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Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Best in Film 2013

2013 didn't offer much to the weird movie buff. The wildly overrated and ridiculous The Conjuring was a cheesy ripoff of The Amityville Horror (itself a cheesy movie) and Don Coscarelli's John Dies at the End was an incomprensible bore. Fede Alvarez' remake of Evil Dead was better but didn't really bring anything new to the table. You're Next, with its intentionally outré plot and extreme violence, was the only breath of fresh air in the genre.

That said, it was a pretty solid year for the arthouse category. Newer directors continued to impress with their unique visions, and established filmmakers proved that they're still in the game with some outstanding entries. Here's a look at some of my favorites, presented in no particular order:

The Place Beyond the Pines. Derek Cianfrance's second collaboration with Ryan Gosling (after Blue Valentine) is an ambitious epic following two generations of fathers and sons and how the acts of one can influence the other. By all rights, this story shouldn't work, especially when presented at such a great length, but Cianfrance, his director of photography Sean Babbitt and composer Mike Patton put it all out there with insistent bravado, and the results are mesmerizing.




Pines boasts some of the most electrifyingly-shot chase scenes I've ever seen and a well-timed first-act shock (those who've seen it know what I mean). Gosling plays another of his social misfits, here trying to provide for a family that doesn't want him to, and Bradley Cooper steps away from his Hangover persona to play an ambitious cop whose morals are tested in a corrupt precinct. Dane De Haan, also memorable in Kill Your Darlings,  impresses as Gosling's teenage son, searching for the father he never knew.

Philomena. Director Stephen Frears has had a notable career, delivering such memorable films as My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), Prick Up Your Ears (1987), The Grifters (1990) and The Queen (2006). I saw his latest at a DGA screening this week and was treated to a Q&A with the man himself afterwards.

He said that Helen Mirren and Judi Dench are the two greatest actresses we have today, and it's hard to argue with the assertion. Mirren's work in The Queen won her the Best Actress Oscar in 2007, and Dench almost certainly will be nominated as the title character of Frears' latest project. Based on true events, it's the story of a small-town Irishwoman who teams up with an English journalist to find the son she'd borne as an unwed teenager and who was taken away from her when he was still a toddler.

This is one of those films that you just know is going to provide a vigorous emotional workout, but I was delighted to find it even better than I'd anticipated. Dench is wonderful as always, and co-writer Steve Coogan, who's noted mostly for comedy, provides solid support as the journalist Martin Sixsmith, upon whose book the story is based. Alexandre Desplat's lush score and the gorgeous Irish locations also enhance the experience. Hell, even Washington, D.C. looks good, although Frears confessed that London had to stand in for some of the American footage.


Inside Llewyn Davis. I just reviewed this last week, so I'll be brief. This bleak comedy/drama about a struggling folkie in 1960s Greenwich Village is beautifully realized by the Coen Brothers, with knockout work from star Oscar Isaac and supporting players who look like they just stepped out of the pages of Life Magazine circa 1961. And the cat...

Gravity. Like last year's Life of Pi, this is an event movie, meant to be seen under specific circumstances — in 3D, in a real theater, on a big screen  (the bigger the better). A triumph of digital artistry, it's a two-character story driven by heart-stopping special effects. Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her first mission into space, suffering all the panic attacks one surely would feel when stepping out into that infinite, freezing blackness for the first time.

George Clooney is Kowalski, the commander of the team on his final mission, and his nonchalant attitude helps put Stone at ease. But the Soviets have just exploded one of their defunct satellites, releasing a dangerous cloud of debris that is now hurtling toward them — and all hell breaks loose.

Their home base is destroyed, and as they make a tandem attempt to reach the nearby International Space Station, their parachute cords get tangled. Kowalski realizes that a choice must be made or they'll both die, so he cuts himself loose from the tether, offering her words of encouragement as he floats off into the darkness.

Thereafter, Gravity becomes Stone’s story of survival. Bullock, who is in virtually every frame of the film, rises to the occasion. I predict a nomination for sure — the Academy loves this type of heroine. But this is a passion project of director Alfonso Cuaron, who made both the terrific Y Tu Mamá También and Children of Men. Cuaron's son, Jonas, co-wrote the screenplay. Along with Bullock’s nod, I predict a lot of tech nominations.

Her. Director/producer Spike Jonze has provided us with the best of lowbrow (Jackass) and highbrow (Being John Malkovich), but here's a project that's true to his style yet completely unique. Set in slightly-in-the-future Los Angeles, it stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly, a sad, lonely man mourning the dissolution of his marriage. When he installs a new, intuitive operating system on his computer, he develops a relationship with its voice (Scarlett Johannson).

This sounds like material better suited for a half-hour Twilight Zone episode, but Jonze, making his sole writing debut here, fills the story with bleak humor and good characters. As Theodore walks the streets in a depressed haze, he's surrounded by people who are likewise disengaged from real human contact, so involved are they with their devices.

Phoenix has never been more sympathetic — here's another Oscar nod. Johansson does lovely work as the voice of Samantha (as the OS names herself). Amy Adams is appealing as Theo's friend and neighbor, a game designer who also befriends her OS.

And visually it's a knockout. K.K. Barrett's production design, Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography, along with digitally-added Shanghai locations, give us a Los Angeles that's simultaneously familiar and strangely surreal. You can see my full review here.

Dallas Buyers Club. Matthew McConaughey's transformation from good ol' boy to serious actor is now complete. His strong and startling performance as the real-life Ron Woodruff, an electrician, rodeo cowboy and sex addict whose overindulgent lifestyle resulted in an AIDS diagnosis. It's the Reagan 80s, though, and medication is hard to come by, so he becomes an early activist, smuggling untested drugs in from other countries and setting up an ad hoc clinic.

It's not just McConaughey's physical transformation that's striking (he reportedly dropped nearly 40 pounds for the role) — it's also his performance. Vulgar, cruel and deeply homophobic, he's the antithesis of the likable, "aw shucks" characters that were the actor's prior stock in trade. But when his friends find out about his diagnosis, he finds himself on the receiving end of all that hate and begins to evolve. He takes as a business partner a transvestite, Rayon (a likewise slimmed-down Jared Leto) and even becomes a hero in the local gay community.

Director Jean-Marc Valeé sets the story in realitically gritty, run-down locations; you can practically feel the sleaze. Craig Borton and Melisa Wallack's screenplay is refreshingly unsentimental; although Woodruff begins to accept and understand the differences of others, he doesn't grow a heart of gold.

Among the rest, Disney's Saving Mr. Banks was a rather unusual entry for that studio, with good work from Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson.  The earnest 12 Years a Slave will certainly garner a nod for Chiwetel Ejiofor. Gosling's other art film of the year, Only God Forgives, was another insane roller coaster ride from Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn. And Daniel Radcliffe put on a different pair of glasses to play Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings.

 Next week: The Best in Television 2013


Saturday, December 14, 2013

Movie Review: 'Inside Llewyn Davis'


It’s the winter of 1961. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a struggling folk musician, is grabbing one-night gigs where he can, sleeping on friends’ couches and hoping for that big break.
Llewyn is a traditional folkie. He scoffs at the new style of folk just coming into vogue as performed by the likes of Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary. Consequently, he finds himself regarded more and more as a pariah by booking agents and fellow musicians alike, but remains arrogantly oblivious of the changing times.
He’d had his shot. He was once part of a duo that had cut a somewhat successful album, but his partner jumped off the George Washington bridge, leaving a hole in his soul. His subsequent solo effort, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” is moribund. Still, it’s tough for us to feel compassion for him. Admittedly, he’s in a tough spot, but he’s also an arrogant jerk who leeches off his ever-shrinking circle of friends, including Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan). Jean confronts him with the news that she’s pregnant and is fairly sure the child is his. His only acknowledgment of responsibility is to offer to pay for the abortion.
And when good-hearted Jim, unaware of their dalliance, gets him a gig as a backup singer for a recording of his atrocious novelty song called “Please Mr. Kennedy” that sounds more like Allan Sherman than Phil Ochs, he signs away any royalties for an immediate $200 payment. Even his manager, Mel Novikoff (Jerry Grayson), has nothing to offer him but the coat off his back.
He hears about a potential gig at a club in Chicago and shares a ride with friends of friends, junkie jazz musician Roland Turner (an obscenely hilarious John Goodman) and hipster actor Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund). The drive is awful, coming to an abrupt conclusion, and he is forced to hitch the rest of the way to town, only to be faced with more rejection.
The chill inherent in the story is enhanced by the production. Bruno Debonnel’s desaturated cinematography is affectingly icy. In my mind’s eye, I keep remembering the film as having been shot in black-and-white, even though I know it’s not. Jess Gonchor’s production design nicely recreates the feel of the ’60s Village, aided by Mary Zophres’ evocative costuming. The songs, produced by T Bone Burnett, are well-chosen and more than competently performed by the cast, including an unseen Marcus Mumford as Llewyn’s late partner.
Isaac is just sensational as the antihero Llewyn. The Coens explained in interviews that they were looking for either a great actor who could sing or a singer who could really act. They found their man here. Llewyn is so unattractive a person, yet when he picks up his guitar and begins to sing, you can’t help but fall for him (which is obviously what happened to Jean and the other women he impregnated).
Throughout the film, cats serve as a metaphor for his life (one is even named Ulysses). They run away, he rescues them; they become inconvenient, he abandons them. That’s the way it goes.
A beautifully surreal cat-centric scene occurs when Llewyn, taking his turn driving through the snowy nighttime Illinois wilderness, accidentally hits one. He rushes out to see if it’s all right. There’s blood on the fender, and he spots it limping into the woods. For a moment he stands there, helplessly watching it disappear into the darkness before getting back in the car.
Davis’ character is based on real-life Village folkie Dave Van Ronk, but this strange, downbeat milieu is strictly Coen Brothers. And it really sticks with you.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Movie Review: 'Saving Mr. Banks'

Walt Disney was a man at the crossroads at the beginning of the 1960s. He’d spent the previous three decades making major innovations in family entertainment.

He created beloved, iconic characters (Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, to name a few); added sound and color to animated films; released the first commercial film in stereophonic sound (Fantasia); and topped it all off by opening a triumphantly successful theme park celebrating his creations. He conquered television, too — but it was time for another “big one” — and there was one project that had eluded him for 20 years.

Disney’s daughters adored P.L. Travers’ book Mary Poppins, about a stern but magical nanny who helps a family in its time of need. Travers had regularly turned down all of Disney’s offers to make a film of it, fearful that he’d transform her character into just another one of his “silly” cartoons. In 1961, in need of money, she finally acquiesced, provided she could maintain complete creative control.

Saving Mr. Banks takes place during this developmental period, when Disney (Tom Hanks) flies Travers (Emma Thompson) out to his Burbank lot to work with screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and composers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak). Of course, she hates everything, from the California sun to the Sherman Brothers’ music to the — God forbid — suggestion that there should be some animation in the film.

This story is told in parallel with flashbacks to the author’s difficult childhood in 1900s Australia and her relationship with her beloved but hopelessly alcoholic father (Colin Farrell). In him — and especially in her Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths), who arrives with a carpetbag to straighten the family up — we see the origins of the characters in her books and her reasons for protecting them from “Disneyfication.”

SAVING MR. BANKS - TRAILER NO. 1 -- Pictured: Tom Hanks (Screengrab)Thompson’s Travers is the very definition of imperious — so buttoned up it’s a wonder she can even breathe. There’s an amusing scene early on in the film when she arrives at the Beverly Hills Hotel and is confronted by stuffed replicas of the Disney characters. Scoffing, she jams them all into a closet.

Hanks’ Disney is pretty much the man America knew as everyone’s beloved “Uncle Walt,” although the filmmakers do allow a couple of his quirks to slip in. In one scene, he furtively extinguishes a cigarette when Travers rushes into his office (he never let the public see him smoke, although it was lung cancer that killed him at age 65). And when he takes her on a tour of Disneyland, when throngs rush to him for autographs, he pulls pre-signed cards out of his pocket and hands them out.

Among the supporting characters, Whitford is fun as the much-put-upon DaGradi, as are Schwartzman and Novak as the singing Shermans. Kathy Baker is amusing as Walt’s wry assistant, and Paul Giamatti has a nice role as Travers’ driver, taking her to and from the studio and offering her advice on how to survive in Hollywood. Actually, he’s her Jiminy Cricket.

Yes, Saving Mr. Banks is manipulative and over-the-top, but in a good way. And it’s admirable that the studio would take the risky step of taking on a project that involves holding a mirror up to itself, its legendary founder and one of its most beloved films.

It’s certainly not a “warts and all” exposé — nor do we want it to be. Instead, it makes gentle fun of the clichés everyone knows and leaves the intense drama to the Australia scenes (featuring a heartbreakingly charming Farrell), which earned the film its PG-13 rating. And just to satisfy us that the film is not all made-up hooey, an actual recording of one of Travers’ script editing session with DaGradi and the Shermans is played over the end credits. It’s a smart and affecting punctuation point — and one worth staying for.

Most of the film was shot on the Disney lot, which needs no dressing to take it back to the ‘60s. It looks good, too. DP John Schwartzman gives the Burbank scenes a golden hue, and the Australian sequences are appropriately sunscorched. Director John Lee Hancock, himself a Disney vet, knows how to pluck the heartstrings.

Is Saving Mr. Banks Disney’s Sunset Boulevard? Not really — in fact, quite the opposite. It’s a reaffirmation of the magical spell that the Disney name continues to cast over children of all ages. And that’s the way it should be.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Guest Post: The Movies, Lillian Gish and Me

PART THREE: Legacy

By Russell Adams



I did not get back to NYC to try and see Ms. Gish, but over the next few years, we swapped cards, notes and gifts. I was working at Universal Studios at that time and arranged to make a cassette for her of an “Alfred Hitchcock Hour” in which she’d guest starred in 1963. 

I got back a sweet note telling how much she enjoyed seeing the program – which she had not remembered – and was pleased to see that it was good! I told her about seeing “True Heart Susie” at a screening in Los Angeles, which was attended by her cousin Arthur, and she was very happy about that, as it was one of her favorite silent films.

Ms. Gish was also kind enough to sign various items for me and respond to my many questions. Jim Frasher once told me that she enjoyed my queries, because I did not ask the same things, and she actually had to think about her responses.

She had retired from film after The Whales of August. Jim Frasher told me he was on the Maine location with her during production and Bette Davis’s treatment of her was atrocious, shocking even the veteran members of the crew and director Lindsay Anderson. After that experience, Ms. Gish said, “If working in the movie industry today means dealing with persons like Ms. Davis, I don’t want any part of it!” Instead she devoted her time to speaking tours on behalf of film preservation for the American Film Institute. She also was an advocate for women in film and was an inspiration to many.

According to Jim Frasher, an annual tradition in the Gish household was watching the local NYC news on her birthday, as they never failed to mention it in their broadcasts. Together Jim and Ms. Gish would channel surf as one after another station wished her a happy birthday…and got her age wrong! One would report her 98th birthday, while another noted that she was 96. One year when the ABC affiliate said that she was only 93, she gleefully exclaimed, “That’s settles it. I’m watching ABC from now on!” Sadly, Lillian Gish passed away on February 27, 1993, nine months short of her 100th birthday, which was her final goal. She had done everything else. As Jim said, “She just went quietly in her own bed. It was very peaceful.”

Services were held at her beloved St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in NYC, and her life was remembered in comments by her godson James MacArthur (adopted son of Helen Hayes), and she was interred there alongside her mother and sister Dorothy. In her lifetime, Lillian Gish received an Oscar, AFI Life Achievement Award and Kennedy Center Honors, among many others.

Her will provided for an award, The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, one of the most remunerative of its kind, which is presented annually to an individual, who in Ms. Gish’s words “has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.” (Anna Devere Smith was the 2012 recipient.) Always proud of being a ‘Buckeye’ – she was born in Springfield, Ohio – Ms. Gish was a generous benefactor of Bowling Green University, home to the Gish Film Theatre and Gallery.

Sotheby’s conducted an auction of Ms. Gish’s personal belongings. Among the items for bidding were a pair of doorstops. One was a golden fox, the other a cast-iron pug, which had been a birthday present from D.W. Griffith. I placed a bid on the pair, not at all certain I wouldn’t be outbid by some wealthy fan.

One day I received a call at my office and heard Jim Frasher excitedly exclaim, “Do you know what you’ve done? You outbid Steven Spielberg!” Spielberg, a noted collector of Gish and Griffith memorabilia, had underbid me by fifty dollars. Woo-hoo! Jim told me not to be discouraged by the condition of the little pug dog. He’d guarded the door between Ms. Gish’s kitchen and the dining room for decades – and was tripped over by all the greatest names of the twentieth century!

The next year Universal sent me to NYC for some business, so I called Jim for a lunch. We met at Sardi’s and had a delightful visit, during which he presented me with one final gift from our favorite silent film star. It was an ornate pillbox with Oriental design, a present from Helen Hayes that had sat on Ms. Gish’s coffee table for years. It was the perfect conclusion to my brush with a true immortal.

This post is written by Russell Adams, a Los Angeles-based entertainment professional, writer and film reviewer. He had the good fortune to correspond with Lillian Gish and her longtime manager, Jim Frasher, over the course of many years.

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