Friday, May 28, 2010

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Summertime Blues Already, Sex and the City Makes Me Insane, and 3-D sucks because...

* This summer movie season really feels flat so far. Maybe it is the fact that I am getting older, and drifting away from the studios’ target audience. Maybe it’s because the quality is just down though. The mediocrity of Iron Man 2 really got things off to a slow start I think. Robin Hood didn’t help either.

* Boy... I missed the mark on MacGruber being a hit I guess. Whoops...

* I don’t know what angers me more, Sex and the City 2, or the fans of Sex and the City 2. You know, the ones who lie to your face after seeing the midnight show and tell you how amazing it was, how it was better than the first one… which is like saying lip cancer is better than colon cancer. SATC used to be a clever show on HBO, well written, watchable. But now it is reduced to two and a half hour (SERIOUSLY!) movies that advocate consumption. Consumption of clothes, shoes, men, marriages, society conventions. I could not think of a more superficial piece of garbage, and what better time to release this abomination on the women of this country than in the aftermath of a recession. And there is no reason it needs to be AS LONG AS MAGNOLIA!

* Well… maybe not that long. But still…

* And what about this guy that mule-headed Sarah Jessica Parker is married to in the movies? What is so charming about this douchebag? What a smarmy prick.

* Oh look, Samantha is a whore… That’s so funny.

* For a little perspective, the girl who told me this sequel was better than the first one also said it was better than The Dark Knight because TDK was “too scary.” That’s what we are dealing with here, people.

* Ok, now that I got that out of my system… I think once Inception comes and goes it will be time to focus on the Fall.

* Speaking of Inception, I see where Tom Berenger has a role big enough to get his name mentioned with everyone else. That’s kinda cool.

* You know what is responsible for Shrek’s less-than-anticipated box office take from last week? 3-D. The fact that it was 3-D made ticket prices in New York and the like get to twenty dollars. That means a family of five has to drop a ONE HUNDRED DOLLAR BILL to buy tickets. They would have to take out a loan against their house if they wanted popcorn and a soda. This is problem number 27 with 3-D.

* I am glad we are on a Christian Bale break right now. He was getting too overexposed last year.

* 49 days until Inception.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Fatal Attraction

I once heard, or perhaps read, that Fatal Attraction did for adultery what Jaws did for swimming in the ocean. I suppose that is the case, but I also feel like that is reducing elements of Fatal Attraction to a simple monster movie. This is a tough picture, a brave one to make since neither of the two leads you really want to root for consistently, and a slick, carefully crafted representation of the time. I am not sure if you could find this statistic, but I would guess that the amount of freewheeling adultery decreased significantly in the years after Fatal Attraction’s release.

Michael Douglas plays Dan Gallagher, a happily married attorney with a beautiful wife, Beth (Anne Archer), a sweet little daughter, and a cozy overall existence. Dan and Beth have two best friends, they have a nice apartment in the city, and they exist in a realm of comfort many would envy. But, as director Adrian Lyne shows with subtle events and glances, perhaps the monotony of it all is affecting Dan. There is the stepping on the toys, the chore of taking the dog for a walk only to come back and find his daughter in bed with Beth, spoiling any notions Dan had for love. These subtle little glimpses into everyday marriage are no excuse for Dan, but they are indeed a subconscious motivation.

Dan meets Alex Forest (Glenn Close) early on at the opening party scene. She is exotic in look and mood, and although she is not categorically attractive, there is an unusual allure about her, some sort of style that must have been big in 1987. But as the stars align here, Beth takes their daughter to the country to visit her parents and scout a new home in the country, leaving Dan at home alone. It just so happens that he has a meeting that morning, one that Alex is attending. Through the chance of a broken umbrella and a lack of cabs, the two end up having a drink in a nearby restaurant where the discussion turns to “being discreet” and “being adults” and before you know it Dan is back at her apartment in the then chic meatpacking district.

The two share a sex-fueled weekend that includes dancing at a salsa bar, fellatio in an elevator, and eventually, the discussion that Dan must return to his life. The weekend is, of course, the tipping point for the story, and there are definite signs that Dan has gotten in over his head with Alex, namely in the scene where Alex has slit her wrists. The scene is shot brilliantly, in a slow reveal as Alex kisses Dan and her hands rub blood across his cheeks. Red flag number one.

We all know the story by now. Dan returns to his family, but Alex keeps showing up at work, keeps calling his home and hanging up, is relentless in her pursuit. She tells Dan she is pregnant, and much to his chagrin explains that she will not get an abortion. This is an important sociological point in Fatal Attraction, a flexing of female power in this situation, which is why you cannot simply root for one character or another. Dan’s simple acceptance that Alex is to get an abortion is arrogant, and her response a shock. It is another card she has over him, and she plans to exploit it. Which is why you cannot root for her either. All in one scene, Lyne splits the audience’s alliances down the middle.

Things begin to escalate quickly. Alex becomes more and more unstable with every passing scene, and Dan’s world is unraveling at every turn. He tells his best friend what has happened, he goes to another lawyer, he speaks to the police; he is desperate to climb out of the hole he has dug for himself. But nothing will work, and when things have gone too far his only option is to tell Beth what has happened. And we all remember the point where things went too far.

Even the first time you see Fatal Attraction, perhaps you knew about the rabbit scene, perhaps not; either way, the foreboding and uneasiness in the moments leading up to Beth pulling the top from that boiling pot of water are all indicators as to what has happened and what we are about to see. The moment is still so shocking. Once Dan tells Beth, the dynamic’s change and Alex loses a bit of leverage. Then there is the kidnapping, and Beth’s car crash, and Dan’s attack on Alex, all leading up to the end of the film in the steam-filled bathroom.

Most have heard by now that there was an original ending to Fatal Attraction that the studio rejected and opted to reshoot, much to the chagrin of Close and Douglas. In the original ending (which you can watch on the special-edition DVD), Alex cuts her throat alone in her apartment with the knife Dan took away from her earlier. His fingerprints are on the knife, so the police come and arrest Dan at his home, and that is the end. The producers felt that ending was too bleak and would turn off too many viewers, so they opted to go with the fight in the bathroom, the drowning, the monster popping out of the water for one last scare, and Anne Archer’s character finally killing her with a gunshot to the chest. I do not necessarily think such a morose, calm ending like the one originally shot was fitting for a picture that was steadily unraveling into more and more chaos the whole time. The “Hollywood” ending we get is satisfying and fits the narrative thread more effectively, but I always had a problem with Alex popping out of the water; that is too “monster movie” for my tastes, but it’s a minor quibble.

Glenn Close was nominated for an Academy Award five times in six years in the 80s, never winning. Fatal Attraction was her fourth in that list, and she lost to Cher for Moonstruck. While Cher was good, there is no way she was better than Close, whose arc involved not falling in love, but falling deeper and deeper into unhinged insanity. And while she does this Douglas, as Dan, does a fantastic job of gradually transforming through nervousness, desperation, and ultimately anger. Much is always made of these two performances, but we should never overlook the job Anne Archer does as Beth, a woman at first made a fool of, then a woman slowly gaining control of the situation. Her scene on the phone with Alex is the best in the film. She takes the phone from Dan and says simply: “This is Beth Gallagher, if you ever come near my family again I’ll kill you, do you understand?” And she hangs up. This is one of those moments that surely garnered a few fist pumps from the wives in the audience.

Adrian Lyne is a master of sexual suspense and corrupted relationships, as evidenced with Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal, and his last film, Diane Lane’s Oscar nominated Unfaithful way back in 2001 (where has this guy been). Lyne is a master of subtle changes and alterations that propel a story. For example, he slowly, carefully, darkened Close’s eyeliner throughout the picture in order to make her darker, more sinister by the time we get to the bathroom at the end. Fatal Attraction is a staple of 80s American cinema, and while it may have done for adultery what Jaws did for the ocean, it also remained anchored in a tough reality where nobody is free and clear. There are no clean getaways.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

TRAILER BULLETIN: THe Killer Inside Me

Why does it seem as if it's been so long since Casey Affleck was in a movie? Because he is a great actor, and we need to see him in more. Who would have thought that he was the better actor of the two (although Ben might wind up being a fantastic director)? Here is the trailer for his controversial new picture, The Killer Inside Me, and I can tell you right now I am jazzed about seeing Affleck in something dark, something in the realm of noir...

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

TUESDAY TOP 10: The Best Movie Sidekicks...

Don’t forget about the sidekicks! They are there to help sometimes, other times they are there to get in the way or frustrate our main hero or protagonist. There are several factors that go into an effective sidekick, most of which depend on the type of film they’re in. You don’t want a bad sidekick in a drama, save that for comedy…

10) Agent Pappas (Point Break) – Often overlooked is Pappas, the seasoned veteran partner of that “Quarterback punk,” Johnny Utah. What many forget is that the ex-president-bank-robbers-are-surfers theory was the brainchild of Pappas to begin with. Without his investigating techniques there is no film. Sometimes looked down upon by the others in his department, namely Harp, the weasel chief played by John C. McGinley, Pappas nevertheless has strong resolve and is a great partner to Utah. He is always a step behind Johnny, but never too far away at the same time. His world-weariness is the perfect juxtaposition to Utah. Pappas also has the best line in the film: “Utah… Get me two!”

9) Silent Bob (Kevin Smith Movies) – This is one of a few on this list who appear in more than one movie. As the quiet, thoughtful, stoic partner to Jason Mewes’ maniacal Jay in five flicks, Silent Bob gets none of the glory. But Silent Bob is not simply the sidekick to Jay; he really works as a sidekick to all characters in Smith’s movies. And despite his title, he does speak from time to time, but never with wasted words. And despite his lumpy appearance, Silent Bob has a little bit of the force coursing through his nerdy veins from time to time.

8) Pedro (Napoleon Dynamite) – Sure, we are all tired of Napoleon Dynamite these days (that was so 2004), but there is no denying the fact that Pedro was a pretty good second banana for nerdy young Napoleon. Pedro was soft spoken, almost in a creepy way with his choppy Spanish cadence, and he was the center of one of the most memorable film elections of the entire decade. And who could forget Pedro’s older brothers, offering nerds everywhere protection from the bullies? It is funny to think, but Pedro was definitely responsible for giving Napoleon cool points, if that is at all possible.

7) Ratso Rizzo (Midnight Cowboy) – “HEY I’M WALKIN’ HERE, I’M WALKIN’ HERE!!!” Those famous words were ad-libbed by Dustin Hoffman at the time when a frustrated cabbie in New York drove through the barricades on set, nearly running him over. Hoffman’s Rizzo, a sketchy two-bit New York hustler, joins forces with Jon Voight’s Joe Buck, the naïve country boy who becomes a male prostitute. The two men definitely do not mix well at first, but their relationship builds throughout the film. Rizzo’s resolve, his ability to deny the fact that he is an outcast, is what keeps these men moving along. And Rizzo finds his first real friend, as does Buck.

6) Garth Algar (Wayne’s World) – These pictures were definitely Wayne’s show, but where would Wayne be without his high-strung, Def Leppard-loving Garth? Garth, always on the look for a babe, serves as the audience’s guide. He repeatedly breaks the fourth wall to lead us through a situation or give us his opinion. Garth’s nervous energy is the genesis of some of the funniest scenes in both films, and no matter what the situation he will stick by Wayne in the end. This is a friendship built on similarities, but thriving on differences, and one could never go long without the other. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, this is definitely Wayne’s world, Garth is just a great partner in the sidecar.

5) Red (Shawshank Redemption) – Red is the guy who knows how to get things, and he has an interesting dynamic with Andy Dufresne. The two become the best of friends during their time at Shawshank prison, musing on hope and working to build a better environment inside the walls, including a library that would rival the public libraries in many towns. But aside from their everlasting friendship, Red also unknowingly is the man responsible for busting Andy out of prison. Without the rock hammer or the posters, Andy would never have had a chance.

4) Igor (Young Frankenstein) – My first inclination was to put the original Igor from the Karloff film on this list, but I started thinking: that Igor is really a fuck up and generally a bad guy. But what about the Igor in Young Frankenstein? Now that performance from Marty Feldman is the very definition of comedic sidekick. Not very much of an assistant, and not very much help in any real way, Igor is there simply to frustrate Dr. Frankenstein and confuse things for everyone. Igor has some of the best moments and some of the funniest lines in what is perhaps the greatest parody in the history of film, so he deserves a high spot on this list.

3) Walter Sobchak (The Big Lebowski) – If Igor is the definition of comedic sidekick, then John Goodman’s Walter Sobchak takes that notion and turns it up to eleven. Walter exists simply to frustrate the hell out of The Dude. The unlikely pairing of Vietnam vet with leftover stoner from the same time is only part of the genius of the Coen Brothers’ creation. Walter means well, but everything he does causes another problem, from his brilliant idea of making a ringer full of undies for the kidnappers, to destroying what he thought was Larry Sellers’ new corvette, to routinely exploding into an hysterical fit of rage, Walter is the cog that keeps the crazy plot turning.

2) Goose (Top Gun) – Sure, there is an unbelievable amount of homoerotic subtext to the 1985 classic that made Tom Cruise such a hit, but that is to be expected in a movie about Navy pilots. Maverick was the focus of the story, there is no question about that, but without Goose, Maverick is not… well… Maverick. Not as good looking, not a ladies’ man, but a damn good wingman, Goose is nothing but a great and loyal friend for Maverick. And Goose also has some of the best lines in the film, and is a great comic relief at times. And his death is still a heartbreaking moment for any fan of the film, regardless of how many times you see it.

1) Chewbacca (Star Wars) – Han Solo is surely the coolest motherfucker in the galaxy, and in film, but he isn’t nearly as cool without the best sidekick in film, Chewy. Chewy is a crack shot, and he is a nice intimidating force to have in your corner. And that rattling voice, one of the most recognizable sounds (or languages, depending on your perspective) in film history, is sweet and soothing, a nice unexpected cadence from a seven-foot tall Wookie. Chewy is, much like Silent Bob, a sidekick to all, not simply to Han. He is there to carry a broken C-3PO, to lead the charge in a fight, and to help his friend get his bearings in Return of the Jedi. A loveable sidekick, but an ass kicker when the time calls for it.

Monday, May 24, 2010

RANK 'EM: The Lethal Weapon Franchise...

Where would the action fiulms of the 80s and 90s be without their grandfathers, Riggs and Murtaugh? The Amos and Andy of the buddy-cop world were responsible for numerous imitators, but none would have that same chemistry as Gibson and Glover. Many feel that the franchise dipped in quality each time around, but I would argue against ranking them in their sequel-numbered order. At least on one occasion…

4 - Lethal Weapon 4 (1998) – The last entry into the franchise is a little bit sad. It’s like watching two of your favorite people being played by someone else. This time around, Riggs is now too old for this shit, meaning Murtaugh has no business wearing his badge. The plot revolves around Chinese immigration, and the only thing novel that does is introduce the world to Jet Li. And we also had Joe Pesci back as Leo Getz (for no reason), and Chris Rock as another investigator (for no reason). The action in the franchise had gotten a bit more illogical and over the top, but in this fourth installment the two have to take on an armor-clad flame-throwing robber, they jump a car from a highway into an office building and back onto the highway, and they get stuck underwater after a fight for about three minutes. Too much comic book, not enough reality.

3 – Lethal Weapon 3 (1992) –
The franchise started showing signs of creakiness in this entry, as comedy became the priority of the picture instead of it being a side note to a more serious narrative. The opening sequence where Riggs and Murtaugh are sent in to defuse a bomb (failing miserably), a play on the red-wire-blue-wire bit, is funny and a pretty good opening explosion, but why would two homicide detectives be allowed to go into the building? That’s the sort of logic problems the franchise starts to run into. Oh and there is a plot about a crooked cop that is pretty dull. Riggs and Murtaugh start to find trouble a little too easy, as evidenced by the shootout that leaves Murtaugh’s son’s friend dead, a dark subplot to an otherwise flighty movie. And back is Joe Pesci as Leo Getz, less funny this time around and more annoying. But at least we are introduced to Rene Russo’s Lorna Cole, an ass-kicking love interest for Riggs.

2 – Lethal Weapon (1987) – It felt too easy to put this one number one. The dynamic is set between Riggs, a suicidal loose cannon, and Murtagh, a family man counting down the days until retirement. It’s funny to think that Murtagh was getting close to retiring at the end of the very first film. Riggs is decidedly more dark and disturbed here, having lost his wife in what is believed to be an accident, and there is a truly unsettling moment where he chews on the barrel of his gun while the Looney Tunes Christmas show is playing in the background. The plot revolves around Vietnam veterans in the drug trade, and the ties to Riggs and Murtaugh run deep here. One of the victims is the daughter of a former platoon friend of Murtaugh’s in Nam. There is some great action here, a good story base, and Gary Busey (always a plus), but these characters still feel too crazy or too exasperated. They hadn’t quite got the perfect mix yet.

1 – Lethal Weapon 2 (1989) – This sequel barely edges out the original for a few reasons. First of all the entire plot, revolving around South Africans and their illegal doings in the US, and the fact that they are protected by diplomatic immunity, gave the film a broader international feel. Aside from that, the opening chase sequence is the second best car chase in the franchise, only to be bested by a chase later on where the bad guy catches a wayward surfboard in the face. And who could ever forget the toilet bomb scene? A completely absurd moment in the history of this franchise that somehow feels real here but would be laughable in all the wrong ways had it been in one of the last two films. Riggs and Murtaugh are in a groove in this second picture where their chemistry is a perfect mix. And remember when Leo Getz was a funny sidekick? Before he got ridiculous and annoying? Yeah, that was here in the second movie. But aside from all this, the romance Riggs has with Rika van den Haas (the stunning Patsy Kensit. Someone explain to me how she didn’t get more film roles), the assistant to Joss Ackland’s Arjen, is passionate and a good thing for Riggs at the time. So when she is murdered by her own people, we finally get to see Riggs to the point of pure unhinged insanity, something he was always flirting with in the first film. There is so much more detail and layering in this second installment, and everything from the totally goofy to the truly dark work wonderfully in context.

Friday, May 21, 2010

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: John Cazale's Appropriate send up, comedian careers, and Val Kilmer is still kinda cool...

* First things first… On June 1, HBO will air I Knew It Was You, a 2009 Sundance documentary about John Cazale. Cazale starred in only five movies before dying of lung cancer at 42. Those five movies: The Godfather, The Godfather II, Francis Ford Coppola’s brilliant thriller The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter. Five of the finest pictures of the 70s. The documentary features Sidney Lumet, Coppola, Al Pacino, and Gene Hackman just to name a few. This should be a definite must watch for any kind of film enthusiast.

* It sucks that Gene Hackman has retired. He is one of the greats.

* Remember when Mike Myers was funny?

* Seriously though, he used to be diverse in his comedy. So I Married an Axe Murderer is such an overlooked gem. Now he just does the same bit over and over, like Shrek movies.

* Speaking of Shrek, I don’t understand why Eddie Murphy isn’t funny anymore. He used to be hysterical, charming, witty. I know this is well documented, but my god how can somebody so great turn into such a fucking joke?

* And where is Jim Carrey? Has his comedy routine grown old in this new age of Apatow?

* James Franco is going to be in a Planet of the Apes prequel. The question ‘why’ pops into my head for so many different reasons.

* Has anyone figured out the end of Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes movie yet? What a piece of garbage that was.

* I have this sneaking suspicion that MacGruber is going to be a good SNL movie (oxymoron). There is no real reason to believe this, but I think Will Forte is genuinely funny, the production values look solid, and 80s action flicks seem like the perfect genre to parody. Sure, the premise is paper thin, but Val Kilmer is the bad guy. It can’t be all bad.

* Val Kilmer is an actor that truly confounds me. This dude was in Heat. This dude played Jim Morrison. He was Elvis in True Romance. He was the best Doc Holliday ever. But this dude also starred in The Real McCoy, At First Sight, Alexander, Wonderland, Red Planet, The Saint, The Island of Dr. Moreau… not only awful movies, but the basis for a truly confusing filmography. I still think he is quality though.

* T-minus 56 days until Inception.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise

I think people sometimes use the word “ambitious” when talking about a director or their films. Sometimes you might here about Michael Bay’s “Ambitious new movie,” or Brett Ratner’s “ambitious X-Men sequel,” or thereabouts. But those aren’t ambitious; those movies are financially-backed cash cows that take no thought or care to bring in a billion dollars. Michael Bay isn’t ambitious, he is lazy. Ambition is making a movie entirely reliant on two characters, and the words they share with each other. Ambitious is telling a human story through endless dialogue and musings on life. Ambitious is a movie like Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise.

Before Sunrise stars a baby-faced Ethan Hawke as Jesse, an American tourist on his was through Eastern Europe when he comes across Celine, a French girl played by Julie Delpy. The encounter happens by chance, not necessarily coincidence, after Celine flees the earshot of a fighting couple and sits in a seat across the aisle from Jesse. The two share conversations and dinner on the train to Vienna, and once the train stops Jesse talks Celine into getting off the train and spending the evening walking around Vienna and getting to know each other.

And this is all the set up Before Sunrise needs. Jesse and Celine walk the streets of Vienna, day and night, musing on life, love, marriage, family, death, parents, expectations, existentialism… you name it. The two characters here are the draw of the picture, and their interactions with one another are vital to the story’s success. Jesse is young, aimless, an American drifter trying to find an answer to something, somewhere in Europe. Celine is not so much a drifter as she is a dreamer, a free spirit who struggles, as Jesse does, with her existence or the expectations of her life. Jesse comes off early as a daydreamer, a hopeless romantic with great ambition, and Celine the realist. But that is the genius of Linklater’s script; by the middle of the picture we aren’t too certain which one is the realist or the romantic, or if there should be a label of either one.

If ever there were a film for students or scholars to study for dialogue, it is Before Sunrise. At just over an hour and a half, the picture glides through Vienna with these two young lovers and never feels laborious or heavy. Hawke and Delpy have definite screen chemistry; without that there is no film. Jesse and Celine are both struggling with the angst that comes with being a twenty-something fresh out of school and clear of any directions. They bounce ideas off each other, they deliver their outlooks on life in flirtatious banter, and they slowly unpeel layers from each other until, perhaps, they see what is beneath the façade.

Linklater focuses on Jesse and Celine, of course, but he also uses the streets of Vienna and certain shots to emphasize the moods and direction of his two leads. Take the opening scenes on the train, for example. Jesse and Celine sit in the dining car, just getting to know each other but the world around them is whipping by at a breakneck pace. But it doesn’t matter to them; they don’t need to see the world right now, they need to see only each other in this dining car. And later, the two go into a listening booth in a record store and sample a record that has an undeniably romantic, hip tone. This scene is rife with missed looks, sexual tension, and subtle desires. And there is the end of the picture, when Linklater takes the time to show us those same small tables at the sidewalk cafes, those same narrow alleys, those same bridges that Jesse and Celine occupied just hours earlier. They look normal, they look plain, downright boring, a great contrast to the dreamscapes they were before when Jesse and Celine were there. Hawke does his usual excellent job as Jesse, his nervous energy a perfect fit for a young, lost American man, and Delpy's Celine, a beacon of calmness and (for lack of a better term) earthy beauty is just enough contrast to Jesse without being a polar opposite. The two share certain ideologies, but it is in their differences that they find each other.

The dialogue is vital, but a large portion of Before Sunrise lies in the missed looks, the small glimpses of vulnerability, and the eventual end of these young lovers’ journey through each others life in one night of conversation. Sure the romanticism of the very idea of a picture like Before Sunrise may be too unrealistic for some people to grasp. There are those realists out there who would never believe in such a thing happening. But for everyone else who might, for an instant, think that something like this could actually happen, the picture serves as a sort of dreamlike romance where all things are possible, if only for one night in Vienna. Jesse and Celine are resigned to a different fate at the end, but their night will forever be a part of their life. Ambitious indeed.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

WHERE THEY STAND: Tommy Lee Jones

It’s another new segment day on The Snob. Everyone may agree that names like Paul Newman, Daniel Day Lewis, Marlon Brando, are all names of some of the best all time actors. Just like most may agree that names like Steven Seagal and Josh Hartnett are as bad as those first three are good. But what about everyone else? What about those actors who consistently churn out quality films, or have been nominated two or three times for an Oscar, maybe won one, but have never been considered the best? There are a lot of these men and women out there, so let’s try and put them somewhere in the Snob Theater: Front Row, General Admission, Balcony, or Outside tearing tickets. The names speak for themselves.






TOMMY LEE JONES


Tommy Lee Jones has been a consistent actor for decades now. And while many may see him as a one-trick pony, mostly after his Oscar win in 1993, what is overlooked is his diversity as a performer on occasion. Sure, he is the go-to guy to play the cop or the seasoned veteran in charge of hunting down the convict or the killer, but he also has a pretty acute sense of humor and an ability to branch out when he wants. Sometimes the branching out is effective, sometimes it’s head scratching.


Jones’ first picture was a small part in Love Story, the Ryan O’Neal Ali MacGraw movie. From there, Jones bounced around television and small movies before his breakout role as Mooney Lynn, husband to Loretta, in Coal Miner’s Daughter. Jones and Sissy Spacek, who played the famous country singer, were the heart and soul of Coal Miner’s Daughter. But then a strange thing happened: Jones kept bouncing around for nearly an entire decade, starring in TV movies and rarely seen features, but his biggest of big breaks was in 1989 when he played Woodrow Call on Lonesome Dove.


Despite it being a TV mini-series, Lonesome Dove was a star-making role for Jones, who only starred in two of the episodes. Then again, in the late 80s, a mini-series on television had much more publicity and clout than it might these days. Nevertheless, Jones’ career really took off after Lonesome Dove. In the years following, he starred in films like JFK and Under Siege, but it was his role as Samuel Gerard in 1993’s The Fugitive would win him an Oscar. Though it is debatable on whether or not he deserved the win over Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List. Actually, there is no real debate, Fiennes should have won.


The next few years were diverse, albeit a little sketchy for Jones. He starred in another Oliver Stone film, Heaven and Earth, a forgettable Vietnam story. Then he played the villain in Blown Away, a completely absurd thriller where Jones had to use an Irish accent that was the worst kind of camp. But then Jones was in The Client, a solid Grisham adaptation, and starred yet again as a devilish warden in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. Then there was the clumsy biopic of Ty Cobb, then a camped-out version of Two Face in Batman Forever, then Volcano (forget about it). Men in Black, his next film, was Jones’ biggest hit by a mile, but I am pretty sure Will Smith is the name most people think of when they think of MIB.


Jones spent most of the next several years playing alternate versions of his Samuel Gerard character from The Fugitive, even playing an alternate, less interesting version of Gerard in the pointless semi-sequel U.S. Marshals. There was Double Jeopardy, The Hunted, The Missing… none of these would come close to the energy he brought to The Fugitive. In No Country for Old Men, however, Jones would take that same character and add some world-weariness and pathos to the part that seems to be becoming part of Jones’ portrayals these days. Jones has started to uncover a characteristic in his more recent roles that really adds some layers to his acting: The world-weary sheriff, the rigid but uncertain, aging military man (In The Valley of Elah), and more recently the lost older executive in The Company Men, a Sundance favorite this year.


So where does Tommy Lee Jones stand in the grand scheme of things? Sure, he is a great actor at times, but his career is a bit of a roller coaster with some major quality gaps in there. HE has a definite look and a mood and a presence all his own. Still, it would be hard to find a spot for him on the front row here, but he is not far behind: General Admission.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Robin Hood


HOODWINKED

ROBIN HOOD: Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Max Von Sydow, William Hurt (140 min.)

Ridley Scott can handle epic action, but is he growing tired of it? After watching Robin Hood, Scott’s new listless period battle epic with longtime partner Russell Crowe, I think maybe the whole “battle sequence” film, after Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, and now Robin Hood, is becoming a second nature for Scott so much that he just goes through the motions. It sure felt like motions were the only things being acknowledged with Robin Hood. Not much else.

There are no green tights. There are no merry men. There isn’t much merry here at all. This Robin Hood’s England is dank, drab, a grey-stained palette. In other words, a lot like what England probably really looked like at the end of the twelfth century. Crowe is Robin Longstride, a skilled archer in King Richard the Lion Heart’s (Danny Huston) army. Once Richard is killed, Robin decides to return to England with Little John (played by an irritating actor named Kevin Durand) and Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes). Along the way they encounter a dying Robert of Loxley, and Robin promises to return his sword to his father in England. And then the plot gets a little too heavy for its own good, not because it is hard to follow but because I found it hard to care.

Robin eventually hooks up with Maid Marion, played with steely resolve by Cate Blanchett. This Marion is not a fair maid, but an ass-kicking equal to Robin Hood. She has no time for googly eyes or to be rescued, she is here to throw down with every one else. Crowe and Blanchett have an undeniable bit of chemistry together, and their scenes are a highlight of the picture. But still, there is an attachment to these characters missing.

I see Russell Crowe, I recognize him and his greatness as an actor, but I couldn’t tell you anything really about his Robin Hood. And that is where there is such a distance between these characters and the audience. In Gladiator, a film for which Robin Hood will not be able to escape comparison, Crowe’s Maximus had a family, and when they were murdered in cold blood that emotional impact drove the story and, at the same time, created a hero to root for and a villain to loathe. There is neither of these important aspects in this story.

There are a few different villains in Robin Hood, but not a single one worth remembering. Robin does not really square off with the Sheriff of Nottingham, played here by Matthew MacFadyen, but he squares off against any number of political and wicked characters without any traits that stick. MacFadyen does a serviceable job as the Sheriff, but his character and his similar look made me long for Alan Rickman’s unhinged, oddly brilliant performance in Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood. And again, comparing these villains to the single-minded lunacy and deviousness of Joaquin Phoenix’s snarling weasel in Gladiator, well, there is no comparison. Sure, there are some vibrant supporting roles from the likes of Max Von Sydow, playing Sir Walter Loxley and putting the plot into motion, and William hurt as William Marshall. But still, the ancillary characters aren’t enough to keep this version propelled.

Of course the action scenes are staged marvelously and Scott’s uncanny attention to detail and sound and choreography propels these moments. But they felt like empty battles. I didn’t much care if anyone was injured, or who was injured for that matter. Say what you will about the hokey direction and screwball storylines of Costner’s version, at least I gave a damn about Little John or Marion and at least Rickman’s Sheriff left an impression on me.

I understand the desire of Crowe and Scott to tell a serious version of Robin Hood, or at least to tell a new tale of an age-old character. But after nearly 40 versions of Robin Hood, I wonder if we even need this. A lot of this felt like Scott going through the motions, perhaps with other projects around the corner (like Brave New World with Leo DiCaprio) on his mind. I think Scott has perhaps hung up the swords and sandals, and he needs to make a spot next to those for quivers and arrows. Get back to what makes you Ridley Scott. Compelling human stories on an epic scale, not simply an epic scale with story-less humans.

C-

Friday, May 14, 2010

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Inception Hype Machine, busy Aronofsky, and a SHIELD movie? Really?

* So Charlie Kaufman did some sciprt work for the Kung Fu Panda sequel? This confuses me.

* Samuel L. Jackson says there will be a SHIELD movie after The Avengers. I really don’t see the point in this. These setups for The Avengers are becoming a distraction in the Iron Man sequel and after the credits to both Iron Man 2 and Incredible Hulk. I don’t see any reason to make a movie about the unit that forms The Avengers after it's all said and done.

* Regardless, I am getting more and more excited for The Avengers.

* Jonah Hex looks absurd.

* George Clooney’s new film, The American, looks like an interesting suspense thriller set in Italy. It reminds me of a John Frankenheimer movie. But it seems like Clooney is falling into the acting pattern of the morally-compromised character he plays in Michael Clayton and Syriana and, to an extent, Up in the Air.

* John Frankenheimer was a pretty good director. Ronin is a very underrated movie.

* Darren Aronofsky is a busy dude. He is finishing up Black Swan, he is planning a Jackie Kennedy picture, and now he is trying to get a project going again with Brad Pitt. Fine by me.

* Why is Amanda Seyfried going for all these sappy Nicolas Sparks films and Sparks knockoffs? She is a pretty amazing young talent in my opinion; she needs to take on something heavy, like she did a few seasons ago in Big Love.

* The Inception hype machine is picking up steam fast and furious. I enjoy the hype, but I try and distance from it. I learned a long time ago to not watch clips and read early reviews and stalk movies online that I was supremely excited for. When you do this, you will inevitably be let down by the final product, regardless of how good or bad it really is. You’ve simply invested so much time and energy into preparing for the experience, there is nowhere to go but down. This worked for me with The Dark Knight a few years back, There Will Be Blood the year before, surely it will work this summer.

* That being said… 63 Days until Inception.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Do The Right Thing

Do The Right Thing was not Spike Lee’s debut feature like many might think, but it is still his finest achievement as a director, and dare I say one of the more important films of the last thirty years, for a number of sociological and technical reasons. Some may feel this is not a picture for them, but it’s actually a picture for everyone to see. There are things in this vibrant, powerful tale for everyone to acknowledge, for all races and backgrounds to consider. I remember seeing Do The Right Thing a long time ago, when I was younger, and not really understanding what I was watching. Then in film class in college we (like I imagine every University film class did) watched portions of the film to observe Lee’s technical ingenuity. But not until watching it last night, with a fuller understanding and life experience catalogue, was I swept away by the power, the energy, the beauty, the message of Lee’s film.

Do The Right Thing focuses on a Brooklyn neighborhood on one of the hottest days of the year. This neighborhood, despite the racial diversity, is a tight-knit unit. The peripheral characters in Lee’s film are what give it its pulse. The three old men drinking beer trying to stay cool, the mentally handicapped street person, the wise old maid (Ruby Dee) observing the goings on from her window, the wise old drunk (Ossie Davis) wanting nothing more than serenity and happiness, the young punks, the Korean grocer; all of these characters come in and out of scenes, ebbing and flowing with the rhythm of the story. They appear in the background of scenes, in the foreground of others. They live and breathe these Brooklyn sidewalks. They give the picture the feeling of being a living, breathing thing, seemingly narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, a DJ who observes these streets from a picture window like an omniscient, thought-provoking narrator. And all these characters orbit Sal’s Pizzeria.

Sal, played to perfection by Danny Aiello, is a neighborhood Italian whose pizza has “fed these people for twenty-seven years.” Sal is not a hateful man, and not necessarily a racist, until he is pushed. He runs the pizzeria with his two sons, Vito (Richard Edson), a nice enough kid with no real beef with anyone, and Pino (John Turturro), a staunch racist who carries a deep-seeded hatred and mistrust for the blacks who fill the seats of the pizzeria every day.

The other half of the story’s focus is Mookie, a delivery boy for Sal’s played by Lee himself. Pino doesn’t much like Mookie, for no real reason other than he is black, but he tolerates him as best he can. The problem comes in the form of a character named Buggin’ Out, played by Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad). Buggin’ stirs up some shit one day when he chastises Sal for not having any black celebrities on his “Wall of Fame.” There is John Travolta, Joe DiMaggio, Al Pacino, but no famous black people. The argument is innocent enough at first – Sal tells Buggin’ he can open his own place and put whomever he likes on his wall – but Buggin’ won’t let the argument die. He implores the neighborhood to boycott, but the idea falls flat on everyone. Everyone, that is, but Radio Raheem.

Raheem, played by the imposing Bill Nunn, is another neighborhood player, carrying his boom box with him at all times, blasting Public Enemy’s Fight the Power from its speakers. Raheem has a pesky beef with Sal who forbade him to rattle the walls of the pizzeria with his “rap music.” The two kids decide to confront Sal and his sons, and things quickly escalate until Raheem is dead, inciting a riot that ends with Sal’s pizzeria burnt to the ground.

So this is the plot of Do The Right Thing, simple enough. But not so fast. Lee’s film is one of the most brilliantly paced pictures, beginning as a lighthearted look at a summer day in Brooklyn, alive with people and places and splashed with vibrant hues of fluorescent and reds and blues, all the colors of the late 80s and early 90s. But as the day goes, the sun rises, the heat intensifies, so do the pacing, the dialogue, the angles and the mood of the narrative until things boil over. Lee accomplishes this escalating tension by using canted angles, close-ups, lowered and elevated shots, all at the perfect time. The dialogue here is anchored in realism, but it almost sounds like an urban classical dialect, if you will. These are the things these people would say, but they are written and delivered in such a way that they have the slight tinge of stylization. Just enough to add weight to each and every word.

And Lee breaks the fourth wall on occasion, a daring move for any director, but a move with great payoff here. There is the sequence early in the film where a representative from each race in the story spits out every racist thing they can think of about another ethnic group. Then there is Radio Raheem’s imagined boxing match where he shows us his brass knuckles, one reading “hate,” the other “love.” Love wins the fight, an indicator that Radio Raheem is a lot of tough talk, but a good person inside. This scene begins as a talk between Mookie and Raheem, but Lee rotates the camera in such a way that we take over the point of view of Mookie, and Raheem is narrating to us, the viewer. These are some bold strokes by Lee that pull us into the story and make us feel like participants rather than observers.

I could break the film down scene by scene, but what about the larger themes in Do The Right Thing? What about the murder of Raheem at the hands of the racist white police? And what about Mookie being the one to start the destruction of Sal’s place by throwing a trash can through the window? And this right after Sal told Mookie he was like a son to him. The police go after Raheem immediately when the fight between he and Sal breaks out, choking him to death, never thinking that Sal could have provoked the fight. But Raheem provoked Sal to provoke the fight, and Buggin’ Out provoked Raheem. And Sal provoked Buggin’ Out during the petty argument earlier. And the circle keeps moving around and around. There are perhaps a few theories as to why Mookie started the riot, but I would argue he did this because it had to be done. Raheem was killed, so now it’s Sal’s turn to pay for his side of argument. So rather than taking his life, Mookie distracts the angry mob from attacking Sal and points them in the direction of his pizzeria. Mookie and Sal both know this has to be done, and this is evident by a nice scene the two share the next morning, and what is unsaid is more important than what the two say to each other.

The brilliance in Do The Right Thing is in its neutrality. Many blindly indict this movie as a “black movie,” or a movie about hatred for “the (white) man,” but it is anything but. If there are sides taken here, it is every side. You understand Sal, you empathize with Mookie; you see every side and every angle and every plight. The answer at the end of the film, emphasized by a “non-violent” quote from Martin Luther King followed by a “violent” quote from Malcolm X, is that there are no answers. Racism runs deep inside all of us, no matter how much we don’t want it to be there, and we mustn’t allow it to cloud our lives with suspicion and hate, and that is the point of Do The Right Thing. At least, that’s the way I see it.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

SUMMER MOVIE POSTER REPORT CARD, Round 2

THE A-TEAM

Simple. Robust. Direct. The makers of this poster realized that the draw of this film is the cast together, not the explosions. A lot of these hollow-type summer fireball fests come with overloaded posters, but not this time. The tagline is pretty clever, but maybe the steel-riveted title could be a little bigger. And I know simplicity is better than activity in the background, but where is the iconic black-and-red van? They look like they are standing in the middle of nowhere (maybe they are). And the faces of the stars are a little too glossy and muted.
B

PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME


I get it. Gyllenhaal is the draw, and his costume is on full display here, but it just blends in with the strange foggy background. Every trailer and clip I see from this movie suggests sun-baked Egyptian and Middle-Eastern settings. So why does the poster look like he is lost in England? Everything is monochrome in the poster just to make the red sash he is wearing pop. To that it works, but the rest of the poster is kind of a wash. And I know the tagline is meant to be enigmatic and thought-provoking, but it's a little too much.


C


TWILIGHT ECLIPSE

So this is all it takes I guess to get the tweens and the cougars in the seats. Because this poster is almost as boring as the movie will surely be. I am trying to keep my biases away from this poster, but it's hard to do. Everyone is in mopey emo drab gray and black, surrounded by smog or something, and why are they all staring at me? There was absolutely zero creativity put into this poster, but when your audience is predetermined I guess you probably don't even need a poster to begin with. Pattinson looks like some chemo-ravaged transvestite and that other kid, Taylor something, is putting me to sleep with his lunkhead stare. Snooze...

F

SPLICE

Seriously? Not that the story is all that original, and the movie might be pretty good or pretty terrible, but the least the makers of this poster oculd do is have one original idea. The center of the poster, the obvious focus, is a combination or, a splicing (see what I did there?) of the first and third Alien posters, complete with egg shape and alien tail. And the spacing on the title looks like Alien. But the typeface and coloring reminds me of Species. The lack of originality doesn't make me too optimistic about the originality of the picture itself.

F


EAT, PRAY, LOVE

This is a good poster for a few reasons. First, everyone knows what Julia Roberts looks like, so the name on the top is suffice if you want to go simple like the makers did here. Second, the film has a built in audience who read the book, so they need only the title and the actress to get excited about the release. And for those without any knowledge of the story, the three words and the star are eye-catching, enough to draw interest. And the way each word is formed with corresponding items is a nice touch. The poster is relaxing, like some framed artwork you would find on the wall at a spa. Well done.

A-



Tuesday, May 11, 2010

TUESDAY TOP 10: Best All-Time Directors Without an Oscar

In order to recognize some of the most impacting, influential directors in cinema history for this list, I had to incorporate the twenty-year rule. There are any number of fantastic talents directing today – Paul Thomas Anderson, Chris Nolan, David Fincher – that have not won Oscar, but let's give them some time. But there are just as many directors who have either been around for decades, or while they were alive accumulated decades of great films and influenced the industry, never to win the Academy Award. And those “honorary awards,” – Oscars that go out to people whom the Academy realizes have been shafted over the years – they don’t count:

10) Terrence Malick – Malick has been around since the seventies, but his body of work is relatively thin. Any Malick film is a true event for some – myself included – and his films carry a depth of emotion and an unmatched visual power. Malick’s only nomination for best director was in 1998 for his cerebral World War II film The Thin Red Line, losing to Steven Spielberg and his mainstream war picture, Saving Private Ryan. But Malick could have been there before as his two films in the seventies, Badlands and Days of Heaven, were both magnificent in their own ways, and for my money The New World was one of the best films of 2005. Malick’s upcoming Tree of Life, starring Sean Penn and Brad Pitt, might be another chance for him come Oscar time.

9) Michael Mann – Mann has been in a bit of a valley recently in his career with Miami Vice (which I personally really like) and Public Enemies, a film with pedigree that may have been mishandled a bit. But there is no denying that Mann throughout the 90s, when he directed Last of the Mohicans, Heat, and The Insider, was at the very top of his game. At its time, oddly enough, Heat was met with a lukewarm reception from critics and audiences, but is now firmly entrenched as one of the finest crime-dramas of all time. And The Insider, in my opinion, is one of the ten best of the nineties, and was Mann’s best chance at winning. Perhaps in hindsight he should have taken home the award instead of Sam Mendes for the slightly overrated American Beauty.

8) Spike Lee – I wrote at length about Lee yesterday, who is on my radar recently as some directors and films tend to do in waves. Lee had two great opportunities to win best director, first in 1989 (when he was not nominated) for Do The Right Thing, and again in 1992 (when he was) for Malcolm X. The trouble is, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven was released in 1992, and Eastwood winning the statue was the right move. Lee has not been as consistent a director recently, but there were still some films throughout the years, Bamboozled and the vastly underrated The 25th Hour, that could have gotten some notice for Lee around Oscar time. But I feel like his time may be near. Not because of any project he is working on, but it’s just a feeling.

7) Sam Peckinpah – The first deceased director on this list is also one of the most enigmatic. Peckinpah was notoriously hard living, abusing drugs and alcohol until he died at 59 of heart failure, but while he was around he directed some of the most controversial, groundbreaking, violent pictures of his time. And none more important in the realm of cinema than The Wild Bunch, one of the best and most memorable of all westerns. Aside from The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah also directed the Steve McQueen/Ali MacGraw road film The Getaway, a year after the highly controversial Straw Dogs starring a young Dustin Hoffman as a quiet man pushed to the brink. Peckinpah was a great influence on the likes of Quentin Tarantino, and his style has gone unmatched since his passing.

6) Stanley Kubrick – That’s right, Stanley Kubrick never took home a statue, going 0 for 4 in his lifetime. It seemed that every Stanley Kubrick film was groundbreaking or important in some way, and the dedication and maniacal directing style was perhaps just as famous as the films themselves. Kubrick was a talent before the seventies, but was one of the mavericks of the decade that helped to shape modern American cinema (well, the good parts anyway). From 2001, to Clockwork Orange, to Barry Lyndon, Kubrick was always trying new things, new techniques, and always coming up with the same great results on screen. His films were always just a little too controversial for the buttoned-up Academy to branch out and award him accordingly.

5) Fredrico Fellini – This is an interesting case, Fellini. He, like Kubrick, went 0 for 4 as a nominee, getting noticed for his transcendent works 8 ½ and La Dolce Vita, as well as Satyricon and Amarcord. Fellini inspired virtually every groundbreaking filmmaker in the seventies, none more so than Martin Scorsese. But his work was always a little more appreciated after the fact rather than at the moment. 8 ½ and La Dolce Vita were both semiautobiographical, and both are monuments not only in Italian film culture, but in the culture of cinema as a whole. Overall, Fellini was nominated for twelve Academy Awards, not winning a single one for writing or directing, a true head-scratching anomaly.

4) Akira Kurosawa – Kurosawa was given an honorary Oscar in 1990 from Martin Scorsese, and was Marty’s biggest influence as a director. But we aren’t counting these hollow honorary Oscars, especially when a director as influential and talented as Kurosawa went without winning in his illustrious career. Most remember Kurosawa for Seven Samurai, but his only best director nomination was in 1986 for Ran, losing to Oliver Stone and Platoon. But the loss is not as staggering as the fact that he was not nominated prior to 1986, for Seven Samurai, Kagemusha, Ikiru, any number of seminal works over the last half of the twentieth century.

3) Alfred Hitchcock – This is where things get ridiculous. Hitchcock was a five-time nominee, for Psycho, Rear Window, Spellbound, Lifeboat, and Rebecca. Three of these pictures were beaten understandably, but Psycho and Rear Window are two of the 100 best films of the century. And let us not forget that he was ignored for Vertigo and North by Northwest, two more of the 100 greatest. Hitchcock even created an unofficial signature style and technique that borrows from his name: Hitchcockian. Hitchcock was another great influence on every director that came after him in one way or another, and the fact that he never won an Academy Award is criminal.

2) Robert Altman – If you appreciate Paul Thomas Anderson, then you inherently appreciate the power and scope of Robert Altman, a unique visionary who experimented with a new style and created an American realism with his pictures. Using expansive casts and overlapping dialogue was the trademark of Altman throughout his career, as he directed such classic films as Nashville, MASH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Player, and Gosford Park. Altman would have deserved a win any one of those years, and like Hitchcock was shut out five times. Perhaps his most deserving film was The Player, or maybe Nashville, but they came up against two pictures with deserving pedigrees in themselves, Unforgiven and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, respectively. But regardless, somewhere along the way, Altman should have taken home the statue before receiving his honorary “we fucked up” award in 2006.

1) Sidney Lumet – I really would like someone to explain this to me. Lumet is yet another four-time nominee, and another amazing director without a win. But I would argue that Lumet is the best of the bunch. Consider the films he was nominated for: 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, The Verdict. Those first three are hands down great films, and Dog Day and Network two of the best of the seventies. And could someone explain to me how he was not nominated for Serpico, one of the finest police dramas ever? Lumet has never held a signature style like Hitchcock or Altman, he has simply allowed his stories to tell themselves and used subtle camera techniques to manipulate the audience’s eye. And he has always gotten the very best from his actors. Just never the same from the Academy.