Taxi Driver (1976)

What can be said about the greatest film of the 1970s American independent film movement and quite possibly of all time? More importantly, what can be said that hasn’t already been said better in countless pieces by the late, great Pauline Kael. To try and explain the cultural importance, tenacity and cinematic panache of Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece would only serve in a free form rambling, stream of consciousness rant that could carry on until sometime in the middle of next week. Instead, what I can offer is what Marty’s masterwork has always meant to me.

Now growing up I watched all sorts of movies. As every child of my generation did (or should) I loved Star Wars, Star Trek, Ghostbusters, Dick Tracy, The Naked Gun, Mel Brooks, everything that Spielberg touched. As a kid my parents rented movies from Blockbuster all the time and would always take the family out to see the major box office hits, i.e. Jurassic Park, Last Action Hero, Super Mario Bros. Of course, everything I had seen was probably released between the early 80s and the present day 90s.

Two things helped cause my evolution from movie goer to film buff. First off I began reading MAD magazine at age 11. The back issues included an entire history of films I had never seen nor heard of before, parodied to the highest order and delivered scene by scene in 4 to 7 pages of amazing caricatures. At that time I had heard of The Godfather but knew very little about its three acts until I read “The Oddfather” over and over again. Also at age 11 my computer teacher and editor of the school newspaper that I began writing movie reviews for gave me a CD-ROM (remember those?) called Cinemania 95. This was like an encyclopedia of all movies from the silent era to 95, complete with plot synopsis, biographies on actors and clips from the most important of films. This would be my first introduction to movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The 39 Steps and Chinatown.

Now here is where my education really kicks in. Freshman year of high school my dad would drive me to school every morning. After dropping the younger sibling and cousins off at elementary school my dad and I would have a solid 15 minutes of bonding time. We usually spent this time discussing movies. I would ask him about the films I had not seen and was sometimes deemed “too young” to see. I asked him about Scarface and he described moment for moment the chainsaw scene. He told me about Once Upon a Time in America and Donnie Brasco. He told me about The Night Porter and Russ Meyer’s Supervixens. I remember asking endless questions about Taxi Driver. He told me of its premise and I’d say “So is it a revenge movie?” He’d be like, “No not exactly”. I’m then all “is it a horror movie?” “Well, no…but he is a psychopath.” “Dad, then what the fuck is this movie?” “You just have to see it.”

I first saw Taxi Driver the night that I purchased my first three DVDs. They were Taxi Driver, Pulp Fiction and I believe Airplane!. I had never seen the first two but by the next day they would be among my top 3 favorites of all time. The first thing that drew me into Taxi Driver was the score. Bernard Herrmann’s mellifluously disenchanted score (eerily recorded right before his death) pushes the atmosphere of the film to the highest level. The use of saxophone is instantly heartbreaking and will forever be synonymous with long, lonely nights. The gritty harp figures over the first images of a taxi cab emerging through the fog is breathtaking.

The film is, in a nutshell, the story of a taxicab driver who’s sick in the head and goes on a killing rampage. The catch is, it may be the only first person narrative of a psycho killer in which you ARE the psycho killer. Anyone who has ever grown up in the ghetto can relate to Travis Bickle. Anyone who has ever felt lonely can relate to Travis Bickle. Anyone who has ever been outcast by a group of friends or a society can relate to Travis Bickle. If the cruel hand of fate has ever touched you then you have certainly edged the mentality of Travis Bickle. Whether you liked it or not. You may have not been on the verge of killing someone but you may have had “some bad ideas”.

Whats more, the film has you see through the eyes of a racist. The images of young black teens harassing the whores on the street. The image of two black pimps sitting at a table looking stoic. These moments are shot in a way that’s intimidating because Travis Bickle himself is also intimidated. Then the moment comes when we see Travis’ co-worker, a cabbie who is also black, and we instantly get a weird vibe. Even though there is nothing to prove anything sinister is going on! By this scene, midway through the movie, the audience have become perhaps unconsciously a little racist. Now the racism issue would almost become a crippling factor in the film if it wasn’t for the emergence of the pimp Sport (played by Harvey Keitel) in the film’s third act. In fact everyone that meets their end in the final bloody shoot-out is white.

Another genius move to Paul Schrader’s script is the conflict of motivations for Travis. When we first see Travis and he does his rant about “the whores, skunk pussies, dopers, junkies” this could almost be like a monologue in a cop movie or a noir piece. Scenes like the older man and the young black prostitute climbing into the back of Bickle’s cab for a quickie or the angry husband (played by Martin Scorsese) who plans to kill his wife and her lover with a .44 Magnum gives us enough of a view of Travis’s world to realize Travis Bickle has every reason to hate. Even his first moments with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) are sympathetic. Sure he’s a little forward and a bit socially awkward but you can tell he means well.

But then the date comes and Travis tries taking Betsy to a porno movie and you know there is something more than off with this man. The following confrontation at her work place reveals that Travis has made Betsy his last attempt at a normal life. From then on out he begins planning. Planning to kill. Kill whom? At first the motivation is Charles Palentine the Presidential candidate. But then he shoots a young black man robbing a convenience store. Then his focus shifts back to Palentine. Then its to young Iris (played by Jodie Foster) and her pimp Sport. By the third act, when Bickle emerges in the city streets with a newly shaved Mohawk, your not sure just whom he’s gonna kill. The security around Palentine’s campaign is too great and Bickle chooses to go trigger happy on the unsuspecting Sport and his fellow pushers. The act is seen as heroic in the newspapers, young Iris is reunited with her family, and even Betsy has given Bickle a second chance. But audiences who have been on the journey know the truth. Travis Bickle just wanted to kill. Period.

Despite the intensity of the subject matter the film is also quite hilarious. In fact I feel if you were taping an audience watching Taxi Driver you would swear they were watching a comedy. They’re are many darkly funny moments: from Bickle hitting on the cashier at the porno theater to Scorsese’s rant on the .44. “Do you know what a .44 magnum would do to a woman’s pussy?” And the dialogue exchanges between fellow cabbies like The Wizard (played by the great Peter Boyle) or between Betsy and her co-worker Tom (played by my idol, Albert Brooks) are comedic gold.

The best way to close this post is with a legendary Hollywood story of Martin Scorsese and Taxi Driver. Its my favorite Hollywood legend ever. It perfectly gives an insight into what makes this film my favorite of all time. And no one tells the tale better than Quentin Tarantino. Enjoy.

-John

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Goodfellas (1990)

Back in ye olden days, the horse and buggy days, the two bits a gander days, or, as they are more commonly referred to now, the VHS days, a majority of film snobs got their classic and foreign film fix sated at their local public library. This is where I repeatedly tried to rent Goodfellas for the first time. The infinitesimal (at least when compared to the once-goliath chains like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video) mom and pop’s video store I frequented at the time had a copy many moons prior, but it had either been stolen or worn out due to repeat viewings, never to be replaced. I knew for a fact that the library—more oftentimes than not my second option for renting cinema in those days, as I was frequently penniless and they were free to check out to anyone with a membership—had a copy; I had it in my hands once, but then elected to rent Nicolas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause instead, not a bad choice, but the wrong one in retrospect since Scorsese’s gangster classic would, in due time, become my best-loved film, a perch it has rested upon for around 15 years, waiting in vain for another film, full of cinematic brilliance, to supersede it. The library’s copy was either lost after my fateful decision that random summer afternoon or the film proved to be so popular, they couldn’t keep it checked in.

It would take a bit of happenstance for me to view Goodfellas. One day in high school, quite by accident, I had to ride the bus home from school, sitting down next to a fellow classmate that I had seen around campus but didn’t know (his name escapes me now, I want to say it was Wes, but that fact has been lost in the ether for the rest of time), and honestly, he was someone that I wouldn’t have sat next to if there had been any other open seats. This might sound mean, but my not wanting to sit next to him didn’t have anything to do with our popularity standings or some other such high school nonsense. Nope, the kid just stunk to high heaven. He always did, probably still does. His demeanor was generally unpleasant as well (his clothing matched his attitude, he wore nothing but black, jeans and all), getting suspended at regular intervals throughout the school year. In addition, he wore adult diapers; something that I would come to find out wasn’t his fault as it was due to a preexisting medical condition, but riding home in a school bus is a chore in itself, even without having to sit next to someone who might—through no fault of their own—soil themselves at any moment. Plus, mountain roads are bumpy and filled to the brim with curves, which I deduced could only hurt my chances in having an incident-free ride home. Soon, apprehension gave way to good fortune as our conversation turned to film and the fact that I had yet to see Goodfellas, which happened to be his favorite movie. Unbelievably, at that particular moment, his favorite movie also happened to be located in his backpack and he also happened to ask if I would like to borrow it, an unforeseen turn in a conversation that I was previously reticent to even participate in. Even though the VHS tape smelled like cigarettes and stale air*, I was happy for the opportunity to finally view it, which I promptly did after my hike up the mountain to my house.

Goodfellas is the film that I have seen the most in my lifetime (only Boogie Nights, The Big Lebowski, Manhattan, and Big Trouble in Little China can compete in the category of “most times viewed” and all will be covered by me on this site at some point); I know and love every beat of the film, each character seems like an old friend come to visit when I sit and watch it for the umpteenth time, and the film’s look—the grain, cigarette burns, and, in a general sense, the emulsion of the film itself—brings me comfort. The cinema classic is so well known to me that it is somewhat intimidating for me to sit down and actually bang out my thoughts on it; there is so much to say, much of it having been said before I’m sure, but here goes nothing. Hopefully, the word count won’t be too excessive in the end.

Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas is a gangster film that broke all our perceptions of what a movie in the gangster genre could be. Gone is the glamour and romantic nature that permeated Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather series or the jokes and good-times nature of Get Shorty. Instead the master-director adopts a point-of-view style fueled by sudden bursts of brutal violence, the rewards of unearned spoils, and its protagonist’s longing for his former lifestyle. Its structure is a typical 3-act setup that doesn’t so much chart the rise and fall of protagonist Henry Hill but how he is seduced and is fundamentally destroyed by the gangster way of life. During its 145 minute runtime, the narration of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) clues the audience in on just how easy it is to be sucked in by a life that provides its inhabitants with everything they could possibly need and more. Cars, jewelry, women, wads of cash bigger than Andre the Giant’s fists, and most important of all, power and respect, even if the only reason most people give it to them is because they are afraid of what might happen if they don’t. This last reason is what gets Henry into the life in the first place. Power and respect is something that the young man has only heard of or read about in books. It’s difficult to obtain as a teen in any situation, but its extra difficult when your father beats you like a snare drum whenever the mood strikes him. This isn’t a problem that the neighborhood gangsters seem to have, especially the ones tied into Big Paulie’s (Paul Sorvino) crew, who have a vice-like grip on Henry’s neighborhood. This fact isn’t lost on him, he sees the power the gangsters wield on a regular basis while looking down on them from the windows of his family’s meager domicile—mirroring Scorsese’s own upbringing and point of view as he was rarely able to venture outside due to a severe case of asthma.

After pulling petty crimes and running errands for higher-ups in Paulie’s gang, Henry gets pinched or, as the gangsters refer to it, “pops his cherry” for selling cigarettes that fell off a truck. From this point on, he is regarded with more esteem and eventually becomes an integral part of a trio of underworld ne’er-do-wells whose criminal enterprising brings in a stunning amount of coin, culminating in the daring Lufthansa heist, netting them $5 million** in cold, hard cash. Rounding out the group is Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (Robert DeNiro), easily the smartest and most ruthless killer in the bunch, and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), a mobster who makes the crucial error of allowing his psychopathic tendencies to take over one too many times when it would have been better to not over exercise his clout and let it go without saying. During the middle section of the film—the good times portion if you will—the audience is sucked in just like Henry was and Karen is about to be, thinking this lifestyle might not be so bad after all. Helping in  allowing this sentiment to hit its mark is the movie’s most talked about, signature, tracking shot in which Henry and Karen—going out on their second attempt at a first date—arrive at the Copacabana Nightclub and due to his big-wig status, go in via a side entrance, allowing Henry to show off and interact with everyone he comes into contact with. It’s a bravura sequence in which not only Karen but the audience as well is whisked off their feet by Henry and his style of living.

But as we all know, the good times can’t last forever, and in this case, drugs, greed, murder, paranoia, prison, and a healthy dose of tunes by The Rolling Stones accompany our mobster friends on their long trip down the rabbit hole. During the runtime of Goodfellas, violence is innate in every frame, perpetually threatening to bust out at any point and take our breath away. Fittingly, it has a prominent role in the scene that serves as a tipping point for the remainder of the film. In another landmark film moment, Tommy decides to cruelly dispose of a gopher named Spider (Michael Imperioli) during a backroom poker game for merely deciding to finally stand up to his taunts and insults. As a result, the mood of the film changes rapidly. The violent undercurrent of the film has now breached the surface, and the criminals we have spent the last hour and a half getting to know (and, God help us, like) are about to be swept away by the undertow. A sense of dread sets in with the audience and it has become clear that they—and by extension the viewer—must now receive their comeuppance for their past discretions. Death, prison, and a purgatory where egg noodles in ketchup passes for spaghetti in marinara sauce await, a deliverance that none of them have the power to escape.

Goodfellas represents Scorsese at the top of his game, and he not only creates the best film of his career but arguably the best crime film of all time. Despair sets in on the audience in a suffocating manor. Is this really how the world works, they ask? More oftentimes than not, this question is generated after watching a Scorsese film, and it simultaneously serves to limit the film-master from finding a larger audience and strengthen his oeuvre, turning his films into something that is unmistakably his. He has a long history in pointing his lens at subjects that most shy away from and Goodfellas is no exception. Helping to ease the audience’s journey through the belly of the underworld is top-notch acting from all participants. Ray Liotta, fresh off his scene stealing turn in Something Wild several years prior (a performance that in a sense served as a warm-up for playing Henry Hill and helped him land the role) is nothing short of magnetic, fully embracing the shark like vibe and slimy charm of the character. Despite top-billing, DeNiro’s character is really only a secondary one but without question embodies the most dangerous presence in the film. His smile chills the blood, his body language seems to say “That’s right, I’m the shit, but no applause, please,” and once again the actor proves to be a master of imparting all the thoughts and emotions of a character without saying a word. In one of my personal favorite shots in film history, the camera slowly closes in on the actor as he contemplates murdering Morrie, a particularly bothersome compatriot, as well as other members of his crew he deems expendable. As he takes a drag of his cigarette and the camera creeps closer, it becomes obvious to the audience that he has not only decided to off him, but that he will enjoy planning and pulling the strings of the deed as well. Accompanied by “Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream, the shot is brief, only 22 seconds, but is one of the best in both the director and cinematographer’s (Michael Ballhaus, who the Academy failed to recognize, one of the greatest oversights in the past 25 years) career, and represents full understanding of film language. It’s nothing short of brilliant.

Despite being beat out for best picture by Dances with Wolves, there is no doubting the lasting impact of the film and that Scorsese is in complete control of his craft, telling a story he was born to, in a way only he can. It is a piece of cinema that stands as an indictment of organized crime, but somehow, it manages to resist adopting anything that could be construed as a moralistic opposition. This fact has always amazed me. How a director could grow up in and around this way of living, show it for what it is without any added commentary, all the while still managing to be able to explain crime’s appeal to man in such a succinct and clear fashion blows my mind. Goodfellas, to me, represents Scorsese’s masterwork, a film that contains unpleasant characters and moments; one that never flinches in its examination of the darkest side of human nature. It’s a trip that jangles the nerves and is filled with fierce moments, but for any film lover it’s a journey worth taking. Again. And again. And again.

– David

*So much so that the interior of my book bag smelled this way a week later. Take a second and think about that; I didn’t even think something like that would have been possible.

**Adjusted for inflation: $17.8 million

BREAKING NEWS!!!

This upcoming week, Film’s Okay (I Guess) will put up our 100th movie post. To celebrate this milestone, each of us will be covering our favorite film of all time. In addition, Adam will be putting up his newest header which will run all week as well. Check back throughout the week for all four posts!

Editors 1/2/3/4

Batman Forever (1995)

The Dark Knight Rises is now a mere four weeks away and its time for the Bat-mania to continue. But first I must take a quick rant on movies and in particular movie criticism that has been building for some time.

I suppose it started at the beginning of May when I asked one of my theater co-workers what they thought of The Avengers. She is a reputed comic book fan and someone I felt would be absolutely floored with Joss Whedon’s dazzling superhero opus. She responded simply with “it could have been better”. To which I replied “How could it have been better?” She concludes “I don’t know, it just could have been better”. In the words of the Great Lo Pan: “This really pisses me off to no end.” My fried dumplings from China Wok could be better, but when I’m hungry it can really hit the spot.

The perfect movie is pretty much non-existent. Even the films that I would consider “perfect” (Godfather, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Goodfellas) can and have been debated by anyone. Working at Fat Cats, our local video store, I once got into a two hour debate with a customer on The Maltese Falcon and was eventually schooled by someone who adamantly hated the film and had just cause for doing so.

The fact is all movies have flaws. Its to be expected. Its part of the deal. The point of watching a movie, to me, is to celebrate what the movie has done right. Given the type of movie it doesn’t have to do EVERYTHING right but at least a couple of things right. Action movies don’t have to have great acting or logical scripts to be entertaining. It helps, of course, but it is not a necessity. Same goes for comedies. Who cares if the plot is thread bare or the cinematography and editing non-existent as long as it makes you laugh? Its easiest to go into a film with a blank slate, without preconceived notions, and without analyzing each detail as it unfolds. I strongly feel that its is most important to just WATCH a movie first time out and then decide afterwards whether you enjoyed it or not and why. Spending too much time thinking about a film as it plays out can only serve to sway your opinion too early and miss out on the bigger picture.

My frustration with fans and critics continued with the release of Prometheus earlier this month. Okay everyone, we’ve all pointed out the flaws to Prometheus. The holes in the script, the unanswered questions, the lack of dimension in secondary characters like Idris Elba’s Captain, Charlize Theron’s inability to move four feet to the left or right. You’ve pin pointed the discrepancies, good for you, give yourself a pat on the back. But my question to critics and online trolls is this: How would you fix it? You think you know better than Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof then you tell me where the Aliens should come from. You think Idris Elba and Benedict Wong are stock characters then you tell me how to add back story to the entire crew and keep the pacing of the film flowing. You tell me how you’d fix these so called problems or you get out of my face.

The only criticism I take in life and in film is constructive criticism. Here’s an example: My manager Geoff and I were discussing Prometheus and he said “I feel that if they added more to the first act of the film, the third act would have a much better payoff”. Yes! Now this my friends is constructive criticism. How could it have been better Geoff? By adding more to the first act, plain and simple. From now on my posts will include a celebration of what the movie actually does right and if their is a flaw in my opinion then it will be backed up with how I would handle it. Because to me its not enough to simply point out the certain low points without giving some sort of input on how to make them high points.

Whew! Rant over.

So with this in mind I now present Batman Forever. After the success of Superman in 1978 it took a solid ten years for a Batman film to get off the ground. The reason being is the public’s association with the campy 1960s television series. After the character took a darker turn in comic books in the 1980s the real Batman was finally able to make its way onscreen. The result was Tim Burton’s hugely successful Batman in 1989. 1992 saw the release of the follow-up Batman Returns. As I mentioned in the last Bat-post, the film is surprisingly darker and scarier than its predecessor. While pleasing fans like me, this move appalled corporate tie ins like McDonald’s who were shelling out fast food toys to kids for a flick in which Danny DeVito bites a man’s nose off in a blood soaked frenzy.

For the third film, Tim Burton stepped down (or is it up) from director to producer and the reigns were passed on to Joel Schumacher. Schumacher is actually a pretty solid choice to take over given the stylish neo-noir atmosphere of The Lost Boys and Falling Down and the success of big studio features like A Time to Kill. His Gotham City is one of the most beautiful depictions of the fictional city yet. Giant Greek statues tower over buildings, the slums are filled with bright neon colors, its night sky reminiscent of some futuristic landscape from Blade Runner. Unfortunately the studio decided to return to the 1960s camp roots they had waited a decade to forget.

The result is a very messy Batman flick, although still miles above the next feature Batman & Robin. The script by Akiva Goldsman (perhaps the most hit and miss screenwriter in Hollywood) is excessively campy and in no way is this more prominent than in the love triangle with Batman, his true identity Bruce Wayne and Dr. Chase Meridian (played by Nicole Kidman). The most ludicrous moment in the movie is when Dr. Meridan pages Batman with the Bat-signal and emerges in a skimpy silk nightie in an attempt to seduce the Caped Crusader. However I must say that Nicole Kidman may be the hottest she’s ever been in this movie. Cheesy dialogue aside I think this movie made her my first big-screen crush and following films To Die For and Eyes Wide Shut certainly secured that.

Batman takes on The Riddler, who has built a television device that steals peoples brain waves, and Two-Face, who doesn’t seem to have much motivation at all other than killing and stealing. I think Val Kilmer is a solid choice for Batman and in particular Bruce Wayne. Kilmer appears to be the only actor in the film with a controlled performance and is probably the highlight of the movie. Even when delivering lines like “Its the car right? Chicks love the car” he pulls it off.

Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey are perfect casting choices for Two-Face and The Riddler but they are forced into a “go for broke” performance that is draining on both the actors and the audience. The script gives them such little material to work with that the two are constantly over the top and the film heavily lies on their shoulders. In his early moments as Edward Nygma, Jim Carrey shows he is an acting force to be reckoned with. After comedies like Ace Ventura and The Mask in 1994, this was Jim Carrey’s first opportunity to really show his range and in the character of Edward Nygma he shows real depth. He’s able to go from neurotic, to psychotic to all out deranged in a wonderful sequence where he kills his boss. Yet as the movie progresses the feature relies more and more on Carrey’s manic capabilities and he becomes quite annoying.

Where the film does succeed and where I wish it had stayed is the telling of the Robin story. Its amazing! Casting Chris O’Donnell as Robin and updating the character to a twenty-something martial arts enthusiast is a great approach to Robin. I love that Bruce Wayne sees himself in Dick Grayson and there’s an excellent moment where Wayne remembers his parents death, its parallels with Grayson’s parents death and then ultimately concludes “I killed them”.  The tone of the film in these scenes are totally different than the rest of the film and seem to belong to a completely different and better Batman flick. Even the neon colors are replaced by a golden brown similar to Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. If the entire film took itself as seriously as these sequences the franchise could have been saved.

The blame for Batman Forever lies on a number of people. The Warner Bros. execs who decided to go 60s camp. Joel Schumacher for allowing nipples to be put on the Batsuit (Why God did this happen! Who thought this would be cool?), Akiva Goldsman for never finding a tone to stick to.  I understand the need to go lighter for this sequel but this one is too light. If it were me writing this thing it would have been those Robin sequences throughout: not as Goth as the Burton films but still serious in its approach.

Luckily the Batman name and the film’s all star cast emerge completely unscathed. The same can’t be said for our next film: Batman & Robin. See you next time. Same Bat-time. Same Bat-channel.

The Station Agent (2003)

Recently, I have become utterly obsessed with George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series on HBO. A consequence of this new-found obsession has resulted in me doubling back to read the books from which it is based.  So far, I have only finished the first in the series, and it only took me 3 weeks, not bad considering its roughly 800 pages in length and I have a job I need to hold down.  My enthusiasm for the show has started to come close to the level of admiration that I had for previous HBO entertainments such as The Sopranos and The Wire, and I have a feeling that as I continue to bury myself in the novels and wait (full of agony it will be, I’m sure) for the next season it will hit those heights without issue. I have begun to talk to anyone who will listen about both mediums and how great it is; sometimes the person in question is already up to speed, other times not. My new mission is to get as many people I know to watch the show for two reasons:

  1. This will increase my network of Game of Thrones lovers/fans, which will in turn increase the amount of conversations I can have about the characters, their motivation, predictions for future plot points and developments, and allow me to start a pool on exactly when those White Walker folks will finally show up for good.
  2. Keeping in mind that I have read only one of the novels at this point, it seems obvious that the show is designed as nothing more than a gateway to the books themselves. For most, fantasy novels aren’t a popular choice and carry a stigma about them that can (unfairly) undercut their value. A TV show based on a dense fantasy series appeals to a wider swath of the population; for some reason, the nerd alert doesn’t ring quite as loud. I personally think this sentiment is garbage but I must confess that I haven’t read much science fiction or fantasy novels in my time. Douglas Adams and Phillip K. Dick are the only authors I can recall giving a chance. With that said, now it’s time to say this: if you enjoy reading and you enjoy a 100% engrossing story line, pick up the first entry to the series now. The amount of depth that Martin gives his characters and the world they inhabit is nothing short of flabbergasting serving to strengthen an already strong show, making it into a well-crafted companion piece.

While the reasons I have fallen in love with this show are numerous, one of the major ones is the acting that is on display—week in and week out—it runs circles around 99% of the other shows lighting up your idiot box. The characters are beyond complicated, offering the viewer a stunning amount of development and motivation, creating fully drawn, relatable characters. In a show loaded with memorable performances, Peter Dinklage’s performance as Tyrion Lannister has become the breakout role, winning this underused actor an Emmy and making him a household name. Not bad for an actor that was previously known by mainstream audiences—if at all—as the angry, drop-kicking  dwarf with a talent for banging out children’s books in Elf.

The same year that Will Ferrell’s Christmas classic was released, Peter Dinklage stared in the first directorial offering from indie darling Tom McCarthy, The Station Agent. A critical and box office success, it won the actor several awards and created quite the buzz for itself when it debuted at Sundance. Dinklage breathes life into a character named Finbar McBride, a train enthusiast who has become disinterested in any interaction whatsoever with his community or humanity in general. He works in a model train store along with—what appears to be—his only friend, an elderly gentleman that he goes to train parties with, dines with, and for most of their days, sits in comfortable silence with. Finbar is a dwarf, and much to his chagrin, it seems to be the only thing about him that interests others. Insults are hurled at him as he walks the streets and his grocer snaps unsolicited photos of him when he frequents the store to buy toilet paper and beef jerky. It’s never a mystery for Finn when it comes to what’s on people’s minds when they see him; it’s only a question of how tactfully the question comes at him. In order to cope, Fin responds by living in solitude, allowing his work to evolve into a defense mechanism; his defiance is legendary, able to withstand any barbs tossed his way and shut down any stranger that may approach him. To borrow a phrase from Mike Tyson, his defense is impregnable.

When his only friend dies early on, Fin inherits an abandoned train station from him that is located in Newfoundland, New Jersey. Since Fin has nothing preventing him from moving, he immediately packs up his meager belongings and leaves out for his new home. Taking up residence in a dilapidated structure that once housed the ticket agent, he inadvertently creates quite a stir, at least when it pertains to Joe Oramas (Bobby Cannavale), who runs a coffee and food truck on a road that doesn’t necessitate one. Joe is relentlessly friendly and talkative and his lonely business location has only served to highlight his chatty, likeable nature. Even Fin’s finely tuned defense mechanisms can’t shut down Joe—a human wrecking ball of positivity—and he begins to accompany Fin around town and on his all-day train-watching sojourns. The unlikely duo turns into a trio with the addition of Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), a reclusive artist who works in the medium of paint and who is deep into the grieving process spurned on by the death of her son. These three lonely individuals slowly begin to open up and grow to enjoy each other’s company, melting into each other in a way that provides each with a strength they lacked prior to their meeting.

McCarthy’s first film exhibits the restraint of a master director; it’s a surprisingly effective and quiet film, one that values the spaces between words and silent glances between new, wary friends. The director’s appreciation for silence is the perfect (and really only) choice for a delicate, thoughtful, and frequently uproarious film about loneliness.  The Station Agent is a film that draws you in with its slice-of-life approach and allows its story to grow organically, adopting a slow pace allowing the viewer to hang out with its protagonists, slowly getting to know them much like a real relationship would be initiated. If you think that a film filled with silence and sadness would leave you bored and fighting sleep, think again; every shot, every glance in the film leaves you wanting more and demands attention from its audience.

Dinklage is nothing short of magnetic in a rare, staring role. His restraint and solemn nature are compelling, and when Fin finally blows his top at a local bar late in the movie, the full brunt of his allure breaks through, leaving no doubt that Dinklage could play any role made available to him. Butch Cassidy. Don Corleone. Mad fucking Max. He could play them all. During this tense, memorable scene, Fin’s level of pathos reaches crazy intense levels, only serving to heighten his already impressive screen charisma. Yes, Dinklage is nothing short of a movie star and his acting chops help McCarthy’s film avoid the pitfalls that naturally come with a movie revolving around a dwarf. Dinklage’s performance and McCarthy’s direction are interested in nothing other than treating Fin as a fully rounded character, checking the fear of cringe-worthy scenes at the door. It becomes easy to understand why people are constantly drawn to Fin because, as a viewer, you are too. His silence draws you in, his magnetic pull too strong, and soon enough, you find yourself needing to know more. And when he finally opens up to the world, it makes you want to stand and cheer.

-David

The Psychic (aka Seven Notes in Black) (1977)

I’ve been a fan of director Lucio Fulci ever since watching Zombie (1979), which, though certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, is one of the more unique and well-liked entries into the zombie sub-genre, and was one of the first I saw when exploring the work of 1970’s Italian horror directors. While Fulci has a tendency to get off track with his films, there’s a certain appeal to 70’s Italian gialli* that I can’t quite put my finger on, and Fulci made a slew of films in the 70’s and 80’s that are almost all at least entertaining, and sometimes more than that.

The Psychic (also known by, what is in my opinion a far cooler name, Seven Notes in Black), was a film that I couldn’t get out of my head after watching it. Usually when this happens it means that either I loathe it so much that I can’t stop hating it, or it’s a well-done piece of moviemaking that left an impression. Since I didn’t come here to tell you what an awful piece of garbage The Psychic is, you can assume the latter.

The film starts off with a woman (who is obviously a dummy) falling down a seaside cliff, bashing her head open on the rocks. This is actually one of the only “gore” scenes in the movie, which is surprisingly light on the violence for a Fulci film. It is revealed that this is all just the vision of a young girl, named Virginia. It’s her mother that she sees fall off the cliff, and shortly after her vision, it comes to pass. Fast forward several years, and we see an adult Virginia (Jennifer O’Neill) driving down the road, during which she looks distraught. She eventually arrives at a large house (almost a mansion) that we learn is owned by her husband Francesco Ducci (Gianni Garko), and she’s here to try and fix up the place. In the house, she has a vision that consists of a series of images, and while she can’t make sense of most of it, the one about a girl’s skeleton hidden behind the wall in a certain room of the house proves true when she smashes it open with a hammer and reveals finger bones poking between the wooden slats behind the bricks. A police investigation is opened up, and her husband is detained as the most likely suspect, despite his insistence that, given the estimated time of death for the corpse, he wasn’t in the country. Virginia sets out to prove his innocence, and aided by her psychiatrist, uses her vision to guide her in her attempts to make a case for her husband’s innocence.

At first she seems to be making progress, finding various clues and putting together who the girl was, who she was interacting with, and when she arrived at the house. But as she tries to piece together who exactly the killer is, it becomes apparent that her vision doesn’t quite mean what she initially thought it did. As she realizes her mistake, the mysterious killer begins to make his presence known, and several people meet a grisly end as the killer closes in on her. I’m not going to go any further with the plot, just to keep the ending a surprise for anyone who hasn’t seen it. The build-up of tension (which is something that is often missing from many current films) is great, and I started out watching The Psychic with only mild interest, but by the end I was genuinely curious as to the outcome. At one point in the film, Virginia receives a watch that plays a seven-note tune; this is a key plot element, and shortly after acquiring the watch we hear the tune repeated as a piece of background music, to great effect (In fact, this very same tune is used by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill part 1, for the track “Ode to Oren Ishii”).

The acting is adequate throughout the film, though sometimes comes off a little hammy (probably in part to the overdubbing that happens fairly frequently in Italian horror movies), and the cinematography is impressive at certain points in the film. The aforementioned seven-note tune and the atmospheric music that backs the later half of the film does an excellent job of building atmosphere, however there are a few tracks at the beginning that feel kind of out of place, but that’s quickly forgotten as the film progresses. The special effects are kind of hokey, but they take a backseat to the story of the film, so this is a non-issue, and personally I feel that they kind of add to the charm of this type of film. Overall, I’d recommend this to any fan of thriller / murder-mystery films, and if you’re into 70’s Italian horror then this is a must-watch, in my humble opinion.

-Adam

*Gialli (or singular giallo) are a style of Italian film that became popular in the late 60’s and remained so through the early 80’s, and is still sometimes made today. It’s typically a murder-mystery punctuated by an unseen killer disposing of people in spectacular fashion, and usually builds up to a big reveal when the protagonist discovers who the killer is at the end. Oftentimes there are supernatural elements to the story, but this isn’t always true. Some directors known for this style of film are Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Umberto Lenzi, and of course Lucio Fulci.

At The Drive-In: The Avengers (2012) & Battleship (2012)

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There’s a part of of movie history that’s fading out of America very quickly. The drive-in movie theater was once a thriving aspect of film exhibition with over 4000 screens nationwide. Today the number has dwindled to under 350. This is probably due to urban expansion forcing the drive-in business out to rural areas. Showing movies usually requires darkness, a rare thing if you live in a large city where all street lights and storefronts shine brightly all night. Driving up South Blvd. in Charlotte the remnants of the Queen Drive-In still remain. The Seattle Space Needle-like iron tower marquee still stands tall on the corner, rusting in place. The theater closed for good in the late 70s due a very strong wind blowing the screen over during, ironically, a showing of Gone With The Wind. The former site of the theater is still an open space, but it has mostly been taken to make a parking lot for a nearby light-rail station. Up until the late 80s, there were at least 8 drive in theaters in Charlotte city limits. Today all of those screens have gone dark. So to get to a drive-in, we drove an hour from home. Well worth it if you are tired of being crammed into mutli-plexes for big summer releases.

I had never been to a drive-in movie theater before so I really didn’t know what to expect when my girlfriend and I arrived at the Badin Road Drive-In in Albemarle, NC. This drive-in has 2 screens, we had chosen the double feature of The Avengers & Battleship. It only cost us $12 for the both of us to see two first run movies. Already this has a leg up on conventional theaters just on the price. This was Memorial Day weekend, so expecting a huge turnout we arrived around 6:30pm. There were only a few cars there when we pulled up, but soon there was a line out into the road to get into the theater. While it true that we waited over two hours for the first movie to start, it gave us time to actually talk to each other, read, listen to music and just relax in general in the comfort of my own car. I wonder if all those people who show up for a big movie 10 hours in advance to sit on a theater hallway floor to get good seats know that there is a better way to go? I was expecting some box speakers on posts, but the theater broadcasts the film soundtracks on AM & FM radio stations. So if you have a killer sound system in your car, you may get a better quality presentation that in a conventional theater. The screen we were facing was the bigger of the two, which looked to be at least 50 feet tall. With the theater filling up with cars and the sun going down The Avengers was about to hit the screen.

After Disney’s (that’s right people, get used to it) The Avengers burst open the summer 2012 summer movie season with a jaw-dropping 200+ million dollar opening weekend, I was of course immediately skeptical that the movie was any good at all. I didn’t think that the hype was that huge on Avengers, but I guess people had been waiting for this for a long time. I had seen all of Marvel’s prior movie offerings leading up to The Avengers, so I was well prepared. Some actors shine more than others in The Avengers. Robert Downey Jr. continues to bring his signature quick wit to the role of Tony Stark/Iron Man (sorry for spoiling the secret identity there). Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth and newcomer Mark Ruffalo, as Captain America, Thor & The Hulk respectively, are serviceable in their superhero persona. Scarlett Johansson does a great job showing off her superpowers as Black Widow, having boobs and shooting guns. The story itself was a good starting point for the franchise, but anyone who has read some of the latest stories to come from House Marvel knows there is the potential for some truly great films in the future. Secret Invasion, anyone?

After a brief intermission, the second half of the double feature started. I had no expectations that Battleship would be any good at all, so it was no letdown when it sucked. Movies that are based on board games automatically have almost no chance of succeeding, though apparently Real Steel (aka Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots) was a decent flick. Battleship suffers from some of the worst non-acting I’ve ever seen in a summer blockbuster. Even worse than Harvey Fierstein in Independence Day. Rhianna was cast in this movie originally just because they wanted her forehead to play the aircraft carrier, but that fell through when she kept getting acne breakouts which caused the planes to crash upon landing. It got messy, so they just gave her a small tough chick role instead. Where are you when I need you, Michelle Rodriguez? I’m sure to get some flak for this one, but the disabled war veteran with replacement metal legs (aka black man angry at the world) has got to be given a cameo instead of a major role. The man delivers lines with zero emphasis. I didn’t actually think that was possible, but he did it. I have respect for all soldiers and veterans, but they should respect us as well and not subject us to the worst acting of the year. I smell a Razzie for for each of them. Liam Neeson shows up to provide a glimmer of hope that this isn’t a total waste of time, but it’s just not enough. Director Peter Berg, who has directed a few movies, all better than this, relied a bit too much on the fact that watching dots appear and disappear on a radar is exciting with the right music behind it. It isn’t. He’s not James Cameron, and this was NOT Aliens. I will give the movie credit for having some great sound. My car shook from the bass, that’s not easy to do with factory speakers.

When the credits rolled on Battleship it was around 2am. Less than 2/3 of the cars that were there when The Avengers started remained. Despite sitting through the waste of time that Battleship was, I still thoroughly enjoyed my experience. It is a unique thing to have a movie screen completely fill your car windshield and look out your sunroof to see a plane fly by overhead. Is it ever too cold in a movie theater? At a drive-in you have climate control on your dashboard. Did I mention that they have a grill at the concession stand with some damn good burgers and milkshakes? I’m all but ready to ditch indoor theaters completely. The only catch? Movie selection is very limited in the drive-in, though some places run triple features(!) for only $6 on select weekends. There are 4 operating drive-in theaters within an hour of Charlotte. I would highly recommend seeing if there is one in your area that still operates. Help keep this part of American movie culture alive!

-Wes