‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ is One of Wes Anderson’s Most Inspired Works

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2009.

After watching “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” I am convinced Wes Anderson should make as many stop-motion animated movies as he possibly can. Nothing against his live action work, but this form of animation seems really suited to Anderson’s unique blend of comedy and dysfunction. While his last film, “The Darjeeling Limited,” was very good, it started to seem like he had been dealing with the same themes once too often. But with the brilliantly made “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” his material is given a freshness which, for a moment, seemed to have escaped him. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but this turned out to be one of the most enjoyable movies I saw in 2009. As a result, any frustration I had over not being able to see “Avatar” (it was a family outing, and it didn’t seem right for my 5-year-old niece) was completely forgiven.

“Fantastic Mr. Fox” is based on a children’s novel written by Roald Dahl whom Anderson considers one of his personal heroes. Dahl is the same man who wrote “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach” among other stories, and his work is characterized by a lack of sentimentality and a lot of dark humor. Judging from “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” with their strong black humor, it’s no wonder Anderson digs Dahl!

The Mr. Fox of the title is a cool and exceedingly clever animal, and we first see him with his wife sneaking into a farm to steal food. They are, however, caught in a trap which has his wife pointing out they should choose a safer form of work. Oh yeah, she also tells him she’s pregnant, and this changes the dynamics of their relationship in a heartbeat. We catch up with these two a couple of years later after they have found a home within a hole in the ground. Mr. Fox is now a newspaper columnist, and he and his wife are parents to a son, the sullen Ash, who constantly feels unappreciated in all he does. Still, Mr. Fox does not like where his family lives and promises to do better by them. Despite the warnings of his lawyer, Badger, he ends up buying a new home in the base of a tree. These new lodgings are also coincidently right near the gigantic farms owned by three ugly looking farmers: Walter Boggis, Nathan Bunce, and Franklin Bean. So, of course, this gets Mr. Fox all excited and back to his usual tricks of stealing food and drink while the rest of the family remains unaware. To quote another fox from a vastly different 2009 movie, “chaos reigns!”

The first thing people will notice about this movie is its “star studded” (what does that term mean anyway?) cast of actors. Voicing Mr. Fox is the most debonair of movie stars right now, George Clooney. With this, “The Men Who Stare at Goats” and “Up in The Air,” I can’t help but wonder when Clooney gets the time to sleep. At this moment, he’s everywhere, and his constant presence would be ever so annoying if he weren’t such a terrific actor. Clooney perfectly captures Mr. Fox’s confidence without ever becoming overly smug, and he exudes the cleverness this character has in getting back at the three farmers.

Meryl Streep, who has also had a busy year with this, “Julie & Julia” and “It’s Complicated,” voices Mrs. Fox. I actually wonder how much sleep she gets as well as Streep always seems to be learning a new accent she has not taken on yet. Streep is the perfect contrast to Clooney’s charmingly reckless nature, and she serves as the conscience Mr. Fox needs to hear out more often. Streep doesn’t do anything incredibly different with her voice like she did for Julia Childs, but its warmth is quite seductive at times.

Anderson has also employed many of his regulars for “Fantastic Mr. Fox” as well. Jason Schwartzman who was featured quite prominently in “Rushmore” and “The Darjeeling Limited” voices Mr. Fox’s son, Ash. Schwartzman perfectly captures the angst Ash feels at never fully winning his dad’s approval, and you feel Ash’s desperation as he goes to dangerous lengths to get any approval. Owen Wilson, who co-wrote “The Royal Tenenbaums” with Anderson, has a cameo voicing Ash’s athletic coach, Skip. You can tell its Wilson right away, and he gives Skip a wonderfully dry voice which gets a good number of laughs whenever he appears. Even Bill Murray, who has had a role in just about all of Anderson’s movies, voices Mr. Fox’s lawyer, Clive Badger, and he always seems to fit in perfectly in Anderson’s cinematic universe. And let us not forget Wallace Wolodarsky who voices the confidence challenged Kylie Sven Opossum who somehow gets sucked into Mr. Fox’s schemes against his better judgment.

Others to be found here are Michael Gambon, the current Dumbledore of the “Harry Potter” movies, who voices one of the farmers hellbent on eliminating the thieving Mr. Fox, Franklin Bean. Eric Chase Anderson, who is responsible for those illustrations of Anderson’s movies when they are given Criterion Collection releases, voices Mrs. Fox’s nephew Kristofferson who is perfect in every way Ash is not. But the most surprising voice here is from the actor who voices Rat, Bean’s security guard. Rat was a French character, so I assumed the actor voicing him was French. Turns out that it was actually Willem Dafoe! That’s right, the same guy who was in that other delightful 2009 movie with a fox, “Antichrist.”

With just about all of animated movies being done with computers and digital effects, it’s refreshing to see other filmmakers go a little retro with the stop-motion animation. The work here is brilliantly done, and I was surprised at how lifelike everything looked. Movies like these must require an exceeding amount of patience to make because they clearly take years to produce. It also fits right in with Anderson’s quirky sense of humor which remains intact a good ten years or so after “Rushmore.”

I also really dug the soundtrack Anderson chose for “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Each of his movies contain a great selection of music which veers from classic British rock songs to American rock among other genres. With this film, Anderson includes songs from the Beach Boys and Burt Ives which fuel the proceedingas with an undeniable sense of innocence and adventure. It also made me an instant fan of The Bobby Fuller Four whose song “Let Her Dance” plays during one of the most joyful moments this film has. Composing the score is Alexandre Desplat who has composed music for movies like “Firewall” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” among others. I love how Desplat captures the infectious spirit of everything which takes place.

Is this a kid appropriate movie? I think so. It did get a PG rating which seems appropriate. Sure, there are many bottles of alcoholic apple cider and some smoked chickens which might give you the wrong impression of the goings on being displayed, but I really think this movie is harmless. Compare this to the recently released sequel to “Alvin and the Chipmunks” which has not so subtle references to classic movies like “Taxi Driver” and “Silence of the Lambs” among others. This film is not just aimed at kids, but for the whole family as well.

While many will be more likely to view this movie on DVD or Blu-ray (or VHS if it’s still available), ” Fantastic Mr. Fox” really is a fantastic piece of work which deserves a big audience. Anderson, along with co-writer Noah Baumbach (“The Squid & The Whale” and “Margot at the Wedding“), has managed to take his fascination with families that are less than perfect and put them in a context which will not scar your kids for life. It was also cool to see Clooney play a character who, unlike the one he portrayed in “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” was not afraid to dance.

Was it worth not going to see “Avatar” this day and watching this instead? I hate to say it, but yeah.

* * * * out of * * * *

Worst Movie Trailers Ever: ‘Grizzly II – Revenge’

Okay, I have not seen this particular sequel yet, nor have I seen the workprint which has been floating around the internet for years. But seriously, I came across not just one but two trailers for “Grizzly II: Revenge,” and neither of them try to hide how god awful this film must be. It’s bad enough the title reminds me of another excruciatingly awful sequel involving a killer animal, “Jaws: The Revenge,” but this one is so shameless in inviting audiences to check it out regardless of its subpar filmmaking on display (and that’s being generous).

Truth be told, “Grizzly II’s” backstory is bound to be far more interesting than the film itself. A sequel to the 1976 “Jaws” knock-off “Grizzly,” it was made back in 1983, but its production quickly got derailed due to a lack of funding, constant feuding behind the scenes, and technical issues with its 16-foot mechanical bear. 37 years later, after a ton of legal wrangling, it is now being shown in its final cut. But unlike other long-lost films such as “Gone with The Pope” or long in the making sequels like “I Spit on Your Grave: Déjà vu,” this one is unlikely to be worth the wait.

The first thing we in these trailers is the appearance of a couple of Oscar winners, George Clooney and Laura Dern, and Charlie Sheen before he did “Platoon.” Their names headline this movie, but as we can see, they are not in it for very long. We see their screaming faces up close, and it is clear the bear will treat this trio as dinner since hibernation is out of the question. This is not the first time recognizable names have been exploited to garner attention for a movie, and it won’t be the last either.

From there, we are introduced to actors who are forced to spout ridiculous dialogue a film like this always has to offer. A female scientist tells a group that the bear they are hunting is “huge.” No! Really??!! I mean, heaven forbid the bear they are dealing with is a small one! Can you imagine a little cub going psycho on so many stupid and unsuspecting humans?

There is also a brief moment with Louise Fletcher of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” fame telling someone to kill the bear as soon as possible because there is a big concert coming up. And then we have John Rhys-Davies playing what I guess is a mountain man of sorts, and he has one of those dramatic moments where he pauses before saying something intended to be hair-raising (“It’s very bad… you got the devil bear!”).

Speaking of the concert, we are shown some of it as well. But while the crowd looks huge, the onstage performers look like they are re-enacting scenes from the so bad it’s good rock musical “The Apple.”

But perhaps the biggest problem with these trailers is the lack of the bear itself. We hear it grunting throughout and see its point of view from time to time, but we never see its face until the last few seconds. Before this, we see Davies preparing to attack it, and it looks like the actor is about to attack a big pile of wool designed to look like a bear’s legs. Clearly there is no real bear there as it would have gobbled up Davies before he had a chance to draw a weapon.

In the end, these trailers for “Grizzly II: Revenge” represent filmmaking and marketing at its most cynical. The producers are simply looking for a quick buck here as they are exploiting big names and this film’s troubled production history for all it is worth. This sequel may have been 37 years in the making, but that was never intended to be the case. Its production was simply a case of very bad luck, and now this sequel exists as a mere oddity.

All of this just makes me miss Bart The Bear, a real-life grizzly who upstaged Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin in “The Edge.” Now if Bart were in this, it just might have been worth watching.

‘Burn After Reading’ – Another Darkly Comedic Film From the Coen Brothers

WRITER’S NOTE: Ralph Garman selected this as his Video Vault pick on the August 14, 2020 episode of “The Ralph Report.” It was an excellent selection on his part.

WOW! That was quick! Following Joel and Ethan Coen’s Oscar-winning masterpiece “No Country for Old Men” in 2007, they gave us their follow-up of “Burn After Reading” a short later. Some filmmakers take their sweet time following up a cinematic triumph of theirs, but the Coens did not want to waste any time. This film follows the tradition of them making a movie which is the polar opposite of what they previously gave us. Most reviews at the time mentioned of how the Coens went from making “Fargo” to giving us “The Big Lebowski,” and how they went from “The Man Who Wasn’t There” to “Intolerable Cruelty.” With these brothers, it is always important to expect the unexpected because they are never out to do the same thing twice.

I’m not going to bother comparing “Burn After Reading” to “No Country for Old Men” because the only thing these two have in common is they were made by the same people. It’s like comparing the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup” to Lars Von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves,” and this threatens to say more about the critic than it does about the films themselves. This particular one is more of a lightweight effort you could ever expect from the Coens, and it is a reminder of how hysterically dark their comedy can get.

“Burn After Reading” is a crazy movie to say the least, and it does not really have a plot as much as it does a plethora of characters who are unleashed on us through a selfish act of utter stupidity. As a result, there is no rug of any kind which can tie this room of a movie together. The main drive of the action comes from Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) who discovers a disk at the gym he works at which contains classified information from a former CIA operative, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich). Along with his fellow co-worker, Linda Litzke (the always fantastic Frances McDormand), they both connive to act as “good Samaritans” and give the disk back to Osborne, providing he pays them several thousands of dollars as a reward. Naturally, this plan, which was not given much thought to begin with, goes awry and involves many others in this scheme, all of whom are never entirely sure of what they have gotten themselves into, or of whom they can trust.

Let’s look at the characters, shall we? Chad is a personal trainer at the Hardbodies gym who is, to put it mildly, rather dense and not playing with a full deck. His manager, Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins) doesn’t want to get involved in this blackmail plan, but he simultaneously has a huge unrequited crush on Linda, and she is upset because her insurance won’t cover the various forms of plastic surgery she wants to get. In the meantime, she is going through the motions of internet dating and ends up meeting Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). Harry is actually married and in the midst of an affair with Osborne’s wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), and she herself is planning to divorce her husband who is now in the midst of writing his memoirs. In the midst of all this, CIA Officer Palmer DeBakey Smith (David Rasche) reports to his superior (the priceless J.K. Simmons) of the goings on, and of the ways they are going to keep this all under wraps.

Are you with me so far? Clearly, this is a movie which will benefit from more than one viewing to keep up with everything. Like I said, there is no real plot to speak of, other than the blackmail of Osborne Cox. While in some movies this would be an Achilles heel, it works for the Coens as it allows you to keep guessing as to what will happen next. Just when you think you know where things are going, it has another surprise up its sleeve. There were moments both funny and shocking, and I was eager to see what would happen next.

“Burn After Reading” combines a lot of actors the Coen brothers have worked with over the years like George Clooney and Frances McDormand, and they also got to add newcomers to their strange cinematic universe like John Malkovich and Brad Pitt. It’s a kick to see all these actors let their hair down in a film which was never meant to be taken seriously by anyone.

The most inspired performance in this movie comes from Pitt. Clean shaven, thin, buff, and an avid bicycle rider, his character is a hilarious creation of a physically fit moron who has no clear idea of just how in over his head he is. It was funniest performance since his ultimate stoner of a character, Floyd, in “True Romance.”

Another one who is a huge kick to watch here is Clooney as he blows away just every bit of coolness in his system to play an increasingly neurotic philanderer who is always on the verge of anaphylactic shock as he keeps warning everyone he hangs out with about his life-threatening allergies. To see Clooney let loose here is a reminder of how he constantly tries in real life to not take himself too seriously. It also makes you wonder if he and Swinton will ever be in a movie together where they play characters who have a healthy relationship with one another. Keep in mind, they previously appeared together in “Michael Clayton.”

It’s actually a shock to realize this is the first time Malkovich has ever worked with the Coen brothers. He lets it all out here as a CIA operative who quits his job after being demoted in part because of his drinking problem. To see this actor go completely nuts at all the complete idiots he has to deal with is such a hoot. Not many actors can play a character who is quick to absorb the situation they are in and yet still remain in the dark when it comes to the truth of the matter. Malkovich may prefer the stage to the silver screen, but it is always great to see him do something like this.

Frances McDormand gives this movie one of its most lovable characters, in a manner of speaking, as she makes Linda into someone who wants to be free of the ravages of getting older. Seriously, give McDormand the smallest role in a movie, and she always succeeds in making it one of the most unforgettable. If you would like further proof of this, check her out in John Sayles’ “Lonestar.”

Richard Jenkins ends up giving us perhaps the saddest character here, and it is one we hope we don’t end up being. You know, that one person who is forever punished eternally with the pangs of unrequited love. Throughout, Jenkins shows you in his eyes of how much he wants to be with Linda, and he reminds us of how he remains one of the most dependable character actors working in movies.

And I loved the scenes between Rasche and Simmons in the offices of the CIA and how flippant they seemed about the situations which occurred here. I have yet to see another movie where you have CIA members seeming rather laid back in the decisions they make. It never comes down to doing what is best for their country, but of how to make this strange chain of events not get too overwhelming or hectic. Their inconvenience is the biggest problem because it involves secrets getting out, and of more responsibility and paperwork. Seriously, who wants that?

“Burn After Reading” may not be on the same comedic level of brilliance like “The Big Lebowski” or “Raising Arizona,” but it sure is a lot of fun and filled with more daring and originality than many movies which came out in 2008. Many have described it as a “trifle” from the Coens, but you have to admire what they accomplished here as it never fails to entertain from start to finish. We can also take comfort in the fact that these brothers continue to entertain and enthrall us from one film to the next, and their artistic brilliance never lets us down.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

One From Jason Reitman: Up in The Air

A life without many, if any, emotional attachments seems like an appealing lifestyle to many, especially for those who are ever so career minded. To not have to worry about kids because you don’t have any, and to not get involved in serious relationships with others leaves you with a lot of room to breathe in. But what happens when something comes along to shatter the façade of this lifestyle? Will you be able to handle it without reverting to your old ways? Will it make you realize just how lonely a person you truly are to where you have no idea how to alleviate this permanent state of solitude you are stuck in? One thing’s for sure, this kind of life is not meant to last forever, and eventually you will be greeted with an unexpected awakening. Hugh Grant got to play a character who lived this kind of like in “About A Boy,” and George Clooney came to play a similar one in Jason Reitman’s brilliant film, “Up in The Air.”

Based on the 2001 novel by Walter Kim, Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a man whose job is to travel all over the country to corporate offices to lay off employees. Companies hire people like Ryan so that their bosses can easily squirm their way out of this depressing part of the job (pussies). What he does feels a bit similar to the sad duty military officers or police officers have in telling families their husbands, wives or long-lost relatives have died. While Ryan is not informing anyone of a dead family member, the people on the receiving end don’t really react all much differently. Still, he sees his job as a service as he tries to make them see this is not the end, but simply the beginning of a new life. In addition, he also conducts conferences where he talks about “emptying the backpack” of attachments and things you don’t really need. Hence, the backpack is clearly symbolic of his life at this point for there is not much of anything inside of it.

The perks of this unappealing job? Well, it does allow him to travel on airplanes for over 300 days out of the year. He does have a puny one-bedroom apartment back in Omaha, Nebraska, but he is barely there. For him, the airports and airplanes feel like his real home, so his address truly is up in the air. Still, he has the same problem those seriously addicted to social media have; a serious fear of human contact. They say they don’t want any personal attachments in life, but it speaks of some deeper fear they may not be aware of consciously.

Clooney gave one of his very best performances in this film, and he has always been great at playing the world-weary man who has seen just about everything. From a distance, this almost seems like a walk in the park for him as this movie’s trailers have him flashing that famous grin of his every five minutes. But he brings a real depth to a really well written character, and despite the fact he plays a man none of us would want to meet ever, he makes Ryan Bingham likable and very sympathetic.

Ryan ends up capturing the attention of another corporate employee who spends more time in the air than in the office, Alex Goran. She is played by Vera Farmiga, and she is as great in the role as she is seriously sexy! The first scene between these two reminded me so much of the scene in “Jaws” where Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss compare their scars as they show off all these executive cards and credit cards which they have earned from travelling so much and for staying in the same hotels. The chemistry between Clooney and Farmiga is instant, and it sells us on their budding relationship almost immediately. You want their characters to end up together as they are essentially the same person, although Alex puts it in another way:

“I’m like you with a vagina.”

Of course, there is a third wheel to balance things and give a little more perspective on the story. That third wheel is Natalie Keener, a recent graduate from Cornell University who has a lot of smarts, but who also has much to learn about the real world. Natalie is played by Anna Kendrick, and she is wonderful here. Natalie is here to prepare Bingham and his colleagues for a new way of firing employees; they will do it online from the comfort of their own offices. So basically, it makes a depressing piece of business all the colder. It also threatens Ryan’s way of life as he lives to be on a plane instead of his tiny dump of an apartment, and while there will always be change, his resistance to this change is very understandable.

With this development comes the road movie part as Ryan takes Natalie to different cities across the country to show her how he does his job, and of how the use of computers will detract from it and his frequent flier miles rewards. Kendrick does brilliant work in taking Natalie from being confident yet naïve to vulnerable and sad. None of the education she got could ever have prepared her for the unpredictability of a job which is never easy no matter how it’s done. Seeing her address a corporate meeting to her doing a drunken karaoke rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” should give you an idea of the range she has as an actress.

Watching Clooney instruct Kendrick on how to pack her suitcase and leave stuff out she needs is hilarious as it reminds me of my parents constantly begging me to put everything in one suitcase when traveling. This way, I won’t have to check any luggage in. I don’t know about you, but I get so sick and tired of hauling a suitcase all over the place when I have my messenger bag to worry about already. Who packed this suitcase anyway? Okay, I’m getting off track here…

“Up in The Air,” was Jason Reitman’s third film and, along with “Juno” and “Thank You for Smoking,” he showed us how infinitely talented he is as a director. He even makes this movie even more authentic to those times of high unemployment by casting real people who have lost their jobs. This brings a lot more reality to the movie and reminds us of how unfair life can be despite our individual efforts to do the best job possible. Reitman also does not sell out the movie with a false ending where everything is wrapped up neatly. In fact, it proves to be far more devastating than I ever could have expected.

Reitman also populates the movie with other great actors who make as strong an imprint on the film as the leads do. Jason Bateman plays Bingham’s boss, Craig Gregory, and this role is the flipside of the manager he played in “Extract.” It turns out Bateman can be charming in one role and utterly smarmy in another with no problem. Amy Morton is also really good as Ryan’s estranged sister Kara, a woman suffering through her own midlife crises which her brother makes look like he is getting through it with no problem. Melanie Lynskey (great in both “The Informant!” and “Away We Go“) is a wonderful presence as Julie, Ryan’s younger sister who is about to get married. I was also surprised to see Danny McBride here in a slightly more dramatic role as Julie’s soon-to-be husband, Jim Miller. McBride definitely has some funny moments, but he really sells himself as a man who is not sure if he’s doing the right thing or not.

I also have to give a lot of credit to some actors who make the most of their respective cameos. Zach Galifianakis gives this movie one of its funniest moments as Steve, one of many fired employees whom Ryan has had to face. Looking at the things his character could have done had he been fired by his cowardly boss instead is hysterical. Then you have J.K. Simmons who gives his suddenly jobless character of Bob a morbid sense of humor as he manages to contain himself in his understandably pissed off state. When Ryan ends up making Bob see this is not an end but a beginning, Simmons takes this character from being depressed to being aroused with possibilities he thought were long since lost to him. Simmons is onscreen for only a couple of minutes, but he infuses his role with a dry sense of humor which makes his performance especially memorable.

Another thing I really loved about “Up in The Air” is how wonderfully complex the characters are, and this includes the ones who are only onscreen for a few minutes. We may have the stereotypical traits of each character nailed into our heads, but they keep revealing different parts of their personalities in ways which truly surprised me. Once we have these characters figured out, another layer is revealed which affects their relationships with one another quite deeply. I would love it if more movies allowed to have more multi-faceted characters in them instead of just succumbing to one-dimensional freaks who exist to annoy the hell out of you.

“Up in The Air” was far and away one of my favorite films of 2009, and it is interesting to watch it again years later during a time of a frightening global pandemic. On top of many worried about their health and toilet paper, this pandemic has left a record number of Americans out of work. This film was quick to remind me of what it was to suddenly lose a job and how to move on from there. It also has a cameo from Young M.C. who sings his hit song “Bust a Move.” He certainly has gained a lot of weight since the 1990’s. Then again, I should talk (sigh)…

* * * * out of * * * *

The Best Movies of 1998

1998 logo

Now it’s time to go to take a look back at the movies of 1998, the same year when California started the ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. What else happened that year? John Glenn became the oldest astronaut to go into space, and it gave us a reason to watch the space shuttle launch on television for the first time in years. The Denver Broncos became the first AFC team in 14 years to win the Super Bowl when they beat the Green Bay Packers (I’m so glad I didn’t bet on that game). The whole controversy of President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky exploded, which the President’s enemies seized upon like teenagers going through their dads’ Playboy magazine issues while he is out of town. And, most ironically, a court in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan ruled Osama Bin Laden was “a man without a sin” in regard to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Well, we knew better.

As for myself, I was in my second year at UC Irvine and my fourth year in college. I still had a dorm room all to myself, and I was busy with school work and appearing in plays like “Enrico IV,” “The Scarlet Letter” and “Twelfth Night.” Of course, I tried to get out to the movies as much as humanly possible. Many of the movies on this list were ones I actually didn’t get around to seeing until years later, so it’s probably best I am giving you this list now.

10) There’s Something About Mary

Theres Something About Mary poster

Bobby and Peter Farrelly gave us one of the most gut bustlingly hilarious movies ever made with “There’s Something About Mary.” I was dying with laughter while watching this, and I wasn’t expecting to. In retrospect, I should have though since this came from the same directors who gave us “Dumb and Dumber” as well as “Kingpin.” On top of having so many funny moments, the movie also has a lot of heart in the way it portrays the two main characters played by Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz. Those of you who think Diaz can’t act need to revisit this one because she is so good at playing a teenager who we later see as a well-meaning adult with a few too many stalkers.

9) American History X

American History X poster

So much has been said about the making of “American History X” and the bitter disagreements between director Danny Kaye and actor Edward Norton. Regardless of whoever deserves the majority of the credit, there is no denying this is a powerful and unforgettable motion picture. Norton gave one of his very best performances as white supremacist Derek Vineyard, and the look he gives the camera after killing two people is a very chilling moment which is not easily erased from the conscious mind. Norton also gets great support from Edward Furlong who plays Danny, Derek’s brother, who threatens to tread down the same hateful path Derek has. Kaye, even if he didn’t get final cut, gives the movie an amazing look in black and white which captures the escalating tension of Derek’s journey from a world of hate to a place of compassion.

8) Dark City

Dark City movie poster

Alex Proyas followed up his brilliant adaptation of “The Crow” with this visionary sci-fi epic about a man who wakes up not knowing who he is, and of those who seek to capture him for their own twisted experiments. Like many great sci-fi movies “Dark City” was a box office flop upon its release, but it has since found an audience to where there’s no denying it is a cult classic. You’re along for the ride with Rufus Sewell as he tries to understand his place in a world ruled over by the Strangers. This movie remains suspenseful to the very end, and the look of the movie feels like no other I have ever seen. Jennifer Connelly also stars in the film and looks beautiful as always, and it is interesting to watch Kiefer Sutherland play a complete wimp after watching him for so long on “24.”

7) Out Of Sight

Out of Sight movie poster

Here’s the film which brought Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney together, and it also serves as one of the very best adaptations of an Elmore Leonard novel. With “Out of Sight,” Clooney proved without a doubt there was going to be life for him after “ER” with his performance as Jack Foley, the most successful bank robber in America. When Jack escapes from jail, he ends up sharing some trunk space with Federal Marshall Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez). “Out of Sight” also marked the beginning of a career resurgence for Soderbergh, and he got to work from a truly great screenplay written by Scott Frank. Also starring is the fantastic Catherine Keener, Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn, Dennis Farina, Isaiah Washington, and the always reliable Don Cheadle. This movie was a lot of fun, and Clooney and Lopez had such great chemistry together.

6) Rushmore

Rushmore movie poster

This was my introduction to the highly creative world of Wes Anderson. “Rushmore” is an instant comedy classic with more depth to it than many others of its genre at the time. Max Fischer is an original eccentric character; a young man involved in just about ever extra-curricular activity at school, all at the expense of his report card. Jason Schwartzman is great fun to watch as Max, and Bill Murray gives a performance which damn well should have earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. With Anderson, his comedy is fueled by the sadness and isolation of his characters, and of the things they desperately want in life. “Rushmore” is filled with as much meaning as it does laughter as both Schwartzman and Murray battle over the same woman played by Olivia Williams. It also owes a lot to the late Mike Nichols’ enduring classic “The Graduate.”

5) Happiness

Happiness movie poster

Todd Solondz’s follow up to “Welcome To The Dollhouse” may very well be the most ironically titled film in cinema history. Controversy followed “Happiness” all the way to its release, and the MPAA of course just had to give it an NC-17 (it ended up being released unrated). One of the blackest of black comedies ever, it follows the lives of three sisters and the various people who are a part of their fragile lives. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a frighteningly memorable performance as an obscene phone caller, and it was one of the first real examples of the brilliant character actor we came to see him as. But the bravest performance comes from Dylan Baker who plays Bill Maplewood, a psychiatrist, husband and loving father who, unbeknownst to his family, is a pedophile. Baker ends up making you empathize, but not sympathize, with a man who we would instantly despise once we discovered his terrible secret. As unappealing as these characters may seem, Solondz makes us see ourselves in them and to where we cannot see we are not all that different.

4) The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski movie poster

I didn’t get to see this when it first came out in theaters, but my parents did eventually strap me down in a chair to watch it, and this should give you an idea of how much they love it. The Coen brothers follow up to “Fargo” did not get the same reception when originally released, but it has since built up an amazing cult following. Much of this is thanks to Jeff Bridges’ brilliant performance as Jeffrey Lebowski, aka “The Dude.” What could have been a performance built on stereotypes of the slackers we know in life turns out to be perhaps the most memorable character in Bridges’ long and underappreciated career. It’s an ingenious comedy with not so much a plot as a connected series of events which start with the theft of Lebowski’s carpet which he says “tied the whole room together.”

3) The Truman Show

The Truman Show movie poster

It still seems criminal how Peter Weir’s film was surprisingly, and infuriatingly, snubbed for a Best Picture nomination. Jim Carrey gives a truly astonishing and powerful performance as Truman Burbank, a man who slowly becomes aware he is the star of a reality show about his life. Yes, he should have been nominated for an Oscar alongside his co-star Ed Harris, but there will always be the unforgivable snubs. “The Truman Show” has become a prophetic movie of sorts as reality shows are the norm in today’s culture, and this obsession we have over them remains very strong to this day. Andrew Niccol’s screenplay was a brilliant examination of how we might view our own life if we found out it was based on a lie, and that everything we know is actually wrong. This stands as one of Weir’s best American movies in a long and justly acclaimed career.

2) Shakespeare In Love

Shakespeare in Love movie poster

While it may have gotten overwhelmed by Miramax’s Oscar campaign, there’s no denying “Shakespeare In Love” is a brilliant and highly entertaining romantic comedy. The film tells the story of how Shakespeare goes about writing “Romeo & Ethel The Pirate’s Daughter” which eventually evolves into “Romeo & Juliet.” Gwyneth Paltrow gives a most entrancing performance, and I loved watching her every second she appeared onscreen. Joseph Fiennes is perfectly cast as Shakespeare himself, a passionate writer who is hopelessly enamored with Paltrow’s Viola. I also got a huge kick out of Geoffrey Rush’s performance as theater manager Philip Henslowe, a brilliant comic creation who steals every scene he is in. “Shakespeare In Love” serves as not just a great story of how Shakespeare may have written one of the most immortal plays ever, but also as a great satire of the film industry and how it deviously profits from unsuspecting participants.

And now, drum roll please…

1) Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan movie poster

It would be so easy to put this as my top choice thanks to some of the greatest and most vividly realistic depictions of war ever put on film. Steven Spielberg’s depiction of the landing on D-Day is nothing short of amazing, and it was one of the reasons why I saw this film five times before it came out on DVD. But moreover, it is a deeply respectful salute to those war veterans who served in the armed forces during World War II. “Saving Private Ryan” is filled with great performances from a great cast of actors including Edward Burns, Jeremy Davies, Giovanni Ribisi, Tom Sizemore, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Matt Damon, and Barry Pepper among others. But it also has one of Tom Hanks’ best performances ever as Captain John Miller, a military man who leads his men to find Private Ryan and bring him back home to his grieving mother. Just when you thought Spielberg had peaked with “Schindler’s List,” he gives us yet another astonishing piece of filmmaking which shows him at the height of his powers.

Honorable Mentions:

Primary Colors – Great Mike Nichols movie based on the book by Joe Klein. It features great performances from John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Kathy Bates as well as an extraordinary cameo from Mykelti Williamson.

Bullworth – Warren Beatty’s scathing political satire may be a bit too broad, but it is a very effective indictment of how the Democratic Party let the American people down.

Elizabeth – Definitely worth mentioning for the brilliant breakthrough performance of Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth.

Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas – Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s crazy novel is a true acid trip nightmare with Johnny Depp channeling the reporter all the way to what he was famous for wearing and smoking.

God Said, Ha! – Wonderful concert film of Julia Sweeney’s one-woman show which deals with the time her brother got cancer, and of how she later got cancer herself.

Hurlyburly – Film adaptation of David Rabe’s play dealing with Hollywood players and their dysfunctional relationships with one another. Features a great cast which includes Sean Penn, Chazz Palminteri and Anna Paquin among others.

Affliction – Another emotionally bruising movie from Paul Schrader which is based on the novel by Russell Banks. Features career high performances from Nick Nolte and the late James Coburn who deservedly won an Oscar for his work.

Next Stop Wonderland – An eccentrically unusual kind of romantic comedy which helped introduce actress Hope Davis to a wider audience.

Ronin – One of the last films from the late John Frankenheimer which stars Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, and Jonathan Pryce among others. It also features some of the very best car chases of the 1990’s.

Run Lola Run – Kinetic German thriller with Franka Potente that views her attempts to save her boyfriend’s life in three different ways. This was a great teaser for what would come in 1999, when movies of different kinds proceeded to change the rules of where a story could go.

The Thin Red Line – Terrence Malick’s first movie in over 20 years threatened to be more meandering than anything else, but it is filled with such powerful imagery and to where many considered it more anti-war than “Saving Private Ryan” was.

John Carpenter’s Vampires – It was advertised as a horror movie, but it is really a more of a western and the closest John Carpenter has ever come to making one. James Woods’ performance alone is worth the price of admission as he plays the most badass of vampire hunters, Jack Crow.

Star Trek: Insurrection – Much better than its reputation may suggest, being an odd numbered Star Trek movie and all.

 

 

‘Tomorrowland’ is Imaginative, But it Also Feels Incomplete

Tomorrowland movie poster

Tomorrowland” is to Brad Bird as “Interstellar” was to Christopher Nolan, an opportunity for a well-regarded filmmaker to wear their heart on their sleeve and give us a motion picture which aims to inspire and lift us up from the cynical worldview we have grown accustomed to for far too long. But whereas Nolan found success with “Interstellar,” Bird comes up short with “Tomorrowland” as his love letter to all the dreamers out there becomes undone by a thin plot lacking in narrative drive.

Britt Robertson stars as Casey Newton, a highly optimistic and tech savvy teenager who lives in Cape Canaveral, Florida and gets into trouble while trying to save a launch pad from being demolished. In the process, she comes into contact with a “T” pin which takes her to a futuristic place where imagination is infinite and possibilities for a better world are endless. When the pin suddenly loses the power to take her to that place, she seeks out Frank Walker (George Clooney), an inventor who showed a lot of promise while living in Tomorrowland but was later banished from there when his work started to frighten people off. Together, they find their way back to this wondrous place and work to save it before it is forever destroyed.

Now I love how Bird has made a movie which encourages all the dreamers out there to keep on dreaming. Despite how dark the world can seem at times, his encouragement to those who want to use their imagination to make it a better place is commendable. Many will snicker at this optimism, but their snickering will end up saying more about them than it will Bird.

Having said that, “Tomorrowland” isn’t entirely sure of what it wants to say or how to say it, and it takes forever for the movie to get to where it needs to go. By the time we do make it back to the futuristic place, the movie has devolved into a typical good versus evil plot which robs it of any uniqueness it could ever hope to have. In this kind of movie, we know good will triumph over evil, so the stakes never feel very high as a result.

It’s a real shame because Bird gets things off to a fantastic start with the movie’s prologue which introduces us to Frank Waller when he was a young boy who gets invited into the magical world of Tomorrowland, and our imaginations are quickly aroused by what we see. Watching Frank discover a place that exceeded his wildest dreams had me thinking about when I was a child and where my imagination often took me, and it was a time where anything seemed possible. Now while we find ourselves trading fantasy for reality as we get older, I like to think I have not lost any childlike innocence after all these years and watching this part of “Tomorrowland” made me realize I have not.

But after the prologue is over, “Tomorrowland quickly becomes a film unsure of what tone it wants to set, and it devolves into a typical story of an optimistic teenager trying to get a broken-down adult to reignite their potential before everything goes to hell. Furthermore, we are introduced to a number of evil robots who aim to take Casey out with extreme prejudice, but it feels like they belong in a different movie. In the process of trying to balance out the darker elements with the lighter ones, “Tomorrowland” becomes a total mess.

I felt sorry for Clooney as he is forced to play a character who has long since become embittered about the sour lemons life has handed him. As a result, he gives one of his weakest performances to date as he is forced to take Frank Walker from a state of disbelief to one of true belief in a very unbelievable way. Clooney remains one of the most dependable actors working in movies, and if he can’t make a character like this work on the big screen then no one can.

“Tomorrowland” also has a scene with Clooney and other actors travelling to another dimension in a rocket, and this is bound to bring back bad memories “Batman & Robin” which had the Oscar-winning actor in a similar situation. I guess some bad movie memories can never be permanently erased.

Robertson makes for an appealing heroine as Casey, and she is one of the reasons why “Tomorrowland” works to a certain extent. Even as the movie suffers through its various flaws, she keeps us engaged as we root for her character to triumph over those who are far too quick to crush the wonder she has about life. Without her, this movie could have been worse.

When we do get to the end of “Tomorrowland,” the whole venture ends up feeling incomplete as the writers appear to be uncertain as to how to tie everything up. You could say the ending gives hope to all the dreamers out there, but it frustrates more than anything else as “Tomorrowland” feels like it ended sooner than it should have. Judging from this movie’s opening box office weekend, the odds of it getting a sequel are pretty bad.

It really sucks to give a movie like this a bad review. “Tomorrowland” has its heart in the right place and has some wonderful images, but its story seems stuck in stasis and lacks the imagination to really inspire us. Bird remains a gifted filmmaker and has directed a number of highly entertaining movies like “The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” and “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.” “Tomorrowland” marks his first directorial misfire, but I have no doubt he will be back on top before we know it. It’s just a shame he made a movie about wide-eyed optimism which was constructed in a half-hearted way.

I would also like to add this movie’s commercial failure made Disney cancel a third “Tron” movie. Blasphemy!

* * out of * * * *

‘Ocean’s Thirteen’ is a Better Than Expected Sequel

Oceans Thirteen movie poster

Ocean’s Thirteen” was one of the few threequels from 2007 which really delivered without any frustration, and I was relieved how it did not suffer from an overabundance of plot and characters. True, the story and twists in plot are a bit hard to follow at times, but this was also the case in the last two movies in this trilogy, so why should this one be any different? This is a movie which invites you to sit back and relax and to have some fun, and for me it delivered.

The gang is back with the exception of Julia Roberts who was in the previous two movies, and Catherine Zeta-Jones who appeared in the last one. It’s just as well because there really is not much they could do here. They would have been wasted in bit parts which would not have required much from their presence. As George Clooney and Brad Pitt point out at the beginning in regards to the characters Roberts and Jones played, “IT’S NOT THEIR FIGHT!”

This one starts off with their friend Reuben Tishkoff (Elliot Gould) in the hospital where he is recovering from a nasty heart attack. This was brought on when he got screwed out of a partnership by the devious Willie Bank (Al Pacino) who is legendary in Las Vegas for stabbing everyone who ever worked for them in the back without any remorse. None of Ocean’s gang is happy about this, and they quickly begin to plot their revenge against him. Their plan is to essentially bankrupt Willie on the opening night of his new casino, and whether or not they win is irrelevant as long as he loses big time.

Clooney and Pitt are as cool as ever in returning to Las Vegas, the scene of their insidiously clever crime from the first movie. They never miss a beat as their confidence remains unbreakable while they attempt to screw over Pacino’s character. Matt Damon is great as always as Linus, the guy who always wants to put more into the plan, and he remains convinced of how he can pull it off if those around him would just give him a chance. However, I could easily spot who his character’s father was from a mile away. Don Cheadle has some great scene stealing moments as Basher Tarr, especially when he tries to divert Pacino’s attention in one key scene.

Pacino has been ridiculed for some time now as he is constantly accused of giving the same bombastic performance over and over again. Ever since his Oscar winning turn in “Scent of a Woman,” people keep saying he overplays every role given to him, and while there is a lot of evidence to this fact, I don’t think it’s always the case (“Donnie Brasco” anybody?). He succeeds in underplaying his role here, and his usual bombast is not on display as much. He has a quiet menace in some scenes which really works, and Clooney plays off of it very effectively to where they both generate some good chuckles along the way.

It’s also great to see Ellen Barkin again and reuniting with her “Sea of Love” co-star Pacino as his chief assistant, Abigail Sponder. She still looks very hot, and it’s nice to see her acting again instead of hearing about all those divorce stories between her and her millionaire ex-husband. She is a lot of fun to watch here, and there is a great moment where she ends up getting seduced by Matt Damon’s character, and the way she plays her inevitable seduction is both hilarious and quite believable.

Carl Reiner and Elliott Gould return as well to the Ocean’s franchise, and their presence is very welcome. Hollywood is as always obsessed with youth, so it’s nice to see two older guys still being allowed to make their mark in a big Hollywood movie like this. And I don’t want to leave out Shaobo Qin who plays Yen. Qin gets more to do here than he has in the other Ocean’s movies, and his acrobatic skills come into focus when he has to make his way across a very unpredictable elevator system.

Andy Garcia is also back as Terry Benedict, and the Ocean crew is forced to partner with him in order to complete their revenge against Pacino’s character. How Garcia’s character gets done in is too good to spoil here, and it results in one of this sequel’s most inspired moments.

Steven Soderbergh, or Peter Andrews if you really want to call him that, keeps the coolness factor up and running, and he provides us with what this movie is supposed to give, a good time at the movies. With a movie like this, you can’t ask for much more. This must serve as a vacation for Soderbergh from all his more serious movies like “Traffic” and “The Good German,” and it is always great to see him jumping from one genre to another.

Whereas a lot of sequels have underwhelmed mostly because of constant overhyping, this one is smart enough not to fall victim to that. I was always surprised when I heard they were going to do a sequel to “Ocean’s Eleven,” and then another sequel after “Ocean’s Twelve.” Each one delivered for me, and this one does as well.

* * * out of * * * *

 

‘Gravity’ is the Ultimate Outer Space Movie

Gravity movie poster

I remember being fascinated and terrified by outer space movies when I was a young boy. Seriously, I kept getting vertigo when I saw all those stars shining brightly to where I was afraid I would fall into space and be lost forever. Of course, back then I still had a lot to learn about gravity. It’s been a long time since an outer space movie gave me this kind of sensation. The last one was Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” which, when it came out in 1995, was perhaps the most realistic motion picture about life in space and of how dangerous it can be. But now that same sensation has come back in an exhilarating rush with Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity,” which may very well be the greatest movie about life in outer space I have ever seen.

“Gravity” is an amazing movie, just amazing. It left me speechless with its amazing visual effects and the tour de force performances from George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, and it made me feel like I was right up there in outer space with them both. The movie opens with the following:

At 372 miles above the Earth

There is nothing to carry sound

No air pressure

No oxygen

Life in space is impossible

For 90 minutes, Cuarón never lets you forget this as we watch astronauts Matt Kowalski (Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) struggle to survive after their space shuttle is destroyed by debris from a satellite. From there, they are floating in space with little oxygen and very few options. It may sound like a thin plot for a movie, but it’s more than enough to make “Gravity” one of the most nail biting films to sit through in some time.

I almost don’t want to know how the special effects were accomplished for fear the film’s magic will forever be ruined for me. “Gravity” reminds you of how great going to the movies can be as it sucks you right in to a world many of us have never seen up close. Cuarón shows the inherent dangers of space as well as the sheer beauty of it, and there’s no beating the view of planet Earth hundreds of miles above its surface.

Cuarón, just as he did with “Children of Men,” gives us truly brilliant scenes which look like they were all done in one shot. I’m still trying to wrap my head around how he managed to keep the camera rolling for such a long period of time. “Gravity” starts in space and pretty much ends there, and it’s the lack of gravity which makes the film seem like a new kind of roller coaster ride. I bet a number of audience members will get motion sickness while watching this movie as they’ll be struggling to find their center of balance just like Bullock does when she becomes untethered from the space shuttle. I remember all those trailers for horror movies like “Dawn of the Dead” which said the theater had barf bags available for those who needed them. Well, “Gravity” is proof movies don’t have to inhabit the horror genre for you to need a barf bag. Anyway, that’s more information than you need to know.

But as technically brilliant as “Gravity” is, it never forgets the human element which other filmmakers don’t pay as much attention to. We come to care deeply about the characters Clooney and Bullock play because they are not just a couple of stereotypical astronauts spouting clichéd dialogue. They are flesh and blood human beings with needs and desires, and they need each other to survive. Seeing them tumble through space will make you appreciate the brakes you have on your car.

Clooney rarely, if ever, lets us down as an actor, and he is perfectly cast as the veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski. He immediately gives the sense Matt has been to outer space countless times without having to point it out. From start to finish, Clooney is the calm center in the middle of the storm, and he gives the movie the positive energy it needs. Even as things get worse, he gives Dr. Stone a reason to keep on going.

But when all is said and done, “Gravity” really belongs to Bullock. She may still wonder if she deserved her Oscar for “The Blind Side,” but after watching her here, it’s clear she did, and she may be getting another one. Bullock gives the performance of her life as she reveals her character’s inner struggles which illustrate how there’s more going on with her than just trying to stay alive. The more we learn about Dr. Stone, the more we see this is not so much a movie about a woman lost in space as it is a woman trying to escape the darkness which has engulfed her soul.

Bullock can just draw you into a scene with her eyes which easily reveals much of her character’s inner torment as her oxygen continues to run out. I’ve always admired her as an actress, and her roles in “Demolition Man” and “Speed” showed her to be an unforgettable talent. In recent years, we have seen her do an endless number of romantic comedies, so it feels rare to see her in a dramatic film. But Bullock is so enthralling to watch here, and there is not a single false note to be found in her performance.

I don’t think it’s too much to say Cuarón is a magician when it comes to making a movie. He gave us an enchanting childlike vision of the world with “A Little Princess,” a marvelous coming of age story with “Y Tu Mamá También,” the first truly great Harry Potter movie with “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and one of the more unique dystopian science fiction movies of recent years with “Children of Men.” From one film to the next, he has given us astonishing visions which have us in awe over what he can accomplish. Cuarón leaves you with a strong sense of wonder with “Gravity,” and it’s a quality seriously lacking in most movies these days.

Cuarón is also aided tremendously by a strong creative team which includes his son Jonás who co-wrote the screenplay with him, Steven Price who composed the movie’s hypnotic score, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki who makes space look as beautiful and inhospitable in equal measure, and David Heyman who makes this his first film as a producer outside of the “Harry Potter” franchise. All have come together to create something which redeems our collective hope in the possibility of cinema.

“Gravity” demands to be seen in a movie theater and, yes, I’m going to say it, in 3D. Few film going experiences have been as enthralling as this one, and it is not to be missed. Thank you Cuarón for this film and reaffirming what can be accomplished in Hollywood today. But more importantly, thanks for creating a movie which gave me the sensation of being in outer space I used to have as a child.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

‘Full Tilt Boogie,’ the ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ Documentary, Screens at New Beverly Cinema

full-tilt-boogie-poster

After a double feature of William Friedkin’s “To Live and Die in L.A.” and “Rampage,” which is not currently available on DVD, the audience members at New Beverly Cinema were in for a special midnight treat as the theater held a screening for the 20-year-old documentary “Full Tilt Boogie.” Directed by Sarah Kelly, it chronicles the making of Robert Rodriguez’s action horror cult classic “From Dusk till Dawn” which starred George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino as outlaw brothers who, along with a vacationing family, end up at a rowdy Mexican bar which turns out to be infested with vampires. The documentary introduces us to those people who worked behind the scenes on the movie, of why they want to be a part of show business, the fun they have when the cameras are not rolling, and of the complicated relationship between movie studios and unions.

Introducing this screening of “Full Tilt Boogie” was Kelly, and she was joined by her producer and friend Rana Joy Glickman. The emcee who welcomed them remarked about how cool it was this documentary was playing at the New Beverly and that it was sharing a marquee with Friedkin’s “Cruising.” To this, the emcee said about Kelly, “Whoa! She scored good!”

Kelly welcomed all the “insomniacs” who came out to see her documentary and explained how it became a reality.

“The reason this movie came about was that Robert Rodriguez and Quentin were about to start shooting ‘From Dusk till Dawn,’ and it was an $18-million-dollar independent movie and the unions were pissed,” Kelly said. “They were like, ‘What do you mean? No, you have to go union.’ And so, there was a big threat of a strike, and Quentin thought it would be cool to document it.”

“I had worked for him on a little movie called ‘Pulp Fiction’ and a couple of other movies he was involved with,” Kelly continued, “and he knew that I was studying to be a director so he gave me a shot. At the time, I was taking a break from production and I was working part-time in a law firm and I was like, ‘So is this for real? Should I quit my job?’ And he said, ‘Uh, quit your job yesterday.’ So, I did. We wrangled our little, tiny, hardcore crew and we started shooting, by the way, on 16mm film. Nobody shoots documentaries on 16mm film anymore, but we did. The union threat kind of turned into a cold war and I asked Quentin if we could keep shooting and just do a love letter to the crew. I pitched it as kind of like ‘Hearts of Darkness’ (Eleanor Coppola’s documentary on ‘Apocalypse Now’), but not that dark. Quentin said, ‘Yeah, that’s really fucking cool!’”

As for Glickman, she claimed to have hundreds of stories to tell about the documentary and “From Dusk till Dawn,” but she chose to tell only this one.

“When we finished ‘Full Tilt Boogie’ we were just so pleased that we finished and we got to make the posters for the film, not the one that Harvey Weinstein had selected,” Glickman said. “Our favorite poster is Sarah’s design, and it was Ken (Bondy), the craft service guy on ‘From Dusk till Dawn,’ standing there with a tray of lattes and it said, ‘From the maker of coffee on Pulp Fiction, we bring you Full Tilt Boogie.’”

Kelly responded, “That’s a great poster, right?”

“Full Tilt Boogie” may not be the masterpiece “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” is, but it’s still a very entertaining documentary which takes you behind the scenes of a movie’s production in a way few others do. We get to see the challenges crew members constantly face on a movie set, and we also get to take in the fun they have outside of it as well. For these people, this is a job done out of love and far more preferable than working a 9 to 5 job which has them sitting at a desk all day. Kelly certainly did create a love letter to these crew members, and we revel in the festivities they have from one day to the next.

Thanks to Sarah Kelly and Rana Joy Glickman for taking the time to come out, and at such a late hour, to talk about “Full Tilt Boogie” at New Beverly Cinema.

from-dusk-till-dawn-poster

The Ides of March

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This movie’s title refers to the day Julius Caesar was assassinated by a group of senators who feared his role as a dictator would forever destroy their constitutional government. Some of these senators were close friends of his which make their actions all the more shocking. In the political arena, then and now, you would think those running for office would have their friends and loyal advisors to instill their trust in. But as history shows, the quest for power can tear friendships apart and corrupt the seemingly incorruptible. In William Shakespeare’s play of “Julius Caesar,” a soothsayer warns him before he is stabbed to death:

“Beware the Ides of March.”

George Clooney’s film is based on the play “Farragut North” by Beau Willimon, and it looks at how dangerous a political campaign can be for all those involved. They may not get stabbed in the back literally, but there is a lot of backstabbing to go around figuratively speaking. It all makes for an intense political thriller which never lets up.

Ryan Gosling stars as Stephen Meyers, a Junior Campaign Manager for Governor Mike Norris (Clooney) who is seeking the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. As the movie opens, Norris is campaigning in Ohio where a win there will all but guarantee him the nomination. Meyers is a strong believer in Norris and what he stands for, but his belief in him and the world of politics is in for a rude awakening. After a secret meeting with rival campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), trust becomes a precious commodity in very short supply. Meyers also stumbles on an even bigger situation which could destroy the campaign to where it can never recover.

This is Clooney’s fourth movie as a director, and the abilities he shows behind the camera are never in doubt. “The Ides of March” doesn’t necessarily break any new ground in the political movie genre, but Clooney does great work in generating tension throughout as characters suddenly find themselves on a precipice which threatens to fall out beneath them with little warning. He also gets great performances from the entire cast as they face off against each other as if they are playing a game of chess. Everyone is holding their cards close to their chest, and only the eyes can give them away in showing where they are most vulnerable.

Gosling had a heck of a year in 2011 with this, “Crazy Stupid Love,” and “Drive.” As with the latter, he brings a smoldering intensity to his performance as he takes Meyers from a political idealist to one who sells out his values when things get rough. With one look, he can let us inside his thoughts without saying a single word.

Two of my favorite performances in “The Ides of March” come from two of the best character actors ever: Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti. Playing campaign managers for their individual candidates, they brilliantly bring out the moral complexities of each person as their agendas become clear as the story continues to unfold. Both of them also make what could have been seen as convoluted actions or maneuvers completely believable as they try to get the upper hand in a fragile political environment. They essentially represent the cynical side of politics where idealism vanished a long time ago and the path Meyers may be forced to go down if he wants to continue working in this realm.

The fabulous Evan Rachel Wood is great as always as Molly Stearns, a campaign intern whose confidence collapses when her secret is realized. Seeing her go from a sexy seducer to the campaign’s most vulnerable employee is handled by her like a pro, and she makes us see Molly as a person while others view as a crippling concern which needed to be quickly and quietly removed. The cruelty of politics comes to hit her character the hardest.

And then there’s the equally fabulous Marisa Tomei who portrays New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz. She enjoys a friendly banter with Gosling from the start which draws us in on a more personal level. It’s there where Tomei traps not just Gosling, but the audience as well. She provides us with a friendly face, but she is later revealed to be a manipulative journalist who wields more power than you might expect a journalist to have. I have yet to see Tomei give a bad performance in anything she does.

What I really like about the screenplay of “The Ides of March” is it’s not about good guys and bad guys. It’s all about shades of gray and how the hope in politics can be easily and quickly worn down to a cinder of what it once was. Some of the actions in the movie almost feel like something out of the “Saw” movies as they almost seem illogical and impossible to put together, but it makes sense in regards to the political realm it takes place in. This would make a great double feature with Mike Nichols’ “Primary Colors” as both movies deal with the moral compromises made in getting your candidate elected. But while “Primary Colors” sees a light at the end of the tunnel, “The Ides of March” doesn’t let the viewer off as easy.

* * * ½ out of * * * *