August 31, 2008

Underrated MOTM: Falling Down (1993)

August's Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM) seems appropriate for the last hot days of summer, and also, coincidentally, as a follow up to my thoughts on Frozen River. More exaggerated, more violent, and more symbolic than that film, Falling Down is a movie that just makes you feel bad all over. Obviously, this is not why I recommend giving it another look. Rather, I bring attention to it as a movie with a story that, 15 years after its release, is still relevant, almost poignant, and probably just as shocking to watch.

I didn't see Falling Down in the theater, and I probably haven't seen it for at least five years, but somehow it remains with me more than some of the movies that I've seen in the last month. It's no surprise - just by looking at the poster you can tell it features unique imagery. But beyond the memorable scenes and beyond Michael Douglas' jawdroppingly overlooked performance, Falling Down deserves credit for being one of those movies, like the upcoming Underrated MOTM The Siege, that was eerily ahead of its time.

Actor Ebbe Roe Smith had two screenwriting credits in his career: Falling Down was his first original screenplay, and Car 54, Where Are You? was his second (don't ask, it's Hollywood). Every studio in Hollywood reportedly turned down Smith's screenplay for Falling Down until Douglas read it and endorsed it as "one of the best he'd ever read". Brought on board to direct was Joel Schumacher, who had made his career in the 80's with St. Elmo's Fire and The Lost Boys. After a few promising early 90's offerings (Falling Down included), Schumacher would unfortunately begin producing the box-office repellent that he continues to bring us to this day. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who's seen more than one of his movies in the theater in the last 10 years. I'm serious - anybody?

By the same token, you might have as much difficulty finding more than handful of people who have either seen or remember Falling Down. For the most part, initial reviews were positive, including a gem by Roger Ebert. In the years that have passed, however, online critics (no doubt still riding the anti-Crash bandwagon full steam ahead) have lashed out at Falling Down, calling it, "a crude, cathartic rant that both condemns and exploits modern paranoia," and, "an uneven and frequently pretentious story that is never as important or dramatic as it thinks it is."
I'm not going to take this opportunity to defend Crash in particular, but I am going to declare that movies like it (and like Falling Down's L.A. predecessor Grand Canyon) have the potential to be extremely powerful and influential in a number of ways, beyond the fact that they initiate a conversation that few Americans want to have.

In case you haven't seen Falling Down, well there's not much to summarize. It's just one crazy day in the life of Bill Foster (Douglas), a former Department of Defense employee who, unable to deal with his failed marriage (which ended in a restraining order) and abrupt job loss, simply snaps one hot summer morning while sitting in a hellish traffic jam on the way to his daughter's birthday party, to which he was obviously uninvited. In one of the best scenes in the movie, Foster does what so many of us have considered: he gets out of his car and just starts walking. Through a series of bizarre encounters with gang members, a neo-Nazi, a Korean shop owner, some Whammyburger employees, and several other L.A. denizens, Foster commits numerous felonies and takes multiple lives. Throughout his rampage, he's tracked by the grizzled, retiring detective Martin Prendergast (Robert Duvall), who eventually finds Foster at the home of his ex-wife, Beth (Barbara Hershey).

There are two aspects to Falling Down that leave a lasting impression to this day. The first is the performance by Michael Douglas, who inhabits the monstrous Bill Foster with shocking ease even if he occasionally pours on the snarling nastiness a little too thick. If you found it necessary I suppose you could point out that Foster's character is thinly developed, but then I think you're missing the point. We don't know much more about him than we knew about Heath Ledger's Joker in this summer's The Dark Knight, but that didn't seem to create a problem, did it? Both are entirely original characters, and though their hysterics are more important than their histories, a major difference between the two is worth pointing out: people like Bill Foster actually exist.

I love Ebert's take on Foster:

"What is fascinating about the Douglas character, as written and played, is the core of sadness in his soul. Yes, by the time we meet him, he has gone over the edge. But there is no exhilaration in his rampage, no release. He seems weary and confused, and in his actions he unconsciously follows scripts that he may have learned from the movies, or on the news, where other frustrated misfits vent their rage on innocent bystanders."

Aside from featuring one of the most overlooked characters of the 90's, Falling Down was also, as I already mentioned, an amazingly accurate portrayal of 1992 Los Angeles. Again, Ebert:

"Because the character is white, and many of his targets are not, the movie could be read as racist. I prefer to think of it as a reflection of the real feelings of a lot of people who, lacking the insight to see how political and economic philosophies have affected them, fall back on easy scapegoating. If you don't have a job and the Korean shop owner does, it is easy to see him as the villain. It takes a little more imagination to realize that you lost your job because of the greedy and unsound financial games of the go-go junk bond years...Falling Down does a good job of representing a real feeling in our society today."

Easy for Ebert to say in 1993 after having observed the L.A. riots which, wouldn't you know it, occurred while Falling Down was filming in the city.

If everything Ebert says is true, and I believe it is, Falling Down should be praised as one of the better movies of the 90's, as an unflinching tale of moral decay, and as an important influence on the racially-charged movies that followed it, including Crash and American History X. Wash all of that aside if you like, but you still have a performance by Michael Douglas that is somehow never mentioned alongside his memorable work in Fatal Attraction, Wall Street, Basic Instinct, The Game, and Wonder Boys. Where is the love for this movie? Absent within it, absent toward it.

Too bad, really, because another look at Falling Down could produce some important discussions at this time in America. Unfortunately, I fear Bill Foster is not as much of a caricature as we'd like to think.

August 29, 2008

Taking It Home: Frozen River

The face of soul-crushing desperation...

I can't remember the exact scene, but at some point in Frozen River I thought, "Man, this is for real." It may have been when Ray (Melissa Leo, above) asked her supervisor for more hours to work, or when she served her kids another meal of popcorn and Tang, or when she pulled a gun on Lila (Misty Upham, below left), who was refusing to return her stolen car. I was struck by the utter desperation of these characters, and it evoked a certain familiar feeling in me, one of gutwrenching empathy and helplessness. Though I haven't been to the New York - Canadian border where the film is set, and I've been blessed in my life not to have experienced that desperation to this point, I've still observed it firsthand in this country, at the San Diego - Tijuana border, for example, or in the Mississippi Delta, in the streets of South Boston, in San Francisco's Tenderloin District, or right here in Minneapolis. People in dire circumstances faced with decisions that I've never had to consider: shelter or food, heat or water, school or safety, lunch or dinner.

See this desperation enough and you develop an immediate recognition of that feeling. Several films this year already have triggered those thoughts in me, including Blindsight, Chop Shop, La Misma Luna, The Betrayal, and Up The Yangtze. While Frozen River is not a documentary, it leaves no doubt that there is a very real story behind it. Sadly, in an interview with Minneapolis Star Tribune critic Colin Covert, writer/director Courtney Hunt reported that following a New York screening of the film, someone approached her and said, "But people don't really live like that."

Uh, yeah, they do.

And the ignorance on the part of all of us who deny that fact is staggering. I can't judge you for standing idly by while these people struggle next to you, but I can sure get upset if you plainly deny that their struggle exists. No matter where you live (with a few exceptions), we're way too interconnected at this point to walk around pretending like what's happening in one place has no affect on what's happening in another. From taxes to gas prices to housing density to crime to food shortages, there is hardly an issue that exists in its own little bubble. I'm not trying to be cynical and preachy here, but it still astounds me that we can so easily overlook the connections between our lives and those of the people down the street or across the ocean from us. Frozen River perfectly illustrates this illusion of difference; Ray and Lila are basically living the same lives in two "different worlds" that are only separated by a few miles.

Does Frozen River offer any easy answers to the questions it raises about such topics as illegal immigration, poverty, broken families, gambling addiction, human trafficking, consumerism and the sovereignty of American Indian tribes? No, and I don't believe that was Courtney Hunt's objective. Like Chop Shop, this is cinéma vérité simply giving us an intimate look at the people living these lives around us. In that sense it's quite a success, made even more impressive by the fact that this is Hunt's first film.

Although Frozen River won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year, I expect the only awards in its future will be for Melissa Leo and Courtney Hunt, and they will be deserved. Aside from that, it will probably fade into obscurity along with its peers (Chop Shop, Half Nelson, etc.) as raw, incisive accounts of contemporary America that most people would rather continue ignoring. In my opinion, it would be to our collective detriment to do so.

What did you take home?

August 27, 2008

Short Cuts: "A Hundred and Eight With Tax!"

Do The Right Thing (1989). Written and directed by Spike Lee; starring Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and John Turturro.

300 Words About: Hamlet 2

Attention parents: this is not to be confused with "High School Musical"...

There's a moment near the end of Hamlet 2 when Elizabeth Shue (in a terrific "return" to the screen) is sitting in an audience watching the stage production of "Hamlet 2". She's laughing out loud and clapping while the people around her are simply staring in baffled amusement, as if their brains are working overtime trying to pay attention to the musical while also figuring out why she's laughing so much more than them. The scenario is a pretty accurate depiction of my time in the theater watching Hamlet 2. Boisterous laughing would explode from different corners of the theater at different times, and all I could is nervously smile and wonder why I was missing so many of the jokes.

Writer/Director Andrew Fleming (Dick, Nancy Drew) infuses enough easy comedy in his story of a washed-up actor turned high school drama teacher to make Hamlet 2 a light summer flick, but it never quite reaches the level of hilarity that you could rightfully expect from its cast, which includes Steve Coogan (Tropic Thunder), Catherine Keener (Into the Wild), Amy Poehler ("SNL", Baby Mama), Shue, and Melonie Diaz (Be Kind Rewind), who seems to be challenging Ellen Page for the number of high school-age characters she can play in consecutive movies.

The most glaring problem in Hamlet 2 is that the entire weight of the comedy is on the shoulders of Coogan, and it's a load that he can't sustain on his own for 92 minutes. The supporting cast is simply there to receive his jokes (most of which are immature and inane), and none of them offer much on their own. Compare this with the rich characters in something like Waiting for Guffman (which could have produced multiple spin-offs), and you have an idea of how one-dimensional Hamlet 2 is. Moreover, its efforts at poking fun at high school drama programs, Dangerous Minds, and even Elizabeth Shue's career aren't as clever as they should be. In fact, two of the funniest jokes happen to come at the expense of the city of Tucson, AZ, simply because they are two of the jokes that we don't see coming a mile away.

If there is a highlight aside from Coogan's performance, it's the climactic performance of the musical's outrageous showstopper "Rock Me Sexy Jesus," which, while irreverent, is not as outwardly offensive as it may seem. Ironically, had we seen more of the actual stage production of "Hamlet 2", it may have made for a better movie.

August 25, 2008

300 Words About: Bottle Shock

Looks more like a commercial for Budweiser than for "Chateau Montelena"...

Like a bottle of fine wine, Bottle Shock opens with tantalizing promise. The sweeping views of vineyards in Napa Valley forecast a warm and charming account of the true story of the breakthrough of California wines in the 1970's. Like a box of cheap wine, however, Bottle Shock unfortunately becomes a regret before you're halfway through it. If Sideways was the perfect Pinot Noir, Bottle Shock is Miles' dreaded Merlot.

Director/Co-Writer Randall Miller lets all of the interesting potential of his source material ferment into ridiculous subplots about dull romance and daddy issues, so instead of an intelligent, inspiring, and engrossing look at how British oenophile Steven Spurrier discovered Chateau Montelena in California's Napa Valley, Bottle Shock exists as a bloated, jocular farce that features a two-minute wet t-shirt contest with poor Rachael Taylor (Transformers) as its only contestant. It's one of several moments that make you remember, "Oh, yeah - Randall Miller also directed Houseguest and The Sixth Man."

Maybe I could overlook the stale writing if it wasn't the great Alan Rickman (Sweeney Todd) who was being fed such terrible lines. Actually I take that back - I couldn't overlook it no matter what, and the acting by Bill Pullman (who along with literally half the cast was just in Miller's Nobel Son) and Chris Pine (Captain Kirk in Star Trek next year) as father and son is just plain flat. That both Rickman and Dennis Farina (The Grand) are sidelined so we can watch teens behaving badly is probably the most unforgivable offense of Bottle Schlock (excuse me, Shock), along with, of course, the short shrift given to the story of the wine itself.

Though I've been to Napa Valley a couple of times and toured wineries, and I saw the oddly ignored Mondovino a few years ago, I'm nothing close to an expert on wine. About all I know by this point is that I prefer white over red and that Champagne is a place. But I don't buy wine and I rarely drink it; something about the stereotypical culture of it has prevented me from fully embracing it.

It's pretty ironic, then, that I'd much rather spend a day at the vineyard with the snobbiest of oenophiles than hang out with any of the characters of Bottle Shock for an afternoon.

August 23, 2008

REVIEW: Vicky Cristina Barcelona (A-)

Background: Woody Allen has been through the wringer the last few years. Loyal fans and critics have attacked his recent films like a scorned lover, from Match Point (which I loved) to Scoop (which I didn't see) t0 most recently, Cassandra's Dream, which was just lackluster. For the third time in the last four movies, Allen features Scarlett Johansson (The Other Boleyn Girl, The Prestige), but he also adds newcomer Rebecca Hall (also in The Prestige) and Patricia Clarkson (Married Life). The two younger actresses are somewhat dangerously thrown into the mix with emerging Oscar heavyweights Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men) and Penelope Cruz (Volver). Filmed entirely on location in Barcelona and Oviedo, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is sure to wildly increase Study Abroad in Spain applications from American women for years to come.

Synopsis : Vicky (Hall) and Cristina (Johansson) are American twenty-somethings spending the summer in Barcelona, Vicky to study Catalan culture, and Cristina to study whatever she happens upon. Vicky is mature, ambitious, and engaged to be married to Doug (Chris Messina), a New York elitist. Cristina is carefree and bohemian; a dreamer who embraces moral relativism. When Juan Antonio (Bardem), a local artist with a widely publicized failed marriage, invites the women for a sightseeing and lovemaking weekend in Oviedo, it's a no-chance for Vicky and a no-brainer for Cristina. They accept, of course, and both begin affairs with Juan Antonio, Vicky's in private and Cristina's in public. What would become a typical forbidden love story becomes quite the opposite when Doug suddenly arrives in Barcelona, followed closely behind by the return of Maria Elena (Cruz), Juan Antonio's ex-wife. Whose fidelity will last as the summer of love comes to an end?

I Loved:
+ The first scene with Bardem at the late dinner: The Proposition. (I actually started laughing out loud, Anton Chigurh appeared in that scene for a second until I saw him as Juan Antonio).
+ The warmth, richness, and texture of the production. Woody Allen's writing + beautiful location + perfect music = gold.

I Liked:
+ Penelope Cruz's fiery passion, especially in the kitchen/washing dishes scene.
+ The narration - a lot. It's always a gamble, but it succeeded for me in the same way as the narration in The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford.

I Disliked:
- Scarlett Johansson - increasingly, I find her less and less of an "actress" and more and more of a celebrity playing in movies.

I Hated:
- Doug, the annoying upper-cruster with all the right intentions about love but, sadly, all the wrong ideas about success.

Writing - 10
Acting - 9
Production - 10
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Social Significance - 3

Total: 45/50= 90% = A-

Last Word: What is about Woody Allen's writing that makes me enjoy spending time with the characters in his films, who, were I to meet in real life, I would otherwise most certainly avoid? Part of it is the sheer amount of dialogue we have with these characters. The more you get to know someone, obviously, the better you can empathize with their issues. But the other part of it is Allen's unique talent for adding depth to his characters and including me in conversations that I never actually have but I always imagine are having at the table next to me. He's one of only a handful of screenwriters who can engage the viewer so intimately in, for example, a 10-minute conversation between two characters simply sitting at a table.

In short, he writes honestly, and it translates
naturally to sharp, subtle comedy and a surprising amount of real-life relevance. More than once in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, I was reminded of last year's tragically underrated 2 Days in Paris. I have to admit, that film was both funnier and more emotionally raw than Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but it wasn't quite as polished and it didn't have that indescribable Allen-esque familiarity that makes his films so warm - nor did it have the absolutely showstopping presence of Penelope Cruz.

Consider the legendary director back to his old form. He's proven that with the right players, the right story, and the right location, he can still deliver the goods. My hopes are high for next year's Whatever Works, which boasts a solid cast in my opinion, and more importantly marks Allen's long-overdue return to Greenwich Village.

August 22, 2008

REVIEW: Strangers on a Train

Of all the rich detail in the first three minutes of Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, it's a lightning-quick gesture made by our protagonist, the tennis pro Guy Haines (Farley Granger), that cuts right through to me.

We've all been there before. Maybe not on a train, but certainly on a plane. You find your seat, get comfortable, and settle in with your reading material. All is well until some chance variable acts as a catalyst - maybe it's a report from the captain, or the flight attendant distributing beverages, or a passenger in your row needing to get by your legs. Before you know it, sure enough, you're out of your book or magazine or music or movie and into a forced, awkward conversation with the way-too-chatty person next to you (the same one who just slurped down the last of the Venti Double Latte that's now jammed in the seatback, hovering over your leg and threatening to stain your pants if you move your leg two inches to the left). Often, you end up telling this complete stranger much more about yourself than you expected to, spilling very personal details about your work or family or hopes and dreams. It's a truly bizarre human encounter that happens in almost no other circumstance; anywhere else it would be consider inappropriate, but you're never going to see this nameless person again in your life, so what's the difference?

If I sense that I'm about to enter into this uncomfortable, never-ending game (it only becomes more awkward if you stop early and are left sitting next to them for two more hours), I inevitably resort to The Move. You know the one: raise of the eyebrows accompanied by a pursed smile, followed by a sigh and a glance in a different direction.

Guy nails it.

Unfortunately, this stranger on the train is not going anywhere. Worse, the consequences of this encounter are, unbeknownst to Guy, deadly serious, for he's just met one of Hollywood's most wickedly strange villains, the sexually frustrated lunatic Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker). Their "chance variable" was an otherwise innocent brush of their shoes across the aisle: Bruno's the flamboyant, two-tone wingtips, and Guy's the understated, low-polished loafers. I'm not that much of a detail hound; their shoes are the only things we see in the first 90 seconds. It's an amazingly simple introduction by Hitchcock that's shocking in its effectiveness in hooking the viewer, and a technique that brilliantly matures as we come to more intimately know the wearers of those shoes.

If you can't tell something is odd about Bruno Anthony from the first words out of his mouth, then you might need to retune your social radar. Bruno is handsome, flirtatious, cloying, charming - he's too good to be true, and as he gently but annoyingly badgers Guy into having lunch with him in his private dining car, his sweetness begins to sour into something altogether macabre. Aware of Guy's marital troubles through the tabloids, Bruno proposes that the two swap murders: Bruno will eliminate Guy's unfaithful wife if Guy dispatches of Bruno's overbearing father, thus removing motive from the respective murders and leaving them both in the clear. It's a brilliant plan, but Guy, disturbed by Bruno's forthrightness and general manner, politely brushes it off and gets off at his stop.

Much has been made about the adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's first novel. Hitchcock originally hoped that Dashiell Hammett, author of "The Maltese Falcon", would be available to adapt "Strangers on a Train" for the screen, but an apparent scheduling error by Hitchcock's secretary ruined the meeting, leaving him without a screenwriter. He ended up working with (and infamously butting heads with) Raymond Chandler, author of "The Big Sleep" and winner of an Oscar for co-writing Double Indemnity with Billy Wilder. These are interesting connections, but the point is, Highsmith's novel reportedly had strong homosexual overtones that were left out of the film. Walker does career-defining work as Bruno Anthony, but you never get the blatant sexual hinting that was present in, say, The Talented Mr. Ripley, which was also adapted from a Highsmith novel.

Some people may pick up on it more than others, but in any case, Hitchcock gives us some time to become a little bit more familiar with Bruno and Guy in their natural settings and away from each other. We learn that Guy hides a somewhat violent temper behind his handsome smile. He's loyal, privately passionate, and eventually accepting of the fact that he may have to make some moral compromises to get himself away from Bruno. At Bruno's house, we see him as an immature brat living at home who patronizes his oblivious mother and irritatingly provokes his disapproving father. Guy and Bruno have more in common than may appear on the surface, but it's clear that the two-faced Bruno is the more mentally unstable of the two, occasionally living in his own reality and seemingly juggling multiple personalities.

It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that without any warning and without any agreement from Guy, Bruno is off to casually murder Guy's wife, Miriam. What follows is one of the more agonizing stalking scenes that you'll ever see. Beginning on a bus outside Miriam's brownstone, Bruno playfully follows her and her two male companions to and then around the local amusement park, where he repeatedly makes flirtatious eye contact with Miriam as he copies their every move, save for a quick pit stop for bag of hot popcorn. The suspense reaches a fever pitch by the time we enter the Tunnel of Love, through which little boats bring hormonally charged couples to a private island about a hundred yards away. Hitchcock is playing with us as much as Bruno is playing with Miriam, and her strangling almost surprises us, perhaps because we expect a loud and dramatic attack after all that build-up, something in the manner of Janet Leigh's demise nine years later in Hitchcock's Psycho.

Not that Miriam's strangling isn't still a horrifying affair. In what is likely the most iconic scene in Strangers on a Train, Hitchcock directs the camera toward Miriam's glasses, which were dashed to the ground when Bruno grabbed her. In the reflection of the lens, we witness him choke the life out of her until she collapses to the ground. He collects the scant evidence and casually heads back across the water in his boat as we hear Miriam's companions discover her limp body. In a bit of biting irony, Hitchcock shows us Bruno helping a blind man cross the street as he leaves the amusement park and head's to Guy's place. It just adds to the complexity of Bruno's character, as do the debilitating flashbacks he has throughout the rest of the movie. Is it possible Bruno didn't realize what he was getting himself into with this murder deal, either?

The rest of Strangers on a Train involves Guy struggling to escape this blackmail, and we find ourselves recognizing him as an archetypal Hitchcock character, wrongfully accused with no easy way to clear his name (word has it that this phenomenon comes directly from the mistreatment Hitchcock experienced by his father during childhood). Guy knows that Bruno won't lay off until he agrees to kill Bruno's father, and he becomes more desperate as the situation consumes every aspect of his life. Bruno finds him in public, stalks him from afar, attends his tennis matches and even sends him a gun, a house key, and a diagram of his father's bedroom. Furthermore, Bruno infiltrates Guy's inner circle, not only meeting with Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), the Senator's daughter that Guy hopes to marry, but also creeping out her little sister, Barbara (wonderfully played by the director's daughter, Patricia Hitchcock), who bears a disturbing similarity to Miriam.

It's nothing new to accuse Hitchcock of misogyny, but it's hard to make a case that the female support in the cast has much to work with. Roman is primarily kept busy grimacing, frowning, taking deep breaths and looking altogether helpless, while Hitchcock's own daughter is mostly around to make frightened faces. Was this unfair on the director's part? Some may say so, but looking at the big picture I would contend that this story is only meant to focus on Bruno and Guy, and the film lags when it spends anytime away from these two. For example, I certainly wasn't getting anything from the awkward romance between Guy and Anne.

Hitchcock makes up for any slow moments with his sure-handed direction, however, and fully earns his title as the "Master of Suspense". In addition to the nightmarish amusement park stalking and the thrilling carousel climax, there is also a stunning scene in which Guy sneaks into Bruno's house - not to kill Bruno's father, but to tell him that his son is a lunatic. Hitchcock's use of shadows, foreground focus, subtle music and a great big dog make for edge-of-your-seat suspense. Guy doesn't leave the house any more easily than he arrives, however. Bruno walks him out of the house at gunpoint, threatening to do something much worse than kill him. We know that Bruno can't kill Guy, of course, because he loves him; "I would do anything for you," purrs Bruno as he aims the gun at Guy. It's a cat-and-mouse game that we've seen in countless movies, from Cape Fear to Fatal Attraction to The Fan to The Cable Guy.

It was this performance as a charming psychopath that would earn Robert Walker rave reviews and acclaim from his peers, but no awards. After Strangers on a Train wrapped in 1951, Walker completed principal photography on My Son John but tragically died before reshoots began. His personal life off-screen was as tumultuous as Guy Haines' personal life in Strangers on a Train, and Walker had a history of drug and alcohol abuse. On August 28, 1951, he died of an overdose and allergic reaction to a prescription sedative he took while intoxicated. The similarity in the circumstances between Walker's death and Heath Ledger's are breathtaking.

Strangers on a Train isn't considered Hitchcock's finest film, but it's hard to find many faults with it. The production is similar to other noir films of the era, but he obviously adapted the noir to his filmmaking style, and not the other way around. The story, on the other hand, is a bit of an outlier when compared to the others featured this month. There is no femme fatale, detective, hooligan, or crooked cop. Just one crazy guy stalking another. As such, is perhaps one of the most suspenseful of all noir, and the small cast allows us to more intimately connect with the main characters. By all accounts a Hitchcock classic, Strangers on a Train is the kind of movie that will make you think twice about striking up a conversation with the passenger next to you.

The trailer for the film blares, "You'll talk to your friends about it, but you'll never talk to...Strangers on a Train!"

You got that right. If I can help it, of course.

[This review was written as part of Film Noir Month at MovieZeal. Be sure to check out the excellent daily reviews and commentaries by numerous bloggers and readers who are extremely well-versed in noir.]

August 21, 2008


I've never played a "Name that Movie Poster" game before, but just in the last week I've received two invitations to do so.

Sam Juliano, new addition to MovieZeal, forwarded me a link to The Empire Poster Quiz. I love how this one is set up.

Fletch at Blog Cabins has gone a step further and created his own: The Great Movie Poster Piece Contest. This one actually has prizes, and the more people who enter, the higher the prize total grows. I would put up an image of the collage, but it's best you just go and give it a shot. Wouldn't want to have anyone give away an answer here, either...

I actually haven't had the time to sit down and take either of these yet, but I'm looking forward to it.

In the meantime, what do you think of the posters of 2008 to date? I know there are some gems on the way (Burn After Reading and Doubt at the top of the list), but what about what's already come? I think the posters for The Dark Knight, The Bank Job, and Man on Wire are among the best so far.

Check these out and report back with your own.

Perfect Song, Perfect Scene #2

Opening title sequence, Midnight Cowboy (1969): "Everybody's Talkin'" by Harry Nilsson

August 20, 2008

Whatever Happened To: Meg Ryan?

Forget Proof of Life. We need proof of a career. How did Meg Ryan go from commanding $15,000,000 a picture just seven years ago to playing bit parts in low-budget indie failures, like last year's In the Land of Women, or this year's straight-to-video My Mom's New Boyfriend?

Age discrimination? Poor choice of roles? The death of the respectable romantic comedy? Call it what you want to, but it's clear that one of the biggest box-office stars of the 90's (over $1 billion grossed worldwide between '93 and '98) has dropped off big time. Here are the numbers.

It's not as if Ryan has moved on to another career, either. Sure, she hasn't kept up the same pace as she used to, but aside from a three year hiatus after the legendary 2004 bomb Against the Ropes, acting has still been her main gig. You've probably even recognized her in the trailer for the upcoming The Women, where she'll join Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Jada Pinkett Smith, Debra Messing, Bette Midler, and Candice Bergen in a remake of the 1939 classic that no doubt provided inspiration for "Sex and the City" so many years later.
Was Ryan included in this ensemble because of lingering doubt that she can still carry a movie as the lead, or is this what's left of her career going forward?

Let's go back to my three initial inquiries.

Age discrimination - If you ask me, she still has star looks at 46 years old (above in The Women), so aside from there being few parts written for 40-somethings, this doesn't seem like it would be the major issue. It's just that she'd have to fight Diane Lane over those few roles.

Poor choice of roles - Certainly something to be said here. Following up You've Got Mail in 1998 with the sci-fi romantic comedy Kate and Leopold in 2001, she completely changed gears with Proof of Life (which was decent, mostly because of Russell Crowe), In The Cut (in which she appeared nude and simulated oral sex with Mark Ruffalo), and the aforementioned Against the Ropes (in which she played a female boxing promoter). Read through those again. Meg Ryan?

I'm not advocating that actors do the same thing over and over again, but there has to be some understanding of risk, and it's hard to argue that Ryan's early 2000's character choices did not do serious damage to her career. Blame can be placed at other weaknesses in those films, or poor execution overall, but it's a moot point by now. If you're going to branch out, you have to do it wisely.

The death of the respectable romantic comedy - If we consider Notting Hill the last peak in romantic comedies (earlier eras belonging to Woody Allen), there haven't been too many in the last decade to speak of. Every now and then one will come along, like 2 Days in Paris or Definitely, Maybe (which I include based on hearsay alone), but the genre hasn't been very healthy since J-Lo and Jessica Alba received the baton from Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, or even Cameron Diaz.

But if Ryan deliberately moved away from romantic comedies in the early 2000's, the lull of romantic comedies shouldn't have made a huge difference.
So it comes down to possibly choosing the wrong roles at the wrong time...or, a wild card. While promoting In the Cut in 2003, Ryan had an infamous interview with British talk show host Michael Parkinson. The only summary I could find was from IMDb:

[The October 2003 episode of Parkinson's chat show has become part of British television history due to the actress's bizarre behavior in which she gave only one word answers to questions and stared icily at the host. Ryan appeared on the program to promote her erotic thriller, In the Cut (2003), but refused to answer Parkinson's questions about the drastic change from her typical romantic comedy roles. At one point Parkinson said in exasperation, "What would you do now if you were me?" to which Ryan replied, "Why not wrap it up?" About the televised debacle, Parkinson later said that Ryan was his "most difficult TV moment." He felt her rude behavior toward his fellow guests, Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine, whom she deliberately turned her back on, was unforgivable. Parkinson said, "I should have closed it. But listen, it happens. She was an unhappy woman. I felt sorry for her. What I couldn't forgive her for was that she was rude to the other guests." In a 2006 interview with "Marie Claire" magazine, Ryan blamed Parkinson's paternal manner for the failure of the interview. Ryan said, "I don't even know the man. That guy was like some disapproving father! It's crazy. I don't know what he is to you guys, but he's a nut. I felt like he was berating me for being naked in the movie. He said something like: 'You should go back to doing what you were doing'. And I thought, are you like a disapproving dad right now? I'm not even related to you. Back off, buddy. I was so offended by him." Ryan also underscored the difference between American and British TV interviewing styles. "I realized it's not like an American talk show where it's seven minutes and then there's a commercial break. I had to do 20 minutes straight with this guy, and I could either walk off - which wouldn't be good - or try to disagree with him very respectfully."]

Maybe not a fair reason for her career to tank, but still an example of how bad P.R. can have serious repercussions. It's really too bad for Meg Ryan, who was great in the 80's (Top Gun, Innerspace, When Harry Met Sally) and on fire in the 90's (Sleepless in Seattle, Courage Under Fire, City of Angels).

Next up after The Women is next year's Serious Moonlight, starring Timothy Hutton, Kristen Bell, and Justin Long. The synopsis?

"When a high-powered female attorney discovers that her husband is about to leave her for another woman, she prevents him from doing so by binding him to the toilet with duct tape. Complications ensue when burglars break in to the couple’s home."

*shakes head in pity*

August 18, 2008

Only in the Movies: Answering Machines

Pardon the interruption - I was in California for the last few days. Visited my buddy Mitch in L.A., and even had the pleasure to briefly meet Craig Kennedy. Then another wedding and catching up with the crew in San Diego.

So at my friend's place in San Diego, I was reminded of a feature that I've been meaning to get off the ground for a while: "Only in the Movies", otherwise known as movie cliché
s. These are, obviously, the distracting things in movies that completely remove you from the experience because they're so out of touch with reality.

Who uses answering machines anymore?

I thought I might be going out on a limb with this one, but the stats are out there: "According to USA Today, the number of homes that only use cell phones jumped 159% between 2004 and 2007. It has been particularly bad in New York; since 2000, landline usage has dropped 55%. It's logical that as cell phones rise, many of them replacing traditional landlines, that there will be fewer answering machines."

That alone is strong enough evidence, but I would argue that even those who still have landlines often have digital voice mail instead of a physical machine next to their phone. Forgive the hyperbolic metaphor, but there are probably about as many microtape answering machines around these days as there are rotary phones (or for that matter, pay phones). Yet, in movie after movie, these beeping machines continue to make an appearance.

Typically, we get an answering machine scene to relay a message from a character that we would otherwise not see: protagonist arrives home, tosses belongings onto a nearby chair, sees archaic machine flashing with a red light and displaying a digital number, hits red button, and hears a loud, clear message played back in between obnoxious beeps.

It's a shortcut for advancing the story, and it usually does the job. Besides, how else would we hear those plot-driving messages if the character was - as they would in real life - checking their voice mail with their phones up to their ears?

So I get the reason, but I'm still distracted by it, and I still think that it's especially out of place in so many movies with contemporary stories, like The Savages. Personally, I find it easier to relate to the characters when I can plug in to what they're doing. In Tell No One, for example, we were able to check out a cryptic email along with the main character, Alexandre. Considering most of us probably get as many (if not more) messages relayed to us via email and not phone, I thought it was a step in the right direction. This advancement of technology can be abused, however. Am the only who raised an eyebrow at the extreme dependence on text messaging in The Departed?

By this point you're probably rolling your eyes that I could be so bothered by something as silly as phone technology in movies. All I can say is, we all observe different details in different movies, and this is one of several that irks me every time.

August 15, 2008

REVIEW: The Asphalt Jungle

*Major plot points are discussed, including several deaths.

"People are being cheated, robbed, murdered, raped. And that goes on 24 hours a day, every day in the year. And that's not exceptional, that's usual. It's the same in every city in the modern world. But suppose we had no police force, good or bad. Suppose we had... just silence. Nobody to listen, nobody to answer. The battle's finished. The jungle wins. The predatory beasts take over."

So says Police Commissioner Hardy (John McIntire) in an impassioned speech at the conclusion of The Asphalt Jungle, an overlooked noir classic that's also considered to be one of the earliest and most stylistically influential heist films. Based on the novel of the same name by W.J. Burnett, The Asphalt Jungle was brilliantly adapted by Ben Maddow and John Huston, whose masterful direction of the film is often overshadowed by his projects that came directly before and after it: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The African Queen (1951), respectively. Of course, Huston's contribution to the noir canon is also most often attributed not to The Asphalt Jungle, but to The Maltese Falcon, his seminal masterpiece that set the tone for the classic noir era that would span nearly two decades.

Out of context, Hardy's statement is an anachronistic cliché, a statement made by weary police commissioners in any city and any era. In the context of The Asphalt Jungle, however, it's the crowning achievement of the screenplay and the final knot in the carefully crafted tapestry that precedes it. While it might have worked anywhere within the film, it's a statement that can only be fully absorbed at the near end, after we've been through the jungle ourselves and seen the “predatory beasts” in their natural habitat.

Huston wastes no time establishing mood in The Asphalt Jungle. The earliest audio is the crackle of a police radio as a patrol car cruises through the morning gloom of an otherwise deserted urban landscape (filmed partly in Cincinnati, the exact setting of the film is revealed only to be within reasonable driving distance of Cleveland). The cops are the law in this jungle, but they aren't necessarily the predators. That label would be left to the underground hooligans such as the one they are on the lookout for, a brooding bear with a permanent scowl and the build of a linebacker. We'll later come to learn that the brute, Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden in one of his first starring roles), is a Kentucky transplant with a gambling problem, spending only enough time hustling in the city to make money for the purchase of his family farm, which was lost, along with his treasured horses, when his family suffered financial ruin years earlier. Although we don't yet know these details about Dix, we're immediately drawn to his handsome looks and enigmatic expressions. What is he hiding?

Dodging the police on foot, Dix seeks the refuge of his friend, Gus Minissi (James Whitmore, later loved as Brooks Hadley in The Shawshank Redemption), a diner proprietor with a short fuse whose loyalty will extend beyond the law if necessary. Perhaps the faithful monkey in this jungle, Gus hides Dix's gun in the cash register right before the cops stroll in. Dix is hauled off under suspicion anyway, but in less than 15 minutes, Huston has already hooked us with two fascinating characters operating in an underworld that we recognize only from the realm of film noir. In a break from the norm, Huston also gives us a female character who does not play the typical femme fatale: Doll Conovan (Jean Hagen) is a seemingly lost young woman who will do anything for Dix, her near obsession. Their back-and-forth throughout the movie is a sight to see: the gushing Doll brightly fawning over Dix, who tries his best to hide any heart behind his puffed up demeanor.

The next creatures to make their appearances are true predators, albeit from different species: Lt. Ditrich (Barry Kelley) is a crooked cop under increasing pressure from the straight-laced Police Commissioner Hardy to rein in the city's animals (“You don't close 'em hard enough. Rip out the phones, smash up the furniture.”). A real hyena, Ditrich is a bully who makes a lot of noise and can't be trusted. As Hardy scolds him, Ditrich nods obediently like a kid in the principal's office, fingers presumably crossed behind his back. His private partner in crime is Cobby (Marc Lawrence), a popular bookie with plenty of connections but no friends. Cobby is a whining weasel, a slickster who cowers under pressure due to his weak will.

Neither of these two compare to the beast that arrives next: “Doc” Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe in an Oscar-nominated performance), an ex-con of German descent who heads to Cobby's backroom parlor less than 24 hours after his prison release. A conniving, smooth-talking lizard with a penchant for young girls, Doc has a massive jewel heist planned, one that he estimates could rake in half a million dollars. Ever the orchestrator, however, he convinces Cobby to help him find both operating costs and personnel: “A box man, a driver, and a hooligan.”

As it happens Dix has just intimidated his way out of a police line-up, and his brusque sudden appearance at Cobby's makes quite an impression on Doc ("Don't bone me!," Dix barks at Cobby. "Did I ever welsh? You just boned me!"). Dix is soon chosen as the hooligan, and his pal Gus as the driver. The missing piece – the box man - is the most important one, but Gus happens to know a professional safecracker, Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), and the gang is set.

All that's needed is $50,000 to pay them. Doc persuades Cobby to reach out to his deep-pocketed contacts for financing, and this - this is where we meet the most disgusting beast in the jungle: the lawyer Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern). A cold-blooded, contemptible snake, Emmerich has a reputation for an extravagant lifestyle and questionable morals. We soon find out, however, that they're not really questionable, they're simply absent: the self-pitying Emmerich has nearly bankrupted himself by spoiling his naïve mistress Angela Phinlay (Marilyn Monroe). His invalid wife, May, meanwhile, sits lonely in her bed, desperately begging Emmerich to play a simple card game with her during his cold and infrequent visits.

Emmerich agrees to “fence” the jewels after they're acquired for a share of the money. Unable to front the cash needed for Doc's gang, however (and unable to admit it), Emmerich convinces Cobby to front the $50,000 in exchange for a cut of his own. Cobby complies, and Emmerich's double-cross is in place. He'll pay no money, and he'll receive the jewels. Par for the course for him:

May: "Oh Lon, when I think of all those awful people you come in contact with - downright criminals - I get scared."

Emmerich: "Oh, there's nothing so different about them. After all, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor."

In Emmerich, Huston has given us the lowest of life forms in this jungle. He's a man without honor, without principle, without a soul. As the deal goes down later, Huston lets Dix make this case: “Are you a man, or what? Trying to gyp and double-cross with no guts for it? What's inside of you?! What's keeping you alive?!”

Perhaps because we know what she's dealing with, we find it easy to empathize with Angela Phinlay. Or maybe it's just because it's Marilyn Monroe, and she wholly commands our attention from her first brief appearance. It was a star-making turn for Monroe, and one that would lead to her being cast in All About Eve later that year, a movie which, incidentally, provides the only reasonable explanation for why The Asphalt Jungle didn't take home an Oscar in the any of the four categories for which it was nominated.

The characters established and the story carefully set-up, Huston takes The Asphalt Jungle to its second act, perhaps the one most familiar to fans of classic heist and caper films. The 11-minute operation at the jewelry store is executed as well by Huston as it is by the on-screen gang of Dix, Doc, and Ciavelli. The lack of a musical score and the limited dialogue make for a naturalistic and tense atmosphere. The only relief from the stressful scene is the amusing tactic taken to avoid the “electric eye” alarm sensor. Seeing robbers inchworm their way under an invisible line just looks silly in 2008. At the time, however, I'm sure it evoked the same anxiety in viewers as Tom Cruise's acrobatic disk grab in 1996's Mission Impossible. It may not be a coincidence, of course, since The Asphalt Jungle is thought to have influenced nearly all of the heist films that followed it, from Rififi just a few years later to Dog Day Afternoon a generation later to The Bank Job a near lifetime later (it's also not lost on the viewer that Doc's gang is a sharply dressed bunch, much like the crews in Reservoir Dogs, Heat, and Ocean's Eleven).

Ciavilli cracks the safe with no problem, but the charge sets off the alarms in neighboring buildings. As the gang makes haste for the exit, a run in with a security guard leads to the accidental shooting of Ciavilli, and the film moves into its third act: the beasts of the jungle begin feeding on each other.

When Doc and Dix show up at Emmerich's expecting the payout, their suspicions that the lawyer is broke are confirmed. In another well staged scene, Dix kills Emmerich's personal advisor in a shootout as the planned double-cross goes awry. Suffering from gunshot wound to the stomach, and knowing that their jewels are now worthless, Dix turns his gun on a sobbing Emmerich. Doc, in a moment of surprising sensitivity, tells Dix to hold off until they're certain Emmerich can't arrange for an insurance payout, however small it might be.

In the meantime, Ciavilli has died from his wound and the police are hot on the trail of the gang. Upset that he wasn't included on the take, Lt. Ditrich slaps Cobby around until he sings and exposes all the players. When Gus is picked up and booked in the same cell block as Cobby, it takes two police to restrain him from choking Cobby through the iron bars. On the other side of town, Doc and the seriously wounded Dix have a run-in with an observant policeman at a train depot, leaving the cop incapacitated and Doc suffering from a bloody head wound. Over at Emmerich's, the police have arrived and are breaking down his alibi that he was with Angela on the night of the heist. When his lies are exposed, the lawyer retreats to his office and takes his own life.

As The Asphalt Jungle begins winding down, Huston has wickedly turned the tables on his characters. As in The Maltese Falcon, the treasure that drove the agenda has become almost obsolete, and what began as a simple heist job has spiraled into a life-and-death scenario for this gang. Ciavilli and Emmerich are dead, Cobby and Gus are locked up, and Doc and Dix are on the run with some cash and some stolen jewels that they can't resell.

The capture of Doc is one of the great scenes in the film, and it perfectly illustrates the consequences of greed that Huston has spent the whole time underlining. Otherwise in the clear, it's Doc's decision to ogle a young girl at a local diner for a few minutes too long that does him in. As Police Commissioner Hardy gives his memorable speech, Dix fights for his life, driving out to his Kentucky farm with Doll blubbering next to him.

Dix's tragic death is almost beautiful to watch. His wound getting the best of him over the course of almost an hour of the film, it's not until he reaches his dear Kentucky home that he finally succumbs. It's a tremendous shot by Huston, and the brightness of the rural daylight juxtaposed with the dark of the urban night is truly breathtaking.

Discussing so much of the plot here may have seemed unnecessary, but the arc of the characters is the beating heart of The Asphalt Jungle, and each of them faces different consequences as a result of their respective vices. As Huston himself notes in an introduction of the film: "It's chiefly concerned with human relationships; that is to say the story is told from inside out. Although it's melodramatic in form, it is not melodramatic in content...You may not admire these people, but I think they'll fascinate you." He clearly identifies the vices of several of the characters: Doc and his girls, Emmerich and his extravagance, Dix and his horses. Huston knew what he was working with; The Asphalt Jungle is a multi-faceted character study of the highest order, and his hard-boiled direction is absolutely outstanding. It would be well worth additional viewings, and its timeless story - and Hardy's speech from above - is as relevant in 2008 as it was in 1950.

[This review was written as part of Film Noir Month at MovieZeal. Be sure to check out the excellent daily reviews and commentaries by numerous bloggers and readers who are extremely well-versed in noir.]

August 13, 2008

300 Words (x2) About: Tropic Thunder

Check your morals at the door for the guiltiest pleasure of the year...

When it comes to comedies, it's usually a good sign when the laughs start before the movie even begins. The fake trailers shown before Tropic Thunder tell you exactly what you're in for: a raunchy, ridiculously romp that makes you cringe as much as it makes you laugh out loud.

That's right. Against all odds, I found Tropic Thunder to be the funniest comedy of the summer - by far.

Realizing this, I searched for an explanation as the end credits rolled (which happen to be the best of any movie this year). "Third time must have been the charm," I said to my group, citing two recent duds. I thought I'd finally succumbed to idiotic comedy.
Soon after, however, I realized that there was actually something different about Tropic Thunder, and it wasn't just the absolutely stunning production design.

Three self-absorbed movie stars are cast in "Tropic Thunder", a Vietnam war movie based on the memoirs of a hook-handed veteran (Nick Nolte). Leading man Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller, who co-wrote and also directed the movie) is pampered by his agent (Matthew McConaughey), and his last role was in a film that's widely considered to be the worst of all time. Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.) is an Academy Award-winning method actor whose preparation for roles would put Daniel Day-Lewis to shame. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is a drug-addled comedy star trying to separate himself from "The Fatties", his popular movie franchise about, well, a fat, flatulent family. Add a rookie director, an all-too-enthusiastic explosives expert (Danny McBride), and a nauseating studio head with a God complex (Tom Cruise), and "Tropic Thunder" appears to be doomed from the start. That is, of course, when a decision is made to shoot the film guerrilla style in the middle of the actual jungle and separate the stars from their security blankets. Unfortunately for the cast, there are actual guerrillas in this actual jungle.

If Step Brothers is the immature kid at the playground who steals a megaphone and curses in between making fart noises, Tropic Thunder is the best man giving his speech at a wedding, roasting the groom and telling the jokes that everyone will remember. Calling it a "smart" comedy would seem impossible to defend, but it's a label I'm tempted to use nonetheless. In the mold of Blazing Saddles, the dialogue and characters don't just toe the political correctness line, they stand right on it and stick their tongue out at you, making you feel silly that such a line exists in the first place. Beyond that, it deliciously satirizes Hollywood and skewers the careers of the very people it stars (speaking of which, this might be best work by an ensemble cast all year, and Cruise and Downey, Jr. are especially outstanding).

The potential for being offended is pretty high, but Tropic Thunder mostly covers its bases thanks to the sharp writing of Stiller and his co-writer, the actor Justin Theroux. The characters are, in fact, caricatures; the joke isn't on African-Americans or people with disabilities. It's on the actors.
The outcry over the material in Tropic Thunder isn't altogether misguided, but it may be misinformed. People who see two movies a year and know nothing about Hollywood business culture will find it difficult to understand the satire (not to mention the hilarious references to so many other movies).

As much as this is true, however, there are still many scenes and lines that are just plain nasty.
People may walk out of Tropic Thunder and head right back to the box office. Some will complain, some will buy tickets to the next screening. I did neither, but I did find myself surprised at how much I was laughing.

Short Cuts: "You Got It, Man!"

Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Directed by Sidney Lumet; written by Frank Pierson; starring Al Pacino, John Cazale, Charles Durning, Penelope Allen, and Carol Kane.

August 11, 2008

I'm Speechless...Kind Of

It appears I've been inexplicably blacklisted on the interwebs (most likely because I dared speak negatively about both Step Brothers and Pineapple Express). My comments at all WordPress-powered blogs, including, are being mistakenly blocked by the Akismet anti-spam filter. This is already the most boring post I've ever written, so here's a favorite from The Greatest Comic Strip of All Time to make it worth your while (click to enlarge):

If you have a WordPress-powered blog, and I know many of you fine readers do, please check in your spam filters/folders (I don't really know how it works) to see if my comments are in there. I've already contacted Akismet but it sounds like this is going to take days and not hours to correct. In the meantime, I have to frustratingly read all of your stuff from the wrong side of a one-way mirror.

The worst part, of course, is that I can't participate in our neverending game of Telling Each Other How Awesome We and Our Reviews Are (not that I don't love this game - where would I be without it?), and I can't join in any great discussions about movies or movie news. Just know that I'm still reading...

Taking It Home: Man On Wire

Arguably the best scene of 2008.


Pronunciation:\äb-ˈse-shən, əb-\; Function: noun; Date: 1680

(Merriam-Webster) 1: a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling

Next to this definition in the dictionary, you might find a portrait of Philippe Petit, the French tightrope walker and subject of James Marsh's astonishing documentary Man on Wire. It's a film that captures the best of human ambition and the worst of human selfishness. It's a study of man who needs to walk a tightrope like a fish needs to swim. It's a stylish mash-up of interviews, Errol Morris-like reenactments, and grainy Super-8 footage, all brilliantly synthesized by Marsh to make a film that's as heart-pounding as the latest Bourne installment and as emotionally moving as this year's Young @ Heart. Already the Sundance winner for Best Documentary Feature, watch for Man on Wire to easily receive an Oscar nomination in January.

If, like me, you were born after 1974, Philippe Petit may only be a Trivial Pursuit answer or a random encyclopedia (make that Wikipedia) entry. What most of us fail to realize is that Petit was, at least for one fateful August day, responsible for bringing Lower Manhattan and the area immediately surrounding the World Trade Center to a complete standstill. His feat was, of course, his "disturbing preoccupation with an unreasonable idea": walking a one-inch tightrope between the tops of the two WTC towers. (Speaking of which, I was floored with grief when I saw a photo of Petit's signature on a beam on one of the tower's rooftops. Yet another casualty of 9/11, which is incidentally not mentioned one time throughout Man On Wire.)

Thanks to an unbelievable amount of archival footage, we meet Petit and his accomplices in the early 1970's as they're planning, practicing, and preparing materials for this criminal act (literally "Man on Wire" in the ensuing police report). It helps that we can look back and laugh with the crew as they recall the impossibly dramatic moments leading up to the morning of August 7, 1974, but I doubt you'll have the mental wherewithal to laugh when Petit takes his first step.

Because of the human element and the accompanying music (possibly the most beautiful rendition of Erik Satie's Gymnop
édie that you'll ever hear), Petit's performance - and it was a performance, not a stunt - narrowly edges the underwater tracking shot in Encounters at the End of the World as the most visually arresting scene of the year.
It's a moment that doesn't just stun you into silence, but one that truly demonstrates what it means to be alive. The most primal elements of the human experience come together in one scene.

And in the next, they all come tumbling down. A quote I found online seems appropriate:

"Passion is a positive obsession. Obsession is a negative passion."

In one way, I feel like Petit lost as much as he gained on that wire. Like so many "obsessed" artists, his achievements came before his relationships, and from the information I've found, Petit continues to walk on a tightrope several hours each day and makes a living from public appearances and street performances. It begs the question: if he is alone and/or lonely, and this film had not been made, would he trade in his historic feat to regain the jovial friendships shown in the archival footage?

Probably not, but that the question is even raised makes Man on Wire one of the best and most intriguing films of the year.

What did you take home from it?
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