Sunday, November 30, 2008


One might righteously (or self-righteously) ask the question, does the world really need Transporter 3, the third installment of the relatively under-the-radar action franchise fathered by loony French auteur Luc Besson (he’s the writer/producer of all three installments, but not their director)? Well, if the third episode of any franchise turns out as well as this one has, then the answer must be a resounding “Absolutely!” Taking the directorial reins from stunt coordinator Cory Yuen (who helmed the first film) and Louis Letterier (Transporter 2) is graffiti artist-turned-filmmaker Olivier Megaton, and yes, according to Stephanie Zacharek, the name is too good to be true—it’s an assumed moniker taken in remembrance of the bombing of Hiroshima, on the 30th anniversary of which the director was born. But it’s appropriate nonetheless to characterize the wicked energy that runs through the picture like high-voltage current.

Transporter 3 bears superficial resemblances to Quantum of Solace, namely a wily, slightly wimpy villain in charge of facilitating environmental disaster under the guise of environmental protection. But outside of Quantum’s admirable attempts to infuse Bond with recognizable humanity and to take measure of it as it modulates (some might say slows down) the narrative, Transporter 3 trumps the new Bond movie in just about every other way. It is, like Quantum, edited like shattered glass, but here the shards have been choreographed so that a sense of spatial geography is maintained. There’s never a doubt as to what blow is landing where, and the hand-to-hand combat is actually enhanced by the surging-receding tempo of the visuals. (I don’t recall any other movie making me laugh out loud at something as simple as the brazen, cheeky crispness of a smash cut to a car-- the Audi-- coming to a sliding highway stop on what seems like the edge of the world’s thinnest dime.) The action is cheeky too—the movie starts with a superb sequence that intercuts a rip-roaring chase with the serene pleasure of two men fishing, expertly timed so that their conversation punctuates the action with astonishing rhythmic precision, and it just goes uphill from there. (A memorable episode involving two trailer trucks and the ingenuity of the talented transporter’s two-wheeled driving skills--glimpsed briefly in the trailer-- has surely already entered the annals of the all-time classics of roadway pursuit.)

But the movie belongs almost entirely to Jason Statham, who provides a perfectly sleek, impossibly muscled corollary to the movie’s impressive design and filmmaking prowess. Statham is about as stripped down and graphically functional an action hero as moviegoers have ever seen—that bullet- headed profile highlights a face not humorless but almost always engaged in some measure of an industrial-strength scowl, and it sits on top of a body that is perhaps as convincingly cut a weapon we’ve seen since the days of Bruce Lee. (I don’t know what the star’s actual martial arts abilities are, but no matter--the Transporter series is not selling, of all things, verisimilitude, and Statham sells himself, with the help of his directors, quite nicely, thank you.)

He wears his no-frills black jacket, tie and crisp white shirt as a faint echo of Bond at his most dapper, but the effect on Statham is functional style—he rarely looks less than spiffy, but if the situation calls for it (and it will call for it), you can damn well bet that jacket and shirt will get pressed into service when a set of nunchaku are simply unavailable. (The effect is something like Enter the Dragon by way of MacGyver.) Statham’s trump card (and the series’) is his talent as an actor of some style and grace as well-- he has elevated far less worthy vehicles than this with his stillness, the sense that he is listening to, not just tolerating, his on-screen companions, and his crack timing (assisted, no doubt, by the movie’s intuitive and quick-witted editors). But Statham is sharp enough that his performance already feels felt out in terms of the way the film is pieced together—he’s a corker all on his own.

(I’ve come to enjoy Statham’s big-screen appearances, even in crap like Death Race, so much that I finally had to admit to my wife that I just might have a man-crush on the actor. She was disgusted, but when I revealed as much to a wise colleague in an e-mail over the weekend, he told me of an editor who once advised him that we can't let our sense of beauty at the movies be determined by our sexual orientation. Words to watch Transporter movies by, for sure!)

Earlier this year, in The Bank Job, Statham effortlessly conveyed a sense of assurance mixed with fears borne of family concerns and sexual tension, and infused his robber-with-a-conscience character with far more than the standard issue invulnerable swagger. As the transporter Frank Martin, whose allegiance to his own code of asking no questions and not getting involved with the motives of his employers is here put to the ultimate test, he’s working far more inside the stoic and no-nonsense template we’ve come to expect of modern action heroes. But part of the kick in watching Transporter 3 comes from seeing just how he is seduced into bending those rules and to what degree, underneath all the rock-hard conviction, he really wants to be seduced.

The plot involves Frank being hired by a slimy American environmentalist (Prison Break’s Robert Knepper, who looks like Morrissey as a desiccated second-rate playboy) to transport the spectacularly freckled Valentina (Natalya Rudakova), daughter of a blackmailed Ukranian official (Jeroen Krabbe), back to her father as payment for authorization of the delivery of some very nasty toxic waste to the Black Sea port at Odessa. Frank must balance the overtures of a mysterious group of assailants who seem to want him (and her) dead with his employer’s insurance policy, which comes in the form of explosive bracelets that will detonate if either driver or passenger moves further than 75 feet from the vehicle. (The movie tests this potentially explosive dilemma in a spectacular sequence in which Frank, separated from his Audi by another low-rent transporter, pursues the car by bike, across rooftops and through plate glass in the hopes of not increasing the separation to a fatal 76 feet.) Initially turned on by the efficiency of Frank’s driving and fighting, Valentina does what she can to get under our hero’s skin, and part of the surprise in Transporter 3 is not only how believably effective she is at it, but that because of Statham’s understated, burgeoning interest in her as something more than annoying freight (they pass the time by talking about their ideal meals), we don’t see the dip into romance as an unnecessary diversion. The movie makes you believe the characters deserve their moment to, as Valentina says in her charmingly broken English, “feel the sex” before they might quite possibly die.

A movie that moves this fast, this swiftly, can paper over a lot of silliness, and Transporter 3 certainly disguises its share. But a movie that moves this fast can also unexpectedly take your breath away with quick bits of business, like that highway stop, or a sly smile flitting across an actor’s face (Statham gets lots of these, as does series veteran Francois Berleand as Frank’s beleaguered ally on the French police force), and it can seduce us much like Frank ends up at the hands of his bespeckled passenger. (Rudakova is spunky and sexy, but she’s no replacement for the first movie’s delectable Shu Qi, seen at left.) At times Transporter 3 seems more like a shiny toy, or a shiny car commercial, than a movie—- Megaton occasionally overdoes some of the picture’s signature ad campaign-style image speed-shifting. But an action thriller that generates as consistently wide a grin as this one does shouldn't be made to suffer too many such relatively churlish complaints. Transporter 3 is a goofy movie gift-- loud, wild, absurd, and unexpectedly pleasurable-- and it comes wrapped in as-yet-unassuming, whiz-bang packaging that I hope its filmmaking shepherds use several more times before the franchise, and its singularly entertaining star, get too big for that black suit and tie.

UPDATE 12/1/08: This is from Wednesday, November 26, but it's new to me-- Armond White registers his approval. (Is "approval" a strong-enough word?)

Friday, November 28, 2008


Something else to be thankful for: My friend Larry Aydlette tells the fascinating story behind this brilliant photograph and many others in a wonderful new post (accompanied by many more stunning images) entitled "The Train Photos of O. Winston Link." Larry’s post will likely inspire you, as it has me, to find out more about Link, as well as order up a poster-sized print of the photo for myself for Christmas. Luxuriate in Link's images and the well-told story of his career right here.

And since we’re on the subject of evocative photography, please do check out Tom Sutpen’s photo essay miniseries "Les grands ballons des Macy’s" at his incomparable blog If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger, There’d Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats. Thanks, Tom, for another great collection, and for your Thanksgiving wishes. They are returned tenfold upon you. (And thanks to Robert Fiore for suggesting we all point ourselves toward this superb series.)

Thursday, November 27, 2008


How can we not be most thankful for the people we love, who influence us, whose business it is to help us along our way and enrich our lives? Without the following people in my world, I would have damned little to be thankful for.


My wife Patty and my two daughters, E. and N. You three give me reason to get out of bed every day as well as renewed hope for a happy future and constant joy during even the toughest and most tiring of days. I love you all.

Bruce Lundy, my best friend. How lucky I have been to have known you for 31 years and counting. Your unfailing support and your honesty mean so much to me—I’ll always be grateful to you for all the late-night laughter ever since we were kids, and the way you defined what being a true friend can mean. I love you too.

My parents, both sets: Reggie & Neoma Cozzalio, and Yoneo & Kimiko Yokoe. To know your love is there is the greatest assurance.


And to Brian Conboy, Carrie & Evan Cossey, Liz DeKam, Pattie Elder-Lundy, Chris & Teresa Lundy, Don Mancini, Beverly Pura, Paul Reilly, Angie & Tom Schneider, Jonas Sjogren, Haruka Sometani, Andy Torres, Mark Wagers, Katie Warrener, Angie Yokoe, Debbie Yokoe & Cameron Ashbaugh: Each of you made my life enjoyable and happier in your own way through your friendship, respect and support, and I’m thankful for each moment I got to spend with each one of you; I only wish that time could have been multiplied a hundred times over.

To my teachers, Dorothea Soghomonian and Virginia Karanfilian: All the thanks in the world for your wisdom, patience and good humor; you are making my life richer with each day I spend learning from you.


Larry Aydlette: You, sir, are the best. I know that’s just, like, my opinion, man, but it’s a good one. Give my best to Aydlettes one and all! (And where did you get that great picture on your header?)

Peet Gelderblom: for Directorama, sure, but more for just being a good friend. Here’s to you and yours, all the way to Holland.

Jim Emerson: Rest in peace, Frances, a friend well loved. All my best to you for the coming year, Jim.

And to David Edelstein, James Wolcott, Kim Morgan, Brian Darr, Campaspe (Thank you especially, C., for that special shout-out earlier this year!), Bill R., Sal Gomez, Glenn Kenny, Ray Young, Paul Matwychuk, Kimberly Lindbergs, Rick Olson, Paul Clark, Mr. Peel, Andrew Grant, Ali Arikan, Brian Doan, Matthew Kiernan, Ed Howard, Robert Fiore, Chris Stangl, Tom Sutpen, Ross Ruediger, Adam Ross, Andrew Bemis, Girish Shambu, Jonathan Lapper, Peter Nellhaus, Aaron W. Graham, Michael Torgan, Phil Blankenship, Brian Quinn, Nick Schager, Stacie Ponder, Joe Dante, Steven Carlson, Schuyler Chapman, Marilyn Ferdinand and Heidi Sackerson: You have all enriched the experience of reading this blog with your smart commentary and invaluable presence over the past year. I only hope I can continue to give you all reason to keep reading and making your voices part of the community I cherish on this site, and I thank you for the work you do in your own arenas as well. Some of you I’ve been honored to meet in person; for the time we were able to spend together in 2008, I am once again beyond grateful.


This week alone I am thankful to Jim Emerson for republishing his wonderful essay on Nashville’s Lady Pearl and also for his moving pictorial tribute to his good friend.


And it may seem odd, but Stephanie Zacharek’s completely sincere appreciation for Transporter 3 may be the single most purely enjoyable piece of film criticism of any stripe that I’ve read all year. When most other reviewers signal their preconceived notions of a movie like this by the level of the dismissive, above-it-all snark that characterizes their approach, Zacharek’s open delight seems even more refreshing and disarming. I liked the first Transporter, the second not so much, and after reading her keen prose on 3 I am more than ready to give it a whirl. And whether I end up liking the movie or not, I’m sure I’ll always enjoy reading her thoughts on it.


On this Thanksgiving Day, when Frank and Jamie McCourt are sending out the mixiest of mixed signals regarding their intent to resign Manny Ramirez, or any other free agents for that matter, I am exceedingly grateful for the intelligence Jon Weisman brings to that most intellectually and emotionally dodgy of pursuits, being a Dodger fan.


This is going to sound strange, but I’m actually grateful for being diagnosed with type-2 diabetes this past April. I’m not glad I have the disease, but I’m extremely grateful for the level of awareness of my own health that it has precipitated. Since that diagnosis my blood sugar and blood pressure levels are better than they’ve been in years—all normal, finally—and I’ve been able to dialogue with lots of smart, level-headed people who communicated to me in no uncertain terms how easy it is to control the symptoms and to realize that having diabetes, while serious and inconvenient, is no death sentence. Thanks especially to Bill R., who really helped me understand this way back in April, when the option to start looking at life through mud-colored glasses was definitely on the table.


I’m really thankful for the Trek 520.


I’m thankful for the 2008 election results (and to Alonso Moseley for highlighting an aspect of Obama the candidate in the second link that struck me as really valuable and unique among modern-day politicians). And of course I’m thankful to Sarah Palin, a onetime slick move turned high-fashion albatross, for helping to make it all happen. (Thanks, Jim, for the clip.)


And finally, even though there’s still plenty of exciting film to come in 2008, I’m grateful for this bit of late-breaking, hard-hitting news from the world of cinema breathlessly posted on IMDb yesterday, November 26, dateline Hollywood: Guttenberg, Selleck And Danson Reteam For Another Three Men Sequel

"Actor Steve Guttenberg will reunite with Tom Selleck and Ted Danson for a new sequel to 1987 hit movie Three Men And A Baby. The acting trio scored huge box office success with their comedic turn as bachelors forced to look after a girlfriend's kids after they are left holding the baby. They made a sequel in 1990, titled Three Men and a Little Lady, and now, 18 years later, Guttenberg, Selleck and Danson are set to reprise their roles for a new installment. Guttenberg, 50, says, ‘Tom Selleck, Ted Danson and I are looking to make another Three Men And A Baby movie. It's called Three Men and A Bride. The script is pretty much written and we are really keen to get that made. We're very hopeful.’ Guttenberg is also in the process of reviving the Police Academy franchise, which shot him to fame in the early 1980s.”

Yes, but just like that proposed Plant-less Led Zep reunion, this will only be a true reunion if Leonard Nimoy directs.

But really, why stop with Three Men and Police Academy? Surely the time is right for sequels to A Fine Mess, High Road to China and, of course, The Chicken Chronicles while we're at it.


Finally, because you know it's coming, because it just wouldn’t be the holiday without it…

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, everyone. (And just what is that guy doing to that bird right at the end there?)

Monday, November 24, 2008


Twitch has all the details on the real movie behind this hilarious trailer, which will bow to audiences eager to get their Slaughter on at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009.

If this one plays as straight and straight-funny as it does in the trailer, writer-director Scott Sanders (Roc) may have cooked up blaxploitation parody that could end up a deadpan classic and make you forget all about I'm Gonna Git You, Sucka! Or it may just make you want to leave the theater early and rent the collected works of Fred “The Hammer” Williamson. Either way, honkies and bitches, it's a stone-cold can't-miss deal, right?

(Thanks to Robert Hubbard and Sal Gomez for sending this one my way. Twitch features higher-resolution clips, if you're into the whole clarity thing, man, but somehow low-rez seems to work better for me in this case. Either way, Twitch's warning is well-heeded and worth repeating: don’t watch this one at work unless you want to get fired.)

Low-rez conversation starter: What's your favorite blaxploitation movie? (Whatever it is, it's sure to get a shout-out in Black Dynamite.)



Insofar as the thematically chameleonesque Danny Boyle can be pinned down from film to film, Slumdog Millionaire seems like the most potent expression of his own stylistic preoccupations since he virtually set them in celluloid stone with Trainspotting back in 1996. That is, there is lots of luscious, detailed camerawork (perhaps even more since Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle have shot Slumdog in expressive, vibrantly grainy, purposefully mobile HD video) and frenetic, some might say impatient editing (including a preponderance of smash cuts and other techniques of visceral graphic continuity), all laid down on top of a propulsive soundtrack heavily laden with world music beats as the characters jump and dash and hurtle through their urban obstacle courses. Though borne of the same visually oriented British filmmaking sensibility that unleashed advert veterans Ridley and Tony Scott and Alan Parker upon the world, Boyle’s movies, even when they don’t work, seem to go down easier than those of his cohorts. He hasn’t either Ridley’s pretentious indifference or Tony’s apparent contempt for most of the characters he chooses to put on screen, nor is he crippled by the morally addled sensationalism that is the hallmark of the typical Alan Parker film. But Trainspotting often seemed to value effect and lip service to a humane worldview over that worldview itself, which is why the movie, though admirable in many ways, has always seemed slightly, weirdly aloof to me, snappy but built on a twitchy vitality that is the opposite of the benumbed opiate orientation of its characters. But in Slumdog Millionaire Boyle strains his cinematic gifts through a Bollywood filter and puts them to the service of a romantic fable wrapped around a vivid portrait of modern-day Mumbai (formerly Bombay) as a kingdom of corrugated roofs and overflowing, mobile humanity, the story of a life lived on the streets where crushing poverty and nouveau riche consumption coexist without commentary, as if a microcosm of the world could be seen in this one teeming, aching city.

The action swirls and bolts and otherwise centers around Jamal (Dev Patel), whose unbelievably successful performance on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? leads to torture at the hands of the local police, who are convinced that Jamal, a chai wala (one who serves tea) at an international telemarketing organization, couldn’t possibly have answered the questions on the show without somehow cheating. But Jamal insists that he simply knew the answers, and the movie is structured as a series of episodes, intercut with his appearance on the show, that illustrate, in the impossibly symmetrical dovetailing manner of a true fable, the painful methods by which Jamal becomes aware of the trivia that will make him, for a brief moment, the focus of a nation’s fantasies of wealth and escape. He and his brother, Salim, are orphaned during anti-Muslim riots and fall under the influence of thugs who maim children in order to ensure their successful careers as beggars whose afflictions will best appeal to the guilt of those on the street with money to give away. It is here that Jamal and Salim connect with Latika, with whom Jamal falls in love and devotes his life to saving from the horrors of the Mumbai underworld as they grow older.

Boyle’s empathy with his young cast (there are three set of actors playing Jamal, Salim and Latika at different stages of their lives) is a marvel to behold, crowned by the limber, natural beauty of the three who portray these Mumbai musketeers in young adulthood—Patel, all charming determination and wounded, anxious grace; Madhur Mittal as Salim, the epitome of ambivalence as he straddles the fence separating gangster amorality and fraternal duty; and Frieda Pinto, impossibly beautiful, ultimately violated, but never more a symbol of virtue than she is a human being, even as her voice calls to Jamal out of the dark and offers, for a moment, the possibility of redemption while an entire country watches and listens breathlessly. Working from Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay (itself based on a novel by Vikas Swarup), the director deftly balances the requirements of disbelief in the film’s very structure—that convenient referencing of key events in Jamal’s life during the game show—with a hauntingly beautiful, but never romanticized picture of how a pulsating, overpopulated city like Mumbai works and breathes. Boyle’s overcaffeineated approach takes some getting used to, but it ends up in the service of the rare movie that uses its cacophonous, visually cluttered aesthetic as a vital extension of the experience of its characters, not just as a way of keeping its jaded audience from falling asleep. Far from lulling complacency, Slumdog Millionaire generates palpable highs through dedication to the generous telling of its narrative, and by the celebratory it’s-only-a-movie Bollywood dance number that will entice you to stay for the end credits and may just send you out of the theater, as it did me, aloft and sated on yet another in a series of unexpected pleasures.


The god-awful The Giant Spider Invasion, on the other hand, may send you searching for the off switch on your DVD remote, or in the best-case scenario, sprinting for the volumes of the collected criticism of Joe Bob Briggs on your shelves to find out more, so intoxicating is its homemade ineptitude. A bitter, worn-down farmer and his incongruously beautiful (and alcoholic) wife witness a meteor crash into their cow pasture—the leavings found in the crater look like little rocks with diamonds in them, but they’re really interstellar arachnid eggs that hatch into hairy pet shop specimens, which in turn sometimes (the biological scenario is never made clear) turn into giant Volkswagen-sized beasts that roam the horizon and threaten to chomp on veteran character actors like Barbara Hale, Steve Brodie and Alan Hale Jr. If you were a drive-in movie veteran in 1975, chances are you saw this one and plenty others like it—part of the post-Willard creature wave of the early ‘70s that included hits like Stanley (rattlesnakes), Night of the Lepus (giant bunny rabbits), the Bert I. Gordon double-header of The Food of the Gods (chickens, rats, et al.) and Empire of the Ants (um, giant ants). I was thrilled to come across The Giant Spider Invasion as part of TCM’s Friday night cult movies lineup—it’s no Food of the Gods, but as an example of a no-budget regional cheapie that did relatively phenomenal business during the summer of Jaws, it will slake your impulse hunger for the found comedy and cheap thrills only a genuine piece of crap can deliver while at the same time throwing a cold bucket of water on your nostalgia for drive-in pictures. (Turns out they weren’t all as keen as Death Race 2000, now, were they?) The Mystery Science Theater 3000 version is purportedly hilarious, but I recommend The Giant Spider Invasion uncut by someone else’s snark. It’s much more fun enjoying your own jokes while imagining yourself watching it in your hometown drive-in 33 years ago, when not every big monster movie had to be whiz-bang slick, and most of them, like The Giant Spider Invasion, weren’t even close.


Disney’s Bolt is a surprisingly enjoyable family picture, one rejiggered under the auspices of new Disney head of animation John Lasseter. The new movie is a beaut, low on self-conscious pop culture japes and high on Pixar-style storytelling virtues—it’s a meta-comedy about a Hollywood dog (John Travolta in fine form) who doesn’t know his entire life spent rescuing his favorite person, little Jenny (Miley Cyrus, who has a lovely, smokily expressive voice for cartoons), has actually been a choreographed fake—he’s the unwitting star of a wildly popular Lassie-with-superpowers TV show. After Bolt inadvertently escapes the set and ends up across the country in New York City (where he hooks up with a cynical alley cat voiced by Susie Essman), the movie turns into a road trip on which he struggles to reconnect with Jenny, even as he becomes increasingly confused and concerned that his powers, including a patented and devastating super-bark, no longer seem to be quite so effective. In addition to showing the revitalizing influence of Pixar on a Disney animation division previously beholden to rickety straight-to-video sequels, Bolt, in its 3D incarnation, bodes well for a surging trend in 3D computer-animated films in that (and again, this may be the Pixar influence) it is primarily a showcase for its smart script and the filmmaking talent behind the keyboards and computer towers and not just a flimsy excuse to throw things at the audience. The gorgeousness of Bolt’s visual design seems organic (if a computer-generated movie can be called organic), and the thrills are rooted in seeing the movie’s familiar action template (and its nods to The Incredible Journey) play out in what my old ViewMaster would have called StereoVision. The instances of things being flung at the audience are few—no bouncing paddle balls threatening to knock your 3D glasses off—and the vivid, bright landscapes and character renderings preclude the kind of muddy imagery that has marred 3D films from their inception up through previous attempts to revive the novelty with movies like Jaws 3D and Comin’ at Ya!. Instead, we get to luxuriate in a realistically rendered cartoon world and marvel when that world, as it does more often than not, seems unpredictably naturalistic, on top of being simply impressively detailed. And when you see Bolt in 3D you’ll likely see a preview from Dreamworks’ promising jumble of Mars Attacks! and Monsters, Inc. entitled Monsters vs. Aliens, as well as a tantalizing, and happily none-too-explicit, trailer for Pixar’s upcoming summer release, Up (also in 3D), which offers a mere suggestion of its premise—an old man’s house gets borne aloft (with him in it) by thousands of balloons—and leaves you craving much, much more.


I’ve reserved a spot on my best performances of 2008 list for Paul Rudd in Role Models, a toxically funny Apatowian mixture of politically incorrect character humor, incredibly bad behavior and unsentimental life lessons that could have played maximum mean-spirited were it not for the sly virtues of its actors, Rudd’s being chief among them. The star and pal Sean William Scott (toning down the usual smarm to just the right level here) are assigned 150 hours of community service instead of jail time in the aftermath of a metal-crunching episode involving their dead-end jobs as energy drink salesmen, their company vehicle and an exasperated tow-truck driver. Rudd (featured earlier this year in hilarious support of Forgetting Sarah Marshall) is one of the credited screenwriters here, along with director David Wain and co-scenarists Ken Marino and Timothy Dowling, and he plays the lines he’s helped give himself with a perfectly wry crinkle, the suggestion of a shrug that cannot be formulated to express the full-on disdain he actually feels, and the tossed-off cynicism that is his ultimately powerless response to the absurdities of everyday life. That cynicism gets a full airing when he and Scott end up doing time as big brothers under the auspices of swaggering ex-coke head social worker Jane Lynch (who finally gets a good, meaty role after a run of welcome cameos in lesser movies, like Alvin and the Chipmunks). Scott becomes chaperone to a foul-mouthed 10-year-old African American kid with a harsh wit and the kind of appetites enflamed by oncoming puberty, which makes the two of them a perfect pair. Less than perfect is Rudd’s matching with a young geek (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, better known as McLovin’) whose immersion in a medieval role-playing society offers plenty of opportunities for his mentor to openly suffer and, as it turns out, even more opportunities for Role Models to expand beyond the usual litany of crass set pieces into the kind of ribald character comedy that places it far closer to Superbad than most other comedies thriving in Apatow’s shadow. I’ve resisted the temptation to repeat jokes here out of allegiance to preserving the movie’s high laugh ratio, but also because much of what’s funny about Role Models is untranslatable, so much as it is derived from the glee that the actors bring to the table and the way Wain knows how to cut to perfect reactions and aside glances without pushing the jokes down our throats. Better just to recommend you see it soon, before some well-meaning soul tries to goad you into going by trying to outdo the spin Rudd puts on the mocking retorts that are this picture’s bread and butter and ends up deflating them into simple laff lines, ones that sound like they could come from any of a number of recent movies that are far less smart and satisfying and funny than this one.


Finally, there’s not a lot of be said about Quantum of Solace that can’t be summed up by the somewhat noncommittal phrase, “It’s not as bad as you’ve heard.” Actually, it’s pretty good, especially if you recognize it as a transitional movie, one that doesn’t exist on its own so much as provide the bridge between the spectacularly effective revision of the Bond franchise in Casino Royale (Can there be a moratorium on the phrase “reboot” to describe the retooling of age-old series like this and Star Trek?) and the new post-Bourne Bond to come. This 2008 vintage offers none of the series touchstones-- Bond gets drunk on shaken martinis with nary a quip, and even the pre-credits action sequence is left unpunctuated by the familiar silhouette firing at the audience. (It is significant, I think, that this familiar bit of business comes at the end.) I think Armond White is onto something when he speaks of Quantum as being an exercise in which Daniel Craig and company are engaged in the process of reinventing a pop myth, which, as Robert Altman and Elliot Gould could tell you, requires a whole lot more than just recasting your main character and updating the technology on and off the screen. It makes emotional sense that Bond should be as deadened as he is here—he’s transitioning from government robot to an agent with a fuller understanding of what it is his bosses, including the superbly poker-faced M (Judi Dench), must ask of him. And we as an audience are being asked to approach the gaining of that knowledge with a bit more patience than is usually asked of us, especially by a hugely expensive chapter in the most reliably entertaining and popular franchise in movie history.

Art-house director Marc Forster turns out to be a more interesting choice that expected here because he naturally works in rhythms that are a challenge to the action movie template, and he helps give the entire enterprise the feeling of something unusual, hints of feeling that may be too well hidden under the movie’s infatuation with extreme violence. But the shepherds of Bond, whether Forster is asked to return or whether another identifiable director comes on board for film #24, should look beyond the Bourne template if they are to truly give 007 new life. Many of the action sequences here, while ostensibly well-staged, are turned into cinematic hash by editing that has no identifiable variance, just metronomically fast smash-cuts that fail to enhance the action and instead distract from it. The car chase that opens the movie and a rooftop foot chase 20 minutes later (that pales in comparison to that parkour-inflected beaut that opened Casino Royale) both have considerably less impact than they could because the experience of watching them (and recalling them hours later) is like looking through prisms of glass at rapidly moving objects which you want to see much more clearly than you are able. (Would it be too much to hope that the next director-editor team takes a look at Ronin instead of whatever Paul Greengrass is up to?) All that said, the dialogue is sharp; the story, involving global manipulations at the hands of an environmentalist with the usual delusions of world domination (Mathieu Amalric), is borderline too complicated but ultimately coherent and compelling; Forster and screenwriters Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade work in a nifty, nasty nod to Goldfinger; and there is still Daniel Craig, whose brute, working-class beauty and genuine acting skill bodes well for the immediate future of the Bond series even if the current episode comes off, especially in comparison to the last one, a mite flat. But those sackcloth-and-ashes claims that Quantum is one of the worst of all the Bond films seem to me the slightest bit overstated. Need I remind anyone of Moonraker, or A View to a Kill, or The World is Not Enough? Even the much derided opening credits song (caterwauling courtesy of Jack White and Alicia Keys) isn’t as bad as what Madonna did for Die Another Day. It is enough though, as the series looks to the future, to make one hope that someone looks back to Shirley Bassey and finds some inspiration there again soon.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Faces that made me glad to be alive and watching movies in 2008, even when sometimes the movies themselves weren't always so good...

Brendan Gleeson, In Bruges

Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Happy Go Lucky

Bingbing Li, The Forbidden Kingdom

Danny McBride, The Foot Fist Way

Anna Faris, The House Bunny

Jason Statham, Death Race, The Bank Job

Anne Hathaway, Get Smart, Rachel Getting Married

Lina Leanderson, Kare Hedebrant, Let the Right One In

Juergen Vogel, Der Freie Wille

Elizabeth Pena, How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer

Asia Argento, Mother of Tears

Angelina Jolie, Wanted

Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Slumdog Millionaire

Norah Jones, Rachel Weisz, My Blueberry Nights

Christina Ricci, Roger Allam, Paulie Litt (with Willy and Kenzie), Speed Racer

Friday, November 14, 2008



So here I was, peacefully navigating through the benign streams of the World Wide Internets, when I was tagged (in a very general way by old pal Larry Aydlette, and more specifically by Bill R.) for the A to Z Film List meme currently coursing through the arteries of the blogosphere. (Is it a mixed metaphor if you have to imagine the corporeality of one of the metaphor’s elements? I’m just curious…) Anyway, the general idea of the meme is that the respondent name 26 films, one for each letter of the alphabet, which somehow represents the author in some way-- Larry constructed his entirely of films noir, thrillers and detective movies; Bill, on the other hand, went for a more generalized representation of his tastes in films, and wondered out loud what it meant that there were so few horror movies on his list.

But I am taking Larry’s notion that the list be constructed in any way and to represent anything that the author sees fit, as long as it adheres to the one hard and fast rule-- the one that insists entries that start with “The” be classified not as “T” entries but instead by the letter that begins the second word of the title, per classical alphabetization standards—therefore, The Green Slime is a “G” entry. I decided, rather than trot out another version of my top 100 (or in this case top 26) movies, I’d try something a little different-- it was apparent this would be a necessity when I saw Bill’s list and realized that if I stayed in a generalized arena I could probably just cut and paste 80% of his list and call it my own. So, in a hopefully not too annoying attempt to cut a slightly different trail through the brush, I decided that I would make my list entirely out of movies that were either much better than their reputations, or movies that were less likely to be on the tops of many readers’ minds, especially when it comes to favorites-oriented projects like this. The fact that I am far less well-rounded and esoterically experienced than potential players like Girish, Filmbrain or Brian Darr may cast this second part of my classification in a possibly unintentionally humorous light (“He thinks no one’s heard of that?!”). But forward I sally nonetheless, never being one to actively resist the opportunity to appear foolish. What follows is an A to Z list undeniably and primarily populated by mainstream films, many of which have the reputation of being dogs of various breeds, many of which may not be as familiar to some readers as others, but all of which are, in one form or other, available to view online or on DVD. The intent, really, is simply to jog memories and, of course, to cast a light on some favorites of mine, the titles of which usually don’t get bandied about in a discussion of what makes a good film. That is the one thing these films, the disreputable, the disavowed, the financially disappointing, all have in common—they are genuine pleasures, not at all guilty ones, and they all carry my most sincere recommendation.



(David Fincher; 1992) It may never be fashionable to appreciate David Fincher's feature film debut, this much-maligned chapter (held in none-too-high regard by the director himself) in the apparently ongoing (as long as there's a Predator to smack down) Alien saga. But there's awful beauty in Fincher's relentlessly downbeat, religiously tinged film, and as an intellectual extension of the original film's hushed B-movie moodiness, Alien 3's bleak existential inevitability has it all over James Cameron's more immediately entertaining gung-ho militaristic revisionism of the series' powerful maternal obsessions. Ripley's sacrifice at the end of this film is the chillingly resonant punctuation mark this series truly deserved. (Too bad the allure of potential further profits couldn't leave a good thing, even a relative box-office flop like this one, alone for long.)


Robert Altman; 1976) Altman's Bicentennial celebration took the country's celebratory tendency toward self-mythologizing (never more exuberantly on display than during this 200th-year party) and turned it on its sow's ear, exposing the spirit of determination colored by the paranoia and fear jangling around inside the American Dreamscape. As I wrote recently on the occasion of the death of Paul Newman, "(The actor's) Buffalo Bill is a fool haunted by the demons of his own insecurity, his own knowledge of his inability to even come close, as a man, to the epic shadow he has already begun to cast over the nation’s view of itself. The actor’s piercing blue eyes have never seemed as haunted as they do peering out from the bewigged leonine visage of Bill Cody in full performance regalia, as he simultaneously embodies the full bluster of American manifest destiny and cocks an ear toward the voices echoing in his head that will constantly remind him, in the night, of the bitter truth behind that bluster." Here is a rendering of coarse, vital Americana that, while not as as vibrant and rich as Nashville, can stand with that landmark film as an important part of a great American director's great national portrait.


(Ron Shelton; 1994) Here is one of the best movies about baseball, albeit one with the least actual baseball played in it. Shelton's subject is the elusive nature of heroism, and what better avenue to examine that subject than through the dark glass of the life of one of the sport's greatest competitors and most reviled figures. (Shelton's next movie will be an adaptation of the book revolving around the BALCO-Barry Bonds investigation, Game of Shadows.) Tommy Lee Jones' performance as Cobb is at times hard to bear, so raw and unmerciful is its tenor and aggression. But that was the real-life Cobb too, a man who played hard, hated perhaps harder, and embodied a strain of heroism combining respect, dedication and unbridled fury that seems more inextricable from our national character with each passing year.


(Brian De Palma; 1980) I had to include this brilliant movie as a prime example of a title that hardly deserves the reputation it has in some quarters, as the most egregious example of artistic cannibalism by a director who would be nothing were it not for his ability to subsist off the collected works of Alfred Hitchcock. De Palma is merely the most open of directors about his influences. But how many willing to level this age-old charge have noticed how dissimilar the movies are from their supposed sources of inspiration? Does Dressed to Kill feel anything like Psycho? No, it is, whether you like it or not, its own beast, a creation forged in the feverish imagination of a director who has a lot more on his mind-- certainly in this movie-- than just empty homage. De Palma uses Hitchcock-- and Antonoini, and Powell, and many others-- as jumping-off points toward fulfilling an artistic geography that, at its most potent (as it is here), mixes fear and sex and comedy like no other director ever has. A De Palma movie is as easily recognizable as a Hitchcock film, yes, but not just because they share some of the same elements. In modern Hollywood, it's a sick joke, one worthy of one of his own movies, that this director should be held up as an example of someone bereft of an original thought.


(Robert Aldrich; 1973) A great, underrated masterpiece of spectral existentialist machismo from an vastly underrated director. The movie, about a symbolic battle for primacy between a seasoned hobo (Lee Marvin) and a psychotic railroad conductor (Ernest Borgnine), avoids easy sentimentalism like the plague. (Not for nothing did the movie's initial ad campaign show Lee Marvin as king of a garbage heap.) As I wrote here two years ago, "Emperor of the North looks, to these eyes, like the director’s most sustained, well-paced, crisply edited and viscerally imagined film, surely the zenith of his career as an 'action director.'”


(Errol Morris; 1997) Morris may have made more socially significant documentaries, but he's never made one that taps into the human soul as deeply as this one does. A quadtych of portraits, of a lion tamer, a topiary gardener, a robotics engineer and a man obsessed with mole rats, that eloquently illustrate the desire/need for man to impose control upon the essentially uncontrollable. FC&OOC emerges as a superbly sympathetic symphony of eccentricity, a moody and stylistically eclectic tone poem in the guise of a standard talking-heads piece that quickly shreds all allegiance to that form as it takes flight and defines itself as something entirely unique. Just like its four subjects.


(Sidney Gilliatt; 1947) A stark and subtly creepy British murder mystery set in a military hospital during World War II, Green for Danger is captivating and dryly, mordbidly funny throughout. The movie is shot through with the fresh devastation England was still processing in the shadow of the war's conclusion and manages to make that devastation part of the framework of the picture without ever becoming turgid and heavy-handed. Alastair Sim's performance as Inspector Cockrill is a gem, heading a peerless cast that includes Trevor Howard, Rosamund John, Leo Genn and the profoundly sexy Sally Gray, all gorgeous eyes, insinuating looks and smoky tones as one of the nurses both in danger and under suspicion as a murderer continues his deadly work.


(Stephen Herek; 1998) A strange little comedy that deserves a closer look, and far less bile than it has managed to generate amongst those who even remember it exists. Murphy is an evangelist of sorts who is nearly run over by a shopping network marketing genius (Jeff Goldblum). The marketing whiz the saves his own job by turning Murphy into a bizarre basic-cable phenomenon, grafting the preacher's religious fervor onto the materialistic compulsions of an overly eager TV audience. Neither as sharp or as spare as the movie with which it shares its essence- Being There-- but it is gentle and funny and pointed in its own way, and far better than the other dreck baring Murphy's name (Metro, Dr. Dolittle, The Distinguished Gentleman, et al.) that was being released at the time.


(Harold Ramis; 2006) My one direct steal from Bill R.'s list-- it's just too good a movie to let slide by. Cusack and Thornton orchestrate a robbery from Mob middle management on the night that Wichita, Kansas does a 15-degree freeze-over, making a clean getaway next to impossible. The hooks that femme fatale Connie Neilsen and besotted, cuckolded old pal Oliver Platt have planted in Cusack's cynical, but empathetic hide don't exactly ease the process along either. Bill contends that The Ice Harvest is the grim flipside of Ramis' Groundhog Day; together the two movies constitute as complete a directorial vision of the fickle, cackling comedy of fate and the (slim) possibility of redemption as any in the movies. And remember: As falls Wichita, so falls Wichita Falls.


(Josef von Sternberg; 1957) Delirious seems a woefully insufficient way to describe this genuinely odd, yet affecting action-romance. John Wayne is an Air Force colonel in charge of escorting a Soviet pilot (the entrancing but none-too-Siberian-looking Janet Leigh) during her defection. The two fall in love, and Leigh may be trying to coerce Wayne into changing affiliations himself, but if the will-he-or-won't-he suspense is less than compelling, there are always those long, dreamy flight sequences in which Wayne and Leigh (and their stunt pilots) censor-bait their way through some of the most thinly disguised coital reveries in movie history.


(Barbet Schroeder; 1978) The second of Schroeder's great documentaries of the '70s (the first being 1974's General Idi Amin Dada-- Self-Portrait) has at its center a far more benign protagonist, a primate being taught to communicate with humans by American Sign Language. Schroeder and cinematographer Nestor Almendros craft a wondrous and disturbing work that frames a fascinating, none-too-easily delineated debate about nature, animal rights and the primacy of humanity, all through the searching eyes (and prehensile manipulation) of the title character.


(Tay Garnett; 1937) Tyrone Power, Loretta Young and Don Ameche (never funnier, even in the T's below) are terrific in this swift screwball comedy about a crafty reporter who hounds a heiress and eventually gets the tables turned on him when she announces to the world, without it being factual, their impending engagement. As the reporter's world, including his sterling reputation, begins to crumble around him, true love ways start their sneaky march toward the end credits, and along the way the audience is treated to an exemplary comedy often lost in the shadows of mightier members of the species such as Nothing Sacred and His Girl Friday.


(Charles Barton, Charles Lamont(4), Edward Sedgwick, Lee Sholem; 1949-1955) Not one picture, but a seven-film series that virtually defines low-brow, audience-friendly un-art comedy and will never, ever gain a measure of critical respect. But damned if the gloriously gravel-voiced Marjorie Main and her main squeeze, Percy Kilbride (the only Pa), don't consistently appeal to this ex-farm boy's sense of nostalgia not only for growing up rural but also for the people I knew who adored as much as I do the arcane antics of this cornpone couple.


(Elaine May; 1972) Disavowed by its writer-director-star after it was re-edited at Paramount's insistence, there's still enough of May's singular comic cadences and wit on display here to rank this as one of the movies' most charming largely-unknown quantities. While Matthau's murderous gold-digger matches up with May's deceptively mousy heiress for some hilarious, often tonally odd moments down the path toward True Love, one comes to understand that even if May's version might not have been a masterpiece, the bowdlerized version (the only one we'll probably ever see) shines brightly enough to create a very special, morbidly emotional vibe all its own.


(Sam Peckinpah; 1983) The great director's last film is widely viewed as a for-hire hack job by a man desperate to prove he still had it. And anything but a cursory look at the movie ought to prove that he did. Ragged around the edges, this adaptation of the Robert Ludlum novel may feature now-dated technology, but that in no way diminishes its critique of a surveilled and self-conscious society that bears mention beside those of Brian De Palma. It's a messy, frustrating, compelling movie, both as social commentary and as an action piece.


(David Butler; 1936) Most notable historically as 14-year-old Judy Garland's film debut, this is a typical college comedy of the 1930s-- lots of musical numbers, clean-cut fraternities, star-crossed romance and, of course, the big game. But with a cast this fat and sassy-- everyone from Stuart Erwin to Patsy Kelly, Jack Haley, Betty Grable, Grady Sutton and Elisha Cook, Jr. are given room to shine-- the result is almost an embarassment of good-natured, giddily entertaining riches.


(Howard Franklin, Bill Murray; 1990) It covers the same basic ground as The Ice Harvest-- bank robbers can't quite swiftly flee the city where the crime took place. But this picture is more rooted in in exploration of the fascinations and fruistrations of its locale-- New York City-- than Ramis' film was in discovering Wichita as a true character. It is, in its fashion, no less bitter and barbed than The Ice Harvest, however, with an undercurent of off-kilter sadness that makes the movie more difficult to shake than your average crooks-dressed-as-clowns comedy.


(Antonia Bird; 1999) A skittish studio marketing department and dismissive reviewers put off by excessive gore and gristle doomed this cannibalistic vampire thriller, set in the Sierra Nevada Mountains during the mid-1800s, to bad box-office and an undeserved rep as a stinker. In reality, it's an exceptionally weird, funny, scary and grueling satire of rampant U.S. manifest destiny embodied by a westward-bound military force headed up by flesh-eaters in Union uniforms. Robert Carlyle stands out in a brilliant cast as a mysterious man who may not be telling all he knows about surviving a Donner Party-style disaster. And by the time this movie finishes, you may share Guy Pearce's brittle disposition as he creeps toward insanity while battling the hungry (and the hunger), as well as his repulsion from a juicy steak.


(James Landis; 1963) A bare-bones, white-knuckle scenario-- three folks on their way to a Dodger game have auto trouble that leaves them at the mercy of a murderous psychopath (Arch Hall, Jr.) and his weirdo girlfriend-- is packed to bursting with suspense and visual intelligence (courtesy of young cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond). If I'd seen this as a young movie fan, it probably would've driven me crazy with pleasure. As an adult, it merely shook me to my core.


(Allan Dwan; 1939) I'm not exactly the most likely audience for a musical version of Alexandre Dumas' classic novel starring Don Ameche, Binnie Barnes, Gloria Stuart and the Ritz Brothers. But damned if this happy-go-lucky take on The Three Musketeers isn't, in its own way, as entertaining as Richard Lester's revered 1973 version, as well as compelling evidence that the Ritz Brothers, in the right context, were indeed a terrific comedy team.


(Malcolm D. Lee; 2002) Anyone who doesn't get at least a baker's dozen solid laughs out of this cheerful blaxploitation send-up ought to have their Curtis Mayfield records taken away. You probably thought Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy was a dud too, didn't you? Eddie Griffin, Chi McBride, Dave Chappelle, even Chris Kattan and Denise Richards, they all earn the yuks and a Super Big Gulp's worth of good cheer in this most improbably keen of comedies.


(Roy Ward Baker; 1970) Ingrid Pitt and Kate O'Mara head a delicious cast (that also includes the stalwart and always-welcome Peter Cushing) in Hammer's typically lurid vampire tale, for which tantalizing dollops of nudity and lesbian suggestion were stirred into the stage blood-heavy proceedings. The result was one of the studio's most memorable efforts, one that actually came close to living up to the trangressive promise of the advertising campaign. (Do heed the warning, however: NOT FOR THE MENTALLY IMMATURE!)


(Werner Herzog; 2005) I couldn't resist a double feature for the W's: Herzog's dreamy, zany terra-space nature documentary, in which cavernous and claustrophobic under-ice Antarctic seascapes are wedded to the director's conceit of a Man Who Fell to Earth-type character (Brad Dourif) achingly accounting his heartfelt longing for another world.

(Les Blank; 1980) In which Herzog makes good on a bet to marinate and eat his own shoe in front of a Berkeley audience. The occasion turns into a cracked, grandly Herzogian meditation on the passion of cinema, as well as the weirdest cooking show ever recorded.


(Chris Carter; 2008) The year's first great dread-of-winter chiller. (Here's the other one.) Curiously, I Want to Believe took heat for hewing closer to the self-enclosed intimacy of the series than did the more blockbuster-oriented (not to mention mythology-driven) Fight the Future. Take another look on DVD and see if the crisis of faith that anchors the film (Gillian Anderson has rarely been so moving as Scully) doesn't seem like one of the year's most compelling, not to mention frightening, dramas.


(Lewis Gilbert, 1967) The movie that ushered out the original wave of Sean Connery Bonds (the Scot would return for one more Broccoli pic, Diamonds are Forever, after George Lazenby's one-off in the terrific On Her Majesty's Secret Service). The one-sheet says it all-- wild, overscaled, silly and proud of it, yet muscular and kinetic. This is Connery as his loosest as 007, in a movie (scripted by Roald Dahl) that holds up extremely well in the Bond canon-- it's my all-time favorite from any era.


(Peter Medak, 1981) Made in the fading glow of the far less genial (not to mention considerably less funny) Love at First Bite, this is Exhibit A in the case for the zippy and endearing quality of George Hamilton's self-deprecating sense of humor. A laff riot, as they used to say, especially if you know your Don Diego de la Vegas from your Sgt. Demetrio Garcia Lopezes.