"D'Artagnan, motherfuckers!" by Mike Mitchell
This week finished the first wave of Scorsese flicks. All solid movies, but I find myself even more excited to get deeper into his career. Beyond Raging Bull & Goodfellas - I want the glitz & shine of the DiCaprio collaborations. Does that have more to do with the material (after all Gangs of New York, The Departed, & Shutter Island are far from perfect creations) or the presence of Calvin Candie? The Tuesday release of Django Unchained pretty much took over my week. I watched a good batch of cinema, but Django currently owns my heart. After scouring the shopping strip wasteland, I grabbed all three of the exclusives (Wal-Mart, Best Buy, & Target) and spent all of Tuesday drooling over the rather crappy special features. Target's Steelbook is the obvious winner, but only cuz of it's superior artwork. The extra discs are pathetic. However, I stand by my 2012 proclamation, and I'll go one step further in labeling Django Unchained as my absolute favorite Quentin Tarantino flick. Jackie Brown, I love you, but it's time to stand aside.
Trance: "To be angry is to be a victim." Danny Boyle returns to crime cinema with this semi-successful headtrip mystery. James McAvoy steals a Goya painting for gang boss Vincent Cassel. But somewhere in the action there's a switch and McAvoy takes a serious thwack on the noggin. Amnesia time. Grrrgh. One of those flicks, huh. But where fingernail torture fails, Rosario Dawson's slippery hypnotist succeeds. Convoluted with reveals on top of reveals, Trance still manages to be just that - an engrossing bit of flimflam coated in rage and sex. Who knew pubic hair could be used as a plot device?!? I'm still not won over to the McAvoy camp, but I certainly appreciated his characters' spiraling arc. And I'm already a big fan of both Cassel & Dawson. Those two are rarely awarded the opportunity to strut this much on film and that's enough for a recommend.
Mean Streets: Three films in and Martin Scorsese has completely solidified his style. Depending on which interview you read from the director, Mean Streets is a spiritual or literal sequel to Who's That Knocking At My Door. "Remake" feels the more appropriate term. But semantics are semantics. Scorsese has more money, more talent, and a more expensive soundtrack. Harvey Keitel is back as Charlie, a collector for his neighborhood big shot Uncle. He's small time and is far too meek for the racket. Robert De Niro is Johnny Boy, a psychotic animal hopelessly doomed to talk his way into his own destruction. Try as he might, Charlie never has a hope of saving his friend from the inevitable. Scorsese's camera is beautifully fluid. He's got the long cutless dollies of Hitchcock, but the freedom of his own inventive savvy - the way he plants Keitel on a floating dance floor or the way he mounts the camera on Keitel himself, as he boozily stumbles into unconsciousness. And then you've got the violence. It's rare, quick, and chaotic. Just like in Boxcar Bertha, when the unstoppable finally arrives at Johnny Boy, the event is still somehow shocking. Painful. Tragic.
Mallrats: Twenty years ago I saw genius where I now see banality. It's a brave new geek world out there, and The Big Bang Theory aggressively mines this territory every week. The script lacks the biting wit found underneath the retail misery of Clerks, and despite a few more bucks, it's painful to witness Kevin Smith's inability to move the frame. Sure, there are still some kernels of geeky glory - Jedi mind tricks, Superman's shotgun sperm, and Stan Lee's epic monologue of romance, but it's mostly chuckles & smiles rather than full on belly laughs. Jason Lee is disgustingly charming as the alpha comic nerd, but the 90s TV actors surrounding him struggle to find the truth in Smith's reference heavy dialog.
Homicide - Life on the Street Season 4: "This is not a perfect world, Al. It's Baltimore." Another excellent season for the Murder Police. Frank Pembleton continues his crusade of righteousness, but I was struck by how much of a introspective loser his partner Tim Bayliss can be when placed under Frank's microscope. Tim started out as the gateway character of the show, but over the course of its 7 seasons & one TV Movie, Kyle Secor's mopey creation morphed into the saddest sack in the squadron. And this is the season where his downfall begins. The Adena Watson killing stills weighs heavy on his conscience, his sexuality is confronted while investigating a skin head hate crime, and he even questions his purpose while manning a stakeout. When I originally experienced this show on the boob tube, Tim was easily one of my favorite characters. But knowing his outcome, and seeing him fail in his dialog battles with Pembleton, I kinda hate the guy now. His moral investigations actually expose a weakness in his character. He is not the knight in shining armor he so desperately wants to be - he's a fool masquerading in costume. His quandaries are manifestations of his cracking soul, and he really has no business speaking for the dead.
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore: "What's with this broad?" After her husband dies in a truck accident, Ellen Burstyn sells her earthly belongings, packs her son into the car, and heads across America in search of the happiness she once had in Monterey (visualized at the start of the film as a Wizard of Ozish Hollywood dreamscape, but laced with childish potty mouth bluster). Lack of funds force stops along the way. She encounters Harvey Keitel's terrifying switchblade husband, stands by her new man Kris Kristofferson, and drops anchor at a diner destined for sitcom reruns. Burstyn practically made a career out of mother roles (The Last Picture Show, The Exorcist, Requiem for a Dream), but Alice is her ultimate work. Her relationship with her 12 year old brat is simultaneously frustrating and utterly sweet. Alfred Lutter might pull off the greatest child performance I've ever seen - he manages to be frustratingly foul, ready for a smack, and also totally understandable. This kid is trapped in the genetics and teachings of his mother, and she in turn is imprisoned by her spawn. The fact that Kristofferson doesn't buckle under their baggage, but craves their presence is a serious indication of genuine love, even when he's gotta deliver a thwack. Question: "Is Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore still part of the cinematic conversation?" Given that this film has never come up in the millions of movie chats I've had throughout my life, I'm guessing the answer is "No." Which is just not right. This film is one of the finest screenplays Martin Scorsese has ever handled. It definitely appears to be outside his wheelhouse, but it's also obvious that he understands the failings of dreams and the fight that everyday people have in order to incorporate those dreams into the ordinary of their day to day lives. I think it's one of his finest works.
Django Unchained: "He walks through hellfire because Brunhilda is worth it." I've watched the film five times now. (Minor Spoilers Follow) And as easy as it is to be swept away by the scenery chomping performances of Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz, and Samuel L Jackson, I think it's a great disservice to ignore the work of Jaime Foxx. If you compare & contrast the first image you see of Foxx (Django as slave, downtrodden, brutalized, and being dragged across the Texas desert) with the last image (Django as FDR - American Badass, pimped out in Candie's attire, end zone showboating with his horse), you see a grande heroic arc worthy of the classical sagas the film desperately strives to emulate. And the arc is achieved through Foxx's soulful performance. Sure, a lot of that is accomplished through script & direction; Tarantino guides him from quiet Bounty Hunter student to violent crusader - the killer of John Brittle & the wrath of God via the destruction of Candyland. But Foxx excels in the quiet moments as much as the bits of bravado. You fall in love with him & his Homeric quest as he sits, childlike, listing to King Schultz's mythic campfire tales. Then, when he stands angry & proud in his ridiculously blue valet suit, Foxx excels in that transformation into avenger. However, another aspect I don't read much about is his damnation on the road to Blaxploitation Badass. His masquerade as the black slaver, those sunglasses plastered on his face during the mutilation of Dartanian. He not only forfeits his own soul, but makes King Schultz complacent in the murder as well when he forces Schultz's pocketbook back into his pocket. It's an action that leads Schultz to his own fate. As great as it is to witness Django's triumph at the fiery climax, I find myself aching at the evil committed along the way. It's that ache that elevates Django Unchained to the very top of my favorite Tarantino films. You may complain about the meandering pace (I certainly don't, I love the stop & restart final 30 minutes) and you may squirm at the subject matter and the violence splashing on the Big House walls, but Django Unchained is not absent of morality. Love costs as much as vengeance. In the end is it worth it? For Django (and the husband writing this sentence), damn right.
Taxi Driver: "Are you a scorpion?" Who was Travis Bickle before this film starts, and who will he be after the credits roll? The answer post-credits is certainly more interesting than the pre-credits answer. The film depicts a few days in the life of a man slowly reaching insanity on the nightmarish streets of Times Square. When we meet Bickle his mind is filled with hatred for the filth around him - humanity. He can't sleep. He takes to hacking to fill the hours. He encounters one blonde goddess in the form of Cybil Shepherd, but when his impossible porno date goes obviously catastrophic, he sets out to assassinate her politician boss. His impotence, sadly or thankfully, extends to political killings and he's forced to thrust his violence towards the scum closer to his level. Harvey Kietel's Sport is the chucklehead pimp with a leash on the broken doll Jodie Foster. She's not the goddess, but she'll do in a pinch - a damsel he can rescue from the pit of the city. Taxi Driver is a draining, oppressive little picture. The type of picture that rules your Best Of lists in high school & college, but one that has waned a touch in my heart. Don't get me wrong. It's a brilliant movie. A thick coat of sadness. But as I find myself in my 30s, I don't respond as strongly to its dark heart as I once did. The real treat is rediscovering the lead performance. Watching the trailer for the latest Robert De Niro paycheck (The Big Wedding) it's hard to remember a time when Bobby D kicked serious ass in front of the camera. Then you pop in Taxi Driver and "Oh Yeah," De Niro is a beast for drama.
The Last Waltz: If you are a fan of The Band, do you love this documentary or do you hate it? I am not a fan. I barely like the performers that make guest appearances on their farewell stage. What? Brad, you don't like Dylan, Clapton, or Young? I'm not saying that. Their music is just so iconic that it has existed as "Classic" rock for so long in my brain that they illicit absolutely no emotional response other than technical respect. And the subjects themselves are just so damn tired on screen. Their interviews painfully dismissive. They're done with the road. They want off. Fascinating. But joyless. And not a fun watch.
Hawkeye - My Life As A Weapon: Friday night was our 11th meeting of The Ultimate Justice League of Extraordinary Book Club. Half the group enjoyed Hawkeye, and the other half was fairly dismissive. Reading Matt's review, I feel like I have to defend Matt Fraction & David Aja's hipster masterpiece, but I think the book is the best defense - and frankly, it doesn't need defending as the entire comic book community has pretty much agreed that it's genius. To say that Clint Barton is one of my least favorite Marvel creations is not quite accurate. The purple Avenger barely registered on my radar before My Life As A Weapon. I remember when Bendis killed him off in Avengers: Disassembled and I was utterly perplexed by the internet outcry. Who gave two rats asses about Hawkeye pre-Bendis? Certainly not me. And when all that bonkers (stupid) business with the House of M brought Barton back as Ronin......zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. I can't even muster the energy to hate on the goofy Marvel Event nonsense . They're their own brand of comic book crazy. I only picked up the first couple of issues of Fraction's run cuz Big Planet Comics wouldn't shut up about it, and it really wasn't until the third issue, with its arrow lampooning, that I got hooked. Early on Fraction cleverly rifts on Hawkeye's ridiculous placement on the A-Team ("I'm an orphan raised by carnies fighting with a stick from the Paleolithic era") and focuses his crusader with the routine setting of an apartment building. Dr. Doom is not gonna be a problem. Instead, beware the track suit Bros & maybe some scuffle on the fringes of the Kingpin's organization. The real fun stems from the banter. Comparisons to Joss Whedon are not far off, but it's also not as cringing or saccharine as that polished wit can be. You've got the wonderfully awkward friendship with Kate Bishop, a mess load of bass ackwards sexual encounters, and my new favorite Pet Avenger, Pizza Dog. Aja's half of the book is far cooler and sexier than Pulido's, but I kinda dig his Clowesy indie faces. Hawkeye is not epic comic book storytelling. But it's charming, sweet, and badass from time to time. Curious to see what hell these bumbling Bros are going to unleash, and how Wilson Fisk will handle the pest that is Clint Barton. Easily one of the most enjoyable books currently on the stands.
Swamp Thing - Raise Them Bones & Family Tree: With the good bit of enjoyment being achieved in Scott Snyder's current Batman run, I thought it about time I got acquainted with his interpretation of everyone's favorite veggie monster. Despite a befuddling appearance of Superman in the first issue (linking Alec Holland to The New 52), Raise Them Bones is an excellent continuation of the mythology defined by Alan Moore's Saga. But it's little more than a reminder of what makes this character so damn cool. The story doesn't find it's real footing until Family Tree, where Holland accepts his mantel of The Green and takes on the invading forces of The Rot. Yannick Paquette's art draws a beautiful beastie, and I love the addition of Swampy's barky crown. But as much as I dig Paquette, when Francesco Francavilla drops in for a guest-spot I instantly wanted him for a replacement. His Swamp-Thing is a sad, beautiful figure. Less the beast and more the plant. A higher compliment, I do not know. Snyder's book certainly doesn't match that of Moore's, but it's fun enough and I'm happy to see this character once again get a proper place in the DC Universe. And I am even more excited to see how this book fits into Jeff Lemire's recent Animal Man.