Wednesday, July 22, 2015

O Brother, Where Art Thou? Silliness in Sullivan's Travels, 1941.

Movie Review: Sullivan's Travels

Director: Preston Sturges

Reviewed: 11 July 2015

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

There is a comedic sequence in Sullivan's Travels that is fall-down funny. A chase ensues with a sort of RV following a speedster car through a bunch of country roads. There is a chef in a kitchen inside the RV who is subjected to the worst: items falling on top of him, dishes crashing everywhere, food spilling with every crazy turn the driver takes. And that's the film in a scene: out-of-control, wonderfully staged, and funny beyond all measure.

My favorite movie of 2000-2009 was the Coen Brothers' comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and now seeing Sullivan's Travels, I get more of the references as that is the name of director John L. Sullivan's (Joel McCrea) socially conscious film of substance that he wants to make depicting the class struggles inside the United States around 1941. Of course, the studio fat cats want him to make more of his slapstick comedies, his surefire box office champions, and in defiance, Sullivan takes it upon himself to disguise himself as a homeless wanderer and walk the earth in search of real hardship to better inform his movie. Sullivan catches the eye and kindness of struggling actress The Girl (Veronica Lake, luminous) in a diner who buys him a cup of coffee and a donut, sharing in his supposed hardship. Next, they are off with Sullivan attempting to hide who he is and his worth to the film studios, an RV following Sullivan as he tramps down the road to his next destination, and then, some twisty turns and attempts at social realism as he finds himself truly down and out.

The film packs all the right punches: great cast with quick dialogue; picaresque journey through America; some heartfelt songs and scenes; lots of physical comedy: and a warm heart that manages to comment on the Hollywood industry while being entrenched within it. The conceit of a rich man posing as a poor man to learn about another world is one that is very much still with us in film and in culture, and the pursuit of artistic integrity leads Sullivan to a nearly hopeless ending where Sturges finds the best possible way to end his film. It truly is a marvelously constructed film.

I've never seen a Preston Sturges film before, and I'm eager to see more based on this one. He seems to be a very capable, able filmmaker with smart characters, great wit, and a camera on the move in creative ways. Sullivan's Travels is quite the film, McCrea and Lake are terrific, and I'm on board for more of this talented team.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Exuberantly Joyful: Singin' in the Rain Soars

Movie Review: Singin' in the Rain

Director: Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly

Reviewed: 20 July 2015

jamesintexas rating--****

How did I go this long without seeing such a glorious piece of cinema?

Singin' in the Rain is perched within the Top Ten Films of All-Time, according to the AFI List, and its imagery is second nature, yet when I finally sat down to watch it, I was really floored by its technical brilliance and dazzling color. The greatest visual effect, truly, is the human body as Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, and Debbie Reynolds show in frequent long takes, framed against gigantic sets, and accompanied by marvelous music. The film is about the rise of the talkies and what that means to silent film stars Don Lockwood (Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) who must suddenly make the transition to speaking their lines and using their actual voices. O'Connor shines as Lockwood's piano-playing buddy Cosmo Brown, and Reynolds shines as ingĂ©nue Kathy Selden, an aspiring actress whose meet cute with Lockwood involves him leaping into her coupe after an acrobatic escape from the press. The title song is the best sequence of the film, with Kelly stomping through puddles, soaring over streetlamps, and in essence, dancing with the world as his partner. The sequence on the stage with its use of the red lighting and the powerful fans is an equally powerful moment, and the aesthetics of this film are always captivating. I think it could be a wonderful first film to show to my son, thrilling to watch people leap and tap and bound, evoking a sweetness and an effervescence that simply cannot be faked. CGI dinosaurs and Gollum be damned, I'll take Gene Kelly's magical movement any day. Undeniably powerful.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Pixar's Glorious Innerspace: Inside Riley and Ourselves

Movie Review: Inside Out

Director: Pete Docter & Renaldo Del Carmen

Reviewed: 19 July 2015

jamesintexas rating--****

Basking in its own golden age of cinema right now, the geniuses at Pixar have crafted another tear jerking, hilarious, and completely inventive story that resonates, I imagine, with children and parents alike, proving that there's nothing they cannot do and, more importantly, nothing they cannot do right. This film is one of the best of the year, deserving of its box office and accolades, and I expect to hear its name called out again come Oscar-time. It's just that good.

Inside Out is ostensibly the story of a little girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) who moves with her family from Minnesota to the unfamiliar territory of San Francisco with her parents; however, in the coolest twist, we mostly see Riley from the inside, through a type of Herman's Head collection of emotions that govern her feelings and actions as she navigates the world. Riley is led by Joy (Amy Poehler), a spritely Tinkerbell-ish character with the ability to call back core memories from Riley's life while keeping her, well, joyful, and the other emotions in check. She's a benevolent general, so to speak, brimming with optimism and relentlessness. Riley also contains Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) who work together not competitively but more in symphony with each other. Each emotion fuels a different response in Riley, naturally, which can upset the delicate balance that Joy tries to maintain within her. When the move away from home and friends jolts Riley in a way that rocks her core memories, causing some of them to change, Joy and Sadness find themselves trapped inside Riley's long term memory, staring out at the control tower, desperately seeking a way back. The journey through the mechanics and machinations of this world with its marbles of memories, infinite abyss of discarded ones, and its trains of thought comprise the film's plot, complete with surprises best kept under wraps, though I will say that Richard Kind's work here is incredibly moving. Inside Out resembles being inside a bubble gum machine with its spinning, spiraling memory balls and its towers of colors. I felt transported in the best possible way.

The world-building of the Pixar film makers, led by Doctor and Del Carmen here, is so complete and thorough, that though complex, it is always navigable and comprehensible. In short, you can always tell where everyone is and what the stakes are. Everyone is at the top of their game with the voice performances, crafting fully realized characters though I had to wait until the credits to figure out who everyone was. Inside Out has an appeal to the parents in the crowd despite being sold as a children's movie, and its message of carrying both Sadness and Joy within you and being fueled by other emotions besides Joy is a powerful one, not one that dumbs down the complexity of life for any of its audience. The film explores why we remember certain things the way that we do, examining our memories as not always being truthful or the complete picture. Amidst the laughter is a powerful core of loss as one grows up: loss of memories, changing of memories with emotions, and partial loss of identity. In essence, growing up. It allows us brief and hilarious windows into the minds of other characters too, expanding its own implications. This is heavy stuff for any movie to tackle, and tackle it does with Pixar's signature grace. But the film is so funny, over and over again while reaching for your heart. And, for me, the Chinatown reference is pure joy, as are many of the surprises that await the audience.

It is becoming expected to be emotionally moved by Pixar (think the silent film sequence in Up or WALL*E, alone with his work and music), but I think they've reached an even more advanced level here. From the bottom of Nemo's ocean to the far reaches of outer space, Pixar may have traveled farther on the surface, but these marvelous filmmakers know that the greatest journey for all of us is within. I imagine a conversation of the summer must involve audience members debating amongst themselves which emotion(s) rule them and what commercial jingle from childhood cannot leave our brain, and we have Pixar to thank for another family film that tugs at the heart while being fun, never condescending or simplistic or crude.

They do movies right. Talk about Joy!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Brutal, Sparse, Novelistic: Liam Neeson's Latest Violent Opus

Movie Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones

Director: Scott Frank

Reviewed: 11 July 2015

jamesintexas rating--***

Liam Neeson's latest film A Walk Among the Tombstones feels more like Jack Reacher than Taken, and perhaps it comes from his protagonist's wounded, haunted quality and patient direction that allows Neeson to brood, to wander, to get beat up, and, in short, to be vulnerable. Matt Scudder is an alcoholic ex-cop, current private detective who finds himself in the home of the brother of a friend from an AA Meeting. Scudder is asked to help find the man's kidnapped wife, and it is complicated because of the man's status as a drug trafficker. It appears that the criminals have been targeting fellow criminals, people without strict legal recourse, and paying the ransom is not assurance of release of the family member. Scudder is not superhuman; he is world-weary, walks everywhere, does not carry a gun, and is good at thinking through crimes, so director Scott Frank takes us through his process: interviewing witnesses, going to the scene of the crime, noticing neighbors and angles, and trying to uncover more. And he does, leading to layer upon layer of deception as the kidnappers prowl the neighborhood, picking up their next victim, accelerated Scudder's pace as he tries to stop them.

The film looks cold and crisp and grey, and its locales reflect the harshness of the weather and time of year. Frank is telling a brutal and violent story here, one with nihilistic antagonists who are without morals and without much backstory at all, making them quite frightening. Revelation after revelation unfolds, and the film's setting in 1999 makes it fodder for all the Y2K jokes but also sets the stage for Scudder's growing friendship with homeless teen TJ (Astro) whom he meets at the library computer station. That friendship provides tension and fear for TJ's life, and the film gives them both enough room to breathe and build a believable camaraderie. Scudder mostly makes his investigation  face-to-face or studying old microfiche headlines, techniques that seem quaint when viewed in 2015. The violence is sickening and gruesomely effective in the snippets that Frank shares. Neeson does strong work here because he carries the world in his face and authority: my favorite scene is him on the telephone, badgering the kidnappers and showing a grim authority about their business while the family members look on with wonder and horror. But his Scudder is never glib or cheeky; he is weighed down by the things he has done and seen.

There are problems in the film's third act, particularly in a nonsensical exchange that seems to put the kidnappers at an extreme disadvantage, as well as a confrontation at a house that goes on way too long. The film has nothing particularly deep to say about revenge or the demons inside Scudder or other characters. It has a grim quality, a workmanlike pace, and a small sense of hope through the character of TJ. It offers no real resolution or catharsis with the maniacal serial killers; worse, their genesis seems the inevitable byproduct of a corrupt system where files can fall into the wrong hands. Scudder's final decision seems less heroic and more acceptance of the limits of tolerance, and the entire film feels like watching chapters in a book unfold. There is a construction and a patience in storytelling that feels very novelistic. I do not know if A Walk Among the Tombstones made enough at the box office to justify a sequel or further adventures, but Liam Neeson as Matt Scudder captured my attention, and I would continue to follow the character's adventures if given the opportunity.

Obviously Well-Done: Jenny Slate in Obvious Child

Movie Review: Obvious Child

Director: Gillian Robespierre

Reviewed: 12 July 2015

jamesintexas rating--***

Obvious Child is a small film with a mostly unknown cast that tells a compelling story with heart and humor. It has been unfortunately labeled "the abortion-comedy" by some critics, but I think it is so much more than that. Director Gillian Robespierre expanded her short film into a feature and delves into the life of this one character who makes up her mind about what to do when she does not want a child, and in its brief, economical running time, it works.

Jenny Slate plays Donna Stern, a down-on-her-luck comedian in New York City who is struggling to find her way. In between sets at a local stand-up club, Donna works at a used bookstore, spends time with both of her parents, and trades laughs and drinks with her friends. Everything changes when after a one-night stand with Max (Jake Lacy), Donna finds herself pregnant and figures out what to do through a series of conversations with a counselor, her friends, and her mother, all the while wondering whether to tell Max and whether pursuing him for a relationship is worth it.

Jenny Slate delivers a completely winning performance in this film, and she is at her best when bouncing off of Gabby Hoffman and Gabe Liedman who play her close friends. The film has a keen eye for both humor and drama, upending some of the romantic-comedy conventions while also having some of the raunchy, graphic humor. Obvious Child has a quiet power to it and the way it tells its story through the lens of one funny, smart woman makes it stand out in a year that could have used more strong female performances. The only obvious thing to me about this movie is the care that Robespierre and Slate put into telling Donna's story, and the directness of the ending is both hopeful and sad at the same time.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Looks Good, Says Little

Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Director: Matt Reeves

Reviewed: 11 July 2015

jamesintexas rating--**1/2

It's odd. In a movie that seems disinterested in its human characters, even going so far as to not really foregrounding their names, histories, or relationships, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes asks us to care at the end regarding big revelations and possible life-altering developments? I could not get into it. But the continued story of Caesar (Andy Serkis), the leader of the apes, has its own compelling and quiet dignity. In fact, I think I would rather watch two hours of Caesar and the apes leading their own community, speaking through mostly sign language.

Jason Clarke plays Malcolm, a sympathetic leader of a band of humans foraging in the ape territory for access to a local dam as a possibly power source. A miscast or simply misused Gary Oldman plays Dreyfus, the militant leader back in San Francisco who holds the core group of humanity together, displaying outward strength while grieving for his own lost ones. And Serkis plays Caesar, the most interesting of the entire cast, a leader bent on protecting his family and community, not falling prey to the infection of violence and greed that he sees as human qualities. When Koba, a rival ape, finds his own son injured by a careless human's act, he plots a scheme to betray Caesar and lead the group to all-out war on the remaining humans.

The film is complacent to skim along the surface with its human characters, giving Malcolm's wife Ellie (Keri Russell) essentially nothing to do but show up occasionally with life-giving medical attention, and their son is a practical nonentity without a name ( lists it as Alexander, and he's played by Kodi Smit-McPhee). The fights are brutally staged, and the reversal of humans being held in captivity by apes has some nice moments. The film pays glancing homage to its predecessor through a clumsy home movie with footage of James Franco's character and a return to an abandoned house from the first film. It builds to a brutal fight atop an unfinished building site in downtown San Francisco, with hysterical bombs ready to blow the apes all to hell.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes really could have worked just as well just showing these apes forming their own community and making their way in the world. The technology of the apes is just brilliant; Serkis is completely deserving of an honorary Oscar for his life's work so far, if a motion-capture performance will not be considered equal to a standard one. It ends with a cliffhanger, so I suppose that means a third film is coming down the pike, and I hope that one has a bit more of a sense of how to connect the human story with the ape story so that we care about both. Or, maybe, just jettison the human story completely? But there has to be conflict, of course.

Gunnin' Down a Dream: Thelma & Louise, 24 Years Later.

Movie Review: Thelma & Louise

Director: Ridley Scott

Reviewed: 11 July 2015

jamesintexas rating--***

I have lived with the cultural imprint of Ridley Scott's Thelma & Louise since 8th grade, but I never had the opportunity to watch it until twenty-four years after its release. So, I cannot assess its immediate cultural impact the year of its release, the same year that Jodie Foster won Best Actress as Clarice Starling in The Silence of The Lambs, but I regularly watch the TV show Nashville, created by Oscar-winning screenwriter Callie Khouri who has gone onto write several additional films like Something to Talk About and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Her work here is fused with a nearly invisible Ridley Scott, but the film fails or succeeds on the strength of its eponymous relationship. As Thelma, the cooped-up neglected wife of a loser, Geena Davis shines, depicting Thelma's thirst for adventure and excitement as she sets off on a weekend excursion with her best friend Louise (Susan Sarandon), a waitress with an on again, off again relationship with musician Jimmy (Michael Madsen). A little ways into their journey, the pair stop at a local bar, and when a man tries to rape Thelma in the parking lot, a shocking act of violence sends the two women on the road in a 1966 Ford Thunderbird, afraid of what they have done and completely convinced that the system will not believe their side of the story. So, a sort of road trip develops as the women figure out their next moves, as well as if they will stick together or go their own separate ways. There are hitchhikers like hunky J.D. (Brad Pitt in his cinema debut) and harassing truck drivers; there is Hal, a thoughtful police detective (Harvey Keitel) who seems to understand their plight. But as the two women drive closer and closer to their destiny, a sense of foreboding develops as does their criminal and even vigilante sides with the women of the last third of the film resembling desperados of the Old West, appropriately shot against the expanses of Utah, ersatz Arizona, though itself heartbreakingly beautiful.

The film's emotional core holds up, and watching Sarandon and Davis grapple with these life-changing decisions is what drives this film. Neither woman has it figured out; both do a great job of depicting the thinking in the moment, the fear and sadness of their situation. Both get the great opportunity to transform with their characters from meek and subservient to strong and independent. The plot itself hinges a ton on coincidence with Harvey Keitel's detective being pretty quick at tracking them and collecting camera footage from small town gas station robberies, but it builds to its emotional, iconic ending in the desert which pulls no punches.

Twenty-four years later, its world of pay telephones and reading maps in the car seems quaint in the modern era of smartphones and Googlemaps. But the drive of Thelma & Louise, the story of these two women, their strong friendship and refusal to conform or endure abuse at the hands of husbands, lovers, or frankly, anyone, marks a moment in feminist storytelling that is both compelling and revolutionary and not easily forgotten.

Casting Stones at The Judge: A Misfire

Movie Review: The Judge

Director: David Dobkin

Reviewed: 11 July 2015

jamesintexas rating--**

The Judge, the latest film starring Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr.,  feels like a book with the ending missing or a film missing a reel. Somewhere inside of this glossy, professional-looking production with a stellar cast, the story has gone awry and lost me. I'm not sure what happened, and as a legal thriller, a character study, a family or father-son story, it kind of fails on all levels. I think I was trying to out-think it, casting its reach far deeper than it was prepared to go. It seems to get stuck in its own telling of an estranged son and imperious father, smashed up with a criminal case that ends up involving both.

Downey Jr. plays a high-powered defense attorney Hank Palmer in Chicago whose home life is crumbling due to his apparent neglect of his wife, disinterest in his daughter, and his tendency to work himself too hard. When called back to his Indiana hometown for a family crisis, Hank finds himself at odds, again, with his father, Judge Palmer (Duvall) while trying to piece together the life he left behind, including his relationships with his two brothers Glenn and Dale (Vincent D'Onofrio and Jeremy Strong) and a past flame Samantha (Vera Farmiga). Upon trying to leave, he finds The Judge embroiled in a charges of murder against a former criminal whom he sentenced. Hank assumes the duties of defense counsel as secrets are revealed, facades removed, and the stakes raised immensely for father and son to heal.

Whew. There is a lot here. The opening shots reveal the symbolic nature of a baseball glove tossed upon a dresser, gardenias sprouting in the yard, a flickering home movie taken from an old-timey movie camera. Yet the film struggles to depict its set of three brothers and The Judge in believable ways. Duvall is compulsively watchable, and I appreciated how the film attempted to depict his pride coming up against his fear of losing his memory (and the possible legal implications on his rulings if proven so). Billy Bob Thornton delivers a strong performance as an opposing lawyer with a grudge against Hank's reckless lawyer past, and Vera Farmiga deserves more than her underwritten character. I really thought it was building towards some sort of shock ending with a twist, but no. Nothing like that here. I'm not even clear about the crime in question and what exactly happened. So it cannot really be a legal thriller, and it doesn't really commit to being a relationship movie. So what is it? I'm not really sure, but I'm all for seeing Robert Downey Jr. act in films outside of franchise extravaganzas; I like watching him act, even if he struggles with figuring out the core of who Hank Palmer is. That's something that the film's director and three screenwriters could not do. To see it is to see probably one of the last screen performances of Robert Duvall, a legend of cinema who started out as Boo Radley, and despite what I take to be a sympathy nomination (or just an acknowledgement of how consistently great he always is), no one will include The Judge among his greatest performances in The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and The Apostle, among others. I really thought there was going to be more to this story.