The Arrangement (1969)
Thanks to my co-worker Jackie for throwing this one my way after telling her how much I enjoy Richard Lester’s Petulia.
Here’s another success from jack-of-all-trades Elia Kazan. This time around he’s mining the tumult of the white-collar male psyche amidst 1960s america. This was a time when veteran and rookie American filmmakers were absorbing the groundbreaking editing and storytelling techniques of European behemoths like Bertolucci, Bunuel & Bergman, and regurgitating them into something wholly new. Something prime Americana. This particular example is a great meeting place for leaders of the old guard (Kazan, Douglas & Kerr) rubbing elbows with a dash of the then-newer crop (Dunaway). This vehicle ends up working as a social mixer for the classic styles of Kazan’s past and the fresh ideas coming in from across the Atlantic. The resulting product nests roughly between the realms of a classic melodrama and a surrealist psychological satire.Continue Reading
Rachel Getting Married
So, I'll go ahead and use a fussy distinction, and call Jonathan Demme's film cinema direct, rather than cinema verite, since it calls more attention to its subject than itself. It's grueling enough to deserve the three accent marks, however. Unlike the use of the shaky-cam in Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield, Demme and his cinematographer, Declan Quinn, always keep the camera in the objective, 3rd-person tense. They also, thankfully, keep it more transparent than Paul Greengrass's more navel-gazing camera eye. While moving room to room, the audience floats along, but when the wedding party guests are talking, the filmmakers fix the shot, remembering that modern cameras can re-focus on stuff in the background without having to move. Whatever you call it, Rachel Getting Married is realism at its squirm-inducing most direct.
Jenny Lumet's script rarely hits a wrong note in analyzing a particular bourgeois Connecticut family's power struggles that are inherent to most families. Whereas my family get-togethers center on frito-pie and football, Rachel's wedding involves Indian attire and cuisine with Robyn Hitchcock and Cyro Baptista supplying the entertainment. All attention is being paid to Rachel (Rosemary DeWitt) until her younger sister, Kym (Anne Hathaway), shows up with a weekend pass from court-mandated rehab. What follows is the gentrified version of the Electra Complex. The sisters compete for attention from Dad (Bill Irwin) using what they have: Rachel is the perfect daughter with some undefined perfect job, perfect friends (successful musicians and writers) and a perfect fiance, whereas Kym is the classic second-child fuckup, with drug addiction being her calling card.Continue Reading
I’m Not There
Contrary to the average Hollywood celebrity, Bob Dylan’s a star who largely created the stories surrounding him, sold his image based on those stories, but then resisted those stories once the media and his fans began to read him too literally through them. In this fantasy documentary about the singer, director/co-writer Todd Haynes tries to walk the line between individualism (subjectivity defining itself) and his own radical semiotic belief that everything is just stories, signs signifying other signs. The problem here is that if there is no core Dylan that we can ever arrive at, only a series of stories that we compile, how can we understand or appreciate what Dylan was resisting against or why, since that rebel is nothing but another confabulation, no truer than the rest? As the title suggests, the movie celebrates Dylan’s resistance to being defined, giving its subject what he wants, a portrayal on his own terms, not held down by anything he says about himself or others. It’s hardly surprising, then, that Dylan gave permission for the extensive use his music. The irony here is that, despite its postmodernist structure of multiple narratives, the film divines a core Dylan-construct by giving into and clearly defending his side of the story, or stories.
One might be tempted to take the position that the only thing important about Dylan is his music, but this film isn’t about determining the meaning of his lyrics from his personal life. Rather, it asks how we should view an artist (or artist qua celebrity) in relation to his art. Haynes is right in the sense that, at best, all we’re going to get is a construct/story of Dylan, but aren’t some constructs better than others? You can sail as long as you like, but you ain’t going to fall off the world, regardless of how old your map is. Therefore, aren’t we entitled to hold the storyteller, or mapmaker, responsible for at least some of his creations? It’s in addressing this question of moral/political/aesthetic responsibility that Haynes gives up the postmodern ghost. As has been well reported, there are a number of actors playing what’s been best described as avatars of Dylan. None of them are named ‘Bob Dylan,’ nor are they supposed to be biopic versions of the man himself, only cognates of stories about the man that have been spun by Dylan and others. I’m only interested here in a few of them: Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett as a female version of Pennebaker’s folk-rebelling Electric Bob in Don’t Look Back), Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin as a black child representation of Americana that Dylan emulated at an earlier age), and Billy the Kid (Richard Gere as the storybook American rebel and rambler that Dylan often played out in his songs and as symbolized in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, which featured Dylan in a supporting role). I no more care about their actual veracity than Haynes does, only the way he uses them as suppositions in his argument as a movie.Continue Reading
Quiz Show is a quintessential tragic American story. The great subject of the film is television and the point at which it came to define American culture for better or worse (mostly worse). With television itself having an almost operatic power as a thematic backdrop, the film tells the story of a son tarnishing his family’s good name, the architects of television’s pop cultural dominance cynically duping an entire nation, the casual anti-Semitism of the 1950s, the cultural clash of WASPs and ethnic New Yorkers, and a young Washington investigator who wants to make a name for himself and winds up destroying his friend in the process.
The year is 1958. An NBC quiz show called 21 is a national obsession that 50 million people tune into each week to see what they think is an honest display of intellectual acumen and knowledge. What they don’t know is that the show’s producer, Dan Enright (played by character actor David Paymer), in cahoots with the show’s principal sponsor Geritol and with the implicit approval of NBC itself, is fixing the results of the show to boost the ratings. The film begins as the current reigning champ of 21, Herbert Stempel (played with wiry desperation by John Turturro), is given the boot for being too goofy looking, too unrefined, and, though they won’t say it, it’s clear that he is too Jewish. As the president of NBC muses, they want a guy on 21 who looks like he can get a table at 21. Enter the elegant, educated, and super dreamy Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes playing the Ralph Fiennes type) who innocently drops by NBC to try out for a different game show at the behest of his friends. When Enright and his sleazy sidekick Albert Freedman (played by Hank Azaria) spot him, they can barely contain themselves. Charles Van Doren is from a celebrated American literary family. His father Mark (played by the recently deceased Paul Scofield) is an English professor at Columbia University, where Charles also teaches. Charles has amazing hair and Ivy League manners. He is the perfect little lamb for Enright to lead to the proverbial slaughter.Continue Reading
Loosely based on his autobiography written from behind bars, Chopper is the story of legendary Australian criminal Mark "Chopper" Read who garnered fame with his claim that he had killed up to seventeen people.
Andrew Dominik’s screenplay adaptation is wonderfully colorful and peppered with Aussie colloquialisms, while also being naturalistically brutal and raw. It is the type of story that pulls no punches and hits you in the face like a locomotive.Continue Reading
In Julian Schnabel’s intimate portrait of an artist, Jeffery Wright exploded on the film scene as Jean-Michel Basquiat, a graffiti artist turned international painter. The story is about his rise and fall amidst the New York elite, his friendship with Andy Warhol, and the women he loves.
After a successful painting career, Julian Schnabel (Oscar nominee for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) made his feature debut as a writer-director in this tribute to the life of his friend. His screenplay is simple, but efficient and his direction is gentle and compassionate -- bringing out wonderful performances from a brilliantly cast group of actors. He also does a great job of incorporating the music to define the times and emotions of the moment.Continue Reading
Before The Devil Knows You're Dead
Maybe it sounds odd to call a movie "great" if by the end it makes you feel like your soul was taken away, but Before The Devil Knows You're Dead is such a work. With an amazing ensemble cast and a non-linear script that reveals new facts about the characters all the way until the final shot--this is a film that reminds you how powerful dramatic fiction is supposed to work.
Through the different character's perspectives, the film is about the build-up and aftermath of a botched jewelry store robbery in the suburbs. Opening with the violent event, we soon find out afterwards that brothers Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) planned the robbery together as a victimless crime in response to some urgent needs for money. But these aren't your typical, slick movie heist-men whatsoever. Andy is a somewhat well-off business accountant seeking escape for a more fulfilling life, while Hank is a single father who's desperately behind on child support. Part of what makes the film work so well is how the script gradually unfolds and clues the audience into new details as it plays, so the only other plot point worth mentioning here is that the store they rip off happens to be owned by the men's parents, Charles (Albert Finney) and Martha (Amy Ryan).Continue Reading
In The Bedroom
In Hollywood films about revenge a grieving family or friend or lover typically realizes that the only way to bring closure to the loss of a loved one is to turn vigilante and mete out the justice they were denied and we are usually meant to cheer them on as populist heroes. But in the 2001 film In the Bedroom, the "grieving family avenging a loved one" plot may be a familiar one but its execution is decidedly not because the cheap and manipulative tactics that get us as an audience fired up for spilled blood are nowhere to be found. This story of a middle aged couple dealing with the tragic death of their son and falling apart as their anger consumes them is the rare film where the idea of grief is not just a pretext for something “bigger.” The visceral, teeth-gnashing sense of loss that death brings—especially the grief that follows unexpected violent death—is allowed to unfold and hang in the air like the slow heavy unstoppable force of nature that it is and it’s unforgettable. This is the rare film about grief and death and vengeance that has no room for histrionics. It has no false notes. The director, Todd Field, is shockingly assured for what was his first feature length film and the incredible cast including Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, Nick Stahl, and Marisa Tomei hit rare notes of emotional honesty in their work.
Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek play Matt and Ruth Fowler, a well off middle aged couple getting on in their years in their small coastal Maine town. Matt is a town doctor and Ruth is the high school choir director. Their son Frank (played by Nick Stahl) is home for the summer before he starts college in the fall. He is seeing Natalie, a woman twice his age (played by the gorgeous and intriguing Marisa Tomei) with two small children, and this situation is cause for his mother’s concern and his father’s shy sense of pride in his son becoming a man.Continue Reading
Billy Elliot stands out as a musical, a family drama and fiercely insightful look into the sacrificial toll on striking coal miners in Northern England in 1984. Stephen Daldry's direction alternately charms and punches with equal power until you are pulling at your own hair as Billy dances out his frustration through the run down back alleys, over cobble streets and finally into a brick wall furiously, fruitlessly and against all odds.
Billy is the youngest son of a widowed coal miner with an older brother not long in the mines himself, and an invalid grandmother. Coming from the tough and tumble Elliots, eleven year old Billy is naturally enrolled in boxing at school but somehow finds himself drawn to the girls' ballet lessons. Their teacher, the no nonsense Mrs. Wilkinson, sees potential in Billy and encourages his newfound passion and determination not knowing that Billy has kept it a secret from his family. All the while the coal miners' strike puts constant pressure on the Elliots, backing them into financial and emotional corners. When Mrs. Wilkinson procures Billy an audition at the Royal School of Ballet Billy must battle his family for the chance to be something different. Not only from what they know but what they themselves are fighting for.Continue Reading
Lords of Dogtown
I'm slightly envious of Stacy Peralta for not only conquering the professional skateboarding world but also for his career as a filmmaker. These two industries, in the general sense, do not correlate, but he manages to find the bridge. The result? A fantastic documentary about the legendary Z-Boys skate team in 1970s Venice named Dogtown Z-Boys, a 2004 documentary chronicling the evolution of big wave surfing called Riding Giants, and a biographical feature film about the Z-Boys journey titled Lords of Dogtown. Peralta penned the screenplay himself, with Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen and Twilight) directing.
The film, while written with obvious yet needed nostalgia, is action-packed full of skateboarding glamour, parties, competitions, strained friendships, and the intensity of male adolescent energy. The plot is loose and without any specific thread other than to chronicle the history of what happens to the Zephyr Skate Team from the beginning of their surfing days to the point where they meet again after the start of their separate careers. The lack of any overbearing plot creates an enjoyable, fast-paced energy that captures a certain spirit of the pioneering skate culture from the 70s.Continue Reading