Friday, March 31, 2017

Review: Under the Bright Lights

Under the Bright Lights Under the Bright Lights by Daniel Woodrell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jewell Cobb is a small town Louisiana boy who has come to the city with dreams of making it big in crime, and he gets hired to kill a crooked politician. Detective Rene Shade grew up on the streets he now works, and he knows every lowlife around. His own brother runs a bar so shady that Rene can ruin business just by walking in the place and scaring off the customers. As Shade tries to run down Cobb and figure out what’s behind the gang violence things get messier than trying to eat a bowl of gumbo without a spoon.

This is Daniel Woodrell’s first book, and it’s the start of a trilogy he’d do featuring Rene Shade. It’s a short and snappy piece of work that focuses on vivid characters and colorful atmosphere that includes smoky pool rooms and swamps. It’s not nearly as good as Winter’s Bone, but it shows off Woodrell’s talent that he’d continue to develop over his career.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

47 Movies - The Director's Cut

Picking one favorite movie for every year of my life required a lot of deep soul searching.  Here’s the finalists along with some random silly thoughts about why I chose each particular one.  I ranked each year in descending order.
1970 – Patton
Kelly’s Heroes
I was born into war!  Or at least born into war movies because all three I considered here are war flicks. I’ve only watched MASH entirely a few time so it didn’t seem to fit the criteria of favorite.  Kelly’s Heroes is a great twist on a war flick done as a heist with a fun cast of kooky characters, but that awesome George C. Scott’s speech in front of a giant American flag tips the balance.
1971 – The French Connection
Dirty Harry
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
Two cops and a crazy candy maker in competition here, and Popeye Doyle wins by driving like a maniac down the gritty streets of ‘70s New York.
1972 – The Godfather
The Getaway
Would I really pick anything else?  The Getaway is a classic '70s crime fim, but I only considered it for a hot second before bowing to reality.
1973 – The Exorcist
The Sting
Enter the Dragon
Bruce Lee made a strong case with the sheer force of his martial arts skill and screen presence, but how can you top Newman and Redford conning Robert Shaw during the Great Depression?  Why, only the devil himself could do that!
1974 – The Godfather Part 2
Blazing Saddles
Again, it’s pretty much impossible to go up against the combo of the first two Godfather movies. It’s a testament to how strong Godfather is that both Blazing Saddles and Chinatown could be my #1 pick in a lot of other years.
1975  - Jaws
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Jack Nicholson needed a bigger boat to win this one.
1976 – All the President’s Men
The Bad News Bears
As someone who grew up in the ‘70s when parenting and child safety standards were a bit different than today I still get a huge laugh out of Walter Matthau giving beer to foul-mouthed children, and who could root against Rocky Balboa?  Still I slightly prefer the true story of dogged reporters taking down a corrupt president.  Ah, the good ole days…
1977 – Star Wars: A New Hope
Smokey & the Bandit
Star Wars was always going to be my pick, but that Trans Am was pretty cool.
1978 – Halloween
National Lampoon’s Animal House
Dawn of the Dead
Full confession: Animal House would have been the favorite at an earlier point in my life because it’s one of those movies that I could pretty much quote from start to finish thanks to watching it a few thousand times in the ‘80s.  However, the appeal of frat boy behavior has faded.  So instead I’m giving the nod to a deranged mass murderer in the mask instead.  And I still think of zombies whenever I somehow find myself in a mall.
1979 – Apocalypse Now
The Jerk
North Dallas Forty
This one was tougher than I expected.  I’ve got a huge soft spot for the dingy ‘70s atmosphere that surrounds a cynical and battered Nick Nolte, and if I had a nickel for every time I’ve said, “He hates these cans!” I could retire.   A chest bursting alien is also pretty good, but it still doesn’t smell as good as napalm in the morning.
1980 – Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
The Shining
The Blues Brothers
Yet another time where comedies that I’ve quoted an unhealthy amount of times just can’t overcome superior completion, and Nicholson really could have used a dead Tauntaun when he was in that hedge maze.
1981 – Raiders of the Lost Ark
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior
Escape From New York
Two tough dystopian warriors and Bill Murray with a military grade RV still can’t take down one archaeologist with a whip.
1982 – Star Trek 2: Wrath of Khan
48 Hrs.
Blade Runner
This was an incredibly tough pick between two of my favorite sci-fi classics and a great buddy action/comedy, but only Wrath of Khan can still make it seem dusty in my living room at the end.
1983 – WarGames
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
The Right Stuff
National Lampoon’s Vacation
Star Wars could have had a three-peat here if not for the Ewoks, and while the Mercury astronauts may have had the right stuff what they didn’t have was a computer that could talk and destroy the world.  The moose should have told the Griswold family that this pick was closed.
1984 – Ghostbusters
The Terminator
Romancing the Stone
If Terminator had come out a year sooner it could have easily taken out geeky Matthew Broderick, but not even a murderous cyborg and the charm of Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in their ‘80s prime is enough to overcome a Twinkie this big.
1985 – Fletch
The Breakfast Club
Real Genius
Yes, Real Genius was one I seriously thought about just because I’ve seen it even more than Back to the Future.  Which I like just fine but I don’t have the deep love that some people do so I’ll have to rely on Breakfast Club’s honorable mention to save my ‘80s street cred.  Fletch was the easy choice here.
1986 – Aliens
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Stand By Me
The recent death of Bill Paxton reminded me just how many times in my life I’ve said, “Game over, man!  Game over!”
1987 – Full Metal Jacket
Raising Arizona
Princess Bride
The Untouchables
Planes, Trains & Automobiles
Lethal Weapon
1987 was a helluva movie year, and it’s the first one that I really struggled with because of the sheer number and variety of candidates.  How do you compare Full Metal Jacket to The Princess Bride?  Or Predator to Planes, Trains & Automobiles? In the end it came down to my memories of seeing Full Metal Jacket in a packed theater and walking out with a crowd just as stunned and silent as I was.
1988 – Die Hard
Bull Durham
The greatest action movie ever made steamrolled the minor league baseball team even though I still call anyone who is moving too slowly to suit me a lollygagger.
1989 – Major League
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade
Say Anything
Lethal Weapon 2
I was fairly shocked that Batman wasn’t #1 with a bullet since I saw that movie four or five times in the theater and wore out a VHS copy of it back in the day.  Yet, I eventually started criticizing it more than enjoying it and hadn’t seen it many years.  A recent viewing didn’t do much to boost it in my eyes either.  I’m even more shocked that I put Major League in first place of the box scores here, and it’s probably one of my few real offbeat choices.  Still, it hits the criteria of being the one I’ve probably seen the most, and I will almost always watch it again if I come across it on TV.
1990 – Miller’s Crossing
Total Recall
This was an upset that happened after a lot of careful consideration.  Total Recall is goofy fun but never stood a chance with these two heavyweights.  Goodfellas is a fantastic flick that would win almost any other year, but Miller’s Crossing has a special place as my favorite Coen brothers’ movie. I also love the story and setting which were influenced by Hammetts’s Red Harvest.  So after looking in my heart I decided that it had a slight edge.
1991 – The Silence of the Lambs
Terminator 2: Judgement Day
The ‘90s are almost nothing but hard choices on here, and it's two of my all-time favorites head-to-head. Hannibal gets the win just because it’s a great adaptation of a book I also love.
1992 – Unforgiven
Reservoir Dogs
Tarantino’s first work against Eastwood’s best?  The crusty veteran takes the prize, but it was close.
1993 – Groundhog Day
The Fugitive
It’s cold out there, campers.  So cold that I gotta cut movies like The Fugitive and Tombstone.
1994 – Pulp Fiction
The Shawshank Redemption
Another near impossible choice here.  Speed is a distant third even at 50 mph, but there’s no shame in that with this kind of competition.  I just can’t go against Pulp Fiction here, but Shawshank made it tougher than I thought it’d be originally.
1995 – Seven
The Usual Suspects
This is where I very nearly threw in the towel on my rule about not having any ties.  These are three movies that would probably rank in all-time top twenty so cutting two is particularly cruel.  As with 1987 the tie-breaker came from the stunned audience reaction to Seven in the theater that got it the top spot.
1996 – Fargo
Star Trek: First Contact
Finally, an easy pick from the ‘90s.  First Contact is great, but Jean-Luc Picard has to take a backseat in Marge’s police cruiser.
1997 – LA Confidential
Jackie Brown
Sweet bloody Christmas, but this is another heart breaker.  Two fantastic crime movies based on two fantastic crime novels from a couple of my favorite crime authors?  It’s just not fair.  LA Confidential squeaked ahead because I think it’s just a tiny bit more enjoyable to watch.
1998 – Saving Private Ryan
The Big Lebowski
Out of Sight
Once again it’s three movies that would rank highly among my all-time greats.  I hate to slight an Elmore Leonard adaptation for the second year in a row, but Out of Sight just can’t hang in there with the other two. In almost any other year Lebowski would bowl a strike, but Tom Hanks and his squad once again defeat the Germans.  Sure, they’re just nihilists, not Nazis, but the results are the same.
1999 – Fight Club
The Matrix
This is getting goddamn ridiculous.  But we all know what the first rule of Fight Club is: Don’t tell Neo about Fight Club because he’d just cheat by showing up with a bunch of kung-fu moves he downloaded. And if Neo doesn’t know about it then he can’t beat Tyler Durden.
2000 – Memento
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
The Way of the Gun
Finally a choice that doesn’t make me break out in a cold sweat.   Way of the Gun is a crime flick that only about thirty people in the world have ever seen, but it’s one I return to again and again.  Ang Lee’s film is gorgeous violent poetry, but the structure of Memento is something that can only be experienced, not explained.
2001 – LotR : The Fellowship of the Rings
The Royal Tenenbaums
Ocean’s 11
There’s no better way of symbolizing the shift from ‘90s crime dramas to 21st century sci-fi spectacle than the first Lord of the Rings movie.
2002 – The Bourne Identity
LotR: The Two Towers
I loved Spider-Man, but the CG hasn’t aged well and the Green Goblin’s mask is still stupid.  The forgetful spy holds Helm’s Deep against the Orcs.
2003 – X-Men 2
LotR: Return of the King
Kill Bill Vol. 1
And here we have my first comic book movie winning out.  It won’t be the last.
2004 – Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
Kill Bill Vol. 2
Shaun of the Dead
The Bourne Supremacy
Spider-Man 2
Will Farrell kept his head on a swivel during this fight that escalated quickly.   
2005 - Serenity
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
Batman Begins
Another oddball pick, but if loving a movie based on a short-lived TV show is wrong then I don’t wanna be right.
2006 – Casino Royale
Inside Man
Bond.  James Bond.  
2007 – There Will Be Blood
No Country for Old Men
Here we are back again with three amazing movies and a choice that will seem flawed no matter what I do.  If you asked me to do this pick three times I might pick a different one for each round depending on my mood at the moment, but for now Daniel Day-Lewis wins the showdown and drinks my milkshake.
2008 – The Dark Knight
Iron Man
I really should have thought about this no ties policy harder because it’s two great comic book characters going head to head in movies that would set the stage for the next decade. DC gets the pick thanks to Heath Ledger’s amazing performance as the Joker and Christopher Nolan’s top notch film making skills.  However, while Marvel lost this particular battle they’ve been winning the war ever since.
2009 – Star Trek
Inglourious Basterds
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Some really strong choices here, but I simply love this reboot of classic Trek.
2010 – Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
True Grit
Anyone who doesn’t have tragically Canadian sensibilities recognizes that this is the clear pick.
2011- Moneyball
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
Tom Cruise hanging off a skyscraper is fun, but not as much fun as watching arguments about compiling baseball stats.  I like this movie so much that I actually root for the A’s over my own Royals while watching it. (But only in this movie.)
2012 – The Avengers
Django Unchained
Moonrise Kingdom
No real contest despite some stiff competition.  It's pretty much how it looked in my head when I’d read Avengers comics as a kid so what more could I ask for?
2013 – Pacific Rim
This is the pick that I’m the least happy with.  I enjoyed Pacific Rim, but it’s got problems. Same thing with Gravity.  I suspect that Snowpiercer might one day claim this spot, but I need to see if it passes the multiple viewing test first.
2014 –Guardians of the Galaxy
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The Grand Budapest Hotel
John Wick
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Yes, it’s another one based on comic books, but when you combine that with space adventure, great action, a fun cast, a catchy soundtrack, and a heavily armed talking raccoon you get a movie that I think has high potential to remain one of my all-time favorites for many years to come.
2015 – Mad Max: Fury Road
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The Martian
I’m a little surprised that I didn’t go with the return of Star Wars because I did enjoy the hell out of that movie, but there is just something about the look, pace, and action of Fury Road that make me lean in its direction.  Poor Matt Damon will just have to keep eating potatoes by himself. 
2016 – Captain America: Civil War
Dr. Strange
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
More comic books and Stars Wars.  I’m sensing a trend here.  However, I don’t have the same level of enthusiasm for this as the other comic book picks. Plus, there’s still a lot of well-regarded movies from 2016 that I haven’t seen yet so it’s very possible that there will be some shifting around once I do some catching up.

47 Movies

This idea about picking your favorite movie for every year of your life has been going around, and one of my friends posted hers. Since I’m a jerk I felt the immediate need to ridicule a couple of her choices so in the interest of fair play I created my own list which she can mock.
What started out as a goofy time waster actually turned into something more interesting as I put it together. There is a good chunk of mine that would appear on almost any critic’s best of the 70s-90s list, and a lot my choices are painfully obvious.  (On the other hand was I really gonna get cute and say that The Godfather wasn’t my favorite movie from 1972?)  Things get a little weirder after 2000 though, and I started thinking about whether it was me or the movies that changed.  The answer: Yes.
It also forced me to really think about what my ‘favorite movie’ meant.  Favorite isn’t necessarily the best, and I have several choices where I freely admit that there were better made and more meaningful movies available.  They just weren’t the ones that I enjoy watching the most.  
Still, we all like to think that we’ve got good taste, and if my fave won that year’s Best Picture Oscar then I feel validated.  Or if one of my picks was a huge blockbuster that has remained in the public consciousness I can also justify it. However, the flip side of that is that I would start to worry about what the choices I was making would people think about me.  Didn’t I want to be hip and have some offbeat picks?  Did I want to seem lowbrow and admit how many comic book movies I really love?  The natural tendency is to start reviewing your choices and start tailoring them to project the image you want.
I tried to fight this by setting a couple of rules for myself.  First, I stuck to one a year.  No ties allowed because I found that if I had a bit of wiggle room I started adding in a critical indy darling along with the big blockbuster to show how much range I have as a person.  Second, I asked myself what was REALLY my favorite. Not the ones that I think are great movies, but that I've only seen once or twice. Instead what was actually the one for every year that I’ve watched countless times already and will still stop and watch it if I come across it while flipping channels?
There’s a few off years when the movie I chose probably wouldn’t make a straight up list of my favorite 47 movies, and there’s several years like 1995 where I had to cut several that would definitely be among my all-time greats.  By sticking to the rule of one per year it forced me to be honest, but the arbitrary nature of the format introduced an X factor that kept it from always being obvious choices.
And the winners are:
1970 – Patton
1971 – The French Connection
1972 - The Godfather
1973 – The Exorcist
1974 – The Godfather 2
1975 – Jaws
1976 – All the President’s Men
1977 – Star Wars: A New Hope
1978 – Halloween
1979 – Apocalypse Now
1980 – Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
1981 – Raiders of the Lost Ark
1982 – Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan
1983 – WarGames
1984 – Ghostbusters
1985 – Fletch
1986 – Aliens
1987 – Full Metal Jacket
1988 – Die Hard
1989 – Major League
1990 – Miller’s Crossing
1991 – The Silence of the Lambs
1992 – UnforgIven
1993 – Groundhog Day
1994 – Pulp Fiction
1995 – Seven
1996 – Fargo
1997 – LA Confidential
1998 – Saving Private Ryan
1999 – Fight Club
2000 – Memento
2001 – Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
2002 – The Bourne Identity
2003 – X-Men 2
2004 – Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
2005 – Serenity
2006 – Casino Royale
2007 – There Will Be Blood
2008 – The Dark Knight
2009 – Star Trek
2010 – Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
2011 – Moneyball
2012 – The Avengers
2013 – Pacific Rim
2014 – Guardians of the Galaxy
2015 – Mad Max: Fury Road
2016 – Captain America: Civil War
So what does this say about me?  The obvious conclusion here is that I’m a middle-aged nerd with a taste for crime, action, sci-fi, and comic book movies with a few other things like war films and comedies sprinkled in here and there.  I’m also sure that a cinema snob would look at this list and lament that it illustrates how film has fallen steadily downhill since the days of The French Connection and All the President’s Men to the point where 3 out of my last 5 picks are Marvel comic book movies.
It’s true that my list seems to go from the true classics to giant blockbusters, but I also think that part of this is the natural filter that occurs over the years.  I didn’t go see The Exorcist in the theater when I was three years old.  I caught it years later because it’s a classic that has stood the test of time. That’s why my ‘70s list is pretty much nothing but well known critical darlings. There’s a similar filter on the ‘80s and ‘90s stuff where I was going to the movies, but I’ve had twenty or thirty years of re-watching these too so that I know what’s worn the best.  It's no real surprise that the better regarded and well known movies are often the ones that I still enjoy the most.
So it stands to reason that the recent ones are less ‘refined’. (For lack of a better word.)  As an example, I’ve only seen one of 2016’s Academy Award nominees for Best Picture, and that was Arrival.  I liked it a lot, but I’ve only seen it once so I can’t really say that it’s passed the long term favorite test so far.  Yet, I have seen Captain America: Civil War several times already because I’ve already got the Blu-ray, and it’s been out on Netflix for a few months.  So I’ve already established that I will go back to it, and that’s why it’s my pick at the moment.  Maybe I’ll watch Arrival twenty times when it hits cable and change my mind, or maybe something like Moonlight will eventually work its way to that level the same way that it took a decade for There Will Be Blood to become the favorite of 2007 over No Country for Old Men and Zodiac which are two movies I love that seem a lot more typical of me based on the other choices. 
Of course, there’s also just the fact that I’m a big comic book nerd, and that we’re living in a time where the technology can make those movies work.  They’re also the big moneymakers at the moment so that’s where a lot of the resources are going, and I can only like the movies they make. Again, we’re in the middle of this trend so it’ll probably be a few years to see if my enthusiasm for them holds or shifts to other things.
It does look like my list functions as a high level overview of trends in Hollywood.  The ‘70s were full of groundbreaking films in several genres, but the modern blockbuster was invented with Jaws and the first Star Wars.  That led to the ‘80s being all about trying to repeat that formula, and they had a lot of success while doing so.  However, things changed to a more cynical view in the ‘90s which you certainly see on my list where even the comedy I picked during that decade is about Bill Murray being trapped in a version of hell.  Since the turn of the century things have cycled back to be about escapism and spectacle.  The golden age of television that started about then have also shifted the dynamics with best drama and characters now on the small screen while trips to the theater are primarily saved for the big splashy movies that justify the cost and hassle of leaving my living room.
If you’re not tired of my navel gazing about this list I’ve also posted a version with the other finalists and some notes about them here.