Captain Canada's Movie Rodeo

Image copyright Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Image copyright Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

My plan was to write about the supposed theatrical failure of Pacific Rim, and although that subject could easily be an article unto itself, I’m still going to touch on it here.

But not before I at least say something, about the loss of yet another exceptional actor.

In all likelihood, I first saw Dennis Farina in Get Shorty. It’s a little strange, mentioning that movie in consecutive columns, but it was definitely the first time I saw James Gandolfini in anything, and it was almost certainly the first time I saw Dennis Farina in something.

With Get Shorty, Farina made a much bigger impression. That makes sense, given that he had a much bigger role. I wasn’t sorry to see him suffer one indignity after another, but he made every single moment he was on-screen hilarious and memorable. In a movie filled with big personalities, the fact that he was able to be so hilarious and memorable was one of the main things I took away from Get Shorty. After that, it seemed like I was spotting him in every other movie I saw.

That’s not really accurate, but between 1981 and 2013, he did accumulate a pretty formidable TV and film resume. Especially for an actor whose career didn’t begin until he was well into middle-age. Because he played cops and wiseguys so well, that’s largely what his career consisted of. That’s okay. He could play them in drama, as well as he could in comedies. Playing these overbearing, arrogant personalities for laughs was definitely his strong point, and he was often a welcome face and voice in things that were otherwise forgettable.

But he could work with a serious script just as skillfully. Last Rites of Joe May was not a perfect movie by any means, but in a sympathetic, dramatic lead, Dennis Farina excelled. It’s a movie that’s well worth discovering, and we are now left with no choice, but to feel that it’s a shame he didn’t get to play those characters more often. With Joe May, which now serves as his swan song, he proved in his own way that the best character actors can take a one-sentence description of a character, and play that character in a variety of ways, each one subtlety or profoundly different from the other. In particular, he did this a lot in comedy. Farina could draw laughs in a turd of a film like Stealing Harvard (watch the part where he’s forced to cuddle with Richard Jenkins, and tell me that’s not at least a little funny), making the most of even the worst material, but he could draw even bigger laughs with vastly superior material. Snatch is most likely the movie people will remember him for, and I can’t complain about that. It’s a great film up and down, and he plays a considerable role in that.

He made everything he ever appeared in a little bit better. Knowing this reminds me yet again that the void performers and other artists like him leave behind, however big or small it might be, is permanent. Other people will come along, and other people are around right now, but it’s never going to be exactly the same. Obviously, this is how life in general works, and it’s yet another example of how film can remind us of that, in a seemingly endless assortment of ways.

I suppose, that’s a heavy thought to attach to the death of the guy from WWE Films’ Knucklehead, but there you go.

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And I haven’t seen Pacific Rim, which I imagine will be mostly out of theaters, by the time this goes live, but I want to. I’m not particularly shocked that it wasn’t the hit of the summer, but I am surprised that some people are calling it a failure.

That honor belongs to The Lone Ranger, whose failure should be at least a little encouraging to some. The fact that the Lone Ranger himself may as well have been played by Dolph Lundgren (actually, I’d probably watch that with some measure of gleeful anticipation) means that there’s still a threshold out there. There is in fact still a point in which people will say “No, no, fuck you.”

The fact that it lost to Grownups 2 notwithstanding (Kevin James and 90’s SNL nostalgia will haunt us forever), Pacific Rim probably won’t make Avengers money, when it’s all said and done, but it has nothing to be ashamed of. Its standing at the box office is a pretty encouraging example of how well a movie can still do, in spite of shoddy, disinterested, and unimaginative marketing on the part of the studio. People by and large loved the movie. What I know of it is that it took concepts like mechs and monsters, threw it into a word of Del Toro’s endlessly singular design, and created one of the most original spectacles in quite some time.

Word of mouth, a concept that harkens back to the days of cult movies that were nurtured, and not manufactured, continues to build this movie’s reputation. In the end, its time in theaters will prove that it held its own. No one’s career is going to be undone by the movie’s so-called “failure” to light the box office on fire. Del Toro is already dreaming of a sequel, and I think he might just get it. Either way, we’re in no danger of someone like him never being trusted with that much production capital ever again.

To quote an enduring American classic: “Nothing is fucked here,” and the fucking amateurs are still a bunch of fucking amateurs. Once in a while, we can still come together, and shame them for trying to sucker us.

And in ten years time, whether we get another Pacific Rim or not, people are still going to be watching it, quoting it, and letting it inspire them.

How many summer 2013 movies can even halfheartedly suggest the same thing?

The Bad Lieutenant: Port Call of New Orleans: B+

To be completely honest, I have no idea why anyone felt a need to remake Abel Ferrara’s intense, disturbing 1992 film Bad Lieutenant. I’m not even sure remake is the right word at all. Werner Herzog, who directed the film from William M. Finkelstein’s exceptional script (one that certainly seems to take a certain measure of inspiration from the Ferrara’s movie), has gone on record as claiming that Port Call of New Orleans isn’t a sequel, isn’t a remake, but is rather a “rethought.” With almost anyone else, that would come off as an enormously pretentious, even baffling statement. With a director whose filmography is at best beyond accessible description, we’re willing to at least listen. Port Call of New Orleans does indeed feel like a rethought of the 1992 film, which saw Harvey Keitel in the kind of grotesque, absorbing performance that only an actor of his caliber could manage to survive after the fact. Both films deal with corruption, constant, almost hallucinatory ugliness, and men who may have be good souls at one point, but who are potentially well beyond finding redemption, by the time we get around to meeting them. What makes Port Call of New Orleans more than just a rehash is Herzog’s unique style as a filmmaker. His concept as a presenter of these terrible people and crumbling structures is a perfect match for Finkelstein’s screenplay, which draws influence from the 1992 film, but never crosses the line into flatly ripping it off. Just on the strength of the films he made with Klaus “My eyes look like I’m on LSD forever” Kinski, we know Herzog can show us a cinematic breed of insanity and destruction (internally and externally), we would never see anywhere else. Port Call of New Orleans is not quite as wild and dense a ride as some of his other films, but it’s a time and place that are well worth visiting. The merits of Port Call of New Orleans are more than enough for the film to stand apart from the 1992 Bad Lieutenant. And at the center of it all is Nicholas Cage (Eva Mendes, as the expected hooker/junkie girlfriend, stands out, too). As the bad lieutenant for this particular version, Cage gives his best performance in years, and reminds us that there was a time, when he was more than just a series of internet memes and jokes.

Pecker (1998): B

Pecker nabbed weirdness connoisseur John Waters some of the worst reviews of his career thus far, or at least since he made the move to making “respectable” films in the late 80’s. To be fair to the terrible reviews it got in 1998, the story of a photographer (Edward Furlong, who would eventually go on to decide that “dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight” could be more than just a figure of speech) finding sudden fame, for the photographers of the people and things he captures in his Baltimore neighborhood, does suffer from a little bit of an identity crisis. Waters made several films throughout the 90’s that managed a balancing act of being much more traditional in structure than his earlier films, but still managing to still look, feel, and move like the John Waters movies we had come to expect. Pecker does seem to struggle at times to lean one way or the other. Is it a gross-out, surrealistic spectacular that harkens back to his midnight movie days? Or is it simply a story that’s content to just be incredibly offbeat? The movie never seems to really make up its mind, but that’s okay. It still has Waters’ unabashed love for his hometown, a fantastic cast of classic characters (my favorite is Christina Ricci, as Pecker’s OCD-suffering, Laundromat-running girlfriend), and trademark humor about fame, artistic merit, and New York’s own art scene (which I suspect Waters has more than a little experience with). It’s not his best film, but it has plenty to offer the curious, and it should satisfy new fans, who haven’t seen it yet.

Husbands (1970): A+

Although he didn’t invent it, John Cassavetes certainly left an indelible mark on cinéma vérité, and you can find several examples of what he brought to observational film in his catalog However, Cassavetes was never content to merely let the camera do all the work. Although Husbands has a rambling narrative structure in its story of three men (Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk, and Cassavetes himself), reacting to the sudden death of a close friend by taking off for a long bender (first, up and down the streets of their native New York, and then to London), Cassavetes makes some emotionally devastating suggestions in this film. Themes such as death, aging, isolation, brotherhood, and desperation are explored in a film that initially fools you into thinking it didn’t actually go anywhere at all. With the added bonus of formidable acting forces like Falk, Gazzara, and Cassavetes bringing out the best in each other, this is one of Cassavetes’ finest. It paints a bleak picture of life, particularly middle age, and yet it somehow also generates the warmth and humanity that marked much of Cassavetes’ filmmaking career.

The Adventures of Tintin (2011): B-

Dusting off very old properties, ones with little-to-no-guarantee for success (because that’s the point we’ve gotten to) continues to be the rage, and the results continue to be disappoint to varying degrees, more often than not. Steven Spielberg is hit-or-miss with me, but I should have known that a combination as formidable as Spielberg, Peter Jackson, Steven Moffat (Dr. Who’s current brain trust), Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish (director of the ingenious, wonderful Attack the Block) would be able to do something beautiful with cartoonist Hergé’s 80+-year old creation. And they did, seamlessly combining different Tintin stories, adding in some of the most beautiful animation ever created for a film, and bringing together a flawless voice cast. Spielberg proves to those who hated Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (and I liked it, so all of you can go to hell) that he is still more than capable of being able to direct an action-adventure epic. The Adventures of Tintin is more than just a hell of a lot of fun. It’s a hopeful sign that in the right hands, older properties can in fact find a 21st-century audience.

47 Ronin (1994): B

With the latest version of what is arguably the most famous historical narrative in Japanese history about to come out, which will have Keanu Reeves leading the mostly Japanese cast (awfully decent of the producers to do that), it seems reasonable that some will make their way towards what is currently, until this new movie comes out, the most well-known film version of the Chūshingura story. Since its inception, the Chūshingura tale has been related, in every conceivable storytelling form imaginable. Under the direction of legendary filmmaker Kon Ichikawa, whose career spanned sixty years of significant contributions to his art, this particular take on the story of the forty-seven Ronin of Ako, seeking revenge against the corrupt Lord Kia, takes a different approach. Putting the emphasis on the Ronin planning their revenge, rather than the blood and guts of the actual attack that most versions prefer, Ichikawa places the film squarely on the shoulders of a very strong cast. Led by the equally-legendary actor Ken Takakura, what starts out as a potential orgy of swords, limbs flying gleefully into the sky, and gallons upon gallons of fake blood painting the quiet Japanese countryside quickly becomes a slow-moving, eloquent drama, focusing on the people themselves. As we watch the Ronin prepare to carry out their elaborate assault, we are treated to several moments of emotions and interactions so realistically and gently captured by cast and crew, we sometimes fail to appreciate what we’ve just seen. If you’re lucky, it all comes together in the end, with a climax that wisely shows us almost nothing of the actual attack on Kia. The 1994 47 Ronin avoids placating to what we think we want, shows us a very different version of this story, and takes a well-deserved place as one of the best Samurai films of the past 25 years. The upcoming version (which will be presented in 3D) is likely going to be much more traditional, in how the story is told. It is what it is. For whatever reason, I’m still curious to compare the two.