Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday is now over 15 years old and thanks to the Blu-ray format, this visually expressive blitzkrieg-of-a-sports-film just bleeds off the screen. Featuring a supremely aggressive audio/visual package, this is totally-in-your-face filmmaking at all times, featuring hurtling, stylized, frenzied cinematography from master cinematographer Salvatore Totino that shakes the senses; it boggles the mind to think that this was his first big studio feature as a director of photography. The amount of coverage, the insanity of the camera placement, the constant ramping of film speed and visual distortions and augmentations are staggering to witness, and if you’re a cinematography junkie like me, this film is a constant source of maxed-out pleasure. The hyperactive yet still lucid editing is in perfect tandem with the over the top subject material and everything is played at just the right tone and pitch. The eclectic musical score compliments every wild and crazy scene, mixing rap, metal, and classical songs with the techno stylings of Moby in more than one instance. Al Pacino is at his Shouting-Mad best here, and he gets some seriously good dialogue from John Logan and Stone; his “inches” locker room speech is one for the ages, ridiculously quotable, epitomizing the idea of coaching ferocity. Stone brought major directorial intensity to each and every scene in this scathing indictment of professional football; in retrospect this film feels very ahead of its time, with a cold and cynical message purveyed at all times, feeling more relevant now than it did upon first release. The absurdly deep cast all deliver deeply committed performances; standouts are an icy Cameron Diaz, a perfectly weathered Dennis Quaid, sleazy James Woods pushing pain killers on the players, and of course, the flashy and confident work of then-acting-newcomer Jamie Foxx, who held his own with all of the veteran actors, knowing when to ease up and allow others to have their space, while still getting a chance to cut loose with his arrogant, show-boating character. The sequence where he has dinner with Pacino and the chariot race from Ben-Hur is playing in the background is still one of my favorite scenes in any film. And let’s not forget about the in-credits stinger during the final credit roll – so nasty! Great football action, sharp satire, fantastic visuals, and dynamite sound design help make this one of the best sports movies of all time.
Mr. Holmes is a superbly acted and lushly appointed British period piece that tells a clever story involving a retired Sherlock Holmes played by the reliably fantastic Ian McKellen. Gracefully directed by Bill Condon and based on the 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, which was written by Mitch Cullin, the film co-stars Laura Linney as Holmes’ housekeeper Mrs. Munro, with the wonderful young actor Milo Parker as her son Roger. The story takes place primarily during Holmes’ retirement, with flashbacks peppering the narrative featuring a younger Holmes and his investigations, and pivots on the notion that Holmes’s mind has begun its deterioration, as he struggles to recall all of the details to his final case, something that’s haunted him for years. There are more than a few nice surprises in the story, Tobias Schliessler’s unfussy but stylish cinematography keeps things visually interesting at all times, and McKellen was afforded the chance, due to the crafty screenplay, to create a full bodied portrait of one of literatures greatest figures, and it’s clear from frame one that he was delighted to have been given this chance. Carter Burwell’s score immediately sets the mood, and the production design and costumes were top-notch and on par with what you’d expect for this sort of period fare. Condon has proven to be a filmmaker who is hard to pin down; I certainly appreciate the eclecticism of his filmography, which includes Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (genuinely scary), Gods and Monsters (also starring McKellen), Kinsey (my personal favorite), Dreamgirls (still need to see in its entirety), the underrated and energetically entertaining topical thriller The Fifth Estate, and he’s now hard at work on a big-budget, live-action retelling of Beauty and the Beast. And while I’m not a Twilight person, I applaud Condon’s ability to play in the blockbuster arena and then move back to smaller, more personal pieces. Mr. Holmes is a pleasant movie, the sort of film that will appeal mainly to an older, more adult crowd, and it feels like smart counterprogramming in the sea of summer blockbusters.
My #3 Scorsese picture behind Goodfellas and Raging Bull. This is a brilliant black comedy, with an aggressively funny performance from Robert De Niro. Jerry Lewis is utterly amazing here, all dead pan and stern seriousness, completely unimpressed with De Niro’s idiotic pestering and absurd shenanigans. Merely thinking about this film makes me burst out laughing. The bit with Sandra Bernhard clearing the table with Lewis tied up in tape – screamingly funny. De Niro doing his asinine routine in the basement of his mother’s house with his mother yelling at him to be quiet – it’s the stuff of instant comic legend. It’s appalling and sad that nobody gave a squat about this film upon its initial release aside from a likely handful of astute critics and viewers. There’s something positively diseased about The King of Comedy, and the way the Scorsese seems to be relishing in the madness makes the film all the more bracing and effortlessly watchable. Scorsese and screenwriter Paul D. Zimmerman painfully examine hero and celebrity worship, the false sense of importance that some people feel in their lives, and the overriding obsession with becoming famous that sits inside so many individuals. The King of Comedy, in a weirdly prescient manner, acted as a precursor to some forms of reality TV, blurring the lines between true stardom and mere infamy, further perpetuating Andy Warhol’s prophetic notion of everyone’s ability to have “15 minutes of fame.” De Niro and Bernhard are looney tunes in this film, but the scariest, worst type of looney tunes imaginable — the sort of people who don’t realize that they’re sociopaths, even after they’ve committed their acts of transgressive lunacy. Audiences and critics weren’t expecting this sort of caustic, dry humor from Scorsese in 1982, especially coming directly after Raging Bull, and the film died a quick death at the box office and wasn’t as critically respected as it should have been. Thankfully, over the years, the film has taken on cult classic status, and easily stands as one of Scorsese’s best and most underappreciated efforts (I also feel that Kundun is woefully unsung, and The Age of Innocence warrants reconsideration, hopefully by The Criterion Collection). I can’t help but bust a gut every time I see this unhinged masterwork of intensely disturbing hilarity.
Husband and wife writer/director team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck knocked it totally out of the park with Sugar, a wonderful film about baseball, America, and how a particular immigrant’s first experiences in this country are shaped around our national pastime. This was their follow up to Half Nelson, their startling school-teacher/crack-addict drama debut, which announced a new voice in independent cinema. The cinema-verite style combined with intense, raw performances (Ryan Gosling’s bravura work should have gotten the Oscar) made for a searing portrait of man coming to pieces. In Sugar, Boden and Fleck take the same pseudo-doc style aesthetic, but have made a film as optimistic as Half Nelson was bleak. They also changed their aesthetic approach, ditching the rough and tumble look and feel of Half Nelson, instead opting for a gorgeous, colorfully saturated cinematography palette put in place by their regular cinematographer Andrij Parekh, who also shot Blue Valentine. And while baseball is a major aspect to Sugar, the film is ultimately about an immigrant’s strange and life-changing journey, making this touching and sometimes challenging film so much more than a “baseball movie.”
The film can be seen as three distinct pieces. In the opening segment we meet Miguel “Sugar” Santos (the fantastic Algenis Perez Soto, a baseball player who decided to give acting a shot) on his home turf in the Dominican Republic. He’s a hot-shot pitcher, a phenom in the making, someone who the MLB scouts are pegging could go all the way. We observe his mostly poor surroundings, and we see how he’s the treasure of his family, the one person who everyone else thinks will bring the family some fortune. It’s a lot of responsibility, and the film is keen to observe that for many young baseball players in the Dominican Republic, this sort of thing is a regular occurrence. Boden and Fleck shoot the scenes in the Dominican Republic in a rougher fashion, especially when compared to the lush camera style and warmer colors they employ when the action shifts to Iowa, where Sugar has been called up to AA ball. Here, the film becomes a fish out of water tale, as Sugar adapts to middle-of-the-U.S.A. living, all the while trying to keep his spot on the team, in the hopes of becoming a pro. The last section, the part I will discuss the least, takes place in a major American city, and these scenes take on a life of their own, in both dramatic function and style. It’s important to note that the third act of this movie has been completely left out of the trailers, which sort of make the film out to be something that it isn’t.
I guess what I’m trying to get across is that Sugar is exceedingly rich, with lots of genuine emotion and feeling running throughout its veins. The film never stinks of elitist condescension when it comes to the plight of the immigrant; Fleck and Boden’s clear-eyed doc-style keeps the film grounded and realistic. The baseball scenes are handled skillfully, but never in a show-off manner. Soto, who was recruited for his baseball skills and handsome looks, delivers a quietly powerful performance as the titular character. A man of few words (for multiple reasons), Sugar represents all that’s possible for people when they have a certain talent. And he learns that in the end, it’s not necessarily how you use that talent to succeed in life, but rather how you use your talents to broaden your horizons and experience life to the fullest. Fleck and Boden and ace shooter Parekh, keep a close, observant eye on everyone in the film, whether it be through long tracking shots or simple camera set ups which maximize the dramatics of the scene. Sugar isn’t just a simple sports film, and those people who are looking for a movie where it all comes down to the final pitch in the bottom of the ninth inning are going to be disappointed. Instead, with Sugar, Fleck and Boden crafted an exceptionally engaging movie that strikes many interesting, unpredictable, and satisfying chords. It was one of my favorite films from 2008, and I eagerly await their new gambling drama, Mississippi Grind, which hits theaters later this year.
“Is Mr. Langford expecting you?” – Langford’s Secretary
“Yes, I don’t think he is.” – Rupert Pupkin
Meet Rupert Pupkin – whose name is often mispronounced and misspelled. He is an insecure, timid and dissolutional young man whose dream is to perform a guest spot on “The Jerry Langford Show”. His psychopathic friend Masha is deeply obsessed with Jerry and after numerous failed attempts of Rupert going to Jerry’s office for a meeting – the two devise a plan to kidnap Jerry.
THE KING OF COMEDY remains to be the greatest Scorsese film that not many have seen. It showcases Robert De Niro’s finest performance as Rupert, a wickedly hilarious psychotic performance of a lifetime by Sandra Bernhard as Masha and a steady cool and calm of normality that’s brought to the film by Jerry Lewis as Jerry Langford – a Johnny Carson late night host.
This film has a nice polish on it, it looks and feels light and breezy but under the façade this is a deeply dark and sinister film. Rupert is so utterly delirious that his basement room is his Mother’s house is a mock studio with cardboard cutouts of celebrities where he performs in front of an invisible audience every night. The film is incredibly funny – yet you find yourself wanting to look away at how terribly humiliating situations in the film become.
After failing to meet with Jerry at his office, Rupert invites a woman who was in love with in high school, and is now a local bartender, to join him for a weekend at Jerry’s home. Rupert arrives at Jerry’s home and forces his way past the butler and maid. He then begins to walk around Jerry’s house telling this woman all about Jerry’s achievements and his life – speaking as if he’s known Jerry for an eternity. Once Jerry arrives home, he demands Rupert leave, he threatens Rupert with the police and begins shouting at him. This is one of many, many situations in the film that is so painfully humiliating to watch we find ourselves wanting to turn away – but we can’t. We are so mesmerized by the film.
This is film is the essence of black comedy, planting the seeds for future films. Will Farrell’s character in WEDDING CRASHERS – the grown man living in his off screen mother’s basement who is constantly yelling at her. THE KING OF COMEDY started that all.
John McTiernan did so much to shape the modern studio action picture, and it’s wild to look at his resume and see how many classic titles he has to his credit: Nomads (his creepy and odd ghost story debut), Die Hard (quite possibly the best American action movie of all-time), Die Hard: With a Vengeance (as good as threequels will ever get), The Hunt for the Red October (an unimpeachable classic), The Last Action Hero (sue me, I love this incredible action movie deconstruction from genre MASTER screenwriter Shane Black) and The Thomas Crown Affair (one of the best remakes around). Sure, he’s had rough times, mostly due to studio interference (The 13th Warrior and his Rollerball remake were not career highlights because of studio meddling, despite typically great scenes of action), but it’s inescapably true that he’s one of the finest pure action directors of all time. And his genre-hybrid Predator, mixing action and comedy and horror and science-fiction, still stands as one of his best works, a movie filled with non-stop action, macho humor, incredible physical locations, rugged cinematography (the great Donald McAlpine captured the jungle in all its exploding glory with testosterone fueled imagery that has the power to elicit gasps and laughter), and a massively engaging central performance from Arnold Schwarzenegger, who hit all the proper notes of aggressive man-of-action, cheesy drama, and of course, his own brand of signature one-liner humor that never suffered thanks to the witty and inventive screenplay from Jim and John Thomas. The two writers threw tons of stylistic ingredients into the cinematic blender, and because of McTiernan’s fantastic use of space and coherent sense of action, the resulting effort is one of the most satisfying and exciting action films from the 1980’s.
No need in rehashing the plot; if you haven’t seen this movie by now I question what planet you call home base. I’ve always loved the main conceit of Predator, in that another, way more advanced species would drop off their young in order for them to train and hunt, with humans as their mostly defenseless prey. It’s such a classic sci-fi idea, and when joined at the hip with the military action adventure scenario, the film carries a whiff of unpretentious high-concept that would be tough to pull off now and generate the same level of thrills and enjoyment. While I liked the Steven Hopkins directed sequel from 1991 more than most, look no further than Alien vs. Predator as an example of a potentially good idea run amok. The practical and early visual effects, while clearly dated, are still awesome in that nostalgic, pre-CGI fashion that genre efforts from the 80’s all had. The pseudo-sequel from 2010, Predators, the more I think back on it, is sort of underrated; I should give that one another viewing. But on Predator, the filmmakers had to resort to real stunts and real explosions and real props before the onslaught and reliance of the computer, and there’s an honest physicality to the entire production that feels sturdy and realistic. And that’s because this film was legitimately shot in the jungle – deep in the jungle – and it shows.
McTiernan’s films all have a sense of rough and tumble action, and I’ve long loved his mixing of hand-held and stationary camerawork, always filling the widescreen frame with detail and high-powered images that feel lush and expensive. The supporting cast is a rogues gallery of manly-men performers, with everyone bringing their scenery chewing A-game: Carl Weathers, Bill Duke, Jesse Ventura, and Sonny Landham, all impossibly juiced, jacked, and ripped beyond belief, carrying the world’s largest machine guns, and destroying everything in sight. And let’s not forget action movie author extraordinaire Shane Black as the group’s wise-cracking purveyor of comedy relief; he also did well with his firearms when called upon. And of course, goes without saying, the hulking Kevin Peter Hall was man-in-suit perfection as the titular beast, and the one-on-one face-off with Schwarzenegger at the end still stands as one of the best final fights ever. The camp-site raid at the half-way point is utterly staggering in its balls-out awesomeness, with shell casings galore, bodies flying through the air, and enough fireballs to choke a horse. It’s almost impossible to think that this was a $15 million production back in the day – that wouldn’t even cover the catering costs if a re-make was attempted in this day and age! I’ve long been a huge fan of this definitive piece of movie magic for years, and it’s terrific to note how well it’s held up as the decades have progressed.