the popular kids who didn't seem to know we existed. We were bonding, quickly, over our real and imagined insecurities and inadequacies.

For the rest high school, our families would occasionally get together for fun, and sometimes raucou, evenings at one of our houses. Jackie and I usually wound up together in the living room, or out on the porch, talking. She was so smart, and riotously funny. Like all interesting people, she was goofy and weird, in the best ways possible. Her laugh was big and infectious, the kind that made you feel better about yourself for having heard it. I can't claim to have known her fully, but our connection was strong. I saw the same pain and unhappiness in her that I felt, but I also saw the same spark of creativity and passion that I felt so deeply about things I didn't think anyone else cared about. What I didn't see back then was that her pain, her suffering, was so much more real and acute than mine.

Today I ache for the loss of my friend Jackie. I'm still struggling to accept it. She's too young. I can still see us, just kids, sitting on that couch, laughing. I'm grateful for the time we had together, and I'll carry those memories in my heart forever. They'll serve as a reminder that sometimes, if you're lucky, you have a spark with someone that leads to an enormously fulfilling friendship, even if only briefly. Jackie was that kind of person for me. I miss her. I miss the kids we were back then, and the laughs we shared, before awful things like suffering, or loss, or grief got in the way of it all.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Michelle Pfeiffer: Scarface

Revisiting—or in a few cases, watching for the first time—and celebrating the work of Michelle Pfeiffer, the best actress of my lifetime.

"Michelle Pfeiffer was a star from the moment she descended in that glass elevator in Scarface—although the automatic prejudice that assumes beautiful people can't act means it took a while for people to see she was also an actress."
— Charles Taylor, in Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You

Like everyone and everything in Brian De Palma's wildly overstuffed, profane, and bloody morality tale of Tony Montana's (a gloriously over the top Al Pacino) dogged pursuit of the American dream, Pfeiffer's Elvira Hancock is not entirely what she seems at first glance. Certainly, she posses an otherworldly beauty, but she's also fiercely intelligent. Pfeiffer's masterful performance in Scarface (1983) upends our perceptions of the traditional, frigid ice queen trope—while Elvira is hardly impressed with Tony's bombast or power, she's also a woman with little power of her own beyond her sexuality and acerbic wit. Pfeiffer offers a memorably brave portrait of a women who's entire life has been defined by her beauty, and then subtly shows us how this fosters in her a detached cynicism and damaged self-worth. Pfeiffer underplays it all perfectly, making Elvira the cynical female voice of reason amidst the power-hungry and misogynist male egos around her.

Seeing Scarface in my early teens was transformative. The absurd spectacle and epic length alone blew my young mind. I would spend more than a decade watching it at least several times annually. To say I was obsessed with the film's black humor and extravagant violence would be an understatement. Truth be told, I was also more than a little obsessed with Pfieffer. No matter how often I watched, Elvira always took my breath away. It wasn't just her physical beauty, but also her delicately nuanced portrayal of a woman defiantly rebelling against her role as a cocaína empire trophy wife. She smolders with contempt throughout. Every icy glare, every verbal grenade she tosses makes an impact. It's astonishing to realize Pfeiffer was only twenty-four during production, yet she stands toe to toe with the legendary Pacino in every scene they share.

As the quote above notes, Pfeiffer's entrance in Scarface (1983) is indeed the moment where her nascent stardom first exploded onto the public consciousness. At the time, some critics and moviegoers may not have seen past her exquisite looks to realize her tremendous talent, which is a shame. Six years later though, everyone seemed in agreement about that stardom, thanks to her breakout, Oscar-nominated performance in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989). But for anyone who first saw her in Scarface, including that younger version of me, it was crystal clear from the moment she arrived on screen, a luminous vision in that iconic turquoise dress, clearly too perfect for this world: Michelle Pfieffer was a star.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Eyes of Laura Mars

As its title indicates, The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) is especially concerned with eyes, and specifically how we can each "see" something different when looking at the same thing. Laura Mars, as played by the captivating Faye Dunaway in an impressive performance, is a celebrated yet controversial fashion photographer. Her stunning pictures—inspired by the photography of Helmut Newton for the film—play with the intersections of desire and fear, sex and violence, blurring the lines between lustful consent and threatening assault. We see how audiences perceive Laura's work—on the one hand she's feted by Manhattan's elite art crowd for her daring and provocative style, while on the other a journalist looking for an interview shouts, "I just want to ask her if she knows how offensive her work is to women."

When the serial murders begin, Laura actually "sees" the murders as they occur—her eyes become those of the killer's, and she witnesses her friends and associates gruesome deaths through that lens. Laura's gifted eyes, used to create cutting-edge photographs of simulated sex and violence, now betray her with the sort of brutal finality only hinted at in her work. She's terrified. Suddenly her enormous and elegantly decorated apartment starts to feel like a prison. Her fashion shoots take on an ominous quality. It seems everyone in her life is a target of the killer—including Laura herself.

The Eyes of Laura Mars is a visual feast, full of beauty, style, and looming dread—in the way the city itself is shot, or in Laura's seductively suggestive photography, or in the nightmarish POV shots we glimpse through Laura's horrified eyes, or even finally in Laura herself. With her scandalously sexy legs and piercing bedroom eyes, she's the ultimate expression of impossible beauty, something viewers simply cannot look away from. That's kind of the point here—we're a culture of voyeurs, easily titillated by physical beauty, sex, and violence. We're a visually oriented society, yet often we each see, or interpret, things in very different ways. Much is made of the connection between Laura's art and the murders—not only their striking visual symmetry but also the possibility that her work inspired the serial killer's own work. Ultimately the film posits that this intersection of art and smut, beauty and debasement, can sometimes lead to tragic consequences.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Michelle Pfeiffer: The Age of Innocence

Revisiting—or in a few cases, watching for the first time—and celebrating the work of Michelle Pfeiffer, the best actress of my lifetime.

It's long been my contention that Michelle Pfeiffer is the best actress of my lifetime. She's consistently impressed in a wide variety of performances spanning several decades now. She's a true chameleon, disappearing inside of her characters, film after film. Clearly, she works extremely hard at her craft, but she makes it all seem effortless and above all, honest. We believe she is the character she's playing. There's no performative artifice to her acting; instead she's fluid and natural, fully inhabiting the women she's bringing to life.

Pfeiffer's performance as Countess Ellen Oleska in Martin Scorsese's sublime The Age of Innocence (1993) is, without question, one of a handful of Pfeiffer roles that I point to whenever someone asks for "best performance ever" lists. The exquisite beauty and crushing heartache of her work in the film has haunted me over the years and through repeat viewings. Even though she tries mightily to adhere to the social decorum of the day, Ellen's desire for Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis, in a performance that nearly equals Pfeiffer's) radiates with a white-hot intensity that practically scorches the screen. This love, built on mutual attraction and also respect, will sadly remain unconsummated due to the societal mores of 1870s New York City. Pfeiffer makes us feel every ounce of Ellen's pain, often with just a heartfelt glance or a forced smile in polite company. It's a remarkably affecting performance and, as is usual with Pfeiffer, utterly seamless as well.

An argument can be made that it's Pfeiffer's best work. Whether or not that's true, and I tend to believe it might be, it's clearly among her most definitive roles. I would also argue that it's one of the most achingly beautiful and nuanced performances ever captured on film.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Barely Making a Dent: July 2017 Books

In which our narrator tries to read his way through the endless stacks of books that are slowly overtaking both his bookshelves and his life.

That image above is from the occult bookstore scene in Joe Dante's 1981 werewolf masterpiece The Howling. I can hear you snickering at my belief in the existence of a "werewolf masterpiece." In response, I'd like to urge you to see more movies and to change your damn attitude. The Howling resides in my personal top ten horror films list, sometimes even inching into the top five. It's a horror movie for fans who know their horror. Scary, smart, sly, funny, terrifying. It's got it all.

Speaking of movies with bookstores in them, let's talk about some books, shall we?

Currently reading

Opening Wednesday at a Drive-In or Theater Near You, by Charles Taylor. The Howling isn't covered in this book, falling just outside its parameters of films from the 1970s. I'm guessing though that it's the sort of intelligent genre flick that Taylor would appreciate, though. His book posits that the '70s were the last Golden Age of Cinema. Nothing earth shattering there; most of us who take film seriously would agree. But then he focuses not on the critically lauded films of the era (Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Jaws, etc.), but on the lesser-known B-movies and genre fare that you could often catch at your local drive-in or at the rundown theater in the ugly part of town. I haven't see many of the films he covers in the book, but as a genre film addict I certainly want to now. Films like The Eyes of Laura Mars and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia have already been added to my watch list.

His chapter on Pam Grier is fascinating. He correctly notes that while Grier wasn't afforded the opportunities that other (white) actresses were given, she still managed to be a star. That she rarely worked in great pictures is a shame. Thankfully, and Taylor discusses this too, she did eventually headline a film that was more than worthy of her talents with Jackie Brown, Tarantino's love letter to Grier and everything she stood for in '70s films like Coffey and Foxy Brown. This only reinforced what I've long thought—Jackie Brown is Tarantino's most mature and affecting film. It's also his best. Thanks in large part to Grier's standout performance.

Taylor uses an analogy about two other actresses, Michelle Pfeiffer and Meryl Streep, to make his point that Grier was not only a star but also a wonderful actress. Here's the passage; it beautifully sums up my feelings exactly on both actresses:
Michelle Pfeiffer was a star from the moment she descended in that glass elevator in Scarface—although the automatic prejudice that assumes beautiful people can't act means it took a while for people to see she was also an actress. Meryl Streep—always too busy being the straight-A student, nailing an accent the way the class grind nails a test - has never managed it. (Asked for her opinion of Streep's acting, Katharine Hepburn said, "Click, click, click.")

Now for the eerie part. Just a couple of days before I read this book, on Facebook I declared Michelle Pfeiffer the best actress of my lifetime. Not only that, but I added, "You can keep Streep. I'll take Pfeiffer every time." This led to a series of amicable arguments with friends in the comments. I was dogged in my defense of my choice of Pfeiffer. So when I read this, in the midst of an appreciation of Pam Grier's awesomeness, my jaw dropped. This is almost exactly what I had just written. Vindication! A film critic agrees me!

Kidding aside, it's this sort of insight that hooked me from the first page. Taylor's not afraid to run counter to critical opinion. He writes thoughtfully about films and explicates ideas that other critics aren't even considering in their writing. For film nerds, this is a must read.

Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry. This one's been a grind so far. I knew what I was getting into, a towering piece of twentieth-century literature firmly ensconced in the cannon, one that's beautifully, and evocatively written, but one that's also elliptical and abstruse as hell. I'm nearing the halfway point, and this fractured narrative of an alcoholic drinking his way through Mexico in the late 1930s is definitely challenging my head, which is already taxed daily by kids, work, life. I want to see it through to the end, though. Some of Lowry's gloriously halting sentences, overstuffed as they are with commas, are positively sublime. The kind of writing you want to quote at parties. In fact, I'll close this party with one such line:
"And this is how I sometimes think of myself, as a great explorer who has discovered some extraordinary land from which he can never return to give his knowledge to the world: but the name of this land is hell."