‘The Assistant’ May Be The Most Horrific Film of 2019

The Assistant” features a music score by Tamar-kali, an American rock singer-songwriter and composer who is based in Brooklyn, New York. The interesting thing is, we only hear her score at the very beginning and the very end of this film. Truth is, “The Assistant” does not need a music score to highlight the endless tension of the working environment these characters we see here work in as the feeling of suffocating intensity is intensely palpable throughout. This is saying a lot because some filmmakers thrive on a music score to make the unbearable seem even more so, but like “The China Syndrome,” this film does not need it as writer and director Kitty Green shows how certain workplaces can be so toxic to where no further illustration is required to make this point clear.

“The Assistant” follows Jane (Julia Garner), a junior assistant at a film production company, through a single day at her job which has arriving at the office before the sun comes up, and leaving long after it has set. We watch as she performs numerous tasks which are menial at best, and it is no surprise to see the job leaves her endlessly stressed and exhausted as it consumes her life to where anything and everything outside of it plays a very distant second. She even forgets her father’s birthday, and her mother chides her for it. But perhaps the most shocking thing about this scene is how Jane manages to get the smallest amount of free time to make any personal calls while at work. During this moment, I kept thinking her boss was wondering where the hell she was and why she was not at her desk. Seriously, I have worked jobs which were similar to this one.

We quickly learn Jane has been working this job already for five weeks, so she has since been initially and brutally humbled by her boss who runs his company with an iron fist. Still, there is a bit of humanity left in Jane as we see her barely maintain her composure after her boss verbally abuses her for talking to his wife. From there, she is forced to apologize to him via email for her behavior, and her male colleagues (played by Jon Orsini and Noah Robbins) instruct her in the best way to write such an apology. Through scenes like this, it does not take much to see these guys have long since been schooled by their bully of a boss, and they feel obligated to help Jane out when she is in a tough position.

Not once do we ever see the face of Jane’s boss as he is quick to pass by her on the way to his office, and we only get to hear his voice either behind closed doors or through the unsparingly vicious phone calls she has with Jane. There is no doubt this boss is meant to represent Harvey Weinstein, the man who ruled Miramax and The Weinstein Company through endless brutality and intimidation and is now in prison for his horrific offenses which include sexual assault and rape. Just the thought of this boss is enough to keep Jane and her fellow colleagues on edge throughout as any mere mistake can cause him to fall into a full-blown rage. He’s like the creature in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” as what you don’t see is far scarier than what you do. Besides, this boss probably looks as appealing as Harvey ever did (that’s to say, not at all).

But the most brutal scene in “The Assistant” comes when Jane speaks with the company’s Human Resources director, Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen), about a new girl who has just been employed. Her name is Sienna (Kristine Froseth), and she has been put up in a room at The Peninsula, a high-end hotel in the heart of Beverly Hills. Jane never got this kind of treatment when she was hired and cannot help but wonder if Sienna is in some kind of danger. But instead of being taken seriously, Jane is instead berated by Wilcock for bringing this to his attention, reminding her of how many people she beat out to get the job she has (the number is in the hundreds). But as Jane leaves, Wilcock assures her she has nothing to worry about as, in a line which has long since been spoiled by the film’s trailer:

“You’re not his type.”

It is in this moment in which Green shows how the safeguards designed to protect employees from horrific abuse have long since failed them as those with all the power rendered them useless. As a result, you realize in a very depressing way how someone like Harvey Weinstein managed to get away with so much abuse for decades. Yes, karma did come around to kick him in the buttocks, but the fact it took so long to do so does not speak well of the world at large.

Green also shows how those employed in such a suffocating working environment get by even as they are micromanaged to such a blistering degree. Every character we see here has long since been indoctrinated into a situation which they have been led to believe will eventually move them up the show business ladder.

At the center of “The Assistant” is the unforgettable performance by Julia Garner. As Jane, she fully inhabits this character to where you see how she has since been indoctrinated into her position to where any abuses and humiliations from her boss have long since humbled her in ways no one should ever be humbled by. Still, the “Ozark” actress makes us see there is still some humanity left in her. The question is, will she have any of it left by the time the end credits begin to roll? We watch Jane as she observes a certain silhouette in her boss’ window, and her resignation to the things she is unable to control shows how this film was destined to end with a depressing climax. And in the end, how else could it have ended?

“The Assistant” would make an unforgettable double feature with “Swimming with Sharks,” George Huang’s 1994 film about a naïve young writer named Guy (Frank Whaley) who, just out of film school, gets a job as an assistant to influential movie mogul, Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey), who quickly turns out to be the boss from hell. Both films show how this abusive behavior has been normalized for far too long as many industry hopefuls have been cruelly led to believe this treatment is a rite of passage into a realm which seemingly promises both wealth and power. It came out just after Harvey Weinstein’s sexual predatory acts were revealed for all the world to see, so it plays like a documentary which has been smothered from public view for far too long. Now that people like Harvey are out of the picture, I wonder if things will change for the better. The sad fact is, this kind of behavior has been seen as acceptable for far too long, so who knows?

While “The Assistant” is a fierce indictment of Hollywood, it would be a mistake to think this abusive behavior is relegated to one industry. While Hollywood may be one of the main epicenters of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, the abuses they address do not start and stop there as other business we know and have been led to believe are morally superior are as vulnerable to such abuses. Political commentator Tomi Lahren went out of her way to shame Hollywood for enabling Weinstein and people like him, but she did this from a news channel (in this case, Fox News) which went out of its way to pay millions to those who accused Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes of horrific abuse.

Simply put, judge not lest ye be judged. If you need someone to blame, throw a rock in the air. You will hit someone guilty.

* * * * out of * * * *

Joaquin Phoenix on His Brutally Physical Performance in ‘The Master’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012.

It has been two years since we saw him in “I’m Still Here,” the mockumentary on his alleged retirement from acting and bizarre transformation into a hip-hop artist. Now, thankfully, Joaquin Phoenix has returned to acting in Paul Thomas Anderson’s cinematic triumph “The Master.” Justin Craig of Fox News calls Phoenix’s performance “brutally physical,” and Peter Travers of Rolling Stone says the actor gives “the performance of his career” as Freddie Quell, a deeply disturbed World War II veteran. Just watching the various movie trailers for “The Master” reminds us of how emotionally raw Phoenix can get whenever he is onscreen, and it is both amazing and scary as there is no doubt as to how far he will go in preparation to play a character.

It turns out Anderson had Phoenix in mind when he was writing the role of Freddie, and he admitted to being amazed at Phoenix’s acting abilities and of his discipline while on the set.

“He’s like Daniel Day-Lewis in his level of concentration. He just got in character and stayed there-for three months he didn’t stop. Joaquin is very unpredictable. A lot of the time I didn’t know what he was going to do,” Anderson said.

Phoenix himself only says so much about how his preparation for a role as he compares actors to magicians in that they “don’t talk about how their tricks work, because people would go, ‘Oh, that’s all you do?'” He did say, however, how Anderson set up two cameras for certain scenes between him and Philip Seymour Hoffman who plays the charismatic Lancaster Dodd. This allowed both actors to “be in the moment and not be worried about shooting the one side and then re-lighting and shooting from the other side.” Phoenix described this as making a huge difference for him while portraying Freddie.

There is also the story of how Anderson showed Phoenix a video of a monkey falling asleep and told the actor the monkey was him.

“Paul called me Bubbles on the set,” Phoenix said. “Bubbles was Michael Jackson’s pet monkey, and I was Paul’s pet monkey. The key to Freddie is an animal, just pure id. For the scene where he’s arrested and put in jail and all that, I just watched videos of wild animals that get into suburbia. If you’ve seen video of a deer or a bear that finds its way into suburbia and the cops have to tranquilize it, it seems as if the brain stops working. If they’re cornered, they’ll slam into walls, or one leg tries to go left while the other is going right. Its complete fear and chaos. They can’t control themselves at all. That was the key to Freddie. And Paul certainly called me his pet monkey.”

While Phoenix still says he experiences problems with acting, it does look like he has rediscovered his love for it in “The Master.” Hearing him talk about being an actor shows how much he has struggled with his gift to where he had to rediscover a whole new way of doing it.

“Part of why I was frustrated with acting was because I took it so seriously,” said Phoenix. “I want it to be so good that I get in my own way. It’s like love: when you fall in love, you’re not yourself anymore. You lose control of being natural and showing the beautiful parts of yourself, and all somebody recognizes is this total desperation. And that’s very unattractive. Once I became a total buffoon, it was so liberating.

“I’d see child actors and I’d get so jealous, because they’re just completely wide open. If you could convince them that something frightening was going to happen, they would actually feel terror. I wanted to feel that so badly. I’d just been acting too long, and it had kind of been ruined for me. I wanted to put myself in a situation that would feel brand-new and hopefully inspire a new way of approaching acting. It (“The Master”) did do that for me.”

SOURCES:

Justin Craig, “Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in ‘The Master’ has Oscar written all over it,” Fox News, September 13, 2012.

Peter Travers, “The Master” movie review, Rolling Stone, September 10, 2012.

David Ansen, “Secrets of ‘The Master’,” The Daily Beast, August 20, 2012.

Jessica Winter, “‘The Master’s’ Joaquin Phoenix on Animal Inspirations, Curb Your Enthusiasm and the Pleasures of Discomfort,” Time, September 13, 2012.

Philip Seymour Hoffman Talks About Portraying ‘The Master’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2012. Philip, you are still missed.

Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman remains one of the best character actors in movies today, and his role as Lancaster Dodd in “The Master” is yet another brilliant performance on his never-ending resume. The movie reunites Hoffman with filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson who has cast him in five of his six movies. From the gay and painfully timid boom mike operator in “Boogie Nights” to the infinitely angry mattress store own Dean Trumbell from “Punch-Drunk Love,” Hoffman has gone from playing one unique character to portraying one who is the complete opposite, and makes one wonder how he goes about preparing to play each role he takes on.

In an interview with Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers, Hoffman made it clear he was not out to turn Lancaster into some sort of bizarre human being with scary ideas.

“The thing is that this character needs to be as accessible as possible,” Hoffman said. “That when you meet him in the film and then when you get to know him in the film that you don’t judge him so much. I think we (he and Anderson) succeeded in that you actually take him in. He’s a real person, and you can almost see how he’s brought so many people close to him or been so successful. You could see how he can function in the world. You know he’s not too idiosyncratic or too eccentric even. He’s full of passion for his ideas, and some of his ideas are really good ones.”

Hoffman said it was those things he and Anderson wanted to concentrate on as opposed to the “oddity” of the character. When it came to Lancaster Dodd, he never looked at him as the head of a cult or even a religion. In his mind, the character was really the leader of a movement and not a fraudulent person.

Of course, much has been said about how “The Master” was inspired by L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology to where many are already nauseated at hearing this said over and over. When talking to the Wall Street Journal’s Rachel Dodes, Hoffman tried to clear up this issue as best he could:

“The idea that L. Ron Hubbard and that movement (Scientology) was the basis for some story in the film is accurate, but it’s really not a film about that, so it isn’t accurate enough for me to play L. Ron Hubbard. And so, I didn’t,” Hoffman said. “It wasn’t enough of that kind of story to do that. So, I wanted to think about other people because it was a fictional thing and the character is a very fictional character. So, I thought about other people who had that kind of charisma and moved people and people followed them, and what that meant for me. I steered clear of anything having to do with ‘The L. Ron Hubbard Story’ because it’s too specific and the film wasn’t going to support that, so I thought it would be confusing.”

From there, Hoffman was a bit cryptic as to what individuals he based Lancaster Dodd on. Dodes told him she heard Orson Welles was an inspiration for this role, but Hoffman said he never tried to emulate the “Citizen Kane” actor and director in “The Master.”

“It’s like when you are thinking about something, a lot of ideas go through your head, and references go through your head but ultimately you are just looking for something in yourself. There are certain behaviors, the way people sound. I didn’t really try to play anybody if that’s what you’re looking for.”

Like his co-stars Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman is getting serious Oscar consideration for work in “The Master.” The fact he already has one Academy Award for “Capote” doesn’t seem to matter to anybody because the general feeling is he will get a second one at some point in the near future. Whether he does or does not, it is for certain we can expect many more great performances from this actor as his attention to character remains impeccable.

SOURCES:

Peter Travers, “Philip Seymour Hoffman on New Film, ‘The Master’,” ABC News, September 13, 2012.

Rachel Dodes, “‘The Master’ Star Philip Seymour Hoffman: ‘It’s Not a Scientology Movie’,” Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2012.

Amy Adams Shows a Menacing Side in ‘The Master’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2012.

While Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman are getting some of the biggest raves of their career for their work in “The Master,” Amy Adams proves to every bit as good as Peggy Dodd, the wife to Hoffman’s charismatic leader of “The Cause.” From the outset, this looks like yet another role where Adams gets to be all sweet, but as Peggy, she proves to be tough and hotly determined to further her husband’s work and silence every single doubter who ridicules his beliefs. While the male characters revel in the effect they have on others, it is Peggy who exerts the most control over the people around her.

Peggy has been described by many as being a Lady Macbeth-like character as she is able to manipulate her husband into doing things he might not otherwise do. That this character cannot be mistaken for an easy pushover appealed greatly to Adams as well as the challenge of acting against Hoffman, whom she adores.

“It was fun to get to go toe-to-toe with him as a person of power,” Adams said. “In some past roles I’ve been a bit more submissive, so it was great to get to overpower Phillip in ‘The Master’ – because that’s the only time that’s ever going to happen in my life.”

Still, the role proved to be emotionally demanding for Adams, and she talked with Stephen Schaefer of the Boston Herald about why this was the case:

“I had to lose myself in a character to which any similarities I had were not similarities that I want to bring out of myself,” Adams remarked. “To lose myself in a character like that, well, it doesn’t feel as good at the end of the day. Let’s just put it that way.”

Of all the characters in “The Master,” Peggy proves to be the most mysterious as we never get much of a backstory on her or discover how she first met Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman’s character). In an interview with Scott Simon on NPR’s Weekend Edition, Adams explained how she went about playing Peggy and of what she brought to the role:

`”I tend to try to fill in the blanks as much as possible for myself,” Adams said. “One of the things that I really thought about was a long time ago I read a book called ‘The Feminine Mystique.’ In ‘The Feminine Mystique’ she (author Betty Friedan) talked a lot about women’s roles in World War II and sort of how that translated post-World War II. Their roles were a little less traditional than they’d been before, and then when the men came back, they sort of went into the background again. And I saw my character as somebody who was very focused on education, was very educated, very smart, but given the climate, felt like she was more powerful behind a man than in front of a man.”

Adams also made clear how Peggy is a true believer and not a blind follower like some might suspect her of being. Throughout the movie, Peggy does see the positive outcome of her husband’s philosophy, and she defends it without question. This leads her to be very hard on Phoenix’s character of Freddie Quell whose doubts and violent ways typically get the best of him.

While Amy Adams may still seem to us like America’s sweetheart, she has defied that image to give us some hard-edged characters like the one she played in “The Fighter.” “The Master” is the latest example of just how far her range as an actress goes, and hearing her talk about the similarities between her and Peggy shows there is more to her than her image suggests:

“I can be really steely, maybe not to such effect, but I’m definitely not always warm and cuddly and sunshine and lollipops, so it’s nice to sometimes get to bring that to a role. Although I do love playing characters with a sunny disposition, it just takes a little bit more energy some days.”

SOURCES:

Stephen Schaefer, “Amy Adams’ acting skills put to test by ‘Curve,’ ‘Master’,” Boston Herald, September 19, 2012.

Justin Harp, “‘The Master’ Amy Adams: ‘I adore Philip Seymour Hoffman’,” Digital Spy, September 19, 2012.

Scott Simon, “Amy Adams: A Steely Wife Stands Behind ‘The Master’,” NPR Weekend Edition, September 15, 2012.

Underseen Movie: The One I Love with Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass

The One I Love” is one of the harder movies to review because it really helps to go into it with an open mind. The less you know about what happens in it, the better the experience will be. Ever since its debut at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, its most fervent admirers have been praising it and guarding its secrets as if they have the secret formula for Coca-Cola. What I can tell you is that it is an insanely clever romantic comedy, and it belongs to a genre I typically live to avoid.

Things start off with the married couple of Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) going through troubles which usually tear a couple apart permanently. They try to recreate their romantic spark by revisiting the house they snuck into when they first met and jump in the pool, but the magic isn’t there. In the process of visiting their therapist (played by Ted Danson), he suggests they spend the weekend in this cottage he knows about so they can work on their marriage. When they get there, they find the cottage is in a beautiful location I would personally love to visit sometime, and it proves to be a very relaxing place for a vacation. But when they start to explore the other parts of the house, things quickly get very trippy.

So that’s it. This is all I am going to tell you about the plot of “The One I Love.” It is very nice we have a movie like this one where film buffs are not investigating every little detail like they do with “Star Wars” or “The Matrix.” With big blockbusters, everyone is analyzing every single moment of the movie trailers, following news updates of who is being cast, and it gets to where they have a vision of what it is going to be like inside their heads. The problem is, going into anything with such lofty expectations will usually have you living very disappointed, and perhaps for the wrong reasons. It helps that “The One I Love” is a low budget feature which is coming in under the radar because people aren’t busy overanalyzing like this one.

It should also be noted how director Charlie McDowell and writer Justin Lader created this movie out of a 50-page document which contained the scene beats and the locations of the entire movie. The only thing this document did not contain was the dialogue, and the actors ended up improvising it themselves. Even though the actors were given ideas to work with, they pretty much drive this movie more than anyone else, and I applaud the challenges they face here and the risks they took with what they were given.

“The One I Love” serves as a terrific acting showcase for its stars Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss, both of whom get to explore different levels of their characters throughout the movie’s running time. Mark is, of course, well known for making and producing many offbeat films with his brother Jay Duplass like “Cyrus,” “Baghead” and “The Puffy Chair” among others. As an actor, he is perfectly cast in the role of an everyman husband who finds himself threatened with the various events he is forced to endure while staying at the cottage. As Ethan, we sense his desperation to save his marriage, and we also sense his desperation to not be second best at anything.

Moss has had quite the ride in recent years with her work on “Mad Men,” “Top of the Lake” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and she is currently experiencing great success on the silver screen in “The Invisible Man.” She once again proves just how wide her acting range is as Sophie. Like the movie, she is full of surprises and such a lovely presence to watch, and she renders every emotion you see Sophie going through as being totally genuine. Considering what the role has her doing, it is really quite a feat when you realize what Moss has accomplished here.

“The One I Love” is one of the few movies I have seen in recent years which takes turns I did not see coming, and I honestly have not been this riveted by a romantic comedy since “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” Seriously, you really need to check your expectations at the door when you go and see it because there will be no easy way to prepare you for what will unfold. I am always waiting to see a movie which constantly surprises me throughout, and this is one of them.

If there were any expectations I had with “The One I Lovie,” it was that I was to hear Stephen Still’s song “Love the One You’re With” play over the end credits. Once you watch this movie, you will understand why this would have been the perfect piece of music to end things on. After all, “The Simpsons” made great use of it on one of their “Treehouse of Horror” episodes.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

In Defense of Rob Zombie’s ‘Halloween’ Movies

The two “Halloween” movies written and directed by Rob Zombie were eviscerated not just by critics but by the fans as well. Some critics, like James Berardinelli of Reel Views, said they did not even feel like “Halloween” movies. Fans were vocal in how characters like Laurie Strode and Dr. Loomis were unforgivably degraded compared to how they were portrayed in John Carpenter’s original. Others simply said Zombie’s take on Michael Myers just wasn’t that scary.

Well, I say phooey to all this nonsense! Zombie’s “Halloween” movies may not be as scary as the one which started off this never-ending franchise, but for me this was pretty much a given. There is no way you could recapture what Carpenter thrilled us with years ago. Zombie was aware of how Michael Myers, like other horror icons such as Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, had pretty much worn out their usefulness. His respect for Carpenter’s slasher opus was strong, and after making a true grindhouse classic with “The Devil’s Rejects,” I knew he would take this story and these characters and make them his own.

What makes Zombie’s “Halloween” stand out from what came before it is how he treats the backstory of Michael Myers. Granted, this threatens to take away from what made him so scary in the first place. Carpenter’s original was an unrelentingly visceral experience mainly because we were not sure what to make of “The Shape” as he became less than human throughout. But here we get a strong idea of how young Michael went bad as he dealt with an uncaring sister, a busy mother, and an abusive lout of a stepfather. Seeing all he had to deal with made it understandable, if not forgivable, as to why he went psycho in the first place.

Now whereas Zombie’s “Halloween” was about Michael, his “Halloween II” was all about Laurie Strode, Dr. Loomis and of how the horrific events they went through forever destroyed them. It is here we come to realize what Zombie has accomplished with these movies: They are character studies instead of the average slasher movie we have come to expect. This is made even clearer on the “Halloween II” director’s cut which is available on DVD and Blu-ray as it proves to be infinitely superior to the theatrical version.

Fans hated how Laurie Strode and Dr. Loomis were so different from how they were portrayed in Carpenter’s original film, but they forgot how Zombie’s films were a meant to be a reimagining of the franchise and not business as usual. Strode’s extreme emotional reactions might make her unlikable, but they soon become understandable as no one involved in what she went through can ever walk away from it unscathed. Both Scout-Taylor Compton and Malcolm McDowell deserve credit for not being constrained by what Jaime Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence created before them. In Zombie’s incarnation, these two actors inhabit their characters more than they play them.

In a time of remakes which are as endless as they are unnecessary, you have to give Zombie points for taking this long-running franchise in a different direction. It may not have been what diehard fans wanted or expected, but whereas most remakes repeat the formulas of movies they originated from with negative success, there is something to be said for a filmmaker who willfully goes against expectations. Seriously, this says a lot in a time when originality in cinema is largely frowned upon.

‘Zack and Miri Make a Porno’ Goes Down in a, You Know, Pleasurable Way

Zack and Miri Make a Porno movie poster

Kevin Smith’s “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” is the first movie he made which takes place outside of New Jersey. Instead, he takes us to Pittsburgh where we follow the exploits of the title characters who share an apartment and have been the best of friends since they were kids. When we first meet them, their lives are hanging by a thread as they are behind on all their bills, and soon after they lose their water and electricity. Both work at a Starbucks-like shop called Bean n’ Gone where they waste their lives away like those two guys from “Clerks. “Sound like anyone you know?

These two end up going to their high school reunion where Miri ends up connecting with her biggest crush, football hero Bobby Long (Brandon Routh), in the hopes of having a nice little fling. She has yet to find Bobby doesn’t “swing that way.” This soon becomes clear as we see Zack talking with Bobby’s boyfriend, Brandon (Justin Long, who is frackin’ hilarious), who reveals to Zack he is in fact an actor in gay porno films, the stuff Zack doesn’t quite fit the demographic for.

Later on, when both Zack and Miri are in very dire straits, Zack comes up with the idea of the two of them doing a porno. Miri is not quite up to the idea, but the way Zack sees it, porno is now so mainstream that even Paris Hilton (albeit unintentionally) did one and now hawks her own line of perfume to “tweens.” They end up committing to it despite one thing; they have never had sex with each other before. The way they saw it beforehand was they get along so great that they both believe sex will just get in the way of the friendship they have a la “When Harry Met Sally.” Of course, you can’t help but get the feeling Zack would love an opportunity to get up close and personal with Miri, you know?

There’s this line from “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of The Clones” which keeps floating around in my head of when Anakin meets up with Padme again and tells her how she has grown more beautiful since the last time they were together. To this, Padme replies, “Anakin, you’ll always be that little boy I remember from Tatooine.” I totally remember the audiences groaning after she said this, and the line kind of sums up the relationship between Zack and Miri, and we feel we have a pretty good idea of where their relationship will end up.

Zack is played Seth Rogen who, for a moment, appeared to be Smith’s new man crush since Ben Affleck was far too busy with his acting career at the time. Rogen is perfect as he handles the raunchy and profane material of the movie with the confidence of a pro, and at the same time he projects a sweet side to his character which really wins the audience over. Elizabeth Banks (“W.“) plays Miri who stays close to Zack throughout their hardships and spends nights with him in front of a trash can in which all their unpaid bills are burned to a crisp. The chemistry between these two is very good, and they play off of each other really well.

In addition, Smith has rounded out a great cast to keep the laughs going throughout this ode to porn. Some of his regulars show up here like Jason Mewes who plays Lester, a hopelessly dense individual who also yearns to be a porn star. Another is Jeff Anderson (the immortal Randal Graves from “Clerks”) who plays Deacon the cameraman. How he manages to get a movie out of all this insanity is beyond me.

Smith even goes out of his way to even cast actual porno stars as well. The most noticeable one is Katie Morgan who has been featured on some documentaries on HBO about her career (how I know this, I refuse to reveal). She is as perky here as she is in those interviews, and her cheerful presence here is kind of a surprise compared to other actresses in her line of work. Traci Lords co-stars as well, and she shows us an amazing new way to blow bubbles. A former porn actress herself, Lords has long since escaped adult entertainment and has dived into the bad taste escapades of John Waters to a delightful effect. Both of the actresses being in this movie should show just how mainstream porn is getting and of how much this scares conservative politicians to death.

But one of the truly scene stealing performances in this movie belongs to Craig Robinson who plays the producer of the porno, Delaney. Robinson is a big kick to watch here as he delivers his lines in a terrifically deadpan manner. At once disgusted at what he has been hired to do, Delaney suddenly becomes incredibly enthusiastic when he realizes he gets to do. He also has a pretty hilarious response to when he is asked to work “Black Friday,” and it serves as a reminder of how some people take things a little too literally.

Smith also has loads of fun skewering the porn films we know from our past but never really admit to ever having watched. Zack and Miri end up coming up with the title “Star Whores” for their porno, and this in reference to how so many of these pornos are typically named after Hollywood blockbusters. See if any of these remind you of anything (some of these I made up):

“Pulp Friction”

“Robocock”

“The Hard Knight”

“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Boner” (Justin Long’s character could easily be cast in this one.)

Smith directs this movie to those who are more familiar with pornos than they would ever admit during a sales pitch. It’s also an ode to when he started as a filmmaker all those years ago with “Clerks.” Using a hockey stick as a boom mike holder? You can believe he utilized things like these to get his first movie done.

“Zack and Miri Make a Porno” is not as consistently funny as some of Smith’s other movies like “Clerks” or “Dogma” among others. Like “Jersey Girl,” it follows a certain formula to where we pretty much know where the story is going to end up. At the same time, he gleefully skewers the formula by adding his own brand of raunchy humor. There was one moment I laughed so hard that I almost passed out, something which does not always happen if at all. I fell over, the color went out of my eyes for a second, and things got fuzzy. Yes, that’s how hard I was laughing. I refuse to spoil this particular moment for you, but I will say I will never look at cake frosting in the same way ever again.

Smith also makes clear the difference between having sex and making love, and this difference is made clear at a pivotal moment in the movie which changes everything for the characters. There’s the one nighter, and then there’s the sex which reveals true feelings and which proves to be more than extraordinary. I may not be an expert on the subject for reasons I will plead the fifth on, but I do know this much. Smith, after all these years, still gives us down to earth characters which shows how he has not come even close to forgetting where he came from.

“Zack and Miri Make a Porno” may not be the best movie of Kevin Smith’s career, but it definitely has its moments of utter hilarity. It also shows there is more to him than making movies in New Jersey. By making a break from his usual comic territory, we can and should expect him to go beyond his comfort zone for a good dose of naughty laughs filled with heart from here on out.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Django Unchained’ – Tarantino’s Down and Dirty Western

Django Unchained movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was originally written in 2012.

Every time Quentin Tarantino releases a new movie, a celebration should be in order. The man loves movies like many filmmakers do, but he always succeeds in manipulating genre conventions to where he can freely make them his own, and this makes his works all the more thrilling. There’s also no beating his dialogue which exhilarates us in the same way a play by David Mamet can, and words in a Tarantino movie usually prove to be every bit as exciting as the action scenes. His latest movie “Django Unchained” is no exception, but it does suffer from some of his excesses which have taken away (if only slightly) from the films he has given us in the past. But if you can get past its flaws, you are still in for a very entertaining time.

Jamie Foxx stars as the Django of the movie’s title, and it takes place in the year 1858 which was just two years before the start of the Civil War. Django is being led through the freezing cold wilderness along with other slaves when he is freed by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist who has since become a bounty hunter. King needs Django’s help in finding the Brittle brothers, ruthless killers who have a sizable price on their heads. In return for Django’s help, King promises him he will help rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from slavery. She is currently in the hands of the charismatic but viciously brutal plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), and you know this will lead to a conclusion which will be anything but peaceful.

Tarantino always loves to mix genres, and he does this brilliantly with “Django Unchained.” On the surface it is clearly a western, but the “Pulp Fiction” auteur also combines it with the Blaxploitation genre which we all know is one of his favorites. Heck, we even get to meet the ancestors of John Shaft, the black private detective made famous by Richard Roundtree in the movie “Shaft.” Just as he did with “Inglourious Basterds,” Tarantino gleefully throws caution to the wind as he subverts both genres to create an exhilarating motion picture experience few other people can give us. He’s not out to make a historically accurate movie, but we’re having too much fun to really care.

Now many people including Spike Lee have complained about Tarantino’s overuse of the n- word in this movie as they have of other films he’s made in the past. In their eyes it’s like they’re saying Tarantino revels in the racist behavior of his characters, but I don’t think that’s even remotely true. All the insanely racist characters in “Django Unchained” end up getting their asses handed to them in the most painful way possible, and while Tarantino’s love of black culture might differ a little from others, the love is there all the same.

And again, Tarantino gives us a terrific soundtrack filled with many songs which are not from the time period this movie takes place in. I love how he complements scenes of Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz riding on their horses with songs by James Brown, John Legend and Brother Dege (AKA Dege Legg) among others. He also includes pieces of film scores by Ennio Morricone and Jerry Goldsmith for good measure, and there are even original songs to be found here as well, something exceedingly rare for a Tarantino movie.

Having said all this, the length of “Django Unchained” did drive me up the wall a bit. At a time where filmmakers push the limit and have their movies run longer than two hours, Tarantino proves to be one of 2012’s biggest sinners as this one clocks in at almost three hours and threatens to have as many endings as “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” Suffice to say, this movie could have been shorter. Perhaps it’s the absence of his longtime editor, the late Sally Menke, who was always good at reigning Tarantino in. Fred Raskin, who has edited the last three “Fast & Furious” movies, was the editor on this one.

Still, there is a lot to appreciate and enjoy about “Django Unchained,” especially the acting. Jamie Foxx has proven to be a terrific actor ever since he held his own opposite Al Pacino in Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday,” and his talent doesn’t waiver in the slightest here. As Django, he gives us a western hero who has earned the right to seek vengeance for what has been done to him, and he is thrilling to watch as he makes this character a shockingly bad ass bounty hunter by the movie’s conclusion.

Christoph Waltz brings a wonderful mirth and a unique liveliness to the exceedingly violent characters he plays, and his role as dentist turned bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz is further proof. It’s fun to see him be so charming to others only to watch him blow them away when the occasion calls for him to do so. Waltz more than earned the Oscar he received for his brilliant performance in “Inglourious Basterds,” and his work in “Django Unchained” proves he is a gifted actor who is here to stay.

Leonardo DiCaprio clearly relishes the opportunity to shed his heartthrob persona to play the charming yet undeniably evil plantation owner Calvin Candie. In a year which has had a large number of unforgettable villains, Calvin is one of the most vicious as his power and wealth has turned him into a raving sociopath who has little hope of finding redemption in his lifetime. DiCaprio is enthralling to watch as he taunts everyone around him with a twisted glee, and he looks to be having loads of fun in playing a character few others would have chosen him to play.

One standout performance which really needs to be acknowledged, however, comes from Samuel L. Jackson, an actor who has played parts both big and small in Tarantino’s movies. Jackson plays Calvin’s head slave Stephen who is the Uncle Tom of “Django Unchained,” and he makes you want to hate his racist, backstabbing character with a passion. Jackson gives a spirited performance as a man who freely betrays the principles he should be standing up for in order to benefit his own desires and keep himself safe in a time where he is anything but.

Kudos also goes to Kerry Washington who plays Django’s kidnapped wife, Broomhilda. Her character suffers many indignities, and Washington makes her pain and fear so vivid to where she leaves you on edge every time she appears onscreen. The moments where she has no dialogue are among her most powerful as her eyes threaten to give away the secrets she is desperate to keep hidden.

Seriously, this movie is filled with actors we know very well, and they keep popping up here when you least expect them to. You have Don Johnson playing plantation owner Spencer ‘Big Daddy’ Bennett, you have Jonah Hill as Randy, a bone-headed KKK member who can’t seem to fix his hood properly, you have Walton Goggins playing an unapologetically vicious cowboy who enjoys the torture he inflicts upon others, and you have Dennis Christopher as the flamboyant Leonide Moguy. If you watch real closely you can also see Zoë Bell, Robert Carradine, Franco Nero, M. C. Gainey, Bruce Dern, Tom Savini, Michael Parks and John Jarratt pop up in roles which would seem small if they were played by anybody else. It’s all proof of how there are no small roles in a Tarantino movie, and all these people are clearly thrilled to be in his company.

Tarantino also has a small role as a mining company employee. While I have no problem defending him as an actor in some movies, his Australian accent could use a bit of work, and that’s being generous.

I’m not sure where I would rate “Django Unchained” in comparison to Tarantino’s other films, but I have to say I enjoyed “Inglourious Basterds” more. This movie’s nearly three-hour length took away from my overall experience, but I can only complain about it so much. When it comes to movies, Tarantino still provides audiences with the kind of enthralling entertainment which never plays it safe.

While it’s far from perfect, “Django Unchained” is a thrillingly alive movie filled with great acting, terrific dialogue and incredibly bloody gunfights Sam Peckinpah would have gotten a kick out of. If you can withstand its excesses and know what you are in for when it comes to a Tarantino movie, you are still bound to have a great time watching it.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

‘Inglourious Basterds’ is a World War II Movie Done The Tarantino Way

Inglorious Basterds movie poster

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

 “Nazis, I hate these guys!”

                        -Harrison Ford from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”

 “You know somethin’, Utivich? I think this might just be my masterpiece.”

                                                                                    -Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine

 Could this truly be Tarantino’s masterpiece? Hard to say, but it is indeed his most ambitious movie to date. “Inglourious Basterds” is another brilliant love letter to all things cinema from Quentin Tarantino, and it ends the rather crappy 2009 summer movie season on a high note. With this film, Tarantino has created his own version of World War II and has given it an ending many of us would have preferred to have seen happen. It is also his tribute to movies like “The Dirty Dozen” and other war movies of its ilk. It is not a remake of the film of the same name, but it uses the same title out of respect.

“Inglourious Basterds” is told in a series of chapters, and it features several different threads of story which eventually intersect at the film’s fiery climax. We meet our chief Nazi villain, Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) as he questions a family as to whether or not they are hiding any Jews, but we soon realize he is asking questions he already knows the answers to. Then we are introduced to the Basterds themselves, and they are led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) who announces that they are being dropped into Nazi occupied France to do one thing and one thing only, kill Nazis. Not only that, they plan to take souvenirs to show the Nazis they mean business. Then we meet Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), the only Jew to escape Col. Landa’s deadly grasp, and she has since found a safe hiding place as the owner of a German cinema which will soon host the most powerful members of the Nazi party for a film opening gala. Little do they know of the act of brutal vengeance which will eventually greet them…

At a running time of 153 minutes, “Inglourious Basterds” is one of those rare movies which really takes its time. There’s no big rush to get from one big action set piece to the next which is usually case with just about every summer movie released from one year to the next. Even while The Weinstein Company had to work with Universal Pictures to get this film made, Tarantino still gets full creative control which is a blessing for those of us who love his films. We also get the great dialogue we have come to expect from him, and there are moments where words speak louder than actions. There are many verbal duels between characters as each one tries to outdo the other, and what is implied by them ends up generating an amazing amount of tension.

Tarantino also retains a keen eye for casting, and he has said one of the actors he chose did in fact give him back his movie. That actor would be Christoph Waltz who plays the intelligent but deadly Col. Hans Landa. Waltz won the Best Actor award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and the way I see it, they should just hand him the Oscar come next March. Brilliant seems too subtle a description to describe his performance. His role is an extremely difficult one to pull off because he has to come off a certain way while allowing us to see in his eyes what he already knows. Waltz comes off with simple gestures which leave us deeply unnerved, and there is a key moment where he deals with a character that serves as a great cat and mouse moment as he tries to figure out the person he sees before him while she tries to remain calm and hide who she really is from him. Waltz’s opening scene with the French farmer is remarkable in how he psychologically tears him down to where he finally admits he has no choice and reveals what Landa already knows.

I’m not sure if I have seen Waltz in other movies before this one, but I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future. Seriously, his character is to “Inglourious Basterds” as Heath Ledger’s Joker was to “The Dark Knight.”

Then we have Brad Pitt who I am glad to see get down and dirty after being all cute and cuddly in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” As Lt. Aldo Raine, he starts off by giving a speech to his men which makes him come off like George C. Scott in “Patton.” It is clear Pitt is having a ball playing this character and saying the dialogue Tarantino has written, and he looks to have saved some of the manic energy he had in “Burn After Reading” for this role. While performance at times comes close to caricature, he has us rooting for Aldo throughout.

Tarantino also continues to be great at writing strong roles for women. Mélanie Laurent does great work here as Shosanna Dreyfus, the Jewish woman who is the only survivor of Landa’s murderous rampage. Throughout the movie, she goes from playing it cool around the Nazis to being terrified as she comes under close examination from them. She has managed to maintain her cover as a German while running her own cinema, and she also has to fend off the advances of Pvt. Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) who is something of a pop star in the Nazi party when he meets her. She also has a strong relationship with her boyfriend projectionist, Marcel (Jacky Ido), which allows her to show compassion she would otherwise have to keep hidden from the prying eyes of those out to eliminate Jews. Laurent gets to portray many different facets of her character throughout the movie’s running time, and her performance is every bit as memorable to me as Waltz’s was.

I also got a big kick out of Diane Kruger’s highly entertaining performance as film star Bridget von Hammersmark, a Marlene Dietrich type. Kruger is a wonderful presence as she goes from being an outgoing actress who always seems to enjoy the company of others to a tough woman who shares in the Basterds passion of doing in the Nazis, most especially Hitler. Best known for her work in “National Treasure” and “Troy,” she really comes into her own here.

“Inglourious Basterds” has a great cast overall with other memorable turns from actors like Michael Fassbender as a British spy posing as a German officer, and Sylvester Groth who portrays the irrepressibly snooty Joseph Goebbels. It’s also a hoot to see Mike Meyers here in a “guest starring” role as a British general, and it almost fully makes up for the mess he inflicted on us with “The Love Guru.” Eli Roth, the so-called “torture porn” director, is also on board as Sgt. Donny Donowitz, aka “The Bear Jew.” Although this role was originally intended for Adam Sandler, it almost makes sense the “Hostel” director would play a soldier who beats Nazis to death with a baseball bat.

Many of Tarantino’s favorite movie devices are on display here including the “Mexican standoff” and endless talk about movies, but here they feel much fresher and exhilarating to watch. The scene in the German bar where a Nazi soldier is celebrating the birth of his son may seem a bit too long, but Tarantino builds the scene to a fever pitch of tension as everyone has their gun on the other, and you watch in terrifying anticipation as to who will shoot first. With the character of Shosanna, he takes the time to express his love of foreign cinema. In his other movies, especially the “Death Proof” portion of “Grindhouse,” he mostly speaks of his affection for American movies and pop culture, but his love of cinema never stops there.

Tarantino also gives us another great soundtrack which is a collection of film scores from other movies, and of songs capturing the essence of his characters to the letter. Interestingly enough, much of the music is not from the WWII period, and he even uses David Bowie’s theme song from Paul Schrader’s 1980’s “Cat People” remake to perfectly capture Shosanna in her final preparations for her much deserved revenge. As with the “Kill Bill” movies, he makes effective use of the film scores of Ennio Morricone who remains a big influence on his own work. It didn’t take me long after seeing the movie to buy the soundtrack, but I do wish it was on sale.

Many will complain of how inaccurate this film is to the historical facts of WWII, but they are just wasting their time. We should all know by the time we head into the theater that Tarantino is not out to be anymore as historically accurate as Michael Mann was with “Public Enemies.” Every once in a while, you need a movie which breaks the rules, and it is such infectious fun to see “Inglourious Basterds” break down the normal conventions of the typical WWII movie. So many of them over the past couple of years tend to be depressing affairs which deal with the humanity lost, but Tarantino is out to do the exact opposite. “Inglorious Basterds” is a fantastic genre movie which borrows from many movies, and he is still genius at taking elements from them all and making them his own.

2009 has been a bad year for movies thus far, but “Inglourious Basterds” is one of the best and is yet another cinematic triumph for Tarantino as it shows he is no one trick pony. I just hope we don’t have to wait another 6 years for his next film.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

 

Chris Tucker Gets Super Positive in ‘Silver Linings Playbook’

Chris Tucker in Silver Linings Playbook

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012.

We should no longer be surprised at how it’s been several years since Chris Tucker appeared in a movie. Tucker has taken a number of years off between doing those “Rush Hour” movies, and he has made enough money to where he can actually afford to be choosy on which projects he does. Instead, what really should surprise us is how effectively he drops his manic, motor-mouth persona he became famous for in David O. Russell’s critically acclaimed “Silver Linings Playbook.” It’s a more serious role for Tucker compared to what he’s done in the past, and yet he still gets to add some of his own infectious wit to it.

In “Silver Linings Playbook” Tucker plays Danny, a friend of Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) whom he spent some time with in a Baltimore mental health facility. Tucker makes Danny into an endearingly likable individual who is full of positive energy even as he eventually discovers he’s leaving the mental facility a little too soon. With this description, you might think this would be the perfect movie for him to perform his fast-talking shtick, but what’s great about his performance is how he underplays the role and never tries to be the least bit bombastic in his portrayal.

The first question everyone has for Tucker is why he took so long to do another movie. While talking with Marlow Stern of The Daily Beast, Tucker explained he went back to doing stand-up comedy for a while and that a film he was planning to do with director Brett Ratner called “Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra” fell through unexpectedly. But for Tucker, there was a little more to it.

“Well, the break wasn’t planned – it just happened that way,” Tucker told Stern. “I waited a long time and the right things weren’t coming to me – the roles I was offered weren’t that challenging-so I started trying to develop a bunch of projects for myself. I was always looking and hoping the right thing would come. I knew stepping back a bit and going back to my stand-up roots would help me gain perspective.”

When it came to doing “Silver Linings Playbook,” Tucker told Scott Huver of NBC New York he liked how his character Danny would just “come out of nowhere.” In essence you could say this about a lot of the characters in this movie as they go in all sorts of directions you don’t expect them to, and this must have made it a fun project for everyone involved including Tucker. The other thing which attracted him to playing Danny was that he would be working with writer/director David O. Russell, and he’s a filmmaker who is known for keeping all the actors he works with fully energized from take to take.

“We knew that he (Russell) would probably do something, make it even a little bit more special because that’s how he works, because he’s so creative,” Tucker said to Huver. “David is such a great writer, and the rhythm and the way that he writes, it’s just really helpful. Then he’s like that with creating and changing stuff, and so I like that it frees you up to not worry about knowing your lines exactly. He just makes sure you feel like you can just be good, get into character.”

In talking with Wilson Morales of Black Film, Tucker said he also liked how the role had a lot of depth and that it was more serious than what people are used to seeing him do. But he also pointed out how a lot of comedy comes out of the emotionally fraught situations the characters endure throughout which is true. “Silver Linings Playbook” is one of those movies where you laugh with the characters instead of at them, and this is what makes it as joyous and positive as Danny is.

When it came to doing research, Tucker admitted he did a little bit but not a whole lot. It turned out what was already on the page was enough for him to work with.

“I just talked to the director (Russell) a lot because he knew the character,” Tucker told Morales. “He wrote the script so that was a good thing working with a writer/director because they have an idea of the character. I talked to him a lot and I didn’t read the book (by Matthew Quick, which the movie is based on) because I felt like Russell made the character even better in the movie. I basically took the director’s lead on it.”

Next up for Chris Tucker is a stand-up comedy movie he made which is coming out next year, and there are rumors he just might be up for another “Rush Hour” sequel. Many people are eager to see Tucker get back to doing the kind of comedy he’s famous for, but I hope he gets more opportunities to do films like “Silver Linings Playbook” because I think it brings out the best in him. It’s another one of those performances which proves comedians can do drama as well as they do comedy, and this is something no one should have to prove to anyone anymore.

SOURCES:

Marlow Stern, “Chris Tucker’s Journey from Tax Problems to ‘Silver Linings Playbook,'” The Daily Beast, November 14, 2012.

Scott Huver, “Chris Tucker: Quietly Comic For ‘Silver Linings Playbook,'” NBC New York, November 20, 2012.

Wilson Morales, “Chris Tucker talks ‘Silver Linings Playbook,’ his absence from films, and why he won’t do another ‘Friday’ film,” Black Film, November 16, 2012.