Thursday, September 30, 2010

COMING ATTRACTIONS: DELIGHT AND CONFUSION

The fine folks at tor.com have been kind enough to hire me to follow The Hollywood Reporter's Twitter feed and find stuff to geek out about (which is to say, what I do anyway), with this fine piece of concise snark being the first of hopefully many. I'm very pleased with this situation, and charmed by the extremely nice way they asked me to get by with "50% less swear words." Out of gratitude, I countered with an offer to do without them at all. Because I don't fucking need to curse.

Now, onto that hazy, poorly-defined, less interesting part of the world that isn't all about me: this weekend, this comes out:

It may be a while before I get to actually see it, but I'm extremely interested to see what David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin have managed to with this. Not to put too fine a point on it, but when I first heard someone was making a movie about Facebook, I reacted about the same as I did when I heard that Ridley Scott was making a movie out of Monopoly: "What the fuck are you talking about? If you're kidding, that's not funny, and if you're not kidding, I wish to acquire surplus Russian nuclear warheads."

The punchline is, people are coming back from screenings comparing this picture to fucking Citizen Kane, and calling it and the Colin Firth thing where he plays George VI the two Oscar frontrunners. Now I've been hangin' around this here Internet for a long time, long enough to know how to spot a troll a mile away. And I wouldn't put it past someone like [name of group redacted] who hang out on [name of messageboard redacted], the most popular board on [name of website redacted] (Ed. Note: redactions mandated due to Rules 1&2 of the Internet; if you don't know what they are, look them up. Behind seven proxies) to have cooked this up, much like they did the Scientology protests, in a diverting bit of IRL trolling. But no. These people talking up The Social Network are fucking serious. Voices as diverse as Roger Ebert and my old buddy Hudak are united in bestowing four stars (out of four) on it. So there's that.

I, personally, am in shock that this movie exists. What makes this startup different from all other startups? I'm going to go in to see it with an open mind, and fully willing to accept it as good. But seriously. You didn't make the Scooby-Doo "who farted" face the first time you heard this movie was good? You be lyin', byetch.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

THE ONLY TRUE CURRENCY IN THIS BANKRUPT WORLD IS WHAT YOU SHARE WITH SOMEONE ELSE WHEN YOU'RE UNCOOL


The title is my favorite line from a movie that dropped ten years ago this month, Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous. Based on a variety of experiences Crowe had as a teenager in the 70s writing for Rolling Stone, Almost Famous is only partly about what it's about. The story, yes, follows a kid who bullshits his way into a freelance gig at Rolling Stone and goes on tour with a band, but it's not about the rock 'n' roll scene, it's about, as Fairuza Balk's “Band Aid” character puts it, “truly [loving] some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much it hurts.” Almost Famous is, ultimately, about its sincerity and being unafraid to look uncool.

This was why, upon its release, most of the negative reviews gave Cameron Crowe shit for not putting in enough scenes where everyone sat around wearing sunglasses and shooting heroin or some such bullshit. If you'll recall, September of 2000 was a very low point in music. Rock 'n' roll was on life support, and what few rock stars were left were not a whole lot of fun: the last paradigm shift in American rock 'n' roll, the largely media-created Seattle thing circa 1991-2 (one of the major cultural artifacts of which was Cameron Crowe's own Singles), had established the role of the modern rock star as a sensitive, humorlessly progressive mumbler (see Vedder, Eddie). Drugs were taken, if at all, in moderation—and even when a Kurt Cobain came along to keep the proud tradition of heroin addiction alive, he fucked everything up by being genuinely tortured instead of milking minor emotional slights to make cheesy, lighter-in-the-air ballads. The British had a pop music renaissance in the mid-90s but only produced one good God Almighty coked-out-of-their-scrotum rock 'n' roll band—Oasis—and they went full retard on their third album, before breaking up for the first of about thirty times and ceasing to make epic rock 'n' roll. It was thus that a considerable number of American music fans began to turn nostalgia for the 70s into a fetish: the days when Led Zeppelin made groupies fuck sharks, Keith Richards got busted for heroin every week, Rod Stewart gave so many blowjobs he had to have his stomach pumped, et cetera (Ed. Note: none of those things actually happened). Making a movie about rock 'n' roll, set in the 70s, was thus expected to be wall-to-wall sex and drugs, and Cameron Crowe not delivering on everyone's grimiest fantasies was considered to be an artistic and moral shortcoming; Almost Famous bombed at the box office and was treated condescendingly at best by the hipper, more pretentious critics (though their mainstream, square counterparts all dug it).

This is a failure of criticism of any kind, and a very common one—blaming the work in question (movie, or play, or book, or album, or video game, etc etc) for not being what the critic wants it to be, rather than evaluating what it is. Movies about music are really asking for it from critics—people who love movies can be total jagoffs about their favorite movies (ahem), but the hundred most obnoxiously sanctimonious subjective opinions declared to be objective fact have all been about music. These two loci of masturbatory douchiness collide and form the perfect storm of being an asshole. I, clearly, have forgotten to duct-tape my windows (so to speak), and I'm digressing.

The reason I get so bent out of shape about people knocking Almost Famous for somehow lacking balls because it wasn't just three hours of people doing drugs and fucking is that it is much, much harder to be sincere that it is to be cool. I would maintain that Almost Famous has more balls for not succumbing to the temptation to throw tits and lines of coke all over the place. It's a story about the Cameron Crowe character (Patrick Fugit) managing to keep his sincere, innocent love for music despite the best attempts of musicians to make him a bitter old cynical bastard (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Love for music has no objective connection to tits and cocaine.

Fittingly enough, the movie opens with the event that made Patrick Fugit—as a little kid—a music lover. His sister (Zooey Deschanel before she was Zooey Deschanel), tiring of the ascetic, kooky leftie lifestyle enforced by mom Frances McDormand (who is ridiculously good in this), leaves home to be an airline stewardess, and leaves her records with her brother. Records like Pet Sounds and Blue are found therein (the collection he leafs through are Cameron Crowe's own from when he was that age).

Fast forward a few years and Patrick Fugit is an earnest nerd who listens to a radio interview with legendary critic and editor Lester Bangs (the above-mentioned bitter old cynical bastard P.S. Hoffman) where Bangs spouts off about how the Doors suck and how he likes The Guess Who more because they aren't as pretentious and about how Iggy Pop rules. Fugit senses a kindred spirit and sends writing samples to PSH/Bangs, who sees some promise and sends Fugit off with some cynical, pragmatic advice to go review a Black Sabbath concert. However, the advice is all he gives Fugit; the kid has no ticket or backstage pass or anything. It is here that he meets a group of young women who share his love of music, but whose love of musicians is a bit more, shall we say, tangible: the “Band-Aids.”

Care is taken to differentiate the Band-Aids (Fairuza Balk, Anna Paquin, Bijou Phillips, and Kate Hudson) from the stereotype of the groupie. In this story, which is about the love of music, theirs is but another way to show that love. Sure, they go on tour with rock stars, get high with rock stars, and fuck rock stars, but their claim that it's about the music is not disingenuous. The way Fairuza Balk bellows that stupid Robert Plant “Does anyone remember laughter?” line, you know she means it. (Almost Famous embraces the apparent contradiction of recognizing how ridiculous rock 'n' roll can be while at the same time loving it unconditionally).

Though his meeting the Band-Aids will prove fortuitous (and result in falling head over heels for Kate Hudson), Fugit still isn't allowed backstage without a pass or ticket until opening act Stillwater shows up, massively late. Fugit, desperate, compliments the band on a song of theirs. The band, won over by his enthusiasm and eloquence, invites him backstage as their guest.

Fugit's eyes get wide as he befriends both Band-Aid Penny Lane (Kate Hudson in, it must be said, a deliriously overrated performance) and Stillwater guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup). He ends up turning in a piece on Stillwater to PSH, who gets worried and warns him about the dangers of getting seduced by the cool.

However, his piece on Stillwater brings Fugit to the attention of Rolling Stone, whose editor hires him to do a piece on Stillwater for them. The catch is, they don't know he's only 15, because Fugit took the liberty of bullshitting them so they'd take him more seriously. Whoops. Frances McDormand lets him go with extreme reluctance, and so young Fugit joins the circus.

The band is a bit uneasy about having Fugit around. Singer Jason Lee calls him “the enemy” while simultaneously going off on hilariously vacuous self-important rock star monologues that he, on some level, hopes Fugit will transcribe and make him look cool. (Even the cool people in this movie aren't cool). Billy Crudup is much more diplomatic with the kid, but still resists all Fugit's efforts to sit down with him and do a proper interview.

The tour unfolds with gentle emphasis on the drudgery of it all (and one hilarious scene where Frances McDormand starts lecturing Billy Crudup over the phone and eventually concludes by giving the speechless Crudup an inspirational quote from Goethe and telling him “I'm glad we talked”). Gradually we see some internal band conflicts come to the surface. Most rock 'n' roll bands worth their salt have tension between the singer and the guitarist, but Stillwater's problem is relatively novel: this time it's the guitarist who's the good-looking one and gets all the attention and the chicks, and it's the singer who's jealous.

Tensions come to a head in Kansas when the band take delivery of a few boxes of t-shirts with their likenesses on the front. Except Billy Crudup is the only one in focus, and he's massively larger compared to the rest of the band. Jason Lee, as a cursory review of his other roles will attest, does not suffer slights quietly, and the band has a big screaming shitfit that concludes with Billy Crudup storming off in a huff looking for something or someone “real.” Fugit, half looking for something interesting to write about and half looking to protect him, follows Billy Crudup.

They end up at a house party thrown by a bunch of high school kids who are all like, “Whoa, shit, a portmanteau of Jimmy Page, Duane Allman, Peter Frampton, Glenn Frey and Allen Collins just showed up at my house, far out.” Billy Crudup happily accepts a tab of acid and proceeds to very urgently tell the kids at the party how real they are, in a way that bizarrely reminds me of the way John Turturro carries on about “the common man” in Barton Fink, except the kids don't pull a John Goodman and start fucking up his trip by bellowing about the life of the mind, they offer to let Billy Crudup watch a snake eat a mouse. Patrick Fugit, in a panic, calls up Stillwater's manager and asks him what to expect from someone on acid.

“I AM A GOLDEN GOD!” —Billy Crudup, on the roof of the house (haha he's peaking while standing on the peak of the roof . . . haha . . . ha . . . coughcough)
Well, that solves that mystery. Billy Crudup, convinced this is his last night on earth, tells Fugit to record his last words for posterity (the final candidates are “I'm on drugs!” and “I dig music”) before splashing unceremoniously into the swimming pool. Stillwater's manager arrives to throw a blanket around the half-naked, shivering, extremely embarrassed Billy Crudup and shleps him onto the tour bus, promising the kids a return to Topeka on the next tour.

Then, another scene a lot of people rolled their eyes at that I will defend to the death. Largely due to that weird scene in Magnolia where everyone sings the Aimee Mann song, people were walking around rolling their eyes when Almost Famous came out and saying “God, every movie has a scene where everyone sings some song, God, it's so tired.” These people, of course, can suck my dick. Two movies are not every movie. The other thing is, the scene in Almost Famous is an illustration of the movie's central theme: love of music. It does so perfectly, in that it uses a song that is both extremely uncool and magically fucking good: “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John. Let the record reflect that I have slow-danced in a bar to “Tiny Dancer,” I have made amends with previously antagonistic colleagues to “Tiny Dancer,” and by God, I have had sex to “Tiny Dancer.” My relationship with this song is not unique. It's just one of those songs. Everyone—except Elton fans—has the same progression with it:

Curiosity—“Hey, this song is awesome, who is this?”
Shock—“This is Elton John?”
Denial—“Get the fuck out of here, it can't be Elton John, this is actually good.”
Acceptance—“God damn . . . this song is really good.”
Nirvana—“Hey, did we just spontaneously start having sex because this song is so awesome? We did? Wow, this song rules.”
It's true. You can make fun of me all you like; I'll just give you the finger.

The way the scene unfolds is especially nice. Everyone's sitting there goofing on Billy Crudup, then someone starts singing the song. Then another voice joins in. Then another. Eventually everyone's singing, a way of being like, “Hey, man, we have our differences, but we love you. Join us.” And right at the best fucking part of the whole song, Billy starts wailing along with everyone else. Game, set, match, Crowe: music brings people together. Conclusive proof.

But all this harmony will, inevitably, be short-lived. A new manager comes in, played by an unrecognizable (because he doesn't suck) Jimmy Fallon, to introduce a more professional influence into the band's midst. He gives them all a proto-yuppie speech about the industry being a business and blah blah blah and, in one of Cameron Crowe's cutesy little reminders that he's telling this story 25+ years after the fact, drops the priceless line “If you think Mick Jagger will still be out there trying to be a rock star at age fifty, then you are sadly, sadly mistaken.” See, you know Mick is still a rock star at age 67, I know Mick is still a rock star at 67, but Jimmy Fallon doesn't. Because he's a dipshit! Bahahahahaha! Don't forget to tip your waitress!

There's another complication: Kate Hudson, who is—contrary to her own best instincts—deeply in love with Billy Crudup, has to leave the tour before his actual girlfriend shows up. Billy Crudup, looking to appear cool in a poker game with the road managers of several popular bands, starts flexing his nuts and “bets” Kate Hudson, losing her kind of sort of on purpose. Fugit, who witnesses this, is disgusted, and tells Kate Hudson (who he's madly in love with). She's devastated and welches on the deal to go with the band to follow Stillwater to New York.

This, of course, ends badly. Kate Hudson confronts Billy Crudup, who pretends not to know her. She goes back to her hotel to OD, but Fugit saves her. In gratitude, she tells him her real name that she never tells anyone.

Fugit returns to the tour, and their plane (a sign they've hit the big time and are going to be on the cover of Rolling Stone) promptly hits shitty weather and it looks like, in grand rock star tradition, they're all about to die in a plane crash. This prompts a round of truth-telling: Jason Lee confesses he fucked Billy Crudup's “real” girlfriend (who's there with them), and Billy Crudup gets all indignant, and Jason Lee is all like “you were the one fuckin around with that groupie [Kate Hudson] for the whole tour!” at which point Fugit jumps in, outraged, and lectures them about the shitty way they treat their biggest fans, concluding with a passionate declaration of his love for Kate Hudson. This shocks everyone speechless, then the drummer, in his only line in the movie, chimes in:

“Fuck it . . . I'm gay!”
At which point the turbulence immediately ends and everything's fine.

Fugit leaves the tour in San Francisco, and Billy Crudup tells Fugit to write whatever he wants. Fugit turns in a piece to Rolling Stone that acquiesces to the band's desire to “make us look cool” (there's that yearning again . . .) but that the editors consider weak and sycophantic. Fugit asks Phil Hoffman for advice, which is “be honest and unmerciful.” Since he's still stratospherically pissed about the way Billy Crudup treated Kate Hudson, Fugit tears the band a new asshole, putting in every last embarrassing (but true) detail. This is more what Rolling Stone is looking for. Unfortunately, during their fact-checking process, the band flatly denies everything, putting Fugit in the shitter. He runs into his sister, now a stewardess, living the dream, and, dejected, Fugit heads home to San Diego.

Fairuza Balk runs into a guilty Billy Crudup in Miami, and piles on some more guilt telling him about Kate Hudson's OD and so forth, and how Fugit saved her, and about how shitty it was that the band dogged Fugit like that. Crudup, looking to fix things, calls up Kate Hudson and asks for her address so he can visit and fix everything by saying I'm sorry or something retarded. Kate Hudson plays a trick on him, giving him Fugit's address instead.

Billy Crudup shows up to a flabbergasted Zooey Deschanel, a gently scolding and weirdly awkwardly star-struck Frances McDormand (man she's good in this; the character's well-written and everything but she knocks it outta the fuckin park), and one pissed off Fugit. Crudup explains that he's called Rolling Stone and told them the truth, so Fugit's piece is going to run, and expresses remorse for mistreating Kate Hudson. By way of accepting, Fugit sits him down and finally does the interview he's been trying to get for the whole movie.

Fugit: “What do you love about music?”
Crudup: “To begin with . . . everything.”

And there's your movie, right there. Sappy, perhaps, but unabashedly sincere. Unafraid to seem uncool. Yet, somehow, through the sincerity and the passion that comes with it, all the cooler for being uncool.

Cameron Crowe's critical legacy has suffered a bit in the last ten years due to having directed Vanilla Sky, which started off kind of promising, then stumbled around the beginning of act two and faceplanted at the beginning of act three, and Elizabethtown, which had no such promise and sucked start to finish. Fortunately, he will always have the script to Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which is amazingly good. As a director, he'll always have the iconic John Cusack/boombox/Peter Gabriel moment, as well as the underrated Jerry Maguire (underrated primarily because all anyone remembers is the scene where Cuba hollers “Show me the money!” over and over, and they forget that it's actually a really well-constructed story about Tom Cruise's self-discovery, and that Tom Cruise is really good in it). And Almost Famous.

One wonders whether Almost Famous wouldn't have been a bigger hit if Brad Pitt—for whom Cameron Crowe wrote the Billy Crudup part—had agreed to do it. Then again, Brad's been in a flop or two his own self (remember, Fight Club didn't turn a profit til DVD) and he dropped out of the movie because he didn't get the character or the movie, so it was probably all for the best. Instead, the movie ended up with no stars, no desire whatsoever to appear cool, and no hobbits or lasers. It did, however, find a second life on DVD and cable, so all was not lost, and Cameron Crowe won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (the classic consolation prize Oscar).

Kate Hudson's performance, which owed most of its acclaim to a well-written part and Crowe's camera being in love with her, did not take home a statue, thus sparing the Academy the indignity of having to hear the words “Academy Award winner Kate Hudson” in the trailer for How To Confuse Matthew McConaughey with Josh Lucas in 10 Days.

Patrick Fugit caught some shit for his ponderous line readings—and he certainly hasn't done much since—but in this picture he's exactly the right nerd for the job (maybe because he grew up with people teasing him by pronouncing his name “fuck it” . . . trust me, as someone whose name is uncomfortably close to “bozo” I feel the cat's pain).

Almost Famous is not in any danger of being forgotten. It doesn't quite fit the usual definition of “overlooked gem,” what with the Oscar and the omnipresence on cable there for a few years. On its tenth anniversary, all I'm saying is let's celebrate a picture that isn't lighting its pants on fire trying to be cool. Let's hail the (regrettably rare) proverbial good “write what you know” picture. Fuck it, let's celebrate music. Hold me closer, tiny dancer. Lay me down in sheets of linen. You had a busy day today.

(Ed. Note: Fuck you, that song is awesome)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

YOU MADE THE RAIN BLACK



Sir Ridley Scott has won wild praise over the course of his 30+ year career, mainly for a handful of the most visually stunning pictures anyone's ever seen. The bulk of the praise—deservedly—goes to Alien, Blade Runner, and to a lesser extent Gladiator (which has far more detractors than the other two, but don't front, in 2000 Gladiator gave your eyes a hard-on too). Sir Ridley has made his share of shitty movies, to be sure, but everything he's ever done looks really cool, and unlike some hit-or-miss directors, his career isn't divided into “awesome” and “crap.” There are tiers to his career. There are straight-up masterpieces like Alien and Blade Runner. There are pictures like Gladiator that fall just a hair short due to minor foibles (in Gladiator's case, overlength, multiple climaxes, and an extremely polarizing Joaquin Phoenix performance, itself related to another foible, brazen fictionalizing of real-life characters). There are a few other substrata, then there are the shit-tastic complete failures like his Christopher Columbus and Robin Hood movies and G.I. Jane.

At the level just beneath Gladiator, in the “very good but with one or two glaring fuckups” category is the 1989 Michael Douglas cop vehicle Black Rain. There is a lot of very important data to unpack in that description, to wit:

“1989”: Unironic mullets, hideous ties, lots and lots of smoking, and a lot of what now comes off as quaint, primitive culture shock.

“Michael Douglas”: There will be bad hair (it's not quite a mullet, but it's close), mediocre but intense acting, and absolutely every other character in the movie will be told to go fuck themselves at least five times. And, of course, there will be Michael Douglas Face, that unique and wonderful facial expression—captured here in elegantly framed medium closeup—that foretells intense anger and an incipient sloppy attempt to kick ass. Fortunately in Black Rain, the occasionally disturbing psycho-sexual (sexual psycho?) component to Michael Douglas Face (see Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, Disclosure) is absent.

“Cop vehicle”: A genre that operated under many hard and fast rules, among which—the hero MUST be divorced, MUST have a drinking problem and at least one other self-destructive habit (in Michael Douglas' case, gambling on himself in outlaw motorcycle races underneath the FDR Drive), he MUST be in trouble with Internal Affairs, and he must be just racist enough that it's not implausible that he get over it by the end of the movie.
Most movies' attitude toward police is stunning when you stop to think about it: the hero is always some wild renegade fuckup, and he's venerated for being under the influence (or at the very least, after effects) of controlled substances at work. Internal Affairs are invariably portrayed as needle-dick killjoy assholes who exist only to keep the “hero” from “doing it his way” to bring the bad guys down. This started, as with the entire cop movie genre, in Dirty Harry, when Four-Eyes tells Clint they have to let the killer go because Clint violated procedure. While you're clearly supposed to sympathize with Clint here, you're also not being told that he's right; procedures are the way they are to protect the innocent, not impede the cops' ability to catch the guilty. Dirty Harry was a 70s movie. The fact that Clint's way was unacceptable to the PD wasn't a sign that the PD was wrong, just an indication of Clint's alienation from it and from civilized society in general. Remember, he throws his badge in the water after he lights up Scorpio at the end. Sequels notwithstanding, Clint's ass was gone off the force at the end of that picture, and he accepted it as reality. That little detail—you know, the fucking climax of the movie—got lost in all the subsequent ripoffs.

All the above being said, and true, Black Rain needn't bear the burden of 80s cop cinema's collective sins. Michael Douglas is not portrayed as a particularly good, or even nice, guy (this is a widely repeated complaint about the movie). Also, he doesn't necessarily get away with everything at the end: even though (I got your fuckin spoiler alert hangin right here) Michael Douglas skates with the Japanese cops at the end, you still get the distinct impression that Internal Affairs will be waiting for him when he gets off the plane in New York, stroking boners and assuring our rule-breaking antihero that there will be no lube.

The final complaint, in re: plotting, is that the story's still a little murky. There's this whole business with this Japanese lady who might be a hooker in a sequin dress that lasts most of the movie, but it's never made clear who she is, whose side she's on, and indeed whether or not she committed the murder in the nightclub. This is but a trifle, as eventually it's kind of explained. Sufficiently for this movie, anyway.

Now, on to why Black Rain rules fucking ass: like the rest of Sir Ridley's pictures, Black Rain is stunning visually, and is all the more enjoyable for looking cool for the sake of looking cool. In nearly every single scene, there's steam rising from something or other. There's lots of flashing neon. Dudes bust out swords. Actually . . . fuck, Ridley visually reps his entire career to date in this!

The Duellists—dudes with swords; Michael Douglas has a pissed-off expression on his face the whole picture just like Harvey Keitel.
Alien—Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia are trapped on a long aircraft ride with a monster (Sato).
Blade Runner—steam, neon, Asian people, the odd slow-mo shot for no apparent reason (not employed to as cool effect in Black Rain, alas)
Legend—largely crappy reviews
Someone to Watch Over Me—the first few minutes of Black Rain make Queens look non-shitty. just like in STWOM, proof in itself of Sir Ridley's nonpareil mastery of cinema's visual potential.
Michael Douglas is introduced to the audience, over the first few scenes, as a loner motorcycle enthusiast, adrenaline junkie gambler, divorced dad, friend and partner of slick-dressing sharpster Andy Garcia, and target of an Internal Affairs investigation (and, like he would in Basic Instinct, he has an apartment with a view so awesome that it's no wonder IA's wondering how he's paying the rent). His inability to restrain himself from going off on the IA dudes leads Michael Douglas to join Andy Garcia for a liquid lunch.

Michael Douglas happens to be drinking his lunch at the same restaurant where a bunch of Mafia guys are breaking bread with some Japanese businessmen. Several other Japanese guys enter with machine guns, accompanying a tall, charismatic dude with a nasty growl and a nightmare-inducing stare. This is Sato. He is very bad indeed, and demonstrates this by knifing one of the Japanese guys in the heart, slitting the other's throat, and absconding with a mysterious box the elder Japanese guy had with him.

A shootout and foot chase through the Meatpacking District ensues. Why the Meatpacking District? Because cobblestone streets look cool and there are a lot of manholes for Sir Ridley to shoot steam up through, which also looks cool. Not to mention, when Michael Douglas chases Sato into a meat locker, you can see their breath, and there are all those big swinging pieces of meat. After Andy Garcia comes up with his gun at just the right moment, our heroes bust Sato.

Because at this point in the plot it's necessary to relocate to Japan, the Japanese embassy puts pressure on the State Department, and through the bureaucratic law of fecal gravity, Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia are tasked with bringing Sato back to Japan, where he's done many worse things than knifing a couple dudes in broad daylight. Thinking Sato doesn't speak English, Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia talk freely, revealing their deep bond of friendship, which trumps even Andy Garcia's disapproval of the corruption in which Michael Douglas is ensnared. Sato hears all, and files it away for later.

Sato then turns the table on our protagonists, having some guys from his crew show up at the airport pretending to be cops. Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia, not knowing any better, turn him over. This, naturally, pisses off the real cops, who are about to send their dumb asses back to America before Michael Douglas manages to truculently convince them to stay and aid in the attempt to recapture Sato. The Osaka fuzz assigns Masahiro Masimoto (Takakura Ken), to watchdog them and make sure they behave.

Takakura Ken turns in a massively badass performance as Mas, managing to be a square straight arrow who plays by the rules without being an annoying, sanctimonious dickhead. The way he plays Mas is a constant balancing act: managing to register his horror and disgust at Michael Douglas' boorishness without ever being anything over than crisply polite. Take this exchange, before their formal introduction.

Michael Douglas: Just hope they got a nip in this building who speaks fuckin' English.
Mas (turning to Michael Douglas, introducing himself): Assistant Inspector Matsumoto Masahiro, Osaka Prefecture Police. (pause) And I do speak fuckin' English.
The way he delivers the line is what puts it over. His inflection is flat, with just the slightest bit of edge to the last part. And it proves a point that all cultures built on restraint (like Sir Ridley's native England as well as Japan) have known since the dawn of time: you can own the shit out of somebody much more effectively through cold, crisp politeness than you can by roaring, waving your fucking tentacles, and stuffing virgins into your mouth like an American.

In fairly short order, Michael Douglas starts finding clues that lead him to believe that there's some kind of counterfeiting conspiracy going on and, inevitably, running afoul of the Osaka cops, who consider him—not without reason—to be a borderline subhuman boor. He also encounters a blonde nightclub owner and possible madam, played by Kate Capshaw, perhaps the movie's most massive handicap.

I'm sure she's a lovely person—Steven Spielberg certainly thinks so—but man, every scene she's in in this grinds to a halt. Her line readings are really weird; there's always like a second's pause before she speaks, and her inflections are all stylized like she's trying so hard to be Barbra Stanwyck her head's about to explode. Oddly enough, Sharon Stone—herself no slouch in the shitty acting department—could have played this role in her sleep, even though she was a touch too young when Black Rain came out, and she also wasn't famous at that point because Paul Verhoeven had yet to work his Dutch fetishist's magic on her. There were any number of blondes (her being a blonde is semiotically important, this being Japan after all) who could have played this role and not sucked, but hey, such is life. Sometimes roles get miscast, not the end of the universe.

Especially not with the fairly intriguing plot about Yakuza intrigue and East-West culture clash unfolding. Michael Douglas clashes with Mas over what Mas thinks is Michael Douglas living down to his rep and stealing some money from a crime scene, only what Michael Douglas is actually doing is proving that it's counterfeit by the way it burns. He gets off the hook by demonstrating to Mas' boss Ohashi (who's awesome in this, and who led me one time when very drunk to willfully misspell his name as O'Hashi and make a tortured joke about the omnipresence of Irish police, even in the East; I guess you had to have been there).

Andy Garcia tries to reconcile with Mas, who was, after all, acting in good faith and on prior knowledge of Michael Douglas' corruption troubles. Michael Douglas is having none of this, so while Andy Garcia and Mas get shitfaced and hop up on stage to sing a Ray Charles song, Michael Douglas has a talk with Kate Capshaw about Sato's war with a Yakuza Godfather named Sugai.

Walking home drunk, Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia encounter a lone motorcyclist (motorcycles keep popping up all over this picture as a signifier of lawlessness, making Michael Douglas' ultimate takedown of Sato after a motorcycle chase an affirmation of the belief that in order to catch the criminal, a cop must be part criminal himself—see Thomas Harris' Red Dragon). Andy Garcia holds up his overcoat for the motorcyclist to try to catch (as he does in his first scene with Michael Douglas at the beginning of the movie, where he snatches it away at the last second). Because he's so drunk he was just singing Ray Charles songs at a Japanese nightclub, Andy Garcia's reflexes are slow and the guy catches it. Instead of giving it back, he lures Andy Garcia into a trap where Sato ultimately cuts his fucking head off with a wazikashi (another clever bit of symbolism, cutting off Michael Douglas' partner's head with the traditional “companion” sword to the katana).

Michael Douglas is devastated, and expresses this in the acceptable masculine fashion, staring off into middle distance on a rainy night. Somehow, Kate Capshaw randomly knows exactly where he's going to be (remember, this is before cell phones, he couldn't just text her saying meet me at the Bridge of Existential Contemplation), and takes him back to her place. Less implausibly—he is, after all, a cop—Mas finds Michael Douglas there and, under the pretense of it being a tradition, lets Michael Douglas have Andy Garcia's gun so he can go renegade and kick some ass.

Michael Douglas and Mas bond while staking out the hooker in the sequined dress. After a tensely filmed pursuit sequence, one of Sato's dudes leads Michael Douglas and Mas to a big intimidating-looking steel mill. (Why a steel mill? Because it looks cool, shut up). There they witness a meeting between Sato and Sugai where Sato lays out his terms for truce: he wants territory of his own, and to be recognized as an equal by the other Yakuza Godfathers. Sugai, in turn, insists that Sato atone for his American-style fuckery, but the summit is interrupted when Michael Douglas accidentally lets his presence be known (fuckin' Americans, can't take the fucktards anywhere) and Sato's dudes fan out for a round of “Let's mindfuck the gaijin,” the most popular game show in Japan.

At this point, we must acknowledge one of the coolest things in Black Rain—the voice casting of the Japanese actors. They all look perfect too, but holy mother of linguistic God these fucking guys sound cool speaking Japanese. They all sound like Tom Waits chainsmoking and reading the Hagakure into a mic with the sound mixer dropping out whatever treble is left. The rises and dips in volume are like music. Even if all they're saying is “Wow Michael Douglas is an asshole” or “Pass the salt,” it sure sounds cool, proving that not knowing what someone's saying is one of the most important elements in finding it interesting.

The hijinks at the steel mill end up pissing Ohashi off to the point where he deports Michael Douglas and suspends Mas. Michael Douglas manages to very cleverly make his way off the plane and—despite not being able to read the Osaka phone book—over to Mas' house, where he tries to convince Mas to storm the castle and kill everybody with him. Mas tries to explain concepts like honor and shame to Michael Douglas, but the movie's way too short for a task that massive, so Michael Douglas goes and tracks down Sugai with almost suicidal brazenness. Showing great character growth, Michael Douglas manages some humility in this scene—even if it is an act to achieve a goal, even thinking to play it that way took some actual humility—and convinces Sugai let him take out Sato, since as an outsider he's got nothing to do with Yakuza politics.

From there, it's down to the requisite action climax, which has several outstanding and wonderfully surprising elements. No, I'm not talking about the painfully predictable Matsumoto ex machina moment where Mas shows up and kills the guy right when he's about to kill Michael Douglas and quotes back a retarded, vague Michael Douglas line from earlier. I'm talking primarily about these two guys:

Al Leong

Back in the late 80s, if you wanted to be a cool movie, it was absolutely mandatory that you have Al Leong. Behold this partial CV: Big Trouble in Little China, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, They Live, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Death Warrant, Rapid Fire. In every single one of those fine, fine motion pictures except one, Al Leong showed up, was a badass of gargantuan proportions, flashed that magnificent facial hair and those terrific martial arts skills, and then he got his motherfuckin ass killed by the good guy. The only thing I've ever seen Al Leong in where he doesn't get his motherfuckin ass killed by the good guy is Bill & Ted, and that's because people don't get killed in Bill & Ted. Al was probably really out of sorts on that set: “Hey, when do I get killed?” “You don't get killed in this picture.” “Wait, what? There are movies where I don't get killed? [Ed. Note: Al even, stunningly, played the good guy in a little-seen 1989 movie called Cage.] Fuck, call my agent, there's been a mistake.”

But there's more than just Al Leong. Oh yes. Behold:

Professor Toru Tanaka

The Professor was one of a very select few—maybe the only non-extra—to ever be killed by both Chuck Norris and Arnold. While the Professor's cinematic career was less consistently glorious than Al Leong's (there was surprisingly little overlap between their careers, considering that it seemed like they were both in every action movie in the 80s; their only collaborations other than Black Rain were episodes of The A-Team and The Fall Guy, two big favorites of my youth, as well as fucktard scripture The Last Action Hero, and the hideously stupid and boring Jeff Speakman vehicle The Perfect Weapon) you always knew that even if the movie sucked, the Professor's scene(s) could be relied on for a soupcon of awesomeness. Getting his start as a wrestling “heel” (read: bad guy), the Professor went on to be the big guy in every shitass action movie where the hero gulps and goes “oh fuck I'm gonna have a job beating this guy.” Black Rain didn't see the full realization of the Professor's ass-kicking potential (he saved his best for Arnold and Chuck), but make no mistake: Black Rain fucking has Al Leong and the fucking Professor. In the same movie. That's a fistful of style points right there.


As is often the case in the collective Leong/Tanaka oeuvre, they are both killed quickly and messily, and the focus remains on Michael Douglas pursuing Sato, who has, without his creepy stare wavering from Sugai's face for one second, cut off his own pinkie in the infamous Yakuza tradition (I always wondered, if some Yakuza guy starts shit with you, and you see he's short a few fingers, you have to figure he's a total fuckup, right? Not that you'd want to fight even a fuckup Yakuza, but still). Michael Douglas, in the motorcycle chase mentioned earlier, tears ass after Sato through the Japanese countryside.

Because it wasn't enough for the climax to have the subtle signifier of the motorcycle representing the necessity of the cop embracing the outlaw within, the two of them roll around in the mud beating the shit out of each other, making what's usually a metaphor literal. In a sign of personal growth, once Michael Douglas wins, Sato gives him this look like, “Yeah, go ahead motherfucker, impale me on that sharp piece of wood” and Michael Douglas says, “Nuh uh, bitch, me and Mas are going to arrest you.”

The scene when Michael Douglas and Mas perp-walk Sato into Osaka PD headquarters is kind of awesome, because all the Japanese guys in suits' jaws hit the floor to see these two dirty-ass motherfuckers toss the most wanted psycho in the country around like “And what, bitch?” Even Ohashi is like “Hey . . . procedure shmocedure, nice job boys.” And then there's the sentimental ending and that shockingly good Gregg Allman song (don't fuckin look at me, I'm just as surprised as you are).

Ultimately, Black Rain would be just another 80s cop movie, albeit a stylishly filmed one, but for two things. Sure, there's a lot that's cool in this movie: the camerawork, the sound, the murderer's row of awesome character actors (Luis Guzman and John Spencer feature in the NYC bits), all of which outweigh Kate Capshaw's terrible performance and all the cop movie cliches. But the two things that really put Black Rain over the top are Takakura Ken as Mas (who we've already covered), and even more than that, Yusaku Matsuda as Sato. And yes, he's cool enough to have his own action figure.

Sato is, quite simply, number two behind Hans Gruber in the 80s villain pantheon. Yes. He's that fucking good. Matsuda doesn't do a whole lot as Sato, but he doesn't have to. All he has is that oddly terrifying haircut, that slightly shitty posture that makes him look even crazier, and those EYES. There is no ambiguity whatsoever when Sato is pissed at you. His eyes get really big. His lip snarls. Then you're basically fucking dead.

What's scariest about Sato is that he's so insecure. He has a child's need to be the center of attention, and a grown-ass man's ability to kill everything in sight if he doesn't get it. He desperately wants the recognition of the other Yakuza, but is unsure enough that they'll grant it that he just decides to kill all of them. Motherfucker is dangerous, man.

Tragically, Matsuda died of cancer less than two months after Black Rain's release, which would have surely made him an international star. His legacy lives on, as the inspiration for the protagonist in the game Onimusha 2: Samurai's Destiny, and the model for the protagonist of anime series Cowboy Bebop.

And so there you have it. Black Rain. Look past the Douglas. See the awesome.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

DON'T SWALLOW, BILL MURRAY


Happy 60th birthday to one of our finest ever movie stars.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

"I'M HER ONLY FRIEND?"



This is going to be the greatest movie of all time. I'd love to have been a fly on the wall at the pitch meeting: "It's Single White Female meets Color of Night at college . . . but PG-13 so there's no gratuitous nudity!" (Where do I get the Color of Night influence, you ask? Elementary, my dear: that one shot makes it clear that the girl menacing Leighton Meester or Minka Kelly---whichever one of them is playing the lead---is NOT Minka Kelly or Leighton Meester---whichever one of them is playing the creepy roommate---but a relative and possibly sibling; just like in Color of Night where the killer wasn't Jane March but her dorky brother.)

But details aside, just revel in the glorious crappiness of that trailer. February can't come soon enough.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

WHO IS PIERRE MOREL? I'M GLAD YOU ASKED



One would think that being both a dazzlingly erudite—and extremely serious—intellectual and a lover of action movies would be a contradiction in terms. Well, guess what? Contradictions are a matter of perspective and shit blowing up is awesome. However, being in possession of a cerebral cortex that can melt steel does give its possessor a taste for action movies of, at the very least, a reasonably low level of stupidity. It is for this reason that I, the humble owner of one such cortex, demand a certain degree of originality and wit in my action pictures. Other variables, like the presence of Jean-Claude Van Damme, may let a movie get away with being more derivative and retarded than others, but generally, I want an action picture to at least try.

I've been a fan of Luc Besson for a very long time. His body of work as a director hits me, aesthetically, in various defenseless places: sharp visuals, brisk editing, French music on the soundtrack, Anne Parillaud, a tendency to allow actors to cut loose and munch scenery (Gary Oldman in Leon/The Professional and, yes, Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element; if you turn the treble down so his shrieking doesn't deafen your dog, that's one of the great performances in the history of unintentional homosexuality), and Milla Jovovich. At a certain point—approximately coinciding with his Joan of Arc picture, which vibed “vanity project” a little too heavily for most critics and audience—Luc Besson started producing more often than directing, leading to a string of terrifically entertaining, modestly ambitious action pictures: the Transporter series (without which Armond White's longstanding crush on Jason Statham would be less florid), the Jet Li vehicles Kiss of the Dragon and Unleashed, and several others. None of these movies reinvent the wheel, but all of them are energetic, stylishly mounted, entertaining, and—not that this matters when discussing their quality—quite profitable.

Lately, the go-to director in Besson's action movie factory has been Pierre Morel, the DP on the first Transporter and Unleashed. Not so coincidentally, the three features Morel has directed for Besson have all been, to varying degrees and in their own unique ways, massively fucking cool. While Morel employs fairly standard modern action picture camerawork and cutting, his compositions are clear, framed well—he is, after all, a former DP—and while his editing is fashionably quick, it's purposeful rather than the coked up/tweaking style of Neveldine/Taylor, Bay, Tamahori, et al. While reports that Morel's next project is a new adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune are a little worrisome, astute cineastes will recall that the last time some poor bastard tried to make Dune, his next picture was Blue Velvet, so there's certainly no reason to panic just yet.

Rather than fret about what's yet to come, let's instead look at Morel's existing body of work:


District B13 (France: 2004, US and UK 2006)

As already stated, the movies generated by Luc Besson's action movie factory are not to be confused with deeply felt auteur pictures, so to say District B13 is merely a showcase for the French martial art/sport parkour is not being dismissive at all. First of all, it's a perfect showcase for the French martial art/sport parkour, which is so fucking crazy and involves such absurd physical skill that it might as well be the stuff of science fiction, and District B13 is set in the near-future dystopia of 2010 (which, some minor physical details of the militarization of French housing projects aside, they got pretty accurately).

Secondly, parkour is fucking rad. Despite Hollywood's attempts to assimilate it and drain all the pleasure out of it, parkour managed to escape relatively unscathed since only about four people in the world actually know how to do it. Two of them, David Belle and Cyril Raffaeli, star in District B13, as, respectively, a good kid from the projects taking on evil drug dealers and a good cop on a corrupt police force taking on the same evil drug dealers. Eventually, because certain laws of nature are unbreakable, it transpires that a bunch of evil white guys in suits are using the drug dealers as pawns in their nefarious scheme to nuke the projects and put up expensive housing for other evil white guys in suits, or perhaps using the fallout from the nuclear explosions to create a mutant race of evil white guys who are even more evil, a paler shade of white, and favoring an even more conservative cut of suit. We may never know, in part because the action sequences in this movie are so mind-bogglingly badass that whatever the evil white guys are up to is irrelevant. Observe:

(Note, that's really David Belle doing all that)

(Alas, it's all smushed, but you can still see Cyril Raffaeli's moves)

What makes District B13 such a fucking blast to watch is that Pierre Morel doesn't just plunk the camera down on sticks and tell David Belle and Cyril Rafaelli to jump through transoms and over cars. Morel's camera is an equal collaborator with the stunt coordinator, and the editing is, while rapid-fire enough to keep adrenaline levels in the red, still coherent enough that it works with the action rather than obscuring it. The visceral thrills generated by the action sequences function almost symbiotically with the giddily retarded storyline with all the evil white guys in suits and nuclear missiles and such, producing an end result that's about as much fun as it's possible to have watching a movie.

District B13's smashing success as a piece of escapist entertainment lies mainly in its seemingly paradoxical balance between having a sense of humor about itself and still being passionately sincere. Ironic detachment absolutely kills pictures like this, because ultimately any action movie has to be stupid, because fucktarded meatheadedness is as essential an element of the action movie as scenes where women cry and hug each other are to the Cinema of Estrogen. But if you, as an action movie (reverse reification? Put that in your bong and blow some bubbles) are just smart enough to realize how stupid you are, have you not achieved a Socratic ideal and a resultant level of aesthetic purity? Yes, Luc Besson is Socrates, Pierre Morel is Aristotle, David Belle and Cyril Raffaeli are collectively Alexander the Great, and that's the known world writhing on the ground with a foot in its ass. No more need be said of District B13, other than “if you haven't seen it, go fucking see it. Right fucking now.”


Taken (2008)

“I don't know who you are. I don't know what you want. If you're looking for ransom, I can tell you I don't have money . . . but what I do have are a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that will be the end of it - I will not look for you, I will not pursue you . . . but if you don't, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.” —transcript of Liam Neeson's induction speech to the Badass Hall of Fame
This is a very important movie, because this is the first time we really learned how severe the consequences are of getting Liam Neeson pissed off. Sure, he ripped shit up in Darkman, but he was all disfigured and miserable and shit in that movie. In Taken, the progression is simple:

(a) Bad guys kidnap Liam Neeson's daughter
(b) Liam Neeson is displeased
(c) Liam Neeson kills everyone
(d) Liam Neeson gets his daughter back, nullifying the purpose of the bad guys' entire enterprise
No frailty. No digressions. Just straight up “oh you done fucked up now” unleashing of an extremely intelligent, competent, and dangerous man upon the forces of evil.

Morel is working in a much more naturalistic style here; Liam Neeson isn't doing that wacky Bugs Bunny cartoon parkour shit, and the picture is set in actual Paris, not extrapolated science-fiction Paris. However, “more” naturalistic does not mean that Taken is some kind of fuckin documentary or anything. Liam Neeson is practically machine-gunning bad guys with his dick for most of the movie, but the greatest lapse in plausibility is definitely that Liam Neeson's daughter and her airhead friend are in Europe following U2 on tour.

An argument can be made that Liam Neeson's daughter's interest in U2 is a sign of greater depth than that of the average teenager, and a further argument can be made that with opening acts like Arcade Fire, Franz Ferdinand, Interpol, The Scissor Sisters, Kanye, and The Killers (as well as shittier but still popular groups like Snow Patrol, Keane, and Ash) on the Vertigo Tour, the girls might have been going for the opening act; the fiscal wastefulness of paying U2 ticket prices to see someone like Franz Ferdinand, while massive, is nonetheless in keeping with the behavior of privileged teenagers. But this is avoiding the central issue: teenagers dumb enough to go over to Europe and kidnapped—for all intents and purposes—in the fucking airport are not going to be U2 fans. Not in 2005 anyway.

I have an alternate theory, that rationalizes this thorny and problematic intellectual dilemma into quivering submission: having the band be someone old enough for Liam Neeson to have heard of them saves valuable screen time, lest he have to spend five minutes that could otherwise be devoted to breaking bones and blowing shit up to having to use “the Google” to find out who Kelly Clarkson is. Because, let's not forget, the intent of Taken is not to be a photo-realistic portrait of the American dipshit teenage girl. Taken is a picture about Liam Neeson reducing villains to bloody, formerly sapient heaps of viscera.

And yet, much like District B13 before it, it's just smart enough to get into some actual relevant political shit—in this case, the international sex slavery trade—without either getting bogged down in nuance or doing the issue a disservice through flippancy or exploitation for artificial drama. It's more of a symbol of the dangerous shit that can happen if you don't take your dad seriously, if your dad is ex-CIA who can kill everybody in the city when necessary and you're a dipshit teenage girl whose idea of tragedy is the wrong guy asking you to the prom. This is why if I ever have a daughter, I'm going to make sure my autocracy is subtle, because when you're too strict they end up with questionable, anachronistic taste in pop music and get kidnapped by Albanian white slavery syndicates.

Of course, everything eventually works out because Liam Neeson kills everyone, and his daughter (Shannon from Lost, with her hair dyed brunette to make it plausible that Liam Neeson and Famke Janssen fucked and had her) realizes how cool he is, finally. At the end, when Liam Neeson introduces the daughter—an aspiring singer—to the famous pop star for whom he runs security, all is well with the world. Well, except the coroner in Paris, that poor bastard is going to be working overtime for a month processing all those dead guys.

Liam fucking Neeson. Who knew? I mean, he's always been pretty cool, but again I think Pierre Morel deserves a bit of the credit. He may not, technically speaking, be a Serious Artist (very few directors who make cool movies where lots and lots of people get killed meet the criteria, sadly, though if I have anything to say about, those criteria will change) but he is a serious entertainer, and a skillful director of entertainments has the necessary mastery of his craft to know how to make his leading man look sufficiently badass at all times. Of course, Liam Neeson's dick wouldn't drag the ground in this if it wasn't big on its own merits, but the director is the guy who controls where the ground is. You know what I mean.


From Paris With Love (2010)

A loose remake of the 2003 Danish kind-of-sort-of documentary The Five Obstructions, wherein Lars von Trier trolled the everliving fuck out of his mentor, avant-garde director Jørgen Leth, by forcing Leth to do five different versions of his 1967 short The Perfect Human with a different “obstruction” each time (not being allowed to have a shot longer than 12 frames—that's half a second—being the first example, and they just get crazier from there). This time around, Luc Besson and Pierre Morel lost a bet to some sadistic bastard who forced them to make an action movie starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers and John Travolta.

That's one theory. Another is that Pierre Morel was sitting around saying to himself “I made an action star out of Liam Neeson. Goddamn I'm good.” And, while polishing off a bottle of wine and watching MBB (Maison Boîte Bureau = French HBO) one night, Match Point came on, followed by the movie version of the Hairspray musical, and Pierre Morel started giggling to himself and said, “I am going to put the homosexual gay guy who killed Scarlett Johansson and the fat woman who played Tracy Turnblad's mother—holy merde, that's John Travolta? Wow . . . ok, sure, John Travolta—and I am going to make action film. Heh heh . . . Où est l'autre bouteille de vin, muthafuckaaaaa?” and eventually passed out, only to wake up the next morning with a massive hangover and a voicemail from Luc Besson saying “What's good, Pierre? Totally dig the casting choices, babe, Rhys Meyers and Travolta it is!”

Either way, this movie is nine kinds of crazy. Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays a well-educated, competent dork with a hot, fairly agreeable girlfriend, whose day job is playing chess and gossiping with the U.S. ambassador to France, and by night takes phone calls from some anonymous CIA guy who has him do shit like put phony license plates on a car so when the dudes in the car do spy shit, if they get caught, it'll have fake plates on it, and the local cops think some other country's dudes were responsible for the spy shit. Pretty cool night gig, all things considered, but Jonathan Rhys Meyers wants more. He wants to be a guy in an action movie, not an understated drama about a low-level covert ops dork.

Soon, after successfully planting a bug in a French dude's office, Jonathan Rhys Meyers gets his wish. His anonymous spy boss tells him to go meet John Travolta at the airport because the Customs Frogs are being all premenstrual. Although this interrupts Jonathan Rhys Meyers' engagement dinner with the hot girlfriend, she's supportive because this is his big promotion! Wow, a movie where the girlfriend doesn't bust the hero's balls about spending too much time at work. What could this mean . . .?

Jonathan Rhys Meyers arrives to find that the Customs dudes are very reasonably insisting that John Travolta's obviously fake cans of disgusting energy drink are not coming into France with him. Travolta's doing a wildly over-the-top Ugly American routine, but Jonathan Rhys Meyers intervenes. First he asks Travolta if it's going to be an excessive testicular compromise to just give his energy drinks up. Travolta says yes. So Jonathan Rhys Meyers, in a surprising turn of events, steps up to the plate and does something really badass: he slaps a “Diplomatic Mail” label on Travolta's bag and walks out. Problem solved. Baisez-toi, Froggy. (Ed. Note: Pierre Morel said it, not me)

Jonathan Rhys Meyers and John Travolta establish the time-honored mismatched buddy cop dynamic, except Jonathan Rhys Meyers keeps surprising the audience with displays of balls; when it transpires that the real reason Travolta was so insistent on keeping his six-pack of energy drink was because he had gun parts hidden in the cans, JRM's response is “I'm authorized to get you any weapon you want,” rather than getting all prissy about Travolta illegally smuggling a gun into the country. Then, following a pretty well-filmed shootout in a Chinese restaurant that resulted in me Tweeting “There is cocaine raining from the ceiling. This is win” and JRM carrying a vase full of cocaine for the next half hour of screen time, JRM's response, rather than any pussy-ass moralizing against drugs, is “If you really want to score some coke, I can get you some.” Pure, uncut awesome.

Structurally, things appear a bit off, because JRM and Travolta do a whole picture's worth of bonding in the first hour, even going so far as to do a bunch of the blow in the vase (in a hilarious apparent homage to the scene where Ethan Hawke smokes dusted weed in Training Day) and culminating in Travolta dropping a suicide bomber vest out a housing project window to blow up a car full of Pakistani terrorists. This isn't even the capstone on the sequence: Travolta's backing a car into another car into another car into JRM's SUV—wired with a car bomb by the terrorists—and detonating it, is.

Now, with the terrorists having, problematically, a bunch of photos of JRM and his girlfriend on the wall in their drug lab in the 'jects, Travolta is a little suspicious. After he and JRM hand over the confiscated drugs from the dead baddies' lab, JRM invites the antisocial Travolta to dinner with his fiancee and his fiancee's friend, and Travolta, surprisingly, accepts.

Dinner goes well, but Travolta acts strange and seems to inadvertently antagonize JRM's fiancee's friend. He does something weird with his cell phone. Then, when the fiancee's friend takes a call on her cell, Travolta abruptly shoots her in the head. Whoa. It turns out JRM's fiancee is actually a terrorist sleeper! And . . . holy shit, that plot twist actually isn't retarded! Wonders never cease. The fiancee grabs a gun, shoots JRM in the shoulder, and splits, in one of the harsher cinematic breakups in recent memory (paling in comparison to Arnold putting one through Sharon Stone's forehead and coldly smirking “Considduh dat a divoooooahss” in Total Recall, of course, but that was 20 years ago).

The good guys determine that JRM's now ex-fiancee is plotting to blow up an African aid summit and a whole bunch of important political people. There's only one thing to be done. John Travolta has to hang out the window of a speeding car with a bazooka and try to blow the bad guys up. Only it turns out the fiancee ISN'T IN THE CAR! Travolta still blows up the car, of course, because certain things must be done, and hauls ass to the summit.

JRM may have taken one in the shoulder, but since he has balls (something I was still barely used to even now, near the end of the picture) he hauls ass to the summit and gets there first. The security dudes, naturally, detain him for carrying a gun, being coked up, and having both a mustache and one of the funniest fake American accents ever (more on which in a bit), but JRM runs into his boss, who has the security dudes let JRM in, sans gun.

JRM and his ex have a bit of a showdown where it appears that, despite Travolta telling JRM talk is useless and guns are the answer, JRM is going to talk her out of it. Except, alas, she's still going to detonate her suicide bomber belt, so JRM has to put one in her forehead Arnold-style after all. Travolta, having gotten there in the nick of time, catches the now deceased ex before she hits the ground and detonates her belt. End of threat. Our denouement shows a now grown-ass man JRM having to take his Desert Eagle out of his pocket before he and Travolta play a game of very manly chess. Roll credits. Ahhhhhh.

What really makes From Paris With Love such a delight is the proudly weird tone. Jonathan Rhys Meyers' flaaaaaaat Ameeeeeeeerican aaaaacceeeeent is funny enough, but his little two-sentence back story that he relates to Travolta as they swagger into the housing project to take down the terrorist's coke lab—that he grew up in the fucking Cypress Hills Homes in East fucking New York—is just breathtaking. I mean, someone who looks like Jonathan Rhys Meyers (i.e. white, not to mention like the kind of guy who'd bottom for Ewan McGregor in Velvet Goldmine), growing up in that hood, definitely would have had to grow a pair of balls to survive.

John Travolta's performance is a slightly stickier issue. It seems, at first, to suck, but as the movie gets crazier and crazier, his performance seems to get better, but it's more because the movie itself coalesces around his weird overacting than it is that he's actually good. Which, once more, is a sign that Pierre Morel knows what the hell he's doing. They even admit in the making-of documentary that Travolta's undirectable and just does whatever the fuck he wants; faced with such a situation, some directors might keep tilting at windmills and get the difficult actor to behave and stick to the script. Pierre Morel, though, realizes that that's going to be impossible, and crafts the rest of the movie to be the right kind of crazy to make sure that Travolta's overacting and goofy improvising seems to fit.

In that same making-of doc, Pierre Morel comes off a smart guy with a sense of humor (of a scene where Jonathan Rhys Meyers is backing up Travolta on a staircase and dead extras keep falling out of the sky from offscreen, Morel says, dryly, “On the schedule, we called this scene “Chinese Rain” because it's raining Chinese people.”) This impression is certainly reinforced by his pictures, which manage to be smart—mainly by knowing when to shut up and be stupid—and entertaining.

Considering the kind of pictures Morel makes, and considering that the title of auteur could just as easily be attributed to Luc Besson on the pictures he's directed so far, just going to work, punching the clock, and doing the work is all one could reasonably expect from him. The fact that Pierre Morel invests his pictures with such pizazz, though, is a sign that he's more than just some hack cashing a paycheck: he's a genuinely inspired craftsman.

Still a little worried about him directing Dune, though . . . but maybe his unpretentious, no-bullshit (unless it's fun) style can make it work. But, hey, even if it doesn't, the David Lynch rule dictates his next picture will fucking rock.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

AN IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT

Hey, guys! Check out this piece I did for premiere.com; I swear it's me even though it's not 7500 words long and 66.6% profanity. I will not do anything as tacky as exhort you to pimp this blog in their comment section, but if you absolutely must I suppose there's nothing I can do.

Monday, September 13, 2010

REQUISITE "REAL OR FAKE?" THEORY RE: I'M STILL HERE


Short version: I don't give a fuck.

Long version: I really don't give a fuck.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

WHAT IS THAT, YOGA?

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

(h/t BoingBoing)

And, because one is never enough, courtesy of Film Drunk:


More extensive verbiage coming as soon as I figure out how to write about Robert Altman without sounding like a total jackass. Now if you'll excuse me, I have drinking and football to prepare for.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

THIS REVOLUTIONARY GOVERNMENT MAY MOVE SLOW, BUT THAT'S BECAUSE IT DOESN'T HAVE TO MOVE FOR ANYONE

The time has come to talk of statecraft. In Western society, all too often skinny fuckers dominate, leaving one nation sorely under-represented and in need of a voice. Of sovereignty. Of our own very large flag. With nearly a century having past since the presidency of William Howard Taft, and the pale shadow that was the first Clinton administration being almost two decades old, Fat Guy Nation needs a cabinet, stocked with something other than peanut butter.

With this being America (and the forum being a movie blog), our cabinet will be drawn from movies and television. I speak as a man somewhat smaller than I have been, but still a man of appetite, a trencherman, an enemy of the thin in all their nefarious forms (except in fashion advertisements, pornography, subway seats, and various other expedient fora). Thus, I feel qualified to appoint the government of my people.


The President (in exile)—Hugo “Hurley” Reyes, Lost

Although Hurley's actual administrative experience was as the undemocratically appointed guardian of a possibly supernatural island—and all took place off-screen with the exception of the vignette in the Lost season 6 DVD—this is, unquestionably, our leader. Not only is he very large indeed, and nobly resisted one of the best opportunities ever to lose weight (being stranded on a deserted island with nothing but fruit and fish to eat), any just society should be proud to have as its leader a man who addresses people as “dude.” Think of the opportunities in American history which would benefit from such a leader:

Nikita Krushchev (banging shoe on podium): I vill moof nuclear bums to Cuba! I vill threaten your very vay uff life, American svine!
Hurley: Dude, seriously? You need to chill. Let's have some nachos and talk this out.

Bob Woodward: Mr. President, the burglary of the Democratic national headquarters has been connected to a slush fund for the Committee to Re-Elect The President. I demand your resignation.
Hurley: No way, dude. I don't share my slushies with any committees. Dude, someone fed you some bogus info.

Ken Starr: Did you, or did you not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky?
Hurley: Yeah, I did, dude. It was nice.
Much better than reality, no? Also, let us not forget that Jorge Garcia's experience as a drug dealer on Curb Your Enthusiasm is highly relevant, considering the American government's complicity in drug trafficking going back at the very least to Air America in Vietnam; even though he is the president of Fat Guy Nation, not the United States of America, relevance is relevance.


Minister of the Interior—Jay Landsman, The Wire

Any real grown-ass man government needs secret police. That's just the way it's done. Who better—and who, by God, of larger physique—to run our secret police than the glib, pornography-loving sergeant of the Baltimore PD Homicide squad? Sure, when Ziggy Sobotka killed Glekas, Landsman fucked up and didn't tell Daniels about it, the Greek to flushed all his drugs, and the detail had to be content with popping Sergei, but you don't want the Minister of the Interior to be too competent, otherwise it's coup d'etat time.

More important than his skills as a policeman, though, Landsman is a funny motherfucker. The man can deliver a eulogy, and if you're going to have secret police, enough people are going to be killed that that'll come in handy. Landsman's charm only ever cracked when he was being pressured by Rawls and other superiors to deliver stats, and since in this administration he'd be answerable only to president Hurley (who, being a president in exile, won't even be around), and our yet-to-be-named Prime Minister (who we don't need to worry about), that character flaw is null and void.

The Wire had a number of awesome fat guys: Bunk, Prop Joe, Bunny Colvin had a bit of a gut. I'd say we could employ Bunk as a long-suffering secret policeman and hook Prop Joe up with a position in the Finance Ministry and let his good product generate some revenue, but Bunny Colvin presents a problem. Sure, he could be a capable administrator in the secret police for years and years, but all that independent thinking and moral integrity is nothing we want anywhere near a totalitarian government. Bunny Colvin is fucking awesome, though.


Minister of Offense—Walter Sobchek, The Big Lebowski

That's right. Our military isn't about any pussy-ass shit like defending the populace, we're all about going out and fucking shit up. Why Walter? “I'm a fuckin veteran!” That's why. Also, anyone who can get you a toe, with nail polish, by 3 o'clock is a valuable asset.

John Goodman is a very important figure to our people (despite his recent weight loss). He's been one of my favorite actors ever since his line reading of “You just got your asses WHIPPED . . . by a buncha goddamn nerds” in Revenge of the Nerds. But rather than make him Minister of Sport for his role in that movie, or Minister of Psychotic Intimidation (or Minister of The Life of the Mind) for his role in Barton Fink, we should show the proper respect to Mr. Goodman's service to his people and give him the most prestigious cabinet position we can.

As Minister of Offense, Walter's ability to properly demonstrate what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass would be invaluable. And, as a cog in a totalitarian regime, his musing “Say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos” is enough of an endorsement to infer loyalty to the regime. He will, though, have to find a deputy to run the office on Shabbos.


Chief Justice of the Star Chamber—Paulie, Goodfellas

Here's the thing. I may have lost faith in democracy (as reflected by the nature of this theoretical government), but I don't want us to be assholes. Paulie was a reasonable guy. You wouldn't want him anywhere near the budget—see the sequence where he buys out Sonny's club and bankrupts it by selling everything that wasn't bolted down, and his impatient “fuck you, pay me” tendencies would make him a volatile Minister of Internal Revenue—but for a clear-headed pragmatic approach to disputes, Paulie'd be a pretty good choice. Also, we're fat guys. We need somebody who can cook, and Paulie could cook his motherfuckin' ass off; that thing with the razor blades and garlic is genius.


Minister of Antiquities—Casper Gutman, The Maltese Falcon

Sure, Sidney Greenstreet's dead, but that should come in handy as Minister of Antiquities, and his accent would lend a bit of class to the cabinet meetings. This appointment carries with it the additional benefit of increasing the chances Peter Lorre might come by to hang out.

The deputy Minister is, of course, Salaa from Raiders of the Lost Ark (not the jokey-jokes incarnation in Last Crusade). This department needs people comfortable with working in semi-legal gray areas (as both Gutman and Salaa are), and someone with a cool accent so the long boring story of a given object's provenance is less of a chore to listen to.


And, last but not least . . .

Prime Minister—Rex Ryan, Hard Knocks

Handegg season is upon us, and our new lord and master is Rex Ryan, head coach of the New York Jets. The comic geniuses at Kissing Suzy Kolber—an essential site for the young, politically incorrect handegg aficionado—started imagining Ryan as a profane, out-of-his-duckfucking-mind motivational genius almost immediately upon his hiring to coach the Jets, only to find, through HBO's Hard Knocks, that their take on Ryan was, amazingly, almost understated. Words cannot properly capture Ryan's secular divinity, but these clips give some idea.


While many proud citizens of Fat Guy Nation are physically large enough to have their own gravitational pull, Ryan has the intellectual and rhetorical gravitas to give his mind equal power over time and space. Since our president is in exile, someone needs to run shit. Rex Ryan can run shit.

Other notable fat guys may have a place in this government—and I am its Minister of Culture—but this foundation will not lead us astray. It will lead us far. Then it will stop to catch its breath.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

THE SECOND ACT OF AN AMERICAN LIFE


Ben Affleck has directed two features now. The second one looks like it's going to get nominated for Oscars, too. Everyone who remembers five years ago, can I get a “what the fuck?”

Careers do not usually defy expectations, especially for those who achieve massive, almost immediate success. Sustaining that initial good fortune is a difficult trick, being as it is so totally dependent on luck. The vast majority either sustain—for the fortunate, anointed few—or settle into a neutral state of ongoing, moderate fame. Or, in the cases that induce the most delicious flavor of schadenfreude in douchey nerds (present!), go up in a drugs-and-pussy mushroom cloud. Some of the neutrals luck into a late-career renaissance (one love, Alec Baldwin), but mushroom clouds almost never un-explode. Almost. There's one exception. “Robert Downey, Jr,” you might say, but he was more of a train with a smacked-out conductor at the wheel, that crashed into shit all the time and threatened to derail but kept magically jumping back onto the track (because no matter how many kiddie pools he was arrested in, he always made good pictures). No, the one true mushroom cloud recovery that comes to mind is B-Fleck.

Benjamin Geza Affleck was born on August 15th, 1972 in Berkeley, Calfornia, and spent his formative years in Cambridge Massachussetts, where he met longtime friend and future collaborator Matt Damon. He was reared in a household that supported creativity and progressive politics, and from a very early age, the tall-dark-and-handsome Affleck found success as an actor. His most visible early success was as part of the spectacular ensemble of Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused, the single most baffling picture ever made in terms of being a predictor of its cast's future success. While Matthew McConaughey was certainly fucking hilarious as jailbait-chasing puer aeternus Wooderson, how the hell did Randall “Pink” Floyd not own the universe for the next fifteen years (it was his twin brother who was in Mallrats with B-Fleck later)? And how did Mitch Kramer not become his generation's Michael Cera, the dork Casanova? As—while undeniably great in the picture—the single least-appealing character in the movie, how did B-Fleck become its biggest star?

Well, because he was sitting around with childhood friend Matt Damon one day asking himself, “why am I not the biggest star in that picture yet?” Damon, similarly befuddled, went, “I don't fuckin know. How come I was in Mystic Pizza with Julia Roberts and she's already so famous she's starting to get less famous, and I'm sittin here drinkin beers with you?” B-Fleck said, “I don't fuckin' know.” But, rather than moan their balls off unproductively, the two decided to write a script together for them to star in.

The process of getting Good Will Hunting to the screen was almost too easy. Studios immediately dug the script, Rob Reiner was attached to direct or produce or something, and it was briefly mired in turnaround bullshit until Kevin Smith and Harvey Weinstein got involved. By that time, Damon had already turned some heads in Courage Under Fire and landed the lead in Francis Coppola's 90th “comeback” picture, and B-Fleck had developed a collaboration/friendship with the aforementioned Mr. Smith.

Good Will Hunting, the first feature either Matt Damon or B-Fleck had ever written, grossed over $100 mil on a budget of under 20, won them Oscars for Best Original Screenplay, and made them into an unprecedented, mildly gay, kind of superstar duo. In what began to look like an enormous mistake for B-Fleck in coming years, he immediately pulled the “no homo” card and went to work for Michael Bay, while Matt cultivated his “serious actor” brand and eventually struck gold with the Ocean's and Bourne series.

Largely due to the kind of pictures Matt made in the ensuing years, B-Fleck began to appear to value stardom more than art. This impression, especially as it relied on the contrast to his friend's career, was, in hindsight, unfair. What really happened was a horrible streak of bad luck. The pictures B-Fleck headlined from 1998-2003, while disparate in theme and genre, can all be grouped together under the heading “It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time.” A selection:

Armageddon (1998) dir. Michael Bay

Why it seemed like a good idea at the time: Michael Bay movies always make a shitload of money (except for The Island, which was actually a good movie, which confused everyone so much they couldn't find the theater, resulting in it flopping).

Why it ended up blowing up in B-Fleck's face: Armageddon fucking sucks. The only good scene in the movie—Bruce Willis chipping golf balls at the Greenpeace boat—is politically suspect, thus ruining even that fleeting joy. Still, Armageddon, suckage aside, did make a shitload of money.

Phantoms (1998) dir. Joe Chappelle

Okay, this was actually good. In Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, B-Fleck, playing his character from Chasing Amy, says “Affleck was the bomb in Phantoms,” and he was both tres meta and absolutely right.

Dogma (1999) dir. Kevin Smith

Why it seemed like a good idea at the time: B-Fleck and Kevin Smith were tight, this was the longstanding labor of love Smith had always wanted to make—in the credits for Clerks, it says something like, “Coming next: Dogma!”

Why it ended up blowing up in B-Fleck's face: It ended up being fucking terrible. The Catholics got their tits in a twist about all the alleged blasphemy, but the real blasphemy ended up being the sloppy direction, dumb script that wasn't as profound as it thought it was, and the waste of a great cast.

Forces of Nature (1999) dir. Bronwen Hughes

Why it seemed like a good idea at the time: Hey, it's Sandra Bullock. It's a romantic comedy. What could possibly go wrong? Also, Bronwen Hughes made a really good picture a couple years later called Stander with Thomas Jane. Which wasn't a romantic comedy, but hey, she's a good director.

Why it ended up blowing up in B-Fleck's face: One of the dirty little secrets that we're never supposed to talk about now that her jagoff husband cheated on her and she has an Oscar is that Sandra Bullock never has chemistry with her male co-stars. Well, except Ryan Reynolds. But that's part of her recent career renaissance. Back in the 90s, she still had the no-chemistry thing going, and this was no exception.

Bounce (2000) dir. Don Roos

Why it seemed like a good idea at the time: Making movies with your girlfriend is always a good idea.

Why it ended up blowing up in B-Fleck's face: The above is sarcasm.

Reindeer Games (2000) dir. John Frankenheimer

Why it seemed like a good idea at the time: John Frankenheimer made The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds once upon a time, both thirty-five shades of awesome.

Why it ended up blowing up in B-Fleck's face: Those pictures were over thirty-five years old at that point, and John Frankenheimer never made a good picture again afterward.

Boiler Room (2000) dir. Ben Younger

Again, another smaller movie that was actually kind of all right, but B-Fleck wasn't the lead. Early role for one Mr. Vincenzo Gasolina as well.

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001) dir. Kevin Smith

Yet again, smaller movie, not a lead performance. Some shreds of self-awareness and willingness to make fun of himself on display, and goddammit I love this movie. [Ed. Note: future post on why Kevin Smith's movie version of a greatest hits album is my favorite movie of his a distinct possibility]

Pearl Harbor (2001) dir. Michael Bay

Why it seemed like a good idea at the time: B-Fleck had made a couple good movies in a row, and hey, Armageddon made a shitload of money.

Why it ended up blowing up in B-Fleck's face: Armageddon was the second-worst picture Michael Bay ever made. This is the worst. Not only that, but the 78 fucktillion times I saw the trailer to this piece of shit rank a close second to only making it through 9/11 because I arbitrarily scheduled a morning job interview in one of the towers for the next day as my most traumatic experience of 2001.

The Sum of All Fears (2002) dir. Phil Alden Robinson

Why it seemed like a good idea at the time: Hey, it's Jack Ryan! The Hunt For Red October was awesome, Patriot Games was fun, and Clear and Present Danger . . . well . . . ok, forget Clear and Present Danger. Taking over for Harrison Ford should be a snap, right? Right . . .?

Why it ended up blowing up in B-Fleck's face: See above. The Sum of All Fears didn't suck as much as Clear and Present Danger, but it still sucked, as Tom Clancy novels do when you don't adapt the crap out of them in just the right way, and there's no way in hell someone who wasn't even 30 yet when this picture was filmed has the gravitas to take over for Harrison Ford. Shit, Harrison Ford didn't even blow up til he was over 30, even he needed to be over 30 to have the gravitas to be Harrison Ford. And he fucking is Harrison Ford.

Changing Lanes (2002) dir. Roger Michell

Another good movie, though B-Fleck's character is douchecuntpedophile levels of unlikable in it. This, however, would be his last halfway decent picture in this phase of his career, as 2003 had a one-two-three of fucktardery no mortal actor could possibly recover from on its way.

Daredevil (2003) dir. Mark Steven Johnson

Why it seemed like a good idea at the time: Uh . . . because comic book movies are popular . . .?

Why it blew up in B-Fleck's face: Comic book movies, alas, are usually terrible. You can count the ones that aren't on one hand (the first two Spider-Man movies, The Dark Knight, the first Iron Man . . . I'll try to think of one for the thumb). The effects looked cheesy, Colin Farrell's shaved head was more funny than scary, and the whole thing just feels cheap, which is unfortunate considering it cost 75 million fucking dollars.

Gigli (2003) dir. Martin Brest

Why it seemed like a good idea at the time: Martin Brest, once upon a time, directed Beverly Hills Cop and Midnight Run, two of B-Fleck's (and my) favorite movies. Also, making movies with your girlfriend is always a good idea.

Why it blew up in B-Fleck's face: See Reindeer Games; Martin Brest had long since lost his fastball. And Jennifer Lopez had long since made it her mission in life to make everyone who liked Out of Sight—in which she was spectacularly good—need a drink; her movies seem almost like they're trying to be bad. Even though Gigli wasn't as bad as everyone said it was, it's still one of the worst movies ever made.

Paycheck (2003) dir. John Woo

And, at long last, we have the final nail in B-Fleck's career's coffin. Look, the fucking title is Paycheck. I don't even have to make a joke. And I won't. The fact that this movie exists at all is a sign that we need Remedial Irony classes in our schools. This ended John Woo's sad run as a Hollywood hack as well. Philip K. Dick turned over in his fucking grave when this came out.


A couple more terrible B-Fleck movies would come out in 2004, but only because there's too much money at stake to just cancel shit in Hollywood. B-Fleck was getting motherfucked every day in the tabloids due to the tackiness and excess of his girlfriend's—and, more often than not, his own—attention whoring and money hemorrhaging. The decline and fall of B-Fleck and J-Ho's relationship was as tawdry and distasteful as its rise and peak. When the smoke cleared, B-Fleck found himself, basically, without a career.

His salvation would come in both intelligence and self-awareness. Unlike many of the other massively famous, B-Fleck realized that he'd become, not to put to fine a point on it, a bit of a joke. The career path upon which he'd set out when he first became famous was at an end, certainly.

B-Fleck quietly took up with, and married, Jennifer Garner, with whom he now has two children and a much more stable and quiet relationship. He quietly (and with a shocking minimum of look-at-me narcissism) became more involved with progressive politics. Where earlier, in the midst of his "I make Michael Bay movies and blow a hundred grand a night at poker" period, B-Fleck stumped for Gore in a way that made people actually not want to vote for Gore (god that 2000 election was a motherfucking mess), B-Fleck now worked more behind the scenes, occasionally popping up on Real Time With Bill Maher and managing to seem as smart as Salman Rushdie (no mean feat).

To relaunch his acting career, there could not have been a more perfect role than George Reeves in Hollywoodland. The parallels with B-Fleck's own career were subtle but present, and the idea of a man who became famous and ridiculous at the same time, and whose demise left everyone scratching their heads and concluding that he did it to himself, must have resonated. Amazingly, this comment on his own life and career, with all the attendant world-weariness, humility, and insight, came when B-Fleck was only 33.

Hollywoodland was but a first step along the new path. The second, far more decisive one, was Gone, Baby, Gone. Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane (whose Mystic River and Shutter Island have also been adapted for the screen, with varying degrees of success), Gone, Baby, Gone tells the story of Boston private detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro trying to find a missing four-year-old girl, which leads to an ending that is absolutely fucking devastating, and not in any way you might think at the outset.

Although based on the fourth in a series of five books, B-Fleck's Gone, Baby, Gone doesn't feel like it's missing any backstory. This is partly due to the unpredictable twin character arc of Kenzie and Gennaro in the novels; at the beginning of Gone, Baby, Gone, they're romantically involved, which gives the movie a much simpler jumping-off point than the “they hooked up in high school and suppressed their true love for each other while Patrick married Angie's sister and Angie ended up getting beaten up by her husband even though she can kick anyone's ass and through the emotional intensity of their previous case they ended up in bed together and now they're making a go of it” of the books. It's also because B-Fleck made a number of fortuitous choices in tone, visual aesthetic, and most importantly, casting.

The first two, which have a slight impact on the third, come from the many connections Gone, Baby, Gone has with The Wire. Lehane himself wrote several episodes and appears in a season 3 cameo as the evidence room cop who lets McNulty go in and take the surveillance device that they end up nailing Stringer's cell phone with, for one. For another, the movie and show share a naturalistic style in writing, acting, and cinematography. For a third, Amy “Beadie Russell” Ryan and Michael K. “Omar” Williams are both in it (though holy shit Amy Ryan can act: anyone capable of playing both Beadie Russell and Helene McCready is a fucking deity).

Top to bottom, the cast is on point. Morgan Freeman is Morgan Freeman (the thought of any director needing to give him notes is more blasphemous than anything in Dogma) but managing to keep Ed Harris from gnawing overmuch on the scenery is something any director, especially a first-timer, can hang his hat on. It was nice to see John Ashton again (another Beverly Hills Cop/Midnight Run shout-out from B-Fleck, in an impeccable display of taste) and he doesn't disappoint, perfectly cast.

Where B-Fleck made his best choice though was his leading man. When I first heard B-Fleck was going to be directing this, I thought “Ah fuck, he's doing this so he can play Patrick; while it's perfect casting, I nonetheless harbor doubts about whether or not this whole enterprise is a vanity project.” (Yes, I use semi-colons and words like nonetheless when I think, fuck off). Then I heard, no, B-Fleck isn't playing Patrick. Instead, he got his little brother: C-Fleck. I made the mistake I think a lot of people did, seeing C-Fleck playing a retard in To Die For and Good Will Hunting and thinking that was him. Sure, he's got that high-pitched, tremulous voice, but C-Fleck can fucking thesp. I didn't really realize it until Gone, Baby, Gone, but holy God that little motherfucker's good. And B-Fleck especially deserves credit for having the balls to cast C-Fleck, knowing everyone was going to roll their eyes and making drawling accusations of nepotism, but also knowing C-Fleck would rule.

B-Fleck made a number of changes to the book, all of them for the better (impressive, considering the book was already really good). The main one was changing this cartoon-character wigger drug dealer into a Haitian for the sheer fuck of it, and it worked splendidly. (Ed. Note: see if you can spot all forty of the mindfucks on the actor's Wikipedia page; seriously, his CV is so weird I swear his page has been vandalized).

Gone, Baby, Gone ended up winning an armload of awards, and in one stroke made it not only necessary but mandatory to take B-Fleck seriously again. He started getting acting gigs again, but mainly character parts in things that won't embarrass him (well, except He's Just Not That Into You, but hey, he's got kids to feed). However, the difference between directing a good movie and being a good director is the follow-up. And that follow-up drops on the 17th of this month.

The Town is getting delirious buzz. They're talking Oscars. B-Fleck's playing the lead in a picture he wrote directed. At this point in his career, though, and after seeing Gone, Baby, Gone, we can be reasonably sure that he's not jerking off into a mirror on some Orson Welles trip. He's doing this because he's the right actor for the part, we can assume. I want this picture to be very, very good. Not being religious, the whole notion of redemption usually makes me snore, but something about the way B-Fleck exploded, imploded, and emerged whole, a man, on the other side is impressive. It's as implausible as the shit in the movies he was making when he was shtupping Jenny from the block, but hey. Part of the universe's manifest sense of humor is that not even the most coked-up hack screenwriter can imagine anything with a higher “get the fuck out of here” factor than reality.