February 27, 2014

Achieving Total Consciousness With Harold Ramis and BACK TO SCHOOL

"Whoever did write this doesn't know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut."
I am strongly considering getting a Ghostbusters tattoo.

Harold Ramis had a profound influence upon my comedic tastes that I almost don't know where to begin.  Most people remember him as uber-nerd Egon Spengler from Ivan Reitman's immortal classic Ghostbusters, and that's with good reason.  It's an absolute monster of a film that, against all odds, is exactly as funny today as it was in 1984.  In fact, I'd argue that the movie only gets funnier with time, aging like really good bourbon.  It's my absolute favorite movie of all time.  I wish I could say that I was a child of enlightened comedy tastes, but in truth I was first introduced to Peter, Ray, Egon, Winston and Slimer not by Ivan Reitman's film, but instead by the Saturday morning cartoon.  What can I say, I was their target demographic.

Quick digression: The Ghostbusters cartoon was actually titled The Real Ghostbusters because Filmation also launched an animated show at the same time called Ghostbusters with a similar premise centered on two guys named Kong and Spencer and their intelligent gorilla named Tracy.  It's one of those things that I vaguely remembered from my childhood but was half-convinced that I had imagined.  This shit really happened:

Even more amazingly, this was all based on live action show from 1975 starring Larry Storch!

This is why YouTube was invented.

Anyway, Ramis's contributions to the comedy landscape don't end with proton packs and PKE meters.  The guy was an absolute titan.  He wrote not only Ghostbusters, but Animal House, Meatballs and Stripes.  He also wrote and directed Caddyshack, National Lampoon's Vacation and Groundhog Day.


Ramis had been seriously ill for quite some time, but his death seems to have caught the world completely off guard.  The outpouring of Ramis-love online the last few days has been really incredible.  NYFD's Hook & Ladder Co. 8, a.k.a. the firehouse where Ghostbusters was filmed, dug out the sign from Ghostbusters 2 and hung it outside the station where fans have been leaving flowers, pictures and, fantastically enough, Twinkies.  Even President Obama issued a statement praising the departed Chicago native, including his hope that Ramis has achieved "total consciousness."

I really wanted to watch a Ramis film the night he passed, but I had very few options in terms of quality flicks that I'd never seen before.  I flirted with the idea of Multiplicity, mostly because I love me some funny Michael Keaton, but instead I went with Back To School starring Rodney Dangerfield.  It felt like a better representation of the slobs vs. snobs mentality that was Ramis's signature and it absolutely did not disappoint.  In fact, I think it just might be Dangerfield's strongest and most layered performance.  Plus it's got a young Robert Downey Jr. with punk rock hair and an ascot.  So it's got that goin' for it.

This seemed like a good opportunity for one last live-tweet before I hit my deadline, although I didn't realize until halfway through that I had been accidentally tweeting from my personal Twitter account.  Ah well.  Enjoy.

The day Murray goes, I'm totally gonna lose it.

Title: Back To School
Director: Alan Metter
Starring: Rodney Dangerfield, Sally Kellerman, Burt Young, Keith Gordon, Robert Downey Jr, Paxton Whitehead, Terry Farrell, M. Emmet Walsh, William Zabka, Ned Beatty, Sam Kinison, Robert Picardo
Year Of Release: 1986
Viewing Method: DVD

February 25, 2014

Podcast Episode 7: ROBOCOP In Name Only

"Wanna feel it?"
Paul Verhoeven's original Robocop is one of my absolute favorite films.  It is, quite simply, perfect.  More importantly, it's a movie that is so much more than the sum of its parts.  Sure it's ultraviolent and pulpy, but it's also one of the best single critiques of Reagan-era politics and the rise of corporate power and influence that I've ever seen committed to film.  The fact that it's also a shining beacon of both practical and stop-motion effects is merely the icing on the cake.

Robocop is lightning in a bottle, so the idea of trying to recreate it seems foolhardy at best, idiotic at worst.  Thankfully director Jose Padilha seemed to realize this from the outset and instead uses the idea of a police officer turned corporately-owned cybernetic enforcer and uses it as a springboard to examine drone warfare policies, the struggle between humanity and machinery, and the concept of free will.  Those are all interesting, worthy sci-fi concepts and I appreciate that Padilha is bringing something new to the table and not taking the easy route by mindlessly regurgitating familiar dialogue and mimicking similar action beats like the dismal remake of Verhoeven's Total Recall.

I just wish he hadn't done it under the banner of Robocop.

If Padilha hadn't been hamstrung trying to fit into the box of a pre-existing property, he might have had a little more room to explore those heady topics in a more satisfying manner.  Instead he's stuck "updating the character" and dwelling upon the emo side of Alex Murphy, two things that no fan of Robocop (a.k.a. the target audience) really gives a shit about.  I actually wish this had just been an original story, because if it didn't come with all sorts of preconceptions, expectations and emotional baggage it might have been quite interesting.  It's not a bad movie...it's just not Robocop.

In the seventh episode of our podcast, Bart and I discuss all this in greater depth while also trying to figure out why the character Robocop is barely the protagonist of his own movie, why Michael Keaton was so tragically squandered and why the hell they didn't just lose the arm.  We also chat about the first trailer for Guardians Of The Galaxy, the freshly minted cast of Fantastic Four, and why it's probably a good thing that Marvel isn't in charge of all their marquee properties.

I'm really happy about the way the podcast has continued to evolve and I'm particularly proud of this episode, which is our longest one yet by a full 36 seconds.  We laid down one more episode this weekend that I'm REALLY excited about.  Hopefully I'll be able to get it out before I hit movie 365 at the end of the week.  And after my Final Screening event this Saturday night, Bart and I are planning on putting out roughly one podcast episode a week, so I hope you're enjoying these recordings as much as we are.

Title: Robocop
Director: Jose Padilha
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, Abby Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle
Year Of Release: 2014
Viewing Method: Theatrical - AMC Boston Common

Grab Your Tickets Now For This Saturday's Final Daley Screening Double Feature Of ALIENS and MIAMI CONNECTION!

I can't believe that I'm already in my last week of screenings.  Has it really been a year already?

This Saturday night is my Final Screening Double Feature at the Brattle Theatre and I could not possibly be more excited about it.  I've put together one helluva night if I do say so myself.  I've got a collection of awesome trailers to warm you up for each film and a performance from the current members of my old college a cappella group Noteworthy, who've got a pretty killer movie theme up their sleeves.  I've also put together a few rounds of trivia with prizes for the winners.  It's all movie trivia based on the 365 films that I've watched over the course of this project, but they're not based on my actual articles so you don't need to have been following along with me the whole time.

It all kicks off at 7:00 PM with a screening of James Cameron's Aliens.  In truth, I've seen this movie once before, although not on the big screen.  I was really hoping to show Ghostbusters and in light of the recent death of Harold Ramis, I'm now doubly sad that the print wasn't available.  But Aliens holds a special place for me and was a big inspiration for starting this site in the first place, so I'm totally pumped to see it again.  Plus we're showing a brand new DCP print, so even if you've seen the movie before, I guarantee you haven't seen it like this.

Music and trivia will go down immediately after and then we really delve into madness with Grandmaster Y.K. Kim's Miami Connection.  Bear witness to this vintage bit of 80's absurdity, chronicling synth rock ninjas Dragon Sound and their efforts to rid their neighborhood of a gang of drug dealing bikers.  This might be the one movie I've been most looking forward in the whole year, and there's no doubt it my mind that you'll all be singing Against The Ninja all the way home.

Tickets are now on sale right here the Brattle website.  I suspect you'll be able to get tickets at the door as well, but I can't make any promises so you might as well grab them in advance.  If you want to/need to, you can leave after Aliens or arrive solely for Miami Connection, but if you're brave enough to withstand both than tickets are a mere $12.  ($10 if you're a Brattle member or a student with appropriate ID.)  Plus the Brattle is one of those rare theaters in town that serves not only popcorn with actual butter, but also beer and wine!  I expect to have more than a few before the night is over.

After all, it is my birthday.  That means you HAVE to come.

Note: The above poster was done by my very oldest friend, Chris Daly.  (No relation.)  I'll probably have some on hand Saturday night if you're interested.  You can check out some of his other work here.

February 20, 2014

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB The Latest Milestone In The Golden Age Of McConaughey

"I prefer to die with my boots on."
All right, all right, all right.

I am thoroughly enjoying the second coming of Matthew McConaughey.  I'll always love his Wooderson from Dazed And Confused, and his incredible death scene in Reign Of Fire is the stuff of legend.  Hell I even genuinely enjoy his version of Dirk Pitt in Sahara, despite it being a fairly dramatic departure from the character as written in Clive Cussler's collection of novels.  I'm a fan of the guy, but even I must admit that McConaughey's career has been all over the map.  He tried to chase Nicolas Cage down the rabbit hole of dumb action movies, but to no avail.  He appeared in some real prestige pictures like A Time To Kill and Amistad, but audiences didn't really want to take him that seriously.  So, in a fit of massive over-correction, the guy spent the better part of a decade lost in the wilderness of sub-par romantic comedies.  That was hard to watch.  For a minute there, it seemed like it was time to write off McConaughey for good.

And then a remarkable thing happened.  He stopped trying to conform to Hollywood's expectations and decided to embrace his own peculiar personality.  It started with Surfer, Dude and The Lincoln Lawyer then continued with strong supporting roles in weirder low budget films like Bernie and Killer Joe.  2012 saw McConaughey come back in a big way with Mud and Magic Mike, and by then it was clear that he had essentially turned into the skid and emerged as the guy we all knew he could be after all these years.  He's responsible for probably the second best 10 minute sequence of Wolf Of Wall Street,* he's currently killing it on HBO's True Detective and next year he's going into space for Chris Nolan in Interstellar.  Talk about a hot streak.

When McConaughey got the Golden Globe for his performance as AIDS patient Ron Woodruff in Dallas Buyers Club, I wasn't really all that surprised even though it's a crowded category and I hadn't seen the movie yet.  The Hollywood Foreign press is usually a little off-kilter and I figured that he had done some solid work and was essentially being rewarded for pulling his career out of the gutter.  But then a few weeks later he also won the SAG award and suddenly became not just a serious contender but the outright front runner for an Oscar.  I remained a tad skeptical, only because there are just so many strong male performances this year, to the point that a lot of my favorite ones (Joaquin Phoenix, Oscar Isaac, Michael B. Jordan, Tom Hanks) didn't even get nominated.  Could McConaughey really go toe-to-toe with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Leonardo DiCaprio giving arguably the best performances of their careers?


It would be easy to undervalue his performance because of the jarring visual of his gaunt figure.  Whenever an actor goes through a profound physical transformation, whether it be biological or with the use of heavy prosthesis, there's a tendency to write it off as an attention-seeking gimmick.  "Oh, Charlize Theron made herself look really ugly for this role.  How impressive."  Whether such sentiments are spoken in sarcasm or in earnest, they often hijack the conversation and become the only thing you remember about a movie.  (Honestly, what can you tell me about The Machinist other than the fact that you could count Christian Bale's individual ribs?)  But don't let that happen here.  In fact, I'll assert that the most remarkable transformation that McConaughey undergoes in Dallas Buyers is not a physical one, but an emotional one.

Ron Woodruff is a fascinating and complex character.  He starts off as a hard-partying, homophobic, womanizing degenerate and eventually morphs into a successful entrepenuer and champion of the gay community as he single-handedly takes on the FDA and challenges the medical establishment in their attitude towards AIDS patients.  There's no big, emotional moment of revelation in which Woodruff realizes the folly of his ways and vows to turn his life around and become a more tolerant person.  Instead it's a gradual shift built upon necessity; Woodruff is diagnosed with HIV told he has a mere 30 days to live, but he's determined to prove the doctors wrong and outlive his diagnosis by any means necessary.  He scams treatment out of an experimental drug trial and when the medication proves more harmful than helpful, he heads down to Mexico and discovers a host of treatment options being completely overlooked in the U.S.  Woodruff then sets up shop in Dallas, importing the unapproved-but-not-illegal medications across the border and distributing them to the members of his "buyers club," essentially an end-run around the law to help provide treatment to similarly afflicted patients without being arrested as a drug dealer.

This all took place in the late 80's and early 90's (the film's opening scene features a newspaper that mentions Rock Hudson dying in a French hospital) which means that while I was alive for this era, I remember very little of it.  Like many of my peers, the first memory I have of hearing about HIV or AIDS was when Magic Johnson announced his own diagnosis, which my mother says occurred the day after I served as a ball boy during a Celtics-Lakers game.  By the time I had any appreciation for the disease, it was largely considered, while not curable, at least treatable.  Something you could live with.  But in 1985 when Woodruff was first hospitalized, it was essentially a death sentence surrounded by a cloud of ignorance and misinformation.  There's a documentary on the subject called How To Survive A Plague that I've heard is extremely powerful.  I wish I'd gotten the chance to watch it before my year was up.  The story of the early days of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. is a fascinating one, and one with which I wish I was more familiar.  The fact that Woodruff had to go to court and fight for his right to take non-toxic protein supplements because the FDA was essentially in bed with pharmaceutical companies...I wouldn't call it shocking by today's standards, but that only makes it feel all the more relevant in the age of Big Pharma.

Woodruff not only had to immerse himself in stacks of medical research that was likely way over his head, but he was also thrust into the heart of the gay community, the demographic hit hardest by the disease at that time.  He bonds with another patient named Rayon, beautifully portrayed by a similarly emaciated Jared Leto, and the two of them become not only business partners but also the closest of friends.  It's essentially a shining example of trench warfare - when you're thrown into the shit together, you learn to get over your own prejudices and eventually realize that for all our differences, we're all just people.  The disease doesn't care who you're fucking.

Whether he wins the Oscar or not, (and I think he just might) Dallas Buyers Club absolutely belongs in the pantheon of great McConaughey performances.  It's a must see for anyone who considers themselves a fan of his slow Texas drawl and laconic charm.  If you think that's all there is to the man, Dallas Buyers will prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is so much more.  McConaughey is back and better than ever.

And if you're wondering whatever happened to Wooderson, I give you this:

You're welcome.

*The first being the super-lude freakout, obviously.

Title: Dallas Buyers Club
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn, Denis O'Hare, Michael O'Neill, Dallas Roberts, Griffin Dunne, Kevin Rankin
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: DVD

Clooney's MONUMENTS MEN Might As Well Lay Down On The Tracks Before Frankenheimer's THE TRAIN

"You've gotta love a snappy nickname."
My friend Jeff has been a very big supporter of the site from day one.  He's given me a number of fantastic suggestions and been on hand for a bunch of screenings, including both Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven, neither of which I've written up yet because I'm an asshole.  As the release of George Clooney's newest film The Monuments Men grew near, Jeff mentioned that it seemed to bear a striking resemblance to an older film, John Frankenheimer's The Train starring Burt Lancaster.  "I watched it once when I was really sick," Jeff told me.  "I remember it being really good, but that might have just been a fever dream."  We resolved ourselves to give both films a look, and then do a bit of email correspondence in the days that followed...

When you and I finished watching The Train last week, we both remarked how it was a film that really stays with you and makes a big impact, particularly that ending. I think it's telling that your girlfriend Jess and I had the exact same reaction (independently) when we met up in the lobby after Monuments Men. "Well, that was a movie..."

I made this comparison to you the other night, but taken together these two films reminded me a lot of the different styles of celebrity/historical biopics. The popular inclination is to approach the story from a wide angle, covering as much of the subject's life as possible and thus making the film feel not unlike a kind of greatest hits collection. That's all well and good, but it often means that the details get short-changed in translation, turning supporting characters into broad types and specific incidents into mere sketches of events that mostly serve to flesh out the larger themes. (Think Ray.) That's why I tend to prefer biopics with a more limited scope, depicting only a brief period of time in the subject's life and usually limited to one specific struggle.  This approach tends to yield more compelling stories as well as more complex characters.  (Think Lincoln or My Week With Marilyn.)  In the simplest terms, that's the difference between George Clooney's Monuments Men as compared to John Frankenheimer's The Train; the former attempts to tackle events spanning multiple countries over many years of World War II, whereas the latter focuses only on one man's attempt to save a single train full of stolen art. It's little wonder that one movie is infinitely more effective than the other.

Let's start with Monuments Men. What's most striking about George Clooney's fifth go-round behind the camera is not what's in the film, but actually what's missing. First and foremost is any kind of consistent tone. Is it a comedy? A drama? A wartime adventure? I honestly have no idea. Halfway through the film, Jamie turned to me and, in her best Jeff Golblum voice, whispered, "At some point there is going to be some art or war in your war movie about art, yes?" She's totally right. We rarely get to spend any time appreciating any of the art these men are tasked with saving. Not that I'm asking for some kind of art history lecture to be shoehorned into the dialogue, but one of Clooney's central themes in the film is the examination of the true cultural value of these masterpieces and their worth compared to the cost of human life. So I would have liked to spend a little more time appreciating those paintings and statues, whether it's as the Nazis are shipping them all off to Germany or when the American GI's eventually recover them in the closing days of the war, and a little less time listening to George Clooney speechifying about them in the abstract. And if the art is essentially going to act as an unseen MacGuffin, as it does for most of The Train, then I expect to get some pretty decent military action as these guys brave life and limb to complete their mission. There's even a ticking-clock rivalry set up with the Russians, who are intent on bringing the art back to Moscow as trophies of war, but in the end there's no showdown, no payoff. It's all a narrative dead end. I'm shocked that we never even got a scene of Clooney arguing with a commander about not bombing a church or a bridge, or convincing someone to alter their strategy in order to defeat the opposing force with minimal collateral damage. That kind of seemed like the point of the movie, as it was sold to me by Columbia's marketing department. Nope. That concept gets only the briefest of lip service and instead we get a lot of Clooney getting driven around in a jeep while the other members wander from one shelled out city to the next and save very little art.

Speaking of the soldiers, I really can't tell you anything about any of them, including their names. There's a cute montage at the top where we see each of them working in their artistic fields, but their specific expertise remains hazy at best and never really came into play on the battlefield. Hugh Bonneville gets a very amorphous backstory with some kind of ill-defined tragedy that he must atone for while Bob Balaban's sole defining trait is that he's really eager to kill some Nazis, although that gets forgotten about almost immediately. Meanwhile Bill Murray might as well be named Bill Murray and John Goodman doesn't fare much better. I mean, it's fun to watch Murray and Balaban bicker across various battlefields, but it never really goes anywhere. Their scene with the young German soldier and the cigarettes is the perfect example of this problem - it's amusing because of Murray being Murray, but the moment it awkwardly and abruptly ends, you realize it served absolutely no purpose. There are a lot of scenes like this. I had high hopes in the beginning as Clooney and Damon assembled their team a la Ocean's Eleven, mostly because the chemistry between those two actors is simply undeniable at this point. So when Damon got sent off to France to charm Cate Blanchett for half the movie, I was even more depressed. You don't split up The Rat Pack.

What say you, Jeff? Did any of the characters make any kind of an impact on you? Am I right in thinking that Damon's storyline is clearly the weakest thing in the movie, or did Blanchett somehow manage to save it for you? I mentioned all the things Monuments Men was missing, but was there anything present in the film that really worked for you? And, aside from the drastic difference in the quality of closing scenes, how does The Train stack up?
I'm going to use your question about the Damon-Blanchett storyline as a jumping off point to consider what the film may have been trying to accomplish. In their last scene together Blanchett (or Claire Simone, according to IMDB--I, too, can't remember any of the characters' names) comes onto Damon after showing him a ledger she's been using to catalog stolen art. Damon is all aw-shucks bashful and ends up leaving after gently rebuffing Blanchett's advances. All through this scene, the devil on my shoulder was yelling, "Go for it, Matt Damon! Do it! It's Cate Blanchett, for God's sake! Your wife will forgive you on this one." But no, like a Jimmy Stewart character of yore, Damon takes his leave, his honor intact. 

This was when the film's ambitions began to crystallize for me. The secret about Monuments Men is that, despite the marketing, it’s less concerned with recapturing stolen art and far more interested in recapturing a sepia-toned nostalgia for a certain kind of war film circa the 1950s and 60s. Unlike the cynical war films of the 70s and beyond, the war films immediately after WWII were often about men (decent, upright American men) on a mission, usually behind enemy lines. The characters were instantly recognizable types. There was a mix of humor and action sequences. One or two of the characters (the ones we didn’t care about all that much to begin with) would die, but the team would ultimately emerge victorious. Cue the rousing score. 

Sound familiar? Everything about Monuments Men, from the way it deploys its leading actors’ charisma in place of character development, to its cheesy montages at the beginning and end of the film, to Alexandre Desplat’s weirdly jaunty score, speaks to a desire to craft a film that is resolutely old-fashioned. This is a film my grandpa would enjoy. And I don’t mean that as a dig, either against my grandpa or the film. But a lot of the time Monuments Men feels like a film that he might have taken my grandma to see on a date in the mid-fifties. 

On this level, Monuments Men succeeds. For the first half, at least, it held my attention. In the, like, two scenes they share, Clooney and Damon have palpable chemistry. Bill Murray steels every scene he’s in (there ought to be a class dedicated solely to the way Murray gives line-readings). There is a bit of suspense as the team tries to reclaim art from a mine with the damn Ruskies breathing down their necks. And there’s this odd scene between Clooney and a Nazi officer where Clooney smokes a cigarette and tells the officer what’s going to happen to him back in Germany that’s strangely compelling and seems to hint at a darker movie that what we got. 

But oh lord yes it has problems, and the one that grated most is how it simplifies the debate over whether a piece of art is worth a human life. Without any nuance Monuments Men comes down on the side of art. What a surprise. 

The Train, by comparison, asks the exact same question, but doesn’t provide such an easy and sanctimonious answer. Without totally giving away the end, the last scene of The Train is a near-silent montage of dead bodies sprawled next to crates of stolen art. A train’s engine stammers in the background, a haunting mechanical drumbeat. We cut from bodies to crates, bodies to crates. The beauty of the montage is in how it can equivocate, and this particular montage sets up a comparison between the men who died to save the art and the art itself (and I think it’s genius that we don’t actually see any of the art, because this way the question isn’t about saving particular art; it’s about all "Art"). Without words, the film puts the onus on the viewer to come up with their own answers. Is art worth more than life? Is life worth more than art? 

That the film manages to pose such an absorbing question through imagery alone makes it all the more powerful. I’m reminded of something Spielberg said in his Inside the Actors Studio interview (don’t you miss that toppling tower of notecards?). I can’t remember the question he was responding to but Spielberg talked about how you should be able to put a film on mute and still understand what’s going on. A film is moving imagery, after all. If those moving images don’t tell a story on their own, then on some level that film fails. The Train has the efficacy of a silent picture. Monuments Men may as well be the visual accompaniment to an art history lecture. 

But what about you, my friend? Am I right to characterize Monuments Men as old-fashioned, and if so, does that absolve any of its sins? And what did you think about The Train? It might be interesting to compare the films’ characters. We don’t know much about Burt Lancaster or any of the other characters in The Train, but, for me anyway, each one made more of an impression than just about any character in Monuments Men. Why is that?

"Now, this minute, you couldn't tell me why you did what you did."
You're totally right about Clooney's proclivity for old-timey charm.  If there's anyone that's best suited to take up the mantle of a modern day Cary Grant, it's Clooney.  The guy just exudes a smooth, timeless charm that echoes back to the dashing Hollywood stars of yesteryear.  The fact that that he's got serious talent both in front of and behind the camera is all the more impressive.  In fact, after directing five movies that are all about as different from each other as can possibly be, just about the only thing that they have in common is an infatuation with bygone eras.  (Except Ides Of March, but he's adapting someone else's play there.)  If Clooney had been born 50 years earlier, I think he probably would have felt right at home, which is also why it's subtly strange to see him in something futuristic like Gravity or Solaris.  Seeing Clooney in Brad Bird's upcoming Tomorrowland, which I believe merges a lot of styles from the 1950's and the future, will probably give me whiplash.

I was listening to Community creator Dan Harmon's podcast Harmontown this morning and he was talking about his own issues with Monuments Men.  Amidst his mad ramblings, he made the point that there is a slight classism issue at play here.  Essentially, it's only wealthy folks who give a shit about the fate of art in wartime.  The poor lower class schmucks are too busy getting shot at over a hill of dirt to worry about who gets to keep a bunch of paintings that the common G.I. will likely never see in person anyway.  Clooney presents the mission to save art as the lofty goal of cultured idealists, but that's a perspective that only comes from a place of privilege and relative comfort.  That's not to say that Clooney's unit skated through the war (although that's essentially true), but it wasn't until Germany was on the ropes and the Allies were poised to emerge victorious that the Americans even began to contemplate a mission of this sort.  

The Train presents the same scenario in very different terms.  The Nazi officers equate stolen art with a concrete dollar value as opposed to any intrinsic cultural value.  They see this trainload of paintings and sculptures as a sort of insurance policy, a potential goldmine for the flagging German war effort.  And instead of a group of noble American artists who swoop in to teach everyone a lesson about the importance of Picasso, we get Burt Lancaster as a gritty train engineer who's working as part of the French resistance.  The art involved means nothing to him and he'd just as soon blow the train to hell as jump through hoops to ensure its safety while still preventing it from reaching its destination.  His decision to save the art is instead born from the loyalty to the mentor who died to protect his country's heritage.  It creates a far more resonant emotional connection for the audience.

What's more, The Train is just far more engaging on every level.  In a lot of ways it feels less like a war movie and more like a grifter story.  Most of the plot involves a series of elaborate deceptions in order to defeat the Nazis without them actually realizing it, from the re-routing of trains, to the disguising of entire towns.  Lancaster has to outsmart the enemy at every turn and there's no time for him to pontificate upon the motivation of his actions.  Sidenote: I love that Lancaster is playing a Frenchman and yet he never speaks French and never attempts any kind of an accent.  I said this as we were watching it, but I have no problem buying into the conceit that, while a collection French nationals would certainly speak to each other in their native tongue, the actors are speaking English to accommodate American audiences.  I think it comes from all those years of watching Star Trek, in which the universal translators give us Klingons who speak English even to each other.

P.S. It's taking all my willpower not to title this article "Running THE TRAIN On Clooney's MONUMENTS MEN."

I have to slightly take issue with your characterization of how the Nazis feel about art in The Train. Lancaster’s main adversary is the Nazi colonel Waldheim, played wonderfully by Paul Scofield. You’re right to say that most of the other Nazis in the film could give a shit about the aesthetic value of the art they’re attempting to smuggle out of France. But Waldheim does care; that’s why we get that scene at the very beginning of the film where he and an art curator are appreciating the paintings in the Jeu de Paume museum. The scene goes on for a while, with quiet shots that linger over the paintings. Waldheim’s commitment to saving the art recurs throughout the film as he battles the Nazi bureaucracy who, not unlike some of the officers in Monuments Men, care far more about munitions than about crates of paintings by Matisse and Renoir. I think Waldheim absolutely understands the art’s financial utility, but he’s no mere pragmatist. Ironically, he would be on the side of the Monuments Men; he wants to save the art, no matter the human cost. Which is yet another thing The Train does so well; it not only gives Lancaster a formidable opponent, it puts the “liberal” pro-art perspective in the mouth of a Nazi, further ratcheting up the film’s commitment to looking beyond simple black and white morality. (And yet The Train was filmed in black white, a move that would have been only slightly less unusual in 1964 as it would be today. I assume it was primarily a financial decision, but the contrast between the film’s stark photography and the story's moral ambiguity is ingenious.)

There’s no one like Waldheim in Monuments Men, which is one of the reasons why I think the film’s characterizations pale in comparison to The Train. Without a clear antagonist, the characters of Monuments Men have nothing define themselves against. Of course the Nazis are the villains of the story, but none of them shares Waldheim’s convictions; they’re company men; all they care about is following orders and keeping the art away from the Allies, even if that means charring everything to a crisp, flamethrower-style. And because the Nazis are essentially faceless evildoers, Clooney lets both his characters and his story off the hook. There’s no tension, no menace—no doubt, in other words, that the Monuments Men will succeed in their mission. There’s also no outside perspective to challenge their principles, which is why the film feels so shallow and basic.

I feel kind of bad shitting on the movie like we have been; there are obviously far worse offenders out there. But given the talent and pedigree of those involved, Monuments Men feels like such a missed opportunity. Perhaps if Clooney had relegated himself to simply telling an old-fashioned-based-on-a-true-story-war-adventure, the movie might have been less disappointing. Monuments Men has ambitions, however; you can hear them each time Clooney starts to speechifying. The Train, by contrast, keeps its head down, goes to work, focuses on telling its story. And it’s a helluva story, punctuated by some of the most expertly composed action sequences put to film (the Allied bombing of a train yard is worth the price of admission alone). That it manages to remain fleet and exciting while posing some weighty questions is all the more impressive. Clearly, I think the world of this film. I wish it were better known. If nothing else, I hope more people become aware of its existence because of Monuments Men.

But this is your show, my friend, and you should have the last word. Thanks for letting share the spotlight this time.
You're totally right about Waldheim, and I actually love that scene at the Jeu de Paume as it perfectly sets the stakes for the rest of the film.  (I wish that Monuments Men had included a similar scene instead of dwelling solely upon the Ghent altarpiece and the Madonna statue.)  Waldheim may use the monetary value of the art as an excuse to get what he wants when dealing with superior officers, but he totally appreciates the art on its own merits.  That's reinforced in a big way during the film's closing moments as Waldheim attempts to commandeer a fleet of trucks and therefore strand a platoon of German troops just to ensure the safety of his prize, essentially Clooney's assertion that art is more valuable than life taken to the swastika-ed extreme.  But it's Scofield's short yet memorable exchange with Lancaster at the end that's really stayed with me.  Waldheim tells Labiche that the art will never be his because the train man cannot properly appreciate it.  The German sees himself as enlightened and therefore more entitled to the art than the Frenchman.  It's a more nuanced position of villainy than the Nazis in Monuments Men, who eventually choose to destroy the art rather than keep it for themselves.  There's little argument between protecting art and burning it, but the debate over whose museum it eventually resides in has a few more shades of grey.  Waldheim's love of the stolen art is legit, but Labiche's response to his air of superiority pretty well cements the idea that the crucial element at play isn't the Nazi's ability to appreciate the art but the fact that he simply has no right to take it.  Stealing is stealing.  

Monuments Men was originally slated for release this past December, meaning that Columbia was hoping the film would garner some serious awards buzz.  The fact that they pulled it late in the game and then quietly dropped it into theaters in mid-February, typically a dumping ground for movies the studios don't know what to do with, should have been a strong indicator that something had gone awry with the film itself.  What's most frustrating about Monuments Men isn't that it's bad, but simply that it's not excellent.  I'm always happy to spend two hours with the likes of Clooney, Damon, Murray, Goodman, Blanchett and Balaban, but if you put them all together then I expect nothing less than outright greatness.

This is gonna be one of those movies that our kids will stumble upon one day and say, "Look at the talent involved!  This movie must be awesome!"  Sadly, we'll be forced to shrug and reply, "You'd think so.  And yet..."

Thanks to Jeff for playing along and helping me to revisit an article format I wish I'd utilized more often.  This weekend I'll be watching Jaws.  (I know, I know...)  Jamie and Jeff are both huge fans, so I'm hoping that they'll both be able to join us for some podcasting action.  More guests!

Title: The Monuments Men
Director: George Clooney
Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville
Year Of Release: 2014
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Cinema Salem

Title: The Train
Director: John Frankenheimer
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau, Suzanne Flon, Michel Simon, Jacques Marin, Wolfgang Preiss
Year Of Release: 1965
Viewing Method: DVD

February 13, 2014

The Biggest Scam In AMERICAN HUSTLE Is The Idea That It's A Great Movie

"It's perfume, but there's also something rotten."
There comes a day in the life of every film fan when you realize that all awards shows are complete bullshit.

In my younger days I used to get all excited about the SAG Awards, the Golden Globes and the Oscars because I was laboring under the delusion that the quantity of trophies won somehow corresponded to a film's quality or value within the industry.  My mistake was confusing film awards shows for an honest and objective competition based upon skill and merit as opposed to what they really are, a socio-political popularity contest.  I think for me, the curtain was really pulled back in 2000, when Julia Roberts won the Best Actress Oscar for Erin Brockovich over Ellen Burstyn's astounding performance in Darren Aronofsky's Requiem For A Dream.  Quite frankly, I'm still astounded that anyone would even put the two performances on the same level, let alone hold Roberts' paint-by-numbers portrayal as superior to one of the single greatest female performances I've ever seen in a film.  (Julie Christie's work in Away From Her just might edge out Burstyn.)  In that instance it was clear that the Academy members were simply voting for Roberts because they all really liked her and it was a reasonable excuse to give her an Oscar because she didn't have one yet.  They were voting for the performer, not the performance.  The same thing happened the following year when Denzel Washington won a Best Actor performance for Training Day, mostly I suspect because the Academy forgot to give him one for Malcolm X.  (At this rate, it seems likely that DiCaprio will suffer a similar fate, getting snubbed for truly deserving work like The Wolf Of Wall Street only to win for some far less impressive movie years from now once guilt finally gets the better of Academy voters.)

These days I care very little about awards.  In fact, the only show that I still watch regularly is the Oscars, mostly because I think the results at the end of the night still have a fairly significant impact on the kind of movies that studios choose to greenlight in the immediate aftermath.  There's still a historical significance to the Academy Awards that simply isn't present in something as insular as the SAG Awards or as downright silly as the Golden Globes.  But even that significance is incredibly relative, and just because a movie ends up winning Best Picture, that doesn't necessarily guarantee it a place of standing and influence within the larger popular culture.  There are more than a few movies that lost out on the big night and yet continue to reverberate throughout the collective unconscious years after they left the big screen, while plenty of Best Pictures have withered down to mere historical footnotes; we're all familiar with Citizen Kane while next to nobody remembers How Green Was My Valley.  If you want a more modern example, Jesse Eisenberg will forever be remembered for his indelible portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, a film whose lead actors have gone on to play such iconic roles as Spider-Man, The Lone Ranger and soon Lex Luthor.  Meanwhile, when's the last time you heard someone talk about The King's Speech?

In fact, I'm gonna call it right now: American Hustle is the new King's Speech/The Artist. (Be honest, you forgot that movie ever happened until right now.)  Hustle a film designed to win awards and then be promptly dismissed by the public at large.  It's got David O. Russell behind the camera, a talented director who's improbably morphed into a prestige artist despite a multi-year absence after the huge pile of weird that is I Heart Huckabees (probably my favorite Russell film) and the epic crash and burn of Nailed.  (Poor, poor Jessica Biel.)  The cast is chock full of fabulous A-List movie stars clad in a wide range of flamboyant period clothing and silly hairstyles.  The story is part con-man deception, part corrupt government sting operation, part sexy love quadrangle.  This movie's got everything going for it...

...and yet, I just don't care.

There are plenty of legitimate problems with the film, from the muddled structure to Jennifer Lawrence's muddled Long Island accent, but what's most frustrating is that it seems to operate on an almost cynical level of apathy.  No one seems to care about the actual story being told so much as they do the artifice and hollow style choices through which it is told.  Case in point: Christian Bale and Amy Adams are introduced as con artists who are incredibly successful and good at what they do, and yet their actual scams are presented as downright pedestrian, when they're being presented at all.  You'd wonder why the FBI would choose to depend on these two small-timers to bring down multiple U.S. Congressmen, but you don't wonder for very long because after about 45 minutes the movie gets bored with the con artist thing and almost completely drops the entire storyline.  When the movie suddenly tries to dive back into it in the last 20 minutes, not only do I no longer care but the big "surprise reveal" is executed with such neolithic incompetence that I don't even know why they bothered.  The final nail in the coffin for me came about 2/3 of the way through the film when a surprise big name cameo suddenly arrives in a key scene.  It's only a brief appearance, but considering the actor in question and the role they're portraying, that should have been a stand-up-and-cheer moment, a real highlight of the movie.  In a more engaging film, that would have been the point where my excitement and enjoyment shot through the roof.  In American Hustle, it felt like nothing more than an empty gesture, a calculated maneuver that capitalized on an actor essentially owing the director a favor.

The whole movie just sort lays flat on the screen, content to merely exist without pushing any kind of boundaries or doing anything remotely interesting.  Everyone, save Louis C.K, (inarguably the best part of the movie) is operating on complete cruise control, letting the Zeppelin soundtrack and feathered hair do all the work while they sit back and wait for the awards to come pouring in.  Which leads me to my biggest problem with American Hustle: it's simply not an awards caliber film in the absolute powerhouse that was 2013.  In a weaker year it would snag a bunch of nominations to pad out various categories and probably come away with a few isolated wins and you wouldn't care.  Years later you'd simply remember it as "that movie where Christian Bale got really fat and Jennifer Lawrence won another kinda bullshit Oscar."  But there's just no way to argue that Hustle belongs in the same conversation with Her, Wolf Of Wall Street, Gravity, 12 Years A Slave, Captain Phillips or even movies that weren't nominated like Inside Llewyn Davis, Stoker, Short Term 12 or Fruitvale Station.  Those are all movies that have a profound effect on the audience.  You simply don't walk out of the theater the same way that you walked into it.  American Hustle is the opposite of those movies.  It's Teflon.  Had it been released in May or August, it would have been considered the highbrow hit of the summer, a pleasant alternative to superheroes and explosions.  Instead, it's coasting through award season on the reputation of the players involved regardless of the actual film they've created.

And yet, when/if American Hustle ends up taking home a truckload of Oscars, I'll likely be filled not with righteous fury, but instead with mild annoyance.  I long ago realized that whether or not a movie wins trophies, that has no serious bearing on my enjoyment of the film going forward.  If a movie is really great, it will persist for years and even generations, no matter the ultimate tally of little golden men.  I'm going to be watching Wolf and Her over and over again for years to come, while American Hustle will quickly become relegated to the kind of movie you stumble into on cable some Saturday afternoon and leave playing in the background while you check your email and eat a grilled cheese sandwich.  I trust that history will appropriately sort it all out in the end.  The real crime here is that there are smaller movies like Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, Dallas Buyers Club and Before Midnight that are never going to get the same kind of wide release and marketing platform as a slick awards ringer starring the likes of Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence.  Those movies actually depend upon the buzz generated from Oscar nominations to expand into more theaters and extend their theatrical runs.  It almost doesn't even matter if they win anything or not, as it's the simple act of being nominated which often determines how many people get the chance to actually see the film in a theater, which in turn plays a big part of how the film is eventually rolled out on home video.  So when I see the Academy lavishing praise upon Hustle while leaving Llewyn Davis twisting in the wind, I can't help but feel depressed about it.

So fuck it.  American Hustle certainly isn't bad, but it certainly isn't great either.  It is, at best, decent.  And it'll probably continue to win many awards.  My best prediction?  No matter what happens, in five years time Wolf Of Wall Street will still remain shorthand for excess and/or rampant nudity, with dumbass frat boys having Wolf-themed parties.  (They're doing it wrong.)  Meanwhile, you'll have completely forgotten that American Hustle ever existed in the first place.

Good riddance.

(Footnote: I watched American Hustle on Christmas Day with my parents, the first time we've ever made that particular holiday excursion.  It's pretty goddamn awkward watching a coked out Bradley Cooper try to fuck Amy Adams from behind in a grimy bathroom stall.  Then again, we almost went to see Wolf Of Wall Street.  So...bullet dodged.)

Title: American Hustle
Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Pena, Shea Wigham, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Rohm
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Mashpee Commons (4K)

February 04, 2014

Running The NORTH DALLAS FORTY With A Crap-Ton Of Chili On Super Bowl Sunday

"I don't want a job.  I want to play football."
My beloved New England Patriots got close to the Super Bowl once again this year, but ultimately came up short.  After a season full of miraculous come-from-behind wins, the other shoe finally dropped in the AFC Championship game when quarterback Tom Brady was stymied by his longtime rival Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.  That meant that Super Bowl XLVIII* was a game in which I had very little emotional investment, other than my default position of rooting against the Manning family.  Jamie was slightly more torn, wanting to support Seattle coach Pete Carroll, former fearless leader of her USC Trojans, but hesitant as the Seahawks had previously eliminated her New Orleans Saints.  And while she grew up in New Orleans, she was also born in Denver so she decided she'd be rooting for the Broncos that night.  As history shows, she chose poorly.

More importantly, the game was an excuse to have friends over, drink beers and consume an ungodly amount of food.  I help out here and there, but the kitchen is largely Jamie's domain and she loves any excuse to make a series of elaborate and delicious dishes.  Along with a monster pot of chili containing five pounds of ground beef and spicy Italian sausage, there was also buffalo chicken in little pastry cups, honey garlic wings, homemade chips and salsa as well as Bob Armstrong Dip, a local Austin queso with large dollops of guacamole and sour cream on top and a layer of seasoned taco meat underneath.  Yeah.  My wife doesn't fuck around.

Most of the day was dedicated to cleaning up the apartment and food prep (Pro Tip: Start the chili 24 hours in advance because it's always better on the second day) but I also had to squeeze in two movies.  Why two, you ask?  Not only was it Super Bowl Sunday, but it was also Groundhog Day and there's no way I was passing up an excuse to watch one of Bill Murray's greatest films.  Groundhog Day is like Blazing Saddles, so good you almost take it for granted if you go too long without watching it.  Then one day you pop it into your DVD player and suddenly remember, "Oh yeah, this isn't just good, it's brilliant."  How long does Phil Connors actually spend reliving the same snowy day in Punxsutawney?  Estimates range anywhere from eight to ten thousand years, but there's a pretty great detailed breakdown right here.

Halfway through the movie, Jamie brought my attention to her laptop and the news that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died of an apparent drug overdose.  Fuckin'...fuck.  Hoffman was one of my absolute favorites, a guy whose mere presence in a film made it infinitely more substantial and intriguing.  He could elevate a blockbuster like Mission: Impossible III or The Hunger Games: Catching Fire but he also has a slew of personal, low-budget indie films like Owning Mahoney, The Savages or Love, Liza that offer his typical brilliant, often heartbreaking work.  This feels very different from the recent passing of Paul Walker; both deaths came suddenly and without warning, but whereas Walker's was a freak accident with an ironic undertone, Hoffman became one more name on a list of brilliant performers who ultimately lost a battle with addiction and substance abuse.  It somehow feels even sadder because, like any drug overdose, it seems like it should have been preventable with enough help and support.  And then there's the stark differences in their careers and performance styles.  It would be macabre to say one was more "important" than the other, but let's just say that while Walker certainly had plenty of franchise success in his future, the loss of Hoffman feels similar to that of Heath Ledger, a man whose work should have only gotten better with age and who I was looking forward to enjoying for years to come.  I suspect that the full weight of his loss won't sink in for some time - it's the weird quasi-immortality of film.  Hoffman just had the spy film A Most Wanted Man premiere at Sundance and he was already deep into shooting the next two Hunger Games films.  In fact, he only had seven days left of filming Mockingjay: Part II at the time of his passing.  There's no word yet as to how Lionsgate plans to proceed, but I expect he'll still have a strong presence in both movies, although it's weird to think of The Hunger Games as his last on screen role.  It should have been a P.T. Anderson film.

I almost considered watching a Hoffman movie right there, but I figured I'd stick with the football theme of the day and try to fit another Hoffman film in before the month is over.  I've seen a most of the contemporary football films of any quality so I decided to go with something a little older.  I considered stuff like The Longest Yard (the original with Burt Reynolds), Heaven Can Wait or Brian's Song, but I settled on North Dallas Forty instead.  I love young Nick Nolte and I'd always heard good things about this one, a partially fictional story based on the memoir of former Dallas Cowboys player Peter Gent.  It's a fascinating peek behind the curtain of pro football players of a bygone era and Nolte shines as a former starter-turned benchwarmer who's becoming more scar tissue than muscle and id left facing the insecurities of old age and forced retirement.  Today there's a lot of discussion on the physical toll that NFL players undergo over the course of a career, from broken limbs to serious brain damage.  In a world where physical ability reigns supreme, everyone is pushing themselves to perform by any means necessary, and while the film never really dips into steroid territory, there is plenty of focus on players who heavily self-medicate in order to ignore serious injury and keep themselves on the playing field.  It might seem obvious now, when this stuff gets dealt with in a James Van Der Beek movie, but I suspect that North Dallas Forty was a pretty surprising wake up call to a lot of audiences in 1979.

There's also a real old school sensibility at work here, at times equally refreshing and horrifying. The players frequently exhibit morally reprehensible behavior, particularly in their dealings with women who they treat as trophies to be passed from player to player.  Most of these guys are mindless brutes on top of being vaguely racist, hardly surprising for Texas in the late seventies (or, you know, today).  And while I'd hardly consider any of these guys to be role models, they are products of a simpler time in the game of football.  The coach is starting to use computer modeling to track player performance and it's clear that none of the players trust that infernal machine.  The management is aware of just how much money is at stake and they're starting to treat the team as a business, a corporation that has to win championships not for athletic glory, but in order to remain profitable.  It's a philosophy that does not sit well with the players, who in all likelihood are not exactly seeing the lion's share of those profits.  These guys are not millionaires adorned with gaudy bling and driving luxury cars.  There's no talk of endorsement deals or personal branding, and when a linebacker talks about opening a restaurant ("Jo Bob's Fine Foods - Eat Here Or I'll Kill Ya!") you never for one second take him seriously.  These guys care about one thing and one thing only: playing the game of football.  That's kind of awesome.  With that in mind, I would have liked to see a little more actual gameplay; most of the action takes place over the course of one week between games, so we get a few flashbacks to the previous game against Seattle and then once the big match up against Chicago starts, the movie jumps from the pre-game locker room right to the final two minutes of the game.  Instead of on-field heroics we get a lot of team workouts and scrimmages, made endlessly more entertaining by the fact that Nolte is usually wearing a sort of motorcycle cap and smoking a cigarette.

Super Bowl XLVIII didn't offer up much excitement other than the sheer joy of watching Peyton Manning completely and utterly choke while little brother Eli sat pouting in his luxury box.

But as is often the case, we at least found some entertainment value in the commercials.  I particularly enjoyed Stephen Colbert's pistachio ad, Radioshack's commercial full of 80's celebrities, and Coke's America The Beautiful spot which angered the intellectually stunted and, if Twitter is any evidence, the grammatically challenged all across the country.  Let it serve as a litmus test for weeding out your particular social circles.  Most importantly, Sunday night was spent with good friends, cold beers and delicious food.

Only 11 more days till pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training.

*What are the odds that in two years they move away from Roman numerals and end up calling it Super Bowl 50 instead of Super Bowl L?

Title: North Dallas Forty
Director: Ted Kotcheff
Starring: Nick Nolte, Mac Davis, Charles Durning, Dayle Haddon, Bo Svenson, John Matuszak, Steve Forrest, G.D. Spradlin, Dabney Coleman
Year Of Release: 1979
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant - TV