Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Happy Birthday, Prez

A scout once described a pair of up-and-coming basketball players by saying that one had a knack for making everything look hard, and the other had a knack for making everything look easy.

I was thinking of that quote today as I listened to Lester Young, one of the greatest saxophone players in the history of saxophone players, play a buttery clarinet solo on "They Can't Take That Away From Me." He made it listen so easy.

Today is Young's birthday, and even if you're not a jazz fan, I would recommend taking a few minutes to listen to something by Young, who hasn't grown as famous as John Coltrane or Charlie Parker, but whose ability was beautiful and striking.

One of the wonderful things about music is that an instrument's sound can change so dramatically in the hands of different musicians. A hard-edged, mournful guitar performance by Robert Johnson is utterly different than than the smooth, precise playing of B.B. King, even though they supposedly play the same style.

So it is with jazz. Ben Webster's whispery saxophone can summon a lazy, romantic evening; Charlie Parker's sound always makes me think of taxicabs whizzing past; John Coltrane's squeaking, squealing tone sounds like a man digging deeper and deeper into his own soul.

Lester Young's fingerprint is harder to detect. Although his influence was vast, as evidenced by Charles Mingus' beautiful elegy, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," his sound is hard to describe. It's warm as softened butter and seems to float effortlessly from solo to solo, allowing you to sink, entranced, into the song he's playing.

Check him out. And wish him a happy birthday.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Twists and Turns

I just finished reading Shutter Island, a mystery by Dennis Lehane that will be the basis for an upcoming flick with Leonardo DiCaprio, directed by Martin Scorsese. It's a fun book. It's lean, tightly plotted and has a twist at the end that is probably tougher to pull off in words than it will be on the screen.

It sparked a conversation with a friend of mine over twist endings in movies. We started talking about the best twists we've seen.

I remember seeing a screening of The Usual Suspects before it was released. Nobody in the audience had heard of the cast members -- Benecio del Toro was unknown, Kevin Spacey was a vaguely recognizable character actor, and Stephen Baldwin was Stephen Baldwin -- and expectations were low, But the film dragged everyone into its net, and when final scene rolled by, the audience lost it. It was one of the most thrilling movie-watching experiences I've had and showed me what a good surpise at the end of a film can do.

So here, in no order, are my top twists of all time, plus an added bonus worst twist of all time. This is just a personal list and I'm sure I'm forgetting a bunch; I encourage you to add your own suggestions. (Oh, and ... you know. Spoilers.)

The Usual Suspects. I saw this again recently, and it's surprising how well it holds up even when you know what's coming. Logically, of course, Spacey is the only one of the thieves who is alive in the present-day portion of the film, so he's the only one who could be Keyser Soze. Halfway through the movie, you realize the director and writer are too smart to have Byrne pop out of a closet or del Toro turn up cackling as the real villain. But it's the timing and wit with which the filmmakers reveal the truth that makes it so fun.

Psycho. This film has seeped so far into popular culture that you don't have to see it to be surrounded by references to it. It's still a masterpiece, from the still-startling shower scene to the unnerving performance by Anthony Perkins. But I think people underrate the revelation at the end. And the swinging bare bulb adds the perfect, stark touch.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. No, really. I'm serious. Here's a big-budget, Hollywood movie that ends, essentially, with the heroes losing and most of the world's population getting wiped out in a nuclear holocaust. Most action movies teach us that we can change events if we try hard enough; you can stop the terrorists, thwart the serial killer, and get the girl to boot. But in T3, very little has changed from the beginning to the end. It's a weirdly subversive and daring way to end a film.

The Empire Strikes Back. I'm still kind of freaked out about this one.

The Sixth Sense. The thing that makes this twist so great is the organic nature of it. It makes sense, it doesn't negate the power of anything that preceded it and it adds poignancy to the end. It's not necessarily the best movie on this list, but it's a perfect example of how a twist ending can enhance a movie without seeming like an overly clever afterthought.

Special Bonus! Worst Twist of All Time: Ocean's 12. For most of the film, Danny Ocean's gang plans an elaborate heist with seemingly everything at stake. Then, with 10 minutes left to go, you find out they had already pulled off the heist (which was ridiculously easy), making the stakes irrelevant. Ha ha! Up yours, audience!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Letter to my Old Friend Hollywood

Dear Hollywood,

We've had some good times, you and I.

You've given me years of entertainment. You've taught me how to survive attacks by zombies, murderous dolls and super-intelligent sharks. When I was young, you showed me ladies' boobs when no one else would.

In return, I have given you untold hours of my time and most of my money that I would have otherwise spent on feeding hungry children or clothing the homeless or buying the medicine my bastard of a psychiatrist said would help me with my anger problem.

It has been a mutually beneficial relationship.

Which is why it's so hard for me to tell you this: Hollywood, you've got to stop making fun of yourself.

The reason I'm writing this letter, Hollywood, is the upcoming release of Tropic Thunder, which is a movie about actors in a war movie who get set loose in a real war zone, resulting in two hours of hilarity. The movie stars Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Nick Nolte and Steve Coogan.

The movie looks very funny, and I'm looking forward to it. But I can't help getting a queasy feeling I read its reviews, which gushingly note how the film "skewers Hollywood" as if that's original or daring, when really it's neither.

First of all, Hollywood, you've been savaging yourself for a long time.

All About Eve was pretty much a venom-filled indictment of the entertainment industry, and that movie was so old it was in black and white because it had to be, not because the director wanted some easily won film-snob cred.

In the last decade or so, you've sprouted a cottage industry telling people how lame you are in order to show people how cool you are.

Actors do it all the time. Bob Saget played himself as a hooker-frequenting druggie in Entourage; Neil Patrick Harris did pretty much the same thing in the Harold and Kumar movies. And it seems like every week, somebody famous is making fun of themselves on The Simpsons. Jim Jarmusch, was on it a while ago. I like Jim Jarmusch, but I don't want him in cartoons. I want him where he belongs, which is making boring movies I don't understand.

There are also entire movies making fun of the movie industry, such as Swimming with Sharks, which had Kevin Spacey as a mean studio executive, or The Player, which had Tim Robbins as a mean studio executive, or State & Main, which had Alec Baldwin as a lecherous actor. All of them are made to convince us, the audience, how craven and shallow and greedy you all are, and how stupid audiences are for buying the pap you churn out on the studio assembly line. That way we both walk away from the film feeling superior to people who aren't in on the joke.

But here's the thing, Hollywood: I'm tired of the joke. And most of all, I don't care. I don't care how vain or egotistical or drug-addled you are. I just want good entertainment I can buy off you, and that's all.

So I'm going to offer you a deal.

I'm going to go to see Tropic Thunder. I'm going to laugh as Ben Stiller makes faces, as Jack Black makes fun of drug addiction and as Robert Downey Jr. mocks method acting.

Then you've got to clean up your act, or I'm going to start tuning out. So please start churning out the entertainment I love without assuming I care how it gets made or who makes it.

You wouldn't want me to turn to books, would you?

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Brilliantly absurd action scenes: An ongoing series

Ice-T busts a move in 3,000 Miles to Graceland


3,000 Miles to Graceland is about a group of thieves who, while disguised as Elvis impersonaters, knock over a casino, then turn on each other in a series of violent double crosses. The two antagonists, played by Kurt Russell as the good guy and Kevin Costner as the bad guy, both believe they are illegitamite sons of Elvis Presley, which is why Costner's character wears a pair of suitably ridiculous sideburns.

It's a promising idea for an entertainingly bad movie, and my hopes were raised even more by the strangeness of the cast. (David Arquette and Ice-T, together at last!) Unfortunately, while there are a few moments of inspiration, it's really just an illogical, bloody and charmless mess.

(There is one genuinely great moment: Courtney Cox's character is in her car, trying to escape Costner, who is pursuing her and her son close behind. For a moment it seems like they've lost Costner, but then he comes roaring up behind them in his car. Cox's son exclaims, "It's him!" followed immediately by a shot of Costner who, despite the impossibility of him hearing the boy, says something like, "It's me! Ha ha ha ha ha!" Seriously, it's really great.)

Despite its general lack of quality, 3,000 Miles to Graceland does have one of the more bizarre landmarks in action-scene history: Ice-T's technique for ambushing the good guys, which may be the least effective ambush technique ever.

First of all, here's the setup: Costner is preparing for the final showdown with Russell. One of his henchman, played by Howie Long (!) arrives, accompanied by Ice-T, who had not been seen up to this point. Costner chastises Long, saying, "I said to bring a lot of guys!" To which Long replies, "He is a lot of guys."

Meaning, of course, that Ice-T is this totally bad ass killing machine.

Now at this point, I started to get interested in the movie again. With an introduction like that, I figured Ice-T would be a master of the nunchuks, or have some sort of futuristic pulse rifle, or be well-schooled in gymkata. In an action movie, if other guys talk about a henchman like that, he'd better be pretty spectacular*.

Sadly, that's not the case in 3,000 Miles to Graceland.

As it turns out, Ice-T's sweet move: He lowers himself upside down by a rope above the warehouse floor, firing a machine gun with each hand. Oh, and he's suspended by his ankles.

This raises some questions:

1) When Ice-T loses momentum, won't he just dangle helplessly from the rope, vulnerable to gunfire and unable to pull himself back up?

2) No matter how trained Ice-T is in the deadly arts, is firing two machine guns while upside down and swinging on the end of the rope the most efficient way to kill someone? I know that action movies foster some exaggeration, but ... how do you even aim, man?

3) If this is the killing technique Ice-T chose, what are the techniques he rejected?

Henchman: I have an idea -- before the people we're going to ambush get here, let's invent a time machine using common household items we have on hand, travel back into 18th century, and murder their ancestors!

Ice-T: Don't be ridiculous. (Pause) Why don't we just swing across the warehouse floor while suspended upside-down by ropes, firing machine guns ?

Henchman (stroking his chin): I like the way you think, Ice-T.


I don't remember How Ice-T meets his end in this film, but I remember he doesn't last long. So as it turns out, 3,000 Miles to Graceland does offer a practical lesson: When it comes to ambushes, don't do as Ice-T does.

*There are occasional exceptions to this rule, which I like to call the Michael Madsen Corollary, after the actor's role in Species I and II. Madsen plays a shadowy government hit man, but you never actually see him doing anything cool or even marginally useful.