Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Fading Gigolo Rises to the Occasion

As stomach-churning and absurd as that concept of Woody Allen pimping out John Turturro might seem, Fading Gigolo actually comes across somewhat believable in a film that achieves more than you might expect. Written and directed by Turturro, the film avoids taking an easy, farcical approach to a ridiculous idea and instead delivers a compassionate look at longing and the reawakening of desire.

Allen, whose public persona has once again taken a significant hit recently, might regain some goodwill through a performance that I would argue is the highlight of the movie. He's since halted appearing in his films, for good reason, so it's a nice reminder of what he can do comedically when in front of the camera.

Allen plays Murray, a bookstore owner who's facing the end of the line for his family business. The idea of Allen as a used bookstore proprietor sounds like a movie in of itself, but this plot aspect only appears briefly at the beginning when he's telling his employee Fioravante (Turturro) that he might have some ideas for a new line of work.

The breezy nature of this conversation is a truly bizarre film moment. Allen recalls a conversation he had with his dermatologist (Sharon Stone), who happens to mention that she's currently looking for a middle man in a threesome with friend (Sofia Vergara). Happens all the time, right?

Allen only has to twist Turturro's rubber arm slightly before Fioravante is hustling on the New York streets, making gentlemanly house calls while deploying the utmost professionalism. Turturro, who also holds down a florist job, performs his romantic duties as though it's just another part-time gig that pays the bills. Meanwhile, Allen enjoys his cut of the transactions and does his best to keep lining up clients.

Soon Allen meets a Hasidic widow named Avigal (Vanessa Paradis) and decides she needs some help "letting go" of the past. While you half expect wackiness to ensue, the scenes between Turturro and Paradis are exceptionally touching and sweet. Paradis is a superb actress - miles above her former husband - and here she gives an incredibly nuanced performance using minimal dialogue. Her looks of fear and elation say it all.

There is a subplot involving a lovesick and jealous Hasidic patrolman (Liev Schreiber), who becomes suspicious of Avigal's sudden happiness, but it doesn't really add much to the plot. Also, and argument could be made that Turturro doesn't connect the story lines between the gigolo plotline and the Hasidic widower very seamlessly in the third act. It sometimes felt like you were watching two different movies that clumsily converge.

But such issues are nit-picky in a film that builds up so much endearment with fine performances and vintage-looking New York atmosphere. Turturro is not unlike his contemporaries Spike Lee, and Allen, in that his New York is one of jazz soundtracks and autumn colours. He's a true New Yorker and his romance with the city seeps out from the screen.

As for Allen, it's hard to recall a recent movie he was so enjoyable in. His zingers and one-liners are like a drum beat that keeps the movie's rhythm at the right tempo. Murray helps look after four rambunctious African American boys and these interactions are uproariously funny. It lets you forgive the fact that he's endeavouring to be pimp.

I know there are many out there who have turned off Allen for various reasons, but I can't say I'm among them. I mean how can you stop being a fan of Woody Allen, the artist? I doubt I'll ever know in my lifetime.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Grand Budapest Hotel Check Out

My relationship with Wes Anderson's films is starting to feel needlessly complicated. I could easily just end this one-sided, loveless affair by not seeing anymore of his movies - as I haven't particularly enjoyed them for some time. But for some reason I'm compelled to view them all, and the results have become invariably the same: I am left empty.

At this point I don't really blame Anderson, because when you purchase a ticket for one of his movies you should know by now what you're getting. You know how scenes will be framed and how dialogue will be delivered. You know the whimsy levels will be redlined and that at some point Bill Murray will enter the picture and everyone around you will roar in laughter at nothing in particular. 

Anderson is a true artist in his craft and I respect how he makes the films he wants exactly the way he envisions, while existing (profitably) in the Hollywood mainstream. In other words he's an auteur, of which very few seem to remain in American cinema. The Grand Budapest Hotel is not a film shooting for broad appeal; it's the successful realization of a director's unique vision. 

That vision - part of his alternate universe - creates a place that I can't stay for long because the absurdity, at least for me, eventually becomes exhaustive and predictable. 

The main character in "GBH" is Ralph Fiennes, a vamping 1930s hotel worker with a penchant for wealthy older woman (and men?) who does things like serve delicate pastries to fellow inmates after he is wrongly incarcerated for stealing a priceless painting. After escaping, he is chased through Europe by a screwball version of the Nazis as all of Anderson's talented regulars show up in one capacity or another. Yet none - neither Bill Murray nor Owen Wilson - are able to give the film a notable lift. 

The Grand Budapest Hotel, as seen in the movie's poster above, is presented with light pinks and one dimensionality - like a giant dollhouse - and this is exactly how the director treats what's inside. I half expect Anderson's hand to enter the picture to open a window so that we may see Ed Norton (playing something like an SS officer) deliver his clipped lines or Zero (Fiennes' brooding bell boy shadow) stare wide-eyed straight into the camera. 

I deeply appreciate Anderson's romance with a lost European world of elegance and the literature of WW2 survivor Stefan Zweig, who inspired this film. But how could such an emotionally-charged story like Zweig's lead to a film so resiliently detached? It's like there's always a whimsy wall between the film and viewer, and all you can do is sit and titter at the silliness going on on the other side.

That being said, I fully expect to be behind that wall again in a couple years when Anderson's next feature roles out. If you're a fan of cinema, he's a compelling figure. 

In case you haven't seen SNL's near-perfect send-up of Anderson movies, I've posted it below. To say "they nailed it" would be a criminal understatement.  

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Draft Day Sticks To Playbook

The experience of seeing Draft Day is something akin to Seattle Seahawks fans re-watching this year's Super Bowl. They know the outcome, yet still enjoy watching the good guys triumph in the end.

In the case of "Draft Day" it's the Cleveland Browns and its fictitious general manager Sonny Weaver Jr., played by a rounded-looking Kevin Costner. Through most of the film we see Weaver grappling with a decision on whether to draft a franchise QB golden boy named Bo Callahan or a lesser-known defensive tackle named Vontae Mack (42's Chadwick Boseman).

Callahan is the consensus choice and Weaver has leveraged the team's future to land him. The team's steely owner, played by Anthony Langella, also wants to "make a splash" and give long-suffering Cleveland football fans a reason to live (ie. buy season tickets). Simple enough choice, right?

Not when Callahan is seen lounging with his slick agent (lamely played by Puffy) while Mack - a glowing halo floating above his head - is shown playing with his nephews at gym class and giving a game ball to his dying sister. Hmm, which will Weaver choose? I'm not sure why director Ivan Reitman (he of Ghostbusters legend) decided to show us the playbook so far in advance because it definitely zaps the film of its tension.

But Costner is the veteran charmer who can be counted on when the game is in question. He sells the procedural with a convincing acting job and has a quality freak-out scene when his mother and ex-wife storm into his office making untimely demands. Why Sonny's mother (Ellen Burstyn) has chosen this day of all days to insist he join her in scattering the ashes of Sonny Sr. at the 50-yard line is not entirely clear.

What is clear is Junior is saddled with more issues than who to select in the draft. His father was the team's coach and Sonny fired him shortly before his death. He's also just learned that a fellow executive and love interest is pregnant. That would be Jennifer Garner, who cuts through the film's overloaded testosterone. There's also a self-absorbed coach (Dennis Leary) who second guesses Weaver's every move.

Go long!
The predictable ending plays out like an elongated version of the two-minute scene from "Moneyball," where Brad Pitt wheels and deals on the telephone. In fact, it must be noted that "Draft Day" often feels like a more sitcom-y version of "Moneyball," which is maybe why the National Football League - famous for refusing to allow its trademarks to be used in films - fully cooperated with this production. This is definitely not a warts-and-all look at the NFL.

There is one particular aspect of "Draft Day," though, that offers a compelling look into the politics behind NFL scouting. If you listen to sports radio shows like ESPN First Take you'll hear endless scrutiny of football prospects like Johnny Manziel or Jadeveon Clowney and it's not always regarding their skill. It's often about their personal character and off-the-field conduct. These players are expected to be perfect humans and they are held to the highest standards by holier than thou team executives and onlooking pundits.

"Draft Day" touches on this part of the going-pro process, but it's only a halftime show amidst Costner's game of winning his career. I wouldn't say "Draft Day" is touchdown of a movie. More like a field goal from about 20 yards out. You know it's most likely going straight through the uprights, but that doesn't detract from its watchability.  

Monday, April 7, 2014

Judging Silicon Valley

If there was ever a guy you could rely on to properly skewer a corporate culture, it's Mike Judge.

The director, writer and animator dropped Office Space on our heads 15 years ago and still to this day nothing touches it in terms of picking apart the subtle absurdity of conventional work environments. Perhaps the British version of the Office does, but it's a totally different beast.

Office Space is one of my all-time favourite comedies and I enjoyed his other stab at workplace humour in Extract, though that film isn't nearly as memorable.

After feeding off the mundane existence of the average worker drone, it's nice to see Judge shooting higher with his excellent new series, Silicon Valley.

I watched the pilot episode last night on HBO and it was like a getting a drink of water in a desert of tech titan worshipping. This is a culture that has been screaming to be made fun of, and Judge appears more than up to the task.

The episode starts with Kid Rock playing a private party for some new startup while guys like Elon Musk and Eric Schmidt mingle, oblivious to his blasting rock. The startup's leader blathers on about "changing the world" with their new app and creating "disruption" in the digital age. Judge nails the diluted self-importance radiating from many of Silicon Valley's would be masters.

T.J. Miller as a tech guru
The show centres around a nerdy group of programmers (is there any other kind?) being mentored by a dim Svengali-like character played by T.J. Miller. This guy always does overconfident and obnoxious perfectly and I maintain that he and Jay Baruchel did great work together in the underrated She's Out of My League.

And of course it's nice to see Martin Starr playing a semi-grown up version of his Freaks and Geeks character, Bill Haverchuk.

Silicon Valley has a blast highlighting the ridiculous names that come out of tech culture. The lead character, played by Nelson, B.C.'s Thomas Middleditch, works at a company called "Hooli," while Miller's character laments selling his startup, "Aviato." The show also has fun painting SV billionaires as over-the-top eccentrics who drive ultra-narrow smart cars and wear ugly toe shoes while consulting their spiritual gurus.

The show is slated for eight episodes and it will be interesting to see how deep Judge plunges his satire knife. Hopefully guys like Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin can take a joke.

Here's the entire first episode:

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Hayao Miyazaki Rides the Wind

There's a scene near the end of the The Wind Rises where a school of Japanese Zero fighter jets soar through blue skies as their main creator and engineer looks on in wonder. The moment feels triumphant and we cheer for the story's main character, Jiro Horikoshi, who designed these magnificent machines against all odds.  

After you leave the theatre it might occur to you at some point that, "hey wait, those planes were heading off to drop bombs and kill innocent people." Such is the ethical and political conundrum Hayao Miyazaki's new film puts you in. The director appears to show little interest in tussling with these issues; he could be accused of dodging a big question if favour of telling a story the way he sees fit.

Miyazaki is a master of visual storytelling and rarely during the film are you left pondering big ethical questions about war and personal responsibility. Instead, you are swept away by his lush animated imagery and emoting characters. The film is visual splendour, which fans of Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away) have come to expect.

The Wind Rises, which the 73-year-old Miyazaki says will be his last, follows the biographical story of Horikoshi, a pedantic and grounded airplane engineer whose head is always in the sky. The film shows pre-war Japan and Horikoshi's life from before the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 to when those WW2 fighter jets head off to destinations unknown.

Horikoshi, who is too near-sighted to be a pilot, is often visited in dreams by an Italian plane designer named Caproni, who urges him to follow his artistic instincts. Caproni also serves as a springboard for Horikoshi's conscious near the end of the film when he finally ponders aloud the ethical implications of his innovation. This is as close as the film gets to opening that Pandora's box of questions about complicity.

Much of the film, however, is spent detailing the love affair between Horikoshi and Nahoko, who he first meets in a moment of heroism during the earthquake. Their love is rekindled when Horikoshi retreats to a mountain resort after a failed plane prototype costs lives. Despite her poor health, they marry anyways, but this puts their romantic lives in precarious circumstances like a plane experiencing engine failure.

Miyazaki's film is very emotional and as I said you are swept out of the poignant realism of what these planes are ultimately used for. Clearly the director is dealing with issues of letting go and making peace with one's artistic creation. As I mentioned earlier, he claims this is his last film. If true, his career will end in the highest of altitudes.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Todd Barry's Crowd Work Tour

Usually when a comedian interacts with the audience, it's in the uncomfortable context of shooting down drunk hecklers or filling stage time when the jokes run dry. Todd Barry, the funniest comedian on the scene today, has embraced this perilous paradigm of audience interaction and turned it on its head.

He's become the self-admitted king of "crowd work" and has devoted entire tours to audience banter. To those who might think this is a cop out from telling prepared jokes, you need to buy his new special from Louis CK's website for $5, like I did, and see it's actually far more challenging than doing a nightly routine of the same set.

Barry is the quickest wit out there and he can spin funny out of the most mundane questions, like: "what do you do for a living?" A digital marketer?  Software programmer? He can work with that. Barry will resist temptation to skip to the next person with a more interesting story and instead dig deeper until he strikes comedy gold.

The special was filmed by Lance Bangs, whose comedy credits are impressively extensive, including specials for Marc Maron and John Hodgman, during a West Coast run last September that started in San Diego and wrapped in Anchorage. Bangs keeps the between-show footage to a minimum, except for exposing Barry's heightened germaphobia with a scene that will make you reconsider where you keep your toothbrush in a hotel bathroom.

The penultimate stop was here in Vancouver and of course there's a disgruntled actor in the audience. Barry's short back-and-forth with him is a prefect microcosm of Vancouver's acting community - they are generally a hard-done-by bunch. Barry shows him sympathy though, as he does with most of his subjects, who reluctantly tell about their jobs and interests. A shallower comedian might rip apart the shy dog-collar artisan in Portland (where else?), but Barry treats everyone with respect. He will only shut you down if you try and steal the show, like the loud-mouthed free range egg lady (also in Portland, of course).

Barry's final date in Alaska is probably his best work on the tour because the variables are so different. Here's a Manhattan guy shooting the shit with a boozy crowd of pipe-fitters in a small club called Chilkoot Charlie's. Yet he never loses the room and it exemplifies Barry's widespread appeal to disparate audiences.

Barry is getting ready to embark on what he's calling his Final Crowd Work Tour and you can find the dates and ticket info at his website. Word of caution: if you're a musician and in some kind of fledgling band, do yourself a favour and don't sit in the front row. Barry will sniff you out and put a laugh target on your chest. Same goes for artisan dog-collar makers.

Friday, March 7, 2014

From the Vaults: The Verdict

Sometimes I wonder if Paul Newman's legacy is becoming better known from the grocery store shelves than from the cinema. I recently purchased a jar of Newman's Own "Sockarooni" pasta sauce and it occurred to me that perhaps a younger generation might only know that smiling face on the label from these fine charity-funding pasta sauces and salad dressings; not as one of the greatest actors of a generation.  

Hopefully the recent addition of 1982's "The Verdict" to Netflix will give younger eyeballs a look at Newman's gifts beyond selling tasty sauces. The film was a critical smash for Newman, legendary director Sidney Lumet and then-budding screenwriter David Mamet, who earned a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. He lost to the film Missing.

The 1983 Academy Awards, it must be noted, was a powerhouse year and Gandhi cleaned up most categories. But check out its competition: E.T., Tootsie, The Verdict, An Officer and A Gentleman and Das Boot. Diner and Sophie's Choice were also in the mix, which is somewhat mind-boggling because all these films have gone to earn classic or near-classic status.    

Newman himself was on quite a role at the time. He was nominated for Best Actor the year prior for Absence of Malice; lost the same category to Ben Kingsley in '83, but then nailed it two years later when he revived pool hustler Fast Eddie Felson for the Color of Money. The only misstep during this phenomenal stretch was a directorial flop called Harry & Son, which co-starred the much-maligned, at least by me, Robby Benson.

Blue-collar Harry blasts his writerly son. 
In Verdict, he plays a hard-boozing, ambulance-chasing lawyer named Frank Galvin. The kind of guy who crashes funerals to pass out his business card and drinks a raw egg in the morning to kill off the daily hangover (does that actually work?). His friend, Jack Warden, gives him a straightforward malpractice lawsuit that all he has to do is accept a cheque and take his third of it. But Frank's conscience gets in the way.

He decides to fight for the victim, take on the powerful doctors and their high-priced lawyers who have the judge on their side and a moll messing with Newman's life. He doesn't stand a chance right? There's no way he can win this case! Courtroom dramas end the way you expect, but this one has a huge emotional payoff.

Newman is vulnerable; a man who's given up on himself. He had settled into a life of comfortable failure and now he's being forced to confront responsibility and expectation. He would run from it if he could, but there's a girl in a vegetative state that won't allow it. Newman looks tired, defeated and you feel such empathy for him in a scene where he retreats to a bathroom in the midst of a panic attack.

And guess what? He doesn't give up drinking in the end, as shown in a great final scene where he savours both victory and a personal defeat.

I highly recommend this film as well as Sockarooni pasta sauce, which contains "peppers, spices and the whole shebang!" Here you can find recipes using the sauce, like Vegetarian Sloppy Paul's. I'm sure it taste better than it sounds.