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Monthly Archives: June 2014

Not just historically inaccurate, but outright hostile to the facts, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart matches its puerile fantasy with cheezy romance, splatterfest battle scenes, and cartoonish characters (Patrick McGoohan plays King Edward Longshanks as Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Peter Hanley plays his son as if auditioning for La Cage Aux Folles). Then, there is the James Horner score that brings you back to the ye olde highlands of Busch Gardens. Naturally, like Robert Redford and Kevin Costner before him, the Academy honored an actor turned director with an undeserved Best Picture statuette. But Ordinary People and Dances with Wolves are merely pedestrian. Braveheart is bad through and through and often, excruciatingly so.

On the plus side, when you decide to rewrite history, you might as well give William Wallace a haircut straight out of Duran Duran.

Hungry like the wolf for FREEEEEDOOOMMMMM!!!!!”

Peter Yates’ 1968 detective thriller is a medium cool exercise in restraint orbiting around the quiet, canny performance of Steve McQueen as Detective Frank Bullitt. Bullitt is assigned to protect a mob witness by an ambitious D.A. (the charmingly oily Robert Vaughn) and the case goes bad.  As he tries to salvage the situation, we learn about Bullitt’s relationships, methods and character, all with less than 100 words from our hero.

The picture is notable for an over 10 minute car chase in and around San Francisco that alternates between chess match and smash up derby. The effect is mesmerizing, an automotive ballet, which is in many ways more impressive than William Friedken’s bid to outdo it in The French Connection three years later (the car chase wasn’t the only influential set piece; Bullitt has an extended chase scene on foot through the exterior of the San Francisco Airport, which Michael Mann reprised in Heat).

The film also demonstrates why Steve McQueen is such an icon. The debates over his ability to “act” are legitimate.  The “movie star versus actor” discussions invariably arise in consideration of  impossibly macho or attractive leads, such as Wayne, Eastwood, Redford and Gibson. Debate aside, McQueen so resonates on screen that discussing his skills as a thespian seems like quibbling. There is something to be said for understatement (Tom Cruise may just be learning that now).  McQueen can do more with a look or eating a sandwich than a lot of folks can with a soliloquy or stemwinder.  When he is aped (see the catatonic Ryan Gosling in the wildly overrated Drive or George Clooney in The American), his charisma and presence become all the more apparent.

Yates’ film is a bit of a jazz riff and some of his shots are annoyingly showy, but hey, it’s 1968 San Francisco and Bullitt’s girlfriend is the chic and arty Jacqueline Bisset.  So, he gets a pass.

Al Pacino once explained his attraction to a project by tapping his finger to his temple and noting that the director had “a vision.” That director was Warren Beatty and the project was the bloated Dick Tracy.

The Coen Brothers’ first film demonstrates a true vision, one that has it flaws, but one that is unique and rich, through and through – a sun-drenched, steamy Texas noir potboiler that evokes Jim Thompson and James Cain, updated to include a very sly, dark humor. The plot takes numerous turns, but it is simple in its introduction.   A bartender (John Getz) runs off with the wife (Frances McDormand) of his boss (Dan Hedaya), who in turn puts a lethal private investigator (M. Emmett Walsh) on their trail. Walsh introduces the story in voiceover:

“The world is full of complainers. But the fact is, nothing comes with a guarantee. I don’t care if you’re the Pope of Rome, President of the United States, or even Man of the Year–something can always go wrong. And go ahead, complain, tell your problems to your neighbor, ask for help–watch him fly. Now in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else–that’s the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas…”

What follows is the twisted story of these four characters against the backdrop of a flat, unforgiving landscape. The photography is stunning, and the camera-work is assured, if sometimes a bit too film school flashy (as McDormand and Getz confront each other at his front door, a slo-motion newspaper crashes against it to startle us all). Composer Carter Burwell started his partnership with the Coens on this film, and his score is primarily solo piano, sparse and ominous.  Hedaya is the embodiment of the cowardly cuckold, but he seethes, almost a human pressure cooker. Walsh’s sleazy dick is repellant. He almost oozes, but he’s canny, using his “aw shucks” as a way to get the advantage. Getz and McDormand are weaker. Getz just doesn’t project and while I respect the Coens for eschewing the expected sultry, bored kept woman, McDormand’s character requires some charisma and sexuality to justify the risks taken on her behalf. She’s never been that kind of actress and here, she’s flat.

Still, this is a very good film, and as a debut, it’s all the more impressive, presaging the brilliance of Fargo.

Having re-watched Walk the Line, I then took my son to go see Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys, the film version of the “smash!” Broadway hit chronicling the rise and fall of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. He liked the picture. I did not. Let me count the ways.

1)      You couldn’t pick a worse director for this project than Eastwood. Music needs to be shot with energy and verve. Clint’s camera work is fixed and unimaginative. Basically, he shot Frankie Valli much like he shot J. Edgar Hoover. Close up. Then farther away. Then a shot to an admiring audience.

2)      The performances mostly run from pedestrian to dreadful. In the latter category, John Lloyd Young as Valli sports a Broadway pedigree and little else. His “go to” move seems to be consternation, be it at the loss of a gig, $1 million or a daughter. Vincent Piazza (Boardwalk Empire) is so goombah you half expect him to hawk Ragu sauce.

3)      The film can’t decide on being a whimsical tribute to the Broadway show or a dark, cautionary tale on the perils of stardom. Tonally, it’s schizophrenic.

4)      One theme in particular – the omerta of tough Jersey guys – is severely undercut by the fact that these tough Jersey guys are about as scary as The Sharks and The Jets.   In West Side Story, no one was asking you to be scared of ballet dancing toughs; it was a fantasy, delivered in dance, where even the violence was poetic. Here, their bond and hardscrabble roots are important, yet the whole existence seems comedic and pleasant.

5)      134 minutes!!!

6)      The makeup here was worse, if that’s possible, than in J. Edgar, and I didn’t think that could be possible.

My son countered that I didn’t like the music and that queered the film for me. But I didn’t like the music in Dreamgirls, and that was a perfectly fine film.

If you want to see the antithesis of this picture, rent Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do, which captures the excitement, fun and then, the letdown, of a one-hit wonder band.

So, why one star?  Filial loyalty and the very funny turn by Mike Doyle as producer Bob Crewe.

As biopics go, this one is near the top, a sprawling, textured story of fame, fall, passion and redemption that can’t avoid cliche’ but never nears cheezy.

Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t embody Johnny Cash so much as incorporate him into his own personality. His performance feels roots deep rather than technically proficient (see Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman in The Man in the Moon for an example of the latter), enhancing your investment in Cash’s plight. Phoenix does all his own singing and his vocals are deeper and more frenetic than those of Cash (his live version of “Cocaine Blues” at Folsom Prison is more fevered and angry than Cash’s performance), but they feel real, especially when matched with Reese Witherspoon’s brassy bid as June Carter. James Mangold’s film is ostensibly the love story of Cash and Carter, but his attention to the music is the glue to the picture. The supporting players in the roles of Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Elvis are all musicians also doing their own singing. And the scene of Cash’s audition is notable not only for the tension and the dissertation on what goes into music people want to listen to, but for the riveting turn of Dallas Roberts as producer Sam Phillips. Talk about making the most of your one scene.

If there are weaknesses, one is self-inflicted and one is a related injury. Cash’s demons stem from the childhood trauma of his brother’s death, after which he felt unworthy and guilty. His father (Robert Patric) didn’t help when immediately after the funeral, he yelled at a grieving little boy, “he took the wrong son!” Now, perhaps this happened. But even if it did, the screenwriter has to jettison historical accuracy for good sense. It’s too incredible, too jarring, to believe. Worse, it became the centerpiece joke of the Walk the Line spoof, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.

The effect is much like that of Austin Powers on the prior James Bond films, changing them in your mind from occasionally fun and campy to wholly ridiculous. Another nit is the unfair treatment of Cash’s first wife, who is portrayed as so shrill and shrewish it feels unfair.

The Coen Brothers have taken many stabs at comedy, with varying results. On the plus side, Raising Arizona is a wild, human cartoon, with performances by Holly Hunter and Nick Cage approximating Claymation; Intolerable Cruelty an amusing facsimile of a screwball comedy; and The Big Lebowski a whimsical, goofy trip. The Ladykillers however, was a dud, The Hudsucker Proxy an ornate mess, and A Serious Man too self-loathing to support interest, much less humor.

The best of the bunch, by far, is 2008’s Burn After Reading, a crisp, tight ensemble that melds madcap and cloak-and-dagger. The story is too elaborate to capsule, but the tale – intersecting vanity, intrigue, the CIA and personal fitness – is almost besides the point. The actors could have let the serpentine twists carry the day, but to a person, they invest silly characters with pathos and even gravitas.  George Clooney’s philandering everyman goes from loathsome to sympathetic and is almost admirable in his pathological ardor. John Malkovich’s rage-filled civil servant stands in for all us “surrounded by idiots”, especially when we are introduced to his brittle, scheming, focused wife (Tilda Swinton). Frances McDormand’s novice blackmailer is annoyingly hilarious yet almost tragic in her desperate fights for companionship and against the ravages of time. And Brad Pitt, as her dim but lovable accomplice, should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor. There is not a scene he doesn’t steal, and the one where he must contend with a maniacal Malkovich is one for the ages.

“You think that’s a Schwinn.”

 

 

Not as funny as the first one, mainly because it is too self referential and a great deal messier, but plenty funny anyhow. The plot is the same – Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill have to crack a drug ring, only this time, it’s at college. Highlights include Hill’s turn as a Hispanic gang member and later, his impromptu def jam poetry performance at a college coffee house, as well as Channing’s bromance with the college quarterback. For better or worse, and mainly better, these guys may be the next Benny and Hope. Downsides include too much Ice Cube and a surprisingly leaden performance from the usually hilarious Jillian Bell (Workaholics, East Bound and Down). You could see this in the theater and get your money’s worth or wait for video and enjoy all the more with the extra $25 in your pocket.