Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Ranking the Paul Schrader Films I've Seen

Paul Schrader will most likely be best remembered as the screenwriter for three of Martin Scorsese’s best films – Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). But his career is obviously greater than those three films – from his fine screenplays of other director’s work like Rolling Thunder (1977) and Mosquito Coast (1986), along with his other screenplay for Scorsese – Bringing Out the Dead (1999). He has also directed 18 films – the latest being The Canyons – opening this week in theaters and on demand. While Schrader has never gotten quite the same praise for his directorial efforts as he has for those screenplays for Scorsese, his filmography is quite strong – and he certainly qualifies as an auteur. I titled this post the films of Paul Schrader that I have seen, because while I’ve only seen 11 of his directorial efforts and have missed 6 – Cat People (1982), Light of Day (1987), The Comfort of Strangers (1990), Witch Hunt (1994), Forever Mine (1999) and Adam Resurrected (2008). That’s a third of his filmography, so obviously I have some work to do to catch up. But on the eve of the release of his latest film, I thought I should take some time to acknowledge a fairly underrated filmography.

11. Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005)
The story of Schrader’s awkwardly titled Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist is well known – the studio hired Schrader to make a Prequel to the famed horror movie – he did, and they hated it. They considered it too slow and ceberal, and not the horror movie they wanted, so they took the movie away from Schrader, jettisoned most of the footage, recast some roles, and gave the film to Renny Harlin, who made Exorcist: The Beginning. After spending millions on the two versions, and having it still in the red after Harlin’s film was done it’s theatrical run, the studio relented, and barely released Schrader’s version – in an effort to make a least little money off of it. I’ve now spent most of my space talking about the backstory to the movie rather than the movie itself – and there’s a reason for that. It just isn’t very good. I appreciate the fact that Schrader takes the premise seriously, which is probably what the studio didn’t like (but should have expected had they seen anything Schrader has ever done before), but the film is still dull, and rather unremarkable. Is it better than Harlin’s version? Yes, but not by that much, although they are very different films based on the same basic premise. If they were better movies, it would be fascinating to watch them back to back to see the differences. But they’re not, so both films have largely already been forgotten – and that’s probably for the best.

10. Touch (1997)
Strangely, although the film couldn’t be more different than Dominion, Touch suffers the same basic problem – that Schrader takes it a little too seriously. Here we have a movie based on an Elmore Leonard novel – with all of his trademark wit – that doesn’t really play like a comedy. Part of that is because it’s a bizarre novel by Leonard in the first place – instead of his usual criminals, Touch is about a strange young man (Skeet Ulrich) who has Stigmata – and the people who meet and try to exploit him. The film seems caught between the world of Leonard – in which this could be an amusing religious satire – and Schrader – who tries harder to take some of the questions of faith in the movie seriously, which I don’t think Leonard ever intended. This makes Touch a very odd movie – not successful really, but not boring either.

9. Patty Hearst (1988)
Patty Hearst is an odd film, but perhaps that is what this very odd story deserves. We all know the story of Heart – she was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, really just an odd collection of misguided young people under the power of their leader, kept in a closet for weeks, and then ends up joining their “revolution” – even to the point of brandishing a machinegun at a bank robbery. Schrader’s film is clearly in sympathy with Hearst – he buys her story that she was essentially brainwashed into doing what she did, and the way Schrader presents it, you’d have a tough time arguing that. Yet what makes the film odd is that for such a sensational, unbelievable story, Schrader has made a subdued film – one that you could argue is dull. What isn’t dull is Miranda Richardson’s great performance as Hearst – which is remarkably subtle – so subtle in fact, at times she appears to be doing nothing. I’m not sure Patty Hearst is really a good film, but again, it’s an interesting one – and one you won’t likely forget.

8. The Walker (2007)
The Walker is the story of a man who everyone sees as frivolous and a failure when compared to his “great” father, who in reality, is a far greater, more moral person. It stars Woody Harrelson, in one of his best performances, as the son of a famous Senator, who really hasn’t done much with his life. He is gay and spends most of his time going on “dates” with the wives of powerful Washington men – accompanying them to parties or the theater, when their husbands are too busy to. And then, he becomes involved in a murder investigation because of one of those women, and then becomes the prime suspect. The film is more of a character study of Harrelson’s character than a murder mystery – but the murder mystery is necessary in order for us, and for Harrelson’s character himself, to see just who this character is. It isn’t one of Schrader’s best films – but it is a very good one, and it deserves to be seen by more people.

7. American Gigolo (1980)
American Gigolo is every inch a Paul Schrader with one major difference – the ending of this film is upbeat. This is another of what Schrader calls his “Man in a Room”  movies, this one involving Richard Gere, as a young gigolo who specializes in pleasing middle aged women. He’s very good at his job – and takes pride in it. While outwardly, he appears to be charming and likable, he really is another of Schrader’s lonely characters – craving human contact, and yet not quite sure how to get that legimately, so he hides behind his profession to get it. That is until he meets Lauren Hutton – as a Senator’s wife. Her character is not as well defined as perhaps she could be, but everything else in the movie – including the murder investigation (this is clearly a pre-cursor to films like Light Sleeper and The Walker) are handled well. Does the upbeat ending work? I’m not sure, but considering that Schrader usually ends his films on a down note, it is a welcome respite.

6. Light Sleeper (1992)
Light Sleeper is one of the saddest films about drug addiction you will ever see. It stars Willem Dafoe in an excellent performance as a former addict, now clean for a few years, who still works in the drug business – going to the home of his clients to drop off their fix. Why does he do this? After years of being an addict, what other job could he possibly get? He gets along with his boss, Susan Sarandon. Like The Walker, the film is a character study more than it is about it’s plot – and there is a plot, about an old flame of Dafoe’s, another drug addict, and her death – that Dafoe gets drawn into. Some will complain that the ending of the movie is basically the same ending as Schrader wrote for Taxi Driver. It’s not an unfair complaint, but the ending works for this film, as it did for the previous one. And, as I said, the movie isn’t about its plot – about these two people, Dafoe and Sarandon, their relationship, and the two performances couldn’t be better.

5. Auto Focus (2002)
Auto Focus is a sad movie about sex addiction. It stars Greg Kinnear in a remarkable performance as Bob Crane – star of TV’s Hogan’s Heroes – whose career crashed and burned after the show went off the air, and then he descended into his own personal hell as a sex addict, before ended up being murdered by his running mate – played in an exceptionally creepy performance by Willem Dafoe. There is a lot of sex in Auto Focus, but no joy, not eroticism. Crane is famous, and finds getting women to sleep with him is easy. He and Dafoe’s character spend time in strip clubs and bars, and often film their exploits. Why? Why not? Some complained that Auto Focus was a shallow film, but that’s not accurate. It’s a remarkably

4. Blue Collar (1978)
In the same week that the city of Detroit declared bankruptcy, I find myself writing about Schrader’s debut film – Blue Collar – that takes place in Detroit, and shows just how corrupt were. It stars Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yapphet Kotto as three assembly line workers in the auto plants, who are essentially tired of being squeezed by both sides – management on one side, the union on the other – and decide to take matters into their own hands and rob the safe in the Union office – what they find is both more and less than what they expected. The film is brilliantly acted by the three leads – you expect that from actors like Keitel and Kotto, but it is really Pryor who is the star here – still at times funny, but not in the way we’re used to seeing him. This is a film full of anger, and the film does become violent, but as it goes along, it also becomes more morally complex –as the men have to decide what to do. You don’t hear much about Blue Collar anymore – it’s another of those great 1970s films that has been forgotten – but it’s worth tracking down. Right from his first directing effort, Schrader showed he was a fine filmmaker – and one willing to follow the story where it should go, and not the way Hollywood usually wants them to go.

3. Hardcore (1979)
After writing Taxi Driver for Scorsese and Rolling Thunder for John Flynn, I guess Schrader wanted to make a similar movie himself –and he does so in Hardcore, the most underrated film of his career, and one of the more personal ones. The film stars the great George C. Scott as a strict Calvinist (the same religion Schrader himself was raised in), who discovers his daughter has gotten involved in the porn industry – and heads to California to try and “rescue” her. Along the way, he meets a young prostitute – and the two bond. It’s there relationship that is really the heart of Hardcore – he is the one man who doesn’t just see her as a sex object, she gives him the freedom to open up in a way he never has before. The flaw in the movie is the ending – which is fairly standard issue stuff, even if it ends on a bittersweet moment. I almost think the film would have been better had Scott never found his daughter – and if he tried to make the most of it with his new “surrogate” daughter instead. Still, a flawed ending(that Schrader said in Film Comment recently he was forced to change) isn’t enough for me to not love Hardcore, which is a personal movie to me in other ways as well.

2. Affliction (1998)
Affliction is perhaps the most perfect film of Schrader’s career (not, obviously, in my opinion the best, but the least flawed). It stars Nick Nolte in his greatest performance as a lazy, alcoholic Sheriff who is still terrified of his abusive, alcoholic father – played in an Oscar winning performance by James Coburn. Affliction points to the types of roles Nolte, no longer a leading man, has excelled at in the last 15 years – flawed men, beaten down by life and their own demons, but men who despite outward apperances, and past behavior, are still decent. Like many of Schrader’s films, there is a murder in Affliction – one that snaps Nolte out of his slumber, but the movie isn’t about the murder - I can barely remember the details of the murder in this film. What I will never forget is the performances by Nolte and Coburn, one as a man still suffering from the effects of child abuse decades later, and one who is still a big, mean, petulant bully. Coburn said that this was the greatest role of his career – one of the few that actually required him to act. And act he does. Nolte probably should have won an Oscar for this performance as well (out of the nominees, he was probably the best). These two towering performances are at the heart of Schrader’s film – a great one.

1. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)
 Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is a completely unconventional film biography, but probably the only way to effectively tell the story of it’s title character – the famed Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, who in 1970, along with his private army, would storm an army base, take a General hostage, address the troops and the commit seppuku, all in an effort to restore the Emperor to power – something even the Emperor did not want. Schrader’s film tells Mishima’s life story in starkly different styles – black and white flashbacks, that show a sickly, overprotected child, who becomes a sexually confused body builder and writer, in highly stylized color sequences, shot on a sound stage, recreating the events of three of Schrader’s novels, and then in more natural color, depicting the last day of his life. Like Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There (2007), Schrader doesn’t want to make a standard issue biopic, but wants to explore the different aspects of Mishima’s character – although this time, I do think it adds up to a coherent whole, unlike Haynes’ film, where not adding up to a coherent whole is part of the point. You’re on dangerous ground when you try too hard to make an artist’s work reflect who they are as a person, which Schrader does here, but the overall effect works remarkably well. Schrader himself considers this his best directorial effort – and I agree wholeheartedly.

Monday, July 29, 2013

My Answer to the Latest Criticwire Survey Question: First Serious TV Show


This week’s question is about TV shows – how they are taken more seriously now than ever before, but looking back at what the first show you really took seriously was. I’m not 100% sure what my answer would be. If I’m being truthful, probably The Simpsons – some of my earliest exposure to criticism aside from Roger Ebert was my subscription to Entertainment Weekly (long since lapsed), and since they reviewed TV shows as well as movie, I read their take on The Simpsons when it was at it’s peak creatively. I saw ever episode – repeatedly – and still watch the show to this day. Others around the same time would probably be South Park – which I defended in its early seasons from those who thought it was just smut. King of the Hill was, for a time, the best animated show on television – vastly superior to anything currently on Fox (except the best of The Simpsons). The X-Files would have to be listed as well – as well as Seinfeld and Roseanne (the former needs no explanation, the later was the first time I saw a sitcom that actually had some serious issues addressed, but wasn’t overtly preachy).

But the first show I remember re-arranging my normal schedule around was Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. A brilliant show about politics that was entertaining, intelligent, well written and well acted. It came on the air the same time as The Sopranos – although it took me longer to catch onto that show, because I didn’t get HBO. Little did I know that rather than introduce a new era of intelligent drama on network TV, it would pretty much be the death knell for it. The serious shows are now all on cable – or at least critics think they are (Hannibal just finished a great first season – better than most shows on cable).
I also have to admit this - I don't watch enough "serious" TV as I probably should. I don't look down on it at all, but the truth is there is only so many hours in the day, and I cannot possibly be an "expert" on anything - so I mainly stick with movies. As good as Homeland, Justified, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones or most other cable shows you can name probably are - I just don't have the time for all of them. I do watch Breaking Bad, Louie, Mad Men and The Walking Dead - those are probably the four I take "most seriously" right now.

Movie Review: Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station
Directed by:  Ryan Coogler.
Written by: Ryan Coogler.
Starring: Michael B. Jordan (Oscar Grant), Melonie Diaz (Sophina), Octavia Spencer (Wanda), Kevin Durand (Officer Caruso), Chad Michael Murray (Officer Ingram), Ahna O'Reilly (Katie), Ariana Neal (Tatiana), Keenan Coogler (Cato), Trestin George (Brandon), Joey Oglesby (Cale), Michael James (Carlos), Marjorie Shears (Grandma Bonnie), Destiny Ekwueme (Chantay).

Fruitvale Station is not a perfect movie, but it is an important one. Like many first time directors, Ryan Coogler’s films has a few flaws in it – a few moments that are too on the nose in terms of metaphors and foreshadowing, an over reliance on hand held camera work where none is needed, etc. And yet, the film still feels vital, alive and completely necessary. In the wake of a tragedy like what happens to Oscar Grant in this movie and in real life – or what happened to Trayvon Martin – people seem to want make these young, black men into something they were not – a villain or a martyr if you will. What Coogler’s film does is see Oscar Grant as a human being first – as a flawed individual who is trying, with limited success, to get his life on track. It’s far too easy to make Oscar Grant into a symbol – and that kind of misses the point. In an era where some delusional people insist we live in a “post-racial” world a movie like Fruitvale Station is important.

In the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009, Oscar Grant and his friends were coming home on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transportation). A fight broke out, the BART police were called, and Grant and his friends were lined up against the wall to be arrested. Things spiral out of control – and eventually one of the police officers drew their gun and shot Grant in the back – killing him. Fruitvale Station opens with real grainy, cell-phone footage of the confrontation, before flashing back and showing us the last day in the life of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan).
 
It is a rather mundane day – but as we watch Oscar go through his routine, we start to develop a complete picture of who he is. He loves his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), although he has recently been caught cheating on her (and given how charming and flirtatious he is with a young woman at a store, may well cheat on her again given the chance). He loves his four year daughter Tatiana even more – wants desperately to go straight and have a normal life – even though he is still dealing pot, and has recently lost his job at a grocery store for being perpetually late. He wants to make his mom Wanda (Octavia Spencer) proud – and she can still give him a swift kick in the ass if that’s what he needs at the time. He is funny, charming and likable. He is also quick to anger, and that easy charm can turn somewhat threatening at times. Oscar is, flaws and all, believably real and sympathetic.

Now, if that seems too simplistic too you, I won’t really argue. In a perfect world, a movie like Fruitvale Station wouldn’t be necessary. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Far too often, popular culture portrays young men like Oscar Grant as violent, sociopathic thugs – people who you should be afraid of. This image is sold to young, black men some of whom model themselves on what they see, and to others, who immediately fear them. Would Oscar Grant have been shot if he was white? Did the police react the way they did because of what Oscar was doing that night, or because they were afraid of him because of what they see on TV every day? Would George Zimmerman been suspicious of Trayvon Martin had he been white? What was it about a young, black man in a hoodie that made Zimmerman think he should be followed and confronted?

For the most part, Coogler does an excellent job at writing and directing Fruitvale Station. The film reminded me of the work of the Dardenne brothers from Belgium, who simply follow their characters and allow their day-to-day lives to slowly emerge, and develop a portrait of them as people. Coogler may over reach at times – a scene with a dog being hit by a car is too on the nose, as is a scene where Oscar goes to meet a customer to sell him pot – but for the most part, this is an uncommonly confident debut film from him. He is aided greatly by the performance of Michael B. Jordan, who like the movie itself, doesn’t lay it on too thick making Oscar into a saint, but presents him as a flawed person, trying to do the right thing, and sometimes failing.

Because of the patience shown by Coogler and Jordan in their portrayal of Oscar, Fruitvale Station builds to an emotionally devastating climax. Walking into the theater, you know how the movie will end, but I defy anyone to watch the movie and not end up wiping away tears. The film is also aided greatly in this regard by Octavia Spencer – infinitely better here than in her Oscar winning performance in The Help (which was one of the better things about that movie) – especially in the movie’s one flashback to show a visit she makes to Oscar in jail, and in the film’s closing scenes which are an emotional gut punch.

Fruitvale Station in an important movie, because it shows us a side of Oscar Grant that most movies don’t even bother to show. Most movies take place in the realm of black and white – everyone is either good or bad, there’s no in between. Fruitvale Station is a movie that knows that those terms are flawed and unrealistic – no one is really 100% good or 100% bad (it may have been better to show the cops at the end of the movie a little softer in this regard). It’s impact would have been dimmed however if it wasn’t a great movie on its own terms – if it wasn’t as well written, directed and acted as it is. Fruitvale Station is an important movie, and it has something to say – but it doesn’t play like a sermon. And that’s probably the biggest reason why the film works so well.

Movie Review: The Wolverine

The Wolverine
Directed by: James Mangold.
Written by: Mark Bomback and Scott Frank.
Starring: Hugh Jackman (Logan), Tao Okamoto (Mariko), Rila Fukushima (Yukio), Hiroyuki Sanada (Shingen), Svetlana Khodchenkova (Viper), Brian Tee (Noburo), Haruhiko Yamanouchi (Yashida), Will Yun Lee (Harada), Ken Yamamura (Young Yashida), Famke Janssen (Jean Grey).

One time I’ve wondered about superhero movies is why the all seem to follow the same three movie arc, before petering out and/or rebooting themselves. In the first movie, the hero discovers their powers, learns how to use them and then has to confront a villain at the end. The second movie, they have to face an even bigger enemy – one that makes them question their own abilities – but eventually they overcome them, but not without some sort of cost. The third movie, the hero doesn’t really want to be a hero anymore – but has to, one last time – before they give it up. Most of these heroes literally have decades of stories to draw from in the comics – so why do they always follow the same pattern. This is what makes James Mangold’s The Wolverine somewhat refreshing. While it is still a part of the overall X-Men saga – specifically referencing events in X-Men: The Last Stand (and in a post credits sequence setting up next year’s Days of Future Past), for the most part this is a standalone entity that has a self-contained story. There are bad guys, of course, but the fate of free world doesn’t hang in the balance – entire cities are not destroyed, and thousands of people are not killed, and billions of dollars in damage do not occur. By superhero movie standards, The Wolverine is almost small scale. The story itself is not exactly earth-shatteringly original – if you don’t see the plot twists of the third act coming, you probably haven’t seen a movie before – but in the superhero genre, this is about as close as we’re probably going to get to originality.

The movie opens in Nagasaki on the day the bomb is dropped. Logan (Hugh Jackman) is a POW, and he protects a kindly Japanese soldier from the blast (no, I don’t really believe what he does is possible – but at least he’s not in a refrigerator, right Indiana Jones?). The movie than picks up decades later – with Logan wandering around somewhat in Northern Canada, haunted my his past – in particular visions of the now dead Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). This is when he is approached by Yukio (Rila Fukushima). She says the Japanese soldier he saved all those years ago is now a rich and powerful man – and is dying. He wants to meet Logan to say goodbye. It takes some convincing, but Logan heads off to Japan. Of course, the situation is not quite as simple as he thought it would be – Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) doesn’t want to say goodbye – he wants Logan’s powers, and thinks he has a way to get them. Logan ends up embroiled in the affairs of a major Japanese corporation – and protecting the innocent Mariko (Tao Okamoto), who everyone seems to want dead.

This is the sixth time (if you include his one scene cameo in First Class) that Jackman has played Logan/Wolverine, and he can do the role in his sleep. This is one of the reasons why in the past I have suggested that perhaps it’s time to cast someone new in the role – and try to make the movies a little darker, since Wolverine is such a dark character to begin with. But in this movie, Jackman proves me wrong – the role is still suited to him, and he’s not sleepwalking through it. The film is a little darker than previous installments of the series – in particular the last stand alone Wolverine movie – and Jackman is up to the challenge. The movie is almost all Jackman – although he is ably supported by an almost entirely Japanese cast – and the movie at times is more of a character study than an action movie. While this is not the best X-Men movie (that’s still a battle between X2 and First Class), this is probably Jackman’s best performance to date as Wolverine – and considering just how long he’s been playing the character, that’s saying something.

The action sequences in the movie are also handled well – for the most part. The most exciting one without doubt in a fight sequence on top of a bullet train, which is exciting and entertaining. There are other good ones – a chase sequence that starts at a funeral for example – that are also handled well – none of that lame rapid-fire editing we normally get. Mangold is more a traditionalist, and he keeps the action on a smaller scale. This works better for me – and makes it more exciting – than say Superman and General Zod destroying whole cities at a time. The movie does go over the top in the climatic fight sequence though – and drags it on too long – but that’s to be expected in these movies. They all do that.

The movie was shot in 3-D, and I have to say, I didn’t see much of a point in it. It doesn’t ruin the movie like bad 3-D can do, but considering the movie is on a smaller scale, I didn’t really see why it needed to be in 3-D, and cannot think of a single sequence that was enhanced by it. The special effects are fine – in keeping with the rest of the movie, they are on a smaller scale than most superhero movies in recent memory, but they are effective.

The Wolverine is not a great movie – and yet, I do think it’s a good one, and rather refreshing. If studios are going to insist on making lots and lots of superhero movies every year (and they seem to) and audiences are going to keep flocking to them (which they seem to be doing), it makes sense to try and do something different – at least every once in a while. And while The Wolverine doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to the genre, it is different than most recent superhero movies. Those ones have started to blend together and be inter-changeable. The Wolverine is not a great superhero movie – but at the very least it’s a different superhero movie – and that’s perhaps even rarer.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Modern Romance (1981)

Modern Romance (1981)
Directed by: Albert Brooks.
Written by: Albert Brooks & Monica Johnson.
Starring: Albert Brooks (Robert Cole), Kathryn Harrold (Mary Harvard), Bruno Kirby (Jay), Jane Hallaren (Ellen), Bob Einstein (Sporting Goods Salesman), James L. Brooks (David), George Kennedy (Himself and Zeron).

The characters that Albert Brooks write for himself are among the most self involved in movie history. From Real Life (1979) to Lost in America (1985) to Defending Your Life (1991) to Mother (1996) to The Muse (1999) to Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2006), Brooks is essentially playing a man who is constantly second guessing every decision he makes. He is fully committed to making the decision until he makes it, and then analyzes it to death until he realizes he made a mistake, and then tries to go back and undo what he’s done – and this starts the process all over again. There is obviously an element to Brooks himself in these characters – hell twice, he has even played characters named Albert Brooks – because I think Brooks always wants to do the right thing, but is never really sure what the hell that is.

No where is this more true than in Brooks second film, Modern Romance. Brooks plays Robert Cole, a successful film editor working on what looks like a horrible movie starring George Kennedy and directed by David (James L. Brooks, who would give Albert one of the best roles of his career in Broadcast News). In the films first scene, Brooks has broken up – again – with his longtime girlfriend Mary (Kathryn Harrold). She is frustrated that once again, Robert has broken up with her, and tells him not to call this time. Robert says don’t worry about it – and than immediately starts to worry that he has made the wrong decision.

The first half of the film is pretty much Brooks, wandering around his apartment, bitching on the phone to his assistant editor, going shopping, and going over and over his decision to break up with Mary to determine if he was right or wrong. At times, it is nearly a one man show, and Brooks nails it perfectly. There is a brilliant, hilarious scene in a sporting goods store where the salesman (Bob Einstein, Brooks’ brother and best known as Super Dave Osborne), convinces him to buy the top of the line running gear. But no matter Robert does, he cannot shake the feeling that he made a mistake in breaking up with Mary. The next day, of course, the two of them get back together. The second half of the film pretty much details why Robert and Mary shouldn’t be together. He’s insecure and jealous. She’s cold and distant. They do nothing but argue, no matter where they are or what they’re doing.

The star of the show is of course, Brooks. Harrold does a fine job with Mary, but it’s more of a one note character. The supporting cast – Bruno Kirby as the assistant editor, James L. Brooks as the director and George Kennedy as himself – allow Brooks to poke fun at movie making, and in this he mines some great laughs (I loved the scene where Brooks has to add louder footsteps to the sound mix).

I think in the end, Brooks’ films are basically about how he needs to get over himself – accept his flaws and the flaws of others in order to be happy. But Brooks will never be happy, because he’ll never be able to do that. I tire of movies that put up end titles that explain what happens to the characters after the movie is over – but in Modern Romance, they work brilliantly.

Movie Review: The Silence

The Silence
Directed by: Baran bo Odar.
Written by: Baran bo Odar based on the novel by Jan Costin Wagner.
Starring: Ulrich Thomsen (Peer Sommer), Wotan Wilke Möhring (Timo Friedrich), Katrin Sass (Elena Lange), Sebastian Blomberg (David Jahn), Burghart Klausner (Krischan Mittich), Karoline Eichhorn (Ruth Weghamm), Roeland Wiesnekker (Karl Weghamm), Jule Böwe (Jana Gläser), Oliver Stokowski (Matthias Grimmer), Claudia Michelsen (Julia Friedrich), Amon Robert Wendel (Malte), Kara McSorley (Laura), Anna Lena Klenke (Sinikka), Helene Luise Doppler (Pia).

In the past decade, there have been many interesting crime thrillers made that on the surface look to be typical police procedurals, but when you look a little closer than are deeper than that. David Fincher’s Zodiac, Bong Joon-ho`s Memories of Murder, Cornielu Porumboiu`s Police Adjective, Cristi Puiu`s Aurora, Nuri Blige Ceylon’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia - even Kathryn Bigelow’s  Zero Dark Thirty fall into this category. Each of these films look into a crime or crimes, and has police officers or others obsessed with discovering the truth – but while in the end they will discover what they are looking for (or in the case of Zodiac, at least think they do), the answer isn’t quite as satisfying as they think. They are driven to uncover the truth, but while they will eventually figure out the who and the how, the why eludes them even in the end, and they are left unsatisfied. Or perhaps it something more simple – knowing what happened, doesn’t reverse time and prevent it from happening. The new German film The Silence from first time director Baran bo Odar is not in the same league as those other films – it’s plot a little too conventional, it’s characters fall a little too predictably into the genre conventions. But it a well-made, well-acted, intelligent thriller – one that isn’t as focused on shocking the audience than showing them the entire picture of two shocking crimes. And there is a difference.

The opens in 1986, with Peer (Ulrich Thomsen) and Timo (Wotan Wilke Mohring) watching a film of some sort, and then wordless getting up and walking to their car. The drive down a nearly deserted road, and then follow a young teenage girl on her bike down a dirt road next to a field. While Timo sits in the car, seemingly on the verge of tears, Peer gets out, tackles the girl and strangles her to death. We then flash forward 23 years to the day – when pretty much the exact same crime happens again – to a very similar victim in the exact same spot.

Among the characters in The Silence are of course Peer and Timo – who are both guilty of murder, but have very different personalities. We will flash back to the 1980s to see how their “friendship” started – and how it ended. Then there  Elena (Katrin Sass), the mother of the first girl, who remains haunted by the death of her daughter, and remains in the same house, all alone as her husband couldn’t take the constant grief. The parents of the new girl, who is still missing (Karoline Eichhorn and Roeland  Wiesnekker), who are just beginning on a similar journey. There is also Krischan (Burghart Klausner), the original detective on the case, who cannot get the crime out of his mind – and wouldn’t you know it, the day before the new victim turns up is the day he retires. The new detective is David Jahn (Sebastian Blomberg), still grieving the loss of his wife, and who has dreams about the crime. His partner is Matthias (Oliver Stokowski), who thinks David is an idiot – and thinks little more of Krischan.

The Silence really isn’t a whodunit. We know that Peer and Timo are responsible for the first murder, and the movie doesn’t even attempt to give us alternate suspects for the second crime. Unless the movie is going to pull the rug out from under the audience, you know fairly early that the second crime was either committed by Peer or Timo – or Peer and Timo. What the film is really about then is the aftereffects of the crime – and the pain every character has over not knowing what really happened. This goes for Elena, obviously, who cannot move on with her life, and Krischan who will not move on with his. But it also goes for Peer, who lost his only real friend over it. And in a very real way, it goes for Timo as well – who doesn’t know if he can control himself.

The movie is a little too predictable for my tastes. In many ways, it does resemble a German episode of Criminal Minds, in which we see the cops trying to figure out who did it and the criminals as they go about their lives trying to stay ahead. But hell, I like Criminal Minds, so that’s not much of a complaint from me. And the film is also impressively directed by first time filmmaker Baran bo Odar – especially his use of overhead shots, that are truly haunting. And the cast is all first rate – good enough that I was willing to overlook the fact that things are a little too predictable, and in some cases muddled (the psychology behind Peer is especially muddled – the movie seems to suggest he is not really a pedophile, just trying to befriend one in Timo, but all his films suggest otherwise).

Overall, The Silence doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to thrillers – and cannot quite compare with the films I mentioned off the top of this review. Yet, it is still an intelligent, well written, well directed and extremely well-acted example of its genre – and that’s more than enough for me.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Movie Review: Blackfish

Blackfish
Directed by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Written by:  Gabriela Cowperthwaite & Eli B. Despres.

I am hardly an animal rights hardliner (I’m not going to stop eating meat any time too soon), but I am really starting to be convinced that perhaps it’s not the best idea to cage wild animals solely for the purpose of human amusement. The Oscar winning documentary The Cove (2009) was about dolphins, and how tortured they are in captivity and how callously they are killed. Now comes Blackfish, which wants to, and succeeds, in doing the same thing for Orcas. It focuses on one Orca in particular – Tilikum – who is now responsible for the death of three people – two trainers and an idiot who snuck into SeaWorld and thought it would be fun to swim with an Orca. Watching the film, it is impossible to feel anything but sympathy for Tilikum – who has had such a hard life that goes against his own animal instincts that you cannot really blame him for what he does. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel sympathy for the people who died because of Tilikum – I do, even if I just called that one guy an idiot (and I’ll stand by that). But when you take an animal out of his natural habitat, lock him in a small pool with other whales who don’t like him, force him to perform on a daily basis for years on end, it’s no wonder that he snapped.

Blackfish essentially tells Tilikum’s story through the perspective of the people who trained him, and whales like him, in parks such as SeaWorld. It starts with a harrowing recollection of how these whale were initially captured – a story that brings one of the fishermen to tears when he recalls just how cruel it turned out to be. Now, most animals at places like SeaWorld are now one that are born and bred in captivity – but Tilikum was not. He was ripped away from his family and friends – and if you think that’s no big deal, just wait until you hear the Orca experts describe just how emotionally evolved Orcas are, and how interconnected their family units are.

Tilikum is captured, and sent to a low rent amusement park in Victoria B.C. – where he is mistreated by a trainer using “negative” reinforcement, and locked away each night in a small tank with two female whales, who don’t like him very much, and constantly “rake” him – essentially running their teeth along his body, leaving wounds and permanent scars. In the wild, Tilikum could get away, but in captivity, he is trapped, and has no choice but to suffer the abuse. One day, a trainer slips, and their foot falls into the water – and Tilikum drags her under, and kills her. Although reports vary as to which of the three whales actually killed the trainer – eyewitnesses say it was Tilikum – and they could tell because he is the one with the floppy dorsal fin. After that, the park closes down and Tilikum is sold to SeaWorld – who keeps right on training him and making him perform every day. And while SeaWorld is undeniably better than the low-rent park that had him Tilikum the first time, it’s also hard to deny that “better” in this context is a relative term.

Blackfish, like The Cove, does not really try to be a fair and balanced documentary. It requested on multiple occasions, according to the documentary, to get someone from SeaWorld to speak to them on camera – and of course they refused. For the most part than Blackfish is certainly an advocacy documentary – one that argues that confining Orcas in captivity is devastating to them, and makes them act out in ways they normally do not do. After all, there has never been a fatal Orca attack on a human recorded in the wild, but Tilikum now has three fatalities on his record himself. I would have liked to have seen the “other side” of the issue as it were – but judging from the various statements from SeaWorld in response to the documentary – which are mainly corporate speak, and “refutes” points that the documentary doesn’t even make at times – I doubt they would have shed too much light on the subject. After all, SeaWorld is a multi-million dollar corporation, with many theme parks across America. They have a vested financial interest in keeping Orcas in captivity – and keeping them working with trainers. It makes for a better show.

As it stands, the movie is mainly made up of former SeaWorld trainers – all but one of whom has had a change of heart over the years. They question the training (or lack thereof) that they received before getting into the water with the whales, and the ones who worked directly with Tilikum say they were never given his complete history. The lone trainer who doesn’t seem to agree that Orcas should not be held in captivity argues that Tilikum is an isolated case – and should be treated as such – rather than a condemnation on the entire industry. Yet the movie does document other – fatal and non-fatal – incidents involving Orcas. While it is true (apparently) that there an Orca has never attacked and killed a human in their natural habitat – just in captivity – Orcas kill just about everything else. They kill other whales, sharks, dolphins, fish and as shown in some home footage in the documentary, sea lions. Orcas are predators – and when held in captivity with none of their usual prey to eat, doesn’t it make sense that once in a while, they are going to attack humans? You cannot blame an animal for being an animal.

I feel nothing but sympathy for the people whose death Tilikum caused – especially Dawn Brancheau, because of the three victims, it is her the movie focuses on, and her story is told by people who knew her. She was known as one of SeaWorld’s best and most responsible trainers. Like the other trainers in the movie, she got involved because she loved animals – they all care deeply for the Orcas that they worked with. Hers, and the other two deaths, are tragedies. But they are a tragedy that could have been avoided – and I don’t think we can realistically say that Tilikum is responsible for them – he’s just as much of a victim as they are. That was the overwhelming feeling I got from watching Blackfish – that Tilikum deserved a better life than the one he has had.

My Answer to the Most Recent Criticwire Survey: Origin Story

After a few weeks hiatus, when the original editor of the Criticwire blog left, and a new one came in, the Criticwire Survey is back. This week asks for the Critic's origin story - how they got to be a film critic in the first place. As I have done a few times when answering these questions, I'll say that I don't really consider myself a critic - I write about movies mainly for myself, to work out my own feelings towards a movie, and if others get something out of the reviews, great. I don't paid to write, probably never will get paid to do so, and I'm fine with that. It is a hobby - although one I do take seriously as I continually strive to get better - but I'm happy in my tiny corner of the internet.

So with that out of the way,  how did I start writing about movies. It started by falling in love with movies - I always liked movies as a child, but remember a few moments in particular where I knew I loved them - a very long bus ride with my brother's hockey team (after they played like shit, are were quiet all the way home) where we watched Oliver Stone's JFK is still seared in my mind, even though I was 10 at the time (and no, I don't recommend watching any movie on a bus, but this time worked). Than over the next few years being pulled in my movies like Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction and Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (yes, I was too young to see them). I also remember my yearly trip to my Aunt's where we would often end the day watching a classic movie - this is how I got exposed to the Marx Brothers, Casablanca and Citizen Kane for the first time. It was also at my Aunt's house that I first encountered film criticism - in the form of one of Roger Ebert's Video Guide, which I read a lot early in the morning, since I was an earlier riser than everyone else. As my love of film grew, I read more Ebert, starting watching Siskel and Ebert, and eventually starting reading reviews by others as well.

And then, at some point, I started writing about movies. It started slowly in high school and throughout college - brief reviews that I didn't do anything with, and then reviews I posted in the user's section of IMDB - but I grew tired of that. It wasn't really until about 2003 that I actually started writing reviews for every new movie I saw - and some older ones as well. After six years, and more than  1,000 reviews I did nothing with, and enough people telling me I should start a blog that I did in fact do that. So I've been writing reviews for 10 years, publishing them on this blog for 4 years, and I don't see that changing any time too soon.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Movie Review: Only God Forgives

Only God Forgives
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn.
Written by: Nicolas Winding Refn.
Starring: Ryan Gosling (Julian), Kristin Scott Thomas (Crystal), Vithaya Pansringarm (Chang), Gordon Brown (Gordon), Yayaying Rhatha Phongam (Mai), Tom Burke (Billy), Sahajak Boonthanakit (Kim), Pitchawat Petchayahon (Phaiban), Charlie Ruedpokanon (Daeng), Kovit Wattanakul (Choi Yan Lee), Wannisa Peungpa (Kanita), Narucha Chaimareung (Papa San).

Nothing would make me happier than being able to say that Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives was some sort of misunderstood masterpiece or at least a guilty pleasure. This is, after all, the Danish filmmaker’s follow-up to Drive – one of my absolute favorite films of 2011, and arguably the best crime drama of this young decade so far, and Only God Forgives ranked very high on my most anticipated films of the year list. But alas, I cannot say that, because Only God Forgives is a horrible movie – violent and pretentious in equal doses, with most of the characters seemingly on the verge of falling asleep during any of their line readings. Drive was a crime drama that was deeper than it initially appeared to be (and I stand by that, even if I seem to be in the minority in thinking so – even among the many people who loved Drive). Only God Forgives on the other hand is a movie that acts like it is about something deeper – but peel back the layers and there’s nothing there. And yet, you watch the movie and you can tell everyone involved in making it is extremely talented – they just laid an egg this time out. Really talented people can work far worse movies than non-talented people – and Only God Forgives is a perfect example of that.

The movie takes place in Bangkok. Julian (Ryan Gosling) and his brother Billy (Tom Burke) work there as drug dealers, and have a boxing club as a front. After a violent fight sequence kicks off the film, we follow Billy on his quest to, in his words, “Fuck a 14 year old”. It doesn’t take him long to find one – but he doesn’t merely fuck her, he rapes and murders her. The cops – led by Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) are called – but Chang doesn’t arrest Billy. Instead, he calls the dead girl’s father, screams at him for allowing his daughter to become a prostitute, and then leaves him alone in the room with Billy. Needless to say, Billy doesn’t last long. Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas) arrives in Bangkok, and wants Julian to avenge his brother. When Julian finds out what Billy did, he kind of thinks his brother got what was coming to him – but his she-devil of the mother doesn’t care (“He must have had his reasons” she says) and wants the man who murdered her son – and Chang, the cop who allowed it to happen – and pretty much everyone else in Thailand to die to avenge her beloved son.

All of this probably sounds a lot better than the movie actually is. The basic plot outline could very easily be made into an extremely violent, entertaining crime thriller. Something like Drive, in fact. Winding Refn shouldn’t be expected to repeat himself – and while you can by the ever moving camera in Only God Forgives and the changing color palette that the same person is behind both films, the only way in which these films are really similar is that both are extremely violent and bloody. I don’t have a problem with blood and violence in a movie – as long as there seems to be a reason for it. In Only God Forgives, there doesn’t appear to be. There are no good guys in Only God Forgives, only degrees of awful really, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing if the characters we interesting – the problem being they’re not. Ryan Gosling, normally one of the best actors working together, appears almost comatose throughout the movie. His character in Drive didn’t say much – neither did his character in this year’s The Place Beyond the Pines – but in both of those movies, you could tell there was something going on inside of the characters – his performance in Drive in particular is masterfully subtle. But in Only God Forgives, he simply seems bored, lifeless and dull. I have heard some critics say that the sword wielding cop Chang, played by Vithaya Pansringarm, is the film’s hero, but really, he’s just as bad as everyone else – which again, I don’t object to, if he plays an interesting character. The problem is he doesn’t. The revelation about his home life may explain why he does what he does, but it doesn’t make him any more interesting. And why the hell the movie has him sing karaoke on a number of occasions?

There are two good things about Only God Forgives. One of them is the performance by Yayaying Rhatha Phongam as Mai, a prostitute frequented by Julian, who he stupidly brings along as his date to meet his mother. This is a small role – and she doesn’t really have much to do – but she does it remarkably well, making Mai into the only sympathetic character in the moving – the only person the audience can possibly care about. The other is the performance by Kristen Scott Thomas. Unlike everyone else in the movie, there is passion in her performance. Yes, she is in many ways a one note villain – whose every line is dripping with hatred, racism, cruelty, and creepiness in the way she talks about her sons and their penises (I’m pretty sure she has slept with both in them in the past). Everyone else in the movie is subdued almost to the point of lulling the audience to sleep – but you sit up and take notice when she’s onscreen.

Only God Forgives is a pretentious mess of a film. If Winding Refn had just given in to his base instincts (he has said repeatedly he makes “pornography” when talking about Only God Forgives) he may not have made a film as good as Drive, but he could have made Only God Forgives into a violent guilty pleasure. But by taking the film so deadly seriously, by draining it of any pleasure whatsoever, and seemingly instructing the entire cast except for Scott Thomas to play their roles like zombies, he has made a film that is both sickeningly violent and deadly dull. And that makes Only God Forgives one of the year’s worst films.

Movie Review: The Conjuring

The Conjuring
Directed by: James Wan.
Written by: Chad Hayes & Carey Hayes.
Starring: Vera Farmiga (Lorraine Warren), Patrick Wilson (Ed Warren), Lili Taylor (Carolyn Perron), Ron Livingston (Roger Perron), Shanley Caswell (Andrea), Hayley McFarland (Nancy), Joey King (Christine), Mackenzie Foy (Cindy), Kyla Deaver (April), Shannon Kook (Drew), John Brotherton (Brad), Sterling Jerins (Judy Warren), Marion Guyot (Georgiana), Morganna Bridgers (Debbie), Amy Tipton (Camilla).

James Wan has quietly become one of the best directors of mainstream horror films working in America today. While many horror filmmakers are obsessed with the more violent films from the 1970s and 1980s – and all seem to want to make the next The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – Wan has his sights on an era slightly earlier – the classic possession films of the late 1960s and early 1970s. His last film was the excellent, under rated Insidious, and now comes The Conjuring – an even better film, that feels like a forgotten horror film from the year it is set – 1971. Since Wan directed the original Saw, he has often been lumped in by the unobservant with the “torture porn” crowd, which isn’t accurate at all. While the Saw series certainly devolved into that, the first film – the only one Wan directed (he was an “executive producer” on the rest, which probably means he had very little input into them) was really more about atmosphere than torture. The same goes for the awful Dead Silence (2007) that was his follow-up. Even the violent revenge film Death Sentence (also 2007) – which is inarguably his bloodiest – also has a great sense of atmosphere. And that is what The Conjuring excels at. Here is a horror movie with almost no blood, guts or death – and it is easily the scariest film I have seen in a theater this year.

The film is about the Perron family – father Roger (Ron Livingston and) and mother Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and their five daughters – ranging from teenager verging on adulthood, to cute pre-school age. They are a picture perfect family – as we literally see in the many family portraits they have – who move to an old farmhouse in the middle of the Pennsylvania country. As you can guess, the house is haunted – but by what? As the family reaches the end of the rope, and things start spiraling out of control, they reach out to famed “Paranormal Detectives” Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) – best known for The Amityville Horror (which is referenced at the end of the movie, as this case predates that one) to figure out just exactly what is haunting them.

From the opening credits of The Conjuring on, Wan does his best to recreate the look and feel of the films from the era – I don’t think I’ve seen an opening scrawl quite like the one in The Conjuring in any many movies made in recent decades. This extends to the costumes and art direction as well. While often movies made today but set in the 1970s pretty much mock the clothes and style of the decade, The Conjuring does an excellent job of recreating them, without going overboard and becoming a distraction. Even the cinematography harkens back to the films of that era – a difficult thing to recreate in the digital age. The film is obviously inspired by masterpieces such as Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist – and while it would be nearly impossible to equal those two films (and this film doesn’t), The Conjuring easily ranks among the best of those two films many, many imitators.

Like those two films, The Conjuring depends more on atmosphere and slowly increasing tension rather than blood to scare the audience. Normally, I tire of horror movies that rely heavily on so called “BOO!” moments to scare the audience, but they are put to effective use in The Conjuring, because Wan knows not to overdo it, and enjoys toying with the audience. Sometimes, he is seemingly setting up a “BOO!” moment that never actually comes, and other times, they do, and yet other times, they come out of nowhere. An effective horror movie has to keep the audience guessing as to what is coming next – which Wan does amazingly well in The Conjuring.

But what elevates The Conjuring above most other horror movies is simple – the film is full of characters you actually like and get to know, and the film actually takes the Warrens and their beliefs and practices seriously. It is easy to mock Warrens – where Ed is a “demonologist” and Lorraine is “clairvoyant”, and if we’re talking in reality here, then no, I don’t really believe in either of them. But this is a movie after all, and the movie does take what they do seriously – and Wilson and especially Farmiga are excellent in their roles. Add in an excellent performance by Lili Taylor – playing for the most part a normal woman – and you have a horror movie that takes its subject more seriously than most, and contains performances far superior to most of what the genre has to offer.

I have tried not to reveal too much of the plot to the movie – in fact, I think I probably revealed less than the trailers do. As with many horror movies, surprise in a major element to the effectiveness of the film. The film may not break new ground, and may not be the masterpiece that the films that inspired it are, but as an example of the horror genre, it does everything just right.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Movie Review: The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing
Directed by: Joshua Oppenheimer.

When most people think of documentary films, they imagine a series of talking heads interspersed with archival footage. This is what most documentaries over the years have been, and probably will continue to be for years to come. But more and more often, documentary filmmakers are stretching the boundaries of the genre – doing fascinating, interesting things, and coming up with movies as original as any fiction film. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing is one of these documentaries. There will be people who complain that the movie is too easy on or sympathetic with its subjects or bring up ethical concerns with how Oppenheimer goes about getting the scenes he does, but it didn’t bother me. The Act of Killing is one of the most original, best documentaries of the year.

In 1965-66 the military tried to overthrow the government in Indonesia, failed, but then used “gangsters” to slaughter over half a million “communists” that led to a massive change in the political climate of the country. If you were identified as a communist, you were killed – although many weren’t really communists – they were union members, critics of the military or native Chinese citizens. This “purge” was supported by most Westerns governments, but what it was really genocide. But while most people who take part in this sort of slaughter are eventually held accountable – or at least viewed as murderers and war criminals, the gangsters who slaughtered the “communists” have been celebrated as heroes in their home country ever since. The Act of Killing sets out to explore this act of mass killing – and mainly the men who did it.

They are not hard to find. Everyone knows who they are, and in some cases, they live on the same street as the family of their victims. They also make no attempt to try and hide their involvement. They openly brag about it to anyone who will listen – often talking in front of their young grandchildren, and whoever else happens to be around. Members of the military don’t make it much of a secret either that they still respect these confessed killers – and the media brags about the role they played as well. In short, it doesn’t seem like anyone has any regrets about what happened or all the people they killed.

Oppenheimer comes up with an interesting way to get the killers to tell him about what happened – by having them recreate them. Learning that many of the killers loved American movies, the killers recreate the events in any way they choose to – and use different films genres – film noir, war film even the most bizarre musical I have ever seen – to show us what they did. This makes the whole movie rather surreal, and often very unsettling. The killers themselves play themselves, as well as their victims, and they use neighborhood children to play the kids of their victims, screaming and crying. The whole thing is surreal, disturbing and extremely effective.

Out of everyone Oppenheimer talks to, Anwar Congo starts to stand out. One of the gangsters who performed the killings, he starts out with the most swagger of anyone – bragging about what he did, showing how he came up with a way to make the killing less bloody. He seems completely at peace with everything he has done. But gradually, he lets the walls he has built around himself down. He confesses to nightmares he has had for years about the killings – which of course, they recreate – and when he has to play the victim in the “film noir” sequence, he breaks down – he cannot go through with it, because it feels too real to him. When questioned later by Oppenheimer, he says he now knows how his victims felt – but Oppenheimer challenges that idea. Congo knew he was going to be okay – his victims knew they were going to die.

The movie never loses sight of the fact that Congo is a murderer – by his own estimate, he killed at least 100 people. But it also never loses sight of the fact that Congo is a human being, not some kind of mythical monster. This will trouble some viewers – they want to hate Congo, see him not as a human, but as evil. But what Congo did was human – many, many people the world over have done what he has done. I was reminded by a moment in Werner Herzog’s TV documentary series On Death Row (Herzog, by the way, lends his name, alongside Errol Morris as an executive producer to this film) when one of the prosecutors says it is very easy for Herzog to “humanize” the murderer he is interviewing and Herzog replies “I do not humanize her. She is a human being, period.” And so is Congo. What he did was vile and evil, but Congo is a complicated human – and he is at the center of this fascinating documentary that deserves to be seen and debated, no matter what you make of it.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: A Face in the Crowd (1957)

A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Directed by: Elia Kazan.
Written by: Budd Schulberg based on his short story.
Starring: Andy Griffith (Larry 'Lonesome' Rhodes), Patricia Neal (Marcia Jeffries), Anthony Franciosa (Joey DePalma), Walter Matthau (Mel Miller), Lee Remick (Betty Lou Fleckum), Percy Waram (Gen. Haynesworth), Paul McGrath (Macey), Rod Brasfield (Beanie), Marshall Neilan (Senator Worthington Fuller), Alexander Kirkland (Jim Collier), Charles Irving (Mr. Luffler), Howard Smith (J.B. Jeffries).

Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd is one of those movies that was years ahead of its time when it was made. In 1957, the film probably seemed a little far fetched and unbelievable, but flash forward 54 years, and A Face in the Crowd seems realistic in its cynicism about the intersection of fame and politics. Like Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s Network or Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg saw something in the culture before most people had picked up on it, and delivered this perceptive, cynicial, funny tragedy of modern times. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece.

Andy Griffth, in his first major role, well before he became known to everyone as Sheriff Andy, plays Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a small time drifter picked up and put in jail in a small backwater town on a charge of drunk and disorderly conduct. This is where Marcia Jefferies (Patricia Neal) finds him. Her uncle runs the local radio station, and she does a segment called “A Face in the Crowd”, where she lets normal people tell their stories. She decides to do one broadcast from the local jail, and in Rhodes, she finds an undiscovered star. He is funny, charming, witty, sings and plays the guitar and can tell a story with the best of them. She doesn’t just want to do a one time segment with him, but convinces him to host a daily radio show. It becomes a huge hit, and soon TV is calling. They want him to do a weekly show from Memphis. But Rhodes plays by his own rules, and tells it as he sees it to the audiences – mocking his mattress salesman sponsor and the inane ad copy they want him to read on the air. This would spell the end of your career – unless you’re as popular as Rhodes, in which case, it gets you a TV show in New York, with a National Audience. A few short months after being a penniless drifter, Rhodes in the biggest TV star in the country. And of course, he’s changed. He likes the fame the TV show brings him, the power and the money and especially the women. It doesn’t matter that his new sponsor is selling a pill that does absolutely nothing – he hocks it as a miracle pill, implying it is an aide in sexual prowess. He brings Marcia along, of course. She’s the brains behind everything, and he needs her to run it. And despite the fact that he’ll screw anything that moves, she still loves him. He uses this to his advantage – and even proposes to her. But not even the fact that on a trip he ends up marrying an 18 year old baton twirler (Lee Remnick, also making her film debut) can make Marcia stop loving him – and trying to protect him. Not even when he has completely sold out, and is not just hocking worthless pills, but a worthless Presidential candidate as well, can get her to give up on him.

A Face in the Crowd is a deeply cynical film. It presents Rhodes as little more than a country bumpkin, who grows too big for his britches. He doesn’t seem to know anything about politics, but that doesn’t matter. His sponsor wants Senator Worthington, an untelegenic, weak willed man to be President, so Rhodes uses his show to promote that. Rhodes doesn’t care about Worthington’s ideas, and says no one else does either. All they need to see is Worthington acting like the rest of them – going hunting, talking in a down home country accent, and spouting off meaningless sound bites. Rhodes has no problem when his sponsor and Worthington tell him that the “workingman”, who Rhodes is supposed to represent, is too stupid to govern themselves, so they need a high powered, intellectual elite to guide them with a firm hand. Rhodes even goes as far as to create another show, that is just him talking to “yokels” about his political ideas, who of course eat up every word he says as if it was the gospel.

The movie was ahead of its time in the way it tied together entertainment and politics. While many have compared someone like Glenn Beck to Peter Finch’s Howard Beale from Network, some have pointed out the similarities between people like Beck and Lonesome Rhodes. They talk like they’re one of the little guys, one of the underdogs, when really they are powerful and wealthy beyond measure – and they have a vested interest in maintaining that power. Elections stop being about who is most qualified, or who will do a better job or even who you agree with, but it becomes a mere popularity contest, based on how people come across on TV. It has often been said that in the age of TV, Franklin Roosevelt and his wheelchair never would have become President. Why? Not because of his politics, but because of his appearance. A Face in the Crowd was ahead of the curve in pointing all this out.

In a movie like this, a lot depends on the performances. Walter Matthau is in fine form as someone who sees through Rhodes from the beginning, but sticks around because he’s in love with Marcia. Lee Remnick is perfect as the doe-eyed ingénue turned sexpot, who loves fame as much as Rhodes does. Patricia Neal may never have been better than she is here as the woman who cannot help but be drawn to Rhodes, despite her better judgment, and how that all but destroys her. But most of all, there is Andy Griffth. It takes a scene or two to get over seeing Sheriff Andy in this role, but that does go away rather quickly. This is a loud, boisterous performance – not a whole lot of subtlety, but since Rhodes is not a subtle character, it works brilliantly. It is a big, bold, brash performance, and Griffth nails it.

If I have one problem with the movie, it’s the ending. It all seems a little too neat for me. I wish that the film had a darker, more cynical ending – one that didn’t insist on giving Rhodes his comeuppance, which strikes me as more wishful thinking that realistic. And the ending goes far too easy on Marcia, who afterall, created this monster, and even though she destroys him as well, gets away too cleanly for my tastes.

But that’s a minor flaw, in what is one of the great films from the 1950s. I have no idea why it took me so long to watch this film. It is a masterpiece in every way imaginable.

Movie Review: Bullet to the Head

Bullet to the Head
Directed by: Walter Hill.
Written by: Alessandro Camon based on the graphic novel by Alexis Nolent and Colin Wilson.
Starring: Sylvester Stallone (James Bonomo), Sung Kang (Taylor Kwon), Sarah Shahi (Lisa), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Robert Nkomo Morel), Jason Momoa (Keegan), Christian Slater (Marcus Baptiste), Jon Seda (Louis Blanchard), Holt McCallany (Hank Greely), Brian Van Holt (Ronnie Earl), Weronika Rosati (Lola), Dane Rhodes (LT. Lebreton), Marcus Lyle Brown (Detective Towne).

It’s easy to see what drew director Walter Hill and star Sylvester Stallone together. Both are icons of the action genre, whose best days are decades in the past. With Bullet to the Head, the duo seems content to pretend it’s still the 1980s when this kind of muscle-bound, lunk headed action movie was popular – and according to Spike TV still is. As a throwback to the 1980s, Bullet to the Head is actually pretty good – there is a reason why Hill is widely regarded as master of the genre, and there is a reason why Stallone was once one of the biggest stars on the planet. But that’s all Bullet to the Head is – a throwback to an earlier era of action filmmaking that some of us have already had our fill of.

The movie stars Stallone as James Bonomo, an aging hitman, who along with his partner, is given the contract on ex-cop Hank Greely. They pull the job off like pros – except they don’t kill the prostitute he’s with – but when they go to meet their contact to collect the rest of their money, Bonomo’s partner is killed, and he is attacked by Keegan (Jason Momoa). Greely’s old partner from DC (Sung Kang) arrives to look into his murder (why? I have no idea, since he appears to not really have liked the guy), and quickly figures everything out, and also figures out the local cops aren’t overly interested in figuring things out. So he contacts Bonomo and offers to team up with him – that why, they can find out who set up their old partners together. Of course, it involves police corruption, a slimy lawyer (Christian Slater) and a crime kingpin (Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje) – and of course, Stallone’s hot daughter (Sarah Shahi) will get herself in trouble.

Had Bullet to the Head been a great throwback to the 1980s, it would have been a fun time at the movies. After all, some of those 1980s action movies are pretty great – at least as guilty pleasures. But Bullet to the Head isn’t really a great throwback – it plays more like one of those 1980s action movies that have long since been forgotten, that you come across at 2 o’clock in the morning on cable when you are battling insomnia. The film is largely forgettable and completely illogical – really can anyone explain anything that Sung Kang’s character does in the entirety of the movie.

The film is diverting. I was never really bored by it – Hill can still direct an action sequence, even if at one point he seems to be cribbing from David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (with fewer penis’). You can almost see Hill smiling during the final showdown between Stallone and Momoa, which goes beyond ridiculous – and has fun doing it.

But ultimately, what Bullet to the Head shows is why these movies stopped being made in the first place. They just stopped being all that much fun.