The Shelf

One DVD at a time

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36.) Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)

I wish everyone could love this movie as much as I do. I know some of you out there do (some perhaps even moreso), but it makes me sad that not everyone can appreciate it and love it and relish it at least on this level. 

That may seem like a somewhat pretentious thing to say, perhaps even a bit reductive of others’ opinions. But it mostly comes from a place of wanting everyone to experience the same joy and exhilaration that washes over me every time that I’ve sat down to take in Edgar Wright’s marvelous work. 

That said, I can understand why it doesn’t connect with some. It’s not a movie that’s necessarily for everyone in both style and content. The filmmaking is colorful and kinetic and wild and often breathless in a way that almost no other film I’ve ever seen has even attempted to be. It’s a remarkable achievement, but again, not for everyone, perhaps. 

I will definitely acknowledge some of the complaints about the story being truncated, both in comparison to the comic and just in a general sense of progression and development. Scott (Michael Cera) goes from having only just met the girl of his (literal) dreams to declaring that he’s in love with her and willing to quite literally fight to keep her. 

It’s sudden, sure, but it comes from a place that feels heartfelt and, above all, honest. It may be truncated but it’s all presented in a way that feels genuine, which may be Wright’s greatest accomplishment with the film. 

Besides, this is a movie where bad guys explode into a shower of coins when defeated and a girl uses a guy’s dreams as a subspace portal so she can make rapid deliveries for Amazon. “Realism” isn’t really on the agenda here. 

Either way, this is a movie that I love more every time I watch it. I hope you all have a movie that fills you with the same sort of joy and excitement as well.

Filed under scott pilgrim edgar wright michael cera bryan lee o'malley mary elizabeth winstead anna kendrick scott pilgrim vs. the world bread makes you fat

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35.) The Rocketeer (1991)

I readily acknowledge that nostalgia may very well be why this movie still works like gangbusters for me. I also readily acknowledge that I don’t care. 

Sometimes a movie just works and it’s undeniable that the circumstances around your initial viewing are very much a part of why it holds a place in your mind and heart. That’s part of the magic of movies. I saw The Rocketeer in the theater when it first came out when I was 10. In other words, I was at the perfect age to have this delightful bit of pulp action launch me into the stratosphere. Rocketpacks, gangsters versus Nazis, exploding zepplins, shootouts. Jennifer Connelly. How could I not automatically think this was one of the greatest things to ever be projected onto a movie screen? This was also one of the few movies I ever got to see multiple times in the theater, an absolute rarity when I was a kid.

So can I be wholly objective about The Rocketeer? Maybe not. I’m certainly able to acknowledge its flaws. It feels like it’s missing at least one more major action scene with the rocketpack, for one thing. It’s a slim movie. On the one hand, this sort of lends it a feeling of efficiency. It never wastes a second getting to the stuff we really want to see while still ably establishing characters and tone. But director Joe Johnston wants his film to feel bigger than either the script or the budget can truly accommodate. 

But when this sucker works, it really works. It’s just so much FUN. 

For one thing, Johnston absolutely nails the tone with a pervading sense of adventure and fun that only comes when you have Nazis and gangsters racing to get their hands on a fantasy contraption like a jetpack. It helps that Johnston populated his film with such a wonderful cast. Everyone knows precisely what they should be going for. Be it Timothy Dalton doing his best Nazi Errol Flynn or Paul Sorvino (once more proving it doesn’t matter how many times he gets cast as a gangster, the man is a pro and will find a way to make it memorable), or Alan Arkin teaching Howard Hughes a thing or two about aviation (to this day I still wish we would have gotten an actual movie about Hughes with Terry O’Quinn reprising the role). Jon Polito. 

There are just so many bits and moments to love. Eddie Valentine and Wooly Wolinski pausing to look at each other and grinning before going back to machine gunning Nazis. Peavy making sure Cliff has “a little luck.” The running gag of Peavy getting knocked back by the rocketpack’s thruster blast. Any time Jennifer Connelly is on screen and looking stunning. (Read: Pretty much every time she’s on screen.)  That shot of Cliff on top of the Griffith Observatory, posed in front of the American flag, ready to fly off and save the day. “Go get ‘em, kid.”

But really, there are two things in particular that always stick out no matter how many times I see this. First is the Nazi cartoon. That short bit of animation shatters any sort of doubts (or at least it should) of what sort of movie Johnston was going for but just couldn’t quite make (and, again, I blame mostly the budget and script). It’s perfect and encapsulates everything about the spirit of pulp serials that inspired Dave Stevens’ original graphic novel. 

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, is James Horner’s score. This score might be the sole reason why I feel the same sense of excitement and awe I did when I was 10. Horner has sort of made a career out of cannibalizing his own work, but when the man is on his game, he strikes gold. Others will argue (and with great merit) that he has better scores like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but this is his best work. I could listen to that opening theme on a loop and it would still always pump me full of smiles and an everlasting desire to soar through the clouds, twin rocket engines strapped to my back. 

I will say, even as much as I love this movie, I would be first in line to see someone tack a crack at a remake (or even a recast sequel). There’s so much fun to be had in this little universe of sorts, it’s a shame that Disney gives us multiple TRON movies, but not multiple Rocketeer movies. 

Filed under The Rocketeer Rocketeer timothy dalton jennifer connelly alan arkin billy campbell jon polito james horner paul sorvino dave stevens

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34.) The Rock (1996)

Michael Bay is in on the joke.

No one wants to admit this, but it’s true. Michael Bay is often held up as “what’s wrong” with American cinema, a perpetuator of the worst, most bombastic and garish qualities that spill out of Hollywood and into our cineplexes. I won’t pretend that at least a portion of that criticism isn’t warranted, but I submit to you that Bay is a much more self-aware filmmaker than most are willing to give him credit for or even acknowledge. 

Exhibit A: The Rock.

This movie is a cartoon. Heck, it might even be the best video game movie ever made. (A case I just might make later on, if I feel so inclined.) Everything Bay put together points to The Rock being just that. Nic Cage’s performance, the snarling FBI agents, the rogue Marines played with borderline wide-eyed insanity, that car chase. 

In fact, that chase is the perfect example of what I’m talking about. 

It’s pretty much a constant barrage of wild edits, crashes, collisions, unrealistic driving (somehow Cage’s wimpy lab rat of a character immediately becomes a proficient high speed evasive driver by simply hopping into the seat of a Ferrari) and massive explosions. It also gets progressively more comedic. Beginning with Sean Connery stealing a Humvee (remember, this was 1996 and Hummers were still a novelty owned only by wealthy people with nothing but money to burn) from a comically accented chubby European guy and proceeds to tear down the hilly streets of San Francisco in a way that would make Frank Bullitt blush. Along the way, he crushes a VW Bug painted all hippie-like, smashes through a truck carrying water jugs, narrowly avoids hitting a frail old lady in a flowery hat crossing the street, only to have to swerve out of the way of a team of wheelchair cyclists. It’s like it was storyboarded by Chuck Jones. 

Still, Bay’s more garish tendencies are in full effect here, though certainly not to the degree of his later films. The average shot length lasts about two-and-a-half seconds. Bay tries really, really hard to give the story a pulse and pathos beyond the action trappings, but ultimately plays things too big and broad for it to hit the mark. Although Ed Harris (the pro that he is) manages to wring genuine emotion and pathos from his Gen. Hummell character, a superhuman feat if there ever was one. 

Whatever criticisms can be leveled at Bay and his films, his casting sensibilities are certainly not among them. The man (and Jerry Bruckheimer productions in general) puts together some of the best supporting casts ever. John Spencer, Tony Todd, Michael Biehn, John C. McGinley, William Forsythe, David Morse, Bokeem Woodbine, you couldn’t really ask for a better collection of character actors than that to provide the backbone of your movie. Connery may be the marquee star, but he’s busy simply being Connery (not a criticism), it’s these guys that really make the movie fun. That said, Connery turns up the smarmy prickliness here to 11 and we’re all better off for it. 

Also, remember when Nic Cage had a hairline? Good times. 

I won’t go so far as to say that anyone who hates on this movie doesn’t “get it,” but there’s something to be said for a man who so consistently makes precisely the type of movie he has in his head. It may not be art you can appreciate, but it’s still art. 

Filed under nic cage sean connery the rock michael bay welcome to the rock ed harris rocketman john c. mcginley michael biehn

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33.) The Hunt for Red October (1990)

I love this movie to death. There may be no other movie I own which I have watched more, save for the original Star Wars. It’s my go-to, a perfect bit of cinematic comfort food. 

That said, I almost hesitate to use the comfort food analogy, as it connotes a lack of relative refinement or even in some cases quality, something that (even though it isn’t of “prestige” status) The Hunt for Red October most certainly cannot be described as lacking. This is an expertly made film from a director at the height of his powers. This was the cap to an incredible trifecta of films from John McTiernan, coming hot off the heels of Predator and Die Hard. That we never really saw that McTiernan again is nothing less than a travesty. 

It’s funny, because a lot of people seem willing to pass this off as little more than popcorn fare, and large part because of Sean Connery’s Capt. Ramius. Connery doesn’t even attempt anything remotely resembling an Eastern European accent and for that reason alone some seem content to treat the rest of the film as a lightweight. 

How wrong they are. 

I’ll get more into Connery in a bit, but let’s talk first about why this really is something of an unsung masterpiece. Foremost is the script and McTiernan’s direction. This is an action/thriller, but it’s one of the most tightly scripted, character-driven scripts of its kind that I’ve ever watched. This is a film that is propelled by a series of moments that are anchored by the moving plot, but are driven by the actions and deep personalities of these characters. Everything is motivated by the brave intentions of this core group of Russian naval officers and the perceptive analysis of a low-ranking CIA analyst.

For a film that could have gotten mired in the technical details and politics of the day (though the underlying residual tension of the Cold War still lingers and is surely a significant part of why it was such a hit back in its release), McTiernan and writers Larry Ferguson and Donald Stewart did a tremendous job of adapting Tom Clancy’s novel to the screen. I used to be a huge fan of Clancy’s work, but even I would get bogged down at times trying to slough through page after page of technical jargon detailing the inner workings of a submarine. None of that’s here, and in its place a larger focus on the characters, and the film is all the better for it. 

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, as McTiernan showed in his previous two films that he has an iron grip on establishing distinct personalities and memorable characters with an almost startling efficiency. Take the motley crew of mercenaries in Predator. Every single one of them is memorable in their own way. Whether it’s Hawkins and his horrible jokes or Mac threatening to “bleed ya real quiet” to Dillon, they each get a couple different moments so that they’re inevitable destruction actually means something to the audience. The same goes with Die Hard. What could have been a fairly standard action flick gets turned into something much greater, all because McTiernan really knew how to make those smaller, sometimes quieter, moments really count, a skill that is used to an incredible degree here. 

One of the best sequences in the entire film showcases just what I’m talking about (in addition to being a perfect microcosm of everything the film as a whole does right). Ramius and his First Officer, Borodin (Sam Neill), are sharing a quiet conversation in the captain’s quarters. Ramius inquires what Borodin hopes to do once they successfully defect to the United States and Borodin speaks fondly of his desire to live in Montana, find a “round American woman” who will cook for him the rabbits he raises. He wants to drive a pickup truck and live in Arizona during the winter.

It’s a soft moment, one of unexpected vulnerability from a man who has spent the movie thus far as a stern pillar of support to his captain. Ramius, on the other hand, looks forward to once more experiencing the serenity of fishing. He talks of a lifetime spent at sea, fighting a war with no battles or monuments, only casualties. All of this is intercut against shots of the U.S.S. Dallas as it tracks the Red October, as well as the Russian crew going about their duties. It projects this incredible blend of tension, atmosphere and even an unexpected bit of serenity that still focuses on character amid such a volatile situation at large. 

It’s a perfect moment, for my money, anchored by two wonderful performances. Sam Neill shows that Borodin is sort of the unsung beating heart of the film, as it is his character’s optimism and dreaming that made such a brash, bold act as defection possible in the first place. Neill is fantastic, making this small moment count, so much so that when Borodin is shot through the heart and his last words of “I would like to have seen Montana” it’s impact is at maximum. 

This feels like one of the last warm and nuanced performances we ever really got out Connery (save for Finding Forrester and, I’m told, The Russia House). His work in this scene particularly does a tremendous job of showing the history and bond shared between Borodin and Ramius in such a short amount of time. No, he doesn’t sound remotely Russian, but who cares. If you can’t see the forest for the trees on this one, stop watching movies.

But it’s not just these two. Even some of the “smallest” bit players in this are memorable, be it Kamarov boasting about flying a windowless plane through the Alps with only a stopwatch and a map, or Courtney B. Vance as the brilliant sonar tech. Even Stellan Skarsgard makes a mighty impression with less than five minutes screentime. (The silent rage behind his delivery of “We’re going to kill a friend, Yvgeni. We’re going to kill Ramius” is nothing short of brilliant.) Oh, and let’s not forget the amazing Scott Glenn (aka the American Jurgen Prochnow). 

I’d be remiss, too, if I didn’t mention Alec Baldwin as Jack Ryan. Baldwin has never gotten his proper due as an actor, I don’t think. Sure, he’s a Big Name Actor (though more for his television work lately), but no one’s ever really figured out how to consistently use him to his fullest potential. Regardless, he does solid work here and is my preferred screen depiction of the Jack Ryan character. He’s calm, analytical but never stolidly so. It’s good stuff. 

If nothing else, The Hunt for Red October is proof that you don’t have to be nominated for a half dozen Oscars or be subtitled in French or whatever in order to be a masterpiece of film. All it takes is a dedication to character and form to be something truly great. 

Filed under the hunt for red october red october hunt for red october sean connery alec baldwin one ping only scott glenn john mctiernan sam neill james earl jones

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32.) Cop Land (1997)

I’m always more than a little surprised that this movie has more or less been either forgotten or ignored completely since it’s release more than a decade ago. Although I suppose that’s fitting with its release as no one really seemed to make much of it when it came out, save for the fact that Sylvester Stallone packed on about 30 pounds to play the role of Sheriff Freddy Heflin. 

It’s a shame, though, because this is a pretty great little movie, one that has some great, understated performances and an ensemble cast that’s tough to beat. 

It centers around Garrison, a tiny New Jersey suburb. It’s a haven of sorts for New York City cops as they comprise a significant portion of its population. They’re a tight-knit group, always looking out for each other’s backs, but everyone more or less takes orders from Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), including Sheriff Freddy. Freddy feels like he owes Ray, as Ray was who set him up as sheriff after repeatedly being denied a spot in the NYPD. 

Things begin to spiral out of control in this serene little (mob-financed) community, however, when hero cop Murray “Superboy” Babbitch (Michael Rappaport) shoots and kills two black guys after a night of drinking and partying. Ray, unwilling to let his family’s name be tarnished, fakes his nephew’s death and him out in Garrison until they can figure out what to do with Superboy. 

I love this movie for multiple reasons, but high among them is that it manages to both feel like a traditional western while also defying the traditional motifs of most modern cop flicks. Cop movies these days seem to only either be procedurals or gritty “examinations” of the shades of gray that exist within the modern justice system. Rarely do you find a cop movie where the protagonist is faced with a clear moral choice with defined choices on either side of the line.

Although, I suppose that’s part of what makes this so engaging, because for Freddy, it isn’t so cut-and-dried once he discovers the truth about Superboy. He’s always dreamed of being a cop (a dream that was shattered when he lost his hearing as a teen saving a girl from drowning in the river). And now he finally has the chance to make the sort of bold stand that good cops must make in administering justice, but he hesitates because of his loyalty to Ray, the man who made him. 

This conundrum wouldn’t be anywhere near as effective, of course, if we weren’t invested in Freddy and thankfully Stallone makes it easy to do just that. This is easily one of the best performances of his career. Sunken, deflated and burned out from a life spent wishing he could go across the river, Freddy is a fairly pathetic figure. With a lesser performance, Freddy would have simply come off as little more than a sack of dirty laundry, incapable of drawing any sort of sympathy from the audience. But Stallone imbues him with a wounded heart that makes it impossible not to root for the guy, especially once he pulls it together and takes a stand for the first time in his life. It’s as soulful a performance as we’d gotten from Stallone since he first played Rocky. 

Rounding things out nicely is the stellar supporting cast with the likes of Keitel, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Robert Patrick, John Spencer and Peter Berg. Liotta is especially great as a coke-sniffing NYPD cop as he gets to essentially be a version of Dean Martin’s Dude character from Rio Bravo. It’s De Niro, though, who is the movie’s supporting MVP. His Moe Tilden is a rumpled, frumpy internal affairs investigator who looks like he stumbled out of any number of cop flicks from the ’70s. This was in the final stretch from about 1997 to 1998 where De Niro gave one last mighty burst of effort before going on autopilot for more than a decade. This isn’t on the level of his work from that same stretch with Jackie Brown, Ronin or even Wag the Dog, but he’s clearly giving it a good push. His “You blew iiiiiiit!” rant at Freddy remains one of my favorite (and oft quoted) bits of the movie. 

I mentioned earlier that this feels like a western and I really think that’s something that director James Mangold doesn’t get enough credit for in putting this film together. The characters, the defined moral choices, the very concept of a lone sheriff standing alone against seemingly insurmountable odds, it’s all classic stuff and Mangold makes it all work in well in a modern setting, something that doesn’t always necessarily translate well. 

Really, this is the sort of low-key (but no less solid) film that I wish we got more of. This isn’t going to blow anyone’s socks off, but it’s filled with great performances and has a solid backbone keeping all the elements in place. It doesn’t redefine genre paradigms, but it’s also not interested in that. It engages in all the right ways and has some great actors doing solid work in the process. It’s hard to ask for much more, honestly.

Filed under copland sylvester stallone robert de niro robert deniro harvey keitel james mangold ray liotta

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31.) Spartan (2004)

I’ve had an uneven relationship with this movie for a while. The first time I saw it, I sort of hated it. It felt barren, broken, stilted and largely like it was trying to make me not like it.

I gave it another shot some time later after developing an appreciation for David Mamet’s other films and scripts and I found a significant amount to enjoy and appreciate in it. This was my third time around with it and I found my appreciation of it has gone up even more. 

At this rate, by the sixth or so time I watch it, it’ll be a minor classic, I guess. 

I love that this is such a stripped-down film. The complete lack of exposition, the way it spends almost no time bogging down into superfluous details, the way it makes you work to find the details of Val Kilmer’s character. Some might call it a barren film, but I like that it feels as no-nonsense as operatives who populate it. It’s always great to watch an older movie and see a character actor you love pop up in it (in this case it’s Clark Gregg (aka Agent Coulson from the recent Marvel movies)). 

But what really stuck out to me this time around was the fact that this isn’t a special ops action thriller at all. It’s a hard boiled detective story wearing military fatigues. It may have the dressing of a special ops thriller, but at its core, Mamet is channeling more Daishell Hammett than Tom Clancy. 

That said, it still bugs me to death the way Mamet demands some of his dialogue be delivered so that it comes out sounding stiff and unnatural. His words are already stylized to the point where it’s phrased in a way that no normal human being would ever say something like that. Usually it works quite well, but every now and then (typically in films he’s directed) he has a line delivered in a way that is distracting in how unnatural and stiff it comes off. This happens on numerous occasions in Spartan. There are probably more instances of it in Heist, but for some reason it didn’t bother me as much as it did here. 

Still, this is about as efficient as films get and I’ve got to give Mamet props for the way he trusts his audience enough to let them suss out details, motivations and arcs enough on their own without ever spoonfeeding a single bite to them. I can’t wait to see what new bit of appreciation I unearth the next time it gets a spin. 

Filed under spartan david mamet val kilmer clark gregg movies prose tom clancy daishell hammett

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30.) Heist (2001)

Wag the Dog got me itching to revisit more David Mamet material so in went Heist, though I was somewhat surprised to realize just how much of Mamet’s stuff I have in my library. I’ve got more than I thought so it’s going to be fun going through them for the next several entries. 

This is a great little movie. And I sort of want to emphasize the “little” part of that phrase. It’s a contained film. The setpieces are small. The story is contained to only a handful of characters. The heist at the center of it is downright miniscule, compared to what most movie heists go for. But that’s all part of what I really enjoy about this. I love that it seems to be taking place in this nondescript New England town.

Movie heists seem to happen almost exclusively in Chicago or Los Angeles or New York City or some other high profile city. Joe Moore (Gene Hackman) and his crew seem to have the right idea of pulling off jobs where you don’t have a massive police force to respond to a well-planned robbery. That’s not a tactic explicitly (or even subtly) stated, just an observation that seems to fit. Mamet writes Joe as a shrewd, canny tactician when it comes to planning jobs. “I wouldn’t tie my shoes without a backup plan,” he says.

That’s never really shoved in our face, though. Most other movies would likely revel in showing each elaborate step taken to outwit and outmaneuver Joe’s foes (probably in a slick montage with fancy editing, loud music and maybe even some kinetic typography), but Mamet (who also directed) keeps it all very matter-of-fact. He gives us enough to show that Joe is always two moves ahead and mostly leaves it at that. Such restraint is what keeps the movie feeling contained and yet still very satisfying. 

Hackman is great as Joe and it really makes me wish the man had done one last role in this vein before retiring, instead of going out on something like Welcome to Mooseport. They don’t make tough guys like Hackman anymore, just that special brand of creased, no-nonsense professional. 

Which, of course, is why he’s such a perfect fit for Mamet’s material. That precise style of man’s man is Mamet’s bread and butter. Only Michael Mann surpasses him in crafting professional men who live and die by their dedication to doing what they do and doing it well. And now I just want Mamet and Mann to collaborate on something because OH MY GOD THAT WOULD BE AMAZING WHY HASN’T THIS HAPPENED BEFORE?!?!?!

*ahem*

And speaking of Mamet’s affectations, his trademark stylized dialogue is in full effect here (you can always tell it’s Mamet-written once characters start repeating themselves), and like in all of his stuff there’s more than a few lines that make absolutely no sense when you try and say them but in the context of the work itself it just feels right. Not many people can get away with that, but that’s what makes Mamet Mamet, I suppose. 

Movies like this are all too rare, ones that exist simply to give us solid writing, good characters and just be satisfied in providing a contained, well-executed piece of entertainment. When people say “Oh, I just want something to enjoy,” this is what they should be getting. It’s not some profound piece of film that will enlighten you, but it is thoroughly entertaining without being idiotic and watered down. 

More Mamet next entry. Maybe Spartan, maybe Redbelt, we’ll see. 

Filed under heist david mamet gene hackman delroy lindo sam rockwell danny devito prose movies

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29.) Wag the Dog

Given all the presidential election shenanigans going on right now, it felt like the perfect time to revisit one of my favorite politically-centered films: Wag the Dog. 

Films about politics or politicians or the electoral process or what have you are almost exclusively cynical these days. Be it in a comedic or more straightforward manner, I can’t remember the last time that a film about politics contained even a shred of optimism. Wag the Dog is one of the most cynical political films I’ve ever watched. The amazing thing? It never feels like a drag watching it. 

Robert De Niro (in one of his final performances where he genuinely cared about his craft) is Conrad Brean, a “fixer” who gets called in when a political maelstrom threatens the president. It’s implied that Conrad essentially acts on retainer and that he’s done this sort of thing for multiple presidents. This time he’s called in to distract the nation. It’s only 11 days until the nation votes to either re-elect or oust the president and the story has just hit that the POTUS has allegedly acted improperly with a Firely Girl (this movie’s version of a Girl Scout). 

Refusing to know whether or not the president is guilty (one way or the other, it’s irrelevant to his job), Conrad sets out to fabricate just enough of a distraction to keep the press and public at bay until Election Day, which comes in the form of a fictional war between the United States and a band of Albanian terrorists. To do this, though, he needs the help of the best fakery artists in the world, which naturally means he heads to Hollywood to recruit producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman). 

With costumes, special effects, songs and actors, “It’s a pageant,” that they’re creating, Conrad explains. Which is essentially true. They film about 15 seconds of footage where a young actress is seen fleeing a terrorist-invaded village (all created digitally), which the press then loops continuously. Songs are recorded and then “spontaneously” discovered from the Library of Congress’ archives to coincide with the support campaign for a soldier still missing behind enemy lines (who in actuality is a mentally unstable soldier being held in military custody). In other words, all the things that go along with a modern war effort are manufactured wholesale and the public eats it up, hook, line and sinker, all so the president can get re-elected. 

Like I said, cynical to the core, though I’m not sure who David Mamet (who penned the script) is more cynical toward: the public for just blindly lapping this stuff up or the White House for playing puppeteer. 

Despite this, however, it’s a remarkably funny movie and director Barry Levinson manages to keep the tone light more or less throughout, to the point where it’s easy to miss just how cynical Mamet is being with his script. 

There’s a lot to like here, though for me stuff to savor on repeat viewings are the performances by De Niro and Hoffman. De Niro stopped giving a crap a long time ago, and this along with Ronin (which he made immediately following) were the last two films where gave really solid work. Conrad is far from his most memorable role, but he inhabits it well. There’s a specific rhythm to Mamet’s scripts and De Niro (like he did with Ronin) slips into it wonderfully. I’d love to see the two of them collaborate on something. 

Hoffman, though, might be my favorite thing. The man is about as consistent a performer as you could ask for and here he’s visibly having a great time as the fame-chasing producer who never lets a bad situation get him down. No matter how grim things get as they fabricate this war, he always has a filmmaking anecdote that makes the situation seem like small potatoes by comparison. “During the filming of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, three of the horsemen died two weeks before the ending of principle photography. This is…this is nothing.” That he does all this essentially in a light imitation of the infamous, flamed-out former mega-producer Robert Evans only makes it better. I love it. 

What’s most interesting, though, is how eerily similar the specifics of the entire story match up to the real-life events of Bill Clinton’s adultery scandal, right down to military action being taken soon after the scandal came to light. It wasn’t intended as such because the script had already been finished and shooting begun when the scandal broke, but it’s uncanny how closely they line up. 

Interesting still is how prescient it remained, as Mamet makes the statement that small bands of terrorists will be the spark for international war in the future and that it will be even easier to fabricate evidence to justify those wars. Makes me curious what bit of socio-political analysis is lurking elsewhere in this that will turn out to be accurate another decade or so down the line. 

Regardless, this is a pretty great, largely overlooked film that is worth at least a couple viewings. 

Filed under wag the dog politics bill clinton robert de niro robert deniro dustin hoffman barry levinson david mamet

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28.) Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

Self-awareness is a difficult thing to pull off, especially in films. 

The most obvious risk is playing it too strong. Do that, and the whole thing either feels smug or heavy-handed (or a lot of times both) and you end up with a film that becomes unbearable because it’s just oh-so-proud of how “smart” it’s trying to be. 

However, when it’s done right, you get something like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a film which is, for my money, a minor masterpiece in the way it mashes up comedy and hard boiled storytelling with just the right amount of self-awareness. How many other films can comment (often quite literally) on a genre while also serving as a fully functioning entry in said genre? Not many, I would wager. 

And yet, that’s precisely what writer/director Shane Black accomplishes with this great, great movie. He’s crafted a film that not only pokes laugh-out-loud fun at the pulp detective genre, but also manages to provide a narrative spine that would (were it wholly bereft of its delightful sense of humor) fit right alongside any other piece of its kind. 

Basically what I am saying is that this film is something of a small miracle.

No, really, it sort of is. How else do you describe the result of a first-time director giving a washed-up flame-out like Robert Downey Jr. the role that would propel him toward a fairy tale-esque career revival while also reminding everyone what an absurdly underused comedic talent Val Kilmer is while also pulling off the above described aspects of said film? 

Like I said, a small miracle. 

This is such a great movie, one that remains fresh no matter how many times I watch it. Endlessly quotable and with a breezy energy to it, it makes me sad that Black wasn’t flooded with more offers to write and direct after this came out. Oh well, at least he gets to reunite with Downey on Iron Man 3. 

Filed under robert downey jr. val kilmer robert downey jr robert downey shane black kiss kiss bang bang kiss bang prose

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27.) Knock Off (1998)

Knowingly or not, Jean-Claude Van Damme delivers the most succinct, fitting line of his entire career in the opening minutes of Knock Off, his second (and sadly, final) collaboration with Hong Kong pioneer, Tsui Hark. “I always make a quality piece of crap.” Van Damme’s own description of Knock Off (as printed in the DVD insert): “The combination of Knock Off and Hong Kong is like Blade Runner on Earth.”

Van Damme may not (by and large) make what anyone can honestly consider “good” movies (i.e. they’re never gonna win awards, although “JCVD” came darn close), but they are often relentlessly entertaining. 

I mentioned in my last entry how Hark seemed to be going for a comedy with Double Team, though you could certainly argue otherwise. I don’t think there’s a way you can call Knock Off anything but. Green explosions. POV shots with the following things: A human foot, a gun barrel, a newspaper, a dim sum cart. Camera angles that make no sense and yet feel wholly inspired. A tracking shot following the frequency of a cell phone. Seriously, green explosions. A guy getting killed by a rocket shot out of a safe. A POV shot of the rocket before it gets fired from said safe. Rob Schneider as a CIA agent. Rob Schneider as a CIA agent slapping Van Damme’s ass with an eel as Van Damme pulls him along in a rickshaw race. A giant Buddha statue being exploded and then engulfed by green flame. A villainous henchman who tries to kill Van Damme using his eyeglass lenses. A plot that hinges on exploding counterfeit blue jeans.

I’ll wait as you all rush out to find this thing on DVD.

This movie is pure ridiculousness from start to finish. Part of it is due to the fact that Van Damme constantly looks like he’s at his most coked-out (there’s maybe two shots in the entire film where he doesn’t look like he’s been sweating for days). The other part is that this is probably the one film in his entire filmography that feels like an honest-to-goodness Asian martial arts flick. The choreography, the fights involving swarms of faceless Asian henchmen all wielding machetes, the fluidity of Hark’s camera in said fights and the improvised feel of the fight scenes make it feel like something Jackie Chan might’ve done. It’s a movie that never takes itself seriously for a single second and it’s difficult not to just laugh right along with it at every turn. 

Hark imbues the thing with this sort of devil may care energy, flipping, sliding, panning and craning his camera in unexpected ways that make it look like no other martial arts flick I’ve ever watched. Hark has certainly directed (and produced) better, more important movies, but there’s something to be said about a movie where he just sort of thumbs his nose at everyone and everything and makes something this unabashedly silly. 

I’ve got one more Hark film in my collection that I’ll write about next, and it’s a considerable deviation (tonally, at least) from these last two films.

Filed under jean-claude van damme van damme tsui hark paul sorvino knock off rob schneider hong kong cinema