Monday, April 30, 2012


There might not have been a bigger disappointment for me - as far as big-budget superhero films are concerned - than Iron Man 2.  Well, there was Spider Man 3 but let's move on.  I had high hopes for the sequel, and the trailer and marketing campaign was a thrilling precursor.  The end result was incredibly middling, all things considered.  Director Jon Favreau was back behind the camera, and all of the key actors were back in place.  There was even an upgrade where Don Cheadle took over Terrence Howard's role as Rhodes.  Robert Downey Jr. was solid yet again, showing depth to the tony Stark character as his alcoholism and impending blood poisoning weighs on his character.  And yet, I feel that a superhero sequel absolutely must have a villain that overshadows our hero.  Iron Man 2 never commits to one villain or another, weakening the product. 

There is the wealthy villain up front, Justin Hammer, played by Sam Rockwell.  Hammer is more of an adversary to Stark than Iron Man, as he struggles to steal the technology of the suit for his own benefit.  Rockwell is a fine actor and handles the part well, but he is never threatening.  On the other end of the villain spectrum is Ivan Vanko, a tattooed, grimacing, growling Russian with silver capped teeth played by Mickey Rourke.  Vanko is convinced Stark's family stole the Iron Man technology from his father and seeks revenge.  He creates a prototype of the energy source Iron Man uses and goes after Stark in Monaco, where Stark is racing his own car in the Grand Prix.  The sequence where Vanko attacks is the most brilliant segment of the picture, as he approaches Stark on the track swinging two electric whips that can cut a car in half.

Stark, shell-shocked, goes to his emergency suit in a dazzling display of CGI and a fancy new suit.  The battle is eye candy of the highest order, but it is over in mere minutes.  Typically, in these films, a central battle goes on much too long, but here it is quite the opposite.  I wanted more of the battle between Iron Man and Vanko, but once Vanko is relinquished he is all but forgotten until the end of the film, in a battle that is all in the dark, dizzying, and forgettable.  There is, frankly, very little of Iron Man in Iron Man 2.  Along the way we are also introduced to Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), another member of The Avengers, who shows off in one scene. 

Much of Iron Man 2 is set up for The Avengers, and there are plates up in the air everywhere you look.  Directors often mistake business for entertainment, but when there is not enough focus in a superhero picture, when characters pop in and out without much regard or weight, the final result is a bit of a murky miss.


Thursday, April 26, 2012

THURSDAY THROWBACK: The French Connection (1971)

While it may always look and feel like one of the most unlikely Best Picture winners in the history of film, there is no looking past the gritty realism and the wonderful energy of William Friedkin's The French Connection.  There is absolutely nothing about the film itself which would suggest it has that Best Picture pedigree; the look is scant and bare, the dialogue crude and low-lying, the elements of the picture steep in genre.  It is an action thriller, a police procedural, and yet somehow in 1971 it found itself standing above all other films.  The French Connection announced the arrival of a young Friedkin as one of the fresh new voices in the shifting cinematic decade of the 70s, and solidified the young(ish) Gene Hackman as a leading man who, like his unassuming film, seemed anything but leading man material.

The story is as straight forward as any run-of-the-mill police thriller.  But, to borrow a line from Roger Ebert, a film is not so much what it's about as how it's about it.  A film could be about two men stuck in an elevator, talking, but if it is told the right way with accurate performances it can be as compelling as an intricate spy thriller.  In this police drama subgenre, The French Connection takes a basic premise and tells it with the ferocity of it's director.  There are two policemen, partners, Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Hackman) and Buddy Russo (the wonderful and always overlooked Roy Scheider).  Popeye and Russo operate in the mean streets of Manhattan, shaking down lowlifes and drug dealers trying to get a lead and find that career-making case.  Popeye is not necessarily the best cop, but he still hits the streets hard.  And he isn't a wholesome man in blue; Doyle is racist, a bit crooked, and willing to step over the line to get his bad guy.  So when he stumbles, literally, on a plot involving a large shipment of heroin being brought into the country from France, Doyle sees this as his chance to get out from under his boss's foot.

The villains in The French Connection are not fleshed out beyond what is necessary.  Because this is a character study about Doyle wrapped in a genre picture.  The French smugglers make connections and try and sneak the drugs in sealed within a Lincoln.  Meanwhile, Doyle and Russo work tirelessly to get a leg up on the drug ring.  Doyle functions with a single-minded desire that shapes his entire character.  He doesn't take care of his own body, evidenced in the few scenes away from the case, because his body isn't important to him.  Only catching the crooks and making his name matter.  Doyle's investigation leads him closer and closer to the smugglers until they come after him, resulting in a car chase.  Only this is not simply some other car chase; here is the car chase, still the most definitive in the never ending cavalcade of chase scenes.

Car chases take patience and spatial knowledge, attention to physical orientation and the ability to avoid CGI and fireballs when it is ever possible.  1968 had Bullitt, and the McQueen car chase through the streets of San Francisco.  Last year's Drive had two fantastic sequences.  The car chase in The French Connection might still be the pinnacle of the car chase.  Because it is fast and furious (pun fully intended), it is frightening at times, it has different layers and elements like the runaway train Doyle is chasing from beneath, and it was filmed on real streets with real people in harm's way.  As Doyle barrels through the city streets, every corner and pedestrian presents a threat. 

At first glance The French Connection does not look like anything special, but that is the beauty and the genius of the picture.  Hackman - who would win his first Best Actor Oscar as Doyle - delivers a tough-as-nails performance, and Friedkin - Best Director as well - is committed to his vision.  The ending is enigmatic, a sign of the decade to come where films grew more experimental and began recognizing the artistic ability of its medium, and the story never takes the easy way out.  Surprisingly, the sequel is adequate, but nothing close to this true original in (cliche alert) every sense of the word.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: The Odd Career of Joss Whedon

Most directors have had their own versions of interesting beginnings.  David Fincher was a music video filmmaker, Martin Scorsese directed Boxcar Bertha, Steven Spielberg made a TV movie (Duel) before anything.  But I cannot imagine there has been a more interesting and diverse - and strange - career trajectory than Joss Whedon, the eye behind Marvel's biggest, most ambitious, most audacious film to date.  The Avengers comes with great hope and promise and anticipation, and to look behind the camera and see Whedon at the helm, of course there would be some curiosity as to where this man came from and what he is all about.  From success in television to a shot at major motion pictures, then back to TV, then back to film, Whedon has bounced around before finding his footing.

Joseph Hill Whedon was born in New York in June of 1964, and spent two years of his early education at Winchester College for two years.  he then relocated to Los Angeles and, before birthing his baby, Whedon would work as a writer for, of all things, the great and legendary TV sitcom Roseanne.  From there, Whedon wrote and created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which was initially created as a motion picture.  Starring Kristy Swanson and directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui, Buffy would flounder at the box office and go relatively unheralded in 1992, despite growing a bit of a cult following over the years.  Whedon was never satisfied with the final result of Buffy, as the film was re-written and marginalized by the studio until the final result was unrecognizable from Whedon's script.  From the Buffy mishandling, the early writing career of Joss Whedon is a random and sporadic career of successes and failures.

Joss Whedon has been credited in the Oscar-nominated screenplay of Toy Story.  He has also been a script doctor for films like Speed.  On a lower note, Whedon was responsible for Alien: Ressurection, a miserable failure of a film that lost all direction.  But everyone is allowed a stinker from time to time, and as a writer Whedon was awarded said stinker.  Nevertheless, despite the huge disappointment of Alien: Resurrection, Joss Whedon was approached by the WB in 1997.  The producers of the television channel saw something rather ingenious in the Buffy film, and offered all creative control to Whedon to produce a show based on the character.  Whedon spotted Sarah Michelle Gellar, and the rest is history.  Buffy was the most successful TV series in WB history and spawned a spinoff.  It opened a few doors for Whedon, but still, what has he really done behind the camera?

A certain collection of fanboys will site Firefly as Whedon's brightest moment.  Firefly is Whedon's series from the Sy-Fy channel, and a long-standing success for the network.  From Firefly, Whedon directed Serenity, a big-screen adaptation of the series.  So through a varying group of fan favorites, Whedon has managed to attract male and female fans through his diverse shows.  Women fell in love with Buffy, men flocked to Firefly.  He also had his hand in this April's most ingenious and creative flick - and arguably the only film this month worth seeing - in The Cabin in the Woods.  To be responsible for that film shows quite a bit of creative ingenuity.

Perhaps he is the best mix for a big-budget superhero flick like The Avengers.  He might be able to find the right mix of brains and brawn to draw in any and every demographic on May 4.  It has taken me some time to buy into The Avengers and get jazzed for the film, but the closer we get, the more faith I have in Joss Whedon's direction, and the more faith I have in his diverse background shaping a picture that might not be your run of the mill pyrotechnic flick.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

THE BOND VOYAGE: #1 - Dr. No (1962)

Try and imagine a world where James Bond, as we know the character today, did not exist.  Despite the meek popularity of Ian Fleming's serial novels, James Bond was not the worldwide phenomenon in 1962 it has since become.  So producers Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli had work to do in order to sell the spy to the masses.  The version of James Bond in the Fleming novels was a brute, less clever, and without the distraction of sex appeal.  But this was the sixties.  James Bond was smoothed out around the edges and given a great deal of wit and cunning by the producers despite the desire for Fleming to have David Niven play the character over the now legendary Sean Connery.  There were any number of plates to balance with this first big screen adaptation of Special Agent 007, and for the most part Dr. No handles these aspects well.  You can see the rough sketch of what would grow into parody over the years, but thankfully in this first entry the ironic self awareness had not yet ruined the franchise.

That is not to say Dr. No is one of the best Bond films.  It simply has the advantage of being the first major motion picture in the franchise.  There are no expectations, there is no formula to which to adhere, so the entire exercise feels rough and grainy, just slightly out of focus.  Bond is a suave super spy here, but not quite as slick or armor-plated as he would become later.  In a fight later on in Dr. No, Bond is left bruised and battered, bloody, though victorious.  There are very few gadgets and the entire adventure aspect is stripped down.  This is no doubt due to the minimal budget of a burgeoning franchise.  But there are things you cannot deny, even here in the opening film of the series. 

First and foremost, the team of Saltzman and Broccoli picked the right man for the job.  From the start, when we see Sean Connery as James Bond, there is no separation between actor and character.  From the first click of that Zippo, the sly curve of the eyebrows, and the delivery of those legendary words (Bond... James Bond) Connery inhabits the very existence of James Bond more than any actor would ever be able to do again.  Connery was a bit of an unknown in the States in 1962, but he would never again be an anonymous face.  Connery embodied the sex symbol of the sixties, a rugged and, well, a musky middle-aged man.  Picture Don Draper with a British accent and you have what was attractive to women heading out to the cinema in 1962.  It never hurt that Connery was a fantastic and fun actor in the role from day one.  There is also Miss Munnypenny and M, characters who would forever become staples in the franchise.

And, of course, there was Honey Ryder, the first and arguably the most memorable of all Bond girls.  Even after all these years, after twenty-one pictures to try and top Honey Ryder, nothing has come close to the emergence of Ursula Andress in that bikini on the beach.  Andress' entrance into the film, into the franchise, and into film history, has been mocked in films ever since.  It has even been mocked in the Bond franchise throughout the years, and given a fresh spin in Casino Royale.  Honey Ryder serves as Bond's guide to Crab Key Island in a plot that is very stripped down when examined from this place in time.  The plot is not as important as the pieces Dr. No puts in place, but I suppose it should be given at least a little service.  There is a villain, albeit a forgettable one in Dr. No himself (Joseph Wiseman), and a plot about a missing agent.  But when compared to the more elaborate plots that would follow in just a few more films, the story of Dr. No is decidedly lacking and not terribly interesting.

Dr. No is not one of the best James Bond films in the franchise, but it is in a tough spot.  It has the advantage of a clean slate, and at the same time it has the disadvantage of not being able to capitalize on some of the elaborate contraptions and contrivances of the series.  It is setting the pieces in place, and it shows us the power of Connery in the title role.  It also shows us how important a Bond girl will become.

GOLDEN GUNS (Out of Five):

Friday, April 20, 2012

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: April Doldrums, The Avengers, and Superhero Soundtracks

* This April has to be one of the worst April's in recent memory for film releases.  This side of The Cabin in the Woods, this month has been extremely thin.

* The big release this week, The Lucky One, should swing the pendulum from fanboys to the date night crowd... for those poor men un-lucky enough.

* Case in point:  Last week's number one film was still from March (The Hunger Games).  Now I know it's a big film, but it feels like in any other year another big film would come along in April to knock it off it's perch.

* At least we don't have to wait long once the calendar changes over.  May 4 is The Avengers.

* I wasn't excited about The Avengers at first, but I think marketing is doing a good job of pushing the appearance of Hulk.  I think we have finally reached a technological point in cinema where the character works well and looks right.

* Mark Ruffalo will be fine as Banner too.  No need to miss Norton. 

* Superhero movie soundtracks have declined since the original Batman soundtrack featuring Prince.  This new song from The Avengers by Soundgarden is atrocious.

* Remember the Knickelback song from Spider-Man?  Well, you shouldn't.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

ACTOR PROFILES: Somebody Get Ahold of John Cusack

Remember that shy, witty boy next door who, despite having quite average looks, could win the hearts (and maybe more importantly, the minds) of women all across the country?  Remember his raspy voice delivering one liners and quasi-psychological quips with the timing of a fine comedian in films like Better Off Dead and Say Anything?  That guy is now playing Edgar Allen Poe in yet another poorly-judged carer move.  Can someone get ahold of John Cusack?  The former teen romance expert has become a side note in film history, as expendable now as he used to be important.  Some actors make brilliant, transcendent careers on being diverse and being able to disappear into any role.  An early Robert DeNiro was the best at that.  Michael Fassbender is headed that way now.  John Cusack was never that kind of actor, so I wish someone would sit him down and tell him that no matter what he might think, he is John Cusack.  There are many wonderful and charming things he can do as an actor, but playing Edgar Allen Poe is not one of them.

It is true, John Cusack is getting a bit older these days, turning 46 this June.  But he can still play the unassuming charmer.  Those age rules don't really apply to men the way they do women, and although I don't agree with these unspoken, unwritten rules that is an argument for another day.  Now, I'm not asking that John Cusack simply fill out the cookie-cutter shoes of the next male lead in the latest forgettable romantic comedy (avoid Katherine Heigl, John) because his acting is made that way.  Nobody's acting is really made that way.  In fact, Cucack was the best when he was the nerdy guy not getting the girl.  But somewhere along the way he became the guy who won the lady.  He was great in Better Off Dead, one of his first starring roles, but not as a ladykiller.  He could even morph into a mid-American ballplayer in Eight Men Out without much trouble, playing off his Irish Catholic Illinois roots.

We all know his hits like Say Anything and Grosse Pointe Blank, and those have their own unique qualities.  But Cusack is a strong center character working in a variety of settings.  He is a different version of the same person, which is where he works best.  There is a bit of diversity available in his arsenal, true, like when he played conman Roy Dillon in the greatly underrated The Grifters.  But if there is going to be anyone pop up in a head-scratching role, it is John Cusack.  More than any other actor, it seems he will appear and you say to yourself "really?" Remember him as the cop in Con Air?  Exactly.  Cusack disappears into roles where he does not belong, but not in the good way.  And there's always been this curious need to put Cusack into courtroom dramas.  But out of City Hall, Runaway Jury, and War Inc., which do you remember in the slightest?  The problem is, John Cusack does not work in a thriller.  Which poses a serious problem for ol' Ed Poe.

John Cusack has range, because every actor must have at least some range.  But repeatedly he is stepping outside of his own abilities, like he doesn't look at his won work and see what is well done and what looks bad.  After all his sister, Joan, doesn't pop up as the romantic lead in much, because she functions perfectly as the quirky friend or the weirdo.  John Cusack is too dry for thrillers (although Identity is a nice guilty pleasure), but there has been and always will be a place for him as a legitimate, entertaining, charming actor.  I just don't think it's playing Edgar Allen Poe.  If thriller is out of Cusack's range, Gothic horror should read like a foreign language to him.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS: Chris Hemsworth, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford (95 min.)

From its title on down, The Cabin in the Woods is set up as purposefully conventional.  Five friends of varying backgrounds and archetypes are headed out to a family cabin to swim in the lake, drink, have sex, and smoke some pot.  There is, as always, the jock and de-facto leader of the group (Thor's Chris Hemsworth), his sex-fueled slutty girlfriend (Anna Hutchinson), the sensitive brain (Jesse Williams), the sweet virginal girl (Kristen Connolly) and, last but not least, the stoner/comic relief (Fran Kranz).  These five college students ignore the ominous, creepy gas station attendant (you know the one) who spits and snarls at them.  They don't think twice about the shabbiness of the cabin, and when they uncover a cellar full of strange and Gothic materials they accidentally, in a sense, unleash hell.

Of course if you have seen a preview for The Cabin in the Woods, you know there is more than meets the eye here.  I am not spoiling the twists and turns and developments - and there are many - when I say that this cabin and its inhabitants are all in a controlled environment.  Everything from the sky to the air to the type of hell being unleashed is operated and manipulated from a NASA-like control room headed by two men, Sidderson and Hadley (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford).  We actually meet these two first, in a genius opening sequence where the men, in short sleeves and black ties, have a casual conversation about cabinet safety locks.  Sidderson and Hadley operate the cabin and its various departments (chemical, demolition, maintenance, etc.) like a city government.  But there is very much more at play here.

Any more divulging of the plot would spoil the story so I'll stop there.  The Cabin in the Woods isn't particularly scary because we realize it's all a set up.  It isn't, in my view, supposed to be scary.  This horror film deconstructs conventions of horror rather than creating its own real scares.  It is more interesting than frightening, and it is fascinating as the pieces of the puzzle come into place.  The way writer's Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (who also directs) point out horror convention while creating something more unique than just about anything to come out of Hollywood horror in a long time is the real joy of the picture.  The scares are secondary.

I don't think the film is without a few flaws along the way.  All of the connections seem painted with a broad brush in the end.  It fits together, but in a very sweeping sort of generalization.  Otherwise, The Cabin in the Woods is a cool flick.  Outside of Chris Hemsworth the members of the quintet are unknown, and their names and performances are secondary to the structure of the film.  But I must say the casting of Jenkins and Whitford as the operators behind the scenes is a small stroke of genius.  Jenkins is always good, and we really need more Bradley Whitford and his dry wisecracking persona in the movies.

Any horror fan should seek out The Cabin in the Woods.  But not for the scares as I mentioned.  Horror fans will enjoy the way the film peels away the creaky cliches of horror films in the past.  The best thing about The Cabin in the Woods is how it comments on itself and stays original, truly funny at times, and devoted to its structure.  It's a lot of fun.


Friday, April 13, 2012

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: All About Friday the 13th

* For some reason the Friday the 13th movies were never really off limits for me as a kid.  I suppose my mom knew how ridiculous they were.

* Part VI (Jason Lives!) was always my favorite as a kid.  Or maybe it was on TV more often than the others.  I mean, Jason is struck by lightning! 

* I still don't think I have ever sat through the entire first film.  It is such a bore to me, because it never takes off from the serious track.  The best charm of these films is their self awareness.  The first one doesn't have that advantage.

* Go back and watch Part III and get a kick out of all the sight gags in play to enhance the 3D release of the film.  Watch out for that harpoon!

* Maybe VI was my favorite as a kid, but I think we can all agree that IV (The Final Chapter, HA!) is the best, with Corey Feldman taking on Jason.  It's the leanest, meanest of the pictures with a perfect balance of horror and humor.  And it has a real dark side with Feldman's turn in the end.

* I remember being so excited about Part VIII (Jason Takes Manhattan).  The poster looked so cool, the idea of Jason getting away from Camp Crystal Lake was fresh.  Alas, it is one of the worst, most boring of the franchise.

* I think I abandoned the franchise after Jason Goes to Hell.  This attempt to spiritualize Jason failed on every level.

* I might need to check out Jason X.  I mean, he's in SPACE!  Awesome.

* The remake is garbage.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Escape From New York (1981)

On the eve of Guy Pearce taking on a space prison in Lockout, it seemed an appropriate time to look back at what is clearly the biggest inspiration for the film.  Escape From New York is a grizzly, gruff film, as rough around the edges as its anti-hero, Snake Plissken.  John Carpenter was at the height of his powers in the early 80s, and his sci-fi adventure is one of his more indelible pictures, right up there with Halloween.  It is sometimes amusing to look back at films set in the "future" when that future has already come and gone; in this case, the future world of Escape from New York is 1997.  When the picture was made, envisioning Manhattan as a prison island may not have seemed too far from the truth, as New York City was suffering from widespread crime and depravity.  It was the perfect set up.

Manhattan may be a prison island in Escape From New York, but crime is still a very big problem in this world.  a 400% spike in crime forced the government to isolate Manhattan and hoard the baddest convicts around.  The art direction of Manhattan here is drab and hidden in ashen tones and grisly hues.  And when Air Force One is hijacked and crashes into the center of the island, trapping the President of the United States inside the prison walls, the police must turn to a prisoner to try and help.  It is the famed "One Man" narrative, used over and over in film, including the aforementioned Lockout this weekend.  As is always the case in these situations, in films of this type, there is more than meets the eye. There is a cassette (ah, technology) with sensitive material that one man... Snake Plissken... must retrieve along with the President.

Snake Plissken is played by Kurt Russell, in what is far and away his most memorable role.  Snake is a former soldier turned bank robber who has been sentenced to life in prison on Manhattan, but he is the best man for the job in this case.  Lee Van Cleef plays Hauk, the police officer in charge of controlling Snake and making certain he does the job and doesn't try and get away himself.  To ensure Snake will follow through, he is implanted with a bomb that will detonate just shy of 24 hours.  The stakes are raised and the elements of a time crunch add a layer of suspense to the film.  But it is Carpenter's vision behind the camera that makes Escape From New York such a treasure.

John Carpenter has always shown great conviction in creating a memorable world around his characters.  Escape From New York might be his finest achievement in this category.  There is a definitive direction Carpenter is going with his look, and the scruff of the picture and the scruff of his hero match to perfection.  Russell is game for the character, his iconic eyepatch and five o'clock shadow sticking in our memory long after the film is over.  Escape From New York spawned a sequel over a decade later, Escape From L.A., which took on a more satirical angle to the subject.  In it's own right, a worthy sequel indeed.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

THE DEFENSE CALLS: Brooklyn's Finest

I typically like to defend an older film in this segment, one that has been maligned for a decade or more.  But I can no longer hold my tongue about Brooklyn's Finest.  I have defended this film from day one.  After seeing Brooklyn's Finest in the theater I was apprehensive for a spell because I thought maybe my initial viewing skewed my true opinion of the film.  Sometimes, a film can take over your senses and your better judgment in the theater, and only after repeat later viewings can you truly understand the movie for what it is.  I have yet to waiver on the power and the energy and the ferocity of Brooklyn's Finest, an excellent exercise in genre filmmaking.  And yet, here is a film that sits at a paltry 42% on the Tomatometer.  Here is a film panned by critics and forgotten in the wasteland of the early March releases of 2010, bringing in a pitiful $26.5 million in its entire run.  But I am convinced these reviews and this indifference was all a big mistake.

Now, I am not saying Brooklyn's Finest was the second coming of The French Connection, or anywhere near some sort of Oscar-winning picture.  But it is a quality genre film beyond these poor ratings and paltry responses.  There is true grit here, real stories, and a foundation of storytelling I could only hope for in your standard crime drama.  There is so much to like about Brooklyn's Finest, the warts begin to shrink with every gut-wrenching turn of the screenplay.  Consider the evidence:

EXHIBIT A: The Three Leads - Brooklyn's Finest relies on three central performances from three actors with their own unique portfolios.  There is Richard Gere as Eddie Dugan, the cop a few days away from retirement struggling to stave off suicide long enough to plan a fishing trip.  Then there is Tango (Don Cheadle), a cop deep undercover, more reliant on the trust and the friendship of crooks and dealers than those promising to protect him.  And finally, there is Sal (Ethan Hawke), a desperate cop, surrounded by drug money on his raids, needing some quick cash to support his family.  These three characters serve as the fulcrum of a swinging pendulum of action and tension throughout the picture.  Here are three great - and I emphasize great - actors taking on conventional characters with true conviction.  Sure, we have seen these roles played before, but not by these actors.  When the roles grow stale are when they are portrayed by lesser thespians.  Gere, Cheadle, and especially Hawke are all phenomenal actors, and there conviction alone elevates these three very crucial roles.

EXHIBIT B: Plot Detail - I often see complaints regarding the plot structure of Brooklyn's Finest, that everything ties together too easily.  Does it?  Without spoiling anything, I will say that all three main characters end up in the same apartment complex.  But they don't wind up here because of each other's actions, there are extenuating circumstances which bring these policeman there for their own reasons.  There is also a firm motivation for each of these officers.  And let us not forget, all three of the men work in the same area of Brooklyn, so it is not outside the realm of possibilities that they find themselves in the same complex.  With this logic spelled out in the film, it makes the interwoven stories work together seamlessly.

EXHIBIT C: The Use of Genre - Genre films breed a certain familiarity with their storytelling.  All science fiction films share a common thread, all Westerns have horses and gunplay and share a kindred spirit.  Police dramas are no different in that respect.  Some of the biggest complaints regarding Brooklyn's Finest was that it was overloaded with cliches.  Perhaps, but these cliches are the very framework of crime drama narrative; the crooked cop, the cop one day from retirement, the cop deep undercover, these are all elements recycled for years in police thrillers.  Brooklyn's Finest just happens to have all three of these characters in one film.  It has cliche and convention, but as I have always said it is not the fact that you have created a familiar genre, it's what you do with said conventions.  Brooklyn's Finest approaches cliche with a ferocity and unabridged violence, and three wonderful actors doing their best.  And let's not forget the ending.  This is not a conventional ending, and characters do not meet the fates one would expect from the beginning.

IN CONCLUSION - Brooklyn's Finest is not a flawless picture, this is clear.  But it is far from the poor reception it received.  I conclude this is a hidden gem with plenty of upside and very little negative within the workings of the plot.  And you would be hard pressed to find a better trio of gritty performances in a police thriller.  Narc comes to mind, and Ray Liotta's conflicted policeman might fit right in with these troubled souls.   

Monday, April 9, 2012

ACTOR PROFILES: Where To Put Kevin Costner

Where do you put Kevin Costner when you start discussing some of the most prolific and some of the best actors of his generation?  It's difficult to truly gauge the power of Costner as an actor.  He has been in some of the best films of the 80s and 90s, although the late 90s and beyond have been as poor as any prestigious actor this side of Robert DeNiro.  There may be a clear dividing line in Costner's career, as it drifted out into the ocean in a certain overblown sci-fi epic.  But let's get back to Costner for a second.  As an actor, Kevin Costner is not terribly interesting, he never has been.  He delivers lines flat, emotionless at times, he reads bland.  He isn't necessarily the matinee idol either, although his sex appeal had its time.  So where does Costner fit?  Or does he fit anywhere?  He might be the most interesting and enigmatic former superstar around.

Kevin Costner, son of a ditch digger, was always a little off center in his youth, even building his own canoe and traveling the Lewis and Clark route at 18.  He wrote poetry and bounced from job to job, always wanting to act but apprehensive about taking the plunge until one day he met Richard Burton on an airplane.  Burton convinced him to pursue acting completely, so he quit whatever job he had at the time and went to Hollywood, even starring in one soft-core sex film.  Costner's big break was, oddly enough, a part that never made it into the movie.  It was The Big Chill, one of the biggest hits of 1983 about a group of college friends who reunite after a friend commits suicide.  Costner was the friend, but his part was completely cut out of the film.  Nevertheless, director Lawrence Kasdan kept Costner in mind when he directed his western, Silverado, in 1985.  Costner starred as Jake, and from here his career began to bloom.

Despite his flat delivery and Midwestern looks, Costner's career took off.  In 1987 he was cast as Elliott Ness in Brian DePalma's smash hit The Untouchables.  That same year he was the lead in the taut political thriller No Way Out.  Costner was on the rise.  The following year, Costner showed the world that he was the perfect fir for a baseball uniform in Bull Durham, playing the salty minor league star Crash Davis.  Over the next six years, Costner had arguably the biggest run of any actor, starring in huge hits like Field of Dreams, Robin Hood, JFK, and The Bodyguard.  Some were nominated for Oscars, others were huge hits art the box office.  The height of his career came in 1990 when he managed to direct a Western epic all the way to the top of the mountain on Oscar night.

Dances With Wolves is a marvelous picture, despite the general understanding that the Best Picture statue belonged to Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas in 1990.  Regardless, Costner's direction and his starring role as John Dunbar, a Civil War deserter who comes to understand and love the Sioux Indians, was the peak of his career.  It is the sort of epic Oscar feeds off of, and the challenge of a Western epic in 1990 was overcome by Costner's solid direction He continued to make hits for a few years until Waterworld all but derailed his shooting star.  The bloated epic was the highest-budgeted film of the time, rumors of directorial dissent, and numerous production issues doomed the picture before it was released.  And upon its release, the film was widely panned.  Costner especially.

His rogue Mad-Max-on-water character was rude, cold, remorseless, and altogether uninteresting.  And it didn't help the extravagance of the picture that could have been better served had it been toned down and more attention been paid to the story.  A few years later, Costner went back to the post-apocalyptic well, directing and starring in The Postman.  If Waterworld was a colossal failure, The Postman took those shortcomings to a new level.  The mid nineties were where Costner's career began to wobble, and over the next decade he would float into obscurity with meandering epics like Wyatt Earp and half-baked thrillers like 3000 Miles to Graceland and Dragonfly.  His talent would surface at times in uneven but improved pictures like Open Range and Mr. Brooks.  But still, the damage of the mid nineties seemed to offset Costner as a box-office draw.

There is still room for Costner to come back strong in a late-career renaissance, but in what I do not know.  Perhaps his leading man status will never be what it once was, but directing a smaller picture could be a move in the right direction.  He has never been the typical leading man, and his flat delivery became somewhat of a signature in his career.  It has been a long time since Costner was relevant, but you can see in pictures like Open Range, a solid Western, and Mr. Brooks, a stiff departure from the norm for Costner, that potential is still there.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Baseball Week Countdown: #1 - The Natural

Continuing on the track of baseball as a magical history of America, within the game there are players bigger than the game.  Think of DiMaggio on the arm of Marilyn Monroe when you think about the heights of baseball celebrity, especially in the mid-centuries and before.  Think of Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and you have not only baseball superstars, but cultural icons and important figures in our history.  This final film borrows from these ideas yet creates something fictional, something mystical, and something unforgettable.

#1 - The Natural

Roy Hobbs is certain he will be the best baseball player to ever set foot on the diamond.  He knew it from an early age, playing catch in the yard with his father.  And after his father's sudden death, a lightning bolt splits a tree in his yard in half.  From this oak tree, a young Roy Hobbs fashions a baseball bat.  It is "Wonderboy," one of the most iconic film props of all time.  Roy takes the bat with him wherever he goes.  And he knows his talent is something which transcends the sport itself.  He will be "the best there ever was."  That's what he tells his girlfriend (Glenn Close) the night before he takes off on a cross country train ride with a scout and a sports writer, Max Mercy (Robert Duvall), to try out for the majors.  Along the way, he strikes out The Whammer, a fictional version of Babe Ruth, at a carnival.  This unthinkable feat draws the attention of a mysterious woman in black who will seduce him, draw him to her room on the train, and change the trajectory of his life forever.  The woman (Barbara Hershey) shoots Roy in the stomach, and he never makes it to the tryouts.

Fast forward some twenty years, and a middle-aged Roy Hobbs walks up the tunnel to meet the New York Knights, a floundering major league team.  Despite the objections of the red-assed manager, Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley), Roy takes a seat on the bench and watches the Knights lose game after game.  Only a simple twist of fate gives Roy the opportunity to play, and he never looks back.  Roy's natural talent shines through, as if touched by the gods of baseball.  Roy smashes the cover off the ball, busts clocks in centerfield, and single-handedly lifts the spirits and the record of the Knights, who all follow his lead and begin playing better.

The Natural is a film loaded with archetypal characters and situations, some of which stand in the way of Roy's stardom. Of course the woman in black curtailed his career early on, and once he becomes a celebrated member of the organization he butts heads with the team owner and is seduced, yet again, by the wrong woman, this time played by Kim Basinger.  It takes the reappearance of the woman he left behind, Iris (Close), to straighten his game out and help him realize his full potential as the savior of the Knights.  This is a beautiful, inspiring film, anchored by a calm and measured performance by Robert Redford as Hobbs.  If The Natural doesn't inspire you, I am not sure you are capable fo finding inspiration.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Baseball Week Countdown: #2 - Field of Dreams

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about baseball, and the strength of the sport's ability to translate so easily at times to the silver screen, is the mystique surrounding the game.  Baseball is America's Pastime, no matter what those football fanatics say, and it has been around longer than any other major sport in this country.  And that rich history breeds legend, controversy, and heroics that have shaped the way we see the game these days.  There is probably no surprise with these final two entries into the countdown, but there shouldn't be any surprise.  These films share something many others don't; fantasy.  There are fantastic elements at work which accelerate the power of the dramatic elements, and make them memorable above and beyond any type of straight baseball drama.  They are magical, and no baseball film is more magical than the film we look at here.

#2 - Field of Dreams

"If you build it, he will come."

This legendary line, spoken by a disembodied spirit in an Iowa cornfield, is one of the most iconic lines in all of cinema.  And it is spoken to one Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner, who else?), an Iowa farmer and family man who hears the mystical whisper one evening in his cornfield.  Build what?  He doesn't know at first, but soon discovers, through a vision, that the voice wants him to build a baseball diamond in the middle of his crops.  The scenario is surely crazy, yet Ray never feels anything but compelled to follow through with the request.  He destroys a large area of his cash crops, despite already being badly in debt, and builds a pristine baseball field.  And then he sits, and he waits for an answer.

Ray's wife, Annie (Amy Madigan), is a loving companion who supports her husband up to a point.  She fervently defends Ray in the face of the townsfolk who are certain he has gone mad.  But when their house and their livelihood is threatened, the stress of Ray's decision begins to put a strain their life.  And then, one evening at dusk, their young daughter Karin informs them that there is a man standing on the baseball field.  It is "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, one of the infamous eight players of the Chicago White Sox (The Black Sox), charged with throwing the 1919 World Series.  Jackson, played here by Ray Liotta, arrives and speaks to Ray and asks if he could bring some friends along to play.  Even typing this sends a chill up my spine.

So Jackson brings along other deceased members of the Black Sox, and they scrimmage on the magical field.  Ray is certain the voice is content, but then hears the voice say one evening "Ease his pain."  The voice is not done with Ray, and the latest command sends him on a cross-country trek to meet Terry Mann, a journalist who has in recent years closed himself off from the world.  All of these commands, the journey of Ray and Terry Mann, played by James Earl Jones, are Ray's attempts to answer the voices, but Field of Dreams is not about appeasing these men.

Field of Dreams is about fathers and sons, and when the true answer to the voice arrives, Ray's dead father, it is clear the voice is giving Ray another chance to reconcile his estranged relationship.  If ever there was a tearjerker made for men and their pent-up emotions, this is the film that has made grown men cry more than any other.  The logic here is not important, the message is.  Field of Dreams is about hope and family and love, and baseball sits firmly at the heart of the picture.  It is magic realism at its highest power, and told with such conviction by the players involved that any sort of logic goes out the window.  Emotions take over.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Baseball Week Countdown: #3 - 61*

Records and sports go hand in hand, and when there is the possibility of a legendary record being broken, eyes and ears tune in where they otherwise would not.  And baseball's largest records seem to draw more attention that others, generating excitement and nostalgic energy.  Think about any time a player inches closer to Joe DiMaggio's hit streak, or a player goes on a hot streak hitting the long ball, or when one of the legends of the game cross 600 homers and continues forward; baseball fans take notice.  And as the media has grown and swelled and expanded over the last few years, more and more people are allowed into the chase of whichever baseball record may fall.  Just imagine how the chase for 61 would have been carried out in 2012.

#3 - 61*

Babe Ruth's single-season homerun record was one of the most coveted records in the major leagues, and the most legendary record in all of sports.  And it stood for over thirty years.  But in one magical summer in 1961, two players made it clear early on they were here to challenge the Babe's record, two teammates who could not be more opposite of one another.  Two Yankees, of course, one embracing the superstardom, the other shying away, fought to reach 61 homeruns first, and in the process divided a fanbase.  Thus is the story of 61*, a solid historical sports drama with great performances and the love of Billy Crystal, a lifelong Yankees fan, behind the camera.

The two players involved in the homerun chase were Mickey Mantle, the hero of the City, a larger-than-life celebrity who had spent nearly a decade in the Yankees organization and had swelled into the biggest and brightest superstar in the Yankees' storied history, and Roger Maris, only a few years in the organization, and a mild-mannered everyman who shied from the media and interviews, distancing himself from the fans.  Mantle is played by Thomas Jane, who embodies the look and the stature of The Mick with fervent energy.  Roger Maris is played by Barry Pepper.  Mantle and Maris would become friends over the season as they both gunned for the record, despite the efforts of the media to create a hero and a villain through the personalities of the two men.  There was even a time during the season where Mantle spent some time living with Maris.  But Maris was not the one the fans were behind.

1961 marked the first year where the baseball season expanded from 154 games to 162, which still stands today.  So when the record was broken after 154 games, the asterisk was added to the record.  But that didn't matter to the fans of the Yankees.  The media worked hard to minimize Maris and celebrate Mantle, and Maris' frustration began to get the better of him as it became clear he would break the record first.  Mantle threw himself headlong into the celebrity aspect of his career, drinking too hard at times and often showing up with a severe hangover.  But it didn't affect his play or his popularity with the masses. 

Crystal directs 61* with a wonderful attention to detail, a firm grasp on the subjects, and an even hand over both characters.  There is no glossy interpretation of either of the men, only an accurate portrayal of their strength and weaknesses.  After the homerun chase, Mantle's age began to show through until he limped to retirement.  Maris would never really be the same, and perhaps the film suggests the pressures of the 1961 season were to blame for his decline.  Either way, as a stand-alone film, 61* excels in every way.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Baseball Week Countdown: #4 - A League of Their Own

Two major advantages of baseball films is their ability to tap into the history of America, therein creating a wonderfully nostalgic appeal, and their ability to develop a wide, colorful cast of characters.  What is so wonderful about this next film is how it takes the conventions of an ensemble baseball cast and flips the script to show an important portion of the sport in this country. 

#4 - A League of Their Own

A League of Their Own focuses on a time in American when World War II was sending any and everyone overseas to fight the Nazis, thus leaving baseball high and dry.  We all know how women at the time were asked to step up and do their part, but a select few were chosen to star in an all girls baseball league while their men fought in the war.  From inside this set up, the film focuses on two lucky sisters chosen to play in the league, the married Dottie Henson (Geena Davis) and the kid-like Kit Keller (Lori Petty).  Dottie is a superior athlete, Kit the younger spitfire with the chip on her shoulder.  One day, a scout (Jon Lovitz) comes calling and wants Dottie.  She will only go if Kit can come along.

This trio serves as a channel into the tryouts where we meet the cast of female ballplayers.  There is Mae and Doris (Madonna and Rosie O'Donnell, essentially playing versions of themselves, Betty 'Spaghetti' Horn, soft-spoken Evelyn Gardner, and of course Marla Hooch, a homely super athlete played by Megan Cavanagh.  Once the teams are separated the field of actors slims down enough where it is fairly simple to identify the satellite players.  Of course, these teams all need a manager, and this is where an inspired bit of casting balances the film and adds great comedy.

The owner of the Rockford Peaches, the team at the center of the film with Dottie and Kit, employs former superstar Jimmy Dugan to manage his team.  Jimmy, played perfectly by Tom Hanks, would be in the War had he not torn his knee to shreds some years earlier.  Now out of the game, and a fairly comical shabby drunk, Dugan reluctantly takes the gig because he needs the cash, but doesn't take it seriously.  This is evident in his first meeting with the team where he arrives fully in the bag, bitter, and disinterested in the events on the field.  Naturally, the friction between Dugan and the team dissolves thanks in no small part to Dottie's superior play and no nonsense attitude towards Jimmy's bitterness.  But not before there are some laugh out loud moments between Jimmy, his frustrations, and the alteration he must undergo into order to manage women.  Sensitivity is not his strongest trait early on.

A League of Their Own takes the conventions of a baseball film, the team aspect, the superstar, learning to win together, and adds freshness in putting us into the short-lived All-American Girls Baseball League.  And the baseball scenes, plenty of them along the way, are all very well done.  There was not a moment where you are taken out of the action by clumsy blocking or a phony feel.  Director Penny Marshall keeps the pacing up and keeps the wit sharp.  This is often an overlooked baseball picture because it is anything but conventional with its casting, but there is wonderful heart and soul at the core of A League of Their Own. 

Monday, April 2, 2012

Baseball Week Countdown: #5 - Bull Durham

Sports in movies are often difficult undertakings.  There are a handful of basketball films out there that capture the truth of the sport.  Football movies are perhaps the most difficult to interpret dramatically, as the velocity and energy of the game translates poorly into staged scenes.  Soccer and Hockey have had their moments on film but these are few and far between.  Baseball, on the other hand, has a pacing and a philosophy which lends itself to filmmaking of all types.  Laughter and tears, metaphors on life and love, the rich history of America runs throughout the very idea of baseball.  All of the elements exist in the sport to make it perfect for the movies.  And the action is spread out enough to form dramatic archs and great humor at times. 

As we ramp up to Opening Day Thursday, I have worked out my five personal favorite baseball movies to break down each day this week.  Of course there have been classic films like Pride of the Yankees out there that would find their way on any number of best baseball movie lists, but not here in my personal top five.  These are films that stir my baseball youth, that invigorate my love of the game that has always been there, but has been building over the last decade.  And these pictures also happen to be, standing alone, wonderful entertainments.  Here we go.

5) Bull Durham

If you want instant credibility added to your baseball film, I suggest you hire Kevin Costner in some capacity.  At least that was the case for a decade as Costner starred in three baseball films of varying quality and seemed right at home with a bat and a glove.  Two of those films are here.  Bull Durham is a delightfully lighthearted baseball movie which manages to capture the idea of hopes and aspirations running throughout team organizations.  The film sucks us into the world of The Double-A Carolina league, and the hapless Durham Bulls, your typical tough-luck loser team that can't manage to get out of their own way.  Costner plays "Crash" Davis, a lifer in the minor leagues.  Davis is a wise old catcher trying his hardest to keep the Bulls afloat with his sharp mind and quick bat.  At the beginning of the season, Davis is brought in to mentor a young phenom, "Nuke" Laloosh, a cocky pitcher with a rocket arm and an empty head.  Of course these two hit it off poorly, and one side of the story deals with their banter and their relationship as they try and stomach each other on long bus rides and hot double headers in front of a thousand or so fans.

All the while, Bull Durham is narrated by Annie Savoy, a local lady who loves baseball and the Bulls, and each year decides to have a relationship with the best player on the team.  Susan Sarandon embodies her character better than anyone I could imagine, a perfect blend of wisdom and sexual energy.  Of course her sexual tryst would only last a summer, because she goes after the best player, and that player will more than likely be moving on after one season.  She goes after Laloosh, and meets her sexual satisfactions, but it is Crash Davis with whom she might very well belong.  They share something more than their obvious sexual attraction; they share years of Double-A ball and small-time glory, and in this they find comfort with one another.

Director Ron Shelton spent time in minor league ball, and his knowledge of the inner workings of low-rent baseball translates perfectly onto the screen.  He knows there are personalities larger than the game filling out these locker rooms and he embellishes them in brilliant smaller moments surrounding the larger romantic narrative.  There is the quirky assistant coach played by Robert Wuhl, the superstitious Latin player, the goofball religious player, all working to fill out a cast of great supporting characters.  Bull Durham runs parallel storylines of the Bull's season and the romantic triangle between Davis, Laloosh, and Annie.  It employs the "baseball as a metaphor for life" theory and it takes embellishes in wonderful performances, a grip on realism, and plenty of laughs.