Thursday, July 28, 2005

Movies That Kick Ass
Today's pick: Ronin

This is the first in a series about movies that might not have gotten a lot of media attention when they came out, or did much business at the box office, but kick serious ass nonetheless. Be warned, there are mild spoilers, but I'll try to keep as much under my hat as I can.

Ronin stars Robert DeNiro, Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgard, Natascha McElhone, Sean Bean, and Jonathan Pryce. Directed by John Frankenheimer, whose best movie was the original The Manchurian Candidate, but Ronin is a close second. Written by J.D. Zeik and massively script-doctored by the great David Mamet.

Much was made of The Bourne Identity's gritty, no-frills, 70's style, but I think that film owes a debt to Ronin, as the earlier film (1998) nailed that style, and was no doubt an inspiration for Bourne's director, Doug Liman. Ronin made just over $40 million domestically, but has become a cult hit on DVD - it was one of the first DVD releases, and many enthusiasts snapped it up to showcase their new home theater setups. The plot starts out simply enough - a group of mercenaries are hired to steal a well-guarded and valuable case. It's clear from the beginning, though, that these mercenaries are not just random thugs, and pretty soon everybody's motives are in question.

A thoughtful, compelling thriller, Ronin has many strengths, the most obvious being the car chases in the second and third acts. The filmmakers had the idea of putting the actors in the cars while the stunt drivers did their thing from the passenger seat, which allows for some great in-stunt reaction shots, and adds to the believability of the scenes. When a car is power-sliding through a turn and the camera is pointed at DeNiro, you can see the effects of the G-forces pulling at him, as well as the slight fear in his eyes. The second car chase, which involves going the wrong way down a freeway, benefits from some judicious editing and remarkable choreography. McElhone's expressions as she 'drives' her vehicle through oncoming traffic are priceless.

Another strength is the dialogue, which couldn't be more obviously David Mamet despite the Writer's Guild demand that the writer of the first draft, J.D. Zeik, got first billing.

Sam: Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt. That's the first thing they teach you.
Vincent: Who taught you?
Sam: I don't remember. That's the second thing they teach you.

Spence: You ever kill anybody?
Sam: I hurt somebody's feelings once.

Tough-guy dialogue to be sure, but to the point and always keeps the plot moving while building character. Ronin has many quiet moments, and the relationship between DeNiro's character, Sam, and Reno's character, Vincent, is so natural and unaffected that I want to see these two characters in another movie. I know, Ronin only made $40 million, but enough people have seen it on DVD and TBS Superstation that a sequel would make a lot of money. Call it the Austin Powers Syndrome. Anyway, the actors are uniformly excellent, with the exception of Sean Bean, who plays Spence a little too hesitant and inept to be believable.

The underlying theme of the movie isn't revealed until the third act, when DeNiro and Michel Lonsdale have a wonderful discussion about ronin, who were formerly honor-bound samurai who lost their masters and became mercenaries. Unable to live with the shame, they committed ritual suicide. The movie suggests that with the end of the Cold War, many intelligence agents were let go by their countries, no longer needed, and now they roam around from country to country, leaderless and aimless, desperate to have somebody give them missions to complete. These mercenaries are modern ronin, and when we discover at the end that one of them never left their agency, we are left to wonder if he's really telling the whole truth.

Possibly the most powerful aspect of the film is the Ronin theme, which was played with an Armenian doudouk. Haunting and mournful, it evokes a great sense of loneliness, and makes us feel even more sympathetic towards these men of action who have lost their way.

The only real weakness of the film is the climax, which is appropriately low-key, but not particularly logical (how the hell did Reno get to that position in order to make the shot?). Compared to the excitement of the car chases earlier in the film, it's a bit of a letdown, but the denouement makes up for it by hitting the right melancholy note.

If you are a fan of the Bourne movies and haven't yet seen Ronin, go out and rent/buy it. Cut from the same cloth, Ronin won't disappoint, and I hope that someday DeNiro and Reno get the chance to revisit these characters. I know I'll be first in line for those tickets.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Wal-Mart Nixes 'Singles Shopping'

Officials at Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., ordered their Roanoke store to put an end to Singles Shopping, the only program of its kind at Wal-Mart's U.S. stores. Taking a cue from Wal-Marts in Germany, the month-old program encouraged customers on Friday evenings to pick up a red bow they could place on their shopping carts as an invitation to other singles. "Flirt points" were set up in various sections of the store. A Wal-Mart spokesman declined to comment on the reason behind the program's cancellation. But customer Dale Firebaugh, who showed up Friday night hoping to meet his match, said store employees told him several people had complained. "I'm disappointed," said Firebaugh, 63. "Where can someone over 40 who doesn't smoke or drink or go to bars meet someone?"

It figures that Wal-Mart would be quick to nix a smart idea because 'several people' complained. Once again, people who love poking their noses in other people's business decide that they are morally superior to everyone else and are qualified to pass judgment. I think this was a cute idea, and I can't even fathom what kind of objection anyone could have to it, but I guess if it started in Germany, it must be bad. If I were a Wal-Mart competitor, I'd be jumping on this idea in a heartbeat.

I'd also make sure to keep selling albums with 'obscene' lyrics and Grand Theft Auto and reasonably-priced items that weren't made by ten-year-old girls in Thailand.

I have lots of wacky ideas like this.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Pope Opposes Harry Potter Novels - Signed Letters from Cardinal Ratzinger Now Online

Like the Potter series needed a further sales boost...

Let's face it, if the Pope doesn't want young people to read Harry Potter, that's just going to make more of them want to. And what are the odds he's actually read any of the books? I'm going to guess... million to one?

It is good, that you enlighten people about Harry Potter, because those are subtle seductions, which act unnoticed and by this deeply distort Christianity in the soul, before it can grow properly.

I think it is the clear establishment of good and evil in fantasy that the Pope must be objecting to, because when you're the head of an organized religion that protects child abusers from prosecution, you want to muddy that line as much as you can. 'Cause I'm guessing that a priest forcing an altar boy to blow him is something that would be more likely to deeply distort Christianity in the soul.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Very soon now, the hockey players are going to wake up one morning to find that they got royally screwed. This will come as no surprise to anybody, but it's telling that a smart guy like Jeremy Roenick can do little to hide his frustration at how this whole thing has been spun by the owners. Whenever a sports league has labor troubles, it's important to remember that it's one group of rich guys fighting with another group of rich guys over the money that we, the fans, generate for them. I tend to side with the players over the owners because I'm not paying to see owners own a team - I'm paying to see players play the sport. The NHL players accuse the owners of being less than truthful about their finances. To be sure, this is like accusing water of being wet. Some owners are clearly lying about the state of their financial affairs, and that just makes it harder for the teams that are losing money to get any sympathy from players.

So in this new deal, which will be announced any day now, the players took a massive pay cut, accepted a salary cap, and took it up the ass in several other ways that don't really matter to us, but will positively affect owner revenues for years to come. The league wanted a system that protected teams from themselves, the players wanted a system that encouraged free-market activity. Stupid capitalists! Socialism is the way to go, comrades!

Yet somehow the owners have spun this whole situation into this idea that the players are to blame for losing a year of professional hockey, even though it was the league that locked out the players, and it was the league who rejected several players' proposals that would have resulted in almost the same deal as the current one. The players wanted to play; it was the league that wouldn't give in until they got what they wanted. The league gave up 10 %, the players gave up 90 %. How is that fair?

All the pro sport leagues look at the NFL as the model - everybody is guaranteed money, and the players have a lucrative pension. What's easy to forget is that the NFL is swimming in TV money, so much so that they could sell all seats for a penny and still turn a profit, and the NFL player's union is weaker than the spaghetti sauce at Denny's. For an NFL player, the pension is important because the chances of career-ending injuries are higher than any other sport, so they were willing to throw everything else away. NFL owners make massive profits, the players get paid well, but not too well, and everybody's happy (kind of). This couldn't work for hockey because the TV money isn't there and players have longer careers. The new deal puts more money in the pockets of the owners at the expense of the players, while it's doubtful that we fans will see reductions in ticket prices and merchandise. So, yeah, cheer on the owners - it's always good to see rich white guys get richer, isn't it?