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.

e enjte, 13 shtator 2007

Due Vigilance

Real quick-like: I have a new article on Slate today. It's on vigilante movies. (They're back, you know.)

I wonder what ol' Chuck Norris is going to have to say about this one. Check it out here and sound off if you care to.

e martë, 11 shtator 2007

They're on Crystal *Something*

...or are they?

Just a quick thought on the newly announced title, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Sure doesn't sound as big as a temple of doom or a last crusade, but the more I think about the title, the more brilliant it becomes. Not on its own merits (though if it seems smaller in scope, at least there's some nice alliteration going on). I mean strategically.

It's about managing expectations. When the movie is released, it may or may not be good enough to justify having waited 19 years for it, but I'm almost sure it will be good enough to vault over the low bar set by its goofy, small-ish title.

Somehow, I don't see next summer's John Rambo having the same problem to solve.

e diel, 9 shtator 2007

Next Summer's Worst Nightmare...

I have to put this Chuck Norris thing on pause to let the man get his affairs in order, and also to point out what the fine (if not always refined) fellows at JoBlo have p0sted.

They're treating us to new footage from next summer's John Rambo. It is extremely violent, but something of a hoot. Personally, I am gratified to see this piece open with Stallone hammering blazing hot steel, as I have written a lot about how Stallone's movies often liken him to something manufactured. For a critic, it's nice when your analysis of a star, a movie, a genre, what have you, becomes predictive.

OK. 'll be getting back to Chuck Norris, who, yeah that's right, wishes he could write as well as me, soon. For now, the training (montage) continues...

e premte, 7 shtator 2007

Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Pissed-Off Action Star.

My medical situation may be taking a critical turn for the worse.

I have recovered from a Very Serious Illness (as pneumonia is now known around my home) only to discover that I may have offended Chuck Norris.

You may recall that just when Live Free or Die Hard opened, I published an article on Slate about what makes "Yippe-ki-yay, motherfucker" the greatest one-liner in action movie history. (OK, pending deathbed confession: it was planned that way.) Apparently, Chuck Norris found the article and "respectfully disagreed" with what I wrote. I found this blog entry that contains a link to Norris's reaction and the blogger's own commentary, theorizing that Norris actually threw a hissy-fit over me and containing this choice quote:

"Chuck Norris wishes he could write as well as Eric Lichtenfeld."

I don't know if you'd have the experience of offending Chuck Norris, so allow me to lead you through my thought process.


My friends Jeremy and Tonia suggested that I print that quote I like so much and paste it to my wall. (If you missed the quote above, as it was centered, bold-face, and in red, it reads "Chuck Norris wishes he could write as well as Eric Lichtenfeld.") Instead, I start imagining it chiseled on my tombstone.

And the worst part is, I actually think "that'll show him."


There is me, who hasn't taken a boxing class in over a year, and who hasn't been to the gym in a month. Instead I was recovering from (have I mentioned this?) a serious upper resperitory infection. I'm not saying that back on the playground I couldn't handle myself, but it was more with my words.

Then there is the aforementioned Norris.

As my blogger-ally indicates, I am the better film historian, but that may only help me in theory. Responding to my article, Norris wrote about his favorite one-liners and had a separate section for one-liners from his movies.

Well-played, Norris, but I still believe I can hold this ground.


Yes, Chuck Norris is an action star, but a 67 year old who gets more play on the Hallmark Channel than on American Movie Classics. Soon, Texas Ranger won't be the only walker in his life. So the way I see it:

If I was facing Missing in Action Chuck Norris, I would not leave my house.

If I was facing Top Dog Chuck Norris, I would stand outside my house, but would not venture out any further.

But I'm facing Bells of Innocence and Mountain Dew ads Chuck Norris: Hell, I could stand outside his house.

See, as an action movie scholar, I have an advantage: in my book, Action Speaks Louder, published pre-posthumously this year, I chart how, in Norris's '80s movies, he comes to rely on firepower much more than his martial arts skills. I remember the weapons he used in Invasion USA, but I'll bet he had to give them back. In fact, I'm really sure that he did.

Yes, I could emerge from this confrontation unscathed.

I know my wife thinks it's still too soon for me to push myself too hard, but wait, where are those bad '80s synth pads coming from? Is that a training montage I feel comin' on?

e hënë, 3 shtator 2007

Back Among the Living

Hello, gang. My apologies for being incommunicado for so long. Was down with--of all things--pneumonia. I thought it was just watching all three Bourne movies in one shot, but it turned out to be slightly more serious. In any event, I was down, but now I am up and getting my legs back under me.

And just in time for a nice, end-of-summer vigilante film spree. With the release of "Death Sentence" and the upcoming "The Brave One," I'm working on a new article for Slate (the good people who published my piece on what makes "Yippee-ki-yay motherfucker" the best action movie one-liner in action film history). This one is about the vigilante film, then and now. I'm especially interested in the then. Charles Bronson, you, with your face as cragged (and emotive) as Mt. Rushmore, were done too soon.

More as the piece develops and as the summer movie season draws to its unfortunate close.

Lastly, a quick welcome and tip of the hat to anyone who found their way here from Ain't It Cool News. My sincere thanks to Vern for his positive review of Action Speaks Louder. I appreciate what he says about the book, but even more, I appreciate what he says about Cobra. It's one of the funniest lines I've read in a long time.

Cheers, and thanks for hanging in during my recuperation. It was long and slow, but on the upside, my couch is good and my cable package kept me in movies from the 1980s. There should be a monument erected to that decade.

Think about it: at long last we would have something that actually should be named for Ronald Reagan.

Until next time.

e martë, 24 korrik 2007

Victory is Mine

Yesteryear’s franchises have been returning to our screens both big and small. In addition to all the recent remakes, we’ve seen (or will soon see) the new adventures of Rocky and Rambo, of John McClane and Indiana Jones. Television is not immune either, with the re-launching of Battlestar Galactica and soon, The Bionic Woman.

But in addition to these high-profile properties, at least one more is making a comeback this fall, and so far, it’s still below many people’s radar: V.

You remember V: NBC’s alien invasion saga that in just the two years between 1983 and 1985, managed to devolve from brilliant political drama to pulpy claptrap. V arrived first as a four-hour miniseries on NBC in May 1983. A masterwork by writer/director Kenneth Johnson, V detailed our visitation by alien Visitors, seemingly benign, but who bring with them horror and totalitarianism. V was not grandiose science fiction so much as political and historical allegory (its specific referent was World War II). The miniseries garnered a huge audience and much acclaim.

It stands to reason, then, that it also garnered a sequel. 1984’s V: The Final Battle was a six-hour affair and included a great many more action sequences than its predecessor. However, as Johnson departed the project long before its completion, the sequel lacked much of the original’s poignancy and creeping dread.

This would be something of a stop-over, as, in October 1984, NBC debuted V: The Series, an ill-fated, mess of a show that made V: The Final Battle look like, well, V.

The series was cancelled in the spring of 1985; not even a full season’s worth of episodes aired. Spin-off toys, novels, comic books, and trading cards were not long for production either. In just two years, the property had been ground into creative bankruptcy and, it would seem, borderline irrelevance.

Still, both here and abroad, V fandom limped along. The two miniseries came to be released on home video and later on DVD, where they were joined by a boxed-set of the weekly series. Over the years, rumors and announcements have given the faithful hope that V would be relaunched. One-time science fiction luminary J., Michael Strazynski was even said to be developing his own extension the franchise, as was V’s creator, Kenneth Johnson.

This October, Johnson will unveil his vision for what happened next—not after the cliffhanger of the weekly series, but after the conclusion of his miniseries. One of the present moment’s more unusual franchise reboots, Johnson has written V: The Second Generation, a novel adapted from his teleplay for a miniseries that has yet to see production.

Underlying the novel are two premises. The first is that, twenty years after the Visitors’ arrival, they remain in power, draining Earth of its water, siphoning off its people, and perfecting their propagandist hold on all of us save for the beleaguered Resistance fighters whose only hope is another alien race that has defeated the Visitors elsewhere.

The other premise—the real premise—is that only what Johnson committed to the screen in 1983 is cannon. V: The Final Battle, V: The Series, and of course, the comics and novels, never happened. With the novel, the author brazenly asserts his authority over the franchise, and it is a welcome act. Twenty-plus years of sealed fates and established history are undone. This is one the more intriguing dimensions of the novel. And it something very few of the many franchises currently being relaunched would risk. Imagine, for instance, if only the first Rocky “counted.” (You mean he never beat Apollo? He never fought the Russian? He never had another training montage?)

I was very pleased to receive a review copy of V: The Second Generation from the publisher, TOR. In accordance with TOR’s request, I am saving much of what I have to say for a longer review and interview with Johnson that I will pen later this summer. For now, I can say that Johnson’s vision of the Earth firmly held in the grip of propagandizing totalitarians is both effective and timely. In fact, both Johnson’s new novel and original miniseries may be more relevant now than when he launched the franchise in 1983.

Readers might also be invigorated by the action sequences. Johnson indulges in more action than he did in 1983—more action and bigger action. Reading the book, it is easy to imagine how satisfying it must have been to write such sequences, especially for an author who is really a filmmaker, and one who is often confined to television at that. After all, on the printed page, one word costs the same as all the rest.

V: The Second Generation will be available in both hardcover and paperback this fall.

e mërkurë, 11 korrik 2007


Recently, upon hearing Steven Spielberg say that Michael Bay was "born to direct" Transformers, I gagged. I didn't want to believe that the movies had gotten to such a state that Bay was born to direct a single one of them. Having seen the movie though, I have to concede that Spielberg is, of course, right.

But he's right for more than the obvious reasons. Sure, the movie is enormous, and while that's not everything, it's definitely not nothing. Though I've often felt that Michael Bay has done about as much to kill the action genre as he has making action movies, I have always admired him for his sheer ability to shepherd--however forcefully--these things into being. They're not, say, blog posts, after all. So if I don't honor him as an artist, or admire him as a craftsman, I do respect him as a general who marshals his resources to get these behemoths produced and on thousands of screens the day they're supposed to be there.

This, the sheer there-ness of Transformers, is about its only admirable quality. This is unfortunate, but not unexpected. It is, after all, a movie Michael Bay was born to direct. As is in Bay's other films, everything is too much. The Autobots and Decepticons are overdesigned such that you never have the impression of really seeing anything. A few details stand out here and there (windows that become a breastplate and so on), but on the whole, each robot seems less like a designed creation than an undifferentiated mass.

This is doubly true when the robots are in motion--whether fighting or transforming. When they move, we get little more than a blur of colors and the occasional shape.

How the Transformers interact with the humans is also revealing. One of the movie's more annoying tropes is a scrappy, skimpy robot who fights Shia LaBeouf (whose performance is one of the film's few and genuine bright spots). Here is a simple truth that does not inform the blocking but should: metal is stronger than flesh. And to offer a corollary, when flesh is caught in, or pierced by, metal, it hurts.

I'm sure Bay and co. would say that divesting the fight of such basic authenticity is part of its being aimed at younger audiences. And maybe it is. But I think it's part of something else, too. Failing to ground the fight in even this most threadbare realism has less to do with how Bay depicts the robots than how he depicts the people. That is, it is one more piece of evidence that convicts Bay for his inability to portray human beings as human beings. Here and elsewhere, Bay's movies suggest that to him, a person, a human body is a toy as abstract as their CG-creations.

Say, will there by crap I can buy?

Indeed, how the movie treats its people is even more vintage-Bay than are the robots or even the action. In my book, I write about how hostile Bay's movies are to their intellectual characters, and how, with his movies and in the press, Bay himself represents a nasty, nasty strain of anti-intellectualism. Fortunately, he eases off that gas pedal in Transformers--some. While he doesn't berate such characters as much as he has in the past, he still displays a dim-witted approach to intelligence. (it's almost funny to note how, when it comes time to be smart, Anthony Andersen puts on glasses).

Sadly, Bay makes up for the film's anti-intellectualism deficit with a streak of anti-authoritarianism. To be fair, this is an action movie staple. But whereas the heroes of Dirty Harry or Die Hard mouth off to a bureaucratic superior to stress their rugged individualism, Transformers depicts authority figures as boobs for basic comic relief. The former may be anti-authoritarianism for dummies, but it's better than the latter, which is anti-authoritarianism for pussies.

To wit (and I use the word "wit" lightly): an ersatz George W. Bush asks an Air Force One flight attendant to rustle up some Ho-Ho's. Better yet, we have LaBeouf's teacher, a dweeb with appropriately dweeby sweater and glasses, and LaBeouf's parents, bumbling clods who prompt one of the Autobots to remark, "Parents are irritating. Can we take them out?"

Similarly, the detective who interrogates LaBeouf is so over-the-top, he acts and even looks like Ben Stiller's freak Globo-Gym boss in Dodgeball. Likewise, John Turturro's character, a government operative who works for "Sector 7" is "lubricated" (that is, pissed) upon by a Transformer, and is later held out as an easy object of ridicule when he is shown in his boxers and a tank-top emblazoned with a corny Sector 7 insignia, much like Superman's shield. Protecting the earth from the scum of the universe used to be the job of the Men in Black. Now it's a job for Men in Underoos. Government cutbacks, I guess.

Lambasting these types--particularly parents and teachers--is old hat for Bay, as is his unfunny stereotyping. Whereas Bay has made fun of gay and black people in The Rock, and blacks, Japanese and Samoans in Armageddon (and who the hell has a problem with Samoans, anyway?), here it's Indian telephone operators--one picking his nose at that. The intercutting of this "character" into an otherwise "tense" firefight makes me wonder if Bay will end his career having left any races or ethnicities un-exploited?

The bigger point, however, remains this anti-authoritarian comic relief. Again, it's different from the sort normally seen in action movies because, here, the brunt of it is reserved for those in authority over teenagers. Transformers is chiefly a property aimed at the young, having originated as a cross-promoting cartoon and toyline in the 1980s. Infusing the movie (or more accurately, corrupting it) with this kind of humor, puts the film in league with television shows such as Saved by the Bell and its many descendants aimed at children and teens--shows that replaced the Saturday Morning Cartoon with vibrant, live-action depictions of in-control teens and totally-out-of-it grownups. (For more on this, see sociologist Juliet Schor, who discusses similar depictions of adults in television commercials.)

...And this is what I looked like
during the funny parts.

One could argue that Transformers isn't really for adults, just as Armageddon wasn't for scientists, just as Die Hard wasn't for intellectuals. But there is a difference between not being for a group and being actively hostile towards it. Die Hard, for instance, is not anti-intellectual; it is merely non-intellectual. Armageddon and Transformers, on the other hand, are actively spiteful toward the people they are not "for." So when we laugh at this comic relief, we are, I believe, coarsened--even if just a little.

If there's one reason I'm not as worried by this as I might be, it's the reaction of the audience with which I saw Transformers tonight. To their discredit, they did laugh at the parts that were meant to be funny. But to their credit, they also laughed at the parts that were supposed to be emotional. This is because those parts felt phony, as they usually do in a Michael Bay film. The portentous musings of Optimus Prime, as well as the absurd solemnity of Steve Jablonsky's score belong in the Michael Bay Hall of Tripe. There, behind red velvet ropes, you will find them alongside Armageddon's animal cracker love-scene and faded JFK mural, and Pearl Harbor's depiction of Roosevelt, fueled by conviction, rising from his wheelchair.

That moment has always stayed with me because it reveals a question central to Bay's work: does that claptrap really work on him as a moviegoer, or is it just what he thinks will work on us? The distinction may seem small, but it's not. It marks the difference between being a genuine cornball and a mere hack. The former is better; at the very least, to be a cornball is to have some heart. But the fact that cynicism and stereotyping are such indelible parts of his work makes me fear that it's the latter.

It's sad, really. He is not completely ungifted; Michael Bay can shoot--or fix in post--a sky like nobody else. But sadder still is the thought that occurred to me during one of the many fights that left me sufficently distracted to think (even if I couldn't hear myself doing it): right now, in the world, there are kids who think this movie is great.

It's almost enough to make you wish summer was over already.

e hënë, 2 korrik 2007

We've Got the Wrong George.

If George W. believes the world is a Western, the least he could do is let us keep our Scooter Libby prison movie. While not pardoning Libby, Bush has commuted the 30 months Libby was to serve. Reactions and analysis are starting to come in. So far, my favorite is Josh Marshall's at TalkingPointsMemo. I'll see his conclusion and raise him this: if the conviction should stand, but the sentence was excessive, then how about all those imprisoned on more minor drug offfenses? And isn't this coming from the governor who's executed more prisoners than like, any other?

I saw a disaster of a different sort this weekend:

I was thrilled to see Earthquake on the big screen--and at long last, in Sensurround. I think our ears have been desensitized by home theater, so the effect wasn't as momentous as it would have been in 1974. Still, it was a hoot.

The audience threw itself into the calamity with sheer abandon. Watching Ava Gardner chew what's left of the scenery, and on a beautiful print no less, made for quite a Saturday night.

Of course, the rest of the cast is a treat, as well, including the ever-earnest, ever-trustworthy George Kennedy. Unlike that other George, George Kennedy would not have stolen the election, disregarded the threat posed by al Qaeda before September 11, outsourced the job of capturing bin Laden, barred his critics from reelection campaign appearances, nominated Harriet Meiers, stood by Alberto Gonzales, authorized illegal wiretaps, or brooked the outing of a CIA operative.

George Kennedy would not have let New Orleans fall--and if it had, "You're doing a heckuva job, Brownie" would have instead been, in classic disaster movie tradition, "You knew and you didn't warn anybody!" On the off-chance George Kennedy's integrity flagged, and he commuted Libby's sentence, Kennedy would later exclaim what he exclaims in Earthquake: "Alright, it was dumb, but that's how I figured it!"--words that will never pass the lips of W., self-inspection that will never pass his subconcious.

George Kennedy in '08. He's an even better choice of actor than Fred Thompson. George Kennedy's run could validate that true Republican ideal: meritocracy. Remember, in just four Airport movies, George Kennedy's Joe Patroni went from maintenance supervisor to pilot. Of the Concorde.

And finally, something that wasn't a disaster: my recent book signing went well, and my thanks to those who attended. For proof that it actually happened:

Taking questions...

...Signing copies

UPDATE: I'll be out of town for a few days--off to Columbus, Ohio to visit my wife's family. Then I'll be back to gear up for the last scheduled signing: July 12th at the Borders in Santa Barbara (900 State St, 7pm). Drop by if you can. 'Tis the season to be thinking about action movies, after all.

e premte, 29 qershor 2007

This Made My... (You Know the Rest)

Thanks to all who have contacted me or expressed their views about my article, "Yippee-Ki-Yay," a modest consideration of the action movie's greatest one liner. The piece was published on Slate earlier this week.

The most fascinating response was this counter-proposal, posted by Timothy Noah, who writes Slate's fine column, "Chatterbox."

Call me old fashioned, but I think Lichtenfeld should show more respect for Clint Eastwood's "Make my day." Even though I never saw Sudden Impact, the Dirty Harry movie it was uttered in--I only saw the trailer--I rank "Make my day" as the greatest action flick one-liner of all time. Admittedly, in the quarter-century since its introduction "Make my day" has lost much of its freshness, and the phrase was sullied by Ronald Reagan when he used it to threaten veto of a tax increase in 1985. But there's a reason Reagan and various others co-opted "Make my day." It was and remains a small masterpiece of economy.

Imagine a tough cop saying to some violent punk, "You're doing me a favor by forcing me to act in self-defense because I will actually enjoy killing you, something I wouldn't have the opportunity to do otherwise, given the rules imposed by the law and by my profession, not to mention the ethical consensus imposed less formally by civilized society--rules that I am compelled, grudgingly, to obey." Kind of a mouthful, right? "Make my day" communicates all this in a three-word Haiku. As a bonus, those three words perfectly express the uniquely warped psyche of the Dirty Harry character. Yes, "Make my day" is an expression of individual derangement and egomania rather than a summing-up of the collective American mythology. So what? This is an action movie we're talking about, not some damned folk song.

I saw the first two "Die Hard" movies when they came out, and, to be honest, I don't even remember "Yippee Ki-Yi-Yay motherfucker." I think probably that's because the line was so clearly improved on later when Arnold Schwarzenegger said "Hasta la vista, baby" in Terminator 2. At any rate, compared to "Make my day," "Yippee Ki-Yi-Yay motherfucker" is downright loquacious, and action movie heroes are supposed to say as few words as is humanly possible. It's also less exhuberantly fascistic, and let's face it, we don't exactly want our action movie heroes to be card-carrying members of the ACLU. "Yippee Ki-Yi-Yay motherfucker" is "Make my day" with the pathology washed out of it, and where's the fun in that?

I loved this. And as I later told Mr. Noah, both "Yippee-ki-yay" and "Go ahead, make my day" resonate with me--which must make me a renaissance man.

e martë, 26 qershor 2007


First, a programming note. For you L.A.-area types, I’m having a book signing and reception for Action Speaks Louder tonight. Come down to the Borders at 1360 Westwood Boulevard at 7pm. As one of John McClane’s former foes might put it, “Failure to comply will result in a penalty.”

And now a reaction to McClane’s latest…

When Air Force One opened in 1997, Hollywood’s long cycle of Die Hard clones effectively ended. A decade later—almost to the day—the Die Hard franchise returns with a fourth installment: Live Free or Die Hard, a.k.a Die Hard 4.0 a.k.a. Die Hard 4, a.k.a. Die Hard 4: You Mean They Actually Made a Die Hard 4?

In the movie, Bruce Willis returns as Detective and technophobe John McClane, now teamed up with whiz-kid Matt Farrell (Justin Long). They join forces to battle cyber-terrorists trying to do something very bad with computers (actually, McClane is the force; Matt is more of a stiff breeze).

Willis played a lone-wolf in the first two Die Hards, but buddied up with Samuel L. Jackson in the third. The only thing noteworthy about the partnership in Live Free or Die Hard is the age difference—mainly because it is part of both a small, recent trend and a long tradition. Justin Long is to Willis what lanky teen James Francis Kelly was to Stallone in Rocky Balboa, what the young mercenaries are likely to be to his John Rambo, and what Shia Le Beouf’s character will probably be to Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones.

Cynics may say that these young sidekicks are being injected into these weathered franchises to make them relevant to young revenuestrea—that is, audiences, who have no longstanding investment in these properties. I see it another way. These young tagalongs serve as an excellent source of hero-worship. Their eyes become our eyes. In fact, in at least one scene from Live Free or Die Hard, Long does not play Matt Farrell so much as he plays the justification forMcClane’s speech about what it means to be “that guy.”

Vain? Sure. At the same time, however, this hero worship, this business of the younger revering the older, is one long cherished by American movies. Westerns such as Shane and The Tin Star come to mind, as do their darker cousins, Pale Rider and Unforgiven. And as action movies such as Die Hard are direct descendants of the Western, it seems that Live Free or Die Hard goes an awful long way to come back home.

Still, a nod to the cynics. Much of the cast is a little too fresh-faced. This is particularly true of the villains. Their leader, the young, remarkably well-shaved Timothy Olyphant (who sounds like Bill Paxton, but somehow looks like nobody) lacks seriousness much as Brandon Routh did in Superman Returns. Likewise, his accomplice, played by Maggie Q, is as much a non-presence as was Lois Lane when played by Kate Bosworth.

This also applies to many of the more minor villains and some of the FBI agents. These generically attractive aand unmarked faces make one long for the original Die Hard, Superman, and others—fantasies, yes, but ones that felt more populated by adults, and therefore more real. In Long’s case at least, the Die Hard franchise is well served by the shot of youthfulness he brings to it. After all, the movie has to do something to balance the fact that its main appeal is a nostalgic one (as is that of a new Rocky, Rambo, Superman, or Indiana Jones).

Not what Erica Jong had in mind by "Fear of Flying."

But Live Free or Die Hard offers up its nostalgia in an unexpected way. While the return of JohnMcClane surely resonates with lovers of great 1980s fare, Live Free or Die Hard is much more rooted in the 1990s.

The villains are that familiar type: the government employee—nay, former hero!—gone wrong. The film reinforces this visually, as the terrorists kill while wearing FBI uniforms. Pushing this convention of the American turncoat terrorist to its most subversive extreme, the villains use edited footage of U.S. presidents to issue their demands. (Imagine a video ransom note.) Also consistent with 1990s villainy, the bad guys have turned tocyber -terrorism not out of politics or ideology will, but because, apparently, there is money in it. They are mostly white. They are mostly American.

There are a few exceptions: an Eastern European or two (judging from their age, perhaps they were supposed to be part of that Nakatomi thing, but didn’t get on the truck in time), and Maggie Q’s martial artist Mai Lihn. Though only vaguely Asian, the character stands out against the whiteness (not to mention blandness) of her comrades. In so doing, she is a throwback to the exotic villainess of film noir, another genre that sired the action film.

But then there’s the FBI: a cornucopia of races and hard-to-pin-down ethnicities. It is so ‘extremely ‘90s PC it is actually funny. Or it would be. After all, when a movie is this macho, and its explosions, shootings, and beatings (of which more than one is administered to a woman), are rendered with such abandon, it is sad to then see such obvious caution.

Much has been made of the film's—or more accurately, Twentieth Century’s Fox’s—caution. During post- production, Live Free or Die Hard was edited to trade an R-rating for a PG-13. This did not thrill the Die Hard fan base, but even this tamer version is plenty brutal. What is more noticeable is the relative lack of profanity. Indeed, f-bombs are about the only things in the film that don’t eventually explode.

But this is not what weakens Live Free or Die Hard the most. Vying for that distinction are the meager villains (typing, no matter how hard, just isn't very cinematic) and the film's style. The sets seem to be a succession of riffs on the headquarters of 24. The photography is heavy on contrast and light on the suppleness of the first film, or the shrewdly crafted urgency of the third. None of this is helped by the somber color palette, at times spanning the whole spectrum between blue-grey and charcoal. Even while not taking itself too seriously, it is still sometimes too somber.

But some of the action is inventive. And though McClane's one-liners don't crackle this time around, McClane sometimes reacts as if he were a moviegoer himself. (Simple lines such as "Oh-ho-no" went over surprisingly well with the audience.)

In the end, this Die Hard may not earn much cheering. But a "welcome back" won't be out of order.

e enjte, 21 qershor 2007

The Republican Field: A Land of Men?

Lately, I've had action heroes on the brain: John McClane, Indiana Jones, Republicans.

Of course, the heroic comportment of the Bush administration and the Republican candidates shares something fundamental with the heroism of our big-screen tough-guys: it is totally fictional.

Vital to how a hero holds himself are authority and manliness. And while the suggestion that Republicans project these attributes more effectively than Democrats is not exactly groundbreaking, I am continually amazed at how the media helps such Republicans blur the line between reality and roleplaying.

Political blogger Glenn Greenwald has taken a hard look at, and a wide view of, this phenomenon. In a particularly disturbing piece, he starts with a narrow focus: the posturing of Fred Thompson and the response to it by MSNBC's Chris Matthews--one that suggests Matthews is charting a trajectory from talking head to Thompson groupie.

Be warned: It's bizarre. How bizarre? Let's just say that if you thought the dance of politics and media couldn't get more homoerotic than Jeff Gannon, then in the words of Bette Davis
(appropos of everything), "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night."

One other item: This Tuesday, there will be two places to look for me. For those of you in Los Angeles, I'll be signing copies of my book,
Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie at the Borders Books & Music in Westwood (1360 Westwood Blvd.) starting at 7pm.

For those of you in the world, Tuesday will also be the day my first piece for Slate.com will be published. The article reveals which one-liner is the greatest in action movie history--and why.

That's this Tuesday, June 26th. The date is easy to remember. Just start with the release date of Live Free or Die Hard, then subtract one.

e enjte, 14 qershor 2007

Obligatory Sopranos Posting (Because Another Day or Two, And it Wouldn't Be Timely)

I have a theory. History will be kind to The Sopranos’s series finale—certainly kinder than its fans are being now.

I know; I was frustrated, too. But the ambiguity nudged me to think not of the resolution of Tony’s story, but of what the show has always been about. Family, yes, but also memory, and the strain against how homogenized everything has become.

The Sopranos has illustrated that America's common culture is first a consumer culture. Like many of the hits that have been carried out on The Sopranos, the show's critiques of consumerism rarely came head-on. They were subversive. Scenes of mafia intrigue set at big chain stores like Staples or Home Depot come to mind. As does the moment when Carmela, advised to read Madame Bovary, replies simply, “I’ll stop at Borders on the way home.” More to the point, Phil Leotardo’s gas-station assassination may be memorable for its suddenness and the great visual gag involving the babies in the SUV as it ba-bum-bumps over Phil’s head, but the most intriguing detail is that moments before Phil is shot, he is framed against a Barnes & Noble.

To be sure, the series is littered with many other examples of how the big and soulless are juxtaposed with—nay, how they encroach upon—the individualized. And such loss is a low-grade obsession of The Sopranos. In the pilot, Tony laments how today, no one is old-school, and everyone is willing to be flipped. At home, Tony is unable to excite A.J. about his Italian heritage (the boy rejects his grandmother’s hard Italian candy), and is alone in his semi-comic interest in the History Channel.

Of course, the strongest evidence of the show’s preoccupation with the past is Tony’s “work” with Dr. Melfi (perhaps the longest-running B-plot in television history). After all, what is therapy but—on one level at least
a form of mental and emotional archaeology?

This makes Uncle Junior’s final scene in the series finale. all the more poignant. The man does not even remember that he was part of “this thing of ours.” For everything that tied Tony and Uncle Junior to each other (including murder attempts), and everything that divided them (including murder attempts), Junior filled one vital role in Tony’s life, a role filled by no one else at home or at the Bing: he was the memory. And with the memory gone, so is that which, for Tony, balances the pabulum of the modern world.

This strain is what makes the characters’ gluttony so appealing. Ever since The Godfather, gangster sagas have focused on food—both its familial connotations, and also its raw, sensory appeal. The Sopranos adds an additional charge to this convention: against the backdrop of Staples and Borders and Barnes & Noble, of SUVs and suburban sprawl, when Tony gorges, he is stuffing himself with the world almost faster than its color is disappearing.

Since the days of the Production Code, America's gangster stories have almost all been tragedies. This is certainly true of the genre's more modern classics, including Goodfellas and The Godfathers. What The Sopranos has done is take the gangster saga's requisite ruin and spread it across a vast amount of time. So, while the finale may not have been climactic, it was consistent with a trajectory the show had been plotting since the pilot. Even when lightened by comedy or punctuated by violence, the show was mournful, a stop-motion tragedy.

All of this is why the series ends exactly where it has to: at a diner
and not around the Sopranos’ table. In an almost throwaway reference, A.J. reveals that the family was going to have Carmela’s manicot; instead, they settle for the All-American generic. This is echoed by the soundtrack. The series's final song is Journey's "Don't Stop Believing," instead of the juke box selections on which Tony dwells: two songs by Tony Bennett. Once again, the generically American trumps the specifically Italian.

As for how the series ends, frustrating though the final image is, the show has never been about closure (how many story arcs have been established but never completed?). So rather than critique, interpret, or lambaste it, I focus on what it did: refer me to the past, which is what the show has always been about, rather than the future, which its characters never really had.

e enjte, 7 qershor 2007

"...Just another American who saw too many movies as a child?"

Don’t let the banner fool you. I may be a critic, and sometimes a tough audience, but I’m not a malcontent. It might be a little aggressive, I know; but I've made something of a name for myself writing about action movies. And besides, it's really just a reference to the opening credits of Magnum Force.

Reaction Shot will be a place to blast away at our sprawling pop-cultural and political landscape, or to aim with laser-like focus on the ridiculously specific. It’s all fair game: Structured argument, free association. A whole genre, a specific scene. Government, entertainment, advertising, even the marketing of breakfast cereal (just you wait). And the 1980s. Expect lots of writing on the 1980s.

This may seem scattered, but then, there's a lot to react to. And I believe that when we look around, we all feel--at least a little--like Big Trouble in Little China's Jack Burton. “I’m a reasonable guy,” Old Jack insists, “but I’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things.”

I hope Reaction Shot will be fun: at times serious, at others frivolous. I hope it will be surprising. I think it might. After all, how many people could you possibly know who preoccupy themselves with ranking the movies of John Badham? And though I may sometimes seem random, I hope you will find it relevant. On that score, if you happen to have a strong opinion on, say, the movies of John Badham, then we’ll be off to a particularly good start.