"MOVIE MAD" by Michael van den Bos

(c) 2014 by Michael van den Bos

5 Posts from January 2011


Tommy Lee Jones and Ben Affleck are The Company Men

Rating: 3 out of 5 Chaplins




 THE COMPANY MEN - written and directed by John Wells

{Opens in Vancouver theatres on Friday 28 January 2011} 

The collateral damage of the recent economic implosion is measured in the lives of everyday people and their families who were irreparably damaged due to financial loss or ruin; in turn, these events rocked individual sense of security, dignity and self-esteem.  There are thousands of stories, all the personal dramas, of how the economic shock-wave impacted the population, but one thing they all have in common is that the financial ballast of the people affected – whether they were just staying afloat or comfortably cruising through life – was, in one way or another, torpedoed.  This recent economic catastrophe is the basis for writer and director John Wells quietly moving film, The Company Men, which examines how three executives of a ship building company deal with the fallout of being fired due to corporate downsizing. 

Ben Affleck plays Bobby Walker, the sales executive for GTX, a Massachusetts ship building firm.  He earns a low six-figure salary, living the American dream life in a beautiful home with his beautiful family, driving a spiffy Porsche, and hitting the links at his exclusive golf club.  Tommy Lee Jones plays Gene McClary, one of the top corporate executives of GTX, who helped to build the company with his friend and partner, CEO James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson).  Chris Cooper plays Phil Woodard, a man who started his GTX career working in the company’s ship yards, which eventually led him to a mid-level executive position.  The disastrous downturn in the U.S. economy forces CEO James Salinger to downsize the company by “letting go” of hundreds of employees, which includes Bobby Walker.  The unenviable job of deciding who is to be fired is reluctantly determined by GTX’s Human Resources manager, Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello), who is having an affair with the married Gene McClary.  The layoffs are so troubling to Gene that he confronts James about this radical decision; reasoning and pleading his case in order for James to find alternative directions for financial cutbacks, which only falls on deaf ears.  Eventually more layoffs are required, resulting in unstable Phil to be fired and co-company founder Gene getting the pink slip, mostly to silence his caring voice of dissent.

What follows is a thoughtful character study of how each man copes with the loss of their jobs, their incomes and their personal equilibrium.  Bobby and Phil struggle with finding work worthy of their experience and societal class and suffering through the Kübler-Ross theory of grief, which is a process of five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression; but only one of the two men will make the transition to the final stage    acceptance.

As a film, The Company Men is well-crafted but not extraordinary, in fact the material is somewhat familiar and predictable to a certain degree, with a conclusion that you may sense coming, but one that is not neatly wrapped up, suggesting a cautious sense of hope.  What elevates The Company Men from being an average film is its company of actors who give subtly powerful and emotive performances, each one hitting truthful and graceful notes that made me care very much for their characters and their outcomes.  Ben Affleck, as the family man who deludes himself that he can easily find another high-paying job, is surprisingly affecting, playing fear close to his chest.  I have never had much affinity for Ben Affleck in the past, but in The Company Men he is extremely well modulated and sympathetic – this is one of his very best roles.  As the empathetic executive disturbed by the mass company layoffs, Tommy Lee Jones (who has always been a versatile and likable actor with that wonderful hangdog face and sober voice) gives the film its soul as he futilely attempts to deflect anymore firings while questioning his part in the dark side of capitalism.

Kevin Costner has a terrific, funny and touching supporting role as Jack, Bobby’s brother-in-law, a general contractor who sarcastically teases Bobby about his role in corporate America outsourcing jobs to foreign countries.  When Bobby’s severance income runs out and he still can’t find a job, it’s Jack who comes to the rescue with a job offer of manual work for Bobby that disturbs the former executive to his class core. Other strong supporting roles are played by Maria Bellow as the HR manager and Rosemarie DeWitt as Maggie, Bobby’s wife.  These two actresses offer smart and compassionate counterpoint to the issues facing the men in their lives. 

The absolute stand-out performance in the film comes from Chris Cooper, whose character is the least secure of the company men and the most realistic about his prospects for finding a new job with good pay at his age.  In scene after scene with Cooper, you see and feel the gradual collapse of his character’s well-being.  Although it is obvious his outcome has the potential of being bad, his meltdown is as riveting as it is heartbreaking.  This is Chris Cooper at his most vulnerable in a brilliant, humanistic performance that makes The Company Men far more engaging than its script would suggest.

 Trailer for John Wells's The Company Men


THE THREE LIVES OF THOMASINA (1964), Directed by Don Chaffey / Produced by Walt Disney

 Producer Walt Disney revolutionized the animated feature film, but he also specialized in live-action family movies from a variety of genres: fantasies, westerns, musicals, adventure tales, historical dramas and slapstick comedies.  A popular story staple for Disney centred on children and their relationship with animals, notably with dog-centric movies like Old Yeller (1957), The Shaggy Dog (1959) and Savage Sam (1963).  Not to ignore the cat contingent, Disney also featured felines in Jungle Cat (1960), The Incredible Journey (1963) and That Darn Cat (1965). The best of Disney’s feline fables, though, is a lovely, quiet, almost-forgotten little gem from 1964, The Three Lives of Thomasina, based on the Paul Gallico book; a story about a girl, her cat and the healing powers that come from the unconditional love shared by human and pet.  The director of The Three Lives of Thomasina was  Don Chaffey, who directed three other Disney films during his career: Greyfriar's Bobby (1961), Ride A Wild Pony (1975) and the live-action/animation musical fantasy, Pete's Dragon (1977).

This intimate movie is set in 1912 Scotland, where a tabby cat named Thomasina narrates her story — through voice-over — about how she was “murdered” by Andrew MacDhui, a widower and small-town veterinarian whose coldly scientific approach is met with suspicion from the naïve community.  Andrew’s young daughter Mary is utterly devoted to Thomasina, but when the cat is hurt in an accident Mary’s father mistakenly diagnoses tetanus and orders Thomasina killed, to the shock and anger of Mary.  Mary and her friends bury her cat, while in an astonishing and  surreal sequence Thomasina briefly goes to Cat Heaven but is miraculously brought back to life by a person the children fear: Lori MacGregor, a young woman who lives alone in the forest with her animals and whom the town believes to be a witch.  Not knowing Thomasina is alive, Mary “kills” her father in her heart, and eventually becomes gravely ill, leaving Andrew’s only hope for saving Mary to connect with the beautiful and mysterious Lori who has adopted the now amnesiac cat.

Don Chaffey’s direction is lean and understated, with much of the movie shot from the low-angle perspective of Thomasina’s vantage point. Chaffey occasionally employs dynamic ground-level tracking shots when Thomasina is on the prowl or fleeing danger that compellingly place the viewer in a cat’s world.

Patrick McGoohan as the father is a typical Disney parent who has lost his heart and must rediscover his humanity.  But McGoohan tempers his cold character with a fine pathos that indicates he knows he’s emotionally repressed but doesn’t know how to break through that wall, while British actress Karen Dotrice, who was eight years old when she made Thomasina, gives an unaffected, raw performance as Mary.  A few months later Dotrice would reappear with her equally young Thomasina co-star, Matthew Garber, in Walt Disney’s mega-hit musical Mary Poppins.  Susan Hampshire displays intelligence and strength with a persuasive and ethereal quality as the sexy “witch” Lori — she’s actually more of an “Earth Mother” type who is not to be messed with.  Elspeth March is the voice of Thomasina and her performance is as cool and confident as a cat, devoid of incongruous slang or hip dialogue, which is likely how the dialogue would be written if this movie were made in today's Hollywood. 

With its bright flashes of feline fantasy and strong performances by a beguiling and attractive cast, The Three Lives of Thomasina is a charmer with an ephemeral quality that deserves a place with the finest of family films.


Vintage TV promo for the broadcast of The Three Lives of Thomasina on The Wonderful World of Disney (NBC)


If you live in the Greater Vancouver area, you can rent the DVD of THE THREE LIVES OF THOMASINA from the greatest video store in Canada, Videomatica - located at 1855 West 4th Avenue (phone: 604-734- 0411) in fabulous Kitsilano.  Website: www.videomatica.ca


I will be introducing two classic Hollywood movies - one animated fantasy and one silent comedy  - at Vancouver's Pacific Cinematheque next week.  On Sunday 16 January, the Cinematheque's Cinema Sunday series kicks off their 2011 animated series with Max and Dave Fleischer's MR BUG GOES TO TOWN (1941).  On Thursday 20 January, the Cinematheque's Silver Screen series is showing Charlie Chaplin's immortal 1925 silent comedy masterpiece, THE GOLD RUSHBoth screenings will feature brand new, restored 35mm prints projected on a big screen, as they were meant to be seen and as they were seen by audiences in their original theatrical release.  This is a very rare occasion to experience classic movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood filmmaking in a movie theatre.  Both screenings will begin with my introduction at 1:00 PM, followed immediately by the movie. 

The Pacific Cinematheque is located at 1131 Howe Street in downtown Vancouver.  Website: www.cinematheque.bc.ca / Web page for MR. BUG GOES TO TOWN: http://www.cinematheque.bc.ca/cinema-sunday/mr-bug-goes-to-town   / Web page for THE GOLD RUSH: http://www.cinematheque.bc.ca/silver-screen/the-gold-rush-and-payday


SOMEWHERE – written and directed by Sofia Coppola

Rating: 2 out of 5 Chaplins




{Opens in Vancouver theatres on Friday 14 January 2011} 

Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning in Sofia Coppola's Somewhere 

  Writer and director Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette) knows first-hand what the blinding flash of show-biz stardom looks like and how the rapaciousness of fame can taint the soul.  Coppola grew up in the world of her famous filmmaking father, Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather saga, Apocalypse Now, The Cotton Club), and although she was never allegedly a participant in the high-living, self-destructive hijinks of the young Hollywood celebrity crowd, she certainly would have witnessed such ostentatious behaviour in and around her father’s legendary filmmaking career and through her own sophomore filmmaking efforts.  Somewhere is Coppola’s new film about the alienating effects of stardom.  Her film strips bare all the entertainment reality show puff pieces, paparazzi frenzy and empty fan and glamour magazines that glorify the show-biz gods and goddesses of 21st century western pop culture.  The intention of Coppola’s film seems to be a quietly artful examination of celebrity vacuousness in contemporary Los Angeles.  Unfortunately, Somewhere comes off as minimalist fluff; a cold, detached and lugubrious treatise of a Hollywood actor’s spiritually desolate life and the film is ultimately as hollow as all the entertainment news that exalts the celebrity lifestyle Coppola is questioning.  

Somewhere opens with Hollywood actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) racing his Ferrari in circles at a lonely race track.  When the first scene (photographed in one long and static single shot) in this movie is an obvious visual metaphor for the main character’s life in a perpetual tailspin, you know you could be in for a slew of further heavy-handed metaphors.  Johnny is a successful and popular movie star who lives in Los Angeles’ famous Chateau Marmont Hotel, but his personal life is a dead-end of booze, pills, parties and one-night-stands.  Occasionally Johnny takes a break from the parties to be entertained by a pair of hired strippers (Kristina and Karissa Shannon) who set up their equipment in Johnny’s hotel room for his own personal pole dance while he lies comfortably numb in bed.  (I bet you the story of the pole dancing sisters would make for a far more intriguing story than Johnny Marco’s.)

When Johnny does reluctantly leave the confines of the Chateau Marmont, the film follows him to his various movie related activities such as press junkets and pre-production preparations for an upcoming movie role.  Johnny’s agent is a mothering presence as she tries to keep him on schedule through incessant cell phone calls and he is constantly bombarded by an endless barrage of mysterious, vitriolic text messages.  In the midst of Johnny’s near catatonic existence comes his ex-wife who demands that he take over the care of his 11-year-old estranged daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), for an extended period of time.  With Cleo temporarily back in his life, Johnny’s dormant sense of self as a man and a father awakens and he finds himself at a crucial crossroad of choosing to continue down the path of a pampered irresponsible celebrity or to grow-up and lead a more mature life.

Somewhere won the Golden Lion award for Best Picture at the 2010 Venice Film Festival.  Jury head, Quentin Tarantino, said of Somewhere:"...it enchanted us (the jury)...".  And Somewhere has been generally receiving high praise among film critics. The  kudos for this film is perplexing to me as I do not get the same sense of profundity in Somewhere that so many critics have written about.  Coppola’s visual sense is often beguiling and in Somewhere her visual approach is coolly minimalistic; she uses long, quiet shots to emphasize the loneliness and shallowness of Johnny Marco’s life.  Early in the film, Coppola holds a lengthy medium shot of Marco sitting on a couch in his hotel room as he stares into space.  Later, Johnny ‘s entire head is wrapped in a plaster cast for the making of a head mold, presumably for some special effect in his upcoming movie.  Coppola photographs this scene in a medium long shot as we see a group of effects technicians finish plastering Johnny’s head and then walk away, leaving Johnny motionless as the cast dries.  Coppola holds the shot of Johnny reclining and, without cutting, slowly – almost imperceptibly – pushing the camera towards a close-up of Johnny’s plaster encased head.  It’s a shot that symbolizes Johnny’s stultifying celebrity entrapment and his isolation.  It is an interesting directorial choice, but after what seems like five minutes on screen, it becomes insufferable.  And that is the case with much of Coppola’s creative decisions in Somewhere.  She attempts to bring a moody, Michelangelo Antonioni minimalism to her film, but unlike the late Italian master director’s existentialist and angst ridden masterpieces, like L’Avventura (1960), Coppola doesn’t back up her ideas with images that transcend the sparseness of her style.

Sofia Coppola wrote and directed Lost in Translation - released in 2003 - which was one of the best films of that year, and it is a far more successful expression of 21st Century alienation and loneliness in its depiction of a young married woman and a middle-aged male movie star who are drawn to each other during a lonely visit to a foreign country.  Lost in Translation is told in a subdued, detached style – much like Somewhere – yet Coppola’s script for Translation was strong with ideas that were brilliantly interpreted and expanded upon by its talented and charismatic co-stars, Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.  Those actors brought a serene pathos and a sweet sexual tension to their characters’ needs and desires.  Lost in Translation is suffused with a dreamy, timeless air.  Somewhere too often feels superficial and vacant.

Somewhere is not a complete let down.  There are some scenes of perception regarding the day-to-day life of a working movie star that spring with a verisimilitude.  And there are some laughs in the movie; the best gag occurs when Johnny has picked up an attractive young woman at a party and takes her to his hotel room where he falls dead asleep before he gets a taste of his spoils.  This terrifically funny scene indicates that Johnny is barely going through the motions of life.  He’s switched on autopilot and not even a casual sexual encounter with a hot partner can stimulate a shred of genuine excitement in him.

Stephen Dorff does a fine job of expressing the weary, depressed emptiness of an actor who has lost the compass of his soul, but it’s Elle Fanning as Johnny’s daughter who glows.  Fanning’s performance is at once delicate and confident.  As Cleo, Fanning displays a longing and love for her father, but also sees right through his superficiality, knowing he has the potential to emerge from his spiritual fog.  Fanning is the heart of the movie and she saves it from being forgettable.  She expresses a genuine naturalness in her acting that reminded me of a young Mariel Hemingway in Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979).

As the film moves to its conclusion, you sense Coppola is straining to find a profound statement about the dehumanizing impact of celebrity worship.   Somewhere’s final shot– its summation of Johnny Marco’s important life decision – echoes the final ambiguous shot of another film about alienation, François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959).  But Truffaut’s ending resonates whereas Coppola’s ending for Somewhere goes nowhere.

Trailer for Sofia Coppola's Somewhere


DRACULA'S DAUGHTER (1936), directed by Robert Siodmak

SON OF DRACULA (1943), directed by Lambert Hillyer

Count Dracula has risen from the dead more times than any other fictional character in movie history.  His original screen appearance as Count Orlock (Max Schreck) in F.W. Murnau’s 1922 German Expressionist silent classic, Nosferatu, first set his foreboding style for the screen.  Universal Pictures’ 1931 Dracula—the seminal sound version directed by Tod Browning, with Bela Lugosi’s suavely sinister portrayal of the blood-parched Transylvanianestablished the pattern of his sexy allure for future fang-bearers like Frank Langella, Gary Oldman and Robert Pattinson.   Dracula and his brother bats are a genre unto their (immortal dead) selves, but the original Lugosi chiller also spawned literal demon seed sequels from Universal with Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and Son of Dracula (1943).

Dracula’s Daughter features the darkly erotic Gloria Holden playing Countess Zaleska, who longs to break her hereditary hankering for human blood by cajoling psychiatrist Jeffrey Garth (the warmly intelligent Otto Kruger) into curing her murderous malaise.  However, Garth, along with Dracula destroyer Professor Von Helsing (Edward Van Sloan, reprising his character from the 1931 original), suspects her vamping ways.  Director Lambert Hillyer mostly made B-movie westerns, but he manages horror well, creating a strong atmosphere of dread and sensuality in Dracula’s Daughter.  An early scene where Zaleska cremates the bodily remains of her father is evocative of German Expressionist cinema and the movie surprises with an electrifying eroticism, notably when Countess Zaleska seduces a desperate young woman. 

To fans of classic horror movies, this scene is famous for its overt lesbianism; most remarkable since the movie was made after Hollywood’s censorial Production Code was put in full force in 1934, two years before the release of Dracula’s Daughter.

Son of Dracula features actor Lon Chaney, Jr. playing Count Alucard (Dracula spelled backwards) who arrives in the Deep South to quench his blood-thirst with fresh, young Grade-A American human meat.  Louise Allbritton, another dark, brooding beauty, plays the occult-obsessed socialite Katherine Caldwell, who marries Alucard in order to become immortal so she can draw her true love (Robert Paige) into the dark side.  Lon Chaney, Jr. had already begun to make his monster mark in the horror genre with his poignant portrayal of the lead lycanthrope in Universal’s The Wolf Man (1941) and its subsequent sequels.  However, Chaney as the Count can’t hold a candle to Bela Lugosi’s creepy Eastern European charm.  Chaney is as stiff as a wooden stake, but Allbritton, like Gloria Holden in Dracula’s Daughter, oozes a combination of perverse morbidity and smoldering sensuality (today she would be labeled “Goth”) that transforms Son of Dracula into a luridly kinky dream.   German director Robert Siodmak paints the movie with his full Expressionist palette, creating ominous scenes featuring excellent transformation special effects: in one scene redolent of silent cinema Alucard’s coffin rises to a swamp’s surface, he emerges in a vampire vapour and then floats to the awaiting Allbritton on the shore.  It is a powerful image that stands up nicely against any CGI effects-laden horror picture made today. 

Trailer for Dracula's Daughter (1936)


Trailer for Son of Dracula (1943)



If you live in the Greater Vancouver area, you can rent the DVD of DRACULA'S DAUGHTER and SON OF DRACULA from the greatest video store in Canada, Videomatica - located at 1855 West 4th Avenue (phone: 604-734- 0411) in fabulous Kitsilano.  Website: www.videomatica.ca