Saturday, October 31, 2015

Classic Movie Review: Trick r Treat (2007)

Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
Directed by: Michael Dougherty.
Written by: Michael Dougherty.
Starring: Dylan Baker (Steven), Anna Paquin (Laurie), Brian Cox (Mr. Kreeg), Rochelle Aytes (Maria), Quinn Lord (Sam / Peeping Tommy), Lauren Lee Smith (Danielle), Moneca Delain (Janet), Tahmoh Penikett (Henry), Brett Kelly (Charlie), Britt McKillip (Macy), Isabelle Deluce (Sara), Jean-Luc Bilodeau (Schrader), Alberto Ghisi (Chip), Samm Todd (Rhonda), Leslie Bibb (Emma), Connor Christopher Levins (Billy), James Willson (Alex).

Trick ‘r Treat is one of those movies that has been on “to see” list for a shamefully long time, and I’m just now getting to it. I remember hearing about the film when it played a few horror festivals – to very good reviews – back in 2007 – but then the film kept getting delayed, before Warner Bros. finally just dumped straight to DVD two years later in 2009. Since then, it has become a cult item of sorts, building up a small group of fans who seem to really, really like it. It’s easy to see why people like it – the film is fun, bloody, but not the in the “torture porn” way that seem to be dominating horror around that time, and is basically a throwback to 1980s films. In fact, it kind of reminded me of another horror anthology I watched recently – George A. Romero and Stephen King’s Creepshow (1982), as both seek to have a lot of fun more than scare the audience, and pay tribute to what the creators loved. The difference between the two movies is simple – I had a hell of lot more fun watching Trick ‘r Treat than I did watching Creepshow.

The film weaves together five stories, that all take place in the same suburban neighborhood on the same Halloween. It’s not quite an anthology, as the film doesn’t tell each story (aside from the prologue) from beginning to end and then move onto the next one, but rather have the stories overlap and sometimes double back on each other – with characters from one being the background of others, etc. The prologue is about a married couple (Leslie Bibb and Tahmoh Penikett) who come home, slightly drunk, on Halloween night after a party. Despite the husband’s warning of dire consequences if they were to blow out the Jack O-Lantern’s candle before midnight, the wife does it anyway – and needless to say, she shouldn’t have. The second story is about a mild mannered school Principal (Dylan Baker – perfectly cast) who, of course, isn’t as mild mannered as he looks – as he murders one child, and we start to worry about his son (hey – is he just playing his character from Happiness?). Another story involves Laurie (Anna Paquin), out with her sister and a couple of friends – all of whom make fun of her for being a 22-year old virgin – and want her to finally lose it at the party they’re going to. She just wants things to be “special” – and, of course, there is a twist. Another has a group of pre-high school students, who decide to play a horrible prank on the unpopular girl in school – only to have things turn around on them. We then cycle back a little, as an hour after we first see him in distress, we finally find out what the hell is happening with Mr. Kreeg (Brian Cox), the Principal’s neighbor, who has played a role in a few other stories as well. There is a strange little boy in a mask – Sam – who seemingly shows up in all the stories as well at certain times, sometimes just to be creepy, and sometimes with a lot more going on.

Trick ‘r Treat isn’t a really scary horror movie. Of the five, only the story with the kids playing the prank really gave me the chills – writer/director Michael Dougherty used the location of that one – an old quarry, at night – to brilliant effect, and the fact that he made them children – not teenagers – just makes the whole scene even creepier. The rest of the segments are more fun-scary, than scary-scary. It’s actually the type of horror movie that would be okay for younger teenagers looking to watch horror movies for the first time – or those wussies out there who don’t like the unrelenting terror of my favorite horror movies.

The film works because it never takes itself too seriously – but it takes itself seriously enough that it doesn’t cross the line between darkly comic and pure camp (which Creepshow, for example, did not do). I can see why horror fans have made this a cult item over the years – the production values and acting are really good for a low budget horror film, and the film has a great deal of fun recalling some of the 1980s horror films. I can also see why Warmers wasn’t sold on this being a big hit – horror movies usually become hits, regardless of whether or not they are any good, because they can market a simple hook. Trick ‘r Treat doesn’t have one of those. What it is though is a hell of a lot of fun for horror fans.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Classic Movie Review: The Keep (1983)

The Keep (1983)
Directed by: Michael Mann.
Written by: Michael Mann based on the novel by F. Paul Wilson.
Starring: Scott Glenn (Glaeken), Alberta Watson (Eva Cuza), Ian McKellen (Dr. Cuza / Dr. Theodore Cuza),  Jürgen Prochnow (Woermann), Robert Prosky (Father Fonescu), Gabriel Byrne (Kaempffer), William Morgan Sheppard (Alexandru), Royston Tickner (Tomescu), Michael Carter (Radu Molasar), Phillip Joseph (Oster), John Vine (Lutz), Jona Jones (Otto), Wolf Kahler (S.S. Adjutant), Rosalie Crutchley (Josefa).

You can find someone out there to champion any Michael Mann film – to tell you that this one really is Mann’s masterpiece. Well, every film Mann has made except for The Keep from 1983 that is. No one likes The Keep. Hell, no one even watches The Keep any more – it has never even been released on DVD (for the record, iTunes Canada had it for a rental). For a director as great as Mann, who has only made 11 films, having one of them unavailable for so long is unthinkable – or so I thought before watching The Keep. Having now seen it, all I can say is that unless you are a Mann completest, there really isn’t any reason to watch the film.

Okay, perhaps that is a little unfair. The score by Tangerine Dream is, like all of their work, bizarre, mechanical, strange and memorable – none of those terms means good (per se), but it’s something. And, for the most part, The Keep does look good (if you watch the film, remember I said “for the most part” when the presence in the keep takes a physical form). These elements may not immediately identify the film as a Michael Mann film – but if you squint, it comes close.

The problem with The Keep is that basically the entire storyline is incoherent. This is what happens when a fairly new director makes a larger budget film for a studio, and reportedly delivered a three and a half hour cut of a film that was probably meant to be a goofy lark of a fantasy film, not a strange, existential treatise on good and evil, featuring a hero playing by Scott Glenn with glowing eyes, who rides his motorcycle deep into Romania to stop the evil force that Nazis have released from its ancient tomb (he can sense this, by the way, from Greece). The Nazis don’t know what they have done – so they call in a Jewish doctor (Ian McKellan), who was born in the tiny village by the keep, and his daughter (Alberta Watson) to help them. There are good Nazis – some who are sympathetic and don’t much care for this Hitler fellow, and there are bad Nazis – who show up in town, and immediately shoot a bunch of the villagers because, well, that’s what bad Nazis do, right? There is a priest in town (Robert Prosky), but other than yell a lot in the early going, he doesn’t do much.

For the most part, the plot doesn’t make a lot of sense. Basically, Ian McKellan’s Jewish doctor makes a deal with the spirit inside The Keep that he will bring a talisman outside that will allow the spirit to flourish outside of the walls that it has been imprisoned in for who knows how long. To McKellan, this doesn’t sound so bad – and he has a point. After all, this spirit or presence or whatever has, indeed, melted some Nazis, and has given him back his youth energy that had all but left him. But then, why would the glowing eyed Scott Glenn – with the great character name of Glaeken – show up to put a stop to it? (Why Glaeken stops on the way to have a psychedelic sex scene with McKellan’s daughter is another unanswered question).
You can see glimpses of what Michael Mann was going for in The Keep. In the score, in some of the visuals, in the portrait of good and evil, both trapped in the same cycle, etc. Who knows, maybe if the original three and half hour long cut ever surfaces, what we will discover is a lost masterpiece (I wouldn’t bet on either of those things – that it will resurface, or that it would a masterpiece if it did, but who knows?). But ultimately The Keep is a failure – an ambitious movie that never comes together to form a cohesive whole. A lumbering movie that flies off the rails in the last third. Simply put, it’s probably the worst film Michael Mann will ever make.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Films of Oliver Stone: Conclusion & Updated Ranking

I’ve spent the better part of two months now watching the films of Oliver Stone – which has mostly been a joy. I hadn’t seen many of his older film in more than a decade, and hadn’t seen many of his newer films more than once – in the theaters when they first came out. Watching them all in a short period of time really was a fun time.

What it also did though was really draw a line in the sand – a line I knew was there – between when Stone was a great filmmaker, and the present when he is still a wonderful stylist, but whose films, as entertaining as they are, is lacking that spark that made his earlier work so memorable. Stone is a filmmaker who likes to use his films to say something important about America. In his earlier work, he was able to do that, and wrap it up in a neat, entertaining package. It is amazing just how densely packed works like JFK, Nixon and Natural Born Killers are – and how timely movies like Talk Radio and Wall Street remain, without ever quite giving into the urge to speechify. His Vietnam trilogy are three honest explorations of what that conflict meant to the people involved. Of the films Stone made during his remarkable 10 year between 1986 and 1995, I found only The Doors to be disappointing upon re-watching – his masterpieces remained his masterpieces for me, and films like Wall Street and Salvador were actually better than I remembered them.

Something happened to Stone though after Nixon. Part of it is probably that Hollywood stopped making the types of films Stone always made – and audiences stopped going to them. It’s remarkable to think that Platoon was the third highest grossing film of 1986 – and Born on the Fourth of July was the sixth highest grossing of 1989, of JFK was the 17th highest grossing of 1991 – that wouldn’t happened today. Audiences stopped going to Stone’s films though – Heaven & Earth didn’t crack the top 100 grossing films of 1993, Natural Born Killers did shocking well (25th highest of 1994) considering how violent it was, but then Nixon barely cracked the top 100 the next year (it was #100). Hollywood was already turning away from the mid-budget films that Stone made, in an effort to get bigger and bigger.

But part of it was also Stone, whose instincts don’t quite seem as sharp in the later stage of his career. U-Turn is too long and too surreal for such a simple story, Any Given Sunday is too overstuffed, Alexander was an ill-advised experiment, etc. The movies in Stone’s later career are often quite fun – they are also quite forgettable, which is something Stone’s best films are not.

Does Stone have a truly great film left in him? I don’t know. I think his latest film, Snowden, is a rather great combination of filmmaker and subject (even if I am likely to disagree with Stone’s take on Snowden, I cannot wait to see it). But Stone does remain an intelligent filmmaker, and a great visual stylist. His newest films may not be masterpieces, but they are better than they are often given credit for. I think it’s a shame that Stone’s films are somewhat out of fashion right now. They deserve better. Stone may not be the filmmaker I fell in love with as a teenager any more – but that doesn’t mean his work should be ignored.

Updated Ranking

As always, there are changes from my preliminary rankings that I did at the beginning of this series, based purely on memory. As is inevitable, some films are better than I remembered them being (hello Wall Street), and some are worse (hello, The Doors) – and many remain the same. So, to close, some updated thoughts upon seeing Stone’s films again. Keep in mind, that the top 3 films could be in any order, and I’d be okay with that ranking – they really are that close.

19. Seizure (1974, Not Ranked on previous list) – There is a reason this film was virtually lost for years, and why Stone doesn’t like to talk about it. If a director Stone’s stature had not directed it, the film would have remained lost, and probably should be. Even by the not very lofty standards of 1970s D-grade horror movies, Seizure sucks.

18. Alexander (2004, ranked 17 on previous list) – A grand folly – the type of failure that only a great filmmaker can make, but still every inch a failure. I’m glad I finally gave another cut of the film a chance, if only because it proves to me that this really isn’t a good film.

17. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010, ranked 16 on previous list) – Not the worst, obviously, of Stone’s major films – but probably his most forgettable. A fun little movie that evaporates from your mind almost as soon as it’s over. It’s good to see Gordon Gekko again though.

16. The Hand (1981, Not Ranked on previous list) – I was pleasantly surprised by The Hand, which has the ridiculous premise of a disembodied hand killing people, but that works mainly because Stone, and star Michael Caine, take the premise seriously. Yes, the film would probably be forgotten today had Stone not directed it, and it’s hardly great, but it’s interesting, to say the least – and actually good.

15. World Trade Center (2006, ranked 15 on previous lost) – A perfectly adequate film, very well made by Stone – with expert sound design and art direction, and a fascinating performance by Michael Shannon, as a man who feels “called” to the WTC in the wake of September 11 to save people, which I think is more nuanced than people give it credit for. Watching the film again though, I am still struck that no matter how good it is, it doesn’t really become as interesting as you would think an Oliver Stone film about 9/11 would be. Perfectly fine, but nothing really else.

14. The Doors (1991, ranked 10 on previous list) – Perhaps the film I was most disappointed in upon re-visiting. The teenage me like this film a whole lot more than the adult me – even though Val Kilmer is brilliant in the lead role as Jim Morrison, and it’s probably the best version of his life I can imagine on screen the film is a long, so slog into oblivion – which may well be accurate, but doesn’t exactly make for great viewing.

13. U Turn (1997, ranked 9 on previous list) – Stone over complicates what should have been just a simple, sun drench neo-noir film, yet he still delivers a twisty, turny, sexy, violent little film. It’s Stone at his least ambitious to be sure – but it’s still an entertaining little film.

12. Any Given Sunday (1999, ranked 13 on previous list) – An overstuffed movie to be sure, and one that in retrospect takes it too easy on the NFL, which considering how controversial it was at the time no one could see coming. Still, it is an extremely entertaining movie, about the contradictions inherent in pro-football – that it is a corrupt and greedy corporate enterprise who cares about nothing but money – but damn it, it’s fun.

11. Salvador (1986, ranked 12 on previous list) – I still don’t see the masterpiece that some see – it’s too uneven, especially as it gets more serious in the second half, but Woods is terrific, and overall the movie is better than I remembered it being.

10. W. (2008, ranked 8 on previous list) – An incredibly odd film, that looks even stranger in retrospect, but one I find endlessly fascinating, with a great performance by Josh Brolin at its core. I think it’s going to take a little while longer for this one to get the critical re-evaluation it deserves.

9. Savages (2012, ranked 11 on previous list) – Just pure, straight ahead genre filmmaking at its finest. I wish Stone had one this a few more times during his career – it may not be overly ambitious, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

8. Heaven & Earth (1993, ranked 7 on previous list) - A film that has been sadly neglected over the years – an important and necessary corrective for Stone and American movies in general – showing the tragedy of the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese point of view, which has been grossly underrepresented. It may not quite hit the heights of the other two Stone films about the Vietnam War – but it comes closer than most give it credit for.

7. Wall Street (1987, ranked 14 on previous list) – In many ways, Wall Street is pure 1980s movie at its most excessive, but that works for the film, and Michael Douglas’ performance has always been great. It’s also a hell of a lot more fun than I remembered it being, so despite its problems, I liked it a hell of lot more than I remembered liking it.

6. Talk Radio (1988, ranked 6 on previous list) – Still Stone’s least seen, and most underrated film – an anguished howl of outrage, that manages the odd trick of still being relevant, despite the fact that radio has never been less so. If you haven’t seen it – and most haven’t – correct that.

5. Born on the Fourth of July (1989, ranked 5 on previous list) - A great coming home from war film, about a man who went to Vietnam thinking he knew everything, and realizing he didn’t – and having to reconcile that, and the sacrifices he made, for a war he ultimately feels wasn’t worth it, and his deep love of his country. Has a few flaws, but also contains some Tom Cruise’s best work – and Stone.

4. Platoon (1986, ranked 4 on previous list) - The ultimate grunt’s eye view of the Vietnam War – and all the chaos that meant. Great performances throughout, and fine direction, Stone’s film is straight forward in its moral logic, but more complex underneath. A worthy Best Picture winner – and there aren’t that many of those.

3. Natural Born Killers (1994, ranked 2 on previous list) - I have seen this perhaps more than any other film – by Stone or otherwise – and I doubt thatl change, as I do not obsessively re-watch films the way I once did. I know every beat of this film, and I still love it. I was amazed once again by how well the film worked for me on this viewing – it’s still a brilliantly constructed, ultra-violent love story and media satire – that continues to be relevant. A masterpiece.

2. JFK (1991, ranked 1 on previous list) - Stone’s brilliant counter-myth for the JFK assassination is one of the most complex films ever made, with a huge cast, telling a large story, and yet he keeps everything crystal clear, no matter how insane the whole thing gets. This is a film about the sense of loss, the downfall of idealism that started with JFK’s assassination, and continued for a generation. A masterpiece.

1. Nixon (1995, ranked 3 on previous list) - Why did Nixon leapfrog both JFK and Natural Born Killers on this most recent viewing? It wasn’t because either of those films have diminished in my mind. Perhaps it’s because I had not seen Nixon quite as many times as either JFK or Natural Born Killers – so it was slightly fresher. Perhaps it was because Anthony Hopkins’ Nixon is the best performance in any Stone movie, and easily the most complex character in any Stone movie. Perhaps I simply want to be a contrarian. But, like the other two films, it is a masterpiece that towers over everything else Stone has made – and over most films. I have seen Natural Born Killers more times than any other film in history. JFK is the film that got me started down the path to becoming a film buff/movie obsessive. And Nixon just may be better than both of them. That should tell you how much I love Nixon.

And that’s it for my series on the films of Oliver Stone. I’ll have to wait longer than expected for his latest – Snowden – which got pushed to 2016. I still hope it will be a real return to form.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Films of Oliver Stone: Savages (2012)

Savages (2012)
Directed by: Oliver Stone.
Written by: Shane Salerno & Don Winslow & Oliver Stone based on the novel by Winslow.
Starring: Blake Lively (O), Taylor Kitsch (Chon), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Ben), Salma Hayek (Elena), Benicio Del Toro (Lado), John Travolta (Dennis), Demian Bichir (Alex), Sandra Echeverria (Magdalena Sánchez), Emile Hirsch (Spin), Joaquín Cosio (El Azul), Mía Maestro (Dolores), Amber Dixon (Sophía), Shea Whigham (Chad).

I really wish Oliver Stone had more films like Savages in his filmography. This is a violent, sadistic little film – with no grand aspirations or political points to make, which is just straight ahead genre filmmaking at its finest. Stone really only attempted this early in his career – with films like Seizure (1974) and The Hand (1981)– and then again with U-Turn (1997), after a strong of more ambitious films. Every other film Stone has made has had some larger point to make – about modern American politics, social issues or something else. Savages doesn’t care about any of that – it is a straight ahead action film/thriller, about two pot dealers, the girl they love and the Mexican cartel they anger. The film may flirt with issues like medical marijuana, and illegal immigration (I think Donald Trump probably loves this movie), but it doesn’t bother with them. It’s just straight up, violent, stylistic filmmaking – and Stone handles it wonderfully. Watching it again recently, I have to admit two things about Savages – it is probably Stone’s least ambitious “late period” film (anything after Nixon) – but also the best of them.

The movie takes place in California, where two childhood best friends, who couldn’t possibly be any more different, make a lot of money selling the best pot around. Chon (Taylor Kitsch) was in the Marines, and brought back seeds from Afghanistan when he was fighting over there. Chon is violent, yet extremely loyal. His best friend Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) double majored in business and botany, and knows what to do with the seeds Chon has brought back, and how to build their illegal drug empire. If things need to get violent – Chon is there. But they don’t often get violent. Both of them are sleeping with O (Blake Lively), but there is no jealously there – they all now the arrangement, and like it. For her, the two men “make one complete man”. What precisely they see in her, I’m not sure – but that’s because the movie is told from her point-of-view, and doesn’t dwell on such questions.

Everyone knows Chon and Ben have the best pot – which is why they come to attention of a Mexican cartel, run by Elena (Salma Hayek), who sends her lawyer Demian Bichir) and enforcer, Lado (Benicio Del Toro) to get Chon and Ben to join them – on a “three year contract”. Their DEA agent on the take, Dennis (John Travolta), tells them to take the deal – they’ll end up dead otherwise, but they don’t listen. They plan to run – so in retaliation, the Cartel kidnaps O to force their hand. Ben, and especially Chon, do not like this.

The violence in the movie is pervasive and strong, almost from the outset. Stone lets you know he is not messing around, and the film is probably second to only Natural Born Killers on his resume in terms of bloodshed. He see grainy videos of what precisely happens to people who anger the cartel – and then we get some live, not so grainy re-enactments of the same types of things. Stone has never been one to flinch at violence before, but even still, there are torture scenes in Savages that are pretty extreme, even for him. I don’t think this rises to the level of “torture porn” – because Stone isn’t getting off on these scenes, which are harsh and brutal, and he provides much needed context for them as well.

As Lado, Benicio Del Toro is essentially playing the opposite character as he did in his Oscar winning role in Steven Soderberg’s Traffic (2000). In that film, he was the one honest man in Mexico Law Enforcement. In Savages, he is perhaps the most amoral man in Mexico – a man who kills without thought or feeling, and will essentially betray anyone if he feels like it. It is a terrifying performance. Salma Hayek is his equal as Elena. In the best role Hayek has had in years, she is wonderful – ruthless and merciless in business, who still has a soft spot in her armor for her children (and grows one for the childlike O as well). Together they are brutal and unforgiving – even to each other – and lets you know from the start of the film that anything could happen here. Travolta is his old, swaggering, over-the-top self here, and it’s fun to see him relish a role this much again. Strangely these three – and some of the rest of the supporting cast – are far more interesting then the three central characters in the film. Lively’s performance as O in particular feels too passive, for someone who is essentially the central character in the film, even though she doesn’t do that much. Taylor Kitsch is all one note rage as Chon, which is what is asked of him, but still wears a little thin. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is a little bit better as Ben, but not much.

Then again, part of the reason why the performances are one note, is performance the characters generally are as well. Savages is not a particularly original movie in any way, shape or form, and doesn’t even really play with the conventions of the genre. It is a straight up action thriller, which has style to spare. Yes, sometimes Stone goes a little too far over the top with the style (a giant clock superimposed over a tense car sequence when they’re on a deadline for example) – but when you’re moving at this speed, with this much action, a little over the top is forgivable. The ending is a little weak, because it strikes me as a copout – a way for Stone and company to have their cake and eat it too.

Still though, Savages is one of the more entertaining films Stone has ever made. Unlike much of his filmography, it isn’t trying to do anything more than what it does – it doesn’t strain for importance. At his best, Stone is able to make meticiously crafted, entertaining and important movies. But too often later in his career he sacrificed entertainment value for trying to be “important” or message making. There is none of that in Savages – which goes for the jugglar, and gets it. This may be Stone at his least ambitious – but it’s still at his most entertaining.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Movie Review: Room

Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson.
Written by: Emma Donoghue based on her novel.
Starring: Brie Larson (Ma), Jacob Tremblay (Jack), Joan Allen (Nancy), Sean Bridgers (Old Nick), William H. Macy (Robert), Tom McCamus (Leo), Wendy Crewson (Talk Show Hostess).

It’s harder in film than it is in literature to completely tell a story from inside one person’s point of view. It’s easy in literature – the author simply writes in the first person, and the reader immediately “gets it”, and also realizes that the story being told isn’t necessarily the objective truth, but rather one person’s version of the truth – and that person could either be lying, deluding themselves or simply not have all the necessary information. In film though, because the audience can see with their own eyes what is happening, we assume that everything we are seeing is the objective truth, no matter what, and so it’s harder for a film to truly put you inside of someone else’s head. Emma Donoghue’s novel Room was brilliant – told entirely from the point of view of a 5 year old boy named Jack, who is trapped in a shed with Ma, who has done everything she can to make their lives seem normal. Occasionally Old Nick shows up – and Jack knows he is to stay in the wardrobe when he does. Old Nick brings them things like food that they need – and Jack hears the grunting and the squeaking of the bed springs that we understand, that he cannot. Jack is as happy as a 5 year old in this situation can be – so it’s traumatizing when Ma tells him they need to play a game that will get Jack out of Room – and perhaps even more traumatizing once he is out in the world. Donoghue wrote the screenplay for Room – and Lenny Abrahamson directed it – and one of the most remarkable things about the movie is how it maintains Jack’s point of view throughout the movie – how it really did place the audience inside his head, and sees the world as he sees it. It’s one of the many accomplishments of the movie.

The film stars Brie Larson as Ma – and it truly is one of the best performances of the year. She is a woman who is fighting off depression, who is at the end of her rope, and puts all of her focus and energy on protecting to her – which is the one thing that is keeping her sane. The first half of the movie – set entirely in Room – is tense, as she tries everything she can to give Jack a “normal” childhood – lying to him about what is outside of Room (outer space), and who Old Nick is (someone who gets things with magic), and who the people on TV are (flat people from far away). She is protecting him from the truth of course – making things seem normal, turning things into toys and games (including afternoon yelling time, which is useless since Room is soundproof, but they try anyway). Without giving too much away, both Ma and Jack eventually do get out of Room, and I imagine most movies would end – with a happily ever after moment of mother and child triumphing over adversity. It’s simpler, cleaner that way. But that isn’t what Room does – it follows the pair of them over a period of time after they get out. Both are in some ways damaged – Ma more than Jack – and struggle with fitting in with the world.

Larson is, as mentioned earlier, brilliant as Ma – the woman who clearly cracking up, and not wanting Jack to notice. She has been building to a performance like this for a while now – her great work in Short Term 12 in particular – and she makes the most of it. But the whole movie would be in danger if the role of Jack wasn’t well cast – but luckily Jacob Tremblay delivers one of the great child actor performances in cinema history – right up there with Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon and Anna Paquin in The Piano. It’s a remarkably subtle performance (no doubt some skillful directing played a role here), that lets us into Jack’s mind as he looks at all the strange stuff he has never seen before, and starts to slowly bond with people other than Ma. Joan Allen is wonderful as well as Ma’s mother, who calmly and patiently helps Jack come out of his shell a little bit more (Tom McCamus is fine too as her husband – who knows how to talk to children).

As dark of a film as Room is – calling to mind any number of real life horrors similar to what happens here, and not shying away from their lasting impact, it does end up as a rather hopeful film. The final scene, again just mother and child, sees Room for what it always was, and in doing so, the power it has over them dissipates. It’s one of the many moments in the film that could be seen as trying to milk tears from the audience – but in this case, Room earns those tears (and yes, I cried, but then I’m a big softie) – because the film feels honest. Room is a remarkable achievement for all involved – a giant leap forward for Abrahamson (I liked both What Richard Did and Frank – but they are nowhere near as good as this), a wonderful screenwriting debut for Donoghue, who proved (like Gillian Flynn did last year with Gone Girl) that she was the right choice to adapt her own book, and for Larson and Tremblay, who are remarkable together. This is one of the best films of the year.

Movie Review: Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs
Directed by: Danny Boyle.
Written by: Aaron Sorkin based on the book by Walter Isaacson.
Starring: Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs), Kate Winslet (Joanna Hoffman), Seth Rogen (Steve Wozniak), Jeff Daniels (John Sculley), Michael Stuhlbarg (Andy Hertzfeld), Katherine Waterston (Chrisann Brennan), Perla Haney-Jardine (Lisa Brennan - 19), Ripley Sobo (Lisa Brennan - 9), Makenzie Moss (Lisa Brennan - 5), Sarah Snook (Andrea Cunningham), John Ortiz (Joel Pforzheimer).

There is perhaps no staler genre than the biopic of the visionary genius – movies that take complex figures and reduce them down to an easily digestible 2 hour movie, complete with plenty of “Eureka!” moments, when the movie knowingly winks at the audience when the brilliant man (and it’s almost always a man – Hollywood hasn’t done so well by visionary women) come up with their life changing, earth shattering revelation. Jake Kasdan’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story brilliantly satirized the musical genius biopic, but even if the genius at the core of the movie wasn’t a musician, for the most part, they follow the same pattern – we usually get a key moment or two from the main figure’s childhood, which will inevitably shape their entire lives, and then a collection of “greatest hits” – where the movie makes us in the audience privy to moments of great visionary genius. Lather, rinse, collect your Oscar, repeat as it usually goes with these biopics.

In the last 5 years, Aaron Sorkin has written three biopics which largely askew these conventions. His Oscar winning screenplay for The Social Network focuses on one chapter of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s life, which the film acknowledges is a work in progress, since Zuckerberg is still in his early 20s when the film ends. Moneyball (co-written with Steven Zallian) is a little more traditional look at Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane, but that may well be the work of Zallian, with Sorkin brought in to punch up the dialogue. With his latest, Steve Jobs, Sorkin completely abandons the traditional biopic structure – inside deciding to write about Jobs’ life in a bold, three act structure, each set in the minutes leading up to a product launch – for the Mac in 1984, for Next in 1988 and for the iMac in 1998. In the lead up to all of these launches, where Jobs stalks around backstage yelling at everyone, seems to be every key figure in Jobs life, who need to have it out with him right then and there. It’s a boldly artificial structure – and doesn’t try to hide that (late in the film Jobs makes a joke about how before each one of these launches, everyone acts like a drunk in the bar who has to tell him what they really think of him). It betrays Sorkin’s roots as a playwright – but it also allows Sorkin to do what he does best – write really long dialogue sequences, often while two people are walking and talking, delivered in a brisk pace, in a rhythm that is immediately identifiable as Sorkin’s, and no one else’s.

With Sorkin, as with other writers immediately identifiable by their dialogue (Tarantino and Mamet come to mind), casting is pivotal, because if one person screws up the dialogue, the whole thing comes crashing down. Luckily, no one screws it up in Steve Jobs – starting with Michael Fassbender, who is brilliant as Steve Jobs. Like Jessie Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg, the movie not only makes no effort to try and get you to like Jobs, it almost seems to go out of its way to make him look like a complete and total asshole. Jobs has no problem dressing down his underlings – and he sees everyone as his underling, and doesn’t care about anyone’s feelings – not even his 5 year daughter, who for years he denied was even his, and who breaks her little heart at the first launch telling her that the computer named Lisa isn’t named after her, but is just a coincidence. He’ll soften – a little in each of the three launches – in his relationship with his daughter, perhaps redeeming himself (a little) by the end. The message of the movie is vocalized by Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) at one point “It’s not binary – you can be decent and a genius at the same time” – and it’s something that this version of Jobs learns, somewhat by the end.

For the most part though, Fassbender relishes playing Jobs as an asshole, and does it wonderfully. Kate Winslet is also great as Jobs’ His Girl Friday, Joanna Hoffman, who is supposedly in charge of Marketing for the company, but whose real job appears to follow Jobs around and be his voice of morality – a role that Sorkin most often assigns to women. That may sound like a trite dismissal of Winslet’s character – but she really does make it her own, even with a Polish accent that strangely seems to get a little stronger as the movie progresses. Seth Rogen, trying his hand at drama, makes for a fine Steve Wozniak – even if the movie doesn’t give him quite as much to do as you would expect, Rogen still slips into the role well. The best supporting performance – aside from Winslet – is probably by Michael Stuhlbarg playing Andy Hertzfeld, the underling that Jobs is probably hardest on, but who gradually emerges as the most sympathetic character in the film, aside from Lisa, who has to deal with this asshole of a father, and a flake (Katherine Waterston – not given anywhere near the complexity of her role in Inherent Vice last year) of a mother, who still turns out pretty good.

The film was directed by Danny Boyle, who although I would never say is as great a director as David Fincher, who was originally attached to the movie, was probably the right choice. This is a movie that moves a mile a minute, both in terms of the dialogue, and the camera movement, which is constantly on the movie following Jobs wherever he goes. This is the type of high energy thing that Boyle excels at – and even if this film is undeniably more Sorkin than Boyle, the two styles merge nicely.

Steve Jobs is a big, fun, fast moving entertaining film that nevertheless doesn’t quite match Sorkin’s best work. It isn’t as deep or fascinating as The Social Network, and I’m not sure it has the endless re-watch value of The American President, A Few Good Men (two movies I’ve easily seen 15 times each, in bits and pieces when they’re on TV, which is always) or single episodes of The West Wing or Sports Night (and no, I didn’t forget to include Studio 60 or The Newsroom). Steve Jobs is a really good movie that never quite clicks into being a truly great one. Perhaps it’s because it’s all just a little too simplistic – asshole learns not to be an asshole – to truly get at the depths of something like The Social Network. Nevertheless, the film is hugely entertaining, smart and stylish, and boasts some excellent performances. If it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Sorkin’s best work, perhaps that’s just because that is a high bar to clear – and we can all be thankful it’s far superior to Sorkin at his worst, and most preachy.

Movie Review: Taxi

Directed by: Jafar Panahi.
Written by: Jafar Panahi.

Iranian director Jafar Panahi isn’t supposed to be making movies – but he continues to anyway. In 2010, he was banned from making films because he angered the government – he was also sentenced to a jail sentence, and banned from leaving the country. Since then, Panahi has made three movies – This is Not a Film, shot with an iPhone in Panahi’s apartment, with a co-director, who doesn’t let Panahi call cut on a shot at one moment, because that would violate the ban, so he lets the shot go a little bit longer. That film was rather playful, while remaining sad – Panahi a prisoner in his own apartment, with nothing to do and nowhere to go – until the final shot that is. His follow-up was Closed Curtain – and again, it was shot by Panahi in his home (not the apartment this time, but a house in the middle of nowhere, where he hopes he can hide his dog) that he was supposed to get euthanized – when two strangers appear, also on the run, and he lets them in. That film, oddly, felt more claustrophobic than This is Not a Film – and also slightly more dour (of the three, it’s also clearly the one that is most like a film). Now he’s back with Taxi – and so is the playfulness. Is he violating the ban on filmmaking with Taxi – in which he does nothing other than drive a cab through the streets of Tehran, picking up various passengers, and talking to them? The camera is mounted on the dashboard – not that uncommon of a thing really – but there are other cameras in the film as well (everyone seems to have them).

The film is clearly not a documentary – but I suppose you’d have trouble actually proving that, as it appears that everyone in the movie (including Panahi himself) is playing a version of himself. The film however is much to “perfect” to simply have been captured on the fly. The film is filled with references to Panahi’s previous films – from Crimson Gold to The Circle to The Mirror to Offside – and Panahi makes no effort to try to disguise this fact (in fact, he has the various people directly reference how similar the events are to Panahi’s films by name). This isn’t so much Panahi bragging, as much as it is him playfully pointing things out, and highlighting the fact that issues addressed in those films are still very much evident in today’s Iran. If Panahi were allowed to make films, he could make them about what he always has.

The passenger who stays in Panahi’s cab the longest – approximately half of the 82 minutes movie – is his niece Hana, a tween who has been given an assignment from school to make a short film. Her teacher has also given her a set of rules that she has to abide by to make a “screenable” film. It’s amusing to watch Hana tell Panahi – an expert on these things – about all the restrictions on what she can and cannot show – and it’s even more amusing to see Hana get mad at a boy who does something in her shot that will make her film not “screenable”. Hana is full of life, and a chatterbox, which contrasts with Panahi’s quiet, often bemused demeanor throughout.

I’m not sure Taxi really adds up to that much. It is the most enjoyable of the three films that Panahi has made since being banned from making films – but it’s also the shallowest. It is basically Panahi playing around with the form – and the definition of what is and isn’t a film, and what is and isn’t real – which he plays with right to memorable final shot (something all three of these films share are killer final shots). But another thing that all three of these films share is a sense of sadness that this is the best Panahi can do right now – because he isn’t allowed to do anything else. It’s still fascinating to watch Panahi work – to play with the form – but the one thing I want is I think what he wants as well – the ability for Panahi to make a film the way he used to. That may never happen, but we can continue to hope it will.

Movie Review: When Marnie Was There

When Marnie Was There
Directed by: Hiromasa Yonebayashi   
Written by: Keiko Niwa & Masashi Ando & Hiromasa Yonebayashi based on the novel by Joan G. Robinson.
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld (Anna), Kiernan Shipka (Marnie), Geena Davis (Yoriko Sasaki), John C. Reilly (Kiyomasa Oiwa), Raini Rodriguez (Nobuko Kadoya), Ellen Burstyn (Nan), Kathy Bates (Mrs. Kadoya), Vanessa Williams (Hisako), Catherine O'Hara (Elderly Lady).

When Marnie Was There is the last film – for now anyways – from Japan’s famed Studio Ghibli. who is responsible for giving the world the work of Hayao Miyazaki, as well as many other great animated films. The great Miyazaki, whose name is synonymous with Ghibli, went out on a high note two years ago with The Wind Rises, and the almost as great Isao Takahata, had one final great film in him as well, with last year’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Given those standards, it’s impossible not to be somewhat let down that When Marnie Was There, from Hiromasa Yonehayashi, is Ghibli’s last film. It is, like Yonehayashi’s first film, The Secret World of Arietty, a relatively minor effort when considered alongside their truly great films. Yet the film is undeniably still a Ghibli film –with the unmistakable gentleness, and beautiful animation we have come to expect from them. It may not be great Ghibli – but even minor Ghibli has its charms.

The movie is about a young teenager named Anna, whose parents died years ago, and battling major depression – not the normal teenage girl depression in movies like this, but a depression that verges of being suicidal. She has no friends, she barely speaks to anyone, and despite her foster mother’s best efforts, she cannot seem to help Anna. The foster mother decides that what Anna needs is time away – and sends her to the seashore to live with her Aunt and Uncle for the summer. She does this under the guise that the sea air will be good for Anna’s asthma, but in reality, I think Anna just needs a change of scenery for a while. When she arrives at the seashore, she is almost immediately drawn to a mansion – said to be haunted, and only accessible by boat. It’s here she meets Marnie – another young teenager, who is Anna’s opposite in almost every way – from physical appearance to personality. The two girls develop a close friendship – each giving the other what they are lacking at home.

The film is a gentle ode to female friendship that moves at such a leisurely pace at times it doesn’t feel like it’s moving at all. It’s the type of film, like many of Ghibli’s films that is best viewed as a child may see it – with innocence, rather than adult cynicism, which could kill a gentle film like this (I know some saw the trailer and wondered if it was about a lesbian relationship – which is not). The film is a blend of fantasy and reality, only really revealing what is what in the last act, and even then, perhaps not entirely. Like all of Ghibli’s films, the animation is beautiful from start to finish – a film that doesn’t try to blind you with its colors or movement, like much American animation does, but has the same kind of gentle look and feel as the story.

For many, When Marnie Was There will move too slowly. I fully admit, it did to me feel at times as if the story wasn’t moving forward for fairly long stretches. But Ghibli has never put that sort of emphasis on constant action or plot, but likes to take it’s time getting anywhere. Even by those generous standards though, When Marnie Was There is slow moving – and I cannot help but feel the movie’s finale lacks a little bit of the emotional impact it could have had had it gotten there a little quicker.

It’s sad to think that Studio Ghibli won’t be making another movie for a while – perhaps ever, no one is really sure. Perhaps it was necessary – after all, between them Miyazaki and Takahata directed 14 of Ghibli’s 20 features, so their retirement was going to change the studio anyway. Still, even if Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Goro Miyazaki (Hayao’s son), who have each made 2 films for Ghibli, were not quite up to the level of their predecessors, their films are still beautiful, and I wish each was given more of an opportunity to grow. Maybe they will get that chance somewhere – but for now anyway, it won’t be at Ghibli. When Marnie Was There marks the end of an era, I wish didn’t have to end – and that by itself makes the ending rather emotional – and appropriate. 

Movie Review: Hotel Transylvania 2

Hotel Transylvania 2
Directed by: Genndy Tartakovsky.
Written by: Robert Smigel & Adam Sandler.
Starring: Adam Sandler (Dracula), Andy Samberg (Jonathan), Selena Gomez (Mavis), Kevin James (Frankenstein), Steve Buscemi (Wayne), David Spade (Griffin), Keegan-Michael Key (Murray), Asher Blinkoff (Dennis), Sadie Sandler (Winnie), Fran Drescher (Eunice), Molly Shannon (Wanda), Megan Mullally (Grandma Linda), Nick Offerman (Grandpa Mike), Dana Carvey (Dana), Rob Riggle (Bela), Mel Brooks (Vlad), Jonny Solomon  (Blobby), Chris Kattan (Kakie).

The knock on Adam Sandler for a while now is basically that he’s lazy – that he churns out basically the same thing time after time, and most of the time he doesn’t even appear like he’s trying. Hotel Transylvania 2 will hardly change people’s mind on that – it is very similar to the first film, and in fact similar to Grown Ups as well – as Sandler assembles his buddies (in this case Kevin James, Steve Buscemi and David Spade among others) and although they are monsters, they are basically bored suburban dads who have been tamed by years of marriage and child rearing, who just want a little chance to break free. Because this is an animated film aimed at children, it also includes a message about inclusion – and accepting who you are, and not trying to force others to be something they are not. All pretty standard stuff for an animated film – and executed well enough that my 4 year old daughter seemed to enjoy the 90 minute runtime well enough (even if she grew a little restless once we were out of popcorn). Hotel Transylvania 2 was made because the first film made money – and even if no one particularly liked it, that means a sequel was necessary – and no one seems to particularly like this one either, but it hit that box office sweet spot – long enough after Minions that parents are looking for something to take their kids to, and yet far enough before Peanuts or The Good Dinosaur that they may not want to wait for them. Watching the film is hardly a painful experience – it moves quickly, has a few moderately funny jokes, and isn’t as headache inducing as many animated films that assault the viewing with a non-stop barrage of color and action. But that’s hardly a recommendation, is it?

Last time you might recall that Dracula (Sandler) was raising his daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez) by himself at his monster only hotel, when a human, Jonathan (Andy Sandberg) inexplicably found the place – and Mavis and he ended up falling in love, much to Dracula’s chagrin, although eventually he came to terms with it. The plot of the second movie is that Mavis’ son Dennis is approaching his fifth birthday – and if his vampire fangs don’t come by then, they won’t come in at all – a real risk because he’s half human (apparently this is a world not unlike the Muppets, where in A Muppet Christmas Carol all of Kermit and Piggy’s boy kids were frogs, and all the girls were pigs – Dennis will either be a human or a vampire, not half and half, like Blade). Mavis thinks that Dennis may be better off being raised near Jonathan’s parents – in Santa Cruz – rather than Transylvania, if he is human that is. So Dracula conspires with Jonathan – who doesn’t want to leave – to get Mavis out of the way for a little while, so he and his buddies can find ways to bring out Dennis’ inner monster, one way or another.

Part of the problem with Hotel Transylvania 2 is that many of the jokes are essentially the same as the first film – where the idea was that it would hilarious to see all these monsters as just regular guys (and other than Selena Gomez, they’re all guys – and Gomez is stuck in the same role women in Sandler movies always seem to get stuck with – that is to be the stick-in-the-mud that ruins the guys fun). There are moments that work – I’m still a sucker for Steve Buscemi, and like his vocal work as a werewolf with hundreds of kids, who seems completely miserable, all the time). But those moments are too few and far between – as we spend too much time on too many uninspired and repeated gags that don’t much work, before ending with an action sequence that seems out of place with the rest of the film.

For its target audience, Hotel Transylvania 2 gets the job done – but not much else. When my daughter and I left some other movies, she cannot stop talking about them – when we left this one and I asked if she liked it, she said yes, and that was about it. She had fun watching the movie – but then again, 4 years olds seem to have fun watching just about anything animated (unless it involves a witch, which is the only thing my daughter seems to be afraid of – none of the monsters here seemed to scare her). The film is what it is – a fairly lazy and generic, but not completely painful animated kid’s movie – a way to bridge the gap between the animated hits of the summer, and the (hopefully superior) animated hits of American Thanksgiving/Christmas.

The Films of Oliver Stone: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)
Directed by: Oliver Stone   
Written by: Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff based on characters created by Stanley Weiser & Oliver Stone.
Starring: Michael Douglas (Gordon Gekko), Shia LaBeouf (Jake Moore), Carey Mulligan (Winnie Gekko), Frank Langella (Louis Zabel), Josh Brolin (Bretton James), Eli Wallach (Julie Steinhardt), Vanessa Ferlito (Audrey), Susan Sarandon (Jake's Mother), Sylvia Miles (Realtor).

The irony that Gordon Gekko a character that writer/director Oliver Stone and star Michael Douglas meant as an indictment on Reagan-era greed on Wall Street ended up inspiring a whole new generation of Wall Street brokers, who wanted to be Gordon Gekko, has not been lost on Stone, or his collaborators. Nor has it been lost on them that while Gekko did some horrible things in the 1987 original film, his level of greed and corruption pales in comparison to what all of Wall Street did – apparently legally – leading up to the 2008 Financial Meltdown. Gekko’s actions were bad to be sure, but even had he gotten away with them, he only would have destroyed a few lives, not endanger the entire financial system on the planet. The timing back in 2010 therefore seemed right to make a sequel to Wall Street – and to even make Gekko into, if not the hero of the movie per se, at least not the villain. There was more than enough material to craft a great film about Wall Street greed back in 2010 – but as entertaining as Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is (and, it is, entertaining) it never quite gets there. There’s too much yelling, too much posturing, and like the previous film a forced “happy ending” where the bad guy gets what’s coming to him, even if it isn’t realistic in the least. The movie is, if anything, even flashier than the 1987 film – but unlike the original doesn’t quite have the substance to back it up.

The film takes place in the days leading up, and then the month leading away, the Financial Meltdown in 2008. Instead of young, idealist Bud Fox in the lead role, you have young idealist Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) – a young hotshot at a big Wall Street firm that, like the rest of the them, is swimming in toxic assets and has no idea how much trouble they’re in. Like Lehman Brothers, they’re the first domino to fall – and like in real life, everyone else lets them fail, causing its founder, Louis Zabel (Frank Langella), who is Jake’s mentor, to commit suicide. Leading the charge against Zabel was his longtime enemy, Bretton James (Josh Brolin), and Jake wants revenge. Jake is currently dating Winnie (Carey Mulligan), Gordon Gekko’s estranged daughter – and decides to reach out to the old legend – now out of jail for a few years, and making money with a new book. Gekko is his old charming self, and even though Winnie warns Jake to stay away, that Gordon will destroy them, he doesn’t listen. Gordon doesn’t like Bretton either – and Jake thinks he can help get some level of revenge on the man that he has just started to work for.

Making the whole 2008 Meltdown a personal issue is perhaps inevitable in a movie like this – but it’s also incorrect, as the problems were systemic as much as anything, and while there were villains enough to go around, but the film basically brings everything down to a personal level – where Bretton James is the “big bad wolf” that must be stopped, which ignores the larger problems in the system. While Gekko does give some rather long (all be it entertaining) speeches about the level of greed on Wall Street that tries to cover the wider array of problems – and because Douglas is an excellent actor, who slides right back into the role he was born for, these speeches work. But films like Margin Call or the HBO film Too Big to Fail (not to mention a documentary like Inside Job, or any number of This American Life episodes) do a better job at showing just how wide ranging the problem was, and how no one really understood it. In this, the Hollywood version, greed has to be personified, so it can be punished.

There is much to like about Money Never Sleeps – Stone still knows how to direct scenes of excess, and how seductive this sort of lifestyle can be (although Jake is too much of a choirboy for my tastes – I liked Bud Fox more, who was willing to get dirty). The movie has style to spare, and that mostly works. Douglas is excellent, as always, and even if Langella does little but bellow in his extended cameo, he’s fun, and Josh Brolin is having fun as well as the bad guy (even if the math on his age confused the hell out of me – how old is he supposed to be?). LaBeof’s Jake maybe dull – but as an audience surrogate, he’ll do. The bigger problem is Winnie – who the movie never really gets a handle on. At one point, Gekko asks Jake a very valid question that the film never does even attempt to answer – if Winnie hates Gordon so much, why the hell is she dating Jake? For that matter, why couldn’t Winnie just be in the Jake role, and then we could eliminate the whole needless romantic subplot between them – which really only seems to be there to connect Jake and Gordon in the first place? Mulligan is a fine actress, but she cannot save this nothing character – which once again, highlights Stone’s oft-cited woman problem.

I liked Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps more in 2010 than I did on this second time through, although it is still an entertaining little film. It is also a completely forgettable one – which is something I cannot say about too many other Oliver Stone films. Throughout this series, I have been surprised by just how much of other, earlier films of Stone’s I remember – but this one is one I almost completely forgot. It shows Stone can still direct, sure, but it doesn’t feel like a Stone film, which the first did. It isn’t seething with anger – which normally you can count on Stone for. The movie is fun, to be sure, but not a lot else.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Films of Oliver Stone: W. (2008)

W. (2008)
Directed by: Oliver Stone.
Written by: Stanley Weiser.
Starring: Josh Brolin (George W. Bush), Elizabeth Banks (Laura Bush), James Cromwell (George H.W. Bush), Ellen Burstyn (Barbara Bush), Richard Dreyfuss (Dick Cheney), Jeffrey Wright (Colin Powell), Scott Glenn (Donald Rumsfeld), Thandie Newton (Condoleezza Rice), Toby Jones (Karl Rove), Bruce McGill (George Tenet), Ioan Gruffudd (Prime Minister Tony Blair), Noah Wyle (Don Evans), Rob Corddry (Ari Fleischer), Dennis Boutsikaris (Paul Wolfowitz), Randall Newsome (Paul Bremer), Jason Ritter (Jeb Bush), Michael Gaston (General Tommy Franks), Stacy Keach (Rev. Earle Hudd).

Oliver Stone’s W. was greeted with a collective shrug, by both audiences and critics, when it was released back in 2008 – and not enough time has passed for it to get any sort of real re-evaluation. You can understand why people didn’t much want to see the film then – it was released a month before the election that would bring Barack Obama to the White House, and even Bush’s hardcore supporters were getting tired of him, and wished he would pretty much go away. The Conservative minded either ignored the film or attacked it as a hatchet job – a lot on the Liberal side didn’t see it as hard enough on George W. Bush, and many film critics who loved Stone’s Nixon the decade prior was disappointed that Stone’s new film was simplistic by comparison. To me, that’s always been one of the point of W., the film – that it is a far more simple film for a far more simple man. No matter what one thinks of Richard Nixon, he was a fascinating person, in many ways a brilliant one, who brought himself up from nothing to become President, only to have it come crashing down around him because of his own paranoia. That’s the narrative of a Shakespearean King. In Stone’s view, Bush was nothing more than a spoiled rich kid, with daddy issues – an average man who had the misfortune of being born into a great family, and who was just smart enough to make himself into a great politician, but not smart enough to realize that is the last thing he should have been. Basically, Stone paints him as a man in way over his head, who has no idea what the hell he’s doing. He takes a few cheap shots perhaps – but not many. The fact checking brigade that has greeted other Stone films didn’t find much here – he stays pretty close to the established record on this one. That makes the film all the sadder. It is true that the film is flawed – that it rushes through Bush’s life far too quickly, and has a supporting cast that are basically doing little more than impressions of the famous people they’re playing (my favorite is probably Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld – he may not be in the film very much, but the way he eats pie will haunt me forever). Anchored by a great, Oscar caliber performance by Josh Brolin though, and W. really is quite a good film – one of the best “late phase” Stone films.

The film basically moves back and forth in time, from Bush’s past, starting with his drunken frat days, to his Presidency and back again. Yes, it is kind of silly to see the middle aged Brolin playing a frat boy, but it’s only for a scene (and at this point, because of Walk Hard, these types of scenes always make me smile, so let’s role with it). It doesn’t take long to establish who W. is – and what the relationship is like with his father (James Cromwell). His father is stern, and lets his son know at every opportunity just how disappointed he is in him, and how he wishes he could be more like Jeb – yet he’s also always there to bail his son out of trouble (or jail). Their interaction always reduce the usual over-confident machismo of W. into a little boy who has just been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. The movie moves quickly through W.’s “jobs” – none of which he lasts long in, as he always gets tired of being bossed around and simply does not have the work effort to stick with it. When he runs for Congress in the late 1970s – with little on his resume – he loses, and vows right then and there that he will never be “Out Christianed or Out Texased” every again – and he never is.

Brolin nails Bush’s voice and mannerisms – and not in a jokey, Saturday Night Live way, but in a much deeper one. He isn’t doing a jokey impression of Bush – which would be easy – but getting the man beneath that surface – at once brash and insecure. He is smart enough to know that those around do not think he is smart enough – and he doesn’t hesitate to put those around him down, albeit in a nice way, if he feels like they are stepping on his toes. He does the seemingly impossible with Bush – especially in 2008 – and makes him into a human being. A sad one to be sure, and one that he makes abundantly clear never should have been President (or really, in any kind of position of power) but a human just the same. The final shot of the movie – of Bush once again dreaming of being a baseball player in the outfield, only this time losing sight of the ball that never comes down is an apt metaphor for his life.

Stone is on solid footing with Brolin as Bush, but he cannot help himself at other times as he goes too far over the top. Richard Dreyfus, as Dick Cheney, has a fairly silly scene in the Situation Room, where he goes on a long, drawn out diatribe about all the things America needs to do become an Evil Empire (without using that term obviously) borders on a scene more appropriate to a film like Dr. Strangelove, except that it is played straight. In fact, none of the rest of the supporting cast really comes into focus in any real way – except Colin Powell should have probably sent Stone a fruit basket or something as he comes across far and away the best of anybody in the film.

At the time the film was made, many thought Stone had jumped the gun – that making the film while Bush was still in office was a mistake, as it didn’t really allow history to judge how he had done, and what the long term consequences of what he did were. This had helped Stone in the past – who made films about Vietnam more than a decade after the war ended, JFK’s assassination nearly three decades after the event, and about Richard Nixon two decades after he resigned. There is some truth to that complaint – and already, in just 7 years, as the President after Bush is getting ready to leave office next year, the film may have dated a little bit. And yet, in the larger scope, I’m not sure that the film would be much different if it were made today – with some hindsight – as it was back in 2008. If W. the film hasn’t really gotten a critical re-evaluation yet, than neither has George W. Bush, the President. He’s still someone Democrats hate, and Republicans distant themselves from – and the historical record hasn’t really helped Bush out – nor has it hurt him more than it already had back in 2008 (his screw-ups were already widely known). The complaint about the film that is true is that it is nowhere near the complex portrait of a President as Stone’s Nixon was. But Bush wasn’t nearly as complicated as Nixon – which is a fact that Stone makes stunning clear. W. is an odd film in many ways – but it remains a fascinating one for me – and one that hopefully, some more people will give a second look to.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Classic Movie Review: Badlands (1973)

Badlands (1973)
Directed by: Terrence Malick.
Written by: Terrence Malick.
Starring: Martin Sheen (Kit), Sissy Spacek (Holly), Warren Oates (Father), Ramon Bieri (Cato), Alan Vint (Deputy), Gary Littlejohn (Sheriff), John Carter (Rich Man).

In broad strokes, Badlands resembles any number of “lovers on the run” films – from Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde (1967) to Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994) and many other films before and since. It tells the story of a young couple, Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek) who go on the run after he kills her father and end up on a doomed cross country killing spree. That sounds like a setup for an exciting, frantically paced movie about romantic outsiders – two people united against the world. But this being a Malick film, of course it’s different. It’s different in that Malick’s film is more deliberately paced – more lyrical and beautiful. Like all of his films, it is about people who look at their place in the larger world and struggle to find meaning in their small lives. The violence in the movie isn’t exciting – but it isn’t especially brutal or bloody either. But perhaps the biggest way Badlands doesn’t resemble most “young people in love on a crime spree” movie is simple – I don’t think Kit and Holly really love each other. At times, they barely seem to like to each other.

Like all Malick films, the narration in the movie is pervasive. The narration here is delivered by Spacek’s Holly in an almost flat monotone voice – that betrays little to no emotion. Her narration most often seems at odds with the visuals of Malick’s movie – she sees the events as a fairy tale, and doesn’t like to dwell on the unseemly details. The murders throughout the movie don’t have much of an effect on her. She’s lost in her own teenage girl world – wondering about her place in the world, wondering about her “boyfriend” Kit – and what will happen to them. Halfway through the movie she makes a promise to herself in the narration – that she’ll never again get involved with someone outside the law like Kit again. But she doesn’t leave him – not then anyway. She’s bored by everything – and that includes Kit – but what would happen if she left?

Kit takes Holly along, I think, because he needs someone to see what he is doing. He is a violent man, who sees himself a victim of society (he complains that “they’ll probably blame me for that too” about a trivial thing, as if blaming him for the murders he has committed is somehow unjust). He wants desperately to be valued, loved – or at the very least have his existence acknowledged. Late in the film, after Holly has left him, he unpacks her suitcase, and throws all her things away – keeping only her journal – which he reads. He wants to see if there is at least one person in the world who “gets” him. I doubt he was happy with what he read. Kit’s problem, one of them anyway, is that he isn’t as deep as he thinks he is. People compare to James Dean throughout the movie – and it’s an apt comparison, as Martin Sheen looks enough like Dean to pass, and seems to be channeling him at times – but Kit is not the deep, suffering outsider Dean played in East of Eden. He’s an empty sociopath who wants to believe he means more than he does. He wants to leave his mark on the world – and when you don’t have the brains or talent to do it in any other way, the easiest way to do that is with a gun. He doesn’t feel anything when he kills his victims – and he doesn’t go out in a romantic blaze of glory. Why would he? He enjoys the attention he receives after his arrest far too much to give it up. For once, people are listening to him – taking him seriously. He has, in essence, gotten exactly what he wanted.

Sheen’s performance is probably the best of his career – and one of the best of all time really. As I mentioned before, he seems to be channeling James Dean – which the real life inspiration from Kit, Charles Starkweather did as well. That’s how Kit sees himself – and wants the world to see him as well. But Sheen doesn’t make Kit into a romantic character – yes, he and Holly romanticize themselves, but the movie never does – but instead sees him as a rather pathetic person – trying desperately to find some meaning in his meaningless life. Malick doesn’t so much hate Kit as pity him. He could have made Kit a more despicable person - the real Starkweather killed a 2 year old after all – but including such an incident would let the audience off the hook easier. You don’t have to feel anything – not even pity – for someone that despicable.

In many ways, Badlands is the most straight forward film of Malick’s career – it certainly has a more straight forward narrative than anything else he has done. But the film is still very much a Malick film – the visuals have the painterly quality of all of his film. But Malick sees the Midwest where the pair drive through as both beautiful and empty – which is a description that could apply to the characters as well. In many ways, while Badlands is not the best film Malick has made, it is his most influential. You can see echoes of it in recent films like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Sun Don’t Shine. Watching it this time however, I was drawn to thinking about Gus Van Sant’s so called “Death Trilogy” of Gerry, Elephant and Last Days – not because of the imagery – Van Sant’s films don’t look at all like Malick’s – but because of their ultimate meaning. Van Sant made three films about young men who kill – the first, about a man who kills his friend, the second about a pair of school shooters, and the third about a rock star who commits suicide – but ultimately finds no meaning in their actions. Malick finds the same meaninglessness in Badlands. In that way, Badlands almost acts as a corrective of a film like Bonnie & Clyde, which saw its young lovers as romantic figures of youthful rebellion. They may pay for their sins, but you walk out of the movie loving them just the same. You don’t walk out of Badlands loving Kit and Holly. You walk out pitying them.