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.

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.

Not just historically inaccurate, but outright hostile to the facts, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart matches its puerile fantasy with cheezy romance, splatterfest battle scenes, and cartoonish characters (Patrick McGoohan plays King Edward Longshanks as Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Peter Hanley plays his son as if auditioning for La Cage Aux Folles). Then, there is the James Horner score that brings you back to the ye olde highlands of Busch Gardens. Naturally, like Robert Redford and Kevin Costner before him, the Academy honored an actor turned director with an undeserved Best Picture statuette. But Ordinary People and Dances with Wolves are merely pedestrian. Braveheart is bad through and through and often, excruciatingly so.

On the plus side, when you decide to rewrite history, you might as well give William Wallace a haircut straight out of Duran Duran.

Image result for braveheart

Hungry like the wolf for FREEEEEDOOOMMMMM!!!!!”

Blood Simple (1984) - Rotten Tomatoes

Al Pacino once explained his attraction to a project by tapping his finger to his temple and noting that the director had “a vision.” That director was Warren Beatty and the project was the bloated Dick Tracy.

The Coen Brothers’ first film demonstrates a true vision, one that has it flaws, but one that is unique and rich, through and through – a sun-drenched, steamy Texas noir potboiler that evokes Jim Thompson and James Cain, updated to include a very sly, dark humor. The plot takes numerous turns, but it is simple in its introduction.   A bartender (John Getz) runs off with the wife (Frances McDormand) of his boss (Dan Hedaya), who in turn puts a lethal private investigator (M. Emmett Walsh) on their trail. Walsh introduces the story in voiceover:

“The world is full of complainers. But the fact is, nothing comes with a guarantee. I don’t care if you’re the Pope of Rome, President of the United States, or even Man of the Year–something can always go wrong. And go ahead, complain, tell your problems to your neighbor, ask for help–watch him fly. Now in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else–that’s the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas…”

What follows is the twisted story of these four characters against the backdrop of a flat, unforgiving landscape. The photography is stunning, and the camera-work is assured, if sometimes a bit too film school flashy (as McDormand and Getz confront each other at his front door, a slo-motion newspaper crashes against it to startle us all). Composer Carter Burwell started his partnership with the Coens on this film, and his score is primarily solo piano, sparse and ominous.  Hedaya is the embodiment of the cowardly cuckold, but he seethes, almost a human pressure cooker. Walsh’s sleazy dick is repellant. He almost oozes, but he’s canny, using his “aw shucks” as a way to get the advantage. Getz and McDormand are weaker. Getz just doesn’t project and while I respect the Coens for eschewing the expected sultry, bored kept woman, McDormand’s character requires some charisma and sexuality to justify the risks taken on her behalf. She’s never been that kind of actress and here, she’s flat.

Still, this is a very good film, and as a debut, it’s all the more impressive, presaging the brilliance of Fargo.

Francis Ford Coppola’s take on the Dracula story is wild, occasionally campy, and very funny.  It also has a few scares, but one gets the sense that Gary Oldman’s Transylvanian count is not to be taken too seriously.

After all, he appears in, by my count, 7 guises, including a nifty pile of rats, and he is enjoyably over-the-top in all of them.  Not to be outdone, Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing is near giddy in his thirst for scene-chewing and vampire heads.

In its first half, the picture feels very Baz Luhrmann meets Saturday-at-the-movies serial, but it settles into a more leisurely pace in the middle, as Dracula attempts to take root in London and the opposition grows around him.  The picture is a gas, and the rejection of a serious, brooding vampire is welcome.  Well, perhaps it is not quite a rejection – Oldman tries so hard to be otherworldly, he just may be the last one in on the joke.

The film is also surprisingly erotic, as is evidenced by poor Jonathan Harker’s seduction at the hands of Dracula’s babes and the complete, sensual overload delivered to Winona Ryder and Sadie Frost as they fall under Dracula’s sway and use all of their wiles to get at necks.

Speaking of, Harker is played by Keanu Reeves, who was then fresh off of two Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure movies.  If you thought Kevin Costner had problems with an English accent in Robin Hood, you have to check out this performance (both Costner and Reeves are listed in the Top Five Most terrible British Accents, and rightfully so).  Reeves can hold his accent – barely – for one line, and then, he’s one syllable away from being all San Dimas and “duuuude” and then, he’s back to a dramatic and unconvincing “Carfax Abbey” and then, he’s dropped it again.  Reeves appears so uncomfortable, you can feel that stoner, slacker Bill just dying to get out.  Even if you hate this movie, watch it solely for Keanu’s solitary struggle.

Great, grandiose soundtrack as well:

The Silence of the Lambs - July 11th, 2020 at Lefty's Drive In!

My son is headed off with his pals to see The Silence of the Lambs tonight, courtesy of AMC theaters’ occasional screenings of older films. I saw it with him a few weeks back and I think he’s looking forward to watching it again in the theater as much as witnessing the reaction of his friends.

Jonathan Demme’s masterpiece is one of the few films that focuses on the serial killer but doesn’t give way to excess. What we know about Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) is simple: he is locked up for eating people; he is brilliant and fascinating; and he is lethal. When a serial killer, Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) starts to plague the Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia area, FBI profiler Jack Crawford (Scott Glen) sends a trainee, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), to elicit any advice from Lecter. Starling and Lecter use each other for their own ends, engaging in a thrilling psychological dance that is one part therapy and one part mental combat; she seeks to stop Buffalo Bill while he waits for a slip-up.

The Silence of the Lambs is so well-paced and taut that on occasion, you are near-breathless. There is only one pause in the film’s very serious, unrelenting tone (when Starling is “hit on” by two geek entomologists with whom she is consulting). The pressure is not only from Lecter and Buffalo Bill, but from Starling’s lack of experience, harrowing childhood, and even her gender and diminutive physicality.  The odds seem uncomfortably stacked against her.

The exchanges between Hopkins and Foster are electrifying. You can see just how dangerous Lecter is and near curse yourself for being charmed by him. Yet, you root for the seemingly overmatched Starling, and when she stumbles, you feel the sting of her awkwardness. When Lecter so easily assesses her background and her sexual desires, it is excruciating. Yet Starling comes up to speed and achieves a plausible parity.  Levine is also expert as the tortured, frightening Buffalo Bill, and his transformation to “normal” when he is questioned is a chilling addition to this “monsters among us” story.

The picture is one of only three to win Academy Awards in all the top five categories: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay), and deservedly so.

Very much like Goodfellas, but with a broader palette and more compelling characters. In Goodfellas, Liotta, DeNiro and Pesci are sharks, swimming to survive and devour, and the peek Martin Scorsese gives us into their immoral, brutal world is such a dizzying kick, we tend to forget that these brutal archetypes are no more than that. In Casino, Scorsese aims higher. DeNiro’s Sam Rothstein is not just an Irish street thug, but instead, a wunderkind Jewish bookie who is handed the keys to the cash cow for the mid-West mob – the Tangiers hotel (funded, of course, by union pension money) in 70s Las Vegas. DeNiro finds his oasis in the desert and works to re-create himself as a solid citizen. His efforts are doomed to fail, however, because no executive title, country club membership, or professional success can sanitize the shit on his shoes. He’s still just a functionary effectuating the skim just like when he was picking Oklahoma, taking the points. But DeNiro’s self-deception is absolute. At one point, he even hosts a casino television show which he devotes to exposing the raw treatment he has received at the hands of the local politicians who have forsaken him, ala’ Lenny.

When DeNiro feigns respectability, his protector, Nicky Santoro (Pesci) is always around to puncture his pretensions. In one of my favorite scenes, Pesci accuses a silk robe wearing, cigarette holdered DeNiro of walking around like “fucking John Barrymore.” It is Pesci’s presence that ensures DeNiro’s success (he muscles out any competitor or threat) as well as his demise (every Pesci excess is linked to DeNiro). And DeNiro is incapable of truly weaning himself off of his criminal past. As he cannot reform or blunt Pesci, he uses him to bring his conniving wife (Sharon Stone) to heel. Stone was a working girl who DeNiro hoped to take with him on his journey to polite society, but she was no more malleable than Pesci. DeNiro is, rather strangely for a Nicholas Pileggi/Scorsese character, a romantic, opening the film with “When you love someone, you’ve gotta trust them. There’s no other way. You’ve got to give them the key to everything that’s yours. Otherwise, what’s the point? And for a while, I believed, that’s the kind of love I had.” So you invest in him. His inevitable tragedy is unsurprising yet moving.

Scorsese’s use of music is, as always, impeccable, and the fluid camera-work manages to convey not only the mechanics of Vegas but the exhilaration of the town. Moreover, the film’s ending lament about its corporatization is one of his few codas to a Scorsese film supported by what preceded it.

If there is a weakness, it is in the last third of the film, where the dissolution of the DeNiro-Stone marriage is exhausting and a bit tiresome.  That identified, this is a great film and certainly a top ten American crime picture.

Robert Altman’s send-up of Hollywood process and morality opens with an audacious 7 minute, no-cut scene that is a primer on economical, fluid exposition. We meet most of our characters, including the studio’s no. 2, the writer’s executive, Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), and the tone is set.  Unfortunately, Altman cannot fulfill the promise of his introduction. Robbins’s star is falling and he is also being threatened via postcard by a writer he has brushed off. Unnerved, he sets up a meet with who he believes to be his stalker, accidentally kills him and then falls in love with the writer’s girlfriend (Greta Scacchi). The murder is implausible and the heat-of-the-moment relationship unconvincing (a love scene with Robbins and Scaachi is not so much hot as uncomfortable). Robbins is way too mannered and standoffish to elicit empathy, and the film swerves artlessly from suspenseful to broadly comic (Whoopi Goldberg is very funny as the investigating detective, but she’s too funny).

On the plus sides, we are treated to a whirlwind tour of LA, and Altman makes sure it is populated by just about every star, young or old, he can get his hands on. Also, the lingo of the pitch meetings can be very funny:

“It’s a TV star who goes on a safari.”

“A TV star in a motion picture?”

“A TV star played by a movie star.”

“A movie star playing a TV star.”

“Michelle, Bette, Lily.”

“Dolly Parton would be good.”

“I like Goldie.”

“Great, because we have a relationship.”

“Goldie goes to Africa.”

“She’s found by this tribe.”

“- of small people.”

“She’s found and they worship her.”

“It’s like The Gods Must Be Crazy.”

“except the coke bottle is an actress.”

“Right. It’s Out of Africa.”

“meets Pretty Woman.”

Still, the script is rather gentle on the town, and it never really succeeds as a thriller or a satire. In fact, the movie could have been done without any reference to the murder at all, which, ultimately, drags it down. The Player falls into the category of Movies You Thought Were Better at the Time (Altman was nominated as Best Director, as was Michael Tolkin for the script)

When Dead Again came out in 1991, 31 year old Kenneth Branagh was fresh off his stunning Henry V, and along with Emma Thompson, threatened to be the next big thing. So as a follow-up, why not try a modern Hitchcockian homage set in San Francisco, with Branagh playing the hard-bitten gumshoe who runs across Thompson, a mysterious woman who has lost her memory, is terrorized by nightmares from her past, and needs Branagh to sort it out.

At the time, the film was well-received (Roger Ebert – “I am a particular pushover for movies like this, movies that could go on the same list with Rebecca, Wuthering Heights or Vertigo”) and it holds an 82% on Rottentomatoes. I can’t scoff. In 1991, I thought it was clever and well-conceived.

How wrong I was.  Dead Again just became available on Netflix streaming. It is an atrocious film.  Branagh’s “American” accent is an awful, nasally annoyance; Thompson barely makes an impression; the story (Thompson and Branagh both lived past lives where he, a famous composer in the 40s, was executed for her murder) is a preposterous pile of pure Gouda; and the villain is so obvious and nonsensical that you are offended at the degradation of the fine actor playing him.

He’s also not so good with scissors.

I’ll give credit where credit is due – Robin Williams does a few decent cameo scenes as a disgraced former psychotherapist and a babyfaced Campbell Scott shows off some nifty ninja kicks. 

Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt won Oscars in this James L. Brooks comedy about a cantankerous romance writer with OCD (Nicholson) and a worn-out, single mother waitress (Hunt) who meticulously serves him at the only Manhattan diner at which he will eat. Nicholson is a holy terror, complaining “there are Jews at my table” when it is occupied. At home, he is no better, throwing the dog of his gay artist neighbor (Greg Kinnear, who won a best supporting actor Oscar) down the trash chute. But Nicholson is soon drawn into the world he loathes out of necessity. Hunt has to leave her job because of the health of her son, and Kinnear is beaten into a wheelchair by local thugs, which leaves Nicholson to take care of his dog. The man has to eat, and he bonds totally with the pooch, so soon, he is arranging for medical treatment for Hunt’s child and acting as support for Kinnear. In the process, he and Hunt begin a relationship that is halting at best.

This picture can be riotously funny, and Nicholson gets all the good lines, including my favorite.

If I have a problem with the movie, it is Hunt’s character. Her harried waitress is overbearing, self-pitying and often bullying, and her demand for control is every bit as off-putting as Nicholson’s knee-jerk rudeness and his fear of cracks on the sidewalk. Yet Brooks denies us any judgment of her – she is presented as plagued, but somehow noble. Mind you, Hunt’s performance is excellent, but her character is unpleasant without the benefit of making me laugh, and my teeth are always set on edge during her scenes.

That’s probably my hang-up.