Sunday, August 31, 2008

Tropic Thunder

There's not a lot of plots left. Most recent movies, especially comedies, can be stripped of a couple character intricacies and look like a dozen other films from the last few years. Not that this is empirically a bad thing - Superbad is one of my favorite comedies of the decade and its plot is the same as a hundred high school party movies, proving that execution can trump idea - but one of the things I loved about Tropic Thunder is that I really haven't seen this movie before. I've seen comedies about making movies, and I've seen jungle-set war movies, but the union? That's genuinely fresh.

Props go to co-writer / director Ben Stiller - he's acted in some rancid shit, but behind the keyboard and camera he's crafted an energetic, absurd, clever, and very entertaining Hollywood satire. There's a bit of an "everything and the kitchen sink" approach to the film, with a lot of different plot threads, characters, and satirical elements crammed into the 100 minutes along with some action scenes, and although not every single thing works the aggregate makes most other recent comedies look flat-out lazy. There's refreshing ambition here.

The satirical element may not dominate every second as completely as in other filmmaking comedies like Bowfinger or Living in Oblivion - sometimes the movie just takes some time out for hysterically over-the-top gore and flat-out absurdity that doesn't ask the audience know much about movies, but in skewering self-important actors, power-mad producers, desperate agents, incompetent directors, and even awards shows and movie trailers, you definitely get the feeling that Stiller is writing what he knows and lives. A bit of knowledge of film greatly enhances the experience; the one-movie-a-year crowd (which boggles my mind, but apparently they do exist) would probably not enjoy it nearly as much.

The ace in the hole is Robert Downey Jr., of course, playing an Australian actor playing a black man. It would be offensive if it wasn't hysterical, but when he's in black mode he wins a laugh with damn near every painfully earnestly-delivered line. His shameless commitment to milking all the absurdity and comedy about of every second of screentime is something special to behold, and watching Downey Jr. launch into the big time between this and Iron Man has been one of the 2008's finest cinematic treats.

Stiller is fairly funny as well, and although the press is largely skimming over him in reviews Jay Baruchel serves the thankless straight man role extremely well and has a much bigger part than indicated by the trailers. And Tom Cruise's much-typed supporting role is very funny, although it certainly doesn't steal the show from Downey Jr. as some reviews have claimed. Matthew McConaughey does his best onscreen work since Dazed and Confused fifteen years ago.

The only acting surprise / disappointment is that Jack Black's character is ultimately really insignificant - he barely serves the plot, is hardly the focal point of a single scene, doesn't get that many great lines (with one highly noteworthy exception), doesn't do anything important in the end, and almost feels more like a really, really extended cameo than an important part.

But when all is said and done, although Jack Black may not do much and a joke or two may fall flat, I did love the movie and have no problem placing it up with Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Pineapple Express as 2008's third great comedy. There's been a lot of debate on forums and such as to whether Tropic Thunder or Pineapple Express is better - a debate which seems inane, since the two have nothing to do with each other - but although I would probably personally place Pineapple Express a hair above (for James Franco if nothing else), I really see them as perfect companion pieces. Both are profanity-laden, hard-R comedies. Both have way more gunfire, explosions, blood, guts, and death than we normally associate with comedies. Both have a single movie-stealing supporting performance (Franco and Downey Jr.). Both have Danny McBride in a significant and Bill Hader in a minor supporting role. Hell, Tropic Thunder even has an Apatow Productions ambassador in Jay Baruchel. So I say see 'em both, see 'em hardcore - bask in the comedy goodness, because a double whammy this collectively funny is rare.

4 Stars out of 5

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Pineapple Express

James Franco has been one of the blandest leading men in the last few years of cinema. I liked him in Freaks & Geeks a decade back, but somewhere between Tristan + Isolde, Annapolis, and Flyboys, I was ready to call out "FINIS! ENOUGH! No more James Franco!"

But, well, fuck me, because it turns out that James Franco is a comedic genius. Perhaps it lies in the novelty, but James Franco's deadpan, well-meaning, mentally sluggish stoner in Pineapple Express is one of the funniest onscreen characters of the last five years, and made me laugh out loud every few lines. If Harold and Kumar are the anti-pothead stereotypes - Ivy League-educated, whip smart financial and medical whiz kids - Franco's Saul Silver is the exact opposite, pushing the pothead stereotype to the brilliant cusp of parody and scoring a comedic home run in the process.

There's always an inherent risk to "weed movies" - occasionally they actually surround that element with independently good, well-written comedy (see the previously mentioned Harold & Kumar), but at least 80% of the time it's a lazy cop-out for easily-amused potheads in movies that repeatedly cry out "Weed! Lol!", no more intelligently than Epic Movie or Meet the Spartans cry out "Movies! Lol!" (see Half Baked, Grandma's Boy, a million other weed movies).

But except for one scene I'll discuss in a second, Pineapple Express is very much the former. Dumb potheads, excessive profanity, awkward situations, and comically heightened violence are notes many films both good and bad have incorporated, but Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's screenplay composes them into a minor symphony of comedic gusto, and strongly reminiscent of their earlier work on Superbad burns the innately hilarious latent homoeroticism between the two male leads through the whole picture, lending humor to every interaction whether the dialogue is blatantly comic or not. The way that Rogen and Franco's characters awkwardly interact at the beginning, bond through traumatic experiences, fight, break up, and get back together is more or less structured like 95% of cinematic romances (with the sole exception that they don't fuck in the end). And therein lies the genius.

Seth Rogen is just as talented a comic actor as screenwriter, and although James Franco steals the flick by far, Rogen makes a great straight man and reminded me why I'm a fan. Danny McBride is a consistently funny goofball sidekick (and also more than a bit homoerotic), Amber Heard is very likable as the sort-of-but-not-really romantic interest, and Ed Begley Jr. nearly wins the movie in his one scene as her shotgun-wielding father, if only for one line about what he wants to do to Seth Rogen in the street (again, homoerotic!). Gary Cole and Rosie Perez are just kind of there as the villains, they do fine but aren't that memorable. Being the villains, their heterosexuality is never in question.

The other element of the film is the action - watching Seth Rogen and James Franco just sit around talking and smoking pot is pretty funny, but they thankfully soon accidently instigate a blood, bullet, and explosion-laden drug war, lest we don't have a narrative. Although it's never really life-and-death exciting and aims more for heightened, surreal comedy, director David Gordon Green lends the action scenes an extremely energetic, fun touch. And I love that they don't shy away from R-rated violence to compliment their R-rated drugs and profanity in the least - many bullets are shot into heads, stomachs, chests, and other extremities, and blood, guts, and brains fly. And that's the stuff entertainment is made of.

The one part of the film I didn't like was the first five minutes, which features a flashback to a 1950s military bunker where they are experimenting with weed. Most of the scene is just Bill Hader smoking pot and acting goofy. It's way off the tone of the entire film and unlike the rest of the movie which uses weed to compliment the action and characters, is unfortunately just "Weed! Lol!" I was thankfully won over almost immediately after the first scene, but it starts the film off on the wrong foot and were I to edit the movie I just would have completely lopped it off.

But getting past that it joins Hot Fuzz, Kung Fu Hustle, and Planet Terror as one of the most entertaining action-comedies of the decade. I kind of hope James Franco doesn't do much more comedy (at least not another character like this), to let this stand as a wonderful, unique, timeless performance. And ending the film with a brand new Huey Lewis and the News theme song? Brilliant.

3 Stars out of 5

Friday, August 22, 2008

American Teen

American Teen, a documentary chronicling senior year in the lives of four Warsaw, Indiana high school students, was the talk of the town at the Sundance Film Festival, roundly praised as a warm, intimate, and unusually complex look into high school sociology. So I went and I saw but I'm afraid I have to report that the Emperor has no goddamn clothes.

Don't get me wrong, I went in wanting to like it. I'm a massive sucker for high school movies and will almost always enjoy them no matter how generic they get. Occasionally a Superbad will arrive to redeem my faith at a fundamental level, but I can even happily sit through Drillbit Taylor. Why I like 'em so much is hard to say - something about the innate cinematic potential of a bunch of horny young people forced together into an educational building is just compelling - but watching American Teen I absolutely concluded that it's definitely not nostalgia for the actual process of going to high school itself as I was struck by the powerful realization that, "Hey! None of this is interesting!"

Yes, in real life, high school seniors stress out over getting into college, hang out, talk about wanting to escape their hometown, gossip about who's fucking who, and generally engage in small, petty, pointless drama that's meaningless history the second that diplomas are in hand, and guess what - that's exactly what happens in this movie, and nothing more! Unless voyeurism really, really gets you off, there's just nothing here that convinces me anyone needed to film or see this. I suppose I can understand age 40, 50, and 60+ critics to whom mid-00s teenage life is exotic and mysterious being fascinated, but as someone just a few years removed its as mundane to me as taking a shit. If anything I was reminded why I was so enthusiastic to get out of high school back when.

But there's also something more nefarious at work, something that skates really thin on the ice of journalistic integrity. It's impossible for a documentary to truly be "pure," of course - the second you make a cut, you've manipulated things. You re-arrange events to form a narrative, cut out bits that go against that narrative, re-film establishing shots and B-roll footage for transitions, maybe even loop a line or two. But American Teen transcends that, and even watching the movie for the first (only) time, I could tell that many events were either staged or very blatantly recreated, i.e. when the cameras missed an important event the kids were re-gathered and told to act it out with the cameras on. Not with a script exactly, but tightly on a topic, like Curb Your Enthusiasm.

I could tell this because I can identify acting when it's going on, significant conversations occured in bizarrely empty school hallways, and wildly inconsistent acne and hair continuity tell no lies. Other halves of phone conversations were clearly re-recorded and dumped on top of the audio mix, people were goaded into doing interesting things or fed lines from behind the camera, and in general it became a narrative, not a documentary.

To satisfy my suspicions I logged onto message forums and read reports from other students of the high school who confirmed that events were indeed recreated, the filmmakers moved in an entourage through school hallways and classrooms shouting at other students to make room for their "stars," pushed people to interact with or date specific other people, and were even accused of giving the kids alcohol and instructing them to act up. This throws a harsh and unforgiving light on any claim of authenticity and makes me question whether or not what I saw can be straight-facedly be called a "documentary."

Even beyond that I'm at a bit of a loss why people were crediting this film with achieving a level of depth and nuance superior to other examinations of teen life. Amongst the four major subjects, literally no stereotypes are broken, shattered, or even challenged. Our rich, popular hot girl is largely manipulative and vile and gets everything she wants in the end. Our nice jock hangs out with his buds and gets a sports scholarship to a local college. Our art girl dances around and acts crazy and eventually goes to an art school. Our nerd is a nerd, he fails with all the girls. (And in another funny anti-authenticity note, he is shown in one scene playing The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess alone, to emphasize his isolation. This movie was shot in the fall '05 - spring '06 school year. Twilight Princess came out in November of '06. Gee, I wonder if footage was shot after principal photography?)

I literally have no idea what stereotypes were supposedly challenged, and I'm not just being an argumentative bastard - I just really don't see any! The director seems by far the most enamored with indie art girl Hannah who thinks she's a big rebel by being liberal and freespirited in Warsaw, Indiana, but she is absolutely no different than a dozen indie art girls I knew in Dallas who thought they were big liberal freespirited rebels. Even the Nintendo-loving nerd, who as a former high school Nintendo-loving nerd I should be able to relate to, just bored me to tears.

So unless you're an old person who wants to see how high school in the '00s is different than when you graduated (hint: it's exactly the same plus text messages), go ahead and watch it, but for anyone else, you can experience the same shit in one-tenth the time frame by skimming your senior yearbook, and I'd recommend just doing that instead.

1 Star out of 5

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is not a good movie. However, I will stand in the awkward, lukewarm middle ground of saying that while I was dumbstruck by its near-constant stupidity, I didn't hate it, and while I can't really recommend it I do feel that the epic critical ass-fucking it's gotten is just a wee bit on the excessive side. I didn't respect it but I wasn't offended either, and statements on that Rotten Tomatoes page like Chris Laverty's zinger, "Hopefully one ay we'll be able to sue for experiences like this," are eye-rolling over the top.

I confess an inherent weakness for adventure movies that colors my perception of The Mummy. I love watching some movie characters go on a journey and get into action scenes and escape and uncover a mystery and and triumph against evil in the end, and (assuming it isn't handled with the ineptitude of Eragon) that basic arc will always entertain me, which is probably part of why I enjoy all seven Roger Moore James Bond films, Willow is one of my favorite movies, and despite all the Internet bluster and rage and flying e-spittle about how Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a Phantom Menace-level affront, I was forced to shrug and give the 1,000+ word version of saying "well, I liked it."

And that adventure formula does apply here: Indiana Jones-wannabe-Rick O'Connell's son (who is hilariously like 27 when Brenden Fraser is obviously in his late 30s) unearths the Jet Li mummy. Everyone goes to China. The Jet Li mummy comes to life. There's some chases, guns are fired, magic is unleashed. Everyone goes to a snowy mountain. Yetis and a dragon enter the narrative, there is another gunfight. Everyone goes to the desert. There is an undead army and an airplane with machine guns and a final showdown of main hero vs main villain. Shit blows up. Pretty colors. Cheesy, B-level comedy. Good battles evil, good wins (oh no, I've spoiled the ending, I feel so badly).

And I wasn't bored - it's not good, but everything I said above happens and if you, like me, love adventure movies I bet you could at least sit through it on DVD and not feel you've wasted your time. So I've given it all the props I possibly can. However, that said, this movie is absolutely flooded with problems on every structural level - from the basic logic of the narrative to the unoriginality of the storyline to the acting to the dialogue to the attempts at comedy to the action scenes to the special effects.

I've only watched The Mummy and The Mummy Returns once or twice each and I was surprised to find I could have any nostalgia for these films I thought myself utterly apathetic towards, but as far as villains go, compared to Jet Li's impossibly bland, unthreatening, one-note, undeveloped, and limp Dragon Emperor, the tears of nostalgia welled up as I ruminated on how much I missed the first two films' Imhotep, who positively radiated power, presence, and charisma compared to this guy. Not a slam on Jet Li - I've greatly enjoyed him in several other films - but a slam on how poorly this villain was conceived. He wouldn't be on my top 1,000 villains list. And the plot he's involved in is the exact same plot as the first two films, not a clever note to be found in the entirety.

And the O'Connell family, if anything, fares even worse than their opposition. Brendan Fraser is fine, I guess - not great, not bad, just fine - but as Evelyn has been recast with a bizarrely bland Maria Bello he feels really incomplete. Again, I was surprised to find myself missing an element of the first two films, but Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz did have undeniably peppy and fun chemistry and their interplay managed to lend the films an element of warmth and heart (often in spite of rather than because of their dialogue). I rooted for them as a duo. Maria Bello and Fraser have no chemistry and she absolutely never feels like anything more than an unwelcome impostor. The trinity keeping the spirit of these films alive was Brendan Fraser's Rick, Rachel Weisz' Evelyn, and Arnold Vosloo's Imhotep, and now the goddamn tripod has one leg.

And their kid, Alex O'Connell, their goddamn kid. I mean, he's not "a KID" - as I said he's actually absurdly old - but he is no less annoying than any plucky little kid sidekick could ever be. For anyone who griped about the wiry Shia LaBeouf as Indy's son in Crystal Skull, I offer in retort this jaw-droppingly bland male model hangin' out in the flick, being a cocky asshole, stealing half the screentime, laying flat one one-liner after another, and generally seeming a misplaced soap opera actor. His "romantic" scenes across from the Asian ninja chick they pick up in their journey very, very literally had me cringing away from the screen and covering my eyes in genuine embarrassment for the actors, writers, director, and key grips who were on set at the time of filming.

The action scenes are where our last major hope remains, and, well, I guess they're decently animated. That's about all I can offer, though, as every time any of the action begins (except for one moderately entertaining car chase through a Chinese street in the first act) everything just turns into a fuckin' cartoon; it's worse in that way than the worst parts of Attack of the Clones, and we weep for the demise of the stunt man's profession as CGI yetis interact with CGI representations of heroes and henchman and we watch hundreds of lifeless CGI zombies do battle. There's little weight, tension, or drama to any of it, and Jet Li literally never gets a chance to show off more than faint, tantalizing hints of his martial arts prowess for what I doubt was more than 20-30 seconds of total screentime.

So yeah, on a cinematic level, The Mummy 3 sucks. But not discounting anything I just said I will admit I admired its adventure flick, Indiana Jones-wannabe spirit in spite of its flaws; it's the chipper, well-meaning Down syndrome kid in your high school who dreams of NBA stardom - his limitations ultimately render his dreams so far beyond reach as to be Shakespearian tragedy, but his pluckiness and enthusiasm lets you smile and nod and pretend like it's the effort that counts.

1 Star out of 5

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


The genre pastiche can reap rewards both great and bizarre, and we rarely see a combo as conceptually out there as Baghead, which slaps together the so-called "mumblecore" genre with B-movie cabin horror to flawed but somewhat enjoyable results.

For the uninformed who need a crash course on what "mumblecore" is, it defines a relatively new film genre pioneered by writer / directors like Andrew Bujalski, Joe Swanberg, and the Duplass Brothers (who wrote and directed Baghead), typically characterized by extremely low-key cinematography, naturalistic acting, a focus on human minutiae over action, and typically slice-of-life stories that usually center on the relationships of disaffected young adults. Some people think "mumblecore" movies barely qualify as films, others really like them; I am among the latter.

The first act of Baghead holds true to many of these tropes as we follow four struggling actors who relocate to a secluded cabin in the woods to spend the weekend writing a screenplay. Relationship woes and general amusing social awkwardness ensue. But before long a knife-wielding man with a brown paper bag over his head removes their car's engine and begins tormenting them - the Baghead. A unique combination of humanistic comedy and extremely B-movie horror ensues.

As for what works, as I said before, I enjoy the "mumblecore" aesthetic; I think the naturalism and inherent awkwardness of its fly-on-the-wall, vérité style feeds into an easy comedic rhythm that generates, if not big belly laughs, a lot of small laughs by reminding one of personal experiences. Particularly when the acting is good, as it generally is here (albeit not exceptional). And I find the union of that low-concept style with the trappings of a genre film an appealingly experimental idea.

However, horror is my least favorite genre, so for me that element imposed on more than enhanced the film. Not always, as it is what gives the movie its narrative thrust and drives the characters into the panic that generates the comedy, but when the film starts to feel a little Blair Witch-ish near the end, it lost me. And furthermore, the film's Hollywood parody is a little limp and doesn't say anything other films about films haven't.

On the whole though I somewhat enjoyed it and would probably recommend it to indie film fans, although I would suggest watching other "mumblecore" movies like Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation, and The Puffy Chair first to see if this style is for you or not. Not everyone enjoys it, but I find it endearing. Now someone just needs to make a mumblecore action movie; now that would be an experiment.

2 Stars out of 5

Friday, August 15, 2008

Favorite Movie Villains Addendum

My favorite movie villains list was a lot of fun to make. The entire thing, by my word processor's count, comes out to 16,512 words (or 66 pages if it were a book). Holy shit! But there are so many great villains in cinema that I'll admit narrowing it down to even a top 100 was a Herculean task, so, being a benevolent list-maker, I'll briefly pay tribute to the top ten who just barely failed to make the cut:

101. Xenia Onatopp (GoldenEye)
Bond villain alert! The most memorable of all James Bond villainesses, Xenia crushes men between her thighs and evidently orgasms while gunning people down, and it's difficult not to share in the fun the sizzling-hot Famke Janssen is obviously having with the role.

102. Tony Perkins (Heavyweights)
Hilariously over-the-top and arguably Ben Stiller's all-time funniest performance. He pretty much played the exact same character with a different name in Dodgeball.

103. Edgar the Bug (Men in Black)

A great villainous combination of funny and bizarre yet lethal and threatening to perfectly anchor a great cinematic combination of comedy and sci-fi. Shame about the beneath-shit sequel, though.

104. The Pin (Brick)
A high school noir drug kingpin who commands an outfit of thugs and assassins, the Pin's presentation is also hysterically over-the-top, but nevertheless a real and quite possibly deadly threat for our hero. A solid mystery villain.

105. Count Rugen (The Princess Bride)
The six-fingered swordsman who murdered Inigo Montoya's father and Inigo has made his life goal to hunt down, Count Rugen provides us with one of cinema's most satisfying climactic duels.

106. Boba Fett (Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back)
Darth Vader and the entire combined forces of the Galactic Empire can't hunt Han Solo and Princess Leia down, but you know who can? That's right - Boba Fett, bitch.

107. Phillip Vandamm (North by Northwest)
North by Northwest is Alfred Hitchcock's best and most purely entertaining thriller, and while Cary Grant's hero is the most memorable element, Phillip Vandamm provides solid opposition.

108. Gaston (Beauty and the Beast)
Just a flat-out asshole!

109. Freddy Krueger (Nightmare on Elm Street)
Although I'm not crazy about horror or horror villains, I will say that the clever Freddy Krueger is my favorite. Unlike the bland, stoic, and silent Leatherface, Mike Myers, or Jason Voorhees, Freddy actually has entertaining stuff to say.

110. Mewtwo (Pokémon: The First Movie)
A psychic Frankenstein who murders an entire island of scientists and researchers like thirty seconds after being born. He's also powerful enough to create a storm that will destroy Earth! Goddamn!

And now, just for fun, a few more tidbits about the top 100:

Most Represented Franchises:

1. James Bond (12) - Jaws (#98), Kamal Khan (#94), Hugo Drax (#89), Max Zorin (#82), Red Grant (#71), Oddjob (#65), Franz Sanchez (#55), Le Chiffre (#40), Ernst Stavro Blofeld (#34), Francisco Scaramanga (#26), Auric Goldfinger (#10), Alec Trevelyan (#7)

2. Star Wars (5) - Darth Maul (#100), Jabba the Hutt (#81), Grand Moff Tarkin (#32), Emperor Palpatine (#5), Darth Vader (#1)

3. Batman (3) - Jonathan Crane / Scarecrow (#68), Henri Ducard / Ra's al Ghul (#24), The Joker (#3)

4. Kill Bill (2) - Gogo Yubari (#93), Bill (#63)

4. Die Hard (2) - Simon Gruber (#92), Hans Gruber (#2)

4. Spider-Man (2) - Norman Osborn / Green Goblin (#76), Doc Ock (#16)

4. Terminator (2) - T-800 (#58), T-1000 (#4)

4. Rocky (2) - Ivan Drago (#49), Clubber Lang (#27)

And while Disney isn't technically a "franchise," they are kind of unofficially a series, and have three - Ursula (#74), Scar (#53), and Jafar (#21).

Hmm... all three of the top Bond villains come from the only three Bond movies with "Gold" in the title. Conspiracy? Ergo, the third Daniel Craig movie needs to be called GoldenGold and it will have the greatest collections of villainy in the history of cinema.

Two-and-Up Club Actors:

Joe Pesci (2)
#95 - Harry the Wet Bandit (Home Alone)
#61 - Tommy DeVito (Goodfellas)

Tim Roth (2)
#90 - Emil Blonsky / Abomination (The Incredible Hulk)
#79 - Archibald Cunningham (Rob Roy)

Dennis Hopper (2)
#80 - King Koopa (Super Mario Bros.)
#22 - Howard Payne (Speed)

Jack Nicholson (2)
#62 - Jack Torrence (The Shining)
#39 - Frank Costello (The Departed)

James Earl Jones (2)
#60 - Thulsa Doom (Conan the Barbarian)
#1 - Darth Vader (Star Wars)

Christopher Lee (2)
#48 - Saruman (The Lord of the Rings)
#26 - Francisco Scaramanga (The Man With the Golden Gun)

Alan Rickman (2)
#43 - The Sheriff of Nottingham (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves)
#2 - Hans Gruber (Die Hard)

Orson Welles (2)
#42 - Hank Quinlan (Touch of Evil)
#14 - Harry Lime (The Third Man)

Jeremy Irons (3)
#92 - Simon Gruber (Die Hard: With a Vengeance)
#53 - Scar (The Lion King)
#25 - Profion (Dungeons & Dragons)

Two-and-Up Club Directors:

Ridley Scott (2)
#99 - Guy de Lusignan (Kingdom of Heaven)
#37 - The Alien (Alien)

Christopher Colombus (2)
#95 - The Wet Bandits (Home Alone)
#31 - Lord Voldemort (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone)

John McTiernan (2)
#92 - Simon Gruber (Die Hard: With a Vengeance)
#2 - Hans Gruber (Die Hard)

Louis Leterrier (2)
#90 - Emil Blonsky / Abomination (The Incredible Hulk)
#52 - Lola (Transporter 2)

Alfred Hitchcock (2)
#78 - Bruno Anthony (Strangers on a Train)
#56 - Norman Bates (Psycho)

Sam Raimi (2)
#76 - Norman Osborn / Green Goblin (Spider-Man)
#16 - Doc Ock (Spider-Man 2)

Ron Clements & John Musker (2)
#74 - Ursula (The Little Mermaid)
#21 - Jafar (Aladdin)

Terence Young (2)
#71 - Red Grant (From Russia With Love)
#34 - Ernst Stavro Blofeld (From Russia With Love / Thunderball)

Sylvester Stallone (2)
#49 - Ivan Drago (Rocky IV)
#27 - Clubber Lang (Rocky III)

Penelope Spheeris (2)
#23 - Benjamin Caine (Wayne's World)
#4 - T-1000 (Wayne's World - yes, really!)

Lewis Gilbert (3)
#98 - Jaws (The Spy Who Loved Me / Moonraker)
#89 - Hugo Drax (Moonraker)
#34 - Ernst Stavro Blofeld (You Only Live Twice)

Quentin Tarantino (3)
#93 - Gogo Yubari (Kill Bill)
#85 - Mr. Blonde (Reservoir Dogs)
#63 - Bill (Kill Bill)

Steven Spielberg (3)
#86 - Captain James Hook (Hook)
#73 - The Shark (Jaws)
#41 - Rene Belloq (Raiders of the Lost Ark)

Richard Marquand (3)
#81 - Jabba the Hutt (Return of the Jedi)
#5 - Emperor Palpatine (Return of the Jedi)
#1 - Darth Vader (Return of the Jedi)

Christopher Nolan (3)
#68 - Jonathan Crane / The Scarecrow (Batman Begins / The Dark Knight)
#24 - Henri Ducard / Ra's al Ghul (Batman Begins)
#3 - The Joker (The Dark Knight)

Martin Scorsese (3)
#61 - Tommy DeVito (Goodfellas)
#39 - Frank Costello (The Departed)
#19 - Bill the Butcher (Gangs of New York)

James Cameron (3)
#58 - T-800 (The Terminator)
#37 - The Alien (Aliens)
#4 - T-1000 (Terminator 2)

Martin Campbell (3)
#40 - Le Chiffre (Casino Royale)
#33 - Captain Harrison Love (The Mask of Zorro)
#7 - Alec Trevelyan (GoldenEye)

David Fincher (3)
#38 - John Doe (Se7en)
#37 - The Alien (Alien 3)
#20 - Tyler Durden (Fight Club)

John Glen (4)
#94 - Kamal Khan (Octopussy)
#82 - Max Zorin (A View to a Kill)
#55 - Franz Sanchez (Licence to Kill)
#34 - Ernst Stavro Blofeld (For Your Eyes Only)

Guy Hamilton (4)
#65 - Oddjob (Goldfinger)
#34 - Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Diamonds Are Forever)
#26 - Francisco Scaramanga (The Man With the Golden Gun)
#10 - Auric Goldfinger (Goldfinger)

George Lucas (5)
#100 - Darth Maul (The Phantom Menace)
#81 - Jabba the Hutt (The Phantom Menace)
#32 - Grand Moff Tarkin (Star Wars)
#5 - Emperor Palpatine (Star Wars series)
#1 - Darth Vader (Star Wars series)

Special John Huston Category:

Directed #84 - Kasper Gutman (The Maltese Falcon)
Played #17 - Noah Cross (Chinatown)

And that about wraps it up for villainy! Stay tuned for the sequel list, coming August 2058.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Favorite Movie Villains #10 - 1

10. Auric Goldfinger (Goldfinger)

"Do you expect me to talk?"
"No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!"
~ James Bond & Auric Goldfinger

Bond villain alert! A villain so badass he has a whole song to himself, many claim that Auric Goldfinger "loves only gold." But I see him as a man of eclectic tastes, and in addition to gold his interests include cheating at Gin Rummy, cheating at golf, killing girls by coating them in gold or having Oddjob decapitate them, unleashing fatal nerve gas over Fort Knox, and (perhaps most famously) threatening to sever people lengthwise with lasers. Okay, all of those except the first tie directly back into getting more gold; maybe Goldfinger loves only gold.

He plans on setting off a dirty bomb inside Fort Knox's vault, irradiating and rendering useless the United States' gold supply thus increasing the value of his gold ten times. And in truth he's the only villain the entire series who completely and totally beat Bond. In the end, 007 was helpless, captured, and at Goldfinger's mercy, and it was Pussy Galore who's act of last-minute defection from Goldfinger involved switching out the fatal nerve gas and alerting the CIA of Goldfinger's plan. Sure, it was Bond who killed Oddjob and Felix Leiter who disarmed the bomb, but as far as I'm concerned, Auric Goldfinger was defeated by Pussy Galore. Congrats, Goldfinger, on being the only villain to best Agent 007; just try to keep your bitch on a leash next time.

9. Ivan Korshunov (Air Force One)

"Your National Security Advisor has just been executed. He's a very good negotiator. He bought you another half hour."

Imagine a world where Harrison Ford is the President of the United States. He is a Medal of Honor winner and, being Harrison Ford, can obviously kick your ass. No man would dare hijack Air Force One and hold the President's wife and daughter hostage, right? WRONG.

Ivan Korshunov will not only do that, he'll execute the National Security Advisor and White House Press Secretary with the cabin speakers on, forcing everyone to listen. He'll threaten children at gunpoint. He'll whisper an evil-drenched, near-lustful monologue about the glory of "mother Russia" and make good on his promise to execute a hostage every half-hour until the evil Russian tyrant General Radek is released from prison. He will do all this because he is insane and awesome, but in the end he's still trying to best Harrison Ford, who will inevitably tell him to "get off my plane." And it will be glorious, and you will need a cigarette afterward.

8. Johnny Lawrence (The Karate Kid)

"How about you, hero? Had enough?!"

Look at that face. For the nerdy junior high / high school student, the face of Johnny Lawrence is nothing less than the grim, spectral, unforgiving visage of undiluted horror, a ruthless bully who drinks deep from the pain and humiliation of the weakest and most helpless of his peers. From the moment he meets the new kid in town, Daniel LaRusso, he decides that his primary goal in life will be making a living hell of Daniel's, whether that means humiliating him in front of a crowd, driving Daniel's bike off the road into a steep and deep ditch, or just plain using his black belt-level Kobra Kai karate to beat Daniel until he can no longer stand or see through his own mingling blood and sweat.

Thus a legendary cinematic rivalry is formed, and Daniel begins training under Mr. Miyagi with the intent of beating Johnny at the All Valley Karate Tournament. And while I love a good cinematic techno-terrorist or sci-fi supervillain, is there truly anyone we can root against from a more impassioned and heartfelt place than Johnny Lawrence? I daresay not.

7. Alec Trevelyan (GoldenEye)

"For England, James."

Bond villain alert! Although Alec Trevelyan worked for the British government as Agent 006, he has a bit of a chip on his shoulder. His parents were Lienz Cossacks, you see, Nazi sympathizers who defected to the British at the end of WWII but were instead sent to Russia. Although Alec's parents escaped Stalin's execution squads, his father couldn't live with the shame and killed himself and Alec's mother, for which Alec grew to blame England.

You might think that a trained professional killer could strike a blow of revenge against England by assassinating a government leader or something, but you'd be thinking hilariously small. Agent 006 fakes his own death in the Soviet Union in 1986 (in front of James Bond), waits a few years for the Soviet Union to collapse, becomes a Russian mob boss, eventually becomes rich and builds a villainous lair with lots of henchmen in Cuba, buys off a Russian General, and hijacks some EMP space satellites, with the eventual culmination of his plan being an EMP blast that will destroy London! Booyah! Told you you were thinking small!

Alec is unique among Bond villains in that he and James Bond were initially genuine friends, but plotting the destruction of your buddy's hometown usually has a way of putting a damper on any friendship. So James Bond drops an antenna on him. Cold, James... cold.

6. Shredder (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles)

"You fight well... in the old style. But you've caused me enough trouble. Now you face the Shredder."

The 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie rocks my face into pieces. This is partially because of the dark, dirty Manhattan setting, partially because the costume work on the turtles is sweet, partially because Raphael says "damn," and partially because of the goddamn Shredder (true identity Oroku Saki). Saki murdered his ninja rival Hamato Yoshi, but he failed to kill Yoshi's pet rat Splinter, who had learned the art of ninja through imitation. Splinter then came into contact with four baby turtles and some discarded Ooze in the sewers of New York, and trained the turtles in ninjutsu as they grew into teenagers. They are the only ones who can stand against Shredder's Foot Clan, and you'd better believe he wants them dead. And he can outfight all four Turtles at once! Holy shit!

5. Emperor Palpatine (Star Wars series)

"And now, young Skywalker... you will die."

There are a fuckton of Star Wars villains spread across the six films, but Palpatine is the true, final Big Bad who rules over them all from before Episode I to his death at the end of Episode VI. His Return of the Jedi visage of ghastly white, cragged old man under a sheer black hood is a bold, strong, primal image of evil that has permeated pop culture in the decades since and is worthy of the ancient myths George Lucas initially drew Star Wars from.

His appearance in Jedi is brief but powerful, and when he starts frying Luke with lightning at the end - holy shit, what a shocking (pun?) moment! But Palpatine also stands proud as perhaps the only original trilogy Star Wars character to successfully be enhanced and made cooler in the prequel trilogy. Vader, Yoda, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2, Boba Fett, and Owen & Beru all became less cool (Obi-Wan debatably came out roughly even), but Lucas did a good job probing the depths of Palpatine's epic game of intergalactic deception and power-grabbing, killing billions in a war he was manipulating both sides of for years until he managed to become the unchecked tyrant of the galaxy, without Lucas giving his background the Hannibal Rising treatment and robbing him of his fundamental mystery. To this day we know jack shit about Palpatine's background, but we know that he's a positively Satanic figure and a worthy antagonist for cinema's most legendary saga.

4. T-1000 (Terminator 2: Judgment Day)

"Say... that's a nice bike."

The Terminator's T-800 (#58 on this list) was already a grim and terrifying vision of a killer who feels no pain, no fear, no mercy, no exhaustion, doesn't miss, doesn't care, and knows nothing except his target, so when it came time for the sequel, one might have thought the only way to out-Terminator the Terminator would be to out-Arnold Arnold, but no - they took it in another direction.

The T-1000 is relatively small and lithe. His "social skills" and ability to blend into society far exceed that of the clunky T-800. He's smarter, faster, more advanced, and cannot be hurt by bullets, stabbing, or crushing, because he's not a plain old android - the T-1000 is a "mimetic poly-alloy," an intelligent liquid metal, who can turn to ooze and slide through a crack in the wall, hide flat on the floor, turn his arms into giant spears and stab you through the skull, reform himself in seconds even if he's literally blown into a hundred pieces, and most notably change his appearance, shape, and voice to that of any human he sees. He could be anywhere, and all he really has in common with the vastly inferior T-800 is that "it can't be bargained with! It can't be reasoned with! It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear! And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead!" As heartless, deadly, and dogged a killer as cinema has ever given us.

3. The Joker (The Dark Knight)

"How 'bout a magic trick?"

(Dark Knight spoilers, if you haven't seen it yet what the hell!) We live in an age of the origin story, and we're usually well-informed where our supervillains come from. But Christopher Nolan soundly rejects that with The Dark Knight's Joker, a murdering anarchist who Nolan himself likened to the shark from Jaws - he has no background, no origin, no motivation, no character arc, no plan, he doesn't learn anything, and in the end it's difficult to even say if he wins or loses. He survives, yes, but he is captured, although it's doubtful he cares one way or another about either. He fails to corrupt Harvey Dent in the eyes of Gotham, but he forces Batman to corrupt himself in the eyes of Gotham (at least keeping the five-hundred criminals Harvey convicted off the streets). It's either a triumphant failure or a barely-bittersweet victory.

But regardless, he steals the movie thanks both to Nolan's script / direction and Heath Ledger's incredibly mesmerizing, alternately hilarious and wicked performance, creating a cinematic demon and harbinger of woe the likes of which we're lucky to see once a decade. It is a shame that extenuating real-life circumstances will prevent us from ever seeing this version of the character again, but it does mean that Nolan's Joker will remain perfect and unblemished forever.

2. Hans Gruber (Die Hard)

"After all your posturing, all your little speeches, you're nothing but a common thief."
"I am an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClane. And since I'm moving up to kidnapping, you should be more polite."

~ Holly McClane & Hans Gruber

All non-retards know that Die Hard is the greatest action movie of all time. You have Bruce Willis as New York cop John McClane, who winds up in the wrong place at the wrong time. You have a group of Eurotrash terrorists. You have the Nakatomi Plaza, an L.A. skyscraper, and the forty hostages held captive near the top floor. You have blood and gore and profanity and air ducts and machine guns and Christmas songs and explosions and helicopters and C-4. And perhaps above all you have Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber, the uniquely erudite, educated, cool, collected, and just plain badass leader of the terrorist outfit.

Hans' plan is perfect. The police who try to stop him from outside the building can only end up dead. The FBI can't stop him. Mr. Nakatomi refuses to give Hans the code to the vault, but Hans shrugs it off and in return casually relocates Nakatomi's brain to the wall, because Hans has a vault cracker along with his small army of terrorists, rocket launchers, and explosives. Hans is set to end the day $640 million ahead. But there's one teeny, tiny, seemingly insignificant flaw he missed - John McClane. Has there ever been a better pairing of hero and villain than John McClane and Hans Gruber in cinematic history? Rhetorical question, obviously, the answer is no. Yippie-kay-yay, motherfucker.

1. Darth Vader (Star Wars series)

"The Force is with you, young Skywalker. But you are not a Jedi yet."

Was there ever any doubt? Darth Vader has admittedly taken a few hits to his coolness in the last decade, but all you have to do is pop in and rewatch The Empire Strikes Back and you're forced to sit back and say, "Holy shit! This is the best villain ever!" From behind his legendary black skeletal mask and mechanical breathing bellows forth the voice of James Earl Jones, and whether he's having a lightsaber duel, Force choking his Imperial underlings, hunting down Han Solo, blocking blaster bolts with his goddamn hand, or telling Luke that "I am your father," he does it with a resounding, overpowering presence.

Darth Vader's entrance onto the Tantive IV in A New Hope and immediate windpipe-crushing murder of Captain Antilles establish his screen villainy as strongly as any entrance in history, and from that point on until near the end of Return of the Jedi, every scene he sets foot in emanates palpable tension, danger, and dread, especially in Empire Strikes Back. He dominates the screen completely. If Darth Vader is a bit unstable he balances it out with incredible power and ruthlessness.

As I admitted, yes, seeing him as Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen does scathe his legacy, but even in the prequel trilogy he does murder a bunch of Jedi and "younglings," so that was an interesting tidbit about where he came from. But it's the original trilogy that will endure and, for me, Darth Vader is still cinema's ultimate villain.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Favorite Movie Villains #20 - 11

20. Tyler Durden (Fight Club)

"It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything."

Someone out there may be thinking, "Wait, Tyler Durden isn't the villain, Tyler Durden is-" No no no. I shall prove that Tyler is the villain with my simple formula of villainy: is Edward Norton's Narrator the protagonist? Yes. Does the Narrator spend the final act of the film trying to stop Tyler Durden? Yes. Ergo, villain!

And an extraordinarily memorable one at that; Brad Pitt can do crazy as well as anyone else in Hollywood (see also Twelve Monkeys) and in Fight Club he delivers a wicked combination of hilarious, scary, and unpredictably psychotic. Whether he's splicing single frames of pornography into family films, threatening Raymond K. Hessel, showing the Narrator a chemical burn, or plotting to blow up several major credit card headquarters, he does it with resounding panache. Acting as the walking embodiment of absolute anarchy, he's the crown jewel of one of the seminal cult films of the 90s.

19. Bill the Butcher (Gangs of New York)

"You see this knife?! I'm gonna teach you to speak English with this fucking knife!"

Gangs of New York is a great movie; several flaws hold it back from the level of masterpiece but it's ridiculously ambitious, perfectly realizes its setting of 1860s Manhattan, and above all else has Daniel Day-Lewis' ridiculously jaw-dropping turn as crime boss, gang leader, and political kingmaker Bill the Butcher. If pushed for a single answer, I would name it the best performance of the decade thus far, and while it may be a lazy solution I offer several random YouTube videos to back up my claim.

Bill is truly and completely ruthless, loves knifing / cleavering everyone who crosses him (although he also murders the sheriff with a club), kills Liam Neeson (him and Darth Maul should hang out), and generally steals every scene he sets foot in. The other thing I like about Bill is the uploader comment on this YouTube video - "ai used to watch gangs of new york when i was a little kid and this is my fav part n gangs of new york." What the fuck kind of childhood

18. Biff Tannen (Back to the Future trilogy)

"Hey McFly! I thought I told you never to come in here!"

There are many Biffs. In order of appearance:

1) Mean 1985 Biff, who crashes George McFly's car, refuses to pay for it, and forces George to do his financial reports for him.
2) 1955 teenage Biff, who hassles women, bullies children, forces George to do his homework, tries to murder Marty with his car, and evidently tries to rape Lorraine (what the fuck!).
3) Nice 1985 Biff (created when George punches out 1955 Biff), who waxes cars for a living.
4) Grumpy old man 2015 Biff, who raps Marty's heads a cane, calls Marty a "complete butthead" behind his back, and steals Doc Brown's time machine.
5) And of course Back to the Future Part II's alternate 1985 supervillain Biff, who owns the Hill Valley police, murders people (including George McFly), has Doc Brown committed, forces Lorraine to marry him on threat of jailing her kids, beats her, gets Nixon elected to three more terms, and generally turns Hill Valley into an apocalyptic, crime-raped hell hole.

(And although they aren't technically Biff, Thomas F. Wilson also plays his grandson Griff, a 2015 cyborg / bully / criminal, and his great-grandfather Bufford Tannen, a mass-murdering outlaw in 1885.)

And except for #3, what do all these Biffs have in common? They're all complete assholes.

17. Noah Cross (Chinatown)

"You may think you know what you're dealing with, but believe me, you don't."

L.A. water mogul Noah Cross' plan involves fabricating a drought, forcing farmers off their dried-out old land and buying it cheap before diverting L.A.'s already-limited water supply to rejuvenate the farmland, dramatically increasing the value and selling it for an enormous profit. He's already rich, but hey, you can always be a little richer. It goes without saying that if a few people have to be murdered in this process, his conscience can easily bear the guilt. In fact, the more sociopathic he's revealed to be, the more off-puttingly jolly and jovial he seems.

But what really makes Noah Cross the king of all noir villains (skip ahead if you haven't seen Chinatown and plan to) is his relationship with his daughter Evelyn Mulwray, who he raped as a teenager, thus fathering his own granddaughter. In the end Evelyn is killed and since private dick J.J. Gittes is unable to prove the case against him, Cross gets off scott-free, no doubt fabulously wealthy, and claims guardianship of his granddaughter. And we already know how it goes with Cross and his teenaged relatives, so we have no reason to believe he didn't father his own great-granddaughter shortly after the film's ending. Ew. Noah Cross is pretty foul.

16. Doc Ock (Spider-Man 2)

"You've stuck your webs in my business for the last time!"

When Dr. Otto Octavius' fusion experiment goes haywire, killing his wife and permanently fusing to his spinal column the four giant steel tentacles he used to safely manipulate nuclear material, Spider-Man's ultimate movie opponent is formed. "Guy named Otto Octavius ends up with eight limbs! What are the odds!"

While much credit must be given to Alfred Molina's great duality of kindly middle-aged scientist as Octavius and the leering menace he projects as Doc Ock, director Sam Raimi is the true hero of this creation. The flawless combination of puppetry, computer effects, and robust sound design make the tentacles among the most seamless special effects from the last decade of film - they look real, they sound and feel heavy and dangerous, and you never think about the fiction of them. And while Spider-Man just barely manages to knock out Ock via a well-placed electrical wire, it really seems like in a no-frills one-on-one Spidey wouldn't stand a goddamn chance. A perfect comic book movie villain.

15. Agent Smith (The Matrix)

"Tell me, Mr. Anderson, what good is a phone call if you're unable to speak...?"

Agent Smith would like to share with you a revelation that he's had during his time here. It came to him when he tried to classify your species and realized that you're not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You're a plague and he is the cure. He's also a kung fu master. Let all that sink in for a moment.

14. Harry Lime (The Third Man)

"Victims? Don't be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me: would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?"

The man is Harry Lime. The racket is stealing penicillin from military hospitals in post-WWII Vienna, diluting it for increased volume, and selling it back for a profit. Of course, use of the bad penicillin kills and injures lots of people, but Harry Lime has no problem brushing all that away and waxing fondly about how culture is at its finest under times of war and duress.

A week back I discussed Jabba the Hutt, mentioning that the character is made larger than life by the endless discussion of him before he ever appears on screen. This applies quadruple here - until we finally meet Harry Lime near the end of the second act, I would guess that 75-80% of the film's dialogue is about him (Is this the first time anyone has drawn parallels between Return of the Jedi and The Third Man? Maybe!). He's already a resounding, all-encompassing figure before one second of screentime, and who better to embody those kinds of expectations than Orson Welles - Citizen Kane himself! - in possibly his second most famous screen role. He's immensely charming and immensely vile all at once, and a hell of a mystery antagonist.

13. Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men)

"Call it."

One of cinema's purest and most undiluted representations of pure evil, Anton Chigurh slides to the chilliest possible end of the hotheaded lunatic-to-cold, calm badass scale; not only does he never cackle or get hotheaded, I don't think he ever raises his voice. He never shows a sign of feeling threatened, sweats a drop, or breaks stride (even when he actually does get injured), he just keeps moving forward, more a symbol or an idea than a man, killing everyone in his path from law enforcement officers and people after the money he's after to just plain old civilians he met five seconds before whose car he wants.

Now and then he will give someone a chance to live, however, and that's where the quarter comes in. A flip of the coin, you call it, you get to determine whether you live or die. Two-Face style, baby! And it takes a uniquely badass degree of villain to make not killing someone as chilling and memorable as killing them. That's how Chigurh rolls.

12. Ed Rooney (Ferris Bueller's Day Off)

"I did not achieve this position in life by having some snot-nosed punk leave my cheese out in the wind."

When Ferris Bueller takes his ninth sick day, Edward R. Rooney, Dean of Students, decides that he's got to catch Ferris this time, and show the other students that the example he sets is a first-class ticket to nowhere. And Rooney quickly makes his campaign personal, stalking about Chicago like a private detective trying to hunt Ferris down. He eventually breaks into Bueller househouse, knocks out their dog, and catches Ferris on his way home, leering with supreme evil about how Ferris can look forward to another year of high school.

But when Ferris' sister Jeanie comes to his rescue, confronting Rooney with evidence that he broke into their house (his dropped wallet in their kitchen), he is forced to sulk away, having spent the day being humiliated, having his car towed, being mauled by a dog, losing his wallet, and now losing his prey. And we laugh at him, because he symbolizes all the authority figures we hated throughout our primary education. Ha ha, Ed Rooney, you goddamn tool!

11. Vincent (Collateral)

"You killed him?!"
"No, I shot him. Bullets and the fall killed him."
~ Max & Vincent

Collateral is easily my favorite thriller thus far this decade thanks to its three stars. One - the gorgeous digital nighttime photography of Los Angeles, one of the all-time best uses of a location in a film. Two - Jamie Foxx as Max, the perfect thriller protagonist, a wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time and in over his head (which is weird since I don't like him anything else, but he's perfect here). And three - Vincent. 

Decked in pure silver from shoes to hair, Vincent is the goddamn Terminator of thriller villains, a lethal and ruthless assassin who hunts his victims as horrifically unstoppable as a bullet en route. The entire film except for the first fifteen minutes and the climax is an extended conversation between Max and Vincent broken up by interludes of fast-paced and fatal violence, and Vincent's great dialogue, unflappability, and seeming unstoppability make for one of the coldest and scariest bad guys of all time.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Favorite Movie Villains #30 - 21

30. Patrick Bateman (American Psycho)

"You're a fucking ugly bitch. I want to stab you to death, and then play around with your blood."

Probably Christian Bale's all-time most entertaining performance, Patrick Bateman is a deeply materialistic, vain, and sociopathic Wall Street broker who has reached the culmination of his material desires. But his fancy office, apartment, limo, and business card leave him with only a swelling emptiness, and Bateman can only achieve his thrills through cinema's all-time most blackly comic killing spree, murdering "twenty people, maybe... forty!" Unlike 98% of this list Bateman is the protagonist of his film and features in every scene, and Bale's loony, maniacal interpretation makes for one of the largest mass collections of "I can't believe I'm laughing at this, this is so sick!" moments in one film in existence, even making something as inherently static as leaving a voicemail a hilarious portrait of psychosis.

29. Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs)

"A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti."

At risk of being a lazy writer, there isn't much to say that hasn't been said about Anthony Hopkins' Dr. Hannibal Lecter. He's a genius, he outsmarts everyone, he's a cannibal, he eats everyone. The FBI needs him to help solve their murders but in retaliation he screws with Jodie Foster's head (and eats Ray Liotta's head). If anything people might question why he's so low; well, in Silence of the Lambs he was chilling and perfect, but they didn't understand that some things work best in small doses and made him the star of the lackluster Hannibal. Red Dragon was a return to form, but then, well, the less said about Hannibal Rising, the better. But his original turn in Silence remains a high watermark for cinematic serial killers.

28. Queen Bavmorda (Willow)

"Is that the extent of your powers, little one?"

This bitch is like the Wicked Witch of the West on acid! And crack! She's a vastly powerful sorceress and evil queen whose one downfall is, according to prophecy, the infant child and future queen Elora Danan. So when Elora is jettisoned down the river, like any good fantasy villain, Bavmorda charges her army to rape and pillage the land in search of the child, destroying the kingdom of Tir Asleen and unleashing a dragon in the process. She isn't given a lick of development - we never find out a single thing about her background, how she got her magical powers, how she became queen, or why she's so goddamn evil - but every time she's on screen she sneers and hams up such a ferocious fantasy villain storm that you just gotta love her.

27. Clubber Lang (Rocky III)

"No, I don't hate Balboa. But I pity the fool!"

The first real Rocky villain (Apollo Creed is of course Rocky's opponent in Rocky and Rocky II, but he's too honorable to call a villain), Clubber Lang is a loud-mouthed, foul-tempered beast of a man. In sharp contrast to Rocky IV's Ivan Drago and his six lines, Clubber just can't stop talking - he shouts insults at Rocky through the whole movie, goads Rocky on by telling Adrian he'll show her what it's like to be with a real man, and tells the media in regard to Rocky that "I'm gonna torture him. I'm gonna crucify him." Holy shit!

He backs it up with skill, though; he beats Rocky to hell (immediately after starting a riot that leads to the death of Rocky's mentor Mickey) and takes the heavyweight title. But then Rocky's old foe Apollo reappears, coaches Rocky in a beach-set training montage more awesomely homoerotic than all of Brokeback Mountain put together, and Rocky comes back to win. You have to respect a villain who not only gave us some great fight scenes but made two thickly-muscled, well-oiled grown men jump while hugging each other in the gently lapping surf.

26. Francisco Scaramanga (The Man with the Golden Gun)

"Your Walther PPK against my golden gun, each of us with a fifty-fifty chance."
"Six bullets to your one?"
"I only need one."
~ Francisco Scaramanga and James Bond

Bond villain alert! Three decades before Saruman and Count Dooku, Christopher Lee gave us Roger Moore's finest opponent: Francisco Scaramanga. Wielding a golden gun and perfect aim, Scaramanga is the best assassin in the world, charging a flat million dollars a shot, and extremely interesting as (similarly to the relationship between Indiana Jones and René Belloq) the shadow version of James Bond; what 007 could have been if he had made some different choices in life. While both men are alike in their pleasure taken in good food, good drink, and beautiful women, and both kill for a living, Bond does so on orders of his government, and Scaramanga does so dispassionately and for hire.

Although Scaramanga's plan (involving taking over and making money from an energy plant) is far, far more understated than those hatched by Moore villains such as Hugo Drax, Kamal Khan, and Max Zorin, the rivalry between the two men is a joy to watch and among the most entertaining Bond-Bond villain relationships in the entire series, let alone the Moore era.

25. Profion (Dungeons & Dragons)

"Let their blood... RAAAIN FROM THE SKYYYYY!!!"

The Empire of Izmir's Council of Mages, led by the wizard Profion, is trying to overturn the rule of the dictatorial Empress Savina, who imparts her laws on the land on a whim and has a magical rod that controls green dragons, threatening to unleash the wyrms on any who oppose her. However, since Savina is a pretty young girl who whines about freedom and equality and wears all gold and Profion wears all black and cackles, we know that she is the one we're supposed to be rooting for in the most full-blooded and heartfelt cinematic endorsement of unchecked authoritarianism since Triumph of the Will.

And Jeremy Irons' performance as the rebel leader Profion is something far beyond over-the-top. Cackling at the top of his lungs as he shrieks with abandon about his intent to dispose Savina and control the dragons, he doesn't merely settle for chewing the scenery but tears it off and devours it in bloody, still-twitching chunks. Even among the wizardly world of Dungeons & Dragons, it's something truly magical to behold.

24. Henri Ducard / Ra's al Ghul (Batman Begins)

"Death does not wait for you to be ready! Death is not considerate, or fair! And make no mistake: here, you face Death."

Christopher Nolan resoundingly establishes the realism of his world by giving us the League of Shadows, a millennium-old clan of vigilante ninjas who live on the snowy mountain slopes of Bhutan and are responsible for sacking Constantinople and Rome. They are led by Liam Neeson's Henri Ducard (real identity Ra's al Ghul), and he trains Bruce Wayne in ninjutsu, intending for him to lead the ninja army in the destruction of Gotham. But Bruce believes Gotham isn't beyond saving so he rebukes his mentor, goes turncoat and runs! Holy shit, we got us an Obi-Wan / Vader relationship! If Obi-Wan was evil and Vader good, anyway (coincidentally, Liam Neeson also trained Obi-Wan). And so sets the stage for the final battle between Batman and Ra's al Ghul. Batman won't kill him, but he doesn't have to save him.

23. Benjamin Caine (Wayne's World)

"Benjamin is nobody's friend. If Benjamin were an ice cream flavor, he'd be pralines and dick." ~ Garth Algar

One of cinema's greatest "enemy of fun" comedy villains, Benjamin Caine is a greedy television executive who, seeing in public access Illinois TV show Wayne's World the opportunity for a lucrative sponsorship, conspires to take over the show and censor, manipulate, and artistically / comedically neuter it (even if it means firing star Wayne Campbell), all while stealing Wayne's girlfriend and being a condescending shitbag to everyone around him in the process. Or as Wayne's World co-star Garth Algar reads from a memo found in Benjamin's bedroom, "'Purchase feeble public access cable show, and exploit it.' Gee, I feel sorry for whoever that is!"

22. Howard Payne (Speed)

"Pop quiz, hotshot! There's a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes 50 miles an hour, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 50, it blows up. What do you do? What do you do?"

Many "Die Hard on a _____" rip-off films followed that seminal 1988 work, but Speed a.k.a. "Die Hard on a bus" is one of the best, partially because it decided that instead of doing a lackluster imitation of Die Hard's cold, calculating Eurotrash villain it would give us the cackling, one-liner spewing, 30% sane American ex-cop and explosives expert Howard Payne. He impales a man's brain with a screwdriver through the ear one minute into the film and it only gets better from there as he threatens to blow up an elevator in the opening act, a bus through the film's middle, and takes over a subway at the end, killing lots of people and being a huge pain in Keanu Reeves' ass all the while. He's everything a 90s action villain needs to be.

21. Jafar (Aladdin)

"A snake, am I? Perhaps you'd like to see how sssssnake-like I can be!"

Oh Jafar, why are you such an asshole? As Grand Vizier to the Sultan of Agrabah, Jafar was merely biding his time plotting against the Sultan until he could get ahold of the Genie of the Cave of Wonders and become the most powerful sorcerer on earth, upon which he immediately takes control of the kingdom. The thing I don't understand is why he seems all concerned about wanting to romance Princess Jasmine after that; I agree that Jasmine is hot and I think it's pretty cool that she just wears a bikini top all the time, but if you have unlimited, infinite magical powers then you could fuck all kinds of hot chicks all over the world. Hell, you could magically create your own hot chicks. Why Jasmine? Who gives a shit? 

That said, Jafar is still pretty goddamn badass; turning into a giant snake, creating rings of fire, and generally zapping everyone with his spells. Until he gets outsmarted by a goddamn street rat. C'mon Jafar, you should know better.