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Popcorn Love: The Confrontation in Unfaithful (2002)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 29, 2009

unfaithful

When discussing the merits of a movie like Unfaithful, it’s pretty rare that you get past the sex scenes. And that’s fair enough–they’re some of the hottest ever committed to mainstream celluloid, making for one of the more uncomfortable movie-going experiences I had with my parents (though still ranking an extremely distant #2 to Y Tu Mama Tambien). Diane Lane had never looked sexier, Olivier Martinez had never looked swarthier, and director Adrien Lyne–the guy who made a hit erotic thriller with Michael Douglas and Glenn Close as the leads–was clearly the man for the job when it came to getting the most out of the brief encounters between the two. Their last tryst in particular, a desperate hate-fuck outside of Martinez’s apartment, in particular, I would rank as an all-time top fiver–one that I’ve watched countless times, and which I could pretty much draw frame-for-frame by memory if called on to do so.

Recently, however, I’ve come to realize that the scene that follows shortly thereafter–in which the devestated Richard Gere confronts Martinez in his apartment–is almost as indelible, if for somewhat different reasons. It’s the scene that basically acts as the fulcrum for the movie, the turning point between the guilt, secrecy and ridiculously hot sex of the first half and the guilt, secrecy, and utter lack of ridiculously hot sex in the second half. Plotwise I could just about take it or leave it–I was never particularly convinced by the twist that occurs at the end of this scene, and I was never really sure that the way the rest of the movie followed was really the direction to go with it. But the dynamics of the scene–the interaction between Gere and Martinez–is unlike those in any other scene I can remember from another movie.

The scene could have very easily been a cliche, especially considering the way it ends–a jealous husband confronts his wife’s lover, and a fight breaks out with tragic consequences. It doesn’t quite play out like that, though, mostly because Gere’s intentions in showing up at Martinez’s doorstep are so ambiguous. Does he want to kill him? Force him to stop seeing his wife? Get information from him? Make him feel guilty for what he’s done? Gere doesn’t seem to be sure, and merely asks to be let inside his apartment. Martinez doesn’t seem to get it either, and in his confused state, doesn’t seem to think twice about granting Gere his request, despite the obvious emotional volatility of the situation at hand.

Both Gere and Martinez’s characters are somewhat unusual for their respective roles to begin with. As the husband spurned, Edward isn’t really the kind of insensitive schlub we’re used to from such a situation–he’s actually a pretty decent-seeming guy, a good father and husband, and he still looks at least somewhat like Richard Gere. The only real knock on him from a spousal standpoint is that he doesn’t seem quite as interested in taking care of business in the bedroom with wife Connie as he probably once did. Meanwhile, Paul isn’t really the kind of dastardly homewrecker he should probably be either. He’s kind of sleazy, sure, but the movie never makes him as evil as we think it will. He never tells Connie that he’s in love with her, he never asks her to leave her husband, hell, he never even goes out of his way to see her, always letting her come to him. Even late in the movie when we find out he was married the whole time, he gets let off the hook when we find out he and wife were separated. He’s not a good guy, but he’s not a particularly bad guy either–basically, he’s just a guy who enjoys having sex with Diane Lane, and knows that he’s good enough to make it worth her while. Fair enough.

Paul’s lack of emotional involvement in the situation is part of what makes the scene here with Edward so interesting. He doesn’t do any of the things you’d expect a side-lover to do when an angry husband shows up–he doesn’t apologize or try to plead his case, he doesn’t get territorial and demand that Edward leave him alone, and he doesn’t brag to Edward about how much better he must be in bed than him. Rather, he just attempts to have polite conversation with the man whose wife he’s fucking, seeming to believe that Edward will be capable of handling the situation as dispassionately as he does. He makes a bad joke about having heard “no complaints” when asked if Connie likes it at his place, he responds to Edward’s furiously informing him that he and Connie have been married for 11 years and have a son with “yeah…she told me” and just keeps offering him more drinks. It’s quite possibly the most awkward encounter I’ve ever seen depicted on film, especially because the whole time you’re watching, you’re just thinking “why the hell doesn’t this guy realize how bad this situation is about to get?”

Of course, the situation does get bad, as in a rage blackout, Edward takes a snowglobe (which Connie had given Paul, despite originally being a gift from Edward), and gives Paul a couple of lovetaps on the head with it, killing him. From there, the movie turns into Gere trying to cover up his crime of passion, and slowly revealing the truth of his actions to Connie, who has, coincidentally, decided on her own to end her relationship with Paul. It was an inevitable conclusion of sorts, I guess, and it does do some interesting things for the rest of the movie, as Connie and Edward go on to play complex mind games over who did what and who knows what about who did what, and eventually realize that the affair/murder has brought them closer together. But it kind of cheapens the scene on the whole, I think–the tension between Paul and Edward is so unbelievable that ending it with a killing almost seems like a cop-out. It doesn’t do the scene’s unique dynamic any justice.

If you only ever watched Unfaithful for the sex scenes, I can’t say I’d blame you. But you might want to hang around for at least a few minutes after to give this bizarre little tete a tete (/ a snowglobe) a look.

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Popcorn Love: The Last Scene in Crank (2006)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on December 8, 2008

Yeah whatever, psycho

Though I still have to budget some quality time to see Transporter 3 in theaters, it’s hard to keep my eyes on the prize when Crank: High Voltage looms around the corner. Yes, that’s right, the most improbable action sequel of recent years is indeed looming, with a reported release date of April 17 of next year. That’s a ways away, certainly, but look at what has been promised us: a score from Mike Patton (he of Faith No More and Mr. Bungle fame), cameos from Corey Haim and Geri Halliwell (yes, Ginger Spice herself), returning cast members including Dwight Yoakam, Amy Smart and Efrim Ramirez (despite the fact that he died two-thirds of the way through the first one), and another Adams-Statham public sex scene, this time supposedly at a horse track (the innuendos write themselves!). More sex, more violence, and a thankfully unembellished budget mean that the charms of the first shoudl more than carry over to a second. Sounds perfect, no? Well, not quite–because Ramirez’s character wasn’t the only one that died in the original Crank

When Chev Chelios goes up to meet Ricky Verona at the top of that hotel at the end of 1, no one–with the possible exception of Amy Smart, who has been too busy getting bent over and shot at to notice–thinks that Chev is walking away from it alive. Dwight Yoakam’s corrupt doctor character has already told him there’s no cure, and the “jerk off” motion made by Verona’s driver when Chev demands the antidote in exchange for Verona’s family heirloom makes it pretty clear that he doesn’t know of one either. He’s just going up there to take as many bad dudes down with him as possible in his last moments on earth. Still, at home you might still be thinking “oh yeah, he’ll discover some last-second antidote, or maybe he’ll just out-diesel the poison” or something along those lines. After all, when did John McClane ever die at the end of his movies? Rambo? Lt. Frank Drevin? It’s just not something you’d think the powers that be would possibly allow.

Anyway, after the climactic shoot-out on the rooftop, Verona speeds off in his helicopter, and Chev hangs on the bottom to try to finish what he started. A fistfight at 10,000 feet ensues, and it ends with Chev pulling Verona out of the helicopter and free-falling with him to the earth. At this point, you’re probably wondering “uh, don’t think I see a parachute, how exactly is he going to get out of this one?” But first things first–Chev, apparently not content with merely letting his adversary fall a couple miles to his death, breaks his neck first to be on the safe side. To be fair, getting this out of the way early allows him a moment for contemplation, after which he decides to pull out his cell and give Ms. Smart a call to let her know that he won’t be making it home for supper. He apologizes for lying to her about coming back alive, mentions how he wishes he could’ve taken the time to enjoy life a little more (the closest thing the movie has to a moral, which luckily isn’t very close), bids her his farewell and hangs up. Then he prepares for his imminent fall to earth, even doing the classic eyes-closed, arms-out pose, before he decides that nah, he can handle it, and opens his eyes once more before he takes a fifty-foot bounce off of a car and falls flat on the pavement. You hear his heart beat to a standstill, and the answer for how he’s going to survive this one becomes obvious–he isn’t.

Except, well, maybe he does. The last shot of the movie is of Chev’s bloody face, the life draining out of it. Except that right before the film cuts to credits, he blinks. I thought nothing of this the first time (or indeed, the first three or four times) I saw this movie, but someone–my brother, one of my friends, I don’t remember–suggested that this was meant to imply that somehow, against all odds, Chev had survived his thousand-story fall, and that seconds later he might have picked himself up off the concrete and gone on some new mission to get vengeance on his enemies and fuck his girlfriend in front of an appreciative crowd. I didn’t believe it–I wouldn’t believe it. But now here we are, with a sequel on the way, and it looks like my friend/brother/stranger was right after all–Chev has indeed come back to life, albeit now with some sort of battery-powered heart that needs constant charging (that’s right, Chev Chelios IS IRON MAN) after his real one has been stolen by Chinese mobsters.

Sounds gloriously implausible. But as good as the new movie will undoubtedly be, I still can’t help but be a little disappointed that the glory of the original movie’s ending (or, at least, what I thought the ending was) has been so cheapened by the fact that Chev apparently survives its fall. One of the reasons Crank blew my mind so handily upon first viewing was how the movie, while packing no shortage of classic action thrills, still more or less played by its own roles–visually, structurally, even musically, the movie was like no other shoot ’em up I’d ever watched, and so while I was still surprised to see that Chev didn’t make it out OK, it still kind of made sense–it’s a better movie, a more properly anarchic one, if he simply falls to his death at the end, without any sort of fanfare or deus ex machina-type intervention to make it more properly conform to genre standard. Plus, the scene is just so perfect–where the hell else have you ever seen anything like a guy making a self-eulogizing phone call to his girlfriend, while plummeting to his death, while Jefferson Starship’s gorgeous “Miracles” plays in the background? If the Crank franchise had begun and ended with that movie, and that was the last scene…well, who could possibly complain about that?

Still, battery-powered heart. Ginger Spice. Horse track sex. I think I’ll live.

Posted in Popcorn Love, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Popcorn Love: David Bowie as Tesla in The Prestige (2006)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 3, 2008

If he says he can do it, he can do it, he don’t make false claims

“Oh yeah, is that the one with Edward Norton?” It’s hard to think of a movie of recent times that has suffered as much for its inextricable association to another movie than The Prestige, which had the bad fortune of being released within months of the similarly titled and similarly themed (magic dudes, took place a while ago) The Illusionist. The differences between the two were many, but most importantly, one was arguably the best movie released in 2006, and the other was a total piece of shit. The Illusionist was a ridiculous mess filled with wooden performances, horrific accents, and such wistfully goldwashed cinematography that you expect fairies and precocious little kids to pop out and take over the story at any point. The Prestige was a movie so badass that it had David Bowie coming off the bench.

Bowie’s acting career is unsurprisingly engimatic, filled with uneasy star vehicles, period oddities, unexpected cameos, and Labyrinth. He’s the kind of musician-turned-actor that you forget even had any sort of film career, until you think about it and realize you’ve seen a half-dozen movies with him in it. The reason is that he’s not a particularly great actor, or at the least, not a very expressive one. It’s not terribly surprising, since you can’t look at him and not see Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke, so viewing him attempting basic human emotions would inevitably be a jarring and confusing proposition. It should be unsurprising, then, that Bowie’s best roles are the ones in cool, weird movies where he’s basically just asked to hang back and let his presence just enhance the movie’s cool, weird vibes.

The Prestige, naturally, is such a flick. Bowie doesn’t even come into the movie until about an hour through, at which point you’re already completely absorbed by the movie’s web of intrigue and mystery, and you’ve forgotten that he was ever supposed to be in it at all. When he’s finally introduced, given one of the best film introductions in recent years (walking through a field of cackling electricity, pictured above), you’re just like HOLY SHIT DAVID BOWIE THIS REALLY IS THE BEST MOVIE EVER. Movies based around David Bowie as a lead usually just end up being kind of uncomfortable, but if you’ve got him as an ace in the hole like The Prestige (or, uh, Zoolander) does, there’s not many other actors you could throw out there to take a movie to the next level like Bowie can.

He’s got a pretty amazing role to work with, too. I don’t know much about Nikola Tesla’s actual history, beyond what Jack White explained to Meg in their Coffee & Cigarettes segment, anyway. But The Prestige portrays him as basically the ultimate technological maverick, the sort of Velvet Underground of modern science to Thomas Edison’s Beatles–unspeakably brilliant, but understood by few and reviled by many. His rivlarly with Edison is an obvious parallel to the rivalry of the two magicians (played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman) at the center of the story, but whereas audience allegiances shift between Bale and Jackman throughout the movie, Edison perpetually looks like a short-sighted, play-it-safe company men compared to Tesla.

And Bowie, well, he just sort of plays it as Bowie. He’s got a bit of an Eastern European accent to work with, as well as a nifty little moustache that comes close to disguising the actor’s true identity, but he leaves the scenery chewing to the rest of the cast. He just shows up, gives a couple Bill Nye-type demonstrations of basic scinetific principles, delivers a couple pithy speeches about the dangers of obsession, and then checks out almost as quickly. He’s not really a scene stealer, but his appearance does what good cameos are supposed to do-puts a big ol’ smile on your face, adds that touch of class to the proceedings, and then gets out of the way to let the rest of the movie do its thing.

Seriously, if you can’t remember which of the two you saw, it was because it was The Illusionist and it was awful. Don’t hold it against The Prestige.

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Popcorn Love: Steve Buscemi in Con Air (1997)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 18, 2008

“Define Irony…”

Despite being more in my wheelhouse (late-90s Bruckheimer-fleeced action flick starring Nicolas Cage + who’s who That Guy supporting cast) than just about any other movie in existence, I’m not actually sure when the last time I saw Con Air was. Truth is, I never really considered it the equal of Broken Arrow, Face/Off or The Rock, to name just a few of its classic peers, so I’ve been slacking on watching its reruns on TNT and USA and the like. Anyway, watching it for the first time in however long, I had forgotten about a lot of things. How awful Nicolas Cage’s southern accent was, for instance. Or what a high percentage of the movie John Cusack seems to spend jumping out of the way of things (or how most of the rest of the time, he’s got an “I’m just as surprised as you that I’m in this movie” look on his face). Or how unbelievably ridiculous some of the one-liners are, as when a disgraced felon pleads for his life with John Malkovich’s character Cyrus “The Virus” Girssom, begging “Cy–,” and Grissom finishes his thought, “-annora,” lighting him on fire.

One thing I remembered perfectly, however, was how creepy and hilarious Steve Buscemi is in this movie as mass-murderer Garland Greene. For a relatively big star (at least compared to perpetually knife-wielding badass Mexican Danny Trejo and perpetually-mustachioed badass MC Gainey), he doesn’t get too many on-screen minutes–that clip above compiles all of ’em, and it’s barely five and a half minutes long. But even amidst a collection of some of the baddest dudes in film history (besides Malkovich, Trejo and Gainey, there’s Ving Rhames, Nick Chinlund, and, uh, Dave Chappelle), it’s the un-muscled, facial hair-devoid Buscemi who is the villain that makes the strongest impression. Not bad for a performance where he never really does anything all that villainous.

Garland Greene is introduced at first like the most dangerous man on the planet, dressed in full restraints, handled by guards like a glass case full of plutonium and given a kind of hushed-whisper respect to make Hannibal Lecter jealous.  Cameron Poe, Cage’s character, learns via Bubba from Forrest Gump that Greene’s rep is built on his 30-person murdering spree, diced about in fashion that “makes the Manson Family look like the Partridge Family.” Poe isn’t too impressed, but definitely at least slightly unnerved to be sitting not all that far from Greene on the prisoner transfer flight. Later, after the prisoners take over the plane and turn it into the titular airline, Grissom (the de facto flight captain) demands Greene’s release, professing to be a “love [his] work.”

As Greene’s restraints are removed, he settles into a seat next to Poe, quipping at him in the sarcastic, overly talkative way we’re used to seeing from Buscemi, just with a slightly more psychotic bent. He’s not scary, per se–even Cage’s demeanor while listening to him is more along the lines of passenger irritaiton at being seated next to a big gabber than it is of cowering fear–but the props he’s been given from Grissom and the cops makes his relatively calm demeanor seem somewhat unnerving. It’s obvious that it’s only going to be a matter of time before we see what exactly it is that makes Garland such a certifiable bad dude.

When the plane lands to attempt to find new transportation, it seems like we’re finally going to see Greene in his purest form. As he wanders away from the troupe, he finds a young girl playing with her dolls and tea set, and in the audience, you’re thinking here we go. As the two’s conversation becomes increasingly ominous (“Are you sick?” “…I am sick.” “Do you take medicine?” “There is no medicine for what I have”), you’re just waiting for him to reach across the table and start bashing her head in, or worse. Then, when it seems things couldn’t get any tenser, the girl persuades Garland to sing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”–already one of the creepiest songs in history–with her, as the background music gets darker and the camera angles become more askance.

The camera cuts away, the action shifts elsewhere, and you assume that director Simon West just didn’t have the heart to show you the deplorable acts of evil Greene performed on the little girl, but that you’ll somehow be informed of it later. Yet, as Con Air takes off for a second time, out trots the little girl, perfectly unharmed, to wave goodbye at Greene as he flies away. He gets one more line while on board, commenting about the irony of the convicts dancing to “Sweet Home Alabama” in flight when much of Skynyrd died in a plane crash. The lat time you see him is the last thing you see in the whole movie, indeed, Buscemi gets the movie’s last line, answering that yes, he does feel lucky [to have been the one convict besides Poe to survive the ordeal].

What’s really remarkable about this performance is that Steve Buscemi achieves a truly enviable level of skin-crawling weirdness by basically just acting like Steve Buscemi. Despite all the badass-ness attributed to him throughout the movie, he never actually does much of anything, and at the end, the movie basically winks at him, like “oh Garland, you loveable child-murdering scamp.” Even when he talks about wearing a girl’s head as a hat, he doesn’t really sound much different from Carl Showalter talking about pancakes in Fargo. Any creepiness that actually emerges from his character is attributable almost entirely to Buscemi himself–his gaunt, pale figure and sullen blue eyes, his seemingly meek but clearly somewhat unbalanced demeanor, and the credit he had gained by playing a lifetime’s worth of lowlifes prior to Con Air.

Notably, Buscemi would go on to play a character with a somewhat reversed trajectory as Rockhound in Armageddon, Bruckheimer’s next blockbuster. In that one, he starts out as a probably creepy but generally genial guy, and turns into a psychotic, near-murderer by the end. Less creepy, just as funny.

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Popcorn Love: Olivia Thirlby in Juno (2008)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 3, 2008

Honest to blog

Watching it again on my trans-continental flight (did you know that planes have personalized on-demand movie options now? Technology, man), it occured to me that Oscar nominations, box office receipts and soundtrack sales aside, I still felt that Juno was a much better movie than it had any right to be. The first half-hour has some of the most cringe-worthy scenes of any Best Picture nominee since the last half-hour/hour/eternity of Return of the King–a misused Rainn Wilson ragging on a pregnant Juno, the now infamous “honest to blog” conversation, Juno using the phrase “pork swords,” and everything soundtracked by way, way too much Moldy Peaches. Yet the movie is still a winner, despite its leading lady’s continuing penchant for all things shocking!, and the relentless tweeness of the soundtrack.

And this, I concluded, is due to the film having one of the best casts of supporting characters recently assembled. No doubt, as Victor has pointed out in one of what feels like several Juno analyses, this is largely because all of the characters are so pronounced–there are zero straightpeople in Juno, and frankly, it’s something of a miracle it didn’t end up like a Heist-like mess of people Talking At Each Other. But it’s true that every character in the movie ended up being more interesting, more compelling, and for lack of a better word, better than I expected. J.K. Simmons seems like a typical hard-ass dad and Allison janney your typical evil stepmom, but both end up having reserves of wisdom and sensitivity that come through for Juno (both character and movie) in the clutch. Jason Bateman appears to be the cool, understanding adoptive parent and Jennifer Garner the creepy, unstable one, and by the end of the movie they’ve practically switched roles. Michael Cera plays Michael Cera, but that’s wonderful enough to somehow always be better than you’re expecting. Best of all though, is the cast’s one unknown, though that’s sure not to last too long–Olivia Thirlby, as Juno’s friend and sidekick Leah.

Unlike all the other characters in the movie, all of whom are both pivotal to the plot and have at least one scene of touching, meaningful emotional exchange with the girl of the hour, Leah just seems to be sort of along for the ride. She’s there at all the most meaningful events of the movie, seemingly, but reacts to all of them the way a stoner at home watching Juno on TV would. She’s relatively unmoved by Juno’s revelation of pregnancy (though, to be fair, Juno didn’t seem all that put out by it either), and casually discusses possibilities of abortion with her. She’s there when Juno comes clean to the ‘Rents, and she cackles throughout. She calls Juno out for being in love with Michael Cera, and then bitches about the PDA when they reconcile at the end. She’s even there for the delivery, speeding Juno through the hospital on her wheelchair, decidedly unimpressed with the gravity of the situation.

Frankly, it’s a sort of levity that the often heavy-handed (for a High School comedy, anwyay) Juno needs, and Thirlby pulls it off with aplomb. The fact that she’s ridiculously cute–cuter than Page and Cera even, which is fairly impressive–helps, especially with those knee-high socks, but really, she’s just the most refreshingly down-to-earth actress in the movie. Maybe it’s because she’s the only one in the movie yet to be bothered with the pressures of critical acclaim, box-office success, and starring on a beloved but soon-to-be-cancelled cult TV show, but Thirlby is by far the most down-to-earth, pretentionless actor in the movie. When Juno’s bitching to her about Bleeker asking Katerina de [Something] to Prom and how he told her that Katerina’s house smelled like soup, Thirlby instantly jumps in “Oh my God, it does! I was there like four years ago for her birthday party! It’s like Lipton landing!” It’s a throwaway line about a n ultimatley irrelevant character that we never even meet, but it might be the funniest line in the whole movie, just because Thirlby’s delivery, and the general exchange between two good friends, feels so natural.

Speaking of which, I can’t help but feel that Thirlby’s character represents some sort of important benchmark in the teen comedy, as it is possibly the first tim ethat a girl has ever played the character of The Friend. You know The Friend as the male character from most teen comedies–Curtis Armstrong in Risky Business, Sean William Scott in American Pie, Chris Marquette in The Girl Next Door–who doesn’t actually have much to do with the movie’s main plot, but shows up to add comic relief and to attempt to give the main character(s) a chance to talk to someone about their sexual crises and to give often unsolicited advice about such matters. The most revolutionary thing about Juno, I think, is to suggest that girls like Juno and Leah can talk about sex not only as frankly as the boys do, but with the same sort of casualness and enthusiasm (“What was it like jumping Bleeker’s boney bod?” Leah asks at one point). Usually in movies, girls having sex is a big deal, but in this one, it was just a means to an end, so Leah and Juno don’t have any big, emotional conversations about the topic–they just hit the high notes and go back to stealing lawn furniture and hanging out in trophy cases. And no one hangs out in trophy cases quite like Olivia Thirlby.

So, who wants to see The Wackness later this month? Standing offer.

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Popcorn Love: Deja Vu

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 1, 2008

Baby I swear

What if you had to tell someone about the most underrated action movie of the last few years, but you knew they’d never believe you? I’m not sure that the reception for Deja Vu was particulary negative–it has a 59 on Metacritic and grossed 64 mil on an 80 budget, neither of which is particularly commendable, but neither of which is quite disastrous either. In any event, I don’t think the term “thinking man’s action movie” was used in too many reviews, and I don’t see too many sequels coming down the horizon. Yet in recent memory, I can’t think of another mainstream action flick that was as engaging, suspenseful, or thought-provoking (in an entirely unthreatening and non-challenging way, of course) as this one.

The previews didn’t help, of course. Between the rough, sun-drenched Bad Boys-II style cinematography, the countless satellite surveillancve shots and the gratuitious car-flip shots–even if he was directing a Jane Austen adaptation, I’m pretty sure Tony Scott would still find room for a flipped car or two–viewers had no real reason to expect anything but Enemy of the State II: Blender’s Revenge. Not to say that Deja Vu was too far beyond that–this was definitely still a Tony Scott movie, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing–but it was just interesting enough, just different enough too stand apart a little. And it was helped by one brilliant action sequence and the solidification of one of the great actor evolutions of the new millenium.

First off, who had any idea going into this that the movie had anything whatsoever to do with time travel? The trailer briefly alludes to it, and I guess the title maybe should’ve been a tip-off, but for the most part, it just looked like it would be another random murder resulting in Denzel doing his typical badass cop routine. And for the first half-hour, that’s all the movie looks like it’s going to be, until he meets up in that weird room with Val Kilmer, Adam Goldberg and the quiet, murderous dude from The Butterfly Effect
(either the most inspired supporting cast in Scott’s repertoire, or the most wasteful) and realizes he can do a little time-jumping. The time paradoxes subsequently created are a little more garbled than those of the first two Terminators, but a little bit less outlandish than Frequency or Back to the Future, and ultimately, surprisingly complex for a movie that seems such a throwaway. And though it’s hardly an innovative sort of action conceit, you never really get that yeah-I-know-where-this-is-going feeling that you do with most other basic cable-ready action flicks, which is fairly refreshing.

The movie buys a lot of goodwill for its time-travel rule-bending with the action sequence midway through the movie, in which Denzel goes racing down the turnpike in pursuit of the movie’s killer, with the major obstacle being that he’s chasing someone from over four days ago. Denzel needs to keep tabs both on chasing the guy from four days ago and not getting into any accidents on modern-day traffic, though he definitely de-prioritizes the latter responsibility. I’m always a sucker for multi-layered action sequences, and this one stacks on layers in a way I’ve never quite seen in an action movie before. Plus, it makes the way for some amazingly pointless carnage and destruction, as Denzel drives against oncoming traffic, even stopping dead in the middle of the road at one point to contemplate the gravity of the situation. Casually commanding Kilmer, Goldberg and company to “send a Medic to [location]” is all the compassion or concertn Denzel can manage for the multiple pile-ups he instigates while in time-spanning pursuit. (Naturally, this future-classic is nowhere to be found on YouTube).

And Denzel, by the way, is the main reason to watch this movie. Wasn’t going to get him too many Oscar and Golden Globe nods–hell, I think he even got snubbed for an MTV Movie Award nom for this one–but it’s one of the most important performances in the Washington ouevre, because it officially marks his transition into the Shouty Al Pacino phase of his career. Makes sense–this happened to Pacino shortly after his Oscar-winning, against-type performance in Scent of a Woman, and this is something Denzel’s been working up to since his Oscar-winning, against-type performance in Training Day. Subtlety and character depth are no longer the name of the game for the man arguable as the country’s most universaslly revered actor–now it’s all about playing authority figures that are perpetually convinced that they are the smartest, best-looking and most badass dude in the room.

And to Denzel’s credit, it’s almost always true, so it’s usually a joy to watch him in Alpha Male control-freak mode. Deja Vu is the apex–the dude spends most of the movie just mentally overpowering a room full of brainiacs, extracting the truth from their bullshit like a verbal grape stomper, without a moment’s doubt whatsoever. He’s constantly using ultra-technological equipment before he has the slightes grasp of how to operate it, he repeatedly breaches the space-time continuum without considering the risks or asking “May I?,” and he plows through cars and personal effects like a man with absolutely no regard for property damage. It started with Training Day, and it’s moved up through Man on Fire, The Inside Man and American Gangster, but now he’s probably Badgery Denzel Washington for the rest of his career.

Works for me.

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Popcorn Love: Bill Murray in Wild Things (1998)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on May 18, 2008

“Well, it’s sort of a good news, bad news situation….”

Have I really never written about Wild Things here before? Shameful for any number of reasons, especially for a movie that had so much to do with my filmic and personal development. The first time I saw Wild Things was on a Friday night where I had to get up early the next morning to go to a Bar Mitzvah, and I was able to stay up just late enough to see the movie’s first big plot twist, in the form of the Matt Dillon-Neve Campbell-Denise Richards three-way scene which still goes down in my book as the hottest sex scene ever to appear in a mainstream American film, and which I’ve seen enough times since that I could sketch it frame-by-frame from memory. It killed me to go to bed not knowing how the movie ended, and what possibly even hotter scenes laid beyond the horizon, but I mostly figured that was it, the main hook of the movie, and it’d be pretty by-the-numbers after that.

Well, not exactly–that year at summer camp, someone who’d stayed till the end of the movie described to me in surprisingly patient detail what happened afterwards, and I didn’t believe a word of it until I finally saw it with my own eyes later that year. Three more plot twists to follow, along with countless shifts of protagonist and antagonist, and one more sex scene of considerable note (though its full glory would not be seen until the release of Wild Things: The Unrated Edition on DVD a few years later). As a middle-schooler at the time, it was all utterly mindblowing–murder, turmoil, betrayal, and sex, all beyond that of any neo-noir I had ever seen before.

And then there’s Bill Murray. Now, I’ve preached before about the glories of casting where certain actors don’t really seem to notice what kind of movie they’re performing in (or, in some cases, that there’s even a movie going on at all), but as attorney Kenneth Bowden in Wild Things, Murray takes it to a new level of ridiculousness. Now, I know Murray’s career wasn’t exactly at it highest point in early 1998–two years after his villainous turn as Big Ern in Kingpin, and a few months before his performance in Rushmore would act as an unlikely resurrection of his career as an art-house darling–but how they got him to agree to what basically could be described as a generous walk-on cameo in this movie is beyond me.

Ken’s character in the movie is that of attorney to Sam Lombardo (Dillon), a low-class ambulance chaser who is the only person in the Louisiana town of Blue Bay willing to take on the powerful Van Ryan family in court, on the charges that Sam raped Kelly Van Ryan (Richards). Ken could be called the movie’s comic relief, I suppose, but the rest of Wild Things is so overdramatic that his few moments of levity–when he shows Sam that his neck injury is actually just to fake an insurance claim, or when his incompetent secretary answers his intercom message to her by standing up and shouting back–just seem kind of surreal. Meanwhile, Murray seems to be having the time of his life in the movie, hamming it up at every opportunity, especially the scene where after reaching a settlement with the Van Ryan family, he starts  furiously rubbing the agreement all over his body in excitement, yelling “See you at the club!” to the family’s attorney.

And maybe the strangest part of Murray’s character in the movie, as well as the most overlooked part of all the movie’s twist endings, is that it appears that his character was in on the scam all along. When Suzie Toller (Campbell) finally turns out to be the mastermind behind all that preceded, Ken shows up as her lawyer, saying “Boy, I hope I never make you mad”–more or less implying that he knows of all the vengeance murders she’s recently orchestrated, including that of Lombardo, his recent client. In addition, he tells her that of the eight million he’s deposited for her of Sandra Van Ryan’s money, he’s deducted “his usual fee”–which I would think means that this isn’t even the first time she’s pulled shit like this with Ken acting as her bank. Bill Murray, you sly dog.

See now, I knew there was something separating this one from its two direct-to-TV sequels/ripoffs, Wild Things 2 and Wild Things 3: Diamonds in the Rough.

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Listeria: Ten Most Underappreciated Pieces of Dialogue from Bottle Rocket (1996)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 7, 2008

“You’re pretty complicated, huh?”
“I try not to be…”

To ascribe the word “underrated” to just about anything Wes Anderson has touched is a relatively useless statement; Anderson has been so lionized by the critical community (as well as by the generation of semi-devoted filmgoers coming of age when Rushmore hit it semi-big) that the relative scale of the movies’ quality is pretty unimportant. Still, if there’s one thing that the increasingly overbakedness of his later movies makes you really appreciate, it’s just how loose and unassuming Bottle Rocket is. The elements are there, certainly–the quirky preciousness, the montages set to 60s underground rock, the immature adults and overly mature kids–but it just feels more organic, more…innocent, I guess. The script feels appropriately meandering (the whole thing with Bob, his brother and his weed-growing farm is among film’s all-time great “what was the point of that?” sub-plots ), the dialogue feels more natural than it ever would again (Anthony’s declaration of love speech to Inez, while far from being quotable enough for this article, is brilliant in its sheer incoherence), and hell, it’s got Owen and Luke Wilson in that all-too-rare stage of their careers where they had no idea they could ever be considered celebrities.

Though I’m not sure I could say I enjoy it more than Rushmore and Tenenbaums (movies with recipes that brilliant are allowed to be so obviously cooked, I suppose), I do feel a certain level of comfort catching Bottle Rocket on TV that I don’t necessarily get with the others. It never feels stale, or cloying, or nearly as self-indulgent as his other works, and for those reasons, the movie’s few but legitimate moments of genuine drama (the scene where Dignan finds out that Anthony tricked him into giving away all their stolen loot money to Inez, especially) always strike me more than they do in his others. Plus, as should be obvious by now, it’s got a hell of a lot of great quotes–the kind that don’t jump out as obvious punchline quotes, but are insiduous in how gleefully unexpected they usually are, and in how much of the character they usually reveal. Here are ten reasons why I’d probably call Bottle Rocket my favorite Wes Anderson movie:

10. Anthony: “This is great! Sitting here in the laundary room, you working on your vocabulary, and we’re sharing these tamales…it’s just how I’d expect it.”

9. Bob (Driving): “I hate to interrupt your conversation, guys, but I think I know what you’ve been going through, man. ‘Coz I’ve been through some pretty heavy shit myself. If you’re feeling alone, like nobody in the world cares, and nobody in the fucking world gives a shit, then I’m here. I’m ready to listen, man–”
Anthony (Interrupting, not listening): “…that was a stop sign…”

8. Random Bathroomgoer: “Hello, my friend!”
Dignan (at stall): “Hey, hola amigo! Como estas?”
RB: “You are in the army, yes?”
Dignan: “No, I just have short hair!”

7. Anthony: “Don’t call her a housekeeper!
Dignan: “Don’t threaten me. That’s what she is. She is a housekeeper, right? People are housekeepers!

6. Anthony: “Dignan, you know what’s gonna happen if you go back there.”
Dignan: “No, I don’t. They’ll never catch me, man…‘coz I’m fucking innocent!

5.Dignan: “BACKYARD! RIGHT NOW! LET’S GO!
Bob: “Backyard? This is my house!”

4. Grace: “When are you coming home?”
Anthony: “Grace, I can’t come home. I’m an adult.”

3. Dignan: “He’s out. And you’re out too. And I don’t think I’m in either. No gang!

2. Dignan: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE??
Worker Hostage 1: “We work here!”
Dignan: “YOU’RE ALWAYS AT LUNCH NOW!!”
Worker Hostage 2: “…not always.”
Dignan: “YES, ALWAYS!!

1. Anthony (Explaining how he “went nuts”): “One morning, over at Elizabeth’s beach house, she asked me if I would rather go water skiing or lay out. And I realized that not only did I not want to answer that question, but I never wanted to answer another water-sports question…or see any of these people again…for the rest of my life.”

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Popcorn Love: John Malkvoich in Being John Malkovich

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 23, 2008

“Shut up, you overrated sack of shit!”

First off, apologies for the erratic and qualitatively lacking posting as of late–I’m on Spring Break, which should be more of an excuse than it is, but since I’m not off trapsing around Cancun or Miami or Saudi Arabia or wherever it is the kids go these days, the best excuse I can come up with is that I had my wisdom teeth taken out this week, and when I’m not seething in pain and frustration at not being able to eat dumplings and pizza, I’m half asleep from the medication. Plus, all I’ve been watching this week has been NCAA stuff, and since I don’t even enjoy reading other writers’ thoughts on those, I figure there’s no way you guys would wanna hear mine.

I did manage to snag a viewing of Being John Malkovich for the first time in a few years, though. I was reminded of what a weird fucking movie it is–even much more than people give it credit for being. Too many people focus on the movie’s premise when discussing its strangeness, but while it’s certainly an odd conceit to have a movie centered around an unexplained portal into a random actor’s brain that spits you out onto the New Jersey turnpike after 15 minutes, once they start rolling with it, it’s one of the least weird things about it. There’s Catherine Keener and Cameron Diaz reversing their logical roles as frumpy housewife and devilish temptress, respectively. There’s the weird subplot of the Schwartz’s chimp, who has to get over his repressed childhood trauma to bail out Lottie at a pivotal momeont. There’s Malkovich’s agent, who keeps calling his receptionist a cunt and bats not an eye at Malkvoich’s claim that he wants to give up the acting life for his puppeteering pursuitsA (getting one of the movie’s best lines, “No problem, poof, you’re a puppeteer”). There’s the fact that there’s not a single really sympathetic character in the whole movie. There’s the weirdly dark tone the movie takes halfway through, continuing through the last scene, one of the most unsettling in recent memory.

And of course, there’s Malkovich himself. Off the top of my head, it’s hard to think of a better self-performance in movie history, especially not one on whom the main plot is so reliant. There’s definitely no other actor that would’ve worked better in the character–Malkovich is the perfect choice because everyone sort of knows who he is, but he has no definitive roles and no even particularly definitive characteristics (as evidenced by the fact that no one can seem to remember a thing he’s done besides “that jewel thief movie”). It’s certainly a technically impressive performance, as Malkovich not only has to play himself, but John Cusack as himself, and a whole room of random people as himself (the legendary “Malkovich Malkovich” scene, which surely ranks as one of the great moments in late-20th century comedy).

But the thing I like best about Malkovich’s performance is how amazingly self-effacing it is. Malkovich deserved some sort of Honorary Good Sport Oscar for this one–no other self-performance has asked an actor to portray such an unflattering version of himself, a guy whose most exciting daily rituals include reading lines into a tape recorder and ordering carpet samples over the phone, who appears to take himself too seriously and has a flair for the over-dramatic, and even has several disturbingly awkward  repressed memories, as evidenced by Maxine and Lottie’s tumble through his subconscious at the end of the movie. My favorite exchange in the movie comes when Maxine shows up at his place and waits for Lottie to jump through the portal before she jumps Malkovich, so she tries to make conversation:

“So…do you like being…an actor?”

“Yes…it’s very rewarding.”

It’s the dryest, boringest, most self-important sort of answer he could give, and it’s absolutely brilliant for his role in the movie. It’s also why it’s so hilarious to finally see him animated once he catches on to Maxine and Craig’s plan (smartly incognito in glasses and an “I Love NY” hat), yelling “IT’S MY HEAD, SCHWARTZ! IT’S MY HEAD! I WILL SEE YOU IN COURT!!” Even better is his reaction seconds later, when a car rolls by and someone yells “Hey Malkovich, think fast!” and pelts him with a drink or something (“FFFUCK!“) He spends the movie playing slapstick not only at his character’s expense, but at his real life persona’s expense. Not many actors would be up to it, and fewer still would nail it quite this spot on.

Of course, this will probably end up being the movie that shatters his anonymity forever and finally gives John Malkovich a definitive legacy.  Ironic, but hard earned well deserved.

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Popcorn Love: The Jeopardy Scene in White Men Can’t Jump

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 10, 2008

“Sometimes when you win, you really lose..and sometimes when you lose, you really win..and sometimes when you win or lose, you actually tie…and sometimes when you tie, you actually win or lose.

To borrow from another Simmons concept, there are some movies that may or may not be classics as a whole, but have a scene that I like to refer to as an Obligatory Watcher, or “O-Watcher” (because everything sounds cool when it has an O- prefix). These are the kind of scenes that if you catch the movie on TV, and it’s at a point where the scene has yet to come on, you are basically under obligation to wait for that scene before changing the channel. Doesn’t matter if it’s an hour away (though it shouldn’t be at either the very beginning or the very end), and it doesn’t matter if you just saw the movie last week–it’s just not a scene you can feel comfortable with having skipped.

Not to run rampant on White Men Can’t Jump–which I supsect might be the most underrated sports movie of the last 20 years–but good as the rest of the movie is, the only O-Watcher in the flick is the scene where Gloria, played by the truly inimitable Rosie Perez, goes on Jeopardy! for the first time. It might not have all that much to do with the WMCJ’s main plot–really, the movie doesn’t even have all that much of a main plot–but in a movie filled with hilarious exchanges and striking action sequences, it’s the one scene that’s guaranteed to be unforgettable.

Of course for this scene to be appreciated, what must first be ignored is how the movie gets there. It’s definitely funny watching Gloria sutdiously memorize her irrelevent trivia (and I guess you could say that I relate a little), but for the first half of White Men, you’re pretty sure she isn’t getting on–that her quest is just a metaphor for ridiculous dreams or some such. Nope, she actually gets on the show, thanks to a cross-court hook shot delivered on a bet by scorned ex-boyfriend Billy (Woody Harrelson) to try to win her back. Considering he only gets one shot at this, and he puts up his car for the other side of the wager, it surely ranks up with Mike McDermott wagering a summer internship on his ability to guess blind the hands of an entire room of poker players (down to the card) in Rounders and Michael Jordan staking his own freedom on the game against the Nerdlucks in Space Jam in the history of Sports Movie arrogance.

But he makes the shot, so Gloria’s on her way. She gets a hysterical introduction (as a “former Disco Queen”–can you list that on a resume, exactly?) up against two academic-lookers, one of which is the reigning champ and has the aggregate appearance of every Jep contestant in history. Though she gets off to a slow start, answering “Babe Ruth” to a question about the NBA’s all-time leading rebounder (“she doesn’t really know sports,’ Billy explains to an incredulous Wesley Snipes), her board is even a bigger dreamboard than Cliff Clavin’s in the Jeopardy! episode of Cheers (for which, I only now just noticed, Woody was also in the audience for), including
Popes, Natural Disasters, and the immortal Foods That Start With the Letter Q. And unlike Cliff, not only does she practically run the board, she doesn’t screw up in the final Jeopardy, ending up flush over 17k.

It’s not quite the most realistic recreation of a Jep ep–much to my chagrin, you can’t just buzz in when you know the answer to a question, and no matter who you are and how well you’re doing, the contestants will never just lean over their podiums and frown at you in disbelief. But watching the unlikely categories that Gloria has been studying throughout the movie pretty much all come up in the game is funny as hell, as it is hearing the super-nasal Rosie Perez pronounce words like Vesuvius and Quahog. And plus, it’s good to see a trivia-oriented scene starring one of the least stereotypically academic people in the world–I wouldn’t want to have to start my own ADL for this shit.

You just don’t see scenes like this in movies very often.

Posted in O-Watcher, Popcorn Love | 5 Comments »