Saturday, February 27, 2010
Saturday, February 20, 2010
Friday, February 12, 2010
This is the pinnacle of Crowe's career. I think "Say Anything..." is one of the great love stories of the past few years and "Jerry Maguire" is a funny and intelligent studio work. But this is his most heartfelt, immersive and honest work. I think both "Vanilla Sky" and "Elizabethtown," his two most-recent works, have their merits and are unjustly maligned, but they are missing that personal, heartfelt charge that flow through his other films and culminated in an gush of nostalgia with this masterpiece--which was the best film of 2000.
It's tempting to say that this film resonates with me because of my journalism background, but the truth is that I was still in college when the film was released--and while I was a journalism major, I was never too caught up in it at the time. Having worked as a journalist for nearly four years and having the opportunity to interview some famous people and be close to my passion (film instead of rock music), I think that my love for it has grown. There's something about being the outsider and having a close proximity to those whose life seems to be a fantasy or a fairy tale--you have the opportunity to pick apart the dream, deconstruct it and point out how it's manufactured in many respects, standing apart from the real world. I think the reason many people get uncomfortable around journalists is because of that fact--they have a view of themselves, a reality that makes them feel comfortable and safe...the reporter represents reality, which can pick it apart and reveal it as nothing more than a house of cards.
Of course, that is the truth. Hammond thinks he's better than the others in the band and the lead singer (Jason Lee, pre-sell out) resents Hammond's popularity (I love the line 'your looks have become a problem'). William is an observer when Hammond temporarily leaves the band in Wichita and spends an evening at a house party when he gets high on acid and ends up on the roof of a garage proclaiming "I am a Golden God" before jumping into a swimming pool. The scene is funny--and based on the real-life exploits Crowe witnessed while writing for Rolling Stone--but it also reveals the flaws inherent in Hammond and in the band...and the danger of letting the outsider, a journalist, observe it all.
I've mentioned Hudson, but it just seems that every role here is wonderfully cast. There are no ciphers here; Crowe, drawing from his own recollections, has lovingly crafted even the most insignificant characters and cast them with careful thought. Jason Lee is scathing and funny as the lead singer who wants to be the most-beloved in the band and yet there's a certain saddness to his character as he's also, well, almost famous compared to Hammond. McDormand is a strict mother but she does it out of love for her children...she has scenes that are both funny, as when she scolds Hammond over the phone, and heartbreaking, when she breaks down and cries over her son's absence. It's well known in these parts that I am in love with Zooey Deschanel and it was here that I first saw her wide-eyed beauty and energy. Heck even Jimmy Fallon is tolerable here as the agent who wants to take Stillwater to the big time...and if you can make me like Jimmy Fallon, you've accomplished something. Phillip Seymour Hoffman never delivers anything less than a fantastic performance and his work as Bangs reeks of authenticity; who else could be so irrasicble, uncool and unlikable than a true journalist?
I mentioned that I don't think it's my journalistic background that first drew me to the movie. I think it's actually Crowe's passion...he's so lovingly crafted this film that it's contagious. It's a movie that makes me smile. In William Miller I see a character like myself, someone who is so very not cool and has the opportunity to see the world he loves. Maybe it's the hope that I can be as grounded and objective as he is, seeing the world and not losing my soul. Maybe I'm also just as in love with Penny Lane as he is and I need this as an excuse to see her again.
Or maybe I need to take a note from the scene in which William stands in the wings watching Stillwater and jotting down his thoughts and Penny takes the pen out of his hand. Maybe I'm thinking too much and just need to put the DVD in and let myself get taken away by the music.
This was originally published in the Feb. 14, 2010 edition of The Source.
What is it about the werewolf that is so hard to get right?
Few movie monsters are so enduring, yet few are responsible for truly good films. For every “American Werewolf in London”—which still stands as cinema’s final word on lycanthropy—there’s a “Van Helsing,” “New Moon” or “Teen Wolf” waiting in the wings.
Universal Studios’ remake of their classic “The Wolfman,” in theaters this weekend, comes close to making this feral beast truly scary. It has capable A-list actors, atmospheric cinematography and outstanding special effects by Rick Baker, the man responsible for “American Werewolf’s” still-unmatched transformation sequences.
Which is why I found myself a bit surprised to feel so apathetic about the affair once the credits rolled.
Director Joe Johnston (“Jurassic Park III”) sticks fairly close to the original story. Actor Lawrence Talbot (Benicio del Toro) returns to his family’s estate in rural 19th Century England after his brother has been reported missing. Talbot arrives too late—his possibly-insane father (Anthony Hopkins) tells him his brother’s body has been found in the woods, torn apart by some manner of beast. The brother’s wife Gwen (Emily Blunt) has stayed behind to care for the family as the rumors in town begin to circle that a werewolf may be to blame.
Talbot ventures out to a gypsy camp one evening to investigate a medallion found on his brother’s body. While he’s out there, he’s attacked and bitten by the same beast that killed his brother. Although his wounds heal surprisingly fast, Talbot finds that when the full moon strikes thing s have a tendency to get a bit hairy and it’s not uncommon for him to wake up the next morning in the woods, his clothes torn and bloodied.
The original “Wolfman,” released in 1941, was a creature made explicitly for cinema. Although the creature lacked the literary pedigree of “Dracula” or “Frankenstein,” it’s become one of the most endurable movie monsters, and with good reason—there’s something primal and terrifying about becoming an unstoppable killing machine against your will. The successful werewolf films have a tragedy about them—there’s dread as the full moon approaches, pain as the transformation begins and sorrow when that silver bullet finally destroys the monster, but kills the hero.
Johnston’s film makes an attempt at that. He definitely has atmosphere to spare—bathing the film in moonlit moors, foggy forests and candlelit corridors. The film’s two transformation sequences have the requisite bone-crunching and hair sprouting while Talbot panics and begs to be killed. And a love story between Gwen and Talbot grows particularly touching and seems to be heading for the tragic finale.
But something happens and the film fails to make an impact. Johnston is like a performer who knows the lyrics but can’t carry a tune; having worked early in his career on “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” he knows how to frame an icon on the screen but fails to grasp what makes the character iconic. The werewolf effects are impressive and it’s a truly intimidating beast; but del Toro is so buried under makeup that we never feel that the wolf is Talbot, thus negating the horror of watching our hero kill and any emotional impact that would follow.
It’s odd to write that the werewolf attacks are the film’s least effective sequences—Johnston builds effective dread as Talbot suffers nightmares and endures torture while committed in an insane asylum. The build-up to the werewolf scenes are atmospheric, creepy and taut. But Johnston seems to be afraid to truly scare his audience when it comes time for the payoff, instead rushing through the rampages and relying too heavily on shock tactics and gore and throwing in unnecessary humor that defuses all tension. A scene where Talbot transforms in front of a panel of doctors should have been milked for suspense, dread and pure terror—instead, Johnston robs the scene of suspense by incorporating a lame gag concerning Talbot’s chief tormentor. The abundance of gore in this movie is also astonishing; I have nothing against a bloody horror movie, but I expect a filmmaker to understand that gore is best used as punctuation in a horror scene, not the main scare tactic. The severed limbs and computerized blood made me feel less like I was watching a remake of a classic monster movie than that I was watching a “Friday the 13th” ripoff.
That’s not to say the movie’s a waste of time. Although the werewolf sequences lack any primal terror, they are filmed with energy and style—a rooftop chase is particularly effective. Danny Elfman’s score underlines the film’s gothic tones and, again, the cinematography is beautiful to look at, as are the werewolf effects. The actors do their best here—del Toro captures the weight of a man under a curse and has a sweet chemistry with Blunt. Hopkins seems to be having more fun than he has in ages, chewing the scenery (sometimes literally) for all it’s worth. “The Wolfman” is an entertaining theme park ride of a film, but it fails to scare up genuine horror.
But still, it’s better than “Teen Wolf Too.”
Friday, February 5, 2010
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
When we think of spiritual films or those that tackle existential crises, our thoughts tend to go toward Bergman, Ozu or a number of other somber artists not afraid to put entertainment aside in favor of delving deep into matters of the soul. When pressed to name my favorite "deep" films, I'm quick to point out "Babette's Feast," "Wings of Desire," "The Last Temptation of Christ," or "The Shawshank Redemption."
I'll admit that my thoughts don't immediately run towards an actor groomed on "Saturday Night Live" and the director of "National Lampoon's Vacation."
And yet, sitting here 17 years after it's release, I'm reminded again that the romantic comedy "Groundhog Day" addresses matters as deep as any of those previous films. It's a metaphor for those whose existince seems monotonous and uneventful. It's an examination of the book of Ecclesiastes, in which the film's hero finds that money, drink, ambition and sex grow hollow without something deeper. It takes us through life's cycles of monotony, recklessness, childishness, love, despair and finallly contenment. I'd wager that it's one of the deepest box office hits of the past 20 years.
It helps that it's hilarious.
Bill Murray, in one of the best performances of his career, plays Phil Connors, a Philadelphia TV weatherman who ends up repeating the same day over and over again in a small Pennsylvania town. Phil is obnoxious--he's the kind of television "talent" that loathes working in a small town with people he perceives as simpletons. He's arrogant, cynical and ready with a cutting remark--of course, it's all couched in Bill Murray's smarter-than-the-room wit, delivered with something akin to charm.
Phil goes through the daily routine of waking up, making banal chit-chat with the innkeeper of the bed and breakfast he's staying at, trying to avoid the annoying banter of a nerdy acquaintance who tries to sell him insurance, condescendly addressing the audience watching his newscast in Punxsatawney and trying to maintain his sanity as he tries to get home with his coworkers--particularly his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell), who has just as much sincerity as Phil has cynicism.
Unable to return home, Phil goes back to his hotel and falls asleep...only to awake at 6 a.m. to the same song ("I've Got You Babe") on the radio, followed by the same banter by the radio deejays. Stepping outside, Phil relives the same encounters and conversations he endured on Groundhog Day and quickly comes to realize he's living the same day over and over. He can change and make different decisions, which affect the outcome of his day---but no matter what he does, he'll still wake up in bed at 6 a.m. on Feb. 2 listening to two deejays telling him to put on his warm woolies because it's cold out there today (it's cold out there everyday; what is this, Miami Beach?)
The script by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis, of course, exploits this for its comedic potential. Once Phil quickly accepts his new reality, an excitement sets in--he can do whatever he wants. He can participate in a car chase, manipulate a single lady, steal from the bank, eat as much as he wants. And, of course, he begins to be captured by Rita's innate goodness and works to earn her affection. And while she begins to fall for him, Phil always finds himself rebuffed at the end of the night.
Which leads into the darkest passages of the film, in which Phil begins to despair and grows suicidial. Yes, there's the funny scene where he kidnaps the town's groundhog and drives his car off a cliff. But there's a somberness to the scenes where he electrocutes himself, steps in front of a car or leaps from a building. The scenes have just enough levity to keep us from being depressed, but not enough for them to be considered slapstick--there's something deeper going on here, as Phil's journey begins to speak for our own...who hasn't felt that each day was the same, that they were stuck in a rut they couldn't get out of? Who hasn't begun to despair and felt that there has to be a way out? The film is addressing a dilemma faced by all of us. "What would you do," Phil asks some local drunks, "If you were stuck in the same place and every day was the same and nothing you did mattered?" "That about sums me up," one of the drunks responds.
And yet, the film doesn't end in those hopeless passages, nor does it venture off into an inane plot where Phil discovers how he can get out of his day-to-day loop. Instead, Phil makes peace with his situation and instead resolves to make himself better and kinder. He learns to play the piano, tries in vain to help a dying man and becomes a local hero as he saves those throughout town who have flat tires, are about to choke or fall from trees. He starts to loose his cyniscism, but Murray never makes the transformation unbelievable or removes the character's edge; Phil is still funny, but a bit more self-deprecating than caustic. We start to like him more--and as we do, so does Rita.
Yes, it's a typical tale of redemption--not that too disimilar from "A Christmas Carol" or "The Grinch"...same idea, different holiday. And yet the film never feels cliche, sappy or tired. Even its necessarilly repetitive structure still feels fresh the entire way through because of the clever ways the script changes Phil's interactions with people and events through each cycle. Had it been a one-note comedy, the film would have easily fallen flat, but Ramis is wise enough to change the tone as the story requires, creating the rare comedy that is both brilliant in its conception and involving on an emotional and existential level.
Murray is essential in this role--he's one of the few actors who we love to watch even as a jerk. Perhaps we sense a good guy beneath the snide comments or Murray's charisma from previous roles just predisposes us to like him. I have a feeling that it's because Murray lets us in on Phil's secret--that underneath all his sarcasm and cynisicsm lies a wounded man. A man who can get women to sleep with him, but no one to love him. Who can be a talent, but only in a small market like Philadelphia. A man who thinks he's smarter than the rest of the world and a bit skeptical as to why they all still seem to be happier than him. He never comes out and reveals a past hurt, but he doesn't need to; any recovering cynic recognizes one of their brethren. The key is that Murray plays the role just right all the way through--he plays Phil not as a bad man, but a jerk; we laugh at how rude and obnoxious he is while also realizing he's not a guy we'd want as a friend. His tranformation is allowed to come gradually as Phil begins to learn what he desires, what isn't workinga nd what he needs to do to get it...there's a subtlety to Murray's performance here that I think goes unappreciated. Oddly enough, in his later dramatic roles, it's the subtlety that Murray is praised for--I think people overlooked the wonderful skill on display here as well.
To see how good Murray is here, contrast it with his work in "Scrooged" just a few years earlier. While the film makes me laugh, I've always felt it comes across as a bit "off," laughing at Dickens' story rather than appreciating its power. And part of that reason comes from Murray's miscalculated performance--his character is crass and cruel, not sarcastic and funny. Although we learn there are dashed dreams in his background, we never feel much of the weight of them. And his transformation at the end feels too abrupt and also insincere. "Groundhog Day" covers many of the same thematic elements as "Christmas Carol," and yet Murray's work is much more powerful here...it's because he's created a character that we like and who is allowed to breathe, learn and grow.
But recognition also belongs to the game cast that surrounds Murray here, who are required to repeat themselves over and over while having no clue what Phil is enduring. Andie MacDowell is the anti-Phil and she plays here role as a sincere, kind-hearted woman without the neuroses or vapidness too many romantic comedy heroines seem required to have. Chris Elliott's work may be smaller, but he manages to get a laugh every time he speaks. And Stephen Tobolowski--as poor Ned Ryerson, the insurance salesman (Bing!)--is priceless, a great supporting character that provokes some of the film's biggest laughs.
It's funny how "Groundhog Day" has seeped into our culture. When we get deja vu, we often say something feels like "Groundhog Day." It's a film that has gone from being a clever romantic comedy to being admired as one of the most in-depth and even spiritual films of the past 20 years. Roger Ebert, in his Great Movies review of the film (http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/) has made allusions to "It's a Wonderful Life." And the more I see this film, the more I am inclined to agree. "Groundhog Day" is funny and clever, but its true success comes from how well it captures the human predicament and how wonderfully Bill Murray captures every second of screen time.
It's totally cliche to see this, but if I was forced to repeat the same film over and over, I could do much worse than "Groundhog Day."
- ▼ February (7)