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All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #4: Are you not entertained?

Posted by kozemp on September 8, 2015

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I see a lot of movies in the theatre.

There are movie people who don’t. I know a bunch of people who are super movie nerds, moreso even than I am, who hardly ever go to the theatre, or not at all. And I can sympathize with that, a bit, even if I don’t necessarily agree. The movie theatre experience can get pretty ragged anymore. Me, though, I’m still there. I’m still there all the time. I probably see… 20 movies a year in a theatre, give or take? 25 at the outside? Either way, it’s a lot. Way more than the average, which I believe is about 3 or 4 a year.

So yeah, I love going to the movie theatre. But here’s the thing: I almost never see a movie more than once in the theatre. I mean it almost NEVER happens. (I mean, aside from things like screenings of Casablanca or whatever, which I’ll go to any chance I can get.) The last new movie I twice in theaters was Guardians of the Galaxy. The last one before that, I am pretty sure, was Casino Royale, and that was almost ten years ago. It takes a LOT to get me to the theatre more than once.

The list of movies I’ve seen in theatres twice is very short. The list of movies I’ve seen in theatres three times is very, very short: It’s The Matrix and the first X-Men movie, which people I knew kept wanting to see and, sure, X-Men in a movie theatre, let’s go again!

The list of movies I’ve seen four times in the theatre is precisely one movie long, and that movie is Gladiator.

That is funny to me now, sitting here, because when I was watching it today in preparation for writing this, all I could see was what’s wrong with it. This isn’t a case where oh, I saw this thing in the theatre 15 years ago and loved it to death and haven’t had eyes on it since. I am pretty sure that Gladiator also holds the dubious honor of being the movie that I have purchased on various home video formats the most times. It was one of the first DVDs I ever bought and I definitely bought the DVD at least four times: twice for the bare bones, basic DVD (one “disappeared”), once for the slightly-upscaled DVD edition, and then once for the three-disc Super Tiger Dragon Edition. That’s just on DVD. I’ve also bought it at least once on Blu-Ray, and I have a nagging suspicion that I’ve actually bought the Blu-Ray twice. And that’s never minding the fact that it’s one of those movies I am physically incapable of turning off if I see it on TV. I have watched it at least once a year since the day it came out.

Today was no worse than the 20th time I’ve seen Gladiator, and like I said, the movies flaws were all I could see. And there are a lot of them. This is a deeply, deeply, DEE-HEE-PLEE flawed movie. Like Grand Canyon, Springfield Gorge, Doctor-Who-cracks-in-the-universe deep. It’s no small wonder the movie doesn’t simply crumble into bits trying to hold its own weight up against them.

My notes from today’s viewing consist almost entirely a series of incredulous rhetorical questions about the movie.  (I love the Socratic Method almost as much as Gladiator, apparently.) In what is almost certainly not a coincidence or accident, the vast majority of them revolve around Joaquin Phoenix because I am realizing that the central question of the film is quite possibly WHAT THE FUCK IS UP WITH COMMODUS?!

A few examples:

  • “Why does Commodus kill Maximus’ family? What does that accomplish?”
  • “How does Commodus not realize that his sister keeps him in line with drugs and the empty promise of icky sister sex?”
  • “Commodus has this weird need for love that makes him a lot more pathetic than most movies will let their villain be.”
  • “Seriously, what the fuck is Joaquin Phoenix doing?”

I used that last one, or a variation on it, four times in my notes, because the character and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance are just baffling. (Phoenix’? Not sure of the punctuation rules there.) Or rather they are as you go through the movie from start to finish, because at the end it all comes together in the “am I not merciful” bit, when you see for the first time what Commodus really is, just a barrelful of rage and hate and fear shoved inside a person suit.

The scene is amazing, and Phoenix is amazing in it, and it shows you that Phoenix has actually been, you know, doing something specific the whole movie, but the Commodus issue is the movie’s second biggest flaw: the action of the entire picture hinges on what Marcus Aurelius tells us at the beginning, that we have to go through all this shit because Commodus is unfit to rule. And, yeah, you get a vague sense of that at the time, with his weirdo thing for Lucilla and he’s kind of a preening jerk at the front and the whole killing his father bit, but all any of that really proves, or shows, is that Commodus is an ambitious dickhead and a pervert. I mean, those are more or less the basic REQUIREMENTS for being a Roman emperor; he should hardly be ruled out because of that. So as an outside observer you’re like, “okay, so what exactly is the problem with this dude,” and you have to wait almost three hours before he’s screaming at his sister, who he has promised to spend the rest of his life raping, about what a great guy he is and you realize, “oh, okay, he’s an insane fucking monster, which we grudgingly admit is just over the line for this particular job.”

But this here is one of the things I love about Gladiator, that its flaws are also secretly its strengths. Because here’s a really, really weird thing about this movie: so much of the plot – of what actually happens in the here-and-now of the movie – is deeply dependent on a ton of very complicated backstory that the movie makes absolutely no attempt to present. Or even let the viewer in on. The key players all have this long history together that all the action of the picture springs from and the movie’s attitude is “eh, people will figure it out.” The question of “is Maximus the father of Lucila’s son,” a lot of movies would have tried to milk that question for at least two or three reels. Gladiator just sort of leaves it hanging there, a big vague maybe that I don’t think I even picked up on the existence of until my third or fourth viewing. Think of every movie like this, where the characters have this kind of history. Then think of a movie that doesn’t explicitly tell you any of it – ANY of it! The lousy movies are the ones that go out of the way to just shove it in your face, full of those awful lines of expository dialogue that start with phrases like “of course you remember…” and “you know…” Then think of movies that don’t do that.

One of those is a batch of bad, or mediocre, movies. The other is a batch of great movies. Exposition is death. Character exposition is even worse, so Gladiator just says “fuck it” and dares the audience to keep up.

That dare to the audience, the Marty McFly-style “try and keep up” is the spine of the whole movie, in a weird way, and unfortunately that works both for and against it. To wit: I have seen this movie at least 20 times and still cannot tell you exactly what is going on in the opening battle scene. Forget “exactly,” I can’t tell you AT ALL what’s going on. There’s Romans, and there’s a bunch of barbarians, who knows how many, and they’re in a place with trees and dirt, and they fight, and that’s about all I know. The geography of the battle is completely incomprehensible. Where is Maximus leading the cavalry charge from? Behind the Germans? (Germanians? Whatever.) If he’s already flanked them with his cavalry why does the whole infantry battle even happen in the first place? If he can just pepper the Germanianianians with flaming arrows and giant Molotov cocktails from a mile away why is he hitting them with guys on horses? What the hell is that dog doing there? When Commodus shows up after it’s all over and the guy is like “the Emperor has been at the front for 19 days” he hops a horse and he’s there in a couple minutes. That’s like me saying my father has been at the WaWa on the corner for 19 days.  How and why does ANY of the opening 20 minutes happen the way it does?

I ask these questions but at the same time I kind of don’t care because Christ on a pogo stick those opening 20 minutes are awesome. I am not any kind of connoisseur of movie violence anymore but that scene – all the fight/battle scenes, really, but the opener in particular – have this intensely visceral quality that few other movies can match. I said on the podcast a few years back that no other filmmakers is as concerned with the interaction of life and death than Ridley Scott, and it really shows here. The scenes are graphic – like, yuck graphic – but not exploitative or gratuitous and everything has this frenetic, sort of lived-in, you-are-there feel that still makes my heart catch in my throat when I watch them. Maximus, in that second fight scene out in the provinces, dual-wielding. Oh my stars and garters. It’s brutal and vicious but at the same time it’s just so real and present that you can’t take your eyes off it.

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Oh, by the way, there’s this guy in this movie, Russell Crowe? Yeah, you may have heard me talk about him and how stupid awesome he is. There are actors you can see working, and then there are actors you can’t see working, and then there are actors for whom it is just effortless, and then there’s Russell Crowe. He’s a lot of the reason you can’t take your eyes off this movie. Is there a big, epic-movie hero who talks less than Maximus? Crowe has to do so much with just his eyes and his face and his body and wordless or near-wordless shouting, and he DOES it, and he makes it look so easy, and I hate him for it. And the laughing. The fucking laughing. Maximus laughs, and that is SO GODDAMN IMPORTANT. In the hands of a lesser actor Maximus would be a brooding, dour caricature (the script does him no favors here) but just a couple times over the course of the movie Crowe knows to crack a smile, or laugh a little bit, and JUST BY DOING THAT he turns Maximus from an obsessive, single-minded revenge-bot into a real person and dear god you could cook a roast over the burning fires of my jealousy. That is such next-level shit I would add him to the list of people I plan to devour in order to gain their powers were I not certain Russell Crowe could kill me with his mind.

But then…

But then, Maximus is a bit of a cipher at times, isn’t he? Watching with my dad this morning the first fight scene in the Zucchabar arena is on, and my dad says, “so, what, practice is beneath Maximus but he shows up on game day? He just didn’t want to go to camp! He’s Brett Favre!*” And I tried to explain that, no, you see, Maximus wouldn’t do the practice bits because he was showing his contempt for the games, but when Proximo started talking about facing death he got up for it because he actually wanted to die and… I stopped myself before I got too deep into it because, just, ugh, even I didn’t believe any of that. Crowe does a ton of work without saying anything, but while Maximus’ overall revenge arc isn’t exactly difficult to parse, he says so little and gives away so little that his motivation in any given scene isn’t always easy to pick out (or, oftentimes, possible to).

The fact that I keep going back and forth between things I love and things I hate about this movie is a symptom of how deeply flawed the movie is, and it and all the other problems spring from what is the movie’s biggest flaw: the script is awful. Oh my GOD the script is awful. While filming Russell Crowe famously (and possibly apocryphally) refused to say whole sections of the dialogue, most of which ranges from simply bad to so terrible it will actually cause your skin to boil away if your sound system is turned up too loud. Connie Nielsen’s “prisoner of fear” speech, which is actually in the extended edition TWICE, for fuck’s sake, please save us O Lord from the prisoner of fear speech. And that’s just the actual spoken words. While Maximus’ revenge story is pretty simple and, let’s charitably say, reasonably clear, anything else that goes on in the movie is your classic “a bunch of shit that happens.”

Much like the opening battle scene, the third act of this movie makes basically no sense. There’s a plan, it involves Derek Jacobi in some way – side note, what movie is Derek Jacobi in, because it’s not the one everyone else is – and then everyone is in jail, and Maximus breaks out of his slave-prison-slash-rich-Roman-lady-fuck-palace, and is then captured nine seconds later when his Scottish buddy gets killed for no reason, and then, I dunno, a bunch of other shit happens. Derek Jacobi is in the last scene, because… the Roman jail is in the Colosseum? The extended edition – which Ridley Scott actually appears at the beginning of to pointedly tell you is NOT a director’s cut – tries to address some of this with a bunch of political scenes about Commodus selling grain, and… oh, god, it’s all just so goddamn tedious. It’s like someone had the idea “let’s do a movie set in Ancient Rome,” and then did some research on Rome and gladiators and shit, and wrote an outline, and then never looked at it again, and a week before shooting started a deaf chimpanzee with a drinking problem banged out the dialogue in one overnight typing bender before killing himself, and then Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe somehow convinced each other to shoot THAT.

The fact that this is still a great movie with such a godawful script is actually something of a miracle, since flaws like that are usually structural and, thus, insurmountable. Even when you get lots of super talented people together, making a great movie from a bad script is like trying to make a great meal from bad ingredients: a great cook can maybe salvage something edible, but it’s almost impossible to make something really delicious. Look at Skyfall, for example, or the American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Tons of great people made those and the movies still never get there. Auteur theory people can wank all they like to “you can’t run a screenplay through a projector,” but a painter still needs paint.

And let’s not kid ourselves here: a lot of fantastically talented people did outstanding work on this movie. Ridley Scott. Russell Crowe. Here’s one you probably don’t think about too much: John Mathieson, the DP. This movie looks SPECTACULAR. I saw it last year at a revival screening, one of those show the remaster in digital cinemas when the Blu Ray comes out jobs, and seeing it on a huge screen for the first time in more than a decade, dear lord the movie’s look is just jaw-dropping. The landscapes and the sweeping shots of Rome and the Colosseum are all as gorgeous as the dirty, gritty closeups on the floor of the arena… I mean, honestly, if you can’t let yourself get taken away by stuff like that, what are we even doing here? Shit like that, transporting you to another world, that’s what movies are FOR. That’s the whole point.

I think, maybe, that’s why I like it so much. I try not to analyze these things TOO intently; analyzing the movie is one thing but trying to too finely dissect the whys and wherefores of why I like something seems like a fool’s errand. But looking at this list, this odd little enumeration of “these are things that I love,” it jumps out at me that with just a few exceptions it’s all period pieces and other worlds and things that are so far outside my experience that, well, I need movies to experience them. Gladiator has all these flaws but… it isn’t that I don’t care. Obviously I do care; I’ve spent 3,000-something words tearing apart one of my absolute mostest-favoritest movies of all time. But whether it’s because of them or despite them – and I have honestly been trying to figure out that difference all day and I simply cannot – even still, I put Gladiator on, and the people and the visuals and everything come together and just take me to this other place that is so real you can almost smell the dirt and the blood. It’s magic. That’s what Gladiator is, in the end: it’s movie magic. Whether I’m talking about movies or mathematics I am loathe ascribing any sort of result to a process I cannot accurately describe, but after 15 years, 20-plus viewings, and crying like a little girl at “honor him” every single time, I don’t have another answer.

You compare Gladiator to those other movies I mentioned a little bit ago, or any not good movie made by people who are. This is the same thing. The result should be the same. By all rights, in any sort of logical universe, when you take all the same pieces and put them together the same way you should get the same result. But every now and then, you don’t. Every now and then, magic happens, and it’s inexplicable. Magic happens and you end up in the theatre four times seeing the same movie.

It wouldn’t be any fun if magic never happened, would it?

JLK

* Yes, watching movies with my father is absolutely infuriating.

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All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #5: You’ll never come to Dorset.

Posted by kozemp on July 10, 2015

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I realize this is an odd choice, but I’m going to start talking about this movie by talking about another movie.

Years ago I watched and really, really liked the movie Atonement. It wasn’t exactly a threat to this list – I doubt it would make my top 100 if pressed – but I was extremely impressed with and very taken by it, even with the fact that, as I described at the time, the last five minutes of the movie hits you in the back of the head with the flat side of a 20 pound sledge.

I was describing how much I liked it to a friend of mine, and he said, “what did you expect? Jesus, look at you. Your favorite movies are [SPOILER.] [SPOILER.] The English Patient. And now you like Atonement so much. It’s like you’re sexually attracted to misery.”

We laughed for a second, but then I stopped laughing and said, “wait, now that I think about it that actually explains a lot.”

Watching The English Patient last night, I was reminded of that story. I was reminded of the story because about halfway through I was struck by two very clear and very explicit thoughts:

“This is my fifth-favorite movie. Out of every movie on earth, there are only four that I like more than this.”

and

“Dear God, WHY?!”

That question of why would plague me for the rest of the night. And all of today. And maybe, I’m starting to think, for a long time.

The answer isn’t just because it’s a good movie. It’s obviously good. Everything about it is… I don’t want to say “perfect,” because it’s not a perfect film, but somehow that… I dunno, sort of works in its favor? I imagine there is some sort of tortured metaphor to be made here about diamonds and flaws and similar horseshit; let’s pretend I made one and move on. It’s not perfect, but the stuff that is good is so, so, so good – i.e. almost everything – and the stuff that isn’t good is short, and isn’t even that bad to begin with – i.e. about five minutes towards the end – that on balance, yeah, your movie only being, what, 94% amazing, you know, we’ll just round up to a hundred. This is, in a purely objective sense, an incredible movie. Full stop.

So it’s not that. We haven’t broken into the All Time Top 5 on purely quantitative merit alone. There’s clearly something going on here beyond acting and writing and cinematography, and while I was sitting here watching it last night I started to really think about those things, in direct relation to the movie, for the first time.

As I said to a friend last night, this ended up involving some fairly uncomfortable revelations.

I went through a couple surface-level ideas and discarded them pretty quickly. Not even worth repeating. There were a few that seemed promising, though, and I explored them a little further. Eventually they all sort of petered out, but as these things go the exploration was valuable.

Is it the “sexually attracted to misery” joke? Nah. I mean, that’s funny, and there are some things in my life you can point at and say “huh? Huh?” while snickering and making your point. At the end of the day, though, I feel it’s important to state unequivocally that I am not some kind of… emotional sadist? Is that the term for it? I am not actually, literally attracted to unhappiness. That things have sort of ended up in such a way enough times that one can make the joke, well… I am a lot of things, but as I have repeatedly said, remember that above all else I am the plaything of an angry trickster god.

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Is it because of Kristin Scott Thomas? Her and Emma Thompson sort of cohabitate this odd little space in my brain set aside for Slightly Older British Actresses I Have A Really Weird Thing For. She was in Four Weddings and a Funeral, a movie that no one should be surprised by now actually WAS a late threat to this list, probably somewhere in the 30-40ish range. She is the Epitome of Cool. Her Katherine is intelligent, beautiful and absolutely heartbreaking. But, no, don’t think that’s it either. I mean, I’m not swooning over the first Mission Impossible. (WHICH SHE WAS THE BEST PART OF.)

Is it the fact that this was the Big Time Prestige Movie right when I started really getting into movies? This was the theory I toyed with the longest, and I think of the ones that didn’t make the cut it has the most merit. Yes, this was around right when I entered my budding-cineaste period, and it coincides with the rise of Miramax and indies dominating awards season – this movie is more or less the highwater mark for Miramax – and all that other shit I have since learned to more or less disregard about movies. I know it wasn’t the first one to do so, but it was the first arthouse movie that I REMEMBER having real mainstream cred (it was the center of a classic Seinfeld episode, remember) and that probably gives the movie some gravity in my thoughts that it might not have had otherwise.

But this isn’t one of my mostest-bestest favorite movies because of any of those things. They were good ideas, sure, but they weren’t the answer.

Finally, though, I did hit on the answer, and I’m not going to lie to you: I didn’t really like what I found.

I love this movie – and I do, if nothing else last night also proved that I deeply, profoundly, unreservedly and unabashedly LOVE this movie – because I connect with it personally.

I love this movie because when I look at Laszlo Almasy I see myself.

That is not a good place to stand.

Okay, so, let’s get the snickering and the dirty looks out of the way. Obviously, I am not a Hungarian count. (That I am aware of.) I do not possess Ralph Fiennes’ matinee idol good looks or talent. I have not had a torrid affair with a British noblewoman in North Africa. (Again, that I am aware of, there was a time when I was REALLY drunk and a lot of it is hazy.)

I would say something like “I do not possess his charm,” but on balance I am frankly pretty sure that I actually possess MORE charm than Almasy. Charm is not exactly his strong suit.

No, that’s not what I mean. Here is what I mean.

When I decided that I really needed to answer the question of “WHY?!” I went back and actually started watching more closely than I normally would when I am planning to write about something.

I watched, thinking to myself, “the answer is here. The answer is right in front of you. You just have to see it.” And as the flashbacks start to unfold – and the flashbacks are the part of the movie I’m interested in, not to take anything away from Juliette Binoche just yet – I started to pay attention to Almasy, really, REALLY pay attention, to his behavior, and his scenes with Katherine…

I paid attention to his scenes with Katherine and I felt myself start to get overtaken by a creeping, unsettling deja vu. Not because I’ve seen the movie or those scenes before. I’ve seen them, by my estimate, eight or nine times over the years.

I started to get the sort of deja vu where I was watching the movie, and thinking, I did that.

I did that too.

I’ve done that.

I’ve acted like that.

There’s the scene where Almasy tries to get Clifton to take Katherine back with him to “Cairo” not because he is actually worried about her safety, or about the expedition, or the desert, or any of the other bullshit excuses he gives. He wants her to go back because he’s terrified of his own feelings, and of being alone with her, even when he’s surrounded by other people.

It was uncomfortably familiar.

Then comes the scene after the night in the sandstorm, when they get back to her hotel, and he refuses to go in with her. And I remember doing exactly that. Doing the exact same stupid shit he does. Standing at the bottom of the steps or outside the open door listening to that voice in my head, just like he is in that moment, that voice everyone hears at some point, telling you that what you want is right there, right in front of you, that you can have it and it’s waiting for you, and then refusing to go and get it because of the other voice in your head that makes up some bullshit reason why you can’t have it, or why you don’t deserve it, the voice that eventually makes you say, “nah, I should go.”

And then not much later they’re finally together – no thanks to him, also a popular theme in my biography* – and I see what he does, the mistakes he makes, and how twisted up his insides get by fear, by his fear of his feelings, of exposing himself, of opening up to someone else, of other people and the world in general. Because, folks, don’t misunderstand: from the second he first sees Katherine until he gets cooked in that plane, every single thing Laszlo Almasy does is driven by fear.

Trust me on this point.

Sting once sang that “those who fear are lost,” and good lord does that apply here. How many people die because of Laszlo Almasy’s fear? Never mind the thousands of people in Cairo that die – as Almasy correctly points out, thousands of people would have died either way, just different ones. No. Not war casualties, not statistics. How many individual people – people he knows, his friends – die because Almasy can’t deal with his fear? Katherine. Clifton. Maddox. Hell, even the German general who cuts off Caravaggio’s thumbs ends up getting it in the neck because of what Almasy did, though admittedly he probably deserved it.

Almasy, for his sins, gets to spend the entire war dying.

In trying to figure out why I love this movie so much – partially through sitting here typing this and partially through long periods pointedly NOT sitting here typing this – I did at least manage to come to a realization that was a lot more comfortable than my similarities with Count Dumbass: the movie, itself, is also asking the question “why?” The opening scenes are purposefully opaque: a man, a woman, a plane, and a fire. Then we go back, and for the first time the movie poses the question, “why is this happening?” All the major action in the movie more or less centers around the question of why. Katherine wants to know why Almasy writes about her in his book. Clifton wants to know why he wasn’t good enough for Katherine. (Shoulda gone for brooding, dude.) Caravaggio wants to know why he lost his thumbs. Hana…

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Okay, here’s my sort-of apostasy about this movie: I don’t really get Hana’s story. I mean I functionally UNDERSTAND it, I comprehend the plot, but I don’t know… what purpose it serves? Laszlo and Katherine is the movie. Their story is Why We’re Here. We set Hana up with this tragic backstory about her blown up Canadian boyfriend, and her blown-up girlfriend, and then she tries to blow herself up, and then… she decides to ride out the war in a crumbling castle with a mummy? Is it supposed to be some sort of counterpoint to Almasy’s story? Because you can’t really touch that on the whole “tragic love” front. Oh, your boyfriend got blown up. (In a goddamn war, we might add.) And then your best girlfriend got blown up (in the same damn war). And then you meet a perfectly nice young lad who you break up with for never satisfactorily explained reasons which possibly have something to do with him pointedly NOT getting blown up, which considering your luck should be considered a sign from the universe that he’s The One.

Boo fucking hoo! Lemme tell you a little story about Laszlo Almasy and Katherine Clifton, and buckle your seatbelt cause this is the mother of all tragic love stories. Did your husband try to kill himself with a plane with you in it? Did you jump off a train to try and save someone you love (blown up or otherwise) from dying alone in a cave? I think not.

(It is worth noting in passing that the movie’s plot summary on Wikipedia omits Hana’s story entirely, and not wholly to its detriment.)

Hana’s story – it’s existence – is one of the very few flaws in the movie. The other is what heppens between when Almasy leaves Katherine and when he gets back to her. As I’ve said, I’ve seen this movie close to a dozen times, and every time we get the knobheaded British soldiers dragging Almasy to and fro across the desert, and strangling people with handcuff chains, and Nazi plane swaps, I just kind of shake my head and wonder what the hell was going through Minghella’s head for that stretch. Tonally, in terms of performance, in terms of staging, everything, that one reel is from some other movie that is certainly NOT in my top 5. Every time a British soldier says “Fritz” I want to travel back in time and whack Minghella upside the head with a newspaper and make him rewrite those parts. I get that you can’t have “tragic love story” without, you know, tragedy, but isn’t there SOME other way we can get to it?

Hang on, though. Is “tragic love story” it? Hell, tragic love story is no less autobiographical for me than Almasy’s cowardice, though again in fairness I have never been set on fire because of my doomed love for an unattainable woman**. Maybe my deep-seated love of the movie is just pure identification, on every level, character AND theme? God, that would be depressing, wouldn’t it? That would be more depressing than this movie, which is actually something of an accomplishment considering the underlying message of The English Patient – my fifth favorite movie of all time – is “no matter how hard you try you can’t escape the past, love is a poison, and both of them will kill you.”

Note to self: stop asking “why.”

Oh, and, next time?

Go up the damn steps.

JLK

 

 

 

 

* That motherfucker is ASLEEP when she shows up!

 

 

 

 

 

 

** YET.

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All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #6: You call this archaeology?

Posted by kozemp on February 4, 2013

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Here’s the thing about this one:

This is the only time Indiana Jones appears on this list.

Yeah, I did that.

When I was making up this list, I thought about this one longer than any other choice, and eventually it came down to this: I considered, “between Raiders and Last Crusade, if I could only watch one of these movies for the rest of my life, which would it be?”

On that score it was a pretty easy choice to make.

Yeah, Raiders is probably the better movie. Like 96% probably. Raiders is the more important movie. Raiders is, and we’re getting into some shaky territory here, probably the more “adult” movie.

I like Last Crusade more.

I have seen Last Crusade, and this is not an exaggeration here, hundreds of times. Literally hundreds. When I was a kid, my sister and I watched it a couple times a week for a year or two straight. Watching it a few days ago for this – more than 20 years and hundreds of viewings since the first time – I still caught something in it I’d never noticed before. Three things, actually. I have spent, by a crude approximation, three weeks of my life watching this movie. And I still found something new in it.

I love Raiders of the Lost Ark, and thankfully I do not have to make actual decisions on which one of these two films I will watch exclusively until the end of time (inasmuch as I still plan to live forever), but Last Crusade evokes a childlike glee in me that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.

What did I find, you ask? Three things, before I stopped writing them down, at least.

One, and this is surprisingly boneheaded of me to have missed all these years, is the cup/grail imagery during the introductory scene with Indy and Donovan. There’s one bit where Indy is talking about the legend and the camera just randomly cuts to Donovan pouring champagne into tall, fluted glasses. It is, to say the least, not particularly subtle. I don’t know how I’ve missed it.

Two, while I was watching that entire conversation I thought that it was, all things considered, about as enjoyable an exposition dump as you can possibly get in a movie. But then it ends when Donovan says, “your father is the man who’s disappeared.” And I’m like, wait a fucking minute, why didn’t you LEAD with that? Instead of five minutes of grail lore wankery, maybe you should have entered the room with, “Dr. Jones, I’m sorry to inform you that your father has disappeared. Let me explain how.”

Yes, I realize that isn’t necessarily as interesting a movie scene, but still. As a dramatic turning point it’s kind of a dick move.
indy 2

Third, in the first Red Line Scene – aka The Best Parts of Any Indy Movie – we are given an overlaid montage of Indy reading and studying his father’s diary. If you look closely at the background images, which I understand is difficult when you are captivated by the Red Line, you can see that basically the entire movie is foreshadowed there. The library, the canyon, the temple, the whole bit. The whole movie. None of which Indy ever recognizes when he comes across them. When his father tells him that they have to go to Berlin to get the diary, Indy has no idea why, even though he spent an entire transatlantic flight at 1938 speeds studying the damn thing.

I thought, why not just have him read Sports Illustrated?

I talked at length on the Indy episode of the podcast about why this movie is so great, so I don’t think I need to go into too much detail here. It ticks all the boxes, to say the least. Motivated characters? Duh. Loving attention paid to supporting cast? “That car belonged to my brother in law.” Great script? “That car belonged to my brother in law.”

Admittedly it’s a “do more with more” sort of movie than do less with more, but look what that gets you! While some might argue that there are movies that have better individual action scenes than Last Crusade – those people would be wrong, but the argument exists – there is not a movie that has a COLLECTION of action sequences as exceptional as this one. The circus train. Venice. The motorcycle chase. The airplane. A lesser movie would use one of these scenes as a grand finale. This one leaves them laying around like flip flops on the back porch. THIS movie’s signature set piece is the tank chase that for my money is still the greatest single action scene ever filmed. Seriously. If you haven’t watched it in a while, go check it out. It will blow your mind. (I highly recommend the new Blu-Ray set, which has picture quality that will make you weep.)

Really, though, a big reason I love this movie is because Indiana Jones is a foundational figure in what we’ll call for the sake of discussion my somewhat unique psychopathology. I grew up with movies, and books, and stories. I’ve mentioned it here before – I read a lot and have since I was able to read at an age I will not reveal since most people wouldn’t believe it anyway. I was a weird, socially-anxious, introverted kid who preferred reading to going outside, and I stayed that way until basically… <checks calendar> eight seconds ago.

So I read books. And though my father, as we have repeatedly said, had no idea what constituted age-appropriate movies he and my mother were, for reasons that have never been successfully explained to me, extraordinarily strict about what I was allowed to watch on television. The Terminator when it first came out on VHS? Just fine. (I was seven.) Alf? Not so much. Literally, until I was about 12 years old, the only things I was allowed to watch on TV were sports and Star Trek.

Sports.

And Star Trek.

I’ll pause for a moment to let THAT sink in.

indy 3

I read a lot of books and watched a lot of movies. A LOT of books and a LOT of movies. I was the youngest person ever to get an adult library card at Northeast Regional (I was, again, seven.) My dad had memberships at every video store within 5 miles of here – which 25 years ago was about a hundred – and blew through tapes like nobody’s business.

Then at 11 I got started in the theatre and any hope of me being a normal person went up in smoke.

I am, at a very basic level, not really equipped to deal with… you know… life. So literature, books, movies, plays, however you want to slice it, became the way I processed a world I didn’t (and for the most part still don’t) understand. And being a brainy, introverted kid (and adult) I gravitated toward brainy, introverted characters who would come out of their shell now and then and do amazing things: Jean-Luc Picard. John Crichton. The Doctor.*

And Indiana Jones; above all of them, Indiana Jones: a shy, withdrawn college professor who turns into a superhero and saves the world when he puts on a hat.

God, I wish I could pull off that hat.

JLK

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*And, for different reasons, Superman, but that’s another show.

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All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #7: Is it just a mist, or does it have arms and legs?

Posted by kozemp on January 29, 2013

GhostBusters_Poster_Large

I’ve talked in the past in a number of places about my father’s, let’s call it, checkered history with age-appropriate entertainment.

Does it surprise anyone that he took my sister and I to see Ghostbusters in a movie theatre? I was 6. My sister was 5.

My abiding memory of that first viewing at the old Cinema Alley in TR – my only memory of it, really – is the library ghost scaring the living shit out of me. After that, maybe something with a dog, but that’s about it. But seriously, that fucking ghost at the beginning was all I knew of Ghostbusters for a long time.

I can’t remember when I started to realize that it was a supremely great movie – I don’t recall having it on VHS as a kid, or anything like that – but it must have happened because Ghostbusters is one of three movies where I can recite every word of the screenplay from memory.* (Three that I know of, at least.) Somewhere, I’m guessing in college at some point, I watched Ghostbusters so excessively that I memorized it.

Let’s start talking about the movie itself there, the screenplay, because it might be the most amazing thing about this movie.

It’s made up.

The commentary track on the Ghostbusters DVD (the only one I know of in the amusing MST3K silhouette style) reveals something that knocked my socks off when I heard it: most of Ghostbusters is improvised. To this day I can scarcely believe it. It’s not just that the movie is funny, really. For all the talk that comedy is hard, well, comedy is at the very least slightly less hard when you have a lot of very funny people together. But a lot of that comes from work and repetition and refinement and editing and getting your material JUST RIGHT over iteration after iteration after iteration.

Ghostbusters – the highest ranked comedy on this list, at the least, and for my money one of the three or four funniest movies ever made – was done on the spot. Off the top of their heads.

It is ASTONISHING.

And it’s not astonishing because they’re funny. Murray and Ackroyd and Ramis on their own could be funny without breaking a sweat. And if you’re as funny as these guys are – hell, if you’re 1/100th as funny as these guys are – doing pure improv that came out funny would be pretty easy too.

No, it’s astonishing because it’s NOT improv. It’s not a collection of scenes with broad, wacky people and escalating situations. The Ghostbusters are real characters, solid and round and very, very tight. There isn’t a cheap joke in the whole movie. Not one instance where one of the actors moves so much as an inch out of character to get the laugh. As someone who has, in the past, had to be funny on cue I can tell you that ignoring the urge to do that is almost impossible WHEN YOU HAVE TO FOLLOW A FUCKING SCRIPT! And these guys flew by instruments for an entire movie!

Ghostbusters-Screencaps-ghostbusters-29593772-1920-1080

The sheer force of will it took to do that would make a Green Lantern look at his ring and wonder if he’s in the right line of work.

Much like I mentioned earlier that as we get near the top of this bizarre little countdown it will get harder to turn my pure enthusiasm for the movies into anything coherent, we’re also getting to the point where the movies themselves are so good it’s becoming harder to accurately explain why. The closest I can come is to point to the scene at the end, when they arrive at the apartment building. There’s a bit when they’re working the crowd and Peter calls Ray, “the heart of the Ghostbusters.” And the brilliant thing is that HE IS! Ray Stantz (and Dan Ackroyd) are absolutely the heart of this movie, and not only is that one of those things that is just so, so right even if you can’t pin down exactly how, but it’s so hard to do in a movie; to make a character be something like that and not shove it down the audience’s throat.

There are a couple things I can pin down, though.

Sitting down to watch it with a critical eye, or as critical as I could get, for really the first time ever, I was struck by a few observations that don’t deal with how amazing it is that the movie is improvised, primary among which is this:

Ghostbusters, for everything else, is an almost unbelievably weird little movie.

For starters, when the title card came up, I paused the Blu Ray player and thought, “you know, that’s actually a really dumb title.” 30 years ago the word “ghostbusters” wasn’t cultural shorthand for “brilliant, paradigm defining piece of comedic cinema.” It was just a weird word, smooshed together from two other words, and taken on a purely objective level is strange, and doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

One of the main characters hardly ever talks, and when he does it’s mostly incomprehensible technobabble. Egon Spengler is almost like what you’d get if you made a comedy and one of the main characters was a sullen Geordi LaForge.

It has bizarre little supporting characters who float in and out of the movie for frankly no reason whatsoever – like the hotel concierge, and Walter Peck, and the Mayor, and Janine – which normally is a sign of lazy writing. They’re buoyed by really funny performances, but still, shit like that shouldn’t work.

And – we are so inured to this now, after almost 30 years of watching it, as a brilliant comedic stroke – the final comedy/action setpiece involves a GIANT MARSHMALLOW MAN. I must have succeeded a bit in my attempt to watch the movie with a critical eye, because when Sta-Puft first showed up on the screen I actually let out an involuntary “what the FUCK?!” The movie works so hard during its whole running time to keep everything grounded in a reality – one with ghosts, sure, but it’s still realistic – and then in the last scene, and I must again emphasize just how off the wall this is, is a GIANT FUCKING MARSHMALLOW MAN. It’s off-the-charts strange-o.

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All of this going against it and the movie is still brilliant! Not to mention something that this past week, on what must have literally been at least my 30th viewing of the movie, I just realized:

Gozer is an Elder God.

Not only is Ghostbusters a comedy landmark, not only is it one of the most quotable movies of all time, not only is it essentially a once in a lifetime paragon of perfect craft – I once called Bioshock “the Ghostbusters of video games” because despite attempts to do so its perfect alchemy could not be recreated – not only is it all of those things and more…

Ghostbusters is a successful HP Lovecraft movie.

That, truly, is its most daunting accomplishment of all.

JLK

 

 

* The Big Lebowski and the next movie on this list.

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All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #8: Hold up your badge so they’ll know you’re a policeman.

Posted by kozemp on December 18, 2012

la confidential

My memory is a little bit hazy on the subject, but I am fairly certain that LA Confidential was the first movie that I went absolutely crazy for. It is very probable that also makes it the very first movie I was completely insufferable about, for which, you know, I’m happy to issue a retroactive apology to anyone who was around me at the time.

It’s not easy being a 20 year old cineaste, largely because while the term can be applied in its broadest technical sense it is, for all intents and purposes, realistically impossible to be a very GOOD 20 year old cineaste. You can have all the knowledge in the world, and to be honest, even back then I’m pretty sure I had most of it. You know those big thick books of movie reviews that used to be a thing before the IMDb and Wikipedia made them obsolete, movie guides by Ebert and Maltin and whoever? Yeah. I used to read those. For fun. Cover to cover. Then when the IMDb, and later Wikipedia, came around, I would read those. Seriously. For fun. I used to spend hours surfing through IMDb and other sites. Just sucking up knowledge. Facts. Trivia. Data.

I actually remember – I am not making this up – sometime in my senior year at LaSalle a girl I knew came up to me one day and said, “I want to know all about movies like you do. How do I do that?” I replied that I thought that was great, and she could and should absolutely do that. I went to my house and brought her back my copies of Ebert and Maltin, put them down on the table in Backstage, and said, “okay, first, read these.”

You could frost a cake with the look of disappointment on her face.

The problem with having all the data in the world – or, in my case, most of it – is that even with all that data the average 20 year old has the emotional intelligence of a dining room table. Suffice it to say I was several standard deviations from the mean on that one, and not in a good way. You combine vast untold petabytes of raw data with emotional instability that could be measured on the Richter scale and massive quantities of alcohol and you get the cinephile version of The Frans Lawaetz (the drink, not the person) – something that, while technically effective, is bizarre and mostly unpleasant.

Trying to understand or appreciate art without any emotional context is… I dunno, at this point, 15 years later, the concept is so alien to me I can’t even accurately describe it. And it’s not that I didn’t HAVE emotional reactions to movies back then, because I did. But I was, to say the least, slightly crocked in the head to begin with, and thus couldn’t comprehend my emotional reactions (to movies or anything else, but that’s another show). And that was just when I wasn’t crushing all my emotional reactions into paste with Absolut, which in sheer percentage terms was not very much of the time.

la confidential 2

I saw LA Confidential on a freebie pass from the Collegian, and for the life of me cannot remember what I wrote about it. I remember falling instantly and totally in love with the movie, walking out of the theatre – with Tony? possibly – being unable to put into words my feelings about what I’d just seen.

I was dumbstruck because LA Confidential was the first time I ever realized that there was more going on in a movie than just what was on the screen, that there was more to filmmaking than just a polished script and effective performances and good editing and technically proficient direction.

I have said before that seeing Chasing Amy (only about 6 months beforehand) was what made me want to be, really BE a writer, but LA Confidential was the first time I realized that sometimes a magical alchemy would transform a movie into something transcendent. Yeah, I know, I wish I could say it was Star Wars or 2001 or some other mind-expanding shit that gave me that particular epiphany and not a film as prosaic as LA Confidential, but there it is. The movie blew my mind because it was better than the sum of its parts and even with my supposedly-complete understanding of the entirety of filmmaking I DIDN’T KNOW WHY.

While I’m sure I saw a bunch beforehand and just can’t remember what they were, LA Confidential was the first movie I saw where I recognized that it transcended genre – that Hanson and Helgeland et al were using the trappings and style of an old police noir to tell a story about something else. And part of the genius of it is that it is telling stories about a whole bunch of things at once, with multiple themes running throughout.

LA Confidential is one of those movies where if you are asked to describe it to someone who has never seen it you say something like, “well, it’s about cops in the 50s who solve this murder, but oh man it is SO MUCH MORE than that.”

INTERLUDE:

Now this here, kids, if you are single and having this conversation with someone whom you might have some sort of romantic interest in at that time or in the future, is a valuable test to see if your time and effort is warranted.

If, when you say, “it is SO MUCH MORE than that,” whatever you desire says something like “really, how” or “like what,” you are cleared to proceed. This is a person of intellectual and emotional curiosity and, thus, is sexually desirable.

If, when you say, “it is SO MUCH MORE than that,” whatever you desire says “oh, that sounds like work,” or, “ugh” or some other onomatopoetic noise of distaste, ah, negative, Ghost Rider, the pattern is full.

END INTERLUDE

For starters, one of the things it is so much more about is the city of Los Angeles itself, and it is pretty much the best example of that in movie history. (The movie was, in fact, voted the best movie about Los Angeles by LA film critics.) LA Confidential shows Los Angeles and Hollywood for what they really are, a venal, rotten core surrounded by false layer of sunshine that persists simply because people want to believe in it. Most movies dramatize this by telling stories about showbiz itself – some pretty great movies, in fact – but this is, to use a tortured metaphor, describing the bacterium and not the disease. The Player, for instance, is a fantastic movie about all the nasty shit buried just under the surface of showbusiness, but in the end it’s only concerned with showbusiness. LA Confidential is a movie about what all that nasty shit does to everyone who lives near it, and around it, and in it, but who don’t get to actually taste any of the benefits that come with it.

It is not a coincidence that the central driver of the plot – of, indeed, the whole movie – is the notion that nothing is what it appears to be; i.e. it all might as well be on a set. Bud White is a mindless, brutal thug, but he’s actually a crusader. Ed Exley is a slimy political comer, but his prudish zeal is a cover for righteous anger at a world he wants to fix. Jack Vincennes is a slick Hollywood scenester who hates himself for what he’s become. Los Angeles itself is a land of sunshine and beaches and good fortune for all that is really a giant lie built on exploiting and destroying the dreams of everyone it touches. And Dudley Smith; oh, the difference between what Dudley Smith would like everyone to think he is and what he truly is.

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In a movie full of revelatory performances, James Cromwell as Dudley may outshine them all. You get so fixated on how good Crowe and Pearce and Spacey and Basinger are that you don’t notice that Cromwell is quietly pulling the whole movie with him, and when everything comes down like a ton of bricks in the third act, in that moment in Dudley’s kitchen, you realize that this is a Movie That Is Not Fucking Around.

Broadly speaking, I intensely dislike the artificial distinction between “good” films and “genre” films, mainly because even after the way this movie began the expansion of my artistic consciousness there is still a very powerful analytical part of my brain that doesn’t trust a distinction that can’t be explicitly delineated. If pressed, the closest thing I can think of as an accurate way to describe the difference is to go back to King again: “plot is stupid.” “Genre” films (or, more probably, just bad films) are concerned primarily if not solely with plot, the explication and resolution thereof. “Good” movies pursue the higher mysteries, as it were: character, theme, ideas.

Don’t get me wrong – that same analytical part of my brain also intensely hates this theory because it is overbroad, and has tons of exceptions and – to use a technical term – basically sucks, but it’s useful now because it can point out that important difference in this specific case. LA Confidential is a “good” genre movie because the plot isn’t the important thing about it; it is about the characters, and the world, and how they interact with each other rather than a strict progression of and-then-this-happened. (Though I will admit, having just watched it, that in an empirical sense the movie actually has a staggering AMOUNT of plot in it; I always forget just how much happens.) Compare this with, say, the dreadful Mullholland Falls (which follows a very similar story), a movie that is concerned primarily with moving you from point A to B to C with as little effort as possible.

The funny thing about LA Confidential, though, is that while for me it is the original emotional reaction movie, I’m sitting here fighting the urge to dissect it for thousands and thousands of words. (I’m also fighting the urge to eat that entire bag of Doritos, but I’m not sure that’s relevant.) And that’s just all the ways the film is TECHNICALLY amazing. Forget the emotional stuff. Watching it earlier tonight, fifteen years on from the first time I saw it, it still floors me, in more ways than fifteen years ago I would have even thought possible.

JLK

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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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