Previous month:
November 2011
Next month:
January 2012

the second annual karen sisco award

Last year, I started a new tradition … well, it isn’t really a tradition until it’s been done at least twice, so I guess this post marks the beginning of the new tradition. I called it the Karen Sisco Award, named after the short-lived television series starring Carla Gugino. Sisco was the character played by Jennifer Lopez in the film Out of Sight, and the series, with also featured Robert Forster and Bill Duke, was on ABC. They made ten episodes, showed seven, and cancelled it. Gugino was ridiculously hot (no surprise there) and the series, based on an Elmore Leonard character, got about as close as anyone did to Leonard’s style until Justified came along.

When I posted an R.I.P. to the show, my son commented, “Every year there is a new favorite Daddy-O show that gets cancelled mid-season. … You have some sort of fixation with doomed shows, did it start with Crime Story or does it come from your upbringing?” (In fairness, Crime Story lasted two seasons.) The Karen Sisco Award exists to honor those doomed shows.

Last year, there were two series with a chance at the award. Rubicon irritated a lot of people with its slow pace and its slow pace and did I mention it was slow? It was also pretty terrific once it got rolling. But its final episode was inconclusive, which means it won’t play quite as well as it should when people inevitably catch up with it on Netflix. And so, Terriers won the first Karen Sisco Award. It was the better show, and no one watched it, so it was doomed. The last episode worked as a season-ender, and also as a series-ender, and it should play quite well on Netflix.

Like Terriers, this year’s winner, Lights Out, was on FX. FX has built a nice reputation as a place for a certain kind of show with a certain level of excellence: The Shield, Sons of Anarchy, Justified. Apparently, it is also the place for the kind of doomed show that doesn’t catch the attention of a large-enough audience.

Lights Out featured many well-known people in the supporting cast, along with plenty of “hey, it’s that guys”. Stacy Keach and Catherine McCormick were the former, and the latter included The Guy Who Played Nick Sobotka on The Wire, Reg E. Cathey (also from The Wire), The Guy Who Played Minister Said on Oz, and a clown from the Pickle Family Circus. David Morse, who has done it all (from St. Elsewhere to Lars von Trier to House to George Washington to Treme), did a one-episode guest shot that was Emmy-worthy in itself.

Lights Out tells the story of a retired boxer, Patrick “Lights” Leary, who gets into financial trouble and returns to the ring, even though he has the beginnings of pugilistic dementia. It’s a very clichéd plot, and Lights Out didn’t always rise above those clichés. But it had a secret weapon, an actor named Holt McCallany, as Lights, and he was a revelation. McCallany was in a lot of things I had seen and liked, but I can’t say I recognized him. He was so obscure to me that I wouldn’t even have said “hey, it’s that guy!” McCallany was the best thing about a very good show. He was likably low-key, like an Irish Gary Cooper, and his understated style played well off of the more flamboyant work by Cathey, Eamonn Walker, and others. Lights Leary was a complex character … if that wasn’t true, I probably wouldn’t have liked the show, given my taste preferences. While he returned to the ring to make money, he also loved to hit people, and McCallany did a good job of playing that aspect of Lights’ personality as if it was a revelation to the man himself.

I want to give away the ending. Well, I already did when I first posted about the finale back in April. It is one of the greatest, most heart-rending endings to any series, ever. But since part of the purpose of the Karen Sisco Award is to convince you to watch the show on DVD or Blu-ray or Netflix, I won’t tell you how that final scene goes. You’ll just have to trust me, and then go watch Lights Out when it becomes available.

Karen Sisco Award Winners:

  • 2010: Terriers
  • 2011: Lights Out

smith-rubio family xmas update, 10th annual edition

Holy shit, this is the tenth time I’ve done this? To be honest, there’s been enough good news in our family this year that I don’t have it in me to spew out too much snark. So I’ll offer some highlights from years past. But first:


Spot is still alive! Our first Spot was a girl, but she passed away many years ago, and this Spot is a boy. You can tell by the scar where his balls used to be.

Now, since xmas is nothing without nostalgic looks back, the history of the Smith-Rubio Family Xmas Update.

2002: The beginning of a tradition. This one was full of happy news, all of it made up, of course. I didn’t get a single comment, which made me think perhaps happy news wasn’t what the audience wanted.

2003: The original girl Spot died of a urinary infection, after spending her final days peeing on all the furniture. I was out of work. Robin punched me out, so I broke her foot, which led to my incarceration. Still no comments, which made me think perhaps Xmas Updates were not what the audience wanted.

2004: We got a replacement, male Spot. Robin went to work at a place she liked so much she is still there. Things were looking up. All of which elicited the first-ever Xmas Update Comment, which asked if I’d gone soft with the return of the happy stuff. Which made me think perhaps I have no idea what people like about these updates.

2005: This post was so mellow, it got 400% more comments. The mellow nature of things was probably due to the Wellbutrin and Depakene I started taking that year.

2006: Perhaps the most reflective Xmas Update ever. Don’t believe me? Here’s a direct quote: “a tip of the cap to the supreme being.”

2007: Still the most infamous Xmas Update in the history of Steven Rubio’s Online Life. The second paragraph began, “Xmas ... how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.” I called everyone out for being fake friends, bitched about religion, complained that Santa Claus wasn’t real, said I thought Spot was dead, and finished by quoting Lou Reed’s lyrics to “Street Hassle” (the one that begins, “hey, that cunt’s not breathing”). The comments section erupted. My wife said I was overcompensating for the good feelings my meds gave me … my niece gently showed her ever-present good side … a friend said my Xmas Updates always pissed him off … my daughter called me out for making her feel bad … my son quoted Cee-Lo.

2008: I tried to make up for the previous year, talking about our new big-screen TV. Then I screwed it up by posting a video of Randy Newman singing “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)”. God left a comment.

2009: Arguably the shortest Update ever, this had a picture of Spot and a video of Pink. I didn’t have the snark in me, I guess.

2010: This sums up not only the year 2010, but what followed. I posted a video of the last out of the World Series, a moment of ecstasy for Giants fans. I just checked it, and saw this: “This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by MLB Advanced Media.”

Here’s a Carrie moment to finish off our xmas cheer:

#22: the big sleep (howard hawks, 1946)

(This is the 29th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

This is the second Hawks film on my list, and it won’t be the last. I feel pretty close to the source material … Raymond Chandler took up an entire chapter of my dissertation … but of all the Hawks movies I’m including on this list, The Big Sleep is the most lacking in the things I like best about Hawks. There is banter, often hilarious, but it tends to be between two people (most often Bogart and Bacall) rather than between a group of cronies. And Bacall’s Vivian Rutledge brings a little something to the table (mostly Lauren Bacall, which in the mid-40s was plenty), but compared to someone like Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, Mrs. Rutledge is pretty tame.

But the combination of elements raises The Big Sleep such that I might complain lightly about this or that, but there is too much to enjoy for those complaints to matter. There’s Bogart, who makes his first-but-not-last appearance on my list (and at least two others of his films almost made the cut). There’s Chandler … I knew I was going to work one of his novels into the list, and while The Long Goodbye is a more interesting subject for discussion, I’ve already written a lot about that movie. There’s Hawks, who is all over my list. There’s the relationship between Bogie and Baby. There are those goofy moments when the picture just stops so the two lovebirds can dish up supreme dialogue.

The Big Sleep is another film that was altered prior to its release. This time, though, the changes were made with the director and actors part of the process. Mostly, Bacall’s role was changed to give her a personality more like the one in To Have and Have Not that was popular with audiences. One problem with the editing and rearranging and additional scenes is that chunks of the original were eliminated. The new version played up Bogie and Baby; a lot of what was cut was expository. The plot of The Big Sleep is hard enough to follow in the first place. Eliminate scenes that help guide the audience through the labyrinth and you’ve only made matters worse.

All of this ended up revealing something of a secret. Audiences may not have understood who killed whom, but they loved Bogart and Bacall, together again, trading quips. In some ways, every mystery film with a senseless, too-complicated plot that tries to charm its way past the audience is in debt to The Big Sleep, which proved if you got everything else right, no one cared who killed the chauffeur.


There was a handful of comments, all positive, with one person admitting he had a thing for Dorothy Malone.

teevee 2011

Here is my annual television wrap-up. I don’t make a Top Ten list, I just look back and some of the things I wrote since the last time I did one of these (December 9 of last year). Looking back, I feel that these compilations are among the best posts I offer each year. I have no idea what that means. (See if you can find this year’s Karen Sisco Award winner in what follows.)

Portlandia. “It was kinda cute, and I don’t usually do cute, but it was cute with barbs. The barbs aren’t really gentle, either. But they are aimed at the same people who make the jokes, so there is a nice insularity to it all. Fred Armisen and [Carrie] Brownstein know the world of the show quite well, and they allow us to see that they are a part of the culture they are poking. So there is no mean-spiritedness at all. As others have pointed out, the show makes fun of the exact audience they can expect to be watching: smart, self-conscious folks who watch IFC.”

An Idiot Abroad. “Pilkington doesn’t seem like an idiot at all in this show. He most definitely seems like a fish out of water, and he has a willingness to blurt out whatever is in his head. But as often as not, I found myself empathizing with him, because I knew I’d be the same.”

Caprica. “If I were to write an essay on this, I might focus on the scene when the Cylons martyr themselves by leaping en masse on the bomb-carrying bad guy. It redefines heroism, which I always assume suggests a conscious act … ok, oftentimes our most heroic moments come when we act before we think, but the Cylons were just following orders. But we know that Cylons are more than just machines, and while it’s hard to say whether these early models are self-aware enough to recognize the concept of sacrifice, nonetheless that self-awareness is down the road, and it makes their heroic act here poignant. Of course, it’s mostly tossed off as the end of an exciting action sequence, but like I said above, I often found the idea of Caprica better than its execution.”

The Chicago Code. “[Shawn] Ryan does a good job of making a network show work, and if The Chicago Code isn’t groundbreaking like The Shield, well, not many shows are. What’s nice is that The Chicago Code is a relatively straightforward cop show, but it doesn’t feel like Ryan is just settling for slightly better than average. He wants to give us an excellent straightforward cop show, and he has earned our trust.” [Note: the show was cancelled, and I skipped the final few episodes.]

Episodes. “The best thing about Episodes was Matt LeBlanc playing ‘Matt LeBlanc,’ a self-centered asshole with an enormous cock. The rest was sporadically funny, and that’s about it. It passed the time OK, and if you didn’t watch it (I don’t know anyone but me who did), you didn’t miss anything. … I want to emphasize that this isn’t just a case of me not ‘getting’ comedy. The show isn’t funny enough, and the more serious moments involve characters we don’t care about enough.”

Big Love. “My favorite parts of the show throughout its run came when the focus was on the sister wives. They were interesting and complex characters, capable of change (even Nikki, one of the most petty characters in TV history, completely nailed by Chloë Sevigny, who ruled pretty much every scene she was in, made baby steps at the end). … Ultimately, I found Big Love to be a sporadically good series, and I did stick with it to the end, which says something.”

Shameless. “The one person who lifts Shameless above the almost-great is Emmy Rossum. … It is impossible to exaggerate how strong she is as Fiona, the oldest child of the Gallagher family whose job is to serve as mother, father, and sister to her clan of siblings. Despite being heartbreakingly beautiful, she pulls off the tough veneer of Fiona without showing how much work she must have put into it. She’s great in the funny moments, she’s even greater in the dramatic moments, and she rarely overplays her hand, which is appropriate, since Fiona tends to keep things close to her vest. And it wouldn’t be a Showtime series without sex, so it must be said, Rossum takes on her sex scenes with aplomb … she is as hot as she is beautiful. When all else fails, the camera can just focus on her enormous doe eyes.”

Lights Out. “Reg E. Cathey and Eamonn Walker took care of the acting flash department, and the show was better for it. But, just as Mark Wahlberg’s excellent performance in The Fighter was lost amidst the accolades for his co-stars, so, too, Stacy Keach and especially the show’s star, Holt McCallany, showed how far you could go with a more understated style. McCallany was the revelation of the series.”

Mildred Pierce. “[T]he only way I could tolerate the character of Veda was by treating the show as a comedy, and I’m pretty sure that’s not what was intended. … [I]f Haynes wanted us to see Veda as a manifestation of fears rather than as a real person, he needed to do something to make that more clear. Of course Veda is a manifestation of Mildred’s fears, but she is represented literally … we don’t get to the end and find out that Veda was just a figment of Mildred’s imagination. Veda was a corporeal being interacting with other recognizable humans, and she was unrecognizable as a human.”

Justified. “There is so much great acting on this show that it’s unfair to single anyone out. But [Timothy] Olyphant and Walton Goggins are deserving of Emmy nominations. Over even those two, though, is Margo Martindale as Mags, who absolutely must get a supporting actress nomination. She was marvelous in every scene she was in, deftly playing her complex character so that you believed both the ruthless crime boss and the maternal stand-in mom. … The final scene between Raylan and Mags is one of the finest scenes I’ve come across. Both actors knock it out of the park. It was a suitable ending to Season Two, and it’s a sign of how good Justified has become that the excellence of that scene wasn’t out of place in a show where we have come to expect the best.” [Note: Martindale did indeed win an Emmy.]

The Killing. “A series that began with great promise, an atmospheric setting, and some fine acting ended up being a shaggy-dog story with an atmospheric setting and some fine acting. Fuck it … Robin can watch Season Two by herself, if she’s so inclined.”

Game of Thrones. “Game of Thrones creates a brand new world, and if I hedged my bets because fantasy isn’t for me, I was proven wrong. In fact, the fantastic element is precisely what allows for a world different from our own, recognizably human but always with the potential for things outside of our real-world experiences. The closest HBO show to Game of Thrones, I think, is Rome. In that series, humans acted in ways that seemed very odd to us, because it took place so long ago, attitudes were different, beliefs were different … in other words, the world of Rome was as fantastic to a modern audience as is the world of Game of Thrones.”

United States of Tara. “Tara was never a great show, and it was often annoying. But even more often, it was a very good show. This, perhaps, is a boilerplate for describing the work of Diablo Cody: not great, often annoying, but also very good.”

Treme. “Some suggest the music we hear isn’t always of the highest quality. But that barely matters, because in most cases, we experience the music being played for an audience, on the streets of New Orleans or in its clubs, and the connection between performer and audience is electric. I can remember once, 40 years ago, when some friends and I ended up in a pizza parlor where an electric guitarist and bassist were playing music as we ate and drank. Maybe it was the alcohol, maybe it was the what-the-hell aspect of hearing this in a place where pizza is the point, but the audience (maybe two dozen of us) and the guitarist were locked into each other. For that one night, he was the greatest guitarist in the world. Treme is full of such moments, and the quality of the actual music matters far less than the quality of the crowds.”

True Blood. “Season 4 was overflowing, and not really in a good way. It started with fairies, but outside of giving half an explanation for Sookie’s powers, the entire fairy subplot kinda disappeared. Not to worry, though, because there were lots more werewolves and shapeshifters, along with wiccans and old-school witches, possessed babies, mediums, and brujo magic. I’m sure I’ve left something out. There was too much going on, which means that many of the individual scenes offered over-the-top entertainment, but I gave up trying to make sense of any of it long before the season ended.”

Curb Your Enthusiasm. “Mostly, I’m fascinated by the question of why, when I don’t have the patience to stick with even the best sitcoms, when I don’t seem to understand modern film comedy, why do I still love Curb Your Enthusiasm? As far as I am concerned, they are nowhere near the legendary shark, and if Larry David wants to do it, I most definitely will be there for another season. Meanwhile, give Leon his own show!”

Boardwalk Empire. “Gretchen Mol has had so many rumors follow her career that there is an extra touch of creepiness when she talks about kissing her baby son’s winky when she changed his diapers.” [Note: later we found out just how creepy it was.]

Terra Nova. “[A]bout 20 minutes into the 2-hour pilot, my wife asked how I would make it through 120 minutes when I was already making fun of it after 20. There’s a pretty simple equation here: dinos good, family bad. The dinosaur effects are fine, and there are some Dinos Attack! scenes that are pretty exciting. But this being Steven Spielberg, it’s really about Family, and this family is about as interesting as the Robinsons of Lost in Space.”

The Hour. “It has an interesting cast (Dominic West, ex-McNulty from The Wire, Oona Chaplin, and, in the lead female role, Romola Garai, who is exquisitely real looking). It’s not as good as Mad Men, to which it was compared (foolishly, I think), but it’s close enough to count, and yes, it’s coming back for a second season. Look for it when it hits your favorite streaming site … six episodes, come on, you can knock that off in an evening.”

The Walking Dead. “I won’t be surprised if The Walking Dead never rises above its limitations. But there is nothing wrong with a show that knows what it wants to do, and does it. The Walking Dead is the Joan Jett of television, which makes the B+ I gave Season One ironically appropriate (Christgau gave Jett’s albums five straight B+ grades, saying ‘not since her start-up has she made something special of her populist instincts. It's almost as if that's the idea.’).”

Sons of Anarchy. “Ultimately, very little mattered. Most of the same characters will be back next season. The deck chairs have been rearranged, but nothing more. On one level, the entire season was well done … up until the last episode, I felt this season ranked with Season Two as the best so far. The finale, on its own terms, was tense, with the usual great acting. But what the finale represents in terms of a loss of nerve, a capitulation to the central flaws of series television, is very disappointing.”

Downton Abbey. “I was a lot like the middle-class lawyer, Matthew Crawley, who at first dismissed the attentions paid to him by the servants after he became the heir presumptive to the estate (as if I knew what an heir presumptive was … thank you, Wikipedia). It rankled that everyone seemed to know and accept their place, and that the one character who was most ambitious (a footman) was also the most devious and unlikable character. But eventually I felt like I’d learned something about the British class society of the time, and had been entertained in the process.”

Homeland. “It is not easy to use bipolar disorder as a dramatic device without turning your series into a freak show, nor is it easy to take a part with plenty of scenery chewing and award-bait dramatic sequences and turn it into something recognizably human. Danes pulled it off … she was astounding on a regular basis in Homeland.”

what i watched last week

Slim pickings, what with the end of the semester, and so many TV series finishing off their seasons. I’m left with the “what shall I watch on my Kindle Fire while we lay here in bed relaxing” movies.

Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004). Seemed like a good Fire choice, since it’s short, and the visuals are kinda lo-fi. I hadn’t seen it in almost six years; back then I wrote the following:

Ethan Hawke is a generally fine actor and he's very good here, but the truth is, I couldn't take my eyes off of Julie Delpy. It's not her looks ... she's pretty enough, but that's not what made her so compulsively watchable. She just does a great job of conveying both her submerged emotions and her open intelligence ... you often get one or the other, but not both like this. She deserves an Oscar nomination.

Delpy did get an Oscar nom (I saw this during one of my annual Oscar Runs, before I gave up on the idea because I couldn’t bear to watch another movie about Captain Jack Sparrow). But it was for Best Adapted Screenplay (along with Hawke and Linklater and Kim Krizan). She and Hawke clearly add to their own dialogue .. how much is unclear, perhaps, but it’s obvious that some of it is theirs. It all works so well, even if it sounds twee: couple who met cute nine years ago meet up again and spend an hour and a half walking around Paris, talking.

As for Delpy, early on, I looked at my wife and said, “I’ll bet you Mick LaSalle loves Julie Delpy”. She is so much his type: pretty-not-beautiful, smart, European, makes interesting career choices. Then I get up the next morning, and what do I see on Mick’s blog? “The Most Alluring Women in Cinema”, a slideshow of his favorites. Julie Delpy is there, and his description could have come just after seeing her in one of the “Before” movies: “You already feel like you’ve been on a date with her. And you already know what to do. Keep your mouth shut and let her do all the talking.”

Meanwhile, the first time I saw Before Sunset, I gave it 8/10. It’s stood the test of time so far: 9/10. #18 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 movies of the 21st century.

The Terror (Roger Corman, 1963). Two weeks isn’t enough to make a tradition, but we may look back on this period as the beginning of the Saturday Night Kindle Fire Creature Feature. Last week it was It Came from Outer Space. This time I went with a Roger Corman classic that was far more interesting in the making than it is on the screen. Corman had just finished The Raven, which starred Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson, among others. He kept Karloff around for four days and shot a bunch of footage, using some of the same sets from the earlier picture. He then left the movie to his second-unit crew, which means parts of the film were directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill, and even Nicholson himself. To add to the complicated tale, a few years later, when Corman had Karloff under contract for two days, Corman told Peter Bogdanovich to make a movie using Karloff and clips from The Terror. The result, Targets, was Bogdanovich’s first film as a director. Meanwhile, The Terror is actually a pretty dull and shoddy affair, although Karloff manages a few scenes of pathos. You get to see Nicholson in his mid-20s, six years before Easy Rider. And you can’t go wrong with the immortal Dick Miller. But the incoherence is too much to overcome. 4/10.

homeland, season finale

And so the first season of what I felt was the best new show of the year is over, with some of the people who gave us the amped-up 24 telling a story that at times resembled the glacially-paced Rubicon, an odd pairing to be sure. The espionage thriller part of the show worked well, and by itself was enough to make Homeland entertaining. What happened over the course of the season, though, was that the character studies, often the weaker part of these stories (with boring people doing boring things while the audience waits for some action to wake us up), grew more fascinating and intense with every episode.

Obviously, it helped having actors as good as Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, and Mandy Patinkin onboard. But there was meat to the characters to begin with; the actors fleshed them out effectively, but it was a team effort between writers and actors. While the who-did-what-and-when aspect of the spy story was seemingly the core of the series, in fact I looked forward to watching not just to find out which person went to the other side and who was a mole and all that other spy stuff, but also to find out what Carrie was up to, and Brody, and Saul. Simply put, the characters are what lifted the show from OK to very good.

All of the above-named actors deserve kudos, but I’m going to single out Claire Danes. Early in the season, she seemed like a neurotic, extremely intelligent agent with a cranky personality. But she wasn’t neurotic, she was bipolar, and when her manic side took hold in the penultimate episode (surely the one they’ll send to the Emmy selection committee), it was frightening to behold. Danes gave herself over entirely to the role. In the finale, Carrie rides the bipolar emotional rollercoaster, going from a near-catatonic depression to a manic attempt to save the world, and finally to an extremely sad self-realization that led to her decision to take the next step in fighting her ailment. It was heartbreaking.

It is not easy to use bipolar disorder as a dramatic device without turning your series into a freak show, nor is it easy to take a part with plenty of scenery chewing and award-bait dramatic sequences and turn it into something recognizably human. Danes pulled it off … she was astounding on a regular basis in Homeland.

The finale wasn’t a cheat, and it left room for a Season Two. The last scene was almost unbearable to watch, even as it made you ready to watch more right away. Grade for season finale: A-. Grade for Season One: A-.

movies, 2010

Being at least a year behind on movies means I often have lists like this one. I watched well over 100 movies this year, but very few were from 2011. A year from now, the number of 2011 films I’ll have seen will likely be large enough to create a Top Ten list. In the meantime, 2010 has moved from too-soon to seen-34, so here are my Top Ten Films of 2010:

  1. Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik). “At times it’s a bit too close to being an anthropological study, but director Debra Granik trusts her characters and for the most part avoids condescension.”
  2. Inside Job (Charles Ferguson). “It’s a film version of a Matt Taibbi essay, without the snarling, which is replaced with a more measured outrage.”
  3. If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise (Spike Lee). In my house, HBO documentaries count for film-list purposes.
  4. The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski). “Polanski’s later career is pretty erratic, to be sure, but a film like The Ghost Writer doesn’t just remind us of his past triumphs, it is very good on its own. Not bad for a guy in his late-70s.”
  5. Animal Kingdom (David Michod). “Australian ‘family gangster’ movie that is very low-key, which makes the violent moments stand out more than they might otherwise. It’s a dramatic version of the comedic slow burn.”
  6. Restrepo (Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger). “What they don’t show us are generals and politicians and experts explaining the purpose of our occupation of Afghanistan. So there is something existential about the soldiers, who believe in each other and who believe in accomplishing specific goals, but tend to limit their focus to their comrades and the here and now.”
  7. The Social Network (David Fincher). “Zuckerberg is not like Jay Gatsby, to whom he has been compared. Zuckerberg doesn’t like the rich, he wants to bring them down.”
  8. Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich).Toy Story 3 is also a movie that brings grown men to tears. I think those tears are elicited in an honest, rather than a cheap, fashion … the movie earns them.”
  9. Another Year (Mike Leigh). “Imelda Staunton steals the picture, even though she’s only in a couple of scenes near the beginning. She’s the most miserable creature in movie history … asked to name the moment in her life when she was happiest, she stares into space without answering. She is, in fact, reluctant to say anything other than ‘give me something to help me sleep.’ Yet when she is asked where on a scale of 1 to 10 would she rank her level of happiness, she blurts out ‘ONE!’ before the question has left the speaker’s lips.”
  10. Stones in Exile (Stephen Kijak). “It will make you want to listen to Exile again, or at least to watch Cocksucker Blues.”

#23: touch of evil (orson welles, 1958)

(This is the 28th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

There are films that exist in multiple versions, and then there is Touch of Evil. Welles showed his rough cut (we’ll call it version A) and went off to work on another movie. The studio didn’t like what he’d left behind, shot some new footage, and re-cut the film (version B). Welles saw that version and sent off an infamous 58-page memo explaining what he thought the new version needed. The studio released a 93-minute version … we’ll call that version B-1, although it is also Release Version 1. More than 15 years later, a 108-minute print was discovered and released; apparently it was created between the Welles memo and Release Version 1, so I’ll just call it version C, Release Version 2. Finally, in 1998, the film was carefully reconstructed using the now-dead Welles’ memo as a guide. This one, version D, was released at 112 minutes (Release Version 3), and is now considered the standard version.

That’s an awful lot of trouble for a film that was originally dumped on the back end of a double-feature (the A picture was some Hedy Lamarr vehicle). Why have people been so dedicated to the film over the years? Well, it was the last American film Welles ever made, and Orson Welles is merely one of the greatest directors the United States has ever produced. Despite its lack of success in the U.S. during its initial run, it was popular in Europe, and was a major influence on the French New Wave, particularly Godard and Truffaut. And, most important, in every version, it is a great film, arguably second only to Citizen Kane amongst the works of Orson Welles.

Why is it on my list of favorites? I’ve loved it since the first time I saw the truncated version a few decades ago. Orson Welles is a bit of an anomaly for me. I tend to dismiss films that fall under the general heading of “style over substance” (Run Lola Run notwithstanding), regularly complaining about movies, some quite highly regarded, that I think spend too much time showing off. Yet Orson Welles, as a director, as an actor, as one of the greats of radio, Orson Welles built a career (or tried to, anyway) out of showing off. In his case, I go back to what I said about Run Lola Run: yes, Welles is a show-off, but in a kid-in-a-candy-store way. He is infatuated with his toys, and he wants desperately to share that infatuation with an audience. (That his post-Kane work was fucked with so badly by the studios, making it hard for him to find that audience, is one of cinema’s greatest tragedies.)


This one inspired several interesting comments. Everyone who commented loved the movie; there was some disagreement about the music (or lack of same) in the opening sequence, and someone said they thought Charlton Heston kinda sucked. But mostly, there was agreement.