Sons of a Gun

Here’s a new review at the Screengrab-in-Exile: Sons of a Gun. This played at SXSW, but due to a snafu with my former apartment management, I never got the screener until it was too late. Since our new site is getting some attention this weekend, I figured I’d donate this review to keep the momentum rolling.

You Maniacs! You Blew It Up!

Well, this is it. Tomorrow is the last day of the Screengrab, so we’re going out with a blaze of glory. I’ve posted the last Screengrab installment of Unwatchable (which will continue at its new home here), and now the final list is up…and what else could it be but The Best & Worst Endings of All Time?

There will be an afterlife of sorts for the Screengrab, however, as the Screengrab in Exile will keep you up to date on all the latest doings of the ol’ gang.

Crime Scenes

(It’s Wayback Wednesday! Today I dredged up three reviews I wrote for Shuffleboil, all of which are crime pictures of one stripe or another.)

Gone Baby Gone

Here are four words that inspire very little confidence when they appear on a movie screen: “Directed by Ben Affleck.”

Amiable lug Affleck has done his share to earn his reputation as a lightweight, from ill-advised projects (Gigli, anyone?) to high-profile tabloid romps with a string of starlets. In hopes of re-booting his career, he returns to his Boston roots with this downbeat neo-noir based on the novel by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River).

The director’s brother Casey Affleck stars as Lehane’s recurring protagonist, private eye Patrick Kenzie. Along with partner/lover Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), Kenzie reluctantly takes on the case of a missing child. Four-year-old Amanda McCready vanished from her home while her no-account mother Helene (Amy Ryan) was drinking at a neighbor’s apartment. Kenzie and Gennaro are well-aware that the chances of finding Amanda get more remote by the hour – she’s surely either dead or a victim of horrific abuse from which she may never recover.

Amanda’s Aunt Beatrice (Amy Madigan) won’t take no for an answer, so the detecting duo delve into the seedy Dorchester neighborhood, where they uncover Helene’s ties to a local drug dealer who may have kidnapped the child. Their investigation is both aided and impeded by Boston police detectives Remy Broussard (Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton), under the command of chief of police Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman). The plot twists and turns through rough-and-tumble taverns, an abandoned quarry and a den of child molesters en route to the resolution of a moral dilemma that’s meant to leave viewers arguing as they shuffle out of the theater.

As a director, Affleck’s strength lies in the authenticity of the milieu; he has a Boston boy’s appreciation for neighborhood haunts and characters. The background (and sometimes the foreground) of Gone Baby Gone is populated by drinking class faces best viewed in dimly lit bars. He is able to coax believable accents out of non-locals like The Wire’s Ryan, who nails a very particular brand of abrasive, sarcastic street dialect.

Tonally, Affleck opts for low-key foreboding, in contrast to the often overwrought Mystic River and the heightened sensory overload of The Departed. His grasp of storytelling is a little shakier; Gone plays like it’s been edited down from a much longer film. Important supporting characters such as Kenzie’s arms dealer friend Bubba make fleeting appearances, and those who haven’t read the book may have trouble figuring out how all the threads connect.

The casting of scrawny, mumbling Casey Affleck as the detective hero may strike some as a perverse choice reminiscent of Elliott Gould’s turn as Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, but there’s no similar payoff here. Affleck the younger is better suited to supporting roles, like his wormy turn in The Assassination of Jesse James. Monaghan lights up the screen in the otherwise regrettable Heartbreak Kid, but she’s a dour presence as Angie, a much more vivid character in Lehane’s novels.

Gone Baby Gone conjures an evocative atmosphere of melancholy, but the mood dissipates through the holes in the narrative.

No Country for Old Men

Joel and Ethan Coen might not be the first filmmakers you’d name as ideal vessels for bringing the work of Cormac McCarthy to the screen, but once you’ve let the idea marinate a while, it starts to make sense. Particularly if the McCarthy work in question is “No Country for Old Men,” which, having read this far, you already know it is.

The Coens are wiseguys and ironists; McCarthy is as serious as a heart attack. The Coens are irreverent genre-jumpers, mixing and matching film noir, slapstick comedy, period pastiche, regional humor and even the occasional musical number. McCarthy is known for violent westerns and stark Southern Gothics written in a distinctive prose style combining apocalyptic imagery with almost biblical language. So “No Country for Old Men” is something of a minor miracle: it’s the most faithful adaptation of McCarthy’s novel imaginable, yet it couldn’t be anything other than a Coen Brothers movie.

Or maybe it’s not such a miracle, once you discount the differences between these artists and start digging through the common ground. The book “No Country” begins as a more-or-less straightforward crime novel in the Jim Thompson mode, and as the movie opens, we might well be watching the natural – if long-delayed – follow-up to “Blood Simple.” Indeed, the initial shot of a lonely stretch of Texas road accompanied by world-weary narration from Tommy Lee Jones is almost certainly a deliberate echo of the Coens’ 1984 debut.

Jones is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, a man who has seen it all and feels certain the worst is yet to come. The latest crime scene on his watch does little to dispel that notion: a desert drug deal gone awry, a pile of corpses and a missing satchel full of money. Bell was not the first on the scene; that would be Llewellyn Moss (Marlboro Man lookalike Josh Brolin), a hunter who happened upon the aftermath and made off with the cash. The drug cartel behind the botched transaction isn’t happy about this, so they hire a psycho in a Ramones haircut named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) to find the money and bring it back.

Chigurh is a soft-spoken killing machine who dispatches his victims with a high-powered cattlegun, and in “No Country,” his victims are plentiful. He leaves a wasteland of death and destruction in his path as he closes in on Moss, and to complicate matters further, another hired killer (Woody Harrelson) is engaged to clean up after Chigurh.

Much of McCarthy’s story unfolds through the sort of sardonic, deadpan dialogue that’s always been right in the Coens’ wheelhouse. (“It’s a mess, ain’t it?” “If it ain’t, it’ll do ’til the mess gets here.”) The more action-oriented scenes are rendered with such an uncanny grasp of McCarthy’s evocative and precise geography, readers of the book may experience severe déjà vu. In particular, a climactic shootout in the border town of Eagle Pass left me half-convinced the Coens had access to some advanced technology allowing them to project the visuals straight out of my brain and onto the screen.

Bardem is a uniquely malevolent presence as Chigurh; his haircut alone should make him hard to take seriously, but he’s so quietly confident in his cracked worldview, he really does seem like the most dangerous man alive. There are several suspense sequences destined for the Coens greatest hits reel, notably an attack dog’s pursuit of Moss into the Rio Grande, and deadly game of ‘musical rooms’ at a rundown motel.

Fans of conventional thrillers will be thrown for a loop, however, as the movie enters its final reels. In fact, some may think one of those reels is missing; as in the book, perhaps the most critical plot development occurs off-screen, unheralded and barely explained. Action gives way to ambiguity, and any hopes of a concrete resolution dissolve into a series of meditations on the changing times, the meaning of America and the nature of evil. Some readers saw this as a deepening of the story’s themes, while others took the perhaps more uncharitable view that, in the end, the book disappeared up its own ass.

The Coens pull it off, though. Their work has always had a streak of existential rumination running through it, most notably in “Barton Fink” and “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” At times they’ve overreached, but here they simply let the mysteries of life and death and mankind’s unknowable capacity for evil to play out on Tommy Lee Jones’s craggy features and in the melancholy timbre of his voice. In its final lyrical moments, “No Country for Old Men” transcends genre and lays waste to any notion of the Coens as the sniggering egghead pranksters of cinema. If it’s not the movie of the year, it’ll do until the movie of the year gets here.

We Own the Night

Do you miss the gritty New York crime dramas of the ’70s? Long before Times Square was just another shopping mall, movie screens teemed with images of an urban inferno, all graffiti-coated subway trains and steam billowing from under manhole covers on grimy, crime-infested streets. Until Rudy Giuliani had all the muggers, hookers and squeegee men escorted to the city limits, it was up to hard-nosed, poorly dressed cops with Bronx honks and Brooklyn twangs to make the last stand for civilization as we knew it.

Writer/director James Gray clearly has an affinity for those pictures, and with Little Odessa, The Yards and now We Own the Night, he has positioned himself as the heir to the Lumets and Scorseses of that era. His latest effort is a period piece, although Gray himself seems a little confused as to exactly what period he’s dealing with. An opening graphic claims that it’s 1988, but the music used throughout the film dates to the early ’80s, and the hairstyles, clothing and décor are all inconclusive. It’s basically some nebulous movie New York populated by well-worn ethnic types: sweaty, gold chain-wearing clubgoers, puffy, dessert-pushing Russian mamas and granite-jawed brothers in blue.

Joaquin Phoenix is party-boy club manager Bobby Green. Green isn’t his real name; he’s changed it from Grunisky to distance himself from his father Burt (reliably gruff Robert Duvall), the chief of police, and his cop brother Joseph (Mark Wahlberg, doing his Departed character after anger management classes). Burt and Joseph don’t care much for Bobby’s lifestyle, and think the least he could do is help them infiltrate the Russian drug dealers who operate out of his club. Bobby would just as soon occupy his time snorting coke and shagging girlfriend Amanda (Eva Mendes). There’s a lot of talk about how “you’re either widdem or widdus,” but Bobby keeps his distance until a tragedy draws him back into the fold.

What transpires is an implausibly abrupt transformation in Bobby’s character, to say the least. Whatever Gray is trying to say about the moral struggle between the good life and the ties that bind, the point is ill-served by his eye-rolling plot developments. We Own the Night comes to life not in its tin-eared dialogue or heavy emoting, but in its suspense sequences: Bobby’s nerve-wracking infiltration of a drug warehouse, a tense manhunt through a Meadowlands marsh, and a visceral car chase through a blinding rainstorm. Whenever the action comes to a halt, Night slows to a brooding, somber crawl. It’s like The French Connection or Serpico played at half-speed.

Unwatchable Lives! For Now…

Later this week, the final Screengrab installment of Unwatchable will go online. (I won’t reveal the movie yet, but it looks like a doozy.) Is this the end of Unwatchable? Well, not quite yet. Although I have yet to find a new home for the feature, I have created a new home for it in the form of the Unwatchable blog. I’ll be putting up links to all the archived Unwatchable archives and then I will continue the countdown…but there’s a catch! I need your help! Which is to say, I need your money! Come on, you expect me to do this for free? I’ve received a couple donations already, and of course, you’re under no obligation. But hey, if you’ve enjoyed the series and you’d like to see it through to its completion, why not drop a buck or two in the tip jar?

Alex Cox, Emilio Estevez and Me

Somehow I ended up in the middle of a feud I didn’t think anyone would care about at this point. I guess feelings still run strong about Repo Man in a way I didn’t suspect. Here’s what happened: Alex Cox was scheduled to appear at the Alamo Drafthouse here in Austin last week, introducing his new film Searchers 2.0, the spaghetti western Arizona Colt, and his classic Repo Man. I interviewed him for Decider, and in the course of our conversation, he made some comments about Emilio Estevez dropping out of the planned Repo Man sequel Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday.

By the time my interview with Cox ran, he was already a no-show for the screenings, as I explained here. My guess is that Emilio Estevez has a Google Alert that notifies him when an article with his name attached is published (no shame in that – I have one myself). Anyway, Estevez emailed me the night the Cox interview ran, detailing his side of the story. I let my Decider editor Sean O’Neal know about the email, and was a little surprised to learn that he wanted to run it as a rebuttal to the Cox piece. Over the next few days, I negotiated with Estevez, who wasn’t sure if he wanted his email published; on the one hand, he wanted his side of the story out there – on the other hand, he didn’t want to come off as Mr. Sour Grapes.

After exchanging a few emails with him, it was clear that my powers of persuasion left something to be desired, so I emailed Sean O’Neal with Estevez’s email address in case he wanted to give it a shot. And I guess he was successful, because the response ran on Friday.

I dunno what the moral of the story is, but it sure was weird to be in the middle of all this. Maybe there’ll be a surprise reunion and that sequel will get made after all. But I doubt it.

Recycle Bin: The Kubrick Monoliths

(It’s Wayback Wednesday! Today’s entry comes from the late, lamented Shuffleboil. The archives are gone, but I’ve still got the t-shirt. By the way, since the time I wrote this, I have acquired the Twin Peaks Gold Box. So set your mind at ease.)

A few months ago, I had an gift card burning a hole in my pocket. My usual policy in these situations is to order something I want but would prefer not to spend my own money on. In this case, the item I selected was the then-newly released DVD box set of “Twin Peaks: The Complete Second Season.” I love “Twin Peaks,” and there’s some great stuff in the second season, but at least half the episodes are marred with irredeemable nonsense and a handful are nigh on unwatchable. Hence my reluctance to part with my own coin, but hey, on someone else’s nickel – why not?

Not even a week passed after the set arrived in the mail before I saw an announcement for the upcoming release of “Twin Peaks: The Definitive Gold Box Edition,” containing not only digitally remastered versions of every episode from both seasons, but the never before officially released pilot episode, along with a cornucopia of documentaries and deleted scenes. To this day, my second season set remains, like Laura Palmer, wrapped in plastic.

I mention this for two reasons. First, in the hopes that someone from Paramount Home Video sees this and sends me a free Gold Box to get on my good side. And second, as a segue into another edition of the Recycle Bin – a bin full of Kubrick in this case.

Stanley Kubrick movies are like Ted Williams rookie cards – they ain’t making any more of ’em. There are still plenty of Kubrick fans, however, so you’ve gotta sell ’em something. That’s the Warner Bros. philosophy, and Kubrick’s longtime studio has responded to this marketing challenge by packaging and repackaging the director’s existing work into a series of boxed sets.

The first such set appeared in the summer of 1999, scant months after Kubrick’s death and timed in a rather unseemly way to the release of his final film, “Eyes Wide Shut.” I say ‘unseemly’ because the set was not met with a particularly enthusiastic response from the filmmaker’s many devotees. The prints were reportedly shoddy, the extras nearly nonexistent, and the studio’s repeated claims that all of this was in accordance with Kubrick’s wishes rang hollow.

The ringing got even hollower when the set was re-issued the following year. This collection represented an upgrade on the first in several ways: it now included “Eyes Wide Shut,” along with a new feature-length documentary on Kubrick’s life and work. The no-frills “Dr. Strangelove” disc was replaced by a special edition, and new, vibrant prints of “Barry Lyndon,” “The Shining” and “Full Metal Jacket” gave the lie to the studio’s original assertions.

Still there was room for improvement. Besides the new features on the “Strangelove” disc, the only notable extra was Vivian Kubrick’s 35-minute documentary “Making ‘The Shining,’” a rare, fascinating glimpse behind the reclusive filmmaker’s curtain of secrecy. The most common consumer complaint involved the presentation of “The Shining” and “Full Metal Jacket” in full-screen rather than letterbox format. Again Warner Bros. insisted that this was Kubrick’s plan all along, pointing to the fact that the movies had been shot with an eye towards their TV afterlife. Apparently even the renowned visionary didn’t foresee the HD widescreen televisions of today. Still, this was the set available when I first entered the DVD age, and it served my needs as a lapsed Kubrick fanatic, if not all my heart’s fondest wishes.

Years passed and I didn’t think much about my old pal Stanley. Then one day recently a friend informed me that a present was en route to my world headquarters – the new Warner Bros. “Director’s Series: Stanley Kubrick” DVD collection. In keeping with my philosophy, this was the perfect gift – I could hardly justify buying another box set consisting of movies I already owned, yet the abundance of new supplements tantalized the dormant Kubrick buff within.

The new box doesn’t disappoint, nor does it render the previous version irrelevant. The most immediately noticeable difference is the absence of three movies: “Lolita,” “Strangelove” and “Barry Lyndon.” (There are already three DVD versions of “Strangelove,” most recently a 40th anniversary double-disc edition, but let’s not complicate this any further.) Of these omissions, “Lyndon” is the most curious; obviously the box is aimed at fans of the later, baroque Kubrick, and not the purists who insist he peaked with 1956’s “The Killing.” In fact, a single-disc edition of “Lyndon” was released simultaneously with the new box, but all reports indicate it is identical to the previous version. Maybe they’re holding back a spiffed-up “Lyndon” for yet another new-and-improved Ultimate Kubrick Platinum Collection in a year or so.

For now, though, let’s get to the goodies on the current set. The crown jewel is the double-disc edition of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” packed with oodles of juicy extras, including documentaries on the making of the film, its special effects and its enduring legacy. There’s also a bizarre clip of Keir Dullea foppishly reading a series of quotes from great thinkers on the possibility of extraterrestrial life. (Dullea and co-star Gary Lockwood also contribute a commentary track.) The most impressive find is an audio-only interview with Kubrick running more than an hour – it’s certainly the most extensive sit-down with the notoriously tight-lipped auteur available, almost like eavesdropping on his conversation at a cocktail party.

If I have one quibble, it would be that the documentary on the influence of “2001” cites only the most obvious cases. I don’t need any more “Star Wars” techies enthusing about the groundbreaking special effects; I’d rather hear about the film’s visual and textural impact on everything from “Twin Peaks” to “The Sopranos” to Terrence Malick’s “The New World.” Some mention of the ill-advised sequel “2010” and the peculiar, short-lived Jack Kirby comic book series would also have been welcome, but again, I’m nitpicking.

“A Clockwork Orange” gets the double-disc treatment as well, though the package of extras isn’t quite as lavish. A documentary on the film’s return to screens in England after an absence of nearly 30 years (Kubrick pulled it from circulation after several incidents of copycat violence) treads some familiar ground, but a 90-minute retrospective on the career of star Malcolm McDowell is more entertaining than you might think. Along with McDowell’s audio commentary (prodded by film historian Nick Redman), it’s a treasure trove of anecdotes on Kubrick and other matters, delightfully related by a master show-biz raconteur.

“The Shining” features Vivian Kubrick’s invaluable making-of film and a commentary from Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown, who provides more insight into the technical methods to Kubrick’s madness. “Full Metal Jacket” is a single-disc offering, with a perfunctory documentary (the same talking head interviews were chopped up and dispersed throughout the set, and by now they’ve run out of things to say), and a spliced-together commentary by Lee Ermey and Vincent D’Onofrio, among others. Oddly, both movies are now presented in widescreen, despite the earlier claims that Kubrick always intended otherwise. Apparently he is now relaying his wishes to the Warner Bros. brass through a medium.

Finally, there is “Eyes Wide Shut,” available now for the first time in its uncensored version. You may recall that the “orgy scene” from the original U.S. release was digitally altered, with strategically-placed figures blocking the more sexually explicit images. Now you’re free to enjoy the unobstructed writhing, heaving and grunting as Kubrick intended.

It’s probably worth mentioning that, somewhere among all these bells and whistles, the actual movies are included as well. Immersing myself in the dazzling, outsized imagery of “Clockwork” and “The Shining” once again, I thought back to my very first Kubrick collection – the one consisting of fuzzy, homemade second-generation VHS dubs. I brought those tapes with me to college, where they seemed to play on a weekly basis to a rotating cast of dorm mates. It was only 20 years ago, but the “Director’s Series: Stanley Kubrick” DVD box would have looked as alien and wondrous to us then as the monolith appeared to the ape-man Moonwatcher in “2001.” But time is speeding up, and today’s shiny new object is tomorrow’s obsolete paperweight.

Someday soon, though, all of this bellyaching will be irrelevant. You’ll simply step up to the giant entertainment-o-tron in your living room, tell it you want to watch “A Clockwork Orange” in whatever format you like, with the commentary of your choice, an ala carte selection of bonus features and a side of chili cheese fries, and it will happen. The studios’ endless attempts at repackaging the same material will finally be neutralized. The only thing you’ll never be able to get again is a new Stanley Kubrick movie.

Alex Cox Interview Outtakes

When I saw that Alex Cox would be visiting the Alamo Drafthouse to screen Repo Man and his latest, Searchers 2.0, I pitched a feature to the Decider: My five favorite Alex Cox movies that never existed. (Cox has a ton of unproduced screenplays on his site, some of which sound more interesting than movies he actually made.) That was the plan until word came through that Cox was available for an interview – so instead I asked him about those unmade movies. The interview is here. The disappointing tale of Cox’s no-show at the Alamo is here. And an exclusive right here for you – outtakes from the interview:

SVD: There’s one called Zero Tolerance, which you were writing with Rudy Wurlitzer (Two Lane Blacktop, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid).

AC: Zero Tolerance, that was great! It was all about drug dealing, the CIA, Oliver North, all of that – it was very pertinent. Still is very pertinent. Rudy Wurlitzer wrote that. I did a little bit of work on it, but it was mainly his script.

SVD: Do you think we’re far enough from the Contra war of the ‘80s to make it feasible to make now, or is it just something no studio would touch?

AC: One drug-fueled war goes out the window, another comes in. We could make it about the heroin trade in Afghanistan now. It’s doable. There’s always money to be made from drugs and films to be made about them.

SVD: Will this be your first visit to the Alamo Drafthouse?

AC: I’ve never been to Austin before. I know the Alamo Drafthouse guys because they do this thing called the Rolling Roadshow.

SVD: And that was a sort of inspiration for Searchers 2.0?

AC: That was the inspiration for the Searchers, because I went out to Monument Valley to see them show Once Upon a Time in the West, and it was so much fun. And then I went back a year later and saw The Searchers – the original. And then we hired them to come back out and bring the inflatable screen when we made the film. They brought out a whole bunch of trailers – spaghetti western trailers, stuff that Tim League liked. So we showed all these trailers of films and paid people to sit in the audience and watch them. It was quite cold, so I think we did that whole scene in about half an hour. It’s such an amazing location.

SVD: You mentioned spaghetti westerns and that’s sort of a passion of yours. You have a book on the subject.

AC: Yeah, I wrote a book on spaghetti westerns that came out yesterday, I think. I haven’t seen it yet. I’m still waiting for my copy to arrive.

SVD: And you’re showing one of those movies at the Alamo as well, Arizona Colt.

AC: Yes, they got a print of Arizona Colt, which is a very interesting film – an entertaining spaghetti western with a moral problem. Well, thank you very much. It’s been nice talking about these films that never were.