Wednesday, November 30, 2011

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: Is it Now Or Never for Cameron Crowe?

As much as I complimented Cameron Crowe yesterday for his directing work on Pearl Jam Twenty, I feel like Crowe, as a true film director, has reached a crossroads in his career. After a dozen years directing films which tapped into a certain consciousness of both Crowe and audience, it has been a much more difficult road this last decade. Crowe reached the height of his powers in 2000, on the heels of a decade of critically acclaimed work that managed to cross boundaries and appeal to the masses. As a director, he has helmed a surprisingly small amount of feature films; as a writer he is much more prolific. But something has been lost in translation in his last two features, making his upcoming Christmas release an important turning point.

Crowe’s early life and career has been well documented, both through the work he accomplished at such a young age and his own semiautobiographical take on his youth in 2000. As early as fifteen, Crowe was submitting music articles to Rolling Stone magazine, and just a few years later he would have his first screenplay turned into a cult classic. Fast Times at Ridgemont High was the launching pad for the teen comedies of the 80s, but it was a much more cynical take on those formative years. It may have been an inspiration for the onslaught of great John Hughes pictures in the decade, but Fast Times feels like the antithesis of those movies. Crowe would also meet his future wife, Nancy Wilson, the lead singer of Heart who had a small role in the film.

In 1989, Crowe made his mark as a director with Say Anything, another teen comedy that has much more to say than any typical teen romp. Starring John Cusack, Say Anything was a smash hit in 1989 and opened any and all doors for Crowe as an auteur. We all know the iconic moment where Cusack’s character holds the boom box over his head, blasting Peter Gabriel. What is forgotten, at least in my opinion, is the way the film stalls in the second half under the weight of a corporate lawsuit involving Ione Skye’s father, played by John Mahoney. It really divides the picture into two parts, with the first half being infinitely more interesting.

Three years later, Crowe would shine a spotlight on the swelling music revolution in Seattle with Singles, a film with an all-important passion from the mind of Crowe. Four years later, Crowe’s work reached a new level. Jerry Maguire was a sensational hit for audiences and critics alike. Because of its tie to the sporting world, Jerry Maguire was able to pull off a romantic plotline and appeal to both male and female audiences. Jerry Maguire collected a handful of Oscar nominations and earned a win for Cuba Gooding Jr. (which would subsequently end his career, but that’s for another day). Crowe’s star was on the rise, and in 2000 he would direct the first masterpiece of his career.

Almost Famous is a film which any number of superlatives would fit in describing it: delightful, heartfelt, passionate, funny, charming, wonderful. It is a semiautobiographical take on Crowe’s early career as a teen writer for Rolling Stone. Crowe’s alter ego was William Miller (Patrick Fugit), a young, sheltered boy who goes on a year-long journey with an up-and-coming rock band whose inner strife takes center stage over their talent. Almost Famous had the benefit of knowledge, from Crowe’s own mind, and the love and attention to detail and a firm grasp on time and place elevated the picture. It also showed us that Kate Hudson, when she has the right role, can be a fabulous actress. Crowe would win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and have the world in front of him as a director. But his next two films were huge missteps and have seemed to tarnish his star a bit.

The first was Vanilla Sky, a mishandled remake of a Spanish film, Open Your Eyes. Starring Tom Cruise as a jaded millionaire, Vanilla Sky attempted to explore what it means to be happy, and in the face of great adversity what people were willing to try or do to find peace. While I do enjoy the synth-pop feel of Vanilla Sky and am less hard on it than most, I do see its shortcomings and its lack of focus. Things get strange in the film, but feel unwarranted. I think the problem is Tom Cruise, who is greatly miscast in the role. Four year later, Crowe would hit bottom with Elizabethtown, a clumsy and altogether dull take on a family drama. Starring Orlando Bloom – another missed casting choice – and Kirsten Dunst, Elizabethtown came and went without much recognition and showed a true chink in the armor of Cameron Crowe. Vanilla Sky was decent but mishandled in spots; Elizabethtown was simply a bad film.

Which brings us to this holiday season, and Crowe’s recent directorial effort, We Bought A Zoo. Based on the true story of a father who bought and renovated a struggling zoo with his family, We Bought A Zoo sports a promising cast of Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, and Thomas Hayden Church, but the previews are absolutely saturated with schmaltz. I can feel the sap on my hands after I watch a trailer for this film. The PG rating doesn’t help matters. Now I am willing to give this film a real chance at reviving Crowe’s career, but this is dangerous ground. Elizabethtown collapsed under melodramatic sappiness, and I worry this picture could do the same. Perhaps I am wrong, and perhaps the film will be truly inspirational, but it would be very easy to overdo it. Regardless, I feel like this is a pivotal film for Cameron Crowe, who could rebound from a few flops and come back strong. Then again, he could fall into directorial purgatory and lose all of the shine he once had.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

DVD REVIEW: Pearl Jam Twenty

The early nineties changed a lot of things about the music business, and they were my formative music years. I remember hearing Smells Like Teen Spirit as a young teen and immediately identifying. I bought the flannel, I grew my hair out, I tried to listen to every Seattle rock band I could find. Bands like Alice in Chains and Soundgarden floated like grainy, inspirational rock satellites around Nirvana and another band that was picking up steam about that same time: Pearl Jam. For years I would rotate Nirvana’s Nevermind in my Discman with Pearl Jam’s Ten, trying to figure out which one was more “important.” And make no mistake, they were important.

It is well documented that director Cameron Crowe got his start as a writer for Rolling Stone, then turned his love for music into a film career. His ode to the Seattle grunge revolution was Singles, a film that didn’t have an audience until Nirvana and Pearl Jam changed the landscape of music. Crowe has spanned two decades of a filmmaking career and has arrived now with Pearl Jam Twenty, celebration of the last band standing from that all-important Seattle rock scene that took the hairspray out of rock and roll. Pearl Jam Twenty is in depth, it is captivating, and it is appropriately fond of its subject. From the birth of the band in 1989, to its emergence as the Pearl Jam we all know in 1991, to where the members find themselves today, Pearl Jam Twenty leaves no stone unturned.

I will spare the history lesson of Pearl Jam because the film does a wonderful job of showing us the birth of the band and should be seen rather than read. In awe of the raw and early footage, I had no idea of the band’s early days with a different singer, the name changes, and the discovery of the soulful lead singer Eddie Vedder. Vedder was the key component of the band, composed of two lead guitarists, Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, bass guitarist Jeff Ament, and a comically rotating crew of drummers. There are early scenes of the band playing in small Seattle clubs, and countless arena and festival venues. The energy of the band in their concerts was explosive in the early days, and Vedder’s tendency to climb to the top of the rafters and fall backwards into a crowd of eager hands is one of the most jaw-dropping moments of this early footage. He should have died a number of times.

We follow Pearl Jam through their early years, to the well-documented conflict with Ticketmaster, to the tragedy at Roskilde in 2000 that claimed nine lives and shaped their second decade as a band. There is also a funny bit of footage from 2004 involving a George Bush mask and a cigarette; that’s all I’ll say. Access is important in a documentary like this, and I can’t imagine someone having more than Cameron Crowe (who cast a young Vedder in Singles for a brief scene). Something else that is vital in a documentary presentation is a passion for your subject, and Crowe’s dedication to this band and their staying power throughout the boy band craze and the changing culture of music is undeniable in the overwhelming energy of the picture.

Maybe the Seattle music revolution is before or after a time in your life. For me, it was in my wheelhouse, where I began to discover music beyond what my parents played. To see these early moments, where Pearl Jam and Nirvana interacted and where Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder formed their unbreakable bond, I was warm with nostalgia. I have always liked Pearl Jam, but now I have found a different level of understanding and a new found respect for what they have accomplished in their storied career.

A

Monday, November 28, 2011

Take Shelter


TAKE SHELTER: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Wingham (120 min.)

Take Shelter is a film based on modern American fear, where your job and your livelihood and your family might be taken away by catastrophe, the catastrophe in this case being of the natural disaster variety. Films and filmmakers sometimes tap into the national consciousness and exploit fears to expose a certain public mindset; consider the alien invasion films of the fifties as a substitute for Communism, or the surge of apocalyptic films in this post 9/11 era. This is not a new trend. Take Shelter examines the current malaise in this country, all over the world for that matter, in a chilling metaphorical look at a man who feels his sanity slipping.

Michael Shannon plays Curtis, a family man with a steady construction job, a co-worker who is his best friend (Shea Wingham), and pretty much everything he would need to be happy for the rest of his life. His wife, Samantha, is played by Jessica Chastain (who is having a stellar year with The Tree of Life and The Help already to her credit this year) and is a loving companion with a side job selling homemade drapes and pillows at the local farmer’s market. Curtis and Samantha have a young daughter, Hannah, who is hearing impaired but showered with love and affection by mother and father every day. Here is an idyllic portrait of Middle America. But something is wrong with Curtis.

He has been having nightmares, horribly vivid nightmares. He imagines rain as an oily substance falling out of massive thunderclouds. People attack his car and steal his daughter. The nightmares begin to seep into his daily life; in a nightmare the family dog attacks him and bites his arm and it takes the rest of the day for the pain in his arm to dissipate. He hears lightning on cloudless days. And yet, Curtis doesn’t approach these visions with any heightened level of stress. He considers his mom’s battles with schizophrenia as a possible reason for his impending madness. Only the dreams don’t get better, they intensify and Curtis soon has an unflinching need to renovate and expand the storm shelter in the backyard. He takes out a loan and threatens his job, his health insurance (which is vital to get his daughter a surgery she needs), and the family expenses in general.

As his madness puts a strain on his family, Curtis begins to hear the talk in town about his illness until everything explodes at a community center. The explosion is warranted, and the ferocity of Shannon’s performance in this moment pushes the events of Take Shelter over the edge. Curtis has reached a point where he may not return. A storm does come, and I won’t tell you the events of the final act; I will tell you there is a powerful and tense moment inside the shelter where Samantha forces Curtis to confront his fear.

Michael Shannon is an actor with one of the most unique faces in modern cinema. His gaze hints at madness boiling just below the surface. If you consider his previous performances in Bug and Revolutionary Road, it is clear Shannon is an actor of great intensity and command of the screen. But we mustn’t overlook the acting of Jessica Chastain here. Samantha is desperate to keep her family together and to save her husband, and her desperation ranges from sadness to fear to anger seamlessly. The performances in Take Shelter must remain grounded in the face of fears which are both imagined and very real. The nightmares may not indicate truths, but the repercussions affect the family in very real, economic ways.

Director Jeff Nichols handles the material with calmness and a firm grasp on the subjects in his picture. These are working class folks with real problems, not accentuated characters looking for melodrama. The picture falls into a rhythm in the second act where events grow somewhat repetitive. It loses steam as the visions take a back seat to Curtis and his thoughts. Nevertheless, Take Shelter is a film of our time. There are thriller elements at its heart, but the effectiveness of these events is how they affect health care and job security. In a time where everything has been pulled out from under families across this country, these may be more frightening notions than any oncoming storm.

B+

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Hugo


HUGO: Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Sasha Baron Cohen, Chloe Grace Moretz (126 min.)

Like most people, I found it strange that Martin Scorsese would be directing a “children’s” film when the announcement was made last year. But upon seeing Hugo I realized two things: 1) Martin Scorsese is a living legend, arguably the best American director of all time; he can direct any genre he would like, and 2) Hugo is anything but your typical children’s film. This feels like a picture Scorsese has wanted to make his entire career, a love letter from Scorsese to the birthplace of movies, and a spotlight on his lifelong crusade for film preservation. But Hugo also happens to be a warm and emotionally engaging picture about a young boy who – if I had to guess – is not much different than the young Martin Scorsese himself.

Hugo is played by Asa Butterfield, a young boy with soulful, sky-blue eyes. Hugo is an orphaned child who lives within the walls of a Paris train station, always keeping the many clocks wound, nabbing food from the cafés when he can, and avoiding the clutches of the station inspector, played with wonderful energy by Sacha Baron Cohen. This Paris train station functions like a small village inside the romantic French city. Within the station is a small toy shop run by a sad old man named Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) and his granddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). Hugo is caught stealing small toys for their parts and is forced to work with Georges and Isabelle. He is stealing the parts from these toys, intricate little gears and cogs, to try and restore an automaton his father left behind. The automaton is a small human-shaped device that Hugo believes holds a message from his late father (played by Jude Law, seen in flashbacks).

Certain elements are set in place for Hugo to become a family adventure film, but those expecting mishaps and comic relief, overt special-effects spectacles and talking animals, will be disappointed. Hugo goes inward when Hollywood would want to make any lesser filmmaker project outward. But this becomes a film of Scorsese’s own heart. Young Hugo, always observing these trains coming in and out of the station, never has the means to go on one his own; I couldn’t help but think of an asthmatic young Scorsese watching his New York streets from an apartment window. And Hugo has a great love for the movies. He has seen several because, as he claims, they are “like dreams coming to life in the daytime.” These sound like the words of a young Marty who fell in love with the silver screen while his peers were out playing in the streets.

Thus, Hugo becomes a story about the birth of films and filmmakers as we discover certain secrets and other truths about Méliès and his early career. We are transported back to the turn of the century, when audiences ducked in fear of a train coming towards them on a screen and thought a rocket truly did hit the eye of the man in the moon. While we get to see these wonderful early scenes of movie sets and the way films were created before the advent of sound, we also begin to connect pieces of the puzzle in the Paris train station involving the automaton and its rightful place. There is also a subplot involving the station inspector and a florist that would feel wrong in any other film if another director was in charge; here it fits.

Hugo is an engaging film, and a heartwarming story that never feels manipulative. There will not be a more beautifully-composed picture all year; the screen is rich in colors and saturated in beautiful blues and browns. Sometimes, you can feel the passion of a filmmaker in the frames of a story; Hugo thrives on the energy and the emotional attachment of its director. People may ask why Scorsese would direct Hugo; my answer would be he is the only one who could have done it.

A-

Friday, November 25, 2011

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Black Friday Edition

* This is the only day Jingle All the Way ever crosses my mind. Remember Sinbad? How he wasn’t funny, ever?

* I am surprised there hasn’t been a movie centered around the ridiculousness of Black Friday yet. Jingle All the Way is close, but you could definitely do a comedy or a horror flick. You already have the title for the horror flick right there…

* I’m pretty sure Hugo will nab an Oscar nomination. Could Scorsese? And could he possibly win? The reviews are pretty overwhelming.

* I wonder if The Muppets has a chance to… Nevermind. Let’s not get carried away.

* It seems odd to me there is no adult-themed film coming out in wide release this weekend. After all, grownups are the ones who will be out running themselves ragged buying toys for kids. They need some time off in a nice adult movie.

* That sounds wrong… you know what I mean.

* Having to wait for A Dangerous Method’s release to broaden irritates me. Stop doing that!

* It seems like there are more limited-release films this year than in years past.

* I want to change Black Friday to National Die Hard day.

Friday, November 18, 2011

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Twilight Fatigue, Conspiracy Theories, and The Last Boyscout

* It will be a better day when these Twilight movies are over.

* I wonder if Taylor Lautner has another career lined up once the last Twilight movie comes and goes. Cleary he doesn’t have a future in acting. Remember Abduction? Yeah, me neither.

* Enough hostility. Tarsem Singh has suddenly become a busy director. When did he turn into such a good filmmaker? I am all for The Cell, but Immortals? No thanks.

* Guess I wasn’t done hating.

* It seems the Natalie Wood case has been reopened. She was found floating dead in the water back in 1981, off a yacht occupied by her husband Robert Wagner and… Christopher Walken? This is a fascinating case, and apparently a new tip has piqued investigator interest. I love a good mystery.

* Speaking of mysteries, I recently finished reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I haven’t seen the Swedish versions of the trilogy, but I feel like David Fincher’s version will improve the novel.

* I think it’s about time to watch Oliver Stone’s JFK again. Tuesday will be 48 years.

* I have this bad feeling that Ridley Scott may have directed his last good movie in 2007 with American Gangster. Everything since then has been pretty poor. I don’t have a good feeling about Prometheus, and I hope I am wrong because Michael Fassbender is involved.

* I never realized the similarities between Charlton Heston’s Two-Minute Warning and the climax of The Last Boyscout. I guess because I had never seen Two-Minute Warning until today.

* The Last Boyscout = Underrated.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

THURSDAY THROWBACK: The 25TH Anniversary of BLUE VELVET

It has now taken me about a decade to come around on David Lynch. For years and years, ever since my film consciousness matured late in high school, I knew David Lynch was a director I needed to seek out and take in. Over a decade later, I still could not see what made him such a profound filmmaker. I had created an impenetrable wall between my own film sensibilities and the career of David Lynch, and for some reason I found this troubling. Lynch has always been celebrated as a visionary and a daring director with a keen, original eye and a willingness to test the limits of viewer endurance. These descriptions of his work are what kept me coming back and keep me trying again. Ask me what makes Darren Aronofsky so great and I could go on for an hour. If you want me to tell you why I think Paul Thomas Anderson is the greatest modern filmmaker, I can do that. I recognize the greatness of other American directors like Scorsese and Stone, but the fringe ideas of David Lynch and his nightmarish realities just would not take. It grew frustrating to want to like and understand Lynch, but not have the capacity to do so and not understand why. David Lynch had become my white whale.

At least once a year I will revisit a film from Lynch’s catalogue, and get the same results: boredom, confusion, frustration. But over this last year, as my own film catalogue has expanded exponentially and the dedication to reading everything I can regarding film theory has intensified, I decided it was time to give Lynch one more chance. It just so happens that Blue Velvet, Lynch’s illustrious American masterpiece, is celebrating its 25th Anniversary this year. It seems like a sign of sorts, as Blue Velvet reaches the ever-important threshold of twenty five and can now be considered a true classic, that I should give it, and Lynch, one more shot. And besides, despite the shock value of Blue Velvet, it is arguably one of Lynch’s more accessible films as it does not veer off course into dreamscapes.

I tried to watch Blue Velvet twice before. The first time I turned it off. The second time, I found myself doing dishes while it played in the background. This time I focused. I studied the picture, examined every scene, and everything began to fall into place. I could see, right there in front of me, the genius of this man who had been such a frustrating nemesis of my film life! This is exactly what people have been talking about this whole time; Lynch has his finger on the pulse of something most directors never even consider. Blue Velvet exists to shock us, and to make us feel uncomfortable about everything we know to be true in Small Town, America. Imitators may have diluted Blue Velvet over the years, but consider this film in 1986 and you will see its power.


For all of its complexities, the visual artistry of Lynch displays the stark division of suburbia right at the beginning. Blue Velvet opens on an idyllic suburban city, Lumberton. This is a charming, peaceful little suburb where the sun shines all day, dogs bark, flowers bloom, and lawns are perfectly manicured. Lynch plunges us into a Norman Rockwell portrait of Middle America. But as we sweep along these wide suburban streets, we stop on a man watering his yard. The man suddenly has a seizure of sorts and falls to the ground wincing in pain. From this accident Lynch pushes his camera into the manicured lawn beneath this man, deep under the blades of grass and into the dark recesses of the soil. Here is a land of creeping, crawling bugs as big as monsters on the screen, devouring each other. Very rarely is the opening shot of a film the best, but in Blue Velvet Lynch sets the stage with a brilliant metaphor right from the start.

The son of the man who suffered the attack is Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle McLachlan), who upon leaving his father’s hospital room discovers a severed human ear in a nearby field. He takes the ear to the police, who feebly attempt to locate the owner of the ear. On his own accord, Jeffrey and Sandy (Laura Dern), a high school girl with a crush on him, begin doing some amateur detective work. Their gumshoe investigation leads them to “the other side of the tracks” in town, to an apartment building where a lounge singer named Dorothy Vallens lives. Jeffrey decides to get his way into her apartment to try and uncover the mystery of the ear. On his second visit he is caught snooping by Dorothy, who turns the tables on Jeffrey in some odd and unforeseen ways.

Dorothy, played wonderfully in a daring and immodest performance from Isabella Rossellini, is being threatened by a man named Frank Booth, a sadistic, gas-huffing sadist who is holding her son and husband hostage so she will be his sex slave. This is the fulcrum in Blue Velvet, where things begin taking a strange turn and the façade of suburbia is ripped off its hinges. Jeffrey develops a strange and sad relationship with Dorothy, but it isn’t long before Frank Booth discovers Jeffrey at her apartment and takes him on a joyride into the bizarro underbelly of Lumberton, USA.

Booth is played by Dennis Hopper in a role which would revive his stagnant career. As a stark-raving madman, there is no better actor than Hopper. Booth takes Jeffrey and Dorothy to his friend’s house, where things somehow, some way, get even stranger. His friend, Ben, is played by Dean Stockwell, and is a madman on the other end of the spectrum from Frank. The room is full of characters in the background, a bevy of overweight women inexplicably sitting motionless on couches, and when Ben goes into a lip-synched rendition of a Roy Orbison tune, you realize Lynch has created a certain type of nightmare, a hell of his own creation. Barriers are broken in this scene and the film gels under the certainty of Lynch’s peculiar vision, where we suddenly feel as if anything is possible and nothing is off limits.

Blue Velvet was a celebrated film in 1986, earning Lynch an Oscar nomination for Best Director. Of course, the film itself was far too strange to nab any statues (not much has changed in that department over the years), but has since been recognized as an important film in the pantheon of American cinema. It is a dark and challenging film that is not for everyone – not for most if you want to get right down to it – but for those willing enough it is a powerful and steadfast example of Lynch at his strongest. It is a wonderful moment when the light bulb goes on, where I suddenly realized Lynch’s films are to be taken on their own merit. They belong on no list, in no category other than their own.

It is most definitely time to go back through Lynch’s work.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: The Soft-Hearted Cynicism of Alexander Payne

Alexander Payne is among a field of directors who shine a microscope on suburbia, on retirement, on everyday lives and situations. Sam Mendes, Jason Reitman, and Noah Baumbach operate in this filmmaking world, where the most compelling stories unfold under our noses with our friends and family. Alexander Payne may have the best understanding of these worlds, and he tells his stories with just enough cynicism to avoid melodrama or overt comedy. Payne has made his career directing films about high school, the isolation of retirement, and the journey of lifelong friends, all with the awareness and sharp wit of a cynic. His latest film may take him in slightly different directions but I guarantee you it will remain true to the observations Payne makes in all of his films, keen observations about human nature and the way we all struggle to communicate.

Constantine Alexander Payne was born to Greek restaurant owners in Omaha, Nebraska in 1961. Unlike many filmmakers out there, Payne did not study film in any capacity throughout high school or his time in Stanford, where he majored in both Spanish and History. It wasn’t until 1996, at the age of 35, when Payne wrote and directed his first feature film, Citizen Ruth. Starring Laura Dern as a mess of a young woman caught in the middle of an abortion debate surrounding her own child. While it was small and relatively unseen, Citizen Ruth opened up those proverbial “doors” I often speak of for Payne, who would follow up with Election, a film which would find its way on a number of top ten lists in 1999.

Election stars Reese Witherspoon in a star making role, playing the high-energy Tracy Flick, a high school presidential hopeful. But the true star of the show is Matthew Broderick, the hapless principal dead set on ruining Flick’s campaign chances. Election is a sharp satire on high school politics, and it is a template for Payne’s entire career. Broderick’s performance is understated, steep in nuance, and pitch perfect. His principal McAllister, mired in a pathetic love affair, would serve as the rough outline for Payne’s protagonists in his next two films.

In 2002, Payne directed Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt, Nicholson’s latest Oscar-nominated role. Nicholson plays Warren Schmidt, a square Omaha businessman who, upon retirement, loses his wife and discovers almost simultaneously she had been having an affair with his best friend. About Schmidt is a quirky road picture, where Nicholson writes to a young African orphan, and travels in his new RV to try and stop his daughter’s wedding to a doofus waterbed salesman. Much like Election, About Schmidt takes the ordinary and the inane lives of Middle Americans and thrusts them into a cynical, and often times hilarious journey of self discovery. Payne had established himself as a director with a voice and a thematic model, once which he may have perfected back in 2004.

Sideways was the sleeper hit of 2004, a small picture with a big heart and a film which may have singlehandedly ruined Merlot sales for a year or two. The film starred Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church as Miles and Jack, two lifelong friends traveling throughout the California wine country on the cusp of Jack’s wedding. While Jack is looking for one last fling, Miles is struggling with his recent divorce, with the fleeting hopes his fledging novel being published, and with the overwhelming sense of disappointment permeating his life. The film was a hit with critics and audiences alike and snapped up Oscar nominations all around. Payne would win Best screenplay. This is a beautiful and intimate film, one with great humor and great heart that, in hindsight, is arguably the best film of 2004.

Now, Alexander Payne sets his sights on Hawaii, and a new dramedy surrounding a dysfunctional family living in paradise. The Descendants stars George Clooney as a recent widower struggling to reconnect with his children while discovering his wife may have been having an affair. This sounds like standard Payne material, and with a new setting I fully expect Payne to explore the Hawaiian Islands with a different lens than most directors. Payne has a clear vision, and the clarity shines through in his wonderfully heartfelt cynicism. Many directors out there try and shine a light back on the audience in one way or another; Payne may have figured out how to pull this off better than any of them.

Monday, November 14, 2011

J. EDGAR


J. Edgar: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts (137 min.)

Certain films come loaded with prestige and promise before anyone involved ever films a scene. The pairing of director Clint Eastwood, one of the most prolific and reliable filmmakers in the last decade, and Leonardo DiCaprio, one of the hardest working and dependable actors of this generation, should be enough quality to propel a film into the heart of Oscar discussion. Combine this pairing with the story of J. Edgar Hoover, the enigmatic father of the F.B.I., and this picture feels unbeatable from its conception. But the final result is missing a thing or two. J. Edgar is a beautiful film with a wonderful central performance, but the picture falls short in a number of categories, and grows long in running time as we fight to connect to its central figure and those closest to him.

DiCaprio plays J. Edgar both young and old. The film is framed around the elder Hoover dictating his autobiography to a number of scribes as he tells of the early days of the F.B.I. Sporting makeup which reminded me of Orson Welles as the old Charles Foster Kane, DiCaprio manages to fight through the distracting latex to make this older version of Hoover believable. The opening act revolves around the shaping of the F.B.I. and takes us into the heart of the Lindberg kidnapping case. We meet two of Hoover’s most trusted lifelong companions. The first is his devoted secretary, Helen Gandy, played by Naomi Watts. Gandy is devoted to Hoover for his entire career, and is in charge of those infamous “top secret” files Hoover was so quick to start on anyone and everyone. But Hoover’s closest lifelong companion is Clyde Tolson, a handsome young man played by Armie Hammer (The Social Network). Clyde spends his life at Hoover’s side as well; the two men have dinner together each and every night, they take trips together, and as Eastwood shows us they clearly have an attraction for each other. But Edgar can never bring himself to break the façade he has created as the staunch mastermind of the F.B.I.

We also meet Edgar’s mother, a controlling and manipulative woman played by Judi Dench. Edgar lived with his mother until she died, then remained in the home for the rest of his own life, never marrying and never leaving Clyde’s company. The people who shaped Hoover’s existence help to explain his life, but it is Hoover himself we see struggling with his own sexuality and forcing respectability upon his career. He had never fired a gun, served time in the military, or even made an arrest, so how was he the director of the F.B.I.? When you see the confidence in his speaking as he sits before congress and demands more funding, you can see how.

Eastwood balances the career and private life of J. Edgar Hoover better than can be imagined. As he grew older and more paranoid, we see the truths of his life manipulated in his own mind. There has forever been the rumor that J. Edgar, aside from being a closeted homosexual his entire life, was also a cross dresser. Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black – an Academy Award nominee for his Milk screenplay – approach this subject gingerly, with a tragic scene which shows what his motivation may have been for dressing in women’s clothing. Alas, the entire operation feels much too clinical or procedural to have any sort of impact at a level beyond a history lecture. It begins with momentum and gradually loses steam beneath the weight of information. The central relationship in the film is between Hoover and Clyde Tolson, though I never felt emotionally invested in their lives enough to care about their hidden love for one another. Hoover was famous for being an inaccessible man, and DiCaprio’s performance absolutely nails the most well-known traits of the man and his character. But since Hoover is inaccessible, his story reflects these character traits.

I am not sure how else to tell the story of J. Edgar Hoover without showing him as an old man. I am sure there isn’t a way around it. And to be fair, DiCaprio’s makeup is not a distraction. But Watts’ makeup is murky and noticeable, and poor Armie Hammer looks like the old men in the Jackass films when Spike Jonze and Johnny Knoxville dress up. Hammer’s makeup as an old man, and his forced mannerisms, are cringe-worthy and they completely took me out of the picture.

As I mentioned earlier, J. Edgar looks wonderful. Eastwood always knows how to manipulate light and shadows at the right moments. The picture creates shadow almost as another character, in a film about a man who lived in so many shadows himself. But the cinematography is not enough to keep the film from running out of steam considerably, especially after the case of the Lindberg baby is finished. Here is a man who kept his private life and his emotions secret for his entire life, so it would of course be difficult to tell his story in a way that doesn’t keep the audience at arm’s length. Right where Hoover kept even his closest companions.

C+

Friday, November 11, 2011

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: An Oscar-Intensive Edition

* Brett Ratner withdraws from the role of Oscar producer after his insensitive remarks. My question is, why was this guy in charge of it to begin with? The Oscars are about the best of the movie industry, not about what some hack can do to pimp out the ceremony.

* Rehearsing is for “Fags” Ratner? Really? That explains a lot about your films.

* On the heels of that news, homophobic Eddie Murphy withdraws from the hosting duties in support of his homophobic buddy, Brett Ratner. To this I say, again, good. I am tired of hearing about Murphy’s “comeback.” It isn’t going to happen.

* Following the timeline here, the Oscars have gotten Billy Crystal to come back and do the hosting. This is great news. For years they have been trying to trick things up with dual hosts and not very good hosts (I’m looking at you, Franco and Hathaway). Billy Crystal, the Bob Hope of this generation, is the best host the Oscars have ever seen.

* I wish Drive had more of a chance at nominations.

* If Leo DiCaprio finally wins his much-deserved Oscar for J. Edgar, it will be a bit of a letdown if he wins Best Actor in a film that isn't getting good reviews.

* I wonder if they have already sent Meryl Streep the statue for her role as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. No need in waiting until March.

* I wonder what chance David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has at Oscar. I mean, it is a remake of a remake of an adaptation… That’s a long road of “been-there-done-that” to get past for the Academy.

* Hopefully, the Academy won’t be afraid of The Tree of Life when time comes for nominations. I could see Brad Pitt, the screenplay, and the direction all getting nods. And there’s an outside shot at Best Picture.

* I think I would hand the Best Picture statue to Midnight in Paris as of right now.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

THURSDAY THROWBACK: The 25th Anniversary of SOMETHING WILD

The 1980s was a decade where the yuppie became king, and certain films and filmmakers worked to expose the underbelly of success and straight-laced suburbia. Martin Scorsese tried his hand with After Hours; David Lynch took a darker look at suburbia with Blue Velvet. Jonathan Demme gave us Something Wild. Something Wild is a film with a perfect title. As it bounces from one genre to the next, from whimsy to danger to humor to sincerity, Demme’s overlooked 1986 gem unfolds with delightful energy and splashes of brilliant color. It is a road picture, a comedy, an action film, and a romance. And throughout the narrative twists and turns, Something Wild never loses any steam.

Jeff Daniels stars as Charlie Driggs, an uptight tax attorney, a square with a wife and two kids who has just been made Vice President at his firm. Everything appears on the up and up for Charlie. But when he takes a small dare one afternoon in a Manhattan diner and tries to skip out on his check, he is spotted by Lulu, a raven-haired eccentric played by Melanie Griffith. Lulu, clad in dozens of colorful bracelets, bright red lipstick and quirky blue shades, confronts Charlie who immediately wilts in embarrassment under the scrutiny. In a fit of rapid-fire dialogue, Lulu lures Charlie into her car, a Technicolor joyride, and the two are on the road. At first glance it seems irrational that Charlie would want to abandon all that he feels is safe and get in the car with Lulu. But as the narrative unfolds we discover he may have been secretly yearning for Lulu to sweep him away.

Lulu and Charlie hit the road, headed for her hometown in Pennsylvania. Along the way Lulu seduces Charlie in a motel with lingerie and handcuffs, gets him drunk, and systematically loosens the grip of his boring necktie. Charlie is a willing partner in Lulu’s escapades, so when she arrives at her mother’s home and introduces Charlie as her husband, he gladly plays along. This is also the moment where the narrative and the tone of the film take a sharp left turn. Lulu appears from her bedroom with a short blonde hairdo, in a modest dress, as Audrey. The two of them hit the road again, this time to Audrey’s class reunion in a barn outside of town. The shift in tone is seamless, and Demme accompanies the changing story by employing a softer color palette to represent the Middle America in which we are immersed.

All is well at the reunion until we meet Ray (a sharply seductive Ray Liotta in his first film role), Audrey’s ex husband. Or perhaps he is still her husband. Ray is an ex-con, a small time thief, and as he latches on to Charlie and Audrey he takes them along on a robbery. Something Wild becomes something altogether different, a darker and more dangerous picture where Ray materializes as a real threat. Ray is a charmer, but a dangerous man. And when he steals Audrey away, Charlie realizes what he is made of. He is not a stuffed suit, but an adventurer who has been shown the other side of his own personality, and he decides he wants Audrey in his life.

Something Wild is, quite simply, a joy to experience. It would be easy to take an adventurous film like this one and fill it full of empty dialogue and brainless escapades, but Demme’s picture looks at its subjects a little closer. We learn about Charlie as he learns about himself, and we get swept up in the aura of Lulu/Audrey right along with him. Melanie Griffith has never been an impressive actress to me, but here she hits all the right notes. It is hard to see how Demme went from this film to Silence of the Lambs, until you consider the tension of the final showdown. Demme shows in one film his ability to bounce from genre to genre, and he gets the very best from his actors in Something Wild.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

FOREIGN CORNER: Hunger (2008)

Films sometimes exist to test boundaries and to push buttons. Not all pictures can be blockbusters or crowd pleasers or romantic comedies. Those films have their place, as do the films which carry the viewer out of a certain comfort zone to show them something they may not have understood about the human condition. Hunger, Steve McQueen’s debut film, is a visceral experience within the confines of a horrific prison, a compelling piece of history told with an unflinching eye; yet, there is a certain beauty to the images McQueen composes. The film tells the story of IRA prisoners in Northern Ireland, and of Bobby Sands, the IRA prisoner who led a hunger strike in the spring of 1981 until he died 66 days later. I am telling you this not giving anything away, this is understood once Sands (Michael Fassbender) declares his decision to a priest (Rory Mullen) in a long, gripping, intimate scene shot almost entirely in a daring single take.

Bobby’s goal was to have he and his IRA brothers within the maze prison in Northern Ireland recognized as political prisoners of war, granting them certain rights under the rules of conflict. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, heard in a few brief statements off camera in a radio address, would not grant the prisoners this label; she deemed these men criminals, so they were treated as such. Hunger then tells three narratives within the prison yet seemingly detached from one another. The first act focuses on a prison guard (Stuart Graham) who is tortured by his work. Each morning as he heads off to work he checks under his car for explosives; he must keep an eye out for IRA assassins constantly. His hands are bruised from routinely abusing the prisoners. In an early scene, we see the guard standing in the snow smoking. The scene is eerily quiet, like many in the film, and says a million things without an ounce of dialogue or musical influence.

The second act shows us two prisoners (Brian Milligan and Liam McMahon) refusing to wear prison attire or bathe. These men use their bodies as protest, covering the prison walls in their own waste and pouring their urine out into the hallway. The idea of this is hard enough to comprehend, and McQueen handles the misery of their situation without emphasis on the horrific; the idea of their protest is enough to drive the point across without a need for shock value. The plight of these two men leads us directly into the final piece of the narrative, to Bobby Sands, and to the conversation between him and the priest.

The conversation is the only moment of extended conversation in the picture. This is a quiet film, relying on images and moods more than exposition, which in turn adds a certain extra weight to these men discussing Sands’ fate. As I mentioned, the scene is shot in one long unbroken take, a medium shot where both men are hidden by shadows and lit only by the sunlight shining in from behind them. They discuss the impact a hunger strike may have on the situation, and the priest remains pragmatic. He does not discuss the religious implications of suicide, rather he points out to Bobby that he will never realize whether or not his protest will affect the situation as he will be dead. Bobby’s goal is not to be known forever as a revolutionary; his protest is something deeper, something almost impossible for most people on this planet to comprehend. The patience of the scene is a bold stroke from McQueen, an effective set up for when we get close shots of these men. We see Bobby, beaten and bruised and already too thin, but we still see life in his eyes. It is the life and the energy he needs to go through with this hunger strike.

Thus, the third act is Bobby’s final attempt at protest. We see him starve, suffer from bed sores and writhe in pain as his organs systematically fail. We see his parents, not trying to step in and save him as they watch their determined son refuse to give in. And yet, as these events unfold, the scenes are filmed with an ease and a beauty which allows us not to be caught up in the horrific but in the humanity. There is no music to emphasize pain or anguish; we see enough of that. Hunger is about the length of the human will, about how men this determined will use their last resource, their own body, as a weapon against oppression.

Fassbender dropped nearly forty pounds to play Sands in his final days. It is a dedicated performance. After Sands eventually died, nine more men would die in the hunger strike before Thatcher, The Iron Lady, would grant these IRA prisoners the status they desired. Though she would never formally acknowledge her decision. So we are left at a standstill after the protest; it worked to an extent, but was it worth it? That isn’t necessarily the point. It is no coincidence the events in Hunger mirrored the Guantanamo Bay controversy of the time, yet McQueen does not preach. He shows us the events, and allows us to form our own opinions about the persons involved. Hunger is a deeply affecting movie from a visionary new director, one which tests the boundaries of the film-going experience by showing us the endless limits of the human will.

Monday, November 7, 2011

ACTOR PROFILES: We Need More Laura Dern

We see too much of some actors. Some we don’t see near enough. Laura Dern is the latter, an actress who never disappoints but doesn’t work near enough for my tastes. Dern is an actress I liken to Philip Seymour Hoffman, a performer capable of carrying a film admirably but a performer more comfortable in important supporting roles. Dern has carried a number of films, and tends to work well in fringe cinema; just consider her long history with the enigmatic David Lynch. It feels like she may be on the precipice of a career resurgence as we sit here today, citing her recent lead role on the HBO comedy Enlightened. Nevertheless, my feeling is the more Laura Dern we get the better we will be.

Born in February of 1967, it was clear Laura Dern had an acting career ahead of her. Born into an acting family, Dern’s father is the great Bruce Dern and her mother the fantastic Diane Ladd. Dern knew from an early age acting was her calling, finding success as a teenager in Adrian Lyne’s 1980 film Foxes alongside another successful teen star, Jodie Foster. Foxes would allow Dern to work steadily through her teenage years, nabbing bit parts and supporting roles in films most of us have never seen. Dern’s first role to garner some recognition came in 1985 when she played Diane Adams, a blind girl who falls for the disfigured Rocky Dennis in Mask. From Mask, Dern would find doors opening for her in larger roles and with more distinguished directors, including David Lynch.

In 1986, Lynch released Blue Velvet, a polarizing masterpiece examining the dark side of suburbia before Sam Mendes got his hands on the subject. Blue Velvet is a deeply disturbing cult film that has become an iconic piece of American filmmaking. Dennis Hopper’s turn as the sadistic Frank Booth is arguably the most notable performance in the picture, but Dern’s Sandy Williams, the curious amateur sleuth alongside Kyle McLaughlin, was vital in keeping audiences in tune with the bizarro wolrd of Lynch’s vision. She was one of the regular people, embroiled in this seedy underworld of sexual masochism. A few years would pass and Dern would work in smaller roles on lesser-known films before teaming up with Lynch once again in Wild at Heart.

Wild at Heart was another polarizing film from Lynch, an ultra-violent road picture where Dern played Lula Fortune, the lover of the dangerous Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage). Never one to shy away from the bizarre, Lynch’s film was a lightning rod on the festival circuit, picking up equal amounts of praise and disdain from critics worldwide. Regardless of the critical divide, the performances of both Dern and Nicolas Cage – who would go on to make a very strange career out of playing over-the-top nut jobs – were recognized as strong turns, and both actors would find new life in their careers and new opportunities. And even though Dern would never stray far from her roots as a fringe-cinema star, she showed her abilities in robust blockbusters as well.

In 1993, Dern played Dr. Ellie Sattler in Jurassic Park, one of the biggest and most celebrated summer blockbusters of all time. Dern would reprise her role in the ill-conceived Jurassic Park III a decade later, but her performance in the original showed new range. That same year, Dern played Sally Gerber in the smaller, more intimate film A Perfect World. Directed by Clint Eastwood, A Perfect World is a hidden gem in the nineties landscape. Dern’s Sally was a fresh-faced police psychologist who helped add layers to the escaped convict, Butch Haynes, when we couldn’t get it from the action of the narrative. Dern would fill out the rest of the decade with roles both big and small, and her penchant for independent cinema has defined her career ever since.

In 2006, Laura Dern took on her most challenging role, working once again with David Lynch in Inland Empire, the three hour mind trip shot all on digital film. Dern would play a number of characters, all as the same person; trying to describe the direction of Inland Empire is a futile process. But Dern met the challenge head on and handled the material better than I think any actress could have done. Lynch asks much of Dern in this role, and campaigned for her getting an Oscar nomination that year by sitting out on Hollywood Boulevard with a poster and a live cow. Yes, a live cow. Any actress willing to repeatedly accept the challenges of a director like Lynch deserves any special notice she can get. Sadly, the campaign fell short.

Dern’s unique roles lend themselves to her unique appearance. She is tall, gangly, and quite expressive, a spitting image of her father, Bruce. She can show anguish just as easily as jubilation, and her facial expressions are quite elaborate. Dern has been getting rave reviews for her role in Enlightened, and perhaps her next career resurgence will be on the small screen where she has spent much of her time in the past with guest spots. But I still hope she has some time to star on the big screen, where her presence is always felt, albeit not nearly enough.

Friday, November 4, 2011

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Best Actress is Over, Adam Sandler is Washed Up, and PTA is Taking Too Long.

* Leo Dicaprio looks like the old Charles Foster Kane in his J. Edgar makeup.

* Michael Fassbender is carving a pretty significant path in the movies these days, but am I the only one who thinks he looks just like Christian Bale?

* I just cannot, for the life of me, make sense of Adam Sandler anymore. Now, I don’t expect him to go heavy into drama because of the promise he showed in Punch Drunk Love and Reign On Me, because he is a comedian at heart. But mix it up a little. And when you make comedies, try making them funny again. Big Daddy and Mr. Deeds are silly and juvenile, but they are funny. This recent run he is on is embarrassing.

* Denzel Washington is in Safe House, a new action thriller with a February release. This guy somehow manages to be an action star and a true thespian all at the same time. And not even in separate films. Safe House looks ridiculous, but Denzel looks great in it. Confounding.

* Meryl Streep’s is portraying Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady… guess we don’t have to worry about sorting out that Best Actress pool.

* Paul Thomas Anderson’s, The Master, will not be released until 2013. This is depressing news. It feels like it’s been ages since There Will Be Blood. Six years between releases is just too long for me to handle.

* Why is it that geniuses like Anderson and Darren Aronofsky take so many years to direct their films, but Michael Bay has one ready to go every other summer? Oh yeah, money.

* Am I really excited for Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol? Or is Eminem tricking me into being excited about it?

* I haven’t seen Jack Nicholson in a while. Oh yeah, the NBA strike…

Thursday, November 3, 2011

HOLIDAY MOVIE PREVIEW: DECEMBER

What could arguably be one of the best films of December will be one not many in this country will be able to see, thanks to the skewed, antiquated absurdity of the MPAA. Shame (Dec. 2), the new film from the promising new director Steve McQueen and starring a surging Michael Fassbender, has been strapped with the NC-17 rating, ensuring it will be released in only a handful of theaters across the country. The story – about a struggling sex addict who must deal with his sister moving in and his world unraveling – has been deemed too much by a board of soccer moms who don’t appreciate the art of film, so Shame will not find the audience it deserves. Fascism indeed, but I am getting off track.

The following week is a mixed bag of sorts, with the spy thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Dec. 9) going up against another one of those all-star-casts-taking-a-paycheck-in-a-holiday-themed-crap-movies, New Year’s Eve (Dec. 9). Tinker, Tailor has been getting mixed reviews, and I feel like New Year’s Eve won’t have any reviews before its release. Those films typically aren’t screened beforehand. That same week, the Jonah Hill comedy The Sitter (Dec. 9) and the indie drama We Need to Talk About Kevin (Dec. 9) starring Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly (who will have a big month. More on that later) will try and find audiences before the heavy hitters flood the multiplexes the next week.

December 16th is all about two franchises duking it out for box-office supremacy. First up is Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (Dec. 16), the sequel to his successful 2009 action film once again starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson. I found very little to enjoy in the first Sherlock Holmes film, mostly because I don’t agree with the portrayal of Holmes as John McClain, so I don’t hold much hope for this one. The second big gun belongs once again to Ethan Hunt. Tom Cruise returns as the super agent in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (Dec. 16), the fourth installment in the franchise which is seeing its fourth director. As much as I have reservations about Tom Cruise, and about the fourth installments in film franchises, I must say the trailer has me intrigued. I think it’s a good idea to infuse the new blood of Jeremy Renner into the franchise as well. That same week, parents will be discouraged to find out there is another Alvin and the Chipmunks (Dec 16) coming out. But there is also a new Roman Polanski film, starring John C. Reilly, Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, and Christolph Waltz. Carnage (Dec. 16) appears to be a curious black comedy about two couples in a cottage for a day. I have a good feeling about this one as a dark-horse contender for Best Picture, but we shall see.

The rest of the December films are looking to draw in the Christmas crowds. Steven Spielberg has two films in this race, the animated Adventures of Tintin (Dec. 21) and what looks like an inspirational epic adventure, War Horse (Dec. 25). Despite the sappy tone of War Horse, I must say the trailer has pulled me in. And speaking of sap, Cameron Crowe returns this Christmas with his film We Bought A Zoo (Dec. 23), the true story of a widower (Matt Damon) who tries to reunite his family after buying a rundown zoo. Crowe has always been a master of tugging at the heart strings that perfect amount so as to not go overboard, but this may be his biggest challenge yet in that department. The other big Christmas release is Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Dec. 25), another melodrama about a young boy whose father (Tom Hanks) died in 9/11 and has perhaps left him a hidden message somewhere in Manhattan. This might be the top crowd pleaser of the season.

In the middle of all this sap and this inspiration lies a sinister film from a director at home in the land of the sinister. David Fincher will release The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Dec. 21), the American adaptation of the International Bestseller, and the beginning of a trilogy. Buzz has been following this film since last year, in the heart of Fincher’s success with The Social Network, when he cast Rooney Mara in the lead role. The trailer is intense, and the subject matter seems ripe for Fincher to place his stamp on the story. Last year, Fincher aimed for Oscar and fell short; this year, he is aiming for the franchise he has never had.