Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Deadly Adoption

As a piece of performance art/satire, the Lifetime movie A Deadly Adoption may be one of the funniest things to ever air on basic cable.  Will Ferrell looks like he wandered off the set of Falcon Crest.  And Kristen Wiig's pitch perfect as the supportive, quasi-Stepford Wife. Everything from the tone of the dialogue, the soft rock/new age music, and the string of cliches familiar to a schlocky TVM: a sick child in danger (Gene Siskel hated it when movies put a child in danger), a devious heavy on the mascara fake pregnant femme fatale, semi-competent cops, an ominous lake, organic bake sales, and fake revolvers.  Look out Hallmark Hall of Fame - You're Next!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Jaws **** (1975)

Forty years ago this weekend Universal Studios released Jaws. I had a chance to finally see Jaws on the big screen, while the film plays wonderfully on television, it's a far more immersive experience in a theater. Despite all the inferior sequels, countless rip offs, and parodies, the original remains as compelling as ever.

Setting: The decision to shoot the film at Martha's Vineyard added a sense of place and local flavor. Not some generic American town we get in so many horror movies.

Casting: The three leads Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw were not Universal's first choice, they wanted A-list stars like Charlton Heston and Paul Newman. Casting lesser known actors added so much because they created characters we care about. As Chief Brody, Scheider plays against the traditional hero type. Out of his element, he makes mistakes and shows real fear at times, but manages to triumph against great obstacles.

Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider, and Richard Dreyfuss

Special Effects (or lack of): Ironically, the lack of dazzling effects works in the movie's favor.  The actual mechanical shark appears on screen for maybe 30 seconds, due to problems with getting the machine to work.  Spielberg used the absence of the shark to build up the suspense but the idea of the shark is ever present.

John Williams: John Williams' minimalist score remains one of the most effective soundtracks ever composed for a movie.  Spielberg credited 50% of the film's success to the music.

A Superior Adaptation: Jaws is an excellent case study of how to adapt a potboiler novel. There's no doubt Peter Benchley created amazing source material, but those who read the novel will be taken aback at the racy subplot involving an affair between Ellen Brody and Hooper and a tedious storyline involving the mob.  Removing those elements saved the movie.

A Realistic Sea Adventure: Really Jaws is two separate movies: the first half is Amity dealing with the threat to their livelihoods, while the second part is a hair raising sea adventure with many allusions to Melville's Moby Dick.  The two act structure is rare in mainstream movies, but it works perfectly in Jaws.  Verna Fields earned an Oscar for her meticulous editing.

A Siege Narrative: I'm not sure if I would classify Jaws as a horror film, but it has some horror elements.  The people of Amity island, cut off from the mainland, cannot go about their everyday lives because of the shark.  Later on Brody, Hooper, and Quint are under siege when the Orca is crippled, increasing the sense of isolation for the viewer. Classic siege narratives such as Night of the Living Dead and Halloween achieve a similar effect.

The town debates what to do after a string of deadly shark attacks.

Political Dimensions: Jaws also played upon the anxieties of the 70s. The mayor attempts a cover up because he places the town's economic interests ahead of the safety of his own people, his own little Watergate. The shark works as a metaphor of consumerism, as Hooper says "all sharks do is swim and eat and make little sharks."

Brody and Hooper argue with the Mayor.

Spielberg's Signature: Putting the family drama at the forefront would become a familiar trope in many Spielberg films  One can argue Brody joins Quint to protect his family.  We also see Spielberg's amazing ability to blend reality with the fantastic, a method he would perfect in his follow up to JawsClose Encounters of the Third kind.

Robert Shaw as Quint: Robert Shaw created a truly mythical character in Captain Quint. He dominates the last act of the film.  There's the obvious parallel with Melville's Captain Ahab and Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea, but the USS Indianapolis speech feels like a separate movie, adding another layer to the character's myth.  According to The Making of Jaws on the DVD screenwriter Howard Sackler suggested the Indianapolis backstory for the character, then Spielberg's friend and fellow filmmaker John Milius wrote the speech, then Robert Shaw added his own revisions. Although remembered for his acting, Shaw was an accomplished playwright and novelist in his own right.

Humor: Watching Jaws with an audience reminded me of all the humor in the film, the slapstick Woody Allen type banter still works.  Screenwriter Carl Gottlieb who went on to write The Jerk earns much of the credit here.

A Shout Out to Duel: Spielberg's first feature Duel had a similar plot, an everyday man being chased by a maniacal truck driver.  The shark explodes in Jaws with the exact same sound effect when the truck crashes in Duel.

The Original Blockbuster: The making of Jaws went way over budget and almost derailed Spielberg's career. Instead the film went on to shatter every Box Office record, the first to make over $100 Million.  I don't wanna criticize every blockbuster Hollywood releases as inferior to Jaws - that's not the case.  However, I will point out Jaws did not rely on special effects, 3D, merchandising, or any other type of gimmick. Instead it relied on the basics of good storytelling: a strong sense of setting, well developed characters, and a compelling man vs nature conflict.  

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Love & Mercy (2015) ***

Love and Mercy tells a two tracked story of Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson, shifting between the 60s and 80s. The film avoids the cliches of most rock bios and stays focused on the mystery of the creative process, established in the opening shot of Brian quietly working out a song on the piano.

Paul Dano plays the younger Wilson at the height of his creative powers during the making of Pet Sounds and his unfinished album Smile (eventually completed in 2004).  John Cusack plays the middle aged Wilson struggling to regain control of his life.

The best scenes recreate the making of the Pet Sounds, which many consider the greatest rock album ever made. The complex arrangements and multi-layered harmonies were unlike anything on a rock record up to that point. Pet Sounds proved a creative breakthrough for Brian, but the other members were unhappy with the new sound, especially Mike Love who preferred the old pop formula, snidely observing "critics don't buy records."

Eventually pressures from his jealous father Murray Wilson, skeptical band mates, and the heady scene of 60s California drove Brian into drugs and paranoia. While tales of addiction and comeback are a staple of rock bios, Brian's case stands out as especially tragic, since he spent years unable to leave his bedroom or write music.

John Cusack, credited as "Future Brian", gives a quiet, contemplative performance. He's recovered his mental health, but still in a fragile state.  Paul Giamatti as Brian's Dr. Landy dominates every scene, a creepy charlatan who exploited his patients and micromanaged every aspect of their lives.  Elizabeth Banks plays Wilson's future wife, who offered him understanding and stability.

Brian Wilson's music endures.  Love and Mercy should inspire everyone to go out and buy Pet Sounds.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Max (2002) ***

The 2002 film Max attracted controversy over its attempt to "humanize" the ultimate symbol of evil in the 20th century - Adolf Hitler. Set in the crucial year of 1919, the time when Hitler first got involved in politics under the sway of racist ideas. Max imagines Hitler as an aspiring artist caught up in modernist movement of the early 20th century, namely dadaism and futurism, and suggests modern art inspired him to enter politics.

John Cusack plays Max Rothman, a Jewish art dealer who lost an arm in the war. Max lives a bourgeois life surrounded by artists, intellectuals, and a loving family.  Enamored with new artistic movements emerging after the war, exemplified by Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, Max sees the possibility of redemption and meaning in the new art. 

Noah Tyler plays Hitler as pitiful and uncompromising.  A veteran of four years on the Western Front, he considers himself a great artist making up for lost time.  Modernism's emphasis on absurdity and irrationality repel his puritanical tastes.  One day he walks into Max's gallery and they discuss what constitutes great art.  Hitler believes art must reinforce moral values, those values he considers essential for the survival of civilization. Rothman argues the artists should challenge conventional values.  Despite Hitler's abrasive nature, Max sees potential and they bond over their time on the Western Front.

Hitler finds another mentor in a German officer who encourages him to enter politics and master another emerging art form - propaganda. Anti-Semitism enters into his ideology and an odd obsession with pseudo scientific ideas of racial purity, which Max implores him to forget because it will kill his creativity.  Max believes all artists must look into the very depths of their soul, a leap Hitler cannot make. 

Later on Max watches Hitler give a speech and is repelled by his racist message and yet captivated at his theatrical approach to rhetoric.  Max sees Hitler's speeches as performance art, a politician applying Dada concepts to rhetoric.  Later on Hitler informs Max, "politics is the new art." And a monster is born.

Written and directed by Menno Meyhes, Max is a worthwhile study of 20th century art, history, and politics. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

American Hustle *** (2013)

Initially I dismissed American Hustle as David O. Russell trying to be Scorsese.  Maybe it was the glaring 70s milieu, which automatically recalled Taxi Driver or Goodfellas.  After repeated viewings I realized American Hustle offers more than flashy style, but is a perceptive character study disguised as a procedural.

American Hustle imitates the style of Goodfellas with its multiple narrations, rock and roll soundtrack, and fascination with low level players.  Unlike the wiseguys in Goodfellas who defy society through creating an alternate one with their own standards of upward mobility, the con artists in American Hustle go for the big money by playing the system against itself.

The three leads Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Bradley Cooper flourish in their roles as smooth talking city dwellers.  They must adapt in order to make the big score. Jennifer Lewis shines as Irving's eccentric wife Roslyn.

An obese Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, an owner of dry cleaning businesses and sometime dealer in forged art.  He meets the seductive Sydney (Amy Adams) and they team up in real estate Ponzi schemes.  When an undercover FBI agent Richie (Bradley Cooper) catches them in the act, they are forced to take part in the famous Ab-Scam operations of the late 1970s when undercover agents disguised as Arabs set up politicians to take bribes.

Irving and Sydney set their sights on Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), populist mayor of Camden, New Jersey. Renner, looking like Joe Pesci, comes across as sincere in his dreams to revitalize his community, but gets done in by his own good intentions.

Although set in the 70s, American Hustle would work in any decade. I believe early versions of the script set the story in the 1930s. Hustling and capitalism go hand in hand, a trait American Hustle celebrates and laments.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The French Connection (1971) ****

The French Connection depicts a brutal world of quicksand morality and reckless gamesmanship.  For the two protagonists in the film, Gene Hackman and Fernando Ray are mirror opposites of each other in every way except one - both view life as a game, an existential journey with no destination save enforcing their will upon the world.

Based on a true story and set in 1970s New York, director William Friedkin emulated documentary film making style and achieved a gritty realism.  The wintry urban decay verisimilitude proved highly influential in the 70s and beyond.

Hackman earned the Best Actor Oscar for playing "Popeye" Doyle, an anti-hero who will stop at nothing to crack the case (the real life Popeye appears in the film in a significant supporting role).  Popeye's an alcoholic, taunts his suspects, harbors a blatant racism, ignores authority, and annoys everyone around in his orbit.  His level headed partner "Cloudy" (Roy Scheider) somehow tolerates him.

When Popeye and Cloudy learn a massive shipment of heroin is about to arrive in New York from France they learn of a mysterious figure referred to as "Frog" (Fernando Rey). A bourgeois Frenchman and big time dealer in drugs, Frog eludes capture at every opportunity.

Really The French Connection is nothing more than a cat and mouse game, but an endlessly compelling one. The famous chase scene between a car and an elevated train remains a jaw dropping sequence.  The final pursuit ends up in an abandoned warehouse as the film ends on deeply ambivalent note. Don Ellis's edgy jazz score sustains the tension.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Midnight Run *** 1/2 (1988)

In 1988 the "buddy comedy" took a cerebral turn with Martin Brest's Midnight Run.  The unlikely pairing of Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin, provide an amusing study of contrasts in the tension between their acting styles, screen personas, and character motivations.

De Niro (Jack Walsh) plays a bounty hunter who must contend with sleazy colleagues, especially the rat like bottom feeder Marvin (John Ashton). In a lucky break, Jack apprehends the highly prized fugitive Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin), an accountant who embezzled millions from mobsters and gave it all to charity. Now he's got Feds, mobsters, and bounty hunters on his trail.

So we get a version of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles in the guise of a chase film.  De Niro almost never shuts up, while Grodin speaks in simple Zen like dialogue, much like Terence Stamp in The Hit.  Prone to anger issues, Jack frequently goes into profanity fueled rages, prompting Jack to observe "You have two emotions - silence and rage." Jonathan's philosophy of living proves helpful for Jack in overcoming some personal pain. As a white collar Robin Hood, who stole from mobsters to give to the poor, Grodin shows a yuppie can have a conscience.

Philosophical issues aside, Midnight Run works as a first rate action film with an amazing supporting cast including Yaphet Kotto, Dennis Farina, Joe Pantoliano, and Phillip Baker Hill as tough talking cops and robbers.  But the presence of Grodin adds a subversive element; a voice of quiet outrage intruding upon the cinematic universe of the wiseguys.

Midnight Run, directed by Martin Brest transcends the stereotypical buddy comedy with well shot sequences, smart plot movement, and some witty satire.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Howard the Duck (1986) **1/2

What if George Lucas made a superhero film? He did!  Back in the summer of 1986 Howard the Duck took a thrashing from critics and emptied multi-plexes. For what it's worth, Howard the Duck was the first marvel character to get their own movie.  Recently I had a chance to watch the film for the first time - and it wasn't too bad. 

Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz wrote and directed their adaption of the surly Marvel character created by Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik.  Although they're not household names, they are important figures in the career of George Lucas.  They co-wrote American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.  It's well documented they helped Lucas revise his original Star Wars script by injecting some much needed humor. Much of that style of screwball comedy makes it into Howard the Duck.

The movie begins with Howard miraculously being transported to Earth, Cleveland of all places.  Apparently he lived on a planet identical to earth, only ducks are the most intelligent species.  He is pursued by a space demon who wants to blow up the Earth.

Upon his arrival in Cleveland, Howard quickly befriends Beverly played by a delightful Lea Thompson. Beverly's the lead singer of an 80s New Wave band.  You can debate just how far their relationship actually went - all I can say it went to a place no Marvel film of 2015 would venture! Maybe the inter-species sexual tension proved too much for 1986 audiences. 

Also, don't miss an early Tim Robbins performance as a wacky scientist.

The movies ends with perhaps the most ridiculous chase sequence ever put on celluloid. 

Howard the Duck goes to great lengths to not take itself too seriously, while managing to entertain (if you are in the right mood.)

Mad Max: Fury Road ***1/2 (2015)

Mad Max: Fury Road literally grabs you from the beginning and never lets go. In a reboot/sequel to George Miller's trilogy of Mad Max (1979), The Road Warrior (1981), and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985), Fury Road not only adds to the mythology, but expands upon it with the introduction of amazing new characters and jaw dropping action sequences. Fury Road makes The Avengers: Age of Ultron look like a polite tea party, Miller and his crew have fired a salvo into the Marvel Universe saying: This is how it's done. 

In the post-Apocalyptic world of Mad Max, gasoline is a scarce resource and fanatical thugs run the world as humanity reverts to tribalism.  The setting owes something to A Clockwork Orange, a world run by violent young men who rape, pillage, and terrify the helpless masses.  In the first trilogy the gangs had a punky vibe, now they are religious fanatics.

As Fury Road begins Max, now played by Tom Hardy (replacing an aging Mel Gibson), continues to wander the earth alone after thugs murdered his family. He is captured by one of the gangs and is used as a blood donor for the warlord Immortan Joe's army.  The tyrants are violent zealots who use food and water to control what's left of a post-nuclear war world.  Women are considered useful for "breeding" purposes only. 

Then we meet Furiosa memorably played by Charlize Theron, a scavenger of gasoline who goes off route with Joe's wives aboard and an epic chase begins. Furiosa is determined to liberate the wives and return them to her homeland.  Eventually, Furiosa and Max form an uneasy alliance in their determination to escape Joe.  During their long desert sojourn the tension never lets up. No one is safe from instant death.

What separates Fury Road from so many others of its genre is that the action serves the story. The sequences move forward in a logical way and are easy to follow.  Like a silent movie the story is told visually and the actors do a fantastic job of emoting with minimal dialogue.

Fury Road is pure cinema.