Hey, 2009... Stop It

Okay... it's not quite halfway through January and we're already off to a rip-roaring start on the 2009 death roll.  I am profoundly saddened by today's two passings.

Patrick McGoohan's "The Prisoner" is, bar none, my favorite television show ever.  It's cerebral, silly, surreal, and spectacular, and it's all McGoohan.  It's one of those moments where someone who was a fairly big star in a certain medium seized control of his career and made something incredibly personal.  And the results really hold up.  If you're not familiar with "The Prisoner," you should be.  And McGoohan's presence in the new TV version and the proposed feature film adaptation will be undeniably missed.

And Ricardo Montalban... I mean, how can you even sum that guy's charisma up in words?  I just the other day read a great piece by Pauline Kael in which she was talking about his iconic work in "Star Trek 2: Wrath Of Khan," and she was lamenting the fact that Hollywood never figured out how to make Montalban a star the way he should have been.  He could sing, he could dance, he was great in comedy and drama, and he projected such a ridiculous machismo that it seems beyond belief that he was always relegated to supporting roles.  We've come a long way in terms of racial equality in casting, but we failed this titan.  He will be missed, no question, but I wish he'd been treated better in his prime.  I'll leave you with some of Kael's words on him:

"Montalban is unquestionably a star in 'The Wrath of Khan' (and his grand manner seems to send a little electric charge through Shatner).  As a graying superman who, when foiled, cries out to Kirk, 'From Hell's heart, I stab at thee!,' Montalban may be the most romantic smoothie of sci-fi villains.  Khan's penchant for quoting Melville and Milton (which goes back to 'Space Seed') doesn't hurt.  And that great chest of Montalban's is reassuring.  He looks like an Inca priest.  He's still champing at the bit, eager to act:  he plays his villainy to the hilt, smiling grimly as he does the dirty.  Montalban's performance doesn't show a trace of 'Fantasy Island.'  It's all panache; if he isn't wearing feathers in his hair you see them there anyway.  You know how you always want to laugh at the flourishes that puncuate the end of the flamenco dance and the dancers won't let you?  Montalban does."

What a miserable day at the start of a year.

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It's Here! It's Here! It's Here!

I'm running around my house like Navin Johnson on new phone book day right now, all because of my new TV.

I know.  Lame.  But these are the things that really hit a film fetishist dead center... and upgrading to a full 1080p 46" flatscreen LCD for the office is a big deal for me.  I've got an HD set in the family room, but that means that I have to time it very carefully as far as watching certain types of films, and it doesn't leave a lot of hours in the day for me to have access to that set.  It was a great idea when I put it in, but it's worked out to be a practical pain in the ass.

So this new set?  This is all for Daddy.

I'm going to take a quick break to set this up, and then I'll be back with some new developments on this "20,000 Leagues" project that McG's supposedly making at Disney.

Emphasis on the word supposedly.

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I'm Alive!

Oh, thank god.  I have a great doctor (you rock, Dr. Miller!) who has been taking care of the family for years now, and as soon as I called him about the stomach flu yesterday, he told me that it's at epidemic levels in LA right now, and he knew exactly how to handle it.

Sure enough, after 36 hours or so, it seems to be out of my system completely.  I'm still a little weak, but at least I don't feel sick anymore.

So we're back in business, just in time to post some news and get packed for Park City.  The next nine days on the blog should be a blur of reviews and news stories and impressions from the festival, and I'm excited to be doing this so close to the start of HitFix.  It's a chance for me and Dan and Greg to all work together as a team for the first time, and it'll be interesting to see how it all shakes down.

I'll have a preview piece in a little while of the films I'm most interested in seeing up there, and we've got some other stuff for you as well to get you through this Wednesday.  In the meantime, I'm listening for the UPS guy at the door with my new HDTV for the office.  Verrrrrrrry exciting.

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Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye"
Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye"
Credit: MGM Home Video

My DVD Shelf: "The Long Goodbye"

Even when I don't love a Robert Altman film, I find myself fascinated by them.  As I've gotten older and I return to his movies at different ages, they seem to be totally different each time.  That's not the case with every filmmaker, but there's something about the way Altman's signature allows you, as a viewer, real room for discovery.  He was also very smart about making films that seem timeless, which keeps them feeling fresh even now, thirty years or so down the line.

Case in point:  Altman's 1973 take on Raymond Chandler's "The Long Goodbye," one of his Phillip Marlowe novels.  I'm a detective fiction junkie, and Chandler's one of the undisputed cornerstones of the genre.  You can't understand the history of our pop culture relationship with the private investigator until you grapple with Chandler and Hammet and Thompson and Cain, and Marlowe may be the most iconic character any of those guys created.  I wouldn't have called him a particularly elastic character in terms of conception, but when you compare Bogart's portrayal to what Elliott Gould does here for Altman, you start to see just how durable and open for interpretation Marlowe really is.

Dropping a character like Marlowe, fully-formed, into early-'70s Southern California sounds like it'll be dated almost by definition, but it's not, and maybe that's because of the friction between Marlowe's personal code of conduct and the world around him, where everyone seems determined to live by their own personally-defined rules as well.  Altman and his screenwriter Leigh Brackett (who's best known to geeks as the original writer of "The Empire Strikes Back," but who actually wrote one of Bogie's Marlowe films back in the day) define Marlowe in a fairly traditional way.  He believes in honor and decency, he's happier using a well-timed sarcastic comment than a gun or a fist, and he holds friendship and loyalty as things valuable and inviolable.  Yet even at the start of the film, we see how Marlowe's a man who will bend his code of conduct if he has to.  Watch how he deal with his cat, who will only eat one specific type of cat food, when he's out of that particular brand.  He tries to pull one over on the cat, putting another brand into the right can, but the cat's not falling for it, and he bails.  Permanently, it seems.  Altman plays it as a joke, but he's also showing you just how quickly Marlowe will sell out his own ideals.  It's sly character writing that really illuminates, and that's true of the film as a whole.  Ironic, since the entire film is about how hard everyone in Marlowe's life works to conceal who they are.  When his old friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bonton) shows up and asks Marlowe to drive him to Mexico, that simple favor upends Marlowe's entire life, plunging him into a world where everybody knows what's going on except for him.  He's not trying to solve a case; he's just trying to catch up.

This is the sort of movie where all the performances offer up particular pleasures, and where scenes unfold almost as mini-movies, complete in the way they define all these strange corners of LA subculture.  Nina Van Pallandt wasn't a professional actor, but she does nice work as Terry's co-conspirator.  Her real-life notoriety (she was in a relationship with Clifford Irving when his Howard Hughes biography hoax blew up in his face) informs everything she does here, and she seems authentically bruised.  Sterling Hayden brings tremendous gravity to his role as her cuckolded husband, and there's enormous depth of feeling to the work he does, even if he's not in much of the film.  But one performer in one scene steals the movie, and it's one of the best sequences I've seen in any film in a while, one of the most casually catastrophic illustrations of someone's capacity for violence.  Mark Rydell plays a bland-faced Malibu millionaire Satan, and it's the best thing he's done out of any of his occasional trips in front of the camera.    It's so weird that this vile, creepy little freak is the director of "For The Boys" and "On Golden Pond."  Also, if you listen closely, you'll hear Rydell drop a few lines of dialogue that should sound verrrrrrry familiar to fans of "The Big Lebowski."

The extra features on the disc surprised me.  There's one short documentary about the way Altman and Gould crafted their take on Marlowe.  It's a nice look inside the process between two very entertaining artists at the height of their respective commercial powers.  Younger readers may not be aware how big a movie star Elliott Gould was in the '60s and '70s, but he was... like a Tom Cruise or a Will Smith size movie star, the number-one box-office draw for several years in a row.  I can't imagine that happening now for a guy like Gould, but he was the perfect man for his times, when the shlub-as-hero archetype ruled supreme.  Even more interesting is the piece about Vilmos Zsigmond's "flashing" technique, used to give the movie its color-blasted look, as well as a reprint about the process from a 1973 issue of American Cinematographer.  Zsigmond was at this most experimental at that time, and I love how the DVD pays tribute to the risks he took.  Overall, it's a great budget disc from MGM of a film that absolutely rewards repeat viewings.

My last thought about the film has to do with the way Altman uses the same song throughout, orchestrated dozens of different ways.  It's a nice way to thematically underscore the idea that Marlowe is, indeed, strong enough in conception to withstand any reinterpretation, and maybe that's what we're supposed to do... return to certain characters and ideas in each different era, not because they've changed, but because the way we approach them shines a light on just how much we've changed.  Bogart could have never ended a film the way Gould does, but it makes perfect sense in context, and it still resonates decades after the fact.

 

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UPDATED! HitFix Exclusive: "Kick-Ass" Images
Credit: Marv Films

UPDATED! HitFix Exclusive: "Kick-Ass" Images

Nick Cage in the new Matthew Vaughn flick

So we've got a new gallery up on the front page with three brand-new images from "Kick-Ass."  Good stuff, and I really am excited about this movie, and moreso with each new glimpse at it.

This one's a look at Damon (Nic Cage) and his daughter Mindy (Chloe Moretz) as they sip hot cocoa and study a mysterious recent purchase of Damon's.  They are, of course, Hit Girl and Big Daddy when they choose to put on their superhero costumes and go out at night, but part of what makes the work that Cage is doing so much fun on this one is how he plays Damon and Big Daddy as completely different people. 

Damon's got a Mr. Rogers streak a mile wide, and Big Daddy... well, we'll get into that when I publish part two of my set visit over at Ain't It Cool very soon.

You'll also see an image of Aaron Johnson in full costume as Kick-Ass, and I love the handmade look of everything in the film.  Have you guys been reading about the real-life superheroes that are pretty much exactly the same as this?  Rolling Stone did a great story on them recently you should check out.

That last image is Evan Peters, Clark Duke, and Aaron Johnson at a comic book shop, which is where the idea begins for Johnson's character, Dave Lizewski, in the first place.

Good stuff, and we'll have more on it as this year progresses.

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A Quick Note On The Schedule

Hey, everyone.

There's a horrific stomach flu working its way through the McWeeny house.  If I describe anything else about it, I risk none of you ever being willing to read this site again, so I'll spare you.

There will be new content up today, including some exclusive new images from "Kick-Ass," but I'm not sure when, and it won't be anything like the regular schedule.  I just can't stay upright that long.

Sorry about this, and we'll be back to normal probably just in time to get on that plane to Park City on Thursday morning, when the schedule goes berserk for the nine days I'm at Sundance.

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Thomas Hardy in Nicolas Winding Refn's "Bronson"
Thomas Hardy in Nicolas Winding Refn's "Bronson"
Credit: Vertigo Films

The Morning Read (1.12.09)

Aaaaaand we're back. Everyone's talking about the Globes this morning...

... so let's not.  Instead, let's see what else is going on out there.  It's actually one of the best morning reads I've had since HitFix went online, and there's a lot to cover.

At Ain't It Cool, Quint wrapped up his AMAD column last week, and now he's got some very special guests coming in to contribute their own AMAD columns for him.  First up?  Edgar Wright, serious hardcore no-shit film nerd.  He's watching three movies a day right now, and he decided to review "Virgin Witch".  It's really... quite remarkable:

"That said, the stream of sure to be Satanist perverts can hardly be accused of undressing the Michelle sisters with their eyes, as the ladies themselves strip off in every other scene. A drinking game that could prove fatal to your liver would involve taking a shot every time Ann Michelle takes her shirt off, takes her knickers off or has a shower with the curtain open. It's every five minutes for the 85 minute duration. Pretty much the remainder of the film is made up of stripping, showering, Satanism and slavering extras.

This is where the film gets into its sleazy groove, coming off like a Benny Hill episode directed by David Lynch, with a legion of sinister dirty old men and women frothing at the mouth at our nubile leads. Albeit without the speeded up sexual harassment or comedy sound effects to accompany."

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Gabriel Macht is "The Spirit."
Gabriel Macht is "The Spirit."
Credit: Lionsgate

On "The Spirit"

I've been thinking about Frank Miller's film adaptation of Will Eisner's "The Spirit" more than I expected to since I saw it a few days after it hit theaters.

I like Frank Miller.  I don't think he's an infallible genius or anything, but I generally like his work, and I think he's got a couple of classics under his belt in the world of comics.  Without the work he did on "The Dark Knight Returns," I think it's likely the entire landscape of comics and superhero films would be radically different right now.  He was in the right place, at the right time, with the right idea.  And he just nailed it.  Now, I understand rejecting it because of what you think it means... I find I choke on "Forrest Gump" because of what it suggests as a philosophy... and people who find the original "Dark Knight" to be fascist and grotesque are just as right as the people who think it's a dark comic reaction to Reagan's '80s around the word.  It's all in there if you're looking for it.

I think "Hard Boiled" is the best thing he's ever been part of, personally.  That's my fave.  And of course a big part of that is because I genuinely can't imagine the artistic accomplishment of Geof Darrow on that book.  It's one of the most disturbingly beautiful things I've ever seen.  It's just jaw-dropping, spread after spread after spread.  But Miller's script for it is lovely.  Simple.  Self-contained and complete.  It suggests such a world, paints such a picture, tells you so much about what it means to be this guy... this main character... this Carl Seltz... lots of people have played with the same ideas about identity and humanity as this, most notably "Blade Runner."  Whatever.  This, more than anything else he's done in my opinion, is Miller and the right collaborator making absolute magic.

So I know he's got it in him.  I've also read some Frank Miller stuff that I can't stand.  And that's the case with a lot of guys whose work I like.  You don't have to like everything to respect somebody.

Having said that...

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Odette Yussman in 'The Unborn
Odette Yussman in 'The Unborn
Credit: Warner Bros.

On "The Unborn"

Written and directed by David Goyer, "The Unborn" covers some familiar ground, but at least at first, it manages to do so with a bit of panache.  Part ghost story, part exorcism film, the movie only unravels once it gets down to the business of explaining what's happening.  One of the drawbacks to building any ghost story around a mystery is that the big reveal almost always underwhelms, and "The Unborn" is no exception, managing to deflate well before the big finish.

Odette Yustman (last seen in "Cloverfield") stars as Casey, a young woman suffering from bizarre nightmares.  When she's attacked one night by a little boy she's babysitting, she's freaked out.  And it's not just because of the eerie way she finds him, holding a mirror to his baby brother's face as he croaks "Jumby wants to be born now", either.  It's more that the nightmares seem to be spilling into her waking life.  That's the stuff Goyer gets right at first... the creepy slow burn of the opening act, the way that thin tissue between dreams and reality starts to lift for Casey.  Yustman makes for an adorable lead, and the producers seem to be very aware of why she was cast in the film.  If "The Unborn" is remembered for anything, it will be for the single greatest incident of PG-13 cameltoe in film history.  Remember that international one-sheet for the film?  The poster where she's standing at the bathroom mirror and the emphasis seems to be on the tiny white panties she's wearning more than anything else?  Well, that's actually in the film, and when she finally turns around, it's startlingly explicit.  I feel like I could pick her vajay out of a police line-up now.  You've got to give them points for truth in advertising, I suppose.

As the film progresses, it just sort of falls apart.  It's a shame, too.  There are some interesting ingredients here.  I like the idea that Goyer wanted to play with Jewish mysticism instead of the same old Catholic notion of possession, and it does give him some fresh imagery to play with in the film.  But he takes a huge risk trying to tie this fairly lightweight thriller to something real and profound like Auschwitz, and when you mention one of the worst death camps of the Holocaust and you get a laugh from the audience, something has gone terribly wrong.  It doesn't help that the basic aesthetic of the film (creepy kid, escalating jump scares, "Scooby-Doo" puzzle pieces) was worn thin by the J-horror glut of the last few years.  I think maybe we need to reinvent this entire type of horror story somehow.  You can see how much Goyer enjoys building the scares at the start of the film, but also how much he seems straitjacketed by the structure of the story.

The biggest problem with the film is the way we spend most of the running time with Yustman and her two wildly unappealing friends Romy (Meagan Good) and Mark (Cam Gigandet), while the two most interesting characters aren't introduced until almost the end of the film.  Gary Oldman plays Rabbi Sendak, the Kaballah expert who Casey turns to for help, and Idris Elba (best known as Stringer Bell on "The Wire") plays an Episcopal priest who Sendak turns to for help.  They bring up the idea of why one particular faith's words might have some power over an entitity that may predate man, and I wish Goyer had not only introduced these characters earlier, but also switched the focus to these modern men trying to deal with the experience.  Instead, Oldman has about four scenes in the film and Elba, who is an enormously charismatic performer, is reduced to a couple of lines of dialogue and an unintentionally funny make-up job.  The great Jane Alexander seems stranded, striking the wrong tone completely, playing everything too broad. 

Overall, I think her work sums up the larger problems with the film.  It's certainly not the worst thing Platinum Dunes has produced, and I admire them for making something that's not a remake.  But I can't reccommend the film as a whole.  If you're in the mood for some basic horror tropes served up, "The Unborn" might hit the spot, but it's really only for hardcores who are tired of the Oscar-bait.  All others may want to leave "The Unborn" as the unseen.

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Richard Jenkins has gotten a tremendous amount of critical acclaim for his performance in "The Visitor."
Richard Jenkins has gotten a tremendous amount of critical acclaim for his performance in "The Visitor."
Credit: Overture Films

My DVD Shelf: "The Visitor"

Well, the caption to that photo sort of says it all, eh?

I love Richard Jenkins, man.  I've been on the Jenkins bandwagon for years.  I thought he was un-freakin-believable in "Flirting With Disaster," one of my favorite films of the '90s.  I remember seeing a test screening of the pleasant but unmemorable "Say It Isn't So," and the one thing that I couldn't get enough of was Jenkins.  Film after film, on TV, anywhere I've seen him, he has been consistently real, able to play loony and laureate, and he's done it while remaining relatively low-profile.

If "The Visitor" makes Jenkins a national treasure, as he should be, then it's served its purpose.  I think it's strange how most of the conversation about the film is focused on the single performance, when the film is very much of a piece with Tom McCarthy's first film, "The Station Agent."  That was a gentle ensemble piece that worked because of the way the relationships unfolded, and so is this one.  No suprise his films turn out to be showcases for actors; McCarthy's an actor himself, a very good character actor who is probably best known for his run as the reporter who makes shit up on the last season of "The Wire."  But you've seen a lot of him over the years... he's just one of those faces who works all the time.

Both of his films are rewarding and heartfelt.  "The Visitor" didn't make my list this year, and I got mail from some of you asking why.  It just... didn't.  I enjoyed every minute of the movie, and I think there's a warm, generous quality to the story it tells.  It's not the racial harmony parable I was afraid it was going to be, but is instead more a look at a man in crisis who finds an unlikely way to focus his sorrow and loneliness.  And Jenkins plays this guy with such lived-in authority, such a squashed sadness about him.  He's shut down, intentionally closed to even the random chance of human contact.  It's only when a young Syrian couple is dropped in his path unavoidably that he is forced to really connect to anyone for any reason for the first time in years.  Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) is a young musician who is living with his girlfriend in an apartment they were rented... but it's a scam, and it turns out to be the apartment that Walter (Jenkins) shared with his wife before she died.  He hasn't been back in a while, and someone knew that, took advantage of it.  Tarek and Zainab (Dunai Gurira) have nowhere to go, and they're not in the country legally, and something in Jenkins recognizes this basic need... and he responds.

And there's such beauty in the idea that all the drama that follows in this film comes from that one thing... that decision to respond to someone instead of rejecting them... and the way a single thing like that can radically alter the course of your life.  It's not some wild "HOLY! SHIT!" type coincidence that the film builds to; it's not trying to dazzle you with a twist or a knock-out.  It's just this sort of gradual bloom of a man who had been on the verge of just fading away completely.  And McCarthy and his collaborators (Oliver Bokelberg's photography and the score by Jan Kaczmarek's score both deserve special praise) manage to capture all of this with a deceptive grace.  "The Visitor" is one of those films that goes off like a time bomb, where its charms continue to unfold in hindsight, and I suspect it's worth a revisit.

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