Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The American

Directed by Anton Corbijn.  Screenplay by Rowan Joffe.  Based on the novel A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth.  Starring George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli, Johan Leysen.  102 min.

Much of the internet chatter about The American has complained that the ads were deceptive, promising a slam-bang action thriller.  The actual movie is entertaining enough, and thrilling in a different way.  It’s a bit of a James Bond film, just really quiet and without any witty quips.  While George Clooney’s rakish charm may be on cool European mode here, he still inspires the envy of men who want to be him and women who want to be with him.  Like a good spy should.

The movie even opens with a Bond-ish cold open.  Clooney’s character Jack is in a remote cabin in Sweden with, of course, a gorgeous woman in bed.  The next morning they are walking through the snow when Jack, in the nick of time, suspects they’re being watched.  In fact, they’re being hunted and Jack quickly disposes of the enemy.  Evidently, Jack’s lone wolf persona is honed from years of people wanting to kill him.

Jack flees to Rome and calls Pavel (Johan Leysen), presumably his boss, who gives him a cellphone, a hideout, and “one last job.”  Jack’s main expertise lies in crafting weaponry and a sexy assassin (Thekla Reuten) needs a custom rifle.  Their meeting in a cafĂ© is appropriately cool and precise, their dialogue only discussing the job and the specs.  Too suspicious of being followed, Jack soon ditches the cellphone and finds his own hideout in the medieval hill town of Castel del Monte.

When not exercising his lean physique (ladies, this is for you) and moodily drinking coffee, he frequents the local bordello and the devastatingly beautiful Clara (Violante Placido—gentlemen, this is for you).  Soon they’re meeting for dinner and Jack starts to see a future with her.  Or maybe I presumed that this crosses his mind.  It’s hard to tell what Jack’s thinking at any given time and I suppose that’s sort of the point.  Jack asks Clara to come away with him very late in the story and although her charms are considerable, I found it hard to buy that he wouldn’t escape without her.

The movie is as cool as Jack is stoic and its serene mood actually makes the few jolts that do come along stand out.  The American is certainly not a barrel of laughs but is compelling enough.  Violante Placido (a great, oxymoronic name) is breathtaking.  And Castel del Monte, which Wikipedia tells me has a population of 463, should enjoy a jump in tourism after its beauty and charm have been so appealingly portrayed here.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg.  85 min.

It’s amazing what a “warts and all” documentary will do to your opinion of somebody.  I can’t say that I’ve ever been a big fan of the comedy stylings of Joan Rivers but after seeing this movie which explores a year in the life of the aging comedic icon, I have a great deal of empathy for her.  We see a tough broad on the outside masking (literally and figuratively, given her extensive cosmetic surgery) an almost pathologically insecure and vulnerable woman railing against age and insignificance.

The movie documents a year in the life of Joan Rivers and, although she jokes at the beginning that her datebook is so empty she needs sunglasses to read it, her schedule fills up quickly.  She’s starting rehearsals for an autobiographical play set to open in Edinburgh followed by London’s West End.  She’s still hawking jewellery on QVC.  She’s written another book and is on a promotional tour.  And whenever she’s back in New York, she constantly plays this one small comedy club, trying out new material.  There’s one sequence where immediately after a show in Los Angeles, she flies overnight to Minneapolis to endure a day of interviews, meet-and-greets, a show, and then gets back on the plane to do it all over again.  It’s a brutal schedule for anybody, let alone a 75-year-old, but it never seems to be enough.

We see a lot of what goes on behind the scenes and start to piece together Joan’s complicated persona.  Fuelling her fear of not having enough work is her ridiculously ornate apartment.  She says, “This is how Marie Antoinette would have lived if she’d had money.”  She clearly has a taste for expensive and beautiful things, but she also has a lot of people counting on her financially.  She has relatives who aren’t able to care for themselves.  And she’s paying for the kids of her housekeeper to go to private school.  The career has to keep all of this going.  Joan’s daughter Melissa comments that growing up it often felt like The Career was another sibling that required the attention of an entirely separate person.

Obsessions abound.  We see one room that has index card filing cabinets filling one wall from floor to ceiling.  On these thousands of index cards are her jokes from the last 30 years organized alphabetically by subject—every subject imaginable.  One drawer is intriguingly labelled “COOKING – TONY DANZA”.

Directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s previous work includes documentaries about Darfur (The Devil Came on Horseback [2007]) and a wrongly convicted African-American (The Trials of Darryl Hunt [2006]).  The duo may seem like an odd choice to helm a celebrity bio-pic but they successfully show a fascinating and often wince-inducing portrait of a survivor.  Rivers’ bitterness and resentment are on full display but with context that shows us we don’t really know somebody until you get an idea of their pain.

Joan Rivers is a complicated mix of neuroses: a constant hunger for attention, a longing for respect that rarely comes, a need for non-stop work.  There are moments, and we see some of them, when she is grateful and happy.  But often, disappointment consumes her.  This is what has made her comedy so angry and mean-spirited.  And often funny, but not always.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Get Low music

I just wanted to add some clips of the excellent music from Get Low.

This is the closing credits song, "Lay My Burden Down," written by Aoife O'Donovan and sung by Alison Krauss...

And here's a clip that isn't from the movie but features Aoife O'Donovan and her band Crooked Still.  From their most recent album Some Strange Country, here's "Half of What We Know."

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Get Low

GET LOW *** ½
Directed by Aaron Schneider.  Screenplay by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell.  Story by Chris Provenzano and Scott Seeke.  Starring Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, Lucas Black, Gerald McRaney, Bill Cobbs.  103 min.

I caught Get Low at Tinseltown yesterday after reading this article in Entertainment Weekly about Bill Murray and his disposition for being notoriously difficult to pin down.  Producer Dean Zanuck (Road to Perdition [2002]) played a risky game assuring the various “executive” and “associate” producers (i.e. financial backers) of Murray’s participation with only an oral agreement.  Thankfully it worked out and this peculiar little film was made.

The story concerns an aging hermit in 1930s Tennessee named Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) who has shut himself off from the world for the better part of 40 years, allowing stories and tall tales about his ornery, violent nature to grow in his absence.  He has a mule, a shotgun to ward off trespassers, and a picture of a mysterious young woman for company.  After the local preacher (Gerald McRaney) comes to inform him of a friend’s death, Bush decides he has some affairs to settle before his own passing.  The preacher tells him that forgiveness is free, but you have to ask for it.

While the audience wonders what past sins haunt him, Old Man Bush decides he wants a funeral for himself before he dies.  He hires the local undertaker Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) and his assistant Buddy (Lucas Black) to make the arrangements for his “funeral party,” inviting anybody who has a story to tell, which, according to Buddy, should include about 4 counties’ worth of people.  In the meantime, Felix runs into Mattie (a radiant Sissy Spacek) who is clearly an old flame not seen for many years with a story of her own.  Felix also goes out to visit an old friend, the Rev. Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs), but is unable to convince him to speak at the funeral, further intriguing us as to what Bush is too ashamed to tell himself.

When the confession comes, it’s almost a letdown, but Duvall imbues his performance with such authenticity that we buy it all the way.  In fact, Duvall is pretty much the whole movie here.  I was disappointed that Bill Murray wasn’t given more to do.  He’s enjoyable, of course, but the character isn’t meaty enough to require Murray’s inimitable presence.  Spacek manages to suggest years of unresolved feelings in just a few scenes, especially one where she and Duvall go toe to toe, Mattie waiting for Felix to say what’s on his mind.  There we see two superb actors at the top of their craft.

This is director Aaron Schneider’s first feature.  He’s been a cinematographer for years and won the 2003 Best Live Action Short Oscar for Two Soldiers, an adaptation of a William Faulkner short story.  Get Low looks great and suggests a convincing mood of hidden memory and melancholy, but the story, at the end, isn’t particularly resonant or moving.  It’s an acting showcase and Schneider has a cast of ringers showing what they can do.  And that’s just fine.

Of particular note is the soundtrack which should appeal to fans of O Brother, Where Art Thou?  Alison Krauss sings the closing credits song “Lay My Burden Down” which was written by Aoife O’Donovan, lead singer of the excellent bluegrass band Crooked Still.  Is an Oscar nomination in the cards there?  The score by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek (Oscar winner for Finding Neverland [2004]) features Jerry Douglas on dobro and a few songs by another neo-bluegrass band, the SteelDrivers.  Good stuff, and some new (to me) artists to explore.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Kids Are All Right

Directed by Lisa Cholodenko.  Written by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg.

For my first reviews, I want to catch up with some movies I saw this summer.  I got a chance to see The Kids Are All Right at a Sunday morning sneak preview at the Park Theatre.  I always love catching a sneak preview and since complimentary bagels and coffee are provided, how can you lose?

The movie stars Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as Nic and Jules who are parents to two teenagers.  Nic is an OB-GYN, uptight and goal-oriented, the reliable bread-winner, while Jules is more than a little directionless, drifting from one career path to another, currently alighting on landscape design.  Nic and Jules each gave birth to one of their two kids, and since they used the same anonymous sperm-donor, that makes 18-year-old Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson) half-siblings.  Unbeknownst to “the Momses,” Joni and Laser search out their birth father who turns out to be fun and free-wheeling Paul (Mark Ruffalo).  Laser, who was originally the most interested in meeting their father, is a little disappointed in Paul’s too casual vibe while Joni’s initial doubts melt in the face of Paul’s considerable charms.

Inevitably, they tell Nic and Jules about Paul and an awkward dinner ensues.  What follows is a series of events that bring Paul into all of their lives and forces each of the family members to examine their relationships with each other.  There are a good deal of laughs, maybe too many, and some of them are a little broad and sitcom-y, but the movie’s tone is mostly set by the serious moments.

The cast is superb, in particular Annette Bening as Nic, whose ordered world starts to crumble when it seems like her whole family starts liking Paul and leaving her behind.  She sees the danger in his devil-may-care attitude but she gamely tries to win his favour in a hilarious scene involving an impromptu Joni Mitchell singalong.  Bening shifts from joy and goofiness to devastation without missing a beat.  It’s a terrific performance.  Julianne Moore is great as always and Mark Ruffalo gives a natural, effortless turn that is very reminiscent of his breakout performance in You Can Count on Me (2000).  And Mia Wasikowska is an actress to watch.  She starred in Alice in Wonderland earlier this year and was fantastic in season 1 of HBO’s In Treatment

My enthusiasm for the movie is maybe a little muted due to some of the comedic elements.  However, I think one of the movie’s great strengths is that it’s almost incidental the parents are lesbians.  We see a couple who have clearly spent a lot of years together, supporting each other, loving each other, putting up with each other…  Being married is hard!  And then you throw kids into the mix and the challenges just multiply.  The movie is very smart in clearly showing the relationships between the family members and getting the audience to buy it.  Well done.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


I love movies.

I’m starting a blog for the first time, the subject for which is movies and my unending desire to see as many as possible.  I am primarily a musician.  I sing jazz, I have sung in choirs and while I have not yet sung backup for James Taylor, I am certain I will.

But I also love movies.  I’ve been seriously watching movies (and keeping notes) for almost 20 years.  I clearly remember my first experience going to the movies when I was 9 years old.  At that time, I had some knowledge that I wanted to do this magic thing called Going to the Movies.  I figured out that movies opened on Fridays and you could find out in the Thursday paper what was closing that night and opening tomorrow.  I would keep a lookout for acceptable movies (ones Dad was likely to take my brother and me to, i.e. Disney) and when I informed my parents that Cinderella was in town and the asking would never cease, we went.  I remember the fascination I had in finally seeing the whole movie.  Certain scenes were familiar from the Sunday night Disney TV show, but now I saw the story from beginning to end and I was hooked.

Somewhere in the early 1990s I started keeping track of the movies I saw, using a star rating system and coming up with my own top 10 list each year.  I became an avid Oscar-watcher.  I’ve kept the telecasts on VHS from 1993 to date (yes, I still use VHS) and I can name all the Best Picture winners in chronological order.  I have various checklists I’m working on at any given time which often leads me to exclaim, “I want to see ALL the movies!”  I realize that no single person can do this but the journey’s the thing, not the destination.  Besides, I don’t think completing anyone’s list of the 10,000 movies all self-respecting movie-lovers must see before they die would cause me to immediately keel over.

My intention is to write reviews and the occasional commentary.  I’m going to be learning a lot at first, about the mechanics of blogging and especially about writing.  I’ve been reading Roger Ebert for years but his easy-reading, erudite style is not something I’ve been able to assimilate.  In the meantime I hope you enjoy…