Saturday, March 30, 2013

Searching for Sugar Man

There are spoilers for the film here.

Searching for Sugar Man, as its title implies, is structured as a mystery.  Its title figure, Sixto Rodriguez, released two albums on a small record label in the United States in the early-70's.  Neither record sold particularly well, and Rodriguez the musician disappeared into obscurity.  This is a fairly common story in the record industry, where only the barest handful of people manage to sell enough records to make a living at it, but what sets Rodriguez apart is that, for reasons that are not entirely clear (the movie attempts to grapple with this question, but its answers are somewhat cliche), his music hit a chord with white South Africans in the 70's and 80's, people who considered themselves foes of the apartheid regime in that country.  Rodriguez became, without ever knowing it, a superstar in South Africa, a musician whose records occupy the same real estate with, according to one person in the film, the Beatles' Abbey Road and Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water.

The mystery that the first half of Malik Bendjelloul's film is built around is, what happened to Rodriguez?  In the pre-internet era, details of his life were difficult to find, especially for residents of a country as politically isolated as apartheid-era South Africa was, and rumors that he had killed himself in some gruesome way were the most common story passed around among his fans.  A couple of those fans took it upon themselves in the 90's, sparked by the re-release of his albums on CD, to find out the true story, and their search eventually yielded the man himself, alive and well and living a working-class life in Detroit.

The second half of the film fills in the details of Rodriguez' life after his brief shot at being a big-time musician, and spends a good deal of time building up to, and showing the footage from, Rodriguez' triumphant 1998 tour of South Africa, the first time his fans in that country had gotten a chance to see him in person.  It is a show-stopping moment, and it is made possible by Rodriguez himself, a man of copious amounts of humility and grace about the circumstances of his life, the near-miss of stardom and the fact that he makes ends meet by doing manual labor in one of the hardest cities in America.  Rodriguez resists introspection about his place in the world (he is an awkward interview subject, too careful and measured to provide concrete answers), but his humanity shines through the screen anyway.

Rodriguez' music populates the film - it's folky, with just the barest hint of Latin inflection.  He gets compared to Bob Dylan constantly, not without reason, and occasionally he comes up with a turn of phrase that really makes you take notice.  There's a bit of saminess to the music; he likes to come up with a question or phrase and repeat it in different iterations.  But at its best, his music absolutely could have played on AOR stations in the 70's.  It was probably a longshot in any case - the record label he is signed to was too small to provide any real publicity muscle (the biggest artist on the label was Bill Withers, and his albums also somewhat undersold) but the film at least implies that part of the problem was just how conspicuously Hispanic Rodriguez is.  His music is distinctly in the white folk tradition, acoustic guitars and political messages, and it's not far-fetched to imagine the label had trouble figuring out how to sell him to audiences.  The film also strongly implies that the head of his label, a man named Clarence Avant, pocketed the royalties that he should have been receiving from his South African album sales, but it doesn't follow the thread beyond asking Avant about it (who is extremely cagey about the subject, and comes off like the slimy record executive one imagines them to be.)

The second half of the film is dominated, not so much by Rodriguez himself as by his three daughters.  They are the narrators of his story, talking about his blue collar life as a manual laborer, about his quixotic 1989 campaign for Detroit city council (the city couldn't even manage to spell his name right on the ballot) and, above all, about how he worked hard to instill a love of the arts in them.  It's never clear what the family situation between them, their mother and Rodriguez is, but what comes across on the screen is just what a decent father he was to the three of them, and how much they appreciate what he was able to give them - not money, but knowledge, and passion, and the sense that lacking material things didn't mean that the culture in and around the city was closed off to them.

Bendjelloul engages in a bit of fudging to make the narrative work.  In the mid-70's, Rodriguez' records sold well enough in Australia for him to tour the country in 1979, and again in 1981.  Bendjelloul doesn't mention this fact, so that the 1998 concert in South Africa seems like Rodriguez' triumphant return to music after having walked away from the business in the early-70's.  It's one of those omissions that makes sense in terms of the story the filmmaker is trying to tell, but it's at least worth noting that the story told here doesn't quite match the reality of the facts on the ground.  Rodriguez is still a compelling enough figure, and his story so fascinating anyway, that it didn't matter to me.  There are so many stories that intertwine within the life of Rodriguez - the shady details of the music business, apartheid-era South Africa, the collapse of the working class (particularly in Detroit), but most of all the story of Rodriguez is one of a father and his daughters, about  how a man with very little can still give his girls so much.  A-

Friday, March 29, 2013


When does it become clear to the people involved in making a film that the finished product is going to be a turkey?  Well, if it's some direct-to-video detritus, probably "before the script is even written."  But if it's a film with A-list pretenses, your Giglis, your Leonard: Part 6's, it presumably takes a while for everyone to realize what they're doing.  A bad screenplay can be salvaged.  A bad performance can be muted in the editing booth.  An incoherent mess can be streamlined.  But at some point, if things are really dire, it probably becomes obvious to enough people on the production that things are not going to end well, and their job is just to finish the damn thing and move on to the next project.

1941 is a massive turkey.  It is incomprehensible and unfunny, and it is those things for almost two and a half excruciating hours.  It was actually not a box office bomb, making three times as much as it cost at theaters, and I feel sorry for every single person who bought a ticket to the latest blockbuster from the man who made Jaws and Close Encounters, and had to sit through this piece of shit in a dark theater.  At least I got to pause it and take a break.  Watching this from start to finish straight through might have destroyed my mind.

The film is ever-so-loosely based on the bombardment of Ellwood, when a Japanese sub shelled an oil refinery near Los Angeles in early 1942.  After Pearl Harbor there was a lot of paranoia on the American coasts about what the Japanese or Germans might get up to, and the shelling of Ellwood fed into that sense.  We are introduced to a Japanese sub off the California coast at the very beginning, and then at the very end it does some shelling.  In the middle, a whole bunch of mostly-unrelated nonsense happens, and a huge cast of famous and semi-famous people show up for a few minutes here and there as the plot determinedly refuses to actually go anywhere.  A lot of stuff gets destroyed - planes, tanks, a house, a paint factory for some reason.  It's all supposed to be funny and almost none of it is.  I don't know whose decision it was to make this material into a slapstick comedy - Spielberg has a well-known love for Stanley Kubrick, so at some point I'm pretty certain he saw 1941 as his Dr. Strangelove.  But between his ham-handed direction (seriously, everything gets destroyed, it is exhausting) and the joke-free screenplay, the film is neither funny nor poignant.  It's not lifeless, at least, because at any given moment about 5 different things are happening on screen.  But it's all so tiresomely vaudevillian.  One of the characters, I am not making this up, is a ventriloquist dummy, and the film treats it like it's a real person.  That is the type of film this is.

John Milius, who is most famous for tough-guy movies like the Dirty Harry pictures and Conan the Barbarian, has a story-by credit, but I'm going to go ahead and assign most of the script portion of the blame to the writing team behind the Back to the Future movies, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale.  It's not clear whether they wrote a semi-serious script and then Spielberg decided to go jokey a la Strangelove, or whether it was jokey to begin with, but most of Zemeckis' early work was pretty doofy, so I'm going to assume it's the latter.  There was one joke in the film that actually made me laugh, for a solid 1 joke/150 minute ratio.  A lot of the humor, to be fair, is visual, which really has to fall more on Spielberg's shoulders than the screenwriters.  If you think the sight of a tank plowing through a warehouse full of paint cans is inherently funny, well, this might be your favorite movie.

The cast is sprawling and almost no one comes out with their dignity intact.  John Belushi's character, if it can be called that, is an overeager spin on Bluto Blutarski.  Dan Aykroyd is a soldier who loves America but also has a thick Canadian accent.  Treat Williams spends most of the film attempting to rape another character - this is, obviously, played for laughs.  Slim Pickens and Warren Oates trade on their names and their well-established personae to join in the "fun"; Pickens, in particular, is on the wrong end of a very long scene that revolves around his character's bowel movements.  Ned Beatty is a clueless oaf who willfully destroys his own home (he does, however, have the film's one funny moment).  Christopher Lee and Toshiro Mifune(!) play the film's Nazi and Japanese villain, respectively - both of them play their scenes fairly straight, but neither has much to do but yell and argue.  Robert Stack plays the military head honcho, and he is probably the one actor in the film whose character acts in consistently logical ways, and never has to do anything humiliating.

I don't want to waste much more time on this film, because I have wasted too much on it already.  It is awful.  When the James Bond series bottomed out, at least one could still enjoy the various tropes of the series.  Same with the worst Star Trek movies.  There are no redeeming qualities to 1941.  It is stupid, it looks awful, and there are no performances in it that are even worth mentioning again.  Spielberg, at least, must have known he had a bomb on his hands when he watched the dailies, and he has at least had the good sense to stay the hell out of the comedy business since then.  Let us never speak of this movie ever again.

Well, just a little bit more.  Bullet points.

The opening scene is an homage to Jaws.  Instead of a shark, it's a Japanese sub.  That seems like a really presumptuous thing for Spielberg to do, to already be self-referencing this early in his career.

Slim Pickens does a riff on his famous "survival kit" speech from Dr. Strangelove, rattling off all the garbage in his shit-kicker character's pockets for the Japanese sailors that capture him.  It's actually vaguely amusing, but then they flush the character right down the toilet (puns!) by having him swallow a compass that the Japanese need for some reason, and then having them force-feed him prune juice.

The one funny joke - Ned Beatty is having a heart-to-heart with his daughter about the USO dance that she is going to go to that night, and he tells her that it is her duty as an American to sleep with the soldiers.  It came as such a surprise that someone had done something unexpected and funny that I had to rewind and watch it again to make sure I heard what I thought I did.

Robert Stack's character cries at Dumbo, which is actually pretty cute.

Sunday, March 24, 2013


The CIA-led Iranian coup of 1953, which deposed Mohammed Mossadegh in favor of Shah Reza Pahlavi, was something of a Patient Zero in the warped relationship the United States has with the Middle East.  The Shah became one of the world's most despised leaders and the Iranian people, quite rightly it turned out, blamed the United States (and the UK) for meddling in its internal affairs in favor of a man who ran the country as a ruthless autocrat.  The Muslim world in general came to distrust the intentions of the United States, and the end of the Cold War focused that mistrust into a mutually-held fear of the Other.

I don't mean to damn Argo with faint praise when I say that its opening section, when it summarizes this history in the form of a Persepolis-esque series of cartoon images, is perhaps its most impressive.  Director Ben Affleck manages to hit the major points in this history in an interesting visual way, setting the scene for the film's tableau during the 1979 revolution that ended the Shah's reign and put Ayatollah Khomeini in charge of the country.  It is, to be fair, at least a slightly simplified history, mostly leaving out the justified fear that the Western powers had that Mossadegh would draw Iran closer to the Soviet sphere of influence in favor of a purely oil-based justification, but it is still very effective.

As everyone surely knows by know, Argo is the story of six American diplomats who managed to escape the US Embassy in Tehran for the Canadian ambassador's residence just prior to the 1979 hostage crisis, and their extrication from the country before they were discovered by the Ayatollah's agents.  Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, an exfiltration specialist, who concocts a cover story in which the six diplomats pretend to be the Canadian film crew for a Hollywood-produced, low-budget science fiction movie named Argo (in reality, an adaptation of a fairly well known science fiction novel, Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light.)  John Goodman and Alan Arkin portray the production team that helped Mendez build the cover story, and Bryan Cranston plays Mendez's boss at the CIA.

Argo neatly cleaves into two stories - there is the plight of the six diplomats, both before Mendez shows up to help them and after, and there is the story of Mendez putting together a fake movie in sun-drenched 70's Hollywood.  The mid-film tonal shift into the Hollywood portion is somewhat jarring, but Affleck has enough confidence as a filmmaker (and as an old Hollywood veteran himself, who certainly knows his subjects as well as anyone) to make it work.  It helps that Goodman and Arkin give the film its two most interesting characters, Hollywood hustlers par excellence who see the Argo plan as their one big shot to do something of true substance.  The six diplomats are much less well-defined - the film only gives them a few scenes to develop as characters, and other than the way they wear their hair (and facial hair) it is sometimes difficult to tell them apart, except for the fact that a few of them are played by semi-recognizable actors (Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall and Rory Cochrane are the three whose names I knew).  Mendez is also something of a problem - Affleck gives himself by far the biggest role in the film, and while his performance is perfectly serviceable, it lacks anything remotely resembling a spark.  I tried to think about how I would recast the role, and my initial instinct was Mark Ruffalo, but there are just a lot of working actors who would have brought more to the role than Affleck is capable of.

But we're not here to discuss Affleck the actor, who is what he is, we're here to talk about Affleck the filmmaker.  And while I thought the storytelling was solidly delivered in Argo (despite the relative flatness of the characters) my biggest complaint of the film was just how flop-sweaty some of the thriller elements were. There are just too many scenes where everything is on the knife's edge of completely falling apart, and while I am willing to allow some dramatic license to enhance the story, at some point I just stopped believing what was happening on screen in any meaningful way.  The story that Argo is based on is a fascinating one, and I wish Affleck had trusted in its details more, and embellished them less (some of this also has to rest on the shoulders of screenwriter Chris Terrio).  It is still a good film, and the storytelling is extremely efficient.  I have yet to see The Town, but between this film and Gone Baby Gone, Affleck certainly has an eye for the lived-in details of the worlds he is creating (the Argo table read in the Hollywood section is worth the price of admission all by itself, like Ed Wood's version of the Star Wars cantina).  I wish this film had more trust that the audience would follow the real details of the story, as opposed to the Hollywood-ized version, but I suppose that's what happens when you make a fake film within a real film about real events.  On some level, everything that comes out of Hollywood is bullshit, and eventually it all comes down to arguing about degrees.  B

Sunday, March 17, 2013

How to Survive a Plague

There are three groups of players that orbit around one another in David France's documentary about the early years of the AIDS epidemic, How to Survive a Plague (the film mostly takes place between about 1987 and 1996).  There are the politicians, responsible for setting the policy for how the government is going to respond to the crisis.  There are the scientists, men and women both in the private sector, as well as at NIH and the FDA, doing the work to identify and bring to market some sort of cure.  And there are the activists of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), some of whom are HIV-positive (many, or even most, of the people France focuses on within ACT UP seem to be positive, although not all), agitators for changes both in policy and in how the scientists do their business.

The memorable characters in the film are, with one exception, entirely from the ACT UP side of the proceedings.  There is playwright Larry Kramer, who gives the film its title with an impassioned plea for unity from his fellow activists when everything seems to be spinning out of control within ACT UP.  There is Mark Harrington, the brains of the treatment activist group, who teaches himself (and his fellow activists) to speak to the scientists with an astonishing level of sophistication.  There is Garance Franke-Ruta, the young true believer with the dodgy taste in hats.  There is Peter Staley, the natural spokesperson, who faces down Pat Buchanan on Crossfire and gives a rousing speech to a packed house at the 1990 International AIDS Conference in San Francisco.  And there is Bob Rafsky, author of this famous campaign moment, whose fatalism about the short time he assumes he has left on Earth is matched in intensity by his drive to find a cure one way or another.

The one character who cuts a memorable figure within the film and is not a part of ACT UP is Senator Jesse Helms, shown in file footage, representing the fear and the bigotry of an entire group of Americans who had no interest in pushing for a cure to a disease that disproportionately affects gay men.  Most of the drama in How to Survive a Plague happens in scientific conferences and board meetings, as scientists and activists work, sometimes in tandem, sometimes at odds over logistics, but always towards a common goal.  But the specter of Helms always lingers over the film, the foot-dragging that he represents linked, explicitly and implicitly, to a body count that could have been lower but for people like him in positions of power (including the Archbishop of New York, John O'Connor, responsible for some truly backwards writing on contraception and AIDS prevention) having no real interest in AIDS prevention.

The problem here is that Helms himself is a minor figure in the broader AIDS drama.  His inflammatory speeches from the floor of the Senate provide good sound bites, but there is a pretty clear implication from the film that there was an institutional rot within both the American government and the scientific community when it came to confronting the AIDS epidemic (which is, presumably, why ACT UP came into existence in the first place), and it is never made terribly clear who the players really were, and how anti-gay bigotry helped foster an apathy towards finding a cure.  Ronald Reagan's name is invoked a couple of times, and George H.W. Bush is on the business end of at least one (quite unfair) potshot about him playing golf while people die, but the dots are just never connected between federal foot-dragging on the "gay plague" and what is going on at the FDA or the NIH, where treatments are either being tested too slowly, or else being neglected entirely.  When the scientists finally settle on the combination therapy (including the breakthrough of finding protease inhibitors that specifically inhibit HIV replication) that works to truly extend the lives of those who are HIV-positive in 1996, it is clearly a triumph for everyone involved, but because of the lack of clear dot-connecting between the work of the ACT UP activists and improvements in how the treatment and approval processes were carried out, it never coalesces on screen just what, exactly, ACT UP was responsible for, and what was just normal scientific progress.  France also makes the choice to hold the revelation of which of the film's characters have survived to the present day thanks to combination therapy, and which ones succumbed to the infection, until the end of the film.  It's a bittersweet moment to see the faces of the people from the archival footage, 20 years older, knowing that so many of the people in the film didn't survive to see their work come to fruition.  They are emotional revelations, no doubt, seeing people who were already HIV-positive in the late-80's still alive and in good health in 2013, but it has the unfortunate effect of robbing the film of the contemporary perspective of so many of the players in the drama.

There is an important and powerful story within the raw material from which How to Survive a Plague is constructed.  Oftentimes it comes through, and the collective force of the personalities involved forces you to take notice one way or another throughout much of the film.  But the narrative is too often muddled and unclear, and the story suffers for it.  B-

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


It's widely-accepted conventional wisdom that Jaws was the first modern summer blockbuster.  Coming out right smack dab in the middle of the auteur-driven 70's, June of 1975, Jaws was an enormous, inescapable hit, and is effectively the foundation upon which Steven Spielberg's career was built.  It would be two more years before George Lucas created the still-followed template for the special effects-driven franchise film, and three more years after that before Michael Cimino put the final nail in the coffin of the auteur 70's with the disaster that was Heaven's Gate.  But Jaws was a harbinger of a film, for good and for ill, a movie that delighted audiences and critics and also paved the way for the destruction of the weird, personal, studio-backed movies that those New Hollywood directors like Scorsese and De Palma and Hal Ashby were making during this period (filmmakers that Spielberg has never hidden his admiration for).

Given that context, what maybe stands out at first blush to me about Jaws is how unassuming it is.  It has the one special effect, so it is technically a "special effects-driven blockbuster", but that effect sucks, and is in the film for a total of no more than about 10 minutes.  Mostly what people do in Jaws is they talk about just what exactly they are going to do about this enormous shark that has taken over their beach, and then when they finally formulate a plan, those people talk about what they are doing, and why they're doing it.  And then eventually the shark shows up, and they make their stand, and it's over.

Here is the briefest of plot summaries, because most people have seen this film, and I don't feel that I need to go blow by blow.  A shark kills a girl on Amity Island, a summer destination off the New England coast.  The new police chief, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) suggests closing the beach until the shark is dealt with, but the politicians talk him out of it because they need summer dollars, and are afraid that once the tourists are scared away, they won't come back.  So the beach stays open, and the shark kills a little boy.  Brody (temporarily) manages to close the beach, and calls in, among others, a shark expert named Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss).  Some local yahoos claim to have killed the shark but Hooper convinces Brody that the shark they found isn't the same one that has killed two people already, and after one more person is killed by the shark, Brody hires a salty local shark hunter named Quint (Robert Shaw) to take him and Hooper out on his boat, the Orca, where the three of them will take down the shark.  It proves a significantly more difficult task than they anticipate, and the shark manages to eat Quint before Brody finally kills it.

There's a bit of nuance that I've left out but honestly the story is fairly streamlined (with one exception, which I'll get to) and that plot summary pretty accurately sums up what happens.  The stakes are set up efficiently (Brody's concern for public safety is overridden by the short-sighted avarice of the town mucky-mucks, until they have no choice but to listen to him), and the story really hinges on, at most, five characters (Brody, Hooper and Quint, plus Brody's wife and the town mayor).  Six if you count the shark.  The danger that the shark poses to the community, both in terms of safety and in terms of the economic impact, is easily understood.

Where the exception to the streamlined nature of the story lies is in the back part of the second act, when the film goes a little flabby.  In Duel, most of the film's surprises had been deployed by the end of the first act, so there wasn't much left for Spielberg to do but repeat himself, in slightly different ways, as the film chugged along towards its climax.  Jaws is significantly better paced, and it opens up and reveals itself to the audience in bits and pieces all throughout.  But what that means is that, given how slight the bare bones of the story actually are (shark menaces population, shark is dealt with), the stall before the third-act shark hunt goes on just slightly too long - specifically, it goes on exactly one kill too long.  The girl who is killed at the beginning, that sets up the entire plot of the film.  The little boy who is killed after the town higher-ups refuse to close the beach, that sets up the central conflict of the film, and what the stakes for everyone are.  The third kill, the man who is eaten by the shark (in lieu of Brody's own son, who was also in its vicinity at the time)?  Well, it gives Brody a direct connection to the danger that the shark possesses, I guess.  But Brody was already on board with that danger.  And more importantly, we were already on board with that danger.  The little boy's death proved how short-sighted the mayor and his cronies were acting.  The third death feels like an unnecessary button, an answer to a question that no one was asking any more.

The crux of the movie rests in that third act trip that Brody, Hooper and Quint take in pursuit of the fish.  First, I should remind anyone who was half (or less) paying attention that the last time I saw Robert Shaw was way, way back here, where he played the brooding Soviet menace.  It's not a particularly memorable villain turn, and most people probably don't even remember that he played a Bond villain.  Shaw has two moments in Jaws that are iconic, which is two more than most film characters get - his introduction, where he interrupts a meeting by scraping his fingernails across a chalkboard and proceeds to tell the townspeople that he'll catch the shark if they pay him his fee, and the story that he tells about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis:

It occurs to me that the boat trip represents three distinct styles of acting (and if it doesn't, just go with me for a minute).  You have Richard Dreyfuss' twitchy Method weirdness.  You've got Shaw's old Hollywood scenery chewing.  And then you have Roy Scheider's lived-in naturalism.  Perhaps the adjectives I've used give some indication of where I'm going with this - more than anything else, Jaws really made me appreciate just how good and interesting (and probably underappreciated) of an actor Scheider is.  He carries the movie from beginning to end, and even when a couple of hams like Dreyfuss and Shaw show up to steal it away from him, he is always there, the solid anchor embedded in the sea floor, keeping the whole thing from spinning out of control.  There's a scene after Hooper has come to the island, when he comes over to have dinner with the Brody's.  Dreyfuss is talking to Lorraine Gary (who plays Mrs. Brody) and Scheider, telling them some story while they look on in quiet attention, and the entire time he was talking my eye was drawn inexorably to Scheider, casually opening and pouring a bottle of wine as Dreyfuss speaks.  That's a movie star.  Given no lines, he was still doing more interesting things than his costar.

So eventually the shark shows up, looks like shit.  There's no other way around that fact.  I actually wrote, "the shark really looks real enough" at one point, before it had appeared above the water in any capacity.  When it's still underwater, attached to whatever rig it's attached to in order to get it to move, it looks real, and scary.  Brody has that famous moment when he's chumming the water and the shark just appears out of nowhere, all gaping maw and black eyes, scaring the shit out of him.  There, it looks great.  By the end, when it's sweeping its head back and forth across the deck of the broken ship, trying to eat Quint and Brody, it's an ugly grey puppet.  That has the unfortunate effect of sucking some of the terror out of the film's climax, and is at least a counter-argument to the idea that practical effects are always preferable to CGI (a counter-argument to that is that if it was a CGI shark, it might look even worse.)  Despite this, I think the ending is well set up, with Quint sliding into the monster's jaws, screaming the whole way down, and Brody, alone (because Hooper has been forced to hide under the water after the world's most ill-advised plan involving a shark cage), improvising, and successfully carrying out, a plan to destroy it.  And when the monster is killed, it's a triumphant moment, much more so than the fizzle at the end of Duel, with the shark going up in an explosion of fishy viscera.

All of the good parts of Duel are also good here, and the pacing of this film is significantly better than that earlier one.  Spielberg takes his foot off the gas a little too much - there is an even tighter (and scarier) thriller to be made of this material, but he's a sentimental type, and he gives the film over just a little too much to Brody's wet noodle of a family.  I land on this being a very good film rather than a great one, but someone could convince me that I'm being too harsh towards it.  It's really good, and Spielberg crafts a real story out of a fairly thin premise (which, granted, was also a bestselling book, but it's still a slight premise for a big-budget feature film.)

A few bullet points:

Amity Island follows in the long tradition of Spielbergian Anytowns - there's a bare hint of local color, but mostly it's just a generic Seaside Resort, the kind that families the world over go on vacation.  For all of his talents as a filmmaker, Spielberg is simply not that good at creating the sense of a real, lived-in space.  He traffics in emotional warmth (to a fault sometimes), and yet his films can still feel a little cold because his settings so often feel like less than real places.

Dreyfuss goes way, way bigger than necessary in his second scene, when he views and comments on the remains of the first victim.  I kind of just don't like Richard Dreyfuss very much, I have to admit.

When Dreyfuss and Scheider encounter the chewed-up fishing boat in the middle of the night, John Williams' music is really nicely subtle and creepy.  Reminds me of Howard Shore's score for The Silence of the Lambs, which I guess would be more accurately phrased as, Shore's Silence of the Lambs score reminds me of Williams' Jaws score.

I knew the severed head was coming and it still gave me a jolt.  That's a quality scare.

When we get back to Quint at the beginning of the second half, he is a lot less taciturn than he originally appeared to be, when we met him at the meeting in the first act.  His constant stream of chatter starts to get a little irritating.

This one is for a very, very select audience, but Quint sounds a bit like Rob Mariano, the way he talks with his teeth.  If you don't know who Rob Mariano is, you have made wise life choices thus far.

The "put Hooper in a shark cage" plan may have been the most ill-advised thing any film characters have ever done.  It goes bad immediately.  There is, from its inception, a zero percent chance for it to succeed in any way.

Brody pretty much kills the shark entirely by himself.  Granted that by the end of the film he's the only one left in the boat, but most of the things that Quint and Hooper do on the way there adds up to jack shit when push comes to shove and the shark has to be killed.  Hooper is hiding underwater, Quint is dead, and Brody formulates and executes a plan that has nothing to do with either of the other two or their planning.

The film sort of just...ends.  Brody and Hooper swim back to the island, they banter for a little bit, and then Spielberg cuts to a shot of the island as the credits come up, no music, nothing.  Duel ended in a similar way.  I don't know if that's a particularly Spielbergian way to end a movie, but it's kind of jarring.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook

There is a scene midway through Silver Linings Playbook where Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) has been invited to the house of married couple Ronnie (John Ortiz) and Veronica (Julia Stiles, at least providing somewhat of an answer to the question, "I wonder where Julia Stiles has been, I used to like her a lot?"), ostensibly for a dinner party, but mostly so they can see for themselves what Solitano's mental state is, having recently been released from a mental health facility for beating his wife's lover half to death.  Veronica's sister Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who suffers from mental illness herself, is also invited to the dinner party (for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious to me) and Pat and Tiffany have a long conversation about the various medications they have been prescribed, and the side effects of those medications.

That conversation is a window into a broad class of disorders that can seem mysterious to those who aren't affected by them.  The medications that Pat and Tiffany have been prescribed presumably help with their mental health, but leave them in various states of dysfunctionality otherwise, whether it's jittery or zombified or anything in between.  Pat is engaged in a quixotic effort to woo his wife back, despite being on the business end of a restraining order, and Tiffany, who fell into sex addiction after losing her policeman husband, uses Pat's overwhelming desire to get his wife back to convince him to become her partner in a major local dance competition.  Tiffany uses the dance lessons as a device to focus her attention, and attempt to break her bad habits; she sees in Pat a fellow soul, and can see how destructive his fixation on his wife actually is, despite dangling the fact that she sometimes sees his ex-wife (through Veronica) and can get a letter from Pat to her in exchange for his agreeing to the dance lessons.

Pat's father, Patrizio (Robert DeNiro) has what is clearly a case of undiagnosed OCD; his mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) appears to have adapted to Patrizio's own mental illness without ever asking him to get it treated.  Patrizio and Dolores are of a generation where such things weren't discussed, and it never occurs to them that their relationship with Pat, loving though it is, is also toxic to his well-being.  It is implied that Dolores worked legal back-channels in order to get Pat released from the institution at the beginning, and neither parent considers the possibility that perhaps Pat's best bet to get healthy isn't in their house.  But he moves in, and he eventually goes back on his medications (after a very ugly incident when Pat accidentally strikes his mother), and begins to put the pieces of his life back together, with a whole lot of Tiffany's encouragement.

The acting in Silver Linings Playbook is as good as advertised - Jennifer Lawrence's prickly energy fits the character of Tiffany perfectly, and it's hard to imagine any other actress playing the role.  It's always nice to see Robert DeNiro fully engaged in a performance, which kind of feels like it hasn't happened since the first Meet The Parents movie, way back in 2000.  Bradley Cooper has to essentially carry the movie, and he does a nice job of subsuming his usual smirky persona for Pat's damaged, difficult existence.  I can't really call Chris Tucker's very minor role as Pat's friend Danny from the institution a "revelation", because it's such a slight part, but boy Tucker is funny and charming in the film.

It's hard for me to really judge how well this film portrays mental illness.  It falls into one of the classic cinematic traps of showing us a character's warped mental state by having them yell a lot, which starts to feel a little cheap after a while.  On the other hand, it does a good job of avoiding knee-jerk judgments about the mistakes that both Pat and Tiffany have made along the way, and tries hard to portray them as two people whose actions are part and parcel with real, honest-to-God disorders.  Ultimately, I think the film's balance is off just slightly, in that it spends too much time with Patrizio's obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles (which is how his mental illness is filtered to the audience, but straddles too close to the line of normal sports fan weirdness) and not enough time, quite frankly, on the dancing.  The scenes when Cooper and Lawrence dance are delightful, particularly during the training sequences (who doesn't love a good training scene?) and even during the competition, when director David O. Russell chooses to film in somewhat off-putting close-ups (either as a stylistic choice, or because Cooper and Lawrence couldn't quite credibly pull the dancing off), the two stars give off a palpable chemistry that gives life to the film.  Silver Linings Playbook is a good movie about mental illness that also involves some dancing; I think it could have been a great movie about dancing that was about people with mental illness.  B+

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Iron Giant

It's sort of appropriate that I watched The Iron Giant in the middle of my Spielberg marathon, because the E.T. parallels are almost impossible to miss.  A visitor from space.  A young, lonely, impressionable boy.  A single mother.  A bunch of government types who are tracking the creature.  The Iron Giant, Brad Bird's directorial debut, owes a significant debt to Spielberg's (in my opinion) magnum opus about loneliness, and friendship in unexpected places.

After the titular Giant (voiced by Vin Diesel, of all people, who proves to be the stand-out member of the cast) crash-lands in rural Maine in 1957, young, curious Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal, who played the younger Stifler brother in the first two American Pie movies) befriends the alien visitor.  In order to hide the Giant first from his mother Annie (Jennifer Aniston) and later from a humorless G-Man named Kent Mansley who is consumed by Cold War-era paranoia about the Giant's provenance (Christopher McDonald), he enlists the help of a local beatnik, Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick Jr.) who owns a metal junkyard which provides the Giant with the sustenance he needs to stay alive.  But Mansley relentlessly stays on the trail of the Giant, and after discovering incontrovertible proof of his existence, calls in the army led by General Rogard (John Mahoney) to destroy the visitor.  Mansley is just as desperate to convince everyone of the Giant's malign intentions as Hogarth is to convince them that the Giant poses no danger, and Hogarth's attempts to save the Giant from the army are complicated by the fact that the Giant is more than he seems at first blush.

The thing, in my mind, that sets the two films apart is the cultural milieu in which they are set.  Spielberg set his alien visitor/coming-of-age story in a place that isn't really a place, but an Anytown-type simulacrum of his own suburban childhood that can (and was designed to) stand in for any time, and any suburban place, in post-WWII America.  The culture that Elliot and his siblings (and friends) consume is a mish-mash of signifiers - an old rock song here, a game of Dungeons and Dragons there.  The Iron Giant, in comparison, is very clear about the time frame in which it is set, 1957 (right after the launch of Sputnik), and this period infuses the film all the way through.  Mansley is literally terrified of the Giant as a Communist plot to bring about nuclear annihilation; on a smaller scale, Hogarth's class watches a version of one of those "Duck and Cover!" videos from the 50's, and Hogarth's taste in comics runs towards the cosmic, the sort of half-optimistic/half-pessimistic sci-fi fantasias that were born out of the clash of the dawn of the Space Age with the knowledge that humanity was constantly near the brink of wiping itself out.  Hogarth reads a comic called Atomo, whose titular villain bears a striking resemblance to the Giant - when Hogarth points this out, the Giant balks at the comparison, and says he prefers to be Superman instead.  Bird's fondness for the sci-fi culture of the 50's comes across throughout, and the decision to make the film a period piece ironically serves to augment the film's timeless quality.

The Iron Giant owes a debt to E.T., but it's also in the same class as E.T. in the amount of genuine emotion it wrings out of its story, and that is the highest praise I can give the film.  It goes without saying that the film never talks down to its intended audience - this movie was made before the increasingly execrable Shrek franchise turned the art of filmmaking for children into a game of reference one-upsmanship designed to appeal exclusively to the parents forced to take their children to see the film, leaving the actual audience of children nothing but to wallow in the shallowest smorgasbord of scatalogical jokes that the filmmakers seemingly threw in as an afterthought.  Of course, it's worth noting that the American public roundly rejected the Iron Giant when it came out in theaters, so the suggestion that Hollywood is simply giving people what they want is probably accurate.  But when a smart, sweet, heartbreaking movie like this comes along, it's worth celebrating its simple existence.  A

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Sugarland Express

Somebody can check my math if they want, but by my count Steven Spielberg has directed 28 films in his 40-year career (if you count Duel and toss out his segment of the ill-fated Twilight Zone movie, and also the did-he-or-didn't-he Poltergeist), and while I started this marathon with Duel, his feature film debut proper is The Sugarland Express, released in 1974.  Terence Malick has been working for almost the exact same amount of time as a feature film director, and in his entire career he has directed a total of six films (if you spot him To The Wonder, his latest film that premiered at last year's Venice Film Festival and has seemingly disappeared since.)  Malick's debut, Badlands, premiered in theaters in October of 1973, beating Spielberg's debut by almost exactly six months.

It's hard not to think of Badlands while you watch The Sugarland Express - it is something of a weird coincidence that two of Hollywood's most revered filmmakers debuted within months of each other with films that bear a striking superficial resemblance to one another.  Both are based-on-true-story pictures about a rural couple evading the law and getting themselves in deeper and deeper with each subsequent action.  In each movie, one half of the couple is largely responsible for the action, while the other passively tags along (in Badlands, Martin Sheen's character is the take-charge half of the couple; in Sugarland Express, it is Goldie Hawn's character who is ultimately responsible for what happens.)  The comparison pretty much falls apart at any deeper level though, which is why Badlands is a bonafide classic, a major new voice planting his flag in the soil, while The Sugarland Express is an answer to a trivia question.  Malick and Spielberg occupy opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of sheer bulk of output, and how a person feels about those two modes of artistic creation is something of a litmus test.  Spielberg's highs are probably not as high as Malick's, while his lows are much lower, but Spielberg has a body of work that, taken as a whole, is almost unmatched in cinema history, and Malick's is just too slight, for my taste, to be held up against masters like John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock.

The Sugarland Express begins as Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) breaks her husband Clovis (William Atherton, probably best known as the "this man has no dick" guy from Ghostbusters) out of a fairly low-security prison in rural Texas.  Lou Jean had also recently done time for a variety of fairly minor crimes, and she is concerned that the 2 year old son that they have together will be permanently taken from them and placed in the foster system, as he is currently in the custody of a foster family.  On the way out of the prison, the Poplins' car is stopped by Officer Slide (Michael Sacks) and after a brief chase, the couple takes the officer hostage and orders him to drive them to their son's current foster home.  The trail of their commandeered police vehicle is quickly picked up by Captain Tanner (Ben Johnson) and as they drive across the state of Texas, they are followed by a caravan of police vehicles led by Tanner, as he tries to end the standoff peacefully and save Officer Slide's life.

It's unfair to continue comparing this minor film to one, in Badlands, that is studied in film schools, so I'll only say one more thing along those lines, and that is that Malick immediately has an idea for exactly what sort of tone he's looking to strike in his film (contrasting Sissy Spacek's character Holly and her childlike naivete with the sociopathy of Sheen's Kit Carruthers), whereas Spielberg never figures out the tone he wants to set for the story of the Poplins.  There is a distinct tenor of "the wacky shenanigans of rural folk" that permeates the film, especially in the first half, so that when Spielberg asks us to care about the fate of the people involved, it's a lot harder than it should be.  When the Poplins first break out of prison, they hitch a ride with an older couple who had come to visit their son, and when the car is pulled over by Officer Slide, Lou Jean hijacks it while the couple is out on the road talking to the policeman.  Slide tells the older couple to stay there by the side of the road as he takes chase, and they are revisited a couple of times, still standing at the side of the road and gently bickering with one another, for a bit of very low-level comic relief (their fate is ultimately left entirely unresolved by Spielberg, who eventually, for good reasons but still jarringly, abandons the subplot completely.)  Later in the film, there is a big pileup crash involving the police convoy which has a very, very distinct Blues Brothers vibe to the way it's shot and edited.  And towards the end, as the Poplins and Officer Slide approach their destination, they are greeted by crowds of well-wishers who have staged a makeshift (though surprisingly thorough) carnival at the center of town; less than about 5 minutes later, the violent climax of the Poplins' journey takes place.  It's like one of those sitcoms where the couple spends 21 minutes insulting each other, and then in the last minute tack on an unearned bit of sweetness.  Spielberg aims towards a sort of heartbreaking poignancy, but the bulk of the film is simply too wacky for it to take hold.

I've never really known Goldie Hawn in anything but late-period self-parody mode; she has a certain relaxed charm here as the fairly dim Lou Jean, although she's in over her head when the script asks her to emote, and while I won't call it a surprise that she presented a confident lead performance here (I knew she'd won an Academy Award early in her career, and that there must be some reason she became a star) it was still nice to be reminded of her effortless ability to be cute and engaging.  Atherton and Sacks are fine as her co-stars, neither makes a major impression but Atherton has some nice moments with Hawn, and Sacks has a good scene with the two of them where he attempts to help them work through an argument (he identifies himself as a marriage counseling pro, which is probably true for a lot of real-life lawmen, especially in small towns).  The real star of the film is Ben Johnson, who infuses what could be the cliched role of the stern Texas policeman with a real degree of humanity - I would almost recommend the film simply for his performance, which is one in his very long career that I think has been somewhat forgotten.  He'd won the Oscar a couple of years prior for playing another, fairly similar Texan in The Last Picture Show, and he had carved out a long career before that playing variations on that character, because he was really, really good at it.

I don't mean to be quite so hard on this film - it is reasonably, though very slightly, successful, and it is narratively coherent even if its tone is all over the place.  It doesn't aim that high, and if it is ultimately less interesting than Duel, it is probably because it feels like a film that was supervised much more closely by the people who actually paid for it.  What I suspect, just from my own intuition, is that they wanted a light touch which Spielberg ultimately balked out, which is why the film is so internally inconsistent from moment to moment.  The graft doesn't completely work, but there are enough small pleasures here to make it a worthy part of Spielberg's canon.