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Monthly Archives: August 2014

The real writer of the Mary Poppins books, P.L. Travers, was apparently such a pain in the ass that, according to her grandchildren, she “died loving no one and with no one loving her.” As played by Emma Thompson, Travers more than fits this bill as she is whisked to Hollywood against her better instincts to be wooed by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) in an effort to adapt her stories to the screen. Travers’ prickliness and exactitude with Disney and his team (Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzmann and B.J. Novak, all very good here) is the best part of the film. Unfortunately, director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) keeps interrupting the best parts with flashbacks to Travers’ childhood, and in particular, her relationship with her whimsical, alcoholic father (Colin Farrell). I understand the juxtaposition. The audience is supposed to learn what has embittered this awful woman. But you really don’t care (she’s such a witch that motivation is irrelevant), and you also begin to resent the interruption of the more interesting creation of a film.

Worse, the technique is cloying, leading to a sugary-sweet ending that has Disney melting the ice encasing Travers’ heart. In reality, they ended their relationship in acrimonious fashion, with Disney fed up with her stubborn nature, and Travers so offended she refused any further association between Disney and her books. The disharmony is alluded to in the film, but it is near-blotted out by Travers’ copious tears as she undergoes a sort of catharsis at Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

In reality, those were tears of fury.  From Travers herself:  “As chalk is to cheese, so is the film to the book. Tears ran down my cheeks because it was all so distorted. I was so shocked I felt that I would never write—let alone smile—again!”

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Noah is a modern day environmentalist/pacifist who is also a vegetarian, fights the rape of the land, and communes with stone Transformer-like monsters/fallen angels (it was quite a shock to learn that Optimus Prime was so critical to the Old Testament). God tells him to save the innocent; the animals. He complies.

Unfortunately for us, Noah cannot save the dreary and ponderous story and director Darren Aronofsky’s leaden direction. I was surprised by James Gunn’s ability to handle a broad and sweeping epic in Guardians of the Galaxy given his prior experience with smaller films. In Noah, Aronofsky, who also has little experience with big films, does not surprise. He is completely lost visually, primarily relying on a slow backward tracking shot to say BIG! and some of the CGI looks as silly as Harry Hamlin Clash of the Titans.  The script, which he co-wrote, is a repetitive mix of New Age blather (birds arrive and Crowe intones, “it begins”) and mundane domestic drama. The performances are rote.

On the plus side, the making of this film means at least one less Aronofsky ode to masochism and sadism (although Aronofsky does let Russell Crowe sing again). You also get the sense Aronofsky feels the film is getting away from him, so he relies more on Noah’s trippy dreams and his story of creation (a psychedelic light show and some stop-action photography), welcome respites from the numbing dialogue. And the flood is pretty damn cool.

There’s not a scene in this Coen Brothers film I don’t like, and the story of a Clifford Odets-esque playwright’s (John Turtorro) introduction to the oily world of Hollywood is both visually and thematically ambitious.  But no matter the film’s striking look or intriguing interpretations (the mind of the writer, the dangers of solitude, the corruption of money), by the end, you feel trifled with, as if you watched a very meticulous parlor trick supported with a cast of broad, comic actors (John Goodman, John Mahoney, Michael Lerner) for no greater purpose than the goof.  Like The Hudsucker Proxy and Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink has its joys, but the feel is sterile and your investment unrewarded.       

Martin Scorsese’s surreal nightmare of one man’s (Griffin Dunne) ill-advised late-night trip into lower Manhattan is painfully funny and, at times, genuinely unsettling. Dunne is beset by a quintent of quirky, if not outright dangerous females (Roseanna Arquette, Linda Fiorentino, Teri Garr, Catherine O’Hara and Verna Bloom), a fact that will one day be Exhibit X in his anticipated trial for misogyny.  His torture is lovingly photographed by Michael Ballhaus, giving SoHo’s grimy exterior a dream-like quality (and there is no greater horror than being hunted by a mob that has commandeered a Mister Softee truck).

Dunne is very good and much like Steve Carell, except he’s not burdened at all by the imprint of a long-running character, and where Carell is childlike and vulnerable, Dunne is sympathetic, but sexually opportunistic.

Bonus: if anyone asks you, “What movie casts the parents from Home Alone, one of whom went to filmvetter’s high school?”, now you know.

Today, William Friedken’s 1971 Academy Award winner seems like better-than-standard cop fare, but this is an extremely influential film, notable for its verisimilitude, grit and movement. Shot on the mean streets and ugly haunts of decrepit New York City, Friedken follows two detectives, Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider), as they try and take down a huge heroin shipment. No prior American film seemed as authentic, immediate or aggressive. Friedken’s camerawork is frenetic and edgy, and his virtuouso car chase scene is still one of the best in all of film.  Here is Friedken on the chase, which took 2 weeks to shoot.

Friedken’s insistence on visual authenticity extends to Ernest Tidyman’s script. Doyle is a casual racist and a simplistic bully, Scheider a slightly more pleasant accomplice. They are neither archetypes or anti-heroes. They’re just dogged, unremarkable cops. What is a little mystifying is the Best Actor win and Best Supporting Actor nomination for, respectively, Hackman and Scheider. These performances are almost 100% sweat, the equivalent of thespian calisthenics. There is no arc or development, and I don’t believe there has been this much running in any film save for Chariots of Fire, The Gods Must Be Crazy and any film about Steve Prefontaine.  Roger Ebert disagrees about Hackman’s performance, writing: “As Popeye Doyle, he generated an almost frightening single-mindedness, a cold determination to win at all costs, which elevated the stakes in the story from a simple police cat-and-mouse chase into the acting-out of Popeye’s pathology.”

Interestingly, Friedken didn’t want Hackman (they fought constantly and as Friedken writes in his memoir, “His outbursts [onscreen] were aimed directly at me… more than the drug smugglers”). But Paul Newman and Steve McQueen were too pricey, Peter Boyle objected to the film’s violence and Friedken’s first choice – Jackie Gleason! – was deemed unsuitable by the studio.

On the heels of Robin Williams suicide, a review of one of the few films I liked him in is apt. Williams’ community college prof and shrink, a potential brilliant who became waylaid by love and is now stricken with grief at her passing, is not exactly an original character. We know he is there to guide the damaged savant, Will Hunting (Matt Damon), and we also know that when all is said and done, both characters will have taught each other something valuable about life. Still, Williams is very subdued and meticulous in this performance, the exact opposite of his manic persona that, with the exception of The Fisher King, became more schtick and adrenaline than acting over time. He exudes a patience and knowledge that elevates much of the film’s schmaltz, and when he is riled, it is on the bedrock of communicated internal pain.  It is a very fine performance and his sole Oscar for best supporting actor was well deserved.  He is similarly restrained, and thus effective, in The World According to Garp, Dead Poets Society and Insomnia.

As for the film itself, I’ve always been very torn. The concept is smart (a working class Boston kid is also a genius, sadly, mopping floors at MIT), Gus Van Sant’s direction is inventive (the slo-motion rumble to Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” is a particularly nifty scene), the exchanges between the Southie pals (Damon, Ben Affleck – again, proving he can be very good in small doses – Casey Affleck and Cole Hauser) is believable, there is actual heat between Damon and his romantic interest, Minnie Driver, and Elliot Smith’s musical contributions are memorable. On the downside, while Damon is quite good as the lead, his character is kind of one big cheat. Plagued by his own demons, we are supposed to empathize with Will, but he seems a rather selfish, smug prick throughout. And this, despite just about every assist you can give a protagonist – he’s lonely, he was shuttled from foster home to foster home, he was beaten as a child, his enemies are grotesque caricatures that lack only the villain’s mwahahahahahaha, and yet . . .

Perhaps it is just me, but I think it’s a toss-up here as to who is the real shit. I guess it goes to the Hah-vahhhd pony tail on the strength of the pony tail, but much of the film is Will Hunting sneering at and making fun of the uptight folks who admire his genius, and while seeking to profit from it, don’t do him any injustice at all.

It reminded me of Walker Percy’s The Thanatos Syndrome: “There’s Hawkeye and Trapper John back in Korea. I never did like those guys. They fancied themselves super-decent and super-tolerant, but actually had no use for anyone who was not exactly like them. What they were was super-pleased with themselves. In truth, they were the real bigots, and phony at that. I always preferred Frank Burns, the stuffy, unpopular doc, a sincere bigot.”

So, as the music swells, and Will Hunting escapes the clutches of Southie to chase love, I’m pretty sure he’s going to revert to being a big prick soon enough. Only now, Minnie Driver will be there to socialize him.

When Rain Man came out, I enjoyed it, but soon came to sour on the film for its easy emotional manipulation and an affected star turn by Dustin Hoffman. I didn’t credit Hoffman the prescience of Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder (“never go full retard”) and found Hoffman’s portrayal of an autistic adult unsubtle and obvious. Perhaps had I waited until Al Pacino’s blind rampage in Scent of a Woman, I would have been more forgiving.

Pauline Kael called it “a piece of wet kitsch” and I can’t say I could have disagreed. Rain Man has always maintained a spot in the pantheon of overpraised domestic drama Oscar winners that, I assumed, would age very ungracefully (see Forrest Gump, American Beauty, Crash).

Rain Man has hit the schedule on my pay movie channels, and yes, it is emotionally manipulative and yes, it does sport some of the more annoying hallmarks of the 80s (a Hans Zimmer synthesized score that would put him on the map, a few too many montage scenes, a gorgeous and pointless female lead, Valeria Golino, who came and went). But Hoffman’s performance as a hidden older brother to Tom Cruise (Cruise learns of him upon their wealthy father’s death and “kidnaps” him to have an edge in getting his share of the will) is very strong. What unfortunately became represented by cute catchphrases (“I’m an excellent driver”, “10 minutes to Wapner”) is actually a canny, deep portrayal of a tortured soul, and director Barry Levinson never really lets you forget the dangers that lie therein. Much like Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook, Hoffman is endearing until he is terrifying, and at exactly the moment Spielberg would have inserted treacle, Levinson has Hoffman explode again.

Tom Cruise is even better in his role as Hoffman’s wheeler-dealer, LA smooth brother, Ray. His frustration with Hoffman is communal. His entire performance is a study in anger at Hoffman, not for being denied his loving company or for being shut out by his father, but because Hoffman is an annoying lunatic. “I know you’re in there somewhere,” he screams, and while he undergoes change in his time with the afflicted Hoffman, he does not become redeemed so much as educated.

The film is also very, very funny, perhaps too much so for our times. I can imagine grievance groups objecting to the use of an autistic adult for chuckles, but the screenwriters’ (Barry Morrow and Ronald Bass, the former of whom, like Golino, pretty much disappeared after this film) don’t pull many punches and the exchanges between Hoffman and Cruise are often brutally comic: