trailer tuesday

this week's entry is the last one i will post from the stuart circle address. good riddance. if only i had figured it out in so short a time. ladies and gentlemen, stuart rosenberg's the amityville horror (1979).


alternate takes

in an effort to combat all the bad mojo that's been flying around the web for the last couple of days i thought i would post something here to celebrate creativity, imagination and the positive potential for interpretation. our favorite films affect us in all sorts of unique ways. sometimes we take a lesson from it that we carry with us for the rest of our days. sometimes it vividly brings to mind a person, place or time in our lives that is of fundamental importance to us. we never know what might be the trigger either. it may be some little detail in the margin. it may be the way a piece of music accentuates a scene. it could be anything. and for every film, there are as many interpretations as there are viewers. for some, it inspires a creative act in response, and that is what we are going to take a look at today. i love alternate movie posters. i really enjoy seeing what it is someone else is responding to in a film and how much they can communicate in a single clever and well-crafted image. here are a few of my favorites.

this spartacus (1960) poster is from a series that viktor hertz did featuring the films of stanley kubrick represented in pictograms. you can see more of his work and contact him via his website.

this alternate take on lolita (1962) is by adam juresko. you can find his portfolio and contact him via his website.

this a clockwork orange (1971) poster is designed by illustrator matt sewell. his work can be found here.

this diabolical number for rosemary's baby (1968) comes from phantom city creative. they do all sorts of cool horror/genre stuff.

this comic-influenced version of the wrong man (1956) comes from dan panosian at urban barbarian.

this poster for m (1931) comes from brandon schaefer. contact information and links to galleries are here.

tom whelan contributes this version of the fly (1986). there is a ton of cool stuff at his website, strong stuff.

some even go as far as to design alternate universe movie posters.

if you'd like to see more of these bizarro creations, check out sean hartter.

i could look at these all day, and the internet is practically overflowing with them. just to get you started, alternative movie posters is a great site that functions as a gallery for both poster enthusiasts and designers. you can view submissions there from all over the world and, if you are a designer, you can link to your portfolio/online marketplace through their site. there is also a
flickr group devoted to the alternative poster. those are just a couple of examples. if you're interested, google will turn up thousands more. some of them can be hit and miss but there are some jewels out there. go look at some art and enjoy yourselves.


trailer tuesday

this week's entry is for jean negulesco's eerie look into the dark corners of the human heart, three strangers (1946).


jon but not forgotten

well, another installment of queue de grâce rides off into the sunset and there, astride the horizon like a colossus, stands our guest programmer, jon merrill.

ok, not astride it so much as languidly draped across it like he was michelle pfeiffer in the fabulous baker boys (1989).

here's the full list of what jon selected for me this past week:

die hard (1988)
the long kiss goodnight (1996)
speed (1994)
the taking of pelham one two three (1974)
hard to hold (1984)
all that jazz (1979)
moulin rouge! (2001)
soapdish (1991)
safe men (1998)
topkapi (1964)
femme fatale (2002)
blood & wine (1996)
gigli (2003)
the way of the gun (2000)
ransom (1996)
best laid plans (1999)
nighthawks (1981)
cop land (1997)
the thin blue line (1998)
tightrope (1984)
my cousin vinny (1992)
chicago (2002)
the gingerbread man (1998)
time limit (1957)
hopscotch (1980)
conspiracy theory (1997)
charade (1963)
the 39 steps (1935)

man, that is a lot of movies to watch in one week. he was fiendishly clever in promising me a trophy upon completion. his sequencing was diabolical as well, as there was always that carrot dangling out there, leading me forward. on occasion, it was punishing. getting the house ready to move, putting in overtime at work and watching and writing about twenty-eight movies in one week meant there were a couple of days where i was running on about three hours sleep. for future curators, i won't do that again. i don't care what you promise me. it was too hard and i think the posts occasionally suffered for it. gigli deserved to have a lot more scorn heaped upon than i was able to, for instance. it truly is reprehensible and inane.

that is not to say there weren't benefits, though. the work he put into daily themes and making selections from across decades was much appreciated. i know it can't be easy sometimes, considering the limits of what is available to stream. it's also tough depending on what you want to achieve with your list. if you want to introduce me to all new experiences you have to forsake a number of selections you might have preferred, considering the volume of films i have already seen. it's also probably difficult to decide between torture, true enjoyment and edification. i think he struck a pretty healthy balance with that. i learned a few things and made a discovery or two. i also had one or two instances of what has turned out to be one of my more favorite aspects of this experiment - seeing how much i have changed in relation to a film i am revisiting for the first time in many years. it's always good to be made aware of your own evolution. i picked up tips too. you had best believe i will never pull a job i can't do by myself. on the down side, apparently any time you have sex you will most likely get framed for a horrible crime you didn't commit, end up dead or, worst of all, be in bed with joe pesci. the queue doles out some harsh lessons but i love it all the same.

i am taking july off from the queue, as the band is going on tour, but we will pick up our experiment again in early august with shen heaton behind the wheel. it should be a good one. as always, if you would like to be added to the list of guest curators (or have me make a list for you to write about), drop me a line. you will have to be very patient, as the list is fairly long at this point but i hope it doesn't discourage you from participating. thanks for reading and thank you, jon, for a fine time.

jon: day seven

"listen. i work for the CIA. i am not a spy. i just read books! we read everything that's published in the world. and we...we feed the plots - dirty tricks, codes - into a computer, and the computer checks against actual CIA plans and operations. i look for leaks, i look for new ideas...we read adventures and novels and journals. i...i...who'd invent a job like that?" - robert redford, three days of the condor (1975)

i look at this final day as a 75% reward. i think jon intentionally let me coast in on this last day, giving me almost all things he knew i would enjoy. almost. we start strong with ronald neame's hopscotch (1980).

walter matthau plays a CIA operative of the old school. he believes in cultivating networks of information, cultivating relationships with other agents and relies on his wits and intuition, exploiting these intangibles to a degree that makes him among the best in his field. this also puts him in danger of becoming obsolete and when he handles a case in a manner that doesn't sit well with his bureaucratic bureau chief, played with all the napoleonic complex that ned beatty can muster, he finds himself sidelined, assigned to a desk. this will never do, so he shreds his file, heads to austria to rekindle a relationship with an old flame and begins to write his memoirs. the cat and mouse game begins as he begins to send chapters of the damning documents to the CIA and other major intelligence agencies around the globe, threatening to expose their legacies of dirty tricks. the rest of the film is a masterful hybrid of light comedy and thriller, as his old fashioned ways keep him constantly two steps ahead of the state-of-the-art. this one deserves a vital-graph entry all its own, as it is one of my all time favorites. it's basically a one man show and, fortunately for me, the man is walter matthau. it struck me this time around that the reason i love his work so much is that i think he is the closest comedy descendent of w.c. fields and all of those tendencies are in full effect here - the curmudgeonly charm, the dry aside spoken just under the breath that makes it twice as cutting as anything said at full volume, the love of the sound of words. if your definition of thriller has to include explosions, gadgets and car chases every ten minutes, keep walking. if the agility of the mind is as important to you as the agility of the stunt department, you're home. this was the only time all week that i laughed this much.

i did laugh almost as much at the next film, though i'm not sure that's what richard donner had in mind when he made conspiracy theory (1997).

this thing was hilarious from start to finish. what was supposed to be a thriller played more like a three stooges marathon written by coast to coast a.m. callers. mel gibson plays a cabbie obsessed with conspiracy theories who apparently strikes a nerve with the CIA. maybe it was the whole "manmade earthquakes as a cover for NASA to kill the president" bit, who knows? at any rate, he's abducted, tortured and escapes and it is slowly revealed that he's a dormant assassin. man, that must happen a lot. you'd think they'd find a way to fix that. things escalate, there's the inevitable showdown in a remote location and julia roberts re-enters the world of equestrian show jumping. if you'd like to get an idea of just what was so funny, let me try to re-create the experience in my head for you. first: mute the clip below and pause it for a second.

next, click this and then come back over and press play again on the video.

here's the thing. all this spooky business with the CIA - all the shadowplay, subterfuge and elaborate conspiracies - is completely unnecessary. look around. look at people. there's a girl you know on facebook, maybe a coworker, maybe a friend of a friend. she's moderately pretty and has been getting by on that for a long time now. she's as plain on the inside as pretty on the outside. she likes mani-pedis and loves 2-for-1 margaritas at happy hour. she's read every nicholas sparks book. she's going to marry a man who's kind of handsome, maybe a bit dim, maybe a salesman. they'll go places once in a while wearing the matching colors of their alma mater. he may be good to her. he may be a louse. she may not be equipped to tell the difference. they'll have 2.3 kids that they raise to be good american consumers and look forward to a good night of must-see t.v. together, they will seek out their own miniature oblivion every day. do you think you have to go to elaborate lengths to trick these people? whatever your shadowy cabal wants to do can be done in plain sight. just put whatever you want these people to think about it into a commercial. when we can be this honest, we can stop making these movies and mel gibson can stop getting residual checks.

next, we go from crazy to breezy with stanley donen's charade (1963).

audrey hepburn plays a woman whose husband has just died under suspicious circumstances, thrown from a train. the CIA informs her that he had doublecrossed some fellow soldiers in a scheme involving stolen gold. $250,000 has gone missing, which everyone assumes she has, and she soon finds herself beset on all sides by those who would like to potentially intimidate or romance it out from under her. this is the most confectionary item on the list today, to be sure. it is all about cary grant being cary grant and audrey hepburn being audrey hepburn. it's a good thing they're so good at it. matthau is back again too, though this time sporting a mustache, so he obviously can't be trusted. it has some nice blackly comic moments and the banter between our romantic leads is always effervescent. it plays like a collaboration between alfred hitchcock and blake edwards. i've seen it a few times now and i don't know if it was the lingering effects of mel gibson or a general impatience with the hitchcock junior varsity vibe of it all but this time it just made me anxious to get on to the real thing.

which i soon did with our last film this week, alfred hitchcock's the 39 steps (1935).

two films i love in one day - that has to be some sort of record for queue de grâce. robert donat is excellent in this as another of hitchcock's "wrong men". the action begins in a music hall with an impressive display of recall from a novelty performer named "mr. memory". the revelrous atmosphere is soon undone, though, as shots ring out and everyone frantically heads for the exits. in the melee, our hero meets a nervous young woman who turns out to be a spy who turns out to get murdered. drat the luck! now the primary suspect in a homicide, he takes it on the lam and goes from one close call to another, narrowly getting out of jams, evading and escaping from police, hiding out on the moors and even delivering an impromptu speech at a political rally. he manages to shackle himself to madeleine carroll, one of the first of the hitchcock blondes, and she is slowly but surely convinced of his innocence. eventually, things come full circle and we find ourselves at the music hall again, with "mr. memory" being our flesh and blood macguffin this time around. events replay themselves, questions fly from the audience, another shot rings out and the espionage plot driving the action is foiled. this is truly a masterpiece of pacing. its pulls and rhythms are completely undeniable. you find yourself drawn in and breathlessly hurtling along through a parade of hitchcock's trademark elements, including his fondness for tweaking the censors with a risqué bit of business involving some stockings and the traditional cameo from the man himself. the performances are a bit mannered for a contemporary audience, but if you want to see how a suspense film should be cut, plotted and paced, then this is a masterclass. a very satisfying ending to the week.

and with that, we ring down the curtain. thanks, jon. that was all kinds of fun, so much so that i hate to see it end. i think i am going to watch the 39 steps again right now.


jon: day six

"i am constantly surprised that women's hats do not provoke more murders." - charles laughton, witness for the prosecution (1957)

day six finds us up to our briefs in legal matters. zing! first on the docket, jonathan lynn's my cousin vinny (1992). i have it on good authority that this is a comedy. if it pleases the court, i would like to respond to that claim via screencap:

ok, so that last one isn't from the movie.

the story: ralph macchio is on his way to a taping of dancing with the stars with his choreographer and, in a wacky case of mistaken identity, they are arrested for the grisly murder of a convenience store clerk. they send for joe pesci and his toupée to defend them in court. he brings the noise, and by that i mean marisa tomei. he's a new york yankee in an alabama court and, hoo boy, the sparks fly when these cultures clash, yuk, yuk. man, this wasn't funny. it was remedial. it moves from just plain insulting to downright depressing when you learn that the american bar association has voted it the third best legal film of all time, ahead of the likes of anatomy of a murder (1959) and inherit the wind (1960). jon, expect a civil suit over this one on the grounds of incompetence, mental cruelty and whatever else i can think of. exhibit a? the end credits music that recaps the movie for you:

actually, we may be looking at a capital case after rob marshall's chicago (2002).

catherine zeta-jones and renée squintweger play a pair of murderesses whose rich inner lives are choreographed by bob fosse. they jockey for position in the prison pecking order and atop the scandal sheets in between lavish production numbers. richard gere brings his thin, reedy voice and questionable tap dancing skills to the proceedings and queen latifah can barely contain herself.

i don't enjoy musicals for a good reason. typically, the music is awful. it's gaudy, overblown and pedestrian. the lyrics are obvious and narrative. i wouldn't listen to it on its own. why would i listen to it just because its being performed in the context of a song and dance? degree of difficulty? are people that easily distracted from the banality of it by writhing around in tights and sequins? the ventriloquist number was cleverly staged and interesting but that was about it. otherwise, it was a shallow, glitzy void. yes, i understood it was a satire. it just wasn't a particularly effective one. and, if you're a regular around here, you are well aware of my fondness for that town. don't mess with my beloved chicago, rob marshall. it's a good way to end up in a cement kimono.

next, we trade our tap shoes for southern accents in robert altman's the gingerbread man (1998).

it's altman's adaptation of a discarded john grisham manuscript. if you're asking yourself why someone like altman would choose a project that even john grisham didn't see the merits in, you're not alone. unfortunately, there aren't a lot of answers here. kenneth branagh plays a philandering attorney in a bad marriage who stumbles out of a party one evening to find a distraught young woman whose car has just been stolen. he offers her a ride home only to find her car in her driveway and her front door open. he accompanies her in to make sure she's safe as she rambles on incoherently, offering unclear half-explanations of what might be going on while she changes out of her work clothes. with her freshly stolen car mysteriously returned and her broken and entered house still possibly fraught with peril, they have sex, like you do. this sets in motion a chain of events featuring branagh as the patsy who can't keep it in his pants, robert downey, jr. as the southern(?) private eye who is a red herring, robert duvall as the shoeless leader of a crack team of homeless hillbilly ninjas and tom berenger as the obvious culprit, as he is the only other name actor featured. almost none of what robert altman does best is on display here. this is such a peculiar choice of material for him. the atmosphere of looming, escalating dread brought on by an approaching hurricane was a nice touch and there was a generally less constricted tone than you see with most legal thrillers, but only enough to make it a slightly above average genre exercise. when you're robert altman, why make a film that anyone could make? i object!

our closing argument comes in the form of karl malden's sole directorial offering, time limit (1957).

jon finally has mercy on me and grants me this 96 minute recess in black and white. the queue is a harsh mistress sometimes, but occasionally it rewards you with a pleasant surprise. this has been on my list to see for a long time, so i was glad when it popped up in the rotation. richard widmark plays a military investigator assigned to a treason case stemming from an incident in a north korean prisoner of war camp. a major is charged with collaborating with the enemy and refuses to defend himself. the witnesses' stories are all just a bit too pat and rehearsed and the accused's refusal to even mount a defense prompt our intrepid colonel to dig a little deeper. he discovers that both betrayal and loyalty inhabit some awfully gray spaces during wartime. the cast here is top notch with widmark, martin balsam, richard basehart and a very young rip torn. the biggest discovery for me, though, was dolores michaels. she was fantastic as the colonel's right hand. you don't see roles in thrillers (or anywhere else) like this for women much these days, much less in 1957. she was competent without being stern, compassionate without slipping into mothering, and every bit the intellectual and emotional equal of the men. without her, the case would have gone unsolved. plus, malden does this clever bait and switch with her introduction.

this is how she first appears to us in the film. immediately you are left to think "oh great, some old fashioned objectification" but balsam and torn's leering doesn't tell you anything about this woman. it is wholly an indictment of them, something that is underlined just a little bit more every time this intelligent, earnest and beautiful woman opens her mouth. she's definitely attractive, at least to me, in that brainy, down to earth way i love so much but she is no mere decoration for the office. and all the characters are treated that way, they're actual human beings. it comes across as a little stagebound occasionally, being adapted from the theatre, but that's a minor quibble. i'll trade some awkward blocking here and there for characters that feel real. overall, an excellent legal thriller with social drama undertones that treats its characters with respect. highly recommended.

home stretch now, kids. one more day and only one last fly in the ointment.

how did you people not know he was nuts all along?

jon: day five

"so i get thrown off the force! what kind of job is this, anyway? garbage...that's all we handle. garbage!" - robert ryan, on dangerous ground (1952)

and with that inspiring sentiment from nicholas ray's brilliant, dark portrait of a cop on the edge we delve into the world of the men and women behind the badge. first stop - new york city, for bruce malmuth's nighthawks (1981).

time hasn't exactly been kind to this movie, though the beard is a good look. i remembered it as much better than it actually is, probably because i haven't seen it since i was about twelve. sylvester stallone and billy dee williams are a pair of new york cops who engage in a war of nerves with terrorist bomber rutger hauer. it's just a few years on from the new york of pelham that we encountered just a few movies ago, and already it's lost its luster for me. disco ruined everything. the filmmaking style is also already edging toward the impatience that makes most modern thrillers so unappealing. i guess a pleasant side effect of that is that it at least has the decency to not stretch things out unnecessarily. on the down side, you end up with a product that is sloppy and unfocused, hoping that the flaws aren't so obvious if it just keeps moving. rutger hauer is the highlight of the film, exuding a menace that was probably somewhat amplified in 1981 by his still being an unknown quantity to most american filmgoers. the cold precision and cruel logic of his character balances everything else that goes on in the film and his assertion that he is sending his victims to a better place is believable both because of his conviction and the fact that anywhere out of this movie is probably a better place. if you have a nostalgic fondness for this one, i recommend you leave it that way.

next, sly gets better with age in james mangold's cop land (1997).

it's a look at an insular and dangerous group of corrupt new york cops that build themselves a dirty utopia across the river thanks to shady mob ties. the laundry list of bad business they engage in to protect their lifestyle and their fouled fraternity goes all the way up to arson and murder. stallone is in good company here, with ray liotta, harvey keitel and robert de niro, and he acquits himself admirably in what was a return to more serious roles after a decade plus in the wilderness of mindless action films and needless sequels. overall, the film doesn't quite succeed, but only because it tries to do so much. it has a complexity to it that most corrupt cop films don't have. unfortunately, the resolution of a couple of the threads is just a little less than satisfactory. it's a much better experience when viewed as a collection of individual moments instead, as there are some real standout interactions and delicate notes that take you by surprise. who would have ever guessed that a brief interaction between stallone and de niro would have been every bit the equal of, maybe even superior to, the long-awaited showdown between pacino and de niro in heat (1995)? not me, and yet, i think so now. there's also a beautiful moment when stallone is ambushed in his car and warned that the path he is on can only lead to ruin. for emphasis, the cop doing the warning cocks the hammer on his revolver and in that split second an almost imperceptible look crosses stallone's face. it's just a subtle flicker of terror at being caught at a disadvantage by someone who he knows means business. it's subtle and perfect. throughout the film, there are a number of equally great moments, a tribute to both the writing and performances. i just wish the whole was the sum of its parts.

the best part of the day was a chance to re-visit errol morris' stylistically innovative documentary, the thin blue line (1988).

in 1976, a dallas police officer was killed during a routine traffic stop. unreliable eyewitness testimony, including condemnation from what turned out to be the likely killer, put randall adams on death row in texas for eleven years. morris combines a series of eerie re-creations with his now-trademark interview technique to produce a film that raised enough questions to see the case re-opened and adams eventually exonerated. this was the first errol morris film i ever saw and it made a huge impression on me. the legacy of the film over the ensuing twenty-odd years only confirms that i was right to feel that way. the stylistic chances he took have become de rigueur in the presentation of criminal investigative journalism, the importance of the film in anti-death penalty advocacy circles cannot be underestimated and it continues to resonate as a meditation on cruel, capricious fate. if adams had changed any one of a series of seemingly inconsequential decisions, all of this might never have happened. the one thing that has changed for me since that initial viewing is the conflict i feel about the probable killer, david harris. i can't get a fix on the guy. is he a dead-eyed and plainly stupid sociopath? is he a kid that never had a chance? he hung adams out to dry but a frightened sixteen year-old kid doesn't typically make the decisions he would make as an adult. the film raises any number of questions about punishment versus rehabilitation, the questionable tactics employed by police when a quick resolution to a case is desirable, even the power of the medium itself and the sometimes hazy boundaries between documentation and interpretation. it was a vital film when i saw it the first time and adams' fate was uncertain and it's still vital.

we end up the day with richard tuggle's twisted police procedural, tightrope (1984).

clint eastwood plays a flinty new orleans detective on the trail of a serial killer. familiar territory, it would seem. not so fast, though. did i mention that clint has a predilection for kinky sex with prostitutes? things become even more complicated when the two worlds collide and the hookers that clint chokes for fun in his down time start to turn up dead, done in by someone who obviously has no respect for a safe word. this is one peculiar film. it incorporates all sorts of sleazy exploitation elements, twisted sex and downright giallo touches while balancing all that with subplots about how clint is an excellent father (of daughters - no accident) who struggles on in the wake of being left by a woman who no longer wanted to be a wife or mother and a budding relationship with a rape counselor/self defense teacher. the legwork of the murder investigation is handled well enough, aided in particular by an excellent dan hedaya, who keeps his more exaggerated tendencies under control. the rest of it though? it's a radical departure for eastwood, that much is certain. a family man who likes to choke and handcuff hookers is a far cry from the right-wing avenging angel he usually plays in the dirty harry series. there is even a moment when the killer invades his home and we discover the eldest daughter, a child, bound on a bed in what is an obviously sexualized context. this is such a bizarre mix of progressive and exploitative elements that i don't know what to do with it. that's good for me, though. i'll take a slightly subversive and kinky, if confused, puzzle over the usual any day.

tomorrow, we continue our odyssey of crime and punishment and concern ourselves with matters of jurisprudence.

i plead no contest.


jon: day four

"i'll tell you what i'm blathering about...i've got information, man! new shit has come to light! and shit..man, she kidnapped herself!" - the dude, the big lebowski (1998)

we move from the heist to a more personal crime for day four. today we focus on kidnapping. we start with a particularly hot mess from martin brest, gigli (2003).

ben affleck plays a low-level mob enforcer who is charged with kidnapping the mentally challenged younger brother of a federal prosecutor. to insure the scheme's success, his boss puts another operator on the job - the smarter, tougher jennifer lopez. the trio drives back and forth between some nondescript los angeles locations. christopher walken makes a batshit crazy cameo. jonathan winters used to do this thing where he would show up for the tonight show or dean martin variety hour with nothing prepared, raid the wardrobe closet and just make something up on the fly. that's sort of what al pacino's five minutes are like in this film. most importantly, affleck is up to his old tricks saving those crazy, mixed-up lesbians from themselves again, as his charms are just too much for lopez's lesbian character to resist. it's ridiculous from stem to stern, a lesbian conversion fantasy punctuated with an occasional slit wrist and bullet to the forehead. i didn't think the guy who made midnight run (1988) could miss the mark so badly. and this recurring theme of affleck's goes back a lot farther than chasing amy (1997). in 1993 he directed a short film called i killed my lesbian wife, hung her on a meat hook, and now i have a three-picture deal at disney. i kid you not. i am going to take a shower and then we'll get to the next movie.

which happens to be christopher mcquarrie's the way of the gun (2000).

ryan phillippe and benecio del toro are two career petty criminals who, while visiting a sperm bank to make donations, decide to kidnap a woman who is the surrogate mother for a wealthy couple that apparently can't conceive. they take it on the lam and the millionaire father-to-be, who has some unsavory resources at his disposal, sets james caan on their trail. things head south, figuratively and literally, for the pair and they go all in for a fifteen million dollar ransom payoff. the construction of the complications is a great idea, on paper. instead of the usual wild spiraling out of control that we usually see with films like this, what we get instead is a collapsing in. layer upon layer of subterfuge turns back in on itself until these two find themselves unable to escape the gravitational pull of this black hole of deceit and mayhem. it's a shame that it also makes things too convoluted. the first act is lean and interesting. it's peppered with excellent, observant dialogue and the way that the shootout/chase at the fertility clinic plays out is clever and inventive. the longer things go, though, the more the film loses its way. pair mcquarrie with a good editor and you might really have something. one thing i am glad for, viewing this again ten years down the road, is that this time i don't have to listen to anyone talking about how tarantino-esque it is. it's nothing of the kind. in the late nineties/early 2000s, that observation was nearly inescapable if you had gunplay and above average dialogue. it actually owes more to peckinpah, if anything. it's solid, probably the best thing phillippe has ever done and i appreciate that the assassins that bring them down aren't slick and professional. they look like middle school principals in cheap windbreakers. it's perfect that those guys are the last thing they'll see as they lie there, covered in blood and dust, watching fifteen million dollars get away from them. it could end no better way than adding that insult to injury.

we go from ambitious and flawed to precise and sterile with ron howard's ransom (1996).

mel gibson in a characteristically tender phone moment.

mel plays a maverick (hey-o!) bajillionaire airline magnate whose son is kidnapped from central park one sunny afternoon. after a botched ransom drop, mel goes rogue, turning the tables on the kidnappers by offering the ransom as a bounty on their heads instead, vowing to never rest until they either return his son unharmed or he has obliterated them from the face of the earth. hint: the ol' crazy eyes work in mel's favor when he's selling that. there are twists and more twists, all of which arrive right on schedule, and the child is recovered. but wait, even more twists, right on cue. almost nothing for me in this one. ron howard is so...competent. everything moves along like clockwork and even if you don't know what the surprises are going to be, they never fail to arrive right on the beat. the conclusion is never in doubt, just another one of those things that you set up to watch it run. i didn't learn anything about myself. i didn't learn anything about anyone else. delroy lindo shows up, that's a plus, but what he's given to do is so textbook and repetitious they could have filmed one scene with him and just cut it in over and over again. the crew of kidnappers is full of interesting actors as well, but it doesn't really matter much. everyone is just a cog in ron howard's ruthlessly boring machine.

closing the show we have mike barker's best laid plans (1999).

cut the kid a break. it's hard to be america's plucky li'l sweetheart when you've been handcuffed to a pool table all night. this was yet another junior varsity neo-noir where no one is what they seem and things go haywire. sorry, that's all the plot rehash you're getting on this one. this movie comes from that sad time before josh brolin figured out that stoic and rugged was his bread and butter. it breaks my heart a little bit to see llewelyn moss be such an insufferable whiner. the one thing i enjoyed about this film is how the final cold light of day made all the ill business of the previous long, dark night of the soul seem comical in retrospect. you should be able to have a good laugh at yourself when you realize that you almost framed your friend for statutory rape, faked your girlfriend's death and stole an irreplaceable piece of history all for naught. oops. my bad. this "no one is what they seem" schtick is reaching its limit. the whole time, i was thinking about/longing for something like the last seduction (1994) where the schemer is exactly what she seems - bad news all the way around. blatant. lethal. the queue teaches you early and often, though, that you can't win 'em all.

tomorrow focus shifts to the other side, as we spend a day with the boys in blue.

prepare to be served and protected.


jon: day three

"i do what i do best, i takes scores. you do what you do best, try to stop guys like me." - robert de niro, heat (1995)

day three of queue de grâce celebrates the heist in its various incarnations and we begin with what i consider - and i say this with love and purely as a compliment - the ishtar (1987) of its generation, john hamburg's safe men (1998).

sam rockwell and steve zahn play two aspiring and inept singer-songwriters who are mistaken for safe crackers and find themselves caught in the middle of a pissing contest between, what i can only assume are, the only two jewish gangsters in providence, rhode island. on its surface, it doesn't seem like a remarkable set-up. it's not really, the ol' mistaken identity leads to wacky hijinks business. what sets it apart is the quality of the writing and perfectly awkward performances, including paul giamatti as the mob intern/manchild who goes by the name veal chop. every conversation is spiked with some memorably off-kilter line or delivery that makes you cock your head sideways like a dog that just heard a high-pitched sound. the parallels with ishtar range from the songwriting angle (which i know is probably much funnier to musicians) to the "you've got the wrong guys" angle to the vastly underrated comic gem angle. along the way, michael lerner and harvey fierstein almost steal the show as the mob kingpins, what with their bar mitzvah preparations and stories about exploding slacks. you should see it. i can't do it justice. this always seems to be one of those that people haven't seen when i mention it. i would like to take this opportunity to rectify that for the lot of you.

next up, we have jules dassin's other heist movie, topkapi (1964).

this is like the lighthearted b-side to dassin's earlier, superior caper rififi (1955). it was his first color film and he certainly doesn't spare the horses in that regard. kaleidoscopic effects abound and there isn't a swatch of wallpaper that you can't practically hear. maximilian schell, sporting his best proto-daniel day-lewis look, assembles a team of non-thieves to boost a bejeweled dagger from a turkish museum. peter ustinov, who is the highlight of the film, gets unwittingly roped into the deal and ends up playing both ends against the middle when he's pinched by the police bringing weapons back for the job. he turns informant, updating the turkish authorities about the gang's plans while simultaneously becoming more and more integral to the thieves' scheme. the first half of the film drags a bit because it is primarily a showcase for dassin's wife, melina mercouri, who thrashes her way through the film like an aging, garish and greedy crocodile.

it was difficult to suspend my disbelief as they were trying to convince me that anyone found her seductive enough to rob a candy store on her behalf, much less taking rare artifacts under heavy guard. once she clears the lane for the actual heist things improve considerably. the robbery is a nice set piece and the twist that gets them nabbed is in keeping with the lighthearted tone of the rest of the film. i just prefer the darkness of rififi. this seems like a slight step backwards when you view it in that light. this was good fun but ultimately disposable.

next up is brian de palma's film about how much he obviously hates me, femme fatale (2002).

actually, that title is held by the black dahlia (2006). this is merely the runner-up, but i did take it awfully personally. rebecca romijn and antonio banderas star in this silly and overheated piece of "intrigue" about a diamond thief that doublecrosses her compatriots, assumes a dead woman's identity and then has to deal with the avalanche of repercussions when a paparazzi unwittingly exposes her charade. i give him enormous credit for the opening sequence. it has all the trappings of the traditional heist - the fancy gadgets, the black clothing, the meticulously timed maneuvers - but he manages to put his unmistakable stamp on it by having romijn seduce the priceless baubles right off a nubile starlet in a bathroom tryst at a cannes film festival event. it is the sort of voyeuristic, lurid bait-and-switch that he excels at. and then the wheels fall off. you would think that a film about a bisexual jewel thief who has to adopt another identity which is then uncovered by a photographer would be tailor-made for de palma's trademark techniques/themes - the overt sexuality, the split screen, things not being what they seem, the slow motion violence, the viewer and the viewed. yet, when he plugs them in to this framework almost none of them work. i have to think a lot of this falls on the choice of romijn. the idiotic lines she's given don't help. de palma is still in thrall to hitchcock so much that he once again casts his female lead much like the master would: blond, beautiful, a little cold and not a very good actress when it comes down to it. most of the time this was just boring. sometimes it was unintentionally funny. and when the twist came i think jon probably heard my "COME ON!" all the way out on the west coast. hitchcock's manipulations didn't leave you feeling cheated. there's the difference between the two men in a nutshell. don't watch this. just be honest with yourself and watch girl-girl porn.

closing things out we have bob rafelson's most recent collaboration with jack nicholson, blood & wine (1996).

nicholson plays a wine merchant who, in an attempt to get out from under enormous debt, conceives a plan to steal a diamond necklace from one of his clients. he enlists the help of his mistress and a safe cracking michael caine and they make off with the jewelry but, as is usually the case, things go awry. i liked this, didn't love it, but what they got right, they got really right. first the locale is perfect. if los angeles was the definitive classic noir location, then florida has to be it for the modern era. it is sultry and dirty and weird down there. you're bound to make bad decisions when you're that uncomfortable all the time. miles of swamps and endless ocean can conceal an awful lot of crimes. there's too much time to lay awake thinking when it's too hot to sleep. florida is a natural for neo-noir. they nailed the attitude as well. when things go wrong for these guys, and it always will for guys like this, it's because they are small-timers at heart. it doesn't matter the size of the stakes they are playing for, they will always be small-timers. losing is built in with them. they are grubby lowlifes even when you're talking seven figures and it couldn't be more obvious. look how they give themselves away when the chips are down. they crawl, they wheedle, they plead, the scrounge. they are locked in and can't let it go even when walking away is the only choice. that ugly, desperate vibe is dead-on here. i am hesitant to say it's more than good because i know what rafelson and nicholson are capable of together and this doesn't quite measure up to previous work. it is appropriately and unflinchingly downbeat, though. any time nicholson is on the screen there's the chance that he could charm us into seeing it his way, the old sly boots. they don't make that choice here and i am grateful. he starts low and stays low. it's worth a watch, if you're a neo-noir fan.

a lifetime of heist films has led me to one conclusion: i am never taking on a job that i can't do alone. someone is always getting greedy. someone is always running their mouth. someone is always gumming up the works. it's all about the company you keep, you know? on that note, did i mention j. lo is back again tomorrow?

yep, it's all about the company you keep.


jon: day two

"you're maudlin and full of self pity. you're magnificent."

and with that sentiment from all about eve (1950) as our jumping off point, day two begins our magical glimpse behind the curtain of this business we call show. you didn't seriously think i was going to suffer this indignity by myself? ladies and gentlemen, for your approval, the star of larry peerce's hard to hold (1984), rick springfield. feast your eyes, folks. i had to, as what you see there made no less than three separate appearances in this film. i am completely dumbfounded by this one. check me on this, but i thought the object of a vanity project was to make you look good. this is one of the most sub-television pieces of crap i have ever seen. as near as i can put together, the plot goes something like this: rick springfield is a bigtime rock star. he smashes into a girl's car and it's love at first sight, for him. he stalks her. her dad is a drunken longshoreman who may or may not have died some time during the movie. rick's band is populated by fat nerds from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and billy mumy from lost in space. his songwriting partner is his ex-wife, i think, who brandishes broken bottles at people. rick and the girl wander around san francisco falling in love to varying degrees. rick wears a sailor suit once. if it sounds disjointed that's because it is. i have never, and i mean never, seen a movie where it made less of a difference in what order the scenes occur. it's like a choose your own adventure in which, regardless of the page you turn to, you end up stuck in a synth-driven spider web, waiting to be consumed by rick springfield's bare ass. it's filled with scenes of rick and his girl inexplicably running from one meaningless, awkward scene to the next, him regularly pumping his fist in the air, celebrating some victory that exists only in his mind. every camera angle is the least flattering one you could have chosen. it's clumsy, stupid, not sexy and exists solely to sell us rick's hit single, which is the finale of the film. in case you missed it, they replay the exact same hit single forty-five seconds later, under the closing credits, during which they show a condensed version of the movie all over again in three minutes. it's a horror show. how would you like to open your window to find you're being serenaded by this gangly oaf and a tony bennett impersonator straight out of david lynch's worst nightmares?

queue de grâce is always a cornucopia of new experiences for me. i never thought i would ever be embarrassed for rick springfield and yet, here we are. it probably didn't help rick's cause that another musical vanity project came along a month later and kicked the living shit out of his.

sorry, rick. bad timing, buddy. also, next time you might want to leave the running gag about you having herpes out of your musical romantic comedy.

i wish joe jackson had gotten to make an early eighties musical vanity project movie.

from there we move into the most pleasant surprise of my day, bob fosse's all that jazz (1979).

i thoroughly enjoyed this. it's fosse having the last laugh way ahead of everyone else in the form of a hallucinatory, semi-autobiographical musical that is about as obsessed with death, the little and the large, as any picture this side of ingmar bergman. the damn thing is fascinating. roy scheider is a great, and far from obvious, choice to be fosse's surrogate in the film and it's pretty riveting to watch him push relentlessly through the days, the work and the sexual conquests, consuming little more than alka-seltzer, dexedrine and cigarettes. he's a completely unrepentant bastard whose lack of acknowledgment of boundaries jeopardizes every one of his relationships, enables him to create intricate works of mesmerizing art out of the human form and eventually kills him with a smile on his face. there are no limits. he even, literally, flirts with death. the fosse behind the camera is just as self-indulgent as the one on the screen, creating his own myth, eulogizing himself before someone less talented and less consumed by genius botches the job. he moves - sometimes fluidly, sometimes jarringly, always effectively - between past, present and fantasy and has the nerve to show you just how he gets away with it all. he just dares to. i am an avowed non-fan of most musical theatre, but even i can recognize unparalleled skill when i see it. the central segment where he transforms a banal song and dance into an erotically overcharged production number is simply astounding. not bad for a genuine son of a bitch. a lot of folks refer to this as fosse's 8½ (1963), but i think that's pushing it a bit. he's still no fellini. call it 6¼. thanks, jon. i might never have seen this otherwise. i'm glad i did.

can't say the same about this.

when i saw baz luhrmann's moulin rouge! (2001) on the list, i wasn't exactly thrilled. i enjoyed the scrappy upstart-ness of his strictly ballroom (1992) somewhat, but haven't really been a fan of anything since. the story here is unremarkable, kind of an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink melodrama. boy meets girl, they fall madly in love against the odds, girl gets tuberculosis and dies. did nicholas sparks have a story credit somewhere that i missed? when you're this short on substance, you make up the difference with style, i guess. it definitely has style, it's just a shame it's not exactly stylish. it reads more like an infernal, candy-colored video game, as if i were playing a version of myst where they replaced the puzzles with medleys and mashups. just once, i wish redefining something for a generation - in this case, the musical - meant slowing it down and being more thoughtful about it. it shouldn't always have to equate to cramming in as much sensory overload as your imagination can conceive and cranking it up as fast and as loud as it will go. lacking story as it did, it really only needed to be about fifteen minutes long to get its point across. it would make an exceptional long-form music video. but, since it's over two hours long, you get a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. too often, it confuses being frantic with being funny, so john leguizamo probably felt right at home. in his defense, luhrmann can be awfully adept at weaving something new out of a lifetime of pop culture touchstones. from looney tunes to nirvana, and all points in between, he crafted something unique and never derivative. for his opposite number, i refer you to pastiche artist quentin tarantino. i give luhrmann credit for being bold, but i think i would rather talk to him about movies than watch one he made. next!

ending up the day we have michael hoffman's somewhat disappointing soapdish (1991). you had me at elisabeth shue. then you lost me. i had high hopes for this one. a nice ensemble comedy, perhaps? an interesting new take on the screwball tradition? andrew bergman, the man responsible for one of the funniest films i have ever seen, the in-laws (1979), wrote it, so it had pedigree on its side. it just didn't work out that way. it follows the machinations of the characters on a fictional daytime drama, both offscreen and on, and you would think that scenario is a potential comic goldmine. in fact, i still think so, as its potential remains untapped. there are a couple of amusing bits of business here and there but i think, for me, it lacked bite. this could, and should, have been savagely funny but wound up far too polite. kevin kline, as often happens in light comedy from this time period, is the real standout but even he isn't given much to do. oh well, as consolation - mostly to myself - here is another glimpse of elisabeth shue.

join me again tomorrow to see what surprises jon has in store for us. rumor has it, there's an underrated gem somewhere on the horizon.

trailer tuesday

this week's entry is for arthur penn's bonnie and clyde (1967).

you can catch this as part of the paramount theatre's "lovers on the run" double feature this week on thursday and friday. it is screening in tandem with nicholas ray's excellent they live by night (1949). showtime is at 7 p.m. both nights. go see it on the big screen!


jon: day one

well, here we are again - queue de grâce time. jon has sent me a mountain of movies to get through, each day grouped by a theme with a bit of a prologue. to set today's tone:

we start things off with what, i have to think, is jon's rosetta stone. i am pretty sure it's no accident that this is first out of the chute - john mctiernan's die hard (1988).

i have a fondness for this one and i tend to agree with the nearly universal opinion that this is the definitive action movie, unrivaled by its contemporaries, the innumerable rip-offs that followed or its own lame successors in the franchise. i know it's hard to remember now, but there was a time in the dear, dim past when bruce willis was not known as an action hero. i liked him then, too. i think moonlighting was one of the best pieces of television ever made. it was smart, fast and funny. it had great chemistry and the show took risks. willis carried all the right parts of the david addison persona over to this film to make it the perfect antidote for all the other reagan era action pictures that featured superhuman AMERICAN heroes kicking ass and taking names, the way god intended. he was a wiseass, certainly, but they subdued that part of the character just enough - no one-liners after every kill, no implacable cool. there wasn't ideology at stake. they put his motivation squarely on the homefront. more than ever, it's obvious to me that he was running around that building, blowing things up and getting bloody footprints everywhere with one thing in mind - saving his wife. it all works so well precisely because he is that everyman. moviegoers that couldn't imagine themselves as arnold or sly could certainly see themselves as john mcclane. wrong place, wrong time, lunchpail guy doing what he could in extraordinary circumstances. it's brilliant that way. almost everyone could pull for this guy, not just the demographic that misinterpreted bruce springsteen's born in the u.s.a. don't get me wrong, i am well aware of the overall mulitcultural otherness of the bad guys and there is an awful lot of blowing shit up. i am not making a case that this is high art, just that it's a more subtle and interesting genre piece, deserving of its spot atop the pile. reason number one for that? john mctiernan is every bit as ruthless and cunning as hans gruber ever thought about being. if you don't believe me, go back and watch just up to the three-minute mark. in one scene, as mcclane's plane lands and he enters the airport, mctiernan wordlessly tells you volumes about this guy: wedding ring on the hand clutching the armrest anxiously - married, fear of flying, not superhuman. pulls stuffed bear out of overhead compartment - family man. brief nonverbal sexual tension with flight attendant - things not as rosy at home as you might have first thought. waiting for baggage he, the only character in the shot, is framed left of center. the right two-thirds of the screen are empty - there's a void in him, which he stands there balefully regarding, the only thing between him and it is the bear which now seems less a gift than an attempt to buy someone's affection. that all happens in about a minute and forty-five seconds. it is as lean and efficient as you will ever see in its genre. there are one or two clunky spots with reginald veljohnson and argyle's last line - "if this is their idea of christmas, i gotta be here for new year's" - is about as standard fare actioner as it gets, but they managed to avoid almost all of those pitfalls and, in the process, laid down the blueprint for decades to come. i always enjoy watching this one, though i have noticed i enjoy it just a little bit less each time. it may not hold its value forever. one thing will never change, though. ellis is a douchebag.

with jon making such a strong statement right out of the box, where could he go from there? apparently, he meant to turn this installment into an episode of dos and don'ts, as he followed this with renny harlin's laughable the long kiss goodnight (1996).

i know it's hard to imagine, but they outrun this fireball and jump through a window. man, we were cavalier about blowing things up pre-9/11.

in case you haven't seen it, geena davis plays a milquetoast housewife with focal retrograde anmesia who, after an auto accident, finds remnants of her old stone cold assassin self bubbling to the surface. she picks up a guy who does a pretty decent samuel l. jackson impression and together they thwart a group of wolves in agency clothing who are a conspiracy theorist's dream cabal. it is simply unbelievable. i muttered the word to myself on more than one occasion for more than one reason. it lost me right out of the gate with a horrible, rushed and awkward voiceover and never recovered its footing. it is about as rote as it gets. not one single thing in this movie surprised me. every move was telegraphed like it was a fixed fight. plot points and details that the previous film would have let you discover in the periphery might as well have had flashing arrows pointed at them. case in point: almost immediately after the car wreck that triggers her reawakening, she approaches the deer she struck and breaks its neck. hold on, though. what happens in between, you may ask? why, a super-subtle rebirth metaphor as she wades through a river to reach the dying animal, that's what. everything was done in similarly bold/silly strokes. i have no problem when a movie fully commits to its own ridiculousness and goes at it tongue firmly in cheek - something like shoot 'em up (2007), for instance. the difference is that movie knew it was doing that ahead of time. this was the cinematic equivalent of tripping and then trying to turn it into some acrobatic thing that only ends up underscoring how much you didn't mean to do that. i think during the split personality/dream sequence business they snuck in unused reels from beetlejuice (1988). i'll tell you who the blame lies squarely at the feet of: shane black. he is the single most overrated screenwriter i know of. he's good at two things, basically - trafficking in shopworn clichés and patting himself on the back for his own perceived cleverness. the one time he's managed to get out of his own way resulted in the excellent kiss kiss bang bang (2005). unfortunately, there are only a couple of those small, honest moments here and they never manage to sustain themselves. the rest of it is him being in love with the sound of his own voice. it's a shame, really. all i could think of the whole time was that it was a wasted opportunity to have a great female action character. i know it's often cited as an example of such but that can only be because there aren't a lot to compare it to. i suppose it's a foot in the door but it's similar to the dilemma i see in bridesmaids (2011) - ok, ladies, so you can make a shitty film like your male counterparts. congratulations? there was one redeeming moment, though. for two seconds, robert altman's the long goodbye (1973) was on the television in the motel.

so now what? pop quiz, hotshot!

you are on a movie that is careening out of control down the expressway to yr skull. jon, the terrorist, has put a bomb on my television and he has an itchy trigger finger. do you stay on or get off? STAY ON OR GET OFF?!?

i stay on. it's part of the deal.

with jan de bont's speed (1994), at least we are moving back in the right direction after that last one. keanu is doing his most appealing character type here - likeable doofus with the dead, dead eyes. never been a fan of sandra bullock, but the frilly ankle socks thing hits me where i live. and this guy makes a return queue de grâce engagement:

vitagraph favorite, joe morton, this time rocking that sweet mustache! if i was on a bus with a bomb and joe morton was anywhere in the vicinity, i would rest easy because i would know everything was going to be alright. overall, though, this one splits my vote right down the middle. credit for the bomb scenarios being unique and genuine tension being generated. demerits for ridiculousness like jumping a city bus over a fifty foot span and the impact not being enough to detonate the huge bomb attached to the undercarriage. it also undercuts the genuine moments of tension when everything is shot and cut in that hyperactive fashion. for instance, keanu and jeff daniels make their first appearance in a car going unnecessarily airborne like it's the streets of san francisco and then proceed to take part in the most intensely choreographed instance of TAKING OUR VESTS OUT OF THE TRUNK that you have ever seen. take off more points for the obvious attempts to generate catchphrases. so maybe it doesn't split me down the middle. maybe it's more like 30/70.

let's get this train back on the track. who's man enough to do it?

my old pal walter matthau, that's who! he gets down to brass tacks in joseph sargent's solid subway thriller, the taking of pelham one two three (1974). matthau plays a new york city transit cop who musters every ounce of his rumpled wit in a war of attrition with a group of hijacking thieves. i love everything about this movie. the script is taut and doesn't underestimate the audience. who steals a subway car? the fact that the hijackers are so far ahead of both the police and the viewer with such an absurd plan makes for a ride full of thrills that are not obvious. the cast is superb, with robert shaw and martin balsam turning in especially noteworthy performances. it is great to see new york city in all its early seventies splendor. it's the last era of the city that i feel any sort of fondness for, with its grouchy but communal feel, hanging on to its last splinter of innocence. the political and procedural angles of a city and police force held in the grip of terrorists are handled swiftly and deftly. it's lived-in, darkly funny, appropriately tense and written for adults, not a combination you see much in action thrillers anymore. plus, dig this near-perfect mix of music/opening titles.

hope you brought your notebook, twenty-first century! that's how it's done.

well, we end up triumphant today. i've known all along that tomorrow is the true test, though.

chief brody? is that you?