Tuesday, January 26, 2010

BOOK TO FILM: L.A. CONFIDENTIAL


Adapting a book into a screenplay is a tricky enterprise. Do you basically transcribe the novel with a few trims, or do you write your own script with a couple occasional nods to the original source material? You have a choice of two subplots, one needs cutting: which one do you cut? Does that cut affect the story as a whole? Will that cut inspire the novel’s pre-existing fan base to say nasty things about your movie on the Internet? How seriously do you have to take the novel’s pre-existing fan base? It’s enough to turn John Wayne into Woody Allen.

Even if the novel in question is, luckily, one without a legion of basement-dwelling fanboys (of any gender), you still face the first couple challenges listed above. Few novels have presented as daunting a challenge as L.A. Confidential. James Ellroy’s 1990 crime saga is an epic in both size and scope, featuring almost a dozen interweaving plot threads, with nonpareil disturbing graphic violence, and a number of events and characters that you need to have read Ellroy’s previous The Big Nowhere (not to mention The Black Dahlia and Clandestine) to fully comprehend. Fortunately, director Curtis Hanson said to himself, “Hmm, a 500 page novel with a bunch of shit I can’t film without being arrested, three main protagonists instead of the industry standard one, and a plot so convoluted Raymond Chandler just shuddered in his grave . . . sure, fuck it, let’s make a movie.”

It helped that he was a fan of Ellroy’s work and thus personally invested in making a proper job of it. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland, also a fan of Ellroy’s, had been lobbying for the job since before he was famous enough to even get a meeting with the studio, and did the first few drafts of the script for free. Ellroy himself was like, “Holy shit, somebody’s trying to film that one? I want to meet these guys, they’re as crazy as I am.” Hanson and Helgeland’s script impressed Ellroy, who has since repeatedly gone on record as saying that the cinematic L.A. Confidential is in the spirit of its literary ancestor.

That’s especially impressive considering how different the two are. Because making a two hour, fifteen minute movie out of such a massive novel is, to put it mildly, a bit tough, a few changes had to be made:

--A number of cool-sounding character names from the book (Buzz Meeks, Deuce Perkins) were applied to different characters in the movie.
--Inez Soto, the girl the “innocent” Nite Owl Massacre suspects were pimping out and gang-raping instead of murdering everyone at the Nite Owl is a major character in the book, and eventually the lover of both Ed Exley and Bud White (two of the three main protagonists), but in the movie appears in only one scene.
--The third main protagonist, Jack Vincennes, is a technical advisor for a Dragnet-like TV show in both the book and movie, but in the book he has a whole backstory that was cut involving a drug-addled shootout wherein he accidentally killed two tourists, which led to his obsession with prosecuting narcotics offenses, earning him the nickname “Trashcan Jack” by tossing jazz legend Charlie Parker into one during a possession arrest. I always loved the nickname “Trashcan Jack,” not in the least because it led to lines like “Trash could write a good quickie,” referring to the report Jack files after busting the Nite Owl suspects.
--Ed Exley’s father is alive in the book, and is the contractor who builds a thinly fictionalized version of Disneyland (where Inez Soto eventually goes to work), but in the movie Exley’s father is merged with his brother, a policeman who was shot by a purse-snatcher in the line of duty, inspiring Exley to invent the name “Rollo Tamasi” as a catch-all description for “the guy who got away.”
--The book spans the years 1951 to 1958, while the movie takes place over a few months in ’53.
--Bud White’s investigation into a serial killer of prostitutes is completely cut.
--The actual Nite Owl killers are different in the book and the movie, although the mastermind behind them is the same guy.
--(MAJOR SPOILER) Dudley Smith doesn’t get killed in the book.



However, some things change, and some things stay the same. To wit:

(1) Bud White will fuck you up.

Oh you’d better believe it. Here’s an example of the kind of reasons Curtis Hanson managed to make a good—coherent would have been impressive enough—movie out of L.A. Confidential: instead of going for a recognizable American actor with box office pull to play Bud White, Hanson said, “I want the best actor for the part.” By about the middle of his first scene, Russell Crowe became a recognizable actor with box office pull in America. Not only inhabiting the character of Bud White, a not-terribly-cerebral cop with a violent streak a mile wide who fiercely defends and avenges abused women, Russell makes it impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part. And if you even look at a woman funny, Bud White will put his foot so far up your ass his wingtip will chip your teeth.

(2) Captain Dudley Liam Smith for the Nite Owl.



Mickey Cohen: “Not even Hitler is capable of such things. Who could be so brainy and so ruthless?”
Bud White: “Dudley Smith.”
Mickey Cohen:“Oh, Jesus Christ. Him I could believe . . .”

The Irish-accented, charismatic, charming, and terrifyingly corrupt Dudley Smith first appears in a minor role in Ellroy’s first novel, Clandestine. He doesn’t appear in Ellroy’s next period piece, The Black Dahlia, but he’s back and playing a lot bigger part in The Big Nowhere, Ellroy’s Red Scare in Hollywood/Zoot Suit Riot/”psycho killer running around chomping people with dentures made out of wolverine teeth” book; Dudley commits a murder during the Zoot Suit Riot that has repercussions on the larger plot of the novel, and he bodyguards a massive heroin deal between Mickey Cohen and Jack Dragna that gets ripped off by reluctant tragic hero Buzz Meeks. This leads us to L.A. Confidential, which opens with Dudley leading a posse that kills Meeks and takes the heroin back.

L.A. Confidential sees Dudley trying to take over organized crime in Los Angeles with Mickey Cohen in prison. A meeting involving a scheme to distribute illicit pornography at the Nite Owl coffee shop ends with three gunmen in Dudley’s employ murdering everyone in the place. Dudley then uses his borderline supernatural pull within the LAPD to manipulate the thrust of the investigation, and if not for Ed Exley being the one man in the whole department who’s as smart and ruthless as Dudley, he probably would have gotten completely away with it, instead of the mere temporary détente at the conclusion of L.A. Confidential.

In White Jazz, the last book in the series, the Exley/Dudley end game plays out. It takes Dave Klein (think a more intelligent Bud White . . . it’s okay to be scared), the book’s narrator, to take Dudley down, and even then he can’t kill him. Dudley Smith lives out his days semi-lucid, missing one eye, charming the nurses in his hospital, and in his coherent moments telling stories about the days when men were men.

Now, as far as I’m concerned, Dudley Smith is one of the greatest villains in the history of literature. When I first heard there was going to be a movie of L.A. Confidential, I absolutely could not think who could play Dudley. There was something unearthly about Dudley’s villainy, something that made it impossible to imagine a mortal actor portraying him with anything remotely approaching success. But Curtis Hanson, in another one of his brilliantly inspired choices, cast James Cromwell.

Wise casting director say: when in doubt, cast one of the best character actors of his generation. Not only is James Cromwell a terrific actor, the fact that he’s six-foot-seven made for a terrific visual dynamic wherein his Dudley—a little older and more outwardly frail than he appears in the books—is enough taller than everyone else in the movie that he is always the superior in every interaction, just like Dudley Smith in the book. And with that one, tiny, possibly unintentional (though Curtis Hanson is smart enough it might have been totally on purpose) touch, movie Dudley lives up to book Dudley.

(On a sad, spoilery note, the fact that Exley shotguns Dudley in the back at the end of the movie means we can never have a movie version of White Jazz that’s worth a shit. Joe Carnahan was working on an adaptation that he wrote with his brother where Exley and Dudley had different names, but without the blood feud between the two developed over the course of L.A. Confidential the dynamic has nothing whatsoever motivating it . . . oh, well. It was almost worth it to have L.A. Confidential be that good, and they did justify it by having Exley finally punish “the guy who gets away with it,” avenging his father.)

(3) With the exception of Kim Basinger, the whole movie is perfectly cast.

And she’s very well cast. The fact that she’s about 20 years older than her character is in the book lends her a bit of world-weary gravitas that not many younger actresses would have been able to pull off.

We already talked about why Russell was so awesome. Guy Pearce is Ed Exley: the fastidiousness, the movie-long journey growing into his physical presence, the intelligence, the hidden ruthlessness and ambition.









Kevin Spacey looks like he’s barely lifting a finger as “Don’t Call Me Trashcan, That Subplot Was Cut” Jack Vincennes, but that’s only because he’s doing such a terrific job of portraying a man who labors so hard to evince effortless cool. When the consequences of Jack’s actions finally hit him a ways into the movie, Spacey blasts the screen with Jack’s existential confusion and despair, before redeeming himself in death by springing a booby trap for the treacherous Dudley, telling him the name of Exley’s boogeyman Rollo Tamasi. The scene when Dudley fucks up and mentions that name to Exley made me clench my fist and say “Nicely done, Trashcan,” because, I’m sorry, he’ll always be Trashcan Jack to me.

At some point in this blog, I’ll go into greater detail about why David Straithairn is God, but for our purposes here suffice to say that as high-end pimp/pornographer Pierce Patchett he’s both a) completely different from the way Patchett is in the book and b) better. I’ve never seen David Straithairn in anything where he didn’t absolutely fucking rule, but as an intelligent, debonair bad guy he might be at his absolute best. I say might, because he’s great at everything, but he knocked me on my ass as Patchett, someone else I couldn’t cast in my head before seeing the movie.

(4) Cinematically, form and content are one harmonious whole.

Hanson resisted the temptation to go too over-the-top with noir cinematics, instead choosing, with DP Dante Spinotti, to light more naturalistically, but due to Hanson’s (and production designer Jeannine Oppewall’s) attention to period detail, the whole picture feels like a noir picture from the 50s (In a Lonely Place and/or Kiss Me Deadly in color). Even the framing and deep focus (i.e. the awesome shot when Bud White first shows up at Patchett’s house, and Patchett’s lining up a golf shot with Bud on the balcony over his shoulder about 20 feet away) are straight up 50s. Sirk, Minnelli, Siegel, and Nick Ray would smile.


L.A. Confidential, unfortunately, got steamrolled by Titanic at the ’97 Oscars, which is partly why it’s been on my mind of late, since Jim Cameron’s latest might very well steamroll The Hurt Locker this year. But Oscars aren’t everything. L.A. Confidential is a top 3 decade, Titanic “didn’t suck.” L.A. Confidential wins style points for, on so many levels, pulling off something so brutally fucking difficult and making it look effortless. Most importantly, though, it satisfied the rabid fanboys, which in this case means me. Cranky internet shitheads are tough to please.

A FEW WORDS FROM A HORROR MOVIE CIVILIAN

I am not particularly qualified to make assertions about The Greatest Horror Movie Of All Time. I haven’t really seen enough of them, due to an aversion to them developed in my younger years, which wasn’t really about horror movies themselves but about the mouthbreathing dipshits who insisted to my face that Friday the 13th Part 4 was better than, say, The Untouchables. Younger me developed the impression that all horror movies were as stupid and pointless as the brain-dead franchise sequels all my junior high and high school classmates venerated. Fortunately time, (sort of) maturity, and a gradual exposure to actual good horror movies has made me realize that the horror genre is a fine one indeed.

But, still, I’m not qualified to proclaim any one horror picture the greatest. However, my friend James Comtois—who is—said to me earlier this evening, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the greatest horror movie of all time,” and threw the DVD on, because I’d never seen it before. Holy tapdancing Jesus that’s a good fuckin’ movie. It’s the reason I’m still awake at 3:30 in the morning and so jittery I’m blogging instead of (futilely) attempting to sleep. I don’t scare easy at the movies, and when I do it’s usually something that doesn’t earn me too many Tough Guy Demerits, like Alien, or While You Were Sleeping. Holy fuck, though, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is fucking scary. Here’s why (tread softly lest ye trip over a spoiler or forty):

1) It could, conceivably, happen.

It’s not like it’s just another Monday when a vanload of hippies and an annoying tard in a wheelchair randomly stumble upon a bunch of inbred psychos who turn cannibal after the local abattoir closes. But it’s a lot more likely than, say, getting eaten by zombies (who do not, despite the best attempts of mass media, really exist). And show me someone who doesn’t shit themselves when some giant masked motherfucker comes lumbering at you with a chainsaw, and I’ll show you the poor schmuck he just cut in half.

2) “Basically, fuck Texas.”

James said that, I didn’t. But by repeating it I am kind of endorsing it. I know some Texans, and I like them (some of my best friends, etc. etc.), but they did leave. Clearly, this documentary about the ways of rural Texas folk is the reason why. The treatment of hippies—quickly and efficiently, with chainsaws—is sensible, but director Tobe Hooper points out, with a couple well-composed low-angle shots, that some hippie chicks have nice asses and don’t wear bras, and should be thus accorded some more politeness. Despite this, the Texans hang them on hooks, feed their blood to wizened, deformed old relatives, and, unforgivably, threaten them with the discipline of the chainsaw. Tut, tut, Texas.

3) Being a really good movie helps.

Hooper keeps things moving, doesn’t lard down the story with any stupid bullshit about the killers’ motivation, realizes that having the above-mentioned giant masked motherfucker chasing people with a chainsaw is scary enough that he doesn’t need to waste precious screen time delving into the inner lives of the hippie protagonists, employs elegantly simple cinematic technique to tell his story (he only starts showing off toward the end, but even all those fucked-up close-ups of the Final Girl’s eyes serve to emphasize the horrors she’s seen and aren’t just empty flash), and subtly (all the more impressive in a horror movie, subtlety) foreshadows the ultimate resolution. And he manages to do all that without the cinematic equivalent of run-on sentences like that last doozy. Also, as efficiently shot and creepy as everything up to and including the point when the fuckface in the wheelchair gets chainsawed and his sister is the only one left alive, the last half-hour of her trying to avoid the same fate is fucking intense. Her face when she finally gets on the pickup truck at the end, covered in blood, her terrified scream melting into maniacal laughter, is exactly how the audience feels.

(4) As per the first point, not having any money was an asset.

Not having any money forces you to use what you have, rather than dreaming up something that sounded cool when you were high but then you realize, fuck, I just spent $300 million and ended up with a video game about anorexic Smurfs fighting Halliburton. (Too soon?) Hooper makes great use of his limited resources, telling a horror story about the evils human beings are capable of, no creatures, no supernatural bullshit, just straight up crazy people. The most expensive thing in the whole movie was probably the gas it took to keep the chainsaw on for that entire 15 minute chase through the woods.


So, maybe I don’t have the horror movie stripes to say one movie is the best one ever or anything. But if you say The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the best, I’ll nod in agreement and tell you, “Yeah, that was a good fuckin’ movie.”

Sunday, January 24, 2010

VICTUS PRO SENTENTIA


Occasionally, every writer comes across a piece of writing so unique that it humbles him. Some Olympii are unclimbable. This article on Steven Spielberg, for me, is one of those.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

THE NAME IS BOND . . . JAMES BOND


And then there was Bond. Originating in print, springing forth from the mind of Ian Fleming, British spy James Bond has become the ultimate expression of a particular form of masculinity: sophisticated, lusty, ruthlessly competent, often at odds with titular superiors. The popularity of Fleming’s novels inevitably led to their being adapted into movies, and as of 2006—with the “straight” adaptation of Casino Royale, previously spoofed in 1967—all of them have now been done, with Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig all playing the iconic lead (with David Niven, Fleming’s original first choice, playing him in the spoof Casino Royale).

With so many different actors, all of them quite distinct from each other, playing Bond, the canon is a difficult study. Some prefer a holistic approach: Bond is Bond, regardless of his portrayer. Some others, like me, are more selective, and simplify our study of the Bond universe by deciding, in a manner that may seem arbitrary to an outside observer, that certain entries in the series simply do not exist.

In conducting one’s study in such a manner, it certainly helps to be an asshole. Fortunately the fine philosophy of Assholism is not only subjective, but enables the practitioners thereof to happily ignore all dissent, or at the very best react to dissent with dismissive condescension. I personally take it as a point of philosophical pride to engage with a subject on its own terms, and James Bond—contain your gasps and accusations of blasphemy—is kind of an asshole. He drives way too fast, kills people, is constantly giving his bosses hypertension with his blithe disregard for proper procedure, and just about every woman who sleeps with him ends up dead within fifteen minutes. (And he never fucks poor Moneypenny . . .) However, and without any contradiction whatsoever, these are among the many reasons why Bond is so cool. He can do all this blatantly irresponsible shit because he’s fictional, and an avatar for our transgressive desires. This iconic status enables him to be the exception to the rule that the protagonist needs to be someone the audience can relate to. No one can relate to James Bond, except maybe Zeus.

Lest it appear that I’m being negative or overly PC in deconstructing Bond, I want to make one thing clear: I think James Bond is fucking awesome. There’s a very particular mood in which none other than Bond hits the spot for me, and I rewatch favorite Bond movies with high frequency. I don’t subscribe to the philosophy that heroes need to be flawless, and I have a nuanced enough intellect to compartmentalize negatives, because the human mind is never entirely one thing ever.

However, before we begin our trip through the cinema of Bond, let’s return for a second to the idea of selective existence. Some—quite a few, actually—Bond movies don’t really exist. These will, naturally, be skipped. Or, if a thing doesn’t exist, can it really be skipped? Scratch your beard to that one for a moment, why don’t you.

Dr. No (1962)—Exists

In which Bond investigates the murder of an intelligence official, discovers malfeasance perpetrated by the reclusive title villain, and ravishes the almost supernaturally gorgeous Honey Ryder. We don’t see Sean Connery earn his double-0 or in any way portray Bond as anything other than a fully-formed, complete entity, an invincible force of nature. In spite of this complete absence of character development, Connery pulls it off, because he’s Sean Connery. And he is James Bond. You best believe.



From Russia With Love (1963)—Exists

Bond does a bit more globe-hopping here, hitting up Turkey, Croatia, and Italy. The fascinating idea of a near-equal is introduced, in Robert Shaw (just about the only guy alive who could pull off something so apparently ridiculous). Bond and Robert Shaw beat the living shit out of each other in a train compartment in a really well-filmed—and long—fight scene a ways into the picture; Robert Shaw is so cool in this that you’re almost not certain Bond will win, which is particularly impressive. Lotte Lenya (hey, don’t look at me) shows up as a particularly nasty villain with knives in her shoes, and who furthermore puts moves on half-ass KGB mole Daniela Bianchi (who, while very hot, looks about as Russian as a Ferrari). Bond’s ability to turn women from evil to good through his fierce Scottish sexuality is introduced, enabling Daniela Bianchi to resist Lotte Lenya and embrace the West. Also, since 1991, has been funny because the big gadget Bond has to make sure the Commies (or SPECTRE or SMERSH who whoever the fuck they are) don’t get their hands on is called the Lektor. You know, because of Silence of the Lambs. Okay, my sense of humor is retarded sometimes. Moving on.

Goldfinger (1964)—Hell yes it exists

My personal favorite of the bunch, for a lot of occasionally idiosyncratic reasons:

--The hottest Bond girls. The tragically short-lived Masterson sisters are both stunners, and I’ve always had a thing for Pussy Galore (“My name is Pussy Galore.” “I musht be dreaming . . .”) in no small part because of her initial arctic, repressed, pantsuited impression, to which Bond naturally lays waste and pulls off the evil-to-good sex maneuver once again, even more impressively this time because Pussy Galore was more enthusiastically aligned with the bad guys than the wishy-washy KGB girl the last time around.

--Goldfinger’s motive? “There has been a masterpiece in every human endeavor . . . EXCEPT CRIME!” Fuckin-a right, Auric, do your thing, baby.

--“Do you expect me to talk, Goldfinger?”
“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.”

--Goldfinger cheats at golf and Bond still kicks his ass. Golf is fucking ridiculous, and I would bulldoze every golf course in the world and put up a nature preserve or low-cost housing if given half a chance, but it’s important that Bond is good at golf, not just because Connery Bond is Scottish, but the kind of guy Bond is has to be good at golf.

--Oddjob is to henchmen what Bond is to cocksmen.

--The guy from the Gold Office or wherever who offers Bond that “rather disappointing brandy” has the coolest English accent ever. Well, until Michael Fassbender said, “Well, if this is it, old boy, I for one am going to go out speaking the King’s” in Inglourious Basterds, but records are meant to be broken.

--A very limited group of people can get away with the shit Bond talks about the Beatles right after he fucks Jill Masterson. Bond can because he’s Bond, and Sean Connery. My parents can because they liked the Stones, Kinks, Animals, and Dylan more, and it must have been mildly annoying having the Beatles on the radio all the time back then.

This whole movie has enormous balls. Goldfinger wants to rip off Fort Knox, for fuck’s sake. He’s playing in the majors. And it’s very important that at the end, Bond disarms the bomb just as the readout says “007.” Not because it’s a stupid joke and prefigures some of the more unfortunate detours into campy humor that the Bond movies would later make, but because Bond doesn’t break a sweat. What kind of cut-rate second-rater is lame enough that he has to leave it until the last second? People perspire that way. Bond has things so well in hand that he can save the day completely on his own terms. And bad jokes aren’t bad jokes when cool and/or sexy people tell them. That’s just the way it is.


Thunderball (1965)—Exists, conditionally

A lot of people love Thunderball, and Connery even remade it in 1983 as Never Say Never Again (which, although not an official Bond movie, also conditionally exists), but I find it kind of boring. I have a hard time keeping track of which Bond girl is Domino and which is the other one, and Emilio Largo is kind of cool, but not really. After Auric Goldfinger wanted to wreck the world economy basically for aesthetic reasons (god I love that guy), here’s this eye-patch wearing douchebag saying, “Hey, give me some money or I’ll totally nuke you. Seriously, I'm not kidding!” A real villain would have at least nuked Paris and then said, “Pay me or London’s next, bitch.”

It still conditionally exists, because when I’m able to compartmentalize and not compare Emilio Largo to Goldfinger, it is good. The opening sequence with the transvesto-villain was massive cool. And even though I can never sort out Domino and the other one, they are sisters, so that’s understandable, and they’re both hot.


You Only Live Twice (1967)—Exists

In which Bond goes to Japan, prevents World War III, fucks the girl from What’s Up Tiger Lily?, and first meets Blofeld. Written by Roald Dahl, which I always find funny, and is the reason I was once almost slapped for calling this “James and the Giant Budget.”

A source of great personal frustration to me for a really long time, when I was buying up all the Connery Bonds on VHS, because they weren’t selling any of them as standalones, they were all parts of six-tape sets which always included a couple of the shitty Roger Moore ones and one of the Timothy Dalton ones. Finally, after surrendering my desire and submitting to the void, I found it in a bargain bin for $5 and happily took it home. Fortunately it is pretty good, even though the series was getting overblown and borderline full of shit by this point. The action sequences are top-notch.


Casino Royale (1967)—Exists, is cool, but belongs in a different discussion entirely


On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)—Kind of exists

I mean, it’s a serviceable action picture. But it’s not Bond. George Lazenby’s good in the lead . . . but he’s not Bond. He even breaks the fourth wall and admits he’s not Sean Connery. Bond concedes alpha status to no one! Diana Rigg, on her own merits, is easily a top-three Bond Girl . . . but she marries Bond, and Bond doesn’t get married! Sure, she gets killed, but come on, man.

George Lazenby seems like a nice guy, but he doesn’t get to exist out of pity, he gets to exist because this is a pretty good movie if you can elbow the 800 lb gorilla out of the way—the one wearing the “this isn’t a real Bond movie” t-shirt—and enjoy it on its own merits. Also, Telly Savalas as Blofeld is a funny enough idea to carry one through the non-Bondness.


Diamonds are Forever (1971)—Exists, but shouldn’t push its luck

A lot of being able to enjoy this one hinges on one’s tolerance for Tiffany Case (Jill St. John) being kind of a hoi polloi Bond Girl. First of all, she’s American. Sure, she’s got attitude, and she’s got pulchritude, but still. We don’t home-grow exotic in the land of the free and the home of the brave, we import it. So, she’s got a major handicap. But there’s something about her line reading when she says, “Holy smokes, you just killed James Bond!” to James Bond that makes me unable to keep picking nits. Maybe she's not exotic, but she's got something.

There’s a lot of goofy shit in Diamonds are Forever. Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd are great. It’s got the best car chase in the Bond oeuvre (Sean Connery popping double wheelies in Vegas, as pure and good as any concept yet hatched in Western thought). Plenty O’Toole is plenty o’hot. Blofeld has hench-beauties named Bambi and Thumper, which is really stupid, but they manage to transcend the faulty nomenclature.

The climax is big, loud, and a little protracted, but ultimately exciting. Much like the movie, which in the end is worth it, but really stretches patience.


Live and Let Die (1973)—Just barely exists

Now we get to Roger Moore. Apropos of his debut, which cynically capitalizes on the then-fashionable genre of blaxploitation, I turn you over to Avon Barksdale: “You only do two days [in prison], the day you get in, and the day you get out.” Which is why the only two Roger Moore Bond movies that exist are his first, and his last.

There’s nothing empirically wrong with Roger Moore. As Roger Moore, he’s pretty cool (see Cannonball Run), and has a unique sense of style, in a square-ass kinda way. But the direction the Roger Moore Bond pictures took was sickening: Bond became a comedian under Roger Moore’s watch, which is unacceptable in itself. But Bond becoming a brutal misogynist is the last straw, and the reason why most of the Roger Moore movies don’t exist. There’s a big difference between a guy who gets laid a lot and a guy who has contempt for his conquests, and smacks them around, and basically carries on like a fucking pig. Sure, Connery smacked a couple women, but they were trying to kill him (the one by the pool in Goldfinger whose ass he playfully smacked and to whom he said, “Run along, man talk,” doesn’t count; although not the high point in the history of progressive gender relations, he was just messing around). Roger Moore’s Bond was a bloated, sybaritic gargoyle. Again, I don’t blame him. He didn’t write the scripts. He didn’t direct the movies. Then again, he didn’t seem to resist much either.

Anyway, Live and Let Die gets to exist conditionally because otherwise, Yaphet Kotto never would have gotten to be a Bond villain, and Yaphet Kotto goddamn deserves to be a Bond villain (which is probably what sustained him through putting up with Robert De Niro’s character’s bullshit in Midnight Run).


The Man With the Golden Gun (1974)—Doesn’t exist (which is a shame, because it’d have been nice to see Christopher Lee as a Bond villain in a real Bond movie)

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)—Doesn’t exist (though, oddly, its theme song does)

Moonraker (1979)—Doesn’t exist, even though the “Ben Affleck is THE MOONRAPER” joke in Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back does.

For Your Eyes Only (1981)—Almost exists, they did try, but ultimately sunk by Roger Moore.

Octopussy (1983)—Can go fuck itself. Actually, it can’t go fuck itself, it doesn’t exist.

A View To A Kill (1985)—Exists, but not entirely on its merits.

Has the distinction of being the first Bond movie I actually saw. The Duran Duran theme song is stellar (though the video is fucking obnoxious even by their “good-looking broads on a yacht with cocaine and ennui bleeding out the eyeballs” standards). The only thing wrong with Christopher Walken being a Bond villain is that he was a little too young here. Frank White would have been a great Bond villain, even though Walken only had five more years of grizzle and idiosyncrasy on him at that point. Grace Jones fascinated the six-year-old me, and may be personally responsible for me being so warped sexually today; in spite of this movie being three-quarters a piece of shit, she ranks with the great Villainous Bond Girls.
Although it’s waaaaaaaay too long and really boring whenever Walken and/or Grace Jones is absent, the climactic Golden Gate bridge sequence is fairly kick-ass. Also, since this is the last Roger Moore one, it gets to exist so we can tell him not to let the door hit his ass on the way out of the series.

The Living Daylights (1987)—Doesn’t exist; the Timothy Dalton experiment, while conducted for the noble reason of washing the cyanide Roger Moore taste out of the audience’s mouth, chose the wrong antidote

License to Kill (1989)—Doesn’t exist, for the same reason.

GoldenEye (1995)—Exists!

Of all the people to restore faith in Bond . . . Pierce Brosnan? He wasn’t Connery, because no one is, but not being Roger Moore or Timothy Dalton was a big part of it. Brosnan was plausible with the ladies, acquitted himself nicely in the action scenes, and had a sense of humor that definitely held the vermouth. Interestingly, Brosnan had been the first choice of the producers when they ended up going with Timothy Dalton, but hemmed and hawed and didn’t really want to go with a damaged-goods franchise (the toxicity of Roger Moore’s impact cannot be overstated) but ultimately appeared to decide that enough time had past and the contract had enough zeroes following an appropriately high numeral that he could give it a shot this time around.

GoldenEye was the result of a couple very smart choices by the producers. The first being, get a suitable Bond, which they did, but the second was the clincher: actually make a kick-ass action movie. Don’t take it for granted that a modern audience that has forgotten how to take Bond (kind of) seriously will just go to a Bond movie unless it holds up on its own merits. At the same time, though, making an action movie where the hero just happens to be named James Bond won’t do either. We’re going to need a few things, each of which simultaneously pay tribute to the past and look forward:

--A domme villainess who crushes men to death with her thighs? Yup (Xenia Onatopp, modernizing Pussy Galore but without the ultimate redemption, since Bond’s ability to de-evil women with his dick died with Sean Connery.)
--A genuinely exotic and hot Russian ingénue played by an Italian model? Sure, why not (Izzy Scorupco, per Daniela Bianchi in From Russia With Love)
--Alan Cumming playing a greaseball computer nerd? Hell yeah. This has nothing to do with Bond history, it’s just kinda cool, and man is he slimy in this.
--Judi Dench is so good as M that Bernard Lee starts to fade from the memory, which has more to do with Judi Dench being Dame Judi than it has to do with Bernard Lee being weak.

The greatest asset GoldenEye has going for it, though, is its new-school villain: 006. First off, Sean Bean would be badass saying Merry Christmas to his grandmother. But the idea of a 00 going bad raises the interesting question: how far can Bond be pushed? And how much more of a moral exemplar will Bond appear by not cracking?

(Also, GoldenEye inspired one of the better video games of all time, and began a tradition of top-notch Bond video games, one of which inspired my biggest “if I ever have a couple hundred million bucks” filmmaking desires: to shoot a car chase without visible cuts. Sure, there’d have to be some digital compositing, but the idea of doing a car chase as a tracking shot makes me geek out nearly psychotically.)

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)—Exists

Doesn’t really hold up as well as GoldenEye, but when it came out this movie was fucking awesome. I saw this with my cousin in a freezing night in the middle of nowhere in Massachussetts and she was rendered rather weak-kneed by Jonathan Pryce’s Eurotrash lead henchman (but not so weak-kneed that she couldn’t utter a perfect summation of action cinema: “Violent movies are only cool when people are getting killed,” apropos of her calling me a nerd for liking Starship Troopers).

While I thought the Eurotrash bad guy was cool, Michelle Yeoh was more my type. Michelle Yeoh’s character in this was a tremendously risky gamble by the Bond producers: how to introduce a female equal for Bond who he still fucks senseless, but who he doesn’t have to save when the shit comes down. They kind of fucked up because she’s still all tied up and helpless at the end—horrendous bullshit considering the metric tons of ass she kicks earlier in the picture—but erring on the side of gender regressivism rather than PC is the more acceptable error for a Bond movie (since Bond movies exist in a bubble outside conventional morality).

Brosnan again is solid, and Jonathan Pryce basically plays Rupert Murdoch as Bond villain, which is brilliant since Rupert Murdoch is one of the rare real guys who basically are Bond villains. (Dick Cheney is, of course, the best: that sneer, and he actually fucking has a secret villainous lair! The next Bond movie should be Daniel Craig and some six-foot-one Brazilian model in a short skirt kicking Dick Cheney in the balls with nuclear weapons . . .) Even though this isn’t the most memorable entry in the series, it still has enough pluses to be allowed to exist, and as per the You Only Live Twice corollary, the fact that it apparently started as a treatment by Donald Westlake (??????) gives it sufficient goofball cred to ensure continued existence.

The World Is Not Enough (1999)—Doesn’t exist. In fact, the only two Denise Richards movies that exist are Starship Troopers and Wild Things, and neither owes their existence to her.

Die Another Day (2002)—Exists

The idea of 00s being pushed to the breaking point, first introduced in GoldenEye, is revisited here, with Bond getting thrown in a North Korean prison for a couple years and growing a Lebowski-esque beard in the process. Of course, Bond being Bond, he doesn't break. This leads to a glorious sequence wherein Bond, bearded and dressed in soaking-wet pajamas fresh off an escape from a yacht, strolls into the finest hotel in Hong Kong and calmly asks for a suite, a tailor, and some room service. Fuck what you heard, Brosnan pulled that off? He gets to be Bond.

The rest of the movie is largely over-the-top, with a lot of borderline blasphemous touches (Bond ordering a mojito and having “London Calling” playing as Bond touches down in the UK are both okay as far as I’m concerned, because who the fuck drinks martinis in Cuba, first of all, and second of all, Bond’s stability as a cultural icon is shaky enough due to all the hits it’s taken over the years that he needs to be diplomatic with the Clash, a disparate but similarly important cultural entity). Halle Berry fails miserably in the “hurf durf let’s give Bond a female ‘equal’ but let’s forget to three-dimensionalize her character” role, but it’s not entirely her fault, and she is sufficiently decorative. Miranda Frost, though, she’s my girl in this one—not only does she have that cold repressed thing going on (part of what makes her so sexy in that fencing outfit), but she be baaaaaad. (If you’re keeping score at home, yes, the sexiest movie of all time would feature nothing but tall, thin, emotionless women in glasses and tweed. Who chase each other in cars.)

The villain appears to be kind of a weak sister in this, when you think he’s Maggie Smith’s ginger son, but after the Scooby-Doo moment when we realize he’s really the North Korean guy, all is once again well. And he has a palace made of ice, which you really can’t fuck with, and Pierce Brosnan drives a car through it as it melts, which is pretty far out.


Casino Royale (2006)—Exists with extreme prejudice

I almost can’t sit still to write about this movie. A couple overheated, possibly ridiculous statements:

--Daniel Craig is as cool as Sean Connery. Daniel Craig is the English Steve McQueen.
--Eva Green as Vesper Lynd is on that Honey Ryder/Pussy Galore level.
--Any movie where the villain cries tears of blood is motherfucking on point.
---The Madagascar chase scene where Daniel Craig is huffing and puffing after the parkour guy is the single best foot chase scene in the history of cinema, period, point-blank, fuck off.

It’s hard to imagine a reboot being pulled off better than this. They even managed to make Bond a flawed, imperfect human being without dulling his edge as a badass in the slightest. Since this is an origin story, it’s important to see how Bond learned to be the Bond we’d previously known for 12 movies (remember, a bunch of them don’t actually exist), and part of that means he has to fuck up a couple times to learn from his mistakes.

The biggest issue I had with Casino Royale is microscopic, and so dorky I should probably be put to death. While since no one plays baccarat anymore, having Bond take down Le Chiffre at Texas Hold ‘Em instead makes sense, on the surface, since thanks to Rounders and ESPN everybody knows what turns, rivers, flops, cowboys, rockets, and the like are. But they play a lot more Omaha Hold ‘Em in Europe, so while Le Chiffre would probably be good at both, a tournament in Europe would probably have been Omaha rather than plain old Hold ‘Em. The point is this: if I’m stooping to these depths to find anything to criticize about this movie, it’s very good indeed.


Quantum of Solace (2008)—Bitch please

Goddammit, people, stop fucking shooting car chases with handheld cameras. It’s like heroin, doing it doesn’t make you cool. It makes you a fucking asshole. Mount the goddamn thing on something.

And please, for the love of Christ, don’t just cast a French guy as the villain and think that that’s enough. You’d think having a Swiss guy directing this one would have obviated that kind of silliness, but no. The bad guy isn’t doing anything all that bad in this; he’s barely even doing anything illegal. I guess Bond has to whomp on some Frogs on general principle due to producer fiat, or because the WGA strike didn’t give Paul Haggis enough time to finish the script . . . or because fucking Paul Haggis wrote the goddamn thing.

Unfortunately Quantum of Solace exists due to reasons beyond my control. As the most recent movie in the series, it’s the last one everyone saw, and we need at least a one-movie buffer before practicing our aesthetic Stalinism on the undesirables.


And Q. And Shaken Not Stirred. And the Aston Martin. And the music. And on and on til the break of dawn. Long live Bond!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

LET'S GET HIGH!

I would never dream of advocating anything illegal (one need not dream about what one does every day . . .wait, what? Shut up) so this discussion is strictly theoretical, based on assumptions, and not intended to be put into practice. Unless one of these suggestions seems like a good idea, but even then, it’s your fault not mine.

Certain drugs do not lend themselves to watching movies. If you can sit still for long enough to watch a movie while coked up, more power to you (but don’t fucking watch Scarface, it’ll give you ideas). If you can keep your eyes open long enough to watch a movie on smack, hey, I’m impressed, though you’re still a fucktard for doing smack. But if you’re watching a movie instead of having a bisexual orgy or rubbing your cheek against corduroy (or both) while on Ecstasy, you got problems, my friend.

For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll be focusing on acid, weed, and booze, the three best movie-watching drugs, as well as the ones about which the author’s (theoretical, ahem) knowledge is greatest.


ACID MOVIES

One time in college, I watched Lost Highway while I was tripping. I can report back that the story made sense until I came down, though that scene when Bill Pullman walked across the screen and left that thick white trail behind him made it impossible to see the other actors for about five minutes, and I think Patricia Arquette’s boobs were out at some point during those five minutes. So there are drawbacks.

Since acid itself is not for the faint of heart, one’s tripping movie choices should reflect the same caution as one’s consideration of even tripping in the first place. If you get visuals, movies aren’t even necessary, but I never got unprovoked visuals, and so needed to find entertainment outside my own head.

I would recommend David Lynch movies, only I know not everyone shares the kind of cosmic cynicism that always used to settle in around Hour 3 back in my acid days. The violence and malignance that lurks around many corners in the universes of David Lynch can be upsetting to more sensitive tripping people. So, because I’m being not entirely tongue-in-cheek with this post, I’ll give an honest, sincere recommendation here: cartoons. Get yourself a whole buncha Bugs Bunny cartoons. You’ll have a nice six hours concluding that Bugs is a trickster god and catching all the hidden (imaginary?) political and literary subtext. Do not watch any of the WWII propaganda ones, they’re fucked up, and flying Nazi clouds will chase you around the living room, squeaking in German at you.

Stay away from cinema verité, documentaries, or anything excessively realistic. Or X-Files reruns (man, that was a long fuckin’ night . . .)


BOOZE MOVIES

For sittin’ around getting drunk, less care needs to be paid to one’s psychological health, and a good thing, too, because getting drunk is good psychotherapy most times. The only genre that needs to be avoided—provided one is single—is romance, and only then if being single is an undesirable thing. Some highlights:

Anything with car chases and explosions

This, naturally, goes without saying. But crappier car chase/explosion movies get a lot better when drunk. Stupid dialogue becomes funnier. A lot more talking back to the screen ensues after a few belts of the ol’ sauce.

Just about anything with Humphrey Bogart in it.

But don’t play the Humphrey Bogart drinking game. If you drink every time he drinks, you’ll die. If you drink every time he’s cool, you’ll die. If you slam your whole drink every time some woman way too hot for him falls in love with him, you and everyone in the room will die. (Look, he’s the coolest guy ever, but he was short and funny-looking. This is something you realize watching his movies drunk.)

Sports movies

Usually, sports movies are as bad as non-sports fans consider sports to be. I say this as not only a sports fan, but a sports fan who plays in fantasy leagues, and furthermore a sports fan who wins his fantasy leagues. But sports movies tend to follow a rigid formula that ignores the reality of following sports. Sports movies are nearly always about some ragged band of underdogs who pull it all together and through desire and heart, beat the soulless, machine-like alpha dog team. This is actually bullshit. In reality, good teams win. Upsets in sports are nearly universally a problem with media perception: a favored team passing its sell-by date running into a younger (or more recently assembled) team that has flown under the radar. The grizzled old veteran who so often stars in the sports movie gets blown off the field in real life.

However, when drunk, sentimentality takes over: hey, of course Tom Berenger can still catch 162 games a season with fucked-up knees! Of course Tim Robbins can throw 95 mph fastballs with that geeky pitching motion! Of course Hickory High’s basketball team composed entirely of white guys under six feet tall can beat the 6’5” black guys from the Big City! (Hoosiers can seem kind of racist when you’re not smiley-drunk . . . it’s a bad movie to watch when you’re bitter/cynical drunk.)

Stupid comedies

Hahahahahahaha, he farted! Hahahahahahahahahaha! Ha ha ha . . . wow . . . damn, that was good. Hahahahahahahaha he got caught jerking off! And he was so surprised he farted! Hahahahahahahahahaha . . .


WEED MOVIES

IF MARIJUANA WERE LEGAL . . . (ahem) . . . (cough, cough) . . .

Your best bet—because there is truth in the occasional stereotype—is science fiction. When stoned, though, quality is inversely proportional to enjoyment. Shitty 50s SF movies where the more blinking lights a computer has the more powerful it is, are gold. Or where you can tell who the Martians are because they have goatees. Or the ones where there are lines like, “Now that it’s 1980, and Man has conquered the Solar System, we must conquer ourselves.” Or, to slither out onto a very thin limb and begin jumping up and down, Star Wars.

Sorry, y’all, “May the Force be with you” is hippie shit. But hippie shit sounds cool when you’re high. When you’re high you’ll be like, “Yo, if I could pull the Jedi mind trick on the cops when I get busted, that’d be dope.” Unfortunately, when you’re high, you’ll also find it really deep, but such is life.

Now for the less obvious ones (that also won’t piss off my Star Wars fan friends):

Jim Jarmusch movies

This isn’t to say Jarmusch isn’t fun in other states, or completely sober. He is. Jarmusch is great. But when you’re high you don’t have to worry about not being in the mood for the deliberate pace and the minimalism, because you’ll fill in the gaps and have a much more expansive attention span. Dead Man in particular is a good weed-smoking bet: when the guy says to Johnny Depp “You William Blake?” and Johnny says, “Yes, I am. Do you know my poetry?” and lights him and his buddy up, the well-adjusted stoner will smile.

Cinemax soft-core porn

Usually, this shit is unwatchable. But stoned it’s great, because stuff like the woman’s clitoris being in the small of her back is the kind of thing marijuana was made for. The hideous boob jobs, the adorable attempts at intentional comedy, the terrible acting, the ten-minute plots with an hour of sex padding it out . . . the only thing stopping me from writing a book-length dissertation on these damn things is the fact that I can’t afford the weed I’d need to smoke—if weed were legal—to get through enough of them to write anything comprehensive. Also, I hate fake tits.

Music videos

Anyone under 30 or over 50 might need an explanation here: once upon a time there was a TV channel called MTV that showed things called “music videos,” which were (often very strange) short films shot and edited to pop songs (A channel called MTV still exists, but it now stands for Mass-produced Teenage Venality). Considering that the best thing ever to do while high is sitting around listening to music, music videos are the crème de la crème of stoner movie watching.

The best kind of videos to watch while high—and I say this not due to my own musical preferences, but because the videos are so fucking strange—are by early 80s New Wave groups. There’s this one Neil Finn video with women dancing in picture frames that’s terrific. You have to watch it here, though, because occasionally, you’ll catch “Never Say Never” by Romeo Void when you’re the wrong kind of high and be horribly disappointed to find out that the chick singer is about 5’1” and 300 lbs with a mustache, and that her voice being so sexy is even more voice/face incongruous than Bryan Ferry (who should be beautiful and gay . . . am I right? Anyone? Ah shit . . .)

But, if we’re talking about feature motion pictures here, we should have a proper top 5:

(5) 2001: A Space Odyssey (dir. Stanley Kubrick)—1968
(4) Head (dir. Bob Rafelson)—1968
(3) Dead Man (dir. Jim Jarmusch)—1995
(2) Repo Man (dir. Alex Cox)—1984

(1) The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (dir. W.D. Richter)—1984

I’ve already talked about (5), if you need an explanation for (4) you’re reading the wrong blog—its fucking title is Head, okay?—I’ve already talked about (3), (2) is going to have its own 10,000 word entry, so let’s kick back and smoke a joint to (1) for a moment.

“Don’t be mean, man, we don’t have to be mean, cuz, remember no matter where you go, there you are.”

“Where are we going?”
“PLANET TEN!”
“When?”
“REAL SOON!”

“I’ve been ionized, but I’m okay now.”

“Why is there a watermelon there?”
“I’ll tell you later.”

“Buckaroo, I don’t know what to say . . . Lectroids? Planet Ten? Nuclear extortion? A girl named ‘John’?”

“Lithium is no longer available on credit.”

“President’s calling, Buckaroo.”
“President of what?"
“The President of the United
States.”
“Oh.”


When sober, Buckaroo Banzai can occasionally feel like it’s trying too hard, which is because it is. You can’t set out to make a cult movie, you have to try to make something good, but be so strange that you fail at being good, only to have brave legions of moviegoers with joints subsequently codify your unintentional brilliance through drawled, elliptical discussion. Amazingly, Buckaroo Banzai is the one attempted cult movie that managed to become one anyway, but still. The biggest criticism I have of it is that it’s unwatchable unless you’re high. And, since marijuana is illegal, we’re fucked. But if anyone ever legalizes it, we’re all watching Buckaroo Banzai at my place.

Monday, January 18, 2010

KATHRYN BIGELOW: GODDESS





Oscar season is upon us. I’m trying to give a shit, but it’s a little harder than in past years. I’m trying to gradually see as many of the nominated pictures as I can, but I’m usually either too broke or busy to make it out to the theater. My younger selves would have been shocked to hear that, as long as it’s been that I’ve been on my “hiatus,” there has only really been one movie that it really drove me nuts I couldn’t see: The Hurt Locker.

There were multiple reasons, some of them kind of obvious—the deliriously good press it got, the fact that someone apparently finally made a good Iraq movie, the prospect of seeing stuff blow up—but the main reason is this: ever since the middle of my adolescence I’ve been half in love with Kathryn Bigelow.

In many ways, she’s absolutely perfect (and not just for the reasons clearly on display in the photo to the left). A woman who directs action movies (including the legendary Point Break)? Command me, mistress. As an action director who is a woman, it’s tempting, and almost reflexive, to say that she’s a woman in a man’s game, only the fact of her bringing a woman’s perspective to typically male material makes her unique. Even though I love action movies dearly, I will admit under duress that most action directors are kind of interchangeable—anyone who claims they can tell the difference between, say, Simon West and Stephen Sommers without looking at the credits is probably full of shit. But no one else out there right now could make a Kathryn Bigelow picture. Even Mimi Leder, making pictures like The Peacemaker and Deep Impact, comes off a little “girlier,” to use the first word that comes to mind and that kind of misses the point. Kathryn Bigelow pictures, with only two exceptions I can think of, have male protagonists and deal with “male” issues in a very adrenalized, terse way.

An overview of her career, with more spoilers than a motherfucker because it’s a holiday and I ain’t got time to euphemize:


The Set-Up (1978)

Getting the ol’ career off to a flying start: 20 minutes of Gary Busey and some other dude beating the shit out of each other while two semioticians comment on the action. Did I mention I’m in love with this woman?

The Loveless (1982? 1984?)

Haven’t seen this one, but it’s a biker picture with Willem Dafoe, about incest, apparently. I nominate that last line for worst pun of the year.

Near Dark (1987)

A beautifully shot, original take on vampire movies. Adrian Pasdar meets a cute, pale girl who bites him on the neck both physically and emotionally. Cute pale girl introduces him to Bill Paxton and Lance Henriksen. Adrian Pasdar, poor bastard, is a bit too genteel for their company, or for Jenette Goldstein or that creepy kid vampire either, but shit doesn’t really get raw until the vampires decide they want to kill Adrian Pasdar’s paw and sis.

So stylish, so brilliantly paced, so few extraneous touches that’s almost a shame that the ultimate resolution is so dishonest. Vampirism isn’t supposed to have a cure. Oh, well. You go see a subversive genre picture, you shouldn’t complain when conventions get subverted. That’s the only one that lands badly, though.


Blue Steel (1990)

Slightly better than the average “cop vs. psycho” picture, mainly due to the signature visual style. Jamie Lee Curtis (?) plays an NYPD rookie who puts a few well-placed holes in a convenience store robber, only to have psycho yuppie Ron Silver—a convenience store patron—make off with the robber’s gun, landing Jamie Lee in all kinds of trouble way beyond being miscast. Ron Silver starts shooting women, attempting to romance Jamie Lee, and eventually drawing the ire of Clancy Brown (another cop, in one terrific wig), who also romances Jamie Lee. It feels a bit dated now, since formula pictures don’t tend to age well, but the almost sexual fascination with guns is interesting, making this less than torturous for anyone looking to do the whole Bigelow oeuvre, at least if you’re not squeamish about violence and the instruments thereof.


Point Break (1991)

I have never been able to maintain a straight face while talking about this movie, and I don’t intend to start now. The story of blue flamer quarterback punk Johnny Utah (Keanu) of the Federal Bureau of Inarticulation and his quest to win the heart of . . . ahem, arrest, right, arrest . . . bank-robbing surf guru Bodhi (Swayze). He attempts to win the heart of lesbian surfer Lori Petty . . . wait, she’s supposed to be straight in this? What the fuck . . .?

Anyway. There’s enough quotably retarded dialogue in Point Break to fill several happy lifetimes:



“That’s Bodhi, they call him Bodhisattva.”

“Bodhi, this is your fucking wake-up call, man . . . I . . . am an F . . . B . . . I . . . agent!”
“I know, isn’t it wild?”

“I caught my first tube today. Sir.”

“Listen you snot-nose little shit, I was takin' shrapnel in Khe Sanh
when you were crappin' in your hands and rubbin' it on your face!”
Later:
“Let me tell you something, Harp. I was in this bureau while you were still
popping zits on your funny face and jacking off to the lingerie section of the
Sears catalog.”

“Utah . . . get me two.”
Then: “I’m so hungry I could eat the ass end out of a dead rhino, I shoulda had you get me three of these things.”

“Back off, Warchild, seriously.”



Et cetera. Ad infinitum.

Also notable for being one of the earlier signs that Gary Busey was duckfucking out of his mind rather than just one of those guys who gets typecast.

Prefigures The Hurt Locker in a few weird ways: a) a character study about adrenaline junkies, b) a slightly detached, amused, and pretty accurate look at male friendships, c) cool handheld camerawork in an alley chase scene.

Very few movies consistently make me as purely happy as Point Break does, even if I’m two parts laughing at it to eight parts laughing with it. Most of the stupid shit is the writers’ fault and the fact that the two leads aren’t exactly De Niro and Pacino, although I’ll stop short of saying that Keanu and Swayze are shitty actors. The many weird choices they respectively make in this are part of its warped charm. The director has to take a lot of credit here for realizing she wasn’t making a serious Method-actor movie and just letting the goofballs run with it. (Speaking of goofballs, the amount of coffee John C. McGinley must have drunk in this rivals the amount of coke they did making Scarface).


Strange Days (1995)

Written by her (already) ex-husband James Cameron—who has apparently directed a couple of pictures, according to my sources—this is kind of a cultural artifact, part of the mid-90s post-cyberpunk hiccup in SF. Taking place in the buildup to New Year’s Eve 1999, the story’s about a black market dealer in virtual reality clips (Ralph Fiennes), who gets caught up in an LAPD cover-up of the murder of an influential rapper, which a prostitute recorded. As with most cyberpunk proper, there’s a heavy noir influence, down to the twisty plot, treacherous friends, and femme(s) fatale.

At the time it came out, Strange Days got a lot of really good reviews but tanked at the box office. Sometimes when that happens it’s because either the critics or the public fucked up, sometimes it’s both, which is the case here. The critics were a little too quick to praise Cameron’s script (when he, as was his wont, covered a lot of the same territory William Gibson and Neal Stephenson already had not too long before, but with shittier dialogue and more reductive morality; JC’s considerable strengths lay elsewhere).

One of the most interesting things about Strange Days to me has always been the fact that one of the first things guys want to do with the virtual reality is experience what it’s like to be a woman, kind of a mirror image of what Kathryn Bigelow does so often as a director: put herself inside the male mind. Also, Angela Bassett’s character in a movie by a guy director would have been a lot more likely to be eye candy and implausible at ass-kicking time (though, to J. Cameron’s credit, he does write strong women).

This still doesn’t explain Juliette Lewis being a shrill retard and it being impossible to figure out why Ralph Fiennes is so tragically in love with her. Or, now that you mention it, what the fuck Ralph Fiennes, of all people, is doing in this movie. It’s not fair that the guy should have to play upright Brits all the time just because he is one, but he doesn’t play a convincing sleazeball (and anyway, he gets to play Voldemort, he isn't allowed to complain anymore). This was a part crying out for Gary Oldman, if you needed a Brit in the lead.

Minor quibbles aside: this movie was the start of my crush on Kathryn Bigelow. The 16 year old me was quite taken with the fact that a woman directed this movie. Then I saw a picture of her, and all bets were off. What the hell, let’s have another.



The Weight of Water (2000)

Didn’t see. Didn’t even realize my girl directed this until I was looking at her imdb page while writing this post. Due to having worked in bookstores, and my resultant problem with Oprah Book Club books, I’ll probably give this one a miss.


K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)

Meh.


The Hurt Locker (2009)

The first good non-documentary about the Iraq war, precisely because it’s not trying to be political, it’s about characters, specifically, the guys who try to keep bombs from blowing up. Oddly, it’s fairly suspenseful. It’s suspenseful to the point that I chewed through one of my bedsheets, watching it on DVD. I kept mumbling shit to the characters, i.e. “watch it!” “What the fuck are you doing?” “Oh no . . . oh no . . . oh man, that’s not good . . .” (the situation they were in, not the movie, the movie is very good).

I say, what the hell, let’s nominate this for a shitload of Oscars. Let’s give Jeremy Renner the Richard Jenkins Memorial “none of the fuckers who vote for the Oscars knows who the guy is, but he was awesome and probably better than all four of the other guys put together” nomination (even though Richard Jenkins isn’t dead, the point is, none of the shitheads who didn’t vote for him in The Visitor because they didn’t see it knows that). Lets give Kathryn a nomination because then I’ll get to see her on TV a whole lot and that’ll make me happy. Let’s give that English guy a nomination for cinematography. Let’s throw Anthony Mackie a Best Supporting Actor nom, cuz he was fuckin’ great too. And hell, while we’re at it, let’s give Guy Pearce a Lifetime Achievement Award for finally being presentably butch.

The one thing The Hurt Locker has against it, as far as actually winning all these Oscars I want it nominated for, is that it’s pretty fuckin’ dark. The main character is kind of an asshole. The explosions aren’t fun, they’re really disturbing. When Guy Pearce dies in the beginning, you see him jumping out of the way of the explosion like guys always do in action movies, and they get up a second later, dust themselves off, say something wry, and continue in pursuit of the bad guy. Only Guy Pearce doesn’t get up. That’s the first sign: you’re on your own, moviegoer. More than any theatrical feature I’ve seen in fuck knows how long, The Hurt Locker makes you feel like you’re there. And Iraq is not one of the most fun theres to be.

The thing The Hurt Locker has going for it is that it’s fucking incredible. I’ll admit, as an imperfectly progressive guy, that a large part of my long-standing crush on Kathryn Bigelow has always been due to her being hot. But when she comes through like this—“Hi, guys, I’m back . . . oh, by the way, have fun trying to make a better movie about war ever again, motherfuckers”—it lends a certain moral credibility. Talent is sexy. By that standard alone we should all bow down. And give her the fucking Oscar.

Friday, January 15, 2010

COMING ATTRACTIONS

Much to my annoyance, I've been unable to spend much time lately blogging about date movies, German expressionist silents, or car chases. Alas, I've been acting, which is time-consuming.

So, in the spirit of the cinema experience, some previews of what lies ahead once I have a moment:

---A comprehensive look at the career of Kathryn Bigelow, and the whys and wherefores behind my longstanding crush on her.

---A list of the top 5 or 10 (or however many I can think of) movies that require controlled substances to actually be good.

---Some discussion of my own cinematic efforts. Because why not.


Also, in the spirit of previews, three randomly selected movie trailers:

From Paris With Love
Inception
The A-Team

This blog does not endorse any of the content contained in any of the above-listed trailers, nor shall it be responsible if one, any, or all of the movies end up blowing.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

THE PURE, INNOCENT JOY OF THE CAR CHASE

The automobile and the cinema are roughly the same age. Concidence? Please. True card-carrying cognoscenti know the real story: Karl Benz invented the car, then Lumiere invented the movie camera so we could have car chases. There are no other conclusions to be drawn.

After careful study, I’ve compiled what is—in the same relation my Benz/Lumiere cause and effect theory has to actual history—the definitive list of the greatest car chases of all time. I’m up to discuss any that I might have “missed,” “overlooked,” or “not seen.” But, before any of that, a few preemptive words about one very bad movie that I do not want to hear mentioned once in any discussions about great car chases:

Ronin (dir. John Frankenheimer)—1998

What a fucking mess. Let’s tie one hand behind our back, shall we, and not even mention that the movie itself is murky, unpleasant, incoherent, about nothing, about no one, and a waste of a great cast. Lots of shitty movies have great car chases in them; in fact, a lot of times, the shittier the movie, the better the odds of the car chase being good.

But what makes Ronin so unforgivable is this: the car chase sucks elephant dick. Frankenheimer mounts the cameras on all kinds of weird stupid places on the car for no other reason that to have a camera mounted in a weird place. The editing is terrible. There’s no rhythm to it. You can tell the cars are really only driving about twelve miles an hour (which judicious cutting can hide).
So that’s that. If the word “ronin” ever appears on this blog again, it had fucking better be in the context of samurai movies.


Now, after a deep breath and reacquiring my inner serenity, a few honorable mentions:

The Bourne Identity (dir. Doug Liman)—2002

What the car chase in Ronin (whoops) should have been. Matt Damon races Franka Potente’s rickety old Mini through the streets of Paris, ducking the much-more-agile cops, squeezing the little fucker down staircases, and, most impressively, warping the space-time continuum—Matt Damon screeches around a corner and ends up on the other side of Paris a couple times over the course of the chase, all the more support for Jason Bourne’s campaign to win Badass of the Decade honors—before finally shaking the fuzz and wrapping things up with some characteristically terse spy-speak. Beats out the car chases in the sequels because, while Paul Greengrass’ choice to shoot car chases with handheld cameras was ballsy, it did mean the audience misses occasional potentially cool elements due to not being able to see.

The Matrix Reloaded (dir. The Wachowski Brothers)—2003

Morpheus fights Agents on tractor trailers, Trinity steals that mouthwatering Ducatti, and the Agents are hopping from car to car (and driver to driver). Although it’s a little unsettling to consider how much this one must have cost, it’s still a cool car chase. Loses points for a couple factors: it was shot on a closed set (see just about the whole top 5 for explanation of why that lacks balls), there’s a fuckton of CGI involved (ibid), and I love Harold Perrineau, but when Niobe catches Morpheus on her hood, and says “gotcha” (which was pretty hot, by the way), they wrecked the moment by cutting back to Harold saying “She’s good.” Yeah, we know she’s good. We just saw her catch Morpheus on her hood and barely even spider-web the windshield.

Vanishing Point (dir. Richard C. Sarafian)—1971

1970 Dodge Challenger . . . fapfapfapfapfapfapfapfap . . .

My memory is a little rickety as far as this one is concerned, due to the mildly altered state I saw it in. But the car is awesome, and Barry Newman drives it well. Also there are naked hippie chicks in it, and Cleavon Little plays a blind DJ.

Smokey and the Bandit/The Cannonball Run/The Dukes of Hazzard

Again, rickety memory, but for a different reason: youth. Back when I was a little movie nerd, all three made me very happy. I believe cars fly through the air in all three.

The Transporter 2 (dir. Louis Leterrier)—2005

Jason Statham has a bomb on the bottom of his car. Smart move: get out of the car, right? Wrong. Statham floors it, jumps the car through the air at such an angle that it does a half-barrel roll, a huge hook grabs the bomb, Statham completes the barrel roll, sticks the landing, the explosion goes off behind him, and he carries on driving fast with the stressor of the bomb now no longer present. Bullshit? Sure. Awesome? Absolutely.


And now, the top 5 car chases of all time. Drumroll, spoilers, popcorn . . .


(5) To Live and Die in L.A. (dir. William Friedkin)—1985

Secret Service agent William Petersen and his partner are undercover trying to bring down Willem Dafoe (always a good idea, nearly always harder than it seems), and in so doing accidentally end up doing business with an undercover FBI agent, who accidentally gets killed, and William Petersen has to do some fancy driving, eventually going the wrong way up an L.A. freeway. (Watch here)

(4) Mad Max 2 aka The Road Warrior (dir. George Miller)—1982

In this case practically the whole fucking movie is a car chase. It’s post-apocalypse, post-Peak Oil, and bands of murderous Australian leather queens are roaming the desert stealing every bit of gasoline they can find so they can keep their cars going to keep roaming the desert stealing every bit of gasoline they can find . . .

Turned out to be a terrific metaphor for American foreign policy in the Bush administration (and all the more apt in light of the dozens of Republicans who ended up in gay sex scandals, not to mention Mel Gibson’s religious mania).

For those of you who like your car chases kinky. By which I mean me. (Watch here)

(3) Bullitt (dir. Peter Yates)—1968

Any list about anything remotely pertaining to testosterone has to have Steve McQueen somewhere on it. Most lists of the greatest car chases of all time have this at the top, and while that’s a respectable position—it’s a great fuckin’ car chase—it gets a little too much credit for being the first really badass car chase. The continuity is flawless, the camera angles are excellent, and there’s no way about three-quarters of it could have been done without the actual actors doing the driving themselves. And it ends in an explosion, which, I mean, come on . . . (watch here)

But in spite of all this, there’s a bit of aloofness to the whole affair. The craft is impeccable, but it’s a little difficult to care about Steve McQueen catching the bad guys, aside from the given that he’s Steve McQueen and they’re the bad guys. Also loses out to number (2) because Bullitt is kind of a ho-hum movie aside from the car chase, while (2) is one of the best movies ever made, completely independent of its awesome car chase.

(2) The French Connection (dir. William Friedkin)—1971

Two car chases in the top 5? Take a bow, Mr. Friedkin.

Placing this above Bullitt does create a chicken-and-egg problem. Without the motivation of “doing a better chase than Bullitt” Friedkin probably wouldn’t have been as driven as he was, probably wouldn’t have gone as far over the line of what was ethical or even safe to get his result. But, ultimately, he was, and he did. And, to date, this is the only car-chase movie to win Best Picture (not to mention Best Actor for Gene Hackman, Best Director for Friedkin, Best Adapted Screenplay, and, of course, Best Editing).

Gene Hackman is already pretty hot on the trail of the Frogs by the point the car chase starts. Frog One has—being Frog One, the Moriarty of the 70s—eluded him, and has ordered Frog Two to take Gene Hackman out. He misses him and, tries to escape on the elevated subway (yeah, I know it’s an oxymoron). Gene Hackman commandeers a car. And then . . . oh, sweet deities of cinema . . . Gene Hackman chases a subway train in a car. Some points before we go any further:

a) Gene Hackman was doing his own driving.
b) Friedkin was shooting without a permit, so no one was clearing any traffic, or even knew Gene Hackman was going to come bombing through.
c) Gene Hackman was doing his own driving.
d) That woman with the baby carriage? Actually terrified to see Gene Hackman barreling toward her at a zillion mph.
e) Gene Hackman? Actually shitting himself (figuratively, I think) when that happened.
f) All those times Gene Hackman crashed the car (while doing his own driving)? Not
planned.

The fact that any of this bullshit worked without someone getting killed, sued, or de-nutted by a pissed-off Bensonhurst local is a miracle in and of itself. And part of the batshit adrenaline rush the scene provides is transferred from the “are you fucking kidding me?” creative process. (Watch an excerpt here)

It does not, like Bullitt’s chase, end with an explosion. But it does end with Gene Hackman lighting Frog Two’s ass the fuck up, which is barely even a compromise. An all-time classic, and only bumped from the top spot for very special reasons.

(1) The Blues Brothers (dir. John Landis)—1980

“It's got a cop motor, a 440 cubic inch plant, it's got cop tires, cop suspensions, cop shocks. It's a model made before catalytic converters so it'll run good on regular gas. What do you say, is it the new Bluesmobile or what?” –Elwood Blues

This movie is the best argument yet mounted for the legalization of cocaine. Every idea down to the tiniest background detail is carried to its most baroquely over-the-top conclusion. It’s a comedy that’s almost two and a half hours long. There are endless celebrity cameos (the musicians among whom nearly all get their own showstopping musical number). And, of course, there is John Belushi, which is where the legalization argument falls apart.

It all starts when Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) picks up brother Jake (Belushi) from Joliet, fresh off a stint for armed robbery to pay back their band the money he owed them. Elwood runs what he thinks is a yellow light (if he’d taken his fuckin' sunglasses off he’d have seen it was red), and all variety of hell breaks loose. The cops pull him over, and when they run his ID they get a truly terrifying list of moving violations. Rather than get caught by the fuzz, and get Jake sent back to the joint on his first day out, Elwood floors it. The cops pursue, and the second-greatest car chase of all time ensues. They absolutely fucking destroy, I mean they lay waste to, a suburban shopping mall. Every frame of it brilliantly filmed, every frame of it hilarious.

But what’s that you say? The second-greatest car chase of all time, and yet this movie is ranked #1? That’s because the concluding car chase (after the boys have accepted their “mission from God” and raised the money they need to keep the orphanage they grew up in from being demolished by throwing a kick-ass rhythm & blues show) is one of the greatest achievements in the medium of cinema.

Elwood: “It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses.”
Jake: “Hit it.”

From there, our heroes elude what has to be every law enforcement officer in the Midwest—forget Chicago, forget Illinois—as well as an RV full of pissed-off country musicians and even, oh yes, Nazis. The sheer number of cop cars that get destroyed, and the almost cheerful way Landis always throws three or four more onto the pile when one gets wrecked, short-circuits the rational part of the brain and sticks its thumb on the pleasure center, pressing down with a slightly stoned chuckle. Cop cars end up piled in a stack of twenty or so on a highway median. Cop cars end up embedded in truck trailers. And our heroes keep taking full advantage of that full tank of gas, flooring it til they get to Chicago. That road in Chicago, which I think is Lower Wacker Drive, where they always shoot car chases in Chicago movies (see also the scene where the Joker is firing rocket launchers at Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight), sees a fair bit of fast driving, judicious undercranking of the camera, and a few dozen more destroyed cop cars. The boys drive through a crowded square, with people and pigeons flying out of the way. EVEN MORE cops join the chase. The Nazis somehow end up higher than the Sears tower, plummeting through the Chicago skyline, and the henchnazi turns to the alpha Nazi and says, “I’ve always loved you.” They then crater spectacularly.

When the boys finally get to the tax assessor’s office and get out of the Bluesmobile, the fucking thing just dies. The panels fall off, the doors fall off, it clunks to the ground, it just says “fuck it.” Landis beautifully cuts to a series of shots of the classical statuary on the building, as if the statues are mourning the Bluesmobile. Elwood holds his hat over his heart, before Jake gets him to haul ass. And that’s the end of the car chase proper, though they still haul ass through the building to the tax assessor’s office, where they manage to get the clerk—played by a hilarious Steven Spielberg—to sign off on everything, saving the day just in the nick of time before every single law enforcement agent in the world (somehow packed into the office), arrests our heroes at machine gun point.

The brilliance of the climactic car chase in The Blues Brothers is at least partly due to the “wait . . . there’s a car chase in this movie?” factor. Unexpected pleasures always have an extra bit of zing to them. It’s a parody of car chases, coming as it does on the heels of the Hal Needham classics, all the Burt Reynolds pictures, and The Dukes of Hazzard. But the best way to parody something is to be better, which Landis does here.

John Landis, in his prime, was a fucking force to be reckoned with cinematically. He may not have the critical cachet some of his peers enjoyed and still enjoy to this day, but the man has some great pictures under his belt. Animal House. An American Werewolf in London. Trading Places. But, at the apex of the pyramid, is the batshit marvel that is The Blues Brothers, which seemingly for the sheer hell of it, is the best car chase picture of all time. Its nuts will forever be on Ronin’s chin.

Monday, January 11, 2010

CURRENT EVENTS: 01/11/10

Wow. It's only been 7 years since the first Spider-Man movie: we need a reboot already? Hollywood, heal thyself.

UNCHAIN MY CAMERA

Once upon a time, back when cinema was but a newborn medium, many things we take for granted today in movies didn’t exist, hadn’t been thought up yet, or were beyond the technological capability of the time. As a result, the older the movie, the more likely it is for modern audiences to be taken out of the experience, or simply not get quite what’s so special.

It wasn’t until nearly the end of the silent era that equipment, film stock, and such evolved to the point where the occasional movie that still “looks right” to the modern eye would come out. The Soviets, led by Eisenstein, pioneered most of the advances that make up what we now know as film editing, but still, many of the compositions were static; most directors either had to or thought they had to plunk their camera down on sticks and shoot whatever happened to be in front of the lens. That is, until a six-foot-eleven German maniac named Fredrich Wilhelm Murnau decided to put his camera in motion. With his “Unchained Camera Technique,” flashy camerawork was born.

Coming out of 1920’s Berlin’s prolific and enormously influential UFA studios, Murnau honed his craft working in the dominant Expressionist mode of the era. His first breakthrough was 1922’s Nosferatu, an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic vampire novel Dracula; Stoker’s estate sued Murnau, won, and ordered every print of the film destroyed. Were it not for some quick-thinking cineastes, who protected as many prints as they could, Nosferatu would have been lost forever (and we never would have gotten the chance to see John Malkovich play Murnau in Shadow of the Vampire, one of the great underrated classics of the last 15 years).


Following the artistic—if not commercial—success of Nosferatu, Murnau began work on Der Letzte Mann (1924), a story about a hotel doorman who, upon losing his job, loses his sense of meaning in life. In many ways, Der Letzte Mann was the first truly modern movie; it was one of the only silent movies to have no title cards, but more importantly, instead of the camera sitting and observing action as though it was taking place on a stage, Murnau used the medium of cinema as his primary tool for advancing the narrative. He introduced the idea of subjective camera, where the audience sees through a character’s eyes. He put his director of photography, Karl Freund, in a wheelchair and wheeled him back and forth, in so doing inventing the tracking shot. He employed tilts, pans, and zooms, which were rare if even extant.

These stylistic innovations are the primary point of interest in the movie. The narrative, following a series of setbacks suffered by Emil Jannings’ prideful doorman, starting with his beloved, brass-buttoned uniform being taken away when he is demoted to the position of washroom attendant due to his age, is simple, and by the end incredibly bleak and depressing. In a controversial move, Der Letzte Mann’s American distributor asked Murnau to reshoot the ending to appeal to American audiences (in the process giving it the English title The Last Laugh, where the original German title translates to “the last man.” Slight difference . . .) Murnau, pissed, shot what he thought was the stupidest, cheesiest ending he could in an attempt to sabotage the distributor’s commercially-minded thinking, and, his contempt rising from the screen like steam, inserted the movie’s only title card:



“Here the story should really end, for, in real life, the forlorn old man would
have little to look forward to but death. The author took pity on him and has
provided a quite improbable epilogue.”

The American ending sees Jannings inheriting a shitload of money from a random, convenient death of a heretofore unknown rich uncle (or something). He goes back to his hotel and his old neighborhood and everyone’s happy to see him. For some reason. In spite of the ending’s (deliberately) jarring tonal shift from the rest of the movie, American audiences liked it, and the movie was enough of a hit that 20th Century Fox brought Murnau to California to make a movie, which ended up being Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927).

Sunrise, with Murnau having few limits on budget and enjoying almost complete creative control, ended up being one of the last great masterpieces of the silent cinema (along with von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York), and so visually stunning that it would be almost 20 years before the industry adjusted enough to sound to catch up to Murnau’s camera mastery.

A deceptively simple narrative about a Woman From the City who seduces a Man from the country and compels him to attempt to murder the Woman he’s married to—these names are the only ones they’re given in the credits—Sunrise manages to make a fairly eloquent statement on the uneasy shift from a rural to an urban world (still a big deal in 1927, whereas 80+ years later, the shift long since complete, we regard it as a given). It is also a deeply moving love story, made such by its brilliant cast. Maybe it’s because, having grown up with talkies, I think of acting without talking as being prohibitively difficult, but I’m blown away by the performances George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, and Margaret Livingston give. The ending, thanks to the early sound-on-film technique Murnau used—score and limited sound effects only—is one of the first on record where the hero kisses the heroine as the music swells, but dissolving into the rising sun instead of to black lifts the audience up into the heavens, feeling more like an ascension than an ending.

Murnau died far too young, at 42 in a car crash. One wonders what kind of work he still had in him; though one of the great geniuses of the silent era, Murnau hated talkies, considering them impure as cinema, and we’ll never know whether he would have eventually made one, embracing sound as a new artistic challenge, or stubbornly remained thinking of cinema as a purely visual medium.

What we do know is that every time you’re watching a movie, and you see a shot with a moving camera—any type of camera movement at all—F.W. Murnau gets a couple bucks in karmic residuals. Yes, he’s that important. And, best of all, his films don’t feel to a modern audience like you’re eating vegetables, either, they feel like movies. In the silent era, pretty much only Keaton and Chaplin aged as well, and Murnau was the only one of the three who managed to be entertaining without comedy. Long may he reign.