Thursday, September 30, 2010

The 10 Coolest Characters in Cinema History

Who’da guessed that a full thirty years after Vinnie Barbarino in the 70’s sitcom, “Welcome Back, Kotter,” John Travolta would still be playing characters that exude that most elusive adjective: Cool. In “Be Cool,” the sequel to 1995’s “Get Shorty,” Travolta reprises his role of Chili Palmer, the charismatic mobster turned Hollywood mogul turned music biz playa. It makes us contemplate the coolest characters in film... “Who? What? Where?” Subjectively (as always) counting down....

10. The Man With No Name
Most actors who furrow brow and clench jaw for the camera seem as if they’ve got a personal assistant standing by with an herbed facial chamois and a bottle of Fiji. Not so with Clint Eastwood in anything, but especially Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy (1964’s “A Fistful of Dollars,” ‘65’s “For a Few Dollars More” and ‘66’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”), the spaghetti westerns in which Clint plays The Man With No Name, a bounty hunter so tough he can get away with wearing a poncho (yes, bridge and tunnel gals, I said poncho). These 1960’s films redefined the western hero in shades of cool gray, as moral ambiguity and brooding intensity replaced the kind of white hat purity personified by Gary Cooper in “High Noon.” All the anti-smoking ads in the world are nullified by Eastwood’s cigarillo and scene chomping performance.

9. John Robie aka the Cat
Undeservedly dismissed by most Alfred Hitchcock scholars, 1955’s “To Catch a Thief” is a rousing jewel heist whodunit laced with humor and sexuality, and Cary Grant’s John Robie is the coolest cat in any Hitchcock film. He has gorgeous women over 25 years his junior (including Grace Kelly!) fighting over him (despite his polka dot ascot!), he’s got an amazing villa overlooking the French Riviera, and he can still leap across rooftops to clear his name and to catch a thief. Cary Grant had to stretch his chops to play uncool (as in “Bringing Up Baby”), but John Robie fit him like a glove.

8. The Bride
Picking a coolest character from the oeuvre of Quentin Tarantino is tricky... while many of his characters exude an outer smoothness, most of them possess major mitigating character flaws (heroin addiction, sadism, etc.). While Uma Thurman’s Beatrix Kiddo aka the Bride from “Kill Bill” tears through a spree of violent vengeance, she retains a humanity and sense of self that makes her seem so much more complex and, well, cooler than any other member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. Nobody ever looked better dispatching a horde of crazy ninjas.

7. Rick Blaine
Humphrey Bogart was probably incapable of playing a dorky character, and not because of a lack of acting ability. Inherently cool, Bogie played dozens of smokin’ tough guys in films such as “The Maltese Falcon,” “Key Largo,” “The Big Sleep” and many more. But the none of them could top Rick Blaine, the American expat / café owner in the classic “Casablanca” (1942). Fighting both his feelings for Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and his own isolationism, Rick’s inner turmoil is filtered through Sam’s piano and a lotta hooch and cigarettes into a smoldering display that ultimately makes selfless sacrifice and heroic idealism not only romantic, but suave as hell.

6. Wolverine
Let’s face it, most superheroes, whether because of a silly costume or a do-gooder image, do not fit into the definition of cool (no, not even Batman, you fanboy geeks!). One huge exception is Wolverine, played with a dark hipness by Hugh Jackman in the “X-Men” films. Wolverine is a leather jacketed bad boy with a flaring temper and mounds of attitude, but all masking a heart of gold... or adamantium, as the case may be. It’s easy to see why mutant ladies want to be with him and mutant boys want to be him. He’s the comic book movie James Dean... with retractable claws.

5. Axel Foley
As the streetwise, rebellious yet incorruptible smartass Detroit detective Axel Foley, Eddie Murphy set a new standard for movie cool in 1984’s “Beverly Hills Cop.” From this movie on, almost all celluloid cops would be required to crack wise as well as shoot straight, but nobody would do it better than Murphy. He was able to project a unique kind of cool, an approachable, likeable mixture of Sherlock Holmes, Dirty Harry and number four on our list....

4. Bugs Bunny
You may argue that the wascally wabbit isn’t a film character, but those classic Warner Bros. shorts were made for the big screen. And who among us doesn’t wish we could be as fast on our feet with the comebacks and possess the kind of grace under pressure exhibited by the wascally wabbit? There’s a giant furry monster about to rend you limb from limb! What do you do? You panic for one second, regain your composure and come up with a plan to pose as a manicurist to snap his fingers in mousetraps and make your escape. If it weren’t for Bugs’ propensity to dress in drag (which, while it can be fun and creative, isn’t exactly “cool”), he may well have topped this list.

3. Danny Ocean (both of ‘em)
The two versions of “Ocean’s 11” have little in common with each other aside from the Vegas setting, a complicated scheme and the undeniable cool of the leaders of both packs. Frank Sinatra slinked through the 1960 original with a swank assurance that transcended even an orange cashmere sweater. And George Clooney was able to fill ol’ Blue Eyes’ shiny shoes pretty well in the 2001 remake, evoking the charm (if not quite the edge) of Sinatra. Both Danny Oceans were the kind of guy who had the charismatic natural leadership to convince a mixed bag of roguish ne’er do wells to pull a seemingly impossible heist. And I needn’t mention the ability to charm the ladies, do I? Next!

2. John Shaft
Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks? Shaft. Who is the man who would risk his neck for his brother man? Shaft. Who’s the cat that won’t cop out when there’s danger all about? Shaft. Y’see, this cat Shaft is a bad mother---- Yeah, we’re just talkin’ about Shaft. Really, do I need to say anything more? The eternally cool Samuel Jackson was good in the just-okay 2000 remake, but even he was upstaged by the cameo appearance of his “uncle,” the original John Shaft, Richard Roundtree, who swaggered through Gordon Parks’ 1971 blaxploitation classic with a smooth righteousness. And you can dig it.

1) James Bond
In a word, duh. The essence of cool: Unruffled in any situation, a dry sense of humor, cultured, swanky, in possession of the most cutting-edge gadgets and rather popular with the most glamorous / dangerous / beautiful / enticingly-named women in the world. People pretend to argue over the best Bond, but actually the discussion should be “Who’s the SECOND best 007?” since anyone who says anyone other than Sean Connery is lying for the sake of being contrary. While George Lazenby was great in his one, underrated turn as the superspy in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” I have to say that my #2 is Pierce Brosnan, who got better with each film. He shall be missed.

Runners-Up include Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen), the Mustang driving, turtleneck wearing San Francisco cop in “Bullitt” (1968); Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in the “Alien” series (especially the initial 1979 outing); Johnny Strabler (Marlon Brando) in “The Wild One,” the 1953 film responsible for making leather jackets and motorcycles hip; Lola (Franka Potente) in “Run Lola Run” (1998), a woman of few words, much action, fierce dedication and some nice tattoos; Ty Webb (Chevy Chase) in “Caddyshack” (1980), a neo-zen philosopher who slings subtle put-downs faster than a speeding Dangerfield.

But wait, you may shout! What about Léon (Jean Reno) in “Léon / the Professional” (1994) or Vince Everett (Elvis Presley) in “Jailhouse Rock” (1957)? Tura Satana as Varla in “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” (1965)? Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs from “In the Heat of the Night” (1967)? Where’s one of the cool guys played by Bruce Lee or Lee Marvin or Jack Nicholson or Montgomery Clift or Lauren Bacall or....

The thing is, this is the topic for a full book, not a column that’s already two times overlong (my apologies to my editor). But opinions are passionate when it comes to what’s cool and what’s not (sorry, kids, but I just don’t think Darth Vendingmachine fits the bill). If any of you have a problem with my list, just meet me outside the MTV offices... Friday. High Noon. I’ll be the guy in the orange cashmere poncho and polka dot ascot.

POSTSCRIPT, September 2010:

Gotta say that Daniel Craig has surpassed Mr. Brosnan as my second favorite 007.

The Dying Art of the Main Title Sequence

It’s a slow time of year for movies. Hollywood is preoccupied with giving itself awards right now, and it’s going to be another few months until the big buzz films start their seep to ubiquity. But if you do find yourself plunked down in a multiplex this week, the odds are about 50/50 that whatever movie you’re going to see will be missing one element: Main Titles.

The main title sequence, that happy marriage of words, music and image is becoming a thing of the past, and, without being overly dramatic, it’s going to forever change the moviegoing experience... and not for the better.

In early cinema, titles were mostly perfunctory hand painted cards. It wasn’t until the late 1950s and 60s that they evolved into small set pieces of their own, thanks mostly to the pioneering work of graphic designer Saul Bass. In films like “Vertigo,” “The Man with the Golden Arm,” “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and the original “Ocean’s 11,” Bass utilized a stark, expressionistic design sense combined with groundbreaking typefaces to create opening sequences that were as exciting as the films to follow. Other trailblazers included Pablo Ferro, who created legendary titles for Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” and Jonathan Demme’s “Philadelphia” and Maurice Binder, whose seminal work on the James Bond series set the template for how action films should get under way.

Even as recently as the late 90’s, main titles were still going strong. Working with director David Fincher, Kyle Cooper brought an edgy rock esthetic to the art, creating revolutionary titles for “Se7en” and “Fight Club.” And Fincher’s 2002 film, “Panic Room” features some of the most amazing credits in the history of cinema. Picture Mill and CGI firm Computer Cafe created architectural letters that seem to float in front of the buildings of Manhattan, matching the lighting and shadows of the background. Startlingly beautiful, the titles are a modern day high tech version of Saul Bass’ classic opening sequence to Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” where flat letters followed the contours of the windows on a NYC skyscraper (although it’s kind of a drag that they chose the rather dull Copperplate font).

 But as the general public’s attention span shortens, main title sequences are becoming scarcer. Many films, especially action flicks, now start with simply the title of the movie. While the rationalization is that the story can get under way quicker, is that a good thing? Seeing a film without main titles isn’t like missing the title page in a book, it’s like skipping the whole first chapter. More than even the trailer for a film (which is often misleading), the opening credits sequence can set the tone for what’s to come. It allows the audience to settle in and recover from the barrage of advertising they’ve just endured, to prepare for the cinematic experience that’s getting under way. A really good main title sequence is like a fabulous appetizer before a great meal.

And main titles don’t even have to be splashy to be effective. Witness “The Shining” (1980), where the opening credits simply roll vertically as we watch, from high overhead, the Torrances drive their beaten VW Bug through the mountains towards the remote Overlook Hotel accompanied by the film’s terrifying theme, “Dies Iraie.” The tension builds for three minutes, to the point that when the seemingly innocuous card stating “The Interview” appears, we’re already freaked out.

But splashy is fun, too. While I’m hesitant to mention “Superman: the Movie” AGAIN in this column, the 1978 film’s opening credits caused a sensation in their own right. Cleverly contrasting an old fashioned black and white introduction, the long sequence, featuring block letters dramatically swooshing across the screen and through outer space over John Williams’ majestic theme was often mentioned in reviews of the movie and has been imitated in comic books flicks ever since.

But if films are going to eliminate opening titles, they should do so altogether, rather than tacking them on at the END of the movie, as is the common practice. The pace of main titles is an anticipatory escalation, building blocks of information, laying a foundation for the story. By putting individual cards for each major star, writer, producer, director, editor, et al at the end of the film, the balance is even further thrown off. Call me crazy, but didn’t it seem as if the black and white main title sequence of “Kill Bill Vol. 2” was designed to come at the beginning of that film, rather than after an already long cast listing at the end of Quentin Tarantino’s 2004 epic? Of course, retaining single credit titles is all about assuaging the egos (and contracts) of the principles involved in the project. But If the presumption is audiences don’t care to know who the music supervisor is at the beginning of the movie, why do they care at the end?

That rare breed of movie geek who sticks around through the end credits (whether it’s because there might be more movie tacked on, ala “Dawn of the Dead” or because they genuinely wanna know who the matchmove supervisor is) has to be a patient soul to begin with. Ever since the precedent was set of crediting every single person who came within ten miles of the production of a film, this can be a major time commitment. Now, with the complete credit roll following the main titles at the end, viewers have to endure the same credit repeated numerous times within the same sequence. It’s beyond monotonous listing five different titles for the same auteur who wrote, directed, adapted and produced the movie... why can’t multi-taskers like Guillermo del Toro take a page from Ed Wood’s book and slap all those credits on one card? It goes instantly from being tiresome to impressive.

Sadly, the future of the main title sequence seems to be as bleak as that of 2D feature animation, the indie record store or Verne Troyer’s dignity. How far can it go? Well, while it currently seems unthinkable to imagine a James Bond film without a post-prologue credits segment featuring a hot tune, incredible visual effects and silhouettes of naked ladies, it’s conceivable that the day could come where all we get is the iconic shot of 007 shooting down the barrel of his enemy’s gun at the outset of the movie. Movies have become so formulaic that it’d be a tragedy if one of the last bastions of true creativity in film became a quaint anachronism. Saul Bass is rapidly propelling at right angles in his grave.

POSTSCRIPT, September 2010:

The trend away from main titles continues, sadly. At least the Daniel Craig Bond films continue the grand tradition. Also, it's funny to note how dazzled I was by the PANIC ROOM titles considering technology has advanced in the past five years to the point where the same visual effect is used multiple times in every episode of the TV show FRINGE.