Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Revenant (2015)

Rating:  **

About a half-hour into Alejandro Iñárritu’s film The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Hugh Glass, is mauled repeatedly by an 800-pound grizzly bear, and survives.

And I’m thinking, there is no way, there is absolutely NO WAY he could’ve survived such attack.

In fact, it’s not even a question of whether he’d be alive, but rather how many pieces he’d have been torn into.

This moment requires such an outrageous suspension of disbelief that there’s simply no way any sensible viewer can buy what comes after (and there’s still a good two hours of the film to go). But Iñárritu makes it easy to sustain said incredulity; he drags his half-alive main character through all manner of peril, ranging from a free-fall, river-rapids plummet to the riding off a cliff where his fall is broken by a towering evergreen (his horse is not so lucky). And all of this amid freezing winter temperatures and the extreme likelihood that the wounds he incurred would surely become fatally infectious.

This is the main issue that dogs Iñárritu’s wildly overpraised film, but there are others. It dreams of being a stark, spare historical epic, but in reality it more closeky echoes a made-for-History Chanel telemovie, exploiting its brutality in the name of historical veracity, and wallowing in ugliness for nearly three hours in the name of art. The Glass character is meant to be a lone, suffering protagonist who’s meant to make a statement about revenge with his ultimate decision not to kill (only after a prolonged, bloody hatchet fight during which he almost slew his nemesis). But ultimately there s no point, no message, no purpose, and if there is it’s buried under about three feet of blood, snow and mud.

We know we’re in trouble at the outset. At some point in the early nineteenth century, somewhere in the wooded Northern Plains of America, a band of wooly fur trappers are ambushed by Indians. It’s a bloodbath, and Iñárritu directs it like Spielberg’s opening D-Day battle in Saving Private Ryan: deadeye arrows piercing throats, muskets shot in retaliation. Even a horse buys it to show how unthinkingly brutal these unwashed heathens were (never mind that horses were a valuable commodity, and neither side would’ve demonstrated such wanton waste).  The survivors leave to trundle on, led by Glass and a bearded crumb named Fitzgerald. You can tell this guy is bad right away, and Tom Hardly’s portrayal of him is as lacking in subtlety as it is intelligibility – I dare anyone to decipher and more than three consecutive words of his dialogue.

[If you’ll allow a brief digression, let me tell you my biggest pet peeve in a historical work: inaccuracy. In addition to the aforementioned Indian assault, staged too much like a scene of modern warfare (woodland tribes’ fighting more closely resembled sniping and guerilla attacks), I was bothered by Fitzgerald’s profanity, particularly his liberal dropping f the f-bomb and references to female body parts – words not part of common parlance until the twentieth century. This is screenwriter’s laziness: it reveals their cynical assumption that most viewers either don’t know or care about history, as well as their readiness to juice up as much scatology as possible for fear that audiences won’t find the story interesting otherwise (and for this can the writers truly be blamed?]

And now, back to the story. The bear attack, of course. DiCaprio’s pretty messed up. Fitzgerald wants to finish him off, but DiCaprio’s half-breed son, Hawk, demurs, as does some other dude named Bridger (sort of the apple-cheeked naïf whom we know will represent the good to Fitz’s evil). But Fitz kills Hawk, with DiCaprio watching but helpless to do anything. Fitz and Bridger slog off on their own, distrusting each other, until they get to a fort. DiCaprio slogs off on his own (albeit far more slowly), encounters more brutality involving settlers and Indians until he finally confronts Fitz. They wrestle, slash each other’s limbs, bleed in the snow, and generally have a messy time of it all until DiCaprio frees Fitz from his clenches, and discards him mercifully to the Indians, who do the stereotypical scalping thing before serving up his just desserts. DiCapio winsomely slogs some more, seeing a vision of his wife in the ether.  

I must say that my distaste for The Revenant surprised me, given that I lauded Iñárritu’s previous film Birdman. But that film had a spectacularly literate screenplay, cowritten by Iñárritu and his Biutiful scribes. Iñárritu co-adapted Revenant with Mark L. Smith, the writer of the two horror films Vacancy and Vacancy 2, and that makes sense. The Revenant, despite its well-mounted look, has the heart and soul of a slasher film: I haven’t seen this much carnal abuse masquerading as art since a tsunami-soaked Naomi Watts wandered half-dead for the near entirety of The Impossible (also written/directed by horror talents). But this may even be doing a disservice to horror: unlike most good examples of the genre, The Revenant wallows in its misery for no good purpose, and exploits its brutality with little or no justification outside mere entertainment.

Much praise has been heaped upon the cinematography of the film, and, yes, many shots look good, reminding me of the works of Terrence Malick and the way he captures the majesty of the American landscape in all its towering glory. But for what do these photographic compositions serve, given the unsavory characters who people them? Sure, Doctor Zhivago captured snow-laden trees and icy vistas with sheer magnificence, but what drove those images was the romance of Lara and Yuri, and their life’s development over the course of three decades. The Revenant has barely discernable characterizations, let alone their development, and so the look of the film all but becomes an entirely moot point.

DiCaprio appears to be the front runner for Best Actor – I suppose voters applaud actors who get down and dirty (literally) for their craft. But with minimal dialogue and limited physicality, his performance is all manner; there’s nothing there to occupy the mind, and certainly nothing to engage the emotion. And with a Golden Globe win for Best Picture, the actual film looks to be favored to win as well. That part mystifies me. With so many worthier contenders, and a few that weren’t even nominated, a win for this overhyped exercise in drudgery would be a real downer come Oscar night. Yes, even more of a downer than watching the film itself.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Big Short (2015)

Rating:  ** 

The Big Short is based on a nonfiction book about the Big Crash of 2008. Director Adam McKay, famous for his Will Farrell comedies, adapted the book to screen as a fiction film, replacing real figures with more dramatized, name-changed characters. McKay, known for far broader material than this, must’ve known he was against the wall in making a lot of white-collar, business-babble palatable to mainstream audiences. He even commences his task by featuring a blonde in a bathtub, breaking the fourth wall (it happens a lot in this movie), explaining the idea behind sub-prime mortgages.

Why, then, in the name of holy hell, did he even want to make this movie?

I’ve got no idea. And I’ll be honest: I’m completely bored by business. I can count the number of films about big business that I’ve liked on one hand. They generally try to make a point that isn’t enlightening to me, using characters I don’t care about, employing a plot that usually confuses me as much as it bores me. And one usually begets the other.

We pretty much get a cavalcade of twenty or thirtysomething white guys, played by such Hollywood stars as Christian Bale and Steve Carrell, yakking away in the years just before the bubble burst on Wall Street, plunging the country into Recesssion and making the phrase “Too big to fail” common parlance. The men (and they’re ALL men, except for a few female sex objects) couldn’t be any less consequential – they’re pretentious, obnoxious, boring, unlikeable talking heads that repelled me ways reminiscent of the cast of HBO’s Entourage. And the cable analogy is apt; the production feels completely influenced by the pay-TV stylistic – no scenes, pseudo-intellectual dialogue, slick but choppy cutting, and a thin layer of gloss over everything to impart a false sense of importance.

I was also reminded of TV’s The Office – yes, it’s directed like a fake documentary (for no apparent reason), as well as the highly superior real documentary on the same subject Inside Job (that film also featured songs and images from the era to enhance time-period verisimilitude, something The Big Short apes, unsuccessfully). And let’s also remember the phenomenal documentary The Smartest Guys in the Room, about the Enron crisis. Hmm, perhaps I do like the subject matter, but find fictional accounts too contrived. Perhaps it’s truth that’s more interesting to me, at least in this regard.

In the end, we spend over two hours watching these f-bomb spewing suits heading toward the cliff. McKay never condemns or even questions their behavior, and if he’s glamorizing them, why? There’s no depth or discussion-provoking analysis. By the time we get to the final act, we’re just counting up the number of ways he’s trying explain to us byzantine fiscal matters (the cleverness of utilizing Anthony Bordain and Selena Gomez notwithstanding). After a while, it almost feels like he’s even apologizing for having to take the time to do such explanation.

I suppose I got that the world of big business is pretty damned cutthroat, in ways that we common folk can’t possibly fathom.

There could be a great movie on that topic. The Big Short isn’t it.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

After the Fox (1966)

With no stage credits to adapt to screen just yet, Simon took a stab at the international caper film, a genre done so well in the 1960s. Here we have Peter Sellers as Aldo Vanucci, or “The Fox,” as he’s known in underworld circles, an Italian criminal mastermind currently in the slammer. His former partners in crime come to visit, informing him of a major gold heist in Cairo, requiring of a skilled accomplice to smuggle the loot into Italy. But he couldn’t be bothered by this folly; more pressing to him is his sister’s recent recreational habits, and so he breaks out that night (using his talent with disguise) and goes to see her and his Bingo-playing mom. The cops on his tail causes mom great distress, and so Aldo resolves to make good for his kin, even if he is on the lam, so he accepts the heist job.

But with one close call too many, Aldo, observing his sister’s infatuation with movie star Tony Powell, hatches a plan to impersonate a film crew, which not only would be untouched by the law but be a good ruse for his operation also. It works well, too: minor snags like not having a filming permit are nothing doing for Aldo – he even gets Powell to star in his “film,” and soon an entire small town gets Hollywood fever, with only Powell’s agent (Martin Balsam) skeptical of the crazy goings-on. The gold-laden barge finally lands, and the cast of thousands happily unloads the bullion onto trucks, including ALL the police. The crooks nearly get away, but Vanucci is placed before the court  - along with thousands of accomplices. The film he made is shown as evidence; clearly a fraud, it nonetheless shows the joie de vivre of its soul-starved cast. Vanucci is sent back to the brink, but he vows to escape once again, which he does.

A splendid, disarmingly delightful comic caper is more than a little inspired by Sellers’ huge hit The Pink Panther (both also UA films), but it stands well enough alone for Simon’s clever script and just the right loopy Italian-film tone (kept up by director Vittorio de Sica, who contributes a cameo). It also has one of my favorite themes: everybody loves the movies, and applying that to some well-crafted suspense presages that done in Ben Affleck’s Argo, made some 40 years later.

And of course, Sellers is pure genius here at the top of my form. Assuming a nearly flawless Italian accent and donning some crafty disguises as his characters is a master impersonator, he carries the film not simply with a great physical performance but also an emotional one – one evoking surprising sympathy for his life on the lam. Favorite scene: Sellers as Vanucci as the fake director Federico Fabrizi, with his entire cast and crew on the beach, needs to stall, so he has his stars do… nothing, and sells it as a profound commentary on non-communication.

Simon work certainly deserves a second look; he has acknowledged that it is “funny in spots” but overall regards it as a critical and commercial bomb, which it was. A troubled production is partially to blame (Sellers’ tumultuous off-screen persona was already becoming legendary), but perhaps it was just a bit too light for the time. By 1966, the public was leaning toward heavier fare that mirrored the turbulent era: works like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Of course, the BO success of Simon’s later play adaptations (Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple) belie this, but then again, those are classic works. Fox is not classic, but good.

Rating: ***

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Come Blow Your Horn (1963)

Simon’s first Broadway play from 1961 was promptly adapted to screen two years later. In it, Frank Sinatra plays Alan Baker, the son of a working class salesman (Lee J. Cobb), and brother to Buddy, a young, wide-eyed man just on the brink of adulthood. Alan’s salesman job at his dad’s plastic fruit company is jeopardized by his swinging lifestyle: he’s got Mrs. Eckman, a married woman who also happens to be an important client; Peggy, a bimbo bamboozled by his ruse of knowing a Hollywood producer; and Connie, the one who seems to serious about their relationship – more serious, perhaps, than Alan is ready for. Buddy takes flight from his stifling family and alights at this bro’s pad – and Alan is all to happy to let the boy sow his wild oats, as long as his sowing doesn’t interfere with the revolving door of dames.

Of course, in classic Simon tradition, the revolving door spins wildly out of control. Alan lets Buddy have his date with Peggy, impersonating the producer, and due to a mix-up resulting when the Baker matriarch plays telephone receptionist, Alan shows up at his assignation with Mrs. Baker, and comes face-to-face with Mr. Baker as well (Bonanza’s Dan Blocker). But the s**t really hits the fan when the boys’ dad makes an impromptu visit, and bears witness to Buddy’s new libertine lifestyle and Alan’s old libertine ways, which have now cost him, and dad, the valued Eckman account. It doesn’t end well, with Cobb practically restaging the “I have no son” monologue from The Jazz Singer, times two.

Fast-forward a few months, and Alan is still stringing along Connie, who gives him an ultimatum: she’ll either be his wife… or mistress (WTF? Well, it was the still-male-centered early 60s). Of course, she’s none too happy when he opts for the latter, but a nonplussed Alan continues his hedonistic ways. This is, until he comes home to his pad to find a swinging party of strip Scrabble players and political hypnotists, and demands that its host, baby brother himself, reform or else. Buddy rejoins with the accusation that Alan is actually irate because he sees a mirror image of himself, a charge not necessarily refuted, resulting in Alan’s proposal of marriage and Buddy’s realization that less is more. Mom and pop drop by again, and after some initial frizzle are grateful for their elder son’s nuptials, and junior son’s sudden maturity.

Neil Simon’s first Broadway play is also appropriately his first screen adaptation,

and it’s classic Simon all the way. But its only flaw is a big one: the miscasting of Frank Sinatra in the starring role of Alan, a man who’s supposed to be in his mid-thirties (Frank was pushing 50 at the time). Worse, it’s impossible to believe Lee J. Cobb, only four years older than Sinatra, as his father, and so nearly all of their scenes are somewhat undermined by this disbelief, great writing notwithstanding. Ol’ Blue Eyes does play the philandering, womanizing aspect of his character pretty well, and he even contributes the title song to the soundtrack, although hat may very well be the reason for his casting.

But as I mentioned, the classic Simon elements are already in place here, beginning with the playwrights alter-ego, Buddy, a wide-eyed youth caught between adolescence and the adult world, and between the apron strings of his dear mama and his dreams of being a writer and falling in love (not necessarily in that order). And speaking of mama, here we have another oft-visited archetype. The smothering but well-meaning matriarch is done beautifully here, in a small but memorable role played by Molly Picon. And the first scene of the movie, between these two characters, best encapsulates the magic of Simon’s pen. It’s spare and simple enough to be credible, but with just enough wit to make it theatrically viable. And all of it tethered to character, character, character. Just listen:

Mom: Buddy, is that you?

Buddy: Yeah, mom.

Mom: You’re home from work early.

Buddy: Yeah, mom. I’m going out tonight.

Mom: Please, darling, don’t track dirt in the living room. Buddy?

Buddy: Mom, I’m in a hurry!

Mom: Alright, only maybe someday you’ll tell me what I did to deserve it.

Buddy: Deserve what, mom?

Mom: A son who doesn’t even have the courtesy to ask his mother how she’s feeing.

Buddy: How do you feel, mom?

Mom: Don’t ask!

Buddy: Mom, I’m sorry you’re not feeling well.

Mom: I would’ve come to you, son, but I can’t leave the stove. You know how your father loves stuffed peppers. So I’m trapped here all day like an animal. It’s only 5 o’clock. Where you going?

Buddy: I told you mom. I’m going out.

Mom: Without dinner?

Buddy: Oh, mom, don’t worry. I’ll eat. Honest!

Mom: Where? What? Better have something now.

Buddy: I’m not hungry now.

Mom: Eat some potato pancakes. I just warmed them up.

Buddy: No, I can’t.

Mom: Eat! Over the sink. I just waxed the floor. Let’s see, what else can I get you?

Buddy: The pancakes are enough.

Mom: There’s some nice cold lamb. Would you like some cold lamb?

Buddy: No, no….

Mom: Over the sink with the pancakes. And if you’re going to eat like a slob, don’t do me any favors.

Buddy: Mom, I didn’t want to eat anyway.

Mom: Sure, that’s why you’re eating them. And now I don’t have enough for your father.

Buddy: But mom, you gave them to me! Ah, what’s the use? I’ll see you later. I gotta go.

Mom: Alright. You’ll be back early?

Buddy: Yeah, sure.

Mom: My backache. Khrushchev should have such a backache!

Sublime! The intro, the timing, the punch lines, the flourish – wonderful. Not perfect; Simon had yet to iron some of his dialogue out a bit. And the pokey, bouncy soundtrack reminds us all too easily that this is a 1963 film. But what a bravura introduction.

And then we meet Alan, the elder brother, a model Simon would use much again, most notably in the Brighton Beach trilogy. The role model teaching kid bro the ropes in life, but somehow not having his act together himself. And then, the father, hard-working breadwinner clearly inspired by the ennui-laden Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, but minus the existential tragedy (Cobb, in fact, also starred in the original run of Salesman on BW). How ‘bout this scene between the two in Come Blow, as pop lends his progeny an earful after Buddy’s dalliance is uncovered and Alan blows a crucial account:


Buddy: Why, hi, dad. Is everything all right dad? I wasn’t expecting you up tonight. I was gonna have a nice long talk with you tomorrow night. I even told mom I’d come home for dinner. Boy, you’re really angry, aren’t you dad?

Dad: Why should I be angry?

Buddy: About the letter.

Dad: What letter?

Buddy: This letter. The letter I wrote you.

Dad: Oh, no. You didn’t write this letter; somebody I don’t know wrote this letter. You, I know. This person I never met.

Buddy: Dad, don’t you think we could wait ‘till tomorrow night to talk about this? I mean, you’ll be calmer and we can talk better.

Dad: What’s there to talk about? It’s signed, sealed and delivered. The Declaration of Independence!

Buddy: Dad, I think you’re too upset to discuss this logically.

Dad: Listen, I expected it: you hang around your brother long enough it was bound to happen. So, what’s the windup? My sister Gussie has two grandchildren. And I got a bum and a letter!

Buddy: This didn’t suddenly happen! I’ve tried to explain to you many times hw I felt, but you’d never listen to me.

Dad: Okay, I would like to hear from your own lips, nicely, why a young, single boy can’t live at home with his parents.

Buddy: Young boy? Dad, I’m 21!

Dad: 21.

Buddy: You say it as if you don’t believe me. I was 21 last week.

Dad: Whatever you say.

Buddy: Whatever you say? I say I’m 21. Now that’s old enough for a man to be on his own.  When you were 21 you were out on your own.

Dad: You were there?

Buddy: No, you told me yourself.

Dad: Those days were altogether different. I was working when I was 11 years old. I never went to camp.

Buddy: What’s camp got to do with all of this?

Dad: I’ll walk right out in a minute!

Buddy: Okay dad, I don’t mean to be disrespectful. But your answers never match my questions.

Dad: That too, huh? Now I don’t talk fancy enough? Soon even the business won’t be good enough!

Buddy: Well, now that you mention it I’ve been thinking about that too.

Dad: Huh?

Buddy: Maybe the business is not the right field for me.

Dad: Not the right field? I give the boy the biggest artificial fruit-manufacturing house in the East and he tells me it’s not the right field?

Buddy: I dunno if I’m talented enough but I’ve kind of toyed with being a writer.

Dad: Writer? What kind of a writer? Letters? Letters you write beautifully! I don’t know who’s gonna buy them but they’re terrific!

Buddy: Dad, will you just forget about the business for now? I’ll stay and work for you. All I want now is your blessing for me to live here with Alan.

Dad: You want my blessing? I’ll tell you what I’ll do. We had a disagreement – a dispute. We’ll have a drink. You heard my side, I heard your side. We’ll give it a six-month trial period. Fairer than that I couldn’t be.

Buddy: Gee, I think that’s very fair dad! Six months – that’s wonderful. Six moths is just fine!

Dad: Then it’s settled – you’ll come home and live for six months!

Buddy: Come home? You don’t want to give me a trial period; you don’t want to be fair to me at all!

Dad: Don’t you raise your voice to me; you’re not too big to get a good slap across the face!

Buddy: Sorry.

Dad: You’re here one day. When did you ever yell at me before?

Buddy: Never, I guess. Now that you mention it.

Dad: I’ve been some terrible father to you.

Buddy: Dad, no. You’ve been fine. You’ve been wonderful! That’s not what I mean. All I’m asking you to do is to meet me halfway.

Dad: I’ll let you know.

Buddy: What do you mean, you’ll let me kow.

Dad: We’ll see. You’re coming home for dinner tomorrow night. We’ll see.

Buddy: Ok, wonderful, dad. Good night, dad.

Peggy: Oh, pardon me. You said you’d just be a few minutes.

Dad: This is some busy little girl

Peggy: Oh! Hi, dad! Oh, excuse me. I’ll just wait in there. I’m awful sorry Mr. Mackintosh.

Dad: Macintosh? Now even his name isn’t good enough? Bum!

Buddy: Dad, just let me explain….

Dad: Bum! 21 years old and already you’re a bigger bum than your brother is and you’ve got eighteen years to go!

Buddy: I can explain…

Dad: Ah! The other bum! Come on in, bum, we’re having a party!

Alan: What are you doing here, dad?

Dad: I was invited to dinner. That’s some cook you got in there.

Alan: What cook?

Buddy: He means Peggy.

Alan: Oh. Why don’t you tell him that she’s waiting for me?

Dad: I don’t need you to make up stories for him – I got Tennessee Williams.

Mr. Eckman enters.

Alan: Eckman?

Dad: Eckman! From Dallas? The buyer’s brother?

Eckman: Eckman. From Dallas. The buyer’s husband! You left your sample case, Mr. Baker, I want to make sure you got it back. Southern hospitality. Here we have your A22B pipe banana. Naval orange – 55A. 330A seedless grapes. 82W apple. Latest item: 99 stemless purple plum. (Destroys each fruit as he takes it out.) Good day gentlemen. By the way, Mr. Baker, if I catch you anywhere near Neiman Marcus again, I’m gonna jump on you until your eyes bug out like a stomped-on toad.

Alan: He was kind of clowning. Dad, if you give me a couple of seconds I can explain what happened.

Buddy: Dad, just hear him out for a couple of seconds, please.

Dad: May you and your brother live and be well. You should know nothing but happiness. If ever speak to either one f you ever again… MY TONGUE SHOULD FALL OUT!

Sorry for the uber-long transcription, but I just couldn’t help it – isn’t this stuff great? I think Simon is drawn to the family dynamic for dramatic utility because it’s so multilayered. The father, as the authority figure, is dominating but fraught with insecurities over whether his fatherhood was indeed successful, given his perceived inadequacies of his children. And the sons assert their independence but don’t go too far lest they be labeled as ungrateful or insolent. Plus there’s the fear of reality lurking – is it better to be free or safely under cover of mama-bird’s wing. Bottom line: the family matters most, but it sure is hard once growing up comes into play.

And in Horn’s second act, we get the classic superego/id conflict as Buddy and Alan reverse roles, and the later starts to take the former to task for his profligate lifestyle. Again, another Simon trope, most successfully applied in his classic The Odd Couple. Once we get their newfound personalities reconciled, it’s time to patch of the family friction. And when they do, it’s all’s well that ends well, with a few well-placed punchlines as flourish.

Simon was absent from the screen until 1966 – he was focusing on Broadway at the time, penning future classics Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple (oh yeah, those). But what an auspicious beginning; Come Blow Your Horn is still performed in local stock theater now and again, and sometimes the movie is shown on the Late Show. The film itself is a bit dated but the words are as dateless as anything he’s ever done.

Rating:  ***1/2

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...