Sunday, June 27, 2010

JUST A GANGSTER, I SUPPOSE


One might not immediately cite 1990 as a particularly notable year in the history of cinema. It was, after all, the year Dances With Wolves dominated the Oscars, with its lush visuals, its masturbatory, self-satisfied PC politics, its massive overlength. Flying under the radar that year were a number of fine pictures, four of which we will be discussing today, since they made 1990 an extremely notable year in the history of the gangster movie.

Usually, confluent trends in cinema are due to societal influence of some sort. The fact that 1990 saw so many different types of gangster movies might—amateur sociology alert—have something to do with the brazen, swaggering, felonious Wall Street culture of the 80s. It might just be that four (actually five if you count Ethan Coen) directors really liked gangster movies. Whatever the cause, the point is four awesome gangster movies came out in 1990.

Like any genre, gangster movies have evolved over time. Raoul Walsh basically invented the genre in 1915 with Regeneration. Shot on location in the Bowery, it's about as close as you can get to seeing what the milieu of Gangs of New York was actually like, as real gangs still prowled the neighborhood. From there, movie gangsters morphed into Paul Muni, then Cagney/Edward G. Robinson, then endless ripoffs of Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, then the paradigm shift/Shakespearean facelift performed by Dr. Francis Coppola, then Scorsese's hyper-realistic, autobiographical take on the genre, still the predominant mode in the gangster picture in 1990. Then Quentin Tarantino taught gangsters how to listen to Madonna and watch The Partridge Family, Guy Ritchie's take was awl roight, innit, then David Chase recast them in a bathrobe in their driveway, lumbering to pick up the morning's Newark Star-Ledger. But let's not get ahead of ourselves, back to 1990.

Our quartet each represents a different approach to the genre, each historically significant:


The Moody Character Piece—State of Grace

I talked about this one a bit in my St. Patrick's Day post, so rather than be redundant, let's focus on Phil Joanou's direction. The pace is deliberate (read: slow, if you're not in the mood) to give the actors all the time they need to make character choices (“I'm Irish . . . I'm drunk . . . I'm fatalistic . . . I need to brood decoratively . . .”) and the compositions, while serving the same end of not crowding the actors and giving them room to move, instead make the picture feel kind of emotionally neutral (and the lack of urgency in the editing reinforces that feeling of neutrality, and even detachment).

This would all be a critique of Phil Joanou's directing if the performances weren't all so fucking good. Sean Penn overdoes it a bit, as is his custom, but he's still pretty spectacular in this. Gary Oldman of course is Gary Oldman and nothing more need be said; he also overacts, but getting on Gary Oldman for overacting is like getting on water for being wet. Ed Harris, no stranger to overacting himself, keeps it pretty well in check here, and successfully conveys that his character's ruthlessness is due to weakness.

The psychological, Method acting approach to the gangster genre works if your purpose is examining the whys and wherefores behind gangsterism, or in State of Grace's case, the role of the gangster as the last, doomed line of defense against gentrification. The Westies were the most feared gang in New York, but they were no match for yuppies.


The Auteursploitation Picture—King of New York

King of New York is a decent companion piece to State of Grace, as both are “decline and fall of the gangster empire” narratives, and both have a similarly grim, moderato pace. One area in which King of New York is the clear superior, though, is in the overacting competition.

Remember, I'm not saying “overacting” as an insult, and remember also, King of New York stars Christopher Walken, perhaps the most flamboyantly strange actor ever seen on the silver screen. As drug kingpin Frank White, Walken is at his apex. Frank White is the king of New York, to the point where in a wonderful bit of irony, just about every black rapper from New York has, at some point or other since 1990, declared himself to be Frank White.

King of New York starts with Frank White's release from prison. Frank returns to a city where his lieutenant, Larry (pre-Laurence) Fishburne, is informed “nobody even talks to you goddamn motherfucking coños anymore.” Larry, aided by chemist Steve Buscemi and that one weird guy who just shouts shit in a coked-up rage all the time, rebut this assertion with a hail of gunfire and steal the gentleman's drugs.

The gangsters in King of New York always have half-dressed beautiful women lounging around, and the way you can tell Walken's the boss of bosses is that his half-dressed women are more beautiful than the other gangsters'. His headquarters, where all his women lounge around, is the Plaza hotel, another conspicuous sign that Walken is cooler than everyone else.

Walken attempts to diversify into the legitimate world, where he hobnobs with Pete Hamill (playing himself) and politicians, but the cops (led by a scenery chewing David Caruso and his earnest young protegé Wesley Snipes) are dead set on putting Walken back in jail, as they regard his release to be a crime in itself.

However he might crave acceptance in the straight world, Walken still has a drug empire to reconquer, which requires some doomed-from-the-start negotiations with a deliciously reptilian Chinese guy who sits around watching Expressionist horror movies with his (far too clothed for true gangster credibility) women and his henchmen. When business falls apart after the Chinese guy tells him “I didn't realize how fucking crazy you really are,” Walken and company are forced to resort to machine guns, which maneuver eradicates the Chinatown contingent.

David Caruso and the cops eventually decide that the only way to beat Walken is at his own game (which is to say, a machine gun battle), although Victor Argo (in the movie's only understated performance, and maybe its best) demurs and refuses to be party to such methods. Caruso and entourage succeed in killing a whole bunch of Walken's guys, including Larry Fishburne, though it costs poor Wesley Snipes his life, as well as a fresh-faced, recently married rookie's. Walken gets his retribution by drive-by blasting David Caruso at Wesley's funeral, leaving Victor Argo to arrest Walken, who mortally wounds Victor Argo, though he himself is mortally wounded by Victor Argo. Walken dies quietly in a cab in Times Square.

Director Abel Ferrara is very much an auteur, whose major theme is Catholic guilt, with subthemes sin and retribution, and because of his personal preoccupations, his bad men never get away with what they've done; they've sinned and ultimately must repent. So, although Walken is the King of New York, the king must die. Long live the king. And by God, long live King of New York. Few movies are as unrelentingly grim and violent, but even fewer are as fascinatingly badass. Anyone Biggie Smalls was willing to defer to in the badass department (the titular king, Frank White) is a force to be fucking reckoned with.


The Classicist Approach—Miller's Crossing

Of the movies in discussion today, the first that can unironically be branded a masterpiece is Miller's Crossing (also discussed briefly on St. Paddy's). Joel and Ethan Coen, in their nearly three-decade career, have made a half-dozen of the finest motion pictures of their generation, and to date have only directed one bad movie (Intolerable Cruelty, where they had to make chicken salad out of someone else's chickenshit script). Their finest, I submit—even better than Fargo, Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, or No Country For Old Men—is Miller's Crossing.

Borrowing from Dashiell Hammett, Damon Runyon, and Grand Guignol, Miller's Crossing is an incredibly stylized, intricately constructed, unabashedly unpleasant work of genius. Gabriel Byrne stars as Tom Reagan, loyal right hand to political boss (read: gangster) Albert Finney, who is having trouble with “ethical” Jon Polito and his right hand, the terrifying Eddie Dane (J.E. Freeman). Despite his loyalty, Gabriel Byrne is still fucking Albert Finney's woman, the hard-as-nails Marcia Gay Harden, whose brother, Jon Turturro, is number one on Jon Polito's to-kill list because “ethically, he's a little shaky” (an elegant understatement from an inelegant man).

So, in order to protect Albert Finney's interests, Gabriel Byrne has to disclose his affair with Marcia Gay Harden, thus prompting his exile from Albert Finney's inner circle (said exile accomplished by Albert Finney beating the shit out of him in public and throwing him down a flight of stairs), which leads to Gabriel Byrne having to go work for Jon Polito, whereupon Gabriel Byrne subtly subverts Jon Polito's organization from within, leading Jon Polito to kill Eddie Dane, after which John Turturro kills Jon Polito and Gabriel Byrne kills John Turturro, unfortunately ruining his chances at ever getting Marcia Gay Harden back but nonetheless being forgiven by Albert Finney. Exhale.

As compelling as the twisty, double-cross-laden plot is, and as gorgeous as the camerawork is (the Coens have always collaborated with the best DP's, first Barry Sonnenfeld then Roger Deakins and Emmanuel Lubezki), what makes Miller's Crossing so special is the dialogue. Basically, just read this whole page.

Of course, the scene with Albert Finney, the tommy gun, the burning house, and “Danny Boy” is the stuff of standing ovations. The fact that one of the greatest scenes ever in movies isn't even overwhelmingly the best scene in the movie is a testament to how fucking amazing Miller's Crossing is. The fact that an even better gangster movie was released in the same year is a reason to regard that other gangster movie with awe.


The Real—Goodfellas


“As far back as I can remember, I've always wanted to be a gangster.” --Henry Hill
“I grew up with the gangsters and the priests . . . now, as a director, I'm both.” --Martin Scorsese

It all seems so effortless. It looks like it's really happening. It's arguably the best picture in one of the most storied careers in cinema, Martin Scorsese's. Based on the memoir Wise Guy by real-life gangster Henry Hill, Goodfellas (the name change was due to there being a TV show at the time called Wiseguy, which you should see if you haven't) covers thirty years in The Life, following Henry Hill from wide-eyed kid parking cars at a Mob cabstand to high-flying coke dealer to state's witness testifying against all his friends.

By this point, practically every scene in Goodfellas has entered the realm of myth, so recapping is unnecessary. As awesome as the whole movie is, two scenes stand out. They're Scorsese at his very best, and Scorsese at his best is exciting and important:

(1) The steadicam shot when Henry takes Karen to the Copa for the first time. We start outside, see the huge fuckin line, and Karen starts to say something about “wow, we're going to have to wait” only to have Henry tell her, we don't have to wait, it's better this way, as he hustles her through the service entrance. Now, the obvious reason why this shot is awesome is that it's all in one take, with dozens of people choreographed perfectly even before we get into the main room of the Copa and they produce a table from outta nowhere and all that. But the less obvious reason is that this shot is the ENTIRE MOVIE in microcosm: Henry the gangster is taking his girl out on a date, showing her the glamor of the gangster's life, but in so doing has to drag her through the less-than-glamorous underbelly of the club where you get a glimpse of where, metaphorically speaking, the sausages are made. The fact that you don't really notice that until the thirtieth time you see the movie leaves you feeling it's all a bit of an adventure, and that Ray Liotta famously bashes himself in the nuts about two-thirds of the way through the shot but gamely keeps going further deepens the metaphor. Now, my favorite part of the whole thing, the very end, when Henry and Karen are sitting down, and a waiter brings over a bottle saying, “This is from Mr. Tony over there,” and there's that pan over to a table full of friendly, gesticulating gangsters. Martin Scorsese is so cool he can make a camera move funny. That shit has me dying, every time.

(2) Billy Batts' coming-home party. This one isn't about the flashy camerawork, this is just the fucking apex of acting and directing. Joe Pesci, as Tommy, comes into Henry's bar with a girlfriend, not realizing that Billy Batts is in there with some henchmen. Tommy doesn't like Billy Batts. Billy Batts reminds Tommy, in a very demeaning way, that he used to be a shoeshine boy, all the while pretending that he's being friendly. He is, however, reminding a lesser gangster, one who has not been “made,” who the alpha greaseball is. Now. By this point in the movie we've had it firmly established for us that Joe Pesci is motherfucking crazy as a fucking shithouse rat. While he may rationally give a fuck that Billy Batts is a made man and he isn't, when Billy Batts suicidally keeps fucking with him, Joe Pesci's rational side gradually dissipates, until the coup de grace: “NOW GO HOME AND GET YOUR FUCKIN' SHINEBOX.” Joe Pesci slams the glass he's holding to the ground and goes nuts; Henry and Jimmy only just get him out of the bar before he launches himself at Billy's whole henchmen coterie.

Of course, that's not the end of it. Joe Pesci comes back, and he and De Niro jump on Billy. Character revelation: Joe Pesci is sloppy and all over the place as he beats Billy to death, whereas De Niro calmly and methodically stomps the life out of the guy (a concise portrait of psychopath vs. sociopath; beats the shit outta the DSM-IV, which has the added disadvantage of not being scored to Donovan). The best part about the ending of the scene, where they roll the “dead” Billy Batts in tablecloths and schlep him out to Henry's car, is that it means the scene with Scorsese's mom is coming up next.

That scene, where they're all just sitting around eating dinner at like 4 o'clock in the morning, and Catherine Scorsese shows the boys this amazing, stark painting she did, and De Niro remarks “[he] looks like someone we know,” and starts laughing, because the guy in the painting looks vaguely like Billy Batts, who's in their trunk, right outside . . .

There are so many classic bits in this movie: the “do you think I'm funny?” sequence (which was actually written and directed by Pesci), the whole saga of shooting Spider in the foot and Spider committing suicide by telling Tommy to go fuck himself (later homaged on The Sopranos before it started to suck when Michael Imperioli, who played Spider, goes into a bakery and shoots some guy in the foot, telling him “It happens!”), “Don't let the sauce stick!”, Kevin Corrigan's perfectly calibrated “thaw fuuuuck atta he” (translation: “Get the fuck out of here”) when Ray Liotta tells him about the helicopters, etc etc etc.

And, on a personal note, my 7th grade basketball coach is in the movie, playing himself, as the guy toward the end who haggles with Henry and Karen over the witness protection program thing. When I was in high school, one of his sons made “High School athlete of the week” in the New York Post, and the opening of the piece went something like, “Occasionally, the phone will ring. Sean will pick it up and the voice on the other end of the line will say, 'It's Wilt Chamberlain.' When that happens, Sean calls for his father: 'Dad! It's Henry Hill!'” Priceless stuff, that.

It's pretty fucking hard to conceive of a movie as good as Goodfellas. Of the top 5 or so movies of all time, Goodfellas is probably the most entertaining of the lot, and certainly has the best soundtrack. It's a beautiful movie about something ugly, the gangster and the priest in perfect balance. And it taught me the word “fucko.” For that alone, Goodfellas is a classic.


Now, astute cineastes will probably point out “Hey, there was a fifth notable gangster movie released in 1990.” And I, being generous, will indulge you and agree:


The Misfire—The Godfather, Part III

The whole meme about Sofia Coppola ruining this is a little overblown. The other problems (no Robert Duvall, and giving all his screen time to Diane Keaton, historically the weakest link in the saga, casting people like George Hamilton and Eli Wallach, who while both awesome do not fucking belong here, the central story—about power struggles in the Vatican—being so dense that you need footnotes to figure out who's how) overshadow poor Sofia, who was fated to be a director, anyway. When you have a movie where you're supposed to consider Andy Garcia ascending to the throne as a harbinger of doom, you have a very problematic movie.


In fairly short order after 1990, Tarantino would remake the gangster movie in his own image, leaving the quartet and change I mentioned today as the swan song of an era of crime cinema. It's surprising how not dated any of the four are (well, not so much Goodfellas, movies that good don't get dated), how even though they belong to the past, they're still in a language we understand in the present. We could stand, in this self-conscious (post)modern age, to take a page out of these pictures' book (if the metaphor police call, you never saw me) and remember what made them great. And hey, a 20th anniversary is always a good excuse to watch something.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

BUT DO THEY DO WINDOWS?


"No, all they do is Linux." Zing! Nerd jokes FTW!

I am not going to attempt to defend this in any way. Happy Saturday!

CECI N'EST PAS UN FILM


Some months ago, there was a bit of a to-do in the video gaming world, with the release of Heavy Rain. It was hailed as a heretofore unseen level of artistry in video games, a brave and radical experiment in interactive narrative, the second coming of sliced bread, et cetera. Even I, a dilettante gamer at best, heard about all this and thought, hey, cool, next time I have sixty bucks I'll pick it up.

Video game critics got a bit hot under the collar in re: Heavy Rain, but I noticed one common theme in a lot of the reviews—the thing they were all praising it for was, essentially, not being a video game. This is puzzling, to say the least; when was the last time you read a movie review sucking some movie's dick for not seeming like a movie? If a thing bears scant resemblance to the thing it is, is it that thing? Or, in less opaque/stoned terms, doesn't a video game that's not really a video game, ipso facto, suck?

I decided to take time out of my busy schedule of stalking Gina Gershon and quixotically attempting to impute philosophical depth to Arnold Schwarzenegger movies to investigate this thorny question. Not having the money to shell out to buy the game—and not necessarily wanting to piss away sixty bucks on something that one of my critic icons said this about—I borrowed the game from my good friend and frequent collaborator Gyda Arber and got to work.

Now, the reason I'm writing about this game on a movie blog is because, as every critic in the fucking universe pointed out at the time, Heavy Rain really is more like a movie than a video game. Its plot—a serial killer is terrorizing an unnamed city (“shot” in Philadelphia), leaving behind origami animals, and ONLY ONE MAN (actually four: a really unlucky father, a grizzled private eye, a cracked-out FBI agent with some cool gadgets, and a sexy girl reporter) CAN STOP THE MADNESS—is just a smidge too hackneyed for any movie made after about 1995, but it has echoes of a lot of those movies (Se7en, for one, but I have to admit the one it really reminded me of was the one where Keanu plays a serial killer and James Spader has to catch him; an ex-girlfriend made me watch it and got pissed that I spent the whole picture giggling at how bad it was).

Where Heavy Rain rises above the tawdry retardation of its source material is in its execution. The visuals are stunning: the motion-capture acting is genuinely expressive and affecting, the environments are rendered meticulously, with exquisite attention to detail, and the “framing” of the “shots” is such that Robert Richardson, Chris Doyle, Emmanuel Lubezki, et al would nod approvingly. The way the expository cut scenes are “shot” and edited make you feel like you're watching a good movie, and the action scenes (where you, as the player, press buttons when prompted to get your character to do things like dodge bullets, smash lamps over bad guys' heads, kick dudes in the balls, etc) are edited like it's a movie. A really good movie.

But technique is only half the battle. It helps to be crazy, to have balls, to be a little pretentious . . . yes, my dear friends and loyal readers, it helps to be French. You might not guess from his name, but the game's writer/director David Cage is French. And oh my does it show. After the opening scene, it's literally raining for the entire rest of the game (“Puisque la pluie symbolise l'humeur des caractères, et est une métaphore pour les horreurs ils confrontent”), there's a whole bunch of gratuitous nudity (“Puisque seulement un Américain voudrait porter des vêtements toute l'heure”), and there's a particular way the French worship fucktarded American movies (“Puisque ce qui est assez bon pour Godard et Truffaut devrait être assez bon pour n'importe quel Français raisonnable”) that no one else could ever—or would ever want to—pull off. This is why France rules. They're not that great at soccer (this year) or war, but boy is their idea of a good American movie gloriously weird.

That's how the single stupidest cliché in cinema, the serial killer, is elevated from crippling handicap (seriously, there are a total of two good movies ever made about serial killers: Silence of the Lambs, and Se7en. That's it, end of debate. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was a good movie but it's in a different category, title notwithstanding) to, amazingly, an asset. Because David Cage is French. The spin on stuff—the forensic procedural part of the plot with the FBI agent has him collecting fingerprints and DNA and shit, but doing so with a futuristic pair of sunglasses that gives him a Terminator-style computer readout of the info, for example—makes otherwise stale material fresh.

Another (not exclusively, although they do this quite well) French asset in Heavy Rain is that a lot of the dramatic elements are carried to extremes only a nation of largely atheist Catholic intellectuals could imagine. The main character, Ethan Mars (note also, weird nomenclature with an utterly non sequitur reference to a Howard Hawks movie) is, at the beginning of the game, a happily married architect with two cheerful, rambunctious sons. Before you even figure out how the controls work, however, Ethan loses one of his sons in a crowded mall and then watches as he's hit by a car and killed. Cut to montage of rainfall, urban squalor, grim-faced people with rain on their faces, over the credits. Two years later, Ethan is divorced, unshaven, depressed, late picking his surviving son up from school. Ethan's also going to a shrink and experiencing weird blackouts, during which he has no idea what he's doing. During one of these blackouts, his surviving son disappears. Could it be the “Origami Killer”?

We're then introduced to asthmatic, low-rent private investigator Scott Shelby (modeled after and voiced by the guy who played the cop in the Clive Owen/Vincent Cassel disappointment Derailed) and FBI profiler/possessor of awesome gadgets Norman Jayden, who is (barely) hiding an addiction to fictional drug Triptocane, aptly named in that its effects seem to split the difference between LSD and cocaine. Here be more Frenchness: layered characters, even if those layers are fucking stupid.

As Scott, you go around collecting evidence on behalf (you claim) of the victims' families. As Norman, you collect evidence, butt heads with the local PD (whose lone avatars are a violent, rule-averse sociopathic prick and a preening political lizard captain) and every five minutes or so have to wade through withdrawal-induced hallucinations where you have to decide whether or not to get high.

A ways into the narrative, for no apparent reason, Madison Paige, an extremely attractive female character, is introduced (more Frenchness: they do love ze byootifal wooman) who, two seconds after you gain control of her, you can actually have her go take a shower, where you can actually get her naked, and where she stays and luxuriates for quite some time.

Her purpose in the grand scheme of things remains mysterious almost until the end, where she's revealed to be an investigative journalist. This does nothing to make her seem less redundant or dispel any of those “Is she only in this game to show tit . . .?” questions you inevitably ask yourself, but she is extremely attractive. She's curvy in a way that's kind of a naturalistic version of an anime fetish object (this is, after all a video game, and a video game designed by French people), is very pretty, and in the lowest blow of all, she has short hair and rides a motorcycle, leaving me in the awkward position of being like, “No, she absolutely belongs in this game! She's not superfluous at all! In fact, Madison's boards are my favorite boards in the game, and it's not even because of the gratuitous nudity!” and leaving myself open to the customary facepalms and accusations of pubic cognition that trail me everywhere I go.

Ethan is given a series of increasingly brutal tasks by the Origami Killer to demonstrate how far he'll go to save his son (who is being held in a storm drain; with all the rain, he'll drown in a couple days if Ethan fucks up), and each time he passes the test, he gets more of the address where his son is being held, so if you pass with full marks you get the complete address. Since these tasks are so brutal (in one, Ethan has to crawl on his hands and knees through broken glass and then navigate a labyrinth of live high voltage electrical wires; in another he has to chop off one of his own fingers, Yakuza-style) Ethan is pretty fucked up afterward, leaving Madison, who just happens to have checked into the same motel as Ethan because she has some kind of insomnia that only lets her sleep in motels (which is so fucking stupid I'm almost impressed), to nurse him to health, bandage his wounds, develop a crush on him, and eventually, as Ice-T so poignantly phrased it, get butt naked and fuck. If you choose to.

That's another much-hyped aspect to Heavy Rain, the ability to affect the narrative by making choices. Like, you can decide as Scott to intervene when the convenience store where you're buying your asthma inhaler gets robbed. You can decide, as Norman, to get high or not (though if you get high every time you have a chance, as I of course did the first time through, you OD before solving the case), you can decide to keep your clothes on or not as Madison, and you can decide whether or not to chop your finger off as Ethan. Among many many other choices. Generally, though, the choices are between “Are you an unobservant, lazy, unscrupulous shithead?” and “Are you aware, alert, and a non-shithead?” except in the case of Madison and her tits, where your choices are “Do you like tits?” and “Wait, what the fuck is wrong with you, everybody likes tits.”

You can fuck up and get killed as any of the four playable characters. One of them is the Origami Killer. There are all kinds of stupid heavy-handed hints early on that it's Ethan, but since the first rule of whodunits is, it's never the obvious culprit, we know it's not Ethan. Even though Norman is otherworldly and a drug addict, he fights with the killer at one point, so it's not him. And since during that fight, Norman didn't get smacked in the face with a bare tit, the killer isn't Madison. And since Scott is in the other room when the nice old pawnshop geezer gets killed by the Origami Killer, and since a whole bunch of Scott's inner monologues, his own thoughts, with no one else listening in or anything, express surprise at turns the case is taking, it can't be Scott.

Except . . . it is Scott. This is the one narrative flaw that I can't write off to French people being aliens. Playing through the game subsequent to having Scott be unmasked as the killer, you can see how his actions can be interpreted as him gathering up all the evidence that he's the Origami Killer to have it be destroyed. His wild goose chase subplot where he's “convinced” that some zonked rich kid is the Origami Killer comes out of nowhere. Falling for the hooker (whose son he fucking killed) is weird. The montage where you're shown how it is that, in spite of saving babies and showing genuine kindness and stuff, he's the killer kind of reminds me of the episode where Nikki and Paulo were killed on Lost, where there are all these scenes from things that happened seasons 1 and 2 where they were retrofitted into the scenes as if they'd actually been there the first time around. No. They weren't there. It didn't happen like that, just because the writer(s) decided it did.

Oddly enough, I would have been fine with Scott's backstory—having to watch his twin brother die because his father was a putz—if it was what had motivated him to be a PI. Except he isn't really a PI, he's an ex-cop who's a fucking serial killer. Goddammit man.

Still, even the sub-Shyalamanic twist of having Scott be the killer doesn't negate the genuine entertainment to be found in Heavy Rain. And, in spite of what all the critics (and its creator) said, it doesn't fuck up the experience going through a second time. Even though David Cage said, in an interview:
“I would like people to play it once…because that’s life. Life you can only play once...I would like people to have this experience that way. . . I'm fine with [reloading to avoid a bad result], but the right way to enjoy Heavy Rain is really to make one thing because it's going to be your story. It's going to be unique to you. It's really the story you decided to write . . . I think playing it several times is also a way to kill the magic of it.”
he nonetheless made a game that withstands multiple replays. Maybe this is just where he and I differ. I like exploring all the different possibilities arising from one moral (or otherwise) choice. I tried once through where all the good guys were either dead or in jail and the kid died; that one had an interesting denouement, because I'd forgotten to let the hooker die and she ended up blowing Scott's brains out right before the closing credits.

The disappointment of the killer's identity notwithstanding, Heavy Rain is a massive achievement. Not because it's some kind of revolutionary video game (which it's not), but because it is the single most French thing ever created. It sounds better in theory than it is in reality. It's kind of pretentious. There are tits. It's basically a ten-hour serial killer movie where the audience is, to varying degrees, both star and director, and that's the beret on top of this particular croissant. There is nothing more French than imputing aesthetic and cultural value to the most unaesthetic and culturally devoid movies in America. Not to give CPR to a dead cliché, but Jerry Lewis is a case in point.

It'll be interesting to see if video game developers follow on the path of Heavy Rain, and how much narrative becomes a part of video games, and whether the increasing sophistication of hardware leads to increased sophistication of content. One thing we don't have to speculate about, though: there is a movie adaptation of Heavy Rain in the works, due for release in 2012. It remains to be seen whether something whose cinematic value is largely that it isn't cinema will work as cinema. I'm thinking . . . nuh uh. Or, no, now that I think of it . . . something that post-modern could totally work. In French.

You're welcome.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

BOOK TO FILM: MERYL STREEP'S 9TH OSCAR NOMINATION

It's Meryl Streep's birthday today. Meryl Streep, at this point, is such a force of nature that to be a fan or not a fan is completely beside the point. She IS, very profoundly; it's entirely possible that there has never been a more critically acclaimed actor in cinema—De Niro's critical peak was shorter and now distinctly historic, ditto Brando, and if you're comparing her to other women, for everyone who raved about Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis, there was someone else complaining about lockjaw New England accents and stiff bearing, or alternatively, baroque overkill.

It was a pleasant surprise when, in her 50s, Meryl Streep went from being the go-to actor for Serious Films that no one ever saw featuring Strong Women Dealing With Life-or-Death Crises (even though no one ever saw them, she always got Oscar nominations for them) to being an enormously successful box office attraction, headlining pictures like The Devil Wears Prada or Wore Prada or whatever the fuck it was called (it was well-made but all I remember about it was the scene where Anne Hathaway gets her hands on the as-yet-unpublished Harry Potter book) and Mamma Mia! and movies where she gets to nail Alec Baldwin.

Because I have always had and will always have better things to do than watch the twenty-five movies in a row where Meryl played a single mother with cancer in the Holocaust, I found myself extremely pleased when she gave making movies that didn't—like The Hours, for example—induce a deep longing for whiskey, Seconal, and razorblades a shot. Not because she'd never tried it before 2005, but because she had once, gloriously: 1990's Postcards From the Edge.

Postcards From the Edge was not Meryl's only attempt at something non-depressing, but the others (She-Devil, The River Wild) sucked. Postcards From the Edge does not suck. Au contraire, my friends, Postcards From the Edge is tremendous. It's based on Carrie Fisher's (semi-autobiographical at the very least) novel about an actress who, after some early success, gets fucked up on drugs, overdoses, and tries to put her life back together.

The novel jumps around between first and third person, and formally replicates the protagonist's frame of mind and pharmacological dependence: the prologue consists of glib, jittery, babbling postcards (from the edge), wherein heroine Suzanne is out of her mind on drugs.

Then she OD's, and part two, in rehab, is fatigued, reflective, self-critical, and alternates between Suzanne's point of view and that of a TV writer named Alex with a raging cocaine problem and nary a shred of self-awareness about it, juxtaposing the perspective of an addict who has hit bottom and realizes it (Suzanne) with a guy who “can do coke socially” (Alex). Eventually, Alex develops a crush on Suzanne that she remains unaware of until she laughs about “he would be the kind of guy I attract,” and he leaves rehab and goes nucking futs on coke, eventually checking himself back into rehab to get serious.

Part three follows a woman we eventually realize to be Suzanne in a brief affair with an endlessly talkative (just like her), infinitely horny movie producer through their conversations with each other and with their shrinks (because it was the 80s). They eventually break up, and part on reasonably good terms, though they'll probably never see each other again.

The remainder of the book is narrated in a more conventional third-person style, as Suzanne has re-gained control of her mind if not her professional and dating lives. A more conventional prose style does not infer boredom, though—Suzanne's dating and work adventures are engagingly told, and when she finds stable romance with a novelist by the end of the book, one feels genuinely happy (and relieved), even though because of the progression from ticking nuclear drug and drama bomb to stable mature adult IS, by nature, less interesting, the ultimate resolution of the book is more a pleased sigh than a fist-pumping “fuck yeah.” All in all, great fucking book, especially for a first novel.

It is, however, an apparently unfilmable one. So much of what makes the book interesting are the things about it that are specifically prose; Suzanne's actual narrative, an actress dealing with the dark side of fame, has been done before. This didn't stop Mike Nichols from having a go at it. Carrie Fisher adapted the novel herself, and by necessity ended up with a movie about something completely different from the book. Where the book charts Suzanne's journey to sanity, the movie follows her in her attempts to repair her relationship with her movie star mother.

And that is where the movie shines. Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine both cut loose and kick ass all over the place in this movie. Then again, everyone does. One of the cool things about being Mike Nichols is that you can get whoever the fuck you want to be in your movie, so if he wants Gene Hackman to play the director of the movie Meryl almost sinks by OD'ing, he gets Gene Hackman. If he wants Dennis Quaid to play the (heavily altered) horndog producer character, he gets Dennis Quaid. And so on.

The movie opens with a long tracking shot from the movie-within-a-movie (shades of Day For Night), revealed to be such only when Meryl hilariously fucks up a line at the end. Gene Hackman is understanding, until Meryl goes into her trailer to do some blow, at which point he blows up (zing!) and threatens to fire her if she doesn't get her shit together.

Then she's in bed with Dennis Quaid. He wakes up and starts talking, til he realizes she needs to get to a hospital, where he takes her.

Dennis Quaid: I'm dropping someone off.
Nurse: I'm sorry?
Dennis Quaid: I'm DROPPING someone OFF.
Nurse: I'm sorry, sir—
Dennis Quaid: Is this the emergency room?
Nurse: Well, yes—
Dennis Quaid: WELL THIS IS AN EMERGENCY!!!
It loses something in translation; Dennis Quaid is brilliantly head-up-his-ass southern Californian in this scene, which makes all that that much funnier.

Meryl wakes up in rehab, where a cliché-spouting CCH Pounder tries to get her to toe the whole 12-step rehab lines, and where, when Shirley MacLaine visits, her gay fellow rehab patients talk to Meryl for the sole reason of getting to meet her mother.

Which gets that plotline off to a flying start. Shirley MacLaine refuses to see Meryl as anything other than an extension of herself, and is constantly giving Meryl advice about her career that would lead to Meryl following directly in her (mother's) exact footsteps. Meryl, meanwhile, is faced with the paradox of yearning for normality (i.e. a life outside showbiz) and not knowing anything other than the bizarre bubble world of Hollywood she grew up in.

When Meryl gets out of rehab, she gets a movie gig, but because of her drug history, the producers will only let her be in the movie if she lives with a responsible adult: her mother. Meryl hits the fucking roof at this suggestion, but ultimately the desire to keep working wins out, and she sucks it up.

The movie shoot follows the corresponding sequence in the novel fairly closely: on the first day of a low-budget picture where she plays a lady cop, Meryl gets notes from the director and three of the producers that she's “not having fun” and “holding something back.” Meryl, understandably, is like, “Um, it's my first fucking day, dude, and I just got outta rehab, how about cutting me some slack so I don't end up back there.” The day climaxes with Meryl, in a rear-projection shot where it looks like she's hanging off a building, shrugging, in one of the funniest shots in the movie.

On her way home, she runs into Dennis Quaid, whom she doesn't remember at first. He, though, remembers her, and clearly still wants to have sexual intercourse with her (in the Biblical sense). Even he, though, plays into her mother issues by flirting back when she comes on like, “Hey, there, handsome, is that a drug problem and a solipsistic sense of entitlement in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?” Dennis Quaid wins Meryl over two ways: one, by being hot (in the 80s, he was about as hot as it got, you'll recall) and two by oh so sincerely murmuring things to her about how much he likes her, interpolated with all kinds of poetic stuff. Meryl falls for it (probably mostly because he was hot) and they shtup epically.

The next day at work, though, Meryl's co-star (Michael Ontkean) makes a crack about another sexual partner of Dennis Quaid's, so Meryl goes to track her (Annette Bening) down. In girl-talking with her, Meryl learns that Dennis Quaid fucked her and Annette Bening on the same day. I mean, as a guy I wholeheartedly support the idea of sleeping with 40ish Meryl Streep and 30ish Annette Bening, but both of 'em in one day is just greedy.

Meryl, pissed, goes over to his place, and they have probably the most awesome couple fight ever:

Man, Meryl Streep fucking rules. I love that scene.

So, after that, Meryl goes home and Shirley MacLaine tells her her manager has absconded with all her money, and the two of them get into a massive fucking argument about Shirley MacLaine's alcoholism and the effect it had on Meryl's upbringing. Shirley MacLaine denies all wrongdoing, and Meryl storms out to go overdub her lines from the movie at the beginning of the movie, and angrily pounds some drugs, that she makes herself throw back up.

Meryl and Gene Hackman have a great scene after Meryl nails the line, where he tells her that now she's clean, he's got lots more work for her. Meryl leaves happy, only to find that her mother crashed her car into a tree driving drunk.

They reconcile in the hospital, where Meryl runs into the doctor (Richard Dreyfuss) who pumped her stomach. They flirt, and he asks her if she wants to go to a movie, and she suggests Valley of the Dolls (a good reference not only because of the whole starlets-on-drugs business but because it was one of Richard Dreyfuss' first roles) but tells him she's not quite ready just yet.

The closing sequence has Meryl, working on a new movie by Gene Hackman, where she sings this awesome Shel Silverstein song, backed by this tight country band. It's great because the song's so fuckin good, but holy shit . . . Meryl Streep can sing. The earlier scene where she warbles out “You Don't Know Me” was dwarfed by Shirley MacLaine immediately jumping in and doing “I'm Still Here,” which is partly because Sondheim beats rock, paper, or scissors, but also to highlight Meryl's being uncomfortable with the show tunes that made her mother a star. (Strong choice, Meryl, strong choice).

As an adaptation, Postcards From the Edge works for the same reason most book-to-movie adaptations do: the recognition that books and movies are two separate things, and the ability to then successfully translate the bookish things about the book into movieish movie equivalents. It also helps to have the best available talent, and the entire cast explodes in this. The first time, or the first couple times, you see Postcards From the Edge, you're like, wow Shirley MacLaine is awesome in this (at the time there was a ton of fuss about how it was her triumphant comeback, and it certainly did eradicate her 80s status as a punchline for her unfortunate public discussion of reincarnation and other flaky shit) and she is. No question. But once you get to that third time (and, like, me, the fourth through fifteenth or so times) you realize, fuck me Meryl Streep is great in this. Scroll back up and watch that scene with Dennis Quaid again. Now scroll back down here. That's good thesping, that. Yeah, the script is great, yeah Dennis Quaid is awesome, but Meryl holds it the fuck down in that scene.

Happy birthday, Meryl Streep. I know you'd probably think I was a nekulturny shithead if you were aware I existed, but I think you're just swell.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

THE THING WITH THE GUY IN THE PLACE

The first decade of the 21st century will be remembered for a lot of things cinematically—massive budgets, remakes, sequels, filmmaking by casting/marketing calculus; not that any of these things weren't clearly on the horizon or already in place in the 90s, but they became inexorable facts of nature in the 00s—perhaps most notably the discovery that any tentpole series becomes untenable past the third installment. Thus, the trilogy: the Matrix trilogy, the Star Wars prequel trilogy, the Pirates of the Caribbean thing that finally made Johnny Depp Scrooge McDuck rich, Spider-Man, Bourne, et cetera. I've already written about the first two, will never write about the third, probably never the fourth, and definitely will cover the fifth at some point. Today, however, we talk about my (improbable?) favorite of the bunch, the Ocean's series.

All three pictures had really big budgets (mostly actors' salaries), the first one was a remake, they had movie stars out the ying yang, and by those criteria should be the kind of thing I use as a straw man in a glass-of-whiskey-in-hand bellicose soliloquy of doom. And yet.

A big budget isn't inherently a bad thing, as long as you're not wasting money. Assembling a cast of movie stars costs money, as does shooting on location in Vegas. The first one was actually fairly economical, featuring no fewer than four actors with eight-figure rates yet costing “only” $80 mil. Considering that it grossed like $500 mil worldwide, that's not a bad cost-to-profit ratio.

Remakes, too, are not inherently bad things, provided that there's a reason to remake the original picture. I submit that an interesting yet flawed movie is the perfect candidate to be remade, and the original Ocean's Eleven fit that bill perfectly. It was made as a vehicle for the Rat Pack, and its Vegas-themed plot was probably thought up by Frank, Dino, Sammy, and company (or on their behalf) as an excuse to get fucked up in Vegas for a few weeks, since that's what they'd be doing anyway even without a movie. The story was twisty, contained an unfortunate downer when Richard Conte dropped dead (the only time it was okay for Richard Conte to get killed was when he was Barzini, and even then you're more like “holy shit Michael Corleone is cold” rather than “hey, fun”) and ends without them getting away with the money.

When it was announced that Steven Soderbergh was directing a remake, the bunch of Rat Pack purists I was drinking with at the time were all scandalized. “How dare anyone meddle with perfection?” said they. “Uh, Ocean's Eleven sucks,” said I. “Fuck you,” said they. “Fuck you,” said I. And so forth. But from the start I was optimistic. Partly because I've always been a Steven Soderbergh fan, since before I even knew what a director did (and because Out of Sight proved fucking A that man can direct a movie star picture) and partly because, I'll admit, I'm a sucker for the right movie star. George Clooney? No defense. Brad Pitt? Even less. Julia Roberts? She seems so nice. Matt Damon? Hell, I'd let him bust my balls about being a Yankee fan. Andy Garcia? Andy Garcia was in The fucking Untouchables, okay? Bernie Mac, Don Cheadle, Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner . . . okay, now you're cheating with the character actors. I love character actors even more than movie stars, but both at once is like a shot and a beer.

It occurred to me in one of my more solipsistic moments that the Ocean's movies could have been made for me personally (actually, in that—very high—moment while watching Ocean's Twelve, it occurred to me that they were made for me personally, but that's one of the reasons I don't do the weed anymore). And that's the perfect blockbuster, something that makes you and tens of millions of other people all feel like it was made just for you. And that's why I surrender to Hollywood and say “Well played, old chap, you take this round; my artsy-fartsy little crypto-French auteur pictures that I want to make will show you someday,” and Hollywood twirls its moustache at me and ripostes “Foolish Earthling, Steven Soderbergh makes artsy-fartsy little crypto-French auteur pictures and he works for us now . . . mwahahahahahahahahaha!”

So then, the trilogy:


Eleven

Danny Ocean (George Clooney; and yes, I am enough of a dork/homo that George Clooney playing a character named Danny makes me all blushy and “oh, stop”) gets released from prison and paroled, under the condition that he engage in no criminal acts. Clooney keeps quiet and immediately goes to bother blackjack dealer Frank Catton (Bernie Mac) at work to ask him where Brad Pitt is, and Bernie's like, “Uh oh, I know what this means, a job is afoot.” Which indeed it is.

Clooney finds a bored and frustrated Brad teaching a bunch of TV actors (playing themselves) how to play cards. Clooney hustles the actors out of a few hundred in pocket change and pitches Brad on the idea—we're gonna rip off three Vegas casinos. Brad is vaguely nonplussed, and pieces it together that they're Terry Benedict's (Andy Garcia's) places.

Clooney: You think he'll mind?
Brad: More than somewhat.
See, the observant student of history will note (as Elliott Gould later does) that ripping off a Vegas casino has a fairly high difficulty curve. But observant cineastes will note that fucking with Andy Garcia is fucking retarded. However, observant scholars of masculinity will note that fucking retarded acts are both what make us men and furthermore are awesome, which Brad realizes as he assents (the $150 million is but icing on the cake). He does insist that Clooney exercise some caution, and recruit a large crew—

“—running a combination of cons. Off the top of my head, I'd say you're looking at a Boesky, a Jim Brown, a Miss Daisy, two Jethros, and a Leon Spinks, not to mention the biggest Ella Fitzgerald . . . ever.” (Ed. Note: Brad admits on the commentary track “I have no idea what I'm talking about right there.”)
And the first stage of the picture is given over to the assembly of the crew. First, finance. Here we run into what at first appears to be a plot hole, to wit: in order to rip off $150 million from a Vegas casino, you probably need to spend a massive amount of money in order to do the job right. Two important points obliterate this argument: first, that it's not about the money (it's about revenge, partly, but mostly because a very important element of the male psyche is doing something because you can, and when added with the adrenaline rush attendant to doing something totally fucking retarded, you have a win-win-win situation) and second, what do you, not want to watch a movie about a bunch of guys ripping of a Vegas casino? Fuck off back to your documentaries about soybean farming.

Elliott Gould, as rich guy Ruben Tishkoff, who “owes” Clooney and Brad from “the thing with the guy in the place” (a debt that can, of course, never properly be repaid) is awesome, and reminds our intrepid antiheroes that no one ever successfully ripped off a Vegas casino (in a monologue told in three hilarious flashbacks) before assuring them:

You guys are pros. The best. I'm sure you can make it out of the casino. Of course, lest we forget, once you're out the front door, you're still in the middle of the fucking desert!
Clooney and Brad pretend to be chastened and head out, before “accidentally” letting it slip that it's Andy Garcia that they're planning to rip off. Since Andy Garcia muscled Elliott Gould out of Vegas, torpedoed his casinos, and other assorted rudeness, Elliott Gould immediately signs on.

With funding, the most important element, in place, they assemble the rest of the crew. Bernie Mac is already in (to infiltrate as a dealer), so they need to recruit someone who knows how to blow shit up (Don Cheadle, sporting a goofball Mockney accent and a lot of rhyming slang) a con man who's “the best . . . [he's] in Cooperstown” (Carl Reiner, who you better fucking believe is in Cooperstown), two rednecks to cause disturbances (C-Fleck and Scott Caan, who somehow manage to never be annoying in a majestic feat of thespianism), an electronics guy (Eddie Jemison, a movie star due to the fact that he made it through Schizopolis with a straight face), a “grease man” (acrobat Shaobo Qin), and because “you think we need one more? Okay, we'll get one more,” Matt Damon, an ace pickpocket who's the son of an operator Clooney and Brad know and respect.

The team now recruited, we head to Vegas and Clooney lays out the specifics of the plan. Here, another major criticism of the movie, that its central premise is horseshit: Vegas casinos are not required to keep enough cash on hand to cover every bet in play. They keep as little cash around as possible precisely so a bunch of assholes don't show up and rip them off. There's no getting around this fact. However, the kind of person who points such things out probably gets a boner telling kids there's no Santa Claus, which of course means by the transitive property that if you care that the central premise of Ocean's Eleven is bullshit, you're a sadistic pedophile. Glad to help!

Once in Vegas, banter ensues as our merry band of rogues prepares to ram it to Andy Garcia. In the course of preparation, Brad Pitt discovers Clooney's real motivation: Andy Garcia is shtupping Julia Roberts. Julia Roberts is Clooney's ex-wife. Danny Ocean is making it personal, instead of keeping it strictly business. Clooney tries to convince Brad that his primary motivation is the money (and testicular grandeur, naturally) but Brad gets worried and 86s Clooney from his own plan, installing nervous novice Matt Damon in his place. But it turns out that was all just a pretense to get Matt Damon's mind on the job, and he passes the test with flying colors.

The actual heist is incredibly elaborate, really well filmed and edited, total edge-of-your-seat stuff with very few—if any—elements that induce “get the fuck out of here” facepalms. It of course resolves with Ocean's eleven making off with over $150 million, and Andy Garcia accidentally confessing his love of money is greater than his love of Julia Roberts over closed-circuit TV, which means not only does Clooney get the money, he also gets the girl. Which, ultimately, is why one does anything.

Ocean's Eleven, however ambiguous the ending, wherein it's made clear that Andy Garcia's guys are following Clooney and Julia Roberts, is nonetheless about as perfect a Hollywood movie as you can get in this day and age. The one false note is, sadly, Julia Roberts. She's a little clunky with the banter, and the shot where Matt Damon goes “This is just the best part of my day,” where she's walking through the lobby of the hotel isn't as dazzling as it should be. Because the reason Julia Roberts became a movie star in the first place was because she was kind of endearingly awkward, and the part she plays here requires an old-fashioned movie star, not her new-school version. That being said, she's not bad (she certainly doesn't fuck anything up), she's just not perfect like everything else.


Twelve

So. How to follow up a perfect Hollywood movie, one of the five best remakes ever, a massive hit, and a story with a clear resolution; what are they gonna do, rob Andy Garcia again? Initially, Clooney and Soderbergh were like, no way we're doing a sequel. They went off and said, hey, we remade Ocean's Eleven, that worked, let's go remake a Tarkovsky picture! I was one of about three people who liked their Solaris, but we were also about half the people who bought tickets to it. It was also pretty expensive, even for a relatively inexpensive SF picture, so when it flopped, Clooney looked at Soderbergh and said, “Hey, remember that crack I made a couple years ago about making Ocean's Twelve? Well . . . um . . . we kinda need to make some money.”

Soderbergh was cranky. He wanted to do little experimental pictures like Bubble and big experimental pictures like The Good German. So he bought a spec heist script George Nolfi had written with the intent of selling to John Woo and had Nolfi rewrite it for the Ocean's ensemble. A large reason for picking that particular script was so they could shoot in Europe so Clooney could hang out at his place in Italy and so Brad had easy access to Amsterdam to see how much weed he could smoke before they had to CG out the red from his eyes. In this regard—the reluctance, so many symptoms of creative laziness—it was shaping up to be a typical sequel.

Except another facet of Soderbergh's crankiness was “if the fucking studio system won't permit me, fiscally, to direct the experimental pictures I want to, I'm going to shove an experimental picture up their fucking ass on their dime.” Which is why Ocean's Twelve is one of the most underrated Hollywood movies ever made. It takes the theme from Eleven about the heist not necessarily being the whole picture and runs with it, resulting in a “heist” movie where the crew is foiled in their first heist, pulls a minor second one out of pique, and all get thrown in jail while pulling the main one. They never profit from any of the jobs (and most of them, hilariously, already blew most of their profit from the first movie, and Brad's actually about $12 mil in debt).

On one level, Twelve actually is what all the critics accused it of being: an excuse for the cast to get together, hang out in Europe, and get paid a shitload of money for it. But, check this out: the movie itself is the heist. None of them really wanted to do a sequel for any reason other than getting to hang out together—the original Rat Pack 1960 one was made as an excuse for the cast to hang out, you'll recall—so, why not blatantly make that the raison d'etre behind the sequel, and soak Warner Bros for another $110 mil? Soderbergh gets to fuck around with his non-linear structure and kind of-sort of remake Full Frontal for a hundred times the budget, Clooney gets to hang out at his house, Brad gets to smoke the whole cast up all the time, people like Vincent Cassel and Jeroen Krabbe get to make some Hollywood bank, and in spite of all that it's still fun to watch (my one caveat is that it doesn't get good til the second viewing; the first time I saw it I fuckin hated it).

The plot: Andy Garcia has found Ocean's eleven (him going around and dropping in on the crew serves as the intro this time) and is giving them a deadline to pay back what they stole. The crew, now that word is out about the Vegas job, is “too hot” to work anywhere in sweet home Estados Unidos, and so their only option is to go to Amsterdam (yeah, it's contrived, but I don't give a fuck).

In Amsterdam, Robbie Coltrane gives them a job, in a scene where he, Clooney, and Brad speak in non sequiturs, and poor Matt Damon, not knowing what the hell is going on, recites the first verse of “Kashmir” only to have Clooney and Brad pull him outside and tell him that he mortally insulted Robbie Coltrane's 7-year-old niece. Clooney and Brad go back in and “smooth things out” and the job turns out to be for a mere fraction of their debt to Andy Garcia, which leads to a bit of disgruntled banter and speaking in code to troll Matt Damon (trolling Matt Damon is probably the second-most prominent plot thread in the movie) before they get down to work ripping off agoraphobic antiques collector Jeroen Krabbe.

HOWEVA, when they do, they find an mp3 player with a message on it from a trash-talking Frenchman who identifies himself as the “Night Fox” and leaves a small fox figurine as a memento. They find out that this Night Fox is basically the European version of them: ballsy, slick, fucking amazingly talented, with an Old World hint of mysticism about him. And guess who the world's leading expert on the Night Fox is? Brad's old girlfriend, Europol agent Catherine Zeta-Jones!

Yep, just like Clooney in the first picture, Brad arranges the job so he can cherchez his femme. And yes, normally ripping off the same idea as the first movie for the sequel is stupid, but here it's not, for one simple reason: Catherine Zeta-Jones is fucking staggeringly beautiful.

Just LOOK AT HER. Oh my God that scene in Traffic where she goes “Get out of the car, and shoot him in the head!” That scene in Entrapment where she's slinking through the laser field in that vinyl catsuit! (Both of which are relevant here: the Soderbergh connection from Traffic, and the scene in Entrapment is homaged later. No shit.) Catherine. Just like Sean Connery said when he gave her her Oscar for Chicago. “Catherine.” All true penitents, genuflect now.

Anyway. So yeah, the point is, even Brad Pitt is like, “Man, I shouldn'ta let that one get away” and launches his convoluted plan to get her back. Which is “complicated” by the fact that the Night Fox (Vincent Cassel) contacts the crew to inform them that the reason he ripped off Jeroen Krabbe before they could get to it was because some American asshole (played by producer Jerry Weintraub) told the Night Fox's mentor, Lemarcq (the greatest thief in the world) that the Ocean's crew had pulled off the greatest job of all time. Vincent Cassel is not happy with the idea that anyone could be considered better than him, and so he proposes that they prove who's the best by both setting out to steal the same thing, a priceless Faberge egg that Lemarcq once stole but his wife made him give back. Clooney's like “what the fuck is this shit? Not only is this asshole living in my house [Vincent Cassel's Lake Como pad in the movie is Clooney's IRL] but this is the dumbest fucking idea ever.” Only when Vincent Cassel offers to pay off the debt to Andy Garcia if Clooney et al manage to get the egg first does Clooney say, okay.

While they plan the job, they have to assume Vincent Cassel is watching/listening/some combination thereof at all times, so they're a little limited. They contact Eddie Izzard (ah, Eddie Izzard . . . words cannot express how much you rule) to make them a holographic version of the egg, and they fuck around and half of them get arrested by Catherine, leaving Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, and Scott Caan the only ones on the outside. They meet, and Matt Damon tries to call the proceedings to order, prompting a line from Scott Caan that (for personal reasons) I absolutely love:

“Who died and made you Danny?”
Once they sort out the chain of command, Matt Damon comes up with an idea. Danny Ocean's wife Tess has, previously, had it said “Have you ever noticed she looks like . . .?” before someone cuts in and goes “Yeah, but she hates it when you say that” or some such. Matt Damon decides to use the fact that she looks like _____ _______ to their advantage, so they fly Tess to Italy.

Whereupon they call the hotel and tell them that Julia Roberts is arriving. Yes. Julia Roberts, as Tess Ocean, is pretending to be Julia Roberts for the con. You have no idea how fucking happy this makes me. A Hollywood movie that cost $110 million, and they decided to break the Guinness world record for meta. Can I get a hell yes?

Julia/Tess/Julia lands in Rome and has Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, and Scott Caan pelt her with trivia they've heard about “Julia Roberts,” and she has second thoughts.

Julia/Tess/Julia: It's just wrong!
Matt Damon: You mean . . . morally?
(That last, by the way, is the finest moment of Matt Damon's acting career.)

Then, complication arrives in the person of Bruce Willis, playing a decidedly chick-crazy and skeptical version of himself. Julia/Tess/Julia manages to keep the charade going just enough to get everyone to the museum, where it's been arranged for “Julia Roberts” to view the Faberge egg under Catherine's vehement protests. But Catherine's watching over the security camera and sees them swipe the egg, so she swoops in and blows up Julia/Tess/Julia's spot by asking for an autograph that Tess signs with the wrong hand, revealing her to not be Julia. Bruce Willis, thoroughly impressed, tries to pick Catherine up as our heroes are led out in handcuffs, though she's having none of it (despite being determined to lock him up forever, her heart belongs only to Brad).

An American fed (Cherry Jones) turns up to interrogate the crew, starting with Matt Damon. She gets him to “rat” everyone out . . . only to reveal in the cop car on the way out that she's his mom! Leading to the second-finest moment of Matt Damon's acting career:

“You told dad?”
BAHAHAHAHAHAHA! So Cherry Jones hustles everyone off the cops' radar, and Catherine (having been fired for falsifying her paperwork) follows in hot pursuit, only to find Brad waiting by a Learjet. He tells her her father (a thief she's long presumed dead, the reason she became a cop) is still alive and waiting for her. She gets on the plane with him.

Cut to Clooney and Julia dropping in on Vincent Cassel. Clooney asks him, “How'd you do it?” and Vincent Cassel answers, well, I snuck past your surveillance team (C-Fleck and Scott Caan, bickering and not noticing anything) to get into the museum. Clooney's like . . . okay, that makes sense. But how the fuck did you get past the laser field in the great hall (i.e. the reason Clooney and company didn't break in themselves)?

Vincent Cassel's answer: I put on my headphones, bumped some French hip-hop, and did capoeira through the randomly moving lasers. Observe. (Yes, that's Vincent Cassel doing his own dubbing into French. He actually, before he got big, was famous in France for dubbing Hugh Grant, in an irrelevant but mildly amusing aside.)

Now, a lot of people thought that scene was stupid. Those people can eat a dick. That scene is fucking awesome. Not only is it awesome, not only does Vincent Cassel's little Gene Kelly kick at the end of the thing put the perfect capper of “even though I don't have an audience, I nonetheless feel the need to show how effortless that was” on the proceedings . . . it's a fucking homage to Entrapment! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!! Of all the movies you never thought you'd see an homage to. Entrapment. Oh, man. If I ever meet Steven Soderbergh and/or Vincent Cassel, they're getting a big hug for this scene.

So, after all that, Clooney says to him, “So pay me my money.” Vincent Cassel goes, no, you don't get it, fils d'une putain américaine, that's if you won. You lost. Clooney just folds his arms and smiles his “I'm a bigger movie star than you are, junior” smile. And Vincent Cassel realizes, shit, he's a bigger movie star than I am. And we flash back to Clooney and Brad meeting with Lemarcq like five seconds after they found out who the Night Fox was. Lemarcq tells them that Vincent Cassel is going to propose a wager over the egg, so they have to steal it first (and naturally, give it to Lemarcq, who having stolen it first is the rightful owner, of course). And so we see that the whole fucking thing where they move the egg on a truck with a motorcade is a smokescreen and the way the egg really moves is some French hipster with a backpack taking the train. Matt Damon, carrying an identical backpack, gets on the train and sits close by. Clooney and Scott Caan stage a fight (over wearing Yankees and Red Sox hats, a scene that, hilariously, was shot a day or two after the Yankees and Red Sox had a bench-clearing brawl in real life) and Matt Damon swipes the egg, replacing it with a replica, that was the item Vincent Cassel stole. Devastated, Vincent Cassel kicks them out.

Cut back to Brad (who has the egg) and Catherine. They're arriving at a friend of Brad's place.

Catherine: What's his name?
Brad: I don't know, actually. I've only ever known him as [dramatic pause] Lemarcq.
And Catherine's like holy shit. Because Lemarcq is her father. This whole thing was about Brad reuniting Catherine with her father so they could reconcile; the fact that she'd naturally be grateful and fall back in love with Brad as a result is of secondary importance at best. Now, a lot of people felt ripped off when they realized that this was the whole point of the movie, that the whole picture, in fact, was one giant con, on several different metatextual levels. Not me. As a serious intellectual and a committed troll, that kind of thing is a fucking Christmas present for me.

So we all live happily ever after. Long live Ocean's Twelve!


Thirteen

Once again, Clooney and Soderbergh had a flop (The Good German) trying to be all artsy, so once again they said, “Fuck, is this the only thing either of us knows how to make that'll make money?” This time they went about things slightly differently. For one, no one aside from me, my mom, Bryan Enk, and the odd person I meet every couple years or so actually liked Ocean's Twelve, so they decided to make Thirteen as an apology to all those dullards, killjoys, and all manner of other civilians who squinted, bucktoothed, and whined “I don't get it” when they watched Twelve.

Thirteen's good too (though it's not as good as Catherine Hardwicke's Thirteen, a whole different brand of vodka, to paraphrase Clooney in Eleven) but it has more than a few signs of Advanced Sequel Retardation (recycled tropes, a lot of the characters being in the movie just because they were in the first two, a total betrayal of everything awesome about Vincent Cassel in Twelve, etc etc). It's entertaining, but unlike the first two, it has no claim to be anything other than fluff. Not that there's anything wrong with fluff. (See what I did there? I recycled an old joke, from Seinfeld. And it wasn't funny. The prosecution against unnecessary sequels rests.)

The story concerns nouveaux riche fuckface Al Pacino (clearly enjoying himself) screwing over Elliott Gould in a business deal, causing Elliott Gould to have a heart attack, and the crew to drop everything and reunite by his hospital bed. And, of course, plot revenge against Al Pacino by ripping off his brand-new, state-of-the-art casino. That is, of course, impossible to rip off. Unless, of course, you can fake an earthquake and sneak a magnet into the CPU that runs all the security systems in the place, and rig every game in the place so that they can win non-stop for however long it takes until the computer reboots. Which, of course, costs a lot of money. Thus, inevitably, they have to go, hat in hand to Andy Garcia to help.

Everything progresses with a crisp, economical pace, partly because Julia and Catherine were too busy to show up and do annoying cameos as the girl trying to talk the guy out of doing WHAT MEN MUST DO (Ocean's Thirteen was written by the guys who wrote Rounders, saved from being the worst Annoying Girlfriend movie of all time solely by Matt Damon not ending up with Gretchen Mol at the end; allegedly Gretchen Mol's whole character in that was due to Harvey Weinstein telling them “write a part for Gretchen Mol because I'm fucking her” and them reluctantly agreeing and “inadvertently” turning her into the most annoying pointless character of all time . . . this is just what I heard, it might not be true, but if it is, that makes the absence of girlfriends resonate a bit . . .) Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin are both fun, though Ellen Barkin looks like she ended up on the wrong end of a plastic surgery accident at some point (this actually makes the subplot where Matt Damon seduces her to get access to some room where something they have to steal is a little sad).

It ends exactly like it should, with Al Pacino in disgrace, Elliott Gould avenged, and our protagonists very rich. The very last scene is a nice touch—David Paymer, having played a hotel critic whom our heroes tormented so he'd pan Al Pacino's hotel, takes Brad's advice that he play a particular slot machine in the airport that Brad just rigged and wins an eight-figure jackpot. And so, despite a lot of lazy shit and a whole lotta jokey-jokes, Ocean's Thirteen caps off the trilogy with some goodwill.

Despite its flaws, I think the Ocean's trilogy is something Hollywood can (and should) learn from. They're proof that movie star pictures don't have to be fucktarded, don't need all kinds of ginormous special effects, and that you can fuck around and make an art picture that still functions as a movie star picture. The first, at least, is as good a heist picture as you're ever going to see (I mean, it pales in comparison to The Killing or Reservoir Dogs, but so does every other heist picture ever made), the sequel is just fucking beautiful, and the third one is the single best unnecessary sequel ever made (narrowly edging Lethal Weapon 4). And it can all be summed up by the following exchange between Al Pacino and Clooney:

Al Pacino: This town might have changed, but not me. I know people highly invested in my survival, and they are people who really know how to hurt in ways you can't even imagine.
Clooney: Well, I know all the guys that you'd hire to come after me, and they like me better than you.
That's the Ocean's gang in a nutshell. They know everyone, everyone knows them and everyone likes them. You know. Movie stars.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

LOVING CUP

In honor of Sly's upcoming picture The Expendables
—and the 2010 World Cup, today we discuss Victory (aka Escape to Victory outside the US). A late-period John Huston picture, a middle-period Michael Caine picture, and a way way early Sly picture (he'd only done the first two Rockys and Nighthawks at that point, not even any Rambos yet), Victory is one of those movies that stacks the deck against itself by doing a lot of really dumb and lazy things and yet still ends up being a lot of fun.

As cool as John Huston, Michael Caine, and Sly can be separately, the meeting of these three particular minds are not the main attraction in Victory. Coming as it did at the tail-end of the last time America briefly tried to get into association football, a very respectable roster of real-life footballers were cast—Bobby Moore, captain of the fabled 1966 England World Cup champions; Argentine Osvaldo Ardiles, member of the 1978 World Cup champion side; spectacularly talented Polish midfielder Kazimerz Deyna; Belgian Paul Van Himst; a whole bunch of dudes from the then-successful Ipswich Town F.C.; and, last but certainly not least, arguably the most talented but inarguably the most stylish player in the history of the sport, Edison Arantes do Nascimento, nom de guerre Pelé. Watching these dudes ball is the coolest thing about Victory, and the editing is skillful enough that the actors don't get too embarrassed (Michael Caine actually looks pretty good, but boy, if Sly was in goal in a real game with actual players, his side would get fucked by like 12).

The plot is pretty simple. It's WWII. A bunch of guys in a POW camp get roped into playing an exhibition game against a Nazi all-star squad. Michael Caine, who had played for West Ham before the war, assumes the role of player-manager, and dumbass American POW Sly tries to get on the team, except he's so fucking bad they want nothing to do with him. Also, for some reason, this POW camp has the highest all-time great footballer/regular guy ratio like ever, so their team kinda fucking rules, to the point where the Germans have to cheat and deliberately injure them to stay in the game. Meanwhile, nice-guy Nazi camp commandant Max von Sydow (for real? The nice-guy Nazi? Again? Fucking the only thing that's missing is when Sly makes contact with the French Resistance he doesn't meet a hooker with a heart of gold and a lovable scamp of an orphan) is a man of culture and honor and a fanatic football fan, and cuts the footballers slack whenever he can, most notably when a trainload of emaciated dudes show up from a really fucked up Ukranian camp, and Michael Caine and Sly say “they're on our team” even though they can barely walk, because the guys on the team get hot meals and blankets and stuff.

Sly gets his way onto the team because he's been in contact with the French Resistance (who want to bust everyone out at halftime of the big game), and so they break the arm of the actually good goalkeeper and Sly miraculously gets to the point where he can actually stop the occasional goal. They thus go into the match, only to find that the Nazis are cheating like motherfuckers and have the refs totally on their side. At this point, our heroes all collectively go “hey, wait, we're all international football stars, these assholes are just a bunch of fucking Nazis.” They create a strategy every bit as revolutionary as the beautiful “Total Football” introduced by the Dutch international side in the 70s, this one revolutionary in its simplicity. I call it “Totally Rad Football,” since it consists entirely of lobbing passes over the middle for Pelé to do slow-motion bicycle kicks (taking advantage of the Nazis being so racist that they don't want to get anywhere near a black guy, thus giving him the space to do a bicycle kick) and plays where the keeper gives Pelé the ball right at the box and then Pelé dribbles the ball the length of the field, weaving in and out of the entire Nazi defense, and concluding with Pelé blasting a goal past the final hapless Nazi dipshit. It's basically the equivalent of the offense the Cavs have been running the past few years with Lebron: give Lebron the basketball, get out video camera, do Zen exercise to prevent skull from exploding.

It's not really a spoiler to say the good guys win the game in the end of Victory. I mean, look at the fucking team they're rolling out on the field. Even a past-his-prime Pelé was a bad motherfucker (when he joined the New York Cosmos in the 70s he—and to a slightly lesser extent, fellow gods Carlos Alberto, Franz Beckenbauer, and Giorgio Chinaglia—was good enough to make Americans briefly care about soccer, no mean feat), not to mention the other dudes on the team. The Nazis had to cheat to have any kind of advantage. However, the fact that they stuck around to finish the game when La Resistance was going to break them out at halftime kind of is, but everyone went so apeshit when they won that they were able to escape anyway, with a smiling Max von Sydow tacitly giving permission.

Speaking of which, let us now address the two main flaws with this movie, both listed in the above paragraph:


What the fuck is wrong with these assholes? La Resistance went to all that trouble to break them out at halftime. Do you really want to waste the one time a French person made a plan that actually worked?

Well. This is a tricky question, because it doesn't have an answer that's backed up by logic or reason, but it does nonetheless have an irrefutable answer. Why did they stick around to finish the game and risk getting chucked back in the POW camp? BECAUSE THAT IS HOW MEN DO THINGS. Men do things the hard way because occasionally, as a man, you need to flex your nuts, do something really fucking stupid, get away with it, and spend the rest of your life raising a pint and telling your friends “Remember when [feat of testicular grandeur] happened? That fuckin' ruled.” BECAUSE THIS IS THE WAY OF MEN. And anyway, Sly was the one cookin' up the plan with La Resistance, and he looked so fuckin' stupid in a beret with his shirt on (a travesty he soon corrected with the Rambo cycle) that one can hardly be faulted for doubting him.


Seriously, what the fuck is it with movies and the so-called “good Nazi?” This archetype is yucky, apocryphal, and lets a bunch of pussies who wouldn't openly stand up for what was right off the hook.

This is a much better question. Now and then there are stories about cats who would subvert from within (if Tom Cruise's Valkyrie thing actually existed—which I firmly deny; that movie was an acid flashback I had while watching the History Channel—it would count as one of these) and who were kind of all right. I always take those with a big grain of salt; actually, of all people, Quentin Tarantino nailed the reality of the “Good Nazi” in Inglourious Basterds—when Christoph Waltz gives up Hitler and the whole high command to Brad Pitt and BJ Novak, his motivations are so oily, and he himself is revealed to be such a fucking choad about it that the ends (truth, justice, American way, et al) do not justify the means (some Nazi cunt backstabbing his friends). If you were such a good guy, when Adolf and company came to you and said, “Hey, we want you to be a Nazi, and if you don't go for it we'll fucking kill you,” you would reply, “Kill me then, you swine, for yours is not a world in which I care to live,” BECAUSE THAT IS HOW MEN so on and so forth. Unfair? Sure, dying probably sucks, but when your only other choice is being a Nazi, it's the only acceptable option.

Now, with all that being said, the logical follow-up question is, “Why are you letting Victory and Max von Sydow off the hook, considering that this is one of the dumbest examples of the Good Nazi character in the history of cinema?” The answer is the Max von Sydow Corollary, to wit: Max von Sydow is so awesome he can get away with literally anything. One of the things about the Hollywood New Wave of the 70s was that all the young egomaniac cokeheads running around with cameras all had a great respect for European cinema, and Max von Sydow was one of the icons of same.

When Americans started bringing him over here to be in movies, it was almost like Max von Sydow told them, “Give me only the dumbest, most underwritten roles. Give me the generic European villain. Cast me as an ethnicity only Helen Keller could think I really was. No matter what the difficulty curve, I will fucking own that shit because I am fucking Max von Sydow. I played chess with Death. Recognize, mortals.” This theory is borne out by his role in Three Days of the Condor, where he shows up, says like two words the whole movie, the only explanation of who he is is like two lines about “the Alsatian gentleman” (an awesome character name, by the by), lets Robert Redford live almost as a fuck you, and splits. And holy FUCK is Max von Sydow awesome in Three Days of the Condor. It's all him. None of it is in the script.

For a more modern example, take Minority Report. Minority Report is a damn fine entertainment and an SF movie to be reckoned with, although it completely derails in the third act, but it does have one weird touch—Max von Sydow plays a government bureaucrat named Lamar Burgess. Now, you might think, hmm, a government bureaucrat named Lamar Burgess, that sounds like a Fred Dalton Thompson part . . . wow, did Max von Sydow learn how to do a Southern accent? Well, maybe, if his accent was southern Sweden. Yeah, Max von Sydow is swaggering around that whole fuckin' picture not even bothering to pretend to be an American, which turns out to be an exercise in Hollywood semiotics much like in The Fugitive, with the Euro accent being the signifier of villainy. Did it matter? Hell no. As stated above, Max von Sydow can do whatever the fuck he wants and he's still awesome. He's so awesome he was fucking married to Barbara Hershey in Hannah and Her Sisters, back when Barbara Hershey was one of the two or three hottest women who ever existed. He was sullen, and old, but still so fuckin' cool that she doesn't even leave him til like the end of the picture.

Which brings us to Victory. Max von Sydow is the one person in the universe who can get away with this dumb “oh, I'm from the old aristocracy, and I'm cultured, but man I love football and through my love of football I'll be revealed to be an all right guy” character, whose entire sympathy shroud unravels if you start pulling at the “Yeah, but what about all that 'Wir messen die Juden auschrotten' business?” thread. His ability to pull this role off has nothing to do with moral justification. It has to do with being Max von fucking Sydow. I like to think he took this role because it was so stupid. And maybe so he could hang out on set while all those awesome football scenes were being shot.

Other movies to watch in the agonizing hours between World Cup matches:

Mean Machine, Vinnie Jones' football remake of handegg classic The Longest Yard.

Bend it Like Beckham, which is cute and fun and has pretty girls in it.

Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos, for the real-life story of arguably the most talent-loaded team in the history of sports.

Offside, about a bunch of Iranian girls who get thrown in jail for trying to watch football (not as much of a bummer as it sounds).

Rudo y Cursi, for your Gael García Bernal/Diego Luna/Alfonso & Carlos Cuarón fix.


All right, y'all. Time to get back to Australia/Germany, and figure out how the fuck we drew with England yesterday (that goal the English keeper let in . . . wow . . .) I leave you with this:

Friday, June 11, 2010

"I'M 48 YEARS OLD!"



I'll get back to my customary tl;dr natterings in a few days, but in the meantime, this is just too good not to post. Namaste, byetches.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

ARE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOTBALLLLLL??????

I present you, stolen fresh from Slate, this bit of magic from Alejandro González Iñárritu (Ed. note: click on the video to actually watch it, since I'm too dumb to embed properly):



MAY THE WORLD CUP BEGIN!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

YOU KNOW WHAT OL' JACK BURTON ALWAYS SAYS AT A TIME LIKE THIS . . .


. . . ol' Jack always says . . . "What the hell."