We’ve been a little lax here at RD about keeping you up to date on things that we’ve seen. In penance, we present to you a giant-size Bumper Edition of “What We’ve Been Watching”.
Running Man (1987; D: Paul Michael Glaser) – Over-the-top 80s distopian action thriller featuring not only Arnold Schwarzenegger, but follow meathead-cum-politician, Jesse “The Body” Ventura as well, that delves into the role of the media in our political lives and our growing predilection for publicized violence and shame? What’s not to like? Well, other than Netflix’s scratched copy. I couldn’t actually finish watching this because the last forty-five minutes or so played without sound, and I was in no mood to deal with that. Still, it did feature a Richard Dawson, of the Match Game and Family Feud fame, hosting a live-execution game show in a remarkable turn of self-deprecation. And someone who insisted on being credited as Professor Tanaka. (BK)
Blazing Saddles (1974; D: Mel Brooks) – Probably the 15th time I’ve watched this film, and it remains just as good as ever. The trick seems to be to watch it only about once per year, so you forget all of the subtle, small jokes (“Let’s play chess”) while still retaining love for the more oft-quoted (“Mongo only pawn in game of life”). One of those films where, by the end, you feel like everyone involved was just at a party, and you wish you could have gone. (TH)
Eight Men Out (1988; D: John Sayles) – At first I didn’t like this movie – an unpopular position, I know. It is marred by terrible acting and shlock writing. Did every scene really need to end with the camera panning away from Studs Terkel and Jim Desmond as the level some snarky wisecrack? In retrospect, this film is about half and half. Half the cast is great – John Cusack (yeah, I know), John Mahoney, David Strathairn, and DB Sweeney specifically – and the other half is bad, most notably, Chicago homeboy Michael Rooker in a cartoonishly villainous turn as Chick Gandil. Fortunately enough for director Sayles, the movie is saved by the characters’ awesome old-timey names (“Buck” Weaver and “Hap” Felsch? That’s the bee’s knees) and Sayles’ own bizarre cameo as Ring Lardner. (BK)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007; D: Andrew Dominik) – Extremely good-looking atmosphere film. The acting style and Dreyfuss voice-over narration may not be everyone’s cup of tea (me included – for some reason, the Deadwood-style lines just don’t sound right coming out of Pitt and Affleck’s mouths) (although Affleck did a good job otherwise), but surely we can get down with the look and feel of the film, diction and dialogue aside. Most of this is due to the continued good work of Roger Deakins, who usually makes the most out of our modern cinematographic apparati. I also don’t know how I feel about the shameless we-know-cool-people cameo stuff going on (hello, Nick Cave!), but it’s probably not a big deal. (TH)
L4yer Cake (2004; D: Matthew Vaughn) – About six years late on the whole Cockney-crime feast that was Guy Ritchie in the late 90s, this film follows the exploits of XXXX (Daniel Craig), a man who, through generally not being a moron, starts to rise to the top of a London drug organization. Stylish, yes, as all these films are, and yet quite realistic. Takes the somewhat novel approach of putting a man lukewarm about violence (although not about anger and deceit) in the protagonist role, a man who’s not a bumbling amateur, yet not what we’ve come to think of as the slick dealer, either. (TH)
Sukiyaki Western Django (2007; D: Takashi Miike) – Having seen neither earlier film version of Django, I came into this movie with no frame of reference. It’s a ridiculous film, ridiculously violent, over-the-top, etc. In short, it’s everything one might expect from contemporary Japanese action films. Forms part of my over-arching thesis that every Japanese action movie is just an excuse to try to graphically produce the Japanese flag with blood and cotton/snow/walls. And wherever that cabin in the gorge is, that’s where I want to live. (TH)
-Most known for his mastery of shock and gore, Takashi Miike shows tremendous range with this nonsensical send up of spaghetti westerns and samurai films (which are, not coincidentally, basically the same thing). The wild mood swings are abundant, effortlessly switching between violence and comedy (and sometimes blending), and if there’s a common thread in Miike’s work it’s his disregard for continuity and the elevation of the absurd. The film might not have a point, but it’s well studied: Miike rips scenes/thematic elements/characters from Corbucci, Kurosawa, Leone, and everywhere in between (note: really the only similarities between Miike’s film and the original Django is the carrying of a Gatling gun inside a coffin). Aside from the bad trip to Tarantino cameo land, Sukiyaki Western Django is a riot. (EM)*
The Bluest Eye (Tony Morrison) – Okay, so here’s a confession. I’m in school again, so I read more than I watch anymore. I’m going to start including more books in my list of things I’ve Been Watching, so deal with it, you half-literate Philistines. So, even though The Bluest Eye was an Oprah book, and I made sure to get the copy without the big O on the cover, it’s more than worth a read. Morrison won the Nobel Prize for literature, after all. Roughly speaking, it’s about all the terrible things that happen to ugly, poor black girls in Lorraine, Ohio some time in the first half of last century. It’s written in a fine balance of vernacular speech and poetic but succinct prose, and does some other really neat stuff with point of view and other crap you don’t care about because all u know how 2 read teh inernets. (BK)
The Yakuza (1974; D: Sydney Pollack) – Robert Mitchum, old, weary, goes to Japan to try to track down the missing daughter of his WWII buddy-turned-captain of industry. Like every film noir, though, the daughter is just an excuse to get the hero into a whole new kettle of fish, here played by the honor-bound Japanese underworld. Plus, Mitchum is in love with the sister of the only former Yakuza who can help him find the daughter. Oh, and plus, that man still considers him an enemy. Oh, and Mitchum stays at the house/arsenal of another WWII buddy. (Convenient, that.) Watching this film, though, I couldn’t help but wonder why it doesn’t get more recognition nowadays – it is perhaps a little tame by later standards, but it’s written by Robert Towne (Chinatown) and Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver – this was his first big film), so its pedigree is strong. It’s a solid film about solid people doing solid work; it’s simple, efficient, and moving. (TH)
Mad Men (2007) – Six episodes in, and shit is just starting to happen. Thus far in my viewings, I’ve been mostly pleased with the results. This show only helps my thinking that the 1960s were the peak of men’s fashion (although some of the skinny ties in this show are quite skinny). The show is borderline irritating with its jokes about how different things were in 1960 (e.g. no safety, hitting children is good), but these are minor quibbles. Overall, it’s tight, it’s well-acted, and it’s got style. It remains to be seen if it has a point, but really, with Christine Hendricks on the show, I’m not sure that I care. (TH)
Burn After Reading (2008; D: The Coen Brothers) – The Coens are back to their comedic screwball ways in this one. This is a story about idiots. Darn near every person in this movie is a complete “moron” in the words of Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), and the plot is an escalation of misunderstandings. This is perhaps not a departure for the Coens, who are deeply interested in the “dramatic possibilities of stupidity”, as New Yorker critic David Denby puts it (I think “stupidity” is a little harsh when it comes to, say, Jeffrey Lebowski, or Tom Reagan, or Barton Fink, or Ed Crane, or…but IN GENERAL, I suppose Denby is grandstanding right). Quite funny at points, but this one never quite reaches the dizzying heights of Fargo or The Big Lebowski in terms of sheer inventiveness. It also lacks a little stylistic pop, probably because Roger Deakins was elsewhere; the film lacks his typical sharp visual impact. Nonetheless, it is worth seeing, if for no other reason than the absurdity of it all, and for J.K. Simmons. (TH)
Entourage, Season Five, Episode 1 (2008) – An uninspiring season premiere after a year on hiatus (is this where I blame/insult the writer’s strike?). This only reinforces my thoughts that there are only two types of Entourage episodes: the ones that suck (most) and build up to the ones that are awesome (few). Somehow those few ‘great’ episodes have managed to keep me back for five seasons, but it’s never really strayed from the original formula. You can start to sense a split between E and the rest of the ‘entourage’, and I just hope shit gets real this time. (EM)
30 Rock, Season One (2007) – Tina Fey must be a fucking genius. Network television comedy hasn’t been this good and popular in ages**, which seems like a monumental feat. Despite having its plateful of topical references (I sometimes worry how it will age), the show’s true gold is in the slapstick, which is old school in nature but fresh as hell. Simply hilarious.*** (EM)
Cubs vs. Astros (Sept. 14, 2008) – A blessing in disguise. My temporary residence allowed me to catch 7 full innings of Carlos Zambrano’s no-hitter against the Astros Sunday night, which almost makes up for the Mark Buehrle no-hitter I missed last year while watching Tarkovsky’s Stalker. The strikeout of My-Least-Favorite-Baseball-Player-Darin-Erstad at the end was the most deserved and pleasing end to a game I’ve seen all year. Congrats Carlos.
*Stay tuned to Running Downhill for Eric Marsh’s full Sukiyaki Western Django review – ed.
**Arrested Development notwithstanding, because, as we all know, no one watched it when it was on. (EM)