I could watch the hysterical comedy The Freshman any day of the week; it’s just one of those comfort-zone comedies that hits its targets, doesn’t over-extend itself, and knows how to land joke after joke with sly comic timing from everyone in the stacked cast, most especially Matthew Broderick and Marlon Brando, in what’s easily his funniest performance outside of The Formula. Written and directed by Andrew Bergman (Soapdish, The In-Laws, Blazing Saddles, It Could Happen to You, Honeymoon in Vegas, Striptease), The Freshman was released in 1990, and was a solid hit with both critics and audiences, but I get the sense that this one really caught on in the Blockbuster-era. It also looks very handsome because William A. Fraker was calling the shots as cinematographer, and he basically did nothing but excellent work his entire career. Also, TriStar Pictures POWER and scene-stealing Bruno Kirby POWER. And let’s not forget about that damn Komodo dragon! And honestly, it’s worth repeating – Brando is a RIOT in this movie, cleverly sending-up his immortal role from The Godfather, with everyone in the cast totally in on the joke and running wild with it. If you’ve not seen this one in a while, it’s definitely worthy of rediscovery.
The Savages is one of those dark comedies which nails a perfect balance between sad and funny, but make no mistake, at times, this is a painful movie to view, as it examines the loss of a parent’s faculties in an upfront and explicit manner. Why has it taken writer/director Tamara Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills) a decade to get her next film made (she’s got Private Life set for release later this year)? As usual, Philip Seymour Hoffman was great – when was he not? But it was Laura Linney who stole the entire show. In movie after movie, performance after performance, Linney has proven to be an exceptional actress, absolutely one of my favorites. I submit to you the following titles: Dave, Searching for Bobby Fischer, Primal Fear, The Truman Show, You Can Count On Me, The Mothman Prophecies, Mystic River, Love Actually, P.S., Kinsey, The Squid and the Whale, Breach, John Adams, Hyde Park on Hudson, The Big C, and The Fifth Estate. She’s appeared in even more than that, and each time, she’s been fully committed, extremely emotional, and always engrossing to watch. In The Savages, I’m tempted to say she provided us with her best performance yet, and in my opinion, that says a ton about her work as an actress. Every time Linney appears in something, whether it’s on the small or big screen, the material is instantly elevated, and she’s got this interesting mix of sass and smarts, and sex appeal without being too “much” with any one particular thing. I’m a huge fan.
The film, which has Hoffman and Linney playing brother and sister, is an extremely sharp and poignant story about siblings who have to take care of their ailing father after the death of his girlfriend. Their dad, a tough old S.O.B. played to perfection by Philip Bosco, is suffering from delusions and early Parkinson’s disease. It’s a brilliant performance, actually; never resorting to actor-ish ticks and convulsions or histrionics, Bosco downplays the physical, in favor of the emotional, and the results are devastating, yet somehow never fully depressing. It’s all in the fine details, and this film is a subtly tricky one; you’ll have to see it to know what I mean. There’s no guns or car chases or explosions or bad guys or plot contrivances that get you to the next scene. It’s not glossy or slick, as Jenkins favors chilly winter and gloomy skies over a Michael Bay sunset finish. But this is a film that’s generously written, honestly acted, and modest yet strikingly confident with its direction. And it’s also extremely funny, which helps, because at times, it’s a spoonful of tough love medicine that many, many people will find too close for comfort. But as cinema, The Savages is a small gem, and a film clearly made because everyone involved felt an inherent need and desire to make it happen.
Ridley Scott’s iconic sci-fi classic Blade Runner is one of those motion pictures where its legacy and lore nearly outweigh the finished product itself. Notice I said nearly. This is an all-consuming piece of cinematic art, a film that blew my mind open as a kid, and has continued to haunt and fascinate me as an adult. Seeing Blade Runner projected in 70mm as a 12 year old really did change the way I viewed movies; I knew I had never seen anything like it before and that it was special. It was also one of the first letterboxed double-VHS sets that my family rented from Blockbuster and that just meant it was “better” than any old VHS tape that was laying around. I nervously anticipate Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up, as the imagery on display in the trailer looks eye-scorching (Roger Deakins is the 2049’s cinematographer), but I’d by lying if I said that I’m very wary of long-in-the-works sequels to classic films that are separated by decades. There’s something both handmade and revolutionary about Scott’s original work, and that’s an aspect that can never be replicated. From the mind-blowing visuals that Scott and director of photography Jordan Cronenweth crafted in tandem with the trendsetting production design and art direction by Lawrence Paull and David L. Snyder respectively, to say nothing of the grand and operatic musical score by Vangelis, Blade Runner is an aesthetic masterpiece that feeds into a layered, deeply thoughtful, and engrossing narrative that gives weight to the flying cars and rain-soaked streets and neon-holograms and every other stylistic trick that Scott and his artisans had up their sleeves. It’s a phenomenal movie and an effort that easily ranks as one of Scott’s absolute best, and I’m normally not a “best” and “worst” type of person.
Macon Blair’s directorial debut I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, which he also wrote, is a black comedy with serious balls, and as such, this film won’t be for everyone. I love subversive and unexpected material, and this nasty little Netflix acquisition goes to some truly bizarre, and often times (for me at least) hysterical places; it’s just a question if you think watching someone getting their hand blown off at close range by a shot-gun is funny. As always, it’s about context, and the degenerates featured in this wild narrative mostly get what they deserve. The plot shares a Falling Down vibe, with Melanie Lynskey essaying a character who probably lives down the street from everyone reading this — the sort of person who is fed up and sort of directionless and at odds with most of society, and revolts against the random idiocies that life throws their way. The film details her attempts at moral revenge against a hoodlum who breaks into her house and steals some of her belongings.
Her dark and twisted odyssey opens up a can of worms she could never have expected, and is forced to deal with some sinister baddies who feel as desperate as they look unclean. Shot in some really questionable areas of Oregon with down and dirty aplomb by stylish cinematographer Larkin Seiple (Swiss Army Man, Cop Car), this scrappy indie features Elijah Wood in an off-beat supporting role as Lynskey’s unlikely counterpart in all of the madness, and to her credit, Lynskey, who was so excellent on HBO’s recently cancelled marriage dramedy Togetherness, charts the uneasy narrative waters with serious gusto, investing her character with plucky spirit that hopefully helps her by the end of the blood-soaked proceedings. I can’t wait to see what Blair, who so memorably starred in the brilliant thriller Blue Ruin and appeared in Jeremy Saulnier’s hard-core follow-up, Green Room, does next as a filmmaker. Something tells me that he’s not likely to lose his perverse edge.
The recently released Criterion Collection Blu-ray Special Edition of Michelangelo Antonioni’s masterpiece Blow-Up is a thing of pure beauty. From the gorgeous packaging to the wonderful and thoughtful full-color booklet to the plethora of bonus features, they’ve given one of the best films of all time superb physical media treatment. Blow-Up is a true study in cinematic cool-factor, and it will always be one of my absolute favorite films. It radiates sex and style and class and sophistication and the way Antonioni primarily used images to tell his story will always fascinate me to no end. You get David Hemmings in one of the quintessential screen performances and Vanessa Redgrave in all of her beatific splendor, not to mention an absurdly talented (and rather photogenic…) supporting cast. This was the first of three movies that Antonioni made for MGM (Zabriskie Point and The Passenger are the other two), and it remains one of the most influential, form-busting movies of its era, a wild romp through London’s swinging 60’s, with the out-sized exploits of famed fashion photographer David Bailey serving as a character influence. I can’t stress enough how sexual vibrancy just flows all throughout this film; the photo-shoots were directed, shot, and preformed as if the actors were simulating lovemaking, and when you look at the faces of everyone in the hot-stuff cast, you get the sense that the carnal feelings being felt may not have been phony.
The plot was adapted by Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, and Edward Bond from the short story The Devil’s Drool by Julio Cortazar, with Hemmings portraying a cocky, womanizing photographer, and revolves around a series of photos that he snaps out in the park one afternoon, which may or may not contain the identity of a killer and a murder in progress. Brian De Palma would do a riff on this material with his classic 1981 thriller Blow Out, which starred John Travolta in one of his best performances as a movie sound mixer collecting sound effects near a river when he inadvertently witnesses and records the sounds of a car crash which may be more than it seems. But back to Blow-Up; this is a film I’ve viewed multiple times, and I love how it’s come to mean so many different things to me as a person each time I encounter it. The film has a bewitching nature, a dreamy quality (but not hallucinatory), and it sort of resembles a methodical thriller without the conventional ending that we’ve all come to expect after years of Hollywood shoving plot contrivances down our throats. Antonioni, a master filmmaker who loved to subvert his audience at every opportunity (I adore this man’s work), was clearly fond of the open-ended finale, a storytelling device that can be extremely effective when properly handled, but can also feel amazingly cheap and artificial in the hands of lesser filmmakers. Here, because Antonioni has set so much up and given the audience so many tantalizing bits to examine, the fact that the film ends the way it does shouldn’t provoke anger, but rather, further mystery with the potential for more discoveries on repeated viewings.
Herbie Hancock’s jazzy score punctuates the film in all the proper ways, but what Antonioni excelled at best was silence, and how it can be used in so many ways to evoke so many emotions. The cinematography by Carlo Di Palma is absolutely brilliant, each shot informing the one previous and the one following, with an expert sense of camera placement, color, and space within the frame. The fluid editing by Frank Clarke plays with time, expectations, and the specific way visual information is presented, and ultimately serves as a textbook example of how not to over-cut your picture. And then there’s the parade of gloriously beautiful women that are trotted out for Hemmings to flirt, photo, and party with, with one extremely memorable sex scene clearly ranking as one of the best ever put on film. Hemmings gives a fascinating performance, filled with self-assurance then self-doubt, all the while displaying a unique resentment towards women despite his glamorous job, with a stare that could cut glass and shake anyone off their guard. He’s a man who has become jaded by his lifestyle, but when he’s offered the chance to do something with true meaning, he becomes re-energized by the possibilities that his craft allows and by the random nature of life itself. Blow-Up isn’t a movie where you’re going to learn all of the plot points in an easy fashion, and in many instances, Antonioni leaves his audience to interpret what they’ve seen and what he’s shown. For me, that will always be the mark of a GREAT artist – that rare ability to create something rich and complete while still allowing for room to grow and rediscover.
War for the Planet of the Apes is Grade-A blockbuster filmmaking. I will forever judge and compare the CGI in every movie that I see moving forward against the FLAWLESS work done in this film. Seriously. What the hell? I couldn’t believe what I was watching. Everything about this movie works like gangbusters, from the intelligent screenplay to the emotionally engaging performances to the logical plotting to the kick-ass action sequences – this is how you do it when it comes to spending what looks like a billion dollars to make a movie. I’m not kidding. This movie had to have cost a mint. When you get that quality of images, it can’t be cheap, and you know people were seriously invested in their work. There isn’t ONE SINGLE TIME where you look at one of the apes during the course of the film and think that they don’t look real and tangible and legitimate. It’s stunning. It’s landmark work when it comes to this sort of technological achievements. The incredible Andy Serkis made me cry like a baby – repeatedly – during this film. His motion capture performance as Caesar is all-time level stuff, expanding upon his two previous performances, and I have to be honest, I wouldn’t be shocked if his work in War for the Planet of the Apes feels more resonant than most others by the end of the year.
Co-writer and director Matt Reeves (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Let Me In, Cloverfield), who worked with scenarist Mark Bomback (Unstoppable, Live Free or Die Hard) has now joined the absolute upper-echelon of large-scale popcorn filmmakers, tipping his hat to Nolan (in tone) and Spielberg (in intent), proving that he cares about his story, characters, and dialogue just as much as he does to the photo-real visual effects and the gorgeously composed photography that he crafted in tandem with the great cinematographer Michael Seresin (Midnight Express, Shoot the Moon, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). The fantastic musical score by Michael Giacchino heightens nearly every scene yet never overpowers, with a late in the game musical cue that sets the stage for the unrelenting final act. The swift editing by William Hoy and Stan Salfas moves this epic picture along at a fast pace despite a two hour and twenty minute running time, with everything clicking into high-gear thanks to the superb production design by James Chinlund, who clearly had a ball with the various sets and locations. Also, there’s snow in this film. I love “snow movies.” Woody Harrelson is one of my favorite actors, so it was delightful seeing him play the chief villain. I’m consistently blown away by his ability to portray lovable protagonists and evil antagonists, switching it up with total ease and confidence. He’s terrific here, getting the chance to tackle a multi-dimensional baddie who goes head to head with Caesar for much of the film.
I’ll spoil none of the robust story or the poignant finale, but I will comment that War for the Planet of the Apes is very violent, rather dark, and appreciably grim, as it should be. But it’s going to the lingering close-ups that I’ll remember the most about this artful, expressive, and thoroughly absorbing film, as I just couldn’t get over the level of believable artistry that was brought to the table to bring these digital apes to life. There are zero excuses any more as far as I’m concerned in terms of other films and filmmakers. If this sort of work was possible on this film, than it should be standard operating procedure for any movie involving copious CGI work in the future. Get it right, or don’t do it at all. No more half-assing it. When a film like War for the Planet of the Apes comes along, I can’t help but feel that the only people who will have something negative to say will be people who went into their screening looking to hate on it. Sort of like with Baby Driver. The “too cool for school” police seem to be out and that’s a shame, as this is grand cinematic escapism done on a massive yet intimate scale. And as much as I don’t care about seeing anymore comic book/superhero movies, the fact that Reeves wants to make a noir/detective Batman film, well, I’m curious about that. But for now, he should feel extremely proud, because this has been the most unexpectedly moving and exciting trilogy of summer movies in decades.
1984’s The Last Starfighter, energetically directed by Nick Castle from a script written by Jonathan Betuel (MY SCIENCE PROJECT POWER!!!), was one of my favorite films as a little kid, and much to my surprise, it still holds up as an example of a solid, low-budget Star Wars/Star Trek rip off that knew how to have just the right amount of fun even if it was never designed to be staggeringly original from a story perspective. I don’t care how “cheesy” and “dated” and “old” some people might find this film – I love it, and I’d take it over any number of $200 million CGI bullshit extravaganzas that have been clogging up multiplexes. I can’t wait to show my own son this movie when the time is correct; I suspect he’ll enjoy it with the same sense of wide-eyed-glee that I did when I was a kiddie. Alex Rogan (Lance Guest, engaging with that great smile) is your average trailer park teenager who just so happens to be a whiz at the one arcade game that is hooked up near his home. After breaking all of the records in the game, he’s dramatically recruited by an inter-galactic squadron of aliens (think Green Lantern) in an effort to get him to fight in their epic space battles.
Along with Tron, The Last Starfighter was one of the first movies to use major sequences with CGI, and while the film certainly shows its age, it’s incredible to think that a movie of this nature was made for “only” $15 million back in the day. There are some exciting space dog fights, terrific practical make-up and special effects, and a wonderful sense of humor during the passages on Earth that while corny at times, feel like the perfect combo of sci-fi action and teen comedy. A mild theatrical success in theaters during the summer of ‘84, this cult classic would go on to have a major shelf life thanks to the VHS explosion of the mid-80’s, and the low-tech charm and gee-whiz spirit of the entire endeavor still feels entirely of its time, the sort of movie that could never get made in today’s slicked-up cinematic climate. The cool supporting cast featured Robert Preston(!) in his final film role doing a riff on his con-man character from Music Man, Dan O’Herlihy, Catherine Mary Stewart (an early crush…), Norman Snow and Kay E. Kuter. Fun tidbit: Castle was the original Mike Myers in John Carpenter’s classic Halloween.