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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”?

Groovers and Mobsters Present: Gangster Movies

This review of “Miller’s Crossing” is part of a new monthly blog series created by Fandango Groovers and Movie Mobsters. Each entry will focus on top-notch films in different genres. For a complete list of this month’s entries, click on the graphic above or click here.

“Miller’s Crossing” (1990)

“Runnin’ things — It ain’t all gravy.”
~~Johnny Caspar

Directors Joel and Ethan Coen subscribe to the Just Enough Rope Theory — that is, they give their first-time viewers just enough rope to hang themselves and their seasoned-pro viewers just enough rope to get creative with. Nowhere is this more apparent than in “Miller’s Crossing,” the brothers’ stylish foray into the world of gangster films. This classic sometimes ends up lumped with the Coens’ noir canon — no shabby place to be, but not exactly accurate in this case. With its focus on mob mores and gang hierarchy, “Miller’s Crossing” is more a gangster film than anything else.  

Gangs are about two things: power and control. Irish mob boss Leo (Albert Finney) believes he’s lousy with* both; Tom (Gabriel Byrne) suspects otherwise. He knows Italian mobster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) has a beef with Bernie (John Turturro), the crooked bookie giving Johnny trouble, and he knows Johnny will start a gang war just to kill “the schmatte.” Tom also knows that Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), Leo’s dame, may be using his boss to keep Bernie — her brother — safe. So Tom, not about to let all this intel go to waste, sets about weaving a twisted web of deception that threatens to overtake “The Maltese Falcon” in complexity.

People tend to peg “Miller’s Crossing” as noir, and that is warranted — the film has characters molded from those in Dashiel Hammett’s “Red Harvest” and “The Glass Key.” But the movie should be recognized as a doozer of a gangster film. Most obvious is the hierarchical structure we observe in gangster films. When Johnny shows up to jaw about Bernie, Leo assumes his competition’s shown up as a courtesy. Wrong. Boss Johnny absorbs that as an insult to his status; so begins the battle. Then there’s the matter of “heavy lies the head that wears the crown,” suggested by Johnny’s remark about “runnin’ things.” This is an undercurrent in gangster films, and “Miller’s Crossing” thrusts it out like a credo. Helming a gangland empire is dirty business because no man can know another’s real motivations (or, as Tom says, “Nobody knows anybody. Not that well”). “Miller’s Crossing” also shines a spotlight on the father/son dynamic within this world (like “Goodfellas”), with Leo acting as Tom’s father figure. Yes, “Miller’s Crossing” is firmly rooted in gangster movie traditions. The only difference is that it classes them up with symbolism and irresistible ’30s slang. Dig?

 *To learn how to talk like these birds, skirts and yeggs, click here.

 

Review: “Jindabyne” (2006)

Old Jindabyne, located in New South Wales, Australia, is mostly invisible. Flooded in the 1960s to make Lake Jindabyne, the abandoned town sits quietly under the rippling surface. But on some days, when lake waters drop low enough, parts of Jindabyne come into view — a reminder of sorts that buried things have a tendency not to stay buried forever.

That Old Jindabyne serves as the setting of Aussie director Ray Lawrence’s tense, eerie character study “Jindabyne” is certainly no accident. The watery ghost town seems to attract residents nursing old grudges and long-suppressed emotional pain. However, it takes a murder and the discovery of the body to force all the hurts to the surface and even bigger, more dangerous ones. Early in their fishing trip, Stewart (Gabriel Byrne), Gregory (Chris Haywood), Rocco (Stelios Yiakmis), Billy (Simon Stone) and Carl (John Howard) discover the nude body of an aboriginal woman (Tatea Reilly) floating in the river. The men decide to finish their weekend before reporting the gruesome finding, going so far as to tether the body to tree so it won’t float downstream. She’s dead, they seem to agree silently, so what does it matter?

It’s a decision that has enormous and damning repercussions. Though the men elect to create a story to explain their choice, Billy spills the truth to a reporter. The story hits like a bomb blast. Stewart’s wife Claire (Laura Linney) is horrified by her husband’s cruel behavior and tries to make amends with the family of Susan, the dead girl. This alienates her from her friends: Carmel (Leah Purcell), who believes Claire has no business intruding on aboriginal rituals, and Jude (Deborra-Lee Furness), still recovering from the death of her own daughter. Tensions between the whites and the aborigines, who believe Stewart and his friends wouldn’t have dismissed Susan so easily if she’d been white.

Though Susan’s death plays a key role in “Jindabyne,” the film is about much more than a murder and the discovery of her corpse. Much like Karen Moncrieff’s sadly overlooked “The Dead Girl,” “Jindabyne” explores the ways that one death creates a kind of butterfly effect, changing everyone from the family of the deceased to complete strangers, and untethers all the little hurts we weight down. Susan’s murder affects each character differently. For Stewart, it brings to light his anger over the post-partum depression that caused Claire to leave him and their son for 18 months. On one level, Claire simply wants to atone for her husband’s mistake; on another, she’s seeking absolution of her own unresolved guilt. The incident makes Jude and Carl confront their grief over the death of their daughter and the stress of raising her daughter (Eva Lazzaro). Even the killer seems surprised by the firestorm his crime has created. In this way, “Jindabyne” is very much a character study, but one with many interconnected threads.

Telling a story this complex requires patience and time, and Lawrence, who adapted “Jindabyne” from Raymond Carver’s short story “So Much Water So Close to Home,” has both in spades. He lets the characters unravel the plot threads at a pace impatient viewers will call “maddeningly slow” and minimalist fans — including this viewer — will deem “exactly right.” Along the way he focuses much attention on nature, including Lake Jindabyne, and wide, expansive shots of Australia’s wilderness. These scenes do much to reveal the continent’s harsh natural beauty, but they also cultivate the feeling of loneliness so central to the film. In the face of such vastness, man is, in essence, very small and alone.

The people of Jindabyne know this feeling all too well, and the actors give voice to this. Furness deftly shows the weariness and the sheer frustration that come after the death of a child, while Stone understands Billy’s immaturity renders him incapable of processing something this complicated. Byrne lends Stewart an air of stubborn and tense silence; his motivations are a mystery to everyone. There’s a hardness in him that frightens his wife, a part of himself he refuses to show her. Linney’s performance, though, shakes us hardest. Her Claire is a woman bell-jarred by guilt. She cannot go backward or forward, and it is she who reminds us that a life of perpetual penance is its own kind of hell.  

Grade: A

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.