Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The US Marshal gets her man: Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight (1998)

[11 years ago, in a small theater in Carbondale Illinois, I happened upon a little-known and under-promoted film while writing for a local Arts newspaper, and I was very impressed.  Out of Sight has since become my favorite of Soderbergh's directorial efforts.  It shows Clooney's potential to become a genuine movie star.  For that matter, has Jennifer Lopez been in anything better?  Here's my time-capsule review.]

Ever since the success of Get Shorty, Hollywood has rushed to adapt any remaining Elmore Leonard material to the screen.  His streetwise dialogue, macabre sense of humor, and well-researched crime details have moviemakers translating his work to the big screen with devotional fervor.  A master crime novelist, Leonard has cranked out a thriller a year for who knows how long (Paul Newman's Hombre was adapted in 1967).  His stories usually involve a misfit band of criminals and one lone law enforcement officer.  Quentin Tarantino adapted and directed last winter's disappointing Jackie Brown.  Now, Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies, and videotape) trumps Tarantino by directing the superior Out of Sight, based on the 1996 novel of the same name.

Here, George Clooney plays Jack Foley, a likably smarmy bank robber who escapes from a Florida prison only to stumble across U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) out in the parking lot at night.  His accomplice, Buddy Bragg (Ving Rhames) grabs her from behind and then kidnaps her by placing her with Jack in the trunk of his car.  Thrown together in this meet-cute way, getting to know each other, as it were, across the gulf between the criminal and the law-enforcing, Jack and Karen strike up an unlikely rapport, discussing movies like Bonnie and Clyde and 3 Days of the Condor.

In the old Hitchcock film The 39 Steps, the romantic leads were handcuffed together.  Here, they share an airless but cozy ride in the trunk of a Ford.  Later, Karen will whip out a huge Magnum pistol and try to shoot her way out of the trunk, but the die has been cast: they will spend the rest of the movie looking for a "time out" from cops and robber games to get to know each other better.

While Clooney's acting has improved by simply refraining from waggling his head in false modesty, Lopez shows she could project torrid sensuality dressed in a feed sack.  Her character blends movie star glamour with the kind of federal marshal smarts that Tommy Lee Jones displayed in The Fugitive.  If men try to mess with her, she produces a retractable metallic wand out of her purse and thwacks them across the arms or pistol whips them before handcuffing them to a balcony.

For the most part, Out of Sight is masterfully done, provided you have the patience for character development.  Elmore Leonard characters tend to talk too much at times, a trait that works better on the page than on the screen, but otherwise Steven Soderbergh sets up scenes with auteurish finesse.  He mixes up the chronology much like Tarantino did with Pulp Fiction, throwing in a little flashback jailhouse exposition midway through to keep us off balance, teasing us with a little asequential crosscutting during the major seduction scene. He also likes Martin Scorsese freeze frames and Godardian jump cuts.  Moreover, Elliot Davis' cinematography impressed me with its tacky orange glow in Florida and the moody wintry blues in Detroit.  Did I mention the strong supporting roles by Albert Brooks (a Wall Street crook), Don Cheadle (a murdering creep), and Steven Zahn (a bumbling pothead)?  Did I say that Danny Devito helped produce, and Samuel L. Jackson shows up for one scene?  That this might be the most passionate movie of the summer?  Elmore Leonard never had it so good. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Tastes Great, Less Sexist: Pierce Brosnan in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

[Another time-capsule review from my preblogging days]

Some movies have the weight and consistency of cotton candy in a plastic bag that you hope hasn't mildewed for too long. Such could be said for the new Bond flick with its portentous but meaningless title Tomorrow Never Dies. After the sad and ignominous early retirement of Timothy Dalton (I think for lacking some sort of inexpressible Bond flair), Pierce Brosnan's Golden Eye made more money than any other Bond film. Now he's back, awkwardly straddling the line between dated machismo fantasies and present-day political correctness. Thus the head of the British Secret Service is now a grey-haired matriarch M (Dame Judi Dench) who trades gendered barbs with an admiral (He says "Sometimes I don't think you have any balls." She snaps back "At least I don't have to think with them all of the time.")

Also you have a Hong Kong fighter Wai Li (Michelle Yeoh), a valuable loan from the karate world of Jackie Chan. Of course, Bond still beds the occasional gorgeous groupie, but he has to be more sensitive these days. No more "Pussy Galore" as in Goldfinger. His inherent chauvinism must appear light, cavalier, and ironic, and he'd better show off his hairy chest as often as possible.

Brosnan makes a good Bond if only because he knows the Cary Grant principle of less is more in acting. While George Clooney practically rolls over and begs, panting on your leg in his urge to ingratiate, Brosnan simply arches one eyebrow, makes product endorsements for Smirnoff vodka, and moves his impassive chiselled features into a better light. He's very good at looking cool in a suit under fire. While dodging machine gun bullets, he cares more about the way his shirt cuffs peek out from his suit sleeves than about any mortal peril.

The plot of Tomorrow Never Dies combines elements of The Peacemaker (terrorist arms in Russia) with Citizen Kane (media magnate manipulates press). There's got to be a maniacal rich fellow in the mix (Elliot Carver, played by Jonathan Pryce) who seeks world domination, this time through satellites and tabloid newspapers. Bond takes valuable time off from bedding Swedish instructors to battle this brilliant foe.

He gets a fancy BMW, another product endorsement, from doddering but still standing Q ("007, will you ever grow up?"), and enjoys driving it by remote control in a high rise parking lot while sitting in the back seat, looking much like a kid with his new Game Boy. Carver, meanwhile, owns a Stealth boat that looks like a big black paper mache turtle stirring up trouble in the Chinese seas.

As he spies on Carver, Bond keeps running into Wai Lin, a parallel undercover agent for China. They jump off a skyscraper together (clinging to a banner), ride through Saigon on a motorcycle together (she wants to steer), fight the evil warlord together, etc., etc. The Rupert Murdoche-like villain follows key rules of his trade: 1) Never kill Bond outright upon his capture; 2) Always invite him up to the command room and brag until Bond figures out a way to escape; 3) Repeat steps one and two with daunting self-confidence, not matter how many captures, until Bond finds some creative way to grind him up like hamburger.

There are some amazingly clunky scenes in the latter half that reminded me of a 14 wheel semi trying to waltz with a Greyhound bus during rush hour--one involves a helicopter threatening our hero with its perpendicular blades spinning on a busy street in Saigon. Sometimes you can tell during a "tense" action sequence that people went through a lot of trouble to dangle a nuclear missile just so as Bond and some Nazi punch each other over the ticking detonator as the metallic Batman-like set goes up in flames. These moments have all of the spontaneity of a World Wrestling bout.

On the plus side, Michelle Yeoh acquits herself well as a butt-kicking femme. She kicks people in the head with aplomb and you can tell she's thrilled to help destroy expensive sets. She puts on a good fight for womankind, but Bond insists in his patriarchal patronizing way on ultimately saving her and the universe. In its high camp silliness, Tomorrow Never Dies keeps the Bond franchise alive. Beware of empty calories.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Notable film and media links--April 24, 2009--economic hardship edition

---Jenny Miller of Vulture calls attention to a new website created in part by Natalie Portman entitled  MakingOf:

“I always wondered why there isn’t a Web site that encapsulated the experience of visiting a friend on a movie set,” Portman explained. “Our site is supposed to give access to people who don’t have a friend they can visit."

The online venture includes video interviews with Ron Howard, Billy Bob Thornton, and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.

---Lauren Horwitch of The Wrap discusses the recent slowdown in movie production:

"Despite a box office that’s soared 17 percent so far this year, Hollywood’s year-long feature-film production dry spell has turned into a drought, leaving thousands of industry professionals above and below the line scrounging for work.

According to IMDbPro, only 35 films are in production or have filmed in the U.S. since January, an 8.7 percent drop from last year, which was already low because of last year’s writer’s strike.

And the slowdown is bad all over -- from L.A. to recent hotbeds of production activity such as Michigan and Louisiana, which offer enormous production tax incentives."

---Another way for innovative young filmmakers to get by?  Appeal for money on the internet to have your name appear in the credits of a movie.  

---Meanwhile, as Anne Thompson points out for Variety, journalists cope with economic hard times by writing about movie stars and thereby earning mucho internet traffic:

"That's right. The new journalist m.o.: check out the most-searched item of the day. One new website is devoted to that very purpose. Every morning, EPK (not "electronic press kit" but, "Everything Pop Kulture") assigns its (low-paid) writers to report on the searches of the day, insuring heavy traffic. This methodology is widespread across the Web, insuring that what has already been written about today will be repeated, commented upon and enlarged tomorrow."

---Filmmaker David Lowery finds that he can get more work done by using a program entitled Freedom that blocks all internet access on his Apple computer for up to eight hours at a time: 

"I started using it this weekend. It worked! Moreso, within the first few minutes, simply knowing that I couldn't do so much as check my e-mail had a tremendous calming affect on my apparently addled brain. I felt at peace. And, indeed, I got stuff done. I used it for two hours this morning and wrote more than I had all weekend. As soon as I finish this I'm going to turn it back on again."

---The comic and new NBC sitcom star of Parks and Recreation, Aziz Ansari gets interviewed by Vanity Fair (I'm including this because he graduated from the school where I teach).  He also stars in an upcoming film:

"You're in Judd Apatow's upcoming movie Funny People, which is apparently turning into a Cannonball Run for comics. It's got Sarah Silverman and Dave Attell and Norm MacDonald and Andy Dick and Patton Oswalt. When you run into a fellow comic who isn't in the movie, is it awkward and uncomfortable? Do you say things like, `Yeah, that whole thing with Apatow? You didn't miss anything. It was so not a big deal!'"

"I do tape my IMDb page to my shirt whenever I go out, so yes it can be awkward. I really enjoyed doing the film. Those guys you mentioned play themselves, I believe, and I'm playing a character named Randy that is kind of like a terrible comedian with a lot of sex material and jumping/dancing around in his act that comedians hate and audiences love."

---Twitch shares two clips from Jim Jarmusch's upcoming hitman film The Limits of Control (sample photo above).

---T.S. of Screen Savour meditates on Hitchcock's immortal Psycho:

"Psycho proves itself a continual reward because of those essential elements on the part of the director, the right knowledge of where to cut and what to keep. Few directors could work artifice into theme like Hitchcock, but with Psycho he proved he hadn't lost the talent honed on the cheap in England of producing brilliance on a budget. Hitchcock's cinematic language in Psycho is clear and careful. A friend of mine once suggested Citizen Kane is the easiest film to teach because Orson Welles lays out his cinematic language in the most obvious and instructional of ways. I countered with Psycho, which I teach to my creative process class. Because it has a forest's worth of paper devoted to it, few films document the movie-making process and the collaborative nature of the industry better."

---What if world leaders facebooked each other?

---Writing for Film Experience Blog, Dave wonders "Whatever Became of Winona Ryder?"  She does appear in The Informers (release date: May 1).

---Film School Rejects found a hilarious trailer for a soon-to-be classic Hysterical Psycho.

---Mark Penn of The Wall Street Journal traces the rapid growth of bloggers in America, although I imagine most of them are not getting paid much. 

---Lastly, Peter Martin of Cinematical treats us to an innovative new video for The Dark Knight and Matrix freaks entitled Carousel.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Between being a writer and being cool: Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous

The illustrious Ibetolis, of Film for the Soul, has kindly allowed me to write a post concerning Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous as part of his impressive "Counting Down the Zeros" multiple-blogger celebration of all films made in the year 2000. Here's the link

And here's the post:

Although one can criticize Almost Famous for being Frank Capra-esquely sweet, sentimental, and nostalgic, I find it compelling because it concerns a young writer and intellect navigating the decadent excesses of a 1970s rock and roll.  Whereas I think Crowe’s Say Anything (1989) is ultimately the more seamless film, Almost Famous’ hybrid of memoir, romantic comedy, and coming-of-age melodrama is the more memorable, in part because something like it really happened to the 16 year old Cameron Crowe when he suddenly went off to profile the Allman Brothers band on tour in the 1970s. 

The film begins goofily enough with Alvin and the Chipmunks singing “The Chipmunks Song (Alvin Don’t Be Late)” in a disconcertingly warm 1969 Christmas in San Diego.  The opening credits has the camera panning over various objects such as tickets, photos, and tour memorabilia inside a drawer as someone writes the credits in pencil, a variation on the opening credits of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) (another bildungsroman) where the objects are toys in a cigar box and the credits are written with a crayon.  Then we see young William Miller and his mother Elaine (Frances McDormand) walk out of a cinema discussing the movie version of Mockingbird, with Elaine being impressed with his grasp of the movie. Given the consistently winning performances of Almost Famous, it is hard to notice how often Crowe inserts classic film references throughout, including Russell Hammond’s (Billy Crudup) drugged leap into a pool, a nod to the high school pool party scene in It’s a Wonderful Life. Also Penny Lane’s (Kate Hudson) attempted suicide towards the end of the film alludes to Fran’s similar attempt in what is reputedly Crowe’s favorite film—Billy Wilder’s The Apartment.

At any rate, soon after the opening scenes, family drama ensues when William’s sister Anita (the impossibly blue-eyed Zooey Deschanel) sneaks home a Simon and Garfunkel album.  While busting her daughter, Elaine emphasizes how both of the pop artists are into “drugs and promiscuous sex.”  In this way, Crowe sets up the film’s thematic conflict between appreciating classic 1970s rock and resisting the corrupting excesses of its lifestyle.  William grows up some to be a budding rock critic played by Patrick Fugit, and then after meeting up with legendary rock critic Lester Bangs (the excellent Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who ironically proclaims that rock is dead, William manages to finagle a Rolling Stone writing assignment to cover Stillwater (read Allman Brothers) on tour.

While much of the remaining movie concerns William’s gradual immersion into the rock and roll lifestyle of Stillwater (with lead guitarist Hammond often being resented by this band mates, and Penny Lane leading a gang of teenage “band-aids”), I was struck by the many barricades that William has to surmount to gain entry into this magical, creative world.  For one thing, a bouncer refuses William entry to the backstage of the very first concert he tries to attend.  He is repeatedly shut out until the band happens to arrive.  William has to make an impromptu speech showing off his knowledge of the band’s talent and history, and this persuades them to let him in.  For the rest of the movie, even as he enjoys touring with the band, William is repeatedly stuck behind a hotel room door, unable to get his interview with Russell so he can return to his highly annoyed mother in San Diego.  Through it all, William’s status as a Rolling Stone critic, what the bandmates call “the enemy,” gives the viewer a more objective perspective on the tour, saving the film from the usual rock and roll cliches.

And I was impressed with Frances McDormand’s performance as the mother who is smart and verbal enough to consistently “freak out” people she talks to on the phone.  What could easily have become a nagging, conventially hateful authoritarian role becomes, through the writing and McDormand’s talent, oddly sympathetic.  She eventually embodies the conscience of the film, offering a corrective to any temptation on the viewer’s part to idolize the rock star lifestyle.  I imagine it helped when Cameron Crowe’s actual mother showed up on the set of the production and spent some time sharing notes with McDormand. 

And what of newcomer Kate Hudson?  After seeing her in such generic recent fare as Bride Wars, I am surprised by the excess of talent she displays as ready-fantasy-worthy Penny Lane.  In a way, her role is a deliberate construction (stewardess, hippie goddess) designed to appeal to rock stars, but Hudson infuses her performance with an enthusiasm and a emotional dexterity scarcely seen in her work since.  When she learns that Russell traded her and the other band-aids to another band in exchange for fifty dollars and a case of beer, Penny cries for a moment, and then, wiping her eyes, sweetly asks “What kind of beer?” Cameron Crowe said that he only had to keep the cameras rolling to have her gradually unfold multiple sides of her character.  She can be assured, knowing, and extremely vulnerable all within the same scene.

Hudson is so good, she sometimes inadvertently calls attention to Fugit’s weaknesses as an actor.  Late in the movie, when she says “If I ever met a man in the real world who looked at me as you just looked at me,” Fugit can’t live up to the lines of the script.  They demand a camera presence that he simply does not have.  Fugit works best as the wide-eyed witness of the world of the band, sometimes working in the same vein as nearly invisible reporter Jerry Thompson searching for the meaning of “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane, his quest always stymied by circumstance.  Whenever Crowe places the film’s emphasis on William front and center, such in the scene where he loses his virginity to the “band-aids,” what Crowe called a “real squirmer,” I question how well Fugit can handle the attention.  Like the celebrated and central “Tiny Dancer” scene where the band reunites by singing along with that song, Fugit ultimately comes off as bit too naive to be totally convincing. 

I like the film’s switchback twists.  For instance, right after William loses his virginity, he wakes up the next morning to the editor of Rolling Stone remonstrating him for his lack of professionalism.  As he says, “We already have one Hunter S. Thompson.”  Then, the band-aids humiliate William by asking him to take out the laundry.  Soon after, he’s reduced to tears outside of Russell’s hotel door because he still can’t get his interview. By the time the film climaxes with the band’s multiple confessions in a small jet threatened with crashing in an electrical storm, Crowe has brilliantly fleshed out his themes.  Lester Bangs tells William, “Friendship is the booze they [the rock stars] feed you.  They make you feel cool,” but William realizes that he can never be cool.  That is the writer’s peculiar curse, but William can write not only the Rolling Stones cover article, but also the film itself, what Crowe has called a “love letter” to his first forays as a rock critic, and there’s no doubt some consolation in the continuing achievement, charm, and relevance of Almost Famous.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Notable film and media links--April 18, 2009

---How does one become one of the foremost bloggers on the internet?  Writing for Intelligent Life, Johann Hari considers the impressive success of Andrew Sullivan and his blog the Daily Dish:

"Sullivan is regarded by his critics as an attention-deficit bundle of contradictions. He is a conservative Christian who rages against the self-proclaimed forces of conservative Christianity. He is a pioneering crusader for gay marriage savaged by the gay left as `chief faggot', herding homosexuals on behalf of The Patriarchy. He admits: `I’m very uncomfortable with audiences who agree with me… I’ve never really had a place where someone didn’t dispute my right to be there.' So what is the glue that holds together the blogger-king?"

---For The New York Times, Michael Cieply wonders "What's the Skinny on the Heftier Stars?":

"Hollywood’s pool of leading men is getting larger — and not necessarily in a good way.

Based on a close look at trailers, still photos and some films already released, at least a dozen male stars in some of the year’s most prominent movies have been adding on the pounds of late.

In `The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,' a subway heist movie due from Columbia Pictures and MGM in June, Denzel Washington, 54, goes cheek-to-jowl with the bulky John Travolta, 55 — and they are beginning to look like a matched set. Mr. Washington is no longer the lean, mean boxing machine he portrayed in “The Hurricane,” 10 years ago."

---Have you seen Disney plagiarize itself in Boingboing's template video?  It seems very wrong, and yet fascinating because one would never notice it without the exact juxtaposition.  

---Brendon Connolly of /Film replies to the TCM list of the 15 Most Influential Classic Movies with his list of "The Ten Most Influential Films of the Last Ten Years."  Rushmore and The Matrix I can see, but Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and My Big Fat Greek Wedding?

---For The Powerstrip, Jon Lanthier entertainingly shares his "Thoughts on Mamet: House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner":

"Yes, Mamet's a talented guy. He has an ear, a knack, a palate, for rich, testosterone-dripping non-speak -- talking without saying much, or saying the kinds of things that Harold Pinter's characters were probably thinking to themselves during the playwright's signature punctuations of silence. And he's no L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E dramatist, either, a la Sam Beckett or any of the surrealists whose cadences meant far more than their words did (Lorca, etc); he's interested in the visceral sound of garrulousness because it's the sound of manipulation (which is, after all, but one way of perceiving social interaction). But then, I wouldn't want to give the impression that he's a pessimist, or a misanthrope: he admires the manner in which human beings play one another for suckers, it's part of the entertainment, the inherent drama, of life."

---Is it just me, but does Steven Spielberg's hearty second-hand endorsement of Michael Bay's upcoming Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen seem a little . . . dubious?  Spielberg thinks it might be Bay's best film?  Does that mean much, next to, say, Spielberg's canon? I'm just wondering. Although, this teaser clip from Cinematical does tease effectively.

---Claire Cain Miller finds various reasons to justify the existence of Twitter.  To be fair, I have included them here.

---Aspiring filmmakers take heed: the way to Hollywood lies in your willingness to convey "blood, chills, and pulp," not to mention women-in-prison exploitation films.  For Cinematical Seven, Monika Bartyzel explains how seven "Great Directors Started with B Movies."

---We've seen Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  Now, it is time for the zombified version of West Side Story.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Day of the Dog: Bruce Willis and Richard Gere in The Jackal (1997)

[In November of 1997, Universal released The Jackal. The Film Doctor was there.]

What's slow as molasses, stars Bruce Willis and Richard Gere, and should be on TV? This week's The Jackal. For a movie that takes itself ponderously seriously, I found myself giggling early on when a Russian mafia kingpin casually tomahawks one of his underlings in the head during a meeting and then proclaims "Gentlemen, I loved this man like a brother, but he failed me. Now imagine how I treat my enemy!" Anyway, this Russian honcho then hires the mysterious multi-identitied Bruce Willis to go out and kill someone major in America, and he'd better bloody well take his time too, for we still have two hours of movie to go.

So, Bruce steals a Canadian passport from some drunken schlep in the Helsinki airport, flies to Montreal, and, changing his hair style from scene to scene, he gradually puts together a fancy Gatling-or-something gun fully intended to wow people in the audience who get impressed by large ballistic gadgetry.

Meanwhile, back in the states, some Russian good guys, including a woman I'll call Major Slobotski (Diane Venore) with a fake burn scar on her face to signify B-movie toughness, team up with some FBI people, including a sadly wasted Sidney Poitier, to go after this jackal fellow. Since no one knows what he looks like, they go visit Richard Gere, who plays an Irish IRA man in prison, and he negotiates with them for awhile in the prison yard until Poitier agrees to let him tag along in the investigation.
The rest of the movie slides glacier-like toward a big deal political assassination scene straight out of The Manchurian Candidate.

To be fair, both Bruce Willis and Richard Gere acquit themselves pretty well given the rest of the film's resemblance to a Jackie Chan movie minus the karate action sequences (probably most of the budget went to cover the two stars' salaries). There's a lot of cutting to new locations where you can read where you are on the bottom of the screen in block letters for your idle amusement: Moscow, Chicago, Helsinki Airport, etc. Bruce looks very cool in most of his disguises, at one point looking eerily like Alan Dershowitz. Richard Gere fakes his Irish accent better than Brad Pitt did in The Devil's Own. Gere can look downright pixieish at times, surprising me by actually acting.

There are some set scenes that engage your attention in much the same way watching ants attack each other might--a hoodlum foams at the mouth and falls twitching to the ground after touching some poison cleverly planted by the jackal on the back of his mini-van, another man gets to run and scream and pant through the Canadian woods before getting shot into little pieces for Bruce's target practice. FBI agents fly in helicopters, in Air Force One-like jets (very posh), and in a totally superfluous large Marine carrier helicopter to help save the day.

It turns out that Bruce and Richard are mortal enemies ever since Bruce killed off Richard's unborn child, and so when they see each other for the first time on a boat dock in Chicago, slow motion footage and religious choir music kicks in, of all things, sending this already The Rock-like portentous hooey up into the ranks of spaghetti western opera.

In the movie seems like a Mannix episode, you could blame the fact that the filmmakers James Jacks and Sean Daniel adapted this idea from the 1973 thriller The Day of the Jackal (which I haven't seen but most undoubtably does not deserve this sort of half-amped living dead resurrection). The director Michael Caton-Jones approaches his material with the leisure of a Scheherazade delaying her execution by telling 1001 tales of Arabian nights.

To subject a "thriller" to this kind of Chinese water torture editing method left me bored and drained, but still giggling.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Notable film and media links--April 12, 2009--special Easter edition

---The AV Club's thoughtful interview with Adventureland director Greg Mottola:

"One night I was getting drunk with the writers from Undeclared and we were swapping worst-job-ever stories, and I talked about the summer of 1985, when I worked at an amusement park on Long Island, the kind of place where someone would pull a knife on you if they wanted a better prize than you were giving them. You found a lot of used needles beside the cotton-candy cart at the end of the night. It was a pretty white-trash, scary place. It was one in a series of terrible jobs I’ve had, coming from not much money and having no particularly resourceful skills. And at one point one of my friends, a writer on the show, Jenny Konner, said, “`You should write about that.' I’d already started outlining the young-love story, and I thought, `Well, that kind of fits.' So I melded them together."

---The Playlist shares a poster and new information about Donnie Darko-director Richard Kelly's upcoming movie The Box.  They also provide a link to Kelly's Myspace blog where he writes that "This is my most personal film to date, and I'm very proud of how it turned out."  

---Writing for The Guardian, David Thomson begs to differ on "the optimistic conclusion that the one good thing about this new depression (Our Depression, they call it) is that the phenomenon of people going back to the movies will lead to new and magical set of films like those made for the 1930s."

---Anne Thompson keeps us up to date on Gerald Peary's documentary For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism:

"It's hard not to feel sad at the end of this movie, about a world that no longer exists, a profession that seems to be dying in front of our eyes. Spoutblog's Karina Longworth speaks for the younger generation plying the craft online, but the old culture of literate lengthy debates when movies seemed to really mean something are long gone. `It's a stop the bleeding movie,' says Peary. `I hope that those who watch the movie value criticism and will read it and demand it in their newspapers. It's tough though. There are so many factors. What's the effect on people who Twitter all day? That's not good for film criticism.'"

---It's a pleasure to see Roger Ebert take on Bill O'Reilly in this open letter:

"Dear Bill: Thanks for including the Chicago Sun-Times on your exclusive list of newspapers on your "Hall of Shame." To be in an O'Reilly Hall of Fame would be a cruel blow to any newspaper. It would place us in the favor of a man who turns red and starts screaming when anyone disagrees with him. My grade-school teacher, wise Sister Nathan, would have called in your parents and recommended counseling with Father Hogben."

---For Victim of the Time, Dave considers Christina Ricci's career problems (tip of the hat to Nathaniel R of Film Experience Blog:

"She seems to have two 'personas' that the industry, at least, views her as being interesting as: the dangerously sexual, manipulative young woman, or the horrifying, pale-faced 'other'. Her bug-eyes may remind of Bette Davis but do parts like those Bette played even exist any more? Is there room for an 'unconventional' beauty in Hollywood today? Ricci is too small to be intimidating, seemingly too oddball for the mainstream. And yet that seems to be what she's continuing to chase. She may have thrown a more challenging part like Black Snake Moan in there, but that's the exception rather than the rule. Her career, ultimately, seems to be less chasing mainstream success than really having no idea what to do with herself."

---Lev Grossman of Time shows how "the lowly zombie is making its move" in "Zombies are the New Vampires."  Who cares about vampires?  Zombies reflect the new zeitgeist.

---For reasononline, Michael Moynihan coolly takes apart The New Yorker film critic David Denby's new book Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation:

"Denby wants things as they once were, when American culture was effectively a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie; when the Ivy League guardians of `our conversation'ruthlessly protected it from contamination by the jealous and uncouth.`“Whatever its miseries, the country in the thirties and forties was at peace with itself spiritually: We were all in the same boat,' he argues. Today we have `income inequalities and Rovian tactics that exacerbate ethnic and class differences'; then we merely had Nazism and the Depression.

It seems unnecessary to observe that in the 1930s, when unemployment was in double digits and Father Coughlin commanded a rather large radio audience, both poverty and dirty politics were not entirely uncommon. And long before the Internet existed, such lurid and sleazy magazines as Police Gazette, Confidential, and Broadway Brevities sold millions of copies a week.

It’s just that the readers couldn’t get at you."

---In the kind of blog post that puts everyone else to shame, House of Mirth and Movies compiles "The Unofficial Female Film Canon."  Here's a sample:

"Pandora’s Box (G.W. Pabst, 1929)

Men find Lulu irresistible, and she can’t help giving in. Unfortunately all the men she has romantic liaisons with meet an untimely demise. It’s never really her fault, and she can’t help it. It’s all in her nature, she’s a force to be reckoned with although she has no express desire to destroy. The film never suggests she’s evil, and in many ways it’s the men around her who are dumb, cruel and they bring their own doom. They treat her badly, and have made her what she is. Lulu is throughout the film a heroine, and the camera loves her like a goddess or a saint. Lulu is a young and beautiful woman who falls under the influence of powerful men, or more aptly… they fall under her spell. She has a huge control over their lives, though her naivety seems to suggest that she is unaware or passive to her manipulative quality and passion. Like Diary of a Lost Girl, Pabst shows how society demonizes and victimizes women. The film’s title referring to the Grecian myth of Pandora, the woman who unleashed all the evils of onto the world, is mostly ironic, a twist on common conceptions about gender identity and culpability. An interesting note is that the film also features what is commonly believed as the screen’s first lesbian character, and like Lulu, she is seen in a light of adoration as opposed to cruel condemnation. It’s interesting that a film decades before the sexual revolution and the rise of feminism, offers such an enlightened view on women and non-traditional sexuality (both same sex relationships, casual sex and even prostitution)."

---Lastly, I enjoyed this video clip "Michael Bay Eating a Bowl of Cereal" (with thanks to The House Next Door).

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Dead man driving: 9 notes on the imponderable profundities of Fast & Furious

1) I do not pretend to understand the subtleties of Fast & Furious, the fourth installment of the muscle car series that began back in 2001 with The Fast and the Furious. I do get the feeling that after Babylon AD (2008) (a clunky Children of Men ripoff that I found endearing), Vin Diesel decided it was time to reboot his career by returning to the source. Meanwhile, Paul Walker must have decided that going straight to DVD in such films as The Death and Life of Bobby Z (2007) was not his idea of a good time either. So, even though both Vin and Paul were too superior to star in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), now they are happy to embrace their long lost franchise to save their careers.

2) Still, I found the newest Fast & Furious difficult to follow, so I will turn to the ever-reliable April 6 edition of The New Yorker to summarize it for me: "Vin Diesel and Paul Walker star in this action sequel, as a fugitive and a police officer who unite to fight a common enemy."

3) What's the deal with Mr. Diesel anyway? Writing for The Cooler, Jason Bellamy points out "I got a good laugh this week from a piece on Yahoo reporting that `Vin Diesel' isn’t Vin Diesel’s real name. As if it wasn’t obvious. From the first time I saw Diesel a little over 10 years ago in a Dateline special that showcased his efforts (and also Darren Aronofsky’s with Pi) to break out from obscurity at Sundance, he’s annoyed me with his oversized ego. You know, the kind of ego that would lead a guy named Mark Vincent to tell his friends to start calling him Vin Diesel." So, his real name is Mark Sinclair Vincent. Vincent comes from "Vincentius," meaning "conquering," which makes perfect sense. I was beginning to wonder if the name Vin Diesel was supposed to suggest some gaseous flavor of wine.

4) At any rate, Vin Diesel's acting reminds me of Sylvester Stallone's. Both men look most convincing when they steadfastly face down adversity with a blank but determined expression. In the beginning of F&F, Diesel faces a flaming gas tanker detached from a semi and rolling towards him and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) as they wait in a muscle car on the edge of a cliff (why the flaming tank of gas hasn't already exploded I wouldn't hazard to know). They are trapped, facing certain doom, and yet I couldn't help but wonder at Diesel's bored, heavy-lidded expression. He's not fazed. Representing as he does the ultimate in construction-boot-and-wife-beater-wearing-working-class-hero version of masculinity, he's not worried at all, because he can time his muscle car to race underneath the tank just when it bounces just high enough for them to slide underneath, and so all is saved.

5) Another sign of Diesel's (or I should say Dominic Toretto's) mythical machismo: he can road whisper. Whereas a few talented men can horse whisper, somehow communicating with horses and healing them, etc., Dominic can walk out on to a road at night and feel the accident (with several dramatic flashbacks) that killed off Letty early on in the film. Just by looking at the streaks of rubber and by dipping his finger in some green gunk, Dom can figure out the exact garage in LA that carries the nitromethane of the evil drug-dealer henchman who killed his fair Letty. The man can not only race and crash his muscle car into villains, he can summon semblances of car crashes past.

6) And when others attend Letty's funeral, how does Dom appear? He stands in front of an oil pump in the distance, so (I guess) the audience can associate him with powerful pumping action, and so Brian O'Connor can feel his presence. When Brian looks up, Dom has vanished in his mythical fashion.

7) Diesel also has lots of great lines. At one point, he brags about how, if apprehended by the US police, he will do lots of time in prison: "I do real time. I don't stop." I'm not sure what he means here, but his best line came when the attractive Gisele Harabo (Gal Gadot) of the evil Braga druglord asked him if he was as interested in women as he clearly was in cars. Dom replies, "I'm one of those boys who appreciate a fine body regardless of the make." That's good. Given all of the car-fetishizing going on, I was beginning to wonder. Also, in one affecting scene when Dom is about to leave LA and face almost certain death, Dom's sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) asks "How do you say goodbye to your only brother?" Dom replies succinctly with "You don't." Lastly, when Dom looks upon the evil druglord-owned Mexican village in the distance, someone says "Going there is suicide," whereupon Dom answers with "I have no choice."

8) And what about Paul Walker as FBI agent Brian O'Conner? He defines rogue cop intensity. In his first scene, Brian chases some goon across the rooftops of LA in proper Vertigo fashion. Then, once the gangbanger steps out of an apartment window onto a small rooftop about three stories up, Brian jumps through a window on top of the guy, thereby plummeting both of them to land on a roof of a car down below. When Brian returns to FBI headquarters, the Chief points out that "Complaints have been rolling in" due to Brian's mad chase tactics, but nevermind. Brian is the sort of cop who smashes a co-worker's face against a brick wall when they get into an argument. Dom's sister sums up O'Conner's complexities by asking him if he ever feels like he's "the bad guy pretending to be the good guy?" O'Conner replies, "Every day."

9) At any rate, there's much skullduggery as O'Connor and Dom race cars back and forth under a batcave-esque tunnel under a mountain range along the US-Mexican border. At one point about five muscle cars race inside that tunnel, and all I could think was--shouldn't they not tailgate each other so much, especially at night, in a tiny little tunnel, as they drive at speeds over 150 miles per hour? That kind of fast & furious driving can be dangerous.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Blood, Guns, and Chiclets: John Woo's Face/Off (1997)

[Now that John Woo's "next" film 1949 was recently cancelled (an increasingly typical problem, according to Twitch), we can return to 1997, when the Film Doctor considered Face/Off in this of-the-period review.]

John Woo, the director of Broken Arrow, is known for his graceful action sequences.  I would call it balletic violence.  You walk away from Face/Off with images of men flying in the air, either to the side to evade fire, or jumping off of oil rigs in their bare feet, or propelled by a jet engine into a wind tunnel, or blown from an exploding speed boat onto the beach.

Woo's action scenes are frequently frictionless and oddly lyrical.  We witness a violent FBI takeover of a criminal's lair from the perspective of a child wearing headphones and listening to "Over the Rainbow."  With the gunfire and screams of death agony muted and the music swelling, Woo attains operatic effects reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet hardwired to the hyperviolence of Pulp Fiction.  Watch the men fall through roof windows amidst a spray of broken glass, watch the gunfire light up like fireworks against the metal machinery behind them.  It's aestheticized gore.  Later we even see bullets fly out of the guns in slow motion as villain and copper alike twirl to shoot everyone in the room simultaneously.

This would be enough, but amazingly, given this summer's track record, Face/Off has a coherent screenplay!  The arch-villain Caster Troy, played with relish by angular-faced Nicolas Cage, trades faces with the revenge-obsessed-FBI-agent Sean Archer, played by the more cuddly John Travolta.

We first see Caster sniper shoot Archer's infant son on a merry-go-round in his attempt to assassinate his arch-nemesis, and then the film cuts to nine years later, with Archer trying his darndest to bring terrorist Troy to justice by playing chicken with a jet.  For his few minutes of villainry, Cage is delightful.  He wears one of those long cattle-ranch coats one sees in J Peterman catalogs, cowboy boots, and two fancy gold-plated pistols in a back-holster.  His evil minions routinely hand him a kind of black communion box full of Chiclets, joints, assorted pills, and a thick wad of cash.  Troy is an old spaghetti western kind of villain with a modernized appetite for drug-addled killing, molesting, and eventually blowing up LA. 

But then he gets thrown into a coma by a jet engine, and Archer, the impulsive FBI guy who made me think of Waco, stupidly agrees to have Troy's face surgically replace his just so he can go to a high security jail and learn the location of the bomb that's going to blow up LA.  Then, Caster unexpectedly wakes up from his coma without a face (yuck) and forces the surgeon to put Travolta's face on him, thus taking over the FBI man's identity.

This identity-switching treats the audience to two good actors abruptly shifting roles in mid-movie.  Suddenly, Travolta laughts it up as the bad guy with a very handy FBI job and a new wife and teenage daughter, and Cage lies cursing his bad luck in a high tech prison, much as he does in Con Air.  We see both men assume their new roles gradually, with some awkward moments.  Travolta drives right past his wife and home.  Oops!  Cage takes awhile to wake up to the demonic pleasure of a prison riot.

In the end, the action formula of violent climax leading to a final chase scene still holds, but Woo just does a better job dazzling us with the possibilities within the convention.  We see Cage and Travolta face off towards the end, guns pointing at each other, and then four other people pull out guns, all of them facing every which way, until Travolta laughs and says "What a predicament!"  He comments, as it were, on Wood delightfully exaggerating the action cliche.

Soon after, the speed boat sequence accomplishes in 10 minutes what Speed 2 could not achieve in 2 hours.  The entire movie has a well-dressed, gun-metallic, professional sheen.  If you can stomach the sometimes gratuitous blood and gore, I think Face/Off will prove the best action film of the summer. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Notable film and media links--April 7, 2009

---I've been working on my Portrait of the Artist as a Young Zombie for weeks now, but until that gets published, you can read about the brilliant gestation of Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies here.  As he says,

"It was strange. It's almost as if Jane Austen was subconsciously setting this up for us. You have this sharp-tongued, fiercely independent heroine. It's not a huge leap to say she's a sharp-daggered, fiercely independent heroine. And then you have Darcy, on the other side, who's a pompous and privileged guy. And you say, all right, he's a pompous and privileged slayer. And that's how they battle it out with each other.

But then you have little details everywhere, like the fact that there are soldiers encamped near Meryton in the original book, for seemingly no reason whatsoever. I mean, there's just this huge regiment of soldiers there, and the obvious thing to do in this case is to say that, well, they're there digging up graves and burning bodies and fighting the unmentionable menace."

---Perhaps the secret of Nicolas Cage's curious longevity as a film star can all be attributed to his hair styles

---I like Tom Carson's troubled take on Disney's Pinocchio:

"Not much less startling to someone who hadn't seen the damn thing in decades is just how graphically the Pleasure Island crew's metamorphosis into jackasses—those upthrusting donkey ears, those tails bursting through clothes—turns the onset of puberty into an adventure in terror. But that's still poetry compared to all the stray bits of lewdness stuck in for the adult audience's benefit. Among the weirder gags in a picture not short on them is the seductive girl fish who looks on encouragingly as Jiminy Cricket tries to ballast himself underwater, sticking a rock in his hat before, sheepishly explaining "I put it in the wrong end," he finds the right place: his pants."

---So what makes excellent film criticism?  Check out Matt Zoller Seitz's series on Wes Anderson entitled "The Substance of Style":

"Anderson’s scavenger-hunt aesthetic stands him in good company, alongside Quentin Tarantino, David Gordon Green, James Gray, and the other Anderson, P.T. But what makes Wes Anderson distinctive is the sheer range of art that has fed his imagination—not just recent American and foreign films, but films from 30, 50, even 70 years ago, plus newspaper comics, illustrations, and fiction. The spectrum of influence gives his work a diversity of tone that his imitators typically lack. It is a style of substance. "

---Meanwhile, Lauren Streib, writing for Forbes, points out that journalism schools are booming as journalists working for actual newspapers are getting fired in record quantities.  Do all of those new journalism majors know something that we don't?

---I like Jim Jarmuch's 5 rules for directors, as quoted in Row Three:

"1) There are no rules.

2) Don't let the fuckers get ya.

3) The production is there to serve the film.

4) Filmmaking is a collaborative process.

5) Nothing is original."

---Stefan Kanfer contributes a taste of his Marlon Brando biography for Film in Focus:

"As rehearsals for The Godfather began, Brando's co-workers gave him a wide berth. Pacino could barely articulate his feelings: `Have you any idea what it is for me to be doing a scene with him? I sat in theatres when I was a kid just watching him. Now I’m playing a scene with him. He’s God, man.'

Watching the cast behave with such gingerly respect, the producer Albert Ruddy remarked that `in a sense Marlon had created these guys,' and Mario Puzo concurred: `Marlon was the one guy with whom they all wanted to act, and here was their chance.' They remained stiff and unnatural around their favourite until he began cracking jokes and making faces and `unfroze them. No attitude, no superiority. He was a superstar, all right, but from that point on he was first among equals.'"

---So what is the coolest new Japanese anime series that combines Donnie Darko with Iraq?  Movie City Indie suggests it is CatShitOne.  

---Lastly, thanks to Cine-O-Rama, Flickhead, and Screen Savour for accepting my challenge to choose their 10 favorite film characters.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

9 things I liked about Adventureland

1) With all of the muscle cars parked in front of the cineplex, everyone else was going to see Fast and Furious last Friday.  Those watching Adventureland comprised a total of six.  With all of the testosterone conveniently elsewhere, we felt lucky.

2) With no vampires in sight, Kristen Stewart holds her own as the self-loathing, sleepy-eyed Em, co-worker with graduate James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) in the games section of the cheesy amusement park Adventureland, set in Pittsburgh in 1987. 

3) Few movies evoke a period as skillfully as Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused, but Adventureland comes close (Fandango, American Graffiti and Fast Times at Ridgemont High also come to mind). All of the period details of Adventureland ring true: the prevalence of marijuana, the ghastly Foreigner cover band, the mother reading Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, the Buzzcocks poster on the wall, and the endless minor degradations of spending one's summer in one's hometown (where's one's former best friend from the fourth grade greets you by punching you in the crotch).  James has already moved on from this world since he's been accepted to Columbia University grad school, but he's forced by financial necessity to slum around, sneaking beers and cleaning up vomit in the games booth. Even in comparison to the theatrics of Greg Mottola's previous film Superbad, Adventureland is singularly leisurely in its rhythms.  It feels like the most uncommercial of post-adolescent angst comedies.   

4) As Joel, the mordant co-worker who plans on using his interest in Russian Literature and Slavic languages to eventually get a job as a taxi driver some day, Martin Starr channels DeeDee Ramone and one of the Hanson brothers in Slapshot.  I have known people exactly like him, eager to bitterly acknowledge the  full crappiness of the world where they "are doing the work of pathetic lazy morons." Even when someone throws a corndog at his head, he steals every scene he's in.  

5) Although writer/director Mottola flirts with mocking the adults The Graduate-style, he never fully gives in to the temptation.  Adventureland has lead characters too close to maturity themselves to fully want to ridicule the authority figures.  When James has the opportunity to narc on his father for carrying a bottle of liquor in his car, he refrains. I was especially struck by how even the amusement park managers, Bobby and Paulette (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig), become semi-sympathetic as the film goes on.  Immersed every day amongst litterers, cheats (but then again the park cheats too), bullies, and vomiters, they often see the worst of humanity, but Bobby defends James with a baseball bat ("Give me a reason!  Give me a reason!  You don't know what I'm capable of!") when some goon threatens to beat James up.  Then Bobby coolly returns to discussing park business with Paulette. When James loses a "giant-ass panda" to some sneaky yokels, Bobby doesn't fire James even though he was supposed to.

6) Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus" makes for the perfect song to drive you insane through repetition.

7) As the fun-loving seductress, Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva) tries to lure James away from Em, and she has many of the guys in the park mooning over her physical charms, but there's one scene where she fully shows James how cruel she can be. She starts up an evil rumor about Em that quickly spreads throughout the park. When James confront Lisa about it, she replies by continuing to dance with ghastly, impersonal robotic efficiency on the edge of the carnival ride, as James walks away, disgusted.   It's a striking shot of a girl determined to be an alluring amusement no matter what.

8) Adventureland includes multiple songs by Lou Reed.

9) More than once, I had to work in a wood stove stand in an Ohio county amusement park every day for over a week.  The experience struck me as creepy and surreal, because once you have had your fill of "fun," then the park rapidly becomes something forced, garish, repetitive, and bizarre.  In this context, a place designed for cheap entertainment can become alienating and depressing quickly.  Even though the film ends happily, I give Greg Mottola credit for capturing that sensation in the course of Adventureland.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Film Doctor's top 10 favorite characters

Having been tagged by Jason Bellamy of The Cooler and Kevin J. Olson of Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies, the Film Doctor pieced together some favorites, thereby betraying his preference for femme fatales, cyborgs, and sociopaths. Here they are in descending order:

10) The Terminator (but only in the first film). I like his singularly focused drive.

9) Susan (Madonna) in Desperately Seeking Susan. How I always liked to picture Madonna.

8) Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) in La Grand Illusion. Aristocratic cool personified.

7) Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) in Philadelphia Story. Another snotty, witty character. I like her high-pitched fake laugh.

6) Elaine Miller (Frances McDormand) in Almost Famous: [in the middle of a class lecture] "Rock stars have kidnapped my son!"

5) Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) in Out of the Past: for his transcendent sleepiness.

4) Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) in White Heat: the definitive gangster sociopath.

3) Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) in Bull Durham: "I believe in the Church of Baseball. I've tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I've worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn't work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology."

2) Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando) in Streetcar Named Desire: "When we first met, me and you, you thought I was common. How right you was, baby. I was common as dirt. You showed me the snapshots of the place with the columns. I pulled you down off them columns and how you loved it."

1) My all-time favorite character: Bridget Gregory (Linda Fiorentino) in The Last Seduction. As Mike Swale tells her in a phone message: "I love you--I'm sure you feel the same way--I'm sure you love you too."


Lastly, I tag Screen Savour, Wonders in the Dark, Flickhead, Cinema-o-rama, and Andrew of Gateway Cinephiles if they feel like it, or anyone reading this post.