Archive

Monthly Archives: July 2014

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. The performance found at 1:35 below was more restrained than that of Blanchett:

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.

Wes Anderson makes children’s stories for adults.  They are highly detailed and richly textured, giving the impression of an old picture book or model train set from our youth, and they are very funny.  The Grand Budapest Hotel – a colorful story about the concierge of a once majestic property (Ralph Fiennes) and his efforts to tutor a protégé (Toni Revolore) – is no different than Anderson’s other films in these respects.  However, Anderson re-jiggers his formula, amping up the stylish (the scenery approximates toy furniture) and emphasizing the screwball.  What is missing are the moments of true human connection that punctuate his earlier works, the moments 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.  This is Anderson’s non-animated The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and as that was a fantastic film, so too Grand Budapest.  But it is 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.

image
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.