Monday, August 31, 2009

TUESDAY TOP 10: Best Performances of the 90s

The nineties was one of the most important, consistently great decades in film history, finding its place right behind the decade of the seventies. Every once in a while throughout the nineties the Academy Awards got it right, but there was the occasion, as usual, where the Award went the wrong direction:

10) Samuel L. Jackson, Pulp Fiction (1994) – Quentin Tarantino’s game changing film that took the world by storm in 1994 was quickly labeled as John Travolta’s return from the acting abyss. But it was also a coming out party for Sam Jackson, a character actor up until then whose explosive, wild-eyed, theological hit man Jules Winfield was the heart and soul of the film. Aside form his ferocious bible scripture recitals, his short fuse, and his tendency to wax philosophical and subsequently confuse Vincent (Travolta), Jules’ cool seventies look and attitude was a hint at what was to come from Tarantino.

9) Joe Pesci, Goodfellas (1990) – Much like Jules Winfield, Pesci’s performance as Tommy DeVito in Martin Scorsese’s gangster masterpiece was a fireball who lit up the screen whenever he was involved. However, unlike Jules Winfield’s tendency to ratchet down his ferocity, Tommy’s psychological makeup was nothing of that sort. In fact, every time Pesci’s character is on screen, there is an undercurrent of tension, of fear that he will explode at any moment. This unpredictability from Pesci’s performance is what made it so completely pivotal and the most important role in the picture.

8) Elisabeth Shue, Leaving Las Vegas (1995) – Everyone remembers Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas (more on him later), but what is often overlooked is the very important, very heartbreaking, extremely tough performance from Elisabeth Shue. Shue plays Sera, the damaged, aimless prostitute who falls in love with Cage’s doomed alcoholic Ben. The relationship these two characters develop is vital for such a difficult film, and credit goes perhaps more to Shue for making this aspect of the film work. Not to mention the numerous difficult lines and scenes she has to endure. Sure, eventul winner Susan Sarandon was great in Dead Man Walking, but not better than Shue.

7) Frances McDormand, Fargo (1996) – McDormand plays Marge, a pregnant police chief in North Dakota who uncovers a seedy kidnapping plot in the Coen Brothers’ best, most intriguing genre mash up of crime-drama and quirk. Donning that cheeky Northern accent could have been easy to play for parody, but beneath all of the comedy and charm McDormand brings to the role, she makes us believe there is a real person, a real wife, and real police officer, underneath all that clothing and that cheesy grin. A perfect mix of humor and pathos.

6) Hilary Swank, Boys Don’t Cry (1999) – As the sexually confused young woman at the center of Kimberly Peirce’s unsettling drama, Swank shed all of her looks to embody a woman playing a man to gain the affection and attention she could never figure out how to get as a young woman. And at the same time, she made everyone forget she was in The Next Karate Kid. Aside from truly pulling off the look, Swank was able to get into the head of Brandon Teena and understand the confusion a girl like her must have been going through.

5) Edward Norton, American History X (1998) –
This is clearly one of the times the Academy missed the mark. In no way is the annoying, forgotten Roberto Benigni’s performance in the absurd holocaust film Life is Beautiful even in the same realm of greatness as Norton’s performance. As Derek Vinyard, the angry skinhead at the center of American History X, Norton transformed his body and his usually subtle acting into something revelatory. Not only is Norton’s Derek a muscle-bound skinhead with a jarring Nazi Swastika tattooed across his chest, but he is an angry man with a purpose behind his transformation, making his heartbreaking storyline all the more believable.

4) Ralph Feinnes, Schindler’s List, (1993) – Feinnes’ turn as the dastardly, cold-blooded Nazi Amon Goeth must have been a hard role to accept, but he embodies the pure evil and hatred of the entire National Socialist party with his leering eyes and his cold delivery. Sure, Tommy Lee Jones was solid in The Fugitive, but Feinnes was simply unforgettable as the antagonist in Spielberg’s magnum opus.

3) Tom Hanks, Philadelphia (1993) – In what was perhaps the most daring performance of the nineties, Hanks portrayed AIDS stricken Andrew Beckett, a wrongly-fired attorney who fights for his rights while singlehandedly putting a national face on the AIDS virus. Aside from the social impact Hanks’ brave performance had on the country, it was the levelness of Hanks’ acting that made even the most calloused viewer empathize with Beckett’s plight. Hanks’ job in Forrest Gump is obviously the more popular of his two Oscar winning roles, but it is here where Hanks began his run as one of the best actors of the decade, and his acting in Philadelphia is simply amazing.

2) Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs (1992) – It is clear that Anthony Hopkins’ turn as the psychological villain Hannibal Lecter is one of the more important in film history for a few reasons. First, it spawned numerous crappy sequels looking to capitalize on his first portrayal as the maniacal genius. Second, seemingly every great villain in the last eighteen years is compared to Hopkins’ turn as Lecter. Even a few years ago, Javier Bardem’s Chigurgh in No Country for Old Men was labeled “the best villain since Hannibal Lecter.” He may have been the best since Hopkins, but he was not better. Nobody has ever been better.

1) Nicolas Cage, Leaving Las Vegas (1995) – It’s amazing that once upon a time, Nicolas Cage could harness his abilities as an actor into something as stunning as his character Ben in Leaving Las Vegas. As an alcoholic who travels to Las Vegas to drink himself to death and unexpectedly steals the heart of prostitute Sera (Shue), Nicolas Cage goes beyond acting into another realm of pathos. Sure, there have been alcoholics in film, but none as fully involving and fully realized as Cage’s character. His ability to physically become the alcoholic, to appear as deteriorated as a person in his state may be, and to simultaneously create laughter in such a heartbreaking picture is the finest job by an actor of the decade, and perhaps in the last fourteen years.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, the psychological thriller starring Leonardo Dicaprio that has hooked audiences from the debut of the trailer about a month ago, is not immune to Studio heads focusing on the bottom line. Moved back from it’s scheduled opening of October 2 to some time in February of next year, Shutter Island is the most recent hotly anticipated film to be delayed. Last year, John Hillcoat’s interpretation of the Cormac McCarthy novel, The Road, was moved to this fall, and a few months ago Universal announced it would be moving the highly anticipated adaptation of The Wolfman back to February of next year as well.

The Road, as has been noted, was simply not finished in time. Hillcoat wanted to work on the look of the post-apocalyptic world to make it fit his vision. Understandable. The Wolfman, on the other hand, is one of those movies that come along from time to time with bad luck swirling all around it from the get go. This sort of news, perpetually bad news that is, usually means that the film isn’t that good, but I am holding out hope after watching the trailer. But Shutter Island is a whole new twist to this disturbing trend.

This is Martin Scorsese we’re talking about here. Hey, Paramount, in case you forgot, the last film Scorsese directed was a little film called The Departed that brought home four Academy Awards including his first Best Director and Best Picture statues. If this is a case of worrying about marketing funds, then you have missed the entire point of hiring Martin Scorsese to direct. A Scorsese picture markets itself. To be honest, other than running a few TV spots for Shutter Island, if this movie were to open TOMORROW with Scorsese’s name atop the title, it would cover its budget and then some.

People have been waiting – at least I have – for Martin Scorsese’s next film since the end of 2006, and dumping it in February is a slap in the face to his fans. And I can’t believe that Scorsese is too excited about rolling out what appears to be an entirely different sort of film for him in the second month of 2010 along with surefire turds like Robert Pattinson’s Remember Me and bland thrillers with stupid titles like The Crazies. February is for pictures in which you have no confidence, or pictures that you had no reason to be confident in in the first place. February is not a place for Martin Scorsese; it never has been.

Don’t tell me how financially strapped you are, Paramount. Maybe you shouldn’t have released this wet blanket comedy The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard, that nobody has seen. Or maybe you should have axed the umpteenth Wayans Brothers’ disastrously un-funny spoof, Dance Flick. Or you could have trimmed back on the marketing for Transformers 2, that piece of shit that would have made a trillion dollars regardless of the marketing campaign. Maybe if you would have done some of these things, then you wouldn’t be talking to me like a loser deadbeat who can’t afford rent but buys cartons of cigarettes at every turn.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Inglourious Basterds


Inglourious Basterds: Brad Pitt, Eli Roth, Christoph Waltz, Melanie Laurent (153 min)

Quentin Tarantino knows how to shock an audience. He also knows how to flip a well-studied genre on its ear, as he has done so many times in the past. With Inglourious Basterds, his zany, sensationalist, fictionalized re-writing of World War II, Tarantino has stepped up his game and made his best film since Pulp Fiction. Not that the Kill Bill films weren’t excellent; they were. But Inglourious Basterds is something totally out of left field, even for Tarantino, and the result is a film I need to see again before I can truly break down what I have seen. But I will try.

You all know the basic premise of the story: a group of Jewish-American soldiers is dropped into Nazi occupied France where they ambush and brutally murder Nazi soldiers to send a message to the Third Reich, who has become increasingly frustrated with these “Basterds” early on. The special unit is led by Lt. Aldo Raine, a Tennessee-twanged Brad Pitt whose speech is at first jarring, then grows endearing as the story continues. A mustachioed Pitt snarls, curves his accent, and juts out his jaw almost to the point of parody, and his scenery chewing is some of the liveliest acting of his career.

The Basterds are an obvious comparison to the Lee Marvin-led Dirty Dozen, and they include Office scribe B.J. Novak and, most importantly, Hostel director and Tarantino friend Eli Roth as “The Bear Jew,” a yankee Jew who relishes in bashing Nazi’s heads into mush with a Louisville Slugger. It is clear that Roth enjoys looking and acting like a man possessed.

The Basterds plight is only a portion of the narrative, as the other half revolves around an elaborate set up at a movie theater where the heads of the Nazi Party will attend the premiere of a propaganda film. The head of the theater is one Shosanna Dreyfus (the sublimely enticing Melanie Laurent), a woman who, three years prior, escaped the massacre of her family at the hands of the stories central villain, S.S. Colonel Alda. Christoph Waltz plays Alda with a devilish sleekness in a performance so impactful and memorable that he should move up the short list for Supporting Actor nominees. As you can imagine, Shoshanna has revenge on her mind, but the Allies also get wind of this premiere and have their own plan to end the War.

As in every Tarantino flick, the dialogue takes center stage, no matter how violent or action heavy the story may be. Inglourious Basterds is not heavy on action, and the blood spattered opera of Kill Bill isn't simply refurbished and dropped into another era, but the violence is so jarring and so completely shocking that the steady violence of Kill Bill seems minor. It’s violence that you have to shield your eyes from, but not too much because you will miss it. That is one of the aspects of Tarantino that makes him such a polarizing genius. The other, as I mentioned, is the dialogue.

Tarantino has a knack, like no other writer/director (maybe P.T. Anderson) for making every character in his stories count. No matter how small the part, every character has an impact in the story. And his cleverness as a writer never overpowers his storytelling. All of the asides and the analogous conversations have meaning and enrich the plot. And something I didn’t expect here was the humor, as he has somehow managed to make some excellent comedy come out of a World War II story without being ridiculous. Tarantino doesn’t write like people talk, but he writes in a cinematic way, the way people in classic films talk, and his genre mash up is a perfect venue for complex conversations.

From the opening frame, all the way to the gruesome final moments, I was enthralled. Inglourious Basterds is a film that Tarantino has been working on for the better part of a decade, and one that has been rumored to be his undoing. However, the final product has wound up being a return for him to the fresh and invigorating area in which Pulp Fiction resides. Though the references to film history are here, they aren’t as overpowering to the story as they were in Kill Bill, and the energy in both the writing and the shocking violence are on par with his 1994 masterpiece.

The final words of the film, as spoken with that hillbilly drawl form Aldo Raine are “yep, this might very well be my masterpiece.” Well, it might very well be Tarantino’s second masterpiece by a director that has somehow not become a prisoner to his own devices, a la M. Nigh Shyamalan, when it could have been so easy to do so. Every Tarantino film is an event, and the fiery genre salute of Inglourious Basterds is no exception.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Love him or hate him, there is no doubt that Quentin Tarantino has changed the face of moviemaking since he burst onto the scene in the early nineties. Although he is considered by some to be unoriginal, or a “thief” of films that came before him, this claim is a bit ridiculous. What Tarantino is, is an encyclopedia of film history, and his films carry a flag for the genre it represents. He takes what he knows, makes it his own with some brilliant dialogue and creative and memorable violence, and salutes those films he is referencing along the way with winks and nods. Little known fact: When Tarantino started out, he wrote an epic, bloated screenplay that eventually broken apart and turned into three different films: Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Tony Scott’s Action Fantasy True Romance. There are several interesting connections to look for in these films. First, consider the fact that Michael Madsen’s Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs was actually named Vic Vega, as noted by Joe (Lawrence Tierny) in Mr. Blonde’s backstory. John Travolta played Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction, and was Vic’s brother in the original screenplay (a point that Tarantino mentioned when he was flirting with the idea to make a movie about the Vega brothers).

As for the True Romance reference, this was made as well in Reservoir Dogs. In Mr. White’s (Harvey Keitel) backstory, Joe asks him about Alabama, Patricia Arquette’s character in True Romance. The original plan for Alabama and Clarence was for them to become a modern day Bonnie and Clyde, but of course that was tweaked a bit when the stories were split. There are other small ties within the films, such as the reference to Big Kahuna Burgers (that Hawaiian burger joint) in all three films.

Tarantino first gained notoriety with Reservoir Dogs, his original take on a film about a band of crooks during the aftermath of a jewelry heist gone terribly awry. But it wasn’t until three years later, when Tarantino took over the Cannes Film Festival with his non-linear noir Pulp Fiction. Nothing this original had come along in some time, and the structure of the film singlehandedly birthed a slew of films trying their hand at the nonlinear format.

A few years later, Tarantino tried his hand at a salute to blaxplotiation films and the urban crime drama wave of the seventies with Jackie Brown, even getting cult icon Pam Grier to star. Though overlooked for the most part when Tarantino is brought up, the film was a solid caper picture and an interesting tip of the hat to a genre of film that experienced a renaissance in the years after Jackie Brown. But this is what makes Tarantino such a fascinating auteur, his ability to revive a forgotten sub-genre by celebrating the traits and techniques that made the genre what it was, while still telling a fresh story.

Tarantino’s next salute was to both Asian cinema and Spaghetti Westerns in the form of a two-part revenge flick, Kill Bill, Volumes I and II. With the first part examining the stylistic influences of Asian films, and the second part exploring the dry static of Spaghetti Westerns, all the while somehow managing to keep the age-old revenge story fresh and original, Tarantino again recognized some genres of film that peaked in popularity following the Kill Bill releases. And now, with his next film, the zany World War II pic Inglourious Basterds hitting the screens tomorrow, it is clear that Tarantino’s next genre renaissance will be the spy films of the forties and the gritty war films of the early seventies. Expect to see a spike in the sales of films like The Dirty Dozen and Guns of Navarrone in the next few months.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

TUESDAY TOP 10: Best Stoner Characters...

A pothead can pop up in any number of otherwise non-drug heavy films. Stoner flicks come out every few years, and they have a plot solely revolving around marijuana, but there are always potheads in stories that might otherwise not focus on drugs. And that is where, sometimes, some of the funniest stoners in film history emerge. Of course, there are always those stoners in Stoner flicks that elevate themselves above the other members of the pot community…

10) Jim Brewer – Half Baked – In a movie full of potheads, Brewer’s pothead was a cut above in his relentlessly clichéd representation of a sandal-wearing, tye-dye shirt wearing, confused, distant, red-eyed hippie stoner. To top things off, the fact that he believes he is carrying around the remains of Jerry Garcia in a pouch around his neck – oddly, an important plot device if there is such a thing in a movie like Half Baked – was sure to draw some ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from likeminded stoners watching the movie.

9) Seth Rogen – Knocked Up – Though Knocked Up has some hilarious pot-smoking scenes from Rogen’s deadbeat, slacker Ben, namely one involving a fishbowl over his head, the story begins to stray away from lowbrow stoner comedy once Ben grows into a responsible adult. Not that his evolution takes away from the hilarity of the earlier scenes, or the fact that in his heart he is always a stoner. Hell, in the event of an earthquake his first thought is to grab his bong.

8) Jason Mewes – Clerks/Mallrats/etc. – Mewes’ Jay, one half of the comedy duo of Jay and Silent Bob in Kevin Smith’s slacker comedy world, is the first overly aggressive pothead. His high energy and biting, misogynistic dialogue plays against character cliché, and makes from some good laughs in all of the movies in which he appears. Often times, he is more of the dealer than the user, but he still deserves a place on this list for sheer volume of comedy he has delivered over the years.

7) Rory Cochrane - Dazed and Confused – Richard Linklater’s movie about an aimless group of 70s high schoolers is a cult classic, and it is littered with social potheads and various derelicts who might partake from time to time. But there is also Slater, the head of the stoners who makes bongs in woodshop while counseling other likeminded folks on how it is done. He also spouts off a few funny one liners and has a theory about George and Martha Washington so absurd and so propagated in the clouded mind of a pothead that, after a while, it begins to make a little sense.

6) Chris Tucker – Friday – The African-American stoner society is represented well by Tucker’s turn as another high energy, motor-mouthed stoner, Smokey. Twitching form a little exposure to angel dust, Tucker’s character smokes continuously throughout the picture and gets Ice Cube’s character, Craig, to partake and feel the effects for the first time. Rife with one liners and catch phrases that would resonate throughout the nineties, Tucker’s Smokey holds this place for, if no other reason, deciding to avoid the ridiculous sequels.

5) James Franco – Pineapple Express – As Saul, the heart and soul of an otherwise over-the-top stoner action adventure hybrid, James Franco really shines. His soft-spoken, often confused, always high pot dealer who befriends Seth Rogen and ends up saving the day is consistently hilarious, and in my opinion the best comedic performance of 2008, besting Robert Downey Jr’s turn in the ridiculous Tropic Thunder.

4) Tommy Chong – Cheech and Chong –
Sure, Cheech has had somewhat of a more illustrious career (somewhat) than Tommy Chong, but Chong is the true stoner of the two. While both characters were stoners in a series of low-budget, high comedy films in the seventies, it was (and is) Chong who truly embraced the mumbling, confused pathos of a lifelong hippie stonoer. While Cheech has since distanced from his persona, it is clear that Chong did not inhabit a persona. Instead, he was really just being himself.

3) Brad Pitt – True Romance – “I don’t have a pot to piss in, or a window to throw it out. All I got is fuckin’ Floyd.” With these words from Michael Rappaport’s character, Dick Ritchie, in reference to his slacker pothead roommate, Floyd, a legendary cameo was born. Brad Pitt is perhaps the most accurate, most amusing, and most pivotal pothead in a film as maniacally twisting and turning as True Romance. It may look like Floyd wastes time all day watching Freejack and smoking a honey bear bong, but it is Floyd who, unwittingly, nearly spoils everything for Clarence and Alabama more that once. And who can ever forget the muttering, yet amazingly austere line he delivers to a patronizing James Gandolfini once Gandolfini is out of site?: “Don’t be condescending me, man. I’ll fuckin’ kill ya, man.” Genius.

2) Sean Penn – Fast Times at Ridgemont High –
Sean Penn’s surfer bum Jeff Spicoli isn’t even a main character in this classic high school comedy, but after 25 years it feels like it. Even if people can’t delve into the plot details, they can definitely remember, word for word, the lines delivered by Jeff Spicoli to Mr. Hand, his dream interview when he wins the surfing championships, and a few other classic lines to fellow students. My favorite line of the entire movie comes when Spicoli, after crashing star football player Charles Jefferson’s (Forrest Whitaker) Trans-Am and stepping away from the wreckage, informs Jefferson’s horrified younger brother… “Relax, all right? My old man is a television repairman, he's got this ultimate set of tools. I can fix it.”

1) Jeff Bridges – The Big Lebowski – What else can be said about the Dude? What places Jeff Bridges’ slacker prodigy above the rest is the fact that, somehow, everyone who watches the Dude pinball from absurd situation to even more outlandish situation, somewhere we secretly wish that we could be him. His nonchalance and easygoing lifestyle taps into the slacker in all of us, and his bewilderment and absolute confusion at the ridiculous things that are unfolding around him have us empathizing with his situation.

Monday, August 17, 2009

District 9


District 9: Sharlto Copley (113 min.)

There were moments while I was watching Neil Blomkamp’s underdog sci-fi picture, District 9, that I was ready to declare the film as, for lack of a better term, flawlessly brilliant. But as soon as those moments arrived, something slight or hokey would happen and remind me that I am watching a film form a rookie director. And that is no slight on Blomkamp’s talent as a director, as his ability is absolutely on display here, it’s just that there are enough moments in District 9, an otherwise compelling and inventive picture, which keep it from science-fiction serenity.
The story takes place in Johannesburg, South Africa, where twenty years ago a massive alien craft planted over the sky of the city, hovering. Once the government gets the nerve to pry their way into the ship, they find millions of alien life forms starved and dying from malnutrition. Under pressure from humanitarian factions, the South African government decides to transport the aliens from their ship and settle them in District 9, a safe haven that soon deteriorates.
District 9 becomes a slum full of crime, corruption, extortion, even “inter-species prostitution” that, thankfully, is merely mentioned. Cat food, a sort of aphrodisiac for the aliens, is sold on the black market. The aliens, given the derogatory name of prawns given their resemblance to the sea creatures, are marginalized and draw the ire of the human race who wants them gone. This narrative is told in the first fifteen minutes by some creative documentary-style footage that teeters on absurdity at times, but is done quickly enough to not ruin the movie.

The Multi National United (MNU) organization decides to relocate the prawns into District 10, an area some 200 miles away from Johannesburg that is actually a concentration camp. In an act of nepotism, the leader of the MNU (Jason Cope) appoints his son-in-law, a clueless, in-over-his-head twit named Wikus Van De Merve (pronounced Veekus Van De Merv) to head up the relocation efforts.

Van De Merve becomes the focal point of the story, and his character arc is key to the plot. WARNING: Spoilers ahead: After coming into contact with an alien substance, Van De Merve, an arrogant, single-minded prick begins to transform into a prawn, with his hand first transforming into a prawn’s claw. This chain of events becomes very interesting to the government, who cannot use the alien weaponry because the weapons only respond to the touch of a prawn’s hand. Once captured, the scientists poke and prod an unwilling Van De Merve in what are some truly unsettling sequences near the middle of the film. Soon, Van De Merve escapes, and employs the help of prawn Christopher Johnson (yes, that’s his name) to try and fix himself. And that is as far as I will go into the plot developments.

First of all, there is so much to like about District 9. The inventiveness, of Blomkamp’s story, which he wrote as well as directed, is an amazingly fresh take on a tired alien genre. Blomkamp manages to draw in the audience and make them care about these CGI creatures, much the way that producer Peter Jackson has done so many times in the past. By giving these prawns true pathos and humanity, we are drawn in to the action that unfolds in the second half of the film because we are rooting for the creatures. Our mind hasn’t been beaten into submission by $40 million set pieces that are flat and ultimately boring (cough… Michael Bay… cough). And once the action fires up, the sequences, no matter how grand they may be in scale, are shot on a tight frame and kept intimate enough to make them truly exciting. Allegorically, the comparisons to apartheid are prevalent and obvious here, which is just fine given the geographical setting. With so much to enjoy about District 9, there are also a few things to detract from the sporadic brilliance throughout.

It is clear, in a few moments, that Blomkamp is a rookie director. He falls in love with the exploding head or the exploding body a little too often, angling towards camp at times. Aside form that, there was a larger issue I had with Van De Merve, played excellently by Sharlto Copley. Copley, an improv actor and friend of Blomkamp does an excellent job, but his character is hard to like. His selfishness, while probably realistic, is hard to pull for in a movie. And early on (and I think this was the plan of Blomkamp) Copley pushes off a very Michael Scott-like vibe with his cluelessness. That idiot aura soon fades, however, and Copley really settles into the role, even though his actions are continually despicable, sometimes to a fault in a story in need of a protagonist that never truly arrives until the final minutes.

For everything that is a bit off about District 9, there is definitely more to like than dislike. Blomkamp is rough around the edges, but it is clear that he has an eye and a real instinct for shooting both emotion and action, and District 9 is a journey worth taking, despite the warts that pop up along the way.



Terry Gilliam's latest mind trip was the actual final performance of the late Heath Ledger. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus was the film Ledger was working on when he unexpectedly passed away in February of 2008. After his passing, Gilliam decided to keep the ball rolling and altering the interpretation a bit,employing Colin Farrell and Johnny Depp to play versions of the Ledger character. I can say now, after watching this somewhat insane teaser, that I am glad he decided to move forward...

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Forgotten Films of the Nineties Series: Hoffa

In between directing some of the strangest, bleakest, and occasionally dumbest dark comedies of all time, pint-sized Danny DeVito fit in an ambitious drama about one of the most divisive, mysterious figures in American history, Jimmy Hoffa. The film itself is a powerful epic about the formation of the teamster’s union in the early twentieth century, driven by the fiery resolve of Hoffa, a boisterous, abrasive, and morally ambiguous character whose disappearance has created never-ending dialogue based on myths and legends. Released in 1992, Hoffa was met with unusually mixed reviews and meager box-office numbers, despite the astonishing performance from Jack Nicholson as the polarizing figure and DeVito’s steady hand behind the camera.

Nicholson embodies the Teamster’s leader in body and mind, based on the innumerable newsreels of the real Hoffa, and his transformations is one of the finest of his illustrious career. Yet, somehow, Nicholson received no Oscar nomination. This is inexplicable given the way Nicholson completely takes over a movie that requires this very sort of dominance. Hoffa was an imposing, loud figure, and Nicholson is perfect here.

DeVito, who also plays Hoffa’s fictional right-hand man, acts in the film as the audience, observing Hoffa’s Herculean rise to the top of the Teamster’s union and subsequent moral compromise at the hands of a greedy mafia. Painted on a broad canvas, the look and feel of the film captures the nostalgic mood of the working class in the middle of the twentieth century. And of course, there is the mysterious ambiguity involving Hoffa’s disappearance.

DeVito obviously fictionalizes Hoffa’s disappearance (or maybe not), as his whereabouts are still unknown. He simply disappeared one day, with the mafia being the prime suspect. But DeVito’s interpretation of Hoffa’s disappearance, told by a subplot that runs throughout the story in flash-forwards that eventually meet up with the main narrative, is an interesting take on what happened. Not to mention the current of tension that builds and builds to the finale.

With only two Oscar nominations in Cinematography and Makeup, Hoffa has to be one of the most underappreciated films of the 90s. The screenplay by David Mamet should have gotten consideration, as the dialogue is progressive and as immediate as the character the story is focusing on, and the volcanic performance form Nicholson in the title role has to go down as one of the most criminally overlooked performances of the entire decade.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Okay, the quality is poor here, but who cares? Even in ultra-low definition, this sequel to the suprise hit of last summer, Iron Man, looks amazing. And it looks like this time around, much like the Batman and Spiderman franchises have done in their first sequel, the focus on creating a badass villain for Tony Stark. Chek it out...


Monday, August 10, 2009

TUESDAY TOP 10: Best Dystopian Films...

The very real nuclear threat of the 1950s brought about real change in the landscape of film. Once the initial fears were acted out through alien invaders in such Science Fiction classics as The Day the Earth Stood Still, the mindset of cinema began to look at the future in a bleaker, more pessimistic light in several successful and important films over the next fifty years. Although there had been a few rare examples of films and books in the years before the Red Scare that plagued America all throughout the fifties and early sixties, it was the creation of dystopian film, and the acknowledgment of the frailty of humanity that truly created a sub genre of excellent cinema.

Totalitarianism, the loss of human individuality, mass extinction or catastrophe, general deterioration, the idea of man falling behind beast or robot on the food chain; all of these ideas are ideas that selectively permeate through some of the best dystopian films, films that represent the very antithesis of utopian society to be exact. But there can be only ten to make the list:

10) Logan’s Run – Complete with garish set pieces and hokey costumes fitting of the seventies styles, this 1976 thriller starred Michael York in the title role. In this world, utopia is actually the illusion given, as anything and everything a person could want in their lives is readily available. It is a hedonistic existence, until you turn 30. And then you are killed. Logan is in charge of killing the 30 year olds. That is, of course, until he reaches 30 himself and decides this world may not be as great as he once thought.

9) Escape From New York – John Carpenter’s 1980 sci-fi flick developed a cult following first, but then found its way into the realm of celebrated film culture. Starring Kurt Russell as the indelible Snake Plissken, a rogue hero sent into the prison island of Manhattan to rescue the President, Carpenter’s interpretation of Manhattan as a decayed ghost town seemed like the path the morally depraved city was heading in the late seventies. With plenty of tongue in cheek humor and that grizzly, eye-patched performance from Russell, EFNY earned its spot in history.

8) THX 1138 – George Lucas’ first film, a Brave New World-esque take on the neutering of humanity, is a study in mood and metaphor. The best thing about this film, aside from Robert Duvall as THX, is its openness to interpretation. In this society, humans are controlled by a totalitarian government and given medication to suppress emotion and self-awareness. It is only when THX, with a push from LUH his female roommate, stops taking these medications, does this world begin to not make sense to his character. With a very calm, static feel and several tense situations, THX 1138 was an excellent glimpse into the creativity of George Lucas, and perhaps his most cerebral film ever. That’s right, Star Wars fans… I said it.

7) Mad Max – Even though the entire span of dialogue in this Mel Gibson actioneer, if strung together, would only amount to fifteen minutes of actual speaking, actions here speak louder than words. As Max, a vengeful nomad cruising across the wasteland of Australia in search of oil, the film played on the fears of the oil shortages of the seventies, and spawned one excellent sequel and one hokey sequel. Rumbling down the road in a black muscle car with a sawed-off shotgun, Gibson created an iconic character of dystopian films much like Russell’s Plissken character.

6) 28 Days Later – This is the first and only addition to this list that involves a single catastrophic event. As a virus spreads across London that turns humans into hyperactive, maniacal zombies, Cilian Murphy wakes up in a hospital after a bicycle accident to discover the horrors of an empty city right along with the audience. Director Danny Boyle was somehow able to shut down major avenues of London to create this dystopian world, and one of the earliest scenes in the film where Murphy is trying to piece together everything is one of the most chilling, impacting individual scenes of all time.

5) Planet of the Apes – Even though this classic film relies heavily on its twist ending, the journey of Charlton Heston’s character, an astronaut who lands on a “planet” inhabited by ape-humans, is still an excellent socially-aware sci-fi flick. The idea of evolution and Darwinism is delivered to even the most unsuspecting viewers, and although seeing the twist ending to end all twist endings takes the punch out of the picture in repeat viewings, Planet of the Apes belongs here on this list for the sheer magnitude and impact it has on those first-time viewers.

4) Blade Runner – One of the most important sci-fi flicks of all time, Ridley Scott’s futuristic noir picture is another film heavy on metaphorical storytelling and a twist ending that, no matter how obvious, still keeps the audience locked in. With Harrison Ford as Frank Dekkard, a blade runner in charge of hunting down and exterminating rogue cyborgs called Replicants, and Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty, one of those aforementioned Replicants, there is an undeniable pop gravitas to this film. Director Ridley Scott creates an entire world around these characters, a dark, rainy dystopia of futuristic Los Angeles that still holds up today. In spite of those silly pay phones.

3) Children of Men – While Blade Runner may be more relevant thus far in the pop culture pantheon, Alfonso Cuaron’s bleak science-fiction picture is more impacting, more important, and more realistic. Imagine a near future where females could no longer reproduce, and imagine the mental impact that would take on a society overloaded with a fragile humanity. Clive Owen plays Theo, a disheveled, reluctant hero who must lead a newfound pregnant girl to the mystical human project, where she might be able to reproduce and carry on humanity. Being able to tap into the frail psyche of the human race is a genius move by Cuaron and his writers, and the result is an immediate and unforgettable thriller.

2) Metropolis – What is so important about Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece is the fact that, simply put, it is from 1927. This silent film involves a society broken up by class and once that class boundary is broken, things begin to turn upside down in this rigid dystopian society for the better. Considered to be the genesis for science fiction films, and a story and mood that countless sci-fi films borrow from in their own stories, Metropolis seems almost prophetic given the fact that it is 82 years old and still more impacting than the vast majority of sci-fi flicks to come along since.

1) Clockwork Orange – Stanley Kubrick’s relentless, nihilistic, fearless science fiction masterpiece is the most unsettling and complex dystopian picture ever. With Malcolm MacDowell as Alex, a leader of a band of misfits - his “droogs” to be specific - misfits who travel the English countryside beating vagrants and raping women, Kubrick’s representation of this future society is one of decay and depravity that has never been matched. In fact, it wasn’t shown in the theater in Europe until several years after its release. Aside from being an indictment of a decaying society, the second half of the picture also manages to indict conformity, the very antithesis of anarchy and nihilism. This ability to attack two sides of an issue is what sets Clockwork Orange above all other dystopian films.


There is no doubt that the big wigs at Warner Brothers are working on a reboot for the Superman franchise, especially since they made the recent announcement that they would bypass a continuation of the Bryan Singer film, Superman Returns, and instead start from square one. Personally, I think this is the best plan, but it seems that they are fumbling the ball all the time trying to get this franchise off the ground. Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns was a decent film, but decent wasn’t good enough – and rightfully so – for America’s most recognizable and unchanging superhero.

Superman Returns was intended to be a direct follow up to Superman II, and there were some things to admire in the film, but there were some serious flaws in tone and casting. Although Brandon Routh was the spitting image of the late Christopher Reeve, and his voice eerily similar, it is clear that Singer or the producers had no confidence in him as an actor because he is left with practically nothing to say. And Kate Bosworth was a complete miscalculation as Lois Lane. A character usually bubbly and energetic, Bosworth’s interpretation of her is quiet, subdued, and almost weak. And the entire tone of the picture is wrong; everything is dark and brooding, as if Singer was shooting to emulate the recent success at the time of Batman Begins. Well, Batman is a dark and brooding character, Superman a bright, vivacious, upstanding superhero. The energy just wasn’t there.

So it is time for the studio to get the lead out (pun alert!) and remake Superman, a genesis story from the beginning, and I have a few bright ideas about how to kick start the franchise and point one of the most important superheroes in America:

DIRECTOR: J.J. Abrams is a no brainer here. His ability to create big budget summer popcorn flicks that are also intelligent makes him the best possible candidate. Those, on top of the fact that he already rescued a dying franchise this summer in Star Trek. Where a director like Chris Nolan handles the darkness of the batman character with his sense of mood, Abrams could handle the high-flying spectacle of a Superman character and keep things aloof without ever getting out of control with the comedy like, say, Tansformers.

CASTING: First, of course, there is Superman/Clark Kent. This casting depends on when Abrams and Co. want to pick up the action in present day, when Clark is fully-grown. Either they go a bit younger with the lead, or they take a mature angle. I vote to take the mature angle, as the square-jawed Superman never had the appearance of an overgrown boy. He always carried himself in the comic strips as a man close to middle age, but never quite reaching that threshold. That is why I nixed the idea of doe-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal to go with Jon Hamm. Hamm is clearly a lock for Clark Kent given his turn as Don Draper in AMC’s Mad Men. He can fill out a suit, and his dark hair and square jaw make him a dead ringer for the Kent from the DC Comics in the 30s and 40s. As for the Superman side, he could easily wear the S on his chest and look believable. And he would fit perfectly with the choice for Lois Lane.

The actress who would be a perfect fit for Lois Lane was actually in Superman Returns, unfortunately she was miscast as Lex Luthor’s girlfriend. That actress is Parker Posey, a vivacious, sharp-witted performer whose demeanor and thin, dark look fits Lois Lane to a T. Not to mention her resemblance to Margot Kidder, the actress who embodied the energetic pathos of Lois in the films from the 70s and 80s. Having Posey, who is a bit more mature, alongside Hamm, whom Abrams can have faith in as a viable actor, would bring validity to both roles and allow Abrams to beef up the story in between the action.

Lex Luthor is a much tougher call here. While Kevin Spacey did an admirable job replacing the great Gene Hackman, but he was still a little bland. I think maybe that was due to the fact that the film itself was so neutered. I would like to see Luthor’s character return to the gruff exterior and voice of Hackman’s interpretation, who managed to sound menacing and maniacal and still keep the necessary sense of humor in tact. There also needs to be a sort of sophistication to the way the actor carries himself. After a long while deliberating and running through actors in my head, Ed Harris seemed to stick. Harris has the perfect balance of menace and sophistication, and having him as a bald villain would be a nice addition to his career.

With Abrams directing this trio of established, diverse actors in the lead roles, Superman could make a true return to form. It’s time to get rid of the images of Superman in a dark costume, get back to the royal blue everyone recognizes, and make Superman the fun-loving film that hearkens back to the original comic book’s attitude.