Saturday, April 10, 2010
One of the greatest things my Uncle Dave ever did for me was introduce me to the Beatles. He did so in several stages--playing the early, infectious, bubble-gum music, then the later stuff, and then, once I was hooked, the movies. Way back in the days before I had a VCR (I shudder remembering that dark time), my eighth birthday present was a VCR rental and an accompanying VHS rental of A Hard Day's Night. But he chose that one only because it was the only Beatles movie available on video at that time-- he always claimed that, contrary to popular opinion, he preferred their second film (and second collaboration with the great Richard Lester), Help!, to A Hard Day's Night. When Help! finally hit VHS a few years later, I agreed. It's big, bold, colorful style and sly spy movie send-ups were, to my ten-year-old mind, sheer perfection.
In the years since, I've come back around to the general consensus, and prefer the faux-verite style and verbal wit of A Hard Day's Night. But I still love Help!, and it's the one I found on Google Video.
Friday, April 9, 2010
Thursday, April 8, 2010
Agnieszka Wojtowciz-Vosloo’s After.Life is a picture with multiple personality disorder, a film so busy quoting and borrowing that it has no time to develop an identity of its own. It’s like a mixtape of creaky horror movie tropes—the creepy kid, the laughably bitter wheelchair-bound mother, stringy-haired ghosts, bugs spilling out of mouths, a variety of flickering lights, and dead bodies galore. Oh, and the surprise, Shyamalan-style twists. Wojtowciz-Vosloo didn’t write a screenplay, he made a checklist.Christina Ricci stars as Anna Taylor, an unhappy schoolteacher in a dead-end relationship with Paul (Justin Long). One night, after an ugly fight in a restaurant, she drives home fast in the pouring rain among heavy traffic while messing with her phone (they may as well have had her putting on make-up too), so she wakes up on a slab at the funeral home. Yes, she wakes up; she’s dead, but mortician Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson) can apparently see her and talk to her. “I have a gift. I can talk to those between life and death,” he tells her, “to help them make the transition.”
The physics of the situation are loopy; he supposedly the only one who can “see her,” but she can smash up all of his stuff, and lead him on a chase through the house that’s played as if it’s the most suspenseful sequence since the last ten minutes of The Silence of the Lambs. But the scene doesn’t work (in spite of them trotting out every worn-out device in the book) because we don’t understand the rules of the game. Does she have a physical presence, or not? Can she be seen by others? If she can’t, then what does he care?
Alas, this will all be (kind of) explained in the end; they’re drawing out the twists by leaving us in the dark, by not playing fair. The film has to work, and the logic has to hold, in the moment—not just in retrospect. That’s not to say the picture doesn’t have its moments; there are couple of good jolts (they’re cheap thrills, but hey, I’ll take ‘em where I can get ‘em) and some vivid imagery. And it’s slickly done, for whatever that’s worth.
Ricci is quite fetching, wandering around in her slinky red slip with a Frankenstein stitch, but her sleepy-voiced delivery is monotonous, and she can’t do a thing with the dialogue, which is mostly terrible (sample: “Is this the afterlife? Because it feels like hell.”) The writing is particularly bad in the opening scenes of her and Long’s stalled relationship, full of dull platitudes and trite clichés and awkward formalities, rendering these two personable actors into androids. It’s an unfortunate kick-off for Long, who is just plain bad here; his youthful look and personality can’t do the grown-up beats he’s called upon to play (he looks like a kid in a high school play dressed up in grown-up clothes). It’s basically the same performance as the one he gives in Drag Me To Hell, but out of context. Neeson plays his role with smooth professionalism, but he’s so much better than this material.
I don’t mean to denigrate After.Life too harshly; there are, it must be said, worse ways to spend a couple of hours than with a frequently-nude Christina Ricci. And the film is, indeed, well-made, even if much of it is empty, meaningless “flair.” But the dialogue is painful, Long is atrocious, and the twists and reverses and double-backs get downright tiresome. Eventually, you give up—if it’s not gonna bother to make sense, why bother making sense of it?
"After.Life" opens Friday, April 9th in limited release.
The opening sequence of Peter Bratt’s La Mission bursts with music and energy reminiscent of a 70s picture—indeed, the cue he chooses (Curtis Mayfield’s “Kung Fu”) would have been right at home in any number of blaxpoitation flicks. It’s appropriate, because La Mission has a specifically low-budget energy—it’s rough around the edges, and amateurish in places, but it has a genuineness, a heart, and a low-to-the-ground spirit that usually gets bled out of bigger, more polished entities.Benjamin Bratt (the director’s brother) plays Che Rivera, a reformed “O.G” and recovering alcoholic who has lived for years in San Francisco’s Mission district, driving a bus and raising his son Jesse (Jeremy Ray Valdez). Jesse’s a straight-A student about to graduate from high school and attend UCLA on scholarship; basically, everything he’s done has been for his father’s approval, which is why he hasn’t told his dad that he’s gay. One morning, Che finds out, and it goes about as badly as Jesse had imagined—he slaps him, berates him, and drags him out on the street, where their public fistfight quickly spreads the word about the conflict within the family.
Some of the writing (Peter Bratt also penned the screenplay) is a little obvious, a little easy—I’m not so sure, for example, that Jesse would have the exact response at his fingertips that he comes up with in the coming-out scene. That moment, and scattered others here and there, feel constructed, rather than organic. But the surprising thing about La Mission is how deep it delves into this particular father-son dynamic, which doesn’t make its way into mainstream cinema all that often, even though it happens constantly in real life. We see not just Che’s anger, but his shame and disgust; more eloquently, the film carefully shows how the two men shut each other out (most films would only show that happening from one side, but not from both).
Most importantly, it gives Che real dimensions; he’s not just a standard-issue bigot, but a man who is really struggling to understand something that’s beyond his limited understanding. “I told your uncle I would try,” he proclaims at one point, as if that’s somehow enough (the intelligent script knows that it’s not). Bratt plays all of those beats well; there’s an edginess, a danger about his work here, something tangible in his coiled rage and homophobia early, and his misguided frustration later on. He’s also allowed some quiet moments; the romantic subplot with neighbor Lena (Erika Alexander, who hasn’t aged a day since her run as “Cousin Pam” on The Cosby Show) has a genuine tenderness, though the picture thankfully doesn’t make the love of a good woman a simple proposition, or a solution to his problems.
Peter Bratt has an easy way with the frame, and the picture’s aesthetics and composition are pleasing without being overly stylized. There are some novice mistakes—the inserts don’t match the intention during the scene where Che discovers the photos, and Bratt doesn’t always seem sure how to get out of a scene, occasionally leaving an actor out to dry with a close-up held too long. But the film has its strengths; there’s a natural, laid-back vibe to the scenes with Che’s domino-and-car buddies (there’s a nice, low comedy to them), and the picture is blessed with a strong, striking sense of place. It knows these neighborhoods well—the Bratts are San Francisco natives—though it might spend a bit too much time on the documentary-style glimpse of low-rider car culture. However, I can certainly understand wanting to play as much of the accompanying song, Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up (Part 1),” as possible.
In fact, the soundtrack is one of the film’s strongest elements; these characters live in the kind of household and neighborhood where music is always on somewhere, where the elder Rivera’s old school R&B blasts in one room and Jesse’s hip hop pounds in the next. Bratt further uses the music to get into his lead character’s head, and there’s something kind of perfect about the way that his first night out with Lena is scored to the Stylistics’ “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart).” That kind of pure romanticism is part of his soul, and that’s what she sees in him—and it’s the part of him that she can’t reconcile with his treatment of his son.
La Mission gets a little boilerplate towards the end (the conflicts and ultimatums are pretty familiar), and director Bratt piles on the symbolism and melodrama pretty deep. But there’s a genuineness and an urgency to the picture that’s undeniable; you see it in the look on Jesse’s face as his eyes dart around for a father who isn’t there, and in the pained expression that Che takes on when he destroys something precious to him. La Mission has some trouble spots, but it’s a moving, affecting film nonetheless, and Benjamin Bratt turns in an open, honest, powerful piece of work.
"La Mission" opens Friday, April 9th in limited release.
The story of Leonard Chess, the Jewish entrepreneur whose Chess Records label recorded some of the great blues records of the mid-20th century and built the bridge from blues to rock and roll, is a compelling one. I’m not sure it’s one that needed to be told twice. In one of those occasional instances of Hollywood parallel thinking, two feature biographies of Chess went into production in 2008: Cadillac Records, which hit theaters late that year, and Who Do You Love, which was presumably held back to avoid confusion. But as we’ve seen in these situations, the one that comes late to the party is usually compared unfavorably to the first, and that’s what happens here; Who Do You Love is the Infamous to Cadillac Records’ Capote.
Which is not to say it doesn’t have pleasures of its own, or that it gets some things right that its predecessor got wrong (the film closes with a proud proclamation of how many of the parties involved gave it their blessing). One of Cadillac’s more egregious modifications to the real story of Chess Records was the total exclusion of Phil Chess from the story; according to that picture, Leonard Chess did the whole thing alone. Who Do You Love mines the relationship between showy front man Leonard (Alessandro Nivola) and his quieter, kinder brother Phil (Jon Abrahams) effectively; Leonard got all the credit and Phil never complained (in which case, his exclusion from the earlier film must’ve really smarted), and the contrast between the two men is a nice addition.
The film opens with Alan Freed introducing a rockin’ Bo Diddley; Leonard watches and smiles from backstage, and the rest of the film is a flashback of his rise to success (Corny construction much?). We follow the Chess brothers from their childhood in Chicago in the 1930s, then up to the 40s as they go from salvage yard owners to nightclub men to record producers, redefining the sound of recorded blues with the help of songwriting genius Willie Dixon (Chi McBride) and immortal artists like Muddy Waters (David Oyelowo).
The primary difference between the two films structurally is that this one works on a smaller canvas; director Jerry Zaks (the Broadway and TV great whose previous film was 1996’s Marvin’s Room) is primarily making a Leonard Chess biopic, while Cadillac director Darnell Martin was interested not only in Chess, but in the complex relationships forged by Muddy Waters (played to the hilt by Jeffrey Wright)—particularly his brotherly bond with harmonica genius Little Walter and his rivalry with Howlin’ Wolf. Here, Walter is a minor, one-note presence, and Wolf is unseen and only mentioned in passing. Etta James doesn’t come off very well either; she’s fictionalized in this film as “Ivy Mills,” and let’s just say she comes to a very different ending. But it’s an odd choice, to have all of these other characters using the real names, but then there’s this thin beauty singing “At Last” and jonesing for smack who isn’t Etta James.
There are some amusing scenes scattered throughout the picture. Muddy’s audition is a great, grin-worthy sequence, and the business with Muddy’s band explaining their arrival routine (“There’s a hierarchy,” goes the refrain) is awfully funny. McBride is wonderful as Mr. Dixon, and makes a memorably early impression with an uproarious scene in which he proves unflappable in the face of a knife fight. But other scenes fall flat—the domestic drama with Leonard’s wife is dull as toast, and the vignette with a racist who becomes a fan is well-intentioned but too damned neat.
I didn’t plan to turn the entire review into a compare-and-contrast essay, but there you have it; this is what happens when two similar films are made this closely together. It’d be nice to approach it with a completely clear mind, but Who Do You Love exists in Cadillac Records’ echo chamber. The music is expectedly wonderful; it’s charming and more than a little old-fashioned (which I mean as a compliment). But when its 90 minutes come to an end, it boils down to a case of been there, done that.
"Who Do You Love" opens Friday, April 9 in limited release.
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
Monday, April 5, 2010
Redford stars as Roy Hobbs, a baseball player with talent to burn on his way to the majors. While on the train to Chicago, he crosses paths with sportswriter Max Mercy (Robert Duvall), who is travelling with baseball star "The Whammer" (Joe Don Baker). (I at first questioned the credibility of "Mitchell" as a famous athlete, and then my wife reminded me of a gentleman by the name of Babe Ruth. Touché, wife.) During a stop, Hobbs strikes "The Whammer" out, catching the eye of not only Mercy, but a seductive mystery woman (Barbara Hershey). But then the story takes a shock turn, and picks up 16 years later. Hobbs is finally making his major league debut--the league's oldest rookie--for the last-place New York Knights, managed by Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley). Pop doesn't want to let Roy play, but when he finally does, their winning streak begins.
Director Levinson (directing his first film after his astonishingly assured debut, Diner) is playing heavy with the symbolism of Americana--not just baseball, but trains and soda fountains and all other forms of nostalgia. He's dipping into the old movie toolbox as well; the picture's gee-whiz morality and throwback style (it's a positively soft PG rating) are downright Capraesque. But there's plenty of opportunities for subtextual interpretation; some have compared the battles of the New York Knights to Arthurian legend, others to Greek mythology. For me, it is most intriguing (and most risky) in its use of religious iconography. Hobbs is something of a baseball hero as Jesus figure who can summon up miracles and seemingly control the weather, inspired by an angelic woman in white (Glenn Close). What are we to make of all of these loaded images? I think Levinson (and screenwriters Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry) were creating a deliberately open-ended mythology; whatever portal you choose to read in through is there.
With his actors, Levinson draws on typecasting--in a positive way that helps the picture. We're seeing familiar faces in comfortable roles, arriving with backstory intact. Of course we immediately buy Redford as the incorruptible golden boy, Duvall as the cynical sportswriter who knows all the angles, Brimley and Richard Farnsworth as the crusty but kind team managers, Robert Prosky as the corrupt team co-owner, Close as the sweetheart from back home--Levinson isn't asking anyone to stretch much, but the casting choices aid immeasurably in the ease of the storytelling. Kim Basinger was still a pretty novice actor when she co-starred, but in some ways, her more finely-tuned work in L.A. Confidential helps make her femme fatale turn here more credible. (Her weak performance is done no favors by having to share a film with Close, who is sheer perfection.)
Levinson leans a bit too heavily on the montage as a narrative tool (there's quite a few assemblages of game footage and headlines scored to jazzy music), and the 132-minute running time is a little bloated. He's still finding his footing as a filmmaker--a late scene in the judge's office is clumsily blocked--but he's painting on a big, broad canvas here, and doing it admirably. Randy Newman's score would be bombastically ridiculous in just about any other movie, but I wouldn't change a note; it's a perfect fit for this outsized myth-making epic. The music is particularly appropriate during those famous shots of Roy's last at-bat, which have been reproduced, clipped, and parodied--but still haven't lost the ability to dazzle and wow even the most cynical viewer.
The phrase "old-fashioned" is too often used as a pejorative, indicating clueless obsolescence. But in moviemaking, an old-fashioned picture can be a good thing; it congers up a specific style and manner of telling a story, and a kind of story that's less easily told in our cynical times. The Natural feels like that; you can easily picture it in black and white, with Gary Cooper in the lead, Deborah Kerr in the Close role, Lionel Barrymore as "The Judge." It's an old-fashioned movie, and that's meant as the highest compliment.
"The Natural" makes its Blu-ray debut on Tuesday, April 6th. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.
Sunday, April 4, 2010
Bronson is Nicolas Winding Refn's loose biography of the famed thug, played by Tom Hardy in a riveting, finely-tuned performance. The screenplay (by Refn and Brock Norman Brock--Brock Brock?) has Bronson telling much of his own story, within the framework of an imagined one-man show in front of a well-dressed, appreciative audience. He recalls his youth, his initial forays into the world of crime, his escapades behind bars. His brief time on the outside--in which he tried to make a name as a bare-knuckle brawler, appropriating his pseudonym to sound tougher--is given screen time, but the film is primarily concerned with his bad behavior in the clink, and in the hole.
Refn's stylish direction pulls us in, at least in the early sequences--it's all moody lighting and neon blasts and zippy camera work and brutal beatings wickedly underscored by ironic music cues. The energetic execution, supplemented by the darkest imaginable humor and blasted through a haze of thick Cockney accents, calls to mind those breakneck opening scenes of Trainspotting. The trouble is, it doesn't go anywhere from there. Refn basically spends the entire 92 minutes of the picture playing that same note, over and over and over again, without much in the way of variation or relief. The resulting experience is like having someone yell at you for an hour and a half. Look, I'm not automatically opposed to ugliness and bad behavior in cinema, and I certainly don't begrudge a film its anti-heroes, or demand anything as silly as "redemption" or "resolution." But a movie has to do something. Bronson doesn't. It's full of great, fist-pumping moments, but they don't add up to anything.
Now, none of this is intended to take anything away from Hardy's performance, which has been widely celebrated, and justly so. He can turn from quiet intensity to spittle-flying rage on a dime, and his monologues hold us in thrall (as does the terrific scene where he acts out both halves of a conversation with a woman, one half of his bald head made up in drag). He cuts a terrifying figure, but his eyes are startlingly alive--particularly the repulsion and perhaps terror he has deep inside himself early in the stomach-churning "funny farm" sequence. It's a virtuoso piece of work, and the variations in his performance give the film its only true breaks in tempo.
Bronson is a fine vehicle for a stellar performance, but as a narrative, it suffers from inertia; thing happen, yes, but all at the same pitch and pace. There's a monotony to it, a sense of a filmmaker grinding the gears when we want it to go, go, go. From what we see, it's clear that Refn has the gift of cinematic flash, and that Hardy is a compelling screen presence. But it's like a demo reel for the both of them. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens when they make a real movie. Bronson's got a dirty, gritty style that grabs us, and enough cheap thrills and punchy brutality to shake us. But at the end of the day, it's a bit of a one-trick pony.
"Bronson" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review at DVD Talk.
The film is narrated from Barrett's point of view (an odd choice that indicates either a quest for originality or a love for Sunset Boulevard), as he relates the tale of the man who killed him, and how that came to happen. The murderer is Montgomery, a blue collar guy from upstate New York in his late 40s who became dissatisfied with his life--his factory job, his floundering marriage, his overall malaise--and found an outlet, as many do, on the Internet. He began playing online poker, and striking up chat conversations with his fellow players. And then he met her.
Her screename was 'talhotblond,' and she was beautiful, athletic, flirtatious... and 18 years old. "I knew I wasn't gonna meet this girl," he remembers, so he made up an identity--a younger, idealized version of himself named Tommy, screen name 'marinesniper.' Tommy was 18, youthful, jubilant, about to deploy, and crazy about 'talhotblond', whose name was Jessi and lived in West Virginia. "It made me feel like a kid again," he says of creating and living as his alter ego. He liked "Tommy" so much, in fact, that he wanted that live to eclipse his real one, for "Tommy" to take over his personality, to live as the younger man, to be with his online love. As you might guess, it didn't go so well.
The story of Tommy and Jessi (and Brian, the unfortunate co-worker who wandered into their online "romance") is a fascinating, compelling one, and Schroeder's film is masterfully constructed--we don't know where it's going, but we know it's nowhere good. Through current interviews and a skillful montage of their pictures, videos, and instant messages, the twisting story is told--of the sickness that they shared, the dark fantasies, the mental abuse, the petty jealousies that got so far out of control, they left a bystander dead.
Schroeder finds some clever ways to break from the talking heads mold, such as the stylish (and effective) use of on-screen text for their IM exchanges. She wisely lets the words on the screen speak for themselves (there are no cheeseball, To Catch a Predator-style voice-overs), particularly as Tom reveals himself to be a vile, violent, rage-filled racist, and by showing how his fury mounts as his attempts at reconciliation are ignored (there's something perfectly cold about the way "talhotblond has signed off" lingers on the screen). The doc's fast pace is effective as well--it clips along at a slim 75 minutes, barely letting us get our bearings as the situation goes further off the rails.
In its shock-twist construction and true-crime roots, Talhotblond is somewhat reminiscent of another recent (and excellent) MSNBC films documentary, the stunning Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. It is not that film's equal--the narration device doesn't really work (and it allows for too much on-the-nose moralizing at the film's end), the music is a little obvious, and there are some bothersome exclusions (where was his wife after her discovery of his secret?) in favor of salacious details. For that matter, the other victims (his family) are only glimpsed or barely heard. But at the end of the film, there is an interview with Jessi's father that is devastated--and devastating. It packs one more punch into this powerful nonfiction thriller.
Everyone's heard horror stories about stalkers and pedophiles and the various creeps that are lurking in the Wild Wild West that is the World Wide Web. And many of us have, at one time or another, tip-toed into a chat room to see what all the hubbub's about, and might have even told a fib or two in the process. The cautionary tales about both tend to have a "well, duh, of course not" air to them, but Talhotblond goes beyond those generalities into deeper territory--places were emotions run high, and motives are dark. The film has its flaws, but it has an immediacy and intensity that is tough to shake.
"Talhotblond" is available now on DVD. For full A/V details, read this review on DVD Talk.