From the Archive: Margot at the Wedding

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Since the new Noah Baumbach movie, The Meyerowitz Chronicles, has arrived, the time seems right to dig out this old review of the director’s fourth feature, released ten years ago. It was Baumbach’s follow-up to The Squid and the Whale, his most successful film, by several measures, to that point, amping up expectations for what proved to be a fairly sour cinematic experience. That was Baumbach’s goal, to be sure, but the segue into Bergmanesue drama didn’t particularly suit him.  

While generally very good, Margot at the Wedding perhaps could have used a little less dedicated approach to maintaining the integrity of its unlikable characters. His prior film, The Squid and the Whale, unexpectedly established Noah Baumbach as a writer skilled at depicting the emotional abuses that can occur within families and a director unafraid of pushing that material at the audience with discomforting plain-spoken forcefulness. If anything, he ups the ante with Margot.

The film focuses on two sisters reuniting after a stretch of angry silence as a wedding approaches. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the bride-to-be and Nicole Kidman is her domineering sister, a woman seemingly incapable of saying a single thing that isn’t, on some level, intended to wound. Kidman’s character is the most relentlessly negative, but the whole array of characters is loaded down with unpleasant tendencies. Leigh’s character is more commonly victimized, but she also has enough flares of her sibling’s armor-piercing judgment to establish that as a common family trait. Jack Black’s groom-to-be easily lapses into futile fury and other inappropriate behavior. There’s a poisonously egotistical writer with his own cruel streak played by Ciaran Hinds and even a set of creepy backwoods neighbors who grimly stare down the people on the other side of the fence when they’re not stripping down to underpants to gut animals in the kitchen. It gets so pervasive that when John Turturro shows us a relatively nice, well-adjusted guy you wonder how he got there, both into the family and into the movie.

This reservation aside, the film is still of this fine new vintage of Baumbach: intelligent discourse laced with inspired, bitter humor and acted with nakedly honest performances. This bleak picture holds some power because it’s grounded in recognizable truths, truths especially familiar to anyone who has ever had cause to apply the word “dysfunctional” to any part of their family circle. Every line of dialogue is a scar, painful because it is a reminder of old wounds. It’s almost a relief when the closing credits finally appear. That may make for tough going, but it’s also a central goal of the film.

From the Archive: Juno

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Few filmmakers experienced quite as precipitous a drop as Jason Reitman. He went from back-to-back Best Director nominations to a pair of films that were universally panned (with, it’s worth noting, one compromised but ambition feature in between). Through it all, he’s at least had the live reads, regular events that brought together impressive groups of actors to offer one-time-only, live stage performances of some truly beloved screenplays. Though the event is officially retired as an ongoing concern, Reitman is clearly keeping it in his back pocket, ready to throw on the table when the moment is right, such as a live reading of the screenplay for his breakthrough film, Juno, with proceeds going to Planned Parenthood. While Juno has — and has always had — its detractors, I still think its strengths outweigh its weaknesses. And the prospect of Ellen Page returning ten years later to the role in which she spun such acting wizardry is enough to make me long for a ticket. This is the review I wrote when Juno was released.

Debuting screenwriter Diablo Cody spends the first ten or fifteen minutes of Juno trying ever so desperately to prove herself as a someone with a distinctive voice–the film is rife with hyper-stylized dialogue and boasts an immediate sardonic distance from it’s small-town Midwestern setting. Every word uttered by every character seems to reach for some level of arch distinctiveness. Luckily, after that somewhat anxious beginning, the script settles down and the remainder proves decisively that Cody does indeed have a unique voice and it’s worthy of attention. In other words, after some initial squirming, I sort of loved Juno.

The film is a comedy about teen pregnancy, pointed in its consideration of cavalier youth and the neediness of the classes above and deeply sympathetic to most every character that edges onto the screen. It is a movie with unexpected reservoirs of hope and happiness, finding some measure of contentment in its own worried cynicism. It shows how difficult it is for people to come together thereby enhancing its moments when honest, unadorned connections happen. Cody creates indelible characters and puts them forth on perilous emotional routes.

It’s Cody’s name that most often invoked when talking about the film, making her perhaps the most discussed Oscar-bound scribe since two dopey friends from Boston wrote themselves a couple parts. Maybe it’s because her backstory as a filmmaker is more compelling than that of the director, which boils down to “they’re letting the kid of the guy who directed Ghostbusters make movies now,” but it’s worth noting that Juno represents a major step forward for Jason Reitman as a director since his debut, 2005’s Thank You For Smoking. While that film was muddled, flailing around looking for a consistent tone to call it’s own, Juno is assured and compact, downright thrilling in its thoughtful humor and barbed asides.

Reitman has seemingly also found a better approach to working with his actors and helping to mold his performance. Smoking was often marred by uneven, disjointed work among its cast. Juno boasts tremendous work all around, led by the practical paternal attention of J.K. Simmons and the wondrous work of Ellen Page in the title role. Page was deeply impressive in last year’s Hard Candy. Here she takes a complicated band of emotions, often disguised by mordant wit, and portrays it all with great care and crackling invention. She herself goes a long way towards making the jigsaw words of Cody’s script into something firm and believable.

In the end, no matter the stumbles, the film is warm and winning. And, in the end, the film has one of the best endings of the year.

From the Archive: 3:10 to Yuma

For the opening weekend of Logan, I initially figured I’d simply link to the consideration of the old Wolverine limited series that I wrote for Spectrum Culture ages ago. For reasons I still can’t pin down, this “Revisit” piece was by far my most widely praised contribution to that site. Then I remembered I also have a stray review of a film by James Mangold, director of Logan, hanging out at my former online home, just waiting to get transferred over.

I’ve spent quite some time trying to figure out how to approach the review of the new film 3:10 To Yuma. It’s not that I’m especially conflicted about it or that I find the film so drab that it’s had to conjure up a big batch of words about it (this certainly happens from time to time). Instead, I kept coming back to a single observation that can be applied redundantly to several principle collaborators. So, in the spirit of another regular feature ’round these here parts, I offer to you…

Five Contributors To 3:10 To Yuma Who Seem Especially Well-Suited To Westerns

1. Russell Crowe. The combative Aussie thespian has long been hit-or-miss for me, far more than most actors with similarly serious reputations and extensive acclaim. His self-regard shows up too often in his performances, a seeming personal satisfaction with his command of the craft that oozes through his performances. I watch A Beautiful Mind or Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and see the actorly choices and an accompanying stiffness that I guess others see as something far more transformational. One of his first American films was Sam Raimi’s blissfully bonkers western The Quick and the Dead and none of these shortcomings were apparent there, which I always chalked up to the relative humility of an actor who hadn’t yet broken through with anything approaching permanence. Now I think it may have been the manly restraint of the genre that held him in check (certainly those flaws that rankle me are fully apparent in his other studio film from around that time. He is more willing to subsume himself in the role and let the material come through without his mannered tinkering. It help that any glimpses of egotism nicely fit the character he plays, a legendary outlaw, who finds himself unexpectedly captured after a stagecoach job.

2. Christian Bale. If Crowe tends towards overly fussy work, Bale is in many ways the opposite. He’s an actor that withdraws to the point of disappearing, often flattening his British accent until it is a verbal pattern devoid of any nationality or region. There’s a reason why strapping himself into the batsuit and inhabiting the dehumanized focus of Bruce Wayne was a breakthrough performance for him. As a failing rancher who finds some sort of personal redemption in his part in capturing the storied villain and delivering him to the long train track of the law, Bale settles into the character’s hesitancy and restraint. There’s a coldness and focus that feels right on the hard, baked dust of the plains, and the freedom from the need for bold outward gestures lets Bale do what he does best, signal the inner conflicts and wounds of his character.

3. James Mangold. The director of Walk the Line has spent ten years churning out sturdy enough films for about a decade, following up the heartfelt stillness of his indie debut Heavy with a series of endeavors that always seem to promise a little more than they deliver (for awhile Entertainment Weekly could be counted on to tout each developing project as a surefire Oscar contender that every actor in town wanted to dive into). Mangold is a solid craftsman, but hasn’t ever brought real fire to a project. That very sturdiness free of flash is a perfect match for Mangold’s stalwart camera. The most grounded of filmmakers meets the most grounded of genres and the results are, as might be expected, deeply satisfying.

4. Ben Foster. Foster is a good actor in a moviemaking world stripped of roles that benefit from his fervent invention. Here he plays one of the more off-kilter members of the criminal gang intent on freeing their former boss before his placed on the titular train to prison. It’s not necessarily a great performance, but it’s a fearless one, feathered with colorful details and carefully warped line readings. And yet he keeps it grounded enough that key moments of recognition or tethered thought processes are right in character.

5. Elmore Leonard. While I’ve read some of the punchy works of the author, I’ve missed the westerns from early in his career. Of course his work is right at home: the precise, piercing dialogue placed in the mouths of men who feel the effort and ease of being men with every step, laced with dry humor that is black as campfire coffee. I don’t know if the strained character shift in the closing act is his doing or some sort of Hollywood invention, but the closing moments seem purely a product of his typewriter. And, like most work that bears his literary signature, it is a pleasure to take in.

From the Archive: Hairspray

 

It boggles the mind that a film written and directed by John Waters has had such a long afterlife that, nearly thirty years after the original creation, Hairspray can serve as wholesome televised family entertainment during the holiday season. And though translation into a full-blown musical was part of the journey, the Waters vision wasn’t sanitized in the slightest. (Admittedly, this all derives from about the only film in the Waters oeuvre that could work with this treatment.) This is the review I wrote for the film version of the musical, originally posted at my previous online home.

Honestly, the perfectly executed John Waters cameo was enough to made me glad I saw it.

Waters is of course the unique auteur behind the original 1988 film that served as the foundation for the Tony-winning musical that in turn generated the new star-filled big screen musical Hairspray. The 1988 effort is a little wonder, an ode to the teen music shows of Waters youth, tinged with a thrilling candy-colored nostalgia but cut with hard honesty of racial divides. It’s probably saying to much to call that film profound, but it’s also saying too little to call it a trifle.

The new Hairspray is a trifle.

In conveying the story of overweight teen Tracy Turnblad, who powers past the image-conscious powers-that-be to secure a spot on the afternoon dance-fest “The Corny Collins Show,” eventually raising her own consciousness through friendship with the kids whose time on the tube is typically relegated to the monthly “Negro Day,” the film still touches on these issues that are greater than mastering the footwork to “Madison Time.” Yet, while Waters brought a rambunctiousness to his political points, an impish boundary-pushing that gave the ideas their own sort of daring, the musical is more likely to get at these concerns with a misplaced solemnity or, at best, a wry appraisal from the vantage of forty-five years past the film’s chronological setting. This manifests itself clearly in the music. Songwriter and composer Marc Shaiman is always at his best when he’s allowing himself to be loose and funny. When he strains for seriousness, condensing the power of the “we shall overcome” sentiment into a show tune, say, the results are typically dour. All this potent posturing actually serves to make the film feel more forgettable, more insignificant that Waters’ spirited predecessor.

That’s not to say that the new film doesn’t have its entertainment value. By definition, trifles are pretty sweet and enjoyable, and Hairspray is generally ingratiating and resplendent with inspired casting choices, from Michelle Pfeiffer, as a villainous ex-beauty queen, to Queen Latifah, who is truly the only person who could step in for the late Ruth Brown as Motormouth Maybelle. Even Amanda Bynes is a perfectly match, blinking brightly as the blankly sweet Penny Pingleton.

The film’s most notable casting trick is getting John Travolta to fill Divine’s muu-muu, and it’s to his credit that he approaches the role without a hint of condescension or winking camp. He’s genuinely trying to get to the heart of this role, playing a woman who has effectively been a shut-in for a decade experiencing a sort of rebirth through her daughter’s passion for facing the world unafraid. Travolta’s Edna Turnblad is sweet, easily hurt by the judgment of others and, at times, downright adorable. While he settles into the role nicely, it’s not quite right to say that you forgot it’s Travolta. If anything, there’s an extra added kick to his scenes because of his history on film. I doubt think there’s an actor in the last thirty years who’s more dependably made his presence felt on screen through the vividness of his physical grace, especially in dancing scenes. Sure, this made him a star in Saturday Night Fever and Grease, but it’s also the case in movies as different as Pulp Fiction and Look Who’s Talking. To see him successfully employ that same skill while in drag and weighed down in a fat suit is engrossing in its own way.

It would have been nice is the director had matched his cast. Adam Shankman is a choreographer who’s previous film directing efforts fill every last screen of the multiplex in hell, and, while he does a serviceable job here, he never gets the film to kick into the sort of buzzy overdrive that it needs. He has too much of a penchant for unnecessary cutaways, the sure sign of a director lacking in creativity. Certainly John Waters always knew the value of holding a shot. Shankman may have done a decent job honoring John Waters’ affection for the underdog, but has none of his predecessor’s warped panache. That, maybe more than anything else, is what this new movie really needs.

From the Archive: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

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If nothing else, let the sharing of this today be a reminder that Roger Deakins doesn’t have an Academy Award yet.

The first twenty minutes or so of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford promises a magnificent film. Writer-director Andrew Dominik begins his second feature with the last train robbery of the James Gang, though it is an oddly cobbled together version of those legendary outlaws, populated by one-off hires from a local town. Dominik shows these miscreants bantering anxiously in their camp and the dialogue snaps with engrossing, smartly revelatory energy, especially when it’s coming from the mouth of Bob Ford. In a major step forward as an actor, Casey Affleck plays Ford with an anxious pushiness, a volatile vulnerability, a gleeful, tending aching for notoriety. Watching him try awkwardly to ingratiate himself with each of the James brothers makes for high comedy tinged by pathos.

Besides this, the beginning is especially notable for the sort of stunning images that are the aspirational dreams of every young filmmaker who’s genuflected before the projected loveliness of a Terrence Malick film. Dominik holds shots long enough to allow for ample savoring of their artful composition and richly realized cinematography (the Coen Brothers’ longtime director of photography, Roger Deakins, is the man behind the camera here). The film offers an ongoing invitation to get lost in the picturesque.

This mix of flinty, character-driven writing and pretension-skirting and photographic set pieces may not be truly sustainable for the full film. Dominik needs to get down to the business of telling the story of the final days of Jesse James, the ways in which his unpredictable paranoia and sudden bursts of cruelty impacted his relationships with these last few men who affiliated themselves with him and life of crime. There’s still room for the sort of grand imagery that fills the first portion of the film, but it shares flickering frames with the more conventional overall story. This isn’t especially problematic as Dominik shows a sure hand for balancing out the different elements, only lapsing when he tries to instill too much heavy import into certain moments, such as the scene that gives the film its title. Things are much better when Dominik allows the small details to make his points. No matter how much he tries to heighten the drama in the supposed “big” scenes, the greatest impact comes from just Jesse gently calming his horse after committing a murderous act or roughly, relentlessly interrogating an innocent farm boy.

Brad Pitt does solid work as Jesse, although his fame has reached the point where, no matter how much he wants to immerse himself in character work, it’s exceedingly hard for him to disappear into a role. He could simply be suffering in comparison, though, as the film is filled with superior performances. Besides Affleck, Sam Shepherd instills an inspired craggy crankiness to Frank James, Sam Rockwell deploys his usual wild inventiveness as Charley Ford and noted “Deadwood” double-dipper Garret Dillahunt plays the slow-witted reticence of a another gang member to perfection. Best of the lot is Paul Schneider as the verbose Dick Liddil, perhaps the one person in the crew who is shrewd enough to fully understand what he’s gotten himself into.

Make no mistake, Jesse James is long and sometimes challenging, but, at its best, Dominik’s film has the stately power of an twilight elegy.

From the Archive: The Simpsons Movie

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This weekend, The Simpsons airs its 600th episode. an achievement that’s downright mind-boggling. Currently on its twenty-eighth season, it’s the longest-running scripted primetime series in U.S. television history, outpacing Gunsmoke by eight years and counting. (The dramatic shift in typical episode orders over the years means Gunsmoke still aired about 35 more episodes than The Simpsons has thus far.) In commemoration of the new milestone, this is the review I wrote for the long-gestating film version of The Simpsons that arrived in theaters almost ten years ago.

Back in 1995, Time film reviewer Richard Corliss submitted his list of the top films of the year. Nestled in among the expected costume dramas, foreign films and arthouse fare was the Simpsons episode “Bart Sells His Soul.” It was a strange, silly, unexpected bit of rule-bending from a major critic, and, the more you thought about it, exactly right. The episode in question is The Simpsons at its best, artfully skewering religion with heretical glee while remaining slyly pious, and deconstructing the booming artificiality of American culture. It does so with sharp writing cemented in character, throwaway moments of pointed satire and even a Pablo Neruda reference (that remains one of my all-time favorite Simpsons lines). If Corliss was prepared to tout this animated half-hour as finer than hundreds of films, he could likely maker a stronger case than anyone arguing the contrary point.

So it’s not necessarily a slight to decide that The Simpsons Movie just feels like an extra-long episode of the tv series. Then again, we’re well removed from the heady heights of season seven. The show has long-sinced evolved away from being a regular dispenser of savage, shrewd commentary in densely perfect episodes. 400 episodes into a historic run with no clear endpoint, it is an institution, still smart and funny, but a victim of its own extraordinary accomplishments. Strong episodes come more rarely, and inevitably suffer in comparison with the nightly rerun reminders of former greatness.

The Simpsons movie is strong, funny, and a little unremarkable. The filmmakers are generous enough to make sure that fan favorites supporting characters get their moments to briefly shine (Ralph Wiggum afficiondos will likely rejoice at the quality and forgive the limited quantity of his screen time) and there may be a line or two that elbows its way into the remarkable pantheon of Simpsons quotables. The plot will likely recede into the blur of others involving unique new pets, Marge growing weary of Homer’s blundering selfishness, Lisa developing a crush, and aquatic environmentalism, but the truest measure of the effectiveness of any Simpsons episode these days is whether or not is it worth revisiting. The Movie succeeds in that regard.

This trip to Springfield (and beyond) is comforting and satisfying. It doesn’t matter that the film doesn’t immediately merit inclusion with the likes of “Krusty Gets Kancelled,” or “Rosebud” or “Lisa the Vegetarian or, yes indeed, “Bart Sells His Soul.” By this point The Simpsons has changed the very face of comedy more decisively than any contemporary purveyor (aside, perhaps, from David Letterman) and crafted a twenty year statement on American culture, norms, prejudices and aspirations, and that should be enough to allow the movie to be simply another entertaining chapter in that ongoing accomplishment.

From the Archive: The Shadow and I Know Who Killed Me

We’re taking advantage of the weekend’s gloomy weather to stage a little in-house film festival. The DVR needs clearing, you understand. That got me to thinking about multiple feature nights over the years that have, deliberately, been a little more painful.  

In the past, our Bad Movie Nights have been meticulously constructed double features, which is admittedly pretty easy when Hollywood releases wonderfully rotten volcano movies within weeks of one another. These days we’re more likely to discover some happy disaster on the cable schedule, immediately add it to our DVR and begin hunting, often futilely, for something to pair it with.

Which is how we got the odd pairing depicted in the amateurish logo above. The only thing the films have in common is making a plot point of garish rings of the sort you would usually see nestled inside a decommissioned gumball machine or on the finger of a sophomore thespian portraying a gypsy in a high school stage production of Stephen King’s Thinner. This connection, quite honestly, is good enough for us anyway.

The first film we watched was The Shadow (Russell Mulcahy, 1994), a misguided attempt to start a big summer franchise in the wake of the runaway success of Tim Burton’s Batman films. While this came out in the dwindling comet tail of my official movie-reviewing days, I remember very little of how it was received beyond the fact that it was a box office disappointment. Any uncertainty about whether or not this would be appropriate Bad Movie Night selection was eradicated by the opening sequence which found Alec Baldwin with a head of long, stringy hair and overgrown fingernails striding about the Asian palace he rules with despotic fervor by barking out commands in Mandarin. For Bad Movie Night, this is practically the definition of a good beginning.

Turns out it was more of tease. There is ample opportunity to laugh at Baldwin’s performance (this is during the part of career in which a unique brand of smug casualness infected most of his work), the clunky plot, the chintzy special effects (any temptation to forgive them as of the era is hampered by the fact that “the era” is “one year after Jurassic Park“), the casting of Penelope Ann Miller as an alluring femme fatale, the colossal phoniness of the sets…it really goes on and on. But its greatest problem is that it’s hopelessly boring. Even mocking it gets dull. So it joins Motel Hell, Glitter, and (good lord) Raven Hawk on the short list of Bad Movie Night offerings that we gave up on entirely, hitting the stop button well before the conclusion.

That just meant an earlier start time for our main feature, the film that inspired this particular Bad Movie Night: I Know Who Killed Me (Chris Sivertson, 2007) starring Lindsay Lohan. This selection was partially inspired by a shameful but undeniable desire to see how drastically bad Lohan’s choices are getting as she swerves her once-promising career into oncoming traffic, but the howling bad reviews the film got last year, raging about the convoluted plot and flat acting, marked it as the kind of movie that we’ve often loved after already drinking through 90 to 120 minutes of garbage.

It’s impossible to discuss this film without heaping criticism on Lohan. First of all, her appearance is shocking, even distracting. She was about twenty years old when she made this movie, but she looks easily fifteen years older. Her voice is raspy enough to sound like what you’d hear if tree bark could talk and her skin looks like one of those bota bags hippies used to drink wine out of. She’s playing a dual role here, and, to be fair, these qualities arguably work for one of the characters. Unfortunately, she looks equally haggard when playing the whistle-clean suburban teen bound for an ivy league university. She is so detached from everything going on that what she’s doing can barely be called acting. No matter how intense or strange the thing she’s talking about, she uses the same tone of hurried disinterest. She describes fantastical theories like she’s announcing she decided not to go to the mall after all.

The film is a muddled mix of torture porn, psychological trickery and ludicrous paranormal nonsense. Just to make sure it doesn’t get too confusing, director Chris Sivertson sets up a plodding sort of symbolism with red and blue motifs to help differentiate between the two paths a person can take. All it does is leave a big purple bruise on your brain.