Friday, September 28, 2012

Friday's Old Fashioned: A Yank In The R.A.F.

A friend of mine is currently embroiled in authoring a screenplay based on his friend’s life after coming home from Iraq. I have read an early draft and given a few notes and one thing that struck me actually had nothing to do with my friend’s particular screenplay. Rather it was how in this day and age most everything that could be considered a “war film” is generally serious. From “The Hurt Locker” to the recent “Return” to “Jarhead” to “Grace Is Gone”, these movies, more often than not, are consumed by the dark. “The Lucky Ones” had a few lighter moments but even then it was undercut by a distinct current of sadness.


“A Yank In The R.A.F.”, on the other hand, released into theaters a mere four months ahead of the attack on Pearl Harbor, while filled with a bit of derring-do and a couple fiery planes, is, more often than not, a light-hearted romp, a film less about this Yank’s exploits in Britain’s Royal Air Force than in the love triangle unfolding back on the base. If Paul Greengrass had attempted to inject a little screwball comedy into “Green Zone” there would have been a revolt. I do not mean to suggest war films of today should be more zany and less solemn, not at all, but simply to suggest that the difference in the eras is astounding.

Make no mistake, American pilot Tim Baker (Tyrone Power) has a bit of the Han Solo in him. In a marvelous establishing sequence, we are introduced to Tim when he “mistakenly” flies a training plane to Trenton, Ontario rather than Trenton, New Jersey, thereby usurping the Neutrality Act. Ah well. Once in Canada he then agrees to fly a bomber across the Atlantic to London for a cool $1,000. “I expect to be well paid. I’m in it for the money.” Once in London, as he must, he runs into the ex light of his life, Carol Brown (Betty Grable), an American aiding the British war effort who moonlights as……wait for it……a chorus girl. Of course, she does! I wish there would have been scenes in “The Hurt Locker” of Evangeline Lilly moonlighting as front woman for a suburban Pussy Riot-esque punk band.

Enter: Commander John Morley (John Sutton), echoing Michael Fassbender’s memorable Lt. Archie Hickox, whose fancy is also captured by the lilting Ms. Brown. The two pilots vie for her affection and, interestingly, Henry King’s film, whether intentional or not, clearly makes the American out to be a cad (he keeps scoping for other dates when Carol isn’t around) and the Brit out to be the gentleman. And, in fact, the gentleman goes so far as to propose marriage and Carol seems to be swayed but Tim isn’t about to let her go so easily. Reading up on the film after seeing it, I learned that it was generally considered a propaganda film, that famed producer Daryl Zanuck supported America getting involved WWII and not only tinkered with the story during production but one of the co-writers, under the pseudonym Melville Crossman.


And while the movie will, as it must, eventually take Baker and Morley from their spirited game of courtship into the skies above Europe for battle, it never feels as much like a call to arms as an unsuccessful mish-mash of genres. It’s essentially a wartime rom com for roughly 45 minutes before Baker is made part of Morley’s bomber crew. Putting two men at odds over the same woman on the same plane would seem ripe for a bit of macho tension. It never happens. It would be interesting to think that “A Yank In The R.A.F.” does this to either illustrate the quick transformative nature of war or how your mind must stay on the mission once the mission starts. But this theme is never really conveyed and once they are back on the ground Baker quickly resumes flirting with other ladies until Carol shows up at which he point he reverts to claiming she’s the only one for him. And there is Morley, a prospective angel hovering above her other shoulder.

So is this film really propagandizing? Hey, maybe it is. What do I know? Maybe young American men saw this and immediately wanted to enlist and in the hopes of scoring their very own Betty Grable.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

When Paul Thomas Anderson Went Musical

I re-watched "Magnolia" in advance of seeing "The Master" (my review here) and then after seeing "The Master" I read Matt Zoller Seitz's epic takedown of an NYC audience going all "Mystery Science Theater 3000" during a theater showing of "From Russia With Love." It's a heck of a piece, even if you don't agree with all of it. You should read it.

One item that particularly struck me was his reciting a story from a college film class where the teacher showed "Singing In The Rain" and the majority of the class spent most of the time, well, going all "Mystery Science Theater 3000." One of the students, according to Zoller Seitz, said (italics his): “Well, it was just funny because they’d just, you know, be talking, and then they’d start singing, and you’d hear this orchestra suddenly start playing out of nowhere..."

You hear those sorts of complaints all the time with musicals from modern day moviegoers. This sudden eruption of singing for no apparent reason. This is there are so few musicals these days. People, it would seem, just don't dig 'em. They just don't want people to suddenly break into a song in the middle of a movie. Which makes me think that the ballsiest thing Paul Thomas Anderson has ever done is not having frogs fall from the sky or having Adam Sandler threaten to smash Emily Watson's face with a sledgehammer pre-coitus or making "The Master" or "There Will Be Blood."

No, I think it might be the "Wise Up" sequence in "Magnolia" because they're all just, you know, talking and then they start singing and you hear Aimee Mann suddenly start playing out of nowhere...




Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Determining Kate Beckinsale's Role In The Len Wiseman Mummy Remake

It has been 13 years since "The Mummy" remake and because 13 is 48 in Hollywood Years, the time has arrived for the remake of the remake. Len Wiseman, who recently helmed the "Total Recall" remake, has been tabbed to direct. And because Len Wiseman has been tabbed to direct we can only assume that Wiseman will, as Wiseman does, include his fetching wife Kate Beckinsale in the cast. The question then becomes, what part does Kate Beckinsale play?


And based on the previous two films there appear to be three options. Anck-su-Namun, the love of Imhotep, the man who would become The Mummy, who was featured in both films. Or Egyptologist/Librarian Evelyn Carnahan - from the remake - who possesses the map that leads to the place where The Mummy will be unleashed and who The Mummy will then attempt to sacrifice to bring his love back to life. Or the original film's Helen Grosvenor, the beguiling daughter of the English Governor of the Sudan, who functions as The Mummy's potential sacrificial Anck-su-Namun lookalike.

We can, of course, eliminate Evelyn Carnahan immediately. No offense to Librarians, but Kate Beckinsale is not a Librarian (even though we all know she likes to curl up Saturday nights in front of the fire with a little Thomas Aquinas).

Helen Grosvenor is bewitching, certainly, and while that is most decidedly Beckinsale-y the distinct lack of ass-kicking is not.

Thus, it will have to Anck-su-Namen. But a problem emerges - namely, the role of Anck-su-Namen is not of enough prominence.

So here's what we'll do. We'll flip roles of Imohtep and Anck-su-Namen and turn Anck-su-Namen into "The Mummy." This way when she is awakened she can kick ass, Beckinsale-style. Also, The Mummy will have to succeed in the human sacrifice to resurrect Imohtep so they can live happily ever after. Because Kate Beckinsale cannot be allowed to lose. Hope everyone's cool with it.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Last of the Mohicans.....20 Years Burning Down The Road

As my best friend will attest, I subjected everyone at my birthday parties of yore to Michael J. Fox’s fragrant slice of 80’s cheese "The Secret Of My Success." The first time I encountered it, however, was one Saturday night with my family in the basement of our home on 220 3rd St. The next Sunday morning we were at church and after the service we stood around with several other families for coffee and snacks – because this was a Lutheran church and that’s what you do – by the window because it was thundering and lightning and pouring rain. I remember this moment vividly, and I remember it vividly because I remember thinking 1.) My soccer game scheduled for this afternoon is totally going to be rained out. 2.) This means I can go home and watch “The Secret Of My Success” again! Which I did.


In retrospect, this moment signified something humongous. I was cold chillin’ in the Lord’s House, eating my donuts, but I wasn’t thinking about the sermon or the liturgy or Sunday School class (which, truth be told, I could not STAND until my two best friends joined our church several years later). No, I was thinking about the montage in "The Secret Of My Success" set to "Oh Yeah" (“day bow bow”) by Yello. I wanted NOTHING to do with strapping on my shin guards and chasing around a soccer ball. Ugh. I wanted to watch Michael J. Fox Walking on Sunshine as he delivered corporate mail. Church is nice. Organized sports are just fine. But movies and music, that’s where it’s at…..for me anyway.

I thought of that moment in my life just recently when I read a passage in the late Bill Holm’s wonderful book "Eccentric Islands: Travels Real and Imaginary." He wrote: “I am, whether by DNA or inclination, an Evangelical Literary Fundamentalist. Stories are true. Poems are true. What lasts for a thousand years in the consciousness is true. Music is true.” (He did not, unfortunately, write Movies are true, but he may as well have.) At that instant I - to quote Samuel L. Jackson in "Pulp Fiction" - "experienced what alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity." I read a couple more paragraphs and then realized they did not take. I tried a second time. No luck. I was so struck by that passage it overwhelmed me and, thus, I spent the rest of my lunch staring out the window (ah?) and pondering what it meant and what it meant to me.


Twenty years ago today a film set during the French & Indian War called "Last of the Mohicans" hit theaters. I was but a wee (read: dorky) high school freshman still stricken with a rap music infatuation and, thus, had far more interest in the EPMD Business Never Personal cassette tape (you heard me) I received as a birthday present several weeks earlier (“strictly underground funk, keep the Crossover”) than with a romantic adventure set 200 years in the past. I was roughly a year away from checking out the film on home VHS (you heard me) and having my life take a sharp turn toward the melodramatic moron writing these words.

My Mom & Dad, however, did catch the movie at the theater and I recall them giving it positive reviews when they returned home. Perhaps because my brain works in mysterious ways I always find the notion of their theatrical viewing of Last of the Mohicans as funny and mystical, because little did they know just what they were watching. I remember my Dad recounting the scene in which the intrepid gang goes over the waterfall in a canoe (my Dad is an avid canoer) and, hey, what might Dad have said if someone from the future suddenly appeared in a plume of smoke at that instant and advised him his idiot son would drive halfway across the country years later to STAND BESIDE THAT VERY SAME WATERFALL?


For many years I harbored the misplaced dream of making and/or writing movies. It was not merely misplaced because I have now realized that I both much more enjoy and am much more skilled at writing about movies (those who can't do pontificate in various internet forums) and which makes me desperately wish I could rewind the clock back to the late 90's and enroll in college for journalism instead of enrolling in college without any clear idea of who the hell I was or what the hell I was doing......but don't get me started. No, it was misplaced because when I reached that waterfall, illuminated by the striking Blue Ridge foliage, I imagined the canoe carrying Hawkeye and Cora and Alice and Uncas and Chingachcook making its way oh so dramatically over them and that's all I imagined. I did not imagine Michael Mann there in a vest and turtleneck (?) gazing through the viewfinder of his camera and then hollering instructions at Dante Spinotti, his cinematographer. I did not imagine Daniel Day Lewis sipping herbal tea in his buckskins, waiting for the shot to be set. I did not imagine a fed-up intern shuttling back and forth to service various requests (demands). Nope. I just saw the canoe going over the falls.

Well, of course that was all I saw. I'm an Evangelical Literary Fundamentalist. It's why long ago when I first discovered the cinema I was confused about when all those people in "Star Wars" made time to go to the bathroom. Movies.Are.True.

Luke blew up the Death Star. Ted Striker landed the plane. Indy discovered the Ark of the Covenant. Peter Blood became Governor of Jamaica. Count Rugen had six fingers. Brantley Foster was Carlton Whitfield. Maverick put on the brakes and Jester flew right by. Ferris, Sloane and Cameron really did in one afternoon what it would actually take a whole two days to accomplish. Robert Gould Shaw really did command the 54th Massachusetts, sure, but he also really did have a runaway slave named Trip in that same outfit. Even then I think I knew all of that was true in some sort of ineffable way even if I didn't know it. But eventually I knew it.

"Last of the Mohicans" was my Come to Jesus moment.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Girl Walks Into A Bar

“Girl Walks Into A Bar” was created exclusively for online distribution – specifically, Youtube – which is to say it’s “THE FUTURE!!!” And if “Girl Walks Into A Bar” is the future, cinema is dead. Ok. That’s harsh. I renege. I mean, the future of cinema will be dead, but it won’t be a sudden death. It will be a slow and mightily indifferent death. One morning we’ll all wake up and all we’ll have are a bunch of pretty lookin’ if spottily put together vignettes that you can just kind of check in and out of because, hey, it’s a movie on Youtube and this new Carly Rae Jepsen video over here to the right that Youtube is recommending is looking awfully good and, damn, I just can’t help myself. I’m clicking on it. All right! This video is rocking! This is – hey! Is this a video of Dane Cook putting a whoopee cushion on the House Speaker’s chair?!


Written and directed by Sebastian Guttierrez, “Girl Walks Into A Bar” is not only about a Girl – Det. Francine Driver (Carla Gugino, fine, hard-boiled work to no avail) – who walks into a bar but about a whole slew of people played mostly by actors you probably know who walk into and back out of bars all over glittery L.A. over the course of one night. Oh, and a ping pong club. They also walk into a ping pong club. Well, not exactly a ping pong club. It’s a ping pong club that would be right at home in “A Shot In The Dark.” If you don’t know what scene I’m referring to, you should probably Netflix “A Shot In The Dark” first and catch up with “A Girl Walks Into A Bar” later.

Plot? Oh, there’s plot. Sure. Nick (Zachary Quinto) wants his wife – second wife – dead. So he hires Francine to off her, except Francine is undercover and working with her fellow Detective (Josh Hartnett) who winds up in a liaison with Rosario Dawson whose character I’m fairly certain exists just to recite my favorite lines in the film – “My acid reflux is so much better since I switched to white wine.” Meanwhile Francine has her wallet stolen by a dude (Aaron Tveit) whose sister (Emmanuelle Chriqui) is an exotic dancer whose dad (Robert Forster) is waiting for a briefcase at a bar where Amber Valletta is pouring drinks. Danny DeVito turns up to basically tell a joke, not unlike Quentin Tarantino in “Desperado”, which seemed about right.

It’s a little like “Pulp Fiction” – minus the graphically fanciful dialogue that foreshadows – mixed with “Magnolia” – minus the wide-reaching, scattered stories that still somehow, in their own weird way, connect. Of course, it may be that “A Girl Walks Into A Bar” has no desire to connect its random tales on anything other than the most superficial level possible. I mean, the title explicitly evokes a shaggy dog story. That ain’t coincidence.

Per Meriam-Webster a shaggy dog story is “a long-drawn-out circumstantial story concerning an inconsequential happening that impresses the teller as humorous but the hearer as boresome and pointless.” Yup. Sounds like a movie made for Youtube.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Wait A Second, Does "Stolen" Even Exist?

A week ago the Malin Akerman film "Stolen" (co-starring Nic Cage, who is actually the star, but not really) opened nationwide. Well, not actually nationwide. And hey, sometimes this happens. Chicago, as fine of a city as it is, does not get every single movie opening weekend. A lot of movies have limited releases that first week and then expand later. Typically these are more of your, shall we say, arthouse-friendly films, not your Nic Cage Crazy Eyes films, but, you know, there are exceptions.

Malin Akerman, star of "Stolen", which may or may not be a real movie.
So I figured "Stolen" would finally descend in all its non-glory this weekend. Sure, sure, everyone is all riled up about P.T. Anderson's new opus, and I'm riled up too, but I also hoped I could sneak in a showing of my official Cinematic Crush helping Nic pull "one last job" at some point. Except when I checked the movie times for this weekend in the Windy City, "Stolen" was still nowhere to be found.

Hmmmmmmmm.

Then I noticed it had a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Double hmmmmmmmmm.

What was going on here? Was "Stolen" akin to "Innocence of the Muslims", nothing more than a trailer claiming to be a real movie......just, you know, without all the divisiveness. I decided to dig deeper. I checked the Village Voice. "Stolen" wasn't showing in New York either! How could it not be showing in New York?! New York gets EVERYTHING!!! Right now New York is showing Wes Anderson's next movie and he hasn't even made it yet! What was going on?!

I checked the Los Angeles movie times and discovered that "Stolen" was showing in but a single theater in Chino Hills. Never mind that Chino Hills totally sounds made up, this meant that "Stolen" was showing in ONE theater amongst the three most populated cities in the United States. I smelled a conspiracy. I even considered flying to Chino Hills to drive to this theater likely to discover that (gasp!) the one theater showing "Stolen" was suspiciously "out of order." But before I acted upon it I chose to check the movie times for the fourth most populated city in the United States......Houston. And you know what? "Stolen" was showing at 14 theaters. 14! The plot had thickened.

I checked the movie times for Philadelphia, the fifth most populated city in the United States. No "Stolen." I checked the movie times for Phoenix, the sixth most populated city in the United States. "Stolen" was showing in 9 theaters. It wasn't showing in San Antonio, the seventh most populated city, but it was showing in Dallas, the tenth most populated city. And it was showing in Fort Worth. And in Jacksonville, FL. And in Charlotte, NC. But it WAS NOT showing in Detroit. Or Indianapolis. Or Seattle. Is it possible that marketers decided "Stolen's" target audience was entirely BELOW the Mason Dixon Line? And does this merit deeper consideration?

Perhaps, perhaps not. All I know is for the first time in my life I actually regret leaving Phoenix.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Friday's Old Fashioned: San Francisco

D.W. Griffith’s 1936 opus “San Francisco” opens on New Year’s Eve, the streets of The Wickedest City In America flush with revelers and strewn with confetti, and this is entirely appropriate. After all, what is the New Year but a chance at a New Beginning? Ah, and because is this December 31, 1905 that means unsuspecting San Francisco is in the direct, deadly sights of Mother Nature – namely, the great earthquake scheduled to hit in four month’s time that will inevitably function as the crux of the film – which will present the dawn of a Second New Beginning.


Mary Blake (Jeanette McDonald), a penniless classical singer from Benson, Colorado, seeks a new beginning as the clock strikes midnight. She finds it in the form of the unfortunately named Blackie Norton (Clark Gable), a hard-charging but debonair proprietor of the Paradise Club, a saloon situated in the Barbary Coast, a hive of gambling and debauchery. Mary, though, with her pretty soprano seems a tad too wholesome for such sinful surroundings, and as much is made clear by Father Tim Mullen (Spencer Tracy). He is your rare Roman Catholic priest with a wicked pop in his fist which he demonstrates by knocking Blackie to the boxing canvas in an early scene. Turns out Father Tim and Blackie go way back. Father Tim wants him to fear God, Blackie fears no man or deity, yet still possesses a conscious as shown by his generous contributions to the church he refuses to his attend.

Of course, his conscience isn’t airtight and he signs poor Mary to a stringent contract. She gets out of the contract when Jack Burley of snobbish Nob Hill offers her the opportunity to be a performer at the luxurious Tivoli Opera House. She accepts. Blackie wants her back. Burley doesn’t want to give her up. She wants to stay with Burley. After all, Burley has just proposed marriage and she has accepted. Eventually, though, she finds her way back to Blackie. She and Blackie agree to be married. But when Father Tim shows up and sees Blackie has dressed his “fiancĂ©” in a costume that would make Kim Kardashian blush, he whisks her away from Blackie and takes her back to the sensible surroundings of Burley. ‘Round and ‘round they go, where will they stop? Nobody knows. Well, actually the audience knows. It will stop at exactly 5:13 AM April 18, 1906.

The re-creation of the quake is justifiably famous and still spectacular, all done, of course, with models and specially built sets. What makes it so discomfortingly memorable, though, is the absence of a musical score, instead settling on an incessant low roar that increases the unease by bounds, and the quick-cut editing which brings the terror at us in such a way as to make it feel never-ending. And while I can only speculate, I imagine that is how anyone might feel in the throes of such an event.


The love triangle is curious because generates no heat. This is because the love triangle is less about love than business. Mary Blake is just sort of a piece of property that keeps getting traded back and forth. Throughout the film there are plenty of references – both by Father Tim and others – of San Francisco’s wicked, wicked ways and this, it seems, is one of them, using this hapless Coloradoan for their own personal gain and her allowing them to use her so she can see her name in lights.

This is what makes "San Francisco" a little like a black & white MGM "Magnolia." The earthquake is the frogs, wiping the slate clean, triggering a necessary rebirth. I don't recall seeing a character holding up a sign in the background of the Paradise Club reading "Isaiah 29:6" - "The Lord Almighty will come with thunder and earthquake and great noise, with windstorm and tempest and flames of a devouring fire" - but maybe I just missed it.

This film's as old fashioned as they come, yet still sorta scary. It makes you wonder if maybe Mother Nature isn't necessarily "unpredictable", but a weapon wielded by those on high to put us in our place.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

4 Movie Roles For Kate Middleton

Today in Cinema Romantico's ongoing attempt to provide cinematic posts you will NOT find anywhere else on the interwebs, we turn to The Duchess Of Cambridge, Catherine Elizabeth "Kate" Middleton, the Marvelous Marvin Hagler of the Royals, which is to say if any one of those leering paparazzi jackasses actually had to put down their telephoto lenses and face her man-to-woman she would whomp some ass like Kate Beckinsale's Selene. Which brings me to my main point.

What if Kate went Hollywood? What if she decided to make a movie? I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Kate Middleton can't act!" To which I would reply, Hey! She has 29 credits on IMDB! To which you would reply, "Those aren't actual movies! She's herself in all 29 of those! That doesn't count!" To which I would reply, that's a fair point.

We are unsure of her acting ability. Therefore what we need to do is choose roles tailor-made for who Kate Middleton is. Hence...

4 Movie Roles For Kate Middleton


1.) Make no mistake, Stephen Frears' adaptation of the fine Nick Hornby novel "High Fidelity" was exemplary. However, it was also set in Chicago and the novel was set in London. So let's say they chose to remake "High Fidelity" on English shores. The most critical question, of course, would be who could live up to John Cusack as Rob Gordon but that's not what interests us today. What interests us today is that in the UK's "High Fidelity", Kate Middleton should sub in for Lisa Bonet as Marie de Salle. Except Kate's Marie de Salle would sing "Play With Fire" by The Rolling Stones because, well, just trust me on this one. (And, by the way, Kate sang in her church choir. So just cool your jets.)

2.) "Reign of Fire 2." In 2027, 7 years after the original film, it turns out the fire-breathing dragons of future apocalyptic England have NOT been killed off, because OF COURSE they haven't. Tragically, the fire-breathing dragons have only INCREASED their numbers - increased them by the thousands - they are out of control and even twangy Matthew McConaughey can no longer fend off their mayhem. Enter: Kate Middleton (playing herself), dressed like Keira Knightley in "King Arthur", with Prince Harry's rugby team for backup. Fire-breathing dragon ass kicking ensues.

3.) A "Love Actually"-esque rom com in which the various names of British acting royalty (ah?) cavort to and fro about rainy London all at various stages of romantic turmoil. And each character, at one time or another, in the most unexpected place, runs into Kate Middleton (playing herself) who dispenses strange but sage advice that turns the tables on the fickle gods of love. She's like The Sphinx, but with a keener fashion sense.

4.) Princess by day/Superhero by night, Kate fights British crime as her alter-ego Miss Dog's Bollocks. The film culminates at London's Olympic Opening Ceremonies where she thwarts a villain's attempts to blow up the stadium. No one notices that in the 10 minutes it takes Miss Dog's Bollocks to save the day that Kate wasn't in her seat. Will: "Kate! You went to the bathroom AGAIN just when Miss Dog's Bollocks showed up!"

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

James Cameron Lays Down The Smack

As a noted "Titanic" acolyte, I have over the years had to endure any number of haters, of course, and the one argument to which the haters return most prominently concerns the moment post-sinking when Rose is marooned on the all-important board, the board upon which Jack finds no room which leaves him in the freezing north Atlantic water which leads to......well, you know. "There was room for both of them!" the haters shout. "Why didn't she move over?" they demand. So on, so forth. (Apparently there was some sort of video that went viral regarding this in the wake of the 3D re-release but I've been hearing this crap ever since January of 1998.)


Never mind that these people are simply replicas of that ass clown Neil deGrasse Tyson, cyborgs who fail to experience the overwhelming emotional resonance of this moment because they are too busy bitching about science. Why people like this even watch movies is beyond me. To paraphrase Billy Crudup on Broadway last year in "Arcadia": there was room on the board, there wasn't room on the board, WHO GIVES A SHIT???!!! Can't you let yourself FEEL anything?! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD!!!

(Calming down.)

James Cameron, perfectionist, has, however, come to the rescue. He says (underlines mine): "Actually, it's not a question of room, it's a question of buoyancy. When Jack puts Rose on the raft, then he tries to get on the raft. He's not an idiot, he doesn't want to die. And the raft sinks and kind of flips. So it's clear that there's only enough buoyancy available for one person. So he makes a decision to let her be that person instead of taking them both down."

Cameron, in fact, has gone so far as to film an upcoming episode of "MythBusters" to prove his point. Not, I'm sure, that this will quell the automaton haters. God, am I glad Mr. Wizard didn't get into filmmaking. Those movies would have sucked.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Two Men Went To War

Even in the midst of WWII, people needed dentists. This is never addressed in history texts. It's always RAF this and Winston Churchill that but, hey, as a character puts it, "If you can't bite, you can't fight." Peter King (Kenneth Cranham) is a Sgt. in the Royal Army Dental Corps who has yearned his whole military career for honest-to-goodness action on the front lines. Yet again, he is denied. Thus, when he happens upon eager Pvt. Leslie Cuthbertson (Leo Bill) in a supply room pretending to hurl a real life grenade as if it's a party favor, passionate in his own naive way to trade in the periodontal probe for a rifle, he knows he's found his man.


Sgt. King gathers up Pvt. Cuthbertson one quiet morning and the two men shove off by train to catch a bus to hop a junky old boat to the shores of occupied France, determined to conduct their own invasion - their own invasion, it should be noted, two full years before the real invasion.

"Two Men Went To War" (2002), directed by John Henderson, is not at all interested in the realities of war, the toll it takes, and even though technically death looms around the corner when the two make landfall - a scene which nicely places a reversal on top of a reversal - the lighthearted tone means we are never seriously concerned for their well being. That adversely affects a couple of the scenes going for suspense, sure, but also adds to the overall impression for which the film strives.

Aside from one traditional sleeping under the stars confessional, very little backstory is presented regarding King and Cuthbertson. Instead we are left to glean who they are from how they act and what others say. An officer back at the base describes King as "barking mad." Cuthbertson seems as concerned with meals - the way he keeps carrying around those sacks of biscuits is quite endearing - as with the possibility that they are, you know, gallivanting about in enemy territory. It brought to mind the line in Werner Herzog's documentary "Grizzly Man" in which the late Timothy Treadwell, the man who spent his summers alone in Alaska with the grizzlies, was described by one interviewee as acting as if those grizzlies were people in bear costumes. Generally the Nazi soldiers in "Two Men Went To War" feel like, well, actors in replica Nazi uniforms.

But not every war film is intended to be "Saving Private Ryan." Based on a true story, "Two Men Went To War" follows most of the main facts but makes its own detours and embellishments - especially in relation to King and Cutherbertson's target of a radar station - and, in the end, is not so much about two men going to war as it is about two men who share a dream and decide to seek it out even if that means going AWOL.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

-“Looks like you started smoking again. You were doing so well. What happened all of a sudden?” 
-“It wasn’t all of a sudden, doctor.” 

Nothing is all of a sudden in “Once Upon A Time In Anatolia”, director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Grand Jury Prize winner at vaunted Cannes. After a brief prologue that betrays nothing, the film shifts to a long, winding road in the moonlit Turkish countryside. Three cars are glimpsed on the horizon, come into view, travel a little ways, and stop. A gaggle of men climb out. They are police, but there is also a doctor, a lawyer, and two men in handcuffs. These two men have confessed to a murder. They have agreed to lead the police and the doctor and the lawyer to the place where the body is buried. Except they are having some trouble remembering precisely where the body is buried. Everything looks the same out here in rural Anatolia. So they pile back into the cars and move on to a different spot. The body is not there. So they pile back into the cars and move on to another different spot. The body is not there.


Once upon a time is a phrase we so often think of in conjunction with fairy-tales – you know, fantasy, make-believe, castles perched on floating clouds, etc. Cineastes might think of Sergio Leone’s 1969 “Once Upon A Time In The West”, a ginormous masterpiece in which every happening, every line, every gesture is outsized and romanticized. And although it has the rich cinematography and the far-reaching running time (two hours and thirty-seven minutes), it could not be further from a spaghetti western. It reminded me of the lauded Romanian film “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” not so much for the bleakness – though “Anatolia” can be bleak, but also quite funny in a decidedly droll way – but for the length and frankness of its scenes.

For all these outdoor vistas, time and again Ceylan's camera chooses to settle for focusing on faces. In the earliest moments the camera squares in on the face of the main murderer and then moves in on it, slowly, as it is the guilt coming home to roost. Back at the hospital the doctor, for a brief second, looks directly into the camera. The shot reverses and we realize he is looking into a mirror, but is he really? Or is he looking at us? Is he pleading? "What do you think of all this?" Later, the camera chooses to focus on the doctor's face again even as an autopsy goes on just out of its frame, the gut-punching sounds of the operation ever-present in our ear.

It may have taken me up until this moment, basically the film's final moment, to determine what it was up to all along. "Once Upon A Time In Anatolia" is so quiet and contemplative it does not even possess a hint of music and while that might sound as if it makes for a slog, it does not. Rather it envelopes you in its atmosphere, an atmosphere purposely at odds with the "Once Upon A Time" of its title.


I'm an American. Americans are infiltrated with police procedural shows on a nightly basis (a daily basis, too, counting re-runs). The body is found before the opening credits. The autopsy is performed with no real regard for the fact that, uh, that's, like, a person whose life just ended on your table. Cops go after Killers. Guns are fired. Cops get Killers. Everyone's happy. It is afforded no reverence for the fact that every human life taken - no matter who, no matter how - is a very big deal.

"Once Upon A Time In Anatolia" takes 237 minutes to pay it proper reverence. In the end, that is awfully epic indeed.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Bachelorette

A great many of my friends have been married in the past few years and one detail they all repeat regarding their respective wedding ceremonies is this: “You think it’s your wedding. But it’s not really your wedding. It’s everyone else’s wedding.” The wedding of "Bachelorette", written and directed by Leslye Headland, based on her off Broadway play, is about the wedding of Becky (Rebel Wilson). But it’s not really about Becky’s wedding. It’s about her three BFFs from grade school, even if Becky’s own BFFs referred (and still refer) to her as “Pigface.” This is to say, they are mean to Becky, yet they still genuinely love Becky, each and every one. "Bachelorette" may be crude and narcissistic, yet, strangely, somehow, it is loving and selfless. It is the very definition of complex.


Becky’s three BFFs in order: Regan (Kirsten Dunst), Maid of Honor, is a bitchy taskmaster who runs the wedding lead-up, smartphone omnipresent, as if she’s running the upscale restaurant of which we briefly see her in charge. Gena (Lizzy Caplan) is bitter and pissed off, projecting, shall we say, a slutty arrogance. Katie (Isla Fisher) is bright and bubbly, so bright and bubbly that it clearly masks a deeper depression, a deeper depression that reveals itself the drunker and higher she gets. “If I’m still working in retail when I’m 40, I’ll kill myself,” she says. “You think I’m joking. I’ll take a shotgun and…” Of course, you have to hear how she says it, as if she is disappointed she mistakenly received a fat-free blueberry muffin. 

The film will, like it or not, evoke comparisons to "Bridesmaids", but if the inferior "Bridesmaids" is like an extended Saturday Night Live sketch with a little warmth and drama for a garnish, "Bachelorette" is braver and more along the lines of Scorsese’s "After Hours." The night before the wedding, in a bad idea gone wrong, the three girls rip Becky’s wedding dress. It proceeds to acquire some stains. And blood. So off into the New York Night they go in an effort to get the gown cleaned and repaired.

It is, as it must be, a labyrinthine ordeal that finds the ladies encountering the groomsmen, all of whom factor into the story in their own way, particularly Clyde (Adam Scott) who was not necessarily The One Who Got Away but The One Who Screwed It All Up. The humor here is less gag-oriented and more about endlessly acerbic dialogue, lines stacked on top of lines, and basic character behavior as boorish as it is revealing. Each new complication results in different decisions, disagreements and confessions. Insecurity runs rampant. Regan does not hide the fact that SHE – the one who got a scholarship to Princeton – who should be walking down the aisle before the Pigface. It’s terrifically harsh. But Dunst, in a virtuoso turn I fear will be short on recognition, still manages to make it clear that, selfish drama aside, Becky is her friend. 


The morning of the wedding Regan may order everyone around as if they are privates in her bridal army, but it is because, God bless her, she realizes this is Becky’s day and that Becky’s day will be perfect. She, like all the characters here, refreshingly, does not become a New Person, she does not necessarily Learn A Lesson, but she knows the difference between Humanistic Right and Wrong. That’s a little brilliant.

At first glance the film ends a few minutes too late. But stay with it. Re-consider it. Because it actually brings everything home perfectly. Bachelorette unveils itself in three parts. 1.) The three BFFs who make it all about their shit. 2.) Realizing it is not just about their shit and making sure the Bride gets her day. 3.) The Wedding Reception, that magical place where love prevails, everyone is happy and all problems, no matter how dire, seem solvable.

Just wait until these people wake up tomorrow morning.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

"Lincoln" Will Be The Greatest Movie Ever Made, Unless It's The Worst, Or Possibly Inbetween

If you were unaware, the first trailer for Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln", the film starring Daniel Day Lewis as the 16th President himself, who Tom Sherak said via Twitter a few weeks ago had already won the Oscar for Best Actor before the Tweet mysteriously disappeared 117 minutes later, hit the interwebs a couple days ago. Let's break it down.

 

1.) (Insert forced, unfunny "Where are the vampires?" joke here.)

2.) There is going to be so much spew about Daniel Day Lewis's voice until this movie is finally released I can already feel myself getting sick of it. Do you know the line "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend"? I feel as if Day Lewis has decided to print the fact - which is to say, Abe's voice, as has been documented time and again, wasn't Obama's. If you want the legend then perhaps you can wait for Michael Bay's movie "Abraham", which will feature Will Patton as Lincoln speaking with a deep baritone AND killing vampires. (Ha ha!)

3.) The film is scheduled for release Novemeber 9. I will probably see it on that day or a few days after. I will decide then, and ONLY then, what I think of it. Seems reasonable, yes?

No? It doesn't? I have to judge it NOW? After a TRAILER? Ugh. Fine. Let's see...

"Lincoln" looks like the most authentic film ever made about a President that pulls no punches and tells it like it really was.

Unless...

"Lincoln" looks like that hack Spielberg doing hackey things in a hackneyed film shrouded in sentimental fog.

4.) Why isn't "Stolen" out in Chicago yet? Seriously, can't you help out a guy with a Malin Akerman crush?

This is a photo of Malin Akerman, who is NOT in "Lincoln" but who IS in "Stolen" which opened yesterday in "select" cities of which one Chicago is apparently not.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Friday's Old Fashioned: Pigskin Parade

Long before - like, 55 years before - Paul Blake led upstart Texas State University to a memorable collegiate football upset, Texas State University pulled what was arguably an even more memorable collegiate football upset on the silver screen when they slayed the fire-breathing Yale dragon. "Pigskin Parade", a musical from 1936 centered around college football ("A capitalistic device of the exploitation of the masses fostered by meat packing barons to promote the sale of pigskin"), is both a cringe-inducing document of its time and something that more fascinatingly and quite possibly unwittingly looked ahead to a time that would become different and, yet, in many ways, remain the same.


The film opens on Yale's New Haven campus where the powers-that-be are attempting to select an opponent for their Armistice Day game. They want a credible opponent but not necessarily a good opponent. "What about Nebraska?" says one dude. (Hey! That's not funny! Why don't you schedule "us" now, you monocle wearing cuckolds?!) Eventually they settle on the University of Texas. Alas, through a stunningly avoidable bit of movie happenstance, they mistakenly invite Texas State University, bearing a team so down on its luck they have just hired a new coach Slug Winters (Jack Haley, who you likely recall as one Tin Man* in a itsy bitsy movie released 3 years later).

Winters arrives on campus with his wife Bessie (Patsy Kelly) just in time to learn his new team has set a game with mighty Yale. Gulp. But with a more than a little aid from his better half (more on this in a minute) he installs an offensive attack ahead of its time - imagine the Ol' Ball Coach's Florida Fun-n-Gun with rugby tendencies - with skilled Biff Bentley (Fred Kohler Jr.) at the controls. Double alas, Bentley suffers a serious injury weeks ahead of the Yale showdown and all hope looks lost - that is, until Texas State recruits an Arkansas hayseed, Amos Dodd (Stuart Erwin, who earned an Oscar nomination suggesting Oscar nominations didn't used to be all they are cracked up to be now), who can literally throw the ball a country mile? But will he have the necessary grades to qualify?! And even if he does, will a snowstorm - gasp! - prevent this decidedly southernly squad from pulling the upset of the century?!

Make no mistake, what I have just described accounts for about sixty minutes of "Pigskin Parade's" ninety minute run time. So what's the other thirty minutes, you ask? Why, musical numbers, of course! But this was no lavish MGM musical, mind you, this was Fox attempting to mimic an MGM musical with (too) much assistance from the Yacht Club Boys who keep popping up just when you didn't want to see them again ("Do we have time for one song?" they ask before the train taking them north is about to depart and, dang-nabbit, they do have time) to break the fourth wall and look right into the camera as they croon another watered-down diddy about one thing or another. The film also makes use of a young Judy Garland, on loan from MGM, who, God bless her, at least had a little more spunk than these boys from the Yacht Club.


More intriguing is the recruitment of ultra-talented but slow-witted Amos Dodd - that is, they use the unwitting but zealous new student Herbert Van Dyke (Elisha Cook Jr.) with the top-notch grades who - double gasp! - considers football a waste of a school's resources as the patsy in a scheme to get Dodd enrolled by assuming Van Dyke's identity. Thus, much like, say, the Texas A&M Aggies (whose 1936 uniforms were echoed in the uniforms of "Pigskin Parade's" Texas State) who in 1955, 1988 and 1994 were hit with NCAA recruiting violations or like a recent NBA MVP who may or "may not" have had someone else take the SAT for him, this just goes to show that illegality in collegiate sports is as eternal as ESPN and fans (like myself) turning a blind eye to it. If you have a problem with that, fine, no hard feelings, go donate your time to a more aboveboard cause like politics......wait a second......

But most intriguing is the relationship of Coach Winters and his wife Bessie. Did the six writers (yes, six) realize what they were doing? Probably not. They craft a marriage very much molded in the sexist stereotype of "All In The Family." Never does Coach Winters say "Why I oughta" while miming the threat of backhanding his wife but half the lines he says emit that very sensation. They bicker. They whine. They, frankly, seem to hate each other, yet failingly remain loyal to one another. And this is quite likely because "Pigskin Parade" does not hide the fact that Bessie might very well be the brains of this entire football operation.


She convinces her scaredy-cat husband not to quit when he learns they are playing Yale. She invents the forward(pass)-thinking strategy that takes Texas State to new heights. And while, yes, it she who, in fact, injures Biff Bentley, it she who discovers Amos Dodd and concocts the scheme to get him enrolled. And when the going gets tough during the Yale game and then the tough seems so insurmountable that her scaredy-cat husband literally passes out, it is she who designs and calls the final play that leads to victory (spoiler alert!). Were these six writers and director David Butler implementing sexist stereotypes specifically to subvert them? Uh, probably not. And if they weren't, that makes it even more fascinating, and makes me wonder...

Is Kathy Miles actually the one running things down in Baton Rouge?

*There is a scene where Bessie harshly advises her husband "You haven't got a brain either" and her husband sadly agrees. "I haven't got a brain," he says. Which is to say that, yes, 3 years before "The Wizard of Oz" the Tin Man was lamenting that he doesn't have a brain. Meta.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Dead in Tombstone: Trailer

Per Collider: "The first trailer for the shoot-em-up Western 'Dead in Tombstone' has landed online. The film stars Danny Trejo as the leader of a gang of outlaws who frees his half-brother (Anthony Michael Hall) from prison in order to loot a mining town. The plan backfires when Hall double crosses Trejo and kills him. Trejo makes a deal with the devil (Mickey Rourke) and comes back from the dead to seek revenge. The trailer gives us exactly the kind-"

Woah, woah, woah. You had at me at Trejo makes a deal with the devil (Mickey Rourke). And even if you didn't have me then, you would have had me a little later at "the film also stars Dina Meyer."

It goes direct to DVD on December 31st. Which is to say I hope the guests at my New Year's Eve Party don't mind watching Danny Trejo do as Danny Trejo does.

 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Last Night

In a perfect world “Last Night” would finally be the movie to convince everyone that, yes, Keira Knightley can act (although if it was a perfect world everyone would already know this). Yes, she’s still her usual svelte self and, yes, her jaw still juts out like the Santa Monica Pier, but since when did either of those things concern acting? Even better, “Last Night” is set in the PRESENT. No, really! It is! It’s not a period piece, even if you can easily imagine her freelance fashion writer composing tomes about what William Howe’s mistress wore to the Mischianza.


The film’s best and most crucial ten minutes is the first ten minutes and it is made so by Ms. Knightley as Joanna, spouse of Michael (Sam Worthington), one of those couples in a classic IKEA Relationship (affordable solutions for “being happy”). They attend a lavish party hosted by Michael’s work. At first, everything is cocktails and chit-chat. But then Joanna spies Michael on the balcony with a co-worker, Laura. A comely co-worker. A comely co-worker played by Eva Mendes. She places her hand on the square of Michael’s back for but a moment. That’s it. A gesture that has been made by mere friends for centuries. But clearly Joanna thinks it’s something more, and director Massy Tadjedin (who also wrote the script) is banking on Knightley conveying this fact on her lonesome. And over the next ten minutes or so, from the party to a taxi and back home, Knightley bravely flips through the emotional rolodex, from curious to confused to suspicious to shrugging it off to denial to convinced. She does it with her words, sure, and with the tone of those words, but primarily she makes the transitions, smoothly, through body language and facial tics. And you ALWAYS know what she’s thinking.

But what is Michael thinking? There’s the rub. As good as Knightley is, Worthington is, well, less than equal. As an actor Worthington reminds me of Kylie in “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Remember when Mr. Fox admonishes him? “From now on can you give me a signal once in awhile just so I know if any of this is getting through to you?” No expression. “Was that it?” I kept waiting for Mendes to ask him that question when they flitted away to Philadelphia for a business trip with a third wheel who turns in at the end of the day so Michael and Laura can go out for drinks, have tantalizing conversations and then reconnoiter to the hotel pool under cover of night. Is Michael being seduced? It seems that way but Michael as played by Worthington rarely seems torn and/or turned on. He just kinda seems along for the ride – a more dour character in “Cedar Rapids”, if you will – and Mendes who can usually project sultry with the best of ‘em does not come across wholly invested in the proceedings.


Meanwhile, back on the mean streets of NYC, Joanna bumps into an old flame, Alex (Guillaume Canet), while she’s out to grab coffee. Again, we return to the face Keira. She is taken aback, ecstatic, and perplexed. Perplexed is the key, because I grant you that running into an old flame who just happens to be in from Paris and who just happens to specifically be looking for Joanna the very morning after she has begun to suspect her spouse may be unfaithful is more than a miniature contrivance. But Keira sells it. And not just when she says “I think I willed you back into my life.” The WAY she looks when she sees him SAYS that line without her saying it. See what I’m saying? Bravo, Keira. Bravo.

Each one is tempted. Each one makes a different decision. Each one reaches a moment of enlightenment, though one moment is phony and one moment is for the greater good. And even though the movie settles on one of those open endings that has become all the rage, we all know exactly what words were about to be spoken if it had run 5 seconds longer.

"We need to talk."

Monday, September 10, 2012

How I Ended This Summer

Time must move awfully slow in the arctic. And that is how time seems to move at some sort of shabby Russian meteorological station on the northern edge of nowhere – slowly, with a sun that never sets and a wind that always howls. Two men are stationed here for vague reasons. They transmit data at intervals via two way radio. Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis), older, hulking, appears to have been here off and on for years. Pavel (Grigory Dobrygin), younger, is a student, or this is what we assume when Sergei chastises him as only wanting to be here on account of some fancy-pants essay he is supposedly authoring titled How I Ended This Summer. Sergei also chastises him for taking down lazy data. Why is it lazy? The movie never says, not once, and this quietly underscores the purposelessness of this whole venture.


Little is ever said, either in the form of the film’s larger picture or for character clarification. Glimpses are revealed, barely, here and there, and instead the audience is asked to immerse itself in the frosty atmosphere and the monotonous routine of these two men in a place that most of their countrymen and women seem to have forgot, if they ever knew it existed. Both men try to soothe their slowly fraying nerves. Pavel blasts music through his earphones. Sergei vanishes for days at a time to catch trout. The most telling words are spoken when Sergei matter-of-factly recounts the story of two men formerly stationed in the same place and how eventually guns were drawn. The meaning is clear: madness awaits.

When Sergei is off in search of fish, a call comes in. Something terrible has happened to his family. Pavel is instructed to relay this information. A ship is on its way to get them out, but ice may impede its progress. Pavel, however, cannot bring himself to tell Sergei and goes to great lengths to conceal it. At first brush the viewer may wonder why he doesn’t just say what he knows but the film has been laboriously and perfectly constructed to make us worry for Pavel’s sanity and safety. If he confesses, there is no telling what may come.

“How I Ended This Summer” is a slow-build that does not so much erupt into something all-out thrilling as turn, jarringly, in a breathtaking shot in which one man turns toward the other man, into something psychologically suspenseful. And even then it chooses not to conclude horrifically, but poignantly in just about the darkest, strangest way possible.

I don't know that it's a hell of a ride in the traditional sense of the term but, nevertheless, it's a hell of a ride.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Finally Getting My Ferris Bueller Sing-Along

If you are a pronounced fan of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off", if you are a child of the 80's and it and not "The Breakfast Club" changed your life, and if you have written about "Ferris Bueller" again and again and again, in various platforms and arenas, and if on top of that you not only live in Chicago but WORK in the same business district where Ferris's dad worked and where Ferris (as only Ferris could) commandeered a parade float to lead the mid-workday show of mid-workday shows by unleashing "Twist and Shout" on an unsuspecting but grateful populace, then you have constant daydreams of your own "Twist and Shout" In Chicago Moment.

Who knew that my "Twist and Shout" In Chicago Moment would finally happen at the same baseball field where our intrepid trio turns up for a little while in the left field stands with Bruce Springsteen, of all people, acting as Ferris Bueller? (And Eddie Vedder and Tom Morello acting as Sloane and Cameron? Evidence.)



Friday, September 07, 2012

My Current Favorite Bruce Springsteen Song 'Ever'

--We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming because I am seeing Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band tonight at Wrigley Field and, thus, to celebrate typed up a big bunch of words I've been meaning/needing to type up for some time now. As always, my advance apologies.

In the last 7 years or so there is one particular Bruce Springsteen song that has essentially morphed into my "favorite". No, it's nothing he's recorded in the 00's, but neither is it anything from what one might term Springsteen's "classic period". The song I'm referring to was recorded in September of 1992 and wasn't even officially released on an album in the United States until five years later. The reason for that stunningly massive delay, I think, is because the song to which I'm referring was one recorded with what Springsteen fanatics have derisively termed "The Other Band" - which is to say, the band that replaced The E Street Band after Bruce disbanded them.

The Other Band
"Living Proof" was a song about the birth of Bruce's first son. "In his mother's (i.e. Patti's) arms / Was all the beauty I could take." And when you consider the period into which this song would have been released, five and six months, respectively, after Nirvana's "Nevermind" and Pearl Jam's "Ten" broke, is it any freaking wonder why Bruce's popularity fizzled out in the 90's? In the era of grunge (sorry - just using it as shorthand) here came The Boss, five years removed from his last album, singing what amounted to a gospel song with electric guitars about his newborn child.

Bruce really never plays "Living Proof" with The E Street Band, as evidence by this Milwaukee show from the last tour during the portion of each show where he took requests from the audience for older tunes. "Oh man, they don't know it," he actually says. And I think this is because something raw, spiritual and unrepeatable was captured that night in September 1992, no matter how much anyone wants to knock the "Plugged" album and/or The Other Band.

On the actual "Lucky Town" album, the song is noticeably timid and threadbare. Bruce cut it quickly, playing all the parts himself aside from drums and, damn, does it show. For this reason, and others, it has always been my least favorite Springsteen album. On record, the drums are like flat pop. The bass is barely there. The guitar sounds like some bored session player.

The Other Band was comprised of Shane Fontayne on rhythm guitar, Tommy Sims on bass, Zachary Alford on drums, and the lone E Street holdover, Roy Bittan, on piano and synth. Fewer people in the Springsteen Fanatic Universe have taken more shit than Alford. Some will tell you Bruce didn't even like the guy, though there is absolutely not one shred of even remotely credible evidence that suggests this, but the majority of Alford-bashers will tell you their primary problem with him is that he played off the beat. Did he? I honestly have no idea whatsoever. I'm not musically savvy enough to know. I know that Dave Marsh, who has written more about Springsteen than any 500 people combined, has said Alford played "behind the beat" and Max plays "on the beat" and that this difference is what people hear and what they don't like. I know that Springsteen's original E Street drummer Vini Lopez also supposedly played off the beat, though Springsteen fanatics prefer to call that "eccentric" whereas they prefer to just say Alford "sucked."

All I can tell you, dear readers, is that I love Alford's drumming on this particular version of the song more than metaphors, even if it is "off the beat." It sounds to me a like a relaxed but steady pace that makes the centerpiece of its whole riff the insistent snare drum - the snare drum sounding off again and again as if it were the congregation shouting "Amen!" to everything the preacher (Bruce) says. And because his fills are few and far between that means when they do come in they are like ecstatic exclamation points. Sims' bass, meanwhile, forming the groove with Alford is also different from E Street bassist Garry Tallent. Tallent never much likes to stand out, founding the song and then staying out of the way, like the framework for an ultra-sturdy, non-showy split level home that will stand forever. Sims' bass, however, is quite clearly there, like the framework of a Frank Lloyd Wright house, finely built but reveling in wild and lovely flourishes. Some of his notes on this version are so wonderful they'll make you "Woo!" out loud. Fontayne's guitar works in perfect rustic harmony with Bruce's (even if there is one horribly awkward moment in the video below during Bruce's solo where you can practically see him trying to will Fontayne into being Little Stevie and then realizes it's just not gonna happen) and Roy's synth that arrives at the tail-end sounds like the rain Bruce references in the final verse.

As you can likely tell, I have listened to this song a fair (insane) number of times and in many locales and in many situations. I have discovered and poured over pretty much every nook and cranny of it and yet, improbably, I'm still not tired of it. After 7 years I still can't get enough of it. The Other Band isn't The E Street Band. And I'm glad they're not The E Street Band. They shouldn't have needed or wanted to be The E Street Band. They made this. It won't be duplicated. It can't be improved. It's perfect. As such a stout believer in serendipity I'm almost inclined to say Bruce had to break up The E Street Band solely so it could be created.

 

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Friday's Thursday's Old Fashioned Has Been Cancelled This Week

Back on the anniversary of the passing of Elvis Presley, Turner Classic Movies, as it does each year on that date, ran an Elvis movie marathon. I have stated before that I have a deep affinity for Elvis movies, that they are my ultimate guilty pleasure, and that each year I try to partake in at least one of his films I have not yet viewed. Truth is, I have seen a lot of his films by now and I had seen almost all of those scheduled for the marathon. Well, save for one.


"Stay Away, Joe" it was called and it featured Elvis as a rodeo rider. Yes! A rodeo rider! Jackpot, I said, and set my DVR to record it so I could catch up with it at my heart's content. Last week I had just finished watching "Last of the Mohicans", which I always try to re-watch at some point on or around my birthday, and when it ended, well, it was late but not TOO late and I was in such a good mood I thought: "Hey! Why not sneak in that viewing of 'Stay Away, Joe?!'" So I cued up the DVR and, uh, well......

Bear in mind I had just watched "Last of the Mohicans", which is not simply My All Time Favorite Movie but a movie that takes great care to pay honor to the plight of the American Indian. "Stay Away, Joe", on the other hand, features Elvis as, ahem, an American Indian. A Navajo Indian, to be exact. A Navajo Indian named Joe Lightcloud who boozes and brawls and then boozes some more. "Stay Away, Joe" features Burgess Meredith - yes, the Burgess Meredith of "Rocky" fame and native of The Cleve - playing Elvis's Najavo father, Charlie Lightcloud. The makeup job done to Meredith is so terrible and so offensive I don't even want to say anything else about it. I barely even made it 20 minutes in. I was so uncomfortable I had to stop watching. I had to. I immediately erased it from my DVR. I'm sure Elvis wishes it could be erased from the world itself.

I read a little bit about the movie afterwards and the esteemed New York Times noted that Elvis's legendary 1968 comeback performance on NBC directly followed this film. Therefore I don't think it's a stretch to say that "Stay Away, Joe" at least in some small way added to Presley's desire to get back to doing what he did best. At least, SOMETHING came out of it.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Dissecting A Scene From Last of the Mohicans


In the midst of their journey to Fort William Henry our intrepid gang of six has stopped to camp for the night in the midst of the wilderness. Cora Munro (Madeleine Stowe) gets up and crosses to where Hawkeye (Daniel Day Lewis), musket in hand, mans a lookout position. He does not so much as glance at her, yet can we sense that he senses her presence. It is clear she has something to ask. It takes her a moment, but she does.

Cora: "Why didn't you bury those people?"

-Cora is referring to the family of John and Alexandra Cameron, friends of Hawkeye's, who in the prior scene they have found murdered, their cabin burnt out.

Hawkeye: "Anyone looking for our trail would have seen it as a sign we passed that way."
Cora: "You knew them well?"

-Now Hawkeye finally turns to look at her. He says nothing. The look implies "yes" to her question. 

Cora: "You were acting for our benefit and I apologize. I misunderstood you."
Hawkeye: "Well, that's to be expected. My father says-"
Cora: "Your father?"
Hawkeye: "Chingachcook. He warned me about people like you."
Cora: "Oh, he did?"

-Great line reading by Stowe. For but a moment they are no longer in the forests of upstate New York but in a posh London parlor room. "I'm sorry, Miss Munro, but Mr. Wadsworth just took the last crumpet." "Oh, he did?"

Hawkeye: "He said, 'Do not try to understand them.'"
Cora: "What?"
Hawkeye: "Yes. 'And do not try to make them understand you. That is because they are a breed apart and make no sense.'"

-Suddenly, ominous music plays, Hawkeye snaps to focus and readies his musket. A roving gang of enemy French and French allied Indians are quietly advancing on the position of our intrepid gang. At this, Cora removes the dropped pistol she grabbed earlier. Hawkeye sees this and hands her his horn of gun powder. And THAT moment perhaps more than any I have ever seen on film captures equality of the sexes. He doesn't look at her incredulously. He doesn't snatch the gun away from her and shake his head. He doesn't scold her: "Carrying guns is un-ladylike!" He just hands her the powder. She's got a gun. She needs powder to shoot. Whatevs.

The French and their Indian counterparts briefly argue. They back up. They slink away. Cora wonders why turned back and Hawkeye replies "burial ground" and only NOW do we see they have set up their camp right on the edge of an anicent Indian burial ground. And this is when we realize this brief interlude is not an excuse to inject a little suspense into the proceedings but a precise illustration of what Hawkeye has just explained. Cora knows it. Which is why she says...

Cora: "A breed apart? We make no sense?"
Hawkeye: "In your particular case, miss, I make allowance."
Cora: "Thank you so much."

-Obviously Cora is not satisfied with his "apology" but forges on nonetheless.

Cora: "Where's your real family?"
Hawkeye: "They buried my Ma and Pa and my sisters. Chingachcook found me with two French trappers and raised me up as his own."
Cora: "I'm sorry."
Hawkeye: "I don't remember. I wasn't but one or two."
Cora: "How did you learn English?"
Hawkeye: "Chingachcook sent Uncas and I to Reverend Wheelock's school when we were ten."

-This, of course, is just exposition, filling in the blanks of Hawkeye's background. But as a writer Michael Mann is always just a bit more clever than that and Stowe's face in this moment SELLS the fact that she was just using that gettin'-to-know-you chit chat to evade what she REALLY wanted to ask. Which is this...

Cora: "Why were those people living in this defenseless place?"
Hawkeye: "After seven years indentured service they headed out here because frontier is the only land available to poor people. Out here they're beholden to none. Not living by another's leave."

-Day Lewis's face on that last line is just EPIC Day Lewis. If I've said it once, I've said it 46,000 times - Hawkeye would have made that nancy boy Daniel Plainview quake in his bowling shoes.

Hawkeye: "There name was Cameron. John and Alexandra Cameron."

-Cora looks away. Then she looks to the stars, spread out in a 1757 sky. God Almighty, what must it have been like to stare up at a 1757 sky? Hawkeye looks up with her. Now his voice is calm, tender.

Hawkeye: "My father's people say that at the birth of the sun and of his brother, the moon, their mother died. So the sun gave to the earth her body from which was to spring all life. And he drew forth from her breast the stars. The stars he threw into the night sky to remind him of her soul. So there's the Camerons' monument. My folks', too, I guess."

-On that last line Day Lewis allows both a smile and the most quiet of laughs. It's amazing to see how he can flip in an instant from a warrior at the ready to someone who can recount something so lyrical and mean it so truly. And how amazing must it be to Cora? Here is a woman told by her would-be-suitor Duncan (Steven Waddington), the British major likely sulking somewhere nearby because Cora is talking to this other dude, in their first scene together that she should rely on his judgment. His! Not hers! HIS!!! How nice must it be to meet a guy who doesn't question her holding a pistol and then can get turn right around and get all poetical.

Cora: "You are right, Mr. Poe. We do not understand what is happening here. It's not as I imagined it would be thinking of it in Boston and London."
Hawkeye: "Sorry to disappoint you."
Cora: "On the contrary. It is more deeply stirring to my blood...then any imagining could possibly have been."

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Sunshine

Tragic Inevitability. It’s a term I return to often. Oh, how I love inevitable tragedy in film. A common lament post-movie is “You could see that coming from a mile away” or some variation, but is that automatically negative? Sometimes seeing it coming from a mile away makes it that much more dramatic when it finally arrives. Consider Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine”, a 2007 sci-fi film that I missed at the time of its release but had heard much about – not all of it good – in the years since. It has a marvelous premise. The year is 2057. The sun is dying. A ship, the Icarus II (which suggests they are just begging for it), has been launched post-failure of Icarus I to attempt to re-ignite the sun.


Why is the sun dying? Unimportant. How are they going to re-ignite it? With a "payload". What’s the "payload"? Not the point. That idea alone works and the question becomes what does Boyle and company do with the idea? As “Sunshine” opens the crew of eight, 55 million miles from Earth, learns they are entering “the dead zone.” The dead zone! This dead zone, it seems, is the area where communication to Earth becomes impossible. If anyone wants to send a goodbye message, now is the time. So Cillian Murphy’s physicist Capa says his goodbyes BEFORE THE FILM HAS REACHED THE 10 MINUTE MARK. Tragic. Inevitably. I was hooked. “Take me where you want to go,” I said happily to the DVD.

And for the first hour or so, “Sunshine” entranced, awed and moved me. Employing a stellar soundtrack, most notably “Sunshine (Adagio In D Minor)”, to exemplary effect, the film is as hypnotic as it is haunting, revealing twists that are dealt with in truly human ways – alternately confused and rationally. Boyle, working with cinematographer Alwin H. Kuchler, uses an array of stunning visuals to reveal the strange grandeur of the ship and to routinely leave our jaws slack. As the Icarus II closes in on its destination, it happens, of course, upon Mercury – teeny, tiny Mercury – and the entire crew gathers before one of those “Star Trek”-esque video screens to watch in wonder as the first planet of the solar system floats before the Sun like a miniature red rubber ball rolling around in front of a raging forest fire. It is a moment as stirring cinematically as any I can recall from recent times – and without saying so reminds us that this is why the world and humanity is still worth fighting for. Even on death’s doorstep – literally! – they take a moment to breathe in life’s majesty. I wanted to wrap myself up in this scene and drift off to a majestic sleep.


A twist. A distress signal (a la “Alien”) is heard. It belongs to the Icarus I. Impossible, they say, it disappeared 7 years ago. But it is true. They determine its location. They damn near made it to the Sun. What happened? Who knows? Are they alive? They COULDN’T be alive. Could they? Do they attempt to rendezvous with the stranded ship or do they stay on mission? They can’t risk the lives of a few for the lives of billions. But can they risk it to garner a second payload in the event the first payload fails? The closer the Icarus II flies toward the sun, the more perilous the mission becomes, the more nerves of the crew are frayed, the more their faith weakens, and they struggle with staying on point. The navigator makes a slight (read: huge) mistake. It might seem preposterous from the comfort of a sofa but I can only imagine with the fate of humanity hanging on your shoulders and the sun looming in your spaceship windshield that its likelihood would be immense.

This triggers more complications and those complications trigger graver issues and tension mounts. Rose Byrne, that underrated, illuminating Aussie actress, stars as Cassie, the ship’s pilot, and her natural expression, her face sloped downward in a winsome sorrow, becomes, in a way, the emblem of the mission. There is much ado about how they possess enough oxygen to only deliver the payload and not make it back home, but even if we didn’t already know they were situated in the dead zone we would be suspicious of their survival. It’s a suicide mission with serious heroism at stake and while sadness and suspicions envelope the Icarus along with the solar heat, Boyle continually cuts through the existential dread to find moments of real transcendent beauty. When one character meets his maker, coming face to face with the all-consuming sight of the crew’s destination, it’s not a horror movie moment but something glorious. "What do you see? What.do.you.see?"


This is why the film’s resorting to a familiar trope around the 70 minute mark is so infuriating. It has the DNA of a good idea but that is mangled and lost in its execution, as if it were sent express delivery back from studio-wranglers on the blue planet hell-bent on ruining a up-until-then brilliant elegiac and contemplative film. The esteemed Roger Ebert wrote: “The drummed-up suspense at the end is not essential, since Boyle and Garland seem more interested in the metaphysics of the voyage.” Exactly! It’s not essential. So why is it there? Why?! And the drummed-up suspense is made even worse by both hyper and confused editing and by the fact that the true conclusion to the movie actually gets it right and could have easily been reached without trading in its mysticism for "It Came From Outer Space."

That makes "Sunshine" a sci-fi "Australia", the Baz Luhrmann opus inundated with melodrama that I find to be heaven-sent for an hour and forty-five minutes before falling flat on its face. "Australia" benefits from actually having a perfect end and just choosing to ignore it. "Sunshine", on the other hand, is more problematic because its gravest problem cannot simply be wiped away or forgotten. In theory, this means it is deserving of a negative - or, at least, a less than good - review. Right?

Except I can't do it. I won't do it. You can go months anymore without seeing true greatness at the movies and when you do see it you must honor it, even if it, well, soars too close to the sun and comes crashing down.

Monday, September 03, 2012

This Is All

"We are intrepid. We carry on." - Claire Colburn, Elizabethtown


Saturday, September 01, 2012

Clint Eastwood Has Earned The Right To Be Cut Slack


Richard Burton once said of his twice-wife Elizabeth Taylor: “At her finest she’s incomparable.” He was speaking of Taylor’s acting ability but he may as well have been talking about HER – the movie star, the person, the woman. Although, in fact, I disagree slightly with his statement. At her finest she was incomparable, sure, but at her worst? She was still incomparable.

Do you remember the 2001 Golden Globes when she took the stage to announce Best Dramatic Picture and went on and on to the point where she nearly gave away the winner of the award without actually announcing the nominees and Dick Clark had to swoop in to her rescue? It appeared she had imbibed one too many adult beverages from the Hollywood Foreign Press Open Bar, or maybe she was just generally loopy, but, of course, in the end, none of it mattered. By that point she had earned the right to march onstage and do whatever she damn pleased. If she wanted to open the envelope and read the winner without re-reciting the nominees, she damn well should have been allowed to do so. She’d been through it all, baby. She was mother courage. If she’d been on that stage with the Real Cleopatra, the Real Cleopatra would have sensed her own unworthiness and demurred.

You might have heard Clint Eastwood had a bit of an off night at the Republican National Convention. I didn’t see it live but Mr. Eastwood took to the stage to have a chat with an empty chair holding an imaginary Barack Obama. Well, not so much a chat as a rambling one-sided scolding of our current Commander and Chief which apparently made more people wince more frequently and painfully than a Mitt Romney playlist (rim shot!). To be sure, the whole ordeal is peculiar, and even more peculiar is Clint’s hair which makes him look like he’s been out at a wind farm all afternoon and then growled at the RNC-mandated stylist when she tried to lend an assist. He was endlessly mocked via the world’s foremost mockery tool – Twitter – and his performance apparently left political pundits figuratively speechless.

Was Clint taking a stab at Gestalt Therapy on a national stage? Did he brazenly decide to go off script? Was he secretly employed by Obama to undermine Romney? Was he just generally loopy? The way I see it, none of that really matters. By this point he's earned the right to march onstage and do whatever he damn pleases. No? Allow me to ask a simple question.

Did YOU make “Million Dollar Baby”?

Ah. I thought you didn’t. He, however, did. And so I don’t give a Presidential Flag Lapel Pin whether he’s a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or member of the Flat Earth Society – if he wants to talk to an empty chair for ten minutes, he can talk to an empty chair for ten minutes. Mocking him on Twitter’s easy. Mock him to his face, why don’t you?

Don’t think he can’t still take that empty chair and break it over your head.