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The best sports movie ever made, a character-driven blend of sentimentality and tension that dramatizes the football culture on a small, poor Texas town. Every trope that is bandied about by lesser sports films is obliterated, yet, the film doesn’t reject the formula. There are gridiron heroes, strong women who stand behind them, racial undertones, father-son generational combat and an obligatory half time speech.

But compare the ridiculous grandiosity and easy message of most any sports film with the replication of the game in this picture and you’ll find there is no comparison. The women are actual characters, not noble support. The racial issues are genuine and near imperceptible, the blacks don’t exist to teach the whites to dance, and the whites don’t exist for the confession of absolution. The father son dynamic between Tim McGraw and Garrett Hedlund is incredibly moving and Billy Bob Thornton’s halftime speech is poetry.

This is a beautifully acted film, as much about a community as the players, and I’m moved every time I see it. Never more so than by Derek Luke’s work in this scene:

 

Martin Scorsese’s critically acclaimed biopic of the young-to-middle age Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) has much to recommend it. It was the first role that established DiCaprio as a force, and in inhabiting the kinetic, driven and tortured character of Hughes, he was able to shuck off the callowness of his characters in Titanic (Jack London: Teen Wolf!), The Beach and Catch Me if You Can. His time to become a leading “man” had arrived (his attempt at a mature character in Gangs of New York was undermined by the garish nature of the picture, Daniel Day Lewis’s battering ram of a counter-performance and what appeared to be DiCaprio’s own discomfort in the role).

The film is also visually stunning. Scorsese is usually the king of movement in tight spaces, but the sky liberates his eye, and the scenes of flying (there are five) are vast and poetic, and for the ones that end in crashes, utterly thrilling.

When Scorsese is on the ground, the film does not suffer.  His glitzy pre-war Los Angeles, where the parties are populated by the likes of Errol Flynn (a jaunty Jude Law) and Ava Gardner (a tough, motherly Kate Beckinsale), are eye-popping.

Finally, the choices of Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, Sweeney Todd, Skyfall) are adept. Rather than focus on the breadth of Hughes’s life, they opt to show him at his most vibrant, while giving ever-increasing glimpses of the madness that would grip and eventually consume him later in life. For an almost 3 hour film, it’s clear they could have shot for Hughes in the 70s, surrounded by a Mormon coterie and the madness that it protected. By skillfully giving us the symptoms, they economically finish the story.

So, what’s not to like? While DiCaprio and Alan Alda (playing Hughes’s nemesis, the slimy Senator Owen Brewster) were rightfully nominated, though they did not win, so too was Cate Blanchett as Hughes’s love interest Katherine Hepburn, and she actually took home the Best Supporting Actress statuette.

To call her performance cartoonish is a gross understatement.  It’s manic, ludicrous mimicry.

 

This is one of Spike Lee’s better films, an audacious picture of Americana (scored by Aaron Copland no less) that both mythologizes and indicts the sports culture while dramatizing the strained relationship between a convict father (Denzel Washington) and his son (Ray Allen), a prized high school basketball recruit. Washington is released from Attica with the promise of a lessened sentence if he can convince Allen to sign with the governor’s alma mater. He has one week to do it, and has to overcome several hurdles, the greatest of which is the fact that he is in jail for accidentally killing Allen’s mother in a domestic fight.

As in Summer of Sam, Lee’s appetite is enormous, and he typically tries to tackle too many issues in this sweeping story. He also includes a pointless subplot between Washington and a prostitute (Milla Jojovich) and indulges in his unfortunate penchant for speeches (Roger Guenveur Smith plays the local crime boss and delivers a PSA soliloquy on all the perils of fame that brings the picture to a screeching halt). But at the heart of the picture is Lee’s love for basketball, which he portrays as something truly majestic and unifying, skillfully interspersing old footage to punctuate the revered history of the game.

Washington is also commanding as the father who drove his son to succeed, and we see in him the love as well as the excesses of a parent who wants too much for his child. The scenes of a younger Washington pushing his little boy to be Jordan and their later one-on-one are beautiful and heartbreaking. Allen, an acting novice, does surprisingly well as the son, communicating the wonder of it all as the world opens itself for him.

This is a flawed picture, but Lee is working from the heart and shooting for the stars and it shows.

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Wes Anderson makes highly detailed, whimsical and richly textured children’s stories for adults, films that evoke an old picture book or model train set from our youth.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is in that same vein, a colorful story about the concierge of a once majestic property (Ralph Fiennes) and his efforts to tutor a protégé (Toni Revolore).

Here, Anderson accentuates the stylish (the scenery approximates toy furniture) and emphasizes the screwball.  Missing, however, are the moments of true human connection that punctuate his earlier works, the moment in Rushmore when Jason Schwartzman shows his hurt feelings or introduces his father, or in Moonrise Kingdom, when the children kiss or Edward Norton reveals his fears of failure as a scout master, or even in The Life Aquatic, when Bill Murray tries to woo Cate Blanchett.

Grand Budapest is Anderson’s non-animated The Fantastic Mr. Fox, a fantastic film,  So too this film, but it’s Anderson’s least affecting picture.

Writer/director Bill Forsyth was born in Glasgow so he was well-positioned to create this love letter to Scotland. Big oil executive Peter Riegert, who lives a precise, antiseptic and singular life in Houston (he prefers to do deals at arm’s length – “I’m a telefax man”) is sent to a small fishing community in Scotland to buy up the land for a new refinery site. Before his journey, the company’s quirky owner and amateur astronomer, Burt Lancaster, enlists Riegert to canvass the skies in search of a comet. Riegert finds a quaint, simpler life that slowly transforms him from uptight businessman to wistful boy, entranced by the scenery, pace and wonder of the coast.  The charm of the film is embodied in the village, in the film’s quieter moments, and as it infatuates Riegert, so too the audience.

There are so many good things about this picture it’s hard to catalogue them all. Riegert manages to be deadpan yet earnest, never once lapsing into sarcasm or condescension, and Forsyth writes him in a manner that never requires an explanation of or ode to his disquiet. The villagers are not schmaltzy local yokels, with a song in their heart and a lesson to impart.  Rather, they are a slightly cynical bunch who received intel on the purchase and they – like anyone – lust for the big payoff.  As Forsyth has acknowledged, “I don’t want you to think there was some deliberate message. You talk about the plot, but was there one? I mean, people can look back and say, oh, this was all an early one about the environment or whatever, but it didn’t happen that way, or if it did it was accidental. I’m not political, either in film or personally, and I don’t really do plot, and certainly don’t aim to broadcast a ‘message’. I suppose I like to tell stories. And if I’m writing a film, and don’t really have a plot, then you have to fill the screen with something, so I try to do so with characters, incidents.”

The picture features an impossibly young Peter Capaldi (In the Loop, World War Z), hilarious as Riegert’s liaison.  His high dudgeon when the town’s cook serves him an injured rabbit he has saved from a road injury is priceless.  Mark Knopfler also contributes a restrained, moody score that melds his guitar licks with a little-80s Vangelis synthesizer.

Apparently, Forsyth only got a few bites at the apple in Hollywood, the last one being a poorly reviewed Robin Williams vehicle, Being Human.  It’s a shame.  Forsyth was interviewed by The Guardian in 2008, which correctly called Local Hero “one of the quiet must-see little masterpieces of British cinema.” 

Ranked 21 on AFI’s Top 100 films, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown opens with credits that suggest the romanticism of Rebecca, but what follows is a more cynical noir that reveals a pre-war Los Angeles rotten to its core. Private investigator Jake Giddes (Jack Nicholson) becomes embroiled in a snoop case that appears to be standard infidelity but the job embroils him in discovery of political corruption and sexual depravity. His client, Faye Dunaway, is hiding a horrible family secret that involves her titan of a father, John Huston. Giddes carries scars of his own, stemming from his time in the police force working Chinatown.

Polanski’s film is meticulously shot, presenting a classic LA that is mesmerizing and foreboding. Robert Towne’s script is taut and engrossing. Still, this is an overpraised film. Towne chooses to keep the demons of Giddes’ past a secret, which is ultimately unsatisfying, given how critical he is to the story. Moreover, the love affair between Nicholson and Dunaway is unconvincing, mainly because Nicholson is giving a modern performance, whereas Dunaway is mannered and breathlessly dramatic, as if they were working separate material. Nicholson is updating the tough talk of Sam Spade while Dunaway is embracing the older form. When Nicholson puts himself on the line for her, the act seems forced and inauthentic, and the closing line has the faint whiff of the Gouda.

A fine film but certainly not the 21st best picture of all time.

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Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up to the sweeping, first-half brilliant, second-half excessive Magnolia could not have been more different, a love story between the closed-off, anger-ridden Adam Sandler and the co-worker of one of his sisters, Emily Watson. Sandler, a small business owner in LA, is clearly plagued by inner demons, exacerbated by his extroverted, intrusive and brutal sisters (he has 7 of them and when they are not calling him incessantly at work, embarrassing him in front of Watson, or blithely trading in his confidences, they are recounting humiliating stories from his youth). Sandler seeks connection and unfortunately, he does so via the use of sex call operation run by Phillip Seymour Hoffman that specializes in blackmail and harassment. This crisis comes down upon Sandler right as he has forged a true, real connection with Watson.

Sandler’s movies are almost all bad, but I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s running a welfare program for each and every one of his comedian compatriots, and for this, he should be commended. When he receives good material, such as this film, The Wedding Singer and Funny People, he suppresses his twin excesses – the goofy and the superior smart aleck amongst the goofier – and presents nuanced, multi-dimensional characters. Here, his character is immediately sympathetic, just this side shy of a man who has voices in his head, and I was reminded of Bradley Cooper’s more realistic character in Silver Linings Playbook. Both yearn for normalcy. The former almost appears to have wasps around his head, while Sandler has them in his insides. Watson calms his roil, and her presence allows him to use his anger management issues in a positive fashion.

As much as the film emphasizes Sandler’s struggle, the moments of peace he earns in his time with Watson are poignant, if unique:

Anderson’s visuals put Sandler’s torment under a glare, constantly stalking him, scoping him.  Similarly, the music is a staccato of plinking piano, off-kilter horns and rolling drum, giving the viewer a sense of what it must be like to be in Sandler’s head. The shots and clatter only settle when Watson appears, and in those moments, Anderson re-creates the whirling, lightheartedness of a traditional romantic comedy from the 40s.

A truly unique picture, it’s unlikely you’ve seen anything like it.

Ken Burns’ eerie documentary about the crime of the century (at least, according to former NYC Mayor Ed Koch) – the 1989 rape of a jogger in Central Park – is an uneven effort, but the story is so compelling and the good parts so strong, the work as a whole is commendable.

On the night of the rape, the subjects were part of a larger crowd of kids who were trolling Central Park, “wilding” (harassing and attacking bikers and joggers, beating a homeless man, throwing rocks, etc . . .) The five boys, ranging in ages 14 to 16, were picked up and interrogated for a long period of time and at interverals, very forcefully. As adults, they are credible in explaining that eventually, they implicated each other as well as themselves by providing written statements and videotaped confessions. They just wanted to go home and accepted the proffer from the police that if they gave statements, they would do just that. None of the statements matched up and the only DNA evidence found matched none of boys. But the power of a confession is unparalleled in the criminal law and all five were convicted, in two trials by two juries.

Their journey through arrest, trial, incarceration and exoneration is harrowing. With at least 3 of the 5 boys interviewed as adults (one would not go on camera), you can see the damage done to them in their eyes. Burns captures many powerfully moving moments.

Burns, however, makes an introductory error, revealing at the beginning of the documentary that the boys are innocent via the taped confession of the true assailant. The effect of this choice is to make the actions of the police and the prosecution seem more than egregious, but sinister. There is no question that the authorities may have fixed the facts to the confessions (the confessions were haphazard even in the aftermath of coaching by zealous cops), but the structure of the documentary suggests malice on the part of the authorities. It does not help that no one from the police or prosecution would sit for interviews, especially given the conclusion of an internal review of the case by the D.A.:

Comparison of the statements reveals troubling discrepancies. … The accounts given by the five defendants differed from one another on the specific details of virtually every major aspect of the crime—who initiated the attack, who knocked the victim down, who undressed her, who struck her, who held her, who raped her, what weapons were used in the course of the assault, and when in the sequence of events the attack took place. … In many other respects the defendants’ statements were not corroborated by, consistent with, or explanatory of objective, independent evidence. And some of what they said was simply contrary to established fact.

But perhaps this is a choice rather than lack of access. Mike Sheehan, one of the investigating detectives, told New York Magazine, “All this stuff about coercion really pisses me off,” Sheehan says. “Do you honestly think that we — detectives with more than twenty years in, family men with pensions — would risk all of that so we could put words in the mouth of a 15-year-old kid? Absolutely not.” More Sheehan: “I used to lie awake at night thinking about cases we had over the years: I hope to God we have the right guy,” he says. “That’s your biggest fear: You never want to put an innocent person in jail. Mother of God! I didn’t worry much on this one. Because they’re telling us where they were. They are telling us — the sequence may be off, but they’re essentially telling us the same stuff. They remember a guy they beat and took his food, they remember hitting this guy running around the reservoir. They went through all of these things, each kid. And they also tell you about the jogger. And they place people, so you have a mental picture of where they were around this woman’s body. And their parents are with them, not only in the interviews but in the videotape, for the record. That’s enough for me. I’m satisfied.”

We don’t get Sheehan. Instead, we get what becomes the second major problem for the documentary – the people Burns actually interviewed. With the exception of a social scientist and family members, the commentators who did sit down for Burns are desperate to contextualize the case. So, we have it fixed into the standard racial tropes of the time, and we are provided nuggets along the lines of “if this was a black girl . . .” and “we are all at fault, we are all bad” and “they would have been lynched like Emmitt Till.” These sentiments may be true and/or heartfelt, but they are pedestrian and they have the effect of cheapening the raw, chilling story being presented. Worse, the interviewer never questions the interviewees, a tactic that makes their observations come off as studied pronouncement.

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John Milius came up in Hollywood during what Harrison Ford calls “the second California gold rush”, with Spielberg, Coppola, Schrader, and Lucas. Destined and almost enthusiastic about going to Vietnam, Milius’ asthma kept him out of the war and he ended up at USC, then one of only three film schools in the country. He is a big bear of a man, a gun toting, messianic type making mythical, primal films. He wrote Dirty Harry, Magnum Force, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, the Indianapolis speech in Jaws (which was 10 pages, but edited down to 5 by Robert Shaw so he could remember the material), and Apocalypse Now, and he parlayed his writing into directing (Dillinger, The Wind and The Lion, Conan the Barbarian, Red Dawn).

This documentary is loaded with fond remembrances of late 60s and 70s Hollywood, Milius’ crazy persona, and his distinctive approach to filmmaking. It also includes a forthright discussion about Milius’ banishment as a right-wing pariah after Red Dawn. Despite these strengths, the film is almost wholly uncritical, never once mentioning, for example, that Red Dawn is awful for reasons having nothing to do with its politics. The picture is also pat and sentimental, weighing the eccentricities of its subject against his ethics and determining the latter is to blame for any professional damage. Still, after Milius is near-bankrupted by his accountant, it is heartbreaking to learn that he tried to become a staff writer for Deadwood, and uplifting to know that Rome got him back in the game.