It’s Steve Buscemi’s Birthday—Let’s Get Weird

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One day in my sophomore year of college, I walked into my Contemporary American Cinema class at IFC Center and there was Steve Buscemi just chillin’ with my professor. I froze a bit—seeing him out of context was an odd thing at 9 AM on Tuesday, and is anyone ever fully prepared to just bump into the wonder that is the lovably wonky smile and buggering eyes of Steve Buscemi? He wasn’t doing anything particularly weird—just hanging out in a sweater before going off to pre-production Boardwalk Empire rehearsal. He had stopped by my class to screen and talk about his 2007 intimate drama Interview, which he wrote, directed, and starred in opposite Sienna Miller. And although nowadays he’s mainly known for his role as the anti-hero political/gangster Nucky Thompson on Boardwalk Empire—for which he has won multiple Screen Actors Guild Awards and a Golden Globe—it’s his early film roles that truly exemplify the talented but always weird Buscemi we love so much.

And as today is his 55th birthday, what better way to celebrate his career chock-full of cult favorites than to look back on his best roles—spanning from his work with Jim Jarmusch in the late ’80s, Tarantino and the Coens in the ’90s, and the other goodies in between and after. Enjoy.

Charlie the Barber in Mystery Train (1989)

Told through a series of vignettes all centered around one hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, JIm Maramusch’s 1989 ode to the spirit of Elvis Presley, featured Buscemi in the small but memorable role as Charlie the Barber in the final story of the film, “Lost in Space,” for which he was nominated for an Indepedent Spirit Award.

Mr. Pink in Resevoir Dogs (1992)

In 1992 Quentin Tarantino made his directorial debut with Reservoir Dogs, shooting his career forward and garnering him an obsessive fan base. And in the role of Mr. Pink, Buscemi was embedded as a violent and bizarro cult icon for movies to come. The role also won him his first an Independent Spirit Award.

Buddy Holly in Pulp Ficton (1994)

After Reservoir Dogs, of course Buscemi would make a cameo in Tarantino’s next and most acclaimed film, 1994’s Pulp Fiction. Unless you’re paying close attention you might not catch him, but he’s surely there as Buddy Holly in the iconic Jack Rabbit Slim’s Restaurant scene.

Carl Showalter in Fargo (1996)

As the star of Joel and Ethan Cohen’s Fargo, Buscemi got to sink his wonky teeth into the character of desperate criminal, Carl Showalter. The zany 1996 crime drama wasn’t only a career hit for Buscemi but also won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay.

Donny Kerabetsos in The Big Lebowski (1998)

Reuniting with the Coen Brothers again, Buscemi hopped onboard the cult favorite The Big Lebowski. In the 1996 comedy, he plays the timid bowling buddy Donny  Kerabetsos opposite the beloved Jeff Bridges and John Goodman.

Dave Veltri in The Wedding Singer (1998)

It’s been years since I’ve seen the ’80s-set Adam Sandler comedy The Wedding Singer, but when I look back on it, the first thing I think of is Buscemi drunk in a teal suit. His role as Dave Teltri is strange and ridiculous with that Buscemi creep factor you know and love.

Homeless Guy in Big Daddy (1999)

Reuniting with Sandler in the 1999 comedy Big Daddy, Buscemi makes an appearance as a homeless man. Enough said.

Seymour in Ghost World (2001)

Based on the graphic novel of the same name, Ghost World tells the story of two teenage outsiders, one of which becomes involved with a misanthropic older man, Seymour. Played by Buscemi with the right mix of humor and sadness, the role got him a Golden Globe nomination and won him a second Independent Spirit Award.

Annie Baker Cleans Up Off-Broadway With Her New Play, ‘The Flick’

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On Broadway, there are superheroes flying above an audience, a handful of actors singing while pushing around a bright red pick-up truck, and the familiar chandelier crashing onto an opera house stage (although it seems to drop a lot slower than it did when The Phantom of the Opera premiered twenty-five years ago.) Meanwhile, at a smaller theater just blocks from those large theaters, is Playwrights Horizons where Annie Baker’s play The Flick is showing to much smaller crowds who are not witnessing the distracting spectacle of a big-budget musical, but rather a small-scale examination into human behavior featuring characters resembling people who would pass by the small theater unnoticed on Forty-Second Street. And it involves a lot of cleaning.

“You sit in a movie theater for two hours and watch a past-tense, recorded version of reality on screen,” Baker says to me over coffee at Kos Kaffe in Park Slope, where she lives, a few days before The Flick’s opening night. “When the movie is over, these real people come out and start to clean up. It’s like an act of theater that takes place after a movie ends: the dance of cleaning, of going up and down the rows.”

The Flick follows three employees of a run-down movie theater in Boston—Avery, Sam, and Rose—as they clean and mingle following the projection of second-run movies. The Flick is representative of a dying breed of theaters—that small town, one-screen movie house, the kind that doesn’t accept credit cards and still projects actual film rather than an updated digital projector. The specifics give an added weight to the characters on stage; they aren’t the typical anonymous multiplex employees. They are instead three of the most realistic, fully formed characters you’ll find in contemporary theater, thanks in part to Baker’s meticulous ear for dialogue and pitch-perfect eye for how people work, love, and live with each other.

But it’s the set that is perhaps the most striking part of The Flick: the audience, separated by the invisible movie screen at the foot of the stage, faces rows of empty theater seats. It’s down those rows that Avery and Sam silently make their rounds—sweeping up popcorn, picking up soda cups, finding the occasional shoe—pausing often to make conversation about the state of American film (Avery insists that Pulp Fiction is the last great American movie, an argument Sam tries to negate by submitting various titles released in the last decade as great works of art) or to play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, as their common interest does not extend much further than their jobs. It’s the details of the seemingly mundane that first prompted Baker to write The Flick: to examine what happens after the audience leaves and the play continues.

“I was interested in exploring the phenomenological difference between theater and film by literally making the fourth wall a movie screen,” Baker says, revealing the idea for the set was what inspired her to write a play that takes place in a movie theater. The setting also allowed Baker to delve into the near-universal cultural experience of movie watching. “You can meet people who don’t read books, look at paintings, or listen to music, but everyone has seen movies,” she continues. “All of our personalities and love stories and friendships and careers are shaped by movies. Our personal narratives are determined by the movies we watched as kids, which is beautiful and also a little, well, fucked up.”

the flick
Photo by Joan Marcus

The twenty-year-old Avery, who is taking time off from college following family and personal troubles, most embodies this sentiment. His encyclopedic knowledge of movie trivia seems to rule his life, and his view of film as an art form sets him apart from the other two characters, who appreciate commercial films like Avatar as much as the supposed serious films like the work of Paul Thomas Anderson. His snobbery even makes himself weary; in one scene, Avery sits alone in the darkened theater, telling an anonymous friend over the phone about a dream in which he must pick one movie to sum up his life as he enters Heaven. He is disappointed that the film he picks for himself is the 1992 comedy Honeymoon in Vegas.

Despite the satirical take on taste, Baker takes a glance at how film dictates our actions and behaviors. Movies are seen as a comfort, Baker insists, on account of their universal acceptance. Baker herself knows this first-hand. “I was a crazy movie buff as a teenager, and in my twenties I felt like I had fallen out of love with movies,” she says. “I was an unhappy teenager, and movies can really feel like this balm when you’re unhappy and lonely in a small town.” She insists that her disillusion with film did not follow a specific, triggering moment; rather, it happened naturally. “When I moved to New York and became a grown-up, I didn’t need them anymore. But I was interested in getting back to my first love when I was writing The Flick.”

Not only did Baker return to her first love for inspiration, she may have dug up some of those unhappy emotions from her adolescence when developing her characters. Avery, Sam, and Rose all exhibit an active disappointment with the menial day-to-day aspects of their lives. Avery complains that everyone seems to act like a stereotype of what they think they are supposed to be. Rose, who is aggressive in both her personality and her looks (she dyes her hair green and exclusively wears loose-hanging black shirts and t-shirts), admits, “I’m afraid that something is wrong with me and I’ll never know what it is.” Sam, a portly, awkward thirty-something, is slow to reveal details about his personal life—a mentally handicapped brother who is able to find a partner while Sam harbors an unrequited crush on Rose—and struggles to achieve his goal to move up in his position to work the projector at the theater. Baker’s characters, in The Flick as well as her earlier plays, Body Awareness and Circle Mirror Transformation, express a specific discomfort with themselves and their surroundings. One would expect Baker to be awkward and quiet herself.

That’s not the case. With a thin frame and long, blonde hair and bangs framing her round face, Baker gives off the illusion that she is much taller than she is. Her presence as an artist is immediate, even from photographs—she has the tendency to give just the hint of a smile, seemingly effortlessly, so much so that it resembles at first glance a frown. But after sitting down and talking with her, it’s clear that the hyper-intellectual façade isn’t accurate; she is soft-spoken, friendly, inquisitive, and talkative. She seems almost the opposite of her characters—she is self-assured and confident. But she is willing to admit, despite the critical acclaim she has achieved in her very brief career, that she is “a lazy writer,” someone who cannot successfully knock out several plays in a year. (She spent three years writing The Flick.)

She also knows her work will not receive universal acclaim, thanks in part to the preview period for The Flick. “There have been extreme responses,” she tells me. “On some nights, there are people laughing possibly too hard, and on other nights there’s a lot of silence during the first act and people leaving at intermission. People have told me they don’t want to watch a three-hour play about people cleaning.” Despite the varied response, the subject matter is still what Baker wants to explore. “I approach my plays with the intention of drawing attention to people, places, and phenomena that are a part of people’s lives,” she tells me, “like the guys who clean up after us at movies. I want to make people think about them for a few hours. I just want people to notice.” Luckily, audiences are paying attention. If Annie Baker’s early success is any indication, they will be noticing for years to come.

Annie Baker portrait by Zack DeZon.

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Tarantino Tunes: The Best Musical Moments From Quentin Tarantino

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Quentin Tarantino’s slavery spaghetti western Django Unchained delivers all of the usual Tarantino goodness: brilliant dialogue, over-the-top cartoonish violence, fantastic performances from Tarantino regulars Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson, and a whole lot of controversy. More impressively, the film’s soundtrack is the usual combination of familiar tunes from Tarantino’s cinematic inspirations, as well as a few original tracks from John Legend, Rick Ross, and RZA. While we’ll have to patiently wait for another year or two before those musical sequences to end up on YouTube (only to be likely taken down because of copyright infringement), let’s take a look back at Tarantino’s catalog and take a listen at the songs we’ve come to associate with the modern-day auteur. 

Stealers Wheel – "Stuck In The Middle With You" (from Reservoir Dogs)

What’s the best way to get the kids interested in Gerry Rafferty? Why, scoring an ear slicing with one of his catchiest tunes, naturally. It’s really a shame that this scene didn’t do for Michael Madsen what Pulp Fiction did for John Travolta. Who know the man had such moves? 

Chuck Berry – "You Never Can Tell" (from Pulp Fiction)

This is arguably Tarantino’s most recognizable scene from arguably his most popular movie. It not only made him a household name, but it reinvigorated the career of John Travolta, who had been struggling in years prior in talking baby movies. And don’t get me wrong, I love a talking baby movie. But I’d much rather see Travolta cutting a rug with weird hair. 

Bobby Womack – "Across 110th Street" (from Jackie Brown)

Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s biggest stand-out. It lacks the gritty or cartoon violence of his other films (it contains, total, just four measly, relatively bloodless murders), and the focus is entirely on plot, dialogue, and the acting. And while there’s no big dance sequence, the opening credits are fantastic. All it takes is a few tracking shots and Pam Grier to set the tone of the film, and Bobby Womack’s soulful voice ties it all together. 

The 5,6,7,8’s – "Woo Hoo" (from Kill Bill Vol. 1)

It’s refreshing when Tarantino pulls out a new song from his jukebox. In the first half of his samari epic, Tarantino brings the old school into the picture with fresh treatment. It seems only natural for the big musical number in Kill Bill Vol. 1 to involve a band that mashes up a wide selection of sounds and elements. It’s the musical equivalent of a Tarantino film, really. 

Bernard Herrmann – "Twisted Nerve" (from Kill Bill Vol. 2)

Kill Bill marked the first time Tarantino picked up classic scores from old films, and Bernard Herrmann’s "Twisted Nerve," the theme from the 1968 psychological thriller of the same name, became, in turn, a Tarantino classic. (It even makes a cameo in Death Proof as Rosario Dawson’s ring tone.) 

The Drifters – "Down in Mexico" (from Death Proof)

Death Proof, one half of Tarantino’s Grindhouse collaboration with Robert Rodriguez, stands on its own feet as a perfect action thriller as well as a quintessential Tarantino flick. In one of the film’s best (and sexiest) scenes, Vanessa Ferlito delivers perhaps the best lapcdance in cinematic history to a terrifying (and weirdly sexy) Kurt Russell. It should come as no surprise that the jukebox playing this jam is Tarantino’s own. 

David Bowie – "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" (from Inglourious Basterds)

Here’s another case of a song written for a movie being appropriated for one in Tarantino’s own oeuvre. Wisely using the long, slow-building version of the Giorgio Moroder / David Bowie collaboration from Paul Schrader’s 1982 erotic thriller (as opposed from the shorter, radio-friendly version from Let’s Dance), Tarantino builds the tension and nearly gives away the film’s ending. (Hint: it involves a lot of flames.)

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‘American Horror Story’: Silent Night, Deadly Night

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I’m not sure if you guys are big fans of Homeland, but if you are, well, you’ll totally understand what I’m saying here about American Horror Story: Even if you are writing about the most implausible, suspend-your-disbelief from a 90-foot crane kind of crazy, you still need to be internally consistent within the dream world you make up. So for instance, no way would Carrie have ever been let back in at the CIA, even if she was right about Brody. That’s just not how it works. She has a mental problem, and it clearly makes her batshit insane, and she hid that information—a matter of national security–and don’t even get me started on this Dana storyline…whatever.

The point is: That is how this season of American Horror Story is shaping up. While it’s certainly more fun to watch than the first three episodes, when things were so staid and boring, right now the show is so cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs that it doesn’t even make sense within the logic of a program about Nazi zombies, the devil, and Jessica Lange’s accent.

For instance: Sister Mary Eunice. Is she just really bad at being the devil? At this point, she seems more like a bitchy Carrie. Her powers are super limited—she can’t see all/know everything, her murdering abilities are the same as normal psychopath, and when she does use her "gifts" they seem totally arbitrary.

For instance, this week when Sister Jude comes back into Briarcliff to kill her (which, by the way, highlights the inconsistency of the institution’s door policy if every disgruntled ex-employee with a knife can just walk in), Mary Eunice uses her MIND POWERS to throw open the cabinet with all the canes on the floor and scatter them about. But like, that’s it: a telekinetic temper tantrum. Then she "takes care" of Frank, the guard who shot Grace last episode and now wants to go to the police, by freeing a crazy-Santa freak inmate and concocting an elaborate plan to have St. Nick murder him? Crazy Santa can’t even do the job, so Sister Mary Eunice has to do it for him by slitting Frank’s throat herself.

Even for THE DEVIL, that seems like a lot of extra work.

And yikers, can we back up and talk about the insane Santa plotline? Because the most far-fetched aspect of this episode was that the producers somehow managed to get IAN MCSHANE to play a convict who, Jean Valjean-style, goes to jail for stealing a loaf of bread only to get raped by five cops in Santa outfits. So, obvs, when he gets out he takes the jolly red suit of his oppressors and becomes a rape-obsessed psycho murderer. The entire episode I was like, "Man, whoever they got to play Santa looks a LOT like Ian McShane." So good twist, when I got to the credits and saw how the mighty Deadwood has fallen. I wonder if he just went back to his trailer and cried at the indignity of what his 30+ years of thespian training in England has brought upon him.

He delivers lines like, "There is no God, but there is a Santa Claus!" or, after caning Sister Jude, "Are you soft enough yet to receive my light? Except it won’t be light you’re receiving." (It will be his penis.) Luckily, Jude stabs him in the neck with a letter opener, which puts her exactly on par with THE DEVIL in terms of magical murdering tricks. Like, she literally just foiled Mary Eunice’s plan, and why wouldn’t THE DEVIL just go kill Jude herself? Also, why would Jude need to be tricked into coming back to Briarcliff in a double-cross by Arden, after he pretends that he now sees how evil Mary is? It seemed unnecessary. Obviously, it is Jude’s top priority to be locked in a room with Mary Eunice, both making vague threats and maybe pulling each other’s hair, and she’s free to come any time thanks to Briarcliff’s open-door policy.

It was especially weird because of the preceding scene, where Arden gives Mary Eunice giant ruby earrings he’d been saving from the bowel movements of a rich Jewess in his Auschwitz days. Instead of being like "Gross, why have you been caring around shit-crusted rubies for years like you were Christopher Walken in Pulp Fiction?" Mary Eunice loves them. And Arden gets upset, because apparently that was a test to see if she was really evil/had a human reflexive gag instinct, and he is obviously torn about his new partner in crime. But I guess he got over it, because the next thing you know he’s helping murder Sister Jude.

Oh, and speaking of that open door policy, someone invited Dr. Thredson to pay a visit to Lana Winterss, despite the fact that his last encounter with Briarcliff was giving it the middle finger. Well, whatever, he finds Lana because "all the newspapers" were talking about the escaped mental patient who came back to Briarcliff after a car accident. Which is off, because Lana tells Kit earlier in the episode that they are stuck at Briarcliff because "no one knows we’re here." Except for all those newspapers.

Anyway, Thredson is about to kill Lana, but Kit, who has been sedated on a morphine drip after he allegedly kills a nun (but it was actually one of those zombie creatures), comes to the rescue and hits Thredson over the head with a trashcan. Then they tie him up and put him in a spare room while they think of a plan. The best minds of their generation, these two.

While disposing of Grace’s body, some aliens appear to Arden in the tuberculosis "death chute" and make Grace disappear. Arden looks mildly shocked, but then again, what’s he going to do? Another day, another dollar full of post-apocalyptic zombies and taking orders from Satan. He doesn’t even have time for this shit.

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