Monday, November 18, 2013

The Films of Alexander Payne, a film-by-film analysis

With "Nebraska" just having a limited theatrical release in America, I thought it'd be nice to look deeper into the filmography of Alexander Payne's. His first film was released over seventeen years ago and he's only made five films since, but he's still managed to really evolve and grow as a filmmaker through all those years. He's made films that will make you laugh out loud, and some that will make you tear up with a smile on your face. He's created some truly wonderful moments as well as some hilarious and unforgettable moments. Needless to say, I'm a fan. I don't flat out love all of his films, but I do admire them and I admire his approach.

So, without further ado...

Citizen Ruth (1996)

In many ways, "Citizen Ruth" is a strong debut from Alexander Payne. It lays down the groundwork for the much more successful satire that is "Election," while still being a good film in its own right. The film stars Laura Dern as a rather dimwitted, drug-addicted Midwestern woman who winds up getting pregnant. She's had four kids previously, all of them taken away from her custody by the state. When she gets in trouble with the law yet again, a judge rules that he'll be much less harsh on her if she decides to get an abortion. This decision is soon met with media uproar.

What the film gets at best is the satirical elements, and there are a lot of very funny scenes here. However, one thing that Payne would later improve at, the characters are a little too one-dimensional. While it's fun to see Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor poke fun at both the pro-choice and the anti-abortion people, the writers make them a bit too one-note, disallowing the movie to go beyond good satire. It's a solid film, and definitely worth the watch, but easily Payne's weakest effort to date.

Grade: B-

Election (1999)

Amazingly, Payne takes a giant leap with "Election" in every term. The characters (lead by Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon) are fuller and more relatable and the satire is razorblade sharp, making "Election" one of the funniest movies of the '90s. Set in the suburbs of Omaha, Nebraska, Broderick plays Jim, a high school teacher who's in charge of making sure the class presidential election runs smoothly. Unfortunately, this year, he's come across Tracy Flick (Witherspoon), an energetic overachiever who will stop at nothing in order to become president. Jim convinces a na├»ve school jock (played by Chris Klein) to run against Tracy Flick, believing Flick has had it way too easy in life. This winds up causing all kinds of problems on its own, especially when Jim's personal life starts to fall apart.

I have probably watched "Election" over ten times and the movie simply never gets old. What is underrated about Alexander Payne is his stylistic tendencies. Here, "Election" bares a lot of stylistic similarities to Scorsese's "Goodfellas": the freeze frames, the multiple voice overs, the frenetic pacing, the editing. This is perhaps Payne at his funniest. Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick both turn in their finest performances, with Broderick's character being especially fun considering Broderick played Ferris Bueller thirteen years earlier. If you're a newcomer to Payne's films, this is the film to start with.

Grade: A

About Schmidt (2002)

I attempted to do my mini-analysis of this film the other day, having not seen the film for over five years. Maybe longer. Watching it again very recently, I was struck by how closely this film matches "Election," style-wise. I initially thought of "About Schmidt" as being a bit more laid back and droll than Payne's previous work, but now watching it again, I don't see that at all. This is a great, well-paced, often funny film and features one of Jack Nicholson's finest performances. Payne was really able to get something special out of Jack, a more vulnerable side that we've never really seen before. That, alone, deserves huge praise.

Jack plays Warren Schmidt. When the film opens, we see him counting the seconds until his retirement starts. He's worked at an insurance company for 34 years and now that he's retiring, he finds himself having absolutely nothing on the horizon. But when his wife dies suddenly, and with the date of his daughter's wedding coming up, Warren finds himself with real purpose: stop his daughter from marrying a loser. But it's not about his daughter marrying a loser, it's about Warren's desire to hold onto the only person he has left in his life. Payne and Jim Taylor add a touch of subtlety in their approach to the screenplay that makes "Schmidt" a little less immediate than "Election," but also gives it a stronger emotional resonance. This is the first time we see Alexander Payne unveiling his sentimental side, and it totally works.

Grade: A-

Sideways (2004)

"Sideways" is an absolute gem of a film and finds Payne at the absolute apex of his filmmaking career thus far. Judging it now, with Payne's earlier films much fresher in mind, "Sideways" really seems like the ultimate culmination of what Payne had been driving towards since his first film. Not so heavy on the satire, but definitely not short on laughs, what makes the film stand out is the perfect tonal pitch that Payne achieves here. The 'dramedy' is not exactly an easy genre to pull off, it takes real skill to find the right balance between comedy and drama. There are many other dramedies that pull too much in one direction and the film winds up becoming a little too uneven. One example? Nat Faxon and Jim Rush, both of whom co-wrote "The Descendants" with Payne, wrote and directed this year's "The Way, Way Back" and it's the perfect example of what I'm talking about here. That's a film that is really at its peak when Sam Rockwell is on screen cracking jokes, but the protagonist's family life is just a little too worn out and predictable for the film to really resonate on both ends.

Payne's film "Sideways" does not have that problem. It's up there with Billy Wilder's "The Apartment," Hal Ashby's "Harold & Maude," Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters", and James L. Brooks's "Broadcast News" as great films that manage to achieve that perfect balance. "Sideways" also happens to be beautifully shot, capturing California's wine country with great warmth. We also get career-best performances from Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, and Virginia Madsen. And overall, it's just a funny, poignant film about two buddies who decide to head up to wine country before one of them gets married. It's a film that, like "About Schmidt" and "Nebraska" questions our place in this world, only this time it's from the perspective of middle age. These characters not only love wine because they're, most likely, alcoholics, but it's also intimidating to think of how wine gets better with age and has the ability to outlast all of us and without ever growing stale.

When "Sideways" was released in the fall of 2004, it wound up getting a lot of attention during the awards season which immediately lent itself to some unfair backlash by people who were, perhaps, expecting more than what they got. But it should be no surprise that Sideways has turned out to have a much longer shelf life than the other films that were nominated for best picture that year. It's a beautifully observed film with hardly a sour note.

Grade: A

The Descendants (2011)

Funny enough, people who were high on Payne's previous film wound up feeling a bit underwhelmed by his follow-up, "The Descendants." What made matters worse is that Payne hadn't made a film for seven years up to this point. He was stuck in pre-production on a very ambitious sci-fi comedy called "Downsizing" and could never get the funding he needed to really make that film work, so he decided to go ahead with "The Descendants."

And after that seven-year-long wait, what we wound up getting from "The Descendants" is a film that is much gentler and more laid back than what we're used to from Payne. He had shown his sentimental side before with his previous two films, but never was it more at the forefront as it is here. Starring George Clooney, and set in Hawaii, the film centers on the life of Matt King, an attorney whose wife winds up in a coma after a horrific boating accident. That event is sad enough in itself, but when King finds out that his wife was having an affair before the accident, it makes him seriously re-evaluate his marriage and it leaves him wanting answers. Answers he'll never get from his wife.

What I noted in my original review of the film, "The Descendants" does a great job of matching the naturally laid back lifestyle that is Hawaii, but I also noted that the film's more dramatic elements begin to suffer because of that pacing. The film's emotional heaviness just doesn't mesh well with its comedic components. This film feels like Payne brushing off the rust that began to form after being away from filming for so long (think about it, he must've shot Sideways all the way back in 2003 and this film came out in 2011). It's either that or the material (that is, the novel that this was adapted from) just doesn't lend itself well to the tone that Payne's going for. My praise for the film when I first reviewed it was rather muted and, looking back, it definitely feels like the least memorable out of Payne's films. But the craft is still there, the performances are very solid, and the film still does a lot of things right. It's easy to like "The Descendants," but I don't love it.

Grade: B

Nebraska (2013)

You can find my full review for "Nebraska" here but I did want to note a few more things about this film, especially when we're comparing it to the rest of Payne's filmography.

First of all, "Nebraska" and "About Schmidt" are remarkably similar films, both heavily examine the existential plight of old age, but the films have vastly different approaches. While "About Schmidt" has a heavily satirical slant, "Nebraska" is much more straight-forward and direct. This is helped by the black-and-white cinematography, which gives everything a very immediate, "what you see is what you get" type feel. And while "Nebraska" is not without its satirical observations, its strength is the one common thread in all of Payne's films, excluding "Citizen Ruth." That strength would be well-developed characters. "Nebraska" is the only film of Payne's of which he didn't co-write, but his voice is definitely there. Nobody captures Midwestern America better than Payne (except for the Coen Brothers, maybe) and that's proven once again with this film.

I definitely liked "Nebraska" more than "The Descendants," but I wouldn't really call it a return to form from the director. These two films still showcase a gentler, more direct side of Alexander Payne and it will be interesting to see where he goes from here. I don't think he's ever really lost his form, I just wonder if he'll ever move onto new territory. And while I already mentioned the similarities between "About Schmidt" and "Nebraska," I was surprised to see how similar "Schmidt" was to "The Descendants" as well. In both films, the main character doesn't find out about his wife's affair until it's too late to confront her about it and this knowledge heavily drives both plots. Payne recently signed on to write and direct a film called "The Judge's Will" which is a story about a judge whose will happens to include his mistress, and it goes into the wife's feelings upon learning this. It's weird how Payne seems to be hung up on infidelity as it's also very present in "Election" and "Sideways."

Grade: B+

Regardless of whether or not his most recent films don't quite match up with his earlier work, one thing that's undeniable is that there's really no American filmmaker like Alexander Payne. The closest comparison would be Jason Reitman, and that dude is Canadian. Plus, Reitman does not have the small town sensibility that Payne has, and it's that one aspect of Payne that really resonates with me the most. I love how he delves into these types of stories that rely so heavily on their location. Whereas every other American filmmaker continues making films either in California, New York, or abroad, I appreciate that Payne is insistent in staying in the Midwestern time zone (barring "The Descendants" and "Sideways"). It's that sensibility that makes his films so likable and down-to-earth. And he's shown that when he gets the elements just right, he can be truly great. He's in a class all of his own, and I can't wait to see what the future holds for him.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

"Nebraska" review

It takes a little while to warm up to "Nebraska," only because the film wastes zero time getting right into the heart of its story. In the opening shot, we are introduced to the film's protagonist, Woody (Bruce Dern) who's attempting to walk from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to retrieve his $1 million. He believes he's won a million dollars, but it's really just one of those sweepstakes things people occasionally get in the mail. Whereas other people would simply throw it away, Woody takes it to heart. He truly believes he's won despite his wife's protests. It's not enough to merely call Woody a simple man. It's that he's become lost in his old age. Confused, sometimes he's not all there in the head. But what remains throughout the film's running time is this man's insistence that he go to Lincoln to retrieve this money. Perhaps, after years of living the good ol' simple life, Woody finally finds the need to do something. Or, better yet, after coming to the end of a lifetime, perhaps he feels that he's earned this million dollars. Perhaps Woody feels as if he's owed something.
Kate, Woody's wife, doesn't buy it though. She's tired of having to deal with her husband. Flat out exhausted. The two of them have spent forty plus years together and she's as worn out as Woody, but a lot more coherent. This seems to be a common thread among characters in the film: simply being worn out, hung out to dry, they all feel that after all they've been through that they've earned something. They deserve something for their hard work in life, they deserve something after feeling this exhausted.
That's why it's not all that surprising when David (Will Forte), Woody's son, does not hesitate much at the thought of driving his dad to Lincoln. David, obviously, knows the million dollar thing is a scam, but at least he gets to get away from Montana. I really started to warm up to the film through David as I feel he's a useful, sensible guide through the various different characters and personalities that permeate the film. David's plight is very understandable. After spending an entire childhood of being ignored by his drunken father, David's not mad at his dad. He just wants to understand him, spend time with him. This trip to Lincoln may be his last chance to really get to know his dad and he's jumped at the chance.
Their trip leads them to some motels and bars in the middle of nowhere, it leads them to Mt. Rushmore which Woody feels is "unfinished," and then make an elongated pit stop in Hawthorne, Nebraska where Woody grew up and met his wife. Hawthorne is a town of just over 1,000 people so naturally, when one person catches wind that Woody has won a million dollars, the whole town knows about it. Woody is instantly a celebrity and people he used to know are now suddenly coming back into his life in a big way.
He visits his brother and sister-in-law in Hawthorne, where David meets his rather dim-witted, overweight cousins, probably the first time he's seen them in years. Here, we get a pretty good taste of what it's like in Hawthorne: pretty drab. Woody's brother just sits there and stares at the TV while his wife makes sandwiches. And the twin sons... also sit there, occasionally bragging about their ability to drive long distances in short periods of time.
Woody and David go to a bar in the town where they encounter Ed Pegram (Stacey Keach), who's an old friend of Woody's. Ed is delighted to see Woody, but when he hears of Woody's million dollars, things take an uneven turn. Ed wants some of that dough. When David tries explaining to Ed that the whole thing is a misunderstanding, Ed doesn't buy it. A lot of people in town don't buy it, including David's cousins. They figure Woody's trying to downplay the entire thing.
But Woody likes talking about his supposed winnings, even when his wife constantly shoots him down and chastises him for it. Bruce Dern has been getting a lot of praise for his quiet, understated performance as Woody, but June Squibb, who plays Woody's wife, was the real star for me. She's much more chatty and a real livewire at her age. I really enjoyed watching her character, even moreso than with David. I know people like her. Old in age, but young in spirit, and often quite defiant. She enjoys visiting gravesites so she can criticize the dead (specifically, deceased family members and old flames). She's unfiltered and can be vulgar, but there's also a sweetness to her. I don't think she acts the way she does because she's a mean, rude woman. I think the movie does a great job of making her multi-faceted and inherently interesting. Again, this is a woman who's constantly had to put up with a man like Woody all her life. She's worked hard all her life trying to raise two children and keep that house together while Woody's wasted himself way via alcohol. I love her and my favorite scene in the film is when she tells off a few family members who're trying to mooch off Woody and his millions.
Of course, Woody doesn't win any money at the end, he never was going to. He does manage to bond with his son over the course of the trip and does get to have his own version of a "comeuppance" against his old friends and family. And his son David is right there to help his father win some form of redemption and while Woody's rewards are rather small and simple, it at least somewhat justifies the need for this entire 800-mile trip.
Some have taken director Alexander Payne to task on what they felt was him ridiculing these people, but I very much disagree with that assessment. I don't think Payne is being mean to anyone here, I think he's simply being honest. I think he looks at his home state with a great deal of affection. There's a wide variety of characters here and I never felt myself laughing at anyone, except maybe those overweight twins. It would be dishonest to simply portray all the townspeople as nice and kind-hearted. Most people aren't, but some definitely are. I think "Nebraska" does a great job of covering that mix. Not every character here is given multiple dimensions, I'll admit that, but most of them are. Considering Payne is from Nebraska, I'm willing to give him a pass at anything that could be perceived as ridicule. Look back at your hometown. How do you view most of the people from there? Naturally, there's types of people we liked and other people, not so much. So, yeah, I simply feel Payne's just being honest with himself and with us in his portrayal of these characters.
While the film was wonderfully shot, I did have a little bit of an issue with the look of the black-and-white cinematography. Now, I support Payne's decision to use black-and-white because it does serve the low-key-ness of the story very well. Payne's movie is completely de-romanticized and the performances are put front and center. This gives off a raw energy, but the movie looked a little too flat unfortunately. It looks like they shot the film in digital and it shows. Black-and-white digital cinematography just doesn't have the same look and feel as shooting on black-and-white film stock. So while I appreciate what Payne was going for, things did look a little too muted.
Still, like I said, it was well-shot. Lots of subtle camerawork with well-placed pans. It reminded me of Peter Bogdanovich's "Last Picture Show," which is one of my favorite black-and-white films of all-time (in that it chooses to shoot in black-and-white for artistic reasons). There is a similar sort of bleakness to this film which really contributes to the film's themes of exhaustion, death, and small-town complacency.
Performance-wise, everyone here is pitch perfect. I mentioned Bruce Dern and June Squibb, but Will Forte also gives his character just the right inflection that really makes him seem down-to-earth and relatable. His character, David, really cares about his father even if he doesn't particularly understand him. The end of the film is much sweeter thanks to Forte's good-natured performance.
Bob Odenkirk, who plays David's brother in the film, also does a solid job here and his character says one of my favorite lines in the film. It didn't even really click with me until after I saw it, but there's a moment in the film where Odenkirk's character, Ross, visits Hawthorne to see his family. David asks Ross where the wife and kids are and Ross responds, simply, with "Recital." The moment is so well underplayed that it didn't even occur to me how funny the line is until afterwards. Not much is known about Ross's character, but the fact that he'd rather visit his boring family in Hawthorne, Nebraska than see his daughter's recital says plenty.
Bob Nelson wrote the screenplay so a lot of credit has to go to him as well. Nelson's writing, alongside these performances, lends to so many great little lines. Lines of dialogue that would seem rather innocuous on the page really come alive here. I was surprised with how often I found myself laughing. The film does such a great job of letting the plain-spoken dialogue speak for itself about what these people are like. They're as amusing and funny as they are human. And though I wasn't too keen on the overweight twins (who were funny, but were the only characters that I felt were played strictly for laughs), this is one of those rare movies where I couldn't help but admire nearly each and everyone of these characters. I have a feeling the more I watch this film, the more at-home I will feel with this world that Payne and Bob Nelson crafted.
And that's the main thing. It may take awhile to warm up to "Nebraska," but this film can be a very rewarding experience if you're willing to embrace it. It's an interesting change of pace for director Alexander Payne as it combines the laid back nature of "The Descendants" with the biting (albeit, subtle) satire that can be found in his earlier work. In the middle of a movie season where some pretty emotionally heavy films have been coming out one after the other, it's nice to have a film like this. A film that may be a little slight, but it's still a very nice, calm, and enjoyable ride. Even if the ride's just leading us to Lincoln, Nerbraska.
Grade: B+

Saturday, November 16, 2013

So, the "Noah" trailer is in...

The first trailer for Darren Aronofsky's "Noah" was released this week and, um...

Look, I love Darren Aronofsky. He's grown on me. I was not in love with his style at first, but "The Wrestler" and "Black Swan" are brilliant. Both were my favorite films of 2008 and 2010, respectively. But... "Noah" doesn't look that great. Obviously, it's never smart to take a movie trailer too seriously, but this isn't a good start. It's not just that Russell Crowe looks bland, the whole movie seems kinda bland.

Who knows though? It can turn out to be great. The first trailer for "Pacific Rim" didn't look too hot either. I'm just saying, in all honestly, this particular trailer does not look good. We waited over three years for the next Aronofsky movie. Let's hope he doesn't disappoint.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A note on historical accuracy

Historical accuracy in the movies doesn't really matter, except when it does. Then it definitely matters. Which is to say that it matters to a fault. There are a lot of indicators that come into play and, in the end, the question is never "was the movie accurate," the question is "did the movie work?" That's the only question that matters and it matters for every movie, not just ones that are based on a true story.

Writers and filmmakers are certainly allowed to take creative licenses in order to tell their story in a dramatic/entertaining fashion. Sometimes there's just not enough time to fit in every mundane detail. With a lot of films, there are events that just don't fit into the particular arc of the story. If the story is being told specifically through the POV of the protagonist, then some of the facts are most certain to be skewed. Films, by rule, do NOT have to be objective. As a matter of fact, the reason why it's dramatic in the first place is because of its subjectivity. You want the facts, watch a documentary. People should not be exiting a film, that's based on a true story, and trying to catch the film on any factual errors. It's a MOVIE! There are bound to be some factual errors because it's not meant to be an objective experience. Some films are able to be factually accurate, and that's great for them, but there's no law that says they have to be. The only thing that matters, once again, is whether or not the movie works. That's it.

Now, there are some exceptions to what I just said here. A great film is an experience that should resonate with you either emotionally, intellectually, or both. A great blockbuster film is great because it engages you in an emotional way, but in a more purely visceral manner. It may have great effects sequences or great action... when we have a positive experience with such a movie, it's because it has managed to engage us on some level. My problem with a lot of blockbuster films these days has nothing to do with the intellectual experience and everything to do with the lack of emotional experience. I don't go into a Marvel movie expecting everything to make sense, but I do expect it to be engaging on some level. The biggest way to get through to an audience is to skip all the pretense and go straight into what matters in the story. That's why "Pacific Rim" was such a positive experience for me. And on another, bigger level, that's how "Gravity" was for me. Two films doing decidedly different things, telling different stories, but both have the intention to engage with the audience. Both films cut through the excess fat and go straight to the meat of the story. By doing that, it lets the action sequences feel much smoother and have actual purpose.

Think of all the great action films of our time. Predator, Terminator/Terminator 2, Alien/Aliens, Robocop, Total Recall, Die Hard, Escape From New York, etc... Look back at all those films and what you'll find in common is not just awesome action sequences and fantastic thrills, you'll also find a through-line of simplicity. Now, Terminator 2 flirts with a more complex story, but generally speaking it keeps the main storyline in tact throughout. From the get-go, we are following the story, we know what's going on, we understand the characters, we're successfully immersed into this world and it allows us to really enjoy the film when it goes crazy with the explosions and the effects. What makes a bad action film is convoluted-ness. Elements thrown in that make no sense. Storylines that go nowhere. A lack of real emotional beats. All of that.

So wait, what does this have to do with historical accuracy? Well, a similar notion comes into play with movies that are based on a true story. The only thing that matters about films based on a true story is that it gets the basics correct. Like with "Argo," for example. Is it loaded with historical inaccuracies? Oh yes. But, is it about a guy posing as a movie producer in order to successfully get hostages out of Iran? Yes. The film is framed within the thriller genre so naturally things will be played up to make the film more exciting. For me, the movie works wonders when it comes to that. For me, I don't care if Canada didn't get mentioned that much, or if the plane ride wasn't actually as much of a nail-biter as it's portrayed in the film. It would be a much more boring film if told completely straight so the need to play up these moments make perfect sense. "Argo" works because it's a thriller, a great thriller. Thrillers, comedies, horror films... if the movie is based on a true story but is told in a specific genre, we have to expect some creative licensing will come into effect.

Another example would be anything Aaron Sorkin touches. Now, Sorkin is not a perfect writer, "The Newsroom" proves that. With the right director, Aaron Sorkin can sound like a genius. But without a great director constantly keeping Sorkin in check, things can get out of hand really fast. The reason why "The Social Network" worked so well for me, even if it may be historically inaccurate, is because of Fincher. The music of Trent Reznor alone should be a clear signal that the film is a dramatization, not a documentary. But Reznor's music and Fincher's filmmaking is so pitch perfect in the movie, that it all completely works. Sorkin's dialogue sounds great because Fincher was able to find the right tone and the right mood. That's because Fincher is the master of tone. Fincher is the modern master when it comes to thrillers, it's only natural that he's the master of tone. What I noted in my Social Network review, and why I docked it points, was because overall, these are a couple of rich, spoiled kids. Who cares about their problems, right? The beauty of Fincher, combined with Sorkin's script, is that it made me care for two hours. They convinced me to care. It wasn't until it was over when I realized how relatively inconsequential the actual story is, but that's because the film successfully took me under its spell. I've watched the film at least five or six times since and I still can't help but marvel at how well-made it is.

Now, here's the reason why I'm actually writing this piece. This year, we have a ton of films based on true stories. Dallas Buyers Club, 12 Years a Slave, Fruitvale Station, and The Butler for example. The first three films were great in my opinion. It's "The Butler" that I have a beef with. The reason why I'm bringing it up again is because The Hollywood Reporter had a "Writers Roundtable" where they gathered some of the most notable screenwriters of the year and had a lively, engaging discussion with them. THR does this every year with actors, actresses, directors, and writers. They usually pick the ones that are likely to have the most awards attention, and it's a fun thing to watch. You get to learn a lot about the process of being an actor, writer, or director and you get to watch pretty notable people interact with each other. It's great.

I wanted to write this because in the roundtable discussion, the subject of historical accuracy came up. Danny Strong, the writer of The Butler, happened to be one of the people who was being interviewed at this roundtable. When it was his turn to answer, he defended the screenplay to "The Butler," claiming that he never intended the film to be completely accurate and that it was a clear fictionalization of a true story.

See, I understand the man's point. I think he's right with what he's saying, and maybe it was Lee Daniels' not-so-subtle directorial style that made me feel that this film was more heavy-handed and superficial than it actually was. My problem with the film has nothing to do with historical accuracy and everything to do with what the writer chose as a replacement to the facts. I didn't like the changes. Plus, the film still says that it's based on true events. Not everyone knows who the real-life butler's name is, but the film doesn't attempt to clarify that at the beginning. My main problem is that the real-life butler's story, alone, is really pretty amazing. That's why Mr. Strong wrote the film in the first place, right? Because this dude survived through all these administrations and saw a lot of things? While serving the president, he saw all the changes his country went through from segregation to integration. Eventually, he saw a black man become President of the United States. That's an incredible story.  Why do you need to add so much fluff? Why do you need to include this fictional family with a son that dies in Vietnam and another son that's involved in literally every single goddamn civil rights movement that occurred in the late 50s and throughout the 60s. I initially believed it because I didn't know what was real or not. If this was all true, if this butler actually had these sons and these things actually happened, it would be amazing. But, it was all falsified and that left me feeling so used.

The film has such heavy emotional beats when it depicts all these events. It makes you really feel for Cecil Gaines when he finds out his son dies in Vietnam. At the end, I couldn't help but think "man, this guy really had a rough life... and he was the butler of all these presidents." The main damn aspect of the story is basically a sidestory to this fictionalized aspect of the guy's life. Perhaps it wasn't made to be as important in the script, but the movie definitely goes out of its way to explore everything BUT his time inside the white house. When we're actually in the white house, more time is given for us to point at all the celebrities who are playing the Presidents. There is such little time spent actually going into Gaines's time in the white house... and it's the main reason we're watching the movie in the first place! That's why I hated the movie so much, it was a bait and switch act. If "Argo" claimed to be based on a true story and there never was a fake movie called "Argo" and there never was a dude pretending to be a movie producer in order to help the hostages escape... the movie wouldn't work. The BASIC facts must be there. You're selling this as "based on a true story" because the basic events that happen are so unbelievable that being reminded it actually happened makes everything feel that much more real and... believable. What the filmmakers choose to do with the information is completely up to them, as long as they keep the basics in tact. That's all I ask for. With "The Butler," so much extra bullshit was added that the main point of the story was no longer as important. That's a problem. That's when historical accuracy matters. That's when I start to feel cheated.

"The Butler" is a basic drama that tells the life of Cecil Gaines in Forrest Gump-like fashion. Seriously, if Forrest Gump was actually based on a real person named John Johnson and literally everything about Forrest Gump's personal life AS WELL as his personality was falsified... wouldn't that be the worst movie ever? Wouldn't you feel as if you were used emotionally so that a couple of sick-minded filmmakers could make the most overly-sentimental, manipulative film of all-time? Forrest Gump wasn't based on a true story though. It's a fictional, ridiculous character who ironically finds himself at all these historical moments in our country's history. It's a clever film, in that way. "The Butler" is the first movie I described. It's the overly-sentimental, manipulative one.

So, there. Ok? I just wanted to clear that up because I viewed the roundtable discussion about a week ago and it's been eating away at me ever since. I, personally, don't try to put a movie on trial when it's factually inaccurate. I only have a problem when a film uses the "based on a true story" BS and completely ignores the main aspect of the movie that makes the whole "based on a true story" tag relevant in the first place. OR, when the movie is so over-the-top and overwrought about the more sensitive aspects of the story it's telling that it winds up being overly-sentimental tripe. "The Butler" is both those things. That's why your movie sucked, Danny Strong.

Anyway, the roundtables are really fun to watch. I'll post videos to all the roundtables that have come out thus far, below.... each video is 50+ minutes long. Good stuff.

Here's the full Actors roundtable with Jake Gyllenhaal (Prisoners), Forest Whitaker (Lee Daniels' The Butler), Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club), Josh Brolin (Labor Day) and Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station).

The full Writers roundtable with George Clooney and Grant Heslov (The Monuments Men), Jonas Cuaron (Gravity), Julie Delpy (Before Midnight), Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said), John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) and Danny Strong (The Butler)

And, today, the Directors roundtable just came out, I haven't even watched it yet! This one features Steve  McQueen (12 Years a Slave), Paul  Greengrass (Captain Phillips), David  O. Russell (American Hustle), Ben  Stiller (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), Alfonso  Cuaron (Gravity) and Lee  Daniels (The Butler)

Saturday, November 9, 2013

"Thor: The Dark World" review

When "Thor" came out over two years ago, the response was favorable but muted. It didn't go crazy at the box office, but it was solid enough. Personally, I thought it had its moments but, as far as Marvel movies go, I felt Thor's introduction was the weakest. Thankfully, one year later, "The Avengers" came out and was a smash hit. More than that, Thor actually wound up looking pretty damn good, and it got me excited about the character for the first time. He's actually pretty funny sometimes, and when used right, can be very effective. Even Loki came off much better in "The Avengers" even though I never thought of him as a serious enough threat to the likes of Iron Man, Capt. America, Hulk, and Thor. Still, even Loki managed to have a little fun. The question remained, how would that all carry over into the next Thor film? Would they try to build on the momentum that was built thanks to "The Avengers" movie or will "Thor: The Dark World" go back to the old, plodding ways.

The answer turned out to be both... kind of. The Thor sequel is a lot more fun and takes itself much less seriously than the first film, but the film's humor does little to mask the sheer amount of stupidity and nonsense that is prevalent throughout the film. Because the film has a humor about itself, much of the nonsense can be forgiven, but it gets frustrating when you get the feeling that the movie is literally making up the universe's rules as it goes along and that there doesn't seem to be one legit, tangible moment in the film.  A character could have a dramatic death scene one moment and then come back to life the next, completely negating the earlier drama. Because Thor is a near-immortal god-like figure, it's hard for the filmmakers to give the character high enough stakes for him to succeed. You never feel like Thor is truly in danger, you find out in one scene that he can actually re-grow a hand, for crying out loud. What the hell is going on here? There's just never a sincere enough moment that could make you really care about his plight, or Asgard's plight. Thor is a god! He's going to be ok! Of course, it's a superhero, they're always going to be ok at the end, but you at least hope that this superhero will go through legitimate struggles. You wanna see Thor in serious harm's way so that it feels that much sweeter when he finally succeeds. You never got that in the first movie, and you don't get that here. What you get, ultimately, is a charming enough film with absolutely zero drama.

It gets to the point where you're thankful that the film allows time for some dumb, cheesy fun. Now, trying to explain the plot of the film is a fool's errand, so I'll be doing some heavy cribbing from See, unlike Rand Paul, I'll actually acknowledge when I'm taking the easy way out, but there's simply too much shit going on in Thor 2 for me to try to attempt to make sense out of it all. So, bare with me as I do some paraphrasing.

The Dark Elf Malekith wants to destroy the universe using a weapon known as the Aether. Bor, King Odin's father, was able to defeat Malekith and take the Aether away from him, later safeguarding it by hiding in a stone column. In present-day Asgard, all is pretty good. The Nine Realms are all peaceful, everyone's having pool parties and getting their freak on. Woo hoo! Actually, in Asgard, they like to have fun by practicing their sweet sword moves. Seriously, nobody here just sits down and relaxes. They're gods, why do they need to practice doing anything? Why not just eat all kinds of food, have orgy after orgy, and just have a hell of a good time?

Anyway, on Earth, Jane and her useless interns has been noticing some strange things have been a-brewing in London, England. Objects seem to be disobeying the laws of physics and are disappearing into thin air! Some objects will disappear in one end, and reappear in the other. Of course this makes Jane think of Thor and she snoops around, eventually getting herself into trouble by disappearing and re-appearing into another world. This world happens to be the one that holds the Aether and, despite Bor's best efforts to safeguard the damn thing, Jane winds up being consumed by the Aether pretty easily. Plot device activated!

Thor immediately senses something's wrong because, oddly enough, Heimdall has the ability to pretty much stalk anyone he wants while standing on the bifrost bridge. When he can't see her, and she reappears on Earth, Thor immediately goes to Earth to see what happened to her. And yeah, considering how easily Thor can go back and forth from Earth to Asgard, why can't he see Jane for two years? She's had this mind-blowing experience with this god and apparently he's hung up on the girl, but he can't sneak off and go see her? Also, what about the contractors on Asgard? Remember when all this shit was destroyed in the first movie and we all thought Loki might be dead because he, presumably, plummeted to his death? Well, seems like they all did a pretty damn good job making everything look exactly as how it did before. So, good job, guys!

I get it though. King Odin has probably been blocking Thor from seeing Jane, seeing as how she's a mere mortal and true love can never blossom between them. So, why not be with this other hot girl we keep putting the camera on, which is supposed to symbolize that she might be interested in you? Nah, Thor's all about Jane. Sure, she's in the middle of her prime and in about 20 years she won't look anywhere near as perfect as she does now, but so what? Thor is in love! Ok, I'm going way off track here.

Thor immediately takes Jane to Asgard, hoping his doctors can figure out what's wrong with her. He notices something's wrong when a police officer tries to touch her and gets blown halfway across town. The doctors can't exactly tell what's going on, but whatever's inside her is not good for her. In spite of the fact that it prevents rain from falling on her and she apparently is invincible, this energy inside her is "bad" so we won't explore it to its full potential. Wouldn't it have been cool if the Aether actually made Jane as immortal as Thor and they could maybe have a serious relationship together? And she has to have the very real, tangible debate within herself of whether or not she wants to leave Earth behind and stay with Thor for the next hundred years. Wow, that actually sounds dramatic and interesting. Naturally, this is never considered because, once again, this Aether being inside Jane is a mere plot device for Malekith to come to Asgard and destroy the universe. It actually has no real effect on Jane at all.

So, yeah, that's basically what happens. They find out it's the Aether, they fear for their lives and for Asgard and Thor attempts to come up with a plan to defeat Malekith and destroy the Aether forever. Meanwhile, the reason why things on Earth aren't obeying the laws of physics is because the Nine Realms are about to align. This brings about the only real interesting part of the film, a great fight sequence where Thor has to fight Malekith and his cronies and subsequently winds up jumping from realm to realm. It's a fun scene and is actually pretty clever, but once again, you just wish that it didn't all look so easy for Thor.

I can't go into my one biggest complaint and outcry with this film unless I spoil it severely so, if you don't want to be spoiled don't read the next three paragraphs.

When Thor goes into Malekith's world and tries to destroy him and the Aether, he brings along Loki (and Jane) because Loki's the only one in Asgard who knows a secret way to get there. On numerous occasions, Loki is told not to betray Thor by just about everyone in the film and there's a great sequence when Thor is flying through Asgard and into Svartalfheim where Malekith lives. But then Loki, surprise surprise, betrays Thor by stabbing him in the side and throwing him off the aircraft. Loki continues this "act" of betraying his brother in order to trick Malekith into drawing the Aether out of Jane. It works, initially, but Loki winds up being severely, perhaps fatally wounded when the attempt to destroy the Aether fails.

Loki looks up at Thor, seeming to be in near death, and they have an emotional moment before Loki passes on. Until the very end of the film, when after Thor tells his father Odin that he doesn't want to be king, it's actually revealed that Loki has taken the shape of Odin. Thor actually told Loki that he doesn't want to be king, not Odin! It's Loki! He tricked Thor! Thor has already turned and walked away when Loki reveals his true identity and this of course means that Loki will live to fight another day in the eventual third Thor movie.

To say the least, this has gotten pretty goddamn exhausting. Can Loki not die? Whenever Loki looks as if he's been killed, can we ever believe he's dead? Loki reappearing at the end effectively robs the movie of its only real emotional moment. And it reveals an unsettling reality about the Thor movies: Loki could, theoretically, never be defeated. Whenever we think he's about to die, it can turn out to be a trick. His specialty is trickery, after all. But this is like that 10 year old who's playing cops and robbers with you and everytime you shoot him with your imaginary hand-gun, he doesn't die. Dude, just play by the basic rules of "cops and robbers"! No, he has immunity. He's declared himself immortal, he can't die. Thus, rendering the game completely useless. This goes for the Thor movies as well. Apparently, the film's producers find too much value in Loki to actually ever kill him off. I don't know what game they're trying to play here, but you can't keep giving Loki serious death scenes and then taking them away, revealing he's not dead after all. Especially, when you're not going to reveal how he tricked everyone. It's stupid and it makes the Thor movies completely meaningless, as if they weren't meaningless already. It makes me seriously debate ever wanting to see another Thor movie again because if this shit is gonna keep happening, you can count me out.

Spoilers over.

And that's the problem with the Thor movies, overall. Nothing tangible happens in them. They're the worst kind of popcorn fluff. It has just the right amount of action beats to keep itself going and you can forgive much of its stupidity because, at least in Thor 2, it's at least playful about what it's doing. But these movies just don't work as a whole because without any moments where there are serious stakes at play, it's completely ineffective. If the action doesn't matter, then there's no reason to watch. If you're going to attempt to establish a set of rules for this movie and then subsequently subvert all of them, there's no real reason to watch this. The other Marvel movies, especially Iron Man, has a character that goes through actual struggles and he has serious foes. While not all the Iron Man movies are great, they at least work in its most basic function as superhero films. You have fun watching them and, by the end, it's a fun ride overall. The Thor movies is like a ride that promises to be an actual rollercoaster ride, but then turns out to be one of those cheesy simulator rides where nothing actually happens. It was...stimulating. But you ultimately get nothing tangible out of the experience. Your heart never races. You never have that exhilarating feeling of fear that's ultimately alleviated when you're allowed to get off the ride.

The Thor movies, "The Dark World" in particular, is just too vanilla. The reason why it's not a complete disaster is its sense of humor and the overall sense of fun it has with itself. It has its fun moments, absolutely. It's oddly enjoyable in some ways, but in the end, it's a dull, hollow experience. And, for a superhero movie, it's really kinda shitty.

Grade: C-

Friday, November 8, 2013

"Dallas Buyers Club" review

In "Dallas Buyers Club," Matthew McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a homophobic drug-addicted hustler whose spends his days either working as an electrician or going to the rodeo and his nights partying, having sex, drinking, and/or doing cocaine. When we first meet Ron, he's having his way with two women but he looks noticeably skinny and frail from the get-go. It's not until he has an accident at his day job when he finds out that he's tested positive for HIV. Not only that, but his T-cell count is very, very low and he's given just 30 days to live.

Shocked, angry, in disbelief, Ron initially dismisses such claims, arguing that only homosexuals get HIV/AIDS. But soon, after reading all kinds of AIDS-related material, Ron Woodroof begins to let reality set in and it's the kind of reality that few of us would be able to handle. The fact that he manages to pull himself together and survive for another seven years says a lot about the man. The fact that he's successfully able to smuggle unapproved drugs into the US and provide an entire Dallas community with these drugs----prolonging people's lives in the process---says even more about him.

But what's remarkable about the movie is the way the filmmakers refuse to paint Ron Woodroof as an absolute hero. While he eventually begins to soften up his view of homosexuals, as he supplies them with drugs (and profits off them, mind you), he's still the same hustler he's always been. He's still most interested in the keeping himself alive, first and foremost, as well as making some quick cash in the process. He goes from knowing absolutely nothing about the virus that's been living inside him to flying to Japan, Israel, and Germany in order to find the latest drug that can help. In order to evade drug dealing laws, Ron follows the lead of other cities and creates a "buyers club" in Dallas where people pay $400 to become a member and get the drugs that they need. I read one review where the writer complained that the movie never really lets Ron have a triumphant moment, but I think that's the point. I don't think Ron Woodroof ever realized the importance of what he was doing while he was doing it. He never has this big revelation, or this big change of heart, until the very end.

And really, even his change of heart feels muted and understated. What makes "Dallas Buyers Club" such a powerful film is its understated-ness. There are many times where the film could head into sentimental territory, much like Jonathan Demme's "Philadelphia" which has big emotional moments with Tom Hanks. "Dallas Buyers Club" is almost strictly about this business Ron creates and how this particular man suffers with such a deadly disease. Matthew McConaughey is the perfect man to play this Southern gentleman, but you'll be surprised at how far McConaughey goes here. McConaughey lost 38 pounds to play this role and you can feel his commitment to this character in every scene. He plays Ron with such great balance; he knew that if he ever overplayed his hand, it wouldn't work. He kept the character as consistent as possible from beginning to end, letting the subtlety of this character's growth really stand out instead of pointing out in very big ways.

A big part of why Ron Woodroof begins to soften his stance on homosexuality is his rude introduction to Rayon, played by Jared Leto. Rayon is transgendered, also suffering from the AIDS virus. Rayon has this cool, calm Southern drawl, and while Ron's repulsed by Rayon at first, he can't helped buy be charmed by him. He eventually lets Rayon in on his drug smuggling business because he knows Rayon would be much more successful in getting new clients. What he doesn't realize is how much he'll eventually care about Rayon and how important the mutual support and care they have for each other really is, until it's too late.

This Dallas Buyers Club has created a division among doctors, police, and the FDA. Dr. Eve Saks, played by Jennifer Garner, doesn't think so highly about what Ron's doing at first, but when she realizes how much more effective his drugs are than the FDA-approved AZT drug, she eventually starts to come around. Steve Zahn, who plays a police officer in the film, gets the Dallas police to back off Ron's business practices because Ron's able to supply him with a drug that can help his father's Alzheimer's.

Unfortunately, the FDA, the IRS, and other government organizations keep trying to shut down this buyers club. They have some legitimate reasons, mind you, but the lengths in which they try to go through will anger any viewer. Ultimately, what Ron is doing is helping hundreds of people and the drug approval process that the FDA goes through is so painstakingly slow that it'll kill millions of people before it helps anyone.

What "Dallas Buyers Club" is about is how one man's fight for survival affected an entire community, a community that this man would initially do anything to stay away from. While he still died seven years after his initial diagnosis, Ron Woodroof was able to die having found real purpose in his life. He was able to have some form of redemption even after living a wild lifestyle that rarely allows for such redemption to take place.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee, along with the film's screenwriters, do a fantastic job in finding the right balance to make Ron Woodroof really stand out as three-dimensional character. Matthew McConaughey gives the performance of his life here and makes this film so much more watchable than it already is. He's really become an exciting actor in the last few years, taking on more risky projects, and the most amazing thing is how it all seems so natural for him. You wonder why he spent so many years making formulaic romantic comedies, but now he has the kind of profile and box office clout that allows him to do a movie like this. "Dallas Buyers Club" is understated, yet powerful. The screenplay can be a little too on-the-nose at times and the ending may feel a bit too abrupt, but this is definitely a must-see. If anything else, it's worth it to watch McConaughey (and Jared Leto) give so much of himself to this role. Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof is the type of performance you're not likely to forget long after the movie is over.

Grade: A-