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Monthly Archives: June 2015

Lawrence Kasdan sought to revive the western, and thank God his vision of it failed.  We can thank better filmmakers for rejecting settling for sweeping camera shots, Aaron Coplandesque scores, and stories where all the heroes are Clean Gene goody-goodies spouting banal, wistful tripe.

It has a few inspired moments, such as Scott Glen’s opening shootout rising above White Rock, New Mexico and the final Kevin Kline/Brian Dennehy gunfight in the middle of the windy town.  Kevin Costner also showed real personality as Glen’s wild younger brother.

Other than that, it’s pretty awful, made even more silly by the gritty realism that followed in Unforgiven and HBO’s Deadwood.  Nobody misses when they shoot, even with a pistol from hundreds of yards away.  The town of Silverado also has the best and quickest dry cleaners around, because everyone looks so damn fine in their cowboy get-ups.

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Ladies and gents, The Village People!”

The language and attitudes are as new as the fashion.  Danny Glover is enlisted as the proud, honorable messenger of racial tolerance; Roseanna Arquette is the feminist landowner; and Kline is a gunslinger with a sweet disposition towards animals and women (Kline’s casting is peculiar; he seems too nice to be the town barber much less a desperado).  It’s all very precious, and for each of our enlightened characters, there are ten chaw-spitting, sneering henchmen to assure us of their goodness.  Bad picture, getting worse every day.

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Nominated for Best Foreign Film, this Argentinian entry consists of several vignettes of revenge, the first being one of the best openings of a film I’ve ever seen. The stories that follow exhibit a sly and dark sense of humor, enlivened by writer-director Damian Szifron’s accomplished visual style. It’s difficult to criticize any of the decision-making that led to the massive hit that is Jurassic World. But that film is a charmless, forgettable visual mess, and I’ll never understand why such a project was given to a filmmaker whose last work, as much as I liked it, was on such a small scale. It’s a picture that should have been given to the likes of Szifron, who handles close-in dialogue and action, suspense and large-scale calamity with expertise and vision.  If I have a a criticism, it’s that it was all too much.  I needed a break.

Richard Donner’s devil picture was a big hit in 1976, and 40 years later, it’s easy to see why. Rejecting the dour, sinister tone of The Exorcist, The Omen also lacks that film’s intelligence and gravitas. In its stead, however, is schlock elevated by top-notch performances (Gregory Peck, Lee Remick and David Warner play it straight and true, and Billie Whitelaw is chilling as a modern Mrs. Danvers) and some truly terrifying scenes. A suicide by hanging at a child’s birthday party, an impalement of a priest, and poor Remick’s two falls are memorable, as is the demon child’s first visit to church (he is not happy) and his drive through a wild animal park (they are also not happy).  But it also follows the rules of a mystery.  Clues are given, investigation follows, and then, terrible dawning.  Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar winning original score rejects subtlety, and even as over-the-top as it is, heightens dread.

Best, any film that ends with Peck about to stab a child with ceremonial knives and an unmitigated win for the devil has a place in my heart.

Of Apocalypse Now, Director and co-writer Frances Ford Coppola famously told a room full of reporters, “”My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.” Putting aside the cockiness and disrespect of such a statement, it is fair to say the film (and it is merely a film) is about a certain concept of Vietnam, one unique at the time it was released. Most Vietnam films fall into three categories. The first uses Vietnam as a mere location for a story about man’s triumph over adversity (see The Hanoi Hilton, Uncommon Valor, Rescue Dawn, Bat *21). The second, in the tradition of The Best Years of Our Lives, hones in on the war at home and the effect of the conflict in a much-changed stateside (Rolling Thunder, Coming Home, Birdy, Jackknife, Gardens of Stone and even the ridiculous Forrest Gump).  The third category shows the war in-country and orbits a central thesis; the war was not only a bad war, but it was a pernicious war, one where America lost its soul, to the jungle, militarism, hubris, the military industrial complex, or some combination of same. The Deer Hunter, Born on the Fourth of July, Casualties of War, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon all fit this bill.  Most of these films are well made . But none bear any resemblance to Apocalypse Now, a harrowing visual nightmare drawing from all three categories, paralleling a novel (Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) as interpreted by a macho right-winger (John Milius) and Coppola himself.

The film begins with a portrait of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), an intelligence officer and assassin, as he endures a drunken nervous breakdown in a Saigon hotel. Coppola got Sheen wildly drunk for the scene, baiting him with verbal cues to elicit a reaction, and the effect is mesmerizing; Sheen even cut open his hand smashing a mirror, which perhaps should have been a portent for Coppola (later in production, Sheen suffered a heart attack that significantly delayed filming). Here, Willard has already been home to find his world changed, and he is back, hollowed out and estranged from his family, to take a new assignment.

That assignment, to “terminate the command” of a rogue American Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who has created his own army as a god-like figure in Cambodia, propels us forward, as we travel with Willard and his boat crew to a final confrontation. The trip is a grotesque menagerie. A thrilling and sickening helicopter attack on a VC area led by Lt. Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) shows American ingenuity, power and recklessness. I’d never seen a battle re-creation so skilled and visceral until Spielberg’s rendition of the D-Day landing in Saving Private Ryan 30 years later.

Further up the river, Hollywood comes to Vietnam, as the USO brings in playboy bunnies for the entertainment of troops who are this point so on the edge, a near riot ensues. The scene is jaw-droppingly audacious, a brilliant representation of Willard’s observation, “the more they tried to make it just like home, the more they made everybody miss it.”  Willard tell us that “[Charlie’s] idea of great R and R was cold rice and a little rat meat. He had only two ways home: death or victory.” Coppola’s juxtaposition?

The crew also searches a suspicious junk, and edgy and exhausted, opens fire on its passengers, almost all of whom die (one woman survives, briefly, but Willard puts her down with his pistol so his mission is not delayed). This is Coppola’s My Lai.  Even further is the Du Lung Bridge, a stalemate where GIs either beg to be rescued by the boat or hunker down in a drug-induced haze, in a never-ending firefight with the VC (Willard asks a wired GI “Who’s in charge here?” and gets the response, “Ain’t you?”). Through it all, Willard provides a voiceover, which is half Sam Spade evaluating the situation, half epitaph for everything that went wrong for America in Vietnam.

Unfortunately, Willard’s mission ends. He finds Kurtz, distressingly played by Brando, who has shown up solely for the check. Brando was fat, unprepared, and uncooperative. In a 1979 interview with Rolling Stone, Coppola protected the actor, but only so much: “I shot Marlon in a couple of weeks and then he left; everything else was shot around that footage, and what we had shot with Marlon wasn’t like a scene. It was hours and hours of him talking . . . . Marlon’s first idea – which almost made me vomit – to play Kurtz as a Daniel Berrigan: in black pajamas, in VC clothes. It would be all about the guilt [Kurtz] felt at what we’d done. I said, “Hey, Marlon, I may not know everything about this movie – but one thing I know it’s not about is ‘our guilt’!” Yet Marlon has one of the finest minds around: Thinking is what he does. To sit and talk with him about life and death – he’ll think about that stuff all day long.”

Brando’s deep thoughts notwithstanding, there is no way around it; the last 20 minutes of the film near grind it to a halt, even with the addition of a frenetic Kurtz acolyte played by Dennis Hopper.  It is a testament to Coppola’s gifts that he was able to utilize Brando’s ramblings in as coherent a form as he did.

It hardly matters.  The film is otherwise a masterpiece and should be watched in conjunction with the documentary of its making, Hearts of Darkness, A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.

Very much in the vein of Godzilla, Jurassic World is gripping and exciting, so much so that you almost look past its flaws.

Almost.

The script is cobbled-together from the Spielberg factory. Kids scarred by impending divorce bond (two such kids, like in the first movie); an aunt without parenting instincts (Bryce Dallas Howard) finds those instincts (ala’ Sam Neill, in the first flick); a bad guy (Vincent D’Onofrio) wants to use velociraptors for, you guessed it, military purposes (like Wayne Brady, in the first one, D’Onofrio gets what is coming to him); there are dime store discussions about the ethics of all of this (which are much less impressive coming from the likes of B.D Wong and Chris Pratt, as opposed to Sir Richard Attenborough and Jeff Goldblum); and our heroes live because the dinosaurs fight amongst themselves (like the first one) but this time, overcome our abuse of them by taking up for us (gag).

Speaking of Pratt, he’s in a bit of bind here. Pratt’s wheelhouse is a certain goofy but childishly masculine charm, best represented in Guardians of the Galaxy and Moneyball (as the confused, boyish catcher-turned-first-baseman). Here, when Pratt flashes that charm – mainly in banter with Dallas Howard – he’s fun to watch. But Pratt also tries to play it straight, and he simply lacks the gravitas to do so at this point in his career. A fair comparator would be Bruce Willis, who went from the light comedy of “Moonlighting” to the sarcastic aside of John McClane in the Die Hard flicks to a plausible straight hero. But Willis started late and had the rough look of an older man, coupled with a menace he could draw upon. Pratt ain’t there yet, and at times in the flick, you expect a punch-line that never comes.

There’s also a fair amount of lazy plotting.  It’s never adequately explained why certain features of the new, terrifying animal – Indominus Rex – were allowed to manifest themselves in the creature (such as its ability to think like George Patton), yet the whiz kids couldn’t put a kill switch in it.  Moreover, the response of the park staff itself is less professional than what you might get on a windy day at Busch Gardens, and if Busch Gardens keeps you on a metal track for the Old Time Antique Car Ride, there is no way a park would allow its patrons to self-navigate dinosaurs in one of these:

Still, this is an easy and fun movie which, at last count, has made enough dough to bail out Greece.  I fear such power and the result is a cop out 3 stars.

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A significant portion of Love & Mercy is devoted to Brian Wilson’s production of The Beach Boys record “Pet Sounds.” Wilson enlists a room full of session musicians rather than the Beach Boys, who are utilized solely for vocals. The studio players were known as The Wrecking Crew, and it was from this group that the band found its replacement for Wilson on the road, Glen Campbell.

Denny Tedesco, the son of session guitarist Tommy Tedesco, has written and directed a fascinating documentary that chronicles the heyday of The Wrecking Crew, who played the music on a seemingly exhaustive list of pop records in the the 60s and 70s. Working from interviews of the players and the acts they backed, as well as home movies of his father, Tedesco provides great insight into the times as well as the life of a working musician.

The interviews are particularly fun. Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, who had been a session player himself, had to break it to the band that the rest of them wouldn’t be playing on their hit single “Mr. Tambourine Man” which didn’t go over well. As McGuinn recalls, The Byrds produced two tracks in three hours during the “Mr. Tambourine Man” session, while it took 77 takes to produce “Turn, Turn, Turn” which the band insisted on playing.

Tommy Tedesco tells the story of The Gary Lewis and the Playboys guitarist who confessed he could never play what Tedesco had played in studio on tour and always felt embarrassed when fans complimented his playing on the records.  Peter Tork of The Monkees tells a poignant story of the disappointment he felt when he was invited to come to the studio for the production of a Monkees tune only to learn that the invitation was solely as an observer.  On an up note, Mickey Dolenz reveals that the studio musicians taught him how to play the drums in preparation for his Monkees tour.

Obviously, the days of a small crew of players backing most of the pop radio play (and film and televisions tracks and radio and TV commercials) coming out of LA couldn’t last, but this is a blast of a documentary that also serves as a loving remembrance of the filmmaker for his father.

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(actual ticket to a Washington, D.C. showing of the movie found in my father’s dresser drawer)

The quintessential biopic, Patton (which was co-written by Francis Ford Coppola) gets everything right.   Let me count the ways

It is content to present its subject without the context of some anachronistic cause. In Coppola’s hands, Patton is not emblematic of something larger and more ominous or glorious, be it the hubris of American imperialism, the degradation of war, blah blah blah. He is a flesh-and-bones person who grafted himself onto and shaped one of history’s more momentous times.

It is nuanced. Coppola never lets you get comfortable with Patton and by the end of the film, you remain torn as to the sum of his virtues and vices, which is so much more interesting than the hagiographies or hit jobs we see so often today.

It’s largely composed of true events. Patton did say the outrageous things attributed to him (if not in the form presented by the film), and he was every bit the preening ass and decisive, bold general portrayed in the film. The two incidents where Patton slaps soldiers are condensed into one, and Patton is given too much of a role in the plan to invade Sicily, but otherwise, the picture hews closely to history without becoming tedious. Most historical criticisms of the film zero in on what it doesn’t depict (much as with American Sniper), which is a legitimate criticism only if you give credence to the “I would have done it this way” school.  When it does take poetic license, it comports with other established facts. Patton did not shoot his pistol at attacking German aircraft, but the attack occurred just as he was berating the Brits for failure to provide air cover, and Patton’s risky bravado in the face of enemy fire was legendary. Patton did not shoot mules blocking a convoy, but he did order them shot and their cart dumped into the river.  Patton did not tell a British general that he had been in a battle centuries old, but he was a strong believer in reincarnation.  Indeed, he wrote a poem in 1922, “Through A Glass Darkly”, a stanza of which reveals his inclination:

Perhaps I stabbed our Savior
In His sacred helpless side.
Yet I’ve called His name in blessing
When in after times I died.

Patton is also noteworthy because the actor playing the subject gives a commanding performance. George C. Scott reportedly made a determined study of General Patton and by most accounts, captured him (save for Patton’s higher pitched voice). Incredibly, Rod Steiger, Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum and Burt Lancaster all turned down the lead role.

It also looks authentic, in large part, because the producers rented out WWII-era materiel that had been sold to Spain and largely filmed the picture there.  Obviously, shortcuts were made (the Spaniards didn’t have a passel full of Tiger tanks), but director Franklin Schaffner (Planet of the Apes) does great work with what he has in terms of equipment and locale.

Finally, what a Jerry Goldsmith score.

The movie won 7 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Original Screenplay and sits at #89 in AFI’s top 100 films.

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Robert Altman’s Phillip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) isn’t a hard-bitten cynic but rather, a seemingly scattered, chain-smoking hippie in a suit (his mantra? “it’s okay with me”), as bemused by the conservative cops who roughly bring him in for questioning (“Someday all the pigs are gonna’ be in here and all the people are gonna’ be out there. You can bet on that. You’re not in here. It’s just your body”) as the perpetually stoned yoga nudists who are his neighbors (“They’re not even there. It’s okay with me”). The truth is that much is decidedly not okay with Marlowe, in particular, his being used by old friend Terry Lennox (former NY Yankee pitcher and baseball whistleblower Jim Bouton) after the mysterious death of Lennox’s wife.  As Marlowe floats through a Los Angeles that feels desolate and burnt out, he moves closer and closer to the truth, navigating the authorities, hangers-on and brutes while standing by his friend.

Mark Rydell, who later became a decent director (Cinderella Liberty, On Golden Pond), stands out as a particularly chilling gangster who peppers his threats with loopy new age nonsense and boasts about his physical fitness regimen and the fact he lives near Nixon.

Altman and screenwriter Leigh Brackett aggressively revamp the source material, but Marlowe is still Chandler’s in many ways.  He needles the cops (“Is this where I’m supposed to say, ‘What’s all this about?’ and he says, ‘Shut up! I ask the questions’?”), can shake from his seeming fog to register a keen read on the situation, and when he arrives at the end of the journey, he is all Chandler’s Marlowe, with his own unyielding code.

Critic David Ehrenstein once told me that The Long Goodbye “was” Los Angeles and while the film doesn’t figure prominently in Los Angeles Plays Itself, it’s hard to argue it doesn’t have Hollywood in its marrow. Movie memorabilia can be found in Marlowe’s otherwise bare bones apartment (which was just recently available for rent), presumably from a prior occupant.  The security guard at a gated ocean community specializes in impressions, from Barbra Stanwyck to Jimmy Stewart to Walter Brennan.  The score is some version of the torch song “The Long Goodbye”, be it Muzak in a supermarket or a cocktail lounge piano number, the same ditty re-packaged as only Hollywood can.  Son of Old Hollywood Robert Carradine shows up as a jailhouse prophet and Altman exhibits prescience in his casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a mute thug.  LA itself seems an otherworldy ghost town, where everything seem to be trying to pass as a facsimile of the real thing.  As Ehrenstein noted, “Back then the city was a sprawling, sleepy, empty place — Altman’s The Long Goodbye capturing its ultra-casual look and feel perfectly.  ‘But there’s nothing there,” my east coast friends would say”).

This is a seminal picture, and a prime example of reinventing a genre.

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A competent biopic that smartly alternates between the rise of Beach Boys impresario Brian Wilson (played as a young man by Paul Dano) and his later life (during which he is played by John Cusack), where the ravages of mental illness, substance abuse and the dubious oversight of Svengali psychiatrist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) have taken their toll. We meet the older Wilson as he tries to buy a Cadillac from saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), revealing the only peace he can find, alone with her in the car at the dealership, while Giamatti and his associates hover on the other side of the glass.

The film spaces nicely, and the early pressures on Dano (fear of flying, his abusive and controlling father, the stress of touring, an aversion to conflict) are manifested in Cusack’s caged, distrusting performance, one of many really nice touches in the film.  Near first time director Bill Pohlad delves into but doesn’t overplay Wilson’s demons, choosing to give equal access to his love of the art of pop music and visionary work in the studio.  Nothing in the picture feels hackneyed or stale, a difficult feat in the face of traditional musical biopics like Ray and Walk the Line.  Also, in the era where “Behind the Music” has left these stories vulnerable to the Dewey Cox treatment, the film feels fresh and immune to parody.

Banks and Cusack also radiate the wonder of first love, subordinating the “bio” aspect of the movie to a heartfelt romance.  They have a convincing chemistry, which bolsters the efforts she undertakes to wrest Wilson from Landy.

As Landy, Giamatti is the weakest link.  He is ferocious where he should be merely intrusive, maniacal instead of crafty.  Landy may well have been that excessive, but he didn’t just walk off the street; he was a pop psychologist to many stars, from Alice Cooper to Rod Steiger.  The performance is so over the top, you wonder how Wilson, even in his vulnerable state, could have succumbed to such a bully and how Landy could have had the smarts to set himself up so nicely.

Currently on Hulu.

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Robert Benton’s adaptation of this Richard Russo novel is centered in the wintry environs of North Bath, NY, where everyone knows each other so well they can be regular poker mates while simultaneously failing each other in any number of ways. Paul Newman plays Sully, an off again, on again employee of property contractor Bruce Willis (who he is suing in a personal injury claim) and the only tenant in an old Victorian owned by Jessica Tandy (in her last role before her death). Sully is woven into the fabric of the town, but he is at heart detached and cynical, and the only hint we get of any warmth are in his interactions with Willis’s wife, Melanie Griffith, who suffers her husband’s callous infidelities with a defiance that saps her verve. When Sully’s estranged son (Dylan Walsh) shows up in the midst of a marital and professional crisis, Sully becomes re-engaged, recognizing his role in the community and accepting the responsibility that comes with it, a George Bailey for the 1990s

The film is alternatively very funny and sneakily touching. Benton expertly captures the claustrophobia of a small town and even its collective ethos without letting eccentricity become cloying. Almost all of the characters are good, and Newman, who was rightly nominated for an Oscar, is perfectly suited to the material.   Of Newman, David Thomson wrote:

As a young man, Paul Newman was so handsome he developed a sneer as if to frighten away the fans – the women, especially – who assumed he was ready and available. There were times when this arrogant manner seemed ready to dismiss not just most of his work, but anyone who took it seriously. He seemed to be saying, “Can’t you see – I’m not like this. I’m a real person, unfairly afflicted with movie looks. I’m Jewish!”

Newman was 30 when he first appeared in a movie; it meant he was a grown man, with hard-earned experience, before he started pretending in public. He had been three years in the Navy, as a radio operator; he had helped run his father’s store in Cleveland; he had been married and had children.

Later in life, the sneer fell away, along with the prettiness, until he was left a stoical old man with pain and losses, as well as the abiding perplexity that anyone should take him or acting that seriously. By then, he was one of the finest and most resolute old men in pictures – some achievement in a culture horrified by age.

The observation perfectly captures Newman in this picture.  Newman communicates the pain and loss in Sully in barely perceptible ways, and when he does so, he doesn’t linger in a manner at odds with his core.  He retreats to the crass aside or the blithe “oh well” and that’s that, making those moments of introspection and dawning even more affecting.  It’s a sharp and knowing performance.

The film suffers a few missteps.  Dylan Walsh, as Newman’s son, is badly miscast. He not only looks nothing like Newman, but he doesn’t share a teaspoon of his inner strength or mystery.  Worse, when he arrives with family and children, they are played too broadly, with modern domestic woes and a miscreant younger child (who nicknames a child with a hitting problem “Whacker”?).  So too is a very young Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the anal town deputy, and Josef Sommer as Tandy’s cowardly son.  In a movie where every other character plays the line between comic and grounded beautifully, these turns are a shame, if easily overlooked.