Friday, April 29, 2016

Movie Review: Keanu

Directed by: Peter Atencio.
Written by: Jordan Peele & Alex Rubens.
Starring: Jordan Peele (Rell Williams / Oil Dresden), Keegan-Michael Key (Clarence Goobril / Smoke Dresden), Tiffany Haddish (Hi-C), Method Man (Cheddar), Darrell Britt-Gibson (Trunk), Jason Mitchell (Bud), Jamar Malachi Neighbors (Stitches), Luis Guzmán (Bacon), Will Forte (Hulka), Nia Long (Hannah), Rob Huebel (Spencer).
Key & Peele was the best sketch comedy on TV during it brilliant five year run. That series boldly tackled very serious issues of race, right alongside some sketches that were just plain goofy fun. During its run, Key & Peele was daring – but it was also always hilarious, and gave a variety of roles and characters to its stars/creators – who also openly talked about what it was like to be a black actor in Hollywood – always have to audition for the role of “black friend”. While it was a shame that Key & Peele ended – it was probably for the best for them to get out of the show before it grew stale (something the latest season of the other great sketch comedy show, Inside Amy Schumer, is struggling with on this most recent season). But these two performers have such chemistry together, you knew they wouldn’t stay away from each other for long – which brings us to Keanu, the action/comedy movie starring the pair (and co-written by Peele). The movie is consistently funny for its 98 minute runtime – even if it never reaches the heights of their show. Strangely, even with feature length to play with, it feels like a lot of the sketches on Key & Peele were deeper and more insightful than the entirety of the film. None of this is to suggest that Keanu isn’t hilarious – or a waste of the talents of the two leading men. Yet, a little like Trainwreck written and starring Amy Schumer last year, it feels like the film plays everything a little too safe – and doesn’t upend the Hollywood formulas as much as you may think given their show.
The movie takes place in L.A. – and opens with a bloody shootout when a pair of Allentown assassins walk into a church, filled with Diaz gang, cutting drugs, and proceed to slaughter them all in an exaggerated, slow-motion gun battle that even John Woo would think was over-the-top (purposefully so). During the massacre, the most adorable kitten in the world takes off – eventually finding his way to the home of Rell (Peele) – a pot smoking, slacker depressed because his girlfriend has just broken up with him. The adorable cat brings him out of that depression – much to the relief of his cousin, Clarence (Key). Through a series of plot twists though the kitten, named Keanu by Rell, ends up in the hands of a drug dealer named Cheddar (Method Man) – and Rell and Clarence end up spending time with his crew over the weekend – adopting the persona of the Allentown assassins from the beginning.
The movie is at its best as Rell and Clarence try hard to fit in with the gang of drug dealers – adopting stereotypical drug dealer personas and vocal inflections they’ve learned from movies like New Jack City and others – which is miles away from who they really are (early in the film, they compare notes about growing up in New York and Detroit – arguing over who got beat up by bigger guys). Clarence is far more reluctant to get into his gang persona – dubbed Shark Tank – but it only takes him a minute or two before he seems incredibly comfortable in it – even going so far as to expound on the virtues of George Michael to the gang, or employ his corporate team building strategies on them (I loved the moment, late in the moment, where he marvels that they are working together).
It must be said that Keanu isn’t a particularly well paced or structured movie – there are gags that are funny, and then go on longer than they need to (like what starts out as a hilarious cameo by a comedic actress I want to see more of on the big screen again – but which flags as it winds down). Will Forte’s drug dealer is a little bit of a missed opportunity as well – as they never really push his character far enough, or seemingly have anything to say about cultural appropriation. And Nia Long is wasted as Key’s wife.
Yet, flaws aside, Keanu is consistently funny – not quite from beginning to end, but close enough. The pair have always been movie buffs (one of my favorite Key & Peele sketches has the pair of them shooting things in a movie theater, playing on quite a few stereotypes at once) – and while Keanu never quite reaches Hot Fuzz levels of parody of 1990s action movies, it does come really quite close. More importantly, Keanu proves that it pair of stars can escape from the shadow of the sketch comedy, and become real movie stars. I’m not sure they quite outshine the kitten in Keanu – but they come close. I do hope that next time out, they push everything farther – but until then, Keanu will do just fine.

The Films of Elaine May: A Conclusion

Elaine May only got the chance to direct four films in her career – and that really is too bad, because three of those four films are actually quite good. Yes, you can blame Ishtar for destroying her directing career if you want – apparently the phrase “movie jail” was coined in honor of May who was essentially locked away from making movies after its large failure. But that ignores the fact that she had not had a chance to direct a film for more than a decade before Ishtar ever came out, and that Ishtar only came around because Warren Beatty had to use his considerable clout to get it made. One cannot help but think that the marked change in style from her first three films to Ishtar had something to do with May attempting to become a more mainstream filmmaker. Yes, A New Leaf, The Heartbreak Kid and Mikey & Nicky are all very different films from each other – but all of them thrive on specific human behavior, and want to make the audience uncomfortable, pushing the awkwardness of the situations in the movies to the extreme.
One cannot help but think that Hollywood sexism had something to do with May not getting another chance to direct after Ishtar. Many directors have had failures – even huge failures – and got to direct again. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate is synonymous with Hollywood bloat, and was a colossal failure, and he got to direct four films after that. And he’s hardly the only one. Yet it seems like when a female filmmaker makes a bomb, that’s it for her.
That really is quite sad, because May was a gifted filmmaker, and I really want to know where she was headed to after Mikey & Nicky. Yes, I think The Heartbreak Kid is her masterpiece – and A New Leaf is better than Mikey & Nicky as well, but the latter film really seemed like May was pushing herself farther than she had before, and the film is far more than the John Cassavetes-clone many seem to think it is (it also isn’t an unheralded masterpiece of 1970s cinema, like some of its supporters claim either – but I digress).
There are some things in cinema history that depress me. That we’ll never see the fully uncut version of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) for example, or that Night of the Hunter (1955) was a bomb, so its director Charles Laughton, stuck to acting after that – cutting his directing career to one, perfect masterpiece, or the fact that Jean-Claude Lauzon died never having made a follow up to his brilliant Leolo. Another of those depressing things is that Elaine May’s directing career ended after just four films. I really wish we could have seen whatever other films she had in her.

The Films of Elaine May: Ishtar (1987)

Ishtar (1987)
Directed by: Elaine May.
Written by: Elaine May.
Starring: Warren Beatty (Lyle Rogers), Dustin Hoffman (Chuck Clarke), Isabelle Adjani (Shirra Assel), Charles Grodin (Jim Harrison), Jack Weston (Marty Freed), Tess Harper (Willa), Carol Kane (Carol), Aharon Ipalé (Emir Yousef), Fijad Hageb (Abdul).
There are some movies that an so synonymous with failure that they end up getting a lot of people in their corner – decades after their release, by a bunch of people who want to tell you that that movie that everyone agrees was horrible, is really a misunderstood masterpiece. One of those films is Elaine May’s Ishtar, from 1987 – which was a huge critical and commercial failure, and ended May’s directing career – she has never directed another feature since the film’s failure. It was called the Heaven’s Gate of comedy – but like Michael Cimino’s effort, there has been a recent movement to claim that Ishtar really isn’t that bad – it’s really a comic masterwork. I will agree on one thing – it is not as bad as Heaven’s Gate – which, despite what its supporters claim, really is the four hour, horrible, confusing, messy bore that critics and audiences rejected back in 1981. But that doesn’t mean Ishtar is actually a good movie. It isn’t. I don’t think it’s one of the worst films in history – it’s just your regular, run-of-the-mill bad comedy – that really isn’t that funny, and ends up being almost completely forgettable.
The opening scenes in Ishtar are the best. Two talentless songwriters, Rogers and Clarke (Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman) team up in New York and try to get a record deal. But they really are terrible and delusional. The scenes of Beatty and Hoffman performing their awful songs really are quite amusing, and the two talented actors wonderful as the two completely committed, completely clueless songwriters. The songs aren’t memorably awful – like say they are in this is Spinal Tap – but they are quite amusing. The pair do end up with an agent – who isn’t stupid of enough to think they have talent, but does think he can get them a low playing gig, playing for tourists in Morocco.
Once the film gets to Morocco, it really does go off the rails. They’ve barely arrived at the airport, when Clarke is approached by Shirra Assel (Isabelle Adjani, playing an Arab woman, because, sure why not? Nearly 30 years later Christopher Abbott can apparently do it, so fuck it, I guess) who really wants his passport, and for some reason, flashes her breast at him (yeah, I know, she does it to prove she’s a woman, but surely there was an easier way to prove that). That ends up drawing the attention of the CIA – led by Jim Harrison (Charles Grodin), who enlist Clarke to help that track down the group Shirra is a part of. Remember, this is 1987, so Arabs weren’t necessarily evil in all Hollywood movies yet, and while the movie doesn’t shy away from what would become known as radical Islam, it pretty much paints everyone as clueless and violent as anyone. 20 years before the Coen brothers Burn After Reading, Ishtar portrays American intelligence agencies as a bunch of bumbling, violent fools, as stupid as two clueless songwriters.
The film was supposed to be a play on the Hope-Crosby Road to … movies of the 1940s, which is an odd kind of comedy for a writer-director like May to make. She had made her directing career up to this point making comedies in the so painfully real and awkward they’re funny vein. The film she made before this – Mikey & Nicky – isn’t really even a comedy, even though it has all the pain and awkwardness of her two previous films. Ishtar is as broad as those films were specific – and it’s a mode that doesn’t suit May well. She has always had physical comedy in her movies – most noticeably in A New Leaf – but running gags involving a blind camel ends up becoming incredibly drawn out and painful (especially since it wasn’t really funny the first time).
A bigger problem is that Beatty and Hoffman don’t seem overly comfortable playing idiots. Unlike, say George Clooney, who is normally an actor who exudes intelligence, but is able to be gloriously clueless in Coen brothers movies, these two just don’t scan as nitwits. Both Beatty and Hoffman did the film because of loyalty to May – she wrote Beatty’s directorial debut, Heaven Can Wait, and did uncredited re-writes on Beatty’s Reds and the Hoffman starring Tootsie. Beatty has said he wanted to give May the gift of this movie – she hadn’t directed in a decade, and Beatty wanted to use his clout to get her another directing gig. As was normal for both Beatty and May however, they clashed on set – and May almost walked off at several points – Beatty didn’t push it back, because he didn’t want to direct the film himself.
May had fights with the studio on A New Leaf and Mikey & Nicky as well – although unfortunately unlike on those two films, those conflicts all end up on screen this time out. It’s unfortunate that Ishtar ended up being branded as such a colossal failure, because May ended up in “movie jail” – and she’s never really got out. Yes, she wrote the screenplays for Mike Nichols the Birdcage and Primary Colors a decade later, but she has not directed another feature since. That’s too bad, because three out of her four directed films are actually very good. Ishtar isn’t as bad as its reputation – it’s just a run of the mill misfire. Every director has them – it’s just that in May’s case, it ended her directing career with a whimper, instead of a bang. She deserved another shot.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

What I've Been Spending Time Doing in the Last Few Months

So far this year, I’ve probably seen a few less movies than normal. It always works like this in the early months of the year – when there isn’t as much that really interests me, and I get lazy, and don’t go to the movies as much as I may like. I also get caught up in other aspects of popular culture. This weekend, for the first time I can recall, I didn’t see any movies. This is because the two nights I usually watch them – Friday and Saturday – I did other things – Friday was the heartbreaking final game for my beloved L.A. Kings, who fell to their arch-rival San Jose Sharks, and Saturday, my wife and I headed to Toronto to see If/Then at the Princess of Wales theater. With nothing much else to write about this week, I thought I’d do an all-encompassing post on what has been distracting me from movies – the Kings, various TV Shows, some musicals and a few books (I’m on my 29th of the year – well ahead of my goal of 52 for the year). I’m sure I’ll be back soon enough with more movie reviews – Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room is supposed to hit theatres this week and I really want to see Key and Peele’s Keanu as well. Until then, some thoughts on everything else. (Warning, this became WAY longer than I thought – feel free to skip if you like – I wrote it to give myself something to write about this week).
TV Shows
Game of Thrones (Season 6 Premiere) – I was late to Game of Thrones – my wife and I went back and watched the first five seasons last summer/fall – and to be honest, I’m not a huge fan. It’s a decent show, and has had some great moments, and I can watch Peter Dinklage do anything – but the violence against women in the show is tough to take – there is just so much of it, and much of it has been mishandled. It’s also a show where not all that much seems to happen – I feel like we’ve been waiting for Daenerys to actually try and get the throne forever, and other characters seem to just wander around not doing anything for a season at a time. In all honesty, if my wife didn’t want to keep watching, I probably would have given up – not because it’s not good, but because there is only so much time in the world – which is why there are quite a few TV shows I’m sure I’d like that I have never gotten around to. The Season 6 Premiere was this Sunday, and, it basically didn’t do anything to change my feelings on the show. Basically the episode spent its entire running time setting everything up, but didn’t do all that much. Maybe Season 6 will make me a believer, but overall, I’m pretty lukewarm on the show, and I don’t see that changing now – even if they’ve cast some great actors (Ian McShane and Max von Sydow) for this season – which couldn’t hurt, considering that there are a lot of bad performances in this show.
The Walking Dead & Fear the Walking Dead (Season 6 and Season 2) – I didn’t watch The Walking Dead Season 1 when it was on – I binged those episodes over the course of a weekend right before Season 2 – but since then, I’ve watched it as they air. It’s always been a hit or miss show – always been one where some episodes are amazing, and then they follow those up with a lot of filler. Quite often, it seems like the show adds a lot of padding episodes – ones where not a lot happens, just to fill out their seasons. But I’ve always defended the show, to a certain extent, because the highs were high enough to justify the lulls. No, I’m not going to claim I’m not going to watch Season 7 because of the idiotic cliffhanger finale of Season 6 – but I do think I’ll stop defending it so much. The 90 minute finale was long and drawn out – and while there were moments of tension, it did become overly repetitive. I did think Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s portrayal as Negan was quite good – and then they had to go ahead and botch the landing thoroughly and completely. Season 6 – especially the back half – had its moments (the episode of Carol and Maggie being held hostage, and then killing their way out, was one for the ages) – but it often felt like a long, slow tease for Negan’s arrival. There were episodes where nothing happened. There were silly and stupid moves on the part of writers – the way they handled Glenn’s “death” which was truly stupid, and didn’t fool anyone. To build all that up, and then not pay it off was bound to make people angry. But to build it all up, then give us Negan, and then just withhold one piece of the story – who he killed – was idiotic. No, despite what Scott Gimple and company said this was not “the end of this season’s story” and that season 7 is about that death and aftermath. This was about manufacturing a cliffhanger – which can be fine when done right. It’s cheap storytelling – and considering how often The Walking Dead went to this well in Season 6 – the finale, Glenn and dumpster, even the penultimate episode when Daryl was “shot” tells me that the writers are running on fumes now, and don’t really know what to keep doing. The Walking Dead was never a great TV show – but it’s often been a very good one. I fear that’s no longer true going forward. How they handle this storyline going forward – and whether they’ve learned anything from the fan and critical reaction to the finale (which has been almost universally negative) will determine if The Walking Dead is creatively bankrupt or not.
Onto Fear the Walking Dead then. I liked the idea of the show when they announced it – after all, the original series never really dealt with the immediate outbreak and aftermath of the zombie apocalypse – as it didn’t pick up until Rick woke up, when the world was already in the shit. I like the actors they cast as well – Cliff Curtis, Kim Dickens and Ruben Blades are all excellent. Still, I found Season 1 to mainly be a snooze – and Season 2 isn’t a whole lot better. I appreciate they’re trying to do something different with the show – focus on a tighter group of characters, not be so reliant on gore, etc. Yet, so far, nothing really about the show has grabbed me that much. It’s hardly a terrible show – but I almost didn’t even start watching Season 2 – and to be honest, if it keeps being this dull, I probably won’t finish.
House of Cards (Season 4) – With two kids under 5 at home, binge watching is not something my wife and I can do very easily. It takes us months to get through most Netflix shows – even ones we quite like (Jessica Jones, Orange is the New Black, Daredevil – although 4 episodes into season 2 of that show, and it’s a slog so far – although Elektra just showed up, so I’ll be back for the next one). The one exception we have is House of Cards – no, we cannot do it over a weekend, but a week, sure. The show has always fallen into the realm of “guilty pleasure” – it’s more than a little ridiculous and over-the-top. Yet the performances are so good, and it’s so gleeful in the extremes its goes to, that I hardly care – and lap up every season. Season 3 though was the weakest the series had done though, and I started to worry that the series had run its course. Not to worry – Season 4 hit on all cylinders, and was, once again, the guilty pleasure it always has been. Spacey and Penn are wonderful – of course – and it’s a pleasure to see them work together, or against each other, as they constantly get painted into a corner, and then try and get out of it again. You could argue that Season 4 ends with a cliffhanger – how the hell can Underwood get out of this jam – which is basically all his previous jams becoming public – but that’s not really a cliffhanger so much as a premise of the show. I’m not going to argue House of Cards is great art – but its great trash, and to quote Pauline Kael on movies “they are so rarely great art, that if you cannot enjoy great trash, there’s no point in going”. The same is true for TV.
Better Call Saul (Season 2) – To me, the best ongoing show on television right now is AMC’s Better Call Saul – which just ended its second season, which was even better than its excellent first season. It is true that I worried that the show would simply be a Breaking Bad rehash – but what’s been interesting about it is that while the two series’ basically have the same outline, they are much different in tone – Better Call Saul is much more low-key, much less cathartic than Breaking Bad – which often gave the audience the relief of violence, and Better Call Saul hardly ever does. Both series are about their main characters long, slow slide into criminal behavior – selling their soul off a piece at a time. I do think that Jimmy’s (a brilliant Bob Odenkirk) slide is more tragic than Walt’s though – what became increasingly clear as Breaking Bad went along is that Walt was always an asshole, he just finally allowed himself to become what he always wanted to be in the first place. Jimmy though is a genuinely nice guy – yes, he’s a little bit of a hustler and a conman, but generally a well-intentioned one. If it weren’t for Chuck (Michael McKean) – his older brother who he cares for, despite the fact that Chuck shows him little to no respect – Jimmy may have actually been able to avoid what we know he will become. We continue to watch, and wait for the inevitable – and at times, it is painful – sooner or later, we know he’s going to do something with Kim (the wonderful Rhea Sea horn) that will ruin her – and while we don’t want that to happen, we know it will. It’s also been great to see Jonathan Banks’ Mike (how the hell he did not win the Emmy for Season 1, I will never understand) going through his own slide. He’s on a parallel path to Jimmy, occasionally crossing, and he provides what little violence the show has, and once again, it’s a sad slide. Banks is always a pleasure to watch – even when he’s doing nothing. It is true that Better Call Saul is a spinoff, and it has never really escaped the shadow of Breaking Bad – but the fact that is true, and it’ still one of the very best shows on TV is a testament to how good Breaking Bad was – and how good this is.
The People vs. O.J. Simpson – No one was more surprised than I was that The People vs. O.J. Simpson ended up being the best thing on TV this year. I assumed that this would be a trashy piece of tabloid exploitation – but it ended up being a fascinating, well made, extremely well written and acted series, using the infamous Simpson trial to examine racism, misogyny, celebrity, violence and much more in 10, distinct episodes. This is not a show built for binging – each episode has its own arch, and its own emphasis, even as they each served the larger series. You will not see a better performance on TV (or perhaps anywhere) this year than Sarah Paulson’s excellent portrayal of Marcia Clarke – who has never been portrayed as sympathetically as she has been here. That doesn’t preclude the excellent work by Courtney B. Vance as Johnny Cochrane – nailing the showmanship, but also what lied behind that, Sterling K. Brown’s brilliant, understated work as Christopher Darden (the scene he shares with Vance in the finale – where they are both right, and both wrong, is a highlight), Connie Britton’s one episode master class, and even the three more divisive performances – David Schwimmer is wonderful as Robert Kardashian (I loved the diner scene, and cannot think of anyone else being able to say the words Uncle Juice with such conviction), John Travolta as Robert Shapiro, who become an outsider in the show, and the legal team he assembled, and Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson himself – particularly in the final moments of the series, where he realizes he won’t go to jail, but that he’ll never get his life back either – he is now a pariah. Whether this creative team will be able to repeat the success with Season 2 – about Hurricane Katrina (which, considering Treme, and those two long Spike Lee docs, I’m not sure there’s much left to say – although I would have also thought that about O.J. Simpson) remains to be seen. But for one season anyway, they nailed it.
Broadway Shows
I would love to see more live theater – plays or musicals – but with two kids, and living in Brantford, it’s not really possible. On our last trip to New York (more than 5 years ago now) – by wife and I saw five productions in four days – musicals Next to Normal, Promises Promises, A Little Night Music and American Idiot, and a play, David Mamet’s Race – and had a great time. With two kids though, it’s not possible to jet off to New York – or even see much in Toronto (who slate doesn’t always interest me anyway) – but there are two musicals I’ve experienced, in different ways, recently.
Hamilton (Soundtrack) – No, I haven’t seen the musical yet – my wife says we will even if we have to kill someone, but who knows when. I have listened to, and become obsessed with the soundtrack though – which is brilliant. But by now you either a) already know this b) are refusing to listen to the soundtrack until you see the show or c) are sick and damn tired about hearing about a show you cannot see. I have a lot of sympathy for those final two views, so I won’t say much else except a ranking of my top 5 songs 5. My Shot 4. You’ll Be Back, 3.Washigton on Your Side 2. Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down) 1. Wait for it (so yes, I prefer act 1 to act 2).
If/Then (Toronto Production) – Out of all the musicals I have seen on stage, Next to Normal was easily my favorite (I saw it twice) – and it’s one of my wife’s favorites as well. So even if the reviews of If/Then, the latest from the creative team behind Next to Normal, on Broadway were mixed we decided we should check it out when it came to Toronto. And no, If/Then is nowhere near as good as Next to Normal – the songs are largely forgettable, and the production is trying way too hard. And yet, it still made for an entertaining night at the theater. Often compared to the movie Sliding Doors (although I prefer the comparison to Lionel Shriver’s great book The Post Birthday World) – the play follows a woman, just out of a 12 year, childless marriage in Phoenix, who returns to New York. From there, her life splits into two – one where she gets a job in city planning, and one where she doesn’t, but meets and falls in love with a doctor just back from Afghanistan. There are other characters – her boss who she may be in love with, her best friend (Anthony Rapp), who is bisexual, but kind of in love with her and miserable in one half, and in love with a man in the other, and a lesbian couple, who are just there as a sounding board for the main character (played by Idina Menzel on Broadway, and Jackie Burns in the production we saw). The first act is rather lightweight, forgettable but enjoyable – the highlight being the amusing song “What the Fuck?”  Darkness starts creeping in late in act 1, and takes over large parts of act 2. I appreciated what they were going for here – asking the rather clichéd question as to whether it’s possible to have it all (the great job, the great marriage, kids, etc) and giving it an optimistic outlook at first, and not nearly so much to end things. They don’t quite pull it all off though, and unfortunately, the production is really rather shallow. The penultimate musical number – Always Starting Over – is a showstopper however, and although I imagine Menzel was even better on Broadway, I have to say Burns is a more than capable substitute for Toronto audiences. No, If/Then is not Next to Normal – which, after all, is the rare musical to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama (the last until, of course, Hamilton) – but it’s still a decent night at the theater.
I read – a lot – because I basically commute on a train for two hours a day, and have nothing else to do (I listen to Podcast – next section – but pretty much only when I’m at work). I’m up at 29 books for the year so far, and here are some highlights.
You/Hidden Bodies – Caroline Kepnes – I hadn’t heard of Caroline Kepnes’ 2014 book You, until earlier this year (I think it was on one of those lists of “If you liked Gone Girl…” which I usually ignore, although I love Gone Girl) – but when I did read it, I pretty much loved it. On the book jacket, one review calls its main character – Joe Goldberg – a cross between Holden Caufield and Patrick Bateman – and that’s an excellent description. The book is told from Joe’s POV – as he works at a New York Book Store, decrying the stupidity of those around him. It’s there that he meets the beautiful Beck, an University student, who he falls in love with, and will do ANYTHING to get her, and keep her. He cyber stalks her (and has access to her e-mail, etc) – and will eventually kill for her as well – something he has done in the past. You is a disturbing book, as it traps you inside Joe’s mind, and you really do feel for him to a certain extent – the people he kills, and even Beck, do seem annoying or do betray him in some way – but then you realize you’re only seeing things from Joe’s point of view, and the fact that you agree with him is disturbing. The follow-up book, 2016’s Hidden Bodies, could be called Joe Goes to Hollywood – is that is precisely what he does – he finds another woman, and more people to kill that are in his way, and the sick dance continues – where you root for Joe and see his POV, and then are disturbed by it. Kepnes is a good writer, and I’m fascinated to see where Joe goes next – the novel ends on a cliffhanger, so a third book is all but guaranteed (although, I think, that perhaps it should end – before Joe really starts to repeat himself). As it stands, these two books are disturbing, entertaining and a fascinating look at misogyny and murder.
In the Lake of the Woods – Tom O’Brien – This is a book I had not heard of, but our good friend Joe Goldberg from You recommended. It’s easy to see why Joe loved the book – the main character in the book also stalks the woman he loves, but in a more traditional way. The book is about a Vietnam vet turned politician, whose career is derailed when his role in the My Lai massacre is exposed. In the days after suffering a humiliating primary defeat, he and his wife retreat to a remote cabin in Minnesota – and a few days later she disappears. The book has three different kinds of chapters. The most traditional is a third person narration – although not the normal, omnipotent narrator, but a writer, who admits his own obsessions and biases, and what he doesn’t know. The second are the Hypothesis chapters, where the writer spins various theories about what happened. The third is Evidence chapters, which is basically interview segments with some of the players involved. O’Brien weaves the past and present together – and never does solve the central mystery (be warned those who insist on closure) but has written a masterful book – the best I’ve read so far this year. Yes, the book is two decades old, but it’s brilliant, so if you haven’t read it, do so.
Movie Freak – Owen Glieberman/Better Living Through Criticism – A.O. Scott – More relevant to movies are these two books by movie critics. Owen Gleiberman’s Movie Freak is a more traditional book, where the former EW critic recounts his life and obsession with movies from his childhood to today – as well as offering a glimpse inside EW during his time there, and his own life, where it’s safe to say, he wasn’t always a very good person. The book recalls Roger Ebert’s Life Itself – although not as good or as deep, but anyone who likes Gleiberman (who was one of the first critics I read, during my time as an EW subscriber in the late 1990s, and who I kept up even after I stopped getting the magazine delivered), it is a lively and entertaining read. You cannot say the same about A.O. Scott’s Better Living through Criticism, which isn’t the easiest read, but it is a vital and important one about the nature of criticism, and why it’s so important. In an era where film critics – and really, critics of all kind, are becoming an endangered species, Scott lays out the history of criticism, and why it matters in a fascinating way. It is a must read.
I was late to Podcasts – like many, I think, I didn’t pay too much attention to them until season 1 of Serial made it completely impossible to ignore them. I loved that season, and since then, I’ve started listening to more and more of them. The Podcasts I listen to basically break down into four categories – True Crime, NPR, Entertainment and Comedy. So a few quick words on each.
True Crime – I have admitted my love of shows like Dateline in the past, as well as many True Crime Documentaries and Series, as well as books. Yes, I think there is a line that some cross between informative and exploitive – and that’s certainly true of Podcasts as well – I’ve sampled a few other True Crime Podcasts, and stopped, because of this. But the good ones are great. I quite like Generation Why, in which two friends go over a case – either famous or not, and offer their own opinions on it. I don’t really care for it when they venture outside of the True Crime realm, for mysteries like aliens or Bermuda Triangle, or whatever – but that’s just me. One I’ve started listening to recently that has a similar format – True Crime Garage – can also be quite good (I could stand with a little less of them telling me how much they like the cut of someone’s jib, but that’s a small part of it). I think I disagree a little more with them as well – I think there may be a few more factual inaccuracies that I noticed, but they are relatively new – and I think they continue to get better, so I’m sticking with them. Two other new ones that I have varying opinions on are Casefile – a great New Zealand based podcast. It is informative, disturbing and really well done – and one of the best things about it is that because it’s based in New Zealand, you get different cases than the others (for instance recently, at three of the other True Crime podcasts had an interview with Juan Martinez, prosecutor of Jodi Arias – and yeah, he’s an interesting guest, but no, I didn’t need to listen to three or four different interviews with him). CBC’s Someone Knows Something seems to me to be a deliberate attempt to replicate the success of Serial, focusing on one case, week after week. What I cannot help but think though is that there really isn’t much to talk about in this one case – the whole thing seems awfully padded. It’s interesting, and I’ll keep listening, but it’s far from great. For something (at least occasionally) lighter, Criminal, is quite good. Yes, it can get dark, but often they have less serious crimes (episodes recently have been about a poisoned tree and missing whiskey) – and they’re fairly short (25 minutes) – and well researched. True Murder with Dan Zupansky is referred to by many of the other podcasts as the Godfather of True Crime podcasting – and his weekly show, where he interviews the author of a true crime book, is endlessly interesting – the quality varies with the guest to be sure, but it is an essential true crime podcast. My favorite though is probably Sword & Scale, which is a bi-weekly podcast that delves into one case each episode, and finds some of the most disturbing ones imaginable. If you never want to sleep again, listen to Episode 20, and a variety show host/puppeteer on Christian Television and his online activities. Sword & Scale has typically stayed away from the more infamous cases – and delves a little deeper than most – which is probably why it’s my favorite.
NPR Podcasts – Like any good liberal (hell, I’m a liberal Canadian, putting me fairly left on the political spectrum in America – although oddly, I haven’t really responded to Bernie Sanders, and find myself rooting for Hilary Clinton – but hell, it’s not my country – vote for who you want), I like NPR and their Podcasts. Their newest is Embedded, and I’ve liked what I’ve heard enough to keep listening. It’s a weekly, about half hour show, where the reporters dig into one story, by, yes, embedding with those involved. I also quite like the NPR Politics Podcast, despite my being Canadian, because American elections always fascinate me (perhaps because I can be a dispassionate observer) – and they are doing great work on this one. Planet Money is a favorite of mine as well – 20 minute pods about various economic issues (I am an accountant after all). Pop Culture Happy Hour could fit into the next section as well – but this weekly roundtable talking about, you guessed it, Pop Culture moderated by the great Linda Holmes, is always interesting – even if I have no interest at all in what they are talking about. The granddaddy of them all is This American Life, which I adore. For a while, after Serial, I went back listened to most of the back catalogue of This American Life episodes, and it really is quite amazing – a document of the last 20 some odd years in America.
Then there is Serial, season 2. Like the rest of the world, I was addicted to Season 1 – but not so much season 2. I think it was a savvy move to not try and replicate season 1 – not really do a True Crime podcast, and not concentrate on a case where the facts are really under dispute – we all know what Bo Bergdahl did, the real question was why, and whether he was responsible for any American deaths. I still listened every two weeks to the new Serial, but was hardly obsessed with it the same way I was with Season 1. I think the move to every other week was deadly – it killed any momentum the show had – I honestly forgot when they were coming out. Still, it was a very good, very informative Podcast. Had Season 1 not come out, than Season 2 would probably look better? I will still be there for Season 3 (which was originally scheduled – I think – for Spring 2016 – although with the move to every other week on Season 2, I don’t know if that’s still the case).
Not surprisingly, another area of Podcast I listen to are movie related – I’ve basically settled on four, after trying out quite a few (and finding many rather annoying for one reason or another. Basically, if it’s part of the “Filmspotting Network”, I’ll listen. The original Filmspotting with Josh Larsen and Adam Kempenar and Filmspotting SVU with Matt Singer and Alison Wilmore, are insightful, funny and offer a good conversation about various films – the original focusing more on what in theaters, and SVU on what’s on demand. Josh and Adam are more likely to disagree and have (good argument) but Matt and Alison are more likely to make me laugh – and perhaps discover some smaller films on demand (it’s where I first heard about Karyn Kusama’s excellent The Invitation) a few years ago. Yes, I could stand both podcasts to be shorter – running 90 minutes, at least, is a little long, but for the most part, I’m down with both. My favorite of this group though is the newest one – The Next Picture Show – where four critics of the late, great film site The Dissolve get together and do two podcasts in one week (and take the next week off) – one focused on an older film, and one on a newer one that is somehow connected (by genre, theme, etc) to the older one. Keith Phipps, Tasha Robinson, Scott Tobias and Genevieve Koski are the group now (producer Koski stepping in for Rachel Handler, who got a job in New York) – and their conversations into classic films are quite good – framing them in a new light, especially when compared to what came next. The one issue I have with this Podcast is sometimes, they hop on movies too close to release – for example, this week they have paired John Carpenter’s 1976 masterpiece Assault on Precinct 13 with Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room – which won’t have even hit Toronto by then, let along most places. I’m going to do my best to see Green Room this week – but I’m certainly not go to listen to a 45 minute Podcast devoted to a film I am dying to see, and want to go into as fresh possible.
The best movie podcast out there – in fact one of the best podcast period is You Must Remember This by Karina Longworth, who delves into Hollywood’s past, telling stories of their dark history. The highlight of this podcast is certainly the 12 part series Charles Manson’s Hollywood – which takes a different look at Manson and his crimes and his connection to entertainment than I’ve seen anyone else do. She’s followed that up with a very good series entitled MGM Stories, and is currently in the middle of a series on the Hollywood Blacklist. Before that, there was a series called Star Wars – about what Hollywood stars did during WWII. The earliest episode are – not surprisingly – a little spottier. They were basically stand alones about one star or another – although there are some real gems in there as well. In short, if I was making a list of my favorite podcasts – the one that I listen to as soon as it drops – this may well be my current favorite.
Finally, my last two podcasts fall into the comedy category – I guess. There is no doubt that Judge John Hodgman is a comedy podcast – a weekly case, or docket clearing, by Hodgman who rules on all matters great and small, and which makes me laugh more consistently than just about anything else these days. The other is WTF with Marc Maron – which has become a standard. Not every WTF is great – it does depend wildly on the guest – but you can never tell which one will be. I learned this when I nearly skipped the David Spade episode a while back – thinking I couldn’t care less about David Spade, and it turned out to be one of the best recent episodes. So even though I care nothing about Steve-O – I’ll at least give his most recent one a listen.
The Los Angeles Kings
I’ve put my beloved Kings as the last entrant, since it is the furthest thing from movies on this list, so you’re more than welcome to simply skip it. I love the Kings – and I have since I was 6, when they acquired my favorite player – Wayne Gretzky. There were A LOT of horrible years after Gretzky left. All that changed a few years ago, when the Kings actually became good. They’ve made the playoffs in six or the last seven years, won two Stanley Cups (the first in Franchise History) alongside another run to the Conference Finals in there. For a three year stretch – between 2012-2014 – the Kings won two cups, 10 playoff round and 41 Playoff Games, and could rival the Chicago Blackhawks for the closest thing to a dynasty the NHL can now produce in the Salary Cap Era. Now, two years later, the Dynasty talk is done – and the questions as to whether the Kings are all that good anymore are real. That is because in the last two years, the Kings have won zero playoff rounds, and only one playoff game. Yes, they had their best Regular Season in quite a while, leading their division for most of the season, before blowing it in the last week 9thatr shootout loss to Winnipeg, meaning they had to play San Jose instead of Nashville, looms large right now). But the question remains about the Kings – what happened, and can they recover?
The answer to the first question – what happened – really is quite simple. GM Dean Lombardi has talked about valuing loyalty in his team, and that is precisely what he has done. He handed out big contracts to Dustin Brown, Jonathan Quick and Marion Gaborik, and just recently to Anze Kopitar, alongside Jeff Carter’s large, long-term contract (that he acquired), and Drew Doughty’s – which he signed before the first cup run, and smaller multi-year deals to the likes of Matt Greene, Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez. He refused to buy out Mike Richards’ contract after the second cup run – preferring to believe Richards would regain his form, and letting the amnesty buyout period go away, before getting himself in a lot of trouble the next year – demoting Richards to the AHL, trying to find someone, anyone to take him, and then “terminating” his contract under strange circumstances, which involved throwing Richards under the bus (which didn’t, and doesn’t, sit well with me – Lombardi aired Richards’ demons to try and justify himself, which is the opposite of loyalty to me).
The biggest problem the Kings have had though is simple – ever since Slava Voynov proved himself to be a horrible human being, by being charged with felony domestic violence, eventually pleading no-contest, serving some (not nearly enough) jail time, and “self-deporting” (before he could be actually deported), they Kings have struggled with their depth on the blue line. Don’t get me wrong – there are things that are FAR more important than hockey – and domestic violence is one of them, and I am glad that Voynov is no longer a L.A. King or an NHL player (and no, I didn’t like much of what Lombardi had to say about Voynov during the season long legal process, and was embarrassed to be a King fan when they allowed him to practice with them – resulting in a fine). But, the truth is, Lombardi had a plan for defensive depth, and Voynov being an awful person screwed it up – and Lombardi hasn’t been able to fix it in two years.
This was the main reason why the Kings lost in 5 to the San Jose Sharks – there were others, but this was the main one. As long as the Kings could ice Doughty, Muzzin and Martinez on the backend, they could get away with everyone else – as soon as Martinez was hurt in Game 1, their lack of depth hurt them, Luke Schenn (who, I cannot imagine being back next year) was supposed to be a replacement for the injured Matt Greene – playing a few minutes a night as the sixth D-man – giving him top 4 minutes was, to put it mildly, not good. Lombardi’s decision to re-acquire Rob Scuderi at the trade deadline was also a head scratcher – the Pens and Hawks had already given up on Scuderi this year, and even if all the Kings had to give up was Christian Erhoff – who never fit in L.A. – Scuderi still has a year left on his deal after this one, and Erhoff didn’t. Scuderi did what he could in the playoffs – but he’s clearly not the same player he was a few years ago, when he was one of the Kings best d-men. Jamie McBain wasn’t awful in the series – but he wasn’t really good either. And Brayden McNabb was fine – nothing more or less.
The concerning thing going forward is that this team clearly needs to add a top 4-defenseman if they’re going to be great again. But how will that work? Doughty, Muzzin and Martinez area all under contract for next year – so far so good – but then again so is Scuderi and Matt Greene (who may, or may not, come back). Then there’s McNabb, not to mention Gravel and Forbert, who they used on occasion. One assumes, they’ll let McBain and Jeff Schultz (who they have used occasionally) go. But where is a top 4 defensemen going to fit. They’ve locked themselves down a little bit.
They also need to improve their forward depth as well. Despite the playoffs, I still think Kopitar, Gaborik, Carter and Toffoli are fine in your top 6 – and while I shudder at another long term contract, if they resign Milan Lucic, he fits as well (for now – please don’t let it be a 8 year contract though – anything longer than 3 is really risking it in my mind). That still leaves a spot open. Can Tanner Pearson finally lock it down? The Kings had Dwight King play there in the playoffs and that did not go well. The bottom 6 also needs some work. Gone will be Vinny Lecavlier – who played quite good for the Kings since coming over, making their biggest need up front a third line center. No, Trevor Lewis (who is UFA), Andy Andreoff or Nick Shore are not going to get it done there. And the rest of the bottom six – Dwight King, Kyle Clifford, Nic Dowd, Jordan Nolan, etc are all useful players – but not much else. A shakeup there wouldn’t be a bad idea (but keep Lewis – I love Lewis).

The biggest question mark is Dustin Brown. There were a lot of people – myself included – who didn’t like the long-term contract he got when it was signed – he was already trending downward at that time, and it’s continued. And he’s going to make nearly $6M a year until 2022. That’s WAY too much for a third line winger. Can the Kings find someone to take Brown, and what will the return be. Best case scenario is that they have to take a problem contract back – but maybe it’s a problem contract on a player who can be more useful for the Kings. (For the record, I don’t have a problem with Jonathan Quick – yes, the back breaking goal in Game 5 against Pavelski was a muffin – but overall, I don’t think he was the reason the Kings lost the series).
Will Lombardi actually do this though? That’s the question. Lombardi has already gone through a few different “eras” as GM of the Kings – when he took over, and the Kings sucked, he was all about stock piling draft picks and prospects, and signing “bridge” players until those picks and prospects were ready. When the Kings got better, he was about adding players to make them go from good to great – Dustin Penner, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Marion Gaborik. Lombardi seems to think he’s still there – handing out those loyalty contracts to his players, and trading away picks and prospects for the likes of Andrej Sekera (who helped the kings – though not enough) and Milan Lucic (who was good for the Kings – but good enough to justify what they gave away for him?). What Lombardi needs to be now is heartless. He needs to trim the fat, and bring in some new blood. The Kings do not need a rebuild – I’m not talking about tearing it down to the ground – but they need a retool. For an example, they need to look at the team who just beat them – the San Jose Sharks. While the core of the Sharks team – Thornton, Pavelski, Burns, Vlasic, etc. – hasn’t much changed since the Kings reverse swept them in 2014 (take out Niemi in net, and add in Jones) – they are still a very different team than that one. They had 10 new players on the team that beat LA compared to the team that lost to them. GM Doug Wilson has made his mistakes over the years – like every GM does – but he’s made smart decisions to replace the depth around that core, and that helped them. That is what LA needs to do. If they do that, then yes, I think the Kings can be a great team again. A Cup team? Maybe, maybe not – there’s so much that goes into being a Cup team – including luck – that you cannot control. But a team capable of more than the last two years? Definitely. But, we shall see. The Kings have not played like themselves the past two years – or perhaps, even sadder, they have. And this is just the new Kings.

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Films of Elaine May: Mikey & Nicky (1976)

Mikey and Nicky (1976)
Directed by: Elaine May.
Written by: Elaine May.
Starring: Peter Falk (Mikey), John Cassavetes (Nicky Godalin), Ned Beatty (Kinney), Rose Arrick (Annie), Carol Grace (Nellie), William Hickey (Sid Fine), Sanford Meisner (Dave Resnick), Joyce Van Patten (Jan), M. Emmet Walsh (Bus Driver). 
Elaine May’s first two films as a director – A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid – had moments that felt like they were improvised. Whether they were not or not, I’m not sure, but the former stage star certainly likes that feel in her movies. Her third film, Mikey and Nicky, feels entirely improvised for the first two thirds, before the plot necessitates an ending. Mikey and Nicky is a frequently messy film – it often feels like it’s about to fly off the rails at any point, yet somehow it never does. The film has often been described as a John Cassavetes clone, and it certainly has elements that recall that master filmmaker (and star of this movie) – but it’s more than that. The film takes May’s love of the awkward moment’s right to the breaking point – so far that it’s no longer funny. Or maybe it is. I still cannot quite figure that out.
In the film, Cassavetes stars as Mikey, a low-level gangster, who has pissed off the wrong people, and thinks that there is a contract out on his life because of it. During the paranoid break that opens the film, he calls his friend Nicky (Peter Falk) to come and help him. The majority of the film is these two men head out into the night, going one place after another and talking – mainly about seemingly meaningless bullshit. And yet, there is a definite tension between the two men. They are friends – or were at some point anyway. But bitter and resentment has developed between the two characters – particularly on the part of Falk’s Nicky, who no longer seems like Mikey very much, even if he tries to hide that resentment. For his part, Mikey seems friendlier to Nicky – and yet he’s also the one who does the most outwardly aggressive thing in the film. One of their stops is to a girlfriend of Mikey’s (who may or may not be a prostitute) – and as he forces Nicky to sit in the kitchen by himself, has sex with her with in the living room (it’s a wonderful shot that May holds for an impossibly long time, that simply gets more and more awkward and painful to watch).
A movie like this lives and dies on its performances – and luckily for May, she gets two great ones. Cassavetes is all nervous energy from beginning the end. The opening scenes are actually quite confusing – we have no idea who anyone is, and what the hell is going on, and yet Cassavetes carries those scenes with unrelenting intensity. He’s unhinged, bordering on over-the-top for much of the movie, but he holds it together. Falk is, for my money, even better – he’s as angry as Mikey, but it’s all buried, only to the surface more and more as the film moves along. Is Nicky really there as a friend – or does he have an ulterior motive? The other major role is Ned Beatty as a hitman, cruising the streets on the lookout for Mikey. It’s a role that’s necessary – without, there really is one reason for Mikey and Nicky to get together, and stay together, throughout the night – but it’s also a rather thankless one.
After the awkward first few minutes, the film is basically quite good for well more than an hour. When Cassavetes and Falk are needling each other, the film works wonderfully. But with about 20 minutes or so to go, the two of them split up, and the film pretty much grinds to a halt for a while. True, the final scene of the movie is a stunner – but for a while there, this film is which basically aimless from beginning to end forced, and it takes too long to get to its inevitable conclusion.
As with A New Leaf (and later, Ishtar), May had problems with the studio while making the film. She went way over schedule shooting, and then spent too long editing. The film shot in 1973, didn’t actually come out until 1976 – and even then, it wasn’t complete her version. If I’m going to be honest, I understand why the studio worried about this film – it is not a commercial film at all (there is a reason that while Cassavetes was a genius filmmaker, he had to continue his acting career – he didn’t make much money from his directing efforts – so how much would a film inspired by his work make). This isn’t an easy film to sit through in some ways – like A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid, there is a lot of emotional violence throughout the film – but this time, it isn’t really cut with comedy. It makes you sit there and watch it. The film isn’t quite the lost masterpiece (it was never really lost – although for a long time, it was hard to see – and it’s not on any streaming platform in Canada that I know of – I had to track it down on DVD, although it was much thought about for years). The film is too messy, too confusing, too aimless to be truly great. And yet, when the film works, it’s as strong as anything May has done – and perhaps even more ambitious. She’s pushing her characters, and her situations, further here. She’s moving from romantic relationships into male friendship and how fraught with love, anger, jealously, rage and violence go into them. The fact that her problems with the studio pretty much doomed her directing career (she got one more chance – more than a decade later, and as we’ll get to next time, that didn’t go well), is sad. While I don’t think Mikey and Nicky is a masterpiece, what I really want is to see the next film the writer/director of this one had in her. Unfortunately, I don’t think we ever got that film.

Movie Review: No Men Beyond This Point

No Men Beyond This Point

Directed by: Mark Sawers.

Written by: Mark Sawers.

Starring: Patrick Gilmore (Andrew Myers), Kristine Cofsky (Iris Balashev), Morgan Taylor Campbell (Dahlia Granger), Dakota Guppy (Ruby Balashev), Jill Morrison (Linnea Ruben), Tom McBeath (Jim), Malcolm Stewart (Senator Fitch), Mary Black (Helen Duvall), Ken Kramer (Gordon Trescott), Cameron McDonald (Darius Smith).


What would 2015 look like if, starting in the 1950s, women simply starting getting pregnant spontaneously – and within a few years that was the only way that they could get pregnant, and all the new children being born were girls? That is the premise of the mockumentary No Men Beyond This Point – and it’s a good premise. Unfortunately, the execution of the movie is not up to the premise – as the film takes the most obvious path imaginable, trading in stereotypes of both genders, and going for easy laugh line rather than actually explore its premise. I get it – the movie is a comedy, and isn’t make to be taken seriously, but the more I think about the film, the lazier it seems. If you’re going to take this as your jumping off, then I think you have to have more courage to actually explore it, and this movie doesn’t really do that.


The focus of the movie is basically on Andrew Myers (Patrick Gilmore), now somewhere in his 30s, and the youngest man on the planet. Most of the men still alive have gone to live in sanctuaries, where they are given a comfortable place to live out their days, away from female kind. The men that remain in society are treated as second class citizens, and are basically used for domestic labor. Patrick works for a couple of women, raising their children together. No, they are not lesbians, because bizarrely in this world, the ruling class of women are pretty much trying to ban all sexuality of any kind. They have also done away with the old school religions, and replaced it with some sort of nature based one. Oh, and women saw no point in putting a man on the moon, creating the internet or developing video games past Pong. And, of course, there is world peace. There are still idiotic Men’s Rights Activists, who want to see their gender restored to their “rightful place” as the dominant sex, but they are mainly placated at the sanctuaries with tenderloin. The women in charge – and seemingly pretty all much women – don’t seem to care too much that men are dying out. It was an act of nature, after all, and you cannot question nature.


No Men Beyond This Point is a movie that basically gets its view of the two genders from generic TV sitcoms, and that’s basically the level of the quality of the movie as well. It’s an occasionally amusing, not too painful movie to sit through – with a few decent lines and moments – but one that is also bland and forgettable. I wish the film had pushed itself harder – to really examine the alternate world in which it is suggesting – that afterall is what the effective “alternative” future/present works do – like Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America or Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle for example. Those novels created a world in which you can actually imagine exisiting. And that is where No Men Beyond This Point basically fails for me – that I could never see this world existing, even if you buy the basic premise of the movie. It is rather insultingly simplistic to both men and women, as it paints both genders as homogenous and unvarying, and doesn’t do anything to question the oldest stereotypes of both genders. There is a good movie to be made of the premise of No Men Beyond This Point – one that doesn’t just put a lot of stereotypes on screen. Maybe we’ll get that movie one day – but this one isn’t it.


Note: The film opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. I saw it at TIFF last year, and I assume it’s the same version I saw there.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Movie Review: The Jungle Book

The Jungle Book
Directed by: Jon Favreau.
Written by: Justin Marks based on the novel by Rudyard Kipling.
Starring: Neel Sethi (Mowgli), Bill Murray (Baloo), Ben Kingsley (Bagheera), Idris Elba (Shere Khan), Lupita Nyong'o (Raksha), Scarlett Johansson (Kaa), Giancarlo Esposito (Akela), Christopher Walken (King Louie), Garry Shandling (Ikki), Brighton Rose (Gray).
No one can realistically doubt that Disney’s recent move to start re-making their classic animated films as live action films is anything other than a moneymaking scheme. Disney has beloved titles, that have instant consumer recognition – and they want to capitalize on that. They used to just re-release the films into theaters every few years, and in the Home Video era, they came up with the “Vault” – an ingenious way to get consumers to buy all their titles by making them worried they wouldn’t be able to get them later (although, another version was always just around the corner). But theatrical re-releases are rare now – and are never on a large scale, and the “vault” isn’t relevant now than everything is available online – both legally, and illegally – so Disney has to come up with a new way to cash in on their library – hence, the live action updates. So we get movies like Maleficent, which is Sleeping Beauty from the bad guys viewpoints, Cinderella, which somewhat, but not completely, updated the gender politics of the original – and in the works there is Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid (the later, sadly, no longer from director Sofia Coppola – although that is a version of that story I would kill to see). So no, there is no point in denying that on some level, these live action updates are a cynical attempt to cash-in on something consumers already love. Having said all of that, let me also say this – if in the future, all these updates are as good as Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, then I won’t care at all. The film is well made, exciting, funny, scary and just downright fun. No, I wouldn’t bring my 4 and a half year old to see it (especially after one very long night last week, where I had to calm her down because of a nightmare about snakes) – but it is a great film for slightly older kids – and their parents.
This new version of The Jungle Book certainly owes a debt to the 1967 animated film that it’s based on – but this version is significantly better. As charming as that film was, it is also rather lackadaisical in terms of its plot – it basically floats along on the goodwill generated by its characters its songs, and pretty much forgets to have much of a plot. The film works, to be sure, but it’s rather forgettable as Disney classics go (I think it’s generally expected to be the last of the Classic Disney films, before the studio entered a little bit of a creative drought that started with their next film, The Aristocats in 1970, and didn’t end until The Little Mermaid in 1989). This new version of The Jungle Book largely keeps our idea of the characters from the original – and forces in a couple of low-key versions of two of the songs – but is a much more tightly structured story. In it, Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is being raised by wolves after he was found by the panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley). When the tiger, Shere Khan, finds out that a “Man Cub” is living among the animals he is angry. It’s a violation of the law of the jungle – and his scared/burned face is evidence as to why – Man Cubs become Man – and Man is dangerous. He wants Mowgli dead – and will do whatever it takes to see it done. So Bagheera and Mowgli setoff to try and get him to the Man Village – but are separated – providing Mowgli to have a series of adventures alongside the fun loving, lazy bear Baloo (Bill Murray), be scared by Kaa the Python (Scarlett Johansson), and meet a Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now inspired giant Monkey, King Louie (Christopher Walken) – among other things.
Director Jon Favreau does an excellent job with the special effects in the film. All of the characters, aside from Mowgli, are CGI creations, and yet this is one of the most impressive jobs yet in blending computer generated characters in with the rest of their surroundings. It’s seamless really, and unlike many other CGI movies, with talking animals, not even the talking effects distract from the overall effect in the film. The film is full of wonderful set pieces – the best include Mowgli’s encounter with Kaa, which genuinely frightened me, with Johansson’s wonderful vocal performance, and the great visual moment of having a flashback in the snake’s eye, the aforementioned Apocalypse Now inspired meeting with King Louie, and pretty much everything involving Shere Khan. Idris Elba’s vocal performance is the best in the movie – and although Khan is a terrifying and cruel villain – he’s also one that, you have to admit, makes logical sense. Man is a danger to all of the animals in the jungle (and the jungle itself) – and although Khan can be cruel and violent (there is a truly shocking killing committed by Khan – all the more shocking because of how sudden it is), well, he’s a tiger. What do you expect him to be? Surely, you do root for Mowgli throughout the film – and in the wonderful action climax of the film – but Khan’s argument makes far more sense than Mowgli’s.
If I were a 10 year old, then this Jungle Book would most likely be my new favorite movie. It’s darker, more violent and scarier than a lot of movie of its ilk – but not so much so that it becomes dour and off-putting (it isn’t, it must be said, for younger children – something that to their credit, Disney has made pretty clear in their advertising for the film). But it’s also a fun, funny, and rapidly paced. Like every movie – particularly any movie of this size – you can surely claim that it’s nothing but a cynical ploy to cash in on a well-known property – and to a certain extent, it is that. But it’s a hell of a lot more than that as well – a film that pays homage to the original, much beloved film – but isn’t so beholden to it that it forgets it needs to work on its own level as well. If Disney is going to continue to make all these updates and remakes of their back catalogue, at least we can hope that they’ll all be as good as this one.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The 5 Best Performances by Elvis & Nixon Stars Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey

This week marks the release of Elvis & Nixon, a feature length supposedly based on the famous photo of the two men shaking hands (my mother, an Elvis fan, has a fridge magnet of it). If you’re going to play either of these icons, you pretty much have to go BIG. There have been any number of great performances by actors playing Nixon – Philip Baker Hall in Secret Honor, Anthony Hopkins in Nixon, Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon, Dan Hedaya in Dick (and a special award for John Cusack for being the most bizarre Nixon in Lee Daniel’s The Butler). The list of great film Elvis’ is shorter (especially since I’ve never seen John Carpenter’s Elvis with Kurt Russell, which is apparently quite good) – but I do enjoy Bruce Campbell in Bubba Ho-Tep, Val Kilmer in True Romance, Jack White in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (two of those are cameos, and one is, well Bruce Campbell). Playing the two men are two terrific actors who are certainly capable of going as HUGE as needed – Michael Shannon as Elvis and Kevin Spacey as Nixon.
The reviews, so far, have not been very good – and although Box Office Mojo lists the release as “Wide” – but none of the Canadian sites list it coming out at all – so I have no idea when I’ll get a chance to see it, but with those two actors, there is zero chance that I won’t eventually see it. The two actors are at different points in their career – Shannon I think is still on the way up, and when Spacey was at the top of his game, he decided to walk away and mainly do stage work for a decade, only occasionally coming out to do pay cheque roles – at least until his return on House of Cards. Until then, I think it’s a good chance to look back at the top 5 performances of each of these actors – so let’s get to it.
Michael Shannon
5. Midnight Special (2016) – Shannon’s latest performance – and his fourth for director Jeff Nichols – deserves a space on this list (it may even deserve a higher place – but it seems too early for that).  Shannon is terrific as a father who will do anything for his child – making sacrifices, and hard decisions, while also having to serve the genre aspects of the movie, meaning that so much of what Shannon has to do is quick and quiet. It is a wonderful performance by Shannon – who plays every parent’s nightmare and more, brilliantly. He’s the anchor for the movie that allows it to go to fantastic places.
4. Revolutionary Road (2008) – Shannon’s lone Oscar nomination (so far) is for his brilliant work in Sam Mendes Revolutionary Road. It isn’t a large performance – only a couple of scenes really – and in some ways, his character is the most clichéd in the film (the supposedly insane man, who gives some of the words of wisdom in the film) – but Shannon nails every line reading, and leaves a massive impact on the film. I tend to think the film is vastly underrated – Kate Winslet should have won the Best Actress Oscar for this in 2008, not The Reader, and DiCaprio is great as well – and Shannon is at least part of the reason for that. He should have a few Oscar noms by now.
3. Bug (2006) – Shannon’s two big collaborations are with Jeff Nichols in film, and playwright Tracey Letts on stage. His real breakthrough film role was in this brilliant Letts’ adaptation (it’s far better than August: Osage County, which I like better than most) – a three person play, where Shannon’s Iraq war veteran with PTSD, and other mental problems, draws Ashely Judd (who is even better) into his insanity. Director William Friedkin was smart enough to cast Shannon here – even though a bigger name could have meant more money. Shannon is amazing in the film – and marked him immediately as one to watch for me.
2. 99 Homes (2015) – If you saw my year end wrap-up a few months ago, you know that if I had a say, than Shannon’s performance in 99 Homes would have been the Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner last year (Rylance is a good choice – Shannon, better). The opening scene in the film is probably Shannon’s best – as his heartless real estate agent looks at the body of a man who killed himself, and cannot bring himself to do anything but be a heartless dick. Throughout the movie, Shannon makes his character contemptible – but, you also kind of understand him, and he’s not wrong when he says he, and people like him, didn’t cause the financial collapse. The movie misfires in the final scenes, but Shannon’s performance never does. This is a version of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street for a new generation –with Shannon as Gordon Gekko. Except this movie, and performance, are better than Stone’s film, and Michael Douglas’ Oscar winning performance in it.
1. Take Shelter (2011) – The best screen work that Michael Shannon has done so far is in 2011’s Take Shelter, written and directed by his frequent collaborator, Jeff Nichols. In the film, Shannon plays a normal guy in the Midwest – who starts to believe his family is under threat of a storm coming in and wiping them out. He knows that this is paranoid, delusional thinking – and yet, he cannot stop himself from giving into those beliefs anyway, and alienating everyone around him, as he brings his family to the brink of collapse. Take Shelter is a movie that has grown in my mind in the past 5 years – and Shannon’s performance has as well. It really is the best work of Shannon’s career so far – and probably the best of Nichols as well (and I love all of Nichols 4 films). This one deserves more attention when it came out – so if you missed it, catch up with it. Now.
Kevin Spacey
5. House of Cards (2013-16) – Say what you want about House of Cards – that it’s a bizarre, over-the-top, completely unbelievable TV melodrama (you would be right) – but it’s also one of the most deliriously entertaining TV shows on right now, and the two biggest reasons for that are Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey. Spacey’s Frank Underwood is the ever conniving, murdering, psychopathic politician conceivable – what he has been able to do would never, ever work, but who cares. While I sometimes struggle to get through Netflix shows – I don’t like the binge really, so it takes months sometimes to make it through Orange is the New Black, etc – I devour each new House of Cards season fairly quickly (btw, the new season is probably the best since the first).
4. L.A. Confidential (1997) – Spacey is riding high in 1997, and he was perfectly cast in Curtis Hanson’s L.A. noir as Jack Vincennes, the celebrity obsessed detective, with a “consulting” role on a Dragnet like TV show. The film requires Spacey to be charming and sleazy in equal doses, and Spacey is great at that. A lot of the dramatic heavy lifting in the movie belonged to two newcomers – Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce – but Spacey’s performance is what allows that to happen. Spacey could do this role on cruise control – and it’s to his credit that he doesn’t – and makes it one of his most memorable.
3. American Beauty (1999) – I am sure that American Beauty hasn’t aged well – I haven’t seen it in at least 10 years, in part because I fear that a movie I loved when I was 17/18 really is as shallow and bombastic as its critics claim (it should be noted that American Beauty was one of the most acclaimed films of 1999). Even considering all that, I will say that Kevin Spacey’s performance in American Beauty is still seared into my memory, and he’s the reason – alongside Annette Bening – that I will always have a fond spot for the film. The film probably isn’t as profound as I thought it was when I was a teenager (nothing is as profound as I thought things were as a teenager) – but Spacey’s performance as Lester Burnham – both as a romantic figure sticking it to the man, and a pathetic middle aged man trying to be a teenager is one I will always love.
2. Seven (1995) – Spacey’s ever calm psycho John Doe only comes into David Fincher’s Seven in its final act – and yet, if you’ve seen the performance, it is one that you will never forget. He is the killer than Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt have been searching for the entire film – and don’t really come close to catching – they only have him because he turns himself in as part of his twisted scheme. Spacey has a tendency to go BIG in a lot of his movies, and while I wouldn’t describe what he does in Seven as subtle, it is certainly quieter, as he needles and pokes and prods, and gets precisely what he wants. I didn’t know Spacey before I saw Seven (when I was 14). I would never forget him afterwards. (P.S. – no, I’m going to spell it Se7en – that’s just stupid – a number 7 is not a v).
1. The Usual Suspects (1995) – Spacey won his first Oscar for The Usual Suspects – and it’s easy to see why. His performance as Verbal Kint is a master class of misdirection, as he paints himself as the most weak willed and pathetic character in the film, and then, of course, that turns out to be false. He’s also a master storyteller though – in the flashback sequences, Spacey is fine, although he tends to fade into the background (by design) in the story. It’s in the interrogation sequences where Spacey truly shines, and when he delivers the best work of his career. The Oscars sometimes get things right – and giving Spacey the Oscar for his performance here is one of those times. It remains his best screen work to date.
And that’s it. Somewhat surprisingly, I had a harder time narrowing Michael Shannon’s career to five roles than I did with Spacey – considering the later has been around much longer. Spacey is quite good in films like A Time to Kill (1996), The Negotiator (1998), Superman Returns (2006) (at least compared to Jessie Eisenberg), and Margin Call (2011) – but if I’m being honest, the only two other performances I considered for the top for Spacey were in Glenngary Glen Ross (1992) where he is excellent, but has the least glamorous role among the stars, and his voice-only performance in Duncan Jones’ excellent Moon (2009). Hopefully, Spacey has some great screen work left in him. For Shannon though, I would have been happy to have his work in World Trade Center (2006), where he makes his character both scary and a patriotic hero, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007) – a memorable cameo, The Runaways (2010) and especially his first collaboration with Jeff Nichols, Shotgun Stories (2007) on this list.