Sunday, June 9, 2013

April-May 2013

MUD  (2013)
    It’s a rare film that so perfectly captures a place and its inhabitants as to make the details of the plot secondary. Writer-director Jeff Nichols’ third feature achieves that movie nirvana, beautifully capturing the poetic bleakness of a small Arkansas community along the Mississippi River in this Twain-like coming-of-age adventure.

       What stood out for me in this portrait of rural working poor is that the film never turns them into either hapless victims nor wise primitives (as last year’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” did); Nichols, a Little Rock native, captures what makes small-town living unique, especially the freedom children are afforded away from the over-protective paranoia of affluent communities. That freedom allows Ellis and Neckbone, a pair of street-wise 14 year olds, to explore a small river island, hoping to claim a boat lodged in a tree.

    They also discover Mud (Matthew McConaughey, completely in his element), a good ol’ boy hiding out from the law, who’s hoping to reunite with the love of his life Juniper (Reese Witherspoon, somewhat out of her element) after killing her mob-connected husband. The boys make it their mission to aid Mud and reunite him and his girl.

     But the key relationship in the film is between Mud and Ellis, a boy who is just discovering the power of love and quickly turns Mud into a romantic figure. Just as his parents are breaking up, Ellis finds a role model in murderer-on-the-run Mud, dreamily miscasting him as a tragic hero who just needs his lady love to complete his life’s journey. Tye Sheridan, whose film debut was as one of Brad Pitt’s sons in “The Tree of Life,” gives an extraordinary performance as Ellis; naïve yet thoughtful and sensitive, he is determined to find affirmation that love can solve everything—his crush on a senior girl, his parents’ marriage, Mud’s troubles with the law. Of course, he’s in for disappointment.

      McConaughey has been in so many bad movies that sometimes it’s hard to take him seriously, but recently he’s delivered some impressive performances, including as the slimy attorney in “The Lincoln Lawyer” (2011) and in last year’s “Magic Mike” as the overbearing, deceitful manger of a male strip club. Here again, he shows that he can turn a character into someone original and memorable.

     The acting in supporting roles is uniformly excellent in “Mud,” led by Sam Shepard as a local loner who plays a key role in Mud’s life, Ray McKinnon as Ellis’ surprisingly complex father, Jacob Lofland as resourceful tough-guy Neckbone, and Michael Shannon (who starred in Nichols’ first two features) as Neckbone’s fun-loving uncle.

      And then there’s the Mississippi: one of the iconic symbols of American life, standing in for our independent spirit, our search for freedom or renewal, or simply as a metaphor for life’s journey as it offers new visions, new adventures with every turn. “Mud,” like the great river itself, takes us unexpected places, populated by authentic American characters, which make this journey well worth taking.

     The difficulty in filming “The Great Gatsby” is that the novel is too slight, so ethereal; it’s a wisp of greatness that offers little of the concrete specifics that make movies work. You could read the novel twice in the time it takes for director Baz Luhrmann (co-adapted with Craig Pearce) to present his version, an indulgent 2 hours and 23 minutes. Previous versions have been dismal (though I can’t speak to the 1926 silent), with Alan Ladd, in 1949, and Robert Redford, in 1974, as rather stiff, uncertain Gatsbys.

     What Luhrmann does best, of course, is extravagance—his “Moulin Rouge” was nothing but over-the-top set design—and he certainly goes all out in depicting the decadent parties held at Gatsby’s Long Island mansion. Not surprisingly (and purposely I assume), the director has projected our contemporary expectations of lavish parties onto such gatherings from 1922 New York. Even legendary party animal Fitzgerald would be left dumbfounded by the sight of the circus-like soirées depicted in the film. For that and other reasons, the first part of the film seemed to me to be more the director’s, while the second, and much more accomplished, half of the picture is much closer to the source; the flash is carried off to the wings and the powerful emotions that make the novel so memorable arrive center stage.  

        In a nutshell, for those unfamiliar with the novel, narrator Nick Carraway finds himself renting a small, unassuming house next door to the infamously mysterious Jay Gatsby. The millionaire makes friends with Carraway, in large part because he wants to be reunited with Nick’s cousin Daisy, married and living across the bay, whom he had fallen in love with as a young solider during the First World War.

       Daisy, a flighty, rather dull and unworthy object of desire, is married to Carraway’s Yale classmate Tom Buchanan, an overbearing, offensively opinioned man who represents the privileged, old money America in contrast to Gatsby’s less respectable, newfound riches.

      Nick helps bring Gatsby and Daisy back together, but, this being a 20th Century novel (maybe The 20th Century novel) the hopes and dreams of everyone are shattered like an oversize mirror dropped out of a three-story walkup.

     Leonardo DiCaprio is well cast as Gatsby, thought it’s a tough nut to crack; he’s all internal struggle and offers little of his tragic desperation until the climactic scene. But DiCaprio certainly has the perfect look and manner.

    Tobey Maguire, who, for my money, has given one good performance (“Cider House Rules”) in his 25-year career, doesn’t have the presence to be the glue of this sketchy story, but he does well in communicating Nick’s insight into Gatsby, guiding the viewers to see beyond his foolishness, his surface image.

    As Daisy, Carey Mulligan (Oscar nominated for “An Education”) is cute, but not the kind of centerpiece you’d except to find in an epic romantic tragedy. Joel Edgerton, best known as the Navy SEAL who leads the raid on Bin Laden in “Zero Dark Thirty,” plays her husband Tom as a wild-eyed villain, with a croaking voice that sounds disembodied, as if they added it later. Every time he spoke, I thought I had been transported to a superhero movie.

       The real stars of this movie are production designer Catherine Martin and cinematographer Simon Duggan—the visuals leave such an emotional impression that the film could easily have been a silent and still communicated its message. But even with its faults, the picture is Luhrmann’s finest film and maybe the best adaptation of Fitzgerald’s deconstruction of the American dream anyone could have hoped for.

     What finally becomes clear in the film’s well-crafted finalé is that Gatsby is just a regular guy in love with a fantasy of happiness, like too many of us, foolish, naïve and seeking something lost in time. Yet Carraway, nee Fitzgerald, urges us forward, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”  

42  (2013)
    A major motion picture about Jackie Robinson has been a long time coming; his historic and inspirational story should be part of every American’s education, placed beside the lives of Washington, Lincoln and King. Unfortunately, “42” never rises above being a basic teaching tool for those who aren’t aware of the abuse this young athlete endured to help change the country’s racial divide.

     Like so many films about real people (see “Hitchcock” below), the script lacks the dramatic energy and original dialogue (the line readings all sound overly practiced) found in a satisfying feature. Not helping the authenticity of “42” are the spotless sets; I’ve never seen such immaculate baseball facilities; the dugouts and locker rooms of Ebbets Field, at the time 34 years old, look brand new.

     For those unfamiliar with Robinson: In 1945, he was a former multi-sport athlete from UCLA playing baseball for the Kansas City Monarchs, a professional baseball team in the Negro League. At the time, an unwritten agreement among major league baseball owners kept blacks out of the white’s only league.

    But one owner decided to rock the boat. Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Robinson and, after a season in the minors, the 28-year-old took the field with the major league team on April 15, 1947, the first black man to play in modern baseball.

     There is little current baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has to say that I agree with, but he showed unusual historical insight when he said, “Jackie Robinson running onto Ebbets Field is not only the most important and powerful moment in baseball history, but it also changed the course of American history.” Selig also instituted a fitting memorial to Robinson by permanently retiring his uniform number 42 from all of baseball along with having every player wear 42 for games played every April 15.

     The movie occasionally communicates the import of Robinson’s journey as he proves his skills in minor league cities throughout the South, deals with a skeptical press and outright hostile fans, teammates and competitors. But because Robinson deals with it so well (as portrayed here), the abused comes off as a few bad incidents rather than what was actually a daily grind of hatred.

      Chadwick Boseman was clearly chosen for the role for his uncanny resemblance to Robinson and his ability to perform like a talented ballplayer on the field, because he isn’t much of an actor. The television actor previous film work includes one starring role, in last year’s “The Kill Hole,” but here he comes off as an earnest amateur (similar to Robinson’s own performance as himself in the cheaply made 1950 film “The Jackie Robinson Story”), leaving a hole in the middle of the picture. 

       Whatever energy the film possesses is mostly due to the hammy performance by Harrison Ford as the Bible-quoting Rickey. Constantly chewing on his cigar (and any other scenery he can find), Ford plays the role as if he’s doing a one-man stage show, attempting to create a character while speaking only in lines filled with so much “wisdom” that they seem suitable for framing.

     Other actors doing good work in this otherwise “Hallmark Hall of Fame”-type picture is “Law and Order” veteran Christopher Meloni as the colorful Dodger manager Leo Durocher and Lucas Black as team captain Pee Wee Reese, whose gesture toward Jackie during a game in Cincinnati is one of the great moments in racial brotherhood.

      Rather than see “42,” I would recommend to anyone interested in Robinson’s story to rent the episode of Ken Burn’s documentary “Baseball” that focuses on Jackie. Burns gives viewers the necessary baseball and social back story that puts the accomplishments of Robinson (and Rickey) in perspective. They both, while just doing their jobs, began the process of erasing a dark stain that had marked this country since its inception.

      What could be more cinematic than the experiences of a filmmaker making a movie? Yet very few films have dealt with the dramatics of a film set and even fewer have been any good (“Ed Wood” and “White Hunter, Black Heart” come to mind). Where are the dramas about the legendary making of “Gone With the Wind” or John Ford on location filming “The Grapes of Wrath” or Billy Wilder turning “Some Like It Hot” into a classic? The story of “The Godfather” would be priceless; imagine actors portraying Francis Coppola, Robert Evans and Marlon Brando?

    Yet as appealing as those ideas sound, if last year’s “Hitchcock,” a chronicle of the making of “Psycho,” is any indication, maybe we’re better off without any more films about films.

     The problem with this slice of the iconic director’s career and life is that the script and the acting never turn the characters into real people. Anthony Hopkins has the voice and mannerisms of the high-profile “master of suspense” down pat but he never convinced me that this was a great, influential artist whose mastery of the cinema was nearly unmatched in history. Too often, the film paints him as a sad, embarrassing pervert lusting after beautiful starlets (played by two of Hollywood’s most alluring actresses Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel). But, in fact, directors and actors pressing themselves on actresses in that era was hardly unusual—if Hitchcock looked like Cary Grant (just five years younger than Hitch) his interest in the women would be totally acceptable.

     The film’s screenplay (by John J. McLaughlin from Steven Rebello’s book) focuses too long on the director’s jealousy over his wife Alma’s (Helen Mirren) very chaste relationship with screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) while giving short shrift to the details of the filming of “Psycho.” It is nothing more than a device to give Hitchcock a little taste of his own flirtations, but it never feels believable, even if it’s based on facts.

      Hopkins, who hasn’t had a meaty film role like this since 2003’s “Human Stain,” creates a rather uninteresting Hitchcock; he almost comes off as a supporting character in his own story. The female characters are better written and better acted, especially Johansson as Janet Leigh, who finds Hitch to be a perfect English gentleman.

     First-time director Sacha Gervasi never figures out what film he’s making: is it about the landmark horror film, Hitchcock’s predilection for blondes, his shaky marriage or the low standing of women in that era of Hollywood? For me, the big deal made over the director’s fantasies about his stars clouds the great issue: how this 61-year-old director turned a B-movie idea into a modern classic and the template that an entire genre was built upon. That’s the Hitchcock I wanted to know about, but didn’t find here.

    I’m not sure why I’d never heard of this overwrought head trip of hippie dreams and establishment paranoia before discovering it recently on the ever-quirky THiS channel. Rarely shown and long forgotten, this attempt to scare the hell out of adults about the growing radicalization of American youth in the 1960s should be a cult classic.

    The plot centers on a successful pop singer who rallies his fan base into a political force for the purpose of lowering the voting age to 16. Christopher Jones, who played the title character in the 1965 TV series “The Legend of Jesse James,” plays Max Frost, the arrogant, rather stupid pop idol who we first meet blowing up his father’s car as he runs away from home. He also has to deal with his psychotic mother (the perfectly cast Shelley Winters) who, at one point, kills a child while driving like a mad woman. It’s one of the many scenes in this mess of a film that make no sense and connect to nothing.

    I’m convinced that the film was destroyed in the editing room because if anyone knew the value of telling a story in a concise manner it was veteran TV director Barry Shear. He directed few features in his career, but he did make the superb cop drama (reviewed here a few months ago) “Across 110th Street” along with countless episodes of such first-rate series as “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” “The Name of the Game” and “Ironside.”

     In “Wild in the Street,” Max lives with his band (which includes Richard Pryor) and a couple of hippie chicks. It’s when his support is sought by a young senate candidate (Hal Holbrook) that the idea to lower the voting age begins to form.

     The campy highlight comes when Max and his sycophants taint the water system in Washington with LSD, allowing the teens to take over the government. Don’t even think about the logic; the filmmakers certainly didn’t.

    The funniest scenes take place at Max’s Hollywood Hills mansion, where they all sit around getting high and thinking up plans to change the world. A priceless moment occurs when veteran actor Ed Begley, playing a pompous, old-fashioned senator, nearly faints when a topless girl walks into their “political” meeting with a tray of drinks. The joke turns out to be on him when she’s selected as the state’s next U.S. senator.

     Bad acting, bad music, insipid dialogue and a completely unimaginable plotline certainly mark “Wild in the Streets” as a camp classic, but it is also an essential film in Hollywood’s evolving vision of the youth culture, One year earlier, audiences embraced the angst of “The Graduate” and the next year the pot-smoking rebels of “Easy Rider” became box-office sensations. While “Wild” isn’t in the same class with those films, it serves as a reminder that there was plenty of fear that “the hippies” were out to ruin the America previous generations had built. And many still believe they did.

     After experiencing Tom Hooper’s adaptation of this cultural phenomenon—a stage hit in 1990s America about the French Revolution, how did that happen?—I completely understood why it earned eight Oscar nominations, including a best picture nod. A few years ago, before Academy voters became a bit hipper, this would have won best picture by a landslide.

     What baffles me is that audiences, long established as unwilling to accept the conventions of movie musicals, embraced the operatic, even more artificial, approach in which virtually all of the dialogue is sung. Maybe, as Broadway producers discovered, if you don’t even pretend this is a traditional drama with realistic conversations audiences are more accepting of singing as a form of communication.

    The familiar story, from Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel and three film versions, examines the misguided morals of Javert, a strident peace officer who refuses to give up his lifelong quest to bring to “justice” an ex-con (Jean Valjean) who broke his parole after serving a hard-labor sentence for stealing bread. As the story chronicles Valjean’s remaking his life and taking a young orphan under his wing, the threat of Javert continues to haunt him.

     Hugh Jackman is an intensely righteous Valjean, the model modern man who reinvents himself from uneducated convict to a community pillar (though that story is mostly untold in this version) but never forgets his early suffering. His singing is less than stellar, but his pursuer, played by Russell Crowe, makes Jackman sound like Sinatra. Crowe is criminally miscast, a stone-faced, colorless villain who fails to offer insight into his obsession with Valjean.

     The singular transcendent sequence in this 2 hour and 38 minute singing marathon is Fantine’s (Anne Hathaway) heartbreaking “I Dreamed a Dream,” reflecting on her sad, hopeless life. You can hear the pain in her voice, see the doom in her face, as tears stream from her eyes. It reminded me of the stunning late performances of Judy Garland on her TV show—I know no higher praise. Hathaway’s performance will stand as one of the great moments in the history of movie musicals.

     Another standout singing performance is given by stage actress Samantha Barks as the revolutionary Éponine. When she opens her mouth, the difference between a pro and the amateur singing of most of the actors becomes hard to ignore.

     Playing a pair of low-life con artists, Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen (paired because of their triad of names?) offer what little comic relief the story offers, showing up at various points of the story out of the blue.

     Cinematically, the big production number “One Day More,” which introduces the second half’s focus on the revolution, is very impressive, but the last hour feels like four hours, dragging toward its obvious conclusion, so long that I nearly forgot what I liked about the film.

    Overall, Hooper seems to have tried too hard to be adventurous and cutting edge in this rather straight-forward story as he refuses to let his camera sit and enjoy the actors; maybe he’s trying to make up for the fact that most of the “dialogue” is undecipherable because it’s being sung….poorly. But I’ll admit that “Les Misérables” may be the only movie that made me both weep and doze.

    This is clearly the great literature edition of “Thoughts on Film,” as I now weight in on the third adaptation of a novel essential to the Western canon. And while “The Great Gatsby” and “Les Misérables” aren’t perfect, they both rank far ahead of the disastrous results of this latest version of Tolstoy’s treatise on 19th Century morals.

      Director Joe Wright, again working with his muse Keira Knightley (“Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement”), transforms every scene into grade opera, bloating the drama until it’s more pageant than story (adapted by Tom Stoppard, offering a rare disappointing script).

     The film is stunningly beautiful, featuring one astounding set design after another—has that become the real appeal to remaking these costume dramas?—as it presents part of the drama as an elaborate, surreal stage show. The characters go from realistic sets to drifting on and off a stage—it never made any sense to me.

       Distracting clever and adding nothing to the drama other than to constantly remind viewers that none of it is real, the showy mix of stage craft and traditional film narrative seems to be aimed at those who are enamored of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s idea of entertainment. I half expected Anna to break into song as she shuttles between cold, respectable husband Count Karenin (an annoyingly stoic Jude Law) and her shallow young lover Count Vronsky (pretty boy Aaron Taylor-Johnson).

      Both the 1935 (with Greta Garbo) and 1948 versions (with Vivien Leigh) offer better readings of this Russian landmark of romantic tragedy and the consequences of wife’s adultery (I haven’t seen the 1997 French version, starring Sophie Marceau). Even though the new adaptation is more faithful to the novel’s underlying message regarding the coming collapse of the bourgeoisie, the film makes such a cluttered muck of the motivations involved in the love triangle that I just stopped caring 40 minutes into the story.

    Knightley has some fine moments as the deeply conflicted Anna, forced to abandon her young son to be with her love, but she’s too lightweight—and not just physically—an actress to convey the character’s complexities. 

     The best performances in the film are given by Anna’s morally challenged, but socially conscious brother (British TV veteran Matthew Macfadyen) and his wife (Kelly Macdonald), struggling to come to terms with her marital problems.

      I’m holding my breath as “On the Road” moves closer to the top of my Netflix queue and James Franco’s adaptation of William Faulkner’s masterful “As I Lay Dying” nears theatrical release. Let’s hope they break the Hollywood tradition of turning great novels into mediocre movies.      


1 comment:

Dana King said...

I rarely see adaptations of classic literature, as the film makers too often focus on the wrong things. I can understand why--often what makes the book a classic does not transfer well to the visual medium--but they are still unsuccessful more often than not.

You have talked me into seeing MUD. McConaughey's new HBO show looks interesting, too.