Monday, December 14, 2009

Brazil (1985)

Is it coincidence or fate that Terry Gilliam's brilliant, tragicomic, anti-utopian vision of the future was filmed in the iconic year of 1984? Gilliam's film, like Orwell's book before it, is a nightmare fairy tale, decades ahead of its time, about the epic struggle of the dreamer in the modern cookie-cutter age. It's a search for love and humanity in a world of paperwork, office drones and the utter sameness of it all. Terry Gilliam has amassed an amazing body of work (Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, 12 Monkey's, The Fisher King and the recent outstanding and misunderstood Tideland amongst others). I don't hesitate for a moment to call Brazil my favorite of them all, and I'm sure it would be in the top 5 somewhere if I ever made an all time favorites list.

So, where we once had "Big Brother" and the Ministry of Truth, we have The Ministry of Information. Where we once had Winston Smith, we have Sam Lowry. Where we once had Julia we have Jill. The similarities between the novel 1984 and the film Brazil don't end there, but I won't spoil the plot twists of either magnificent work. Brazil, with the gift of hindsight, can also be seen as the story of Terry Gilliam's film career. He's an insanely creative and talented visual artist and storyteller (a dreamer if you will) cursed by his opposing forces. He’s cursed by his own stubborn belligerence, the inevitable soulless corporate suit or two and forces of nature so god-like and personal that you can't blame him for laughing maniacally at the cosmic irony of it all. And thank god that's his reaction! A ratio of 90% humor to 10% despair within our hearts is something many of us can only aspire to. He was, of course, most recently impacted by the tragic demise of his leading man Heath Ledger while filming the upcoming Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, there's the well documented failures to make his Don Quixote film (as chronicled in the amazing documentary Lost in La Mancha), the disastrous trials and tribulations surrounding Baron Munchausen and of course "The Battle of Brazil" (this is the name of the feature length documentary on the Criterion version of the film which details the epic battle Gilliam fought, and thankfully won, against Universal who tried to remove him from the project and release a more happy upbeat version of the film with about 45-50 minutes cut out of it...I've seen this version and it's Brazil minus the balls).

Back to the film though, a series of short sequences open the film and introduce the future world in question. We open on a display window populated with "modern" television screens and reflections of neon which block the view of the golden Christmas tree's stuffed in the corners. We are watching a commercial from Central Services for fancy new air ducts for the home (a visual motif throughout the film, symbolic of the endless consumer quest for things we don't really need). An explosion violently shatters the facade and the neon title card for Brazil illuminates the screen. One of the TV's is still broadcasting, a talk program that is being watched simultaneously by a man in his office. A buzzing fly upsets the man and we watch as he comically navigates the claustrophobic office trying to swat the insect. He successfully squashes the little pest who falls into a machine. The machine is spitting out arrest warrants (as we soon find out) and this simple, ever so human error causes a typo wherein a warrant is created for Archibald Buttle instead of Archibald Tuttle. This seemingly insignificant moment comes and goes in about 60 seconds, but its consequences are severe and immediate.

We watch as an idyllic family evening at the Buttle household is shattered by a dozen or so machine gun carrying police officers in full swat gear who come smashing through the doors, the ceiling and the windows and stuff the unfortunate Mr. Buttle into a creepy burlap sack. As a pompous official of some sort calmly and impersonally explains, Buttle "has been invited to assist the Ministry of Information with certain inquiries". The official has the shell shocked wife sign a receipt for her husband and keeps the carbon copy as "my receipt for your receipt." This scene also introduces Jill, who lives above the Buttle's and watches the terrifying events unfolding through the freshly created hole in her floor/the Buttle's ceiling. Jill insists that a mistake has been made and there's a nice bit of irony here as two Department of Works employees (there to promptly fix the hole) laugh and reply that "we don't make mistakes" as the replacement piece they brought goes crashing down into the apartment below (measured incorrectly it seems) and they can only shake their heads and say "typical".

I mentioned my love of complex tracking shots in my Rules of Attraction piece. The two back to back shots that introduce our hero's office are not as long as the one's I discussed previously, but they are incredibly busy with people moving in and out of the shot from all directions, like so many worker bees. We meet Sam's boss, Mr Kurtzman (the always delightful Ian Holm who modern audiences will recognize most as Bilbo Baggins from the Lord of the Rings series, or the prior generation may remember him as Ash, the evil robot of the first Alien film). Kurtzman has a problem with his computer and needs his best man to fix it. His repeated shouts for the absent Sam Lowry finally bring us to our protagonist, who has overslept (Sam is played by the splendid Jonathan Pryce, who has livened the proceedings of a great many films, from Glengary Glenross to the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy where he played Keira Knightley's father). More specifically, we first meet his idealized dream self, who soars through blue skies in a shiny metal suit with wings, both beautiful and splendidly cheap and homemade looking (I've seen the term "retro-futuristic" thrown around to describe the look of the sets and costumes). He hears the sound of a woman's voice calling his name in the distance and flies toward the beckoning call. He briefly kisses his angelic dream girl, gracefully weaving in and out of the fluffy white clouds, before a dreadful alarm noise rouses him back to the world of mechanical and personal failures he has grown accustomed to. This is, you see, a future where nothing works properly (while proudly insisting that it does).

As Sam arrives at the office we see a statue in the lobby the closely resembles his winged dream self. It is all too clear that, as he passes this each day, he dreams of taking flight beyond the confines of a dullard's existence, away from the all too common assembly line feeling of the grown-up world. I love all the Ministry of Information advertisements that show up here and throughout the film. They feel like the kind of creepy, satirical messages that we would see some 5 years later when Rowdy Roddy Piper puts the glasses on in John Carpenter's They Live (a guaranteed future blog entry). "Be Safe, Be Suspicious" they proclaim, "Suspicion Breeds Confidence" and "Information is the Road To Prosperity".

Jill is arriving at the office at the same time as Sam, being endlessly spun from one department to the next while trying to file a false arrest report on behalf of her neighbors, the Buttle's (anyone who's ever visited the BMV or a city courthouse will relate). We also meet Sam's old friend Jack (fellow Monty Python alum Michael Palin, who adds a wonderful bit of warmth that turns into a deeply sinister edge of malice as the film progresses) who chides Sam for not moving up through the ranks at the speed he should (a theme endlessly repeated by his mother and the owner of the company throughout the film). Sam briefly see's Jill's face on one of the numerous security monitors and recognizes it as the face of his dream woman. He looks around but she's already gone...

The Buttle's are the crisis of the day for Kurtzman as well, it seems. He is terrified to his core of making a mistake or attaching his name to any sort of official document in a world where paperwork is King (and he should be...VERY afraid). You see the Buttle/Tuttle discrepancy has shown up and we learn a few scenes later that Mr. Buttle has already been killed. Kurtzman takes the heat off himself by dispatching Sam to issue a refund check to Mrs. Buttle (the system's cold way of apologizing for the mistaken arrest and subsequent torture and death of the Buttle patriarch). It's an ugly terrifying regime that fancies itself a utopia, full of dazzling technological distractions and outright lies. This society has managed to use the language of corporate double speak as a replacement for the principles of the constitution, let alone basic human decency and morality. As much as Sam instinctually rails against this system, it is still all he knows in many respects and accordingly, he is surprised by Mrs. Buttle's lack of gratitude (she shouts "what have you done with his body" at him until he runs away). Sam spots Jill again and chases after her but is again, too late.

The movie from here starts merging the dream world and real world stories with increasing frequency. The obstacles, within the concrete jungle which has sprouted up in Sam's increasingly dark dream world, echo the real and metaphorical walls that are closing in around him in reality. There's a shocking revelation when Sam unmasks his dream foe and sees himself inside. Like Luke Skywalker in the Dark Side cave, Sam is battling his own lesser impulses as much as he is fighting the very real outside threats.

We also meet Public Enemy #1, Archibald "Harry" Tuttle, who, it turns out, is nothing more than a renegade heating engineer (a wonderfully wacky turn by a mustached Robert De Niro, you'll barely recognize him!). Tuttle is so bothered by the endless forms and bureaucracy of Central Services that he lives like Jason Bourne just to be able to practice his trade. As he's quickly and efficiently fixing a mechanical problem at Sam's house, a knock on the door brings us to the incompetent government counterpoints Dowser (I don't recognize this actor) and Spoor (Bob Hoskins in a brief but memorable cameo) who are responding to the original service call and are only stopped from entering Sam's apartment by his quick thinking request for a 27B-6 form (the mere mention of which causes a small seizure in Dowser who obviously has the same paperwork issues as Tuttle, without the courage to break out of the cage). I don't want to spoil the way this sub-plot plays itself out, but it leads to what may be the only real victory over "the man" in the whole film.

Sam finally accepts a promotion at work so that he can have the increased security clearance needed to find out who his dream girl really is. This leads him through a series of misadventures until he finds himself partnered with a very confused, hostile and reluctant Jill as a pair of fugitives on the run. Gilliam manipulates us brilliantly as we allow ourselves to be swept up in the adventure and the hopes and dreams of our hero's futile quest. A component in this manipulation is the highly effective musical cues which are just variations on the famous Ary Barroso song "Brazil" (which is itself used briefly at the beginning of the film and once while Sam is in his car driving to the Buttle's). The same catchy melody works as a love scene, ominous looming score, action music, etc. Lyrically, the song echo's the sentiment of our lead, a dreamer longing for escape to a better place. This song has resonated within my own mind for years as has Tuttle's simple eloquent mantra that "we're all in it together". Sam sadly doesn't realize quickly enough that he's fighting the business suit wearing equivalent of Star Trek's chilling villain's "The Borg". Will Sam and Jill's blossoming love indeed conquer all? Will good triumph over evil? "Resistance is futile" my friends...or is it??

The film is consistently hilarious though as well. Terry Gilliam deeply understands the dry humor and wordplay games of the Brit's (as I alluded to earlier, he is an alum of Monty Python) but is himself an American, with the birth rite of fear and paranoia that comes with it. The impact of this story comes with the realization that the over the top, surreal, exaggerated society we're being shown is a shockingly poignant reflection of our own. There are a couple small details in an early restaurant scene that I particularly enjoy. The first is the waiter's use of numbers for items on the menu. He walks to each patron and whispers conspiratorially that "today Madame, I suggest the #1", while advising the next that "between you and I Monsieur the #11 is especially fresh". I don't know for sure, but I don't think they were doing this in real restaurants back in 1984 but it's the norm in 2009. The waiter even gets furious with Sam when he refuses to use the number instead of the actual name of the meal he wants. I clearly recall a surreal "life imitates art" moment at a Wendy's drive thru where my request for the Big Bacon Classic combo was met with a long silence and eventual reply of "Do you mean the #4 sir?". Oh yes, I apologize you fucking robot, I meant the #4, I know you're absolutely lost without knowing which button to push. The same restaurant scene, when interrupted by yet another explosion, jumps to a soot covered orchestra who collect themselves and continue playing as burn victims and first responders run around in a panic. Whether Gilliam intended this specific reference or not, the moment makes me think of the famous story about the musicians on the Titanic who graciously played on while the ship sank. That moment is kind of touching in the Titanic story but in this context it makes me laugh and think "I guess the upper crust always reacts the same to crisis and pretending it doesn't exist".

You see, George Orwell felt this kind of trouble brewing in our society back in the 1940's, Gilliam felt it still in the 80's and 25 years later it's all continued to come true. It stings to see a world where government misinformation has us fearing our friends and neighbors as potential terrorists. It stings to see humanity stamped out by lust for status. It stings to see leadership that would kill and torture just to bury a mistake, rather than admit a mistake had been made. While I still feel a sense of optimism in the age of Obama, it's too early to say whether we've stopped the cultural degeneracy or if we've merely given ourselves a better actor to sell it to us. My own inner winged dreamer hopes it's the former, but it's disturbing that this was such a real and present issue for Terry Gilliam when I was barely born into this world and so vividly true of our country and culture some 27 years later. It's troubling that these thoughts, feelings, disappointments and fears are not unique to one time and place. They are, it would seem, ingrained in the way society has developed, ingrained in how people choose to relate to each other and the tragic impulse, within the majority, to follow society's unwritten handbook on how to live.

What it also tells me is that the rebellious spirit that cries against the dying of the light is still with us and always will be! Here we are days away from 2010 and the dreamer has refused to die, I see it reflected in artists like Gilliam, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers, musically with the Mars Volta or Tool or the many faces of Mike Patton. There are artists and regular Joe's worldwide, clinging to the dream. It makes me think of the dreadful cliché of what "kids these days" are like and how much better it always seems to have been "when I was growing up". One could argue that the world has gotten more dangerous perhaps and the creeps have more tools at their disposal, but the bugs have always been under the lush green lawn, the tree has always oozed sap and every town has a Lincoln Street. But we'll save that story for another day...

Grade: A++

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Rules of Attraction (2002)

Somebody needs to cut Roger Avary a fat check to write and direct his next feature film. While he has not succesfully made as many films, he's right along side Terry Gilliam and David Lynch, specifically in the "filmakers who desperately need (and deserve) a wealthy sponsor" category. I also feel he's every bit as talented and has as singular a voice as his generational contemporaries David Fincher and Darren Aronofsky.He has thus far had only two theatrically released films as an auteur (he has written or co-written scripts for Silent Hill and Beowulf but obviously hasn't earned enough to finance his own new film). The first was 1994's Killing Zoe, which came about between Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction when Tarantino's long time producer Lawrence Bender had access to a cheap bank location and asked his friend Avary if he had a script they could use to film something fast and cheap. Roger took a script he had been writing about his travels throughout Europe (he drew upon these experiences again for the amazing "Victor" section of Rules of Attraction which has also been shown as a stand alone short film called "Glitterati") and incorporated a bank robbery in Paris. The resulting film was very well received on the festival circuit (including the Prix Tres Special award at Cannes the exact same year Pulp Fiction won the Palm d'Oor). I will stop this from becoming even longer by saving an in depth look at Killing Zoe for another day but it is an outstanding and thoroughly bizarre heist film.

So yeah, I got hip to Roger Avary some 14 years ago through his work with Tarantino. They were old friends from Tarantino's video store clerk days and partnered up on several scripts (including the Tarantino scripted/Tony Scott directed True Romance and Tarantino scripted/Oliver Stone directed Natural Born Killers which both featured key re-writes from Avery). Ultimately, a script Avery was writing for a full length feature film, along with several unused scenes he had written for the True Romance script became a large chunk of Pulp Fiction (The Gold Watch section in particular and some key moments like the "divine intervention" scenes that had bullets miraculously missing Jules and Vincent and the accidental shooting of Marvin) for which he shared 1994's Best Original Screenplay Academy Award with QT. After Killing Zoe, it would not be until 2002 that he would get to helm another passion project, an adaptation of his artistic "soul mate" Brett Easton Ellis' novel, "The Rules of Attraction". I had read and loved the book years earlier. Ellis, the author of Less Than Zero, The Informers and most famously American Psycho (all made into movies with varying degrees of success) takes an extremely nihilistic view of the world and somehow manages to infuse it with enough sincere heart and longing to get through to good natured but damaged souls like you and me.

Rules of Attraction is a very emotionally complex film. On the surface though, it's a dark comedy, it is a college sex film of sorts and it is full of self centered, entitled, rich white kids with problems. In short, not an easy topic to make a weighty film from. Avery tackles the material though with verbal flair, extreme visual cleverness and absolutely brilliant soundtrack choices. None of the characters here are entirely sympathetic. Sweet and sincere Paul Denton is arguably the most human of the bunch. Paul (as played by Ian Somerhalder who many of you will recognize as the deceased Boone character from the early seasons of LOST) along with Sean Bateman (an excellent demented turn from James Van Der Beek, obviously desperate to shed his teen idol image and be taken seriously) and Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon), a dark beauty who has been tragically underused in dreck like One Missed Call and 40 Days and 40 Nights) form the central character trifecta that gives the film it's momentum.

We meet Lauren first, at the first of several crucial party scenes (including one in the middle of the film which features what appears to be an exact replica of the burning Wicker Man from the 70's film of the same name, itself a wonderfully demented, funny and wholly original take on the battle of the sexes). Rules of Attraction is bookended by this winter season "End of the World" party. The movie puts you off within the first 5 minutes as we watch this sad young lady emerging from a passed out drunken stupor and realizing that she's being filmed by a semi-acquaintance while being sodomized by a complete stranger, neither of whom realize she's losing her carefully guarded virginity. The gentleman pumping away pukes on her back (classy!) before the film starts literally rolling backwards, rewinding the story along with it. Avery's camera moves, in the first of many complex and brilliant tracking shots, down the hallway and down the stairs to introduce us to the demonic looking Sean (Van Der Beek) who swigs from a bottle of Jack Daniels and scans the crowd like a vulture looking for the evenings plaything. Bateman is established immediately as an emotionally vacant young man and a compulsive liar (it's no coincidence as we learn in a few subtle moments that he's the brother of Patrick Bateman, the inhuman sadist and Huey Lewis superfan from Ellis's American Psycho). We finally circle back (through another time warp reverse sequence) to Paul, who is in love with Sean. We then rewind much further, over several months and seasons, to the beginning of the school year.

In addition to the numerous examples of deliberate emotional manipulation and callous abuse that these characters inflict on each other, there are also many cases of mistaken identity and misunderstood "signals". The crucial one involves the sending of perfume laden love letters that Sean Bateman receives daily and which inspire him, for the first time it seems, to seek out a loving relationship instead of the debaucherous excesses that have numbed him to the point where sex is not even physically enjoyable anymore. These characters, for all their faults, truly put their hearts on the line with devastating results. As painful as the painful moments are though, this film has light and love and humor throughout as well. It is a brilliant satire (big surprise from the writer of American Psycho who again uses the decadent 1980's as the backdrop with which he weaves his yarn) and I also feel like there are probably some deeper themes that I haven't quite wrapped my head around yet. This film affects me very strongly on an emotional level of course but I feel like intellectually, there may be things going on that I haven't picked up on and interpreted as the filmaker and writer intended. That's okay though, great art, in my experience is subjective to the viewer. Everything is meaningless and yet so stuffed with passion. Everyone is cynical and yet wear their hearts on their sleeves.

I want to make special mention of a moment where cinematic technique and dynamic interpersonal chemistry meet. I've long admired the complicated tracking shots of Orson Welles (Touch of Evil), Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas famous Copa Cabana entrance amongst others), Robert Altman (the Welles referencing opening minutes of The Player) and of course Brian DePalma (who loves tracking shots almost as much as the split screen including the amazing sequence in Raising Cain where we follow two police detectives out of an office, down a hall, into an elevator, ouf the elevator, down a series of halls and into a morgue). The one in Rules of Attraction is easily my favorite of any of them. It starts as a split screen sequence that follows Van Der Beek and Sossaman in two seperate tracking shots as they get moving early on a Saturday morning, each navigating the beautiful sun drenched campus, Sossaman even stops to smoke a joint with her lecherous professor (an excellent cameo from Eric Stoltz who partnered with Avery as the lead in Killing Zoe and memorably played the heroin dealer in Pulp Fiction, a sequence Tarantino reportedly wrote for Stoltz based on his heroin fueled sequences in Zoe). We hear Sossamon tell her roomate that she's going to class but we don't know where Van Der Beek's headed, until each character suddenly appears in the others split screen in close up. We watch both faces as they meet cute, flirt and put butterflies in your stomach with the prospect of sweet young love. The camera pulls back and pivots until the shots join together as one and we observe them, in profile staring at each other. I mentioned a moment like this in my Sydney/Hard Eight write-up and mentioned in that same piece how well Paul Thomas Anderson had captured that falling in love magic in Punch Drunk Love; this is one of those moments as well. It's a bright ray of sunshine in a tragic story and the technically stunning aspects of it are dwarfed by the potency of its emotional impact. Ripe with visual metaphor, these two lonely souls connect...for a moment anyway.

Eric Stoltz' Irish professor is just one part of the eccentric tapestry of character actors who are familiar to us; Thomas Ian Nichols from American Pie, Clifton Collins Jr. (a bit over the top here as a wild eyed drug dealer seemingly inserted for comic relief, he has done great work in films like Capote where he played the vulnerable and psychotic Perry Smith and delightfully obnoxious work in a little B-movie classic from my high school days called The Stoned Age), we get Faye Dunaway as Paul's mom and Swoosie Kurtz (Citizen Ruth and Cruel Intentions among many others) as Mrs. Jared, the mother of young Richard, who has a brief energetic, George Michael and booze fueled tryst with Paul. We even get an almost unrecognizeable Fred Savage, strung out in a pair of boxer shorts, shooting drugs into his toes and playing the clarinet while a lit cigarette sticks out of his belly button. The Wonder Years indeed Mr. Savage!

I don't reaelly want to give away the plot twists in the movie but I can tell you that it is far from formulaic. Like The Shape of Things, I feel like this film missed it's audience because of it's marketing strategy. It was sold in 30 second TV spots as a college movie comedy (I was VERY distrubed to actually find it recently listed in the "Top 25 college comedies of all time") with the hearthrob from Dawson's Creek and young starlets Kate Bosworth and Jesica Biel. So, the people who did go to see it were probably horrified at the raw nerve vulnerability and pain at it's core or just didn't get it or are so much like these characters that they somehow viewed this film as a college comedy on par with Old School or PCU. I will also tell you that I can never hear the already tragic "I Can't Live (If Living Is Without You)" song without thinking about the saddest moment in the movie (in almost any movie for that matter).

Things don't end well for anyone involved except for you the viewer, who, if you can stomach the movie, will walk away profoundly impacted by what you've just seen. Again, I can't stress enough how much I love this film and think it's an absolute masterpiece but I'd also be irresponsible to not tell you that it packs a punch. Much like Arronofsky's magnificent Requiem for a Dream or my previous spotlight film Elephant, The Rules of Attraction will cut through the fog and break your heart because of how effectively the elements of performance, music, writing and directing gel together. Rules of Attraction gets an A+ from me and I hope that the coming decade yields at least one more new vision from the tragically underutilized genius Roger Avary.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Cat's Eye (1985)

Stephen King is a writer I really enjoy, arguably more for his novels than his screenplays. I’ve read only a handful but I find his style very engaging and he really knows how to keep the pages turning. I’m quite certain he’s had more film adaptations of his work than any other writer in history (with the possible exception of Shakespeare). The films are, in my experience, extremely hit or miss. The Shining and Carrie are my two favorite’s (although King apparently was so dissatisfied with that hack Stanley Kubrick’s take on his book that he decided to remake it with Steven Weber from Wings in the Nicholson role…needless to say it was the wrong call). Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye is one of a few anthology films he’s been involved in. It was his second one after the splendid original Creepshow film (which had the legendary George A Romero behind the camera instead of Cat’s Eye’s Lewis Teague who’s biggest claim to fame was another King adaptation, Cujo) and he later went on to write Creepshow 2 and apparently is at work on a Creepshow 4 as we speak. I believe it was his "Night Shift" short story collection that featured the first two of the 3 episodes in Cat’s Eye and the third he wrote especially for the young Drew Barrymore who he had just met through her work on 1984’s Firestarter (another King story if you weren’t aware). I’m actually reading one of his short story compilations at home right now that features The Langoliers (AWFUL movie, but I’m enjoying the story so far), Secret Window (GREAT movie, haven’t seen how the story compares yet) and two others (Sun Dog and The Library Policeman) that, as far as I know remain un-filmed.

The basic premise here in Cat's Eye is that these three stories are all connected by a stray cat which often plays a crucial role within the story itself and also serves to transition from one to the next. The stories are also similar in terms of a solid blend of comedy and horror elements (true of most of King’s work in my opinion).

The most compelling reason to see Cat’s Eye is the first of its three chapters, "Quitters Inc." We have James Woods in all his sleazy, smirking glory as a loving husband and father who goes to meet with a special smoking cessation company to try to kick the habit. He meets with a “doctor” named Vinny Donatti (the delightful Alan King who I mostly know from his dramatic turn in Casino but who apparently was also a famous comic once upon a time). Donatti explains that he has the ultimate program to stop smoking for good. He explains that he will have his people watching all the time, in his car, in his home, at his job, EVERYWHERE and that if they catch him, they will kidnap and torture his wife with progressing levels of punishment (cutting off fingers, electrocution, etc.) and that if that fails to work, his daughter will be next. There’s a very funny moment where he meets with another couple who “successfully” completed the program and we see the wife’s bandaged hand to demonstrate that Dr. Donatti is serious about it. I love this story first and foremost because I have had an ongoing battle with cigarette addiction for over 10 years now and I can relate. While they were too cheap to pay for the real song, I also love the ironic use of the Police classic “Every Breath You Take” during a hallucination sequence at the party (which prominently features memorable character actor James Rebhorn who has stood out in The Game, Meet The Parents and many others). I also want to mention how funny James Woods is throughout the piece, taking his energetic bundle of nerves persona a little over the top as he fights his cravings and tries to hide from Donatti’s spies and enforcers.

Each of the stories is roughly 30 minutes long. The second portion, “The Ledge” maintains the bizarre comedic thriller tone of the first and centers on a tennis pro, in love with a married woman, who gets caught by the rich, powerful husband of the woman he’s been snogging on the sly. The basic set up is that the husband is a degenerate gambler/mobster type who has decided to handle his wife’s indiscretions by presenting a wager to the young stud; if he can walk around the ledge of a building without falling off he can have “the girl, the watch and everything” (a sly comment which functions within the story but is also aimed at the actor playing the tennis pro…but we’ll get back to that). Both the leads in this section are actors that had very memorable roles in other movies, but really haven’t been in much else. Granted, I recently noticed that Kenneth McMillan (who plays the bad guy husband) has a small role in Amadeus but I have seen him 50+ times since I was a kid as the dreaded Baron Vladimir Harkonnen in Dune (a film that is a bona fide classic in the Pritchard household and will definitely get a spotlight treatment here in the blog one of these days). Robert Hays (who appears as the tennis pro in question) most people would recognize immediately as Captain Ted Striker from the Airplane films. While it’s a bit jarring to watch Hays play a serious role (much Like Leslie Nielsen’s chilling turn in the aforementioned Creepshow) and this one is certainly the most genuinely creepy and suspenseful of the three, it’s still a breezy and enjoyable 30 minute short.

These first two sections are, as I mentioned earlier, originally short stories from King and as much as I love them both, I could see how the basic conflicts of each (overcoming addiction and overcoming fear) would be well suited to the internal dialogue that fiction writing lets breathe in a way that films can’t. It is ironic then that the one part written expressly for the film is my least favorite of the three. Don’t get me wrong, “The General” is a good closer for the film and isn’t at all bad. But if I saw the first two out of context, I’d still want to revisit them over and over, “The General” I just sort of sit through because I’m already there. The cat takes a more prominent role in this one as he is adopted by precocious youngster Drew Barrymore and her family. What the family doesn’t realize is that they already have someone (or something) living in their house, a vicious creature who lives in the walls and looks like a hybrid between a Keebler Elf and the Jigsaw mask from the Saw films. While he is a sharp dresser and has an even sharper little knife, the real danger comes when he stands on your chest and steals your breath!! Fortunately, the cat (lovingly named “The General” by Barrymore’s little girl) is there to save the child from peril. The parents, who are already reluctant to let the cat sleep in their daughter’s room, find the messy aftermath of the first cat/troll battle and decide to banish The General to the outdoors. Will the cat be able to save the little girl in time? Will we get to hear that cheesy cover band version of “Every Breath You Take” again?? The answer to both, of course, is yes. The song’s ironic repetition of “I’ll be watching you” in context with the cigarette Gestapo tactics was clever and for this portion I suppose the “Every Breath You Take” lines are used to playfully acknowledge the breath stealing mischief. I don’t remember if they managed to work this song into the middle portion but it seems to follow that darn cat everywhere!

In terms of the balance between humor and horror, I want to be clear that while there are definitely very funny parts, this is not a gore filled horror film by any means, each sequence feels more like a Twilight Zone episode (high concept and suspenseful) while being infinitely better than that dreadful Twilight Zone: The Movie anthology (and without accidentally decapitating any of the child or adult actors like John Landis did…note to Hollywood: if you’re going to plow ahead and still release a movie that cost two children and a movie star their lives, it should not be a total turd, in fact it really ought to be exceptionally good…hey get back here The Crow, this applies to you too… and don’t think you’re getting away unscathed Vampire In Brooklyn!!). I just wanted to point out that this movie has some extra bits of fun for Stephen King fans and one little inside joke for all the Robert Hays fans out there. James Woods, during his sequence is shown watching the David Cronenberg film version of King’s book The Dead Zone (another future blog film) and says “Who writes this crap?”, the cat at one point has an encounter with a St. Bernard as a shout out to Cujo, the cat nearly gets squashed by a red Plymouth Fury (nodding to Christine) and the mom in Drew Barrymore’s section is shown reading King’s “Pet Semetary”. The last little bit of obscure trivia is that line I mentioned from “The Ledge” about “the girl, the watch and everything” which is the name of a successful TV movie that starred Robert Hays back in 1980 (still fresh in King’s mind I suppose while writing this in 1984).

So, yeah this movie won’t change your life or anything but I suspect you will really enjoy it and hopefully it’s something that you’re not familiar with that can spice up your Friday night instead of renting that latest Apatow movie. Grade: B

Friday, November 27, 2009

Ed Wood (1994)

Ed Wood is, by far, my favorite of the seven films Tim Burton has made with his go-to leading man Johnny Depp. It also happens to be my favorite Tim Burton movie period. For that matter, this may very well be my favorite Depp performance (I'd have to really think about that one though as he's consistently memorable in all of his work, regardles of the strengths of the films themselves). Ed Wood, as some of you may know, is famously lauded as the worst director of all time. His film, Plan 9 From Outer Space, has likewise been named the worst movie ever made. The Ed Wood biopic, however, is far more than just a celebration of schlock (although it is that too).

Ed Wood, with his big false teeth and pencil thin moustache, looks like a younger, more energetic John Waters. And like Waters did many years later, Ed Wood has a unique gift in drawing in various "freaks" to his life and assembling them into a rag-tag army of sorts, prepared to go to the ends of the earth in the shared pursuit of "the dream". The dream, in this case (as with Waters), is making over the top B movies. The main difference between Ed Wood and John Waters is the self-awareness. John Waters is a pop-culture and high society skewering satirist while Ed Wood was 110% sincere and believed he was making a masterpiece every time the camera rolled. We see this from the first time we meet Depp's incarnation of the man while he's standing backstage at an amateur play he's put on. Wood's big, childlike eyes grow wider with each passing moment as he silently mouths the dialogue being performed on stage, giddy like a child at witnessing his project come to life. We also see the first signs of his nearly unshakeable optimism in the face of failure when, the next morning, he gets his first (dreadful) review and reacts by pointing out that "it wasn't all bad" since the critic commented on how realistic the costumes looked. A few scenes later he subtley incorporates this slight bit of positivite feedback while meeting with a film producer, bragging about his recent hit play that was "praised for it's realism". The film he's agressively pursuing is based on a recent news story about a man who went under the knife for a sex change operation. Wood, when asked why he's the perfect choice for this material barely skips a beat, nor does his smile waver when he cheerfully replis that "I like wearing womens clothes". He's not homsexual, he explains, just that he's always felt very comfortable in them. He later shares this same information to his disgusted girlfriend Dolores (the dreadful Sarah Jessica Parker who I can tolerate here since she's not playing someone you're supposed to like...and because I get to smirk during the aforementioned play review scene when she gasps while reading and asks "Do I really have a face that looks like a horse"...yes you do SJP, yes you do). After explaining that he first acquired a taste for cross-dressing in his youth, raised by a mother who always wanted a girl and would dress him up as one, he goes on to share that while wearing women's underwear during his time in the army "I wasn't afraid of being killed in combat, but I was terrified of being wounded and having the doctors and the men find out my terrible secret".

Many other colorful characters populate Ed Wood. An easy favorite being Bunny Breckenridge as played by Bill Murray (in one of his first dramatic departures from the wise-ass Ghostbuster persona we all know and love). Every scene Murray's in, as a sad sweet woman, trapped in a man's body, adds a lot of heart and frequent comic relief (Murray can't help but be funny even when he's not in classic Murray mode). Ed Wood is loyal to his friends and loyal to his cast and crew that transition with him from amateur plays to amateur cinema (including Max Casella who I immediately recognized from his work as best friend Vinnie on Doogie Howser many years ago). We also have the always brilliant Jeffrey Jones (who you all know as Principal Ed Rooney from Ferris Bueller but who also worked with Burton previously on Beetlejuice and has done excellent dramatic work in the HBO series Deadwood and in Milos Forman's films Valmont and Amadeus as well), here performing as "The Amazing Criswell", an amateur physcic who was apparently famous at the time for going on TV to make bizarre predictions about the future. We also get the universally beloved cleavage and mediocre acting skills of Ms. Lisa Marie (the future Ex-Mrs. Tim Burton would go on to work with him again in Mars Attacks, Sleepy Hollow and lastly Planet of the Apes, where Burton traded up for his current wife, the incredibly talented Helena Bonham Carter who has taken over as his muse ever since, in Big Fish, The Corpse Bride, Willy Wonka and his upcoming Alice In Wonderland). Lisa Marie plays Vampira, an old B-movie TV host who I assumed was an earlier version of Elvira, who I remember in vivid curvy detail from when I was an adolescent boy and who, we learn from the closing credits, was later sued unsuccesfully by Vampira for stealing her act.

The most important relationship in the movie, though, is between Eddie and beloved movie star Bela Lugosi (an Oscar winning turn from Martin Landau). We meet Lugosi for the first time as Eddie does, walking past a store window and seeing him lying inside a casket. Lugosi is not dead, as it turns out (just browsing). But he does seem to be heading there in a hurry, even telling Wood "I'm planning on dying soon". Lugosi is grateful to have a companion around who worships him and tells him he's made a difference in his life and they become fast friends. Eddie does of course "use him" to try to add value to his movie projects but it's clear that he loves him dearly too. There's a great moment where, before Lugosi's first day on the set of what will become Bride of The Monster, Wood gathers the cast and crew around him, and while whispering into a directors megaphone (funny enough in it's own right), tells them not to make Lugosi feel uncomfortable on the set by asking for autographs, being overzealous, etc. As he's emphasizing the point that they should just treat him like a regular guy, Bela walks in and Depp practically skips over to him with a childish little yelp of "Bela!". Another of my favorite moments between these two is earlier on when Wood sits at Lugosi's house watching Dracula with its star beside him. Lugosi, moved as I am by Vampira's sleek silhouette (she's hosting the showing) attempts to hypnotize her right through the TV screen to fall in love with him. Lugosi is completely sincere as he uses a smooth, transfixing hand gesture and a powerful stare to work his magic. Wood, sitting next to him, grins from ear to ear and tries to double this gesture, only to be told that "you must be double jointed...and you must be Hungarian" to pull it off.

Lugosi, tragically, is not without his demons. The most glaring example being his addiction to morphine "with a demorral chaser". We see devestating track marks in his arm when the make-up artist is working on him before shooting a scene and "Eddie" (as Lugosi affectionately calls him) gets woken up in the middle of the night more than once to come to his rescue. Lugosi though, like everyone Edward D. Wood Jr. meets, is caught up in Wood's passion and zest for life and for the magic of cinema. You can't really blame him (or any of the misfit army) either. As I watched Depp in this movie recently, I struggled to think of any of the 20+ characters I've seen him portray that reminded me of this one...and I absolutely could not find one! Ed Wood is as far removed from Captain Jack Sparrow as Sparrow is from Donnie Brasco and Brasco is from his work as John Dillinger in this year's underrated Public Enemies. It's amazing to me that such a striking, handsome face (I recently saw him on the cover for this years People Magazine "Sexiest Man Alive" issue for what must be at least the 3rd or 4th time) can be employed with such vastly different results time and time again. If you're not there already, I'd strongly encourage you all to look up Depp's filmography on IMDB and jump on the well populated bandwagon.

The film's look is quite striking as well. Intentional use of black and white in modern film is virtually unheard of (the so-so film noir experiment The Good Shepard, another Depp vehicle, Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man and the magnificent and tragically little known Coen Brothers film The Man Who Wasn't There are the few that come to mind). In this case, it is employed not just for the wonderful shadows, fog and ambience it creates, but also to evoke a type of moviegoing experience (50's B-Movie schlock spectaculars like The Incredible Shrinking Man and many others, too numerous to name). Much like the long forgotten John Goodman film Matinee, this is a love letter to that time and place. Accordingly, this feels like the most heartfelt and personal movie Tim Burton has ever made (although I suspect he'd tell you his colorful daddy issue extravaganza Big Fish would take that prize). While I feel Burton is very talented and has a visual sensibility that has become an unmistakeable signature over his 20 odd year career, I think most of his movies are hit or miss. More specifically, very few of them have stood the test of time for me. Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow and many others have been solid filmgoing experiences for me but for some reason, most of them lose some of their splendor in the 5th or 6th viewing. Some, like the aforementioned Mars Attacks and his Willy Wonka remake are just plain BAD (and not in a good, Ed Wood production kind of way). My point is that it's interesting to see Burton, so well known for his striking visuals and lush color palletes, to be so seemingly subdued in a black and white landscape. However, not only does he make the film tremendously interesting visually but in terms of its themes and character dynamics, it's wholly consistent with his body of work. Burton makes movies about loners/outcasts/weirdos and the people who love them. From Pee-Wee Herman to Edward Scissorhands, to Batman, to Sweeney Todd, even his Planet of the Apes remake, one could argue, is all about a man alone in a society that doesn't want him. Show me a Tim Burton movie and I will show you a unique, isolated man as its protagonist.

I absolutely adore this film Ed Wood. I never even got to the introduction of the love of his life, Kathy, as embodied by the magnificent Patricia Arquette (she of the blessedly untouched snaggle tooth, a fitting beauty mark for one of my favorite actresses). Put her characters from Lost Highway, True Romance and Ed Wood together in a blender and you have created the most sexy, complicated and loving woman to ever grace the silver screen as far as I'm concerned (granted, she's maybe a tad evil in Lost Highway but I'd let that freight train run me over anytime). It's also noteworthy that this screenplay was written by Larry Karaszewski & Scott Alexander, a sort of biopic power duo who also gave us scripts for The People vs Larry Flynt and the Andy Kaufman story, Man on the Moon.

There are so many moments in Ed Wood beyond the one's I have mentioned that melt my heart, make me laugh and inspire me to bring bottomless passion and drive to my own life. This film is a great companion to my original "Mission Statement" blog in a way. It's all about putting yourself out there, giving it your best shot and knowing in your heart that if you love what you're creating, with every fiber of your being, that's all that matters! I do have to admit that I feel the pacing slows down significantly for the last 15 minutes or so and I often find myself looking at my watch in this part. It's for a fairly obvious reason though (a turning point that I won't spoil here) and in terms of plot, the rest of the story is still essential to the movie and the ending is very satisfying. Grade: A+

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Beach (2000)

Danny Boyle's 4th film, The Beach, is far from perfect. For whatever flaws it has though, it's still a film I return to time and again and look forward to watching. I suppose, right off the bat, that the scenario of a young single guy traveling the world has its appeal. Much in the same way that I’m drawn to the swinging international intrigue of the James Bond franchise. Exotic locations, exotic women, these are great elements to a successful film! This of course was in Leo’s “awkward phase” as I like to call it. He hadn’t yet turned into the man who delivered such a solid, grown-up performance in The Departed, nor was he the lanky kid who got punched in the face by DeNiro in This Boy’s Life or giddily climbed water towers in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. He was always a hard working actor though and this is no exception. The Beach ultimately makes some interesting points about the dark side of our constant pursuit of "the experience" and that, more than anything, is the lifeblood that keeps me coming back for more.

The timing of this film is noteworthy as well. Dicaprio at the time was the biggest movie star on the planet, basking in the wave of Titanic mania. Danny Boyle, who had made a huge splash with his 2nd film, Trainspotting, was reeling from the commercial failure of his 3rd effort, A Life Less Ordinary (another flawed diamond in the rough that we'll tackle another day). For the first time, Boyle left behind his leading man, Ewan McGregor, in favor of as close to a sure thing as anyone thought possible...LEO! It is also important to mention that the novel, The Beach, was written by Alex Garland and while John Hodge (writer of Boyle's first 3 films) did create the script for The Beach, Garland has been the wordsmith behind most of Boyle's subsequent work. It was a turning point in the lives of these key players and it was doomed to be more than a bit uneven for all these reasons. Leo wanted to be challenged as an actor and not be just another pretty face (something he hasn't physically been able to pull off while looking far too young, in my opinion, until the aforementioned The Departed). Danny Boyle, for all his willingness to make a crowd pleaser (as proven by last years Best Picture win for Slumdog Millionaire), picked material that has too many tonal changes, subtle social commentaries and way too much story for a 105 minute running time. So, you end up with a group of people all working with great passion on what ends up feeling like several movies in one.

The first quarter of the film introduces our protagonist, Richard (Dicaprio). He's the kind of post-collegiate, intrepid traveler who always gives me mixed feelings of admiration (for the free spirit quality) and irritation (with the naivety of youth, which as a 26 year old father of two already seems like a distant memory). He’s chasing “the experience” over in Thailand. We see him riding around town experiencing the extremes of local culture, drinking snake blood and opening himself up to whatever new sights, smells and sounds he can find. At his hotel he meets the other key players in this saga, a young french couple, Francoise and Etienne, and Richard's crazy neighbor Daffy (the brilliant Robert Carlyle, who, as Begbie helped make Boyle’s Trainspotting such a success and who does the best work of any performer in this film). One night, Daffy shares a joint with Richard through an opening near the ceiling that connects their rooms and proceeds to tell him about a secret beach, a paradise virtually untouched by the hands of man. He gives enough of an enticing teaser to capture our attention right along with Richard’s but leaves things on a more ominous note after the next day finds Daffy blowing his brains out and leaving a map behind for Richard. Fortunately, in a twist reminiscent of American Werewolf In London, when I was sad to see Griffin Dunne leave so early, this is not the last we'll see of Daffy.

Richard recruits the french couple to join him in finding this secret beach and they set off together, battling sharks and drug runners en route. What they find, as we enter the second phase of the film, is an island commune led by the icy Sal (as played by the extremely icy Tilda Swinton, who besides her lighthearted and warm Oscar acceptance speech has always struck me as some kind of monster because of how effective she is playing them in films like Burn After Reading, Michael Clayton, Vanilla Sky and of course this film, The Beach). They listen to terrible techno music (can the music business please rescind their offer to Moby??) and “live off the land” and it’s all just terribly beatific. Cracks in the surface begin slowly as Richard decides to disrupt the balance by stealing Francoise away from her well liked french boyfriend. We also call back to the first section of the movie as a new group of American Interlopers start getting a little too close to discovering the secret location and Richard starts spending more and more time isolated in the woods and going deeper into his own head.

Note to self: Anytime during a movie that you see the protagonists taking a happy go lucky group shot, you can count on seeing that photo still framed at the end of the movie as a reminder of how great it was once upon a time (The Untouchables and Boogie Nights immediately come to mind but I’m sure anyone reading this can think of several others). This movie tragically falls into that awful cliché and shortly after the dreaded “good times” photo things really start to unravel. Richard breaks up yet another couple’s relationship and before this can be resolved, one of the secondary beach bum characters is bitten by a shark and we are meant to start asking some serious moral and ethical questions as the group decides that it’s better to let him die slowly and painfully than to risk their precious hideaway being discovered if they take him to the mainland for proper treatment. Etienne is the one voice of reason and decides to care for the dying, gangrenous man. Elsewhere, Richard, off in the woods in exile, learns to fight off the most dangerous enemy he’s ever faced as a young, entitled American tourist…BOREDOM!!

There are some very subtle and clever nods to iconic war movies like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now and some hilarious moments where we see Richard’s P.O.V as he literally transforms his world into a video game within his mind. It’s very easy to be confused and or bored at this point in the film if you haven’t been paying attention to the tongue-in-cheek approach that’s just barely disguised under the surface of the whole proceeding. What they don’t spell out for you, the viewer, and what millions of teenage Dicaprio fans never expected back in the year 2000 is that you’re not supposed to like this guy Richard. Which is a bit tricky since, as stated in the start of this piece, most people tend to admire or at least understand that sort of nomadic chasing of new experiences. The point that I think they’re making here is to not lose sight of your humanity in the process. I think also that it is taking shots at the well earned clichés of American culture and American tourists whose fanny pack loving ways have been the bane of the international community for decades. So we laugh because it’s funny and we laugh because it’s true and we cringe just a little bit at how true it is of us as individuals.

It is with that bit of guilt in mind that I acknowledge that I’ve never read the book for this and probably won’t. Between a full time job, writing music, performing music and acting as band manager for two groups, spending time with my family and trying to maintain my cinematic obsessions throughout, reading anything more substantial than Entertainment Weekly and the occasional Stephen King book is a luxury I don't have. So, I’m one of "them" too, in a way (but for less selfish reasons if I may be so bold). I find it entirely plausible and relatable that Richard turns his jungle isolation into his own interior Vietnam action film. I don’t play videogames but can identify with the short attention span and constant overstimulation that has become the hallmark of my generation. Being aware of it and being able to laugh at it on screen doesn’t change my own implicit guilt. It does make me return to The Beach though, more often than a great many other (and arguably better) films that I’ve seen.
The voice over narration (which I assume is straight from the book) is brilliant and inspired writing throughout. Danny Boyle is always a dazzling filmmaker and this film is no exception, the plot and setting are unique, the plot twists are many and the way the story is told visually is quite striking and clever. On the other hand, Danny Boyle’s love of cheesy techno turns my stomach at times (seriously...Moby...that's quite enough out of you), the acting is consistently mediocre (except for Robert Carlyle’s little cameo as previously mentioned) and that conflict I mentioned between admiring these efforts in communal living to wanting to slap their smug and selfish young faces is unpleasant at times. Danny Boyle and Leo have gone on to prove that they have real staying power and I think are just beginning to hit their creative peaks.

So, maybe this film isn’t truly “the best movie you’ve never seen”. I’m just saying that its reputation is much worse than the product. The Beach has been unfairly panned as a bad film and it’s not that. It’s a memorable and ambitious failure with some great ideas and is worth at least a rental to see for yourself. Grade: B-

Monday, November 23, 2009

Two Girls and a Guy (1997)

Two Girls & a Guy has a lot more to offer than the titillating name suggests, while still managing to be stimulating for all those reasons too (although it's NC-17 rating says MUCH more about our repressive culture than it does about the film, which is not graphic in the least). Filmmaker James Toback has built an impressive resume of raw, talky pictures (often with extensive improvised scenes) and the occasional documentary (including the recently released Tyson documentary which is excellent). Here we have a mere 3 characters (well there are technically 6 but the brief interactions with passerby on the street in the beginning don't count, although the scene is still very funny).

We meet Carla (Heather Graham, still severely lacking in dramatic range of any kind here but incredibly sexy as usual and certainly keeping pace with her two co-stars) and Lou (Natasha Gregson Wagner, who is cute as a button both here and in the only other film I've seen her in Lost Highway, in both cases as a kick-around girlfriend in the shadow of the bombshell blonde) as they are standing outside a NY apartment building, trying to stay warm while waiting for their respective friends to arrive. They get to talking and it quickly becomes clear that they are in fact both waiting for the same person, Blake (Robert Downey Jr in what may very well be my favorite performance of his ever, right along with Wayne Gale in Natural Born Killers). Blake, you see, has been playing junior bigamist with these two young women and the chickens have indeed come home to roost. They smash a window and break into his apartment while hatching a scheme to wait for him in secret and confront him for his mischief. From a plot standpoint we needn't go much further, they do indeed confront him (first one...then the other, appearing out of nowhere). The beauty, as usual, is in the details. More specifically, Downey here has created one of the most memorably charming cads to ever grace the silver screen. He backpedals like an Olympic athlete trying to come up with lies on top of lies while still coming out looking clean and not ruining his chances with either girl. There are hints of deep psychological wounds in Downey who has weird traumatic issues with his sick mother (showing a tender side) while being so callous and emotionally blasé toward these two women, both of whom he also claims to love.

You see, the central conceit that he’s running with is that while he lied to them both that they were the only one, he was 100% honest in terms of telling them both that he loved them. The lengths he goes to re-gain the upper hand (including briefly faking his own death) are incredible and the web of lies ensnares you, the viewer, as well. You can't help but root for him in all his sleazy glory. That's because Robert Downey Jr is a very likeable and charismatic guy and I think this role is perhaps much closer to the real Downey than anything else he's been involved in. This is a guy who has a well documented history of self destructive behavior. Bouncing in and out of jail and rehab and famously telling a judge “It's like I have a loaded gun in my mouth and my finger's on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gunmetal". Blake the character (also an actor/performer) is extremely manipulative and wields his looks and talent like a weapon. Traits that it's easy to assume the real Downey used during his ascent in Hollywood where he was struggling to be a functional drug addict.

To the extent that actors reveal their true selves to us through their work, you can see how Downey would be an easy guy to love. He just seems to light up the room when he's in it and a guy like that can easily find himself surrounded by enablers who want to get a piece of that golden talent at the expense of his health, or those who love him and fear for his well being but are easily swayed by the veneer he presents that everything is okay. Toback, as I started to explain before, is not much of a stickler for scripts. Much like the improv comedies of Christopher Guest, or Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm, Toback often comes to his cast with character arcs and scene outlines and lets them fill in the blanks. This then adds an almost voyeuristic quality to Two Girls and a Guy since we know about Downey's sordid past of extreme drug abuse, prison time, alienation of his friends and family and nearly destroying his career in the process (remember that before Iron Man was the biggest movie of the summer of 2008, Downey was considered an extremely risky choice to lead any Hollywood film, let alone a franchise). In moments of self reflection where he's looking in the mirror and distorting his face into horrifying masks acknowledging his own puppet like masquerade, I feel like we are glimpsing into the man's soul as he quietly performs mea culpa on the set of this movie.

Even though it's not based on a play, that's how Toback stages the film in many respects. As I mentioned in the prior piece on The Shape of Things, a movie that can be this engaging and memorable while taking place in a single day, in a single location, is an impressive feat and one that I particularly enjoy and admire. Even the use of music in the film is simple yet perfect for the material. With a few minor exceptions, the main melody that is repeated is Downey himself performing Jackie Wilson’s classic "You Don't Know Me" (a lyrically brilliant choice). It's got a tragicomic vibe to it here and you can see that Downey knows it too. Toback had worked with Downey before in his closest thing to a hit, 1987’s The Pick Up Artist with Molly Ringwald, I did rent this once but it was ages ago and I don't really remember it. My point is that he clearly saw the same thing I did when I first saw Chaplin back in 1992; That Robert Downey Jr. is an easy guy to root for (both on screen and with his personal trials and tribulations). He’s one of those captivating actors whose mere presence in a scene brings a dynamic energy to the proceedings. I think that this and Natural Born Killers may end up being the best work he ever did. I know this is kind of a nasty or selfish thing to say but I often feel that sobriety in artists, while a welcome alternative to overdose I suppose, does seem to dull the edge a bit (Trent Reznor anyone??) and while I'm very happy to see him back on the A-list, I don't know that we'll ever see him do better work (although his supporting role in Zodiac gave me real hope that he could). Having said that, Downey going through the motions in a movie is 1,000,000% more interesting than Robert Pattinson faking humility and sparkling in the sun.

It's also a smart little relationship movie. Challenging the ideas of monogamy, the definition of love and simultaneously damning and applauding the behavior of its leads. The women also end up being much more 3 dimensional than just "women scorned". It quickly turns from them being a team out to teach him a lesson to them subtly vying for his attention and affection and turning it into a contest to see which “lucky lady” gets to keep being the girlfriend. More importantly they are the driving force behind some of the nicer messages of the film, such as the fact that loyalty, trust and even forgiveness will always be the true hallmark of a successful relationship. It’s a good one to watch with a girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse or a group of friends and talk about it afterwards (if you’re into that sort of thing). And, of course, for those of you who have recently re-discovered Downey (or discovered him for the first time) and for those, like me, who have never forgotten the mark left by his many excellent performances, you will find much to love in this little character study. Grade: B+

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Serial Mom (1994)

Serial Mom is my favorite of the later period, more accessible John Waters films. I’ve seen the films that made him famous, including the infamous Pink Flamingos and I found them largely repulsive. I don’t have a burning desire to see live chickens used for sex acts or the fabulous Ms. Divine eating freshly evacuated dog droppings. I do, however, have a soft spot for Kathleen Turner as the world’s cheeriest serial killer, and I’d like to tell you why.

Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) is a perfect wife and mother to a perfect little family. She whistles while she works (well, enthusiastically sings Barry Manilow’s “Daybreak” to be more specific), doesn’t allow gum chewing in her house (an oft repeated and hilarious facet of the character), prepares tasty and magnificently displayed meals…and kills anyone who gets in her way! We meet her and the family at breakfast one morning. Husband Eugene is a local dentist (Sam Waterston who many of you know as D.A Jack McCoy over the past 15 years on Law & Order…I’ve never seen that show so I just know him from this), boy crazy daughter Misty (Waters regular Ricki Lake back before she went and got skinny and forgot her B-movie roots) and gore obsessed son Chip (Scream/Scooby Doo’s Matthew Lillard in only his second feature film, his annoying on-screen persona only partially developed). They bicker cutely as mom stalks and kills a housefly and we get the first glimpse that this woman is perhaps a tad unhinged. Breakfast is interrupted by a pair of policeman who, we learn, are investigating a series of harassing phone calls and threatening notes their neighbor Dottie Hinkle has been receiving. The good Dr. and Mrs. Sutphin are shocked to be shown a letter, put together in that cut up ransom note style with the words “I’ll get you pussy face”. Beverly proudly declares that she has never even spoke “the p word” let alone written it down.

Soon after the police leave though, we, the viewers, delight in witnessing her making an obscene phone call to neighbor Dottie. We delight in her delight really as she giggles and squeals like a little girl between loudly calling her neighbor a cocksucker. Minutes later Beverly, in her car, cheerfully waves to her neighbor Dottie and we get a quick flashback to the situation that stirred this abuse. Beverly, like a respectable driver, pulls past her parking spot in order to parallel park but as she’s backing in, Dottie Hinkle quickly zooms in and takes it. We see Beverly stare with hatred as Dottie walks past her and into the store without so much as a glance or an apology. This reminds me of a moment in the film Fried Green Tomatoes where a pair of young girls in a flashy car cut off Kathy Bates for a parking spot and taunt her as they walk away, saying “Face it lady, we’re younger and we’re faster”. She reacts by repeatedly smashing the girl’s vehicle with her own ending with an empowering yell “I’m older and I have more insurance”. I remember my mom cracking up at this but I was only 9 or 10 and didn’t really get it. As an adult of course, minor flashes of road rage are a part of the daily grind. That’s part of the vicarious fun of Serial Mom if you can open yourself up to it. We don’t harass and threaten our neighbors when they take our parking spots, we don’t kill our kids teachers when they criticize at parent teacher conferences, we certainly don’t beat old ladies to death with slabs of meat for not rewinding video tapes. But that part of us that wants to, even for just a split second, can’t help but smile when Beverly does the dirty work for us (another great example of this is the "tailgating scene" from Lost Highway which I will most assuredly get to another day).

The other thing I’d like to point out is how ahead of its time Serial Mom was in terms of its social satire. As Beverly is discovered for her mischief, she becomes a national celebrity. While it came out in 1994, Waters wrote it in 1992. This was before the Lorena Bobbit case (and at least 3 subsequent made for TV versions), before the O.J case, etc. Waters, in making this film, truly had his finger on the pulse of our culture right on the cusp of some disturbing changes in media and celebrity. Unfortunately, as Serial Mom is not very well known it does not get the recognition it deserves in this area. Waters clearly delights at poking fun at our celebrity-obsessed culture, our fascination with horrible criminals and the false veneer of the perfect American family. He does this so perfectly because he’s guilty of it too (well maybe not the perfect American family part). In a fast paced and consistently hilarious 90 minutes of film, he tackles these concepts with razor sharp insight and wit.

I’ve maybe said a bit too much about the events in the film, but fear not as the true joy is the tour de force performance from Kathleen Turner. My words cannot do justice to how uniquely hilarious and frightening this character is. I can rattle off so many little details that I cherish, the aforementioned gum chewing incidents, her little scrapbooks on Charles Manson and John Wayne Gacy, her response when asked by her family if she’s a serial killer (“oh honey, the only “serial” I know anything about is Rice Krispies”), the brilliant use of “Tomorrow” from “Annie” to create a sense of dread and tension (while still being very funny), the obscene phone calls to Dottie (which again, I can’t begin to do justice to on paper). I truly could go on and on. I’m pretty sure my wife would list this in her top 5 (maybe top 2 or 3) favorite movies I’ve ever introduced her to. So take my word for it, you can thank me later…
Grade: A

Monday, November 16, 2009

Hard Eight (1996) A.K.A Sydney

"Hard Eight", while not flawless, is a very enjoyable first effort from wunderkind director Paul Thomas Anderson. The leads are two very gifted actors who have subsequently become part of his stable (John C Reilly and Philip Baker Hall) and we’re also treated to a pair of solid turns from well known stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson. His gift for dialogue and character driven work is immediately present here and blankets this Vegas hard luck story with real weight and gravitas.

We meet John (the incredibly versatile John C. Reilly, who can’t avoid being funny but is in drama mode for this one) as he sits outside a diner, flat broke and despondent. Sydney (veteran character actor Philip Baker Hall) invites him to enjoy a cigarette and a cup of coffee with him. John has a bit of an attitude and is skeptical of Sydney’s charity but also reveals himself to be a very sweet, naïve young man. Sydney picks up on this quality as well and he takes this young man under his wing. Together they drive back to Vegas (where John had lost everything trying to get 6,000 dollars for his mother’s funeral) to teach him how to make a living as a small time gambler. Many of you will recognize Philip Baker Hall from his deadpan, brilliant turn as “Mr. Bookman” the library cop from Seinfeld. His face and delivery are very memorable and it’s a rare treat to see him in a lead role here as a master gambler with a very strict (but somewhat precarious and contradictory) code of ethics. The first lesson (on how to manipulate your rate card into high roller status with a free room) is more clever and fun to watch over 5-10 minutes than anything you’ll find in duds like last year’s blackjack film “21”. This movie has more of that “old Vegas” quality; musty hotel rooms, cheap suits and drinks on the rocks. More in line with films like William H. Macy’s “The Cooler” (another future blog entry I’m sure) than the Vegas you see in “The Hangover”. In “Hard Eight”, what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas, it haunts you and draws weathered lines on your face.

So, we fast forward some 3 years later to see that John has developed his skills through Sydney’s tutelage and has acquired a shady new friend Jimmy (another early to mid-90’s firecracker performance from Samuel L. Jackson back when he still had something to prove). We also meet the eternally sad looking Gwyneth Paltrow’s cocktail waitress/prostitute character Clementine. I don’t know if Vegas movies inspired the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold mythos or if the legalization in that area just tends to draw a lot of them but this is definitely an area of the movie that feels formulaic and cheap to me. Yes, these are the type of “chicken or the egg” questions that obsessive film viewers like me must ponder. Fortunately, Anderson proved in every subsequent film he’s made that he has an excellent knack for writing strong female roles (with the exception of There Will Be Blood of course which did not have any significant female roles at all). This time though, it is indeed a woman who is both their undoing and in some ways their savior.

Hard Eight is told in a series of long conversation scenes and in this “3 years later” sequence we discover that Sydney has great respect and consideration for the well being of the ladies bringing him his drinks (certainly Clementine in particular), we learn that Clementine thinks John is cute, we learn that John and Sydney have really developed that father/son type bond (there are lots of great, subtle moments along those lines after this scene as well including the fact that they drive the exact same car) and we learn that Sydney does not like Jimmy. These interpersonal dynamics will shape the rest of the film after Sydney takes it upon himself to play match-maker to these two lost souls (even as he discovers just how damaged Paltrow’s Clementine really is).

There is an electrifying little moment when Sydney comes into John’s hotel room to find things playing out exactly as he hoped. He observes Clementine and John sitting in bed, like two kids at a sleep over, bright eyed and bushy tailed young lovers. I had a sense of the palpable chemistry between these two; you could literally feel the energy and connection between the characters. While I’d like to attribute this to the two actors, it also reminded me of moments in another Anderson film, Punch Drunk Love, which is probably the most effective and powerful filmic representation of falling in love I’ve ever seen and I’ve become convinced that Anderson has some magic insight into how to stage these scenes and have that effect. I really can’t put my finger on it and maybe it’s just my deeply rooted hopeless romantic tendencies recognizing a kindred spirit but there really is something unique about Anderson’s ability to capture the great intangible CHEMISTRY between people.

I don’t want to spoil the rest, but unfortunately, this beatific dynamic is very quickly shattered by an incident that will profoundly affect all 4 main characters and reveal a few new insights into Sydney’s back story. Which brings me to my two closing points. One is that the joy of this film is sensing the history of these characters without ever having it spelled out for you. That’s not an easy thing to pull off without a lot of heavy handed exposition inserted into conversation. Even with the things we ultimately come to learn about Sydney, I felt like I knew and liked the man within the first 5 minutes of meeting him at that diner and I liked having the opportunity, throughout the film, to invent his history in my own mind. That’s what makes a great character actor great. Hall’s face is his greatest tool but also the way he carries himself and his unique vocal cadence. The quality that made his appearance in that Seinfeld episode so hilarious is what works so well for him in dramatic parts, his sincerity.

The other notable element at work here is the brief cameo from Philip Seymour Hoffman as “Young Craps Player”. His mullet alone is worth the price of admission! Seriously though, it’s a short, snarky and memorable appearance from one of our greatest living actors and the start of a great partnership between Hoffman and writer/director Anderson that gave us Scotty J in his next film “Boogie Nights”, the caring hospice nurse Phil Parma in “Magnolia” and another memorable and hilarious cameo in the aforementioned “Punch Drunk Love” (again, the only film Hoffman is not in is “There Will Be Blood”).

So, you can see “Hard Eight” to see the budding artistry of Paul Thomas Anderson in the first of his 5 exceptional contributions to modern film. You can see it to appreciate how heartbreaking and tender John C. Reilly could be before the wretched Apatow mafia recruited him for their mischief (I’m kidding a little bit of course, he’s still great and I thought “Walk Hard” was very fun and liked his work in the otherwise lackluster “Step Brothers” and “Talladega Nights” as well). You can see it to watch Philip Baker Hall have a rare moment in the spotlight. You can enjoy watching the intense, fire-in-the-belly Samuel L. Jackson in a role more reminiscent of his frightening and dangerous performance in “Jungle Fever” (arguably his best work EVER) than the winking, ironic shadow of his former self we tend to see in his recent efforts (“Snakes on a Plane” or “1408”…or “Jumper”…or any of the movies where he’s just going through the motions). You can watch Gwyneth Paltrow be reliably pretty and sad and you can witness the mighty Phillip Seymour Hoffman throwing dice with gusto.

This is not my favorite Anderson film, it’s not my favorite performance from any of the actors. It’s not a masterpiece and it’s not going to change your life. Saying that this is not my favorite Paul Thomas Anderson movie, though, is like saying that New York Super Fudge Chunk is not my favorite pint of Ben & Jerry’s (meaning it’s still delicious and will do in a pinch). Same thing with the cast, they all do great work here and it’s an excellent ensemble! I also have to wonder how the film may have turned out if he had already been established as a brilliant and trusted auteur. The creative control issues Anderson had with this film have been well documented (he turned in a 2 ½ hour cut, they told him to cut it, he refused, they fired him and cut it without him and changed the name from “Sydney” to “Hard Eight”, it was accepted to Cannes on the condition that Anderson be given final cut, Anderson turned in a 100 minute cut but has largely disowned the film as not being true to what he wanted). You don’t need all that baggage though. Just watch and enjoy a low-key slice of life from some of our greatest cinematic treasures! Grade: B

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Shape Of Things (2003)

As I was trying to put this piece together I realized that it’s a hard film to suggest to people. Not in terms of its quality at all, just that it’s designed to be discussed after you’ve seen the complete picture. I figure that’s a big part of why so few people have heard of it or seen it. Its star, Paul Rudd, has been around and doing great work for a long time before his ties to the Apatow comedy mafia thrust him into the limelight again as a “rising star” (nearly 15 years after his breakout performance in “Clueless”). Prior to this recent career resurgence though he did his fair share of slumming in half-assed romantic comedies. So it’s easy to see why someone seeing the cover on the movie shelf, him with a dopey look next to a slinky and seductive looking Rachel Weisz (who is mostly known for her work in The Mummy films rather than her many prestige projects like The Fountain or her Oscar winning turn in The Constant Gardener) would think that this was a retread of Rudd’s lesser works (I shudder to even mention his time on screen with Jennifer Aniston in “The Object of My Affection”). While I do think it’s fair to say that he’s primarily a comedic actor (and a damn good one), Rudd has solid dramatic chops that are showcased here in Neil LaBute’s brilliant film adaptation of his own play “The Shape of Things”.

I was fortunate to have read about and caught LaBute’s debut film “In The Company of Men” many years ago. It was a funny, stunning and cruel story of seduction, manipulation and betrayal and was also the debut of an actor many of us have come to cherish in the years since, Aaron Eckhart (who has gone on to star in or have a cameo in nearly all of LaBute’s films). Sexual politics and damaged relationships seem to be his muse and while that’s not everyone’s favorite way to spend a Saturday night at the multiplex or in front of the tube, his films challenge you and provoke thought and conversation in a way that has grown increasingly rare in the cinema.

So, we meet a heavyset museum security guard and college student named Adam (Rudd) as he first encounters fellow student Evelyn (Weisz) who’s stepped over a rope barrier to take a picture of a statue during the end of his shift. She is immediately challenging and antagonistic toward him but in a way that’s clearly playful and intriguing to Adam. She explains that she wants to deface the statue because it’s “false art”. She points out a shoddy leaf that was added after the fact to cover up the statue’s “member” for being too life-like. There’s a palpable romantic/sexual tension between the two as we see the “opposites attract” theory in action. She’s an anarchist free spirit artsy type while he’s a rule follower (shit, he’s a rule enforcer as a security guard right?). He gets the nerve to ask her out for a date and you can see that for him he’s just incredibly grateful for the attention and we get the sense that for her, he’s someone she see’s great potential in and can push to come out of his shell. Let’s not forget though, this is not a romantic comedy!

We go on to meet the other two main characters in this story, Adam’s best friend Phil and Phil’s fiancée Jenny when Adam takes Evelyn over to their place to show off his new lady love. Evelyn causes an immediate rift between Adam and Phil as the conversation turns argumentative (over the same statue vandalism issue that set the story in motion) and she delivers a verbal lashing that takes Phil down several pegs and ends with her storming out (and insisting that Adam come with). You get a real sense of the shared history that Phil, Jenny and Adam have. It’s not just the interesting tidbits we learn about Adam’s past (painfully shy, couldn’t get a girl, etc.), it’s also just an ease and comfort in how they relate to each other. This, as I later learned, is no accident.

Fred Weller and Gretchen Mol (who play Phil and Jenny), along with Weisz and Rudd all are reprising their roles from the play which ran for several months in England back in 2001. As a general rule, I absolutely LOVE plays that are turned into films! Take a film like Glengarry Glenross (and many other David Mamet films). You have a movie with basically two sets (the office and the restaurant) and only 6 or 7 speaking parts and somehow it’s one of the most intense and engaging films I’ve ever seen. Just from talking! When the themes are so universal and powerful and the writing and performances are that strong, it knocks special effects on their ass every time! “The Shape of Things” is unique though in that these four actors had inhabited these roles on stage for months in front of an audience before transitioning to the movie (with very little break between). What a rare luxury to get to work on the physical aspects, the timing, all the subtleties and little character quirks that most actors complain only start to reveal themselves by the time they are wrapping up production. From what I understand, rehearsal time is very rare anymore for films, let alone 4 months putting it all out there for a crowd! I didn’t know all this going into the film but it was a “eureka” type moment to find out as it helped me understand (in part) why these characters seemed so uniquely real and lived-in.

Back to the story though, as Adam and Evelyn’s relationship grows she makes more and more suggestions on how he can improve himself, from throwing away his outdated (but favorite) jacket, to getting contacts instead of glasses, he loses weight, gets a new haircut, etc. He is all too eager to go along with it, much to the dismay of his long time friends Jenny and Phil. The question that I was faced with at this stage in the film was whether the perceived benefits of these changes (a relationship with an attractive woman, genuine improvements to one’s appearance and confidence, etc.) were acceptable in the face of them being guided by external rather than internal forces. Insecurity I suppose is an internal force and motivator in an unhealthy way but my point is that change should come from within or what is it really? I think it also raises an interesting question in terms of how you can claim to be in love with someone while trying to change everything about them (the implication being that the person they are is not good enough). There’s also an interesting conflict between Phil and Adam in terms of Phil always being the cooler, smoother ladies man type (including “stealing” Jenny from Adam in a way) and not liking the changes to the dynamic they had as friends. I don’t know what the term is for a love triangle between 4 people. A love square perhaps? Should it be a love quadrangle? In any case, this film has got a great one!

So, I do realize that what I’m describing here is not that compelling necessarily in terms of seeing the film. That’s because I want you to go in to it, as I did, without knowing the big picture of what’s going on. The surface level plot I’ve described is not what makes the film special obviously and the only other thing I want to say on the subject is that this film will reward repeat viewings (it absolutely insists that you watch it at least twice). It is worth noting by the way that the two main characters names are Adam and Evelyn (not a far cry from Adam and Eve right?) and that they first meet in front of a statue that's meant to represent god (not in an abstract way, they say in the movie that the statue is supposed to be god). I haven’t really figured out the connection yet but I don’t think for a second that it’s coincidence.

I think Neil LaBute is an exceptionally good writer and playwright. He’s one of those artists that trade off doing one film for money and one for himself. He has definitely made some solid but slightly hollow fare like the recent “Lakeview Terrace” or his remake of “The Wicker Man” (which everyone seems to hate but I enjoyed very much). The Shape of Things and Nurse Betty are probably my two favorites because they’re sort of in the middle, they function better as entertainment than his first two very harsh films (the aforementioned “In The Company of Men” and “Your Friends & Neighbors” both of which will probably end up on this blog one day) while still remaining true to his social themes and interests. Plus, Rachel Weisz is pretty much the greatest thing since sliced bread (she’s up there with Kate Winslet, Julianne Moore and Carla Gugino in my own personal Talented Beauties Hall of Fame). So go see it, and then we can have the more fun discussion of what you thought about it after the fact! Grade: A+