Thursday, April 26, 2007

Trailer of the Week: Crime is a Disease, Meet the Cure Edition

It may not be a cool thing to admit, but I actually have more point of reference to the films that inspire Hot Fuzz, the new film by the creative forces of Shaun of the Dead, Edgar Wright (director and co-writer) and Simon Pegg (lead actor and co-writer), than I did to those that inspired Tarantino's last two films (Kill Bill & Death Proof, duh). Yeah I've seen Rolling Thunder, Machine Gun McCain, Thriller and Vanishing Point, but I viewed them either on video or at local Rep Houses (namely The New Beverly) not a grimy 42nd Street cinema whilst homeless persons copulated in the seats behind me. The formative theatre viewing of my youth, circa 1980-90s, revolved around the works of Bruckheimer & Simpson, Stallone, Seagal and Point Break. So it's a relief that Hot Fuzz not only does a great job of satirizing the cliches and mise-en-scene of those epics, but actually convincingly becomes one of them. Its a trick they pulled off with Shaun, which also started off as an ironic dissertation on genre convention and shout outs to the films that defined said genre, and wound up being not only funny but also scary, gory and providing empathetic characters.

There is no detail too small, my favorite being the epilogue where we discover a person who looked for all purposes dead, not only alive but in perfect condition. The reveal was so perfect that you knew to which extent they studied the material. The greatest compliment I could pay it is that it actually made me consider renting Bad Boys 2. (do I need to see part 1, will I be lost?) My one gripe is Wright's "clever" editing style where he constantly smash cuts scenes together and applies loud sound effects. I wish I could say this was a knowing tribute to the likes of Tony Scott, but seeing how he employed the same tricks in both Shaun and the first episode of Spaced (the only episode I've seen, but I assume he does it throughout the series, by the by, when is BBC going to get their shit together and release the series on DVD in the US?), it seems to be one of his directorial flourishes. Wright was recently named director of one of Marvel Comics lesser known works, Ant Man, I am hoping he gives the super hero genre the same treatment (and adoration) he's given action and zombie films, oh and Pegg has got to be the lead, right!?!

This week's trailer of the week is a film that Wright and Pegg referenced in Fuzz, the 1986 Slyvester Stallone vehicle, Cobra, which if I had such a thing as a list of guilty pleasures would probably be on top. You can see the DVD at the convenient store Pegg's character, Nicholas Angel, stops before returning to Sandford. The shoot out in the supermarket in the climax mirrors the opening of Cobra, where Stallone deals with a terrorist in a supermarket. What I love about Cobra is its a perfect encapsulation of the whole type of renegade cop who's above the law genre that arose in the 80s when Ronald Reagan quoted Dirty Harry in stump speeches that if it wasn't so damn sincere it would serve as a perfect satire. I am sure Stallone thought Marion Cobretti was going to be his next iconic character and audiences would demand sequel after sequel a la his Rocky and Rambo films, sadly that never materialized, perhaps if his name began with an "R", but I might be the only person keeping my fingers crossed that in nine years, at the thirtieth anniversary of its release, we get Marion Cobretti the long in the works sequel, where Cobra returns from retirement to the street to stop one more scumbag terrorist.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Great Santini (1979? 1980?, Lewis John Carlino)

Part of the 80's Project

Lieutenant Bull Meechum is a walking anachronism. A soldier without a war. This stoic warrior must now return to the only thing that as ever scarred him...his family. Yeah, it sounds a lot like a bad sitcom, specifically Major Dad, but Robert Duvall's strong performance, imagine his Kilgore character from Apocalypse Now (the film he made just prior to this) waiting around South Carolina praying for a war to fill his empty time, helps The Great Santini transcends its cuckold at least temporarily. Once the focus shifts from his character to his first born son's attempt to live up to his father, the movie shifts wildly, initially becoming a "Daddy Dearest" and culminating with a tragic event involving racism that is insultingly used as the springboard to his release from dad's shadow.

The film's first act follows Bull as he is taken off active duty and moves his family to South Carolina, where he starts a new career as an instructor for his beloved Marines, and the adjustments he must make. Meechum runs his family like a drill instructor, making them all get up at 0300 hours to move houses. The first act is pretty much plot free, a character study focusing on Bull and his relationship with the "regular" world, most specifically his family. While he may have done this job before, Duvall is great as the hard nosed soldier who hates losing so much he refuses to sing "Dixie" in the car along with his family, because its a "loser's anthem". Act one culminates with the film's best scene, an initially friendly basketball game between father and first born Ben in the backyard that exemplifies their complex relationship. With the rest of the family cheering him on, Ben (Michael O'Keefe) defeats his father, who protests that he needed to win by two points and calling him a pussy and loser when he stops playing. When the son declines continuance, his father keeps berating him, following him as he walks upstairs to his room, hitting him in the back of the head with the basketball while calling him variations of the word "sissy". Duvall plays this scene three ways: 1. Middle-aged man trying to cope with aging and losing his place in the family hierarchy. 2. Quintessential American soldier who sees things in only shades of victory and defeat. 3. Father, proud of his son's accomplishment who wants to see his son not only win, but triumph.

After this, the film changes focus completely, we now no longer follow Bull Meechum, but rather Ben. While you may initially want to applaud their Psycho-ish structural about face, the fact is Ben's story is nowhere nearly as interesting as his father's and O'Keefe (who would become a good character actor later in his career) is as slight a performer here as Duvall is strong. Ben's complex relationship with his dad, his desire to rebel while simultaneously needing to please should have been able to mine some interesting dramatic conflict, and I applaud the film for never making Meechum a monster, but it cannot be avoided that film sinks after the first act and goes so far as to take the easy way out and blames Bull's action on his drinking.

The second key scene displaying the father-son dynamic involves another basketball game, this time Ben is on his high school team. In "the big game" Bull yells at him from the stand to avenge a hard foul laid upon him. Ben concedes to Bull's wishes and costs his team the game (egads!) when he sucker punches the offending player. But those of us fearful that Ben will never stand up to his dad, don't worry because a convenient avenue for growth comes from his friendship with a kindly, stuttering black fisherman, Toomer (Stan Shaw in the Magical Negro role) who is attacked and shot by a racist (David Keith who is white and not to be confused with Keith David who is black), Ben defies his dad's wishes to let the police take care of it and comes to his aid. So, Toomer dies, whatever, Ben finally lets his dad know he's his own person, and to make matters worse he...tells his father that he loves him. Not since Sandra Bullock fell on her ass and got helped by her Mexican housekeeper in Crash has a minority helped a white person come to terms with their angst. Sure he died, but wasn't the growth of our white hero more important then your life anyways?

Much like the first film of my little project, The Final Countdown, Santini director Lewis John Carlino's direction is pure TV Movie of the Week. Indifferently shot, though this was a Pan-and-Scanned DVD, with one exception very early in the film, the family's introduction. We have already meet Meechum and know he's returning home. Their introduction is a wide shot where the family is placed in the very bottom of mid frame, dwarfed within a giant military hanger, perfectly encapsulating their place in Meechum's life. Unfortunately, this would be the only moment of cinematic prowess in the entire film, which is also really poorly edited, of which the most offensive cuts come in the backyard basketball game. Instead of letting the game play out and the tension rise, he cuts, and very awkwardly so, throughout the action, so we move from start to finish with no sense of how the game has transpired. What could have been an all time great film moment turns it into a merely good scene. Just like how he takes a great Duvall performance and puts it in a mediocre coming of age melodrama.

Some other thoughts/notes:

* Everywhere I look has the release date listed as October 1979, but it was up for Academy Awards in 1981 (along with other 1980 releases) since the Academy are notorious sticklers, I am assuming the October '79 date might have been a Festival Premiere (the New York Film Festival is held in October), and am counting it in with the 1980 releases, but since its not touching any Top 10 lists, the point is mute anyhow.

* Duvall was nominated for Best Actor and O'Keefe for Best Supporting Actor, but after the first half hour, O'Keefe's has at least twice as much screen time as Duvall.

* Duvall's character constantly refers to himself in the third person as "The Great Santini", obviously a big influence on future sports figure such as Deion Sanders and Ricky Henderson, in a nod that he is cognisant of its effect, he refers to his family as "sports fan"

* The film never says the year in which it takes place, but I am assuming late 50s/ early 60s since Meechum tells Ben on his 18th birthday how he was serving in World War II at the time of his birth. This would make sense as it would fall in between the Korean and Vietnam wars. It would also explain why the high school basketball teams are made up entirely of short and skinny white guys

* SPOILER EFFECT--The film ends with Meechum's death. Instead of trying to crash land the jet he's testing into the city, he goes down into the ocean with the jet and dies...but we never see him crash. I like to assume that Meechum, sick of his whiny ass family decided to parachute out and create a new identity for himself, then when the Vietnam War occurs, he reenlists under a new name, Kilgore.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Trailer of the Week: Bring on the Mavs Edition!

We briefly interrupt this week's Trailer of the Week for some sports news.

For the first time since I was in high school, the Golden State Warriors, the NBA team I follow per default of location of birth, are headed to the playoffs and a date with the top seeded Dallas Mavericks. While I am sure my fellow Warriors fans who have suffered along with me through the Rick Adelman, PJ Carlesimo, Dave Cowens, Brian Winter, Eric Mussleman and Mike Montgomery eras aren't expecting any miracle upsets over the best team in the NBA, it bears pointing out that we did sweep the Mavericks during this year's regular season, if you throw away the game where Dallas rested their starters, we were still 2-0 against them. Oh and on a side note, I don't want to hear the Clippers bitch about the Mavs resting their starters. I seem to remember a team last year completely tanked in a game against Memphis which lead them to an easier opponent and home field advantage during the first round of the playoffs last year, and a series victory over the Nuggets while the Grizzlies were swept by Dallas.

This year it is possible that all 3 sports teams I have followed since my youth could make the playoffs in the same calendar year for the first time since the very early 90s (actually if you count my hometown San Jose Sharks, who are currently leading their opening round series, make that four). The San Francisco 49ers should be improved, and if you are one to follow patterns, peek this: in the first season with coach Mike Nolan, the 49ers improved by 2 wins (from a 2 win to 4 win team), his next season the team improved by 3 wins, hence this year can we expect anything less than a 4 win improvement? Okay that's probably not happening, but a 9-7 record which could get us a Wild Card birth, is within reach. Baseball wise, the Oakland A's are the defending AL West Champions. True last year team's opening day pitcher and leading RBI and Home Run hitter are no longer on the team. But we've lost All-Stars before in free agency (hell, it happens every year) and still made the playoffs. So don't count us out.

This reminds me of something that I think perfectly captures the place of the Golden State Warriors in the bay area sports pecking order. The year was 1989 aka the only year since I was born that both my football and baseball teams were league champions. Anyway, local McDonald's had a bay area sports cup giveaway (this was pre-San Jose Sharks expansion and the Raiders were in Los Angeles at this point) that had all the bay area major league sports team's logos on it. Above the San Francisco 49ers logo it read: Super Bowl Champions. Above the Oakland Athletics logo it read: World Series Champions. Above the San Francisco Giants logo it read: National League Champions. The kicker, above the Golden State Warriors (who were actually a pretty good team at the time, this was Don Nelson's first go round with the team and they still had Mitch Richmond, Chris Mullin and Tim Hardaway in their prime) it read: National Basketball Association. Ouch. Kind of like when you see a movie trailer and it has all these Academy Award winners and nominees in the cast and the announcer says something like: Starring Academy Award winner Denzel Washington, Academy Award winner Jodie Foster, Academy Award nominee Clive Owen and Heather Locklear (okay, wouldn't Heather Locklear's presence totally improved Inside Man?) But instead of just saying their name, they listed her as: ...and actress Heather Locklear! In the Warriors defense though, they have won a championship more recently than the Giants!

So let's bust out our bright yellow "The City" and enjoy, for the first time since Boyz II Men and Stone Temple Pilots were topping the charts, the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Playoffs! I am predicting a surprising seven game series...
which the Mavericks will win. As for the Finals...Suns over the Pistons.

In honor of this amazing feat here's the trailer for Walter Hill's 1979 classic gangs run amok in New York City epic, The Warriors. On the bright side Golden State, the Mavs may be tough but they're nothing compared to the Lizzies!

Dirk Nowitzki come out and playayayay!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Trailer (s) of the Week: R.I.P. Edition

This week's Trailers of the Week are dedicated to two film directors who passed away last week.

First, the trailer for John Flynn's Rolling Thunder which I recently saw as part of Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse Festival at the New Beverly Cinema for the first time in a theatre (I had rented it once about seven years ago on a grainy pan and scan video) and it lived up to its reputation as a transcendent exploitation film. In the film, William Devane plays a Vietnam vet who returns after being held in a POW camp to much pomp and circumstance only to discover how much the world has changed, that his wife wants to divorce him and marrying the guy she's been shacking up with ever since she heard Devane has been assumed dead and then becomes a victim of a crime that costs him financially, emotionally and physically (he loses a hand) to add insult to injury, Roscoe P. Coltrane from The Dukes of Hazzard is involved. Tommy Lee Jones is great as a fellow vet who, like Devane, is looking for some purpose in his life since his return from Vietnam and is more than willing to help his buddy seek vengeance, Jones' line in the trailer "Let me just get my stuff" brought down the house at the New Beverly, its just delivered so perfectly matter-of-fact, as is a later line when he tells a prostitute "I gotta go kill a bunch of people". Sadly, this film is not on DVD yet, hopefully Flynn's death will spark interest in the film. Here's the trailer:

Flynn also directed a few other interesting projects, including the unreleased on DVD, and unseen by me The Outfit based on a Donald Westlake novel and featuring Robert Duvall in the same role played by Lee Marvin in Point Blank and Mel Gibson in Payback. He also directed Lock Up, Best Seller and what I've heard more than one person call the best Steven Seagal vehicle, Out For Justice (is that the ultimate damning with faint praise?).

Bob Clark's sad death, along with his son, at the hands of a drunken driver has been more documented, but pretty much all the summaries of his career referenced only A Christmas Story and Porky's. While I can't think of a single family Christmas that hasn't featured at least a few minutes screening of A Christmas Story since I was a teenager (I even remember seeing it in the theatre at the age of seven), Clark made another great Christmas themed film, Black Christmas. It saddens me that I have to make sure to refer to it as the "original" Black Christmas,to avoid confusion with the horribly remade 2006 version. I've been somewhat obsessed with this film since I was 17, and I tend to watch it at least once a year. The remake tries to over explain every small detail left with a modicum of mystery in the original which accounts for a lot of my love for Clark's film. In addition to creating the holiday-themed slasher film (predating Halloween by four years), the film also features great performances by 60's Juliet and major crush of this author Olivia Hussey, Bruce Lee and Freddy Krueger co-star John Saxson, a pre-Lois Lane Margot, a post 2001 Keir Dullea, and SCTV's Andrea Martin. I find it revealing that while the remake emphasized gore it stayed miles away from addressing one of the original film's more interesting political touches, that the main character had just had an abortion. Here's the trailer:

So after you go and see Grindhouse hunt down these films that inspired Tarantino and Rodriquez. Oh, and while you are at it, burn any and all copies of the Black Christmas remake.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The Final Countdown (1980, Don Taylor)

,Part of The 80's Project


A full seven years before their sons would go mano a mano in Oliver Stone's Wall Street, Kirk Douglas and Martin Sheen butt heads as a navy captain and an efficiency expert tagging along for a routine expedition (aren't they all) out of Pearl Harbor aboard the USS Carrier Nimitz in the quasi-science fiction ponderer, The Final Countdown. Once afloat, the carrier notices weird weather patterns and finds itself in the eye of a very 1980 special effects looking vortex that causes the crew members to flail about as if they were in a Star Trek scene where the Enterprise is hit by Klingons. This disturbance is short, but once the situation appears over, the ship cannot contact base, and when they receive a radio frequency they hear a presidential address from Franklin Roosevelt (dun dun dun). Meanwhile 40's era Japanese fighter planes fly about, scoping the joint. Sign that the film is from the 1980s, when Sheen is trying to convince Douglas that some kind of amazing time travel as taken place, Douglas counters with a theory that this is some sort of elaborate scheme by the Russians. Oh those crafty, Punk'd precursory commies! Elsewhere, Katherine Ross is a political speech writer for senator and potential Roosevelt Vice-Presidential candidate Charles Durning whose boat is attacked by the Japanese and are rescued by the time traveling navy unit.

The whole Twilight Zone like concept of The Final Countdown could have made for an intriguing psychological debate. If you had the military capacity and ability to prevent the Pearl Harbor attack before occurring, would you alter the course of history? Or knowing that this was the impetus for America's involvement in the war that would, with US assistance, lead to an Allied victory and the end of the Holocaust, would you hold back? Unfortunately, director Taylor and screenwriters Thomas Hunter, Peter Powell, David Ambrose and Gerry Davis (it took four people to write this thing?) seem to have little interest in engaging in the debate. Instead what we get are very long shots of jet fighters, naval carriers and other assorted state of the art for 1980 military items and a major plot cop out.

This must have been one of the first films to be allowed to shoot using actual military equipment, and Taylor must have very proud of that, because he very lovingly spends long takes on the minute details of each machine (a big thank you note to the military predates the cast list in the closing credits). It becomes something close to military porn during the first 15 minutes where we spend more time looking at the Tomcats and aircraft carrier then we do getting to know Sheen and Douglas's characters, not that there are any nuisances to either. Okay maybe "porn" is too strong a word, but military photography wise, let's just say the respectful The Final Countdown is to Playboy as Top Gun would be to Hustler. During the leadup to the Pearl Harbor attack, in what should be the most tense moments, Taylor spends, no joke, two and a half to three minutes on shooting about five jets as pilots board them and take off. Its pretty much par for the course with Taylor's direction. The whole film is shot and paced like a made for television film with bigger stars, who are in return giving TV movie performances, Sheen in particular seems happy just to be out of the Apocalypse Now shoot in the Philippines, and I assume the rest of the cast just considered the project a nice vacation to Hawaii. Looking at his IMDB page, Taylor served in World War II, and was an actor before stepping behind the camera. He directed some Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes and Damien: The Omen II before The Final Countdown, his entire resume post The Final Countdown: all television movies, surprise surprise.

The cop-out of which I referred occurs right as Douglas has to decide whether to let history take its natural course or get in the way, saving lives but not know what the ensuing butterfly effect (I swear, last Ashton Kutcher reference) will be...and just then...the vortex appears again, and viola, they are back in the present day, the Pearl Harbor attack takes place as does the crappy Michael Bay film. See the whole thing was because one of the commanders (played by James Farentino who played George Clooney's father on ER and was charged with stalking Tina Sinatra) would end up on an island with Katherine Ross's character and fall in love, so see he sends the ship on the mission so that he will meet his wife, kind of like how John Conner sent Michael Bein to stop The Terminator from preventing his birth by killing his mom, only you know, much stupider. Oh and a Japanese soldier from the 40's has no problem whatsoever operating a modern day semi automatic weapon, and Charles Durning's senator, aka the dumbest person to ever run for senate, and that's saying something, kills himself by shooting down a helicopter with a flare gun while they are trying to save his life.

For some reason this film has a little bit of a cult following. Perhaps its the concept itself, which would make for a killer Twilight Zone episode, if they, you know, decide to explore some of the implications instead of the lame route this takes. It was given a special feature laden DVD via Anchor Bay...and still The Magnificent Ambersons remains untouched. In an interesting bit of trivia, this was the last Hollywood film that Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman would work on, he was an associate producer, abandoning the big studios and budgets for his own underground studio. Pearl Harbor is still attacked but at least we get the Toxic Avenger out of the deal.

As a bonus treat, because its now what we all associate to the film's title, here's GOB Bluth performing magic, sorry illusions, with Europe's "The Final Countdown" as soundtrack.

Monday, April 2, 2007

When Melvin Met "Sam"

David Fincher's Zodiac is, after the first three months of the year, hands down my favorite film of the year, actually had it been released last year like originally planned, it would have been the best film of 2006. I would like to go on further, and might, maybe when it hits DVD, but for now I give you this video of a CBS Evening News report from 1969 featuring footage of the bay area morning show where famous attorney Melvin Belli talked to an impostor claiming to be the Zodiac and calling himself "Sam". It becomes known shortly afterwards that it was made from within the confines of an Oakland mental health clinic. The footage also shows that Brian Cox's over-the-top performance as Belli wasn't that far from the mark.
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