The Big 2-9

Aside from the fact that this day sealed my fate as the “Never Gets a ‘Happy Birthday’ from the Teacher or Your Classmates Because School’s Out for Summer Kid,” June 28 never seemed like a terribly interesting day to be born.

Until I realized that’s also the day sublimely talented actors Kathy Bates, John Cusack, the late Gilda Radner and the late Pat “Wax On, Wax Off” Morita headed toward the light of the birth canal. June 28 also gave King Henry VIII to England (bet that’s one pregnant lady the Great Holy Aardvark wishes he could have uninseminated). And June 28 happens to be the only day every year where the month and the day are different perfect numbers*.

But really, the only reason I ever get all jacked up is because the 28th of June is when the World’s Greatest Director – the reason I love movies and the reason I have such a warped, wacko sense of humor — Mel “Lepetomane” Brooks classed up Planet Earth’s population.

This year, though, looks be far more exciting because Andy at Fandango Groovers hatched a brilliant idea: Write a post listing favorite films for every year I’ve been breathing. Later in 2010 Andy’s planning a blog event on this theme, so start thinking about your choices, readers. Without further adieu, here are my favorites from 1981-2010:

Ash will saw off your nose.

1981: “The Evil Dead” — Maybe directors did horror-comedy before Sam Raimi’s cult classic, but those movies did not feature the unstoppable Bruce Campbell as erstwhile hero Ash, who would later go on to coin the phrases “boomstick” and “hail to the king, baby.”

1982: “First Blood” — The first in the Rambo franchise, Sly Stallone’s “First Blood” combines jaw-dropping action, buckets of bloodshed and a surprisingly poignant message about the treatment of Vietnam vets in America.

1983: “The Big Chill” — College pals Glenn Close, Tom Berenger, William Hurt, Kevin Kline and Jeff Goldblum reunite to mourn a friend’s suicide. This much acting talent on one set is a recipe for goodness.

1984: “Blood Simple” (full review) — The fact that this is Joel and Ethan Coen’s first film is almost as astounding as the film itself. Almost.

1985: “The Breakfast Club” – The late John Hughes showed us, in this poignant ode to real teen issues, that lurking inside everyone there’s a princess, a jock, a brain, a basket case and a criminal in search of connection. And a little doobage.

1986: “Aliens” (full review) — Twenty-four years later and Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) remains a female action hero with smarts, guts and muscles. What a novel idea.

1987: “The Untouchables” — Most gangster movies offer plenty of bloody shoot-em-ups, slick double-crosses, dark double-breasted suits and bank accounts stuffed like you wouldn’t believe. Brian De Palma’s “Untouchables” also has something else: a conscience.

Velcome to vaxwork...

1988: “Waxwork” (full review) — There are crappy films, and then there are films that revel and delight in their own crappiness. Guess which kind “Waxwork” is.

1989: “Heathers” (full review) — No matter how cruel the queen bees in your school were, they don’t hold a candle to Idi Amin wannabe Heather Chandler.

1990: “GoodFellas” (full review) — Powered by the performances of Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco, Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta, “GoodFellas” set the bar for gangster movies impossibly high.

1991: “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” – The follow-up to Cameron’s impressive “Terminator,” the sequel blasted the volume up to 11, boasted some thrilling chase scenes (the semi rundown is iconic) and reached the level of Whoa, I’ve Never Seen That Before! with its ice-cool villain T-1000 (Robert Patrick). 

1992: “Reservoir Dogs” (full review) — Quentin Tarantino gives the Cuisinart treatment to the traditional caper-gone-wrong and ends up making one of the most inventive films of the ’90s.

1993: “Schindler’s List” — Steven Spielberg’s sweeping, horrifying and heartbreaking retelling of the story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) mission to rescue Jews during the Holocaust is emotionally punishing, but it’s a film that must be seen. It can change your life if you let it.

1994: “Pulp Fiction” (full review) — It’s got John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as hitmen, a booty-shaking soundtrack and scene about Christopher Walken wearing a watch up his ass two years. That’s all you need to know. 

Will the real Keyser Soze please stand up?

1995: “The Usual Suspects” (full review) — Not only does Bryan Singer’s noirish, twisty thriller feature a killer-good ensemble cast (Kevin Spacey AND Gabriel Byrne AND Benicio del Toro AND Chazz Palminteri), “The Usual Suspects” also has the best twist ending. Ever written.

1996: “Fargo” (full review) — Dear Coen brothers: Thank you for showing me that it’s never impossible to take an old formula (best-laid plans gone to hell) and put a devious, violent spin on them. Sincerely, M. Carter @ the Movies

1997: “Chasing Amy” – Too few directors of romantic comedies have no interest in showing relationships as they actually are. Kevin Smith is not one of these directors. His “Chasing Amy” is raw, frank to the point of crudeness and deeply heartfelt, and it examines the problems all lovers — gay and straight — face.

1998: “The Opposite of Sex” – “The Opposite of Sex” is the best black comedy you’ve never seen. Don Roos puts the screws to the traditional narrated film formula with Dee Dee (Christina Ricci), a heroine who may be plucky but isn’t the least bit lovable. She’ll ransom your dead gay lover’s ashes and not think twice about it. 

Move Milton's (Stephen Root) desk to Storage Room B and see where that gets you.

1999: “Office Space” (full review) — Mike Judge takes a maze of cubicles and turns it into a feature-length film that’s the personification of Dante’s limbo, then sets it to a fantastic rap soundtrack. It’s good to be a gangsta.

2000: “Quills” (full review) — No other actors slips so effortlessly into the part of the villain as Geoffrey Rush can, and that mirthful, slightly evil glint in his eyes makes him the perfect (and only acceptable) choice to play the infamous Marquis de Sade.

2001: “The Believer” – Based on the true story of Dan Burros, a Jew who became a Neo-Nazi, Henry Bean’s “The Believer” looks unflinchingly at all aspects of faith and features what may be Ryan Gosling’s most gripping performance. Ever. 

2002: “City of God” – Fernando Meirelles’ crime drama plays out like an elegaic marriage of the best parts of Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas”  and Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” capturing the bloody, grim realities of a life lived in Brazil’s rough Cidade de Deus (City of God) favela.

2003: “Mystic River” – Author Dennis Lehane understands, deep down in his soul, the rhythms of Boston’s shady, bleak underworld. Director Clint Eastwood understands the people who have fallen through the cracks. Together, “Mystic River,” about three childhood friends dealing with a murder, they make an unbeatable team.

Javier Bardem's performance is anything but bleak.

2004: “Mar adentro” (full review) — Is it possible to make a film about a quadriplegic (Javier Bardem) who wants nothing more than to die and have that film turn out to be an affirmation of life? Look to “Mar adentro” for the answer.

2005: “The Constant Gardener” – Taut political/medical conspiracy thrillers ordinarily don’t offer emotions as complex as the plotlines. But director Fernando Meirelles etches characters (Rachel Weisz, Ralph Fiennes) who matter to each other, and so they matter to us.

2006: “The Lives of Others” (full review) — Movies about Big Brother rarely take the time to humanize the enemy, but director Henckel von Donnersmarck finds humanity even in the most ardent supporter (Ulrich Mühe) of suppressing free will.

2007: “No Country for Old Men” (full review) — Call it the Coens’ Law: Every time you think they’ve made their best movie ever, they top themselves. How they’ll top this gritty, violent and blackly funny caper is something this reviewer has gotta see.

2008: “The Dark Knight” – With “Batman Begins,” Christopher Nolan single-handedly revived a years-ailing franchise; in the inspired sequel – part Greek tragedy, part action flick, part sweeping character drama — he let Heath Ledger reinvent the iconic Joker in the spirit of creation.

Get in my bell-ay, Jew Hunter!

2009: “Inglourious Basterds” (full review) — In terms of sheer imagination and cojones, almost no director working today can match Quentin Tarantino, who in this misspelled epic rewrites the ending to WWII and gives cinema one of its greatest villains (Christoph Waltz).

2010: So far? “Shutter Island.” The predicted winner? “True Grit.”

*It’s my birthday and I’m giving you a math lesson. Can you say “nerd”?

No. 3: “The Usual Suspects” (1995)

“A man can convince anyone he’s somebody else, but never himself.”
~~Verbal Kint

Most films are more about what leads up to the finale than the finale itself — the how, not the what. Nobody ever told Bryan Singer that, and so he directed “The Usual Suspects,” a labyrinthine teeth-kicker of a crime thriller where the end is what matters. Everything else is window dressing … but it so happens that Singer is one very fine interior decorator.

There’s no sense letting slip even one more peep about that ending, except to say that it does NOT inspire lukewarm reactions. (Think shock, uncontrollable rage, humiliation, disgust, abject hopelessness and self-pity — a veritable font of negative human emotions.) Best to defer to the Fight Club rulebook when it comes to those last five minutes of “The Usual Suspects”; in fact, don’t let anyone talk about any part of the movie in your presence, since there’s no such thing as an “insignificant detail” in this one. The less you know, the better. Understood?

With Act 3 off the docket, what’s left to discuss? Well, plenty, thanks to Singer’s remarkable eye for details and Christopher McQuarrie’s twisty, smarter-than-smart script. Herein lies the paradox: Although the end is paramount, the lead-up is where all the fun is. If you can call murder, mayhem and utter befuddlement “fun.” (Note: I do.) Have a chew of the setup, explained brilliantly by the movie’s tagline: “Five criminals. One lineup. No coincidence.” When a truck is hijacked, New York police haul in five familiar faces: McManus (Stephen Baldwin), the loose cannon con; Fenster (Benicio del Toro), McManus’ partner; Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), a crooked ex-cop whose cool facade hides his ruthless nature; Hockney (Kevin Pollak), who has two interests: money and himself; and Verbal (Kevin Spacey), a short con operator with cerebal palsy. The five decide to exact some sweet revenge on the cops, but the plan leads to an entanglement with Keyser Soze, a mythic, faceless figure with limitless power and unfathomable influence. Pulled in to investigate the revenge plot’s spiraling aftermath is U.S. Customs agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri), a smug man quite certain he’s in control of everything who’s none too happy to discover he knows absolutely nothing. He’s just a poor, clueless schmuck like the rest of us.

If this all sounds very high concept, that’s because, uh, it is, and arrogantly so. McQuarrie’s shooting for the ionosphere with this script, which contains so many turns that it takes multiple viewings to sort them out (and maybe not even then). The concept of linear action? Ha! Constant vigilence and attention to detail are requirements, not suggestions, just to follow along. But that’s hardly a flaw, since directors rarely assume this level of intelligence of their audiences.

Yet don’t go thinking Singer’s going to reward all this effort. If anything, his interest lies in teasing us, playing Chesire Cat to our Alice. He gives us no pieces, then the wrong ones (which sometimes turn out to be right), then the right ones (at the wrong time), then all of them tossed together like some crazy jumbled puzzle salad. It might be maddening if “The Usual Suspects” weren’t so darn cool-looking. The cinematography, with its looming darkness and shaded-just-so corners that conceal key details, adds to the tension beautifully. 

That whole “cool-looking” idea extends to the actors, who are cherry-picked. There was a time before Stephen Baldwin started boardin’ for the Lord and filed for bankruptcy. That time was 1995, and since then he has not come close to topping McManus. Benicio del Toro plays Fenster as something of a comedian, sporting an inexplicable accent that ends up being the film’s funniest running gag. Byrne, who’s never had to try very hard to be the coolest cat in the room, works the seething pit of inner rage angle perfectly, while Palminteri acts as a mirror for the viewers. And all take a backseat to Spacey, who turns in a mindhole-blowing performance as Verbal Kint. He reminds us that we must never, ever understimate him.

Make that mistake with “The Usual Suspects” and see how far it gets you.   

Review: “Swimming with Sharks” (1994)

Swimming_with_SharksMuch like Mike Judge’s “Office Space,” George Huang’s “Swimming with Sharks” is something of a cautionary tale, a warning about how marking time at a pointless, demeaning job strangles the soul. But Huang, with his bleak view of humanity, has no interest in delighting us with jokes about tempermental fax machines. No, his meaning here, in this shockingly violent black comedy, is to show how constant humiliation can motivate a man to do just about anything … and how “anything,” in the movie business, leads to bigger, better opportunities. “Between Heaven and Hell there’s always Hollywood” and all that.

Guy (Frank Whaley) does not belong in Hollywood. He’s navigating foreign territory with no map and no compass and probably no pocketknife, either. Guy’s the kind of shy, hard-working, fresh-out-of-film-school man who’d name “It’s a Wonderful Life” as his favorite film. Movie mogul Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey divinely playing, well, Kevin Spacey) senses that about his new assistant and proceeds to eat Guy alive. And Buddy covers all the spirit-breaking bases, from unrelenting verbal abuse (“If you were in my toilet, I wouldn’t bother flushing it” he spits at Guy) to menial grunt work and pointless errands. Buddy’s no mentor, though he does, on occasion, offer Guy helpful advice like “Punching below the belt is not only all right, it’s rewarded.” The fact Guy doesn’t quit says more about his impressive ability to swallow rage than some great inner drive for success. This makes him more dangerous than Buddy, who screams at everyone but leaves his work at work. Nice men like Guy never quite seem able to do that.

At this point Huang takes a turn that — well, let’s just agree to call it “unexpected.” Or perhaps “expectedly unexpected” is more accurate. Being a human, Guy doesn’t have limitless space to store his anger, and so one day he confronts Buddy at home, where he knows his boss is most vulnerable. Details of this meeting are best kept on lockdown, but there are scenes — particularly one involving paper cuts, table salt and hot sauce — so stomach-churning they prove impossible to unsee. (Your brain will store it in the same vault as the “Stuck in the Middle with You” sequence from “Reservoir Dogs.”) And since “Swimming with Sharks” has a certain kind of momentum, there is a showdown, but one that makes us sense the director has no intention of air-planing a spoon in our mouths. Bravo for that. 

But wait. All this makes “Swimming with Sharks” sound like a 101-minute gleeful festival of torture and sadness. That’s not true. The torture only takes up about 90 minutes. Still, Huang’s pitch-black movie falls squarely into the “cringe with laughter” category. It’s tense and brutal and exhausting, the kind of film that wears down your resistance to relishing Guy’s, then Buddy’s, abuse. It’s hard to say what’s more disturbing: the physical violence (there’s plenty) or astonishing but comical insults like “You’re happy. I hate that.” Only Spacey could deliver a line like that. It was meant for his lips only.

And how about that Spacey? He plays the same character over and over, but he does it so well I never notice or care. He’s the only actor who could play Buddy, the only one who could find the right notes of viciousness, sarcasm and bitterness. He shreds the scenery all to hell, alright, but Spacey’s having so much fun you don’t want to plug up your ears and eyes. Don’t go thinking that’s all Spacey’s got up his sleeve, though. Observe subtle demeanor changes as Guy breaks down that ruthless bravado. Buddy’s got a story and he’s got his reasons, but Spacey is too smart to go for melodrama or easy answers. Whaley, the kind of no-name talent just right to play Guy, is no slouch, either. When he finally explodes, the fallout is impressive. What’s better is the way Whaley disturbs us in the quiet moments, makes us feel the sting of life defined by constant and unrelenting humiliation. He may be weak, but anger’s a powerful motivator. Watching him spar with Spacey is a treat, and it’s what makes “Swimming with Sharks” a gripping and bizarrely entertaining character study.

Grade: B

Perfect for every part

In his review of “Burn After Reading,” Roger Ebert remarked that Frances McDormand has a “rare ability to seem correctly cast in every role.” Truer words were never spoken, I’d say, but they made me little mind take a wander and a ponder. (It’s dangerous to do both at once, but my mind sort of walks on the wild side.) And so I considered: Are there other modern-day actors/actresses out there who seem perfect for every role no matter how good or bad the movie?

(Prepare for some serious anticlimactic-ness. I would have stopped writing if the answer to this question was “no.”)

Eventually I devised a list of modern actors/actresses who impress me every time I see them. Today I’ll keep the focus on the men.

The actors

  • Christian Bale — OK, fine, so this one was a gimme, you’re screaming at me. Maybe it was. But any list of chameleonic actors that does not contain Bale’s name is a fraud because nobody does it quite like Bale. He’s gotten stuck in a rut of late, but his talent tells me he’s got a lighter (though no less brilliantly acted) role in him somewhere.
  • Adrien Brody — From big-name critic pleasers (i.e., “The Pianist”) to low-budge, so-so indies (“Dummy,” “Love the Hard Way”) to a movie with Tupac (“Bullet”), Brody’s done it all, and every character’s believable. Now that’s real talent, and not the kind you can learn in acting school.
  • Don Cheadle — It goes without saying that no one’s quite as willing to try anything as Cheadle, who moves from Oscar-worthy stuff (“Hotel Rwanda,” “Crash”) to slick fun (the “Ocean’s” trilogy) to pure fluff (“Hotel for Dogs”) with an air of cool that can’t be penetrated. Bring on the new Col. Rhodes.
  • Johnny Depp — Everyone remembers Johnny Depp as someone different. (To me, he’ll always be Jack Sparrow/Gilbert Grape/Sam.) He’s never the same character twice (though he does bring that left-of-center attitude to many roles), and that’s why he continues to captivate us so. Anyone who has the stones to attempt to remake Willy Wonka gets in on sheer guts.
  • Richard Jenkins — All hail to the (until recently) unsung hero of Hollywood. Relegated to way-too-small parts, this superb character actor routinely steals scenes (“The Man Who Wasn’t There”) or improves a terrible movie (“Step Brothers,” anyone?). “The Visitor” was his chance to take the lead, and I hope he gets many, many more. He certainly deserves them.
  • William H. Macy — Macy’s the low-key guy who makes a point to sneak up and win us over when we’re not looking. TV, drama, black comedy (check him out in “Thank You for Smoking”) — there’s nothing this actor can’t handle. I think we all know he was the only heavy-hitter in “Wild Hogs” … which is a compliment even if it doesn’t quite sound like one.
  • Sean Penn — He’s a tricky, tricky fellow, this one, and a chameleon who just plain disappears into whatever character he’s playing. All talk of his petulance, snippy interviews, volatile relationship with the media melts away when he’s Harvey Milk, or Jimmy Markum, or Matthew Poncelot.
  • Joaquin Phoenix — There was a time (you remember it, and fondly) before Joaquin grew the mountain man beard and turned weirder than Kristen Stewart’s hair that he was quite the transformer. He could make funny (“8MM,” “Buffalo Soldiers”), do action (“Ladder 49″) and go for wrenching drama (everything else he ever did). Will someone order the exorcism so we can get the real J.P. back?
  • Geoffrey Rush — Rush has been so many colorful characters that it’s hard to pick a favorite (Casanova Frankenstein — wait, it’s not so hard). From the Marquis de Sade to Javert (how literary!) to Peter Sellers to the intellectual Captain Barbosa playing, well, Javert to Johnny Depp’s Valjean, Rush makes it look so darn easy, and cool to boot.
  • Benicio del Toro — Benicio always gets us with the drama. Nobody does “tortured and mysterious” quite like him (see “The Pledge” or “21 Grams”), and so the comedy — when he unleashes it — shocks us silly. But he’s got jokes, too, and a sly sense of humor that will come to good use in “The Three Stooges.” If anybody could revamp Moe Howard, it’s Fred Fenster, alright.

What say you, readers? Let’s hear your suggestions.

Welcome the weirdness: Sean Penn joins “Stooges” production

Sean Penn fans are a fanatical bunch. (Trust me. I am one.) We use the good — his performances in “Fast Times,” “Dead Man Walking,” “21 Grams” and “Mystic River” for starters — to excuse away all the paparazzi beatings, the awkward interviews, the bizarrely off-putting behavior, the snide comments, the moments when he made it, in his words, so hard to appreciate him. And we tend to believe he can do anything, or we at least appreciate the fact that he’ll damn near kill himself trying. I mean, the guy directed a Jewel music video.

But playing Larry Fine in the Farrelly brothers’ 2010 send-up to “The Three Stooges”? Alongside Benicio Del Toro as Moe and Jim Carrey as Curly?

Somebody call Robert Downey Jr. I think Penn just went full retard … again.

And yet, as tempted as I — and so many fans — might be to write this off as pure lunacy, I can’t quite do it. Penn can do comedy; anybody who’s seen “Fast Times” knows that. He was low-key and funny in his “Friends” and “Two and a Half Men” cameos. He found pain and, more importantly, humor in “Milk.” Is it really so difficult to believe there’s a sense of humor buried beneath all those layers and layers of seething rage that would make Ray Liotta hide under the bed with his yellow blankie?

Lest you think I’m some sort of weirdo with a Sean Penn shrine made of cold cuts in my closet, I’ll go a step further and say there are two more reasons why “The Three Stooges” could, in theory, work: Benicio Del Toro and Jim Carrey. Think about it. No, really, think about it. With his mumbly, indecipherable accent, wasn’t Del Toro the funniest character in “The Usual Suspects”? Then there’s “Excess Baggage,” where he played a bewildered, bumbling accidental kidnapper who easily matched wits with Alicia Silverstone. He nailed the physical comedy there; I think Del Toro can pull this off. And love him or hate him, Carrey’s cornered the market on spastic slapstick and comical yet disturbing facial expressions — The Mask,” “Ace Venture: Pet Detective,” “Dumb and Dumber” … you get the picture. He could do this in his sleep; in fact, I think that’s how he made “Liar Liar.”

Yes, the only potential weak link is, uh, the directors (and the top, I admit, is not a primo spot for a weak link). Bobby and Peter Farrelly had their heyday in the 1990s, peaking with “Kingpin” (good) and “There’s Something about Mary” (eh). But “The Heartbreak Kid” flopped like Nemo on dry land; even Rob “I’m growin’ out my bangs” Corddry couldn’t save it. So it all hinges on whether the Brothers Dim try to force this ragtag trio to ape the real Stooges (bad idea!) or let Penn, Del Toro and Carrey find their characters themselves (great idea!).

As for me, I’m thinking this movie’s way to success. What? There’s a reason “The Secret” has sold a quintillion copies worldwide. Just, uh, do me a favor and don’t tell Penn. He’d probably mock me.

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