Archive for the ‘Drama’ Category

Like everyone else who writes about films, I’m working on a year-end top-ten movies-of-2014 list. Here are some short pieces I wrote throughout the year about some of the contenders:

For starters, if you have any problem looking at Tom Hardy’s face for an hour and a half, look elsewhere for your filmed entertainment. I don’t have that particular problem but there are several actors I’d prefer not to stare at for so long (I’ll not name them here) — point is, everybody’s got their something. For me, I’d happily argue that this is the movie where Tom Hardy establishes he’s the real deal, particularly if you haven’t yet seen his transformative work in BRONSON. There are more great screen performers than we like to think, but there are not so many performers who can hold down a screen on their own.

Writer-director Steven Knight, who wrote the must-sees DIRTY PRETTY THINGS and EASTERN PROMISES, has constructed an actor’s vehicle (sorry for the pun) of the rare sort where the audience is looking at little else besides the actor’s face for the entire running time. There are cutaways, in passing, to the road outside the car, but for the most part the camera is situated inside the car with its driver, a man named Ivan Locke.

Unlike most men who movies are about, Locke is an ordinary man, a person you could meet, not much of a fictionalization. He seems to be well-off, and is clearly highly competent, and until the events of this film, considered by everyone to be professionally dependable, and technically he does look like a movie star who is dressing down, but other than that, this is a recognizably human character. The story concerns Locke’s drive to be present at the birth of a child who is the product of an affair, a one-time slip in the life of an otherwise reliable family man — or so it may seem. Character will out.

Steven Knight cleverly chooses for Locke the profession of construction planner; as he drives across England at night he’s determinedly making calls to ensure the flawless coordination of a career-dependent concrete pour first thing in the morning. This is a terrific metaphor, foundations. Locke is a loving father to his two sons but now he’s having a third, and he refuses to be absent for this son the way his father was absent on him. So you could say Locke is skipping out on a building foundation in order to be present for the foundation for a life. Or you could more cynically interpret these events to be the unraveling of an orderly life — the highly respected and successful professional working father, in a race to ignore his own pained origins, ended up making a misstep which undid the entire social construction of ‘Ivan Locke’, from the foundation on up. In an otherwise flawless effort to avoid being like his father, a single mistake laid bare and undid the entire enterprise.

But the overall feeling of LOCKE the movie isn’t one of negativity;  in fact by the time Locke utters the instant-classic line  “Two words I learned tonight – Fuck Chicago” this audience member was punching the air in exhilaration. It’s interesting how that happens, since unlike the many reviewers whose pull-quotes are being used to sell LOCKE as a suspense thriller, I spent most of the film in a twilight state. The expertly delivered elements of the film — Knight’s suave high-wire of a script, Hardy’s largely-motionless, emotionally-moderate, sonorous, intentionally calming performance; the masterfully-timed, nearly-invisible editing by Justine Wright; the almost-undetectable-feeling score by Dickon Hinchliffe; the collusion of Knight’s direction and Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography and the somber sound design and even the essence of Locke’s car itself — all of these have a tangible effect, making the car a contained environment, just short of a hyperbaric chamber, putting the focus exclusively on the conversations Locke must have with his wife and his sons and his mistress and his assistant and his superior and his various business connections and so on.

Rarely has a film about a night drive felt this much like a night drive. So while the premise — Tom Hardy is the only actor on screen for the entire show! — is really an incredibly-stagy, conspicuously anti-cinematic visual risk of the sort Hitchcock liked to dare himself with (a la LIFEBOAT or ROPE), the overwhelming impression LOCKE leaves is one of verisimilitude and empathy. The film feels realer than just about any other I’ve seen anywhere in 2014. Like life itself, there’s nothing easy about that.

Locke (Blu-ray), temporary cover art

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I’m always looking for ways to be more productive so I’ll be sharing some of my smaller reviews here as frequently as possible. It takes a long time to give a piece as much attention as I’d like, but sometimes my short sketches are still interesting enough to post. (In my opinion.) I’m naming this feature “Short Stack” because when I was brainstorming feature titles I started daydreaming of pancakes.

So today I’m posting a pair of quick studies I did for my weekly Blu-Ray column over at Daily Grindhouse. Both have to do with the subject of the great filmmaker Martin Scorsese and his infrequently-discussed flair for comedy.

As the preeminent cinematic artist of the current era of film — as he’s considered by cinemaniacs like myself — Scorsese seems to be thought of by normal people, most often, as a gangster-film director. The high cultural profile of MEAN  STREETS, GOODFELLAS, CASINO, GANGS OF NEW YORK, and THE DEPARTED bolsters that perception, and the widespread regard for RAGING BULL and TAXI DRIVER, a boxing picture and an urban vigilante picture, probably add to his image as a guy who makes movies about tough guys. Which he does, sometimes. When Scorsese does a genre picture, he tends to do the most artful and sophisticated possible version of them. His genre pictures are different, not easily forgotten, exemplary.

But there are several other facets to what Scorsese’s work is about. There’s Scorsese the documentarian (THE LAST WALTZ, SHINE A LIGHT), Scorsese the theologian (THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, KUNDUN), Scorsese the entertainer (CAPE FEAR, SHUTTER ISLAND), Scorsese the maker of woman’s pictures (ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE), Scorsese the producer of excellent taste (THE GRIFTERS, MAD DOG & GLORY), and plenty more still. But one of them absolutely is comedy.

Scorsese’s comedies don’t fit the popular notion of the genre, that’s for sure. The one Scorsese film that is intentionally described as such is AFTER HOURS, which is really more of a Kafka-esque nightmare. He never really goes after laughs for 100% of a film; his humor tends towards the darker registers and some of his films’ funniest moments come intertwined with scenes of graphic horror, or violence, or at least drama. That’s why nobody thinks of GOODFELLAS as a comedy, even though it’s way funnier than plenty of movies that are widely advertised as hilarious. Nobody expects movies with multiple murders to be riotously funny. When comedy comes that black sometimes it can be missed in all the darkness.

Bill Murray once said in an interview with NBC that he likes to play things straight, which is why when he says something funny, it’s a nice surprise. That’s a massive paraphrase, and also an accurate analogy to many of Scorsese’s films. If a film director isn’t branded or perceived as a comedy director, that doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t do comedy. Martin Scorsese, as his filmography shows, can do pretty much anything.

All of which leads up to the following two films. One is a biopic of a real-life felon, the other is a story about an aspiring comedian so delusional he ends up kidnapping his comedy idol. Neither of them sound too funny on paper, but as they unspool they’re downright wicked.

I’ve written about THE WOLF OF WALL STREET before, but I love it so much I wrote about it again. It’s a highly different film than THE KING OF COMEDY, from 1983, but they have hilarity in common — though it’s surprising to notice that one is far funnier and less immediately disturbing than the other.


The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)


The most widely misunderstood movie of 2013, and arguably the best (I’d argue it), but surely the most important. Does that sound crazy? Yes, I know 12 YEARS A SLAVE was officially named Best Picture. That’s understandable and only a monster would stand in opposition — a finely-made film about institutional racism in America will unfortunately be relevant to this country every year. But at this particular moment in time, there’s no more relevant topic than financial malfeasance. How do you think institutional racism is maintained nowadays? We’re far too enlightened to allow actual slavery. Today’s bad guys need more subtle ways to profit off the backs of those less fortunate.


THE WOLF OF WALL STREET hints around this issue, zoning in on a single-but-hardly-isolated instance, that of Jordan Belfort, who committed routine stock market fraud, specifically targeting lower-income wage slaves (because rich people were too smart). For his crimes, preying upon trusting clients and causing most of them economic ruin, he served 22 months. Seems a bit light, doesn’t it? The movie treats the prison sentence as almost an afterthought — it lasts only a minute or two, in a running time of 180 minutes. This is why some viewers (and critics!) thought the movie let its protagonist off easy. They’re forgetting how this movie begins: With a stentorian faux-commercial for Stratton Oakmont, the bullshit name Belfort gave his boiler room to make it sound more authentic.



Then Leonardo DiCaprio enters the film in the role of Belfort, narrating the whole coke-and-hookers criminal odyssey. We see him getting blown by a pretty blonde as he speeds down a highway in a red Ferrari — which he corrects mid-anecdote, making the car white. The rest of the movie seems to ditch this third-wall-breaking neo-Zack-Morris ability to bend the reality of what we’re watching, but I tend to think the device is there all along, as if absorbed by the momentum of the narrative.


In other words, the whole movie is a put-on. It’s being told to us by a bullshit artist — no, not an artist — a bullshit Renaissance-man. We can’t trust him. We shouldn’t trust him. Of course, any audience member who fully trusts what they’re seeing and hearing might get the wrong idea. I guess it’s better to be one of the upset people than to be one of the little shits who will inevitably treat this movie as career inspiration. That doesn’t mean the movie isn’t a necessary gesture.


The same way 12 YEARS A SLAVE reminds us of our nation’s despicable history and how it still affects us all today, so too does THE WOLF OF WALL STREET remind us of the bastards who raid our economy and our pockets for their own benefit — let alone the corporate interests that own pretty much everything in sight. That’s a valuable service for a movie to perform. Yeah, it’s a black comedy. It’s funny as hell. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. You want to get mad, please: get mad! Just don’t address your anger to DiCaprio, writer Terence Winter, or director Martin Scorsese. Address it to Jordan Belfort, and the many more like him who you can see, right now, out on the sidewalk, in slick suits and ties, racing to their day jobs defrauding the government and its citizens. They’re all over the place, man.


The King of Comedy (1983)


As the recent case of “the very serious people vs. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET” proves, sometimes people have trouble telling when Martin Scorsese is kidding. He’s a serious artist, sure, and more film-literate than pretty much anybody on the planet, but there’s a dark sense of humor running through so much of his work. He’s so rarely commended for that humor that sometimes he has to spell it out for people, like here, when he put the word COMEDY in the title.


Like THE WOLF OF WALL STREETTHE KING OF COMEDY is the blackest kind of black comedy. From a script by former film critic Paul Zimmerman, Scorsese tells the story of Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), an aspiring stand-up comic who practices religiously in his mother’s basement for the day he will get to perform on the late-night talk show hosted by his hero, Jerry Langford (the simultaneously legendary and often controversial comic Jerry Lewis). When Langford spurns Pupkin, Rupert’s hopes aren’t dashed, but his approach changes. Instead of going through the normal channels, auditioning and all that, he kidnaps Langford, demanding his spot on the show.


This is the satiric inverse of TAXI DRIVER, the earlier Scorsese/De Niro masterwork concerning themes of isolation and obsession. Like NETWORK, it predicted future trends by many years: The craven desire for fame, where in place of talent there is only ferociously aggressive drive, has a lot to do with many of the most prominent entertainers of the last decade or so. It’s comical enough, but it’s also pretty awful. You have to be a little twisted to find THE KING OF COMEDY funny, which is why many irony-deficient pundits apparently didn’t get it at the time. So basically, between THE KING OF COMEDY and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, Scorsese has been dealing with being misunderstood by oversensitive bores for thirty years.





The Spectacular Now (2013)

Stories about alcoholism, if they’re being honest, have no heroes and no villains.  There are protagonists, and occasionally antagonists, but the antagonists are peripheral, really.  Authentic stories about alcoholism must ultimately focus around the protagonists and their loved ones.  A protagonist of such a story can be a hero at heart, but he’s living with an addiction, so his actions are rarely heroic.  They’re tainted, polluted.  It’s the addiction that is the story’s villain, and it’s an inescapable enemy.  It’s always there, with no safe haven to be found.

Addiction turns a hero into his own worst villain.  An addiction narrative is a suspense thriller, where the lead character is in a life-or-death battle to prevent himself from destroying his own life, and the lives of his friends and family.  Any other dramatic conflict, and there will be many, still remains strictly secondary in comparison.  Every tale of addiction is different, but every one of them can have only two potential endings.  The protagonist manages to stop, and that is no easy thing; or the protagonist dies.  Period.  Well, there may be a third option, of sorts.  It’s possible the story ends with the protagonist still alive, and embracing his addiction, but understand that this is a kind of death.  It’s a death of the spirit.

In the most generalized spoiler ever, let’s say that THE SPECTACULAR NOW, in its final moments, rejects the death of the spirit.  This is a movie with life in it.


And please take no offense at the fact that the opening paragraphs emphasized the male conjugation — they were written that way because this particular addiction story happens to be about a “him.”  Miles Teller plays the main character, Sutter Keely, an extroverted young man whose profound problems sneak up on the movie.  By leading with talk of addiction, this review of THE SPECTACULAR NOW robs the film of some of its shock — the movie was sold as a lyrical, regional romance, which it is, but primarily it’s the story of an addict, which isn’t immediately apparent as things play at the outset.  Sutter is outgoing and likable, with a stunning girlfriend (the luminous Brie Larson), a successful older sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, endearing and deep), and a single mother who cares about him in her seemingly brusque way (Jennifer Jason Leigh, in a rope-a-dope of a performance). Miles Teller has a kind of Cusack-meets-Belushi soulfulness and affability which keeps you on his side, even as Sutter’s screw-ups multiply as the story continues.  His philosophy, as captured in the movie’s love-it-or-sneer-at-it title, is to live in the “now” as opposed to so many people who fixate on the pain of the past and the worries of the future.  It’s an agreeable philosophy, but it’s flawed.  


Sutter is a high school senior.  He’s at that exact moment in life where people are most concerned with both their pasts and their futures at once.  High school seniors are at an emotional precipice — with yearbooks and parties, they celebrate and reflect upon the end of childhood, while on their computers sit college applications, resumes, and job applications, the entry tickets to the chaotic carnival of adulthood.  Sutter’s fixation on the “now” seems at first like a way of framing the present in a positive light, of appreciating the moment, but in fact it’s a dodge.  Sutter wants to prolong a moment that by nature must pass.


It starts with the soda cup.  The first clue to how substantial a problem Sutter has is the soda cup.  He’s never without it, in the car, at his job — practiced and committed drinkers know what’s in the cup.  He’s mixing booze in there, using the soda cup as a front to hide his crutch.  The acceleration is rapid.  After a whirlwind night of partying, Sutter wakes up one morning on a classmate’s lawn.  She’s Aimee Finecky, a sweetheart to whom Sutter never gave a second thought at school.  Next to Cassidy, his girlfriend, Aimee would be considered plain.  There’s a warmth and a decency to Aimee, though, as there is to Sutter, when he’s conscious.  Cassidy has been distancing herself (she sees the warning signs before he does) so Sutter starts spending more time with the attentive Aimee.  If this were the John Hughes movie one may have had reason to expect, the lawn incident would be played for broad comedy, a meet-cute.  Here it’s perfectly pitched, humorous but subtle, and the kids quickly move on from it.  Aimee, an introvert by nature, isn’t used to spending time with Sutter, an indefatigable extrovert.  She’s entranced.  She’s co-dependent.  She’s in trouble.  By the time she or the audience realize that, we’re all already in too deep with Sutter.


THE SPECTACULAR NOW has an impact you don’t see coming, even if you do know what’s in that cup right away.  Not to oversell such a delicate and genuine film, but it’s one of the best American movies to be released in 2013.   Credit is due all around.  Tim Tharp wrote the novel upon which the movie was based.  Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber ((500) DAYS OF SUMMER) wrote the adaptation for screen.  James Ponsoldt (SMASHED) directed the movie.  Jess Hall was the cinematographer.  Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, as the two main characters, play their roles with uncommon maturity and sophistication.  They are surrounded by an extremely talented supporting cast, including the aforementioned Brie Larson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as the strong women in Sutter’s life.  Kyle Chandler appears later in the film, as a character who only existed as rumor beforehand, and he makes the maximum impact in a few scenes with a perfect, knowing performance.  Comedian Bob Odenkirk, in a relatively small role as Sutter’s boss who recognizes a problem employee and tries to hang onto him as long as possible, is positively heart-breaking.  This is a movie where Bob Odenkirk, a monster talent who’s only ever made me laugh, broke my heart.  Wow.  This is a special kind of movie.


Making a good movie is a collaborative effort, done by small armies of craftsmen who have varying degrees of personal investment in the art.  Whether all were deeply moved to make it or only some, THE SPECTACULAR NOW feels eminently personal.  It’s told with quiet, relaxed authority.  There is a keenly-observed realness going on, just as there was in James Ponsoldt’s previous film, 2012’s SMASHED, and in his debut feature, 2006’s OFF THE BLACK.  Those films, though, were about young adults and middle-aged people grappling with addiction.  As terrific an achievement as SMASHED in particular was, Ponsoldt has found more unique, tender material in THE SPECTACULAR NOW.  The novelty of this plot is that it’s been de-aged.  Movies about drunks are almost always cast with characters gone to seed, nearing the ends of their lives rather than finding them at the very start. There’s still plenty of hope for Sutter. He caught this thing early.  Millions have been less fortunate. THE SPECTACULAR NOW ends on a question mark. Where will Sutter end up? Nothing is certain. But there’s reason to hope. This movie gives you hope.

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You may have noticed that I’ve talked about MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED a lot.  I wrote about it only once, for my friend’s spotlight on Underrated Comedies.  As I wrote then, this isn’t only an underrated comedy in my eyes.  In my opinion, this may just be the most underrated American film of all time.  Am I exaggerating?  Read on, amigos.

MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED was written by Tom Mankiewicz, who worked on SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, DRAGNET, and three James Bond movies.  It was directed by Peter Yates, best known for classic tough-guy movies such as BULLITT and THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE.  One of the producers on MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED is Joseph Barbera — that’s right — one half of the insanely prolific Hanna-Barbera cartoon team.

All of the above credits may begin to hint at the unique atmosphere of MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED — I could call it “cartoonish realism” if I thought the term might ever take off.  The story concerns an independent ambulance company competing against rival services in addition to the proper channels. They’re barely-legal L.A. outlaws, riding into life or death situations. Most of them do it for the kicks.

The veteran driver is nicknamed “Mother” and that’s the only name he’s known by. He’s a man of simple pleasures: He likes getting massages from pretty ladies, keeping a fully-stocked cooler in the rig, and “buzzing” gaggles of nuns with his siren as they’re crossing the street.

That’s Bill Cosby.


The new guy is Tony Malatesta, a former police detective nicknamed “Speed” due to the bogus drug allegations that recently got him shitcanned from the LAPD.

That’s Harvey Keitel.

And the knockout receptionist with larger ambitions is nicknamed “Jugs” (which she hates, by the way.)

That’s Raquel Welch.

Those are three very different stars, which means that the movie is a collection of very different tones. This movie brims with raucous comedy and sober tragedy, on a scene-to-scene basis.  Somehow it all hangs together cohesively – credit to the sure hand of Peter Yates.  But even with that said, it’s probably still not what you’re expecting.  Cosby’s got a potty-mouth, for one thing!  Your Cosby Show memories will be forever changed once you hear him say “Bambi’s mom had great tits.”  But even as he’s doing that, he’s rocking some real pathos too.  His performance here is way more HICKEY & BOGGS (see that too, please) than GHOST DAD or LEONARD PART SIX.  There’s a real depth to his acting that could be frankly shocking even to longtime fans of his comedy.

Meanwhile, Keitel was best known at the time  for his work with Scorsese – he appeared in TAXI DRIVER the same year – but even though he’s cast as the straight man here, he’s totally down to play. And Raquel Welch, a sexual revolution in human form, is easily their equal and frequently their better. It’s one of her best-ever roles.



Add to that a supporting cast that includes L.Q. Jones, Bruce Davison, Dick Butkus, Larry Hagman in brilliantly gross & bastardy form, and the sorely-underappreciated character-actor great Allen Garfield (THE STUNT MAN) as the low-rent boss of the gang, and you have one of the most fun movies of the 1970s, and arguably one of the most unheralded.  Name another great movie from that year – ROCKY, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, NETWORK – and then ask me if I’d rather watch MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED.  Apologies to Stallone, Hoffman, Redford, and Duvall, but I think you already know my answer.

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And check out this fun photo-article on the film’s shooting locations.

Cloud Atlas (2012)


If you didn’t see this movie on the big screen, you missed out.  If you missed it entirely, you fucked up.  And if you were one of those who called it “the worst movie of the year” (whoever Mary Pols at Time magazine is; stupid stupid Peter Travers) – God help you.  When this movie comes to be seen as a lost classic in a few years, you may wish you weren’t so nasty.

I won’t be gloating though.  I choose the avenue of love.  This movie encouraged me to be that way.  This movie is about a lot of things I may or may not believe in – fate, true love, reincarnation of sorts – and it made me believe – strongly – in them all.  That’s the power of love, son.  That’s the power of cinema.  And I was skeptical too.  I’ve always liked the Wachowskis but I’m not as high on THE MATRIX as so many are (although, weirdly, I liked the sequels better than most), and I haven’t seen a Tom Tykwer move that really resonated with me since RUN LOLA RUN.  Most of all, without having read David Mitchell’s original novel it was hard to tell in advance what the hell this movie was going to be about.  Answer:  It’s kinda about everything.

It’s a 19th-century nautical drama involving slavery and other human cruelties.

It’s a period piece about the creation of classical music and an impossible romance.

It’s a 1970s political thriller about an intrepid reporter (co-starring THE THING‘s Keith David as SHAFT‘s Shaft!).

It’s a whimsical farce about an attempted escape from a nursing home.

It’s a science-fiction anime action-movie love-story.

It’s a post-apocalyptic future-tropical tribal-warfare-slash-horror-movie that turns into a campfire fable.

It’s like no other movie I’ve ever seen before, which for the record is exactly why I go to the movies:  To see things I haven’t seen before.  The performances are surprising and exhilarating, the score is clever and moving, the cinematography is colorful and absorbing, the scope is bold and ambitious.  Does it matter too much that some of the storylines are more affecting than others?  You think I care about anybody’s stupid little quibbles over some of the makeup effects?  This is a movie that shoots for the moon and more than once hits the stars.  This movie didn’t just surprise me with what it is – it surprised me about ME.  It’s sad that more people haven’t embraced it yet, but believe me, I’m happier loving this movie than you are disregarding or ignoring it.  Feel free to come over to this side anytime!

I wrote this for Daily Grindhouse and reposted it here because CLOUD ATLAS is out on DVD & Blu-Ray today. Now’s your chance to remedy the mistakes of the past…


Brothers (2009)

BROTHERS is a movie that has kind of slipped through the cracks.  It showed up towards the end of 2009, but not in enough time for me to see it for my Best-Of list.  It’s been nominated for some awards already, but not enough to make people feel like they ought to go out and see it.  It’s got some actors who people like, but it looks like a downer.  It doesn’t look like fun.

Well yeah, it isn’t much fun.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t any good.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t even a little but important.  It sure does have the pedigree:  Jim Sheridan, the Irish director who showed his skill at creating detailed, likable characters in 2002’s IN AMERICA, directed from a script by David Benioff, the big-name Hollywood screenwriter who showed a similar skill in his script for 25th HOUR. The trio of lead characters, played by Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal, and the astounding-in-this-movie Tobey Maguire, are convincing and heartbreaking.  They’re aided by ace supporting performances by reliable actors such as Sam Shepard and Clifton Collins Jr., and by two of the best performances I’ve seen from little children since, well, IN AMERICA.  The two little girls who play Maguire’s daughters are deeply affecting. Also due for mention is Frederick Elmes, the hall of fame cinematographer who has worked with David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, Ang Lee, and Charlie Kaufman, who shot the movie with understatement and grace.  The movie was shot largely in New Mexico, and it shows.  This doesn’t look like L.A.  This looks like elsewhere in America, the parts of America where you find the people who actually have to fight our wars for us.

That’s what this movie did for me, by the way.  It made me think about those people, who need to be thought about.  Whatever else minor flaws keep it from being considered a quote-unquote great film, BROTHERS is expert at detailing the realities of post-traumatic stress disorder. I left BROTHERS crushed and thoroughly sad – this movie is about something that is really happening right now to people our age and younger, who are sent overseas to kill and to take bullets and to watch their fellows die, only to return home without any kind of adequate psychological counseling.

BROTHERS is a wartime movie, and that’s the real reason for its lack of box-office and cultural heat.  People just aren’t interested in seeing this kind of story at the movies.  That’s starting to bother me.  There’s a massive disconnect between the America whose sons and daughters are sent overseas to fight and die, and the other America, which I fully admit to being a part of, whose lives are affected more by the recession or any number of concerns other than the war in the Middle East.  Unless we personally know someone in the military, unless we’re the type of person who follows and cares about the news, some of us are not forced to think much about the fact that we are actually at war.  We might be unemployed and stressed about that, but we don’t have to worry about the physical safety of our friends and family, or just as much at-risk, the psychological toll of their experiences.

So instead we go to see a movie like AVATAR for a fourth or fifth time, which surely isn’t wrong, but then again, if we have that kind of free time, maybe it is somewhat wrong to ignore a movie that might make us think about something that matters.  (I’m only singling AVATAR out here because it’s become the most popular movie of all time as all of this other stuff is happening in the world.)  As I have written already elsewhere, AVATAR is fun but meaningless; it is the ultimate movie of the moment expressly because it is about escaping reality – both in the way that Jake Sully escapes his wheelchair to become a nine-foot-tall forest god, and in the way that literally the act of watching the movie in those 3-D glasses is an escape.  It’s a video game movie.  It’s a luxury.  The very fact that I can post these thoughts on the internet, and any number of AVATAR fans are free to potentially comment on the many reasons why I’m wrong, is a luxury.  We’re very lucky to be able to sit at our computers and argue over and read about escapist movies.  But just recognize that it’s a distraction, ultimately meaningless comparatively.  AVATAR isn’t about anything but coolness.  There’s a place for that, to be sure, especially for those people who actually need a little escape.  But it’s not the only movie out there.  That’s all I’m saying.

BROTHERS forced me to think about something other than my own life.  I haven’t been exactly the same since I saw it.  It somehow changed my thinking, just the tiniest bit. If that isn’t an important movie, I don’t know what is.

You can still see BROTHERS theatrically in many cities, I think.  If you have the time, give it a chance.  Don’t let me make it sound like homework – it’s not in the least bit boring.  When I call BROTHERS a good movie, that doesn’t mean “good for you” – it really means “good movie.”


From January 18, 2010.




For my money, the most beautiful woman ever to appear in movies is Claudia Cardinale.  No offense, Raquel.  It was a photo finish.
There are other reasons to see THE LEOPARD, the 1963 Italian historical epic directed by Luchino Visconti.  Big, important reasons, in fact.  But you’d better believe that Claudia Cardinale is the only thing I paid much of any attention to, the first time I saw the movie as a scrawny 19-year-old undergraduate.
In THE LEOPARD, Cardinale plays Angelica, the fiancée of the nephew of Burt Lancaster’s lead character, Don Fabrizio, an aging Sicilian patriarch who is watching older dynasties fade and younger generations arrive with increasing arrogance and decreasing couth.  Cardinale’s character is the incarnation of that generation gap, and the focus of some scorn by the nobles in the movie.
The Leopard
Serious students of the mechanics of cinema will appreciate the craft of Visconti’s direction of THE LEOPARD – the sweeping cinematography, the ornate production design, the insanely ornate costumes.  There is a legendary central ballroom sequence, elaborately choreographed and clocking in at forty-five minutes, that in my own weird way I might compare to the gunfights in HEAT.  Maybe it’s the length.
At 205 minutes in its full version (in other words: nearly three-and-a-half hours), THE LEOPARD a commitment.  Not to belabor a crude point, but it’s probably a commitment worth making for serious students of female beauty:  With only a small amount creepiness, I have to admit that, with all of the impeccable craft and historical weight of THE LEOPARD, the basic appeal of the movie hasn’t changed much for me, several years down the road.  To get a look at Claudia Cardinale on the big screen in this particular movie, 25 when this movie was made and at the peak of natural human attractiveness, is reason enough to make the trip to the theater any time it plays on one of its semi-regular revivals.
For the record:  Ladies shouldn’t feel left out, either – the man-pretty Alain Delon, the Brad Pitt of his day, plays Tancredi, Cardinale’s suitor.
THE LEOPARD is playing tonight at 7pm at the Rubin Museum Of Art as part of their Cabaret Cinema series, in which guests present international films that speak to them.  Tony-Award-winning costume designer William Ivey Long introduces tonight’s show.  If you miss the screening, the Criterion Collection recently released an incredible Blu-Ray edition.

And for more from someone who will never win an award for his wardrobe, follow me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

Rewatched The Social Network today because I recently gave the new HBO show The Newsroom a shot, and wanted to remind myself that Aaron Sorkin is actually as good as people say, and not just the best bad writer in America.  (“MacKenzie McHale?”)  Maybe he needs David Fincher to shoot all his scripts.  Fincher would never allow so many ten-minute speech-heavy scenes.  Fincher knows how to edit some goddamn moving pictures.  Rarely is this so thrillingly apparent than in The Social Network.  By now this is the third or fourth time I’ve seen it.  Surprisingly, I still pretty much agree with everything I wrote on the subject, back in October of 2010.  In fact, I think it’s one of my better pieces.  See what you think.  Please do comment if you’re so inclined.
From the time The Social Network was announced as a film straight through until the moment I finished watching it for the first time, I couldn’t help thinking of my friend Tom from Myspace. 
Well, we used to be friends.  We’re not friends anymore.  I haven’t been to his site in months.  Neither have most people I know.  We’re all on Facebook now.  The Social Network is an entire movie about Facebook.  It briefly name-checks Myspace, and its even more prehistoric predecessor, Friendster, but that’s all the credit Tom gets. 
I wonder how he feels about that.  A few years ago he was at the top of the world.  He was friends with celebrities and rock stars.  He even got to cameo in Funny People with Adam Sandler!  Tom managed to get into the movies there for a second, but no one bothered to make movies about him.  Poor Tom.  How he must hate that little punk who started Facebook.  He’s apparently not the only one.
The Social Network is told in an interesting way:  It begins with Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) as an undergraduate at Harvard, creating the nascent website initially as a revenge move against the girl who dumped him (played by Rooney Mara).  Then the narrative fractures, fast-forwarding to two concurrent legal proceedings:  Zuckerberg getting sued by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer), who claim that he stole the idea of Facebook from them, and also by his former best friend, Eduardo Saverin (played by Andrew Garfield), who claims that Zuckerberg shut him out of what started as a joint venture.
Back in real life, some of the specific details of this cinematic account have been called into question.  Writer Aaron Sorkin has been accused of inventing details for dramatic effect, and director David Fincher has been accused of emphasizing certain aspects over others, or even more incorrectly (and briefly) accused of misogyny, just because this happens to be a story that features mostly male characters.  This is the occupational hazard that filmmakers face when making a movie “based on a true story,” particularly one where all of the principal figures are still alive and in full command of their own subjective memories.  At the moment of writing this, my own personal opinion is Who cares?  As long as the movie is as good as this one, the details are less important than a story well told.  Personally, I’d be proud to see a movie this good having been made using my life as inspiration, even if I were cast in a less than adoring light.   I honestly don’t think that anyone comes out of this movie looking any worse than they already present themselves publicly, except arguably the Facebook website itself.  But I’ll get to that in a moment.
In praising The Social Network, I’m late to the party.  There’s not much left to say that hasn’t been said in more florid prose by more prominent writers.  I will remind my longtime readers (are there any?) that I was initially measured in my faith in the possibilities of this project.  I wasn’t sure that it was the most cinema-friendly material, and I have a major disdain for co-star Justin Timberlake (as much as it is possible to have disdain for a relatively innocuous pop singer who I’ve never met.)  But I trusted in the talents of David Fincher, who is one of my favorite directors, and the reward for that trust was an unusual, compelling, and fascinating movie that directly addresses a major element of modern cultural psychology.
Fincher brings a dark, dingy, even ominous palette to material that any other director would surely shoot flatly and brightly.  In the opening scene, which takes place in a college bar, this directorial choice feels naturalistic – it looks more like the inside of a bar than comparable scenes in any other movie I can remember.  But then, when Zuckerberg steps outside of the bar, bunches up his GAP sweatshirt, and storms all the way across campus to his dorm, the moody (and brilliant) score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross kicks in and the look of the movie doesn’t let up, and it becomes clear that this is a college movie that doesn’t look or sound like any college movie ever made.  Fincher is working again here with Jeff Cronenweth, his cinematographer from Fight Club, and together they bring the visual subversion and darkness from that earlier work to a seemingly unlikely match of story. 
Aaron Sorkin is not typically a writer whose work I follow – he’s obviously an excellent writer but his characters tend to be too eloquent and hyper-articulate, and I’m an Eastwood man.  I believe that you can say more with less.  Here, however, the dichotomy between Sorkin’s verbose scripting and Fincher’s typical approach somehow yields brilliant results.  It’s like scallops wrapped in bacon at a steakhouse.  It sounds like an ill fit, but just take a taste. 
Think of the scene where Eduardo Saverin’s unbalanced but eye-catching girlfriend (played by Brenda Song) sets a fire in his room – it’s the kind of broad comedy you might typically expect in a Sorkin production, with screwball dialogue firing in all directions, but Fincher shoots it like a Japanese horror movie.  He also gets the most out of the eerie Aryanness of the Winklevoss twins, who are actually surprisingly likable in the movie, but then again think back to that scene where they’re competing in a crew race in England.  Think of the crazed, irregular speed at which Fincher shoots it, and of course, think of the hyperactive take on Grieg’s In The Hall Of The Mountain King on Reznor and Ross’s musical accompaniment.  Stanley Kubrick would have approved.
The cast is uniformly excellent.  Jesse Eisenberg, of course, is receiving all of the complimentary ink he deserves as the nerd-savant entrepreneur who really did change the way people interact right now.  I’ve seen Eisenberg in a bunch of movies both good and bad – Rodger Dodger, The Village, Cursed, Adventureland, Zombieland – and he’s been good in all of them.  For The Social Network, he crinkles up his eyes and brings something new – instead of an emotional openness, there’s an inscrutability . He seems like an alien in the body of a college student, trying (and failing) to figure human beings out.
Yet I’m not seeing nearly enough praise going the way of Rashida Jones, in the fictionalized role of an assistant to Zuckerberg’s legal counsel.  As she does in every single guy-comedy she’s been cast in over the last few years (and there have been many of them), she brings a calm, cool, cutting, sarcastic groundedness to any room full of badly-behaving dudes.  I’ve sung the praises of this lovely lady before (find some here and here and also here), but it’s not just about me and my type:  In The Social Network, Rashida Jones plays the only real adult – I don’t count all the lawyers and such – and her character brings a necessary and sobering perspective (while simultaneously demolishing those claims of the movie’s misogyny alluded to earlier), particularly at the movie’s end, where her unheeded parting advice to Zuckerberg feeds directly into that haunting final scene.
Andrew Garfield has been cast as the next Spider-Man, and it’s hard not to watch The Social Network through that prism.  His work here does bode well for that movie, safe to say.  He plays the loyal and supportive best friend who is iced out and betrayed, and he’s never less than likable throughout.  He really is the human heart of the movie, since Eisenberg’s character is by nature unable to provide that.  And there’s also Rooney Mara, as the girl who got away (or ran screaming) – she only has a couple scenes, but like Garfield, she brings a recognizable relatability to her role that the movie and the main character need.  (She’ll be working with Fincher again on his upcoming adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – on the basis of this evidence, it’s good casting, although no offense, I’ll always prefer her sister.)  
By contrast, Armie Hammer’s double-character is set up narratively as the movie’s antagonist, the stereotypical blond jock from the college movie.  Hammer does bring a creepy dual-Spader WASPishness to the role, but also has the kind of charisma that makes you see his characters’ point of view.  Max Minghella is also good as Divya Narendra, the cohort of the Winklevoss twins.  I would’ve sworn he was Indian.  Is that wrong to admit?  I have more unpopular opinions than that, such as:
It’s true, I can’t stand Justin Timberlake.  (In The Social Network, the ‘entertainer’ plays Sean Parker, the co-founder of Napster and fast-talking opportunist who takes Zuckerberg under his shady wing.)  The main reason for that dislike is that we’re closing in on two decades where he’s been in the public eye, and I have yet to see a genuine human emotion from the guy.  To me, he represents callow and shallow over the past decade and in the year 2010.  You can call it masculine jealousy, but I’m creeped out by seeing sex-symbol status awarded to a guy whose main career inspiration has always been Michael Jackson.  He’s all “entertainer,” and that doesn’t work for me if you don’t have the music like Michael Jackson did.  It’s certainly a question of personal taste, but I don’t agree that his attempts at music (and more recently, at comedy) are remotely as good or as interesting or as knowing as his recent press would argue.  I’d still like to be proven wrong, but it hasn’t happened yet. 
All of that being said, however:  He’s terrific in The Social Network, and for all of the above reasons.  He’s cast perfectly for the character he’s playing, and while that may sound like a back-handed compliment, he delivers the needed effort and effect.  The way Timberlake works in the movie is the way he works in life:  Eisenberg’s character is taken in by his flash and dazzle and energy and confidence, and Garfield’s character sees right through it all and doesn’t trust it for a minute.  (Sound like someone we know?)  Late in the movie, when Timberlake is called upon to deliver a broken, emotional performance, the strain shows – but just as it should, since his character up until then was used to living without consequence and getting out of the trouble he kept finding.  When it finally catches up with him, he’s struggling to adjust.  Timberlake plays it perfectly.  My only concern is that producers, seeing how good he is in The Social Network, will decide that Justin Timberlake can carry a movie on his own.  Worse, they will mistakenly assume that he can carry an action movie.  (Can you imagine?)  But that’s an issue for the future.  In the present, Justin Timberlake is just another effective element in a fairly flawless film.
The last question that The Social Network raises is, “Where does it leave us with Facebook?” 
For one thing, I wonder how people who aren’t on Facebook will look at this movie.  Do they get it?  Do they understand why that final image is so haunting and so true?  The Social Network has everything to do with the way that, for all of its virtues, the internet has fractured and even obstructed real-life social interaction – we connect with each other even as we isolate – and Facebook is the ultimate example of that shift.  For me, Facebook is a means to an end.  It will help me bring the review you’re reading to more people than might otherwise have seen it.  On a personal level, I have been able to reconnect (or at least, to trade emails) with many people who I have known and missed over the years, and I’m thankful for that.  But that’s me emphasizing the upside.  As we all know, there’s just as much empty noise on Facebook as legitimate interaction.  Some of the same less-positive aspects of our social lives are just as present on Facebook – we’ve just moved them from the streets to the internet.  (That’s the name of my next rap album, by the way.) 
Is Facebook bringing us closer together, or driving us apart in some ways?  Does the fact that Facebook was invented by a young man who may or may not have the ability to maintain healthy, positive friendships in his own life bring into question the idea that his invention has anything to teach us about friendships?  Is there truth in Facebook?  Forget the truth in the circumstances of its invention – I’m talking about whether or not using Facebook can help us get closer to truth . Has Facebook really become part of our lives, or does it exist strangely separate from them?  And most importantly:  Is Tom from Myspace on Facebook?  And if he is, would he be “friends” with Mark Zuckerberg?  Or me?  (I’m only half kidding, by the way.)  These are some of the questions that The Social Network invites us to ask, and these questions are the reason why it is the movie of the moment.
Find me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb


Gus Van Sant’s Milk is screening at MoMA as part of their 10th Anniversary Salute to Focus FeaturesMilk could arguably be called Van Sant’s Malcolm X, a historical drama of historical importance and a keystone work in the filmography of a fiercely original and occasionally frustrating filmmaker.  This is what I wrote about Milk in January 2009.  You can take out the reference to Prop 8 in California and swap in a reference to North Carolina’s decision to ban same-sex marriage

In several ways, Milk might just be the best movie of 2008.  For sure, there isn’t an award for which it’s so far collected nominations and wins that it hasn’t absolutely deserved.

Let’s start with Sean Penn:  I am a huge admirer of the man’s work, on-screen and off-screen, but seriously now – I don’t think he’s had a role in which he’s given a non-malevolent smile in decades.

In Milk, he beams.

You really do forget you’re watching Sean Penn, broody acting genius, and are persuaded that you are seeing an entirely different persona.  Penn makes us care about Harvey Milk, both in his political and his personal lives.  The entire ensemble, mostly male, mostly playing gay, is of a piece with Penn’s sympathetic portrayal.  James Franco, Diego Luna, Emile Hirsch, the great Victor Garber, and particularly Josh Brolin, as Milk’s probably-closeted, most ferocious nemesis, Dan White, all give canny and bold performances, the strongest possible support to Penn’s textured embodiment of a character very different than his own public persona.

So now Milk performs the remarkable achievements of convincing its audience of Harvey Milk’s positive legacy by helping us understand him as a person; of depicting the senseless tragedy of his assassination – without in any way making a simple monster out of the pathetic, confused Dan White; and in addition to those achievements, inspires one to march right out of the theater and join the continuing struggle against discrimination and hate of all kinds.

No one who sees Milk, other than a bigot who needs to work harder to change, will leave it wanting anything other than seeing that contemptible Proposition 8 in California repealed.  I don’t like to bring up politics in this space if I can help it, but at this point, it’s a civil rights issue.  Anyone can feel free to disagree on that, but if they manage to get into it with me, they ought to be prepared to have their argument entirely decimated.  There is no good reason why gay people should not have the same rights as any other group in America – they love and lose and live and die just the same as the rest of us do – and this movie has the power to show why.

Find me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb




Take my words with as big a helping of salt as you choose, since I have got to be the biggest Clint Eastwood fan this side of forty.  I have found something worth remembering and studying within every entry of his directorial output, even in the ones I don’t happen to prefer, and if the man himself actually appears in said entry, so much the better.  I do believe that Gran Torino has something important to say, and – forget what you may have read – it’s not about race.  That issue factors in here, of course, but not as much as most of the  reviews seem to think.  It’s not Clint’s way to hit you over the head with ideas about race.  Instead, in Gran Torino he’s talking about America, and the national character upon which America was built, and how we later generations were given that America and how we’re beginning to forget it.  It’s about the pussification of America, and what to do about it.

The reviews I’ve seen that use the word “racist” in conjunction with Gran Torino are simply stupid.  Clint has never once made a movie endorsing racist views –  on the contrary, in fact – and he isn’t about to start now.  He’s playing a character here; don’t ever confuse the story with the storyteller.  His character, Walt Kowalski, says plenty of racist things, but even he isn’t necessarily racist.  Pussies put so much value on words that they forget that, more than anything, men are defined by their actions.  Look at the actions, not the words.  When Walt sees how his young Hmong neighbor Sue handles herself bravely in an intimidating situation, he immediately warms to her.  When he sees her brother Thao help a lady with her spilt groceries after a couple other little shits laugh her off, Walt starts to see a kid worth knowing, worth toughening, worth ultimately saving.

Race in America has become THAT complicated, and some people are nearly that complicated:  Walt hates everybody equally, his use of racist epithets are primarily a method of distinction, not judgment.  He calls Asians “zipperheads” not necessarily because he hates all Asians – he calls them “zipperheads” simply because that’s what he has always called them.  Walt is so used to disappointment, from his chubby yuppie sons and their little-shit kids, from the pussy-ass gangstas walking his streets, from the young college-boy pussies who think they have all the answers, that at this point he hates everyone he meets on sight.  When people prove his hate to be justified, he growls.  When people prove their worth, he warms to them, even if he stubbornly refuses to drop the lingo.

Gran Torino is a vintage Malpaso production, with all the class and smarts that tag has always guaranteed.  Joel Cox edits with a pleasing rhythm, cinematographer Tom Stern provides an appropriately washed-out (and later, stark) palette, Clint’s son Kyle (with Michael Stevens) provide the neat score, and the script credited to Nick Shenck works just right, with an ending that even longtime Clint fans won’t see coming.  I really hope that Clint isn’t done with acting, and if he isn’t, I hope he directs himself again – he knows how to use Clint Eastwood as an actor.  He understands the history and audience expectations that come with a Clint Eastwood film, and he knows how to subvert, parody, and/or work alongside all of that.  I haven’t seen a Clint character spit this much since The Outlaw Josey Wales, and I would guess that the reference is very much intentional.  Love it.

Find me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb