Saturday, March 28, 2015

It Follows


Were it not for the abundance of full-frontal nudity and references to cheap pornography, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows would be a slamdunk as an abstinence-only propaganda film whose core message is “screw around and malevolent demon spirit WILL track you down and kick your ass.” Mitchell, working from his own screenplay, takes the old movie trope of “death after teen sex” and gives it a fresh, though not totally coherent, spin. Maika Monroe (who reminds me of a slightly less winsome Catherine Deneuve circa Repulsion) stars as Jay, a young Detroit woman who gets bagged by a handsome though sketchy guy named Hugh (Jake Weary) who, post-coitus, ties her up and shows her the naked succubus who has been trailing him to tear him apart. But, now that he and Jay have done the nasty, Jay is “it” as in a game of tag, and the creeping soul sucker, which can change its appearance, will chase her. Peace out. The rest of the film is Jay running from a variety of slow-footed ghoulies with the help of her eager but utterly feckless sister (Lili Sepe) and friends Yara (Olivia Luccardi), who is reading Dostoevsky, and Paul (Keir Gilchrist), who wants to share Jay’s burden in the worst way. Though the movie features some solid shocks, it has a grim griminess about it, an air it comes about honestly, being set in Detroit. I’m not altogether a fan of this new chiller genre I call “the pointless animus of spirit beings.” I generally like my evil with a purpose and “sex is bad” doesn’t do it for me.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel


The poster for John Madden’s film The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel features the slightly retouched images of stars Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Bill Nagy, British cinema royalty, which is fitting because the film itself is a “retouching” of the “first” BEMH, which starred the same. Both pictures are set in the crowded but charming Indian city of Jaipur, and tells the story of aging Brits living in a worn but not unappealing inn run by an excitable, jug-eared kid named Sonny. Sonny (played by the wonderful young actor Dev Patel) wants to expand his popular enterprise and is hoping to make a good impression on a stealth American inspector who he suspects is in the guise of a recently arrived guest (Richard Gere). Sonny is the embodiment of accommodation and self-deprecation. He’s spry angularity to the rest of the cast’s sometimes lugubrious doughiness and is pure joy to watch. The movie, like the inn, has a radiant warmth that embraces but doesn’t overwhelm. Though I’m a fan of most of the movie’s stars, I went to SBEMH with no expectations but was beguiled by its colors and refinements. Recommended.

Kingsman: The Secret Service


British director Matthew Vaughn’s terrifically entertaining films (Layer Cake, Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class) contained equal measures of scabrous wit and bloody wonder. His latest movie, written with frequent collaborator Jane Goldman, is the stealth social satire Kingsman: The Secret Service, which is based on a comic book that I’m not familiar with but I didn’t feel at as much of a disadvantage watching this film as I did when viewing Watchmen (2009), for example. Vaughn borrows with seemingly mocking glee from the secret agent playbook as he tells the story of a league of gentlemen avengers with code names borrowed from Arthur’s Round Table, whose bond is to protect mankind. Vaughn scored major Hollywood wattage in casting Colin Firth, Michael Caine and Samuel L. Jackson in this farce, and they seem to be having a grand time. Firth and Caine play members of the Kingsmen,  which is trying to stop a lisping, diabolical billionaire tech capitalist, that would be Jackson, from ridding the planet of worrisome humanity who are stinking up the place. All but a handpicked handful will be spared. Firth, code name Galahad, recruits a young London tough (Taron Egerton), the son of a slain Kingsman, for the team, and the movie is also about Eggsy’s training under the inscrutable Merlin (Mark Strong). Like Vaughn’s earlier films, Kingsman contains brilliant balletic close-contact battles — many featuring Sophia Boutella as Gazelle, a killer amputee who walks on knives — that are worth the price of admission.  But a long scene of unbridled carnage featuring Firth and set in a Kentucky backwoods hate-mongering church has to be witnessed to be believed. Highly recommended but not for the squeamish.

Network


Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976) is a grimly satirical film about the grimly cynical business of network news — which is not to say it’s about journalism, mind you. It seems to be about everything but. Network, written by the great Paddy Chayefsky (Altered States, Marty) was probably considered sobering and cautionary when it was released — immediately after Watergate and Vietnam, during the Ford administration. Today, ita warnings about the dilution of journalistic standards in the hunt for ratings and in an effort to turn around public disaffection seem a bit done. Not irrelevant, just sadly familiar. 

But the film is predictably well-crafted. Oscar-winner Peter Finch’s raving prophet Howard Beale is iconic, a voice in the wilderness as “mad as Moses,” as one character describes him early in the film. Beale loses his job as the evening anchor for the UBS network after an on-camera meltdown over “bullshit” only to score huge ratings with a final broadcast rant that sends listeners to their windows to scream the film’s famous line — “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore.” 

Watching Beale come into new stardom are his friend, the former head of UBS news, Max Schumacher (a stolid William Holden); the glibly manipulative head of UBS programming Diana Christensen (Oscar-winner Faye Dunaway), who knows a goldmine when she sees one, especially one that helps the American people “articulate their rage;” and the greedy and self-serious chief bean-counter for the network’s parent company CCA, Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall). The narrative is a bit of a chaotic whirligig, not unlike network television itself, and interweaves subplots of marital infidelity, Arab investment and political insurrection for the story’s inevitable and bloody climax.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington


Frank Capra’s peculiar morality tale set in the U.S. Senate, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), wears its idealism on its sleeve. This is both admirable and grating. James Stewart (a Capra favorite) plays interim senatorial appointee Jefferson Smith with a broadness that was the signature of Capra’s comedies (It Happened One Night, You Can’t Take it With You, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town) and with a spirited patriotism that would mark Capra’s, sometimes inartful, Why We Fight documentaries of the ’40s. Smith’s belief in American principles inspires young people (boys, primarily) back home. They see through their parents’ cynicism and complicity in the decline of the American Dream. An early scene between the weasley Gov. Hopper (Guy Kibbee) and his mouthy, but amazingly informed, kids is a model of timing and exposition. And how terrific is it these kids who think Jefferson Smith is just what Washington needs get schooled by reading the Boy Ranger newspaper?! Hopper sees an opportunity and sends the unprepared and, presumably, pliable Smith to Washington. 

In a wonderfully earnest sequence, the newby visits all of the famous monuments and words in the Nation’s Capital, but then must confront a political establishment that is steeped in graft and a press corp that is manipulative and, initially, unsympathetic to the cheeky, square-state junior senator. Smith finds an unlikely ally in the cynical and sassy Clarissa Saunders of Baltimore (played by another Capra favorite Jean Arthur), whose own dreams have been doused by power players like money bags Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) and the once-honorable Senior Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Raines). She finds news inspiration in Smith’s description of the unspoiled beauty of his home state, all of which sounds marvelous to a girl whose only known the wranglings of Congress. Smith quickly becomes a nuisance and when his passion leads him to cross Taylor and Paine, the Taylor Machine unleashes a character assassination campaign, with Paine’s help, that at first overwhelms but then ignites Smith. 

The final act of Capra’s classic is (in)famous and is what makes the tale so peculiar and, maybe, unsatisfying to some. It’s infamy comes from the unsatisfying ending that inserts “God’s deliverance” in the place of justice. Still, 75 years after its release, Mr. Smith warns about internal threats to personal liberty, the imbalance of power, disunity among the country’s citizens, the untoward influence of great wealth on policy-making, and the inevitable corruption that follows. And that makes it as fresh as today’s headlines.

To Kill a Mockingbird



Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) set several benchmarks for ’60s era social justice films. It took a beloved story, Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, which was already teeming with heart, and put Gregory Peck’s face on hero Atticus Finch. Not only Peck’s face but his nobility, bearing and demeanor came to represent the good fight. And that — perhaps purely artistically — has served us well and been one of the principal models for such portrayals, which, I think, is the definition of “iconic.”
The film also put a face on white racism in the person of Bob Ewell (James Anderson), the drunken redneck who accuses Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) of beating and raping his daughter. Finch accepts the appointment as Robinson’s attorney because, as he famously tells his daughter, he would not be able to hold his head up in town if he did not.
Ewell is a monster, pure and simple, and one that is vanquished by guileless goodness (Robert Duvall’s Boo Radley), which is what we all hope for.  The danger in such broad characterizations, were they rendered today, is that hate is not always writ so large. Evil does not always snarl and spew. Sometimes it coos and seduces. It doesn’t always live at the end of a hard-luck road. Sometimes it sits on top of a hill, behind pillars and stained-glass.
Even so, the film is an indisputable American treasure, understated and dignified. It’s sentiments about courage, respect and decency are for the ages. And the three young children who play Jem (Phillip Alford) , Scout (Mary Badham) and their precocious little friend from Meridian, Mississippi, Dill (John Megna), are golden.

Still Alice


Julianne Moore’s portrayal of Columbia University linguistics professor Alice Howland is riveting and affecting but, regrettably, weighed down by a story that is cold and distancing. I don’t think it means to be. Directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have taken Lisa Genova’s novel of a brilliant mind succumbing to the ravages of early onset Alzheimer’s Disease, wrapped it in downy fabrics and set it by a fire. It’s a loving gesture but it dulls the edge this film so desperately needs. It’s an extended Hallmark moment. The agony of Howland’s mental uncoupling feels rear enough, yes, but it’s softened by her station as a world-renowned Ivy League researcher who is married to a  supportive doctor (Alec Baldwin) and surrounded by accomplished children (Kate Bosworth, Kristen Stewart and Hunter Parrish). I suppose we are to mourn the loss of her teaching position, the obliteration of her memory of her family and the closing of her mind to their love but it all feels safe — tragic, yes, but still safe. It is clear she’ll never be found wandering the streets of New York lost and without identity or left to wither near a window in a nursing home — as is the case with too many of those struggling with Alzheimer’s. Such a fate is foreshadowed but it is never a real threat and more’s the pity for this sober but unsatisfying film.

The Grapes of Wrath


In the 1940 classic film Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) delivers the famous “I’ll Be There” speech just before walking out of the government migrant worker camp in California to avoid arrest for an earlier justified killing. Joad’s speech — earnest and inspiring — surely had audiences back in the day pushing out their chests a little more. And it probably resonates for many even today because that scene (the entire film, actually) evokes, brilliantly, something that America has long promised but has not fully delivered — justice for common folks. Joad’s everyman set out from the camp to find what was wrong and put it right — worker exploitation and police brutality were in his sights. He left his Ma (the wonderful Jane Darwell) and the rest of the Joad kin with a promise that wherever wrongs were being answered he would be there. 

The speech and the character are as iconic as they come — in both film and literature. John Ford delivered a faithful rendering of Steinbeck’s classic 1939 novel of a family of Dust Bowl Okie’s run off their land by faceless bankers and former fellow tenant farmers on Caterpillar tractors. He and Steinbeck were both squarely on the side of those who were ravaged by circumstances and indifference, pushed close to losing their dignity but never, in the end, doing so. 

It is a beautiful film, shot in stark black and white, and the use of shadow is particularly evocative and menacing. The picture features strong performances by Fonda, Darwell and, especially, John Carradine as the fallen preacher Jim Casy (J.C.), who sacrifices himself for his fellow man. Yes, it’s stagey and occasionally a little tart but it’s not cynical. In many ways, it’s quite affirming in its unblinking celebration of human worth. As Casy says early in the film, “All that lives is holy.” Amen.

Whiplash


Damien Chazelle’s propulsive and profane Whiplash is an exhausting film about a talented and obsessive young drummer named Andrew (a terrific Miles Teller), who attends a New York conservatory where a demonic sadist named Fletcher (a terrifying J.K. Simmons) is the resident jazz guru. The film’s title is taken from a Hank Levy composition that Fletcher wants his ensemble to master for competitions. He doesn’t use the charts to teach his students how to play their instruments. Rather, he stabs  and eviscerates his players with music for reasons that are not altogether clear. Fletcher tells young Andrew that he is looking for his Charlie Parker, who, according to folklore, only became “Bird” after his mentor, Jo Jones, threw a cymbal at him in a fit of pique. That tale is probably apocryphal but Fletcher, a shameless manipulator, recounts it to beguile young Andrew, whom he then intimidates, threatens, curses and belittles. And still, amazingly, the boy, battered and bleeding, literally, wants to play for the bastard. Chazelle’s script is not without its narrative flaws, but the interplay between these two fine actors is combustible, and the words he puts in their mouths are rude and rhapsodic. Highly recommended.

The Searchers


John Wayne’s irascible Confederate soldier returns from the war bitter but unbroken in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). It’s unclear why Ethan Edwards is such a cussed mess but, for me, he is one of the most unlikeable non-villains I’ve encountered in a feature film. Perhaps Ethan is tortured by the Northern victory, three years past, or that his brother is married to the woman he himself fancies. Whatever the case, at the end of the opening homecoming sequence when Ethan ambles up on his horse to the hearty, but uncertain, cheers of his brother’s family, the former rebel sits out on the steps of his brother’s house in the middle of Texas, alone, under the sky. And this seems to be where he is destined to be. Rugged Individualism, writ large.
Ethan’s part-Cherokee nephew Martin, played by Jeffrey Hunter, is treated especially coldly by the old soldier who hates Indians more than he hates Yankees. When a Comanche raid led by a particularly fearless chief named Scar (Henry Brandon) wipes out their kinfolk, Ethan and Martin set out to recover Martin’s sisters who they hear were taken alive. The two track for five years — covering a lot of beautiful, expansive territory — before they finally catch up with Scar and discover the one surviving girl has grown into a young Comanche woman (Natalie Wood), who warns them not try to rescue her.
Of course, they do. Scar is vanquished, the girl is returned to her people, and Ethan ambles off into the distance.
It’s a peculiar film, an oater with a dramatic sweep and cast of oddballs that at times feel Shakespearean. The search is the thread that ties together a romantic subplot that has Martin ineptly courting the vivacious Laurie (Vera Miles) and the antics of a ragtag band of deputized marshals, clowns and fools led by a Bible-toting Texas ranger (Ward Bond).
I sense that Ford respected both westward expansion settlers and the Indians they confronted. Maybe this film is a study of the toll war and warring takes on the human spirit. A scene in which Ethan, over Martin’s objections, fires round after round into a buffalo herd in a futile attempt to starve his enemy shows, in pretty startling terms, the depths of Ethan’s animosity and his thirst for vengeance. Not a heroic moment but this is a film where true nobility appears to be in short supply.

The Interview


Evan Goldberg’s and Seth Rogen’s The Interview is what it is, and it’s academic to point out all that it isn’t — mainly because the co-directors didn’t intend for it to be anything other than what it is: a spectacular, vulgar bromantic mess. So why bother wishing and wondering? It is NOT art even though we know that at least one of the film’s leading men, James Franco, is capable of much more than mugging and hamming. It seems to carry a message about truth, honor and trust, but it’s not peddling philosophy. In fact, it’s pretty lunkheaded, and unapologetically crass, which is Rogen’s (highly bankable) hallmark. Yet, alas, it’s frequently quite funny. Randall Park is a toothy riot as Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un, an eternal adolescent with daddy-issues, who pits wits and dentia against Franco’s vain celebrity reporter who is commissioned by the CIA to poison the pesky dictator during a globally televised interview. Rogen plays the producer of Franco’s popular program. Goldberg and Rogen (who worked together on Neighbors, This is the End,and Pineapple Express in various capacities) make movies that are National Lampoon without the restraint and razor sharp satire. Instead, Goldberg and Rogen offer a no-limits buffet of low-culture references and sendups that seem to have more in common with vaudeville than with motion pictures.

In the Heat of the Night


Based on the novel by John Ball, In the Heat of the Night (1967) is a layered whodunit that stars Sidney Poitier as a redoubtable hepcat, big city detective who, on the way back from visiting his mama Down South, stumbles onto an investigation that will surely be bungled by the police chief and his inept squad. Midway through Norman Jewison’s Oscar-winning film, the mayor of this Mississippi cotton town tells Chief Gillespie (Oscar-winner Rod Steiger) to keep the black Philadelphia homicide detective Virgil Tibbs on the case of a Chicago manufacturer found dead in the street the night before. The mayor tells the chief, with a wink, having Tibbs on the case will mollify the victim’s wife (Lee Grant), and, if Tibbs solves the case, the chief can take credit for it. Likewise, if Tibbs doesn’t find the killer, the town can’t be blamed. The chief nods.
In the next scene, Gillespie meets with Tibbs at the depot and convinces him to stay on the case by appealing to his pride and Tibbs’ desire to show up the town rednecks, who he has already demonstrated he is sharper than. Tibbs nods and returns to the case.
In the course of helping with the investigation, Tibbs faces bigotry in every corner, at every level of that miserably stratified town. He’s cursed and threatened by street toughs and the town’s chief employer. From cotton fields to the roadside diners, Jewison shows race prejudice suffusing every aspect of life in Sparta. But he also shows that sometimes racism can be defused by the pursuit of the truth and fairness. So, in that way Tibbs is not only smarter than the white folks he is also nicer.
In the Heat of the Night emits a post-Kennedy era positivism that says prejudice is quite often just ignorance and given proper circumstances even the most despicable person will embrace the better angels of his nature. But, too often, those folks would rather just stew in their hate.

Broadcast News


We’re approaching 30 years since James L. Brooks released Broadcast News, a funny and insightful indictment of style-over-substance television news. Holly Hunter played a brilliant and obsessive producer who is pulled into the orbit of a handsome, and unschooled, rising star played by William Hurt. She is repelled by his folksy charm and that he admits to not getting the news he’s reading. But her iciness slowly starts down that slippery slope as the “woman” in her begins to overrule the “journalist.” (Yes, it’s a bit sexist but Hunter’s character remains conflicted throughout.) Watching with wounded bemusement is an ace reporter, the multi-linguist Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), whose stark cynicism might be read as James Brooks’s own view of the current (and future) state of affairs for an industry that he clearly loved. (James Brooks was also executive producer of The Lou Grant and Mary Tyler Moore shows, each of which was set in the world of television.) Talk of tape and scenes of linear editing and camera crews and the like do date the film technologically, but its events and sentiments — the decimation of a newsroom, the promotion of feelings over facts, the pandering and pettiness — are most assuredly as a relevant as today’s headlines.

The Honourable Woman


The Honourable Woman’s geographic and psychological expansiveness is impressive, and its acting BBC-impeccable, especially Maggie Gyllenhaal and Lubna Azabal. The story takes Gyllenhaal’s Baroness Nessa Stein, the head of a British philanthropic concern with strong ties to Israel and an interest in fomenting peace between Arabs and Jews, through the fires of hell in the company of Azabal’s Arab translator Atika, but doesn’t completely deliver her on the other side.  The complexity of writer / director Hugh Blick’s story defies neat summation because The Honourable Woman’s eight, dense episodes explore the murky waters of political gamesmanship, international trade, terrorism (traditional and cyber) and affairs of the heart. The voice-over for the series’ opening credits asks “who is to be trusted?” Though that certainly sets the proper frame for a series about spies, it does not approach the depths of deceit  and betrayal this program explores. Highly Recommended.

Do the Right Thing


Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) on one level attributes the infamous confrontation at its climax to the heat that’s settled over Bedford-Stuyvesant and shortened tempers but there is so much more going on in this film. Written by and starring Lee, the picture follows a dozen or so residents (played by Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Giancarlo Esposito, Martin Lawrence, among others) of one of Bed-Stuy’s city blocks as they swelter one long summer day. They bounce between the stoops of their apartment buildings, the Korean-owned grocery and the Italian pizzeria for whom Lee’s character Mookie makes deliveries at the end of the block. Interactions between the black residents and the pizzeria owner (Danny Aiello) and his sons (John Turturro and Richard Edson) are often flinty and foreshadow the film’s fiery ending.
The picture is beautifully shot by Ernest Dickerson; it’s imaginative and exuberant, though narratively uneven — and maybe a smidge too street in the scenes between Mookie and his baby mama Tina (Rosie Perez’s debut role). Lee is an infinitely better director than he is screenwriter, although his writing has a laudable earnestness about it. And he is willing to take chances with flow and composition that match the syncopation of the film’s score, composed by Lee’s father, Bill Lee. Though one of Lee’s earlier features, Do the Right Thing shows Lee’s now familiar affinity for capturing engaging exchanges between his characters — he truly loves filming people talking. He’s a patient and generous director and storyteller in that regard. What his characters say when they’re together is, at least for me, what makes Lee’s work so valuable and, well, dear. His is a singular and important voice, deeply entrenched in African-American culture and sensibility.
Do the Right Thing is dedicated to the memory of men and women who died suspiciously during encounters with the police, among them Eleanor Bumpurs, a mentally ill woman who shot while being evicted from her apartment, and Michael Stewart, a graffiti artist who died of cardiac arrest while in custody. Recently, the film has been mentioned in commentary about the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner on Staten Island. Watching it today, the choking death of Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) during the film’s riot scene is eerily prescient, newly shocking and sad.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Daniel Oyelowo



I don't know why Daniel Oyelowo was not nominated for an Oscar for Selma but I certainly don't see it as a case of racist Hollywood not paying due diligence to diversity. I think questioning the diversity of the assembly of top performances for a year is an after-the-fact gesture, almost meaningless. Diversity concerns should have been addressed when the roles were being cast, films greenlighted. Still, I do understand folks' feelings of disappointment. And I think I understand why Academy members did not give Oyelowo a nod for his performance as Martin Luther King Jr., whose memory we commemorate tomorrow. For many folks, Oyelowo looked and sounded like MLK, his bearing was spot on. He embodied a man whose 30-foot monument stands on the Mall in D.C. Ironically, I think it was Oyelowo's replication of King's cadence in his public orations that may have sunk his nomination. I've not read a word from anyone about this but suspect some Academy members, the purists in the thespian tradition, may have struggled with the precision of Oyelowo's delivery. It was marvelous but was this acting or mimicry? Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch scored for leading roles in two other bio-pics but Redmayne's transformation into Stephen Hawking was a Day-Lewis scale physical feat and Cumberbatch's recreation of a man who few knew and who died so many years ago (1954) could hardly be classified as mimicry and yet it was mesmerizing. Oyelowo will not suffer from the lack of a nomination. His star is on the rise -- as, no doubt, are his pay checks.

Foxcatcher



Much of Bennett Miller's unswerving psychodrama Foxcatcher is tough to watch. It's not bloody or violent even though it is set in the world of championship wrestling and has Valley Forge as a backdrop. It is difficult -- but essential -- viewing because it reminds us that once all material desires have been sated the wealthy too often turn to owning and controlling people. Steve Carell stars as John DuPont, a scion of that legendary dynasty, who is an egregiously unaccomplished and unattractive middle-aged man living with his mother (Vanessa Redgrave). He fancies himself a molder of men though there is no evidence he's ever done so and he is himself a phantom of contrivances and vanity. DuPont holds target practice on his estate with members of the local constabulary, buys himself a tank and two Olympic gold medalists, the Schultz brothers, first Mark (Channing Tatum) and later older brother David (Mark Ruffalo). The brilliance of this tragic and true  story is in Miller's slow reveal of how those who value little often destroy what they own, even if those possessions are other people. Highly Recommended.

John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum

Interestingly, even though Chad Stahelski's John Wick: Chapter 3 —Parabellum delivers deliciously brutal set pieces where our hero (K...