Posts tagged ‘movies’

July 13, 2017

#131) Movie review: “Don’t Think Twice”

“Don’t Think Twice” takes its name both from one of the rules of improv comedy and from the Bob Dylan song “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Just as Dylan’s success caused feelings of both happiness and resentment among his contemporaries in the New York City folk music scene, “Don’t Think Twice” explores the changes of dynamics, both on and off the stage, when one of the members of a closely knit improv comedy troupe hits the big time.

The six members of “The Commune” – Miles (Mike Birbiglia, who also directed); Allison (Kate Micucci), Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), Jack’s girlfriend Sam (Gillian Jacobs), Bill (Chris Gethard) and Lindsay (Tami Sagher) plod through their jobs by day and perform improv comedy at night. Though the theater is on its last legs financially, it is still frequented by talent scouts from a Saturday Night Live-style show and each of the six actors hopes that they will be discovered. Miles was “inches away” from having made the show back in 2003 but is still stuck teaching beginning improv classes as he waits for his big break. Meanwhile Jack, an alumnus of one of Miles’ classes and who has a reputation as a showboat, launches into an Obama impersonation that is spot-on but doesn’t fit in with the sketch that is being performed. His grandstanding pays off, however, as he is given an audition. He gets the call from the studio heads right after Bill finds out his father has been in a near-fatal motorcycle accident. Upon returning to the rest of the group to find them quiet and somber after absorbing the news about Bill’s father, Jack tells them about his audition anyways.

Like “Funny People”, the Adam Sandler/Seth Rogen movie of a few years back, “Don’t Think Twice” is a drama about comedy, but it doesn’t try too hard for hand wringing or laughs. It avoids the “all comics are miserable off stage” trope, showing us that the members of the Commune are less than thrilled with their day jobs but not belaboring the point. The film also doesn’t rely on one-liners (though there are a few good ones), instead drawing on the subtle and not so subtle jabs among people who still like (maybe even love) each other but have been stuck together for too long. It comes off like an extended episode of a high quality TV show that feels complete without having to wrap everything up nice and neatly a la Hollywood. The story lines don’t resolve the way they’re “supposed” to.

“Don’t Think Twice” may be about comedians, but it also is about anyone who has chased a dream and about anyone who has been part of a tight social circle that gradually starts drifting apart. The film’s not perfect – side plots about Miles’ high school girlfriend showing up in New York and Allison’s interest in graphic novels don’t add to the story and indeed Allison’s character isn’t developed much beyond her thousand yard stare while watching Jack on TV – but “Don’t Think Twice” still shows how far believable performances and dialogue can stretch a $3 million budget.

 

 

 

 

 

July 3, 2016

#115) Remembering Cimino

No animals were harmed during the writing of this blog post.

Late 1970s. A movement that recently dominated has shown signs of fading from public favor. In these uncertain times, a young rising star becomes the darling of the industry. Seen as infallible, he is given unlimited power to create the masterpiece that will bring glory, fame and influence to all involved.

Result: disaster.

No, we’re not talking about Howard Scott Warshaw and the “E.T.” video game, but a man whose life had some interesting parallels to that of the Atari software engineer. Oscar-winning film director Michael Cimino has become the latest unfortunate addition to the Class of 2016 at age 77.

You don’t have to have seen “The Sicilian” or “Year of the Dragon”(I haven’t) to find the life of Cimino intriguing; indeed it’s at least as compelling a movie subject as, oh, I don’t know, say the Johnson County War. There are one-hit wonders (If they can make a movie about Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger, why not one about Cimino?) There are those who are remembered only for one unfortunate moment, such as Miss Teen South Carolina and that guy who didn’t catch the ground ball Mookie Wilson hit. It’s unusual, however, for a person to be associated equally with a brilliant achievement and a dumpster fire. Yet Cimino’s story also has familiar elements of hubris and the American tendency to build something up, start resenting its power and then tear it down (not unlike the Son of Beast roller coaster.)

After his first film, “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” (1974), starring and produced by Clint Eastwood, Cimino swung for the fences with a $15 million Vietnam War epic. His studio, EMI, was wary. Just a few years removed from “The Godfather”, director-oriented movies were starting to seem like financial risks. A cerebral thriller called “Sorcerer” from director William Friedkin (“The Exorcist”) was badly beaten at the box office by another movie released the same weekend: “Star Wars.” How would audiences respond to a film with a “gruesome storyline and a barely known director?”

“The Deer Hunter” brought in $49 million at the box office and won five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. New Hollywood was still alive. Now signed with United Artists, Cimino was given full creative control over his next project, a film with an estimated $7.5 million price tag. The director and his crew headed up to the Montana wilderness in the spring of 1979 to start filming with the goal of finishing in time for the year’s Oscar season.

By the time “Heaven’s Gate” was released in November of 1980, its budged had exploded to $44 million and it had already been the subject of many tabloid stories. The film–cut from its original five hours to three and a half–was pulled after only one week of release. A two and a half hour re-release in 1981 also tanked. When the dust settled, “Heaven’s Gate” had made $1.5 million and was blamed for the demise of United Artists Studios. With Francis Coppola’s “One From The Heart” ($26 million budget, $636,000 box office), “Heaven’s Gate” also effectively ended the era of director-oriented pictures. Cimino directed four more films but his career never lived up to its promise.

Yet the years have been kind to “Heaven’s Gate.” Re-releases of the film have met with acclaim; while its flaws are not overlooked its virtues are also given light. Perhaps Cimino’s ultimate vindication came from general understanding that the post-New Hollywood way hasn’t resulted in better films. As Coppola said in 2000, “Directors don’t have much power anymore, the executives make unheard of amounts of money, and budgets are more out of control than they ever were. And there hasn’t been a classic in ten years.” In the 2004 documentary “Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate” former UA exec Steven Bach states, “The business of Hollywood has overwhelmed everything else, and it’s hard to see how the movies are better off for it.”

Now that Cimino has joined “Heaven’s Gate” cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (1930-2016), how will he be remembered?  This article from the Guardian might provide a clue: “…[Y]ou don’t always have to think of the terms ‘catastrophe’ and ‘classic’ as incompatible. Just this once, you’re permitted both.”

 

June 4, 2014

#78) Film review: “A Million Ways to Die in the West”

The problem with “A Million Ways to Die in the West”, the new film from “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane isn’t, as many have suggested, the fact that he cast himself in the lead role.  It’s that he didn’t.  Despite a few inspired moments, the lead actor in “Million Ways” shows precious little of the off-color comedic genius that MacFarlane’s fans know and love.

MacFarlane stars as Albert, a sheep-farmer in 1882 Arizona.  He hates living on the frontier and his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) has just left him for Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), a proprietor of a mustache accessory shop.  Albert confides in his friends he’s about to leave for San Francisco when he meets Anna (Charlzie Theron), who happens to be married to the territory’s most notorious gangster, Clinch (Liam Neeson).  Though he’s still in love with Louise, Albert slowly starts warming up to Anna.  When he discovers the truth about her however, things take a turn for the worse.

Just as MacFarlane’s character is timid and negative, the film itself seems to be afraid of its own comedic potential. “Family Guy” often makes viewers cringe, but it makes them laugh harder, whether it’s showing a barbershop quartet singing to a patient that he has AIDS, speculating that Mike Brady’s first marriage ended when he beat his wife to death because she brought him a warm beer or building an episode around a brand-new roller coaster called the Holocaust (“It’s got local Jews up in arms…as they go over the first hill.”)  “Family Guy” may or may not be your thing, but generally it delivers what it’s supposed to.

“Million Ways”, however, doesn’t.  Yes, we get to see N.P.H. defecate into a hat and get up-close views of sheep genitalia, but much of the movie seems as if MacFarlane is just trying to use fifteen years of curse words that he can’t say on “Family Guy”, without being particularly memorable.  Just as he doesn’t live up to his own potential, MacFarlane doesn’t give his talented cast much to work with.  Sarah Silverman – branded the “Westward Ho” in the film’s advertisements – can match MacFarlane’s offensive humor punch for punch, but her part is ultimately little more than the same basic sex jokes recycled.  Liam Neeson is particularly disappointing as the villain Clinch.  Dedicated “Family Guy” fans might remember the cutaway bit describing a situation as being as “hopeless as Liam Neeson playing an American cowboy”; having Neeson actually in the film seemed like a perfect opportunity to develop that joke.  Unfortunately, Neeson’s part is played straight, denying the potential for a great gag while failing to intimidate as a villain.

Another common criticism of this film simply the fact that it is a western, a genre widely believed to be dead.  The movie could have worked as a send-up of westerns, but with sweeping panoramic landscapes, a grandiose musical score and a run time of almost two hours, it seems as if MacFarlane was going for the real thing.  It’s visually impressive and the music fits the aesthetic, but this is a film being sold as a comedy; people don’t watch “Blazing Saddles” for its cinematography.  If MacFarlane was trying to make a real western, he didn’t make it exciting, tense or engaging enough; if he was going for a comedy, the laughs are too sparse.

MacFarlane’s body of work and fan base is likely strong enough that one misfire won’t sink him.  Hopefully he’ll learn from what didn’t work in this film and get back on track the next time around.

October 29, 2013

#61) Book review: “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” by Peter Biskind

Like many of the films of the “New Hollywood” which it describes, Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” is something of a flawed masterpiece.  Biskind tells a compelling story–the rise and fall of the director as film star–taking us behind the scenes of classic films such as  “Chinatown”, “Taxi Driver”, “Apocalypse Now” and more, while delving into the lives of Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg and other significant figures of the era.  However, just as New Hollywood did itself in with excess, so too the narrative of Biskind’s book could have used some trimming.

At its core, this is a rags to riches to rags story.  The directors at its center started from financially and socially humble beginnings.  They made the move to Hollywood.  They had a run of successful movies.  Success went to their heads.  By the ’80s, they were at best shadows of their former glory, at worst, irrelevant–or dead (though some in Hollywood might consider irrelevance a fate worse than death).

“Easy Riders” isn’t just about individuals however, it’s about an institution.  It’s about the disconnect between the American “zeitgeist” of the Vietnam era and the safe, forgettable films that the “Old Hollywood” was cranking out.  It’s about the influence of foreign directors–auteurs such as Fellini, Kurosawa and Godard–on American tastes in film and on American film makers.  It’s about a mindset of film making that might ultimately not have worked but still produced some great movies.

Biskind focuses on several central figures but describes many more; as if he’s aware of this, he adds a “cast of characters” index to remind us exactly who’s who.  He takes us into the unstable, lonely childhood of Francis Ford Coppola, who moves to L.A. only to find it not to his liking, settling instead in San Francisco and begrudgingly agreeing to direct a film based on Mario Puzo’s novel “The Godfather.”  He allows us to vicariously travel the journey of William Friedkin, who leaves an unhappy Chicago childhood behind when he wins the Oscar for “The French Connection” and gives legitimacy to the horror film with “The Exorcist.”  He follows awkward Steven Spielberg from Cincinnati to New Jersey to Phoenix and ultimately Hollywood, where he almost buries his career before it begins by running late and over budget on film that no one takes seriously: “Jaws.”  Lesser known figures in the book include Bob Evans, an executive who was said to have taken so many women to bed that he needed his housekeeper to help him keep track and acerbic film critic Pauline Kael who described a comedy as having laughs that were “sparser than an eighty-year old woman’s pubic hair.”

Though he hints from the outset that these directors’ early successes will be paid for later on, Biskind doesn’t seem to take any pleasure in chronicling their downfalls.  In fact, more often than not he sees it as a case of the punishment not fitting the crime.  While he acknowledges that ultimately the New Hollywood didn’t work and that problems from within were as much to blame as those from without, he clearly doesn’t like the producer-oriented system that took its place.  He speculates that even if the directors of the New Hollywood had behaved more responsibly, the movement wouldn’t have survived the blockbuster mentality of the 1980s.

Unlike the directors, actors, writers and executives of New Hollywood, Biskind doesn’t let his ego get in his way, but his writing still has shortcomings that prevent “Easy Riders” from being a truly great book.  Many of the minor characters in the book become forgettable; in detailing their bad behavior, Biskind doesn’t make them memorable and their names are hard to keep straight (expect to have to refer to the “cast of characters” index regularly).  While some of the characters are sympathetic despite their faults and others are truly scum, the majority of them are just forgettable.  Biskind devotes as many (if not more) pages to anonymous executive Frank Yablans than to Michael Cimino, who let the success from “The Deer Hunter” go to his head with “Heaven’s Gate”, the film that is blamed more than any other for bringing down New Hollywood.

The result is a book that, though it could have been more, will still definitely appeal to fans of the New Hollywood and its movies. While  he could have done it better, Biskind still tells a memorable story.  In the minds of many–not just the directors who survived it–the film industry has not changed for the better since New Hollywood.  Perhaps the ultimate point of “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” is that after all of the fights, drugs, break-ups and deaths, many great movies have survived.