Formerly "Dave's Blog About Movies and Such"

Friday, June 27, 2008

John Wayne in a Drive-By

Because it's Friday, here's a clip of the Duke opening a big ol' can of whoop ass, courtesy of the John Sturges movie McQ.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Why Must Mike Myers Be So Aloof?

This is my entry in the Bizarro Blog-A-Thon.

Although I was absolutely floored by the utter brilliance of Mike Myers' latest masterpiece, The Love Guru, I was left with a searing question: when will this reserved actor start taking broader roles? Pity Mike Myers; inside him burns the passion of a thousand suns, yet he is unable to set free his inner wild child. It is as though this shrinking violet is afraid that any outward emotions would cause his delicate petals to wilt. Not that his reserved style doesn't have its merits. Playing close to the chest, he exhibits the cool reserve of a man so assured of his talents that the adulation of fans would be an unwelcome ostentation. For him, it is art for art's sake -- the public be damned. This is quite evident in his refusal to trot out the old and familiar, and rather experiment wildly with the conventions of both comedy and film. Constantly re-inventing himself, he has more than earned his reputation as the cinematic equivalent of David Bowie.

Indeed, despite his standoffish demeanor, Myers exhibits a wide range of talents. He has, somehow, always managed to stay fresh. This is due in equal parts not only to his aforementioned experimentation but also to his sly unassuming style. One never knows what Myers will bring to the table, but his presence is always welcome. He is an actor about whom people have been known to gush,"I hope a roving band of syphilitic hobos doesn't run a train on him," "I hope he makes the same movie forever," and "he sure doesn't seem like a man struggling with crippling feelings of depression and inadequacy who must constantly strive for the approval of mindless fans in order to justify his hollow existence." But still, one wonders the heights to which Myers' talent would rise were he to let free his emotions. Here's to hoping that Myers will one day take off the mask and let us all see how wacky he can get.

Monday, June 23, 2008

R.I.P. George Carlin

George Carlin passed away yesterday at the age of 71. Carlin was an important cultural figure and groundbreaking stand up comedian. Seeing as my site is ostensibly movie related, it should be noted that Carlin also made a small mark in the world of film, with roles in movies such as: Car Wash, the Bill & Ted movies, and random Kevin Smith pictures. He had no pretensions of movie stardom, however. He knew that his place was in front of a microphone, and that's certainly how I'll remember him. As a teenager, few personalities made such an indelible impression on me as Carlin. True, he started doing stand up a few decades before I was born, but his acerbic wit and observations on shared human experiences have remained timeless and wholly relatable. Although I was aware of him as a pop culture figure, I didn't actually hear any of his stand up until I was 16. By that point I had already listened to many of the Carlin influenced comedians, but his work somehow eluded me for many years (what a joy it would be, years later, when I also discovered the work of Bill Hicks). More than anything, it was Carlin's early musings on growing up Catholic that had me enthralled. Coming as I did from a Catholic background, it was a revelation to hear him tear into the underpinnings of the religion. Not that I hadn't already developed doubts at this point, but he said it all more eloquently, and with more wit than I ever could. Indeed, his constant questioning of and attack on all authority; religious, political, business, etc, was just what I needed to hear during those formative teen years. And it didn't hurt that he was funny as hell. Of course, my teenage righteous anger mellowed over the years. But it always did my heart good to know that this cantankerous old man never lost his fury. He will be missed.

Here is one of my favorite Carlin bits:

Friday, June 20, 2008

Silence is Golden (Movies Without Dialogue)

More than any of the other popular arts, film is a visual medium. Those who truly understand its power have been able to make movies that show rather than tell. Using a few meaningful glances, sparsely but well chosen words, and purposeful composition; these directors understand the properties of the moving image. A few filmmakers, in particular, have taken their talents to even greater heights, and have made movies completely devoid of dialogue. They have managed to tell stories that are propelled using images alone.

The Last Laugh

dir. F. W. Murnau

It is rather a shame that synchronous sound developed so early in the development of motion pictures. The directors of this period were only beginning to scratch the surface of the possibilities of silent film, and Germany's F. W. Murnau was foremost among these pioneers. Realizing that intertitles could be cumbersome, interrupting the flow of a movie, Murnau moved further and further away from relying on these story aids until he did away with them completely for his film The Last Laugh. This movie tells the simple story of a hotel doorman who loses his job and, along with it, his character-defining doorman coat. As much as anything, this movie is a statement on the German fetishization of military dress and hierarchy. It is also such a simple, human tale that expository dialogue in the form of intertitles would have been redundant.

The Thief (1952)
dir. Russell Rouse

Conventional wisdom would say that the intricate, plot twist filled world of espionage movies would be unsuited for the silent treatment, but that didn't stop Russell Rouse from directing this thriller sans dialogue. In The Thief, Ray Milland plays a nuclear physicist who becomes a spy for a foreign government, eventually running afoul of the FBI. The film builds to a tension filled standoff between Milland and a Federale at the top of the Empire State Building. Truth be told, this is probably the gimmickiest of the movies on this list. Perhaps because Rouse was afraid that audiences would be confused, certain motifs (ringing phones, package hand-offs) are repeated ad naseum, just in case viewers would be unable grasp what was going on. Despite its drawbacks, however, I still admire the ballsiness of making a dialogue free movie in this genre.

Quest for Fire (1981)
dir. Jean-Jacques Annaud

Being as Quest for Fire is a tale of early man, Jean-Jacques Annaud's film is dialogue free by design. Truth be told, the characters in Quest for Fire are talkative, but seeing as they are cavemen and we can not understand their hibbledy-jibbledy language, their speech is irrelevant. No matter. The story isn't hard to follow. In this movie we follow a group of cavemen who hunt a rival tribe to recapture the fire they need for survival. Although their recaptured fire is eventually extinguished, [SPOILER ALERT] early man discovers the ability to create fire and thus does not become extinct [END SPOILER ALERT]. Aside from the dialogue free storytelling, Quest for Fire has much to recommend it; namely, a near constantly naked Rae Dawn Chong. Most importantly, however, Quest for Fire is one in a long line of movies that proves Ron Perlman's inability to play regular human characters.

(Realizing that the labyrinthine plot of this movie was too difficult for ordinary mortals to comprehend, Iron Maiden wrote this instructional song a few years after the film's release to enlighten the masses on the multi-layered plot of Annaud's film.)

Le Dernier Combat (1983)
dir. Luc Besson

Back in the early eighties, Mad Max knockoffs were a dime a dozen. Every so often one of these movies stood apart from the crowd, however. Luc Besson's feature length debut was one such movie. Le Dernier Combat operates under the interesting gimmick that, in this post apocalyptic future age, the atmosphere has changed so much that humans are no longer able to speak. In this world, man is forced to barbarism in order to survive. As an antidote to the Mad Max inspired movies, however, Luc Besson's film rejects machismo and celebrates civilized activities, suggesting that the answer to the problem is order. Not a director known for depth, here Besson shows an insight into humanity that seems to be lacking in his other films (not that they aren't entertaining, of course). Then again, because of the lack of dialogue, it's much easier to ascribe a depth that may or may not be present in this film.

The Triplets of Belleville (2003)
dir. Sylvain Chomet

It is rather astounding that feature length cartoons so rarely try to go the dialogue free route. Animation is the perfect genre in which to rely solely on visuals. The animated world is one of limitless possibilities. Realizing this, director Sylvain Chomet let out all the stops in his charming French cartoon, The Triplets of Belleville. In this movie, we follow a woman as she searches for her cyclist grandson who was kidnapped by the French mafia. Along the way we are introduced to a slew of colorful characters, including a flatulent dog, a trio of old singers modeled on the Andrews Sisters, and overweight Americans (did I mention this was a French movie?). Although the plot is quite involved, never once is this flick confusing. It flows just as smoothly as the movie's bouncy score. Then again, with a movie as colorful, fast paced, and carefree as this one, The Triplets of Belleville would be just as fun plot-less.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

R.I.P. Stan Winston

It saddens me to learn of the death of special effects guru Stan Winston. Growing up, I saw most movies he had a hand in. Of course, as a kid I had no idea who this man was, or what special effects people did. All I knew was that the action and horror movies he worked on in the eighties kept me deeply enthralled. A master of the woefully defunct art of makeup and practical effects, Winston made works of art that simply can not be matched in the present era of cookie cutter cgi effects. Some might deride the hokiness of some of his earlier effects, but there's no denying their charm. Like the works of all great artists, his work is imbued with the singular vision and personality of a master creator. No matter who made each of the movies, Winston's name in the credits ensured that these films would be experiences to remember.

Here are some clips of Stan Winston's work:

Starman (1984)

Aliens (1986)

Invaders From Mars (1986)

Predator (1987)

Monday, June 16, 2008

I Answer A Reader's Question

Daryl asks:

Hi. I am trying to find a movie from 2002. I cannot remember the title of it. All I remember is that it had the word summer in its title and in the commercial preview the mother said "I'm not going to hit you." and then she hits the teen. Any idea of what this movie is or how to find out its name? Thank you for your time and help.

The movie you are thinking of is 2002's Stolen Summer, the debut of writer/director Pete Jones. Bonnie Hunt plays the mother in question. Although I never saw this movie, I did remember the title and trailer, and a quick Google video search confirmed that this was the movie in question. The few people who know of this movie most likely remember it as the product of the inaugural season of "Project Greenlight", a reality show produced by freelance sexateurs Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. This show aimed, through a contest, to give a break to deserving but unproduced talent. The studio heads probably assumed that this seemingly altruistic show would generate welcome publicity for the resulting movie. This was not the case, however, for Stolen Summer. Although having an extremely meager budget of only $1.5 million, this movie could not recoup its costs, grossing only $120,000 at the box office. To date, no "Project Greenlight" movie has made a profit (not that there's anything wrong with that).

If anyone else has any random/obscure movie related questions, send me an email and I will do my best to answer them.

The trailer for Stolen Summer

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Robert Downey Jr. Channels His Father

Ben Stiller's upcoming Tropic Thunder has already managed to garner a fair amount of pre-release press, not only because of a supposedly hilarious Tom Cruise cameo and what appears to be a return to "The Ben Stiller Show" era form for Mr. Stiller, but also for the use of Robert Downey Jr. in black-face. In this film about filmmaking, Downey Jr. plays a method actor who undergoes surgery to make him black for a movie role. Possibly in an effort to downplay allegations of racism, Stiller has an actual black character criticize the foolishness and offensiveness of Downey Jr's character's actions, in this way winking to the audience and saying, "look, we agree with you, this is really fucked up" (I haven't seen the movie yet, of course, just the trailer).

I bring up this use of Downey Jr. in black-face for another reason, however. His performance clearly evokes (to me, anyways) the work of his director father, Robert Downey Sr, in Putney Swope. In this trailblazing film, a token black man at an ad agency, Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson), is accidentally put in charge of the company after its president dies. What follows is a biting satire of race relations in 1960s America. It is said that Johnson had trouble remembering his lines, so when filming was complete, Downey Sr. dubbed all of his dialogue in a raspy bad-ass "black" voice (though the voice sounds more like an older Lawrence Tierney after gargling shards of glass). Why Johnson was not asked to dub over his own lines, I don't know. Regardless, Putney Swope was groundbreaking in its depictions of racism and corporate advertising culture. In a stark departure from the types of characters generally played by Sidney Poitier, Swope was not a man who was happy just to be seated at the table of white America, but rather one who demanded his right to preside over it. He was the character that most of white America was not ready for at this time.

The passage of time of time has rendered Putney Swope a cult classic, and its influence has shown itself in Tropic Thunder through the use of similarly raspy voices that Downey's Sr. and Jr. brought to their respective roles. The black-face in Tropic Thunder seems less like a comment on race relations today than a knowing reference to an earlier period and a film on the subject. Can such a meta use of black-face be considered racist? Like I said, I haven't even seen Tropic Thunder yet, so who the hell knows? Of course, both movies, however well intentioned, come from a white perspective so they would never be able to accurately capture the black experience. One thing I am certain of, however, is that Putney Swope kicks ass. If you haven't seen it, it's well worth a watch.

The red band Tropic Thunder trailer

A clip from Putney Swope

Friday, June 6, 2008

Adequate Movies

No doubt many of you have already seen this post on the website Crooked Timber concerning movies to avoid watching before you die. This is a response, of course, to the numerous lists available of "essential movies", and although it's an interesting concept, I find fault with the premise. I find fault with it for one simple reason: I just can't think of any movies to put on such a list. This isn't to say that I have never seen a bad movie -- far from it. I have seen some movies so lacking in value of any kind that I was forced to question the very viability of the film form not only as an artistic medium, but also as an adequate means of documenting existence. Yet, I have never regretted watching any movie. I guess it goes back to that old saying, "whatever doesn't kill me only makes me stronger." Maybe I'm a masochist but I think it's healthy to, every now and then, watch movies that angry up the blood. In their passion inspiring awfulness these movies help to contrastingly define my cinematic tastes.

Who knows, maybe it goes beyond that. My ability to watch crap, more than anything, I suppose, is due to my slight OCD tendency in which I have to watch every movie I start all the way through to the end. No matter how insipid, insulting, or brutally inept a movie is, my brain will not let me stop watching. This tendency of mine isn't even limited to theatrical releases (the high price of admission providing an excuse to stick with a movie through to the bitter end). Everything I start, be it in a theater, a rental, or something on TV, has to be completed. I have never willingly stopped watching a movie halfway through. It is an indescribable force that drives me through. And all this constant exposure to banality has, no doubt, inured me to cinematic dreck.

Far more insipid to me is the adequately entertaining run of the mill movie. Through their, in your face inoffensiveness, middling movies are impossible to inspire anything but a catatonic haze in which the viewer's only thought is, "why not?". Truth be told, when I read the post mentioned earlier, I was going to make a list of my own: Barely Justifiable Adequate Movies. This list would contain movies that, although not being memorable in any distinct or definable way, carry just enough entertainment value so as not to be complete wastes of time. Seeing as the majority of movies fall into this category, the titles on this list would be so numerous as to make this an all but pointless endeavor. Oh well, maybe at some future point I'll compile such a list. For now, I leave you with Brett Ratner:

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

When Trailers Reveal Too Much: Jacob's Ladder (1990)

As anyone knows nowadays, going to a movie fresh has become an all but impossible task. What with script leaks, movie leaks, or bloggers revealing too much in their movie posts (Hell, I'm guilty of this but I generally write about movies that were made before I was born, so I think the statute of limitations is on my side), we can give detailed descriptions of movies before even seeing them. Sometimes, however, studios are to blame when they reveal too much information in the trailers they make. This is the first entry in a continuing series in which I examine trailers that are guilty of this crime.

[Warning: Major Spoiler's Ahead]

The preview for Jacob's Ladder is one of the most blatant examples of a trailer revealing too much. Tim Robbins plays Jacob Singer, a Vietnam Vet who experiences horrific flashbacks and demonic visions, the results of not only his combat experience but also of an experimental psychedelic drug that the military tested on his platoon (or so we think). By the film's conclusion, it is revealed that he is already dead (or, more accurately, in the process of dying). After being dealt a fatal wound in combat, as he tries to hold onto his life, his brain creates a continuation of his life in which he moves back to New York after being released from Vietnam. Eventually, he lets go and dies. Unfortunately, the trailer makes this only too abundantly clear, showing a couple instances of characters telling Jacob, "You're already dead." This was, no doubt, a factor in the movie's meager box office returns. Why would viewers at the time want to pay to see a movie whose ending they already knew.

Although this film's ending is not necessarily shocking to anyone who's read Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" or seen the French film based on it, Carnival of Souls, or half a dozen "Twilght Zone" episodes; it is nevertheless irksome to know beforehand that this is where the movie is going. Fortunately, this movie has enough going for it that, knowing its ending, will not take away from its power. Several viewings of this movie still have not lessened its ability to shock and unsettle me. Unlike some movies, whose entertainment value hinges on an "ain't I so clever twist" (I'm looking at you, The Usual Suspects and the works of M. Night Shyamalamading-dong.), this movie is more about the journey than the destination. It would still be nice, however, if the trailer manged to leave the destination somewhat mysterious.

(Incidentally, I found this fan made trailer/music video that, although showing more, does a better job of leaving the movie mysterious.)

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Kansas City Confidential (1952)

dir. Phil Karlson

"He hasn't learned a man should never push bad luck."
-Tim Foster

Before this "jewel of the Midwest" was renowned as home to the world famous Royals, Kansas City had a more sordid reputation. During the twenties, its open defiance of and contempt for the Eighteenth Amendment made it a rival of Chicago for the title of surliest, drunkest, most abusive, deadbeat dad of a town in the nation (side note: in a surprising upset this title would eventually go to Winnipeg, Manitoba). Home to the Kansas City Massacre, and shootouts between Bonnie and Clyde and the 5-O, Kansas City would continue its tradition of lawlessness through the thirties and beyond. Of course, it was also home to a thriving music scene. As a birthplace to the famed Kansas City Jazz sound, it launched the careers of such luminaries of the form as Count Basie and Charlie Parker (this portion of my review is brought to you courtesy of the Kansas City tourism board). It was truly a storied city, rife with danger and mystique (side note: anyone interested in this period of Kansas City's history would be remiss not to check out Altman's film Kansas City (second side note: I gotta stop using so many damn parentheticals)).

Despite its tough reputation, this city's lack of movie exposure is not so surprising. Lacking the supposed glamour of more noteworthy coastal cities such as New York and L.A., the only element that most folks associate with this city is the criminal. Then again, using a notoriously dangerous second tier city as the location for a piece of entertainment would wind up working splendidly for "The Wire" with its B'more setting. It was in this vein that Phil Karlson approached his heist thriller Kansas City Confidential. This gritty little film sizzles with explosive action and brings to life the Kansas City of popular imagination and criminal lore (at least during the first of the film, anyways).

Kansas City Confidential opens with the meticulous planning of a bank heist by, retired against his will, police officer Tim Foster (Preston Foster). Because of his po-po background, Foster has the knowhow to pull off the perfect crime. To aid him in this task he forcibly enlists the help of three notorious criminals. Wearing a mask and disguising his voice, Foster blackmails each member into joining his undertaking. Although none of the criminals can identify Foster, it is obvious that he is all too familiar with them. And seeing as his knowledge of their criminal pasts would be enough to put their asses in stir for the rest of their natural lives, these criminals see no other option than to acquiesce to Foster.

First among Foster's recruits, and perhaps the most sympathetic of the gang is Pete Harris, played here with deliriously jittery glee by character actor Jack Elam. Although Harris aches to turn over a new leaf, he has been bitten hard by the gambling bug. How bad is his gambling addiction? Well, in our introduction to Harris, he sits on his failure stained bed playing a solo game of dice (an activity so masturbatorily pointless as to rival the acts of an alcoholic chugging O'douls or a junkie mainlining water). Next on Foster's list is Tony Romano, played with creepy enthusiasm by Lee Van Cleef (side note: Is it just me or is Will Arnett a reincarnation of Van Cleef?). It is implied that Romano's crimes are of a sexually deviant nature and Van Cleef is only too eager to ham up this aspect of his character, in one scene leering at a young woman with the kind of spine chilling intensity that would give Richard Speck the willies. The final member of Foster's gang is the brutish thug Boyd Kane (Neville Brand). Having previously killed a cop, Kane is most susceptible to Foster's blackmail.

The linchpin of Foster's plan is the use of rubber masks by all members of the group. This ensures that not only would witnesses be unable to identify them but also that the members of the group would be unable to identify each other were they to be picked up by the fuzz. Also, for reasons that won't be made abundantly clear until the film's conclusion, Foster sets up a future date and new locale in which to distribute the loot rather than dividing the spoils at the completion of the heist. Foster leaves no room for error and, indeed, the plan goes off without a hitch.

This spells bad news, however, for former criminal and present day floral company truck driver Joe Rolfe (John Payne), as his vehicle is of the very same type used by Foster as a getaway vehicle. When the authorities arrest Rolfe they gladly pin the crime on him despite a lack of evidence (aside from the similarity in vehicles). After a long, brutal interrogation produces no results, the thugish Captain McBride (Jeff York) opines, "I think if you left him to me, the boys would have his confession first thing in the morning." In a clever bit of editing and dialogue, we cut to a severely beaten Rolfe being led back to his cell by the very same McBride, who warns him, "We'll be back after first thing in the morning."

When the discovery of the actual getaway vehicle exonerates Rolfe, McBride remains unrepentant and steadfast in his loathing of the truck driver. This is of little concern to Rolfe, however, as his goal turns to finding out who set him up. This is where the film takes a giant leap in location and style. Perhaps concerned that a movie set entirely in Kansas City would be too depressing, Karlson decides to shift locales to Latin America (or at least the tourist video version of it). A hot tip leads Rolfe to Mexico where he finds Pete, who informs him of Foster's plan to distribute the loot. Fortunately for Rolfe, Pete will soon be gunned down by Mexican Authorities. Seizing this opportunity to get his hands on some green, Rolfe assumes Pete's identity and heads to Borados, location of the money exchange. What ensues is a series of plot twists, as character motivations are revealed and Foster's plan rapidly unravels.

Perhaps because the film begins in a such a spare, intense, gripping style; the second half leaves me wanting less. The plot twists make logical sense and nothing feels forced, but I actually prefer not knowing all of the intricacies of Foster's plan. These plot reveals, remove much of the film's mysterious charm. It should be noted, also, that Kansas City Confidential remains a much more powerful film when mired in the depths of Kansas City. Confining the characters to this claustrophobic second tier urban setting would have enhanced one of the film's important themes -- that of the inability to escape one's past. In one plot thread, men are forced by circumstance to engage in dangerous, albeit potentially profitable, criminality. Try as they might they can not escape the fact that they are career criminals. When they succeed, they feel the pride of completing a decent job. The viewer, likewise, experiences a vicarious thrill through their success. In the contrasting yet corresponding plot thread, another man is persecuted for reasons he can neither understand nor control. He has escaped the pull of criminality, yet not its taint. Like Kansas City's, his is a hopeless existence. As Preston "Bodie" Broadus would say, "This game is rigged, man." The first half of the film functions as a cross between The Asphalt Jungle and The Trial. It would have been interesting to see this movie play itself out. Unfortunately, the film that I started watching, somehow switched halfway through to something much more formulaic.

Nevertheless, this film's second half does have its charms. Placing the rough hoods in a tropical setting, creates an interesting culture clash. It is obvious that these tough talking, uncouth gangsters have no place in such paradisaical surroundings. Karlson introduces another welcome plot development in the form of a love story between Rolfe and Foster's daughter, Helen (Coleen Gray). Although the criminal Foster detests the idea of his daughter becoming romantically entangled with someone he deems so patently criminal, if he reveals Rolfe's past to her he risks revealing his hand, essentially blowing apart his criminal undertaking (that's a whole mess o' criminality).

Congruent with contemporary noirs, Kansas City Confidential casts a disparaging light on law enforcement. Karlson approaches the subject from a slightly different angle, however. In a city so steeped in criminality, a corrupt police force is a matter of course. It is no surprise that, in this setting, a former cop would have no compunctions about carrying out such brazenly nefarious criminal activity. He does not even see his activities as wrongful; at most, he is just sticking it to the higher ups in the police force who forced him to retire. In the process he is able to flaunt his superior intellect to those same higher ups. This is, without doubt, one of the most methodical, involved, and time consuming instances of spite ever put to film.

I couldn't find a clip of the trailer for this movie online, so I leave you with this.

(side note: I am well aware that this band hails from Topeka, Kansas and not Kansas City, MO. I just couldn't resist the urge to post this video.)