My latest film, Book-Smithed, plays next at the 17th Annual Northampton International Film Festival, on October 12. See flier, above, for details.
Enough Said (Nicole Holofcener, 2013)
It is impossible to watch the new film by writer/director Nicole Holofcener (Lovely and Amazing, Friends with Money) without experiencing, anew, sharp pains of regret at the premature passing of James Gandolfini He is so perfect in his role as a lonely and awkward divorcé, and such a lovely match for the equally wonderful Julia Louis-Dreyfus – herself lonely and divorced here – that one can but wish he had had more time to deliver many more such performances. Sigh.
That said, this is a delightful movie that manages to be both funny and deeply moving – unlike, say, today’s other comedy release, Baggage Claim, which gets funny right, but certainly not poignancy. If you have lost faith in the romcom genre, take heart. Perhaps Holofcener can point the way to a vibrant revival.
Louis-Dreyfus plays divorcée massage therapist Eva, who meets Albert (Gandolfini) at a party at which she also meets his ex-wife, renowned poet Marianne (Holofcener mainstay Catherine Keener). At first unaware of the relationship between the two, Eva begins dating Albert and massaging Marianne. Soon, however, she makes the connection, and find herself unable to confess to either one that she knows the other. The question, for her, becomes whether she can maintain her genuine feelings for Albert while spending time with Marianne, whose sophistication and fame fascinate her, since all Marianne does is say bad things about her ex.
Filling out the universe of the film are friends and daughters (Eva and Albert each have one heading off to college), and a lot of fine writing and acting. Both Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini are masters at emotional conveyance through the gaze alone. Watching Eva look at Albert – loving him in spite of the fact that he is overweight and a slob (by his own admission) – and Albert look at Eva – loving her in spite of her neuroses – is enough to give you renewed hope in the power of love to heal all wounds.
Powerful as it is, the film is also so filled with laughs that at times I couldn’t hear the punch-line follow-up for the raucous sounds of the audience enjoying itself. It’s a perfect date movie. Go see it.
Rush (Ron Howard, 2013)
If I write that I could care less about all forms of car racing – and have no idea how Formula One differs from Nascar or the Indy 500 circuit (seriously, I don’t, and don’t care to) – I really mean that I could care less about all forms of car racing. True, I once drove a BMW at 120mph on a highway designed for 60, and thought that was terrific fun (I was 20), but I have never found any of the fossil-fuel burning “sports” at all interesting. And yet . . . I thoroughly enjoyed Rush, Ron Howard’s superb and surprisingly energetic new film. Usually, Howard’s films have all the pep and narrative complexity of a soap opera, but here he seems to have gotten tired of his usual brand of storytelling and is trying something now. Perhaps he just got bored and wanted to relive the good old days, back when he made his first feature, Grand Theft Auto. Whatever his reasons, let us be grateful, for Rush is a highly entertaining thrill ride.
Back in the 1970s, two Formula One (a form of car racing much more popular in Europe than in the US) competitors, the Englishman James Hunt and the Austrian Niki Lauda, livened up the “sport” (OK, I’ll stop putting that word in quotes now) with their intense rivalry. Lauda won in 1975, and in 1976 . . . well, let’s let you watch the film to see what happens. No fair googling it. Hunt was the playboy and party lover, while Lauda was the socially awkward and abrasive techno-nerd. Played by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl, respectively, the differences between the two men, and their growing mutual respect, make for fascinating drama. Each actor delves into the skin of the men they inhabit with great skill and commitment, and watching their interplay is even more fun than watching the cars whiz by (in spite of the frenetic efforts of acclaimed cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, an Oscar-winner for Slumdog Millionaire). Especially interesting, for me, was realizing after 10 minutes how strange it was to be watching a Ron Howard film with so much sex, drugs, and booze, as well as such a vibrant color palette (this is, in fact, the first digitally-shot feature that Howard has made – hence his use of Mantle).
Howard has always been good with actors, and here he has assembled a strong cast with nary a bad performance. From the two leads, to the women who play their wives – Olivia Wilde and Hollywood (relative) newcomer Alexandra Maria Lara – down to supporting players like Christian McKay and Perfrancesco Favino (last seen in the zombie-ravaged WHO building in World War Z), the film’s universe is richly imagined. Everyone feels real, and we feel the danger in the lives of these drivers.
I therefore highly recommend it, with but one caveat. At one point in the film, there is an extended sequence where an injured racer has his burned lungs vacuumed of excess fluid. If you’re prone to gagging at the Dentist’s (I am), you’ll just need to look away (and maybe cover your ears). Other than that, enjoy!
[NOTE: I gave my on-air review of this film on Friday, 9/27, on “Midday with Dan Rodricks.” You can hear it here: http://programs.wypr.org/podcast/midday-weekly-review-friday-sept-27-12-1-pm – I’m at 35:30 in the podcast.]
Baggage Claim (David E. Talbert, 2013)
On Friday, September 6, Linda DeLibero (of Johns Hopkins) and I appeared on the Midday with Dan Rodricks show to discuss current trends in African-American filmmaking in their historical context. We briefly mentioned the then-upcoming film Baggage Claim as an example of a movie, written and directed by an African-American filmmaker, that exists outside of any perceived “black genre” (whatever that means), which is really just a comedy that happens to feature African-Americans rather than whites of European descent. And now here we are on the day that Baggage Claim opens, and I am happy to report that the film is both as funny as the best romantic comedies (hereafter referred to as romcoms), and as insipid as the worst. Now that’s post-racial equality! And for you Baltimoreans out there, you can take especial pride in the film, since it was made by Morgan State alum (though, except for some second-unit shots seen through car windows, the movie was not shot in Charm City).
Baggage Claim tells the story of one Baltimore-bred Montana Moore, a beautiful and sexy – yet never married – flight attendant, daughter of a five-times-married mother, and older sister to a younger sibling about to tie the knot. Tired of being alone – and of putting up with her mother’s taunts – Montana has high hopes that her current beau, the handsome and rich Graham (Boris Kodjoe), will pop the question. Since we meet Graham just 10 minutes into the film, you can probably guess that he is not, in fact, the one. But soft! What light from yonder window breaks? ‘Tis the brilliantly scheming minds of her two flight attendant pals, sexpot Gail (Jill Scott) and gay bestie Sam (Adam Brody, one of the few white faces in the movie). They hatch a plan to help Montana cross paths, midair, with all of her former boyfriends, in the hope that they have changed enough to be worth reconsidering. And so we get hijinks galore, and are treated to some fine comedic performances from the likes of Trey Songz, Taye Diggs, and Djimon Hounsou. All along, of course – unless you’ve never seen a romcom – Montana’s greatest hope at love may actually be her childhood best friend William (Derek Luke), who lives across the hall, and who’s last name just happens to be Wright (as in Mr.).
So, OK, you’re thinking, this doesn’t sound very original, and you’ve seen lots of terrible Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler films that have soured you on the whole romcom genre. And I get that. But the thing about this film is that the funny parts are actually really funny (unlike, say, the ostensibly funny bits in The Bounty Hunter). Paula Patton, whose character is woefully underwritten (it’s never clear why the fabulously rich and worldly businessman played by Hounsou would want to stay up all night talking to her, for instance, since she has nothing to say), has a real knack for physical comedy, and Jill Scott and Adam Brody are truly hilarious. At times the film is edited at such a spectacularly brisk pace that the jokes come on with perfect timing. Unfortunately, at other times the film just stops cold, mired in false sentiment and a terrible musical score that sounds as if it were designed to play in your local supermarket. Derek Luke, a terrific and charming actor, does his best with his nice-guy role, and Jenifer Lewis, as Montana’s mom, has a witty imperious quality that helps to elevate the clichéd lines she too often has to say above total dreck, but every time we leave Gail and Sam behind, the movie drags.
Baggage Claim is, in other words, a very mixed bag. I still recommend it if you’re looking for a good laugh, but I also suggest preparing yourself for the inevitable gag reflex that may kick in the more serious passages. Perhaps the flight attendants in the aisle can hand out some airsickness bags, just in case.
Prisoners (Denis Villeneuve, 2013)
At the end of the preview screening I attended for Prisoners, a young woman stood up in front of me and loudly declared, “Worst. Ending. Ever.” Well, yeah, sure, if you were expecting a nice, tidy and uplifting wrap-up to a sordid tale of kidnapping and torture, it was a pretty lame conclusion. Open-endedness has never been a popular Hollywood staple. But let me ask you this, young lady: where were you for the previous 150 minutes? At a different screening? Because there is very little about Prisoners that is neat and tidy: not the story, not the filmmaking, not the performances. It’s a messy film, which is both the source of its strength and its weakness. At times engaging, at times frightening, at times incredibly frustrating, Prisoners rewards the viewer looking for a different kind of thriller. It has the mood and palette of a Winter’s Bone, but the pacing of a certain kind of Michael Haneke film (Caché or The White Ribbon). May you be so fortunate as to see it with an audience that has not mistaken it for a raucous comedy of errors (I mean, who laughs at torture scenes, really?).
Prisoners was directed by the French Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, whose previous film, Incendies, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2011. Equally as cinematically ambitious – though on a more global topic – that movie had a tighter narrative structure (and a slightly shorter running time), and a tidier conclusion. It was also more logically consistent in its approach to its subject – a parable about the conflicts in the Middle East – and, as a result, it was a more satisfying viewing experience than is Prisoners. It’s nice to see Villeneuve refusing to rest on his laurels, however, and taking on a challenging story set and filmed outside of his home country.
The story at the heart of this new film is both incredibly simple and deeply complex. Two young girls disappear on Thanksgiving, launching a desperate search by their families and the local police. The former are led by the father of one of the girls, Keller (Hugh Jackman), a tough bear of a man whom we have earlier seen teaching his son to hunt with a rifle, while the latter have Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) – far more dour than his name would suggest – a detective who has never not solved a case. The only clue at hand is an old camper around which the two girls were last seen playing. If the searchers can just find the vehicle, they assume, they’ll find the girls . . . hopefully alive.
Unfortunately for them, the girls, and especially the young man behind the wheel of that camper – played powerfully by Paul Dano – the reality proves to be a lot more complicated. As the rains (and later, snows) of Pennsylvania (the film was shot in Georgia) soak the screen, Loki tracks down every clue he can while an enraged Keller releases his own demons in a misguided vigilante pursuit of the truth. The two men clash over methods and the limits of the law, Keller starts drinking again, and we, the audience, watch supposedly good people behave atrociously and supposedly bad people suffer. At the end, that ambiguity turns out to have been at the heart of the director’s intentions. Who and what are good, and who and what are evil, and do we not all have elements of both within us?
I am all for this kind of filmmaking, since art that asks these kinds of questions can force us to confront the deep issues in life (one of my favorite films is Hiroshima, mon amour). However, I am also in favor of storytelling coherence, and Prisoners begins to lose its way after about 60 minutes. It weaves in and out of finding its path again, but there are far too many narrative digressions – most centered on graphic depictions of torture – that were, in my opinion, far more gratuitous than necessary. Cut 45 minutes out of the film, and this could be a masterpiece.
On the performance side, Hugh Jackman is – as he most often is – quite strong, as are supporting players Viola Davis (has this woman ever given a bad performance?), Terrence Howard, Maria Bello, the aforementioned Paul Dano and Melissa Leo. And though I enjoyed much about Jake Gyllenhaal, I found his own performance at times as distracting as the torture. Why, for instance, does he squint throughout the movie? Is he nearsighted? Is he just tired? Has Villeneuve directed him to indicate his internal emotions in this way? Did Gyllenhaal come up with this on his own? Whatever the reason, it’s indicative of the bloat that weighs the story down. It serves no obvious purpose but to distract from the very real strengths within.
Riddick (David Twohy)
In Pitch Black (2000), also known as The Chronicles of Riddick: Pitch Black, antihero Richard B. Riddick – a convicted murderer whose eyes had been modified so he could see in the dark – fought off hordes of vicious flying shark-like shadow creatures on an alien planet while also battling the distrust and duplicitous behavior of his fellow crash-landing survivors. Though he lived to fight another die, most of the rest of the cast did not. The movie was actually great entertainment. It knew what it wanted to be – a monster movie set in space – and it fulfilled its genre role perfectly. Vin Diesel, star of such masterpieces as XXX, The Fast and the Furious, and Babylon A.D. (interesting note: did you know he was the voice of the Iron Giant in the lovely animated actual masterpiece The Iron Giant?), smartly underplayed the title role, and the design of both the planet and the monsters was spectacular (thank you, Grace Walker and Patrick Tatopoulos!). The supporting cast, including Radha Mitchell and Keith David, was quite strong. I am not ashamed to admit that I had a wonderful time watching the film.
The second film of the series – The Chronicles of Riddick (2004) – was less interesting, and much more of a mess, script-wise. Written and directed by the same man who had done the first film – David Twohy – the movie nevertheless managed to be more than watchable. I just wish that Twohy had either done more with the epic story of a death-loving race sowing destruction on planet after planet and the possibility that RIddick’s role in stopping the destruction had long been foretold, or that he had abandoned the portentous and pretentious storyline altogether and just stuck to monsters. As it was, we were left disappointed by the unfulfilled potential of the setup.
But now here comes Riddick – just plain ole RIddick – and the monsters are back. That is a good thing. We get a little bit of the plot of the second movie – right at the start – but then the film moves squarely back into the territory of Pitch Black. The planet and creatures may be different, but the story is familiar. And it works.
What works especially well is the 30 minutes or so of set-up after Riddick finds himself betrayed and abandoned by the Necromongers (the evil race of the second film). We watch him recover from horrendous injuries, train himself in his new environment, inoculate himself against poison, raise a local canine, and learn the lay of the land. When he sees a distant storm cloud approaching, it speaks to him (what does it say? you’ll find out …), making him want to leave the planet quickly. Coincidentally, just at that moment, Riddick has come across a rundown outpost with an interstellar communicator, and is able to call for assistance. Actually, what he does is to just send his identifying image out to known bounty hunters, knowing that they will be unable to resist the temptation of the huge price on his head. And so they come, and the movie shifts gears into a version (but a relatively fresh one) of the first film. Those who liked Pitch Black will be sure to have a grand time. If blood and violence (including a gruesome decapitation) are hard for you to watch, avoid Riddick at all costs, however.
I enjoyed myself. Again, as in Pitch Black, the film knows what it is, and doesn’t try to be more. Thanks to fine supporting performances from the likes of Katee Sackoff and Jordi Mollà, it has depth and resonance beyond Vin DIesel (who, as he has throughout the series, does a perfectly acceptable job as a musclebound tough guy). Unfortunately, there is some very stupid, misogynous and homophobic dialogue that accompanies the interactions with Sackoff’s badass mercenary, but at least, in this movie – *spoiler alert* – the main female character does not suffer the normal fate of a Riddick heroine. Finally, the CGI is the best of the series, including a very moving rendering of the dog-like companion that Riddick adopts.
Was it Riddick-ulously amazing? No. Was it Riddick-ulously fun? You bet. Was it crude and lewd? Absolutely. Incredibly lowbrow. Rock on. I saw it in IMAX. Ooooh. Since Twohy and DIesel purportedly have a master plan, we’ll most likely meet Riddick again. I’ll probably be there.
[NOTE: The show went well. Here is the podcast.]
Is 2013 a “breakout year for black filmmakers” (African-American, British, and otherwise)? That was the question asked by Michael Cieply in his June 1 article for The New York Times. It certainly seems that way, with films released so far, like Fruitvale Station and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and upcoming films like Mother of George, Baggage Claim, 12 Years a Slave and Black Nativity, among others. Still, we’ve been here before, whether with filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux in the 1920s and 1930s, or with Blaxploitation directors like Melvin Van Peeples and Gordon Parks in the 1970s, or with Spike Lee in the 1980s and 1990s, to say nothing of commercially successful directors like Tyler Perry in the last decade. Are we finally going to start seeing films from black directors that show a truly diverse view of black – and African-American – voices that stay the course and become part of the fabric of mainstream Hollywood?
Join Midday host Dan Rodricks and film critics Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed – Chair, Film/Video, Stevenson University – as we discuss the current year, and years past, and look at black filmmakers over the course of movie history. We’ll be on the air on Friday, September 6, 2013, at 1pm, on WYPR – Baltimore’s NPR News Station – 88.1FM.
Thanks in advance for listening!