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Archive for November, 2012

All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #9: Dignity. Always dignity.

Posted by kozemp on November 20, 2012

Bet you didn’t see THAT one coming.

Singin’ in the Rain is one of two movies that I remember expecting to hate going into it and being pleasantly surprised to find that I actually loved it. (The other is Moulin Rouge.) On the first day of my first film class I saw Singin’ in the Rain on the syllabus and immediately started scowling. Singin’ in the Rain? What the hell was this crap? When we sat down to watch it I was ready to RUMBLE.

I don’t think my scowl made it through the first scene.

I suppose there is a lesson here about reserving judgement, and not making blanket statements without having all the facts, or some hippy-dippy shit like that, but I’m going to say that the main lesson learned from this whole thing is that Gene Kelly is awesome. He acts, he dances, he… sings, sort of. The thing I disliked about old musicals was that up until then all I’d seen were stodgy Fred Astaire movies, and if that’s your entire conception of “old movie musical,” Singin’ in the Rain is like a smack in the face with a hockey stick.

Astaire was always about precision and accuracy and perfection – the dancing equivalent of a Swiss clock. Gene Kelly was like someone put a tornado inside a human body and set it loose but it still had perfect timing. He had energy and life; he practically bounded across the screen. A couple months ago Singin’ in the Rain was showing on the big screen and I went with a friend of mine. During Good Morning, I said to my buddy, “watch how much ground Gene Kelly covers.” It’s insane. Debbie Reynolds does pretty good for a first timer and Donald O’Connor is certainly no slouch himself, but in that scene you watch Gene Kelly’s feet and just how MUCH he moves, how far he travels, and it’s astonishing. It’s not surprising he was a promising baseball player before he got into showbiz – he must have been a hell of an infielder with range like that.

Singin’ in the Rain is one of those movies where even when everything is great – and it is, I can’t think of a single misstep in the whole thing – but there’s still that one element that just towers over everything else. I wrote earlier about how Burt Lancaster is my favorite actor. Gene Kelly is #2, easy. And not just because he can dance and… sing, sort of. But the worst part is that he’s FUNNY. And he’s the worst, most infuriating kind of funny, the purely effortless. Lots of people are funny because they work at it. Gene Kelly is funny because he’s just FUNNY, and that makes me SO MAD.

But I’m getting away from myself.

It’s hard, honestly, to underestimate the impact this movie had on me. It was my first exposure to one of my favorite actors. It’s damnably funny, and a clinic on how to construct a great screenplay from a bunch of disparate parts. Because I loved it so much, years later when a community theatre I was peripherally connected to announced that they were doing a stage version of it I rearranged my life so that I could be in it, which started a process that eventually gave me the opportunity to say things like “it’s not my fault you can’t tell that your boyfriend is gay” and “what do you mean you’re marrying your gay boyfriend?” Hell, I once got almost 15 minutes of standup out of that one show, that alone was pretty awesome.

But that show also started a process that involved me meeting some pretty great people, which led to other things that involved a lot of great people, which all circled back years later to sitting at the Jersey Ritz saying, “watch how much ground Gene Kelly covers.”

That’ll teach me to base my decisions on a line on a syllabus.

JLK

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All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #10: He fixes the cable?

Posted by kozemp on November 20, 2012

I have mentioned before – repeatedly, I believe, but I am too lazy to check – that I tend to consume entertainment in a slightly hooverish way. That is, to say, that when I discover something new I will tend to immediately seek out and devour all of it in as short a time frame as possible. Earlier in the countdown I mentioned how I blew through all of Ian Fleming over the course of a spring. When I was… I dunno, about 12 or 13, I guess, I tore through the collected works of Michael Crichton in the same way.

This sort of thing was actually slightly difficult back then; you had to rely on libraries, or the old ordering coupons in the back of books just to find out what an author’s complete collected works WERE, and once you had that you still had to haul your ass around back to the same libraries or to bookstores to actually get them. To say that the internet age has made this kind of massive literary vacuuming easier is to say the sun is hotter than the earth. Now, when you discover a new author, it’s Amazon – type – type – click – click – click and 2 days later you own every single word they’ve ever written without ever getting up from your chair.

To say I prefer the new way is, again, a massive understatement.

I don’t have solid historical data to back myself up on this, but I’m pretty sure that the first time I ever did it the new way; i.e. with the internet and not my mom repeatedly driving me to the Waldenbooks in Ocean County Mall, was when I was about 20 years old and discovered the work of Dashiell Hammett. I had heard of such things, of course, but never actually come across it until…

Fucking hell, I actually can’t remember what the inciting event was, or how I ended up doing so, but I read The Maltese Falcon and was like MUST HAVE MOOOOOORRRRRRRRE! I devoured all of Hammett pretty quickly – there isn’t that much, after all – and moved on to Chandler quickly thereafter. I do remember the contrast of Hammett and Chandler being the first time I recognized, “this one is better to read… but this one is just BETTER.” (You can likely guess which was which.)

I read some other detective books but didn’t love much of it until I got to Dennis Lehane – other than maybe pure fantasy, there are no genres where gulf between the very top and everyone else is as vast as it is in detective fiction. And, needless to say, I gorged myself on old noir movies. All the Marlowe movies (even the awful Altman Long Goodbye), The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, the whole whack. I was, famously, the person in one of my film classes talking about how Dick Powell in Murder My Sweet was SO OBVIOUSLY the best screen Marlowe. (Yeah, I was that kid in film class.)

But suffice it to say that when The Big Lebowski came out and whoever it was I saw it with at the old Woodhaven theatre (can’t believe I remember where) was profoundly mystified by whatever the fuck the movie was, I said, simply, “what, it’s an old detective noir movie. Isn’t that obvious?”

Apparently, if you are not a 20 year old drunken movie snob steeped in the film and literature of the late 1940s, it is actually NOT that obvious.

There was a thing for a while where the Coen Brothers – who by and large I am actually not particular fans of – talked about the weird flaws at the core of their movies. Fargo was based on a true story – that they made up. O Brother was based on the Odyssey – which they hadn’t read. And The Big Lebowski was based on the classic detective noir films and books of the 40s and 50s – except with, as they put it, the most incompetent main character they could devise.

I actually don’t have a ton to say on the relative merits or qualities of The Big Lebowski – it is too deeply ingrained in my psyche and, frankly, even with how much I love it (a lot) I still find the filmmaking of the Coen Brothers to be pretty impenetrable. But let me at least say that part of the genius of this movie is that with all the bizarre changes they bring to it – the updated settings, and circumstances, and characters – it’s amazing that the film still manages to hit Every Single Noir Trope known to man. The scene with Jackie Treehorn seems like a bizarre non sequitur until you realize that it’s in every old black and white detective movie you’ve ever seen. It’s Sam Spade meeting Kaspar Gutman. It’s Philip Marlowe getting beat up by Manny Menendez. All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again. The Big Lebowski is actually most like Memento in that respect (another movie that came thisthisthisthis close to making this list); inasmuch as despite all the alterations to it the movie still hits all the notes it would hit were it “normally” made.

Without much analysis to dazzle you with this time, I will close with a story, specifically the story of how The Big Lebowski played a central role in what was the greatest Christmas present scam of all time.

As you may know, for a long time there I used to have this obsessive ritual that I performed as regards the buying of Christmas gifts. It doesn’t happen any more (thank the old gods and the new), but back in the day, friends of mine would occasionally join me for part of the festivities/ordeal (to my knowledge no one else ever actually went through the whole thing). One year, my friend Matthew joined me. Now Matthew and I are both extraordinarily large fans of The Big Lebowski – so much so, that if you put the two of us together, we can actually recite the entire screenplay from start to finish, though I admit this has not been attempted in many years.

In this particular year, a very nice DVD Special Edition of The Big Lebowski had been released, and I had determined that it would make the perfect Christmas gift for Matthew. The problem was, Matthew would be with me. How could I buy Matt’s present with him right there in front of me?

I came up with what I thought was a brilliant solution: I would simply lie right to his face about it.

We eventually got to the FYE on the first floor at Willow Grove, and I pulled down the Big Lebowski SE from the shelf – thankfully and luckily the last copy.

“Hey,” Matthew said. “That’s pretty snazzy.”

I said, “I know, right?”

“Who’s that for?” Matthew asked.

“A buddy of mine ,” I said. “He’s a big fan.”

“Well,” Matthew said. “He must be a pretty solid citizen, if he’s a fan of The Big Lebowski.”

Opportunities like this present themselves so rarely that when they do appear one must charge at them with as much gusto as one can possibly muster.

“Actually,” I said, looking up at Matthew – he’s about five inches taller than me – “he’s kind of an enormous jackass.”

“He can’t be THAT much of a jackass, with fine movie taste like this,” Matthew said, pointing at the box.

I summoned every snippet of acting training I’d ever had and pressed every erg of willpower in my body into service to maintain a straight face and said, “you’d be surprised how much of a jackass he can be.” I paused for a moment. “Dumb as a brick, too.”

I held up the box like a spokesmodel on the Price is Right.

“Ah well, either way,” I said. “Let’s go get in line.”

To this day I still don’t know what was better – the look on his face a few days later when he opened it, or the look on his face then, staring at it, uncomprehending, me realizing I had pulled off the greatest con in history.

JLK

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All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #11: It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.

Posted by kozemp on November 14, 2012

So many people get hung up on Wrath of Khan as the best Star Trek movie that they tend to overlook the fact that it is straight up a great fucking movie.

See, here’s the thing: it’s not easy being a Star Trek fan. And I don’t mean because of, you know, being a social outcast or whatever. I like to think at my age I’m immune to that sort of crap; really, if you have a problem with the fact that I like Star Trek, why the hell are we friends anyway? You’re clearly a jerkoff.

No, it’s not easy being a Star Trek fan because an awful lot of Star Trek isn’t very good.

With Star Wars you’ve got 2, maybe 2.5 great movies and 3, maybe 4 not so good ones. And then, if you go off into the EU, you’ve got a ton of material, most of which is actually BETTER than at least half of the movies. With Star Trek, though, right from the jump you’ve got an entire series that is unwatchable. And that’s if you LIKE Star Trek. Never mind the fact that the adjective that best describes TNG is “competent,” half of Enterprise competes with Voyager on the race to the bottom, and TOS is a collection of great concepts whose execution, let’s charitably say, varies wildly. Then you’ve got movies – excepting the astonishing, brilliant JJ relaunch – where literally slightly less than half of them even get past “good” and the rest vary from weak to downright awful.

This one, though, is different.

I have written and podcasted numerous times about The Tapes, the VHS compilations of the first three movies each of Star Trek and Star Wars that I got for Christmas as a kid and proceeded to obsessively watch for many years. Yes, even The Motion Picture. Give me a break, I was seven years old. But even at 7, I could recognize that Wrath of Khan was a cut above the others. Could it be because, even at that age, I recognized the importance of characters with strong motivation? Probably not, but it says something that this movie is so good even a seven year old can see it.

Another thing I have written, and podcasted, and said in bars and living rooms and everywhere else, is that it’s not hard to make a good movie. It isn’t. You take a good script, and get good actors and a good director, and let them work, and you get a good movie. That said, it is hard to make a GREAT movie, but Wrath of Khan manages to hit pretty much every way you can. It’s like a checklist of all the things I keep mentioning over and over in this countdown.

How to make a great movie, way the first: a great script.

For starters, the movie is written with extraordinary care. Nick Meyer talks in his book about it how he and Harve Bennett and basically reinvented Star Trek with this movie; turning it away from its roots as a heady, thought-piece space western and giving it the underpinnings of the strong naval tradition that has carried it ever since. “Horatio Hornblower in space” is how he describes envisioning it, and it’s a brilliant choice, so much so that if you told me the incipient idea of JJ’s Star Trek was “Aubrey and Maturin in space” I would be hard-pressed to disagree.

Aside from changing the informing background, though, these guys actually wrote a movie. For everything else, TMP is not, in a writerly sense, a movie. It’s an Alan Dean Foster book that was transliterated into a screenplay. They’re not the same thing. There’s a reason TMP is such a formless, shapeless mass that just sits on the floor and Wrath of Khan is a samurai sword that cleaves your skull in twain: the structure underlying TMP is a formless, shapeless mass, and the structure underlying Wrath of Khan is a deadly weapon slaved over and engineered to perfection by genius artisans.

How to make a great movie, way the second: strong supporting characters.

Much like I talked about yesterday, Wrath of Khan doesn’t have the embarrassment of riches that The Hunt For Red October sports, but it is certainly no slouch in that department. Forgetting about Khan for a moment (only a moment), but one of the joys of this movie is that for the first time it opens Star Trek up beyond the bridge crew. Saavik. Carol Marcus. David Marcus. Joachim. Terrell, poor, doomed Terrell. Even that little whelp Peter Preston gets a couple good scenes. I also think – I am not sure, but I think, someone more versed in Star Trek lore will have to correct me – this might be the first time ever that we actually get significant scenes that don’t involve the main crew, and the scenes actually work. That’s a pretty big leap for something so focused on one set of primary elements for so long.

And even the bridge crew get nice little moments, for the most part. Chekov and Scotty have 1 or 2 good scenes apiece, though like all good Star Trek fans, I could have used more Sulu.

How to make a great movie, way the third: do more with less.

Think for a second about the relationship between Kirk and Carol: how many sci-fi action movies bother to even have a relationship that nuanced, let alone have it be so underplayed? Their relationship is entirely spelled out in a conversation of about five lines, and there is no question about anything that happened ever. I daresay that even Shatner is actually really good in this scene: that one line where he tells Carol, “I did what you wanted. I stayed away.” Man that line does a ton of heavy lifting.

It happens again –well, before that, but again in my recollection – in the scene where they find Terrell and Chekov on the station and Terrell says to Kirk, “he blames you for the death of his wife.” A lesser movie would have then had Kirk go on at length about how that’s not true, and explicate the plot, and the false dichotomy behind Khan’s motives, and have him go through lengthy soul-searching about what his actions back in the original meeting with Khan.

This movie, though, being awesome, just has Kirk mutter, almost to himself, “I know what he blames me for.” Twenty years of history and the antagonistic interactions of two enormous characters, condensed into 7 words. That, gentle reader, is efficient fucking filmmaking. And efficient filmmaking rocks because the movie in the audience’s head is almost always better than the movie that you extensively and precisely lay out before them like an engineering schematic.

How to make a great movie, way the fourth: characters who want things.

Khan.

Khan Noonien motherfucking Singh.

If I were making a list of the greatest movie villains ever – and I just might do – Khan would finish top 5 without breaking a sweat. Maybe top 3.

Khan is the anti-Anakin.

Khan wants things. No, scratch that. Khan WANTS things. In all-caps. Oh sweet fucking lord does he WANT them. He WANTS power. He WANTS respect. He WANTS revenge. And unlike that whiny, pussy-ass little bitch Anakin Skywalker, Khan goes out and gets them. Or at least he makes a serious go at getting them, and comes pretty damn close to completely succeeding. But like all truly great villains, Khan is felled by his own desires, his ambition, his pride; he is brought low by the very things that power him in the first place. This is Greek fucking tragedy stuff here, folks, and aside from the character as written, it certainly doesn’t hurt that Montalban comes in and absolutely fucks shit up with his performance. The man doesn’t chew scenery. He completely obliterates it with the untamable power of his being, like Jean Grey and the D’Bari star system.

And the best part is HE’S NOT THE ONLY ONE IN THE MOVIE.

Kirk wants to stay young. He wants to be back in the captain’s chair. But he also doesn’t want to usurp his best friend. (OOOOH conflicting cathexes!) McCoy always wants to save everyone (from everything, even poor eyesight). Carol and David want to be gods. And Spock, in the end, wants what Spock has wanted since the very beginning: for people to realize that there is always – always – a simple, elegant answer.

Characters who want things = interesting = good movie. Characters who don’t want things = not interesting = Revenge of the Sith.

How to make a great movie, way the fifth: bookend your story with a Charles Dickens reference.

Okay, that last one might be a little specific, but if that sort of wrapping parallelism didn’t bring a tear to your eye, seriously, you are not a person.

JLK

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All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #12: What books?

Posted by kozemp on November 13, 2012

Here’s a saying I don’t toss around that often:

The Hunt for Red October is a perfect film.

Shit just got REAL.

We’ve reached the point in this little countdown thing where my ability to remain strictly objective has overtaken my available bandwidth, and the problem is going to get worse as things go on. But I’m confident that this time, at least, I am still standing on solid factual ground. The Hunt for Red October is a flawless film. It is perfect. There is not a single thing out of place, not one extraneous moment, not one missed opportunity in the entire thing. This is a rare treasure, indeed, and is not a notion to be tossed around lightly.

Even if it wasn’t a perfect movie – which it fucking well is – it is hard to argue that at the very least it is an absurdly good movie, especially when you consider its dusty provenance, from low-rent source material right down to a title that you stumble over the first couple times you come across it before it eventually comes vaguely poetic.

The Hunt for Red October is one of those movies that puts the lie to the notion that “the book is always better than the movie.” Because, seriously, fuck anyone who says that. Not even close. There are plenty of movies that are better than the books they’re based on. This isn’t even the only one on this list. Some of them are small leaps – The Princess Bride, for example, is already a pretty good book that got turned into another perfect film. Some of them, like The Hunt for Red October, are, well… big leaps. Clancy isn’t the terrible writer most people seem to want him to be, but the book is too blunt, too direct in its delivery. The book is, suffice it to say, not very artfully done.

But enough about the book, which I like enough to still have a reasonably valuable first print of someplace. The movie.

The movie, aside from its overall perfection, is stupid good, and even if you forget all the other great things about it – that is, to say, everything – you can tell it’s great because of one very simple, very specific thing: how much attention the movie pays to its supporting characters. Movies that pay a lot tend to be very good. Movies that skimp tend to be less so.

This is a movie that lavishes attention on its supporting cast as if they, collectively, were an only child on Christmas.

Now, in an ensemble movie, that’s not that surprising. This, however, is not an ensemble piece. It is a movie constructed around two huge characters who both, funnily enough, are essayed through very subdued performances. But even still. Think about any big-name actors picture, and then think about how many truly great supporting performances there are in it. This movie is full of them. Scott Glenn. Courtney Vance. Stellan Skarsgard. Most movies don’t get ONE supporting performance as astounding as those, and this movie is packed to the gills with them. Sam Neill. SAM MOTHERFUCKING NEILL IN THIS! “I would like to have seen Montana.” He blows the doors off the thing. And then there’s the guys who only get one or two quick scenes but their portrayals are huge and indelible. Jeffrey Jones. Fred Thompson. Tim Curry. Peter Firth. James Earl Jones. Joss Ackland. Richard Jordan. Oh, man, Richard Jordan, who was always so brilliant and understated in everything. Hell, even Moriarty gets a quick scene and a half that he’s great in. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an amazing performance in this movie.

That includes the leads, by the way. And Oscar aside, I don’t give a crap what anybody says, this is the performance of Connery’s career, aside from maybe Finding Forrester. He is constantly pulling off that acting miracle of making it clear that he’s thinking, but not letting you know WHAT he’s thinking. (This exact thing, incidentally, is also why Timothy Olyphant is so mesmerizing to watch, cause that son of a bitch can apparently do it all the time.) It’s the only truly minimalist performance of Connery’s career, at least that I can think of, and you have to wonder why he doesn’t do it all the time. The brilliant delivery of the very line I pulled as the title of this piece – which I still quote in conversation to this day whenever someone unspecifically talks about books – Connery manages to cram so much into those two words it’s fucking mind-blowing. The combination of face and voice is a two-word acting master class.

Connery had a voice for the ages, and he knew it, which is why he alone doesn’t bother with an affected Russian accent. And NO ONE CARES.

Now, then, a word about Alec Baldwin as Jack Ryan.

I don’t think Baldwin was necessarily born to play Jack Ryan; if anything, it has become clear that he was born to play Jack Donaghy. But it’s hard to imagine a more perfect marriage of actor and character. For however good or bad the Harrison Ford movies are – Patriot Games is pretty weaksauce, but Clear and Present Danger is a quality little movie – Harrison Ford is not Jack Ryan. He never was, not for a second, and it’s part of what drags those movies down. Harrison Ford is a lot of things. Well, he’s many things. Well, he’s five or six things, but none of them, unfortunately, are Annapolis-graduate-mild-mannered-stockbroker-slash-historian.

Alec Baldwin – at least at this point in his career – is very much that. He is the embodiment of that. The genius of Jack Ryan, and the character himself is a pretty brilliant creation, is that he is a neurotic academic with a core of steel, and the movie is about Jack, who has happily become a housebroken keyboard jockey, remembering that once upon a time he used to be a serious asskicker. Harrison Ford is good at what the things he does, but “subtext” isn’t really one of them. We eventually learned that Baldwin got dropped from the series because of a pay or play that Paramount had with Harrison Ford, which is a damnable shame – I don’t know if Baldwin would have made the other films any better, but he certainly couldn’t have hurt.

Most movies, if they’re lucky, get one great performance. Two, if you’re exceedingly lucky, maybe three if you hit the casting powerball. The Hunt for Red October has thirteen. THIRTEEN! It’s embarrassing. It’s also a clinic. Want to learn how to be an awesome actor? Watch anybody in The Hunt For Red October.

What better to learn from than perfection?

JLK

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All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #13: It’s the smell, if there is such a thing.

Posted by kozemp on November 12, 2012

Interesting factoid: The Matrix is why I have a policy of staying spoiler-free when it comes to new movies. It is the genesis of that policy because The Matrix is the perfect example of what can happen when you have zero knowledge of a movie going into it.

Here’s the thing people may not now remember, years after the fact: before it came out, The Matrix was hardly a sure thing. It was dumped in a midweek release slot just before Easter – not exactly prime real estate. Keanu Reeves hadn’t been in anything resembling a success in 5 years. The advertising campaign was, for reasons we would eventually learn, purposefully opaque. And “The Wachowski Brothers?” Who the fuck are these guys?

When it comes to prerelease hype, suffice it to say, The Phantom Menace this wasn’t. (Unfortunately, the Phantom Menace would have the opportunity to be itself a few weeks later.)

Put it this way: I only even saw The Matrix in the theatre that first time because the week after it came out, I was sitting around on Wednesday afternoon with a guy named Tony who I wrote a movie column with for the college paper. We had just finished up our latest piece, and as I wrapped up my notes he said, “you doing anything? You want to go see that Matrix movie? Whatever the fuck that is.”

I had planned on being drunk for most of the afternoon, but that could certainly wait (and it would). Who doesn’t enjoy a Wednesday afternoon trip to the multiplex to see a movie you barely know anything about?

But then you sat there, and you watched it, and The Matrix became one of those things you wish you could see for the first time again. Count Rugen in the hallway. “I am your father.” And, with them, The Matrix. The whole thing. The experience of seeing it unspool before you that first time, if you don’t know anything about what it is, it was simply mind-blowing. It was transformative in a way that I don’t think anyone can ever experience again. If I had a kid tomorrow (god forbid), even if I waited until he was 13 years old or so and said, “okay, son, today I’m going to introduce you to The Matrix,” he wouldn’t have the same epiphany I (and others) did, because by now the notion of “the matrix” is a cultural touchstone, almost. It’s like Superman’s origin story – everybody already knows it. (I am going to assume this will not stop Idiot Man-Child Zack Snyder from retelling it again, but that’s another show.)

No one, for the rest of eternity, will ever again have that experience of seeing The Matrix for the first time completely ignorant of what it holds. That’s a little saddening, I have to tell you, though I won’t deny that it’s also pretty cool, knowing that some of us have an experience that is special, that can never be duplicated.

So, let’s get some things out of the way. Keanu Reeves is, as he is in all things, not especially great, even though the part, with its repeated wordless grunting, is essentially tailor-made for someone of his, shall we say, talents. And the script, by which I mean the screenplay, the actual words that are spoken and plot points that occur, the hard stuff, not the gooey, philosophy major center, isn’t the greatest thing to come out of a typewriter for any significant length of time.

The movie does have two very important things going for it, though, and they push it way over the top.

One is the elephant in the room: the effects. It’s easy to pooh-pooh the visual effects in The Matrix now, 13 years after the fact, when they have been copied and copied and faxed then copied then faxed then copied again. Bullet-time. We know. Wire-fu. We know. CGI fight scenes. WE GET IT. But for all the copies and the parodies and the ripoffs and the knockoffs, let’s not forget that the FIRST time you saw these things all combined together it was jaw-dropping. It’s easy to dismiss that now, to dismiss your earlier awe as a symptom of being younger or stupider or less refined or whatever. But we’re not talking about plot or character or any of that analytic shit here. We’re talking pure, unadulterated wonder, and if you’re unwilling to even admit that you once felt that, never mind allowing yourself to actually go back and experience it again well, heck, Jed, I don’t even want to know you.

And the other thing?

This is one of those things that, unlike the knock-you-off-your-feet effects the first time, is something that becomes MORE apparent with each time you see the movie: once you get past the batshit-crazy VFX, Hugo Weaving is the most awesome thing in this movie.

This is partially because in a movie about robots enslaving humans in cyberspace where everyone is So Bloody Serious All The Time – honestly, Larry Fishburne’s performance is like a gravitas well – Hugo Weaving (and, in her lesser screen time, Gloria Foster) is the only one bringing any remote sense of irony or fun to the proceedings. This is not to say that movies shouldn’t take themselves seriously. They should. But there needs to be SOME kind of escape valve, or release mechanism, someone in the entire thing who is willing to say, “okay, this is a little ridiculous, I recognize that it’s ridiculous, but let’s just have a good time with it.” It doesn’t hurt that in the process Weaving is willing to chew up scenery and spit it out like a wood chipper.

It’s also partially because Agent Smith is by far the most interesting character in the film, with Cypher coming in a meager second place. And he is the most interesting character in the movie because – say it with me, kids – HE WANTS SOMETHING. This is a pseudo-flaw in the movie overall; it’s so intent on hitting all its psychological/philosophical marks and delivering on the action setpieces at the same time that a lot of the actual characters get a bit of short shrift. Morpheus’ motivation isn’t to be a savior (interesting), it’s to be John the Baptist TO the savior (not interesting). Neo just wants to, uh, be knowledgeable, or something, whatever, yeah. Honestly Neo’s character arc is so muddled and unfocused that it really only snaps into focus in the last 10 minutes of the picture because Morpheus SAYS it does. And Trinity, ugh, god, the less said about Trinity in general the better. (I direct the jury’s attention to my father’s review of Carrie Anne Moss: “that is one bony bitch.”)

But Agent Smith, aaahhh, Agent Smith. His desires are focused. His desires are primal. He wants OUT. And he works for it. He spends the whole movie working for it, and in one of the great screenplay misdirections, the whole time we think that Smith is just a faceless automaton working for this system, but in his one bravura scene when we find out that Smith has had an agenda all his own, that, more than any special effect, is The Matrix’ Crowning Moment of Awesome.

And yes, we could, were we so inclined, talk about how these fundamentals were or were not carried on in the sequels, and the general quality thereto, and whether these movies really earn all the philosophical foofery that puffs them up. But none of that takes away from the fact that despite all the CGI craziness and Philosophy 101 hoodoo, the true genius of The Matrix is that, like its namesake, it has fooled us but good: Agent Smith, the villain, the personification of faceless electronic evil, is actually the most human character in the whole thing.

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All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #14: Nobody ever lies about being lonely.

Posted by kozemp on November 9, 2012

This is the kind of weird person I am.

This past summer my parents were on vacation in Hawaii. At one point when I was talking to them they mentioned that the next day they were going to Halona Cove Beach, the one made famous in From Here To Eternity.

I said, “bring me back some sand from the beach.”

My mother laughed.

I said, “no seriously, I put it in a jar or something.”

She laughed again.

I said, “really, not kidding, bring back the fucking sand.”

I admit that sometimes it can be difficult to determine when I am being serious given the outlandish nature of a lot of what I say. But I really, honestly wanted sand from that beach. Because From Here To Eternity is a stupid awesome movie.

I came to the movie in a very roundabout way, and I’m not sure if that makes my love for it more or less weird. The progression, more or less, goes something like this: because, at the age of 21, I totally was an obnoxious cineaste film student, I went to see Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line on opening night. Then, because I am a giant process nerd, I read the book by James Jones, and thought, “oh my god this guy is depressing.” Then, because I am obsessive about such things, I read all of his books (not that hard for James Jones) and read From Here to Eternity and thought, “Jesus Christ, I thought this guy was depressing before.”

Not too long after that there was a sort of mini film-festival for Columbia Pictures’ 75th anniversary, and one of the movies that was playing at the Ritz at the Bourse was From Here To Eternity, and because I was both a giant process nerd AND an obnoxious cineaste film student AND a repository of movie trivia (From Here to Eternity was, for a little while, the record holder for most Oscars won, at 8, and it should have been 9) I determined that seeing it on the big screen was clearly something I had – HAD! – to do.

I sat there, by myself in the underground theatre – in a truly shocking turn of events I could not convince any of my 21 year old college compatriots to come downtown to watch a black and white movie from 1953 – and was, as I am by a lot of movies, completely dumbstruck by how great it was.

Look, I get that old movies, especially pre-1960 stuff, have a really high barrier to entry for modern audiences. I get that. But so much of that is about things like style and pacing. A good story is still a good story. A good performance is still a good performance. From Here to Eternity has a great script (more about that in a bit). And, I don’t want to spoil anything here, but it also has more amazing performances than you can shake a stick at. Sinatra won an Oscar for this movie, and it might be the LEAST good of his major performances. DONNA REED won an Oscar! Donna Reed!

And then there is Lancaster.

Milt Fucking Warden, Badass

Burt Lancaster is my favorite actor of all time – no one else is even close – and this movie is largely why.

Burt Lancaster was a great actor – anyone who says otherwise is fucking stupid – but he wasn’t the kind of “great” actor that, for instance, Montgomery Clift was. He couldn’t craft a performance effortlessly like Clift could, and he knew it, and reportedly it pissed him off to no end. This is astonishing stuff. Lancaster’s biography is literally the only biography I have ever read, and it talks about how jealous and angry he was because he knew he wasn’t as good as Montgomery Clift. Onscreen and off, Burt Lancaster was the King of Hollywood in the 1950s, and here he was seething with self-resentment because he wasn’t Montgomery Clift.

(Oddly enough, they both shunned the glamour/spotlight side of Hollywood, and were both far more devoted to craft than money.)

It’s a shame, because even if he wasn’t talented in the way that Clift was, this is really the movie that changes his career from pretty good tough guy to Mega Movie Star Leading Man With Acting Chops (which, admittedy, may not be an actual thing). He’s so fantastic in this it’s not even funny. This is the first movie Lancaster stars in where it seems like he was born solely to play his role. Note that I said the FIRST movie where that is true. He would do it over and over and over again, in Elmer Gantry, and Run Silent Run Deep, in Birdman of Alcatraz. General Scott in Seven Days in May is one of the all-time great cerebral film villains. Even in knockoff actioner shit like The Train (a movie that is pretty great, but still) he blows the doors off the theatre.

Then, as he got older, he transitioned into a classic acting elder statesmen (Lancaster in Atlantic City OH MY SWEET CHRIST), and if Moonlight Graham isn’t the greatest acting swan song of all time, you, gentle reader, are welcome to go fuck yourself.

And of course, in the middle of it, there is JJ Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success, easily one of the most underappreciated films in American history, that is powered by a Burt Lancaster performance so fierce and blistering that can peel paint off the walls through the screen. If you have any love of great movies at all and have not seen it, I implore you to rectify that as soon as you possibly can.

But, like I said: this is the movie where he turns into that actor. He was a bit like George Clooney, in that as his career got bigger and bigger he got choosier about the parts he took (not AS choosey as Clooney, but enough). Everybody talks about Clift’s performance in From Here to Eternity, and rightly so. He’s also pretty fucking great in everything. But aside from the pure acting work that Lancaster does here, he also has to carry all the emotional weight of the film, and THAT he makes look effortless. Milt Warden is the heart of the movie, and it is a soldier’s heart: resolute, honorable, bound to duty and comrades, but still brutal and cruel deep down. The ease with which Lancaster communicates all of that, and the efficiency of it… it’s breathtaking. Yeah, this might be inside-baseball actor-y stuff, but it’s one of those things that if you’ve ever read one thing about acting theory, and then you watch Lancaster in this movie, you sit back and go “holy fuck he’s awesome in this.” And he’s SURROUNDED by great performances too. It’s an embarrassment of riches on the acting score.

And as if having a spate of absurdly good performances weren’t enough, From Here to Eternity is a fucking clinic on how to adapt a difficult book for the screen. Because, if you haven’t read it, trust me: making a movie out of the James Jones novel, in an era when the Hays Code controls what you can and can’t put in a movie, is nigh impossible. The fact that a COMPREHENSIBLE adaptation of the novel was made is, in and of itself, wholly remarkable, never mind that a movie so nakedly anti-establishment somehow got past the censors. The fact that the adaptation is not only a brilliant film in its own right, but manages to keep the spirit (and most of the plot) of the book perfectly intact with the restrictions it was made under… it’s a goddamn Christmas miracle.

There is a certain kind of brainless, would-be movie person who says, “they don’t make them like they used to.” To which, for one thing, dickface, no they don’t. The technical and logistical side of movie production has changed greatly over the last few decades. That’s called “progress.” But it’s worth noting that in a very famous movie (which will appear in this countdown) where that saying appears, another character responds, “no, no one ever made them like this!” That’s how I feel about From Here To Eternity. So many elements, all perfectly wrought, coming together to produce a singular work of brilliance. How often does that happen whatever year it is?

JLK

PS – For the record, both Seven Days in May and Sweet Smell of Success were very late cuts from this list.

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All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #15: I kept dreaming of a world I thought I’d never see.

Posted by kozemp on November 8, 2012

Yes.

I am not kidding.

Tron: Legacy.

And here’s the thing: I am at something of a loss as to why. I can’t figure it out entirely, but for whatever reason I absolutely LOVE this movie. And not in any kind of snarky, ironic, I’m-an-asshole-who-says-things-like-so-bad-it’s-good way. I genuinely, truly love this movie, without reservation or qualification.

I’d seen the original in the theatre when I was a kid – quite possibly the first movie I saw at the old theatre at Cottman and Frankford, which has been since the theatre closed a Rite Aid and now a bank. I distinctly remember loving the movie when I was young – I mean, come on, light cycles. I also remember watching it years ago when it came out on DVD and finding it, in retrospect, to be a pretty terrible movie. The original Tron is one of those things from when you were a kid that you WISH you could love, but for me, at least, my nostalgia for it was not strong enough to overcome the fact that it’s really just not a very good movie.

But still, you might remember when that first teaser trailer for Legacy came out, the reception for it was pretty wild. I was highly dubious that anything could be done to make Tron good, especially with a guy making the movie who was, as near as I could tell, an architect. But that first teaser came out, the one with Clu in the light cycle, and I watched that and said, “okay, I think I would want to see THIS movie.”

It’s interesting to note that while none of the actual footage in that teaser is in the movie – it came out almost a year and a half before the movie was released – it captures the look and feel of the movie perfectly. More than that, watching that teaser (which I and many others did over and over again) you got a great sense of how real the world was that Kosinski was creating, as opposed to the now-silly theatricality of the original movie. Yes, I get that visual effects have advanced a lot in the last 30 years, but one of the things I simply cannot get past is how amateurish the world of the original Tron looks. That’s a problem Legacy doesn’t have; quite the opposite, in fact. The Grid is so real you almost want to reach into the screen and touch it. More on that later.

So the teasers and the trailers came out, and I actually got pretty excited to see Legacy when it came out.

And then for some reason I just never got around to it. The reviews for it were pretty tepid and there wasn’t much interest among my friends to get out to it. So it came and went from theatres without me seeing it, and then, honestly, it sort of slipped my mind. One of those things that every now and then I’d hear about it and think, “oh, I wanted to see that,” and then quickly move my brain onto the next bit.

Flash forward, now, to this past May. I am on a plane home from Germany. I have a 9 hour flight for which I have to stay awake so that my body clock isn’t totally fucked when I get back home. I watched Cedar Rapids, which I liked, but the watching of it has made me realize that the movies on the plane are edited, bowdlerized, kid-friendly versions. So to continue to stay awake and not get pissed at terrible airplane editing, I need to find something with no bad language and relatively bloodless violence.

I page through the choices and see Tron: Legacy and remember, “oh, hey, I’ve wanted to watch that for a while now.”

I fire it up.

Now maybe it was because I was wiped out from the week in Germany, or the recycled air on the plane, or whatever microorganism that had been tearing up my lower gastrointestinal tract the whole trip had migrated up to my brain, but I watched that movie on the back of the seat in front of me – this is on a 5-inch screen, mind you – and was absolutely and completely entranced by it.

When our plane landed, the first thing I did was call my father to tell him to pick me up once I cleared customs.

The second thing I did was order the Blu Ray of Tron Legacy from my Amazon app. Literally, I had ordered the movie before I got to the concourse from the plane.

Two days after that it arrived in the mail and I came home to watch it on the Blu Ray player, in HD, in full 5.1, and the only thought in my head was me rather stupidly saying to myself, “oh my god this movie is fucking great!”

In the last six months I have literally watched this movie probably ten times. I love it to death. And I still, for the life of me, cannot entirely figure out why.

The production design is certainly a lot of it. I have mentioned many times in a lot of places that one of the things I disliked about the Avengers was the big CGI battle scene at the end of the film. I am so not impressed with sequences like that anymore, CGI monsters destroying a city. That shit bores me to tears. I’ve seen it before. I’ve seen it, in fact, too goddamn many times. Familiarity didn’t just breed contempt, contempt grew up, got a good job, and moved into the house next door.

The thing about Legacy, though, and one of the things about it that entrances me so much, is that Kosinski and Co. use CGI not to show me an excruciatingly detailed mock up of New York get destroyed by aliens. Legacy uses CGI to create an entire world, one with a look and a feel and an aesthetic of its own, that is at the same time cold and clinical and dangerous, yet brimming with life and possibility. You watch the scenes in the grid, and you get the sense that there is STUFF around the corner from where characters are standing, that it was filmed on an actual location and not a set that was extended and manipulated through a greenscreen.

It’s not using special effects to make big explosions or move the plot along – Legacy contains the finest, strongest, most detailed world building in movies outside of the Lord of the Rings, and I am a total sucker for that. Use CGI to create an actor who isn’t there? Meh. It’s been done. Use CGI to create an entire world, that I’ve never seen before, and create it to such a level of detail that you can practically feel it when you watch? I’m there.

Recognize!

I’ll be honest – is the script the greatest in movie history? No. But it’s perfectly serviceable. Are the performances going to win Oscars? Well, they didn’t, so that’s kind of a moot rhetorical question, but they’re certainly not bad. Jeff Bridges, especially, seems to be having an awful lot of fun with his character(s). I’ve always said I’d rather see miserable actors in a good show than happy actors in a bad one, but there is something to be said for watching people who are having a good time. And the story, once again, there’s meat on the bone there. Moody, depressive children of absent parents learning to deal with abandonment isn’t exactly short shrift when it comes to the theme department, and it’s worth noting that that description covers both Sam AND Clu, and any movie that makes a serious go of investigating how a computer program deals with daddy issues gets an A for effort, at the very least. And cribbing from Paradise Lost is hardly ever a bad idea.

(Seriously, it’s Paradise Lost. Think about it.)

That, really, is the reason I love this movie. The main one. Your average movie “like” this, and I don’t mean specifically movies set in a digital gladiatorial arena, I mean big, eventy, would-be sci-fi tentpole epics, they’re usually content to just say, “hey, here’s some shit. You’ll be impressed by it. Oh, and it has actors who do stuff. We didn’t really think too much about that.” I really dig the fact that in addition to saying, “okay, we are going to combine actors and sets and CGI and create this incredible digital world that no one has ever seen anything like,” the filmmakers actually worked hard to create a real story, and real characters, and at least attempted to imbue the film with however much real meaning they could get into it.

In a movie world where so many people don’t even try to do that at the most basic level, how can you not love a movie that aims for the very top and falls just a bit short?

JLK

(PS – I could, were I so inclined, do another entire post about the soundtrack by Daft Punk, which I had years before I saw the movie, and may be one of the most perfect movie soundtracks ever devised.)

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All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #16: Do I look like I give a damn?

Posted by kozemp on November 7, 2012

Scah-ry

Casino Royale has the odd distinction of being one of the very, very few movies in the last 20 years that I have seen in a theatre with my father.

I have spoken here and other places about my dad’s, shall we say, unique point of view on what constitutes appropriate entertainment for a small child. To his credit I was not actually allowed to watch a James Bond movie until I was 10 years old, which is a pretty strong parental movie showing for my dad, considering some of his other mishaps on that score. However, to his… I don’t know what the opposite of credit would be in this instance. Discredit? Debit? Either way, backing off from the kudos a bit, I was allowed to read Ian Fleming at the ripe old age of 8.

Goldfinger is an interesting and confusing book to an eight year old, let me tell you.

Looking back on it, though, Ian Fleming may be the first instance in my life of a now-common phenomenon, whereby I discover a new author that I like and then proceed to devour everything they have written at a truly dizzying speed. I read Goldfinger in the early spring when I was in third grade. By the time school was out, I had read every book Fleming wrote, with the notable exception of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the only remotely third grade book in the bunch.

I was 8 years old and I LOVED James Bond. James Bond was awesome! He had guns, which are still cool when you’re eight. He traveled the world, which was pretty awesome to a kid whose farthest away trip at that point was to West Point for a LaSalle basketball game. He was great with girls, a skill which 26 years later I am still waiting for basic competence in. And he was a foreigner! This was very exotic to eight year old me, since even though I’d read the Lord of the Rings the summer before – remember, my father has no concept of age-appropriate entertainment – and Frodo was okay and Gandalf and Strider were awesome and technically foreigners, they weren’t real people, obviously, and thus weren’t COOL foreigners like James Bond.

Man did I LOVE Ian Fleming. You know, like all eight year old kids.

So a few years later when I was allowed to actually watch a James Bond movie for the first time, my father took me to see The Living Daylights at the Orleans, and my lifelong love affair with James Bond was well and truly burned into the bedrock of my psyche.

Let me tell you something else: a lifelong love affair with James Bond movies is like being a particle physicist who married his high school sweetheart. However amazing things where when you were 16, eventually you realize that you are eternally shackled to someone who is really fucking stupid.

All the same, that was a ways off, and my kid self had no conception of any of that, and I was just thrilled that James Bond movies were a cool grownup thing I got to do with my dad. After The Living Daylights we went to Licence to Kill (great movie for a 12 year old), and then we waited out the Bond interregnum, and then even though at the time we hardly got along at all we went to see GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies. The latter film was the one that broke my streak of going to Bond movies with my father, after he deemed that Bond movies had become “too stupid to see in theatres.” He missed out on The World Is Not Enough, a movie I still kind of like a bit, and was mercifully spared the horror of Die Another Day, after which -I- deemed James Bond movies too stupid to see in theatres.

Thankfully, then, the change came on again, and Daniel Craig took over, and though I was cautiously optimistic – Martin Campbell brings a lot of goodwill, or at least did back then – I wasn’t about to rush out on opening night.

I should have.

Like I hinted earlier, as I’ve gotten older, I have realized that James Bond movies, at their heart, are really, really dumb. And it’s not because I’m some sort of cineaste dickhead who can’t bear to watch anything but The Most Important Cinema. (c.f. my love of Top Secret) Or that I can’t enjoy spectacle for its own sake. (c.f. my love of the first Transformers movie) No. It’s just…

It is admittedly hard to pin down, but it’s one of those things that sitting in the theatre watching Die Another Day, I had a sudden epiphany that oh my god these movies are DUMB. And that they always had been.

This is not to say that I don’t still like them, or that James Bond in general does not still hold a place of honor in my heart, or that I don’t eye that complete 007 Blu Ray set with barely disguised avarice (my birthday IS coming, mind). Like I said: it’s like the physicist and the cheerleader. You can be content now and again trading happiness for pleasure.

All the same, when Casino Royale came out I was dubious. I’d been burned before. Hell, if you go back the entire franchise I’d been burned probably a dozen times. So I waited for a Saturday matinee, and went in with a healthy dose of earned skepticism.

My skepticism did not survive to the title sequence.

Here’s the thing about James Bond movies: they don’t have a whole lot of ways to distinguish or differentiate themselves. Suave secret agent. Villain. Henchmen. Sidekicks. Evil plot. Girls. Gadgets. Guns. Stunts. The triumph of good over evil. And so on and so forth, until the end of time, amen. The problem with the old generation of Bond movies is that they get so cookie cutter and so production-line oriented that whenever there is something different it sticks out, and badly. Even when something is great, really really great, it’s regarded as an anomaly. Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Franz Sanchez in Licence to Kill. Everything in For Your Eyes Only.

I don’t know who it was, if it was Purvis and Wade, or Campbell, or even (dear god) Paul Haggis, but somewhere along the line someone said, “what if we did all the stuff in a James Bond movie, but did it completely backwards?”

So instead of the villain’s evil plot for world domination, or mass murder, or whatever, you get Le Chiffre who wants nothing more than to be rich, and enable other (bad) people to also be rich. You have, in Vesper, surely the most competent Bond girl since Melina Havelock. The out-of-nowhere casting of indie darling Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter. The gadgetry (if I’m remembering correctly) is pretty much limited to the neato-nifty device Bond uses to cure himself from being poisoned at the casino (a scene, I note, that is for some reason not in the TV version). And you also have a heaping dose of dreary, post-9/11 realpolitik: M doesn’t send Bond after Le Chiffre to assassinate him, just to bankrupt him so he can become SIS’ informant. Felix offers to help Bond not because they’re friends or anything like that, but because he can bargain the CIA into getting first crack at LeChiffre’s intel.

And then there is, as Valentin Zukovsky memorably put it, the “charming, sophisticated secret agent,” of which Daniel Craig’s James Bond is decidedly neither.

You almost hate to bring it up, since it really shouldn’t count, but the most telling thing about Daniel Craig, and the Daniel Craig era approach to James Bond, comes at the end of Quantum of Solace. After Bond has spent an entire film murdering his way across the globe in presumed revenge for the betrayal and death of his One True Love at the end of Casino Royale, M confronts him outside Vesper’s “boyfriend’s” flat and they have what is one of the most emotionally loaded exchanges in recent movie memory.

M tells Bond, “I need you back.” And 007 just looks at her, slightly unsure of her meaning, and simply says, “I never left.”

And Judi Dench gives one of the greatest “oh FUCK” looks ever.

So much of that scene is carried by subtext that I actually missed it on first viewing, but when you come around to it again the meaning of it is pretty clear: he wasn’t on a vendetta. He wasn’t out for revenge (though that was a convenient side effect). He isn’t crazy. He was just doing his job, which is to find and kill bad guys.

The look on M’s face at the end, when she realizes what she’s created, is priceless. And it’s that ethos that suffuses both Quantum of Solace and Casino Royale, and sets CR apart from the rest of the franchise.

Craig’s Bond is not suave. He is not sophisticated. He is not charming. He is so not charming that how he gets the women he gets, especially the reserved and wound-up Vesper, is frankly a mystery to me. Craig’s performance takes the best of what simmered under the surface of the earlier Bond performances – early Connery, Moore at parts in You Only Live Twice, and Dalton in Licence to Kill, and Brosnan before Die Another Day – and places all that subtextual stuff front and center with the character. Craig’s Bond is vicious and remorseless and, one suspects thanks to Vesper’s actions in this movie, completely and totally heartless. In a lot of ways Casino Royale bears a lot of the hallmarks of a superhero origin story, which is another way it sets itself apart from the rest of the franchise. The character actually changes and grows over the course of the film. When it comes to a James Bond film, that kind of thinking is revolutionary. The presentation of the character is a complete 180 from what it had been for more than 50 years (60, now) and god DAMN it’s spectacular.

James Bond as put forth by Daniel Craig is, essentially, the platonic ideal of Fleming’s original creation: this brutal, sociopathic… CREATURE, who just happens to be on the good guys’ side. And thankfully so, since that guy, as opposed to gadget-happy playboy, makes for far more interesting movies.

I’ve said for a while now that I’ll always prefer a great movie with James Bond in it over a great James Bond movie. Good thing they made Casino Royale to show us there is a difference.

JLK

(Also, note that the original teaser version of the poster at the top, the vertical US edition that just a picture of Craig using the gun as a chip marker, is my absolute favorite movie poster ever, and I think one of the best promotional movie images of all time.)

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All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #17: She’s never going to whisper in my fucking ear ever again.

Posted by kozemp on November 6, 2012

She never sleeps...

A couple years back, this was probably around 2003 or so, I did something I had never done before and, as near as I can remember never did again: I bought a DVD of a movie I hadn’t seen. I honestly don’t remember why I did it; my friends hadn’t exactly talked it up to me. The reviews were good, sure, but who drops 18 bucks on reviews and a hope?

Still, I bought the movie on a Friday night and took it home to watch. I popped it in the DVD player, collected the remote and my cigarettes, and turned off the living room lights. This is something else – turning off the lights to watch a movie – I had never done before and have never done since.

I lit a cigarette and pressed PLAY on the remote.

After the first scene I stood up, pressed PAUSE on the front of the DVD player, and turned the lights back on.

Once the lights were back on I sat on the edge of the recliner, trying to light another cigarette with shaking hands, looking around for the remote that had been sitting on my leg for the first scene of the movie. It was in the middle of the living room floor. It must have flown there when, at the end of the first scene, I literally jumped up in my chair and screamed louder than I ever have or ever will.

The remote laid there on the living room carpet, that terrible carpet we had back then before I tore it out in a fit of interior design rage, it laid there taunting me, DARING me, to turn the movie back on. I’d seen eight minutes of it and was more scared than I had been in my entire life. I sat there staring at the remote and just before I gathered up enough courage to pick it up and restart the movie I caught a glimpse of the light switch next to the TV and thought, it’s going to be a LONG time before I’m alone in the dark again.

This is how you take a big, mean, chain-smoking bastard and turn him into a mass of quivering baby food:

You sit him in the dark and show him The Ring.

Now, understand, I am a person who loves horror movies. Okay, let me clarify that a little. I love GOOD horror movies. And I’m not talking about “Friday the 13th Part XXXIV: Jason Goes to Tulsa” shit. Any idiot with a camera who knows what a foreground is can make that kind of horror movie. Funky death effects aside movies like that require no skill to make. I’m talking serious, honest-to-god movies that also happen to be really, really scary. We are talking about The Exorcist here. Halloween. Alien. Jaws. The really good stuff. I love movies like this. I LOVE them.

My love for them is, frankly, a little masochistic. I have an extensive series of clinical, left-brain blockages set up precisely so that I don’t immerse myself so much in whatever entertainment I’m consuming that I fall headfirst into it, but a really well-constructed horror movie blows right past all of that. I go from snobbish, detached film school intellectual to covering my eyes and whispering to the characters faster than Superman changes clothes. I am powerless against a really good horror flick, and yet I still repeatedly subject myself to them.

(Interesting side note: the only other genre that sucks me in that quickly and that thoroughly? Romances. c.f. my abiding love of Casablanca, The English Patient, Atonement, et al).

Before I saw The Ring I had, of course, been well and fully briefed on the leading lights of the horror genre. Back in college I was “the movie guy” and Halloween with me and my friends would routinely involve me bringing over large stacks of VHS horror movies and small bunches of us sitting around getting blitzed while scaring the crap out of ourselves. So I’d been there and I had most assuredly done that. I had seen The Exorcist in the theatre. I had gone into Blair Witch with an open mind and gotten a damn good scare for my trouble. I had believed the woman I thought I was in love with at the time when she told me she wanted to watch Halloween (I had to sit on the floor in her dorm and, I am not making this up, she spent the entire movie kicking me in the back of the head). I had suffered plenty of mental damage and a bit of physical damage in the service of my horror movie jones.

As I sat down to watch The Ring – with the lights out, which to this day I cannot explain – I figured that I had already been through the proverbial wringer when it came to horror movies.

Oh, sweet merciful lord, how wrong I was.

After I spent a few minutes calming myself down I picked up the remote, took a deep breath, and started the movie again.

I was immediately struck by how… I suppose the word is “careful” the filmmaking was. The first scene is scary as fucking hell, even years on and having seen it multiple times when I watched it last week I still jumped at the right spots, though not as high. After that, though, Verbinski works very hard to construct what for lack of a better word is a very “real” movie: single mother, precocious kid, grieving friends, broken relationships, everyone trying to come to terms with the death of a teenage girl in a depressing, rain-drenched landscape.

Once you get past that first scene things move along pretty swimmingly, actually, until the first time we see the tape.

 

The tape isn’t that scary in and of itself. It’s off-putting and weird and vaguely unpleasant but there’s nothing on there to make you scream. But watching it along with Rachel – and you do just watch the tape with the character, there’s only one cut away from it the first time it’s shown and it’s at a perfect spot – a sense of foreboding builds and builds and builds, and Rachel’s reaction just makes it somehow worse.

The worst part, though, is that you KNOW that phone is going to ring and you KNOW there’s going to be that horrible voice, and the anticipation of that happening is FAR worse than the actual event – face it, it’s a phone ringing – but through some genius alchemy Verbinksi holds that moment for JUST long enough that when it happens you still jump out of your seat. Because you are weak and while you are sitting in front of The Ring, Gore Verbinski is God. Worse, he is an all-powerful god of fear and you have severely displeased him.

Once you’ve seen the tape the movie proceeds as… I don’t want to say a “standard” horror movie, because it isn’t, if there even is such a thing. But it follows a known arc, at the very least. Mysterious happenings abound, Rachel investigates, things escalate from mysterious to dangerous to horrifying, the stakes are raised, questions are asked and answered, and eventually there is a horror- and emotion-packed climax. Make no mistake, though – everything up to this point has been executed with nothing less than stunning precision.

This is just how incredibly well-made the movie is:

Sitting there watching it, about halfway through the movie – around when Rachel arrives on the island – my phone rang. For the second time in less than two hours I literally JUMPED out of the recliner and started screaming incoherently. It wasn’t just the shock of the noise – I was absolutely certain that a ringing phone meant I WAS GOING TO DIE.

I clumsily grabbed the remote and paused the film, then grabbed a quick look at the display on my cell. It was my friend Chris.

I flipped open the phone and started screaming.

“YOU MOTHERFUCKER! YOU MOTHERFUCKER! YOU SCARED THE LIVING FUCK OUT OF ME! YOU FUCKING MOTHERFUCKER OH MY FUCKING GOD!”

Chris said, “what? What did I do?”

I sputtered, “you… you… you fucking CALLED me! Oh my god I thought I was going to fucking DIE!”

Chris said, “what the hell are you doing?”

Starting to calm down, I said, “I’m watching The Ring.”

Chris said, “oh, Jesus Christ, I’m sorry, I’m REALLY sorry.”

His contrition was genuine: he’d seen the movie.

It goes beyond precision, really. Everything in The Ring is note-perfect, and part of its brilliance is the way we get drawn into the quest along with Rachel. It is as much a detective movie as a horror film, but we carry along and experience with her the feeling that, after you watch the tape, the entire world is just increasingly WRONG and the movie becomes as much about setting reality right as it is saving herself. Still, though, it IS a horror movie, and once everything has been set in place the aforementioned climax has to happen, and there are scares and moments of swelling emotion and finally release, and when Rachel says “I want to go home,” you sit there, exhausted, and say to yourself “god DAMN that was a great fucking movie!”

But, and this is the true genius of The Ring, the movie doesn’t end there.

After what would be the climactic final battle of a lesser movie – hell, of a perfectly respectable movie – The Ring yet has manipulations profane and sublime in store. In what is supposed to be the happy denouement between casually estranged mother and son, finally united against a cruel world, when Aidan says “why did you do that” your stomach drops and your flesh starts to crawl and you realize that everything up to that moment has just been the movie playing with you, TOYING with you, and that what’s about to come is going to be worse than you could possibly imagine.

And oh GOD does it come, and oh GOD is it worse than your wildest nicotine patch nightmares. I’ve watched a great white shark terrorize Amity Island, I’ve watched Michael Myers stalk Laurie Strode, I’ve watched Regan McNeil defile a crucifix, and for however visceral and truly horrifying those things are (and they most assuredly are), none of them, and indeed nothing I’d ever seen before or have since since or will likely ever see again, none of them come close to the sheer, abject terror of the penultimate scene of The Ring. I spent the entire scene desperately trying to get away from what was on my television, trying to scramble up and over the back of the recliner, trying to look away, moaning, “no, no, no” over and over again, but I was fixed to the spot. I couldn’t get away. I couldn’t not look at it.

You can very easily get all film-school-literary-studies-major douchebag about The Ring, talk about Verbinski’s use of imagery and color, or talk about how it uses the supernatural to demonstrate the threat of technology or how it presents a case for the empowerment of women or one of a host of lit-crit theory crap, and you’d have fertile ground on which to plant your bullshit lit-crit douchebag arguments, and all those things are true. Verbinski goes out of his way to create a real, artistic, serious “literary” movie, and he succeeds, and all those things apply. But for all it’s artistic merit – and it is fucking well brimming with it – the bottom line on The Ring is that penultimate scene. It is the pure distillation of horror in movie form. And I don’t mean in terms of gore or violence or blood. There aren’t any. I mean just stark, basic, amygdala-shattering terror. It is the single most frightening thing I’ve ever seen on film.

And I still can’t look away.

JLK

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All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #18: I only lied about being a thief.

Posted by kozemp on November 5, 2012

I don't know what four nines does but the ace, I think, is pretty high.

A few years ago I was in Las Vegas, fleeing from yet another entry in a long, unbroken line of disastrous female entanglements. (Cue Colonel Jessup: “is there any other kind?”) Frankly, at this point I feel as though I should get some kind of award or something for my streak. We’re at, by my reckoning, year 18 on this thing now, and I really feel as though that kind of longevity deserves wider recognition.

I just realized that my ongoing horror story when it comes to the fairer sex is old enough to vote tomorrow, and I find myself suddenly a little more sanguine about it.

Anyway: Vegas.

I had fled to Vegas, and between outrageous restaurants, and shows, and attractions and more gambling than I ever thought I could possibly endure, I would proceed to lose, quite literally, almost every cent I had. As I recall I came home with about forty eight bucks in the bank, having burned through almost $3500 over the course of five fantastic days. Even though I don’t think I was up for a single second I had a fantastic time, and the shows and the food and the games did a great job of clearing my head and getting me over my troubles, and once I got back I managed to stay happy and entanglement free for almost six whole weeks.

But despite all the great stuff I saw and did, there’s one thing that will always stick out in my mind as why that Vegas trip was truly amazing.

Before I left I went on iTunes and found the track for what I wanted to accomplish, and my first night in town, I walked down Las Vegas Boulevard from my room at Treasure Island to the Bellagio. It was February, so it was a little mild at night, maybe in the 60s. You could walk around in jeans and a shirt. Very pleasant. I love Vegas that time of year.

I got to the Bellagio, walked up to the edge of the marble railing, and put in my headphones. I had decided that I wanted to recreate the end of Ocean’s Eleven, standing in front of the Bellagio with Claire de Lune playing, watching the water fountains.

This is actually not as easy as it sounds, primarily because the water fountain show at the Bellagio – which is the second best thing in Las Vegas, period – already has music, which is incredibly, I mean INCREDIBLY loud. So in order to most accurately recreate the end of the movie – which, yes, I realize is technically impossible because the film crew built an extension of the sidewalk so the actors would be closer to the fountains – and stand right up on the edge of the balustrade, you have to turn the volume up on your iPhone basically as high as it will go, and blasting Debussy tends to remove a little of the magic from the music.

All the same, I got the volume to a point where I could clearly hear Claire De Lune and not hear Josh Groban. (Seriously, so many of the fountain shows are Josh Groban, it makes me terribly sad.) And I stood there, on Las Vegas Boulevard, in the middle of a February night, with the music playing in my ears, and I leaned on the marble like Matt Damon and thought, “you know what, even with all this crap I got going on, life is still pretty great.” And I smiled, for what seemed like the first time in ages.

That isn’t why the story is amazing, though.

It’s amazing because when the piece was concluded, I stood up from the balustrade and took my headphones out of my ears. I looked over to my left and there was a kid standing there. Kid, Jesus, the guy had to be 24 or so. I’m getting old.

The kid was standing there, of some sort of vaguely Middle Eastern or North African extraction, wearing a leather jacket.

He had an iPhone in his hand and headphones in his ears.

He watched me put my headphones away, looked at me for about three seconds, then said, “were you listening to Claire De Lune?”

I chuckled, nodded a bit, and said, “yeah.”

He held up his fist in the air. “Awesome, man.”

We fist-bumped, I smiled, and turned around to walk back to my hotel.

I could go on for pages and pages about how much I enjoy Ocean’s Eleven, and why, and the joyful effortlessness of it; the sly, quirky performances and how it’s all the more amazing because this movie, and its almost as enjoyable sequels, are what Soderbergh and Clooney and Pitt dash off as a lark between other movies. I could talk about how even though I don’t really go for the casino culture anymore, or con artistry, or any of that sort of stuff, and that I’ve really divested myself of most of the trappings or reminders of that life, I still go back to Ocean’s Eleven, and laugh, and toss off the scores of brilliant quotable lines.

I could go on for pages about the movie, but I really don’t think any of that says as much about how endearing it is as two guys, standing alone in the middle of the night, watching the fountains and listening to Debussy, for one moment not being themselves, but the guys they admire up on the screen.

JLK

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