Remembering Flight of the Navigator with Randal Kleiser by Kent Hill

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I was still a boy, and there was no such thing as a multiplex in sight the night I saw Flight of the Navigator.

I remember what was then the Russell Street theatre. A relatively new cinema built as its aged counterpart, The Strand, had slipped into disrepair. I remember the smell of the new carpet mixing with the popcorn, how the place always seemed packed, as two lines of movie-goers had to snake around both sides of the block to line up.

But it was a quiet Friday night when I went with my Mum to see Randal Kleiser’s new movie. From the poster, which was all you had to go on back in those days, it looked like one heck of a ride. Another boy meets an alien movie in the wake of the monumental achievement that was E.T. But let’s not descend into comparisons,  such is the way of the industry. Like Dante’s Explorers, Flight of the Navigator is an ingenious blending of many great elements. It begins as a movie about a family, about two brothers. Then we fall into a time travel story that sees our hero transported eight years into a future where he is presumed to be dead. This is further compounded by the fact that he has not aged a day. Thus the testing begins, a search for the heart of the mystery. The testing reveals the hero’s head is filled alien information and that he had been selected as a specimen to study on a far-flung planet in a distant galaxy. The boy is then taken by NASA scientists to be scrutinized further. This is where the boy meets alien story begins and our hero takes off inside a spacecraft in an adventure, not only to help the alien return home, but to once more, travel back in time and get home himself.

That’s a fairly vague overview I know. But I always take into account that there may yet be someone out there that has not seen the movie. That being the chase, I have no desire to spoil it for them.

After I saw the movie I wanted to write Randal Kleiser a letter, which I did, telling him what a marvelous movie I thought he’d made. I did not know where to send it, so my Dad looked up the address of Walt Disney Pictures and we mailed it together.

I know now Mr. Kleiser never got my letter, because thirty years later I got to call him on the phone and tell him just that – what a marvelous movie I thought and still think Flight of the Navigator is.

I hope you’ll enjoy our interview  you dumb dork! Buttface! Scuz-bucket! Ha-ha!

P.S. –

If you would like further information on the Nina Foch DVD or course please follow this link: http://www.ninafochproject.com/

MARVEL’S THE AVENGERS – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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The Avengers (2012) was the culmination of an ambitious project that was carefully planned by Marvel Studios over several years and spans several films utilizing characters, both major and minor, from each. While the notion of a shared universe with characters from one franchise appearing in another is a relatively novel idea in film, it is nothing new in comic books where costumed superheroes cross-pollinate all the time and even contribute to a larger story (see Secret Wars II). With Iron Man (2008), Marvel decided to do in film what they’ve been doing in comic books for decades. Its commercial success paved the way for subsequent adaptations of The Incredible Hulk (2008), Thor (2011) and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), each one featuring a scene that hinted at something bigger and it has finally arrived with The Avengers, which features heroes from all of these films banding together to form a super team of sorts.

The challenge that Marvel faced was to find a director that could successfully bring all of these wildly different heroes together and also handle the movie stars playing them. Up to that point, Marvel had employed journeymen studio directors like Jon Favreau (Iron Man 1 & 2), Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk) and Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger). But with Kenneth Branagh directing Thor, it was the first time the company had hired someone with auteurist sensibilities since Ang Lee and his fascinatingly flawed yet ultimately ill-fated take on the Hulk in 2003. And so, the hiring of Joss Whedon to direct The Avengers surprised some. With only one feature film on his resume – the cult film darling Serenity (2005), and known mostly for his television work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, its spin-off Angel and sci-fi western Firefly, there was some question if he could handle a $200+ million blockbluster populated with movie stars.

Whedon got his start as a screenwriter and honed his chops over the years on T.V. sitcoms and as a prolific and often uncredited script doctor (Speed, Twister, etc.), but more importantly were his hardcore comic book fan credentials, having actually written a brief run for The X-Men, so he knew how they worked in terms of dialogue, plotting and depicting visual action – perhaps the most important criteria for The Avengers gig. It was a calculated risk that paid off as the film amassed an impressive box office result and received strong critical response.

The Tesseract, a powerful energy source that was featured prominently in both Thor and Captain America, has activated itself and appears to be trying to open a portal to outer space. Sure enough, exiled Norse god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) arrives with the intention of using it to take control of Earth and enslave its inhabitants. To this end, he brainwashes brilliant physicist Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and S.H.I.E.L.D. (a top secret government organization) operative Clint Barton a.k.a. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to help him do his bidding. This doesn’t sit too well with S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and he decides to enlist Earth’s mightiest heroes to stop Loki.

This includes Russian super spy Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) who quickly finishes her “interrogation” of Russian gangsters to approach Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a philanthropic scientist now staying “off the grid” by working in the slums of India and trying hard not to unleash his Hulk persona, a being with superhuman strength that is off the charts. Captain America (Chris Evans) has been thawed out since being trapped in ice at the end of World War II and is still trying to sort things out with Fury’s help. S.H.I.E.L.D. also approaches Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), interrupting his work on a clean energy source. Norse god of thunder Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Loki’s adoptive brother, is the wild card, arriving out of nowhere to intervene when Iron Man and Captain America attempt to capture him, resulting in an impressive skirmish. This all builds up to a spectacular climactic battle between Loki and an alien army that comes swarming out of the portal created by the Tesseract and the Avengers.

With the unfortunate exception of Jeremy Renner, the entire cast gets a chance to flex their acting chops the best they can between massive action set pieces. Mark Ruffalo, the third person to play Banner after Eric Bana and Edward Norton, really nails the human side of his character, playing him as slightly twitchy and paranoid drifter. He appears confident (because, hey, he can turn into the Hulk) yet distracted – a jumble of emotions. This is easily the best representation of the Hulk on film, both visually in terms of CGI and also how he’s portrayed – as a rampaging monster – the Mr. Hyde to Banner’s Dr. Jekyll.

Not surprisingly, Robert Downey Jr. gets the lion’s share of the funny quips – he was born to spout Whedon’s witty dialogue. It is a nice return to form after the cluttered rush job that was Iron Man 2 (2010). Based on Whedon’s perchance for having prominent strong-willed female characters in his projects, Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow gets a beefed up role and proves to be an integral part of the team. Not only does she show off a considerable physical prowess but she also holds her own against the likes of Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo.

Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth carry on with their characters from their respective films without missing a beat, each adding their own unique flavor to the team. In particular, Evans does a good job when Captain America steps up and takes tactical control during the war in New York while Hemsworth has some nice moments with Tom Hiddleston as warring brothers who just happen to be gods.

The Avengers is chock full of eye candy for comic book fans, from the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier to actually seeing superheroes fight each other – something, oddly enough, you don’t see in most films but that happens all the time in the comics. It is pretty cool to see the likes of Thor, Iron Man and Captain America duke it out while engaging in playful superhero banter. Unlike the other Marvel films starting with and including Iron Man, Whedon creates a real sense of danger for our heroes. There’s a feeling that they might fail and this tension is thrilling because it is so rare in these kinds of films, except maybe The Dark Knight (2008). It also raises the stakes when Whedon’s film needs it because there is a real sense that the Avengers are fighting for something tangible. He gives them something personal to fight for than just the usual let’s save the world goal. This culminates in the climactic battle in New York City between Loki and his alien army and the Avengers in one thrilling sequence after another, each filled with large-scale slugfests. The choreography during this massive battle is top notch. There is never any confusion as to what is happening and where, which is quite refreshing. The end result is pure, unfiltered comic book geek nirvana.

avengers2The Avengers falls rather nicely within Whedon’s wheelhouse as it is all about a group of misfits that band together to save the world from a great evil, just like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and so on. It doesn’t get any more disparate than a Norse god, a billionaire playboy, a World War II super soldier, a brilliant scientist, and two spies. Like much of the aforementioned work, the heroes in The Avengers bicker and fight amongst themselves but when the need to step up for the greater good arises, they put their differences aside and make a stand together. Loki continues in the tradition of eloquent Whedon villains who are incredibly confident because, well, in his case he wields great power and knows it. However, Loki isn’t just out to rule the world. For him, there is a personal component – he seeks vengeance for the slights he feels were incurred in Thor. This film was a great way to kick off the summer blockbuster season in 2012 and is a potent reminder of what a filmmaker who knows how comic book works can do if given the chance. The result is a smart, witty film that is a throwback to entertaining, crowd-pleasing comic book adaptations like Superman: The Movie (1978) and Batman (1989).

David Fincher’s Zodiac: A Review by Nate Hill

  
David Fincher’s Zodiac is the finest film he has ever brought us, and one of the most gut churning documentations of a serial killer’s crimes ever put on celluloid. Fincher has no interest in fitting his narrative into the Hollywood box or sifting through the details of the real life crimes to remove anything that doesn’t follow established formula. He plumbs the vast case files and sticks rigidly to detail, clinging to ambiguity the whole way through and welcoming the eerie lack of resolution we arrive at with open arms. That kind of diligence to true life events is far more scary than any generic, assembly line plot turns twisted into stale shape by the writer (and studio breathing down their neck, no doubt). No, Fincher sticks to the chilling details religiously, starkly recreating every revelation in the Zodiac killer case with the kind of patience and second nature style of direction that leads to huge atmospheric payoff and a hovering sense of unease that continues to make the film as effective today as the day it was released. A massive troupe of actors are employed to portray the various cops, journalists, victims and pursuers involved with the killer during the 1970’s in San Francisco, the film unfolding in episodic form and giving each performer their due, right down to the juicy cameos and bit parts. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Rob Graysmith, a news reporter who becomes intrigued and eventually obsessed with the cryptic puzzles which the Zodiac taunts the bay area with by sending them in to the paper. Mark Ruffalo is Charlie Toschi, dogged police investigator who is consumed by the hunt. The third leg of the acting tripod is Robert Downey Jr as Paul Avery, another journalist who takes the failure in capturing the killer a little harder than those around him. The film dances eerily along a true crime path populated by many people who veered in and out of the killers path including talk show host Melvin Belli (a sly Brian Cox) , another intrepid cop (Anthony Edwards), his superior officer (Dermot Mulroney) and so many more. For such an expansive and complicated story it’s all rather easy to keep track if, mainly thanks to Fincher’s hypnotic and very concise direction, grabbing you like a noose, tightening and then letting you go just when you feel like you have some answers. While most of the film examines the analytical nature of the investigation, there are a few scenes which focus on the killings themselves and let me tell you they are some of the most hair raising stuff you will ever see. The horror comes from the trapped animal look in the victims eyes as they try rationalize the inevitability, with Fincher forcing you to accept the reality of such acts. One sequence set near a riverbank veers into nightmare mode. Every stab is felt by the viewer, every bit of empathy directed to the victims and every ounce of fear felt alongside them. It can’t quite be classified as horror outright, but there are scenes that dance circles around the best in the genre, and are the most disturbing things to climb from the crevice of Fincher’s work. They’re nestled in a patient bog of studious detective work, blind speculation and frustrating herrings, which make them scarier than hell when they do show up out of nowhere. Adding to the already epic cast are Jimmi Simpson, Chloe Sevigny, Elias Koteas, John Carroll Lynch, Donal Logue, Pell James, Philip Baker Hall, John Terry, Zach Grenier and a brief cameo from Clea Duvall. I think the reason the film works so well and stands way above the grasp of so many other thrillers like it is because of its steadfast resolve to tell you exactly what happened, urge you to wonder what the missing pieces might reveal should they ever come to light, and deeply unsettle you with the fear of the undiscovered, something which never fails to ignite both curiosity and dread in us human beings.

TROPIC THUNDER – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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For the years leading up to Tropic Thunder (2008), Ben Stiller had been coasting on his patented, one-note neurotic doormat shtick in films like Night at the Museum (2006), The Heartbreak Kid (2007), and others. What happened to the guy who could play a self-destructive junkie screenwriter in Permanent Midnight (1998) and a dorky romantic in There’s Something About Mary (1998)? Stiller, at times, is more interesting behind the camera as director of the Generation X comedy Reality Bites (1994), the black comedy about stalking and television, The Cable Guy (1996), and the hilarious fashion world satire Zoolander (2001).

With Tropic Thunder, Stiller returned to being behind the camera (and also in front of it) and decided to take on the Vietnam War sub-genre. In an odd way, we have Oliver Stone to thank for this film. Not just because he made Platoon (1986), which really popularized the sub-genre, but he also rejected Stiller when he auditioned for a role in the film. Stiller never forgot it and now he’s parlayed those feelings of rejection into a film that not only lampoons war films but Hollywood in general.

Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is an action film star on the decline, still flogging his Scorcher franchise – films that resemble a cross between something Tom Cruise might do and Roland Emmerich’s brain-dead special effects epics. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) stars in low-brow comedies filled with fart jokes that allow him to play multiple characters a la Eddie Murphy (Norbit, anyone?). Australian actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) is a five-time Academy Award winner who appears in “serious” films that win all of the important awards just like Russell Crowe.

They are all starring in a Vietnam War movie called Tropic Thunder that is currently being made on location in South Vietnam. The production is on the verge of being in the kind of trouble that almost consumed Apocalypse Now (1979) as Lazarus is upstaging Speedman. First-time director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) can’t control his actors, which is causing the movie to go behind schedule, much to the chagrin of Les Grossman (Tom Cruise), the blustery, Harvey Weinstein-esque head of the studio.

In an effort to save the movie, Cockburn takes the five main actors to a remote jungle area to shoot a bunch of scenes guerrilla-style only to stumble across a rag-tag group of Vietnamese drug runners who assume that the clueless movie stars are actually DEA agents. At first, Speedman and his co-stars think that this is all part of the production but they (except for Speedman) quickly realize that this is for real.

Robert Downey Jr. was rightly praised for his hilarious performance as an actor who goes so deep into character that he undergoes “pigmentation alteration” surgery to darken his skin in order play an African American soldier. Downey’s commitment to the role is almost as dedicated as Lazarus’ and he gets some of the film’s best lines, including such gems as “Man, I don’t drop character ’till I done the DVD commentary,” and “I know who I am. I’m the dude playin’ the dude, disguised as another dude!”

It’s not too hard to figure out the real-life Hollywood power players that Stiller’s film satirizes with Cruise’s Grossman channeling the abusive reputation of the aforementioned Weinstein and Downey poking fun at the way-too serious on-and-off-screen antics of Crowe. Unlike all of those Scary Movie spoofs, Stiller understands that a good satire plays it straight on the surface. Admittedly, he’s got a much bigger budget to play with ($100 million+) than any two of those dime-a-dozen spoof movies so he’s able to hire the likes of A-list cinematographer John (The Thin Red Line) Toll and cast marquee name actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Black instead of C-listers like Carmen Electra to make Tropic Thunder look like the slick war films he is sending up. Of course, the danger in doing this is to become the very thing you’re trying to parody, but fortunately Stiller doesn’t fall into this trap.

Every generation needs a Mel Brooks and Stiller takes up where the legendary comedian left off – before he became irrelevant and painfully unfunny. Stiller goes after the usual suspects of the genre: Platoon, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter (1978), and even a sly reference to a scene from Predator (1987), but Tropic Thunder is more than a game of spot-the-reference that spoof movies tend to devolve into. It actually has something to say other than Hollywood is excessive. This is one of Stiller’s most ambitious film to date and demonstrated that he can play in the same big leagues that fellow comedian-turned-filmmaker Jon Favreau has also graduated to with Iron Man (2008). They both started off with very modest films and have shown a very definite learning curve with each subsequent film they’ve helmed. Tropic Thunder has everything you’d want from a big budget, R-rated comedy.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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It has been said that 2016 marks the deconstruction phase of the comic book superhero genre what with Deadpool turning it on its ear with a healthy dose of postmodern irreverence. It also saw two movies that addressed the very heroic nature of these larger than life characters, first with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and then Captain America: Civil War. Both movies featured iconic superheroes in conflict with each other while also addressing the effect they have on the world. How does the general populace react to them and, more importantly, how do those in positions of authority react to them? The latter in both movies – not so well. Should superheroes be governed and if so by whom? Should they be held accountable for the massive destruction incurred from their world-saving battles? These two movies address these questions in very different yet intriguing ways.

Civil War
takes the basic story from the 2006-2007 Marvel Comics limited series of the same name, written by Mark Millar and penciled by Steve McNiven, and uses it as a springboard to address narrative threads introduced in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). Civil War intertwines two primary storylines: Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) track down elusive assassin the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), and the continuing animosity between Cap and Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), which finally reaches a critical mass when they disagree over the creation of an international governing body to watch over and control the Avengers, splintering the team into two camps – those on Cap’s side and those on Iron Man’s. This culminates in an epic battle between both sides.

Civil War
starts off with a bang as Cap and his new Avengers team comprised of Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Falcon and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) as they track down and stop Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo), the Hydra agent who has now become supervillain Crossbones, from stealing a biological weapon in Lagos. For Rumlow, it’s a personal vendetta as he blames Cap for almost dying in the collapse of the S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters in The Winter Soldier. This is a recurring theme throughout the movie: deeply personal motivations for why characters do what they do.

Meanwhile, the individual human cost of battles like the one in Sokovia at that climax of Age of Ultron weighs heavily on Tony as do the people that died during the Crossbones mission on Cap. To make matters worse, United States Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) meets with the Avengers to inform them that the United Nations is preparing legislation that will sanction their future actions. He considers them all dangerous and is concerned that they continue to operate unchecked, showing them a greatest hits montage of carnage that ensued during their battles. He gives them a choice: come on board with this legislation or retire.

Tony feels guilt over the ramifications of his actions – what with helping to create Ultron and all – and that of the Avengers and backs the sanctions along with Vision (Paul Bettany), War Machine (Don Cheadle), and Black Widow. Cap argues that signing this legislation will take away their right to choose. What if the U.N. sends them somewhere they don’t want to go or shouldn’t go? Where does it all end? Things for Cap only get more complicated when the Winter Soldier, who is actually Cap’s childhood friend Bucky now a brainwashed killer, is responsible for the death of T’Challa a.k.a. Black Panther’s (Chadwick Boseman) father. Meanwhile, the mysterious Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) is quietly plotting something big and it involves the Winter Soldier.

While this movie seems plot-heavy, it moves along briskly, punctuated with kinetic action sequences, like an exciting chase through the streets of Bucharest as Cap tries to capture Bucky alive while preventing Black Panther from killing him. It starts off as a dynamic foot race and then ramps up to vehicles that rivals the chase early on in The Winter Soldier. Much like with that movie, directors Anthony and Joe Russo have a real knack for orchestrating kinetic action sequences that create an almost palpable sense of danger for our heroes because so much is at stake. It doesn’t hurt that they wisely enlisted the help of Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, directors of the dynamic action revenge thriller John Wick (2014), to choreograph some of this mayhem.

This culminates in the epic airport battle teased in all the movie’s trailers and ads. It is everything they promised and more. This is easily the best action sequence in any of the Marvel movies since The Avengers (2012). It’s epic, visceral and loaded with several mini-battles as hero fights hero. We also get to see the new Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and he’s everything you’d want him to be – full of funny quips, nerdy and more than capable of holding his own with the likes of Cap and co. only he lacks the battle-hardened experience. This is easily the best cinematic incarnation of the webslinger since Spider-Man 2 (2004). On Cap’s side, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) pops up to lending a helping hand and offer a slew of his own funny one-liners and a cool surprise in the heat of the battle.

There are deeply personal stakes for several of the characters in Civil War, from Black Panther’s desire to get revenge for the death of his father, to Tony’s guilt over the death of a young man in Sokovia, to Cap and his friendship with Bucky. All of these things are powerful motivators for what they do in the movie and supersede accords and sanctions. Initially, there was some concern that the inclusion of all these characters would create an overly stuffed movie but on the contrary the Russo brothers found a way organically integrate newcomers like Black Panther and Spider-Man and use their appearances as a springboard for their upcoming standalone movies.

In a nice contrast to past Marvel villains, Zemo is a more cunning, understated menace whose endgame isn’t readily apparent and only reveals itself towards the end at a crucial moment just before the exciting climax where Cap and Tony have it out one last time. The filmmakers mess around with the formula on this one. Whereas Age of Ultron featured yet another super baddie bent on world domination, Civil War features a villain that wants something that isn’t on an epic scale. He wants revenge and has a very definite agenda that only gradually reveals itself over the course of the movie in a wonderfully understated way that makes quite a gut-punching impact when it is finally unveiled to our heroes.

DC – this is how you do a battle with superheroes. Once again, Civil War demonstrates how far behind DC is from Marvel in terms of superhero movies on every level. Unlike Batman v Superman and even their own Age of Ultron, the filmmakers of Civil War do a great job of juggling this large cast of characters, giving everyone their moment to say something cool/funny and do something cool or significant without forgetting that the movie is ultimately about Cap and the arc of his character so that he goes from being a patriot in The First Avenger (2011) to an insurgent in Civil War. It’s his story and it’s a personal one. It is really a marvel of narrative juggling that succeeds where even the overstuffed Age of Ultron came precariously close to collapsing under its own ambitions. It is quite an accomplishment and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely should be commended on a good job.

So many movie trilogies tend to end a weak third installment that tries to tie up all the loose narrative threads created in the previous incarnations while going bigger in scale while losing sight of what made them so good in the first place (i.e. Return of the Jedi, Spider-Man 3 and The Dark Knight Rises). At the heart of Civil War is Cap’s friendship with Bucky. It’s a thread that has run through all of the Captain America movies, culminating with this one where it is put to the ultimate test. This relationship is also the most satisfying aspect of this excellent movie because it is also the most compelling thing about it. Civil War manages to be simultaneously epic in scale in terms of how what happens affects so many characters and intimate in the sense of Cap’s journey over these movies. The filmmakers never let us forget that at its heart, the movie is about Cap and Bucky’s lifelong friendship. That gives us something to care about amidst all the carnage.

Robert Atman’s The Gingerbread Man: A Review by Nate Hill

  

Robert Altman’s The Gingerbread Man isn’t the director’s best, but it’s worth a looky-loo just to see this solid cast cavort around in a sweltering Georgia atmosphere and play out a narrative that’s part sultry seduction thriller and part hard boiled whodunit. I remember watching it and going ‘meh, I’ve seen this type of thing a thousand times and this one didn’t raise the bar at all.’ I’m thinking now that perhaps my mindset was in the wrong space, and that Altman set out to simply bring us the romantic murder mystery in its purest form, without deviation or higher ambitions. In that case he’s made a neat little potboiler with a suitably ludicrous ending, some truly effective red herrings and a really great troupe of actors, so,e going nicely against type. The multitalented Kenneth Branagh plays suave Georgia lawyer Rick MacGruder, who finds himself in deep trouble when he has an affair with sexy, slinky and shady Mallory Doss (the very underrated Embeth Davidz). She’s a good enough girl, but she has a backwoods nutcase of a father named Dixon (Robert Duvall being uber strange and loving every second of it) who is stalking and threatening her. Dixon is a bedraggled, cult-leading swamp rat and Duvall plays him to the frenzied hilt of uncomfortable ticks and unkempt theatrics. MacGruder, being smitten with Mallory, is of course compelled to use his legal and personal power to help her, and concocts a convoluted scheme involving a subpoena to Mallory’s belligerent ex husband Pete Randle (a cranky Tom Berenger blusters about in the third act). This of course sets off all kinds of back door motivations and sweaty double crosses that are hard to keep track of until all is revealed in the final act, prompting a collective audience reaction of “huh??”. It’s all in good fun though and at times it seems like Altman is deliberately dipping into B movie territory just to shirk his high art mantle and spice up this gumbo with some trashy, lowbrow flavour. I say bring it, that’s exactly the way to my heart. Writing this review I’m now realizing I probably like this film way more than my ending statement might suggest, but sometimes we need to hash it all out on paper (or in this case a cramped iPad keyboard) to reevaluate our perception of a certain piece. The cast gets juicier, with Robert Downey Jr. doing a quick bit as Macgruder’s slick buddy who works as a private investigator for the law office, Daryl Hannah and Famke Janssen as Rick’s jilted wife as well. It’s based on a John Grisham novel, and Altman seems to be the first director to adapt his work with a ramped up style and personal flair that goes beyond the academic thrills on the page. This one feels heightened, sultry and oh so sweaty in the way that only a southern set thriller can be. Cool stuff. 

WONDER BOYS – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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Wonder Boys (2000) is a redemptive tale of a college professor in the midst of a mid-life crisis. It is a film about faded glory and people past their prime. Curtis Hanson’s film is the kind of small, oddball little tale with a decidedly off-kilter, dark sense of humor and a cast of eccentric characters. It was a bit hit with critics but never quite connected with a mainstream audience due in part to a bungled initial promotional campaign that clearly did not know how to convey the quirky tone of the film into an easily digestible soundbite.

Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) is a burnt out English professor that wrote a much celebrated novel entitled, The Arsonist’s Daughter, but has since been having a hard time with his follow-up. He keeps writing and writing with no end in sight (current page count sits at around 2,100+ pages). His young wife has left him and he’s sleeping with his boss’ wife, Sara Gaskill (Frances McDormand), who is also the Chancellor of the university where he works. His long-suffering editor Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.) is in town to take a look at the book. He maintains a “what me, worry?” façade but is in danger of losing his job unless he can find a potential best seller and applies subtle but definite pressure on Grady. The professor has also taken under his wing a brilliant but troubled student, James Leer (Tobey Maguire), from his creative writing class. He’s a tortured artist wannabe as evident from his habit of sitting in an empty, dark classroom. He is also ostracized by his classmates who resent his ability to write.

Producer Scott Rudin gave Michael Chabon’s book to screenwriter Steve Kloves. At first, he wasn’t interested – he hadn’t written a word in four years and had never adapted a novel before – but while reading the novel he connected with the material, “and a sort of kinship with Michael Chabon’s tone and the way he looked at his characters, with all their flaws, with a real generous spirit,” he said. Initially, Kloves agreed to adapt the book and talk about directing it but two and half years into working on the screenplay, he decided not to direct. After the success of L.A. Confidential (1997), Hanson was working on a script of his own and reading other scripts with a keen interest for his next film to be a comedy. Actress Elizabeth McGovern once advised him to work with Kloves and was given his screenplay. He was told that Michael Douglas was interested in playing Grady and was impressed by the way in which the characters were presented and “the lack of judgment on their actions and eccentricities.” In addition, Hanson “fell in love with these characters – and they made me laugh.”

Hanson told Rudin, “it’s too bad you can’t have Jean Renoir or Hal Ashby direct this.” Once Hanson was attached to direct, Kloves met with him and was relieved that they were both on the same page in terms of their approach to the material. Chabon encouraged Kloves to make the material his own and this included changing Grady’s Jewish in-laws to gentiles. Additional changes were made once Hanson came on board. For example, he felt that James Leer would be a fan of Douglas Sirk’s films as opposed to Frank Capra as he is in the novel. The studio wasn’t interested in making a quirky, character-driven comedy/drama until Michael Douglas agreed to work well below his usual large fee. One of the challenges for Hanson was to take a plot that he called “meandering and, apparently, sort of aimless,” and a character that “does things that even he doesn’t really know why he’s doing them,” and try to create a “feeling of focus” to keep the audience interested. Another challenge was working on actual locations in very cold weather and constantly changing conditions.

Hanson’s other concern was if Douglas would be willing to take on the role without a hint of vanity but also do it in a truthful way and not in a way that would draw attention to the fact that he was playing an unattractive character. To his credit, the actor disappears completely into this role. He’s not the first person you’d think of to play Grady. When he tries too hard to be funny it can come across as pompous, but he tones it down here and looks completely at ease, comfortable as the frumpy Grady. Douglas hits just the right notes of world-weary cynicism but with a romantic streak buried underneath. For the veteran actor it’s an unglamorous role – he gained 25 pounds for the role, eating pizza, subs and drank a lot of beer. He always looks rumpled, unshaven with unkempt hair and often wearing a ratty old housecoat when he writes. Grady has the capacity to do something about his miserable lot in life and during the course of the film his character undergoes a fascinating arc. In some ways, Grady is a pot-smoking burn-out like the Dude from The Big Lebowski (1998) only with slightly more ambition. He lives outside of normal society in the rarified atmosphere of academia — puttering around, writing his novel and teaching his writing class, but when he crosses paths with James Leer, Grady realizes that he’s got to change.

Wonder Boys
also marked a break-out role for Tobey Maguire. Before he garnered massive mainstream exposure with Spider-Man (2002), he was known mostly for roles in small, independent films. Like everyone else in the cast, he has his memorable moments, like when his character laughs at Q’s (Rip Torn) pretentious speech at Wordfest with a high-pitched giggle that reverberates through the large auditorium. The blissfully stoned expression he gives afterwards is priceless. Everyone in the film keeps harping on what a genius writer Grady is, but it gradually becomes apparent that James is the true genius. He writes pages and pages of beautiful prose in minutes. And like any true talent, it just comes pouring effortlessly out of him. What makes James such a good writer is that his whole life is essentially a lie – he lies about his parents’ past, how they met and where they came from. He even maintains this air of a tortured artist but as we find out that too is a lie. James has it pretty easy, living in a large house in an affluent neighborhood. Good fiction writers have to be masters at making things up.

As always, Robert Downey Jr. knows how to make an entrance, meeting Grady at the airport with a transvestite as his date. The exchange between Terry and Grady quickly establishes their long-time friendship by the familiarity between them. Downey is able to take the most mundane, ordinary line and give it his own unique spin and make it funny or give a look that is memorable. His rapport with Douglas is excellent and they play well off each other as both sides of the comedic equation. Downey was on probation during the winter of 1999 when Hanson considered him for a role in Wonder Boys. The director was cautious because of the actor’s drug history and was concerned because it would be a tough film shot in sequence in Pittsburgh in the winter. Downey flew to Pittsburgh and had a long dinner conversation with Hanson where they addressed his problems. The actor demonstrated a commitment to the film and the director hired him. According to Hanson, Downey acted in a professional manner for the entire four-and-a-half month shoot but after it ended and he returned to Los Angeles, the actor violated his parole.

Frances McDormand knows how to react to those around her, like when she meets Grady, Terry and his date at a party. Watching her react to the charming transvestite is priceless. She and Douglas also have excellent chemistry together as evident in the short hand, the give-and-take between their characters. This is nicely established in their first scene together where Sara tells Grady that she’s pregnant. The music sets a slightly melancholic even whimsical tone as the two characters reveal that they are trapped in relationships that they don’t want to be in. They want to be together but Grady won’t show her how serious he is about them. Ultimately, Grady has to save himself and to in order to do this he must convince Sara that he does love and he want to be with her.

Steve Kloves’ script is a solid piece of writing as he does a great job of adapting Chabon’s book, trimming it of its excess narrative fat (as he also did so well with the Harry Potter books). It has clever, memorable dialogue that speaks volumes about these characters. There is a pleasant mix of off-kilter humor and poignant drama as we are presented with all sorts of colorful characters, like Grady’s bisexual editor and the famous and pompous writer known as Q (played to haughty perfection by Rip Torn) and then have them played by equally eccentric characters actors. The dialogue is humorous and offbeat in one scene, touching and thoughtful in the next. For example, in one scene, James rattles off a list of celebrity suicides in alphabetical order, the dates and how they did it in a mechanical monotone as if he’s reading off a grocery list that adds to humor of the scene because it is such an unusual moment.

Kloves also wisely avoids the usual clichés. like Katie Holmes’ character, the young, nubile co-ed who, in a lesser film would have had a fling with Grady. This would have broken the magical spell that this movie casts and so the filmmakers wisely avoid it. Instead, she helps Grady realize that his book is going nowhere and that he needs to make some choices about it and his life. One of the film’s major themes is about making choices. Grady’s problem is that he is indecisive. He can’t make up his mind about how he feels about Sara and he can’t figure out how to end his wildly out of control novel that is ultimately a metaphor for his life. Grady’s life is in a holding pattern, like his book and both get more complicated as life goes on. As the days go on so does the page count increase on his book. However, the key to his salvation lies in his mission to reach James and nurture his talents. Grady sees some of himself in James – a wonder boy in the making while he is a wonder boy who has lost his way. Terry is the third wonder boy in the film and his luster has been fading over years, unable to find another breakthrough novel like The Arsonist’s Daughter and is generally regarded as a joke at work.

Hanson strips color from the palette, presenting Pittsburgh in blues and grays, a romantic, post-industrial setting that we see through Grady’s car window. It’s subtly presented as Hanson doesn’t hit us over the head with obvious landmarks. He excels at creating just the right mood and atmosphere. For the director, the city mirrors the characters in the film as he commented in an interview, “it’s a city with this glorious past that went into decline…That’s why I wanted to shoot here. I think the city’s so emblematic of the characters’ problems.” The city was experiencing a mild winter during their shoot and they had to use a lot of artificial snow.

The best films are the ones that you lose yourself in completely. There is a scene where Grady sneaks a smoke outside of the Gaskill house at night and a light snow falls. He spies a greenhouse in the distance and it is illuminated in the night looking like “heaven” as James puts it. This is in contrast to the warm, gold interior of the nearby Gaskill house. This is a wonderful little moment frozen in time and the beginning of the friendship between Grady and James.

The attention to detail — a snowy winter in Pittsburgh — is beautifully realized. Hanson does a great job of conveying a sense of place, utilizing locations well. There is the warm, red and gold of a blues bar that Grady meets Terry and James at. It’s a small place packed with people and they sit in a booth that create an intimate feel. There’s a great moment where Grady and Terry spot an odd looking guy across the bar and create an elaborate and colorful backstory for him, including a name – Vernon Hardapple – and who is, among other things, “president of the James Brown Hair Club for Men.” Grady later encounters the man on a couple of very memorable occasions including a funny scene where Grady, Q and Terry try to evade Vernon outside of the bar that ends with the man jumping on the hood of their car with his butt. We see Q and Terry laughing and having fun as Grady tries to escape and in turn it is fun for us to watch.

Hanson had been a fan of Bob Dylan’s music since childhood and a great admirer of his soundtrack for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). As it turned out, Dylan was a fan of Hanson’s previous film, L.A. Confidential and after a lot of convincing screened 90 minutes of rough footage from Wonder Boys. Hanson wanted Dylan because “who knows more about being a wonder boy and the trap it can be, about the expectations and the fear of repeating yourself?” In addition to Dylan, Hanson built the score around nine singer-songwriters including Leonard Cohen and Neil Young. The entire soundtrack is integrated into the film and Hanson even played some of the songs for the actors on the Pittsburgh set to convey a scene’s “aural texture,” as the director put it in an interview.

The studio decided to release Wonder Boys in February, notoriously the month where films no one cares about are unceremoniously dumped, and while it connected with critics, flopped at the box office. It came out a week after the Academy Award nominations were announced. The studio spent a lot more money promoting the films of theirs that were nominated and not enough on Wonder Boys. The Wall Street Journal‘s Joe Morgenstern praised Douglas’ work in the movie, but criticized the movie poster, which featured a headshot of Douglas: “a raffishly eccentric role, and he’s never been so appealing. (Don’t be put off by the movie’s cryptic poster, which makes him look like Michael J. Pollard.)” The Los Angeles Times‘ Kenneth Turan also slammed the poster: “The film’s ad poster brings Elmer Fudd to mind.”

Hanson was not happy with how the film was marketed, in particular the poster, which he said in an interview, made Douglas look “like he was trying to be Robin Williams.” Furthermore, he said, “The very things that made Michael and I want to do the movie so badly were the reasons it was so tricky to market. Since films go out on so many screens at once, there’s a need for instant appeal. But Wonder Boys isn’t easily reducible to a single image or a catchy ad line.” The director disagreed with the studio over the film’s original release date and advertising campaign. To make matters worse, the marketing was criticized in the press and in an unprecedented move, the studio canceled the lucrative video contract and pulled the film out of theaters. Hanson and Rudin lobbied to have the film re-released. A new campaign was designed that emphasized the ensemble cast and the film was released in theaters where it promptly flopped at the box office again.

Every scene in Wonder Boys feels warm and inviting and filled with interesting characters that inhabit this world and that allows you to be in it for the duration of the film. By hanging out with James, Grady regains that wonder boy spark while also guiding his young protégé to becoming one himself. What better teacher than someone who was once one? At one point, Grady says that most people don’t think and that books aren’t important anymore. He’s jaded and cynical about the world but over the course of the film James reaches him and changes his outlook on life.

Gothika: A Review by Nate Hill

  

Matthieu Kassovitz’s underrated chiller Gothika is thick with a horror atmosphere that goes straight for the jugular in terms of scares, a psychological ghost story that actually raises hairs a frightens, or at least did for me. It sometimes sacrifices logic for style, but what style it’s got! Any horror flick set in an asylum just has to to be cloaked in workable atmosphere to be effective, and this one is positively dripping with it, hence the evocative title. Halle Berry plays a laid back psychiatrist who wakes up one day in the asylum she works at, only now a patient. She’s told she brutally murdered her husband (Charles S. Dutton) yet has no memory of the act. As if that weren’t a terrifying enough situation for her to be in, she starts having waking nightmares, haunted by a gnarly ghost of a girl (Kathleen Mackey) with mysterious ties to the facility’s past. Her colleague and friend (Robert Downey Jr. gives the dour proceedings his usual chipper pep) seems unable to help her. A guard (John Carroll Lynch) is hostile towards her, angry at the loss of her husband who was his friend. An erratic fellow patient (a de-glammed Penelope Cruz) seems to know more than her vacuous babbling would suggest. The asylum Director (Bernard Hill, excellent) is perplexed by the whole situation. It’s a twisty funhouse of a plot that probably piles on one stark plot turn too many, they’re nevertheless fun to be left aghast by as the rattle by with little regard for plausibility. Berry is convincing in her tormenting position, radiating desperation and resilience that claws at the cobwebs of insanity. Kassovitz piles on the gothic atmosphere relentlessly, and it really works, until we have a visual palette that looks like the dark underside of Tim Burton’s unconscious mind. The ghostly scenes have a threatening, intense edge to them and feel unnervingly realistic, putting us right in the hot seat with wide eyed Berry. Style over substance? Maybe. Okay, probably. But I care not. If the style, composition and palette are enough to draw me into a story, I can roll with it. This one imprints troubling negatives on the celluloid which latch themselves onto your psyche. Maybe it works well because it’s got a European director, and they’re more in tune with the supernatural in general. Maybe it just does a nice job at being effective horror. Either way, I enjoyed. 

DAVID FINCHER’S ZODIAC — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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David Fincher’s quest to become the new Alan Pakula hit new heights with his riveting serial killer/investigative journalism thriller Zodiac, which might possibly be his greatest accomplishment yet as a filmmaker. I’m never sure, to be honest, what Fincher’s “best” film is — you could make the case for nearly all of them in one way or another. But with Zodiac, he tapped into our worst fears (that of a killer on the loose) and mixed the expected genre elements with an amazing sense of time and place, vividly recreating San Francisco during the late 60’s and early 70’s, as well as demonstrating a perfectionist’s eye in terms of both small and large narrative and visual details. The trio of Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr. all did sterling work in this film, each of them carving out a unique portrait of obsessive behavior that would consume their characters at all times. The dense, phenomenally well-researched screenplay by James Vanderbilt (writer/director of the upcoming Dan Rather drama Truth) requires more than one viewing to accurately parse out all of the pieces of information, while Fincher’s steady, engrossing directorial aesthetic grips the viewer with paranoia and subtle style.

The late, great cinematographer Harris Savides (Birth, The Game, Elephant) gave Zodiac an amazing visual texture, with the digital photography augmenting all of the nighttime sequences with a realistic sense of light quality, while capturing the grisly murders with stark and brutal effectiveness on 35 mm film. The supporting cast hammered home all of their work with rigorous perfection, with standout peformances on display by John Carroll Lynch, Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, Philip Baker Hall, John Getz, Dermott Mulroney, John Terry, Donal Logue, Elias Koteas, Chloë Sevigny, and Adam Goldberg. David Shire’s creepy musical score smartly used period-authentic pop songs with an unnerving ambient soundtrack to maximum effect, while Angus Wall’s fleet, razor-sharp editing kept the two hour and 40 minute film feeling light on its feet; rarely do “long” movies feel this quick. Despite excellent critical support, the film didn’t catch on with the Academy (maybe it was the March release date or the middling box office returns), and while 2007 was a landmark year for cinema in general, Zodiac being left out of the big dance feels incredibly short-sighted. This is one of Fincher’s most absorbing films, filled with three dimensional and vulnerable characters that you root for, while showcasing a mystery that literally has no ending.

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