Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Hangover Part II


THE HANGOVER PART II: Bradely Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis (102 min.)

The original Hangover was so brilliant, so successful I think because of its recognizable setting. American audiences, regardless of whether or not they have ever been to Las Vegas, understand the town. So the debauchery in the first film had a sense of familiarity and the events that unfolded, however outrageous, felt somehow plausible. Now, moving the events to Thailand, the ante is understandably upped throughout The Hangover Pat II. Unfortunately, the effect doesn’t warrant the increased absurdity. This is less of a linear film and more of an episodic mess with a few laughs here and there. I remember doubling over in laughter during the original film countless times. This time around, those moments spent doubling over were replaced by me checking my watch.

Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis are all back as Phil (the cocky teacher), Stu (the timid, high-strung dentist), and Alan (the man child). This time, it is for Stu’s wedding to a beautiful Thai girl. This takes the trio (Doug is back as well, but in the periphery yet again. Poor guy.) over to Thailand where, after an appropriately awkward dinner party, the guys decide to have “one drink.” That one drink, of course, turns into a disaster of epic proportions.

Phil, Stu, and Alan wake up in a shabby hotel room in the middle of Bangkok. The room is a mess, but nothing on the scale of the hotel room in the original. That was one of the best parts of the first film, so I didn’t take it as a good sign that it was absent here. Alan’s head is shaved bald and Stu has a replica Mike Tyson tattoo on his face. Instead of a randomo baby this time around, we get a chain-smoking monkey. The guys also took Stu’s fiancé’s brother, a young Stanford student along for the ride. He is missing when they wake up; the only thing they could find was his finger. This is where the formula kicks in and the guys try and piece together the night before in an investigation which takes them on a series of wacky misadventures. None of them are as funny.

Back again is Mr. Chou, the Asian gangster played by Ken Jeong. Chou appears early and has a bigger impact on the proceedings than he did the first time, and he still isn’t very funny. The story sends the men to a monastery, a Thai strip club, and various dives and sketchy places around the city. All three of the guys here do what is expected; Bradley Cooper is reduced to saying “what the fuck” a lot, Stu takes care of the freaking out, and Alan stays as weird as ever. Maybe too weird. A lot of Alan’s jokes are forced onto the audience but Galifianakis has a natural sense of humor that helps. I laughed more just looking at Alan than I did at any of the actual plot details.

A lot of things are forced in The Hangover Part II. Gone is the ease of the narrative and in its place is shock value for the sake of shock value. And everything feels fragmented. A strange and nearly pointless cameo from Paul Giamatti near the end really derails things for a while. Why is Giamatti here? His role is so out of left field and mismatched with the story it was a complete distraction. And speaking of cameos, Mike Tyson is back in this one as well, but his appearance is so absurd and tacked on it was a little annoying.

Why did Doug (Justin Bartha) have to hang back again? It made sense in the first one, but I don’t understand why Bartha was in the background during this one. He could have gone with the guys and been a victim of something. I think maybe injecting Doug into the direct action, not just as a voice on the other end of the phone back at the resort, would have invigorated the story a little. Regardless, I don’t think it would have helped enough to save the film. I understand the cash grab involved here, but they didn’t have to make it feel like one. I left the theater trying to decide how they could have made The Hangover Part II a better film, and the only answer I came up with was: just don’t make it in the first place.

C-

Friday, May 27, 2011

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Hangover II, Cronenberg Love, and the Next Bond Star Will Be...

* The closer I get to The Hangover Part II, the more I am expecting a bad film. It just feels more and more like a money grab. Which it is. Which most sequels are.

* And Ken Jeong having a larger part in the sequel doesn’t bode well. Not for me anyway. He was clearly the weakest link of the first Hangover.

* Dear Paul Thomas Anderson, can you work a little faster on his next film please? I am having withdrawals. Thanks.

* Ladies and gentlemen meet your successor to Daniel Craig as James Bond once he moves on… His name is Michael Fassbender. The guy screams Bond in Inglourious Basterds, and I keep thinking about him as Bond even while playing Magneto in the new X-Men.

* This Oz: Great and Powerful film is gathering a rather interesting cast. Zack Braff, James Franco (of course), Mila Kunis. Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz are even in talks to star now. Could be interesting.

* HBO needs to calm down with the current-event economic dramas.

* I was apprehensive when I heard Robert Pattinson was in the new Cronenberg film, Cosmopolis. But then I looked at him, at his angular face and bone structure, and something about his features suggest he might be perfect for a Cronenberg film. There’s something about him similar to Jeremy Irons and Peter Weller and even Jeff Goldblum in a weird way.

* David Cronenberg will never get the respect he deserves.

* Speaking of, has anybody maybe gone by to check on Peter Weller recently? Maybe call him or stop by his house. You know, just make sure he’s still alive…

Thursday, May 26, 2011

THURSDAY THROWBACK: The Big Lebowski (1998)

It’s funny how some films take on a life of their own. How they can be released to middling reviews and poor box office and exist for years without anyone really seeing them. Then, a few years down the road, everyone has seen it. People quote it and celebrate it and even have conventions to admire it. This happens rarely in Hollywood, and perhaps no more than with The Big Lebowski, a classic American comedy, the most perfect and seamless comedy of all time. Played like a modern screwball comedy with a foul tongue, The Big Lebowski came and went with a whimper in 1998, cited as a weak effort from Joel and Ethan Coen. The reviews were middling, the box office was poor. But over the years, a following grew, the ground began to swell, and today you will find Lebowski conventions in various spots across the country and it sometimes seems that almost everyone has seen this film. It is truly iconic, and deservedly so.

The story, at its most basic level, is about an ordinary man in absurdly extraordinary situations, but it is much more layered and marvelously zany than any simple description. It follows the chaotic plight of one Jeffrey Lebowski. The Dude. Played by Jeff Bridges, The Dude is the penultimate American slacker, a pothead living in Los Angeles without drive or ambition beyond the desire to go bowling with his friends, Walter and Donny. Dressed primarily in shorts and a t-shirt, jellie shoes, a scruffy goatee and long hair, The Dude coasts through life in a haze of pot smoke and is perfectly content. That is the joy of The Dude, the confidence he carries despite not having any reason to be as such. And I think that is why he is a role model for the typical American man. No responsibilities, no cash flow, no problem.

Rather than run through the plot details, I thought I would discuss the picture as a whole. Partly because explaining the plot in any detail that would make sense would take another thousand words. The Dude gets caught up in a complex kidnapping plot involving the other Jeffrey Lebowski, a wealthy invalid whose trophy wife has been kidnapped and held for ransom. Or has she? The Dude’s first mistake is involving his friend Walter into things. Walter, played by John Goodman, is spot on perfect as juxtaposition to The Dude’s liberal mentality. A Vietnam Veteran, Walter is beyond high strung, a live wire who explodes in fits of rage on a regular basis. Only the fits aren’t scary; that is part of the brilliance of Walter’s character. All of his outbursts are soaked with ridiculousness.

Although steep in plot devices, The Big Lebowski is a film about characters. It’s hard to say the film is character driven; that would suggest our hero has some sort of drive. No, here is a film observing the absurdist qualities of these quirky people. The Dude and Walter, their friend Donny (Steve Buscemi) who always is a step behind and constantly on Walter’s nerves for no real reason, the Nihilists, the actual Big Lebowski, his wife Bunny, and the Jesus. Each and every one of the characters in this film has their own ticks that make them hilarious. Half of these people are given enough length with their characterizations that they could serve their own films.

There are too many moments in The Big Lebowski to single out one as the funniest or most memorable. IT has become one of the most quotable pictures of all time. And while it is a straight story, The Coens add just a hint of magic realism throughout the proceedings to give the picture a certain off center tinge. The Dude’s relationship with Maude (Julianne Moore), which feels like its own movie, keeps everything a little off balance. The dream sequences may seem obligatory to the film, but as they are heavy on bowling as a sexual reference they serve a very specific purpose. The Coen Brothers created a legend when they sat down to flesh out The Dude. But without everyone around him, The Dude would never have gotten the kind of film legs he has gotten over the years. Lord knows he wouldn’t have done anything on his own to make sure it happened.

Ah, fuck it dude... Let's go bowling." - Walter Sobcheck

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

THE HARRY POTTER PROJECT: The Sorcerer's Stone (2001)

I watched Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with the knowledge it was the opening act in a long narrative, the beginning of a relationship with these characters, and for that reason I know I cannot fault this first picture for the extended moments of exposition. Things need to be set up and explained, and they happen with great energy and wonder in the first half. The second half seems laborious in its set ups and explanations until the final showdown. Questions are raised and people introduced, but not at too furious a clip. Although aimed at a younger audience, as Harry himself is younger, The Sorcerer’s Stone is not “kiddie” in its delivery. It tackles the darker issues of the story with some conviction.

We first meet young Harry Potter as the adopted son of his terribly rude aunt and uncle. He is the stepchild to their own son. Harry was left with his aunt and uncle at a young age so he may be protected from… someone. At the age of eleven, Harry is whisked away from his aunt and uncle by Hagrid, the gentle giant who left him there as an infant, and taken to Hogwart’s school of Wizardry. Harry is a young wizard, and a legend among his peers and his teachers as he, as an infant, thwarted an attack from the evil Voldemort in a battle which killed his real parents.

So we are in Hogwarts, and we are introduced to the sprawling cast of characters. We meet the headmaster, Dumbledore (Richard Harris), Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith), and a whole slew of teachers. The most interesting is Snape, the most dubious of all the Hogwarts educators. Snape is the most interesting perhaps because he is played by Alan Rickman, one of the most interesting actors around. There is a certain stigma attached to Rickman as an actor, always playing the villain, and this initial portion of the story plays off this well. We are also introduced to Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), another student at Hogwarts who sets up to be Harry’s rival.

This is also where we get to see the beginning of the friendship between Harry, young Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), the trio who will be at the center of the stories in the future. Ron is eager but raw as a young wizard, Hermione is well-read and stubborn. There is a great dynamic between these three, and as Harry works on his superior skills as a wizard the trio gels rather quickly.

As I said, The Sorcerer’s Stone is all about introductions. We are introduced to Quiddich, the sporting event at Hogwarts. While there are a few interesting details about Quiddich, I would have enjoyed more specific rules. In the Quiddich game everyone flies around without boundaries or borders. I get the basic ides of the game, but the scene in the film is not my favorite. From the Quiddich game until Harry and his friends travel into the forest with Hagrid is the weakest part of this first film. There is much to explain and lay out, and I understand there really isn’t any way around it. I watched this portion of the film knowing it was necessary but not really as involved as I was in the first half. Fortunately, the final act picks up considerably as Harry, Ron, and Hermione track down the Sorcerer’s Stone.

I enjoyed The Sorcerer’s Stone as, for no other reason, a meet and greet with these characters. I feel like the basics are put in place and the story will evolve greatly from this point. Even as a child, Daniel Radcliffe carries himself with confidence. Chris Columbus was the perfect director for this opening film, as he handles the youthful aspects of the story and the darker elements with great balance. If anything, this one piqued my interest for The Chamber of Secrets.

B

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

TUESDAY TOP 10: The Best of Steven Spielberg

There are several reasons the films of Steven Spielberg have been on my mind. There is the release of the Tin Tin trailer, the upcoming Super 8 which he produced – a film that reminds me of classic Spielberg – and last week we looked at the best films of his friend and long-time producing collaborator, Tom Hanks. But how do you rank Steven Spielberg’s films? Despite the stigma, he has some very diverse pictures, some serious, some fun summer romps. His films are the definition of American popular culture when popular culture was still defining itself…

10) AI: Artificial Intelligence – This was, of course, Spielberg channeling the late Stanley Kubrick, directing a film Kubrick had tinkered with before handing it over to Spielberg. Like every one of Kubrick’s films, AI was initially met with lukewarm reviews and mediocre audience reaction. Time has helped this film, about a young robot looking to find someone to love him. The mood and the atmosphere and the bleak film suggest true Kubrick, and Spielberg navigates it with his sure hand. He may have softened the ending, as he tends to do too often, but the film itself is still a haunting look at what makes us human.

9) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – Not all of the Indiana Jones films are on this list. I think we all know the last entry won’t be here anywhere; Crystal Skull would be number one on his worst list. But back to the subject at hand. Putting the Temple of Doom on this list is a personal preference; I grew up on this one more than the others, so for that reason it is my favorite. I do understand its shortcomings and the drawbacks, but I feel the dark atmosphere of Temple sets it apart from the breezy action of the rest. The dinner party is an iconic cinematic moment, and the final battle on the bridge is thrilling. Harrison Ford takes Indiana Jones into different areas. The crazy look in his eyes as he is standing on the bridge gives me a rush every time.

8) Close Encounters of the Third Kind – Many may put this one higher on their lists, but of all the Spielberg films, Close Encounters is the most dated. Effects wise that is. But the heart and the themes of the story still inspire wonder and amazement. And the performance of Richard Dreyfuss as a man driven almost mad by the obsession with our alien visitors is magnificent. The final version of the film, released in a special edition DVD, takes out the scene where Dreyfuss builds the mountain in his living room. Many cite this as the right move, but I disagree. I feel this sequence added to the fun of the film. Without that in the middle the film sags in the second act. But still, it is a magical film which thrives on ideas more than anything.

7) Minority Report – Spielberg ventured into sci-fi noir with this 2002 thriller starring Tom Cruise. In a future where crimes are predicted by a trio of pre-cognitive siblings, a special Washington police force is in charge of stopping crimes before they are committed. The idea sounds fool proof, and Cruise’s John Anderton supports it fully, until he is the next target of the “pre-cogs.” What is so delightful about Minority Report is the detail of this future world. Spielberg consulted with several scientists and engineers to get as accurate as possible with the technology of a world fifty odd years in the future. And the stelly blue-gray hue of the picture gives it sharpness and a decided edge to the action. We could have done without the moving plants though.

6) E.T. The Extra Terrestrial – One of the most successful pictures of all time is still an awe-inspiring adventure from Spielberg at the height of his powers. The cute little alien who crash lands on earth and befriends a young boy without a present father is a wonderful tale with so many scenes which define Americana. The flying bicycle is the most iconic. Evidence of the power of ET at the time can be seen in the immediate spike of Reese’s Pieces after the film’s release. But ET is not all sunshine and rainbows. Once the government gets involved the picture takes a dark turn, and the image of a dying ET, pasty and screaming, is enough to give any kid, any adult, a nightmare or two. But fear not, Spielberg is at the helm and the picture rebounds with a final scene high on hope, and fitting this time around.

5) Jaws – Here was the birth of Steven Spielberg as we know him today. Many of us have read about the trials and tribulations of the biggest 70s films. The Star Wars production horrors come directly to mind. Jaws was just as troubled. The shark wouldn’t work right, the production out in the ocean was troublesome, the budget was running over, and when John Williams played the score for the shark Spielberg turned to him and said “That’s funny, but really John, what is the score?” Fortunately for the world Williams didn’t change his score, and created the most recognizable musical score for a film character ever. Spielberg knew the value of suspense too, opting not to show the shark until late in the film, ramping up the tension and changing the way we all look at swimming in the ocean.

4) Jurassic Park – Somehow, some way, Spielberg made me think dinosaurs could actually be reproduced the way they are in Jurassic Park. Part of that was in the science of the Michael Crichton novel. Part of it was in the amazing spectacle of the dinosaurs in the picture. In this amusement-park-gone-haywire film, the attractions just so happen to be giant prehistoric monsters. We all remember the thrilling, nerve-jangling attack from the vicious T-Rex on the SUVs, but we mustn’t overlook the quieter, more intense stalking of the two Velociraptors. This is a big, bold summer film, something Spielberg has patented. And it sure is nice to look back on and enjoy in this age of CGI and Michael Bay sensory overload.

3) Raiders of the Lost Ark – While not my personal favorite of the franchise, I understand the impact, the importance, and the pure exhilaration of the original Indiana Jones film. Saying it is not my favorite of the franchise is not a knock on the film at all; it is a perfectly-crafted action-adventure. I have always argued you enjoy whichever Indiana Jones film you grew up on more. For example, my formative childhood years were Temple of Doom. I have friends a few years younger that cite The Last Crusade as their favorite. My older brethren point to Raiders. But Raiders is the most indelible for its throwback to the serial adventures of yesteryear and the seamless plot development. This was also the introduction to the world of one of the finest action figures of all time.

2) Saving Private Ryan – These last two films are a bit more serious for Spielberg, and virtually impossible to rank. Talk to me on another day, and this war epic might be his best; but not today. Spielberg’s war film is most memorable for its first twenty minutes, and rightfully so. Never before has there been a more intense, seemingly accurate portrayal of the Normandy invasion, and I am sure there could never again be something so surreal as far as films go. Spielberg lent an unflinching eye to the proceedings, showing the horrors of the attack. The story unfolds after the invasion, and shows the relationships between these American heroes. There are several set pieces in Private Ryan that stand alone atop the heap of war film moments, but none as impacting and stained into the consciousness as the unforgiving opening scene.

1) Schindler’s List – The thing I think sets Schindler’s List above the rest of Spielberg’s films is the personal touch. This was a very personal, very direct subject for Spielberg, and he directs Schindler’s List with heart and soul and great melancholy. This is a beautiful film, too, shot in a crisp black and white. It softens the horrors of the holocaust to a certain degree, and allows us to focus on the eyes and the emotions of these characters. Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler, the man who saved thousands of Jews by swindling his Nazi brethren, is a breath of fresh air in a story of death and despair and unimaginable horror. But what is so important to the story is putting an evil face on the Nazis, and Ralph Fiennes defines pure, unhinged insanity. Fiennes, who was robbed for Best Supporting Actor, sharpens the films narrative thread, and the overall message of the film, finding hope amid atrocities, is a tough sell that Spielberg handles with tact and marvelous filmmaking.

Monday, May 23, 2011

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: Woody Allen, Volume Shooter

Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen’s 41st feature film. 41 is a lot. Of those 41, I would say about a dozen of those are good. Of those dozen, maybe half are great films. Allen is a volume shooter and an acquired taste, perhaps more than any other member of the Hollywood fraternity. His films are decidedly highbrow in their comedy, speaking to a narrow corner of America, but accessible to those who wish to give him a chance. My first exposure to Allen was at a young age, when I saw Manhattan Murder Mystery in the theater. I was too young to understand each and every quip and punch line from Allen, Diane Keaton, or the rest of the cast; but I still “got” it. I felt I had a solid grasp on the picture, and found Allen to be funny in his neurosis. Manhattan Murder Mystery isn’t one of those dozen good films from Allen, but to me as a youth it was enough to get me interested in his catalogue. The journey through Woody Allen has not completed, but has grown as I have gotten older. He may be the busiest director around, a true volume shooter, and sometimes he doesn’t hit the mark at all. But when he does hit the mark, his films can be true gems.

Allen’s first film as a director was What’s Up, Tiger Lily in 1966. Over the next decade, Allen would direct small films which shaped his comedic styles and timing. His first big hit was Sleeper in 1973, a parody of science fiction films steeped in sexual humor, an Allen trademark of sorts. This was his most notable film to date, but four years later Allen would take down Star Wars at the Oscars with what is still his very best film, Annie Hall. This picture made new rules for romantic comedies, playing with the notions of film and narrative, having Allen’s Alvie Singer talk directly into the camera and appear in an animated scene. Annie Hall cemented Allen as a true auteur. From there he directed the beautiful and wryly humorous Manhattan in 1979. Manhattan is a love note to his beloved city, and another witty comedy full of musings on sex, death, and relationships.

It would be too much to try and hit on all of Allen’s films. Over the decade of the 80s Allen would direct small, popular films like The Purple Roase of Cairo and Broadway Danny Rose. But in 1986, Allen was back on top again with another Manhattan romantic comedy, Hannah and Her Sisters. Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest would both win Supporting Acting Oscars. A few years later, Allen directed Crimes and Misdemeanors, another wildly successful film. The decade of the nineties was not as kind to Allen, however, as he would direct Scenes From a Mall, Husbands and Wives, and Deconstructing Harry among several others. Mighty Aphrodite would be the film to get Mira Sorvino a Supporting Actress Oscar in 1995 (from whence she would then disappear), and Celebrity was a clever experimental film, but overall the decade was not his best. However, jump ahead to 2005, after a string of failures would send Allen overseas to Europe, where he would find new inspiration and new life in an unlikely genre.

Match Point, set in London, is everything Allen had written and directed to this point, only flipped on its head and devoid of any humor. Match Point is a thriller about love and infidelity and luck, and is one of the best films Allen has ever directed. The surprisingly dark tone was a wild departure and a welcome change for Allen. It was clear Allen needed a film like Match Point to clear his head, to wipe the slate clean so he may start fresh. Over the next few years Allen would continue on his path of quantity over quality more often than not, but his 2008 film Vicky Cristina Barcelona is another good picture, and it appears that Midnight in Paris, his latest starring Owen Wilson, is getting excellent reviews and was a favorite of Cannes.

There are several things which make the comedies of Woody Allen seem “Allen”-esque. There is the Allen figure. Sometimes he portrays a version of himself, a neurotic rambling hypochondriac sidetracked by sex. As he has gotten older, Allen more frequently has stand ins play the version of him. Owen Wilson does this in Midnight in Paris, Larry David in Whatever Works. And despite the consistent sexual conundrums in Allen’s pictures, he writes women better than most. Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest, Mira Sorvino, and Penelope Cruz have all benefited from being a female character in Allen’s films, all winning an Oscar.

Of all the living, working directors out there I cannot think of anyone in the middle on Woody Allen. Either you don’t care for him at all, or you love his humor, his wit, and his niche. It is true, Allen is not for everyone, not for many, but in my opinion has written and directed more good films than most and more great films than many. Of course, he may have taken 41 films to get that handful of quality, but that’s beside the point. Isn’t it?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Everything Must Go

EVERYTHING MUST GO: Will Ferrell, Rebecca Hall, Christopher Jordan Wallace (100 min.)

As a society we tend to associate our possessions with who we really are. The “things” we have define us no matter how often or how little we use them. But what if a person has lost all sense of himself or herself? What if the stuff that surrounds him doesn’t represent him, or hasn’t represented him in a long time? There isn’t really a point to all these “things” then. That is the case with Nick Halsey, the subject of Everything Must Go. Nick is a drunk. Perhaps this is my own personal distinction, but an alcoholic is more dramatic and more prone to lash out; a drunk is someone like Nick. He drinks beer steadily, persistently, never gives into violence, but still cannot seem to save his job or his marriage.

Will Ferrell is Nick, an ace salesman in Arizona and as we open on him he is being fired for his alcoholism. He buys his first of countless cases of Pabst and drives home to find his wife has left him, changed the locks, the garage code, and placed every single one of his possessions on the front lawn. Without the advantage of a better option, Nick decides to live amongst his things on the front lawn, camping out in his La-Z-Boy. The police tell him he can’t, but he works with his detective friend and sponsor from a failed stint at AA, Frank (Michael Peña), who tells him he can stay he under the pretense that he is holding a yard sale. This buys him five days.

Nick befriends a local boy, Kenny, played by Christopher Jordan Wallace, the son of the late rapper Notorious B.I.G. Of course Kenny teaches Nick a few things and Nick teaches Kenny how to be a salesman and throw a baseball. The other major relationship for Nick involves Samantha, a pregnant woman moving in across the street. Her husband is, curiously, still back in New York. Rebecca Hall plays Samantha and does quite well in a quiet role. All of the roles here are quiet, introspective. Samantha and Nick have an odd banter for a while until things begin to get too personal with their pasts (Don’t get me wrong, there is never any sexual relationship; that would be absurd on a number of levels). A third relationship involves Laura Dern as a high school friend of Nick’s he seeks out after picking up an old yearbook. Although the scene with Dern is brief, it reminded me how marvelous she is as an actress, and how I would love to see much more of her on the screen than I do these days.

Nick ambles around his lawn for a few days, being stubborn, not really conjuring up a plan to do anything but drink beer and pass out at night. There are moments of humor in Everything Must Go, a few laugh out loud moments, but I wouldn’t say it is really a comedy. It is more a character study of a man broken by a disease. We get glimpses into what may have caused his alcoholism, we learn about his wife through her stuff she has left at the house. The wife is never shown, and I understand why; the items she left at the house explain enough.

This is a transitional film for Will Ferrell. It is much more a drama than anything he has ever done before, and it is a joy to see Ferrell play a real person, but it is not a heavy picture. It is a film he needs to move away from cornball roles if he wants to in the future. There is depth to Ferrell’s darting, piercing eyes and his slack-jawed delivery; I believed him here and look forward to seeing more of this Will Ferrell in the future.

Everything Must Go is based on the short story “Why Don’t You Dance?” by Raymond Carver. This is a drawback for the picture as it tries its best to stretch a very thin story into a feature film. I could feel the writers and director Dan Rush reaching out as far as they could to extend the running time. Once we reach a certain point, the story’s center runs out. Nick sells his things in one of the most successful yard sales I have ever seen, and then we still have some loose ends to tie up that, unfortunately, aren’t as interesting as the earlier scenes. This produces several moments which feel tacked on. Still, Everything Must Go is a nice film, one with some heart and an emotional center that will sneak up on you. It is also a film about our possessions, and the point of those possessions if they represent a life that is no longer one you want or exist in. Nick had a kayak on the lawn. I couldn’t imagine this version of Nick ever being in a kayak. Eventually, neither could he.

B

Friday, May 20, 2011

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Swashbuckling Blahs, and Von Trier the Nazi

* I don’t see much hype for the new Pirates of the Caribbean film. I think many people are a little burned out. These films are such sprawling messes that bounce all over the place and rely on the goofy Depp character that is a tired bit at this point. Maybe this film will underperform and we won’t have to fight through a fifth and a sixth someday. We’ll see.

* I am beginning to worry that Super 8 might be too much of a Spielberg imitation.

* Still waiting for a Green Lantern preview to pique my interest. The special effects look so shoddy. And Ryan Reynolds seems way too smarmy to handle in a role like this. And they’re already working on the sequel? Hold your horses guys.

* I think if there would have been any year worth going to Cannes this would have been the year. Between the rave reviews for Drive, the polarizing Tree of Life, and Lars Von Trier saying he likes Nazis… what a mixed bag of entertainment.

* Do we really think Von Trier sympathizes with Nazis? This guy is a loon, the directorial equivalent to a shock jock. That being said, you still can’t say it Mr. Von Trier.

* I still haven’t seen one of Von Trier’s films.

* So, 21 Jump Street was a show about teens going undercover in high schools for the police, right? How old is Jonah Hill? 24? And Channing Tatum is at least that old. I don’t get it.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Apocalypse Now (1979)

This wasn’t supposed to all work out. Everything was a mess, he had no ending, he knew he had made a bad film and bankrupted his family. After sinking his entire fortune into the film, Francis Ford Coppola and the crew of Apocalypse Now had nearly gone mad in the jungles of the Philippine Islands. “My film is not about Vietnam,” Coppola said. “My film is Vietnam.” This controversial comment was at the film’s Cannes premiere in 1979. Nobody, not even Coppola could have imagined the impact Apocalypse Now would have on the landscape of cinema forever. Having seen the film at least a dozen times, I opted to revisit the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness, focusing on the tempestuous 268 day shoot. This is a documentary, filmed at the time by Coppola's wife Eleanor, that anyone who is a fan of film should see.

Not only is Apocalypse Now better than Coppola expected, it is one of the finest films ever made, a labor of intensity, of near insanity which pushed everyone involved to the brink. The source material for Apocalypse Now is Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, about a man sent down the Congo River to kill a man named Kurtz, a man who had gone insane. This was the skeletal outline of the film, and Coppola opted to move the events to the Vietnam conflict. It took nearly a decade to make the film, as the subject was untouchable in 1969. When the dust had settled, Coppola had created a masterpiece rivaling even his own Godfather films earlier in the decade. Here is an exploration into the center of the human soul where these characters do not like what they see.

Martin Sheen is Captain Willard, a soldier ordered to go upriver to kill Colonel Kurtz. Kurtz, one of the most decorated and celebrated military heroes, had gone mad and opted to conduct the war “on his own terms.” Before the journey even begins we see the horrors of the war eroding Willard’s mind in a violent outburst in a hotel room that is all the more frightening after seeing how little acting was really involved with Sheen’s breakdown. Willard takes on the task reluctantly, almost out of curiosity about Kurtz. Perhaps he isn’t mentally fit enough to lead this mission. But who is over there?

Willard’s four-man crew consists of Chief (Albert Hall), Chef (Fred Forrest), Lance (Sam Bottoms), and Clean (a 14-year old Laurence Fishburne). They take off upriver on their mission, none of them other than Willard knowing the details. This is a perfect set up for the story Coppola wants to tell. The river almost serves as a spinal cord leading into a brain rotted by the sights and memories it has. Willard grows more interested in Kurtz to the point of a sort of casual obsession and eventual, unspoken admiration. The river trip allows Coppola to show the viewers various aspects of the conflict that had not been shown prior. One of the earlier moments involves an epic invasion of a village and the introduction of one Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore.

Kilgore, played by Robert Duvall, is the leader of a platoon Willard latches onto to get his men across a treacherous portion of the river. They are along for the ride. Kilgore organizes an air raid on a nearby village in what is the most well known, most awe-inspiring moment in the picture. With Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries blaring, a squad of helicopters relentlessly firebombs a Vietnamese village, killing women and children. The scene is one of the grandest, most ambitious shots in the picture and in all of film, inspiring horror and wonder all at once. Kilgore, the brash leader of the attack, fears not one bomb or stray bullet as he stands tall amidst the fight. He is more concerned with the surf and with getting his surfboard in the water. Duvall, who would nab a Supporting Actor nomination for his brief scenes here, shows a different side of the damage the conflict has had on men; he is numb to the death and destruction, proud of the kill, loving the smell of napalm in the morning because it smells like “victory.”

As Willard and crew continue to travel upriver there are several episodic vignettes in the film detailing the various aspects of the conflict. In one scene the men confront a fishing boat and through mass confusion and fright open fire on the Vietnamese citizens, killing them all. This shocking outburst of violence shows the audience how these things happened and how nobody involved was necessarily doing the right thing. In a later scene the men stop off in a village where R&R has brought the Playboy bunnies in to entertain the troops. The sexuality of the bunnies and the infiltration of American counterculture opens a gateway for the picture to explore the drug use that ran rampant throughout Southeast Asia. This was an element of the war not yet explored in film, and a turning point for the story. The men in the convoy begin to have their masks of sanity picked at and pulled back as the boat travels further up the spine and into the brain.

The sanctuary Kurtz has created at the end of the river is one of madness, a stinking world of death inhabited by a local tribe Kurtz has trained to be his own private army. The entry into this world by Willard and the men on the boat is one of eerie calm, as the tribe splits to allow them onto the land. Here, the men meet an American photographer played by Dennis Hopper. The photographer, clearly out of his mind on drugs, has become obsessed with the messages of Kurtz and sees him as godlike, a prophet of the disease of the world. As the remainder of the film takes place on the compound, we meet Kurtz and see the sickness that has taken him over and threatens to corrupt the men.

Marlon Brando, his head shaved clean and filmed mostly in shadows as he showed up grossly overweight, plays Kurtz. The dialogue of Kurtz consists primarily of monologues describing “the horror.” He speaks of the inoculation of the children in a village, hacking off arms infected by polio, of the “piles of little arms.” Kurtz’s revelations are the things of the most horrific nightmares, and it is clear Kurtz has gone to a place in his own mind of which there is no return.

Apocalypse Now is a film so layered and speaking on so many notions of the human mind that it might be impossible to touch them all. First and foremost, it is a metaphorical examination into the dark corners of the human mind, where the thin line between sanity and madness exists in us all. If this were to be described as an “onion story” the layers of this onion would be the soul. This may be a film on the surface about Vietnam, but the conflict is merely the setting, and a perfect one at that. Vietnam was perhaps the darkest era in American history, a perfect place for such an examination.

The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, won two, and was the grand-prize winner at Cannes in 1979. It would lose Best Picture that year to Kramer vs. Kramer, a fine film in its own right but nothing on the scale of Apocalypse Now. I would bet time has rendered a different verdict. A few years ago, Apocalypse Now Redux was released with nearly an hour of additional footage. This hurt the film a little I think. The original theatrical cut is a masterpiece of cinema, a labor of love and madness the likes of which we have never seen again. Coppola was not sure he had made even a good film. He needed not worry, he made a great one.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

THE DEFENSE CALLS: Urban Cowboy (1980)

Urban Cowboy was an attempt to cash in on the success of John Travolta following Saturday Night Fever and even, to an extent, the dreadful sequel Staying Alive. In many respects it is Saturday Night Fever South, about a young man looking to make his way in the world of Houston, spending his nights in a nightclub country dancing and falling in love with a woman. Travolta is Bud, Debra Winger, in a different life, is Sissy. Urban Cowboy is scoffed at, insulted, forgotten by most people as a low moment for Travolta and dismissed as a soap opera responsible for creating a Country-Western fad across the country in the 80s.

There are a number of things about Urban Cowboy which keep it from being great, but to dismiss it might be a bit too shortsighted. The main issue I have, and many have, is the treatment of women throughout. This is a valid argument. Winger’s Sissy is slapped around a few times by a few different men. Other than that, people throw Urban Cowboy away in their minds simply because it brought about a fad of pearl-snapped shirts and wranglers. There is plenty to enjoy here, though.

EXHIBIT A – The Chemistry: I dare say that John Travolta and Debra Winger had more chemistry, more sexual playfulness, more allure than Travolta ever had with Karen Lynn Gorney in Saturday Night Fever. As Bud and Sissy, their relationship waivers between tempestuous and adoration, never far away from love. This is mostly due to the breakout performance of Debra Winger who would go on to make Terms of Endearment three years later. With her cowboy hat pulled low over her eyes and her curly brown hair hiding her small shoulders, Winger’s Sissy is a firecracker. Her personality is aggressive and fiery and never backs down from Bud. Travolta plays Bud as a bit insecure but masking it under machismo, and Sissy consistently calls him out. And later in the film, when she is broken by the villainous Wes (Scott Glenn) and her spirit is taken from her, she comes off as a strong presence on the screen. The love between Bud and Sissy is believable in this world.

EXHIBIT B – A True Villain: What is often overlooked in Urban Cowboy is Scott Glenn. Glenn plays Wes, a prisoner on the rodeo team, on parole and the baddest of bad boys. Sissy is enchanted by Wes, asking him if he’s a “real cowboy.” Wes threatens Bud’s manhood, and he knows it. The two fight outside a diner and the end result steals Bud’s swagger and pushed Sissy into his arms. And late in the film, when Sissy leaves Bud to live with Wes, the villainy begins to shine through the bad boy mystique. Wes becomes more vile, a snake. Scott Glenn, whose skin looks baked by the sun and stretched over his gangly body, exudes menace and is a formidable threat to Bud.

EXHIBIT C – The Sense of Time and Place: The majority of Urban Cowboy takes place in Gilley’s, a sprawling urban country and Western dance club in the center of Houston. This is where the weekend cowboys go to ride the mechanical bull, drink Coors, listen to Charlie Daniels, and strut like pearl-snapped peacocks. Bud is enchanted by the allure of Gilley’s and finds it as an escape into the idea of his own perception. Gilley’s once was a real place but was famously burned to the ground, and the smoky interiors of the bar are the heart of the picture. But beyond that, Urban Cowboy captures a time and a place that is unfamiliar to many. Growing up in Texas in the 80s, this was a world my parent’s inhabited and thrived in. We didn’t live in a trailer park, but my parents worked hard and the earliest memories of my young father remind me of Bud leaning back against the bar in his cowboy hat, jeans, and boots.

* Urban Cowboy may not be the best or most memorable film of the early 80s, very few films are. But it is a fun film, a time capsule of a period that seems ancient now. The performances carry the picture, and make it memorable. It may be considered a southern version of Saturday Night Fever, but I don’t see what is so wrong with that. At least it isn’t a southern version of Staying Alive.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

TUESDAY TOP 10: The Best Tom Hanks Performances

Tom Hanks is back this summer, but unfortunately the film, Larry Crowne, doesn’t look impressive at all. He was advertising it on Oprah a week or so ago, as he should because the Oprah crowd will be the only crowd to embrace the picture. All the preview for Larry Crowne makes me do is remember when Tom Hanks was at the peak of his career: the 90s. It’s difficult to rank the best performances of Hanks’ career, but some edge out others for various reasons. And there is no way we can forget his strong comedic turns in the late 80s. So these are the finest performances of Hanks’ storied career. Perhaps one film is better than another, but focusing on the work of Hanks alone I find them ranked as such…

10) Ray Peterson, The ‘Burbs – Hold on a second, don’t shake your head. What an underappreciated film this is. Oscar winner? No. But this was Hanks at the peak of his early comedic career as an unwilling partner in a team of nosy neighbors. Consistently the wet blanket on his friend’s Art and Rumsfeld’s zany investigation into the shady Klopecs, The ‘Burbs thrives on Hanks’ spastic outbursts. Whether he is smashing empty beer cans, screaming uncontrollably, or going into a sneezing fit at the right time, Ray is the hopeless accessory until the end where he takes matters into his own hands. His final blow up is the stuff of comedic legend.

9) Sam Baldwin, Sleepless in Seattle – Tom Hanks dipped his big toe in a few romantic comedies over the years, but none of them are very interesting. You’ve Got Mail is bland and formulaic, The Terminal much of the same only with Hanks doing a foreign accent. Sleepless in Seattle was Hanks’ first real foray into the genre (unless you count Splash), and his best. Hanks plays Sam, a recently windowed man whose son calls into a radio station in an attempt to try and get him a date. This was a summer film in 1993, just a few months before Hanks would star in one of his finest performances, and in Sleepless in Seattle you can see a range of comedy and drama that will shape his career in the decade.

8) Jim Lovell, Apollo 13 – Hanks was right in the heart of his Oscar run when he played Jim Lovell in Ron Howard’s gripping NASA drama. Lovell is one of a trio of men sent up in Apollo 13 when things go haywire and they are in the fight of their life to try and get back to earth. What could have been a procedural turns into a thrilling human drama because of the performances of Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, and Hanks as Lovell. Lovell yearns to land on the moon, and when it is clear this won’t happen we can see the pain in his small expressions and gestures. Hanks is the best everyman in Hollywood, and thrusting his everyman persona into an extraordinary circumstance helps the audience connect on a human level.

7) Jimmy Dugan, A League of Their Own – The year was 1992, and Hanks had not yet transitioned into a dramatic force in Hollywood. A League of Their Own is a fantastic film about reversals and expectations flipped on their ear. Baseball films are typically dominated by men and star one or two women. Here, that ratio is reversed. Front and center, representing the men, is Jimmy Dugan, a broken down ex ballplayer and a hopeless drunk who reluctantly signs on to coach a girl’s ballclub during World War II. Hanks plays Dugan as a mean-spirited drunk at first, a crass comic, but his character softens around these women and he becomes something of an anchor for them. There are some single moments from Hanks in A League of Their Own that are unforgettable. And remember, there is no crying in baseball.

6) Michael Sullivan, Road to Perdition – There is no getting around the fact that Hanks is a bad guy here. Some may try and paint him as such, simply out of conditioning and the fact Hanks is always the good guy. Not this time. His Michael Sullivan is a hitman for the Chicago mob. He is a killer. He has a family and is forced on the run with his younger son after events lead to the death of the rest of his family, but there is no outrunning what he is. This role reversal for Hanks is a marvelous switch in his career. As Sullivan, you can see the weight of guilt and sadness in Hanks’ eyes, in his heavy face. He is a man grown cold by the world he inhabits and the things he has done, and the only thing driving him is saving his son from his same fate.

5) Cpt. John Miller, Saving Private Ryan – I often compare Hanks’ performance in Private Ryan to that of a coach. He has a team of diverse personalities from different backgrounds he must coach and organize and motivate to execute their jobs. Only a game isn’t on the line, their lives are. World War II was a war made up of teachers and bankers and mechanics in this country; everymen you see. So who better to play the heart of the film than Mr. Everyman? Hanks is fully capable of the action scenes and the fighting in Private Ryan, but where he brings that ever-important human element is in the quiet moments either by himself or with the other soldiers. Perhaps my favorite scene in the entire film is Miller talking to Ryan and his men right before the climactic battle at the bridge. What a marvelous moment of calm before the storm.

4) Forrest Gump, Forrest Gump – This performance has been a bit marginalized over the years. I equate this to the numerous parodies, the chain restaurants, and to the fact that Forrest Gump is a flashy character. His life is a history lesson and he has countless quotable lines that have been quoted right into the ground over the years. But I feel we have lost site of the actual Hanks performance as Gump has become more of an icon than a film. Sure, the majority of the performance is reliant on comedy, but do not forget that third act when Jenny returns to his life, when he has that happiness with her, albeit for a short while. All of the events in his life are secondary to the time he has with Jenny, and we see that when she dies and he is talking to her grave. Ok, I have to move on, I’m welling up here…

3) Josh Baskin, Big – Many people site Hanks’ Oscar nominations and wins in the 90s, but many forget he was in fact nominated in 1988 for Big, and his breakout performance as a 13-year old boy who gets his wish at a carnival one night and wakes up a 30-year old man. This had to be somewhat of a challenging performance, to be 30 and stay 13. 13 is a hard age to emulate unless you are that age, and Hanks nails it. But beyond the simple impersonation of a young teen, Josh becomes an adult and Hanks must display this transformation. Playing a kid who becomes an adult, then having to play that adult as a kid then eventually as an adult, but still a kid… What a dizzying mental exercise.

2) Andrew Beckett, Philadelphia – In 1993, AIDS was still a relatively unknown, relatively frightening disease. People still were uncertain of transmission and AIDS patients were cast off, discriminated against. Philadelphia is a message film, an important picture that helped put a face on the disease. And again, putting the everyman in the role really connected audiences in a special way. But Hanks didn’t just coast on his everyman aspect; as Andrew Beckett, a gay lawyer dying of AIDS, Hanks showed some amazing balance. Never flamboyant, always even keel, even as he looked death in the eye, Beckett is one of the strongest, most memorable characters in all of cinematic history. It may have been Hanks’ personal best had it not been for Robert Zemeckis.

1) Chuck Noland, Cast Away – Not only is this Hanks’ best performances, this is one of the most seminal of all performances. As Chuck Noland, a man lost at sea and stranded on a desert island, Hanks shows the depth of the human soul through amazing physical and mental transformations. He doesn’t speak for nearly an hour in the film, and who else could pull off such a feat? Very few. We all know Hanks and Co. took a year off so he could lose incredible amounts of weight and grow out his Jesus beard, but the intricacies of the performance are perhaps more important. There is that moment, when we first see Chuck after four years on the island, where we realize he is a broken shell. It is in his eyes, and that is all we need to see to know this man is no longer a regular man. And who else could make you weep uncontrollably at the loss of a volleyball? I say no one.

REGARDING WOODY IN TOY STORY – This, too, is one of Hanks’ finest roles, but I opted to stay with his live-action performances for the sake of balance on the list. Had I put it in there, it may be somewhere between 5 and 6.