Thursday, June 25, 2015

Family Ties: Uncle Pablo & The Canadian Surfer

Nick Brady: Paradise Lost does not have the ring of Escobar: Paradise Lost, but then again Nick Brady does not have the charisma of Pablo Escobar. 

But Nick Brady serves a purpose in movies like Andrea Di Stefano’s Escobar. He’s our everyman. Our stranger in a strange land. Our innocent guide into the foreign and deadly world of the most notorious cocaine kingpin the world has ever seen. He’s also a foreigner to Colombia, the people and the movie’s plot.

Nick (Josh Hutcherson) is a Canadian surfer who ends up Colombia in 1983. He falls in love with Maria (Claudia Traisac), a confident young woman who points to a billboard with a picture of a menacing face and says that’s her uncle. Uncle Pablo seems nice enough, and he’s some kind of politician. When Nick and Maria attend a lavish party, Nick asks how Uncle Pablo made his fortunes. Maria doesn’t miss a beat, and her smile never fades: “Cocaine.” 

What transpires next is mostly predictable, but altogether fascinating. Nick is so smitten by Maria that he barely notices himself sinking deeper into Pablo’s clutches of money and extravagance. The hacienda where the Escobar keeps his family is paradise: pools, elephants and other exotics animals, life-size fiberglass statues of dinosaurs in the pastures. At one point we see Pablo dusting his prize keepsake: the car that Bonnie and Clyde were killed in. 

The real draw here is Pablo Escobar, played with psychotic finesse by Benecio del Toro. He’s a lovable kind of kingpin. Oafish, domineering, dispensing sage advice in ways that disarm his intimidating 1,000-yard stare. He’s made even more terrifying as he struts around with his wireless briefcase phone, Cosby sweaters and, hilariously, a green corduroy Boston Celtics cap. If you admired Steven Soderbergh’s Che and the great lengths del Toro went to craft that complex character than you will likely be disappointed that this film doesn’t quite reach that level of storytelling. His Pablo is marvelous to watch, but he doesn’t have much arc. He begins the film as Uncle Pablo, and then one day, on the eve of a prison term, he decides to kill everyone, including two infants—two infants too many for this kind of movie. There is no nuance in his monstrosity. And the fact the he would spend so much time doting on and then ultimately trying to kill Nick, seems laughably pointless. A country full of Colombians and we spend the whole movie with the lone gringo. 

That is the peril of these types of movies, these pictures about famous people and their sidekicks, assistants or secretaries: the film can’t sustain itself on the Nick Brady’s of the world, and there’s never enough time to develop the Pablos. It happened in The Last King of Scotland, in which a doctor found himself in the inner circle of Idi Amin, and in The Devil’s Double, in which a body double is roped into Uday Hussein’s twisted universe, and it happens here in Escobar. Hutcherson does what he can, and del Toro hits it out of the park, but they don’t have much to work with because their characters are on different trajectories. 

Di Stefano does do a commendable job holding these trajectories as best he can, and the film has a unique look and feel to it, although I found the drifting focus and handheld shots to be frequently annoying. He structures the movie out of sequence, and it works really well, especially since the flashbacks and flash forwards don’t tip off the plot points any more than they should. The first half of the film is largely a romance and psychological drama, but it quickly becomes a terrifying narco-thriller as Nick is sent on a mission to bury Pablo’s treasure. It’s a jarring acceleration, and doesn’t altogether work, but the scenes are well executed and appropriately nailbiting.

I did find it very hard to believe, though, that Pablo Escobar would ask his niece’s Canadian surfer boyfriend to drive his loot up into the mountains and then have to commit murder to hide it all. And Nick, apparently out of inexhaustible fear, goes along with it to a point. Let me repeat an earlier sentence here: A country full of Colombians and we spend the whole movie with the lone gringo. 

Listen, I’m fond of what this movie does, and what it attempts to do, with Pablo Escobar, who might be one of the greatest villains of the late 20th century. But Paradise Lost doesn’t go far enough. Pablo needs to run, as fast as he can, away from Nick until he finds himself in his own movie.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Farewell Party gives reverence to death

There is dignity in death and The Farewell Party searches for it in humorous bursts of empathy. 

It begins with an elderly tinkerer ringing up an older woman. “This is God,” he says, and the woman, senile and confused, believes him. “You are certainly going to heaven, but we have no vacancies, so you must get your treatment.” The woman nods. 

At this point you realize you’re in for for something very unique, and likely heartbreaking. 

The tinkerer is Yehezkel (Ze’ev Recach) and he is watching his best friend suffer in pain in a care facility. His prognosis is terminal. Morphine no longer works, and he’s developing bedsores that are increasingly painful. His wife, at the end of her rope, suggests they end his agony and the gears in Yehezkel’s head begin spinning. 

What happens next is a devastating examination of mercy as Yehezkel and his band of helpers plan, build and implement a euthanasia machine. The device is crude -- it is driven by a small motor and a bicycle chain, and uses drugs intended for animals -- but it is effective at ending the suffering of Yehezkel’s “patients,” who seek him out at great risk for themselves and their loved ones.

The Farewell Party handles all this in a serious way, but you can’t help but smile at its subtle brand of bleak comedy, from the gay man literally trapped in the closet and an overzealous traffic cop repeatedly talked out of writing tickets, to a touching scene with much of the elderly cast nude and high in a greenhouse to cheer up a friend with dementia. The gallows humor manages to give brief reprieves between each heartbreaking death. 

The Israeli film, directed by Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon, is beautifully staged and photographed. The camera almost never moves, preferring instead static shots that give the scenes and their terrifying implications reverence. When it does move, in a lovely musical number and later in a tragic moment of realization for Yehezkel, it does so to punctuate the delicate nature of life and death.

It ends precisely where you want it to, but it stings even as it rings true. This is a beautiful film, one that gazes long and hard into the soul of the dying, and those who look over them.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

"They're dinosaurs — they're wow enough."

Jurassic World desperately craves 1993, when CGI was in its infancy, the internet was not in wide use, and when dinosaurs could inspire awe and wonder from all who gazed upon them. Just picture the film as a Scooby Doo villain, an old crotchety man shaking his fist: “If it weren’t for those meddling kids and their Tweeter and their Facepages, then this park would be the greatest park ever.”

I’m not one to miss the 1990s, but Jurassic World makes me yearn for those halcyon years, before we became cynical and jaded, before we started turning our back on the Mona Lisa to take selfies with selfie sticks, before we started thumbing our nose at the marvelous. That’s the attitude of Jurassic World, in which a theme park with living, breathing, chomping dinosaurs is struggling to pay its bills because “no one is impressed by dinosaurs anymore.” Times are so tough that they have bio-engineer the Indominus Rex, whose DNA is a chunky stew of other creatures’ chromosomes. Kids these days, the film laments, they just want their phones, their Snapchat, and a hoodie to retreat into. One character has to be reminded to put his smartphone down to see a Titanic-sized sea monster gobble a great white the way a child crunches on goldfish crackers.

This is Jurassic World’s most fundamental failure: it wants us to believe that a theme park with dinosaurs would get old. Lions, tigers and elephants have existed longer than man has, yet we still line up to gaze at them at zoos, so what makes Jurassic World thinks we’d be bored with cloned dinosaurs? It’s an idiotic concept that produces no fruit, just leafless limbs that end in broken stumps, and it’s a premise that the entirety of the film is grown around. More on that later.

Jurassic World has many failings, but it is, first and foremost, a rip-roaring dino-adventure. If you watched the first three films and thought “not enough dinosaurs” then this fourth entry in the franchise has you covered in every combination imaginable: I-Rex on raptor, mosasaurus on I-Rex, pterodactyl on human, human on raptor, T-Rex on human, T-Rex on I-Rex … so many variations that it sounds like an erotic personals section in a paleolithic newspaper. The scenes are long and action-packed, and they give heroic treatment to dinosaurs that were only glimpsed at in previous films. The velociraptors, so often the villains in the other pictures, are essentially good-guy sidekicks here. Think of them as trained orcas at SeaWorld, another disaster park with deadly man-eating attractions. 

The raptors are trained by Owen (Chris Pratt), who was with them when they hatched and who now oversees their development as park stars. They may know tricks, but they’re still deadly predators as we see in an early scene involving a rookie taking a spill into their pen. (My question here is why didn’t Owen use the raptor flute from the third movie, but then I remembered that even a raptor flute is too ridiculous for this movie.) Owen has to fight back a corporate stooge who wants to militarize the raptors into some kind of living battle-drones. I wish I could tell you this character was played by Paul Reiser from Aliens, but I cannot — he is played by Vincent D’Onofrio who actually has the line, “These things would have been great in Tora Bora.” At the conclusion of this line the sound of 400 collective eye-rolls was loud enough to fill the theater in 3D sound.

Owen flirts occasionally with park director Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is busy negotiating deals around the park, including a Verizon Wireless sponsorship —”what’s next, the Pepsisaurus?” a computer tech asks. (Yes, says Pepsi.) Claire is hosting her nephews, Zach and Gray, who are taking some time for themselves so their parents can divorce, because what you want in a dinosaur movie is lots and lots of family drama. 

As Zach and Gray set off into Jurassic World the film wonderfully establishes the setting as a working theme park, something way beyond what even Jurassic founder John Hammond could have hoped to achieve. There are canoe trips down brontosaurus-lined rivers, herbivore tours inside glass gyro-bubbles, an aviary with winged creatures, and many opportunities to watch carnivores gobble up their lunches in bloody clouds of pink mist. The mosasaurus exhibit is especially nifty: the bleachers begin topside at the lagoon with live feedings, and then they lower behind glass walls to get submerged views of the croc-like monster. An absolutely adorable petting zoo with pudgy little leaf eaters makes an appearance as well, and it is cuteness overload. 

People look like they’re having a lot of fun, but the evil “board” doesn’t like sagging attendance numbers, so they greenlight the I-Rex, which is smarter than any character in the film and has heat-vision like the Predator. And this is where Jurassic World loses its damned mind. The dinosaur itself is awesome, but its existence, its origins, its supernatural powers … it’s all a bit much. Of course it escapes, of course it goes on a killing rampage, and of course every human character suddenly decides it’s time to make the worst decisions of their lives. I want smarter characters in a movie about the genius of mankind. Instead I get Claire, who would rather watch dinosaurs regurgitate half-chewed guests then evacuate the park; Owen, who carries a John Wayne-style lever-action rifle when everyone else carries machine guns; the military guy who apparently has a contract from Weyland-Yutani; and Jurassic’s CEO, who fatefully admits in his first scene that he’s got two more days of flying to get his helicopter pilot's license. Yep, that helicopter is totally crashing. 

The characters in the original Jurassic Park were guilty of hubris and for “playing God,” but they were generally smart people taken down by a computer hacker with selfish motives. In Jurassic World, though, the gruesome deaths — including one entirely unnecessary devouring of Zach and Grey’s wedding-planning babysitter — are entirely linked to the complete and utter stupidity of the plot, its characters and director Colin Trevorrow, who jams so much garbage into his film that you have to wonder if he really wanted to make a movie about dinosaurs at all. 

The biggest failure, though, is that Jurassic World truly believes that dinosaurs alone aren’t enough, which is why it throws in a romance, family drama, battle-raptors, sulking teens, obsessive marketing mavens and that hulking bio-fabricated dinosaur. “We have to up the wow factor,” one characters says. 

“They’re dinosaurs — they’re wow enough,” responds Owen. Amen to that.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Westerns return to greatness with Slow West

A teenager stumbles into a cluster of trees as he walks his horse through clouds of acrid smoke. He comes into a clearing where he discovers the source, a smoldering Indian encampment. Burned teepees are scorched and ruined, their narrow bones still upright and revealing their triangular corpses. The scene is played in black and grays, with an immense feeling of dread that looms over the wayward boy lost in nature’s wrath. The sequence was likely shot on a soundstage, but it feels like a Caravaggio painting come to life in the West. 

I’ve never quite seen anything like this before, which further proves the resilience of Hollywood’s oldest genre, the western. 

Slow West is an intense burn of a cowboy picture. It comes together like an epic romance: a lovelorn teen, Jay Cavendish (The Road’s Kodi Smit-McPhee), journeys to America’s Western frontier to find his sweetheart, Rose. Rooted in romance and the Old West, the film is more an absurdist road adventure and surreal fantasy: In an early scene, Jay looks up over the frontier, aims his revolver at the stars and watches as they light up like a shooting gallery. This scene leads into the burning of the Indian village, which is so hauntingly beautiful that it seems plucked from another movie in another genre.

Jay quickly meets Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), a bounty hunter with a secret in his pocket: a wanted poster with Rose’s picture on it. Silas agrees to help Jay find Rose, even though his intentions are deadly and selfish. What transpires on their journey is a magnificent set of adventures, the likes of which have never before been seen in a western. You’ll know you’re very far away from John Wayne and Clint Eastwood when Jay meets a trio of Congolese singers on the road. Who are these men, and where did they come from? Slow West doesn’t elaborate, just presents images and shambles onward toward Rose’s doom. 

Much of the film can be broken up into episodes, including one where Jay and Silas are stalked by the film’s villain, a fellow bounty hunter. I kept thinking I knew where this scene would go, and Slow West goes far and wide to prove you can’t predict anything in this strange western universe. The confrontation, or lack thereof, ends when the creek they’re camped next to floods, washing their weapons away and leaving them with soaked clothes. They ride away in their longjohns with their clothing tied to clotheslines stretched between their horses.

Another episode takes place with a traveling preacher, who imparts one last piece of advice on a slip of paper that reads “West” with an arrow pointing. If only Jay had picked up the paper before the breeze, which forever scrambles the arrow’s intended direction. In another scene, Jay and Silas are caught up in a store robbery that goes wrong in every conceivable way. And then they step outside and it gets even worse. 

Slow West is written and directed by John Maclean, whose debut here as an innovative force is about as fine as debuts come. Maclean’s biggest film credit before this was in High Fidelity, in which his band at the time, the Beta Band, has a song featured in a key sequence. How he got here to Slow West, and why — and what took so long — are questions almost as fascinating as the film itself. Almost.

It’s written perfectly, with balance for the deceptively complex narrative and the intriguing characters; the performances are spot-on, with Smit-McPhee and Fassbender making an unlikely but likable pairing; and the visuals are poetic and serve the film’s larger theme that man is not nearly as cruel as nature. Consider these three shots: a tree that has fallen on a lumberjack, his axe-wielding skeleton splayed out beneath the trunk. Ants crawling on and in the barrel of a gun. And, in one of the final shots of the film, jump cuts to each and every person killed since the beginning of the movie.

Death comes for everyone, but in Slow West it lingers, and chokes, and it does not come quickly.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Arnold-starring Maggie is a rare zombie movie

The zombie is an ironic metaphor for, of all things, the zombie genre: it shambles forward, meat decaying off its bones, teeth falling from its mouth, unable to die, its only mission to consume. You can shoot it and delay its momentum, but it just keeps coming back for more. 

After every iteration of zombie cross-pollination — zombie comedy (Shaun of the Dead), Zombie rom-com (Warm Bodies), zombie sci-fi (The Last Days on Mars), zombie suburban drama (Fido) — and an increasingly manipulative zombie soap opera on television (The Walking Dead), we must certainly be approaching a zombie zenith. After all, how many zombie movies, shows, comics and video games do we really need?

“One more, please,” begs Henry Hobson’s directorial debut Maggie, a largely unique zombie movie with something to say in an overplayed and babbling genre.

The film plays out in whispers, sighs and reserved mumbles. It’s quiet and contemplative, the kind of movie that doesn’t feel rushed when it looks out a window to wonder. It’s been months, or maybe years, since a zombie uprising has been quelled. Survivors are picking up the pieces and rebuilding, but infected still pop up now and again. They aren’t called zombies — no, they are carriers of a fatal disease called the necroambulist plague — and are treated humanely, more like terminal cancer patients than horror villains. 

The bad ones, the run-of-the-mill walking dead, are killed outright, but the infected who are still conscious and articulate are granted small doses of humanity. They’re allowed to return home, be near their families, eat and drink regular food, and put their affairs in order before the virus’ two-week incubation period gives way to full-blown braaaaaaains cravings. Before patients “turn” they are encouraged to voluntarily enter a quarantine center where they will be housed and later euthanized, or a family member can end it all for them. “I would use that,” the family doctor says, pointing at a shotgun.

This is the world that we enter as we meet Wade, a father of three somewhere in the Midwest. The state of Wade’s world is explained in an overly helpful NPR story — if All Things Considered is still around, then things probably didn’t get that bad. Wade’s teen daughter, Maggie, has been bitten and he’s bringing her home to the family farm. No one is really trying to process Maggie’s fate; it all feels so raw, so they ignore it. They cook and make dinner, she uses a swingset in the yard, she goes to a party … life is mostly normal, except this festering bite and its putrefying aftermath that represents Maggie’s future.

I haven’t yet told you the stars of the movie, and that is intentional. Maggie is played by Abigail Breslin, the young child actress from Little Miss Sunshine and, as luck would have it, Zombieland, who is making waves now as an adult. Wade is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in what might be the most unique role of his career. He holds a gun, but only shoots it offscreen. He’s involved in two fights, and is roundly defeated in one of them. And he doesn’t have a single one-liner. Where other movies are built around this abstract idea of AHNOLD, Maggie casts the former California governor as a regular guy doing mostly regular things. And you know what? It works. By no means is this prestige acting, but it’s a serious role that requires him to act and not stunt. I was continuously surprised by his performance and his pairing with Breslin, who also does a fine job with the minimalist material. 

Maggie is original as a zombie movie and a Schwarzenegger flick, but it occasionally loses its way. There’s a bit with a roaming fox that goes on with little reward, and some of the visual payoffs look like hand-me-downs from The Walking Dead. In one of the film’s only zombie fights, Wade wanders through a deserted gas station, past a bloody mattress, through buzzing flies and into a dark hallway to use the bathroom. Of course there’s a zombie by the toilet that he has to fight off, but why didn’t he read the clues? More importantly, how did he even survive the original zombie plague with instincts like this?

These deficiencies are made up for with Hobson’s careful directing, which (mostly) avoids cheap jump scares and rapid edits for a deliberate, more cerebral story about a father and a daughter as they comprehend the limits of their love. The music is mellow and evocative, the colors are cold and desaturated, the editing is straightforward and direct, and the performances are flat but also realistic — Hobson takes into account what’s already been done in the zombie genre and goes out of his way to tell a different kind of story. And it’s pretty good.

So maybe the genre isn’t altogether dead.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

A fitting end to a Furious actor

A morbid sense of doom lingers over Furious 7, and it grows darker the longer Paul Walker’s character is spent living and breathing within the film.

Walker died in an unrelated accident in the middle of production, so it was widely known that the seventh Fast and Furious entry would have to tinker with its already completed story to write Walker out of the franchise. Careful CGI was used to blend old and new footage, and the actor’s brothers were on hand as stand-ins. But what were they up to? And how did the story change under these awful circumstances?

Overlooking the terrible tragedy that befell Walker (and a friend, who also perished), these screenwriting questions interest me greatly. Films are bubbles largely sheltered from the outside world. And Walker’s unfortunate death popped the bubble and allowed real life to flood into the film’s playfully dopey car adventures. I was curious how the franchise would handle it: how would it break the fourth wall and send Walker’s FBI gearhead off into the great beyond?

The answer is heartbreakingly appropriate. It comes where you least expect it, and it’s so fitting — solemn yet light-hearted, honest yet in-character, emotional yet also very functional — that the film ends and a public memorial for this beloved actor and character springs up in its place. 

Just looking at the movie, though, Furious 7 is not a high point for the franchise. The stunts are bigger and more brazen violations of the laws of physics, which is always goofy fun, but the tone is less tongue-in-cheek than that of the fifth or sixth movies, franchise highwater marks that abandoned all seriousness at the door. In the end, it’s just trying too hard to be cool, a characteristic that must be finessed out of a film, not bludgeoned in.

It begins sorta where the last one left off: Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) is out-of-his-skull angry that his criminally minded brother found himself in intensive care for being a capital-V villain. Shaw goes berserk and vows revenge on Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), Brian O’Conner (Walker) and their gang of hooligan racers, who are forever telling themselves “just one more job.”

The movie’s strangest development happens early, when it’s revealed that Shaw killed a driver named Han way back in the third film, Tokyo Drift in 2006. This plot point was the big reveal at the end of the last movie. So here we are in Part 7 at a funeral for a character who died just yesterday in the movie’s universe, but nine years ago for the audience. And then, at the cemetery, before the body is even in the ground, Toretto starts a car chase amid the headstones, which is a weird image for a movie starring a dead actor.

Shaw escapes many times, and Toretto chases him many times. It’s the mantra of the film, and the franchise to a certain extent. Eventually, a super-spy played by Kurt Russell — and literally named Mr. Nobody — turns up and offers to help Dom and his crew catch Shaw, but they first have to retrieve a hacker named Ramsey, who invented a surveillance program called God’s Eye. This is where the plot threatens to strangle this film. 

There’s a hilarious bit with Ramsey’s secret files, which she sent to a car mechanic in Abu Dhabi. So they jump on a plane, because they apparently don’t have cell phones to call him and the mechanic can’t be bothered to use the mail. But when they get to the Middle East, the mechanic sold the files, now in a thumb drive, to a royal prince, who installed the thumb drive in his billion-dollar car … in a vault … high up in a tower. This improbable revelation initiates an extended heist sequence in a trio of skyscrapers high above the desert floor. I enjoyed it, but the setup could have been much cleaner.

These are dumb movies, a point few people are going to argue with. They’re so dumb that an opening shot featuring the Tower Bridge and Big Ben must tell viewers this is “London.” And the product placement is shameless, including a scene in which Mr. Nobody gabs on forever about Belgian ale. Toretto passes and asks for a Corona. Mr. Nobody, like a magician, pulls a perspiring metal ice bucket full of Coronas from behind a desk, where they were presumably filming a beer commercial between Furious 7 takes.

Director James Wan stumbles from action scene to action scene, filling the interludes with closeups of bare female butts in thongs and factories that spew smoke and sparks around glistening supercars with immaculate paintjobs. He doesn’t seem to know how to pace the film’s brand of mindless action. It goes from cemetery chase to vehicular skydiving to cliff jumping to skyscraper heists to factory shootouts to drone attacks. Each action sequence is more ridiculous than the one before it, but with each new one the characters get a little more lost in the shuffle.

It’s a shame they’re mistreated, because the characters are actually likable, something it took many movies to achieve. Diesel is great, Michelle Rodriguez is less sassy and more interesting, and Dwayne Johnson, who serves no purpose, is there to cheer us all up. In one scene he flexes his muscles right out of an arm cast because why not? Even Walker, who was slowly becoming a more minor character in the franchise, has a great scene with a minivan at his kid’s school. 

Fans of the Fast and Furious series will feel right at home in all this. I rolled my eyes about as much as they rolled tires, but I would still take the worst Fast and Furious movie over the best Transformers movie any day of the week. The best reason to see Furious 7 is to see what they do with Walker and his character. It’s classy, and graceful, and appropriate. Bring tissues.




Saturday, March 28, 2015

Danny Collins on Pacino, Lennon, lost letters

Writer Dan Fogelman, known largely for his Disney scripts — including Tangled, the Cars franchise and Bolt — was tucked in a back corner of the Phoenix Film Festival premiere party. No one recognized him. The luxury of being a screenwriter. 

He’s in Phoenix not just for his screenwriting, though: he’s directed his first film, Danny Collins, from a script he wrote, and the film kicked off the annual festival. I caught up with him to chat about the film just 30 minutes before Danny Collins’ Phoenix premiere. 

Terminal Volume: Tell me about the film. I know a little about it, but I’d love to hear how you describe it.

Dan Fogelman: It’s a redemption story. It’s based on real story about a guy named Steve Tilston. I came across his story on the Internet. He had done an interview as an 18-, 19-year-old guy where he said he was worried about what fame and fortune might do to his music, and if he became famous what it might do to is art and how it might corrupt it. Cut to 40 years later, and he’s in his 60s and he gets a knock on the door and someone telling him that John Lennon had read that interview and he had written him a letter that he had never heard of until that moment. The letter was advising him, cautioning him and gave guidance, and then had John Lennon’s home phone number. Steve didn’t get this letter until his 60s, long after Lennon was killed. And that was the inspiration for this redemption story. 

TV: How did the letter get lost?

DF: It’s a complicated thing, and we took some liberties with this part of the movie, but the letter was sent to the musician in care of the magazine. It’s not that the letter was stolen, but that it was just rerouted the wrong way. It didn’t come back around until many decades later.

TVAmazing cast: Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Christopher Plummer, Jennifer Garner and Bobby Cannavale. Had any of them met Lennon?

DF: Pacino had met him a couple of times. Once or twice. He’s been telling stories lately about walking the streets of New York City and running into Lennon. He knows Yoko a little. Al only really knew him tangentially. At the premiere, I heard that Yoko had left a letter for Al . I don’t know what it said, though. One can only imagine. I’m not sure if Christopher Plummer had — I’m going to his Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony tomorrow morning in LA. 

TVIf Yoko did write a letter, someone should lose it for 30 years or so and then give it him. 

DF: Exactly. There’s a line in the movie where Annette Bening asks how that letter makes him feel, and he says, “You know what I think, I wish he would have sent that to my house so I wouldn’t have lived a bullshit life for 40 years.” That’s basically the story of the film.

TVBobby Cannavale is great in everything he’s in.

DF: The film is a gentle, sweet and sentimental — hopefully not tipping over into sentimentality — but the film makes people feel good. And Bobby is perfect in the film. I’m a very harsh critic of my own stuff, and I've watched this movie more than any human being should be forced to watch a movie, but every time Bobby is on the screen he’s perfect. He’s an exceptional actor, but also a very normal guy. For whatever reason, maybe because of his theater works, it’s taken people a long time to find him. But that has made him very balanced. I think he’s on the edge of some very incredible things.

TVI interviewed him for Station Agent early in his career, and he was amazing. I’m glad he’s in more things these days.

DF: Bobby says what he thinks. We package ourselves in this day and age. He doesn’t package himself. He’s a real guy. He’s happiest on the stage, and he’s good at it. He doesn’t really care about all this stuff, yet he’s a TV star, theater star and film star.

TVSpeaking of the cast, Al Pacino seems to only get better with age. He could easily slip into parody at this point, but he can still get lost in performances. 

DF: It’s great to hear you say that, because a lot of people like to talk about the big over-the-top performances, but it’s not fair at all to him. Look at his body of work over the last 10 years. While there hasn’t necessarily been a blockbuster film, he’s still done incredible work on Broadway, on HBO, in films. He’s not a guy trying to make the almighty buck. He’s an actor and he’s 75 years old and he’s acting his ass off. It was amazing to work with him. I’ve been five years with Al, and it doesn’t get any better than that.

TVThat sounds like a great title for a movie: Five Years With Al.

DF: He’s nuts in the all the ways you want him to be nuts. And he’s a great guy. He’s great here as Danny Collins

TVHow was it directing your first film?

DF: It is different, and more responsibility. When you write a script, it could be best movie in the world or a real piece of shit. At some point the film leaves my hands and it goes to someone else. But when you’re the director it’s your job to make that script into the film. On this particular film, and I say this genuinely, any fault of the movie is my own. I’m very proud of the film. I got to make the movie I wanted to make as a director and a screenwriter. There other directors who would have made a worse film, or better film, or even just a different film, but I felt like I wanted to tell this story the way I wanted to tell it and I got that opportunity.

TVAnd now you’re here in Arizona opening it. 

DF: My fiancee went to Arizona State University, and I’ve traveled through Arizona many times. We opened the film last week in New York and Los Angeles, and then it rolls out much wider in a couple more weeks. But it’s exciting to be showing the film now because people don’t know the film. They’re walking into something they largely haven’t heard of. I’ve worked on lots of movies, and I know when I’m working on a bad one, and I genuinely think this is a good one, and it’s exciting to be in a room with 300 or 400 people who have no clue what’s going to happen. This film is a commercial and populist film and an accessible film that I know this room of people are going to love. When people don’t know anything about a movie the movie can really sweep them away.

TVI have a niece, I imagine everyone does, who would go crazy if they knew I was interview someone who had anything to do with Tangled. Does it surprise you that movies still have the power to transcend everything that came before them?

DF: Yeah, it’s always a little surreal to see films take off the way they do. My friends [Glenn Ficarra and John Requa] directed Crazy Stupid Love and I wrote it. We knew as we finished it that people would attach to it in a different way. I felt that way when I saw Tangled for the first time. There are certain ones. You make movies every year or so when you do what I do, but you can just feel it when they lock in a certain way. Tangled locks in for little girls and families. Cars did the same thing. And Crazy Stupid Love. And I think Danny Collins will too for a certain audience.

Blah blah Candor blah Dauntless blah Divergent

If you ever find yourself at a hotel at the same time as a tax seminar for accountants, pop your head into a conference room and listen to the table banter, and then marvel: “This would make a great movie!”

The writers of The Divergent Series had a similar “eureka!” moment when they waded through the murky melodrama of Veronica Roth’s young adult novels, about teens obsessing over dialogue so inane that nearly every word is meaningless without some kind of long-lost decoder ring. “Dauntless is conspiring with Abnegation. Erudite and Candor are helpless. Not even Amity can do anything.” “We need a full-blooded Divergent to open the box.” “The Factionless are in the war with us against Abnegation.” You could find more interesting dialogue in a parts manual for a 1998 Tercel.

We descend further down the rabbit hole of mindless plot points with Insurgent, the sequel to last year’s ambitiously wrecked Divergent. Recall from the first movie, a dystopian future world is broken down into five factions: Erudite, Amity, Dauntless, Abnegation and Candor. There is no reason for the factions, except the big reason: teens like reading about characters being separated into groups. It’s why there is a Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter books, districts in the Hunger Games, tiers of professions in last year’s stupendous Giver, and all the pouty-faced beast races in Twilight

Amid the five factions are the occasional Divergent, a person whose very soul can’t be classified into any faction. Villain Jeanine (Kate Winslet) can’t stand Divergents — something about how band geeks just aren’t allowed to sit at the lunch table with cheerleaders and football players — so she wages a violent war against the factions that shelter them. The star Divergent is Tris (Shailene Woodley), who’s the Neo of this absurdly designed Matrix.

Tris runs around with a Lost Boys-like gang of other Divergents and faction turncoats — including two ex-boyfriends: Ansel Elgort from The Fault in Our Stars, and Miles Teller from The Spectacular Now — without a coherent plan except to kill Jeanine, who believes in the faction system so tremendously that there is nothing the film can do to justify her passionate devotion. 

Yeesh, this movie! It just goes nowhere and does nothing. So much time and energy is spent convincing us that these factions are important, or not important at all, that the charade can’t sustain itself for a whole movie. We visit the Amish hippies of Amity, who are so cheerful you want to sock them. Later, Tris and company board a train full of Factionless, who are proto-punk hooligans with bad haircuts. In one particularly awful segment, Tris and her current boyfriend Four (Theo James) are captured by Candor, whose motto is apparently “Truthiness Forever.” Candor bigwigs inject them with a truth serum, which reveals at least one truth: even with all barriers removed from their thoughts, these are boring people.

The biggest problem is that everyone’s motivations are absolutely confounding. It feels like the film is marching toward an abolishment of the factions, but why and for what purpose? Most people in factions seem to like their factions, so what reason would they have to join Tris and fight the oppressive system? And Jeanine only wants martial law, which is movie code for “I’ll do whatever I want,” an act that will allow her to preserve the faction system for no other reason than “just because.”

The film does end on a high note, with Tris confronting five simulated challenges within a mysterious box found in the rubble of her parents’ home. The box promises to hold secrets that are important to the plot, and it lives up to those promises. If only this box would have played a more significant role earlier in the film.

Although the movie looks great — some of the special effects, especially in the mystery box, are awesome — and has a talented cast, Insurgent can never break out of its broken premise, to which every character, every plot point and every syllable of atrocious dialogue bows in idolatrous worship.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Boxing's soap opera gets a fitting conclusion

Bert Marcus’ boxing documentary Champs has a broad vision of the history of boxing and its cultural presence, but then, like many discussions about boxing, becomes laser-focused on two people and the one event that shaped the sport’s last golden era.

The boxers are, of course, Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson, and the event is, of course, that one time Iron Mike chomped on Holyfield’s ear. It’s funny how that one nibble is ground zero for so much of boxing’s modern relevance. It just steamrolls everything else in its path; even Muhammad Ali is a footnote. 

This isn’t a criticism of this beautifully shot and carefully written documentary, just an observation of Champs’ meandering from grand history to petty soap opera. What’s even more curious, and this is criticism, is how the film tells the story of a third character, reformed prison boxer Bernard Hopkins, but largely neglects him in favor of the more famous fighters. I found myself wanting to watch an entire movie just on Hopkins, without all of Champs’ rehashing of the Tyson/Holyfield drama. 

The doc begins with an array of talking heads — Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg, 50 Cent, Mary J. Blige, Ron Howard and many others — praising boxing’s philosophical implications: man-versus-man, man-versus-self, a refuge for poor inner-city kids, “an escape from violence through violence,” … on and on with an array of metaphors. They say it’s a perfect sport, which is what the talking heads always say in these kinds of sports documentaries. 

We eventually meet Bernard, who falls in with the wrong people and ends up in prison. He takes up boxing behind bars and before long he’s the best fighter at a string of prisons. Later, after he gets out, he goes on a stunning winning streak and then devotes the rest of his career to responsibly promoting young boxers. These chapters of his life are carved up into the larger narrative of the Tyson and Holyfield fights throughout the ’80s and ’90s. 

Even people who know nothing of boxing know of Tyson and Holyfield. These are old stories, but they are given refreshingly new life in Marcus’ film. Both men are interviewed extensively, and both appear to be wiser than they once were. Tyson, a convicted rapist, even cries, in a scene that is genuinely heartbreaking. Holyfield is much more likable, especially when the film covers his 1984 Olympic controversy, in which a woefully misguided referee disqualifies him as he clobbers his way to gold. He eventually won the bronze, although everyone acknowledges Holyfield as the gold medalist. 

And then there’s the chomp heard ‘round the world. I remember this 1997 fight. I was in high school at the time, and it was endlessly debated who was the stronger fighter, a debate that is still being waged today by many boxing fans. Holyfield would later forgive Tyson, an act that director Spike Lee is still surprised by: “A piece of his ear is gone forever,” he says. 

The stories of Tyson and Holyfield always felt interrupted as they were happening so many years ago. Now that both men are older, and are at peace over their roles in each other’s lives, their respective stories have some closure. And looking at the whole thing from beginning to end, you realize how Dickensian it all is: poor kids rising up amid the struggle of sport and personality, fighting with themselves more than each other, confronting their bad decisions, owning their mistakes and pushing forward past fame. Both men are shown in their prime, in sprawling mansions with Rolls Royces, white tigers and swimming pools as big as lakes. Today they live modest lives in the suburbs with pickup trucks and Ikea furniture. 

Champs has a number of dead-end ideas, including segments about the prevalence of black fighters coming from inner-city ghettos, the role of concussions and repeated brain trauma, the need for federal regulation, the role of money and power. These are interesting ideas with no conclusions. Before the film can say anything relevant about these issues it drops them and switches topics. 

The photography, though, is wonderful. Subtle re-enactments, slow-mo footage of training sessions, examinations of boxing neighborhoods, and lots of historical footage fill the air between the interviewers. 

One scene really stuck out for me: Tyson, in the throes of despair, finally realizes how little and insignificant he is. “The world is bigger than me,” he says, which should be the mantra for every fighter.

Film noir will never die

Film noir is classic moviemaking, because when you talk about film noir you’re not talking about a setting, like the desert in a western, or genre pictures, like sword-and-sandal epics or science fiction. What you’re actually talking about are the nuts and bolts of moviemaking: the rhythm of the dialogue, the tightness or looseness of the editing, the placement of the camera, the visual composition of light and shadow. This is why noir transcends genre, and why it could, and has been, a science fiction, a western, a crime thriller or a romantic drama. It can be anything it wants.

In the spirit of the Phoenix Film Festival’s Your Favorite Movies series, here are 10 of my favorite noir pictures from the golden age of noir in the 1940s right on through to today. You’ll notice by my choices that I like my noir a little pulpier than you might be used to. I’m also excluding one of my favorite noirs, which I will be adding to an upcoming list of my all-time favorite movies. 

Double Indemnity — Insurance salesman Walter Neff has killed a man, staged his death and is now planning on running away with the man’s girl. But as he walks home, he’s startled by his ears: “I couldn't hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.” With Raymond Chandler’s brutal dialogue, Billy Wilder’s pinpoint-precision directing, and the white-hot chemistry of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity embodies all that was great about noir in the 1940s.

L.A. Confidential — Curtis Hanson’s 1997 adaptation of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential is a compendium of noir themes transplanted back into their 1940s source material. It’s a modern film, but other than color and modern actors — and breasts and violence — it looks, acts and sounds vintage. Told from varying viewpoints from within the Los Angeles Police Department, the film gave us Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce (who would later do another modern noir, Memento) and returned to us Kim Basinger as the sexiest screen siren since Rita Hayworth did that hair flip in Gilda. The plot can be hard to follow, but dig in deep and it’s rewarding beyond measure.

Detour — Edgar Ulmer’s 1945 low-budget Detour is down and dirty noir of the most basic order. It has a loser hero, a femme fatale, schemes with money and false identity, a convenient murder, crimes of circumstance … it borrows from all the classic building blocks of the noir catalog. Tethered, quite literally, to the plot — about a hitchhiker who assumes a dead bookie’s identity — is a murder so shocking that it still startles even after all these years. 

The Killers — Famously based on an Ernest Hemingway story, Robert Siodmak’s 1946 noir staple begins like many noirs, at the end. Two hired thugs turn up to murder a former boxer (Burt Lancaster), who is tipped off to his impending doom, but refuses to flee. After he’s killed, others begin tracing his tragic trajectory backward, revealing crime, deception, and, you guessed it, a woman. The film was remade in 1964 by Don Siegel with Lee Marvin and Ronald Reagan, and John Cassavetes in the Lancaster role. They switched boxing to race car driving, but the general premise is the same. The first film is the better version, although both are great.

Body Heat — Lawrence Kasden’s steamy 1981 thriller Body Heat is an accessible entry point into a long legacy of noir classics that rely on gullible men and seductive women. The man here is William Hurt, playing a greasy lawyer, and the woman is Kathleen Turner, the trophy wife to a rich executive. They conspire to kill her husband, but then everything falls apart, like Walter Neff before them. The lighting is gorgeous, the sex scenes are legitimately sexy, and the Turner’s hroaty purr is just perfect for this material.

Out of the Past — One of the all-time classic noirs, Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 Out of the Past stars two of the great, Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas, in a flashback-heavy crime thriller involving hush money, tax records, love triangles and cold-blooded murder. Visually, the film is luscious, with these beautiful black and white compositions, many of them with curly tendrils of cigarette smoke snaking their way through the inky blacks. If there was ever a film where the shadows could come alive and strangle the actors, this is it. 

Touch of Evil — When people talk about Touch of Evil, they often talk about the brilliant three-minute-plus tracking shot that opens the movie. It’s a masterpiece as far as long takes go, but so many discussions end there, long before the heart of this gorgeous film has been unearthed. Of course, the film is also steeped in lore, with director Orson Welles fighting, and losing — and then many year after his death, winning — for final cut of the film. Today, with Welles’ cut, the film is noir legend, from its shadowy interiors and brazen dialogue to its cynical worldview and devastating conclusion. 

Brick — Rian Johnson’s 2005 hard-boiled detective thriller takes place in a high school with teenagers. When one character talks about getting suspended from school, it’s given the same weight as Sam Spade losing his detective license — the film winks at you, but also expects you to buy into its rarely subtle interpretation of noir. And it all works brilliantly. As soon as you surrender to the setting and the characters, the noir elements take over, creating a convoluted web of crime, innuendo, deception and even murder, some of the many grown-up acts these teens undertake to prove a larger point about the genre and its long reach.

Basic Instinct — Yes, yes, Sharon Stone doesn’t wear panties. That’s what people remember about the film, but never that Stone was modernizing the femme fatale in big sweeping brushstrokes. Paul Verhoeven’s 1992 erotic thriller is a monument to the character, whose roots can be traced back to the very beginning of noir. Also, Michael Douglas is great, playing a cop who is blinded by his lust. 

Chinatown — Roman Polanski’s 1974 Chinatown was one of the early throwbacks to the classics, and it was a terrific success because it understood the characters, their roles in larger plots and the sense of dread that hangs over noir plots. These films don’t have happy endings. They don’t skip off into the sunset. Noir means black, and things have to end in the darkness, which is what Chinatown is. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Modern westerns expand cowboy traditions

No genre is more ubiquitous to Hollywood than the western. Some of the very first films were about cowboys, horses and gunfights. The genre is so old that when the first westerns were being made there were certain parts of the country that were only partially removed from the Old West. Westerns were to audiences then what ’90s movies are to us now — fading, but still very clear memories. 

Yet, every year there is renewed interest in the western. It’s not a ton of interest, not like other genres, but enough that we’re reminded that the western will never die, even though the original stars — Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Will Rogers, Harry Carey — have been replaced by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, themselves replaced by others. 

In the spirit of the Phoenix Film Festival’s Your Favorite Movies series, here are my favorite westerns of the new millennium. I’m cutting it off at 2000, because before that is filled with all the classics that would clog my list. And because you already know about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Unforgiven, The Wild Bunch and, my personal favorite, Once Upon a Time in the West. By removing those and sticking to modern films, we can draw attention to the films that are carrying on the great western traditions. 

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Andrew Dominik’s gorgeous ode to the west’s greatest outlaw is unlike any western that came before it. Rapturously narrated, photographed in poetic stanzas, and with acting that is devastatingly pure, Jesse James established the myth of the man and then shattered it, only to mythologize once again in its closing heartbreaking chapters. 

The Proposition
John Hillcoat’s Australian outlaw flick was a stark wake-up about the violent implications of the cowboy way. The bad guys here are very very bad; even the good guys are just varying shades of dark gray. About a lawman who gives a man an ultimatum — bring me your terrible brother or your less-terrible brother will hang — The Proposition is relentless in its pursuit of overturning the western stereotypes.

Open Range
Kevin Costner is the butt of a lot of jokes, but he has a sensitive eye to the Old West and its historical relevance. In Open Range he focuses on several cowpunchers and their desperate fight with a town’s heavy-handed leader. The film is notable for its realism, with gunfights taking place in agonizing realtime, townspeople who don’t vanish at high noon and relationships that don’t just take place behind swinging saloon doors. Dances With Wolves might be masterpiece, but Open Range is Costner’s smaller study of the west. 

Meek’s Cutoff
Kelly Reichardt’s sumptuously slow Meek’s Cutoff would never get made in another age. It plods along in plain skirts, bonnets, covered wagons and so little exposition that it’s downright vague. But the film captures a rarely seen aspect of the west: tedious travel and crippling boredom. Strip the action out of a western and you have a film that is meditative and a little terrifying in its stillness. 

The Homesman
Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman picks up almost in the middle of Meek’s Cutoff, with Hilary Swank escorting three insane women across the frontier, where they will be cared for by what can only be described as “someone else.” The film rattles along at a fair clip, stopping for various episodes in the wild, but then it becomes something so much more when Swank’s homely cowgirl decides she’s had enough. These later passages are so powerful and tragic that they solidify Jones’ name among the western greats. 

Brokeback Mountain
Forever known as the gay cowboy movie, people often forget that Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain was a loud declaration of the western’s right to be anything it wanted, without all the white hat/black hat cliché. The film made homesexuality, cowboys, stereotypes of the Old West, hate crimes, family values … all of it relevant in a modern context. Step aside from the cultural response to Brokeback Mountain and peer into this film’s open heart and you’ll see that had a lot to say, all of it eloquent. 

The Good, The Bad, and The Weird
This and maybe Sukiyaki Western Django are noteworthy examples of the western being appropriated and tweaked by other countries and cultures. Cowboys are a universal idea, an archetype of brazen fearlessness and machoness. We called them cowboys, but in other cultures they were called samurai. Here in The Good, The Bad, and The Weird, they crash the two together in a fiery mess of stylized gunfights, stunts and special effects. 

Django Unchained
Quentin Tarantino’s bloody western acknowledged something very rare in westerns: slavery. Part revenge tale, part rescue mission, but thoroughly a Tarantino picture, Django turned two men — one white and one black — loose to fight their way through the Antebellum South. By recognizing and commenting on America’s terrible shame the film committed itself to western history. 

True Grit
I’m still a big fan of the original True Grit, but what the Coen Brothers did with their rascally remake is notable for a variety of reasons, and language is one of the big ones. Never before have we heard cowboys talk like they do here, with made-up words, stammering syntax, mumbled gibberish and tobacco drippings. Jeff Bridges is great as Rooster Cogburn, but the real star here is the authentic-sounding dialogue. 

Ed Harris’ forgotten cowboy flick does not break tons of new ground for the western genre, which is why I like the movie so much — it’s more of a callback to the way these movies used to be. Lawmen with big guns, cattle barons, outlaws, shootouts, main street confrontations … innovation in the genre can only go so far before it must reach back into the past and borrow from what already works. And there is nothing wrong with that.