Tuesday, 21 May 2024

Arts & Life


The Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, are the merry pranksters of the cinematic world, having churned out such offbeat and funny films as “Raising Arizona,” “The Big Lebowski” and “Fargo.” They are capable of more serious work, including last year’s award-winning “No Country for Old Men.”

As the writers, directors and producers of “Burn After Reading,” the Coens have returned to the comfort zone of their comedic DNA, which includes wild strains of satire, sex farce and screwball comedy. “Burn After Reading” burns the spy world in ways that are broadly stamped with the Coen trademark of goofiness.

No one, least of all the Coens, would possibly argue that “Burn After Reading” is a brilliantly artistic cinematic achievement worthy of the A-list actors who are called upon to act as shockingly dumb people. The film is something of a lark, a full-blown prank loaded with endless shenanigans.

At the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency in Virginia, analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) arrives for a top-secret meeting, only to discover that his bosses want to demote him to a meaningless job at another government agency because they recognize he has a drinking problem. The volatile Osborne doesn’t take the news particularly well and decides to resign from government service.

Meanwhile, Osborne’s ice queen wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), a medical doctor, is thoroughly dismayed that Osborne will be working on his memoirs at their Georgetown home, possibly because this may interfere with Katie’s illicit affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a married federal marshal. This turn of events accelerates her desire to divorce Osborne so that she can take up with Harry.

For his part, Harry is trying to decide whether he should divorce his wife Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel), a successful author of children’s books, even though he is building her a special, if oddly unorthodox, birthday gift in his basement workshop.

Elsewhere in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, and seemingly worlds apart, Hardbodies Fitness Center gym worker Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) is obsessed with obtaining extensive cosmetic surgeries, going so far as to ask her boss Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins) for large salary advances.

Ignoring the fact that the sad-eyed, wistful Ted is wild about her, Linda trolls the Internet dating services, which coincidentally happens to be one of Harry’s favorite things to do. Naturally, Linda and Harry become acquainted through an online connection, and are soon fitfully engaged in several liaisons.

Fixated on her life plan for surgical enhancements, Linda confides her mission to fellow gym worker Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), a gum-chewing, Gatorade-swilling, iPod-addicted bubble-brain. Delightfully idiotic, Chad is the type of numb skull who easily falls for Linda’s plan to take advantage of a computer disc that just happens to contain the memoirs of the former CIA analyst that seemingly exposes state secrets.

Ingenious but clueless, Linda and Chad presume they can blackmail the sarcastic, explosive Osborne to pay for the return of the disc. His hot-tempered, incendiary demeanor causes the nitwit duo to try instead to peddle the CIA secrets to the Russians.

As the plot unfolds, the worlds of physical fitness and the CIA, along with Internet dating, intersect and collide in ways that are just too weird for words. All the characters are middle-aged and undergoing professional, personal and sexual crises that touch on matters of national security. Aside from Osborne’s sarcastic brilliance, all the others are basically sad, moronic characters mixed up in situations that easily get out of hand.

Brad Pitt is hilarious as the clueless, idiotic conspirator. Yet, the funniest scenes may belong to JK Simmons and David Rasche, seen too briefly as the CIA bosses trying without any luck to make sense of what is transpiring with the amateur effort to peddle secrets to the Russians.

Not likely to be considered in the class of more superior comedies from the Coen brothers, “Burn After Reading” is nevertheless a subversively comedic spy thriller. As the plot deepens and thickens, the Coens unload more shocks and surprises that are alternately clever, amusing and outright funny. The first-rate cast helps immensely to make this film fun to watch.


Trekkies everywhere may want to take notice of the DVD release of “Star Trek: Alternative Realities Collective,” a five-disc collection featuring episodes from all five “Star Trek” TV franchises, including new interviews and commentaries.

Quick, name the five series. OK, I can’t do it without the cheat sheet.

This collection features “Star Trek” (the original series), “The Next Generation,” “Deep Space Nine,” “Voyager” and “Enterprise.” Twenty episodes in all are selected, with a lot of brand new bonus materials.

Coincidentally, arriving in my inbox recently was the “remastered edition” of Season Two of “Star Trek: The Original Series,” which is touted to have enhanced visual effects for standard DVD players. That’s a bit of good news, since I don’t have HD or Blu-ray.

Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.


Sugar Pie DeSanto. Photo courtesy of Jasman Records.


PHILADELPHIA – At its 20 year reunion celebration this Tuesday, the Rhythm and Blues Foundation has chosen to present the San Francisco Bay Area’s own Queen of the West Coast Blues, Sugar Pie DeSanto, a distinguished Pioneer Award.

The grand gala will bring together the royalty of rhythm and blues, including past Pioneer Award Honorees along with a veritable “who’s who” of the entertainment industry. More importantly, the event provides an opportunity to support a compelling cause, as its proceeds will ensure the continuation of the doundation’s community outreach, education programs and emergency grants to rhythm and blues artists during their time of need.

Ms. DeSanto, who has performed in Lake County, joins a stellar group of awardees at this year’s ceremony including Chaka Khan, Teena Marie, Bill Withers, Kool and The Gang, The Whispers, The Funk Brothers, Donny Hathaway and Al Bell.

Hosts for the evening include Dionne Warwick, Bonnie Raitt and Jerry Butler.

Born Umpeylia Marsema Balinton of Filipino and African-American parentage, DeSanto was dubbed Little Miss Sugar Pie by the legendary Johnny Otis who signed her to her first professional contract in 1954.

In 1959 her first hit record, “I Want To Know,” was recorded on the Veltone label and produced by the Godfather of Oakland Blues, Bob Geddins Sr. The record rose to No. 3 on the Billboard charts springboarding Sugar Pie into a lucrative contract with Chess Records.

During her tenure at Chess she became the most prolific and highest-paid writer in their employ. Her songbook contains well over 100 compositions which have been recorded by the likes of Minnie Riperton, Billy Stewart, Fontella Bass, The Whispers, Little Milton, The Dells and Jesse James.

Also while at Chess, Ms. DeSanto recorded two historic duets with Etta James, “In The Basement” and “Do I Make myself Clear.”

For a two-year stretch, Sugar Pie opened for James Brown, pushing him to higher heights with her white hot, daring, dazzling, saucy stage presence. James Brown earned the moniker “the hardest working man in show business” legitimately. Anybody who follows Sugar Pie to this day has to work harder.

DeSanto’s career spans six decades. She is still a vibrant, multi-faceted performer. In the summer of 2008 she has performed to capacity crowds at Yoshi’s Jazz and Supper Club, The Chicago Blues Festival and the Poretta Soul Festival in Poretta, Italy.

For more information on The Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s activities and events visit www.rhythmblues.org.


CLEARLAKE – Wild About Books will host Joe Schopplein, author of “But, Fear Itself …”, at a book signing event on Saturday, Aug. 30 at 2 p.m.

“On my 78th birthday, I found about 60 rough drawings I had started to make as a teenager,” Schopplein said. “I originally planned to use them someday as a basis for more finished art to illustrate a book about my experiences of growing up in Nazi Germany. Instead, I decided to use them just as they are, and simply wrap some text around each drawing. To make sure my memories would not be adapted to anyone else’s ideas.”

In 2003 Schopplein retired to Lake County. He is now a member of the Konocti Plein Air Painters.

Wild About Books is located at 14290 Olympic Drive in Clearlake, next door to Lisa's clothing store.

For an updated list of times and dates for upcoming events, stop by the store, call 994-WILD (9453) or visit the store's Web site at www.wildaboutbooks.net.


MIDDLETOWN – Lake County's independent film festival – EcoArts' Coyote Film Festival – has arranged to bring “Sherman's Way,” a full-length feature film, to Lake County for three screenings so Lake County residents can see the beauty of Lake County on the big screen in this comedy/drama.

During the summer of 2006, this feature-length film, “Sherman's Way,” was filmed in Lake County.

The film premiered at the San Jose Cinequest Film Festival in February and has been on the film festival circuit. While shooting in Lake County, the producers filmed at several local businesses, including shops along Main Street in Kelseyville (including Studebakers Coffee House, Kelseyville Drug, and Affordable Travel); Library Park; Lampson Field; and the Ford dealership in Lakeport; as
well as on site at Langtry Estate and Vineyards in Middletown.

Following each screening of the film, director Craig Saavedra will answer questions from the audience. The lead character, Sherman, played by Michael Shulman, also may be in attendance.

The Coyote Film Festival is a fundraising program for EcoArts of Lake County, which produces the annual Sculpture Walk at the Middletown Trailside Nature Preserve Park in Middletown. The Sculpture Walk is free and open to the public June through October of each year.

Seating is limited to 75 people maximum per screening, so preordering tickets is recommended. The first showing will be Friday, Sept. 19, at 8 p.m. with two shows on Saturday, Sept. 20, at 4 p.m. and
8 p.m.

The film will be screened at Calpine Geothermal Visitors Center, 15500 Central Park Road, Middletown. The cost is $10 for adults; $5 for youth 16 and under with an adult. The film has not been rated.

To preorder tickets, call 928-0323 and leave a message detailing the show date, time, and number of tickets. Tickets will be held for payment and pickup at the door.

For more information, visit www.coyotefilmfestival.org.



Before we even get to the next summer Olympic Games in London, the post-apocalyptic world is upon us in “Death Race,” where senseless, mortal violence is a pay-per-view bonanza for a prison run by a private corporation.

The premise of extreme racing competition is inspired by Roger Corman’s classic B-movie “Death Race 2000.” Given false hope for early release, prisoners are fodder for reality TV bloodlust if they are willing to risk their lives to become road kill splashed across TV screens and the Internet.

Laconic action star Jason Statham, having established his bona fides wheeling fast cars in the “Transporter” series, is a natural candidate to race tricked-out cars. He could give Vin Diesel a run for his money.

At the opening of “Death Race,” Statham’s Jensen Ames is a steel worker getting laid off from his job, which is unfortunate because his prison days are behind him now that he has a supportive wife and baby daughter.

The fact that he was an excellent race car driver is not lost on the folks running the Terminal Island prison, where fatal car races are staged for the amusement of a bloodthirsty public hungry for increasingly violent TV programming.

On the same day he loses his job, Jensen is set up by masked men invading his home who intend to frame him for murder. Flash forward six months, and Jensen arrives at the bleak Terminal Island, an Alcatraz-like prison where escape is practically impossible.

The evil Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen) runs the prison as if it were a caged ultimate fighting championship death match. Indeed, convict teams race customized vehicles that look like they were used in “Mad Max.” These cars are outfitted with more gadgets and weapons than James Bond’s Astin Martin.

Hennessey is raking in big bucks with her televised Death Race matches, where the winner is the only convict left standing. But she recently lost the most popular racer, the masked Frankenstein who racked up a series of wins with a souped-up Ford Mustang GT Fastback.

Jensen is picked as his replacement, only needing to don the rubber mask and stay alive by winning. Of course, the incentive for Jensen is that, by taking over Frankenstein’s place, if he wins the next race, he will be set free from prison and reunited with his daughter.

The proposition is fraught with peril, because Hennessey is untrustworthy and the race itself guarantees the death of all participants except the lone winner. Frankenstein’s nemesis is Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson), a sneering, brooding con who doesn’t know that Jensen is being substituted for Frankenstein. All that matters to Machine Gun Joe is that he permanently eliminates whoever is driving Frankenstein’s car.

In case you can’t see it coming, “Death Race” is all about high-speed violent chases where competitors meet gruesome death, by impalement, explosions, and highly dramatized crashes.

Clocking in at under two hours, “Death Race” spends most of its time running cars at full-throttle around gritty industrial areas, where booby traps await the unsuspecting. During the down times without racing, the action shifts primarily to the usual prison yard conflicts.

Some time is also spent with Frankenstein’s dedicated pit crew, including Coach (Ian McShane), the seasoned con who figures out the ultimate game, and Lists (Fred Koehler), the bookish crew member who delivers helpful intelligence reports.

Because a movie of this type demands an attractive distaff presence, Terminal Island allows female prisoners to become navigators. Naturally, Jensen gets the best looker in Natalie Martinez’s Case, a tough cookie who likely gets the assignment because she has the best cleavage and wears tight jeans. Keep in mind that we are dealing with a B-movie heritage that must be upheld at all costs.

Yet, the toughest female role belongs to Warden Hennessey, who borders on the comedic only because she’s called upon to spew profane threats to those impeding her path, while remaining rigid and uptight in crisp business suits.

“Death Race” is pure mindless entertainment that requires you to check your brain at the door. I enjoy slam-bang car chases and spectacular crashes as much as the next guy, but after awhile it becomes all too repetitive, losing its edge and impulsiveness.

As the crashes and explosions pile up, “Death Race” looks increasingly like a violent video game. Meanwhile, much of the dialogue is laughable and lame, while the acting is purely pedestrian. “Death Race” could have been a better action picture.


Morgan Spurlock, best known for exposing the perils of fast food consumption with “Super Size Me,” turns his investigate powers into a search for the world’s most dangerous terrorist, Osama bin Laden.

Now comes the DVD release of “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?”, which is billed as a tongue-in-cheek yet thought-provoking documentary.

Amazed by bin Laden’s continued success at evading capture, Spurlock set out to locate the terrorist by traveling through various international hotspots. I have not had the time to review this DVD, but I do know one thing: Spurlock does not answer the title of his documentary.

Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.


Upcoming Calendar

05.21.2024 10:00 am - 1:00 pm
Farmers' Market at Library Park
05.21.2024 6:00 pm - 8:00 pm
Lakeport City Council
05.22.2024 1:00 pm - 5:00 pm
Lake Leadership Forum
05.25.2024 10:00 am - 1:00 pm
Farmers' Market at the Mercantile
05.26.2024 10:00 am - 3:00 pm
Lower Lake Daze
Memorial Day
05.28.2024 10:00 am - 1:00 pm
Farmers' Market at Library Park
06.01.2024 10:00 am - 1:00 pm
Farmers' Market at the Mercantile

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