Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Curtis Hanson, R.I.P.

I just read about the death of writer/director Curtis Hanson today at the age of 71.  Hanson's gifts with actors carried him from guilty B-pleasures like The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (1992) (where Annabella Sciorra and Rebecca De Mornay face off like '50s-era vipers) to 8 Mile (2003) (whose texture and grace frame Eminem with more sympathy than he deserves, and find a empathetic heart at the center of his rage and misogyny). In between those films, he co-adapted (with Brian Hegeland) and directed James Ellroy's L.A. Confidential (1997), an ensemble prestige picture whose effortless genre play allows Hanson to explore post-war economics, gender roles, and McCarthyism without ever making the proceedings feel like white elephant awards bait (maybe that's why it received so many awards).

And then there's his adaptation of Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys (2000), as deft and funny an exploration of academia, creativity, and writer's block (and all the passive-aggressive behavior those modes often entail), as has been seen in American films in the last 30 years (it feels like the spiritual sequel to Breaking Away, where everyone is at once foolish and lovable). Michael Douglas is the star, and he's great, but everyone is great, from Frances McDormand's long-suffering chancellor/mistress, to Tobey Maguire's calculatedly nihilistic creative writing major, to Katie Holmes' wise undergraduate, to Robert Downey, Jr.'s sly editor (it's one of Downey's best performances, which is really saying something). As Jean Renoir's Octave famously said, "The terrible thing is that everyone has their reasons," and Wonder Boys is full of tiny grace notes that illuminate both parts of that statement, from Rip Torn's bullshit artist at a campus cocktail party who grins unctuously and tells Douglas' character that "I put your novel on my syllabus every semester"; to Downey's shamelessness at using his editorial position to score with young writers; to Katie Holmes' observation that "You always tell us writers make choices, and it feels like you...didn't"; to the way Douglas chases the pages of his manuscript as they're thrown-- in both doom and a kind of sad liberation-- into a gray Pittsburgh sky. Wonder Boys is the kind of film everyone moans they don't make anymore, and then no one goes to see (despite strong reviews, it died at the box office, and found cult life on video). But it's Hanson's best film, the place where his generous eye and love of performance found its best resting place. R.I.P.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Quick Takes: The Lobster (2016)

Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them.
   --Flannery O'Connor

Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.
Read more at: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/f/flanneryo102166.html
Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them.
Read more at: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/f/flanneryo102166.html

Friday, August 19, 2016

Quick Take: Tumbledown (2015)

There's a sadness, an ache both acknowledged and unacknowledged, in Tumbledown (2015), the story of the pained interactions between Hannah (Rebecca Hall), a widow whose husband Hunter Miles was a punk-turned-folkie cult icon, and Andrew (Jason Sudeikis), a pop culture academic who turns up in her Maine hometown to work on a book about the late musician.  This sadness isn't readily apparent in Tumbledown's first 30 minutes, which veer uncomfortably between melancholy and a kind of forced quirk, as if the movie can't decide whether it wants to follow the path of an painfully observant family dramedy like Rachel Getting Married, or the ain't-small-town-folk-wacky (but oh so wise) tone of...well, take your pick of the many, many rom-coms that have used that template in the last 20 years. If we think of the movie as a pop song, that quirk is its production sheen, layered on with all the subtlety of Phil Spector going through the Let It Be tapes. This grates, because we can hear the delicate relationship between melody and harmony underneath that sheen-- or rather, we can see it.

When the writing stumbles, and the direction occasionally makes regrettable choices, what Tumbledown has is its cast, singing and playing and finding changes on chords familiar and unfamiliar. They are the movie's timbre, the place where the magic really exists, beyond the banality of the lyrics and repetitive choruses. We hear the notes when Hall twists her waist and shrugs a shoulder while simultaneously turning her head in the opposite direction, her body expressing the jumble in Hannah's head as much as the musicality of her tossed-off mumbles. We hear them in Sudeikis, whose confident snarkiness as Andrew feels so movie-familiar early on (Sudeikis uses a cocked head like a weapon), but ultimately acts (in Hannah's words) as an "exo-skeleton" he sheds to reveal wounded anger. We can hear it in the interplay between Hannah's parents (Blythe Danner and Richard Masur): Danner feels like she's chewing the scenery, until the narrative reminds us of how much that over-doing covers up, while Masur does just the opposite, his underplaying and dry wit drawing us in, only to bite like a cobra. It's there in Griffin Dunne's warm bookshop owner, with his anxiety-ridden sighs, and it's there in the underused Dianna Agron, as Andrew's music industry girlfriend, Finley. Agron's not in in the film nearly enough, but when Andrew interrupts a dinner party conversation to play a Hunter Miles song (on vinyl, of course), Agron's face becomes a frozen smile, her eyes get a faraway look, and her hand subtly-but-impatiently shakes her wine glass, as if she's experienced this kind of Hunter seance many times, and just wants to get through it again with her patience intact. It's a brilliant little moment, and it makes you want to know more about Finley, and why she's put up with this for so long.

"Putting up with" is the problem/curse/balm that all of the characters are grappling with in their own ways. "I'm just here for everyone to work through their issues on," Andrew exclaims, with a by-then familiar form of charming passive-aggression, but he's not wrong. Underneath its unresolved romanticism about pop music martyrs and the Curse of Elliot Smith (who, along with David Foster Wallace and Jeff Buckley, the film incorporates into a litany of too-young dead artists, as if longing to diffuse potential criticism), Tumbledown is actually about the unresolved rage of family dynamics, and all the guilt, resentment, love, and longing that fuels them. No one knows exactly how or why Miles-- found dead from a presumed fall at the bottom of a mountain--died at the moment and in the way he did, and even questioning its accidental status is taboo. Everyone in Tumbledown is using everyone else-- for catharsis, for career advancement, for the "next stage" in their presumed personal arcs (in one rather remarkable scene, Danner's Linda sweetly-but-bluntly informs Hall's Hannah that she expects a grandchild from her because she's experienced "all the other juicy stuff in life" and doesn't want to be denied this final thing).  They often use unknowingly, but it's no less devastating for that, and often so quick and casual that its impact only occurs to you later, as you turn the movie over in your head. Every character has their turn at truth-telling, even as they simultaneously use their declarations to lie to themselves. Homilies about life and energy carry with them a heavy dose of irony, like they're shibboleths repeated in desperation. Some of the lying is intentional, and some is not, and the film is wise to leave much of its impact hanging in the end (even the kiss that closes the movie is beautifully tentative, a literal pause between lean-in and lips undercutting the genre's normal sense of triumph). But it's in those moments of quiet exchange, as the film slows down to let the everyday in, that Tumbledown really sings.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Notes on the Auteur Theorizing in 2016 (or, The Return of the Quizzical Sergio Leone)

It can't be the end of summer already, can it? Even as the temperature's been spiking into the mid-90s here in sultry Ohio, the threat opportunity of the classroom beckons in just a few short weeks, bringing with it students, syllabi, papers, and (of course) movies. So what better time to peak into that cathedral of cinephilic higher learning, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, whose kindly proprietor, Dennis Cozzalio, has turned over the student union to a fearless vampire killer? That's right-- it's time for some last-minute summer reading, with  PROFESSOR ABRONSIUS'S ROBUSTLY RANDOM, ECCENTRICALLY INQUISITIVE, GARLIC-INFUSED MID-SUMMER BACK-TO-SCHOOL QUIZ. As always with a SLIFR quiz, the questions look like challenging fun (even if it's clear I should have done a bit more studying beforehand), and I extend Dennis's invitation to play along at home, via my comments section.  So, raise your stakes, grab your garlic, and let's hit the hills, kids!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Watch The Skies: Empire of the Sun

When I was fourteen, Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun opened at the new UA theater in my hometown of Kalamazoo. It would be a key moment in my budding, teenaged cinephilia, and I explore the film, and trace out my shifting responses to it over the last (nearly) 30 years in a new piece up at Bright Wall/Dark Room. Thanks again to the editors there for all their great work, and to Google Doodle artist Sophia Foster-Dimino for her beautiful accompanying illustration!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Super Americana: The Rocketeer 25 Years Later

"I’ve bought a ticket in a lottery, the grand prize of which amounts to this: being read in 1935."—Stendhal

Released 25 years ago this month, The Rocketeer—director Joe Johnston and screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo’s adaptation of Dave Stevens’ acclaimed indie comic—was pitched as Disney’s second attempt (after the previous year’s equally stylized, period-set Dick Tracy) to compete with Batman, after that film stormed theaters in 1989. It had rising stars like Billy Campbell (making his film debut after gaining good notices for work on TV shows like Crime Story and Dynasty) and Jennifer Connelly; a marvelous villain portrayed by the most recent James Bond, Timothy Dalton; well-regarded character actors like Alan Arkin, Paul Sorvino and William Sanderson in key supporting roles; a screenwriting team who’d just show-run a well-received adaptation of The Flash for CBS; and a director coming off the surprise hit of Honey, I Shrunk The Kids. The gorgeous, painted Art Deco poster captured the look of Stevens’ comic brilliantly for longtime fans, while grabbing the eyes of those (like 18-year old me), who’d never heard of the Rocketeer in 1991, but were certainly curious to see what this flying helmeted man was all about.

But the film failed to take off that year, garnering good reviews but doomed by a summer scheduling that dropped it smack-dab between the season's two biggest hits, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Terminator 2. It sunk at the box office, and only found commercial success later on home video. And yet, looking at it now, its retro optimism feels like a road-map to the future, a presaging of precisely the blend of action, wit, nostalgia and pathos that drives the Marvel blockbusters currently dominating the marketplace (released, ironically enough, through parent company Disney). Like Stendhal, resigning himself to contemporary failure in order to find posthumous glory, The Rocketeer has outlasted Costner and Ah-nuld as a model of all-ages action filmmaking.

Over at RogerEbert.com, I take a long look at the movie, its genesis, and the lasting impact of its retro vision on contemporary pop culture.  I'd be grateful if you'd give it a read, and even happier if you'd take a look at the the film-- I assure you, you won't regret getting caught up in its tailwind.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Apocalypse, Then: The Bed-Sitting Room

I've long been interested in writing for the excellent online film magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room, so I'm thrilled to be in their new "sci-fi" issue, which went online Tuesday afternoon. My piece is about Richard Lester's brilliant, bleak, and brutal 1969 apocalypse comedy The Bed-Sitting Room, which pulled together several threads of sixties British satire and themes from all of Lester's previous films, and put them at the service of a vision so unrelenting in dystopic tone and imagery that it might have made Brecht reconsider alienation. My piece can be found here, but I urge you to subscribe to the whole magazine and read everything-- the folks at BW/DR are doing wonderful work that deserves your ongoing support.