My Favorite Films of 2018

I didn’t see as many new movies in 2018 as I have in years past, and I never see as many as I want. That’s what the combo of kids and life does, but the trade off is certainly worth it. For one thing, I saw more animated films this year, and great family flicks like BumbleBee, which was close to making this list. But I still made time to see the films I knew I should at some point, and I saw some greats, some that disappointed, and a couple that were downright bad.

To nobody’s surprise, 2018 had plenty of despair to go around. Creatives love to latch on to the most dramatic headlines and moods in the culture, and shape their stories accordingly. Existential despair, tech addiction, the environment, it was all represented in spades. Some of it worked brilliantly, much of it didn’t. There was also hope to be found, and hope is what lies beneath the tense surface of my favorite movie of the year.

Without further ado…

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“Honorable” Mention: Death Wish – Stick with me here… Eli Roth and Bruce Willis’s shameless remake of the Michael Winner/Charles Bronson vigilante joint knows just how shameless it is. This is a hardline conservative’s masturbatory dream come to vivid, blood-soaked life, the story of a liberal softie who, once his wife is murdered and daughter raped by home invaders, decides it’s high time to awaken his inner Republican and becoming a gun-toting avenging angel. It’s all a little amusing, and a little absurd, with its fantasized depiction of gun culture (only the hottest blondes occupy these gun and ammo establishments) and a Chicago as a hellscape only Lou Dobbs could conjure up.

But this Death Wish is also more entertaining, and more visually interesting, than the original film, nostalgia be damned. And it’s great as an antidote to the type of canned, intersectional stories Hollywood has to make these days. It buzzes with a weird energy, and somehow Roth even manages to shoot certain moments – the home invasion for example – with a decent amount of restraint, allowing the audience to fill in the gruesome details for a change. Plus, as an added bonus, Bruce Willis appears to be completely awake the entire time.

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10. Mandy – Trust me, when I first saw the images of a bloody Nicolas Cage wielding a chainsaw, or flashing an unhinged grin from behind the steering wheel of a car, I had the same thought: this guy will say ‘yes’ to literally any garbage screenplay that lands in his hands. But the buzz accompanying these early images, and the subsequent buzz from the festival circuit, was something… different.

Mandy is anything but Nicolas Cage mailing it in. It’s so much more, something new and original and crazy and tailor made specifically for all the tools The Cage has been sharpening over decades playing larger-than-life loons. That isn’t to say Mandy is some dumb genre dreck; no, Panos Cosmatos’s picture is a lush and vibrant macabre thriller with chainsaw fights and tripped-out phony gurus and demons and all kinds of awesome shit. It’s an explosive phantasmagoria of sound and color that should be respected for going all the way.

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9. You Were Never Really Here – Lynne Ramsay’s mood piece about a troubled Veteran who tracks down missing girls, all the while struggling to keep a grip on his own slipping sanity and the fact he is dissolving into the background of his own life, is not an easy film to digest.The first viewing, for me, was cold and obtuse, too grim to engage with.

The second viewing, however, changed my perspective on the sort of quiet magic tricks Joaquin Phoenix is executing with his character, simply called Joe. It’s an existential enigma of a film with a bleak outlook on PTSD, a story where the emotions seep through slowly, like the breaths of air Joe squeezes out from behind his plastic bags as he struggled to cope with the corruption of his own mind. It is Taxi Driver reshaped with modern anxieties and fears of alienation.

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8. Upgrade – Leigh Wannell’s sci-fi actioner is a fabulous throwback to the kinds of adult-oriented genre flicks that were so popular in the early 1990s. This has echoes of Virtuosity, Universal Soldier, or Body Parts among others, but Upgrade has something those films are generally lacking: brains.

Upgrade ascends genre trappings by being lean and clever and original, a feat in and of itself given the fact the film got a wide release in June, alongside franchises and known quantities. Logan Marshall-Green has typically been (aside from an American Tom Hardy doppelgänger) quiet on the screen, the way he is in Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation. Here, he gets to have a little fun and be a little cocky, all the while maneuvering through a sharp, high-concept, sci-fi potboiler with plenty of action and blood splatter to please genre devotees.

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7. Game Night – Jason Bateman has been the bright spot of so many poorly-executed R-rated comedies over the years that it’s nice to see the film elevated around him for a change. Bateman isn’t the main attraction in the brilliantly absurd Daley/Goldstein flick, and that’s refreshing in and of itself. Rachel McAdams gets a chance to show off some terrific comedic chops for a change, and virtually everyone in the group is great in their respective roles. Of course, Jesse Plemons’ Gary is the all star of the film, in a totally bizarro and hilarious performance that deserves a Supporting Actor nomination.

It all works together in sync. What’s so surprising is how well Game Night is shot, and how nice it looks. Cinematographer Barry Peterson uses the great transition sequences where the neighborhood and the cars look like game pieces, and the slickness of the production only bolsters a strong screenplay underneath.

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6. First Reformed – Let’s be clear, I was never not going to like Paul Schrader’s latest. It was in the stars, and predetermined in the casting of Ethan Hawke, my favorite actor and an underrated master of range and talent. He can do just about anything, so pairing up with Schrader, who’s built an impressive writing and directing career off the back of the loneliness and despair in Travis Bickle’s troubled soul, felt like the perfect matchup of Thespian and Auteur. My art house sensibilities were firing on all cylinders, it was only a matter of how much First Reformed spoke to me.

It is a challenging film, some of the hardest and bleakest psychological ground Schrader has traversed since Taxi Driver. It’s a film I will most certainly revisit every few years, because the emotional impact of the hopelessness Schrader and Hawke so acutely visualize will change as I age. The final sequence of events, the most controversial of the picture for obvious reasons, are moments I will likely never forget, and I hope it’s enough to get Hawke a Best Actor statue.

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5. A Star is Born – I was drawn to this from the first trailer, and I couldn’t figure out why. On the surface, A Star is Born isn’t the sort of film to which I’m eagerly anticipating. I haven’t seen the previous versions, but something about Bradley Cooper’s vision was inspiring, and Gaga’s voice pulled me in.

The maturity of first-time director Cooper, directing himself in a pretty audacious move, is hard to believe. He handles moments, both big and small, with incredible focus and attention to the story he wants to tell. It’s a marvel to see how he handles the material, and Lady Gaga’s performance is an equally as impressive debut. No matter what you’re typically into, there is something for everyone in A Star is Born, a moment somewhere in the film that will hit you harder than you would expect.

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4. Avengers: Infinity War – For the last decade, I’ve enjoyed Marvel films. Every time I watch one, I have a good time, but it wasn’t ever a priority. I’ll see them when I see them, and was caught up in time to sit down for Infinity Warexpecting to have another good time in a comic book film, this time with a substantial villain. It was a good time, but I had not expected, not for a second, to be as shaken as I was in the end.

It wasn’t just “The Snap” that got me. There are moments everywhere. When Thor is speaking to Rocket Raccoon, barely able to hold back tears as he lays out the tragedy of his life all around him, and you feel yourself choking up, that’s when you realize these films have worked on you in ways you hadn’t realized. You have history with Thor, you have an entire formative period of your life with these characters occupying some of that space, and when you cut to the emotional core of this penultimate Greek masterpiece, all the comic book elements melt away and you forget it’s Thor and a talking Raccoon. It’s a marvelous accomplishment, and it happens time and time again over two-and-a-half hours.

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3. Mission: Impossible – Fallout – There isn’t much to say about FalloutIt rules, we all know it rules, and the evolution of this series is remarkable. Tom Cruise, whatever he might be in real life – whatever “real life” means for this guy – is an entertainer, and he sacrifices his body for our amusement. It has to be respected, and there isn’t much else as thrilling as the anticipation and execution of a Mission: Impossible set piece because of Cruise’s dedication to the stunts. He’s a madman, and if he’s cool with it so am I.

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2. Annihilation – Alex Garland’s captivating sci-fi thriller pulls you deep into its orbit and slowly sinks its teeth in you in terrifying ways. Natalie Portman is as good as she’s been at any movie since Black Swan, and Jennifer Jason Leigh continues her great second act. Much like First Reformed, this is a film that will change and evolve over time, and the universality of its themes almost ensures it will be celebrated five, ten, twenty years down the road as an underrated masterpiece.

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1. A Quiet Place – While it isn’t underrated by any measure, John Krasinski’s directorial debut is a masterpiece. Turns out, 2018 was the breakout year for bearded actors turned first-time directors. Who knew. Krasisnki’s horror film is scary, sure, but where it flourishes is in the exploration of the family at its core.

A Quiet Place knocked me sideways in its emotionally overwhelming story of parents struggling to keep their lives together in the middle of such unimaginable chaos, and a tragedy that shapes the course of their life forever. This is a story about monsters murdering us at the slightest sound, and the creature creation is great, but this is more a story about the responsibilities within the family unit. Each member has a role, and some are more personally tenuous than others, but it’s all motivated by the basest of needs: survival. This is yet another film I will revisit for years and years, and will absolutely change as my children get older. I love it, every part of it, especially this…

Cheers to 2019.

 

 

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Why LETHAL WEAPON, Not DIE HARD, is The Definitive Christmas Action Movie

The debate has been raging for what seems like an eternity: is Die Hard a Christmas movie or not? This year, on the film’s 30th anniversary, the argument has intensified, going on longer and louder and, frankly, the endless litigation has grown tiresome. Besides, Die Hard isn’t the definitive Christmas action movie of the ’80s anyway; that label should belong to its game-changing brethren from 1987, Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon.

Of course, yours truly loves every ounce of Die Hard on a deeply personal level – enough to write an entire book about its director. Christmas movie or not, it’s a perfect film, and it doesn’t really matter what side of the argument you may fall, as long as you acknowledge its perfection, we can hang out.

But why is Lethal Weapon never mentioned in the same breath as Die Hard when the Christmas movie debate rears its head at the end of every year? This is a Shane Black screenplay after all, and Black regularly sets his films during the holidays (see: The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Iron Man 3, and The Nice Guys for more examples). The opposing lives and situations of its two heroes, Riggs and Murtaugh, is a more succinct examination of the warmth, and the cold loneliness, that Christmas can bring.

Martin Riggs is a broken man who’s lost his wife in a tragedy. He is alone, and losing grip of his sanity a little more with each day that passes. Christmas clearly makes things worse for our hero to the point where he bites down on the business end of a Baretta in a harrowing early scene. And let’s not forget about the man standing on the ledge of the building (Michael Shaner), clearly distraught over the season. It’s a feeling so many people must endure every December, the sting of loss.

The death of Victoria Riggs in Black’s story represents the loneliness and isolation so many feel during Christmas, and as Martin lashes out to find a human connection, he finds one in the wholesome embrace of a loving family unit. Roger Murtaugh has everything. He has a loving wife and three adoring children, and his home – the multi-use facility on the Warner back lot – is an idyllic setting for a family Christmas (in fact, Murtaugh’s house also serves as the Griswold’s abode in Christmas Vacation). The lights are hung, the tree is trimmed, and all seems well, until Riggs hurtles headlong into his life, and an investigation into heroin dealing Vietnam vets upends everything in his perfect world.

The dichotomy of the Riggs and Murtaugh pairing shows us the lightness, and the dark, of the “silly season.” It taps into the emotional swings from person to person, and eventually Riggs finds he has a new family in the Murtaugh’s. He’s found healing and happiness in a true message of love and the importance of family, the Christmas Spirit surrounded on all sides by breathtaking action.

Christmas colors the margins of Lethal Weapon just as much as in Die Hard. It kicks off with Bobby Helms singing “Jingle Bell Rock,” and any TV set in the picture is showing some manner of Christmas programming. We first meet Riggs on the job at a Christmas tree farm, busting some coke dealers; the final showdown between Riggs and the psychotic Mr. Joshua (the great Gary Busey) is backlit by the Murtaugh’s holiday decorations. That is, until an unmanned patrol car slams into the front of the house and demolishes the tree.

The characters in Lethal Weapon regularly reference Christmas, and the season is always in the background somewhere. The same thing goes for Die Hard, true, and for my money it’s a Christmas movie as well. But Lethal Weapon has a certain universality to the themes Black is tackling in his story, and it goes beyond action spectacle and confronts the wild swings of emotion and the importance of family during the holidays.

It is, for my money, the ’80s Christmas action movie we should all embrace. But if you don’t, hey, as long as you recognize it’s greatness, we can still hang.

Introducing TONY SCOTT: A FILMMAKER ON FIRE, Out This January

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Tony Scott: A Filmmaker on Fire, my second book, is hitting bookshelves this January courtesy of McFarland & Co. Publishers. Paperback copies will be available first, followed closely by an eBook version. The story of Scott’s life and career is an exciting and tragic tale of a fascinating man who left us too soon, and with unanswered questions. He also happened to leave us with a few masterpieces, a handful of terrific action movies, and even a couple of fascinating head scratchers across his nearly four-decade career.

Die Hard was the first spark of motivation that drew me to the story of John McTiernan. With Tony Scott, it was True Romance, my favorite of his films, one of the best early ’90s crime dramas that belongs in the same company as Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs as films that reshaped an entire genre. Scott’s story is one of success and failure, in equal measures it seems. He was always fighting to separate himself from his brothers’ incredible success – and prestige -embracing the underdog mentality in work and life.

From his collaborations with Jerry Bruckheimer and the hard-living Don Simpson, to his friendship with counterculture icon and LSD pioneer Timothy Leary, to an on-set affair, to multiple times the filmmaker’s research nearly got people killed, Scott’s life was full of as many friendships, as much adventure, and as much tragedy as any of the movies he directed.

Tony Scott’s energy was infectious to anyone around him. That’s certainly the vibe I got from the interviews I conducted for the book. His light burned bright and he was beloved, and from that endless well of determination came more than one masterpiece.

If you’re interested, you can purchase copies at McFarland, Amazon, and pretty much anywhere else you can buy books these days. I appreciate you taking the time. I hope you buy a copy for that Tony Scott fan in your life and they absolutely love it.

Go Movies!

Scenes I Love: Frank’s Final Plea for Salvation in THIEF

Michael Mann’s debut feature, the lean, neon-soaked noir thriller Thief, feels like the work of a seasoned pro. It’s efficient but rich in detail at the same time. Mann douses his Chicago streets with water and gives us the feeling that his characters are cut off from the world.

Thief also lays out a mission statement for Mann’s robust career in the world of cops and robbers, and for the characters to which he would so often return, broken men on one side of the law or another, barely hanging on and looking to a woman for salvation.

Whether it’s Will Graham in Manhunter, Crockett and/or Tubbs, or Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley playing opposite sides of the law in Heat, all of these conflicted men owe some bit of their existense to Frank, the safe cracking ace at the center of Mann’s 1981 classic. Frank is ready to leave his job behind, and he wants to start a life with Jessie, played with a charming intensity by Tuesday Weld.

As the second act begins, Frank and Jessie have coffee and discuss life and love, after Frank drags her away from her late-night scene, berating her choices all the way to the booth. It’s a moment of intimate power tucked in the middle of a taut thriller, and it lays the foundation for Mann’s men:

Frank bares his soul to Jessie. He is a crook and a con, and he knows it’s the juice that keeps him coming back for more, but now he’s looking across the booth at Jessie, and he sees salvation. He doesn’t care that Jessie can’t have children, he just wants her, now, for as long as he can hold onto her. Everything else can be figured out later.

It’s a moment of clarity for Frank, and Mann captures it in great detail while the cold, rain-soaked streets of Chicago diffuse into dots of street lamps and neon behind them. For a moment amid their chaotic lives, they are alone, and Frank is sharing more of himself to Jessie than he’d ever done in bed.

The men at the center of Michael Mann’s crime films are driven by the job, they are proud and they run in a tight group. And then a woman comes along, and Mann’s men see a way out of the only life they know. It is an awakening to the possibility of stability and love, concepts as familiar to most of us as they are undoubtedly romanticized and foreign to thieves, killers, and cops. It’s a world of masculinity Mann has been deconstructing for nearly four decades, never able to find a peaceful resolution.

And it all began here, in this small Chicago diner, in a scene I love.

A PERFECT WORLD, and Clint Eastwood’s Broken Father Fables

Butch Haynes never wanted to be a criminal, it just sort of happened somewhere along the way. He was, like so many characters have been in Clint Eastwood films since A Perfect World, a man poisoned by the sins of his own father, condemned to pass along whatever damaged deck he was dealt. What’s left, then, after the neglect and the abuse, is molded into a societal miscreant and shuffled into the prison system.

These wounds run like a river beneath the illusory idyllic surface of mid-century Texas in Eastwood’s A Perfect World, which turned 25 this month. It was the actor/director’s follow up to his Oscar winning masterpiece Unforgiven, and was subsequently lost in the overpowering cinematic moment that was Schindler’s List in the fall of 1993, right along with just about every other year-end release. But it carries a specific thematic weight when considering the Eastwood filmmaking trajectory and the characters he’s given us in the quarter century since.

There is an undeniable connective tissue between the characters trapped in Butch Haynes’ orbit – from young Phillip, to his pursuer, Sheriff Red Garnett (Eastwood) – and dozens of characters Eastwood has directed or played (or both) in subsequent years, including his upcoming domestic thriller The Mule. There may have been hints of these men in his previous films, but it doesn’t take much to recognize that the story of Butch Haynes and the father he never had was the unofficial beginning of a new movement in the Eastwood oeuvre.

Butch, played by Kevin Costner in a fitting, plainspoken role, is a prison escapee on the run with his loathsome bunkmate, Terry. The two men’s decision to kidnap young Phillip (T.J. Lowther, brilliant) is impulsive, but eventually the relationship between Butch and Phillip (or “Buzz”) becomes the heart and soul of an emotionally complicated road picture. Besides, had they gone with Terry’s decision to take Phillip’s mother along with them rather than Phillip, Terry would have likely raped and murdered her within hours. Butch is confident, however, he can protect the boy.

Once the picture settles into its second act – Butch and Phillip traveling in their time machine across Texas, Red and his ragtag crew of conflicting ideas and agendas in hot pursuit with that state-of-the-art Airstream trailer – the story becomes a subtextual unpacking of Butch’s troubled youth. We get information from Laura Dern’s Sally Gerber as she lays out his psyche profile to Red, who may have been partly to blame for Butch’s introduction into the prison system; there are the conversations Butch has with Phillip, about what kids should and shouldn’t be doing, and what they should and shouldn’t be subjected to along the way. We get the picture of the boy becoming a man without guidance, and the man trying to correct the sins leveled against him most of his life.

But the fight to correct those sins and the life left in their wake is no match for fate, and for instinct, two factors that snap A Perfect World from its dream state of paternal adventure back into the cruel, cold reality of killers and prisoners and inherent violence.

Only in those final moments is the violence seen, heard, and felt. The killings early on are handled off screen, with a certain level of disgust from both Costner and Eastwood. These aren’t the good moments, not for anyone involved, and it’s best to keep Phillip’s head clear of such senseless violence as long as possible. In the end, however, when the farmer is abusing his son in plain sight, violence erupts. It cannot stay hidden, not anymore, and the adventure has reached its unavoidable conclusion. Nothing has been fixed, nothing changes, and the sins of the father carry through.

Butch had tried to show Phillip a different world from the sheltered one he’d known thus far, under the strict dogma of Jehovah’s Witness. He wound up showing him the dark realities that cause young boys to have to become men too early. After A Perfect World, Clint Eastwood began telling more of these stories, about bad dads and their pissed off kids. His diamond thief Luther Whitney in Absolute Power is estranged from his daughter, much like reporter Steve Everett in 1999’s True Crime. In Mystic River, it’s Sean Penn’s reformed thug father who is punished for his past; in Million Dollar Baby, it is Eastwood trying to repair the relationships in his own life with the help of his young boxing protege.

The Mule is clearly going all in on the exploration of a father who lets his work and his own selfish nature destroy his family, and it looks like some of Eastwood’s best work in a decade. Perhaps this will bring his exploration full circle, even finding some cinematic closure to an idea he has been poking and prodding for nearly half of his professional life.

On Second Thought, Gore Verbinski’s THE LONE RANGER (2013) is Good

I remember seeing The Lone Ranger in theaters, back in 2013, despite the absolute beating it had been taking in the media. And I remember not understanding exactly what people had seen, or what they had wanted; what I had just seen was a big, broad, exciting, silly action movie that somehow, in the middle of the high-flying stunt work and set pieces, manages to examine some troubling moments in our nation’s past.

Critics were all too eager to shout, almost in unison, that Gore Verbinski’s Western, another attempted Disney franchise starter with Johnny Depp front and center, was too long and too tonally inconsistent. Overkill. The feeling was almost unanimous, save for a few faint praises, and it felt like an opinion formed in the weeks and months leading up to the film’s release. The proverbial fix was in, and The Lone Ranger was dead on arrival at the box office; after opening at number 2 over the July 4th weekend, it took a dramatic nosedive each subsequent weekend on its way to an anemic $89.3 million haul, peanuts compared to the $215 million budget.

It happens from time to time. A movie will be setup for failure before its release for a myriad of reasons, and most of the time these quality predictions aren’t too far off base. Critics will have their pitchforks ready and a lit match poised just beneath the kindling of their torches, ready to strike, and strike often as one. This transgressions of The Lone Ranger leading up to the film’s release centered around, for the most part, Johnny Depp.

In 2011, Depp mentioned wanting to play Tonto in a big-screen adaptation of The Lone Ranger, which was offensive enough to some. When it came to fruition, the think pieces emerged, with charges of cultural appropriation – a silly phrase in its own right – and racism heaved at the movie, specifically Depp’s strange look and idiosyncratic “stereotypes.” With the dead bird as a headpiece and the zebra-like warpaint, and the comedic angle Depp takes with the character had many wondering if it was in bad taste. In fact, the entire film was deemed, by many self-imposed gatekeepers of the culture as “too racist” to have ever happened in the first place.

There are racist characters in The Lone Ranger. Some may call them the villains of the picture, which makes sense given their racism, but that never seemed to factor into the logic. Nevertheless, Verbinski’s sharply self-aware epic was doomed. Depp’s portrayal, was supposedly dangerous because this one specific fictional character’s traits might be applied to an entire race of people, much like what happened when the original radio show and television serials ran through the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. Maybe some people will attach the silliness of Depp’s portrayal to an entire race of human beings, but those people are complete fools and should be disregarded in any cultural conversations anyway. Why are we worried with how idiots could misinterpret the intentions of a character in a Disney adventure?

It’s conceivable that all the critics who thumbed their nose at The Lone Ranger agreed with their own negative sentiments. It’s probable, really. There is no conspiracy theory here, just evidence of widespread groupthink from time to time; again, it happens all the time, in all avenues of life. But a little more than five years have passed since The Lone Ranger was released, and those feelings I had at the theater that afternoon, back in the summer of 2013, have only strengthened.

The Lone Ranger is long, but it moves. It’s tonally inconsistent, but remove the stigma from that phrase; it jumps from serious drama to broad comedy to big, silly action set pieces with gleeful energy. Tonal inconsistencies definitely hurt certain films, but that’s hardly an issue with a large-scale factory product like this. The movie is supposed to cover a great deal of ground. It also manages to shine a light on the horrors of America’s progress in the West, built on the back of Asian slave labor. If anything, it condemns the racism that helped build this country, time and time again; to say it the movie is “racist” supposes that Verbinski and the platoon of screenwriters intentionally and maliciously maligned an entire race. That simply isn’t the case.

All cultural brouhaha aside, consider the cast. There is Depp, of course, and The Lone Ranger himself, played by Armie Hammer, who is so clearly having fun. I’m not sure what else you need from him in this role, he’s one of the more underrated stars working in Hollywood. The rogues gallery of villains includes Tom Wilkinson, Barry Pepper, and William Fitchner; Ruth Wilson is the love interest, Rebecca, and Helena Bonham Carter plays the mysterious Red Harrington, who has a cannon for a leg; character actors like the great James Badge Dale, Stephen Root, and… well, you get the point. This is an impressive cast, filled with talent, and the talent is all having a good time playing up archetypes.

The action is outstanding, a mixture of practical effects and stunt work and CGI. It goes over the top early and often, but the spatial geography is always sound. The climax of the film, a complicated train chase sequence, is when we get the Ranger’s iconic theme, and it is a thrilling moment that pays off to near perfection:

Verbinski’s palette is beautiful, and the Bojan Bazelli cinematography is rich and it gives the film more of an identity than so many run-of-the-mill big franchise wannabe films that come and go every summer. The pairing of Gore Verbinski and Disney is an unusual and inconceivable marriage considering Verbinski’s specific, indulgent style and his fascinating collection of non-Disney work; for that, it should at least be appreciated.

The Lone Ranger is far from a perfect movie, but that’s not really the point. It’s fun, and it’s big, and the performances hearken back to epic studio productions of the mid-20th century, which makes sense given the subject matter. Film culture has changed over the last five years, and genre film is seeing a resurgence for a myriad of reasons; perhaps it’s time to stop clutching pearls and give Verbinski’s Golden-Age throwback another look with a new perspective.

Scenes I Love: The Terrifying Brilliance of the CLIFFHANGER Opening

Cliffhanger could have been just another run-of-the-mill action thriller. It could have been one of the many Die Hard ripoffs, this time from Die Hard 2 director Renny Harlin no less, another middling attempt for its star, Sylvester Stallone, to branch out from his Rocky and Rambo franchises.

But Harlin’s direction, and the effervescent supporting cast surrounding the typical, stoic Stallone hero made Cliffhanger an admirable entry in the Post-McClane action wave. Janine Turner, Michael Rooker, and John Lithgow and his band of wily villains help to lift up our hero and improve his own performance, but what might be the most crucial and brilliant four minutes of this thin-air adventure takes place right off the top.

The opening set piece of Cliffhanger, filmed in the Italian Alps doubling as Colorado, not only calibrated the intensity levels for the remainder of the film (perhaps setting the bar too high for the rest of the story to sustain), it destroys the friendship between Stallone’s Gabe and Michael Rooker’s character, Hal, therein developing another point of tension moving forward.

Lasting influence of the scene notwithstanding, these four minutes also contain the entirety of the film’s single greatest performance from Michelle Joyner as Sarah.

So many action thrillers with aspirations to be something as credible or entertaining as Cliffhanger don’t take the time to set a proper stage. Certain elements – an estranged relationship, a young kid – are tacked on to give our hero lazy notions of depth. This opening sequence is immediate, harrowing, absolutely terrifying, and as we are out on that line and see Sarah fall to her death, our fingernails dug into the seat cushions, we feel Gabe’s pain and guilt.

We feel Sarah’s death, the burden is straps to Gabe forever, mostly because of Joyner’s incredible performance – the stunt work was performed by Gia Phipps, who was raised and lowered five-hundred feet over and over, attached to a 3/16-inch steel cable.* But it is Joyner, as Sarah, delivering a fierce emotional wallop.

With the camera pushed in tight on her face, Joyner’s eyes convey that of true, honest panic, and her breathless screams and glassy eyes (a stark contrast to the timid girlfriend in over her head we first meet on the side of the mountain) seem to be begging us to help somehow. But we can’t move as her hand agonizingly slips more, and more, until her fate is sealed by the leather-snapping sound of her hand slipping free of Gabe’s grasp.

Cliffhanger is off and running, leaping headfirst into the action from there, and jaw-dropping set pieces ensue; but the weight of this death, of Sarah’s panicked pleas, and the collective guilt of everyone involved has seeped into the lives of this tight-knit mountain rescue “family.” The adds a layer of tragedy beneath everything, creating the same type of estrangement and tension between two characters that helped define Die Hard as something more than a big loud action movie. We want Gabe and Hal to make amends for what happened – much like we root for John and Holly – and the strained relationship gives Harlin’s story a necessary injection of emotional weight.

It’s a scene I love.

 

*Phipps was also the stunt double for Janine Turner during the shoot.

CARLITO’S WAY, Brian De Palma’s Unsung Masterpiece, at 25

“Mi barrio… ya no existe…” – Carlito Brigante

Brian De Palma’s career was on life support in March of 1993, when he began production on his latest gangster fable, Carlito’s Way.

His last success was another gangster picture, albeit one in an entirely different tone than the one he was about to make. 1987’s The Untouchables was a crowd pleaser and a terrific callback to the serialized adventures of Eliot Ness and his team of lawmen, only with a more modern, brutal De Palma style.  It made $76.2 million, over three times its budget, and it got Sean Connery his elusive Oscar statue the following spring.

In 1989 De Palma made a serious war picture, Casualties of War, which made sense. The Untouchables had helped him shed the stigma of being, at least in the eyes of the stuffy cinematic opinion makers of the time, nothing more than a Hitchcock imitator with more blood and nudity. He was angling for the “serious filmmaker” label with Casualties of War, but the Michael J. Fox / Sean Penn Vietnam thriller – a true story about the sadistic rape and murder of a young female villager – proved too off putting and gruesome for audiences. It was a failure, but nothing on the level of his next film.

Tom Wolfe’s yuppie satire Bonfire of The Vanities was one of the most popular books of the 1980s, but De Palma’s film was such a disaster, from the troubled production to the spectacular box office failure, that it inspired its own book. Limping away from prestige and marketability, De Palma retreated to the thriller genre and directed Raising Cain, a salacious Psycho riff with a terrifically bonkers performance from John Lithgow that never connected with audiences – partly due to the oddball story, partly because that very story had been butchered and reorganized by the studio, thanks to some mixed focus group reactions.

Then he was offered Carlito’s Way, and wanted nothing to do with it. Based on the 1975 Edwin Torres novel, the story of a Latin gangster stoked De Palma’s memories of Scarface, and the director wasn’t eager to dive back into that extravagant world. Then he read the screenplay from David Koepp, who had just recently written the screen adaptation of Jurassic Park, and he knew this story was operating with an entirely different tone than Oliver Stone’s coke-addled exploits of an out-of-control Tony Montana.*

In many ways – the obvious roadblock of Montana’s spectacular execution at the end of Scarface notwithstanding – the story of Carlito Brigante could work as a Scarface sequel. Set free from prison five years into a thirty-year stint, thanks to prosecutor tampering and the shrewd eye of attorney David Kleinfeld, Carlito Brigante is ready to leave the kingpin days of his youth behind. He wants to go straight, to make enough money and move down to the Bahamas where he plans on renting cars to tourists and living out his days in peace and quiet. It is a reformed, mature version of Tony Montana who, despite all odds, survived his lifestyle and came out on the other side a changed man, a man who wants to do right, live right, and ride off into the sunset. The fact Al Pacino portrays the subject of both films also plays an undeniable hand in the connective tissue.

Of course, this being a gangster picture, all does not go as planned for Brigante. That’s clear in the film’s opening sequence where we see him, in a soft-focus, black-and-white prologue, get shot in the stomach and collapse to the ground. For years, this setup felt like it pulled the rug out from under the entire film, vanquishing all tension revolving around Brigante’s escape; in the Noah Baumbach De Palma documentary, however, the director discusses the plan to include this bookend scene. It was his goal to make the audience forget all about that opening sequence with the tension and the suspense of the story itself. In that way, he succeeds.

As problems arise, fester, and build on one another to a blood-soaked crescendo at Grand Central Station, De Palma’s set pieces are consistently dazzling. He has always been a master of the long take, and the set piece, and the pool-hall sequence at the end of the first act is on par with any set piece in the filmmakers oeuvre, as tense as the train-station sequence in The Untouchables or the prom scene in Carrie:

The tension that builds through Carlito’s Way relies on Carlito’s lack of power; it isn’t about how he is going to escape with Gail (Penelope Ann Miller) to the Caribbean, it’s how he is going to navigate each and every second he stays in New York as his mere presence grows increasingly dangerous. He is vulnerable, scared, and often powerless to the influences and the decisions of the characters who surround him, and powerless to his own code, a code that convinces him to stick with his lawyer, Kleinfeld, who is so clearly the biggest roadblock in Carlito’s exodus.

Sean Penn surprised everyone when he showed up on set with a perm shaved back to resemble severe male pattern baldness. His appearance smartly sets him apart from everyone in the picture. Davey Kleinfeld is the poisonous fruit Brigante cannot avoid, not one of the neighborhood guys, but a slick outsider; Carlito unknowingly helping Kleinfeld murder Tony Taglialucci in the East River outside Riker’s Island leads to the extended chase sequence finale, but ironically it is not the source Carlito’s ultimate demise.

The one time Carlito’s old instincts jump up to bite him is his conflict with Benny Blanco, From the Bronx (John Leguizamo). The bravado of Blanco may mirror a young Carlito, it may not, but one thing is certain: Blanco’s presence stoked a long-buried fire in Carlito’s youthful soul, the one he is working so fervently to leave behind. But his decision in this moment was enough to seal his fate in Grand Central:

Brian De Palma knew from the outset he needed to inject his signature style into as much of the film as he could in order for it to stand out from the scores of gangster films that had preceded it. Even The Untouchables has a feeling of familiarity in regards to the genre. Carlito’s Way is stylistically indulgent, with De Palma employing his psychosexual thriller aesthetics early and often. The split screens and the first-person POV work brilliantly to put the suspenseful building blocks in place, and the story lends itself more to a humanistic tale than what was present in De Palma’s previous gangster films.

Carlito’s Way opened second at the box office the weekend of November 10, 1993, with just over $9 million. Reviews were solid, but word of mouth was nil. Perhaps fatigue with the gangster genre had set in by the end of 1993; the success of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas had spawned Warren Beatty’s Bugsy, but it also generated ridiculous wannabes like Billy Bathgate, Hoffa, and the embarrassingly bad Christian Slater/Richard Grieco star vehicle Mobsters. Whatever the case, Carlito’s Way quietly drifted out of the picture, accruing a meager $36 million in ticket sales; enough to cover the $30 million budget, but nothing to write home about.

In his documentary, Brian De Palma says he didn’t think he could make a better movie than Carlito’s Way. He would return three years later to kick off the Mission: Impossible franchise, but it’s difficult to argue with De Palma’s assessment of his own work. Even though Carlito’s Way hasn’t seen the kind of reappraisal that Blow Up or Dressed to Kill has in recent years, and it doesn’t have the cultural currency of Carrie or Mission: Impossible, or the prestige of The Untouchables, it might very well be his best film. It is, at times, a beautiful film with true affection for its characters. It’s an endlessly engaging thriller, tactile and true, and its collection of incredible set pieces is held together by actors and actresses who hit the heightened notes of their characters with palpable passion.

And, no matter how many times you watch it, you always hold out hope that Carlito will make it to Gail in the end, as a smile breaks through his panicked sprint across the train platform. Even though you’ve known from the outset that happiness isn’t in the cards of a condemned man, you still hope. Because you are invested in Carlito’s salvation.

That’s how great filmmaking works.