Kubrick and Scorsese, not as violent as their most famous films might indicate.

Kubrick and Scorsese, not as violent as their most famous films might indicate. (photo)

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When someone says that Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese are his or her two favorite directors, it doesn’t mean that much. Both are responsible for films of cold, hard, almost universally valued quality — they’re almost unassailable cinematic institutions (there’s always going to be someone around to insist a director is overrated). They’re also dorm-room staples and two of the few directors still identifiable by many people by last name alone. It’s a rare case of critical and popular love getting married.

Here’s a video mash-up of the work of the two godhead directors to get your week started with a bang. Kudos to “Leandro Copperfield,” whose “Kubrick vs. Scorsese” (guess what it’s about) has been picking up blog steam. (It’s mildly NSFW — there are, predictably, a lot of bloodshots and a little swearing):

06282010_kiss.jpgTo Copperfield’s infinite credit, the video includes bits of every single Kubrick feature (including the never-officially-released “Fear and Desire” and early boxing short “Day of the Fight”). He even gets in pieces of 1955’s “Killer’s Kiss,” a treasure trove of unintentional surrealism. This is not the work of someone who’s only dug “A Clockwork Orange,” “The Shining” and “Full Metal Jacket.” Scorsese, too, is awarded his full due: pre-“Mean Streets” material is eschewed, and there’s certainly no Michael Jackson’s “Bad” in there, but you’re basically getting the scope of the catalog.

Conventional wisdom pegs Kubrick as a master technician who was far chillier than anyone in his audience, while Scorsese is a visceral stylist whose propensity for the lurid connects beyond his personal obsessions (even as his relative indifference towards continuity editing can drive technical dweebs off the wall).

A mash-up like this proposes equality. Even as it’s making visual analogies (the “2001” monolith is no less movable, it turns out, than Daniel Day-Lewis in “Gangs of New York”), what it’s really privileging are the flashiest shots, the ones that survive best when cut to durational shreds.

Often, they’re very violent: if you’d never actually seen any of the Kubrick movies in question, you might conclude they’re just as violent as Scorsese’s (and you’d also be forced to conclude Scorsese’s work is almost exclusively violent, which is only what his fair-weather fans wish for).

06282010_age.jpgThat suggests something about the casual fandom surrounding these milestone directors. Plenty of people “like” Kubrick; very few of them are going to sit down and watch “Killer’s Kiss,” partly because it’s obscure and partly because it’s a somewhat inept (if fascinating) mash-up of noir, proto-surrealism and post-sync sound. Likewise, most of those “Goodfellas” fans somehow failed to show up for “The Age of Innocence” (or “Kundun”!).

The most popular films of both directors are the ones that go for full violent overload (except for “2001,” which is too spectacularly anomalous a challenge to ignore). And that doesn’t say anything about the scope of their work, which is broader than most would give them credit for. It just tells us that, even among the masters, people prefer flash and violence.

[Photos: “A Clockwork Orange,” Warner Bros., 1971; “Killer’s Kiss,” MGM/UA Home Entertainment, 1955; “The Age of Innocence,” Columbia, 1993]

Fred Armisen and Stephen Colbert Sample Foghat Wine

Slow Vine

Fred Armisen and Stephen Colbert Had a Rockin’ Wine Tasting

Catch Fred on the new season of Portlandia Thursdays at 10P on IFC.

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As per The Late Show’s themed gift recommendation this past December, we all spent the holidays delightfully unwrapping various Foghat albums and compilations. And while those cassettes remain in our tape decks, there’s still more ’70s boogie rock to enjoy in the form of fermented grapes. Yes, Foghat has its very own wine, straight from the cellars of drummer and Late Show fan Roger Earl, and Portlandia’s Fred Armisen joined host Stephen Colbert to sample the goods. And thanks to Earl’s watchful eye and drumstick swirl during fermentation, the pinot noir unfolds nicely on the tongue and has the perfect notes to swig directly from the bottle while shrieking, “HELLO, CLEVELAND!”

Watch Fred Armisen and Stephen Colbert don literal “fog hats” and take a slow ride through some tasty spirits below.

Facial hair, the secret to going from teen heartthrob to serious actor.

Facial hair, the secret to going from teen heartthrob to serious actor. (photo)

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Regardless of how you feel about the “Twilight” franchise, it’s hard not to read Brooks Barnes’ brief New York Times profile of vampire heartthrob Robert Pattinson and not feel at least a little bad for the dude.

Pattinson’s apparently been reduced to giving interviews in “an outdoor nook surrounded by tall hedges” while noting how “The more you are exposed, the more people irrationally hate you.” (Yes.) Whatever you think of him as an actor, here’s a guy who has become famous for a franchise that, when it’s done, will leave him with one defining image for the next 50 years unless he pulls out some kind of miraculous transition.

To prove his point, Barnes calls on academic Jeanine Basinger, who names a bunch of teen stars who never got past their defining moments in cuteness — “The Blue Lagoon”‘s Christopher Atkins, Corey Feldman, potentially Zac Efron — and cited the inevitable exception, Leonardo DiCaprio, whose success, we’re told, was in part due to “picking gritty roles and teaming with Martin Scorsese.”

In truth, it had more to do with his shaving habits.

06212010_gangs.jpg“Titanic” is cited as the turning point in DiCaprio’s career. It made the equally swoony success of “Romeo + Juliet” look like a joke. This, however, was after a number of tough roles — “This Boy’s Life,” “The Basketball Diaries,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” — that had already shown the young actor’s range and stamina for mentally exhausting parts. Compared to them, “Titanic” was a piece of cake, the toughest bit being the physical conditions. A number of post-“Titanic” career stumbles later, DiCaprio hit his stride in 2002 with “Gangs of New York” and “Catch Me If You Can” and never looked back.

DiCaprio’s greasy hair and face made sense for “Gangs,” which took place back in the days when a man wasn’t a man unless he demonstrated that he had enough testosterone to grow a full pate’s worth of hair on his face (although Daniel Day-Lewis’ mustache still towered over DiCaprio’s scraggly growth).

Subsequently, DiCaprio has proven constitutionally incapable of appearing clean-shaven on screen unless the part is set in the earlier days of the 20th century (“The Aviator,” “ReservationRevolutionary Road”), where facial hair was for social reprobates and other marginal types. This has nothing to do with his performances, and it tends to make him look jowly and pissed-off, but it’s certainly been a good way of avoiding charges that he’s too much of a man-child. If Michael Cera wanted to get haters off his back, seemingly all he’d have to do is grow a solid goatee.

06212010_littleashes.jpgWhich is to say: hello Mr. Pattinson. Do you want to be taken seriously? Grow some facial hair! Preferably the type that looks careless rather than elegant (or hilarious, in the case of his role as Salvador Dalí in “Little Ashes”).

It worked so well for DiCaprio. And just marvel at how far we’ve come since Alec Baldwin allegedly refusing to shave off his beard for “The Edge” back in 1997 almost destroyed a movie.

[Photos: “Twilight,” Summit Entertainment, 2008; “Gangs of New York,” Miramax, 2002]

Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe, collaborators in anger.

Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe, collaborators in anger. (photo)

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Some actor-director pairings are legendary: Anthony Mann and James Stewart, François Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Léaud, Federico Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, Tsai Ming-liang and Lee Kang-sheng.

To that illustrious list, we have lately been invited to add another pair: Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe. At first, the idea seems too spurious to even think about. And yet…

To date, Scott and Crowe have collaborated five times: “Gladiator,” “A Good Year,” “American Gangster,” “Body of Lies” and the new “Robin Hood.” Asked recently to comment on their partnership by the Telegraph, Scott responded “He’s angry all the time and I’m angry all the time as well” (which presumably makes for a fun set).

On Tuesday, New York‘s Vulture blog detailed how this earth-shattering collaborative team nearly fell apart during “Robin Hood”‘s protracted script development process (“Their familiar bonhomie had been replaced by frosty, terse exchanges.”). It’s not quite “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” but it’s amusing.

Yet despite Scott’s answer — which I suspect has an ugly grain of truth within its flippancy — it’s still unclear what the pair bring out of each other. When a director and star team for multiple outings, it means that you’re obligated to turn off that nagging voice telling you that it all seems overfamiliar and consider how the variations being spun on a persona enrich every subsequent film, and also that the director’s concluded the actor in question anchors their work in a way no one else can.

05202010_spur.jpgThat said, there are different functions specific to each relationship. Mann got to make some of the more radically unsettled and unnerving Westerns of the ’50s under the cover of Stewart’s presumably calming presence, while Stewart got to darken his persona (something he conscientiously did every time he got the chance). Léaud and Kang-sheng serve as naked alter-egos for their directors.

De Niro embodied the kind of fierce energy and violence Scorsese was generating behind the camera. As for Burton and Depp, it seems like the visually oriented Burton relies on Depp to take care of the performance heavy lifting so Burton can do what he does. (Bill Murray has apparently taken on the responsibility of being Wes Anderson’s personal mascot; could be worse.)

Which leads us back to Scott and Crowe. Crowe’s a rock of smoldering intensity, but he’s proven to be far less versatile an actor than one would initially expect, while Scott is hung up on his colors, action set-pieces and — increasingly — a tone so portentous you’d think he was offering up moral instruction instead of wanly-received action movies. Who’s benefiting from these repeat outings? Not the audience, certainly.

[Photos: “Gladiator,” DreamWorks, 2000; “The Naked Spur,” Warner Home Video, 1953]

Jim Thompson looms “Large” from beyond the grave.

Jim Thompson looms “Large” from beyond the grave. (photo)

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One of the more intriguing items in today’s round of development and production updates is the laconic Twitter update from Production Weekly noting that “Lunatic at Large” — a story written by Jim Thompson and Stanley Kubrick in the ’50s, the manuscript lost for decades, then rediscovered in 1999 — is moving forward into production, with Scarlett Johansson (vamping for her femme fatale role in “Match Point” and now presumably arriving at her logical showcase) and Sam Rockwell, who is, if nothing else, a good default choice for the role of “lunatic,” although the central mystery of the film is determining which one is a former axe murderer recently released from a mental institution. It’s surely the least expensive unrealized Kubrick project to make (less so than, say, the Napoleon movie).

Jim Thompson is commonly slotted as a pulp noir writer, which is slightly off the mark: it’d be fairer to say that he’s the first neo-noir author. Thompson started writing a little later than the writers that defined noir — Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich, Raymond Chandler et al. — and his defining moments spread from the ’50s to the ’70s. The great adaptations of those other writers were all done by the early ’50s, henceforth only to be revisited in strikingly revisionist ways — Bob Rafelson’s sexually explicit redux of Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” Robert Altman’s faithful-in-spirit but defiantly postmodern subversion of Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye,” Truffaut’s jokey reworking of Cornell Woolrich in “Mississippi Mermaid” and so on. But you could argue that Thompson — who didn’t make it to the screen until his 1956 adaptation of Lionel White’s “The Killing” — is only now being served with the brutality and tenseness his work deserves.

04142010_coup.jpgConsider that despite the fact Thompson wrote screenplays and TV episodes through the ’60s, he didn’t get adapted until 1972’s “The Getaway” (which he felt was bowdlerized). The truly major Thompson films followed: Bertrand Tavernier’s 1981 “Coup de Torchon” (a truly mindblowing piece of goods, with Philippe Noiret running around a French Senegalese colony killing people for pragmatic reasons), the 1990 version of “The Grifters” (one of the few plausible retro-noirs, but with non-self-congratulatory female nudity), and the reportedly brutal “The Killer Inside Me.” that’s hitting the U.S. in June. More so than the writers he’s lumped in with, Thompson’s main focus is frequently violence and action rather than paranoia and atmosphere.

That’s not a knock on the other writers (I’m a Chandler partisan myself). But it’s finally Thompson’s time to shine. Other noir writers are so steeped in their time that filming them is a question of revisiting, revising and subversion, while Thompson’s work can be filmed straight-up. Only now are we catching up to the true grimness of his work.

[Photos: “The Killing,” MGM/UA Home Entertainment, 1956; “Coup de torchon,” Criterion Collection, 1981.]

Enough with the color correction!

Enough with the color correction! (photo)

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As humans, we’re blessed with the ability to see a lot of colors and hues, which makes the world a better and brighter place. Dogs, on the other hand, have a more restricted range of options — they basically see the world as blue, yellow and gray. So I have no choice but to conclude that most movies now being made are created with a canine audience in mind.

Take a look at the trailer for the original “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” The colors are natural, even flat: shadows aren’t overwhelming, whites can be glaring and the whole thing generally looks naturalistic. (Which actually has a small advantage: it’s hard to tell when people are awake and when they’re asleep, which means the scares are more likely to come out of nowhere.)

Now look at the trailer for the upcoming remake. Lurid greens, blues and oranges predominate, even when there isn’t really a reason. The shadows are overwhelming, and even normal indoor settings have this unnatural glow and sheen to them.

04072010_brother.jpgDamn near every Hollywood release seems to be color-corrected to death of late. Digital technology has enabled this kind of abuse with great frequency. The first film to be digitally tweaked from first to last was “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” There was a point to it — the Coens came up with a rough equivalent to sepia entirely appropriate for a film set during the Great Depression. Having done that, they knocked it off. Their subsequent films, like “Burn After Reading,” don’t have the same fine-tweaked sensibility. Ditto for Martin Scorsese, who turned “The Aviator” into a super-fun color palette test and then subsequently knocked it off to an extent (“Shutter Island” mostly uses the tweaks to approximate the lurid Technicolor Scorsese likes so much).

With a lot of other major releases, color tweaks are more annoying — it’s as if studios think that audiences can’t possibly focus on more than one color at a time. Horror movies are especially guilty of turning the world monochromatic for no reason at all. It nearly always looks like an assault, and it’s kind of an eye-strain — after a while, I almost always want to see a real, untweaked color. It’s especially there in the smeary tones of so many summer blockbusters, a trickle-down legacy from “Lord of the Rings.” (I suspect part of the reason people dug “Iron Man” was because of how relatively unfussy it was).

Unmotivated color correction — for no other reason than to give your movie the sheen of a commercial — is a pest, just as much as overlighting an entire movie (the way Spielberg’s collaboration with DP Janusz Kaminski means nearly all of his movies have ridiculous amounts of flare now). When it stops being a mood-setter and becomes a distraction, it needs to stop.

[Photos: “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” New Line Cinema, 2010; “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, Touchstone Home Video, 2000]

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