Friday, October 29, 2004

The Spanish Prisoner

"We must never forget that we are human, and as humans we dream, and when we dream we dream of money..."

The Spanish Prisoner is an old confidence game. The con itself stems from the 17th century, but its application is timeless. The con-artiste tells the woeful tale of how their employer/benefactor, whom is very powerful/influential is being held captive in Spain under an assumed name. The employer/benefactor cannot escape, nor can they reveal their true identity, accept under the penalty of severe pain/anguish/death. And so it has become our woeful friends duty to gather sufficient funds to ensure their employer/benefactor's release. At this point in the telling, the con subtly makes it clear that if the victim (or mark) were to front the money for their benefactor's release, that they would incur a great reward. Once the con has ascertained the money for the prisoners escape, the situation will over time become more and more difficult as other events delay the prisoners release, and thus the mark is slowly bled of all their cash.

David Mamet's variation on the Spanish Prisoner is exquisite. Long known for his handling of language, Mamet's films (even About Last Night... , which was based on Sexual Perversity in Chicago) stand out for the dramatic contortions his protagonists go through because of their perspectives on trust. And trust is central to all cons.

Campbell Scott portrays researcher Joe Ross. A middle of the road numbers-cruncher who leads the simple life, but that's about to change. The film opens with Joe, his partner George Lang (played by illusionist Ricky Jay), the new receptionist Susan (played by Mamet regular Rebecca Pidgeon), and their boss arriving on a tropical isle, on business of course. It is here that we learn that Joe and George have developed "The Process", a McGuffin of the highest order, which will serve to make all involved rich. From here we begin to see Mamet formulate the entanglements of business, as Joe begins to get concerned over whether he will justly profit from his labor. It is at this vulnerable point that Joe witnessing something, or does he? In either case, his wandering eyes have led him to Julian "Jimmy" Dell (expertly played by Steve Martin), and to the quandry central to The Spanish Prisoner.

Tidbits:

  • Rebecca Pidgeon is David Mamet's ex-wife.
  • Ricky Jay is an expert magician, raconteur of the strange, historian, and film-advisor.
  • Ricky Jay is beheaded in an episode of the X-Files.
  • Ricky Jay is world famous for throwing ordinary playing cards across a room and into watermelon. Take that Gallagher!
  • Joe's boss, played by Ben Gazzara was Jackie Treehorn in The Big Lebowski.

Recommendations:

If you liked:

  • Mamet's use of the McGuffin, and cons. See any of his films. It ain't Hitchcock, but its as close as we can get nowadays, and there is cursing!
  • Mamet better when he cussed alot, just go back to watching Glengarry Glen Ross.
  • The basic plot and set-up but couldn't get around some of the acting, check you local paper for any of Mamet's plays, most major cities have at least one of his plays running, support your local theatre!
  • Ricky Jay, read more about him or from him. He's a true renaissance man.
  • Steve Martin as a devious villain, you're at a loss. Drop me a line if you come up with a film where he's this good, and isn't being funny.
  • The Spanish Prisoner con, check your inbox, the prisoner's modern cousin is the Nigerian money transfer scam.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Dead Man

Jim Jarmusch doesn't want to just tell you a story. He wants to take you there.

Stranger than Paradise.
Down by Law.
Mystery Train.
Night on Earth.

Travelogues full of road/world-weary travelers en route to destination:
Nowhere.
Anywhere.
Everywhere.
The destination is always implied, but is rarely what is truly sought. Every journey unique, each story its own (though some of the players reappear from time to time), and even when the journey is over it never really ends.

That is, until Dead Man.

William Blake has lost it all, his parents, his fiancee, and very soon his life. Blake heads out west from Cleveland for the town of Machine, and begins a slow descent. He arrives in Machine with expectations of starting a new job, and a new life. He ends up destitute, lost, wounded, and wanted for murder and theft.

Needless to say Dead Man is not your typical western. It riffs on the Western by turning its eye towards the issues that the Traditional Western is typically blind to. Isolationism, colonialism, racism, and some of the most unglamorous depictions of violence you're apt to see. Jarmusch's west isn't as "busy" as others; for the most part, people keep to themselves, so the dialogue is spare, but not simple or stilted, just to the point. Cinematographer Robby Müller strips the landscape bare with his black and white palette, and we are left with no point of reference, just the steady constant pace of the story marching on. Though the look and feel of the film is rather stark, there are scenes that ease the journey a bit by lightening the mood, and providing a good laugh here and there. Dead Man is a journey into the unsettled west, and a statement on what it really means to die.

Tidbits:

  • The parts of William Blake and Nobody were written specifically for Johnny Depp and Gary Farmer.
  • This was Robert Mitchum's final film.
  • The films themes are based on Jarmusch's readings of William Blake and Native American writings.
  • The character Benmont Tench gets his name from Hearbreaker musician Benmont Tench.
  • The characters Cole Wilson and Johnny Pickett get their names from Wilson Pickett.
  • The Marshall's Lee and Marvin got their names from Lee Marvin.
  • Nobody gets his name from the James Brown song "Talkin' Loud and Sayin' Nothing".
  • The character Big George gets his name from record producer George Drakoulias.
  • The soundtrack was performed by Neil Young playing directly to the picture over a period of 2 days.
  • The soundtrack features Johnny Depp reading the poetry of Blake.

Recommendations:

If you liked:


Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Time After Time

I remember catching bits and pieces of this movie on cable and thinking to myself,

"That is an interesting concept."

Time After Time begins with a very straightforward introduction of noted serial killer Jack the Ripper, as played by David Warner. After a quick bit of business we find ourselves in the home of noted author H.G. Wells (played by Malcolm McDowell) who is about to introduce his latest work to a group of friends, but is waiting for a straggler, Dr. Stevenson. Once Dr. Stevenson arrives, Mr. Wells presents his Time Machine. The presentation is interrupted when the police arrive at the door looking for Jack the Ripper. Only when the police come across Dr. Stevenson's bag does Wells realize that his "friend" is indeed the infamous Ripper.

Dr. Stevenson quickly makes use of the Time Machine and in doing so eludes the police. Shortly after the police leave the Time Machine returns empty. Feeling guilty for allowing Stevenson to escape, Wells hops into the Time Machine, and the chase begins.

Time After Time has 70's cinema written all over it. It's a little over the top in flaunting the setting of San Francisco in the 70's (which is where Stevenson and Wells end up). Watching a very rigid, conservative McDowell blather about women's lib with a very modern (for the 70's) Mary Steenburgen does induce sympathetic discomfort in the viewer, but at least it works for the film. It's an interesting concept film that never oversteps its bounds, is honest about its intentions and delivers a sly bit of social commentary to boot.

Tidbits:

  • Shhhh... Time After Time is a steampunk movie.
  • Time After Time was directed by Nicholas Meyer, whom also helmed the notorious made-for-TV-movie The Day After.
  • Malcolm McDowell was cast in another film with Jack the Ripper, Love Lies Bleeding.
  • This was Mary Steenburgen's second film, her first film was Goin' South in which she was directed by, and acted with Jack Nicholson.
  • Mary Steenburgen married Malcolm McDowell after this film in 1980, they had 2 children together but divorced in 1990.
  • Malcolm McDowell and David Warner both voiced the character Zarm for Captain Planet and the Planeteers.
  • McDowell and Warner both participated in the Wing Commander series.

Recommendations:
If you liked...

Rebuilding the Village

M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village" has been panned by the majority of the blogosphere, and the critics. I'm not ashamed to say that I quite liked it. I'm not trying to be contrarian, I'll leave that to Rex Reed. There is a lot to like about this film, and I'll try and cover what I can.

Be forewarned there are spoilers.

The Village is a period piece about an isolated village surrounded by creatures who hunt down those who wander outside the village, or bare the color red. I have to be up front in saying that I don't like period pieces. Nothing bores me faster than anything by Bronte or Austen. The Village works in that there are issues to consider that are more important than: does the Duke of Earl Grey like me?

There are some parallels between this film and A.I. . Both we're good films, both draw on archetypes to connect with the audience, and both probably ran too long. In A.I. Kubrick/Spielberg draw heavily from Pinocchio to help fill in the plot of a film based on a verry short story. In this film the lifting isn't quite as pronounced. There are more than a fair share of characters who deal with unrequited love and the social entanglements that result; a bit of a nod to Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter and Shirley Jackson's Lottery is quite evident throughout. There is genuine longing in this film, there is a silent ache that surfaces in a scene where Lucius finally confesses his love for Ivy. As glib as some of the lines in the movie may seem, Lucius and Ivy's exchange may be some of the most honest screenwriting on love outside of Linklater's Before Sunrise/Sunset. Adrien Brody's character, Noah Percy seems to be the stock character of every period piece, the village idiot. I see him more as Lenny, from Of Mice & Men, the simple innocent man-child who commits an unspeakable act, unlike Lenny, we get the feeling that Noah knew better.

The climaxes of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs all played out within the last 10-15 minutes of the movie. Once the plot had run its course and the finale was laid bare, the house lights came up. It's a satisfying way to end the movie as there are precious few questions left to answer. This is where The Village slightly deviates from the "formula", as you might have read elsewhere the central plot unravels early, with nearly 30 minutes left in the feature. The veil is lifted, they are not in 1890, they are in the present, and the village elders are responsible for the charade. It seems that at that point a lot of viewers either stopped paying attention, or didn't care what happened once they figured out the central plot.

A Ha! They were living in the present all along!! Grab the keys, lets go home!

But even as "the secret" is revealed, the plot keeps unraveling and more question are posed:
If the Village was constructed to escape the violence of the outside world, does Noah's "betrayal" mean that the elders failed?
Would Ivy return in time to save Lucius?
Would the elders tell the other children the truth?

So who's fault is it? Did Night fall short of providing us with reasons to care about his characters? Did they do too little to earn our emotional investment? Or were we so concerned with spotting the plot twist before anyone else that we didn't invest ourselves in the movie?

Empire 1, Ebert 0.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Prelude

I'm not entirely new to the blogging game...

I've been
here, and there. Now I've decided to stake a place of my own. Within a day or two we'll have more to share.

"Sometimes when the printer is waiting for an article which really should have been sent to him the day before, I sit at my desk and wonder if there is any possible subject in the whole world upon which I can possibly find anything to say. On one such occasion I left it to Fate, which decided, by means of a dictionary opened at random, that I should deliver myself of a few thoughts about goldfish. (You will find this article later on in the book.) But to-day I do not need to bother about a subject. To-day I am without a care. Nothing less has happened than that I have a new nib in my pen..."
- A.A. Milne, "The Pleasure of Writing" selected from "Not That it Matters"