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LEE MARVIN: POINT BLANK Available on Amazon

If you’re a new visitor to this (mostly neglected) page, you may have found your way here via the bonus material found in Dwayne Epstein’s fantastic book, LEE MARVIN: POINT BLANK.jpeg

For those of you who haven’t read this book yet, it’s a comprehensive, meticulously-researched biography on one of the great heroic character actors of the 60s and 70s, and it’s available right now over at Amazon (click HERE). The paperback versions feature my interview with the author as part of the supplemental material. It’s a must-read for fans of old Hollywood.

For anyone wanting to catch up with my current work, you can read my retro primers and the occasional extended piece over at ATL Retro.

Click HERE to see what’s new!

Subscribe to this page if you want to see new content if and when I return!



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Kubrick #12 – Killer’s Kiss (1955)

Kubrick didn’t burn this one, so there’s that.

The Film: Hard-luck palooka Davy (Jamie Smith) takes his latest embarrassing defeat as a sign from the boxing god that it’s time to pack his stuff and move to a new life in the Pacific Northwest. His only roadblock is Gloria (Irene Kane), his neighbor and a dancer for mobster Rapallo (played with a vague ethnic menace by Fear and Desire‘s Frank Silvera.) Davy spies Rapallo making an unwelcome pass at Gloria, thuds across the street to save the day, then hugs and makes nice with the mobster, meaning, of course, that Rapallo immediately orders his men to murder Davy. A case of mistaken identity leaves another man dead in Davy’s place and lands Gloria back in Rapallo’s custody where, since Rapallo’s team is beginning to look like the safest bet, she realigns herself with her former boss and ditches Davy. Davy flees across the New York skyline, leading Rapallo inside a mannequin factory where the men kick each other in the teeth until Davy wins. Davy soon returns to Plan A and tries to make the train to Seattle, but Gloria suddenly appears at the train station and the happy couple share a (killer’s?) kiss.

Pictured: totally not a metaphor

The Production: Stanley Kubrick’s experience on Fear and Desire could have sent him back to still photography for the rest of his natural life, but the young director wasted no time in getting his shit together back on the horse. This time, Kubrick wisely shed Desire‘s layers of message and metaphor for a straightforward page-turner about lust, murder, and, not insignificantly, boxing. Kubrick set the production up right by working within a marketable genre, tightening the story to three primary characters, and using real world locations close to his home in New York. He also focused the story around boxing, a sport he had extensive experience shooting for both Look magazine and his own short A Day at the Fight.

“Which one of these is the %*#^& bathroom!?”

Kubrick shot Killer’s Kiss as a guerrilla operation, filming in alleyways and rooftops without insurance or permits. He shot footage from moving vehicles and negotiated with vagrants to stay out of his frame, at least until he had his shot. After a new round of sound troubles, Kubrick fired his audio crew and filmed silently. This accidentally doubled the budget as a soundtrack was painstakingly laid in and actress Irene Kane, unavailable to dub her role, had her voice replaced by actress Peggy Lobbin.

Best Moment: Killer’s Kiss is a blatant attempt at film noir, already a dying genre in 1955, and by then a very easy one to imitate. In other words, Kubrick didn’t have to try very hard. A murder here, a femme fatale there, cut, print, and go home early. But right in the middle of the film, Killer’s Kiss takes a time-out to explore a moment of actual cinematic beauty.

Davy has just rescued Gloria from the evil Rapallo and the two decide to share back stories. Davy runs through his quickly, but Gloria spins a long and sad tale about her sister, a ballerina who defied their overbearing father to pursue her dream onstage, a dream that was cut tragically short when the father got sick. Gloria’s sister abandoned her career to return home and watch over him, dying early having never accomplished her dreams. Gloria hints at a link between the sisters, that dancing reminds Gloria of her sister in all the wrong ways, and that she hates herself for doing it while finding it nearly impossible to walk away.

The standard move would have been to linger on Gloria during the speech to drain maximum emotional currency from the scene, but instead Kubrick tells the entire tale while focused on a ballerina, presumably Gloria’s sister, dancing. It’s an effective moment, and one almost too awesome for the movie it belongs to.

Lasting Impact: Negligible. Killer’s Kiss hit the right beats in the proper order and rated as an inexpensive, but possibly profitable, buy for a distributor. And thus, Kubrick scored his first major sale and finally opened the Hollywood doors for himself. The film, however, is mostly forgotten and rarely appears on any list of the director’s best.

Overall: I’ve always looked at Killer’s Kiss as a humble film, a movie that proved Stanley Kubrick was paying attention to the greater world he was working hard to enter. This isn’t always the case for young directors, especially the talented ones. For every respectful, intelligent up-and-comer, there are a dozen Troy Duffys, seething with ego and entitlement while choking on their own talent. These are the guys who think they are beyond the system or, worse, that they are the system now, and when they can’t cut it, they wind up on the outside, frothing and blaming the people inside for their exclusion.

“Oh, Jack, you’re my only friend.”

Kubrick dodged that. He was obviously talented; anyone could see it. Of course, then, he made Fear and Desire, a movie constructed for the sole purpose of announcing his arrival to the planet. But the film didn’t work, it didn’t resonate, and unlike so many filmmakers in his position, Kubrick seemed to get that. He retreated, thought through his mistakes, then returned to make a movie that people actually wanted to see. Killer’s Kiss was, if absolutely nothing else, commercial. When the time was right, Francis Ford Coppola made a little gangster picture. Kubrick made a noir.

Selling out? Not a chance, because Kubrick didn’t compromise. As I see it, the mark of a truly great filmmaker is the ability to work within a genre and to make it his or her own. Kubrick did so. I’ve already talked about the ballet sequence, but the movie is littered with great little bits, from the gloomy alley murder to the Freudian nightmare battle between Davy and Rapallo in the mannequin factory.

Unfortunately, these great moments don’t really bring the film together. Killer’s Kiss is still a bit of an amateur effort, with lighting and sound issues that show the strings but still lend a clunky charm to the proceedings. There’s some interest here for the serious Kubrick nuts, but as Kubrick himself described it: “While Fear and Desire had been a serious effort, ineptly done, Killer’s Kiss…proved, I think, to be a frivolous effort done with conceivably more expertise…”

The Stanley Kubrick Project

11. ???

12. Killer’s Kiss

13. Fear and Desire

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The Delay

I’m running terribly behind on this Project, I know. I thought moving to a weekly schedule would eliminate any hangups because, hey, who doesn’t have time to write two pages in a week?

My son is 10 years old (nearly 11) , very cool, and living almost completely across the country from me. On the rare occasions that he comes to visit, the universe stops. No writing, no movie watching, nothing. (Well, that’s not entirely true. We did make the time to see A Town Called Panic, which he loved, even with the subtitles. Kids will really enjoy stuff like that if you just don’t assume they won’t. We also pulled a late night viewing of Them!, and he didn’t seem at all allergic to the black and white or the very-not-computer-animated monsters. Go figure.)

So we lost a Monday due to my transformation into a full time Dad. That turned out to be the least of my worries.

Meet Chuck. Chuck is a virus, a very efficient, talented, go-getter virus. Chuck and I got together somewhere in Atlanta and he followed me right back home to North Carolina. He just didn’t take no for an answer.

Chuck is also a dick.

I’ve battled this stupid illness for over a week now and I’m juuuust about over it. Not quite. No, no. Chuck is a bastard, remember. But I’m almost there. This is what happened to the last Monday.

I hope to have the next Kubrick movie posted this upcoming week, but it won’t be Monday. I’m in Atlanta again for my annual Braves baseball opening day with my daughter. We’ve been going every year since she was about 7 years old, and this year it falls on a Monday. So it goes. We’ll end up missing three Mondays in a row, but it should be calm waters from there on out.

Thanks for bearing with me. More Kubrick is coming.

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Hollywood Project #4 – Stanley Kubrick

When Pierce Brosnan drove onto the lot at the legendary Pinewood Studios, England, to shoot scenes for Tomorrow Never Dies, he might have noticed a lighter than usual press platoon. Bond movies had been filming at Pinewood since, well, ever and usually dominated the eyes and pens of the British movie press. But for this shoot, all focus was on another building on the lot where a tiny, intimate marriage drama was in principal photography. All the press wanted to know was what Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman were up to. What was the plot of Eyes Wide Shut? What was Stanley Kubrick making? By this point, Kubrick had become a myth and a legend. He had lived in seclusion in the English countryside longer than he had ever lived in his native America. He was a recluse who had made his last picture at Pinewood 13 years earlier, and that one nearly a decade after the one before. It didn’t matter what he was making; Stanley Kubrick behind a camera was a headline.

Kubrick is a tough sell for some people. He made personal movies that moved to his own internal rhythms, and he didn’t really care if a mainstream audience could follow along. And so, in response, many audiences didn’t. I can relate. My first real experience with Kubrick came when I was 18 years old and on the very edge of welcoming my daughter into the world. My wife and I had rented movies to wait out another sweltering Georgia summer weekend inside, a necessity since she was overdue and carrying ten pounds worth of extra person around her waist. We chose horror movies for reasons that probably made sense at the time, and one of those was The Shining. I had never seen it before and I remember feeling lost and alienated and more than a little put out by this movie that refused to be a standard romp through a haunted house. I paused it at the halfway point and got up for a soda. Before I could start the second half, my daughter arrived. It would be nearly ten years before I finished the film.

By that time, The Shining was (almost) the last Kubrick film that I hadn’t seen. A front row, 70mm viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey had changed my entire outlook on Kubrick, film storytelling, and pretty much everything. I’d started devouring Kubrick movies and watching them on loop, feeling like I’d cracked some kind of code. The funny thing about Kubrick the filmmaker and, by some accounts, Kubrick the man, is that the closer you get to an answer, the more you realize how little you actually know. His movies are like puzzles that have questions for answers.

I’m not alone in this. Kubrick never won an Oscar, his movies were rarely huge blockbusters, he infuriated writers whenever he was forced to work with them, and critics and audiences argued the value of his films for years or even decades after release. He divided his audience, always. And yet, of his small resume of feature films, four appear on the AFI’s list of the 100 best American movies ever made, and nine of them show up on IMDB’s top 250 user favorites, surprisingly suggesting that audiences have embraced his work even more than the critics. It’s not a strange thing to hear Kubrick singled out as one of the best American filmmakers. Ever.

I tried once before to launch a Stanley Kubrick Project, but I chickened out. I didn’t feel up to the task of ranking a batch of classic and near-classic films from such an intellectual filmmaker. I felt like maybe I should stick to sci-fi and spy movies until I got my sea legs, but then realized that if I waited around to feel adequate in the shadow of Stanley f’n Kubrick, I’d be writing this piece through a Ouija board. Fuck it, I’m going in.

Name: Stanley Kubrick

Birth: July 26, 1928 in New York City

Death: March 7, 1999 (heart attack)

Parents: Jacques and Gertrude Kubrick

Life: Stanley Kubrick grew up in the Bronx, the son of a doctor. From all accounts, Stanley was an intelligent student, but struggled with his studies. Kubrick’s difficulties caused him to bounce around between relatives and school districts, and when that didn’t work, Kubrick’s father introduced his son to a variety of hobbies to encourage focus. These hobbies included jazz, chess, and, most interestingly, photography. Kubrick became fascinated with the camera, and while his grades didn’t improve, he showed enough aptitude to sell an unsolicited photo to Look magazine and soon earned his way onto the publication as a full-time photojournalist.

Kubrick married his high-school girlfriend, Toba, in 1948, but the couple grew apart during the filming of Kubrick’s first feature, Fear and Desire. Kubrick would marry twice more in the next few years, finally settling with actress Christiane Harlan, and he would stay with her for the rest of his life.

Frustrated with the Hollywood environment, Kubrick moved to rural England in the 1960s and rarely left again, reportedly due to an intense fear of flying. He was famously private, hiding his life the manor walls and obsessing over his work.

His quiet life ended just so. He died in his sleep of a heart attack just four days after screening a finished cut of his final film, Eyes Wide Shut.

– Most of Kubrick’s films are based on novels, and he worked on the screenplay adaptations for all but one of them (Spartacus).

– He liked to use wide shots, long tracking shots (and reverse tracking shots), and often used a close-up that features a character staring directly into the camera to reveal madness or anger.

– Famously used classical music to score his films and frequently juxtaposed the music with unusual elements, such as space travel or violence.

– Sex, war, and dark comedy are subjects in most, if not all, of his films.

Number of Eligible Films: 13

What’s Out: We won’t be looking at Kubrick’s early short documentary work, such as Day of the Fight (which he based off a photo essay he produced for Look magazine) or The Seafarers (an industrial film promoting a sailor’s union.) Also out is Flying Padre, a short documentary about a priest/pilot that sounds like it could make for a pretty bitchin’ TV show. Short films, especially industrial commissions, just don’t compare well to his feature work.

Notes: I’m sure that were Kubrick alive he’d hate the idea of someone reducing his life’s work to a series of rankings, but that’s what we do here so I’m going to give it a shot. Still, there will be a few format changes to accommodate the subject.

First of all, Kubrick has a shitload of ideas and themes and just… business going on in his movies, and I’m never going to have the room to talk about it if I tie myself up with bullet points. I’m going to have a few, and maybe some headers, but I’m going to go freestyle for a lot of these essays.

I’m also switching to a Mondays-only format for this Project and the foreseeable future. I’ve been struggling lately to find the time for my personal projects in between posts here, and I don’t want my work here to suffer. Cutting back on posting seemed like the best solution.

That’s it. I hope you’re as excited as I am to dig into Kubrick’s work and please check in next Monday for the first film in the Stanley Kubrick Project.

(Note: The Stanley Kubrick Project is complete. Please enjoy the links below, which will take you through the project a film at a time.)

The Stanley Kubrick Project

1. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

2. 2001: A Space Odyssey

3. The Shining

4. Full Metal Jacket

5. A Clockwork Orange

6. Paths of Glory

7. Eyes Wide Shut

8. Spartacus

9. Barry Lyndon

10. Lolita

11. The Killing

12. Killer’s Kiss

13. Fear and Desire

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The Last ‘Most Favorite’ List of 2009 – Part 2

Holy crap, it’s been two weeks since my last confession substantial post. I’ve been royally snowed under with work lately. I’ve got new projects at my day job, no less than three personal writing projects at home, *cough*MassEffect2*cough*, and a huge horror movie festival in downtown Durham. Bonnie & Clyde vs. Dracula. For reals.

That’s the past. Now, it’s time to finish this thing, and by that, I mean my top seven favorite movies of 2009. I have to clear this piece out to make room for Hollywood Project #4, starting next Monday. Yep, I’ve picked the director, lined up the films, and sketched out the rough draft of my rankings. I’m ridiculously excited to talk about this guy, because he’s obviously one of the all-time gotta-see filmmakers. I’m also changing up my usual presentation, starting with the introduction. It always interests me to see how artists that should have nothing to do with one another can share common ground, so from now on I’m going to find a link between my previous Project and the new one, and I’ll do that in Monday’s post. This new Project should be a lot of fun, and I hope you’ll take the trip with me.

Officially closing out 2009, here are my favorite movies. There are some crowd-pleasers on this list and a couple that I’d call sRiUs @rt. All are worth checking out, for sometimes wildly different reasons.

7.) Up in the Air

More than any other movie on this list, Up in the Air is a picture of its time. The film couldn’t be more 2009 if it had a date stamp in the bottom corner. George Clooney plays a professional downsizer, a man whose only job is to tell you that yours is over. But even as his industry enjoys a boon in These Tough Economic Times, the high costs of air travel and doing business in person threatens to take Clooney off the road he loves so much.

The poster is half-right. The movie is about connections, but it’s also about disconnections and the frustration, uncertainty, and terror that come with feeling like you might be all alone out there. Clooney’s character prides himself on dishing out pleasing bits of emotional comfort food while breaking the bad news, but he keeps his distance from the rest of the world partly because he’s afraid that someday he’ll be on the other end, hear the same kinds of lines, and find out just how full of shit he really is. It’s a classic, and classy, character study that I’m still unpacking months after my first viewing.

The film’s misleading ambivalence about Clooney’s job and the economic climate irritated some, but I think the movie draws a solid mark on the young career of director Jason Reitman. He brought us Thank You for Smoking and Juno, but this is the first movie where I felt like his voice was the star of the show and the film is even better for it.

6.) Up

Pixar has slowly cornered the market in mastering stories that should be impossible to tell. I think we can all get behind the idea of toys coming to life when the humans leave the room. We can clearly see the movie in a father fish swimming across the ocean to rescue his lost son. But how about a rat with a dream of opening a Parisian restaurant? Or a Buster Keaton romance about a junk robot left behind when the Earth is destroyed? These ideas are still high concept, but not nearly as accessible to an audience. The movie doesn’t play out in your head when you hear the pitch. In other words, if Pixar didn’t have the power to make it happen, these movies would never have been made.

Up is the latest in Pixar’s string of perfect, impossible stories. An elderly man uses a million balloons to fly his house to South America. In any other hands, it should have been a disaster, but Pixar delivered a movie absolutely stuffed with comedy, heartbreak, and an opening sequence so touchingly tragic that people will talk about it for years. That sequence alone will likely win the studio another Oscar for Animated Feature and helped to lift Up to only the second ever Best Picture nomination for an animated film. Not too shabby for a movie featuring a hundred talking dogs.

5.) The Hurt Locker

Nobody saw The Hurt Locker in theatres, which is a tragedy because the film begs so obviously for a huge screen and booming speakers. This isn’t your typical indie tearjerker that plays to golf-clapping crowds. The movie is a big bag of raw, jangled nerves in which every scene sets out with the goal of topping the last one. The film wants you to chew your fingers down to the knuckle. It wants to kick your ass.

Jeremy Renner breaks out as a US bomb disposal specialist stationed in Iraq, but the real star of the show is director Kathryn Bigelow, who finally received the notice with this film that she has long deserved. She gave the world Near Dark, Strange Days, and Point Break, and she’ll probably win an Oscar for this one. If she does, she’ll be the first female director to do so. It’s a well-deserved honor.

I love this movie, even if I feel a step behind the rest of the internet for having a few reservations. Call it my No Country of Old Men for 2009. There are scenes in the middle that I can’t quite get behind, and the script gets a little unfocused. It doesn’t really matter, trust me. This is truly one of the best films of the year and one that will live forever on DVD.

4.) The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Or “how I learned to get over myself and embrace Terry Gilliam.”

I’ve struggled for years to seriously get behind Gilliam’s work. I love a few of his films, of course. Brazil is an unquestioned classic and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is one of my favorite films of the 90s. He’s made some great films, but the rest of them often leave me scratching my head, wondering why he would make some of these unusual, offputting choices. I’m one of the dwindling minority who thinks that the last 30 seconds of Time Bandits, yes, derails that film, or that The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is kind of a mess, and believe me, these are unpopular stances for a serious film nerd to take. The critical community reveres Gilliam like a wise and mad prophet, and whenever the director gets a bum deal from a studio or, well, life, it only serves to energize and unite his fan base around him, even in the wake of his 2005 one-two sucker punch of The Brothers Grimm and Tideland.

Now comes this movie, an incredibly personal essay about the burden of imagination in a world that only looks anymore for the junk behind the curtain. I’ve been stirred. The brilliant Christopher Plummer stars as a traveling showman with a mystical past, scouring the world to tell his stories and save some souls as his audience grows smaller and less interested by the minute. If you’re looking for similarities between Plummer’s forgotten storyteller and the director himself, don’t be afraid. You’re meant to find them. Gilliam has pulled the heart right from his chest and thrown it onto the screen, and I found myself completely taken in by what he has to say. This isn’t a perfect film. It’s messy and the seams are showing, most obviously in the cobbled together performances of Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell stepping in for the late Heath Ledger, but the film glorifies those seams and revels in its mess. The point isn’t to create a slick entertainment, but to create something real from something patently false, to find a true emotion and then draw it from whatever audience he can cobble together. I loved the seams in this movie, and its message has me looking back at Gilliam’s previous work and giving it a second glance. Check this one out as soon as you can.

3.) A Serious Man

A Serious Man is the movie on my list most likely to start an argument between viewers, because it will mean many different things to many different people, and possibly to no end (spoiler alert?). This movie will infuriate as much as it uplifts, which is sometimes how you tell the great movies from the curiosities.

Joel and Ethan Coen have a lot on their mind as they tell the story of Larry Gopnik, a Minnesota math professor who suddenly finds the world quite literally turned against him. The story, whatever there is of it, chronicles his search for answers, but not necessarily his discovery of them. Many critics saw A Serious Man as a tale about the meaning of life and the lack thereof. I saw it as a biblical game of chicken between God’s wrath and poor, poor Larry Gopnik, a game that rarely works out for the everyman.

I’m really not sure what else I can say about the film. People will like it, or they won’t. The filmmaking is careful and clean, but every frame is packed with meaning and red herrings. It’s like watching a great book. By the way, my money is on the dybbuk in the first reel. The farmer’s wife had it right.

2.) Fantastic Mr. Fox

I knew two things for certain at the beginning of 2009. One, Wes Anderson’s schtick had worn out its welcome in my movie universe, and two, Pixar owned animation. Nothing on this earth could have swayed me from those two absolute, irrefutable facts. Nothing. At. All.

Who knew? Seriously, who knew? Who knew that Anderson’s vintage kitsch visuals would translate so perfectly into the homemade, Rankin/Bass world of Mr. Fox? More to the point, who knew that it would come together with so much life, more than I remember finding in Anderson’s last two live-action films. Combined.

Before the release, the only buzz to be found on Fantastic Mr. Fox was a provocative piece in the LA Times that painted Wes Anderson as kind of a weird duck of a director who couldn’t even be bothered to show up to his own film shoot. There was no hype, no interest. It was a quiet autumn release for what seemed to be an unremarkable film, an animation also-ran, and then suddenly everything changed. Critics jumped over each other to praise the film, and commenters all over the map began to declare Fox as, really?, one of the best pictures of 2009. And they were right.

There’s so much heart and creativity on display here that it revitalized my passion for Wes Anderson’s films. I intend to pair this one with The Royal Tenenbaums as soon as it hits DVD, but don’t worry, it’s good for families, too. Hotbox!

1.) Inglourious Basterds

Haters love to burn on Quentin Tarantino, which is completely beyond my understanding. He takes knocks for his dominating dialogue and his fetish for other movies, but he always creates a finished product that’s completely unique and unlike any of the trash bin classics that he’s pulling from. Every filmmaker borrows. Martin Scorsese liberally lifted from Hitchcock and the Archers for his new flick, Shutter Island. It’s called homage, but when Tarantino borrows, it somehow graduates to larceny.

Inglourious Basterds is a my open and shut case. Supposedly remaking Enzo Castellari’s 1978 WWII heist movie, The Inglorious Bastards, Tarantino dumped the original entirely and spun his own tale about vengeance, Nazi scalpers, and a wicked villain called the Jew Hunter. What started as a remake turned into no remake at all. If Tarantino wanted to plagiarize, this was his chance. Nobody would have questioned him. You might even argue that stealing was his task, his actual job on this film, and he couldn’t do it. Instead, not only did he make his own story, but he actually set it in his own private World War II, and boy did that send his critics to the next level, shifting through contradictory complaints so fast that they could have burned out their clutch. Tarantino is derivitive! Why does he have to be so damn different?

Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino’s best film since Pulp Fiction, straight up, and it may be even better. It’s a love letter to all of Tarantino’s usual suspects, but it’s also the first of his films to so nakedly embrace his favorite subject – his affair with the movies. He made a film in which every character is a performer, all the world is truly a stage, and the right film at the right time can save the globe. And it’s still got some kick-ass dialogue and bad guys getting shot in the face.

I like his war better, anyway.

There’s one last piece I hope to have posted before I start the new Project on Monday, but if it doesn’t happen, I’ll find time to post it in the middle. See you next on Monday for the Project launch!

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Hangin’ In

A quickie update for everyone.

I’ve been snowed under with personal projects and I haven’t found the time to write up my favorite seven films just yet. When I have that done, it’ll be here within minutes. I’m aiming for Monday night as the big finish.

As you can see in the header, my new Hollywood Project will begin on March 8. I’ll have more to say about that on Monday.

To entertain you until then, here’s a chimp impersonating Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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The Last ‘Most Favorite’ List of 2009 – Part 1

I feel like Facebook owes me an apology. Or I owe you an apology on Facebook’s behalf. Or something in that ballpark.

There’s this site and the RSS feed, but I know that a lot of people who choose to follow this page do so using the Facebook feed. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way this weekend that while Facebook does show the photos I attach to each post, it won’t show embedded video.

My last post began with praise for a great horror spoof film and ended with a gentle reminder of my coming “favorites” list. Unfortunately, without the video, all the Facebook readers saw was:

“Because you just have to see it. Be back on Monday with some of my favorite movies from 2009!”

Yay self-aggrandizing!! I promise, guys, I’m not that much of an asshole.

My favorites list isn’t what I’d call essential reading, although I had fun writing it and I hope you have fun checking it out, or, better yet, checking out these movies that I found so entertaining. Again, this is in no way a “best of.” These just happened to be my favorites. This is the first half of the list, and I’ll post Part 2 on Thursday. You’ll notice that I begin with the number 14. I do that as a statement of free will against the monolithic top ten format by proving that lists don’t have to fit comfortably on a pair of human hands! Or something.

Why 14? The real answer: I didn’t have much to say about number 15.

Allez cine!

14. ) Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans

Yes, the film has at least one title too many and, yes, it started life as a cynical remake cashing in on the questionable name recognition of Abel Ferrara’s 90s classic, but somewhere in production, this nightmare went hilariously right. Someone had the good sense to hire Werner Herzog and Nicolas Cage, two talents who have searched their whole careers for each other. Herzog is one of the planet’s last true renegade filmmakers and Cage made his name, for good or ill, by performing without a net. What they’ve created together is a surreal, twisted movie that shifts between being an unflinching character study about a corrupt cop to an intentionally hilarious spoof of unflinching character studies about corrupt cops. The movie becomes increasingly unhinged as the drugs and abuse slowly morph Cage’s character into a cajun hunchback, spitting out ugliness from behind a clenched jaw. Herzog and Cage tear the whole movie down around the character’s ears leaving… what? A comedy? a tragedy? Whatever it is, it’s not just a remake.

13.) Public Enemies

A lot of people dismissed this movie simply because of what it wasn’t. Michael Mann’s romanticized epic about the last of the rock star bank robbers and the rise of the FBI was unfairly attacked for its slow pace and unfocused narrative, but despite the Johnny Depp-centered ad campaign, this was never a movie just about John Dillinger. This is a movie about a time, the last moment in American history where a person could be both a criminal and a folk legend, the rise of the government superheros (they were even called the G-Men), and the desperate, sometimes wicked measures they took to restore order in the heartland. It was a time of shifting morals and Mann portrays both sides of that battle, refusing to swear allegiance to either, while staging some of the best action scenes of his career (although arguably not enough of them.) The gunfights are full of frantic energy thanks to his raw, unprocessed digital photography, from the opening prison break to the battle through the woods in Wisconsin, and Depp’s performance is strong enough to remind you that he can play normal just as powerfully as he can insane. This one will grow in status over time.

12.) Where the Wild Things Are

Another movie that failed to find its audience, but this one will live on for generations. The film’s burden is that it’s based on a beloved, canonized children’s book and, yes, barely resembles it. Sure, a fan can find the book’s individual pages scattered throughout. They’re all in the movie somewhere, but this isn’t an adaptation of the book so much as it’s an adaptation of childhood. It’s a film that really knows what it’s like to be a child, and it isn’t all wisecracks and poop jokes, no matter what studio kid flicks want to believe. I have two children of the right age and trust me, it can be like talking to an open wound. They’re struggling with emotions they can barely understand and can’t hope to control, and director Spike Jonze channels that into his Wild Things, monsters that mirror Max’s frustrations with his sister, his weakness, and his fear of losing his place in his mother’s world. This movie is one long emotional fit, laid bare and bleeding on the screen, and it’s not a comfortable experience… but it is kind of brilliant. Ticket buyers wanted comfort food, not an essay, and turned away from this one. Today. Look back in a decade and I promise things will be different.

11.) (500) Days of Summer

There have been a zillion movies about the grand romantic conquest, but there have been almost zero about the far more common flip side. You know what I’m talking about. Guy meets girl, guy loves girl, but she’s just not that into him? This movie finally films the void, chronicling the tumultuous 500 days of romance between Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Tom and Zooey Deschanel’s Summer, a relationship that, we know from the beginning, ends in heartbreak.

But really funny. And very honest. But with a musical number.

Actually, it’s very hard to sum up the feel of this movie. This is the one where you start out trying to tell your friend all the best bits and you end by saying “oh, just borrow my copy.” There’s a reason that writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber suddenly have full plates and director Marc Webb was the left field choice for Spider-Man’s new helmer. This movie is a career-maker and an instant underground classic.

10.) Moon

It’s a rare thing today to find a science fiction film that actually resembles, in any way, real science fiction. If things aren’t blowing up or monsters are not involved, the money guys aren’t buying. Period. Thankfully, Duncan Jones made this quirky little indie that’s enough real sci-fi to get me through the next five alien invasions. It’s the future and we’re mining helium-3 off the surface of the moon. It’s a largely automated affair but it needs a single human being present in case the operation shuts down. Sam Rockwell plays one such human contracted to the moon for three long years and his time is almost up…. and that’s about all you need to know. Seriously, it’s not worth even watching the trailer or you’ll spoil half the fun. Sam Rockwell absolutely kills in this and he was tragically overlooked during nomination season. Plus, any fans of practical effects have to appreciate the care and detail that went into the exterior moon scenes, which are more real and arguably better looking than anything I saw on Pandora. Not enough people watched this one.

9.) Avatar

I’ve said enough about this film on the Smash Cut Podcast and I feel like I’ll be writing about it for a long time to come (especially since I have to update the James Cameron Project once the DVD releases.) It’s the new box office champ, a surprising critical darling, the advance soldier in the 3D revolution, and the new king of the high-octane geek cinema universe.

And the script is a little terrible.

If one were inclined to hate a movie for making it to the big time, this is a very easy movie to hate. But, truthfully, I like the hell out of it, ironically for the exact same reasons that I’ve been using to defend Titanic for the last decade. Roger Ebert (I believe) coined a phrase that I find more true every year. “It’s not what a film is about, but how it is about it.” Avatar isn’t about very much. Some pre-packaged environmentalist propoganda blended with an anti-war film that solves its problems with war. Add in a little Joseph Cambell and bam, instant blockbuster.

But what a blockbuster. The images Cameron created are hard to shake even when his words are hard to stomach, and the filmmaking technology he pioneered borders on witchcraft. Avatar is a groaner of a story, but it’s a technical masterpiece (marred only by some questionable use of shallow focus, but that’s for another article.) Sometimes that’s enough.

8.) Observe and Report

Yes, I placed a nearly-forgotten Seth Rogen mall comedy above the biggest movie in history. What can I say? It’s my list, and I liked this movie more.

I think Observe and Report is a movie that everybody – critics, audiences, everybody – just straight up whiffed on. It arrived in the wake of the truly awful Paul Blart: Mall Cop and it just looked like a mean-spirited, sick version of the same basic premise.

Nobody liked this movie. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for months.

I can’t believe Jody Hill got away with this film, and some might argue that he didn’t, but it’s Taxi Driver done funny. All the beats are there. Seth Rogen’s Ronnie Barnhardt is a lonely, isolated, and mentally unhinged individual looking to make a connection. He chooses an object to fixate on (a repulsive, plasticine clerk played by Anna Farris instead of Cybill Shepherd’s campaign worker) and the rest of the movie is spent wondering just when his internal timer is going to go off and trigger the boom. He even befriends a wounded innocent and threatens her “pimp,” a fast food manager played by Patton Oswalt. The finale is a geek show of sustained violence, beginning with a direct riff on the best fight in Oldboy and ending with a shock so sudden that you can’t believe it just happened. And maybe it didn’t. We spend the movie looking at Ronnie’s world from his perspective, but why do we choose to trust his perspective? This is a movie I plan to unpack and examine again and again.

On Thursday, my favorite seven from 2009. See ya then.

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