Fritz's World

An exciting and awe-inspiring glimpse into my life: movie reviews (which are replete with spoilers), Penn State football, Washington Nationals, and life here in the nation's capital. Can you handle it?

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Nothing is sacred anymore, Part 2

Back when I started this blog, I stumbled onto a YouTube clip where the trailer for Planes, Trains, and Automobiles was recut to resemble Brokeback Mountain. Well, today I found another such YouTube clip—only this one recut the trailer for Monsters, Inc. to resemble The Big Lebowski!


Friday, March 30, 2007

Casting notes on Indy 4

According to IMDb, a few casting choices have been made for the fourth installment in the Indiana Jones saga—chief among them Ray Winstone, who I've only come to know through The Departed when he played Jack Nicholson's sidekick Mr. French. The IMDb article also notes that Cate Blanchett will be in the film, which was actually news to me.

I'm still not entirely convinced that Indy 4 is a good idea, though I'd very much like for my doubts to be proven wrong, much like they were for Rocky Balboa. I'm actually rather eager to hear some info on the plot for Indy 4! I believe a script has already been finalized, though I'm not 100% on that.

In the meantime, I'm just keeping my fingers crossed.

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Big Lebowski

When I reviewed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I stated that it's an acquired taste, much like olives and martinis. In mentioning, I forgot to include another acquired taste: the Coen brothers, and their 1998 hit The Big Lebowski. I first saw The Big Lebowski at Penn State, when it was featured as one of the late-night weekend movies at The Hub, and it just blew my mind as one of the most bizarre movies I'd ever seen (and not in a good way). I actually gave it a second viewing 5 years later, and still found it to be somewhat strange, but this time there was something catching about it, too—like something about it stayed with me and made me want to watch it over and over again . . . and this time, laugh and smile. Upon a third viewing, I did just that—lots of smiling and plenty of laughing! Since then, The Big Lebowski has become essential viewing.

In its most basic form, The Big Lebowski is largely a story of mistaken identity, though it features the most memorable yet totally unexpected hero of all: big-time slacker Jeff Lebowski aka "The Dude", played by a long-haired Jeff Bridges. The Dude, you see, is more an anti-hero than a hero, and is about as lazy a man as you can ever imagine—at least according to Sam Elliott's voiceover narration. He's an unemployed ex-hippie, drinks white Russians all day long, and spends his evenings bowling with his friends Walter and Donny (Coen regulars John Goodman and Steve Buscemi, respectively). But The Dude has one misfortune: he and a local millionaire businessman share the same name, and the millionaire Jeff Lebowski has a young trophy wife (a frequently underdressed Tara Reid) who owes money to the local adult-film publisher Hugh Hefner Jackie Treehorn, so one night The Dude comes home to find two thugs lying in wait in his apartment—thugs who think The Dude is the millionaire Lebowski. During their little raid, one of the thugs urinates on The Dude's rug—the rug that really tied the room together!

So The Dude approaches the millionaire Lebowski about possible compensation—but ends up getting sucked into a weird windfall when the millionaire Lebowski's trophy wife is kidnapped by a group of nihilists. Whereupon the millionaire Lebowski approaches The Dude to deliver the ransom . . . when all The Dude wants is his rug back.

But as we follow The Dude on his quest for his rug, he runs into a whole slew of weird characters, starting with the millionaire Lebowski's daughter Maude (played by Julianne Moore who donned a peculiar and unrecognizable accent), the nihilists who also star in porn films (with a name like Karl Hungus, what other job do you need?), an almost mute teenager who may or may not have bought a controversial new Corvette, an overweight landlord who turns out to be a remarkably bad ballet dancer—just to name a few. Philip Seymour Hoffman turns in a remarkably straight (and I do mean straight!) performance as the millionaire Lebowski's assistant Brandt! I kid you not—Hoffman played Brandt so straight as the ultimate all-smiling ass-kisser that you almost had to wonder if a rod was literally jammed up his ass. And Steve Buscemi took a lot of flack for playing a more silent role here as Donny (I've heard some call it a thankless role), but I believe the Coens even came out and stated that Donny was supposed to be a wallflower, given that his previous role in Fargo was a nonstop talker. And Sam Elliott's sarsaparilla-drinking cowboy . . . is he possibly supposed to be The Dude's guardian angel?

But with each weird character who appears on screen, we just continually wonder, as does The Dude . . . who the hell are these people??? I think my favorite moment of The Dude being creeped out by all these odd people is when he's visiting Maude, who gets a phone call from a friend, and she and another friend have a three-way phone call where all they do is giggle, with precious few words spoken in between. The completely perplexed look on The Dude's face is priceless.

But out of all these characters, it was John Goodman who utterly stole the show as The Dude's shell-shocked bowling friend Walter. I'd have to say that this is hands-down John Goodman's best role, simply because he's so outrageous a character in this film! Walter is a Vietnam veteran who literally lives in his own little world, where everything is related, however offhandedly, to Vietnam. He's so militant in every way possible—yet Goodman pulls it off in the funniest way possible. On first viewing, the average viewer might be unnerved at Walter's pulling a gun on a bowling buddy for disputing whether or not his roll was valid, but when he singlehandedly takes over the initial ransom drop, it's just downright hilarious how off-the-wall he plans things. The moment he says, "Here, Dude, take the ringer!", you just know it's going to be a hilarious disaster.

The dialogue is standard Coen dialogue: lots of overlapping discussions, nobody on the same page, at least one character off in his own quadrant. In other hands, dialogue like this may have fallen completely flat (like I think was the case in Barton Fink), but in the hands of Jeff Bridges and John Goodman, the dialogue works absolutely perfectly!

And it wouldn't be a Coen brothers movie without an appearance by John Turturro—whose cameo is without question the most off-the-wall scene in the whole movie. Let me tell ya, nobody can polish a bowling bowl like John Turturro!

I had to watch a few other Coen brothers movies to really understand their medium, and to be honest, I really haven't acquired a taste for them, beyond The Big Lebowski. I absolutely hated The Hudsucker Proxy and Barton Fink. Miller's Crossing, Fargo, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? were all okay, but nothing to really write home about (even though Fargo brought the Coens Academy attention). Blood Simple I found really satisfying, though. But what makes The Big Lebowski so watchable is The Dude! Without The Dude, The Big Lebowski would just be another Coen brothers offbeat comedy. That's not to say that The Big Lebowski is a bad movie; quite the opposite, actually! But I choose to view The Big Lebowski as almost a little fun that Joel and Ethan Coen are poking at themselves—i.e., The Big Lebowski is essentially The Dude getting caught up in a Coen brothers movie! And if you can allow yourself to be caught up in its unique blend of comedy, if you can appreciate splendid acting by Jeff Bridges and John Goodman, then The Big Lebowski will be an unforgettable ride—and in the end, you (like The Dude) will abide. 10 out of 10.


Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Highway to Hell?

In probably the most perfect follow-up to my review of Jesus Camp, a few of my cousins decided to take a roadtrip to Hell! . . . Hell, Michigan, that is. Let it not be said that my family doesn't have a sense of humor!


Friday, March 23, 2007

Jesus Camp

I generally take documentaries with a grain of salt, largely because most of the ones I've seen are very one-sided, promote a particular agenda or belief, and presume that the audience is dumb enough to blindly swallow what they're told (yes, I'm talking to you, Michael Moore!). That being said, you might very well ask, "Then why, Fritz, did you watch Jesus Camp?" To that, I have a very simple yet very honest answer: curiosity.

I first heard of the documentary Jesus Camp a few months back when it was discussed in an online chat on, and from there my interest was piqued. The film starts out on a solitary roadway somewhere in middle America, with radio voiceovers discussing various Christian values, the nomination of Samuel Alito, and then moves on to a radio commentator who discusses how Christian values are deeply permeating—and deeply dividing—American culture. Listening to him speak, you get the sense that he feels, while still a Christian himself, that the Christian influence is getting out of control, that it's being allowed to run riot and is going unchecked . . . particularly in Washington. From here we move onto the church of Becky Fisher, a Midwestern evangelical minister who runs a Bible camp in North Dakota. Along with Becky Fisher, Jesus Camp largely follows two of the camps attendees: 12-year-old Levi, who got saved at the age of 5 because he, in his own words, "wanted more out of life"; and Rachael, who finds self-confidence from the belief that she needs answer only to God rather than others her own age.

One thing that immediately struck me about this documentary is that directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady didn't openly narrate the story and outwardly control the film's progression (Michael Moore, I'm again looking in your direction). Rather, they let the participants speak for themselves, thus allowing them to show their own progression through Bible camp and how they learned to become better Christians. That aside, there's no other narration whatsoever, aside from a few screen notes about who's who, how many evangelical Christians are in America, etc. I can commend this approach, but at the same time, it also led to this documentary feeling more like news coverage rather than an actual examination of something.

And I don't really know just how accurate their presentation is of Becky Fisher, but she comes across to the viewer as very passionate about her belief system, and knowing just how to sway an audience. I was left rather uneasy with her sermons, not because of how they made me feel spiritually, but because of how her sermons teetered precariously on psychological manipulation. For example, they showed her using props to very great effect when she was illustrating how to come to faith, like inflating and deflating a balloon to show the gaining and loss of faith. Or how things like stuffed animals can symbolize temptation, or falling away from Christ. I guess I was bothered by these techniques because they were used on children—those at a highly impressionable age, via props that this age group can relate to. And in an early interview with Becky Fisher, she openly states that children are the perfect target audience for her message, simply because they're so impressionable. That just doesn't sit well with me—for obvious reasons, and also because I was watching children seeking out God because of guilt, because they were made to feel ashamed of who they were, thus leading them to want forgiveness from a higher power.

Guilt, in fact, was the big motivator behind all the teachings, because at every turn, everything these kids did was framed in the perspective of, "Does this make me a bad Christian?" Like when they were telling ghost stories late at night in their bunks, "Does this make me a bad Christian?" Or if one kid likes Harry Potter (which Becky Fisher heavily denounced), "Does this make me a bad Christian?" Me, I don't believe that guilt is a way to force spiritual acceptance on anyone, of any age. And again, I don't know how accurate a representation we're being given of Becky Fisher, but I wasn't left with a very favorable impression of her through this documentary.

But getting back to Levi and Rachael for a moment, I think both of them were home-schooled. We're shown several scenes of Levi's home-schooling, where particular emphasis is given to the Christianity vs. science debate. Essentially, Levi and his family choose to dismiss the findings of science simply because they don't conform to their Christian values. They dismissed outright as silly the notion of global warming (asking if 0.6 degrees per year will really make a difference) or the notion that the Earth was more than 6,000 years old. Levi's mother has the strong belief that society's ills stem from the removal of prayer from school—nothing more, nothing less.

But what really struck me—and bothered me—was when Levi was given a choice about the teachings of creationism vs. evolution. The way it was framed to Levi was, first his mother made the statement, "Evolution is stupid!" Followed up by, "Creationism is stupid!" Then he was given the choice as to which perspective he agreed with. Obviously he related more to the "evolution is stupid" motif, but what bothered me is that, not only is it intolerant of a different belief (and thus he's being taught that it's okay to be intolerant of people who don't agree with you), but that he simply chose without actually asking his own questions or coming to his own conclusions. He just automatically sided with whichever side came closest to his belief system, and while there's nothing wrong with that, it doesn't encourage any free thinking—and that's what bothers me the most about religion: it so often doesn't encourage free thinking. Rather, the more devout denominations I've seen suppress free thinking, and thus demand that everyone has to believe one way, their way, or else you're just plain wrong. Almost building on this notion, Levi, Rachael, and several others go to Washington, DC, and have their own little pro-life demonstration in front of the Supreme Court: they seal their mouths shut with duct tape emblazoned with the word "life." But essentially, these children are being taught to go out into the world to spread the word, and not accept anything less than the full embrace of their belief system by all of America.

But from a filmmaking perspective, the one major element about Jesus Camp that bothered me was the lack of counterpoint. Aside of that early radio commentator (whose name escapes me), there's no other body to present an argument for the other side, so for 80% of the film, you have only one viewpoint being presented. And without counterpoint, you don't have a documentary—you have propoganda (which I'm reasonably sure wasn't the intention of the filmmakers). It was only at the end, though, when Becky Fisher calls into his show, that we actually have our first and only point-counterpoint exchange of ideas. And while he doesn't necessarily come out and ask it, the radio commentator ever so subtly poses a very key question to Becky Fisher: if we're teaching such radical ideas to children, starting at such an early age when they're the most impressionable . . . where does indoctrination end and brainwashing begin?

I give Jesus Camp a 7.5 out of 10, and not because I agree or disagree with the subject matter, but because of how it was presented. It loses the most points for not having more counterpoint, which is essential in presenting ideas to an audience and encouraging free thinking.


Thursday, March 22, 2007

Double Indemnity

When I think of Fred MacMurray, I usually think of My Three Sons. I think of The AbsentMinded Professor . . . I think of flubber, people!!! I usually don't think of serious, dramatic roles that require actors to really step out of their element and sink their teeth into a meaty role that challenges their abilities—yet Fred MacMurray did just that when he took on the role of Walter Neff in the 1944 Billy Wilder film Double Indemnity!

If I remember my notes from COMM 150, I think film noir was just coming into its own during the '40s, ushering in such landmark films as Citizen Kane, The Big Sleep, and The Maltese Falcon, just to name a few. And during a time when Bogie reigned supreme in the world of detective films, Fred MacMurray gave what I think was the performance of a lifetime as the smitten yet conflicted insurance salesman who gets caught up in a murder scheme. Penned by none other than detective writer Raymond Chandler (along with director Billy Wilder), Double Indemnity tells the story of how Neff meets the seductive Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) when he has to get some of their insurance policies renewed. Suddenly smitten for the illustrious Mrs. Dietrichson, she subtly makes some inquiries about an accident policy for her oil-tycoon husband, though Neff sees right through her motivations from the start: she simply wants to knock off her husband and collect the insurance money.

Neff initially rejects her and her proposition, but being the ladies' man that he is (and there's something so smooth about how Neff consistently calls her "baby"), and intoxicated by the honeysuckle smell he'll forever associate with her, Neff slowly allows himself to fall for her . . . and fall hard—hard enough that he begins to go along with her scheme, and actually tricks her husband into signing up for an accident policy. The catch is, if Mr. Dietrichson dies in some kind of freak accident—say, falling off a train—insurance will pay off double, because there's a clause in his accident policy called a double indemnity clause that doubles the payout under certain circumstances. This is just icing on the cake for Phyllis, who originally just wanted the insurance money and her husband disposed of, and the smitten Neff even goes on to plan the death of Mr. Dietrichson in precise detail!

Edward G. Robinson stepped out of his leading-man role with Double Indemnity and turned in his first-ever supporting role as Barton Keyes, Neff's supervisor who can smell an insurance scam a mile away, crediting his hunches to "the little man" inside him. Essentially, it's Keyes that Neff and Phyllis need to get past in order to collect their double indemnity . . . and as you can imagine, it isn't an easy ride.

The story is told all in flashback, with a wounded Neff dictating his story to Keyes into his voice-recorder (thus providing voiceover for the film); essentially, the story is Neff's confession. And for a story made in the mid-1940s, the storytelling style is remarkably ahead of its time! New ground was broken with the not-so-subtle attraction of Neff to Phyllis, with sexual innuendo being thrown about playfully but not as masked as before. In other words, the smart viewer of the time knew just what Neff and Phyllis were saying, despite how much they cleverly masked their words. For example, when Neff first arrives at the Dietrichson house, Phyllis has just emerged from the shower, wrapped in a towel. And Neff, trying to ensure that he can stay in the house long enough to do business, wittingly assures Phyllis that she wouldn't want to have a fender-bender and not be, ahem, fully covered.

Which brings me to my next point: the dialogue, which was remarkably sharp. Almost too sharp, I think. I'm not necessarily complaining, mind you, but I really can't imagine anyone spouting out such witty dialogue without missing a beat and without losing composure. But that aside, tension permeates this film to such an amazing degree! The film opens with a car speeding through the dead of night, running red lights and dodging traffic, frantically trying to reach its destination. And when a seemingly wounded Neff emerges from the car, for the longest time we don't even get to see his face. All we see is Neff from the back, cluing in the viewer that all in not right, that his coat strangely draped over his left side is concealing something, that he's possibly been injured—or shot. The buildup to when Neff kills Mr. Dietrichson is just as nail-biting! You can almost taste his tension, his fear, his precision at everything happening exactly just so. And when Phyllis gives her three-horn signal . . .

At the same time, it is and isn't surprising that the killing occurred off-screen. All we see during the actual murder is Phyllis's deadpan face, staring straight at the dark road ahead—but we still hear Mr. Dietrichson struggling against Neff. I say it's not surprising because, for a movie made in 1944, it wasn't uncommon to show a truly violent scene off-screen—or at least have the violence and gore dumbed down almost to nonexistence. It was more common to show a gun being fired in one scene, and in the next cut, seeing the victim clutching in pain to where the bullet entered . . . though with no visible blood or guts or anything. They were all clean wounds in '40s noir. But despite the commonality of having a death take place off-screen, the tension is heightened even more by this, because it relies on the viewer to use his/her imagination for Dietrichson's death! Tarantino used this to great effect in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (and you know exactly what scenes I'm talking about).

And given that Double Indemnity is a noir picture, the use of light and darkness is absolutely perfect! Citizen Kane more or less set the standard for the use of darkness in films, even in the more lighter-hearted segments, but it worked to great effect in Double Indemnity . . . and let's not forget, this is already a black-and-white film!

Much has been made of Barbara Stanwyck's performance as the quote-unquote femme fatale, but to be honest, I really wasn't that impressed with it. Her scene with Norton, Keyes, and Neff in their office as the so-called grieving widow felt forced to me, almost not believable. For a role like hers, I was expecting a more duplicitous, manipulative performance. Stanwyck's came across (to me, at least) as just desperate, not even really evil. Between the two, I think Fred MacMurray was by far the better performer.

Double Indemnity has aged well through the years, though! It's a movie that grips you from the get-go and doesn't let up until the final credits start to roll. The basic premise of the film has even served as the template for other films, too: several people come together to pull off the perfect crime, and once committed, the group starts to fall apart through their greed and paranoia. And Double Indemnity started it all. 9 out of 10.


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Triumphant returns

No, I'm not hailing my own triumphant return to blogging after several days' worth of silence, but rather the words of Post reporter Tom Boswell for not only his amazingly on-target exposé of Peter Angelos, but for reminding us—by his media presence alone!—that baseball season is right around the corner! Boswell championed the return of baseball to Washington for so long that just hearing his words was enough to fill me with baseball fever. Sort of like how a pre-season interview with Joe Paterno puts me in the mood for Penn State football. (It didn't hurt, either, that I drove past RFK yesterday on my way to Annapolis.)

Only 12 days until Opening Day! And as icing on the cake, today is the first day of Spring!


Saturday, March 17, 2007

Happy Green Beer Day!

On this day of green beer, whether you're singing along to the Phyrst Family, doing the Case Race at The Rathskeller, enjoying the potato soup at Sine', or kickin' back at Murphy's . . . happy St. Patty's Day, boy-o's!

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Friday, March 16, 2007

Full Metal . . . elves?

A big thanks to my friend Kaylyn for pointing this one out to me.


Thursday, March 15, 2007


Yesterday when I arrived at work, there was apple pie and chocolate mousse pie in the kitchen—along with a note that read "Happy Pi (3.14) Day." (Let it not be said that my co-workers don't have a sense of humor!) But the association of pi with the date, March 14, brought to mind Darren Aronofsky's breakout film Pi: Faith in Chaos.

Filmed in a very grainy black and white, Pi was Aronofsky's indie film debut during the late '90s, and I must say, it holds up remarkably well today! Pi tells the story of Max Cohen (played by Sean Gullette), a mathematician who's searching for a numeric pattern to the stock market. In frequent, often repeating voiceovers, Max tells us his mathematical assumptions: that the world is made up of numbers, that it can be deciphered through numbers, that patterns can emerge from these numbers—and that these patterns can unlock the mysteries of this world. This is Max's driving force, and using a home-built supercomputer he calls Euclid, he tests program after program in the hopes of finding a key to the mystery behind the stock market.

Max as a character, though, is plagued by headaches and tremors (that border on hallucinations), often resorting to his veritable pharmacy of medications to keep himself at ease. Though I don't believe Max's headaches and tremors are necessarily the result of bad genes: I think that Max is often on the verge of collapse from the weight of his own genius and mental processes, for he is a man who is totally obsessed with his work, and is probably overwhelmed by his own mental faculties. I mean, the man can compute large equations inside his own head—as he often does for one of his neighbors, young Jenna, who frequently asks him to mentally compute numbers for her own amusement. Though this irritates Max, who lives a very private life, secludes himself in his world of numbers and theories, and doesn't like to associate with anyone, except maybe for Sol (Aronofsky regular Mark Margolis), a neighbor who also used to be a mathematician . . . though Max silently desires his smokin' hot neighbor Devi.

At a coffee shop one day, Max meets a Hasidic Jew named Lenny Meyer, who just so happens to work with numbers, too. Though instead of the stock market, Lenny's medium is the Torah, which he believes contains a code from God that's 216 numeric digits long . . . and it just so happens that right around this same time, Max himself stumbles across a 216-digit number. Because while running a new program on Euclid one day, two outrageous stock picks come up, Euclid spits out a 216-digit number, and then totally crashes. At first Max dismisses the stock picks and the long number—until both picks turn out to be correct, leaving Max to wonder just what this 216-digit number really is.

From this point on, Max is continually hassled by Lenny, who's ever-so-conveniently around every corner, as well as Marcy Dawson, an intrusive Wall Street executive who wants Max's genius for her own financial reasons. This drives Max deeper and deeper into his mathematical obsessions, because now he has to know, at any cost, just what this 216-digit number is . . . and what it can mean for his work.

Pi reminds many viewers of David Lynch's Eraserhead, largely because of the filmic style but also because of the symbolism and the examination of the human mind. Because at the same time, Pi is a character study about solitude and obsession—and a philosophical examination about the mysteries to life. As to the former, take for instance when Max travels the subway. He always sees the same old man sitting near him, then the next minute he's gone. Does he exist only in Max's tired mind? There's also a strange scene where Max kneels down by the subway station stairs—and finds a human brain sitting on one of the steps. His poking it with the pen could almost symbolize Max's delicate yet continual thought process—picking his brain, as it were.

The camerawork in the subway scenes (as well as the foot chase scenes) was often very jumpy. I'd bet that Aronofsky used the handheld camera for many of his shots, which isn't totally surprising, given that this was a low-budget film. But we also see the first instance of what has become an Aronofsky trademark: his quick-cut editing. In Requiem for a Dream, he used it to symbolize a drug high. In Pi, he used it to symbolize Max's retreat into his anxiety medications.

But as Max explores the 216-digit number more and more, he comes to think that he's found his ultimate answer through this number, that it contains all the answers he seeks—not just in the stock market, but in life itself. Sort of like finding God through numbers. But along with this key comes the abuse of these answers, as exemplified by Marcy Dawson's ruthless attempts to gain access to it. Or in Lenny's sect trying to acquire the number for their own purposes. But is Max any different? He's using the number to gain predictive ability over the stock market, and I think this contributes to his final mental collapse—that and his continued isolation from the outside world. He's become so steeped in his work that he's totally lost touch with an essential component of life: human contact, as indicated by his anxiety attacks whenever he hears Devi's sexual romps through his apartment wall.

In the final analysis, though, one very major question is asked vis-à-vis Max's final breakdown: are there some truths, some answers to life that are really too big for the human mind to understand? When Max burns the number at the end, it always breaks my heart, because he's throwing away a key to humanity, to possible transcendence above what we currently are . . . but it's almost right that he destroys the number, because our human minds have not yet developed to the level where we can understand the enormity behind this key to life . . . and when our obsessions consume us to the breaking point, maybe we need to step back and smell the flowers. 9 out of 10.


Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Buzz for Borat

Since I first saw it a week ago, I've honestly been struggling with a review for Borat, because I think it goes without saying that it's anything but a conventional movie!!! Like when I saw Inland Empire at the AFI in January, Borat is like nothing I've ever seen before. In the meantime, though, a lot of buzz has been generated for the film, starting with record DVD sales in, fittingly, Kazakhstan! But what really surprised me was this little ditty—to which I honestly have no response.


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Happy birthday, William!


Monday, March 12, 2007


If there was a quote that could sum up my experience of seeing David Fincher's new film Zodiac, it would have to be from Pulp Fiction: "Oh, I'm sorry! Did I break your concentration?" I choose this quote because, when I went to Potomac Yards on Sunday afternoon, the fire alarm in the theater went off about 45 minutes into the film, and everyone was ushered to the nearest exit. Turns out there was an electrical fire in one of the control rooms, and one hour later, everyone was back in the movie theaters watching whatever film they'd come to see—complete with a free readmission ticket.

Suffice it to say, this little incident did break my concentration during my first viewing of Zodiac, though my intrigue wasn't lessened by any means. For the story opens on July 4, 1969, when two young lovers drive their car to the local "lovers lane", as it were, in Vallejo, California . . . only a few minutes after they arrive, a car drives up and parks behind them, hovers there for a few minutes, then drives off. This understandably makes the young couple nervous—especially since the car comes screeching back a few minutes later and again parks behind them. Only this time someone comes out of the car with a flashlight, so they probably assume it's a cop there to send them home. But as soon as the young boy rolls down his passenger's window, the man outside empties his entire gun into their car, killing the young girl (the boy survives). A few days later, an anonymous letter is sent to the San Francisco Chronicle, detailing the crime and pointing to a previous unsolved murder only a few months beforehand. Along with this letter is a cipher that the sender is asking to be placed in the newspaper, daring whoever has the abilities to decode it before he kills again.

Thus, we're formally introduced to the Zodiac killer, the most infamous uncaught serial killer of our time, who preyed on northern California during the late '60s and early '70s. Enter into the picture Robert Graysmith (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), a cartoonist for the Chronicle who takes an interest in the Zodiac killings. He often bounces his ideas off Paul Avery, a sort of hippie reporter for the Chronicle who's hilariously portrayed by Robert Downey, Jr. On the personal front, Graysmith is single father, recently divorced, who starts to get really uneasy when the Zodiac killer starts making public threats about targeting a school bus and young children. And after another murder takes place not aboard a school bus but in a taxi cab late at night, we're then introduced to Detective David Toschi, played by an almost unrecognizable Mark Ruffalo. Thus, we now have the trifecta, as it were, of men who will ultimately pursue every possible lead in the Zodiac case.

The movie deals largely with each man's obsession with the case, and how the frustration and failures to catch this killer ultimately bring each man down. At 2 hours and 36 minutes, Zodiac is a long ride to endure, but that's not to be totally unexpected, for there's an enormous time period that this film covers. I think Fincher handled the timeline pretty well, though he did move pretty fast. He'd frequently start a scene taking place on one day, then the next scene will be half an hour later, the next scene two weeks later, the next scene three months later . . . you get the idea. It jumps around pretty fast, though thankfully not so fast that it loses the audience's attention. I thought Fincher handled the Zodiac killings very well—coming at you lightning-fast, though sometimes predictably. They were pretty graphic, too. (The one by the lake kinda made me cringe.) Granted, the serial killer genre is familiar territory for Finch, who was the part of the genius and genesis behind Se7en, though Zodiac isn't quite as visually stunning as either Se7en or Fight Club. Though as with Se7en, the suspense of thie film creeps into your soul and doesn't let up for a second. I think the creepiest scene for me was when Robert Graysmith visited the home of an old theater manager where one of the Zodiac suspects worked . . . and slowly, Graysmith starts to wonder if he's actually found the Zodiac's lair! The scene of them together in the basement, with the dank air reeking of creaking wood and dripping pipes, you couldn't help but wonder if Graysmith was about to buy the farm right then and there.

If I had one real problem with Zodiac, it's how they structured the plots of the three main characters with respect to each other. Because instead of intertwining each of their stories, Fincher told each person's story all at once before moving on to the next character. That kind of format made it rougher for me to follow, and at the same time, almost made me wonder if the other characters were being neglected, forgotten.

The acting was pretty standard fare, with the notable exception of Robert Downey, Jr.—who completely stole the show as the doped-up, chain-smoking, strung-out Paul Avery. He was actually directly threatened by the Zodiac for writing up some not-so-friendly character pieces on him. Gyllenhaal's Graysmith was kind of a goody-two-shoes character, often referred to as a Boy Scout because he wanted to do everything properly. Ruffalo's Toschi was a good detective, and I give him credit for playing his frustrations more realistically than I've previously seen. For example, when they're interrogating one suspect, he actually admits that he's confused as to what he wants—i.e., does he want this suspect to be the Zodiac so badly because it validates all his theories, or just because he wants it all to be over?

And when they finally started to narrow down a potential suspect in the killings, I was concerned initially about the historical accuracy of the film—i.e., that they would portray their findings as the end-all/be-all definitive proof that Mr. X is indeed the killer, when in real life it may have been inconclusive. Thankfully that wasn't the case here. Fincher and Co. did eventually narrow their suspects down to one, but when I did some research of my own, it turns out that the person in question was the lead suspect in the final analysis, though he was never charged in the killings.

For now, I'll give this a 7.5, because I want to see it again (in one sitting preferrably) to digest all the information that's given to the audience, because there's quite a lot. On another note, it's kind of ironic that Robert and Toschi meet up at a screening of Dirty Harry—because Dirty Harry took its inspiration largely from the Zodiac killings!


Saturday, March 10, 2007

Pulp Fiction

If there was ever a movie that defined a generation, it was Pulp Fiction. Made in 1994 from then up-and-coming director Quentin Tarantino, Pulp Fiction became a pop culture legend right from the get-go, and it hasn't lost steam at all in the 13 years since it's release (my god, has it really been that long???). I first saw Pulp Fiction during my sophomore year at Penn State. One of my buddies from my dorm lent it to me one night, utterly shocked that I hadn't seen it yet. So I popped it into the VCR (sorry, DVD players hadn't become the rage quite yet) and sat back with Jules, Vincent, Marcellus, Mia, Butch, and the gang.

Featuring some of the wittiest and sharpest dialogue ever (maybe Quentin could take on a job as George Lucas's dialogue coach), I think it goes without saying that Pulp Fiction is the most fun you can ever have watching a movie! But what struck me the most about Pulp Fiction was the starpower: Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, John Travolra, Uma Thurman, Christopher Walken, Amanda Plummer, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette, Harvey Keitel, even Quentin Tarantino himself! What I didn't quite grasp on first viewing was that most of these stars had little screen time, because Pulp Fiction is more like a series of short stories than a feature-length plot.

The films starts out with not one but two preludes: the first features Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) as they eat breakfast, two lovers/bank robbers discussing their future in robbery, and on the spur of the moment, they decide to rob the coffee shop where they're having breakfast; the second prelude features Jules (Samuel L. Jackson, sporting an afro that's about 20 years too late) and Vincent (John Travolta), two hitmen for Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) discussing the differences between U.S. and Dutch culture while on their way to a morning hit and to retrieve a suitcase that belongs to Marcellus. (It's long been speculated that the suitcase contained Marcellus Wallace's soul, given a) the combination of the suitcase, and b) the Band-Aid on the back of Marcellus's neck.)

After these two preludes, we move into the first story, entitled, "Vincent Vega and Marcellus Wallace's Wife." In this story, Vincent is tasked with taking Mia, Marcellus's young wife who's played by a dark-haired Uma Thurman, out on the town while Marcellus is away. Vincent is naturally nervous, because it's his boss's wife and he knows that he has to keep himself restrained; despite everyone's jokes, he's constantly proclaiming, "It's not a date!" So he takes Mia to a 1950s restaurant called Jack Rabbit Slim's (an absolutely marvelous recreation of the '50s by Tarantino, I might add!), where they enter into a twist contest. Much has been made of John Travolta's dance scene with Uma, recalling his glory days of Grease and Saturday Night Fever during the '70s—though to be honest, I wasn't too impressed with it. But for all the fun that Vincent and Mia have, the night almost ends disastrously when Mia stumbles upon Vincent's stash.

The second story is entitled, "The Gold Watch," and is preceded by a flashback to the youth of Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), an aging boxer who's been paid by Marcellus Wallace to take a dive; naturally, Butch does things his own way, and ends up killing his opponent in the ring. But before I get too into his storyline, I want to talk about his flashback first, because it introduces the audience to the very centerpiece, if not talisman, of this story: the gold watch that has been passed down the Coolidge generations, surviving wars and terrible atrocities in order to get to Butch. As a young child, Butch receives this watch from his late father's war buddy, Captain Koons, played by none other than the man himself—Christopher Walken, in what is the most memorable scene of the entire movie. I think I'd be remiss if I didn't post the video clip.

In the present day, after Butch flees the ring, his learns that his girlfriend (with whom he was going to run from Marcellus) accidentally left his gold watch at their apartment. So against all common sense, Butch bravely runs back to the apartment to retrieve his father's watch—and ends up walking into a war of his own.

Following this story is "The Bonnie Situation", which chronologically takes place before "The Gold Watch" story—taking us back to both of our initial preludes, starting with Jules and Vincent's morning hit (the one they were driving to early that morning). After they successfully dispose of Brett (Frank Whaley) and repossess the suitcase of Marcellus, Jules and Vincent get a little surprise: there was a fourth man in the apartment, hiding out in the bathroom, and when he thinks the time is right, he busts out on them with guns blazing . . . but misses every shot! (Though neither Jules nor Vincent miss when they shoot.) The shock of their not being hit once by the fourth man's bullets prompts a spiritual awakening in Jules, believing that it was divine intervention that caused them to survive. So on the drive back to Marcellus's, Jules tells Vincent that he's going to retire, but Vincent isn't so willing to accept Jules's interpretation of events. Vincent even asks Marvin (the lone survivor of the hit in the apartment) his own opinion of what happened back there—and accidentally shoots him in the face, splattering the back of their car (not to mention Jules and Vincent) in blood and guts. Bear in mind, they're driving down a busy street in broad daylight. Suffice it to say, they need to detour off the road fast, so they enlist the help of Jules's former partner, Jimmy (Quentin Tarantino's cameo in this film), as well as Marcellus's main man, Winston Wolf (Harvey Keitel).

For as a young and amateur a filmmaker as Tarantino was at the time, it's utterly amazing how well made this film is! Packed to the gill with references to countless other films (references that only the most hardcore movie fan will notice), Pulp Fiction can almost be construed as a gigantic homage to all of Tarantino's favorite films. Even down to the littlest props—think of the samurai sword (a reference to Sonny Chiba films) that Butch uses on Maynard (a reference to the back-woods rapists in Deliverance), or the gun fired on Jules and Vincent (a reference to Dirty Harry's weaponry).

And who can forget the soundtrack that afforded us such scenes as John Travolta dancing again? Or Uma getting ready for her date with Vincent to the strains of "Son of a Preacher Man"? I think my favorite is when Butch is driving that little Honda away from his apartment and singing along to "Flowers on the Wall". The camerawork and editing is superlative, as well! (Though I must confess, I never quite saw the point to the glamorous depiction of Vincent shooting up just before he goes to Mia's house.)

Pulp Fiction only won one Oscar at the 1994 ceremony, for Best Original Screenplay. It got six other nominations, too, mostly for acting, and lost Best Picture to Forrest Gump. I know I'm largely in the minority on this, but I can accept that loss, because Forrest Gump was the better picture that year—though only by a hair. I feel, though, that Quentin Tarantino should have won Best Director instead of Robert Zemeckis, because Pulp Fiction was such a remarkably well-made movie, with direction that was nothing short of stellar. Samuel L. Jackson garnered a Best Supporting Actor nomination, too (losing to Martin Landau for Ed Wood), and I have to say, Jackson was absolutely marvelous as the ruthless killer-turned-prophet Jules. I think his shining moment came in the diner scene at the end of the film, when he talks down Pumpkin and Honey Bunny during their robbery.

And I always get a slight chuckle out of the final scene, when Jules and Vincent exit the coffee shop—simultaneously sticking their guns under their belts and walking out the door together, like two modern cowboys walking off into the sunset.

There was also a great sense of gritty realism, too, that Tarantino imparted to the film. For example, during Mia's overdosing scene, when Vincent brings her to Lance's house, the panic is so real that I still feel it every time I see it. And the way it's filmed, in one long tracking shot, is utterly fantastic. But for all the realism and the grittiness, there is a theme of redemption that permeates all three stories. These are characters that you don't necessarily have to like, nor do you have to like their choice of lifestyle, but when disaster strikes, they're still human enough to deserve a chance to redeem themselves.

10 out of 10. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to McDonald's for a royale with cheese.


Friday, March 09, 2007

"I've been called, I've been called, to that great boardroom in the sky . . ."

Today I am genuinely saddened, for last night, actor John Inman died at the age of 71. He is most remembered in the role of Mr. Humphries, the ambiguously gay sales assistant in the British comedy show Are You Being Served? Even though he didn't have a very large filmography, the loss of this great comic artist is a loss for us all. His perfectly-timed wit brought laughter and joy to many, and those of us who got to see his humor were able to experience something very special.

May you rest in peace, John. You will be greatly missed.


Thursday, March 08, 2007

I know it's only spring training, but . . .

Okay, so the Nats are one week into their spring training games, and already they're 1-6, often losing games with scores like 12-4 or 8-2. Again, I know it's only spring training, but if we're performing this badly in just the pre-season, then this might be us ranting in the regular season! (Just use your imagination and substitute baseball for the football plays illustrated below, with the same "playoffs" rant at the end.)


Wednesday, March 07, 2007

More on the Oscar Curse

A while ago, I did a brief examination on what's happened to various actors/actresses post-Oscar win. Premiere Magazine recently did an examination of their own, chronicling some of their most well-known Oscar winners that have garnered zip since their win. Some on their list I had actually never considered (like Brenda Fricker or Robin Williams), while others make a lot of sense to me (like Hilary Swank and Marisa Tomei, though they forgot to mention The Gift in Swank's case).

And I loved how they ripped on Sidney Lumet for doing commercials for the new AT&T Cingular now!


Tuesday, March 06, 2007


I first saw Traffic in January 2001, on the eve of our first Atlantic City trip. I remember being quite struck by the rawness of its depiction, and thankfully, six years later, it hasn't lost its edge one bit.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh, who's largely remembered for sex, lies, and videotape and the Ocean's Eleven series, Traffic is an ensemble piece, with multiple storylines being told in parallel fashion, sometimes intertwining, sometimes affecting the other. No one story or actor is giving top billing, so to speak—despite the amount of starpower in this film—and I very much admired this approach. Essentially, the story of Traffic revolves around three plot lines, and the film opens quietly onto the first: a lonely desert in Mexico where two cops, Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) and his partner Manolo (Jacob Vargas), bust a moving van for hauling drugs—only to have their bust taken off their hands by the powerful General Salazar (Tomas Milian). We then move onto Cincinnati, Ohio, where Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) has just been appointed the head of the president's anti-drug initiative. And in San Diego, California, undercover DEA agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) are trying to infiltrate the operations of Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer), only their cover almost gets blown when the local PD makes a bust of their own on Ruiz's base.

That's a pretty good start in my book! And thankfully that good start paved the way for an even greater continuation. Down in Tijuana, a few days after being robbed of their drug bust, Javier is approached by General Salazar again, with what is essentially a job offer for him and Manolo (though mostly for Javier). Since he has nothing else to do, Javier accepts, and his first task is to bring in the assassin Francisco Flores (Clifton Collins, Jr.) from one of the rival drug cartels for "interrogation." For a while, Javier and Manolo enjoy their new life under the tutelage of General Salazar . . . but very slowly, and after some really terrible events, Javier starts to wonder if the General isn't really the great man he once thought—and against his better judgment, Javier begins to supply the DEA with information.

On the DEA side of life, Monty and Ray successfully make their bust on Eduardo Ruiz, and after much badgering, they persuade him to testify against his drug-smuggler boss, Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer)—leaving his wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) broke because the government has frozen all of their assets. But Helena, you see, doesn't realize that her husband is a drug smuggler; throughout their marriage, she'd been under the impression that he was nothing more than a successful businessman, and not involved in anything as illegal as drugs. Ultimately, it was their lawyer, Arnie Metzgar (Dennis Quaid), who broke the truth to Helena . . . and now Helena must face a difficult dilemma about how to set her husband free. Does she sit back and let their lawyers clear Carlos's name—or does she take matters into her own hands by taking over Carlos's business and targeting Eduardo Ruiz before he can testify?

And in the larger political context, Robert Wakefield slowly begins to wade into the Washington world of anti-drug policy. After being briefed by the president's chief of staff (Albert Finney, probably on loan from Erin Brockovich), Robert gets a rather chilling—and dare I say, defeatist—assessment from the former drug czar (James Brolin) about just how volatile and sensitive Robert's position really is because of all that's at stake in fighting the drug war. But that doesn't deter Robert from approaching his new job with passion and determination. There's even a great scene of him hobnobbing at a Georgetown home with various real-life politicians. But unbeknownst to Robert, there's a little problem at home, for his teenage daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) has started freebasing with her boyfriend Seth (Topher Grace). And after they get busted outside the emergency room when one of their friends overdoses, Robert is given a serious reality check about the drug world—one he's unprepared to contend with, since it reveals to him that he's really powerless to fight the war on drugs.

So yeah, there are some political overtones to Traffic. (How can there not be?) When Robert was on the plane trying to brainstorm with his team, I found it very telling that he "opened the dam" to new ideas . . . and not a single person spoke. What does that say about our political system's ability to combat this threat? Or when he travels to Mexico City and listens to General Salazar's ideas on "treatment of addiction"? I think the most telling feature, though, was when Robert travelled to EPIC and listened to the briefing about foreign drug cartels and how they're light years ahead of us—completely circumventing the system and turning drugs into a billionaire's enterprise. The final blow to Robert's mission comes when he arrives home after a fight with his wife to find Caroline getting high. After their painfully heated altercation, no longer can he live in denial about the terrible realities he's faced with—at home and abroad—in fighting the drug war.

I honestly can't say one bad thing about the acting in Traffic. Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman had amazing chemistry together, and their scenes were the most fun to watch (and let's be honest, any movie with Luis Guzman is a good movie in my book!). Erika Christensen turned in a stellar performance as the disillusioned, addicted daughter on her way to rock bottom. And Benicio Del Toro? When I first saw this in 2001, I only knew him as Fenster from The Usual Suspects, so his dramatic turn in Traffic really impressed me. He even won an Oscar for this role!

Traffic isn't a feel-good movie by a long shot. While not as downtrodden as Syriana, Traffic does offer us some hope at the end. I wish I knew why, but that final scene of Javier sitting at the nighttime baseball game under the lights . . . I find it to be very uplifting! Or when Monty plants a new bug inside Carlos and Helena's home (in what's really a funny scene, despite the fighting that breaks out). And when Caroline stands before her AA group at the end and gives her "good day" speech, she largely sums up the most important theme (maybe even lesson) of Traffic: that our current war against drugs in unwinnable, but there is hope for the individual. I know it may not seem like much, but it's definitely enough for her, Robert, Monty, and Javier.

Traffic made it to the Oscars that year, winning 4 out of its 5 nominations: for director Steven Soderbergh, supporting actor Benicio Del Toro, film editing, and adapted screenplay. It's one loss was Best Picture, to Gladiator, though I still think Traffic should have been the winner that year (sorry, Dad). I'm kind of surprised that Traffic didn't earn a musical score nomination, though—or a cinematography nomination, because I absolutely loved the color scheme that Soderbergh applied to each locale within the film: an intense yellow haze to Mexico, a blue filter to Robert's scenes in Washington and Cincinnati (that ultimately cleared up by the end), and a sort of off-white filter for the California sequences that made everything seem too bright. I found that very inventive.

But I must give mention to the brilliance of screenwriter Stephen Gaghan for adapting Traffic from its original medium. Traffic was based on a 6-part British mini-series entitled Traffik, which essentially told the same story but in a more epic scope, as well as in a different setting. Traffik the mini-series was set entirely throughout Europe: the lawmaker/daughter story (think of Robert and Caroline) took place in London; the wife-turned-drug-trafficker/lawyer/police duo story (Helena/Arnie, Monty/Ray/Eduardo) took place in Hamburg, Germany; and the Tijuana story actually took place in Pakistan, where a local poppy farmer comes under the tutelage of the local drug kingpin. The original mini-series was amazingly gripping, and screenwriter Gaghan had quite a task ahead of him in adapting this to the big screen. Suffice it to say, he succeeded in spades! The pacing of the Soderbergh Traffic doesn't at all feel rushed or condensed, and so much of the original story is retained (though I found the pampered wife taking over her husband's drug business a bit more believable in the mini-series).

I recommend seeing both the mini-series and the movie, as both are good viewing. But for the purposes of this review, I give the Soderbergh Traffic a 10 out of 10.


Monday, March 05, 2007


John Wayne did two non-Western movies before he died. I know it's hard to believe, but it's true. The first was McQ, in 1974, where the Duke played a hard-ass San Francisco detective. The second was Brannigan, in 1975, where he played hard-ass Chicago cop Jim Brannigan. During the mid '70s, I'm guessing that John Wayne was feeling the pressure to capitalize off of the gritty crime genre that was gradually reforming at the time (think of such movies as The French Connection or Serpico)—not to mention staying on par with Clint Eastwood, his main competition as a Western actor, who successfully transitioned from Western action hero to the hardened detective role with Dirty Harry. So against this backdrop, the Duke dropped his spurs and made McQ and Brannigan. Between the two, I like Brannigan better—and as a lifelong fan of John Wayne, maybe I'm more willing than others to accept the Duke's attempt at a hardened detective role.

Like Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, John Wayne always makes a spectacular entrance to his films. Here in Brannigan, he kicks a door clear off its hinges with just one foot. And after walking smoothly through the doorway, he sarcastically utters, "Knock, knock." But within 10 minutes, Brannigan is shaking the dust of Chicago off his feet and is on a plane to London, complete with extradition papers for Ben Larkin, a known gangster that Brannigan's been hotly pursuing for some time, and played by the ever-great John Vernon. Naturally, Brannigan is the quintessential fish out of water, having to meld his play-by-his-own-rules persona with the laws of Britain. As you can imagine, it's oil and water right from the get-go—especially since, under British law, carrying a firearm is illegal, even if you're a policeman.

Paired with a Scotland Yard Commander named Swann, played by none other than Richard Attenborough, Brannigan figures it'll be an easy task to bring Larkin home; standard procedure, really. What isn't standard procedure is that on the day Brannigan arrives in London, Larkin is kidnapped from his gentleman's club and held for ransom. And in the background, Brannigan is under the watchful eye of Gorman, by one of Larkin's hitmen who drives around in a swanky MG. Brannigan survives some pretty clever attempts on his life, like a shotgun trigger specially rigged to the door of his bathroom, so that it goes off as soon as someone opens the door. Plus, a bomb on the toilet a la Lethal Weapon 2 (though technically this came first).

There's quite a long sequence where the ransom drop is made, which is quite eye-catching, as it features some intriguing surveillance details (even though the Duke does very little during these scenes). And you know it wouldn't be a John Wayne movie without a bar fight. Even though Brannigan and Swann were there to pick up a suspect, the fight technically started over spilled Guinness—which, in my book, is reason enough for a fight! As usual, the Duke can lay out a man with a single punch, and not once does his toupee come loose. Though in keeping with the generally-accepted cop movie, there was the requisite car chase through the streets of London, complete with a bridge-jumping scene. Don't get me wrong, the chase was quite enjoyable, but it wasn't quite on par with The French Connection or Ronin.

It's really hard to say whether Brannigan is a serious crime drama or a comedy, because it features a great mix between the two. The comedy comes from the Duke's own general style, i.e., his kicking down the door at the beginning, or his overall condescension to anything that requires him to be proper. And let's not forget the dialogue, as the Duke naturally utters the film's best lines. My favorite is when he bursts in on Larkin at the end of the film, after the quote-unquote final delivery of the ransom has been made, and John Wayne utters his trademark line, "I wouldn't!" Followed up by, ". . . unless you want to sing soprano!" Yet the most ironic and humorous segment of the film didn't even belong to Wayne! It belonged to Judy Geeson for playing a young Scotland Yard detective named Thatcher—four years before a certain namesake took office.

But for all this light-heartedness, Larkin's kidnapping is very serious, as are the many attempts on Brannigan's life by Gorman. In its seriousness, I can't help but wonder if this was an attempt by Wayne to live up to the standard set by The French Connection (not to mention compete with Dirty Harry), but even if it was, I don't think any less of Brannigan. Others may decry it for not being a Western, a genre that the Duke practically owned by that point, but I find it fascinating to see an actor like John Wayne step out of his standard role and take a crack at a different genre. Again, I'm a lifelong John Wayne fan, so I may be more willing than others to accept Brannigan into the Duke's filmography.

That being said, I give Brannigan a 7.5 out of 10.


Friday, March 02, 2007

The Godfather, Part II

With The Godfather, you have one of the greatest movies—if not the greatest movie—ever made. That being said, the question that naturally comes to mind is, how can a sequel to such a monumental film do the original justice? Well, The Godfather, Part II didn't just do the original justice . . . it completely equalled the original, and damn near surpassed it in its grander, epic scope! Directed again by Francis Ford Coppola and written by him and Mario Puzo, the original author of the novel The Godfather, this sequel tells the story of Michael Corleone as he runs the Corleone empire in Nevada. Michael, as we see, is still the sensitive family man but utterly ruthless Don from the first movie, a man to be feared and respected, just like his father before him.

But The Godfather, Part II tells of a more Shakespearean tragedy than the original. For while The Godfather told the story of the corruption of the prodigal son, The Godfather, Part II chronicles the damnation of the prodigal son. And how both father and son, two men born into two different generations, follow the same path . . . but don't reap the same benefits.

In telling the story of The Godfather, Part II, Coppola employs a beautiful storytelling technique whereby parallel stories of father and son unfold: the story of Michael advancing the Corleone interests in Nevada, Florida, and Cuba; and the story of the very young Vito Corleone, who escapes Sicily as a young boy and comes to America in 1901. His arrival at Ellis Island is heartbreakingly beautiful, for it shows America in its infancy, with the Statue of Liberty genuinely serving as the beacon of hope and opportunity for the immigrants who came here to find a better life. (And for me personally, when the Statue of Liberty materializes on the screen, I'm filled with a hope that, in my modern cynicism, I thought had been lost.) We see how the young Vito mistakenly takes on the name Corleone (his given last name was Andolini), and how as the years pass by, this young boy moves past his humble beginnings as a poor immigrant to grow into the man who will one day become the most powerful Don in all of New York.

Michael, on the other hand, must contend with modern burdens. He must temporarily cede power to Tom Hagen (again played by Robert Duvall) after an attempt is made on his life at his family compound in Lake Tahoe, and go on the road to Miami where he must do business with aging syndicate boss Hyman Roth (played by legendary stage actor Lee Strasberg). Michael's goal with Roth is to create a partnership where they can do business in Cuba—only Roth's intentions might not be so sincere, because he alternates between being Michael's friend and enemy . . . and he tries to take Michael down through Fredo, who was completely unaware that he was being used. It doesn't help that, in the meantime, Kay is starting to have serious doubts about her marriage to Michael, and her attempts at getting to Michael hit much closer to home.

Essentially, Vito's story is one of hope, prosperity, and rising the top, whereas Michael's story is one of downfall. For Michael still focuses on the same values that his father held dear—i.e., his family—but as the times change and values get traded off, Michael isn't able to sustain his stronghold on both his business and his family. So that begs the most serious question of all for Michael: when you've risen to the top, just how much can your power isolate you? Is power really important if it costs you everything that's near and dear to you?

The scenes of turn-of-the-century New York were a remarkable recreation, I thought. And losing myself in young Vito's world was a welcome retreat. Robert De Niro portrayed the young Vito—and I think what he did was pretty much mimic Marlon Brando in every way possible! Voice, mannerisms, demeanor, vocabulary. Which was a smart move on De Niro's part, because that way he stayed true to the character. Granted, it may have been Brando's conception of the character, but by this time Brando's Vito was firmly embedded in the movie-going subconscious, so I commend De Niro for not reinterpreting the character, because I don't think it would have been received well if he had.

The casting was wonderful, as before. Everyone from the Corleone family makes an appearance—even James Caan in a flashback at the end of the film (my favorite scene, actually)! Michael V. Gazzo completely stole the show as the clumsy yet bullheaded Frankie Pentangelli, and Diane Keaton shined even brighter in this film than the first. The scene at the end where she stands up to Michael and tells him the truth about why she's leaving is truly amazing, and it disappoints me that Keaton didn't receive an Oscar nomination. But it's John Cazale who does some of the best supporting work as the tragically-manipulated Fredo—who serves as the very core of Michael's damnation when Michael orders the death of Fredo, his older brother, at the end of the film. When Michael is seen standing against the large bay window and that final shot echoes across the lake, no matter how many times I see it, it cuts me like a knife. This unspeakable act, done almost entirely on principle alone, totally ostracizes Michael and leaves him the most powerful yet completely abandoned man. The final scene of the movie, with Michael sitting alone under the tree, bundled up against the wind, with nobody left in his life, says more than words could possibly ever convey.

I wish I could find the YouTube clip of Fredo's death, but the scene where the two brothers have their final falling out is equally as powerful. Because in this scene, Fredo's anger finally comes out—his crushed hopes, his resentment of Michael, all spill over despite his obvious fear of his younger brother. Worse yet, he knows he's about to become a marked man. (I love the camerawork in this scene, too. The tension gradually builds from not seeing their faces at first, but only their silhouettes against the bay window—where silences speaks more strongly than words.)

I've noticed that all three Godfather movies kind of follow a common template. They start off at a party (Connie's wedding in the first, Anthony's first Communion in the second, and Michael's religious award in the third), immediately followed by a hit on someone in the family (the Don's open-market hit in the first, the hit on Michael's Lake Tahoe compound in the second, the Atlantic City massacre in the third), followed by Michael going into hiding somewhere, and ultimately ending with a death of someone major in the Corleone family (Sonny and the Don in the first, Fredo in the second, and Mary in the third).

Running for a full half hour longer than the first (totalling 3 hours and 20 minutes), The Godfather, Part II is actually even more epic than the original. I attribute that to the telling of two stories rather than one (i.e., the respective father and son stories). Between the two films, I honestly don't know which I like better. The second was a towering achievement that damn near eclipsed the first, but there was something very special and sentimental about the first that draws me back to it every time. I think it's the sight of the legendary Don in his prime, with his trusted associates Clemenza and Tessio, his young sons Michael, Sonny, and Fredo. In fact, during the flashback at the end of Part II, when the whole family is gathered for the surprise party for the elder Don on the same day as the Pearl Harbor attack, a certain sentimental note is struck in me when Sonny enters the dining room, followed by Carlo and Tessio—all familiar faces that are still missed.

The Godfather, Part II practically cleaned up at the Oscars in 1974. It was the first sequel to ever win Best Picture, and landed Oscars for director Coppola, Supporting Actor for De Niro (though both Lee Strasberg and Michael V. Gazzo were wonderful and Award-worthy in their own right; though Talia Shire's nomination still puzzles me), but Al Pacino's failure to win the Best Actor gold (Art Carney won it that year) has left a bad taste in the mouth of many a Godfather fan. I rank Part II a perfect 10, just like its predecessor, though the jury is still out on which installment I like better. Maybe it's better that I don't choose one over the other, for then I can love them both on equal footing.


Thursday, March 01, 2007

Let Spring Training begin!

I almost didn't even realize it, but spring training begins tomorrow!!! The Nats, as customary, are in Viera, FL, getting warmed up, and in only 31 days, I'll be sitting in RFK Stadium for the home opener—on Opening Day!

I almost can't believe that the third season of baseball in Washington is about to begin. It feels almost like yesterday that Will and I piled into the car for a roadtrip to Citizen's Bank Park in Philly for the Inaugural Game, with Brad Wilkerson the first at-bat for the newly-christened Washington Nationals. Here it is two years later, and we have a whole new face on the team, a new manager, even an owner! Next year we're promised a new stadium, too.

Wow, all this talk about Nats baseball is getting me pretty fired up! 31 days and counting . . . Man, this is gonna be sweet!


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