Remembering the things I’m thankful for

J.Michael Staczinski's "Spider-Man"

2007 has been a good year for me. This year I passed the 12-year mark in Seattle, making this the longest I’ve ever lived consecutively in one city. I developed a taste for gunpowder green tea and yellow curry, thanks to an Asian market that opened right next to a nearby multiplex. I discovered a few new authors (thank you, Arturo Perez-Reverte and Tonino Benaquisto, for joining my list of favored writers) in between continuing my run through the Spenser novels of Robert Parker and completing Neal Stephenson’s “Baroque Cycle.” I continued my reengagement with comics and graphic novels through bound collections of both mainstream titles (the J. Michael Staczinski-penned “Spider-Man” comics and the “X-Men” issues by Joss Whedon and Grant Morrison) and indie series (the brilliant “Powers” by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming and the comics-noir “100 Bullets” by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso), thanks to a library system that actually carries these titles. I continued delving into garage rock past and present (with plenty of help from Little Steven’s Underground Garage). I made an effort to be, however small, a part of the lives of my nieces and nephews and honorary godchildren (that’s what happens to the single friends of married couples). And I finally launched my own website, thanks to the diligent efforts of my dear old friend Nick Henderson and my much newer friend Felipe Lujan-Bear. I’m still working on the rest of my 2007 New Year’s resolutions, but I’m happy with the headway I’ve made so far.

And professionally, it’s been a great year. After a decade of developing and writing my DVD column online, first for film.com and then for the IMDb, I approached MSN with a proposal to expand and enrich their coverage. My column went live in April and I’ve been writing a weekly column for them ever since. I also started writing for Turner Classic Movies in 2007, which I’ve greatly enjoyed, I continue to write for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and GreenCine.com, and this year I attended my first Toronto International Film Festival, which is a film lover’s paradise and the critic’s keys to the kingdom.

Zombie Heaven

I had grand plans for the week leading up to New Year’s Eve, but I wound up taking it easy and focusing on things close to home – getting back into jogging, organizing my finances for taxes, cleaning house (literally – a near-complete top to bottom clean), and clearing out the clutter by hauling off all those things I’d been saving to donate. I called my parents to wish them a happy anniversary (I’m lousy with birthdays, but I always remember my parents’ anniversary as it is on New Year’s Eve) and listened to “Odyssey and Oracle” by The Zombies, a magnificent pop album released long after the band had broken up, with only one hit (“Time of the Season”) but a unity close to perfection. I opened a bottle of Benton-Lane First Class 2003 Pinot Noir (from the Willamette Valley, my previous home), had a dish of spaghetti, and spent New Year’s Eve repeating what has become my annual ritual: staying at home (avoiding the roads full of drivers under the influence) and watching the DVDs that I’ve been wanting and meaning to see for months or even years. This year, it was King Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn, on a poorly mastered import disc with shoddy subtitles, yet was glorious enough to overcome those surface deficiencies. For those of you unfamiliar with the director, Hu is the godfather of the genre known as “wuxia pian,” or romantic chivalry, and was a major inspiration of the Hong Kong New Wave and director Tsui Hark (who remade the film as Dragon Gate), and of the Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which is practically a tribute to the films of King Hu.

Dragon Inn

Dragon Gate Inn is a pure delight, a wild ride of an action film with a sprawling cast representing all sorts of forces who converge on the inn of the title, which lies open and exposed in the middle of the desert. An ambush is plotted by a powerful eunuch, but mysterious figures have, for various reasons, gathered to protect the targets of the assassination conspiracy. Swords flash, poison wine is spilled, arrows fly, armies clash, and rather humorous insults are thrown at the eunuch. Yet it was one otherwise unmemorable moment of the film, a slow track forward in POV shot of the warrior heroine creeping up on the occupied inn of the title, that sparked a purely reflexive response in me: damn, how I love a slow tracking shot, one that creeps with such deliberation that you feel transported into the movement. It started me thinking about those techniques and conventions and details we otherwise take for granted, yet transform otherwise mundane films into visceral experiences, and in the hands of an artist can be turned into transformative moments.

So I started cataloguing, off the top of my head, just a few things about the cinema that transport me, thrill me, engage me, excite me, stir me, and reward me – in films conventional and curious, good and bad, terrible and transcendent. I’m dedicated to exploring cinema for the good and the great, but there are so many things that me engaged in between that I felt compelled to list just a few…

Things I’m thankful for:

Hawks

Howard Hawks – I could put any number of directors here, I suppose, but there is no single director whose world I find more comforting to visit.

The perfect match cut – I realized that I was not meant to be a director in college because I never really had a story to tell when I was making student films, but I could spend hours mucking about on the sloppy, pre-digital videotape editing deck of my college perfecting the editing of my rushes, alternately flaunting exaggerated shifts in perspective and angle and hiding cuts in the movement within the frame. (I might have turned out to be a good editor if I kept with it, but I ultimately found myself drawn to writing more than filmmaking, and I followed my impulses.) I’m still swept along by editing that follows the action to slide from shot to shot and carries the viewer along quietly through rhythms. It was during the third screening of John Woo’s Hardboiled that I noticed how Woo used the momentum and vectors of action to guide his cutting in the opening restaurant shoot-out. It makes the runaway momentum feel even more out of control and chaotic, but Woo is in complete control.

Continue reading “Remembering the things I’m thankful for”

A Christmas DVD Wish List… plus “Diva” and David Cronenberg

Inspired by the possibilities of DVD releases seen this year alone in terms of special editions and box sets, I put together an initial wish list of essentials I would like to see in the coming years and published the piece on GreenCine:

What a year we’ve seen for domestic DVD releases. Marvelous special editions of Breathless and I Am Cuba. A deluxe presentation of Berlin Alexanderplatz. The release of such long-awaited films as Killer of Sheep (an amazing 2-disc special edition), Ace in the Hole (Criterion, no less), Witchfinder General (in the uncut British version), and Duck, You Sucker (restored and reconstructed), just to name the first that come to mind. And new standards of quality and exhaustive completeness have been set with the sprawling, unprecedented box set Ford at Fox and Blade Runner: Five-Disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition.

And the hits keep on coming. Warner has been working on mastering elements for a The Magnificent Ambersons special edition for years (modest editions are already available in France and Britain) and Paramount is reportedly working on an extensive restoration of The African Queen. Criterion has a Max Ophüls set in the works (the only confirmed titles are Earrings of Madame de… and Le Plaisir, and perhaps La Ronde – I hope they add Lola Montès to replace the inferior Fox Lorber edition) and is considering the films of Kenji Mizoguchi (including Street of Shame and Life of Oharu), Shohei Imamura, and Mikio Naruse (either in Criterion editions or Eclipse box sets), not to mention all those Rialto re-releases. There are Lon Chaney classics, Forbidden Hollywood collections, Looney Tunes boxes, and sets of such series as The Saint and Falcon in the works, as well as the rollout of the entire Andy Hardy series (gosh, dad, that’s swell!).

Yes, we go on and on about what’s not yet on DVD, but it is not in spite of these releases that I offer my own dream list of DVD Special Editions and Box Sets. It is because I am inspired by their example to dream big. This is no fantasy of lost films found (like the 132-minute version of Magnificent Ambersons, the 40-reel Greed, or magically rediscovered prints of London After Midnight or Four Devils), but a modest proposal to pull out films from the vaults, restore and remaster them where necessary, and give them the presentation they deserve on DVD.

What kind of releases did I choose? Here’s my top pick in a “best of” list of my dreams:

1. Touch of Evil: The Ultimate Collection

Continue reading “A Christmas DVD Wish List… plus “Diva” and David Cronenberg”

More lists and lost “Youth”

I really wanted to like Francis Coppol’a Youth Without Youth more than I did, just because he seems to have gotten his own creative youth back with the film. My review is on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

The film effortlessly evokes “Faust,” the fountain of youth, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” and even “Frankenstein”– spinning tales of reincarnation and estrangement without finding its own identity.

It’s hard not to think of “Youth Without Youth” as Coppola’s attempt to recapture the cinema rapture of his youth with the grace of age and experience. There is a joy in his simple but rich imagery and vibrant filmmaking. He has returned to simple, practical techniques to create his fantastic imagery, only discreetly resorting to digital touches. It’s gorgeous.

Read the rest here…

More lists, more lists:

The Indiewire list was posted on Thursday, December 20. I had the honor and the pleasure of participating, though thanks to an E-mail snafu I found out a little late and didn’t have time to write up comments. I might as well now:

2007 is unusual in so many high-profile, substantially-budgeted American films have proven to be so interesting, so inventive, so creative, and so demanding. Films like I’m Not There, There Will Be Blood, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, and Into the Wild are autuer films in the studio system (calling them indie is to abuse the word too much, but they are certainly lower-priced productions than Rush Hour 3 and Evan Almighty). The shortage of exciting foreign films actually getting a stateside release, however, is a concern, and those that do get released become more and more niche releases. If the film critic matters at all, it’s in creating audience interest in things like the thrilling burst of cinema coming from Romania right now. Hopefully the wave of praise for Secret Sunshine, the tough and emotionally prickly Korean drama that was the top pick for Best Unreleased Film, will help find it a distributor and a stateside release.

The compiled lists are here, and the individual lists are listed by critic here. My list, which is slightly different from my other lists this year, can be found here.

My favorite list of the year to date: Jim Emerson’s 10 Best List: The Movie at his Scanners blog.

Ten movies, 76 seconds, two or three shots apiece (more or less), no dialog, no annotations. (The critical comments will come later.) This is my hommage to the ending of the late Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Eclipse” and to the writers who are currently on strike. (Full disclosure: I’m a WGA/west member and I absolutely support the writers.) The effort was to look at my favorite movies of the year (inspired, to begin with, by the opening of “No Country for Old Men”) solely through establishing shots, architecture, landscapes, inanimate objects… and a few glimpses of extras and motionless actors who don’t speak.

The haunting howl of the wind, which serves as his soundtrack, really makes the piece.

Coming soon: The Village Voice/LA Weekly Critics Poll.

‘Blade Runner’ – DVD of the week

My last DVD column of 2007 wraps up the home video releases for the last two weeks of the year.

Twenty five years after Ridley Scott‘s visionary reworking of Philip K. Dick’s novel flopped at the box office (and was subsequently reborn as one of the pre-eminent cult movies of the past three decades), Scott delivers what he promises is his final take on the compromised classic.

The ultimate release of Blade Runner is the release of the week. I’m still going through the discs – the epic 3 1/2 hour documentary is astounding, the outtakes and deleted scenes are cut together into a kind of narrative, a stranger alternate universe companion film with completely different credits and a completely different narration by Ford. I’ll be writing about this in more detail later on this site.

The Simpsons Movie

The big-screen debut of America’s favorite yellow-skinned family plays like a supersized episode with gags crammed into every verbal and visual nook and cranny of the wide-screen format and an afterthought of a story…. It’s as puckish and irreverent as the television show, but with PG-13 parameters (resulting in, among other things, an inspired gag sprung during Bart’s naked skateboard ride through town), awfully funny and fairly unmemorable.

Also new in this week’s column: Once (“the sweetest little musical of the year”), Eastern Promises (which arrives on DVD on December 23), and new special editions of The Evil Dead and Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York.

Also new this week is my tribute to the fictional history of rock and roll: the Greatest Bands that Never Existed.

The alternative history of rock ‘n’ roll is filled with class acts: The Swanky Modes, Steel Dragon, the Luminaries, and who could forget the upstart grrrl group the Stains? Most people do forget … because these bands don’t exist outside of the movies. In fact, there’s a veritable alternative history of rock ‘n’ roll that only exits in film. Many nonexistent bands are bad; many are surprisingly good; some are downright inspired.

If you’re a fan of Strange Fruit, The Venus in Furs, The Bang Bang, and Max Frost and the Troopers, then this is for you. If you haven’t heard of these bands, then jump in:

5. The Venus in Furs
Big-screen appearance:Velvet Goldmine
Musical definition: Glam rock redux
Signature song: “The Whole Shebang”
Liner notes: Jack Slade became the poster boy for androgyny rock and “the first true dandy of rock” in his taboo-busting phase as the flamboyantly bisexual singer/songwriter fronting the Venus in Furs. His career never recovered from the staged assassination at a concert and he disappeared, possibly into a new persona.
Behind the music: Todd Haynes recreates the pop-culture earthquake of glam rock with a fictionalized take on David Bowie‘s Ziggy Stardust phase (incarnated by Jonathan Rhys Meyers with a pouty, androgynous pose and a fabulous wardrobe), directed as a cheeky tribute to “Citizen Kane.” The period-perfect music was created by members of Radiohead, Mudhoney, Sonic Youth and Ron Asheton of the original Stooges.

Click here to read the other nine picks and more…

New reviews: ‘Juno’ and ‘Mala Noche’ plus Top Ten lists

The annual running of the lists is usually kicked off by the (often laughable) National Board of Review’s awards (and really, any group that lists The Bucket List as one of the Top Ten films of year earns the term “laughable”). Now I and my fellow MSN writers toss our opinions into the ring, along with other goodies.

The Top Ten 2007 Films poll can be found here with individual ballots found here. My top pick (at least for this list) was Into the Wild.

The Best (and Worst) of 2007 TV, meanwhile, is here.

For the record, my top pick for 2007 TV is Mad Men, and my pick for worst (which didn’t make the list): Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Upon reflection, however, I realize that I had forgotten a much worse show from another major creator: The Black Donnellys. Must have just blocked it out to save myself the pain of remembering.

For another take on the year in review, check out the delightful “Moments Out of Time” by Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy. If the name sounds familiar, maybe it’s because you used to devour the annual recounting of cinema moments in “Film Comment,” or before that, in “Movietone News,” where it was born decades ago.

Also new this week:

My review of Jason Reitman’s Juno: “the feel-good film of the pregnant teenager comedy genre,” is at the Seattle P-I. That description may sound like a glib dismissal, but it’s actually an appreciation of the film’s wit: it is actually quite smart and mature as well as clever and entertaining.

The original screenplay by Diablo Cody ricochets with askew dialogue, a fantasy of youth slang gone wild that borders on precious and contrived. In this skewed cinematic universe it’s both defiant and defining, a private language for a bright high school non-conformist.

Under the cleverness is a very human and humble story of growing up, and Page is engaging and energetic and palpably vulnerable under her self-possessed eccentricity. We watch her rise to responsibility as she watches how adults face up — or don’t — to their own.

My review of Criterion’s release of Mala Noche is new on Turner Classic Movies this week:

Gus Van Sant’s intimate black and white tale of l’amour fou has been hailed as a precursor to the American wave of queer cinema that started to swell in the late eighties. Its credentials are established in the opening lines as Walt (Tim Streeter), a counter jockey at a hole-in-the-wall liquor store, gazes upon Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), an illegal Mexican immigrant with fleshy lips, a wide, youthful grin, and a streak of juvenile machismo. “I want to drink this Mexican boy, Johnny Alonzo,” he rhapsodizes in voice-over, and he spends the rest of the movie doing all he can to get next to this beautiful boy (“He says he’s 18, but he’s probably 16,” Walt confesses). Johnny is full of attitude and sass and contempt for his gay admirer, but not too proud to take advantage of Walt’s desire for his company to score a handout at the store or a turn behind the wheel of Walt’s car (which he pilots with the reckless mania of a teenager on a video game).

Over the rainbow with ‘The Wizard of Oz’

Lions and tigers and bears and … flying monkeys? Oh my!

When gingham-clad farm girl Dorothy Gale rode the tornado out of the somber, sepia-tinged black and white of her Kansas dust bowl farm and into the sparkling Technicolor fantasy land somewhere over the rainbow, she changed the lives of her audiences (both then and now) as assuredly as she changed her own.

wizard-of-oz.jpg
Following the yellow brick road into movie history

The Wizard of Oz was adapted from the first book in L. Frank Baum’s series of Oz adventures, but MGM’s bright incarnation has a life all its own. MGM was the dream factory of the 1930s and 1940s and this was its most imaginative screen dream, but it is Judy Garland who grounds the fantastic sights and delirious imagery in the human story of a winsome, plucky, melancholy girl who dreams of visiting lands outside her humdrum neighborhood and, when that dream comes true, wistfully yearns for home.

Garland’s Dorothy embodies the fantasy of all children who dream of leaving the cocoon of their protected lives and spreading their wings. With her companions — the clowning but clever Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), the compassionate Tin Man (Jack Haley) and the blubbering Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) — she journeys along the yellow brick road through a land of magic and wonder, a butterfly blossoming in a candy-colored phantasmagoria.

More than a movie classic, it’s an essential part of the popular culture, thanks to film revivals and the annual TV ritual that, sooner or later, captured every kid growing up in the ’60s and ’70s. The love has since spread, with lavish DVD sets preserving the glory of the singing munchkins (“We represent the Lollipop Guild … “), the cackling, green-faced Wicked Witch of the West (“I’ll get you my pretty. And your little dog too!”), the flying monkeys and the merry, merry land of Oz for generations to come.

The moral of the story makes for a strangely conservative tribute to fantasy and imagination: “There’s no place like home,” Dorothy chants as she clicks the heels of her sparkling ruby slippers. But was anyone fooled by this sop to rural integrity and homespun values of modesty and restraint? Or did kids and grown-ups alike walk away from this scary, funny, thrilling, singing and dancing Technicolor blast of flying monkeys and talking scarecrows and melting green crones with a passion to break out of their monochrome lives and follow their own yellow brick road?

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.

Best DVDs of 2007 and more on Berlin Alexanderplatz

My list of the Best DVD releases of 2007 went up on MSN today.

If there is one glaring omission, it is due to the fact that my deadline arrived before the new “Blade Runner” box set did. Based on the little I have seen, it likely would have placed quite high on the list.

My top pick? Do you have to ask?

1. “Ford at Fox
Wipe the drool away, movie geeks. Fox is bucking for DVD sainthood with this astounding release…. Has there ever been a DVD release with such commitment to rescuing and showcasing both established classics and rarities and forgotten works (both major and minor) of a Hollywood master? In a word: No. Essential for Ford fanatics, classic film buffs and DVD completists alike.

And for TV:

1. “Twin Peaks: Definitive Gold Box Edition
David Lynch’s cult TV show had previously been available in incomplete chunks, and until now the pieces never added up to the entire run. Paramount finally cleared the complicated rights imbroglio surrounding the missing elements of the series, notably the original feature-length pilot (for so long available only as an import), and has pulled it together into a single set — including the home video debut of both the broadcast pilot and the extended European cut (complete with its alternate ending).

I have ten picks in movies and movie-related releases, five picks in TV, and honorable mentions. Here are some of the those mentions that, on other days, would have found their way onto the list:

Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934

Image

The third collection of the brilliant “Treasures From American Film Archives,” which showcases 48 rarities made between the years 1900 to 1934, is loosely organized around themes of social issues and engagement and reveals a side of early cinema forgotten in the popularity of the comedy legends and silent screen heartthrobs. The four features are the highlights, but the totality celebrates the diversity of cinematic forms in early cinema: 30-second “actualities,” newsreels, cartoons, political tracts, documentary exposés, and more. It sprawls across genres, it tackles everything from prohibition to women’s voting rights, worker safety to unionism, police corruption to organized crime, and it showcases slices of our cinematic history that just don’t get seen outside of film archives and “educational” screenings. It turns out that they can be damnably entertaining. The four-disc box set also comes with a 200-page illustrated guide to the treasures within.

Cinema 16: European Short Films

Cinema 16

Cinema 16’s two-disc collection of some the best of short cinema from Europe is the most well-curated and compelling short film compilation I’ve seen on DVD. This set pays more attention to superior work than to familiar names and showcases some of the most inventive, powerful and provocative films you’ll see in the three-minute to half-hour format, including Roy Andersson’s brilliant and disturbing 1991 “World of Glory,” Virgil Widrich pitch-perfect high concept twist on Xerox art “Copyshop,” and Andrea Arnold’s searing piece of social realism, the Oscar-winning Wasp,” as well as early films by Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott, and Lars Von Trier. Features sixteen shorts on all, with commentary on all but three of the shorts.

The Jazz Singer: 80th Anniversary 3-Disc Collector’s Edition

Warner

“Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” This newly restored version of the legendary hybrid silent film, the absurdly maudlin melodrama starring Al Jolson as a cantor’s son who mugs and shimmies his way through songs like “Toot-Toot-Tootsie Goodbye” and “Blue Skies,” is remastered from earliest surviving nitrate film elements and original Vitaphone sound-on-disc recordings. But the three-disc set as an entirety is a lavish tribute to the birth of sound and the early Vitaphone shorts (many of them featuring the kinds of acts that killed vaudeville). A true work of cinema archeology.

New at Turner Classic Movies:

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s fifteen-hour-plus adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s novel, one of the most revered classics of German literature, is the German auteur’s most lavish and complex production ever. It’s also his most personal, a dream project with roots that reach back to Fassbinder’s youth, when he read the novel for the first time at age 14. Fassbinder, grappling with his own identity and his emerging homosexuality, saw himself in the character of Franz Biberkopf, the trusting, emotionally naïve, almost childlike hero who begins the novel wandering an alienated Berlin plunged into depression and enters into a destructive relationship with a cruel thug. Five years later he re-read the novel and “it became clearer and clearer to me that a huge part of myself, my behavior, my reactions, many things I had considered a part of me, were nothing other than things described by Döblin in Berlin Alexanderplatz,” he wrote in 1980. “I had, quite simply, without realizing it, made Döblin’s fantasy into my life.”

Berlin Alexanderplatz became Fassbinder’s touchstone throughout his career. He named the protagonist of Fox and His Friends, which he portrayed on screen himself, Franz Biberkopf, while the central characters of many other films were named Franz (including those played by himself in his first feature Love Is Colder Than Death and in The American Soldier). His own pseudonym used for editing credit, Franz Walsh, is a mesh of Döblin and the American director Raoul Walsh. Even the plots of two early films (Love is Colder Than Death and Gods of the Plague) have their roots in Döblin’s novel.

Read the complete piece on the film, its production, and the Criterion DVD at Turner Classic Movies.

‘Scarface’: Blasting to the Top

scarface_titlecard.jpg‘Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doing it’

The original Scarface, loosely but boldly based on the notorious life and legend of Al Capone, didn’t invent the modern American gangster film. It blew it up. It reinvigorated and redefined the nascent genre, thanks to the rat-a-tat direction of Howard Hawks and scrappy performance of Paul Muni, a pug of an actor who packs his firecracker frame with dynamite.

The movie transformed the story of an insolent immigrant hood who blasts his way to the top spot of the Chicago crime world into a perverted twist in the American dream (“The World Is Yours,” flashes an advertisement outside the gangster’s new, bullet-proofed digs, a tease as much as a promise). And the film cast Tony Camonte, a scrappy street mutt of a gangland soldier with big ideas, bad taste and a dangerous lack of inhibitions, as its Horatio Alger.

Films like The Public Enemy and Little Caesar had whetted the American moviegoing appetite for crime movies that delivered a vicarious thrill before delivering a sentence of poetic justice. Scarface delivered something more dynamic and insidious, so much so that censors pressured producer Howard Hughes to cut out the more audacious elements. Hughes hired lesser hands to add sanctimonious lectures denouncing the criminal scourge, flat scenes that have all the impact of blanks in the film’s barrage of live ammunition.

scarface.jpg
Paul Muni as Scarface with his latest toy

What’s amazing is how much escaped the censors’ scissors: the incestuous attraction between Tony and his party-girl sister (Ann Dvorak); the real-life gangland events “ripped from the headlines” and referenced in Tony’s bloody climb to the top (Hawks brilliantly re-creates the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in an evocative scene of shadows and sound effects); the brutal montage of drive-by machine-gun hits in the mob war, with thrilling high-speed car chases and careening getaways through the rain-soaked streets of Chicago city sets, victims crumpling like paper in their wake.

The way Hawks marks Camonte’s victims with the shadow of an “X” (echoing the scar marking Camonte’s cheek) is still effective, and his inventive touches, from the death of Boris Karloff’s mob boss suggested in the falling of a bowling pin to a machine gun blasting away falling leaves of calendar pages, evoke the brutality of Camonte’s bloody reign without showing a single murder. In these days of blood-soaked gangster operas, this incendiary masterpiece still packs firepower.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.

Love and Bullets: ‘Prizzi’s Honor’

prizzis_honor_poster.jpgKathleen Turner shoots cool and true in Prizzi’s Honor.

The movies are full of girls with guns: sexy slingers who can strike a pose with a firearm in hand and blow away the bad guys with all the lethal intent of a sex kitten vogueing for a pinup. Kathleen Turner’s Irene Walker, the “talent from out of town” in John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor, is anything but a kitten. She’s a jungle cat who prowls the underbelly of society. A cool and cagey pro, Irene wields a gun like a precision tool and never leaves an assignment unfinished.

A blackly comic and insidiously sly love story in the unforgiving underworld of mob families and freelance criminals, Prizzi’s Honor plays like The Godfather stripped of its Shakespearean dimensions of underworld royalty and tragedy. Adapted by Richard Condon from his own novel and directed by John Huston with a bemused cynicism and clear-eyed acknowledgment of human nature in matters of greed, love and loyalty, it stars Jack Nicholson as Charley Partanna, devoted hit man to Brooklyn’s Prizzi crime family and adopted grandson of the wizened old Don Corrado Prizzi (William Hickey, in a career-defining performance).

Nicholson may look a bit dopey, with his pursed lips and brows permanently furrowed in puzzled intent, but he’s a sharp cookie when it comes to handling the family business. It’s only women who confuse him.

Irene is a hothouse flower Charley finds blooming in a garden-variety greenhouse. He falls head over heels for this poised, confident beauty long before he finds out she’s in the same business.

Turner, who reincarnated the classic film noir femme fatale in a sleek, modern edition of “Body Heat,” couldn’t have been better cast as Irene, a woman just as fatale but far more earthy and, in a strange way, authentic. She may be a hustler at heart, but her lies are just what Charley wants to hear. Irene’s love may be the only genuine thing about her — apart from her skill as a freelance assassin, that is.

When we finally watch Irene in action, she’s a model of cool homicidal efficiency: no wasted motion, no hesitation, no regrets, at least not until the unforgiving rules of blood and honor demand a hard sacrifice. When you’re in the human disposal business, you always hurt the one you love.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.

Patton Oswalt talks movies and comics and more…

That bastard Patton Oswalt!

I had ten minutes for a phone interview with Oswalt. It was just supposed to be a quick, light ten-minutes, a tie-in with the DVD release of Ratatouille. I would lob him some goofy questions about the movie, he’d bounce back some funny answers. I mean, he’s a comedian right? That’s what he does. Often with words that cannot be printed in a family publication..

It turns out that Oswalt is also a serious film buff. The man loves to talk movies. And, well, so do I. He’s also a cartoon fan and comic book fan. After the interview was over, I discovered that he’s even written some comics. Anyway, to make a long story short, we turned a short interview long. We ranged far off topic. He was asking me questions! I stopped interviewing and started conversing.

Patton Oswalt's new CD: Werewolves and LollipopsAnd I still had to turn in a light little interview piece to MSN.

A very small portion of the interview ran in MSN’s “What’s In Your DVD Players” series. I left out oodles of great material, and even more conversations chewing over topics that, quite frankly, I can’t imagine too many people besides us would even be interested in. But it’s there and I loved it so much that I felt I had to print the entire transcript (with minor edits to make me sound smarter). So here it is, in all its geeky glory and nerdish obsession with “The Wire” (the greatest TV series ever made), Michael Maltese, Anthony Mann, and Will Eisner and “The Spirit.”

Click here for Patton Oswalt’s website.

What’s in your DVD player?

I got that Janus Films 50 Years Retrospective box so I’ve been going through that. The last thing I watched on my DVD player was “Fires on the Plain,” which is a Japanese movie from 1959. It’s pretty amazing.

Kon Ichikawa, I believe. I saw that film for the first time just this year.

It’s pretty brutal.

Probably not a film that will ever make an appearance in your stand-up comedy act.

No, I don’t think I’ll be doing any “Fires on the Plains” bits. And I know this is such a lame thing to say, but I re-watched the third season of “The Wire.” I’ve probably watched each of those seasons two or three times apiece.

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‘The Maltese Falcon’ – The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of

If there is a cooler, tougher, more shrewd and self-sufficient private detective in the movies than Humphrey Bogart’s incarnation of Sam Spade in John Huston’s note-perfect adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, I’ve yet to meet him.

The classic 1941 movie wasn’t the first screen version of Hammett’s iconic novel, but it was the first one to get the hard-boiled toughness of the story and the utterly amoral universe of double-crossing characters right. Huston, who made his directorial debut with this production, reportedly blocked passages of the book directly into script form, but getting Hammett’s dialogue and attitude right was only part of the challenge. He had to cast an actor who could back up those words.

Enter Humphrey Bogart, a veteran character actor who was just breaking out of a career playing villains and supporting parts. His lisp, the result of an injury to his lip, added a distinctive edge to his gravelly voice, and his weathered gravitas gave Spade the look and feel of a man schooled in hard knocks.

This Spade is no stranger to the guile of shady clients and colorful suspects, and there isn’t a more iconic cast of characters in the movies than the rogues’ gallery he encounters here. And I do mean characters. This cast of unusual suspects is distinctive and quirky, and brought to life by actors who fill out those eccentricities and mannerisms with gusto.

One-time Hollywood nice girl Mary Astor goes blonde, brazen and absolutely ruthless as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a soulless siren and the first great femme fatale of film noir. Peter Lorre makes the quietly mannered and impeccably attired Joel Cairo a mercenary dandy. Sydney Greenstreet’s Kasper Gutman, aka “the Fat Man,” rumbles with charming menace as he spews a stream of pulp philosophy (“I am a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk”). And don’t forget Elisha Cook Jr.’s rat-faced gunsel Wilmer.

They make for a vivid vipers’ nest of double-dealing thugs and con artists on the trail of a treasure. What they get is the sour twist of a cosmic joke, and Spade is the only one smiling. One of the greatest creations of the Hollywood dream factory, “The Maltese Falcon” really is the stuff dreams are made of.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.

‘Airplane!’ – Terminal Hilarity

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Airplane! crash lands the disaster film with irresistible farce

Airplane!, the directorial debut of the writing/directing team of David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams (who apprenticed on the screenplay of Kentucky Fried Movie), has my vote for the funniest film ever made.

Ostensibly a spoof of the barely remembered 1957 aviation thriller Zero Hour! by way of the Airport disaster franchise, it’s a lively collision of old school vaudeville and anything-goes comic absurdity delivered with crackpot creativity and the juvenile glee of Mad magazine on speed. They lob gags at everyone in the audience from 7 to 70 and don’t bother waiting for anyone to catch up.

The plot — with shell-shocked fighter pilot (Robert Hays) plucked from his passenger seat to fly an airliner when food poisoning lays the crew low — is the cinematic equivalent of a bull’s-eye mark. The writing/directing team of David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams unleashes madcap sight gags and demented dialogue with a machine-gun delivery — fast and sloppy and unrelenting — and sees what hits the target. Nothing is too much or too absurd (“When Kramer hears about this, the shit is really going to hit the fan!”).

But it’s the deadpan delivery of ridiculous non sequiturs by the likes of Peter Graves (“Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?”), Lloyd Bridges, Leslie Nielsen and Leave It to Beaver mom Barbara Billingsley (who, luckily for us, speaks jive) and the stone-faced intensity of Robert Stack, who delivers his lines like he’s chewing rocks and spitting out gravel, that sends the comedy into bizarro nirvana. It’s as if the Looney Tunes gang broke into the drama unit sometime in the ’50s and doodled over the studio’s latest humorless thriller.

Stephen Stucker almost steals the film as the dotty air-control prankster whose goofball antics and arbitrary outbursts (“And Leon is getting laaaaarrrrrger!”) seem to boomerang in from the Twilight Zone, but no one else mugs for a laugh here (take note, Leslie Nielsen; you’ve apparently forgotten that it’s funnier when you keep a straight face). Even the score by Elmer Bernstein plays it straight, pounding out a state of high tension that the directors deflate with every giggle.

Is it the best comedy ever made? I don’t know, but it surely is the funniest. I stand by that. And don’t call me Shirley.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.