Originally printed in The Midwest Film Journal
“In ‘The Insider,’ I had violence – lethal, life-taking aggression – all happening psychologically, all with people talking to other people.”
– Michael Mann
It’s easy to think of Michael Mann as an action filmmaker. When I hear the director’s name, my mind immediately goes to the all-timer of a street shootout from Heat, with Robert De Niro and Val Kilmer raining hellfire on outmatched police squads. From iconic shots like Kilmer flawlessly reloading his Colt 733 rifle in that film or Tom Cruise quick-drawing on two alleyway thugs with lightning speed in Collateral, Mann has earned a reputation for training his actors to represent tactical precision in their weapons handling. As exciting and visceral as his action movies can be, his most engrossing work for my money is The Insider, a docudrama where no guns are fired or even shown in its 158 minute runtime.
Based on a true story, the film begins with a shroud over the camera and the proverbial wool pulled over our eyes. The face covering belongs to CBS producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), who’s being harshly transported to the founder of Hezbollah, Sheikh Fadlallah, in the back of a Middle Eastern van. He hopes to convince the Sheikh to sit down with Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) for a 60 Minutes interview that may change the way American minds view the burgeoning Islamist movement. It’s not an easy task but it’s obvious from the outset that Bergman doesn’t mind the challenge of a potential new story, as long as he feels the work is meaningful and can change the world around him.
It’s this tenacity that draws Bergman closer to Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a tobacco executive who staunchly refuses to consult with Bergman on scientific documents from cigarette conglomerate Philip Morris. After pressing Wigand, Bergman discovers that he’s bound by a confidentiality agreement that seems immensely restrictive in its scope and vicious in its potential repercussions. Bergman spends a large portion of the film working through numerous loopholes that allow Wigand to break through the robust non-disclosure and eventually gets him to sit down for the 60 Minutes interview. It’s only after taping it that Bergman learns the higher-ups at CBS plan on airing a highly abridged version of the segment for fear of litigation from Big Tobacco.
Around the halfway mark, The Insider slyly expands from a film about the intense lobbying power of the tobacco industry specifically to a movie about the sweeping influence of media conglomeration on how information is distributed. Adapting from the incendiary Variety Fair article “The Man Who Knew Too Much”, Mann and legendary screenwriter Eric Roth poured an incredible amount of detail and journalistic rigor into their Oscar-nominated script. Beyond just being well-researched and steeped in hard-hitting truth, it’s a screenplay packed with loaded dialogue and quotable lines that read well but play even better when coming out of the mouths of high-caliber actors.
Mann’s previous film Heat famously paired De Niro with Pacino as the crime and justice sides of the same coin, so much so that it’s difficult to determine who between the two is the protagonist. The Insider similarly brings Pacino back for a character who certainly isn’t the antagonist but also goes about things very differently from Wigand, the film’s underdog hero. We’re used to seeing Crowe as an imposing figure — he would star in Gladiator 7 months after The Insider‘s release — but before his days of schooling strangers on the value of the courtesy tap, Crowe shined in smoldering roles like this that kept his rage simmering under the surface. At the beginning of a tense meeting, Wigand’s ex-employer faux-dotes on him in front of higher-ups by remarking “it’s spooky how much he can concentrate” and Crowe does an incredible job of capturing Wigand’s fiery intellect.
Conversely, Pacino externalizes all of Crowe’s fear and paranoia by lashing out on executives over pay phones and new-fangled mobile phones but really, is there an actor in the 90s that we collectively trusted to do bigger better than Pacino? Equally at home in an authoritative role is Plummer as revered journalist Mike Wallace, who steals nearly every scene that he’s in with his impossibly smooth confidence. After a confrontational meeting with a member of CBS’ legal team, Wallace reassures Bergman with a quick tap on hand and cooly reminds him, “don’t worry; we call the shots around here.” The presence of character actors from Philip Baker Hall to Stephen Tobolowsky further drives home the notion that indeed, we’re in good hands here.
Watching the movie 20 years after its release, the most “dated” aspect of the film is how much concern is given towards a 60 Minutes report but really, that says more about how poor the state of investigative journalism is now rather than the actual narrative seeming antiquated. It’s a time capsule of a quaint era when journalists worked hard to present matters of public interest in the most objective terms possible and the American people trusted the news to keep them informed. Now, hard-hitting exposes are typically buried under mountains of infotainment (a term this film may have actually coined) and knee-jerk headlines, while the rise of social media has made getting to the truth seemingly impossible at times.
And those are just the stories we see. What makes The Insider so powerful is that for once, we get to sit in those boardrooms and high-rise offices and hear the conversations that the rich and powerful work hard to withhold. Technology, and big data specifically, has allowed for the news to be curated for individuals more finely than ever but without the right people above the keyboard fighting to publish the unvarnished truth, for-profit reporting will gladly take its place. It’s unlikely that many of us will get in a post-robbery gunfight with the cops or confront a duo of armed bandits but as long as you have a smartphone in your pocket, you’re almost guaranteed to be an unwitting victim of behind-the-scenes corporate control on a daily basis. Perhaps that’s what makes The Insider the most unexpectedly bruising film of Michael Mann’s career.
Well, we made it. Every single columnist summing up the past 12 months will note just how challenging it was for us collectively and individually but I still feel the need to acknowledge and echo the sentiment. Even though theaters were closed, the movies were still open for business and thankfully, there was no shortage of superb entertainment to consume at home. I watched just over 170 films that were released in 2020; here are my 10 favorites:
- Boys State (streaming exclusively on Apple TV+)
Released in the middle of the most contentious election year in modern American history, this entrancing and supremely entertaining political documentary examines how we got here and embraces how we move forward together. No matter which side of the aisle you find yourself on, this look at Texas teens creating their own government from scratch will fascinate and surprise at every turn.
- Minari (coming to theaters February 12th)
After releasing the magnificent The Farewell last year, A24 follows up with another thoughtful and tender portrait of the Asian-American experience. Featuring a jaw-droppingly gorgeous musical score from Emile Mosseri, this autobiographical story from writer/director Lee Isaac Chung recounts his family’s search for the American Dream in 1980s Arkansas. The entire cast is terrific but Steven Yeun’s performance as the idealist father should garner Best Actor support.
- American Utopia (streaming exclusively on HBO Max)
Spike Lee released 2 great films in 2020 and while his Da 5 Bloods is likely to scoop up more awards, his filmed version of David Byrne’s Broadway concert is a joyous experience and proper companion to 1984’s Stop Making Sense. From both creative and technical perspectives, it’s an unbridled triumph of conviction, imagination and world-class wireless audio performance. The rousing rendition of Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” is a clear highlight.
- Nomadland (streaming on Hulu and coming to theaters February 19th)
The recent winner of Best Film by Indiana Film Journalists Association –with many more awards likely to follow– Chloé Zhao’s meditation on transience and trauma is captivating in every sense of the word. Frances McDormand is expectedly outstanding as a wayfarer looking to find herself amongst America’s heartland. I hope to see this in a theater when it’s safe again, mostly to fully take in the breathtaking, golden hour vistas by cinematographer Joshua James Richards once more.
- Sound of Metal (streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime)
This debut by director Darius Marder about a heavy metal drummer battling permanent hearing loss starts off rough around the edges but transitions into something more sensitive and soulful than what it appears to be at first. Riz Ahmed turns in his best work yet as the hearing-impaired protagonist and the sound design flawlessly immerses us into the changing inner world of the main character.
- Small Axe: Lovers Rock (streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime)
Amid the towering achievement that is Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s 5-film anthology series, his depiction of two lovers who meet at a West London reggae house party is a high point. The partygoers spontaneously belting out Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” in unison is cinema’s defining music moment in 2020, a year that took away our ability to sing joyously and off-key with other people in public spaces.
- The Nest (available to rent digitally)
Writer/director Sean Durkin emerges from a 9-year hiatus and delivers another excellent slow-burn of a not-quite horror movie. His agonizing depiction of an affluent family on the verge of financial tumult is dreadfully transfixing and brilliantly rendered. Carrie Coon and Jude Law both do career-best work as the feuding husband and wife dancing dangerously around a divorce.
- Palm Springs (streaming exclusively on Hulu)
In a year where the concept of time became fuzzy and days blurred together, this hilarious Groundhog Day variant benefited from the unexpectedly apt context of world events. Andy Siara’s remarkably clever script and Max Barbakow’s assured first-time direction are in perfect harmony with one another. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti sport world-class chemistry and J. K. Simmons is a hoot in his supporting role.
- The Assistant (streaming on Hulu and available to rent digitally)
It’s not exactly an easy watch but Kitty Green’s day-in-the-life tale of a young assistant at a film production company where dark secrets lurk is chillingly compelling and exceedingly well-observed. Ozark‘s Julia Garner is a revelation as the morally conflicted young professional at the story’s center. Aside from the scene that gives Never Rarely Sometimes Always its title, Garner’s visit to the HR director’s office may be 2020’s best stretch of film.
- Soul (streaming exclusively on Disney+)
Pixar delivers yet another life-affirming masterpiece about the passions that drive us and the preciousness of every moment of life that lies before us. Director Pete Docter and the entire crew behind him craft an existential fantasy that bursts at the seams with beauty and humor. The heartfelt jazz compositions by Jon Batiste and heady musical score from Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor compliment each other exquisitely.
Reprinted (with a couple list variations due to current film availability) by permission of Whatzup
Originally printed in The Midwest Film Journal
One of the most heartening transitions in Hollywood over the past ten years has been French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s ascension from indie darling to big-budget auteur. What’s even more promising is that the progression has led to very few, if any, compromises to his artistic integrity along the way. After breaking out with the Oscar-nominated Incendies in 2010, it didn’t take long for him to graduate to thoughtful mid-budget films like Sicario and Arrival and to eventually command Christopher Nolan-scale projects like Blade Runner 2049 and the forthcoming (sigh) Dune.
2013 was an important year for Villeneuve, as it saw the release of two films that would exponentially speed his career along. The better remembered of the pair is Prisoners, a morality-based thriller with a star-studded cast which included Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal that captured the attention of audiences worldwide to the tune of $120+ million. The lesser known of the couple, Enemy, is a decidedly smaller profile picture with a fraction of Prisoners‘ budget, even though it also stars Gyllenhaal in the lead role. Villeneuve has done plenty of great work the past decade and while Blade Runner 2049 is arguably his most accomplished movie, Enemy remains my personal favorite in his oeuvre.
The film is a loose adaptation of José Saramago’s novel O Homem Duplicado, Portuguese for “The Duplicated Man”, although it was retitled The Double when translated into English in 2004. Fittingly, Enemy had a doppelgänger of its own in 2013 by way of Richard Ayoade’s The Double, based on the unrelated Dostoyevsky novella of the same name. Since that title was already in use and presumably because the title The Two Jakes was already taken by some other movie, Villeneuve went with the title Enemy instead. It turns out to be the most apt title of all, as this is a movie chiefly concerned with a man at odds with himself, which is to say in conflict with his own desires and vices.
Gyllenhaal plays Adam Bell, a reclusive history professor who rents a movie on the advice of a fellow teacher and spots an extra in a bellhop outfit who looks identical to him. Curious, Bell discovers the actor is Anthony Claire and after confirming his likeness based on two other film appearances, Adam becomes obsessed with his apparent twin and eventually makes contact with him. After the men come together and remark on the impossible similarities, they diverge and search for answers on their own. Adam reaches out to his girlfriend, played by Mélanie Laurent, for advice, and to his mother, played by Isabella Rossellini, to see if it’s possible that he could have an identical twin that he doesn’t know about. Meanwhile Anthony’s wife, played by Sarah Gadon, becomes aware of Adam’s existence and is bewildered when she meets him face-to-face.
As one may expect, the central mystery of Enemy does not lead to a straight-forward conclusion and reveals more layers of psychological complexity as the story moves along. Without giving too much away about the details of the plot, it’s enough to say that the film’s primary theme is infidelity and what it takes to finally and fully commit to someone. Much like David Lynch’s erotic thriller Mulholland Drive, this is ultimately a puzzlebox movie where characters from both films literally stand with a key in their hands during pivotal moments in their respective storylines. Similarly, it’s difficult to watch Villeneuve’s film just once and grasp the entirety of its symbolism.
The reactions of those who have seen Enemy tend to fixate on one aspect, which is the film’s deliberately challenging concluding scene. Each person I’ve seen the film with for the first time tends to cycle through the same feelings of shock then amusement then befuddlement, though the implications of its meaning have made it more terrifying for me than anything else. When discussing authoritarian rule in a lecture hall during the opening scene, Bell says of systemic suppression that “this is a pattern that repeats itself throughout history.” I won’t share my interpretation of the ending here but I would urge first-time viewers to consider this early line in the film when sussing out the ending.
Regardless of how one reacts to the last scene, there’s no denying the benefit of getting two Jake Gyllenhaals for the price of one. Like all of the best dual roles, Gyllenhaal establishes credibility early on by crafting two distinct personalities that allow us to tell the difference between what is essentially the same person. He also does plenty with body language to establish distinguishing features of the two men, plaguing the meek Adam with a perpetual slouch while dignifying the coolheaded Anthony with the posture of confidence. One of my favorite shots in the films crawls in on a helmeted Gyllenhaal as Anthony as he sits on his motorcycle with his legs perched out like a spider waiting for prey while the web-like streetcar wires of urban Toronto lie overhead.
As Dune is presumably finished at this point and just waiting to be released at a time when a pandemic isn’t mercilessly ravaging the populace, Villeneuve’s next project has already been announced. Collaborating with Gyllenhaal once again, both as actor-director and co-executive producers, Villeneuve will head up The Son as a limited series for HBO. Based on a bestselling novel by Jo Nesbo, the show would seem to focus on an escaped convict who can’t remember his past and finds himself on the run while dealing with opioid addiction. It would seem that Jake and Denis teaming up is a pattern that repeats itself and I personally hope for a fruitful continuation of their reign.
Originally printed in The Midwest Film Journal
Growing up in western Pennsylvania, I remember spending more time than I’d care to admit getting lost in the woods. As someone who wasn’t especially outdoorsy, I still couldn’t resist the urge to go over to friends’ houses during summer break and waste hours and hours going through whatever nearby forests we could find. There was something about exploring “uncharted” territory away from adults and the endless possibilities of discovery that never seemed to get old. But no matter how deep in we went, we always found our way out. It never even occurred to me that one day, maybe we wouldn’t.
This simple but haunting notion is just one of many that permeates the brilliantly effective and rightfully iconic The Blair Witch Project. Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 1999 and later scaring up almost $250 million that following summer, the film remains one of the most profitable horror movies of all time. The concept of a fictitious Blair Witch was first developed by co-directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez back in 1993 but as we all know now, the movie’s most salacious marketing hook was that audiences didn’t know the legend was entirely made-up. Shot on a combination of 16mm and VHS in October of 1997 (their last day of shooting was, appropriately, on Halloween), the largely improvised project featured three unknown actors — Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard — going into the woods to document the seemingly real Blair Witch legend.
While The Blair Witch Project didn’t create the found-footage technique, it gave it terrifying renewed potential. If you go into the film ignoring the indelible cultural impact that it’s had over the past 20 years and try to approach it as a factual account of these three student filmmakers getting in way over their heads, it remains one of the sub-genre’s crowning achievements. Its credibility starts early, with Heather haphazardly holding her ever-present camcorder as she meets Mike and recruits Josh for their new project. “I really want to avoid any cheese; I want this to be as straightforward as possible,” she forewarns her male cohorts as they pack the video gear into their car. Myrick and Sánchez wisely apply this thesis statement to their approach for the film’s simple and subtle scares.
After setting the table with some terrific naturalistic acting of Maryland locals recounting stories of the Blair Witch legend, the movie follows Heather, Mike and Josh as they begin their hike through the leaf-covered Black Hills forest. The first few days go about as well as planned, as they capture footage of a creepy graveyard and the equally creepy Coffin Rock while Heather narrates in a perfectly overwrought film student manner. What Myrick and Sánchez do so shrewdly over the remaining runtime is show how little it takes to psychologically break these people down and erode their very sense of being. It’s as if the filmmakers studied Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and thought “what if we slowly chip away at all of these from the bottom up until there’s nearly nothing left?”
First, it rains and the chilly autumn breeze turns into a stiffer and more unforgiving wind. After the fourth day, food and water become scarce and random noises throughout the woods make certain that a good night’s sleep is nigh impossible. Their bags are raided in the night and cairns are insidiously placed right outside their tents, indicating that they won’t be safe wherever they choose to camp out. Trust and whatever notion of “friendship” these three have slowly erode as they become more lost in their treacherous surroundings. Josh is seemingly kidnapped and tortured as Heather and Mike fruitlessly attempt to locate him amongst the array of identical-looking trees. After all of these awful events, we finally get to the top of Maslow’s pyramid when Heather tearfully admits to Mike “this is all I have!”, realizing that her dreams of becoming a revered filmmaker will never come true.
All of this leads to a spellbinding finale set in the abandoned house of a hermit who allegedly kidnapped and killed children under orders of the Blair Witch. The production design is terrific as Heather and Mike investigate the bloody handprinted walls and decrepit condition of the building. Myrick and Sánchez deftly juggle between Heather’s 16mm camera and Mike’s camcorder, ratcheting up the tension as Mike hastily makes his way to the cobblestone basement ahead of Heather. My favorite detail of the film’s chilling final minute is how we’re seeing the footage from Heather’s camera but hearing the audio from Mike’s camcorder, even though it hits the ground once he finally gets to the basement. That way, Heather’s shrieks become louder and louder until she finally gets to the room and sees Mike standing horrifyingly still in a corner of the basement.
It should go without saying but the mystique of The Blair Witch Project will likely never again be replicated in film history. Thanks to the ever-watchful entertainment industry, spoiler-ridden trailers and constant chatter on social media, we practically know everything about a given movie before it’s even released. This film’s marketing campaign went viral before “viral” was even a concept, utilizing the internet in ways that Hollywood hadn’t even begun to think about. Sure, Space Jam had a website (that, for some reason, still exists today) but it didn’t have nearly the depth of content of Blair Witch’s link-heavy web index. The convincing narrative that the site put forth even had message boards buzzing, long before the days of Reddit and 4Chan when internet conspiracy culture wasn’t an embarrassing hellscape of alt-right propaganda.
Indeed, there may never be another horror movie quite like The Blair Witch Project but that’s all the more reason to get lost in its wilderness when fall rolls around each year.
Originally printed in The Midwest Film Journal
“Be excellent to each other and party on, dudes!” It’s a simple sentiment, sure, but something about this thesis statement from the cult comedy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure has resonated with audiences since its release and perhaps right now even more than ever. Strip away the surfer dude parlance and you basically have calls to empathy and self-care that may not have seemed profound back in 1989 but have proven to be especially illuminating in overwhelmingly distressing times. Aside from the use of a homophobic slur by the main characters, I was surprised while recently rewatching Bill & Ted just how little of it feels dated by today’s standards and fittingly, the experience of seeing it again made me feel as if I was traveling back to a simpler time.
I’ve probably seen Excellent Adventure in full about 5 or 6 times but I doubt more than half of those viewings were for the entire film in one sitting. Growing up as a teen in the early 2000s, I remember Comedy Central playing the movie seemingly every week. When I was flipping through channels, a practice I’m mildly nostalgic for as I’m typing this sentence, I would often stop to catch wherever it was in its runtime. It was like loading scenes of a movie onto an iPod Shuffle, another reference that instantly dates me, and seeing what comes up. If it was the shopping mall montage of historical figures running amok or Napoleon shouting “merde!” as he slides down the bowling lane, you can be sure that the channel would remain unflipped for at least several minutes.
For the uninitiated, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure involves two amiable California dudes who use a time-traveling phone booth to abduct important figures throughout history and pass their final school presentation. Though comedy is often a game of opposites, the characters of Bill and Ted are remarkably similar, to the point where they often make the same exclamations like “bogus!” and “gnarly!” in unison. Naturally, the key to making the relationship work is timing and chemistry, both of which leads Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter have a most magnificent amount. Their performances are harmonious and complimentary in a way that really sells the kind of kindred spirits these two slackers have become to one another.
Although Winter has mainly stayed out of the limelight since his breakout role as Bill S. Preston, Esq., Reeves has since become one of Hollywood’s most recognizable stars with huge franchise hits like The Matrix and John Wick. Due to the once popular “Sad Keanu” meme and his introverted personality, Reeves’ persona has typically relied heavily on the actor’s seeming stoicism, so it’s especially fun going back and watching him essentially be a goof for 90 minutes. I especially love how Reeves imbues Ted with the most laid-back temperament imaginable, even when pressed with trying circumstances. After ribbing Bill about his new stepmom, Bill seems genuinely upset when he tells Ted to shut up, to which Ted pauses a moment and then lights up a dopey grin to diffuse the tension. In a relatively low stakes movie, that brief confrontation has a surprising amount of impact because we recognize how strong of a friendship these two have with each other.
Excellent Adventure also has a playful spirit about the nature of time travel and just like its central duo, really doesn’t bother to take things too seriously. If you ask the movie if it operates on a fixed timeline or alternate timeline, it would answer “yes.” My favorite comedic paradox in the film is when the pair need a set of keys belonging to Ted’s police chief father to get out of a predicament. Ted has a bright idea: why don’t they go back in time after the history report is over, steal the keys and plant them near the police station at that moment so they can find them? Before we even have time to figure out if that makes any sense at all, Bill pulls the keys out of the grass near a sign where their future selves presumably placed them.
Catching up with the film now, it’s still a bit too broad and cartoonish in certain respects but even the bits that don’t work still skate by on good-natured charm. The plotline essentially operates as a feature length version of the Marshall McLuhan scene from Annie Hall, where Woody Allen manifests the media theorist out of thin air to show up a chatty intellectual in a movie line. Here, Bill and Ted nab famous historical figures throughout time as if to say to their teacher “see, we do know something of their work!” While Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure isn’t quite up to Annie Hall caliber, it’s just the kind of sweet and affable comedy that we could all use right about now.
Originally printed in The Midwest Film Journal
We’ve all been there. You’re with your bros, ranking your favorite Coen Brothers’ movies, and things get tricky. You have 18 films with nary a stinker in sight, at least half of which could justifiably be in the top spot. Thoughts like “is there really no room for Barton Fink in my top 5?” and “can anything besides Intolerable Cruelty go in the bottom slot?” occupy your head. As someone who recently tried and failed to come up with such a daunting list, I’ve come to respect any attempt to conjure up a cogent Coen pecking order. However, one trend continues to befuddle me: the consistent underrating of the screwball spy comedy Burn After Reading.
Saddled chronologically between Best Picture winner No Country For Old Men and existential parable A Serious Man, Burn After Reading came in 2008 like a bit of respite between two pillars of heavier fare. I like to think of it as the loosening of the belt between plate one and plate two of Thanksgiving dinner. At a lean 96 minutes, it’s as tightly edited and efficiently rendered as anything the Coens have committed to celluloid to this point. But most importantly, the film is laugh-out-loud hilarious no matter how many times you’ve seen it, which I mark as a true test of a great comedy.
Of all the roles in Tilda Swinton’s career, her character in Burn After Reading would likely qualify as one of the more “normal” people that she has portrayed. She plays Katie Cox, the uptight and unrelenting wife of John Malkovich’s Osbourne Cox, a CIA analyst who gets sacked in the film’s opening scene and unwittingly sets into motion the comedy of errors to come. We discover early on that Katie is pursuing an affair with the likewise married US Marshal Harry Pfarrer, played with zig-zagging charm and kookiness by George Clooney. Her plan is to divorce “Ozzie” provided Harry can break it off with his wife Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel), who Katie affectionally refers to as a “cold, stuck-up bitch,” a term that Harry’s wife coincidentally uses to describe Katie.
As an unbiased observer, I may have to side with Sandy on this one. Adorn with outfits that scream “old money” and a hairstyle modeled after Edna Krabappel from The Simpsons, Katie is certainly not the most approachable person. In her mind, everyone constantly acts in an embarrassing manner and there’s nearly no situation that can’t be sped along with an exasperated “for fuck’s sake!” When her bumbling divorce attorney urges a “day of reflection” before pursuing legal action, she scoffs and quickly feigns a one-sided smile. Trapped in a storyline where characters make increasingly dubious decisions, she serves as the stern captain aboard this ship of fools.
Despite her seeming superiority, Katie is begrudgingly smitten with one of said fools. There’s something about Harry, be it his post-coital running routine or his penchant for high-quality flooring, that has captured the modicum of affection that she has to offer. That doesn’t mean she’s not willing to push him around too though. When Harry accuses Katie of forcing him to hastily split with Sandy, she assures him “I do *not* hammer!” as she punctuates each word with a pounding finger on the restaurant table. But the Coens save the funniest detail about Swinton’s character until the hour-and-twenty minute mark. The late reveal of her profession, which flies in the face of everything that we’ve come to know about her up to that point, is one of my favorite low-key punchlines in the entire film.
It’s a testament to how well-organized and tightly compiled this madcap comedy is. There’s not a single extraneous moment or wasted line and many scenes seem to rhyme with the scene previous to it. Take the opening, in which Ozzie gets ousted from his CIA position due to his alcoholism. After an outburst, which he mockingly echoes the “I have a drinking problem” accusation of his superior, we cut right to a close-up of Ozzie cracking a fresh ice tray for his first of many Cuba Libres. The Coens also intersperse the propulsive storyline with hilarious interjections by CIA higher-ups, played by David Rasche and J.K. Simmons, who are desperately trying to untangle the messy story that is unfolding before them. Like a pair of puzzled Greek gods profanely presiding over their subjects, their scrambling to try to “resolve” the situation is a brilliantly funny way to recontextualize the labyrinthine plot.
Strange to go this long talking about Burn After Reading and not mention the gonzo performances by Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt as a duo of hapless gym trainers who get in way over their empty heads. Pitt alone has a litany of silly face expressions and goofy dance moves to inspire pages of reaction GIFs on his own. He had done a little comedy before and has done some comedy since but I don’t think I’ve seen Pitt cut quite as loose as he does here. But for all the “foolishness” (to borrow a term from Katie) that’s on display, Burn After Reading works as well as it does because it’s balanced by factors like the straight-laced and tightly-coiled performance by Tilda Swinton.
Originally printed in The Midwest Film Journal
Before he was Dominic, Riddick, or Groot, he was just Chris. When we think of Vin Diesel, we think of leave-your-brain-at-the-door actioneers but before the one-two punch of Pitch Black (well, technically it came out the same weekend) and The Fast and the Furious, there was 2000’s Boiler Room. Written and directed by Ben Younger, the film stars Diesel as Chris Varick, one of the many money-hungry brokers at the crooked firm J.T. Marlin. It is there that Chris and his cohorts spend their days in the titular location barking at potential clients about stock opportunities with the bravado of young bulls. The scene is strikingly similar to the one set by Martin Scorsese 13 years later in The Wolf of Wall Street, sans the midget tossing and stripper parades.
Revisiting Boiler Room after seeing The Wolf of Wall Street, it almost seems quaint by comparison. Even though both are based on the Wall Street exploits of the infamous Jordan Belfort, the former uses his story as a jumping off point where the latter is more of a warts-and-all biopic. Boiler Room’s version of Belfort, Michael Brantley, played by That Thing You Do’s Tom Everett Scott, is decidedly the much more tame version of his real-life counterpoint and only pops up a few times in the film. The story instead focuses on Giovanni Ribisi’s Seth Davis, a street-savvy college dropout who ditches his home-based unlicensed casino and climbs his way up the ladder at J.T. Marlin.
One thing I love about Boiler Room is how much it takes a page from the Glengarry Glen Ross playbook of allowing specific actors to take a scene and run with it. The most obvious example is the trio of training monologues from Ben Affleck, mirroring the same venomous intensity of Alec Baldwin’s Glengarry character. “They say money can’t buy happiness? Look at the fucking smile on my face. Ear to ear, baby!”, he hisses at the wide-eyed recruits after bragging about the details of his millionaire status. Later, he coaches them on his “act as if” philosophy with similarly colorful language. He’s arrogant, callous and greedy beyond measure but we can still understand the appeal of the world that he’s pitching for these young newcomers. In just a few scenes, he epitomizes the timbre of the calamitous yet vaguely enticing environment in which he inhabits.
Diesel gets his own spotlight moment, jumping over desks to beat out fellow brokers for a hot new phone lead. The chaos on the floor stops as they put his call over the speakers so they can hear the master at work. The victim on the other line is a hapless doctor who took the bait on an pharmaceutical tip and has no idea he’s about to buy 2000 shares in 2 minutes. Diesel’s line readings drip with prevaricator’s poison as he rakes this poor guy over the coals. “That great doc, if you want to miss another opportunity and watch your colleagues get rich doing clinical trials,” he says poised with a rebuttal for any objection. After he closes, he greets the applauding crowd of dazzled traders with a Diesel signature move he would re-create a year later in The Fast and the Furious: arms stretched out wide with shrugged shoulders and shit-eating smirk. “Diesel is interesting,” Ebert remarked in his review. “Something will come of him.”
Shady business practices and four-letter words aside, Boiler Room doesn’t quite dive as deeply into the same Wall Street culture vices as something like The Wolf of Wall Street. The film is largely sexless, with the exception of a sweet romance between Seth and a receptionist played by Nia Long. Thanks to some truly garish product placement, there’s more Coke addiction than coke addiction on display. And yet, the movie evokes a specific time and place quite brilliantly, even if the cringey, scratch-heavy music score by The Angel hasn’t aged quite as well as everything else. With a sound script and confident direction, Boiler Room is a high quality look inside the low quality world of chop stocks.
Originally printed in The Midwest Film Journal
What did we do to deserve a year in film as excellent as 1999? By this point, most cinephiles and critics are at consensus that the final year of the 1990s is one of the finest when it comes to consistent cinematic output. Just ask a group of movie buffs what their ‘99 favorite is and you’ll likely end up with a variety of laudable choices. With available titles like Eyes Wide Shut, The Matrix and Being John Malkovich, among a list of plenty of worthy contenders that could fill the rest of this column, there really are no wrong answers. However, one answer has been seemingly grown more “wrong” in the 20 years since it took home Best Picture: Sam Mendes’ American Beauty.
By the time the 72nd Academy Awards arrived in March of 2000, the film was a critical and commercial hit, grossing over $350 million worldwide against a $15 million budget and scoring rave reviews in the process. It was a heavy favorite to take home the majority of the 8 awards for which it was nominated and indeed that came to pass, as it won in 5 categories including the top prize. When you look at the rest of the Best Picture field that year (The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile, The Insider, The Sixth Sense), it’s not difficult to see how a film like American Beauty would stand apart. In a group of films helmed by seasoned directors, with Shyamalan as a notable exception, it was the rabble-rousing new kid on the block that Academy voters were eager to champion.
So what’s become of American Beauty’s legacy since then? It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the cultural conversation turned against its favor, aside from its initial detractors. As early as 2005, Premiere Magazine cited it as one of the “20 Most Overrated Movies Of All Time,” even though that list also included truly unimpeachable offerings like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Fantasia. Since then, social media has allowed for a total relitigation of the film, years removed from the rapturous response from revered film critics like Roger Ebert and Todd McCarthy. It also goes without saying that after September 11th, the Great Recession and the country’s continuing political polarization, American Beauty’s concerns may read as trivial in retrospect.
But aside from the cataclysmic cultural shifts that have transpired, perhaps the most damning contribution to American Beauty’s decline has been the 2017 sexual misconduct allegations against Best Actor winner Kevin Spacey. With 15 accusers in counting, 3 of whom were victims of suicide last year alone, the assertions are troubling to say the very least. This along with a pair of confounding YouTube videos, in which Spacey gives cryptic advice as his House of Cards character Frank Underwood, has all but guaranteed that Spacey will never work in Hollywood again. Ridley Scott even scrubbed Spacey entirely from his 2017 film All The Money In The World, replacing him with Christopher Plummer merely a month before the release date.
These revelations about Spacey’s conduct make the film more difficult to revisit, especially given that much of the plot centers around Spacey’s Lester lusting after an underage girl. Recently rewatching the film for the first time in many years, I did my best to set the current context aside and watch as if it were 1999. In doing so, I was quite surprised with how much of American Beauty does hold up 20 years after its release. In his first screenplay for a feature film, Alan Ball shrewdly etches each of the main characters with a sardonic humor that still gives each of them their own unique voice and perspective. Its takes on middle-age malaise and suburban strife may not seem especially novel today but few films were investigating these themes as boldly as this one at the time of its release.
In his feature debut, Sam Mendes (who won Best Director back in 2000 and will likely do so again for 1917 on Sunday) showcases an impressive command of the form in the film’s opening moments. He lays out the plight of his put-upon protagonist along with his wife Carolyn and daughter Jane with cutting cynicism and economical editing. I was struck with just how much Mendes juggles thematically in this film, between the exploration of sexuality, materialism, homophobia, loss of identity and mortality. These are obviously touchy subjects for American cinema and Mendes pulls off the balance even better than I remembered.
Even if Mendes’ tale of middle class ennui doesn’t resonate with viewers, there’s enough technical prowess behind the camera to keep one engaged throughout. Thomas Newman’s still iconic musical score utilizes sensitive tuned percussion and lilting piano to counteract the dispassionate and glib tone of the film. In one of his last films before his passing in 2003, cinematographer Conrad Hall does career-best work with beautiful shot compositions and a sedate color palette that allows the color red to pop. He also throws in clever visual metaphors, as when Lester’s computer monitor at work captures his reflection against lines of code that resemble bars of a jail cell.
From Fight Club to Office Space, corporate imprisonment and subsequent liberation was a popular theme among 1999 films and it’s not difficult to see why. We were at the brink of a new millennium, with a host of new fears and anxieties at our doorstep. Y2K put us on high alert and in some ways, it feels like we never came down from it. The only escape, the film posits, is finding purpose and beauty in this world, even if its in observing an innocuous plastic bag dancing in the wind. Perhaps American Beauty is more pretentious in investigating this philosophy than some would like but that doesn’t make it any less deserving of a closer look.
2018 was an especially good year for film and fortunately, 2019 also looks to have plenty of good selections in store. Here are 20 titles to look out for this year:
- Opening on January 18th is Glass, M. Night Shyamalan’s superhero sequel to Unbreakable and Split that once again pits Bruce Willis’ David Dunn against Samuel L. Jackson’s Mr. Glass while adding James McAvoy’s The Beast into the action as well.
- Opening on February 8th is The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, which looks to build on the surprise success of its predecessor by bringing back Chris Pratt to not only voice Emmet but also Rex Dangervest, a parody of action heroes portrayed by Pratt in other films.
- Opening on February 22nd is How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, the third and final installment in the series which finds a budding romance among Toothless and another dragon as our hero Hiccup looks to defend his tranquil village from an emerging enemy.
- Opening on March 8th is Captain Marvel, the latest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that goes back to the mid-1990s to introduce us to Brie Larson as the title character, who discovers her origins as a member of the Kree alien race and joins them in battle against the Skrulls.
- Opening on March 15th is Us, a psychological horror film from Get Out writer/director Jordan Peele that centers around a family of four looking for rest and relaxation at their beach house but finding nothing of the sort as they’re stalked by a group of ominous strangers.
- Opening on April 5th is Shazam!, a new superhero comedy in DC’s Extended Universe centered around a troubled teenager who stumbles upon a magical realm that grants him the power to transform into a Superman-like hero, just by saying the magic word.
- Opening on April 26th is Avengers: Endgame, a direct sequel to last year’s Infinity War that will seemingly resolve the gambit presented during the previous film’s conclusion. Paul Rudd and Brie Larson will likely be added to the already massive cast.
- Opening on May 17th is John Wick 3: Parabellum, another high-stakes actioner with Keanu Reeves reprising his role as the unstoppable lead character who is now on the run from a league of skilled assassins lurking all throughout the streets of New York City.
- Opening on May 24th is Ad Astra, a science fiction thriller from director James Gray starring Brad Pitt as an astronaut in search for his missing father, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who disappeared twenty years earlier on a dangerous mission to Neptune.
- Opening on May 31st is Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the latest in Legendary’s MonsterVerse starring Stranger Things‘ Millie Bobby Brown that pits the everyone’s favorite gigantic lizard against other classic creatures like Mothra, Rodan and King Ghidorah.
- Opening on June 14th is Men in Black: International, a reboot of the sci-fi comedy series that re-teams Thor: Ragnarok stars Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson as they bust out the big guns and travel the globe in order to solve an intergalactic murder mystery.
- Opening on June 21st is Toy Story 4, another sequel from Pixar that brings back Woody, Buzz and the rest of the gang as they’re introduced to the new toy named Forky on a road trip. Comedy duo Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele join the talented voice cast.
- Opening on July 5th is Spider-Man: Far from Home, another adventure for the Marvel superhero that finds Peter Parker on a summer vacation with his friends in Europe as he joins forces with Jake Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio to do battle with creatures known as Elementals.
- Opening on July 19th is The Lion King, a photorealistic remake of the 1994 Disney film that once again follows the journey of the lion cub Simba as he becomes King of the Pride Lands. The stellar voice cast includes work from Donald Glover and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter.
- Opening on July 26th is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the latest from Quentin Tarantino that stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as a TV actor and his stunt double as they look to make it big in the movie business in late-1960s Los Angeles.
- Opening on August 2nd is The New Mutants, a horror film based in the X-Men universe that finds five young mutants who are being held against their will in a secret facility. Originally slated for an April 2018 release timeframe, the delayed project looks to shake up the traditional superhero genre.
- Opening on September 6th is It: Chapter Two, the follow-up to the box office smash that picks up 27 years after the events of the first film as the demonic clown Pennywise continues to haunt the members of The Losers’ Club well into their adult lives.
- Opening on October 4th is Joker, a twist on the infamous Batman villain with Joaquin Phoenix as the title character. Set in the early 1980s, the movie centers around a failing stand-up comedian driven to psychosis and a life of crime by the uncaring citizens of Gotham City.
- Opening on November 27th is Knives Out, a mystery crime film from Brick and Looper writer/director Ryan Johnson described as “a modern take on the whodunit murder mystery”. A fantastic ensemble cast, including Chris Evans and Lakeith Stanfield, is led by Daniel Craig.
- Opening on December 20th is Star Wars: Episode IX, the conclusion to the Star Wars sequel trilogy that brings back The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams following the mixed fan reaction to The Last Jedi. Disney looks to put the franchise back on track after the financial failure of last year’s Solo.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup
It’s the most wonderful time of the year and if you’re not in the holiday spirit yet, Hollywood has you covered. Here are 5 major releases coming to theaters this upcoming holiday weekend:
Mary Poppins Returns, starring Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, is a direct sequel to the classic 1964 musical which finds the merry and mystical nanny reuniting with two of the children from the original, now grown with children of their own. Filling the shoes of a screen icon like Julie Andrews is no easy feat but it looks like Blunt may be a perfect fit to recapture the charm and whimsy that Andrews brought to the role all those years ago. The trailers so far have teased images that harken back to the hand-drawn animation from Disney’s heyday and with original music from Tony-winning composer Marc Shaiman, this film could be quite a delight. Expect it to clean up at the box office when it opens early on December 19th.
Aquaman, starring Jason Momoa and Amber Heard, is the latest installment in the DC Extended Universe which follows the titular superhero as he leads the people of Atlantis against the evil sea creature Orm. With last year’s Wonder Woman and Justice League representing the best and worst of what can be found in this Universe, Aquaman seems like it could wind up in between the two. I can’t say I’m a big fan of this version of Aquaman based on his two previous appearances but the digital effects in this entry at least seem markedly less murky than other recent DC films. This movie has already done almost $100 million in business since its opening in China and with early screenings already trickling out around the US, all signs point to this being another massively successful superhero stint for Warner Brothers.
Bumblebee, starring Hailee Steinfeld and John Cena, is a spin-off of the Transformers franchise (technically a prequel to the first film in the series) that focuses on the origin of the titular yellow robot. Set in the late 1980s, there’s a good chance this film will lean into pop cultural touchstones from the era to add a bit of personality to the sci-fi action thrills. It’s a bit odd to have a big budget blockbuster like this open in the heart of awards season, especially since the past four Transformers films have opened in June, but I doubt this will affect its financial success overall. With two likeable leads at its center and Kubo and the Two Strings director Travis Knight replacing Michael Bay in the director’s chair, there’s a good chance this could be a critical success in addition to being a hit at the box office.
Holmes and Watson, starring Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, is yet another Sherlock Holmes adaptation brought to us by the same goofball team responsible for Step Brothers and Talladega Nights. The surplus of recent Holmes variations have generally played things straight, focusing on the detective’s almost supernatural deduction skills, but it’s clear that the strategy here is to play everything for laughs. I was initially excited for this film when I first caught wind of it but all the promotional material I have seen so far has made me markedly less eager to see what looks to be pretty flimsy fare. I’m sure there are plenty of laughs that could be wrung from the legendary literary figure but with gags involving killer bees and selfies present in the trailer, Sony obviously went with the broad approach with this comedy.
Welcome to Marwen, starring Steve Carell and Leslie Mann, tells the true story of a man desperately trying to reconnect his life after a violent assault leaves him with almost no memory of his previous life. In order to cope with his loss, he constructs a miniature village called Marwen in his backyard populated with dolls that represent his friends and family. Based on the 2010 documentary Marwencol, director Robert Zemeckis looks to blend pathos with technical wizardry together as he did with previous work like The Polar Express and The Walk. Carell has proven that he has the dramatic chops for this kind of material and those looking for an inspiring film around the holidays will likely find what they’re looking for here.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup