Movie Night With Urbaniak: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

“I’m now beginning to understand your appreciation of the genius of Schwarzenegger’s performance in Terminator 2.” —

, mid-way through Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is the perfect expression of commerce trying, and failing, to overtake artistry. The makers of Terminator 3 felt that if they hit enough “Terminator-related plot points,” presented in a new, interesting way and with a large enough budget, they would have another Terminator movie. But let’s not delude ourselves: Terminator 3 is the work of skilled, talented professionals and Terminator 2 is the work of a great artist.

Let’s start with the first act. The Terminator and T2 are both sterling examples of first-act construction: two strangers from the future show up and pursue the protagonist for different reasons and we don’t have the slightest clue as to who anyone is or what’s going on until the act break. In Terminator 3 the first act is bogged down with a ridiculous amount of exposition: it’s laboriously explained who everyone is, what they do for a living, who they’re related to, and why they’ll be important to the plot later on. Watch all three movies back to back as we have and the structural differences become shockingly clear. The Terminator and T2 have first acts that are surprising, shocking, thrilling and exceptional in their leanness and narrative thrift; Terminator 3 has a first act that seems very much of a piece with any generic action movie released in the past 25 years. Everything is spelled out and the story is tortured into an absurd shape in order to accommodate the demands of an uninteresting plot. John Connor is living “off the grid,” and just happens to wander into an animal hospital in the middle of the night, and the animal hospital just happens to be run by Kate Brewster, who just happens to be called in that night because of a lady with a sick cat, and also just happens to be both a one-time girlfriend of John Connor and the daughter of the US Army guy who will be responsible for activating Skynet and thus ending the world. To get all this crap across, we need scenes of Kate pricing wedding gifts with her douchebag fiancee, John breaking into an animal hospital to take pills for some reason, Kate calling her Army Guy dad in his Secret Headquarter Place, Army Guy Dad having bullshit discussions with his generic support staff about a Mysterious Computer Glitch, John threatening Kate with a paintball gun and then getting locked in a cage, and on and on and on.

(The animal hospital is destroyed and the woman with the sick cat is killed. We never hear what happens to the cat — there’s a mistake that never would have happened in a James Cameron movie.)

Now then: the action sequences.

Here is a cardinal rule of drama as I understand it: action arises from the desires of the story’s characters. “Action” may here be described as anything from a guy getting up from a table to fetch a beer from the refrigerator to two robots from the future duking it out in an abandoned steel plant.

When The Phantom Menace came out, George Lucas acknowledged that the Pod Race sequence was an homage to the immortal Chariot Race sequence in Ben-Hur. This is a perfect example of a writer-director misunderstanding the use of action.

The Chariot Race in Ben-Hur is, indeed, one of the most thrilling and technically sophisticated action sequences ever shot, but the reason it thrills in the context of Ben-Hur is because everything in the narrative up to that point has been building toward that chariot race. The first act of Ben-Hur is the story of two boyhood friends, one Roman and one Jewish, who love each other dearly but who are forced to become bitter enemies via the vagaries of law and race and heartless destiny. For over an hour we watch their relationship grow and be torn asunder, watch resentments grow and regrets harbored, a lifetime of loss and suffering unfolding before us, the narrative tension being screwed up into nail-biting levels. These two characters love each other and hate each other, and this chariot race is going to settle their differences for all time — it’s a life and death struggle we are heavily invested in, which is why each spill and crash in the famous Chariot Race sequence has thrust and devastating impact.

The Pod Race sequence in The Phantom Menace, on the other hand, occurs because the Jedi’s spacecraft needs a spare part. We care nothing about the Jedi’s spacecraft, we don’t believe that the spare part is important, we barely care about the Jedi’s problems at all, we don’t believe that this Pod Race scheme is the most likely plan for getting the spare part, none of it means anything. The race itself is an exhilarating exercise in staging, editing and special effects, but it has absolutely zero narrative impact.

James Cameron, regardless of any flaws you’d care to assign to him as a director, understands action like few other directors ever have, and all one has to do is compare either of the two truck chases in T2 with the massive truck-chase sequence in Terminator 3. Cameron directs his action with great intelligence, muscle, logic and heart — the characters’ desires conflict and give rise to the action, which flows naturally and with what I can only call humanity. You know where everything is in a Cameron action sequence, they have a sweep and inevitability to them and a sense of escalating stakes, not just escalating effects. You feel every crash, explosion and bullet wound because the action means something. The truck chase in Terminator 3 has been designed, staged and shot with great skill and imagination, but its effects come from nowhere, signify nothing and are there simply because they sounded cool in the story meeting. (“And you know what would be great? In the middle of the chase, what if the crane on the back of the giant truck turned sideways? And then a whole bunch of cars would go flying up in the air, and then, get this, it takes out a whole building!”) The makers of Terminator 3, like so many filmmakers before them, labor under the mistaken impression that audiences flock to movie theaters in order to experience production values.

(The action sequences in the Bourne movies are other stellar examples of action filmmaking. Because let’s face it, under normal circumstances, if someone attacks you with a knife in your apartment, that is, hopefully, a pretty big event in your day. The directors of the Bourne movies understand the startling impact of the simplest action beats — they ground them in a physical reality so specific that it feels like the bad guy is punching you instead of Bourne. They prove that, if you know what you’re doing, you can get more thrills out of a knife, a magazine and a toaster as you can with a flying robot and an army of commandos.)

The fight scene in the bathroom where the Terminator and the TX hit each other with sinks and toilets works quite well, has a logic and impact that the other sequences do not.

(Let me add here that I am a big fan of Jonathan Mostow’s earlier work, especially Breakdown, which climaxes with a wonderful car chase.)

Elsewhere, the script of Terminator 3 is glib and anecdotal when it needs to be epic and primal. The themes and conflicts introduced in the first two movies (fate, destiny, motherhood, fatherhood, manhood, so forth) are here expanded to “romantic love,” an attempt that leads only to lame comedy and unconvincing lovers.

Kristen Loken, who plays the Girl Terminator, plays her Evil Robot from the Future with smugness and and self-conscious sexiness, prompting the quote from Urbaniak at the top of the page. Schwarzenegger is okay in this movie, but he scowls a lot and his timing is off — he’s perfect in T2 but this script, while it has its moments, doesn’t serve his character well.

Even Schwarzenegger’s makeup is off in this movie — when his skin is burned away, it reveals what is supposed to be the metal skeleton beneath, but the “metal skeleton beneath” is obviously a latex appliance stuck to the actor’s jaw — it doesn’t move as the actor speaks, as it would if it were exposed jaw-bone, it just remains glued to the side of his face.

This observation prompted me to tell Urbaniak the one nice thing I have to say about Batman and Robin: surely one of the worst movies ever made, it nevertheless features an outstanding makeup job on Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, a dense, subtle frosting of blues and silvers, believable and evocative, topped off with silvery contact lenses that really help sell the character, as long as he’s not wearing his ridiculous Tin Man outfit.

(Discussion of Batman and Robin prompted Urbaniak to direct me to this, which I now direct you to.)

When Urbaniak and I watched Terminator 2 the other night, I had seen the movie at least ten times and it had never occurred to me before that the steel plant at the end of the movie was a set. But of course it is, the whole thing must be a set. In contrast, the Big Shiny Army Base that Army Dad works at looks absolutely like a set and like nothing else. You’d never guess for a moment that anyone ever worked in any of the offices or industrial settings of Big Shiny Army Base, another example of how Cameron wants us to believe that his fantastical characters are real and in genuine peril, while the makers of Terminator 3 wish to constantly remind us of how much money they spent on this thing.  Throughout the movie, you can feel the filmmakers working not from a script but a checklist — truck chase, check, gun cache, check, Dr. Silverman, check, sunglasses gag, check, redneck bar, check, end of the world, double check.  Mid-way through the third act, Urbaniak wondered aloud when someone would get around to calling the Girl Terminator a “bitch” before destroying her.  The movie obliged less than three minutes later.

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Update: evil robots, dirty cops,anxious Swedes and a neurotic Jew

My apologies for the recent lack of postings — I am finishing up an assignment and have been dealing with two kids over the moon about the arrival of Halloween.

I have little of interest to report — or perhaps, more accurately, I have little energy at the moment to report anything. However:

ITEM! [info]urbaniak and I watched Terminator 2: Judgment Day last night. I have little to say about this movie that hasn’t been said many times by many others. It has a screenplay of similar structure to the original (two mysterious strangers from the future show up, one wants to kill the protagonist, the other wants to save him, the first act is devoted to putting the pieces in place, the second act is about explaining the rules and catching the audience up to the action, the third act is about all the pieces coming together in a massive, bone-crushing action sequence) but vastly improved and with about a hundred million more dollars worth of production values. A pinnacle of American movie-making and James Cameron’s greatest achievement. I would also like to commend the two leads, Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger, both of whom turn in career-best performances that, for my money, stand next to another beauty-and-beast team from 1991, Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, for sheer effectiveness. Schwarzenegger is okay but a little clunky in the first movie, but he’s just spectacular in T2 — slimmed-down, poised and in total command of his movements and voice. Schwarzenegger gets a lot of stick for playing a robot but what he does in this movie is a lot more subtle, complex and nuanced than one would expect from the big guy. He was a special effect in the first movie but here he’s a real actor giving a real performance — and not hogging the camera, either. As for Linda Hamilton, she seems like a completely different actor than the woman in The Terminator. She tough, uncompromising, no-bullshit and impossible to take your eyes off of. I watch her in this movie and am baffled that she doesn’t have a career equal to her contemporaries. I guess there just aren’t enough roles written for women with rock-hard shoulders who want to play moms whose kids can help them load machine guns.

ITEM! While finishing my assignment, I’ve been taking breaks by watching Season 3 of The Shield. If you’ve never heard of The Shield, stop what you’re doing right now, run to your video store and rent the first season. The pilot of The Shield is not only the greatest pilot in television history, it’s the spearhead of some of the greatest dramatic writing I’ve ever witnessed. Show after show for six seasons, this show kept up a seething, scathing, furious boil of urban Jacobean drama. Astonishingly intelligent, jaw-droppingly intense and complex. When I see a movie these days, I don’t say “Is it as good as Citizen Kane,” I say “Is it as good as an episode of The Shield?” Michael Chiklis as Vic Mackie is one of the great television performances of all time, on a par with Carrol O’Connor on All in the Family, Peter Falk on Columbo and Hugh Laurie on House. The fact that Mackie is perhaps the most unpleasant character ever delineated on television makes it that much more compelling.

ITEM! Before he became one of the 20th century’s most important and enduring artists, Ingmar Bergman was a screenwriter, just like me! His first produced screenplay is called Torment (there’s a calling-card title if I ever heard one). The movie was directed by Alf Sjoberg, but oozes Bergman all over the place. Students of excellent screenwriting must, must, must familiarize themselves with Bergman’s screenplays — they are expertly balanced, classically structured, compact little gems that manage to plumb the depths of human desires and needs without making a big deal about it.

ITEM! Took my son trick-or-treating tonight in Santa Monica. Certain blocks north of Montana were as crowded as Times Square the night before Christmas and as garishly decorated. A splendid time was had by all and I had the pleasure of sighting Larry David making his way through the crowd. As a New Yorker, I am forbidden to approach a celebrity in the street no matter high my admiration for his work.

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Movie Night With Urbaniak: The Terminator

The Terminator perfectly embodies two crucial truths about motion pictures:

TRUTH 1. With a truly excellent script at its core, a movie can weather all sorts of strikes against it. TheTerminator sports some special effects that looked barely acceptable when the movie was released in 1984 and now look barely above the work of Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen, some occasional bad acting and generally cheesy, low-budget, badly-dated 80s production design. It still works beautifully because the script is tight as a drum and as compact as a Gremlin. Aspiring screenwriters, get out your notebooks and weep hot, bitter tears of envy as you behold the screenplay for The Terminator. Learn its lessons, go forth and do likewise and nothing will prevent you from wild success in filmmaking.

The motion of the narrative of The Terminator could not be more perfectly shaped. The first act presents all its players, tells us nothing about them except their actions, and sets them on an irreversible collision-course toward each other. There is no scene where the Terminator explains who he is, there is no scene where Reese pets a dog to make him “likable,” there is no scene where Sarah Connor complains to her roommate “look at me, I’m pushing 30 and I’m still working as a waitress! I’m such a mess, I’ll never get a guy or have kids! My life will never mean anything!” The Terminator moves implacably toward his goal, Reese moves implacably toward his, and Sarah gets caught in between. Once the characters all meet up, chase each other and exchange gunfire, they break apart for the start of Act II and we finally get a little information about who Reese is, who the Terminator is and why they’re doing all these crazy things. As the confusion lifts, solid, eternal themes emerge — destiny, fate, motherhood, fatherhood, the nature and purpose of humanity, all dealt with with a maximum of economy, grace and visual acuity. What Urbaniak calls “the moebius-strip nature of the time-travel movie” is intricately laid out in scenes that are heavily expository yet crammed with suspense and action, so that a 106-minute movie with a complicated backstory flies by in no time whatsoever. Events follow hard upon each other so that the story plays out over a matter of days, the few scenes of rest contain tidbits like a robot peeling off its face or a tutorial on building pipe bombs, the emphasis is on pursuit and jeopardy, sacrifice and honor. The love story, improbable as it is (two people meet, one a soldier from the future, fall in love, have sex and conceive a child, all within 24 hours, while being pursued by an evil, unstoppable robot) works because it stands as the inverse of the antagonist, a character who exists only to destroy.

TRUTH 2: Different narrative forms naturally lend themselves to different aspects of existence. The novel is ideal for presenting the inner lives of its characters, the play is ideal for showing people in a room talking and movies are ideal for showing large metal objects hurtling through the air. Or, to put it another way, novels are good for delineating thought, plays are good for presenting speech, and movies are good for displaying action. The action, however, cannot be action for its own sake. The lesser talents who followed James Cameron into the arena of “80s action movies” often did not share his intuitive sense of what constitutes effective action. An action setpiece in a movie is a lot like a song in a Broadway show. In a good Broadway show, the songs are memorable and powerful and also advance the plot, so that the narrative stakes at the end of the song are higher than they were at the beginning. In the bad Broadway show, the songs are “show stoppers,” big production numbers exuding spectacle and bombast, after which everyone goes back to doing exactly what they were doing beforehand. And so it is with the action movie. The excellent action sequence is a culmination of narrative, sharply expresses character, is innovative and surprising, uses location in a vital and thematic way, and serves as a plot turn without which the narrative is meaningless. The 80s and early 90s teemed with movies whose action sequences did none of these things. These movies are largely forgotten now, but the ones that remain, principally the Die Hard movies, the Terminator movies, Aliens, the first 80 minutes of The Abyss, and a few others stand as the fulfillment of not just action movies but as a genuine fulfillment of the potential of the cinematic form.

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Movie Night With Urbaniak: Network

Seeing Michael Clayton got me in the mood to watch Network again. Both movies have an inciting incident where the key player of a powerful organization goes nuts (and is played by a Brit playing American), both movies feature great actresses playing soulless, corporate monsters, and both movies imagine the corporate agenda easily including capital crimes. And asking

  to watch Network is like asking a puppy to chase a ball: he’ll do it all night long.

In 1996 I showed my wife The Godfather. She sat there in silence for three hours while the movie unfolded. Afterward, her response was not wonderment or appreciation but anger. She was livid at the notion that, when I was a teenager, I could walk down the street on a given day and see a movie like The Godfather. The very idea that such movies existed, and were common currency, made her profoundly angry that Hollywood had let her down as they had, that the distance between my age and hers was the distance between, well, between going to the movies and seeing The Godfather and going to the movies and seeing Tron.

(In the interest of full disclosure, let me add that I was too young to see The Godfather, or even The Godfather Part II in theaters. My formative moviegoing experiences were The Poseidon Adventure, Papillon, The Towering Inferno and Jaws. But I know what she meant.)

But to finally come to the point at hand, I do remember when movies were serious entities to be reckoned with, and I did know it was a special time. In 1976, Network was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar — against All the President’s Men and Taxi Driver. The winner was Rocky, but just think of that. Not just Network, but All the President’s Men AND Taxi Driver, ALL IN THE SAME YEAR. Think of that.

And I knew Network was special when I walked into the theater as a callow 15-year-old, and I knew it was well-written and well-acted.  (And I can still feel the electricity that went through the theater during the “Mad As Hell” scene.)  What I did not know, could not know, is that, 31 years later, it would only get better. What seemed like bitter, outrageous satire in 1976 is now revealed to be sober, clear-eyed reportage. Howard Beall’s mad rantings still sound clear as a bell 31 years later, and only the vocabulary of the issues has changed — the issues themselves are exactly the same. Gas prices, terrorists, corporate takeover of our news services, assassinations for the sake of ratings, the nations of the world becoming irrelevant in the face of monetary hegemony, everything is exactly the same — in some cases, the issues have actually come into clearer focus than they were in 1976.

There is a scene mid-way through the movie where they first reveal the new “Howard Beall Show” and we see that the show no longer looks like a news show at all, but rather some kind of television carnival complete with sooth-sayer, and my wife (who was watching with us for the first time) said “This is the first thing in the movie that’s over the top.” Then, seconds later, Beall began his rant about how television networks are being bought by media conglomerates who will broadcast the most outrageous bullshit imaginable and call it news, and her criticism evaporated. The Howard Beall show exists, it’s on the air right now, and it’s called Fox News. Who would say, now, that the conversations in Network, about giving terrorists their own TV shows, about assassinating news anchors for the sake of ratings, about staging wars and coups and crises for the sake of ratings, who would say now that these conversations are wild, bitter satire? If anything, the scenarios presented in Network don’t go far enough, seem relatively benign and comical compared to the stunning, sickening mendacity displayed every minute of every hour on Fox News.  Who would be surprised to find out that Fox news had knowingly put a certifiably insane man on the air for ratings, or covertly sponsored a terrorist cell in order to get first dibs on the coverage of their atrocities, or contemplated the killing of one of their own anchors to boost their market share?

(As an added note, let me just say that, in 1976, when they showed “UBS” as a fictional “fourth network” in addition to CBS, NBC and ABC, my inner bullshit-detector went off — a fourth network? That’s ridiculous! I thought. Then, the movie goes on to demonstrate how that fictional “fourth network” would necessarily rely on sensation, lies, betrayals and prostitution of ethics in order to gain a foothold in the marketplace — which is, of course, exactly how Fox got where it is. One can easily imagine Rupert Murdoch watching Network in 1976 and, electrified, taking notes. “Yes! My God! It could work! It could work!”

Urbaniak notes: “Could a movie be any better directed?” and indeed, the pitch of the direction of Network is nothing short of miraculous. The entire cast, not known as “comic actors,” all give great comic performances, because they utterly believe in the situation they’re in and play it as seriously and clearly as possible, letting the script take care of the funny. The world of television is brought to vivid life (the production design alone is incredible), the camera is restrained, passive and elegant, there is absolutely no score (as in Dog Day Afternoon, Lumet’s previous movie). The result is a movie of incredible anger, raw power and immense sophistication. They really do not make movies like this any more.

In a movie sprawling with great, great acting, from the leads to the smallest of character parts, there is only one false note. Ned Beatty (whom I love) appears late in the movie to deliver the Big Speech about how money is the only law in the world, and, frankly, he blows it. He “puts on a show” for Howard, coming on like a blustering buffoon, when the speech cries out to be delivered in the most silken, persuasive tone possible. That speech should chill your bones, make you come to a great realization, and instead it gets played for cheap comic effect.

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Movie Night With Urbaniak: Murder, My Sweet

  and I have this game that we’ve been playing for about 15 years now. It all began in a duplex apartment on 13th Street in NYC. I came up to him at a get-together and said: “Tom Cruise is the Clark Gable of our time.” Urbaniak thought for a moment, the gears visibly processing behind his eyes, and then said “Yeah. Okay.” And then we spent the next half-hour or so trying to link up the stars from the past and the stars of the present. Certain types keep repeating themselves in history, turning up in the same kinds of roles, displaying the same kinds of talents, pursuing their art in the same manners.

Murder, My Sweet is a 1944 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. Why is it called Murder, My Sweet instead of Farewell, My Lovely? Well, because RKO Pictures was worried that, with a title like Farewell, My Lovely people might think it was a musical. Why on earth did they think a silly thing like that? Because they made the bone-head mistake of casting fading musical-star Dick Powell as Phillip Marlowe.

This would have been a smashing, head-turning coup if Powell had suddenly transformed himself from affable, aw-shucks boy-next-door into a complex, weary, haunted detective. It would have made Dick Powell the John Travolta of his day, suddenly going from over-the-hill lightweight to crime-movie superstar.

But Powell has nothing going on inside his head. As Urbaniak notes, he’s incapable of simply doing something, he must physically “announce” that he’s about to do something, then advertise that he’s doing it, then congratulate himself for doing it. He doesn’t get angry, he “looks angry.” He doesn’t get rough with a dame, he performs the action of “getting rough with a dame.” He is such a dead-end in terms of inhabiting the character that we ended up spending much of the movie trying to imagine the circumstances under which he got the part. One scenario we came up with was that the director, the capable and efficient Edward Dmytryk, signed on thinking perhaps that Marlowe was being played by William Powell. “Hmm, yes, Bill Powell, that could work, yes,” mused Urbaniak in his best imitation of Dmytryk.

It’s a shame because the script is really good, bristling with all the twists and turns and vivid imagery we expect from the melancholy poetry of Chandler, the direction is crisp and clean, and most of the rest of the casting is wonderful, including Claire Trevor (the Virginia Madsen of her day), Otto Kruger (who would have made a great Bond Villain in another time) and Mike Mazurki (the Big Lug of his time). All these people play their scene effortlessly and with great wit and panache (required tools for Chandler).

Butfor us, a lot of the movie was spent trying to think of who the Dick Powell of today is. It’s a harder task than you might imagine — there isn’t room in today’s movie culture for affable, lightweight leading men. Urbaniak suggested Anson Williams at one point as a possibility, and I countered with Judge Reinhold, but that’s about as close as we could come. Stumped, I moved on to trying to figure out who, today, would be worse casting than Dick Powell in the role of Marlowe. Rick Moranis got a vote, as did Ray Romano and Tim Allen.

PS: One nice thing about watching a Raymond Chandler adaptation on DVD is that you can pause it whenever you want and try to figure out who the hell everyone is and what they’re talking about and who’s fooling whom and what who knows why.

RECOMMENDED: watching a whole bunch of Chandler adaptations and then watching The Big Lebowski. Many of the characters, sets and plot-points of Murder, My Sweet turn up in skewered, inside-out or upside-down versions in Lebowski and watching them in close proximity will help illustrate just how funny and inventive the latter movie is.

NOIR MOVIE NEWS: Urbaniak and I watched Chinatown a few nights ago, and the next night I happened to go see the new In the Valley of Elah. The movie is good but I couldn’t help notice that, somewhere in Act III, detective Charlize Theron gets her nose injured and spends about twenty minutes of the movie with a band-aid across it. The nod to Chinatown seemed too obvious to be a coincidence, but I had to wonder, was the band-aid put in as a joke by writer-director Paul Haggis, or did Charlize Theron insist on getting her face damaged in order to help sell her as a tough detective?

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Movie Night With Urbaniak: Chinatown

 , as you may know, has recently moved to LA. Like any bizzer who moves to LA, he has felt compelled to watch Chinatown. It’s like a trip to the LA History Museum, but entertaining, with sex and murder and incest, which is the way us Neo-Angelenos like our LA history.

I, being an ace Hollywood screenwriter, have watched Chinatown many times, mostly to unravel all the different plot threads. Last time around, for instance, I noticed for the first time that there are, in fact, two mysteries to be solved in Chinatown, which have nothing to do with each other, in spite of involving all the principle characters. There’s the one everyone remembers, about “the girl,” and then there’s the one about “the water thing,” which forms the bulk of the story, but which has nothing to do with the central murder. Chinatown, like any classic noir, is about a jaded detective who stumbles onto a case, which leads him to uncover corruption in the highest corridors of power. But along his way to cracking the first case, this detective also stumbles across a more interesting case. It’s like if the investigators of the 9/11 commission, on their way to investigating Osama bin Laden, found out that George Bush once had an affair with Larry Craig.

Which I’m guessing probably didn’t happen, but I’m wondering now how many hits my blog will now get just for me typing those words.

In any case, it was a change of pace, this time around, to watch Chinatown not so much for story but for the performances.

Our verdict: pretty damn good.

Thinking back over my personal experience of Jack Nicholson’s performances over the decades, and watching this movie on a scene-by-scene basis, I think I have to say that this is probably the best, most detailed, least affected, most well-modulated performance of his career. Just prior to this, Nicholson was a rising star, giving strong character performances in Carnal Knowledge and The Last Detail, and soon after this he gave his career-defining performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The “crazy Jack” performance came to its fullest fruition in The Shining, and then in the 80s he veered from character parts to ever-more “crazy Jack” performances, culminating in 1989’s Batman. But here in Chinatown he’s playing someone very close to himself, yet removed by time and profession. There isn’t a single moment where he calls attention to himself, showboats or plays a “character.” The result is a natural, self-possessed performance that lives and breathes, which is all the more spectacular when you consider that he’s playing one of the oldest roles in movies, the jaded, cynical LA private dick. Plot-wise and tone-wise, Jake Gittes is not too far down the road from Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, and yet Jake is a completely different kind of guy, neat and dapper, ambitious and funny, smart and inventive and nobody’s fool.

Faye Dunaway, on the other hand, seems to be playing someone completely unlike herself, and vanishes into the part. I watched her closely throughout, trying to figure out just what was so strange about her characterization, how different it is from her work in, say, Bonnie and Clyde or Network, how she manages to be so cold, so remote and yet still recognizably human and three-dimensional. Then it occurred to me that it might be her eyebrows, her plucked-out, painted-on eyebrows, such a specific period detail that it removes her character from the 1970s and places her forty years earlier, changes the shape of her face enough to remove memories of past performances, and gives the character the fragile, china-doll (china-doll!) look she requires.

John Huston plays the heavy with such easy grace and sureness, such attention to detail and such confident naturalism, you have no trouble believing that Noah Cross is capable of just about whatever whim crosses his mind. Late in the movie I suddenly thought of Touch of Evil and tried to imagine how Welles would have played Noah Cross, and how very different Chinatown might have played under those circumstances.

At one point in Act III there’s a scene with Nicholson and Dunaway in the front seat of a car. And he’s pressing her on something and she’s being evasive and wrought, and they’ve just had sex a few scenes before, and all the things that have been happening in the story are seeping in between the lines of dialogue, and the actors merge with their characters so completely and I just had to shake my head and think “You know, they really don’t make movies like this any more.”

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Movie Night With Urbaniak: One-Eyed Jacks

WHITE HAT: “Kid” Rio is a bank robber in Mexico. He steals gold, shoots people and is a pathological liar.

BLACK HAT: Dad Longworth is Rio’s ex-partner. He left Rio to rot in a Mexico prison when a robbery job went south. He took the loot, headed north, bought himself a wife, a daughter, a job (as sheriff, no less) and some respectability.

THE ETERNAL STRUGGLE: “Kid” is abandoned by “Dad.” Kid seeks revenge. The “lawless” savage is pitted against the “civilized” man-of-respect. The law is a disguise worn by smarter criminals, used as a cudgel against those who aren’t bright enough, or unprincipled enough, to take the money and run.

Kid’s revenge: to rob the bank in the city where Dad’s sheriff and murder Dad for leaving him.

On the way to his revenge, Rio decides to deflower Dad’s adopted daughter Louisa. In the course of the deflowering, Rio is suddenly turned from Max-Cady-like revenge machine to sincere, sensitive soul. Rio lies to get a leg over with Louisa, but by morning he’s confessed all his lies, and by the end of the movie he’s decided against revenge altogether. Such is the power of a young woman’s, um, heart.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION: Rare for a western, the city in question is Monterey, California. I don’t know why a western on the beach seems unusual, but it does.

WOMEN? There are two major women in One-Eyed Jacks. One is Dad’s Mexican wife (the Madonna), the other is his step-daughter (the virgin). There are also assorted garden-variety barmaids, prostitutes, senoritas and a contessa. Well, the movie is called One-Eyed Jacks, after all (apparently Penises was considered too on-the-nose). Oh, and the Mona Lisa is seen hanging over a bar.

THE STATE OF CIVILIZATION: No doubt about it, Rio escapes from prison to find that civilization is rotten to the core. Thieves put on stars and become law enforcers, hire buck-toothed yahoos for muscle, and use their position to protect themselves from their own guilty past. Rio (spoiler alert) is put through the ringer by this system, but finally figures out a way to escape. Trouble is, he must leave his love, and unborn child, behind, with only the promise to return. Which, given Rio’s luck through most of the movie, doesn’t look too likely. So it seems that civilization is so rotten that living in it is impossible, change only makes things worse. One can only flee. A very Brando attitude.

WESTERN CLICHE ALERT: Outlaws on the run through a desert, chased by a posse. Shootout on a high desert plain. Prison escapees chained at the ankles. Bank job goes south, leading to wasted lives.  Protagonist and antagonist switching sides of the law, the criminal becoming moral and the respectable man turning hypocrite.  Protagonist and antagonist break bread at the family table, and saying grace before dinner is used as a yardstick of measuring good, and hypocrisy. Protagonist tied to a hitching post and whipped in town square by antagonist.  Protagonist is the strong, silent, sly type, until he falls in love, then he becomes earnest, confused and talky, jabbering on and on about his childhood, his lack of direction, his treatment at the hands of the Mexican justice system.

NOTES:I was quite excited to sit down to watch a western directed by Marlon Brando, and was surprised to see that he didn’t seem to have any particular point of view on the material. The direction seems rather anonymous, workmanlike even, and occasionally there are even rookie technical blunders. There are few Brando-ish idiosyncrasies (although the movie opens with Brando sitting on a counter during a bank robbery, tossing banana peels onto a scales, which strikes me as a very Brando-esque way of introducing a theme), the acting is solid but unremarkable by his standards (although Slim Pickens shines as a thoroughly unpleasant sleazeball deputy), there are no daring stylistic moves. There is occasional wit in the screenplay (Dad: “How you doing, kid?” Rio: “Oh, I’m sneakin’ by.”)   The sets and lighting look standard-issue, and one prison set looks utterly fake even on the disastrous transfer currently available (see below).

Stanley Kubrick was the original director on the project and it’s hard for me to see what would have attracted him to the material — the story is told in a resolutely un-Kubrickian fashion (which may explain why he ultimately left).

In the course of the narrative, Karl Malden grows a moustache and suddenly looks like Mike Ditka.

The story is told in four acts: Act I, Rio and Dad rob a bank, get chased, Rio is abandoned and taken capture. Act II, Rio vows revenge on Dad and sets about it, planning a bank robbery and deflowering Dad’s step-daughter. Dad gets wind of all this, beats Rio mercilessly and drives him out of town. Act III, Rio licks his wounds and ponders what to do with the rest of his life. Act IV, Rio’s gang goes rogue on him, robs the bank, blows the job, Rio is arrested, escapes from jail, has a shootout with Dad, flees the country.

This structure makes the movie seem quite long. Generally, the action in a motion picture speeds up at the beginning of Act III as the characters’ motivations come into sharp relief and agendas clash, but here the action slows down to a crawl and the protagonist’s goals become fuzzy and confused.

I am told that Brando’s original cut of the movie ran over five hours and was greatly concerned with the shades of gray in all the characters’ lives. Touches of that ambiguity still remain, but as it is, One-Eyed Jacks seems very much like a typical early-60s studio product. The score, too, seems rote and uninspired. The movie was, apparently, a hit, but Brando disowned it and never directed again.

I’d like to note that the DVD Urbaniak and I watched, issued by an outfit calling themselves “St. Clair Vision,” is, by a long stretch, the crappiest DVD transfer I’ve ever encountered. I once wrote that the DVD transfer of Spielberg’s 1941 looked like it had been made by pointing a video camera at a TV playing an old VHS copy of the movie. Well, One-Eyed Jacks looks like it was made by pointing a video camera at a TV playing a VHS copy of the movie, through an aquarium smeared with petroleum jelly. The movie, which has apparently fallen out of copyright for some reason, can be watched in its entirety here, in quality no worse than what we’ve just watched.

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Movie Night With Urbaniak: Zodiac

In the late 1980s, I became interested in serial killers as I was working on my play One Neck. I read dozens of books on the subject, trying to tie them all together, trying to find a grand, unifying theory that would explain the actions of serial killers. Worst of all, I would need to approximate the mindset of a serial killer in order to write the antagonist of my play. This led me, as you can imagine, to some very dark places, places I found I do not like. My fascination with serial murder turned to revulsion and disgust. The more I learned about these guys (and they are almost all guys), the more I wished I could make it back to some plateau where I could un-learn all the things I had learned. Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, Ed Gein, Edmund Kemper, there was nothing “cool” or even very interesting about these individuals — they were monstrously sick, pathetically horrible men undeserving of the media space our culture, me included, have heaped upon their actions.

Of course, that didn’t stop me from writing my play, which later became a screenplay, which is now, twenty years later, becoming a graphic novel.

When the novel Silence of the Lambs came out, the reviews were so ecstatic, and I figured I’d best sit down and read it. It’s a terrific piece of genre fiction, but as a treatise on serial murder, it’s strictly fantasy. Likewise David Fincher’s magisterial Seven — cinematically brilliant, but conceptually koo-koo. Sorry folks, there’s no such thing as a serial killer with a grand scheme, a triumphal vision executed by a brilliant mind, murders loaded with puzzles and symbolism and cat-and-mouse games with the police.

Except, of course, that for a very long time, the Zodiac killer made it all seem possible. Letters filled with elaborate codes, taunting the police, taking credit for some murders but not others, creating a gigantic media frenzy that ensnared policemen, newspapermen and all manner of civilians from every walk of life.

In any case, I wrote my serial killer play, Silence of the Lambs was a huge hit and legitimized the genre, spawning a thousand serial-killer movies (Seven among them), and serial killers became ever-more brilliant, peculiar and fascinating. No serial-killer movie has ever captured the sick, sinking, thoroughly awful feeling I got reading the actual case studies of these thoroughly rotten, soulless people.

Until now.

It is altogether fitting that David Fincher, director of Seven, the slickest, most somber and and well-appointed of serial-killer movies, should return to the scene of the crime and make Zodiac, a movie completely opposite in tone and structure, that finally puts to bed the fantasy that movies like Seven help to create. Zodiac gets everything regarding serial murder completely right, and is, in every respect, a stunning, shocking, daring, visually sumptuous work of American filmmaking.

Just about anyone would have a good time watching Zodiac, but for anyone who knows something about how movies are made it is a non-stop feast of technique, prowess, and elegant sophistication. This is a 2 1/2-hour movie that could get by on production design alone, and yet that production design, far from being flashy or overwhelming, conquers expressly by not calling attention to itself.

(Strangely enough, the only piece of production design I could identify as being mis-handled was the posters for Dirty Harry shown in a theater lobby. Stranger still, Zodiac is co-produced by Warner Bros, so at least theoretically they could have located a poster for the movie. This bothered me for a long time until I decided that it must have been Clint Eastwood who didn’t, for whatever reason, want his name or likeness associated with Zodiac, in spite of Dirty Harry being directly inspired by the Zodiac killings.)

When I say the movie is “shocking” and “daring,” I mean that it shocks and dares in ways that no other Hollywood serial-killer movie would even consider trying. Fincher’s obsessive attention to detail, his compulsion to get everything exactly right, begins on the script level. Zodiac astounds by having its script flow in the opposite direction of conventional thrillers, where a collection of disparate, contridictory facts coalesces into a compelling case against the killer. Here, the case against the killer remains maddeningly elusive throughout — every time you think they’ve got the guy nailed, the evidence proves they’ve got the wrong guy. In the conventional Hollywood thriller, the “one man” prevails over a society of slackers and nincompoops — here, we have multiple protagonists who all try, and fail, in different combinations, to track down the killer, and in fact never succeed. Even All the President’s Men, which Zodiac pays conscious homage to, still had the cliche of a pair of mismatched detectives gathering the evidence that will bring down the bad guy — Zodiac goes even further, insisting that there were no mismatched detectives, no single defining moment of glory, no “follow the money” revelations. Because that’s not how these stories go. And yet Zodiac remains gripping, thrilling even, throughout its long running time (and I am told there is an even longer cut on the way).

Like Scorsese’s Casino, Zodiac shuns cliche and refuses simplification at every turn, taking a complex, multi-faceted, true story and tells it with all its weird, unique complications intact (or seemingly so — I haven’t read Robert Graysmith’s book Zodiac, but I did read the book Casino, and was shocked to learn that, as complex as the story in Casino is, the reality is at least three times more complex. It wouldn’t surprise me if Zodiac had been similarly, if expertly, simplified).

Anyone who’s ever been on a movie shoot cannot help but marvel at the monumental technique that Fincher wields at every turn. There are hundreds of scenes in Zodiac, some no more than a few lines of dialogue long, all requiring huge sets of exacting, lived-in detail, dozens of extras and sophisticated computer-generated imagery, all to make the movie feel like it was actually shot in the time period it is set in.  Fincher refuses to cut corners.  A car pulls up to a curb — what could be simpler? The shot lasts maybe a second. And yet the shot requires a street full of vintage automobiles, streetfronts either convincingly re-dressed to period or re-created on a soundstage, and buildings created in a computer to fill in the gaps created by the intervening 30 years of history. Repeat this process hundreds of times and you begin to see the magnitude of Fincher’s accomplishment here.

Even better is an overhead shot following a taxicab through the streets of San Francisco. The camera looks directly down upon the car, following it so closely as to appear to be bolted to it, even though it seems to be about 100 feet above. The taxi goes around corners and the camera moves precisely to follow it, showing that it’s not a helicopter shot — no helicopter could be so exact. Then one realizes that it must be all CG, a CG taxi traveling through a CG San Francisco, all rendered with an incredible attention to realism and detail. Over and over again, shots that would be routine in other movies, second-unit shots even, simple establishing shots, driving shots, night-time road scenes, on and on, Fincher gives each one an elegant, understated, technically sophisticated spin.

The imagination brought to bear on the technique of the movie extends to the casting, with a huge cast of actors giving great performances in roles that require them to talk on the phone, point to boxes, write things down and ask each other questions. There isn’t a single chase scene, gross-out or moment of fake suspense — all the scenes involving Zodiac are claustrophobic, sickening and distressingly real. Major stars are rendered impotent and irrelevant by the plot’s end, yet we believe every step of the way the characters’ drive,compulsion and obsession.

Speaking of obsession, early on in the movie

  made a joke comparing Zodiac to Close Encounters, which also used soundstage sets for convincingly real exterior locations. Later on, as the movie became about a man obsessed with a phenomenon to the exclusion of his family, the Close Encounters parallel became more startling. Especially as the character, through the writing his book, pushes through his obsession and, in his own way, gets invited up into the aliens’ spaceship at the end.

Hollywood has been very kind to audiences this year, and audiences failed to reciprocate.  Two of the year’s most brilliant, most spectacular, most sophisticated entertainments, Zodiac and Grindhouse, failed to find audiences.  When crap fills the multiplexes next year, audiences will have to accept part of the blame themselves.

A note on the transfer: Zodiac is one of the most handsomely shot movies of recent memory. It was, I am told, shot on high-definition video, which looked spectacular when projected digitally in theaters, and yet there is a peculiar digital shimmer, a moire effect, to any scene on the DVD with too many horizontal lines, at least on my high-definition projector. I am curious to know if anyone else out there has this problem. I know that Fincher is a maniac about the way his movies look, which is why it surprised me to see his most elegant, gripping movie rendered in this rather odd, substandard way.

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Movie Night With Urbaniak: A Streetcar Named Desire

Mr. [info]urbaniak came over to borrow my copy of Numbers, Season 2 and stayed to talk about A Face in the Crowd, which I had just watched earlier in the day, and then watch this earlier Kazan picture, A Streetcar Named Desire, solely for its landmark, breakthrough performance by Marlon Brando.

This movie is so bad.

Elia Kazan made some wonderful, wonderful movies.  Just a couple of weeks ago, Urbaniak and I watched his Viva Zapata, which was interesting all the way through.   And as I say, I watched his scathing, vivid, propulsive satire A Face in the Crowd just today.  Feels like a completely different director.  Streetcar is desperately uncinematic, directed with a leaden hand, terribly lit and hampered by one of the worst lead performances of all time by Vivien Leigh.

The plot involves Leigh’s character, Blanche, having her mind annihilated by Brando’s Stanley, but let’s face it, the movie’s true subject is Brando’s style of acting annihilating everything that Leigh’s generation stood for — show-offy, self-conscious, grandstanding, fake, ungenerous emoting.  She doesn’t stand a chance against Brando, who finds something interesting, unexpected, real, truthful and uninflected to do with every line and gesture he has.  Tennessee Williams’s dialogue is as purple as the day is long, and Leigh leans into the purpleness, wringing each of her long, tedious speeches dry with swooping, keening, whispering “drama,” while Brando just kind of takes the language at face value and plays against all the high-flown poetry, coming up with something much more interesting and vital.

Brando, of course, has ruined Stanley for every other actor who would choose to play the role — to take it on at this point is to invite catcalls and hoots of derision.  Blanche offers no similar forbidding challenge — Leigh is about as awful as an actress could be in this role.

In a way, I find every role in the movie miscast.  I don’t believe for a second that any of the actors are from New Orleans, new South, old South or any other kind of South.  They all seem to be either New York or Hollywood people to me, and one of the things Urbaniak and I did to keep ourselves amused while watching the movie was to think who we could cast today in the various roles to make a watchable movie.

We had a hard time coming up with a Blanche until I hit on the idea of Holly Hunter.  Holly Hunter would be fabulous in this part.  We spent a long time talking about how great Shirley Maclaine was in The Apartment and how she played a variation on Blanche in both Terms of Endearment and Postcards From the Edge.  Frances MacDormand would make a great Blanche — she and Holly Hunter could play Blanche and Stella in repertory, like Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly did in True West a few years back.  Urbaniak nailed the best possible Mitch by offering John C. Reilly, which I countered by suggesting Philip Seymour Hoffman as Stanley.  I couldn’t figure out why Bette Davis wasn’t playing Blanche in the movie — as long as you’re casting Scarlett O’Hara as a faded Southern belle, why not Jezebel?  Because Davis ended up playing something very close to Blanche in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? anyway.  Which brought us to Jennifer Jason Leigh, or Julianne Moore, or for that matter Jessica Tandy, who was in the Broadway production with Brando.  By the end of the evening Urbaniak was saying that any living actress would be better in this part than Leigh, then amended that statement to include all living women — “the girl at the counter at Barnes and Noble on the Santa Monica Promenade would be better than Vivian Leigh in this movie.”

Don’t get me wrong — Blanche is a great part and should, by all rights, make for a moving, heartbreaking performance.  But Leigh is an irritating bore from the second she walks onscreen, all tics and effects and calculated gestures designed to call attention to how “good” an actress she is — “Look how hard I’m working!  Aren’t I a great actress?”  She wears out her welcome fast and you can’t wait for her to get carted off by the loony-bin folk.

Next we’re thinking of watching Zodiac.
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Movie Night With Urbaniak: Death Proof

For Movie Night With

  , a rare treat: a movie in color starring actors who are still alive.

I saw Grindhouse three times in the theater, partly because I liked it and partly because, for the first time in a long time, I walked out of a big-budget American movie and didn’t know quite what to make of it — I didn’t actually understand what it was. It threw me completely off-balance, the structure of the thing seemed so odd and lopsided and peculiar. The first time around I was excited but baffled, the second time around I knew what was coming and loved it, the third time I started to actually put together the complexities that lay beneath the surface. For my money, Grindhouse is still the movie to beat for the American movie of the year.

That said, Death Proof works fine on its own as a stand-alone feature. It’s about 25 minutes longer, which may sound padded, even bloated, to someone who hasn’t seen the “extended cut,” but those 25 minutes actually make the movie breathe in a more natural, interesting way and include a number of suspense beats that weren’t in the theatrical version that help the movie work as a horror thriller.

Did I say horror thriller? That’s too limiting and gets to the heart of Tarantino’s accomplishment here. He starts out promising a horror thriller, a slasher movie precisely, but repeatedly and consistently upends and quashes your expectations until, by the end, you have no idea what might be comingnext.


So he starts off promising a horror thriller, then gives you this weird, off-center, booze-soaked chick flick. Or, as Urbaniak put it, “It’s amazing how accurately Tarantino gets across exactly how it feels to hang out in a bar all night.” And just when you’ve relaxed and about a half-hour has gone past in your chick flick, he reminds you that you’re watching a horror thriller — although you couldn’t be prepared for what kind.

In the slasher movie, the dumb teenagers head up to the secluded house by the lake and get picked off by the serial killer one by one. I once sat in a theater and timed one of those movies, and a teenager died, literally, every 11 minutes — about once a reel. You could set your watch by it. Tarantino introduces his comely young things, then tells us he’s making a slasher movie, then has us wait for about 45 minutes until anyone gets killed. Like Stuntman Mike, the audience is kept in a state of frustrated desire, and Tarantino keeps us there so long that when the shocking, unspeakable horror finally happens, you really don’t want it to happen any more. He takes the conventions of the slasher movie, the dumb kids who deserve to get killed, and turns them into human beings whose deaths are ugly, tragic and truly horrifying. You start out liking Stuntman Mike because he’s a movie geek like you (and like Tarantino) and you’re just aching for some action, then he gives you the action and you feel sick to your stomach because you realize that identifying with Stuntman Mike implicates you in the murders, and not in a fun way.

Then, with his movie halfway done, he starts the whole thing over again. Another group of women, all having the exact same conversations as the first group, being stalked by Stuntman Mike again. The difference is, this second group is also a group of movie geeks, which is what makes them more than Stuntman Mike bargained for. In Death Proof, being a movie geek is literally the difference between life and death, between dying and killing.

Then, again, just when you’re getting used to the movie being a horror movie, he goes and pulls the same trick again, and it becomes a chick flick again, except these chicks eventually stop talking about men and start talking about cars and stunts. And the adventure they head off on is so peculiar and singular that, by the time Stuntman Mike shows up again, Tarantino has, somehow, made you forget all about him again, so that his re-appearance is yet another surprise. With the simplest of tools in a movie with very few, very long scenes (some go on for ten minutes or more), Tarantino manages, again, to construct something very deceptive, unique and unexpectedly deep and convincing.

Urbaniak says “Stuntman Mike is a man out of time. His way of life is over (no one knows about the TV shows he was on, and no one makes car-crash movies the way they used to), and he wants to destroy the world.” And that’s one level of Death Proof, but there’s more to it than that. “It’s weird, because on the one hand it feels like a very minor work,” says Urbaniak, “but on the other hand he’s really pushing the envelope, making a movie that is so unreal, so full of devices, so much a movie about making movies, but on the other hand he’s making a real thing about the human condition. It’s almost like a French New Wave movie, a movie made in reaction to and critiquing Hollywood movies, and yet also saying something new and fresh and interesting on its own. There’s something very Godardian about it, how he’s both in love with these conventions and trying to subvert them at the same time. It’s utterly full of artifice and yet completely real.”

For me, my favorite level of Death Proof is the parts about the objectification of women. It was a great joke in the Grindhouse cut when thelap dance was deleted with a “REEL MISSING” message, since the movie spends a great deal of time building up to that lapdance and then chides you for being upset when it goes missing. Well, the lap dance is back in the movie for the DVD and while I miss that joke, the lapdance scene does help build the sexual tension. Stuntman Mike photographs the women he kills, and Tarantino makes explicit the connection between Stuntman Mike’s view of women and Hollywood’s view of women both by constantly fooling with our notions of how the female characters are “supposed” to act, and then for the ending credits, inserting the vintage “color test” frames on the vamps of the insanely catchy closing song “Chick Habit” (chick habit, indeed). Film, Tarantino seems to be saying, exists to objectify women — no color test frame ever included a photo of a handsome man. He teases and cajoles us with his parody/tribute to objectified women of movies gone by, then gives us a group of women who refuse to play by Hollywood rules.

Tarantino is the George Cukor of the 21st century — who knew?

There’s more to say, there generally is about a Tarantino movie, but it’s late. Let me just add that the day after I saw Grindhouse I went to my local video store to rent Vanishing Point, one of the classic car-chase movies cited within Death Proof, but the clerk just scoffed at me — “Dude, you picked the worst day in history to try to rent that movie.” That was five months ago, and Vanishing Point hasn’t come back in yet.

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