096: Body of Lies

This is the sixteenth movie in my Ridley Scott retrospective.

Halfway through the last decade Ridley Scott started making movies like crazy. He was making a movie every year. 2005’s Kingdom of Heaven was an epic swords-and-sandal drama, 2006’s A Good Year was a well-intentioned failure, 2007’s American Gangster was an urban period thriller and last in this binge is Body of Lies, Scott’s comment on the war in the Middle East, a thriller that is as intricate as it is foolish.

At the center of Body of Lies is Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio), a C.I.A. operative who works in the Middle East. He knows the people, speaks the language and gets results, but he seems to have doubts. He has lived with these people for so long he has begun to see them as more than just subjects on his missions. He even strikes up a relationship with a local beauty. This is all to the dismay of his handler back home in Virginia, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), who wants to get results no matter what happens. Ferris is on the trail of a terrorist, who plans to do God knows what to the Western devils, and he gets help from a local businessman called Hani (mark Strong).

We are privy to every little detail that goes into setting up a mission like this, from inserting people in enemy organizations, creating a faux terrorist organization to lure the real terrorists out of their hiding spots and utilizing modern techniques combined with old-fashioned spying. Roger Ebert called it James Bond meets John Le Carre and I heartily agree with him. The things Ferris has to endure are way more than a human should be able to endure. He is tortured, he is bitten by dogs, he escapes explosions and so on and so on. And all the while keeping his cool about a lot of it. It is just a lot to take in and keep your suspension of disbelief under control.

While William Monahan’s screenplay, based on a book from David Ignatius, is very detailed and intricate with more twists and turns than a Formula 1 race track. As with Kingdom of Heaven, Monahan shows great respect for the Islamic faith and the way of life over there. He isn’t too keen on outside people coming in to tell people how to live their lives, which is exactly what the Americans in Body of Lies are doing. Meddling in local affairs is high on the agenda here and the shift in DiCaprio’s character is a sign that even Americans are maybe a little bit sick of all the meddling that is done in these countries. It is one thing to get rid of a dictator, it is another thing to dictate to people how they should live. But that’s another discussion.

Monahan writes all these nuances in his screenplay and Scott ran with it. The various parts are exciting: the intrigue, the action, the redemption, the deception and the love story. These would all be great subjects in their own right, but Scott never really manages to glue it all together. Body of Lies gets to where it is going at its own time and never really gets exciting. The acting is at a level you expect from a cast like this, while never being infused with enough spirit to keep you glued to the screen. That is a shame, because this is a story that needs to be told. There is another side to a war that often isn’t told at home by the ‘invading’ party in the conflict. Body of Lies had the opportunity to show people who the people they are trying to ‘educate’ really don’t want to be taught anything and just want to be left alone. There is a message here, if only it were told in a more compelling way.

> IMDb

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095: Matchstick Men

This is the fifteenth movie in my Ridley Scott retrospective.

Before Nicolas Cage went totally berserk and had to accept any role he could get his hands on he actually had a career. He won an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas and was nominated for one for his phenomenal double role in Adaptation. Sometimes we tend to forget that this guy can really act… in his own way, that is. One role he was meant to play is the lead in Matchstick Men, one of Ridley Scott’s more ‘normal’ movies.

Cage plays Roy Waller, a con artist who makes a living scamming unsuspecting people with his partner Frank Mercer (the fabulous Sam Rockwell). Roy suffers from all kinds of psychiatric problems from agoraphobia to full-blown obsessive compulsive disorder. He is a psychiatrist’s dream client. One day he discovers he has a 14-year-old daughter, Angela (Alison Lohman), out of an old failed marriage. This, at first, seems like a burden to Roy, but as time progresses she becomes more and more something Roy was missing from his life. Something to anchor him and keep him moderately sane. And all the while Roy and Frank are trying to pull off a huge scam on a millionaire (Bruce McGill).

Roy starts out as a total wreck. He has to repeat everything he does multiple times, his house is like an ad for Lysol and being outside can send him into a frenzy. Even opening a door without him expecting it will freak him out. About halfway through the movie his relationship with Angela enables him to actually make contact with other people, like the cashier at the supermarket, be in open spaces like a bowling alley and be a little more open-minded about treating his house as a living space and not a mausoleum. He even admires, to a certain extent, the stuff Angela leaves behind in his fridge. It is heartwarming to see these two characters grow so lovingly, even though you know this can’t end well, can it?

As I said, Cage was born to play this role. He gets to throw all his tics and mannerism out there and have it not be really showy or out-of-character. When he is on the job he is his extremely charming self and the tics aren’t there, but when he gets home his neuroses start to really kick in. This juxtaposition leads into an interesting plot twist later in the movie. Cage manages to balance these different situations expertly. When he goes off his meds altogether Cage goes all out as well. He is all over the place. This is a masterclass in playing a neurotic mess. It is especially funny that even when Roy is totally wrapped up in his neuroses he still has time to run back to a cab he was just in to close the door, because he doesn’t want to be rude. It is moments like these that make Roy one of Cage’s best characters ever.

Sam Rockwell is his equally charming partner and the more devious part of the team. He doesn’t have the smarts Roy has, but he pushes him to do greater things. Whether that’s a good thing, well… He is not weighed down by any shred of remorse over what he does. If there is one person you don’t want in your life, it is Frank. This guy has ‘bad influence’ written all over his forehead. Alison Lohman completes the triangle of evil-doing. She is more than willing to join Roy and Frank on their cons, but more out of curiosity than a lust for evil. I love the fact that she was really twenty-four when the movie was shot. She looks and acts exactly like the insecure teenager she is supposed to be. Great job.

Ridley Scott is of course known for his big epics, but with Matchstick Men he shows he can also take a step back and let the acting and story take the lead. The visual flair is still there. There’s enough light streaming through smoky or dusty atmospheres (his directorial signature) here to fill an entire movie and therefore Matchstick Men is very much a product of Ridley Scott. Attention to detail and a feeling for his characters make Scott’s movies often so enjoyable. As a whole Matchstick Men is a fun upbeat movie about con artists, a dysfunctional father-daughter relationship and a shitload of money.

> IMDb

094: Tiny Furniture

Watching Tiny Furniture is like watching a very long pilot for the television show Girls. This is not really surprising, since they both sprung from the mind of Lena Dunham, who also plays the lead in both Tiny Furniture and Girls. Tiny Furniture is Dunham’s directorial debut and it is impressive. Maybe not for everyone, but then again Woody Allen is also not for everyone.

I make the comparison with Woody Allen not lightly, because I think Tiny Furniture harbors the spirit of Woody Allen’s earlier movies, like Manhattan. At the epicenter is Aura, who just graduated from college and returns home to New York to her mother’s loft. Her mother is a successful art photographer of tiny furniture (and sometimes the feet of her other daughter) who doesn’t have much time for her daughter’s problems. She has been in her position and knows it’ll all be alright in the long run, but try explaining that to your child. Aura’s insecurities are amplified even more by her sister, who seems to be doing better at everything then her.

Dunham doesn’t pull any punches. She writes and directs a raw portrayal that is full of painful truths we don’t see often in movies. There is nothing glamorous about Aura’s life in New York. She gets a lousy job as a day hostess in a restaurant (that isn’t even open during the day), she has lousy sex with somebody she hardly knows and she feels abandoned by everybody around her, even though they love her nonetheless. She strikes up a friendship with a YouTube-star who is known for reading Nietzsche on a rocking horse. Aura has a short clip on YouTube as well, but that is not as much watched as his clips. Even her pet doesn’t want to live with her anymore.

Although a lot of Tiny Furniture deals with disappointment, resentment and self-loathing, it is not all doom and gloom. Dunham writes dialogue that flows like water that tastes really good and is very funny in its own way. Just like Woody Allen’s dialogue. Sometimes, however, it can feel a little bit overwritten, but for the most part it is a joy to listen to. In stark contrast to the dialogue stands the cinematography, which feels very static. Just about every shot has been locked down by DP Jody Lee Lipes (who also did Martha Marcy May Marlene), probably to emphasize the stasis Aura finds herself in.

An extra layer of authenticity was added in casting when Dunham cast her real-life mother and sister in the corresponding roles. This could easily have been the death of any earnest emotions in Tiny Furniture, but Dunham manages to capitalize on the already established relationships with her family. There is a familiarity that makes the acting seem effortless and, quite frankly, inviting. It makes Tiny Furniture feel like a home movie without the crappy jokes, long takes, bad lighting and shaky camera. Dunham’s debut is certainly not for everybody, but what movie is, really?

> IMDb

093: Clerks.

Clerks. is one of those movies that I hold very dear to my heart. It is about a guy who is at a place in his life where he really doesn’t want to be and that is how I felt when I watched Clerks. for the first time. I actually caught on to the Clerks. bandwagon when Chasing Amy was released, which was about three years after Clerks. I am not an early adopter, but certainly a lifelong fan.

I was so impressed with Chasing Amy—and still am—that I wanted to see more from this young filmmaker from New Jersey who seemed to be creating this whole universe for him to play with. Like a no-budget George Lucas, if you will. When I watched Clerks. I was mesmerized. Not because of the acting performances, or the cinematography. It was the rapid-fire dialogue and editing that caught my attention immediately. Kevin Smith seemed to understand exactly what was going through the minds of these characters. Later we learned that this was no surprise, because he practically lived that life himself.

In Clerks. we follow a day in the life of Dante Hicks, a lowly clerk in a convenience store. He is called on Sunday to take over a shift for a co-worker, something he decidedly doesn’t want to do. And in hindsight something he should not have agreed to do, because the day goes by anything but quietly. He has to deal with his deadbeat friend who works at the video store next door. His ex-girlfriend comes to town and is getting married. He learns the number of men his present girlfriend has been with. And on top of that he is about to miss his weekly hockey game. And he isn’t even supposed to be there!

Clerks. has a real live-in feel to it. It was shot on stock that was probably thrown in a dumpster somewhere, the sound is often atrocious and the scenes were shots on location in a real convenience store, so that brings a whole other level of grit to the shoot. (Clerks. was mostly shot at night, by the way, with lights blowing out the window to make it look like it was day.) This level of real grittiness lends a great deal of authenticity to the absurd dealings that go on in the store. At one point a man comes in and starts warning people who smoking is bad for you by putting a cancer-ridden longue on the counter. What happens next I won’t divulge. There are a lot of moments in Clerks. where you think, “Dante, close the store, get out of there and go to bed. This is totally not worth it.”

A lot of these moments involve his friend Randal, who easily steals the movie. His foul-mouthed comments on the world seem to channel Kevin Smith directly. The things he says to his customers should’ve gotten him fired long ago, but somehow he gets away with it. He makes a woman wait while he orders tapes from a distributor. Not just any tapes… porn tapes with great filthy titles and that in front of the woman and her kid. All to just not have to work a single minute on this useless Sunday. Equally useless are Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith as Jay and Silent Bob, two drug dealers that hang out in front of the store lurking at women and harassing people. These two guys went on to become a staple of a View Askew-niverse and are considered pop culture icons.

Clerks. spawned an ill-fated sequel in 2006 that never managed to live up to the legacy of its predecessor. It never had the gritty quality of the original, and although it tried to replicate the great pop culture debates from Clerks. (Contractors on the Death Star is a classic), it didn’t feel as fresh and effortless. Same goes for the sordid nature of some scenes. Forget the sequel and visit (or revisit) Clerks. You won’t be disappointed.

> IMDb

092: Permanent Vacation

Jim Jarmusch No. 1

Well, this is the start of my attempt to watch all of the movies of Jim Jarmusch chronologically. Some of his films form gaping holes in my filmwatching experience. For instance, I have never seen Dead Man or Night on Earth, while people have always said to me I should see those. I am also curious whether Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai and Coffee and Cigarettes have changed for me after not having seen those for several years.

One Jarmusch film I certainly had not yet seen was Permanent Vacation, his 1980 debut movie, in which we follow the young Alloysius “Allie” Parker, played by Christopher Parker, while he searches for meaning in his life. He is a big Charlie Parker fan and he vows to call his first-born son Charlie. It is a strange journey Allie undertakes. He talks to himself a lot, but also listens to other people without interrupting them. The people he meets all have something to teach him, but they never come across as teachers and Allie never acknowledges that he is being taught in any way. It is a weird and ambitious web woven by Jarmusch.

Permanent Vacation is ambitious, sure, but certainly not a masterpiece. We can see the seeds for the future movies of Jarmusch, but the refinement is not yet here. The movie is largely devoid of comedy and comedic moments often feel like they weren’t supposed to be funny. Like the encounters Ally has with a war veteran and an Italian women. These are so over the top that it is hard to keep a straight face. Or when Ally visits his mother in a mental institution where his mother’s roommate is so obnoxious that he has to leave.

Ally largely just glides through this world looking like a ’50s hipster. He walks around as if nothing can touch him. This is not arrogance or indifference. It is almost like he isn’t there and he only materializes when people want to talk to him or see him. He is like a tall and thin ghost who just doesn’t like being there. This could explain the meandering tone of Permanent Vacation. Nothing much happens and Jarmusch often just locks down the camera to let the scene unfold as is. This could either be Ally reading a book, Ally dancing for minutes to jazz music or Ally listening to somebody talk. Not all these scenes work as well as we’d like. They can actually be quite boring at times. It takes a certain state-of-mind to fully enjoy a movie like this.

Technically Permanent Vacation leaves a lot to be desired. The movie is shot in moody black and white and with a little dedicated cleaning this could be an amazing movie to watch. The sound, however, is terrible and that is probably just due to lesser equipment. At times the sound gets really muddled, transitions from shot to shot are clearly noticeable and that makes it hard to focus on what is said. The jazzy soundtrack on the other hand, mixed with ominous background noise, is a wonderful mix of dread and hopelessness. Once again, we can see the future Jarmusch starting to corner off his territory here.

Does this mean Permanent Vacation is a failure? No, not at all. It is an example of what’s to come and considering it was made on a shoestring budget as a school project, this is quite intriguing. It is for certain a great start of my retrospective of Jarmusch’ movies.

> IMDb

091: Airplane!

Airplane! is a staple of absurdist spoof movies. These are movies that take a well known and often worn-out movie genre and turn it onto its head, with often hilarious consequences. Nobody is better at creating these spoofs than the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker team. For years these names would be synonimous with great comedy.

In Airplane! Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker take on the disaster movies from the ’70s and in particular the Airport movies, of which four were made: Airport, Airport 1975, Airport ‘77 and The Concorde… Airport ‘79. At the center is ex-pilot Ted Striker, who is still in love with Elaine, who is a flight attendant. Ted follows Elaine onto one of her flights, but she doesn’t want anything to do with him. But when the crew and passengers are struck by a terrible case of food poisoning all eyes are on Ted to save the day.

It had been quite a few years since I watched Airplane! In fact, the last time was back in the ’80s. So, after watching An American Werewolf in London, I came across Airplane! on Netflix. I thought, why not? Let’s see if the comedy still holds up after all these years. And to my surprise it does for the most part. There is, however, a lot to be gained from not having seen Airplane! before, because the surprise factor is really high. When you see a lot of people panicking on an airplane, you don’t expect to see a bare-breasted woman prancing across the screen. Knowing where gags like this one would pop up diminishes the fun a little bit.

There are, however, so many moments that still work perfectly. When for example somebody sings a song for a sick little girl and involuntarily pulls the iv from her arm is a brilliantly executed comedic scene. Same for a lot of other smaller side-gags. Gags that would later define The Naked Gun as one of my favorite comedies ever. There is so much to see and take in on the screen that it is nearly impossible to do it all at once. I can still recommend Airplane! for everybody who likes a great comedy.

> IMDb

090: Top Gun

Top Gun is a guilty pleasure for me. I saw it twice in the theater, I listened to the soundtrack constantly and loved (and still love) the high adrenaline action that Tony Scott unleashed onto the world. Be honest, what’s more exciting than fighter jets screaming across the screen, hopelessly macho talk and unadulterated romantic thoughts about what it means to be a hero.

Top Gun is about hot shot pilots who are chosen to go to the infamous Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOP GUN) at Miramar, California (now located at Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada). One of these pilots is Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise), who takes this challenge on with both hands along with his navigator Goose (Anthony Edwards). At TOP GUN they must contend with equally impressive pilots who are hellbent on being the best of the best. Even if that means they have to play volleyball all oiled up and bare chested.

Not exactly the truth

Everyone who thinks this is what really goes on at TOP GUN is sorely mistaken. This is a Jerry Bruckheimer/Don Simpson production directed by Tony Scott. Everything you see here should be taken with a grain of salt, even though the script was written with the consent of the Navy and under the guidance of a slew of real life pilots and crewmen. There is a ring of truth somewhere underneath all the machismo, but you will have to dig deep, because it is buried pretty good. There were numerous moments during the development phase when consultants told the writers that they got things wrong, but it fell on deaf ears. Probably for the better, otherwise Top Gun would have been a lot more serious and likely a lot less fun.

This was Tony Scott’s second feature film after The Hunger and he wastes no time to get Top Gun going. After the beautiful and rousing opening title sequence the F-14 Tomcats screech off the deck of the carrier with Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone screaming from the speakers. We are treated to an encounter between Maverick and a Mig (always as faceless as they can be) and then a terrifying ordeal involving a pilot too scared to land his F-14 on the carrier. If those first few minutes don’t get your heart racing, I don’t know what will. After that it is smooth sailing for Scott, who has the audience eating out of his hand by now, and his merry band of magnificent men.

We go from one training session to another. All of them filled to the brim with brilliant shots of fighters doing some incredible flying. All, of course, nothing like it’s done in reality. But hey, where’s the fun in that. On top of all this we get a classic love story between Maverick and Charlie (Kelly McGillis) involving a lot of back-and-forth and one of the best love themes ever written for a movie (Berlin’s Take My Breath Away). Val Kilmer is vicious as Iceman, Maverick’s nemesis, who just wants one thing: prove Maverick isn’t as good as he seems. And I almost forgot to mention Meg Ryan in her (almost) starmaking role as the young wife of the ill-fated prankster Goose.

The Hero’s Journey

Top Gun is a movie that is often dismissed as being only about jerks flying jets under a blanket of terrible ’80s music. I happen to think that Top Gun is more than that. This is a fun movie about heroics and the Hero’s Journey. In a lot of ways Maverick is the quintessential hero according to Joseph Campbell’s theory on what makes a hero. Campbell says the following:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

If that isn’t Maverick’s trek than I don’t know what is. Maverick is taken from his everyday life to go to TOP GUN, a magical world where he is allowed to fly these enormous machines in what feels to him as a game. The fabulous forces are his classmates (Val Kilmer’s Iceman in particular) and of course the Russians who he faces in the decisive battle. He comes back from that a bigger, maybe even wiser, man. Along the way he conquers the girl (not exactly a damsel in distress), has several encounters with the wise wizard (Tom Skerritt’s Viper) and he overcomes severe tragedy. It is fascinating to see that Campbell’s theory yet again can be applied in such a successful manner.

This might very well be the reason why Top Gun works so well, along with the most obvious example where Campbell is utilized: Star Wars. Maverick is the guy we all want to be. He is cocky, brash, handsome, arrogant and he gets to fly fighter jets.  Like Luke Skywalker. What more does one want from life? But Maverick also has doubts; doubts we all can relate to. Will he ever measure up to his almost mythological father, who was a brilliant fighter pilot over Vietnam. Will he be able to perform at the level these people except him to? All questions we all have struggled with at one time or another. This makes Maverick a well rounded character we can all relate to in a movie that is just incredibly fun to watch and to return to often.

> IMDb