From the Archive — Happy-Go-Lucky

sally happy

As this slightly worrisome Oscar season continues to shower precursor awards on the problematic film about mass advertising on the outskirts of a small community, spare a thought for the fleeting front-runners from earlier in the cycle. Barring a major surprise in my continuing catch-up on 2017 releases, I remain firmly on Team Saoirse for any and all Best Actress in a Leading Role trophies. Even so, I have tremendous affection for the work Sally Hawkins delivers in The Shape of Water. Of course, I also thought she should have been a contender about a decade ago.

In his best films, Mike Leigh’s unique approach to crafting characters and a story is surprisingly invisible. Leigh famously builds his art by bringing actors together, giving them softly defined roles and working through improvisations until he finds his way to what he wants. He embraces the collective to reach the personal. This isn’t apparent in the meticulous poignancy of Secrets and Lies or the tightly plotting of Vera Drake. In lesser hands, these films would be as freewheeling as a half-baked Judd Apatow comedy. Leigh makes them focused and pointed.

His new film Happy-Go-Lucky, on the other hand, seems like a product of an extended exercise in playfulness. It’s loose and shambling, prone to anecdotal meanderings and just scattered enough that it sometimes feels more like the first episode of a loopy television series, introducing the characters that will each get their turn in coming weeks. It plainly doesn’t hold together, and that absence of cohesion makes it slight. As it turns out, that’s a pretty good thing, too.

Happy-Go-Lucky follows Poppy, a British schoolteacher whose relentless cheerfulness is perfect for guiding young children in constructing bird masks out of paper bags, and equally effective for ribald nightclubbing, contentious driving lessons and the general murky travails of life. There are friendships to value, potential romances to cultivate and the cheery busywork of afternoon dance classes or trampoline exercise sessions to beam through. Challenges arise to be met, but not necessarily resolved. Leigh’s narrative is relaxed in its open-ended quality, as if Leigh is asking his audience to adopt Poppy’s conviction that everything will turn out all right. The proof of that doesn’t exist in tidy culminating scenes, but in our own optimism.

This film may also contain one of the purer manifestations of Leigh’s methodology in a performance. Sally Hawkins’ zippily wondrous turn as Poppy could easily be one sharp note, a comic conceit with no soul. Instead, Poppy is fully developed with layers that belie simplistic impressions of how this character should operate. Poppy’s character is built from the inside out with reserves of compassion, insight and intelligence that can get obscured by her regular bursts of cheeky laughter. Hawkins could have easily coasted on a spirited twinkle to play her. Instead, she has thought through every bit of her and the thoroughness makes everything richer.

I’ve seen the seams in Leigh’s work before, in the charmless maneuvering of Career Girls or the buckshot quirk of the acclaimed Life is Sweet. This time, it’s not a problem. Indeed, the metaphor needs revamping. Instead of seams, it’s the framework that Leigh has willingly put on display. This is one of the instances in which seeing the framework is just a reminder that the structure is sturdy.

From the Archive: Smart People


When I was reviewing films for a weekly radio show, I had to see practically everything that came through our modest little college town. In the few years after I had a diploma and no regular responsibilities for writing about the latest titles to grace the multiplex, I still saw nearly every major release that hit theaters. After that I was far more selectively, which sometimes leaves me wondering why I saw a particular film while it played in first-run theaters. I believe the outing that led directly into this review was because our household briefly — and occasionally to our unexpected benefit — decided we were going to follow Ellen Page anywhere.

Sometimes a film is filled with characters so consumed by their personal animosities that the film itself begins to feel angry, as if it will start barking complaints at the moviegoers about how they’re sitting too close or munching their popcorn too loudly. In Smart People Dennis Quaid’s literature professor character is angry about his deceased wife and any number of perceived slights from his academic institution, and his students are angry that he doesn’t remember their names. Sarah Jessica Parker plays an emergency room physician he encounters after a bad fall from the top of a chain link fence, and she’s angry about having to deal with him and other combative people. Ellen Page plays his daughter, angry that her S.A.T, preparation is disrupted by this medical emergency, and Ashton Holmes plays his son, who’s angry for no discernible reason. Perhaps its just some mood-based invocation of the “when in Rome” principle. The only one who regards the world with any degree of sympathy is the ne’er-do-well adopted brother played by Thomas Haden Church.

That relentless cynicism is okay by me as long as it’s accompanied by some inventive storytelling and depth of character. That’s where Smart People is really lacking. Mark Poirier’s script has a point of view, but little to express about it, and director Noam Murro films it with dutiful efficiency. There’s a grim outlook and a narrative destination point where the mandates of character development insist somewhat on the outlook lightening. The process of getting there is haphazard and poorly thought out. Characters make choices with no compelling drive to do so. You can reasonably puzzle out Page’s disgruntled exploration of the wilder parts of herself or Parker’s circling of Quaid as a love interest, but the film doesn’t provide much reason to believe in these developments. The film is barbed and clever, peppered with the intelligence that the title promises. It’s also rarely believable or built upon recognizable emotions, which makes it feel empty.

From the Archive — In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale and Jumper


As is usually the case with Bad Movie Night posts, I had a lot of fun writing this — it originally appeared at my former online home — but, being honest, the only true necessity on this page is the hyperlink found within the sentence “No amount of typing can describe it adequately.”

Last night we found ourselves we a quick-witted guest, a hearty supply of good beer and a few spare hours. In our household, that’s an irresistible invitation to wallow in some choice cinematic ineptitude. After steeling ourselves with a dinner of lamb steaks, Guinness-battered onion rings, and country-style potatoes, we gathered anxiously for Bad Movie Night.

While we have a ready supply of DVDs standing by for just such an occasion, we decided it was worth a last minute check of the battalion of movie channels that come clattering through our satellite dish. After all, most of them favor less accomplished fare (number of showings of P.S. I Love You scheduled on HBO channels in January: 17). Perhaps there might be some options suitable for the evening’s theme.

This is how we found our way to our first ever Uwe Boll film.

Boll is a notoriously bad filmmaker, often cited as the worst working today. At least he’s considered the worst working with regularity, sizable budgets, and some amount of studio support. Knowing little more about the film than Mr. Boll’s reputation, we began the evening with the cumbersomely named In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (Uwe Boll, 2008). If that title makes you think of a certain fantasy epic that snared a record number of Oscars a couple years ago, then the marketing brigade has won. The association is clearly coveted. This fantasy film is rife with creatures and battle sequences that look as if they were retrieved from the Weta Workshop discard bin. Based on a video game (a media source that has never been wise for Hollywood producers to plumb), the film is a standard-issue parade of sword-and-sorcery nonsense, rendered breathtakingly awful by Boll’s ineptness. Distant establishing shots (taken from crane, helicopter, far-off mountain peaks, and, perhaps, spacecraft) are inserted nearly randomly. Scenes don’t build and conclude, flowing into the next. They just end suddenly, like dropped eggs. It’s hard to tell if Boll doesn’t really know how movie scenes are supposed to be shaped or if he prefers they reflect some sort of personal mental restlessness. It would almost be better is he announced “I’m bored now” on the soundtrack before cutting to the next bit of inane business. At least there would be a discernible reason for the shifts.

There are so many beautifully bad elements at play in the movie: the hackneyed mechanics of royal lineage with cackling duplicity and surprise heirs, the mystical race of women who control forest greenery and come yo-yoing out of the treetops like barbiturate-addled Cirque du Soleil performers, and, when things seemingly can’t get any more absurd, the sudden appearance of springy ninjas tumbling through the air to fight side-by-side with the armored warriors. For all that, it is the casting that is most giddily, grandly disastrous. There’s Matthew Lillard bugging out his eyes and contorting his face as a villainous schemer. There’s Ron Perlman, gruffly disinterested as a cohort of our farmer hero. There’s Leelee Sobieski, looking so shell-shocked as a proto-feminist princess soldier that it’s easy to imagine that she spent the entire production with “I was once in a Kubrick movie, I was once in a Kubrick movie” echoing desperately in her brain. There’s Ray Liotta, sneering wildly in the midst of late-eighties music video effects as some sort of evil sorcerer dressed in a Matrix-knockoff leather jacket that looks like it was purchased online. And, in arguably the most telling indicator of the film’s quality, Burt Reynolds as the besieged king. What’s that like? No amount of typing can describe it adequately.

After that, the comparatively tame failings of Jumper (Doug Liman, 2008) were somewhat anticlimactic. That doesn’t mean the movie was good. It is still a blatant franchise grab with Hayden Christensen as a teleporting twenty-something who discovers that he is not unique, but is instead part of a whole class of people known as Jumpers who are being hunted and destroyed by a group calling themselves Paladins, led by Samuel L. Jackson with all-purpose flour rubbed into his hair. It would take a director of uncommon wit and creativity to forge something watchable from these raw materials, and Doug Liman, no matter how much the first Bourne movie may have inflated his reputation, doesn’t meet those qualifications.

You’d have to engage in quite a hunt through the least loved corners of the DVD rental emporium to find another film that so positions itself for a sequel. Pilot episodes of television series have more closure than this thing, with every character properly positioned to easily step back into the fray should the movie gods be so cruel as to actually let Jumper 2 come to fruition. If it does, maybe Liman can turn the second installment over to Uwe Boll. Burt Reynolds would make a fantastic Jumper general.

From the Archive: Changeling

When I started reviewing films on the radio, in 1990, Clint Eastwood was still larger considered a movie star who occasionally directing movies, almost as a hobby. That consensus view was understandable, but also needlessly dismissive. Within the first few months of our radio show, Eastwood released his fourteenth and fifteen features as a director, one terrific and one atrocious. Now eighty-six years old, Eastwood has acted only twice in the past ten years. Including 2006, he’s directed ten films, and in three of those years he’s had two separate offerings released as the same calendar hangs on the wall. 


Clint Eastwood is a director who resolutely, rigidly adheres to the material he’s chosen. He has a fine visual sense, to be sure, and is an effective storyteller, but he’s not going to pull a film together by bringing his passions, sensibilities and personal inspiration to bear on the project. He’s a seasoned factory worker doing his part to get the car built. In the end, it may be a sturdy piece of craftsmanship, but it’s easier to see it as admirable construct that a piece of vivid art. That’s one of the reasons screenwriter Paul Haggis has been a well-suited collaborator on recent films. Haggis leans on cliches, finding small ways to tweak expectations in the process. It’s given Eastwood familiar narrative angles that play to his strengths and allowed just enough freshness in the fringes to compel some amount of forgiveness for the pieces that stand out as worn-out movie moments. Million Dollar Baby may be manipulative melodrama, but it’s gripping manipulative melodrama.

The screenwriter of Eastwood’s latest film, the wrenching drama Changeling, is J. Michael Straczynski. Straczynski’s most notable prior work has been highly episodic in nature. Those writing habits manifest in the script as it builds to multiple climaxes instead of rolling out a single cohesive story. Eastwood, ever dutiful to his script, doesn’t smooth that out, giving the film a bumpy feel.

That unyielding solidity of Eastwood’s approach–an old school stodginess almost–is as much a strength as it is a weakness. Based on a true story, the film centers on the anguish of Christine Collins, whose son disappeared in the late 1920’s. After several months, the Los Angeles Police Department reported they’d found him, but Christine insisted the boy they presented to her was not her offspring. Her efforts to convince the authorities of their mistake and to force them to continue in the hunt for her son were met with outright hostility and even persecution. Eastwood has a sure hand in depicting this. The lives of Christine and her son are laid out with unfussy care and the escalation of her woe is palpable. The thematic points about the casual sexism of the era and the ways in which fear of negative public perception drove the decision-making of the authorities is embedded rather than overt.

It helps immeasurably that Eastwood has Angelina Jolie in the central role. Jolie is inescapably a star, but, placed in the right film, she is a shrewd, graceful actor of the highest capability. She makes a choice that seems especially honest given the cultural time and the circumstances of the film: She plays Christine with a greatly tentative nature. Even as she’s pushing against the system, she’s quick to acquiesce to the powers that impatiently knock her back down. Jolie’s star power largely emanates from a fiery personal authority and sexually-charged fearlessness. When she coasts on that, it can be pretty boring (admittedly, I can also be a pure sucker for it). When she channels it into a more tightly focused performance that draws on different shadings of personality, as she did with last year’s A Mighty Heart and as she does here, it’s immensely rewarding to watch.

In fact, Jolie’s richly realized performance gives the film a cohesion that would otherwise be absent. The script brings in several different elements–there are many stories connected to Christine’s–to a point where it occasionally threatens to become unwieldy. She develops her character–her personal growth, her tenacity, her intellectual fortitude–with an thoroughness that the scattershot narrative story structure can sometimes undercut. But even when the film drifts away from Christine for too long, Jolie’s performance looms as a promise. It heightens what works in the film and obscures what doesn’t. It’s just the kind of performance that Eastwood needs, and he deserves credit for his collaborative work with Jolie to get it to the screen. The old hand may not be infallible. It may seem more like work than art, but you can still look at it and see his influence, the unmistakable marks of fine craftsmanship.

From the Archive: The Dark Knight


For those heading out to theater this weekend to “just get this over with,” helping elevate the latest Zack Snyder joint to ludicrously triumphant box office numbers, I dig into the archive to offer the gentle reminder that it didn’t have to be this way. (To offer an important disclaimer: I have not seen Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and therefore cannot comment with first-hand knowledge on its quality. Perhaps it is exquisite and insightful, marked with startling moments of visual poetry that lays bare the duality of man in ways that will reshape our collective sense of self from this point forward. And my petty introduction will be exposed as foolish ignorance manifest. Perhaps.)

The famous Charles Baudelaire quote–made more famous to American pop culture consumers when it was appropriated by The Usual Suspects–“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist” might be in for some modification. After seeing Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, I’m prepared to say the devil’s greatest trick is making a pencil disappear. Invoking a 19th-century French poet seem a little heady for a discussion about a superhero movie? Maybe so, but Nolan’s steadfastly intelligent sequel to his own franchise-reviving Batman Begins inspires such aspirational acclaim. It is as big and explosive as its summertime release date implies, and yet the thing it’s most overstuffed with is ideas.

The screenplay Nolan devised with his brother Jonathan has so much story that there’s no time for recap. The film plunges into its Gotham City underworld machinations, civic intrigue and the caped crusader’s continuing efforts to purge his steely home city of crime and deprivation. Nolan seemingly feels no obligation to remind the viewers of Batman’s motivations or history. Relationships need not be remapped. Exposition is for the weak. Anyway, exposition can now be relegated to era the before the prior installment was available on DVD, through cable showing, via illicit Internet streaming and perhaps through direct download into your frontal lobe. This freedom affords the film a thrilling narrative immediacy. Maybe it would occasionally be a tad puzzling to someone largely unfamiliar with the iconic hero, but who would that be and how would they have found their way to this film in the first place?

Maybe curiosity over the final performance by Heath Ledger? It certainly an acting effort that deserves attention, even from those who find the genre of superheroes generally unpalatable. As the murderous villain the Joker, Ledger is a marvel of wicked invention. Clearly (and reportedly) drawing inspiration from the defining story The Killing Joke, Ledger’s take is informed by a riotous glee in inspired, improvisational mayhem and a swooning camaraderie with the costumed vigilante who hunts him. He is engaged in living life within the world he forges as fully and assuredly as the protagonist of some treacly, inspirational drama. That he expresses that love through concocting deadly anarchy doesn’t make it any less sincere, and Ledger ferociously locks into that verve and drive. The very rhythm of the Joker’s speech is disrupted by his sputtering, warring psyche. It’s a rich performance of many layers, each revelation of fresh nuance almost unbearably exciting.

It’s easy to start seeing the success of this film as entirely attributable to the success of the Joker. Even in the comics, the character has that sort of offhand dominance, casually making everything else seem comparatively pallid. Just as the resounding accomplishment of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman swamps out all memories of other elements of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (blessedly so, according to some), so too does Ledger’s performance threaten to truncate any talk of Aaron Eckhart’s solidly conceived Harvey Dent, Christian Bale’s continued assurance as the titular titan or, most regrettably, Gary Oldman’s further enrichment of the wearily stalwart Gotham City cop James Gordon. The political commentary Nolan interlaces through the film is interesting and commendable in its attempt to invest some genuine complication into the sort of story that can threaten to devolve into a basic good versus evil showdown, but it’s less compelling than the explorations of the dichotomy between Batman and the Joker.

Despite this, in the first flush of the film, it’s nearly undeniable that Nolan’s film labors mightily to fully engage the senses and the mind. The theatrical bombast of the action sequences occasionally swells into some mildly confusing muddiness, but that feels more forgivable because it’s more a byproduct of Nolan’s near compulsion to get as much into the movie as possible rather than an incapability to render sequences clearly. As enough comic characters infiltrate the movie landscape to make the local multiplex into the modern equivalent of the old supermarket spinner rack, Nolan demonstrates that an intellectually committed creator can make this sort of thing into something more than the latest product offered on the franchising assembly line. No matter its origins or box office expectations, it can indeed be art.

From the Archive: Doubt

This review originally appeared at my former online home. To the best of my determination, this was the last full-length piece on a new film that only appeared there without also transferring over to this little corner of the digital world. For about a year, my writing appeared in the both spaces, before I ceded that other account to just occasional mental flotsam and jetsam.

I suspect that appreciation for the new film Doubt probably hinges on where you land in evaluating Meryl Streep’s performance as an imperious nun confronting possible impropriety on the part of a younger priest she dislikes. Streep is ferocious, in every respect, in the role. She snarls her lines, strides through scenes as if always ready to bark an order or cuff a disobedient kid (or colleague), scrunches her face up to indicate displeasure, and generally tackles every scene with the goal of just plain acting the hell out of it. Initially it’s jarring, even off-putting. Eventually, for me, it became clear that it was a particularly insightful way to approach the material. There are big, heavy themes afoot in Doubt. Streep is making it opera, and every one of her moments onscreen in its own aria di bravura.

In a way, it reminded me of Kevin Spacey’s work in Sam Mendes’ American Beauty. Like Spacey, Streep sometimes seems to be the only one involved with the production who properly understands it, knows how to twist the words to give it the right dark, tricky bend. That certainly can’t actually be the case here. It’s the original author of the play, John Patrick Shanley, who adapted it for the screen and serves as director. He may be overly reliant on tired techniques like dramatically canted camera angles, but he undoubtedly has a grasp on his own work. He clearly has respect for it. The film always feels like a piece of writing, the writer’s hand ever apparent. It’s a construction with nary a beat of intrusive naturalism. This can be devastating to a film, a form that often benefits from happy accidents that reflect the messiness of life. Sometimes, though, there’s a true pleasure in well-written words brought to the screen with precision.

Especially when they become a platform for high-wire theatrics. Streep’s performance is so all-consuming that the other work is the film is improved when refracted against it. Amy Adams’ work as a younger, more upbeat nun initially seems too broadly drawn, as if she hadn’t quite shaken of the cartoonish naïveté and hopefulness of last year’s Enchanted. Eventually, it proves to be the ideal counterbalance to Streep, its wide-eyed sweetness the polar opposite of Streep’s malevolent drive. This is even true for the comparatively grounded work by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the priest who becomes an adversary and Viola Davis as a mother whose tremulous dignity is strained by bouts of exasperation and worry in the face of problems at the Catholic school. Since these characters are effectively in conflict with Streep’s superior sister, the variation in acting styles heighten the tension of the scenes. Hoffman has the capability to approach the material as boldly as Streep. By downplaying instead, it puts his character even more clearly outside of the regimented world favored by Streep’s.

At almost any given point while watching Doubt, I couldn’t have decisively asserted whether or not I even thought the movie was good. I was continuously aware of the mechanics of it: the choices in acting, directing and writing. I was never immersed, but I was always entertained. That’s something of a feat for a movie that traffics in so many heavy topics: religion, sexism, racism, pedophilia, generational conflicts, the list goes on and on. The boy at the center of the story’s driving scandal alone bears so many burdens, symbolic and otherwise, that you half expect his mother to announce he’s inundated by locusts every time he boards the school bus and also sees dead people who don’t know they’re dead. It’s reasons such as this that Streep’s performance, which careens right up to the edge of overdone with ever actual crossing the line, sets the tone perfectly. The movie’s not absurd, but it could be. Somehow, the glancing acknowledgment of that in Streep’s acting keeps it all in check, adding genuine bite to the concerns unfolding onscreen.

From the Archive: Shine a Light

I’m still unpacking from a move that added a lot of miles to my odometer, so I’m going to once again pilfer a review from my former online home for our weekly look backwards. When this review was first posted, it prompted my friend Jon to astutely comment, “It’s official. If Scorsese makes a movie about paint drying, he’ll get your ten bucks.” The hyperlink connected to the title of Scorsese’s 1978 concert film originally went somewhere else, but now that I’ve got my own review of that particular piece of work, I’m opting for that digital destination instead.

Martin Scorsese directing a Rolling Stones concert film is an enticing as can be. The Academy-Award winning director has already helmed one of the high-water marks of the genre with 1978’s The Last Waltz and The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the WorldTM has long been one of his chief musical muses. Add to that the fact that he’d be filming the Stones in a rare appearance in a smaller venue that the massive stadiums that usually host them and his assemblage of a dream team of cinematographers with the likes of There Will Be Blood‘s ingenious Oscar winner Robert Elswit and Children of Men‘s Emmanuel Lubezki operating the small battalion of cameras. The elements are all there for a definitive filmed statement on an iconic act. And yet when the new film Shine a Light is finished, for all its accomplishment, it’s hard to identify a satisfying reason for its existence. What does it contribute that hasn’t been adequately covered by any of the other captured concerts that precede it? This is arguably the most well-documented rock band in history, a point to which Scorsese’s generous usage of archival footage attests. Of course there are things that can be added, but does this film do it? Or is it just another concert memento that happens to have an exemplary pedigree.

There’s no dispute that the production is on a noticeably higher level than the standard straight-to-DVD jetsam that seems to allow every last band gets their ninety minutes of video veneration. There’s a enveloping crispness to the images and a simple elegance to the camera placement and movement. It’s not revolutionary, but does exhibit a consuming craftsmanship that has been largely missing in this form since concert films migrated from artistic expression to creating fresh commodities. This is what concert films should always look like, marked by just enough imaginative construction to make it feel like it’s an experience unachievable trough any other means, even siting front and center at the show itself. The Stones themselves are in fine form, making a relatively persuasive argument for the accuracy of that “Greatest Band” moniker. Again, there’s nothing especially transcendent about what they do on the stage–there’s no cause to start slipping “Stones at the Beacon” into arguments dominated by “The Who at Leeds” or “James Brown at the Apollo”–but there’s a causal ferocity to the sound they create, the show they put on. By now, they’ve been doing this for over forty years and a guitar probably feels as natural in Keith Richards’ hands as a hammer does for a lifelong carpenter nearing retirement.

There is something about seeing these sixtysomethings take the stage with a surprisingly vigorous showmanship. All those old film clips accentuate that sensation. Mick Jagger’s slow evolution from a slender pillow of masculine sensuality to a lean dervish of raw sinew hasn’t altered his ability to vibrate across the stage like an unmoored turbine. Keith Richards comes across like a gentle bully boy in the old interviews, but looks like an evil marionette carved from a weather-beaten fence post now. That contrast of youthful past with the seasoned, sustaining pros before us now may give the film a touch more weight, but it also feels kind of like an afterthought, something to help bridge between numbers more than a means to better understand these men soldiering on with their guitars and backbeats. The same can be said for the documentary-styled glimpses at the planning leading up to the performance and the filming of it. There are amusing moments as the hyper-kinetic Scorsese mildly clashes with the casually entitled rock stars, and glimpses of the sheer amount of orchestration that goes into a production like this are tantalizing. Most of it is dominated, instead, by worries about the filmmakers getting a copy of the set list, a conflict that Scorsese has conceded is trumped up in the film. It feels as phony as it is.

The skillfully shot live performance is often enough to carry the film, thankfully. While the band dutifully churns through the warhorses like “Start Me Up,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Satisfaction,” there’s just the right amount of a sampling the other corners of the catalog that haven’t been worn out by classic rock radio attention. And it’s to their credit that they fearless welcome to the stage guests that can outplay (Buddy Guy) and outsing (Christina Aguilera and, again, Buddy Guy) them. Sometimes it’s about the quality of the circus rather than constantly reminding everyone that you’re the ringmaster.

In the end, Scorsese’s participation may raises hopes for something more significant–a film for the ages, something that will define this legendary band–but a sturdy entertainment is worth celebrating too. It’s only rock and roll, after all. And I liked it.