The Sea Inside — CLASSIC FILM PICK
The true story of a quadriplegic on a mission of assissted suicide would seem to present an insurmountable challenge for any filmmaker. Most certainly, an average audience would run kicking and screaming before empathizing with Ramón Sampedro, an atheist narcissistic who displays more persistence of vision than the able-bodied people who surround him.
While spending a beautiful summer’s day at a Galician beach, the 26-year-old Ramón dove from a cliff into a cove just as the tide pulled out to sea. He struck his head on the ocean floor, injuring his spinal cord. Now 55, Ramon insists that death is preferable to “a life lived without dignity.”
Javier Bardem’s calmly poised Ramon tries to convince the Spanish court system to authorize assisted suicide on his behalf. Bardem’s half smiles adorn his troubled character with an air of composed insight. He uses his mouth to write his autobiography with a pencil attached to a stick.
Ramon’s request for his family and friends who “love” him is that they contribute to a meticulously orchestrated plan that will allow him to die, without any single person being legally culpable in his death.
Using an arsenal of meticulous filmmaking techniques co-writer/director Alejandro Amenábar modulates the narrative line between Ramon’s bedridden emotionality, and his family members and romantically driven visitors who alternately support him, or oppose his somber plea.
The film strikes a euphoric highpoint when Ramon listens to José Manuel Zapata singing Puccini’s “Nissun Dorma” on his bedside record player. The classical song animates Ramon’s imagination. His body comes gracefully to life. His bare feet slap onto the hardwood floor of his room-with-a-view. Ramon stands and pulls his bed away from the wall to allow for a running start toward the open window overlooking a rugged Spanish hillside. Alejandro Amenábar’s subjective camera flies through the window transporting the audience just above the ground, across miles of verdant countryside to the ocean. The outside world that escapes Ramon’s existence is briefly in his possession. His euphoric dream state exemplifies all the liberation that the mind's eye can bring. At the beach, Ramon meets his lawyer and would-be lover Julia (Belen Rueda). Their sun-blessed embrace and tender kiss ends as the needle lifts from the record in Ramon’s room.
Even with Alejandro Amenábar’s flawless sense of storytelling, it is unlikely that “The Sea Inside” would have succeeded with an actor other than Javier Bardem. The discreet but tortured humanity that Bardem embodies carries with it tremendous authenticity of personality. The wealth of character traits that Bardem effortlessly portrays speaks to religious, political, romantic, and personal elements with a selfless oath of intent. Alejandro Amenábar’s seamless depiction of Ramón Sampedro’s battle for his sense of self arrives in inspirational cinematic terms. Amazing.
Rated PG-13. 125 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
At Any Price
Zac Ephron stinks up every movie he appears in. That’s not to say however that casting a different actor — one who wouldn’t be better served doing toothpaste commercials — would improve substantially on co-writer/director Ramin Bahrani’s fatally flawed movie. Famous for immigrant dramas (“Man Push Cart,” “Chop Shop” and “Goodbye Solo,) Rami gets in over his head attempting to tell a tale of how American’s Corporate Industrial Complex impacts the lives of Midwest farmers. The film’s thematic lesson can be summed up as, “everybody cheats; some people get away with murder.”
Dean (Ephron) is the spoiled brat son to Iowa farmer Henry Whipple (well played by the reliable Dennis Quaid). Henry is an old school Midwest family man and corn farmer with a huckster side job distributing patented seeds for Monsanto — a company many people would like to see permanently shut down for its dubious monopolizing practices. Henry’s dream of passing the family farm down to his oldest son Grant is tempered by the distance Grant keeps from the family; he’s off climbing a tall mountain somewhere across the Atlantic. So it is that Henry turns his attentions to Dean (Ephron), an amateur stock-car driver with NASCAR ambitions. Dean spends his time banging his small town girlfriend Cadence (Maika Monroe) and driving two-hours to do a handgun-smash-and-grab at an auto supply store for a new part for his car.
Ethical duplicity runs in the family. Papa Henry cheats on his wife with a local tramp (Heather Graham). The film opens with Henry making post-funeral buying offers to families of the deceased, to swoop in on their land at pennies-on-the-dollar. If you’re looking for a reliable protagonist, you won’t find one in “At Any Price.” It's the ffinal nail in a film that wants to be “Promised Land” [about the shady dealings of fracking companies], but doesn’t know how to go about it. Yes, it’s a cutthroat world out there, and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it, except hide the bodies well. That’s the takeaway from “At Any Price.”
Rated R. 105 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
To the Wonder
Navel Gazing Through a Telescope
Terrence Malick’s Failed Experiment Leaves a Black Eye
Terrence Malick still hasn’t made a remarkable film since 1978. That was the year he made “Days of Heaven” — not to be confused with “Heaven Gates.” Although the “Heaven” movies do have something in common: they ruined their respective filmmakers’ careers — Michael Cimino made more of a splash because he took United Artists down with him. Malick went overboard by shooting most of the movie during the gloaming — a 25-minute period at dusk that Malick referred to as the “magic hour.” He then spent three years editing it.
“To the Wonder” is a shorthand cinematic poem told with such slightness that there is nothing for an audience to identify with beyond some vague apologia about God’s ability to put human beings through as much heartbreak as they can endure. It’s an airy cinematic sermon that mumbles for two-hours. Atheists will be bored; believers will scratch their heads. Pretentious film critics will out themselves.
Malick has made an experimental movie that fails because it’s all agenda and no substance. There’s so little character development or narrative cohesion that the viewer feels alienated through the whole experience. The filmmaker’s oh-so-deep philosophical musings, as tinged with religious inflections, are oddly apolitical. Malick’s micro-meta bubble is small and foggy. It’s a fundamental rule of screenwriting to never preach to your audience. Terrence Malick breaks that rule with impunity.
In Paris, Neil (Ben Affleck) courts Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a sensuous Ukrainian woman with a ten-year-old daughter named Tatiana. The Eiffel Tower, the gardens at Versailles, and Mont Saint-Michele make for plenty of postcard-perfect compositions via Malick’s handheld camera. Dialogue is sparse, very sparse. Malick flits between indulgent shots of streaming sunlight on suburban landscapes to fill in copious narrative blanks in his script.
The would-be family moves to Neil’s hometown of Bartlesville, Oklahoma to reside in a cloistered suburban housing community bereft of personality. Neil is giving Marina a relationship trial run. Is she marriage material? Tatiana certainly thinks so. However, Marina’s mood swings make her seem bi-polar in a “Betty Blue” kind of way. Languorous episodes of romantic harmony give way to ugly, if muted, outbursts of anger. A devil’s advocate vantage point could view Malick’s film as an unintended observation on the toxic effect of American suburbia on romantic relationships. But that would be a stretch.
Javier Bardem creeps around the story as Father Quintana, a priest who worries over the limits of his ability to help the impoverished and ailing Americans who live around him. During a sermon, he tells his parish, that a husband “does not find” his wife “lovely.” Rather, “he makes her lovely.”
Neil isn’t really that into Marina. Without explanation he sends she and Tatiana packing. The unreliable protagonist briefly dallies with Jane (Rachel McAdams), an old romance from childhood. Like Marina, Jane is needy to a fault.
A romantic reversal occurs. Marina abandons Tatiana to her father’s family and returns to Neil in Oklahoma to start their lives together. Domestic troubles percolate and boil over around moot narrative details. I suppose, if you’re a believer, “To the Wonder” will bring you closer to God in as much as it will push you two-hours closer to your ultimate demise. Personally, I’d rather watch Malick’s “Badlands” (1973) or “Days of Heaven.” There was a time when Terrence Malick made incredible movies. Those days are gone.
Rated R. 112 mins. (D) (One Star – out of five/no halves.Tweet
In an age where people obsess over their cellphones to the exclusion of the physical world around them, a dystopian malady takes over. Identity theft, online bullying, and interactive porn sites each play a part in a problematic digital social landscape that “Disconnect” examines in a razor-sharp triptych narrative. Every character gets in over their head via pervasive technology. The thought-provoking movie is seamless in plaiting together the lives of its scrupulously credible characters. The effect is haunting.
The subject of shrouded online identities, and their ability to infiltrate and damage the lives of their victims, may sound like old news to some but the threat is constant. The recent spam wars that slowed internet traffic to a crawl for millions of users is just one more in a long line of reminders about how vulnerable anyone who uses a computer or cellphone is.
Andrea Riseborough’s quick-witted television journalist Nina carries on a webcam conversation with Kyle (Max Thieriot), an internet sex worker for an underage sex site. Self-assured Kyle likes what he does. He makes good money showing off his nubile bod and the erotic tricks it can do. Nina earns his trust, but all she really wants is to break a juicy story that will put a feather in her cap at the TV station she works for — not that she isn’t susceptible to Kyle’s very direct charms.
Ben (Jonah Bobo) is a sensitive teenage loner. He writes plaintive songs on piano when he gets home from high school. Ben hides behind a swath of long hair that hangs down over his eyes. The fragile son of a successful attorney (well played by Jason Bateman), Ben takes the bait when a “girl” from his school professes her attraction in the form of Facebook instant messages. Unknown to Ben, her identity is comprised of a couple of bullying classmates — one of whom is the son of Mike, an internet-crime investigator and former cop (played by Frank Grillo).
Mike works on a case of identity theft that has devastated the lives of Derek (Alexander Skarsgard) and Cindy (Paula Patton), a married couple whose relationship was already in crisis due to the death of their child. Derek, a former Marine, imagines doling out some personal justice on the person who ruined his life.
Director henry Alex Rubin (“Murderball”) embellishes the visuals with an inventive use of bold graphic design for the instant message dialogue that takes place between characters. Voyeurism becomes an interactive-like encounter for the viewer. An image system involving the camera viewing its subjects at various distances through windows and fences adds to a suspenseful sense of constant surveillance. In addition, cinematographer Ken Seng (“Quarantine”) uses a combination of documentary and straight narrative camera techniques to keep the viewer on edge.
Rubin advances debut feature screenwriter Andrew Stern’s dynamic source material with an insistent rhythm of emotional counterpoint that culminates in an artistically composed crescendo of synchronized climaxes. When the slow-motion sequence occurs, it gives the audience time to ruminate on the physical and emotional forces that led up to it. Your cellphone can’t help you.
Rated R. 115 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Ginger & Rosa
VIDEO ESSAYS: THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE — GINGER & ROSA — CLASSIC: LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL
Writer/director Sally Potter’s tantalizing “Ginger & Rosa” is a socially complex coming-of-age movie with teeth. Set in 1962 London, the Cold War permeates everything. The film’s opening sequence, showing an atom bomb explosion, contextualizes the film’s political aspirations. Teenagers Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert – daughter of celebrated director Jane Campion) are best friends from birth. Their mothers had them at the same time, in the same hospital. Sally Potter’s affinity for playing with duality — see “Orlando” — is firmly on display. Ginger leans toward intellectual gratification; Rosa gravitates to physical pleasure. They are two sides of the same coin, but only one can hope to achieve their shared dream of escaping the social traps that ensnared their mothers.
Energized by the threat of war around them, the girls take up the leftist cause to rid the world of nukes. Ginger’s activist position is informed by her pacifist father Roland’s (Alessandro Nivola) teachings. Roland served hard prison time for standing by his beliefs. Now he teaches in a University that allows him free reign to put his womanizing skills to use on an ever-changing group of adoring nubile students.
Roland is the worst kind of hypocrite. He humiliates Ginger’s mother Nat (Christina Hendricks) with pat arguments about her use of “emotional fascism” to excuse his insufferable behavior. Regardless, Ginger keeps up her fascination with her dad until he commits a sin against their trust.
“Ginger & Rosa” is part of a zeitgeist occurring in 2013 cinema that puts a premium on the kind activism and free thought exerted during the ‘60s. A jazz-heavy score that includes the music of Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk works magic. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan gives the film a beautiful period look that never feels confined. Here is an unadulterated personalized paean to humanitarian ethics — be they issues of social equality, peace, or such fundamental traits as dignity and respect.
Rated PG-13. 89 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
“The Playroom” is confirmation that the ‘70s were an awful decade for the latchkey kids of American parents living out a fantasy existence of liberation. The proverbial house of cards comes crashing down for a suburban family overseen by Martin (John Hawkes), an easily cuckolded father and his wayward wife Donna (fearlessly played by Molly Parker). 15-year-old Maggie (Olivia Harris) has been stealing her mother’s birth control pills to embark on her own sexual adventures. Maggie has also taken on the role of surrogate parent to her three younger siblings, who complete the daily chores of emptying out their parents’ overflowing ashtrays. A chamber piece cousin to “The Ice Storm,” “The Playroom” hones in on the mentality of so many irresponsible ‘70s era parents whose children grew up to be much better people than their parents. Here’s proof that there’s something to be said for rebelling against the sins of the fathers — and mothers.
Not Rated. 83 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Days of Wine and Roses — CLASSIC FILM PICK
The first film to tackle alcoholism in a serious manner, “Days of Wine and Roses” is a tragic social drama of timeless effect. It remains one of the most heartrending cinematic interpretations of addiction ever produced. No matter how many times you watch it, it’s never an easy experience.
Adapted by JP Miller from his 1958 “Playhouse 90” teleplay, the story follows the rise and fall of a young San Francisco couple exceptionally played by Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. Two finer screen performances you will likely never see.
Joe works as a glib public relations executive at the same firm where Kirsten is employed as the secretary of the head of the company. For Joe, social drinking is part of the job. “Hit me again” is his catchphrase to bartenders and waiters. Although they get off on the wrong foot when Joe mistakes Kirsten for a party girl he invites to on a harbor cruise for one of his rapacious clients, Joe corrects for his blunder the next day. An enchanted dinner date allows Joe to induct teetotaler Kirsten into the joys of drinking with a brandy alexander that appeals to her love of chocolate. A post-dinner visit to Fisherman’s Warf sets the tone for the relationship. Kirsten quotes poetry. “They are not long, the days of wine and roses.”
Kirsten’s preference to ignore the dirty water at their feet in favor of looking out to the moonlit bay is inversely mirrored in Joe’s constant attention to the bottle he swigs from. Not even Kirsten’s radiant beauty can distract Joe from his obsession with alcohol.
Joe momentarily exhibits a streak of ethical conduct — however tentatively — when he hints to his boss that he doesn’t want to function as a pimp anymore. Joe and Kirsten get married and have a baby girl. But Kirsten’s decision to follow Joe’s alcoholic lead results in her accidentally setting fire to their plush apartment. The catastrophic event snaps Joe into recognizing their drinking problem. He moves the family to Kirsten’s father’s home for a do-it-yourself rehab program, helping with the old man’s home nursery business. Two months of hard work and sobriety comforts Joe into believing that a little bender won’t hurt. He pays for his transgression with two months in a hospital sanitarium. When Joe reaches out for assistance, Jack Klugman’s Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor Jim Hungerford arrives to guide Joe on the road to recovery.
Although director Blake Edwards is heavy-handed in his use of multiple variations of Henri Mancini’s theme song to underscore the drama, the movie goes to depths of humiliation, betrayal, and pain that might otherwise break the audience without the shallow musical commentary. The love that Joe and Kirsten share acts as a cruel tool for the reversals they continue to suffer. The film’s potent tableau encompasses the daily struggle of all addicts, whether recovering or still caught in the grip of addiction.
Any Day Now
It’s rare to come across such a unique cinematic gem as director/co-screenwriter Travis Fine’s riveting drama about a ‘70s era gay couple’s attempt to adopt a boy with Down syndrome. Alan Cumming gives a superb performance as Rudy Donatello, a Los Angeles lip-synch drag singer who discovers romantic and paternal love.
Queens-transplant Rudy lives in a single room occupancy where his drug-abusing neighbor Marianna (Jamie Anne Allman) abandons her mentally challenged son Marco (Isaac Leyva) after her incarceration. Rudy sees through Marco’s disability to the sweet soul that resides within. Indeed, Isaac Leyva's performance substantiates Rudy's insights. A concurrent meet-up between Rudy and Paul (Garrett Dillahunt – “Winter’s Bone”), a gay L.A. district attorney, quickly blossoms into a stable relationship from which the couple attempt to provide a permanent home for Marco.
Garrett Dillahunt’s performance is a revelation. Not only does the objectively brawny actor evince compassion, but he shares a tangible chemistry with Cumming. The on-screen relationship represents a thoroughly believable vision of gay romantic love. Germane musical set pieces intersperse the story, allowing Alan Cumming to tear up the proscenium stage with haunting songs performed in character. Dramatic narrative depth arises from the layers of necessary emotion Cumming puts into the songs that he lip-syncs and the ones he actually sings. You’ve never witnessed a more searing rendition of “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore.” As for Cumming’s knockout performance of the film’s closing song, I’ll leave you to discover that reward without spoiling the surprise.
“Any Day Now” is a powerful independent film that could slip through the cracks. It is also a significant addition to the cannon of LGBT cinema. If you have a chance to see it on the big screen, don’t pass it up. I guarantee you will be moved.
Rated R. 97 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
Director Marshall Lewy’s unabashed combination of character-study and social commentary gets hung up in nuance, but oh what emotional colors seep out. Robert Carlyle delivers the goods. His former ‘90s era Britpop rocker character Lachlan MacAldonich is a fully fleshed-out creation. One of the U.K.’s unsung character actors, Carlyle sinks his teeth in, delivering a truly remarkable performance.
Tormented by the death of his bandmate/brother, the expat Scotsman works on an organic farm in Southern California. Lachlan broadcasts a weekly music podcast program where he highlights such musical geniuses as Marc Bolan while drowning his sorrows in one bottle of whiskey after another. A driving-under-the-influence prosecution threatens to get Lachlan extradited back to Scotland unless the attorney he can barely afford is able to pull off some legal magic.
To the filmmaker’s credit, writer-director Lewy elegantly weaves in the illegal immigrant aspect of the story, so it resonates with an intended subtext--America’s cynically violent and exploitative policies toward its undocumented underclass.
The film flails when it profers an aborted romantic dalliance between Lachlan and Beau (Alexia Rasmussen), a fickle local girl. This dead-end subplot detracts from the story’s arc, which crashes down in a rushed third act ending. Otherwise “California Solo” is a subtle and convincing independent drama that features one of most understated performances of the year.
Not Rated. 94 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Co-writer/director Sean Baker’s slice-of-life search for humanitarian values in L.A.’s culture-vacuum finds resonance in the San Fernando Valley, an area famous for producing porn. Mariel Hemingway’s daughter Dree carries the story with an artless portrayal of a rudderless female youth.
Fresh off the plane from Florida, 21-year-old Jane (Hemingway) lives in a two-story house with her friend Melissa (Stella Maeve), and Melissa’s drug dealing pimp Mikey (James Ransone). Jane and Melissa periodically work as porn actresses for the same production company.
The filmmakers temper any character judgments the audience might make about porn as a vocation, with an arsenal of diverting narrative touches. Still, when we finally witness Jane working at her chosen occupation in graphic NC-17 clarity, the effect is surprising. “Starlet” is yet another step toward the inevitable fusion of mainstream cinema and hardcore pornography.
Jane takes her constant companion — a male Chihuahua named Starlet — with her to a yard sale. She buys an old thermos she plans on turning into a vase. She doesn’t even know what a “thermos” is, and doesn’t care.
Cinematographer Radium Cheung alternates his documentary-styled compositions between an intimate proximity, and a deeper distance of voyeuristic surveillance.
Jane’s discovery of $10,000 in rubber-banded rolls of $100 bills inside the thermos reveals the complexity of her character. There is much more to Jane than meets the eye.
Jane pays another visit to Sadie (Besedka Johnson), the woman she purchased the thermos from, but Sadie quickly dismisses her. Sadie imagines Jane wants a refund. However, nothing will stop Jane from befriending Sadie, if only to satisfy her own curiosity about the source of her recent windfall. More importantly Jane needs a friend, and she recognizes that Sadie too needs a companion to help her.
“Starlet” is a transparent bellwether of American society. Innocence is a shattered illusion, and emotions are a useless devotion. All youth is wasted.
Not Rated. 105 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
This Must Be the Place
“This Must Be the Place” is a canny model of life-affirming cinema. Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino (“Il Divo”) continues to make his mark as a unique visionary in global cinema with a provocative English-language think piece starring Sean Penn. Taking inspiration from a Talking Heads song (see the film’s title), Sorrentino makes abstruse generational connections between such topics as the holocaust, the impact of rock music, and the importance of familial bonds. Sorrentino’s sense of ironic displacement counterintuitively breathes with integrity. The filmmaker’s cinematic voice is copasetic to David Byrne’s distinctive style of songwriting. Byrne’s musical score for the film provides a haunting aural background.
Penn’s character Cheyenne is a retired '80s-era Goth rocker à la Robert Smith living in a Dublin mansion with his grounded wife Jane (Frances McDormand). The neurotic Cheyenne speaks in an adenoidal childlike voice. He still wears his signature style: teased-out fright wig hair, eyeliner, lipstick, and a foundation of powder on his face. Sean Penn’s transformation is complete. Cheyenne is at once frail yet tough. His mousey demeanor doesn’t prevent him from keeping a hardscrabble Dublin womanizer as a pal. Their discussions about women allow for a sense of their ever-growing maturity as men. Cheyenne’s outward appearance might be dated, but his development as a fully engaged person is ongoing.
Significantly, Cheyenne’s relationship with Jane runs deep. A scene of the couple playing handball in their empty swimming pool, exhibits Cheyenne’s gawky athleticism. With a wink, Jane discloses that she sometimes lets him win. Sorrentino justly incorporates a defining sex scene that tells more about the couple’s union than a half-dozen Hollywood lovemaking scenes put together. Like real married couples, Cheyenne and Jane talk with the act is over.
The death of Cheyenne’s Jewish father in the States sends our man-child protagonist on an American odyssey of self-discovery. Stops in New York, Michigan, New Mexico and Utah make up Sorrentino’s unconventional road movie. Cheyenne, we learn, fell out of contact with his dad 30 years earlier as part of a standard-issue bout of rebellion and alienation. His success in music backfired on him when two young brothers committed suicide — an act they blamed on one of Cheyenne’s melancholy songs. As it turns out, Cheyenne’s father — a survivor of Auschwitz — spent every waking hour of his later life hunting for the guard who humiliated him when he was imprisoned. Cheyenne picks up where his father left off to track down the Nazi war criminal.
Paolo Sorrentino works with surfaces — both human and synthetic. His eye for composition—as executed by cinematographer Luca Bigazzi—is formal, but always on the move. Cheyenne’s make-up disguise is a reflection of the artifice that makes up the public and private spaces he anachronistically inhabits. Sorrentino’s sincere blend of curiosity and showmanship allows the film to flow with a gentle comic tone in spite of the serious nature of Cheyenne’s mission. “This Must Be the Place” is as much a piece of carefully composed music as it is a movie. Dig the mood and let it take you away.
Not Rated. 118 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Enjoyable in that Hollywood-popcorn way for which Robert Zemeckis is famous— see “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” skip “Forest Gump” — “Flight” is a drama that would have been better without the director's love of schmaltz. Featuring one of the most terrifying plane crash sequences ever filmed, the movie sets up Denzel Washington’s character Captain Whip Whitaker as the narrative’s protagonist-antagonist rolled into one. Getting two-for-the-price-of-one, the audience is taunted as whether or not to root for this unapologetic alcoholic commercial pilot who saves most of the plane’s 102 passengers during a crisis that would have killed them had the plane been helmed by anyone else. Whip was toasted--on booze, pot, and cocaine--when he pulled off an unconventional “inverted” flying maneuver that allowed him to (mostly) successfully crash-land the huge plane in an empty field.
“Flight” is worth seeing, if only for its incredible crash sequence, and for the reliable Denzel Washington’s performance. Denzel Washington remains true to his role even in the face of all the character and plot-breaking going on around him. He doesn’t just bring out the humanity methodically buried inside Whip’s melancholy soul—he brings out an indomitable rebellious nature that’s always present in the characters he builds. His work is never less than precise. Washington is a great actor at the mercy of a Hollywood system that is only occasionally able to provide a vehicle that lives up to the conviction of his talents. “Mo’ Better Blues,” “Training Day” and “American Gangster” come to mind.
Zemeckis gives John Goodman’s hippie drug-dealing character Harling Mays a royal musical intro — the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” — every time Harling arrives to supply Whip with whatever cocktail of drugs the legally-embattled pilot needs. The film’s jokey treatment of Goodman’s supporting character breaks the otherwise dramatic tone of the film. Big mistake. The movie would have been vastly improved had Goodman’s scenes been relegated to the cutting-room floor.
With lightweight scripts such as “Summer Catch” and “Real Steel” on his resume, screenwriter John Gatins doesn’t display the necessary restraint to sustain a consistent dramatic tone. His intentionality is too jokey for the task. He plays his characters too lose. When Whip makes a hospital visit to the permanently injured co-pilot he was flying with during the crash, the scene digresses into an off-kilter praying session that either mocks Christianity, or makes fun of the filmmaker’s lacking ability to express himself — depending on your perspective. Either way, something smells fishy.
The story also goes astray in numerous poorly planned plot twists, such as the failure of the hardass attorney assigned to Whip’s case to protect his client from himself. A locked-door rehab program would have done the trick. Don Cheadle is burdened as counselor Hugh Lang, a character who contradicts his own personality as soon as it’s established.
As it unravels, the overlong movie slips into an ethical grey area that leads the audience to favor irresponsible behavior. Here is a film that’s unclear on every concept of morality it puts forth.
Rated R. 93 mins. (C+) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
THE LAST PICTURE SHOW — CLASSIC FILM PICK
Formulated as a Nouvelle Vague-styled homage to Howard Hawks’s “Red River,” Peter Bogdanovich’s brilliant adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s 1966 novel is a haunting coming-of-age movie that encapsulates the death of the Old West through the microcosmic prism of a small Texas town. A masterpiece by any standard, “The Last Picture Show” (1971) presents an emotionally apocalyptic reckoning of an America that has lost its way. The subtext—the film was made at the height of the Vietnam War — is hard to miss.
Sexual initiations steer the narrative map. In a town this small, everyone knows everything there is to know about their neighbors. By the end every character will become a victim.
Filmed in McMurtry’s hometown of Acher City, Texas, the black-and-white film opens on the one-stoplight town of Anarene, circa 1951, where dust storms blow dirt into every crevice of the town’s handful of storefronts. The place already looks like a ghost town. A Hank Williams song plays on Sonny Crawford’s truck radio as he drives down the town’s deserted main street. Bogdanovich’s pervasive use of Hank Williams songs — such as “Cold, Cold Heart” and “Kaw-Liga” — inform the social context of his characters’ collective subconscious mind.
Timothy Bottoms’s Sonny is the co-captain of the town’s feeble high school football team with his best friend Duane (played by Jeff Bridges in his impressive film acting debut). Local men verbally harass Sonny about his team’s lack of skill and commitment to the game. The boys make out with their respective girlfriends in the back row of the town’s only cinema, the Royal. Sonny covets Duane’s beautiful girlfriend Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd). Before the night is over Sonny breaks up with his girl. Soon Sonny will be sewing his wild oats with Ruth (Cloris Leachman), the unsatisfied wife of the high school basketball coach.
Veteran Western actor Ben Johnson plays Sam the Lion, the town’s successful cowboy patriarch. Ben owns the diner, the pool hall, and the cinema. He also represents the town’s moral conscience, and its unofficial law enforcer. When Sonny and some other boys set a retarded boy up with a prostitute who gives him a bloody nose due to his sexual incompetence, Sam rejects the boys’ patronage at his establishments.
Sam eventually forgives Sonny, whom he takes on a fishing trip to a turtle-filled pond on land that he once owned. Sam reveals his life’s most romantic experience some 20 years ago with a young woman who bet him a silver dollar she could beat him across the water on her horse. “She did.” Sam reminisces about swimming together “without bathing suits.” Sam’s starry-eyed inspiration pales against Jayce’s cynical approach to love, as informed by her opportunistic mother Lois (Ellen Burstyn). Emotional greed has become the currency in a land raped by industry. There’s nothing left to dream about. Even the local cinema is out of business.
Paul Thomas Anderson Tries Too Hard and Not Hard Enough
For all of the over-exaggerated attention – read publicity ploy — given to “The Master’s” loose narrative ties regarding the Church of Scientology, Paul Thomas Anderson’s cinematic dog lacks any amount of storyline, arc, or likeable characters. The movie is a riddle not worth solving. As a high-budget experiment in avant-garde filmmaking, “The Master” is barely tolerable if not entirely watchable. Anderson’s ballyhooed process of shooting the film in outdated 70mm comes off as a needless gimmick. The look of the film might be pristine, but what’s being shown leaves much to be desired.
The cinematic sleeping pill features an all-in performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, a rudderless PTSD-suffering World War II Navy veteran who makes Mickey Rourke’s alcoholic version of Charles Bukowski in “Barfly” seem like a lightweight. Freddie has a knack for drinking anything with alcohol, including torpedo fuel and paint thinner. The year is 1950. Freddei’s Freddie is like a character right out of Lou Reed’s iconic song “Street Hassle.” To paraphrase the song, He can never find a voice to talk with that he can call his own. So the first thing he sees that allows him the right to be; he follows it. It’s called bad luck.
In San Francisco, Freddie stumbles onto a moored yacht inhabited by L. Ron Hubbard alter ego Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The boat is headed for New York via the Panama Canal. Onboard are Dodd’s group of faceless cult followers and his loyal collaborator wife Peggy (Amy Adams), and two young adult sons — probably from another marriage. Dodd catches Freddie with a freshly made concoction of questionable hooch — Freddie poisoned some poor soul with the last batch he made while working on a farm picking cabbages. Dodd befriends the helpless scoundrel. Dodd appreciates Freddie’s animalistic nature and utter desperation. He may harbor homosexual feelings for the wacked-out stowaway. Freddie is a perfect test subject for Dodd to try out his “process,” a ritualized survey of repeated questions. “Have you ever slept with a member of your family?” Dodd asks. For Freddie, the answer is yes.
It’s evident that Anderson is evoking a time in American culture when people had limited access to information. Wartime propaganda created a strange kind of isolationist psychology that adventurous people sought to escape. An impromptu religion based in science-fiction fantasy just might do the trick.
“The Master” is all theme and no substance. A modicum of social context and gratuitous sex hardly distract from the parlor game Anderson plays with his audience. Joaquin Phoenix’s damaged character reflects his own troubled behavior over the past half-decade so much that you wonder how much of it is just Joaquin playing himself. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal seems trapped in amber. Lancaster Dodd is such a huckster and a shyster that you can’t get on either side of him as a protagonist or an antagonist.
As with Lou Reed’s notorious album of over-modulated feedback (“Metal Machine Music”), the audience is left to decide if the movie is some kind of bad joke, or an artistic project gone horribly astray. If you’re the kind of person who likes anti-narrative movies made up of barely connected scenes that defy all rules of dramaturgy, then you might get something out of “The Master.” All I got was bored, sleepy, and hungry.
Rated R. 138 mins. (D) One Star - out of five/no halves)
Steven Soderbergh’s guilty-pleasure for sexually frustrated housewives fails to accomplish its modest thematic aspirations. As an all-male burlesque revue, “Magic Mile” is a mediocre effort at best. The film’s barely adequate dance routines don’t begin to approach the complexity of a corollary all-female cabaret you might see at the “Crazy Horse” in Paris. A secondary thesis involving America’s troubled socio-economic terrain, tacitly informs the troubled social conditions that drive dancers like Channing Tatum’s title character Mike to encourage squealing women to stuff dollar-bills in their thong underwear. Romance is a neglected device that provides the film’s narrative third-wheel. Cody Horn has the unrewarding task of playing Brooke, the sister to Mike’s newly found dance apprentice Adam — a.k.a “The Kid” (Alex Pettyfer). The story drifts and drags between dance set pieces — many of which involve a nearly over-the-hill Matthew McConaughey going half-monte-koo-koo like a reject from the Village People. You want homoeroticism in a mid-riff t-shirt and tiny spandex briefs — you've got it.
Screenwriter Reid Carolin’s debut feature script is a bucket of bolts. That Steven Soderbergh chose the junky source material is suspect. Even the way the film is shot draws unfavorable attention. An outdoor party sequence exists in a yellowy haze that sits at strange visual odds against the overall look of the movie. There’s no question that margarita-fuelled female audience members will find no faults with “Magic Mike.” Glistening male abs and overstuffed packages should do the trick of satisfying their salivating lusts for soft-core stimulation. “Magic Mike” does manage to prove that women can be more expressively horny than men. Whoopie shit.
Rated R. 110 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
People Like Us
Smart dialogue intersperses a by-committee soap opera plot in a movie made better than the sum of its shaky narrative by three terrific actors. Elizabeth Banks, Chris Pine, and newcomer Michael Hall D’Addario exude old-fashioned movie magic, which keeps you hanging on their every word. Every time another forced plot point threatens to make you wince, the actors add in emotional beats to snap the unwieldy material into believable shape. Their intuitive sense of comic timing helps.
Pine plays Sam Harper, the adult son of an L.A. record biz maverick whose sudden passing Sam doesn’t give two shits about. He’d rather stay in New York with his law-student girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde) than fly home for the funeral. Still, Sam’s legal troubles at work are worth escaping. Once in L.A. at his mother Lillian’s (Michelle Pfeiffer in a thankless supporting role) house, Sam receives a mixed-bag inheritance that keeps him confused for a good long while about how to execute his dead father’s wishes, which include a sizeable chunk of secretly furnished cash. Enter Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), a single mom working as a bartender. Frankie is an AA member who attends regular meetings to avoid the pitfalls of her occupation. Frankie’s 11-year-old son Josh (exquisitely played by D’Addario) has a knack for getting in major trouble at school. Josh does a massive amount of damage to school property with a single act of vandalism that results in his possible expulsion.
Unbeknownst to them, Sam and Frankie share a familial relationship that demands some serious effort on both of their parts if it is to lead to any kind of shared future. Sam’s mother is none too pleased about her son’s recent discoveries.
Television writer-turned-director Alex Kurtzman co-wrote the film’s script with Roberto Orci (“Star Trek”) and newcomer Jody Lambert. The writing team doesn’t so much create a storyline as hammer away at pet plot points — as with one involving Sam’s looming run-in with the New York court system. Note to screenwriters: telephone conversations are an inherently dull way to provide exposition or create dramatic suspense. That the script team never bothers to resolve Sam’s worrisome subplot, involving his questionable business practices, leaves a crater in the film’s coda. Miraculously, even such glaring omissions become forgivable in light of the emotional connection between the main characters. The actors’ fluid choices — involving intentionality, physicality, and phrasing — help mask such clunky plot mechanics. Cinematographer Salvatore Totino (“Frost/Nixon”) also contributes to the film’s success with evocative compositions that expand the harmony of the narrative with precise visual touches.
“People Like Us” is a conundrum. Objectively, it’s not an exceptional movie. Nonetheless, the story has a wealth of compelling emotional hooks, rooted in complex family issues, which more than a few audience members will relate to. As a tearjerker, the drama works like a charm. The real reason to see “People Like Us” is for the positively masterful performances that Banks, Pine, and D’Addario deliver. Modern-day Hollywood has some bona fide movie stars on its hands.
Rated PG-13. 115 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
We the Party
There are a few moments during writer/director Mario Van Peebles’s overly didactic high school drama when you can almost glimpse the good film buried beneath the artifice. Set in South Los Angeles, the story is centered on the imaginary Baldwin Hills High School where everything is just oh-so perfect. Golden-boy senior Hendrix (Mandela Van Peebles) is kept under constant surveillance by his teacher father Dr. Sutton (Mario Van Peebles) and his school principal mom. Dad has no intention of letting his son make any wrong moves en route to college. Hendrix is naturally obsessed with saving up to buy a car, and charming his way into the presence of the hot girl at school, Cheyenne (Simone Battle). The filmmaker bangs a drum about the importance of education. “Minimum effort now means minimum wage later,” Sutton tells his son. The oversimplified statement doesn’t allow for all of the unemployed college grads that can’t pay off their student loans. “We the Party” is a disappointing effort. It’s much too on-the-nose about teaching a young audience how to be better people. Such a controlling objective was doomed before it began.
Rated R. 104 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Television director Daniel Nettheim takes a flailing attempt to transition into directing feature films with an undercooked ecological think piece set in the Australian outback. Based on Julia Leigh’s novel, the story follows Willem Dafoe’s high-tech mercenary Martin David. A biotech firm hires Martin to track down and capture a Tasmanian Tiger believed to be extinct. The creature’s rare DNA is the prize they’re after.
The film gets into trouble early on when Martin — pretending to be a college professor on a research assignment — arrives in an inhospitable Australian village where his only boarding opportunity comes from Lucy Armstrong (Frances O’Connor), a new widow living in a remote house with her prepubescent daughter Sass (Morgana Davies) and younger child Bike (Finn Woodlock). Out of her head after zoologist husband’s mysterious disappearance, Lucy is hardly capable of taking care of her children. Drugged up on sedatives, Lucy sleeps all the time. Between expeditions deep into the outback, Martin gradually brings Lucy back to the land of the living. Threats by violent locals do little to dissuade Martin from his mission, or Lucy from her anti-logging activism in the area. A miscast Sam Neill confuses the already strained narrative as Jack Mindy, a local guide who harbors contempt for Lucy and her children, as well as for Martin. Inept plotting plagues the film as it lurches to an unseen act of violence that costs the story what little soul it had to begin with. Obviously, newbie screenwriter Alice Addison was in over her head, but it’s us, the audience that pays the price.
Rated R. 100 mins. (D+) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
Displaying a fierce passion for the plight of teachers on the front lines of a battle already lost to political ineptitude, director Tony Kaye launches a full-press cinematic attack upon America’s troubled public school system. Even though Carl Lund’s problematic screenplay hits a few recurring subplot potholes, the reliable and committed Adrien Brody carries the film’s momentum as well-liked high school substitute teacher Henry Barthes. Henry is a seen-it-all veteran of an education system that is crumbling around him. He’s a charmer. Henry does a four-week stint at a high school whose devoted staff is getting thrown under the bus by public officials more concerned with property values than education. Henry spends off hours visiting his dying grandfather (Louis Zorich) in a nursing home where patient neglect runs rampant. A wayward teen prostitute (Sami Gayle) stumbles into Henry’s path to enable a well-worn cliché device to distract from the bigger story at hand.
“Detachment” is a socially conscious drama that wears its heart too much on its heavy-handed sleeve. Still, strong ensemble performances from the likes of Marcia Gay Harden, James Caan, Blythe Danner, and Tim Blake Nelson help buoy this call-to-arms drama.
Not Rated. 100 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Forgiveness of Blood
Co-writer/director Joshua Marston returns eight years after his impressive debut feature "Maria Full of Grace" with an equally dramatic story of young people living in difficult circumstances. Once again ignoring his American upbringing, Marston grapples this time with the mores of an Albanian village where blood feuds present a draconian way of settling scores. The six-century-old practice is called upon after a lethal off-screen act of perceived self-defense exiles teenage Nik (Tristan Halilaj) to the confines of his family home.
Marston's bold use of nonprofessional actors is the film's secret weapon. Lanky Nik is a high school student with a crush on the pretty girl in school. Tristan Halilaj's sensitive nature reveals a wellspring of roiling emotions and aspirations. Nik wants to build up his scrawny physique. He has a dream of opening an internet café in a tiny available storefront. Nik’s teenaged sister Rudina (Sindi Lacej) gives him unwelcome advice as to how to dress.
A dispute arises when Nik’s father Mark (Refet Abazi) drives his horse-pulled bread delivery cart across land formerly owned by his grandfather. The land’s current owner Sokol (Veton Osmani) forbids Mark from using the road anymore, and physically threatens Mark with a weapon in the presence of Rudina. Hours later Sokol lies dead after being stabbed to death by Mark’s brother (Luan Jaha) with Mark’s help. Nik’s uncle is arrested and put in jail while his father goes on the lamb.
The law of the land states that the family of the deceased can extract retribution by killing a male member of the guilty clan. While Rudina abandons school to take over her father’s bread delivery job, Nik is left to ponder a solution while stuck in the confines of the family home.
“The Forgiveness of Blood” is a sublime tragedy in its artless depiction of a society attempting to maintain social order with outdated methods. The film leaves itself open for extrapolation about how the Western world remains stuck in outdated modes of dealing with a world that has advanced beyond its World War II era ideologies. Deeply affecting, “The Forgiveness of Blood” is notable for how much is outshines foreign chamber think-pieces such as “A Separation.”
Not Rated. 109 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
If.... - Classic Film Pick
If “no” is the most powerful word in the English language then “if” runs a close second for its power to provoke action. “Crusaders” was the original title screenwriters David Sherwin and John Howlett gave their widely rejected script before director Lindsay Anderson took it over to stamp the film with his own experiences as a schoolboy growing up in the English boarding school system. Jean Vigo’s autobiographical 1933 film of youthful rebellion “Zero for Conduct” provided inspiration for the tone of the groundbreaking narrative that swings into gradually wider surrealistic realms. Anderson’s arbitrary switch between color and black-and-white sequences keeps the viewer questioning the cinematic form as the episodic narrative accelerates haltingly toward a shocking climax of violent youthful revolt.
Malcolm McDowell makes an auspicious film debut as Mick Travis, a non-conformist schoolboy condescendingly referred to as Guy Fawkes by one of the school’s bullying “Whips” who lord over their junior students--aged 11 to 18. Dressed in a black hat and overcoat, with a scarf masking his convention-defying but temporary mustache, McDowell’s confrontational character makes an immediate impression. His portrayal in “If…” caused Stanley Kubrick to cast McDowell as Alex, the futuristic anti-hero in “A Clockwork Orange” two years later.
Mick settles into school life in the company of his two best friends with whom he carries on political discussions. During one such conversation Mick categorically states, "There's no such thing as a wrong war. Violence and revolution are the only pure acts."
Mick decorates the walls of his room with a collage of topical magazine images that inform the audience as to his restless inner monologue. Mick wants to live a life of unbridled freedom, but doesn’t know where or when it will begin. His caustic “attitude” is a problem that head Whip Rowntree (Robert Swann) mistakenly attempts to cure with a 10-stroke caning session that only serves to put Mick in an even more radical state of mind.
In a nutshell, “If…” is a bold commentary on the adverse effects of abusive regimented indoctrination techniques used by British boarding schools and military outfits alike. The film is a rebel yell in the face of such intimidation tactics to express the seething liberation of freethinkers who must surely turn on their captors with a vengeance when opportunity permits. That the film’s release coincided with the 1968 student revolt in Paris speaks to the era’s zeitgeist that Anderson captures with audacious yet economical precision. The film won the Grand International Prize at Cannes in 1969.