Archive for April, 2015
Wednesday, April 29th, 2015
A hugely underrated comedy, trampled by critics, this movie has never failed to delight anyone with whom I have shared it. Star power? Liam Neeson, Sandra Bullock, Oliver Platt (who hands-down steals it), Richard Schiff, Mitch Pileggi, but enriched by the excellent performances of every single supporting actor.
The comic timing is superb, the dialogue is inspired and the story is novel while keeping its place, i.e., it keeps things moving while not getting in the way of what this movie is really about, which is a series of moments between characters, backed by a fantastic soundtrack and New York City serving as the best backdrop I’ve seen short of Woody Allen.
From what I can tell, this was Eric Blakeney’s one directorial shot. He made a superlative movie for $10M, it lost money and he hasn’t sat in the chair since, which is a goddamn shame. If you haven’t seen it, then catch yourself in the mood to laugh and pop up some popcorn.
Sunday, April 26th, 2015
It’s impossible to settle on a single Coen Brothers movie as a favorite. I could go with any of half a dozen. Using a broad brush, Coen Brothers movies break down into two categories:
- Dark and epic
- Dark and goofy
Some are both. I have a soft spot for some of their perhaps lesser known movies like The Ladykillers (2004), Burn After Reading (2008) and especially Blood Simple (1984). Some of their movies are significantly better than others but, at the end of the day, I’ll watch anything that has the imprimatur of Joel and Ethan Coen purely on spec because I trust them completely.
Miller’s Crossing is an early movie in their careers. It is the most visually rich film I have ever seen ‒ Barton Fink (1991) comes in a close second ‒ thanks in part to fellow NYU graduate Barry Sonnenfeld’s role as director of photography. When Sonnenfeld directs his own movies his style is unmistakable ‒ Addams Family (1991), Men in Black (1997) ‒ but he is an extremely talented cinematographer in his own right.
Set as a Prohibition-era gangster flick, Miller’s Crossing is told through a combination of frenetic exposition (laden with eye-watering period slang) and intense, violent action. Huge performances, huge shots.
It’s wonderful to me how many top shelf actors flock to Coen Brothers’ projects. Steven Soderbergh (more on him in a later installment) is another director with whom actors seek out opportunities, and some actors (like George Clooney) have gotten to work with each.
Bonus fun film fact #1 about Miller’s Crossing: John Turturro allegedly based his performance in Miller’s Crossing on Barry Sonnenfeld.
Bonus fun film fact #2 about Miller’s Crossing: Albert Finney apparently had such a good time making the film that he hung around after his shooting schedule was finished. He appears (in drag) in the scene where Tom (Gabriel Byrne) walks into the ladies’ room to confront Verna (Marcia Gay Harden).
Friday, April 24th, 2015
As I understand it, the original Reefer Madness (1936) started life as a church-group-funded PSA morality tale entitled Tell Your Children which ran out money. The property was then bought up by Dwain Esper who supplemented the footage and retitled the project. It’s fucking awful. The whole thing is a jingoistic reactionary caricature inspired by the anti-marijuana agenda of the 1930s, spearheaded by newspaper magnate and bastard-about-town William Randolph Hearst.
The 2005 musical film borrows from the fundamental plot points of the original (which appears as a special feature on the DVD) but it otherwise bears no resemblance. The ensemble cast includes Kristen Bell, Christian Campbell, Alan Cumming, Ana Gasteyer and Steven Weber and it features hilarious and brilliant performances by heaps of supporting actors including John Kassir, an accomplished voice actor popularly known as the voice of the Cryptkeeper.
Financed and released by Showtime, the scale and complexity of the movie is genuinely impressive. If hilarious irreverence with a sizable dollop of social commentary is your thing then please don’t let this gem pass you by.
Oh, and it features Kristen Bell’s seriously sweet ass in an all-too-brief S&M fantasy sequence that will give you and the Mister or Missus something to dine out on in bed for days.
Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015
Dude. Gary Oldman and Tim Roth (back when they were young and so goddamn pretty) and Richard Dreyfuss (deeply talented, reputedly-difficult-to-work-with and never accused of being pretty) together on a shoestring budget. Written and directed by playwright Tom Stoppard, this movie is a nonstop onslaught of hilarious, mind-bending existential dialogue.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1599), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are bit characters. They’re cannon fodder called into existence to move the story (and Hamlet) along (to England). As title characters, the story of Hamlet flows around them while they simultaneously come to grips with having self-awareness thrust upon them and arriving at the inexorable conclusion that they lack free will.
If you’re not already familiar with Hamlet, I recommend absorbing the Cliffs Notes highlights before watching this movie.
Two of my favorite (of many, many) interactions:
Rosencrantz: Do you think death could possibly be a boat?
Guildenstern: No, no, no… Death is “not.” Death isn’t. Take my meaning? Death is the ultimate negative. Not being. You can’t “not be” on a boat.
Rosencrantz: I’ve frequently not been on boats.
Guildenstern: No, no, what you’ve been is not on boats.
The Player: The old man thinks he’s in love with his daughter.
Rosencrantz: Good God. We’re out of our depths here.
The Player: No, no, no! He hasn’t got a daughter! The old man thinks he’s in love with his daughter.
Rosencrantz: The old man is?
The Player: Hamlet… in love… with the old man’s daughter… the old man… thinks.
Sunday, April 19th, 2015
Co-written by Joss Whedon (of whom I am in awe) and Drew Goddard (in his directorial debut), Cabin in the Woods does a fantastic job of pairing the genuine fear I felt watching horror movies in my childhood ‒ I couldn’t sleep properly for weeks after watching (I shit you not) the edited-for-broadcast-television version of Friday the 13th, Part 2 (1981) ‒ with my adult appreciation for homage and the self-referential.
Goddard and Whedon collaborated on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997) and Angel (1999), two television series that affected my world view, which is the highest compliment I know how to pay. I love me some quality television and maybe I will post another series on that, but the topic at hand is film so let’s march on.
Cabin in the Woods starts off with all of the classic horror movie tropes (executed with sincerity and reverence) but then it grows. It becomes all horror movies and a commentary on all horror movies, all the while simultaneously entertaining and terrifying the viewer (in the way all the good ones do), and then sets a new bar with the mother of all endings.
One way that I evaluate movies (or books or plays or albums) is whether or not I’m still thinking about them days later. Another measure is whether or not I learn new things upon subsequent viewings. Cabin in the Woods delivers in spades on both counts. Oh, and they used 200,000 gallons of blood and you will never hear REO Speedwagon’s Roll with the Changes (1978) the same way again.
Bonus fun film fact #1 about Cabin in the Woods: At a fan Q&A, Goddard was asked, “Will there be a sequel?” Goddard replied, “Have you seen the ending to my movie?”
Bonus fun film fact #2 about Cabin in the Woods: Fran Kranz, who plays lovable hero stoner Marty, is so cut that they put baggy clothes on him and covered him up for the lake scene so he wouldn’t show up the other male leads.
Friday, April 17th, 2015
Movies have been around for about 125 years. Singin’ in the Rain basically comes in the middle. If you haven’t seen it then do yourself a favor; it has qualities representing the best of what movies can be. No matter how many times I watch, it still gets my undivided attention. It’s a straight-up entertaining romp offering hilarity, breathtakingly physical dance numbers and people who are pleasing to look at (Gene Kelly, ‘dat ass). It’s also the first film of which I am aware that goes meta, exploring the making of movies and the politics and personalities of Hollywood. My favorite example of this theme is Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) which, while it did not make my top 10, is absolutely fantastic and probably should have (picking 10 is hard).
Made in a period when American film was transitioning to projects of more substantial content such as On The Waterfront (1954), Singin’ in the Rain represents perhaps the pinnacle of the film age that came before. That was the age of the triple threat; actors who could sing, dance and, um, act. One of the numerous tales to come out of making Singin’ in the Rain is Gene Kelly reducing Debbie Reynolds to tears when he told her that she couldn’t dance. Making movies can be a harsh, cynical business (and Gene Kelly had a reputation for being a perfectionist who ruled through fear) but I can’t argue that the finished product is anything short of delightful.
Bonus fun film fact about Singin’ in the Rain: The bit about them putting milk in the rain so it would show up on camera for Gene Kelly’s signature number is bunk. The rain was backlit.
Bonus fun personal fact about Singin’ in the Rain: I refuse to screen A Clockwork Orange (1971) for my wife because I fret it would forever ruin subsequent viewings of Singin’ in the Rain for her. Does that make me a controlling, paternalistic dick?
Saturday, April 11th, 2015
So I had to pick a Tarantino film because I think he is one of the most important writer/directors working. I could have just as easily gone with Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994) or Death Proof (2007), because they’re all worthwhile in their own ways. I ultimately chose Inglourious Basterds because (to see the spoiler, highlight the following text):
Quentin Tarantino alters history and prematurely kills Hitler. Holy filet of fuck, the balls on this guy. DUDE, HE KILLS HITLER. HE SHOOTS HIM IN HIS STUPID TOOTHBRUSH MUSTACHE FACE WITH A MACHINE GUN AND SETS THE GODDAMN BUILDING ON FIRE.
I love his choices and I love listening to him talk about his projects. He has this incredible enthusiasm that totally comes through in the dialogue of his characters. For example, Tim Roth’s rooftop monologue in Reservoir Dogs when he tells the story about a drug deal gone screwy is absolutely in Tarantino’s voice. Tarantino is a master at building tension, as with the opening French farmhouse scene in Inglourious Basterds or the Mexican standoff scene in Reservoir Dogs or The Gimp scene in Pulp Fiction or the overdose scene in Pulp Fiction or The Bear Jew scene in Inglorious Basterds or the…
He brazenly and unapologetically borrows from film genres and the signature techniques of other brilliant directors (oh, and Brian De Palma) and then he expands on them. He’s a huge fan of movies and frequently pays them direct or indirect homage. One of my favorite examples is the vignette he directed for Four Rooms (1995) (another Tim Roth joint in which Tarantino is himself a character). Tarantino’s character, in full spasm, tells Roald Dahl’s story Man from the South as it was adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1960) (the one with Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre). The crux of the story is a bar bet over whether or not a cocky young man can light his Zippo ten times in a row. If he wins, he gets a convertible. If he loses, he gets his left little finger chopped off. The characters in Four Rooms then go on to reenact the bet.
The first time I watched this was on a VHS machine with a “back up 10 seconds” feature, and I burned up the machine rewinding the punchline I don’t know how many times while howling my fool head off.
I don’t know what it is about his approach to actor direction, but some of the best performances I have seen from specific actors have occurred in Tarantino movies. In the case of John Travolta, the performance he gave in Pulp Fiction singlehandedly resurrected his career. Choosing to focus on a positive aspect of that outcome, we got Get Shorty (1995). So as not to confuse, Get Shorty is not a Tarantino project, but it’s a great movie based on the novel of the same name by Elmore Leonard, and Leonard’s writing had a significant impact on Tarantino’s own (I can do this shit all day).
I suspect at the root of the performances he gets out of actors is that he has vividly imagined exactly what he wants to see and he would get in there and create it himself but he is a far better director than he is an actor. That’s not a knock; I love his cameos. It’s instead an observation on the frustrating gap between what you can do in your head versus what you can project into the world. Tarantino needs great actors (oh, and Michael Madsen) to accomplish that, and Steve Buscemi, David Carradine, George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Harvey Keitel, Brad Pitt, Ving Rhames, Tim Roth, Kurt Russell, Uma Thurman, John Travolta, Christopher Walken and Bruce Willis don’t seem to mind obliging him.
Bonus fun film fact about From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) (co-directed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino): Tarantino acted and directed the first half of the movie, which is all hard-boiled bank robbers on the lam. At the moment Tarantino’s character dies, Rodriguez takes over direction and the movie’s tone, ahem, makes a subtle shift.
Thursday, April 9th, 2015
It was an honest tossup between selecting this movie and A Clockwork Orange (1971). Both are adapted from novels by important writers (Chuck Palahniuk and Anthony Burgess, respectively). Both deal with violence as a response to unfulfilling or stifling social values or expectations. Both were controversial and criticized for encouraging real world copycat behavior. So why choose Fight Club over A Clockwork Orange? This is a list of my favorite movies, not some ivory tower fap over the 10 best films or filmmakers of all time. I’ll even concede happily that A Clockwork Orange is the superior film and that Kubrick is a breathtaking titan who kicks Fincher in the balls by comparison.
In fact, one of my favorite film jokes is about Kubrick.
A young director dies and goes to heaven. He meets Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates and they get to chatting. The young man says that he is so excited to be in heaven because he will have all eternity to converse and commune with so many brilliant, late filmmakers like Hitchcock and Kubrick. Saint Peter says, “Ah, well, Mr. Kubrick could be a while. God still has…questions.”
So, why Fight Club? For starters, it’s just so much goddamn fun. The movie pulls you in from the title sequence, promising and delivering a wild ride. The principal cast (Brad Pitt, Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter) turn in excellent performances from challenging material. David Fincher somehow preserves author Chuck Palahniuk’s tone and intent, which I would not have believed possible given just how distinctive and bizarre Palahniuk’s world view is.
Fincher directed ads and music videos early in his career and the frenetic pace and cutting of Fight Club reflect this to great effect. More than anything, I think it is underrated as a comedy. It’s a brutal, twisted buddy movie and I laugh out loud every time I watch it. My favorite anecdote about the making of the movie is Marla’s post-coitus line, “I haven’t been fucked like that since grade school.” Apparently the original line was “I want to have your abortion,” to which Fox 2000 Pictures objected, so Fincher changed it. He subsequently refused when they asked to change it back.
To sum up, this movie has an unconventional and deeply irreverent story, great acting, stunning visual effects and a humdinger of a twist ending. Fincher has directed, by my reckoning, three movies with twist endings: Se7en (1995), Fight Club and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), but he has by no means been typecast as “the twist guy” like that poor bastard M. Night Shyamalan. My (sixth) sense is that Fincher is happy to employ twists but he isn’t trapped by them like Shyamalan is (was).
Bonus fun film fact about Se7en: The next time you watch it, pay attention to the light and weather since they keep pace with the illumination of the story. At the beginning, the lighting is all paltry 40-watt wall sconces and it’s pouring rain. In the final scene, the film is positively washed out by the blazing sun in the arid desert. You’re welcome.
Thursday, April 9th, 2015
I am a huge fan of movies and, perhaps counter intuitively, I’ve resisted discussing them on this blog. From the outset I sought to write on subjects about which I was passionate, in lovingly-researched and crafted detail while avoiding personal, “dear diary” material. My relationship with movies is personal, hence the avoision (which really ought to be a word). Deciding to document my top 10 favorite movies of all time is an admission that I may have something worthwhile to say on the subject, and it has been a real exercise to commit to 10.
Looking at the selections together, I am struck by how many may have passed mainstream audiences by. I didn’t make these choices deliberately to eschew the popular (I’m not a hipster, for fuck’s sake). I have a big, rubbery one for Tom Cruise’s action oeuvre, for example. However, I think a lot of modern movies that get budgets and promotion are by and large forgettable pablum based on material cynically homogenized to maximize international box office returns. The kinds of movies that appeal to me get made in spite of the mainstream formula and will likely be watched in 100 years time.
The list, to be released serially, is in no particular order, but the top three or so are particularly dear to me. Some selections are based on directors whose bodies of work are so awesome as to make choosing just one movie impossible, and some selections are based on the merit of the movies alone. All of them sound swell through my kickass subwoofer.
I dedicate this series to my hero Roger Ebert. We did not always agree (you eviscerated or, worse, panned at least three of these movies) but you taught me so much and you wrote like I wish I could write. I would very much like to have known you.