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.

From the Archive: Mirrormask

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The review, first posted in my former online home, is absolutely jam-packed with the affectations that I eagerly adopted when I started seriously writing for a digital platform, including an overturned Lego crate worth of hyperlinks and a correctly formatted trademark symbol. Almost every original link was now dead, but I did my best to rebuild them accordingly. I’m especially pleased to note that I’m fairly certain that I corrected determined the hideous comic book covers I opted for to accompany “other material sharing space.” It is perhaps easy to intuit that the reasoning behind plucking this particular review from the archive is the pending debut of the Starz television series American Gods, adapted from the book that I offhandedly refer to in noting Neil Gaiman’s status, then fairly new, as a “best-selling novelist.” 

Mirrormask is the sort of dreamplane you encounter when falling asleep while staring at a Ernst . Or (hey!) maybe a McKean. Dave McKean is a noted illustrator and graphic artist who’s primarily made his name in the field of comics, providing distinctive art for some relatively high-profile projects. Perhaps most notably, McKean regularly provided covers for Neil Gaiman’s acclaimed series Sandman. McKean’s efforts demonstrated that the old adage about judging books may not apply to comics as the striking covers accurately announced Sandman as literate, complex and utterly different from the other material sharing space on the comic shop new release rack.

Agggh. Enough links!

Okay…there’ll be one more.

For his feature-length directorial debut (he’s got a couple shorts to his credit), McKean drafted his old pal Gaiman, now carrying the added cachet and credibility that comes with being a best-selling novelist, to help him realize a story about a young girl who finds herself in a fantastical land when her family life is beset by a dire situation.

It’s really a big, dark fairy tale. While movies like this aren’t usually my cup of pennyroyal tea, Mirrormask largely succeeds through the clear conviction of the creators and the seeming strength of the collaboration between McKean and Gaiman. McKean layers the screen with astonishing imagery and Gaiman (I’m guessing) keeps things grounded in story. It’s easy for a film that this to get too enamored in the wild worlds being created and become self-limiting. The art design eclipses all other purposes of the film and the viewing experience becomes little different from flipping through a collection of very pretty, oh-so-arty postcards. While Mirrormask doesn’t completely avoid this, it generally manages to remain engaging due to undercurrents of real thought and satisfying thematic explorations. The lead character, a teenage girl named Helena whose life has been filled with more fanciful distractions than she’d care for, is well-drawn and engagingly played by Stephanie Leonidas.

And here’s where Gaiman’s influence seems to register most apparently. One of things that Gaiman excels at doing is establishing the mundane within the fantastical and vice versa. There’s a unique solidity here. The film takes time to explore the fallibility of humans and the ache of loss rather than being about little more than a succession of startling images. The imagery enhances the story when it could have easily subsumed it.

In the end, it’s still a fairy tale and follows well-established pattern to get from “once upon a time” to (spoiler warning!) “happily ever after.” Sometimes it’s hard to dance expressively when you’re following numbered footsteps painted on the floor. And then there’s the subtext which seems to tell fifteen-year-old girls that everything in the world is bad if they’re getting angry with their parents, kissing boys and wearing Goth ClothesTM. There’s something discordant about a deeply creative film advocating (even softly and inadvertently) obedience and conformity. But while the story remains predominant, these quibbles do fade quickly when the splendor of McKean’s projected imagination asserts itself.

From the Archive: Pride & Prejudice

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This was written fairly early in my return to movie reviews, when I was finally figuring out how to make reasonable use out these online tundras.
When adapting a Jane Austen novel such as Pride & Prejudice, it must be sorely tempting to try every conceivable trick to make it visually engaging. This sort of period piece from the Approved Canon of Great Literature is especially prone to becoming the sort of staid veddy, veddy English film that Eddie Izzard once identified as “a room with a view with a staircase and a pond type movies.” (“What is it, Sebastian? I’m arranging matches.”) I offer this viewpoint not to excuse first-time feature film director Joe Wright for his flourish-filled effort, but to allow that I understand where he’s coming from.

That acknowledged, there are a couple sections early on in the film when it seems like Wright has a brother-in-law who needs work in the field of laying down mini-railways for tracking shots. The camera runs roughshod through scenes like a little kid who ate too many biscuits with his afternoon tea. Worse, it does so for no discernible purpose. The roving camerawork brings us no deeper into this world, it only proves that Wright can employ some roving camerawork. There are similar distractions involving time passing viewed from a twirling swing, disappearing dancers in a key scene and so on.

It’s especially problematic because the film actually works quite well when Wright simply settles down and let the solidity of the story carry the weight. Austen’s novel was first published in 1813. It follows the Bennet sisters as they make the societal rounds with the notion of securing a husband always in mind. At the forefront is Elizabeth Bennet, forthright, stubborn and quick-witted. This character is played by Keira Knightley, who is perhaps overly reliant on deploying a giggle to fill space when the script gives her little else to do, but acquits herself quite nicely any time she is called upon to rattle off a string of sharp-edged sentences that demonstrate Elizabeth’s considerable smarts.

It seems you can’t discuss a Pride & Prejudice adaptation without addressing the quality of the production’s Mr. Darcy, the rich gentleman whose combative acquaintance with Elizabeth grows into a deeper affection. I’ll settle that account by noting the relative newcomer Matthew MacFayden is quite good in the role, especially in the early scenes in which he survey the gaiety of society parties with cold dead eyes that would make the late great character actor J.T. Walsh proud. And it’s not his fault, after all, that he looks ridiculous in his late film hunky stride across a misty meadow. Unless you’re David Coverdale in a 1980’s Whitesnake video, you’ve really got no business doing that sort of thing.

The back-and-forth between these two characters (and performers) is highly engaging. And Donald Sutherland really excels as the patriarch of the family, finding the right mix of weary resignation with his family of busybodies and tender appreciation of their charms. That family of busybodies is a little more problematic for us in the audience, as Wright continues to amp up the fluttery nonsense of these young women waiting for suitors and their mother’s anxious championing of their marriage worthiness. At times it becomes painfully silly, as if Wright is planning to pitch Those Bennet Sisters as a BBC2 sitcom. It’s just further evidence that the fussier Wright gets, the less effective the film gets. Austen’s novel has endured for almost 200 years, and the potency of her tale can overcome all these little misguided attempts to make it more palatable for modern audiences. But in making these choices Wright is doing his film, and himself, no favors.

From the Archive: Sin City

There was talk about a Sin City sequel after from the very moment of its release. Much as I loved the original film, I never thought returning to the stylized world was a good idea. I’m somewhat surprised anyone still maintained there was any wisdom in the idea after Frank Miller delivered a colossal bomb with the de facto sequel found in his official directing debut, the film adaptation of Will Eisner’s The Spirit. This piece was included in my year-end countdown after I’d started writing film reviews again at my original online home. As the first sentence notes, I listed it under the longer, possessive-adorned name at the time.

I’m using the title with the possessive statement in part because that’s the official title according to the Motion Picture Association of America (and I figure they ought to know), but mostly because it serves as an apt description of the film. Sin City is unmistakably Frank Miller’s vision, lifted from the page and transposed to the screen. Director Robert Rodriguez stuck to his conviction that Miller’s stylized visuals from his series of graphic novels should be the look of the film adaption with such rigid adherence that one can hold the printed pages up to the flickering lights of Rodriguez’s project and find nary a difference. Miller’s original work served as storyboards to be sure, but there are moments that could almost convince that individual panels were clipped and used as actual frames of film. When it comes to director Robert Rodriguez (or co-director in this instance as he insisted Miller get equal billing and subcontracted a sequence out to Quentin Tarantino) I admire his work ethic, his belief in family, his commitment to working at his home studio in Texas; basically everything but his filmmaking. Up to this point, I’ve been umimpressed with everything he’s seen, and even found some of it nearly unwatchable. So it’s tempting to assume that the artistic success of Sin City is wholly attributable to working from someone else’s sturdy framework, but I think that would be selling Rodriguez short. In the remarkable work Understanding Comics, cartoonist Scott McCloud examines the power that exists between the panels of sequential art storytelling, the way the reader fills in the gaps to complete the story. To a degree that’s what Rodriguez has done here: found the sweep and energy and binding imagery that can pull together Miller’s collection of grim, amped-up visuals and gritty stories of cops, dames, and thugs. And what Rodriguez creates between the panels is outrageously dynamic, taking Miller’s original effort and making it something more than an experiment in rendering film noir in pen and ink. The film is violent and harsh, often cartoonishly so, but it bears with it a frenzied conviction in the world it depicts that is utterly engrossing. Despite the fact that Miller took his original cues from Hollywood film noir, you’ve never seen anything like this on screen, the hard-edged black and white punctuated by dollops of vivid color on city streets that look the way they should, but not a way they ever really could. Every bit of this film is drunk with the possibilities of visual storytelling, the brash freedom that comes with fearlessly throwing wild inspiration onscreen. All it took was a dedicated moviemaker who read a comic, thought it would look great on a movie screen, and set out to prove himself right.