e enjte, 3 korrik 2008

In and Out...

My apologies for the long radio silence--especially as we have enjoyed such heated seasons at both the box office and the ballot box.

I've been out there developing new projects that have me very excited but also too busy to post here regularly. So if it wasn't already clear, I'm suspending activity on Reaction Shot, at least for the time being. I do hope you'll check back every so often, because you never know. If, after all these years, they could actually, finally make that new Indiana Jones movie, then I'm sure one day I'll be back to tell you what I thought of it.

(What did I think of it? Of all the principals--Harrison Ford, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and even John Williams--Ford was the only one who didn't seem like he was too old to be doing this sort of thing.)

Hope to see you soon.

e shtunë, 9 shkurt 2008

Reading: The Future Begins

Of interest for anyone who likes pulp:

My friend, Bill Cunningham, writer, filmmaker, and pulp devotee, has a rather fun blog to which he posts musings on such stuff. (He wrote a kind review of Action Speaks Louder, which is how we met.)

He just posted this, and I thought I'd clue all of you in, too. It's a comic (or as he puts it "comic") that he found and likes because of its "sophisticated European graphic album feel." You may like it too:


When you follow the link, you'll find that it is an "interactive PDF."

Now I must admit, when it comes to things digital, virtual, or interactive, I have always had an attitude that might be described as John McClaneish. But this could be interesting.

Or it could be the thing Tom Hanks proposes in Big.

Has the future arrived? Or just the future of 1988?

e martë, 29 janar 2008

Do We Get to Win This Time?

For Rambo, I have come out of my self-exile, which, by the way, I spent much like Rambo: forging steel by hand, stick-fighting, and generally stewing.

There are several reasons why I have been... shall we say, preoccupied with the new Rambo: 1.) it's a big, percussive action movie; 2.) it propels this peculiar wave of Hollywood nostalgia forward; and 3.) it is one of those absurd sequels that I love so much. There is something quixotic about making a sequel to a franchise no one really thinks much about anymore.

Short and lumbering (not unlike Stallone himself), Rambo satisfies, but falls well short of the success of Stallone's other recent resurrection, Rocky Balboa. Of course, Rocky is a more beloved character than is Rambo, but if that's inherent to the franchises, it's not Rambo's true flaw.

Rambo's major flaw is--so help me, even I can't believe I'm saying this--is that it's not silly enough. As writer, director, and star, Stallone takes this one too seriously--and from the very beginning. He opens the film with actual stock footage of the actual atrocities actually taking place in the actual Burma. Perhaps this was meant to stoke my desire for some of Rambo's righteous retribution, but it doesn't. It makes me feel ashamed that I'm sitting in a comfortable theater with stadium seating and $4 bottles of water, about to gorge myself on fantasy.

It's a bit odd, this Rambo, in that it's the most self-important of the series, but the least obsessed with Self. Maybe it's Stallone's aging, but this movie, like Rocky Balboa before it, is much less an exercise in sheer narcissism than the films of both series were before. This maturation serves Rocky Balboa well. Not so much here. In Action Speaks Louder, I quote a critic who said of Rambo III that the movie is "loony with self-love." That absurdity, that cartoonishness, is what I missed most in this fourth installment.

Rambo also does little to pay off the 20-year stretch the franchise spent dormant. One pleasure of a good sequel is that the audience catches up to where the characters have been moved since--by--their last adventure. Geographically, sure, but really, psychologically. James Cameron (ironically enough, an original writer on Rambo: First Blood Part II) is uncommonly good at this. So was Stallone with Rocky Balboa. But again, not so much with Rambo. Indeed, Rocky Balboa is a story that could only work after a great passage of time; Rambo, on the other hand, could have just as easily been made in 1991.

But while the movie is entertaining enough, where it really comes alive is in its use of the late Jerry Goldsmith's score from First Blood. And not only does Stallone pay tribute to Goldsmith throughout the film, but he saves the best tribute for last: the movie ends with an end title cue Goldsmith recorded for First Blood, but which was replaced by the ballad sung by Dan Hill, "It's a Long Road." So now, 26 years after Goldsmith composed it, and 3 1/2 years after the composer's death, the cue is finally heard issuing out of a movie theater sound system.

The movie certainly has its moments. John Rambo can still stalk like the best of 'em, and his dream sequence is dizzying (in a good way, not a Cloverfield way). And at the risk of validating the ridicule I sometimes attract as a scholar of action movies, I am compelled to say this:

Rambo has one of the best explosions in recent memory.

I'm not talking about size, here, but truly about technique. Not only is the effect and the photography of it great, but the aftermath--a whirlwind of leaves ripping through the jungle--is a spectacular bit of business, and feels more authentic than any of the series's action since First Blood.

But for me, the most striking moment was this: during the opening credits, several rows ahead of me, someone was recording the movie on his cell phone. Until he got caught by the theater management, I could see the compositions on the big screen and on his little display at the same time. I wouldn't have thought about it at Cloverfield or Transformers, but it gave me pause during Rambo. In 1988, when the last Rambo movie was in theaters, no one would have imagined such a scene. Pirating a movie with a portable phone?

The world really is changing. Maybe it's for the better that Rambo does not.

e martë, 4 dhjetor 2007

Happy Trails Are Here Again

If you're in the Los Angeles area around Christmastime, that fine organization, the American Cinematheque, has programmed some interesting holiday fare. On Saturday, December 22nd, the Cinematheque's Aero Theater will present Die Hard at 7:30pm. And I'm very pleased to announce that I will be introducing the film.

(Die Hard will be followed by Bad Santa, which will make the evening's entertainment one of the oddest and most righteous Christmas double features in memory.)

If you can't wait that long to see Die Hard on the big screen, I understand that the Fairfax Cinema will be running it as a midnight movie on Friday, December 14th (or technically, Saturday, December 15th; you get the idea).

Whether you've never seen the movie before, or you've seen it more times than I have (and you haven't), do consider coming out for one or both of these screenings. It's one of the most crowd-pleasing of crowd pleasers. As well known as the movie is, the laughs and yes, applause, still come at all the right places.

And there are few cinematic joys greater than being with a crowd that knows a movie so well and still claps. This braids together the two tenets of my moviegoing: delight and ritual. Among my minor obsessions are the rituals--particularly among men--that are born of our moviegoing: viewing, running dialogue, my old friend Ren's tradition of watching Die Hard at home every Christmas Eve. (One year, he changed it up and watched Die Hard 2. You know what? Wasn't the same.)

My grandmother used to be perplexed by the fact that anyone would want to see a movie more than once. (She gave a special dispensation to musicals, acknowledging that a person might want to see "a big number" again.) And I was perplexed that she did not understand how vital an aspect of movies revisiting them is. Perplexed and sorry. Especially since she was the one who first took me to Back to the Future, a movie I would see more times than she would have thought reasonable. Or advisable. Or possible.

What I could never help her understand is that when we see a movie once (or twice), the experience is mostly limited to that movie; but when we see it so many times it is imprinted on our imaginations, when we know not only the dialogue, but also the pauses, the rhythms, the inflections, when we know what shot comes next and when, then the experience is not about the movie--it is about us. And at a midnight movie, or a revival house screening, the energy of fifty or a hundred of us--each feeling, in a way, a custodian or part owner of that movie--makes me giddy like nothing else in this world.

This is why I'm sorry I don't have the energy for midnight movies like I did in my 20s. Because what the right crowd can bring to the movie's familiarity can be more energizing than the spontaneity of seeing a new release. Not to knock the latter, but the former... Only the movies could give us the gift of this experience: a shared history with a bunch of strangers.

Happy holidays to all. If you come out for the more sanely scheduled 7:30 screening on the 22nd, be sure to introduce yourself to me after. Or before. I'll be easy to spot: look for the biggest grin in the place.

As for my grandmother, this difference between us aside, she was still one of your cooler grandmas. While most grandmas were content with Murder, She Wrote, mine loved Miami Vice and every other violent cop and vigilante show from the '80s.

And yes, Die Hard.


e premte, 9 nëntor 2007

You May Remember Me From Such Posts As...

Once again, I apologize for being gone so long. Just posting with a quick update.

Since my last appearance, I have been brainstorming follow-ups to Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie. There are four projects vying for the distinction of being Book No. 2, plus a possible new article or two, and an essay I am developing for an anthology that a colleague is editing. More details as it becomes responsible to share them. (Carts before horses and all...)

Also, I've also been preparing for speaking engagements at Wesleyan University and Harvard Law School. Those are scheduled for next week.

I did find the time to speak with USA Today's Anthony Breznican, a fine writer and interviewer. Mr. Breznician wanted to interview me about Beowulf, and its role in Hollywood's ongoing technological revolution. You can find his article here:


If you have already read the piece and are new to Reaction Shot, hello. If you have been to Reaction Shot in the past, hello and enjoy the article.

Either way, I encourage you to get in touch with me directly should you wish:


Until next time, be the stuff of which epic poems are composed.

e premte, 21 shtator 2007

Stand Up and Face the Enemy

Shifting gears a bit before the weekend...

I'm writing on a fast-approaching deadline and playing music to quicken the pace. Pat Benatar's "Shadows of the Night" has come on. I have to admit, I have a certain fondness for the music of Pat Benatar. Always have. Her songs have one quality in particular that I used aggravate me, but in which I have since come to revel: their total, utter vaguness.

Since this is a movie-related blog, consider the lyrics from "Invincible," her anthem from The Legend of Billie Jean. Or this, from her hit single "Love is a Battlefield:"

We are young, heartache to heartache we stand;
No promises, no demands;
Love is a battlefield.

In college, I belonged to a society (translation: co-ed fraternity) that held a "Pretentious Poetry Night" once a semester. I always recited Pat Benatar lyrics. Not because they're pretentious; if anything, they're the opposite. They operate on such a basic, gut-level, they don't even make plain who the object of all our rockin' out angst is supposed to be. "Who is it we're actually mad at?," I have often wanted to ask her, "Parents? Teachers? Significant Others? Who?" It was during one such Pretentious Poetry Night that I hatched the title for my as-yet unwritten treatise on Pat Benatar:

Vague Rage.

Don't go thinking this is a put-down. Despite--or indeed, perhaps because of--the vagueness that attends said rage, Pat Benatar's music remains very awesome, and, I think, very American. Because in the quintessential Pat Benatar song, it doesn't matter who our enemy is; it matters only that we have one. That's how we define ourselves: against that which we are not, or better yet, against that which we are not and which really pisses us off.

Further evidence for Pat Benatar's coolness: not long ago, she played a Walk for Breast Cancer fundraiser in which my wife participated. Pat Benatar played "Invincible." My wife, reporting on the hardness with which Pat Benatar rocked so hard, told me that when Benatar sang,

We can't afford to be innocent;
Stand up and face the enemy;
It's a do or die situation;
We will be invincible

the crowd, made up of survivors, loved ones of survivors, loved ones of those battling or lost to cancer, and people passionate about finding a cure, was galvanized. It was as if the song was written for the cause.

So maybe not so vague after all.

e diel, 16 shtator 2007

Due Vigilance Part II

...or, for the Walking Tall fans among us, Part II: Due Vigilance.

First, welcome to those who found Reaction Shot by way of my recent Slate article. Happy to have you here.

Second, I'd like to expand on a few ideas I wasn't able to fully address in the piece due to my nemesis, the Word Count. In all honesty, I won't be able to fully address them here, either, but I will expound just a little, to give you a sense of how complicated the relationships among vengeance, vigilantism and American movies can become.

Notion 1: Vengeance and "True" Vigilantism are the Same but Different.

In many vigilante movies, the hero seeks revenge on the criminals who done him (or her) wrong. But in the movies I think of as "true vigilante" movies, the hero goes after crime in general. Death Wish, in which the punks who annihilate Charles Bronson's family are never seen nor heard from again, is an example of the latter. Death Wish II, in which Bronson hunts down the gang members who rape his daughter, is an example of the former. They're closely related, of course--it's not like Death Wish and Death Wish II belong to different genres.

Still, the difference in Bronson's obsessions is an important one. Vengeance is a closed system; when the last punk is killed, Bronson can hang it all up. But vigilantism in the stricter sense of the word is open-ended. Bronson has to sustain a nearly-mortal wound to bring the business of Death Wish to a close. This is why "true" (or perhaps better, "truer") vigilante movies such as and Death Wish and Ms. 45 have a more pronounced undercurrent of the hero's self-destructiveness, and with it, more of an implicit critique of vigilantism than do their more narrowly constructed counterparts. Vengeance against a specific enemy is a forward thrusting drive toward the resolution of something; vigilantism is the drive to resolve something that cannot be resolved.

Notion 2: Hey, Cops are Vigilantes, Too

At least one Slate reader--and screenwriter Steven E. de Souza--have pointed out that "Dirty" Harry Callahan and is brethren are not vigilantes because they are the police. That is, they are part of the system. This does differentiate them from the Charles Bronson-mode of movie vigilante, but again, they are close cousins. See, vigilantism isn't just about the hero. It's also about the system. Vigilantes take extralegal action when the legal system lacks either the will or the resources to arrest the problem itself. It doesn't matter then, that Harry has a gun and a badge. What matters is how he uses them--especially relative to how he is sanctioned to use them by the state.

Notion 3: We Are All In a Box

It's easy to reduce the resurgence of the vigilante to September 11 or Iraq. But as I said on Air America this past Friday, it's bigger than Iraq, if something could indeed be bigger than the cluster-screw that is Iraq. 9/11 and Iraq are certainly part of the frustration that vigilante movies are responding to, as my article indicates. But the bigger issue is how all of our political and social maladies have metastasized into a sense of our own powerlessness.

I received an unwanted lesson in this while writing the article. My wife, who was in a bizarre and fairly terrible elevator accident at work some months back, had been receiving physical therapy. After a certain number of sessions, the insurer seemed to be cutting her off, and when I pursued the matter with a workman's comp attorney, I learned this sobering fact: apparently, Governor Schwarzenegger has seen to it that in situations such as these, a patient can no longer press his or her claim to a higher, independent authority. That is, the insurer (not a doctor or judge) now has the final say on whether your workman's comp insurance will pay to complete your treatment for injuries sustained on the job.

I remember holding the phone to my ear, staring out the window at the Westwood skyline, and blinking. "How can this be?" I asked. It truly made no sense. My wife and I were without recourse, without means of redress. And then I understood--more than I had before--the appeal of vigilantism. The appeal isn't fundamentally rooted in crime, or in bad things happening; it's rooted in how powerless we are rendered in trying to respond.

This feeling that we cannot chart our own course or steer our own ship
can be enough to make us feel--in bite-sized, two-hour chunks of lost time, at least--like getting off the damn boat. It's enough to make us think that there must be a better way of reaching the New World.