A Review of Furious 7

I know that I am ridiculously hard to please, which is why I had avoided every single Fast and the Furious film after the first one came out in 2001.

The first film was like a compilation episode of an incredibly bad soap opera on MTV. It was poorly written, had bad characters, bad dialogue, and absolutely no originality. (It was pretty much an unauthorized remake of Point Break.) The one thing that did work were the race scenes that were featured so prominently in the trailer.

So, somewhere along the line, the producers said to themselves, “Screw it. You people want cars and action scenes? We’ll give you the most ridiculous ones we can think of.”

And, judging by Furious 7, this is entirely the correct approach. Furious 7 is what The Expendables was meant to be – an action film so over the top it almost becomes a Zucker/Abrams/Zucker deconstruction of the genre. Furious 7 uses every single action film clichè you can think of, and then adds in a few more for good measure.

It stumbles out of the gate. After a fantastic credit sequence that sees Jason Statham (his character has a name, but who cares what anyone’s names are in this movie?) walking through a destroyed hospital and vowing revenge for his brother, we get Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez driving to a drag race that has Diesel trying to help Rodriguez get through her amnesia. It’s the sort of dumb soap opera scene that killed the original film. To its credit, Furious 7 still stands up on its own even if you haven’t seen the previous entries, so there isn’t a lot of focus on this plot point. But these scenes at the beginning are mostly pointless. After that opening, it was pretty obvious that Furious 7 was never going to be a character drama, so why bother talking about how Walker’s character is not enjoying family life as much as he should be? The drag race scene also displays every problem I had with the first film, with it’s objectifying of women, it’s sickening rapid pace editing, and the complete lack of tension.

Iggy Azaela even shows up to congratulate Rodriguez, which nearly gave me a brain hemorrhage.

Who dat, who dat, who dat on the right? Dat is someone who reminds me just how much we’ve failed as a species.

Luckily, Furious 7 abandons this format very quickly. The film is two hours, but the second and third acts just fly by after Diesel and crew are hired by a government agent (Kurt Russell in an inspired role) to track down a surveillance system called “God’s Eye” that will allow them to find Statham before he finds and kills them. Flimsy? You bet, but that doesn’t matter at all.

I know that Fury Road isn’t going to be released until next month, but it has a lot to live up to after Furious 7. The chase scene in the second act, which sees the gang rescuing a hacker that has access to God’s Eye, is incredible. It’s long, but then the end chase of The Road Warrior went on for almost 20 minutes and the climatic chase of Stagecoach lasted 15 minutes. What works is whether or not we respond to those chases. And Everything about that scene in Furious 7 is engaging. The stunts (including the one where Paul Walker has to run along side a bus falling off a cliff) are incredible, and there is actual tension in them about whether or not they’ll succeed.  Action directors – you want a template for how to create pacing and spectacle? Furious 7 provides it for you.

The film also does something I had thought no mainstream film would do – show us something new. There’s a scene in the second act where the crew has to steal a car (and the surveillance device) from the top floor of the famed Etihad Towers in Abu Dubai. It’s a spectacle that would make James Bond proud – Diesel and Walker drive the car through three buildings, causing havoc. It’s a scene that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense – why does a billionaire keep a car that’s locked in a vault stocked with a full tank of gas? Who cares? It’s another opportunity for the film to do something unique and cool when there was absolutely no expectation that it would.

Furious 7 goes completely for broke and lets nothing hold back its desire to create an amazing spectacle. On that level, it’s impossible not to like. I know many who will complain about the numerous plot holes, the choppy editing, and the nonsensical characters. They’ll be right. But I still want to have fun something and unlike similar blockbuster films, I found myself not caring about Furious 7’s flaws. It’s an easy film to get lost in once you realize what Furious 7 is trying to accomplish. On that level, I wanted to highly recommend everyone see it at least once.

And then….the film had the postscript that nearly destroyed it all.

Many of you probably know that Paul Walker died in a car crash before this film was released. I expected the filmmakers to pay some sort of tribute to him. But the way they do it is the tackiest way possible, considering what we’ve just seen.

The scene is Diesel doing a monologue while a bad rap song (surprisingly not Puff Daddy’s “Missing You”) and clips from the previous films are played. It ends with Walker and Diesel driving their separate ways, which could work if that was meant to an important plot point. But, the plot has already been resolved.

There is no emotion in this scene at all and no reason for it to be included.

Second, and this is most important: it’s a reminder of the real life and the consequences that Furious 7 had spent two hours ignoring. Again, Paul Walker was killed in a car crash. Over the course of Furious 7, I watched hundreds of car crashes and spectacular stunt driving that the characters walked away from with barely a scratch.

It was a reminder of how those scenes would play out in real life. If people didn’t die, they would be crippled and forced to undergo years of therapy. We see numerous cars exploding – some with people clearly in them, including a police officer trying to pull over the crew- and no acknowledgement is made of the carnage. That’s standard action fare and Furious 7 is far from the only film to ever treat wanton destruction so callously. Yet to remind me of a very real person who was killed in something that Furious 7 lovingly showed made me think of the moral failings these characters must have in order to walk away from everything they did.

In order for Furious 7 to work, there needs to be a level of fantasy in the proceedings. It’s that way for all films. But Furious 7 destroys what it had built up for a tacky tribute that does nothing to honor Walker or the way he died.

It’s an epilogue, so I don’t want to say it completely destroys the film. Walk out after the jail scene and you’ll have witnessed a film I recommend. Stay for the epilogue and you’ll end up with a bad taste in your mouth. This is probably a case where that “For Paul” interstitial was enough.

Posted in Current Films/New Releases | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Retro Review – Air Force One

Air Force One is a film that almost exists out of time. It was released in 1997 but seemed to predict a lot of issues the world would face. It was part of the unusual trend of portraying the President of the United States as an infallible hero before George W. earned that (incredibly bloated) reputation after 9/11. In fact, this film and Independence Day seem to acknowledge our nation’s love affair with movie stars more than politicians.

These are not really critiques. If anything, that’s what makes Air Force One such an effective action movie. And Air Force One embraces its premise to a degree that Michael Bay never has.

Harrison Ford plays James Marshall, a popular president who assists Russia in removing General Radek, the dictator of Kazakhstan, from power. Gary Oldman plays the head of a terrorist group loyal to that dictator who hijack Air Force One to get Radek released.

Now, I could be reading that plot synopsis with the deep, gravelly voice that we still hear whenever we think of “movie trailer.” It’s schlock. But director Wolfgang Peterson and the rest of the filmmakers manage to get a lot out of that premise.

For example, one subplot of the film is an enormous Constitutional discussion about the transfer of power when the president is incapable of acting in the best interests of the United States.  According to IMDB, these scenes are a reference to former Secretary of State Alexander Haig attempting to assume control of the government after Ronald Reagan was shot. How often do mainstream blockbusters do any sort of “ripped from the headlines” references like that, especially in an era where practically everyone pretends to know what the United States Constitution actually says? But it’s integrated seamlessly into the plot.

But the main reason the film works is because of the performances by the two main leads. Harrison Ford has the appropriate presence of a U.S. president. He is also able to examine the human aspects of such a man, demanding that people on the plane not spoil the outcome of a football game that he is hoping to watch in his office. He also breaks down when he sees his family being threatened. Un-presidential? Maybe so, but the president is still a human being. I’ve always enjoyed films that explore the little hobbies of powerful people. It makes them seem like the rest of us, which means their plight is that much more incredible. I mean, surely President Obama enjoys watching March Madness? For some reason, we never see that in reality. Films have to provide that for us.

Marshall doesn’t even really work as the stereotypical Hollywood action hero – which makes the film better. He’s a very scared individual who doesn’t know how he’s going to resolve the problem. In fact, he’s not the person that saves the hostages. I can’t imagine anyone else taking on this role. Ford is so perfect for the superhero president the film called for. He’s capable of beating the bad guys but at the same time he does so without arrogance and without pride. Marshall acts like he never wanted to be the center of an action film.

But it’s nothing compared to Gary Oldman. He never tries to be human – which is what the movie required. Even when he’s caught in a private moment, it’s all about his love for Mother Russia and the strong men who can lead her. I probably laughed at this in 1997, but today it sounds like a Putin speech. Oldman is completely ruthless – I began to believe he was willing to kill for Mother Russia as I watched the film.

The performances are great, but there are also many great moments in the film. One that stuck out to me was a tribute to the unbroken shot in John Woo’s Hard Boiled. Marshall looks around Air Force One to see what sort of damage the terrorist have caused. The scene in which the national security adviser is executed is also great. It’s a very fearful scene, in which Oldman demonstrates his commitment to his cause.

Are there flaws? Well, everything has flaws and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention them. For one, there was a fourth act in the film that was completely worthless – something about Air Force One crashing after the terrorists had already been defeated. For another, certain characters are worthless. William H Macy plays a major who is on board. He quickly is set up as someone important for reasons I can’t explain. And yes, the film is cloying at times, especially through Glenn Close’s vice president. There are also scenes that make no sense – like when a refueling tanker blows up after a minor malfunction. I would hope the Air Force has a few more safeguards than “leaky fuel = everyone dies.”

But these flaws never outweigh the whole. Air Force One remains a great action movie that pays debt to the past and puts its fingers on a pulse of America that beat very briefly. I wish influenced more filmmakers. You don’t need to insult our intelligence  just because someone on screen fires a gun. We can still follow more complex issues about the nation while explosions happen.

Posted in Classic Films | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A Review of Tommy Wiseau’s Neighbors

Even more than The Room, Neighbors feels like a huge passion project for the enigmatic Wiseau.

After The Room was certified as an official cult success, Wiseau began thinking about his next steps. He wanted to conquer another medium and began dreaming up a television series about a bunch of doofuses in a shabby apartment building. It would be called The Neighbors  and would conquer American TV.

There was a trailer with a cast attached to it…and that was pretty much all anyone knew.

I remember (as longtime readers might) going to see Wiseau at a Q & A and The Room screening in 2010. I asked him about The Neighbors and the trailer I had discovered on YouTube.  He liked the question so much he brought me onstage and hugged me. Then he told the crowd about how it was a sitcom that he was developing and hoping to get picked up as a series on Adult Swim.

Five years later and we finally get to see four episodes of whatever Wiseau was dreaming up at that moment. Better still, he’s skipped the old media entirely and gone straight to Hulu.

Always an innovator, that Wiseau is.

The Disaster Artist, the wonderful book written by The Room costar Greg Sestero, recounts how that wondrous film came to be. On the surface, The Disaster Artist paints Wiseau as a control freak who has no idea how to interact with other people, much less write a movie or act. Now, all film directors are eccentric to a certain degree. The best directors have even been tyrants to ensure their vision makes it to audiences worldwide. But they at least deliver the goods. Wiseau started off in the wrong direction and refused to let anyone stop him. That’s what made The Room so special. What made it even better was the fact that it seemed to be Wiseau chasing his version of the American dream, with all the glamor and fame that comes with it.

It lead to something that, really, can only happen once. If Wiseau tried anything else without improving his craft, it would demonstrate he’s incapable of learning anything and come across as a very sad attempt. But if he did try to improve, he would just be another bad filmmaker without the passion and downright insanity that drove The Room and lose his audience.

Well, honestly, Wiseau does not seem to have learned his lesson. I was expecting ineptitude. But The Neighbors lacks the passion that The Room had. There are no quotable quotes, no amazingly wrong performances, nothing that suggests the misguided soul that wants to be a big shot. In his own way, Wiseau had succeeded. I guess the sophomore slump was inevitable.

The Neighbors seems to take place in some low rent apartment project in some random west coast city. Wiseau plays Charlie, who appears to run the apartment building and, like some sort of lazy Greek chorus, responds to everything that happens to him with, “What a day!” He works in the office with Bebe, who may be his secretary, his business partner, or his romantic partner. The pilot episode features all the residents in the apartment coming into the office and back to their rooms to engage in wacky shenanigans. And these are some incredibly Lynchian tenants. There’s a Lindsay Lohan lookalike named Philadelphia who’s always wearing a bikini that’s far too small, a woman named Cici who’s constantly screaming about her lost pet chicken, a stoner named Troy who’s quite violent as he throws his rent money at Charlie, busty roommates who try to use their sex appeal to get out of paying for a pizza (and somehow this isn’t a porno), and a guy named Tim who constantly loans $20 from Charlie so he can pay off Bebe and vice versa. Also, that aforementioned pizza guys decides to move in to the building. I guess this is meant to be the big dramatic payoff of the episode, especially because Bebe decides to approve him without checking his credit score out of laziness.

Does any of this sound funny? Because it’s not.

The pilot feels like it was made by a group of people who knew better, but just didn’t care about the quality of their product. The picture quality looks like it was shot on an iPhone running low on batteries. There was even a visible error on the picture that was kept in. The lighting is amateurish and seems to change from shot to shot. The costumes are ridiculous. (In one of the most bizarre examples of cinematic homage, Tommy Wiseau’s name appears on a brand of underwear worn by the building’s maintenance man.) There are flubbed lines that are left in. The sets are all wrong – I never once thought I was looking at a functioning apartment building.

That’s not even getting into the script. Nothing that happens seems to be connected to anything else. We get no sense of the people in that live here outside of their skin color or their prominent breasts. As you can guess from that last sentence, racist humor and poor taste are a problem. (“Why can’t you get along? What is this, the nineties?” Wiseau asks a black and Asian man as they argue over a disrupted internet connection.) The jokes seem to be based around dumb running gags, like the previously described $20 loan. There’s no punchline to accentuate comedy, no arc for any of the characters, no conflict that needs to be resolved, nothing – just a lot of grotesque set pieces. One very bizarre sequence has another young lady in a low cut shirt “hypnotize” someone into giving her a gun for free. The scene ends with a girl getting a gun for free and the guy cursing at himself for being so stupid. Ha…ha?

These are all problems that were present in The Room, but they’ve been celebrated by fans as perhaps the definitive example of cinematic outsider art. Neighbors just comes across as sad and lifeless, like you’re watching a home video production by your uncle who still refers to women as “doll face.”

The Neighbors is not really unique. There have been a ton of anti-comedies that still live on networks like Adult Swim. They take the same broad approach to stereotypes and often are filled with equally dumb jokes. Tim and Eric come to mind, as does Rob Choddry’s Childrens Hospital. But unlike The Neighbors, the creators of that fare inject an ironic knowledge about their tropes and their humor comes from the fact they are making fun of all the stupid stuff a mass audience watches with enthusiasm. The joke is that American media usually appeals to the lowest common denominator and keeps our perception of the world skewed. The Neighbors contains no more stupid moments than, say, 2 Broke Girls or Two and a Half Men. Had The Neighbors rose to that level of anti-comedy, I would be praising it.

But I never got the feeling that Wiseau was thinking along those lines. I got the feeling he thinks such racial humor was meant to be funny on its own. Without that knowledge, Neighbors was doomed to fail.

I ended the experience by watching a Bill Hicks documentary so I could remind myself what comedy really was and how it works. The Neighbors sure wasn’t going to do that for me. I didn’t laugh once. I was filled with a sadness. Maybe Wiseau is trapped and is giving the audience what it wants. But it was just ineptitude that made The Room special. It was a passion and the fact that Wiseau was in over his head. Along the way. He stumbled into greatness and what now seems like a deliberate deconstruction of turgid Oscar fare that hits the audience of their heads with its message. The Room will undoubtedly live on. I don’t think The Neighbors will survive even for a season.

What a day.

Posted in Current Films/New Releases, Television Recaps | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Sexiest Actresses Ever in Cinema

One of the big reasons that people have always flocked to cinemas is so they can pretend that the gorgeous people they see on screens may one day throw them a look. Ever since the days of Clara Bow and Rudolph Valentino, Hollywood has sold glamor and sex appeal to sell films.

I’ve lost count of how many times one actor or another has been declared “the sexiest actor ever.” I’m not even one hundred percent sure how one is awarded that label. To me, it seems very personal and not something that can be objectively agreed upon. Some people might find some overlaps, sure, but surely someone like the late Paul Bartel was sexy to somebody?

…Ladies?

But the fact is, as long as there has been a film industry, there has been a voyeuristic component that extends beyond what happens on screen. People invent their own fantasies around their favorite actors. This has been encouraged by the number of details that we hear about their personal lives and the entire pathetic magazine industry that has sprung up about showing people all of their favorite celebrities in enticing poses.

This is something that transcends genders. Yes, it does seem to be affecting women very badly, to the point where talented actresses get shafted while those that photograph well keep getting $20 million contracts while having all the personality, charm, and talent of a seven legged black widow spider. (Looking in your direction, Cameron Diaz.)

But I figured, so long as everyone else is playing this game, I might as well give it a try. I’ve selected the actresses I consider to be the “sexiest” in cinema. I am unable to examine their male counterparts – I leave that in the hands of more qualified writers.

A couple more things – this will be presented in rough chronological order rather than ranking. I find ranking to be mean. Also, this is my list, so I’m sure I will exclude some of your personal picks. I’m sorry in advance. Oh, yes, and I also feel my picks should be people from great films.  I’ve excluded a few because their body of work is just (excuse the pun) limp. So I will include at least one film from each that I consider to be great.

Paulette Goddard (As seen in: Modern Times)

Paulette Goddard’s gamin character in Modern Times was the first really great female role.

As can be expected, most female roles before this were what you would expect. The women were trophies for the menfolk, who had no aspirations of their own. They were just there to look good. Even Mae West, who at least pushed out of that mold a little bit, was ultimately just a dumb fantasy.

Goddard was a fantasy too, but one that was so much better. She spent the film helping The Tramp realize his own potential – and at least, made him realize life wasn’t so bleak. This, despite the fact that she herself was escaping from people who wanted to tear her life apart

What was most important about Goddard was strength. She realized what life was all about and seemed to make it her priority to teach everyone else. I know Nathan Rabin coined the term “manic dream pixie girl” as a derogatory statement about this type of character, but Goddard made it seem wonderful.

Finally, isn’t that hair just gorgeous?

Rita Hayworth (As seen in: Gilda)

Instead of a picture, I would like to present this video. (They won’t let me embed it here.)

These days, Hayworth is most remembered as a plot point from The Shawshank Redemption as opposed to the glamorous idol she is. She was one of the post WWII actresses who embraced the changing role of women on film.

After the war, films abandoned their perception of women as meek housewives into fuller characters who had their own desires. The backlash against this trend is what created the “femme fatale” character. Hayworth’s most famous role embraces this trend, where she plays a woman that destroys a man’s carefully laid plans.

But Hayworth had developed that aspect of her personality long before Gilda. Watch her dancing in that video. Look at the confidence she exudes, even as she’s paired with Fred Astaire. Look at how proud she appears to be at the dresses that ride up on her figure. And even though this is edited from her best clips, look at how she overshadows every other person in the scene.

That’s something that’s never been replicated since. To Hollywood’s shame, most women are directed to still remain less prominent than the menfolk. Hayworth would not have worked with those conditions. She knew she what her power was and embraced it every time she appeared on camera.

Marilyn Monroe (As seen in: Some Like it Hot)

Come on. How could I exclude her from this list?

Marilyn Monroe is still the the most famous cinematic sex symbol of all time, and she did it at a time when there should not have been any sex symbols in cinema. I got into a debate once with someone who didn’t “get” Marilyn Monroe. She was a bad actress (a fair point) who was worthless. What purpose did her movies serve?

The answer simple. The 1950s were a buttoned up time where sexuality, particularly female sexuality, was practically Victorian in its outlook. Monroe, with nothing more than a high pitched voice and a sewer grate, shattered all of that. I would go as far as to say that the next decade with its focus on human liberation – well, it at least would have been quite different without Monroe.

Plus, come on. Just look at her.

Audrey Hepburn (As seen in: Breakfast at Tiffany’s)

Hepburn came at the time when women were becoming stronger on film. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is what people keep mentioning, and it’s a fair recommendation.

Tiffany’s embraces a world of feminine glamor that has not really been repeated. Holly Golightly in not some airhead that one would expect to see in a socialite. She’s almost wearing a mask that breaks when she sings “Moon River” to herself. She always knows exactly what to say – almost as if she’s playing an elaborate game of Yuppie chess before Yuppies were a thing. And she accomplishes all of this without bedding anyone. It might seem quaint now, but back in the day it caused a firestorm for all the right reasons. There was finally a female character that could be admired as more than a sex object. I guess that means my inclusion of Hepburn on this list is inappropriate, but that sort of role has always been alluring to me. I’d rather have a conversation with Holly Golightly than temporarily bed a Bond girl.

But my favorite film that demonstrates Hepburn’s appeal is Charade. It happened completely by accident to. Costar Cary Grant felt he was too old to be openly flirting with the younger Hepburn. So, the filmmakers gave her all of the sexually suggestive dialogue.

This works because it gives her the power that many women want to have. And frankly, the results are breathtaking. There is still an almost Puritan attitude toward the female sex drive. I’m still trying to figure out why. And I’m wondering why there aren’t more women like Hepburn to destroy that notion once and for all.

Guiletta Masina (As seen in: Nights of Cabiria)

Masina was most famous as Frederico Fellini’s wife. She possesses the qualities that you would expect someone married to Fellini to possess. She has a sort of dreamlike quality that other people don’t seem to possess.

I’m surprised she doesn’t get mentioned more. She is quite glamorous, albeit in a way that could only exist in a Fellini movie. Usually, she played a downtrodden figure (as in La Strada) that made it impossible to really see her for what she is.

But then she took the lead in Nights of Cabiria, Fellini finally showed everyone exactly what drew him to her. She was a wonderful free spirit, who never let anything get the best of her. She was able to talk with the same lust to life to millionaire actors and to the post World War II Italian poor. Not only is she able to relate to them, she was able to do so with no effort. The result is that she comes across as the popular girl in high school who is still able to talk to the AV geeks and even give them hope that they’re lives will get better.

What was unusual about her in Nights of Cabiria was how Fellini surrounded Messina with women who were taller, more made up, and wearing far more glamorous clothes. But all eyes were drawn to Messina, as she wandered through her surroundings dancing, laughing, and flirting with everyone she meets.

Sophia Loren (As seen in: Marriage, Italian Style)

Sophia Loren has long been one of the most famous sex symbols of all time. There is a good reason for this, which most will be able to see in the picture below.

For those remaining, it shouldn’t take much to convince you. Loren was the first real superstar of world cinema. Most actors had to immigrate to the U.S. before anyone cared (see Greta Garbo). But Loren gave audiences a view of a rebuilt Italy only ten years after it had nearly been destroyed in World War II. She starred in a few Hollywood productions, but it was her Italian filmography that caught everyone’s attention.

What does that mean? It means that Loren was a sort of exotic window into a world that no one really knew existed. And despite Italy’s paternalistic society, Loren was able to use that world to her advantage every time. At the same time, she embraced the life she was leading and lived with a zeal that most people cannot fake. Her grace and power ensured that she would always be able to overcome whatever was put in her way.

For those who remain unconvinced, please refer again to this picture:

Anna Karina (As seen in: Band of Outsider)

During the 1960s, world cinema finally gained some attention in the U.S. I’d like to think that most of this is because of Anna Karina.

Karina has been off the radar for many years. Her last big role was in the American remake of Charade strangely retitled The Truth About Charlie. Does anyone reading this article remember that movie? Put your hands down; you are lying.

Before that, Karina was the most exciting actress in cinema. She’s stared in some of the greatest films of all time, which were really memorable because she stared in them.

Take a look at A Woman is a Woman, which is a film modeled after what seems to be the ultimate female fantasy. But A Band of Outsiders remains her most appealing film. It’s a heist film where she plays the lead. She’s the one who plans the theft and assembles the accomplices.

She’s also the most memorable character in whatever film she appears in due to her stunning eyes, her amazing presence, and her incredible charm. She has been the model for many subsequent actresses who take the center stage in their films. But none of them looked quite as good as Karina does while she dances the Madison.

 

Pam Grier (As seen in: The Big Bird Cage)

Pam Grier once granted an interview to the AV Club. Grier openly wondered about why actresses were getting paid $20 million just to take off their clothes. Grier pointed out she had been doing the same since the 1970s but had been paid much less.

Some people may claim this is exploitation. And to some degree it was. Grier admits she played the characters she played in order to break into film, as those were the only roles that were offered to a minority woman.

And by doing so, she broke down barriers.

Grier was famous for all of the genre pictures she starred in. Quentin Tarantino eventually showed everyone the extent of Grier’s talent in Jackie Brown. But Grier was always destined for such a role. She was a powerful figure that was not afraid to express herself and her needs on celluloid. It was a perfect representation on what some actresses still have to face. It also gave Grier a presence that has not been equaled. From her husky voice to her amazing figure, Grier dominated over everyone she shared the screen with. This article has been secretly about revolution, and how the most attractive women were the ones who shattered the sexpot role that Hollywood still demands women fulfill. Grier was someone who did when no one expected her to accomplish anything in her roles.

Faye Dunaway (As seen in: Network)

These days, Dunaway lives in infamy after Mommie Dearest destroyed her as a serious actress. But she ruled as one of the best actresses of the late 1960s and the 1970s.

She was also, to me, one of the first actresses that reflected the changing role of women in society. They were becoming equals to men, if not more important. Check out her career driven performance in Network, where she can barely stop talking about ratings long enough to complete coitus.

That’s what was so amazing about Dunaway. Her looks were somewhat unconventional, but she was still able to draw audiences in with her incredibly strong personality. She was the dominant woman of the future, and I can’t think of anyone who really replaced that role.

Natassja Kinski (As seen in: Cat People)

Granted, dating Kinski would earn you some very awkward conversations with her dad that might lead to your own demise.

It’s probably worth it.

Kinski became one of the most recognizable sex symbols of the early 1980s thanks to the famous “python” picture. Naturally, she jumped into films. Unnaturally, it was largely thanks to Roman Polanski, who I’m not entirely convinced isn’t some mutant elf from another planet.

To me though, the film that really cemented her in my mind was the unfairly maligned One from the Heart. The film was about people exploring their own fantasies after becoming bored with their lives. It sounds like it would collapse, but at least Kinski prevented that. She embraced that role, offering everyone a husky voiced pixie that was impossible not love. Then she turned around and mocked this in Cat People, stating that she should NOT be just a fantasy because of the quirks that come with every human being. It was pretty daring for someone who had been a Vogue cover girl.

Many people are going to notice that I keep mentioning about the fantasy aspects of these actresses. They are correct – as I stated above, this is part of the appeal of cinema. Kinski represented that in a way that has never been captured. Coppola’s One from the Heart embraced that aspect of her public persona, while Cat People turned up that persona to almost gratuitous levels. Then again, there certainly is something appeal about “unleashing the beast inside” Kinski.

Scarlett Johansson (As seen in: Under the Skin/Her)

With Scarlett Johansson, we’re getting into actresses that I didn’t retroactively discover. I remember going to see Eight Legged Freaks in theaters, which is a film that probably doesn’t show up during Johansson’s Oscar clips. One scene featured her wearing nothing but a towel, the way every actress in a B-movie must.

Thankfully though, she didn’t succumb to those temptations of wearing towels for her paychecks. No, Johansson managed to become a very classy actress of the highest caliber, who simultaneously exudes endless sex appeal and class. It’s sort of like how I imagine a date with Kate Middleton might go, without all the ramblings about her in laws.

What’s incredible is she’s even able to do this without being seen. This is why I included Her in my examples. She creates such an alluring character that everyone would find desirable. And she does it through her vocal inflections and  her seemingly limitless intelligence.

It captures Johansson’s spirit well. She’s become almost a sort of royal figure, exuding grace no matter what role she’s in.

Lily Cole (As seen in: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus)

Cole is another actress who never seems to get mentioned. Actually, I understand why. Her filmography leaves something to be desired. Indeed, her break out role has not been replicated.

But what a break out role! Cole’s performance in Dr. Parnassus was good enough to allow her to be included on this list. She was someone who was forced to play the sort of little girl character that many women have been forced to play. But she stood up against it, evolving throughout the film and refusing to be used as a Faustian pawn.

What stood out for me is her unconventional appearance. By all accounts, Cole does not look like the symmetrical models that dominate all media. She also knows that and uses it to her advantage. Doctor Parnassus required all actors to go through the fantasies of their “customers.” (As in, actual dream fantasies that they would remember, like living in a Salvador Dali painting.) Cole is like a chameleon in each of her personas.

It’s amazing that her filmography afterwards consists of an appearance in Snow White and the Huntsman and a guest role on Doctor Who. I only hope she does bigger roles soon.

Jennifer Lawrence (As seen in: Silver Linings Playbook)

It seems that many people would mention Ms. Lawrence based on her role in The Hunger Games. But to me, her draw has always been her independent films that allow her to really develop her public persona.

Jennifer Lawrence has become famous for acting like the people who go see her movies. This is important for the 2010s. In an era where everyone has their picture on the internet, we expect celebrities to live the same lives that we do. Or, we at least expect them to be approachable.

This is where Lawrence separates herself from people like, say, Angelina Jolie. Lawrence still acts like the girl next door every time she gives an interview – someone who seems to know all about the Hollywood lifestyle and why it’s something to be avoided.

That comes across on screen as well. She’s never played a character who’s really meant to be a sexual being. The closest she’s come is American Hustle, who’s portrayed as a degenerate that only exists to cause disasters. Her other roles may seem like she’s trying to improve the men in her life, but even that is not entirely correct. The Hunger Games focuses on her and her alone, while Silver Linings Playbook depicts her as an equally damaged person who is searching for a cure to her afflictions.

To me, this is important. She is not an angel, but someone who is still capable of living a better life and helping you live yours.

Posted in Special Articles | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The 2015 Oscars

I didn’t do a traditional recap this year because I was at a friend’s party. It was a fantastic time.

Anyway, The Oscars and me have a very bizarre history. It’s the one day of the year where I become downright evil. I suppose it can be compared to what Super Bowl Sunday does to some people. I watch for the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

But this year I was not enthusiastic about the ceremony as I’ve been in years past. There were some great films nominated, but they were overshadowed by the number of snubs and poor choices.

I recognize that “snub” is a bit of a malapropism. No one is really snubbed because no one has a right to or “deserves” an Oscar. It’s based on a vote by AMPAS members and is entirely at their discretion.

But if AMPAS is supposed to celebrate excellence in film, then they failed on so many levels even before the ceremony began. And they continued to fail as the evening dragged on.

Jake Gylenhall was the best actor of 2014. Life Itself was the best documentary of 2014. The Lego Movie was the best animated movie of the year. Gone Girl had one of the best screenplays. Mark Mothersbaugh wrote the best score of 2014.

And none of them had any chance of walking away with a statue.

And that’s not even getting into the winners. We saw The Imitation Game win for Best Screenplay, even though the screenplay was confused and tried to do too much. Eddie Redmayne beat Michael Keaton, even though Redmayne just gave one of the worst performances I’ve seen in a while (in Jupiter Ascending). Somehow, “Glory” beat “Everything is Awesome” for best original song.

How on earth can AMPAS accomplish its mission if it’s making such mistakes? The only winners I were excited to see were Patricia Arquette…and actually that’s it. I did not feel like I was really seeing excellent work being rewarded.

I was surprised to see Birdman win the top prize. Actually, I was sort of pleased. Birdman is great, but it’s also very experimental. That usually makes the conservative Oscar voters shudder.

But that’s another problem – there’s been a rallying cry that AMPAS is so out of touch with the public that they are not in a position to judge the best films. I don’t agree with this, mostly because I don’t agree that the “best of” anything is a popularity contest.

But I’m starting to think that maybe they have a point. I keep hoping that winning an Oscar will cause people to seek a film out. That’s happened before (The Shawshank Redemption bombed in theaters but did great business after picking up a ton of nominations) but it now seems to be the exception. People are not going to see these films.

I’m not sure what the balance is or if anything can be done. But considering the ratings were down compared to years past, AMPAS may be getting scared. And that is not a good place for the future of the Oscars.

THE SHOW

I did like Neil Patrick Harris as a host, but at times he seemed a little too subdued. The opening number was fabulous, as was his recreation of Birdman’s famous scene. I also liked the bit about the seat fillers.

But other jokes were just odd. What was the point of that magic trick with the briefcase? That was just a bizarre gag that went on to long at the expense of Octavia Spencer. And that Edward Snowden joke was tasteless. There have been worse Oscar hosts, but Harris won’t go down as one of the greats.

The stand out was Lady Gaga and that Sound of Music tribute. I’ve made my feelings about that movie perfectly clear and don’t understand why it’s still being praised 50 years later.

But Gaga’s medley was sublime. I keep forgetting how great a singer she really is. It made me almost…almost…change my mind about the songs in The Sound of Music.

And then she got to that dumb lyric about bright copper kettles and I snapped back into reality.

Another great stand out was the performance of “Everything is Awesome,” which didn’t end up winning. Most songs that are nominated are dreary affairs. Not this. Everyone was just so pleased for this opportunity to perform that they threw caution to the wind. It’s the most fun I think I’ve ever seen an Oscar performer have. I also want one of those Lego Oscars.

But, those few bright spots didn’t feel like enough for me. Although a three hour show consisting of a few bright spots brought down by dumb choices is pretty much what the nominees meant to me.

Oh well. There’s always next year.

Posted in Special Articles | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Review of Jupiter Ascending

Oh boy. This is going to be a challenging review to write.

Despite all the nasty things I’m about to say, I found Jupiter Ascending to be very compelling. The Wachowskis were onto something here – something that was an original idea and not a retread of an old property designed to set nostalgia goggles off. I think Jupiter Ascending should still be celebrated for being a gamble. I would rather see filmmakers try and fail. It’s better than not trying at all and remaking, say, Starship Troopers just because people have heard the name before.

I hope that comes across in this review.

Now then, let’s get to it.

Ever since the release of the first Matrix movie sixteen years ago (Jesus.) the Wachowski siblings have been in a bit of a conundrum. With the exception of V for Vendetta (which they wrote and produced, but did not direct) they’ve been playing to a diminishing audience and most critics are dismissing them as washed up has-beens that can’t tell a coherent story. It started with the release of the Matrix sequels and the huge audience backlash against the conclusion and continued with what was supposed to be big blockbuster events like Speed Racer.

But there are people who still celebrate their works as being visually arresting and at least challenging. Count me among them. The Matrix sequels are not as bad as their reputation (the same narrative problems and goofy sequences were present in the first Matrix, but no one seems to care). Cloud Atlas was among the best films of 2012. I haven’t seen Speed Racer, but it looked like a great attempt to create a new visual world. That’s becoming rare indeed. And Ninja Assassin – OK, that was awful, but they didn’t direct that.

The Wachowskis seem to be focused on science fiction tropes and examining why they affect us in the way that they do. It means that, sometimes, their films come across more as stoned post graduate essays than narrative films. This is going to alienate some people, but that’s something worth thinking about.

Jupiter Ascending fits into that tradition at its basic level. It’s a gorgeous looking film that examines virtually every single science fiction trope in existence.

But that’s the first of many flaws in Ascending – it’s almost in love with its complexity. I can’t begin to describe all the plot points of the film. I think it’s about the fact that the Earth is actually a gigantic farm for human cells that are sold to wealthy humans on other planets so that they can live for tens of thousands of years. This company is lead by the Abrasax family, who are considered royalty. Mila Kunis is Jupiter Jones, a person on earth who happens to be the exact genetic replicant of the Abrasax’s siblings mother. (This is because the genetic code only has a finite number of sequences, so such copies are treated as reincarnations of the original.) She is thus legally entitled to own the earn the earth. This sets up a great conflict with the Abrasax siblings – one seeks to kill her and one seeks to marry her. She’s being protected by a man named Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) who I think is a human crossed with a wolf.

After that, you’re on your own.

The film keeps introducing elements of this world throughout the entire run time. We don’t get an explanation about Jupiter until at least an hour into it (and even then it’s rather flimsy), and we don’t hear about the villains’ plans until the third act.

This is a problem. It’s basic story telling – all stakes must be laid out in the first act. Introducing new points that late is a distraction from whatever you’re trying to accomplish.

And the villains are not that interesting anyway. Eddie Redmayne gives the worst performance of his and several other careers as Balem Abrasax. He barely speaks above a whisper and has no emotion in any of the delivery of his lines. His motivations are confused and he’s about as threatening as a small child with a water pistol. He probably just cost himself an Oscar.

Jupiter herself is quite a bland character. That worked in The Matrix, because it emphasized Neo’s transformation from an everyman into a messiah. I never get the sense of Jupiter’s arc though. She also fails to become a strong female character, hopping at the chance to kiss Caine at the first moment. This romance subplot makes no sense in the context of the film. Jones never becomes a strong female character the film so clearly wants her to be.

Again, the whole idea that has kept the Wachowskis afloat creatively is the fact that they know these tropes and these ideas. If they make mistakes with them, then their approach will stumble. That’s what happened in Jupiter Ascending. They had these great ideas about space opera Some worked, but others did not. The Wachowskis were just throwing things and seeing what stuck. That’s not going to make for a real cohesive whole. Maybe what they needed to do was turn it into a TV series. That would have fleshed out the characters more and, perhaps, given audiences a more complete experience. Right now, it almost feels like I’m watching a clip show to some cult sci-fi series.

So what works? Well, the action sequences are fantastic. The gravity boots that Caine wears are a particularly nice touch. They serve as a great reference to The Matrix without being a direct lift of the bullet time. There are also several funny moments in the film, which may represent the Wachowski’s first attempt at comedy. Terry Gilliam makes a cameo during an extended tribute to his Brazil, and most of the “bad” dialogue that other critics have commented were deliberate jokes. Also, when the space opera elements did work, they worked incredibly well. To me, it seemed to emphasize the fact that this was meant to be a deconstruction of science fiction. Jupiter Ascending’s plot is no more complex than Dune’s, and features equally bad dialogue.

So, there are many things to like about Jupiter Ascending. But I just can’t get over the terrible performances and some of the most pointless set pieces. It’s going to alienate a lot of people – and, indeed, already has. The Wachowskis are smarter than this, so I’m not sure why these elements were not corrected.

But, there are so many good ideas present in Jupiter Ascending that I still enjoyed it. Hopefully, they Wachowskis will learn from their mistakes and give us a full experience next time. Hey, aren’t they developing a TV show for Netflix?

Posted in Current Films/New Releases | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Review of The Blair Witch Project

I remember when The Blair Witch Project was released in 1999. It was considered one of the most revolutionary horror films in a generation. Everyone who didn’t see it (like me -I was 11) still recognized the iconic shot of the eye crying into the camera, apologizing for everything. It grossed the GDP of Albania and seemed to signal the next wave of independent cinema.

But since then, no one seems to care. Part of this dismissal has to do with the fact that its supposedly groundbreaking techniques weren’t actually that groundbreaking. I can kind of see that now.  That found footage aesthetic certainly was groundbreaking – in 1980 when the infamous Cannibal Holocaust did it. That idea of making the film a seemingly true story was also incredible – when The Texas Chainsaw Massacre did it in 1974. And that handheld aesthetic certainly leads a certain realism to the film is original. That’s why people like Lars Von Trier started the ill-fated and pretentious Dogme 95 movement.

Once people realized how original The Blair Witch Project really was, interest tapered off. No one had a career launch from it and the directors used their talents to do practically nothing afterwards.

It’s a shame, because I think the biggest problem with the film was that it was released almost TOO early to have it’s real impact. Like Cloverfield, The Blair Witch Project taps into that post 9/11 fear of the unknown and of the people that live outside of what we would call “civilization.” And its aesthetic is less “arty film style” and more “teenager with phone posting to YouTube.”

Watching it after 16 years, I can imagine why it took hold of the popular imagination. Most people had never seen anything like this, and it managed to be a horror film that could be horrifying without pandering to your worst tastes. Best of all, it’s short enough not to overstay its welcome.

But then after it was over, I kept thinking to myself, ” Hang on a minute. So much of that didn’t make sense.”

Look at that trailer again. Did you see how most of it is built around the discovery of the footage and the quest for answers about what happened to the kids? Well, forget it. That doesn’t play any part in the film. The Blair Witch Project is presented as edited footage of three college age kids looking to make a documentary about the mystery of the Blair Witch and a serial killer in the 1940s.

Apparently, a man living in Burkittsville, Maryland in the 1940s murdered a number of children. Local legend said that he would kidnap a kid, force his or her friends to search for him, and then kill his friends while his back was turned. When he was caught, he claimed to have been possessed by the spirit of Elly Kedward, who was hung as a witch in the 18th century (a little past the witch-hanging craze, but we’ll go with it.) The kids are out to see if there is anything tangible to the legend.

Of course, we never actually discover anything for ourselves. Most of the tension revolves around the kids becoming hopelessly lost in the woods, apparently being stalked by an unseen entity who leaves bizarre symbols and dolls at their campsites.

Sounds silly, right? It actually works very well for the way it’s presented. Showing ghosts and spooks puts any film into the realm of fantasy. The threat of being lost in the woods is something more realistic and something that feels like it could happen to anyone.

It’s also why the found footage works for the film. It’s not just a gimmick – it enhances the tension. The whole point seems to be “this could be you.” Even the actors work, despite Heather Donahue’s Razzie nomination. They’re scared kids that yell at each other rather than try to think their way out of the situation or have some stock character that knows all about the Blair Witch and how she can be dispatched. (If she actually exists.)

This is why the film worked for its large audience. It was a very realistic depiction of horror and did not insult anyone with its convoluted slasher premise. It was a film that was not only shocking but seemed like something anyone could make. That’s what an independent film should be for its vaping, hipster audiences.

Sometimes, I to ask myself, “Does a film accomplish what it set out to do?” And after watching the film, I thought the answer was yes. The film is tense, the methods used to make it work, and the performances were great.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the plot doesn’t hold up.

First, if this is supposed to be a true story, how was the footage discovered? What was the result of finding the footage? Did law enforcement solve the mystery or was it still a question? This is something easy that could have been solved with a title at the end. But The Blair Witch Project doesn’t end, it stops. There are so many questions left unanswered. Maybe it would have been better if someone was watching the footage, but such possibilities weren’t even addressed.

The only films that should focus completely on realism are documentaries. The Blair Witch Project is a fictional film. The filmmakers had a great idea but weren’t quite sure what to do. They came very close to succeeding, which makes the lapses all the more frustrating.

It’s a great idea that seemingly has great execution, but the more you think about it, the more the film collapses under its own weight. Say what you will about the aforementioned Cannibal Holocaust, but that was so convincing that it got the director arrested.

Posted in Classic Films | Tagged , | 1 Comment

A Review of Birdman

The Oscar nominations were announced on Thursday, and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman tied for the most nominations of the year. 

I had not seen it prior to the nomination announcement, so I was quite shocked. It seemed unusual for a film like Birdman, which has been disguised as a simple parody, to be thrown the number of nominations that usually go to a film like The Last Emperor. And slapstick actor Michael Keaton was nominated for Best Actor? That almost seemed like a parody in itself. I had to see what the fuss was about.

Turns out, most of them are deserved. Birdman is a wonderful film. It’s a sort of 8 1/2 for the comic book film era. And despite my worries of stunt casting, everyone is perfect for their role.

Michael Keaton has always, for me, been an underrated actor. His opening monologue in Beetlejuice is among the closest times anyone has come to equaling Groucho Marx. His Bruce Wayne/Batman (which Birdman pays tribute to) is superior to Christian Bale’s. Keaton understood the duality of the role and played Bruce Wayne as separate from Batman.

Now, in Birdman, he plays the role only he could play. Riggan is an actor who once played the comic book superhero Birdman for three films. (He declined to do the fourth.) Birdman was a character who could fly and had telekinetic powers. Of course, his star has long faded and some of his sanity has with it. Riggan still hears Birdman’s gravely voice mocking him and at times seems to imagine that he has the same powers.

He’s also trying to win a comeback by directing and starring in a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. He’s also trying to put up with prima donna costar Mike (Edward Norton) and reconnect with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) who just left rehab.

Keaton has said that this character is entirely unlike him, which is what makes the performance work. Keaton naturally inhabits Riggan to the point where Keaton’s natural charm and humor is gone. It’s been replaced by complete hatred for himself and a delusional ego that makes him think he can fly.

But it’s not just Keaton. Every actor seems to be firing on all cylinders. Norton plays a parody of himself. Mike is a spoiled brat that is impossible to work with. When he actually attempts to have sex with an actress on stage (despite her repeated objections) he claims his erection is artistic. He even fights with Riggan, who gave him the opportunity in the   first place.

But my favorite performance besides Keaton’s was Naomi Watts. She’s an aging actress who is still wondering if she will hit the big time on Broadway. One monologue has her breaking into tears as she recounts her dreams of stardom. It’s a wonderful performance – so of course AMPAS ignored it. But that’s another article. Emma Stone also does wonderfully as Riggan’s daughter, talking about how he’s no longer relevant as an actor.

I’d also like to talk about the editing – it’s amazing. I normally don’t get into that sort of discussion, but Birdman’s technical achievements merit it. The film is put together in a single continuous take like Russian Ark. We seamlessly go around the theater and the characters as they move and rehearse their upcoming work. We also see the people in Times Square gawking at Riggan (one scene finds himself walking around in his underwear after he is locked out of the theater) and the successful shows like Phantom of the Opera (the poster actually serves as a bit of foreshadowing) taunting the actors.

Why was it shot this way? Perhaps it was to create the opposite effect of the quick cuts that are present in every superhero blockbuster. But it also makes Riggan’s world look very small. No matter how much he tries to expand his world with his art, it’s going to be contained in that theater. Even when he “flies” over the cars, it’s over a certain radius around the theater. Riggan is trapped in his world.

I think this film is going to become more relevant for actors as time goes on. These days, there are no stars. People go for the characters they play and not the actors themselves. It must be very frustrating for them to see their stardom evaporate so quickly when they decide to challenge themselves. Birdman is the first film to acknowledge this trend. It serves as a warning for people like Robert Downey Jr.

It’s amazing that AMPAS recognized a film like this. It’s very unique, with an important focus on the world’s new love for genre pictures. All of the actors are at the top of their game and are not afraid to make fun of themselves. And the editing is incredible. Birdman would have been on my top ten of the year list if I had seen it in time. I hope more people are driven to check it out.

Posted in Current Films/New Releases | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A Review Inherent Vice

After the film festival premiere of Inherent Vice, one reviewer stated that the film was formatted as a stoner comedy and he couldn’t understand what was happening.

“A stoner comedy with an incomprehensible plot?” I remember thinking. “That sounds like an adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel to me.”

I quite like Thomas Pynchon. I’ve read several of his books (including Inherent Vice) but I would be unable to summarize any of them if you put a gun to my head. Still, there is something about each of his works that is incredibly addictive. I always feel like the joke is on me when I read his works.

All of them are marked by a nerdy obsession with the popular culture of the time they are set in. It doesn’t matter how “high” or “low” the culture in question is. Pynchon is equally likely to reference an exhibit at MOMA and The Chevy Chase Show. I’m convinced that Gravity’s Rainbow is actually an adventure serial from the 1930s that a London audience is watching as an escape from the actual looming war – which makes it ironic when the theater they are watching it in is bombed. Against the Day is a giant tome that parodies every style of 19th century literature Pynchon could think of. His most recent novel, Bleeding Edge, describes a street corner in New York as being “the only street corner where Law & Order hasn’t filmed.”

Bleeding Edge has one of my favorite quotes in it as well: “The past, hey no shit, it’s an open invitation to wine abuse.” Did I mention he won a MacArthur Genius Grant?

That’s just the details. All of his works are marked by paranoid characters who believe, despite all rational evidence, that they are the centers of massive controversies and that secret societies are targeting them. This, despite the fact that the characters are usually either completely normal or far too crazy to have any real impact on the world. The fact the plots are so incomprehensible is part of the point. It’s what the characters build up in their minds to explain circumstances they don’t understand and never will.

Before Inherent Vice, the only real Thomas Pynchon adaptation on the screen was the legendary cult classic The Big Lebowski. That film has the same sort of complex plot, a fascination with an American subculture (bowling), a character who has no chance of understanding what’s happening, characters who are introduced and quickly forgotten, and an ending where nothing is really resolved.

But now we have an official adaptation of a Pynchon novel – the first one in a writing career that has lasted fifty years. But the most important thing about Inherent Vice is that it’s a great film on its own. Had I not been familiar with Pynchon, I would have assumed he was some pulp author that director Paul Thomas Anderson had found and decided to use to deconstruct noir cliches. Anderson was, maybe, the only person that could have made this film.

Once again, I would be unable to summarize what happens in this film in the same way I would be unable to summarize what happens in the novel. It has something to do with a private eye named Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) investigating the disappearance of a huge real estate mogul named Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts, in case you care). Doc takes the case because Mickey stole his girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) away. He finds that it’s somehow connected to a massive smuggling ring, the Golden Fang, which may be run by California dentists or may be run by a former client of his. Nevertheless, Doc is determined to get to the bottom of it, no matter who much resistance he encounters from LAPD Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) who wishes he were an actor and hates the fact that he is a cop stereotype.

I haven’t even explained all the characters involved and haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of everything that happens. That’s part of the point. It’s deliberately incomprehensible so audiences can see just how silly Doc’s case is.

Joaquin Phoenix is perfect as Doc. One of the marvels of Pynchon’s characters is the fact that they don’t drive any action. They simply exist and are forced to watch bad things happen to them. Doc never has a moment where he is in control. Phoenix plays Doc as someone who is content to only exist. He often mumbles the dialogue and has no important quotes.  When he answers the phone to receive the next important plot point, he can hardly even say “hello.” That doesn’t stop Phoenix from pretending like Doc’s important. He tries to take control of every question and answer session he’s in, even when he’s stoned out of his mind. Even his attempts of blending in are doomed to failure. One scene late in the film has a character requesting the typical hippie Doc dress in a jacket and tie. So, he wears dream catcher around his neck to comply with the request. Everything about Doc is completely wrong but also completely correct for what the film needs to accomplish.

And what impressed me most is how Anderson only uses Pynchon as a starting point to deliver his own message. The narration seems to be a word for word recitation of the novel (I’d have to double check) but the best moments in Inherent Vice are moments that could never exist in a novel. For me, the funniest moment involved Bigfoot eating a frozen banana while Doc looks on. It’s a static shot that depends entirely on Doc’s reaction to Bigfoot and he notices the obvious phallic imagery of the ultraconservative sticking the banana deep in his mouth.

But Katherine Waterston impressed me the most. There’s a monologue late in the film where she shows up at Doc’s house and proceeds to sexually taunt him while swearing that they will never get back together. It’s a great scene, as Waterston’s voice gets deeper and she crawls on Doc. The camera barely moves, emphasizing the voyeuristic nature of what we are doing. And, as with the example above, it would have been impossible to accomplish in a book.

I’m glad that Anderson demonstrated what an adaptation can do for the material. He made it his own. The film is profoundly funny, with the sort of visual flair and meditative tone that is a trademark of all Anderson films. And, like Pynchon, Anderson used the film as an opportunity to eviscerate the cop and robber shows that were popular at the time. There is no resolution to anything in Doc’s story. The bad guys escape, there is no confession, and Doc is such a terrible action hero that when he does manage to fire a shot, he has to call out and ask whether or not he hit anyone.

These are great moments, but you have to think about them after the fact to realize the impact they have. Anderson isn’t someone who congratulates himself on film. He barely regards these moments at all. Like The Master, he wants us to come to our own conclusion.

Inherent Vice demonstrates why Paul Thomas Anderson is considered one of the finest American filmmakers. He’s not afraid to tackle any material, even if it’s a novel by one of the most celebrated American authors. Inherent Vice also demonstrates what an adaptation of a novel should be. Anderson takes Pynchon’s work but doesn’t commit himself to it. Instead, he wants to accomplish the same goals the author had in a different medium. That’s the approach everyone should take when turning a favorite novel into a film.

Posted in Current Films/New Releases | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A Review of Big Eyes

Big Eyes is what Tim Burton needed to make. He hasn’t made a great movie since 2003’s Big Fish and hasn’t even made a passable movie since his adaptation of Sweeney Todd.

It’s easy to see why he was attracted to the Keane story. Like Margaret Keane, he made a fortune by lying about his talents. But also like Margaret Keane, he was frustrated by his circumstances and wanted to demonstrate to audiences why he was special in the first place.

It makes the first two acts of Big Eyes to be great examples of honest filmmaking. While watching it, I was reminded of the works of Douglas Sirk. Sirk, you’ll recall, spent his time in America exposing the limitations of the 1950s and the way that women would not find happiness as housewives. This is so blatantly obvious now, but at the time Sirk was a revolutionary.

Big Eyes works by exploring those themes in a way that will connect with everyone who has grown up post first wave feminism. Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) is a talented artist who paints her ingenue subjects (mostly variations of her own daughter) as big eyed ingenues. This image resonated with a post war audience who found innocence in a world that was defined by paranoia and strict social constraints.

But those same social constraints deeply affected the artist. Margaret met a man named Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) who painted street scenes from his time in Paris. They marry and he displays the two people’s works in restaurants. When his wife’s work becomes more popular, he begins to take credit for it. Margaret goes along with the scheme because of the money their raking in, but Walter becomes more obsessed with saving “his” reputation and starts to abuse Margaret when her work isn’t “good enough.”

These first two acts are great. Burton’s usual visual flair is kept to a minimum. With the exception of certain dream sequences where the people have the big eyes Margaret paints, there are practically no special effects.

Burton also uses none of his stock players. This allows him to experiment with new performances. Waltz is well cast as the slimy Walter Keane. He has a talent for playing characters like that, at least for an American audience. Unlike Hans Landa, though, the cracks begin to show in his personality as his lies keep piling up. He can appear smart at parties but in private he is truly a terrible man.

But Amy Adams is the person who challenges herself the most. With her daughter, she is meek and unable to claim the spotlight that comes so easily to Walter. It’s easy to see why she would go along with the scheme, which would be the hardest thing for today’s audiences to accept.

That’s probably the biggest thing Big Eyes had to overcome. Such a film would be easy for people to emotionally connect to. We would sympathize with Margaret, but we would not understand her plight from a modern perspective. Why would any woman allow a man to walk over her in the way Walter does? Why doesn’t she fight back? Big Eyes solves this by being less about feminism and more about what artists go through when they sell out. Margaret lives a life of luxury and does, at times, seem happy. Her concern is lying to her daughter, which she is told (by a priest, no less) is not necessarily the wrong thing to do when situations are complicated. And after all, this is what her husband wants.

Most people lose interest in an artist when they make it big. I’ve stopped counting the number of times a hipster yells at a band for daring to make the Billboard charts. But on the other hand, is the band happy with that? I think Big Eyes is the first film to really explore that side of an artists’ work. Most films unveil the big masterpiece as the finale, but Big Eyes starts there and works up.

And it does so without ever boring us. Does a film about painting sound even remotely watchable? Big Eyes is. We move effortlessly from Walter selling paintings on the wall to opening his own gallery. (Across from a gallery owned by Jason Schwartzman, whose only role in the film is to click his tongue and condemn the Keane paintings as low art.) And, in one of the best cuts, we see him creating a story about what inspires him to painting the kids – only to seem him recite the same stories on television as women tear up. Even the transformation of Walter into an abusive monster is done well. It builds up to the moment where he threatens to kill Margaret. Most films do so only when it’s convenient to the plot. It almost feels like a thriller in the way its paced.

So, we have great performances, smart themes, and a quick pacing that makes a seemingly unfilmable topic to be very cinematic. I was about ready to retroactively declare it one of the years best films.

And then we get to the third act and the film stumbles.

The movie ends with a courtroom scene. A courtroom scene outside a legal drama is a desperate narrative move.  The scene is almost too cartoonish to be taken seriously. I can summarize what happens with this New Yorker cartoon:

And it gets even more over the top when the judge orders to the two to paint a picture in order to demonstrate who created the works. Yes, I’m aware this is what really happened, but it doesn’t feel right with the tone that has been set. The film is not a comedy and never really has aspirations to be one. This just makes the ending feel like a bad joke, even though we do get a sense of justice from it when Walter chickens out of the painting competition. It’s still a bad move for a film that had been doing almost everything correctly.

So, Big Eyes is flawed. But, I’m pleased it exists. It demonstrates that people can learn from their mistakes and take steps to correct them. Tim Burton realized, like Margaret Keane, that he can make untold amounts of money by lying about his talents. And like Keane, he’s finally leveling with us.

Posted in Current Films/New Releases | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment