when you have to shoot… shoot… don’t talk: eli wallach


Character actor Eli Wallach turns 97 years old today. I’ve said it for years that he’s right at the top of my list of people to have dinner with, because he’s a brilliant raconteur and you know the evening would be filled with entertaining stories. He’s long been a favorite and it’s difficult picking just one brilliant performance by him. I love so many of his scene-stealing roles in various movies: Baby Doll (his first feature), The Lineup (a nifty crime movie), The Magnificent Seven (one of the great first scenes), The Misfits, Lord Jim, and more recently in his memorable small role in The Ghost Writer.

He’ll always be Tuco to me, however. Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (Wallach plays “the Ugly”) is epic stuff, rich in visual texture and sublime in aural majesty. Like all of Leone’s movies, what makes them brilliant is the direction and the score by Ennio Morricone. Acting is always subservient to that. That doesn’t mean great performances can’t be seen in these movies. All three of the leads in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly are fantastic and Wallach in particular gives a ferociously entertaining performance.

There’s a little Tuco in all of us.

To celebrate this man’s latest birthday, here’s one of the final scenes in the movie, showing Tuco running through the cemetery looking for the grave of Arch Stanton… where the gold awaits. It’s a deliriously operatic moment and a fitting prologue to the violent showdown, which can be seen directly below it.

Happy birthday, Mr. Wallach.

some of my favorite things #9: something wild (1986)


“You sure you know what you’re doing?”


It’s dangerous revisiting a movie you loved in your youth, but haven’t seen since then. If you’re prone to wallowing in the effluvia of solipsistic nostalgia, you may convince yourself that you can recapture the experience. The movie may be the same, but you aren’t. You can’t return to that original moment when you were first seduced.

One of my favorite movies from the 1980s was Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild. When it came out in 1986, it was a refreshing alternative to pretty much everything else playing and it confirmed that Melanie Griffith was the “It girl” at that time. The movie also resurrected Demme’s career (which had run aground with Swing Shift a few years earlier) and gave us the showstopping feature film debut of Ray Liotta. It was a modest work, but it snapped and never wore out its welcome.

Something Wild–a mix of screwball comedy and crime–was sexy, stylistically hip and contemporary, and its tonal shift at the halfway point was startling at the time. When Liotta makes his first appearance at the school reunion sequence about an hour into the movie, we plunge down the narrative rabbit hole for good. It’s an invigorating feeling because the shift from neo-screwball comedy to the darker, violent material is so seamless. The movie wasn’t static in that first half. Demme and screenwriter E. Max Frye have been testing our footing continuously in little ways. Lulu (Griffith) comes on strong in the early scenes, like an earthy boozy dream girl, yet a softer more introspective side to her personality comes out when she arrives at her mother’s place. Jeff Daniels plays Charles, the ultimate vanilla rich yuppie, a character we should automatically hate, especially after viewing him duck out of a New York City diner without paying his bill in the first scene. What’s remarkable about the way Daniels plays the character and how he’s written, is that Charles is a rather likeable guy. He’s weak and adrift though. One of the great ways Demme and Frye convey this is by never having Charles drive in the first half. He’s always in the passenger seat. Only when he’s forced to take control of his destiny and chase down Ray (Liotta) and Lulu, does he get behind the wheel and take charge. It’s a sort of cinematic shorthand, showing us instead of telling, and it displays Demme’s visual literacy.

I have a weakness for the yuppie in hell storyline, which was quite prevalent back in the 1980s. Risky Business, Into the Night, After Hours, and Blue Velvet all delivered variations on that theme and I loved them all. Something Wild was the most unique for me, however, because Lulu never stayed a cliché. She never remained trapped in one persona or viewed only through Charles or Ray’s eyes. She never remained the fetishistic dream girl and that was significant then… maybe even more so now. She comes on like an uninhibited femme fatale you wanted to run away with, but there’s so much more to her than that. She not your dream girl. She belongs to herself.

Looking at the movie again last night (watching the Criterion Blu-ray), I was struck by how vibrant and fresh it still felt. It was even better than I remembered it being. Here are a few notes from this latest viewing:

1. Demme remarkably never condescends to his characters… or the audience. Whether we’re watching the early scenes of gritty, funky New York City, watching Charles and Lulu on the road playfully interacting with colorful characters, or watching Lulu awkwardly banter with old friends and acquaintances at the school reunion, Demme never cruelly mocks his characters. There’s real warmth in these scenes. It’s Capraesque by way of the Lower East Side, though free of the camp distance that Lynch employed in Blue Velvet with his view of small-town life.

2. The movie looks and feels like authentic America… not Hollywood America. This being a road movie too, we get many shots, courtesy of cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, of open rural spaces, rickety motels, greasy spoon diners, and tourist traps. That’s not exactly fresh for movies, but Demme captures these locales with his characteristically light touch. Certain places, such as the squalid motel where Ray is staying, exude menace, but for the most part Demme keeps it low key. Compare these scenes with Scorsese’s hyperrealism in After Hours. Demme comes off as downright mannered in comparison. We also get a racially mixed America and one were elderly people actually exist and mingle with younger people. Demme’s codified America has vitality and is a telling contrast to the muscle-bound, paranoid, and psychotic Reagan-era fantasies that were the norm at the multiplex at that time.

3. Something Wild does have a dark side. Once Ray memorably appears at the reunion, the cracks begin to appear in the American dream. Liotta is a force of nature here–physical, charming, impulsive, dangerous. Intelligence flickers behind those icy blues eyes, but it’s reptilian. While prodding a clueless Charles about how he met Lulu/Audrey, he feigns camaraderie and amps up the laughter, lulling Charles into a false sense of male bonding. Ray is really laughing at Charles and setting him up for a beating. Perhaps the violence in Something Wild doesn’t have quite the same ferocity it did that first viewing, but it’s still vicious and Liotta’s performance remains threatening as much as it is captivating.

4. The use of color. Having previously only seen the movie on cable television and VHS tape, the look of it never really worked its way into me. The Criterion Blu-ray revealed a completely new aesthetic layer. Demme, Fujimoto, and the set/art/costume departments crowd the frame with hot colors in that first half, then dramatically strip it down for the second. I don’t usually think of Demme as a boldly visual director, but he’s intelligent and nuanced. When he moves the camera in a striking way, it’s for a good reason. Pay attention.

5. The music. This has one of the best soundtracks of its era. “Wozani Mahipi” by South African group The Mahotella Queens, “Someone Like You” by The Knitters, and the substantial contribution from The Feelies during the high school reunion scenes all made big impressions. But the soundtrack as a whole is just great in how it’s utilized. Demme does give a nod to visually showing characters listening to music in their cars, the motel room, or in a liquor store. It’s realistically used, but the songs also color our impressions of who Lulu and the other characters are.

6. Last but not least, there’s sex. Characters fuck in Something Wild and it’s playful, slightly naughty, and served up refreshingly guilt-free. Lulu is obviously a sexual magnet, but Ray is as well, albeit in a more threatening way. When he preys on the naive gift shop girl, who is underage, it feels dangerous… but you also feel her excitement and attraction to the wolf. The scene also gives us a glimpse of how the now wise Audrey (Lulu’s real name) must have felt when she first encountered Ray years ago.

This one is coming to the desert island. For me, Jonathan Demme was never better than here.

happy birthday, clint: army of one

I had no idea I hadn’t blogged since March. I honestly just stepped away from the computer. The house is obviously bigger than I thought. I will do a proper post soon, but since it’s the birthday of one of the great (still living) movie stars, I thought I’d celebrate with a couple of videos from two of Eastwood’s best movies.

I watched Kelly’s Heroes earlier in the week. It’s not a movie I ever cared about. Friends have tried getting me to reassess it, but I’ve been stubborn. I really didn’t like it the last time I struggled through it around 1999 or so.

What an idiot I was. I saw it with new eyes and for my money it’s one of the most entertaining of the later World War II movies. The director, Brian G. Hutton, directed the fabulous Where Eagles Dare, starring Eastwood and Richard Burton, and that one has always been one of my favorite war movies. But Kelly’s Heroes was too anachronistic and silly for me. Like I said, however, I was an idiot. It is very much the things I chastised it for being… so what? That’s why it’s fun. It’s also great because of the cast and it’s well-directed. War movies post-Saving Private Ryan tend to be serious, serious, serious affairs. Real war is certainly grim and depressing. But not every war movie has to be. At least, not all of the time. The video below is the original trailer.

And when I think of Eastwood, I think of Westerns. My favorite of the Eastwood oaters (excluding the Leone ones) is The Outlaw Josey Wales, released in 1976. I was seven years old when it came out and I saw it in the theater. It made quite an impression on me and I’ve watched it numerous times since and its hold hasn’t weakened. The book it’s based on, Gone to Texas, is very good too. The video below is the original trailer. I may just have to re-watch the movie this weekend.

in search of moebius…

The legendary comics illustrator Jean “Moebius” Giraud died this weekend.  His influence on the world of pop culture can’t be overstated.  Even if you’ve never seen any of his artwork in Métal Hurlant magazine (Heavy Metal in the States) or anywhere else, you’ve probably seen his graphic design work in such as films as Alien (the spacesuits worn by the crew of the Nostromo), Tron (concept artist), The Abyss (concept artist), and The Fifth Element (designer).  Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (my favorite science fiction film) is heavily indebted to Moebius as well: the crazily busy cityscape was inspired by the one from the classic story “The Long Tomorrow,” a collaboration between Moebius and American screenwriter Dan O’Bannon (who would later write Alien).

There’s a great little documentary about Moebius from a few years back, Moebius Redux: A Life in Pictures aka In Search of Moebius, that aired on the BBC and that I’ve included below.  Great stuff for anyone with even a passing interest in this stuff.

great crack-ups #3

True love is a beautiful thing.  It’s beautiful because it’s rare… certainly not as common as Hollywood movies would have you think.  Despite that fact, the Hollywood studios have always sold that lie to the public and we eat it up because we want to believe that it’s true, we want to believe that out there in the cold, dark world there’s someone special waiting for us, and that romance is indeed possible.

You believe it.  I believe it.  We have to because the alternative is too painful to deal with.  No one wants to be lonely.  We all want to believe that Cary Grant or Irene Dunne is somewhere out there, although the older you get the more you realize that the romantic ideal, especially if you’re a misfit, just doesn’t happen like it does in the movies.

It never has.

In Paul Thomas Anderson’s deliriously romantic 2003 film Punch-Drunk Love, matters of the heart are as intoxicating as anything you’ll find in a vintage screwball comedy or its modern variation, but it’s a whole lot more scary, bewildering, and weird too.  Although on its surface the film is as outrageous and absurd as the most fantastical musical, it’s also… realistic in ways these kinds of movies never are.  It externalizes what we feel internally when we hover over the abyss that is true romance… it dares to plunge us into the wildness of pure drunken emotion.  And it warmly allows its two completely dysfunctional oddball lead characters a chance to shine in roles usually reserved for the personality-free mannequins that uniformly sleepwalk through these kinds of parts.

Punch-Drunk Love is a romantic comedy for people who know movies like this are bullshit.

Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), a Southern California businessman specializing in cheap novelty items, is the kind of guy who doesn’t get a lot of excitement in his life.  He doesn’t want a lot of excitement in his life.  He’s a businessman and a professional.  That doesn’t mean he isn’t bored, however, or that he doesn’t yearn to meet that certain special someone.

He’s just a normal guy.

But Barry isn’t “normal.”  None of us really are.  Not like those people on television or in the movies.  If you are, or you think you are, then there’s something probably wrong with you.  Hidden.  It means that underneath the façade is a raging weirdo.  It means… you’re not comfortable in your real skin.

You’d never think that some people were weirdos underneath.  But they are.  Unlike Barry, Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) is socially more adept and she hides her inner freak better.  She’s shy, though once you get to know her, once she allows you to get a little closer, her laughter and the way she smiles and the way she looks at you and the way she listens to you and the way she talks really gets under your skin.

She’s infectious.

And though that word… “infectious”… connotes joy as well as unpleasantness, Barry tries not to focus on the negative.  It’s a bad habit… something he does too much.  Because he’s lonely… because when he’s alone he realizes that he may be alone forever… that he’ll never find real love.  And when he’s lonely, which is most of the time, he does stupid things like call phone sex lines and tries to get to know the woman on the other end.  He does desperate things like trying to make friends with the lonely woman on the other end.  She is lonely, right?  If she wasn’t, why would she be working the phone line?

Luckily, Barry met Lena… a real person… a real opportunity… something real removed from the time wasted talking on the phone sex line.

Loneliness is the farthest thing from either of their minds tonight.  For the first time in a long while, neither Barry or Lena feel so alone.  For the first time in a long time, Barry and Lena both feel like they’re making a real connection with someone else.

It feels good.

It feels special.

It feels like the best thing ever.

It feels like something is blooming…

But things start to go haywire when Lena asks Barry about the “hammer incident”… a story she heard from one of his sisters.

Barry isn’t amused to be reminded about the hammer.

Not now.

Not like this.

Not from her.

Everything was going so well…

Maybe there’s still a way out of this though.

Maybe this terrible feeling will end soon.

Then everything will go back to normal.

Maybe they can then go back to having a great time.

Then they can believe again that love is possible and that it was the right thing to take a chance…

Instead of feeling like you’re all alone standing along the edge of the cliff… scrambling to hold on…

While the bloom that was once love…

Turns to rage within.

Maybe there’s still a chance to turn it back to something good.

Maybe he can fight his way out.

Or perhaps they should go to a different restaurant instead and try all over again.

The food wasn’t good here anyway.

a completely idiosyncratic list of five silent films you should see

We can argue all day and night about the merits of this year’s Oscar darling The Artist.  I liked it and you can read my take on it here.  One thing that’s not up for argument, however, is that the movie’s relative popularity gives cinephiles, critics, and teachers the perfect opportunity to capitalize on it, highlighting movies from the silent era for people who may have never seen a film from that period.  Where to start?  The Guardian yesterday blogged some suggestions–“The top five silent films to shout about”–for those of you wanting to wade in a little further.  Five picks doesn’t really do it justice, of course, but the choices are good and it’s hard to go wrong with Sherlock Jr. and The Last Laugh, both essential movies.  And I love that they included Guy Maddin’s masterful short The Heart of the World from 2000.

I’m no silent film scholar by any means, but I do have some favorite movies from that era.  This is a purely subjective, off-the-top-of-my-head list… not meant as anything authoritative.  If I were pressed, I’d say my favorite silent film is Abel Gance’s masterpiece Napoléon from 1927.  This rarely screened epic is a sprawling achievement and if you’re lucky enough to see Kevin Brownlow’s restoration of it later this month in Oakland, you’re in for a once-in-a-lifetime treat.

Excluding that, though, I’d go with the following five films for my own great silent five list:

Der Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920), directed by Paul Wegener & Carl Boese.

German Expressionistic horror film based on Gustav Meyrink’s novel, which was itself based on the Judaic legend of a mighty clay avenger mystically conjured to destroy those who tyrannize the Jewish inhabitants of the Prague ghetto.

Sherlock Jr. (1924), directed by Buster Keaton.

I have to add it to my list as well.  The scene above is a justifiably brilliant moment of fantasy, physical comedy, and sly meta-commentary/self-reflexivity that is as incisive, simple, and clever as anything Charlie Kaufman has ever done.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), directed by FW Murnau.

One of the great movie moments from this period.  Visually impressive, this tragic melodrama focuses on a poor farmer (George O’Brien) who gets romantically involved with a swinging city girl (Margaret Livingston) and agrees to murder his faithful wife (Janet Gaynor) so that he can be with his new lover.  This film has many memorable scenes and the clip above is one of them.  The editing and cinematography are simply incredible here and throughout the entire movie.  Sunrise gets better and more nuanced with every viewing.

Tumbleweeds (1925), directed by King Baggot.

This is a rollicking good Western starring William S. Hart, who was known for adding a bit of cowboy authenticity into his performances and films, unlike many of the other silver screen range-riders like Tom Mix and others.  Is it a great movie?  No.  But it’s entertaining and this sequence is fantastic–an intricate and dangerous action scene reenacting the legendary Oklahoma Land Rush.

The Call of Cthulhu (2005), directed by Andrew Leman.

This homage to silent films is based on the cosmic horror story by HP Lovecraft.  It’s nicely done.  There are so many legitimate silent films to put on this list–Fritz Lang’s The Spiders (I couldn’t find any clips) or his other films from those years or Wings or any of Douglas Fairbanks’ swashbucklers–but I couldn’t resist this one.  It’s great fun and evokes the mood of the story rather well.

natural born losers: bust, slide, and the max

Musicians regularly get together and jam.  It’s not always serious.  Sometimes it’s just jazzing about, goofing off, making shit up while still searching for a note, a thread, a pathway to something viable.  Actors do the same thing through improvisation.  Comedians too.

Writers, however, are rarely thought of as improvisers in the same way.  The obvious difference is that writing is a solitary vocation and they’re usually not open to input from family, friends, and colleagues until well into revision stage.  To put it bluntly, most writers simply don’t play well with others.

Collaboration still occurs between writers though.  I’ve always wondered how those things work when two hot-shot novelists get together.  Do they sit in the same cramped room together bashing the keys?  Does one type while the other dictates, then they switch roles at the end of every chapter?

I figure what ever way crime writers Ken Bruen and Jason Starr managed the practicality of writing their Max & Angela trilogy, they sure as hell had a great time doing it.  All three Hard Case Crime mass market paperbacks–Bust, published in 2006; Slide, published in 2007; The Max, published in 2008–feel like two writers having a laugh.  It feels like a lark and I haven’t giggled so hard reading in a long time.  The humor, though, is dark.  This is caustic stuff, but always hilarious.

“Max was barely listening to the rabbi’s eulogy, but when he realized that everyone was breaking down in tears, he knew he had to show some reaction.”

Bust is the most traditionally noir of the three.  It introduces our two anti-heroes–schlubby middle-aged businessman Max Fisher and his busty unqualified assistant and mistress Angela Petrakos–and digs a hole deep for the both of them.  Neither one of them is smart, to put it nicely, and part of the diabolical fun of the novel is watching these two overconfident idiots get themselves into terrible situations and… get into worse situations.

Max wants to knock off his wife.  He hires a sketchy Irishman with mangled lips (they were cut with a broken bottle) named Popeye to do the deed.  Popeye claims to be a professional killer, that’s why Angela brought him to Max in the first place.  It should go off without a hitch, but hardly anything goes right and when Max’s wife is horribly murdered it sets off a chain of misfortune that would make the Coen brothers’ heads spin.

Novels like Bust, including the rest of the series, are essentially perverse reads.  The comedy arises from events that are truly terrible–beatings, murder, kidnapping, and a whole lot of other nasty business.  The worse it gets and the farther Max and Angela descend into the pit, the funnier it is.  Max is the worst offender of the two.  He’s arrogant, delusional, and sociopathic.  He’s one loathsome character, but he’s also funny because he’s completely clueless about how bad he really is.  And as we move through the subsequent books, Max gives into those negative characteristics even more.  Angela, a half-Irish-half-Greek American bombshell, is horrible in a whole different way.  She’s certainly amoral, dumb, and gold-digging.  But I think her worst trait is her horrible taste in men.  When it comes to hooking-up, the woman would bed a rock if she thought she could squeeze some gold out of it.

“Max’s big problem was, despite all he’d been through over the past few months, his ego was all there.  He might’ve looked like a cesspool on the outside, but inside, he was still the same happening, suave, debonair, hip Max Fisher he’d always been.”

Slide picks up a year after the events in Bust.  Max aka The M.A.X. is now a “big time” coke dealer living in a Manhattan penthouse apartment with his new mistress Felicia (a stripper Max pays to be with him) and his in-house sushi chef.  He’s living the American Dream, or so he believes.  Maybe he’s just watched Scarface too many times.  Angela has fled to Ireland, her ancestral homeland, in hopes of riding the Celtic Tiger to wealth and fame.  But the economic boom has flat-lined and she gets mixed up with an American culture-loving Irish serial killer named Slide, who originally intended to kidnap and murder Angela when she accosted him on a Dublin street.  He quickly feels that she’s a kindred spirit and Angela, as per her usual routine with bad men, gets stuck with another loser… albeit a very scary, fucked up one.

I missed not having Max and Angela interact like they did in the first novel, but I thoroughly appreciate that Bruen and Starr don’t repeat themselves.  No fun in that.  And while Bust was undoubtedly a comedic book, it still very much adhered to noir tropes in a straightforward manner.  Slide‘s plot is looser.  It feels like a free-for-all at times… not that there’s anything wrong with that.  It feels like two writers jamming.

I don’t know how Bruen and Starr actually divided the work load, but you get the feeling that each one tried to set up the other one with improbable (and hilarious) plot complications and then said, “Now, try to get out of that one!”  It feels improvisatory to some degree.  If you go in looking for a ruthlessly plotted suspense tale, you may throw down the book in frustration.  It is suspenseful and quite the page-turner, but this is even more of a lark, and an outrageous one at that.  The transformation of Max into The M.A.X. is indeed a sight to behold.

“You got The M.A.X., you don’t need nothin’ else, dig?”

If The Max was a song, it would be turned to 11.  This is one hysterically over-the-top book and slightly better than the second one because it amps everything up to an even more ridiculous level.  This kind of far-fetched plotting is understandably not for everyone.  And The Max is really out there: The M.A.X. is now in prison, Attica, and reality is crashing down on him hard.  Angela is now in Greece, her other ancestral homeland (Ireland didn’t work out too well), and trying to live the high life with no money.  She gets involved with a suave grifting Englishman, Sebastian, who comes from money but doesn’t have any, and the two set off a domino effect of mayhem that will travel halfway ’round the world and end up intersecting with Max at Attica.  Toss in a desperate midlist crime writer who wants to write a biography of Max, plenty of crime genre/writing biz in-jokes, loads of politically incorrect humor, and you’ve got yourself another Hard Case winner.

All noir fiction straddles a line between humor and horror, tragedy and comedy.  If the existential odds are stacked up too high against our poor sap protagonist, a writer runs the risk of alienating their reader, pushing them too far.  There’s only so much trouble a character (and a reader) can take.  Maybe the size of one’s ego determines how far you can shove them closer to the void.  Max–who is oblivious in the first book but turns into a monstrous caricature by the second one and insanely destructive by the third–is unlike any fictional character I’ve ever run across.  At times he comes across like a sociopathic Elmer Fudd… a cartoon character with malicious intent who thinks he’s Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, or Al Pacino in DePalma’s Scarface remake.  The latter comes up a lot in Slide, since Max watches it all the time and tries to pattern his gangsta-lite persona on Pacino to become the de facto King of New York.

Or so he imagines.

If there’s one major theme running through these novels, it’s self-delusion… of characters not being able to see themselves clearly, of being unable to deal with reality truthfully.  For all of the gratuitous violence and extreme situations Bruen and Starr wallow in, they are completely insightful about this negative trait in us.  Everyone is capable of self-delusion.  I couldn’t help, however, seeing this as an exaggerated (because everything in these books is cranked up really high) examination of a specific strain of American self-delusion.  If the last ten years has taught us anything (you did learn this lesson, right?), it’s that American exceptionalism is a fantasy.  You can believe all you want that Americans are inherently different from everyone else in the world.  But that kind of destructive thinking only works so long and only within the borders of fortress America.  Go out into the world–and I’m not even talking the “exotic” Third World–and try acting like a know-it-all exceptional American.  Try it.  See how far it gets you on your crusade to win friends and influence people.

Max and Angela are American self-delusion personified.  Max adopts personas (badly) throughout the books–loving husband, good boss, ladies’ man, murderer, drug kingpin, gangsta, convict, genius.  He is incapable of being authentic, incapable of being what he truly is.  The frighteningly funny depth of his psychosis is brilliantly shown in how he reacts in the aftermath of his wife’s murder.  He eventually convinces himself that he didn’t hire Popeye and that he was the real victim of the whole affair, not his dead wife.  Max was the one suffering.

Angela’s delusions are more normal… for what it’s worth.  She’s dumb as hell, but she’s aggressive about living the good life.  Unfortunately, she’s not very good at attaining what she wants.  But damn if she doesn’t keep trying.  That’s what you call a real American can-do spirit!  Which is not a bad thing, mind you.  She’s a survivor, no doubt about it.

These are not sympathetic characters.  They don’t need to be.  The only thing that matters in fiction is that the characters are engaging.  Noir has always traded on that… not catering to good taste or offering up vanilla protagonists for fear of alienating readers/viewers.  The only moral or decent characters in this book–less than a handful–end up either dead or ineffectual… as it should be when we’re talking noir.