Thursday, December 15, 2011

"New York Stories" by Scorsese, Coppola and Allen

New York Stories isn't the only anthology film to take a metropolis as its subject (Tokyo! and Paris, Je T'Aime are two more recent examples). What's notable about this one is that rarely if ever has an omnibus movie been so suited to the sensibilities of its makers. When the three-part film came out in 1989, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen were basically synonymous with the Big Apple, each having made a film named after the place they grew up (New York, New York in the case of Scorsese, and Manhattan in the case of Allen). And while Francis Ford Coppola can be more accurately described as a West coast filmmaker (he's chronicled, along with many other great filmmakers who lived and worked in San Francisco, in the terrific documentary Fog City Mavericks), the director of The Godfather films has given us some of the most iconic scenes of New York life. The young Vito Corleone's arrival on Ellis Island is certainly one of the great New York movie moments, if not one of the greatest movie moments, period.

Despite the seemingly perfect fit of authors and subject, New York Stories is just as much of a mixed bag as any other omnibus movie. Not quite as mixed as this year's horror-comedy anthology, Chillerama, which ranged from the inspired (Adam Rifkin's "Wadzilla") to the unwatchable (Adam Green's "The Diary of Anne Frankenstein"). Still, these short films by Scorsese, Coppola and Allen make for a wildly divergent whole, mostly because Coppola's contribution is so weak. Think of New York Stories as the vital work of two major artists, with a diverting intermission in between.

The films of Martin Scorsese are often associated with a particular kind of New York life: a gritty, violent, pre-gentrification NYC, the one that existed before Mayor Giuliani started arresting homeless people, thus turning Travis Bickle's soliloquy about "a real rain [that] will come and wash all this scum off the streets" into eerie prophecy. As an artist, Scorsese seems to have no real interest in this new New York; the Big Apple movie he made when Giuliani was mayor, Bringing Out the Dead, is a period piece set in the early '90s. His contribution to New York Stories, Life Lessons, is not a quintessential statement on the city like, say, his brilliant 1985 dark comedy After Hours is. But it's set in one of those sprawling studio lofts that seem almost inseparable from the city, and it features one of the director's recurring themes: the artist and his muse.

The 50-minute film reunites the director with Rosanna Arquette, whose character in After Hours may or may not have been the victim of a fire that left her horribly disfigured. (It's difficult to tell how much of what occurs in that film is the result of an overactive imagination on the part of its hero.) Arquette sports wounds of a more emotional kind in "Life Stories", playing Paulette, the assistant and former lover of a celebrated abstract painter named Lionel Dobie (Nick Nolte). The subject matter is thoroughly unpleasant, depicting what is perhaps the most tumultuous affair the director has ever given us outside of Casino. It's clear Lionel needs Paulette to fuel his art, but Scorsese, screenwriter Richard Price and a grizzled Nolte refuse to make him into a monster; he's genuinely lovesick. ("You think I just use people. You don't know how involved I get or how far down I go.") This sour love story is distinguished by the splashes of color on Lionel's canvas, Scorsese's unmistakable camera moves and one of the director's most haunting soundtrack selections: "A Whiter Shade of Pale" played endlessly on a paint-spattered boombox.

Paulette is partially tied to Lionel because of the economic reality of living as an aspiring artist in NYC. Her situation is quite a contrast to that of the lead character in Coppola's Life Without Zoe, which could be renamed "The Suite Life of Zoe Montez". We follow 12-year-old Zoe (Heather McComb), a one-percenter who lives in the Sherry-Netherlands Hotel without parental superision. The movie is annoying and head-smackingly unfunny when it tries to be amusing.

More than anything, though, it's wrecklessly indulgent. Coppola wrote the script with his daughter Sofia when she was in her teens, making this the first of two disastrous collaborations between the two. (The following year she would appear in The Godfather: Part III, for which she won a Golden Razzie for Worst Supporting Actress.) "Life Without Zoe" shares a lot of attributes with the screenplays Sofia wrote for Lost in Translation and Somewhere, in that they're about spoiled rich people living in swanky hotels in the world's most beautiful cities. Those later films prove what a gifted artist she turned out to be. And while "Life Without Zoe" marked the beginning of a decades-long downward slide for Francis Coppola, he's rebounded nicely in recent years, delivering the kind of experimental art films (Youth Without Youth, Tetro, Twixt) that he and George Lucas have talked about making for years but that only Coppola has made good on. Still, "Life Without Zoe" has to be a career nadir for both Coppolas, with only Jack as its rival in infamy.

“Everyone that I know that is compulsively funny for a living seems to have had a similar kind of mother. I guess it’s the ultimate result of being raised by a heckler. You learn how to have a lot of comebacks.” — Merrill Markoe, author of Cruel, Calm and Contentious

If "Life Without Zoe" is the unfortunate result of a doting father, then Woody Allen’s segment of New York Stories, Oedipus Wrecks, seems to have been inspired by a much less encouraging parent. In the recent must-see PBS documentary American Masters: Woody Allen, we see the auteur’s mother criticizing his career choices. I know Allen often resists comparisons to his work and his real life (Stardust Memories was unfairly judged in this way; critics seemed to think that, by casting himself as a movie director named Sandy Bates, Allen had relinquished any right to make a work of fiction). Still, it’s hard not to think there’s at least a little autobiography involved in "Oedipus Wrecks", which features perhaps the most comically unsupportive parent in movie history.

This is how the mother in "Oedipus Wrecks" greets her son Sheldon (Allen) when he brings his fiancé, Lisa (Mia Farrow) over to meet her: “Gee, you look terrible.” As played by the wonderful Mae Questel, Mrs. Millstein is a living nightmare for Sheldon. “I love her,” he tells his therapist, “but I wish she would disappear.” That’s exactly what Mrs. Millstein does when she attends a magic show with Sheldon and Lisa, only to reappear later as a giant face in the sky. I love the surreal aspects of this film, The Purple Rose of Cairo and Allen’s latest, the great Midnight in Paris; in these movies, magic doesn’t have to be explained. The sight of Mrs. Millstein hovering in the Manhattan skyline and scolding her son in front of everybody is one of Allen's most memorable set pieces, a scene of public humiliation that’s a quintessential New York moment if there ever was one.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

After "Detroit Rock City", a violent fever dream

A very trippy trip down the Yellow Brick Road, Detroit Rock City is one of my favorite teen comedies ever. It has a lot of what I love – nostalgia, rock music, sexcapades – which is why I watched it countless times during my college years. In the decade following its release, I was surprised I didn't see the name of its director more often in the credits of other big-studio projects. Not until recently did I go to IMDb to look and see precisely what Adam Rifkin had been up to all these years. He’s kept fairly busy writing the scripts for family fare like Zoom and Underdog, and he’s continued to work as a director. His latest, the giant sperm monster movie “Wadzilla”, is by far the liveliest entry in this year’s amusing horror-comedy omnibus, Chillerama.

Rifkin’s first project after Detroit Rock City was a gritty independent crime film. Self-financed and -distributed with profits from his scripts for Small Soldiers and Mouse Hunt, Night at the Golden Eagle is about as different as possible in terms of tone from his previous directorial effort. It could be the most striking career turn for a filmmaker since Steven Spielberg followed up Jurassic Park with Schindler’s List. The movie presents a solid argument for creative independence, and shows Rifkin to be a director of wide-ranging talent who deserves to work on projects big and small in a variety of genres.

Rifkin wrote the script in the late 1980s, 12 years before Night at the Golden Eagle was produced. He resisted offers to make the film with younger leads, insisting the two main characters be played by actors in their 60s. Donnie Montemarano and Vinny Angiro – ex-cons and lifelong friends with little or no acting experience – were ultimately cast in the lead roles. (This is Montemarano’s sole film credit.) Their advanced age, personal history and thick Italian accents contribute a lot of the flavor sprinkled throughout this frequently astonishing movie.

We first meet Tommy (Montemarano) as he’s being released after a long stretch in prison. His old pal Mick (Angiro) is there to greet him. Both are petty criminals who have somehow managed to stick around for the long haul, so that they’re now at an age when they should be retiring from legitimate jobs they never bothered to get. Rifkin was right to hold out for the actors he wanted; they make this material fresh.

Mick announces a plan to go straight: they’ll move to Las Vegas and become blackjack dealers. The movie takes place entirely on the night before they’re set to leave for the Bright Light City, depicting one long descent into hell. We meet the desperate people who live in around the hotel Tommy is staying at, the Golden Eagle. He invites a street-walking hooker, Amber (Natasha Lyonne) to his room, where complications of the variety depicted in Peter Berg’s underrated dark comedy Very Bad Things ensue. Rifkin shows how the hopeless world in which these characters move is a cruelly self-reinforcing one. In a subplot, we meet the girl who will probably end up being Amber’s replacement, a teenage runaway (Nicole Jacobs) who’s being groomed by a fearsome pimp (Vinnie Jones, in a seductive, terrifying performance). Despite the grim subject matter, Tommy and Mick are often very funny together. So funny, in fact, that you might not realize at first what a disturbed individual Tommy has become from his prison experiences. In a chilling shot near the end of the film, we see him sitting alone in his room, where the bodies have started to pile up.

Throughout his career, Rifkin has shown a lot of affection for showbiz in all its sundry forms, frequently casting porn star Ron Jeremy in his films while also making room for the likes of Shannon Tweed and members of The Red Hot Chili Peppers. The hotel where Night at the Golden Eagle was shot over 18 days on a $1 million budget has a storied history (Charlie Chaplin was reportedly once a guest), and Rifkin has peopled it with legends of Hollywood's past: the late tap-dancing star Fayard Nicholas, R&B singer Sam Moore, and B-movie actress Kitten Natividad, she of the 44" chest who appeared in such cult classics as Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens for the great Russ Meyer. By casting these wonderful performers in his movie, Rifkin heightens the tragedy of the piece; it's heartbreaking to see them as lowdown characters stuck in a place of lost dreams.

I think Rifkin is underrated as a craftsman. He brought incredible energy and dexterity to Detroit Rock City; the scene where the boys are shouting the lyrics to "Shout It Out Loud" as the camera does a complete 360 is one of the great rock-movie moments. Similarly, "Wadzilla" is a witty visual recreation of drive-in monster movies. He and his collaborators (including cinematographer Checco Varese and production designer Sherman Williams) bring the same talent for atmosphere to this film, from the opening shots of Lyonne hooking to the beat of "Hoochie Mama" by 2 Live Crew to the memorable crane shot that brings this thoroughly unhappy picture to a close. Rifkin reportedly turned down a three-picture deal with DreamWorks to make Detroit Rock City. You can argue whether or not he made the right career movie, but if he'd chosen differently we wouldn't have one of the best teen comedies of the '90s, and we wouldn't have his other passion project, the brilliant Night at the Golden Eagle.

Friday, October 21, 2011

"Red State"

The best thing that can be said about Kevin Smith’s Red State is that it’s better than Blue State, a lame romantic comedy with Breckin Meyer and Anna Paquin that came out after the 2004 election. Blue State was about a young Democrat who moved to Canada after George W. Bush won reelection. Smith’s audacious, ultra-violent new movie has a similarly political bent, but it doesn’t quite deliver the goods on the level of horror. Plus, he’s arguably covered the same material before with more rewarding results. I think his fans should see it but this is ultimately an admirable failure on Smith’s part.

I knew surprisingly little going in, only that this was being billed as Smith’s first no-bones-about-it horror movie, and that it was at least partially inspired by Fred Phelps and his vilely homophobic Westboro Baptist Church. I was eager to see the director branch out and to get his take on Phelps. As a grad student at KU, I would sometimes see members of Phelps’ church protesting outside the student union, and to me they almost seemed to fit the trashy, willfully ignorant caricature of red-state America. If anybody deserved to be cast as the villains in a horror movie, it was these people.

The opening scenes certainly feel like a horror film. Smith has reimagined The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the Craigslist era, as three high school boys (Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun and Kyle Gallner) follow an online invitation for group sex, only to fall into the clutches of the murderous Five Points Church. The boys’ efforts to escape and the ensuing showdown between members of the church and ATF agents take up a full hour of the picture.

When I realized the second half of the movie would be a long shoot-out, I was titillated but also a little apprehensive. Smith is famous for his sloppy approach to editing and coverage, and sure enough Red State is often visually incoherent; there are some shots where members of the Five Points Church appear to be inadvertently shooting at each other. This is the same lazy approach to stunts and action that Smith brought to his sell-out Hollywood picture, the aptly titled Cop Out. What the violence in Red State has going for it is an unusually high celebrity body count, which brought to mind the shocking cameos in Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning Hurt Locker – though comparisons to Bigelow’s genius filmmaking end there. Smith showed far more flair and imagination with the carnage perpetrated by Bartleby (Ben Affleck) and Loki (Matt Damon) in Dogma.

I’d hoped Red State would be more like Dogma, which is by far Smith’s most ambitious screenplay to date. With that movie, he showed a strong point of view towards religion and brought an incisive moral order to the material. For all the promise and provocative nature of Red State, which depicts a fundamentalist church that executes gays, the movie is surprisingly random and meaningless. Smith seems to have nothing more on his mind than shock value, and the fact that he teases us with an apocalyptic climax only to quickly backpedal away from it is an unforgivable sin.

Fortunately, the director has a trump card. Viewers are probably most familiar with Michael Parks for his performance as Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in From Dusk Till Dawn, Kill Bill and Grindhouse. Smith has given Parks one of the best roles of his life as Abin Cooper, the deranged leader of the Five Points Church. Terrifying, theatrical and often hilarious despite the bile that spews from his mouth, Cooper puts on quite a show, and so does Parks. Red State is at its strongest when Parks is at his funniest, which may be as good a sign as any that Smith should get back to what he does best now that he’s tried his hand at horror.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Heavenly creatures

Shortly after Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life won the Palme d'Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, I had an amusing conversation with one of my Christian friends. The buzz coming out of Cannes was that Malick had delivered an overtly Christian film, and if there's one filmmaker who could make a true believer out of me, it's the legendary, decidedly non-prolific creator of Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World. I basically worship his films, and so my friend told me that if I ever text him “Praise Jesus” or something, then he’ll know the reason why.

The Tree of Life didn't convert me to Christianity, but it reaffirmed my faith in Malick. It's an apotheosis of the themes and filmmaking style he's been developing over the last dozen years or so, the movie he's been building up to since The Thin Red Line, his triumphant, Academy Award-nominated return to the cinema after a 20-year absence. The Thin Red Line is my favorite movie of all time; The Tree of Life is merely one of my favorites. It’s Malick’s most experimental film to date, but I think viewers will find a lot to relate to; it certainly had a profound impact on me.

I'd been waiting almost three years for this to come out, and I'm such a self-conscious person that when I finally sat down to watch it all I could think was, "OMG, I can't believe I'm watching it!" I’ve seen it twice now, and during both viewings I was reminded of Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which discusses Malick's childhood in Waco as the eldest of three brothers and the guilt he felt when one of his siblings – a gifted musician – committed suicide. All of this is included in the film, showing three boys – Jack (Hunter McCracken, who as the eldest is playing Malick's surrogate), R.L. (Laramie Epler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan) – growing up in Texas in the 1950s, though the cause of R.L.'s death is never explained. I couldn’t help thinking of Easy Riders whenever Sean Penn appeared as the adult Jack in the film’s sorrowful contemporary scenes, which for me represent the guilt Malick still feels over the death of his younger brother.

"Tell us a story from before we can remember." – R.L., The Tree of Life

As you may have heard, the movie isn't just about Malick's beginnings; it's also about the beginnings of all life on earth. R.L.'s death tests the faith of his mother, Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain), and the questions she has for God ("Where were you?" "Why did you take my son?") are answered with a sequence of overpowering beauty that depicts the formation of the universe, from the big bang to a meteor strike that wipes out the dinosaurs. This sequence lasts about 20 minutes and is only a small sample of what Malick has in store for us in his forthcoming Voyage of Time project, which causes me to wonder whether the director has made it his mission in life to make my head explode.

The Tree of Life isn’t the first origin story Malick has told. The New World is a breathtaking vision of the origins of America, specifically the founding of Jamestown. The characters in his movies are constantly asking questions about the origins of people. “Who are you, whom I so faintly hear? Who urge me ever on,” Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) asks near the beginning of The New World. In The Tree of Life, the young Jack exhibits the same kind of curiosity about God and the meaning of life: “Are you watching me? I want to know what you are. I want to see what you see.” The poetic use of narration in Malick’s films never ceases to enthrall me, but I can see how it could be ridiculed; if his movies were more popular, they could be the subject of a hilarious Saturday Night Live skit.

Some fans have accused Malick of overreaching with this new film, claiming he’s stopped asking questions about God and started giving answers pulled straight out of scripture. When Linda (Linda Manz) in Days of Heaven says “the people who have been good they’re gonna go to heaven and escape all that fire,” you don’t feel you’re being preached to, just like you don’t feel that way when Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) says “the author of all things watches over me” in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit; both lines accurately reflect the time and place in which the characters live. I guess what some fans are saying is that Malick has closed the gap between his personal beliefs (or what they assume to be his beliefs) and those of his characters. After two viewings, I don’t have strong feelings on the subject. As a skeptic/agnostic, I certainly don’t feel alienated by the film, any more than I feel alienated when I look at paintings from the Sistine Chapel.

"Do you imagine your sufferings will be less because you loved goodness? Truth?" – Dead Japanese soldier, The Thin Red Line

In one of my favorite scenes in The Tree of Life, the boys go on a day trip into town with their mother. They imitate a drunk stumbling across the road, and are visibly shaken when they see a tall man suffering from a debilitating disease. “Can it happen to anyone?” R.L. asks his mother. Later, when a boy drowns in a public swimming pool, the young Jack prays to God: “Was he bad?”

I think this is one of the major breaking points for a lot of people when it comes to faith, the idea that God isn’t there for us when we need to him to be. (It was certainly a breaking point for me.) Early on in the film, we hear Mrs. O’Brien say in voiceover, “The nuns taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.” People might hear that and accuse Malick of being naïve, but his movies are a lot more skeptical than the quote implies. The three major characters in his films who have chosen the way of grace – Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) in The Thin Red Line, Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) in The New World and Mrs. O’Brien in The Tree of Life – are just as susceptible to pain, loss and suffering as anyone else onscreen. In fact, Malick can be very cruel to these characters.

The director doesn’t make it easy to choose the way of grace. Neither does real life, what with The Hangover Part II grossing more than half a billion dollars and The Tree of Life grossing less than $40 million. Prior to the scenes with the adult Jack, Malick had never shown us his view of contemporary life. It's fairly despairing. “The world has gone to the dogs,” Jack says in voiceover. “Greed is everywhere.” I was reminded of the English settlers in The New World chopping down every tree within half a mile to build their fort, walling themselves off from paradise. Four hundred years on, the descendants of those settlers seem about as far as possible from Pocahontas and the Algonquian-speaking Indians, who, as Captain Smith notes, had no words for lying, deceit, greed, envy, slander and forgiveness.

“Nobody’s perfect. There was never a perfect person around. You’ve just got half devil and half angel in you.” – Linda, Days of Heaven

Ever since Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek), the outlaw lovers in Badlands, ran away together and “hid in the wilderness down by a river in a grove of cottonwoods,” Malick’s movies have been filled with natural beauty. Trees, birds and other animals figure prominently, as if the director were saying, “These are just as important as the characters.” One of the most beautiful images in Days of Heaven is a time-lapse shot showing a plant sprouting from its seed and reaching towards sunlight. I thought of that shot during the lyrical series of scenes that follows the universe sequence in The Tree of Life, which depicts Jack’s growth from infancy to boyhood.

As the young Jack, newcomer McCracken delivers one of the most remarkable child performances since The Sixth Sense. His scenes were the ones I found most relatable. Jack desperately wants to be like his mom (“Mother. Make me good. Brave,” he whispers in voiceover), but he rebels against his stern, emotionally distant father (Brad Pitt). In the scenes where Jack steals a neighbor lady’s nightgown and ditches the evidence in a river, the movie captures the way you can feel like you're in a trance-like state when you’re a kid and you know you’re doing something wrong. In the middle of a scolding, Jack suddenly hugs his father – not to get out of being punished; it’s more like he’s trying to hold onto something he feels slipping away. All of this brought back vivid memories for me.

Late in the film, Mr. O’Brien reveals himself to be a man of regrets: “I'm nothing. Look at the glory around us; trees, birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all, and didn’t notice the glory. A foolish man.” This is the most transcendent aspect of Malick’s movies: they notice the glory. A pastoral flashback of Mrs. O’Brien resting her head on her father’s shoulder; the boys’ delight when they find out Mr. O’Brien has gone on a business trip; a magnificently choreographed playground scene, set to “Les Barricades Mysterieuses” by Couperin, with the camera slowly dollying into a sunset – I can’t tell you how much these moments mean to me. Who needs heaven when you’ve got Terrence Malick?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Previously on "Boardwalk Empire"

Conceived by two heavyweights of the gangster genre – writer Terence Winter (The Sopranos) and director Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas) – HBO’s Boardwalk Empire tells a Prohibition-era tale of cops and criminals that’s been told dozens of times before. From James Cagney to The Simpsons, the sexy, dangerous world of speakeasies, of volatile gangsters and their no-nonsense pursuers has been explored again and again. What the series has going for it is Winter’s gift for writing complex, surprisingly sympathetic characters and Scorsese’s unmatched flair for gangland brutality. It’s unoriginal but exhilarating, and I can’t get enough of it.

The show is about Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (played by Steve Buscemi), a real-life gangster who in the early 1920s ruled Atlantic City as both a politician and a bootlegger. We see his story unfold in a sprawling narrative, so that what happens in one episode often won’t pay off until much later in the series. This approach doesn’t always work. In the pilot episode (for which Scorsese won an Emmy for his direction), we’re initially confused as to why Nucky fails to punish his lieutenant, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) after the massacre in the forest; only until later, when we discover the deep bond between the two men, does the pilot make sense. And I’m still baffled by the show’s female lead, Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), whose sudden transformation from dedicated member of the Women’s Temperance League to gangster’s moll is never explained. I’m hoping the writers will shed more light on her character in the second season.

Each episode opens with shots of Nucky looking out to sea as the tide brings in bottles of booze and “Straight Up and Down” by The Brian Jonestown Massacre wails on the soundtrack. It’s beautifully done but also kind of meaningless. The same could be said of the show itself. This is reportedly the most expensive TV show yet produced, and every cent is up onscreen; the period-perfect recreation of the boardwalk, with its carnival-like atmosphere, is particularly striking. But viewers looking for resonance will have to look elsewhere. (Check out AMC’s brilliant Breaking Bad to see a similar story told in a modern context and with far more thematic heft.) The character of Nucky Thompson – a transparently corrupt politico – is a goldmine of subtext, but Winter and his writers haven’t quite nailed down an overarching idea yet. In Season 2, I’d like to see more scenes like the one where Nucky meets Warren G. Harding (Malachy Cleary), amusingly portrayed as an empty suit spouting Republican talking points.

Does the series romanticize criminality a la The Godfather? You bet. Nucky and his friends have on tap an endless supply of women, played by actresses as exquisite as Gretchen Mol and the always game Paz de la Huerta. That’s not to say Boardwalk Empire doesn’t show the high price of vice. The violence can be almost cruelly upsetting, like when Pearl (Emily Meade), the beautiful working girl who falls hard for Jimmy, gets her face slashed.

I’m usually a big fan of Buscemi, but I’m afraid he’s been miscast in the lead role. He lacks the sexiness and charisma that the part requires, and he’s simply not credible as an enforcer. (Notice the trick camerawork and editing Scorsese uses to get around this in the pilot episode, when Nucky smashes a guy’s face on a bar top.) Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road) is an equally sensational performer, but he’s stuck in the flat role of the humorless, self-flagellating Agent Van Alden. These two are such unbelievable nemeses they might as well be players in the classic Simpsons episode where alcohol is outlawed in Springfield, with Buscemi in the role of Homer and Shannon in the role of Rex Banner.

My personal favorites on the show are all supporting characters. Michael Stuhlbarg is smug perfection as Arnold Rothstein, the New York gangster who attempts to move in on Nucky’s territory. Stuhlbarg’s precise enunciations and condescending smile are all the more astonishing if you’ve seen his performance as the neurotic professor in the Coen Broethers’ A Serious Man. I also love Anthony Laciura as Eddie Kessler, Nucky’s bumbling butler who performs beyond the call of duty during an assassination attempt on the boardwalk. But my favorite character by far is Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), a marksman who wears a tin mask to cover up injuries he suffered in WWI. He’s the show’s Phantom of the Opera figure, and while this well-tread gangster epic is always entertaining, it’s only ever haunting when Harrow is onscreen.

Monday, September 19, 2011


Nicolas Winding Refn's extraordinary Drive is the second major film to come out this month to turn the spectacle of men pulverizing men into cinematic poetry. The other one is Warrior, and despite the middling box office showing of that epic UFC battle-of-the-meatheads, I think it's going to become a sports classic. Drive has a similarly bright future. Its detractors can't be easily dismissed, but I'm an unapologetic champion of this film, which is easily the year's most violent and certainly one of the better crafted genre pics to come along in a good long while.

The stripped down plot concerns a Hollywood stuntman (Ryan Gosling) who earns extra cash as a getaway driver. The sort of reticent, highly regimented criminal who eschews emotional commitments a la Robert De Niro's master thief in Heat, the nameless Driver seems to violate his own code when he befriends his beautiful neighbor (Carrie Mulligan) and her young son (Kaden Leos). These attachments lead to a series of fatal mishaps that put him on the bad side of two very scary men with mob connections, played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman.

Gosling has said Drive is his superhero movie, and if so it's one that definitively skips the origin story. Driver's background is so sketchily drawn that you begin to wonder about his credentials when he picks up a hammer and threatens to pound a nail in a goon's brain; how did the guy get so tough? The film's detractors point out that the plotting is too sparse and the characters are all one-dimensional, and indeed so little is explained that it's easy to poke holes through Hossein Amini's screenplay. For instance, why would the bad guy put himself in such a vulnerable situation at the climax? But no matter; Drive is the action thriller boiled down to its essence. By throwing out exposition almost entirely, Refn (Bronson, Valhalla Rising) is able to stage the film as a series of *encounters*, each more jaw-dropping than the last. Audiences will be agog during the opening chase in which Driver eludes the police, and later during a pawn shop heist that goes terribly awry. Is this a muscular piece of direction or what?

That's not to say originality is Refn's strong suit. This is essentially a 21st-century update of Thief. Like Michael Mann's brilliant neo-noir film debut, Drive draws it strengths from a charismatic lead performance, a pulse-pounding synthesizer score and ultra-stylish set pieces. Towering over it all is funnyman Brooks' astonishing performance as Bernie Rose, an incredibly evil man who has a very up-close-and-personal way of dispatching his enemies. There are a few scenes in Drive that I think will become notorious, and certainly one of those is the whole "is that a fork in my eye or are you just unhappy to see me?" scene. But the moment I found most chilling was when Bernie offers his hand and ends up slitting a man's wrist. What's most disturbing about that scene is the killer actually thinks he's being considerate; that's Bernie at his nicest. Drive isn't perfect, but it's the work of a director who's got talent to burn.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Earth 2

A sort of low-budget, earthbound Contact, Mike Cahill's veraciously titled directorial debut Another Earth is about a driven, scientifically minded young woman named Rhoda (Brit Marling), who enters a contest to win a trip to a newly discovered planet. It's a depressing story at times; as a teen, Rhoda wiped out a man's family in a car accident, and she spends the rest of the movie trying to atone and getting to know the man she made a widower, John (William Mapother, in the kind of plummy lead role he should land more often). Cahill and Marling (the director and his twentysomething star wrote the screenplay together) want us to think: there has to be something "out there" that's better than the sadness of daily life here on Earth. It's exciting to see that idea explored in the realm of pure science. The moment when I knew the filmmakers had me in their grip came halfway through the movie. In a televised broadcast, a scientist discovers that the woman she's communicating with is her exact replica: an alien with the same name, same birthday, same everything. The central question of Another Earth – and it's a mind-blower – is this: If you met yourself, what would you say? This could be the most ferociously smart sci-fi indie since Primer. But, where Shane Caruth's 2004 head-spinner had grimy visuals throughout, Cahill's equally ambitious picture is technically dazzling, especially in the repeated shots of "another Earth" dwarfing our moon. This is easily one of the coolest movies I've seen this year, not least because Cahill and Marling save their most surprising revelation for the final few seconds.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Disney's "The Help"

I used to have this fond memory of going to the drive-in when I was 7 or 8 to see a Disney movie. I couldn't remember the name of it, only that it was a mix of live-action and animation and it was pure magic. In my late teens and early twenties, I tried in vain to find this movie, hoping I'd discover it someday and have a giddy nostalgia trip courtesy of Blockbuster Video. Not until I reached grad school did I find out what this movie was. For me, grad school was mostly about finding out that global media companies are evil. We were discussing said evilness in class one day when the subject of Disney's Song of the South came up, and I realized with dawning horror that this was the movie I'd remembered so fondly. Banned from distribution for decades for its vile racism, the movie had captured the imagination of this particular impressionable viewer. This realization brought up sundry troubling questions: Had I been indoctrinated by racist filmmakers? Was I beyond saving? Did the 8-year-old me want a happy field slave to hang out with, just like the little boy in Song of the South has Uncle Remus? Needless to say, I didn't like myself for a few days after that, the day grad school made me choke on my nostalgia.

Song of the South came out 65 years ago, and Disney's The Help represents nothing if not progress. (Yes, this is a Disney movie; the company now distributes approximately six DreamWorks pictures a year.) Based on the hit 2009 work of fiction by Kathryn Stockett, The Help is about an ambitious young journalist named Skeeter (Emma Stone), a well-off white woman living in segregated Mississippi in 1963. A natural-born rebel (when we first see her, she's driving with the top down and listening to "Jackson" by Johnny Cash), Skeeter encourages a dozen or so local black maids to tell their stories, even though by doing so they'll be violating quite a few Jim Crow laws. The script focuses on Aibileen and Minny, two maids played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Despite the flaws of the movie they appear in, I have no reservations about giving their performances unequivocal praise. If The Help turns out to be Oscar bait (and I have a feeling it might), then the Academy shouldn't overlook Davis and Spencer.

Stockett is a white woman who has clearly educated herself, as evidenced by the scene where Skeeter talks about how "Margaret Mitchell glorified the mammy figure." The film adaptation of her book sees the black Southern maids of the Jim Crow era for what they were: the descendants of house slaves who found themselves in a situation not very dissimilar from that of their grandmothers. But, I'm unhappy to report, The Help Disneyfies the solution to the problem. Skeeter is depicted as committing a revolutionary act, and so is Minny's new employer (Jessica Chastain), who crosses an invisible line by sitting down for lunch with her maid instead of eating at her dining room table. In contrast, Skeeter – and, by extension, the filmmakers – judges her mother (Allison Janney) very harshly for failing to show that kind of courage. The movie seems to think racial progress (or lack thereof) hinged on the courageousness of white people, not on the hopes, struggles and perseverance of blacks.

I mostly liked The Help. I don't think it's going to cause the kind of damage to the younger generation that Song of the South caused me. Still, I find its portrait of magnanimous whites to be a little... dishonest. The only truly racist major character in the movie is played by Bryce Dallas Howard. She's the villain of the piece, but what the filmmakers don't seem to understand is that in the Mississippi of 1963 her behavior would have been condoned by her friends and relatives, not derided. The Help reminds me of a funny bit in Timothy B. Tyson's great 2004 memoir, Blood Done My Sign Name. The author ridicules the idea that the South suddenly became a nice place to live for black people after LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act. In an imaginary scene, the owner of a whites-only lunch counter throws open his doors and announces, "Y'all come in now! Freedom done come."

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

"The Myth of the American Sleepover"

David Robert Mitchell's The Myth of the American Sleepover takes place in a small town on the last night of the summer before freshman year. It's a relatively minor effort, but like Richard Linklater's seminal teen film Dazed and Confused, Myth evokes vivid memories, and with its closing morning light scenes comes a sense of endless possibility for its large cast of characters. We follow Maggie (Claire Sloma, in the film's breakout performance), the Abbey twins (Nikita and Jade Ramsey) and many others as they attend a lock in party (those still exist?) and a few private mixers. The emphasis is on mood, not plot, so all you Tree of Life haters are advised to stay away. If you can get on the film's wavelength, then you'll find the search for connection embodied in these characters – a search conducted person to person, face to face, with no social networking in sight – to be refreshing and at times genuinely moving. A very striking film debut by writer/director Mitchell, The Myth of the American Sleepover is now available to watch on demand.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Sally's theme

While watching the new Criterion DVD of Brian De Palma's Blow Out, I was struck by a piece of music from Pino Donaggio's score. It plays often in the scenes between Jack (John Travolta) and Sally (Nancy Allen). I couldn't remember where I'd heard it before, and then it hit me: this same theme plays in an early scene of Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof.

Nancy Allen as Sally in Brian De Palma's Blow Out
Tarantino is famous for this sort of thing: filling his movies with hyperlinks to other movies. Often, the references will fly right over my head. (His knowledge of film lore is formidable to say the least.) But when I know where he's coming from, rather than distracting me, the reference will serve to deepen my appreciation of the film and the experience of watching it. That was certainly true in this case.

In Death Proof, we hear Sally's theme in a scene at the Texas Chili Parlor. Austin DJ/would-be record producer Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) is texting the guy she likes, a movie director we never see named Christian Simonson. As the two flirt, the music blasting from the bar's awesomely eclectic jukebox fades away and Donaggio's score takes over.

Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike: "I ain't stalkin' y'all but I didn't say I wasn't a wolf."
If you happen to know the movie Tarantino is quoting here, then this scene works on a few different levels. Blow Out and Death Proof both feature sex killers who mercilessly stalk and butcher women: Burke in the case of Blow Out (played by John Lithgow, even scarier here than he is on Dexter) and Stuntman Mike in the case of Death Proof (played by Kurt Russell in his greatest latter-day role). But, at this point in Death Proof, the audience hasn't been let in on Mike's M.O. So on one level the music serves to build suspense: we wonder if Jungle Julia will share the same fate as Sally, Burke's final victim.

Uma Thurman wearing Bruce Lee's track suit in Kill Bill: Vol. 1
It's the same dynamic that's at play when Uma Thurman dons Bruce Lee's famous yellow-and-black track suit, thus solidifying our image of The Bride as an unstoppable killing machine in Kill Bill: Vol. 1. Or when Tarantino quotes John Ford's The Searchers in the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds, depicting the Nazis as savage marauders and introducing themes like hunting, scalping and familial retribution that will recur throughout the rest of that scorching WWII masterpiece. Unlike many of the filmmakers who imitate him, Tarantino chooses his references very carefully.

On another level, the music brings an element of tragedy to the whole Jungle Julia/Christian Simonson subplot. Earlier in Death Proof, we heard Julia complain about how Christian is never around and he doesn't call her on her birthday. And, sure enough, he never shows up (as promised) to the Texas Chili Parlor. Things might have turned out differently for Julia if he had. He could have saved her – just like Jack could have saved Sally if he'd been there when she was in danger.

The savage marauder as polite Nazi in the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds
That's fairly reactionary, and indeed much of the first half of Death Proof is shown from Stuntman Mike's POV. Tarantino indulges his villain's predatory male gaze, climaxing in a series of incredibly gory money shots where we see a head-on collision from four different perspectives, one of which shows Jungle Julia's leg being ripped off. But the director turns all of that on its head in the second half of the film, when the female victims become the perpetrators. De Palma never gave us Sally the Avenger, but Death Proof does. That's a major part of Tarantino's genius: not to borrow from the past, but to *expand* on it. His movies don't require you to be a film geek to enjoy them, but you'll certainly get a lot more out of them if you are one. And they encourage film geeks to keep the faith. There's another scene in Death Proof where Stuntman Mike is talking to a group of girls about the TV work he's done ("You know the show The Virginian?"). When he realizes the girls have never heard of any of the shows or actors he's talking about, his reaction is one of withering disappointment. It's the only moment in the movie where the filmmaker is completely sympathetic to his villain.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

15 best movies I've seen this year (so far)

1. The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick's latest (his fifth movie in 38 years) is a WTF oddity in our souled-out culture. It's also one of the most beautiful movies I've ever seen. Bring on the 6-hour cut!

2. Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen's most purely enjoyable picture since Bullets Over Broadway. A veritable feast for intellectuals (or, as in my case, would-be intellectuals).

3. Rango

I love the look, it's funny, and the film references are gangbusters (e.g., a ceiling fan standing in for the windmill at the beginning of Once Upon a Time in the West).

4. 13 Assassins

Takashi Miike's samurai masterpiece features the villain of the year, an evil lord whose savagery will make your blood boil. The final 45-minute bloodbath rivals Gen. Washizu's death-by-a-thousand-arrows in Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood.

5. The Tempest

The New York Times recently published a piece asking how Julie Taymor would ever salvage her reputation after the whole Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark debacle. Not once does that article mention Taymor's latest film, a visual triumph that proves what a truly vital American artist she is.

6. Source Code

Most well executed sci-fi picture since Inception. Read my mini-review here.

7. Bridesmaids

Most I've laughed since Hot Tub Time Machine.

8. Paul

Seth Rogen as an alien plus the guys from Shaun of the Dead – it's a winning combination. Read my review here.

9. Rabbit Hole

Clueless adults, a teenager who expresses his view of the world through comic books, the accidental death of a child – Rabbit Hole reminded me of The Ice Storm, and that's the highest praise I can think of. John Cameron Mitchell directs Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart in extraordinary performances.

10. I Saw the Devil

I loved almost every minute of this ultraviolent Oldboy ripoff, which makes me a very sicky puppy indeed. Features the coolest shot-from-inside-the-car crash since Fight Club – or at least since Let Me In.

11. Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Menagerie of bones, crystal formations, boy and wolf walking side by side – such lovely forgotten dreams in this eye-opening documentary about the world's oldest cave paintings. Directed and narrated in that unforgettable German accent by Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man).

12. Super 8

Son of Rambow meets District 9, with a touch of Spielbergian wonder for good measure. What's not to like? Bring Reese's Pieces.

13. Kaboom

The Rules of Attraction for a new generation. Read my review here.

14. Everything Must Go

Best PBR commercial I've seen since Blue Velvet!

15. Vanishing on 7th Street

Spooky, unpredictable homage to The Twilight Zone from genre pro Brad Anderson (Session 9, The Machinist).