erik lundegaard

Movies posts

Sunday February 24, 2013

A Question for Fans of 'Zero Dark Thirty'

Timothy Egan has a piece on The New York Times site critiquing Kathryn Bigelow's “Zero Dark Thirty,” and Jeff Wells, a movie blogger and fan of the film, rather than responding himself, gets someone close to the project to respond. Must be nice.

It's not a bad response. It's certainly better than the official responses from Boal and Bigelow over the past months. Among other things, he/she says this:

By the way, we showed plenty of false starts. We portray the first eight years of the hunt as being wasteful because the name [of the courier] was in the files the entire time.

I've heard this defense several times now. My question: Why would Maya have been searching for the name of the courier, Abu Ahmed, if she hadn't already gotten it from Ammar after he'd been tortured for two years?

Here are the relevant lines of dialogue from the script; the moment Abu Ahmed's name first appears. It's when Ammar is enjoying a picnic lunch with Dan and Maya outside.

AMMAR: I wanted to kill Americans. We tried to get into Tora Bora but the bombing was too high. We couldn't cross.
MAYA: Sorry, who is the “we” in that sentence?
AMMAR: Me and some guys who were hanging around at that time.
DANIEL (casually): I can eat with some other dude and hook you back up to the ceiling?
AMMAR: Hamza Rabia, Khabab al-Masri, and Abu Ahmed.

(Maya makes notes on her pad.)

MAYA: Who's Abu Ahmed? I've heard of the other guys.
AMMAR: He was a computer guy with us at the time. After Tora Bora, I went back to Pesh - as you know - and he went North, I think, to Kunar.

This is why Maya began to search for Abu Ahmed. Because Ammar mentions him after two years of torture. He mentions him after being threatened with torture again. The fact that his name is in a file is as irrelevant as the fact that the Ark of the Covenant is boarded up in a government warehouse at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Bureaucratic files are where names go to disappear forever.

So if Ammar had never been tortured, Maya never would've been searching for Abu Ahmed, who never would have led us to Abottabad and Osama bin Laden.

So why isn't the above defense of the film's at-best ambiguous dramatization on the efficacy of torture a bullshit defense?

Jessica Chastain as Maya in "Zero Dark Thirty"

“Who's Abu Ahmed? I've heard of the other guys.”

Posted at 09:18 AM on Feb 24, 2013 in category Movies
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Tuesday February 19, 2013

Like Minds

This is from my January 1, 2013 review of Quentin Tantino's “Django Unchained”:

What is the next historic horror Quentin Tarantino will turn into a spaghetti-western-style revenge fantasy? ... History is nothing but groups of people being fucked over while the movies are all about wish-fulfillment fantasy. So why not meld the two? The Bible is full of revenge fantasies as well. Maybe that’s the next direction? “Quentin Tarantino’s The Bible.” That’s a title he’d dig. He’d dig it the most, baby.

And this is what “Saturday Night Live” came up with last week when Christoph Waltz hosted.

It's not bad. I like the line: “The H is silent.” It's a good Brad-Pitt-in-“Basterds” imitation. But it never lives up to the premise. It just melds the story of the Prince of Peace with Tarantino's violence. We're supposed to laugh at what we already know. We're supposed to laugh with recognition at the familiar bits rather than with surprise.

Christoph Waltz in Tarantino parody, "Djesus Uncrossed" on SNL

I think “less violent” takes a hyphen, too.

Posted at 11:53 AM on Feb 19, 2013 in category Movies
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Monday February 18, 2013

Why's FDR Hanging with the Three Stooges? Everything You Didn't Want to Know About Screen Portrayals of U.S. Presidents, and Didn't Ask

For Washington and Lincoln it was a silent short (“Washington Under the British Flag” and “His First Commission,” respectively). For Grover Cleveland, it was a James Cagney/Humphrey Bogart western (“The Oklahoma Kid”). JFK got an episode of a forgotten TV show, “Navy Log,” LBJ got “Batman: The Movie,” and FDR, believe it or not, got the Three Stooges.

These are the first moments our presidents have been portrayed on screen. Per IMDb.com.

Some surprising revelations. Herbert Hoover (1929-33) was never portrayed on screen until 1979's “Backstairs at the White House,” a mini-series attempting to combine “Upstairs Downstairs” with “Roots.” Then there's James Buchanan (1957-61), who has been portrayed only once, voicework by David Gergen, in the 2000 PBS documentary “The American President.” At least he had John Updike watching his back.

More recent presidents, of course, are first spoofed on television, generally “Saturday Night Live,” which has given us our first screen portraits, or caricatures, of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The British series “Spitting Image” beat them to George H.W. Bush, while “The 1/2 News Hour” beat them to Barack Obama.

Speaking of the Bushes: IMDb.com needs to fix its algorithms, since it includes obvious H.W. characters (a 1990 “Golden Girls” episode, voiced by Harry Shearer, for example) under W.'s character page. The site also includes the “Richard Nixon” thug in Godard's “Made in U.S.A.” on Nixon's character page. I've tried to adjust the numbers accordingly but take these numbers with a grain of salt. Treat them, in other words, as you would campaign promises.

Oh yes, and in case you were wondering, Lincoln wins. By a longshot.

Here are our 44 presidents in order of first cinematic appearance:

President Port. First Appearance First Actor
1 George Washington  154 Washington Under the British Flag (1909) Joseph Kilgour
2 John Adams  54 The Declaration of Indepedence (1911) Harry Linson
3 Thomas Jefferson  125 The Declaration of Indepedence (1911) Marc McDermott
4 James Madison  27 Old Louisiana (1937) Ramsay Hill
5 James Monroe  11 The Beautiful Mrs. Reynolds (1918) Charles Brandt
6 John Quincy Adams  8 The Declaration of Indepedence (1911) Robert Emmett Tansey
7 Andrew Jackson  47 My Own United States (1918) F.C. Earle
8 Martin Van Buren  4 The Gorgeous Hussy (1936) Charles Trowbridge
9 William Henry Harrison  7 Ten Gentlemen from West Point (1942) Douglass Dumbrille
11 James K. Polk  8 The Monroe Doctrine (1939) Edwin Stanley
12 Zachary Taylor  8 The Fall of Blackhawk (1912) George Cole
13 Millard Fillmore  4 The Monroe Doctrine (1939) Millard Vincent
14 Franklin Pierce  2 The Great Moment (1944) Porter Hall
15 James Buchanan  1 The American President (2000) David Gergen (voice)
16 Abraham Lincoln  327 His First Commisson (1911) Charles Brabin
17 Andrew Johnson  6 In the Days of Buffalo Bill (1922) Harry Myers
18 Ulysses S. Grant  94 The Battle of Shiloh (1913) John Smiley
19 Rutherford B. Hayes  7 The Flag of Humanity (1940) Joe King
20 James A. Garfield  7 The Night Riders (1939) Francis Sayles
21 Chester A. Arthur  3 Silver Dollar (1932) Emmett Corrigan
22 Grover Cleveland  9 The Oklahoma Kid (1939) Stuart Holmes
23 Benjamin Harrison  2 Stars and Stripes Forever (1952) Roy Gordon
25 William McKinley  11 A Message to Garcia (1936) John Carradine
26 Theodore Roosevelt  86 Why America Will Win (1917) W.E. Whittle
27 William Howard Taft  5 The Winds of Kitty Hawk (TV) (1978) Ross Durfee
28 Woodrow Wilson  31 The Sons of a Soldier (1913) Frederick Truesdell
29 Warren G. Harding  5 The Legendary Curse of the Hope Diamond (TV) (1975) Harry Dean Stanton
30 Calvin Coolidge  5 The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955) Ed Flanders
31 Herbert Hoover  8 “Backstairs at the White House” (1979) Larry Gates
32 Franklin D. Roosevelt  97 Cash and Carry (1937) Al Richardson
33 Harry S. Truman  34 The Beginning or The End (1947) Art Baker
34 Dwight D. Eisenhower  37 The Long Gray Line (1955) Harry Carey, Jr.
35 John F. Kennedy  86 “Navy Log” (1957) John Baer
36 Lyndon B. Johnson  32 Batman: The Movie (1966) Van Johnson (voice)
37 Richard Nixon  81 Eulogy for RFK (1968) Marty Rednor
38 Gerald Ford  15 “Saturday Night Live” (1975) Chevy Chase
39 Jimmy Carter  23 “Saturday Night Live” (1976) Dan Aykroyd
40 Ronald Reagan  46 “Saturday Night Live” (1976) Chevy Chase
41 George H. W. Bush  27 “Spitting Image” (1986) John Glover
42 Bill Clinton  74 “Saturday Night Live” (1992) Phil Hartman
43 George W. Bush  112 “Saturday Night Live” (2000) Will Ferrell
44 Barack Obama 80 “The 1/2 News Hour” (2007) Ron Butler

  And here they are as ranked by how often they've been portrayed on screen. Interestingly, W. beats FDR. But U.S. Grant is ahead of Teddy Roosevelt? I guess the Civil War helps:

President Port. First Appearance First Actor
16 Abraham Lincoln  327 His First Commisson (1911) Charles Brabin
1 George Washington  154 Washington Under the British Flag (1909) Joseph Kilgour
3 Thomas Jefferson  125 The Declaration of Indepedence (1911) Marc McDermott
43 George W. Bush  112 “Saturday Night Live” (2000) Will Ferrell
32 Franklin D. Roosevelt  97 Cash and Carry (1937) Al Richardson
18 Ulysses S. Grant  94 The Battle of Shiloh (1913) John Smiley
26 Theodore Roosevelt  86 Why America Will Win (1917) W.E. Whittle
35 John F. Kennedy  86 “Navy Log” (1957) John Baer
37 Richard Nixon  81 Eulogy for RFK (1968) Marty Rednor
44 Barack Obama 80 “The 1/2 News Hour” (2007) Ron Butler
42 Bill Clinton  74 “Saturday Night Live” (1992) Phil Hartman
2 John Adams  54 The Declaration of Indepedence (1911) Harry Linson
7 Andrew Jackson  47 My Own United States (1918) F.C. Earle
40 Ronald Reagan  46 “Saturday Night Live” (1976) Chevy Chase
34 Dwight D. Eisenhower  37 The Long Gray Line (1955) Harry Carey, Jr.
33 Harry S. Truman  34 The Beginning or The End (1947) Art Baker
36 Lyndon B. Johnson  32 Batman: The Movie (1966) Van Johnson (voice)
28 Woodrow Wilson  31 The Sons of a Soldier (1913) Frederick Truesdell
4 James Madison  27 Old Louisiana (1937) Ramsay Hill
41 George H. W. Bush  27 “Spitting Image” (1986) John Glover
39 Jimmy Carter  23 “Saturday Night Live” (1976) Dan Aykroyd
38 Gerald Ford  15 “Saturday Night Live” (1975) Chevy Chase
5 James Monroe  11 The Beautiful Mrs. Reynolds (1918) Charles Brandt
25 William McKinley  11 A Message to Garcia (1936) John Carradine
22 Grover Cleveland  9 The Oklahoma Kid (1939) Stuart Holmes
6 John Quincy Adams  8 The Declaration of Indepedence (1911) Robert Emmett Tansey
11 James K. Polk  8 The Monroe Doctrine (1939) Edwin Stanley
12 Zachary Taylor  8 The Fall of Blackhawk (1912) George Cole
31 Herbert Hoover  8 “Backstairs at the White House” (1979) Larry Gates
9 William Henry Harrison  7 Ten Gentlemen from West Point (1942) Douglass Dumbrille
19 Rutherford B. Hayes  7 The Flag of Humanity (1940) Joe King
20 James A. Garfield  7 The Night Riders (1939) Francis Sayles
17 Andrew Johnson  6 In the Days of Buffalo Bill (1922) Harry Myers
27 William Howard Taft  5 The Winds of Kitty Hawk (TV) (1978) Ross Durfee
29 Warren G. Harding  5 The Legendary Curse of the Hope Diamond (TV) (1975) Harry Dean Stanton
30 Calvin Coolidge  5 The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955) Ed Flanders
8 Martin Van Buren  4 The Gorgeous Hussy (1936) Charles Trowbridge
13 Millard Fillmore  4 The Monroe Doctrine (1939) Millard Vincent
21 Chester A. Arthur  3 Silver Dollar (1932) Emmett Corrigan
14 Franklin Pierce  2 The Great Moment (1944) Porter Hall
23 Benjamin Harrison  2 Stars and Stripes Forever (1952) Roy Gordon
15 James Buchanan  1 The American President (2000) David Gergen (voice)

FDR and the Three Stooges

FDR: “As for you gentlemen, I find it possible to extend to you exective clemency.”
Curly: “No, please not that.”

Posted at 11:02 AM on Feb 18, 2013 in category Movies
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Thursday February 14, 2013

Dying Hard: A History of the 'Die Hard' Franchise

This article was originally published, in slightly different form, on MSNBC.com, in 2006—when the last “Die Hard” sequel was released.


Its star was a TV actor unable to parlay his small-screen moment (“Moonlighting”) into big-screen success. Its villain was unknown this side of the Atlantic. One of its writers had done mostly TV (“Lucan,” “Knight Rider”), while the other had no credits to his name. Its source material was a novel, a sequel actually, about an aging detective named Joe Leland visiting his daughter and grandchildren in L.A. It was called “Nothing Lasts Forever” but the filmmakers decided to change the title to something punchier and punnier.

They called it “Die Hard.”

Released in July 1988, it made more than $80 million and spawned an entire sub-genre of movies: “Die Hard” on a boat (“Under Siege”), “Die Hard” on a plane (“Passenger 57”), “Die Hard” on the president’s plane (“Air Force One”). Basically: a group of bad guys take over a small enclosed space, and one good guy, who’s there more or less by accident, tries to stop them.

So what is it about that first “Die Hard” anyway? Why did it work? Why has it become legendary?

Die Hard with a smirk: Bruce Willis as John McClane

Shoeless John
For starters, the grandfather-detective named Joe Leland morphed into a father-cop named John McClane. Everyone can get behind a cop.

He’s about as “regular guy” as you can get. He rides in the front of the limo. He checks out centerfolds while running for his life. He likes Roy Rogers. Hell, he’s the kind of guy who would like “Die Hard.” One wonders if that isn’t a key to success: Would your lead character like the movie he’s in?

They gave him vulnerabilities. He’s tough, but afraid to fly. He smokes, but carries around a giant teddy bear for his kids. Best of all: They take away his shoes. That’s smart. When the shooting starts, he’s still busy in the plush 30th-floor bathroom making “fists with his toes,” as his airplane seat-mate suggested he do to overcome anxiety, and he doesn’t get them back for the rest of the film. It’s a small thing that adds up to a large thing. I remember cringing in the theater when he has to pluck glass shards from the bottom of his bloody feet.

Then they take this one regular guy (without shoes) and stick him between two groups. “Two groups?” you ask. Yes, two groups.

The first group is, of course, a super-efficient international team of terrorists, led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), who was recently voted the 46th greatest villain of all time by the American Film Institute.

These guys are creepy, less because of the glowering silent types like Alexander Gudonov’s Karl and more because of the ones who whistle while they work, such as Clarence Gilyard, Jr.’s Theo, who helped spawn a generation of onscreen black computer hackers. “Oh my god, the quarterback is toast!” he shouts enthusiastically as the cops’ RV is decimated by a rocket launcher. You seriously want to deck the dude.

The smartest guy in the room is always Hans. “You want money?” Takagi asks incredulously. “What kind of terrorists are you?” “Who said we were terrorists?” Hans responds. When McClane shows up with his HO HO HO message, Hans knows he’s no security guard. Captured, he fakes an American accent and manners. He knows the FBI playbook. He has a classical (read: European) education and fancy (read: European) suits and waxes eloquent on a bankrupt American culture. All of which makes him a perfect foil for McClane and his pop cultural references. “Ehh! Sorry Hans, wrong guess. Would you like to go for Double Jeopardy where the scores can really change?” It’s the wise-ass in the back row making fun of the uptight teacher. Yippee-ki-yay, indeed.

Bruce Willis in "Die Hard" (1988)

The Greatest American Heroes
One can argue that this wise-ass is actually an amalgamation of three of the most quintessential heroes in American cinema. Numbers 4, 5, and 7 on the AFI list of 50 greatest heroes, to be exact.

No. 5 is Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) in “High Noon.” Most of our cinematic heroes are lone gunmen, and Kane is the epitome. He’s the guy trapped between two groups: Frank Miller and his gang, who want revenge on Kane, and the townspeople too cowardly to help. Which is why he’s out there by himself.

Why is John McClane out there by himself? Because he’s trapped between the terrorists who want to kill him, and the townspeople too stupid to help.

Seriously, how many incompetent people are involved in L.A. policework? When McClane finally gets through on an emergency reserve channel, the women on the other end chastise him for using the channel in the first place. Even after they hear gunfire they send only one black-and-white to investigate. Once the cops show up, they blame McClane. Once the FBI shows up they play right into the villains’ hands.

They’re supermacho. They rush in where McClane fears to tread. “An A-7 scenario,” say the FBI Johnsons, misreading the situation. “Kick ass,” says Deputy Police Chief Dwayne Robinson before disaster strikes. “Sprechen sie talk?” says Ellis before getting shot in the head. All of these guys think they’re heroes. They think they can save the situation.

The beauty of John McClane is that he doesn’t. In this sense he’s reminiscent of No. 4 on the AFI list: Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) in “Casablanca.” There’s a great isolationist streak in the American psyche and Rick epitomizes it. “I stick my neck out for nobody,” Rick says famously. Then the world goes to hell and he has to get involved.

Ditto McClane. If Hans just opens the front door, he’ll leave. The L.A. cops tell him to lie low and he’s more than willing. But things keep going wrong. The bad guys are superefficient and everyone else is superincompetent, and there he is, stuck in the middle with a machine gun. Plus Holly, his wife, is down there. Even if she won’t take his name.

So how does this one regular guy without shoes beat 12 superefficient terrorists when he doesn’t want to be there and none of the townspeople are smart enough to help him? He wins the way Rocky Balboa (AFI’s No. 7) wins. He doesn’t go down. He endures. Subsequent “‘Die Hard’ in a...” movies starred martial artists like Steven Segal and Wesley Snipes, people with specialized knowledge, but McClane knows nothing special.

All of which goes to the heart of who American men believe themselves to be. We’re not smart. We’re not talented. We can’t keep our wives in check. We don’t even want to be here. But when the shit hits the fan, yeah, what the hell. Since nobody else is doing anything.

Bruce Willis and Sam Jackson in "Die Hard with a Vengeance"

Harder with a Vengenace
Unfortunately, the sequels began to take away the things that made “Die Hard” work.

First, they aren’t even “‘Die Hard’ in a...” movies since John McClane is never trapped in a small enclosed space. In the second film he’s got the run of Dulles Airport and its D.C. environs. In the third film he’s racing all over New York and Canada. In the fourth he's all up and down the eastern seaboard. In the fifth, he goes abroad. You lose focus and intimacy this way: the sense that hero and villain are right next to each other, breathing down each other’s necks.

I guess they had to give back his shoes (it would’ve looked silly if he kept losing them), but did they have to give back Rick Blaine? In “Die Hard 2,” McClane isn’t the reluctant hero; he’s the guy who rushes in. Look, those guys pushed that suitcase under the table. I guess I’ll follow them.

He’s still surrounded by superincompetents (Dennis Franz, et al.), but for the requisite face-to-face with the villains the film relies on fantastic coincidences (McClane bumping into Col. Stuart at the airport) and inconceivable betrayals (Major Grant). Plus every time he’s ready to step down, Barnes (Art Evans) tells McClane — rather than, say, anyone in authority — the specialized information to get near the bad guys.

In the third film, “Die Hard with a Vengeance,” McClane also loses the Will Kane connection. He’s no longer the lone gunman trapped between two groups. For the first time we see him with his group, New York cops, and they’re a pretty smart, cynical bunch. It seems more realistic, less cartoonish, but it leaves him with just one cinematic role model: Rocky. Maybe that’s why the film feels punchdrunk.

John McClane (Bruce Willis) in "Live Free or Die Hard"

A Good Day to Live Free
In the most recent versions, McClane isn’t even a regular guy anymore. He’s the special guy. He’s the guy who keeps surviving these terrorist attacks . “Have you done stuff like that before?” Justin Long asks him in “Live Free or Die Hard.” “I guess you’ve done this before,” a Russian says to him in “A Good Day to Die Hard,” to which his son, John, Jr., replies, “Don’t encourage him.”

But we do. Why a fifth installment? Because for all of the memorable movies Willis has made this century--“Unbreakable,” “Grindhouse,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” “Looper”--none has grossed as well as the forgettable fourth installment of “Die Hard.” The series is living up to its title—it’s not going away—but it’s become a bit like its original villain.

“You want money?” we ask, astounded. Yes. Yes, it does.

Posted at 06:02 AM on Feb 14, 2013 in category Movies
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Friday February 08, 2013

The New Definition of Hubris: Telling Jackie Robinson How to Slide

Step one

Warner Bros. releases a poster for the new Jackie Robinson biopic, “42,” to which movie blogger and “Lincoln” nemesis Jeffrey Wells objects. His first thought: “Who slides with his right fist raised in a victory salute?” He thought it looked like bullshit. He thought it did a disservice to the movie and to Jackie.

Here's the poster:

poster for Jackie Robinson biopic "42"

Step two

Readers of Hollywood Elsewhere point out that any Google image search of “Jackie Robinson sliding” will demonstrate that Jackie did in fact slide with his hand balled into a fist. Other readers will point out that this is the way you're supposed to slide. It prevents dislocated or broken fingers.

Here's a photo of Jackie Robinson sliding:

Jackie Robinson sliding

Step three

Wells owns up to this. He provides a link to all the photos. But he still objects to the poster. He writes:

The bottom line is that the poster still looks phony even if Robinson did that fist thing every time. Partly because his mouth is open as if he's shouting “yeaaahhhh!” It looks like an advertising con, and if I were running the marketing on this movie I would tell the art guys to not use it. Fine for the movie, not fine for the poster.

The awful thing about Wells? He's right here. This part is right. It's not partly because his mouth is open as if he's shouting “yeaaahhhh!” It's completely because his mouth is open as if he's shouting “yeaaahhhh!” Wells gets it. The poster isn't as powerful for this very reason.

But then Wells keeps his mouth open.

Step four

He writes this:

Imagine how beautiful this image would be on its own terms if Robinson's right hand was more or less open-palmed and going for balance, like any athlete's hand would be at such a moment. I've slid into bases. I know what's involved so don't tell me. The fist thing is odd.

It took me a second to realize what Wells was saying here. I've slid into bases. I know what's involved so don't tell me. The fist thing is odd. The man who began this Oscar season by telling Daniel Day-Lewis how to act was ending it by telling Jackie Robinson how to slide.

That's gotta be the new definition of hubris.

I look forward to future blog posts in which Jeff Wells tells Babe Ruth how to hit homeruns, Martin Luther King, Jr. how to give a speech, and James Joyce how to write.

Posted at 03:33 PM on Feb 08, 2013 in category Movies
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