Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is out this month, and it seems like a culmination of sorts for the film fanatic writer-director. Each of his movies toes the line between self-awareness and immersive cinema, continually winking at the camera and yet lost in a world of its own, packed to the brim with pop culture references but still stylish enough to become a pop culture reference. Tarantino, who worked at a video store as a kid and has been devouring several movies a day ever since, has few rivals when it comes to an encyclopedic knowledge of the art form. To see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood framed around film and television sets in 1950s L.A. is quite the prospect, because that encyclopedic knowledge serves as more than a wink or a reference.
That explicit love of movies, to be fair, is a place that several Tarantino films have ventured before, though never carrying such importance as it must likely carry in Hollywood. The primary one is Inglourious Basterds, which uses the state of German cinema as both a unique backdrop for a World War II adventure and, eventually, as a major climactic catharsis that achieves nothing less than the rewriting of history. Christoph Waltz and Brad Pitt steal top billing (and, in Waltz’s case, the Oscar) as The Bad Guy and The Good Guy. But Basterds becomes a truly great film for the inclusion of Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), theater owner and Lady Vengeance Incarnate, and Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), young Nazi-turned-propaganda-film-star. These characters are opposed in every way except their love of film, which both brings them together and kills them in the end. Theirs may technically be the subplot, but Tarantino’s passion for cinema sings loudest when his characters share in that passion.
At some indiscriminate point in the ’90s movie producers everywhere decided to simply stop caring about trying to get actors to do passable Irish accents. Can’t we try, begged writers and moviegoers and people from Ireland, at least try to make this sound accurate? We know it’s more appealing to have a major American beefcake rather than, say, an actual Irish guy playing the role of “actual Irish guy”, but can’t we spend the extra time/money to ensure this film won’t become a laughingstock in ten years, or five, or instantaneously? Please? Please?
We’ve charted a course backwards through movie time and discovered Far and Away to be one of the earliest and most egregious offenders. If not patient zero per se, Far and Away is effectively worse than the index case for presenting itself on the largest possible stage and thus spreading the Awful Irish Accent disease much more quickly. Prior to Far and Away a shitty accent was a shitty accent. After Far and Away, a shitty accent became a perfectly acceptable feature of a major blockbuster because Ron Howard and Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman couldn’t be bothered to do better. Why should anyone else?
I don’t exactly have strong feelings one way or the other about Meet Joe Black. Some despise it for being overly long and uneventful, some enjoy it as a meditation on death and love and living a fulfilling life. I’m neutral. Consistently so, in fact: pretty much every single facet of Black lands in a sort of middle ground. The premise? Interesting enough. The writing? Passable. The great Anthony Hopkins? Yes, he’s certainly Anthony Hopkins. The direction is fine, too, from the reliably careful Martin Brest, though this is him turning in his final film before the reliably careless Gigli; shame that every time you think hey, that’s a nice shot the little homunculus in your head whispers don’t forget Gigli. Anyway, I’m aggressively neutral on Meet Joe Black.
Do you want to talk about something else? Have you seen the commercial with the little baby and the car and the thing? Did you know that Rogaine is fatal to cats? Oh, you really came for Meet Joe Black? On purpose? And you haven’t even seen it? Abridged version: everything is starting to die (Anthony Hopkins) or starting to live (Claire Forlani) or Brad Pitt’s hair (Brad Pitt’s hair).
So says a fan-made poster in one of the archival shots from Bennett Miller’s Moneyball. It’s a yellow poster with green marker-drawn capital letters on it, held overhead by an unseen Oakland A’s fan. Though the film seamlessly incorporates newly-shot game footage into the ancient history of 2002, the majority of the footage in this particular montage is real. Fans hold posters, they exchange high-fives; players whack homers, they round bases, they exchange high-fives. The A’s were on an unprecedented winning streak, crushing every team they met and hurtling towards an unheard-of twenty wins in a row. The sequence in Moneyball is dubbed simply “The Streak”:
Edward Norton wowed audiences this past year with his supporting role in Birdman, one that earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor and, at times in the movie, stole the show, even from lead actor nominee Michael Keaton. It was an impressive, but not necessarily unexpected, performance from Norton. He has established himself over the past two decades as a great actor. But how did he get to this point? Where did he start? Two words: Primal Fear.
Truth be told, Norton’s start and end points in his journey have had identical impacts on audiences. On both ends of his career—in his first movie and his most recent one—he has absolutely captivated audiences with his performance. It is his first performance that seems more impressive, though, for the sheer fact that no one saw it coming. Continue reading Primal Fear (1996)→
A defense of Legends of the Fall? Really? Is this really what the world needs? Shouldn’t this space be used for something more worthwhile, like an examination of Renée Zellweger’s face? Is a treatise on Battlefield Earth up next? Lest there be any doubt: Legends of the Fall is a deeply, deeply flawed movie full of stiff writing, stiff acting, and a healthy dose of that cringeworthy unexplainable badness reserved for a particular class of film (though, no, not as bad as Battlefield Earth). It’s unbearably soapy, it’s long, and we’re expected to take ridiculously sappy scenes like this with utter seriousness:
Ah, man hugs. Can we ignore stuff like this? Should we? Maybe not. But still, somehow, inexplicably, in spite of stiff writing, stiff acting, unbearable soapiness, absurd sequences like the one above – in spite of all that, Legends of the Fall is one of the most epic standalone sagas ever filmed.
Casey Affleck presented a screening of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford at the Brattle Theatre in Boston last night, on hand for a Q&A following the film. Though Assassination is still sadly much more of an “obscure” offering – at least in terms of films starring Brad Pitt – it nonetheless remains a fascinating character study of both a young man and his mythical idol.
Robert Ford joins the James Gang alongside his brother Charlie at a time when Jesse James has already achieved infamy through his brazen robberies and brutal murders. Bob is only nineteen years old at this point (although he “feels older”), and his fascination with the gang is a mixture of childish wonder, starstruck glee, and perhaps a hint of inflated self-importance. He believes he’s destined for “great things”, by which he really means he believes himself to be a worthy follower of Jesse or even one who could take his place. As his place in the gang is solidified over the course of the film and his presence at Jesse’s side becomes more and more common, Bob’s perception of his onetime hero begins to deteriorate.
In many ways our Director Series on Peter Weir can be seen as an excuse to write about The Mosquito Coast, which is the logical culmination of the “early stage” of the director’s career and gateway to those brilliant films that would follow (though calling that Weir’s “later stage” makes it sound like his directing career is a slowly advancing disease). Coast would follow Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously – two well-received Australian films that helped launch Mel Gibson into superstardom – and Witness, which would prove to be Weir’s first American film. The greatness of Dead Poets Society would follow. It’s The Mosquito Coast, though, that’s arguably the most ambitious of any of these films.
And that’s fitting, because although Gibson’s Guy Hamilton and Harrison Ford’s John Book and Robin Williams’s John Keating could conceivably all be described as “ambitious” in one way or another, it’s Ford’s Allie Fox that allows his ambition to get the better of him. Fed up with just about every aspect of America, inventor Fox uproots everything and takes his family deep into the South American jungle. They make a new home – “home” a term used liberally here – on the Mosquito Coast, where Allie’s latest creation provides something magical for the local population: ice. Helen Mirren and River Phoenix appear as Allie’s wife and eldest son, who essentially allow themselves to be dragged into the jungle by this iceman simply because they love him.
In America you’re on your own. One of the most criminally overlooked movies of 2012 was Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, a rough-and-tumble tale of petty holdup artists, mob enforcers and the suit-and-ties that control them (or think they control them). Dominik’s follow-up to his excellent The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford retains some of the same cast and makes a few substitutions, and Killing Them Softly is a very different movie from Dominik’s earlier film and from most American crime dramas on the whole.
When two smalltime down-and-outers (played with hilarious gusto by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) hold up a mob-protected card game (run by Ray Liotta’s Markie), the local criminal economy crumbles into chaos. It’s not so much that the robbery is botched as the criminals themselves are botched, making it a fairly simple procedure for Brad Pitt’s Jackie Cogan to arrive in town and put the pieces together. His systematic deconstruction of the situation provides the rest of the drive for Killing Them Softly, but Domnik and Co. enhance the subtleties of every punch and gunshot along the way.
An interesting feature of Killing Them Softly is the way the 2008 presidential election campaign – focused largely on the recession and the floundering economy – plays into the story. Unlike a lot of modern crime dramas, this one is very “bottom-up” – the players we watch are the lowest rungs on the ladder, broke and struggling men desperate to make any kind of score. This isn’t American Gangster or Goodfellas. The highest we go up the totem pole is a glorified messenger played by Richard Jenkins (who is fittingly out-of-place among the rest of the cast), and other than that it’s junkies, drunken hitmen, and enforcers who don’t think twice about shooting a guy. Even Dillon, a world-famous-all-over-New-England enforcer mentioned time and again by nearly every character, appears only once (and happens to be played by Sam Shepard). Addresses from Obama and McCain reach this subfloor of humanity nonetheless, but the blanket statements made by presidential candidates don’t exactly apply way down here.