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.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

House of Cards Teeters

The second season of House of Cards has been available for only 10 days and already I fear discussing its 13 episodes might be old news. Such is the nature of our changing viewing habits and the way we "binge" our way through long-form television.

If you're the rare individual who is rationing out this series and haven't yet completed it, then I must warn you that this post will reveal "spoilers" and you should probably not be searching out any more House of Cards discussions until you're up to date. For the rest of us, we must address the pertinent and unavoidable question: how does this season compare to the first? 

I'll say it exceeded the debut season in terms of focusing on the show's main underlying theme - the sacrifice and cost of gaining power. We already knew that Frank Underwood stops at nothing as he continues his blood-splattered march to the Oval Office, but taking out reporter Zoe Barnes - his former lover - in the first episode was a harsh reminder of his moral-free determination. 

While Barnes was Frank's pawn in the first season, President Walker takes over that role in the second. Almost every interaction between the two ends with Frank successfully manipulating the President. Scene after scene, he pledges his loyalty and respect to the Commander and Chief, offering to jump in front of a political bullet for him, all the while shooting us knowing glances as if to say: "can you believe this gullible fool?" By mid-season you feel that Walker's fate is sealed.

Another reason why I enjoyed this season more was the addition of Molly Parker, who Canadians should recognize from a long resume of independent films such as Wonderland and Kissed. The B.C. native plays the unflappable Jackie Sharp, a military veteran and Frank's successor as congressional whip. There are moments when you think she'll take on Frank, but eventually she succumbs to his poison-dipped promises.

Frank's only true adversary this season is billionaire mid-westerner Raymond Tusk. The two start out sparring over the President's attention, but soon it's an all-out war that ends with Tusk giving testimony in a hearing that eventually sinks Walker and ostensibly paves Frank's road to his ultimate goal. Will Frank's winning streak ever be snapped? 

The season ends with a glimpse of problems to come for Frank. The death of his henchman/Chief of Staff Doug Stamper signals a loose end that Frank will have to tie up, meaning Rachel Posner - the young sex worker they used to frame Peter Russo in Season 1 - is in immediate danger. It will be interesting to see how he goes about "eliminating" problems next season as President. No more rendezvous on subway platforms. 

For me the most powerful scene of Season 2 belonged to Claire Underwood. I spoke of the sacrifices and costs of the Underwoods' quest for power; nothing epitomized this more than Claire's breakdown on the staircase after talking with the first lady over the phone. Usually she shows steely reserve, but this moment accentuated the lying, manipulation and resulting isolation of her actions. It's a rare moment of humanity from the Underwoods. And it doesn't last. Soon after she is ripping on Frank to stay the course and not put their goals in jeopardy. 

A subplot that didn't work for me was the "hacker" Gavin Orsay. Apparently the writers couldn't think of a way to make this character interesting, so in place of decent dialogue he is given a guinea pig to constantly play with and terrible taste in music. It's unclear where he stands for season 3 since he was attempting to blackmail the now-dead Stamper. Still, he knows about the plot to get rid of journalist Lucas Goodwin, so there's potential for him to be a problem for Frank. 
And I guess that's what I'm looking forward to for Season 3 - problems for Frank. Despite some damaging shots to Claire's character and his tussles with Tusk, Underwood never seemed truly challenged in Season 2. Everyone was a piece on his model army playground and the outcome never felt in doubt. However, if obtaining the presidency is, metaphorically speaking, adding that last card to the teetering house, then we know what must inevitably happen next.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Buona Fortuna

It's unlikely that any director would be audacious enough to attempt an outright remake of a Fellini film, but if there was ever a spiritual successor to the great Italian director's masterpiece, La Dolce Vita, it would be Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza).

This is a film that's not easily described in terms of story and plot. In fact, in that regard it might be a disappointment to some, as evidenced by a few walkouts during the screening I attended. The film is more of a meditation on existential topics such as aging, love, art and the main character's relationship with Rome, the Eternal City.

The film swirls around its star Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a weary writer and socialite much like Marcello Mastroianni's iconic Marcello Rubini character in La Dolce. Gambardella, like Rubini, floats around parties looking for amusement among the city' wealthy eccentrics. He wrote an important book - The Human Apparatus, nearly 40 years ago - that is still a topic of discussion. When asked why he never followed it up, he blames a preoccupation with Rome's nightlife.

Sorrentino gives us good reason to believe him. The party scenes are throbbing exhibitions of hedonism and abandon that include knife throwers, child painters, dwarves and a beautiful blonde heiress who takes Gambardella home only to find him gone after leaving the bedroom momentarily to fetch some nude photographs. "I could no longer afford to spend time doing things I did not enjoy," his voice-over tells us. It becomes clear where Gambardella's time has gone.

But Gambardella's existential crisis is triggered by news of an old girlfriend's death and soon the writer is smoking cigarettes and walking the Roman streets taking stock of what it's all added up to. A brief romance with a middle-aged stripper quickly unravels, his indifferent journalism career is without passion, and suddenly he is plagued by memories of that girlfriend from his youth. She rejected him. Yet, according to the girl's husband, never stopped loving Jeb. Nothing will haunt a man like the one who got away.

A recommendation for watching the Great Beauty - or any Fellini film for that matter - is to give yourself over to the experience instead of expecting something from it. I won't pretend the film didn't go on about 20 minutes more than I needed, especially the scenes involving the nearly-dead nun that felt superfluous to the film's melancholy tone. We get it, he's facing questions about mortality. But even when the "plot" is going nowhere you can bask in the cinematography of sun-drenched Rome.

Ironically, it is the Eternal City that Jeb blames his inefficiencies on. Instead of inspiring him to writing great works of art, it has captivated him to the point of inertia. "Rome makes you waste a lot time" he rues. It's a moment of self-condemnation, but I think I speak for many when I say that's the kind of problem you wouldn't mind having.

Servillo has delivered a fine acting performance; equal to Mastroianni's turn in La Dolce. You never grow tired of watching him saunter through the city in his cream-coloured Italian suits and slicked-back hair. The film is nominated in this year's Oscar foreign language category and to that I say "buona fortuna!"

Monday, February 3, 2014

Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman

It was shocking to wake up yesterday and learn of the untimely passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman. As a film lover, I'd barely had time to process the disturbing developments regarding Woody Allen before being hit with this tragic news.

I assume others like myself were unaware of Hoffman's struggles with addiction. Sure, he sometimes looked like a guy who indulged in vices, but I don't recall any of the typical gossip or rumour that usually surrounds celebrities who struggle with substance abuse. It's a cold reminder that just because we follow these actors and watch them on the big screen, we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking we truly know anything about them. 

Hoffman leaves behind a legacy of diverse and difficult film characters. The 46-year-old was a rare breed of Hollywood actor who continually challenged himself and his audience with the roles that were not always likeable, but nonetheless compelling and believable. There was no such thing as a typical Philip Seymour Hoffman film. 

I'd like to share a few of my favourite films by him, in no particular order. He was a prolific worker and didn't constrain himself to leading roles, even though his star power eventually called for it. He would often appear in smaller parts, stage productions and his passing will certainly spur me on to seek out some of his lesser known works. 

Boogie Nights (1997)

This where I was first introduced to Hoffman and right away I knew this was a guy who didn't shy away from a challenge. He played Scotty J., the porn production assistant who harbours a deep crush on Mark Wahlberg's Dirk. Hoffman played the part with sensitivity, self-loathing and desperation and you could argue it was the first role that really turned some heads.

Although he had briefly appeared in Paul Thomas Anderson's debut Hard Eight, he solidified their union with Boogie Nights. The two would go on to form a fruitful partnership of director and muse, culminating with the head-scratching epic, The Master.  

Almost Famous (2000) 

Having spent a good many years as a music critic, of course a portrayal of Lester Bangs is going to win me over. Hoffman plays Bangs as a mentor to the young rock journalist in Cameron Crowe's autobiographical recount of his days as a Rolling Stone scribe. 

Today, Crowe posted a few words about Hoffman's scenes in the film, calling it the "soul of the movie." I remember seeing it and thinking Hoffman was the only truly authentic rock n' roll element of the movie, and the only guy who actually looked like he existed in the 70s. 

Along Came Polly (2004)

Hoffman will likely be remembered best for his ability to play unhappy characters who you can't help but like. Along Came Polly is no different. Though it's basically a goofy rom-com vehicle for Ben Stiller, Hoffman absolutely steals every scene as Sandy Lyle, a grace-less former child star who goes through life with a massive chip on his shoulder. 

He plays Stiller's best friend and their scenes together - especially on an outdoor New York basketball court - are a thing of beauty. Hearing Hoffman howl "Make it rain" every time he bricks a shot is pure comedic gold. Also, his scene giving Stiller relationship advice while draining a pizza slice of its grease will forever be lodged in my brain.

Owning Mahowny (2003)

The number of Hollywood films shot on location in Toronto are countless. But how often does the plot of the film actually take place in Canada with the city allowed to play itself? This was a rare treat in which Hoffman played Dan Mahowny, a squirrelly Toronto banker who starts embezzling money to feed his crippling gambling addiction. 

Hoffman nailed the subtleties of the role and the stodgy Canadian banker culture. His ability to balance the keep-your-head-down and don't-rock-the-boat worker mentality with the secret life of a uncontrollable gambling addict, was an incredible dual persona performance. There's a scene near the end where Hoffman fiddles with a broken rear-view mirror in his frozen car that captures a quintessentially Canadian moment.

The Master (2012)

Although I admit to having emerged from the Master wondering what the hell just happened, I was sure about one thing: Hoffman was brilliant in it (whatever it was). His character of Lancaster Dodd was a riveting combination of evil genius, cult guru, shaman and snake oil salesman.

It was the apex of Hoffman's powers - to make you intrigued by characters who are dysfunctional and detestable; to bring to life these kinds of pained characters; to make them flesh and blood, and have you care about them and even cheer them on. It was a wondrous gift and his absence leaves a gaping void in the cinematic landscape. Thank you, Philip Seymour Hoffman.  

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Klondike's Golden Era

Right from the start of the The Discovery Channel's new gold rush mini-series Klondike, the network doesn't shy away from moving in on Game of Thrones' profitable claim. The credits intro to Klondike is an ominous melange of cellos and violins while images dart across a ye old map - sound familiar?

Discovery didn't stop there. They even plucked Scottish actor Richard Madden, who plays Robb Stark in the smash hit GOT series. However, these attempts at coat-tail riding can be forgiven because the show delivers an encompassing tale with strong characters and majestic Canadian scenery.

The one noticeable difference between Klondike and its medieval counterpart is an absence of graphic gore and nudity. Discovery is a basic cable channel so it's bound to be more family friendly. For me this wasn't an issue, but others more accustomed to HBO's blood and guts will probably find it somewhat subdued in comparison.

Klondike tells the story of Bill Haskell (Madden) and his journey to the Yukon during the 1890s gold rush. Haskell and his childhood friend Epstein survive the treacherous mountain paths to Dawson City, where they stake a claim on a muddy hill. Panning rocks and shovelling dirt soon cease when Epstein meets an untimely death by an unknown assailant. His death sends Haskell into a character-defining conflict between seeking revenge and seeking his fortune.

There's plenty of interesting subplots in Klondike that keeps the action moving. There's the conscientious mountie battling a corrupt Ottawa politician who wants to pave way for big development by exterminating the local indigenous population. There's also Tim Roth playing The Count, the town's most villainous character, a morally bankrupt man who kills for thrills and wants to take over Dawson.

Sam Shepard is a preacher fighting a losing battle establishing religion in a place where all hope is lost and gold lust clouds all judgment, while Abbie Cornish is Belinda, a steely-nerved businesswoman who takes a shine to Haskell. Famous American writer Jack London is also on the scene collecting stories and emptying whiskey bottles.

The supporting cast is exceptionally strong and none of the subplots felt forced into the overall story, which is based on this book by Charlotte Gray.  

Jack London flanked by Epstein (l) and Haskell (r)

It's worth pointing out how impressive the set designs and location choices are in this series. The details of the town really make the era come to life and when the elements turn ugly - rain, mud, wind and filth - you really feel it. You keeping thinking to yourself - why would anyone put themselves through this? For a shaky dream of striking it rich? I can't definitively say I wouldn't have done the same.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Beautiful Lakeside Hell

This Netlix-available mini series stars Elizabeth Moss as a small-town New Zealand detective caught up in the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old.

Moss, best known for playing the Peggy Olson character in Mad Men, is an American actress and her NZ accent comes and goes a bit like a Kiwi poking its head out from behind the bushes. By the second episode you get over it and stop being petty because the show is often quite intriguing and the scenery stunning of the idyllic lakeside community.

The missing girl is named Tui and her father, played by Peter Mullan, is the town's main shady character. He proves why in the first episode and you immediately assume the worst when it comes to the identity of the father of Tui's baby.

Meanwhile, a self-help retreat for woman has set up shop at lakeside parcel of land called Paradise. The group is led by a mercurial guru named GJ, played by Holly Hunter and hardly recognizable in a grey wig and speaking clipped philosophical one-liners. Mullan's increasingly-detestable Matt claims familial ownership of Paradise and routinely attempts to intimidate the group, many already victims of male aggression, and scare them out of town.

At first glance the series feels like a typical mystery premise where an outsider detective uncovers seedy secrets behind a small-town facade. But Robin is local (returning from Australia) and tragic events in her past are intertwined with the area. It's in the context of these past traumatic events that Moss's acting really shines.  

Upon her return Moss re-ignites a romance with an old-flame named Johnno (Thomas Wright), who lives in a tent by the lake and is fresh off an eight-year stint in a Thai prison for drugs. Yes he is quite a catch! But Johnno represents the only decent male character in a show populated by thugs, murders, drug dealers, bullies, bikers, rapists, misogynistic cops and sexual predators, both recovering and active. What woman in her right mind would live here?

Although the show is stunning in its ability to set a mood and contrast the area's natural beauty with ugly, disturbing events and sinister characters, I agree with Mike Hale of the New York Times and that many plot-lines fizzle at the end with a conclusion that feels dreamt up solely for shock value.

If this is what rural New Zealand is like, as the series' writer and NZ native Jane Campion would have us believe, then perhaps the area is best experienced from a helicopter.

Thursday, January 16, 2014


The Oscar's Best Picture nominees were announced today and it warming to see Spike Jonze's humanistic future-romance Her in the running.

To cite one of my favourite film critics, Anthony Lane, Her is the right film at the right time. Unlike other nominees such as 12 Years A Slave, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street or Dallas Buyers Club, Her is a story of our time, even if it's set in an unmentioned future date.

Jonze could have easily made a cautionary tale about our increased immersion into technology and the social isolation that it creates. But a two-hour lecture about our phone addictions wouldn't go very far and instead he goes for something deeper and more affecting. It's not our obsession with technology he interested in, it's the potential for romance.

It's been awhile since Joaquin Phoenix has played a character as relatable as Her's Theodore Twombly, a personal letter writer who is coming off a painful separation from his soon-to-be ex-wife. Phoenix usually takes roles that require him to be a twisted, unstable wreck of unhinged emotions. In Her, he's some of that but his pain is more internalized and less loose cannon than we've come to expect.

He purchases a new operating system called OS1 and soon the silken voice of Scarlett Johansson is asking him if she can organize his emails. As Lane also pointed out, if this was the voice of Marge Simpson you would have an entirely different movie on your hands.

Theo and "Samantha" - the OS voice - start having late-night pillow talk sessions and before you can say "compose email" she's his defacto date as he wanders around sunny Los Angeles, which appears to have reached the population of 600 million yet still doesn't seem overcrowded or dirty. A note on this city scape scenes: it's comforting to see future metropolises in a positive light. Maybe we are not doomed to live in a Total Recall underworld after all.

Although Jonze portrays the not-too-distant future as warm, spacious and safe, he paints a grim image of men's fashion as evidenced by Theo's collection of pastel shirts and high-waisted paints.

Just as Theo is getting comfortable with the idea of being in love with a voice in a computer - they're taking weekend getaway trips together and double-dating at Catalina Island - something is happening with Samantha to rupture this seemingly perfect union. The reasons for Samantha's transformation are a little unclear to me, but Theo's struggle with his predicament of losing his ex-wife while grappling with the fact he is emotionally invested in a computer is plain as day. Phoenix is one of the great actors of our age and it's hard to imagine anyone else doing this film the same justice.

Amy Adams, who seems to be making a film every week, plays his longtime platonic friend who's also dealing with a breakup and a burgeoning relationship with her OS. Of course you want them to unplug their computers and start a good ole fashioned human-to-human love affair, but Jonze wouldn't dare consider such conventionality.

Her resonates with what's going on right now in our world and that's something I don't take for granted anymore. Movies now are so often meant for pure escapism and I'm fine with that, but our world is changing so rapidly and I appreciate when a director makes an attempt to examine its transformations. How Her will hold up 10 years from now I couldn't possibly say, but it feels like required viewing in the present day.

A quick note on the music. Jonze started his career making music videos and parts of Her feel like some of his videos from the 90s. If you remember Weezer's "Islands in the Sun" video there's definitely a familiarity with that choice of dreamy lighting. Arcade Fire provides a few tracks and Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs collaborates with Jonze again after writing the score to his film Where the Wild Things Are. Indiewire has posted a few cuts here.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Kurt Russell Floats the Boat

In this post I'd like to discuss two films on Netflix that star Kurt Russell and have a wacky plot that somehow involves a boat. The first is the Gary Marshall-directed 1987 rom-com Overboard co-starring Goldie Hawn, and the other is 1992's sea romp Captain Ron, which co-stars Martin Short.

Both films are mindless fun but if you're in a position where you are forced to choose between two sea-faring comedies starring Kurt Russell, I'm going to suggest Overboard, and here's why:

Falling For It

It's hard to believe this movie was Russell's follow up to the action-packed John Carpenter classic Big Trouble in Little China. After playing rough-and-ready truck driver Jack Burton and being a few years removed from his badass Snake Plissken character in Escape From New York, Russell goes to considerable lengths with Overboard to soften the edges to his tough guy screen persona.

He teams up with his real-life partner Goldie Hawn and gives himself over to director Gary Marshall, who might just be the greatest romantic comedy director of all time. He's responsible for tearjerker favourites Pretty Woman, Beaches and Runaway Bride among others. Not to sound derisive but he has the chick-flick formulas down to a science.

In Overboard, however, Marshall's not too concerned with plot because there are enough holes here to sink this story to the bottom of the cinema sea. Hawn plays an intolerable ice queen who hires Russell, a fun-loving blue-collar carpenter named Dean Proffitt, to build her a new shoe closet on her yacht. As he works, Hawn belittles him while flaunting her wares (ie. flashing her thong) and their early scenes together are a strange mix of anger and eroticism.

Hawn slips overboard in the middle of the night and is picked up by a garbage scow. The only problem: she has amnesia and can remember nothing more than how to be cruel and insulting as she berates doctors, policemen and the local news anchor who tries to interview the "mystery woman."

Russell, a father of four unruly boys with no mother, hatches a scheme to bring Hawn home, convince her she's his wife and essentially make her his domestic slave. Sure, she screwed him over for his unpaid carpentry work, but this plan raises a multitude of ethical questions involving kidnapping, forced servitude and captivity. But this is a 80s movie where the opening credits are backdropped by some funky slap bass music, so you can't take it too seriously.  

Like I said, the plot is weak but star power keeps it afloat. The two leads have palpable chemistry together and Hawn plays the exasperated fish out of water part to perfection the same way she did in Private Benjamin. Russell, despite his questionable decision to trick Hawn and make her a surrogate mother, is likeable as a small town striver trying to raise his kids and make ends meet. You'll be surprised near the end when you're cheering for Russell to realize his dream of building a mini golf course. Ambitions were certainly more modest in 80s movies.    

Captain Bomb

There's plenty wrong with Captain Ron and it's no wonder it fizzled at the box-office. But you can't pin it on Kurt Russell and his titular character. Russell, years before Johnny Depp essentially became his Captain Jack Sparrow persona, is wonderful as a shady Caribbean captain who speaks with a rum-soaked voice and sports an eye patch.

He's basically doing a comedic riff on his Snake Plissken character and having fun with the lightweight nature of the film. He's got all the movies' best lines and it's obvious he's not taking the part too seriously. If it wasn't for Russell's presence this movie would be unwatchable.

It's weird to even write this but here's a case where Martin Short just isn't funny. Short is playing the straight man to Russell's absent-minded stewardship, but it doesn't work. Short - the man who invented this character - should NEVER be the straight man. It doesn't suit him.

Director Thom Eberhardt is not without blame, especially for his unfortunate decision to make child actor Benjamin Salisbury, playing Short's son, ape all of Macaulay Culkin's scared face moves from Home Alone - a monster hit only two years earlier.

Wikipedia describes Captain Ron as having a "cult following" and that in 2007 fans of the film gathered for the first annual "Ron Con" to celebrate the film's 15th anniversary. Yet something tells me this is not going to take on Big Lebowski status anytime soon.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Opening Credits - Again

I started this film blog seven years ago and made exactly three posts during that time period. That's 0.42 posts per year, and sadly all three came within the first month of starting REEL LIFE.

Since then my film viewing habits have changed dramatically, with the advent of Netflix. Sure I can still be found in the dark cinemas, but while I used to peruse video stores with my head cranked sideways reading titles on spines, I now crank my head sideway reading titles as they scroll by on Netflix.

I'm restarting this blog to help readers sift through the streaming crud and get to some of the quality. This won't be exclusive to Netflix; I will also be discussing what's in the theatres and why most mainstream films critics are out to lunch. I know that sounds arrogant, but I find myself disagreeing so often these days that I need a space to vent, if to no one but myself.

So let's get straight into it. Here are two Netflix-available titles that I've watched in recent days:

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

I have endless capacity for music documentaries. I've watched time-wasting garbage like Electric Daisy Carnival Experience to Oscar-winners such as Searching for Sugar Man.

Big Star fits nicely into the popular music doc category of "band-who-never-made-it-but-should-have-and-is-now-being-validated-of-their-greatness." I'm not sure if Anvil started this trend but we can certainly thank them to some degree. Unlike Anvil, Big Star made listenable music in their prime and their influence can be heard all over today's landscape.

Yet Big Star was ignored when they released the sublime "No. 1 Record," and almost as good follow up Radio City. Here's one of my favourite songs from them:

At 113 minutes, the film struggles mostly because the band has so little footage. There are no live performances (a few photo stills), video interviews or music videos. The directors - Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori - do the best they can with some promo photos and a radio interview but they could have shaved off 20 minutes, easy.

The film compensates by delving into the history of the Memphis music scene - Big Star's hometown - and some of its eclectic and colourful personalities during the 70s and 80s. Their voices are in this film but unfortunately Big Star's magnetic leader, Alex Chilton, isn't. Chilton died in 2010 and there's simply, I'll assume, no video out there of him talking about his music or anything else for that matter. Same goes with his Big Star songwriting partner Chris Bell, who died at 27 in 1978.

So what we get is a lot of talking head Big Star fans both unknown and known (REM's Mike Mills leads the latter category) and an unfortunate amount of footage of the band. You can't blame the directors for the lack of footage, but they are the ones trying to make a compelling documentary and could have edited it down to a less bloated length. I don't mind hearing from a few gushing critics, but if you keep going back to them repeatedly it dilutes the impact. And yes, perennial music doc star - Rolling Stone's David Fricke - makes an appearance near the end.

In the end you have a good movie about a great band who had some rough luck. But I would say this is too daunting an introduction to Big Star. Nothing is more of a turnoff to a band than listening to people tell you how great they are for nearly two hours.


I thought there was only one movie called "Heat" out there and that was Michael Mann's sorta-classic starring Al Pacino. That movie contains some of Pacino's most over-the-top cinematic moments, including this scene. Burt Reynolds' Heat is more low-key, but I would argue it's just as moody and dark.

Reynolds plays the fantastically-named Nick Escalante, a gambling addict and soldier of fortune who prowls through Vegas dreaming of one day cashing in his chips and moving to Venice. Like Michael Douglas' Jack T. Colton character in "Romancing the Stone," he often gazes upon a framed photo of a sail boat that will carry him away to a better life.

Escalante runs afoul of a local sleazebag gangster after helping his ex-girlfriend exact revenge on a wormy pervert named Danny DeMarco. As the mobsters turn on the "heat", Nick agrees to help a wimpy millionaire build some confidence by being his bodyguard and teaching him to man-up and take a punch. The two plot-lines collide during an action-packed end sequence where Nick hunts down DeMarco at his velvet-lined, high-roller suite.

It has recently been announced that this "Heat" will be remade starring Jason Statham in the role of Escalante. That's not exactly a casting stretch for Statham, who has made his career playing the reluctant tough guy. But before that comes out I would recommend seeing this original first. Reynolds does some fine acting in this film and he exudes a fatigue with the life he can't seem to escape.

There's a particularly memorable scene where Reynolds, after a winning streak in which he earns enough dough to make his Venice dream a reality, goes back to the blackjack tables knowing full well he will lose it all. His eyes say it all as he asks the dealer for another card. He knows his fate, but can do nothing to stop himself.