Tuesday, March 30, 2010
For a really long time, I resisted the temptation to start a blog because I didn't want to think of myself as a “critic.” (Then I started writing theater reviews and that was the beginning of the end, leading inexorably to this blog.) Like a lot of people, I thought of critics as these inscrutable, arbitrary, humorless humanoids who sometimes got it right and sometimes just horrendously got it wrong (note Leonard Maltin giving two stars out of four to Taxi Driver and three-and-a-half out of four for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, aka 2 Moguls 1 Cup). There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to it, which makes sense because ultimately a critic's body of work is one person's take on things, and depending on how much the critic knows and how well the critic is able to compartmentalize his/her personal “baggage” the critic will be better or worse. Or, like Pauline Kael, always make it personal but be so awesome it doesn't matter.
Or, like Armond White, you can be so fucking strange that in spite of the fact no one can stand you, no one can stop talking about you either. Our Beloved Armond is probably most famous for inserting references to Steven Spielberg in every single review he ever writes, but I love him for this wonderfully bizarre column in 2008 wherein he declared Jason Statham to have “the best track record of any contemporary movie actor,” which just fucking rules. Armond White columns are basically performance art, and he never fails to bring a smile to my face.
Take this masterpiece, where Our Beloved Armond declares war on Noah Baumbach, J. Hoberman, and some random publicist chick. I don't know if I've ever read a more brilliantly petulant, magnificently unfair, regally ad hominem diatribe in my life. I don't know if I ever want to. Armond has made good sport of cock-slapping Noah Baumbach at every opportunity for his whole career (which was the meaning behind a very obscure joke in this post, where I said Armond White would compare me unfavorably to Baumbach), which is a noble pursuit. Crew guys say Baumbach is a prick almost on par with the legendary David O. Russell, but that's just hearsay, really. His movies really do suck and they really are about unpleasant people of unearned privilege.
Our Beloved Armond, wearing a hat made of Savile Row's finest tin foil, advances the theory that Baumbach owes his career to his film critic mother and her interconnected, conspiratorial group of sinister racist film critics, which is why Our Beloved Armond is such a treasure. Most people would be like, “hey, if I accuse people of disagreeing with me out of racism just because I'm—tangentially—black, I may look like kind of a dick and may even set back the fight against racism.” But do you really think so singular an entity as Our Beloved Armond is going to do things the normal way? Child please. Our Beloved Armond accuses Hoberman and his “minions” of racism and even throws in the word “lynching” as a garnish.
The best part is, at the end, when he hilariously is like, “Greenberg actually doesn't suck as much as most Noah Baumbach pictures.” Because, after talking all that shit, if he just panned it, that wouldn't be interesting at all. It's kind of the same journey as Keith Phipps' in this AV Club piece, except Phipps writes his in less baroque crazy-people-talk. But then again, Keith Phipps is mortal. Our Beloved Armond is a god.
I really don't have much of a beef with Our Beloved Armond sandblasting J. Hoberman the way he does, because Hoberman is an unctuous prick, and back when I actually used to read The Village Voice my least favorite part of the whole paper was Hoberman blowing snot rockets on every movie I liked and praising the shit out of the kinds of pictures I can't stand. Hoberman doesn't do himself any favors in his fake-amused rebuttal to Our Beloved Armond, where he condescendingly pats his bête noire on the head and winks at his readers in a “this motherfucker's crazy” kind of way that's really beside the point. We all fucking know Armond White is crazy. This is why we read him. His point about Hoberman being a shitty critic still stands though, and goes unaddressed, partially because we have to consider the source (Our Beloved Armond does not, it must be said, have a leg to stand on there).
All the amusement of a war between two douchebags with too much time on their hands aside, there are larger points about film criticism to address. As much as theater people with any sense want to form a kick line and nail Charles “What The Fuck, Chuck” Isherwood in the nuts (nickname coined either by Ian W. Hill or Berit Johnson, I forget), theater criticism isn't in the sorry state as its cinematic counterpart. For one, the Broadway establishment isn't spending huge amounts of money on publicists whose job is to spread the meme that the critic is irrelevant. Hollywood is. In no other artistic medium are the patrons so indifferent to the medium's nature as an art. Sure, Broadway is all about luring tourists in to drop hundreds of dollars a seat to see revivals of shows that weren't any good the first time around, which is similar to Hollywood churning out remakes and sequels, but theater will always have a hold on actors in that if you want to be A Serious Actor, you do it onstage. The theatrical establishment has no interest in convincing people that critics don't matter, because if the critic is irrelevant, the thing ceases to be art. That is not to say that an audience needs some superior, more knowledgeable intellect to show it the way, but an educated audience likes to read a fellow educate, scratch their beard, and say, “Oh, dear, I was reading Danny Bowes' latest on the use of verfremdungsefekt in the films of Paul Verhoeven, I do say, the chap has both a point and a diverting way with words.” I'm kidding, of course, because I'm not really a critic. But does that make me a better critic? This is a question for . . . the Post-Modernist!
Faster than the audience fleeing a Noah Baumbach film! Able to leap tall non sequiturs with a single bound! (Greatest idea for a superhero comic ever, or absofuckinglutely most incredible idea for a superhero comic ever?)
But I digress. Hollywood is determined to reinforce the already-present grumpiness in the American cinemagoer viz a vis “y'all egghead movie critics think y'all better'n us,” which is both unfortunately a little too true and not true at all. The problem is, dickheads like Hoberman and Our Beloved Armond (beloved though he may be, he kind of does have Cranial Penis Syndrome) get in these pissing contests over shitty movies that no one cares about (seriously, casting Noah fucking Baumbach as Helen of Troy is retarded) and ultimately, people not already invested in Serious Cinema look at critics as these disconnected fuckknuckles who shit on the kind of movies Normal People like.
The bitter irony of this whole thing is that Hollywood wants to kill the critic, and the critics are sitting there playing Russian Roulette with five in the chamber. Knock off the fucking flame wars, you jerkoffs, and watch the movies, not your own reputations. If the critic dies, so die good movies. So, a word to all these internecine squabblers: I swear by all that is holy if you fucking children destroy cinema with your petty squabbles, when we're done leaving Isherwood singing soprano, me and my kick line are coming for your testicles next.
Sunday, March 28, 2010
My favorite innovation wrought by the DVD, though, is the audio commentary. Sure, there are a lot of lame-o commentary tracks out there, with Dane Cook or Shaun Levy rhapsodizing about what craft services had for lunch the day they filmed that scene, or just yammering generic platitudes about how the crew of Big Momma's House 2 are true professionals etc etc etc. But hey, if you listen to the commentary track for shit like that, you fucking deserve to hear a bunch of crap.
Unfortunately, it's not as simple as “good movies have good commentary tracks,” because that's not always the case. Generally, for a good commentary track, you'd like to have the director him/herself onboard, provided said director is good with the verbiage. Kevin Smith, for instance, gives good commentary track because he's a really funny guy and very smart. Francis Coppola's commentary tracks for the Godfather trilogy are gold, because the man may be nuts, but he's fucking brilliant. PT Anderson, ditto, nucking futs, really smart.
Steven Soderbergh does something I like, where he brings in either the writer or some random dude like Mark Romanek and they sit there and have a really good conversation about movies while the movie they're supposed to be talking about plays almost unnoticed in the background (the greatest moment in Soderbergh commentary track history happened when Lem Dobbs went apeshit on Soderbergh for deviating from the script to The Limey while Soderbergh insisted with beatific smugness that his not following the script actually made the movie good).
John Carpenter, too, he just sits there with Kurt Russell, smokes cigarettes, drinks whiskey, and lets you know about MEN AND HOW MEN DO THINGS BECAUSE BY THE BRIGHT NORTH STAR THEY ARE MEN. I need to get more John Carpenter DVDs just to listen to the commentary; all I still have is the VHS.
Occasionally, the director can't do the commentary. Some, like Orson Welles, play the old, stale “I'm dead” argument, leaving it to Peter Bogdanovich and Roger Ebert to do separate commentary tracks for Citizen Kane (amazingly, even though Welles lived in Bogdanovich's house, Ebert's track is still better. Don't fuck with Roger Ebert, now). The Wachowski brothers hired three film critics who hated The Matrix sequels to do commentary tracks for the box set, and got two philosophers who loved the trilogy to do another one (I sure hope Cornel West and Ken Wilber didn't lose their tenure for being so high on that damn track . . .)
Sometimes, dangerously, they let the actors do the commentary. That usually ends in disaster, because without the proper programming, judicious application of tasers, cajoling, blackmail, and bribery using cocaine and hookers, actors are not mammals. (Hey, it's okay, I can talk about my own people this way.) The occasional actor, usually one with writing, producing, directing, or some other useful skill, acquits himself fairly well. This, however, is rare, making it very odd that the greatest commentary track in the history of awesome was done by two actors.
Method Man and Redman (aka Meth and Red, Meth and the Funk Doc, Tical and Funk Doctor Spock, Shakwon and Reggie, Starsky and Hutch, et al) first became acquaintances due to some smartass at Def Jam noticing that their names both ended in “man” and sending them out on tour together. The two marijuana enthusiasts became fast friends and before long were making an album together. Blackout! is a good God almighty party record, featuring nimble flows from the terrible twosome as well as from an army of guest stars, backed by sharp, pop-savvy beats. And, of course, as one would expect from Meth's Wu-Tang background, the skits are great. The album was very popular, and in fairly short order some doofus at Universal decided, hey, let's put these guys in a movie.
How High—named after the first song Tical and the Funk Doc wrote together—was released in 2001 to atrocious reviews and near-complete indifference to all except massive stoners and huge fans of the stars. As the latter, I was intrigued by the prospect of the movie, but as the former, I forgot it had come out. I wouldn't have thought any more of it except a few months later, I (bizarrely) had $20 I could blow on an impulse buy and picked up the DVD.
The movie really sucks. Meth isn't a terrible actor. He was pretty good on Oz, and he was pretty tremendous as Cheese on The Wire, but he isn't quite good enough to have anything other than a few isolated moments in How High. Doc, however, really ain't much of a thespian. He has a lot of weird energy, which makes for a few funny moments, but most of the legit comedy is provided by the supporting cast. Dudes like Obba Babatunde, Fred Willard, and Hector Elizondo know what to do in a shitty movie, from extensive experience, and they're all solid. Everybody else pretty much sucks. And, I'm sorry to be That Guy, but the goddamn movie takes place at Harvard and they shot it at UCLA. You're tellin' me Red and Meth can't blaze one on the Charles? It was directed by Bob Dylan's kid, which is a legit weird credential, but not enough to make this a Good Bad Movie.
However. The commentary track is tremendous. It is as simple as this: sit down two potheads who make their living arranging words cleverly, whose rep as a duo is that they're funny, and let them rip on that dumbass movie their agents talked them into making. And make sure they've got weed.
“Yo, this is Method Man right here.”The lads introduce each of the supporting actors, with a gnomic “no comment” from Meth re: Jeffrey Jones. Redman observes that the first scene really shows Meth's range, causing some laughter. When their friend who later dies and provides the ashes that they sprinkle on their weed to make them smart enough to pass their entrance exam (don't ask) shows up, Meth gets off a good one for anyone who remembers back in the days:
“And yo, this is Redman right here. Turn the lights down in this motherfucker.”
“Bout to light this weed up and get into this How High shit, this commentary if you will.”
“So sit back, enjoy, and smoke a fat one with your boys!”
“With a fucked up haircut and a unibrow . . . no disrespect to Al B. Sure, but ya know.”
They talk a lot of shit about stuff like hitting marks, continuity annoyances, the number of takes Jesse Dylan shot, and incompetent background players, which would be boring as hell from just about anybody else. Especially anybody else as fucking lit as Meth and Red are. But something about the track feels like you're hanging out with the two of them watching the movie. (And not worrying about whether they think you're lame). You also, don't get this kind of candor from most commentary tracks:
“Nigga spillin his drink on me in the club, nigga, I didn't write the script, motherfucker, I didn't have nothin' to do with that shit.” --Meth
“All that weed is fake as a fuck too, in case y'all wonderin'” --Meth, his voice dripping with disgust
“We still tried to smoke it . . .” --Red, plaintive.
“I really farted too, but that wasn't the real sound.” --Red
“Nasty mahfucka . . .” --Meth
“We're not actually thespians or whatever.” --Meth
“This is the part I was discussin with Doc the other day, and say I'm a ghost ghost ghost . . . and then when we get to the end of the scene he tries to walk throught he car and he can't walk through the car, and he don't know, he ain't figured it out yet . . . that . . . my . . . never mind, I forgot where I was goin with that shit . . . but just so you know, if he's tryin to act like he's a ghost, how come he don't know that my friend is a ghost? And that part right there looks mad cheesy when the bus hit his ass.” --Meth
“They wouldn't let me say 'white people' . . .” --Red, sighing
“There was a lot of white girls with big asses up there,” --Red, talking about UCLA.
“Look at the size of . . . the melons,” --Red, referring to breasts
“How you gonna call somebody a Sammy Davis haircut Junior havin' ass motherfucker?” --Meth, critiquing Red's ad-lib skills
“That's as close to white as I can sound, man.” --Meth
“This guy right here, I seen him in a new video for, uh . . . somebody . . . uh . . . Dave Matthews Band, as a matter of fact. Dude was killin' it too.” --Meth, talking about some co-star
“Look at the chemistry, we didn't even look at each other when we said that shit. You better come with these next scripts, and stop playin' with your frogs, man.” --Meth
“And in comes trouble.” --Meth, as he and Red walk into the room onscreen
(There's also, about 5000 contenders for “worst joke in the movie”)
“Now I studied four years at Julliard to learn that slap!” --Meth, after a particularly stilted slap
“He was shootin this shit a whole lotta times . . .” --Red, bitching about the director again
“Everybody be quiet now, this is where I show my intelligence.” ---Meth
“Now that cough is fake is a fuck, Doc.” --Meth
“Yeah, but you the only one who could tell.” --Red
“There was supposed to be more to this scene, the paintings were supposed to come to life, but there wasn't the budget for that shit.” --Meth
(Meth tells a long-ass story about how the first idea they came up with was about smoking a blunt with someone with a cold sore and not wanting to pass it to him.)
(About a scene with his love interest) “This really shows range [note, this is about the 10,000th time the word “range” has been said] and I feel like I should get a love scene with Halle Berry, where I could stick it to her. You know, with all due respect to my wife and shit. Shit, if I was a woman, I'd give me the pussy right here!” --Meth
“I want to give the guys who did the props mad props!” --Meth, self-aware about how dorky that sounds
“I wish I could do this scene again so I could really hit my head on that table. I would knock myself the fuck out just give y'all a good laugh.” --Meth
“That shit ain't funny to me.” --Meth, about some joke.
“I couldn't even wear a Yankee cap because the Yankees didn't want to associate themselves with a weed smokin' movie.” --Meth
“Now this lady here is dope as hell, you can catch her on the Reba McEntire show. She done got herself a job!” --Meth
“Cypress Hill showed up for one day, smoked the whole set up, and broke the fuck out!” --Meth
“A lotta brothers out there assistant pimps . . . a lotta fake-ass pimps out there.” --Meth
“That coughing you hear in the background is not sound effects or special effects, ladies and gentlemen, that's actual coughing.” --Meth, explaining him and Red coughing on their latest commentary joint.
“That fuckin donkey would not lay still for SHIT.” --Meth
“That's why the girl had to lay with it.” --Red
“We almost went into overtime on that shit.” --Meth
“Everybody wanna be politically correct with a weed smokin' movie. How you gonna be politically correct with a weed smokin' fuckin' movie?” --Meth
“This shit was fuckin' DISGUSTING right here.” --Meth, referring to a scene where someone, sloppy high, eats something gross
“And now we come to the last leg.” --Meth, at the beginning of act three
“They changed that scene up so much, I'm just lost right there.” --Meth
(Later) “We had so much trouble filmin this shit, because we didn't have an ending. So pretty much all the dialogue you're hearing now was written there that day. That was some Town and Country shit. Warren Beatty? I feel your pain, baby.” --Meth
“I think I was high, I don't know.” --Meth, explaining how he drew a blank on his character's motivation
“That's when I was like, Jesus Christ. Bong? For real? Son of a bitch, where's my $8.50? For real.” --Meth, in re: his movie girlfriend's archeology project turning out to be an 18th century bong
“Who are these motherfuckers?” --Meth, reading the credits.
“I hope you paid for this shit, you son of a bitch.” --Meth
“And smoke a whole lotta weed, ya fuckers.” --Red
“Now hit the fuckin rewind button or bring it back to menu and hit 'play movie' ya fuckin idiots.” --Meth
“And take a shit. Now send some weed to Jersey Films!” --Red
And with that, they're done. Now, I'm willing to entertain the possibility that to properly appreciate this commentary track, one needs to be high too. But I don't know. The movie itself is the kind of thing you need to be high as shit to appreciate, but this commentary track is meta brilliance. Two guys smoking weed and talking shit about a movie where they play two guys who smoke weed and talk shit. And, in a weird way, some insight into the process by which hack piece of shit movies are made is derived.
So, sure, it's not one of your Criterion commentary tracks that's like trying to swallow an enyclopedia without chewing. But it's fun, and any commentary track that's better than its movie is impressive in my book.
Saturday, March 27, 2010
On the other hand, occasionally—very occasionally—I'm full of shit. Once such occasion was in May of 1998. I must have just gotten back from sophomore year of college, which had not gone well. My mom wanted to see this:
I did not. I had seen Kids, found it hateful, nihilistic, ignorant fantasia (don't get me started on Harmony Korine, that motherfucker can choke on barnacle dick) that had the side effect of convincing me that Chloe Sevigny was some smacked-out trollop. I did not want to see her in anything, especially not when I was worried about flunking out of college and trying to scrape my last two functioning brain cells together to make sparks. Mom, as she does, informed me that I was being a shithead and that I was going to the movie. Grumble, grumble . . .
What little else I knew about The Last Days of Disco didn't stir enthusiasm. I had a slightly less negative impression of Whit Stillman than I did of Chloe Sevigny (which still ain't saying much). I'd seen part of Barcelona on cable, I think, and as best as I could figure it was about two yuppies drawling to each other about chicks with pretty background scenery (note: a subsequent viewing confirmed that this was, indeed, true although the movie's pretty good). I had not seen Metropolitan, nor have I yet.
So the movie starts. Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny yammered about chick stuff for a little while, as I stewed about my all-consuming 19 year old existential crises. Then, suddenly, Chris Eigeman is in this conversation with Jennifer Beals, telling her that the reason he's breaking up with her is that he's gay. And something clicked: “Hey, this guy's full of shit . . . heh heh, that kind of rules, actually, claiming to be gay to dump a girl. Carry on, sir.” And I spent the next hour-forty-five or whatever totally on board.
Let's, in the interests of science, take a look at what it was I was totally on board with. A movie about a bunch of yuppies who go to a nightclub (based on Studio 54 but never referred to by name), fall in and out of love with each other, go back to the nightclub, and talk urgently about themselves. Uh. Really? Yes. Really. That's all it's about. “So, oh noble arbiter of all that is testicular, what you're saying is nowadays you think this movie is gay and you only liked it because you were so fucked up your sophomore year that you were still high two weeks later when your mom dragged you to it, right?” Nope. I still love the shit out of this movie. And I don't use the word “gay” as a synonym for “lame” unless I'm being ironic, so shame on you for including that in your impression of me.
Although I really like The Last Days of Disco, I still sometimes wonder why I like it, for the following reasons:
It's about yuppies
Having grown up in Park Slope in the 80s when all the yuppies were infecting the fucking place with their baselessly entitled Lord of the Flies children, obnoxious dogs, and stupid overpriced restaurants, I do not like yuppies. They can kind of blow me. On the other hand, the onset of maturity and attainment of sharper perspective on the human condition has taught me that there is a difference between a young, successful person who lives in the city and has a lot of money and a douchebag yuppie spawn of Satan.
The Last Days of Disco does an elegant little tap dance around this issue by making its main characters a bunch of dudes who went to Harvard and two chicks who went to Hampshire. This is an exemption yuppies are granted: if the reason why they walk around acting like they fart Chanel No 5 is because they actually are part of the elite power structure, they paradoxically are not (always) douchebags. This ties into the whole thing about people who come from old money being potentially kind of all right, but nouveaux riches should be dropped down an elevator shaft with sticks of sweaty dynamite shoved up their ass. The reason Park Slope yuppies were so insufferable is because they were the ones who weren't even good enough at being yuppies to live in Manhattan. Kind of like how the Africans and Indians hate Englishmen so much because the fuckos the English were trying to get rid of were sent out to the colonies. You know what I'm saying.
It's about disco
It should come as no shock to careful readers of this blog that the author has just as much to say about music as he does movies (he just knows a little less about music . . .) People are constantly mistaking me for a rock classicist/purist because I passionately advocate British lads with guitars (you name 'em, I probably dig 'em, except post-Cream Clapton—yes, everything post-Cream, although everything Cream and before is great—Jeff Beck after he left the Yardbirds, and everything Pete Townshend did after Tommy with the exception of “Eminence Front”) But I have my quirks, like the fact that about ninety percent of all metal ever recorded makes me spit blood—I believe jerking off is something to be done with one's dick, not one's guitar—and I have a deep fondness for hip hop, coming as I do from its birthplace (by which I mean New York, since I'm not from the Bronx, where it's really from).
What's all this mean, you ask? Get to the fucking point, you implore? People are constantly assuming that I hate disco because they look at the beard and listen to some random snippets of diatribes centering around the secular godhood of Keith Richards or Marc Bolan and come to the conclusion that I'm one of those Rock Doodz. Little do y'all know, when I was a much shorter version of the loquacious badass you know and love, my two favorite TV shows were Solid Gold and Soul Train, back when what they played was disco. I knew Taco's cover of “Puttin' on the Ritz” before I knew Fred Astaire's (boy did that drive my dad up the wall . . .) and I was getting' down to disco sounds at such a young age that, hey, I guess it stuck with me.
If I'd been old enough to hang out with music nerds in the late 70s and early 80s, I probably wouldn't have gravitated, as I did in the 90s, to the Rock Doodz, because 70s Rock Doodz all liked Aerosmith, who I can't stand. The punks would have taken one look at me and started growling until I carefully backed away. It would have been me, the gays, and a couple chubby girls who smiled a lot down at the disco. And I'd have had fun, and probably hooked up with all of them at some point.
So, yeah, when Matt Keeslar delivers his manifestos about the importance of disco in the movie, I raise a fist and say, “Preach on, brother. And don't take those meds. Chloe Sevigny will still love you anyway.”
Whit Stillman is a very arch, highly literary writer
I generally roll my eyes at arch, highly literary writers when they're writing novels. When they start invading my precious cinema I can get cranky. Wes Anderson, for instance: can't get on board, sir. You like John Irving too much. (I haven't seen The Fantastic Mr. Fox yet, but intend to, and I should also mention I adore Rushmore). Whit Stillman is the kind of writer-director I always expect to despise, because he writes about characters who exist on a much higher socioeconomic level than me. His godfather invented the term WASP. Now, I am technically half WASP, but only technically: real WASPs have money. Stillman is much closer to the kinds who have money than I am. But he's really, really talented, so his characters are compelling despite their sympathy handicap.
The thing about Stillman being such a good writer is that in a movie where nothing really happens at all except Kate Beckinsale possibly faking a pregnancy as an act of attention whoring, it's still compelling because the characters are all so articulate and interesting. Chloe Sevigny is very passive, but unlike most passive characters, you don't want to smack her, because occasionally she musters some courage and does something funny or cool (like seducing Robert Sean Leonard with the immortal line: “I think there's something . . . sexy . . . about Uncle Scrooge” or doing the occasional subtle sniping at Kate Beckinsale). And, given a script from someone who can actually write, Chloe Sevigny shows . . . whaddaya know . . . some talent. Holy shit. Maybe sucking Vincent Gallo's dick wasn't the smartest career move, but she did at least have a fairly respectable career to throw away by that point.
The Last Days of Disco is, in the end, not a major work of cinema by any stretch. What it is—and what we can use as much of as we can get in cinema—is an intelligent, handsomely produced entertainment. With a really kickin' soundtrack. The cast is excellent. I had no idea Kate Beckinsale was English until years later; she does upper crust East Coast American twit perfectly. Chloe Sevigny not only managed to reverse a teenager's absolute certitude in her worthlessness but managed to make said teenager a fan by the end of the first reel. The men run the risk of being interchangeable, and lesser actors would blur into one collective of Harvard Dudes, but Robert Sean Leonard, Mackenzie Astin, and Matt Keeslar all delineate well, and you never forget who's who. Most notably, Chris Eigeman fucking brings it in this movie. He's got the showiest part, as the least successful of the bunch of them, the guy who works at the club where they all chill. He does too much blow, goes a bit chick crazy, and never shuts the fuck up, but everything he says is gold. Yes, he's a bit of a douchebag, but he's a douchebag with charisma. He and Kate Beckinsale share a moment at the end of the movie where you get the distinct impression that the 80s belong to them: the shallow, pretty, glib hedonists. Oh, look at what happened in the 80s. Fancy that.
As good as it is at being what it is, I still ask myself more about The Last Days of Disco: why the hell do I like this movie? If I start picking nits, after not all that long I end up lying to myself, convincing myself that these little flaws bother me when they don't. But, taking a step back, shushing the questioner within, and getting down to the essential truth behind the thing, I realize this: not only the form and content but the subject of The Last Days of Disco are aesthetically united. It's a movie version of a disco song, which is to say pretty to look at/listen to, infectiously optimistic, and something that leaves you smiling at the end. Indefensible? But why does it need defending? Don't fight it. Just get on the Love Train.
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
I've been on a bit of an 80s kick recently, which is both characteristic and uncharacteristic, as stated before. One of the things I like about movies from that era is that before political correctness and the weird modern tendency to over-explain in movies set in, there was a more consistent number of fun pictures being cranked out. This is, ironically, partially due to the influence of the independent cinema of the 90s—people suddenly became a lot more concerned with movies being good, which did not make for more good movies, it just led to a lot more overthinking and bloat.
Not so in the 80s, even the late 80s. A good example of the kind of movie they just don't make anymore is The Hidden. It falls squarely into the mismatched-partner buddy cop movie thing, but with a twist: one of the cops is a cranky, hard-boiled rule-breaker . . . but the other one's from outer space. Heh heh heh . . . oh, cinema.
We open with some grainy security camera footage of a bank. But right at the end of the credits, this guy pulls out a shotgun and starts blastin' fools. He picks up a couple bags of cash and hauls ass. Once we cut back to good ol' 35, we see that the dude with the shotgun is Chris Mulkey. Chris Mulkey hops in a little red sports car, bumps some metal, and a pretty well-filmed car chase ensues. Chris Mulkey clearly does not give a fuck; he runs over pedestrians, sideswipes cars, and concludes by ruining some poor schmuck in a wheelchair.
Introduce cops Michael Nouri and Ed O'Ross. They set up a massive-ass roadblock with a whole bunch of other cops, and when Chris Mulkey comes screeching along in his little red sports car, everybody opens up with shotguns. Something's a little off, though: Chris Mulkey takes a fuckload of shotgun blasts but doesn't seem all that fazed. Badass though he is, that is food for thought. Eventually, Michael Nouri pumps enough bullets in him that he crashes his car, end of car chase.
In the hospital, Chris Mulkey is on death's door. A doctor gives Michael Nouri a bit of shit for being callous, but Ed O'Ross fills the doctor in on Chris Mulkey's recent activities:
“He killed twelve people, wounded twenty three more, stole six cars, most of them Ferraris. Robbed eight banks, six supermarkets, four jewelery stores and a candy shop. Six of the ones he killed he carved up with a butcher knife. Two of them were kids. He did all that in two weeks. If anyone deserves to go that way, it sure in the hell was him.”
However, prior to this, Chris Mulkey didn't even have a criminal record. Huh. So the cops leave, and when he's finally all alone, Chris Mulkey stands up, goes to the schlub he's sharing a hospital room with, and this space cockroach from Jupiter comes out his mouth and squeezes its way into the schlub's mouth. Ah ha. That old canard.
Enter “FBI Agent” Kyle MacLachlan. He's a little spacy, but then again, he's Kyle MacLachlan, we expect no less of him. He announces to Michael Nouri that they're now partners, and they begin hunting the schlub in earnest. Michael Nouri still can't quite figure out what the fuck Kyle MacLachlan's on about until the schlub kills a guy in a record store because the guy objected to the schlub shoplifting metal tapes. The schlub also ganks a boombox, because it's the 80s, and metal tapes don't play themselves.
Having acquired tunes, the schlub goes to get a bite to eat, and blasts metal in the middle of a diner, in a very funny scene. He sees a Ferrari drive by and starts thinking thoughts. He pulls a dine and dash, but the waitresses don't really give a fuck because he cracked some nasty farts (the space cockroach's new host body having a bit of gastrointestinal problems), and he follows the Ferrari to a local dealership, where the hilariously sleazy salesman is closing the sale with a hilariously sleazy mobster type. The schlub informs them that he wants the car, but they inform him that he can't have it, and the salesman asks a large black gentleman to dissuade the schlub's enthusiasm for the Ferrari so they can close the deal and do some coke in peace. Some enthusiasm, though, cannot be dissuaded. The schlub gutshoots the large black gentleman, and interrupts the cocaine and paperwork to shoot the salesman and the mobster and take the keys to the Ferrari.
Michael Nouri puts out an APB on the Ferrari, and tries to get some information out of Kyle MacLachlan as to why two random dudes with no criminal records both suddenly develop a fixation on heavy metal, Ferraris, and homicide.
Michael Nouri: You know what bothers me about these two guys DeVries and Miller?
Kyle MacLachlan: Neither has a criminal record. They both led normal lives until a few days ago, and now they're killing people.
Michael Nouri: Do you read minds or was that just a shot in the dark?
Kyle MacLachlan: No, I read minds.
Michael Nouri: Oh yeah? What was I just thinking?
Kyle MacLachlan: That I'm full of shit.
Michael Nouri: Impressive.
Kyle MacLachlan: Not really. Quite simple to read.
Kyle MacLachlan does admit that his own Porsche in which he tools around from crime scene to crime scene at 110 mph, is stolen, but then again, he could just be fucking around. But THEN AGAIN, the space cockroach from Jupiter likes driving fast . . . could there be a connection?
When Michael Nouri invites Kyle MacLachlan over to his house for dinner, a couple more hints are dropped. Michael Nouri's daughter and Kyle MacLachlan share this weird moment where it looks like all kinds of communication is going on even though neither of them says a word. Then, Mrs. Nouri asks Kyle MacLachlan where he's from, and Kyle MacLachlan just points up. Hmmm. Still, ya gotta give the movie credit. It just lays those pieces of evidence in front of you, and on top of it being fucking Kyle MacLachlan you as the viewer know he's an alien, even if Michael Nouri doesn't figure it out until almost the end of the movie.
The schlub stumbles upon a huge store of machine guns belonging to the mobster whose Ferrari he stole, and right when the cops find the Ferrari outside a strip club, the space cockroach transfers to the voluptuous body of stripper Claudia Christian, whereupon she fucks some sleazeball to death and steals his car so she can drive around killing people and listening to metal.
Our policeman heroes catch up to cockroach Claudia and shoot her a whole bunch of times with little to no visible effect. This, and the weird little silver space gun Kyle MacLachlan pulls out, starts making Michael Nouri think that this is Something They Didn't Cover in the Academy. Claudia jumps off the roof and croaks, but not before the space cockroach possesses Michael Nouri's lieutenant's dog. Because hey, you don't get to Earth that often, why not.
While the space cockroach decides that possessing people is more fun and jumps to the lieutenant, Michael Nouri has Kyle MacLachlan arrested to try and Get A Straight Answer Out Of Him. It transpires, shockingly, that Kyle MacLachlan is not an FBI agent from Seattle. He's an alien pursuing one mean-ass space cockroach from Jupiter.
In the morning, some lab tech retardedly fires Kyle MacLachlan's space gun, which blows up a wall and creates enough of a diversion for cockroach Lieutenant to hold Michael Nouri at gunpoint and shlep him down to Kyle MacLachlan's holding cell, where they talk some alien trash, and the cockroach racistly discourses about a couple different kinds of aliens, when Danny Trejo—
—yes, that's right, sports fans, the Danny Trejo, starts heckling the cockroach from his holding cell.
Danny Trejo: “Hey, hippie! What kind of dude are you?”
At least that's what I think he said. He might have been saying “Hey, hefty.” But I like the thought of him calling a space cockroach from Jupiter holding a rocket launcher while in the body of a police lieutenant “hippie.” (Keep in mind I'm the guy who swears to this day he heard an Ewok say “oye, puto!” in The Ewok Adventure . . .)
But anyway, Danny Trejo gets shot to death for his wit, and a gun battle ensues. Michael Nouri gets shot in the stomach, the space cockroach takes over Ed O'Ross' body—which, Ed O'Ross being Michael Nouri's partner, induces a degree of angst—and Kyle MacLachlan takes off in pursuit. Cockroach Ed O'Ross takes advantage of the real Ed O'Ross being assigned way back in the beginning of the movie to protect a senator to possess the senator. Cockroach senator announces at a press conference that he's running for president, whereupon Kyle MacLachlan bursts in . . . wait, this needs a new paragraph . . .
Kyle MacLachlan flambeés the senator with a motherfucking flamethrower!
He gets shot a whole bunch of times in so doing, but man, aliens sure can take a bullet. Then, when the space cockroach crawls out of the senator's flaming corpse, Kyle MacLachlan hits him right between the antennae with his space gun. Suddenly, everybody who was shooting Kyle MacLachlan is like “ohhhhhh, now we get it . . .” and they apologetically take him to the hospital.
At the hospital, Michael Nouri is in bad shape, and his wife is crying. Kyle MacLachlan, being a good sport, takes one for the team, and breathes alien light into Michael Nouri's mouth, which makes him okay again, and Mrs. Nouri sure is happy, but the daughter knows something's up. Daddy kind of did die, it's Kyle MacLachlan in his body. But the wife clearly doesn't give a fuck, so everybody wins. The end.
I first saw The Hidden in the theaters with my mom, I think, and I'm pretty sure I saw it a couple more times on video, because watching it again a whole lotta things I remembered as being from some 80s cop movie or other were actually from The Hidden (the scene where the car salesman whips out coke while they're signing the papers, the scene where the black cop shoots a very aesthetic paperball jumpshot into the wastebasket, etc)
The Hidden holds up. I guess its relatively low budget kept it from being distributed too widely, but it's way more entertaining than Alien Nation (which is not to say Alien Nation isn't cool, it just drags a bit, whereas The Hidden fuckin moves) and everyone I know who's seen it loves it.
Worth putting in your queue: Hell yeah.
Sunday, March 21, 2010
The picture we watched, on advice of two separate parties, one there, one not, was called After Last Season. Actually, “watched” is the wrong word. We threw the DVD on, saw the badly animated Times New Roman production company logo about five times, and then this incredibly long, incoherent scene involving a purported MRI machine made of plywood and butcher paper, and a guy playing a doctor who must have said “I'm holding an MRI” about thirty times. Not one person in the room—including the sober people—could figure out what the fuck was going on, so at about the ten minute mark After Last Season departed our collective consciousness forever.
This is the thing about the Good Bad Movie quest. You need to know, as our hostess explained, when to just let it go. There is, after all, no point in watching something unless it's enjoyable on some level or other. With bad movies, the fact that they really suck is an occasional obstacle. But remember, there are orders of suckitude. As a public service, your (amazingly, almost divinely) humble author will proceed to delineate some of the different types of Good Bad Movies. Without further ado, let us begin:
The Cheap, Haphazard Piece of Shit
This probably covers the largest number of Good Bad Movies. (EDIT 3/22/10: And it certainly covers these.) Devotees of the now-legendary Mystery Science Theater 3000 are, by the sheer volume of MST3K they've seen, automatically experts on the CHPoS. SF movies from the 50s where the Martians are played by washed-up wrestlers in lobster costumes, pretty much every biker picture from the 60s except The Wild Angels and Easy Rider, blaxploitation pictures from the 70s where they didn't have enough money to hire Jim Brown or Pam Grier (and even a few of theirs kind of qualify), and the magical, lit-by-the-smile-of-God run of consistent shit-tastic genius that was Cannon films in the 80s all qualify. Here is a prime example of that last.
Firewalker (1986) dir. J. Lee Thompson
For a proper Good Bad Movie, certain elements need to be present. For one, we need shitty acting, and lots of it. Chuck Norris fits the bill perfectly, as whenever he has to convey any type of emotion other than amusement or rage he looks like he's passing a kidney stone. And phwoa baby is his delivery stilted. He's about as comfortable with language as John Mayer at the Source Awards. Melody Anderson provides an essential service, as the Hot Chick Who Can't Act, a trope Cannon employed with particular devotion. In spite of the fact that she's running around in the jungle for the whole movie, not one hair is ever out of place, her makeup is always immaculate (though not particularly flattering, since it is a shitty movie) and her clothes only get torn to show leg and/or tit.
One thing I always like in a Good Bad Movie of this type, because I'm kind of a prick, is the random Actually Talented Person who shows up with a let's-get-this-rent-paid grim determination. Here, it's Lou Gossett, who actually can act. Also, even though he ain't exactly Howard Hawks, J. Lee Thompson made a couple pretty good pictures once upon a time: The Guns of Navarone, the original Cape Fear, and probably a few other half-ass competent programmers. Nothing, though, makes a bad movie like the presence of one or two people who you know are capable of better.
The plot is twelve kinds of retarded. Chuck Norris and Lou Gossett are adventurers, or soldiers of fortune, or treasure hunters, or something. They bicker like an old married couple. Chuck Norris' character is dumb as a box of rocks but can kick ass. Lou Gossett is a former teacher or something and is thus “smart,” even though he's helpless in a fight. One or the other of them, I think Chuck Norris actually, is a hilariously bad shot—this one shot ricochets around the room twenty times before accidentally killing the bad guy.
Melody Anderson comes by and tells them about some massive treasure out in the middle of nowhere in the kind of Latin American country that's so Latin American the writers have to make one up. The kind where Aztecs, Maya, and voodoo witch doctors are all the same thing, all the people are these illiterate slapstick Catholics, and the jungles hide massive bands of benevolent guerrillas. Since only Chuck Norris and Lou Gossett know their way around a country so fictional and stereotyped, she hires them to help get her to it. They go bug Will Sampson while the poor guy is dying of cancer, and then Billy from Predator chases them all over the place doing things variously supernatural, menacing, pointless, or all of the above. Eventually they kill Billy (who was also Billy in 48 Hrs . . . talk about typecasting, he always has the same fuckin name!) and escape to a beach with the treasure so they can sip mojitos and get sunburn forever after, but not before Chuck Norris does a lot of fancy kicking, Chuck Norris, Lou Gossett and Melody Anderson pose as priests and a nun to get past some commies (and Lou Gossett says the mass in pig Latin . . .) and a whole lot of shots of Billy with his shirt off.
Sound retarded? That's because it gloriously, magnificently, spellbindingly is. I've probably rewatched Firewalker a good ten times, and it never disappoints. The Cannon era was a great one. American Ninja 1 & 2. Bloodsport. Breakin'. The single greatest title ever, and the generator of a meme wherein its second half can make any “#2” sequel hilarious: Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. Actually, fuck it, just read the Cannon Films Wikipedia article, it's really good readin' (even if it's a little light on citations, most of that stuff is actually verifiably true).
The Camp Classic
Not as many Good Bad Movies fall under this purview, as the criterion for determination is, as indicated by the singular form, very specific: a Camp Classic has to make homosexuals flip the fuck out in delight. The process is simple. If you think you have a Camp Classic on your hands, find a gay. Show said gay said movie. If the response is “meh” or “God, you straight people are weird,” you fucked up. However, if your gay can quote at least three-quarters of the movie, do an imitation of the lead actress, or sing the whole soundtrack, you have a winner! (Crying is also an indicator, but sometimes that means the movie's actually good, so you can't conclude Camp Classicism too fast)
Careful readers of this blog will note that the author, despite his enthusiasm for women, can be kind of a gigantic 'mo at times (the author, after all, is an actor). So I can speak with a resident alien's authority about the Camp Classic, since I own a few of them (some of which my actual gay friends have called me a faggot for owning). Some general guidelines: the entire resumes of Joan, Bette, Judy (not Barbra though, most of her movies are too fuckin serious to be campy, and none of them are any fun), earlier Liza I guess. 50's melodramas. Musicals, though the good ones are actually good and the bad ones are fuckin horrible, and depending on the company in which you watch them you're liable to get a lot of “it's so much better on stage.”
I probably fucked up the above a little bit by generalizing, but one thing I can assure you, this one totally counts:
Mommie Dearest (1981) dir. Frank Perry
In which it is revealed . . . Joan Crawford was not a nice person!
*wanders out into traffic in shock*
So, yeah. Apparently Joan Crawford's adopted daughter didn't really like her all that much. Christina Crawford, shortly after Joan's death, came out with a book dripping with gossip, allegations of abuse, and just all kinds of wonderful stuff. Paramount said, let's make a movie. They got Faye Dunaway (whom Joan herself had singled out in the early 70s as the only potential “true star” of her generation), Faye Dunaway got some plastic surgery and had her makeup team do her up like she was playing Cruella de Vil in Planet of the Apes. And the movie got fucking awful reviews. Roger Ebert, being straight, said, “I can't imagine who would want to subject themselves to this movie.” Variety had its claws out and its bitch heels on, critiquing Lady Faye thusly: “Dunaway does not chew scenery. Dunaway starts neatly at each corner of the set in every scene and swallows it whole, costars and all.” Meow.
In one of the nimbler maneuvers in advertising history, Paramount turned around and started rebranding it as camp, vanishing all their previous “this is a serious biopic” silliness. And it took off from there. Forever after, no one will ever look at a wire coat hanger the same way. For those with the patience to sit through something slow-paced, a few minutes too long, and featuring some seriously fucking carnivorous and solipsistic acting on the part of its leading lady, Mommie Dearest is a treat indeed.
However, mistaking anything in this movie for fact would be dumb. Most of Christina's book was bullshit fabricated or embellished in revenge for being cut out of Joan's will. Or very well could have been. Even getting past that, a lot of events in the movie were telescoped so the damn thing wouldn't be ten hours long or they were restaged for dramatic effect. But hey, it wasn't a documentary. And Faye Dunaway is so fuckin' weird-looking in it that even for that alone it'd be worth a look.
An Achingly Sincere Work of Mindboggling Incompetence
This last heading is for things like The Room. Tommy Wiseau fucking meant it when he made that movie, and on his planet, The Room is a Tennessee Williams drama with deep insights into the human character. On this one, it's something we heckle for its weird tics and utter ineptitude.
But, as always, A Challenger Appears. In this case, many. I saw this on The Huffington Post a while back, and figured I'd share with you. You'll notice After Last Season on there, but there's one thing the writer got wrong. After Last Season cost 4 fucking million dollars. That was actually why we watched it last night, that utterly bizarre budget figure—much like The Room's alleged 6 mil—creates a level of interest, even if that interest is just "what the fuck did they do, light that money on fire?" As for the others on that list, I have to admit, Praise Band looks fucking tremendous. I want to see it for the same reason, as one of my friends was the first to mention last night, I kind of want to see Kirk Cameron in the Left Behind movie(s).
I'm not going to go into too much depth making fun of one of these movies, just because it'd be kind of mean, considering how deeply their auteurs felt making them. I mean, sure, we make fun of The Room, but it's The Room. It's special. Someday someone's going to make a movie about Tommy Wiseau just the way Tim Burton made a movie about Ed Wood. I'll let those trailers on the HuffPo link speak for themselves.
In the end, as much as I like Good Bad Movies, I still have to admit, I'd far rather poach my more masochistic friends' research than actually watch the bad movies myself to find the gold. It's for that reason that I love Bill Pronzini's books Gun in Cheek and Son of Gun in Cheek; he read the worst that mystery and crime fiction had to offer so we didn't have to. So I'll let others sit through the wannabe Rooms out there, and when they find something that looks right, I'll show up, with a thirst for whiskey and the anticipatory smile attendant upon sitting down to watch something really, really Good Bad.
Friday, March 19, 2010
But QT, despite his love for disreputable trash culture, still has cred with tweedy types, at least the ones who don't puke whenever someone pricks their finger onscreen. And after almost 20 years (seriously, Reservoir Dogs was 1992 . . . I wonder if I can find a good wheelchair on eBay . . .) we're used to QT sitting on that fence. I however, in the interests of science, must insist that we find a much less likely example of a hybrid between brows low and high.
I propose that we look at a movie from the director of the Chuck Norris vehicle Code of Silence, the Steven Seagal vehicles Above the Law and Under Siege, and the better but still disreputable Gene Hackman thriller The Package. Andrew Davis, in all the aforementioned movies with the exception of Under Siege, displays a vivid, familiar sense of the city of Chicago, and frequently employs the same local character actors in small parts, including the lovely and talented Joe Kosala—
—and the single best actor in the history of cinema at playing blue-collar dudes from Chicago, Mr. Ron Dean.
(Note: if any of you mention that he played Emilio Estevez' dad in The Breakfast Club, I will put my foot so far up your ass we'll look like a Guillermo Del Toro FX shot)
Proudly scruffy track record aside, Andrew Davis had always been a director of rather more skill than the average dipshit who pays the rent directing Chuck Norris/Steven Seagal movies. And thus, Warner Bros hired him to direct . . .
The Fugitive is a classic Warner Bros picture (per the same Aljean Harmetz quote I used when talking about Casablanca: “nearly every Warner Bros picture was an exception to the auteur theory”) in that the studio, rather than giving over too much trust to one of those wacky auteur types who're always talking about that homocommie “creative control” horseshit, hired a team of writers and a guy who could direct—and who had a solid, stylish sense of the place where the movie was set—but wouldn't start shit, cast the most reliable movie star of his generation, sat back, and made money.
For all the crap Hollywood churns out, and they sure do put out Augean stables levels of crap, occasionally they strike gold. Their rate of success is low enough that the odd gem now and again is more an accident than anything else, but high enough that you can't completely write the studios off. The Fugitive came out at a time in my life when I was just starting to get really cranky about Hollywood and fancied myself solely into foreign and independent cinema, and forced me to reassess that stance. Any force powerful enough to get a teenager to admit he's wrong is probably capable of vaporizing planets.
The Fugitive is based on a very popular television series from the 1960s that I've never seen. (The phrase “popular television series that I've never seen” is almost redundant; I'm still only up to season 2 of Lost.) The movie stars Harrison Ford as Richard Kimball, successful Chicago vascular surgeon, whose wife is murdered. Harrison Ford tells homicide detectives Joe Kosala and Ron Dean that a one-armed man is responsible. Detectives Kosala and Dean are skeptical. So is the rest of the criminal justice system: Harrison Ford is indicted, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death before the end of the opening credits. Sure, they fudge things a bit so the credits are longer than they usually are, but the fact that they railroad him that fast is reinforced by the fact that you don't see Andrew Davis' director credit until Harrison Ford is getting on the bus to prison, which fucking rules ass.
On the bus, things quickly go a bit squiffy (in the parlance of Martin Freeman in Hot Fuzz) and the other convicts try to shank the guards and bust out. One of the guards picks that moment to conduct an experiment in practical physics, namely blowing the back of the driver's head off with an errant shotgun blast and seeing how long it takes before the bus crashes.
The result: not very long. The bus goes somersaulting down a hill onto some train tracks. Harrison Ford, the first guard who got shanked, the retard guard with the shotgun, and poorly socialized convict Eddie Bo Smith, Jr. are the only ones to survive the experiment. Then, at just about the most perfectly timed moment ever, a train appears. Fuck. Harrison Ford asks for help getting the wounded guard out, but the other guard and the other convict are all every man for himself and stuff, leaving Harrison Ford to nobly extract the guy from the crushed bus, cutting timing so close that he has to leap from the top of the bus right before it gets hit by the train (a fucking really cool stunt). The train then derails and Harrison Ford has to haul ass to keep from being run over (a fucking really cool stunt). All this after Harrison Ford got his side ripped open in the crash. No rest for the weary.
That whole bus crash/train crash sequence is easily one of the holyfuckdidthatjusthappenest action sequences ever. None of that pansy-ass CGI nonsense, not even too much green screen, just straight up stunt work. It leads to an aftermath that Tommy Lee Jones, upon arrival at the scene, accurately assesses: “My my my. What. A. Mess.”
A brief pause is necessary before we continue. Tommy Lee Jones is cooler in this movie than just about anybody ever has been before or since. And I'm not just talking in movies. Not only does he have a lot of great lines—and he sure got hooked up in that regard—but he delivers them with such style. His US Marshal Sam Gerard is a cranky bastard, an extremely intelligent cranky bastard with a fierce sense of purpose: he is going to catch you, dead, alive, maimed, in one piece, whatever, but you are getting caught. He's one of my favorite movie characters ever, because under the right circumstances you could have a hell of a time having a beer with him but if you piss him off you will get your shit fucking destroyed.
Okay, let's continue. Tommy Lee Jones and his team of extremely competent wiseasses (including Joe Pantoliano and no fewer than two Lost castaways) descend upon the scene, calmly assessing and looking with disfavor upon the local sheriffs, who have their less-intelligent heads up their provincial asses. Tommy Lee Jones will have none of this foolishness:
Tommy Lee Jones: Sheriff Rawlins, with all due respect, I'd like to suggest checkpoints on a 15 mile radius out here on I-57, I-24, and on route 13 out of Chester--
Sheriff Rawlins: Whoa whoa whoa. The prisoners are all dead and all checkpoints are gonna do is get a lotta good people frantic around here and flood my office with calls.
Tommy Lee Jones (best deadpan ever): Well shit, sheriff, I'd hate to see that happen so I guess I'll just take over your investigation.
Sheriff Rawlins (sputters for like a year, then): On what authority?
Tommy Lee Jones: Governor of the state of Illinois, United States Marshal's office, 5th District, Northern Illinois.
And what, motherfucker? Man, Tommy Lee Jones' performance in this movie is good. And he only just got started too. Once the chain of command is readjusted, the sheriff tries to recover his vacant nutsack by making a lame crack about Wyatt Earp, but Tommy Lee just sighs at this display of inferior wit and sends every cop in the Midwest after Harrison Ford.
AND SO THE CHASE BEGINS. The pursuit is masterfully constructed; you never get the feeling that Harrison Ford is any farther than like two, maybe three inches away from getting arrested, and that's when things are relaxed. He busts into a hospital, steals an old guy's food, patches up his wound, shaves his beard, steals some doctor threads, and on his way out, runs into a cop.
Cop: Hey, Doc. Have you seen [reads description of Harrison Ford off the Wanted poster]?
Harrison Ford: Every time I look in the mirror, pal. Except for the beard of course.
Harrison Ford walks away.
Cop: Hey, Doc!
Harrison Ford shits a brick.
The cop gestures to Harrison Ford's open fly.
Harrison Ford exhales, does up his zipper, and fucks off.
Then, right as Harrison Ford is leaving the hospital, the paramedics are bringing in the wounded guard from the train wreck. Harrison Ford hollers some shit to the paramedics so the ER doctors can save the guard's life, then he steals an ambulance.
Tommy Lee Jones, a smidge disappointed that Harrison Ford has decided to escape with such absence of subtlety, starts chasing him in a helicopter. They corner Harrison Ford in the tunnels by this big-ass dam. Then, this classic exchange:
Harrison Ford: I didn't kill my wife!
Tommy Lee Jones: I don't care!
Fuck, man, was an Oscar enough for this performance? We couldn't knight him? That'd be cool, Sir Tommy Lee Jones, with his Texas accent. Maybe sainthood: St. Tommy Lee Jones, patron saint of character actors whose dicks drag the ground, martyred by D. Bowes for doing Men in Black 3 in 2013.
So, Harrison Ford is in a tight spot. The cool thing about having been in as many movies as he had by this point, and playing as many guys who kicked as much ass as he had, is that he had a lot of experience to draw on. He thus takes a page out of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and takes a leap of faith off the dam. Tommy Lee Jones, having been too busy filming The Package in 1989 to have seen Last Crusade, didn't see it coming, and gets pissed off, angrily barking at his by-now enormous coterie of cops to dredge the river looking for the (presumably dead) Harrison Ford.
This was one of the two things critics whined about in The Fugitive. “But anyone who tried jumping off that dam would have been killed!” they argued. Nuh uh, foolish mortal. Harrison Ford doesn't get killed. He didn't asphyxiate in that bullshit Jabba the Hut shrink-wrapped him in in Empire. The (other) Replicants didn't kill him in Blade Runner. The Amish didn't kill him for being a douchebag in Witness. Neither the Nazis nor all those racist Indian stereotypes in Temple of Doom managed to kill Indiana Jones (only George Lucas managed to kill Indiana Jones). Hell, Sean fuckin Bean, 006 himself, motherfuckin Boromir motherfucker, couldn't even kill Harrison Ford in Patriot Games. Some wimpy ass hundred-foot drop into heavy currents with probably a lot of sharp rocks and shit all over the place isn't going to do it.
The chase continues, though Harrison Ford has a bit more breathing room. He colors his hair (the inspiration for one of the top 5 all-time great quotes in my “only white guy in the movie theater” career at the old Metropolitan in downtown Brooklyn: “Son, Han Solo uses Dark & Natural, nigga!”) and catches a ride from a friendly woman.
This leads to the other thing critics complained about: the next scene when, without mentioning anyone's name, the Marshals all sit around talking about how they just closed in on a fugitive who “shacked up with some babe.” It transpires that the the fugitive they kill in the ensuing pursuit (as Tommy Lee Jones later explains, “He was trying to kill one of my kids [read: Marshals], sir”) was not Harrison Ford, but the belligerent Eddie Bo Smith, Jr.
Harrison Ford comes back to Chicago. He contacts his lawyer, and the Marshals, having tapped the phone, listen in. An entertaining exchange ensues wherein Tommy Lee Jones looks at this one random marshal like he has a tentacle coming out of his head for suggesting that the train they hear in the background sounds elevated (“You must have ears like an eagle.”) They listen to the tape a few more times, and isolate the sound of the train conductor saying the name of a stop on the El.
Tommy Lee Jones: I knew that was an elevated train.
Though the Marshals know he's in Chicago, Harrison Ford still manages to lay low, renting out an apartment from a Polish woman and her dickhead son, contacting old friend Jeroen Krabbe, and getting started on infiltrating a hospital to look for the one-armed man.
Minor aside here, regarding Hollywood semiotics. Jeroen Krabbe's name in this movie is Charles Nichols. Good solid WASP name. A guy named Charles Nichols, living in Chicago, who is a hotshot doctor at a hospital, is going to have a neutral American accent, and how recently he got rich will determine how much Midwest creeps into it. Follow me so far? Jeroen Krabbe in this movie has a really fuckin thick Dutch accent. He's awesome, no argument there. But he's the only guy in the movie with a Euro accent. His character would not have a Dutch accent. That is, if what they were going for is realism. I submit the theory that Andrew Davis, underrated director that he is, wanted to semiotically clue the audience in that Jeroen Krabbe was the bad guy . . . because a Euro accent is a signifier of villainy. Ah, that $150k liberal arts education was totally fucking worth it . . .
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Jeroen Krabbe is totally nice to Harrison Ford at first, the first person he encounters from his old life who is (his lawyer dicks him over almost enthusiastically). So, with Jeroen Krabbe's help, Harrison Ford gets the ball rolling finding out who the hell the one-armed man was. (“I know he looks like Andreas Katsulas, but I need more than that to go on . . .”) He infiltrates the hospital, poses as a janitor, and gets a list of dudes with the same prosthetic arm as Andreas Katsulas, simplifying his search.
He also inadvertently gets ensnared by Julianne Moore (who gets third billing, before she was famous, for being in two scenes . . . something I never quite understood, not that I minded or anything) to take some kid on a stretcher somewhere. Harrison Ford is unable to suppress his old doctor instincts, and checks the kid's chest X-ray, discovering that the kid was misdiagnosed. Harrison Ford then takes the kid where he should be, displaying some good Harrison Ford bedside manner along the way.
But Julianne Moore saw the janitor checking out the chest film. And Julianne Moore may be a lot of things (hot, talented, red-haired) but dumb is not one of them. So she yoinks Harrison Ford's fake janitor badge and snitches him to Tommy Lee Jones. After a scene where it randomly becomes apparent that Julianne Moore and Tommy Lee Jones really want to shtup, Tommy Lee Jones and Joe Pantoliano stumble upon the prosthetics department, and realize Harrison Ford's been looking for something in there.
Cue the next great chase sequence in the picture. Harrison Ford, in one of the ballsiest moves ever, goes to visit who he thinks is Andreas Katsulas . . . in jail. With cops fucking everywhere. Talk about suspense. Harrison Ford, though, takes advantage of his experience in cinema—he knows that even the couple times he played bad guys (in The Conversation and Apocalypse Now) he still got away with it, so he knows he'll get away with it this time. And he does; he sits down and the prisoner comes out . . . but it's not Andreas Katsulas, it's some black guy with a cool fro. Although the guy points out, “You got me down here, might as well talk about somethin'. Ain't no cable in this damn place,” Harrison Ford respectfully excuses himself so the ninety billion cops in the fucking building don't bust him, and makes his way as stealthily out as he can.
But not even Harrison Ford can sneak by Tommy Lee Jones. Tommy Lee Jones and his guys chase Harrison Ford (who must have hurt his leg at some point, he's limping like fuck during this whole chase, which actually adds to the suspense). When Harrison Ford manages to get on the other side of the bulletproof emergency doors, Tommy Lee Jones shoots to kill, which kind of surprises Harrison Ford, but not enough that he can't get out and disappear into the St. Patrick's Day parade.
In fairly short order, Harrison Ford finds Andreas Katsulas. It turns out Andreas Katsulas is the security guy for a pharmaceutical company Harrison Ford has encountered a while back. Their big experimental drug had been fucking people up, and Harrison Ford had found out how badly it had been fucking people up, so the pharmaceutical company decided to fuck him up. (Note: there is no better villain—since they're all run by evil white guys in suits—than a pharmaceutical company, except maybe a Nazi who kicks puppies and plays basketball for Duke.)
Now that he knows (or so he thinks) the truth, Harrison Ford leaves a couple oblique clues for Tommy Lee Jones, who determines almost immediately what a choad Andreas Katsulas is (he has also, proleptically, gotten off on an awkward, adversarial foot with Jeroen Krabbe). Unfortunately, Harrison Ford doesn't realize that the guy he thinks is behind everything was murdered and posthumously framed at the order of his old pal Jeroen Krabbe. (Here's where being cynical and kind of racist would have helped, but no, Harrison Ford only plays good guys).
And so, the Big Finish. Harrison Ford beats the shit out of Andreas Katsulas and pistol-whips him into unconsciousness, but the cop who Andreas Katsulas shoots right before this gets blamed on Harrison Ford, so Joe Kosala, Ron Dean, and the entire trigger-happy Chicago PD go running after Harrison Ford with erections. Harrison Ford, though, having realized Jeroen Krabbe is the bad guy swaggers into the medical conference where he's giving the keynote speech, and drops some J'Accuse. His voice shaking in that “I am Harrison Ford and I am acting” way we know and love, our hero calls Jeroen Krabbe out and basically does everything except slap him in the face with a glove. They go into the other room and commence beating the shit out of each other. The fight spills out all over the hotel, a messy but well-filmed affair. Jeroen Krabbe gives Joe Pantoliano a nasty headache, but Tommy Lee Jones calls out to Harrison Ford that he knows he's innocent and Jeroen Krabbe is the bad guy. This angers our villain, who draws down on Tommy Lee Jones with Joe Pantoliano's gun before Harrison Ford tire-irons him a few times. Our hero and his Javert have a moment.
Tommy Lee Jones: It's over. (Pause) And you know I'm glad? I need the rest.
And all is well. Kind of. Harrison Ford's wife is still dead. He's going to need a bit of R&R before he can go back to being a doctor, if he can indeed bring himself to after this ordeal. But the dudes who fucked up his life have been punished. Sometimes that's all you can really ask for.
I've watched The Fugitive dozens of times since its release. When I was in college, it was a bit of a cult thing for us. The James Newton Howard music that played over a helicopter shot of the El after Joe Pantoliano says “If I fell down these stairs, I'd be a goner. I'd be dead” inspired some (very bad) freestyle rapping after I said one time, “Jay-Z should remix this as Big Pimpin' part II” and my friend Steve coined the immortal couplet “Cuz I'm the Fugitive/So lick my spooge-a-tive.”
The Fugitive gave Andrew Davis' career a bit of a boost. He would go on to direct the eminently respectable (if not all that great) Dial M for Murder remake A Perfect Murder with Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Viggo. Then he went and fucked it up by directing a late-period Arnold vehicle (something must have happened to Arnold on True Lies, because boy did his career suck after that. The Sixth Day was good, but it wasn't that good) and now who the fuck knows what he's up to, because Ron Dean did those NFL commercials a couple years ago and hit the big time and now Andrew Davis is without his secret weapon. Clearly, if Andrew Davis had directed a buddy comedy with Joe Kosala and Ron Dean as the leads, none of this bullshit would have happened.
The best part about The Fugitive is that you can watch it over and over and over and over and it still stays just as good. In fact, knowing that Tommy Lee Jones is just a guy doing his job and not a villain makes it even better. Do not, however, make the mistake of thinking that the sequel is worth watching. The kid with the ponytail gets killed in it, and that's fucking bullshit. Also, not having Joe Kosala around to ask, “So, de scraytches on yer neck Dack . . . did de one arm gey do dat?” fucks things up. In fact, any movie that doesn't have Joe Kosala and Ron Dean walking around Chicago-ing is just fucking missing something. You heard it here first.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
St. Patrick's Day has always been a source of great inner turmoil to me. I'm half Irish and half WASP, which means war at the best of times. I've also teetered on the brink of a serious drinking problem since birth. So, naturally, a day where everyone and his fuckface brother walks around bellowing about Lucky Charms at the top of his lungs and then drinking four whole beers and throwing up all over the street is going to piss me off. I abhor amateurs when it comes to drinking, which completely aside from the potential health risks turns people into retards unless they have the necessary composure to maintain. It also takes practice and experience to do properly.
But enough about drinking before I start. Today, in honor of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland (and their subsequent swim across the Atlantic Ocean to become the New York Police Department) we're going to talk about a random assortment of Irish and Irish-related cinema.
The Commitments (1991) dir. Alan Parker
Irish director: No
Irish writer(s): Yes
Irish cast: Yes
Not liking The Commitments is like not liking puppies. You are actually a bad person if you don't like this movie. That's one of the things that can be kind of annoying, periodically, about UK and Irish “proletarians with artistic ambitions” pictures (see also Billy Elliott, The Full Monty, et al). Not that the movies themselves are annoying—they're almost always terrific—but not being allowed to be pissed off pisses me off sometimes. Because even we diluted half-Irish-Americans still have that powerful Irish cranky gene.
Anyway, The Commitments fucking rocks. The protagonist, smooth-talker Jimmy Rabbitte, is on the fringes of the “music business” (i.e. selling Morrissey t-shirts to teenage girls on the subway) and one day decides to assemble a band to play classic soul music. He ropes in a couple of buddies (one of whom, Outspan, would years later get weepy over that cute Czech chick in Once, which I'm not going to be talking about) and puts out an ad in the paper to attract other musicians.
Jimmy: What do you play?
Skeevy dude: Uh, I used to play football at school.
Jimmy: I mean, what instrument?
Skeevy dude: Oh I don't.
Jimmy: What are you doing here, then?
Skeevy dude: Well, I saw everyone lining up, so, uh . . . I thought you were selling drugs.
So, yeah, it's a fairly arduous process. (Note to those who've yet to have the pleasure: auditioning sucks balls no matter which side of the fence you're on) But eventually, Jimmy assembles a group, complete with cute girls to sing backup vocals, an asshole lead vocalist—a must for any proper band—and a trumpet player who claims to know everyone who ever recorded music ever.
The band gets really good. But the trumpet player nails all the backup singers, the lead vocalist so alienates the first drummer that he quits and they have to replace him with their psycho bouncer, and as happens with so many bands, things go bad. But, as the trumpet player—of all people—points out:
“The success of the band was irrelevant - you raised their expectations of life, you lifted their horizons. Sure we could have been famous and made albums and stuff, but that would have been predictable. This way it's poetry.”
While non-Hibernian ears might require a couple viewings—or subtitles—to make sense of the Dublin accents, the whole movie just sings. And holy fuck Colm Meaney is hilarious as Jimmy's Elvis-worshipping dad.
The Quiet Man (1952) dir. John Ford
Irish director: Oh hell yeah
Irish writer: Doesn't really matter, John Ford was in charge
Irish cast: Yes, con molto brio
I haven't spent a whole lot of time sucking John Ford's dick on this blog, since Ford-worship is more the kind of thing my parents' generation indulged in, primarily because they were the last generation for whom Westerns were more than museum pieces. Like, look. I like Westerns. But they're very academic for me. I'll always like the remake of 3:10 to Yuma better than the original because Batman vs. Maximus is always relevant to my interests, which fact has led me to be lectured by People Who Were There that pissing on Glenn Ford like that is out of bounds. Sorry, guys. I'll just never get it on a gut level.
All of which should mean it's hard goddamn work to figure out what's so great about John Ford that his nuts have been lodged in every film critic's nostrils since even before Orson Welles, adopting humility as a pose, credited Stagecoach with teaching him how to direct. (Translation: that's a good 70 years) But it's not. John Ford's pretty awesome. When I was growing up, The Quiet Man was always on TV every St. Patrick's Day, so watching The Quiet Man on March 17th is kinda like watching A Christmas Story on December 25th. And, like A Christmas Story, it's not anything earth-shattering, it's just a really well-made movie that hits the spot as long as you're not feeling too cynical.
But, with all due respect to Peter Billingsley, The Quiet Man has John Wayne. And, with all due respect to my fellow progressives, John Wayne ruled. Six-foot-four, craggy, perpetually pissed off, can kick your ass. And no one, no one, ever looked better on a horse. Here, though, he doesn't ride a whole lot of horses. He plays a former boxer who—after accidentally killing a guy—retires in disgrace, heads to Ireland, takes one good look at Maureen O'Hara, and says, “Bring me that one. The sultry bitch with the fire in her eyes!” (Wait, fuck, that was Elliott Gould in MASH . . .)
So, it's your basic fish out of water culture clash story, but with John Wayne. There's a lot of good natured b'gosh an' begorrah Oyrishness (that during my militant teenage years inspired a lot of angry leftist ranting) and a lot of “all right his reputation is deserved” John Fordness. But, my favorite part of the movie comes at the end, when, as happens in the ways of men, Victor McLaglen and John Wayne have to beat the shit out of each other. It's a great fight scene, filmed by one of the great directors of all time, but my favorite part about the scene is that Victor McLaglen is so awesome that he fights John Wayne to a stalemate. No one does that. It's kind of like watching Jesus walk across a swimming pool and getting the bottom of his robe wet. (Yes, I went there on a Catholic holiday. Deal.)
State of Grace (1990) dir. Phil Joanou
Irish director: No
Irish writer: Yes
Irish cast: Partially
State of Grace is a goddamn mess. It's well made, really well acted, but any time you're forced to go, “ya know, if they cut 45 minutes out of it it woulda been great,” you cannot ascribe perfection. But oh man are there Irish guys in this movie. Not all of them are played by real Irish guys, but with Gary Oldman that's like being in bed with Gina Gershon, Kathryn Bigelow, and Scarlett Johansson and complaining that they're hogging the covers. Sean Penn is good, though a little too “look at me acting” as per usual. Ed Harris is fantastic.
The deal is, Ed Harris runs the Westies, who are on the decline. His brother, Gary Oldman, his enforcer when he's not too drunk to hold a gun, brings Sean Penn into the fold, not knowing that Sean Penn is an undercover cop. So Sean Penn strings along cop handler John Turturro as the Westies get into some shit with Joe Viterelli and the Eye-Ties. Wait, hold up, we need a picture of Joe Viterelli.
Man I miss that fuckin guy. Anyway, before I get sidetracked, shit eventually comes to a head when Ed Harris decides sucking up to Joe Viterelli is more important than his brother's life, so Ed Harris kills Gary Oldman. Only then does Sean Penn really get motivated to take Ed Harris down. There's a great shootout at the end set to "Trip Through Your Wires" by U2 (Phil Joanou also directed Rattle and Hum, which was also too long and about a bunch of full-of-shit Irish guys . . . OMG THEY'RE THE SAME MOVIE!)
State of Grace is one of those movies that's built around showcasing performances. Scenes are constructed more for the actors to Make Choices rather than to move the story forward. Some of those scenes—like the one where Sean Penn and Robin Wright find a so-drunk-he's-practically-tripping Gary Oldman in church, mourning Stevie (a young John C. Reilly), culminating with Gary Oldman mumbling over and over “we're gonna make Stevie a saint,” or the one where Sean Penn and Gary Oldman are trying to figure out when to bust in guns blazing on Joe Viterelli because Ed Harris hasn't called them on the pay phone (remember those? In the remake Ed Harris would have just texted them and boom, no scene) and Sean Penn tells one of the other thugs “No offense, but you're fuckin' retarded”—are good. Some of them are not. Those are the ones I sleep through. Yeah, that's another thing, when you have to take a nap in the middle of a movie, it's too fucking long.
Gangs of New York (2002) dir. Martin Scorsese.
Irish director: Um. No.
Irish writer: No.
Irish cast: No.
Oh, what might have been. I won't dwell, because this movie does suck, and it shouldn't suck, and the fact that it sucks is unfortunate. Because there really hasn't been a great movie about the Irish immigrant experience in this country, and for some reason I thought Marty Scorsese, adapting something like a couple paragraphs of Herbert Asbury's juicy 1928 page-turner, was going to make that great movie. The story goes, he wanted to make this movie forever but could never find a young actor with the necessary gravitas. Which makes it especially awesome that he went into production without a script, and his leading actor was both too old and sucked.
Goddammit this is frustrating. Remember when we all heard about this movie? We heard it was about Irish immigrants engaged in a bloody turf war with American-born gangs, and went “holy shit that sounds awesome.” I went in willing to cut Leonardo DiCaprio miles of slack, but the second he opened his mouth and started talking with that ridiculous fake accent he totally lost me. And he spent the whole movie looking like he needed to take a shit, when I guess he was trying to project inner turmoil.
Daniel Day-Lewis got a lot of attention for his performance as the villain, which, as in Tim Burton's first Batman movie, overwhelmed the ineffectual hero and totally fucked the movie up. Still, when DDL says “What's your name boy? Amsterdam? [pause] I'm New York” that's like yeah. I'm neither able nor willing to resist that line reading. But seriously, this is a movie about the Irish in New York, and the racist American guy is the most memorable thing about it. Eh?
I mean, GODFUCKINGDAMMIT MARTY, you're making a movie that concludes with the fucking Draft Riots? And it still sucks? You're lucky The Departed was good, you inconstant bastard.
Miller's Crossing (1990) dir. Joel Coen (and, let's drop the pretense, Ethan too)
Irish writer/directors: No, but it really doesn't matter.
Irish cast: Extremely
Now, this isn't necessarily a picture about the Irish experience or anything. But it belongs here because the coolest Irish guy who ever breathed real or fictional air is the main character.
Gabriel Byrne has never been better. As Tom Reagan, he pulls off an amazing balancing act, swapping meticulously-crafted Coen Bros dialogue with a variety of underworld types, any one of whom could kill him at any moment. And yet, at the end, he emerges not unscathed but alive, impressive in itself.
Equally badass is fellow Irishman Albert Finney, as political boss Leo, who “runs things.” They're the main two Irish guys, though the guy who describes Albert Finney as “an artist with the Thompson” is cool too. They deal with a bunch of obstreperous Italians, led by the relaxed and sane Jon Polito and his ingratiating, warm colleague Eddie Dane (J.E. Freeman). Wait, hold on, my adjectives got scrambled. Jon Polito is batshit and spends the whole movie so worked up he turns purple, and Eddie Dane is the coldest, scariest motherfucker ever. The only thing in the world that he doesn't have a growled putdown or a couple bullets for is Mink (Steve Buscemi). He's head over heels in love with Mink. Oh, fuck, when Eddie Dane thinks Tom killed Mink it's even scarier than when Ripley realizes the Alien is in the escape pod with her.
But since this is St. Patrick's Day, I'll cease to digress. The scene about which the guy calls Albert Finney an artist with the Thompson. This is what we're talkin' about. Jon Polito sends dudes to Albert Finney's house to kill him. They kill one of Albert Finney's dudes, but the dead guy's cigarette sets something on fire. Albert Finney sees the smoke through the floorboards, and swings into action, killing the two Tommy-gun-toting thugs who burst in upon his inner sanctum. Albert Finney grabs his cigar and one of the Tommy guns then gets his ass outside. He then shoots one remaining assassin about 10,000 times. Then a car with other assassins drives by, firing machine guns at Albert Finney. Albert Finney calmly walks up the street, firing another 20,000 times without reloading, and the car eventually blows up. He then sticks his cigar back in his mouth and surveys his work. Oh, yeah . . . this whole scene, Frank Patterson's recording of “Danny Boy” is playing. This scene, more than any of their others, affirms the Coen brothers' genius to me. My favorite scene in my favorite movie of theirs.
Of course, there are other movies about Ireland, the Irish, and the Irish diaspora. I recommend staying home and watching one of them this evening, while the amateurs are out vomiting on our sidewalks and screaming about how drunk they are after one and a half pints of American seltzerbeer. God, this is an annoying holiday. Valentine's Day you can at least ignore. Instead of going forth and blaspheming against the Emerald Isle by acting like a shithead in a bar, maybe partake of some of the other fine Irish traditions: good conversation, a good book, complaining about not making the World Cup again. Drink at home. Sláinte, y'all.