Out of all of the films that David Mamet has directed that I’ve personally seen (House of Games, Homicide, Oleanna, The Spanish Prisoner, The Winslow Boy, State and Main, Heist, Redbelt, and Phil Spector), his underrated 2004 effort Sparta is easily my favorite. Mamet has long been one of my favorite writers (ask me about the letter I wrote to him in high school…!) and I loved how ballsy this political action thriller is, and I’ll always be continually fascinated with the i…dea that he wrote pretty much the entire film in code and technical jargon — you REALLY have to listen to what’s being said in this ultra-cryptic film. Not that it’s not coherent, it is, it’s just that nothing is traditionally spelled out, and you definitely have to be up for some back-story digging and you’ll need to be able to make some logic jumps on your own.
The film has a 70’s meets the 90’s vibe, with a pessimistic narrative and slick cinematography; the climatic sequence at a private jet hangar is shot with some seriously awesome lens flare POWER, and I loved how gritty Mamet made the early training sequences, where we see two potential black ops recruits being placed in a room, and being told that only one of them is allowed to leave alive. Val Kilmer, on paper, may not have seemed like a logical choice for Mamet’s brand of staccato and stylized dialogue beats, but he’s right at home in one of his best, most focused performances. The excellent supporting cast includes Ed O’Neill as a take-no-bull-shit government worker, Derek Luke as Kilmer’s partner, William H. Macy as a corrupt government official, Clark Gregg, Steven Culp, Johnny Messner, Tia Texada, the always great Said Taghmaoui, and Kristen Bell as the president’s daughter, who has been kidnapped and potentially sold into the EurAsian sex-slave market, with Kilmer and his team trying to relocate her before the press catches wind of the situation.
The events in this film are often far fetched, but I never cared, because everyone takes it so damn seriously, and with Kilmer leading the charge in a totally committed and visceral performance, any plot contrivances are made up for with the ear-catching dialogue that’s filled with numerous lines worthy of quotation and the propulsive direction that Mamet brought to the table. “Where’s the girl?” POWER.
I love Steven Zaillian’s directorial debut Searching for Bobby Fischer. Zaillian has a nearly flawless track record as a big-gun Hollywood screenwriter, and his directorial efforts have also been excellent (A Civil Action and the underrated All the King’s Men), but his first film is a nearly perfect, humanistic piece that zeroes in on character in a way that few dramas ever dare, especially when considering that the film is told through the POV of a 10 year old chess prodigy, who likely has some developmental and social anxieties, if not outright disorders. I’ve been obsessed with this film for over 20 years. I viewed it in the theater at 13 years of age, it was a go-to film when it endlessly played on HBO back in the day, and throughout the years, I’ve turned to this great, unassuming, patient work at least once every 365 days on my well-worn DVD, because it reminds me of how effective a simple story can be when the acting is extra-precise and when the writing compliments the direction and vice versa. It also helps to have Conrad Hall calling the shots behind the camera; this is yet another beautifully textured and composed piece of work from one of the most legendary of cinematographers ever to grace the medium.
The plot centers around a kid named Josh who is discovered to be a chess whiz by his parents and family members. They encourage his passion and gift, which leads him to an extremely intense and strict instructor named Bruce (played with devilish charm by Ben Kingsley), who pushes young Josh both emotionally and psychologically to be the best chess talent he can be, along with never forgetting how to be a decent person along the way, without sacrificing a competitive edge. Bruce continually hypes up and compares Josh to chess great Bobby Fischer, allowing the youth to develop the idea that one day, he might be as great as that iconic yet mysterious figure. There’s also an affecting subplot between Josh and a speed-chess hustler named Vinnie, perfectly captured with great spirit and flair by Laurence Fishburne. And let’s not forget about the incredibly moving family dynamics between Josh and his parents, played by the brilliant team of Joe Mantegna and Joan Allen, both of whom radiate warmth and respect and support for their son, even under the most trying of situations and circumstances.
And over the course of the film, it’s remarkable to witness Josh become his own person, after so many others have projected what they want him to be or to become, without ever asking Josh what it is that he really wants to do. The lead performance from then eight year old Max Pomeranc is nothing short of sensational; there are adults who have been acting for years who don’t come close to the complexity that he delivered in this challenging piece of work. It’s also interesting to note that Pomeranc was an actual chess player before filming began (even appearing on a Top 100 list for his age group, according to Wikipedia), and that he never went on to act in another substantial film again. But he’ll always have his tremendous performance in this amazing film to hold close to his heart. Zaillian has long been a considerable talent, expertly balancing his artistic sensibilities with the demands of the studios who are always courting him for big adaptations or structural work. It’s not hard to see why. This is a great film and Zaillian is a class act.
The Offence is a deeply upsetting movie, thoroughly downbeat, and anchored by a riveting performance from Sean Connery, who was clearly working overtime to shed the image of James Bond in his first post-franchise starring role. Directed with customary precision and intensity by Sidney Lumet, this is a stagy, depressing film that pits Connery, playing a dogged British detective who has seen one horrible crime too many, going up against a supposed child rapist/killer, played with menace and questionable intentions by Ian Bannen. Most of the action is confined to an interrogation room, a room which is continually made to feel smaller and smaller thanks to the expert camera placement and air-tight editing, which goes a long way in producing a disquieting and unnerving sense of claustrophobia. There were some early visual cues that reminded me of what Roger Deakins was going for in some stretches of the similarly themed kidnapping film Prisoners, and I loved how Connery never wavered from delving into such a disturbing lead role, one that was clearly intriguing to him for being so far removed from the screen-defining role of 007. The early sequence where Connery discovers the narrative’s chief victim is scarily believable and tears-inducing (for me, anyways…), and it was a further reminder of how when a scene is so well directed, fear and tension cab be so well conveyed without ever resorting to gratuitous tricks. But when Lumet wants you to feel the punches and taste the sweat and blood, he’s not afraid to unleash an ass-kicking, but it’s never unimportant to the narrative, or without motivation from the characters, which always makes for a more honest story. The themes of revenge and transference are probingly discussed and the finale, while mildly ambiguous, allows for the viewer to know that nothing will ever be OK for the people within the framework of this relentlessly grim worldview. United Artists released The Offence in 1973, and while it would be a box office disappointment (it was barely given a European release with the country of France skipped entirely), it has gained a reputation for being a unique item in Lumet’s massive filmography, and a challenging piece for Connery, who should have gotten more respect for his work on this film at the time of its release. Also, it must be noted: Connery says the phrase “bloody” a lot in this film. A bloody ton. It’s sort of comical.
The staggering and wildly undervalued 2004 film A Very Long Engagement is a masterpiece of storytelling and filmmaking, representing the greatest and grandest achievement yet for visionary filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet. And I feel that’s saying something, as this is the man responsible for Amelie, City of Lost Children, and Delicatessen, to name just a few (the latter two being collaborations with Marc Caro). Melding the bubbly romantic whimsy of Amelie to the gritty and grimy battlefields of WWI, this is a true genre-bender, a war film with a bleeding, aching heart, boasting a finale that’s incredibly poignant without being overly sentimental; it never fails to devastate during the final moments. It’s utterly criminal that this film was buried with a half-hearted domestic release by Warner Independent (why bother getting involved in the first place if you’re aren’t interested in supporting an endeavor such as this one?!) and it’s a joke that the film is only available as a Region B Blu-ray (thankfully, I have a Region Free player). Hollywood has long held a fascination with all aspects of WWII, with WWI movies in short supply by comparison; every future film to explore the rigors of trench war fare should be compared to this one. Jeunet co-adapted the storybook-style screenplay with Guillaume Laurant from the original novel by Sébastien Japrisot, and he brought his handmade style to every facet of this enormous and elaborate production. I adored his idea to shoot some of the flashback scenes in Academy Ratio 1.33:1 black and white, which gives those beats the sense of archival footage, when in reality, they feel like their own short film embedded into this massive canvass of people, places, and things.
The busy narrative of A Very Long Engagement pivots on five French soldiers, all of whom have been convicted of self-mutilation in an effort to ditch their remaining service time and be sent home and away from the horrors of battle. One of these soldiers, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), is engaged to his childhood sweetheart (Audrey Tautou), and all he can do to mentally survive is continually think of her and how strong the love is between the two of them. Sent to “no-man’s land” (the highly dangerous and deadly area of land in between the French and German lines), Manech and the other solider-prisoners meet their individual fates in ways that I won’t dare spoil, but I will allow that the tale is told in slight Rashomon style, with various versions of the events explained to Mathilde as she works to put the mysterious pieces together of her future husband’s whereabouts. She sets off on an epic quest with the help of a private investigator to collect information and meet the wives of the other four soldiers that Manech was condemned to death with, leading her to some truly dark and upsetting revelations, but despite all of the sadness around her, she never gives up hope in finding the one person she loves the most. There’s a poet’s sense of the fragility of life on display all throughout this carefully mounted film, and the intricate storyline engrosses the audience immediately from the start, with the startlingly beautiful images washing over the viewer like a suffocating lather of exquisiteness. Bruno Delbonnel’s bronze-tinted and utterly ravishing cinematography, is, simply put, some of the best I’ve ever seen on a big screen, small screen, whatever size screen. Each shot is post-card ready, boasting immaculate vistas, raw and immediate battle footage with lots of graphic carnage, a sumptuous color palette, and grand and sweeping camera movements that defy logic and give you perspectives that you’d never expect. A late set-piece involving an exploding hydrogen blimp inside of a makeshift triage center is horrifying and beyond comprehension, and the various sequences of bloody combat are handled with extreme technical finesse without ever sacrificing grit and muck.
The performances are all uniformly excellent, with the appropriate supporting actors hitting their moments of expertly placed comedy in perfect ways to lighten the dramatic load, while Tautou and Ulliel are left to do the majority of the heavy emoting and dramatic lifting, and both are more than up to the task. Exuding a palpable chemistry and a deep longing for each other that’s wonderful and heartrending, the two of them were a perfect match. Marion Cotillard and Jodie Foster both have knock-out extended cameos, especially Foster, and Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon makes his customary appearance. A Very Long Engagement would only be nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Production Design at the Oscars (rightfully so, but predictably, it won neither award; The Aviator took both), which seems massively shortsighted, but because this film wasn’t a true Hollywood production, it was up to the French government to select their country’s film for Academy consideration, and they didn’t go to bat for A Very Long Engagement. I’ll never understand why. The film grossed $70 million theatrically worldwide, with only $6.5 million of that total coming from United States ticket buyers, a fact that makes me sick to my stomach. This is epic, massive filmmaking of the highest order, made by an artist who is totally in love with all of the visual and narrative possibilities of the filmic form, and I’ll always be blown away by the handcrafted feel that A Very Long Engagement possesses; it’s so enormous yet at the same time feels so intimate and fragile, an attribute that’s incredibly hard to find.
Mark Pellington’s I Melt With You is a difficult animal. And make no mistake — that’s what this is — an untamed animal of a motion picture. Snarling, angry, forceful, overwrought (by design), and passionately crafted in all departments, it’s the sort of film, no, make that provocation, that will enrage some viewers and cast a spell over others. I’m curiously caught somewhere in between; it’s too smart and thoughtful to be outright dismissed the way it was by so many “critics” when it hit limited release back in 2011, but I can’t help but feel that it could have been a stronger piece overall had some things been done differently. One thing’s for certain – this is far from the “worst movie of the year,” which is what many proclaimed it to be; that statement suggests that you’re not watching enough movies. This is a daring, bleak piece of work, with narrative shadings that remind one of Fight Club and stylistic tendencies that evoke both The Tree of Life and Enter the Void, and because Pellington and screenwriter Glenn Porter went for the emotional jugular so often, the film has a careening sense of energy and purpose, shoving you face first into hedonistic excess (the on screen drug use in I Melt With You, at times, rivals the shenanigans in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Wolf of Wall Street) without the promise of ever letting up, and then switching gears in the second half for a fatalistic existential thriller that goes to some extremely dark and disturbing places, none of it easy to forget. Since revisiting this film a few days ago, it’s stuck around in my memory banks, and even though I’m still not certain how I feel about the film overall, I do know that it’s a personal, extremely gutsy piece of storytelling that isn’t afraid to rub our noses in overwhelming stress and psychological turmoil.
Starring Rob Lowe, Thomas Jane, Jeremy Piven, and Christian McKay as four best friends, all in their mid-40’s, all of whom are coming apart at the seams, I Melt With You tracks their immature and over the top behavior before taking a plunge off the deep end into a pool of despair. But is it immature, really? Are their raucous actions more a comment on how “every guy” feels deep down inside? Pellington and Porter certainly seem to think that the male beast is capable of these feelings. All of the guys are conflicted in one way or another: Lowe is a shady doctor taking bribes on the side from patients, Jane a failed writer turned teacher given to bouts of extreme substance abuse, Piven a Bernie Madoff-esque financial hustler with the All-American family image as protection, and McKay, well, he’s just a confused mess of sexual and spiritual emotions, a lost sheep if you will, unable to cope with what his life has become after a tragic accident. These are guys who met in college, became fast friends, and never lost touch. For their latest yearly weekend retreat, they rent a picturesque house perched ominously atop a cliff in Big Sur with the perfect ocean view, with the intention of drinking, drugging, and sexing themselves into oblivion over the course of few days. Then, something “big” happens, with one of the men taking his life in a desperate act of suicide, thus re-energizing a long lost secret from the past that comes back to haunt the surviving friends for the rest of the intensely realized narrative. Lowe has rarely been given a chance to be this dramatic, and he’s forceful in his various scenes of distress. Piven will always feel like Ari Gold, but here, it’s like Gold has been given his final comeuppance, and he plays the part very well. Jane, a versatile character actor capable of broad range, is excellent, possibly the best he’s ever been, delivering a full-throttle performance that never stops simmering. And McKay, an actor previously unknown to me, hits sensitive notes as the “quiet one” in the group, and he lends the entire piece a sense of serenity that it lacks in almost every other instance.
Pellington has had a very interesting career thus far, without ever becoming as prolific as his peers. Tons of TV episodes, concert films (U2: 3-D), documentaries, and then two of the best thrillers in recent years (Arlington Road in 1999 and The Mothman Prophecies in 2002), an offbeat comedy called Henry Poole is Here in 2008, and most recently, I Melt With You in 2011, which seems to have thrown him off the feature film map for a bit. And that’s a shame, because we need original voices like Pellington getting a chance to mix it up in the studio system. Not everything needs to feel homogenized into tasteless oblivion, and I love how he’s brought a sleek and stylish visual sense to each of the films I’ve seen from him while still paying attention to the demands of character and story. But one thing is for damn certain: Pellington is a consummate stylist, with a remarkable eye for unique composition, startling color, and striking shot selection. Working with the extremely talented cinematographer Eric Schmidt, every single image in I Melt With You is museum quality, with a deep and saturated palette that in tandem with the digital filmmaking process results in one glorious moment after another. Getting wasted has never looked this beautiful, but, rather interestingly, instead of glamourizing the proceedings, Pellington makes the entire debauched scene seem all the more sad and desperate and lonely; the beauty that accompanies the bodily destruction is a wonderful juxtaposition of mood and intent. The film’s “colorist” even got an upfront on-screen credit, something you NEVER see, but something that’s TOTALLY warranted, as the color in I Melt With You literally bleeds off the screen; eye-catching doesn’t even cover it.
I Melt With You, rather boldly, continually asks the viewer to identify, empathize, and sometimes even sympathize with these out of control characters, and I think that one of the reasons that the film was met with such harsh criticism is that people are afraid of what they see in these people; they don’t want to look in the filmic mirror and see a shred of any of these guys, even if in reality, there’s a piece of them inside all of us, however small, to a certain degree. Pellington and Porter are interested in getting a response from the viewer, something that will undoubtedly happen right off the bat. For some, this movie is going to be “too much,” and I can respect that. You have to WANT to want to see something like this. It’s a movie born out of a clearly personal need to tell this particular story, and aspects of the script were birthed from the real life tragedy of Pellington losing his wife way too early in their relationship. If I feel that there’s one major misstep in I Melt With You, it’s the inclusion of the Carla Gugino cop character, who shows up in the film’s most problematic portions during the third act. My issues have nothing to do with her acting abilities, but rather, her character seemed like an attempt to artificially ratchet the tension up even more, when to be honest, the crux of the film lies with the men and their various internal issues. This film was always going to be an intense ride, and the ending was always going to be a forgone conclusion, so I’m not 100% sure it was necessary to inject this aspect into the film. I Melt With You runs a generous two hours, but there’s a side of me that feels it could have made even more of a visceral impact had it been a tight 90 minutes. But, as is, I Melt With You is an extraordinarily draining and punishing movie, a work that feels “experienced” more than passively viewed, and it’s the sort of work that announces its intentions right up front through the use of heightened textual imagery and a pulsating soundscape. You will FEEL something by the time this film concludes.
Steven Soderbergh’s King of the Hill is grotesquely underrated, an absolutely fantastic movie that feels like a unique anomaly in the filmmaker’s eclectic oeuvre. Released in 1993, this was the indie master’s third film, after the breakout success of the highly influential Sex, Lies, and Videotape in 1989, which was followed up in 1991 by the little seen, black and white oddity Kafka, which is better than its reputation suggests, but still not a 100% success. Still finding his voice as a filmmaker at the time, King of the Hill is a painterly, 1930’s set drama that looks at the harsh realities facing a family during the Great Depression. The film would find warm critical embrace after a rocky Cannes Film Festival debut, and was one of the first releases from Universal’s independent label Gramercy Pictures. King of the Hill flopped at the box office, grossing just over $1 million in the United States; I’m not even sure if an international theatrical release was attempted. Featuring a cast of child actors and extremely talented character players rather than big Hollywood stars, the film was always going to face a struggle to get noticed, which is a shame, because this is the warmest, most emotional movie of Soderbergh’s often cold and clinical career as a filmmaker. I’ve long been fascinated with his lightning quick turnaround in between projects, how he often times shoots and edits his own features, and how he’s been able to swiftly move from genre to genre throughout the last 26 years, almost always with spectacular results. He’s made experimental, form-pushing movies for himself and has also been able to play at the top ranks of the studio level, delivering big box office when needed. Up front: I’ve not seen a Soderbergh movie that I haven’t liked on some sort of level, and a few of them, most notably Schizopolis, Out of Sight, The Limey, Traffic, The Informant!, and Contagion, are films I feel to be masterpieces for the filmmaker, and his late-career run of Magic Mike, Haywire, and Side Effects were a total triple threat of genre skewering brilliance. His recent work on the Cinemax series The Knick is bold and convention breaking, infusing a period atmosphere (a turn of the century NYC hospital) with his modern camera style and anachronistic musical choices. But it’s King of the Hill that feels so remarkably different for Soderbergh as a director, a movie that he made almost in response to his down and dirty indie cred that he had developed on his first two features, looking to expand his abilities and further confound his critics.
A young Jesse Bradford is Aaron, a 12 year old boy who is struggling to survive on his own in a shabby motel after his mother is sent to a hospital for having tuberculosis, and his father is forced to hit the road as a travelling salesman. Set in the Midwest, King of the Hill painfully examines the disintegration of the family unit and the crushing reality of the “American dream” for so many people during that turbulent time period. Heartbreakingly, Aaron is also forced to say good bye to his younger brother, who is sent off to live with moneyed relatives who thankfully offer to lend a helping hand. Bradford is extraordinary in this film, conveying desperation, hope, humility, and humor, all sometimes within the same scene, as he learns to navigate the uncertain and sad situation that he’s found himself in. There’s one unforgettable sequence that shows him, in an act of starvation and imagination, cutting out pictures of food items (a chicken breast, potatoes, corn, a pad of butter) from a magazine, which he then plates, mentally examines, and eats with a fork and knife, trying to approximate the taste of the food through the flavorless morsels of paper. The way Soderbergh directed this film was perfect, really. Scene after scene of poignant drama unfolds, with moments of honest laughter spiking the edges, and it’s a testament to Soderbergh’s involvement with the material that the film never feels overbearing or maudlin. He also avoids cheap sentimentality, so even when things might be taking a turn for the better, you’re left with the implicit understanding that things could just as easily unravel all over again. Soderbergh got as close to these characters as he’s ever possibly been as a storyteller with one of his narratives, telling a wonderfully humanist story that anyone can relate too. A teenaged Katherine Heigl makes a strong supporting turn as Bradford’s potential girlfriend, while Jeroen Krabbe is perfectly cast as Bradford’s German immigrant father, a man who believes in the “Tough Love” school of parenting, and while not the most trustworthy of men, he makes the case that for all his faults, he truly loves his sons, despite doing some things that in retrospect seem a tad harsh. Karen Allen, Spalding Grey, Elizabeth McGovern, and a barely able to shave Adrien Brody all round out the excellent cast with memorable, scene-stealing moments, further underscoring Soderbergh’s inherent gift for casting.
Shot on gorgeous Super 35 film by Elliot Davis and fully utilizing the 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, Soderbergh crafted what’s undoubtedly his prettiest movie to date, a film that he feels is “too pretty,” a comment that can be heard while watching the highly informative interview that’s included on the superlative Criterion Collection Blu-ray platter. He seems curiously disappointed with himself as a filmmaker in regards to King of the Hill, openly stating that he wished he had shot the film in a more rough and tumble, grittier fashion, which is more in line with his late era work and aesthetic. But I think one of the best things about King of the Hill is how the film is overwhelmingly beautiful at times, evoking a lost, calamitous era, with the juxtaposition of the luscious images bouncing off the hard-scrabble nature and plight of the characters. The production design is supremely evocative of a long ago era, forever lost to pictures in books, with period appropriate cars and clothes filling the frame without ever coming off as precious or ostentatious. Soderbergh has often been a filmmaker, much like David Fincher, who likes to look back at his work and talk about the problems that he sees and how he’d do things differently if he were to make the movie all over again. This must be a constant source of mental nagging and anguish for storytellers, as the best of them are always challenging themselves to make their movies better and more artistic. While I don’t agree with the criticisms that he throws at himself, I can respect him for having the hunger and desire to critically look at his own work from more than two decades ago and contemplate what he’d like to have a chance to redesign or reinterpret. But in its current form, King of the Hill stands as a serious, important work for Soderbergh as a craftsman, and easily rests as one of his finest overall efforts.