Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Kill Bill (Volumes 1 and 2)

What About It?
(for a full summary of Kill Bill 1 and 2, scroll down to "What Happens?"
Be sure to check out The Smoking Pen for more posts on "Kill Bill" as part of M's Tarantino Blogathon
And, as always, check out the Criminal Movies Facebook Page for trailers, clips and tunes from the film.)

Kill Bill is not a complicated movie in terms of plot. Once you know it's a revenge story you know a lot about what to expect. The real enjoyment of Kill Bill is the overwhelming sense, that Tarantino has seen an awful lot of revenge movies, grind house movies, and 1970's martial arts movies, (which have many times been the same movies,)and here was given a chance to make the film the way he'd always wanted to see it. Kill Bill is a film that feels like pure, excited indulgence. It's easy to picture Tarantino and Uma Thurman talking about the story of "The Bride" that late become this film.  Rather than try to surprise the audience with a baffling plot, it delights in its own storytelling and brags about the impossible happening, only to top it with something more impossible in the next scene. We start with a woman that's been shot in the head by a master assassin. By all rights, that should be the end of the show. But Kill Bill is a list of "impossible things that could never happen." and it doesn't mind that one bit.

It reminds of the absurd stories that kids tell each other only for fun, being constantly added to with any objection. One kid might say, so the bride gets shot in the head and barely survives in a coma for four years. She wakes up and swears revenge. A second kid would interject, "But if she's been in a coma for four years, she wouldn't be able to walk." The first kid, rather than take back the beginning, amends it, says oh yeah, right, she escapes the hospital in a wheelchair and then by focusing on getting her big toe to move, she gets her legs working through pure training and will power.The second kid can only respond with, "Oh, yeah, ok, so then what happens?" The first kid might then continue, Well, then she decides to go after the people that tried to kill her, the five most deadly killers in the world. Both the kid telling the story and the one listening are hooked and the absurdity of the story, is part of the fun of telling it. It doesn't matter what could really happen, only what they want to see happen.

I've seen the idea presented that Kill Bill is part of the cinematic universe that the characters in Tarantino's main universe watch at the theatre, and I'm very fond of that idea. There is certainly a similarity between the "Deadly Viper Assassination Squad" and "Fox Force Five" the television pilot that Mia Wallace, Uma Thurman's role in "Pulp Fiction," had been a part of. Whether or not that's true, it certainly enjoys being in the film universe, and Tarantino's nods to film styles and other films only add to the enjoyment. Obviously great pains were taken to give this film the feel of a 70's martial arts film. It's certainly no accident that The Bride's yellow jumpsuit is identical to the one Bruce Lee wore. The impossible battles the bride overcomes would certainly fit well in a Bruce Lee film, or for that matter, any number of Martial Arts movies. The Invincible Martial arts teacher Pai Mei, is a staple from classic martial arts films, including those of the Shaw Brothers like "Executioners from Shaolin" It's not accidental that Tarantino shot part of the film at the same Shaw Brothers Studio in Hong Kong. The impossible feats such as Pai Mei standing on the blade of a sword are plentiful in 70's martial arts films. Tarantino didn't invent that, but he clearly enjoyed it and fully embraced the sensibility and runs with it here. He even treats the gore in traditional 70's martial arts fashion, severed limbs cause fountains of blood. Rather than go for realism he sticks with the form.

There is also the important inclusion of Sonny Chiba, who was huge in 1970's martial arts films (particularly The Street Fighter, which is mentioned and watched by Clarence in True Romance, another film Tarantino wrote.) Other touches, such as Elle Driver whistling "Twisted Nerve" a song from the 1968 Thriller of the same name about a deranged killer, changes her walk down a hospital hallway from harmless to threatening instantly. Beyond that many of his shots reference films from many genres. The Brides burial is nearly identical to a sequence in a "Django Film" Many of the Desert shots are patterned on "Once Upon a Time in the West" You could spend days comparing shots in Kill Bill to those in other films. Tarantino of course, makes no secret of being inspired by them, but he manages to make the shots his own, with the added benefit of bringing in associations from the other films, which gives the characters and the story a complexity that simply wouldn't be possible otherwise. Detractors may call it stealing shots, but in my mind, Tarantino loves paying in the same sandbox, where the toys were left by filmmakers that moved him. I haven't heard him bragging about "inventing" shots, so much as he brags about telling a thrilling and stylish story. I can easily imagine him watching a film and thinking, "Wow, that's a great shot." and then basing his own shot on it later, knowing how effective it will be for his purpose.  This is a man who insists on shooting at the Shaw Brothers Studio, because the martial arts films he loved were shot there. There's no attempt to hide influence, rather the reverse. Of course, for Tarantino, every film technique is fair game. He doesn't hesitate to go from black and white to color, or to tell one chapter with animation. He has no problem letting the Bride directly address the audience either, but he fits everything together and makes it work.

Of course the selection of actors in "Kill Bill" is also notable. David Carradine, our main villain is best known for the "Master of Kung Fu" TV series, which many of us grew up with. While we know that Bill is a completely different character, knowledge of the previous role makes it easier for us to believe how deadly he is. This is probably my favorite role that Carradine's ever done. Bill is an enjoyable villain in that he's completely evil and dishonest, but not reliably so. With a straight face, he can tell The Bride that the chapel massacre was him "overreacting."  Yet for all his evil, he seems genuinely pleased to discover that the Bride knew the "Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique." and knowing he's about to die, he can't help but tell her that she's his favorite person in the world. The fact that he's evil doesn't keep him from having some good points either, when he accuses The Bride of playing Clark Kent, she has to admit that he's right. While his screen time is less than most here, his presence saturates the film.

Michael Madsen's role is certainly enhanced by his role in another Tarantino film, "Reservoir Dogs." It seems that Tarantino knows how to play to Madsen's strengths. Here he's certainly a different character than Vic Vega, but we know that there's a lot of danger beneath the surface. The tension this creates in scenes such as  his boss at the strip club childishly berating him, is terrific. Of all the Deadly Vipers, Budd is the most resigned to his fate, yet he isn't going to go quietly. It's strangely thrilling moment when he bests the Bride as we realize he hasn't quite given up his spirit.  Of course we're just as happy when she escapes, and infuriated when Elle Driver betrays him. We learn that he didn't pawn the sword Bill gave him at all, only wanted to think so. And of course when he buries the Bride, he tells her "This is for breaking my brother's heart." It's a surprising amount of range for a relatively small scene. Of all of the characters except the Bride, Budd gets the closest to a full journey.

Lucy Liu is fantastic as O-Ren Ishii.  The Bride's battle with O'Ren and her henchmen/women is certainly the most steeped in martial art films and comes across as almost a film in itself. Her scene decapitating the man questioning her heritage, tells us what to expect from her. While their final showdown comes across as a bit short, the entire sequence is enough to anchor the first film. O'Ren's true threat is her treachery and ruthlessness and her minions are a direct extension of that. That said O'Ren could never stop the Bride because as Budd points out  "People got a job to do, they tend to live a little bit longer so they can do it. I've always figured that warriors and their enemies share the same relationship." As we know from the tradition of revenge movies, The Bride will live until she gets to Bill. The O'Ren scenes establish this and the fact that the Bride is not concerned about the impossible feats.

Vivica Fox is great as Vernita Green. She's out of the life now, but unlike Budd, she isn't resigned to anything. She has a daughter now and a new life, but she hasn't paid for her old one, and doesn't seem at all concerned about it. Her attempts to use her daughter as a tool to get the upper hand show us what we need to know about her character. Certainly their fight destroying everything in her quiet Pasadena home provides an interesting contrast. And of course this sets up the implication that the Bride herself is not unaware of consequences, as she tells Vernita's girl "I'll be waiting." as if we're watching the beginning of another film.

Daryl Hannah is a standout here and a treat to watch. Her Elle Driver is the most twisted of them all. She has seemingly tried to occupy the Bride's place in her absence, hardly changing her role at all in four years. We see the similarity and differences in the training from Pai Mei, the Bride gaining valuable training, while Elle has her eye plucked out. While everyone else seems to have other goals, Elle revels in the killing for it's own sake. She has little reason to kill Budd, except for the fact that he supposedly killed the Bride, which she wanted to do, and of course the ability for her to take credit for Budd's deeds. Elle is a fun house mirror image of what the Bride could've been.

Uma Thurman carries the lead role exceptionally well. While the Bride is certainly not one that the Academy would think about at Oscar time, she manages to handle the absurdity and impossibility of her character with gravity and a straight face. Although some of the feats are so improbable that they become comic, because of Thurman's commitment to the part, we simply accept the story and cheer her on. She comes across her as a convincing action hero without a doubt. Tarantino's decision to use an almost all female cast is an interesting one and proves that action movies don't have to be just for the guys.

The supporting cast is always a big part of Tarantino films and "Kill Bill" is no exception. Sonny Chiba as the legendary Hanzo Hattori gives us both comic relief in his sushi chef guise, and respect as the ultimate sword maker. Michael Parks in dual roles as Sheriff Earl Parks and Esteban Vihaio gives us two enjoyable sequences. Chia Hui Liu also has two roles as Pai Mei and Johnny Mo, Pai Mei certainly being the most notable. His sequence gives us a strong and affectionate connection to the 70's films.

"Kill Bill" doesn't aim to reinvent the wheel, simply to construct Tarantino's version of what a wheel should be. In this case it's a story, a great big story that we only need to believe while watching it, and we do because it's so exciting to see the Bride settle the score,and we like all good stories, we just need to know what happens next. Tarantino's love of grindhouse cinema has never been a secret and he certainly gave nods to it in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, and headed a little further in that direction with "Jackie Brown" but here he dives completely in, playing with every toy in the film sandbox. It feels very much like a celebration of all the films that inspired him, but also stands on its own just fine. He must have had fun, since his next film was "Death Proof" billed as a true Grindhouse throwback. Kill Bill is such a departure from his previous films that I have difficulty even comparing them. It's a fantastic entry into the grindhouse martial arts revenge film tradition.

What Happens?

We're told that the  "Revenge is a dish best served cold." (Old Klingon Proverb) We then see in Black and White, a bloody and badly wounded Bride (Uma Thurman) sobbing on the floor of a church. We hear Bill's cowboy boots approach on the hard wood floor, before he (David Carradine) leans down and explains while wiping her face with his personally monogrammed handkerchief, that "There's nothing sadistic about his actions." but rather "This is me at my most masochistic." The suffering bride tells Bill that she's carrying his baby. We hear a gunshot, the sound of Bill shooting her in the head, and the credits begin. We're then introduced to the five names of the actor playing the "Deadly Viper Assassination Squad" In order then continue the credits as as we watch the Bride lying still on the floor.

1. Lucy Liu as O'Ren Ishii
2.Vivica A. Fox as Vernita Green
3. Michael Madsen as Bud
4. Daryl Hannah as Elle Driver
5. David Carradine as Bill

Chapter 1
The Bride drives a pick  up truck to a nice house in a quiet upscale neighborhood and rings the doorbell. While waiting, she remembers another scene from her wedding, and one of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) attacking her. The moment the door opens she punches Vernita in the face. The two of them fight, going from fists to knives pretty quickly. They pause their fight however, when Vernita's young daughter, Nikki gets home from school.  Although Nikki notices the place is trashed, Vernita blames the dog for the mess. The two women insist that everything is OK. The Bride asks Nikki how old she is, and mentions that her little girl would be about her age now.
We learn that Vernita and The Bride were both members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, Vernita is "Copperhead" and the Bride was "Black Mamba." The Bride says she won't kill Vernita in front of her child and they plan to meet later to finish the fight. However, Vernita attempts to shoot the Bride with a hidden gun, and the Bride responds by killing her with a throwing knife as Nikki walks back into the room. The Bride tells her to come find her when she grows up if she "It was not my intention to do this in front of you. For that, I'm sorry, but you can take my word for it, your mother had it coming." She tells Nikki if she can't get over it "I'll be waiting."  The Bride leaves in her pick up which we see is labelled "Pussy Wagon" She crosses Vernita's name off the number 2 spot on her  "Death List Five" We see that O'Ren Ishii is already crossed off.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Killer

What About It?

The Killer is first and foremost an action film and was John Woo's effort that brought him to the attention of Hollywood. Although it's clear watching the film that it was shot on a limited budget, what's astounding is the style that Woo produced despite that. While there are countless scenes of people getting shot, Woo doesn't seem overly concerned with the gore element as much as the motion. With carefully choreographed movements, slow motion, and focus to particular detail, the gunfight seems like a kind of dance. Several scenes feature one or two men holding of an army. He isn't always concerned with realism, celebrating the ability of cinema to exaggerate and take a scene over the top, but he doesn't ignore it either. Ah Jong may kill twenty people more easily than you can believe, but he doesn't get off without a scratch. We watch as bullets are pulled from his back, and gunpowder is lit in an injury. We see Fung Sei, despite his useless hand take out a room full of thugs and escape with a briefcase full of money, but his victory is short lived as he'll be gunned down in a few minutes. The flying bullets are accented by doves, a recognized symbol of peace, flying around in the midst of it all. Watching Ah Jong with  a gun in each hand sliding across the floor on his back, we know this isn't a conventional gunfight. It's also easy to see how so many films were influenced by Woo's style. "The Matrix" for example, owes as much to John Woo as it does to George Lucas. Of course "The Killer" itself was not created in a vacuum. Woo credits Melville's classic hit man film "Le Samourai" and Scorsese's "Mean Streets" as direct influences, and you can certainly see them all through the work.

The victor in these scenes seems to be determined by force of will more than anything else, but even that has it's limitations.  In many cases, people simply refuse to be stopped until they've fulfilled their mission. Fung Sei can be killed once he's fulfilled his promise and delivered Ah Jong his money, Ah Jong can be killed, once he's satisfied that Jenny will be taken care of. Wong can be killed once he's fully illustrated that neither Ah Jong or Li Ying have a place in the contemporary police force/ triad organization.

Using talented actors and meticulous attention to detail, Woo transcends limitations and delivers an overwhelming movie watching experience. Chow Yun Fat gives us a believable character who can without hesitation open fire in a restaurant and in the next scene struggle to repair the damage he's caused an innocent.It's quite a trick to make a cold blooded killer who is as likely to be compassionate as he is to kill, but he easily pulls it off. He also sells the action well, looking formidable in every battle. Danny Lee presents Li Ying as a determined cop, very competent but ill equipped for politics. Where Chow Yun Fat comes off as graceful, Danny Lee appears effective by virtue of tenacity and willingness to charge straight ahead. They work very with and against each other. Sally Yeh gives a good performance although her character is at times almost unbelievably simple. Her best moment is figuring out that she's blind using the candles, but not saying anything about it. Kenneth Tsang also presents a compelling character although he has little screen time.

These characters are defined as much by visual cues as by what they say. Ah Jong is a hit man who feels most at home in a church. A short slow motion sequence as he walks with his hat, scarf and coat on, give us the idea that he can flow somewhere as much as walk. His every movement is calculated and as Li Ying points out, his "every shot takes a life." In contrast with the scores of other triad killers here, Ah Jong is a loner. He doesn't go to triad meetings, but has one point of contact. This is not a dime a dozen killer, but a specialized one, guaranteed to get results and disappear. But, as with many hit man films, the killer is tired of the lifestyle. He tells Jenny late in the film that he had once assumed he would only kill bad guys, "but it isn't that easy." In case we doubt this fact, we have it illustrated. Ah Jong attempts to help two innocents caught up in the results of his lifestyle, the little girl, and Jenny. Each contract he takes in the movie has a civilian casualty cost, and he clearly isn't okay with that. This is not really the job he signed up for. In conversations with Li Ying, he mentions that in his profession there are rules, such as not shooting someone in the back, but those rules now only exist in his head, as the triad presented here runs almost entirely on betrayal. Both of his assigned hits are relatives of Wong Hoi, who has them removed as if they were minor obstacles.

As the head of the organization, Wong Hoi is a symbol of it's current state and values. This is also true of Li Ying's police chief, who is only interested in the appearance of the department and his own prospects for promotion. Li Ying is as bad a fit in the department as Ah Jong is in the triads. Both are men looking to serve an ideal that perhaps doesn't even exist in reality. It could even be said that both are really interested in Justice, Yi Ling says as much for himself. Ah Jong's imagined scenario where he kills only bad people aims for the same goal, except that he knows by now it's impossible. Neither character can hope for justice anymore. They've arrived at the point where they have to settle for the closest thing they can accomplish now. When Ah Jong realizes what "the right thing" to do is, he knows it will most likely be fatal and accepts that even suggesting that Li Ying arrange to have Jenny get his eyes. Of course that doesn't quite work out. His eyes are shot out, as if to say "You can't be a killer your whole life, and then expect the reward you want for being good."  He had a back up plan as well, but that's also in question. Can Li Ying make sure Jenny gets the money and catches a plane while he's under arrest? It's doubtful. But, Li Ying couldn't allow Wong Hoi to live. In this action he realize that he does have more in common with Ah Jong than he first thought. He had to kill the bad man and become the  executioner just as Ah Jong had done.

Initially we're presented with Ah Jong and Li Ying as two sides of a coin, destined adversaries. But the story blurs their initial roles, Li Ying is disgusted with the police force and seeks only to avenge his partner, while Ah Jong must avenge the actions taken against himself leading them both to Wong Hoi. Neither of their chosen professions are challenged by shooting at roomfuls of men who are shooting at them, and both want to see Jenny safe and getting her operation. Yet their strongest common bond is that neither fits in the role they've chosen any longer. Both of them know this and as a result are loners by nature. Each one of them has a trusted friend who is killed, quite possibly leaving them with only each other for friendship. Fung Sei tells Ah Jong at one point "When the time comes to die, I don't want to leave without even one friend." This is a wish which likely makes a lot of sense to both Li Ying and Ah Jong, as they are very close to that point.

Ah Jong tells Li Ying "Funny that the only one who understands me would be a cop." The wish to be understood is there for both, as understanding would help them mean something and perhaps give their quests to achieve impossible ideals a little meaning. "Loyalty" after all, is a part of the code that each adheres to but is ignored by both of their employers. They do achieve this, although very briefly. In the short span of time they know each other, they form a strong friendship, which may be the most unlikely thing they could hope for. It is a hopeful note though, proving that while their values are rare, they are not quite extinct. "Show me how to retrace my steps" Ah Jong tells Li Ying, certainly a thought that many have had, but only spoken in the moments when it hurts that it can't be done.

What Happens?

The film opens on a church with stained glass windows and many candle lit inside. Ah Jong (Chow Yun Fat) watches a statue of the Madonna, while waiting for an associate, Fung Sei (Chu Kong.) Fung Sei arrives and asks Ah Jong "Do you believe in all this?" Ah Jong replies "I like it because it's quiet in here." Fung Sei hands him a briefcase containing money, documentation, a photo of a man, and a number of pistols. Fung Sei asks if he'd like to examine the guns, but Ah Jong assures him "I trust you."

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Top Ten Robert De Niro Anti Heroes

Widely regarded as one of the greatest actors of all time, Robert De Niro is often thought of as a guy who plays gangsters for a living. While he's certainly done plenty of those roles, he's also played diverse roles in some of the best films of all time. His commitment to the part of Jake LaMotta is often used to illustrate the limit of dedication to acting. His work with Martin Scorsese alone would be enough to make him legendary. While he hasn't received as much respect for his most recent years, he's clearly an actor that loves to work and his willingness to take a risk rather than rest on his laurels is its own statement and with almost 100 films to his credit, it's a strong one. Even today his presence is likely to be the high point of a film. Films like "Stone" and "Ronin" should be enough to dispel doubts about his contemporary ability. In trying to pick his top ten anti heroes, it was inevitable that some notables would be left out. The Godfather Part II and Goodfellas are my most felt omissions, both left out for similiar reasons, simply that while De Niro was great in both, he wasn't center stage. Feel free to mention your favorites in the comments if I left out one you love.

10. Louis Cyphre (Angel Heart)

One of the creepiest portrayals of the devil on screen. De Niro is presented at first as a ruthless businessman trying to find a missing musician, Johnny Favourite,  in order to enforce a contract. He hires private detective Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) who ends up more deeply involved in the case than he could imagine. Although his name is a pretty big hint. You wouldn't think long fingernails or the way someone eats an egg would be menacing, but they are here. DeNiro plays it straight out of a surreal nightmare. He's cast perfectly for this noirish detective story with a supernatural twist.
No matter how cleverly you sneak up on a mirror, your reflection always looks you straight in the eye.

9. Max Cady (Cape Fear)

While I'll always be a little partial to Robert Mitchum, De Niro certainly made his version of Max Cady a memorable one. Where Mitchum was a master at looming, DeNiro's menace seemed more rooted in the physical. The other factor is the pairing of DeNiro and Nolte, versus Mitchum and Peck. DeNiro easily dominates Nolte, while Gregory Peck is a pretty respectable match for Mitchum. In both cases, you can easily believe that Cady is a true psychopath, capable of any twisted act of cruelty necessary to get his revenge and it's a miracle if the attorney escapes.
It's not necessary to lay a foul tongue on me my friend. I could get upset. Things could get out of hand. Then in self defense, I could do something to you that you would not like, right here.

8. Ace Rothstein (Casino)

More of a numbers guy than a thug, Ace Rothstein becomes essential to the gambling business in Las Vegas. With his old friend Nicky (Joe Pesci) by his side, Ace struggles to keep everything under his control. Of course large amounts of money can have unexpected effects. Ace doesn't count on the actions of Ginger (Sharon Stone) a hustler he falls in love with, whose loyalties are elsewhere. He also has to deal with the fallout from Nicky's increasingly psychopathic tendencies. Add in politics, the mob, and ever uncertain loyalties, and Ace has far too much on his plate to deal with.
The longer they play, the more they lose, and in the end, we get it all.

7. Neil McCauley (Heat)

Neil McCauley is a professional bank robber, who has heists down to a science. He's equipped with a very serious and competent crew and stays out of prison living by the motto "Never have anything in your life that you can't walk out on in thirty seconds flat, if you spot the heat coming around the corner." However, after a job goes bad, Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) notices Neil, and lets him know about it, while Neil and crew plan one more big job. Neil shows a bad sense of timing and falls in love in the midst of this. This of course leads to a big showdown with Hanna, the toughest opponent he could ask for.
A guy told me one time, "Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner." Now, if you're on me and you gotta move when I move, how do you expect to keep a... a marriage?

6. Johnny Boy (Mean Streets)

Charlie (Harvey Keitel) and Johnny Boy grew up together in Little Italy. While Charlie is concerned with his place in the Mafia  and in the Catholic Church, Johnny Boy seems oblivious to it all, instead revelling in his status as a thug. He isn't concerned about who he offends or owes money to, as much as he's determined to live up to his own idea of the gangster image. This makes things difficult for Charlie, who feels he has to look out for Johnny Boy. The consequences of Johnny Boy's recklessness are bound to catch up with them both and it's not likely that either Charlie or Johnny Boy are ready for success.
I fuck you right where you breath, because I don't give two shits about you or nobody else.

5. Rupert Pupkin (The King of Comedy)

Rupert Pupkin wants to be a famous stand up comic, although he's not very talented. He imagines that super popular talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) could make his dreams come true, by having him perform on his show. He stalks Langford as an obsessive fan with no success, and finally decides that his only chance at a big break is to kidnap Langford and force him to put him on TV. Given the limelight, Pupkin tells the audience what he's done, and adds "better to be king for a night, than schmuck for a lifetime."  Although faced with prison for his actions, we find that his plan perhaps wasn't so crazy after all.
Why not me? Why not? A guy can get anything he wants as long as he pays the price. What's wrong with that? Stranger things have happened.

4. Michael (The Deer Hunter)

Three friends from a working class town, Michael (Robert DeNiro) Steven (John Savage,) and Nick (Christopher Walken) are eager to serve together in the Vietnam War. Captured and held in a POW camp, their captors force them to play Russian Roulette among other tortures. The three manage a difficult escape but end up separated. Michael returns home but has a tough time adjusting to civilian life, wondering about his friends. He has difficulty hunting deer, once a favorite pastime, as he has trouble with the killing now. Briefly, he believes that Nick and Steven are both dead, but finds out that Steven has lost his legs due to injuries from their escape. During his visit, he gets a clue on Nick's whereabouts and attempts to retrieve him from a gambling den where he plays Russian Roulette for the benefit of gamblers. He finds that Nick has been changed even more than he has by the years since Viet Nam.
You have to think about one shot. One shot is what it's all about. A deer's gotta be taken with one shot.

3. Jake LaMotta, (Raging Bull)

We catch up with Jake LaMotta well past the end of his boxing career. We're shown his rise and fall, starting as a talented up and coming boxer, but getting sidetracked by his anger and jealousy. Realizing he needs the mob to get a title match, he throws a fight but makes it much too obvious and ends up suspended. Eventually he does win the championship although he's more consumed with jealousy concerning his wife. His abusiveness ends up alienating everyone he cares about including his brother Joey. His wife divorces him and he serves prison time for setting up underage girls with adult men. We get a picture of a man who nearly had everything, but couldn't stop his own self destructiveness. DeNiro's preparation for the role is legendary and shows through as he truly becomes LaMotta from start to finish.
I've done a lot of bad things, Joey. Maybe it's comin' back to me.

2. Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver)

Travis Bickle drives a cab because he can't sleep. He refers to himself as "God's lonely man." as he's unable to connect with anybody. He just drives through NYC, picking people up and dropping them off. He becomes fixated on "Betsy (Cybil Shepherd) a woman working on a political campaign for a Senator Palatine. It becomes obvious quickly that Bickle doesn't have a chance with Betsy due to his absolute lack of understanding social skills. He can't stop thinking about cleaning up "the scum" from the city streets and buys a gun. This leads him into a deranged plan to assassinate Palatine, which is aborted when he's spotted by secret service men. He also meets a teenaged prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster) and ends up altering his "quest" from killing Palatine to freeing Iris. Perhaps the most memorable anti heroes in cinema, Bickle is a
character who only by chance ends up looking the hero, and certainly never feels like it.
Thank God for the rain to wash the trash off the sidewalk.

1. "Noodles" Aaronson, (Once Upon A Time in America)

A truly epic film, Once Upon A Time in America, tells the story of "Noodles" Aaronson from growing up in Brooklyn in the '20's to returning home in 1968. He and some other kids in the neighborhood , most notably a kid named Max, form their own gang and pursue petty theft and crime, clashing with other  small time young crooks. Noodles is in love with Deborah, the local butchers daughter. An invention of Noodles impresses mobster Capuano and starts the boys earning serious money, which they keep in a train station locker, agreeing to only open it when all are present. They end up at odds with the local mobster, Bugsy who doesn't like their gang running independently. In their confrontation one of the gang is killed and Noodles, enraged, stabs a cop and gets sent away to prison. On his release, Max (James Woods) picks him up, and he learns that the gang has changed and they now run a funeral parlor to cover their real income which is illegal liquor, due to the Prohibition. He discovers that the gang is now taking orders from mobster Frankie Manoldi, which doesn't sit well with him. He reconnects with Deborah, and rapes her, ruining any chance at a further relationship. After everyone in the gang is killed in a heist gone wrong, he finds the money at the train station has been replaced by newspaper and his girlfriend is murdered. Noodles leaves town and goes to Buffalo. He returns in 1968 and finds his friends' graves were moved. He also finds money in the locker again, and that Max may not be as dead as he appeared to be, but the time may have come to settle things. I can't think of another film that better presents the weight of a whole life spent badly, and DeNiro is fully there every step of the way.
I'm not that kind of guy. Besides, I'm afraid if I give you a good crack in the mouth, you'd probably like it.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Liebster Award

I'm the latest victim of a blogging award, thanks to my pal, M. over at The Smoking Pen. Since she writes one of my favorite baddass blogs (Check out her Tarantino Blogathon) however, I'm delighted to play along. 

So, here are the rules:

1. Tell us 11 things about yourself
2. Answer 11 questions the blogger who awarded you asked
3. Pass the award to 11 people
4. Give them 11 questions.
5. Tell them about the award.
6. Don't award people who are recipients already.

1. I've read more comic books than anyone I know.

2. I've been teaching myself to play the piano for years. While I can read music slowly, I always end up just playing what I feel like in my head at the moment.

3. I write poetry and fiction sometimes.

4. It drives me crazy when someone uses a word wrong. I don't dwell on it, as I suppose it's good they're working on vocabulary, but it often ruins whatever I was reading.

5. I'm a pretty committed agnostic, which is in my view, just a decision to focus on questions that are solvable and relevant to living.

6. I collect Collected Works editions of poetry. There's just something about being able to access someone's whole life's work from my own bookshelves.

7. I've been to every state in the continental U.S.A.

8. I have a nineteen year old son, although I don't feel nearly old enough.

9. I can't stand Judd Apatow movies. I've given them many chances but they just don't work for me.

10. Mushrooms are about the only food I don't much care for.

11. I've discovered recently that I really enjoy gardening.

And there are the questions M. asked:

3D--yes or no? No. I really haven't been impressed with any yet.

Lord of the Rings or Star Wars? Star Wars for sure (only the original 3 though) Can't shake the stuff you grow up with.

What movie would you like to see in theaters that you never got to see? Alien

What's your major draw for a movie: actors, director, or script? Director first. I hold the director responsible for everything that happens in a movie, whether bad acting or a bad script. It's his/her job to pick the good stuff.

Who is your favorite person to watch movies with? My girlfriend, Jasmine. She doesn't mind when I provide heavy commentary.

Who are your top three favorite action heroes? John McClane, Ash Williams, Indiana Jones

The zombie apocalypse is upon us--what movie characters do you want in your camp to keep you alive?
Thor, Darth Vader, John McClane, that should be plenty.

Who is the one actor you love to hate?
Seth Rogen

...And the actor you hate yourself for loving?
Brad Pitt. He's a super celebrity and all, but he's always good.

If they made a movie about your life, who would play you?
Hugh Jackman

If you could change one movie ending, what would it be and why?
Knocked Up. She should have moved away without telling him. Why? Because she'll be wishing she did.

So then next up is to pick 11 people who haven't been picked, so here goes. Whatever the recipients do with this is up to them, but they're all great sites to check out.

Radiator Heaven
Furious Cinema
1:37 Exactly
Capes On Film
Zen For Zoey
DVD Blu Ray Reviews
Addicted to Media

My questions for you, should you choose to pass on the punishment:

1. Who is your favorite director?
2. Should a Director have the option of a later "Director's Cut" or should the first released movie be the final say?
3.Of all current actors/actresses working, who should be working more?
4. What's your favorite crime movie?
5. Who wins in a fight, Thor or Superman? (Hint: Thor)
6. With all the remakes coming out these days, what 1 film most needs to be remade?
7. What movie without a sequel, would you most like to see a sequel for?
8. If you could green light any rumored (or even your own idea) movie project, what would it be?
9. Is there a movie that you once hated but eventually came to enjoy?
10. M. Night Shymalan, should he retire, or will he produce something good?
11. Who's your favorite novelist?

Saturday, August 4, 2012

He Said, She Said: Our 50 Favorite Movies

It’s difficult to pick my 50 favorite films, but here’s an honest try anyway. My fellow blogger and friend Melissa, at Melissa’s Imaginarium suggested a He Said, She Said list comparison. It sounded like a good chance to examine the difference between guy movies/girl movies.  Unsurprisingly, mine is a bit crime film heavy, but I enjoyed mentioning some of the films that I may never cover at Criminal Movies. For that reason, I tried to cover all the genres I typically like, and I'm sure I could make a top 50 in each of these categories without a problem.

I wasn’t worried about picking the “best films of all time” as there are plenty of organizations to do that. These are simply those films that hold up no matter how many times I’ve seen them which makes them the best films to me. “The Avengers,” for example, may not be a landmark of cinema to some, but it certainly made me feel like kid who got what he’d always wanted, not many films have done that. These are not ranked in any particular order, as doing that would take years and besides, with many of these, I just couldn’t pick one over the other.

Go check out the “She Said” portion over at Mel’s place, and compare away. 

Feel free to express outrage at what was or wasn’t included here. There are hundreds more I would have liked to include, but I think this is a good representation at the moment.


On the Waterfront
Get Carter
Double Indemnity
Out of the Past
Rear Window
Touch of Evil
The Maltese Falcon
Le Samourai
The Conversation
Cool Hand Luke
A History of Violence
The Asphalt Jungle
Taxi Driver
Point Blank
The Godfather
The Long Goodbye
Leon: The Professional
Pulp Fiction
Bad Lieutenant
The Grifters
The French Connection
The Last Life in the Universe
American History X
Strangers on a Train
Man on the Train
North By Northwest
Die Hard

My Life As a Dog
The 400 Blows
Henry Fool
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Barton Fink
Synechdoche, NY
Boys Don't Cry
Dancer In The Dark
Lost Highway
Down By Law
Being There
Paris, Texas
In A Lonely Place
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring…
Glengarry Glen Ross
Lost In Translation
The Fall
The Natural
Cinema Paradiso
The Swimmer
Life Is Beautiful
The Razor’s Edge
There Will Be Blood
Fight Club
It’s a Wonderful Life
Citizen Kane
Lawrence of Arabia
The Bicycle Thieves
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Blade Runner
The Fifth Element
Star Wars (original trilogy)
The Matrix
Back to the Future (trilogy)
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension
Spider Man (1 and 2)
The Avengers
2001: A Space Odyssey

The Evil Dead (trilogy)
The Wicker Man
The Exorcist
The Vanishing
The Night of the Hunter
The Shining

This Is Spinal Tap
Annie Hall
Groundhog Day
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
The Big Lebowski
Life of Brian
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
The Royal Tenenbaums

Once Upon A Time In the West
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Dollars Trilogy)
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Wallander: Sidetracked

The BBC Wallander Series has been suggested to me quite a few times, and I finally managed to check out a few episodes. I'm certainly glad I did as it's been one of best surprises in a long time. "Sidetracked" is a great introduction to the character of Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh)

From the beginning it's clear that we're in for quite a visual experience. We see a young girl in distress, hiding in a field of impossibly bright yellow rapeseed. Wallander is called in by the owner of the field. He looks like he's been in bed for three days, although he's calm enough. The farmer remarks that he thought they'd send a police car "with lights and everything." Wallander tells him "There was an accident. The cars with lights are all taken." He starts through the yellow field, waving his badge to reassure the girl, telling her he's police. It seems to have the opposite effect however. The girl douses herself with gasoline and lights herself on fire.

Wallander can't get his head around this, he recalls that the girl was terrified of him, although they didn't know each other at all. At the station, he asks "What kind of world are we leaving, a 15 year old girl, that she would burn herself to death?" When a fellow officer, Magnus Martinsson (Tom Hiddleston) points out that the girl committed suicide, and it isn't really a "crime" Wallander responds, "A 15 year old girl burned herself to death. What would you call it?" Wallander can't keep the image of the girl in the field from replaying in his head.

While he tries to figure this out, the Swedish former Minister of Justice is found on a beach, killed with a small axe to the head and then scalped. Digging into the man's past, he learns from an ex reporter that there were a lot of skeletons in his closet. The Minister had young women delivered every week and due to his influential position had many reporters keeping everything covered up. When others are killed in the same fashion, including a thug with a violent history, Wallander looks for a connection. He questions an ex police officer, who refers to himself as a "janitor" and devoted himself to keeping the Minister's dirty laundry from coming out. He questions the thug's family, and the man's wife and older son seem to be relieved that he's dead. The thug also has an older daughter, who is out of town, and the mother assures him, isn't involved with any of it. A profiler is brought in to assist, and he suggests that the scalping indicates someone taking on another identity, and is possibly a sacrifice to save the soul of someone else.

While investigating these cases, he negotiates his own personal life, spending time with his daughter, Linda (Jeanny Spark.) We learn that Wallander and his wife are separated and he has no contact with her. Linda urges Wallander to visit his father, Povel (David Warner) as his birthday is approaching. She warns him that there's something wrong. He manages to take the time to visit his father, a painter, who has no appreciation for his son's work. The case he's on now however, caught his eye, as he knew one of the victims from art circles, and he doesn't seem to mind that the man is dead. Their family dinner is marked by an unexpected angry outburst from his father.

Wallander puts the clues together and finds the killer although the resolution is a tragic one. He also gets a call that his father was in a fight and has been arrested. His father reveals that he's succumbing to dementia and has perhaps months left. After getting his Dad released he visits him at home and breaks down telling his father that he doesn't know if he can do it (his work) anymore. Povel reveals that his whole career has been painting the same landscape thousands of times. He recalls when Wallander was a child and he would ask why his paintings were all the same. He tells his son that every day he woke up planning to paint something different, but the same thing would come out every time. He adds "What you've got is your painting. I may not like it. You may not like it. But, it's yours." Povel asks Wallander to take him to Rome, and he gladly agrees.

Wallander is truly exceptional television. The highlight is Branagh's exceptional portayal of Wallander, the "poet police man." We see that every thing that happens in a case is taken personally by Wallander, who moves as if sleepwalking through a deep depression. He lives his life like a long sigh of grief. He's a great cop, but it takes great energy for him to relate to others on a personal level, as his job consumes him far more than even his fellow officers. He can't help but bring his work home, and he can't help but question what these atrocities say about the world he lives in. Called upon to solve cases where those who have the information are less helpful than anyone, he's left to figure it out on his own. While not a trigger happy cop, he does what he must without hesitation, and his own actions sometimes hurt him as much as those he responds to. His effectiveness and wit are not hampered by his unhappiness. "What kind of world are we leaving?" he asks and this seems to be the main question that plagues him, everything else that happens only sharpens the question.Wallander can sigh all he needs to but he still knows that a cop has to act and may have to shoot. Branagh's exceptional portrayal puts him in the top tier of memorable film detectives.

Directed by Philip Martin, the Swedish landscapes and architecture give Wallander's existence a surreal feeling. His surroundings are impossibly bright, clean and neat, yet violence and ugliness pops up everywhere. Although the first in a series, "Sidetracked" works very well as a standalone film. Based on a novel by Henning Mankell, we get the sweep of a full story with the added benefit of knowing there are more to come. The supporting roles are as solid as can be, Tom Hiddleston and David Warner particularly. Seeing Branagh and Warner together, we believe they could be father and soon even when they don't say a word. Their mannerisms mirror each other and show their deep relation. The attention to visual details is truly impressive and easily tells us as about these characters as the dialogue.

All in all, Wallander is some of the best television that I can recall. The quality of the production on all levels exceeds that of most feature films, in story, visuals and acting. It has all set up elements of the best Greek tragedy, Wallander is not damned by his vices but his virtue. He's a character who can't help but be outraged and ask "How could this happen?" even though he's seen the horrific so many times. Rather than become jaded, he's perpetually hurt, taking it all as a personal affront, every time it happens. That he could operate effectively as a police officer like this is remarkable. It does catch up with him, but the debit comes out of his personal life, which is largely nonexistent. Watching him exist, we sense that this all much catch up with him some day, and it's almost like watching a man aging in front of you. While it certainly won't make any kids wish to be Wallander, it's refreshing to see a detective who cares enough to be perpetually ruined for the sake of the world that should exist.