I’ve just noticed a trend in a a great number of my favorite movies. They all revolve around a couple or few sad sacks, losers, misfits, who bump into each other and embark (or are forced) on a journey together. The path is unpredictable and sometimes is entirely internal. This may be America’s vision of itself – a ragtag fleet of outcasts huddling together on a quest to find haven. Or maybe all screenwriters are such people. Beside the obvious (Revenge of the Nerds, Thelma and Louise) there are: Tampopo, Rushmore, Sideways, Swingers, Wonder Boys, Star Wars, The Muppet Movie, Major League, Stripes, Shaolin Soccer, Fight Club, Lost in Translation, Better Luck Tomorrow. Hell, I can even make the case for Collateral. More?
I’m jazzed about the Huffington Report, the new left-wing blog that Arianna Huffington is launching sometime later this month. Sounds kinda like an internet version of Air America, no? Of course, I don’t really believe that Warren Beatty, who has told the New York Observer that he’ll “probably” contribute, is going to bang out much in the way of monthly or weekly (much less daily) copy. Matt Drudge is right — the internet is a beast that needs to be constantly fed and fed. (And then fed again. And fed again.) The political site, which will be based out of Manhattan with editors and rented offices and blah-dee-blah, will also feature jottings by Barry Diller, David Geffen, Viacom co-chief Tom Freston, Tina Brown and…Gwyneth Paltrow. I guess this basically means that any Hollywood leftie who wants to write something will be posted. Gwynneth Paltrow?
So how will the James Bond loyalists take to the apparent hiring of Daniel Craig as the new James Bond?
The Bond casting rumors been all over the map the last few months and ya never know, but reporter Sean Hamilton of London’s The Sun has just reported that Bond producer Barbara Broccoli has offered Craig a three-picture 007 deal, and I’m told by a knowledgeable source that “she really likes him [and] wants him bad.”
Didn’t I just read that the Sony guys, who’ve bought the 007 franchise from MGM, want to stay with Pierce Brosnan for one more film? And what about that plan to de-age Bond and make him into a early thirty-something (which is what Sean Connery was when he played 007 in the early `60s)?
Craig is a GenXer (he just turned 37), and about as far away from a Brosnan-type Bond as you can get. Like I said in a recent item, he strikes me as vaguely psychotic in a Timothy Dalton (i.e., smarter, more serious, less into the sardonic quips) vein. He’s a bit of an ice man. But when you think about it, so was Connery.
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Craig is clearly a serious guy with talent and focus and a certain screwed-down studliness. But there’s also something a bit creepy and even sadistic lurking within. Craig’s grayish-blue eyes have an inert quality mixed in with a hint of menace, and I suspect it’ll hard for the troops to warm up to a guy who just might strangle or throttle you on a whim.
A guy who’s met all the Bond actors (Connery, Brosnan, et. al.) says Craig is “slight…about five-nine or so. The other guys are all six-one or six-two…they command the room when they walk in. You can feel it.”
Craig will be co-starring with Eric Bana in Steven Spielberg’s Untitled Munich Project, which starts filming in the summer for release in late December.
He’s a fairly sympathetic, down-to-business drug dealer in Matthew Vaughn’s Layer Cake (Sony Classics, 5.13).
He was a bit gnarly and impenetrable in Roger Michell’s Enduring Love, which Paramount Classics brought out last fall, but he was easily the most interesting player in Michell’s The Mother.
Maybe Craig’s chilliness will prove a healthy addition to the 007 casserole. Maybe Pierce Brosnan was too fey and quippy and Irish pub-ish. Or am I just reacting too strongly to the impression left by Craig’s psychotic son-of-Paul Newman gangster role in Road to Perdition?
I’d really like to hear some opinions about this. Send `em off today and I’ll post `em on Friday.
I mentioned in last Friday’s column the exceptionally cool commentary track delivered by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church on the new Sideways DVD, which came out yesterday.
I think it’s a classic — truly one of the hippest and most engaging DVD commentaries ever put forward.
Anyway, here’s a taste. It plays just as Giamatti and costar Virginia Madsen (described by Haden Church at one point in the conversation as “be-jugged”) begin their scene in Sandra Oh’s home in Los Alamos. You know…the beginning of that now-famous scene on the back porch.
Thomas Haden Church: Look at you. You look very handsome there.
Paul Giamatti: Thank you, sir.
THC: Look at you! Rakish…rakish.
PG: Rakish, yeah. Like a Renaissance prince. With that sculpted beard. Look at that sculpted beard.
[Note to reader: at a later point Giamatti says he thinks he resembles Fernando Rey in The French Connection.]
PG: Was this real wine…we were drinking the real deal here? I think we were.
THC: Now, did you shoot this in sequence?
PG: We shot this whole thing in sequence.
THC: I remember Virginia [Madsen] saying during the q & a, that she very much wanted sort of a mellow…kind of a real mellow thing going. I think Virginia’s tremendous in this scene.
PG: Oh, God..yeah.
THC: Because she completely…she, she badmintons…
PG: Wow. I’ve got it. I’m following you!
THC: The, the, the amateur vintner’s palette….right back at you.
PG: She keeps the birdie aloft.
THC: Well, she keeps you…
THC: On it.
THC: In the scene.
THC: Because you kind of play it off in a politic way.
PG: Correct. She plays it for real. You’re absolutely right.
THC: Yeah. You don’t want to insult Stephanie’s meager trappings.
PG: Hemmed in by…whatever.
PG: By my doughy white flesh!
I was in Chicago last weekend and got suckered into going on a gangster tour of the city in a dark brown chauffeured school bus. It cost me $24 dollars. It was half-embarrassing and half-interesting, and it reminded me that curiosity can sometimes lead to suffering.
Actually, I suckered myself. I wanted to see the Biograph theatre where John Dillinger got it and the hotel where Al Capone’s headquarters used to be and the parking garage where the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre happened, etc. By the time it was over I felt I’d been worked over by a couple of low-rent thugs, which was more or less what happened.
The name of this sucker-bait operation is Untouchable Tours. I highly recommend it to any Chicago visitor who doesn’t mind being treated like an eight year-old as the price for learning a little history.
The owners have been running Untouchable Tours for 17 years, which means they’re not stupid and know what they’re doing.
They’ve learned that people sincerely enjoy being driven around town by a couple of aging hams dressed up as 1930s Damon Runyon characters.
They know that talking in fourth-rate Danny Aiello goombah accents that would get them fired from any respectable touring company of Guys and Dolls plays like gangbusters here.
They know that shooting off cap guns and playing rinky-dink tapes of machine-gun fire along with Nino Rota’s theme from The Godfather are fine atmospheric ingredients.
I felt so embarrassed by these coarse vaudevillian shenanigans, I was close to weeping.
The rubes loved it. I think it’s fair to say they were euphoric. They were poking the tour guides in the arm after the tour on the sidewalk and saying “great show!”…”okay“…”way to go!” I was ready to puke. These are the good people who re-elected George Bush, I told myself. Aristocrats of the American heartland.
A copy line on the Untouchable Tour website says, “Experience Chicago as it was during the 1920s and 30s!” Bunk. Pretty much every Chicago gangster landmark is gone, and the vibe created by the Untouchable bus bozos is pure Disneyworld.
The hotel where Al Capone’s headquarters used to be — the Lexington, at the northeast corner of East Cermak and Michigan Avenue — was torn down about ten years ago. The turn-of-the-century buildings that housed the saloons and whore houses on the South Side that Capone used to run for Dion O’Bannion are all gone. The St. Valentine’s Day massacre parking garage was destroyed a long time ago…terrific.
The only thing still standing is the Biograph, where the G-men closed in on Dillinger in 1934 and put two or three slugs into his back, and one in his left eye. The tour guy said that a female bystander went over to Dillinger’s body and dabbed her handkerchief in his blood, for a souvenir.
When you see movies about Capone and the Chicago gangs, the actors are always in their late 30s, 40s and early 50s. But the real guys were in their 20s and early 30s. Capone was in his early 20s when he started working for Dion O’Bannion, and was only 25 when he had O’Bannion killed in 1924. Hit man Earl “Hymie” Weiss was only 28 when he was gunned down in front of a cathedral at the corner of State and Superior. O’Bannion was only 32 when he died. Bugsy Moran was about 37 when the Valentine’s Day killing happened in 1929.
I kept asking the tour guys this and that, and they told me what they knew between their performance routines. A little begrudgingly, it seemed. Yo…why can’t this guy put the note pad away, sit back and enjoy the ride?
The basic attitude behind their performances is that gangsters are exotic, thrilling, vaguely lovable creatures. Murder in the street, bullets in the head…aayyyy!
At one point the more obnoxious of the two got out a cowbell and started clanking away as he told the story of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow knocking over a kerosene lantern in a barn on the night of October 8, 1871, and thereby starting the fire that ravaged old Chicago.
At this moment my cell phone rang. It was Michael Wilmington, senior film critic for the Chicago Tribune, calling to organize our meeting for later that day. But the guy with the cowbell didn’t like it that Wilmington had called — I guess he felt I wasn’t showing the proper respect for his performance, and he was probably right.
So he started clanging the cow bell right in my ear and riffing to the others in the bus about how “we have this guy in the front with a cell phone who thinks he’s something special,” or words to this effect.
Wilmington, hearing the ruckus, said to me in an irritated tone, “Jeff, are you in the middle of a cow pasture or what?”
After the tour was over I asked one of the Untouchable guys if they knew which Chicago subway line would be the best to get to a certain location, and he said he hadn’t been on a subway in ages. (A mark of a successful man!) As I was about to head off I asked the other guy if he knew where the nearest subway station entrance was, and he said, “I wouldn’t know, pal.”
That was it. That’s when I decided to do what I could to help their business.
I’m not suggesting this as a plan of action, but if a couple of pistoleros were to ambush one of these tour buses on North Lincoln Avenue and let go with some machine gun fire…no intentions of hurting anyone, of course…just put a few holes in the bus, shatter some glass, blow out the tires. If this were to happen, there would be a certain symmetry, I think. And it would really give the tourists a thrill.
Destroy All Broccolis
“On one hand, Daniel Craig as 007 is sort of inspired: Fleming’s Bond was more than a bit of a bastard, and a true read of the character would reveal him as much more sociopathic than we’ve seen him on film.
“Indeed, I had the sense, watching Dalton’s two outings, that if he hadn’t been forced to make with a quip at stupid times, we’d have seen that simmering homicidal rage inside Dalton get out and get the real character.
“On the other hand, the Broccolis aren’t dead and haven’t turned the franchise over to someone who will actually make something other than a loud, exploding, popcorn film. So what fucking difference does it make, right?
“The Bourne movies have proven that there’s still room for quality spy films in the marketplace. Too bad Bond has no chance to be any of them.” — Marc Mason, “Should It Be A Movie?” c/o MoviePoopShoot.com.
“I love your column and read it fairly religiously, and I’m amazed by how you and so many other people missed the point of Sin City.
“Yes, the direction was amazing, the actors played their roles faithfully, the lighting was great and the whole feel of the movie was fantastic, but that’s not what the movie was about at all.
“Did you ever stop to think about what was the philosophical differences between the good guys and bad guys? Did you ever stop to think why the most powerful women in the movie were prostitutes? It seems to me every critic who reviewed this movie just turned their brain off because they thought it was a piece of pulp fiction, but no-ones talking about the real message of the movie.
“Go see it again with attention to these details and I’ll let you know how I saw the movie. It went way beyond the skin deep treatment it’s getting.” — Aaron
“Being the fan of Cameron Crowe that I am, I just can’t help wondering if he made the right choice when he fired Ashton Kutcher off Elizabethtown. Why? I just saw Kingdom Of Heaven and then went back to see Kutcher’s A Lot Like Love again.
“And my doubts were confirmed into a very fine conclusion: Ashton Kutcher is a truly wonderful and talented actor. Something that Orlando Bloom might become one day. He’s the only thing that’s keeping Kingdom Of Heaven from becoming a masterpiece. Let’s hope that he will not screw-up Elizabethtown. I’m pretty sure that Ashton wouldn’t.
“And, yes: A Lot Like Love will be first true sleeper hit of 2005.” — Zagreb-based exhibition guy.
“Your Jekyll and Hyde comments baffle me. What is it you don’t understand about Taxi Driver, the genius of Scorsese, or the greatness of screenwriter Paul Schrader? It’s listed as #47 on AFI’s list of the 100 greatest films ever made, so you must be mistaken.
“However, your comments on the brainless Sin City are absolutely correct. The film is geek noir — ‘hard guys talking tough’ — and it is, as you say, ‘all crap.’
“Taxi Driver, though gritty and unnerving, tells us something about who we are as a people, a commentary on the society in which we live. Sin City, while spectacular and slick, tells us nothing, and leaves us, like the old lady in the Wendy’s commercial, screaming ‘where’s the beef?'” — Ron Cossey.
Daniel Craig may be the new James Bond. Sean Hamilton of London’s The Sun has just reported that Bond producer Barbara Broccoli has offered Craig a three-picture 007 deal. Is it me, or am I hearing a big collective “hmmm” emanating from the fan base? Cool as he is on his own terms, Craig in a Bond guise strikes me as a vaguely psychotic Timothy Dalton. He’s obviously smart and talented and a fine riveting actor (superb in Matthew Vaughn’s forthcoming Layer Cake and Roger Michell’s Enduring Love, which Paramount Classics brought out last fall, and the most interesting player by far in Michell’s The Mother) but his gray-blue eyes have an emotionally inert quality that contain a hint of menace, and I suspect it’ll hard for the troops to warm up to a guy who just might strangle or throttle you on a whim. There’s something tucked away and creepy, maybe even a bit sadistic, hiding inside Craig’s chest cavity. Maybe that’s a healthy thing to add to the 007 mystique, and maybe Pierce Brosnan was too fey and quippy and Irish pubbish. Or am I just reacting too strongly to the impression left by Craig’s psychotic son-of-Paul Newman gangster role in Road to Perdition?
Sean Connery is going to voice-act James Bond in a video game based on From Russia With Love? A cool idea in concept, but there’s a hangup: that wonderfully smooth, soothing, almost musical voice that Connery had in 1963 when the film was first released doesn’t exist any more. The voice of any 74 year old man is going to sound softer and gurglier and generally less commanding than the one he had when he was 32 or 33, which was Connery’s age when he starred in the second 007 film. (There’s an obvious difference between the voice of the young Tony Curtis in Spartacus and the 65 year-old Curtis who looped himself for the “snails and oysters” scene in the 1991 restored version of that film.) So unless Connery’s voice can be digitally tweaked to made to sound younger, the idea is full of beans. But hey, Sean gets a nice paycheck and Electronic Arts gets to say they’re bringing Connery back to Bond fold and blah, blah. Just don’t come complaining to me when you buy the game and it feels vaguely like a rip.
Bruised, Not Beaten
The best thing I’ve seen on the tube since HBO’s Unscripted is another HBO thing — a 90-minute documentary called
It premiered last night (3.31) and will air next Tuesday and Friday a few times. For some reason HBO isn’t showing it today or Saturday or Sunday. Why? Because it’s a political doc and viewers are — what? — presumed to be in a non-receptive, beer-drinking mood on weekends?
This is a good meal, dammit…satisfying and nutritious. If you ask me it should play this weekend as a respite or a detox from the cloying machismo of Sin City.
Directed by Patrick Farrelly and Kate O’Callaghan, Dial is about the launch and near-fatal crash last spring of Air America, the leftie radio talk-show network.
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Just a week or so after Air America went on the air last March 31st, everything started to fall apart financially.
Two major-market stations that had been contracted to broadcast the show in Chicago and Los Angeles claimed (accurately, as it turned out) that checks written to them had bounced, resulting in Air America being yanked. Evan Cohen, the station’s founding chairman and big money guy, stopped coming to the office, and everyone began wondering if the whole deal might collapse.
But the station hung on, eeking by on this and that cash infusion or Peter-paying-Paul maneuver. And then the ratings showed that Franken had beaten Rush Limbaugh and Rhodes had out-pointed right-wing talk show rival Sean Hannity. Sponsors started to show limited support around last December. Air America had a new lease on life.
Today 51 stations are carrying the show and things look hunky dory.
The story of Air America’s near-meltdown is a kind of metaphor about the scary dips and turns and unfair curve balls that always seem to get thrown. Life can be rough and disheartening, but if you’ve got the pluck and the stamina and if God smiles a bit, you can make it through and possibly even prosper.
Left of the Dial is not just some piecemeal, fly-on-the-wall observational piece. It tells a good story and is packed with strong characters.
There’s Al Franken, the clever, sardonic figurehead guy…charismatic and great with the quips, but privately shaking his head and frowning and muttering to himself as things get worse and worse.
There’s Randi Rhodes, the neurotic, under-appreciated talk-show host with the Zabar’s sensibility and hair-trigger temper.
There’s Cohen in the role of the villain…the hustler who totally flim-flammed everyone and bounced checks and led Air America to the brink of ruin.
Air America’s Al Franken (l.) and COO Carl Ginsburg as the meltdown phase began.
There’s the decent soldier, David Goodfriend, Air America’s general counsel who feels so stunned by Cohen’s betrayal that he eventually quits rather than let the fiasco tarnish his rep.
There are the insecure talk-show hosts — Janeane Garafalo, Sam Seder, and “Morning Sedition’s” Marc Maron — wondering about how to get through this and fretting about their on-air material and wondering if they’ll get canned.
There’s Carl Ginsburg, the network’s executive producer in the role of the tough realist, grappling with the day-to-day expenses…the kind of hard-nosed financial affairs guy you always want on your team.
I love the scene when a couple of staffers find out about the bounced checks from reading the Drudge Report. When there’s bad stuff going down inside a company you never hear the straight dope from the guys at the top. The rumor mill always has it first.
My favorite moment is when a crisis meeting is called and “silent investor” Doug Kreeger politely asks Farrelly or O’Callaghan (or their cameraman) to please turn off the camera, and of course the tape keeps rolling. And we hear the whole “all right, people…don’t panic, we’re fine” speech.
Al Franken and Air America colleagues just after Franken’s debut show had concluded.
I knew something was wrong with Air America’s operation when I tried to listen to it online last April and I couldn’t get anything. Now you just click on “listen” and it plays on Real Player and Windows Media, no sweat.
I remember a statement or press release of some kind that Franken put out during the crisis that said, “Don’t believe these check-bouncing rumors…we’re doing fine…the righties are just trying to make us look bad.”
I’ve always loved Franken’s humor and I’ve read his two books and all, but in person he’s a bit chilly…a bit of a snob. I guess we can’t all be schmoozers.
Anyway, consider Left of the Dial a must-see.
Et tu, Lebowski?
Who could have predicted when The Big Lebowski opened seven years ago it would one day become the new Rocky Horror Picture Show? And perhaps a bit more than that?
I don’t know how many thousands of Lebowski freaks are out there, but I know they`re into seeing Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1998 stoner comedy repeatedly. They’re into memorizing the lines (“Am I the only one here who gives a fuck about the rules?”) and dressing up as Jeff Bridges’ Duderino (or John Goodman’s Walter or Tara Reid’s Bunny) and bowling and slurping down those White Russians.
And over the last two or three years, they’re into this general party-down, journey-to-Mecca thing at these homey fan gatherings known as Lebowskifests.
If I wasn’t so lazy and disorganized I would have called the great Jeff Dowd — the L.A. movie industry guy whom Joel and Ethan Coen based their Jeff Lebowski character on — and asked him to get me into the first L.A. Lebowskifest last weekend.
Producer’s rep Jeff Dowd (a.k.a., the original “Dude”) with Cami Hermann (r.) and Ben Reilly (l.) at last weekend’s Lebowskifest.
It happened last Friday night at Hollywood’s Knitting Factory and then at some bowling alley on Saturday, and the main vibe, according to Dowd, was all about “a tremendous camaraderie” and “real warmth and affection” among the fans.
Jeff Bridges performed a set with some Santa Barbara-area band he plays with, Lebowski costar Peter Stormare did the same, and David Huddleston (“I’m a Lebowski, you’re a Lebowski…..so what?) attended the bowling alley party on Saturday.
No Coen brothers, no Philip Seymour Hoffman, no Tara Reid, no Ben Gazzara, no John Turturro…but no worries and all things in good time.
The first Lebowskifest was produced in Louisville, Kentucky in October ’02, by a couple of local guys, Will Russell and Scott Shuffitt.
Since then they’ve staged Lebowskifests in New York, Las Vegas and Los Angeles (while keeping the Louisville event going, of course). Russell says they’re thinking about doing an Austin version sometime soon.
Russell and Shuffitt should do them all over. Orlando, Bangor, Seattle…maybe even Europe. All a Lebowskifest needs are fans, and there are middle-aged, out-of-shape boomer types who bowl and smoke too much pot and get Lebowski‘s absurdist stoner humor in every corner of the globe.
Russell says there are three documentaries being made about the Lebowskifest experience.
A couple named Robin and Rose Roman are working on one. A guy named John Nee, who has an outfit called Idiot Works and who also works for Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison production company, is doing another. The third Lebowski doc, called Over the Line, is the sire of an L.A. guy named Eddie Chung. (It’s currently in post-production and may be viewable, says Chung, within a month or two.)
Here’s some of what Dowd told me last Tuesday about the L.A. Lebowskifest and the general tangents:
“This thing always sells out. It sold out here before last Thursday’s [3.24] Los Angeles Times story hit. These guys have no publicists, no paid advertising.
“The two nights were totally different. Friday night is kind of like a pre-party…a lot of different bands played and the surprise guest was Jeff Bridges and his band, who played a full-on set.” (There’s some information about Jeff’s group on www.jeffbridges.com.)
“I spoke to this Latino family from San Diego that drove up to attend. A whole family… father, grandfather, kids…he was talking about how at Xmas time, they first watched it together. You wouldn’t think that a relatively straight, relatively conservative Latino family would be into this film, but they are. It’s an annual Xmas event with them.
Fan Cami Herman (l.), The Big Lebowski costar David Huddleston,
“I make a thousand new friends when I go to these things, but forget me…it’s the same emotional thing with everybody who comes. It appeals to all people…people who like to have fun watching the movie with their friends. For millions of potheads, it bears repeat viewings. It’s one of the few films you can watch over and over.
“I was up at Sundance four years ago and this guy recognizes me. I just got back from Korea, he says, and we used to watch that movie a couple of times a week out on a missile base. Now, what condition are these guys at a high-security missile base in if they’re watching The Big Lewbowski?
“As Francois Truffaut once said, it’s a phenomenon sociologique. It’s a pretty big thing. It’s really popular at this Wall Street brokerage firm I’ve heard about. It seems to bring out the subversive side in people
“The Saturday night thing was great. There was a guy dressed as Moses. There was a bowling pin girl, and a half-and-half carton with Bunny Lebowski thing on the back. Guys in CSI type lab coats. Quite a few guys like that. There were tons of Walters.
“Some guy from Ecuador had flown up. There were two girls who showed up in towels. There was this guy who showed up in torn Army fatigues….he was supposed to be a guy who died face down in the muck in Vietnam…this is the bizarre part. People don’t just come as characters — they come as lines out of the movie.
“When I first heard about these things I thought it might be full of Star Trek-type fans… you know, get a life types…but it’s not. This ranks right up there with one of the best parties I’ve ever been to. Somebody said to me the other night – “Have you met any person [at a Lebowskifest] you didn’t like?”
I thought I was a little Sideways-ed out, what with the Spirits and the Oscars and then watching a heavily edited version on the plane coming back from Argentina, which was awful.
Every funny joke, it seemed, had been ruined by those stupid verb and noun substitutions the airlines always require.
In the theatre version Paul Giamatti is telling Virginia Madsen he was really going to tell her about Thomas Hayden Church getting married, and she says, “But you wanted to fuck me first.” In the airplane version she says, “But you wanted to fool me first.”
Men and women are dishonest with each other all the time, but Madsen wasn’t on about being fooled. Why couldn’t she say, “But you wanted to do me first”? Or “have me first”?
Sideways DVD, out Tuesday, 4.5.
I called Sideways director and co-writer Alexander Payne about this, and it turns out he chose the alternate dialogue himself. Oh.
Payne said he saw the airplane dubbing process as an opportunity to be droll and make substitutions that are so dopey-sounding they’re almost hip. He said that Joel and Ethan Coen edit their airplane dialogue with this attitude.
Anyway, the Sideways DVD is out on Tuesday (4.5), and it’s great to have a copy sitting there on the DVD shelf, like a friend I can be myself with.
I haven’t seen the behind-the-scenes featurette or the seven deleted scenes. I only just picked up a copy on Thursday night.
But I’ve listened to some of the commentary by Giamatti and Haden Church, and now I’m looking forward to hearing it all. It’s on the same pleasure level as the talk between Kurt Russell, Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale on the Used Cars DVD, and that’s saying something. Smart, amusing, easy-going banter between a couple of very planted dudes.
Accidental capturing of transition from one over-the-shoulder shot to the other during Pacino-De Niro Kate Mantellini scene in Michael Man’s Heat.
I could never buy the denouement of Taxi Driver, and I never will. Travis Bickle, suspected by Treasury agents as a nutjob assassin who almost killed Sen. Charles Palatine, is portrayed as a hero by the media for shooting a corrupt cop and two pimps in an East Side tenement building? And this shooting in some way helps the parents of Jodie Foster to find her and bring her back home to Indiana? And then the dreamily erotic Cybil Shepard is giving Travis a come-hither look in the rear-view mirror when he gives her a ride in his cab? It’s all Travis’s death fantasy… the stuff he wishes would happen as he sits on that tenement couch, bleeding profusely and eyeballing the cops in the doorway as he pretends to shoot himself in the head. The very last shot in Taxi Driver is of a seemingly startled Travis looking into his cab’s rearview mirror, and then whoosh…he’s gone. No reflection. Because Travis isn’t really there.
In her 3.31 New York Times piece, Caryn James mentioned a slate of recent films or plays (the Ashton Kutcher-Bernice Mac comedy Guess Who?, Neil LaBute’s This Is How It Is, etc.) that have dealt in some front-and-center way with racism. She mentioned a pair of indie films that grapple with it also (Face, A Wake in Providence) and yet, oddly, she didn’t mention Paul Haggis’ Crash (Lions Gate, 5.6), the most ambitious and stylstically assertive movie about racism to come down the pike in a long while. This Los Angeles-based ensemble drama, which I’m showing at my UCLA Sneak Preview class on Monday, is about little besides racism. It costars Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Brendan Fraser, Sandra Bullock, Terrence Howard, Jennifer Esposito,Ryan Phillipe (delivering his best acting yet) and Thandie Newton.
If you’re going to see Sin City, see it digitally projected.
Robert Rodriguez’s shimmering silvery black-and-white photography is heaven on the eyes, and digital makes it look that much better. The photography (and a sincere congrats to Rodriguez for getting this aspect right) is all this movie has. Sin City is geek noir, or noir for T-shirt wearing, beer-bellied guys who rarely get laid and didn’t graduate from college. Hard guys talking tough and fatalistic and cryptic, constantly shooting or slugging bad guys or getting shot or slugged themselves…sucking cigarette smoke and worhsipping women for their goodness while smacking their lips at their carnal allure….and I am telling you it’s all crap. And the odd thing, it doesn’t read like crap when you read one of Frank Miller’s graphic novels.
Sock That Choppy
I loved Crouching Tiger and all, but it’s no secret there are more ardent fans of martial-arts movies than myself.
I like aerial chop-socky the way I like musical numbers in a ’50s Arthur Freed musical — visually exciting and beautifully performed, etc., but if there’s too much exposure to restricted worlds of this sort you can start to go a bit nuts. Sublime choreography, Chinese mythology, inspired cutting…I get it but all right already.
Kung Fu Hustle Stephen Chow performing obligatory single-hero-vs.-eighty-bad-guys fight sequence…done before by the Wachowski brothers and Quentin Tarantino, but never so hilariously.
That said, Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, which I saw last night at the L.A. premiere at the Arclight, is truly something else. Part parody and partly a genre redefiner, it’s easily the funniest and most imaginatively nutso chop-socky flick I’ve ever seen.
Sony Classics is opening Hustle in New York and L.A. on April 8th and wide on April 22nd, and I can’t see it not being a huge action hit. If you’ve got genre skeptics like me saying it’s cool, you have to figure the action fans will be all the more enthusiastic….right?
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Chow is a friendly, mild-mannered sort in person (we spoke last night at an after-party at The Palm in West Hollywood), but creatively he’s quite clearly a madman. Mad like Mozart or Picasso or Orson Welles. In the grip of a fine madness….unbound and flying on faith.
Kung Fu Hustle is not just imaginative and off-the-planet….it’s insane.
You can argue that when a genre film starts veering into genre parody, that’s the beginning of the end…but maybe not. The James Bond films were getting heavily spoofed in the mid ’60s and they’re still around.
Stephen Chow at West Hollywood’s Palm Restaurant– Tuesday, 3.29, 10:05 pm.
Maybe Chow-styled lunacy is what the martial arts genre needs at this stage. Even more illogical and indulgent…losing its mind and taking a leap off the cliff.
Chow, 42, is obviously the new Jackie Chan. He’s a longtime martial arts devotee and fan of Bruce Lee known for nonsense humor (which is apparently known as “moleitau”) and playing the fool. The only other film I’ve seen of his is Shaolin Soccer , which was released in ’01. I haven’t seen Chow’s God of Cookery or King of Comedy, but I can guess what they were like.
Hustle is an effects-driven Hong Kong goofball comedy (i.e., “comedy-fu”) by way of The Matrix .
The setting is some urban pre-Communist Chinese burg, and the plot is about a gang war of sorts between the inhabitants of a slum called Pigsty Alley (which isn’t an alley but a big U-shaped tenement) and the top hat-wearing Axe Gang, which is run by Brother Sum (Chan Kwok-kwan).
Chow plays Sing, a comic kungfu smartass with a fat sidekick (Lam Tze-chung), who eventually turns out to be a man with a mission in the Keanu Reeves/Matrix mold.
Special menu for Kung Fu Hustle dinner at Palm restaurant — Tuesday, 3.29.05, 9:40 pm; collapsable Kung Fu top hat.
There are all kinds of rumbles, ass-kickings, foot-crunchings and whatnot. The edge is in the inspired, cartoon-like lunacy of the visual imaginings, the choreography and the CGI. And also from the occasional surprise turn, like when a certain studly, good-looking warrior with a great fighting style gets his head sliced off like that…whoa.
There’s a great Roadrunner chase sequence between Sing and a fightin’, formidable character called The Landlady (Yuen Qiu)….surreal-funny, totally amped.
The final turn comes when Sing is hired by Brother Sum to break an all-powerful martial arts master called The Beast (Leung Siu-lung) out of some kind of insane asylum, and soon after realizes that he has a super-hero’s destiny. This revelation comes only at the very end, thus allowing Chow to do his dopey-ass comic stuff for most of the duration.
I asked Chow (and his interpreter, who stood next to him) if he was comfortable calling Kung Fu Hustle a martial-arts satire. “What’s a satire?” he asked.
I re-phrased by asking if Hustle is laughing at martial arts films, or laughing with them? Chow asked what the difference is. I said laughing at is basically about criticism and laughing with is about affection. “Definitely with,” he said.
Sony Pictures Classics chief Tom Bernard offering toast to Kung Fu Hustle star-writer-director Stephen Chow.
The schmoozing at the Palm eventually gave way to a sit-down dinner. Sony chief Tom Bernard dinged on his wine glass and offered a toast to Chow, and a few minutes later Ray director Taylor Hackford did the same, praising Chow for his wit and visual pizazz.
Critics and Asian cinema scholars David Chute and Andy Klein (writing now for L.A.’s City Beat) were there also, along with Movie City News editor/columnist David Poland and a few other journos. My thanks to publicists Melody Korenbrot and Ziggy Koslowski for inviting me.
I fell off my diet by eating filet mignon and lobster, but eating steak is okay by the Atkins Diet so I guess I didn’t screw up too badly.
There are classic chase scenes and classic suspense sequences, but it’s rare to come across a really superb two-in-one. I don’t know if this has gotten around, but such a sequence — and it’s a major wow, trust me — is in Sydney Pollack’s The Interpreter (Universal, 4.22).
At the same time, it’s too bad that Universal’s marketing department has spoiled the climax by including it in their Interpreter trailer.
I’ve provided the link because it’s a free country and we can’t ignore what Universal has done, but do yourself a favor and don’t watch it. If the trailer plays before a film you’re about to see over the next month or so, run out to the lobby…seriously.
Nicole Kidman (r.) in scene from Sydney Pollack’s The Interpreter (Universal, 4.22).
It’s standard practice for trailers to show the audience a clip of every “money” scene in a forthcoming film and therefore, in the case of thrillers, ruin 90% of the surprises. But the Interpreter giveaway is especially bad because of the unusual character of what’s being ruined.
This sequence doesn’t just get you on a visceral level — the finesse that went into the editing is truly dazzling.
Let me explain by turning to a famous film lover’s book “Hitchcock Truffaut” (Random House), and an example of what makes a typically good suspense scene, as told by Alfred Hitchcock to Francois Truffaut.
A non-suspenseful approach, explains Hitch, would be to show a group of men eating in a restaurant when suddenly a bomb explodes and everyone is killed…shocking but that’s all. The suspenseful approach, he says, is to show the audience that a bomb is wrapped in a package under a restaurant table, and then tell them what time it will go off. Then a minute or so before detonation, have the men start to get up and leave but have one of them say, “Wait, I want to finish my coffee.”
Pollack and his editor, William Steinkamp, have taken a nervier approach in The Interpreter .
Instead of tipping the audience off about the certainty of coming destruction, they indicate that something bad is brewing…without revealing exactly what. They show various opposing forces (cops, bad guys, innocents) focusing on the same space or activity, and edit and score this scene so as to create a feeling of a fuse getting shorter and shorter and something about to pop.
Certain people are watching others, some are oblivious to anything but their own moves, some are playing their end of the court but are unaware of the overall, and so on. And it builds and builds and then…
Just don’t watch the trailer.
I have thought this through and I am showing restraint in comparing this scene to the Popeye Doyle subway car chase scene in William Freidkin’s The French Connection. The tension penetrates just as deeply, the editing is just as assured…it’s a marvel.
And on top of the sheer mechanics of this scene, it flashes the viewer into real-life associations that stay with you — I shouldn’t be any more specific.
The film itself is about as smart and satisfying as a mainstream political thriller can get. It doesn’t just push buttons — it delivers a compassionate theme and uses that familiar Pollack element of a love affair that might happen or work out…but it’s not in the cards.
This may sound like trivial terminology, but a screenwriter friend is calling The Interpreter “the ultimate over-25 date movie. There are no movies like this around right now that my wife and I like to go to together.”
A friend is telling me Penn is too gnarly and internally bothered to succeed in a leading man mode. I think he’s blind. Penn’s innate ability to suggest a feeling of having suffered emotional wounds is precisely what makes his Interpreter performance work as well as it does.
Perhaps my friend is forgetting that Penn had an emotional breakthrough in 21 Grams. With audiences, I mean…it changed everything. It turned him into this decent hurting 40ish guy who smokes.
The careful strategic weaving of the dozens of story strands that have to fit together just so and pay off in the right way in a film of this sort (a discipline that Pollack used to fine effect in The Firm and Three Days of the Condor) is damned near immaculate.
And the performances by Nicole Kidman and especially Penn (bringing a certain grit and gravitas to what might have seemed like a fairly standard romantic lead role with someone else playing it) are ripe and impassioned and true to the mark.
I don’t mean to offend anyone or sound too clunky in my thinking, but I’ve always thought people who frequently go to serious action movies (as opposed to an off-the-ground variation like Kung Fu Hustle) are expressing feelings of social impotence.
The swift, decisive, lethal moves of on-screen combatants give the disenfranchised, pushed-around male masses a temporary feeling of spiritual strength and assurance, or so goes the theory.
Which explains, obviously, why they’re so popular with young males, the most impotent group in any society.
A scene from Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon.
It follows that in the case of hardcore fans, the more outlandish the action the greater the feelings of powerlessness.
Before anyone gets angry they should know I’m including myself in this equation. I got a definite charge from watching Tom Cruise blowing all those guys away with stylish dispatch in Collateral. But what his “Vincent” character did was in the realm of reality, or at least one that I accepted as being vaguely tethered to it.
It can be said that the widespread popularity of martial arts films in Asia, which are known for their flights into total cartoon fantasy of flying super-heroes with endless reserves of energy….it can be said that their popularity shows that feelings of social impotency run far deeper in Asia than they do here.
This is hardly a new observation, but how about some reactions?
“I loved your article about cultivating young cinema lovers. As a father of two young children — Bain, 5, and Lillie, 3 — I find myself in the same position of making sure my children grew up to not only good people but also appreciating good art.
“I’ve found that along with many of the films that you and Jett mentioned my kids will also watch silent films with me. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton films are really popular around here, but my son also really liked Metropolis and The Cabinet of Dr. Calagari.
“Other non-animated favorites are John Boorman’s Excaliber, The Adventures of Robin Hood, any Tim Burton movie (except the totally forbidden Planet of the Apes) and Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast.
“For a long time my son would watch Dr. Strangelove over and over, referring to it as the ‘airplane Movie.’ I seriously doubt that the themes of the film were apparent to him, but somehow I think that hearing Sterling Hayden’s ‘purity of essence’ speech may have made an impression.” — unnamed husband of Karen McKibben.
“I definitely identify with your article on kids and movies. I have two young children, and I end up censoring what they watch over quality issues much more than content issues…although I’m sure at six years old my son doesn’t understand why Superbabies 2 isn’t worth the rental fee.
“It has paid off from time to time, though. A few months ago my hyperactive five year-old daughter sat perfectly still for two hours while we watched Rear Window, and she has asked to watch it again several times since. To be honest, I get a little choked up when I hear her give out a conspiratorial chuckle over what’s buried in the flower garden.” — Randall Pullen
“I saw Taxi Driver with my mom in Mexico City when I was twelve, and it changed me. I didn’t quite understand everything but it opened my eyes to a new kind of filmmaking. I don’t think your idea is bizarre. Bad movies teach youngsters that the world is black and white place where good and evil are easily identifiable and definable things. i think good movies show the world as complex and often baffling, where we all have the capability of being either good or bad, often on the same day.” — Tom Engel.
Pollack at UCLA
Sydney Pollack (l.) addressing UCLA Sneak Preview class after showing of The Interpreter — Monday, 3.28.05, 9:55 pm.