Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Underappreciated: Jackie Brown

In 1997 Tarantino released the follow up to what many still consider his greatest work, Pulp Fiction. Pulp Fiction felt like something new and original, while of course acknowledging things that came before.  It is usually considered the most influential American film of the 90s.

So when Tarantino released its follow up, an Elmore Leonard novel adaptation, Jackie Brown; there was a lot of high anticipation. But anticipation for another Tarantino film.  What they got instead was as un-Tarantino as any film he has made, despite the obvious Tarantino trademarks.

We got the dialogue.  "My ass may be dumb.  But I ain't no dumb ass."

We got the great soundtrack.

We got multiple perspectives of the same moment.

We even got a scene with a car trunk and a firearm.

What we also got is maybe the last thing people expected; or wanted.  A paced (not all that violent) movie that lets us get to know two star crossed (would be) lovers. Jackie Brown actually contains a tragic, not to be love story.  Something no other film of his had to that point.  And its done pretty darn brilliantly.  

Max Cherry (an outstanding Robert Forster) is smitten immediately by Pam Grier's, Jackie Brown.

By the end of the movie, Cherry has helped Brown procure a large sum of money and only taken 10% as his fee.  Brown not only offers him more, but asks if he will come away with her.  Everything to this point tells us this is exactly what Cherry wants to do.  He told Brown he is going to sell his business.  He is in love with her.  So why doesn't he go with her?

There are two scenes that stood out the most to me, as to why Cherry stays in a job (and possibly a life) he does not enjoy, and lets Brown exit his life.

The first is when, late in the film, Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson) comes to get his money from her, and Brown kills Ordell.  Now, no she never actually pulls a trigger.  She lets ATF agent, Ray Nicolette do that, after yelling "he's got a gun!"

It was not pointed at Brown and by all rationale, she was not in any immediate danger.

But if Ordell lived, he would talk.  And for Brown to be truly free, Ordell needed to never talk.  And you see a look from Brown, as she deals in her mind the decision she just made.

Then you see a look from Cherry.  And after being in the dark, the lights were literally just turned on.

 Cherry is not a helpless type.  He is a bail bondsman.  A man who explains how he stuns people to take them in to jail.  "That's the job."

But is there something else that keeps him from making that decision we want him to make?

Cherry holds his own with everyone he encounters in the film.  He never really seems scared of anything.  Ordell and he have various back and forths.  But one line now stands out that the first time I saw it, probably seemed like a throw away.  It is used as a verbal volley at Ordell, and it does connect in the moment.

"Is white guilt supposed to make me forget that I run a business?"

The fact Cherry is white and Jackie is black, seems to have no bearing on the movie.  It's never mentioned.  But of course its a fact.

With that line, Cherry shows he sees and acknowledges the difference in himself and almost everyone he deals with in the movie.

It's understated.

But is it possible this is another small reason for Cherry's decision?

The most subtle of racism on Max Cherry's part?

Tarantino might be the last person anyone would expect to make a well thought out, restrained but powerful look at race.

And definitely the last person who would get any credit for doing so.

Yes Max Cherry is a white man that helps a black woman.  But they are played as equals completely in the film.  Actually, Jackie Brown is intellectually superior to anyone else in the movie.  The Blind Side this is not.

This is about class systems and Jackie trying to do whatever she must do.

For a man known for his brilliant use of music, Tarantino's choices here might well be his best.

In the last scene we hear Bobby Womack's, "Across 110th Street," and see Brown sum up the entire movie by her look into the camera, and singing along with the words.

"Doing whatever I had to do to survive/ I'm not saying what I did was alright/Trying to break out of the ghetto was a day to day fight."

We hear the Delfonics a few times throughout the film.  Max heard them first from Jackie, and now can't seem to get enough.

It's also played for laughs during a tense moment right before a pivotal scene.

As for the supporting characters in the film.

No one has ever understood how to use Samuel L. Jackson, as effectively as Tarantino does time and again.

Deniro gives one of his most underrated performances. (Maybe the best putting down of a phone in film history)  His ex-con, Louis, goes from cuddly to scary, in slow convincing ways.

Whats gets him to the breaking point is Bridget Fonda's, Melanie. (Watching this movie again made me sad that Fonda quit acting so long ago)  She says his name with such drawn out contempt and mockery that well, you can nearly understand Louis's reaction.  Fonda is Deniro's equal in this film.

"I gotta start all over again, but I got nothing to start over with.  I'll be stuck with whatever I can get."  -Jackie

If this film was released today, this line, and even the casting of Grier, might be called "meta," a la Michael Keaton in Birdman.

Grier did not have too much of a career any more, when Quentin gave her this lead role without even asking her to audition.

Robert Forster was in even more dire straits.  He says in an interview that he had previously auditioned for Reservoir Dogs, felt he nailed the audition, but did not get a part.  He was sitting in a little cafe considering quitting acting, and trying to decide what else he could do for a living when Tarantino walked in and Forster invited him over.  Soon after he had a part in a movie that would keep him a working actor for as long as he wanted.      

One wonders if also the line above did not refer to Tarantino himself.  Once you are the toast of Hollywood, there is only one way you can go.  And its interesting that he at least seemed, for all its Tarantino-isms, to make a movie unlike the others.  Was this a new direction? What might we have seen from him if it had been more of a success?

Critic Nick Votto had a similar thought.

"In his attempt to kill the creature he created, this new narrative for this Tarantino-esque film culture was dismissed and probably is the reason Quentin Tarantino fell back on the crutch of using old genres as his sole purpose for creating a film."

I am not as critical as Votto on what he would do after Jackie Brown.  The Kill Bill movies are for me, about as re-watchable as anything I've ever seen. And different genres could as easily be viewed as a challenge.  Jackie Brown could more easily be referred to as his "blaxploitation film," as it could a crime thriller.  Outside the casting of Grier, no one seemed to realize what he was doing at the time.

But it is fair to wonder what movies Tarantino is directing somewhere in an alternate universe. One where Titanic, with its awful dialogue, did not win Best Picture that year; but Tarantino won multiple Oscars, for this wonderful and criminally underappreciated film.

Jackie Brown:  "The milk went bad when I was in jail."

Max Cherry:  "Black's fine"

Monday, March 2, 2015

What The Future May Hold

This article contains spoilers.  If you are not caught up on Downton Abbey, and plan to be.  Do not read.

When Downton Abbey premiered 5 seasons ago now, it was Bates that seemed to be the heart of the show from the very opening.  Bates, the slightly crippled old acquaintance of Lord Grantham, who would do anything at all, he was able to do.  Just seemed he was not always up to the task.

But our favorite Earl saw it otherwise and decided to give Bates a try regardless.  A break gone his way for once, and there would be many breaks to go against him soon enough.

Bates was kind of the unofficial star of the show.  Mary and Matthew might have had the sex appeal, but it was "FREE BATES" t-shirts fans were buying up in droves, when our man was wrongfully imprisoned.

We would of course follow every character.  But downstairs it seemed Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes and Daisy and Thomas and Mrs. Patmore and everyone else were just slightly off top billing, to what we wanted.  A great love story between Bates and Anna.  The younger and very attractive Anna; but hey if anyone deserved to marry above their station, that would be Bates.

But eventually, at least for this viewer, Julian Fellowes seemed to betray us just a bit.  Two things were going on at once downstairs.  For one, Bates and Anna were and are having so many problems, to the point I feel worn down.  But not in a good,  I care about all this so much kind of a way.  More of a, "jeesh, who is gonna get locked up next?  Their new puppy?"

Maybe there is a fine balance in portraying star crossed lovers.  And maybe that is what Bates and Anna truly are, and we will be redeemed by good writing in season six.  But while Fellowes made my eyes roll at another prison sentence, he has for a while now, been putting together one of the best and most real love stories in any television show.  And he has been doing it nearly right under our noses.

Season 4 was a bit of a let down.  I think the transition from Matthew's death and where to go next proved difficult for him.  Because for a slow plodding show that prides itself on being as fast paced as the times its set in, in season 4 pretty much nothing at all happened of significance.

Until the very last scene.

Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson are walking out on the beach.  They walk towards the water together to keep the other steady.  Mrs. Hughes puts out her hand.

It is a more loving scene than just about anything you will see in any romantic comedy or Nicholas Sparks' film.

The two respective heads of all things downstairs.  Two people that always seem most comfortable in each others company.  Whether that is to be exasperated by one another, or agree on how to handle an outdoor luncheon.  You know simply being in each others company is preferred to the alternative.

And there is something here not often seen in television shows concerning a potential couple.  Not really.  Or at least not this well done.  And that is genuine respect.  Respect that we see Fellowes slowly let build into something more, by so many subtle but also hard to miss touches.

When someone needs to be hired, Carson rarely sounds overly enthusiastic about any prospect.  A good word from Mrs. Hughes and cut to the next time we are downstairs; do we need wonder who the new second footman is?

Carson happily singing to himself after a health scare for Mrs. Hughes turns out to be nothing.  Mrs. Hughes noticing and smiling.

The only thing that might be more romantic than the notion of growing old together, is the notion of already being there, when you finally find someone.

There are some rumblings that season 6 will be the last for Downton Abbey.  Though no one has confirmed that, so it is also likely the key people have not yet decided.  But however much time we have left with these characters, I hope they get the send off that they deserve.

That might not mean the send off that feels fair.  But life is not fair even for the well to do; a point Fellowes has made for a long time.  The season 5 finale seemed so joyful in part, because no one died.  Which means we should probably prepare for another season that rivals The Walking Dead, in about 10 months time.

But I hope more than any two characters, they give Carson and Mrs. Hughes what they deserve.  And while that may or may not be what we will call a happy ending, I hope it is what they seem to have earned.  In the background for those first few episodes, they quickly became the heart of the show.

No matter how attractive Mary and her new man look together, they will never match the chemistry between this butler and this head housekeeper.

Mr. Carson did not get down on one knee to propose.  He never referred to her by her first name.  He simply stated what he had been showing throughout much of season 5.  And in smaller ways all along.  That he wanted Mrs. Hughes to be in his future.  In her acceptance, Mrs. Hughes called him an "old booby."  Which might be my favorite way of saying yes I have ever heard.

Chemistry like that is not made over one season.

It is built throughout a series by strong actors and strong writing.

Please, Mr. Fellowes, keep this up just a little while longer.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Boyhood Remembrances

Boyhood is the nearly universally acclaimed film by Richard Linklater that is probably about to win a bunch of Oscars.  It is in a neck and neck race for best picture with Birdman.

And I can't figure out why anyone likes it.

Would losing the Oscar actually help its reputation?  I feel either film will show up on a future list of either "undeserving" or "deserved to win."  Pulp Fiction's reputation has not been hurt for losing the Best Picture Oscar to Forrest Gump.  Gump is the film that has diminished greatly in time, while Pulp Fiction's reputation has only increased.  So maybe hoping your favorite film will lose, is the best way of looking at it.

But back to Boyhood specifically.  And let me state to being a Linklater fan.  But is it possible this movie will become Crash or Gump or Gigi or some other film that people look back on in a few years and go, "Wait.  We got that one wrong."  I don't know.  It's supporters are great in number right now.  But this is why I feel a backlash might happen.  And the sooner the better.

1:  It's a gimmick without substance.

I know.  Some of you just broke your monocle with outrage.  But how many reviews have you read that have not fawned over the sheer way it was made?  "It took 12 years to make!"  Now just about any movie has a hook.  Pulp Fiction was told out of order.  Birdman gives the appearance of one continuous take.  But how many reviews of those films make it seem like groundbreaking movie making, the likes we have never before seen?

They don't.  But for Boyhood, the gimmick is everything.  Which I feel slowly people will come to realize, is also the only thing.  There is no big payoff.  It's look is unremarkable.  The main character you care less about as he gets older. If the film had been made in a more conventional way with different actors playing Mason, would anyone have even noticed this film?

2.  It's an hour too long

It will probably win the Oscar for best editing.  Yet, its way too long and the end especially just kind of meanders.  I have watched it twice now, assuming I must be missing something.  The first time was tough.  The second time was excruciating.

3.  It's characters are cliched and flat or stereotypical.

Even people who praise Boyhood often mention the exaggerated way her second husband is portrayed in the film.  Then there is the way a Republican is portrayed, when the children knock on his door carrying Obama signs.  Confederate flag.  Threatens to shoot the kids.  Its all very overdone and ridiculous.  Do these people exist?  Sure.  Just about any specific kind of nut job does.  But in the numbers Linklater would probably want you to believe?  No.  It's a ridiculous and offensive caricature.  Yosemite Sam playing a Confederate General in a Bugs Bunny cartoon feels less over the top.

Mason's step-grandparents give the children a bible and a gun as their first presents from them. Because they are conservative and that's what conservatives hand out; like grandmothers and hard candy.

We see one Hispanic character in the entire film.  This was pointed out by Jon Marcantoni, as a bit odd for a film set in Texas.  But when we do see our token character, he is a gardener who speaks broken English.  Arquette's Olivia says, "you're smart, you should go to school." And that is the extent of their interaction. The gardener then returns later in the film to be a manager of a restaurant, (who speaks perfect English) and it is all thanks to Olivia's inspiration.  (Also, I don't think Linklater has a clue that gardener is also often a better career than manager.)

The people that had a hard time with The Blind Side, should have heart palpitations over this one.  It usually takes a whole movie for the white character to rescue the poor minority.  Here it took about 35 seconds.

And I won't mention that just about the only black character with any screen time, is a co-worker of Olivia's who uses one of her four lines in the film to let a still very young Mason, know she'd like to sleep with him.  I'll own that maybe I'm reading too much into that.  But the other examples made it stand out.

4.  Child actors are not always strong adult actors.

Boyhood actually boxes itself in by having to hope Ellar Coltrane, a likeable child actor, will grow into a likeable young adult actor. Contrast young Mason conveying how he felt for getting his hair cut, with older Mason.  Older Mason is an artsy fartsy semi burnout who cares like, about stuff, ya know?  But also, not as much about stuff  Cuz its all the moment, man  Am I right?

And while that might be accurate for what some boys his age act like, it's also depressing and dull.

Oh and they make him a photographer because of course they did.

5.  Drugs. Man.

Call me a stick in the mud.  But too often filmmakers seem to rely on people getting high, to convey them feeling something deep.  We make fun of awkward flashbacks or montages, but its time we started giving this lazy technique the same reaction.

Then again, anything done well, gets a pass.  A better actor could look out at a beautiful moment in nature and convey what is necessary.  Linklater has Coltrane's Mason, get stoned right before his profound/not that profound last scene, because you know, deep thoughts.

Not a whole lot happens in Boyhood.   And that is not my problem with it.  Not much happens in many Linklater movies.  But whats on screen is still fun and interesting.


A better actor.  And a vastly better Linklater movie.  
Arguably just as profound.

So how will Boyhood be remembered?  Will it become Crash?  A movie highly regarded as one the critics got wrong?  Or will it grow in reputation over time?

Honestly, the best thing that could happen for it is to lose that Best Picture Oscar.  Let the supporters keep a chip on their shoulder and talk it up over the coming years.

For me, I am all for a Boyhood backlash,  And lets not wait.  Let it begin now.  If it takes winning that Oscar for people to come to their senses, so be it.

And the Oscar goes to....

Friday, January 2, 2015

Best Movies of 2014



It was a pretty good year for Sci-fi.  While Interstellar and Guardians of the Galaxy did well at the box office, some of the most effective sci-fi movies were the ones shot on low budgets.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson entertains me with his unique style, and yet I almost always leave wanting just a bit more.  I felt the same way with The Grand Budapest Hotel, but over time, I found myself still thinking highly of the film.  Actually maybe more highly than the day I watched it.  While he might have missed masterpiece status again, he might have also come closest yet with this funny and touching movie.  Add Ralph Fiennes to the list of unjustly overlooked performances.

Under The Skin

There are movies I like and movies I like, and would recommend.  Under The Skin is in that category where someone will ask if I liked it, and I am tempted to say, "yes, but don't see it."

If you like Lynch or Cronenberg, but think they are sometimes a little too easy to digest, then maybe you should check out Jonathan Glazer's, Under The Skin.

What did this mean?  What was the point of that?  It is also likely as simple as a Grimm's fairly tale. But just as unsettling.

Scarlett Johansson had a heck of a year.  Now, box office wise that was not always the case.  But I am impressed with how a person of her Hollywood standing, would do not just Lucy, but this movie as well.

Along with Lucy and Her (2013), she seems to have completed a sort of "what's it mean to be human," trilogy.  And when Her is the most audience friendly movie of the bunch, seems Johansson is due some risk taking props.

I can hear certain friends right this moment, wondering what is wrong with me for even giving a movie like this a look, much less some acclaim.  I get that.  I am all for pure entertainment as much as the next person.  (some of that below)

I'm not pretentious enough to say they are wrong.  I'm also pretentious enough to say neither am I.


Add Michael Fassbender to the list of performances that were unjustly overlooked.  He should have received more recognition, for the last scene alone.

But the biggest triumph of Frank, is to show mental illness in a creative person, and by the end of the film acknowledge it is not romantic, but in fact got in the way.  It is a simple truth not often so well stated.

Begin Again

John Carney struck gold in 2006.  The little known Irish director and former member of the Irish rock band, The Frames, decided to make a film about some musicians.  He recruited lead singer of The Frames, Glen Hansard, to write songs for the movie.  Then the lead actor dropped out. So Hansard reluctantly took his place.  He suggested his musician friend Marketa Irglova as the female lead.  What resulted was a simple movie that two non-actors carried on the strength of their chemistry and songs.  It won them both an Oscar for best original song and was even turned into a multiple Tony winning play.  It would be understandable for Carney to go back to the well again.

Begin Again is not a sequel to Once.  But in spirit, it kind of feels like one.  The faces are better known this time.  Keira Knightley is the female lead.  An actress playing a musician instead of the other way around.  While not having an overpowering voice, she does a fine job with the songs.  (kind of a semi Laura Veirs quality to her singing).

The standout of the film though, is Mark Ruffalo.  He hits every note just right of an alcoholic has-been record executive, who finds some joy again in discovering Knightley's character.  Actually joy is the proper word to describe this film.  Carney has a legitimate talent for conveying true joy in his movies.  I dare you to see this movie and not smile at some point.  And for at least the second time, he ends a movie perfectly.

Begin Again is not quite as special as Once, though I think your opinion on that would be influenced by which movie you saw first.  If this movie is not a home run, it is at least a stand up triple.  And if Scorsese can keep making gangster movies and be celebrated for it, might as well acknowledge Carney for making the best movies about musicians.            

Mistaken For Strangers

It's disguised as a music documentary about the band, The National.  Except it's not really that at all. It's a movie about what its like to have a brother who is vastly more successful, and how that manifests itself within a creative family.  The pressures to be creative, and become someone that matters.

You do not have to be a fan of the band to find the story touching and heartbreaking, frustrating, and funny.

American Sniper

Such a divisive film.  And why?  Conservatives were immediately defensive about the film and any critic who might bash it.  Before either critic or moviegoer could even see it.

Some liberals have gone as far to call the subject, Chris Kyle, a "serial killer."  And at least one critic gave it a horrible review while admitting he based his entire review on the trailer alone.  He never bothered to see the movie.

What the film is, in actuality, is neither right wing or left wing.  Its about a man with a gift for shooting a gun.  Who does a job almost none of us could, even if we had the mechanics to do so; and how he must deal with that.

What it is in actuality is one of Clint Eastwood's finest movies, an amazing 6 months after the release of what is generally considered one of his worst (Jersey Boys).

There are some minor quibbles.  An early flashback scene could have possibly been done better. Same with a late slow motion scene.  The fake baby, as has been mentioned ad nausea.  But 2 or 3 scenes out of many, just show how much the rest of it, hit me just right.

I once had a conversation with a soldier who was about to go back to Iraq for another tour.  While he was of course a patriotic enough person, he said that had nothing to do with why he kept going back. He kept going back because you make friends in the military and in war.  And you go back to be alongside and protect those friends.  That, more than any political agenda, is what I took from this film.

So might a few other people, if they are open minded enough to watch more than the trailer.

Above scene done in one take and without rehearsal


David Ayer is becoming one of my favorite filmmakers.  He has so far had a hit or miss career.  But between this and End of Watch, he is on a roll; making incredibly entertaining, violent action films.

It's not Ayer's style to be subtle, (let's show a person's face getting blown off, as opposed to not showing that) and most war films aren't subtle anyway.  But there were a few times, I actually thought he was in this film.

I could nitpick a few things.  The Grady (Jon Bernthal) character annoyed me almost too much (I realize this was the intent).  While he might have been too close to cliche dumb war character, I think when you spend years in a tank, it also takes a special breed of person.  What surprised me the most was Shia LaBeouf's performance. LaBeouf is a jackass.  To the point it can not be helping his career.  (I did not see this film earlier, simply because he was in it)  But when given the right role, he can excel.  This is a prime example.  Pitt gives perhaps my second favorite performance of his (after The Tree of Life).  And Logan Lerman (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) also does another fine job, as the kid trained to type 60 words a minute, now thrust into real War.

What helps elevate Fury a bit, is a set piece between Pitt and Lerman and 2 German women.  Ayer allows this interaction to play out.  Maybe influenced by the (originally cut) dinner sequence in Apocalypse Now or even Tarantino's use of extending scenes.  It is not even a perfect scene, but it hints at something greater.  Ayer seems to be influenced by the right people.  Soon he might be the one people cite as an influence.

10.  The Homesman

This excellent work from director/actor Tommy Lee Jones, deserved more attention than it got.  Challenging, thought provoking, biblical.  The unsung performance of the year just might be Hillary Swank as Mary Bee Cuddy.  A single 31 year old frontier woman no man seems to find good enough.  But who does tasks men are unwilling or unable to do.  In this case, bring three women who have gone mad for different reasons, to a far away church willing to care for them.

Though on closer look, no one in the film might be exactly sane.  Tommy Lee Jones is now two for two as a feature film director.  Having made two films (2006 The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) that you think on, well after the credits.  Two films that deserved more recognition at the time of their release.  

9.  The Babadook

I generally do not care for straight "horror" movies.  But this film is a bit of a con.  It's dressed up as a straight horror film, while really being something a bit deeper.  To tell you more would be to explain why I liked it so much.  And that might spoil it just a bit.  But there is more to deal with in the world than the boogeyman.  An ending that I did not love in the moment.  Then a few hours later, had already increased in my mind quite a bit.

8.  Gone Girl

Another ending I did not love in the immediate aftermath.  But for such an outrageous movie, I soon realized it had to have an outrageous ending too.  The whole film is batshit crazy.  But that is also part of the appeal.  It is also from start to finish maybe the most entertaining movie of the year.

7.  Locke

To describe the plot of Locke might feel like saying too much.  Just let it unfold as it does.  But it is not really a spoiler I don't think, to say it is nearly a one man show.  You hear other voices, and those voice performances are also well done.  But you only see one face on screen for an hour and a half.  The film stands or falls on Tom Hardy's performance.  That and a darn good script.  Hardy is a great actor whose biggest role has been with his face covered and a robotic Darth Vader sounding voice, as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.  That seems like such a waste of a great actor when you realize how watchable he is.  Hardy is worthy of being a household name.  Maybe soon enough he will be.  I feel this film will be discovered by people for years to come.  Do yourself a favor and discover it now.       

6.  Blue Ruin

Revenge is usually not worth it.  Also, you might find your targets are not exactly the people you thought they were all along.  Even if they are bad people, what are you?

5.  The Immigrant 

One of the movies I was most disappointed by this year (The Skeleton Twins) was because of a surprising lack of depth in the main character.  The Immigrant has no such problem.  Half way through I thought it was a pleasant enough, well done film.  Then it became something more to me.  The most credit going to director James Gray and actor Joaquin Phoenix.  At the start of the film we think he (Phoenix) is one person.  Then very quickly we see him as something else.  Then he changes yet again to show us yet another side.  Depth of character like this is of course to the great credit of the writing and directing.  But Phoenix proves once again he is a fine actor.  And this ranks amongst his best performances.

 4.  Nightcrawler

It is a bit of a toss up which movie is more insane; Nightcrawler or Gone Girl.  But start to finish this is great entertainment anchored by another solid Jake Gyllenhaal performance.  Reminded me of Drive, one of my favorite films of a few years ago; but with more social commentary.

3.  Ida

A beautiful film.  Beautiful in its simplicity while still being profound.  Before taking her vows to be a nun, a woman raised in a convent is told to meet and spend time with her aunt.  The aunt tells her she is actually Jewish.  This starts the two on a journey that is road picture as well as coming of age and self discovery and buddy film.  All in about 78 minutes time.  

2.  The One I Love  

Nicolas Sparks meets Spike Jonze.  Your favorite romantic comedy meets Inception?  It's as crazy as it sounds and I understand totally if it doesn't work for you.  It worked for me, though.  In part, for its mere audacity.

From the moment I put this on my list, I assumed it would drop back a few spots.  But I found the opposite to be true.  It stayed with me more than almost any movie I saw in 2014.

1.  Birdman or (the unexpected virtue of ignorance)

"This is about being respected and validated, remember?  That's what you told me."

Often I go back and forth with what movie to put at #1 when I make these lists.  Often I double-guess the film I put here.  That won't happen this time.  See previous post for more if you like.

But to sum up:  For me, easily the best film of 2014.

Biggest Disappointments:

Boyhood:   Without a doubt the movie I came out of thinking, "what am I missing?"  What almost everyone is hailing as Linklater's masterpiece, I found to be one of the least enjoyable movies I saw all year. There is no payoff.  While I believe that was partly the point Linklater was making.  (All lives are simple but meaningful)  It doesn't make his movie any less boring.  Especially at almost 3 hours.

The mere fact of how he filmed this (over 12 years, same actors), seems to be clouding people's minds with what is actually on screen.  Gene Siskel said his criteria for liking a movie was if you could take these same actors and just listen to them talk to each other for 2 hours.  What would be more interesting?  I would be very interested in seeing a "making of," documentary on Boyhood.  I have no doubt that would be more intriguing and even much more emotional.  (The main actor literally grew up with these people.  How would it not be?)

But for people clouded by the mere hook of how the movie was done, let me suggest watching the 7 Up documentaires instead.  Can we go back and give that more awards, and let this Boyhood, be forgotten?

Noah:  This movie was a bit of a theological debate among some of my friends.  Should people of the Christian faith even see a movie, made by an atheist, about a central character of the bible?  I came down on the side of, "I need to see it before I can criticize it."  I saw it.  And while there were some things towards the end I could debate from a Christian point of view, what was the very easiest thing to say about this movie, was that it was kind of hokey and silly.  A strong beginning gave way to just a strange and even at times, boring movie.  Boring being the last thing Aronofsky usually is.

The Monuments Men:  Not a bad movie exactly, just a mediocre one.  And when you have this kind of talent on screen, it feels like such a letdown.  As a director, Clooney seems to be working in reverse.  Most of his best films coming early and his simplest and weakest movies coming later.

Unbroken:  To read or not to read?  The book, "Unbroken," is one of the best non-fiction works I have ever read.  While I knew the movie version would not have near the amount of detail, I figured the story is so great, how can they screw it up?

                I guess they didn't completely.  But also, Jolie rarely distinguishes herself here as a director.  It is a great uplifting story, but blandly told.

The best part of the film is the very end when the real Louis Zamperini is shown.  Reminding us the real man deserved more than this unimaginative re-telling.  

The Skeleton Twins:  This pains me to write more than any of the rest.  I like both Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig.  I respect that Wiig seems to do what she wants in a lot of ways.  And there are good things about this movie.  Both of their performances to begin with.  But as different as this film wants to be, it can't help but feel like just another depressing indie minded movie we should all share our feelings about at our local coffee spot.

Hader and Wiig play brother and sister; both suicidal.  Hader's misery seems more thought out.  Wiig seems to be depressed because well, she is.  Which is actually even accurate to some degree, but then when her husband (Luke Wilson) is a nearly perfect human being, you don't really root for her in any way, once she treats him poorly.

Then they throw in dated movie stereotypes, like Hader (he is a gay man in this film) wearing a dress. Oh and when Wiig is at a depressed moment, Hader does a silly lip sync and dances around the living room, making everything better for just a moment.  That might have worked in a comedy skit or another film, but is totally misplaced here.  Just because your actors come from improv and can do something, doesn't mean you should make them.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Birdman or (Being Respected and Validated)

“Time is short and the water is rising.” 
             -Raymond Carver

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a triumph of direction, performance and audacity.   

Director Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu has essentially shot a film that feels as if it is a play.  Made up of a series of very long takes, the movie has the feel of playing out in just one continuous one.  You are watching a movie acted out like a play, in which the characters are often acting or rehearsing a play.  An adaptation of Raymond Carver's book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

I would say they make it look easy, but it looks as if it was a nightmare of logistics and choreography.  What it also is, is heartbreaking, dark, and funny.  

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an actor who peaked in his career 20 years ago after deciding to not play a comic book superhero for a fourth time.  It is of course extra poignant that Keaton played Batman twice and turned down 20 million dollars to do the third movie.  Because as he says, "it sucked."  We would then see his career slowly fade into smaller roles, in fewer "big movies."     

But Keaton is not the only person who seems to be playing a version of himself.  Actually beyond the superficial, Keaton is playing a man nothing like himself.  Ed Norton, however, might be a different story.  Norton plays a brilliant actor that can be an egotistical pain in the ass to work with.  I am not sure how Gonzalez-Inarritu approached Norton with the part.  But his reputation proceeds him.   Keaton is getting early Oscar buzz and it is completely deserved.  Norton also deserves best supporting actor consideration.  He is excellent.  And also, in a smaller way than Keaton, reminds us that we have missed him too.  

Every performance is strong.  Also of note is Zach Galifianakis, playing against type.  Amy Ryan, (who I am fine with seeing in every movie from this point on)  is perfect as Keaton’s ex-wife.  Emma Stone plays Keaton’s at least semi estranged daughter, but who now works for him.  She has good chemistry with both Keaton and Norton.  Those gigantic eyes might have been cast for her last scene alone.

Ambition.  Ego.  Being respected.  Being relevant.    

As Emma Stone's Sam, tells Keaton’s Thomson:  (paraphrasing) “You don't matter....You don't even have a Facebook page.”

Every actor in the Carver play is insecure and selfish.  Every actor also has moments of likeability.

Riggan sees himself left bare (literally) for his craft.  He gives everything he can to make and perform his play successfully.  Does he succeed or not by the end of the movie?  It might be irrelevant. 

But Gonzalez-Inarritu, Lubezki (cinematographer), Keaton and company have made a piece of art worth celebrating.

I once got into a discussion with one of my best friends, after he mocked my describing a Terrence Malick movie as an "art film."

"How can it be an art film?  It has stars in it?"

I found this view particularly odd; but I think of it now as a discussion of, can certain famous actors make art?  Are they even allowed in some people's eyes?

The critic in Birdman would seem to say, no. "You're a celebrity, not an actor."

That Malick film we were talking about starred Ben Affleck.  The latest Batman.

Ignorance truly is virtuous when it comes to making a film like this.  A lot of things have to work all at once.  Gonzalez-Inarritu has indeed achieved something special here.  I might call it art.  If you don't see it as that?  Hopefully you see it as a darn entertaining film.  For me, the best movie of the year, by far.

And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.

(From Raymond Carver's gravestone)

Monday, September 15, 2014

The World's Most Hated Man

The Last of the Rock Stars
When Hip-Hop drove the big cars.
In the time when New Media.
Was the big idea.         -U2

U2 just released their 13th studio album, Songs of Innocence.  Through a partnership with Apple, the Album was given to people through Itunes, for Free.  Pretty cool, right?  Ha ha.  Just kidding.  Of course this makes them horrible people.

What seems to me to be a forward thinking way of doing business, has been criticized.  U2  is labelled with the term, "sell out," by GIVING AWAY THEIR ALBUM FOR FREE.

Of course the face of U2 is their iconic frontman, Bono.  Bono, he of 22 Grammy Awards; famous humanitarian, beloved father, friend, husband, musician, and one of the most hated men in the world. I can not think of a person who is more routinely criticized unjustly than Bono.

The latest criticism came in almost immediately.  Apple announced they would be offering the new U2 album to everyone.  But wait, you are devaluing music! As Bono pointed out as soon as the announcement, U2 actually got paid.  It was essentially a gift from Apple.  Which makes the exact point people want to criticize, a little confusing.

So the band gets paid, as they deserve to; the album is a free gift to fans, and they still are hated for it. But why, exactly?  Radiohead did a very similar thing in 2007 with In Rainbows.  They offered the album to people through their website.  "Pay what you want," and most people decided that 0.00 was the exact amount they desired to pay.  Later they offered the Album in a traditional format in stores and it became a hit.  As Radiohead stated at the time:  "We sell less records, but we make more money."

It is worth pointing out that Radiohead were hailed for this decision.  U2 are hailed by business experts, but by the public at large as well as some fellow musicians, the publicity is negative.

The Rolling Stones made a cereal commercial.  Pete Townsend sells The Who's music to anyone willing to pay.  Led Zeppelin's music can be heard in a current commercial for a video game.

MTV doesn't play music videos anymore.  If you want to promote your music, I have yet to see the problem (if done well) with the Apple connection.  U2 famously love new technology.  It makes sense they are Apple fans.  Their video for "Even Better Than The Real Thing," required the invention for a new kind of camera. That's just one example.  Many of the very people rolling their eyes at U2 for making this deal, will be first in line for the new IWatch.

U2 turned down 25 million dollars to sell their song, "Where The Streets Have No Name," to Nissan. They said no.  Would The Stones or The Who do that?  We know Bob Seger would not have.  Or Kid Rock.  And that's fine.  But where is the consistency?

Part of the problem is, Bono is not entirely easy to label.

Bono is a liberal rock star.  So conservatives don't care for him asking world leaders for money to fight AIDS in Africa.  It should be noted, since his efforts, things have improved.  Having been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize no longer seems silly; it now seems silly that certain people who have accomplished far less, have won over him.

Bono also lauded George W. Bush, for seeing to it America gave an immense amount of money to help fight Aids in Africa.  (Far more than Obama currently has) Facts be damned, many liberals hate Bono for praising the despised former president.

He is also a business man.  Who happens to work in the music business.  How many bands of U2's longevity can you think of that have kept their original lineup, their entire career?  Part of that has to be that they decided from day one they wanted to be smart about the business end.  Which would in turn make them less likely to resent each other and break up over such matters like so many bands do.  They have generated so much money for Ireland that their was (and probably still is) an entire division in their version of the IRS, just devoted to their taxes.  When Ireland got even more oppressive with their tax laws, they very wisely moved some operations to another country.  Where they could keep more of their own money.  Money they earned.  This is not only legal, but smart.  The people that criticize Bono and the band over this decision are assuming Ireland knows better than all of their citizens how they should spend their own money.

"Aid is just a stop gap.  Commerce, Entrepreneurial Capitalism, takes more people out of poverty than aid.  Of course we know that."    -Bono

While very much a "give a man a fish," type of person.  Bono also has come to understand the power of the Biblical, "teach a man to fish."  He started a clothing line with his wife called "Edun".  The profits not only go to help Africa, but it provides jobs for Africans as well.  Production is sourced throughout the continent.

Which leads to one of the things people do not like the most.

Bono is also a Christian.  Many non-believers, don't like him for this.

Many believers also don't like him for this reason.  Because, he is not "Christian enough," in their minds.  

"We've found different ways of expressing it, and recognized the power of the media to manipulate such signs.  Maybe we just have to sort of draw our fish in the sand.  It's there for people who are interested.  It shouldn't be there for people who aren't."  -Bono

A man who stated early on he is a Christian; to people's minds, must repeat this fact in every interview to make them happy.  He is also not in a "Christian Band," so he is criticized by standards of a preacher, that he never signed up for.

Is Bono a perfect Christian?  Of course not.  But here is the thing; that's kind of the point of Christianity.  There is only one worthy of any of it.  And the people that spend such time and effort condemning a man, that every member of Billy Graham's family seems to think is a good, Christian, man...well.  I am going to take the word of people who actually know him.

I will say this on a personal level.  I grew up going to concerts by Christian Bands.  I would sometimes feel God in the room.  I have also felt that, but more so at one specific U2 concert. (and no other rock show)  When Bono said, "I think God is in this building," I don't think he was wrong.  He might not show up to every U2 show, but I think He is at the very least a casual fan.

Which brings us to what should be the real love him or hate him point anyway; the music.  Do you hate U2 music?  Do you hate Bono's voice?  His lyrics?  If so, fine.  Dislike him all you want.  I have no issue with you.

But when it is based on something else.  And on such a visceral, personal level.  Either from a strange jealousy or some outdated, pretentious notion of how music should be packaged and sold.  I think that is not just unfair, but ridiculous.

Think if you can honestly say you would turn down the chance to get your art shared with the world. That you would turn down money for something you worked years on.

If you can, you should immediately go to the hospital to get that stick removed.  You have bigger issues than seeing a band you don't much care for, show up for free in your Itunes.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Both Things

In 2004, 10 years ago now, "The Passion of the Christ" was released.  It was a film that no major studio was willing to touch, despite the fact its director's previous effort ("Braveheart") was not only incredibly financially successful, but won 5 Academy Awards.  

People in Hollywood were so against the film, it felt as if negative thoughts about it were written well before these same people even saw the film (or whether they ever did at all). 

Jami Bernard of the New York Daily News called it "the most virulently antisemitic movie made since the German propaganda films of World War II."

Hypocritically, now Hollywood is trying to (still) jump on that bandwagon.  There are multiple movies being released this year based on biblical stories.  "Noah," even boasts an enormous budget. Most people would admit this is in direct correlation to the gigantic success of "The Passion."  

The fact that this film is so controversial is something I simply do not understand.  I cannot help but find people’s over the top criticism of it to be in large part dishonest. 

A defense and 4 star review by the late, esteemed critic Roger Ebert, stood out in large part for being in the minority of open-mindedness (Ebert was no fan of religion).  "My own feeling is that Gibson's film is not anti-Semitic, but reflects a range of behavior on the part of its Jewish characters, on balance favorably…. A reasonable person, I believe, will reflect that in this story set in a Jewish land, there are many characters with many motives, some good, some not, each one representing himself, none representing his religion."  -Roger Ebert 

What we had was a film that in this writer’s opinion, is a masterpiece of film-making.  From cinematography to score to acting and direction, this is a film that should be celebrated.  To many Christians, it was and is.  But awards would not be forthcoming and we need not wonder why.  

Then Gibson would be arrested for DUI and he would start down a life spiral that some (myself included) wondered if he would be able to pull out of.  For many critics of Gibson and his film, the horrible things said by Gibson were almost inconsequential.  It was more a celebratory sentiment and still is.  A “look we told you so.”  And while Hollywood loves a comeback and seems willing to forgive nearly anyone over anything, forgiving Gibson is still not in the cards.  Which makes a few of his public supporters all the more touching in their outward show of support for a man, they say, we do not know.

Actor Jim Caviezel was a kind of collateral damage casualty for playing Christ in Gibson’s movie.  In 2004 Caviezel was a star on the rise.  Having attained acclaim for his performances in “The Thin Red Line,” “Frequency” and “The Count of Monte Cristo,” starring in one of the biggest money making films of all time would seem to be a good career move.  But until he showed up on television a few years ago in Person of Interest, Caviezel nearly disappeared. 

Gibson, for one, warned him.  Twenty minutes after offering him the role, Gibson tried to talk Caviezel out of taking it. 

"The next day, he said, 'I want you to be aware of what you are going to go through. You may never work again.'”

Distancing oneself from Gibson would have seemed solid career advice when things were at their worst.  But Caviezel brought up Gibson himself during this time, without being asked.

"Mel Gibson, he’s a horrible sinner, isn't he?  Mel Gibson doesn't need your judgment, he needs your prayers.”

Jodie Foster has been close to Gibson ever since they starred in “Maverick,” together. 

“I knew the minute I met him that I would love him the rest of my life.” 

While never excusing Gibson’s past behavior, Foster is staunch in her support for her friend. She has been criticized for it. 

Just one example is writer Mary Elizabeth Williams, who wrote about Foster, “The movie icon continues to go to bat for her embattled friend. Maybe it's time to rethink the acclaimed actress."

Continually standing up for your friend while not excusing his behavior seems to me to be the epitome of a great friend.  Especially when few will do so publicly.

"He is kind and loyal and thoughtful.  And I can spend hours on the phone with him talking about life.”

“I know him in a very complex way.  He’s a real person; he’s not a cardboard cutout.  I know that he has troubles, and when you love somebody you don’t just walk away from them when they are struggling.”

Foster recently received the Cecille B Demille Award.  In receiving her award, Foster had Gibson as one of her guests at her table, along with her two sons.  In the closing remarks to her speech, Foster thanked, “And of course, Mel Gibson.  You know you saved me too.”

How Gibson might have saved the notoriously media shy Foster, we can only guess.  But the feeling is not Foster’s alone.

A few years back, Robert Downey Jr.’s career was struggling from his constant battles with addiction.  One of the people that helped get him work when his career was at its lowest point, was Mel Gibson.  Now Downey is about as big a star as there is in Hollywood.  Downey too, won a prestigious award due to this career resurgence.  In winning it he insisted Mel Gibson be the one that presented him with the award.  Downey then took his allotted speech time to talk solely about Gibson.  How Gibson helped him when he was at his worst.

"I humbly ask that you join me - unless you are completely without sin, and in which case you picked the wrong fucking industry - in forgiving my friend of his trespasses and offering him the same clean slate that you have me and allowing him to continue his great and on-going contribution to our collective art without shame.”  -Robert Downey, Jr.

Speaking directly to industry people, Downey’s comments received a standing ovation.  A standing ovation from people who if they wanted to, could help revive the career of a man who was once one of the biggest stars in the world.  It seems few if any have called.

This took place in the same year "The Hangover 2," came out. A film in which Gibson was cast in a very small role.  The actors decided they did not want Gibson in their film.  That is their prerogative.  But to then have no issue acting alongside a convicted rapist in Mike Tyson, shows one example of the hypocrisy.

“I couldn't get hired and he cast me.  He said if I accepted responsibility-he called it hugging the cactus-long enough, my life would take meaning.  And if he helped me, I would help the next guy.  But it was not reasonable to assume the next guy would be him.”     -Robert Downey Jr.

Downey has not given up.  Just this year there are reports that he is using all his clout to convince the powers that be to cast Gibson in an “Iron Man” or “Avengers” film.  On that, we wait, while not holding our breath.  

During the Two And A Half Men, fiasco with Charlie Sheen, in which he was admittedly back on drugs and seemed to be acting like someone in his last days, he was asked where the best help had come during that time.  His answer: Mel Gibson and Robert Downey, Jr.

“They just offered love to me.”

2003 Interview
DIANE SAWYER: "What does the evil side want?"

MEL GIBSON: "It wants you, it wants you. People are capable of horrors, of atrocities. We're also capable of wonderful things, of good things and we have the choice. What do we choose, you know. And often, many of us, at different times, choose both things."