Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Traveller is one of those movies you like to keep handy so you can pull it out as a gift. Bill Paxton wanted this one made, and he (along with Mark Wahlberg, among others) does a fine job of evoking Irish "gypsy" culture in the U.S. While over the past decade or so we've caught up with the Travellers—Brad Pitt is hilarious in Snatch as a Traveller with an accent so impenetrable that not even his fellow Britishers understand him; and I believe there's a reality show about them; but this one has all the heart and rough honesty you need.  It reminds me of Trucker—which I have written about on this blog (HERE)—in its intimacy, but the con-game plot(s) adds more than domestic issues (which it also covers).

Most online commenters note how under-appreciated Traveller is; well, now's your chance to join the appreciators. At the least, afterwards you'll think twice when someone pulls up and offers to tar your roof at a bargain price.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Mad Dog and Glory is one that I've returned to more than a few times.  It's a movie where everything—and everyone—comes together so well that each new viewing just makes me appreciate it more.  John McNaughton—and how I wish he could have the career he deserves—finds just the right rhythm to sustain Richard (The Color of Money/Clockers/The Wire) Price's funny, hard-boiled screenplay.  And man, the performances: Uma Thurman does more with her proud, scared Glory than Tarantino ever allowed in the endless hours and hours of Kill Bills; Bill Murray lets everybody know just how charismatic he can be, his Frank Milo a sad and lonely bar of lead to the back of the head; Richard Caruso makes me yearn for that early-'90s moment when he was allowed to escape TV; and dependable Mike Starr gives one of his greatest quirky-mug performances—he still makes me laugh when, after slugging it out with Caruso, he notes in passing to his boss, "That guy bites."

But this time around, I watched De Niro and saw one of his most nuanced performances, as good as his quiet work in A Bronx Tale (released in the same year!).  As Mad Dog, though, he gives himself more than a quiet man but, with the help of Price's remarkable script, a complicated one, part artist, part almost-loser, someone who wants to be somewhere else, as he puts it—and most of all a man waiting to grow up, and in the process getting more than a little help from Uma.

Again, I guess I've seen this one a half-dozen times or so over the years, in bits and pieces on TV; but this time around I seemed to re-discover it, and reminded myself how deeply satisfying an entertainment a well-made movie can be.

Sunday, May 27, 2012


Killer Elite has little—well, just about nothing—in common with Sam Peckinpah's 1975 movie of the same name (plus a "the").  Except for some important elements:

The Machismo-meter. The 1975 movie had James Caan and Robert Duvall.  This one has Jason ("When-Will-Someone-Realize-I-Should-Play-Doc-Savage?") Statham, Clive Owen and Robert De Niro.  All of them get to have actual characters to work with—plus lots and lots of steely resolve and laser-precise rage.  There is almost something French—Jean Gabin or Reno-styled—about their cool under fire.  Genuine smoking pleasure.

The pace: The new one feels like a great '70s movie, willing to take its time—while never stopping, standing still, or sleeping on the job.  Things just move along, but without haste.  Everything is watched carefully and fully.

The plot: At once simple and subtle.  You don't need to pay attention all the time to every nuance of politics, personal vendetta, and, above all, professional pride; but when you do, you're rewarded with many little touches, both almost-tender and calmly brutal.

Like the recent Drive (also on Instant Play; I'll get to it soon), Killer Elite—although it has more plot—is mostly good in its mood, its consistent dedication to entering the Relatively Intelligent American Action Movie canon.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK (2006)

I hesitate a little to recommend a movie like I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK—but I shouldn't. It is so convinced of the rightness of its tone—tones, actually, from comic to psychotic, sentimental to surreal—and so consistent in its dedication to a kind of giddy expressionism (as the unbalanced inner lives of its characters become the outside of the movie—while that imbalance rights itself and becomes normal) that I surrendered to its excesses and stayed with it all the way.

The director, Chan-wook Park, is no stranger to strangeness.  He's directed a number of extreme movies—including a segment of, fittingly enough, Three ... Extremes (2005)—but is best known for the delirious Oldboy (2003).  The first of his movies I saw was JSA/Joint Security Area (2000; unfortunately, not on Instant Play), a multi-layered examination of friendship and war.  (The Bosnian film No Man's Land released a year later comes close to matching JSA's ability to mix the political with the personal.)

But Back to I'm a Cyborg ....  Like Park's other films, this one manages to make us feel deeply for its damaged, other-worldly characters without neglecting its skewed wit and the pure joy of making unforgettable images.  It can get pretty brutal, but the movie is so vibrant and malleable that I just rode with it.  Like other nuthouse films, it elicits our sympathies—but to feel that sympathy, we must be willing to suspend all kinds of disbelief and allow the movie to do whatever it wants—which it does with a vengeance.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Shallow Grave (1994)

I'm indulging myself here (and maybe pleasing you) because Danny Boyle's first feature film, Shallow Grave, is finally returning to Netflix June 12--but not on Instant Play.  Still, despite this site's ray-zohn det-ra (as Nathan Arizona would put it), I couldn't resist.  This is a real piece of work, in many senses of the phrase.  Imagine a Seinfeld movie directed by post-Frenzy Hitchcock.  It's that snarky and brutal, funny and surreal, clever and nasty.  Put it on your Queue, and enjoy.  Just don't get greedy.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

13 Assassins (2010)

You have every right to be afraid of a Takashi Miike movie. He can be ferocious—as in, to name a very few, Three ... Extremes, Gozu, Ichi the Killer, and the infamous Audition.  But 13 Assassins feels more like Kurosawa, or any one of countless samurai pictures that ennobles defeat as only high-minded Japanese action pictures can.

After an almost leisurely set-up—leisurely for Miike, who along the way still provides some queasy dips and rough jolts to establish the depths of his evil protagonist, an honor-less tyrant who tortures and oppresses the innocent—the movie becomes a monumental, meticulously staged battle sequence—no, more a bloody ballet of strategy and stratagem, as his 13 assassins plow through a horde of henchmen through the streets of a village transformed into one big trap by the wily assassins—all of whom, Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven-style, are introduced and established—but this time it's thirteen, each a separate personality, each tuned like a Stradivarius meant only for bashing over the heads of evildoers.

And while Roger Ebert's advance word on The Raid: Redemption signals that new-school action is sheer spectacle, 13 Assassins is devoted to more than nonstop mayhem. Don't get me wrong, though: the final third of the film is indeed an extended action set-piece, as the thirteen assassins do all they can to destroy the tyrant's men.  But by the time the battle begins, we understand the players, the stakes, and the rules; and so the game itself—as bloody as it certainly gets—has weight and depth.  Miike often plays with genre to uncork his splashy moral sensibility; this time, he too plays by the rules, and directs a precise, plotted melee of exceptional grace and satisfying melancholy.  After all, it wouldn't be a classic Japanese action picture if, like Lao-tzu's Master (yes, I know he's Chinese, but bear with me), the hero does not "enter a battle gravely, / with sorrow and with great compassion, / as if he were attending a funeral." And while Miike's assassins infrequently show compassion as they flood the village with a crimson tide, they certainly find no "delight in the slaughter of men"—well, not too much.

The Dead Zone (1983)

The list of Stephen King novels, novellas, short stories, stray thoughts, and refrigerator notes that have been made into movies is long and almost as varied as the quality of the source material.  In other words, for every decent King adaptation there's a terrible one—and for every terrible one there's a great one, just about.  Of course, The Shining may stand at the top of the list—ironic, of course, given King's famous rejection of Kubrick's take on his novel.  But a number of other fine films have crawled out of King's It/Id, from Misery to The Shawshank Redemption, from Stand By Me to Christine--and surprisingly the list goes on.

In my top five, if I had one, would be David Cronenberg's version of The Dead Zone.  Released in the same year as Videodrome, The Dead Zone also benefited from its lead, Christopher Walken (while James Woods goes all the way in the media-nightmare Videodrome).  Walken gives Johnny Smith a haunted look and shambling gait that reflects the tragic decline Smith suffers in the novel.  I can remember reading the book and thinking of Frankenstein's creation, who learns what it means to be human and is ruined by the knowledge.  Johnny also gets a long hard look—and while it contains light, sometimes it's harsh and unforgiving and more than a little insane.  The book is a melancholy thing, and the movie shows us Johnny as a Thing, standing alone in the place where evil works its black magic in "the bleak midwinter," cold and true.  Walken takes full advantage of Cronenberg's chilly vision, and lurches across the frame in exhausted wisdom. Sad, sad, sad.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Snake Eyes (1998)

It's easy to roll your eyes or shrug when it comes to, respectively, Nicholas Cage and Brian DePalma.  I feel no need to point out their uneven, sometimes reckless careers, their stubborn unwillingness to behave, their bizarre turns as actor and director.  But together in Snake Eyes something almost perfect happens--and sure it's reckless and bizarre, like the man said; but also (as each has managed before and since) so aggressive in knowing this that I grin and more than bear it.  From the famous opening sequence--a continuous shot that could be a pretty good short-subject thriller on its own--to the determined use of space--that mazelike convention center buffeted by winds and bad guys--to Cage's own headlong rush into everything DePalma throws at him--including Gary Sinise, following up his krazy kidnapping kop in 1996's Ransom (where Sinise was able to withstand a ride on another madman's roller coaster, the always-caffeinated Mel Gibson*)--Snake Eyes conjures, one more time, the Cage/DePalma alternate universe of sight, sound, and Outer Limits emoting that means nothing except a little world made deliriously by two of the stalwarts of this kind of good craziness.

*And don't look to me if you want Mel-bashing; I'm with Robert Downey, Jr. on this; hug the cactus, people: http://youtu.be/-zI1V1yQ30U

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Thin Red Line (1998)

As we head toward the Oscar nominations, I'm hoping Terence Malick's The Tree of Life isn't overlooked.  In some ways it is a "difficult" movie—shifting from the cosmic to the mundane with nary a violin crescendo to warn us, its narrative structure committed to the conceit that what we are seeing is all memory, personal as well as collective-unconsciously.  For others, though, it's what Roger Ebert recently in a blog entry on the movie Contact referred to (with some affection) as "New Age woo-woo."  I was knocked out by The Tree of Life, joining others who couldn't help comparing it to 2001—another acid test of one's tolerance for High Woo-Woo.

Anyway, in case you're following the Oscars but not Malick's career, you might want to check out The Thin Red Line, Malick's 1998 film about, among many other things, the battle for Guadalcanal in the Pacific during WWII.  The cast is extensive—including Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, George Clooney, Adrien Brody, James Caviezel, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack, Elias Koteas, John C. Reilly, John Travolta, and Tim Blake Nelson (whew!)—but to this he adds a larger cast, the same one he features in The Tree of Life: Nature herself, cloud and insect, ocean and leaf.  This is a "war movie" (almost) in the same way that his current picture is a "family drama"—although The Thin Red Line does seem more grounded in recognizable combat film conventions, from chain-of-command infighting and sweeping battle scenes to G.I. Joes and their stories and hopes and fears.  Still, it is almost three hours of meditation on war as much as it is war movie.  But, as with all of his (few--five since 1973!) films, one's patience is rewarded.  Like any "true" artist, he goes where he will; we follow if we choose, no matter to him.

Friday, January 6, 2012

True Grit (2010)

Just passing along some good news: one of the best films of recent years, True Grit, is on Instant Play. It's a beautiful movie--its landscapes not as dramatic as the 1969 version, but photographed so well, the characters and action framed in spaces that look nothing like "scenery." And it's maybe one of the Coen bros.' most morally complex films, in that the justice enacted is fraught with losses, and the plucky young heroine is forced to see each one, and learn to live with them. Besides, the narration is typically Coen-perfect, and Jeff Bridges rolls himself up into a ball bigger and messier than the Dude's. All in all, one of those rare occasions when a remake makes perfect sense.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Parents (1989)

I've decided to revive this site--and the strongest motivation is the return of this dark comedy. Parents satirizes an easy target--1950s-style suburbia--but does so with an old-school "sick humor" attitude that is reminiscent of not only the '50s but the kind of humor that decade inspired--pure E.C. comics/Mad magazine "humor in a jugular vein." I'm not entirely happy with the climax, but 90% of this movie is as creepy, funny, lurid, and at times downright nightmarish as one could wish--if one harbors such dark wishes.

Again, it's good to be back--although maybe I've should've chosen a less unsavory movie to kick off the new year. Oh, well: Enjoy Randy Quaid at his skinny-tie (and waistline!) best, along with Mary Beth Hurt as perky as Barbara Billingsley with a cleaver (heh-heh-heh)--and Sandy Dennis, who doesn't even have to try to fit right into this kind of material.