About Scott Howard

Scott Howard grew up in rural Georgia and got a job making grocery store ads for his hometown newspaper at the ripe old age of 15. When the entire editorial staff was fired, he started writing movie reviews to fill empty space. He's been doing the same thing ever since, as one of the original editors of PiQ Magazine, a columnist for Connect Savannah and The Savannah Morning News, and a regular contributor to Newtype USA, The Stanford Daily and Bolt Reporter. His work as a graphic designer has been featured in ADV Manga, PiQ Magazine and Newtype USA. He holds BFAs in Graphic Design and Photography from Georgia Southern University and lives in Houston, TX with his lovely wife Marisa.

The Tree of Life

  • Fox Searchlight
  • In theaters now

The Tree of Life is one of the greatest movies ever made. There, I said it.

Now, the caveats. Terrence Malick’s long in the works epic about the yin and yang of nature and grace is so personal and specific that those not tuned in to its rhythms will find it interminable. But if it works for you, as it did for me, I’m hard-pressed to think of another movie that has ever used the medium of film more effectively.

It starts in the middle and then goes back to the beginning, and when I say back to the beginning I mean the dawn of time. We see mysterious lights, signaling the creation of the universe. We see volcanoes erupting, creating the continents. We see torrential rains, creating the oceans. And we see the origins of life, cells that turn into amoebas that turn into small creatures that turn into great dinosaurs. This where we came from as physical beings. Then we see where we came from as emotional beings. The birth of a child. The freedom of early life. The everyday magic of an afternoon spent in the front yard. Then we have to start obeying rules. We begin to feel pain. We see sadness and oppression. We lose people we love.

These are universal emotions, rendered with incredible intimacy by Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and a team of editors led by Hank Corwin. I can see how the film doesn’t work for some, but for me, I was with it for every second of its 139 minutes. There are countless ideas, images and themes I’ve rarely if ever seen a film tackle before, chief among them the significance and insignificance of a single life in the scheme of the universe. The Tree Of Life stares into the vastness of the cosmos, boldly aspires to greatness, and reaches it.

The Stunt Man

Richard Rush’s 1980 oddball masterpiece The Stunt Man is an anomaly in every way. It’s one of the only films Rush ever directed (the only film he’s made since is the bonkers Bruce Willis softcore extravaganza Color of Night). It’s one of the only films where Peter O’Toole plays someone who didn’t die several centuries ago. And it’s one of the only films that, at least to my knowledge, begins as a genre picture about a drifter on the run from the cops, and soon morphs into an insanely ambitious rumination on reality and unreality, with countless layers of Charlie Kaufman-esque weirdness. O’Toole gives one of the greatest performances of his career as a dictatorial director who may or may not be willing to kill Vietnam-vet-turned-stunt-man Steve Railsback to make a great film, delivering every line with the delectable loftiness of a man relishing his all-abiding God complex. It’s an incredibly dense film that rewards multiple viewings, appropriately becoming something completely different depending on what you’re paying attention to. Severin Films’ fantastic new Blu-ray edition polishes the low budgeted film to a gorgeous luster; it’s hard to believe this is the same Stunt Man I fell in love with on a battered VHS in the mid-90’s. Also included are extensive interviews with Rush and every major actor in the film, including an immaculately dressed O’Toole who, despite pushing 80, is spry as ever and funny as hell.

Certified Copy

  • IFC Films
  • In theaters now

Though he’s made dozens of films in a career that’s spanned five decades, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and is the godfather of the burgeoning Iranian film industry, Abbas Kiarostami is largely a cult figure in the U.S. That’s partly because he’s based in Tehran — the capital of a country we’ve been in a cold war with for thirty years — and partly because of his unconventional films and unconventional filmmaking style. Kiarostami’s ambitious attempts to combine fiction, documentary, spirituality and autobiography are usually confounding to the uninitiated (Roger Ebert notoriously gave a one star review to the Palme d’Or-winning Taste of Cherry). Americans also like their directors’ filmographies to fit into a nicely-organized box (think Kubrick, Malick, Scorsese), and Kiarostami’s is a sprawling body of work that in addition to his own major films includes hundreds of films he wrote but didn’t direct, documentaries, shorts, compilations, video art installations, and even title designs.

Even given that gigantic list of accomplishments, though, Certified Copy is a towering achievement that may be his best film ever. Juliette Binoche stars as an art dealer in Italy who specializes in elaborate forgeries. She takes in interest in a book about the validity of fakes by a British author, played by opera singer (!) William Shimell. The rest of the film consists of the two driving and walking through Tuscany. At the risk of getting you hyped up for what sounds like a Lifetime movie, any more of a synopsis would spoil what I’m sure will be one of those movies that cineastes discuss and debate for decades to come. On its face, Certified Copy is about what, if anything, separates real from fake. It’s also about what happens when abstract concepts encounter real life. It’s also about the gap between the knowledge of intellectuals and the knowledge of blue collar workers. It’s also about how we savor and ignore the beauty of everyday life. It’s also about how talented and gorgeous Juliette Binoche is. All of this is captured by the subtle mastery of Kiarostami, who imbues every frame with warmth, humanity and greatness. Certified Copy is an instant classic.

The Beastie Boys: Hot Sauce Committee Part Two

  • Capitol Records
  • Available now
  • Download from iTunes | Amazon

For some reason, between the release of Paul’s Boutique in 1989 and the release of Check Your Head in 1992, the Beastie Boys decided that their rich, velvety voices sounded best when recorded through a subway announcer microphone and played back in a deep, echoing cave. It was the third complete reinvention for the Beasties in just 6 years, following their introduction as Def Jam pranksters on Licensed to Ill and sophisticated sound collagists on Boutique, and in retrospect is their most unique and memorable incarnation: distorted vocals, live instrumentation, newfound social consciousness, well-chosen samples, unforgettable beats. The just-released Hot Sauce Committee Part Two finds the Beasties revisiting that trademark sound for the first time since 1994’s classic Ill Communication, and though nostalgia is never as great as revelation, it’s the most fun they’ve had on a record in years. The highlights include first single “Lee Majors Come Again”, which hearkens back their hardcore roots, the dubby “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win” with Santigold, and the Nas-guesting jam “Too Many Rappers”.

TV Reality

Are you surprised by the news from Fox last night that they’d cancelled all of their bubble shows? Because I’m surprised by all the surprise.

The people who ran Fox in the late 90’s and early 2000’s earned it a permanent place on the shitlists of everyone who loves TV. They mishandled and axed Firefly. They mishandled and axed Wonderfalls. They loaded their airwaves with specials about killer bees and car chases and Who Wants To Marry A Millionaire.

But what was the last really awful thing Fox did? They canceled Lone Star after two airings, but the show was a miserable flop that didn’t connect with the public despite a very visible ad campaign and tons of critical buzz. They canceled Arrested Development, but they gave it three seasons despite the fact that nobody was watching. They canceled Dollhouse, but it was a flop from the very first episode, and they gave it an entire second season out of charity! Yes, the constant time slot shifting hurt AD, and Firefly, and Fringe. But that happens on every network.

In a lot of ways, the networks are actually becoming much more merciful than they used to be. In past years, low- to middle-rated shows with lots of critical acclaim like Community, How I Met Your Mother, Parks and Recreation, Parenthood and especially Fringe would’ve never made it this far. Fringe, in particular, is an extremely expensive show with very, very low ratings. Granted, Fox wounded it horribly by moving it last year from Tuesdays to Thursdays in the most competitive timeslot on TV, but the numbers weren’t exactly through the roof on Tuesdays, either.  Having the prestige factor of critical attention and a small but devoted audience actually pays dividends these days.

So let’s look at the shows Fox canceled last night. Breaking In and Traffic Light? Generic, disposable sitcoms that no one cared about. Lie To Me and Human Target? Both shows with great casts but creative misfires from the start. And if you were a fan of either show, guess what? You got multiple seasons, with 48 and 25 episodes respectively! Feel lucky! The only show I personally felt sad to see go was The Chicago Code, a show with a great cast created by Shawn Ryan, one of the true geniuses working in television. But it had bad ratings and frankly never fulfilled its potential. Fox gave it wall to wall coverage during the Super Bowl and a full season to find its footing creatively and commercially, which never happened.

This is how TV works. If a show doesn’t get good ratings, or barring that, a lot of critical attention, it won’t be around for 10 years.

If you’re upset today, expect the same disappointment when NBC, CBS and ABC releases their new schedules. This was a really strong pilot season after 2-3 years of very weak pilot seasons, and networks won’t — and shouldn’t — miss out on great new shows in favor of keeping stagnant old ones.

PJ Harvey: Let England Shake

Yes, Let England Shake actually came out way back on Valentine’s Day. But it was this month, as Harvey came to the U.S. for a brief tour, that the record finally clicked for me. When I got into music in the 90’s, nobody’s music meant more to me than Harvey’s. The cacophonous post punk of Rid Of Me hit right as I entered teenhood, and its darker, more expansive follow-up To Bring You My Love is still one of my favorite albums. But after 2000’s melodic masterpiece Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, Harvey spent the rest of the decade too quiet, stripped down, and grown up. Let England Shake doesn’t really rock, but it is her most passionate and accessible record since Stories. Her last few records sounded lost in textures and atmospherics; here they lift jangly, folksy songs like “The Last Living Rose” and the urgent “The Words That Maketh Murder” to divine heights. Let England Shake finds PJ Harvey acting her age, but realizing she’s way too young for the old folks’ home.

Water for Elephants

  • 20th Century Fox
  • In theaters April 22

There’s nothing new about Water For Elephants, but it’s been so long since something so unabashedly old fashioned hit the multiplexes that I enjoyed the hell out of it. Like Field of Dreams, October Sky, or A Walk In The Clouds, it bathes us in the warm, autumnal glow of American nostalgia: baseball games, science fairs, harvest time and the circus. Seriously, this is a movie in which a young man during the Great Depression hops a train, runs away with the circus, falls in love with the star performer, and competes with the ringmaster for her affections. If that sounds corny to you, stay home in your ironic hipster flophouse. For those of us who are willing to embrace old timey stuff, Water For Elephants contains some very nice work from Christoph Waltz (pretty much just playing a sadder Hans Landa, but still…), Reese Witherspoon at her best since Walk The Line, a dreamy script by Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, The Bridges of Madison County) and some great circus imagery from director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain, The 25th Hour).

Back To Norm

It’s been said that the Golden Age of Entertainment is whenever you were 13 years old. I’m inclined to believe that’s true, and when I was 13 years old, the funniest guy in the world was Norm Macdonald. Everyone agrees that Saturday Night Live was largely in the doldrums at the time – this was the 1994-1995 season where Phil Hartman, Mike Myers, Chris Farley and Adam Sandler left or were in the process of leaving – but Norm was the sole bright spot, turning in legendary performances week after week. I still quote his material from this period almost daily; his Burt Reynolds on Celebrity Jeopardy insisting he be addressed as “Turd Ferguson” and choosing “Swords for $48,000″ (the category was “S Words”), his Larry King shouting out non sequiturs like “If you only see one movie for the rest of your life, make sure that it’s Gattaca” and “An underrated chef in my opinion: Chef Boyardee”, his Charles Kuralt signing off on CBS News Sunday Morning with tales of depraved sexual encounters over the decades.

But obviously, he’s most remembered for being the best Weekend Update anchor of all time, a fact that even those who don’t understand or enjoy Macdonald’s delightful strangeness now concede. A few years ago, I read Steve Martin’s comedy memoir Born Standing Up, along with several tributes to him written by people who were in their teens and early 20’s when Martin was at his peak. I’d always thought he was funny, but when I was growing up he was already in the phase of his career when he’d left his influential stand-up behind and was playing middle aged dads in safe family comedies like Father of the Bride and Parenthood. Reading those tributes, though, I came to realize that what people 15 to 20 years older than me saw in Martin I saw in Macdonald. Both were young absurdists who came from TV writing gigs (Martin from The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Macdonald from The Dennis Miller Show and Roseanne), both used a straight-laced appearance to subvert the deep weirdness of their material, both confused and alienated older audiences, both used Saturday Night Live as a springboard for success.

To an impressionable young man whose only experience with comedy was crappy sitcoms and Nickelodeon, Norm was an absolute revelation. He seemed dangerous, unafraid to piss the crowd off… in fact, he loved pissing the crowd off. When his extended delivery finally culminated in a punch line, if the crowd didn’t laugh, he’d just stare in the camera, smirking, knowing that the only thing funnier than his joke was the audience being dared to laugh. What made him seem so edgy was how safe and old-fashioned he was 99% of the time. He was a normal guy, which upped the shock value considerably when he would do things like telling Will Ferrell’s James Lipton that he hopes the first thing he hears in Heaven is, “James Lipton’s in hell right now, being raped by the Devil.”

After being fired from SNL, Macdonald has struggled to find a second act to his career aside from some classic appearances on Conan O’Brien and Howard Stern and an Andy Kaufman-esque appearance on the Bob Saget Roast. There were a couple of failed sitcoms, movies that never took off, etc. He’s never been a traditional stand up, and there aren’t a lot of venues for hurling one liners at a camera like he did on Update. So finally, he’s created his own: Sports Show with Norm Macdonald, which premiered last night on Comedy Central. Sports Show doesn’t even attempt to shy away from Norm’s Weekend Update glory days in appearance or delivery; in fact, for a second I thought I’d been put in a cryogenic chamber for 15 years and woke up on a random Saturday night at midnight. The pilot felt a tad dated as it was cobbled together from test episodes shot over the past few months, but it was funny as hell, and one joke at the end of the first segment reminded me of why he’ll always be a comedy icon to me: “UFC and World Extreme Cagefighting have announced they’ll be joining forces to create a new league. The new sport will be known as ‘Murder’.” It feels so good to have you back, Norm.

Topsy-Turvy

In stark economic terms, Topsy-Turvy was a massive flop. Mike Leigh—a filmmaker highly acclaimed for his stripped-down portraits of contemporary working class Britain—was given a relatively huge $20 million budget to make a period piece quasi-musical, and it ended up making barely a third of that sum back. But in creative terms, Topsy-Turvy is an absolute treasure, easily among Leigh’s best works, and up there with The Red Shoes and Nashville as one of the greatest films about collaboration and creation ever made. The film is often discussed as a biopic about Gilbert and Sullivan, but that really isn’t accurate since it only covers a year or so of their lives. Topsy-Turvy is really a grand epic about the joys and pains of creating art: balancing art and commerce, the frustrations of writers’ block, the difficulties of editing, all culminating in the cathartic beauty of a successful final piece.

Dogtooth

I doubt many American cinephiles could name a single film from Greece before last year, and those who could would probably stop at Z, a French film directed by a Greek. That changed forever with Dogtooth, Yorgos Lanthimos’ uncategorizable international breakthrough that polarized festival audiences worldwide. In it, a couple in a remote region of Greece fence in their home and raise their children with a completely fabricated worldview: the outside world will kill them the instant they step outside their compound, humans give birth to dogs, words have different meanings (flowers are “zombies”). This has worked for decades, but now the children are adults and messy issues like sex and independence have entered the picture. Dogtooth’s plot goes in dark places, and Lanthimos directs with a detachment usually employed by misanthropes like Michael Haneke and Stanley Kubrick. The cast plays it like a comedy, though, and its finale may cause some to cringe but made me feel as triumphant as when the apes learned to use the bones in 2001.