Friday, November 30, 2012

Talky KILLING THEM SOFTLY Gives Us A Lesson In Gangster Economics

Opening today in Raleigh and the Triangle area:

KILLING THEM SOFTLY (Dir. Andrew Dominik, 2012)

Although this film is based on the 1974 crime novel “Coogan’s Trade” by George V. Higgins, fans of The Sopranos are going to find its trappings familiar. Not only because it features Tony Soprano himself, James Gandolfini, and series regulars Vincent Curatola, and Max Casella, but because its scenario set-up about low level idiots that try to get ahead by robbing a mob protected card game is ground well trodden by David Chase’s iconic characters.

But director/screenwriter Andrew Dominik, re-united with his THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES star, Brad Pitt, has loftier goals that just staging a big screen Sopranos episode. Dominik sets the story in New Orleans in 2008, and we are taken back to the days of Obama getting elected during the country’s economic collapse via a string of television screens in the background always tuned to the news. The underlying implication is that the mafia is yet another American corporation whose business model is faltering in these tough times.

Pitt, with slicked back hair, shades, and goatee, plays an enforcer for the mob who’s brought in to track down the three low level idiots who thought it was a good idea to rob a high-stakes card game run by the fidgety stressed-out Ray Liotta. Liotta, is in real hot water with this theft, because he’s robbed the game before himself, and he’s going to take the blame for this one.

An often smirking Richard Jenkins, brings his Nathaniel Fisher (the all-knowing ghost dad on Six Feet Under) confidence in his part as Pitt’s contact, a jaded mob lawyer, who says matter-of-factly that “this is a business of relationships,” ever so slyly adding to the movie’s not-so-subtle set of themes.

Gandolfini shows up as a boozing burn-out of a hitman that Pitt seems to think he needs in order to pull off the job. Gandolfini and Pitt have a few intense and intimate scenes together; one on one exchanges in which you feel their history together both as these shady guys, and as actors who’ve worked together for 2 decades, starting with Tony Scott’s TRUE ROMANCE. 

Despite some vivid violence (this movie is where to go to see Liotta getting the shit beaten out of him), it’s a dialogue-driven film, all about the sit-downs. The power and thrust of the film’s thesis can be found in Pitt’s parked car consultations with Jenkins, Gandolfini’s meaty monologues, and the frightened babbling of Scoot McNairy’s Frankie (one of the idiots involved in the card heist), who steals the movie out from under the bigwigs when he’s onscreen with his perfectly unhinged performance.

As McNairy’s partner in crime and stupidity, Ben Mendelsohn (ANIMAL KINGDOM) is also effective as a seedy heroin addict you can’t believe anybody would trust to get them coffee, let alone pull off a dangerous job.

Pitt, who is one of 17 (!) different producers on this project, provides a solid performance, but it’s nothing we’ve never seen him do before. Still, the man’s particular brand of presence is never bland.

Sort of like a mash-up of GOODFELLAS and MARGIN CALL, KILLING THEM SOFTLY may be a bit too talky for its target audience. 

Because of its marketing, which highlights the stars, the stylishness and the one explosion, audiences are likely to think that it’s a different movie than it is - much like Anton Corbijn’s THE AMERICAN, which looked like a commercial George Clooney action flick, or Nicolas Winding Refn’s DRIVE, which looked like a commercial Ryan Gosling car chase thriller. Both turned out to be artsy cerebral takes on their genres, and while film buffs like me loved them, I knew many folks who were turned off.

This take on the gangster drama genre deserves an audience’s attention, even if the dry tone that Dominik creates, along with the immaculately shot framework (by cinematographer Grieg Fraser) surrounding some of the year’s most astonishing acting, ultimately makes more of an impression than any of the political points he’s attempting to make.

More later...

Monday, November 26, 2012

Blu Ray Reviews: THE EXPENDABLES 2 & A Stallone 3-Fer

And now, what Film Babble Blog readers (all six of them) have been waiting for: A Stallone-centric post!

(Dir. Simon West, 2012)

Sylvester Stallone and his army of aging action movie icons are back in this big noisy sequel that’s actually better than the first one. Don't get me wrong - it's a bad movie, but it's a much more gloriously stupid experience the second time out.

2010’s THE EXPENDABLES only had a grasp on half a formula, but the follow-up is full on formula and much more big dumb fun. 

It also tops the first one by having much more of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis, who both just put in cameos in the original, and it has a lot more explosions - the first 10 minutes feels like it’s packed with more explosions than in Michael Bay’s entire career! There’s a lot more CGI-ed blood splatter too.

This time, Stallone along with Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, and Terry Crews, (Steve Austin doesn’t return, and sadly there’s no Mickey Rourke) are taking on Jean-Claude Van Damme as an evil arms dealer. 

There’s a new Expendable, the young Liam Hemsworth, but the second he starts talking about one last mission before he goes home to his girlfriend we know he’s going to die (my wife called it, and she was on her laptop not even really paying attention to the movie).

As if Stallone, along with co-writer Richard Wenk, knew that there was way too much testosterone on the screen, we’ve also got the addition of Chinese actress Yu Nan, as a CIA agent brought in by Willis. Nan is in charge of the movie’s MacGuffin, a computer that contains the location of tons of plutonium, but is it any surprise that the plot doesn’t matter?

It’s just an excuse to get all these guys together for a bunch of shoot-outs, stunts, quick-cut instances of hand to hand combat, and, yep, ginormous explosions all set in Foreign locales (Bulgaria, China).

The film really falters in its downtime when we are reminded that these guys aren’t great actors, something the horribly written dialogue immensely highlights. 

Willis, maybe the best actor here, is given what’s possibly the single worst line of 2012: “For all this male pattern badness I’ve got to put you in the deepest darkest hole at Gitmo.”

There’s more humor here than before too, albeit some is unintentional, like when Chuck Norris in what amounts to a cameo, throws a bad guy out a window yet still fires his machine gun at him. 

Also there’s a bunch of shout-outs to the principal’s previous roles - Schwarzenegger, who is told that he may be terminated, mocks Willis’ “Yippee Ki Yay” catchphrase from DIE HARD, Rambo is mentioned, and Norris’ nickname is “Lone Wolf.” That’s fine by me, these guys can self reference all they want, it only adds to the film’s awareness that it’s a colossal collection of action movie clichés, a thorough homage to the genre’s ‘80s heyday.

Stallone was right to hand over direction duties to Simon West. West (CON AIR, the first LAURA CROFT) is no wunderkind, but his handling of all this noisy spectacle, along with veteran action cinematographer Shelly Johnson, comes together much more cohesively than Stallone’s ham fisted helming of the first one.

My biggest complaint is that for a Blu ray of a new movie, the image is really grainy, grimy even, and out of focus at times, but I’ve read that it looked that way in theaters. Maybe that’s just keeping in line with how crappy visually the ‘80s action standards this movie apes were, but I doubt it was that intentional.

Special Features: By far the best of the bonus material is a half hour featurette called “Big Guns, Bigger Heroes,” which puts THE EXPENDABLES movies in their proper context by examining the rise of the action film genre in the Reagan era. Other features include an audio commentary by Simon West, featurettes entitled “Gods of War,” “On the Assault,” “Guns For Hire” (about real life government mercenaries for hire), a couple of minutes of deleted scenes, and a gag reel.

Bonus Blu ray review:

Released last August right when THE EXPENDABLES 2 hit theaters, was a 3 film collection of Stallone titles: RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD, COP LAND, and the lesser known LOCK UP.

I’m not usually a fan of those DVD or Blu ray deals that you see for sale in supermarkets or big- box stores that package random films together or in this case, three films by a well known actor, but if you’re a fan and are running out of shelf space, maybe they’re ideal. It doesn’t bode well that the Blu ray cover sports an image of Stallone with a mustache and shades that’s not from any of the films in the set (it’s from GET CARTER), but the movies aren’t bare boned like in other packages; they feature all the bonus materials that accompanied their DVD special editions.

Makes me wonder why they didn’t just package the first 3 Rambo movies together, but I digress. The first Rambo film, originally just titled FIRST BLOOD (Dir. Ted Kotcheff, 1982), holds up as Stallone as his sweaty best as a dead-eyed Vietnam vet taking on the entire police force of a small town in Washington, largely because the local hard-ass Sherriff (Brian Dennehey) is an asshole.

Dennehey thinks Stallone is just an aimless drifter, but a grizzled Colonel (Richard Crenna) corrects him: “You don't seem to want to accept the fact you're dealing with an expert in guerrilla warfare, with a man who's the best, with guns, with knives, with his bare hands.” So Rambo builds traps, destroys a lot of property with a machine gun, and blows up buildings (there were a lot more explosions than I remember when I saw it as a kid), but actually doesn’t kill anybody.

Stallone, who co-wrote, gives a crazed cried-out speech at the end, that plays the sympathy card for Vietnam vets who got a raw deal for what it’s worth, then a laughably dated power ballad (“It’s a Long Road,” written by Jerry Goldsmith, sung by Dan Hill, whoever that is) plays over the end credits. Great cornball stuff through and through that’s been satirized a zillion times yet still packs a whallop. Funny how the picture quality of the FIRST BLOOD Blu ray is a lot sharper than THE EXPENDABLES 2 Blu ray too.

Special features include the alternate ending in which Rambo dies, a half hour featurette (“Drawing First Blood”), and two commentaries – one by Stallone, the other by writer David Morrell.

An odd choice for this 3 Blu ray set, is James Mangold’s COP LAND (1997), which Stallone himself described as a more thoughtful film than he had been known for when he hosted SNL to promote the film’s release. It is, but despite its amazing cast, including Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Janeane Garofalo, Michael Rapaport, Robert Patrick, Peter Berg, Arthur Nascarella, and John Spencer, and cool premise (the town of Garrison, New Jersey is run by corrupt New York City cops who reside there), the movie isn’t fleshed out enough to really make an impact, and it comes off like second hand Scorsese.

Still, it’s one of Stallone’s best roles: Freddy Heflin, the schlubby (he gained a gut for this part) good guy Sheriff of Garrison, who’s pushed around by just about everybody, as he pines for Annabella Sciorra (married to one of the corrupt cops). I love that the guy falls asleep drunk on his beat up couch listening to Springsteen’s “The River.” For once, Stallone pulls off a performance of pained powerlessness with none of his trademark alpha-male-isms. It’s also cool to see De Niro and Keitel sparring in their last film together, along with almost every Sopranos bit player you can think of on the sidelines. Plus it has a great well paced bloody ending, so, hmm, maybe I'm selling this one short.

Special Features: Commentary with Stallone, Patrick, Mangold, and producer Cathy Konrad, a 15 minute featurette (“Cop Land: The Making of an Urban Western”), and deleted scenes.

Lastly, there’s John Flynn’s 1989 prison thriller, LOCK UP, which puts Stallone behind bars under the evil eye of Warden Donald Sutherland. This is the cheesiest of the Stallone offerings in this set, with a supremely cheesy score by extremely cheesy film composer Bill Conti. A skinny Tom Sizemore (it was his 3rd film) is on hand for comic relief as a fellow inmate, and Sutherland (mostly spending his role looking menacing out the window) has a great hammy speech (“This is Hell, and I’m going to give you the guided tour”), but this is a by-the-numbers rundown of prison movie clichés, that wears out its welcome really fast.

Special Features: Only a 6 minute “making of” featurette, the theatrical trailer, and a lame Stallone profile, but that’s just as well.

Okay! I think I’ve had as much as I can take of “The Itallian Stallion” for now.

More later…


(Dir. Joel Zwick, 2002)

Despite that I worked at a movie theater that showed the film for months, and later a video store when it was a hugely popular rental, I’ve never seen MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING, the 2002 hit rom com written by and starring Nia Vardalos.

It just didn’t look like my thing, not that I’m completely anti-rom com, but the story of a Greek woman who has to deal with her large unruly family in order to marry the man of her dreams, didn’t seem to be my kind of comedy.

I probably still wouldn’t be watching it if it wasn’t for the good people at HBO sending me the shiny new 10th Anniversary Edition (released Nov. 13th), which has the film making its first appearance on the Blu ray format.

In voice-over Vardolas tells us that “nice, sweet girls are supposed to do three things in life, marry Greek boys, make Greek Babies, and feed everyone until the day you die.”

After she goes through an ugly duck turns into a swan process involving, of course, getting rid of her thick glasses, frizzing up her hair, and putting on make-up, Vardolas meets the so non-Greek John Corbett, best known for playing Sarah Jessica Parker’s boyfriend Aidan on Sex in the City. They fall in love in a cutesy montage of them groping in Corbett’s car through a series of dates that she keeps secret from her family.

The big fat Greek family finds out about the budding romance, and Vardolas’ father (Michael Constantine) forbids them to see each other. That’s easily resolved, as is every possible conflict that comes along - Corbett converts to the Greek Orthodox faith so they can get married, the family adjusts, yadda yadda yadda. Much humor has been mined in the movies from the process of putting on a wedding (see Robert Altman’s A WEDDING - seriously go see it), but there’s little that’s funny here.

Each scene is all set-up, sprinkled with corny one-liners, like subpar Neil Simon, for a situation that never pays off.

Vardolas has a way with a wisecrack, and a running gag about how her father uses Windex to cure every ailment has its merits, but there’s not enough of a story for it to be interesting, as if Vardolas expected the wacky eccentricities of her various family members to be enough to carry the thin narrative.

Director Zwick is a veteran of tons of brightly lit silly sitcoms (from Mork & Mindy to Two and a Half Men), and it really shows. Decades of those shows can be felt in the obvious camerawork in which he just aims the camera and shoots. But then what am I saying? Nobody goes to see a rom com with any expectation of inventive cinematography!

Vardolas based the innocuous and thoroughly mediocre MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING on her real-life wedding to Ian Gomez who appears in the film as Corbett’s best man, so basically it’s a glorified home movie. 

Vardolas even calls it almost “a documentary about her people” on the commentary. That’s fine, and more power to you if you can get Tom Hanks and wife Rita Wilson to fund your movie and make you a star, but it doesn’t make the material any more entertaining than just about anybody’s wedding videos. My previous impulse about this movie was correct; it’s so not my thing.

Special Features: A 30 minute featurette, “A Look Back at MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING,” which includes interviews with Vardolas, Corbett, and Hanks (Hanks and wife Rita Wilson produced the film along with Gary Goetzman), the original 2002 commentary by Vardolas, Corbett, and Joel Zwick, and 5 minutes of boring, unfunny deleted scenes.

More later...

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

LIFE OF PI: The Film Babble Blog Review

Opening tomorrow, Wednesday, November 21st, at a theater near you:

LIFE OF PIE (Dir. Ang Lee, 2012)

For his first film since 2009’s TAKING WOODSTOCK, Ang Lee has taken what to many (including me) thought was an unfilmable novel (written by Yann Martel, published in 2001), and turned it into a vivid visual spectacle.

But much like Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER from a few months back, its beauty may not transcend audiences’ bafflement over what it’s all supposed to mean.

But let’s start with the story. In an extremely notable film debut, the well-cast Suraj Sharma plays Pi Patel, a spiritually hungry Indian boy who lives at his family’s zoo in Pondicherry, India (the opening credits contain wondrous shots of the various zoo animals).

When his family decides to sell the zoo, Pi travels with them and the animals on a cargo ship to North America. The weather gets violently rough, and the ship sinks, leaving Pi as the only human survivor stranded in a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a vicious Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. That’s right.

The tale is told, in feature-length flashback form, by an older Pi (Irrfan Khan) to Rafe Spall, who is only credited as “The Writer.” Thankfully, this doesn’t mean there’s voice-over narration so we’re alone with Pi and his peculiar predicament.

The tiger, mostly rendered in flawless CGI, stays for stretches under a tarp, allowing Pi space to build a makeshift raft which he ties to the boat, so that he can rest in safety.

One by one, the other animals are killed. After a series of gripping tension-filled scenes with the backdrop of the vast ocean (their journey spans 227 days), Pi and Richard Parker reach a surreal island (as if the rest of this film isn’t surreal) filled with thousands of meercats.

That’s as far as I’ll go with the plot. Largely due to the explemplary cinematography by Claudio Miranda, LIFE OF PI is overwhelmingly immersive eye candy, utilizing some of the best 3D imagery since Martin Scorsese’s HUGO. One’s eyes can get just as lost in the shining sea as Pi and his tiger companion.

However, the conclusion isn’t as succinct or effective as it was in Martel’s novel even though David Magee’s screenplay adaptation is faithful and contains the same basic material. It still works, but it was a much satisfying ending in the book. I believe that’s because the religious undertones were part of what was unfilmable in the original text.

LIFE OF PI looks like no other film in director Lee’s (who also produced) filmography. Its Spielbergian sunniness, and its soaring scope makes it stand out from his other work, though he’s come really close to this aesthetic before (see: CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON).

“Why does it have to mean anything?” The Older Pi asks “The Writer.” It’s a good question, and sure, it doesn’t have to mean anything, because there’s a huge difference between a work that’s meaningless, and a work that frees one from meaning. Although it lacks the depth of the book, and its vision may not be as infinite as the amount of digits of the mathematical constant that our hero takes his name from, it still achieves the latter.

This is a sponsored post. All opinions are my own. Photos courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

More later...

Monday, November 19, 2012

10 Of The Most Well Known Movie Quotes Ever - A Guest Post

This is a response to a previous post of mine from quite a while ago (100 Years, 100 Better Quotes - 6/25/05). Although they're fairly well known (and fairly obvious to most film buffs) here's Film Babble Blog fan Hollie Gibson's top 10 movie quotes, along with some thoughts:

Well, it takes a certain type of woman to wear a backless dress with a Beretta 70 strapped to her thigh. If you have recently seen the new James Bond film, SKYFALL, you may recognize that quote.

Yes, James Bond is still the master of the one-liners. In fact, his quotes are so well known that they have infiltrated our language. We want our Martinis “shaken not stirred in just the same way that Sean Connery had his in GOLDFINGER.

Of course, it's always fun to have a night out at the cinema, but now we have the technology to take it into our own homes. With a huge Samsung TV and a tub of popcorn, who needs to leave the house anymore?

Top 10 Film Quotes

Apart from James Bond films, there are many other famous quotes. Here's some of the best:

1. “May the Force be with you” is the quote from Han Solo in STAR WARS which has now become such a familiar part of our language.

2. “I want to be alone” was Greta Garbo's sultry line from the film GRAND HOTEL.

3. “There's no place like home” is how Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ felt after a long journey of killing witches, wearing red sparkly shoes and visiting the Emerald City.

4. “I'll have what she's having” is the classic quote from the envious customer in a restaurant in WHEN HARRY MET SALLY.

5. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine” is one of the famous lines spoken by Rick Blaine in the classic film CASABLANCA. The other, of course, is “Who's looking at you kid?”

6. “Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn” is the line spoken by Clarke Gable to Scarlett O'Hara at the end of GONE WITH THE WIND. Her feisty retort was “After all, tomorrow is another day.”

7. “I see dead people” is the line which sends shivers up your spine from the young boy Cole Sear in THE SIXTH SENSE.

8. “Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me. Aren't you?” is the flirty line spoken by Benjamin Braddock to Mrs Robinson in THE GRADUATE.

9. With “I'll be back,” Arnold Schwarzenegger lets us know what's in store for us in THE TERMINATOR.

10. “Here's Johnny!” Of course, if you really want some classic scary stuff there's nothing to beat Jack Nicholson in THE SHINING as his axe bursts through the door.

These are some of the best quotes to be found in films, but there are many more to familiarize yourself with. So why not spend an evening settled down in front of your massive television set, warm up some popcorn and see how many more classic quotes you can come up with?

Or you could just spend a nostalgic evening watching the films mentioned above. In the words of Bette Davis in ALL ABOUT EVE, “Fasten your seat-belts. It's going to be a bumpy night.

More later...

Friday, November 16, 2012

LINCOLN: The Film Babble Blog Review

LINCOLN (Dir. Steven Spielberg, 2012)

At the beginning of Steven Spielberg’s LINCOLN, based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 bestseller “Team of Rivals,” we meet the friendly, soft spoken Abraham Lincoln, played by Daniel Day Lewis in another Oscar caliber performance, as he’s conversing with soldiers, both black and white, in the Army of the Potomac’s camp.

When more than one of the infantryman starts reciting the Gettysburg Address with gusto to our 16th President,  I was thinking ‘what, is this written by Aaron Sorkin?’

I knew that it wasn’t - LINCOLN’s screenplay was penned by playwright Tom Kushner, best known for ANGELS IN AMERICA and Spielberg’s MUNICH - but the scene’s simultaneous attempt at gravitas and heartstring-tugging so reminded me of Sorkin’s style that the comparison was hard to shake. However, in this case, thats not a bad thing.

Spielberg’s modest epic isn’t a life-spanning biopic; it concerns the pivotal last leg of Lincoln’s life, from January 1865 to his death several months later, in which he tirelessly fought to pass the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, and end the Civil War.

Although it begins on the battlefield, only briefly do we see combat (there’s nothing that compares to the SAVING PRIVATE RYAN’s lengthy opening Normandy invasion sequence), because the film is more interested in the back room deals, with the suspense coming from how close the vote over the 13th Amendment was in the House of Representatives.

Of course, we all know how it’s going to turn out, but that doesn’t harm the feeling of being a fly on the wall for some of the most crucial conversations in America’s storied past.

A cast of recognizable faces help bring history alive, including Tommy Lee Jones (once a scene stealer always a scene stealer, especially as he has the most humorous moments here) as Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens, Sally Field as First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln (Field’s one-on-ones with Day-Lewis are wonderful - two Academy Award winners reminding us what won them those awards in the first place), the always welcome Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a brief part as Honest Abe’s son Robert Todd Lincoln, and - thank the Heavens he’s still with us - Hal Holbrook, who once played Lincoln himself in a 1976 television project, as the wise, and very old political figure Francis Preston Blair.

Every other face seems to be somebody you may know too - James Spader, David Strathairn, Bruce McGill, Gulliver McGrath (last seen in DARK SHADOWS and HUGO), Jared Harris, Jackie Earle Haley, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Hawkes are all on hand.

Day-Lewis’s and Spielberg don’t offer us a larger than life Lincoln, they give us a humble man passionately driven to change the fate of human dignity (as he puts it), and it’s a portrayal to believe in. It’s made the more powerful because Spielberg refrains from CGI (an era-appropriate Washington D.C. could’ve been created with lavish special effects), and keeps his cameras (or more accurately cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s cameras) tight on these grand men (or in the case of Lee Pace’s character Democratic Congressman Fernando Wood, not-so-grand).

Spielberg’s long-time composer John Williams (this is their 26th film together) provides a suitably grandiose score, that gets cheesy at times, but overall effectively enhances the narrative turns, even if I’m having trouble remembering it right now.

For most of its almost 3 hour running time (of course, it’s long!) LINCOLN has the thrust of the best entertainment about political matters from the 1939 classic MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON to the acclaimed NBC drama The West Wing (Sorkin again!), but a few sections drag, and there were times that I thought it might’ve been better as HBO mini-series.

But that probably would’ve denied us the excellent work of Day-Lewis and other A-list cast members though.

There will be many folks that will be turned off by the notion of a long talky history lesson, but with the sheer strength of Day-Lewis’ incredible acting, and Spielberg’s subtle construction (and minimum of his trademark corny sentiment), LINCOLN ought to win over many more folks with the patience to take in what’s being said, how things were changed, and why, to this day, its title subject is considered to be the greatest American President of all time.

More later...

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

New HBO Rolling Stones Doc Celebrates 50th Anniversary But More Their Bad Boy Image

CROSSFIRE HURRICANE (Dir. Brett Morgen, 2012)

To celebrate their 50th anniversary, the Rolling Stones have come out of retirement to release a few new singles (“Doom and Gloom,” and “One More Shot”), perform some surprise club shows leading up to a major tour next year, and have taken part in the new retrospective documentary, CROSSFIRE HURRICANE, which premieres on HBO Thursday night, November 15th.

Directed by Brett Morgen, best known for co-directing the acclaimed 2002 bio-doc THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE, about mega-producer Robert Evans, the film covers the early ‘60s to late ‘70s rise of England’s oldest hit-makers, featuring new audio-only interviews of band members Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Ron Wood, Bill Wyman, and Mick Taylor.

The doc packs a lot into its one hour and forty plus minute running time, including healthy chunks of such classics as “Street Fighting Man,” “Jumping Jack Flash,” “I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction),” “Sympathy For The Devil,” and “Honky Tonk Women,” mostly smoothly mixing an overview of their hits into the band’s layered narrative without overly cluttering it.

In one funny mid ‘60s TV clip, a straight-laced news commentator criticizes the raunchy rock group for their “carefully calculated air of ‘blow you, Jack!” This speaks volumes as the doc itself strongly appears to be a carefully calculated attempt to re-inforce the Stones’ legendary bad boy image right in time for their reunion.

There is much talk about how they were set-up by their shrewd manager/producer Andrew Loog Oldham to be the anti-Beatles, the nasty bad boy antithesis to the fab four’s seemingly squeaky clean image, with a lot of back stage decadence displayed in the footage including many shots of Stones’ members drinking every bit of available liquor there is. 

It’s like the Stones (most of who produced or executive produced this doc) are saying: ‘We know we’re old mainstream geezers now, but back in the day we were quite dangerous. We had tons of sex, drugs and booze along with our kick ass rock ‘n roll, and even spent time behind bars. We just want to remind you of all that.’

CROSSFIRE HURRICANE, which takes its title from a lyric in “Jumping Jack Flash,” only covers up to the Stones’ ‘1978 album “Some Girls,” though there is brief footage from Hal Ashby’s live concert film LET'S SPEND THE NIGHT TOGETHER (shot in 1981, released in ’83), so there’s a lot of story left to be told, but the film does ideally cover the band’s most vital eras. 

Since those eras have been already very well covered, Morgan’s doc often feels like a hodgepodge of clips from the many other Stones documentaries, almost resembling a greatest hits of the best bits from their filmography.

There’s cool black and white footage of Mick and Keith working out “Sitting on a Fence” from the newly restored and released doc CHARLIE IS MY DARLING (shot on their tour of Ireland in 1965), there’s an excerpt of the Stones playing in Hyde Park after the death of Brian Jones from THE STONES IN THE PARK (1969), there’s the great gritty film of the band recording in Keith’s basement at Villa Nellcôte in France that appeared in the 2010 doc STONES IN EXILE, there’s the shocking moment of murder at Altamont captured in the Maysles brothers’ essential GIMME SHELTER (1970), and so on.

Some of the same archival footage has also been used in Martin Scorseses SHINE A LIGHT (2008), from which Morgen also borrows a performance of “All Down The Line” for the end credits (the most recent film of the Stones in this doc).

So if you’re a big Stones fan, you are likely to have already seen a large percentage of this stuff, but if you’re a newcomer to this material, it functions as an purposeful primer of their formative years. 

As a longtime fan myself, I learned precious little I didn’t know before, but enjoyed a few fresh insights from the new interviews like when Richards remarks “The essence of Jagger and Richards together, I suppose would be ‘Midnight Rambler.’ Anybody could’ve written any of our songs, but I don’t think anyone could’ve written ‘Midnight Rambler’ other than Mick and Me.”

Or drummer Charlie Watt's assessment that guitarist Ron Wood, who replaced Mick Taylor in the mid '70s, became “the link between the two strong egos (Jagger and Richards), and the two light ones (himself and Wyman).

Trying to sum up the group’s appeal, the late Brian Jones, looking back on their ‘65 breakthrough just a year later, tells a reporter that they had “the right type of sound, and the right visual image the kids of the world wanted at the time.”

Fifty years may have passed, and the Stones haven’t had that bad boy image for a long-ass time, but when the publicity machine kicks in with this doc, their new ‘best of’ 3 CD compilation (“GRRR!”) dropping this week, and their looming 2013 tour, surely to be one of the biggest grossing tours ever, it will again be inescapable that they are still hugely wanted by the now over-aged kids of the world.

More later...

Friday, November 09, 2012

SKYFALL: The Film Babble Blog Review

SKYFALL (Dir. Sam Mendes, 2012) 

Four years after the lackluster QUANTUM OF SOLACE, James Bond is back in this top notch movie that’s not just one of the best of the entire series, it’s one of the best full throttle straight-up action films in years. 

Definitely of this year, as it’s way more adventurous than THE AVENGERS, dangerously darker than THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, and completely out-Bournes THE BOURNE LEGACY. And that’s just in the first 10 minutes.

In a Turkey-set pre-credits sequence that encompasses a chaotic car chase, a motorcycle chase over rooftops (take that TAKEN 2!), a bulldozer demolishing a train carriage while in transit, and a hand to hand fight on top of that train going through a tunnel, Daniel Craig’s 007 has us in the sweaty palm of his bloody hand.

Bond’s superior, M (Judi Dench), has a larger role than usual as her job heading the MI6 is in jeopardy and she’s being targeted by Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a former agent turned cyberterrorist.

To help his boss, Bond travels to Shanghai (always gotta be globe-trotting) to recover the MacGuffin of this movie, a stolen hard drive that identifies many undercover NATO agents. This is where he meets the closest thing this film has to a Bond girl, Bérénice Lim Marlohe, who is under the rule of Bardem.

The spunky Naomie Harris, could be considered a Bond girl, but she’s more of his assistant, and there’s no romance going on there. Despite a quick shot of sex in the cold opening, Craig’s Bond seems less interested in bedding random babes than his predecessors, but that’s maybe just a sign of the times.

Bardem’s Silva is the best villain the series has had since…uh, I’ll say Christopher Walken in A VIEW TO A KILL. Like Walken, Bardem has dyed blonde hair and an unhinged presence. It’s a wickedly funny performance that’s introduced to us in a superb long-shot that has Bond’s back to us (tied in chair), and Bardem slowly getting closer as he puts forward a menacing monologue.

In a shoot-out in Parliament, Bond saves M from Silva and gets her to the safety of his boyhood home in the Highlands, an old crumbling castle named Skyfall. That’s where a STRAW DOGS-ish WITNESS-esque tension resonates as we wait for Silva’s killing crew to arrive.

SKYFALL restores gravitas to the series, and has everything you’d want in a modern day Bond movie. First off, it’s got Craig, who I used to think looked more like one of the thugs that would beat up Bond than Bond, putting in his most intense and riveting acting yet in his third performance as 007. 

Also, this time out, Craig’s equipped with quips as SKYFALL has a lot of laugh out loud lines. This is another plus as his previous turns were pretty close to humorless.

It’s got lovely ladies (Marlohe and Harris), a sharp screenplay (by Bond writer veterans Neil Purvis and Robert Wade, along with 007 newcomer John Logan), incredible cinematography (by Roger Deakins), ginormous explosions, a catchy not-bad theme song (by Adele), near perfect pacing, excellent editing (by Stuart Baird), stunning set-pieces, Bond’s classic Aston Martin, and well chosen supporting cast members, such as Ralph Fiennes as a stuffy higher-up of M’s (great nod to olden days when he says “Don’t cock it up, 007”), and the always welcome Albert Finney as the groundskeeper of the Skyfall estate. 

Oh yeah, there’s also a amusingly befuddled Ben Whishaw (also currently in CLOUD ATLAS) as a young Q, you know, Bond’s go-to gadget guy.

Some of Bond's back story may seem Batman-like, i.e. he comes from a rich family and his parents were both killed when he was a wee lad, but it still didn't feel derivative of the Dark Knight. No, SKYFALL has a different agenda - it wants to re-invigorate a franchise, not give us a lavish end-game.

As super heroes, and brainless spectacle (I’m looking at you THE EXPENDABLES) usually dominates the box office these days, it’s wonderful to report that Bond is back and at his best. Way to celebrate your 50th anniversary 007!

Post note: I guess the iconic gun barrel deal is officially now at the end of the Craig/Bond movies, before the credits roll. That's cool, I can dig it.

More later...

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Countdown to SKYFALL #4: The Best Bond Car Stunt Ever

The 23rd James Bond movie, Sam Mendes’ SKYFALL, releases tomorrow, so Film Babble Blog has been all about Bond this week with 007-centric posts leading up to my review of the highly anticipated film.

This time out, let's take a look at what I believe is the best car stunt of the series. In THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, Bond (Roger Moore) jumps his car, an AMC Hornet, over a broken bridge and it spins around 360 degrees in mid-air.

The amazing feat was done by stunt driver “Bumps” Willard in one take. It was slowed down with a slide whistle sound effect was added for the final film. You can see the scene below, and there's a sans slide whistle version somebody did, which may be preferable, included:

The stunt was even featured in the cool poster image (by artist Roger McGinnis):

So it goes - a stellar car stunt in a less than stellar Bond movie. Check back here tomorrow for my review of SKYFALL (Spoiler alert: it's stellar).

More later...

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Countdown to SKYFALL #3: Surveying The Series

Just 2 days left until the 23rd James Bond movie, Sam Mendes’ SKYFALL, comes out so let’s continue on the countdown with another 007-centric post.

Starting in the summer of 2010, the Colony Theater in Raleigh, N.C. started showing 35 mm prints of the bulk of the James Bond series, one a month, in chronological order from DR. NO (1962) to DIE ANOTHER DAY (2002). To cap off the canon, last summer they re-screened the first 3 Connery classics to celebrate the series’ 50th anniversary.

I attended just about every screening (I missed one or two of the Pierce Brosnan ones), many of which I’d only seen on TV before, and covered the run for Here are the links to those posts, back from when the Examiner would pay more for local content (those were the days). Please check them out (because, you know, every click I get at that content farm helps):

50th anniversary screening of DR. NO at the Colony Thursday night (4/23/12)

James Bond Is Back! At The Colony Theater That Is (7/28/10)

The Colony Theater Has The Midas Touch With GOLDFINGER Thursday Night (8/24/10)

"James Bond Originals" At The Colony Theater Presents THUNDERBALL This Thursday Night (9/29/10)

James Bond Is Back: YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE This Thursday At The Colony Theater (10/27/10)

The Most Debated James Bond Movie Ever Screens This Thurs At The Colony Theater (12/29/10)

Connery As Bond Is Back: DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER This Thurs At The Colony Theater (1/26/11)

Roger Moore’s 007 Debut This Thursday At The Colony Theater (2/23/11)

THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN Takes Aim At 007 This Thursday Night At The Colony (3/29/11)

Roger Moore is THE SPY WHO LOVED ME Thurs Night at the Colony Theater (4/26/11)

The STAR WARS Bond Shows Thursday Night at the Colony Theater (5/25/11)

007 enters the ‘80s at the Colony Theater Thursday (6/28/11)

Roger Moore's 007 meets OCTOPUSSY tonight at the Colony (7/28/11)

Roger Moore's last outing as 007 shows this Thurs night at the Colony Theater (8/24/11)

Timothy Dalton takes over as 007 tonight at the Colony (9/29/11)

007 gets his LICENSE TO KILL revoked Thursday night at the Colony (10/26/11)

Pierce Brosnan takes over as 007 tonight at the Colony (12/29/11)

Pierce Brosnan’s 4th and final film as 007 screens tonight at the Colony (3/28/12)

More later...

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Countdown to SKYFALL #2: The Best & Worst Bond Movie Posters

In 3 days the new big-ass James Bond movie, SKYFALL, opens so this week Film Babble Blog is all about 007 leading up to my review on Friday.

For today's post, let's take a look at what I think are the best and worst Bond movie posters. This one for LIVE AND LET DIE (1973), is my favorite:

I always loved the ones that had Bond stoically standing with his gun (a far bigger one than his usual Walther PPK) held close to his face, as he's surrounded by a bunch of crazy sexy cool action. It was painted by artist Robert McGinnis, who did the poster art for many Bond movies.

Sadly, movie posters became more and more dominated by promotional photographs rather than painted images in the '80s and '90s. This Bond poster, poorly composed of photos, is my vote for the worst:

Ugh, just wretched, huh? At least it matches the quality of the film, one of the worst of the series. Even back in the '80s this looked tacky and crappy. I've seen romance novels with more tastedul graphics.

Lastly, here's one of the best Bond mashups: Sky Movies' advert for their HD Bond series, which features all the Bonds in a big action chase scene. Very well done.

More later...

Monday, November 05, 2012

Countdown to SKYFALL #1: Down The Gun Barrel On Bond

Since the 23rd James Bond movie, Sam Mendes’ SKYFALL, releases in 4 days, and also because it's the 50th anniversary of the series, I thought it would be cool to have some 007-centric posts leading up to my review of the highly anticipated film.

First, I thought I'd babble about one of my favorite parts of every Bond movie - the gun barrel opening, created by Maurice Binder. It's a piece of pure '60s pop art that I always love seeing. Check out this cut all of the previous 22 gun barrel sequences together in chronological order into this 9:09 clip from YouTube:


It's fun to see them back to back, because you get a mini-history of the actors who played Bond and see that Sean Connery and one-timer George Lazenby wore hats, Roger Moore mostly wore a tux (they use the same footage of Moore 5 times), and Pierce Brosnan also wore a tux but struck less of a pose than his predecessors.

Incidentally the first 3 gun barrels aren't Connery, they're stuntman Bob Simmons. For THUNDERBALL, they shot one of Connery that was first shown in color, then in reused in black and white in his next 2 Bonds for reasons unknown.

They re-use the same footage of Brosnan throughout his run too, but they add the bullet coming right at you in DIE ANOTHER DAY. Daniel Craig's first film as 007, 2006's CASINO ROYALE, doesn't open it with the gun barrel bit; it comes at the end of the cold opening leading into the theme song. 

In 2008's QUANTUM OF SOLACE, it appears at the end of the movie before the credits roll. Will it be back to the beginning of SKYFALL to pay homage to the tradition? We shall soon see.

I also love how the above montage of gun barrels works as a mini-history of how Monty Norman's (or John Barry's, uh, it's complicated) “James Bond Theme” changed to suit the times over the years. Listen how it starts out orchestral, then gets vamped up with surf-guitar, becomes slightly funk-ified in the '70s, and all techno-ized in the '90s.

The gun barrel sequence has been parodied many times, too many to list (though I'm sure a site somewhere does), but here's my top 5:

The Simpsons: “And Maggie Makes Three” (Aired: Jan. 22, 1995)

Monty Python's Flying Circus: “The Pantomime Horse Is A Secret Agent” Film from episode 30: “Blood, Devastation, Death, War and Horror” (Aired: Nov. 9, 1972)

Robot Chicken: “Dear Customer” (Aired: Dec. 6, 2009)

Saturday Night Live: Steve Martin as James Bond in “Bullets Aren't Cheap” (Broadcast: Oct. 17th, 1987)

Lego James Bond Gun Barrel Sequence (source unknown)

More later...