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Robert De Niro‘s second film as director is methodical, atmospheric, and very well acted. It is also a long, hard slog. Ostensibly about the origins of the CIA through the eyes of altruistic Yale Skull and Bonesman Matt Damon, we watch as his sensitive poetry student becomes a soulless spy master, bringing dread and calamity to all he loves while doing the dirty work of the agency.

I like Matt Damon. He is perpetually ignored or overshadowed in films where he delivers. He was the engine of The Talented Mr. Ripley, yet all of the good notices went to Jude Law. He was the most interesting character in The Departed, but the buzz went to DiCaprio, Nicholson and Marky Mark. He was the best thing about The Martian by far, so good that when you left him on the lonely planet to check in with all of the smart, hip, “every day is casual Friday” types at NASA, you quickly became bored.  Here, he is again very good, even though you sense he is shadowing Michael Corleone, becoming more brittle, more shallow, and more sinister as each scene progresses. Yet, even at his most unconscionable, Damon gives you a glimpse into his tender and sensitive side.  His scenes with his son, both as a child and as an adult (Eddie Redmayne) are touching.  It is a very strong performance.

The story itself is also intriguing. The theme of the lure of patriotism and secrecy to the yearning and vulnerable Damon is well-developed, for a time. Unfortunately, the film is over long and eventually, repetitive. Characters tell Damon on at least half a dozen occasions “trust no one” or something to that effect, a sentiment that hardly needs to be verbalized when every single scene in the film communicates that you really shouldn’t trust anyone.

Still, this is a pretty decent flick.

 

 

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Anyone who watches movies knows that some of the greatest offerings of falsity come in the package of authenticity, and this is never more so than when a filmmaker takes his shot at rural or back home America. The pitfalls are many, and invariably, films about the small town succumb to oppressive nostalgia (Hoosiers), salt-of-the-earth worship (Promised Land), the presence of an impossibly attractive lead as he or she slums (Mel Gibson in The River, George Clooney in The Perfect Storm), cutesy “we’re jes’ folks” condescension (Passion Fish), amped up mythology (Out of the Furnace) or just plain old moronic messages, like money doesn’t buy happiness or home is where the heart is or safe sex is the best sex.

There are exceptions (Billy Bob Thornton’s Sling Blade, Carl Franklin’s One False Move, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone), but they are rare and they are not current. In Mud, Take Shelter, and this film, a story about two modern Arkansas families drawn into a violent confrontation upon the death of their shared patriarch, writer-director Jeff Nichols cements that he can translate the patterns, pace and feel of the small town like no other. The actors portraying the family members are natural and unburdened by archetype, and the town itself is not presented to you as a metaphor or cautionary tale, just a town.

What Nichols does with actors and setting he achieves with tone. The families are seemingly in as safe a place as you can be, but when their animosities surface, their very environment becomes foreboding, and the pressure mounts accordingly. As the calamities befall them, there are no revelations or Hollywood speeches or screenwriter dot-connecting. Nichols is content to let you be the judge of what it all means.

This was Echol’s first film, and that may explain its brevity (about 90 minutes). The result is some backstory that is a tad rushed, but nonetheless, this is a gripping, thoughtful picture.

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In the vein of “awful people who became awful because they suffered childhood trauma” family drama movies, this one is not half bad. That’s mainly due to Adam Scott, who is one of the more versatile and under-appreciated actors working today.  Scott plays the damaged, stuck in the hometown older brother who picks up his younger brother and the brother’s girlfriend from college and proceeds to fall in love with the latter. Scott is a depressive, an alternately cruel and then apologetic anti-hero, who maligns the girlfriend as a whore who will hurt his naive little brother. The problem is that she succumbs to his damaged entreaties, thus partially cementing his earlier uncharitable appraisal.

There is the obligatory childhood trauma and the big reveal, and it could all be so pat, except for Scott’s ability to communicate real suffering and writer-director Lee Toland Krieger’s insistence on taking these characters seriously instead of using them as charming archetypes to condescend to the audience. More to the credit, there is no wrap-up or deeper understanding. It starts messy and ends up hopeful but still messy, which is commendable.

There are problems.  The hometown is overpopulated by distinctive characters, the father (J.K. Simmons) is too seminal to be so underdeveloped and the hipster soundtrack is now so obligatory it borders on self-parody.  Still, a worthwhile watch on a rainy Saturday.  Thanks, Xmastime.

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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.

I caught this the other night and of the mockumentary films written and/or directed by Christopher Guest – This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind, For Your Consideration – this is my favorite.  Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also the sweetest on its subjects, an assortment of purebread dog owners who are competing at The Mayflower Kennel Club Show.  Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy stand out as the impoverished Florida couple who, unfortunately for Levy, run into O’Hara’s old lovers on their way north, but Jane Lynch shines as a driven, lesbian handler who has found a Sugar Mommy (Jennifer Coolidge) to fund her efforts, as well as the magazine American Bitch (“it’s a focus on the issues of the lesbian pure bred dog owner”).

But Fred Willard, as the disinterested but garrulous TV announcer, and Jim Piddick, who has to suffer him, steal the picture.

A film that got away from me, perhaps because it gave off such an air of discomfort, I watched There Will Be Blood this weekend. The movie is very good, but my instincts were correct.  It is a very difficult movie to endure.

Daniel Day Lewis plays a Charles Foster Kane-esque Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling tale of an oil man who rose from a single claim prospector to a wealthy oil magnate through sheer will and a ruthless brutality that destroyed everything in its wake. Whereas Welles’ Kane, obsessed though he was, could enjoy the taste of his success and the fruits of his labor, Plainview cannot. He is a tortured, singular man, made dangerously distrustful the moment he gets close to anyone for fear of what that person will take. Worse, he cannot abide a slight, and when a young preacher (Paul Dano) fences with Plainview, forcing him to endure a humiliating baptism in exchange for the rights to a critical tract of land, the incident burns in Plainview. As played by the spellbinding Day Lewis, it damn near appears to eat his insides out.  Anderson’s representation of California – be it the barren oilfields or the lonely mansion Plainview inhabits at the end of the movie – becomes more forbidding and cruel as Plainview descends into madness.

All well and good, especially near flawlessly rendered, and yet, this is a cold, one-note film, devoted near completely to a terrible, monochromatic character. What is Anderson telling us about ourselves, or, is he telling us anything? Many cite the picture as an evocation of the American experience, a “portrait of a young nation struggling to find itself, torn between religious and business values” or “a harrowing cautionary warning to a country with oil pumping through its veins, clouding its judgment and coarsening its soul.”

If only. Anderson’s vision is too personal and too specific to Plainview, and it is a testament to the director’s gifts and Day Lewis’s skill that such a narrow focus remains compelling. The result is a lot of blood and guts but no real heart, which keeps it from being great.

Currently available on Netflix streaming, this almost 3 hour documentary essay presents as both art exhibit and graduate course (it is written and narrated by the sleepy-voiced Thom Anderson, a filmmaker and film theory and history teacher at the California Institute of the Arts).  Los Angeles Plays Itself is textually interesting, the visuals of the city’s depiction in film are always entertaining, and accompanied by Anderson’s incisive narration, often illuminating.

Anderson can also be very funny, in a dry “this is Carlton, your doorman” way. On a scene from Michael Mann’s Heat:  

 [In Heat, Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro) is briefing two members of his gang. He tells them, “Saint Vincent Thomas Bridge, that’s escape route number one.“]  Vincent Thomas was San Pedro’s representative in the state assembly for many years, but he hasn’t been canonized yet, not even in Pedro.

And on the perpetual destruction of LA in the movies:

Mike Davis has claimed that Hollywood takes a special pleasure in destroying Los Angeles, a guilty pleasure shared by most of its audience. The entire world seems to be rooting for Los Angeles to slide into the Pacific or be swallowed by the San Andreas fault. …In Independence Day, who could identify with the caricatured mob…dancing in idiot ecstasy…to greet the extraterrestrials? There is a comic undertone of ‘good riddance’ when kooks like these are vaporized by the earth’s latest ill-mannered guests.  But to me the casual sacrifice of Paris in Armageddon seems even crasser. Are the French being singled out for punishment because they admire Jerry Lewis too much? Or because they have resisted Hollywood’s cultural imperialism too fervently?

Of course, if you let an academic talk long enough without interruption or query, he’ll eventually meander into overstatement and grandiosity, and as Anderson moves from LA’s history, architecture, sprawl and patterns in film to politics, race and class, we get poetic broadsides, against the cops and the modern Noah Crosses and skyscrapers. This is all part of the condescension of most any “true” city dweller who presumes to know the authentic heart that beats in his city, and for the most part, that’s part of Anderson’s charm.  Anderson has a grievance, as he concedes at the outset:  That’s another presumption of the movies: that everyone in Los Angeles is part of their industry or wants to be. Actually, only one in forty residents of Los Angeles County works in the entertainment industry. But the rest of us simply don’t exist.  We might wonder if the movies have ever really depicted Los Angeles.

But doleful mouthfuls like “White America had declared a crisis of the black family as a cover for its campaign of incremental genocide against its expendable ex-slave population, rendered superfluous by immigrant labor power, so black film-makers responded by emphasizing families and children” are waiting at the end, so you have been warned.

Though it limps a little at the finish, I really dug this movie, and it is a must-see for any film buff.