Friday, June 24, 2016

The Films of Todd Haynes: Mildred Pierce (2011)

Mildred Pierce (2011)
Directed by: Todd Haynes.
Written by: Todd Haynes & Jonathan Raymond based on the novel by James M. Cain.
Starring: Kate Winslet (Mildred Pierce), Guy Pearce (Monty Beragon), Evan Rachel Wood (Veda Pierce), Morgan Turner (Veda Pierce), Brían F. O'Byrne (Bert Pierce), Melissa Leo (Lucy Gessler), James Le Gros (Wally Burgan), Mare Winningham (Ida Corwin), Marin Ireland (Letty), Hope Davis (Mrs. Forrester), Quinn McColgan (Ray Pierce).
Todd Haynes’ films have mainly been about their look and feel, and not necessarily about their plots. This isn’t to say the plotting of Haynes’ films have been sloppy – anything but – just that the plot of his films can often be summarized in just a few short sentences, that do not give you the least idea of what it’s like to actually watch a Haynes film. The one real exception may be his 2011 miniseries – Mildred Pierce, based on the novel by James M. Cain, and clocking in at five and half hours. The film has a lot of plot and characters – yet Haynes still remains focused on the look and feel of the film, and the characters, and not quite so much on the plot. Even at this length, the final installment feels a little rushed – as if Haynes realized he still had a lot of stuff to cram in, and had to get it in under the wire (the first three segments all clock in right around an hour – the fourth runs over 70 minutes, and the fifth 80). The miniseries may not quite live up to the best films Haynes has ever made – but it’s still excellent, full of great period detail and performances – and represents a truer adaptation of McCain’s novel than the Oscar winning 1945 film with Joan Crawford, and directed by Michael Curtiz (although truer, doesn’t necessarily mean better).
The miniseries takes place over the better part of a decade – the 1930s – in which Mildred Pierce (Kate Winslet) has to struggle to support her two daughters. Her husband, Bert (Brian F. O’Bryne) has walked out on the family – and didn’t have much money to begin with – although he did when he and Mildred first got married. Mildred has no marketable skills, and it is the Great Depression after all. But she’s willing to work hard – first as a waitress and baker, and then when she opens her own restaurant – serving chicken and waffles. While the country is collapsing, Mildred makes herself into a success. In many ways, she is the personification of the American dream – at least on the surface.
But if Mildred Pierce were just about a hard working woman, there wouldn’t be enough drama here. The story is really about how Mildred’s American dream turns into a nightmare – all because of her eldest daughter, and Mildred’s inability to say no to her. From the beginning of the film, Veda (then played by Morgan Turner) is a snob, who looks down on anyone who has to work for a living – embarrassed by the fact that her mother works as a waitress, and finding ways to punish her for it. Mildred scrimps and saves everything so that Veda can have the music lessons she wants, the piano she wants, etc. Even her relationship with men is dictated by Veda. Mildred falls for Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce) – a wealthy playboy, who has never done a day’s work in his life, and of course, he hits it off with Veda, who shares his snobbery. When Monty’s family fortune is wiped out though, he still doesn’t feel he has to work – and leeches money off of Mildred, resenting her the entire time he does it.
The 1945 film version of the novel turned it into a murder mystery/noir – which is what Cain is mostly known for (The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity for example), but not here. It also serves to give the film a happier ending, as the character that audiences are likely to hate gets their comeuppance in that film, that Cain, and then Haynes, does not. The story is about parental sacrifice – something all good parents do to one extent or another – but this time taken to extremes. Veda is an incredibly selfish and spoiled – a child who thinks that everything should be handed to her on a silver platter. If we feel sympathy for Mildred, we also have to be honest and lay much of the blame on her as well. After all, many children are selfish – it is the parent’s job to teach them something, and by giving in to Veda’s every whim – even if it destroys Mildred – she is simply reinforcing the lessons that Veda really is entitled to everything. Veda manipulates everyone around her – including her mother – to get what she wants.
As Mildred, Kate Winslet delivers a typically superb performance – one where you can feel her desperation in that first installment, as she goes door-to-door looking for working, and not finding it. Winslet is, refreshing, one of the most unapologetic actresses in dealing with sexuality – and her Mildred is a sexual being, going from Bert to Wally Burgan (James LeGros) to Monty with apology or shame. Her relationship with Monty will eventually be mainly about Veda, but when they first meet, the sexual chemistry between them is palpable. Winslet does, subtly, change her mannerisms as the series goes by – aging in the final installments, where she plays Mildred sliding into middle age, especially compared to the lithe, overtly sexual turn by Evan Rachel Wood as a 20 year old Veda (Wood, like everyone else in the film, is excellent). Winslet’s Mildred Pierce is every bit as fascinating as the other “housewives” in Haynes’ filmography – from Julianne Moore in Safe and Far From Heaven to Cate Blanchatt in Carol. What’s even more impressive is that all four of those characters are completely different from each other – all of whom may be living in a patriarchal society, where they are oppressed – but all of them are oppressed in different ways, and respond differently. Mildred may simultaneously be the strongest and most independent, and also the most foolish – she builds up and then loses everything.
Mildred Pierce isn’t quite the masterwork that Haynes’ other period pieces – Far From Heaven and Carol – are. I think in some ways, the film is too rushed, and in others it is too dragged out. Haynes has always loved immersing the audience in period detail – not necessarily realistic period detail, but more stylized, movie period detail. Mildred Pierce isn’t the colorful, Sirk-inspired melodrama of Far From Heaven – but a drabber, dirtier, dustier movie, with more muted colors. In the early installments, Haynes seems to delight in the details of art direction, and the superb cinematography (by Ed Lachman, of course) – and it almost feels like not a lot is happening. The last two installments really have to jam in a lot of plot – I’m pretty sure about 80% of what happened in the 1945 film happens in this installment, so some details – like how Mildred’s business starts failing, and how some people who she helped start betraying her – really does seem to be tossed into the movie as an afterthought - to be fair to Haynes, business dealings may not be as exciting as the personal relationships in the film – but even they are rushed. What makes the film work in these moments are the performances more than anything – Winslet more the rest, but there is excellent supporting work by Guy Pearce as a man who doesn’t know how to do anything except be rich, Evan Rachel Wood, bringing Veda’s spoiled behavior to new heights, Melissa Leo as a sympathetic friend to Mildred, Mare Winningham as a not so sympathetic friend (although, you can hardly blame her for her actions), and Bryan F. O’Bryne, who takes a fairly dull character like Bert Pierce, and makes him tremendously likable.
So no, I don’t think Mildred Pierce is the simple perfection of some of Haynes’ other work. Yet, it’s still one of the best miniseries of recent years – and really should serve as an example to other filmmakers, who want to make something longer than a movie, without committing to a television series. Because Mildred Pierce is every bit a Todd Haynes film - and a damn fine one at that.

Movie Review: Independence Day: Resurgence

Independence Day: Resurgence
Directed by: Roland Emmerich.
Written by: Nicolas Wright & James A. Woods and Dean Devlin & Roland Emmerich and James Vanderbilt based on characters created by Dean Devlin & Roland Emmerich.
Starring: Liam Hemsworth (Jake Morrison), Jeff Goldblum (David Levinson), Jessie T. Usher (Dylan Hiller), Bill Pullman (President Whitmore), Maika Monroe (Patricia Whitmore), Sela Ward (President Lanford), William Fichtner (General Adams), Judd Hirsch (Julius Levinson), Brent Spiner (Dr. Brakish Okun), Patrick St. Esprit (Secretary of Defense Tanner), Vivica A. Fox  (Jasmine Hiller), Angelababy (Rain Lao), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Catherine Marceaux), Deobia Oparei (Dikembe Umbutu), Nicolas Wright (Floyd Rosenberg), Travis Tope (Charlie Miller), Chin Han (Commander Jiang), Joey King (Sam), Jenna Purdy (Voice of Sphere). 
In some circles, the original Independence Day is seen in much the same light as Spielberg’s Jaws and Lucas’ Star Wars are – not a timeless masterpiece (although, there are some people who look at the original through nostalgia covered glasses from when they first saw it when they were 10 who claim it is) – but as a film that signaled a shift in Hollywood Blockbuster culture. As much crap as something like Jaws gets, it has been noted – over and over – that were that film, which kickstarted Blockbuster culture in Hollywood, were to be released today, it would be an art house genre flick – much more It Follows than The Avengers. When Roger Ebert reviewed Jurassic Park in 1993, he noted how much faster Spielberg introduced the special effects in that film compared to Jaws – and it’s true, he did – but when you compare Jurassic Park to Jurassic World, you realize that it’s gone even faster today than it did all those years ago. The turning point may well be Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day which was big, loud and dumb in 1996 – but also a hell of a lot of fun (especially if you didn’t think about its plot too much), had great special effects, which were used to create iconic images of the time, and was sold to an eager audience on the basis of spectacle alone. I remember seeing this film in the theater with my mother during a time when she didn’t go to the movies very often – but she had to see Independence Day. In the 20 years since, Hollywood has tried – with more success than I ever would have dreamed of – of making more and more films into those events – ones you had to see.
The original film wasn’t a great movie – hell, it’s not even a very good movie – but it delivered what it promised – spectacle and entertainment value. You may feel guilty for enjoying Independence Day after it’s over – but admit it, you had fun while it was playing. The 20 years in the making sequel doesn’t do that. In an odd way, the film feels somewhat smaller than the original film – it is shorter (thankfully), but it doesn’t feel like it has the same scale as the original. The original film felt HUGE –perhaps because of the way it destroyed landmarks – especially the White House – which is was the most iconic image of the first film, and even with all the advances in special effects in the past 20 years, more impressive than anything in this film. Perhaps it is because in 1996, some of what Independence Day was doing felt new (at least to me). The sequel feels warmed over and played out – it’s another giant, CGI laden spectacle, whose big special effects sequence once again, involve a lot of crap crashing into a lot of other crap. As Brian De Palma said in the excellent documentary about his career out now, many CGI sequences come pre-visualized by the effects houses, not the directors, which is why they all feel the same. When a bunch of crap floats around and crashes into other crap this time, it feels exactly as it did in X-Men: Apocalypse or countless other films. When London is destroyed, it happens so quickly, it barely registers. The aliens look, of course, like the aliens in the last film – which were just a not too original clone of the aliens in Alien and that franchise – but with more tentacles. The other thing about those scenes of mass destruction that is missing from this sequel, that wasn’t in the original, is the sense of real death. The convention of destroying whole cities, which would undeniably kill thousands, millions, billions of people may have started with the original – but that film was unafraid to deal with that death – and show it, not just brush by it. Like most movies today that contain those sequences though, in the sequel that is precisely what they do.
The movie also lacks the human element that made the first film more enjoyable. I’m not going to argue that the original film was well written, nor that any of its stars deserved Oscars for it, but the performances were likable and engaging. The original, after all, made Will Smith into a movie star – as it gave him his first chance to show off that effortless movie star charm and swagger he has perfected over the years. Smith wisely decided against coming back, and the sequel tries to fill that hole with not one, but two characters – Liam Hemsworth as Jake, a rebellious pilot with the same attitude as Smith, and Jessie T. Usher playing Dylan, the grown up version of Smith’s son from the original. Between them, they still don’t have half the charm of Smith – and when Liam Hemsworth, who is no Chris Hemsworth, is the far more charming of the two, you know you’re in trouble. Bill Pullman is back as the now former President Whitmore, but he spends most of the movie in pain, as he has a connection to the aliens, which make him seem crazy – the film does try, briefly, for a similar type speech as the first film gave him – with far lesser results. Maika Monroe stars as Whitmore’s daughter, and Jake’s fiancé, taking over the role originated by Mae Whitman, presumably because in Hollywood, the beautiful, talented charming and funny Whitman is considered too normal looking to land a hunk like Hemsworth. This isn’t a shot at Monroe – who I loved in The Guest and It Follows in recent years, but the film really doesn’t give her anything to do – she spends most of the movie on the verge of tears, either for her fiancé or father, who are both in danger – although at least it doesn’t keep her on the sidelines for the entire movie. Sela Ward is now the President, but again, there isn’t much for her to do – and really, given the decisions she makes, she seems rather incompetent. The two performances that work best are by Jeff Goldblum as David Levinson and Judd Hirsh as his father Julius, both obviously returning for the original. Even if they have to shoehorn Julius’ subplot into the rest of the film, Hirsh’s performance still works – and Goldblum’s is even better, I think, because neither of them are taking any of this seriously, know how inherently silly the film is, and embrace it (Goldblum gets the film’s best line – an aside “You’re going back for the dog? I guess so”).
Director Roland Emmerich catches a lot of crap from critics – and to be fair, much of it is earned. His films are all big and dumb – but quite often, they are also a lot of fun. In addition to the original film, he also made the weather panic film The Day After Tomorrow, which I found ridiculously entertaining – even if my entire country of Canada is left north of the death line, and White House Down, which was even better (seriously people, how can anyone prefer the dour and violent Olympus Has Fallen to the ludicrously entertaining White House Down, which has Channing Tatum at his movie star best, and features Jamie Foxx doing a Barack Obama impression and firing a bazooka? What’s wrong with you people)? Emmerich doesn’t do small, even when he should, but he has also never embraced the kind of rapid fire editing and shaky camera work that mars far too many action movies today.
As is standard for a film like this now, the end of the film isn’t really an ending, but rather a cliffhanger for the next movie in the series – which judging on the attendance of the 10pm Thursday before opening screening I attended, won’t happen (seriously, I go to these Thursday shows quite often, and I have never been in such an empty theater before – not even the time I stupidly went to see Selma on a Thursday night in the middle of a snowstorm). The setup for the next movie really should have been the plot for this movie – which essentially repeats the plot of the first movie, with the aliens coming back – but this time with more firepower, with the exception that this movie features a giant talking sphere.
Independence Day: Resurgence isn’t a good movie on any level. Did it hold my attention, and give me a few isolated moments of pleasure? Sure. But oddly for a film that took 20 years to make, and has five credited screenwriters, the film doesn’t feel very thought out or planned. In all honestly, it plays more like those direct-to-video sequels of big hits that studios churn out to make a quick buck (seriously, how many Starship Troopers sequels are there?). I find the wave of nostalgia for the 1990s – the era in which I grew up – to rather tedious and boring – and the film is a good example as why that is. The bar for a sequel to Independence Day shouldn’t be a very difficult one to clear – you just got to remember three things – big, dumb and fun. In this case two out of three is very bad.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Movie Review: O.J.: Made in America

O.J.: Made in America
Directed by: Ezra Edelman.
Had you asked me at the beginning of 2016 if I had any interest in rehashing the O.J. Simpson case, my answer would have been no. I was 13 when he was arrested, and he was acquitted on my 14th Birthday. It is a case that has been endlessly discussed, written about ever since – I’ve seen countless docs (mostly TV ones), a previous miniseries (American Tragedy – with Ving Rhames as Johnnie Cochran – I remember liking it, but it was 16 years ago, and I don’t think I could tell you very much about it now), heard it discussed on some of my true crime podcasts, etc. Essentially, I was of the opinion that O.J. was guilty, he bought his way to freedom, and when he ended up in jail years later, for kidnapping and armed robbery (in a case that, quite frankly, I paid little to no attention to), I didn’t really care. For me, I – and the rest of the world – had already devoted far too much time to O.J. Simpson.
Fast forward to right now, and F.X.’s miniseries : The People vs. O.J. Simpson is the best season of dramatic television I have seen so far this year (and really, dating back a few years) – it is impeccably written, directed and acted, and really does add something new to the story. And then, even better, is Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America – his seven and half hour documentary about the man’s life, that is a landmark documentary in every way. When it comes to documentaries, I am of the opinion that there is Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) – and then there is everything else. O.J.: Made in America joins that select group of documentaries right below Shoah – films like Steve James’ Hoop Dreams, Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb, Tony Kaye’s Lake of Fire (why the hell am I the only one who loves that film), Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line – and a few others. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece.
What the documentary does amazingly well is combine the epic and the intimate – scanning out to give what happened context that stretches back decades, and then zooming in on smaller details better than anyone else who has covered this case has. After watching the film, you may come to the opinion that no one who is involved in this case in anyway ends up coming across very good – they are either stupid, incompetent, greedy, craven, cowardly, violent, racist, liars, sleazy or some combination of the above. But, after watching the documentary, they are also human – and the film shows us them with their flaws. You won’t forget this film.
Like most people, I saw the film split up into five, two hour blocks on Broadcast TV, split over the course of a week (for parts 1, 4 and 5 – when I didn’t have work the next day, I actually watched them again, time shifted, at midnight as well). I would have loved to see it all in one sitting – but I realize why that isn’t really feasible (my wife, for example – who loved the doc – said that if I asked her to sit through it all at once, she would said no). The five parts do help in some ways though – and certainly does have a structure to it. The first part, is really everything before O.J. met Nicole Brown – she’s seen only in passing in the last few minutes of the segment. In many ways, this part plays like an American success story – as O.J., who grew up poor, ends up going to USC, where he becomes a football star, and wins the Heisman trophy before going pro – where he struggles for a few years in Buffalo, before a new coach emphasizes the running game, and builds the offense around him – where he ends up being one of the greatest running backs in NFL history. He also becomes a famous spokesperson – for Hertz among others – becoming one of the first African Americans to do so. Even as his football career is winding down, he begins an acting career – and starts to think his life post-NFL. In this segment, Edelman does a great job at placing O.J. in history – the USC stadium borders on Watts, which had just gone through the riots (which are detailed) right before O.J. started playing there. But unlike athletes like Jim Brown or Muhammad Ali, Simpson doesn’t use his fame to help advocate for black causes – quite the opposite really – he ignores them. He is quoted as saying “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” – which sounds bad, but at least you could defend on some level as arguing that he meant he wanted to be judged on his talent and who he was as a person, not the color of his skin. What’s indefensible is the story that is told right after, where he and a friend are at a wedding, and seated at a table only with other African Americans, and they overhear a white woman say “Look at O.J. over there with all those niggers” – and O.J. thinks it’s great – they don’t see O.J. like they do the “rest” of them. This is key to what made everything about O.J. such a huge story later on – he was “one of the good ones” as they say – the black man who made White America comfortable – who would along them to say they weren’t racist, because they loved O.J.
Part two is really about O.J. and Nicole’s relationship – right up to the time of the murder (again, it happens, in passing, in the closing moments) – but like the first part, it allows for transgressions to the world outside of O.J. – and much more detailed ones this time. O.J. meets and falls for Nicole – then a beautiful, 18 year old blonde, as he’s going through a divorce. He is trying to become an actor – but is struggling a little bit (he lost out on a part in Ragtime – that went to Howard E. Rollins Jr., who received an Oscar nomination for the role) – and really only excels in silly Naked Gun movies. He tries to become a football broadcaster as well – but he isn’t really good at that either. Meanwhile, he’s moved to Brentwood – the rich, mostly white enclave in L.A. – and surrounds himself with (mostly white) well-wishers and hangers-on. As the 1980s progress – and turn into the 1990s – the police are called more and more often to their house – because O.J. is beating the shit out of Nicole. No arrests are made, no police reports filed – the police loved O.J., and treat him with kid gloves. Meanwhile, L.A. is exploding with racial tension. Edelman shows, repeatedly and in detail, the video of Rodney King being beaten by four, white LAPD officers – and details how, eventually, they will be acquitted of any wrong doing. He also notes the case of Eulia Love – gunned down by LAPD officers in the 1970s, over an overdue gas bill – and the case of a young African American girl, shot in the back of the head, by a convenience store clerk over an argument – and the clerk who only got probation. Edelman is setting the stage for what is to come next – the O.J. verdict didn’t happen in a vacuum. If the African American community didn’t already have a healthy – and justified – skepticism that the LAPD and the justice system was stacked against them, would O.J. have been acquitted? Would so many be so quick to believe the conspiracy theory that Johnnie Cochran and the defense would lay out, centering on Mark Fuhrman and planted evidence?
It’s at this point, you realize that we’re more than three hours into the documentary (not including commercials) – and the murder hasn’t even happened yet. This speaks to how Edelman sees the case – that the murder and the trial are part of something bigger (it’s also the reason Edelman has said he didn’t initially want to make the film – which is probably why he approaches things in this way). Part three, therefore, is a challenge – because it’s here where Edelman has to start delving into the material that everyone already knows – and has an opinion on. It’s here where the infamous Bronco chase happens – and O.J.’s perhaps suicide note, where he implores people to remember him how he was, and not how he is now. And it is also starts documenting the trial – the jury selection, which heavily favors the defense (and how, the prosecution, even today, comes right up to the point of calling them uneducated and stupid, but does quite cross the line). Not all the lawyers involved are interviewed – Johnnie Cochran is dead, of course, and Christopher Darden – whose reputation was probably hurt the most by the trial isn’t here either. But listening to the likes of Marcia Clark, and especially Carl Douglas (of the defense team), really does provide fresh insight into the trial, and how it came out the way it did (Douglas’ story about staging O.J.’s house is a classic in itself).
The fourth segment basically takes us to the end of the trial – but before the verdict. Much like part 3, it really does offer new views on the same old material – concentrating on Mark Fuhrman for much of its runtime, who I wouldn’t say comes across sympathetically, although it’s not as hateful as you may think. It also spends quite a bit of time on the glove – and the disastrous decision by Darden for O.J. to try it on (if there’s a bombshell in this regard, it’s in O.J.’s agent, who says he told O.J. not to take his arthritis medication for a while before then – which made his joints ache, and his hands swell) – and it is also spends time with Cochran’s closing argument – in which he says the infamous “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit” line – but also, ends up comparing Mark Fuhrman to Hitler. But this segment will be remembered for a 10 minute sequence, when one of the assistant D.A.’s walks us through the crime itself – something that, looking back, I’m not sure I’ve ever really seen done before. For a case this dissected and discussed, where I’ve heard the timeline of when O.J. got burgers with Kato, to when he got on the plane to Chicago, etc. a million times, I don’t think I’ve ever really heard the actual murders themselves discussed in any detail. What follows in that segment is sickening and disgusting – and Edelman doesn’t blink away from it for a second, showing some of the most graphic and bloody crime scene photos you could imagine – in particular one that shows Nicole’s neck after the murder that will stay in my mind forever. You won’t want to look at those photos – but they are necessary. Because no matter how much bigger a case this was, we have to remember that it all started because of two brutal, bloody murders – and if the media is going to turn this into entertainment, and we in the audience are going to lap it up, we have to reckon with what actually happened.
Part five in, some ways, the most interesting one. It starts with about 30 minutes on the verdict and the fall out – how the jury came back in just a few hours after 268 days of a trial, and how they found him not guilty. Edelman talks to two jurors – both African American women – one who insists that “90%” of the jury saw the verdict as payback for Rodney King, and one who says it had nothing to do with it – the prosecution just didn’t make their case. The scenes of African Americans celebrating the verdict are almost surreal (here, I think is one of the instances where viewing it all in one sitting would have helped – having those crime scene photos only an hour before the verdict and the celebration, rather than viewing them a day apart). It’s interesting to see some of those who celebrated the verdict – Civil Rights and Church Leaders especially – talk about the verdict now. Pointedly, they never saw that the think O.J. is guilty or innocent – but do talk about how the verdict was a wake-up to White America – that something that was so obvious to them came down the other way, which is something Black America deals with all the time. It’s really only here, I think, that the racial fault lines in America were seen by White America – Edelman does a brilliant job of saying they were always there, but they were invisible to those in the privileged position. From there, the movie delves into the years after O.J. was acquitted – the Civil Trial, which he lost and was ordered to pay millions (which he didn’t really do), the game of musical chairs O.J. did with his assets to protect them, how he still wanted to be loved, but found himself on the outside of the White America he had embraced – and had embraced him – for decades. How far he falls to make money – to exploit his infamy, including one sequence which shows multiple takes of O.J. taking down the American flag at his Rockingham estate, and getting mad at the person taking the video – who in reality, was his agent, who had conspired with O.J. to shoot the video, and sell it to the tabloids. There is a fascinating interview with Wendy Williams, in which she seems completely uncomfortable at first with O.J., but by the end, is laughing and almost flirting with him – O.J. was still charming. O.J. is basically leading a life of drug and alcohol fuelled excess – he doesn’t care if he’s famous because people think he’s a murderer – he’s still famous! The most fascinating part maybe when it details the crime in Las Vegas that led him to a 33 year sentence in prison. If you’re like me, and didn’t really know much about the actual crime, what’s shocking about it is how silly the whole thing seemed – it’s like a Keystone Cops routine, with a bunch of incompetent idiots doing something stupid. There’s no way in hell it warrants that sentence – as Carl Douglas says, that crime is “two years, soaking wet” – he got punished because he beat the murder charge, not because what he was convicted of warranted it. It’s uncomfortable after the sentence is read to hear Fred Goldman (who is a fascinating interview throughout the film, justifiably angry at many things – not least of which how pretty much everyone – the police, the prosecutors, the defense, the media, pretty much completely ignored his son who was murdered) say that O.J. deserves to be locked up “with his own kind” – a remark that is dripping with racist connotations, whether he meant it that way or not.
In short, O.J.: Made in America is about a lot more than O.J. Simpson, and the murders that most think he committed, even if he was acquitted. What Edelman has done with this sprawling, epic documentary is place the case in a larger context – as one event in the continuity of race relations of America in general, and L.A. is particular. It seems like, back in 1994, you either believed that O.J. was guilty and the LAPD had done nothing wrong, or you believe that the LAPD was racist, and OJ was innocent. What I think (hope) has happened in the intervening years is that people have stopped seeing the two as mutually exclusive – that OJ Simpson can be guilty AND the LAPD can have a history (and present) of racist behavior that needs to be addressed and corrected. Viewed in the context of the film that Edelman has so brilliantly laid out the verdict makes sense, even if, like most, you disagree with it. Marcia Clark says in the film that the trial was “so much bigger than us” – and that’s true. It was something that showed America at its ugliest, and laid bare the truth about race relations in America – something that isn’t pretty. But the film also doesn’t let the audience forget about the murders themselves – and how brutal they were, nor the issues of domestic violence that led to them. It is an all-encompassing case, where no one gets away clean – and that includes us in the audience, watching for each new, salacious detail. The film is, in short, a masterpiece.

Movie Review: Finding Dory

Finding Dory
Directed by: Andrew Stanton.
Written by: Andrew Stanton and Victoria Strouse & Bob Peterson based on characters created by Andrew Stanton.
Starring: Ellen DeGeneres (Dory), Albert Brooks (Marlin), Ed O'Neill (Hank), Kaitlin Olson (Destiny), Hayden Rolence (Nemo), Ty Burrell (Bailey), Diane Keaton (Jenny), Eugene Levy (Charlie), Sloane Murray (Young Dory), Idris Elba (Fluke), Dominic West (Rudder), Bob Peterson (Mr. Ray), Kate McKinnon (Wife Fish), Bill Hader (Husband Fish - Stan), Sigourney Weaver (Sigourney Weaver).. 
Pixar’s best movies, and 2003’s Finding Nemo is certainly one of them, are able to speak to both children and their parents on different levels at the same time. At their best, Pixar avoids the cheap way other companies animated films – like, say, Dreamworks, accomplish this, which is basically including two types of scenes – one aimed at kids, that parents may suffer through, and ones aimed at adults, that go over the children’s heads. Pixar does things different – the craft beautiful looking films, filled with recognizable emotion that speaks to both children and their parents. Finding Nemo did this as well as any Pixar film ever has – perhaps better than most, because it really is about parents and their children – how parents want to protect their children from the real dangers out there, but also need to let go, and let them become themselves. In Marlin’s journey to find his lost son Nemo – and Nemo’s struggle to grow up – the film speaks powerfully to everyone in the audience.
The long awaited for sequel, Finding Dory, attempts to do something very similar, even if the situation is essentially flipped. It’s a year after the first film, and now it’s Dory – the fish with short term memory loss that helped Marlin on his journey in the first film – who needs to go on a journey herself. Flashes of memory are returning to her – and she is determined to head out and find her parents. As fearful as Marlin is, he agrees to help her on her journey. Most of the film takes place inside a Marine Park – nicer than SeaWorld, since their goal is to help the sea life back into the ocean when they are healed – where Dory remembers she is from. Most of the movie has Dory separated from Marlin and Nemo – who spend their time trying to get into the park, which Dory was able to do easily, and find her. Dory is mainly teamed up with Hank – an Octopus, with only seven arms (so, as septopus, as the movie points out) – as she tries to make her way to the exhibit her parents should be in – and Hank tries to find a way onto the truck bound for Cleveland – he has no interest in returning to the ocean.
That Finding Dory doesn’t reach the heights of its predecessor is probably to be expected – even Pixar, with its excellent track record has struggled making sequels to their films – with all second installments to their films never living up to the first films, with the exception of the Toy Story films (sorry, Toy Story 3 is clearly the best of that trilogy). This is hardly a Pixar specific problem, and it should be said that they still do sequels better than most (Monsters University, I find is particularly under-rated). Finding Dory would be a triumph for almost any other American animation studio – and the fact that it’s only really good Pixar instead of great Pixar, speaks more to the heights the studio has reached, not so much the quality of the film itself. The film is beautifully animated – the technology has clearly improved since Finding Nemo, and the water looks better that ever. Finding Dory is also another example at how Pixar is the best in the business at creating animated action sequences – there are many moments of Hank and Dory getting from one tank to another, dodging and weaving around obstacles, and staying hidden that work brilliantly – as does a sequence involved fish chasing a truck down on a highway (and they don’t even have to rely on an inlet or fjord to do so) a la Knight Boat.
What ends up holding back Finding Dory from true Pixar greatness, is that I think the film places more emphasis on the action and the comedy aspects of the film – again, both are top notch – than on the dramatic, emotional pull that is present in their best work. The movie spends so much time with Dory and Hank getting from one exhibit to the next – or with Marlin and Nemo, trying to get into the park in the first place (not to mention some hilarious sequences involving sea lions – poor Gerald) – that that emotional thrust is shunted to the background far too often in the film. It doesn’t help that it’s Dory who is responsible for this emotional pull either – Ellen DeGeneres excelled in the first film, in a role that essentially amounted to comic relief, but here, asked to do some more heavy lifting, he doesn’t quite nail those dramatic moments. I was far more moved by the vocal performance of Sloane Murray as a young Dory is flashbacks than anything DeGeneres does. I am a sucker for Pixar – heck, I cried at The Good Dinosaur (in that devastating moment when the two new friends find a visual way to tell each other their parents are dead) – yet although Finding Dory had me close to tears a few times, I never quite spilled over. Not every Pixar movie needs to leave me in a puddle on the floor – like poor Bing Bong did in Inside Out – although that has always been at least a part of their charm.
Still, Finding Dory is better than any other animated film I’ve seen so far this year (Zootopia is close, but this is better) – and it may just be the best we’ll see this year. No, Finding Dory doesn’t hit the magical level that Finding Nemo did – but then again, few films do.

Movie Review: De Palma

De Palma
Directed by: Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow.
Featuring: Brian De Palma.
There are a few ways in which documentaries centered on the work of one director can go – it can be the kind of fawning treatment, meant only foe diehards, that really should be nothing more than a DVD special feature (like Altman or Milius were a few years ago), or something like Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s De Palma – which, yes, is still for diehards, but it is a fascinating film in its own right, and contains a tremendous amount of insight into the films of Brian De Palma – from the man himself – as well as observations about Hollywood, from a man who has been there for more than 40 years. De Palma is mostly clear eyed about his own work – admitting when he made mistakes, or when something just didn’t work, but also being proud of his accomplishments – of which there have been many.
According to IMDB, Brian De Palma has 40 directing credits, and the film De Palma is basically the famed director talking about each and every one of them (they mostly skip the few shorts he made in school, but after that, the list is exhaustive). From his first Hitchcock homage, Murder a la Mod (1968), through subversive indie comedies like Greetings (1968) and its sequel, Hi, Mom! (1970) – which were early breaks for Robert DeNiro), through a disastrous first experience in the studio system – Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972), which De Palma says didn’t work, and when he told the studio how to make it work, they fired him, through the indie shockers Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise and Obsession, and then returning to the studio fold with Carrie (1976) – and then on and on, the film is full of observations, and De Palma pulls no punches. He’ll tell you how Cliff Robertson was an asshole on Obsession – how he realized Genevieve Bujold was stealing the movie from him, and did everything possible to undermine her. Or how he had to ban Oliver Stone from the set of Scarface, which Stone wrote, because Stone was trying to direct the actors. Or how David Mamet refused to work on The Untouchables after a certain point, so he had to do things himself. Or how Robert Towne wanting the climax of Mission Impossible to be a bunch of guys in a box car taking off their masks. De Palma admits that sometimes he has been hamstrung by the material – he doesn’t really like The Fury (1978), which made him do a car chase, which he hates doing, or how he had to completely restructure Raising Cain in the editing room, because it wasn’t working. He’ll admit his mistakes – he doesn’t dispute the fact that The Bonfire of the Vanities doesn’t work, but he does dispute the much made argument that he didn’t get it. He got it just fine, he just didn’t think that since he had Tom Hanks as the lead, that he could make a movie that cynical and depressing, or make Hanks that deplorable – so he lightened it, with horrible results. He knows Mission to Mars (2000) doesn’t really work – and it looks bad in parts, but that is, he argues, because they ran out of money. In regards to that film, he also argues why most CGI heavy blockbusters today look the same – it’s because the big effects sequence are pre-visualized, and not by the directors, but by effects houses, and they cost so much, that directors don’t really have the ability to go back and ask for something else. Ever wonder why every blockbuster seems to climax with a bunch of “stuff” crashing into other stuff, as building collapse, etc. That’s the reason.
One of the positives, and negatives of a movie like De Palma, which only questions the director on his own work, is that you end up with only one perspective. When I watched Hitchcock/Truffaut a few months ago, I wondered why there were no female directors questioned on Hitchcock’s work – which, many have argued, often bordered on, and occasionally crossed right on into, misogyny. The same can be said of De Palma’s work – but he mainly brushes off such criticisms. I would have liked to see dim delve more deeply into the sexual politics of Dressed to Kill (1980) for instance – a film, that is in many ways a stylistic masterpiece, but whose treatment of a trans character would make it impossible to make today. Or, delve a little deeper into the sexual politics of Body Double (1984) – one of my absolute favorites of his, but one that does feature a woman being killed by a giant drill (De Palma’s answer to that – that the drill had to be so big, so it could go through the floor where the main character would see it, is both an interesting practical note, but also a little bit of a copout) – but also, undeniably, has a great role for Melanie Griffith – her first great one, as a porn star, who completely owns and controls her sexuality. There is more to say about the sexual politics in his films, but De Palma doesn’t seem too interested in saying them.
Still, there are tons of great notes on the making of his masterpieces, like Carrie and Blow Out (my two favorites), his constant battle with the ratings board, or his regrets over something like Causalities of War (1989) basically being ignored at the time it came out (it’s one that I think still requires a critical re-evaluation). My one major regret is that it seems like once Baumbach and Paltrow get De Palma’s thoughts on CGI and Mission to Mars, they’re pretty much done with him, and the film. The Black Dahlia gets only a minute or two, Redacted even less, and I don’t think Passion is even mentioned by name. Worst of all, the film pretty much skims right by Femme Fatale (2002) – which would rank in my top five of all De Palma films, but which they don’t really discuss.
Still, De Palma is a fascinating document of De Palma’s career – a reminder of how great he can be given the right material (in the past two weeks, I’ve re-watched both Blow Out and Body Double – and loved both), and how to build a career in Hollywood. A career like De Palma’s could only happen at precisely the time it did – any earlier, and he’d be too shackled by the studio system, any later, and they wouldn’t give him the money needed to make such bold, provocative movies. He has had a wildly inconsistent career – but a great one.

Movie Review: Love & Friendship

Love & Friendship
Directed by: Whit Stillman.
Written by: Whit Stillman based on the novella Lady Susan by Jane Austen.
Starring: Kate Beckinsale (Lady Susan Vernon), Xavier Samuel (Reginald DeCourcy), Morfydd Clark (Frederica Vernon), Tom Bennett (Sir James Martin), Chloë Sevigny (Alicia Johnson), Emma Greenwell (Catherine DeCourcy Vernon), Justin Edwards (Charles Vernon), Stephen Fry (Mr. Johnson), Jemma Redgrave (Lady DeCourcy), James Fleet (Sir Reginald DeCourcy), Jenn Murray (Lady Lucy Manwaring), Lochlann O'Mearáin (Lord Manwaring), Kelly Campbell (Mrs. Cross), Conor MacNeill (The Young Curate).
The best book to screen adaptations are the ones in which it seems like both the novel and the film are meeting each other halfway – that even if it isn’t possible, that the author of the novel was writing it specifically for this filmmaker to tackle it, and turn it into a movie. I’m thinking of adaptations like Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997), where although he changed a lot of Elmore Leonard’s novel, really does seem like a merger between two of the best writers of dialogue out there. Or the Coen Brothers No Country for Old Men (2007), which is nowhere near Cormac McCarthy’s best novel, although it feels like it was written for the Coens – it’s more heavy on plot and character, and less on McCarthy’s tough to parse prose. Both of those now feel like marriages that were inevitable – and so to does Whit Stillman adapting Jane Austen. Stillman took an unfinished novella instead of one of Austen’s longer, more famous (and celebrated) novels – and yet, that’s the right choice for Stillman. He is not a director who excels at – or even seems to give a damn about – plot. He’s at his best when his characters are simply sitting around, shooting the shit with each other – especially when those characters are highly educated and pretentious, who are basically saying stupid things, in ways that are designed to make themselves seem smart. Had Stillman chose to adapt Sense & Sensibility or Pride & Prejudice, or another Austen novel, he may have been stuck doing what other directors have had to do – focus on the complicated plots, or who is in love with whom, who hates whom, and why, and then why that all changes. Instead, by choosing Lady Susan, and turning it into Love & Friendship, Stillman doesn’t have to worry about all that. There’s barely a plot in this film, and what there is, doesn’t matter. This makes Love & Friendship little more than an enjoyable trifle – but when trifle is this enjoyable, who could possibly complain?
The film stars Kate Beckinsale, giving the type of performance she does once every five years or so, that reminds just how great she can be in the right role – and simultaneously remind you of how infrequently she gets to do it. She is so jaw-dropping beautiful, that it seems like most directors want her to do little else except look jaw droppingly beautiful (what has the Underworld franchise been really, except an excuse to dress Beckinsale in skintight leather every couple of years). In something like Love & Friendship, Stillman (who cast in The Last Days of Disco in 1998 – another one of her great roles) writes a brilliant role for her. She’s at the center of most of the scenes in the movie – she is the widow of a rich man, now in a precarious financial situation, and trying to snag a rich husband for daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), and herself, while also carrying on an affair with an already married, rich man herself. That affair blowing up has made her pick up, and move into with her brother-in-law Charles (Justin Edwards) and his wife Catherine (Emma Greenwall) – even though Lady Susan had tried to get him to call off their wedding. The man he wants her daughter to marry is Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), who, to put it mildly, an idiot – but he’s such a jolly idiot, you cannot possibly hate him – unless, of course, you’re being pushed into marriage with him. Lady Susan has her eyes set on Catherine’s brother, Reginald (Xavier Samuel) – a young man, of good breeding, who has a catalogue of expressions to make whenever someone says something stupid that rivals John Krasinski on The Office. Lady Susan is shameless in her flirting, and her scheming, but she gets away with it all, in part, because everyone else is too polite to say anything about it to her face. It seems like no one really likes Lady Susan – aside from her friend, Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny, an American who doesn’t want to get sent back Connecticut by her husband – Stephen Frye), and the various men who are in love with her. Behind her back, everyone insults Lady Susan – but to her face, they are polite – so polite in fact that none of them will even call her out for her own rudeness.
The movie moves quickly through it 90 minute plot, where nothing of any real significance happens – and what does, you can probably see coming. This isn’t an Edith Wharton adaptation after all, so things are going to work out for the central characters – which of course they do, and everyone ends up with precisely the partner that will suit them best – except for that poor woman, who won’t stop complaining about her marriage that ended weeks ago. How shameless!
Beckinsale is the star of the show here – and her Lady Susan is such a force of nature, and gets all the best lines, that to be honest, no one else really has a chance to keep up with her. The lone exception is Tom Bennett as Sir James, who somehow finds a way to extend every conversation much longer than he should – and even if he’s proven wrong, he just keeps right on talking. In real life, this may be annoying as hell – in the movie, it’s hilarious.
Stillman is still thought of as a better writer than director – and Love & Friendship won’t much change that – the dialogue calls so much more attention to itself than the visuals. But, Stillman is a fine visual director as well, and he seems to have an instinct for camera placement – the best way to get two laughs out of his best lines – the line itself, and the reaction it inspires. The film is a definite improvement on Damsels in Distress (2011), which was his first in 13 years at that point (many love that film – I did not, I found it too mannered and stilted). This, though, is a return to form – a Stillman film that stands alongside Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco – and an Austen adaptation that stands alongside the best of her work onscreen. When you can say all of that, does it matter if the film ends up being completely superfluous?

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Films of Todd Haynes: I'm Not There (2007)

I’m Not There (2007)
Directed by: Todd Haynes.
Written by: Todd Haynes & Oren Moverman.
Starring: Cate Blanchett (Jude), Ben Whishaw (Arthur), Christian Bale (Jack / Pastor John), Richard Gere (Billy), Marcus Carl Franklin (Woody), Heath Ledger (Robbie), Julianne Moore (Alice Fabian), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Claire), Bruce Greenwood (Keenan Jones / Garrett), Michelle Williams (Coco Rivington), David Cross (Allen Ginsberg).
Biopics of musicians have long been a staple of Hollywood – they give actors a chance to show off both their chops at impersonating someone else famous, and their musical abilities – and often lead to Oscar nominations and wins. They all pretty follow the same basic formula – a few scenes of the musician as a child, to let the audience know what inspired them, then scenes of them struggling, and finally scenes of them succeeding. Or else, the follow someone like Johnny Cash or Ray Charles as they get famous, get strung out on drugs, and then beat their addictions, etc. You know the story – and Jake Kasdan’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox story brilliantly skewers the genre. Because these films remain so popular, it was only a matter of time before someone decided to make one about Bob Dylan – one of the most iconic American musicians of the 20th Century. But how could you tackle someone like Dylan, who has deliberately kept himself an enigma for his entire career by constantly re-inventing his public self, while not providing all that much insight into his private self? Who the hell is Bob Dylan?
Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There finds the perfect – perhaps only – way to make a biopic about Bob Dylan, and that’s to turn the genre inside out, and make a film that both provides insight into Dylan, yet keeps him an enigma. The film stars 6 different actors playing 6 (or 7, depending on how you view the two Bales) different Dylan personas, each of which gives you a little insight into a part of Dylan – but not the whole. The name Bob Dylan is never once mentioned. And still, Haynes doesn’t get everything – yes, one of the Dylan’s is a child, but he is a black child in love with Woody Guthrie, not a Jewish boy from Minnesota. And he really doesn’t address anything after, say 1980 or so. The film is a technical marvel – inspired by different films in each segment, and it all adds up to a dizzying, hugely ambitious film that remains as tough to crack as Dylan himself. Which is exactly how it should be. It’s not a perfect film – because how the hell could it be – but it is still a masterpiece.
The six (or seven) different Dylan’s are played by different actors, representing different eras, or aspects, of Dylan’s persona. The best, and most famous, of them is Jude (Cate Blanchatt), who plays Dylan around the time he’s gone electric, and gone on tour in England – famously captured in Don’t Look Back by D.A. Pennebaker. But Haynes doesn’t take that film for its visual inspiration for this segment – instead, he goes with Fellini’s 8 ½ and creates a surreal, hallucinatory portrait of an artist who has no idea where he’s going next – who can be both a genius, and an insufferable asshole. Blanchatt is an odd choice for Jude – and not just because she’s a woman (as Haynes as pointed out, Dylan at this point was very thin, and did move with a slightly feminine style) – but because we’re not used to seeing her in something this strange. But Blanchatt nails it – and what may have played like a mere stunt, instead becomes the heart of the film – and the best performance of Blanchatt’s career.
The other Dylan are interesting in their own ways as well. There is Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin), a young African American boy in the edge of adolescence, who rides the rails, singing Woody Guthrie songs – much to the confusion of everyone he meets, who want to know why he’s talking about things that happened 30 years ago. At this point, Dylan is merely aping what came before him, and needs to find his own style. There is Arthur (Ben Whishaw) – inspired by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who is being interviewed by some off camera person about his career as he talks in poetic circles about his life and career – despite being so young. There is Jack (Christian Bale), the young, idealistic folk singer who became the voice of the “protest” movement for a few years, embracing it feverently, before completely rejecting it a short while later. Bale returns later as Pastor John, the older version of Jack, who has now embraced Christianity in the same way (this is why there’s a debate about whether it’s six or seven personas – is Pastor John separate from Jack, or is the same, embracing something whole heartedly for a while, before abandoning it). There is Robbie (Heath Ledger), an actor who plays Jack in a more traditional biopic than this one – but his segment, heavily inspired by Jean Luc Godard of the 1960s (but more feminist) – focuses on his first marriage to Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and how it briefly flourished before it crumbled. This is a remarkable segment, because Ledger and Gainsbourg have to do so much in such a short period of time, showing this relationship – and Gainsbourg in particular is brilliant (in fact, other than Blanchatt, I think hers is the best performance in the movie).The most head scratching segment stars Richard Gere as Billy the Kid – who instead of being dead, has been hiding out for decades, away from the public eye - going about his life in solitude, before he is forced out again.
In some ways, these are all separate personas, who exist in their own reality within the film. But there are deliberate echoes in each of the segments that resonant in other ways, and tenuous connections, where you can see how one persona bleeds into another one. If it makes any sense – and it may not – they are all separate, but all the same. By the final shot of the movie – which is the only one of the actual Dylan, playing his harmonica (and not speaking or singing), you feel both closer to Dylan, as well as still mystified by him. Haynes hasn’t made a film for casual Dylan fans – I wonder if anyone who doesn’t know how Dylan is when the watch the film will be able to make heads or tails of it – but he’s made one that is loyal to the subject. It is perhaps the most free-wheeling of Haynes’ great film – it has the looseness of Velvet Goldmine, but this time that’s not because the movie hasn’t been thoroughly thought through, nor is it scattershot or surface level only. Haynes applies the same rigorous visual standards to the film – as well as his passion for old movies, which are referenced throughout – but he allows the film to flow a little more freely than something like Safe, Far From Heaven or Carol, which are far more controlled. You can probably point out more flaws in I’m Not There if you so choose – but for me, it moved me more than his others. Haynes has made more perfect films than this – but I don’t think he’s made a better one.