but that was thirty years ago, when they used to have a show

The Tailor of Panama: Profoundly disappointing. When someone pitches you a film directed by John Boorman, based on a novel by John le Carre, starring Pierce Brosnan, Geoffrey Rush, Jamie Lee Curtis and Daniel Radcliffe, you bank on the project paying off. Only after the credits roll (in Comic Sans) and the introductory scenes stumble offstage do you check the back of the case again. Then you remember that this isn’t just the John Boorman who directed Deliverance and Excalibur; this is also that John Boorman who directed Zardoz and Exorcist II. And John le Carre (The Spy Who Came In From The Cold; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) is also John le Carre (Simple and Simple; The Honourable Schoolboy). And this film was released in 2001, a year before anyone could picture Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter. Sorry to mislead you; kind of a dick move on my part.

After several false starts, The Tailor of Panama positions itself as a dark comedy. Harry Pendel (Rush), Savile Row tailor to the most important bankers, gangsters and politicians in Panama City, has a bit of financial trouble due to some real estate speculation. Into his shop strolls Andy Osnard (Brosnan), an MI-6 operator who wants Pendel to pass along any gossip he hears when attending his clients. And he’s willing to pay. The only problem: Osnard doesn’t care how reliable Pendel’s intelligence is, since he’s paying for it with MI-6 money and skimming off the top. And Pendel doesn’t have any intelligence to sell, except for the BS he’s been spinning for the last ten years. It’s one of those perfect storms of corruption, where everyone’s equally willing to pass lies up the chain and money down it.

The problem: aside from a few clever scenes, the movie doesn’t work as a comedy. It lacks the zany pacing of screwball and the deadpan of satire. Characters are sincere when they should be silly. Rush and Brosnan are too dignified to clown like they should, though they later got over this problem (see Pirates of the Caribbean and The Matador, respectively). And Boorman tries to pass of Brendan Gleeson as a native Panamanian, which is just insulting.

The Tailor of Panama‘s not without redeeming moments. The tipping point of BS, when Pendel intimates to Osnard that the President might have secret plans for the Panama Canal, takes place on a vibrating bed in a whorehouse; sadly, it goes on either thirty seconds too long, or sixty seconds too short, to be truly funny. Catherine McCormack manages the blend of confidence, humor and sensuality that she’s been working for two decades, but that she can do in her sleep. And character actor Dylan Baker’s act three cameo as General Dusenbaker very nearly saves the whole show. Unfortunately, these flourishes can’t save the overall production. It feels like a grand dream built on promises that ring hollow upon closer examination – rather appropriate for Panama, but not good cinema.

I am a visitor here; I am not permanent

The Visitor: A well-tailored little indie film. Like a very nice suit.

Richard Jenkins (Intolerable Cruelty, Step Brothers, etc – one of those actors you recognize but don’t know) stars.* He plays Prof. Walter Vale, a Connecticut professor who’s stagnating following his wife’s death. When he’s coerced into attending a conference in Manhattan, he sets foot in the tiny apartment he’s owned for years but never uses. In doing so, he finds two immigrants who’ve been living there for months: Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira). Confusion ensues.

Once it becomes clear that Tarek and Zainab are as much the victims of fraud as Walter is, Walter begins to open up to them gradually. He allows them to stay in his pied-a-terre while he’s presenting at the conference. He learns about Zainab’s day job and Tarek’s passion for the drum. And he rediscovers passion.

The Visitor isn’t perfect. It lacks the understated dignity of Tom McCarthy’s (BC ’88) last movie, The Station Agent. There are several moments that state the movie’s theme with a quiet elegance: Walter, awkwardly sitting on his sofa and drinking a glass of wine, while Tarek and Zainab hurriedly pack their things. Tarek’s mother (Hiam Abbass) talking with Zainab over coffee in a small cafe. Little moments, well-framed.

And then there’s Walter’s rant at a security guard, the climax of the film. It’s not the temper that I mind; given what’s at stake, I wouldn’t have been surprised with more. But the dialogue, and the delivery, feel so stilted. Tom McCarthy was a featured regular on the final season of The Wire, which shot right around this time: maybe he took away the wrong lessons?

But what makes the film work, even in light of this clumsiness, is Tarek’s unshakable charisma. Haaz Sleiman has an infectious smile and a warm attitude. He’s not merely believable as a lover, a musician and a guide to New York. He’s admirable. He’s the kind of lover, musician and guide – and friend – that we should all want to be. This is essential, because the latter half of the movie hinges on identifying with him.

The Visitor is about how the unforeseen consequences of our actions can hurt the ones we care about. It’s about the horrors of institutional bureaucracy. But it’s ultimately about the same existential crisis that the West has been grappling with since the 50s – that sense of alienation in one’s own home. In dealing with that, The Visitor runs into the same obstacles that every artwork tackling the existential crisis has. But discovering just how little you know about your own home can be freeing, as well as terrifying.

* As an example of how hard it is to remember this man, I called him “Christopher Perkins” in the first draft.

now every chain has got a weak link

I watched Sneakers again on Saturday, out of a desire to learn more about screenwriting.

(In unrelated news, how great is the Internet? Twenty years ago, I couldn’t have learned how to write or format a screenplay without schlepping to the public library, checking out one of their four dog-eared books on screenwriting – which would itself be eight to ten years out of date – and then taking copious notes. Today, I Google “three act screenplay structure” and I’m up and running. Now all I need is a lucrative license, a bankable star and extensive contacts within Hollywood)

Though the rise of indie auteurs have given it a shake, the three-act screenplay structure is still the most recognized language of movie storytelling. Act One (the first quarter) introduces The Hero and The Problem and compels the Hero to address the Problem. Act Two (the middle half) throws obstacles at the Hero, bringing him to a low point roughly midway through. Some revelation helps him climb back up to the final confrontation. That’s Act Three (the last quarter), where the Hero engages and overcomes the Problem in a momentous climax.

Understanding that’s easy. Seeing it in practice is difficult.

Let’s use Sneakers as an example (warning – COPIOUS SPOILERS to follow):

  • Act One: This gave me the most trouble. Sneakers is a job movie: Martin Bishop (Redford) and his gang of sneaks are hired to retrieve a MacGuffin from mathematician Gunther Janek (Logue). If the end of Act One is when the Hero decides to tackle the Problem, then Act One ends at about the 19:00 mark, when Bishop convinces his team to take the job. Right?

    I don’t know. Act One doesn’t just set our Hero on the path; it also bars the gate behind him. Working for the (supposed) NSA is a big step for these guys, but it doesn’t feel momentous. Our heroes aren’t really locked onto their path until they discover that Janek’s been murdered and walk away from the hand-off with their employers. But that would make Act One forty minutes long – roughly 1/3 of the movie’s entire running time. That’s atypical, but not impossible.

    Job movies are tricky. If the movie starts with our heroes hired to do something they do every day – assassinate a politician, rob a bank, drive a Dodge Challenger from Colorado to San Francisco – then there’s nothing really compelling there. Does Act One end when the first complication is introduced? The twist that makes it clear that this job won’t be like all the others?

    So I’m going to compromise: Act One ends when Bishop convinces Liz to take him to Janek’s lecture. Though he’s agreed to take the job a while ago, it’s not until this point that The Team is assembled (even though Liz protests she’s not part of The Team). We now have every player we’ll need to accomplish the mission and overcome the Problem. This happens at roughly the 25-minute mark.

  • 17-Minute Mark: One of the sites I read on screenplay structure observed that whatever’s happening at the 17-minute mark usually speaks to what the Hero needs to change, personally, in order to overcome the Problem. This is because the subplot (the Hero’s personal development) alternates with the main plot (overcoming the Problem), and the main plot has to come first to whet our appetites. So the first chance we get to breathe is roughly halfway through Act One: the 17-minute mark.

    I don’t know how universal this is. But the author gave the example of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (one of the top 10 adventure movies of the 80s). Young Indy is being shushed by his father at the 17-minute mark and is having the Cross of Coronado taken back by the thieves he rescued it from. Indy’s stilted relationship with his father is the personal obstacle he has to overcome throughout the movie.

    In Sneakers, Bishop is revealing his past – the outstanding warrant under his original name – to the team at the 17-minute mark. Sneakers is about trust. While this isn’t shocking for a movie about cryptography, every character we sympathize with grows when they learn to trust the folks around them. Bishop rebounds from his Act Two crisis (q.v.) by apologizing to Liz for not trusting her. Crease (Poitier) distracts the guards holding him at gunpoint by finally opening up about why he left the C.I.A. (“my … temper.”). Whistler (Strathairn) saves Bishop, Liz and Carl by trusting Bishop to navigate him through a parking lot.

  • Act Two: The bulk of the running time. Our heroes surveill Janek, break into his office and acquire the MacGuffin. Then, complications begin arising.

    First, the MacGuffin is much more powerful – and therefore dangerous to them – than they realized. “There isn’t a government on the planet that wouldn’t kill us all for that thing,” Crease observes. This also leads to a crisis of trust between Bishop and Liz.

    Second, it turns out that the people who hired Bishop and his spooks aren’t who they claimed to be. This leads the team to start acting out of desperation, not careful planning – “I’m going to a concert,” Bishop explains, loading a revolver. Our Heroes’ actions become more frantic and tense.

  • Midpoint: The mastermind behind all these schemes is Bishop’s old college buddy, Cosmo (Kingsley). Cosmo offers Bishop a chance to join him, which Bishop rejects flippantly. As a result, Cosmo ruins Bishop’s life with a few keystrokes, implicating him in the murder of a Russian consular officer. This is the Act Two midpoint – at almost exactly one hour in. It’s the low point for our Hero. He’s lost the MacGuffin, he’s been beat up, his friend from the Russian embasssy is dead and his alias is compromised.

    Our Hero spends the rest of Act Two climbing back toward the top. He and the rest of the gang make incremental gains throughout the Act: reaching out to the NSA, learning where the goons took Bishop, surveilling Playtronics headquarters, setting Liz up on the blind date, etc.

  • Act Three: Infiltrating Playtronics to retrieve the MacGuffin. We have about 30 minutes left in the film at this point. From here on out, the tension never ramps down. The Heroes can overcome obstacles, but they can never feel truly safe until they get out and home free.

Is that a fair summation? Did I miss anything? Am I doing this right? I know I have some more experienced movie pros in my readership; help me out, guys.

freedom, that’s just some people talking

Lone Wolf McQuade: Wow.

Everything that’s ridiculous about this movie can be gleaned, like nuggets panned from a river, in its first 10 minutes.

After a credit sequence that begins with a photo-negative montage of a wolf crossing sandy scrub, we cut to a convoy of Mexicans rustling horses. The local sheriff and some deputies stake them out from a hilltop. J.J. McQuade watches them. As the sheriff and his men ride down to arrest the horse thieves, McQuade shakes his head in disgust.

What should the sheriff’s men, who outnumber the rustlers, have done? I don’t know, but probably what J.J. McQuade did:

  • Waited until the rustlers took several deputies hostage;
  • Shot out the gas tank of their truck with a hunting rifle;
  • Stood up where the head rustler can see you and get a good bead on you;
  • Watched while the sheriff got shot;
  • Came down and surrendered your rifle and sidearm;
  • Kicked everyone in the head

To be fair, McQuade shot a lot of guys, too.

Lone Wolf McQuade takes the foreign stereotype of Americans – beer-swilling, gun-toting, violent, unwashed, antisocial louts – and turns it into a virtue. Drinking Pearl Beer (which he keeps in his glove compartment), hoisting an illegal sidearm confiscated from arms smugglers, kicking people’s teeth in and showing up to his boss’s office sweaty and gross is what makes McQuade a hero. His strength comes from his filth. It’s the prissy Rangers in the downtown offices, or the pansy sheriff’s men, or the leather-shoed FBI, who’ve traded in their masculinity for style. But McQuade’s such a man, he doesn’t even wear a shirt at home!

Contrast McQuade with his nemesis: the amulet-wearing, metrosexually-sweatered Rawley Wilkes (David Carradine).

When Wilkes shows up at a racetrack (in a foreign car with the license plate ‘CARATE’), a woman tells McQuade that Wilkes won the “European Karate championships” a few years back. What’s the matter, Rawley? American Karate championships not good enough for ya? Anyhow, Wilkes gets into a boxing ring and kicks a variety of martial arts practitioners in the head, because someone thought that would be a good time. Then he calls out McQuade! But McQuade doesn’t fight for sport. Frustrated, Wilkes later sends a few of his lackeys to pick a fight that McQuade will have to break up, in order to test him.

When Lola Richardson (Barbara Carrera, Never Say Never Again) falls in love with McQuade, she shows up at his house one afternoon and begins cleaning it up. Never mind that they’ve been on one date to this point. Never mind that a shack full of filth rarely makes a man more attractive to a woman. Richardson cheerily throws out his beer and makes with the vacuuming. McQuade tries to scare her off, but then regrets making her cry. He resolves to let her into his disgusting life, and soon the two of them are making out in a mud puddle. Seriously.

And yet, this is probably one of the saner Chuck Norris movies. Even with the Mexican midget mob boss. In a wheelchair.

you can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice

Sherlock Holmes: first, a word about the source material.

The Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories, written by Arthur Conan Doyle, are a lot of fun. I could read them for hours, and, as a bookish teenager, did. But you could hardly call them classics of detection. Doyle didn’t assemble clockwork mysteries for his protagonist, the asocial savant Holmes, to solve. He decided what he wanted to have happened, and then summoned a series of clues which would support that outcome. Take for instance this section from the very first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet:

The train of reasoning ran, ‘Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded?’

The annexation of Burma? The Siege of Khartoum? The Battle of Abu Klea? A railway accident the day after he got back?

‘Clearly in Afghanistan.’ The whole train of thought did not occupy a second. I then remarked that you came from Afghanistan, and you were astonished.

Ah, right. Of course. Clearly in Afghanistan.

A good Sherlock Holmes story is not about the mystery, rather, but about the man himself – Holmes, a master at chemistry, biology, geology, fencing, jiu-jitsu and the soils of London – and about the grotesqueness of the crimes he investigates. In both these regards, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes excels. Plus it’s a lot of fun to boot.

The plot jolts along at a rattling pace, obscured somewhat by Ritchie’s crack-the-whip editing and some questionable English accents. But Holmes, conceited genius that he is, always takes the time to explain things to the remarkably patient Dr. Watson. He also has a foil in femme fatale Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), whose place in the overall mystery I don’t quite get. She can never make up her mind whether she’s hindering Holmes or helping him, and the director seems equally confused. She hires Holmes to find a man, who ends up buried in a coffin that he’s summoned by the police to investigate. So … what did it profit her to hire Holmes, since events which they knew about were already nudging him in that direction?

But Ritchie never slows the coach long enough for us to inspect the damage that his tour of London has done to the undercarriage. From bareknuckle boxing pits to opulent hotels, from clanking shipyards to occult lodges, we see a city grim with industry. Holmes is a product of the Victorian Age’s fantasies of itself: a self-made expert in all the modern sciences who’s equally versed in the exotic customs of the colonies. He’s a man who can tread comfortably in all worlds. Ritchie, and his excellent cast, let us indulge that fantasy for just enough time to make it fun.

we were so in phase in our dance hall days

To Live and Die in L.A.: 1985: The Motion Picture.

Everything about this movie screams “it’s the 80s!” The jackets. The slang. The edgy selfishness. The gritty crime. The soundtrack. The montages used to set scenes. Put this movie in a time capsule so future generations will know that no, we weren’t kidding about the sunglasses.

Count with me: William Petersen (C.S.I.) plays Richard Chance, an adrenaline junkie Secret Service agent who doesn’t play by the rules but gets results. He’s after master counterfeiter Rick Masters, played by Willem Dafoe, who treats his crime like art and drips weird homoeroticism into every interaction. Chance’s partner, who’s like a father to Chance and who only has three days left until retirement, gets blown away while investigating one of Masters’ hideouts. Now Chance has to take on a naive new partner and push the envelope – perhaps even breaking the law himself – in order to bring Masters to justice.

Wang Chung composed the entire soundtrack.

To Live and Die in L.A. is about counterfeiting. Every crime film needs at least one sequence of process (except Le Samourai, which was all process): the car being hotwired, the assassin setting up in a sniper’s nest, the cocaine being cut and packaged. Here, we get a gorgeously detailed montage of Rick Masters counterfeiting twenty-dollar bills. We see the plates being designed, paint being applied, serial numbers being forged, and miniature brushwork being applied with a master’s eye for detail. Trivia has it that the film’s technical adviser was a convicted counterfeiter himself, and that some of the counterfeit money got into circulation. We watch these bills being manufactured in Masters’ garage, bills just like the ones we have in our wallets. Watching the process of a fake being assembled makes us question what we know to be real.

Money isn’t the only counterfeit commodity in L.A., though. Chance spends a good portion of the movie testing his new partner Vukovich (John Pankow, Mad About You), seeing if he’ll go as far as it takes to bring in Masters: is Vukovich “real” or not? Chance tests himself as well: the first time we see him, he’s about to go BASE-jumping off a bridge with his Secret Service buddies putting bets on him. Masters pays for favors in counterfeit money that he produces, which everyone willingly accepts, knowing it’s close enough to the real thing. And when Masters follows a man in a unitard backstage after a modern dance show and makes out with him, the audience wonders for a second – until the dancer pulls off her wig. (Not to suggest that she was “counterfeiting” as a man, but a guy-on-guy kiss like that would have been very edgy in 1985).

When Chance goes undercover to lure Masters in, there’s some artful ambiguity as to whether or not Masters knows Chance is for real (“love your work”). That question hangs over every interaction in To Live and Die in L.A.: between Chance and Vukovich, or his jailhouse snitch (John Turturro), or the C.I. he’s sleeping with, or Masters himself. Is this other person the genuine article? If not, can I make use of them anyway?

Is it a perfect film? Hardly. There are two gaping plot holes, one never resolved and one resolved only as an afterthought. Many of the key players never get any characterization to speak of. And, as described above, the movie bulges at the seams with corniness. But you could call kabuki theater corny too, if you looked at it with a jaded eye. To Live and Die in L.A. is a kabuki action movie: a stylized depiction of a world too inflexible to actually exist. Were it less serious by one quantum, you couldn’t watch it without guffawing. But only by embracing its attitude with a complete lack of irony can Friedkin pull this off.

And I don’t care what you think: “Dance Hall Days” is a good song.

the decade in film: 2006-09

The end of a decade brings out the End Of Decade lists. I have little qualification to talk about the Best Movies of the Decade. Better critics than I have already put their lists together; I could only re-arrange the order.

So the following list does not contain the Best Films of the Decade. But it has films that all meant something to me, personally. Call them my Signature Films of the First Decade of the Second Millennium. Or something snappier.

Part Three: Growing Up: 2006-09

My hatred for musicals began in high school, when RENT came out and everyone I did theater with started playing it at high volume. If I had to pick one thing I hate about this perversely popular show, it’d be the theme, and the characters, and the story, and the CTRL-H substitution from La Boheme, and the song about how many minutes there are in a year (Q: “How many minutes are there in a year?” A: “Love!”). It bothers me that this musical made people famous, and that mawkish sentimentality trumps clever lyricism in this new century.

(This hatred morphed from an informed and unyielding criticism into outright pathology in the summer of 2003, when my car was jacked from outside my apartment in Allston. Eight weeks later, when the Boston PD sent me a letter asking me to pay parking tickets the car had acquired during the time I reported it stolen, I called them and got the tickets removed. Then I realized a bunch of the tickets were assigned at the same address. Grabbing my roommate Hawver, we pulled up Mapquest, punched in some street names, and found that my car had been abandoned less than a mile from where it had been stolen, and three blocks from our current apartment. The rear passenger window panel had been smashed in and the stereo had been stolen. The scumbags had also taken a CD wallet with about forty discs in it, and replaced it with the original cast recording of RENT.

“So they thought RENT wasn’t even worth stealing?” people ask.
“No,” I explain. “I didn’t own RENT.”
“Oh.” Then: “Ohhhh.”)

So when everyone I knew waxed enthusiastic about Once, I remained skeptical. But there was a recurring tone to their endorsements: glowing language, stern admonishments to see it, but a lack of explicit detail. They couldn’t put into words just why it was so great, but they all agreed it was. Seeing it on the big screen, I agreed with them: Once is a hell of an experience. I don’t know why a grainy indie movie about a guy and a girl, both getting over heartbreaks of their own and tentatively discovering each other, floored me when set to folksy music. But it did. Sure, it’s sentimental, but it’s powerful sentiment, shot straight into the vein. It’s the last movie I saw with my friend Josh before he moved to the West Coast, so that might also grant it some significance.

I spent Thanksgiving 2006 in Boston, my first Thanksgiving outside of Maryland in all my life, due to work. Since I still had the day off, I resolved to put it to some use by going to the Loews Boston Common and theater-hopping. Hopping in the Loews poses no challenge: the second floor boasts a dozen theaters and the minimum-wage ushers can barely handle the holiday crowds. So I was able to see Casino Royale and The Departed with little difficulty. The one-two punch of gritty crime and action left me wandering, shell-shocked, for the rest of the day.

In the fall of 2007, I helped out with one of the most ambitious and rewarding theater projects of my life: The Waste Land Comedy Hour starring T.S. Eliot. Some of the most talented people at ImprovBoston pitched in to produce 7 original shows in 7 weeks, mixing live and video elements, and we all still agree it’s the best thing we’ve ever done. It had a raw and crazy energy that I hope to one day duplicate.

One evening after rehearsing some new material, Matt T., Eric P., Eric’s wife Hannah and myself all trucked to Kendall Square Cinemas to see No Country for Old Men. I warned them we’d have to get there early, as I’d tried to see the show last week but had been turned away once it sold out. The Waste Land had also been selling out early and turning people away. And like The Waste Land, the Coen Bros. hit on some untapped vein of creative juice. It took me several tries to get The Big Lebowski and Fargo. While I love Miller’s Crossing and O Brother, Where Art Thou? to pieces, I recognize them more as homages and pastiches then as some compelling new works. But No Country for Old Men clicked with me. Maybe it was the unity of the Coens’ nihilism with McCarthy’s existentialism. Maybe it was getting a really good cast. Regardless, I took to it like I’ve taken to no other Coen film.

Finally, I saw The Dark Knight the day it opened, having taken the day off to fly to Baltimore in the afternoon. This breaks a long-standing rule of mine about seeing a genre movie on the day it opens, but nobody goes to the theaters in Batman costumes anyway. And it was worth it for me. Not just because I love the Batman mythos and what Nolan has done with it. But because, like I said on Wednesday, someone’s using Serious Art techniques to tell an action film. That’s important to me.

As I said, not necessarily the best of the decade, but the most memorable for me.