Saturday, December 30, 2006

My Top Ten Films, 2006

It's that time of year again, when everyone's publishing their Top 10 lists, so here I am playing follow the leader. These were the best films I saw in 2006, in no particular order. I think some may have been made earlier, certainly the foreign films, but '06 was when they were released here, to my consciousness. Full Disclosure: I didn't get to see Apocalypto, Casino Royale, and many other films that piqued my interest, but for what's it worth, these are the films I saw that I would recommend to others.

2006 Feature Films

I was never good with math, so this Top 10 (apologies to Nigel Tufnel) goes to 11.

1. The Guatemalan Handshake (Todd Rohal, USA)
Of all the films I saw in 2006, this one has stayed in my mind the longest. It also featured a cool electric car in it, positing the immediate question: what ever happened to those electric cars? Soon after its release a documentary entitled Who Killed the Electric Car? came out. Life can be good like that.

2. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, South Korea)

3. Night Watch (Timur Bekmambetov, Russia)

4. The Departed (Martin Scorsese, USA)

5. Brick (Rian Johnson, USA)

6. Thank You For Smoking (Jason Reitman, USA)

7. Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, USA)

8. The Proposition (John Hillcote, Australia) - When I heard the script was by Nick Cave, a high-foreheaded Aussie rock musician whose every utterance is considered sancrosanct by urbane hipsters everywhere, I wanted to hate it sight unseen, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a great script. I caved on Cave and ate crow. A double bill of this with 2002's equally dark and gritty The Tracker would probably be the Australian Tourism Board's worst nightmare.

9. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, USA)

10. Neil Young: Heart of Gold (Jonathan Demme, USA)

11. Jet Li's Fearless (Huo Yuan Jia) (Ronny Yu, China)
Jet Li's martial arts swansong, a biopic about real-life martial arts master Huo Yuan Jia, was also his 8th collaboration with action choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping (a back catalog that includes Tai Chi Master, Fist of Legend, Once Upon a Time in China 1 and 2 and Unleashed) - best known in Stateside for his work on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Matrix, and both Kill Bill 1 and 2 - and it more than delivers the goods, especially after Jet Li lost the plot with the unbearable Unleashed.

Honorable Mention:

The Hidden Blade (Kakushi Ken Oni No Tsume) (Yoji Yamada, Japan) - This 2004 "peaceful" samurai art film wasn't released on DVD here until August of this year, so I'm not sure if its eligible to be considered a 2006 film - that's the only reason I put it here. But if it is considered a 2006 film, I'd put it Top of the Pops because I didn't see a film this year - domestic or foreign - that moved me as much as this one. Yamada also helmed the arthouse favorite The Twilight Samurai but it's still amazing to me that an artist best known for sentimental melodramas - directing over 40 "Tora-san" movies (the world's longest running film series) - could so master the Zen of Samurai films. Who knew?

Army of Shadows (L'Armee des Ombres) (Jean-Pierre Melville, France) - The Charles Theatre showed a new, remastered print of Melville's somber 1969 masterpiece about the French Resistance and how it must resist not only the Germans, but its own fears, solitude, ennui and guilt.

V for Vendetta (James McTeague, USA) - the first Alan Moore adaptation to get it right, a What Is A Terrorist? theme that couldn't be more appropriate for the times we live in, and a standout performance by Hugh Weaving of The Matrix.

The Descent (Neil Marshall, UK) - Great horror film, though I would have liked to have seen the different, European, ending.

Blood Diamond (Edward Zwick, USA) - Like Hotel Rwanda and The Constant Gardener before it, a pretty good film that sheds light on the plight of African civil strife and war atrocities.

Duck Season (Temporado de Patos) (Fernando Eimbcke, Mexico) - Like Seinfeld, this little Mexican gem is much ado about nada, but nada can be quite amusing and thought-provoking. Originally released in 2004, but new to theatrical (and DVD) release in El Norte this year.

Mr. Boh's Brewery (Alex Castro, USA) - for local flavor, what can I say?

2006 Film Revivals

1. The Charles Theatre's Saturday Noon Revival Series: Samurai Films (July-August) - Thank you John Standiford, first for the Ozu series in the Spring, and then for the even better Samurai Saturdays series in the Summer. Kurosawa's Sanjuro, Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion, Kihachi Okamoto's Sword of Doom and Kill!, Hideo Gosha's ultra-rare Three Outlaw Samurai, and all those Zatoichi films. As George Harrison said, It's All Too Much - of a good thing!

Honorable mention also to the Viva Pedro! retrospective of Pedro Almodovar's films.

2. The Baltimore Museum of Art's First Thursdays Film Series - Curator Eric Hatch gets props for screening The Conformist, Le Cercle Rouge and other Eurocentric art films in what is becoming Charm City's equivalent of DC's National Gallery film series.

3. The Senator Theatre's Annual Holiday Classics Series -
The Senator's annual screening of Christmas Story, Dicken's A Christmas Carol (1951 Alistair Sims version) & It's a Wonderful Life is as much a local holiday tradition as the lighting of the Washington monument in Mt. Vernon and Hampden's "Festival of Lights" on 34th Street. Also special thanks for The Senator's decision to screen the remastered version of Jean Renoir's 1939 classic The Rules of the Game this Fall.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Generation Exploitation

My new favorite blog is Kliph Nesteroff's "Generation Exploitation," the Internet version of his zine of the same title, which he describes as "Weird Records, Shitty Old Comics, Exploitation Movies, Hammy Old Time Comedy, and So On." Life is good for Kliph these days as WFMU, the Internet's coolest radio station, features a new Kliph posting every Sunday morning; see WFMU's Beware of the Blog for more.

Certainly no blogger today finds more bizarre and obscure pop artifacts (weird records, shitty old comics, exploitation movies, hammy old time comedy, and so on) than this kooky Canuck from Vancouver. Case in point, this incredibly racist Asian stereotype picture for Jerry Lewis' 1980 film Hardly Working:

Oh that Jerry! And I thought Mickey Rooney's buck-toothed Mr. Yunioshi from Breakfast At Tiffany's was bad! And here's another disturbing image - Don Knots as Charlie Chan (Et tu, Barney?):

For more in this vein, see Kliph's "Yellow Face: The Other Hollywood Racism" post.

And you gotta love this Archie comic cover that features Arch "beating off" Betty's suitors!

And I really like Kliph's article about midget actor Harry Earles: Freak! Baby! Munchkin! The Unique Physique: Harry Earles. Earles was best known as the star of Tod Browning's 1932 cult classic Freaks, but this little man had a much bigger (and fascinating) career than you might expect.

Related Links:

Monday, December 25, 2006

Prime Time

Prime Suspect: The Reassessment

I recently saw the seventh and final installment of the Prime Suspect series, appropriately entitled Prime Suspect: The Final Act (2006), and it inspired me to go back and rewatch the original series from its beginning in 1991. Truth be told, I wasn't wowed by Prime Suspect 7; it seemed a little too formulaic and too much like other procedural crime programs (the Law & Order Syndrome, I suppose) and its major "human" back story - that Helen Mirren's Jane Tennison was now battling alcoholism, while admittedly an interesting break away from the series' straight crime procedural narrative and a return to the basic hook of the first season, namely how a female detective battles sexism in the workplace and the personal costs and sacrifices it entails - just didn't hold my interest. It wasn't a very interesting plot (a teacher knocks up a student who is then murdered), as far as I was concerned, and its hostage/siege denouement was an anticlimatic finale for such a great series. Still, I wached, because Series 6 - which aired here in 2004 (after airing in the UK in 2003), ending a 7-year drought caused by Helen Mirror leaving the series in 1996 "to avoid typecasting" - was so great.

Admittedly, I was never big on Tennison's back story beyond the Police Woman can do a Man's Job premise. Her love life just didn't interest me; you knew any relationship would suffer if it conflicted with her true passion for police work and the scenes of her relationship troubles seemed to bog down the crime narratives. I felt like saying, I got it, let's move on. Because the best part of the series was the adrenaline rush of Tennison and her crack police teams (which introduced a who's who of veteran and upcoming English acting talent - in fact USA Today's Robert Bianco famously characterized the show's casting aesthetic as "Prime Suspect sticks to the theory that actors should be chosen for talent and not because they're attractive or because they might attract a younger audience." Quite right!) when "the case was a-foot" (in Sherlock Holmes' vernacular) - this was the thing that kept me staying up late watching until I was bleary-eyed. That's why I think the series writers were right to underplay the sexism theme in the sequels, relying on straight procedure or on other subplots (institutional and community racism in Prime Suspect 2, pedophilia and prostitution in Prime Suspect 3, drugs and police corruption in Prime Suspect 5 and ethnic cleansing and Balkan war crimes in Prime Suspect 6).

Besides, while one can admire Tennison's steely resolve in the face of institutional sexism and her no bullshit approach to justice, Prime Suspect avoids painting her as a one-dimensional heroine. In fact, the warts-and-all portrait it paints of Jane Tennison is rather unflattering. As DVD Verdict's Mike Pinsky observes:
...Tennison is never portrayed as a superhero, or even much of a role model. Perhaps her anger is justified by the fact that the men around her really do try to shove her in the corner, but she still seems pushy and remote. Tennison smokes too much, frets over her love life, and nitpicks the work of her junior officers. She is stubborn to the point of even obsessing over false leads just because others oppose her judgment. But she is right far more often than she is wrong. If she were a man, the team would envy the size of her balls. Instead, they resent her and try to block her efforts to solve the case, angry that she might get credit.

Perhaps Tennison's persona was tailor-made for Helen Mirren. As DVD Verdict said of her, "Not an A-list star, no longer young and pretty, she has always pushed furiously against the Hollywood stereotype that aging actresses should fade from sight." Kind of like Tennison fighting against the Old Boys Club of the British police force in the '90s where men led murder investigations and women were relegated to preparing budget reports or joining the typing pool. No wonder Tennison suspects that a conspiracy of secret handshakes and lodge connections are at work to undermine her efforts.

Each Prime Suspect case ran around 3½ hours and usually aired in two parts. Prime Suspect 4 was an exception at 4½ hours in three separate mini-cases.

The first five series were produced at a steady pace of one every eighteen months between 1991 and 1996, until Helen Mirren left the role after 1996 to avoid typecasting. She returned to the character in 2003 in Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness.

During that time Prime Suspect won three Emmys for best miniseries and Helen Mirren was nominated four times for best lead actress in a miniseries, winning in 1996.

Series Rankings

1. Prime Suspect 1: A Price To Pay (1991) -
The first and the best because the first cut is the deepest - literally, as we are introduced to mutilating serial killer George Marlow (John Bowe), one of the great crime villains and a pathological liar who maintains his innocence to the end. This one set the bar quite high and features the wonderful Tom Bell (called the British Jack Palance by one clever critic) as Detective Sergeant Bill Otley and a strong script by series creator Lynda La Plante. Plus this is the baby that started it all and introduced all the sublots -the political and sexist infighting of Tennison versus the Old Boys Gang including her boss Detective Chief Inspector Michael Kernan (John Benfield). Ralph Fiennes even turns up in a cameo as a street punk.

Writer: Lynda La Plante

Career Track: Jane Tennison gets her first case as a Detective Chief Inspector in this one. Her boss is the ever ambitious and politically savvy DCI Michael Kernan.

Love Life: Tennison is living with Peter, a whiney, needy, namby-pampy businessman with baggage (a kid) who's going through a separation. In other words, a total loser. Peter is played by Tom Wilkinson (The Full Monty).

Team Tennison: DS Bill Otley (Tom Bell), DI Richard Haskons (Richard Hawley), DI Tony Muddyman (Jack Ellis), DI Frank Burkin (Craig Fairbrass), Detective Constable Jones (Ian Fitzgibbon).

Trivia: Tennison takes over the case when popular Good Old Boy detective John Shefford, played by John Forgeham, drops dead from a heart attack; Forgeham would later turn up as Earl's Park Football Club owner Frank Laslett in the popular British soap opera Footballers' Wives, a series in which he also dies of a heart attack.

2. Prime Suspect 3: The Keeper of Souls (1993) -
Prime Suspect 3 picks up after Jane has left Southampton Row for the Vice Squad after her promotion is rejected by the boys' club that runs the London police. She inherits Operation Contract, a scheme to trim the population of rent boys who prowl the London streets. These rent boys, underage male prostitutes, are pimped by the seedy Prime Suspect James Jackson (David Thewlis, at the peak of his career, fresh off his riveting role as Johnny in Mike Leigh's Naked), though all clues seem to lead ultimately to the untouchable Edward Parker-Jones (an outstanding performance by Irish actor Ciaran Hinds). Lynda La Plante returns to script this third installment in the Prime Suspect series, adding the inspired twist of pairing Tennison up with her old nemesis from the Marlow case, detective Bill Otley (Tom Bell) — only this time Otley is actually on her sidein a dark tale of gay prostitution, pedophilia, and police cover-ups.

Writer: Lynda La Plante

Career Track: Jane Tennison is a Detective Chief Inspector in this one, under Supt. Halliday (Struan Rodger), but by the end of this case she's learned to play the game, basically blackmailing her superiors into a promotion (to Superintendent) by agreeing to drop her investigation into the sordid pedophilic habits, and subsequent police coverup, of corrupt retired Assistant Deputy Superintendent John Kennington (who committed suicide after confronted by Tennison).

Team Tennison: Detective Sgt. Bill Otley (Tom Bell), DS Richard Haskons (Richard Hawley), DI Tony Muddyman (Jack Ellis), Insp. Larry Hall (Mark Strong), DI Brian Dalton Andrew Woodall), DC Lillie (Philip Wright), and DI Ray Hebdon (Mark Drewry) - I think the later is the detective who admits he's gay, shocking his co-workers, when they ask how he knows so much about London's gay nightclubs.

Thorndike Factor: Supt. David Thorndike makes a token appearance at a Good Old Boys Club banquet event in the opening.

Masonic References: At Assistant Deputy Superintendent John Kennington’s retirement party Supt. Thorndike (Stephen Boxer) introduces himself to Judge Syers (Lewis Jones), by mentioning that they had "met at a lodge banquet". [00:19:22]

3. Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness (2003) -
Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison's investigation of the murder of a Bosnian refugee leads her to one, or possibly two, Serbian war criminals determined to silence the last witness to a massacre a decade before.

Writer: Peter Berry

Career Track: At 54, Detective Supt. Tennison is in charge of all London homicides, but the force would like to ease her into retirement - and why not? With 30 years on the force she's got her pension, so what's left to prove? Her boss is Det. Chief Supt. Larry Hall (Mark Strong) - who once worked under Tennison as a DI in Prime Suspect 3 - and the junior officer she snatches the case away from is DCI Simon Finch (Ben Miles). Tennison seems very desperate in this one, coming to grips with the realization that her career is nearing its end and rather clueless how to carry on when she finally does hand her badge in.

Love Life: Predictably, Tennison shags old flame Robert West (Liam Cunningham, who's a dead ringer for French action star Jean Reno), when the war photographer accompanies her to Bosnia to dig up dirt on Prime Suspect Milan Lukich's involvement in an alleged war atrocity there. Totally unnecessary scene; sorry, I have problems with seeing a woman in her 50s undressed. And Tennison's partners increasingly look to be younger men who, in society teaches us anything, tend to go for The Young Stuff.

Team Tennison: DCI Simon Finch (Ben Miles), DC Michael Phillips (Barnaby Kay), DC Lorna Greaves (Tanya Moodie), DC David Butcher (Sam Hazeldine)

Hypocrisy Factor: In the Prime Suspect 4 episode The Lost Child, DI Tony Muddleman got the suspect's girlfriend to squash his alibi after illegally playing her a videotape of the suspect's confession to child molestation. Tennision blew her top and let Tony face the music with a police review after the case was closed. Ironically, Tennison will employ the same illegal technique in Prime Suspect 6, playing a tape to Serbian killer Zugic (Velibor Topic) in prison in which it is revealed that the compatriat he killed for, Milan Lukich (Oleg Menshikov), is a traitor. Also, in Scent of Darkness, Tennison visits George Marlow in prison and reveals details about an ongoing investigation into his copycat murders in hopes of getting information from him, a visit which causes her to get suspended from the force. She repeats this irregularity in Prime Suspect 6 without getting reprimanded.

4. Prime Suspect 2: Operation Nadine (1992) -
Another great series. From IMDB: "Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison now deals with a racially charged murder. The long-dead body of a young black woman is discovered in a district recently convulsed by police brutality and which now is in the midst of a highly-charged political campaign. Her investigation is hampered by the hostility of the local populace, and the clumsy methods of some of her subordinates and irresponsible journalists make things worse." Tennison's job is further complicated when former lover Sergeant Rob Oswalde (Colin Salmon in a breakout performance) is assigned to her team as a subordinate.

Writer: Allan Cubitt

Career Track: Jane Tennison is a Detective Chief Inspector in this one, working under Detective Superintendent Michael Kernan. When Kernan gets promoted to Detective Chief Superintendent after the case and the slimy DCI Thorndike replaces him as station Superintendent, Tennison requests an immediate transfer.

Love Life: Tennison's former lover Sergeant Rob Oswalde (Colin Salmon) is assigned to her team as a subordinate. Tennison treats their relationship as a brief interruption from her work, whereas Oswalde wants to be more than just "black stud". Despite their shared "outsider" paranoia - Tennison as a female cop in a male-dominated workplace, Oswalde as a black man in a white-dominated society, the result is yet another blown relationship for Tenny.

Team Tennison: Detective Sgt. Rob Oswalde (Colin Salmon), Detective Sgt. Richard Haskons (Richard Hawley), DI Tony Muddyman (Jack Ellis), DI Frank Burkin (Craig Fairbass), DC Lillie (Philip Wright), DC Jones Ian Fitzgibbon), DC Rosper (Andrew Tiernan).

Thorndike Factor: DCI David Thorndike (Stephen Boxer), Tennison's nemesis from Internal Affairs, investigates her relationship with Sergeant Rob Oswalde when a suspect detained by Oswalde commits suicide. There's also a Freemasonry reference involving the creepy Thorndike in this episode:
Kernan: "Now, how in hell did the Commander know what’s happening on your calls already?"
Tennison: "What do you mean?"
Kernan: "Well I brought you back to lead this enquiry."
Tennison: "Well, I'll give you one guess. And it involves funny handshakes."
Kernan: "Thorndike? Same lodge?"
Tennison: I'll put my money on it. [00:12:06]

5. Prime Suspect 5: Errors of Judgement (1996) -
After getting censured for insubordination (and a refusal to play politics) at the end of Prime Suspect Season 4, Tennison finds herself transferred from London to working-class Manchester, where sleeping with her boss isn't her only error of judgement in this story of drugs, murder and corruption in the Midlands. Writer Guy Andrews gives Tennison a formidable druglord foe in Prime Suspect Clive "The Street" Norton (Steven Mackintosh) and a new and memorable team of detectives in the form of soft-spoken/heavy Northern accented (as in: hard-to-understand) Detective Sergeant Jerry Rankine (David O'Hara), scene-stealing Detective Inspector Claire Devanny (Julia Lane) and stoic Detective Captain Henry Adeliyeki (John Brobbey).

Writer: Guy Andrews

Career Track: Jane Tennison is a Detective Superintendent, working under Detective Chief Superintendent Martin Ballinger (John McArdle).

Love Life: Tennison sleeps with her married boss DCS Martin Ballinger, who does her few favors. When she requests a team of her own choosing, her boss/lover replies: "You'll eat what's on your plate, Jane."

Team Tennison: DS Jerry Rankine (David O'Hara), DS Pardy (Martin Ronan), DI Claire Devanny (Julia Lane), DC Henry Adeliyeka (John Brobbey), DC Skinner (Anne Hornby), DC Growse (Antony Audenshire)

Masonic References: "That bloody Jane Tennison, she'll be storming into your nick, the balls of your best officers trailing from her jaws, spraying people with claret, calling people masons, threatening resignation.... Well, I just wanted to tell you that I'm not a complete maniac." [00:07:55]

6. Prime Suspect 7: The Final Act (2006) -
Melissa Guthrie in Pop Matters writes:
Helen Mirren is finally burying Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison.

But the irascible Scotland Yard detective of PBS’ “Prime Suspect,” as gifted as she is damaged, will by no means go quietly into that good night.

Pushing 60 and on the brink of retirement, she has one last case. A 14-year-old girl—gifted, happy, from a good family—goes missing and is eventually found dead. And Tennison is also breaking apart. Her father, Arnold Tennison (Frank Finlay), is dying. And Jane is terrified, though she’d never let on, of leaving the only life she has ever known. Faced with prospect of becoming utterly unmoored by her father’s death and her own retirement, she has embarked on a downward spiral with gusto: drinking herself into amnesiac stupors.

It is a particularly dark chapter in the “Prime Suspect” canon.

“I think this one’s a tough one,” says Mirren. “Absolutely.”

“Life isn’t always wonderful and optimistic and gorgeous is it? `Prime Suspect’ has tried never to veer away from truths and realities in life. I think the police live in a very, very difficult world. They’re the ones that go when everything has gone horribly wrong. They deal with extremes of emotion and extremes of despair. A lot of them do become drug addicts. A lot of them do become alcoholics. A lot don’t have personal lives.”

That's apparently what Tennison has to show for 35 plus years on the force: no personal life, no partner, no family, no children. In fact, this episode's greatest intimacy transpires between Tennison and her old Prime Suspect 1 nemesis, detective Bill Otley (Tom Bell), back for another strong performance when the two run into each other at an AA meeting and bond over their shared alcoholism. Bill even takes a bullet for his old boss. But it was not without controversy, as reported by Charlie McCollum in the San Diego Mercury News:
"...the tone of ``Final Act'' caused something of an uproar in Britain even before the series aired there last month. Writer Lynda La Plante, who created Tennison but did not participate in this installment of ``Prime Suspect,'' said in an interview with one British newspaper that she thought it was sad ``that for the end of a great character, female, somebody has to say, `Make her a drunk.'"

And what a drunk. Tennison spends her nights with a bottle of Scotch, starts her breakfasts with vodka, and drinks wine from the bottle while tooling around town in her Saab.

Even more crushing, Tennison tries to bond with a young girl who reminds her of the child she could have had before opting for a termination in Prime Suspect 4, but it's a no-go; even this innocent turns against her.

Writer: Frank Deasy

Career Track: End of the line.

Love Life: Absolutely none. The closest moment of intimacy is when a barkeep tries for a little slap and tickle with her and a drunken Tennison snarls, "Piss off!"

Team Tennison: DS Alun Simms (Robert Pugh), DCS Mitchell (Brendan Coyle), DI Traynor (Robbie Gee), DS Cox (Russell Mabey), DC Wood (Laura Doddington).

Obit: Tom Bell, one of England's great character actors, died at the age of 73 earlier this year after completing his final turn at Det. Sgt. Bill Otley in Prime Suspect 7: The Final Act.

7. Prime Suspect 4 -
The weakest in the franchise and the first season to go episodic, breaking the season into three mini-episodes (the first two rather routine): The Lost Child, Inner Circles and Scent of Darkness. All are OK, but only the last one, Scent of Darkness, was noteworthy because it brought back original Prime Suspect serial killer George Marlow and a copycat killer who puts Tennison's career in jeopardy (did she put away the right man or did justice get bungled? - the Good Old Boys in the force want her to fail and whet their lips in anticipation until Tennison proves herself right - a second time). It's the first time Tennison is taken off a case and has to stay off the case - a humiliating turn for her and one that causes her to get an official reprimand and suspension, despite her solving the case on her own and saving an adbucted woman before the copycat killer does her in.

Career Track: Jane Tennison finally gets her first case as a Detective Superintendent in Prime Suspect 4's The Lost Child. Will success spoil Jane Tennison? Nah. As DVD Verdict's Mike Pinksy puts it, "Snappy suits and a close haircut notwithstanding, Jane is still the same bullying, obsessive, and impulsive career cop she has always been."

Love Life: Having just received her promotion to Det. Supt. in the season-opening episode The Lost Child, Tennison isn't going to let a love child get in the way of her career and starts her first day at the office with a morning termination, the quaint British term for an abortion. In Season 4's Scent of Darkness, Tennison's boyfriend Dr. Patrick Schoefield (Stuart Wilson), a psychologist serial killer expert, seems to be conspiring against her, adding friction to their frisson and casting doubt about their relation to the always paranoid Tennison.

Team Tennison:

Thorndike Factor: He's back and whetting his lips in Scent of Darkness after Tennison's Marlow case is reopened amidst allegations that she put the wrong man in prison. It's Tennison darkest hour, as she is put on suspension and humilated.

Hypocrisy Factor: In The Lost Child, DI Tony Muddleman gets the suspect's girlfriend to squash his alibi after illegally playing her a videotape of the suspect's confession to child molestation. Tennision blows her top and let's Tony face the music with a police review after the case is closed. Ironically, Tennison will employ the same illegal technique in Prime Suspect 6, playing a tape to a Serbian killer in prison in which it is revealed that the compatriat he killed for is a traitor. Also, in Scent of Darkness, Tennison visits George Marlow in prison and reveals details about an ongoing investigation into his copycat murders in hopes of getting information from him, a visit which causes her to get suspended from the force. She repeats this irregularity in Prime Suspect 6 without getting reprimanded.

The Cast: Tennison's Teams

Richard Haley, as Detective Inspector Richard Haskons, is the longest running member of Jane Tennison's crew - appearing in the first four seasons of Prime Suspect, which means he followed her to her new city appointments - and her most loyal confidante.

The next longest running/most loyal team member is Jack Ellis, as Detective Inspector Tony Muddyman, who appeared in Prime Suspect 1, 2 and Prime Suspect 4: The Lost Child. We learn that Tony was himself molested as a child, and hence his police brutality against a suspected child molester in that episode - an incident which costs him his career.

Tom Bell, as Detective Sergeant Bill Otley, also turns up in three seasons: Prime Suspect 1, 3 and 7.

And Jane Tennison's nemesis, the creepy DCI David Thorndike, also appeared in three seasons: Prime Suspect 2 (investigating Sgt. Rob Oswalde's involvement in a suspect's jailhouse suicide and Jane Tennison's romantic involvement with Oswalde), Prime Suspect 3 (a cameo) and The Scent of Darkness episode of Prime Suspect 4 (in which he relishes the chance to see if Tennison bungled the George Marlow case and miscarried justice). Thorndike is to Tennison what the X Files' Cancer Man was to Scully and Mulder.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Night at the Museum

Reading the Baltimore Sun's review of the new Ben Stiller film Night at the Museum made me think I had seen something like this before, and I had. Night at the Museum's conceit - that all the statues and exhibits at New York's Museum of Natural History come to life every night after the patrons leave - is not bad, but it's already been done before as an 8-minute short, a more suitable timeframe that doesn't exhaust such a conceit's modest ambitions.

The short was Will Vinton's Oscar-winning 1974 claymation short Closed Mondays, which presented the same idea, albeit in an art museum, and featured paintings coming alive before the eyes of a skeptical wino. They used to show this short a lot at The Charles Theatre, usually before the main feature film. It's a shame it's not available on VHS or DVD at the moment, but it is on YouTube (isn't everything?):

CLOSED MONDAYS (Will Vinton & Bob Gardiner, 1974, 7:30 min)

In 1975 Will Vinton and co-creator Bob Gardiner won the Academy Award for Best Animated Film for Closed Mondays - amazingly, it was Vinton's first film as an animator. After this auspicious beginning in animation Vinton coined the term Claymation® to describe his unique process of animating with plasticene clay, and registered the word as a trademark.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Action Traction

Having watched an inordinate amount of art films over the past week, I thought I'd balance it out with some mindless action film entertainment. Hence I watched the first two installments of Tom Cruise's franchise series Mission: Impossible and then watched The Transporter. I'd never seen these before and, tired of hearing people tell me I was a film snob, I thought, OK, I'll check 'em out. Turns out, I wasn't missing anything.

Mission: Unwatchable
The first MI was fairly tolerable - the location shoots in Prague and London were enjoyable sightseeing, Emmanuel Beart is always great sightseeing, and the helicopter-in-Chunnel finale was pretty imaginative - though far from worth the hundreds of millions of dollars in production costs (and Cruise's salary). But MI:2 was Mission Unwatchable, easily the most numbingly braindead excuse for overblown CGI special effects and pointless vehicular chase sequences ever filmed.

Wooed Away: A Lament
And MI:2 was another nail in the coffin for the career of director John Woo, the ex-pat Hong Kong action auteur who used to be my hero when he was making such heroic bloodshed classics as The Killer, Hard-Boiled, A Better Tomorrow I and II, Bullet in the Head and Once a Thief. But ever since he came to Hollywood, Woo has been a bust; with the possible exception of Face/Off and Broken Arrow - tolerable entertainments, nothing more - his Western years have been notably undistinguished. Sure, he gets the big name, big budget projects, but where's the charisma, style or emotion? Where's the acting and character bonding that distinguished his Hong Kong films? It's not there; it's all Hollywood surface, with no artistic merit. He's fallen for the American Cineplex Syndrome of loud pyrotechnics, car crashes and CGI special effects, crossing the ocean from Hong Kong to Hollywood armed only with the icing on his cake - the action set pieces, the now-cliche trick of having actors fly through the air in slo-mo with two-guns blazing - but left the cake of substance that marked his Chinese films behind. Namely, a reason to care. Admittedly Tom Cruise is no Chow Yun-Fat or Tony Leung or even Simon Yam. But there's nothing new in Woo; like distinguished ex-pat British writers who came to Hollywood to seek fortune (after they already had the fame), Woo looks like a just another guy who's whored himself to the lure of filthy lucre. I wish he'd go back to Hong Kong and revive his artistic career.

Much Ado About Nothing: Thandie Newton

I started getting irritated with MI:2 right from the beginning. First off, Thandie Newton. Not a major star in my esteem, and far from a hottie - she's so not all that. And bony to boot! Then the segment where Cruise is supposed to woo Thandie by flashing that famous grin and then, in perhaps the most ridiculous scene in the entire movie, engaging in a flirtatious high-speed chase with her in which they basically smash up two fancy sports cars worth at least $100,000 grand and end up dangling off a cliff. The result, of course, is that they quickly make post-crash trauma love and the inevitable "I've only known you for one night but I'll now take a bullet for you my love" commitment. Bollocks! I'm sorry, but I'm still thinking about how they totally wasted those two cars during their foreplay. No way I'd smash up my Honda Civic to get down with Thandie Newton. I wouldn't even risk scratching my bicycle for her. A totally pointless scene shamelessly thrown in for the cineplex crowd.

Of course the finale with Tom riding on his motorcycle was written into the film so that Tom would look cool riding on a motorcycle. And it goes on for WAY too long. Lame, lame, lame!

The Rules of the Game
The Transporter had three things going for it - Shu Qi (my current Asian Film Star Obsession), Jason Statham (of Guy Ritchie's stylish Brit gangster films Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), and director Corey Yuen (noted Hong Kong action director/choreographer) - but it also was produced by Luc Besson, the overrated French director of such films as The Fifth Element and Leon/The Professional (why is this film so popular?), which is a bad sign. I liked Besson's Subway (1985) and La Femme Nikita (1990), but everything since has been drek. (OK, he did produce Jet Li's Kiss of the Dragon in 2001, which was great - but he was also responsible for the lame script, which could have been written by the kids of Whitney High.)

In The Transporter, Jason Statham's character Frank Martin is a "Transporter," an amoral smuggler who transports packages both inanimate and animate (Shu Qi), no questions asked. He likes things simple and hates it when people deviate from the contract. And he lives, almost anal-compulsively, by rules. He's ex-military, so that makes sense in a "Sir! No Sir!" sort of way. The rules are simple:

Rule Number 1: Never change the deal
Rule Number 2: No names
Rule Number 3: Never open the package

However, no sooner does Luc Besson establish the semblance of a plot than he loses interest and has Frank break the rules carelessly, almost on a whim, which throws all plausibility out the window from this point on. Frank Martin, Mr. Punctual, who in an earlier scene refuses to transport four bank robbers from a heist when only three were agreed to in the contract, forcing the leader to shoot the extra human baggage (Rule No. 1 - "Never change the deal"), gets a flat and when he opens his trunk to get the spare out, can't help but open the wriggling package that contains Shu Qi. He thus quickly breaks Rule No. 3 for no apparent reason. Implausible? Mais oui! He then goes on to break the other rules, and why not, since the plausible part of the plot has been tossed with the introduction of the girl.

The Transporter enjoys Chinese carry-out

Naturally, after the girl is set free, she decides to stay with the Transporter because, you know, attractive people always fall for each other and, well, it makes the plot that much easier, doesn't it? When the Transporter's home is blown up asa result of him shielding the girl, she makes it up to him by dropping trou and doing the nasty by means of apology. Which is all fine and dandy, except sex - even sex with Shu Qi - comes up short as a replacement for a seaside French villa and Mercedes Benz. (And yes, I'm still thinking about the car repair bill it cost Tom Cruise for his tryst with bony Thandie Newton!) It just doesn't add up. Of course the girl falls in love with the Transporter. That's just the Action Man Way.

Shu Qi offers an apology no man can turn down

So after watching three mindless "films" that were no more than action set pieces framed by bare-minimum narratives, bargain-bin McGuffins, and wafer-thin character developments, I watched a Japanese art film, The Hidden Blade (Kakushi Ken Oni No Tsume), by director Yoji Yamada (The Twilight Samurai). It's a samurai film that actually fights against type and avoids being an action film. In fact, there are only two fight scenes in the entire film and they are far from gratuitous. The hero actually admits that he has never killed a man with his sword and that a true samurai avoids conflict and killing. This is a character study film, populated by characters as deep and fleshy as the rolls of fat around Dick Cheney's chin(s). As Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter so aptly put it, it is "a portrait of goodness and virtue that is neither cynical nor contrived."

In other words, unlike the disposable, cynical and contrived action flicks I had watched all week, this had a real story and plausible characters that stayed with you long after the final credits. I've learned from my mistakes; no more mindless entertainment. It's the equivalent of quick-fix junk food. I want a value meal. Which brings me to Roger Ebert's great commentary about action films versus talky films.

Action Is Traction
As Roger Ebert, writing about the third franchise installment, MI: III, but with words applicable to Hollywood Action Films In General, observed:
Either you want to see mindless action and computer-generated sequences executed with breakneck speed and technical precision, or you do not. I am getting to the point where I don't much care. There is a theory that action is exciting and dialogue is boring. My theory is that variety is exciting and sameness is boring. Modern high-tech action sequences are just the same damn thing over and over again: high-speed chases, desperate gun battles, all possible modes of transportation, falls from high places, deadly deadlines, exotic locations and characters who hardly ever say anything interesting.

Right on, Roger! The Word is mightier than The Sword.


P.S.: Not all Tom Cruise movies are unwatchable. There are a handful worth seeing, but only a handful, and, yes, that means you can count them on just one hand. Let's hope the filthy lucre Tomcat gets from his crap films satisfies him enough to seek out more good roles like these below:

1. Risky Business
2. Magnolia
3. Rain Man
4. Minority Report
5. Eyes Wide Shut

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Shu's That Girl?

Qi Shu, That's Who

Last night I watched my first Hou Hsiao-Hsien film, 2001's Millenium Mambo (Qianxi Manbo) -apparently the first of Triple H's envisioned trilogy following the lives of aimless Taiwanese youth in Taipei - and discovered my latest cinema goddess: Shu Qi (or Qi Shu, in Westernized format; actually her name is spelled in a variety of ways, including: Hsu Qi, Hsu Chi, Qi Shu, Shu Kei ). A veteran of countless Chinese language films, this 30-year-old beauty is most famous in the West for three things. First, on the advice of her manager, she famously turned down the plum role of Jiao Long that went to Zhang Ziyi in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - to film a Coke commercial instead! (Um, needless to say, she subsequently fired her manager!) And second, she made her first English language film (phonetically learning her English lines) in the hit action flick The Transporter (2002). And, of course, horror fans from East and West alike got an eyeful of Qi Shu in the Pang Brothers highly successful 2004 film The Eye 2 (Gin Gwai 2).

But I would add a fourth notable achievement. Millenium Mambo was the first HHH film to get released in the West, no doubt because its center of attention is the lovely Ms. Shu whose presence captivates viewer's orbs and carries the film along for each and every frame she's in. When her character Vicky performs a be-thonged lap dance for her gangster friend Jack Kao in a hostess bar, I just about jumped out of my seat to hit the still feature on the remote and play the scene over (and over) again for further, deeper analysis. Which is nothing less than what's required for her career work. I already got on Amazon and ordered my DVD of The Transporter and now I'm backtracking to try and find her action star work in Corey Yuen's So Close (Chik Yeung Tin Si) (2002). Noted Hong Kong action choreographer and director Yuen also co-directed Shu in The Transporter, so this Chinese-style "Charlie's Angels" thriller looks pretty promising.

For the record, Shu Qi won Taiwan's Golden Horse Award for Best Actress (in HHH's 2005 film Three Times (Zui Hao de Shi Guang)) and for Best Supporting Actress (as Mango in 1996's naughty Category III film Viva Erotica (Se Qing Nan Nu) ), appeared opposite Jackie Chan in the 1999 HK romantic comedy Gorgeous (Bor Lei Jun) , and - according to the IMDB - is currently going out with American born Taiwan pop singer/songwriter/composer/actor Lee-hom Wang (sorry fellows!). Exciting upcoming projects include playing the (first non-Korean) lead in the third installment of a hit Korean action series, My Wife Is A Gangster 3 (Jopag Manura 3).

Monday, December 11, 2006

Miracle Man

Sunday I went down to my new favorite sports bar, Slainte's Irish Pub & Restaurant in Fells Point, to watch an English Premiere League soccer match between London crosstown rivals Arsenal and Chelsea. I had planned to go alone, but my girlfriend surprised me when at the last minute she asked, "Do they have food there?" Sure, I assured her. "OK, I'll go." It was a match made in Heaven. She ate a gut-busting Irish omelette while I gourged myself on one of the most exciting matches I had seen since the World Cup. American football fans would yawn to hear that the result was a 1-1 tie, but it was far from listless. The two clubs went at each other with an amazing intensity, fighting and clawing - and even "diving" (the Drogba-Lehmann theatrics were the stuff of Keystone Kops slapstick!) - for a full 90 minutes, right down to the stoppage whistle.

Anyway, Arsenal was all set to hand Chelsea its first home loss since Jose Mourinho took over at Stamford Bridge in 2004 until this miraculous shot by Ghanian superstar midfielder Michael Essien salvaged a point for the home team. This is an amazing exercise in trajectory physics that I just had to share:

Q: How does anyone stop a shot like that?

A: They don't!

Friday, December 08, 2006

Masterpiece Theatre

I went to my first "First Thursdays" film program last night at the Baltimore Museum of Art and I'm glad I did. The series is presented by local scribe/DJ/Man of Good Taste Eric Hatch, who last night screened one of his favorite French gangster films by Jean-Pierre Melville, 1970's Le Cercle Rouge.

The BMA's film series is the anti-thesis of the fare on display for today's limited-attention, cellphone-checking, popcorn-chewing, soda-slurping suburban multiplex theater crowd; Hatch and company show art films for culture vultures, "film snobs" if you will, and I'm glad to count myself among them. That's why I was elated when someone immediately called out the hipster doofus sitting next to me for loudly crinkling a cellophane wrapper while ravenously stuffing his gullet with food and for making inane "conversational" asides to his over-cuddly girlfriend (such brilliant observations as "Hah, a Plymouth!" and "That's a really big apartment for Paris" - um, thanks for sharing, nitwit, but you're not sitting in front of your TV set, you're among this thing we non-mouth-breathers call "Society").

Yup, it was pretty much a film lover's dream audience and setting, with a veritable Who's Who of local cineastes in attendance, from Skizz Cyzyk (MicroCineFest, Maryland Film Festival), John Standiford (The Charles Theatre), to Jane King & Jeff Alphin (Charm City's preeminent Power Hipster/Culture Vulture Couple) and the hordes of past, present - and possibly future - Video Americain employees, headed by Le Grande Francophile himself, Scott Wallace Brown. And the film was projected by former Orpheum Theatre impressario George Figgs. It doesn't get much better than that.


As for the film itself, I think Chris Fujiwara's review from the Criterion website is spot on, so here, without further ado, it 'tis.
What is the Red Circle?
by Chris Fujiwara

"Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, drew a circle with a piece of red chalk and said: “When men, even unknowingly, are to meet one day, whatever may befall each, whatever their diverging paths, on the said day, they will inevitably come together in the red circle.”

The meanings of “the red circle” are several, and I believe Melville placed this epigraph at the beginning of the film to invite us to contemplate them. For Melville’s cinema is contemplative. Although Melville saw himself as a popular artist and wanted his films to give pleasure, the pleasure they provide has nothing to do with what is usually called action.

One avatar of the red circle is the plan, the scheme, the job. First hatched by the prison guard to Corey (Alain Delon) on the eve of the latter’s release, the scheme swiftly draws Corey in, as if against his will. He draws along with him first Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté), a criminal who has escaped from custody, then Jansen (Yves Montand), a former policeman and expert marksman who has become an alcoholic. The trajectories of these and other characters unite throughout the film at various fateful or fatal meeting-places (all “red circles” of a kind): the prison at the beginning; the roadside diner where Vogel picks Corey’s trunk at random to hide in; Santi’s, the underworld hangout where several crucial assignations take place; the jewelry store, where the three protagonists converge to carry out their daring heist; the country house at the end of the film.

All the people gathered up in these circles are men; Le cercle rouge is perhaps Melville’s fullest expression of his love for a certain masculine ideal: taciturn, loyal, respectful of dignity. Melville’s treatment of the theme of male virtue is notable for a stylistic emphasis that, for a director usually typed as cold, dry, and undemonstrative, comes off as remarkably operatic, even Leone-like. The moment when Corey wins the trust of Vogel—crucial, since it will silently determine the course of the rest of the action—is underlined by a sharing of cigarettes (à la Hawks) which Melville films in an exchange of frontal close-ups (exceptional within the film’s stylistic parameters), as Vogel puts his gun away in his pocket and stoops to pick up the lighter Corey has tossed to him.

From this moment, the two men’s participation in the jewel heist becomes inevitable. Their friendship, now that it has been established in images, needs to be expressed and explored through external action.

Another operatic figure in the film is associated with Jansen. For him, the heist is not a shared adventure (as it is for Corey and Vogel) but a private challenge. When Jansen poses as a customer to case the jewelry store, Melville cuts between extreme close-ups of his face and of the tiny lock that will be his target in the heist. During the heist, Melville repeats the same interchange of shots twice. He thus emphasizes the private nature of Jansen’s success and its importance to his personal redemption. In a lovely bit of mute eloquence, Melville also celebrates Jansen’s private self-reward: merely smelling the contents of a flask he has brought along.

Such moments stress an underlying imperative of male self-proving, in relation to which we must view the exclusion of women from the world of Le Cercle Rouge. Women have no place here: they exist only as the signs of a lure that no longer attracts (Corey’s former girlfriend, now the mistress of the gangster Rico; the showgirls at Santi’s—as chimerical and repellent as Jansen’s hallucinated beasts). They’re inert decorations, holdovers from a distant past when something interesting might have come from the interaction of two sexes.

A small, significant example of the film’s insistent subversion of women appears near the end of the film. The rose which a flower girl at Santi’s gives to Corey could be a token of sympathy or a sexual invitation; either way, it expresses the choice and agency of the woman, and her gift of the rose (another red circle, by the way) is the only self-willed, self-expressive act performed by any woman throughout the entire film. In the next scene, after Corey and Vogel say goodbye in Corey’s apartment, Vogel, by picking up the rose and distractedly twirling it, appropriates the female sign and turns it into a sign of his devotion to Corey.

This spot of bright color against the muted tones of Melville’s mise-en-scène reminds us of the hermeticism of Melville’s work. The pleasure of his films, as I noted above, has little to do with their success as spectacles of action. If Melville’s are, however, films of suspense, this word should be taken in a sense different from the usual one. Melvillean suspense suspends ordinary details and trappings, leaving only a few esoteric symbols and a set of rarefied settings cleared for combats, tests of skill, and silent victories. Suspense in Melville is the power of cinema to tear life out of time, freeze it, remove it to an abstract space, and make it an object for contemplation.

This brings us to the last of the metaphorical red circles in our survey: the film frame. Melville had the knack of accentuating the arbitrariness of the frame, knowing well how to use the borders of the composition to create a space with the strangeness, the consistency, and the suspended quality of a dream. Perhaps this dream aspect should be considered a primary, rather than an incidental, feature of Melville’s work, and perhaps we should see the director as the heir of two different surrealist traditions in cinema: that of Feuillade, with his parallel universe of signals, chases, and routines; and that of Sternberg, with his subterranean societies, his dens of innocent vice, and his almost extinct eroticism. As Melville said, “A film is first and foremost a dream.”

Monday, December 04, 2006

All Telemarketers Are Ex-Cons & Junkies

"Hi, this is Bob at Satellite TV...!"

OK, so maybe there are a few college students trying to pick up a little extra holiday money doing this and I know of at least one respectable cineaste who makes cold calls to help pay the mortgage and make his child support payments. But for the most part: all telemarketers are ex-cons and junkies. That is: all are by nature either scam artists or otherwise desperate characters.

I know, because I used to date a (supposedly) reformed druggie who worked for a telemarketing business in Owings Mills. Though the firm called to solicit donations for the Baltimore county police and firefighters, the telemarketers themselves were reformed offenders and ex-coke, crack, and heroin addicts who found salvation in the "invisible" world of telephone solicitation, where callers only had a voice, not a drug-ravaged face or tawdry past. This was the world of NA and AA meetings, where only the Alpha Reformed Druggies - like my girlfriend - were still able to take a drink or smoke the occasional doobie without falling off the wagon. Needless to say, everyone smoked cigarettes. Again, like my girlfriend, whose idea of a night out was to slap a pack of Marlboro Lights on a bar counter and knock back Molsen Golden Ales until closing time. She later got "smart," dumped me, found a smack addict boyfriend to play house with, and eventually was murdered by her beau when he was robbing her for money to score his next fix. No doubt his day job was telemarketing, too.

There's nothing wrong with being an ex-offender or junkie. Everybody makes mistakes and everybody has a right to move on with their lives and earn a living. I only mention this because I want to make clear that only someone without choices, someone who has bottomed out so badly that no one else will employ them - someone desperate - could sink so low as to become a telemarketer. I even read a story today that mentioned a prison in Shanghai, China, that employed its female inmates as telemarketers. That's the level we're talking here: people either without respect or freedom.

I only am musing about telemarketers because it was my day off today and instead of being able to sleep late and enjoy a little R&R, I was instead awakened by the steady stream, starting at 7 a.m., of "Out of Area" phone calls from the usual annoying suspects: Always True Travel, Baltimore Firefighters, and so on. I'm on the no-call list, yet still they find me, like the pandhandlers on the street who seem to drawn to me like a magnet to a giant Tesla coil. Even at 9 and 10 o'clock at night, when I sometimes foolishly think it might be a family emergency and run up the stairs to see who's calling, the jokes on me: it's only the West Coast telemarketing brethen calling to offer me free trips to time share condos on the Coast, ski trips to Aspen, and free satellite TV installtions. Worse yet, when I pick up to tell the pests to take me off their calling lists, I get pre-recorded messages, so I can't even unload my angst on a flesh-and-blood humanoid. (I do practice, however: "Hello? No one there? Too bad, I just wanted to tell you that I dug your mother up and boinked her skeleton! Now please never call here again!")

I wish comedian Bill Hicks was still alive, because he would have known how to respond to the phone drones. He once famously railed against marketers as follows: "By the way, if anyone here is in advertising or marketing, kill yourself...No, seriously, there is no rationalization for what you do and you are Satan's little helpers. Kill yourselves. Seriously, you're the ruiners of all things good. This is not a joke...You are Satan's spawn, filling the earth with bile and garbage. You are fucked and you are fucking us, do the world a favor and kill yourself. It's the only way to save your fucking soul. Kill yourself...Suck a tailpipe, fucking hang yourself, borrow a gun from a friend, I don't care how you do it. Rid the world of your evil fucking machinations."

Bill Hicks on Marketing (YouTube clip):

That about sums it up. Maybe I should just make Hicks' diatribe my new answering machine message. I'd probably still get those pre-recorded, "Uh, hi, this is Sherry, been trying to reach you so I'll just leave a message about our free vinyl window installation estimate..." Arghhh!

Hampden Christmas Parade 2006

Sunday, Dec. 3, 2006

It's that time again...time for the Mayor's Annual Christmas Parade in Hampden and once again the true reason for the holiday season is to see Suzanne Muldowney (pictured left, next to my Cherubic mug), the dancer/choreagrapher who has appeared in the parade as the cartoon character Underdog for most of the past 24 years. This year, the 54-year old native of Delran, N.J. introduced a new character, her "Fairy of the Golden Snow."

Suzanne Muldowney's appearances as Underdog have become a parade tradition, no doubt bosted by her frequent appearances on Atomic TV's annual holiday specials (not to mention her numerous appearances on Howard Stern's TV and radio show) and this year's appearance was even ballyhooed by an article in the Baltimore Messenger: "No need to fear as long as 'Underdog' is here."

Suzanne's clearly been riding a media juggernaut, as a documentary about her, My Life as An Underdog, was recently screened at Baltimore's MicroCineFest film festival, where it won the Audience Choice Best Feature and Grand Jury Best Feature awards.

So it was no surprise to see MicroCineFest programmer Skizz Cyzyk and Scott Wallace Brown, who perform as the ukelele and melodica duo The Awkward Sounds of Scott and Skizz ("2 guys playing little music on little instruments"), on hand to jam with the diva fairy.

Skizz, Scott & Suze Have Themselves a Very Awkward Christmas

See "Silent Night" sung in Latin and English!

Lost In Translation?

As you can see from the clip posted by Scott Huffines above, Suzanne sang two versions of "Silent Night" with The Awkward Sounds of Scott & Skizz, first singing the verses in Latin and English, then following up the next two verses in Latin. Apparently her use of Latin lyrics caused Suzanne to lose some sleep, for the very next night she left a message on my answering machine, expressing her concern that Atomic TV might air her "Silent Night" performance and confuse viewers unfamiliar with Latin. (Doesn't she know that Atomic TV is as just dead a communications medium as the Latin language? We're living in YouTube Times, Suze!) Anyway, she suggested that, since most people were not familiar with Latin, we air her Awkward/Fairy version with subtitles. Like the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group recommendations, we'll take it under serious advisement.

Big Santa Is Watching

Suzanne, as per usual, railed against the secularization of Christmas, especially against her nemesis Santa Claus - the Great Deceiver. This year she pointed out the Orwellian aspects of Santa's surveillance powers (I think his "making a list/checking it twice" powers were recently expanded under the new Patriot Act to now include wiretapping), especially regarding the fact that "He knows when you've been naughty, he knows when you've been nice." She even branded Santa Claus "The Unseen but Ominipresent Record-keeping Behavior Monitor." Now stick that in your chimney and smoke it, Herr Claus! Later, Suzanne confided to her friend Violet Glaze that if Santa had to be included in a holiday parade at all, at least he could be made more palatable by being dressed as an authentic Greek Orthodox bishop. (Now that I'd like to see!)

More Suzanne Pix

OK, here's the rest of my pix of Suzanne and her fans and minions.

Scott, Skizz & Suze Jam Out, Latin-style

Suzanne Keeps the Beat with her Fairy Wand

Skizz Backs Off from the Fairy Wand

Scott Huffines and Violet Glaze Escort the Fairy of the Golden Snow

She Stoops To Conquer (Mmmm...Candy!)

Fairy of Golden Snow Prepares for Takeoff

Other Parade Highlights

OK, as much as I love Suzanne Muldowney and her grand Golden Snow costume, I have to admit my favorite moment of the day was watching the South American parade formations in their more revealing garb - especially the the Bolivian babes and the Mayan mamacitas!

South of the Border: Bolivia Has Back!

Bolivia, Land of Simon Bolivar & Bountiful Backsides

Senoritas Shakin' Their Aztecs

New Homeland Security Formation

Scott & Skizz, Ready To Invoke Their Muse

Rocker Eric Plys Soft Cutie with Hard Cider

Fez and Fido

Joe Cameltoe the Shriner

Hampden Hons Looking Rather Stilted