"MOVIE MAD" by Michael van den Bos

(c) 2014 by Michael van den Bos

REVIEW: "LABOR DAY"

LABOR DAY – Directed by Jason Reitman

CAST: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Tobey Maguire.

 

 

 

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5 Chaplins.

For a movie boasting distinctive A-list talent, Labor Day sure is a bland affair.  Based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, Labor Day was written for the screen and directed by Jason Reitman, who gave us such bright, quirky and moving films as Juno and Up in the Air, and it stars the incomparable Kate Winslet and the sympathetically virile Josh Brolin.  That’s a stellar line-up of filmmakers; however, their efforts in Labor Day are laborious, indeed. 

The story takes place in a small American town during the 1987 Labor Day weekend.  Adele (Kate Winslet) is a depressed single mother of a 13-year-old boy, Henry (played by Gattlin Griffith; the story is narrated by the adult Henry, voiced by Tobey Maguire).  While shopping, they run into an escaped convict, Frank (Josh Brolin), an alleged murderer.  Frank forces Adele to take him to her home so he can hide out for a few days while the police search the town for him.   During the course of the long weekend, Frank fixes Adele’s car, clears the house eaves of leaves, mops and waxes the floors, and prepares a variety of delicious meals, all this while ducking the eyes of neighbours and the police.  Adele and Frank fall in love, Frank becomes a father figure to Henry and they plan to flee to Canada.  Frank is the ideal man for a lovesick woman, albeit a convicted felon hiding from the law, but then again, nobody’s perfect.

Labor Day is a most unusual romantic drama.  It is highly improbable, which is not a fault as even the best romantic films thrive on and appeal to audiences for their quixotic plots, but Reitman’s movie meanders into the absurd and sinks into silliness.  For all the interesting dynamics of tension and danger juxtaposed with the humanity and kindness that Frank generates and devotes to Adele and Henry, the movie sinks under scenes of soppy banality.   

Labor Day features scenes wherein Frank demonstrates that he is one helluva heartfelt handy man around the house.  What are his motives?  Is he truly falling in love with Adele and trying to prove that a hunted murderer isn’t all that bad?  Is it a ploy to earn Adele’s trust so she’ll easily acquiesce to harboring a criminal and eventually help him escape town?  I was kept guessing as to how this would all unfold, but the subtle intrigue that nicely built was smothered by the pie scene.  Frank shows Adele what to do with a bunch of peaches about to go bad.  He makes peach pie and what follows is an excruciatingly long scene of Frank teaching Adele and Henry how to make a peach pie.  Director Reitman obviously intended this sequence as a metaphor for Frank’s nurturing qualities and suggestive of the sexual feelings baking between him and Adele.  This belabored sequence is so overripe that it sours the rest of the film.   All credibility is finally lost after a montage sequence that shows Frank, Adele and Henry playing at being a “normal family” together.  We see one shot of Frank strumming a guitar on the porch while Adele and Henry bask in the glow of his sensitivity, and this is the moment when Labor Day succumbs to kitsch. 

There are other problems with the movie, such as confused and clunky flashback sequences and Henry’s flaccidly realized sexual coming-of-age subplot.  On the plus side, Labor Day is beautifully photographed by Eric Steelberg, who lights the movie with a nostalgic, butterscotchy palette.  In addition, the music score by Rolfie Kent creates an ominous, dreamy and melancholy mood.

The performances are generally solid.  Kate Winslet can convey depression, anxiety and a wounded psyche in her sleep.  There is no doubt that her Adele feels authentic, but I found it a one-note performance that grew a little tiresome.  Gattlin Griffith as her son is touchingly sweet, although perhaps a little too milquetoast.  Josh Brolin is the powerhouse here – he commands the screen in every frame, but not with overt mannerisms.  He exudes danger, menace, longing, yearning and vulnerability with a presence that gracefully vibrates from a minimum of gestures.  Brolin reminds me of Humphrey Bogart who, once he broke out of his straight-ahead tough guy roles, played edgy, robust men tempered by great vulnerability and impaired by psychological tremors.  Brolin, from film to film, continues in the tradition Bogart.

For all its earnestness and pretensions, Labor Day is never boring; but, depending on your tolerance for this kind of material, which is like a nexus between a Harlequin romance and an abduction thriller, you’ll either fall for the absurd fantasy or strain your eyeballs from all their rolling in your head.

CATCH THIS CLASSIC!

*click poster to view trailer*

A FESTIVAL OF FIRSTS: MONTEREY POP (1968), directed by D.A. Pennebaker

The 45th Anniversary of a Rock 'n' Roll Classic

 “Haven’t you ever been to a love-in?” asks a California sun-kissed blonde teenage girl at the beginning of one of the most important rock concert films ever made, Monterey Pop, released in 1968.  “I think it’s going to be like Easter and Christmas and New Year’s and your birthday all together…hearing all the different bands…the vibrations are just going to be flowing everywhere!” Her sweet, good-natured excitement sums up the good vibrations and California-dreamy mood of the Monterey International Pop Music Festival, held June 16 to 18, 1967, during those halcyon hippie days known as the Summer of Love. 

Directed by D.A. Pennebaker (who made the seminal 1967 Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back ) with the help of a cadre of cameramen, Monterey Pop is one of the first major rock concert films and one that perfectly captures the spirit of the era (as stated in the festival’s slogan: ‘Music, Love and Flowers’), just before this beatific bubble in time would pop. The film is a stunning record of the state of rock music in the mid-’60s and of the talent who would blaze new electrified musical trails into the next decade.  

Shot in Pennebaker’s Direct Cinema style, Monterey Pop eschews interviews by focusing on the musicians in performance, juxtaposed with images of the audience experiencing the music and living a weekend of communal bliss.  Though the festival consisted of 32 musical acts during its weekend run, only 12 made the final cut of the film.  Some of the more established musicians featured in Monterey Pop include troubadours Simon & Garfunkel (“The 59th Street Bridge Song”); the blues-boogie band, Canned Heat (“Rollin’ and Tumblin’”); the psychedelic Jefferson Airplane (“High Flyin’ Bird” and “Today”); and the haunting harmonies of The Mamas and the Papas (“”California Dreamin’” and “Got a Feelin’”).  It was Papa John Phillips, along with music impresario, Lou Adler, who organized the festival and produced the film.

Monterey Pop is essential rock music history because it documents important and revolutionary musicians exploding on the pop culture scene.  It introduced Ravi Shankar’s energetic Indian sitar picking to western audiences (Shanker's influence in the rock world extended to The Byrds and, most famously, to George Harrison) and Otis Redding’s black soul-styling to a predominantly white audience. Eric Burdon & The Animals and their fellow Brits The Who— performing for their first American audience—represented the British Invasion. Savagely tearing into their proto-punk anthem, “My Generation”, The Who rages with the furious sound of rock to come, culminating in Pete Townshend smashing his guitar to bits.

Monterey Pop features the first major American public performances of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.  Janis belts out “Ball ‘n’ Chain”, mesmerizing the audience with her brand of ballsy blues. Hendrix shocks the audience with his stratospheric version of “Wild Thing”.  Playing the Stratocaster as if he's sexually devouring it, his amplified guitar moans and screaming feedback overwhelm the audience. As if to top Pete Townshend's guitar demolition, Hendrix climaxes his performance by squirting lighter fluid on his Strat, setting it aflame and smashing it to smithereens—it’s a pure rock moment that remains provocative 45 years after this seminal and landmark music documentary first hit movie screens.

The Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray Disc set of Monterey Pop includes two hours of performances not included in the original cut of the documentary.

REVIEW

WORLD WAR Z – directed by Marc Forster

Cast: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, David Morse, Ludi Boeken, Fana Mokoena, Abigail Hargrove, Sterling Jerins, Fabrizio Zacharee Guido.

 

 

 

Rating: 1 out of 5 Chaplins.

The popularity of the zombie movie among horror fans has remained as unrelenting as the march of the flesh eating undead since George A. Romero unleashed his 1968 low-budget shocker, Night of the Living Dead.   I am no zombie zealot (although I am big fan of the atmospheric Val Lewton produced 1943 RKO psychological horror film, I Walked with a Zombie,  brilliantly directed by Jacques Tourneur), so I don’t quite understand the continuing fascination with barely one-dimensional characters whose grunting and groaning and their loopy, staggering gait strike me as more silly than scary.  However, in recent years, British director Danny Boyle resurrected the walking dead into a pair of critically acclaimed hit films, 28 Days Later, and its sequel, 28 Weeks Later, which Boyle produced and Juan Carlos Fresnadillo directed.  Moreover, the zombie sub-genre has successfully crossed into mainstream entertainment with AMC’s hugely popular cable TV series, The Walking Dead

Of course, thematically, the zombie picture has been an obvious metaphor for a variety of social and political ills over the decades, including the AIDS virus, government corruption, military incompetence and mindless consumerism.  All of this overripe zombie fodder was due for a sendup, which audiences got with Shaun of the Dead, the very funny 2004 British zombie comedy directed by Edgar Wright.  I figured Shaun would finally bury the axe into this limited horror sub-genre, but we now have Brad Pitt in the latest zombie onslaught, the big-budget and digital effects heavy World War Z – based on the 2006 novel by Max Brooks – with the Hollywood superstar also serving as one of the film’s producers.  The much anticipated movie version of World War Z is as soulless as its multitudes of undead.  It is a truly toothless zombie picture. 

Brad Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a United Nations agent with a wife and kids.  He travels the world to find a reason and cure for the unexplained zombie Armageddon that is overtaking governments, overpowering the military and attacking millions of people, turning them into the undead.  Meanwhile, on a military aircraft carrier 200 miles off the coast of the United States, Gerry’s family receives protection from the insidious advance of the zombies, but only as long as Gerry is alive and on the hunt for a key to saving humanity.  That story description pretty much sums up the depth of the narrative of World War Z, which is shallower than a zombie’s eye sockets.

Of the many problems with World War Z, the biggest issue is its screenplay, credited to at least three writers – Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof – which feels like a rough first draft went into production.  Apparently, the screenwriting history of World War Z was extremely problematic and this is evident on the screen.   With barely any character build-up, the movie begins with Gerry and his family caught in a massive zombie rampage in Philadelphia.  The audience is thrust immediately into the action for almost 20 minutes of screen time, which is fine, as long as we eventually get some interesting character development and story substance, but those dynamics never materialize.  It’s all bare bones plot driven, conveying no character nuances nor making any attempt at thematic exploration.  The film also disappoints with a hasty resolution that seems patched together because the filmmakers had no satisfactory ending

Brad Pitt is one of the most appealing of all contemporary Hollywood stars who happens to be a solid actor, too.  He has made some interesting choices in his career, starring in such decidedly non-commercial films as Andrew Dominik’s brooding character-driven western,  The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), or Terrence Malick’s ethereal and existential, The Tree of Life (2011), among Pitt’s more mainstream roles.  Pitt’s easygoing charm only goes so far in World War Z; even his natural charisma fails to carry what is a hopelessly weak film.  You sense Pitt is on autopilot, trying to get through a bland film and unconvincing role as quickly and painlessly as possible.  

Director Marc Forster, whose credits include such fine films as Monster’s Ball (2001) and Finding Neverland (2004), but also the dud James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace (2008), keeps World War Z’s skeletal story moving briskly, but his direction is generally lacklustre.  The exception to Forster’s average treatment are a few impressive CGI mass zombie attacks (especially the thousands of zombies that pile up on one another to scale an enormous wall) and the third-act sequence in a World Health Organization lab, which sustains interest and some tension. 

World War Z is one the worst looking major Hollywood films I have seen in years.  The chaotic editing of the handheld camera shots in the action sequences make significant portions of the movie incomprehensible.  This problem is exacerbated by the sub-par cinematography and the 3-D stereo conversion, with its required eyeglasses worn by the audience, which gives the movie an ugly, dark and muddy look.   The 3-D does not enhance the experience, so if you are an ardent  Brad Pitt completist and must see World War Z, avoid the 3-D version and watch it in flat 2-D. 

World War Z is not only a watered-down Brad Pitt vehicle, but also an anemic horror epic, which doesn’t even have the guts to show the carnage that diehard gorehounds would expect from a movie selling the ultimate zombie apocalypse.   Avoid World War Z as you would a plaque of undead brain-eaters.

REVIEW

THE BLING RING - Directed by Sofia Coppola

Cast: Israel Broussard, Katie Chang, Taissa Farmiga, Claire Julien, Georgia Rock, Emma Watson, Leslie Mann.

 

 

 

Rating: 2 out of 5 Chaplins. 

Sofia Coppola’s new movie takes its inspiration from the real-life home burglaries of Hollywood glitterati by a group of youths during late 2008 through the summer of 2009.  The Bling Ring, which is the sparkling sobriquet the media tagged this mostly female group of spoiled and stupid celebrity-obsessed teenagers on the cusp of adulthood, is another in a line of movies in which Coppola focuses her lens on the anxieties and behaviours of upwardly mobile teenagers and young adults (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation).  One of Coppola’s recurrent themes is the angst of living in or orbiting a world of privilege, fashion, celebrity and popular media (Marie Antoinette, Somewhere).  Coming from a famous filmmaking family no doubt gave Sofia Coppola an all-access pass over the years to this insular A-List party of power celebrities.  She should be tackling this material with insider knowledge, but she is too fixated on the crimes and blinded by the bagged bling to explore deeper motivations and meaning.   With a screenplay written by Sofia Coppola (based on a Vanity Fair article, "The Suspect Wore Louboutins" by Nancy Joe Sales), The Bling Ring attempts an examination of the New Millennium mania for fame, possessions and celebrity lifestyle by social media addicted teenagers lacking from core values and authentic personal identity.  Coppola’s flat and facile treatment is as empty as the values of the characters she has brought to the screen. 

Taking place in the Los Angeles area, The Bling Ring follows Rebecca (Katie Chang), a cold and conniving teenager from an affluent family who wallows in celebrity gossip, fashion and reality TV.   Rebecca lures Marc (Israel Broussard), an insecure teenage boy into a band of thieves she forms with likeminded girlfriends (Emma Watson, Taissa Farmiga, Claire Julien) ,who target the homes of Paris Hilton, Orlando Bloom, Lindsay Lohan and other real-life Hollywood stars.   (Paris Hilton has a fleeting cameo in the movie and she allowed Coppola to shoot in her actual home, which – no surprise – is a shrine to all things Paris.)  Rebecca and Marc plan their robberies by scouring celebrity websites to learn when the stars are away from L.A. and then search for their home addresses through Google Maps.  From there the teenage thieves steel jewelry, cash, clothes, watches, drugs and even a gun from the pop stars they worship.  These brainless bandits commit their crimes without concern for the fingerprints they leave behind or consideration of security cameras – they deserve to be caught, if only for their mere ineptitude.  Therefore, it is no spoiler to report that the police eventually catch up with the teenagers and arrest them; they all go to trial, indicted for their crimes and receive prison sentences.      

The real events of the” Bling Ring” (a.k.a.: the” Hollywood Hills Burglar Bunch”) is certainly a cautionary tale worthy of a film treatment for what it represents in our culture of celebrity lifestyle consumption, especially among easily targeted, susceptible youth who are ignorant of moral values and lack self-esteem, likely due to thoughtless and lazy parenting.  The parents of the teenagers in Coppola’s movie are largely absent and when on screen they are simply clueless cyphers.  The exception is Leslie Man, playing Emma Watson’s flakey mother, who homeschools her daughter in a curriculum based on The Secret, a book about the laws of attraction, written by Rhonda Byrne.   Mann gives The Bling Ring its only humour.  Her character is a misguided mother, but she feels real, unlike the other parents in the movie.  I do not doubt the real-life parents of these teenagers were ignorant of their children’s lack of self-worth, failing to nurture their personal confidence and dignity, resulting in stunted maturation.  Nevertheless, when Coppola neglects the parents’ role in the debacle of their children, other than presenting them as dopes, then The Bling Ring remains one-dimensional.   

In general, the performances in The Bling Ring range from adequate to anemic.   There are no real standouts among the young actors.  Emma Watson as Nicki struggles to bring life to her role, coming off weak, which is surprising since she brought such natural skill and genuine feeling to her portrayal of Hermione Granger in the HARRY POTTER series.   Katie Chang as the bling leader, Rebecca, and Israel Broussard, as Rebecca’s semi-cross-dressing partner, Marc, suggests brief moments of character depth, but that is too obviously due to what those actors bring to their roles and not in how they were written.  As the screenwriter, Coppola misses the opportunity to explore what must have been a complex relationship of foolish dedication, twisted affection and unrequited attraction Marc held for Rebecca.   In the movie, Marc suggests his feelings for Rebecca were that of a close brother and sister relationship, but there seems to be other needs and longings only hinted by their conspiratorial collaboration, as conveyed on screen, that Coppola fails to plumb. 

The screenplay of The Bling Ring is perfunctory and Sofia Coppola’s direction does not fare much better; it is as equally banal as her writing.  Although slightly more watchable than her last cinematic effort, the flaccid Somewhere (2010), The Bling Ring shows none of the sublime flair of Coppola’s bewitching mood piece, Lost in Translation (2003), starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.   Coppola finds no visual poetry that could make The Bling Ring resonate in its themes.  Even her use of slow motion feels arbitrary and therefore pretentious.  

What Coppola delivers is a crime story for the Facebook and TMZ generation, but as prosaic as the postings on that ubiquitous social media website and as shallow as the latest celebrity gossip report.

CATCH THIS CLASSIC!

*click poster to view trailer*

BIG BUSINESS WITH A BROADWAY BEAT 

HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (1967), written and directed by David Swift

 Executive backstabbing, insidious office politics and climbing the corporate ladder by way of cheeky chicanery has never been made more fun than in the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967). Based on the 1961 Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway show, featuring music and lyrics by Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls), the film version—produced, written and directed by David Swift (The Parent Trap [1961])—is an exuberant and visually stylized farce that turns the song-and-dance of corporate ambition into a literal song and dance.  

 J. Pierrepont Finch (Robert Morse) is a New York City window washer who dreams of becoming a big shot executive in the World Wide Wicket Company.  With guidance from a self-help book—How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying—Finch manages to finagle a job in the company’s mailroom. From this lowly position, he launches his meteoric corporate rise by using cunning charm, devious flattery and ingenious spin control to manipulate the decision makers who could advance his career.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying possesses an infectious bounce and laser-sharp comic timing; it overflows with wild sight gags credited to noted American cartoonist Virgil Partch. I suspect, however, that director Frank Tashlin (a former Warner Brothers cartoon director) inspired the wacky gags, because they strongly evoke his style of visual humour as featured in the Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis comedies he directed in the '50s and '60s. The look of the movie is equally buoyant, with its splashy palette of pastel colours. The colour design is credited to Mary Blair, a brilliant Disney artist whose bold, whimsical style inspired the look of Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan.

The cast is superb and sprightly. Robert Morse as Finch is a whirlwind of vitality as he spins to the top of the corporate carousel. He graces his actions with delightful comic inflections and he conveys surprising sympathy for a character who is the ultimate opportunist.  Rudy Vallee—the former 1920s “Vagabond Lover” crooner—is equally hilarious as the unsuspecting company president J.B. Biggley, while Michele Lee as Finch’s girlfriend gives the movie a sweet, no-nonsense humanity. Business features two outrageous and outstanding supporting performances: both Anthony Teague as Bud Frump, Finch’s office rival, and Maureen Arthur as Hedy LaRue, the voluptuous and vacuous mistress of J.B. Biggley, contribute to the many zany pleasures in the movie.  

Frank Loesser’s bright and satirical songs are nicely integrated with the story. The standout tunes are the wickedly funny ode to towing the company line, “The Company Way”; the gorgeous “I Believe in You”; and the delusional anthem of the Old Boy’s Network, “The Brotherhood of Man”. The staging of the musical numbers is imaginative, featuring work based on the original stage choreography by the brilliant Bob Fosse. His signature jazzy style is most evident in the snappy musical number, “A Secretary is Not a Toy” —which is just one giddy example of this movie’s sardonic stab at authentic Mad Men-era political incorrectness.