Friday, September 19, 2014

Recommended!: Dead Ringers (1988)

Pleased to honor actor Jeremy Irons on this, his 65th birthday! Though he's one of a few actors that we find to be possessed of much technique but little apparent soul, we keep finding things that disprove this. And every time we revisit David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers we find ourselves in awe of Irons' accomplishments in it.

Per Cronenberg's usual modus, Dead Ringers is intense and bizarre. Irons plays Elliot and Beverly Mantle, twin gynecologists who share a practice, share a home, and share lovers. When the normally passive Beverly takes the initiative in pursuing a relationship with a filmmaker patient (Genevieve Bujold), the normally smooth Elliot is thrown into a tailspin, initiating a chaotic breakdown that the brothers may not survive.

Irons appears onscreen with himself by way of a then-innovative doubling technology, and it's remarkable how distinct he makes each brother. We can even see when one brother is impersonating another. But Irons' performances are not just sums of technical details; the intensity of the Mantles' breakdown reaches tragic, even operatic, heights. The conclusion of the film is possibly the most disturbing in Cronenberg's work (which is saying something), but thanks to the investment we've made in the characters it's also among his most heartbreaking.

Irons regarded his work on Dead Ringers as something of a career-best, having thanked David Cronenberg while accepting his acting Oscar for Reversal of Fortune three years later. (The admiration was clearly mutual; Cronenberg cast Irons in the lead of his M. Butterfly, making Irons the first actor to play the lead in two different Cronenberg films.) It's a great movie to watch for those looking to celebrate the best work of this fine actor, but it ain't for the faint of heart. You've been warned.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Recommended!: The Fisher King (1991)

Jeff Bridges is Jack, an abrasive DJ whose comments drive one unstable listener into a rage that leaves eight people dead. Three years later a strung-out Jack is offered a shot at redemption by Parry (Robin Williams), a twitchy homeless person whose psychological imbalance has direct roots in the rage Jack unleashed those years ago. And so the two men navigate the urban jungle of New York City in search of a Holy Grail that may not even exist, and Jack finds that maybe even the prospect of human connection and real love might not be enough to pull Parry away from the abyss.

It's unmistakably a Terry Gilliam film, rife with many of his overt and distinct visual flourishes: a red knight that torments Parry seems to have stepped straight out of Jabberwocky, while the corporate interiors could have been sets left behind from Brazil. But for all of its visual splendor and quirky wackiness I don't remember the humanity of Gilliam's characters ever being so keenly felt. Though Williams' gifts for improvisation and riffing are evident throughout, they're attached to a noticeably fractured psychology and leavened with tangible emotional pain. Though Bridges' role is rife with potential as nothing but a foil for Williams' inventions, he too invests Jack with palpable humanity, the stunted energy of a soul in progress. The female characters could have been nothing but love interests, but Mercedes Ruehl's street smarts make her possibly the movie's most engaging character, and Amanda Plummer's studied, focused disheveledness gives way to a blossoming and gorgeous personhood fueled by Parry's love.

Credit for all of this perhaps rests in a smart early script from filmmaker Richard LaGravenese; his script has more overtly fantastic leanings than most of his works that offer more than enough grist for Gilliam's usual visual attack. But Gilliam and his fine, fine actors all latch onto the volumes of humanity (not to mention the humor, leavened generously throughout this dark, dark story) in LaGravenese's characters. The Fisher King isn't a movie that seems to loom large in the resumes of its creators, but deserves our attention. And it stands as one of the finest, most shaded performances by the late Robin Williams. We were fortunate to see it theatrically; if you can't see it that way, it is available on line, and awaits your eyes.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Recommended!: Dead Poets Society (1989)

The only upside to the death of Robin Williams is the recent glut of rep screenings of his movies. In San Francisco rep houses in particular have made a concerted effort to pay tribute to the hometown hero, coordinating non-conflicting screenings, allowing local residents to revisit their favorite Williams performances. In our case, we got to experience Dead Poets Society for the first time.

It offers Williams' second Oscar-nominated performance, and it's a lovely piece of work. As John Keating, an English teacher who shakes up a strict 1950s prep school with his unorthodox but inspirational teaching methods, Williams offers one of his more restrained performances; his lapses into comic delivery are completely in line with the gifts of Keating, a man whose love of words and knack for communication are inherently inspiring. Though it doesn't play directly to his strengths, Williams makes it impossible to see anyone else in the role.

But one of the movie's most refreshing surprises is that it's less about Keating than about his effect on the lives of the students in his care (who become, through his inspiration, the movie's title characters). As the title suggests it's very much an ensemble piece, taking its time to establish each of its young characters and their distinct personalities. These characters grow both together within the Society and inside their own distinct subplots: Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) pursues acting against his stern father's wishes; Knox (Josh Charles) finds himself helplessly in the throes of first love; Todd (Ethan Hawke) builds walls around him that, when shattered by Keating's encouragement, give way to a floodtide of long suppressed emotion. Even the more secondary characters have their moments: when Pitts (James Waterson) is chided by Keating for half-assing an assignment, we see it register when Keating specifically calls out not his work's laziness, but its ordinariness.

The movie also spotlights director Peter Weir's knack for capturing the textural details of small-town life and its surrounding landscapes. The world around Welton Academy hums with a rich inner life, from shots of flocks of birds jumping into flight to the Society's first clandestine walk through a fog-shrouded forest. (One wonders how Weir would have fared directing a Harry Potter chapter.) Weir's attention to detail is felt right down to the amateur student production of A Midsummer Night's Dream; unlike many plays-within-movies, this looks like an actual, living, breathing production, which helps us buy Neil's sudden love of acting, and the confidence (if also the roughness) of his first performance.

Williams would fall into a trap in his later film career, stuck more often than not in flimsy stories built solely as a foil for his antics (looking at you, Patch Adams). Dead Poets Society remains one of the essential Robin Williams movies by avoiding this, by being a uniformly well told story with Williams as its catalyst, not necessarily its center. Its earnestness and solid storytelling outweigh moments that would have been mawkish in lesser hands, and it holds its classic status honestly. Even honorably.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Rohan Embarks On A Life of Crime

(We had no idea that the Elmore Leonard-based movie Life of Crime even existed, much less that it would be released in US cinemas today. Completely unbidden or solicited, our UK-based friend Rohan Morbey, who blogs at Stop Thinking For Yourself, offered us his review. This unheard-of confluence of events must be heeded, so please enjoy Rohan's review below, and follow him on Twitter!)

Life Of Crime, based on one of legendary author Elmore Leonard’s great collection of novels, ‘The Switch’ reminds us of that period in the 90s when adaptations of his work were effortlessly hip and cool. Get Shorty, Out Of Sight, and Jackie Brown, made by three very talented directors each with a style of their own opened up Leonard’s work to a whole new generation. But there is a gulf in class between those films and Life of Crime.

The story begins promisingly, like a cool version of Ruthless People (yes, I’m referring to the 1986 Danny De Vito comedy) where a wife (Jennifer Aniston) is kidnapped but the husband won’t pay the million dollar ransom because he hates her, wants a divorce, and has a younger mistress on the side. So far, so good as all the familiar Elmore Leonard characteristics are in play: double crosses, characters who’ll do anything for a fast buck, and even a reappearance of Ordell Robbie (played with far less authority by Mos Def than Samuel L Jackson had back in 1997). But as the film enters the final 30 minutes, the stakes never feel as though they are raised and the film gets slightly stale as the inevitable Jennifer-Aniston-can’t-die and Tim-Robbins-must-suffer plot lines fall into place. Again, this isn’t an issue unique to Life Of Crime, but the leads up to events is just too rudimentary in its execution to have its audience truly involved.

As clear sign of director Daniel Schechter’s attempts to make the film into something far more cinematic and impressive is a constant use of source music from the period it is set, 1978. The songs are great but they are in service of a false atmosphere and time reconstruction for the film never once feels like it is taking place in the late 70s, and it merely looks like stars playing dress up. This is an increasingly frustrating trend with modern films which attempt a period setting but don’t pull it off convincingly, using music and costume to masquerade as period; American Hustle, Blood Ties, and Lovelace are all guilty as charged.

That’s not to say Life Of Crime isn’t enjoyable by the very nature of it being an Elmore Leonard adaptation, but one can’t help but be slightly perturbed by how minor the film is; it’s a minor Leonard adaptation, it’s a minor work for all actors involved, and it’s a minor release in the 2014 calendar. The film never really feels made for the cinema screen, despite some well known faces selling it, but as a rental (as opposed to paying £10/$12 to see it in cinemas) it won’t disappoint so long as you’re not expecting anything near Steven Soderbergh quality.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Rohan: Tracking the Night Moves

(Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves is being regarded as one of the year's best. Though it's starting to appear online in the US, it has only recently opened in the UK, where our friend Rohan Morbey, who blogs at Stop Thinking For Yourself, checked it out. We're delighted to repost his enthusiastic review, and hope you'll follow Rohan over on Twitter!)

A dam in the Pacific Northwest is targeted to be blown up by two young eco-crusaders and one ex-con. They want to send a message to everyone and no one in particular and assume it’s a victimless crime, after all they’re just sticking it to ‘the man’ who is poisoning rivers and polluting water. So what’s the harm? Unlike those corporate a-holes making trillions, these three really care for the planet and the environment, right?

Night Moves focuses on Josh (Jesse Einsenberg), Dana (Dakota Fanning), and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) as the three plot, carry out, and face the consequences of their actions in another slow paced, character-driven drama from director Kelly Reichardt. As you would expect from this director, dialogue concerning plot detail is at a premium and relies on the audience to work out what is happening, to which Reichardt gives subtle clues to aid the general plot of ‘blowing up a dam.' Unlike most films with a terrorist storyline, there is no background given to the characters or why they are doing what they are doing, nor is there any police manhunt after the event, sending the film into thriller territory.

We can assume Josh and Dana met at an activist meeting, where documentary film making no longer was enough to get the message across; we see them both watching a short film where Dana challenges the film maker, and Josh stands in his corner, quietly judging the content. Like many of Reichardt’s characters, Josh is a loner, often framed on his own, in corners, and in the shadows. Furthermore, the three never look like a team who have carefully rehearsed their plan. They are merely three individuals who are in this for their own selfish motives and have given no thought of what happens after the bomb goes off.

Whereas Reichardt’s previous three films (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff) all have characters on a literal journey from one place to another, Night Moves sees Josh and Dana on a more internal journey, from being eco-crusaders to potential murderers when a man is reported missing near their target; their journey threatens to be one of no return. I especially liked the shift in tone between the first and second halves of the film, from slow-burning character drama to a paranoia study (calling this a ‘thriller’ would be misleading), without ever losing focus on the characters and, of course, Reichardt’s love of natural settings. Oregon and its surroundings are just as vital a character in her films as New York is to a film maker like Woody Allen, and Reichardt’s appreciation for open spaces, natural scenery, and her character’s relationship to those places are essential elements of her cinema.

For the first hour we know very little about Josh and Dana, and it’s only after the event that Reichardt shows them in their natural habitats. Josh doesn’t have an underground lair with multiple screens and blue prints, but rather works on a farm harvesting vegetables earning very little and has a boss whom he seems to look down on, like all those at his eco-crusader meetings. Dana works at a health spa, just a temporary job (I assumed) like any young girl might have until she finds her calling in life. These are two very ordinary young people, and Reichardt does an excellent job of keeping them that way; even in the surprising moments of the final act when something happened which, at first, I didn’t quite buy into but on reflection perfectly fits in with the typically unplanned and lack of thought given to the actions from Josh up until that point.

The film ends with the director’s trademark open and abrupt ending, the most densely plotted scene in all of Reichardt's films, yet as is her usual modus operandi the ending is open and abrupt enough to leave the audience to make up their minds as to what happens next. Although it may star one of Hollywood’s brightest young male leads in Eisenberg, Night Moves feels just as auteurist as anything Reichardt has made to date, and cements her place as one of American cinema’s most important film makers working outside the ,Hollywood system.

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