2005 was my favorite recent year for American films. We had Batman Begins, Brokeback Mountain, and a re-release of Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows from 1958. (That technically shouldn’t count but it’s such a cool movie I have to include it.) As much as I liked those films, though, Capote was the one that made the biggest impression on me. It’s got a fearless Academy Award winning performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote and it’s both a fascinating true crime story and a keenly observed morality play.
Capote traces the genesis of Truman Capote’s masterpiece "non-fiction novel," In Cold Blood, from the shockingly violent mass murder in a small Kansas town that was its subject to Capote’s ascendance as one of the most revered authors of his time. What transpires in between is a disturbing account of an artist manipulating the source of his inspiration - his death row muse, if you will - into providing him with the necessary materials to make an undisputed literary work of art. In Cold Blood is one of the most important books of the 20th century, not only for its brilliantly paced tragic story but also for its resolute humanization of its despised protagonists. But it’s not left wing agitprop; it’s a chilling glimpse into the depths of darkness. What director Bennett Miller does with his film is to posit that Truman Capote crossed an ethical line by getting in the middle of his story and that, for all of the success it brought him, it sowed the seeds of his later ruination.Continue Reading
Kramer vs. Kramer
The amazing early part of Dustin Hoffman's career was filled with so many showy roles - Midnight Cowboy, Lenny, Strawdogs, and Little Big Man - but he ended the 1970s with perhaps the best performance of his career in Kramer vs. Kramer. This little film actually beat Apocalypse Now for the Best Picture Oscar. Which film you prefer may be debatable, but what isn't is that Kramer vs. Kramer is more than a little film. Robert Benton (co-writer of Bonnie and Clyde) took a simple little story of a career man learning about domestic responsibility and gave it a wallop of emotion that has helped it last the test of time.
Hoffman plays Ted Kramer, a New York ad-man married to Joanna (Meryl Streep) with a little boy, Billy (Justin Henry). One night after securing an important new account he comes home to find Joanna all packed and heading out the door. She leaves him...and Billy. Father and son have to learn to coexist - the usually selfish Ted has to learn to become a caretaker to his son and Billy has to get used to living without a mum. At first Ted doesn’t even know what grade his son is in and is forced to do what were then considered feminine chores like picking his son up at birthday parties and grocery shopping. But he learns to be a father and he and Billy build a special bond. Hoffman’s Ted obviously has a strong character arc and with the help of his single mother neighbor, Margaret (Jane Alexander), he develops a nurturing side to his tightly wound personality. This, of course, leads to his losing his job and, worse, after finding herself out in California, the icy Joanna eventually returns and fights to regain custody of Billy (hence the "vs." in the title).Continue Reading
The Bloody Child
The form of a movie is something that most people don't pay much attention to, and yet it is the form that constructs your experience. Since the beginning of cinema, the arrangement of scenes, props, music and even the body language of the cast, sparks some kind of response in the viewer. I thought I had seen all there was to see in terms of form, even on the abstract and experimental level. For me, experimental films are like visual poetry, or projected dream sequences. They are usually short and nonlinear, and the "meat and potatoes" is in the style, not so much as the story. While watching The Bloody Child it became clear that a new form was being introduced to me—a feature length experimental film that is so pure in its development it resembles a morbid essay film.
The general stance on experimental film is that it no longer exists. I'd argue that the filmmaker who directs experimental film no longer exists, or is at least very hard to find. The whole idea behind it is to work on a low budget, typically with whatever materials are available, and come up with something that is free from being classified as any other genre. Low budget films are now considered indie or avant-garde and are not as artistically driven as they once were. Many of them are simple comedies or romances, which is not a bad thing. However, once you decide to get into the game of shooting something linear, you are assigning all the rules of form that go along with it. True experimental films have no rules, and that's what makes them so exciting, and also a threat. In terms of essay films, my claim that this resembles one might not make much sense at first. But if you've seen films like Baraka or Koyannisqatsi, you'll notice that they capture something miraculous about our world. They are visually breathtaking and usually have scores by conductors like Phillip Glass, both of which this film does not have, so don't compare it in that sense. What it does capture is the barbaric nature of violence and insanity. Menkes took a story straight out of a newspaper, let it simmer, and then interpreted what it meant to humanity in a film.Continue Reading
Edward Bunker is probably one of the most criminally (no pun intended) neglected writers in American history. Best known for his role as Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs, the character wasn't a huge stretch for him. He worked as a career criminal from the time he was a teenager up through his forties. He also wrote a slew of books that depict convict life with searing realism--real ball-kickers of stories that remain thrillingly authentic today. In the late '70s he helped adapt his novel, No Beast So Fierce, for the screen, which resulted in this somewhat shockingly little-known film starring Dustin Hoffman. Why such little fan-fare for it? My guess is that it was just a bit too real at the time.
Hoffman plays Max Dembo, a convict freshly released from prison for armed robbery. He meets with his sociopath of a parole officer (M. Emmet Walsh), who reminds him that just one step out of line will earn a one-way trip behind bars again. Max insists he's ready to play it straight in a newly reformed life--and we believe him. He speaks earnestly, and a few minutes later in screen time he lands a job at a recycling plant, and even scores a date with a sweet-natured secretary (Theresa Russell). But it doesn't take long for his chances at a normal life to crumble; a meeting with a buddy from the old days (played brilliantly by a doe-eyed Gary Busey) sets off a heart-breakingly unfair chain of events. I'll only mention a few keywords that should drum up some interest for the last two-thirds of the movie: "shotguns," "Harry Dean Stanton," "jewelry store heist," and "freeway nudity."Continue Reading
Morvern Callar is one of the most visually stimulating films I have ever seen. Based on the novel by Alan Warner, it is a poetic and complex work that stirs some of the most tender and infuriating emotions within us. The opening scene is fragmented and leads the film to its core with the same sorrow and confusion that will remain present throughout the feature. Morvern Callar (Samantha Morton) finds her boyfriend shortly after he has slit his wrists and finds a message on his computer instructing her to publish his novel, make arrangements for his funeral, and to "be brave."
You wait for some kind of outburst from her. It’s Christmastime and everything is uncomfortably quiet. She lies on the ground next to his dead body and caresses his back. She leaves the body alone and opens her Christmas presents: a sliver Zippo, leather jacket, tape player, and a mix tape. After a while she listens to it and chain smokes. Still, you are waiting for some kind of extreme action in order to break your discomfort. In a sense, there is an extreme, but not what you'd expect. She begins to bathe and put on makeup, eventually leaving to attend a wild party with her best friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott). The film focuses on the color red throughout almost every shot, keeping you on the edge and expecting something foul. But I think the red stands for more than bloodshed. It reappears to illustrate the carnage in everyday life and the desire to eat it up before you get old.Continue Reading
When it comes to Bukowski, the rest of the world can be separated into three categories: those who don't know he exists, those who praise his unconventional poetry and language, and those who detest his work and see him as a glorified alcoholic and womanizer. As far as films surrounding Bukowski are concerned, many are aware of or have seen Barfly, which attempts to paint a portrait of the man and his muses. I've mentioned Factotum to others and most are unaware of the film, just as I was unaware of others based on him and his work in general. The title is taken from a work of Bukoski's with the same name, which I have haven't read, nor have I seen other films surrounding his alter-ego and work, and this includes documentaries. A large part of me doesn't want to, which is why this film works well for me and others who are unaware of or not interested in doting on another poet. Matt Dillon's performance - and the film as a whole - makes it easy to take the film in for what it is, a movie about an alcoholic who is a writer, gambler, womanizer, and blue-collar misfit. You can find this person, give or take a few qualities, within most artists and writers. The fact that Dillon's character is named Chinaski instead of Bukowski, and that everything is centralized in a few events and acquaintances, removes the film from your traditional adaptation. In short, even if you are among those who don't like or don't know of the writer, you can enjoy this due to its lack of a "faithful" attachment to him or the work.Continue Reading
The Longest Yard (1974)
Along with Deliverance a few years earlier and Boogie Nights decades later, The Longest Yard is one the three best movies of Burt Reynolds' career (there are not a lot of good ones to choose from) and maybe his best performance. It’s the perfect role to show off his machismo sense of humor and the laid back, good-ol’ boy charm that made him a superstar in the '70s. He had his share of very successful films (Smokey and The Bandit, etc) and a few nice ones (Starting Over), but the trio of Deliverance, Boogie Nights, and especially The Longest Yard are about the only times he teamed with major directors and had perfect scripts to suit him. (By the time he did Nickelodeon with Peter Bogdanovich or Rough Cut with Don Siegel or Semi-Tough with Michael Ritchie those once great directors' shelf-lives had already expired.)
Director Robert Aldrich had a diverse and distinguished career - only a handful of home runs, but those hits were massive. Moving from television to film he would make one of the last great noir films, Kiss Me Deadly, and then the classily twisted What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?. He would direct a number of solid action films including Flight of The Phoenix, Too Late The Hero, and peak with the wildly popular rowdy WWII film, The Dirty Dozen. The Longest Yard would repeat the cynical formula, making the bad guys the heroes. And with it Aldrich would prove he still had one more great film in him (unfortunately after The Longest Yard the rest of his career was pretty much junk, including reteaming with Reynolds for the listless detective film Hustle).Continue Reading
A great rock n’ roll film doesn’t have to get everything right. There really isn’t a way around the cliches of telling the classic rock biopic tale. It’s always the same. Scrappy young kids create sparks playing together in the garage. They play shows in divey little clubs and then a sleazy impresario comes along to whip them into shape and acts as Svengali, enabler, and all around brow beater. After several go nowhere sessions in the studio they get that one song right and then cue the montage of their steady climb up the charts followed by too much partying, band feuds, solo albums, and then the inevitable implosion. Whether it’s a documentary about the Sex Pistols, The Filth & The Fury, or the fictional Ladies & Gentlemen…The Fabulous Stains the classic rock n roll narrative rarely veers off course. The Runaways is a great rock film, which is not to say it works on every level. It’s a disjointed film of mostly excellent individual scenes and adrenaline pumping performances. Don’t expect real insight into the collaborative nature of a band or really any aspect of the Runaways’ story that isn’t directly associated with Cherie Currie, Joan Jett, and Kim Fowley. The other girls in the band might as well not even exist. But do expect tough girls in tight jeans and leather jackets, 1970s Sunset Strip sleaze, and a deeply romantic portrait of teenage girls making rock n’ roll records and taking on a music industry that didn’t know what to do with them.
The Runaways doesn’t shy away from what made the band unique. Some reacted to the raw sexuality in The Runaways as if it was exploitive and that makes zero sense to me. As the scarily good Michael Shannon as Kim Fowley says, “This isn’t about women’s liberation! It’s about women’s libido!” Calling the honest depiction of teenage sexuality exploitive is condescending and misguided. The director, Floria Sigismondi, never loses sight of the fact that these are young women discovering the world and themselves together. It’s not cynical at all and is in fact much less offensive than the virgin/whore pop star thing that caters only to men.Continue Reading
Fast Food Nation
It stands to reason that if you can get people to eat s*** and like it you can pretty much get away with anything. This is the sentiment I took away from Eric Schlosser's devastating expose of the fast food industry, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of The American Meal (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001). The book was compared to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle for its gritty glimpse into an industry that has a stranglehold over our agriculture, our declining health, and our government. (And he really does point out that because of the American beef industry's dedication to doing things as cheaply as possible sometimes feces make their way into hamburger patties. Seriously.) Eric Schlosser connected the dots as to why fast food is so cheap and omnipresent and what he discovered was a vast system of interrelated factors that have been set up to dominate and degrade almost every aspect of our society - from the disgusting ways in which cattle are treated, to the exploitation of undocumented workers, to the disease and obesity epidemics currently plaguing this country. Schlosser wrote the definitive account of why American ideals are so compromised by the dominance of fast food culture. Making a documentary based on the book seemed to be the most logical way to visually depict Schlosser's investigative findings but director Richard Linklater had a different approach. Instead of filming Fast Food Nation as a muckraking documentary he uses the general narrative structure of Steven Soderbergh's ensemble film about the international drug trade, Traffic, as a device for exploring the business of fast food and its negative effects on all of us from multiple viewpoints.
The film follows lots of different characters caught up within their own troubling relationship to fast food production. Greg Kinnear plays an executive for a fast food chain called Mickey's. We follow him as he meets different people affiliated with the hamburger chain. He's shocked when he's told by his superior that they have worries about public outcry over their product. "There's shit in the meat," he says. He talks to scientists paid by Mickey's to craft the taste of liquid smoke in test tubes. He meets the kids who work at a Mickey's in Colorado. A young idealist named Amber (Ashley Johnson) working at Mickey's after school starts to realize that she doesn't want to be a part of what Mickey's is selling. Bruce Willis has a cameo as a cynical meat processing plant owner who warns Kinnear's character about sticking his nose in their business when he hears rumors about mistreatment of workers at the plant. We follow the experiences of Mexicans who crossed the border illegally into Colorado and work in the factory who are taken advantage of at every turn. Some turn to drugs to cope with the long hours and brutal work. Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, and even Avril Lavigne pop up in different roles. Amber meets up with a group of college students determined to raise public consciousness about fast food's toll on the environment but have their illusions shattered when they see it's more complicated than they realized.Continue Reading
The Big Chill
Don’t get me wrong, I hate yuppies as much as the next guy. And the thought of two hours of white bread yuppies reconnecting while bemoaning their lost youth and wondering where the dreams went, I would agree, sounds painful. The idea had been filmed once before by indie maverick John Sayles with his very boring Return Of The Secaucus Seven in ’79. But for the much better The Big Chill, director/ screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan was able to ensemble a dream cast of bright up and comers who brought magic to his incredibly complicated and witty script (written with Barbara Benedek).
Kasdan had been a hot go-to guy for scripts, having written The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders Of The Lost Ark. His first outing as a director was the steamy modern noir twister, Body Heat, starring the young William Hurt and Kathleen Turner (with an excellent little role for an even younger Mickey Rourke). The Big Chill was his personal take on a group of 1960s college friends reuniting fifteen years later for the funeral for their mutual bud, Alex (played in flashbacks by Kevin Costner, though those scenes were famously cut out of it. Kasdan would reward Costner with a plum role in his next film, the overrated gee-wiz Western, Silverado).Continue Reading