The Shape of Water (2017)


Sally Hawkins contemplates a potential Oscar nomination.

(2017) Romantic Fantasy (Fox Searchlight) Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy, Stewart Arnott, Nigel Bennett, Lauren Lee Smith, Martin Roach, Allegra Fulton, John Kapelos, Morgan Kelly, Marvin Kaye, Dru Viergever, Wendy Lyon. Directed by Guillermo del Toro

 

A bird may love a fish, the saying goes, but where would they live? Some romances, it is true, face greater obstacles than others.

Eliza Esposito (Hawkins) is a mute woman who lives in a ratty apartment above a movie theater along with gay commercial artist Giles (Jenkins) who is as lonely as Eliza is. She works as a janitor at a top-secret government lab on the outskirts of Baltimore along with her friend Zelda (Spencer) who nags her about being habitually late to work.

Into the lab comes “the most valuable asset” that they’ve ever hosted; an amphibious humanoid creature (Jones) who was discovered in the jungles of the Amazon, worshiped as a god by the natives. Security director Richard Strickland (Shannon) sees the creature as a potential means of putting the U.S. ahead of the Soviets in the space race which to this point in 1963 have been kicking America’s butt.

Strickland is under all kinds of pressure to deliver useful information but his scientists, particularly Dr. Hoffstetler (Stuhlbarg) are a bit hesitant to do the kind of research that Strickland is urging them to do – the kinds of things Dr. Mengele had no problem doing. Strickland becomes further enraged when, during a session when he is using an electric cattle prod on the creature, two of his fingers are cut off. Strickland, always what you might call tightly wound, suddenly finds himself wrapped even closer to absolutely losing it.

But Eliza is drawn to the creature; she finds it to be gentle and non-judgmental and like herself, unable to communicate verbally. The creature is drawn to her kindness – she feeds it hard-boiled eggs and plays jazz on a portable phonograph she smuggles in. However, it has come to the attention of Gen. Hoyt (Searcy) who is in charge of the project that the Russkies are aware of the creature and have designs on it themselves. Eliza overhears the plan – to vivisect the creature and learn as much as they can before the Russians either kidnap the creature or destroy it in such a way that the Americans can learn nothing.

Eliza decides that’s not going to happen and enlists the help of Giles in getting her help. Zelda is reluctantly drawn in and when Dr. Hoffstetler discovers what she’s up to, gives her tacit assistance. Eliza takes the creature home to live in her bathtub, waiting for the right time to release it into a canal that leads to the ocean and can lead the creature back home but the two have begun…umm, mating and saying goodbye is not going to be easy for either of them, particularly since neither one can speak.

This is one of the most beautiful and well-told stories of the year. There is a fairy tale aspect to the film, combined with a kind of classic Hollywood feel (there is a fantasy sequence in which Eliza finds voice and sings and dances with the creature which sounds hokey but when you see it you’ll understand how brilliant and how heartbreaking the sequence is). Add to that bits of horror and cold war-era spy thrillers and you have a movie that could have easily been a mess but in the hands of a great director – and make no mistake, that is exactly what Del Toro is – becomes a tour de force, a masterpiece in shades of green and blue.

Hawkins is one of the frontrunners for an Oscar nod for Best Actress this year and with good reason. She has to perform almost entirely with body language and facial expressions. She wears her emotions plain to see throughout, engaging in an impromptu tap dance when she’s feeling playful, or resting her head against a bus window when she is contemplative. She hunches over as a person who doesn’t want to be noticed does, as someone who has been ridiculed and disregarded her entire life does. I don’t pretend to understand the Academy’s mindset but if it were me, I’d just hand Hawkins the statuette right now and save everyone the bother but that’s just me.

The fantastic supporting cast doesn’t let Hawkins down either. Jones gets a complicated and believable costume to create his character; Jenkins shows his most compassionate and frazzled sides as Eliza’s quirky and often incompetent friend. Spencer gets a role on par with her Oscar-winning performance in The Help and Stuhlbarg who has an Oscar nomination under his belt already takes a giant leap forward in proving that wasn’t a fluke.

The production design is near perfect. The lighting and color scheme emphasizes shimmering greens and blues, giving the entire film a kind of underwater look even when the action takes place above the surface. The industrial look of the lab has almost an art deco look to it; the space age sheen of futuristic buildings recalling the 1965 World’s Fair are absent here. This lab is a dreary place where people go to do repetitive, dehumanizing tasks and lose just a little bit more of their souls every time they clock in. I think we’ve all had jobs like that.

There is an awful lot of sexuality and nudity in the film as the romantic relationship between Eliza and the amphibian becomes physical. While it is handled in my opinion with dignity and restraint, some might find even the hinting of interspecies sex to be completely beyond the pale. I can understand that, truly, but it would be a shame to cheat yourself out of one of the year’s best movies – if not THE best – because of a little fantasy sex.

Some might find the ending hokey but I took a different tack with it. Jenkins delivers bookending voiceover narration at the beginning and end of the movie; my take is that we are seeing events as Giles imagined they occurred; what really happened once the amphibian exits from view is up to conjecture and Giles admits as much. I kind of hope that’s what “really” happened to although life rarely has that kind of grace. Thank goodness that filmmakers like Del Toro do.

REASONS TO GO: Hawkins has a very good shot at an Oscar nomination. The story is touching and beautifully told. This is a godsend for the discerning moviegoer. Great supporting performances all around and wonderful set design enhance the film.
REASONS TO STAY: The sexuality may be more than some can handle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is graphic sexuality and nudity as well as some profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Del Toro turned down Pacific Rim: Uprising to direct this.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lady in the Water
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
The Dark Tower

Love and Mercy


Brian Wilson, just chillin'.

Brian Wilson, just chillin’.

(2014) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Jake Abel, Kenny Wormald, Joanna Going, Dee Wallace, Max Schneider, Graham Rogers, Nikki Wright, Tyson Ritter, Brett Davern, Erin Darke, Diana Maria Riva, Bill Camp, Johnny Sneed, Claudia Graf, Tonja Kahlens, Carolyn Stotesbery. Directed by Bill Pohlad

The word “genius” is often thrown about the media like a demented Frisbee, landing on both the deserving and the undeserving. Of the former category, one would have to include Brian Wilson, the man behind the Beach Boys sound. Those unfamiliar with popular music who think of the Beach Boys as the band solely of “California Girls” and “Surfing USA” clearly missed some of the great music of the era, exemplified with “Good Vibrations,” “Heroes and Villains” and “God Only Knows.”

Wilson, like many authentic geniuses, was tormented throughout most of his life. As a young man (Dano) when he was churning out hit after hit for the Beach Boys, his tyrannical and emotionally abusive father Murray (Camp), himself a frustrated former musician belittled his son’s accomplishments, especially after the band fired him as their manager. “In five years, nobody will remember you,” he sneers at one point, “Nobody will remember the Beach Boys.” Clearly, he was wrong.

However, Brian’s insecurities blossomed into full-fledged paranoia, exacerbated by drug abuse. The pressures of creating not only great music but music that sells began to take its toll not just on Brian but also within the band; Mike Love (Abel), the band’s lead vocalist, resisted change vigorously, wishing to stay with a tried and true formula, even though as Brian foresaw, musical tastes were changing rapidly and the Beach Boys were just as rapidly becoming irrelevant. Brian’s marriage to wife Marilyn (Darke) disintegrated and as his mental health deteriorated, he would enter a period of reclusiveness (rarely leaving his bed) and morbid weight gain, at one time clocking in at well over 300 pounds. Drug-addled and plagued by erratic behavior, his family worried for his health and sanity.

In the 1980s he came under the care of radical therapist Eugene Landy (Giamatti) who became his legal guardian. Landy separated Brian from his brothers and mother (his father had passed away in 1973) and essentially oversaw every facet of his life, making decisions for him. Brian at this time (Cusack) was a shell of a man, functioning but just barely so. During this period he met the beautiful blonde ex-model Melinda Ledbetter (Banks) at a Cadillac agency where she sold cars. The two hit it off and began dating, under the strict supervision of Landy who eventually made the couple separate. Ledbetter, concerned about Brian’s worsening condition, fought for and achieved Landy’s removal. She would eventually marry Brian and the two remain a couple today.

Pohlad has more experience as a producer than as a director, although he has been associated with Terrence Malick somewhat of late and that approach has served him well here, refusing to take the route of standard musical biopics and instead takes the more fragmented approach of the Todd Bridges Dylan bio I’m Not There which may have as much to do with employing that film’s writer Oren Moverman as writer here.

One thing (of many) Pohlad did right was the casting. Dano is a near-perfect choice for the young Brian, capturing both his fragile emotional state and his absolute mastery in the studio. The real Brian Wilson’s experiments with psychotropic drugs would lead him to auditory hallucinations that he still suffers from today; not only does Pohlad really give us a sense of what Brian was hearing (with snippets of classic Beach Boys riffs in amazing mash-ups by film composer Atticus Ross) but Dano sells it, showing Brian’s fascination and occasional frustration with the music he couldn’t escape even if he wanted to. We see how tormented he was outside the studio and how happy he was in it; as Brian and his bandmates gather around the microphone to sing the harmonies that justifiably made them famous, only then does Dano’s Brian Wilson look truly happy.

As the middle-aged Bryan, Cusack turns in one of the best performances of his career – and as many of you might know, I’m a big fan of Cusack so that’s saying something. The older Brian is a completely different person than the younger one, although they have much in common – which is what inspired Pohlad to cast two actors who don’t really resemble each other to play him. This Brian is damaged goods, completely dominated and cowed by the powerful personality of Landy who exudes cult-like control over the musician. Cusack resists the temptation to make Wilson a collection of tics and neuroses; he seems like a fairly normal guy until you spend a goodly amount of time with him.

Giamatti may well be the best villain of the summer; he plays Landy as a controlling tyrant with a terrible temper. He seems nice enough and compassionate at first glance but soon the sadistic side shows through the cracks. Giamatti imbues Landy with enough soft-voiced charm to make him seem like a coiled snake, able to strike at any moment. It’s a compelling performance that if this were released in the fall might be getting some serious Supporting Actor buzz. He might anyway.

Banks gets short shrift here because the other performances are so strong, but that doesn’t mean she’s a slouch. In fact, although at first Melinda seems like essentially just a pretty face, we get to see the core of steel inside her as the movie progresses. The one false note lies in the writing; I think that it would be natural for others to think Melinda is a gold digger – Landy brings it up near the end of the movie. However, it really isn’t addressed in the movie, how others other than Brian and Landy are reacting to her. I would have liked to see what the perception of her was among the Wilson family, although to be fair it’s likely that Brian upon whose recollections the movie is based may not have known.

Pohlad tries to give us a sense of what Brian was experiencing, using sound and lighting effects to give us a sense of his torment. I heard that some moviegoers walked out during one of these sequences at a screening attended by one of my friends. I didn’t find them especially offensive, but clearly some did for whatever reason.

Having seen the documentary The Wrecking Crew recently and knowing that  they were involved with recording the Beach Boys music in the studio gave me an extra perspective into the film. I’m not saying it’s required viewing prior to watching Love & Mercy but it certainly is an advantage.

This is definitely one of the best movies to arrive so far this year. Incendiary performances, imaginative storytelling, terrific music and insight into not so much the music that Brian Wilson created but the mental illness that may or may not have gone hand in hand with it.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances all around. Captures both eras nicely. Of course, the music.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scenes depicting Wilson’s mental issues may be confusing or even disturbing to some.
FAMILY VALUES: Definitely some adult themes, depictions of drug use and a fair amount of swearing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the studio scenes in which Brian and the Beach Boys are recording Pet Sounds were filmed in the actual studios where the iconic album was recorded. Most of the Wrecking Crew were portrayed by Brian Wilson’s current band and Dano used actual studio recordings to stop the band and instruct the musicians as to what he wanted.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I’m Not There
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Time Lapse

Big Night


Brothers squabble while their women patiently endure.

Brothers squabble while their women patiently endure.

(1996) Dramedy (Goldwyn) Stanley Tucci, Tony Shalhoub, Minnie Driver, Ian Holm, Campbell Scott, Isabella Rossellini, Allison Janney, Susan Floyd, Marc Anthony, Liev Schreiber, Pasquale Cajano, Gene Canfield, Andre Belgrader, Caroline Aaron, Larry Block, Peter McRobbie, Peter Appel, Karen Shallo, Robert W. Castle, Tamar Kotoske, Alaveta Guess, Dina Spybey. Directed by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci

Films For Foodies

A good movie can make you care about the story or the characters. A very good movie can make you care about both. A great movie will make you feel you lived in the story with those characters and want to then revisit that movie again and again. Big Night is just such a movie.

In the late 50s, a pair of brothers recently come to America from their native Italy have opened an Italian restaurant on the Jersey shore. Called Paradise, the brothers intended for the restaurant to stand out from the mamma mia spaghetti and meatball joints that were what passed for Italian in that era, like the huge successful restaurant down the street from theirs that was run by Pascal (Holm).

The brothers divided their labors thusly; Primo (Shalhoub), the eldest, ran the kitchen and he was a culinary genius before we knew such things existed. He made an astounding risotto but all anyone ever wanted was – you guessed it – spaghetti and meatballs. When one somewhat ignorant customer (Aaron) asks for a side of spaghetti and meatballs with her risotto, Primo nearly hits the roof. “How about I give her a side of mashed potatoes with that,” he explodes, nearly refusing to give the customer a starch to go with her starch.

Secondo (Tucci), the younger, runs front of house and the business side of things and only he knows what desperate straits the restaurant is in. Behind in their mortgage payments, the bank is about to foreclose. He argues with his brother on his rigid high standards but deep down, he supports them because that is the kind of restaurant he dreams of running.

Their love lives aren’t in much better shape. Primo has a thing for the local florist (Janney) but is far too shy to tell her how he feels. Secondo has a girlfriend, the ever-patient Phyllis (Driver) who waits for him to propose but is losing that patience rapidly. He also has a mistress, the straight-shooting and sexy Gabriella (Rossellini) who is also Pascal’s mistress. She gets around.

Secondo approaches Pascal about a loan which the penurious Pascal is loathe to do, but he will do the brothers a solid – it so happens that famed Italian crooner Louis Prima and his band are going to be in town the following week. He happens to know Louis and will invite him and his band to a dinner at Paradise. The accompanying press and notices may be what’s needed to save the Paradise.

Secondo and Primo set to preparing the restaurant for the biggest night of their lives. With Phyllis helping out as well as their put-upon kitchen boy Cristiano (Anthony), it promises to be a night to remember but will Primo’s stubbornness and Secondo’s love life torpedo everything the brothers have worked for and drive an irreparable wedge between them? Either way, you know that the meal that they serve on this big night will be one that will be absolutely unforgettable.

Tucci, who co-directed and co-wrote the movie in addition to co-starring in it, was just beginning to get his career going when this was made. He has since become one of Hollywood’s busiest actors with a variety of roles in which he mostly plays oily slimeballs. In fact, writing this movie was an effort to write a part for himself that wasn’t the sort he usually got cast in. In fact, there are plenty of well-known names and faces in this movie who were just starting their careers out. Schreiber has a blink and you’ll miss it role as the doorman at Pascal’s joint, while Driver was a year away from her breakout roles in Good Will Hunting and Grosse Pointe Blank.

You become entwined in the story of the struggling restaurant and the sibling squabbling that goes on will feel familiar to anyone who has a brother or a sister. So will the struggles of the brothers appeal to anyone who has ever owned or worked in a small business. In fact, all of the characters have something about them that will speak to you; they may not necessarily be someone you know but there will be something familiar nonetheless…in many ways Primo and Secondo are the brothers I never had.

This is one of those movies that will get under your skin and stay there; you’ll want to see it more than once. Sadly, the home video edition has no extra features other than the original trailer. I’d love to see interviews with the cast now nearly 20 years after the fact about this great little movie that stands the test of time. Even so, the movie is well worth getting. Just don’t be surprised if you don’t get an inescapable craving for Italian food by the time it ends.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-written with terrific performances throughout. Captures ambience and era perfectly.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit ambiguous on the ending.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is quite a bit of rough language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot over a period of just 35 days. Tucci and Shalhoub would work together many times following this film, including in the film The Imposters as well as on Shalhoub’s hit TV show Monk.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.0M on a $4.1M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moonstruck

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Films for Foodies continues!

Tammy


Susan Sarandon tries to give Melissa McCarthy some career advice.

Susan Sarandon tries to give Melissa McCarthy some career advice.

(2014) Comedy (New Line) Melissa McCarthy, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Mark Duplass, Gary Cole, Allison Janney, Toni Collette, Nat Faxon, Dan Aykroyd, Sandra Oh, Ben Falcone, Sarah Baker, Rich Williams, Steve Little, Dakota Lee, Mark L. Young, Mia Rose Frampton, Steve Mallory, Keith Welborn, Oscar Gale, Justin Smith, Barbara Weetman. Directed by Ben Falcone

Sometimes we manage to become people we never intended ourselves to be. Through circumstances that are sometimes entirely out of our control – but not always – we find ourselves being the very people we swore we’d never be. Generally that revelation is accompanied by bitterness and self-loathing.

Tammy (McCarthy) has it in her to be happy but it doesn’t look like she is. She does seem self-possessed on the exterior – belting out renditions of the Outfield’s “Your Love” in her car. Not a cappella and not on the car stereo but from an ancient boombox which may or may not be older than the Toyota Corolla she’s driving. After an unsettling encounter with a deer, her car which was already only a hair or two away from breathing its last gives up the ghost.

Not only that but the deer encounter makes her late for work, which her prissy boss Keith (Falcone) uses as an excuse to fire her. Tammy’s reaction to the news is how you might expect – she’s not the sort to take that kind of thing lying down. Having to walk home essentially she returns home early to find out that her lackadaisical husband Greg (Faxon) is having an affair with a comely neighbor (Collette).

Convinced that she needs to get out of town or go crazy, Tammy heads over to her mom’s (Janney) house. However, her mom won’t lend Tammy her car, nor front her some cash so she can go walkabout. However, her grandmother Pearl (Sarandon) has a Caddy and seven grand that says road trip to Niagara Falls  which Pearl has always wanted to visit.

 

On the surface, this seems like a very bad idea. Tammy is mulish and a wreck – it’s not hard to figure out why her husband would cheat as she has taken zero care of herself and can’t be easy to live with. Worse yet, it turns out grandma is an alcoholic and a bit of a nymphomaniac, getting it on with a Louisville rancher (Cole) while Tammy is forced to sleep outside the hotel room. Only Bobby (Duplass), the sweet son of the rancher who treats Tammy decently – the first man to do so in ages – makes it anything more than excruciating.

The two women’s shenanigans cause them to blow through their cash faster than expected forcing Tammy to take some desperate measures that lead the two of them to go on the lam over at the beautiful home of Tammy’s cousin Lenore (Bates). Lenore, a lesbian who owns a chain of pet food stores and whose partner (Oh) is as sweet as pie, is a no-nonsense sort who sees what’s really going on. When Pearl and Tammy’s problems lead to a painful moment at a Fourth of July party at Lenore’s place, it becomes obvious that Tammy needs to make some changes if she’s ever going to be truly happy. The question is, is it obvious to Tammy?

McCarthy has become a star comedic actress with not only her TV success on Mike & Molly but also a string of hit movies to her credit. She co-wrote this with her husband Falcone who also directed the movie; you’d think it would be an absolute slam dunk.

Sadly, it’s not and it isn’t due to McCarthy the actress who actually does a pretty fine job in a role that is pretty similar to the ones she’s played in the past three movies; foul-mouthed, gross, obnoxious and highly sexual. The trouble is that the role isn’t given depth so much as it’s given mannerisms and the blame lies with McCarthy the writer.

McCarthy the actress isn’t alone in this issue either. None of the characters here are particularly well drawn out,  mostly given a trait and essentially left to flounder with a script conspicuously short on jokes. I get the sense the writers weren’t sure if they wanted a comedy or a heartwarming buddy movie and ended up with neither.

Reading that back, it sounds a little bit harsh and if I’m gonna be honest, there are some laughs here (some of which may be found in the trailer) and if I had to recommend the movie, I could do so grudgingly; McCarthy is an engaging enough actress that she can provide life to any movie no matter how terrible. This isn’t the funniest summer comedy ever but at least it’s better than last year’s truly awful Grown-Ups 2 – now there’s a franchise which could use McCarthy’s talents. In any case, fans of the actress probably will end up liking the movie anyway; she basically has this kind of role down pat enough that she could do it in her sleep. Those who want better from her however will have to wait for the next one.

REASONS TO GO: McCarthy and Sarandon battle gamely through subpar material. Bates does her usual impressive job in support.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks real humor. Could have used some depth in the characters who mainly end up as caricatures.

FAMILY VALUES:  A ton of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sarandon is only 24 years older than McCarthy, who plays her granddaughter. In addition, Janney – who plays Tammy’s mother and Pearl’s daughter – is 13 years younger than Sarandon and 11 years older than McCarthy.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/22/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Thelma and Louise

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Begin Again

On the Road


Bella Swan, you're all grown up!

Bella Swan, you’re all grown up!

(2012) Drama (Sundance Selects) Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen, Tom Sturridge, Alice Braga, Elisabeth Moss, Danny Morgan, Marie-Ginette Guay, Steve Buscemi, Joe Chrest, Terrence Howard, Coati Mundi, Michael Sarrazin, Ximena Adriana, Tetchena Bellange, Kim Bubbs, Tiio Horn, Giselle Itie, Giovanna Zacarias. Directed by Walter Salles  

The classic Jack Kerouac Beat Generation novel On the Road has literally been in development for decades. Nobody really knew quite what to do with the book. It finally got made and was released in late 2012; was it worth the wait?

Young Sal Paradiso (Riley), a stand-in for the author, meets Dean Moriarty (Hedlund) – who stands in for Neal Cassady – through mutual friends. Sal, grieving for his father and a writer stuck in a horrible case of writer’s block, is instantly taken by this young man who is full of life and not especially concerned with convention, rules or…well, anything that gets in the way of him having a good time. Charming and literate, Dean and his 16-year-old wife Marylou (Stewart) serve up alcohol, sex and marijuana with equal enthusiasms. When it’s time for Dean and Marylou to head back to Denver, Sal is invited to come visit.

It takes some time for Sal to get together the gumption and funds to go – even in postwar New York there aren’t a ton of jobs – but he finally does. He rides busses and hitchhikes across the pre-Interstate America and eventually gets there, only to find that Dean is cheating on Marylou with Camille (Dunst). Sal heads back, stopping briefly to pick cotton and have an affair with Terri (Braga).

Later, after Sal has returned to New York, Sal and his mother (Guay) are visiting Sal’s sister and her husband for the holidays in North Carolina when Dean turns up with Marylou and friend Ed Dunkle (Morgan) and offer to drive Sal and his mom back up to New York in exchange for a place to stay for the night and a meal. Sal’s staid sister and family aren’t quite sure what to make of the intruders.

After getting back to New York and spending some time partying, Sal decides to accompany the three back to Denver. On the way they stop in New Orleans to pick up Ed’s wife Galatea (Moss) and to visit Old Bull Lee (Mortensen) and his wife Jane (Adams). They continue crisscrossing the country and as they do Sal noticed that women are getting left behind quite regularly both figuratively and literally not only by Dean but by all of them (the lone exception is Carlo (Sturridge) who is gay and is one of those left behind by the bisexual Dean). After a disastrous trip to Mexico in which Sal contracts dysentery, at last he will see Dean for who he truly is – and find inspiration in the process.

In all honesty I’ve been less a fan of the writing of the Beat Generation and more of…well, admirer isn’t quite the right term. The Beat writers were full of bullshit, but it’s an honest bullshit, a young man’s bullshit. This is a movie about self-fulfillment in all its forms. I have to admit I haven’t read the book; okay, I might have but it was so long ago that I don’t remember it and so it adds up to the same thing.  Therefore, I’m not really the one to evaluate whether the spirit of the book was captured so we’ll leave that as a N/A for now.

Salles, who is no stranger to road movies having directed the Che Guevara quasi-biopic The Motorcycle Diaries has a firm hand here and allows the allure of the road to shine through; the endless stripes passing by through landscapes mostly desolate but wonderful in their emptiness. However, keeping in mind that the movie runs about two hours give or take, that can only sustain a film so much.

The characters here are so incredibly self-involved that it’s difficult to find a lot of sympathy for the lot of them. Mostly they’re about indulging whatever hedonistic pleasure grabs them at the moment, and Dean is the mainstay in that regard. For Dean, friends and lovers are to be exploited, discarded when the need for them diminishes or when boredom sets in. He wants to meet people who have something to say that isn’t the usual postwar pabulum of pandering prattling polemic, empty of soul and emptier of head. That’s all well and good but what does interesting companions really do for you if you make no connection to them?

Admittedly the relationship between Dean and Sal is the centerpiece here in that there is more or less a relationship of mutual respect and debauchery but in the end Dean uses Sal just as thoroughly and just as despicably, maybe even more so than the others. Hedlund gives the performance of his career thus far in capturing Dean’s natural charisma and sensual charm that attracted both women and men to him like moths to a flame. Riley, a British actor who’s turned in some really incredible performances in his young career, is solid here as the yin to Hedlund’s yang, and to my mind it’s a generous move because by not shining quite so bright he allows Hedlund’s glow to be more noticeable and the movie benefits from it.

You can only take so much self-indulgent behavior and there’s really a whole lot of it here. There’s an amazing amount of smoking and drinking, not to mention a ton of sex and drug use. I don’t begrudge anyone who partakes in any of those things but it’s a bit more boring to watch than you’d expect.

This is a generation that is not unlike the 20-somethings that are out there right now; people trying to find their own way in a world that doesn’t really get them much, so they are forced to reinvent the world to fit their view. I can commend the ballsyness of the strategy but it doesn’t always make for good cinema unless of course these are your people too.

They aren’t really mine. There just isn’t any appeal in watching people indulge their most hedonistic and basic whims while forgetting to make any connection to other people. It’s an ultimately empty and meaningless pursuit. Life is about connections, not so much about carnality. It’s a lesson that the young learn as they get older, although some never learn it at all.

Some will look at these characters and see heroes bucking the system and living life on their own terms. I see people who screw their friends over and whose only concern is having a good time. One must grow up sooner or later (you would hope) and to be honest, watching this is like watching children acting out. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt – sorry if that means I fail the coolness test.

REASONS TO GO: Some good performances, particularly from Hedlund. Captures the allure of the road and the essence of the era.

REASONS TO STAY: Characters far too self-indulgent to connect to.

FAMILY VALUES:  A whole lot of sex, swearin’ and smokin’ of weed.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Producer Francis Ford Coppola originally bought the rights to the novel in 1979 and has been attempting to get the film made since then.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/1/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 44% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100; the reviews are lukewarm at best.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Neal Cassady

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Admission

Thin Ice


Thin Ice

Greg Kinnear and Billy Crudup wonder why they couldn't find a movie that is set in Aruba.

(2011) Thriller (ATO) Greg Kinnear, Billy Crudup, Alan Arkin, Lea Thompson, David Harbour, Jennifer M. Edwards, Peter Thoemke, Bob Balaban, James Detmar, Michelle Hutchison, Peter Moore, Michael Paul Levin, Michelle Arthur, Alan Johnson, Chris Carlson. Directed by Jill Sprecher

 

There is nothing warmer than the human heart. There is also nothing colder – even the Wisconsin winter pales in comparison. Greed and desperation can make of even the kindest of hearts one made stone and frozen, allowing nothing in and nothing to leave.

Mickey Prohaska (Kinnear) lives in Kenosha, Wisconsin and sells insurance. On the surface an amiable, trustworthy fellow, he is a predator in reality, preying on the fears of people to sell them policies that for the most part they don’t need and can’t afford. However, business is bad these days; Mickey needs the appearance of success and so drives an expensive car and wears nice suits. However, his bills are piling up and he is deep in debt. His wife (Thompson) has thrown him out – which he frankly deserves – and his secretary (Edwards) is getting fed up as well.

Mickey meets even more amiable Bob Egan (Harbour) at an insurance conference and in order to keep the earnest young man from his biggest competitor hires him on as an agent, even though he hasn’t been licensed by the state of Wisconsin just yet. That’s okay – the policies can be turned in under Mickey’s name and Mickey will pay him once the company pays Mickey his share. Right.

Bob brings Gorvy Hauer (Arkin) to Mickey’s attention and Mickey is at first not interested – the old man is in the beginning states of dementia and doesn’t have much money to his name. What he does have is a rare violin, one worth $25,000 according to the appraiser (Balaban) but Gorvy thinks it is a toy for him to play with his dog.

Mickey can’t resist – he needs the money desperately and the old man won’t miss the money. However, there is a fly in the ointment – Randy (Crudup), who is installing the alarm system that Bob is advising Gorvy to put in, gets wind of what Mickey’s up to. When meddling neighbor Frank (Thoemke) discovers something fishy going on, Randy panics and suddenly Mickey is in the middle of a real mess.

This is the kind of suspense movie worthy of the Coen Brothers; just a little bit offbeat, lots of twists and turns but always with a nice gotcha at the end. However, this is also not quite in that league and it’s really hard to pin it on the director. As I mention below in the Trivial Pursuits section, distributors ATO got together with some of the producers and ordered that the film be re-cut which Sprecher refused to do. The movie was then re-cut using outtakes, the voice-over narration was removed and various subplots and characters were cut from the film. Sprecher has sent letters to prominent film critics (including Roger Ebert) to let them know the situation and to divorce herself from the movie. She is unable to comment further for legal reasons; however it must be said that she doesn’t consider Thin Ice to be her own work.

That makes it kind of difficult to assign credit and blame as the case may be. My gumption is to credit Sprecher for most of the things that work and blame the producers for those that didn’t. Strictly speaking that may not be fair but it is human nature to take the side of the person who did the work and had the vision against those whose only goal was to make money rather than necessarily make the best movie possible. How do I know that the producers weren’t trying to make a better movie?

Simple. The film was screened in its original director cut version at Sundance and received raves. Since its limited release in this edited version, the reviews have been lukewarm. However, I must say that if that’s the case, the original cut must have been special indeed because I really like this movie a lot.

Kinnear excels at these sorts of roles, the ordinary Joe with a bit of an edge to him. Mickey is a congenital liar who’s always looking for the angle that benefits him most. Ostensibly he is in love with his wife but for the most part treats her like a possession or a status symbol – you never get the sense he needs to be with her so much as wants to.

Crudup plays the volatile Randy nicely, giving him the right edge of kicked puppy to go with the volcanic temper. Randy puts Mickey off-balance and the audience as well. Arkin has some tender moments having to do with his dog that are heart-rending. No matter how good or bad the material, Arkin always finds a way to elevate it.

It’s no surprise given the history of the movie that the pacing is irregular. Sometimes the movie goes at a snail’s pace and other times it races along willy-nilly. This has a jarring effect on the audience; I would have liked to see something a bit smoother.

There are plenty of Hitchcockian twists here and the final one is of the sort that makes you want to see the movie a second time knowing what you know about what really happened. Some of the twists aren’t too hard to figure out but others do take you unawares. That’s always a lovely surprise in movies of this sort.

I have to wonder what might have happened had we been allowed to see this the way the original director intended us to. Would it have been a better film? Did the producers make the right call? I doubt we’ll ever know – when it makes it to home video it is unlikely the original directors cut will ever see the light of day, given the contentious relationship with the filmmakers and the distributor. I find it somewhat ironic that the initials of the distribution company, ATO, stands for “Artists Take Over.” Certainly that’s not what happened in this case.

REASONS TO GO: Some really nifty twists and turns. Kinnear knows this role as well as anybody. Arkin and Crudup also do stellar work.

REASONS TO STAY: Seems choppy and rushed in places.

FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of bad language, a bit of violence and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After rave reviews at its 2011 Sundance appearance, the distributor demanded massive re-cuts and a title change (from The Convincer); the director has since disassociated herself from the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/3/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100. The reviews are solidly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fargo

ICE FISHING LOVERS: There’s a sequence early on in which Randy discusses the sport with Mickey, ending up with Randy attempting to drill a hole in the ice – unsuccessfully.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Mirror, Mirror