Thursday, July 29, 2010

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Punch Drunk Love

Paul Thomas Anderson and Adam Sandler seemed like an odd pairing in 2002, the year the duo teamed up to release Punch Drunk Love. Anderson, always considered a serious auteur, and Sandler, America’s biggest goofball, appeared to be oil and water stylistically speaking. But they met in the middle somehow, forming a whimsical little story about loneliness, love, anger, and frequent flyer miles. Anderson, who also wrote the film, managed to work in certain traits of Sandler’s well-known persona on screen – the violent outbursts juxtaposed to the timid neediness and sweetness – while creating a truly unique, heartfelt love story. The comedy here, timely and clever and sometimes slapstick, complements the story, and Punch Drunk Love feels a little like the undercurrent of Sandler comedies; the quirky negative of that photo we all have of Sandler playing the loveable dope.

Sandler plays Barry Egan, a lonely soul who owns a small business selling decorative toilet plungers (because anyone who owns a business like that would be lonely). The film opens on Barry early in the morning at work before any of his coworkers, discussing something that will play into the story later, something about frequent-flyer miles. Barry hears a noise and decides to check it out. While Barry is watching the streets there is a violent car crash; a single car has a blowout and rolls down the empty San Fernando Valley road. Almost immediately a van pulls up and stops, taking up the entire frame. The door flies open and a faceless figure drops a small piano, a harmonium, on the street in front of Barry, slams the door closed, and drives away. Barry takes the harmonium back to his office and the accident is never mentioned again. So what is this all about? It is a set up for the story, one we will revisit later.

Barry has seven sisters, seven awful and suffocating sisters that are clearly the reason for his stunted social personality and pent up anger and frustration. Barry puts on a façade of sweetness and innocence, but no matter how hard he tries, his sisters bring out uncontrollable rage in him. Early in a party scene, after his sisters continually harass him, calling him “gay boy,” Barry erupts into violence and smashes three glass panes of a patio door. This is the pattern for Barry, emotional handicaps that percolate until they explode into a rage that even Barry does not understand.

Barry meets Lena Leonard (the doll-eyed Emily Watson), a co-worker of one of his sisters who, despite his quirks and ticks, seems infatuated with him. Barry cannot function normally with a female who is not his sister, leaving it up to Lena to ask him out on a date. The two share undeniable chemistry together, all in spite of Barry’s social awkwardness and the fact that, when Lena mentions his sisters to him, he tears a bathroom apart at the restaurant during their date and is kicked out. Barry does not comprehend the way he feels, or how in the world he – such a bottled-up man – could follow Lena to Hawaii on a whim while she visits the island on business. This doesn’t make sense to Barry, but it does. And so goes their quirky love story.

But there is another story at play here, and it involves a mattress man (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in Utah. Before meeting Lena, Barry called a phone sex line. The scene where Barry calls is long and patient, and almost hard to watch. Barry, searching for a companionship he can have from a distance, struggles even to talk to this woman on the phone and the scene unfolds with decided unease. The next morning, however, the woman calls back and tries to extort money from Barry. When he does not agree, four blonde brothers are dispatched to LA to get the money. And when these stories intersect, when the brothers smash into Barry’s car – Lena in the passenger's seat – Barry decides to settle the harassment and takes down these brothers with a crowbar in an almost surgeon-like assault. But that is not enough, this must be stopped because now he has Lena and he cannot allow these things to destroy the one relationship he has. This is why he travels to Utah and squares things with the mattress man.

Punch Drunk Love was created from a story Anderson read one day where a man found a loophole in a Healthy Choice promotion that would get him millions of frequent-flyer miles without spending much up front. Barry does this as a goal in the picture; if he gets these million miles he can go with Lena whenever she has to go for work. Anderson uses colors and ticks in his story to create mood. Barry wears a blue suit the whole time; the scenes transition through a kaleidoscope of colors and sounds. The colors and sounds create an almost fairy-tale atmosphere in the picture. There are moments throughout that may even suggest this is all a dream, that Barry is still sitting at his desk early that morning, but I wouldn’t go that far.

But what about that piano and the car accident? The accident represents what is about to happen to Barry’s world. His existence of loneliness and isolation is about to roll over and chaos is unfolding all around him. And the piano, the harmonium, is a sort of home base for Barry. When things become stressful, too much to handle, Barry puts his hand on the harmonium or plays a few simple notes to stay calm. By the end of the picture, Barry understands that Lena and the harmonium are one in the same, and he brings the instrument with him to Lena’s apartment and the two – or the three – live happily ever after.

Punch Drunk Love is about half as long as all of Anderson’s other films, but equally as loaded with themes, moods, and memorable moments. This is a story of love, as pure and stripped of any cliché and convention as you can get, and all of the moments and scenes and situations meld together in a series of colors and sounds that are represented by the kaleidoscopic transition sequences. This is also a moment for Sandler to take that same dopey character he plays in almost all of his comedies and show us that maybe those characters have something deeper and darker they need to explore. All of Sandler’s characters need affection, and Barry seems to be the penultimate character in need of love. Sandler shows range here more than in any other movie, and Anderson, when it was all said and done, was the perfect pairing.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

DVD REVIEW: The Runaways

Music biopics have, over the past decade or so, gelled into a subgenre. After the success of films like Ray, Walk the Line, La Vie en Rose, and I’m Not There, the music biopic has become chic. The Runaways, the story of Joan Jett and her first band of misfit teens, has everything you would come to expect from a rock biopic like this, and nothing you wouldn’t expect. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing, or a bad picture because of that, it is just trapped by genre conventions – a surprising notion in the fact that it tells a true story. Genre pictures are primarily fiction, but rock biopics all follow a similar trajectory, so it’s hard to break free. So we must rely on the performances in these films, and for the most part this is where The Runaways shines. For the most part.

We never get much of a back story to Joan Jett, either because writer/director Floria Sigismondi (adapting from a book by Cherie Currie) isn’t interested in Jett’s early life or Kristin Stewart, who plays Jett, couldn’t pull it off. Nevertheless, we are dropped into the late seventies and introduced first to Jett, then to Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), the eventual lead singer of The Runaways, an outcast in high school with an affinity for David Bowie. This is Bowie’s heyday, as he seemingly runs as an undercurrent throughout. The sense of time and place are excellent here; the late seventies as a sort of limbo for rock and roll. One night, Jett spots famous and wildly eccentric record producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) and tells him she wants to form an all-girl rock band. Fowley, enticed by the idea, assembles a group of teenage girls with marginal talent and molds them into The Runaways. Currie is the key, the blonde bombshell with the sex appeal who sells records. Despite Currie’s tough act in high school, it takes some time for her to form into the role of sexpot for the group.

The Runaways start slowly, going out on the road playing for pennies until they get spotted and get a record deal. Then they vault into stardom and fizzle out under the weight of drugs, fame, and Currie’s ego that takes over – seemingly in the same year. They have their big hit, Cherry Bomb, and they enjoy the excess of rock stardom with the best of them. Although this was built up as the film where Kristin Stewart plays Joan Jett, it is primarily a story about Currie. The pain of expectation and guilt of leaving her sister and alcoholic father back home, coupled with the drug abuse, causes Currie to leave the band first, therein spelling doom for the Runaways. It’s quite a thing, seeing Fanning portray Currie. This young little blonde, a child star almost grown up, carries the picture. There is a moment later in the film, after the band has split up, where a trashed Currie tries to buy two onions and a bottle of vodka in the grocery store only to be turned away. This is a strong scene and Fanning pulls it off like a pro. Her performance isn’t worthy of a nomination or anything, but it is the meat of this mediocre tale and she can handle the gravitas of her character as well as anyone here.

Michael Shannon – quickly becoming one of my favorite character actors – continues his run as a magnetic force on screen. After his stunning performance in Revolutionary Road, Shannon shines in the role of Fowley, a manic personality who loves makeup as much as any girl. Shannon is the energy in the story, a story that loses steam whenever he is away. As for Stewart, well, she nails the look of Joan Jett. I keep holding out hope that Kristin Stewart can separate her performances from the mopey Bella in Twilight, but I don’t think she can. She constantly looks down, away from the screen so much so that I kept leaning down trying to see her face. Stewart has moments as Jett, but overall she exists in the periphery of Currie’s more compelling story and Fowley’s energy.

The Runaways is trapped by convention, decidedly typical. It is enjoying enough, but there is nothing to really stand out here. The soundtrack, full of Bowie, Lou Reed, and of course The Runaways, is vibrant and exciting at times, more so than the events unfolding on the screen. It is tough to stand out these days in the realm of music biopics, and The Runaways sometimes falls victim to things out of its control, things that have been done before. And perhaps a little better.

B-

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

TUESDAY TOP 10: The Best 80s Action Flicks...

With The Expendables just around the corner, we should take a look at the decade and the films that made Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis, and Co. all famous. These are the ass-kicking, unforgiving, fun-loving action films of the 1980s. There is no CGI here, no soulless green screens or disorienting action that you cannot follow. This is the 80s, where the action movie was king. And somehow, even though the action was ridiculous at times and the effects as dated as leg warmers, think about these movies on this list, and the way they made you feel; the way they make you feel. Then, think about action movies today; vapid, hollow, effects-driven noise machines. Makes you wish Arnie would stop all this governor nonsense for a few years…

10) Tango & Cash – I never said anything about all the movies on this list being good. Many of them aren’t “good” so to speak, Tango & Cash being example number one. T&C was a buddy-cop spinoff that was everywhere after 1987 (more on that later), and the teaming of Kurt Russell and Sly Stallone – a regular on this list – is curious to say the least. Stallone is Tango, a well-dressed, mannerly cop with straight edges all around. Russell is, of course, Cash, a loose-living Wildman a la Martin Riggs minus the suicidal thoughts. Once the two star cops are framed for a murder it is up to them to escape a prison full of their arrests and clear their name. There is enough cheese in this flick to feed a village, and the one-liners and the tongue-in-cheek action comes in spades. There is even a moment where Tango, after the opening action sequence that was necessary in so many of these movies, calls Rambo “a pussy.” Well played, Sly.

9) Red Heat – Now this was one of my favorites as a kid, even though my mother was no fan of the over-the-top, relentless swearing from Jim Belushi . And let us all welcome Arnold Schwarzenegger to the list for the first (not the last) time. Arnie plays Captain Ivan Danko, a Russian supercop sent to America to find a Russian drug dealer who has escaped and is hiding away in Chicago. He is teamed up with, who else, his polar opposite. Jim Belushi plays Art Ridzik, a slovenly hardass Chicago cop who is so American and so Chicago. This is yet another buddy-cop spinoff after 1987, but with a splash of Cold War tension sprinkled on top. I think everyone remembers the bus chase at the end, but I remember the humor between uptight Danko and untucked Ridzik. I also remember the discussion about whether or not Ridzik “think parakeet is feminie.”

8) Cobra – Ah, the lone cop movie. If there were an onslaught of buddy-cop pictures in the 80s, there were plenty of lone warrior scenarios being played out. Sly Stallone is back on the list (2 for 3 so far), and this time he plays Marion “Cobra” Cobretti, a vigilante cop on the trail of a ruthless serial killer. Okay, hold on… Marion is his first name? That makes me laugh. Anyways… Cobra is a cop who plays by his own rules. He doesn’t much bother with regulations or procedures, a logical oversight that was a big part of the 80s, and he has a romantic interest in Bridgette Nielsen (Sly’s real-life wife at the time) that is necessary for these cops flying solo. Cobra drives a ridiculous roadster, lives life by ridiculous rules, and takes down the serial killer in ridiculous fashion. Cobra is ridiculous and awesome all at the same time.

7) Rambo: First Blood Part II – Hey! Look at that! It’s Sly Stallone back again. And I promise you it won’t be his last appearance. This sequel to the thoughtful and heavy First Blood is so unforgivingly 80s. This may be the very epitome of 80s action. This time around, John Rambo, sent behind enemy lines in Vietnam to take pictures of POWs. But Rambo does not agree with just taking pictures of course, and must rescue these prisoners despite not getting any help from those who sent him. This sequel is Stallone, as Rambo, taking the Regan-era mentality of kicking ass back to South Asia, back to where we “lost our way” as a country, and making things right with the world. It is a cathartic bit of machine-gun play and Vietnamese soldiers being blown apart by explosive arrows. Rambo mows down anyone and everyone in his way, and, social commentary aside, this sequel is a pretty fun action flick and the very definition of 80s excess.

6) Lethal Weapon – It’s a little tough to write about this one now (I am pretty sure that, as I write, another megalomaniacal Mel Gibson rant is being released), but regardless of how insane Mel Gibson has become in recent years and days, Lethal Weapon must be on this list. The first picture on the list without either Arnie or Sly is the beginning of the buddy-cop subgenre, and the beginning of a lucrative franchise that would spawn three sequels. Danny Glover is Murtaugh, the old-school cop with a six shooter and a few days until retirement (it is so strange that Murtaugh was going to retire at the end of every movie in a franchise that would go eleven years). Gibson is Riggs, a hotshot killer from Vietnam who lost his wife (cough, cough) and is now a suicidal wreck of a human. The two form the inevitable “unlikely bond” to take down heroin dealers and save the day. This is a staple of 80s action that may have been a bit higher on this list a few years ago. And while I think the sequel in 1989 is a better film, the original Lethal Weapon is more pivotal.

5) First Blood – Welcome back, Sly. You’ve been missed. First Blood, the introduction of John Rambo to the world, may be the most serious film on this list and perhaps the best overall movie. Here, Rambo is a fresh Vietnam veteran who has come to visit a friend in a small Northwestern town. But his friend has died, and Rambo is left aimless, wandering. Unfortunately for him he wanders into a town run by Sheriff Teasle (an excellent Brian Dennehy) and his band of cold deputies. Teasle doesn’t fancy Rambo a war hero, as many did not at the time when considering the way Vietnam ended, and has it out for Rambo. After a misunderstanding or three, Rambo escapes to the nearby mountains and we discover, thanks to the appearance of Rambo’s friend and boss, Trautman (Richard Crenna), that Rambo is the most badass dude on the planet. This is a heavy film, full of social commentary, but not lacking in action or genuine suspense, which is why it deserves the five spot on this list.

4) Commando – Arnie is back this time, playing John Matrix (that name just means business), a retired elite soldier whose daughter (Alyssa Milano) is kidnapped and he is forced to assassinate the leader of Bolivia (or some place, it doesn’t matter) for an exiled dictator (Dan Hedaya. Yes, Cher’s dad from Clueless). But instead he decides to go get his daughter back, and along the way racks up what has to be the highest body count in film history. The climax of the film has Matrix loaded down with machine guns (plural), grenades, grenade launchers, mines, pistols, knives, and a rocket launcher as he takes on an entire private army without picking up even one stray bullet. I know Arnie is big and strong, but how the hell is he supposed to walk with what has to be a thousand pounds of artillery strapped to his body? It doesn’t matter, what does matter is the awesomely over-the-top action and fantastic chase sequences. This is the 80s amped up to eleven.

3) Robocop – Part crime drama, part science-fiction, part social commentary, part satire, all gore, action, exploitation, and awesome, Robocop is like a time capsule for 1987. Murphy is an eager young cop gunned down and left for dead after a band of ruthless criminals fill him full of a million holes (the original sequence here had to be edited out to avoid an X rating). But the police save Murphy’s brain and transform him into Robocop, a hulking metal machine of police justice. Aside from the absurd amount of violence, gunplay, and camp action that nothing could rival, Robocop is also a fun satire on media saturation and violence that resonates perhaps more today than it did even then.

2) Predator – Arnie’s last stop on this list is also one of his best action movies ever. With the fantastic action director John McTiernan at the helm, Arnie plays Dutch, an elite soldier and the head of a unit of badasses including Carl Weathers, Jessie Ventura, and the great Bill Duke (also in Commando) sent on a mission to Central America. After completing their mission, however, they begin to discover that they are being hunted by… something. There is a creature that is using the trees to mow down the soldiers one by one, and things grow more and more desperate. Aside from two future governors being in Predator, the film is rife with palpable tension, great action, and what is still one of Rick Baker’s finest creations in the predator creature itself. Arnie calls him “one ugly motherfucker,” but I would disagree. The predator is one of the most iconic modern movie monsters (along with Ridley Scott’s alien) to come around since Universal fired off so many in the 30s and 40s.

1) Die Hard – Bruce Willis makes his first appearance on this list (it was an inevitable appearance) in the best action film of the 80s and perhaps the best action film of all time. Willis, fresh to the scene as an action star back in 1988, plays John McClane, a New York cop in LA to see his estranged wife at a Christmas party at her office building. But a group of international terrorists spoil the festivities and McClane is left to take down the villains, led by Hans Gruber (a deliciously evil Alan Rickman) on his own. Unlike Commando, Die Hard and McClane’s fight against the terrorists is handled with some sense of realism. McClane has to fight and struggle to get the upper hand. He has to run and hide and use his wits and not just mow everyone down with a small arsenal. Willis is perfect for the role, a role that would catapult him into the stratosphere of superstar action actors alongside Sly and Arnie. “Yippee Kay-aye, motherfucker.”

Monday, July 26, 2010

WHERE THEY STAND: Keanu Reeves

Keanu Reeves catches a lot of shit from a lot of people. He’s wooden, he’s boring, he can’t act. But considering his career for a moment, and the films he has been a part of, it seems a bit shortsighted to dismiss Keanu as a bad actor. A bad actor ruins a movie that could otherwise be good (see: Josh Hartnett). A bad actor tries to convey emotions that he cannot convey, thus coming off as corny or disingenuous (see: Josh Hartnett). A bad actor makes you NOT want to see a movie simply because of his/her presence (see: well… you get the idea). Keanu Reeves does none of these things. Perhaps his great films are great in spite of his performance, but I disagree. Where would the world be if there were no Keanu Reeves? Would we all get the same mental image – a flash of his face in some form or another – when someone says “whoa” like a stoned surfer if he were not in so many quality films over the last two decades? I think not.

Keanu Reeves, believe it or not, will be 46 this September. Over his career he might have one of the more diverse résumés of anyone his age. Reeves began early as an actor on television, like so many, and in small bit parts in small films, but we all know the film where Keanu would become, well, Keanu to us all. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure was Reeves’ big break, but he was still Ted. He was second fiddle to Bill S. Preston, played by… um… that guy who was in The Lost Boys. Barely in The Lost Boys. Excellent Adventure was where America first got to hear Keanu deliver his signature line, “whoa,” his goofy stoner version of “I’ll be back.” Excellent Adventure was clearly not a good movie, but a fun one and a good start for Keanu and a good way to be noticed. From there Reeves could have gone any number of ways, but he wisely remained diverse. That’s right, I said Keanu Reeves was diverse.

Reeves would star in some smaller films over the next few years, even making an appearance as Todd, the dopey husband to a young Martha Plimpton in Parenthood. But in 1991, Reeves would appear all grown up and ready to kick some ass in Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break. The film, about a gang of surfing bank robbers, was a perfect transition for Reeves from clown to action star. The Southern California surfer vibe mixed with some top-notch action and thrills showcased Reeves’ ability to be a bankable action star and hold his own alongside someone like Patrick Swayze. After Point Break, Reeves did a second Bill and Ted’s film, but let’s go ahead and move past that.

In the year after Point Break’s success, Reeves starred as Scott in Gus Van Sant’s art-house hit My Own Private Idaho alongside the late River Phoenix. The part for Reeves, playing a hustler in Portland, was a vast departure from Point Break and Ted Logan, and proof that he could do even more than what he had shown. The next year he was Jonathan Harker in Francis Ford Coppola’s ambitious Dracula film. Many site Reeves as the weakest part of the picture, but I would argue that there were many many weak parts in that film, a film that sort of spiraled out of control. Over the next two years, Reeves would do a little Shakespeare in Much Ado About Nothing, and a few smaller films like Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. But in 1994, Reeves would take the two breakout roles he had gotten so far, as Ted and then in Point Break, and add a third.

Speed definitely had a gimmick: there’s a bomb on a bus, the bus can’t drop below 50 or it will explode. But Speed also had some fantastic moments of action and tension unlike most action pictures you see today. Jan De Bont’s debut feature starred Reeves, Dennis Hopper, Jeff Daniels, and introduced the world to a young actress named Sandra Bullock, and was one of the biggest hits on 1994. Speed is a good old-fashioned action thriller that stands out still to this day, and proved once again that Reeves could carry a big movie and be a big-time action star. After Speed, Reeves was given every script imaginable, and squandered an opportunity to blossom for a few years. He starred in drivel like Johnny Mnemonic, A Walk in the Clouds, Chain Reaction, and Feeling Minnestoa; films that are diverse in ideas and plots, but not very diverse in quality. They were all pretty bad in their own way. But then, in 1997, Reeves would have another breakout year.

The year began with The Devil’s Advocate, a provocative supernatural thriller starring Reeves, Al Pacino, and a young actress named Charlize Theron. The film, about a young lawyer who may or may not be the son of Satan, is a fiery otherworldly horror picture with some great moments of shock. While it borrowed from any and every “devil film” before it, Devil’s Advocate was a clever, dark thriller that is most remembered through the over-the-top performance from Pacino. Nevertheless, Reeves made his mark on the picture as well, and actually had a bit more energy here than what you may be used to. Devil’s Advocate was a solid start for Reeves in 1997. Then 1999 would bring even bigger things, and a film that would change the film industry for years to come.

The Matrix was groundbreaking on so many levels, and spawned two (terrible) sequels. Despite the mess of the second two, the original Matrix is one of the best science-fiction films ever, and Reeves is, once again, front and center of a smash hit. And we again got to hear Reeves say “whoa.” A slick, crafty sci-fi thriller, The Matrix would change the special effects at the time and create a cavalcade of parodies and knockoffs. Unfortunately, the allure and the freshness of the original film, and even the energy of Reeves’ performance, would disappear in the stale, confusing, drawn out second and third films, films that I like to imagine never happened. I think Trinity is still dying as we speak.

After The Matrix, Reeves would again try diverse roles that would, again, fall flat. There was the lame football comedy The Replacements, the incredibly sappy romantic drama Sweet November, and even Reeves trying to play the bad guy in Sam Raimi’s misstep The Gift, and The Watcher. Aside from working on the Matrix sequels in the last decade, Reeves has floundered a bit in more forgettable roles. He tried his hand as an edgy cop in Street Kings, tried a re-teaming with Sandra Bullock in the ridiculous romance The Lake House, and tried to start another franchise as an undead chain smoking servant of Satan in Constantine. Constantine was a stylish, sometimes entertaining flick, but nothing to write home about. Reeves would also star in the ill-advised remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, a movie I had to turn off because I was falling asleep. It was also a film that everyone would point to and say “this one should be good for Reeves, he plays an alien with no personality.”

The personality is in there, it is in Reeves’ better films, be it Point Break, Speed, The Matrix, or even The Devil’s Advocate. Sure, Reeves is a wooden personality, a stiff person, but in the roles and films that succeed, Reeves’ wooden demeanor fits perfectly. He can show a range of emotion effectively, albeit a limited one. There are things he should do (action) and things he should not do (romance). Wooden or not, Reeves deserves to be in GENERAL ADMISSION.

Friday, July 23, 2010

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: September and October Releases, Bruce Willis, and MIA directors...

* September and October are going to be packed full of intriguing movies. There are so many trailers out there that have caught my eye.

* September is usually a bad month for films too. Which makes me a bit wary. But George Clooney’s The American is being released on Sep. 1. There is no way that can be bad, right?

* I wonder if Sidney Lumet is planning on directing any more films. He is 86, so I can see him not getting involved with another one. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead would be hard to top at his age.

* Somebody who needs to direct something else is Adrian Lyne. That guy has been MIA since 2002 when he directed Unfaithful. Sure, Unfaithful wasn’t the be-all end-all, but it was solidly entertaining.

* Edward Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond) needs to get back behind the camera. He is directing Love and Other Drugs, a romantic comedy, but that doesn’t seem like his type of movie. Maybe it will be good, but it doesn’t really interest me coming from Zwick.

* I want to not like Let Me In, the remake of Let the Right One In, but the trailer just looks so good.

* Bruce Willis is ready to do another Die Hard. Is anyone else? Live Free or Die Hard, despite it’s stupid title, was a decent movie. Timothy Olyphant’s villain was one of the softest in film history, but it was still a solid action flick. But five? Really? I think Bruce should concentrate his efforts on other things.

* And speaking of Bruce Willis… doesn’t it seem like he is immune from all of the shit movies he does? It’s like, he did Cop Out at the beginning of the year, and he does so many terrible movies. But whenever he appears in the trailer for something that looks even mildly amusing, I know I get excited to see him. Red looks like a fun movie.

* I don’t even know if that last statement made sense.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Reconsidering Stanley Kubrick's last film, EYES WIDE SHUT

Stanley Kubrick’s swan song, Eyes Wide Shut, was surrounded by almost crippling fanfare, rumors of the entire production spiraling out of control, and the two hottest stars of the time – husband and wife team Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman – having their patience tested by the infamously meticulous director. The film almost seemed secondary to the "reshoots heard ‘round the world." So when it came out, Kubrick’s dreamlike foray into marriage, sex and desire was met with rather lukewarm receipts at the box office and an overwhelming “meh” from most crowds. That is because the crowds wanted to go see a typical Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman summer flick, something entertaining and very surface level. What they were treated to was a sexual journey of discovery and a trip down a wormhole that, after having just over a decade to digest, I feel is one of Kubrick’s best, most hypnotizing works.

Tom and Nicole, as they were called once upon a time, play Dr. Bill and Alice Harford, two wealthy Manhattan socialites. As the picture opens, Bill and Alice are seemingly a near-perfect couple; they are young, beautiful, they have a young daughter, and an apartment that looks out over Central Park. IT is near Christmas, and the two are going to a party hosted by one of Bill’s clients (the late, great Sydney Pollack). Everything up to this party feels right, looks copasetic. It is when Bill and Alice get separated in the party that things begin to feel noticeably different.

Early on, Bill is called to the private office of the host, Victor (Pollack). A call girl he has been with has overdosed. That gets Bill away from Alice, who meets a mysterious, suave older gentleman and they share a dance. The gentleman appears to come from nowhere, almost as if he had appeared in Alice’s head, and their conversation while dancing has Alice practically swooning amid the sexual tensions and innuendos. Meanwhile, Bill finds two young women who flirt and toy with Bill for nearly the remainder of the party. Once the party is over, Alice and Bill return home and decide to share a rather large, surely potent joint together. The joint serves almost as a truth serum, and the crawling desires and thoughts begin to bubble to the surface. Alice mocks Bill’s cocky certainty that she would never leave him, and she knocks him down a peg, telling him of the dream she has had about a Naval officer she spotted in a train station. This moment is perhaps the most vulnerable and weak Cruise has ever looked in any film, and he leaves the apartment angry.

While getting some air, Bill meets up with a piano-playing friend, Nick Nightingale (played by director Todd Field) who was playing at the party earlier that night. Nick inadvertently tells Bill of a private, secretive after-hours party where he plays – blindfolded. Bill is naturally intrigued and hassles Nick for the pass code and information on how to get in. But Bill does not go right away, and his journey into the night of Manhattan takes on almost a road-picture feel. He meets a young prostitute whom he wisely passes on the opportunity to sleep with, and later, when he persuades a costume-store owner to open his doors so that Bill may get a cloak with a hood and a mask for the secret meeting, Bill and the store owner stumble upon the owner’s young daughter (Leelee Sobieski) in the throws of a kinky sexual game with two men. She whispers something in Bill’s ear, and disappears.

Bill eventually gets in to the secret party, and this is the moment of the infamous orgy sequence where Kubrick was forced by the MPAA to superimpose shadowy figures in strategic places to avoid an NC-17 rating. The orgy scene soon delves into a nightmare for Bill, who is discovered as an imposter at the party, and is forced to take his mask off in front of all the other masked members – all of whom undoubtedly operate in the same social circles as Bill. This turns Bill’s curiosity and sexual adventures into a nightmare of paranoia and possibly murder. Things begin to chip away at Bill, who is a weak person to begin with.

Kubrick’s vision was under a bit of fire after Eyes Wide Shut’s initial release. Namely, the curiously empty streets of Manhattan. But I would contend that Kubrick made the street scenes empty for very specific purposes. This is never a true representation of Manhattan – aside from the fact that it was filmed in England – and this is Bill’s psychological journey. When the man is following him late in the film, it is just the two of them on the street. There is no need for extras because, perhaps, this exists in Bill’s mind. Or even if it doesn’t, this nightmare needs no outside influences from street vendors or people trying to catch a cab. That would merely distract.

Eyes Wide Shut is not literal, not in any sense of the word really. It is a psychological exploration into desires that may or may not ever be explored in relationships, and what those may or may not do. After the initial party and bedroom scene, Kidman is left on the sideline and this becomes a picture about Bill and his self discovery that goes horribly wrong. Kubrick, an infamous perfectionist, nails every bit of his techniques that separate him as an auteur. There are the long, patient shots, a calm unfolding of the stories, and a score – mostly consisting of a single piano note – that amps up the intensity. This, Kubrick’s final film (he died four days after finishing the final cut, a sign if there ever was one as to the taxing nature of the shoot), is on par with some of his best, and clearly should be reconsidered as such.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

HUMP-DAY TRAILER EXTRAVAGANZA



THE TOWN - Everyone who rolls their eyes at Ben Affleck should really reconsider. Affleck has shed those years of Gigli, Pearl Harbor, and Reindeer Games and, after directing one of the best films of 2007 in Gone Baby Gone, he is back and it looks like he has made another stellar crime drama.


DEVIL - Maybe M. Night Shyamalan should take on a new title: idea man. Leave the writing, producing, and directing to other people. Because, judging from the fantastic trailer here, it may be a great idea.



DUE DATE - This pairing of Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis looks to be a new-generation version of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, and Todd Phillips does a good job of more than likely keeping the funniest parts out of the trailers.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK - This is a strange marriage of David Fincher and Facebook, but it looks well photographed and actually pretty gripping. And I love the choir singing Radiohead over the images.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

TUESDAY TOP 10: Best Movie Character Names...

I'll let the names do most of the explaining...

10) JOHNNY UTAH – Was there ever a cooler quarterback/FBI agent name? Or… was there ever another quarterback/FBI agent?


9) MARTY MCFLY – Nerdy and cool, the perfect mix for the character.

8) EBBY CALVIN “NUKE” LALOOSH – An epically goofy name for a goofy bastard. Also known as: MEAT.

7) VINCENT VEGA – Supremely cool name and the double ‘V’s make it sound adequately menacing.

6) YODA – Simple and thoughtful at the same time, and practically an adjective for any philosopher.

5) MR. BLONDE – The only one of the group of Reservoir Dogs who isn’t an actual color. Also, the biggest, craziest badass of the bunch.
4) DIRK DIGGLER – Best. Porn. Name. Ever.
3) HAN SOLO – The epitome of heroic and cocky. And the name of someone who would definitely have shot first.

2) INDIANA JONES – Swashbuckling, adventurous, and a little bit lighthearted. The name is the franchise.

1) THE DUDE – Well, what is there to say about His Dudeness/El Duderino? That’s is... if you’re not into the whole brevity thing…

Monday, July 19, 2010

RANK 'EM: The Rocky Franchise...

6) Rocky V – This is the bottom of the barrel for the Rocky franchise, and the poor production values and weak story would put it at the bottom of a lot of barrels. In this fourth sequel, shockingly directed by the original’s John G. Avildsen, we have Rocky losing almost all of his money and being forced back into the old neighborhood from the first film. Rather than getting a nostalgic look back at where Rocky came from, we get a cheesy plot involving Rocky training Tommy “The Machine” Gunn (groan) to become a fighter, and dealing with a Don King-like character. And Rocky, after evolving as a semi-intelligent character in the last three films, resorts back to the borderline retarded character he was in the original, where it was charming and effective. This time around it’s just weird. Plus, Rocky must deal with his whiny bitch of a son (Stallone’s real son, Sage) who cries and pouts and sulks like a spoiled rich kid. He is simply the worst part of a dreadfully inept movie.

5) Rocky II – The first sequel in this never ending series doesn’t really do much for me. And it doesn’t really move anything forward in the story. Sure, Rocky and Adrian get married and have their son, but Rocky has a rematch with Apollo Creed that I can’t remember as I sit here. I just know that he wins this time around, undercutting some of the original film’s charm in the fact that he and Creed tied. This is probably the one film in the series that I cannot map out without sitting down to watch it again, and I don’t think that is going to happen anytime soon. Rocky II isn’t necessarily a bad film, or a bad sequel I suppose, it’s just flat and uninspired.

4) Rocky Balboa – The most recent Rocky film shed the roman numerals and went full nostalgia. Rocky is still living in the old neighborhood but now, instead of training a young kid, Rocky is a retired restaurant owner who consistently ass-whips his clientele with stories of his glory days. He mopes around punch drunk, having lost Adrian to “the female cancer” (seriously? The female cancer?). We get to visit all of the places from the original film, and this time it feels more genuine than it did in Rocky V. Rocky agrees to do a charity fight with Mason “The Line” Dixon (real-life boxer Antonio Tarver), so we get the inevitable training montage that is a staple of the franchise. It’s tough to buy into Stallone as a sixty-year old boxer, but Rocky Balboa is a pretty solid homage to the entire franchise more than it is a movie that exists on its own merit.

3) Rocky III – They start to get better in these last three here. Rocky III is a fun, clever sequel and has a few moments of heart, namely the death of Mick (Burgess Meredith) after being shoved down by Clubber Lang (a feisty and amusingly over the top Mr. T) before he and Rocky face off. And this is also the only fight in the series that Rocky loses. Down on his luck and without Mick around, Rocky loses his confidence and loses his way. He must train with his old nemesis, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, in all of his tight fro greatness) in Los Angeles where the two become close friends and Rocky takes down Clubber Lang in a rousing climax. The best part of the Rocky films are the climactic fight and training sequence, and without those two things working correctly the picture loses some of its energy. Rocky III works on both parts, and aside from being corny from time to time (the charity wrestling match with Hulk Hogan is a little weird), Rocky III succeeds where Rocky II did not.

2) Rocky IV – This was Sylvester Stallone, who directed, settling the Cold War on his own. In this best sequel of the original, Rocky must take down Ivan Drago, a robotic Russian monster who kills Apollo Creed in a charity bout early on. The metaphors are not necessarily hard to uncover here; Rocky trains in the snow using a barn and natural resources and good ol’ American determination while Ivan Drago trains in a state-of-the-art facility and gets juiced up with steroids. Rocky is steadfast American values and Drago is cold, evil Russia. I struggled to put Rocky IV number two on this list – I considered placing it at the top – as it is perhaps the most thrilling and fun entry into the franchise. Dolph Lundgren, who must have three or four lines in the entire picture, is a beast, dwarfing Rocky in the ring, and the emotional grab to the film – the death of Apollo – is a great emotional entry point for the audience. Rocky IV is so very 80s, and so very entertaining.

1) Rocky – It was inevitable that the original film would be atop this list; this list was more about numbering off those before it. The Oscar-winning original film pits the underdog to end all underdogs, dopey Rocky Balboa, against the superstar fighter Apollo Creed, who needs some convincing to even go through with the fight. The set up is great, but what is so entertaining to watch is Stallone, who mutters and mopes around as a broke boxer with a genuine crush on timid Adrian from the pet store. Rocky introduced the training montage that was emulated so many times after, and not only in other Rocky movies. And the fight sequence looks and feels more real than they ever would again. After the original, Stallone became more and more chiseled and looked less and less like a boxer. Here, he is a bit doughy and more true. Rocky may draw with Apollo, but the draw was the best, most rousing part of the picture. The draw, for an underdog like Rocky, was the win.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Inception


IN-GENIUS
Inception: Leonardo Dicaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Ken Wantanabe, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy (148 min.)

Where do you even begin with Inception? Maybe you can begin with hope. Christopher Nolan’s seamless, sparkling, labyrinthine summer action picture restored hope in me that summer movies can stir emotions other than boredom and inspire awe once again. Inception is as ambitious and big as it is intricate and emotional, as brilliant as it is exciting. It is tough to write this review, as I sit here in front of my computer, the movie still working its way through my brain. Perhaps I am doing it disservice writing on it, having only seen it once. Nevertheless, I will give it a shot.

I won’t try and get too far into the details of the story, or the way these dream worlds exist within one another for a couple of reasons. First, I wouldn’t want to inadvertently drop any clues. Second, I wouldn’t be able to lay it out on paper if I tried. By now anyone interested knows the plot basics: Leonardo Dicaprio, as fantastic as ever, plays Dom Cobb, the best memory extractor around. Dom specializes in stealing memories from the subconscious – the dreams –of his subjects. At the beginning of the film, where Nolan wastes no time in disorienting us by confusing dreams with reality, Dom and his partner, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, more on him later) are “auditioning” their talents with Saito, a wealthy Japanese businessman played with an enigmatic charm by Ken Wantanabe, who should be in more pictures. Saito recruits Dom and Arthur not to do an extraction, but to do an inception, or the planting of an idea in the subconscious of his business rival, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) so that Fischer will break apart his company. But, Arthur says, inception is impossible. Dom disagrees; Dom has done it before. Dom also agrees to go along with the inception because Saito promises him that he will be able to return home to see his children, as he has been on the run in Europe for some time for a crime he did not commit.

The next portion of Inception takes through some standard action conventions, but with these actors embodying the characters, who cares how standard they are? And aside from that, they are necessary and infinitely more interesting than most sequences in other films. Dom and Arthur must “assemble their team.” They need a “forger,” a person to take on, or mimic, other people in dream worlds. For this they go to Eames (Tom Hardy), a clever Brit. And they also need an architect, someone to build the world of the dreams, and for this they employ Ariande (Ellen Page). And here is where Nolan allows the audience to catch on. Since Ariande is new to the job, she must have certain elements explained to her, thus explaining them to the audience at the same time without forcing the issue. Dom tutors Ariande in a dream version of Paris, where she folds the city back on itself. But beware of the projections of your subconscious, or all the people in your dream except you and your partner; if they catch on they won’t be too happy.

And so the heist is underway and the team must go into a dream, then from there into another, then from there, another. Going three layers in is dangerous for many reasons, none of which I will get into here in order to keep my sanity. But Dom carries quite a bit of baggage revolving around Mal, his dead wife played by the lovely Marion Cotillard. He keeps seeing her, she keeps disrupting things. But why? The explanation is one of the most complex, brilliant ideas ever put on film. Back in the dreams, the team is chased through rain-soaked city streets, a posh hotel, and through a snowy landscape, all epic and detailed in their own ways.

Unless you have been living in your own dream, you have seen the action set pieces on the previews everywhere, but when the unfold in front of you on the big screen, no matter how many times you have seen the snippets, you won’t be prepared. They are amazing moments of action and thrills unlike anything I can remember. Sure, The Matrix comes to mind, but the scenes there are a distant second to what Nolan can pull off. The fight sequence between Arthur and the… well… the “bad guys,” the one that takes place in an ever-turning, spinning hallway is simply the best, most awe-inspiring bit of technical wizardry. The dreams build on top of each other and are fast and furious, but Nolan is never far away from the emotional pull of the story involving Dom and Mal. Everything is perfectly balanced, like that spinning top you have seen in the trailers and won’t soon forget after seeing the movie.

The performances are consistently great throughout. Dicaprio, America’s finest leading man, keeps his streak of solid performances alive. Ken Wantanabe is excellent, Tom Hardy provides subtle bits of humor and pragmatism, Murphy is as solid as ever, and smaller roles from Michael Caine and even Tom Berenger have their moments. But Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing the straight-laced, humorless heavy for Dom, is a revelation. With so few words, Gordon-Levitt does so much. I found myself watching Arthur intensely every time he was put to task, perhaps because his fight sequence in the hallway is the brightest moment in a near perfect film. Page is serviceable as Ariande, but she seems a bit awkward from time to time. I think it is because she is serving as our eyes and ears to everyone else, so she has to be an outsider. Still, she was no sort of distraction.

From top to bottom, front to back, and all the gravity-less moments in between, Inception is like a well-oiled machine of storytelling, emotion, action, suspense, and amazement that sits atop the science fiction genre and will rightfully stay there. Nolan has proven, time and again, that he can manage the biggest of the big while making us continue to care about the players in his maze, and it is hard to imagine that after The Dark Knight, and now this, his next film might be too incredible to even watch. This is a defibrillator for Hollywood, an industry that had been choking to death on remakes, retreads, and sequels with no heart. Inception is a masterpiece and the clear favorite for Best Picture as we sit today. Aside from that, we should just go ahead and deliver the statue for Best Original Screenplay to Nolan’s front door.
A