30-for-30: I Hate Christian Laettner

Release: Sunday, March 15, 2015

[Netflix]

Directed by: Rory Karpf

The psychology that characterizes fandom and sports obsession isn’t complicated. Just as in movies there are the good guys you cheer for and the bad guys who you want to see fail. The good guys are the home team, who have a crowd behind them and are representative of a larger whole — a community, a culture. The baddies are whoever the visiting team is, strangers stepping on your turf. They’re the unwelcome, the outsiders. Or, more literally, they could just simply be bad people — dirty players, egotists or downright bullies. The people no one can afford to lose to.

Former Duke Blue Devil Christian Laettner fit snugly into the last description, an athlete so intensely disliked by his opponents — a.k.a. everyone who did not attend Duke University — he gave the term ‘trash talk’ a legitimate dictionary definition. Trash talk is the active, verbalized dissatisfaction over the presence of one Christian Laettner. Unlike the kinetic energy of rallying and general, outwardly positive support, trash talk requires putting in some extra effort. But just as positivity can be contagious, booing a group of unpopular players or a lone target has a galvanizing effect. Rory Karpf’s I Hate Christian Laettner is proof that hating the villain can be almost as thrilling as watching the good guys win.

The documentarian splits his time evaluating both the player and his environment, on a quest to determine which had a greater influence on the other. Rob Lowe narrates. Was Duke — a private school steeped in tradition and excellence, a lightning rod for bitterness and hatred well before the kid came to campus — responsible for shaping one of the greatest collegiate players of all time? Or was Laettner’s aura — a triple threat of looks, talent and confidence — simply so powerful it subsumed the team’s collective identity? Either way, over the course of his four-year career the hatred cast the Blue Devils’ way seemed to intensify. The school was and still is regarded as a model for exclusivity, a precinct of privilege and preppiness, its inviolability more closely and negatively associated with the aloofness of the Ivy Leaguers. And from 1988 until 1992 it had Laettner.

In an effort to obtain a consensus opinion of this controversial player, Karpf fields a rather impressive assortment of interviews that dissect virtually every aspect of the player’s life. Highlights include head coach Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K for short) and wife Mickie; analyst Dick Vitale; former assistant coach Jay Bilas; former guard Grant Hill; and, of course, Duke alum Ken Jeong. Sports writers offer anecdotes about team dynamics and Laettner’s relationship with his coaches and teammates. Teammates cite specific instances in which they almost got into fights because of personal disputes and verbal confrontations with him. Of course the stories are recanted with a smile and a laugh, but underneath the surface you can still sense some tension.

With the combination of abrasive personality and court presence that Laettner had he was never someone people didn’t think anything of. If you knew the name, you had an opinion of the guy. Loved by his fans and hated by everyone else, Laettner’s something of a cliché on paper. Realizing it’s somewhat counterintuitive to rely wholly on emotive factors and especially gut reactions to paint the big picture, Karpf steers the latter part of the conversation towards his athletic ability. Trash talking may be fun, but thankfully I Hate Christian Laettner realizes that compelling sports stories must rely on some balance between public opinion and tangible aspects. Particularly worded accusations and criticisms eventually begin to give way to more productive talk. Yes, out comes the stats sheet, but how exactly is that not expected in a basketball doc?

Endowed with power, speed and a 6-foot-11 frame, number 32 was a hard worker and ruthless competitor. Arrogance off the floor translated to confidence and poise on it. Case in point, the buzzer-beating turn-around jumper that lifted Duke over Kentucky in the ’92 NCAA Finals. His clutch performances didn’t earn him more fans, though. In fact that habit did pretty much the opposite. Even his more obvious detractors in the interviews have to come to terms with his gifted athleticism, and they do. There’s no point in lying.

This documentary is most definitely less effective for those who consider themselves outside the circle, people like me who try not to become too swept up in melodrama. That’s not a knock against the subject nor the way it has been presented. Consider the target audience confirmation that what makes 30-for-30 often so intriguing is how niched each individual story is. Until this documentary I didn’t know who this guy was. Yet I learned a few things watching I Hate Christian Laettner. I learned that watching this once through was enough for me to arrive at a satisfactory (enough) conclusion: I learned that I guess . . . I guess, I hate him too . . . ?

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Recommendation: An intriguing slice of sports drama, the documentary will have far more of an impact for those who grew up watching these games and/or having experience with its stigmatic subject. It’s never less than an interesting watch, but at the same time an overriding sense of indifference prevents me from saying this is a 30-for-30 you absolutely need to see.  

Rated: NR

Running Time: 90 mins.

[No trailer available. Sorry everyone.]

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.espn.com 

No Escape

Release: Wednesday, August 26, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: John Erick Dowdle; Drew Dowdle

Directed by: John Erick Dowdle

No Escape shouldn’t work as well as it does and yet, strong performances from an unlikely cast make for a taut thriller that plays to the tune of Taken, becoming an often absurd yet emotionally resonant tale of survival.

Owen Wilson finds inspiration in drama once again as family man Jack Dwyer whose recent job change has moved him, his wife Annie (Lake Bell) and their two daughters Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and Beeze (nine-year-old actress Claire Geare) to a nondescript Southeast Asian country. Feeling immediately displaced the family bumps into a friendly man named Hammond (Pierce Brosnan, in the ideal post-James Bond cameo) who helps arrange some transportation for them at the airport.

Jack has joined Cardiff, a conglomerate that distributes clean water to third-world nations. He reassures his older daughter that this job will be more stable since this company is much bigger than his old one. The one thing he doesn’t mention is that all they need now is to overcome some culture shock. And then come to terms with the fact that his very presence is about to put all their lives at risk when the city erupts suddenly in a violent and bloody revolt. It quickly becomes clear how unwelcome foreigners like Jack are in this place, as locals set about on a ruthless murdering spree that ends up accounting for three-quarters of the total runtime. Opening lucidly, the dialogue-lite narrative allows precious little time for Wilson and Bell to settle into these decidedly restrained performances as heads of household. But it’s just enough.

No Escape certainly isn’t complicated. This is a contemporary survival film, demanding the bare minimum from viewers in terms of intellectual engagement. In fact it is so plot-less — we watch as a desperate family clings to life bouncing from point A to point B — drama develops emotionally rather than logically, à la Taken. Simply ignore all the (good) changes of fortune this family manages to experience throughout this harrowing adventure. If you are able to mentally block out the fact that in this world Asians are either the ones doing the killing or the ones being killed, you are all the better for it. With a little luck those feelings of resentment, annoyance, maybe even anger born out of the injustices we are forced to watch eventually will subside and yield some sense of relief come the film’s predictable albeit preferable conclusion.

Although I suspect leaving the theater completely satisfied isn’t going to be possible for a few. This isn’t the most pleasant film you’ll watch this year. The violence is brutal and virtually unrelenting from the half-hour mark onward and, as it was in another Owen Wilson-led drama set behind enemy lines, the bloodletting-as-demarcation-between-good-guy-and-bad-guy is ill advised. Nor is it a subtle technique; the Dwyers get so good at dodging bullets you might assume they stepped off the plane and into the matrix rather than an Asian country.

Yet this is hardly the film’s undoing. Where No Escape lacks in sensitivity and subtlety it compensates with a strong family dynamic. Wilson plays one of his most affable and natural characters in years, while Bell turns a new leaf as his loving, trusting wife trying her best to deal with such chaotic circumstances. There’s nary a sign of Bell’s comedic background here. The two children are realized honestly and convincingly, and best of all they aren’t saddled with the cliches that make kids in movies annoying and one-dimensional. Indeed, if there’s a reason to care at all about the film’s politics, it’s that this charming Western family doesn’t deserve to be any sort of target.

The Dowdles — John directed while his brother Drew wrote the story — don’t have the most original thriller in their pockets but their product isn’t false advertising. This is pretty thrilling stuff, even if the sociopolitical commentary is sloppy, and any attempts to immerse us in the culture are half-hearted at best. (Ironically the last thing we want is to be further immersed in this place once those first shots have been fired.) Brosnan bears worth mentioning as well, offering some much-needed grit as an apparent agent of the night, popping in ever so conveniently when the Dwyers seem to have met their fates. Hammond isn’t a well-established character but he’s also too likable to dismiss. Plus, you know, he’s got those skills that come in really handy. And a British accent that gives No Escape the facade of ‘international thriller’ it longs for.

From a strictly entertainment standpoint, the brothers Dowdle extract a consistently engaging journey out of chaos and hostility. The effort reminds us through solid performances and often confronting and pervasive violence, that there are few motivations stronger than a person’s will to survive.

Recommendation: Unquestionably flawed movie delivers the goods in the form of hard-hitting action sequences that go beyond mere visual panache. No Escape is trying to say something with its bloodiness, but unfortunately the script isn’t nearly good enough to warrant much comment on that. If, like me, you’ve been waiting for Wilson to do something different with his talents, then wait no more. His partnership with Brosnan is as entertaining as it seems on paper. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “We’ve got to get ourselves to the American Embassy.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Fargo (1996)

Get the heck out of here, August. Take all your bad vibes with you. Not that this month has been a particularly bad one for watching movies, new and old alike. But, sheesh, would you just please get out of the way so the fall season can begin? And I’m looking forward to more than just good movies as well as lower temperatures — it’s soon the beginning of football and later, the basketball season. And then, the inevitable cold grip of winter. (Although I will say I don’t get to look forward to anything like my friend in the north Ruth does on that front.) Watching this movie today gave me a taste of what she may be dealing with within the next few months, so my thoughts go out to her. I’m thankful I don’t have to deal with the conditions found in

Today’s food for thought: Fargo.

Chilling out since: Friday, April 5, 1996

[DVD]

So Fargo is an odd one. Not purely because of the content — it is quirky and at times pretty uncomfortable, no doubt about it — but owing more to the fact I could barely react after finally undertaking the journey. High production values, coupled with the Coens’ affinity for quirking out and all that are qualities that I admire about it, but if I have a duty to actually love what I’ve watched, then I’ll have to force the feeling.

And yet, I’m not comfortable saying I dislike it either. I’m frustratingly indifferent to the whole thing. Beyond the peculiar accents that implied lots of vocal coaching for the principals, the wood chipper murder scene and Frances McDormand’s unflappable Marge Gunderson, there’s not much about Fargo that will stay with me. To further muddy the waters, I can’t disagree with its success at the 69th Academy Awards ceremony, being nominated for an impressive seven awards and winning two — one for its original screenplay and another honoring McDormand’s lead performance. In fact I see the film just as deserving of a gold statue for its subtle yet effective production design. That’s the trifecta of achievements that has earned Fargo its reputation over the last two decades, at least as I see it.

Do I blame the reputation itself for my own lackluster experience? Maybe a little, but then that kind of argument feels more like an excuse, an object for me to hide behind because     . . . well, you know, popular opinion can be a hell of a tide to swim against. Fargo is so very Coen-esque, but give me The Big Lebowski any day over the farcical trials of a few northern Minnesotans. Of the two dark comedies, bowling alleys made for a more compelling visual motif than a snow-covered highway. But I get the point. Fargo was never intended to uplift and inspire the kind of ‘happy’ laughter The Dude and his oddball friends do. Fargo is downbeat, its amusement derived from the ineptitude of many of its characters. That and the sheer hopelessness of the winter season.

When Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a desperate car dealer, hires a pair of thugs to kidnap his wife in an elaborate scheme to extort nearly one million dollars from her wealthy father (his boss), Wade (Harve Presnell), things go pear-shaped for the criminals, leaving Jerry in an awkward position between them and Wade, who is unaware the actual ransom is only $80,000. Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (a particularly nasty Peter Stormare) are transporting the wife when they’re unexpectedly pulled over by a state trooper just outside of Brainerd. The encounter turns ugly quickly when an enraged Gaear shoots and kills the officer and hunts down the unfortunate kids who happen upon the scene moments later.

“Looks like a triple homicide,” deduces a curious Marge the next day. And, yah, I get what is going on here, too. I’m supposed to be mesmerized by her very un-mesmerizing attire, a uniform of brown and gray, vivid when set against a never ending sea of white. No doubt about it, her presence is visually significant, a kind of modest icon who seizes every opportunity to provide the film (or more critically, viewers) a modicum of reason. Her intuition at the scene of this odd crime scene suggests that, aside from her doting husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch), the coalition for reason in Fargo is considerably weak.

I have a high threshold when it comes to films that are deliberately weird. I get along great with Lebowski, find something thrillingly disturbing in A Serious Man, and even accept characters who are meant to be enjoyed less than they are pitied, people like Llewyn Davis. The Coens managed to at least pique my curiosity even if their collaborative effort failed to fully engage me. Emotionally I was kept at an arm’s reach as I witnessed a crime story devolving into a mere battle of wits between Officer Gunderson and that slimy little Jerry fella. Performances from Buscemi and Stormare helped boost my enthusiasm — more so the former than the latter — and offset this sense of duty I felt for having to put up with Macy’s sniveling little scumbag of a car dealer. (Credit where credit is due, though: my frustration with his character is once again derived from his high caliber acting; if he weren’t good he’d have elicited no reaction from me at all.)

For a film that has been as lauded as it has over the years I exited feeling more or less unchanged, as if I were watching the movie with glazed-over eyes. I kind of feel guilty. While I will forever maintain that Fargo was robbed of a production design award — saying I exited feeling unchanged isn’t quite accurate actually, I just felt cold and lonely at the end — I feel similarly robbed, with expectations perhaps unreasonably elevated to insurmountable heights given its reputation as “an American classic.” What did I miss on my first visit? I suspect I’m going to have to go back and watch again because now the guilt is starting to feel a little more like paranoia.

Recommendation: Fargo is the Coen brothers at perhaps their most idiosyncratic. This is a production filled to the brim with strong performances and the filmmakers’ penchant for finding comedy in the funereal. Aside from McDormand’s policewoman I feel like there’s not much to recommend about this film, despite everything I have ever heard about it. But maybe I just need to sit down and give it another chance. Not exactly a prospect I’m looking forward to though. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 98 mins.

TBTrivia: The snow plow that drives past the motel at the end of the film was not part of the script. Signs in the area warned motorists not to drive through due to filming, but a state employee ignored them.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Straight Outta Compton

Release: Friday, August 14, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Jonathan Herman; Andrea Berloff

Directed by: F. Gary Gray

F. Gary Gray’s first directorial outing in six years debuted last weekend to the most successful opening for a musical biopic in cinematic history. Ignoring the 20 years that have elapsed since the tragic passing of N.W.A founder Eazy-E the occasion might not seem auspicious, but for anyone who has been keeping track they would hardly describe the film’s release as straight out of nowhere.

It probably would help make an already solid production even more absorbing if I weren’t so ignorant to the history and culture this iconic group were simultaneously being molded by and molding themselves. To me, Gray’s latest seemed like a random and trivial release. That’s why it has taken me a week to get to it. And though it still feels more random than commemorative there’s very little about its raw power and dynamic beat that feels trivial. Straight Outta Compton is a very good film, made so by the fact that you don’t need to dig hip hop to appreciate the gravity of this story.

Its total run time of two and a half hours at first seems daunting — ultimately it is a little too long — but the number of scenes in which checking one’s phone is tempting is kept to a surprising minimum. Like N.W.A in the prime of their hard-hitting and layered lyricism, the narrative is a well-oiled machine, boasting fluid pacing, lasting momentum and confident direction. More importantly, since there will be far more than gangsta rap fans in attendance, the chronicle is straightforward and digestible, navigating the tumultuous formative years through to the crescendo of success and ending, as many musical biopics do, on a bittersweet note as the group fragments.

Compton requires a modicum of patience, particularly in the opening third where Gray takes his time developing by-now highly recognizable personalities in the form of Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (played by his real-life son O’Shea Jackson Jr.), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.). Interestingly Arabian Prince, despite having a role in the formation of the group, was deemed too much of a peripheral character to warrant inclusion. The opening sequence sees Eazy-E flirting with death during a chaotic police raid on a drug den, a nod toward an alternative future a few of these young men might have faced were it not for the forthcoming tête-à-tête shared between E and Dre in a night club, the same club in which the latter had been struggling for some time to get himself recognized as a DJ/producer.

It’s not long before the pair are able to spin an argument that will convince Cube to leave his current group, C.I.A., as well as the high-spirited DJ Yella and loyal MC Ren to offer their talents to this mix of raw, surprisingly focused talent. A rudimentary sound studio becomes quickly filled with groupies and curious listeners. And then E is approached by music manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), with whom the rapper co-founds their first label, Ruthless Records. The rest, as they say, is history.

Giamatti could have been the x-factor in Compton as his celebrity status, despite his affinity for disappearing into his roles, flagged up a potential distraction. But once more he pulls a Houdini, seemingly comfortable with a striking wave of white hair and that glint in his eye that gives us pause for concern whether he is a man to be fully trusted. You can almost picture an honorary gold chain necklace draped around his neck but fortunately this is not a movie built upon stereotype or offensive fabrication (despite the real Heller’s reactions to his portrayal).

There is a caveat to that, though. Or, I guess a second. The biopic isn’t immune to all forms of stereotype; that it focuses so intensely on the group (read: the trio of E, Cube and Dre) means there are casualties of Gray’s fixations. Women — special shout-out to Felicia! — fare worse than the police, coming in droves, forming the requisite mise-en-scene once the group starts stockpiling dollar bills faster than ideas for potentially future hit singles. But given the lyrical content of much of N.W.A’s work, is the visible misogyny all that shocking?

This could be controversial, but I argue that the harmony between Compton‘s scantily clad extras and Cube’s verve for undressing and (swear-word)ing them umpteen to the dozen doesn’t quite ring alarm bells like the racial tensions that ever more define the thrust of the narrative. A well-timed insertion of footage of the Rodney King beating and subsequent fall-out inspire outrage, an outrage that strengthens our bond with these characters. If N.W.A’s personal experiences with the hostile LAPD didn’t create a united front then this disturbing news reel is the insurance Gray needed. The acquittal of the officers on obvious charges — abuse of power and excessive force, the mechanism that drove songs like ‘F**k Tha Police’ and ‘Gangsta Gangsta’ — signals a low point in the sociopolitical climate specific to the film and the decade it damns in its final act.

Compton is consistently compelling, becoming a party as quickly as it turns ugly, examining extraordinary lives in perpetual transition. While it’s not always fun to watch it is important and the three-act structure serves the material well. The voices of Compton needed more microphones, a bigger stage. In Gray’s testament to the power of music they get both.

Recommendation: Straight Outta Compton is a very well-acted and confidently directed tale that serves its unique subject well. It’s a testament to the quality of Gray’s direction that it remains a highly involving story even when knowing next to none of the lyrics that have popularized N.W.A since 1986. I highly recommend giving this a watch on the big screen as these personalities, as influential as they have been, somehow feel even larger than life in this format.

Rated: R

Running Time: 147 mins.

Quoted: “Speak a little truth and people lose their minds.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)

In my third week of rummaging through the DVD shelves, I stumbled upon a little oldie that likely no one has ever heard of. And by ‘no one’ I mean quite literally the opposite. In fact if this is the first you’ve read about this film, don’t let the cold shoulder surprise you. 😉 Now, saying this anthology is well-known isn’t the same as saying it’s been well-received by everyone. The humor presented is of a . . . well, let me go into those details more below.

Today’s food for thought: Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.

Serving up philosophical conversation starters since: March 31, 1983

[DVD]

E-hem. Life. It’s for the living.

Let’s sit here for a minute and bask in my incredible profundity. But in all silliness, I can’t pretend like I can compete with Monty Python‘s bizarre yet ingenious embracing of platitudes such as, “what is the meaning of life? Why are we here?” I just don’t have the talent to make the mundane seem insane.

I was here before, some time ago, attempting to soak up all that this British force (or is that farce?) of comedic nature had to offer in its final feature presentation. Forgettable feels like the wrong word to use here but I was surprised in my most recent watch how many segments I felt like I was experiencing for the first time. I think it’s true of most things Monty Python that some jokes/skits land completely firm-footed while others simply crash and burn. This is certainly true of The Meaning of Life anyway, and even while it manages to avoid by a wide margin the comedy doldrums I regret to say that I will probably be forgetting those same parts in a few weeks’ time.

Of course, the opposite still holds true. That which The Meaning of Life succeeds in parodying or, to crib a British expression, taking the piss out of, has always been difficult to scrub from the memory. As much as I might want to pressure wash the walls of my brain of the images of an engorged Mr. Creosote or that particularly hasty live organ donation scene, these images and concepts are stains I can’t get rid of. All of this is to say that when Monty Python is good, it is very, very good. Fortunately, for this last full-length feature installment, the positives (still) outweigh the negatives.

The anthology unfolds chronologically, striving to answer that ever-elusive question, and while those fish in the fish tank are never impressed by how John Cleese and his cohorts go about it, the rest of us who weren’t born with gills are more often than not intrigued by the process. It encompasses the various stages of the human experience, beginning with a segment called ‘The Miracle of Birth,’ during which it is made quite clear that the film was made in a different time given its callous attitude towards women, and concluding with a section surprisingly entitled ‘Death.’

In the meantime, we pop in on a Yorkshire family who has been burdened by a surplus of children thanks to the Catholic church’s disapproval of the use of protection; visit a British public school where boys are taught the finer points of engaging in sexual intercourse (also rugby); get invited to possibly the most inappropriately-timed birthday celebration on a War World I battlefront; learn that one doesn’t have to be dead to be an organ donor; and sit down to dine with the world’s most obese man (shudder).

Given that this is the fifth and final feature film, it’s no secret that a certain level of tolerance for racy and downright offensive, crude humor is required to make it through these bonkers 107 minutes. As well, any hope for narrative cohesion should be all but quashed from the outset. Ideally The Meaning of Life isn’t anyone’s first experience with the gang; hopefully you’ve had some previous exposure, and have come to accept certain realities about Monty Python. One of those realities is that their style values quantity over quality in terms of how gags are delivered, and while some are painfully effective — Cleese’s public school sex ed course being arguably the highlight — other segments, such as The Meaning of Life Part IV (‘Middle Age’), where a middle-aged couple visit a Medieval dungeon-themed restaurant, and the latter half of Part VI (‘The Autumn Years’), a restaurant staffer’s attempt to offer his take on the meaning of life by taking us back to his childhood home register as awkward and unfunny. And then of course there’s the realization that some of the scenes are just plain weird, a la ‘Find the Fish.’

Yet the entire package ultimately works because of the troupe’s camaraderie. Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin endlessly feed off of one another. Each have their time in the spotlight, no one seems selfish or egotistical enough to feature more prominently than another. Of course, that’s not the same as saying that all skits pay off equally, but if ever there were a group that epitomized comedic chemistry it would be this lot. The Meaning of Life might not be the most consistent production but it’s superior to the gross-out brand of comedy you’ll find in modern films.

Recommendation: Monty Python is known as one of the most influential comedic groups of all time, their impact on the world of satirical/parodical film and stagecraft at large akin to what The Beatles did for music. If that’s not enough to recommend a watch, I don’t really know what is. But I suspect these kinds of films don’t really need much of an endorsement. You’ve either seen them or you’ve given them a wide berth. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 107 mins.

TBTrivia: John Cleese has gone on the record as saying this film was “a bit of a cock-up,” and all the other Pythons agreed that this film is not of the same quality as their previous two (The Life of Brian and The Holy Grail). 

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The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Release: Friday, August 14, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Guy Ritchie; Lionel Wigram

Directed by: Guy Ritchie

In The Man From U.N.C.L.E., the stylish new action comedy from Guy Ritchie, Henry Cavill looks short compared to Armie Hammer. So I had to go look up the listed height of his less debonair co-star. Hammer stands a towering 6’5″. . . The size difference is notable, but more importantly it defines the film’s running sight gag — two larger-than-life men stumbling their way around a terror plot steeped in 1960s Cold War paranoia.

At the risk of re-opening fresh wounds, may I remind everyone that Cavill is no physical slouch. At 6’1″ he made for a pretty intimidating Kryptonian in the much-maligned Man of Steel (oooh, careful there, Tom), yet here he’s set up on more than one occasion as the submissive one, the American spy Napoleon Solo versus Hammer’s short-tempered Russian secret agent Illya Kuryakin. The two must join forces (but only after overcoming that awkward phase of being former sworn enemies on the streets of a Berlin torn literally . . . or, rather, politically . . . in half in the aftermath of World War II) to thwart the efforts of an international crime syndicate hell bent on global destruction, an organization led by the beautiful but dangerous Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki).

Solo appears first. He briefly interrogates a young car mechanic named Gaby (Ex Machina‘s Alicia Vikander) who happens to be on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall. With her cooperation in providing some personal background (e.g. the nature of her father’s work) Solo assures her he can help her escape the Iron Curtain. An exciting chase throughout the ruins of the city ensues when the pair cross paths with Kuryakin, initiating one of several impressively choreographed stunt sequences that Ritchie has by now mastered. It isn’t as quickly paced or as vicious as those featuring in his signature early works. If anything, U.N.C.L.E.‘s suavity is antithetical of the behaviors of those brazen British blokes of the late ’90s and early 2000s. But don’t make the mistake of equating Ritchie’s tempered approach with a boring film.

In fact his style might never have been better. His ability to generate comedy out of the sheer physicality of his leads trumps the familiarity of the screenplay (written by Lionel Wigram and himself). Cavill and Hammer get along great but there’s something more striking than their chemistry, a chemistry that makes sequels seem all but inevitable. How ridiculous are these guys in the roles of secret operatives? Even with dark pasts, the likes of James Bond, Jason Bourne or even Big Chris don’t occupy the same kind of space. Hammer, who, once again, has four inches on Cavill’s imposing frame, takes on a character simmering with intensity and anger who must stuff his emotions down for the sake of the mission; Cavill, considerably more charming and well-adjusted, can still be a brute when push comes to shove. And yet, if Ritchie allowed the pair to play it straight the film would be bleaker and less enjoyable.

Ritchie also judges his female characters well, effectively emboldening any skeptical future director with the idea that it is, in fact, okay to cast curvaceous females in well-written, anti-damsel-in-distress roles. Vikander, though not quite as luminous as she was earlier this year as Ava, offers strong support in the form of a deceptively complex role, one that comes to bear the narrative’s crux — who exactly is an agent to trust in this time of turbulence and . . . erm, distrust? But it’s Debicki’s sinister Victoria, a descendant of tyrannical rule of some description, that is going to stand up to scrutiny. With what little screen time she is given Victoria is a true sadistic. A femme fatale if there ever was one. Of course, the film has a duty to provide more general entertainment so she’s not untouchable. Her demise is actually one of the movie’s missteps, but hey, now I’m just being picky.

Familiarity with the 1960s TV series isn’t a requisite, nor is experience with the director’s previous outings. Ritchie appeases with a Sherlock Holmes-esque touch — it isn’t probably what die hards are going to be looking for but even they are likely to come to accept this for what it is — and crafts a story that, while not wholly original, steadily absorbs through its key players’ charisma, slick cinematography and gorgeous production design. Expanding beautifully on the backs of a well-established core of enthusiastic performances, U.N.C.L.E. is as ridiculously enjoyable as it is ridiculous.

Recommendation: It’s not the most original story you’ll see this year but it’ll be a challenge to find a more enjoyable thrill ride, especially one dressed in the style of the 1960s. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is one of Guy Ritchie’s best films, and if you call yourself a fan of his brand of filmmaking you owe it to yourself to go pick up a ticket for this right away.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “I was briefed on your criminal career. Your balls are on the end of a very long leash, held by a very short man.”

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JCR Factor #5

For some reason, August is already here. You know what that means? Time for a new edition of the John C. Reilly Factor — Thomas J’s latest character study. To find more related material, visit the Features menu up top and search the sub-menu Actor Profiles.

As reliable as the man always seems to be, one can’t help but notice there are certain roles of his that seem interchangeable. Today I was going to go with a different comedic role but then, while browsing images on Google I came across a particularly striking image and knew right then and there what my next focus was going to be. John C. Reilly is many things, but in the case of this edition of this feature, he’s . . . bald.

John C. Reilly as the older version of Arnie Shankman in Peter Segal’s Anger Management

Role Type: Supporting (uncredited)

Genre: Comedy

Character Profile: Dave Buznik’s childhood nemesis, that good old wedgie-giving thug known as Arnie Shankman, may be one of Reilly’s more limited roles but that doesn’t mean he’s limited in his effectiveness. As a childhood bully, Arnie grows up regretting all of his aggressive behavior and secludes himself to the woods, surrounding himself with peace and quiet and becoming deeply contemplative and meditative. That is, until Dr. Buddy Rydell pressures Dave into facing his past as another way of exorcising his angry demons. Insisting this will be for his benefit, Rydell assaults the now introspective Shankman with a tirade of insults that effectively reawaken the jerk within.

If you lose JCR, the film loses: one of the film’s better cameos. There are more memorable turns from the likes of Woody Harrelson’s transvestite prostitute Galaxia (an image I will never get out of my head), but Reilly does an admirable job handling a very brief appearance that surprisingly runs the gamut of emotions from remorse to deep-seated anger. This is one Monk you do not want to rile up.

That’s what he said: “Answer me, Buznik. Did you get it on . . . with my sister?”

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work):


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TBT: American Beauty (1999)

Unlike last week’s discovery, sometimes putting off a movie you’ve been aware of for many years is a strategy that pays dividends. Of course today we’re going to be looking at a movie that is so radically different that comparisons need not be made. I suppose the point of all this incessant rambling is for me to declare August 2015 as the month in which I finally decided to do something about those movies sitting on a shelf in my parents’ house, collecting dust. Unlike the CD it’s clear to me that good, old-fashioned DVDs will remain relevant even as we journey into a future filled with Netflix originals and online distributions and other, more modern forms of accessing cinematic entertainment. Some movies belong on the DVD shelf, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Today’s food for thought: American Beauty.

Stuck in a cinematic mid-life crisis since: October 1, 1999

[DVD]

It doesn’t matter that I’m only 16 years late to the party. It doesn’t matter that I’ve likely missed the most fervent discussions about one of the most striking suburban dramas American cinema has ever produced (and it doesn’t matter that the film wasn’t made by an American director, either — curiously he, Sam Mendes, of British stage and film background, would go on to make the film that reaffirmed Daniel Craig as the James Bond of a new generation). It doesn’t matter at all, because now I’ve seen American Beauty.

That is a big check mark on a list of films I have been meaning to see for some time. You’ll have to forgive me for a TBT post that is going to rehash what millions have already said (and said better), but at this point I think it’s all but impossible to stage a novel argument in defense of Mendes’ directorial debut, one that went on to win five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

American Beauty is a kaleidoscope of themes and stories, all wrapped up in a mesmerizing cinematic package that would later rename Kevin Spacey as Best Actor of 1999 (though his co-star Annette Bening didn’t receive the same level of recognition her sensational turn as materialistic wife Carolyn Burnham all but demanded); Sam Mendes as the director of the moment; and would identify the Alan Ball-written screenplay superlative amongst all other original screenplays that year. Given its numerous interpretations since, American Beauty could almost be taken as an anthology. However, its rumination on beauty, youth, aging, sexuality and, perhaps most interestingly, how we define domestic bliss are all in service to Spacey’s Lester Burnham, whose trajectory from bummed out and frustrated to amped up and care-free can only be described as a mid-life crisis brought on by his chance encounter with a friend of his teenaged daughter.

The title itself seems almost too obvious, but when becoming familiar with the power dynamics that drive the Burnham household — it’s a family of three, with the moody and misunderstood Jane (Thora Birch) stuck in the middle of her parents’ drama more often than not — American Beauty becomes ever increasingly more ironic, encompassing both the physical and psychological manifestations of beauty. And despite the focus on Spacey’s character in particular, the numerous thematic explorations involve the film’s sprawling cast, most of whom turn in award-worthy performances as well.

The Burnhams have new neighbors moving in on their right, disciplinary father Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper, who has no trouble rising to the challenge of matching the intensity of his co-stars’ performances) and his obedient son Ricky (Wes Bentley), who is obsessed with documenting the world around him with his videocamera, including the girl next door. That relationship rivals the Burnham’s marriage in terms of tumultuousness and distrust. A heartbreaking performance from Allison Janney as Mrs. Fitts gives the impression that this family unit is in fact more damaged. While these people exist a little more on the fringe they nonetheless contribute significantly to the eye-opening drama. Then of course there’s the dialogue between Jane and that flirty friend of hers, Angela (Mena Suvari), who, as is the case with many teens, are constantly talking about which person at their school they should date next. Their obsession with looks and social status say much about the rest of the film’s focus on adults trying to come to terms with their position in life.

Mendes’ direction is perfectly polished, barely trumping the perceptiveness of Ball’s story. (Incredibly, the man has only gone on to write one other film since.) Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something very discomforting about watching a grown man up and quit a secure job at a magazine publisher only to take up a day job serving fast food. Equally distressing is seeing him change around his daily routine to include working out and taking long jogs so he can taylor his physique to Angela’s liking. He trades in his crappy old Camry for a shiny new sports car, a rash decision that, by most people’s definition, represents a mid-life crisis in and of itself. This breakdown (more like rediscovery given the amusing change in tone) doesn’t spring out of nowhere, mind; in Lester’s own words: “[Carolyn] prefers I go through life as a (swear word) prisoner while she keeps my (man-parts) in a mason jar under the sink. I’m so sick and tired of being treated like I don’t exist in this family . . .”

As a credit to Ball, American Beauty is a film that perpetually skirts around cliché, but even more than that, it creates situations and emotions that feel unique and original, rather than merely offering surprises on the virtue of its subversive tendencies. It’s uplifting watching this man’s transformation when really it ought to be troublesome. Well, actually it is troublesome but it’s never downright depressing. The scene at the drive-thru window is a particular highlight, when in reality it is a low point in this marriage. A burgeoning romance between Jane and Ricky catches us somewhat off guard. Not to mention, the mood in which this film begins — home video footage revealing a clandestine plan to solve Jane’s problems of being ignored, despite the fact that she’s the only daughter in this broken family — is brilliantly given context later on. (Okay, so really what I’ve just described relates more to direction than the writing but without the sharp dialogue and the delivery thereof, the manipulation of timelines wouldn’t be as effective.)

Looking back on this film is as thought-provoking as it is disturbing. American Beauty is so 1990s, and yet times haven’t changed so drastically that its most pressing questions are now foreign to a modern audience. How exactly do we define domestic bliss, and how long does it last? How do we define physical beauty? Is that healthy? How long has the model of the perfect family unit — the house, white picket fence, three kids and a dog — been out of date? I’m quite sure I know none of the answers, but it doesn’t matter because American Beauty doesn’t really either. It may satirize a number of cultural flaws but it doesn’t pretend to have a solution to them. That’s what makes this a classic.

Recommendation: To anyone who hasn’t yet seen American Beauty (I don’t know how many people I’m speaking to here), I urge you to devote two hours out of your day to this extraordinary work. It satisfies on so many levels it’s all but  impossible to name them all. What stood out the most to me were the performances, the writing (specifically the narrative’s ability to maintain a serious dramatic undertone while being incredibly funny simultaneously), and a bold, dramatic conclusion that is brilliantly understated. The perfect end to a near-perfect movie.

Rated: R

Running Time: 122 mins.

TBTrivia: The title of the film refers to a breed of roses that while pretty and appealing in appearance, is often prone to rot underneath at the roots and branches of the plant. Thus, the tagline “. . . look closer” tells the viewer that when they look beyond the “perfect suburban life” they will find something rancid at the root.

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Comet

Release: Friday, December 5, 2014

[Netflix]

Written by: Sam Esmail

Directed by: Sam Esmail

Comet can pretend it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event but the stars shone so much brighter in the universes it has been melded by, spectacular constructs like the intricate and heartrending Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and 500 Days of Summer.

Bearing the heartbreak of the former while resembling more of the latter’s narrative nonlinearity and sophistication, Comet isn’t exactly a bad film when comparisons to romantic dramas of that ilk occur so naturally. It’s just unfortunate there isn’t much beyond a different cast that distinguishes Sam Esmail’s work. Of course, the case could be made that his film pays homage but where exactly does one draw the line between dedication and duplication? A few colorful, creative scene transitions beautified by special effects don’t quite cut it for this cynic reviewer. Oh, and the film is supposed to be set within a parallel universe. Although a bit hokey, that angle is one I can work with.

Prior to what is purported to be a spectacular meteorological event, Dell (Justin Long) bumps into the beautiful Kimberly (Emmy Rossum) as they wait in a line to access a park that will provide the ideal vantage point. Caught up in one of his verbalized streams of consciousness stating his lack of faith in humanity, as only a character played by Long can, Dell is saved from being hit by a passing car by the new girl. He spends the remainder of this evening pining after her, lamenting the fact she’s already spoken for by some guy who happens to look good but quite clearly has no personality. He decides the meteor shower can wait until he’s finished his stalking.

Comet then jettisons us out of this present tense and into another, one somewhere in the near future (this film covers a six-year period), where the two are now an intimate couple. Times haven’t changed so much as the dynamic of Long and Rossum’s interactions. We’re privy to heated arguments, weird phone calls, insults stemming from two people slipping out of love and into something more akin to hostility. Resentment. Chain smoking cigarettes becomes a motif. And Long’s character doesn’t become much more likable, though he is certainly interesting. This is probably one of his better performances, though it’s veiled behind pretentiousness and petulance. Conversely Rossum magnetizes with her quick wit and hipster glasses.

Then the narrative shifts yet again, sending us back into a place where things were more romantic. The story constantly moves and changes, with almost every scene introducing a different phase in the relationship. And the process is far from chronological. That the film manages to maintain our interest at all stems from an incisive, brutally honest script that lays bare all the faults — some of which are all too apparent and others that are created through the simple but terrifying passage of time — of a relationship that seems to have been contrived from the very beginning. Who shakes hands to formally kick off a relationship? Who does that?

Apparently this couple. Comet would be a memorable picture but — at the risk of repeating myself — it’s far too reminiscent of Tom and Summer’s experiences together and the slide into their own private oblivion. Whereas 500 Days of Summer justified its experimentation with practical structure (“500 days” prepared us for the inevitable) Comet seems to just drag on and on, never seeming to settle on a pattern or even pretending like one would make any difference. It’s a shame because the performances are strong, the cinematography gorgeous and emotions do run high. Truly, it’s difficult at times to believe Rossum is in fact not in a real relationship with Long but the director himself. (I’m sorry, was that a spoiler?)

Comet has its moments of brilliance but it’s a true challenge shaking the feeling of déjà vu. Of course, there are worse fates for a film steeped in a generally predictable and melodramatic genre.

Recommendation: Visually dazzling and capably performed, it’s frustratingly difficult to ignore Comet‘s contrived nature. For great performances from its two stars, I do recommend a viewing. But be advised, you probably should have a high tolerance for Justin Long. He tested my patience at times and there’s a good chance he will yours. Emmy Rossum is a newcomer to me and she’s a delight. I’d recommend it more for what she puts forth actually.

Rated: R

Running Time: 91 mins.

Quoted: “Why does it feel so impossible to let you go? It’s an addiction, you know. That’s all it is. It’s a biochemical addiction. It’s so stupid. If you think about it relationships are totally narcissistic. Basically, you’re just looking for someone who’ll love you as much as you love yourself. That’s all it is.”

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The Gift

Release: Friday, August 7, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Joel Edgerton

Directed by: Joel Edgerton

The Gift is a kind of addictive drug. The more of it you consume the more of it you want.

Considering this is the first time Australian actor Joel Edgerton has been in full control of a project, that may seem hyperbolic. However, the logic follows. Edgerton has proven over the course of a 17-year career on the big screen he’s able to do much with a bit of determination. And, well yeah, some pride and confidence. Edgerton’s not just talented but he’s principled. Criticism about projects he has chosen has rarely, if ever, questioned his faith in his own work. With resilience to spare, he continues to bear the marks of a reliable thespian. It would only make sense his efforts would translate to an altogether new aspect of filmmaking. This, the year 2015, would be the time to prove it.

The Gift, now almost three years in the making, is a gift to those who have kept the faith in him. As a mystery thriller it is incredibly tense, well-acted and the epitome of unpredictable. In it Edgerton co-stars alongside Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall, who play a recently relocated married couple settling into the sprawling suburbs of Los Angeles from their native Chicago. While shopping for home supplies, Simon (Bateman, in a compelling, atypically dramatic performance) bumps into someone who claims to recognize him from their high school days, a socially awkward but seemingly harmless Gordo (Edgerton). While the timing isn’t convenient to catch up in the store, Simon promises they will be in touch.

Simon is a partner in a billion-dollar company. His wife Robyn works from home as a designer. From what we gather initially the pair are but two seeds swept up in the current of modern day living, one that all but necessitates independent career earnings to support a family. Their beautiful home alone is but a part of a larger picture of success, and Simon and Robyn seem very happy together. One afternoon Gordo drops in unannounced; Robyn invites him in for a tour of their abode, not wanting to be rude to Simon’s ostensible old friend. This leads to a pleasant dinner later that evening, during which Simon and Gordo finally do some of that catching up. Most of it is casual chit-chat, but Edgerton being Edgerton, his character possesses a depth that jumpstarts his former classmate’s uptightness. An uptightness that gradually morphs into paranoia. Paranoia that evolves into legitimate suspicion.

The Gift is also written by the Aussie. On that front he proves himself a talent to keep watching, crafting a perpetual shape-shifter that creates at least as many questions as it does answers. That should be taken as a compliment of the highest order when it comes to the genre. Beyond an acting showcase — show me the role in which Jason Bateman has been better (or Rebecca Hall for that matter) — the film, particularly in its final moments, offers an adrenaline rush that manifests more as a high than anything else. Indeed if The Gift is a drug, it’s good for both the brain and body.

In an auspicious directing debut, Edgerton provides more than just sound narrative structure and an atmosphere in which his co-stars have clearly flourished — nevermind the fact that he shot his own role two weeks into production and in the span of a single week. He’s made his stance on childhood bullying abundantly clear. And of course he’s not content to stop there, evolving the conversation on the long-term effects of that infuriating reality into a discussion about how it takes a much darker and potentially more harmful turn when applied to adults engaging in such shameful behavior. If someone is looking for a fault in the film it’s that perhaps the issue is handled a little less than subtly in the pulse-pounding conclusion but that’s so incredibly secondary to the fact that he has taken this issue seriously, as it ought to be.

Recommendation: If you’re in the mood to be toyed with psychologically Joel Edgerton has the perfect film for you. Filled with deeply emotional performances and a wicked final (double) twist, his first shot at directing should earn him a score of new fans. This is pretty exciting stuff from a guy who’s always been reliable as an actor, and it’s safe to say this will go on to become a favorite for fans of the mystery thriller and intelligent, provocative filmmaking in general. The Gift is one of 2015’s greats. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “Good people deserve good things.”

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