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+

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Election (1999)

You know Tracy Flick already! If you’ve seen Reese Witherspoon’s flawless portrayal of the ultimate high school go-getter than you of course have that specific frame of reference but what I mean is that you will immediately recognize the archetype from your own high school days and cringe and laugh with equal measure during this outstanding second feature from writer/director Alexander Payne.

This is my second favorite of Payne’s films actually (#1 belongs to his debut Citizen Ruth which I will get to another day) but definitely the one I’ve watched the most and it holds up very well after multiple viewings. Ironically, as I look at his filmography I realize that I’ve liked each of his movies slightly less than the one before it (in order Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt and Sideways) but that’s a little unfair as they are all very good movies. Election though is the one for the masses and for me belongs right up there with Big Lebowski and Best In Show in the “comedies I can always watch” category.
First, we have great casting here. Matthew Broderick is the perfect, ironic choice to play the beloved high school history/government teacher. Our collective association with him as the wild and super-cool Ferris Bueller brings an extra level of pleasure (and sympathy) to seeing him older, washed up and increasingly desperate and bitter as a middle aged man. My one complaint is that his accent sounds like he borrowed it from one of the characters in Fargo and while it is true of the region, it at times sounds a little awkward coming out of his mouth. Next we have Chris Klein who is a terrible actor and a total meathead…which makes him PERFECT for this role as the sweet “popular” jock who Broderick goads into running against the “sure thing” student council President Tracy Flick (his “Paul Metzler: You Betzler” campaign slogan is one of my MANY favorite moments in this film). The showstopper of course is the aforementioned Reese Witherspoon (an actress I really don’t care for in general) who either was this person in school (which wouldn’t surprise me given her achievements at such a young age) or just understands the character to the nth degree. There’s a bizarre musical cue that I can best describe as a harmonized choir of Tarzan like yelling that happens every time Tracy feels threatened and goes into competitive mode and her physical performance is just staggering. There are real nuances to the performance that let you see the manipulative gears turning in her head. Her extreme drive and ambition is motivated by insecurity and fear of failure (true of most people really) and you feel it in every word and gesture. The supporting players are excellent as well. I particularly like Broderick’s swarthy teacher friend who’s banished for having an affair with Tracy and the serious as a heart attack high school principle who just seems endlessly disappointed with the behavior of student and faculty alike.

Basically, Broderick is stuck in a rut in his life and the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back is Tracy Flick. He sees reflected in her his own failed ambitions and dreams as well as a glimpse of the type of future winner Tracy can and will become and decides that he needs to shut her down once and for all during the tempestuous senior year Student Body Presidential elections. This film (like Christopher Guests brilliant mockumentaries) manages to elevate an insignificant small town event into an epic battle worthy of ancient Rome! This is definitely dark humor though. These are desperate and very sad people in many respects (again…much like Christopher Guest’s human menagerie) and Broderick in particular makes an absolute mess out of his career and his marriage before it’s all over. The big difference to me is that Christopher Guest seems to genuinely love the characters in his films and their struggles whereas I feel Alexander Payne is a bit more condescending and poking fun at them (consistent in all of his films really) and a little bit too elitist perhaps. My point is that while this film is very funny and does well in mining small town life for comedy, it is not a heartwarming picture by any stretch. Also, don’t be put off by the fact that MTV’s movie division financed this or that it’s a high school movie. This has a well earned R rating and while it could be enjoyed by teenagers, it’s adults who will best pick up on its sharp social/political satire and who may have had enough professional and personal detours in their own life to relate to (and get some vicarious thrills from) Broderick trying to take the teacher’s pet down a peg or two.

Again, I will go out on a limb and say that this film has a great many quotable lines, memorable comedic moments and rewards repeat viewings at a Lebowski-like level for me (with out the brilliantly intricate Coen Brothers plot of course). It’s got twice as much subtle humor as overt and is well worth the price of admission. Grade: A-

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Elephant (2003)

Gus Van Sant is an interesting filmmaker for sure. He can make fairly accessible “Hollywood” type films that still retain his signature (“To Die For”, “Milk”, “Good Will Hunting”) but in recent years has been going pretty far out on a limb in and making these slow moving visual poems that are definitely not designed for the masses. Some of these work better than others. His film “Gerry” I found to be painfully dull (and I LOVE slow pacing), I also couldn’t sign-off on his Kurt Cobain film “Last Days” (although I do think about it a lot and it has a lot of powerful moments while not adding up to a cohesive whole in my opinion). “Paranoid Park” I absolutely loved (and will hopefully get to discuss in greater detail in a future blog) but the one that marked me the deepest was “Elephant”.

There’s not much to discuss in terms of plot detail. This is basically a “day in the life” at an average high school that ends with violence and tragedy. We get introduced to a series of characters through sequences that cleverly establish a timeline of where they are physically in the building in relation to each other as well as the various archetypes they are meant to represent. It is a bit of a cliché for high school movies to have “the jocks”, “the burnouts”, “the quiet kids”, etc. That idea has been beaten to death ever since “The Breakfast Club”. But those clichés exist for a reason and are absolutely rooted in reality. By casting real kids, who use their real names and largely improvise all the dialogue we are sucked in to this fly on the wall perspective of the raw emotional state that is adolescence. None of them feel like caricatures. You may roll your eyes listening to a group of teenage girls giggle about a cute boy walking by, but, in the way it’s shot and through the use of improvised dialogue, it (for once) doesn’t feel like an adult trying to write dialogue for teenagers (don’t get me started on the realism of the teenage dialogue in films like “American Beauty” for example). Van Sant uses a lot of very slow tracking shots throughout the film and this does wonders for creating the sort of languid, everyday feel I’m describing.

This is all part of what I call the “slow burn” in regards to pacing and mood. A great many films from “Eraserhead” to “There Will Be Blood” take their time getting where they're going and I just love it when it works! It hypnotizes you and helps put you into the world the filmmakers are trying to create. I think the reason for the slowness in Elephant was to bring out the normalcy of the day and the characters. The fact that there was nothing special or particularly eventful happening just permeated the picture with a sense of dread for me (I recently noticed Van Sant employ this technique brilliantly with Dan White's long walk from the mayor's office to Harvey's during the climax of “Milk”).

I recall reading that the title of this film is a reference to the “elephant in the room”, an obvious truth that no one wants to discuss. “Elephant”, along with the aforementioned “Gerry” and “Last Days” is Van Sant’s “death trilogy” and this film centers on the idea of death at the hands of a stranger. It is easily the creepiest and most emotionally draining of the bunch. Something about the calm within the killers is just incredibly upsetting. Even the camera work at times suggests the perspective of a first-person shooter video game, and while I’m not going anywhere near the censorship train, I still feel like it is logical to assume that prolonged exposure to violent imagery, whether in films or in the more vicarious realm of video games, numbs us as individuals and as a society and teenagers have never and will never have the perspective to know that high school is not the end all be all of life on this planet. I remember in the “Bowling For Columbine” documentary when Matt Stone and Trey Parker (of South Park) made a simple statement that stuck with me. Basically, they were shaking their heads at how Dylan and Eric (the Columbine shooters) were seniors in high school just weeks away from graduating and how if they would have just hung in there for a little bit they would have realized (as we all do eventually) that the petty bullshit and drama of high school means nothing in the real world. You can reinvent yourself and make your life anything you want it to be and to quote my father from a memorable exchange he had with my sister when she was upset over being picked on for her gymnastics skills long ago, “No one in the real world will ever care if you can do a forward roll”. So, at risk of oversimplifying the themes of the film, I think that the Elephant in the room is the emotional vulnerability of these kids and the inappropriate outlets (or sometimes lack of outlets) they have. There is of course also an element of tragedy (going back to the “death at the hands of a stranger” theme) as we get a sense of the loneliness, hopefulness, ambition and love within these varied characters, only to see it all disappear with the sound of gunshots. This is the cinematic equivalent of a gut-punch!

The slow burn is a powerful technique, especially when it ends in frenzy (true of Elephant, Eraserhead and There Will Be Blood). It makes the climax more scary and powerful to me if you've taken a long route to get there. Some folks, even passionate film buffs, really only like to be "entertained" by movies and that's their prerogative. Elephant is not for those people... Grade: A-

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Blood Simple (1984)

QUICK NOTE: I wrote this back in July as I was first starting to get motivated on this movie website/blog idea so there are outdated references to "Burn After Reading" as the latest Coen Bros film. This is no longer accurate as their 1 movie a year plan has recently given us "A Serious Man" which I haven't seen yet.


The title "Blood Simple" references the state of mind some enter in the aftermath of a murder. I think it aptly fits this very dark "Comedy of Errors" type scenario. A film populated with miscreants making one "simple", bad decision after another, with misdirected violence playing out before our eyes. You can only shake your head and wish the characters could see the big picture. Alas, you the viewer are the sole recipient of the complete, delicious puzzle.

“Blood Simple” is the first film from the now legendary Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan. It immediately establishes the brothers’ dominance over 21st Century Film Noir. They understand and utilize the classic archetypes of the femme fatale, the jealous husband, the private eye, etc. The simple, haunting piano melody that weaves through the film I'd put in my top five most effective movie themes and sets the tone perfectly. The Coen’s signature though (and the twist that they add to the proceedings) is that classic mix of brilliance and buffoonery, double crosses and dumb luck, fate and mischief. These elements are firmly in place here and have defined their subsequent efforts up to and including their latest, "Burn After Reading."

On a lean budget of 1.5 million and the shoulders of some great A to B list talent like Frances McDormand (Fargo, Burn After Reading) who many of you know became Mrs. Joel Coen the year after this was released, the memorable character actor M. Emmet Walsh (The Jerk), John Getz (The Fly) and, of course, Dan Hedaya an excellent supporting actor who has shown up in films as wide ranging as Clueless and Mulholland Drive, and one of my wife's more unusual and troubling celebrity crushes! The Coen’s flagship film is, indeed, one of lasting impact (so much so that I recently read about a foreign language remake from established filmmaker Zhang Yimou, which is highly unusual as it’s typically Hollywood ripping off superior foreign language films).

Like their recent triumph "No Country For Old Men", our story unfolds in the barren landscapes of Texas (with the occasional Everytown, USA suburb thrown in). Like a great many of The Coen's films, it's about plans gone awry. Abbie (McDormand) is a woman ready to leave her husband but not prepared to do it alone. We meet her just after she's asked the bartender, Ray (Getz) from her husband’s establishment to take her home one stormy night. They establish that Getz is a decent enough fellow with his reluctance to sleep with another man's wife (particularly his boss's I suppose) but he admits "I've always liked you" and his scruples are short lived as they are soon engaged in the classic "roll in the hay". This situation is made more complicated by her husband (Hedaya) who doesn't seem at all prepared to let his lady go free. There's a great exchange between Hedaya and Getz fairly early on that is not only wrought with tension but manages to reference Getz's "I'm no marriage counselor" quips from the opening scene and foreshadows the moment near the climax where Abbie says "I ain't done nothing funny", loading it with suspicion after Getz's brain has gone "Blood Simple").

We meet Walsh’s unnamed Private Detective/Hitman/Scumbag For Hire character in all his yellow suited cheapness in Hedaya’s office the next day as he confirms, with photographs he took the night before, that his wife is sleeping with the help. Hedaya lets his eyebrows do the heavy lifting in an excellent restrained performance of slow burn intimidation that constantly hints at the violence and menace that unquestionably contributed to his wife's running for the hills.

This scenario is a crime of passion just waiting to happen on somebody’s part. You can certainly see that Hedaya might have a murder in him but with so many double and triple crosses, you're not quite sure he’ll ever get the chance. Abbie's not truly a Femme Fatale either (or is she?) as she ultimately never gives us any good reason to doubt her insincerity. It's similar to their latest collaboration in "Burn After Reading" from the standpoint that she ends up prompting all these men to jump through elaborate hoops and destroy each other so that she can have her way (but does so in such a naive way that for all the wrath she unleashes, you still kind of root for her and absolve her for the inadvertent nightmare world she creates for those around her). Who among them is truly prepared to get their hands dirty?? The answer all of them...under the right circumstances...just like you and me! :)

I spoke with my father recently about two films that were both really effective in simulating what it feels like to watch your lies bury you in a hot mess (the two in question were Before The Devil Knows Your Dead and Notes On A Scandal by the way). I'd add Blood Simple to this sub-genre and imagine I could think of a few others if I put my mind to it. Let's call it the "People In Deep Shit” section or "Just Keeps Getting Worse" is perhaps a better title. These are tales of adultery, crime, violence and other various forms of deception and ruthlessness. It's like waking from a dream where you're facing incarceration or just know that you've done something very bad...and that "they" will get you...and punish you for it.

I want to add that the DVD release featuring commentary from "Kenneth Loring of Forever Young Films" is probably the most delightful and unusual bonus feature I've ever encountered. I must research the origins of this either improvised or brilliantly scripted performance. It is a track full of petty jealousies toward fake people we've never heard of, imaginary "deleted scenes" (the one involving the hitman's lighter being a precious family heirloom from his childhood in Bulgaria comes to mind) and a slew of nonsense "film facts" such as the dog being "actually animatronic" or how the opening scene in the car had to be shot in reverse including having the actors hang upside down while delivering the dialog backwards. Needless to say, it was a hilariously bizarre bonus feature on an otherwise bare-bones disc but I will keep my fingers crossed that they keep this on whatever future Blu-Ray release I'm sure is coming (and hopefully some new "traditional" bonus features as well).

So, if you’re like me and enjoy seeing the progression of your favorite filmmakers, go check out Blood Simple and see how the Coen Brothers knocked it out of the park right from the get-go! Grade: A+

An American Werewolf In London (1981)

My oh my! Where have you been all my life! I have vivid memories of watching my old VHS copy of “The Making of Thriller” when I was a kid and seeing clips in there of John Landis’ film “An American Werewolf In London”. Somehow, even with a solid appreciation for Landis and an enthusiasm for top notch horror films, I never had seen ANY of this 1981 masterpiece.

So, we have a classic setup here with two college kids (played by David Naughton and the woefully underused Griffin Dunne) who we meet as they’re hitchhiking across the rural English countryside. I call this a classic setup because it’s become one over the years. Horror movies typically follow a tried and true formula wherein we spend just enough time with a group of eager youngsters to learn who has an unrequited crush on who, who has unresolved daddy issues, etc. Just in time to spend the rest of the film watching them be brutally murdered one by one. The thing is, from this basic setup to the deft blending of genuine horror and hearty, well earned belly laughs, this film is an obvious template that countless amateur (and probably a few professional) filmmakers have tried to emulate. But John Landis knows how to write funny dialogue and shoot a funny scene. He has also been blessed with a real gift for suspense and was smart enough to surround himself with the incredible make-up artist Rick Baker who’s monster effect work (particularly the still stunning transformation scene) really helps this movie hold up beautifully nearly 30 years after its release. *

So, yeah, basically we have a pair of cynical, charming young Americans who wander into a local bar full of ominous werewolf décor and other various subtle hints that they are a long way from home. The locals give them the boot with some warnings about staying on the main road and in doing so essentially throw them to the wolves (or the singular wolf in this case…a fate I probably deserve for that pun). It broke my heart to see Griffin Dunne mangled and killed within the first 10-15 minutes, but this is where the real fun begins. David (the actor David Naughton also plays a character named David, usually a bad sign in terms of the actors prowess and may explain why I’ve never seen this guy in ANYTHING else) wakes up in the hospital and finds himself experiencing a series of bizarre, hallucinatory dreams and visions. There are monstrous Nazi’s massacring his family, a silly naked frolic through the woods that ends with him eating a deer (which I believe may have influenced a similar scene in the 90’s Nicholson film “Wolf” or at least reminded me very much of it) and finally, the first of several visits from beyond the grave by Griffin Dunne’s character Jack (quite a relief as I love this guy from Scorsese’s After Hours and, as I mentioned, was quite dismayed when he was killed off so quickly).

Jack explains that it was a werewolf that attacked them and that his soul, and the souls of all the werewolf victims, are trapped in limbo unless David kills himself (or dies in general) in order to sever the bloodline. Jack has fallen in love with his nurse though (and she with him) and he is quite reluctant to off himself based on this “hallucination” he’s had. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it but let’s just say that chaos ensues!

Landis cleverly uses multiple “moon” themed classics throughout the film such as “Moondance” for a love scene, “Bad Moon Rising” works in contrast to its upbeat feel to create a sense of dread and there are several versions of “Blue Moon” sprinkled in as garnish throughout. The chemistry between David and the nurse is natural, relaxed and charming (much like the early banter between Jack and David that quickly endears you to those characters). The scenes of the werewolf on the prowl always maintain the films impressive tone of 50% brilliant comedy and 50% suspenseful horror. There’s a generous amount of crude humor, nudity and gore and the pacing is marvelous! I truly can’t say enough good things about the film. I’m so sad that it took me so long to discover this film as it surely would have been the kind of movie I took around to friends houses in high school to introduce them to at sleepovers and party’s. Alas, I will look forward to owning it on BluRay soon and count on this here movie blog to be the modern equivalent of bringing it over for a sleepover! GO WATCH THIS MOVIE!!! Grade: A+

* Just wanted to make a quick note that Rick Baker's back to back work on this film and David Cronenberg's Videodrome are probably the most innovative and stunning make-up effects I've ever seen. While modern special effects can be very cool in the right hands, it's very inspiring to see what simple creativity and ingenuity could do back when everything you saw had to be accomplished "in the frame". Please tip your cap to Mr. Baker if you ever see him!

Monday, November 9, 2009

New York Stories (1989)

New York Stories is the earliest example of these directors anthology films that I can think of. They are a rare treat when they pop up from time to time. This one features 3 well known writer-directors who have used the iconic New York City as the backdrop for the majority of their films (not especially true in the case of Coppola but we'll get back to that).The first section (and the best one in my opinion) is Martin Scorsese's "Life Lessons". This is a short about a painter (Nick Nolte) and the intense artist/muse relationship he has with his live-in assistant played by Rosanna Arquette. As the piece begins, Nolte is shown to be a well established artist whose inspiration has seemingly dried up. He tells his agent that he has no work to show him for his upcoming gallery show before excusing himself to go pick up his assistant from the airport (telling his agent something about how he doesn't understand why she can't just take a cab). Within seconds of her getting off the plane, she explains that she's trying to leave him and we get the first glimpses that the Nolte character is delusional, controlling, manipulative and quite narcissistic. You get the sense that she was once spell bound by this semi-famous, established older artist taking her under his wing with his repeated mantra about “free room and board and priceless life lessons” which largely seem to equate to sex with this paint spattered grizzly adams and listening to polite non-committal critiques of her artwork (he’s scared to tell her he doesn’t like her work because he doesn’t want her to leave). He does convince her to stay but she tells him “no more sex” and that, alas, is the trouble in paradise. His primal instincts, coupled with the psychological babying he seems to need put him into quite a disastrous state of being in terms of his inter-personal abilities, yet, as they often do, also propel him full force back into his work, channeling the emotional extremes into his art. This short story inherently leaves it to you the viewer to put together much of the history of these characters and you get the sense by the end that this is an ongoing pattern for Nolte that he knows he needs in order to get the creative juices flowing and be able to breathe life into canvas. You can see how this overbearing man would suck the life out of these young women but during an interesting moment where Arquette stands, unnoticed, observing Nolte at work, you can also see how he does sort of keep up his end of the bargain in terms of exposing them to this art world, the people within it and the unique temperaments therein. It’s an unhealthy bit of symbiotic on-screen “love” that hits close to home for me in terms of the way life experiences are channeled into an artists’ work. It is also worth noting that Steve Buscemi has a memorable cameo as a sleazy “performance artist” who continually destroys Arquettes self-esteem. I couldn’t help but think of Quentin Tarantino watching this motor mouthed, energetic and wiry young man and either writing the part of Mr. Pink (Reservoir Dogs) for him or very quickly understanding how tailor made he was for the role.

Next up we have the Coppola film. Now, Coppola does seem to have a strong understanding of New York and did spend much of his life there. His most famous work, The Godfather Trilogy is very tied to NYC (I believe his film The Conversation was shot there too…but I can’t remember for sure). Coppola though ultimately has no consistency in his body of work (except perhaps the theme of family) and similarly, his entry into this anthology called “Life Without Zoe” is entirely skippable in my opinion and by far the weak link of the three. It’s about a little rich girl who lives in a hotel while her famous flautist father and wealthy mother are out concentrating on their own lives. I understand that New York has it’s “high society” element to it and that they may look at this overprivledged, cutesy little girl and find something charming and relatable and interesting in the story…but I, for one, find it painfully dull and don’t want to write about it any longer except to say that I hated it when I was 13 and first saw the movie and that 13 years later when I watched it again…it still left me utterly void of enthusiasm.

So let’s move on to Woody Allen’s “Oedipus Wrecks” which is a short, sweet delightful little film that plays like the very best Woody comedies. I’ve been on a big Woody Allen kick for a while now since falling in love with Match Point (which at first glance seemed inconsistent with what I knew of his work) and wanting to dig deeper into his catalog (to ultimately understand that Match Point is very much in line with his themes and characters…just with less overt humor). So, Woody plays a successful lawyer (did I mention he’s neurotic…did I have to??) engaged to Mia Farrow, a gentile with 3 children from a previous marriage. We learn from Woody’s visits with his psychiatrist (as well as an awkwardly funny dinner scene) that his mother is incredibly overbearing (even for a Jewish mother…which I don’t personally have much experience in but feel like I understand from the movies) and does not want her son to “rush in” to this marriage. During a family outing to a magic show (which featured a few genuine “laugh out loud” moments for me…a standard that is very rare, even for things I find very funny) the mother is chosen to participate in a trick and disappears. Just as Woody’s character finds his life improving in all kinds of unexpected ways without her smothering influence, she suddenly appears, floating in the skies of New York, to badger and embarrass her little boy once again. What a hilarious, extreme neurotic idea this is in the first place! As usual, Woody sneaks in some real psychological curiosity into the proceedings as he finds himself falling in love with a woman very much like his mother (and mother of course approves and agrees to come out of the sky). The sharp viewer will figure out that this is where the story’s heading about 10 minutes before Woody does, but that doesn’t at all cheapen the bemused expression of disheartened understanding and acceptance that we’re left with as HE realizes it.

So, overall you have a great set of bookends with an absolute turd in the middle. For any Scorsese or Woody Allen fans though, these shorts can stand side by side with each director’s best work. So, while I’d give Life Lessons and Oedipus Wrecks an A+ each, Life Without Zoe is a big old F and the film as a complete work then gets a generous B- from me.

Mission Statement...

I've got a lot of ambitious ideas kicking around for the ultimate movie website. I've found that the more I look at the big picture of the online world I'd like to create using my passion for film, the more intimidating it becomes and the further it falls on my priority list (only so many hours in the day after all). I try to be a man of action though and had a pair of conversations with my parents today that provided a suitable kick in the pants for me to do SOMETHING!

One of the things I talked about with my dad was the huge inspiration that a small portion of the Spy Kids 2 commentary track with director Robert Rodriguez has had on me. The advice was specific to making movies but I've found it to be universally good advice for dreamers of all sorts. The gist of it was that Rodriguez talked about how so many people dream about making a movie and they think about the new life they'd have and the great artists they'd get to work with and all the cool movie ideas they could develop, etc. But no one ever talks about the PROCESS of making movies and how much fun that is! His point was that the joy should largely be in the MAKING of art. The act of creating SOMETHING...regardless of it's success or failure. I immediately applied this to my outlook on writing and performing music. For years I had stayed off the Cleveland stages with my music because for this reason or that reason it "wasn’t ready". Rodriguez made me realize that to go out there and give it your best and risk failure was the REAL pursuit of the dream. Nothing from nothing leaves nothing right? The best dreams in the world that are never acted upon mean NOTHING! So, in keeping with my goal to be a man of action and a man who chases dreams I am today launching this movie blog “The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of”.

True to the above sage advice, I am holding in my fears of failure. I'd still like to provide a short disclaimer of sorts: I am not an expert in ALL films, I'm 26 and I've only seen what I've seen and haven't really ventured much further before the 1960's besides some obvious classics. My tastes tend to veer off the beaten path but not into the dark corridors of truly obscure films, I’m more in the hidden gems business you could say. When I like an artist I like to dig deep into their body of work and those are typically the types of films I’ll be touching on, more obscure works that almost always have some connection to the more mainstream cinema you ARE familiar with. I have a highly analytical mind but find that if I try to analyze things too much it can get kind of boring and if I just write stream of consciousness (as I plan on doing to get started) it sometimes doesn’t go deep enough in conveying a films greatness. These are the sort of thoughts that plague me and convince me that it’s better that I don’t even start this movie blog as I have nothing to add that anyone will be interested in reading anyway. Then I think, there’s a reason that everyone who knows me comes to me for movie advice and calls me for movie trivia and trusts me to steer them in the right direction…I care very deeply for films and I have done my homework and I do have good taste and I do feel like I have my finger on the pulse of our popular culture. So hopefully, you’ll enjoy my writing; hopefully you’ll participate through comments and keep an ongoing dialogue going. What I hope most of all though is that you are inspired to check out some of these films for the first time and that I might introduce you to a future favorite that you may not have found otherwise. It’s a lot of responsibility but I think I’m up for the task! At least I plan on diving in feet first, coming out on stage and risking failure! It is my dream to be considered a credible source for film criticism and interpretation. I hope you will send people my way if you find my advice to be sound and trustworthy for your film going needs!