Thursday, February 26, 2015

Forgotten Films: Rachel, Rachel (Paul Newman, 1968)



The death of screenwriter Stewart Stern a couple of weeks ago brought some fine remembrances from numerous writers, many of whose lives he touched as a mentor as well as a filmmaker. Obviously, most folks who knew Stern's name -- if they knew it at all -- was as the screenwriter of Rebel Without a Cause. But his passing reminded me that, years ago, I’d written a “Forgotten Films” feature for Nerve.com about another work -- Rachel, Rachel, Paul Newman's directorial debut. Lesser known but almost equally as great as Rebel, it's since been released on DVD by Warner, so now there's actually a chance that people might rediscover it. What follows is a slightly edited version of my original piece.  (For more on the Forgotten Films project, go here.)

Saturday, February 7, 2015

My Top 20 (Actually, 21) Films of 2014



I’m late with this. I’m always late with this. In part it’s because, not having to worry about deadlines, I can be late with it. (None of my outlets ever seem to want a Top 10 list from me, for some reason.) In part it’s because I don’t usually think of my movie year as being finalized until I’ve submitted my poll in Mike D’Angelo’s Skandies poll, which usually closes in February and whose results are being rolled out as we speak, over here. Anyway, I won’t clear my throat so much, other than to ask: When the hell did I become such a big sci-fi nerd?


Sunday, January 4, 2015

Selma: Of Moral Arcs and Men




One of the most fascinating things about Ava DuVernay’s Selma is the way history itself seems to become an actual character in it. But not in a portentous, solemn way. Depicting the explosive events in the Alabama city in 1965, which culminated with the epic march from Selma to Montgomery, the film seeks not to contain the entire Civil Rights struggle, or to even offer a biopic-style portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by the great David Oyelowo). Rather, it focuses on the machinations, negotiations, in-fighting, and backroom dealings that went into the organization of the march and Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Watching the film, I was occasionally reminded of Francesco Rosi’s political dramas of the 1960s and 70s. In films like The Mattei Affair, Rosi gave us the spectacle of men talking and arguing about process, activism, methods, and organizations – history told through the mundane poetry of acronyms and theory, the kind of thing most filmmakers would ruthlessly avoid. It takes a unique kind of patience, sobriety, and skill to make that compelling on a movie screen. DuVernay’s clearly got all of that.
 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Interstellar: “The Loneliest Journey in Human History”



He wept to think that his dreamless slumber had spanned the entire lifetime of his first child.  When he could face the ordeal, he would summon the records that were waiting for him in the memory banks. He would watch his son grow to manhood and hear his voice calling across the centuries with greetings he could never answer…One day the pain would be gone, but never the memory.
           - Arthur C. Clarke, The Songs of Distant Earth*

You don’t hear the word “subtle” tossed around much in discussions of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, but here’s something I found quite nuanced about its first hour: The sly hint of a smile that creeps on Cooper’s (Matthew McConaughey) face whenever he discusses the idea of going off into space. For all his insistence that he has a family he needs to care for, Coop can’t help but grin – ever so slightly – when Professor Brand (Michael Caine) tells him that he’s the right man for a daring new space mission. And watch his eyes as he tries later to justify leaving to his distraught daughter Murph: “They chose me, Murph,” he says, and he seems to be beaming – more a proud child than a regretful father.

Coop, whose very name suggests restlessness, and whose one previous attempt to go into space was aborted before he left the stratosphere, basically is a child. Early on, when Murph comes to the breakfast table with a broken lunar lander toy from her bookshelf, he says, “What’d you do to my lander?” Coop’s daughter walks around school with his old science textbooks. He’s a loving parent, but not a particularly attentive one. He forgets parent-teacher conferences; he doesn’t know how to deal with his daughter’s problems; he’s more excited about chasing stray Indian spy drones than he is about getting his kids to school on time. He’s a dreamer, out of his time and place.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Ice Harvest: Something To Do With Death (R.I.P. Harold Ramis)



The sad and untimely passing of Harold Ramis yesterday exacerbated my need to revisit his 2005 film The Ice Harvest. The film, shot for a very modest budget, flopped in its initial release, but has gained admirers in the years since. At the time, it struck me as a solid comedy with more than the usual on its mind, but in recent years, I’ve come to think of it as a stone-cold masterpiece. Maybe that’s why it was the first film I thought of when I heard that Ramis had died – not Ghostbusters, not Caddyshack, not even the wondrous Groundhog Day. Or maybe it was something else – something to do with the film itself, which is one of the most haunted and despairing comedies I’ve ever seen.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street: Performance, Transaction, and the Big Sell


Martin Scorsese loves to watch Leonardo DiCaprio. I guess we’ve known that for some time, but it never quite hit me as it did during The Wolf of Wall Street. We can argue all day over whether this is an attempt to remake Goodfellas or whatever (it isn’t), but there’s one thing that’s pretty clear to me: This is as much one of Scorsese’s concert docs (Shine a Light, The Last Waltz, etc.) as it is one of his narrative epics. Jordan Belfort, the real-life “Wolf of Wall Street,” didn’t just become famous for his crooked financial practices; he was also renowned for his revival-like, inspirational speeches full of blustery bullshit to his workers. He sells stocks with messianic fervor; then he sells selling stocks with messianic fervor. It’s a perfect subject on which to hitch an extended DiCaprio concert. Half the movie is just him performing in front of people, and much of the rest of it is people reacting to him. There are even a couple of scenes one could call dance numbers.

(Spoiler alert for the rest of the review, to the extent that there can be spoilers for this movie...)

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis: "Like King Midas's idiot brother"



A mesmerizing, haunted red herring of a movie, the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis is full of glancing blows and half-hidden truths. Every once in a while some kind of meaning or pattern emerges for just a brief shimmering second and then disappears from view, like the cats that keep slipping away from our lonely, dour protagonist. But if this beautiful film seems unnaturally elusive, there’s a good reason for that: The real story is happening somewhere else.