Thursday, January 31, 2013

Stranger than Fiction


directed by: Marc Forster
starring: Will Ferrell, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Queen Latifah

Released in 2006.

Will Ferrell is perhaps one of the more unlikely movie stars to emerge in the past ten years.  He's one of many comics to come from TV's Saturday Night Live, known for skits and characters.  Plenty of successful stars have come from SNL, but few of them have been able to sustain movie careers, and fewer still by basically keeping their SNL persona of inhabiting a new bizarre character with each movie appearance.  Ferrell rose to success with Elf and Anchorman, but he's managed to sustain his career by continuing much along the same lines.  When he deviates, he's less successful.  Usually when a comedic actor deviates, it's to try more serious material, as with Robin Williams and Jim Carrey.  Ferrell's Truman Show is called Stranger than Fiction, except it's very much Ferrell's version of the career move.  It's more surreal than real.

Essentially,  the movie is about Ferrell suddenly gaining a narrator in his life.  Now, clearly this is not something that happens in real life, unless someone has developed a psychological disorder.  That would be Ferrell's assumption as well, except he doesn't stop there.  He consults a literary expert (Dustin Hoffman), to figure out what the narration itself may signify given analysis.  Eventually Ferrell actually meets the writer who has been composing the narration (Emma Thompson).

The story also involves a romance for Ferrell (with Maggie Gyllenhaal), which is not something that typically happens in a serious way in a Will Ferrell movie.  Oddly, it is an undercurrent in a lot of his movies, but there it is.

It's Ferrell doing a Ferrell movie but in a completely different way.  Often in some of his smaller roles he's a character who is watching a greater story develop, reacting more than acting, but here it's Ferrell doing exactly that as the main character, and he plays the part to perfection, and it's a complete revelation.

For the other notable actors in the movie, I'll concentrate on Hoffman.  As celebrated as he was early in his career, Hoffman tends to be taken for granted these days, but I always find him fascinating.  He throws himself into all of his roles.  Someone else might have made this one a counterpoint to Ferrell's or even an outright skeptic, but Hoffman keeps the project firmly grounded in reality, where Thompson exists simply to give it the touch of class that people would either not have expected at all in a Will Ferrell movie, or what they would expect from one in which he's trying to be serious.  So it works both ways.

Stranger than Fiction isn't quite the triumph of The Truman Show, but it's certainly far more than a curiosity.  It will remain one of Ferrell's best movies probably for a long time to come, something to point to not just to demonstrate his range but what he can accomplish when he pushes his natural instincts to heir best and most unexpected limits.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford


directed by: Andrew Dominik
starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard, Jeremy Renner, Sam Rockwell, Mary-Louise Parker, Zooey Deschanel

Released in 2007.

One of my hallmarks of great storytelling is knowing your characters.  It's not always essential to base the entire story around exploring these characters so much as what happens to them, but it certainly helps.  This is a movie about Robert Ford, not Jesse James.  As the title suggests, Ford killed James, and this is an attempt to explain why.

Actually, that's half the fascination for me about Assassination of Jesse James, that it doesn't feature the more famous of its subjects as the lead.  In this movie, Jesse James is more myth than man.  All his best banditry is in the past.  He's actually just a man, but he's most definitely a myth to Robert Ford, who has grown up reading about Jesse and all but fallen in love with him (although that's more implied than explicit).  The basic plot is Robert signing up to be a part of Jesse's last big job and the gang's efforts to then fade away.

Now, obviously the notoriety of Jesse James works both ways.  He'll have had his admirers.  He'll also have had the authorities gunning for him.  Robert Ford ends up straddling both, once he finally sees behind the curtain he previously held in front of Jesse.  That's how he ends up standing behind the famous outlaw as Jesse stands on a chair to some dusting.  It's a moment that's repeated several times at the back-end of the movie, first as it really happens and later as Robert recreates it for the stage.  Because it's Robert's movie, it continues after the title event, as the so-called coward tries to come to peace with what he's done.

Robert Ford is portrayed by Casey Affleck, the younger brother of Ben Affleck.  Although Casey has cared a pretty respectable career for himself, he's nowhere near the league of his brother.  For one, he has a softer voice that he either can't or won't mask.  It's an ideal feature for a youthful and naive character like Robert Ford, a sycophant who definitely suggests the sickness of such a role.  You have sympathy for him, sometimes, and at others you despise him.

Which is funny, because the man he shoots was not a good man.  Well, maybe some people could construe Jesse James in a positive light.  In this movie he's played by the bigger star, Brad Pitt.  I've long been interested in the career of Pitt.  He's filled it with contradictory roles, mostly because he's terrified of being defined only by his physical appearance.  Jesse James is certainly one of those contradictory roles, and maybe it's exactly right to cast a big star in the role, to signal to the audience in an immediate way that aside from everything else this was a guy who knew how to draw attention to himself.  There would always be a lot more to him than someone like Robert Ford could comprehend, and yet he was also exactly what his historical reputation marks him out to be: a bad apple.

Yet Pitt finds the human in him, enough so that you're forced to remember that in Robert's mind this was a horribly complicated situation.  Jesse was a hero to him, Robert's idol, and yet the man didn't live up to the myth.  Robert quite deliberately shot him in the back.  Pitt doesn't make the role too flashy, which is an underrated specialty of his.  Occasionally he'll take a role like in Twelve Monkeys where he's a spastic attraction, but that speaks more to Pitt's range than any particular style.  In the end he's exactly what he wants to be, and that's not just a pretty face.  Assassination of Jesse James is his best film.

Director Andrew Dominik, who's still only at the start of a brilliant career, hits an unmistakable milestone with this film.  It's divisive, because it's meditative where most viewers prefer action or clever characters, but it's also one of the most gorgeous movies you'll ever see.  It's also got, behind Pitt and Affleck, plenty of supporting actors you'l love to watch navigate the film, including Jeremy Renner, Sam Rockwell, and Zooey Deschanel.

Saturday, January 26, 2013



directed by: George P. Cosmatos, Kevin Jarre
starring: Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliot, Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn, Charlton Heston, Jason Priestley, Jon Tenney, Stephen Lang, Thomas Haden Church, Dana Delaney, Michael Rooker, Billy Bob Thornton, Billy Zane, John Corbett, Terry O'Quinn, Frank Stallone

Released in 1993.

Tombstone is not as good as Wyatt Earp.  Both films were released around the same time, both feature the same characters and the same scenario, but one does it better.  Don't get me wrong.  It's certainly worth watching both.  Tombstone probably has a better overall reputation, mostly because it's not the one starring Kevin Costner in yet another historical epic.

What both films unmistakably are is Hollywood's attempt at the time to keep the Western alive.  The Western was a genre that dominated movies and television for decades.  With the passing of John Wayne, its most iconic star, however, the Western fell out of favor with the general public.  Everyone moved on, and for a while it was a lot easier to pretend it simply no longer existed.  Yet Hollywood loves to revive things, and in the 1990s the Western was the subject of a persistent revival effort.  Clint Eastwood, who had earlier made his name with the "Man with no Name" trilogy, scored with Unforgiven, but then no one seemed to know what to do next.  Instead of a monolithic presence, it had become a specialty genre.  Tombstone represents one way to make this special attraction a real attraction, by amassing a notable cast in the place of a notable star.

Kurt Russell has been a Hollywood project since he was a kid.  He's been a successful star, sure, and has had his share of signature hits, but he's never really been iconic.  As this film's Wyatt Earp it's much the same.  He's not really a Western actor, anymore than he's any given genre actor, just someone who can appear in any given one and be fairly respectable.  He's the main reason why there has to be so many other notable actors in the project, beginning with Val Kilmer, who at this point in his career cuts a more recognizable figure as Doc Holliday than his Wyatt Earp (and in this role, superior) counterpart Dennis Quaid.  Everyone else is far lower on the instant recognition scale, but the cast is packed with talent all the same, even a few (Thomas Haden Church, Billy Bob Thornton) whose subsequent careers make their appearances here more significant to newer audiences than those who saw them originally.

You can certainly enjoy Tombstone for what it is, but it didn't at the time and never will represent anything more than a movie Hollywood made to be a Western, rather than a true contribution to the genre.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Exorcist


directed by: William Friedkin
starring: Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow

Released in 1973.

One of the iconic horror movies of the second age of the genre, when the focus shifted from monsters to the human relationship with these monsters, The Exorcist led to a whole cottage industry of movies about satanic possession.  It shocked audiences by using a little girl as the victim and the extreme depiction of the results.

Actually, the little girl, portrayed by Linda Blair, remains what most people know about it.  For me, it's about the visuals, and the visual I care best about is Max von Sydow, a leader of the sober authoritarian school of acting, blessed with one of the most distinctive voices in film.  There's a famous shot of his approach to the girl's home that is equaled for me only by Road to Perdition, a film ruled as much by great acting as great cinematography.

Otherwise I don't really care too much for The Exorcist.  Clearly it was really all about sensationalism, hinged around the things the little girl does.  Sure, on one level it's about the extreme amount of disrespect possible from true evil, but it ends up being depicted by everything you never thought movies would do with little girls.

Thankfully we later got young actors with actual dignity in horrors films with The Sixth Sense, basically the complete opposite of The Exorcist, something more akin to Max von Sydow.

Friday, January 18, 2013



directed by: Jason Reitman
starring: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, J.K. Simmons, Allison Janney, Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner

Released in 2007.

Juno is known for a couple of things.  One, it's a teenage pregnancy drama.  (Although the funny thing is that anyone who knows about this movie probably doesn't think of it that way.)  Two, it's Ellen Page's big break.  Three, it was written by Diablo Cody.

That last point makes Juno pretty unique.  Usually if anyone knows who wrote a movie, it was the director.  There are exceptions, sure, but for the most part few people think of the writers as an active part of a film's success.  It's either the director or the actors, and anyone else you have to be a real cinephile to care about.  Not so with Diablo Cody.  She became an immediate sensation thanks to Juno.  In fact, even though Jason Reitman as director had his own budding career have a definite mark of distinction with this movie, everyone talked about it as if it was Cody's baby alone.

Yet it's also very much about Ellen Page.  She's the rare young actor who is able to captivate an audience, and the sardonic nature of Juno helps demonstrate her specific appeal and make it palatable to a mass audience.

It certainly doesn't hurt that she has a terrific supporting cast around her.  Michael Cera is probably the opposite of Page as far as mass appeal goes.  He's become a favorite of filmmakers, but he plays a pretty specific role that doesn't always translate to mass audiences, the nebbish loner who somehow is great at making the right connections, or in other words our new Woody Allen.  He's perfect for a movie like Juno, a key element of its success and a perfect complement to Page.  Yet it's not just young people.  J.K. Simmons, who was brought to everyone's attention as J. Jonah Jameson in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies, begins to assert himself as a much more broad and appealing presence as Page's father, while potential adoptive parents Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner have a chance to present their own charms, which can sometimes be unappreciated.  (It's nice to see Cera and Bateman in a project together outside of Arrested Development, too.)

The whole affair is about as laid back as the main character herself, enjoyable and transformative.

Thursday, January 17, 2013



directed by: Oliver Stone
starring: Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Anthony Hopkins, Jared Leto, Rosario Dawson, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Rhys Meyers

Released in 2004.

This is my favorite movie.  Oliver Stone is among my favorite directors and Colin Farrell is my favorite actor.  If a convergence of Stone and Farrell weren't enough, the movie itself exactly fits the parameters for everything I want from a movie.  It has an excellent cast, it knows what to do with that cast, the characters are compelling and relevant in relation to each other, and the scope of the narrative is broad and intimate at the same time.

Some of this, again, is reflected by the talent assembled.  Stone made his name as a director who was interested in exploring big issues on a small (though epic) scale.  Alexander is a movie about Alexander the Great, the Macedonian conqueror who came as close to ruling the known world as anyone.  He died young, his empire was broken back into the pieces he had briefly united, and in 2004 no one seemed to really like the movie Stone made about him.  Tough break.  But nice try!

Stone's vision is all about the motivations that inspired his famous subject, chief among them his parents.  Philip was not only his immediate predecessor in the conquering game, but Alexander's father, who found it remarkably easy to both embrace and reject his son before his assassination.  Olympias surely fascinated Philip at some point, but she became a liability as he continued to formulate his plans. She instead found lasting influence through her son, "my avenger," as she calls Alexander at one point. Kilmer has perhaps his last great role, almost unrecognizable behind woolly hair and a missing eye, portraying Philip, while Jolie's accent as Olympias makes a dubious impression on some but is ideal in distinguishing her unmistakable appeal.  To my mind, it's a defining role for her.

Farrell is always the soulful loner caught in someone else's story.  This is probably not how most historians choose to view Alexander the Great, but as Alexander the man, Farrell is once again firmly in command of the screen, forced to exert himself the more those around him doubt his methods.  He's muted around Jolie, hopeful around Kilmer.  As a warrior, he's every bit the match for Alexander's own inspiration, Achilles, portrayed in Troy by Brad Pitt.

Much of what anyone knows about Alexander is its depiction of homosexuality, as embodied by Farrell's interactions with Jared Leto's Hephaistion, Alexander's own Patroclus (who was Achilles' favorite).  The story here is really about Alexander's reasoned passion.  The less it becomes reasonable, the more he appears to spiral out of control.  So of course Hephaistion dies before the end.

Alexander learns his reasoned passion from Christopher Plummer's Aristotle, the famed philosopher.  It's always a good thing to have Plummer involved, and he's the rare actor who becomes more dignified with age.  Anthony Hopkins is another.  He narrates the film as Ptolemy, who served with Alexander and then later succeeded him as patriarch of Egypt.  Some might find this aspect of the film to be pedantic, but I like perspective.  Stone already provides plenty of that, but Ptolemy exists to ensure that none of it is overlooked, the broad scope, and to remind the viewer that Alexander was indeed great, even if most of what happens in the film is about what undermines his greatness.

In smaller roles are Rosario Dawson as Roxana, the "barbarian" bride Alexander takes on his travels, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Cassander, one of many military advisers who don't share Alexander's vision.

Also significantly adding to the movie is the score from Vangelis, appropriately sweeping in nature and evocative of the momentous life being examined.

There are three cuts of the film: the original theatrical cut, the director's cut, and Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut, which came a few years later.  Each succeeding version seeks to guide the viewer into an easier journey along Stone's central vision, adding and resequencing scenes.