Friday, January 30, 2015

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR: The Film Babble Blog Review

Now playing at an indie art house near me (and a few multiplexes):


(Dir. J.C. Chandor, 2014)

The poster picture for this movie lists actors Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in succession with the description “New York City, 1981.” That seems to suggest that New York City, circa ’81 is as much a star of the movie of those two leads. But really it’s just the NYC skyline, with the World Trade Center’s twin towers present in many shots, that counts as a principle player here.

Isaac commands the screen with cool, cunning confidence as Abel Morales, a Columbian immigrant who’s looking to close a major waterfront land deal (that happens to have an amazing view of Manhattan) so he can expand his heating oil company. 

With his delicately coiffed hair, Armani suits, cashmere camel coat, and cultivated demeanor, Isaac channels GODFATHER PART II-era Al Pacino. Close-ups of Isaac even brought to my mind Mort Drucker’s caricatures of Pacino in old ‘70s issues of Mad Magazine.

But Isaac’s Abel is like if Pacino’s Michael Corleone actually meant it when he told his wife he wanted the family business to be completely legitimate. “I've spent my whole life trying not to become a gangster,” Abel tells his wife Anna, sharply played by Jessica Chastain, dressed in chic ‘80s fashions.

Abel believes in the American dream, but Anna, the daughter of a local mob boss, has a more lived-in cynical perspective, especially since recent events involving their trucks getting hijacked by unknown rivals, and a smooth district attorney (David Oyelowo, in quite a distinctly different persona than MLK Jr. in SELMA) building a case to charge them for white-collar tax fraud, have placed their deal in jeopardy.

Because of the violent hijackings, one of which put a young driver (Elyes Gabel) in the hospital, a Teamster rep (Peter Gerety) tells Abel to arm his employees but he refuses, saying that it “would be the end of everything we worked for. If one of these guys shoots someone, they will bring me down for it.”

Abel also refuses to live in a fortress with guards, even after he chases off a man with a gun lurking outside his new palatial mansion in the suburbs of Westchester.

Albert Brooks, who, like in his Oscar-nominated part in DRIVE (which also featured Isaac), is again playing against type, this time with a wig of thin blonde hair as Abel’s wise lawyer and confidant. Except for a couple of well-worded scenes, notably one in which he asks Isaac: “Why do you want this so badly?”, Brooks isn’t given a lot to do, but his presence is still seriously appreciated.

The pressure is on as time is running out for Abel to raise the needed cash, and find out who’s behind the hijackings, but Abel keeps his cool. That is until he personally involves himself, chasing down one of the hijacking thugs and trying to beat out of them who they work for.

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, which is only intermittently violent, doesn’t much resemble writer/director J.C. Chandor’s previous films - the financial cliffhanger MARGIN CALL, and the Robert Redford lost at sea drama ALL IS LOST - except in being about practical-minded people trying to survive. Just three films in, Chandor is already building an impressive filmography, one that’s steeped in styles learned from the masters, yet tempered by his own edgy vision.

While Chandor layers his film with echoes of Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Sidney Lumet, and Martin Scorsese, the cinematography of Bradford Young, who also shot SELMA, brings to mind the darkness of the late, great Gordon Willis’ camerawork. The spare lighting adds shadowy nuance to the proceedings, particularly in a scene involving the meeting of the oil company heads around a table in the back of an Italian restaurant (yes, another GODFATHER-ish bit).

Sadly this excellent, moody, impeccably acted film was overlooked Oscar nomination-wise. For her tough, take-no-shit, New Jersey-accented performance, I thought Chastain would get one for sure. When she takes charge, like when she shoots a deer that they hit with their car because Isaac was hesitating to kill it with a crowbar or when she calls her husband a “pussy,” she’s completely convincing as a woman who’s been around and knows the real stakes.

But Isaac is the true owner of the film. A simple closing of his eyes in disappointment conveys volumes, and his determination to gain more power and control (witness the aforementioned war council scene) without losing his dignity provides the foundation for Isaac’s finest acting yet. Despite his headlining the Coen brothers’ INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS and a bunch of other choice roles, Isaac isn’t a household name yet, but while roles in STAR WARS and X-MEN sequels may change that in the next year, this film is the one that really deserves to be his breakthrough.

The film strains to emphasize that this guy is a better, more moral minded man than Michael Corleone, but as much as he feels that he’s immune from corruption, it’s a necessary evil with which he must compromise.

So many New York movies set in the same period shy away from showing the WTC towers in the skyline, but here they are always present – often out of focus, way off in the background, but always present. Chandor’s film doesn’t have to spell out what they represent in Abel’s quest for success in a harsh, dangerous economy; one can feel it every time they are glimpsed.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Lucinda Williams’ Pick For Film Acoustic: John Huston’s WISE BLOOD

Late last year when I heard about a new series starting up at the Carolina Theatre, programmed by The Modern School of Film, called “Film Acoustic,” which pairs special guests with their favorite movies, I was very intrigued. Yet, I regretfully skipped the first installment in December with Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips presenting and discussing a 40th anniversary screening of Liliana Cavani’s THE NIGHT PORTER. Yeah, sure wish I’d gone to that.

So, the second in the series, I made sure I attended, especially when I heard that it would feature Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams, one of my favorite artists. 

Williams’ pick was WISE BLOOD, John Huston’s 1979 adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 debut novel of the same name. It was announced that in addition to taking part in a talk about the movie with Modern School of Film founder and Duke graduate Robert Milazzo, Williams, unlike when Coyne appeared, would be playing a few songs after the screening. But the real kicker was that the event was, scheduled by happy accident, on Williams’ 62nd Birthday! (Monday, January 26th)

The Birthday girl’s choice, the darkly humorous WISE BLOOD, is one of the weirdest in the iconic Huston’s filmography, far removed from the Humphrey Bogart classics he helmed (THE MALTESE FALCON, TREASURE OF SIERRE MADRE, KEY LARGO, THE AFRICAN QUEEN), and way less epic than the film that came before it, his 1975 Rudyard Kipling adaptation THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine.

Brad Dourif, best known for his roles in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, Deadwood, and, as Milazzo reminded us in a trivia question, as the voice of Chucky in the CHILD’S PLAY franchise, stars as Hazel Motes, a young Southern man who’s trying to establish what he calls the Church of Truth Without Christ.

Although referred to as the town Taulkinham (from the book), the film is clearly set in Macon, Georgia (the name Macon can be seen on buildings throughout). Dourif’s Motes travels to the area to set up his ministry, which is basically just him and his constantly breaking down Essex automobile, which he stands on the hood of to preach to people on the street.

Somewhere around the time that Motes finds himself a room at a boarding house, chosen because Harry Dean Stanton as a scam artist posing as a blind preacher and Amy Wright as his airheaded, horny daughter live there, I realized that I had seen this before. Or at least a large chunk of it, because a lot of its imagery, acting, and story points were very familiar to me. Ned Beatty’s role as Hoover Shoates (love that name), a boisterous guitar-playing rival to Motes, and an odd subplot involving Dan Shor as a needy, racist halfwit who steals a gorilla suit, rang bells of recognition in my mind too.

I believe I had happened upon it when devouring every movie I could as a kid watching cable in the mid ‘80s. What I saw of WISE BLOOD back then had been locked away in some file in my mind, and this special screening rekindled those memories.

That was a cool thing to recall, and it enhanced this viewing quite a bit. But, of course, what really elevated the evening was Williams. Relaxed, drinking a glass of red wine, the woman who Time Magazine once called “America’s best songwriter” came out to warm applause, and yelled birthday wishes, and seemed very satisfied with how the movie had been received by the audience there in Fletcher Hall that evening.

One of the key points of her discussion with moderator Milazzo was Williams’ recently passed father, award winning Arkansas poet Miller Williams (1930-1915), who was a student of O’Connor’s.

Williams spoke about how her father’s agnosticism influenced understand what Motes meant by a church of Christ without Christ, and, alone with only her acoustic guitar, she performed two songs that were directly influenced by the film: “Get Right With God,” from her 2001 album Essence; and “Atonement,” from its 2003 follow-up Worlds Without Tears.

Williams’ comments around those striking performances were priceless. On “Get Right With God” winning a Grammy: “It won Best Female Rock Vocal Performance, which doesn’t make any sense – it wasn’t a rock song.” On the new solo arrangement of “Attonement”: “That sounded really cool, we might have to start doing it that way.”

Among some more lively discussion, which included her amusing recollection of meeting Bob Dylan for the first time, and some nifty audience Q & A, Williams also performed a blistering cover of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breakin’ Down,” which appeared on her 1979 debut album Rambling, and a sweet version of “Compassion,” adapted from one of her father’s poems, from her excellent 2014 album Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone.

All in all, a great evening. Seeing WISE BLOOD, a pleasingly warped piece of Americana in the presence of one of its biggest fans, the wonderful Lucinda Williams, who sang its praises in both meanings of the phrase, on the occasion of her birthday, is something I’m sure I’ll never forget.

The next Film Acoustic, set for Monday, February 23rd, looks incredibly promising as well: Neko Case presents Alex Cox’s 1984 cult classic REPO MAN, with Very Special Guest Mike Nesmith. Being a big fan of Case, both solo and with the New Pornographers, and even a bigger fan of Nesmith, who executive produced REPO MAN, but, of course, is best known for being one of the Monkees, there’s no way I’m missing that.

More later...

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


Releasing this week on Blu ray & DVD:

(Dir. Jorge Gutierrez, 2014) *

This Mexico-set CG-animated musical comedy adventure is a vast improvement over the animation studio Reel FX’s first feature, last year’s FREE BIRDS.

While that unfunny fiasco was about time-traveling turkeys, THE BOOK OF LIFE, the directorial debut of long-time television animator Jorge Gutierrez, has a lot more ambition by way of a fantastical storyline that pays vividly colorful respect to Mexican folklore. That Guillermo del Toro (PAN’S LABYRINTH, PACIFIC RIM) is one of the film’s producers gives it a bit of cinematic gravitas as well.

Unfortunately, it’s often clunky and cluttered, with hard-to-care-about experiences and loads of jokes that were met by silence at the screening I attended – one packed with families with kids.

The characters are accurately described as wooden; through the framing device of a museum tour guide (voiced by Christina Applegate) telling the film’s tale to a group of snotty school children, the major players are represented by handcrafted wooden figures that come to life as marionettes without strings.

Via Applegate’s narration, we are taken to a Mexican landscape sometime in the unspecified past on the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) holiday, and introduced to a love triangle in which two young suitors – the sensitive Manolo (Diego Luna) and the cocky warrior Joaquin (Channing Tatum, in his first animated feature) – compete for the hand of the beautiful, free-spirited Maria (Zoe Saldana).

Watching from above, the squabbling husband-and-wife deities, La Muerta (Kate del Castillo), ruler of the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten, make a high-stakes wager on which suitor will marry Maria.

Manolo’s father (Hector Elizondo) wants him to carry on the family’s bullfighting tradition, but Manolo wants to be a musician. This gives the film the peg for both its transparent “follow your dreams” moral and its musical numbers. Annoyingly interjected into the action is a bunch of Latin-tinged American pop songs, including Rod Stewart’s “If You Think I’m Sexy,” Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend” and even Radiohead’s “Creep.”

There are some decent original songs written by Oscar-winning composers Paul Williams and Gustavo Santaolalla and performed by Luna and Saldana. One entitled “I Love You Too Much” is catchy enough to be a hit. (It’s also a plus that they don’t make Tatum sing.)

Of course, every animated movie aimed at kids has to be in 3-D these days, and this one has more elements that can be enhanced by the format than most – like a sequence involving Manolo running through a mega maze before speeding boulders crash down the corridors and crush him. But it made very little difference otherwise.

The presence of Ice Cube as a cuddly, goofy ancient god called “The Candlemaker” is irksome. The rapper/actor’s performance is “on,” but it seems a cynical piece of casting designed to up the hipness factor. Still, he drew some genuine laughs.

Despite the fact that a character dies, parents won’t have to worry about the film being dark or disturbing enough to give children nightmares. But on the flip side, THE BOOK OF LIFE isn’t magical or memorable enough to really resonate later, either.

* This review originally appeared in the October 16th, 2014 edition of the Raleigh News & Observer.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Film Babble Blog’s Top 10 Movies of 2014 (Plus Their Key Lines)

Since the Oscar nominations were announced a week ago, and I’m pretty caught up on all the major, and not so major, movies of 2014, it’s time to list my 10 favorite films of last year (plus some spillover). This time instead of providing a blurb for each entry, I’m going to only highlight a key line, or at least what I think is one of the most memorable, for each movie. Also, unlike in previous year’s lists, I’m listing them from 10 down to 1. Click on the film's titles to read my original reviews:

10. CALVARY (Dir. John Michael McDonagh)

Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson): “The commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ does not have an asterisk beside it, referring you to the bottom of the page where you find a list of instances where it's okay to kill people.”

(Dir. Jim Jarmusch)

Adam (Tom Hiddleston): “You drank Ian.”

(Dir. Wes Anderson)

M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes): “The most dreadful and unattractive person only needs to be loved and they will open up like a flower.”
Also: “I sleep with all my friends.”

(Dirs. Phil Lord & Christopher Miller)

Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman): “The only thing anyone needs to be special is to believe that you can be - I know that sounds like a cat poster, but it’s true.”

6. INHERENT VICE (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, D.D.S. (Martin Short): “It’s not groovy to be insane.”

5. SELMA (Dir. Ava DuVernay)

Martin Luther King (David Oyellowo): “That means protest! That means march! That means disturb the peace! That means jail! That means risk! That is hard!”

4. WHIPLASH (Dir. Damien Chazelle)

Fletcher (J.K. Simmons): “My dear god, are you one of those single tear people?”

3. LIFE ITSELF (Dir. Steve James)

Roger Ebert: “Look at a movie that a lot of people love and you’ll find something profound no matter how silly the film may seem.”

2. BIRDMAN (Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)

Riggan Thomson as his inner Birdman (Michael Keaton): “People, they love blood. They love action. Not this artsy fartsy, philosophical bullshit”

1. BOYHOOD (Dir. Richard Linklater)

“Never leave your mother’s womb, unless you wanna see how hard a broken heart can swoon.” - Tweedy (from the end credits song “Summer Noon”)

And now, in no particular order, a bunch of 2014 spillover, with a few of their key lines too:

EDGE OF TOMORROW (Dir. Doug Liman) “Okay, first of all, terrific presentation. Just Terrific.”

FRANK (Dir. Lenny Abrahamson)

NIGHTCRAWLER (Dir. Dan Gilroy)  “Do you know what fear stands for? False Evidence Appearing Real.”

WILD (Dir. Jean-Marc Vallée)

THE RAID 2 (Dir. Gareth Evans)

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (Dir. James Gunn): “It's got a real shining-blue suitcase, Ark of the Covenant, Maltese Falcon sort of vibe.

FORCE MAJEURE (Dir. Ruben Östlund)


GONE GIRL (Dir. David Fincher) “We're so cute. I wanna punch us in the face.”

UNDER THE SKIN (Dir. Jonathan Glazer)

JOHN WICK (Dir. David Leitch & Chad Stahelski)“Oh.

All in all, not a bad year for film.

More later...

Monday, January 19, 2015

Clint Eastwood's AMERICAN SNIPER: Decent But Not Very Deep

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

AMERICAN SNIPER (Dir. Clint Eastwood, 2014)

With several sequences dealing with a soldier having trouble adjusting to civilian life after intense tours in Iraq, this film often feels like Clint Eastwood’s THE HURT LOCKER.

But the crusty but lovable filmmaker, who’s 34th film as director this is, obviously feels he has bigger fish to fry here than that film’s “war is a drug” theme.

AMERICAN SNIPER, Eastwood’s new biopic of Chris Kyle (1974-2013), the late Navy SEAL who from 1999 to 2009 racked up the most career sniper kills (over 160 confirmed enemy kills) in U.S. military history, wants to both pay tribute to the man as a modern war hero, and provide a platform for his redemption as a murderer.

It’s not entirely successful in those goals, but it’s Eastwood’s best film as director since 2008’s GRAN TORINO, proving that the man is much better at capturing combat than maneuvering through the tried and true tropes of musical biopics (see last year’s ultra trivial JERSEY BOYS).

In a performance that’s worthy of the Oscar nomination he scored this week, a beefed up Bradley Cooper plays Kyle, who we follow from being a good ole boy Texas ranch hand and rodeo cowboy to becoming a celebrated Army rifleman whose fellow Navy SEALS called “The Legend.”

Cooper’s Kyle, a vessel of extreme patriotism, spends four dangerous tours of duty in Iraq, where we see him mostly stationed on rooftops providing cover for the troops below. In one central scene, which the film opens on then comes back to later in the narrative, Kyle weighs whether or not to shoot an Iraqi woman and a young boy, after seeing in his site that they were about to lob a grenade at a group of Marines on the street.

This is an intense, defining scene, one that TV spots for the film use as a cliffhanger (will he/won't he shoot? - see the movie and find out), and it is effective, but like the movie itself, it doesn't plow that deep into Kyle's character.

Kyle, who constantly calls the Islamist insurgents “savages,” does appear, in fleeting bits of dialogue, to be strongly in favor of the Iraq war, but the film itself is fairly ambiguous about it.

Kyle’s camaraderie with his fellow SEAL team members, who include Luke Grimes, Kyle Gallner, and Jake McDorman, is familiar feeling but still necessary material in the mix, possibly giving the most insight into what the film thinks the guy was like.

When Kyle is stateside between deployments with his wife Tara (Sienna Miller) and kids, he has the expected trouble adjusting to civilian life, but the aforementioned THE HURT LOCKER went through these motions much more effectively; here it’s way too spelled out.

There’s an action movie drive, which the film is really more about, to Kyle and his team’s hunt for an Al Qaeda terrorist named “The Butcher” (German-Egyptian actor Mido Hamada), and an enemy Syrian sniper named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), in which we're simply watching a good guys vs. bad guys scenario with noisy shoot-outs and chases. All compellingly shot by Eastwood’s longtime cinematographer Tom Stern.

The big climatic battle, taking place on our lead’s fourth and final tour, has Kyle and his unit surrounded by terrorists as a sandstorm approaches. It’s truly exciting stuff, a sequence that proves how much pure machismo Eastwood can still muster at his late age.

Sure, the film hugely oversimplifies, making combat look like a video game at times, and it won't satisfy the folks who are complaining about its supposed pro-war stance, but it falls in line with what Eastwood has been saying cinematically his entire career. Consider that his iconic Dirty Harry character was considered by many to be “fascist” back in the day.

In a way Eastwood's film, via Jason Hall's screenplay adaptation of Kyle's 2012 autobiography, is like the protagonist's phone calls home to his wife; it’s tight-lipped about what’s really going down on in the guy’s mind.

It basically seems to come down to saying this guy believed in what he was doing for his country, but he was a little conflicted by it. That may anger folks who feel that the real-life Kyle had no remorse over his killings and cite passages that say as much in his book, but, for me, the movie version of Kyle never wrote a book.

That is, like all the other films that are based on true stories out there, especially the ones that are Oscar nominated, AMERICAN SNIPER shouldn’t be taken as fact. Moviegoers going in should just ignore all the pundits and think pieces, and just take it as an old fashioned war movie with a smidgen of new school conscience that features an invested, career best performance by Cooper carrying one of Eastwood’s most well constructed productions.

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Monday, January 12, 2015

The Touching, Timely SELMA Should Be Mandatory Viewing

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

(Dir. Ava DuVernay, 2014)

Despite the accusations of inaccuracies, Ava DuVernay’s SELMA is the only 2014 film based on true events that ought to be mandatory viewing. As in, kids should be dragged to it, it should be shown in schools, etc.

SELMA’s stirring depiction of one of the most important episodes in civil rights history, the civil rights protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, provides a profoundly powerful lesson about how people can pull together to rise above oppression.

It’s a timeless lesson, especially given the similarities to the protests and riots that have resulted from the fatal shooting of 18-year old African American Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer, that hammers home philosopher and cultural critic George Santayana’s famous saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Although the bulk of the film concerns the campaign to secure equal voting rights in 1965, SELMA begins with a few scenes set in the years leading up to that period.

First, we see Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) preparing his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. The legendary civil rights leader’s wife Coretta Scott (Carmen Ejogo) helps him with his tie in this backstage glimpse which shows him as a vulnerable, nervous man, not an unflappable icon.

Then, first-time screenwriter Paul Webb’s narrative takes us back to 1963, when the Ku Klux Klan bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four girls. Even if you know your history, the scene is a shocking sight; one that won’t soon fade from memory.

Those who don’t know their history may be confused by the chronology, but from this point on – that is, after King’s meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) in the Oval Office in December, 1965 – the film focuses on the tumultuous three-month movement in early ’65.

Wilkinson’s LBJ tells Oyelow’s MLK Jr. that because of a hundred other problems – Vietnam, poverty, Medicare, immigration reform, etc. - “This voting thing is just going to have to wait.”

Nonplussed, MLK Jr. travels to Selma to get the ball rolling with the help of of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which included such members as Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), Reverend James Bevel (Common), James Orange (Omar Dorsey), Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce) and Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint).

Meanwhile, LBJ deals with J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) who wants to discredit King, and becomes furious that Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) has vowed to stop the march.

A violent scuffle in Selma, in which Oprah Winfrey (one of the film's producers) as Annie Lee Cooper, a hospice nurse who had previously tried several times to register to vote, punches ultra racist Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston), leads to King and many of his people getting arrested.

The violence escalates when state troopers attack activists on a night march, and Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) gets shot and killed by one of the police.

But the most devastating incident of the entire movement, and one of the most searing sequences on film of this last year, is undoubtedly the “Bloody Sunday” confrontation, in which 600 marchers were attacked by Alabama police and angry posses who tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965.

The massacre as it intensely unfolds can be hard to watch, but Duvernay’s cut-aways to folks’ horrified reactions – most notably LBJ’s - as they watch it on grainy black and white television sets – got me so caught up in the outrage that is was impossible to look away.

SELMA gets so much right in its portrayal of the passion of the protesters in the face of the severe stakes involved, that the quibbles about its mischaracterization of LBJ’s motivations are seriously misplaced.

In real life, LBJ wasn’t as hesitant to introduce a voting rights bill as shown in the film, but the film hardly depicts him as a villain. Wilkinson (who like Oyellow is British) brings a stressed-out air to the role, something he’s used to great effect in a great many movies playing morally questionable characters, but here the notion is that he’s a politician first and foremost.

This can still be seen as a flaw in the film’s framework, as are a few moments that are wrapped in melodrama, but not one that takes away from the heart pounding impact of this excellent epic.

Oyelowo, a name that everybody should learn, is sure to get an Oscar nomination for his amazing performance as MLK. He brings a gravitas to King that I’ve not seen him muster before, particularly when compared to his role as the subversive son of THE BUTLER just last year. Oyelowo doesn’t really resemble King, but he successfully channels him in both the quiet, troubled moments behind the scenes, and the famous, powerfully moving speeches we’ve all heard throughout our lives.

Cinematographer Bradford Young is also certain to get award season action for greatly giving the imagery what he called in an interview a “period, Kodachrome-esque look.” (If Young isn’t nominated for an Oscar for this then his superb work in J.C. Chandor’s A MOST VIOLENT YEAR will certainly get a nod).

The touching, timely SELMA is the best historical drama of 2014. It’s unfortunate that its story is still strongly such a necessary one to pass down, but even without recent events, it’s one that should be forever told.

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Friday, January 09, 2015

INHERENT VICE: The Film Babble Blog Review

Opening today at an indie art house near me:

(Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)

In a recent interview on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson claimed he wasn’t a stoner, that he really didn’t get stoned. 

Well, INHERENT VICE, Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 comic-noir novel of the same name, coulda fooled me.

It’s such a rambling, sprawling, shaggy dog story with a lotta ins, a lotta outs, a lotta what-have-yous as The Dude would say, all filtered through hazy clouds of pot smoke that it feels like it could’ve only been made by a filmmaker who’s stoned out of his mind.

Of course, my mention of The Dude doesn’t come from out of the blue. The film’s depiction of a countercultural underdog unraveling connections throughout the seedy underworld of Los Angeles heavily recalls the Coen brothers’ THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998), as well as Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE (1973).

Pynchon’s novel seemed to have those references embedded in it as well, and Anderson puts forth a largely faithful take on the original source material, right down to the exact wording of large chunks of the book’s dialogue.

In his second film for Anderson following 2012’s THE MASTER, Joaquin Phoenix plays pothead protagonist Larry “Doc” Sportello, a long-haired, unkempt sideburns-sporting private investigator living in Gordita Beach, California in 1970. Doc’s ex-girlfriend Shasta (the pretty and appropriately flighty Katherine Waterson) shows up after an absence of over a year, and asks him for his help concerning her current boyfriend, a real estate mogul named Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts).

Mickey’s wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and her lover, are working on what Shasta calls “a creepy little scheme” to have her rich husband committed to a mental institution so that they can make off with his fortune.

From there, Phoenix’s Doc gets hired by The Wire’s Michael Kenneth Williams as a member of the “Black Guerilla Family” gang to find a white supremacist, named Glenn Charlock (Christopher Allen Nelson), who happens to be one of Mickey’s bodyguards.

After following a lead that ends up with our extremely high hero getting knocked unconscious at a Massage parlor named Chick Planet, Doc is questioned by his long-time cop nemesis, Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin, going big and succeeding), a thick-necked, flat-topped, hippie-hating hardass member of the LAPD.

Luckily, Benicio Del Toro as slick marine lawyer Sauncho Smilax swoops in to get Doc released, but, unluckily, Shasta and Mickey have completely disappeared into thin air.

As if things weren’t complicated enough, Doc takes on another case that’s possibly related, involving the death of surf-rock saxophonist Coy Harlingen (a whispering Owen Wilson) as his widow Hope (Jena Malone) thinks he’s still alive.

From there, Doc visits with his special lady friend, Deputy D.A. Penny Kimball, played by Phoenix’s WALK THE LINE co-star Reese Witherspoon, gets interrogated by FBI agents (Parenthood’s Sam Jaeger and Veep’s Timothy Simons), and, most amusingly, does cocaine with Martin Short as an coked-up dentist. Doc’s trail keeps leading to some sinister entity called “Golden Fang,” which is either a mysterious ship for running drugs, an Indo-Chinese heroin cartel, and/or a syndicate of dentists. I’m still not sure which.

Making her film debut, indie singer/songwriter Joanna Newsom serve as the film’s onscreen narrator Sortilège, a minor character in the book but here the custodian to descriptions of Doc’s inner thoughts, somewhat surreally I might add.

Which means that one minute, Doc is driving with Sortilège riding shotgun telling us about “the long, sad history of LA land use,” and the next minute she’s gone. The freshness of Newsom's delivery of Pynchon's prose enhances the dry sections of the film considerably.

The fading of the sunny idealistic ‘60s into the scary, smacked out ‘70s is conveyed strikingly through Robert Elswit’s always stunning cinematography (Elswit has shot 6 of Anderson’s 7 movies), which gives both dark, dank interiors and sun-bleached exteriors a great burnt-out look, and the score by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood mixed with well chosen songs by Neil Young, Can, Lex Baxter, and the Chuck Jackson Motown classic “Any Day Now,” perfectly evokes the era as well.

Unfortunately INHERENT VICE is no masterpiece. It’s frustratingly low energy at times with scenes that linger on and on. Many critics are calling it “incoherent vice” (there’s a joke I bet will be made at the Oscars) for understandable reasons, but while I sometimes stared at the screen and thought that it was a meandering mess, I was more often struck by the brilliance of many of its moments.

I’ve seen it twice now, and I enjoyed and “got it” a lot more the second time. Phoenix's performance, which initially bothered me as being half-assed, seemed more nuanced (I could see that he was really using his full ass), and I felt more of a poetry to its slow pace 
than before.

Being the first ever adaptation of a Pynchon novel – books that many have said are unfilmable - is no small feat, and I can’t imagine anybody doing a better job with this particular material than Anderson.

Folks who aren’t Anderson or Pynchon fans going in aren’t likely to be won over, especially at its long-ass length of 2 and a half hours, but those who are hip to its vibe and can get into a groove with its stoned tone are likely to think it’s a gas, man. Sorry, to lay that outdated lingo on you, but I bet deep down you dig it.

More later...

Sunday, January 04, 2015

DVR Alert: Roger Ebert Documentary LIFE ITSELF Airs On CNN Tonight

Film fans, and in particular fans of film criticism, should take note that Steve James' excellent 2014 documentary LIFE ITSELF airs tonight on CNN.

The documentary, one of my favorite films of the last year, takes a loving look at the life of movie critic legend Roger Ebert, who passed in 2013 after a 10-year battle with thyroid cancer.

Read my review of the insightful, funny, and profoundly touching biodoc from when it ran theatrically in my neck of the woods (at the Colony Theater in Raleigh last summer):

Also check out writer/critic extraordinaire Matt Zoller Seitz, who among many credits is editor-in-chief at, discussing the documentary on a segment that aired yesterday on CNN.

Finally, if you're somehow not convinced to watch the film about the incredibly influential writer and personality yet, here's the trailer:

Airing as an installment in the CNN Presents series, LIFE ITSELF airs this evening at 9 pm.

More later...