Friday, March 28, 2008

"The Ice Cream Shop Owner is the Killer!" - Johnnie To's MAD DETECTIVE

Before I get into MAD DETECTIVE, Johnnie To's second-to-last film (his latest, SPARROW, just played in Berlin), let me talk about a Johnnie To movie that I didn't like. I've been accused of being too effusive about To's work and it's no secret that he's my favorite filmmaker in all of Asian cinema right now. His films have great style, are purely cinematic, very classy, and are tremendously fun to watch, so I suppose I'm kind of predisposed to liking pretty much anything he puts his name on. The guy is a genre master, not just of the action film (though EXILED remains probably the best action film of the decade) but of carefully nuanced character studies (the very offbeat RUNNING ON KARMA) and intense thrillers (P.T.U.), a filmmaker with the skill and talent of a Seigel, Peckinpah or John Woo. So while attending the AFM in November 2004 one of the film's I had circled and underlined on my "Must See" list was To's YESTERDAY ONCE MORE. All I knew about it was that it starred Hong Kong megastar Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng and was directed by To, but that was all I needed to know, so I recall making a mad dash to an early morning screening on the promenade and was prepared to be in for a cinematic pleasuredome. And that's not what I got. YESTERDAY ONCE MORE is just a piece of fluff, a nice looking piece of fluff, but a also a contrived and ultimately dull piece of fluff that shocked me with the laziness of its storytelling. Lau and Cheng are married jewel thieves of like to trapeze around the world and as the film opens they've just pulled off a big heist in Venice, but they argue over the split and eventually break up. Two years later they're reunited for another job, but they bicker and squabble and she's engaged to another man and... it's not very interesting. Honestly, this is the kind of neutered movie that I would expect from To working in Hollywood, but on his home turf? Lau and Cheng (who previously teamed with To on LOVE ON A DIET) are true movie stars, but this material is so pedestrian that even they can't make it worth watching and seeing To just phone it in was kind of depressing, actually. I can recall seeing OCEAN'S 12 just a few weeks later and even though that wasn't the best movie ever, either, at least Steven Soderberg worked to inject some style and tried to jazz things up instead of making a routine romantic diamond heist movie. ONCE A THIEF it is not, and Johnnie To's American lap dog I ain't, either. The guy screws up, I'm gonna call him on it.

So while MAD DETECTIVE (which IFC has picked up and will release to theaters and PPV in late June) reminded me in no way whatsoever of YESTERDAY ONCE MORE, I bring it up because while I love Johnnie To dearly, MAD DETECTIVE, while being a pretty good movie, isn't the kind of home run To's been hitting over the last few years. To stress once again, I liked the movie; for a while there I was loving it, but it lost its grasp after a certain point. However, it starts beautifully. Lau Ching Wan, a To regular working with the man for the first time in 5 years, is the title character, a brilliant but loopy detective who can figure out who was responsible for a murder/kidnapping by putting himself not just in the mind of the killer and victim, but also by literally going through their steps; he has someone put him in a suitcase and throw him down a flight of stairs in order to solve one murder and has himself buried alive to solve another. Making your lead character a nut job is always a bit risky, since it's quite difficult for an audience to identify with someone who isn't all there, and at the same time you don't want to downplay mental illness or make it come across as "cute" and MAD DETECTIVE doesn't do that. The guy's screwy, so he is difficult to get a handle on, but his genius draws everyone (the characters and the audience) into his world and I really liked that aspect. I also want to give credit to To and screenwriter (and frequent collaborator) Wai Ka-Fai for playing with the audience's expectations in regards to the emotional aspects of MAD DETECTIVE; without giving too much away, the old cliche of the detective's dead wife is introduced, and what the filmmakers do with this doesn't pan out the way you expect it to and it adds some unexpected emotional layers to the story.

That's what's right with MAD DETECTIVE, but where it goes wrong-ish is that the plot wraps up in an otherwise more conventional manner, and that's a bit of a letdown. To's best films glide on the director's whims, where plotting doesn't always matter as long as To is amused ('jazzy" is a good word for it), but the plotting here is dense enough that it has to follow through and those whims of To that make films like EXILED so wonderful don't get the kind of play they should. There's a great shootout in a hall of mirrors that To is able to put his stamp on, but a climax like TRIANGLE's simply isn't going to happen. Still, this doesn't mean that MAD DETECTIVE is a flop of any kind, it's just not of primo To vintage. The film is a solid effort all-around and Lau is excellent in the lead role, a very sympathetic lead and a pretty convincing crazy dude (there are a few painful character moments that he gets achingly right) and much of the film's success is due to him. Everyone else is fine, regular To cinematographer Cheng Siu-Keung proves once again that he shoots Hong Kong better than anyone outside of Christopher Doyle, and Xavier Jamaux's Latin-themed score is wonderful, too, and anything but diverting. For To fanatics like me MAD DETECTIVE is a no-brainer and for everyone else it's very much worth seeing, as well. But do I wish it were better? Yeah, a little bit, but I can certainly live with what it is.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Goodbye, Madigan

How fucking cool was Richard Widmark? Too cool and he damn well knew it.

Like the best of them (and he was one of the best of them) he was always the smartest guy in the room, the toughest guy in the room and the guy whose path you didn't want to cross in any way whatsoever. He could play rebels or authority figures or killers or heroes with complete believability because of all that cool; it served him in most any capacity. Wanted a psycho? You got one in KISS OF DEATH. Need a hero? Here's Jim Bowie. (PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET achieves its level of perfection because Widmark plays both, in a sense, and was probably never better.) He played a lot of generals and majors and Major Generals, but he was also the perfect film noir hero thanks to the likes of NIGHT AND THE CITY and NO WAY OUT, and he also possessed a wicked dry wit about him, allowing him to deliver some of the best put-downs around. Widmark took no shit - he only gave it.

And oddly enough, my favorite Widmark performance was one of the few where he played a character who faced self-doubt and would grovel in front of authority, this being in Donald Siegel's MADIGAN. It's a typical Widmark role - tough NYC cop - but the difference is that he's playing a guy who's facing troubles that he's not sure he can surmount; he's after a killer who stole his gun and is given 72 hours to crack the case or face suspension, while at the same time his wife is asking for a divorce. He's forced to take shit from the police commissioner and he tends to take it out on the thugs he goes after. Not that Madigan ever breaks down and cries, but it's an interesting picture because it takes that stereotypical cop character and gives him many extra shadings that are atypical of this type of picture and Widmark gets Madigan just right. He's an angry guy, frustrated by life and his job but wanting to do right by both and one of the great things about the movie is that it's Widmark in the role; he could shift gears and play the tough guy he did so effortlessly as a embittered and wounded man and do it just as well as he did anything else. Widmark certainly appeared in better movies (I like MADIGAN, but it's become somewhat dated), but I think this was his best work.

Widmark was one of the last great movie stars of the "Golden Age" who was still making as I was growing up, all the way up to 1991's TRUE COLORS (not a great movie, not the worst movie) and I'd seen plenty of Widmark's later work as a kid to become a fan. Even in his old age he was still an intimidating presence, so it was indeed a surprise to see him in some of his early work later on and to see he never really changed much. He still had that vitality and raw strength, which made him all the more impressive a presence, so it's no wonder why he was so beloved by true movie fans, many of whom will be paying tribute throughout the blogosphere over the next few days (as usual, Kim Morgan has already done a stellar job with her appreciation of the man and his work). For some stupid reason I passed up an opportunity to see him in a rare personal appearance at Lincoln Center back in 2001 (I can't recall why), but my friend Jason Simos attended and had brief encounter with the man himself, which I've asked him to pass along here:

About five to seven years ago, Richard Widmark made a rare personal appearance at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theatre. This was for an wonderful onstage conversation/Q&A which also included a screening of the classic NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950). As I was making my way inside in a hurry straight from work, I took the roundabout route, which is all the way in the recessed back of the theatre but allows you to avoid the massing crowds. As I rounded the dark corner, there in true noir style was Mr. Widmark himself, standing quietly in the shadows. He was sharply dressed in a suit and tie, and was alone with his thoughts, with no handler or entourage or anything. He was simply standing and waiting for his cue for the evening to get started. I was so startled that I blurted out something like, “Hello sir,” and kept moving. He matter-of-factly responded, “Hi!”

To this day, every time I cut through the back of that theatre, I half-expect to see someone there. When talent is on hand at the theatre, they’re never in that back spot, though. Then again, how many people would be comfortable waiting patiently in the shadows without any hand-holders? Very few!

R.I.P. Mr. Widmark.

Thank you, Jason, and thank you, Richard Widmark.

Jason Statham: Proper Villian

It hasn't been much of a mainstream movie year thus far (though it never usually is by this point), so thank goodness for THE BANK JOB for supplying some of the slick, professional entertainment that the movies are supposed to provide. Others will call it an old fashioned "B" movie, which is fine if they want to, but I say that by simply doing what it does (caper movie) and doing it very well it moves up the quality ladder than more ambitious movies that don't meet their loftier goals. It's telling this story about a bank robbery, not talking about the frailty of the human condition, and that's fine. THE BANK JOB actually happens a pretty big, complicated story that's easy to follow and fun to watch as you see how this bank robbery impacts not just some petty London thieves but also the criminal underworld, corrupt cops, political radicals, British politicians, and even members of the royal family, and it all happens to be based on a true story (even says that at the beginning of the movie). Kudos to director Roger Donaldson and screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais for understanding that they don't have to overdo or oversell this material and to just lay it all out and to keep it all focused on the story and the myriad of characters involved in it, just like a good crime movie should. It's is a solid 8 out of 10, but I suspect I will look on it even more fondly by year's end. We'll see.

THE BANK JOB has a big trump card by means of star Jason Statham, an actor who continues to grow as a major favorite as he appears in more and more quality features. I actually would like to compliment the entire casting of THE BANK JOB, which is filled with good performances (I was also especially impressed with Siobhan Fallon and David Schusette), but Statham truly is the glue that holds it together and the film is a big step up to what could go on to be one of the all-time great movie tough guy careers. That's probably a bit too much to say at this point, but Statham's got it, I tell ya, and if he stays on track he could become something special, and I mean Lee Marvin special. He's got two major assets that separate him from most of the other contenders out there these days such as Mark Wahlberg or Josh Brolin, fine actors both but not quite Statham-level. The first is his physical presence, super fit but not too fit, combined with his style of movement. Statham started out as an Olympic swimmer, so hearing that it's understandable that he's a guy who knows how to use his whole body when he's acting or ass-kicking. Not unlike Bruce Lee, movement is as much a part of his characters as the dialog they speak; this all obvious when it comes to the action stuff, but he's got a scene in THE BANK JOB where he's trying to tell his wife that he's going to be unavailable for a few weeks (without telling her it's a heist), and the nervousness combined with guilt is all over him, but not in an obvious way. He's stiffer and uncomfortable with what he's about to say (his element is in hustling, not emotional honesty) and he brings this about just right, so much so that I find the scene (which is a short one) a memorable one.

Statham's second asset is his likability, which is off the charts. Statham very cool, but also quite down to earth, personable fellow, the kind of guy you could share a pint or grab a smoke with where the two of you would just shoot the shit and have yourselves a laugh. Statham is like your cool friend, the one who makes you cooler by proxy, who has better luck with women and is a bit faster on the draw, but who still goes through plenty of the same of life's hardships that you do. He's cool like Connery, but with a touch of average cockney bloke that puts him in line with the likes of Michael Caine, though I wouldn't suggest remaking THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING with him playing both roles. He doesn't have that air about him that says he's unapproachable, while at the same time you know he's in another league as you. I think this comes across in the choices he makes for his films; he hasn't done anything high class just yet (BANK JOB is probably the first step in that direction), but he can associate himself with good material, like with the first two Guy Ritchie films (I haven't seen REVOLVER) and THE ITALIAN JOB, but even when he appears in stupid trash it's usually some of the best stupid trash around. The TRANSPORTER films are good fun, while John Carpenter's GHOSTS OF MARS (which is really just a supporting role) is some kind of masterpiece (I've got to write that one up one of these days) and CRANK is one of the very best trash movies of the decade so far, a terrific piece of work all around, but he proved himself to be the perfect lead for it. With a crazy premise (dying criminal has been injected with a toxin that will kill him if his heart rate slows, so he does all he can to keep it going in order to get revenge) you needed the most physical of actors and that's Statham. You totally buy that he can keep going as long as he does and you buy the determination that he brings to his character, all helping to make CRANK a smile-inducing piece of mainstream sleaze that deserves to be seen and respected by all. Hell, Statham even appeared in a half-decent Uwe Boll film (IN THE NAME OF THE KING) but while not off of his films can be winners (I'm looking at you, WAR) and I'm not anticipating his upcoming DEATH RACE 2000 remake (his casting is ideal, but it's Paul W.S. Anderson directing and there's no way they can top the original), I still have the feel that the future will bring great things for Jason Statham. You can tell when an actor has it or doesn't and Statham does. How far he takes it is going to make for an interesting time at the movies.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Forgotten Movies Week - Christian Blackwood's ROGER CORMAN: HOLLYWOOD'S WILD ANGEL

This may sound a little odd, but Christian Blackwood's ROGER CORMAN: HOLLYWOOD'S WILD ANGEL is one of the most important and influential films I've ever seen. I'd done so at an extremely impressionable age, 14 going on 15, and even though I loved the mainstream cinema of the era, the Lucas and Spielberg blockbusters (have I written about that yet?), the idea of independent cinema, specifically exploitation cinema (back when it was still "drive-in cinema"), was pretty foreign to me. I knew who Roger Corman was, thanks to articles and interviews in Starlog, Fangoria and Twilight Zone Magazine, but the only film of his I'd seen at that point was DEATH RACE 2000, and I'd only seen that on commercial television. I knew that he had launched the careers of many directors I admired - specifically Joe Dante and Martin Scorsese - and others I'd heard of but whose works I hadn't seen at that point (Jonathan Demme, Jonathan Kaplan), but if I'd seen the likes of ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS or THE RAVEN on TV, I didn't remember them all too well. On a cold Saturday night in January of 1985, the WNET, NYC PBS affiliate aired HOLLYWOOD'S WILD ANGEL and I felt compelled to watch it (possibly because Dante was one of the interview subjects), but little did I know it was going to change my life. From that point on, I fell in love with Corman, New World Pictures, and exploitation movies. Wait a second - this fucking movie ruined my life!

So now that I've supplied the back-story, let me tell you what I learned from HOLLYWOOD'S WILD ANGEL:

A) The importance of maintaining your independence. Corman made and distributed the films he wanted to make and didn't have to adhere to a committee or a boss above him. Couldn't do this working for someone else.

B) Entertainment doesn't have to be stupid. Corman always encouraged his films and filmmakers to place not-so-subtle social statements within the usual car chases and T&A. In the doc, Jonathan Demme points out that CAGED HEAT spoke about illegal lobotomies in prisons and mental hospitals, while Paul Bartel discusses how the satirical elements of DEATH RACE 2000 were encouraged.

C) Cheap doesn't equal bad. Corman's directors always have to pay attention to the bottom line, but instead of stifling them, he encourages them to be creative. When Corman gave Joe Dante and Allan Arkush the opportunity to direct their first feature, he only gave them 10 days and $65,000 dollars; they compensated by using footage from other Corman productions and ended up with one of New World's finest features, HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD.

D) "Breast nudity possible here?" Demme talks about some of the script notes he got from Corman on CAGED HEAT and concedes that, yes, some breast nudity is indeed possible at this point in the film. Corman is, beyond any doubt, a man with his eyes always on the wants and needs of the audience.

Beyond having mentored so many big name filmmakers, Corman is an essential part in film history for being the best of all the exploitation filmmakers and for having been an excellent filmmaker in his own right. From THE INTRUDER, one of the best films ever made about the civil rights era, to the Poe films (THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH is Corman's masterpiece and possibly the best horror film of the 1960s) to such funky efforts as THE WILD ANGELS, THE TRIP and GASSSSSSSSSS, Corman made one solid film after another, and even such silly earlier efforts as IT CONQUERED THE WORLD have still have their charms. This extended into New World, where films that were made because of the marquee value of their titles (THE STUDENT TEACHERS; THE BIG BIRD CAGE) actually lived up to their promise and hold up quite well today. Most of the best exploitation films of the 70s (BIG BAD MAMA; DEATH RACE 2000; HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD) came from New World, and one of the things that makes HOLLYWOOD'S WILD ANGEL so great is that it was shot at the very apex of the New World era; Dante and Arkush are interviewed in the New World trailer suite just after making HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD, while Corman discusses taking a risk on an upcoming project called I NEVER PROMISED YOU A ROSE GARDEN. A number of the interview subjects (Demme, Scorsese, Kaplan, Paul Bartel, David Carridine) are fresh out of the Corman factory and working in Hollywood and they all discuss their times in the trenches with tremendous admiration and respect, all of them acknowledging that Corman really did teach them what they needed to know to make a good movie. Blackwood traces Corman's history quite well, treats him with respect and doesn't pass judgment on the man and his work, which is probably the reason why I took so well to it. It's OK to like or love Roger Corman, because he's the best at what he does and what he does can be pretty damn great at times. It was an absorbing film for me at that young age and I'm glad I was taping it, because I viewed it countless times since and have committed much of it memory. And it should go without saying that so many of the Corman films that I had never seen when I first viewed HOLLYWOOD'S WILD ANGEL have gone on to become favorites. This was a hell of an introduction.

Sad to say, ROGER CORMAN: HOLLYWOOD'S WILD ANGEL isn't available on DVD and the VHS probably went out of print some time in the early 90s. I have no idea where the rights are (Blackwood passed away in 1992), although Lincoln Center showed it last year as part of a tribute to the New Directors/New Films series (where this debuted). It would make for a great supplement on a DVD release at some point or even just on its own, because it really does deserve to be seen again. It's still the best documentary about the movies I've ever seen.

So concludes The Forgotten Movies Week here at HQ 10 - Hope you enjoyed it! We'll have another cool weeklong series next month; what is it? You'll just have to wait to find out.

Paul Scofield (1922 - 2008)

"Labiche! Here's your prize, Labiche. Some of the greatest paintings in the world. Does it please you, Labiche? Give you a sense of excitement in just being near them? A painting means as much to you as a string of pearls to an ape. You won by sheer luck: you stopped me without knowing what you were doing, or why. You are nothing, Labiche -- a lump of flesh. The paintings are mine; they always will be; beauty belongs to the man who can appreciate it! They will always belong to me or to a man like me. Now, this minute, you couldn't tell me why you did what you did."

One of my favorite moments in any movie, and it belongs to Paul Scofield. There have many fine tributes to this great actor since his passing yesterday, but few of them happen to mention THE TRAIN, my favorite among his works and my favorite film of all. That's fine; people deserve to discover this picture on their own just like I did. But if you're looking to pay tribute to the man with some weekend viewing, make sure you put this one on your list.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Forgotten Movies Week - Michael Tuchner's FEAR IS THE KEY

Some movies deserve rediscovery; they fall through the cracks for some reason (bad distribution, poor box office, dated elements) and need someone (a Tarantino or Pauline Kael) to prop them back up into the public consciousness. Some Forgotten Movies aren't exactly all that great to begin with and some are just merely "good" and nothing more. Some good parts to them, some lackluster, but all in all they work even if it isn't the best thing you've ever seen. I think this is the reason Michael Tuchner's FEAR IS THE KEY has fallen off the radar; it's got a fantastic opening, then a troubled midsection, followed by a workable resolution. It has an excellent cast (with one glaring exception), a classy production and it feels like a much more solid piece of entertainment than it actually is. You finish it feeling more or less satisfied with what you've seen and then you move on from it; because it's not better than it should be it doesn't exactly stay with you, but you remember liking it well enough. No wonder it's a forgotten movie.

FEAR IS THE KEY is based on a novel by Alistair MacLean (sorry, it's got nothing to do with the Iron Maiden song), who is usually known for huge adventure stories that take place on several continents and feature the fate of the free world at stake about three or four times in the course of the story. There have actually been some very good films made out of MacLean's novels (Brian Hutton's WHERE EAGLES DARE and J. Lee Thompson's THE GUNS OF NAVARONE being the best), so when I see his name pop up in the credits I think I have an idea just what to expect. What I am not expecting is a story about kidnapping and oil drilling set in Louisiana, but that's what FEAR IS THE KEY is, though I'm not holding that against it. In going over my research on the novel (the Wikipedia page, I mean) it seems like the movie is pretty faithful to it, but you certainly can't help but notice that the film makes a couple of concessions to early 70s cinema, though not in the form of gratuitous nudity or foul language but rather an extremely lengthy opening car chase. And an excellent opening car chase it is; what probably took up a few pages in MacLean's novel takes up about 15 minutes of screen time and it's an absolute blast to watch. The reason for the chase probably has about as much to do with the casting of Barry Newman, fresh off of VANISHING POINT, as the film's lead than it does anything else; they had to figure, "OK, we've got the VANISHING POINT guy, the VANISHING POINT audience will show, so why not give them a bit of VANISHING POINT?". The reasoning isn't to be faulted too much because they've come up with a killer car chase, blazing all around the back roads of Louisiana in a sweet red '72 Torino, that's expertly handled by Tuchner and his stunt team. It's an applause-worthy chase, and even when it's over the rush you get from it keeps FEAR IS THE KEY moving for a bit before it winds down and actually gets into the film's story, and as you can guess, that's when the film begins to bog down.

Without getting too much into it so I don't spoil it, FEAR IS THE KEY then becomes a bit of a hostage drama, then an espionage movie and finally a revenge movie and it's so over the map that while it certainly keeps you on your toes, you're kinda in, like, "wait, where are we now?" territory. Some of this works, however; I like the hostage stuff because you're still not sure of the direction of the rest of the film. The espionage stuff kinda lost me (wait, he's some kind of salvage expert?), but when they got to the revenge part I went with it and felt that they'd made it work enough for me to care. I know that I'm sounding quite vague, but I'd like you, the reader/viewer, to experience this one as blind as I did. I'd never heard of the film before, never seen it, so when a friend told me about it (it was just released on DVD in the U.K. in a bare-bones edition with a very nice widescreen transfer) I experienced it with very little idea of where it was going and I liked that. Maybe it didn't go into all the right directions, but it's still nice to not always have the road ahead of you be so crystal clear, you know? And there is a lot to like in the film, enough to recommend it with reservations on my end. Of course, Newman is a big plus, a solid lead and thanks to VANISHING POINT and a more than credible action hero; the guy should have had a bigger career than he did, but it was nice to see his late 90s comeback in THE LIMEY with FEAR IS THE KEY as a reminder that, yeah, the guy had what it took. Newman gets a good group of villains to go up against with John Vernon (in his pre-ANIMAL HOUSE days, when he gave really good performances) and none other than Ben Kingsley, in his film debut and no doubt testing the maters for SEXY BEAST 30 years later. Dolph Sweet also supplies some good support, but if there's a weak link in the cast it's Suzy Kendall as basically just the female lead; while there's no character for her to play, she does an excellent job of not playing it, which is to say she's awful. She doesn't drag the film down, but in looking around at some solid players doing their thing well and then watching her non-acting in the same scene you've got to wonder if Valarie Leon wasn't available or something. I know she was a bit of a name at the time, but... ah, what does it matter? Anyway, there's also a solid score by Roy Budd (available on CD) and the Louisiana locations (with exteriors filmed in the U.K.) are also pluses.

So yeah, FEAR IS THE KEY is a solid effort, but not my favorite film of the week, I don't mind saying. And yet, I felt the need to discuss it, because I think others will probably take to it and some may find it to be a new favorite. I don't know if it's going to end up on disc here anytime soon (Lionsgate has the rights), but if you can get an opportunity to check out the Region 2 disc, I say do so. It's not perfect, but it does have its pleasures.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Forgotten Movies Week - Boro Draskovic's VUKOVAR

One of the points of The Forgotten Movies isn't just to shine a light on good films I think have been forgotten, but as an opportunity to take a second look at these films before I forget them myself. I'm not one to revisit films very often - too many films I haven't seen yet take prescience - but the really good ones, especially those that you think you might benefit from a another viewing, are always worth a second look. The downside to this is watching something you really liked ten years ago or so and finding that it's not really the movie you remember; this happens often to childhood favorites, but when it's a film that's more recent it tells you that your taste is changing, perhaps for the better. You've been exposed to more of everything, so something that was revelatory at 24 isn't quite the same at 34. It happens.

One such film I was reticent to revisit was Boro Draskovic's VUKOVAR, about the 87 day battle that marked a turning point in the Croatian-Serbian war, which I had seen once in December of 1995, just before its limited U.S. theatrical release. My original viewing was back in my days as a projectionist at the old HQ 10, where I viewed the film by myself one afternoon while the theater was closed to the general public (oh, the benefits of the job). The HQ 10 would play host to one of those "Sneak Preview" film series, where they show an upcoming film and get some kind of guest in to discuss the movie, so I would get the prints a few days in advance and check them out and then inform the instructor if the movie was any good or not. I hadn't heard of the film before it showed up at the theater - it played festivals but didn't get a lot of press - so this really was a matter of going into a film completely blind and the result was a film I was quite impressed with. It was the first dramatic presentation I'd seen about the war in Croatia, something I hadn't really understood much of at that point, and it was unquestionably an eye-opener and not an easy movie to sit through. But it was important viewing, too, and though it felt like a punch in the gut, it was a much-needed punch that we all need when we learn something about the ugly truth of the world around us. The film then came and went very quickly, had a VHS release in the summer of '96, and then it fell into the void like so many foreign films before it, victim to the collapse of its distributor, Tara Releasing (hard to say where the rights are now). While I'd never forgotten VUKOVAR, I hadn't seen it any since that original viewing, but I've long kept it in mind for The Forgotten Movies, and once I'd decided to do this week-long special, I figured it was time to check it out again. Having amazingly found a copy of a rather lackluster Chinese DVD (not a bootleg) in NYC's Chinatown in 2000 or so, I was pleased to see it holds up, but it isn't quite what I remembered it to be.

Made just a few years after the 1991 battle, VUKOVAR has the advantage in that its drama is all still pretty fresh; shooting in the actual location, the filmmakers could take advantage of newly-built locations for the early scenes and bombed-out rubble left over from the actual battle. Certainly the memories of those events were incredibly fresh, giving the film a sense of urgency about it, that the filmmakers feel this story must be told at once. The plot is a simple one: Croatian Mirjana Jokovic (later to star in Kusturica's UNDERGROUND) marries Serb Boris Isakovic just before the war breaks out (their wedding ceremony is interrupted by Croat and Yugoslavian protestors) and the two are soon separated when he is drafted into Milošević's army and she is forced to flee when the battle starts to move into Vukovar. What follows is a story of survival on both sides (very even-handed, too), as they each lose friends and family and find themselves without a home, and it's impossible not to be moved by all of it. But in seeing it again, the film also reveals itself to fall into the dramatic patterns of several other war films of this type: characters who say "I'll be back soon" never return or return to find others gone; characters who say they would never kill anyone find themselves willing assassins; the family pet will get killed for food at some point, things along that nature. It takes away some of the impact and makes you question the filmmakers abilities - did they really want to tell this story or did they just want to tell a story about the war - but I can't deny that it does get to you. There are some moments in VUKOVAR that are very difficult to forget; the truth behind them is simply too much to pass them off and they are well-handled with a dramatic urgency by Draskovic. More so, Jokovic's performance is absolutely superb, and as we see the bulk of the film through her eyes a tremendous amount of credit for the film's success has to go to her. Her character goes through pretty much an emotional tsunami and her face tells the whole story - beautiful and joyous at the beginning, then tortured and deadened by film's end. Draskovic is also wise to not play up the drama too much and to let some horrific images - like bodies floating down the Danube - speak for themselves. But the familiarity of the storytelling feels like a bit of a drawback at times. Still, VUKOVAR is well worth seeing, if only one could find a copy, because events like the ones portrayed here shouldn't be forgotten, even though they sadly can be and already have been in the time since this story took place. It may not have the same impact for me, but VUKOVAR is still undeniably moving and not easily forgotten.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Forgotten Movies Week - Brian Trenchard-Smith's THE MAN FROM HONG KONG

In keeping with Stacie Ponder's "Don't Be a Douche, Internet" day of saying nice things about people, allow me to take a moment to run a little appreciation of George Lazenby. The guy's been a bit of a whipping boy ever since he replaced Connery as James Bond in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE and I for one am sick of it. It seems to me that the reason people don't like him is because he's not Sean Connery; hey, I'm not Sean Connery, either, and plenty of people don't like me, although for completely different reasons. There are plenty of folks who think that he either ruined OHMSS (I like that abbreviation) or that if it wasn't for Lazenby, it would have been the very best Bond film, instead of just one of the best Bonds. Now, this is just complete and utter bullshit, if you ask me. No, the guy isn't as talented as Connery. He may not have his guy's style and inherent coolness, but you know what? Lazenby, as it turns out, has a coolness all his own. Perhaps my favorite moment in the entire Bond series comes early on when Diana Rigg is pointing a gun at Lazenby and he grabs her arm in half a second and gets her to drop the gun (which, of course, leads to the inevitable seduction scene). This isn't just the kind of thing Connery would have done, it's right out of the book and Lazenby handles it all perfectly, and at this moment (along with that great "This never happened to the other fellow" line), Lazenby makes his mark on the role and at no point in my many viewings of this excellent film have I ever imagined Connery playing Bond in it. He may not have owned the role, but Lazenby owns ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, no question.

A lot of people look at OHMSS and say, "Well, that was the high point for George Lazenby", and again I tell you all that you're wrong - wrong, I say! - because Lazenby's follow-up films were a very interesting lot. He produced and starred the mercenary film UNIVERSAL SOLIDER (directed by ZULU's Cy Enfield), which remains a forgotten film in its own right (I've never seen it, but it sure sounds intriguing), and followed it with Aldo Lato's WHO SAW HER DIE?, one of the best Italian horror films of its time and one of the most cynical, too. But it was what he did after that, a three film deal with Hong Kong's Golden Harvest, that earned Lazenby even more respect on my end. Lazenby was an avid martial artist who trained under Bruce Lee, and the first film was supposed to be a co-starring role opposite Bruce Lee in GAME OF DEATH, which fell apart after Lee's death. STONER was supposed to follow that up, so Lazenby took the Lee role (with Angela Mao playing the role Lazenby was to play) and while it's no classic, it's still a solid Golden Harvest production and Lazenby remains quite impressive as an action hero. Doing many of his own stunts (he was considerably taller than most of his fighting opponents, which made finding a double quite difficult) he's quite good in all of the martial arts sequences, holding his own against some of the all-time greats and he has a nice rapport with the great Angela Mao. STONER was both a hit and a quality flick, but it was with THE MAN FROM HONG KONG, Lazenby’s next Golden Harvest feature, that he proved that he knew who to work with in order to make him look good. A co-production between Golden Harvest and the Australian Film Company and written and directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith (with fight scenes handled by Sammo Hung, who also has a small role), this one is an absolute drive-in/Grindhouse winner, one of the best action films of its era. It's filled with plenty of great action and a nice, almost (though not quite, thankfully) tongue-in-cheek sense of humor about itself that keeps the film equally amusing when people aren’t beating and kicking each other. And George Lazenby’s in it – what more could you want?

Opening with a Sammo Hung fight scene on Ayres Rock (!), the film is mainly shot and set in Australia, so therefore the man from Hong Kong is not Lazenby but rather Jimmy Wang Yu (who the IMDB credits with co-directing the film), coming off of the huge international success of THE ONE-ARMED BOXER. The title credits sequence gives us a wonderfully goofy idea of what to expect, with a Wang Yu martial arts demonstration intercut with footage of hang-gliding over Hong Kong, all to the tune of Jigsaw's awesome 70s hit "Sky High" (which was written for the film). Do these two elements intersect? Yes they do, and once that happened it I quickly came to the realization that I going to love this movie; my friends who I watched the film with agreed, as we then re-watched the opening credits, sang along to "Sky High", and couldn't get the grins off our faces for the entire 103-minute running time. The plot is standard stuff: HK cop Yu goes to Australia is catch criminal mastermind Lazenby and lots of stuff blows up. Cars crash, houses get demolished, the top floor of an apartment building is destroyed, the usual. But it is all done so well, a perfect mixing of Aussie and Hong Kong talents at their peak, that I dare you not to enjoy it. It's one of those great action movies where all of the set pieces would be highlights in lesser films, but you put them all together and you've got pure movie gold. It's hard to pick just which scene is the best, but I think the edge has to go to an extended chase/fight scene between Yu and STUNT ROCK's Grant Page that just keep going and going and gets better and better as it does; you keeping saying to yourself, "Jesus Christ!" with each insane, back-breaking stunt and why this scene isn't considered a classic I don't know. The film is really a vehicle for Yu (one of the first martial arts movie stars), with Lazenby merely stepping back and playing bad guy, but he makes for a satisfactory villain and he and Yu have an outstanding fight at film's end that sends it all out on a high note - a "sky high" note, at that. Yeah, unoriginal as it is, this is still one awesome movie.

THE MAN FROM HONG KONG is currently available as a beautifully remastered Region 3 DVD from Fortune Star, who has an output deal here with Fox, so hopefully they'll get around to it in the U.S. at some point. But if you've got the region-free player (and you really should), this is one really worth picking up, because god damn is it fun.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Forgotten Movies Week - Takashi Miike's SHANGRI-LA

I don't know if Japan's recent resurgence as an international film juggernaut is due to Takashi Miike or if Miike just happend to come around at just the right time, but I don't think there's any doubt that the two of them needed each other in order to make it. Things were starting to get interesting in Japanese cinema in the mid-90s and new talent was starting to emerge from the Japanese film industry. Beyond Miike, the likes of Sabu (THE BLESSING BELL; DRIVE), the great Kiyoshi Kurosawa (CURE; PULSE and DOPPLEGANGER), Susuke Kaneko (the GAMERA trilogy, DEATH NOTE), and Hideo Nakata (RINGU) emerged, while masters such as Kinji Fukasaku (BATTLE ROYALE) and Yôji Yamada (THE TWILIGHT SAMUARI) came back with new classics. It's exciting time in Japanese cinema (as it is in all Asian cinema), but without Miike it would unquestionably be a lot less so, no matter what you think of the guy. Some people absolutely hate him: A friend of mine, editor at a major genre publication, absolutely refuses to see any more of his films, though he loved AUDITION, "until the last 15 minutes" (I'm gonna let that comment stand), and there are certainly a number of respectable critics who don't get what he does, which is fine. His films are certainly not for everyone and the provocative nature of what he does easily puts him in the "love him or hate him" camp. Add to that the appeal that many of his films have to the fanboy community, who are more interested in the sex and violence and outrageous comedy in his films than any of their social commentary or avant-garde nature, has labeled him as a "cult" director when he really is something more than that.

Miike is famous for being so damn prolific (usually making 4 or 5 films a year for the last decade) but what's even more impressive about him is that most of these films are actually pretty good. He's able to cross genres with surprising ease and as offbeat as all his pictures are, there's also some strange sort of focus to his work, like we're inhabiting a Miike universe and have to leave any and all preconceived notions of what a film is and just trust him (as it should be with any filmmaker). Usually a director for hire, Miike usually leads us to terrifying and weird places, but he can also leads us to happy places, like he does in 2002's SHANGRI-LA, actually one of Miike's sedate and commercial pieces, and yet also one of his best. It was screened at the 2003 Fantasia Film Festival and hasn't been seen anyplace since, which I find odd considering Miike's popularity with festival programmers. In fact, as far as I know, no U.S. fest has touched this wonderful and charming little film, and if they'd like to show them something that people will genuinely like - or if some theater would like to pony up the dough to host the official Headquarters 10 "Forgotten Movies Festival" (I'm available) - then this is a perfect title to show. SHANGRI-LA is the Miike film for those who don't like Miike films; it's sweet and funny and it puts a smile on your face. You sure as hell can't say that about VISITOR Q now, can you?

SHANGRI-LA is a nice, quaint little comedy about resourceful homeless people who help out a man who is about to lose his life and business. Now, I know what you're thinking: This movie sounds like a giant turd. And if it were directed by the Japanese equivalent of Stephen Herek then it certainly would be. But Miike is a smart director and in his hands the material never feels cloying or superficial. It has the right amount of charm and whimsy and the laughs are plentiful. When this kind of thing is done right (and it's done right here) it works and SHANGRI-LA really works. More so, Miike seems to channeling the spirit of the great Ealing Studios, because it has this wonderfully breezy feel about it, gently gliding from one scene to another with a sense of confidence and ease about it that few comedies have these days. Miike makes it clear that the down on their luck situation that everyone finds themselves in is no fault of their own (the film's subtitle in Japan is JAPAN GOES BANKRUPT); the people who populate this film are all resourceful, all honorable and all worthy of better things in life. If I didn't know any better I would say that Miike actually cared about these people, you know? The offbeat humor of Miike's past works is still present, just toned down and more-family friendly but using that great comic timing that Miike possesses. His secret weapon here is his regular star Shô Aikawa (from the DEAD OR ALIVE series and ZEBRAMAN) whose assuredly dry and deadpan characterization of the homeless community's "mayor". In a film where the balance could tip from clever into the dreaded cute, you need someone who is going to keep it smart and continue to give it all an edge, and Aikawa is the right man for the job. He elicits many a giggle and also reminds you that it is indeed a Miike film, because no other director would let Aikawa run with the role like this, and yet it all stays on track and yet never gets weird. This is the one Takashi Miike movie you could show to your grandmother.

Like with most of The Forgotten Movies, SHANGRI-LA is not currently available in the U.S. (surprisingly, considering how many Miike films get picked up here) and I've never come across a fan-subtitled bootleg. But considering it's Miike, I suspect that this one will turn up eventually, and when it does I think it's going to surprise and delight a lot of people. When people talk about why they like Takaski Miike they almost always site AUDITION or ICHI THE KILLER, but for me it's THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS and this. I tell ya, the guy is full of surprises.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Next Week is Forgotten Movies Week!

Hey, do you like The Forgotten Movies feature here at HQ 10? Well, just humor me and say you do, OK? Anyways, next week is going to be The Forgotten Movies week, with a new write-up on a new (though actually old) Forgotten Movie every damn day of the week. Lots of good, interesting, forgotten stuff coming up, so check back every day next week to discover some damn fine Forgotten Movies. It's gonna be a good week, so don't miss it!

Fantastic Fest - Wilson Yip's FLASH POINT

Not that I planned on it being Martial Arts/Fantastic Fest Week here at HQ 10, but hey, sometimes inspiration just kinda takes over and you simply have to run with it. That, and I likes the kicking and the punching.

One of my top titles for Fantastic Fest last year was to be Wilson Yip's FLASH POINT, the excitement for which was based almost single-handedly on 2005's S.P.L., the previous film from writer/director Yip and star Donnie Yen. S.P.L. (released here as KILL ZONE) wasn't especially ground-breaking, but it was a hell of a lot of fun and felt like a great return to form for the Hong Kong cop movie (a reputable genre, if you ask me) and of the martial arts movie, as it contained some of the best fight scenes in any movie (especially the climatic battle between Yen and Sammo Hung) in the past decade. It was also something of a comeback for Yip, who started out making wonderful character-based films like BULLETS OVER SUMMER and JULIET IN LOVE that were both commercial and personal, before such disastrous works as SKYLINE CRUISERS made me write him off almost for good. I was warned off Yip and Yen's follow-up, DRAGON TIGER GATE (based on a manga), but FLASH POINT had all of the signs of another S.P.L.: Donnie Yen and Louis Koo (an excellent actor who also starred in BULLETS OVER SUMMER) in another cops vs. criminals story told in the days before the 1997 handover, with fight scenes choreographed by Yen, all of them using no CG assistance. Like S.P.L., the plot isn't anything new and is just an excuse for moving the action scenes from point A to point B, but unlike S.P.L. the character stuff is very routine (Yen avenging the death of his fellow cops yet again), so the fight scenes, which are extremely well done and more or less worth the wait, have less impact on the audience. And though it pains me to admit this - because I do like the guy - but as great a martial artist as he is, Donnie Yen really isn't much of an actor. In S.P.L. he shared the screen with Sammo Hung and Simon Yam, so he didn't have to carry it on his own, but though Koo is fine here, Yen's self-impressed loner cop bit isn't enough to make the movie. This said, I don't want to give the impression that I'm totally down on FLASH POINT because in the end it does deliver enough to make it worth the time of most H.K. action fans, and if you like your movies with lots of kicking and punching you don't really have to look elsewhere. But it's not anything truly special and I'd hoped for something more from Yip and Yen (both now filming a biography of Ip Man, Bruce Lee's master), but I'm not going to totally write this one off because it's fun enough for at least one look.

The reason why I'm bringing FLASH POINT up today is because it's actually opened in a limited theatrical release in NYC, L.A. and San Francisco, and while I'm not exactly over the moon about the movie itself, I'm extremely pleased to see this release happening at all, limited as it is. The trend over the past few years has been that most films like this might play some festivals (FLASH POINT premiered in the Midnight Madness selection at Toronto a few weeks before Fantastic Fest last September) and then maybe, just maybe, someone would pick it up (ohhhh, the Weinsteins, for example) and then sit on it for over a year before getting shunted off to DVD with little to no publicity. But in this case, the turnaround time is pretty quick and though this is just a promotional opportunity for the DVD (already scheduled for June, I think), at least it's going to get its shot. Believe it or not, the company doing the distributing is indeed the Weinsteins themselves, who've started a smaller outlet called Third Rail Releasing for those smaller films that could use the push but aren't big enough to go wide. I never thought I'd live to see the day when I praised the Weinsteins for something, but I've got to say I love that fans can see this kind of movie on the big screen, even if it is only for a week or so. The timing issue of this is also important, because even though FLASH POINT (which opened in China in August) has been available on region-free DVD in Hong Kong for a few months (and can be found on mostly illegal download sites), it's not so wide-spread at this point that it could kill any chances FLASH POINT could have at (gasp!) making them a little money. If they'd opened this in October or November it would have been a much smarter move, but hey, they're finally learning how to do this stuff right, so I'll give them a little slack until their next fuck-up, which I'm sure will probably happen sooner rather than later. Now if only the movie were a little better...

So here's the trailer to FLASH POINT. Lots of mouth-watering action, to be sure, but mouth-watering action does not a motion picture make.


Even though I swear to god I wasn't planning on making this martial arts week, check out this trailer to JCVD, the new film from Jean-Claude Van Damme and the first made in his native Brussels:

I have to admit, this one looks interesting. And I don't mean "...interesting", but potentially very interesting, as if it could possibly be a bit of a comeback vehicle for the guy. I've always had a soft spot for Van Damme, mainly because I could always tell that the guy was really trying to make good movies, as opposed to the Seagals and other martial artist of his time. And he did make a few good ones, like HARD TARGET, TIMECOP, MAXIMUM RISK and the very stupid but very fun Tsui Hark combo of DOUBLE TEAM and KNOCK-OFF (looooove KNOCK-OFF). Even though his films no longer rate theatrical releases, the guy has been through a lot, and what I find intriguing about the guy is that he's the first person to blame himself for his slew of problems, like his drug addiction and poor career choices (as evidenced in this interview in this week's Onion). JCVD looks like it could go either way, possibly being too melodramatic and phony to get the audience involved, but it also looks like it could be just the right film that Van Damme needs to win his audience back and to earn himself a little respect for once. I don't know if there's a U.S. distributor lined up yet (though I'm sure Sony's direct-to-DVD unit has first dibs like they do on all the other recent Van Damme films), but perhaps some festival play would be a good idea for this one; hey, let's see how it goes. Honestly, would it be such a bad thing if Van Damme makes a comeback? Worse things have happened.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Fantastic Fest - Marko Zaror in MIRAGEMAN and KILTRO

First thing I need to say about Ernesto Diaz Espinoza's MIRAGEMAN: It's a very silly movie. This is partly meant as a compliment, as silly can be a good thing for the right kind of picture, and the silliness of MIRAGEMAN doesn't make it a bad movie by any means. The film is a martial arts/comic book hybrid from Chile starring Marko Zaror, who collaborated with Espinoza on 2006's KILTRO, which Magnolia Pictures is releasing on DVD at the end of the month. The set-up has Zaror as a shy and reserved martial artist and bouncer who survived a childhood attack by a rapist that left his younger brother (raped in the same attack) in a sanitarium. Out jogging late one night, he stops a robbery in progress, saving a group of hostages that just so happens to include a beautiful television reporter (María Elena Swett), who extols her unknown savior (she doesn't see his face) on her newscasts. Word of the mysterious hero reaches Zaror's brother and takes him out of his shell, leading Zaror to think he's found his calling and a reason to keep on fighting crime, putting together a costume and calling himself (duh) Mirageman. To the film's credit, the filmmakers have some fun with this premise - Zaror advertises to defend the defenseless by posting leaflets - and there's a certain earnestness that separates it from a lot of other martial arts movies out there. But there's also one great moment that puts MIRAGEMAN over the top, taking it from "good" to "pretty good" and it's one I wasn't expecting: An honest-to-god movie star moment. One of those moments that tells you a new star is here and that attention must be paid. It occurs later in the picture between Zaror and Swett, when he finally shows her his face, even though he knows that cameras are recording it and his identity will be exposed. The look he gives her, intense and smoldering (not a word I often use), will no doubt set many a ladies hearts aflutter (another word I also never use) and even hep hets like myself will have to acknowledge that this guy has the potential to be a new sex symbol and a big star if he's smart about it. Jean-Claude Van Damme sure as hell never had a moment like this in his entire career.

Both MIRAGEMAN and KILTRO screened at both last year's Fantasia and Fantastic Fest, where I met Zaror and Espinoza (even accompanied them to a 2am Thai dinner), and it was interesting to watch how Zaror entered as a nobody and left a star. MIRAGEMAN (which Magnolia also picked up and will be giving some theatrical dates later this year) quickly became one of the hits of the festival and Zaror one of its discoveries, with plenty of autograph and photo requests being sent his way. Fantastic Fest ended up being the perfect place for all this to happen, with its action and comic book friendly crowd, where many a blogger and website ended up singing its praises and the Magnolia deal ended up getting finalized. As usual, the praise for the film itself is a little too much, but for Zaror they're on the money - this guy has what it takes, provided he's smart about the next move he makes. What I found interesting was to see this after KILTRO (made in '06), which is a standard revenge/KARATE KID-type movie, and to see the Espinoza/Zaror team make a picture that actually takes things to the next level. MIRAGEMAN, as silly as it is, is still a smarter, somewhat more emotional picture than KILTRO, and there's no doubt that it does get your blood pumping and get you involved in the plot. As a vehicle for Zaror it's ideal, because it shows off all his strengths, not only as a martial artist but also as a sex symbol, and it gives him a little meat to chew on when it comes to the acting. It's a different role than the one he plays in KILTRO (which is a pretty standard "immature jerk becomes martial arts master") and it shows that he's a decent enough actor to pull of a role that demands something more than just kicking people and doing back flips (which he does extremely well). He pulls off the intensity of his character's inner pain (I know I'm making this sound like it's Hamlet, but how else do I describe it?) and when the film has some fun with its premise he proves himself an amiable sport in allowing himself to look a little goofy. Espinoza's direction is also better than it was with KILTRO - swifter, more economical and much better in the characterization department - and it seems to me like these two are a good team that could, perhaps, go on to bigger and better things together. Chalk MIRGAEMAN up to a nice little surprise and even if it's not really your kind of flick you should still check it out just to say you were there when Marko Zaror came on the scene and became a big star. It might actually happen.

Friday, March 7, 2008


Everybody's got their favorites, but as far as I'm concerned the greatest TV show of all time is still SCTV. The Simpsons is an extremely close second (and allow me to say that they've been having a pretty good season this year, so fuck all those naysayers out there) and at its best is extraordinarily brilliant, but SCTV wins the race for being a different kind of brilliant. Satire is by no means an easy thing and poking fun at such an obvious topic as television is like shooting fish in a barrel, but SCTV got it right in ways never topped before or since, as far as I know of. Part of what made it so good was the fact that it was Canadian in nature - staying away from the NY/LA TV scene was well to their benefit - and with that they were able to create a TV world different from our own but no less hilarious than it would have been by poking fun at the big networks. The characters were also all genius creations, not just the station regulars (Bob & Doug McKenzie, Edith Prickley, Johnny LaRue, and my favorite, Guy Caballero) but those who turned up in commercials - Tex and Eden Prairie, Harry, the Guy with the Snake on his Face - and during the regular programming, as well. If you put a gun to my head and made me choose between Bobby and Skip Bitman I may as well die, that's how much I love these characters. And it should go without saying that the sketches they put them in, from The Sammy Maudlin Show to Monster Chiller Horror Theater, are works of comedy art.

Can you get the impression that I love SCTV?

If you ask me, however (and I know you didn't, but humor me here), SCTV did the best movie parodies in the history of television, bar none. The show had the advantage of a 90 minute timeslot and no studio audience, so they were able to take it much farther than the likes of an SNL ever could, shooting on location with expanded running times that could take sketches to upwards of 20 minutes. The production quality was always a bit better than you'd expect (SCTV's crews were famous for stretching the budget in very creative ways) and the writers and cast understood what they were parodying and made sure they got it right. The tone for all of their movie parodies was always spot-on, be it Ingmar Bergman's WHISPERS OF THE WOLF or the genius MAUDLIN'S ELEVEN, they always got it right; hell, even ROME, ITALIAN STYLE started off with a "Shot in Cinemascope" credit that was cut off thanks to pre-letterboxing TV broadcast standards. Brilliant!

Originally the idea was to do a wrap around piece about all of the great SCTV movie parodies, but I found myself liking the idea so much that I've decided to make it a regular monthly feature here at HQ 10. If you're going to start somewhere, you absolutely have to start with GARTH AND GORD AND FIONA AND ALICE, the sketch that may also serves as the very best in all of the series' history. A parody of GOIN' DOWN THE ROAD, Donald Shebib's 1970 film that's considered one of the greatest of all Canadian films (justifiably so - it's excellent), the sketch works no matter if you've seen the film or not. I hadn't until I hit college (yes, I actually went to college for a bit) and after seeing it the sketch just got funnier, even though the original film is kind of the definition of a downer (a great film, though; can't stress that enough). GARTH replaces the film's uneducated working class schlubs with educated schlubs, headed for Toronto for "doctorin' jobs and lawyerin' jobs", played by John Candy and Joe Flaherty. In a sublime added touch, SCTV corralled ROAD co-star Jayne Eastwood to reprise her original role (she's also Flaherty's real-life sister-in-law), but again, you don't have to know the original to be amused. This sketch also demonstrates another wonderful aspect of SCTV, of how it took every opportunity to lampoon Canadian culture, but always affectionately. These guys may come across like the worse kind of stereotypical Canadians, but that doesn't mean they don't love them. Like I fucking love this sketch.

OK, enough of my gabbin', here's GARTH AND GORD AND FIONA AND ALICE:

Part 2:

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

In a Lonely Place... the Movies

Back at the old HQ 10 theaters we had a bevy of regular customers, folks who would come to see almost every flick, no matter what it was. Some of these customers were decent folks, and a few of them we would wave in for free when it wasn't busy, but most of the others were as annoying as hell and we took their money with pleasure. I know it sounds cruel to say that, but their personalities showed that they didn't have much of an idea how to interact properly with people (a sad-but-true cliché about certain cinema fans) and that they didn't seem to have much in their lives other than movies. All of them had nicknames - Diet Coke Man, The Stygian Witches, The Stinky Twins, The Last Boy Scout - since we never really wanted to learn their real ones. The one who always stuck out for me was Norm, named after his resemblance to CHEERS' George Wendt, although even heavier (unhealthily so) and nowhere near as friendly or outgoing. Norm was a bit of an odd sort, as it seemed like he had a well-paying job of some kind; he would usually come wearing a business suit and brandishing a briefcase, with a copy of The Wall Street Journal tucked under his arm. You'd hear him on the pay phone sometimes talking about some deal of some sort, but what company he worked for or what line of business he was in, I'll never know. He showed up several times a week (almost always on Fridays) and I always had the feeling that he didn't have anything to go home to (though I remember he brought his mother with him one Christmas) and perhaps that this was all there was to the guy. I never engaged the guy in conversation any because whenever he spoke to theater staff he was always rude and belligerent, usually complaining about one thing or another. We just tore his ticket, sold him his popcorn, ran his movies and that was it.

After leaving the HQ 10 I never really gave Norm much thought, though I saw him on a NJ Transit train while traveling to my hometown once not long ago, but I was surprisingly reminded of him about a month back when I attended a screening of NETWORK at NYC's Film Forum. Much to my surprise, who did I see waddling his way outside the theater but Norm, attending the same showing as me, though dressed in more casual attire (it was a Saturday night). He seemed even heavier (not a good thing) and a little grayer, but it also seemed like it was the same old Norm, if any solace could be taken from that. Norm's out-of-nowhere appearance (did he come from the office?) also served as a reminder of the void that the movies seem to fill in the lives of so many people and how when it comes to the lonely, the movies can seemingly be their only friend. Many of our regular customers back at the HQ 10 came to the movies on their own, not just Norm, and it was always the saddest part of the job, seeing all these folks who looked like they had nowhere else to go and no one to go with. They all seemed to have one sort of personality problem or another (Diet Coke Man admitted - not that anyone asked - to having spent some time in the local sanitarium) and were admittedly not always easy to relate to, so the less you could speak to them the better. But a part of me always felt for them, too, because we all know how difficult loneliness can be, whether we want to admit it or not, and the movies can be a pretty lonely place sometimes.

I'm sure that everyone reading can recount more than one experience of seeing a movie in a baron theater with only a few others in the audience (if any), which can make for a strange, sad or memorable movie going event. Some people prefer to see movies this way, away from the crowds, but for others it's not really a choice. They may love movies, sure, but the sense of companionship they get from them is an important, essential thing, and the truth is that we all feel that way sometimes. Movies can fill a void in our lives for one reason or another, and not just to provide a sense of adventure or romance, but of companionship, too. The good ones give us something beyond entertainment - food for thought, a sense of wonder - and even the merely OK ones don't always feel like time wasted, while we hate the bad ones because they do. Sad as it is to say, there are some people who need what the movies can bring because they don't know how to get it or where to find it otherwise. They're shut-ins, shy people, introverts, whatever you want to call them they can't associate well with others and so this is what they have. It's not to say that they don't have friends or even families, but when it comes to the outside world they're not equipped to deal with it, so into the movies they go. Ever since my time at the HQ 10 I've noticed folks like this at various theaters and festivals I've been to all over, and while I'll admit I don't engage them in conversation any, I understand them a little bit, I think. These types exist in all pastimes - sports, music, knitting and the like - and people who have no place else to go have got to find something to bring meaning and joy to their lives. As wonderful as the movies can be, there's a bit of sadness there, too, and it's in the audience, not on the screen. Most people never notice it, but I do, and if you look close enough you might see it yourself. I just hope you never become part of it.

That Is One Great Fucking Poster.

Kudos to whomever cooked up this poster for THE BANK JOB.
No matter how good or bad the film is (and I hear it's pretty good), someone came up with the right way of selling it, albeit by "right" I mean artistically and perhaps not commercially. The film is meant to be in the style of those many great British thrillers of the late 60s and early 70s, the kind that Michael Caine starred in that would later be remade with Jude Law, and the poster gets this across just right. You don't see Jason Statham brandishing a gun or running with a bag full of cash, you just see him sitting there, waiting for something to happen. A great poster is supposed to not only entice you to see the film, but it should also encompass the tone of the film itself and I've got a good feeling that they've done this here. I don't know who cooked this campaign up, but kudos to Lionsgate for running with it, because they're not taking the easy sell on it and that's to be commended.

I've got a busy weekend ahead of me, but I'm hoping to squeeze THE BANK JOB in at some point. I hope it lives up to the poster.

Monday, March 3, 2008

A Magnificent Asshole: 10 Years Without J.T. Walsh

Late Friday evening I'm sitting at home, flipping the channels, and I come across Jonathan Mostow's BREAKDOWN on the USA Network. I hadn't seen the film since its release back in the spring of 1997, but I'd always enjoyed the picture and remembered it pretty well. So as I'm tuned in for a few minutes, memories of the flick start to pour back in - the fine set-up, the tense chase scenes, the excellent payoff - but the big one hit me like a ton of bricks: J.T. Walsh was a terrific villain. I remember that I wasn't sure I would be able to buy Walsh as a truck driver - he seemed too smart for a such a role - but once he showed up it didn't matter a good god damn because I sure as hell bought him as a villain. The movie itself is a lot of fun (I don't think Mostow's done a better film since, to be honest) and as the saying goes, a thriller is as good as its bad guy and with Walsh you get a great bad guy. When you see the plan that he's got cooked up (which, as it turns out, he's done before) turns out it was more than plausible that Walsh could be this guy; it's an intricate plan that plays on suckers and it comes from a guy who seemingly has a grudge. He's smart enough, sure, but he doesn't like folks who seemingly have things better than he does and they need to be taught a lesson. He's a dangerous sort, a hick with a high I.Q., and to see him get his, which he does pretty spectacularly, is part of what makes BREAKDOWN work so well. But what's also great is just watching Walsh work this character, which he did magnificently, making him more than your standard movie bad guy but a pretty evil dude, and while Walsh played more than his share of villains and assholes he was so fucking good at it that you looked forward to knowing that he was going to do what he did so well, no matter how cliche or poorly written the occasionally part was.

The timing of this BREAKDOWN airing also proved to be fortuitous, as it turns out last Wednesday was the 10th anniversary of Walsh's sudden passing of a heart attack at age 54. Walsh has finished three films before passing away (THE NEGOTIATOR, PLEASANTVILLE, and something called HIDDEN AGENDA), so his loss was felt throughout the 1998 movie year and at the time it seemed like folks were genuinely sad to see him go (even Jack Nicholson remembered him in his '98 Oscar acceptance speech). But as it is with most character actors, he has been seemingly forgotten by most, despite a pretty solid 10-year stretch of supporting roles in some major motion pictures that still run on the TV (GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM; A FEW GOOD MEN; BACKDRAFT). He was the go-to guy for assholes, corperate jerks or government blowhards, though that thankfully wasn't all he did; he was great as the mental patient in SLING BLADE, Annette Bening's first con partner in THE GRIFTERS, Linda Fiorentino's lawyer in THE LAST SEDUCTION (also great in John Dalh's RED ROCK WEST, for that matter), and especially his wonderfully dry comic turn as a studio exec in Christopher Guest's THE BIG PICTURE. On top of that, he was a Mamet regular for a while, even appearing in the original production of Glengary Glen Ross (man, I would have given anything to have seen that), and he knew his way around great dialog of all kinds. He came across as the ultimate authority figure (especially one who was on the verge of losing his cool, as his characters often did) and it was very difficult to mask his intelligence, though he had a number of roles where arrogance defined the character more. He never really played fathers or priests (OK, would have been weird), so we never got to see what he could do beyond the roles he had, but there was no denying Walsh was a massive talent. Like Kenneth McMillan, another favorite character actor of mine, he was headed towards an eventual Oscar nomination, or even the award itself, but that never transpired, though I think we all know it would have sooner or later.

What I find especially remarkable about J.T. Walsh wasn't so much that he was great at playing villains and assholes, but that he played these in such a manner that ever seemed routine or like he was phoning it in. Never once did I roll my eyes when he showed up onscreen, never once did I think, "Oh, here's J.T. Walsh, doing his jerk bit again". He was a magnetic performer, charismatic, but not in the standard way. You watched and followed him even though he wasn't the hero or even the sidekick because he seemed so smart and because it seemed like he was going to do something important that would change the course of the movie. It may not be the definitive J.T. Walsh movie, but his role in BREAKDOWN probably shows him off to his best advantage; evil, cunning, but one step ahead of everyone else for most of the running time, until his pride finally does him in. And does he get his? Oh yeah, does he ever, and you really want it to happen, too, the mark of a great movie villain. J.T. Walsh is truly missed from the movie landscape. There was so much he could have done, so much he had coming to him, but there's still so much of him to appreciate out there that he'll never be gone in a way. He was probably the best jerk the movies ever had, and yes, that is meant as a massive compliment.