Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Like the runaway train central to the movie, director Tony Scott is unstoppable. Thoroughly commercial in all his instincts and training, his movies, which include Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II, Man on Fire, Days of Thunder, Crimson Tide, and True Romance, are examples of filmmaking as corporate product. Meaning there is no artistic pretension.

Sure, the same can be said of almost all Hollywood movies today. But this seems doubly true for Tony Scott, brother of Ridley. Tony comes from a background of TV commercials. So all his movies play like an extended commercial for themselves. His stories are simple and streamlined, his dialogue is obvious, his characters nothing above tropes, and his filmmaking style apes mid-1980s television.

He's a hack. And I'm not trying to be mean. That's just the way it is. When you go to a Tony Scott movie, you know what to expect. So, I knew generally speaking what to expect from Unstoppable. What I hoped was that I would see a movie that was better than his last movie I watched, Domino. The nadir of cinema, Domino is one of the worst American movies of the last ten years. The language that Tony Scott uses to convey the story of a spoiled rich brat turned bounty hunter (based on a real life story) originates not from cinema, where each shot logically follows from the previous shot, but from the power cord of his favorite Avid editing system. Unfortunately, Domino was a watchable, if disposable, movie. So, I concede that every Tony Scott movie is entertaining on a level that co-mingles with the knowledge that he is also reducing modern culture to the level of bright colors, loud noises, and grunts.

Unstoppable is watchable because it is one of the better Tony Scott movies. It is what it is. The story of a runaway train and how the corporate suits want to stop it in a way that will reduce risk to their public image. Denzel Washington (old dude) and Chris Pine (young dude) work together to first get out of the way of the train, and then put themselves completely in harm's way to stop it.

There are stereotypes (corporate suits are stupid, working class rail men know better) and tropes (children and horses in the way of the train!). The only surprise comes when Tony Scott, his writers, and, in many respects, his editors, just shut up and let this relatively old-fashioned story play out along the rails of hard Pennsylvania country. Will Denzel and Chris save the day? Will all the news helicopters crash into the train? Will Rosario Dawson as a dispatcher get her hair tied back correctly? Will Denzel's two beautiful daughters (they're waitresses at Hooters!) stop sulking and answer the phone when their dad calls? Will Chris's wife drop the restraining order against him? None of the story complications matter against the man against train elements of the movie. And at that level, this movie entertains.

One more surprise: Kevin Corrigan, cast as a train safe inspector, doesn't talk with a doofus accent, trims his beard, and makes his slicked-back hair look almost regal. More Kevin Corrigan please! And Rosario Dawson, she's always fun to watch.


Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Tuesday afternoon bargain show. Price $6.00. Viewed solo.
Snacks—Twizzlers! Diet Coke with Lime! (I splurged).

Coming Attractions:

The Next 3 Days. Paul Haggis directs what looks like a pretty preposterous movie, about a woman convicted of murder and her husband who tries to break her out of prison. Actually, sounds good on paper, but it looks like a slog with Russell Crowe as the husband doing some stupid stuff to spring the wife. Is she innocent? Why is it called the Next 3 Days? Is that how long it takes a movie to tank?

Love and Other Drugs. Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway. It’s a rom-com. Liz said, “It’s weird to see Jake Gyllenhaal smile.” He plays a slick salesman who falls for a beautiful free spirit. So, maybe we’re not supposed to trust his smile.

The Dilemma. Vince Vaughn, Kevin James, Jennifer Connolly, Winona Ryder. Directed by Ron Howard. This could also be called, "Where Starlets Go After They Turn 35." All I can think is that Jennifer and Winona, who can be wonderful actresses, take these types of supporting roles because there are no other roles offered. Both actresses are relegated to wife roles. Winona plays a woman who cheats on her husband (James) but is discovered by his best friend (Vaughn). So, the movie’s dilemma is, should Vaughn tell his best friend his wife’s cheating. Regardless, it’s great to see Winona Ryder in a mainstream movie again.

Scream 4. I lost track at Scream 2. I don't see much new here in the fourth installment. I loved the first Scream, it blew my socks off and thought I was witnessing a revolution in cinema. I'm actually serious, I thought it was opening the door to some new stuff. But, in retrospect, it was just ushering in the next generation of more of the same. As a horror movie franchise, Scream 4 comes off as a bore here. It doesn't give us anything new to gnaw on. Maybe Sidney Prescott tweets, but that's it on the update.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Morning Glory

Spoiler alert-o-meter: Medium spoiler alerts ahead. Safe for: All ages.

Morning Glory is old-fashioned in an ‘80s kind of way. Reminiscent of ‘movies like Working Girl, Broadcast News, and even Soapdish in its behind-the-scenes depiction of live TV. It never takes itself very seriously, which is good because, if there’s a message here it’s that news should entertain as well as inform. Well, at least morning news.

Rachel McAdams plays Becky, a perky, hyper, workaholic producer at a popular morning news show in New Jersey. She’s good at her job, and her co-workers who adore her think she’s being groomed for a promotion. Instead, she’s fired. But (since this is not real life) it's not long before she picks up another job in Manhattan at a low-ranked morning news show. It’s a sad little program with grand dame Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton) who’s been co-anchor at the station for years. She looks like Diane Sawyer crossed with Martha Stewart.

It’s no secret that Becky is good at producing, and early on she gets to show everyone at the station how she can take control. She helps win over her new blasé co-workers by firing Colleen’s co-anchor, a smarmy douchebag played by Modern Family’s Ty Burrell. That leaves a vacancy next to Colleen. Through sleight-of plot manipulation, Becky strong-arms Harrison Ford’s Mike Pomeroy (one of those iconic newsmen who used to actually report the news) to take the job because he's languishing at the station without much to do until his contract runs out.

So, there’s the set up. It’s fill-in-the-blanks, with scenes of chilly Mike Pomeroy doing his best to anchor the news part of this morning show, while Colleen handles the fluffy stuff. Think Tom Brokaw slumming it on Good Morning America. Pomeroy's a pain to work with, so the movie gets a lot of mileage out of showing Becky trying to deal with him, and get him to loosen up and play along.

Ford plays Pomeroy as a self-centered asshole so our sympathies and allegiances are clearly aligned behind the Becky character. Although, deep down I wanted Indiana Jones, Jack Ryan, Rick Deckard, and Han Solo to do what ever the hell he wanted and have a happy ending.

Jeff Goldblum (who looks better here than I’ve ever seen him, and if he’s aging, it’s a backwards process) plays a bad-ish suit who, because of the show’s low ratings, gives Becky six weeks to hit the right viewership threshold or he’s canceling the show. Since Becky has no life (although Patrick Wilson gives it a shot playing apparently the hottest single guy working in broadcast TV), she devotes all her time to get the ratings back up. Predictably, this includes stunts for Colleen and a hapless but game weatherman. The execution of these scenes works well, and the infusion of new extreme-morning show tactics is a hoot to watch.

I’ll stop there and won’t ruin the ending (which, please, you already know). So, what makes this movie worth seeing? The early scenes are a bit dreary, with Rachel acting manic and obnoxious, making Becky a character I don't want to spend two hours with, but after about fifteen minutes the tone evens out, Becky grows on me, and we’ve got a heroine to root for, bad guys (or not-so-nice folks) to sort-of dislike, and an almost-love interest in Patrick Wilson who doesn't have much to do, but is one of the more pleasant characters in the film.

The film is boosted from predictable to pretty good due to the main actors. Harrison Ford plays off his serious movie actor schtick, so when his heart finally melts just enough to suit the story, it works. Diane Keaton is nice in this very slight role. It’s the type of character whose success and believability depend on the actor, and it's good to see her playing a strong woman not afraid to take risks and look silly on camera. Rachel McAdams plays Becky as an ambitious young suit, infusing the character with a blind belief in what she's doing that allows us to easily empathize with her. If she has a flaw it's that she works too hard.

Ultimately, Morning Glory is not the story of how Becky learns about bigtime TV, she already knows that. It's about how she rises to the occasion, gets rid of those hick bangs, and saves the show. In today's movies about working girls, the love interest takes a back seat to job success. Does she end up with Patrick Wilson? It's implied. But her life is her work, and according to this movie, she's okay with that.


Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Tuesday night bargain show. Price $6.00. Viewed with Liz.

Coming Attractions:

The Next 3 Days. Paul Haggis directs what looks like a pretty preposterous movie, about a woman convicted of murder and her husband who tries to break her out of prison. Actually, sounds good on paper, but it looks like a slog with Russell Crowe as the husband doing some stupid stuff to spring the wife. Is she innocent? Why is it called the Next 3 Days? Is that how long it takes a movie to tank?

The Tourist. Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie. “Revolves around Frank, an American tourist visiting Italy to mend a broken heart. Elise is an extraordinary woman who deliberately crosses his path.” Is she a spy? Is he? Nothing is as it seems…

The Fighter. Shot in Lowell, so of course I’ll be seeing this one. About Mickey Ward, the boxer from our mean streets. Story seems very conventional, following the sports underdog template: athlete has potential, has personal problems, loses his first shot, overcomes adversity, gets a second shot. On the plus side it's directed by David O. Russell.

Love and Other Drugs. Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway. It’s a rom-com. Liz said, “It’s weird to see Jake Gyllenhaal smile.” He plays a slick salesman who falls for a beautiful free spirit. So, maybe we’re not supposed to trust his smile.

No Strings Attached. Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher play friends who end up sleeping together. And, I'm guessing from the plot twists exposed in the trailer, that he falls for her and she just wants the sex because she has a busy life as a doctor and doesn't have time for more? Could be cute, since the stars are both cute. Not sure Portman's made a rom-com like this. Due out next year.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tarantino and Peckinpah, Auteurs of Revenge Violence

I originally published the following essay earlier this year as a guest post on Henriette Lazaridis Power's blog, The View Finder. I'm reprinting here because, well, it was a pretty lousy week for movies. I just couldn't bring myself to see Due Date, For Colored Girls, or Megamind 3D. Next week I promise a return to the regularly scheduled review format. Anyway, this post is a little different for Unreliable Narrator. Hope you like it.

Spoiler alert-o-meter: Multiple spoiler alerts ahead

Watching onscreen violence can be a release, a harmless thrill; we watch murder most vile so we won’t actually perform the acts ourselves. Today, PG-13 movies show blood-soaked bullet holes and hungry vampires/zombies in action. And America loves it.

Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, which includes scenes of intense violence, was on many critics’ 2009 top ten lists. Reviews skewed mostly to the B, B+, A- range. It was nominated for best picture back in February, but lost out to the Hurt Locker. While it’s not the best movie of last year, it was one of the most entertaining ones. And was not just critics who thought so: the movie became Tarantino’s biggest box office hit.

Most of Tarantino’s movies exploit violence, and especially violent revenge, for entertainment. But years before Tarantino watched his first exploitation flick, director Sam Peckinpah released a string of visceral action movies, starting with The Wild Bunch in 1968, which helped usher in a new generation of movies that didn’t have to shy away from realistic gunplay. In The Wild Bunch, and later with The Getaway and Straw Dogs, Peckinpah staged action scenes as an extended slo-mo catharsis of revenge-fueled violence.

His movies don’t just build to a violent ending; they start violently and continue relentlessly until the bloody finale. Peckinpah’s anti-heroes live by an ethical code of conduct that ultimately places them in deadly confrontations whose outcomes are certain death. But the protagonists continue in the face of incredible odds because they know they are doing the right thing within the construct of their world view. For Peckinpah, codes are often forged from money, friendship, and revenge, forking into sub-code tributaries like honor, pride, and shared history.

His scenes of violence cultivate a universal feeling of us-against-them. The aging gang at the heart of The Wild Bunch is screwed by a Mexican general when he kills a member of the Bunch after promising to let him go. In turn, they kill the general in his compound and go down in a blaze of guts and glory. The Bunch knew their way of operating was displaced in the new west and would probably get them killed. Why not go on their terms?

Peckinpah was always attracted to outsiders and what happens when they’re double-crossed. As David Thompson says in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, “Throughout Peckinpah’s work, there is the theme of violently talented men hired for a job that is loaded with compromise, corruption, and double-cross. They strive to perform with honor, before recognizing the inevitable logic of self-destruction.”

The Getaway starts with Steve McQueen as Doc McCoy leading a dangerous a bank heist. When he’s double-crossed, the movie blooms into a drawn-out chase, ending with a brutal, inevitable shootout in the hallways, stairwells, and elevators of a Mexican border town hotel. We know what’s coming, the movie telegraphs it an hour beforehand. But this foreshadowing ramps up the conflict and tension leading to McCoy’s final retribution.

Peckinpah is a master at building tension. Even after a dozen viewings I still get a jolt when I pop in The Wild Bunch. The title sequence alone is textbook Peckinpah: cross-cutting between the interior and exterior of a bank during a daring robbery. It's like putting the climax of a film at the beginning, and pulling us along through the rest until the bloody end.

Straw Dogs breaks Peckinpah's own mold, showcasing the slow boil of violence within an average man. Dustin Hoffman plays a laid back mathematician, recently moved, with his beautiful blond wife played by Susan George, to George's hometown in the UK countryside. The movie builds by highlighting a series of increasingly intense conflicts that play out between Hoffman, George, and a band of insular and increasingly dangerous locals.

During the last half hour of the film, the band lays siege to the couple's house. Mild mannered Hoffman, until then avoiding confrontation, protects his wife, his house, and ultimately his life with acts of barbarity and cunning that make the previous 90 minutes look like a vintage PBS special about life in rural Britain. We are all capable of revenge violence, Peckinpah seems to be saying.

Pupil Tarantino tweaks Peckinpah’s vision of revenge ethics so that dilemmas are never black and white. Tarantino’s rogue characters operate in a contemporized moral gray area. In his first movie, Reservoir Dogs, (notice his tip of the hat to his elder by using Dogs in the title) a band of robbers is hired by a third party to pull a heist. 

After the robbery, the band meets in an abandoned L.A. warehouse where each character introduces personal codes that fuel his behavior. For example, Michael Madson’s Mr. Blonde likes to torture cops and Harvey Keitel’s Mr. White is an old-school criminal in it for the money. Mr. White also has a gooey moral center that does him in by the end when he discovers the robber he’s been protecting turns out to be an undercover cop. 

In Pulp Fiction's moral universe, Butch the fighter (Bruce Willis), through a series of random events, helps his nemesis, Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), out of a tight spot. Butch and Marsellus are tied together by double-cross and revenge: Butch was paid to throw a fight, which he did not. Marsellus lost big money on the fight and wants Butch gone. Saving Marsellus’ from the clutches of a couple of L.A. racists will more than square Butch. Butch is generally honorable, so watching him liberate Marsellus is entertaining and satisfying.

In Kill Bill 1 and 2, Tarantino serves revenge as the main course, and turns in over three hours of Uma Thurman's wronged Bride as an ass-kicking samurai warrioress bent on completing the titular task. It’s almost a let down when Bill is finally killed with a low-key martial arts blow—tame compared to the mayhem that precedes it. 

With Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino revises WWII for a new generation, this time as a revenge-fueled fantasy pitting American and French Jews against Nazis in German-occupied France. Audiences gave two thumbs up to the movie’s hard R-rated violence, perhaps suggesting Americans are collectively tired of fighting unwinnable wars and amorphous foes. Maybe we want to relive America’s last genuine win. 

The opening scene of Inglourious Basterds extends for about 20 minutes. Presented in real-time, the scene sets up many things: we’re in Nazi-occupied France and are in the company of feared Nazi Colonel Hans Landa, nicknamed the Jew Hunter. During an extended dialogue scene in a farmhouse where he sweats a farmer for information, Landa determines that the cellar below them is the hiding place of a Jewish family. When German soldiers kill the family, a girl escapes. 

This sets up what must be the most outrageous revenge fantasy ever filmed. Tarantino revises history to suit his purposes of conflict, tension, and revenge. Seeing a theater-full of Nazis, including Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels, die at the end of the movie was a little bit of heaven on a rainy September afternoon. For decades the Holocaust has been the subject of movies that were sometimes of questionable taste. Finally a filmmaker cuts to the chase and shows us what audiences have wanted all along. 

Where does violence in movies go from here? What else is there for these aging outsider anti-heroes and their directors to do? Peckinpah, for his part, tackled oncoming old age by asking the macho old-man question: how do you grow old without getting done in by modern ways? The essence of Peckinpah’s aging moral outrage can be reduced to a moment, a sentence, when during The Wild Bunch’s opening bank robbery William Holden shouts to one of his Bunch: “If they move, kill ‘em.” 

Tarantino, now in his mid-to-late 40s, shows no sign of changing gears. As he said in the August 2009 GQ, he has already made his character-driven, mature work about getting old, Jackie Brown. “And it’s as much of an old-man movie as I ever want to make.” Tarantino will eventually pass the torch to another generation of revenge-violence filmmakers, but it sounds like he’s not going quietly out without a cinematic fight. 

The Wild Bunch trailer:

Need more? To see an 30-second distillation of Reservoir Dogs performed by animated bunnies, click here.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Inside Job

Liz and I decided to see the goriest, scariest, most shocking horror movie we could find for a pleasant Halloween afternoon. Inside Job, a documentary about the 2008 financial catastrophe and its continuing aftermath, fit the bill.

The film starts by showing what a mess bank deregulation made of Iceland’s idyllic financial structure, creating a massive credit bubble that eventually burst. This foreshadows things to come here in the states as the U.S. government systematically deregulated banks.

The film does an excellent job of introducing all the players, those who made the decisions, those who tried to alert and stop those decisions, and those who, directly or not, enabled and supported those decisions. This includes the CEOs of the big financial institutions like Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers, and Bear Stearns, Bush’s and Clinton’s finance teams, finance lobbyists, finance journalists, former bankers who have 'gone straight', social advocates, and even a psychologist to the Wall Street bankers.

Also, and most surprisingly, a passel of economists and theorists in positions of power at distinguished business schools like Harvard, Yale, and Columbia who are exposed as paid shills for lobbyists, banks, and even, in one case, the chamber of commerce of…wait for it…Iceland.

Inside Job covers all the trend points of the market's downward spiral: dismantling of the Glass–Steagall Act,  deregulation, the lax oversight of Wall Street's derivatives market, the rise of criminal lending practices that caused almost immediate mortgage defaults and subsequent home foreclosures across the country, the failure of big banks, and the collapse of the company that insured most of the above, AIG. Not to mention the fact that we borrowed money from other countries to bail out our own. And much much more.

The maddening reality of all this is that nothing has changed. CEOs are still compensated with extreme amounts of cash for essentially failing to do anything and the money in D.C. is still funneled to the right politicians because the laws have barely changed. Looking at America from the view of other countries, our culture of greed from the top down sends a message that our own bloated needs will be our undoing.

While filled with talking head interviews and basic animated flowcharts, Inside Job is far from boring. Featuring damning footage from various sources, its message is backed by an array of concise facts presented in follow-the-dots chronology.

The movie is almost two hours in running time, and by the 60-minute mark much of the audience in my theater were vocally seething. But maybe we need to get angry, to get mad. Maybe a general public that knows the truth is the only way to propel more fearless politicians into office.

See Inside Job, and get seething.

Now, a word about the theater. We went to the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline. Inside Job isn't in wide release, and the Coolidge is one of the few art house/repertory cinemas in the Boston area. So it's worth the drive from Lowell. It's also across the street from the Brookline Booksmith and Peet's Coffee, so if you go be sure to make an afternoon or evening of it.  


Theater location: Coolidge Corner Theater, Brookline. Moviehouse II. Sunday afternoon, 2:50 matinee. Price $7.00. Viewed with Liz.
Snacks—Panda All Natural Raspberry Liqorice

Coming Attractions: N/A