Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
It took me a lot longer than I thought it would to catch up after my recent vacation. In an average 52-week year, I tend to work about 50 of those weeks. Taking a vacation is a luxury I rarely afford myself. These days, my wife is the one who insists when it’s time for time off. When I do take one, I notice it takes me two weeks to recover once I’m back. I’m a man who prefers his routine, because at least things get done. I’ve seen a bunch of films since the last time I wrote, so let’s get right down to it, shall we?
WHAT WOULD ROMERO DO?
It’s a good time to be a zombie fan right now. No question about it. In fact, I can’t think of a time when the genre was getting more high-profile love at the multiplex. Last year’s 28 DAYS LATER was more of a virus movie than a full-fledged zombie movie, but there’s no denying the enormous debt Garland and Boyle owed to George Romero. This year, Zack Snyder’s DAWN OF THE DEAD remake is a surprisingly okay movie. I didn’t love it, but I thought it worked well in certain stretches. There are some great moments, and I’ll give credit to both Snyder and James Gunn for the way they’ve tried to make their own movie while staying true to the general outline of the original Romero film. It was a hell of a lot more successful than last year’s miserable TEXAS CHAINSAW remake, and I’ll bet it ends up being lots better than the cheapie DAY OF THE DEAD remake that Richard Rubenstein is rushing into production at the moment.
But if you’re a real fan of the genre, the big news of the moment is that SHAUN OF THE DEAD is coming, and it deserves all the hype it’s already gotten in the UK press and online.
I first heard about this film from Edgar Wright around the same time that he set up his deal to make it at Working Title films. He sent me a poster mock-up that his brother had done in the style of an Italian poster. My manager had gotten me hooked on SPACED about six months before that, pushing a stack of tapes on me and insisting that I watch them, and word had evidently gotten back to Edgar that I loved his show. Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson struck me as original comic voices, performers who didn’t just write material to show themselves off, but who also were smart and generous enough to write great roles for their entire supporting cast. One of the things that made SPACED such a treat was the way the show effortlessly referenced doznes of geek-favorite films and TV shows and games, both with narrative references as well as sly visual gags. Pegg’s character, Tim, was a proto-geek, vaguely employed and Playstation addicted, and it was nearly impossible not to identify with him while watching.
Thanks to BBC America and DVD, everybody’s seen THE OFFICE by now, but music clearance issues have kept SPACED out of circulation on this side of the Atlantic. That’s why Edgar went to great lengths to show AICN staffers the film two weeks ago in Austin. We’ve been looking forward to this for a while. We ran an open casting call for zombie extras for the movie that pretty much melted a mail server. We were one of the few American outlets to have actually seen SPACED, so we had some rooting interest in seeing how the film turned out.
Short answer: a classic. Go ahead and clear some shelf space for the inevitable and covet-worthy DVD release of the movie. You will love the movie. You will end up watching and rewatching the movie. And if you don’t, chances are you and I have never agreed on anything. This is one of those comedies so great and self-assured that I can’t imagine any audience dour enough to resist it. Edgar Wright is officially too cool to hang out with me. He’s got one of the most original comic voices as a director since the debut of Wes Anderson with BOTTLE ROCKET.
Right away, as soon as we meet Shaun, Pegg’s character in the film, it’s obvious that he’s not just playing Tim again. He’s not as bright. He’s not as cynical. When confronted by his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) and her friends David (Dylan Moran) and Dianne (Lucy Davis), there’s not much Shaun can say to defend himself or his behavior. It’s not even that Shaun’s a bad guy. He’s not. He’s just inert, stuck in a rut. And he’s insanely, incredibly loyal to his best friend, the source of all his troubles, Ed.
Oh... how do we even start to discuss Ed, played with a sort of shambling magnificence by Nick Frost? Ed is one of those characters that doesn’t just steal a movie; they provide the movie with a reason to be. Ed deserves to be embraced as a comedy icon on par with Belushi’s Bluto or Turturro’s Jesus. He’s the best friend who Shaun keep around for sheer entertainment value, and it’s Ed’s pot selling, his never paying rent, his belligerent sense of humor that keeps causing Shaun all the friction in his life. He’s Shaun’s anchor, in both good and bad ways. One the one hand, no one speaks in shorthand with Shaun the same way. They’ve got this great natural secret language that is the source of much of the film’s best humor. There’s real poignancy to the way Pegg and Frost play off each other by film’s end. Pete (Peter Serafinowicz), who shares the flat with Shaun, may be fed up with Ed, and so is Liz, but Shaun still can’t cut him loose. Pete’s at the end of his rope, tired of paying for everything, and there’s a great early showdown between Pete and Shaun that really sums Ed up.
Shaun’s so busy dealing with the whole Ed situation that he hardly has any focus left over to spend on his mum, Barbara (Penelope Wilton), much to the consternation of Shaun’s stepdad, Philip (LOVE ACTUALLY’s Bill Nighy). Is it any wonder he barely has the energy left over to do an entirely mediocre job managing an electronics store? Based on all of this, you can understand how Shaun just doesn’t notice when the world ends.
Well, let’s be fair. It is with a whimper instead of a bang, and it’s just that he doesn’t notice at first. When the living dead actually start showing up in the garden, Shaun and Ed start to get the idea that something might be wrong. And the more the world falls apart about them, the more they step up, snapping out of their lethargy. The way they rise to the occasion is the reason they are soon going to find themselves as beloved as Ash by fandom. They are remarkable reluctant comic heroes as well realized as BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA’s Jack Burton or even the various Ghostbusters. By the time Pegg’s gone full-blown DEER HUNTER late in the movie, fans will already be planning their Halloween costumes for this year.
The rest of the cast all manages to shine to varying degrees. Lucy Davis is very different here than she is as Dawn on THE OFFICE, and I must say... I’m smitten. Yes, Shaun’s in love with Liz, and Kate Ashfield (who I remember as one of the things I liked in Norrington’s THE LAST MINUTE) does a nice job here overall. She just isn’t as adorable as Davis, and there’s this great sort of just-below-the-surface something going on between her and Shaun that actually had me hoping that he was going to switch girlfriends by the end of the film, leaving Liz to the long-pining David. Penelope Wilton is very good as Shaun’s mother, and even though Bill Nighy has a small role, he makes the most of it, with a final punchline that’s even funnier in hindsight. Dylan Moran (known for his fine work in English bookstores in productions like BLACK BOOKS and NOTTING HILL) isn’t my favorite performer in the film, but his big moments really pay off, and it’s more an issue of me not liking David than it is any fault of the actor. Even if you don’t know Peter Serafinowicz by sight, close your eyes, and there’s no missing the voice of Darth Maul. This big, younger thug version of Stephen Fry makes me laugh a lot, and has some stand-out moments.
I’m not going to describe any of the rest of the film. I don’t want to give away any of the jokes. Like all of the best film comedy, that sense of discovery is part of the joy of the film. As these great scenes play out and the low-key charm of the dialogue works on the audience, there’s that great exhilarating charge that comes when a movie’s really hitting on all cylinders. You know the feeling... you start laughing as soon as the film begins, and it just keeps building and getting better and better, and by the end, you’re sorry it’s over. You want to see it again. In fact, you’re already thinking about who you want to show it to first. And it also knows the rule of great horror-comedy, which is that the horror has to actually be scary in order for the film to work. The reason AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON felt like a lightning bolt strike to the forehead when it was released was because no one had ever managed to mix the naturalistic dialogue, the dark humor, and the flat-out spattergore horror before, not like that. Films like DEAD ALIVE and EVIL DEAD 2 are undeniable classics of the genre because of how well they walk that line. Personally, I was bored silly by last year’s much-touted UNDEAD. I admire the Spierig Brothers for making something that looked so nice on such a low budget, but I flat-out hated their lead actors, and I spent most of the movie waiting for something either funny or scary to happen. Instead, it’s repetitive and flat. This is not that kind of film. There’s no comparing the two. The difference is that Wright’s made a real movie, with a pulse, and not just an intentional cult item that drowns in its own style.
There are any number of reasons why I adore this film. First, there’s just plain surprise. SPACED is, as I’ve said before, a very good show, and part of its appeal is the very cinematic style of Edgar Wright. Even so, I wasn’t expecting a film this confident from him the first time out. Pegg and Wright co-wrote this script, and they’ve done something incredibly difficult, making it look very easy in the process. Wright’s visual style has been unleashed by moving from the small to the big screen, and his use of the full 2.35:1 widescreen frame rivals John Carpenter, as high a compliment as I can pay. Credit David M. Dunlap with the film’s exceptionally slick and accomplished look. He shot a sweet little Lili Taylor film that I saw at Sundance ’01 called JULIE JOHNSON, but he’s got a long career as a second-unit D.P. and as a camera op. He’s worked on big-budget fare like this summer’s THE STEPFORD WIVES remake and CHANGING LANES, A BEAUTIFUL MIND, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, HANNIBAL, FORREST GUMP, MEN IN BLACK, AIR FORCE ONE, Coppola’s DRACULA, and on and on. You really look back, though, and you’ll see some cool credits that really qualify him for this job. He was a camera operator on RAISING ARIZONA, one of the most fluid and kinetic film comedies ever shot, and on AFTER HOURS, which has that same sort of sleep, propulsive feel. Even further back, you’ll see that he got his start on films like ZOMBIE ISLAND MASSACRE and CHUD, so the class and assurance of his work here brings him triumphantly full-circle. Wright is also an expert editor, and his work with Chris Dickens is surgically precise. He uses smash cuts to hilarious effect, and when he cuts to music, it’s as infectious as the best moments of John Landis or Alan Parker.
Which reminds me... the soundtrack is available now in the UK, and it’s fantastic. Still, don’t even bother to pick it up and read the track listing if you haven’t seen the film yet. You don’t want to know what songs are in the film ahead of time. There are two Queen songs that are perfectly chosen and placed, a rap classic that made me grin from ear-to-ear, a hysterically perfect Smiths tune, a perfectly eerie Specials track, and some beautifully-used catalog tracks and samples sure to make any Romero fan squeal in glee. The CD itself features tons of dialogue from the movie, so you don’t want to hear it until you’ve seen it. Once you have, I dare you to stop listening to it. It’s taken up permanent residence in my car’s CD player now, supplanting even the KILL BILL VOL. 2 soundtrack.
Focus Features has the distribution rights in the U.S., and so far, they haven’t put out an American trailer, and they certainly haven’t chosen an American release date. Here’s hoping the film’s strong commercial success so far in England helps motivate them, and that they get in gear and start working to get this thing in theaters as soon as possible. They certainly don’t need to worry about the “Englishness” of the film. Anyone who speaks geek will fall head over heels in love with it, and I think it has a real shot at being a mainstream hit as well, thanks in large part to the films that have been laying the groundwork over the last year or so. Audiences will understand a lot of the little touches they might otherwise not get, even people who aren’t lifelong fans of Romero’s classic original trilogy. If you are a lifelong fan, then there are a million little easter egg style jokes peppered throughout the film, and I’m sure repeat viewings of the film will turn up even more of them.
This is a film that was obviously made by people who are deeply, drunkenly in love with this genre, and that affection is impossible to resist. I hoped this would be good when I flew to Austin to see it, staying less than 24 hours. I went specifically so I could meet Edgar face-to-face, eat some flesh with him at the Salt Lick Barbecue, and see the movie at midnight. I had no idea it was going to be great. Hats off to all involved.
It’s appropriate that I’d end up reviewing this film and SHAUN OF THE DEAD in the same column. Both films are overstuffed with a giddy sense of geek love, although for very different genres. I know many people thought it was a stunt or a cash grab when Quentin Tarantino cut his fourth full-length feature in half, releasing VOLUME ONE last October with only vague promises about when we’d get a look at the conclusion.
Those people were wrong, wrong, wrong.
VOLUME ONE had Japan on its mind, pure and simple. The film embellishes its main narrative drive with sidetrips into blaxploitation and Brian De Palma worship, but the undeniable centerpiece of the film is the Showdown at the House Of Blue Leaves and everything about O-Ren Ishii, played so memorably by Lucy Liu. The film was given unexpected soul by Sonny Chiba, who gave a knockout performance, charming in a way I didn’t know he could be. The Bride’s time with him in Okinawa, the anime sequence, the final confrontation on the beautiful snow-covered set... like I said, it’s obvious where Quentin’s heart was while working on this one.
KILL BILL VOL. 2 is a totally different movie, more nakedly schizophrenic than the first one. This time, it’s Chinese martial arts and Italian spaghetti westerns that take center stage, with a third act that becomes absolutely original, standing outside easy genre definition, thanks in large part to the portrayal of Bill by David Carradine.
That reminds me. I need to eat some crow. Y’see, when Carradine was cast, I was incredibly pessimistic about it. I wrote about my disappointment at the time, and I honestly thought QT had sabotaged his own film with oddball cult casting. Part of that was because I’m a big fan of Warren Beatty in his best moments, and I wanted to see him make a film this cool. I was actually angry at Tarantino and Beatty both when that deal fell apart, and I hated the notion of Carradine and didn’t want to see him play the role.
And I was wrong, wrong, wrong.
Carradine is awesome as Bill. Thanks to his performance, everything else in the films suddenly makes perfect emotional sense to me. He moves through this film, appearing and disappearing almost at will, a ghost until his final big scene, when he lays bare the heart of a hardened killer, confusing our sympathy at the exact moment it matters most. It’s real hard not to like Bill. There’s a wonderful, wry quality about him that makes it easy to believe all these strong, powerful women falling under his sway. After all, this was a guy who gave orders to Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), O-Ren, Vernita (Vivica Fox), and The Bride herself. What sort of charisma and ego would give a man the balls to try and control this group? Thanks to Tarantino’s script (far more polished than the widely distributed early draft that everyone read) and Carradine, I believe in Bill. Now I can understand how the DiVAS might work. His introduction on the front porch of the church where The Bride intends to be married is exactly the right entrance. He’s warm, friendly, accepting, and absolutely terrifying.
His work also elevates Uma’s performance because of what he gives her to play off. As we flash forward and backward in time, Bill is a constant, but The Bride is in constant flux. When she’s younger, Uma perfectly plays her girlish infatuation with Bill. As she watches him tell a story around a campfire, she’s totally into him. Once the hard lessons of the world start to sink in, Uma expertly charts the change that hardens this girl into a lioness. And when she finally ends up face-to-face with her prey, all of their history hits her like a ton of bricks, practically crushing her right before our eyes. She’s an actress who needs a strong director in order for her to do her best work, and there’s no question about it... this is the best thing she’s ever done. Taken as a whole, KILL BILL is an incredible journey that had to have changed this actress permanently.
I’d also say this is one of Michael Madsen’s best roles, and he brings a palpable sadness to the role which nicely tempers the more blatant scumbag surface of Budd. He’s the only apparent male member of the DiVAS, and he’s also Bill’s brother. They couldn’t be more different, and the main thing that seems to separate them is the fact that Budd has a conscience. He knows that what they did to The Bride was wrong, one of many wrongs, and Budd’s daily lifestyle almost seems like self-inflicted penance. That doesn’t stop him from fighting back when The Bride does finally show up looking for him, but it makes Budd a hell of a lot more interesting overall. His twisted chivalry and self-loathing give Madsen a lot to play, and he couldn’t be any better.
Daryl Hannah’s one of those actors I either love or hate depending on how they’re used in a film. BLADE RUNNER, SPLASH, ROXANNE... those are good examples of how to use this unusual beauty to proper effect, and Tarantino’s given her another humdinger of a role here. She tears her way through the movie, an almost animal presence whenever she’s onscreen. When she finally confronts The Bride, it’s the single most punishing fight in either of the movies, a bone-crunching exchange that’s equal parts Russ Meyers catfight, kaiju rampage, and JACKASS sketch. It’s also got the best punchline to any fight in either film, and may give you a BLADE RUNNER flashback.
One of the film’s most fleeting pleasures is the wonderful work of Gordon Liu as Pai Mei, fabled martial arts expert and brutal taskmaster. In the press notes for the film, QT confirms that he was going to play Pai Mei himself at one point, going so far as training with the actors so he would be physically ready. The demands of directing eventually sidelined that notion, and it’s a good thing. Liu has been working in martial arts his whole life, since the age of seven, and became a star in the late ‘70s with THE 36th CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN. His brother is one of the unquestioned greats of martial arts cinema, and Gordon has an extraordinary presence. He has an innate understanding of the archetypes that Quentin is playing with. Every flip of the beard, every raised eyebrow, every dodged punch... Liu knows precisely what Pai Mei would do, and if there’s anything I’d complain about, it’s the brevity of his screen time. Like Sonny Chiba in the first film, Liu takes a role he’s either played or seen played a hundred times before, and he makes it his own, defining the archetype for a new generation of viewers.
People who felt short-changed with VOL. 1 are going to like this one more, I suspect, since it more closely resembles what we think of as a “Quentin Tarantino” movie. There’s a greater emphasis on character and dialogue, and more of his geek fetishes are on display this time around. You’ll spot many of his favorite people in oddball cameos, like Michael Parks, who plays a completely different role here than he did in VOL. 1, as well as Bo Svenson and Samuel L. Jackson, both hilarious and memorable in their brief appearances. Detractors of these films accuse Tarantino of self-indulgence, but they’re missing the point. When he comes to Austin to host his QT Fests at the Alamo Drafthouse, these are not events that are about the careful, moderate consumption of cinema. We’re talking about a guy who hosts two-week orgy marathon mainline injections of pure cinema overload, who loves to do 12 hour programs in a night. The one time I’ve been to his house to watch movies, he invited us over for one and showed three. A gangster film, a kung-fu film, and a Dario Argento thriller. They couldn’t have been more different, but they seemed linked in his mind, and by the time we were done, they seemed like a perfect triple-feature. These movies are the way he can share that same sugar-rush manic overload with an entire world of cinema freaks at once. You want to know what it’s like to go to QT Fest? It’s exactly like KILL BILL, but for two solid weeks. I’ve heard one particularly rabid detractor try to say the film is empty, unimportant, but it’s the sort of claim that indicates someone just wasn’t willing to give the film a chance. When Spielberg and Lucas made RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, they weren’t just regurgitating moments from old serials. They were summing up the movies that shaped them and trying to impart just what it was that made them love those films in the first place. If you think KILL BILL is nothing more than a cinematic mix tape, you’re wrong. It’s a love letter to Uma, as complex as the freakshow love/torture that Hitchcock used to put his blondes through, written for her by the one director who truly seems to get her, and it’s also a guided tour through all the things that make Tarantino who he is. This film is incredibly revealing about Tarantino as a viewer and a writer and a consumer, and everything you need to know about him is in there somewhere. The fun part is sifting through all of it. This is a rare confection, a litmus test I’ll be using on film friends in years to come. This isn’t ultimately a deep movie, but it’s an intoxicating one, filled with the sheer joy of movie-making.
In a recent article about THE GREEN HORNET, Kevin Smith talked about his decision to finally make an action film. He says someone assured him that he wouldn’t have to actually direct any of his action scenes himself. He was told that Bryan Singer barely directs any of the X-MEN movies, something that seemed to give Kevin some degree of comfort. But whoever told Kevin that was doing him and his eventual audience a disservice. Yes, there are guys like David Ellis who come in and do amazing jobs delivering second-unit work, but what makes KILL BILL so exciting for me, especially during the action scenes, is knowing that Tarantino wasn’t using a second unit. Like Guillermo Del Toro, he knows that shooting it all is the only way to put your stamp on those scenes. He didn’t hand the action off to someone else. Instead, he forced himself to learn how to shoot it. It helps that he had the amazing cinematographer Robert Richardson shooting, but the personal fingerprints of Tarantino are all over every frame of the film. Even his choice of film stock in certain scenes is a knowing joke.
In my mind, the most important question regarding the film is “Was the journey worth it?” We started the first film with a woman lying on the floor of a church, broken and bleeding, her last few minutes before having her brain splashed across that floor. By the time the second film ends and we see our last image of The Bride with her little girl (a truly remarkable child actor with Mariel Hemingway’s dimples and Damien Thorne’s eyes), the answer to that question for me is a resounding yes. I have fallen for Beatrix Kiddo, and that’s all that matters. Q&U have made me love this blood-spattered angel. Every other pleasure I get from the films is pure gravy. I go to the movies to fall in love with characters, to be transported, to connect with great moments and to see someone move heaven and earth to entertain me. In this case, mission more than accomplished.
O, BROTHERS, WHERE ART THOU?
I love the Coen Brothers.
I figured I should say that now, since later on in this piece, you may not believe that.
First thing I saw of theirs was RAISING ARIZONA back in ’87, during its first run. I remember reading a fairly negative review for the film in US NEWS & WORLD REPORTS, of all places. In an effort to show just how bad the film was, the reviewer quoted some of H.I.’s voice-over about his wife Ed: “Her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.” That one line sold me a ticket. When the film opened on one screen in Tampa, I tracked it down, dragging along my girlfriend at the time. I should have known then that it wouldn’t work out between us. She didn’t smile once. I, on the other hand, laughed from the film’s incredible prologue all the way through that final beautiful dream, and by the end of the film, I was convinced that Joel Coen and his brother were the most exciting filmmakers working.
Film after film, their work has served as a benchmark for me over the years, a standard of excellence to which I could aspire. MILLER’S CROSSING. BARTON FINK. THE HUDSUCKER PROXY. I even love just saying the titles of their oddball masterpieces. FARGO. THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE. THE BIG LEBOWSKI. BLOOD SIMPLE They seemed to effortlessly conjure up great characters and wonderful riffs on genre and these self-contained aesthetically amazing worlds, and I was willing to follow them anywhere.
Christmas of 2000 marked the release of O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU?, an insane comic Southern-fried reworking of Homer’s ODYSSEY that spawned one of the biggest-selling soundtracks in recent memory. People seemed open to the peculiar personal vision of the Coens in a whole new way, and the script they were preparing to shoot was easily the best thing they ever wrote.
Based on a slim novel by poet James Dickey, TO THE WHITE SEA started as an adaptation by David and Janet Peoples (12 MONKEYS), and that draft was pretty goddamn good in its own right. When the Coens got involved as director/producer, though, they rewrote it, and they came up with something great and terrifying, a script that represented the biggest challenge of their careers. Universal put the film in turnaround, and the Coens rode it over to Warner Bros., where they worked to get it up and running with a $75 million pricetag and Brad Pitt as their star.
What happened next may well be the moment that Coen fans look back on in the future as the end of all good things. In rapid succession, TO THE WHITE SEA got axed, the Coens lost their mother, and the attacks of 9/11 drove them out of New York, where they had just relocated. This was a period of weeks we’re talking about, and that trifecta of tragedy seems to have shattered the Coens. That’s why I’m writing this open letter to them today, speaking as a fan who believes in their enormous and obvious gifts.
Please... Joel and Ethan... stop.
I tried to shake off the feeble slap in the face that was INTOLERABLE CRUELTY. I figured it was a one-time thing. They were recovering from a series of setbacks and decided to make a studio film as a way of warming back up for something great. That’s what I kept telling myself. After all, the thing that has always distinguished them was the way they managed to stand on the edge of the system, making film after film seeming designed to primarily please an audience of two. They made movies that were impossible to categorize. With INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, they seemed to make a creative 180, and for the first time in their career, they made a boring movie. George Clooney grins his way through a hollow farce, trying hard to pump some life into the proceedings, but Catherine Zeta-Jones gave him less than nothing to play off of. It’s not an awful movie. It’s not offensive. But there’s absolutely nothing special about it. In every way, it is just another mid-budget Imagine comedy, no better or worse than HOUSESITTER or FOR LOVE AND MONEY or GREEDY or SGT. BILKO. The real shock, as a longtime Coens fan, was how completely they managed to submerge their personalities. There are only two sequences in the film that feel like the Coen Bros. When Miles (Clooney) goes in to see his boss, everything from the magazines in the waiting room to the way his boss chokes out his message amidst the workings of his various health-related machinery feels like we’re finally in familiar territory. And late in the film, the death of Wheezy Joe is a very funny gag, and well-orchestrated. But that’s it... two sequences in a whole film.
The scary thing is that THE LADYKILLERS makes INTOLERABLE CRUELTY look like RAISING ARIZONA by comparison. The rebound I was hoping for did not materialize. If anything, they’ve moved further in the wrong direction. As much as CRUELTY embodied the spirit of the mediocre Imagine comedy, LADYKILLERS is the perfect realization of just how crappy Touchstone comedies can be, and often are. The visual invention, the eccentric and clever characterizations, the sense that anything might happen at any moment... all the things that make the Coen Bros. who they are... have all vanished without a trace. Even worse, the dazzling cascades of language that have always distinguished their characters have finally dried up, stranding Tom Hanks, who has never looked more desperate to make material work. Hanks is one of our greatest comic actors, gifted with natural timing and unforced charm, and I appreciate the vigor he brings to THE LADYKILLERS. He does everything he can to prop up a script that simply isn’t funny, but I know a drowning man when I see one. Like many modern farces, the film mistakes loud and manic with hilarious, and it ends up playing as dull more than anything, a series of empty moments with no sustained energy. Part of the problem is the casting, which pretty much stinks across the board. Normally, the Coens have a genius for picking just the right person for just the right part and bringing out the best in people. For pissakes, these are the guys who made Tara Reid funny. If that’s not miracle working, I don’t know what is.
How then can one explain the insanely unfunny work of Marlon Wayans or Ryan Hurst, who manages to stop every scene cold just by speaking up? Even the always-reliable JK Simmons comes up dry here as he’s reduced to playing a guy who really, really needs to shit. That’s it. That’s the best this film has to offer. There’s certainly nothing to recommend about the heist that is the film’s centerpiece. It’s so off-hand and limp that it barely deserves to be shown. The “complications” that start piling up are ridiculous, nothing inventive or interesting about them, and the material about the guys trying to kill Irma P. Hall was handled better last year in DUPLEX.
And trust me... DUPLEX fucking stunk.
So let me offer up the hopes I have for the Coens. I refuse to accept that the bored studio hacks who made these last two films are the real Joel and Ethan Coen. I know that these artists still have the ability to summon thunder. I believe it. But they’ve proven now that doing work-for-hire just doesn’t suit them. When they got chewed up by the process on TO THE WHITE SEA, it seems to have taken something out of them. When you read that script, their hearts are on every page. It’s the most difficult thing about working in the studio system. To write a great script, you have to pour all of your faith and belief and energy into that script, but you have to do so knowing full well that you’ve got, at best, a one-in-five chance of seeing that script produced. You may well be creating art for an audience that will never see it. TO THE WHITE SEA has got to haunt the Coens, and in particular, I wonder about what it’s done to Joel. THE LADYKILLERS is the first film where both brothers have shared the director credit. Up till now, Joel has been the director. Is this shift in billing an indicator that Joel is less involved now? At least that would explain the sudden shift in quality as far as how their films look. There is no way the same person was calling the shots visually on THE BIG LEBOWSKI and THE LADYKILLERS.
I hope the Coens begin to follow their muse again. I hope they write original scripts that allow them to return to their own interests. I hope Joel returns to form as one of our most impressive visualists. I hope they stay miles away from studio assignments from now on.
And failing all of that, I hope that before they make another lousy anonymous studio piece of crap, they just stop. I would rather have no Coen Bros. films than have these heartbreaking misfires. Barton Fink wasn’t meant to write Wallace Beery wrestling pictures, and no matter how much of “that Barton Fink feeling” he gives the thing, the studio will never appreciate him properly.
Find your beach, guys. Sit in the sun. Recharge.
When you’re ready, we’ll be waiting.
WHO DO YOU LOVE?
Mr. Molly is a mean sumbitch.
He’s dropped by the Moriarty Labs a few times before with articles for me to print. He’s not the kind of guy who asks me to do things, either. He just tells me.
For example, I was working at home on Saturday afternoon when the front door suddenly got kicked in. Mr. Molly walked in, casually strolled over to where I was siting, and knocked out one of my teeth with his ring. I cursed loudly, holding my jaw, but he seemed unimpressed. “Got something for you.”
He grabbed a stapler from a nearby shelf and pulled out an unevenly folded sheet of white paper. He unfolded the paper with a snap of his wrist and held it up to the side of my skull.
”Wait. Don’t.” That’s all I managed to say, since he didn’t wait. He just stapled the sheet to the side of my head with three solid whacks.
”Put that on your website.” He didn’t wait for me to answer. As far as he was concerned, the matter was settled. I tore the paper free from my skull as soon as he left and read through it. And, damn it, it’s actually pretty fun. So fun, in fact, that I’d like to make this a regular feature, open to any reader of the site. I’ll also solicit entries from my friends to run here. This is the first, then, of many of these, and I’ve included Mr. Molly’s note to explain the idea. Enjoy it. Or he’ll break my legs. He promised.
I thought you might like this list of my 100 favorite movie moments. I thought this mainly because my list kicks a lot of ass, and is no doubt better than any list you might start and abandon halfway through. Ahem. At any rate... run this, punk.
Uncle Bill recording his lines in AMERICAN MOVIE
The night swimming sequence in CAT PEOPLE (1941)
Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dennis Rodman, Mickey Rourke, and a tiger fighting in a minefield inside the Roman Coliseum at the end of DOUBLE TEAM
Spina Bifida Sister from PET SEMETARY
The monsters getting their invitations during the opening credits of MAD MONSTER PARTY
The last eight minutes of BLOOD SIMPLE
The first fourteen minutes of RAISING ARIZONA
Frances McDormand’s awkward “date” in FARGO
Jeff Bridges explaining the “newest shit” in the back of the limo in BIG LEBOWSKI
Robert Redford’s on-air crack-up in THE CANDIDATE
Albert Finney getting ready for bed in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS
Zander Schloss singing “Feelin’ 7-Up” in REPO MAN
Two great movie dads played by the same actor: Paul Dooley in BREAKING AWAY and SIXTEEN CANDLES
Peter Boyle negotiating his fee with George C. Scott in HARDCORE
Scene-stealing performance in a film no one saw: Oliver Platt as “Toad” in ZIGZAG (“Gimee knobbyjob!”)
Chevy Chase crying in the desert with Anthony Michael Hall in VACATION
Great performance in a great film: Eric Bana in CHOPPER
Great performance in a good film: Jackie Gleason in SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT
Great performance in a shitty film: Dana Olsen as spoiled rich asshole Palmer Woodrow in MAKING THE GRADE
The news reports in the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD
Zombies prowling to the Muzak in the original DAWN OF THE DEAD
“Send more paramedics” from RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD
Celebrity target practice in the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake
BLADE’s entrance at the blood rave
John Malkovich’s insane, Wile E. Coyote death at the end of CON AIR
The gunman eating the dead man’s candy bar in BROKEN ARROW
Alan Rickman in DIE HARD
Bill Murray getting baptized in ED WOOD
The sad, ironic final twist in LE TROU
The funny, ironic final twist in TAKING OF PELHAM ONE, TWO, THREE
Joe Don Baker ordering breakfast at the whorehouse in CHARLEY VARRICK
Laird Cregar watching film of the dead woman in I WAKE UP SCREAMING
Ella Raines seducing Elisha Cook, Jr. in PHANTOM LADY
The final “frames” of TWO LANE BLACKTOP
Gene Wilder’s complete fucking meltdown in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN
Bullet deflected with a bullet in FULL CONTACT
Marina Zudina out-running the hall lights in MUTE WITNESS
Columbo’s first “appearance” in DIABOLIQUE
Don Cheadle’s interrogation technique in DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS
“You’ve gotta be fucking KIDDING!” from John Carpenter’s remake of THE THING
Bill Paxton’s face when he overhears the two city cops making fun of him in ONE FALSE MOVE
“We belong dead” at the end of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN
The senile child molester tracking the girl around the lake in NEVER TAKE SWEETS FROM A STRANGER
Peter Cushing’s line, “PACK! We’re LEAVING!” in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED
Hearing aid torture in THE BIG COMBO
The end credits sequence from WILD THINGS
Brad Pitt mumbling, “Fucking condescend to me” in TRUE ROMANCE
The reel of rescued kisses at the end of CINEMA PARADISO
“Why don’t dey just call him ‘Girl George’ and get rid of all dah CAHN-foo-shun?” from COMMANDO
The scarred girl releasing the doves at the end of EYES WITHOUT A FACE
Alan Barron stalking through Harlem in BLAST OF SILENCE
Target practice in DAY OF THE JACKAL
The Klumps at the all-you-can-eat buffet in NUTTY PROFESSOR II
Nelson De La Rosa in ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU
Peter Falk telling the story about the “eagle-sized” tsetse flies carrying off the brown babies during the dinner party in THE IN-LAWS
Lukas Haas’ speech on the White House steps at the end of MARS ATTACKS!
“James Caan. Is that real enough for you?” from REAL LIFE
“Hulk running” in MODERN ROMANCE
Albert Brook’s crossing guard job in LOST IN AMERICA
The apocalyptic gunfight at the end of Takashi Miike’s DEAD OR ALIVE
Ben Stiller in HEAVYWEIGHTS
Ed McMahon’s disembodied, accusatory floating head emerging from the depths of space at the beginning of DAUGHTER OF HORROR
Edie feeding the raccoons in GREY GARDENS
Morgan Freeman asking Kathy Baker which eye she wants to keep in STREET SMART
John Wayne shooting out the dead Comanche’s eyes in THE SEARCHERS
The freeway battle in MATRIX RELOADED
The song “Up There” from SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER, UNCUT
Philip Baker Hall explaining the rate card in HARD EIGHT
BACHELOR PARTY: “I just bet my balls, and shook on it.”
REVENGE OF THE NERDS: “I thought I was looking at my mother’s old douchebag, but that’s in Ohio”
HEATHERS: “Football season is over, Veronica. Kurt and Ram had nothing left to offer the school except date rapes and AIDS jokes.”
Christy Hartburg dancing towards the payphone in Russ Meyer’s SUPERVIXENS
Joy Harmon washing the car in COOL HAND LUKE
The screaming contest in THE VANISHING
The fucking contest in SWEET SWEETBACK’S BADASSSS SONG
Alan Arkin introducing “Geraldine” in WAIT UNTIL DARK
Robert DeNiro ambushing Sean Bean with coffee in RONIN
Pee-Wee Herman dancing his way out of a biker beating
Unk pontificating on the tenement roof in HATED
Eli Wallach assembling his gun in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY
Leatherface’s chainsaw death-dance at dawn
Bill Pullman as “stupidest person on the face of the earth” Earl Mott in RUTHLESS PEOPLE
The first ten minutes of FINAL DESTINATION II
John Candy’s side of the phone conversation in UNCLE BUCK
Thelonious Monk spinning around and around in circles in STRAIGHT, NO CHASER
Samuel L. Jackson’s interrupted monologue in DEEP BLUE SEA
John Voight’s winking corpse in ANACONDA
Julie Christie explaining the brothel biz to Warren Beatty in MCCABE & MRS. MILLER
Scott Jacoby coming out the woodwork in BAD RONALD
John Cassavettes putting the beatdown on Ronald Reagan in Don Siegel’s THE KILLERS
Chris Holmes on the pool raft with the “vodka” in DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILZATION II: THE METAL YEARS
Andy Kaufman going on a killing rampage in GOD TOLD ME TO
The abandoned pavilion in CARNIVAL OF SOULS
Jeff Daniels and Lauren Holly’s snowball fight in DUMB AND DUMBER
Ray Sharkey shadowing Peter Gallagher’s onstage moves from the sidelines in THE IDOLMAKER
The final, tidal-wave-of-blood samurai duel in SANJURO
John Lennon battling The Glove in YELLOW SUBMARINE
Jack Black cradling the dead rabbits in JESUS’ SON
Joe Patoliano screaming, “Everybody’s telling me to go fuck myself!” in MIDNIGHT RUN
Everyone here can think of a hundred more, each, I’m sure.
And when you do, send them to me at my regular address. I’ll publish the ones that are the most fun and the most original in future columns.
THE MATRIX REVISITED
So here’s my theory.
I picked up MATRIX REVOLUTIONS on DVD when it came out. And I’ve decided I don’t just want to watch it by itself. Instead, I’m going to take one last stroll through the entire world of The Matrix so far.
I’m going to break it into three distinct programs. I’m going to take a break between each section, but I’m going to make one full day of it. I’m breaking it into the three sections because I think you can sum up the whole series in three simple words.
Birth. Life. Death.
Contained in those three words are all the spoilers and subtext one could ever want. It’s a dense and messy series the Wachowski Bros. created, and if you’re willing to open yourself to it, it’s fairly rewarding.
Try it yourself, so that when I put up the DVD column, we can discuss this.
BIRTH. Show THE SECOND RENNAISANCE PARTS I & II, then WORLD RECORD, then THE MATRIX, then KID’S STORY.
Take a break. You’ll need it for this next big gulp.
LIFE. Show A DETECTIVE STORY, then PROGRAM, then FINAL FLIGHT OF THE OSIRIS, then THE MATRIX RELOADED.
One more break before the final stretch.
DEATH. Show BEYOND, then MATRICULATED, then wrap it up with THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS.
If it all sounds silly to you, or if you gave up on the series, don’t bother, but I think it might be a lot of fun, and really illuminate a lot about these fun and flawed SF flicks. We shall see...
COMING UP SOON...
I’m seeing COFFEE & CIGARETTES tonight, then sitting down with Jim Jarmusch one-on-one tomorrow. I’ve got a DVD SHELF column coming later this week. I'll announce the winners of our FREAKS & GEEKS contest. And we’re just starting to put together a new Jedi Council meeting with some material that should be really exciting. Until then...