Thursday, January 24, 2008

One Year On

"You should start a blog".

140 postings later, Kim Morgan's advice has taken on a life of its own. I don't know if I want to kiss her or blame her for ruining my life. Maybe I'll do both.

Back in the 'zine days of the early 90's I had a little fanzine called Thrill Me in a movie APA (amateur press association) and I was rather devoted to it, enjoying it because it provided me with an outlet for my non-stop movie thoughts. It lasted for about 9 years, at which point I got burned out and couldn't stand some of the fellow APA members anymore, so I jumped ship, leaving me without my outlet. I didn't really miss it, but every once in a while I'd think about it, though nothing really came into being. I'd done a few things over at MySpace, but outside of my writing gigs at Fangoria (which weren't all that personal) there wasn't much opportunity. I seriously didn't think about blogging until it was suggested by the lovely Ms. Morgan, and once I started I had to ask myself why I waited so long in the first place.

The blogosphere is filled with movie nuts, some of whom can write and some of whom can't, and even if their talent is in question their enthusiasm most certainly is not. Movies are the preeminent art form of our time and while they're not as important as things like friends and family, they take on this feeling of importance because they're so larger than life, even the small and intimate ones, so it isn't surprising that so many people want to offer their opinion. One thing that's so great about blogging is getting to read so many different points of view from voices that you would never expect; it's great that pros like Matt Zoller Seitz and Kim have a place to post their unfiltered opinions, but then you have folk who aren't connected to film or traditional journalism, like Dennis Cozzalio, Stacie Ponder, and Kimberly Lindbergs, and the work they do is better than the Peter Travers of the world that you wonder why they're not writing for Rolling Stone instead. New ones pop up all the time, so much so that it's impossible to keep track of them all, but reading some quality film writing, especially if it helps you see a movie in a new light, and that's what I love about blogs and blogging. I hope that I've been able to contribute to this scene in my little way, writing about what interest me, talking about films and film-related things (and music) that I think need to be written about. If you like what you read, you're always free to leave comments (and seriously, please leave comments. I get so few of them!).

But what's been unexpectedly wonderful about this whole experience (while also a beast of burden) is that blogging has helped me fall in love with writing all over again. It's something that I'd like to keep doing more and more of, and it wasn't long after I started HQ10 that I was able to help parlay this into an actual paying writing gig over at AMC's Monsterfest blog that, however frustrating it can be, is also an occasional source of pride (and cashola). Getting back into the writing groove is so much easier now that it's ever been (doesn't make me any faster a typist, sadly) and I love how I can pretty much write what I want and, occasionally, someone will respond to it in a positive light, like I actually gave them something to think about. That's what writing's supposed to be about, on top of the occasional fun, name dropping, bragging rights and snarkiness (can't have HQ10 without a little snarkiness), and that's why I want to keep doing it. If I could make a living at it I certainly would, although that's not quite such an easy thing (if anyone wants to offer me a job, however...), but even if I did I know I could keep coming back here because this is my space to be me. That is enormously appealing.

So one year on Headquarters 10 is still going strong, still writing about the forgotten movies or film festival faves, and I have no doubt that I'll be at it for quite a while (unless I get bored at it overnight or something). I encourage you to keep checking in and check out the archives for fascinating older pieces that will rock your world just as well as the new ones will. There are more movies out there than I can ever see, but the ones worth writing about will always find a place here. Enjoy!

Oh, and thanks, Kim.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

My Friend, The Oscar Nominee

As we all know, today was the day that the Oscar nominations were announced and with one glaring exception we have a really solid list of nominees this year. Since we had such a damn good year last year, I can say in all honesty that no matter how lackluster the show itself might be (writers or no writers) the awards themselves should be pretty solid. Unless the wrong people win, of course.

I have to admit that I'm more excited about this year's Oscars than I've been since 1981, when my childhood favorite RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was a Best Picture nominee (I still say it was robbed), because, for the very first time, I actually know a nominee. And it's not a mere casual acquaintance or a friend of a friend, but an actual friend, someone I've known for 10 years. We're not exactly tight and I haven't seen this person in a while, but we still communicate via e-mail and have traded more than a few in the last few months since their film opened. This is a good person (after I was laid off from a job a few years back, they sent me the nicest, most encouraging e-mail, followed by a phone call where we happened to discuss the very film they are nominated for today) and a very talented one, someone who I would be a fan of whether I knew them or not because the films this person has been involved in have been, for the most part, quite good. And the film they were nominated for today is, without question, the best work they've done thus far, and when I say I think they deserve their nomination it's not because I know them but because the work was worthy, simple as that.

You'll of course notice that I haven't mentioned who this person is, not even saying if it's a man or a woman, and if you're waiting for the big reveal then you're going to have to keep waiting because it ain't coming. I know this blog is occasionally filled with little name-dropping bits, but I'm keeping this one out because it's one thing to say that you met so-and-so, but another to pimp your friends out. I e-mailed them this morning (haven't heard back, but then again, I'm not really expecting to) and they certainly know how happy I am for them, but outside of this little piece I'm not out to ride their coattails any. They got nominated for an Oscar, I didn't. All their hard work and persistence is worth celebrating, and as their friend I'm as happy as I can be for them. But I'm leaving it at that.

That said, I'll certainly be watching the Academy Awards with a rooting interest that I never have before and if this person wins, I will be beyond fucking happy about it. This is a hell of a way to wrap up a great movie year and for my friend, an honor well (and long) deserved.

Heath Ledger

Talk about taking the winds out of the sails of an otherwise good day...

I never met Heath Ledger, but by all accounts he was a good guy, well-liked by crews and his fellow actors. There's no question that he was immensely talented and that he gave some of the best, most original performances of the last decade. For the most part he seemed to choose good material and had the benefit of working with top filmmakers like Terry Gilliam and Ang Lee and certainly he was blessed with rugged good looks that most men wished they had. But his passing today, so completely unexpected (I'm convinced it's an accident), served as yet another reminder that life can be short and it's important to achieve what you want to in the time you have. Heath Ledger didn't have very much time on this planet, but he accomplished a lot and while he could (and should) have given us so much more, what was there was pretty god damn substantial. Once you get over the initial shock, you have to remember the life that was lived and Heath Ledger's seems like it was a pretty full one. My sympathies to his family, friends and fans at this very difficult time.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Forgotten Movies - Andre De Toth's PLAY DIRTY

"War is a criminal enterprise. I fight it with criminals."

That line. God dammit, I do love that line. It's spoken by the great, great, great British character actor Nigel Green to the equally great Michael Caine (can we all agree that he's one of the finest actors in screen history?) discussing the ragtag platoon of killers and criminals he's assembled for a suicide mission behind enemy lines (is there any other kind?) in Andre De Toth's PLAY DIRTY. Now of course, THE DIRTY DOZEN had the same idea behind it and came out one year earlier, but unlike the Aldrich classic, that's not what PLAY DIRTY is really all about. THE DIRTY DOZEN, an absolutely terrific movie in its own right, is about how these guys are all criminals and the mission they find themselves on is secondary to that, whereas PLAY DIRTY is about that mission and how the fighting men get fucked over by the officers above them. The entire essence of the movie is right there in that line. PLAY DIRTY is a movie that celebrates the solider but also questions the necessity of war and extends its finger at the powers that be. It's one of the best WWII movies and one of the best anti-war movies, too. God damn, do I love this movie.

On paper, PLAY DIRTY doesn't really sound all that exciting or original, and even during the first twenty minutes or so you're not expecting it to pack the punch that it does. The mission is to destroy German fuel tanks in North Africa, just as Rommel is starting to retreat; that's a pretty standard WW II movie plot. It's once the mission gets underway that PLAY DIRTY reveals that its title is indeed quite apt. Turns out that Caine's crew (which also includes an awesome Nigel Hawthorne) is, in fact, a decoy meant to be caught or killed, leading the way for a more established crew to actually complete the mission and take all the glory. But things don't turn out the way they're planned and the way that they don't is pretty damn shocking, even to an audience today. Caine, chosen to head the mission only due to his experience with petrol, learns the hard way of the realities of war; men on both sides are killed for the slightest wrong move and no one is spared any indignity. Even routine moments of the squadron traveling are shown as being difficult and treacherous; tires have to constantly replaced due to the rocky North African terrain, mines can be buried anywhere in the desert, and the enemy can be found lurking anywhere. PLAY DIRTY is a true "War is Hell" made about a supposedly noble fight made at a time when war was proving itself unpopular and it's not much of a surprise that it hits home even today.

But like almost all great war movies, there's a level of excitement to it that cannot be avoided and with an expert action/suspense director like De Toth behind the camera (it's his final completed film) you know for sure that's going to happen. PLAY DIRTY's most memorable sequence isn't even a battle scene but rather a fantastically intense (no, really - it's fantastically intense!) scene where they pull their trucks up a mountainside. Conceptually, it seems like a kind of standard WW II "behind enemy lines" scene and as it begins you think "What's the point of this?". But once it's over you've invested so much in it that you know this is the moment when the film becomes something special and not just another WW II movie. It takes up about 10 minutes or so, but what you see is a beautifully handled exercise in suspense, which then becomes dramatically powerful as it continues on and it really makes the movie. From this moment on, PLAY DIRTY has you.

War movies don't come as cynical as PLAY DIRTY. This is an angry film about war and it's interesting that it came at a time when other similar films, such as Jack Cardiff's DARK OF THE SUN, were also getting made. Just as GRAND ILLUSION was the film that noted that the "honorable" warfare of WW I was a thing of the past in a new world order, PLAY DIRTY announces better than any film of its time that the nobility of a war like WW II was a falsehood. Unlike many other anti-war films, it's also a terrific action picture, one that knows that the best way to get a message across to an audience is to smuggle it in an entertaining package. I think it's a subversive little masterpiece and it keeps growing as a personal favorite. And yes, it's on DVD.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Sam fucking Elliott

In July of '97, I took a trip to L.A. and was staying with friends in the People's Republic of Santa Monica. On a bright, lovely Sunday morning I went on a run throughout this lovely town, eventually hitting Ocean Avenue, passing by fellow tourist and various Santa Monicans. For those who don't know this stretch of road, it's an incredibly scenic route (though scenic in the "touristy" sense), with a nice view of the ocean and the Santa Monica Pier, so it's no wonder why it's also popular with joggers such as myself. As I took my Nike tour of Ocean Avenue, I found myself waiting at a stoplight next to a fellow jogger, also keeping in step and waiting for the light to change, and I nodded to him as joggers often do, in acknowledgment that one knows something of what the other is going through, and within a second I realized that the fellow jogger was none other than Sam Elliott. Sam fucking Elliott. I kept my cool, but I never felt like less of a man than I did at that moment. Even though I was in the process of undergoing a rough physical activity, coming across Sam Elliott reminded me that I'm not 6"2, I've never ridden a horse, never belted a guy, never had steak and beer for breakfast, and have never looked a man down so hard that he's trembled down to the bottom of his soul, knowing that it was either me or him and, in the end, it was probably going to be me. Then, Sam Elliott nodded back to me, the light changed and we both ran off in our separate directions.

Sam Elliott was born about 20 years too late. If hadn't been, he probably would have been one of the all-time great movie stars, spoken about in the same breath as John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart (or at least Randolph Scott) and would have several cool DVD box sets dedicated to him. Had he been born 20 years later than he was he probably would have gotten the Josh Brolin role in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and his career would either be taking off right now or getting bigger and bigger. But unfortunately for Sam Elliott he came onto the scene when westerns, the genre he was born to star in, were starting to lose out on their popularity. He's never seemingly been at a loss for work and he had a brief moment of stardom about 30 years ago when he starred in LIFEGUARD, but he's never been as big a star as he's belonged to be. No doubt he's highly respected by his peers and people do know who he is, but few movies, if any, are sold on the Sam Elliott name and his leading roles are confined mostly to television. That great role, the one that's going to put him over the top with audiences, alludes him still.

The thing about Elliott that's not acknowledged often enough is what a first-rate actor he is. Certainly he's got what it takes as an action hero, authority figure or romantic leading man, but look at him in a little movie like John Hancock's PRANCER, where he plays a single father, or THANKS YOU FOR SMOKING, where he where he has some fun with his cowboy image, and you see a full actor there, someone who can play most any character. Sure, Elliott has that embodiment of the perfect man, strong and firm, but like Eastwood, he can be soft if need be or poke fun at himself, and that to me makes him more of real man than most movie icons.

Something I find interesting about Elliott is how he defines our perception of a movie cowboy more than most any other actor today (except for Eastwood, of course) when the bulk of his westerns have been made for television. When the Coens needed a cowboy for THE BIG LEBOWSKI, they didn't turn to Dwight Yokam, they turned to Elliott; when a Marlboro Man was needed for THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, I'm sure the question was not "Should we try Sam Elliott?" but rather, "Can we get Sam Elliott?". But films like THE QUICK AND THE DEAD (not the Raimi film), CONAGHER, THE SACKETTS (opposite another contemporary cowboy, Tom Selleck), and THE DESPERATE TRAIL are all TVMs, and while certainly quality productions with fine work by Elliott, none of them are really classics of the genre. Where is Sam Elliott's UNFORGIVEN or THE SHOOTIST? Some will say that TOMBSTONE was it, but it's not my favorite Wyatt Earp movie by a long shot and besides, it's Kurt Russell's movie and not Elliott's. One of the many reasons why the genre needs to be resurrected is so that someone can finally get Sam Elliott the great western that's alluded him for so long. Once that happens, all will be right with the movie world.

That said, if you go through his filmography you'll see that Sam Elliott has been in a number of really good films, even one or two great ones, and even the minor ones get a big boost from Elliott's participation. While's his appearance is all too brief, he's still a major part of the success of THE BIG LEBOWSKI (who else could own a line like "Darkness warshed over the Dude - darker'n a black steer's tookus on a moonless prairie night. There was no bottom"?) and without Sam Elliott, there is no ROADHOUSE, plain and simple (and I will not allow any disparaging of one of the great American films of the 1980s in the comments section, thank you very much). He's fine in Ang Lee's unjustly maligned HULK and there's also some real solid work in RUSH, GETTYSBURG, MASK, and I've also got a soft spot for SHAKEDOWN, the only decent movie James Glickenhaus ever made. His appearance in THE GOLDEN COMPASS adds to that entertaining film's luster (any movie that contains Sam Elliott and a polar bear fight is OK in my book) and while I haven't seen GHOST RIDER, he's probably the only reason I would see it. You simply can't go wrong casting Sam Elliott in your movie.

It's good knowin' he's out there, Sam Elliott, takin' her easy for all us sinners. If Tommy Lee Jones can get a FUGITIVE to help make him a star, surely Sam Elliott's got himself a great part that will do it for him someday. In the meantime, let's just keep on appreciating who he is, what he does, and how he can make a movie better just by showing up.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Two From Nacho Vigilando

Later this week, Nacho Vigilando's TIMECRIMES will play to what will no doubt be a packed house of industry assholes, bloggers, fellow filmmakers and one or two random movie lovers who will actually get in at the Sundance Film Festival. No doubt they will enjoy what they see and the buzz on the film (which has been growing since it premiered at Fantastic Fest last fall) will hopefully continue to make big things for this talented Spaniard. Nacho has recently filmed this most amusing short film called CAMBIAR EL MUNDO (or CHANGING THE WORLD) for a mobile phone company, and since most of you are ways off from seeing TIMECRIMES, here's a taste of Nacho's talents:



And while I'm at it, here's another taste of Nacho's many talents:



I'd like to see him do that in front of the Sundance crowd!

With TIMECRIMES playing the festival circuit throughout most of 2008, I sincerely hope I see him again real soon.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

For Your Consideration - Best Actress

Every couple of years it turns out to be a great year for women in movies. Actresses other than Meryl Streep get excellent parts and give terrific performances and no matter whether or not people go to see them, the fact that these films got made in the first place is its own little victory. Happily, the luck of 2007's great movie year extended to roles for, and films about, women: AWAY FROM HER, THE SAVAGES, MARGOT AT THE WEDDING, OFFSIDE, BLACK BOOK, GRINDHOUSE, and even an animated film like PERSEPOLIS had some of the best roles for women in a long time. Maybe not all of them were major Hollywood movies, but they were all good movies, some of them great, and they're going to be remembered; that's more important than making money, if you ask me. So with this in mind, here are two amazing performances that should not be overlooked by the Academy because I think they’ll end up being remembered by history, and the Academy wouldn’t want to look like they’re off the mark, would they? Thought not.

Nicole Kidman is one of those actresses who seem too good to be true, as talented as she is beautiful and willing to take chances on risky material. With MARGOT AT THE WEDDING she gave a truly remarkable performance, quite possibly the best of her career thus far, and no one is paying attention to either her or the movie. I think they will eventually, making MARGOT a future classic or cult hit at best, and when they do they're going to see Kidman doing work that is incredibly brave and honest that there will be a lot of forehead slapping and screams of "How could she not be nominated for this?" And I'm right there with you.

What’s fascinating about her character in MARGOT (she’s Margot) is that what you think you’re seeing is a woman who is just a total and utter bitch, cruel to most everyone around her and walking around with an air of superiority about her. Not so. In fact, what you’re seeing is an intelligent woman who is in the process of unraveling; her marriage is about over, she’s having an affair with a pompous ass, and going through an emotional breakdown. In the process of all this she’s thrown back in with her family and that sure as hell doesn’t make anything any better. But in a sense, it’s also just what was needed, too. MARGOT takes place over a few days and what you’re really seeing is Margot herself under the microscope; it’s wrong to judge her as a person based on what you see, because what you’re seeing are what are possibly the worst few days of this person’s life so far. With Kidman playing her, Margot is such a damaged personality, seemingly unsure about everything in her life and only just now becoming aware of this. She has a scene with the excellent Ciaran Hinds in a bookstore that’s heartbreaking and difficult to watch but it also happens to be the pinnacle of Kidman’s screen acting work thus far; this is when Margot realizes that she doesn’t have her shit together like she thought and it’s unforgettable, one of the best movie moments of 2007. I would be a total idiot if I didn’t also praise writer/director Noah Baumbach’s superb screenplay (this is also a great film about contemporary family relations) and make mention that Kidman is joined by a top-rank cast, namely Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Black and Hinds, but I was so overwhelmed by Kidman’s work here (unexpectedly so) that I can’t picture this film without her.

It’s something to have one such incredible performance in a movie year, but to have two makes you think that the end of the world is coming or something, it’s too good to be true. OK, I’m overstating things, but before Kidman I long thought that Ashley Judd’s work in BUG couldn’t be topped and it’s a really tough choice between the two of them. I’ve always known that Judd was a fine actress, but she’d been doing one DOUBLE JEOPARDYs too many over the years to remind me of this; BUG was a revelation for Judd, a fantastic piece of material that would be tough for only any actress, but Judd came through it almost like a new actress. A bizarrely romantic film, this adaptation of Tracy Lettis’ play nails the desperation that often comes with (or without) love, that feeling that we must adopt the interests, obsessions and problems of our significant others, but also one that finds this condition within us strangely liberating. BUG ends with a scene that’s equal parts bravely fatalistic and strangely liberating that it feels like the most romantic moment you’ll see in movies this year. It’s not an easy thing for audiences to accept (and since Lionsgate sold BUG as a horror film in the SAW mode, they most certainly did not), but one of the reasons you do is how well Judd convinces us about her character’s emotional state – that she cannot live without Michael Shannon (likewise excellent), an Iraq vet convinced he’s been injected with bugs – that you accept it 100%. What’s great is how Judd opens the film as this very damaged woman with a serious drug habit, just out of an abusive marriage, who accepts this strange man into her life not just out of her own need but also because she can see that he needs her, too. It’s surprisingly very touching, and the emotional content is almost all on Judd and she handles it flawlessly. BUG certainly does get stranger as the character’s shared paranoia progresses, but what you don’t ever forget (and this why I like the film so much) is that these two honestly do love each other. Yes, BUG is a dark, often disturbing piece, and yes, these people are kinda batshit insane, but it doesn’t exactly matter. I don’t think that BUG is specifically about insanity as it about loving within insanity (does that make sense?) and it wouldn’t have worked without Ashley Judd. I hope she picks up the ball from this film and continues to work with material this daring because one of these days it’s going to get her some serious accolades. Nominating her for BUG would be a damn good place to start.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Tsui! Lam! To! TRIANGLE!

I've often thought it would be a great idea if two top film directors would direct a movie together. I don't mean an anthology film or one directs one half of the movie each, but that they actually direct the film together, Coen Brothers style. Just imagine what a film directed by both Martin Scorsese and, say, Quentin Tarantino would be like. Would it be disjointed, a clash of egos, or would it end up being something new and fresh that would add something new to their respective directing styles? I know the real reason why those things don't actually happen - the DGA doesn't allow it - but it's a cool idea nonetheless. It may sound overly fannish, but if it works it can be something new and exciting. Who wouldn't want something like that to happen?

That's not exactly the case with TRIANGLE, but it's kinda close and if you're a fan of Hong Kong cinema (which I happen to be), it's a bit of a dream come true. TRIANGLE is co-directed by Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam and Johnnie To, three of the Hong Kong greats, each of them directing one act of the story in the order I just presented. The plot: Three casual friends (Simon Yam, Louis Koo and Sun Honglei), all in need of cash, meet a mysterious stranger who gives them instructions on where they can unearth a rare artifact. Unfortunately, there are people on their ass who making their lives hell: Yam's wife is having an affair with a brutish cop out to kill him, while Koo is in debt to a trio of Mainland gangsters who want him to drive a getaway car for a jewel store heist. Once the friends pull off their little heist, then things get really complicated.

So that's Tsui Hark's contribution, the set up, and Tsui works it all like a pro. Tsui has a somewhat thankless job here, as he can't go into much of his trademark dynamic action set-pieces or else he'll risk fucking up the rest of the film for his co-directors, but he admirable stays on track (and also serves to remind you that even with the beloved insanity of KNOCK-OFF and TIME AND TIDE, he can make pared-down, efficient films, too. I can't think of any of them right now, but let's just assume that for the sake of this piece, OK? (Oh, and by the way, KNOCK-OFF is a brilliant masterpiece of motion picture making. So is DOUBLE TEAM. Anyway, back to point.) My point being, the set-up works; we're intrigued with the robbery and the mechanics of the plot, tying all the various characters together, is starting to work. There are also some nice Tsui touches peppered throughout, but nothing is overdone. A solid opening.

As with any heist movie, the essence of the story isn't in the heist itself (unless you're talking RIFIFI) but the aftermath, and here's where things begin to go astray for TRIANGLE in a lot of ways. the second segment is directed by Ringo Lam, one of Hong Kong's crime film masters, but also the director with the spottiest track record of the three. He's got some classics (CITY ON FIRE, FULL CONTACT), sure, but also some misfires (VICTIM) and he hasn't come up with a great film in a long time. His midsection here is likewise disjointed; the plot begins to unravel for the protagonists and for the audience, too. Lam veers off into some odd, character-oriented directions that only draw things out too long and makes this segment the bloodiest in the entire film, so much so that you wonder a bit how certain characters who have been stabbed, shot, or hit with cars can still be walking. The subplot of Yam and his wife takes center stage and drags the film down a bit - it simply isn't that interesting - and there's too much time focused on it. However, once To takes over absolutely none of that matters. Man, oh man, do I loves me some Johnnie To!

Sometimes all it takes is a rousing finish to make an otherwise problematic picture look much better, and there's no question that Johnnie To's final third of TRIANGLE is what puts it into the category of really satisfying entertainment. The wrapping-up of TRIANGLE becomes yet another example of what makes To's film so wonderful. Suddenly it becomes an joyful, inventive playhouse of filmmaking and a terrific comedy, too, with all of the characters converging in one place, each of them carrying a white plastic bag filled with something they don't want the others to see. There's a shootout, of course, where To slyly references his recent films EXILED and THROW DOWN, but it's a wonderful action set piece, too, and for me the whole thing was just one giant grin-inducing pleasure. Best of all, the shift in gears doesn't feel too out of place. The movie has already shown itself to be a little schizoid, so why not have fun with it and get even crazier? No matter what you think, it certainly save the picture and lets you leave it with a big smile on your face. OK, maybe I'm a little predisposed to liking it, being a To fan and all, but the important thing is I did like it. TRIANGLE is saved and has a memorable final third. I have no problem with that.

So certainly if you're a fan of either of these three guys TRIANGLE is worth seeing, but it's also worth it if you're interested to see how an experiment like this works. I love how these guys finally teamed up and applaud the results. I wish this kind of thing happened more often.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Look Familiar?

OK. Exhibit one, the trailer for FUNNY GAMES, Michael Haneke's upcoming remake (shot-for-shot, apparently) of his 1997 classic:



And now the trailer for Stanley Kubrick's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE:



Needless to say, there are some striking similarities. And I suppose it's not actually all that important when you think about it. After all, this is just one trailer copying another trailer. The only people who would make note of it would be movie lovers or CLOCKWORK ORANGE fans, and while there are certainly plenty of them out there, it's not enough to really raise a fuss over the issue. The offending party, if you really want to use that term (oh wait, I just did), isn't Haneke but rather someone at the Warner Independent Pictures trailer department, and someone with a good memory, at that.

But still...

Originality has to account for something. The CLOCKWORK ORANGE trailer was cut by Kubrick himself (who cut all his own trailers) and obviously the guy knew what he was doing. It's still a great trailer, one that's enticing even if you've seen the film countless number of times, and if you're going to steal, why not take from the best? But I find it irritating that someone over at WIP thinks that I or any other film lover doesn't know that trailer and that it's OK to pilfer from it. The advertising world takes from itself more often than not, but something like this, as minor as it seems, feels to me like they're thinking they just take from past trailers and it isn't a problem. Hey, maybe the trailer could have been Haneke hosting a tour of the film's locations or maybe make the trailer in 3-D. No one remembers those things anyway, so it's finder's keepers, right? Right?

I know it's just a trailer and it's not like the film itself will be stealing from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. It doesn't take away from my enthusiasm about seeing the 2008 FUNNY GAMES or will dissuade me from seeing any more Warner Independent Pictures films. But I'm more than turned off by this idea of taking from another trailer to a classic film (especially A CLOCKWORK ORANGE) and making it the campaign to your film. Just because FUNNY GAMES is a remake doesn't mean the trailer has a right to be, too.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

For Your Consideration - Best Actor

Ah, awards season. A very busy time of year for some, an annoying time for others. Genuinely great films often go unrecognized by the awards givers and the ones that do get recognized do so not because of their quality but more because the studios behind them just happen to be especially adept in playing the awards game (I’m looking at you, Weinsteins). In years past I’ve found it fun to try and guess the eventual nominees (even though the surprises are usually few) but now that everyone and their brother makes a living out of it the fun has been diminished. Not that I would mind if I offered the opportunity to make a living it. I’d probably be pretty good.

Anyway, we’re lucky that 2007 turned out to be a damn good year for movies, with solid releases coming in every month of the year, from majors to indies. When you look at most of the ten best lists out there it’s usually the same titles again and again, but those titles are especially strong and would probably be awards contenders in any year they opened. Unfortunately they can only nominate the top five vote-getters, so if you’re sixth on the list then you’re stuck dangling in the wind, with only consolatory phone calls from friends and family to ease your pain. This is a real damn shame, because we have great films like ZODIAC that deserve to be recognized but probably won’t because it came out in March and wasn’t a hit, so folks have forgotten about it. And that, as we all know, sucks.

What’s also pretty damn sucky is that some great performances are getting lost in the midst, ones that should be recognized but aren’t. I mean, I’m not even seeing these names show up in the critic’s groups voting or in any year-end pieces nowhere. So in the hopes that there are hordes of Academy members (I know of at least two who might) or Oscar bloggers reading HQ10, I’d like to toss these two names into the “For Your Consideration” pit and remind everyone just how terrific these guys were and that everyone should go to their massive pile of screeners and pull these two titles out (or if they weren't sent to you, put them in your Netflix queue) and you’ll see what I’m talking about. This is excellent work that should not be forgotten.

Every career has certain peaks and valleys and Samuel L. Jackson seems to be going through a bit of a valley at the moment. Many would place the blame at SNAKES ON A PLANE, but I don’t think you can fault him for that. Everyone wanted to love that movie, was hoping that it would be everything its title promised and the fact that it didn’t deliver isn’t really Jackson’s fault. On top of that he tends to do a lot of movies (four in 2005, three in 2006), so even though audiences like and admire Jackson , they can also tend to get burned out on him. Maybe because of this they ignored BLACK SNAKE MOAN back in February and in doing so missed what is probably his finest performance yet or at least his best since JUNGLE FEVER. His role in BLACK SNAKE, a very good film overall, was essentially the film’s heart and soul, that of a damaged man who seeks to save the soul (by chaining her to his radiator) of local nympho Christina Ricci (likewise excellent) and to save his own in the process. Plain and simple, Jackson was absolutely electrifying here, and let me tell you I really don’t use that critical cliché at all, but it totally fits here. The opening scene of the film (Jackson's goodbye with his ex-wife) showed a character with a lot of rage in him, and that's a Sam Jackson that we audiences know pretty well, but what's so exciting about BLACK SNAKE is that as the film progresses we see a softer and more soulful (if that's even possible) side of Sam Jackson and we see a character with a lot of love and a lot of pain and no place to let it out, except in music. And then Jackson performs the title song. He performs this song as a man who has truly experienced the blues and what you see is nothing more than a divine movie moment, a perfect melding of actor, character, music and direction that is overwhelmingly amazing. When I saw the film at Harry Knowles' Butt-Numb-A-Thon in 2006 the audience justifiably applauded at this scene; if you ask me this is the scene to run when Jackson finally gets his lifetime achievement awards. He has another amazing moment playing "Stack-O-Lee" later on in the film, but it was at this point in the film that I realized that Jackson has never been better, and to say that when you consider all of Jackson's many amazing performances means a hell of a lot. I do have a few issues with BLACK SNAKE MOAN (namely Justin Timberlake), but as far as Samuel L. Jackson is concerned the only issue I have is why he's not on anyone's list for Best Actor.

Even if Jackson were nominated he might have some competition from another contemporary movie acting great, Chris Cooper, and his stellar work in Billy Ray's BREACH. To a certain extent, this is a role that only the worst of actors could screw up: Robert Hansenn, a longtime FBI vet who had been selling secrets to the Russians for decades, also a devout Catholic and a major league-pervert. That role is acting gold, my friend, and I'm sure plenty of talented folk would have killed their children for the opportunity to play it. But as juicy as it is, it's a real tightrope of a role, because this was a guy with layers upon layers about him. He wasn't merely an evil guy who traded in his country for cash, he had a moral code, a belief system, a love of god and country, and on top of that, was exceedingly intelligent (he had managed to elude capture for decades). Any actor who gets to play this part has to do it right and what Cooper accomplishes is a small miracle; the guy is all this and more, but on top of that, his Hansenn is also a little paranoid, on edge (he can sense that they're on to him) and self-destructive, while also careful not to lose his cool because he is, after all, "not a spy". Few actors can really portray a person under this kind of pressure without making them look like a total nutjob and one of them is indeed Chris Cooper. His Hansenn is completely intimidating for Ryan Philippe's Eric O'Neill (the real-life FBI agent who helped capture Hansenn) and the entire audience since Hansenn is the smartest person in the room and demands absolute perfection from O'Neill, and let me tell you something, he's scary for that reason alone. But he's not a monster and Cooper makes him very human, flaws and all. With Cooper in the role you have an understanding of Hansenn as someone who truly loves America but also feels slighted by the government who he's given so much to, and you actually kind of get the reason why he did what he did. This role is pretty much the very definition of a complex character and what else can I say except that Cooper was superb. And he probably won't be nominated for an Oscar.

Cooper and Jackson are both invited to my place to watch the awards. We'll get a pizza and wish Daniel Day Lewis well, knowing damn well who should have been up there with him.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

2007

“That's it... and look upon this moment. Savor it! Rejoice with great gladness! Great gladness! Remember it always, for you are joined by it. You are One, under the stars. Remember it well, then... this night, this great victory. So that in the years ahead, you can say, 'I was there that night, with Arthur, the King!' For it is the doom of men that they forget.”

– Nicol Williamson as Merlin in John Boorman’s EXCALIBUR

OK, maybe the EXCALIBUR quote isn’t quite the proper way to go, but it’s what my muse told me to open this piece with and besides, it’s my favorite quote from a terrific movie. But I think it does illustrate my point that 2007 was an unusually good year for movies and we should savior this moment because who really knows when it’s going to come again?

If you’ve been paying attention to the countless number of “Best of” list then you’ve been seeing a number of the same titles over and over again – THERE WILL BE BLOOD, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, ZODIAC, THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY, RATATOULLIE, PERSEPOLIS, MICHAEL CLAYTON – and that’s all perfectly fine. I saw most of those films and would agree with those assessments. Every year most top ten lists look the same, but this year critics had a lot more to pick from and most would offer apologies to some titles or “Runner’s Up” lists. Either way, it’s an embarrassment of riches and that puts a smile on my face.

I’m not doing a traditional Top Ten list in part because there are plenty of top films I haven’t seen – THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, ONCE, BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD, that I all hope to catch some time in the next few weeks. But all those films that were good this year weren’t just good, they were damn good. They would be top five films if they came out in any other year, but getting them all at once made for a very special year. THERE WILL BE BLOOD and GRINDHOUSE were my absolute favorites (they share my “Best of 2007” slot) for the reasons that I love movies; BLOOD was brilliant filmmaking and compelling storytelling while GRINDHOUSE was overwhelming fun and entertainment, a film whose desire to please was evident every single moment the film was on screen. As for the rest, here are the top films I saw in 2007 (with apologies to George Romero’s DIARY OF THE DEAD and Chris Stapp and Matt Heath’s THE DEVIL DARED ME TO, two great films that have yet to be released):