Love & Mercy is a very sad film about a very troubled person. I have to assume that this film is factually correct because it feels extremely well-researched, and I just can’t imagine the filmmakers inventing stuff simply to manufacture drama. I’m was not up to speed with Brian Wilson’s turbulent life and the events that surrounded the rise of the Beach Boys, so as such, the entire film was one surprise after another, and it’s a work that’s both illuminating and despairing in equal measure, much as life so often is for many people. This isn’t your routine biopic whatsoever, and one of the aspects I liked the most was that director Bill Pohlad (his second film in 25 years after years of producing, most notably The Tree of Life, 12 Years a Slave, and Into the Wild) and screenwriters Oren Moverman (Rampart, The Messenger) and Michael Lerner really showed you the intense creative process that goes into devising, writing, and performing music, especially for a guy like Wilson, who clearly had some savant stuff going on, and definitely was ahead of his time in terms of how he approached the task of artistic collaboration. There’s a fantastic sense of fidelity to the material that makes the entire piece feel very heartfelt and eye-opening, with some of the real-life recording stages being used for key scenes in this constantly probing film. I haven’t seen a better performance from John Cusack in years, as he paints a portrait of the older Wilson as extremely damaged goods, yet not without his glimmers of hope and ability to want to love. Paul Dano is absolutely fantastic portraying Wilson in his song writing and singing prime, yet still demonstrating the fact that his mental illness took root early on in life, no doubt spurred on by the abusive behavior of his father. Both actors fully commit to their impassioned performances, and as a result, the dual impressions of Wilson the artist and Wilson the man feel incredibly cohesive. Paul Giamatti is pure scum as a disingenuous “doctor” who duped Wilson out of happiness (and other things) for far too long, and the always wonderful Elizabeth Banks plays Wilson’s later-in-life love interest, a woman who fell in love and went to bat for Wilson, in an effort to help him turn his life around. Shot by the extremely talented cinematographer Robert Yeoman (all of Wes Anderson’s films, To Live and Die in LA), the film feels extremely California, with golden sunlight stretching across the colorful images, with smart, casually stylish framing in abundance as per usual for this incredible cameraman. Atticus Ross’s immersive score not only highlights the best of the Beach Boys but creates an unnerving quality that cuts to the heart of Wilson’s numerous psychological issues; the use of rising sounds followed by abrupt silence is used to maximum effect. This is an incredibly focused and expertly crafted film, especially for someone calling the shots for the first time in more than two decades, marking Pohlad as a major talent to watch out for in the future, should he wish to continue sitting in the most important seat on the set.
John Irvin’s take-no-shit war drama The Dogs of War is the sort of action picture rarely made these days — unsentimental, lean, and thoroughly engrossing (David Ayer’s underrated Fury feels cut from the same cloth, as do portions of Antoine Fuqua’s compromised Tears of the Sun). Gritty, violent, masculine, and shot with rugged panache by director of photography Jack Cardiff, this 1980 mercenary adventure has received the Blu-ray treatment from the fine folks at Twilight Time DVD Label and if you’re a fan of unpretentious, straight ahead war films, then check this one out. Christopher Walken and Tom Berenger deliver intense and extremely effective performances, with a surly and gruff supporting cast which included Colin Blakely, Hugh Millais, and Ed O’neil. Irvin would later direct the outstanding Vietnam film Hamburger Hill, 80’s classic Raw Deal, and the underrated Michael Caine thriller Shiner. According to the internet, Michael Cimino did a re-write on Gary DeVore and George Malko’s terse and disciplined script. The opening action sequence, which plunges the viewer into the middle a full scale Central American war-zone, is outstanding, especially for the days of zero CGI, with all sorts of for-real pyrotechnics and incredible stunt-work. The final act is essentially a battle, with some ridiculous fire-power on display. Geoffrey Burgon’s pulse-pounding score was more than up to the task. This is one of those excellent films that may have snuck through the cracks that’s totally worth re-discovering.
Veteran cinematographer Steven Poster, ASC has compiled a wide-ranging mix of theatrical and television credits throughout the years that stretch various genres and styles. After getting a start as a camera operator on Robert Altman’s brilliant 1978 comedy A Wedding, he moved into second unit work, getting a chance to cut his teeth on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner, Starman, and Big Trouble in Little China. In recent years, he’s developed a close working relationship with maverick indie director Richard Kelly on the cult classics Donnie Darko and Southland Tales, as well as the underrated sci-fi thriller The Box, which approximated the look and feel of the 1970’s in ways that few modern movies ever attempt. He shot the provocative Los Angeles sexual drama Spread from rising star director David Mackenzie (Perfect Sense and Starred Up), Ridley Scott’s 1987 neo-noir thriller Someone to Watch Over Me, audience favorite Rocky V, the subversive and totally wild sequel Big Top Pee Wee, and 80’s classics Strange Brew and The Boy Who Could Fly. In addition to his duties behind the camera, Steven currently serves as President of the International Cinematographers Guild, and in previous years, served as President of the American Society of Cinematographers. His upcoming projects for 2016 include the horror sequel Amityville: The Awakening, a new Richard Kelly movie, and the indie drama All Good Things. He’s an artist always looking to change it up with varying material and specific aesthetic choices, while always stressing smart control with imagery and a disciplined sense of camera placement.
Donnie Darko announced the arrival of the challenging filmmaker Richard Kelly, and the film became a calling card for the director, and for a generation of high school and college kids looking for something offbeat and unique. A big reason for the film’s overall level of success is the dreamy visual style that Poster brought to the project. Shot in 2.35:1 widescreen and frequently emphasizing the middle of the frame, the film has an ominous tone all throughout, with much of the story set at night, while Poster’s camera glides through one surreal cinematic moment after another, using slow-motion in a perfect fashion, heightening the emotional moments with force and purpose. Another Poster/Kelly collaboration is Southland Tales, the divisive, Dr. Strangelove-esque political and social satire that feels like 10 movies stuffed into one, with an aesthetic style that feels like a smart and logical extension from Donnie Darko, again maximizing the use of the widescreen space, filling the screen with hallucinatory images that wash over you like some sort of wild, psychedelic trip. The saturated colors favored by Poster in this film made the volatile world being presented in the narrative all the more seductive, while the final 30 minutes represent something of a stylistic freak-out on the part of everyone involved, with Poster emphasizing the otherworldly through lens flares, bold nocturnal images, with an exploding zeppelin and a floating ice-cream truck providing him with the opportunity to craft images that feel like nothing you’ve ever seen. And Poster’s work on Ridley Scott’s underappreciated thriller Someone to Watch Over Me is a clinic on how to shoot a neo-noir that never feels overly slavish to other genre entries, always taking cues from the past while imbuing it with a (for the time) slick and sexy visual style that feels oh-so-gloriously late 80’s in retrospect. Shadows, smoke, darkness, moonlight, neon, and all sorts of atmospherics played a big part in Poster’s overall mise-en-scene, and under the firm direction of Scott, Poster was able to craft one of the best looking films of his stellar career.
How can one accurately “review” Richard Kelly’s mind-bendingly crazy and divisive film Southland Tales? Kelly, whose debut was the incredibly enjoyable cult classic Donnie Darko, totally shot for the moon and back with his second directorial effort, which is filled with an insane amount of ambition and spontaneous sense of creativity. A sprawling, Los Angeles-based head-trip, Southland Tales feels like one of the most expensive experimental films ever made, bowing to zero concessions, devised by a mad scientist who often times feels like he’s making up new rules as he goes along. For some, Southland Tales will inevitably be a maddening viewing experience, especially upon first glance, but over the last few years, I’ve grown to absolutely love the movie, and I constantly feel compelled to revisit it. The film’s extra-packed midsection, at first, seemed purposefully meandering, but I’ve realized that it’s just extra dense, and requires some careful dissection. While some may feel that Kelly possibly bit off more than he could chew overall, it’s impossible to dismiss this film the way a majority of critics did, if for no other reason than it takes serious chances as a piece of storytelling, and because it’s a surreal, distinct vision that could only have come from a filmmaker with immense talent and a high level of chutzpah.
The film starts off in 2005, at a backyard, Fourth of July barbeque in Texas. Home video camera footage shows families playing with sparklers and eating hot dogs. Then, the unthinkable—a mushroom cloud can be seen in the horizon. An atomic bomb has been dropped in Abilene. The world is forever changed. We then jump three years into the future to Los Angeles; again, it’s July 4, but the world we knew is gone. Society stands on the brink of social, economic and environmental disaster. A fascist government is in control with big brother lurking everywhere. Boxer Santaros (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) is an action-movie star who’s stricken with amnesia. He crosses paths with a calculating porn star named Krysta Now (a sassy Sara Michelle Geller), who, among other things, is developing her own reality television project. The two of them concoct a movie idea that has Boxer set to play a cop. Meanwhile, good-guy police officer Ronald Taverner (an excellent Sean William Scott), agrees to allow Santaros to shadow him so he can get the feel for police life in an effort to turn in a convincing performance. But, it turns out that Taverner may hold the key to a vast conspiracy that nobody is ready to comprehend. There’s a lot more to Southland Tales than that. Radicals are stirring up a political uprising, using Venice beach and Santa Monica as their staging ground, while much of Los Angeles has been reduced to a DMZ. Armed soldiers monitor the beaches and streets with itchy trigger fingers. Then there’s the finale with two Roland Taverners, time-portals that open up into new dimensions, a floating ice cream truck, rocket launchers, and an exploding, futuristic zeppelin. There’s more…much more…but I’m at a loss to know how to summarize all of it. It’s a massive piece of filmmaking, going off on tangents and filling the frame with tons of visual detail (Kelly’s regular collaborator, the versatile Steven Poster, handled the aggressively stylish cinematography). This is a film that takes elements of political satire, post-apocalyptic nightmare, science-fiction fantasy, romantic drama, and movie-musical and throws them all into a blender and swirls them up into a wild smoothie of a movie.
Making all of these seemingly disparate threads add up to a cohesive whole had to have been a herculean task. This is a staggeringly original piece of work, filled with homages to classic films, while still operating as a unique vision all its own. While narratively stuffed at times, and with performances that veer this way one moment and the other way the next, Kelly’s film is never boring and is fascinating on many levels, mostly because Southland Tales is satirizing a world that doesn’t totally exist. Kelly created a frightening political and social landscape, one that in fact may not be too far away for all of us in reality. But by not basing his vision in any sort of fully realistic setting, the audience isn’t in on the joke as much as Kelly; he’s poking fun at a world that is removed from our own, and as such, the satire sometimes feels a bit esoteric. But that’s because Kelly truly KNOWS this world that he’s created. The performances are broad, and in many respects, over the top, but that was likely the directorial intention. The true acting surprise of the film was easily Sean William Scott, still best known at the time for his immortal role as “Stifler” in the American Pie franchise, and here, give the chance to be someone totally different from the lovable and immature clown that he so memorably portrayed. Granted, his character (much like the audience), spends most of the film in a fog of confusion, but the charm and ease that he brings to this zany movie is very effective and emotionally engaging. I always had the sneaking suspicion that there was more to him as an actor, and throughout much of Southland Tales, he makes good on that promise.
Please visit Bill’s website, to learn more about Bill and purchase his memoir, MY RAD CAREER and other RAD merchandise!
You wouldn’t have blamed a young Bill Allen if he had believed that the road to a thirty year career as an actor would be quick and easy. After all, his first few projects seemed to point towards early success. He earned his SAG card playing the lead in a movie where his supporting co-stars were Oscar winners, Hollywood legends, and two young unknowns named Miguel Ferrer and George Clooney; he had key roles in films by directors like Robert Altman and Oliver Stone; and he hung out with soon-to-be-famous actors like Lou Diamond Phillips, Brad Pitt, and Brandon Lee.
But Allen would ultimately find his career defined by a film that was barely seen when released and relegated by Hollywood to the VHS dustbin….where it became a classic and made Bill Allen a cult hero. Because Bill Allen, you see, is the guy who played Cru Jones. THE Cru Jones.
In case you weren’t a teenager obsessed with the growing sport of BMX (bicycle motocross) in the 1980s and early 1990s, it should be explained that Cru Jones was the hero of the film RAD, directed by the legendary Hal Needham (Smokey and the Bandit), a veteran widely regarded as the industry’s greatest creator of on-screen stunts. Though rather formulaic (and a bit laughable today for its distinctively 1980s styles), RAD featured elaborate and at the time revolutionary BMX stunts and riding performed by many of the pioneers of the movement at their prime. In the era before the X-Games and viral videos brought BMX to home screens, RAD showed young people all across the country how to execute (and not execute) moves that inspired a generation of extreme sport enthusiasts. Never mind that the film didn’t get a very wide release and poor reviews at the box-office: within a few years, RAD was one of the most-rented VHS films of all time. Teenagers who couldn’t afford to buy the film outright (this was in the days when VHS tapes sometimes retailed for $60 or more) rented it, watched it, and replayed it endlessly to study the stunts, as well as to revel in the underdog story of a bad kid made good by the sport of BMX.
“There are people who have named children Cru Jones,” says Allen with a laugh today, “boys and girls – I hear about one every week. There’s a porn star, and a boutique in Argentina named Cru Jones.” Now grown up, the kids who first rented RAD thirty years ago – like superfan Comedy Central host Daniel Tosh, who swore on the air that “Cru” has a place on his show as long as Tosh.O is on the air – have given Allen new moments in the spotlight, and allowed him to reflect on just what a strange journey a life in show business has afforded him.
Allen doesn’t deny that some good fortune allowed him to escape a somewhat grim world of limited possibilities in suburban Dallas, where he grew up. Never particularly ambitious – and prevented from playing sports or doing anything dangerous because of his smaller size – Allen had a family friend with a lofty idea about making a film about a jockey. Suddenly Allen’s size and interest in acting found him as the film’s unlikely lead on set in Kentucky. The director convinced legendary stage and screen performer Jose Ferrer, along with many other veteran notables, to take parts in the film, which lead to Ferrer bringing along his own two sons and nephew Clooney to make their own screen debuts. The film was never completed, but it also introduced Allen to veteran film actor Adam Rourke (The Stunt Man with Peter O’Toole are among his many credits). Looking for a way to make a sober living after a rough life in Hollywood, Rourke returned to Dallas along with Allen and began a film acting class that ran successfully for several years. It is there that Allen landed a role in Robert Altman’s acclaimed Streamers, and met lifelong friend Lou Diamond Phillips as a fellow member of Rourke’s class.
Upon arriving in Los Angeles, Allen was, in his own words, “young, with an agent, a SAG card, and a look I could exploit,” and quickly found work on television in shows such as Hotel, Amazing Stories, and Family Ties, and in a key role with opposite Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July. When Needham was casting RAD, a film to be co-produced by Talia Shire and co-starring recent Olympic gold medalist Bart Conner, he happened to catch an episode of Hill Street Blues that Allen guest starred in, and within a few days Allen was hired as the lead and off to Canada. Allen recently collected many of his stories, including many behind-the-scenes stories about the making and promotion of RAD, in his memoir, My RAD Life, where he explains the heady rush of making another major film, his disappointment in the film’s initial reception, and his eventual transition from hot new actor in town to a regular working professional.
A love for the stage led him to form a theatre company with friends Brandon Lee and writer/director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks), allowing him to not only refine his craft, but join a blues band for one aborted stage production. A longtime harmonica player and blues aficionado since childhood (Dallas was an is a hotbed of blues music, and Allen grew up idolizing locals like Stevie Ray Vaughn and T-Bone Walker), Allen’s band, the Pipefitters, toured nationally and performed several times on television, with old friend Lou Diamond Philips fronting the band. That love for music continues: recently Allen worked with his brother Sherman to produce and perform on a tribute CD (The King of Clubs) for longtime Texas bluesman Bugs Henderson.
RAD was in the rearview mirror for Allen, but came roaring back into view with the advent of social media. “I was blissfully unaware of what was going on with the movie,” remembers Allen, “because of my career in music, but something definitely was going on.” Because RAD has never been available on DVD (and VHS copies are increasingly rare), fans often arranged special screenings and invited Allen to attend. At one such screening, director Needham (who passed away in 2013), noted to Allen that of all the films he had ever made, RAD had the most remarkable and profound impact over time. That’s reflected in the film’s current rating on “Rotten Tomatoes.” Though saddled with a “0%” rating from the few critics who reviewed the film, it has an amazing “91%” from fans and “amateur” critics – the most profound discrepancy in the website’s database of over 10,000 films.
For the last several years, Allen has been content working on his music and making a life with his wife, Carol, as well as doing regular acting work (he was seen in an episode of Breaking Bad and has appeared twice on Tosh.O). But recently, he’s found great peace and good fortune in embracing the role that was almost forgotten in a film that refuses to be. “I own the batsuit, and they can’t take it away from me,” he jokes. He plays a key role in a new BMX-themed film Heroes of Dirt, directed by one of the RAD generation, Eric Bugbee. Released in US theatres in the fall, it will make it to DVD and VOD on December 8.
Allen, Bugbee and the Heroes of Dirt production team are also deep into developing a new film inspired by RAD. That’s going to mean getting back on the bike – he’s busy studying both motorcycle and BMX with longtime pro Martin Aparijo (one of the stunt bikers featured in the original RAD), determined to do more of his own stunts this time around. He’s also developing a traveling BMX / 80s Rock live performance tour, combining nostalgia and extreme biking for a whole new generation of fans. Not bad for the kid who wasn’t allowed to ride a bike – but now counts airplane piloting and power-parachuting among his hobbies. On or off his bike, there’s no question that Allen is always going to find someone who wants to meet the real Cru Jones – and he’s happy to give the people what they want.
Tim Orr is one of the busiest cinematographers currently working in Hollywood, having amassed 40 credits over the last 15 years, putting his distinct touch on both comedies and dramas, always knowing how to approach every visual situation with an organic and naturalistic quality. He’s the director of photography of choice for eclectic, can’t-pin-him-down filmmaker David Gordon Green, having shot all of the versatile director’s films, along with pairing up with a diverse field of directing talent on a terrific mix of studio and indie material. Tim has worked on some of the best comedies over the last few years, including the instant stoner classic Pineapple Express from DGG, Jody Hill’s brilliant satire Observe and Report, the underrated end-of-times comedy Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, and Mike White’s charming black comedy The Year of the Dog. He’s also no stranger to dramas, having collaborated with DGG on the gritty Nicolas Cage film Joe, the dreamy Zooey Deschanel romance All the Real Girls, the Terrence Malick produced southern thriller Undertow, and film festival favorite George Washington. He’s also dabbled in television, with credits that include HBO’s hilarious water-cooler sensation Eastbound and Down, and he recently shot the pilot for the upcoming comedy Red Oaks for Amazon Originals, which was exec produced by Steven Soderbergh. In late October, his newest feature film hits the big screen – the highly anticipated Sandra Bullock political comedy Our Brand is Crisis – which was produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, and could be a factor in the year end awards season. He’s also got the Netflix original film Pee Wee’s Big Holiday, which marks the return of Paul Reubens as Pee Wee Herman(!), which is set for release in March of 2016. Orr is one of those tremendously talented cameramen who can switch back and forth, effortlessly, between genres and styles, and it will be exciting to see where his career goes from here after establishing such an interesting and varied body of work.
Snow Angels is certainly a bleak, sad film, with an uncompromising ending that’s both upsetting yet somehow cathartic. This isn’t a film I would recommend if you’re easily upset by realistic tragedy and tough stories about familial dysfunction. Orr shot with hand held cameras, draining the image of eye-popping color, and in tandem with the snowy and extra-cold atmosphere which worked perfectly with the story’s themes of anxiety and desperation, the film feels lived-in and entirely convincing. In the unique item Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Orr brought his usual brand of on-the-fly camerawork to the story but had the chance to shoot in vibrant widescreen, stressing bold color saturation in an effort to heighten the emotional fragility of the panicked characters. Nobody gave this movie any credit for having so much odd charm and looking at the end of the world with a unique and funny spin, and Orr was able to craft a film that felt big even though it always remained intimate. Filmmakers have been obsessed with capturing the mood and spirit of young love for years, and with the poetic, sad, and beautiful film All the Real Girls, director David Gordon Green tapped into the heartstrings of a young, inexperienced woman who is learning to love for the first time (Zooey Deschanel in her wonderful breakout performance) and an older lothario who just so happens to fall in love with the sister of his best friend (co-writer Paul Schneider). This is a small-town movie with perfect, small-town flavor, and Orr brought a lyrical, Malick-esque sense of visual poetry to this boldly romantic film via exquisitely framed compositions, naturalistic lighting, and an emphasis on long takes that heighten the dramatic mood at almost every turn. Anyone who has ever fallen in love, had their heart broken, been excited by the possibilities of a new romantic partner, or been confused as to what they want in life, will find this movie to be a potent summation of all of our fears, desires, and longings when it comes to finding that special someone. And a huge reason for its success is the dynamic way in which Orr captured every singe scene, stressing an inherently homespun quality that makes the film feel all the more believable and honest.
I recently had two viewings of Queen of Earth on successive nights and the film has stuck with me ever since. This one won’t be for everyone. It’s challenging, it’s uncompromising, and it features a riveting lead performance from the stunningly talented actress Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men, Top of the Lake) that will leave you emotionally drained by the end of the 90 minute run time. Up and coming filmmaker Alex Ross Perry (last year’s bitterly funny Listen Up Philip, which also s…tarred Moss) could do a lot worse than be wholly inspired by Robert Altman’s one of a kind masterpiece 3 Women, and even if Queen of Earth isn’t on that level (NOTHING could ever be…) I’d rather see a young talent emulating Altman as opposed to half-dozen other filmmakers I won’t mention. This is the sort of film that isn’t really “about” anything tangible, but rather, it’s an intensely internalized piece of storytelling that holds at its center the chance for an actress to go to some genuinely pained places as an artist. And it’s unquestionably one of the most unique films I’ve seen all year, a bold piece of work that feels crafted by a smart group of collaborators who knew exactly the story they wanted to tell.
There’s an unnerving quality to much of the film, due largely in part to the ominous score by Keegan DeWitt and the measured, highly stylized cinematography by Sean Price Williams. The elliptical editing by Robert Greene only intensifies the unpredictability and vulnerability being demonstrated by Moss, and the sense of uncertainty being felt by Waterston. Perry’s film centers on Catherine (Moss), a psychologically fragile woman who is still suffering the traumatic effects of her father’s recent suicide, who reconnects with an old friend (Katherine Waterston, making good on her promise from Inherent Vice) at a cabin in the woods, trying to calm her life down. But that’s not going to happen. It’s pretty clear from the get-go that this isn’t going to happen. So you just watch as Moss presents the ultimate portrait of a person coming apart at the seams, unable to gather her thoughts coherently, and the way that Perry doles out implied backstory and various narrative clues demands that viewers actively engage with the film rather than passively experiencing it. I have a lot of respect and admiration for the filmmaking, for Moss, and for the overall ambition on display, but it’s a film that will likely leave many people feeling uncomfortable, if for no other reason than it literally feels like you’re a secret guest to a mental breakdown, which is something that many individuals just won’t want to deal with when deciding what movie to watch on a Friday night.