the horse he kept running; the rider was dead

(Note: as soon as I opened up IMDB on Monday evening to confirm some details about the movie below, I saw that its star, Edward Woodward, had died. A hell of a loss, though he left a full career behind him, including Becket, the TV series Callan, the original The Wicker Man and, of course, the following)

Breaker Morant: A Few Good Blokes. Unpolished but still fiery.

Lieutenant Harry “Breaker” Morant (Edward Woodward) begins the movie in a full court-martial in the last days of the Boer War. He led a small company of irregular colonial soldiers, fighting against the Afrikaaner guerillas (known as commandos) by adopting their tactics. Such tactics have ended with Lieutenant Morant and his fellow officers, Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown, whom audiences will recognize from Cocktail or F/X) and George Wittow, to be charged with six counts of murder.

Major J.F. Thomas, an officer with experience executing wills back in New South Wales but little more law training, is assigned to the case one day before the trial begins. Though he fumbles initially, his insightful questioning ferrets out the truth: that the unorthodox methods the Bushveldt Carbineers used were not only endorsed, but ordered, by the highest levels of British command in the field. When Morant, Handcock and Wittow executed prisoners without trial, they did so under orders.

The movie does not paint Morant as entirely heroic. He and Handcock conduct the war with a casual brutality. They both demonstrate a fiery temper, Handcock peppering the court-martial with sarcastic remarks and Morant being provoked into a tirade: “We shot them under Rule 303!” But these touches merely make the men darkly romantic, not outright villains. Breaker Morant still couches its stars in cloth of gold, depicting Morant as a poet, a singer, a leader and stalwart in the face of death.

Instead, the movie reserves its harshest condemnation for the British Empire itself. Taking its screenplay largely from George Wittow’s 1907 account of the trial, Scapegoats of the Empire (did I mention this was based on a true story?), Breaker Morant casts the British command as aristocrats, shielded from the horrors of war by the gentility of their sitting rooms. It’s not only implied but stated outright that Lord Kitchener and the Prime Minister would have no problem sacrificing three “colonials” to appease the Boers, thus ending the war sooner and keeping Germany out of it. And the film also depicts how, in sinking to the level of the Dutch commandos, the British Army may have lost its way.

Breaker Morant heralded the start of the Australian “New Wave” of cinema, preceding such films as Gallipoli, Mad Max 2 and The Year of Living Dangerously. The film feels like the early work of a film student, experimenting in camera angles for their own sake. The initial statement of Lieutenant Morant is shot in extreme left profile, dead on and extreme right profile for no obvious reason. At some points in the courtroom the frame holds both the witness and the attorney questioning him, eight feet away, in the same focus – not uncommon in the 80s, but still awful looking today. And while most of the flashbacks are timely and well-staged, some cut in and out of the present moment like misplaced stills.

But, these bits of amateur work aside, the movie’s still good. Burra in South Australia stands in admirably for the Transvaal: a green, sweeping country that almost begs to be ridden with rifle in hand. And the dialogue itself is sharp enough, full of rough Australian wit, outrage at injustice and warm poetic sentiment. It’s a timeless story and well-told.

But, Johnny, ere we “go to grass” –
Ere angel wings are fledged to fly –
With wine we’ll fill a bumper glass,
And drink to those good times gone by.

We’ve had our day – ’twill not come back!
But, comrade mine, this much you’ll own,
‘Tis something to have had it, Jack-
That time when we could ride ten stone!

– Harry “Breaker” Morant, “The Day That is Dead”, 1893


and I owe it all to you

Patrick Swayze died Monday evening, succumbing to a long battle with cancer at the age of 57. This gives me an opportunity to go into detail about one of my favorite Swayze movies: Road House.

Road House is a great movie.

I enjoy Road House without irony or shame. While the fashions depicted therein might be dated and parochial, I don’t find them any sillier than the flat doughboy helmets Burt Lancaster busts out of the armory in From Here to Eternity. If the trashiness of the setting keeps you from taking the movie seriously, then imagine it takes place in a Brooklyn nightclub, with a hip-hop soundtrack, and our hero’s a storied young bruiser from Marcy. It’ll be just as dated 20 years from now.

In Road House, the heroes are larger-than-life heroes, and the villains absolute villains. Patrick Swayze, as Dalton, plays a man who brings deep philosophy to a dirty business. And Ben Gazzarra, as the sinister Brad Wesley, carves up the town of Jasper with glee. Road House abandons naturalism for bold strokes of melodrama. Does it make sense that an entire town would stand idly by while Wesley’s hired goons drive a monster truck through a car dealership? No. But it gives Gazzarra an opportunity to cackle and Swayze an opportunity to glare. And it also ends in one of the movie’s funniest lines: “you got insurance, don’t you?”

Of course, no one settles into Road House for the Manichean struggle between good and evil. They want to see fights. And not only are there plenty of fights – one-on-one, three-on-one, fist-on-knife, pool cue vs. face, holdout pistol vs. throat rip – but they’re all well-staged. Not even our heroes – Patrick Swayze and Sam Elliott, as the father figure we all wish we’d had – can take down half a dozen men and walk away fresh. They end most fights staggering and sore, drenched in sweat with their arms hanging at their sides. And those are the fights they win. Compare that to Jason Bourne, who can disarm six cops without mussing his hundred-dollar haircut.

Road House is that rare bird: a movie that devotes excellent craftsmanship to picayune subject matter. The fight scenes are entertaining and well paced. The dialogue’s as realistic as Shakespeare and twice as quotable. And Jeff Healey’s raspy blues-rock soundtrack keeps the whole movie funky. So what if it takes place in a town in Kansas that no one’s ever heard of?

Swayze pulled off the lead like no one else could. He carried himself with that tricky blend of lethal readiness and total serenity: a man who knew how to fight but preferred not to. Consider Swayze, the reluctant warrior, in Dirty Dancing, who suffers false accusations under the club’s upper-crust guests; or in Point Break, who knows that Keanu Reeves is an “Eff. Bee. Aye. Agent!” but can’t bring himself to kill him. This is how we should want all our men to be: confident but never cocky, vigilant but rarely violent.

Rest easy, mijo. We’ll see you.


in every lovely summer’s day

LiveJournal blogger The Ferrett has had a couple posts of late on the Oscars “In Memoriam” Montage featured at every Academy Awards ceremony. Actors who died in the previous year get a few seconds on screen, depicted in iconic roles, while grandiose strings swell in the background.

Ferrett asks an interesting question, “If so-and-so died tomorrow, what role of theirs would get depicted for their Oscars montage?” He opened this up as a poll to his readers and some debates ensued in the comments. I think most of these debates started from the wrong premises, though.

People spent a lot of time arguing over whether Michael Caine was better in The Man Who Would Be King or The Cider House Rules or Alfie. That’s an interesting debate, but for the purpose of an Oscars montage, it’s irrelevant. The films that go into an Oscars “In Memoriam” montage have little to do with quality and everything to do with making an interesting montage.

Take Paul Scofield, for instance (2:03 in the above video). Scofield gets three quick snaps – as Mark van Doren in Quiz Show, as Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons and as Judge Thomas Danforth in The Crucible. If you just wanted his best role, you could leave out everything but A Man for All Seasons; he wasn’t bad in the other two, but they’re not his best work. If we were ranking his best appearances, Henry V and Zeffirelli’s 1990 Hamlet would trump either of those.

But! We already have one shot of Scofield in period British garb. Two more like that – as King Charles in Henry V and as the Ghost in Hamlet – would have been monotonous. So you depict him in one modern role (Quiz Show) and one role that, while also period, has a different flavor than Shakespeare (The Crucible).

Charlton Heston (2:33 onward) gets four scenes, none of which are from Ben-Hur. But they already included one of his iconic roles – Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments. So they needed to show scenes from his less popular movies (The Greatest Show on Earth). They also showed an unremembered scene from a recognizable role – standing and looking quietly smug in Planet of the Apes, instead of sinking to his knees in tears. Roy Scheider gets four scenes, but they’re equally diverse: an unmemorable shot of him in Jaws, one of him as the Bob Fossalike in All That Jazz, a flat shot of him peering out a car window in The French Connection, and one I can’t even place.

An interesting montage depicts change and the passage of time. So a film montage of a star’s prior roles must include variety. James Whitmore gets one as Brooksie from The Shawshank Redemption, a role most modern audiences would recognize him from. But he also gets one from a much earlier movie of him wielding a flamethrower (I’m guessing it’s Them!, the 1954 alien invasion flick). Why? Because it’s Brooksie wielding a flamethrower!

Variety is the deciding factor. The quality of the role is not.

I harp on this only because I’ve been thinking a lot about marketing lately. Everyone acknowledges the importance of presentation in delivering a message. But few people realize how early presentation begins to affect what the final message will be. The medium, as someone wiser than me said, is the message.

With that in mind, which roles will be selected in an “in memoriam” montage for the following actors who have already died in 2009?

  • Karl Malden
  • Michael Jackson
  • Farrah Fawcett
  • David Carradine
  • Ron Silver
  • Anyone else I’ve forgot
I welcome your speculations.

I am me, the universe and you

This media blow got rained on this weekend:

In Bruges: A little too bleak to be really dark, a little too pat to be really funny. But still perfectly entertaining. All of us have spent some point in our lives holed up in some jerkwater town during shitty weather waiting to hear some bad news. My Bruges, per this metric, is Lexington, MA, and no, you don’t get to hear that story. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson play two Irish hitmen, holed up in Belgium after a hit gone wrong, comparing philosophies on life and hope. And don’t worry – some interesting stuff happens, too. This movie will make you guffaw in surprise at least twice and wince with your hand near your mouth at least once.

Paul Newman: The fucking man, that’s who.

Boston News Net: This past Saturday’s show was hilarious. The material’s pretty sharp, but the delivery’s what sells it: everyone in the cast has great wit and timing. They’re holding an election party on the night of the Presidential vote; I may stop in and drink with them.

Road to Perdition: I actually started watching this before hearing the news on Saturday, but I just finished it last night. A really solidly crafted film in every respect – beautifully shot, beautifully scored, beautifully acted. I don’t understand why this movie never took off in popularity. For my money, it should have been the next Shawshank.

The Ole Miss Presidential Debate: I have been doing a fairly good job of quarantining myself from election media, so Friday was the first time I’d heard Obama or McCain speak extemporaneously (should I put that last word in scare quotes? I’ve decided not to; the thought occurred to me).

(1) If politics, in a democracy, is the art of getting strangers to support something that cannot possibly benefit them, then Barack Obama is a very good politician.* John McCain isn’t, by Friday’s appearance and by his own admission: very few people like him or want to work with him. So Barack Obama can peddle shit with a glossier finish than John McCain can; this surprises no one. But that’s not what this, or any, election is about.

(2) Frankly, I’m reassured to know that Obama has no problem – and I mean none – invading former allies at the drop of a hat. Seriously, snap your fingers and airplanes start flying. You think he blurts out “Nuke London” if you startle him out of a sound sleep?

(3) People worry about John McCain dying early and leaving Sarah Palin as Commander-in-Chief. Relax. If Death pays McCain a visit in the Oval Office, McCain will defend himself with the venom sac in his left cheek.

* Getting strangers to support something that will benefit them just makes you a good broker. Selling that plan to everyone else? That makes you a politician. “Really, guys, corn subsidies are … um … good for the environment!”

he’s a complicated man, and no one understands him but his woman


Bernie Mac
1957 - 2008

He said, “Bern, why do black folks use the word ‘motherfucker?'” Let me break it down, what the word “motherfucker” actually means. “Motherfucker” is a word that black folks have been using for years. It’s about expression. Don’t be ashamed of the word “mother-fucker.” Because “mother-fucker” is a noun: It describes a person, place or thing.

When you’re listening to one of our conversations you might here the word ‘motherfucker’ about 32 times. Don’t be afraid of the word motherfucker. If you’re out there this afternoon and you see like 3 or 4 brothers talking, you might hear a conversation and it goes like this:

‘You seen that motherfucker Bobby? That motherfucker owes me $35 motherfuckin’ dollars! He told me he gonna pay my motherfuckin’ money last motherfuckin’ week. I aint seen this motherfucker yet. I called the motherfucker four motherfuckin’ times, but the motherfucker won’t call me back. I called his motherfuckin’ momma the other motherfuckin’ day; she gonna play like the motherfucker wasn’t there. I started to cuss her motherfuckin’ ass out, but I don’t want no motherfuckin’ trouble. But I’ll tell ya one motherfuckin’ thang: the next time I see this motherfucker, and he don’t have my motherfuckin’ money, I’m gonna bust his motherfuckin’ head!

And I’m OUT this motherfucker!

One of my favorite comedians of the last six years – clever, expressive, talented and apparently a joy to work with.

Also, we lost Isaac Hayes this past weekend. He should be remembered as much for his excellent work as ‘Chef’ on South Park as for his pioneering work in the soul and R&B genre.

Between Mac and Hayes, we woke up to a significantly squarer world on Monday morning.

and it feels like love, got the radio on and that’s all that we need

A memorial media blow:

First off, I’m saddened to hear of Sydney Pollack passing. I only knew two of his films well enough to comment on them – The Firm and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? – but those two showed enough of his style to merit some acclaim.

Bridge of Birds: A grown-up fairy tale of the first caliber. The broad-backed village farmhand Number Ten Ox and an ancient scholar, Li Kao, set out on a quest to discover what plague afflicts the children of Ox’s village. In doing so, they discover swordfighting ghosts, limitless treasures, impervious tyrants, hermit sages, invisible monsters, lost cities and a dozen other wonders of Chinese folklore. Exciting, sweet and ironic all at the same time. Recommended without qualification.

The Defection of A.J. Lewinter: Back cover copy describes Lewinter as “the American LeCarre,” which I take as a deviously subtle insult toward America. The story of a missile tech’s defection to the Soviet Union may be set in the 1970s, but it reads like it’s from the 1870s. I had the hardest time placing the dialogue until I realized that it read like a modern translation of Dumas. The plot twists seem almost juvenile. For instance, the CIA agents who interview the defector’s friends and family in the States find out that someone has already been asking questions about him. It doesn’t occur to anyone except Our Brilliant Protagonist that maybe, just maybe, the other people asking questions are Russian agents. In a LeCarre novel, you’d take that for granted.

About halfway through, I stopped reading it as a straight spy thriller and started reading it as a sort of vulgar satire – like The President’s Analyst or The Taking of Pelham One Two Three – and had much more fun with it. You have bumbling spies on both sides of the Atlantic, making dire pronouncements based on threadbare speculation. This made the novel much more satisfying for me, especially at its conclusion.

The Confidential Agent: What a contrast, to turn from Littell to Greene. While Greene infuses his spy thrillers with a healthy spritz of melodrama, it still comes with a dry British wit and the dark heart of a world at war. If Raymond Chandler’s protagonists worked for OSS instead of a one-man detective firm, he would write these sort of novels. A bit fantastic, but that’s usually to its benefit.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: A little slapdash. Spielberg could have tightened the screws a little more: the pacing needed work, the dialogue felt rough and I had little investment in the new characters. But I wouldn’t demand a refund.

The first three movies had the virtue of solidly incorporating the theme into the action setpieces. In Raiders, Indy must choose between satiating his own curiosity about the Ark and blowing it up to keep the Nazis from using it. In Temple of Doom, Indy has to choose between “fortune and glory” and doing the right thing – freeing the kids, restoring the shiva stones, etc. And the tension between theme and action works at its best in Last Crusade, when Indy has to find the Grail in order to save the father he’d long ago written off. Compare those to Crystal Skull where, in the last 20 minutes, our heroes simply walk until they run out of space.

I did not have as hard a time with Shia LeBoeuf as I feared I might. I don’t know that he could play a tough guy, but he can definitely play a motorcycle punk greaser who thinks he’s a tough guy. Cate Blanchett frankly didn’t satisfy me as a villain: she doesn’t do anything typically villainous, like execute henchmen or torture civilians or conduct human sacrifices. And Harrison Ford can only recapture the trademark wry cynicism of Dr. Jones about fifty percent of the time; the rest of the time, he just looks tired.

The film discards about one third of its subplots and barely develops any of its characters. The third act plot twist barely counts as a twist – more of a Moebius strip half-twist, really. But the worst of the four Indiana Jones movies still ranks higher than the best of the Hellboy movies any day of the week, so I can’t complain.

(Also: is anyone disturbed by the remarkable similarities between Crystal Skull and this SomethingAwful parody page – the latter of which was published fifteen months ago, before anyone knew anything about this movie?)

always love the one you hurt

Link rundown for the week:

#: The L.A. Times had an online feature about best celebrity pranks. They include Sarah Silverman’s “I’m Fucking Matt Damon” video (which no one will remember five years from now, funny as it may be), two entries for George Clooney, and Bill Gates getting a pie in the face (which I don’t think is technically a prank). The illiterate bankruptcy of our entertainment media astounds me. How can you talk about celebrity pranks and not include the greatest celebrity prank of all time – Raoul Walsh stealing John Barrymore’s corpse from the undertaker and propping it up on Errol Flynn’s couch before Flynn got home from attending John Barrymore’s funeral? Top that with a god-damned text message, George Clooney.

#: Is the EconoLodge in Jersey City, NJ the worst hotel in America? If not, submit your own nominations!

#: Stop Making Movies About My Books – Dr. Seuss (c/o The Onion)

Did you learn all but squat from The Cat In The Hat?
Please tell me you fired the prick who made that.
I would have stopped writing, maybe sold Goodyear tires.
If I knew one dark day I’d costar with Mike Myers.

#: After serious consideration and some useful input, I’m leaning most heavily toward the Canon HV20. It shoots in high-def (HVD format, which Final Cut Express 4 can handle), it shoots in 24p (the standard format for professional film), it’s got an accessory shoe (so I can slap on a mic) and it records to MiniDV (which, as outdated as it sounds, is still the least lossy medium available). Five months ago, when Wired gave it its highest recommendation, it cost $1100. Today you can get it for less than half that. This industry’s crazy.

#: Apparently, Teller (of Penn & same) has put together a production of Macbeth that’s going up at the Folger Theater in D.C. This guy’s review draws attention to (1) the masterful illusions used in the production – ghosts and weapons appearing and disappearing, etc and (2) the dark comedy brought out by careful timing. Macbeth* never struck me as a funny play, but re-reading it uncovers a few laugh lines:

What’s the business,
That such a hideous trumpet calls to parley
The sleepers of the house? speak, speak!

O gentle lady,
‘Tis not for you to hear what I can speak:
The repetition, in a woman’s ear,
Would murder as it fell.

[Enter BANQUO]

O Banquo, Banquo,
Our royal master ‘s murder’d!

Woe, alas!

#: “At the age of 19, Murat Kurnaz vanished into America’s shadow prison system in the war on terror. He was from Germany, traveling in Pakistan, and was picked up three months after 9/11. But there seemed to be ample evidence that Kurnaz was an innocent man with no connection to terrorism. The FBI thought so, U.S. intelligence thought so, and German intelligence agreed. But once he was picked up, Kurnaz found himself in a prison system that required no evidence and answered to no one.” [Sorry – this was the unfunny one]

* Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth.