From the Archive — Brokeback Mountain

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A few days after the annual Oscar nominations announcement is still a time of bliss, when justice is possible. No matter how many personal favorites have been overlooked, there inevitably remain contenders imbued with uncommon cinematic beauty. Maybe those creative triumphs can win and decades of the Academy too often defaulting to the tired, superficially noble option will no longer be a reliable forecaster. Anyway, I wrote this review upon the original release of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. It appeared at my former online home.

In the rare instance that you see the name of screenwriter used prominently in the promotion of a film, you know the studio is going for something specific. In the case of Brokeback Mountain touting the contributions of Larry McMurtry is likely meant to connect the film to his various acclaimed westerns. But this is not the McMurtry of Lonesome Dove, this is the McMurtry of The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment. He has an uncanny ability to fill out characters and draw us close to them by showing us the scattered pieces of their lives. He doesn’t tie everything together, but gives us the means to do it ourselves. The film doesn’t stop to tell us about these characters with momentum clogging exposition, and yet, by the end, we know them.

The other author connected to this film is Annie Proulx, who wrote the short story on which it is based, has made it clear that the shorthand description of this film as “the gay cowboy movie” is wholly inaccurate. These characters are not cowboys, she has said, but are instead “two inarticulate, confused Wyoming ranch kids.” It’s an important distinction and one that cuts to the reason the film is so effective. The film is not about cowboys, but rather about two young men who have bought into the cowboy myth, and are trying to forge their personal identities on the basis of that rugged persona.

Jake Gyllenhaal initially seems a little off as Jack Twist, one of a pair of men earning their summer wages by looking after a flock of sheep on the the titular geographic landmark. He is too soft, too eager. He doesn’t match our perception of a man finding his future on the frontier as effectively as his cohort Ennis Del Mar, played with a rugged mumble by Heath Ledger. That mild disconnect between actor and role is actually perfect, as the character he portrays is role-playing himself. These two men are fighting to find themselves, define themselves. In the process they find one another, romantically, sexually and deeply. It is that connection that truly sets them on the path to self-discovery.

For all the hand-wringing over the supposed sensational elements of the film, Brokeback is not a treatise or a manifesto, a modern version of a Hollywood message movie. It is a small, sad story beautifully told. It may not be a booming box office success when it starts to book theaters outside of the major cities, but I think that will be due as much to the slow, considered pace of the film as anything else. Director Ang Lee presents his story matter-of-factly, resolutely refusing to punctuate or underline individual moments. He has supreme confidence in his material and his actors to create the emotional resonance of the piece. Lee captures it and emerges with a film that is breathtaking in its honestly stated heartache.

From the Archive — Hard Candy

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Our household is in the usual movie-viewing mad scramble that happens around the end of the year, striving to catch up with all of the titles we missed that could be a factor at the Academy Awards and in our personal “best of” lists. But we still have time (and, truth be told, a sense of obligation) to engage with the pop culture sparkler of the moment, which meant dutifully manipulating a streaming service’s slickly constructed interface to compel a fictional character to tug on his earlobe (or at least fretfully resist that particular command). So with a hit tip to the flawed feat Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and its director, David Slade, I’ll today unearth my review of the Hard Candy. It was Slade’s first feature, which might not have aged into the #MeToo era particularly well because of some of the flaws identified below. In truth, it’s possible its basic premise reverberates me strongly these days. What I am certain of is that it established — one year ahead of Juno — that Ellen Page has wizardly acting skills when provided with material that’s anywhere near worthy of her.

Hard Candy begins with an online conversation between a professional photographer in his thirties and a fourteen-year-old girl. They flirt, joke, and agree to meet at a local coffee shop. That feeling of dread you have is well-founded.

That’s all I’ll reveal about the plot, despite the fact the the progression of the story has been given away in most reviews and even the film’s trailer offers some clear indicators of otherwise unexpected turns. There’s a clear intent in the film’s construction to maximize the impact of certain revelations, not in the manner of those filmmakers that have made yelling “gotcha” their stock in trade, but instead to emphasize the danger of truths withheld. These characters reveal themselves to each other slowly, reluctantly, painfully, and we in the audience take the journey with them, ready or not.

The film is largely a duet, an exercise in audacious acting performed in tandem. In that regard, it’s a smashing success. The photographer is played by Patrick Wilson, who the numerous musical devotees who peruse this sliver of the Web may know from a slightly more foppish role. Wilson’s task here is a combination of reaction and endurance. He digs deep and claws his way out, but there are built-in limits to the breadth he can bring to his character. For the broader range, there’s Ellen Page as the younger of the two principals. The bulk of the film rests on her tiny shoulders, and she carries it with a tenacious creativity that seems to announce the emergence of a ferocious talent. It will be very strange indeed to see her in her next role, which is very different and, presumably, far less demanding.

The film itself burns with a breathless edginess. It doesn’t just push buttons, it smashes its fist right into the control panel. First-time feature director David Slade holds it all together expertly, especially since the screenplay, credited to Brian Nelson, grows more and more dependent on familiar thriller contrivances as it goes on. Of particular cause for complaint is that word-processed crutch of a character blessed with implausible foresight in lining up the proverbial dominoes that will tumble towards the denouement.

Finally, it should be noted that it’s a bit of a disappointment that the film itself finally seemingly has so little to say about the provocative situation that sets the story in motion. There are moments, especially early on, when some pointed observations about children pretending to be sophisticated, sexual beings and the adults that will aggressively encourage and exploit that behavior. When the proverbial noose tightens and the film starts to go for antagonized jumps rather than woozy worries, it still provokes a palpable reaction, but some of the impact is lost.

From the Archive — The 40-Year-Old Virgin

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One of the cute celebrity stories that made the rounds this week was Steve Carell’s talk show tale of meeting Kelly Clarkson, more than a decade after he shouted her name while getting his chest hair waxed off in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. It’s not much of a story, but anything mildly interesting enough to briefly disrupt the news cycle of constant misery is always welcome. And if Carell can find a reason to bring up The 40-Year-Old Virgin, I suppose I can, too. This review was written for my former online home, and it was one of the very first instances of me reviving my old film critic tendencies for digital disbursement. I was still figuring out if tapping out my reactions to new cinematic releases was something I wanted to undertake again on a regular basis. Thirteen years later, I guess it was.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin has gotten attention for its dirty-ish premise and as part of the “trend” of R-rated comedies coming back into fashion. It should be getting attention because it’s a very funny movie that actually has a few things to say. Not only does Steve Carell play the title character, Andy Stitzer, with a lot of dignity, but he plays him as something more than a vehicle for jokes, the main downfall of all his cohorts in the Anchorman/Dodgeball/Elf brigade.

While the film developed from an old Second City bit that Carell cooked up, he’s actually thought through and developed the character and the story into something wise and a little moving. As the character notes at one point, the only reason he’s really reached this point is that he “eventually stopped trying.” He’s a little socially backwards, but he’s not some of outcast held up for ridicule.

The ridicule is reserved for the hyper-sexualized culture that we live in, and all of the supposedly sexy things that are out there to entice us, from pornography to seductive behavior to Tijuana floor shows. All of these things are called out as at best embarrassing and at worst downright scary. It’s actually reminiscent of a great and kinda daring episode of Freaks and Geeks, the television series that stands as the high water mark for Judd Apatow (well, okay, maybe it’s tied for the career peak), making his directorial debut here. The Freaks and Geeks squad get a few shout-outs here, with a couple teachers from McKinley High making cameo appearances and old “Ken Miller” faring nicely in a supporting role. More importantly, the film shares that late series’ compassionate but unyielding scrutiny of the foibles of life.

Besides, the whole movie really boils down to an argument that falling in love with Catherine Keener is a good thing, and I’m certainly not going to argue with that.

From the Archive — Richard Linklater films

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On the occasion of Last Flag Flying, the new Richard Linklater feature, arriving in theaters — at least in New York City — here are, I believe, all of the reviews of the Texas filmmaker’s work that I’ve written, but that haven’t previously shown up in this digital space. While there are plenty of titles in Linklater’s filmography that would cause me to offer breathless raves, all of these are lesser, deeply compromised efforts. Of course, in the case of most of these, Linklater was also in the extended process of making a flat-out masterpiece, so I give him a pass on these varied misfires.

Tape (Richard Linklater, 2001). Released the same year as Waking Life, Linklater’s trippy foray in animation and dream analysis which perfectly suited his penchant for talky philosophizing, Tape is comparatively small-scale. Without any specific comparison, it’s bland and unimpressive. Adapted by Stephen Belber from his play, the whole movie take place in the confines of a dingy little motel room as two old friends wage a battle of psyches over a long-ago transgression. It’s not an issue that Belber and Linklater chose not to open up the play, leaving it much the same way it probably was when it played out on the confines of a stage (in fact, Linklater’s few attempts to create some dynamic camera angles to shake things up are weaker than his more flatfooted presentation the material), but someone should have reminded the actors to adjust the level of their performances. Ethan Hawke is especially over-amped, pitching his take on an admittedly anxious character somewhere between the Phantom of the Paradise and Daffy Duck. Uma Thurman fares somewhat better as a woman intrinsically involved in the dispute between the two friends, but her role is a much a dramatic device as a fully drawn character.

Bad News Bears (2005)On paper, this has a lot of potential. The screenwriters behind Bad Santa recondition the 1976 Michael Ritchie film for the foul-mouthed frontman Billy Bob Thornton and turning it over to director Richard Linklater, who proved his slick entertainment chops with School of Rock. In execution, however, it’s a real mess, somehow managing to be both weirdly tame and pointlessly profane.

Fast Food Nation (2006). Eric Schlosser‘s 2001 book is a mind-spinning feat of investigative journalism, examining the insidious influence of fast food on the American culture in a way that goes well beyond the sort of health-based condemnation that’s become commonplace. Schlosser digs into the nasty child psychology manipulations employed by the big chains and considers how the meat-packing industry has dangerously cut corners in part to meet the high-production, low-cost demands of the top clients. Linklater works directly with Schlosser in adapting the book into a fiction film and that sort of ambition remains in place. Unfortunately, the material seems to repel these efforts. Linklater and Schlosser throw a bunch of stuff at the wall to see what sticks only to find themselves staring down a blank wall. Nothing ever gels. Individual story threads just drift along and sometimes vanish for lengthy stretches, leaving them feeling especially underdeveloped (Greg Kinnear’s fast food exec is unseen in the last third of the movie, only reappearing for an afterthought coda). It’s a bad sign when the throwaway details–like a man toiling away at the meat packing plant despite missing a good chunk of one of his arms, undoubtedly sacrificed to the machinery earlier in his career–carry more impact than the big scenes taking aim at the powers-that-serve-burgers.

A Scanner Darkly (2006). Have no fear: Robert Downey Jr’s trademark style of fidgety overacting can survive the process of being rotoscoped into animation. He’s as distracting as ever in writer-director Richard Linklater’s adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel A Scanner Darkly. It maybe unfair to lead with that bit of snark since Downey is hardly the biggest problem with this well-intentioned but sadly inert drama of paranoid science fiction. For one, it hardly seemed necessary for Linklater to return to the animation technique he employed in his excellent 2001 film Waking Life. In that film it helped him to create imagery with the fluidity of a dreamscape, merging his philosophical meanderings with visuals that were as casually exploratory. Here, beyond realizing a couple of concepts in a way that would have difficult to believably pull off with the most advanced CGI, there seems little reason to have taken the steps beyond using the filmed footage of the actors. The story itself is grim, probably more faithful to Dick’s original vision than is usually the case and a bit of a bore.

From the Archive — Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

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The only thing I’ll add to the below review is a revised version of the due-credit notification that original served as the opening line. It was a friend of mine — whose footprint on social media is stealthy enough that I’ll not cite them further — initially made the spot-on observation that I used to kick off my take on the feature debut of the greatest creations ever to come out of Aardman Animations. 

There are way, way, way too many puns in Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. In bringing the stellar Aardman Animations creations from the brisk efficiency of thirty-minute shorts to an 85-minute feature, Nick Park and company have seemingly packed in an endless stream of comedic homonyms to help fill in the spare room. The puns are the Styrofoam peanuts that keep the precious vase that is the Wallace and Gromit storyline safe in the box. Problem is, the vase seems a bit more chipped and worn than usual this time around.

There are actually many elements lifted directly from the last short, 1995’s A Close Shave: a romantic interest for Wallace, a rival hound to try to play alpha dog to Gromit and a animal species getting a fresh spin through the Aardmaninator which adds protruding roundness to the eyes and width to the mouth. On that last point, this time it is indeed rabbits that are added to the zoo, and they prove to be every bit as cute as Shaun, the beloved tuft of cotton from Shave. The new film even manages to get Gromit into the cockpit of an small airplane again, replicating the climax of the previous short.

All that may contribute to the new film feeling a little lackluster. Or it could simply be that Wallace and Gromit adventures are best served by a quick running time, their trials and tribulations pared down to the essentials. The more time spent with the townspeople worrying about their endangered produce, or the flirtation between Wallace and his new potential ladylove, or establishing the villainous bonafides of the bad guy, the more the film settles into a slow idle rather than the sort of breakneck inspiration that marked the shorts, or even the first Aardman feature, the splendid Chicken Run. Even when the inevitable final sequence gets rolling, the action never completely kicks into high gear. It always seems a little too controlled, a little too by-the-numbers. We have time to catch our breath and the film flags because of it.

This is a lot of griping about something that is finally an okay movie. There’s still charm a-plenty to be found in these sweet, simple characters. As before, the addled enthusiasm of Wallace mismatches nicely with the carefully maintained dignity of Gromit (and I have a new special place in my heart for the briefly glimpsed image of Gromit as a puppy). And if the film suffers from comparison with other Aardman triumphs it prospers in the wake of the manic Madagascar cast-off that Dreamworks has been vicious enough to attach to the front of the film.

From the Archive — The Family Stone

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I don’t really have much preface for this week’s excavated movie review, except to note that this was written for my former online home within my first six months of jumping back into the film criticism game.

There are times during The Family Stone when you can just feel control of the film slipping away from writer-director Tom Bezucha.

The film begins with a fairly straightforward hook: a woman is accompanying her fiance home for Christmas to meet his family for the first time. This tightly wound career woman is played by Sarah Jessica Parker,making her first real stab at a post-Carrie Bradshaw film career. The man’s family is comprised of two upper class, bohemian parents and a total of five adult siblings.

That simple count is the beginning of the difficulties. Besides the fiance, played by Dermot Mulroney, there are: the agressive, abrasive sister; the deaf, gay brother; the pregnant, slightly put-upon, peacekeeping sister; and the documentary film editor with a roving eye and a touch of prodigal son aura. Bezucha expertly introduces each of these characters with some ideally constructed expository writing. Everyone is established with a line or two of dialogue that manages to feel natural while conveying key details. But as the film winds on, and Bezucha’s plot moves to the forefront (and picks up a complicating element in the form of the career woman’s fetching sister, played by Claire Danes), this array of characters has less and less to contribute. Bezucha wants to have a big bustling film, a film that shows how large families can support and strangle you, usually at the same time. But he either loses interest in that big family, or the capability to pull together the large cast of characters in a meaningful satisfying way. The most likely explanation may involve a bit of both.

At its best, the film shoots off sparks. It has a nicely barbed comic tone, sort of like a less satirical version of Ted Demme’s The Ref. Bezucha also proves highly capable at balancing his tonal shifts, moving smoothly between wisecrack roundelays and more dramatic fare. There’s a dinner table scene in which Parker finds herself in a sort of verbal quicksand after a poor choice of phrasing that nicely illustrates Bezucha’s skills in this area.

It softens up as it goes, however. By the end the film has gotten all gooey, and the underlying point seems to be that finding a sweetheart is the solution to all problems. The disappointing nature of that conclusion is compounded by the unsavory subtext of two of the female characters seemingly achieving this contentment by completely transforming their personalities.

That’s an awful lot of writing without touting the achievements of Rachel McAdams in the film. She’s extremely impressive as the character described at one point as “the mean sister.” McAdams shows the bristly nature of the character and her vulnerability without overplaying either. Diane Keaton is equally strong as the matriarch of the family, in large part because she also fearlessly lets some edges show. Together, they actually give you a sense of how the mother’s influence formed the daughter, and how the daughter continues to fuel the mother. It’s a film about connections; this one is the strongest.

From the Archive: Grizzly Man

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This originally appeared in my former online home. I was still getting back in the swing of writing movie reviews when this posted.

The new film from sorta nuts German director Werner Herzog is a documentary about Timothy Treadwell, a failed actor who spent years in the Alaskan wilderness observing, bonding with, obsessing over and serving as self-proclaimed “protector” of a large group of grizzly bears. An inveterate ham, Treadwell documented his experience with a video camera, shooting hours of footage which Herzog merged with new interviews to give us a potent picture of a damaged individual who sought some level of peace out in the wild, over-identifying with the animals there.

Herzog’s assembly of the material filmed by Treadwell is especially strong. Without seeming to be overly manipulative in his approach, Herzog finds especially telling moments and strings them together in a revelatory way. We discover who Treadwell was and then we discover that the persona was, to a large degree, a conscious construct of Treadwell’s. Sometimes it seems that he’s filming with his own possible documentary or television program in mind, sometimes it’s simply to keep himself company, and sometimes it’s little more than a compulsive act. Throughout, he maintains the version of himself he most wants to be. The facade never seems to fall away.

The new footage generated by Herzog is less successful. The interview subjects generally offer little valuable insight into Treadwell or the Alaskan landscape where he toiled. And the couple of moments in which Herzog is supposedly capturing a genuine moment are hopelessly stiff and awkward. The people on the other end of Herzog’s camera are far too conscious of the fact that they’re being filmed. Perhaps Herzog means that to contrast with Treadwell’s continuous performance, but the scenes are weighed down by their rigidity. The self-construction of Treadwell is fascinating, but when these other individuals try it the movie simply stops dead. They’re just not as skilled at it, it seems. Herzog may be tickled by these scenes of the awkward formality of appearing natural for the camera (his kinship with Errol Morris leads me to believe this), but I just wanted more of Treadwell in the woods, creating a sense of purpose through forcefully believing out loud.