Saturday, April 12, 2014

Killing Them Softly

Year 6, Day 102 - 4/12/14 - Movie #1,699

BEFORE: I spent most of yesterday working on my boss's taxes, getting numbers to his accountant, and today I've got to start filling out my return.  Half the battle is done, since last weekend I did the "big sort", but now it's time to start putting some numbers on paper and try to come up with an ending figure that's not too bad.  I always withhold a little extra from each paycheck, thinking that one of these years that's going to be enough to balance perfectly, but it never is.  C'est la vie.

Linking from "8MM", James Gandolfini carries over this time.

THE PLOT: Jackie Cogan is an enforcer hired to restore order after three dumb guys rob a Mob-protected card game, causing the local criminal economy to collapse.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "In Bruges" (Movie #1,345), "Snatch" (Movie #314)

AFTER: This is another one of those films that probably looked really good on paper, when it was being planned.  We'll cast an A-level star, plus half the cast of "The Sopranos", throw in a heist and a couple of killings, what could possibly go wrong?

About the only thing that could torpedo that would be if the director tried to make some kind of "arty" statement, and that seems to be what happened.  From the very first shot, there's an attempt to juxtapose the seedy Boston (?) underworld with the 2008 Obama/McCain presidential race, and I can't quite fathom the reason for doing this.  Was it just to set the scene, which would firmly establish some sort of timeline for the events depicted?  Obama is a senator at the start of the film, and it ends on election night, I think, so that means the whole plot plays out over several months...

Or was there some kind of connection being drawn between criminals and politicians?  And if so, was it trying to depict politicians as just another form of criminal, or worse yet, try to justify the actions of thieves and hitmen through some sort of capitalist framework?  That would be sort of morally unforgivable.  Though I suppose with the price of a hit changing according to market conditions in the underworld, you could study this film from an economic point of view, but you'd be completely missing the point.

My point is, if you're going to mix crime footage with political speeches in the background, make sure that the end result forms the point you're trying to make.  Oh, but before that, make sure that there is a point you're trying to make.  I've found that that helps.

The title stems from the hitman's claim to prefer his killings to be done "softly", but I could also see no evidence that they were done any less brutally than one might expect, so was this meant to be an ironic statement, or was this a statement made that couldn't be supported in any way?  And if that's the case, then why make the statement and not follow it up? 

Also starring Brad Pitt (last seen in "Troy"), Ray Liotta (last seen in "Muppets From Space"), Richard Jenkins (last seen in "Jack Reacher"), Scoot McNairy (last seen in "Argo"), Vincent Curatola, Ben Mendelsohn (last seen in "The New World"), Max Casella (last seen in "Blue Jasmine"), with a cameo from Sam Shepard (last seen in "The Notebook")

RATING: 4 out of 10 shell casings

Friday, April 11, 2014


Year 6, Day 101 - 4/11/14 - Movie #1,698

BEFORE: Nicolas Cage carries over from "Snake Eyes" - same lead actor, different crime.

THE PLOT:  A private investigator is hired to discover if a "snuff film" is authentic or not.

AFTER: Allow me to explain the back-story on this.  Back before the internet and "Tosh.0" and "Web Soup", we used to have these things called "snuff films", they were allegedly filmed accounts of people being tortured and killed, and allegedly they were an underground form of entertainment for those people who got some sick sort of pleasure out of watching these films.

Perhaps I should back up further - we used to have this medium called "film", where people would take this thin plastic-like substance and thread it into a camera and expose it to light, where it would capture an image of the thing before it.  Then it would go to a lab for three days, and then you would get it back and look at it, and realize what was wrong with it and that you had to start over again.  Then you had to sit down with a sharp blade and cut the tiny images together in some sort of pleasing or arbitrary fashion, in order to assemble some kind of coherent point from a series of images.

Once you got everything the way you wanted it, people would then gather in dark rooms called "theaters" (if you got lucky) and your film would then get threaded through another machine called a "projector", which would push light through the image and make the image appear very large on a wall where people could see it and (again, if you were lucky) enjoy it. 

But every industry has its rebels, those people who just have to swim upstream, so somewhere along the way the idea that movies were made for people to enjoy got all twisted around, and then it came to pass that we got art films, slasher films, chainsaw killer films, explicit pornography, and people pretending to kill each other for real on film.  To some this no doubt lit up their fear, excitement and reproductive impulses at the same time, creating some kind of super-cocktail of adrenaline-based responses.  I can think of no other reason. 

However, except for documentaries like "Mondo Cane", the existence of snuff films was believed to be the stuff of urban legend - even this film can't decide for sure if the film-within-a-film is for reals or not.  First it is, then it isn't, then upon further review it probably is.  Then all hell breaks loose.  But it's important to keep in mind that there's only ONE character in the film who even cares about the answer to that question, and we're not even 100% sure why.  What difference does it make if the film was real or staged?  Her husband probably got off by watching it, regardless of whether it was real or not, so why should it matter to her?  Isn't the fact that he got his jollies because of it more important?

I mean, take child pornography.  Not literally, like don't go out and buy it, but let's use it as an example.  If a man has a stash of child porn that he enjoys looking at, isn't THAT the problem?  I mean, the magazines could feature 18-year old models that look much younger, which would make them sort of legal, but it's not the images themselves that matter, it's what they represent on the market to the people who are looking at them. 

So, in the end, I question whether the detective in this film even should have taken the case.  I think he should have said to the perv's wife, "What does it matter?  This film could be real, it could be staged, but either way, your husband was a very sick man."  Since the gist of the film is that our hero can't walk into the shady world of underground films without it really affecting him, probably the best idea would have been to not make that journey at all.

You know what scares me?  (No, not torture porn...)  It's the fact that an entire industry, the film industry, has completely changed in the last decade.  I was kidding before about explaining what film is, but the truth of the matter is that film as a medium is nearly dead.  Movies are doing fine, but film is on life support - "digital killed the cinema star".   Since I learned to shoot on film, edit on film, and send films to festivals, I could wake up one day and find myself irrelevant.  If I wanted to go out tomorrow and shoot a film of my own, I wouldn't know where to start.  I'd probably have to go back to school. 

Think about the industries that have vanished, or nearly disappeared, since the advent of the digital age.  Newspapers, book stores, record stores.  Oh, a few good ones are still hanging on, but for how much longer?  Everything now is a download or a torrent, or being sent by Dropbox or Vimeo, or by high-speed internet straight to someone's tablet.  It's as if the construction industry changed overnight and said, "We won't be using bricks any more to make buildings."  And instead you'd be living in some kind of transparent bubble that somehow stays in one place and holds all of your belongings and you don't understand how it stays floating in one place.

I think I know how horse-dealers felt when the automobile was invented, or how train engineers felt when planes started making cross-country trips.  And that means I'm feeling more like a dinosaur every day...

Also starring James Gandolfini (last seen in "Zero Dark Thirty"), Joaquin Phoenix (last seen in "U-Turn"), Peter Stormare (last seen in "Windtalkers"), Catherine Keener (last seen in "Cyrus"), Anthony Heald, Chris Bauer, Myra Carter, Amy Morton, Norman Reedus.

RATING:  5 out of 10 cash withdrawals

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Snake Eyes

Year 6, Day 100 - 4/10/14 - Movie #1,697

BEFORE: While I'm watching crime films, I'm also about halfway through "True Detective" On Demand, and I'm blown away.  I only need to avoid spoilers for a few more days, so if you're current on the show PLEASE don't give anything away.  If you haven't watched the show, I strongly recommend it - Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConnaughey are just killing it, and it's the most tense, riveting drama I've seen on TV since "Oz" and "The Sopranos" went off the air.

I suppose "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" have been getting the accolades, but I never picked up on those shows - my ban on AMC is still in effect.  That's what you get for putting commercials in the middle of movies, which is a no-no in my book.  I only resort to films with ads in emergencies.

Linking from "Get Carter", Mickey Rourke was also in the great "Sin City" with Carla Gugino.

THE PLOT: A shady police detective finds himself in the middle of a murder conspiracy at an important boxing match in an Atlantic City casino.

AFTER: So weird to see the Atlantic City boardwalk in a film, since I was just there about two weeks ago.  The casino looked really familiar, even though the film was made over 15 years ago, so I had to look it up.  Yeah, they filmed at the Trump Taj Mahal, and I was there.

They used to have a thing called "locked-room mysteries", they were these little stories where someone would be found dead in a locked room, with very little furniture, and no murder weapon visible.  The most famous is probably the one about the hanged man who had nothing to stand on and no way to get his noose over the ceiling beam, with a puddle of water beneath him.  If you learn to think outside the box, you can perhaps guess that the man stood on a block of ice to set the noose in place, and then hung himself as the ice melted.

This film sort of pitches itself as a similar mystery to solve, only the crime takes place in a boxing arena filled with 14,000 people, and lots of people see it happen, including the lead character, his best friend who's also a naval commander, and a couple of mystery women.  The Secretary of Defense is shot, but how could this happen at a sporting event that presumably has high government security, in addition to casino security?

Clearly, there's more going on that first meets the eye.  But as the truth gets revealed, in the rush to defy our expectactions the facts start to come out of left field.  Going back to the locked-room mystery, it would be like finding out that the block of ice was put there by aliens who teleported in.  Not only would that be strange, and unmotivated by the story so far, it would be so far-fetched as to almost be irrelevant.

There are also a few huge plotholes - for example, there's a hurricane raging outside, and in this case, wouldn't a sporting event on the New Jersey coast get postponed?  You just wouldn't see 14,000 fans move forward with their plans to go to a boxing match during such severe weather - a lot of people would probably be afraid to venture out that night, so even if the promoters wanted to proceed, the reality of things would probably force them to reschedule.  Heck, they cancelled the NYC Marathon after Hurricane Sandy, and that was scheduled for weeks later.  They cancelled just because it would have looked unseemly to put city resources toward some event that wasn't connected to hurricane relief.

The trivia section on the IMDB tells me that the original ending was a special-effects sequence of a tidal wave destroying the casino, which sounds a bit more awesome (and would have been quite prescient, I think).  This would also go a long way toward explaining why there was so much footage of weather reporters at the start of the film, they were setting up an ending that ended up getting scrapped.  By comparison, the ending that they replaced it with seems very lackluster.

I also learned that the first 12 minutes of this film appear to be one long cut, which would be amazing...if it were true.  It's not, it's several sequences cleverly edited together to appear to be one long take.  Oddly enough, something very similar happened on the episode of "True Detective" I just watched - some amazing camera work in both instances, but upon re-watching, I can spot the tricks that covered up the cuts. 

Also starring Nicolas Cage (last seen in "Guarding Tess"), Gary Sinise (last seen in "The Quick and the Dead"), John Heard (last seen in "O"), Kevin Dunn (last seen in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" as well as HBO's "True Detective"), Stan Shaw (last seen in "Daylight"), Michael Rispoli (last seen in "Kick-Ass"), Luis Guzman (last seen in "Guilty as Sin"), Mike Starr (last seen in "Summer of Sam"), Tamara Tunie.

RATING: 5 out of 10 slot machines

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Get Carter (2000)

Year 6, Day 99 - 4/9/14 - Movie #1,696

BEFORE: I went a little crazy yesterday, scanning through cast lists of the films that are left on my watchlist.  (Yes, it's still 200 films...)  I found a bunch of linking opportunities that I was unaware of before, plus I figured out a way to link to the 4 superhero films I want to see in June or July, and pretty much determined the playlist for most of 2014.  I think I left about 20 random films floating at the end of the list, but found a way to link to nearly everything else. 

Of course, this is complete overkill, because every time I add a new film I think about where it will fit best into the line-up, and this can create new linking opportunities, but also destroy others.  Plus it wouldn't hurt me to re-assess everything that's left after the Hitchcock chain anyway, because that list could bear little resemblance to the list's current form.  Still, if there's an actor who's in more than one of the films on my list, I kinda want to know about that.

Linking from "Get Carter" (1971), Michael Caine carries over, but playing a different role.

THE PLOT:  Jack Carter, a Vegas mob casino enforcer, returns to Seattle for the funeral of his brother after a car crash, and suspects it was murder.

AFTER: There is a certain benefit to watching two versions of the same film on successive nights, allowing me to spot the subtle differences between two interpretations of the same source material.  Then again, there's a down side to this process as well, especially if the films are so much alike that I end up wondering why the film needed to be remade.  I think this is a case of the latter situation.

What do I notice that's different about the 1971 British version and the 2000 American one?  For starters, British people are just so much more polite.  No, seriously, the film is all about a guy working his way up the criminal food chain to figure out who killed his brother, and this involves some shooting, stabbing and throwing people off of buildings - but the British Jack Carter is so CLASSY while doing that.  

"Sorry, guvn'r, hate to be a bother, but I've got to be 'urling you off the roof right about now.  Can't 'elp it, now, you didn't leave me much choice, eh wot?"  OK, I'm exaggerating because there really was a minimum of dialogue in the British film - Michael Caine was one cool customer as he beat up the lower-level thugs.  But damn, he made that look good.  

By contrast, if you showcase an American strong, silent type, you get someone like Stallone, who's also a man of few words, but for entirely different reasons.  

"Get Carter" (the original, at least) seems to be a film that demands that one pay close attention.  When you see a car get pushed off the docks into the water, it might be a good idea to think back - wasn't there a scene earlier in the film where someone was forced to get into a car's trunk?  You don't suppose, no they wouldn't...oh, yeah, they went there.  

Plus I later read online how there was (apparently) a strong implication that Jack Carter's niece might not have been his niece, but his daughter instead.  I guess I missed the memo on that one.  But that lends an entirely different angle to the scene where he finds an adult film that she starred in, and can't seem to turn away from it.  Ah, so THAT'S why he went on a rampage shortly thereafter.  You know, I may need to revise yesterday's rating...

(ASIDE: They say you only need ONE good idea to succeed in this world, and here I may have stumbled upon one.  Some kind of app or internet filter that cross-references your browser history with your contacts list, and makes sure that you never, EVER watch a pornographic video that features a friend or family member.  Umm, unless you want to, I guess, you sicko.  Sure, you may say there's no market for that - until you accidentally find out what your aunt and uncle are up to in their spare time the app "Mental Floss" or something, and cut me in on the profits.  Done.)

The Stallone version maintains the porn angle (which is a LOT more relevant in the age of the internet...) and all the violence of Carter's methods, and the only real thing that's changed is the ending.  You can decide for yourself whether you want Carter's obsessive nature to lead to his own undoing.  As they say about Shakespeare, you can tell if it's a tragedy by the body count at the end.

Statistically, I'm in a low-rated funk, and I need to find a way to climb out of it.  Getting off this violent, revenge-fueled topic might help.

Also starring Sylvester Stallone (last seen in "Bananas"), Mickey Rourke (last seen in "Immortals"), Alan Cumming (last seen in "Goldeneye"), John C. McGinley (last seen in "Wagons East"), Miranda Richardson (last seen in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1"), Rachael Leigh Cook, Rhona Mitra, Johnny Strong, Gretchen Mol and the voice of Tom Sizemore (last seen in "Wyatt Earp")

RATING: 4 out of 10 gravestones

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Get Carter (1971)

Year 6, Day 98 - 4/8/14 - Movie #1,695

BEFORE: Time for a TV-watching update.  On my first-tier of shows (CSI, Law & Order: SVU, Fox animated shows) I've finally hit December's programming.  I'm always about 4 months behind on these, which only creates a problem when I'm enjoying the "Iron Chef" Christmas battle as people are getting ready for Easter.  On my 2nd tier of shows (The Voice, Face-Off, Storage Wars, Restaurant: Impossible, Bar Rescue), I'm more caught up, but still running about 2 weeks behind.  I'm current on "American Idol" and "Survivor", and I'm stockpiling episodes of "The Amazing Race" so I can binge-watch them right before the season finale.  And my wife and I are watching "Hell's Kitchen" together (though this season is just more of the same, so it's nothing to write home about) and that's about all, since there's no new "Top Chef" or "Next Food Network Star" airing right now.

All of this means that I don't usually have time to try new shows - I've passed on "Game of Thrones" and "The Walking Dead" in recent years, and now I feel like it's too late to jump on those bandwagons, and I'm OK with that.  But we have started watching "True Detective" at the same time (me On Demand, her on computer) and at just 8 episodes, that's not too much of a burden.  So far I'm really digging the show, I'm reminded of the feeling I used to get watching new episodes of "Twin Peaks", and I think that's a fair comparison - a brutal murder, quirky characters and a metaphysical detective are just some of the elements the two shows have in common, only "Twin Peaks" tended to be a whole lot sillier sometimes.  I think I know where the story's going, but of course I could be way off. 

In the late-night wars (Part 3), my world has been rocked by the announcement of Letterman's forthcoming retirement.  My BFF Andy recently wrote a great breakdown of why Dave is still his (and my) preferred late-night TV host - check it out here: - and I agree with most of his sentiments.  I also gravitate toward both Stewart AND Colbert, however, and I'll watch one of the Jimmys if Dave is on break.  What will I do without Letterman?  I guess that depends on who takes his slot on CBS - maybe I'll just catch up on the prime-time backlog.  If Ferguson moves to 11:30 I'll consider that - but I know that somewhere, Craig Kilborn is second-guessing his career choices right about now.

I think Dave kept track of the number of shows he's hosted on CBS and NBC, and as that number got close to 6,000 I bet he began to wonder how many shows is enough, or even what "enough" starts to mean.  Believe me, I feel his pain.

Linking from "Payback", William Devane was also in "The Dark Knight Rises" with Michael Caine (last seen in "Bewitched"). 

THE PLOT:  When his brother dies under mysterious circumstances in a car accident, London gangster Jack Carter travels to Newcastle to investigate.

AFTER: I'll admit I had trouble following this one, and I think that's partially because of the thick British accents - I had the same trouble with "Snatch" and "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels". But I think the other part of the problem here is that Carter doesn't give much away - maybe he's making up the plan as he goes along, or maybe there's no plan at all, since his investigation of his brother's death seems fairly random.  Maybe it's just going in several directions at once. 

In a method similar to the one seen in "Payback", Carter works his way up the chain of a criminal organization -  here it's just Newcastle instead of Chicago, but it also feels a lot more realistic here.  Also, Carter is like Porter because they're both positioned as anti-heroes, the least evil people by default, because their intentions are slightly more noble.

I found this to be fairly confusing overall, there were just too many underworld characters that were very indistinguishable from each other, and often it was tough to tell what Carter's plans were.  A voice-over similar to the one in "Payback" might have helped, providing more exposition than the non-talkative Carter was willing to provide.  Perhaps it's my fault, and I wasn't paying close enough attention. 

It's a dark, gritty film, and I can see how it influenced British crime films for decades. 

Also starring Ian Hendry (last seen in "Damien: Omen II"), Britt Ekland (last seen in "The Man With the Golden Gun"), John Osborne, Bryan Mosley, George Sewell.

RATING:  4 out of 10 bathroom stalls

Monday, April 7, 2014


Year 6, Day 97 - 4/7/14 - Movie #1,694

BEFORE: The third film in a Mel Gibson triple-play, and I'm back on the crime beat.

THE PLOT:  Porter is shot by his wife and best friend and is left to die. When he survives he plots revenge.

AFTER:  I'm not going to pretend this film is some kind of ultimate action film - reading up on the trivia about it on IMDB, it appears that the original director, Brian Helgeland, was fired, two days after he won an Oscar for "L.A. Confidential".  Another director was hired to do re-shoots, and due to Mel Gibson's schedule shooting "Lethal Weapon 4", this delayed the release of this film for a year.

If you read between the lines, the firing of the director means that something, somewhere, wasn't working.  And the most likely culprit is the story - meaning that this film in its original form didn't make a whole lot of sense.  Considering all this drama, it's kind of amazing that a semi-coherent film rose from the ashes of the original shoot.  I'm checking out the original plotline now on Wikipedia, and the differences sort of make this the "Blade Runner" of action films - in that one version has a voice-over narration and the other doesn't.  One is also semi-coherent and ends on an up note, and the other sounds like a complete mess and ends more bleakly.  And still, there will always be a select group of people who will favor the Director's Cut. 

I think the biggest hurdle to some people liking this is the fact that the hero doesn't act very heroic.  He hurts a lot of people - they may deserve it, sure, but does that make it right?  Besides, his motives are not always altruistic, seeing that he wants both his take from a robbery, plus of course revenge.

He's not so much a "good guy" as his is the "least bad guy" - and in that sense, Porter reminds me of The Punisher.  Despite the mangling of Marvel's Punisher character in 3 films that range from terrible to O.K., he remains a odd character, a regular guy who lives in the superhero world, and who kills criminals while waging his one-man war on crime.  The rightness or wrongness of his actions is very cloudy, and kind of depends on where you stand on rehabilitation and such.  Certainly he's got his own set of morals, and your mileage may vary. 

In the finale, there's something that I call an "editing cheat".  The shots are organized in a way that gets us to expect a certain result, because of the rule of parallel editing (cross-cutting between two scenes or groups of characters implies that they will soon interact).  However, then the two groups most defiantly do NOT intersect (this same cheat was famously used in "The Silence of the Lambs") and our expectations are defied.  It's funny, parallel editing is sort of mis-named because parallel lines never interact - so maybe THIS should be called parallel editing, when the two different groups of characters do NOT collide with each other.

Also starring Gregg Henry (last seen in "United 93"), Lucy Liu (last seen in "Kill Bill Vol. 2"), Maria Bello (last seen in "Permanent Midnight"), David Paymer (last seen in "Mighty Joe Young"), Bill Duke (last seen in "Bird on a Wire"), William Devane (last seen in "The Dark Knight Rises"), Kris Kristofferson (last seen in "Heaven's Gate"), James Coburn (last seen in "Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit"), John Glover (last seen in "The Incredible Shrinking Woman"), Deborah Kara Unger.

RATING:  5 out of 10 alligator bags

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The River

Year 6, Day 96 - 4/6/14 - Movie #1,693

BEFORE: We held the NYC premiere of "Cheatin'" (Movie #1,650) last night at the New York Friars Comedy Film Festival, which programmed it as their closing night film.  Most of the crew was there, and we stood up on stage while the director took questions from the nearly-packed audience.  A good time was had by all, and then I heard they awarded the film a special jury prize - that happened while I was out for post-show ramen with my co-workers.

This film doesn't really fit in with the crime theme, but I'm going to shoehorn this one here with the Mel Gibson connection, to get it off the list - I've got no other place to put it.

THE PLOT:  Farming family battles severe storms, a bank threatening to repossess, and other hard times in a battle to save and hold on to their farm.

AFTER: Turns out I don't care much about the plight of the American farmer.  Does that make me a bad person?  This is one of those black + white moralistic tales where the hard-working farmer is always right, and the corporate shills who represent the agricultural conglomerates are always wrong.  Isn't that a vast over-simplification? 

I'm a city guy, what do I know about agriculture?  Maybe a dam would be the best thing for the entire region - it sure would save everyone a lot of time building levees every time the river overflows, right?  And if farming's not bringing in enough money to feed your family, maybe it is time to sell your land and pack it in.  Why is that money less good, just because it comes from a corporation? 

I'm recusing myself because I just don't know enough about farming to comment constructively.  I just suspect the topic is much more complicated than what's simplistically laid out here.

Also starring Sissy Spacek (last seen in "The Help"), Scott Glenn (last seen in "The Shipping News"), James Tolkan (last seen in "Love and Death")

RATING:  4 out of 10 corncobs