Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Army of Shadows

Army of Shadows (1969)

Re-released 2006

Dir. - Jean-Pierre Melville

Viewed: From the Couch


In 2006, the Criterion Collection re-released Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows, a stunning and saddening account of a group of French resistance fighters during the period of German occupation during World War II.

You should see it. Netflix has it. Put it on the queue, and watch it by yourself.

Melville, who served in the Resistance to both German occupiers and their French collaborators (Vichy), is a master of suspense and terror, and his talents are well suited for the subject matter. The action begins in October of 1942 after the French "Phony War" against Germany, which consisted of uncontested German expansion to the East and West despite formal declarations of war by both Britain and France. So dominant was the German victory that the French were left with empty interment camps, intended for German P.O.W.s, but converted by the Nazis to house political prisoners, Jews, and Gypsies.

In these camps we meet one of the head Resistance organizers, Phillipe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), who is obviously brilliant, well-connected, and ruthless. After managing to escape at the cost of another prisoner's life, he meets up with two of his fellow rebels in order to kill the man who turned him in. While they had planned to shoot the man in an empty flat, a family has recently moved in next door and the gunshot would be too loud. Instead, the three men debate how best to kill the traitor: stabbing, pills, pistol whipping...all while the poor victim stands silent against the wall. The resolution of this problem is of course violent, but early on, Melville has established his leads as men who will stop at nothing to accomplish their mission.

And while "ruthless" is the best way to describe these fighters, they are also completely out of their element, ordinary citizens faced with extraordinary circumstances. The "ordinary man put to the test" trope is quite common in film, but instead of seeing schlumps transformed into action heroes, the circumstances of Vichy make the Resistance fighters less into heroes than into resigned opposition figures; dutifully carrying out tasks that no one has asked them to perform. Among the Allied powers, there was little support for the resistance fighters, and as the movie progresses, you get the sense that this small band of rebels are fighting more for their own continued existence as a unit rather than for any achievable military or political goals. In fact, not once is there an operation directed against the occupiers themselves, but only mission after mission to rescue their own members after repeated arrests.

So what's the point? Jean-Paul Sartre (also a member of Resistance) believed that freedom and "authenticity" of a person could only be achieved under duress; that the normal circumstances of everyday life were too mundane to lead to any genuine experience. While Sartre certainly wanted the Resistance to win, it's likely he cared more about the fight than the victory. As Army of Shadows demonstrates, even the fight itself is not glorious, rewarding, or even noble: friends will be betrayed, abandoned, and forgotten; family ties cut off; intense physical and emotional pain, and for what? I'm not sure Melville has an answer, and he certainly doesn't provide one in the film. However, the movie itself can serve as an answer: if an incredible film like Army of Shadows can be made from the experience of the Resistance movement, then there must be something to be said for suffering and endurance for the sake of art. Whether the art is worth the suffering, however, I don't know if even Melville could answer.


Sean sermonizes no more:

A great film, without doubt. After seeing the previous Jean-Pierre Melville Criterion releases: Le Cercle Rouge, Bob the Gambler and Le Samourai; this is easily Melville's most personal film of the bunch, you can tell that with or without knowing the director's own life's history. But that doesn't necessarily mean it's the better of these films. In fact, I do feel his style is suited better to a story like Le Cercle Rouge or Le Samourai.

It's hard to review classics, which is why I'd rather not if given my druthers (damn you, druthers!). It's obvious this is a good movie -- it's Jean-Pierre Melville at the height of his powers and a Criterion Collection DVD. It has a 99% chance of being perfectly acted, shot, wonderfully told story. Anyone with any interest in cinema knows it's going to be worthwhile to watch especially since it came on the scene with the "never before seen in the U.S." tag. But perhaps because of that tag it deserves to get as much attention as possible.

For me, the enjoyment of looking at this movie with an eye towards writing about it came out of putting this story into today's light. This is a story of unflinching nationalism. A story of people willing to die and kill for their country no matter what the cost. It's definitely interesting to look at that kind of story in a world where even Gore Vidal calls our president akin to Hitler. While much of the action in Army of Shadows comes with a certain futility and bleakness, there's a definite romanticism present as well. I don't think Melville can help but make his main characters stuff of machismo fantasy. I doubt there's a man alive, hetero or not, who wouldn't want to go about his business like Alain Delon, or in this case Lino Ventura. They're as cool as customers get and yet also as tragic. But we know whether it be yesterday or today it's still the legacy you leave that defines you... Martyrs and what they stand for... It's something that no matter how far you think society will progress, you have to admit, will always be there. How you die is as equally important as why you die. This is a recurring theme throughout the movie and possibly the very point of the movie judging from the last scene. So what separates the good from the bad in the eyes of history?

Army of Shadows was released in 1969 and buried because of it. People didn't want to relive this part of history at that time. Things were pretty good in France, even though they had a small stake in that Vietnam thing. Yet here we are today dealing with the psychology of resistance fighters all over again. People plotting uprisings, hoping for proper funding to get their plans in action. Of course this is not necessarily the nationalism that you're thinking of today, is it? How far does it take to draw a line from nationalism to religious extremism? Does the unblinking nationalism of the French Resistance parallel the IRA? Does the French Resistance leader, in this movie, lying to his followers in order to kill someone, match what the Bush administration told it's flagging supporters what they wanted to hear in order to get the job done? This was the beauty I found in this movie: many avenues of unanswerable tangents.

I think our reasons of approval are close enough, Padraic, but I don't subscribe to that Sartre stuff. There's plenty of duress found in everyday life to show what a person's true colors are. I think maybe Sartre was talking about the elite or didn't get out enough.

Before I wrap up, I do want to give an award to Michel Fretault for giving one of the best performances for a bit part, non-speaking role in a movie. His non-verbal back and forth with Lino Ventura as they plot their escape from the clutches of the Gestapo is movie magic. To bad he was only in one other movie. But since that other movie is Un flic (only #339 in the Q), Melville's last movie, maybe he isn't complaining. Also, Eric De Marsan deserves notice -- there is music in this film (which upon first viewing may be missed) which De Marsan crafted, it is sparingly used to make maximum impact yet not detract. Beautiful, subliminal stuff.


Good call on the score; I didn't even notice it, which is probably best.

I'll address the Sartre point in a moment, but let me say I agree completely on the point about the fuzzy line between freedom fighter and terrorist. This is hardly a new observation, but the way in which Melville presents the compromises, duplicity, and lies that are necessary for an underground movement is wonderful. This is not the hedonistic underground of the Matrix, but a stuffy, claustrophobic underground in which no one can ever be trusted, friends are few and troublesome, and alliances always contingent; in a way, the Resistance (and the movie itself) operate more like the mafia in The Godfather than our usual picture of rebels as a band of long-haired and tattooed outsiders.

Again, it seems astonishing to ask the question in light of what they were fighting, but was the resistance worth it?

Okay, now the "Sartre Stuff," which I think you dismiss far too quickly and flippantly (again, Sartre was in the resistance himself, so I think he got out plenty). While people do deal with adversity in their everyday lives - from family problems and work to navigating Storrow Drive on a holiday Friday - I don't think it's "elitist" to suggest that most people do not have a trying experience similar to fighting the Nazis for the liberation of their country.

As a test case, look at the surveys of military recruits, which almost all confirm that the reason why most people volunteer for military service is a sense of adventure. Put simply, people join the military because they are want to test themselves. The idea that people need to push themselves to their limits is one of the central ideas of Western culture, found in everything from our next review (The Passenger) to the new "it" movie Into the Wild.

You even admit as much Sean when you say that "who wouldn't want to go about his business like Alain Delon." The point of the film isn't that Delon is intrinsically better or different than anyone else, but that he is made so by the circumstances of the occupation; we can't be Delon because we have no opportunity be Delon. One reason (among many) that we cannot "go about our business" is that we have no occasion to, no experience in our lives even remotely comparable to the situation in Army of Shadows. Just think how different circumstances would have to be for either one of us to contemplate killing the other one in order to protect a movement or cause; it is so far from our lived reality that it's hardly conceivable.

One final point, which I can't help making: Things were not "pretty good" in France in 1969! Take the social revolutions that were happening in America at the end of the sixties and early seventies, multiply them by a factor of five, and you get an understanding of the tumultuous and fractured state of the French psyche at the time.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Stone Brewery's 11th Anniversary Ale

Stone 11th Anniversary Ale

Stone does a lot of things right. They build their brand with style and harumph by giving their beers names like Arrogant Bastard Ale, Dead Guy Ale and Ruination IPA. They have masculine, cool labels on their beers so that even a frat boy's can be caught drinking a craft beer and he won't feel like his dick's been cut off. They're at the forefront of that whole "extreme beer" thing. Some people guffaw at the name of anything with extreme tagged at the front of it. Is this the kind of beer that snowboarders and bungee jumpers drink? But if you have interest in the beer arts it's a fun category to peruse. It's blending different styles, pushing the ABV% envelope, experimentation at it's finest. These are not "session beers", stuff you can sit on the couch all day drinking (though that Dead Guy can go down nice and easy). These are beers mostly found in 1 Pt. 6 Fl. Oz. bottles and should be treated with a different point of view than your PBR or High Life.

The Stone 11th Anniversary Ale is a pitch black IPA. You don't see that brought around very often. Malt, caramel, honey...? It's slightly dark head sticks around on the glass as the beer smoothly goes down the gullet. While this might be an 8.7 on the ABV scale -- it's not too syrupy sweet, bitter or hard to drink, though it would be a better dessert type beer. It certainly has a lot of body to it and fills you up. There's a sweet tang to it that would make for a helluva beer float. I would call this either a great night cap beer or the kind you serve before a meal as an appetizer. Good stuff. Very enjoyable and the kind of beer you might want to buy an extra one to keep for a special occasion.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Stickin' a Fork in Summer '07 (Round Up Pt. 3 of 3)

So yeah, I went out to the theaters with the masses and watched movies this summer rather than sit on the sidelines and make snarky, hollier than thou, baseless commentary. No, not many of them were great. Some were enjoyable. Others made me want to ask the Lowes manager to skull fuck the movie out of my memory. But even a shit movie isn't a complete waste of time. It can hone your skills as a reviewer, serve as fodder for an fun post, even act as a useful point of reference as well as help create a scale and make you appreciate the finer movies in life. If all you watch is Criterion Collection movies all your life (there's a couple Michael Bay movies in there too), a perfectly executed horror movie or a finely crafted superhero tale might seem like utter uselessness. But it is not.

To the guy sitting in the proverbial mansion on the hill, sure, he might think escapism is a four letter word. People should be paying attention to the shit storms all around us and not some fruit in tights slingin' webs. But what about the people that have their face in the shit all day long? What about the kid who has to go home to abusive or repressive living situation? The average man or woman struggling with depression or illness; parents who are struggling with debt or worry constantly every day about their kid getting shot here or in some other country -- they shouldn't be able to be entertained and taken away from their problems for two hours without being chided for it? For these people and many more, the summer movie is an escape that is looked forward to, has its rewards, and should be treated with respect when it is well made and not prejudiciously dismissed because it's a story that doesn't bother to reflect man's eternal suffering (though I'm tellin' ya, Spidey 3 was a bit of a downer). Sure, a good number of these movies are poorly made and worthy of some loathing, but the majority of indie movies about scruffy, brooding, sad sack 20 somethings are just as horrible if not more so due to their preciousness and utter myopic self-interest.

With that out of the way -- I'm happy to report this summer saved the best for last. (How's that for a segue?)

Superbad (this was originally written for dual action a month ago but I'm not going to bother re-writing it, sorry)

While everyone is through for the moment dousing Judd Apatow with buckets of praise (most of it deserved in my opinion) I'd like to take a paragraph or two to pat the backs of the other directors in this growing stable of talent. Maybe this is just a way of giving Apatow more praise for picking these directors and attaching them... At any rate, it's not something that's usually mentioned among the reasons how he is "saving comedy". I'm getting a little ahead of myself because on one the of the reason's I'm bringing this up is his having appointed Mr. David Gordon Green to helm the next Rogen/Goldberg scripted feature -- the finished-but-sadly-won't-be-out-'till-next-summer The Pineapple Express. I'm as guilty as anyone for getting hyperbolic and tossing the word genius around, but look at Greg Mottola's and Green's resume and tell me who else in Hollywood would have the balls to put these guys behind the camera for a high school comedy and a stoner action-adventure pic? That shit's exciting.

This is leading me back to my Die Hard schpeel. Except we're adding the excitement by putting in interesting directors rather than actors. The number one problem I have with most mainstream comedies is the direction. It's the main reason why Adam Sandler movies end up sucking so hard 90% of the time. Sure, the premise is usually pretty dumb and there isn't much in the way of original story/writing going on, but I'm telling you the worst offender in these pictures is the horrible directing. The story goes that Sandler works with hacks like Peter Segal and Steven Brill so he can do what he wants and basically direct himself. The one great movie he's made is Punch Drunk Love and the tales of Sandler and P.T. Anderson butting heads throughout are probably not all that exaggerated. So it seems Sandler is fine going about his business without stretching his abilities beyond what he's comfortable with. Well, ok, that's lame, but I'm willing to bet he can find someone out there that will let him do his own thing while at the same time know how to film something that doesn't look like it was shot by someone who didn't make the first cut of On the Lot. (I'll never get over the fact that after watching Anger Management that I could count the number of shots where Nicholson and Sandler appeared together on one hand. Anger Management doesn't have much going for it besides the fact that you have Sandler and Nicholson bouncing off each other. It's pretty damn frustrating that you can't have one scene where the two of them are framed together and yelling at each other for more than a couple seconds. Instead the whole movie is close-up or medium shot on Sandler yelling, waving arms to someone off screen -- cut to Nicholson close-up or med-shot of him yelling waving arms to other side of screen. Even when their in the fucking car together its cut back and forth between the two separate shots. Breathe... Sorry...) So here we have Greg Motolla who shoots the movie with some nice long takes here and there, some lingering moments sprinkled throughout, that allows the viewer to place themselves in these situations and become familiar with even the way certain characters walk. Very much from the same technique that Mr. Linklater used in Dazed & Confused. This isn't that crazy or innovative and yet it's downright exciting.

So yeah, this is a review of Superbad, right? Some high schools boys are in charge of getting some booze for a graduation party. Yes, it's an important party. We learn quickly that the other, more official party is not an option for our lonely, sex starved compadres. That's an apt description and yet by the end of the movie it's a ridiculously inferior description. One of the very important reasons this movie is great is that it transcends it's genre. Which is what all the great movies do. Kubirck, Coppola, Fuller, Peckinpah, a lot of the all-time great movies start off with someone looking at the conventions of a particular genre and coming out the other end having told a much bigger story about ourselves. Now don't go crazy, I'm not saying Superbad is on the same level as say, The Wild Bunch. But both these movies start off with a simple premise and by the end actually manage to reveal sincere reflections of our society. In Superbad's case it's fairly minor and in regards to the high school set, but it's revelatory nonetheless.

Also revelatory, all three of our main actors here. While they tend to be a little one-note here and there each one is given a couple scenes to knock socks off and these do tend to be in those lingering moments Mottola gives them. Where you're given a moment to see in their eyes that these characters do have life and that these actors do have something to offer. not so much with Christopher Mintz-Plasse, but it's his first movie and well, as superbad as Fogell is, his path is a different one. But let's not forget the women. Even though I believe this movie was finished before Knocked Up came out, this movie serves as a good rebuttal to the cries of misogyny that came with it. In possibly the most revolutionary tactic in its transcendence of its genre is making the young women in this movie are as real as the boys. While surely the boys are the focus and are the ones given the hero's journey, perhaps the most important lesson they learn is that these girls are not just classmates that provide lustful desires, but they are in fact more like themselves that they would imagine; just as confused and contradictory, and well, human.

One more note. I watched way too many youtube videos before seeing this movie. These videos completely succeeded in getting me really jazzed to see Superbad -- but at the same time took some of the awesomeness away. Only a little bit; but still... In no way am I saying that if you've searched and destroyed every clip from this movie before actually going out and seeing it that you're not going to come away happy -- trust me, you will. There are still many classic scenes in this film that took me by surprise. Cera doing a rendition of "These Eyes" to the residents of the coke room is probably my favorite moment this summer.

King of Kong

Rocky by way of Donkey Kong. Billy Mitchell may be the most memorable villain of the year in this documentary about one man's journey to challenge the undisputed owner of the top score in Donkey Kong. That contender is Steve Weibe, a man with a sympathetic story but one who isn't looking for any pity. A series of unfortunate events lead him to install a Donkey Kong machine in his garage and set himself a goal: top score. He soon finds that dethroning Billy Mitchell, a smug, arrogant man-child and hot sauce entrepreneur, who's held the score since the '80s, is not unlike toppling a small government. Sinister back-room dealings abound and devious henchmen stand in his way. And even after jumping over every barrel thrown his way, Steve finds that the odds stacked against him may be insurmountable. Will our champ give up in the face of all these adversities or will continue to fight 'till the final round?

To say that this movie is a huge crowd pleaser is, I hope, not giving away too much. Of all the movies I've seen this summer I think this is the one I've recommended the most. Mostly due to the fact that it's a movie that can't afford any big ad campaigns and might not play at your local Landmark theater for very long if people don't get out there and fill some seats. It is a wonderfully funny, touching and brilliantly edited movie. Highest honors. And I'll be damned if every time I think about this one I don't want to pick up the soundtrack and relive it.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix [IMAX 3-D]

I had to make it through a couple of Jordan's Furniture showrooms and their insane Mardi Gras themed lobby, but overall my first IMAX experience was pretty cool. Hangover and vertigo be damned I made through this 5th installment of the boy wizard anthology. Now it is well known that movie-wise this series peaked with Alfonso Cuaron's Prisoner of Azkaban and since then it's been heading back downhill. I don't think most people are arguing this. We're not reaching the nadir of the first movie -- it's still enjoyable to keep tabs on Harry and friends -- but we're seriously spinning wheels in this one.

God bless Imelda Staunton. Without her this one might have been a real slough to get through. We still have the bizarrely fun (possibly just to me) sight of seeing David Thewlis and Gary Oldman sharing the screen in a family movie. The supporting cast continues to be top notch. Alan Rickman is always a pleasure as the pained Prof. Snape and Michael Gambon (see the original BBC The Singing Detective) continues to makes it seem easy replacing ol' Richard Harris as Dumbledore.

"The IMAX Experience" took some getting used to, I must say. Even walking into the theater gave me a bit of unease. The horrible music and swirling out of focus circles certainly wasn't helping things as we waited for the movie to start. I had to keep my eyes elsewhere to keep from getting dizzy. Once the movie started we were treated to some pleasant overhead arial views and diving camera shots. And by pleasant I mean vertigo inducing, stomach turning, close-your-eyes-until-it's-over shots. There's no escaping the film when you're in the IMAX theater. No escape. But after the first hour or so, your senses adjust and you can start to relax. The last 30 minutes or so were presented in 3D and it had to of been the first time since 1984 or so that I strapped on a pair of 3D glasses in a theater. I couldn't picture watching a whole movie in this format but some of the shots were pretty cool. Some shots worsened from the treatment -- especially the flying over London stuff, but overall -- worth the money and the Jordan's ordeal.

Eastern Promises

Ahhh, nothing like a tall glass of David Cronenberg to wash down the summer and get the blood going for the fall movies. While I still long for the Cronenberg that dealt with "the new flesh", spinal cord orifices, killer gynecologists and mutant arm pits, I happy to report that his voice is ringing a lot clearer in Eastern Promises that in the fine yet oddly by the numbers History of Violence.

Continuing a partnership with Viggo Mortensen, who is here cast as a shady "driver" for a Russian family that's all mobbed up in London, Cronenberg crafts a kind of Shakespearean tale of a powerful family falling apart; the birth of a child that caused the downfall and the death that surrounds it. Filmed in these great earthy tones and filled with shadows, London has never looked eerier. While I'm certain there were a fair number of scene's filmed during daylight hours, looking back, you remember only darkness.

While Naomi Watts does a fine job starting us off as a nurse who takes on the role of looking out for this baby who's mother died while giving birth. She digs into the mothers past and eventually hands the reigns of lead actor over to Viggo. And I'll tell you it was an honor just to watch this guy. If he doesn't at least get a best actor nomination (and I have yet to see anyone outshine this performance) there's gonna be some heads rolling. Also shining is Vincent Cassell, who finally finds a decent English speaking role for his talents as Viggo's captain and problem child to Armin Mueller-Stahl's wonderfully creepy crime boss. He seems to have more of a problem with Naomi poking around than Viggo does and if you've seen La Haine you know Vincent can play unpredictable, violent guy better than anyone in town.

Since I know you're wondering -- yes, Viggo's naked fight scene is already the stuff of legend, and deservedly so. This scene is worth the price of admission alone because the visceral impact that is delivered by watching this scene play out in a well kept theater should not be denied. Unless you're the keeper of a multi-thousand dollar home theater, you will be missing out. This scene is also a good example of Cronenberg getting back to indulging in his fetishes which is the fun of watching one of his movies in the first place and why History of Violence wasn't as enjoyable as some of his better works.

So this one certainly sets the bar high for the rest of the movies heading our way as Oscar Bait '07 starts. We'll see how it plays out. In the meantime, enjoy some bonus features from King of Kong:

"Hi, I see your really good at Centipede."

Friday, September 14, 2007

3:10 To Yuma (2007)

3:10 To Yuma (2007)

Dir. - James Mangold

Viewed: From the Balcony


God bless the western. I must say I'm happy to see the genre making a small comeback this year and I can't quite believe that once upon a time, around my pre- to early-teen years, I had no love for the oater and would declare this on a semi-regular basis. I chalk that up to my father's predilection for the introverted, black and white variety such as Will Penny and My Darling Clementine. Not exactly the easiest material for a kid still playing his copy of Evil Dead 2 for his friends every weekend to wrap his head around. Boring stuff. But eventually I would discover the greatness of Peckinpah and Leone's cowboy stories and then, over time, even come to enjoy some of the Duke's better efforts as well as those other two.

They say there isn't a story out there that can't be told in a western picture. It's an interesting thought and I suppose one of the reasons that, like rock n' roll, the western will never die. It's a versatile and sturdy genre that lends itself to both suspenseful actioners and revealing characters studies equally well. Some of the better ones manage to cover both of those bases; much like today's movie: James Mangold's version of 3:10 to Yuma.

Being a whole lot more into watching movies than I am reading, I tend to enjoy cinematic books. I really can't help but be shooting the movie version of the book in my head no matter what I'm reading -- it's a switch I can't turn off. This goes to say that Elmore Leonard is one of my favorite authors. This ends up hurting a little bit on the other side of the fence because his books have a bad percentage rate as far as getting turned into good movies. I can't say for sure how much Leonard's 15 page short story ends up on the screen in the way of plot points or dialog, having never read this one, but I can say that this is a rare happy case of successfully getting his essence up there on the screen. Which is to say, the same things that make a good western are what make a good Elmore Leonard story: great characters who unfold themselves over a brisk, involving story.

3:10 to Yuma is in no way a perfect movie. There are a couple false notes that are more or less kept to the ending, but for the most part it's a well made, engaging, highly enjoyable movie. The western pretty much lives or dies on the strength of it characters, and this one gives us at least three memorable ones. Christian Bale continues his hitting streak to 8 movies as Dan Evans, a rancher who has, as he puts it, been asking God to cut him a break but God ain't replyin'. He's lost half a leg, the water for his ranch, his eldest son's respect, anything but pity from his wife, and at the start of the story, his barn. So when the chance arises to get a nice sum of $200 to help a group of men transport the renowned leader of a band of thieves and killers, Ben Wade, (played with a contagious amount of fun by Russell Crowe) who got himself arrested after a little too much post stagecoach robbing celebration, across the state to catch the eponymous train that will take Mr. Wade to prison, he jumps at the chance. Not only can he get his ranch back in shape but maybe a little bit of respect, too.

The main obstacle in Dan's goal is Ben's second in command, the enjoyably criminally insane Charlie Prince, played by Ben Foster. Not only does Ben Foster get to play the guy with the coolest name, he also delivers a helluva eye-opening performance. I'd just gotten done watching season 3 of "Six Feet Under" a week or two before seeing this movie and I kept asking myself, who the hell is this guy? (I believe this could be a sign that I've successfully burned X-Men 3 out of my mind, which makes me quite happy.) He really transforms himself into this character and brings a level of intensity and menace that is wholly unexpected given the meek, uncomfortable character he plays in "Six Feet Under". In a movie full of scene stealers, he comes away with some full pockets.

I'll take a moment here to give a pat on the back to Alan Tudyk; a guy I always enjoy whenever he pops up. He plays a doctor specializing in horses who's assigned to look after the gut shot Peter Fonda and gets the movie's biggest laugh with a perfectly timed line regarding the quality of lady you'll find in Dodge City.

So it's a highly enjoyable ride until we get to the big climax. When it gets time to start the guns a blazin' for the inevitable big shootout the movie takes a little logic jump here and there to serve the story. While none of these minor contrivances ruin the movie they do step on the brakes at some inappropriate times. But for me, they did such a good job building up the suspense for the final scene while our guys are holed up in a hotel room waiting for that train to show up, the "how the hell are they gonna get out of this one" scenario -- who's gonna die and how, that by the time they had to leave that hotel room they had me so invested in the characters and the outcome that the few hiccups that occurred afterward were merely unfortunate.

This is an easy recommend for me. I'd be hard pressed to think of a person who wouldn't be won over by this movie. Wait, that wouldn't be you would it, Padraic?



Nope, Sean, I was a big fan.

It's hard to argue with a movie that can contain it's fair share of corny dialogue, cliches, and absurd plot points and still be entertaining, engaging and, at times, even moving. Consider the following sequence (paraphrase):

Man: Do you remember Velvet?
Woman: Who doesn't remember Velvet?
Actor moves in close, placing his hand on the nape of the woman's neck.
M: You look kinda skinny.
W: I don't feel skinny.
M: I don't mind skinny girls, so long as they have green eyes. Do you have green eyes?
Woman turns around slowly, eyes downcast, slowing turning as Man puts his hand on her cheek. Finally, she raises her head, and opens her eyes, brown.
M: That's okay, they don't have to be green.
Passionate kissing. Cut to the next morning, Man drawing naked woman from behind.

Now, I have no idea who wrote this (or if it was in the original 3:10 with Glenn Ford) and I have no idea what it means, or why it is sexy. But it is, thanks mostly to Crowe's fierce stare, and complete sincerity. We don't really know if he knows the woman, or what it is with green eyes (they pop up again later on), but if Russell says it, me, and that woman, are going to believe it.

Crowe, as the notorious outlaw Ben Wade, gets most of the fun lines and performances here, but I think Bale is the real star (or, I should say, actor); while Crowe can deliver some frightening levels of violence, he also has the latitude to ham it up a bit, winking and nodding at both his captors and the audience in between bouts of killing. Bale, however, completely loses himself in the role of Dan Evans, destitute rancher who decides to help escort Wade to the train. Bale is all sorrow and pity here, and never once loses that note, or reveals in any way that he is a famous movie star; he is Evans.

To me, the most fascinating part of the Evans character is the tension in his reasons for escorting Wade; is it really his unshakable faith in what's right, or is he just doing it for the money; there is a revealing scene late in the movie that suggests it may be more the latter, despite all the righteous pronouncements. I think there is even an unsympathetic view of Evans: that he has dragged his family down by refusing to fight, and that, when the chips are down, and Wade is about to finish him off, he can only resort to self-pity. His is a very very sad story, but this is no tragedy.

As Sean alluded to, the end does suffer from some flights of fancy, but at the center of the storm of bullets and shouting, the final transformation of the relationship between Wade and Evans is pulled off perfectly. My friend Ian remarked that Wade's decision could have so easily come of as contrived or forced, but that the plotting of the movie made it seem natural, even inevitable. In an interview on the Charlie Rose show, director James Mangold remarked that the ending of the original 3:10 was too neat, conventional, and happy for today's time. "It was a 50's ending, perfect for its time and place, it would have seemed false today." (He also revealed, in a neat bit of trivia, that the Sly Stalone character in Copland (Mangold's underrated 1997 film), Heflin, was named after the actor who played Evans in the original, Van Helfin. The similarities between the two characters are no coincidence.) While the Wade/Evans partnership may falter under the most cynical interpretations in the modern era, it is a credit to two hours of carefully paced scenes and two committed actors.

Unfortunately, Mangold is still the exception in Hollywood today, and 3:10 likely won't be breaking any box office records, despite the requisite big stars, cool explosions, and improbable gun play. There are just far too many places in this movie where Mangold leaves the thinking to the audience. One reason the western has been on the decline for thirty or so years is because it demands a lot from the audience. Unlike the gangster or crime genre (which has been in the ascendant over this time), most of the tension and action is within the characters themselves, and while gangster movies can fill the downtime between violence with meals at Italian restaurants, fast talk, and womanizing, for the most part, all westerns have is the landscape and the facial expressions of bearded guys on horses. You can laugh at John Wayne all you want, but it still amazes me that the most bankable action star in Hollywood for 40 years was in so many movies in which action was secondary to character, landscape, and, well, silence and contemplation.

Mangold may not be John Ford or Sergio Leone, but at least he isn't John Woo.



Good observations, Paddy. Ain't it true that even though we should know better, there are a couple moments (that damn scene in the hotel room!) in this movie where you can't help but actually feel for these characters. But the truth is they do earn it. More precisely Bale earns it -- but the scenes work due to everyone involved. Besides a few shaky scenes in the very beginning and end I can't see how someone could not fall for these guys.

I don't laugh at John Wayne so much as scratch my head. He certainly had charisma to spare, but as far as acting chops and range goes -- well, I might go so far as to say Vin Diesel has more going on in his repertoire than Mr. Wayne. Even John Ford wished he didn't have to work with the guy so often. But whatever, he was an icon and lord knows, just as much then as now, people find comfort in the familiar.

One thing I've been finding interesting in looking back at the western genre is the freedom it can give the writer. Inherent in placing your story in this time and place is that there's going to be a basic motivation: survival. Choices have to be made and back then you didn't have a whole lot of them. Are you going to live a noble life or a corrupt one? When the survival rate is so low to begin with these lines can be blurred rather easily and to great rewards. And much like the samurai stories that have gotten so easily adapted to this genre, a man's pride can mean life or death in these conditions.

This is all to say that the western allows the writer and the story to focus more on character than plot. The more modern a story gets the more the plot tends to get in the way of character. I call this the Cell Phone Effect. Strip technology and modern trappings away from a picture and things get a whole lot clearer. Zodiac is another example of this principle, but unfortunately it's another example of a movie that didn't catch on with audiences. It would be interesting to see if there's a small movement of Hollywood filmmakers, undeterred by box office receipts, going back to tell stories in a way that made movies work in previous generations rather than unattractively struggling to find a connection with this generation based on gimmicks, remakes and "re-imaginings".

Last thing: I know Dan Evan's and his wife (Gretchen Mol does succeed in making the best out of a small role that may not have even registered in another actresses hands) are having some problems when we meet them. And so I do have to wonder if Christian Slater's Arkansas Dave Rudabaugh might have made his way through town at some point when Dan was away -- because I'll be damned if that kid of his doesn't bare more than a little resemblance to Arkansas Dave.

Also, Paddy, I'm suggesting to you that the second video here is actually better than that Kurt Russel Tombstone movie. I'd take the Costner version out of the equation, but I'd rather say that Tombstone is the worst of the three. And I don't think that's going out on a limb.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Paddy's Summer Round-Up: Part 1 of 1

Summer's end is near, and I still haven't seen all those big movies everyone was talking about: Spidey, Shrek, Fantastic Four, Pirates, all the big ones. And I feel terribly, because these movies have had such a profound influence on the culture that I felt left out of the national conversation. The entire summer passed, and while I was busy with such absurd projects such as reading and writing, I missed out on the tremendous interest these movies piqued regarding where we stand as a nation, love, death, and the fruitless search for meaning in the world. Damn.

But what? What is that you say? It's been only two months since the blockbuster season kicked off and these movies are already....forgotten? No, I don't believe it! But all the hype, and the money, and the advertising? Surely the major studios would put their efforts into something more permanent; after all, how can 90 minutes in a movie theater be such a fleeting experience? This is Hollywood after all, the place of dreams, not some vacuous corporate division that churns out pure shit primarily meant to make money in the overseas market...right?

Yeah, right. Well, fortunately, I did catch two films at the end of the summer season that will likely resonate beyond the trip to the parking garage.


I was initially skeptical of seeing this "musical" about a guy, his guitar, and the woman who inspires him; mostly because I hadn't liked fans of the band The Frames, whose lead singer Glen Hansard, stars as the guy. The fans were kind of dorky, and liked stuff like Dave, and The Shins, and I figured them to be a sort of mildly interesting band that could get middle aged people who liked Friends to shuffle around for a few hours. And it was going to be set in oh-so-hip Dublin, the new gathering place for young Americans and Europeans with lots of spare capital looking for the hot new thing. And the movie received a ridiculously high 97% fresh rating, meaning it didn't piss anyone off.

But, as per usual, my knee-jerk prejudices failed me, and Once turned out to be a lovely and charming story, which even the most heard-hearted critic would have to love. The story is simple: Hansard plays a street musician who also repairs vacuum cleaners, and one day he meets a charming girl from Poland selling flowers in the street. She also happens to play piano, and the remainder of the movie traces their professional and personal development, culminating in a weekend spent recording a demo tape.

There are so many ways this story could have gone wrong, like making Hansard too dumpy and sad, or the girl (Markéta Irglová) annoyingly cheery, or worse, like so many recent movies, the guy's savior. Instead, director John Carney centers the movie around the wonderful and mystical creative powers in music, and in several gripping scenes, depicts how a song can move from a few simple chord progressions to an opus. Similarly, you see (and feel!) the transforming powers of music on the soul. I don't know what I would think of these songs if I had heard them on the radio, or in the background of some TV drama montage, but seeing them built from the ground up is incredible.

Rescue Dawn

This was supposed to be the big one, the one summer movie I had followed all year. This was Herzog, with the full power of Hollywood actors and production values. This was Bale, an actor of tremendous depth, in the career of a lifetime. This was, well, this was a pretty good, but not great, movie.

While I think Herzog has made better feature films (Aguire, Fitzcaraldo), Rescue Dawn has convinced me that Herzog is best when two things happen: 1) he makes a documentary and 2) he appears in the film himself.

While the movie and story are told at a good pace, and all of the scenes well acted, there was never a moment of pure transcendence here, where Herzog completely rips you out of the present state and alters your mindset: in Grizzly Man, you have the bears encroaching on Timothy Treadwell; in The White Diamond, there is the scene of the bats flying into the cavern; in The Wild Blue Yonder, it is the shots of a desolate planet and the recording of Tuvan throat singers. Despite the levels of heroics displayed by Bale's Dieter, there is nothing in the imprisonment, or escape, that rivals these moments.

And despite Herzog's choice of bizarre subjects, none are ever as interesting as the man himself. This may seem to be the indication of a megalomaniac, or that art suffers at the alter of personality, but I think Herzog may be on the path to cementing himself strongly as the best anti-post modernist director on the planet. While other directors try to hide their mark, or to try to convince you that what you are seeing is real, Herzog proudly admits that his work (even his documentaries) are fiction (see the recent profiles in the New York Review of Books and The New Yorker) and that the audience, and the art, will be better off knowing this. By removing the distance between creator and created, Herzog embraces, and at the same time, eradicates, the postmodern critique of authorship. I'm not sure about "l'Auteur", but I'm pretty sure that when it comes to Herzog, the director is not dead.

Friday, September 7, 2007

The Schedule and a Contest

This is for the kids:

Black Lips ME Fri 9/21/2007
Okkervil - ME Tue 9/25/2007
Devendra - Roxy Tue 9/25/2007
826 Berklee Wed 9/26/2007
Jose Gonzales - Dise Sun 9/30/2007
National - Roxy Sat 10/6/2007 12:00
Sunset Rubdown - Mid East Sun 10/7/2007
Hives Mid Sun 10/14/2007
Enon - GS Sat 10/20/2007
Go Team - Dise Thu 10/25/2007
Jens Lekman - Dise Mon 10/29/2007
Menomena - Dise Fri 11/9/2007

This is the only show RFC has in the bank:

I think Special Fellow has Sunset Rubdown confirmed.?

So hey Kids (this is "the contest part"), you want an unopened, factory delivered copy of the DVD set of the 2nd Season of Twin Peaks? It's free ya know... I know the big complete set is coming out. I'm happy about that too. But maybe you're like me and paid some money for that first season set and figure hey -- here's a guy giving away the second season set. So mister, whatto I hafta do?

Send an email to reviewsfromthecouch@gmail.com with an address and I'll send it there. Really, it's that simple. This thing's been sitting next to my tv for the past few months and I really can't come up with a contest or anything. Hell, as far as I know there's 4 people who read this and one of 'em is me.

There's other, maybe better videos I could put on here about Twin Peaks. But I actually remember being sad that I'd missed this interview. Say what you will about Jay -- and I've said the worse of things -- but he liked talking to directors when the powers that be let him.