Saturday, August 29, 2015

Genius: James Ponsoldt's The End of the Tour

Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg in The End of the Tour.

It's only the end of August and it's already been a terrific year for movies. They've arrived from all corners of the globe and each with very distinct sensibilities that set them apart from the demands of the marketplace towards being generic. Besides the quirky enchantment of Paddington, there was Olivier Assayas' sumptuously satisfying Clouds of Sils Maria, the sublime sweet sadness of the Brian Wilson bio pic Love & Mercy, Carlos Marques-Marcet's erotically charged 10,000 km, Alex Gibney's fearless scrutiny in Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and his nuanced consideration of Sinatra: All or Nothing at All, the conventions of the western being freshly reexamined in Slow West, and the new rendering of an old theme in Ex Machina. There was the resurrection of director David Gordon Green (George Washington) returning from the wilderness of mediocrity (Pineapple Express) with Manglehorn where Al Pacino equals the bold work he did last year in the largely ignored The Humbling (which was the movie that Birdman pretended to be). If someone was trying to pose the argument that cinema was dead, I would point to these pictures as signs that the art form is still alive and breathing quite nicely. Now James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) caps off the summer with the extraordinary The End of the Tour, a perceptive comic masterpiece that cuts to the quick of timely questions about celebrity and artistic authenticity and the movie does it with an intelligent wit that is as probing as it is poignant.

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Once and Future King: Patrick Stewart and Blunt Talk

Patrick Stewart and Adrian Scarborough star in Blunt Talk, on Starz.

On these pages almost three years ago, I mourned the loss of HBO's Bored to Death. When the Jonathan Ames-helmed comedy (a literate madcap romp with a shameless New Yorker feel) left our cable airwaves, I genuinely expected to never see its like again. I shouldn't have worried – television has provided. With recent shows like Simon Rich's Man Seeking Woman (which will return early in 2016) and Shalom Auslander's Happyish (which sadly will not) arriving to fill the Jonathan Ames-shaped hole on the small screen, it is almost as if there is a trend afoot. (Mind you, with the current surfeit of quality television – coming from the newfangled likes of Amazon, Netflix, and even Yahoo! – we may be in an age with more trends than channels!)

Last week, Jonathan Ames himself returned to television as creator and writer of Blunt Talk, a dark comedy starring Patrick Stewart as Walter Blunt, an aging cable newscaster coming to end of his rope, personally and professionally. The Starz series is notably Stewart's first regular television role since Star Trek: The Next Generation went off the air in 1994. The 75-year-old actor has, of course, been lending his voice and image to American Dad! since 2005 in the recurring role of Avery Bullock, Stan's drug-addicted, polymorphously perverse CIA boss, showcasing the Shakespearean actor's willingness to play with both his image and our ever expanding boundaries of good taste. American Dad! (and Family Guy) creator Seth MacFarlane is actually on board with Blunt Talk as executive producer, so it's not surprising that Blunt has much more in common with Bullock than with Jean-Luc Picard or Charles Xavier.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Cruise Control Freak: On Almost 35 Years of Tom Cruise

Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, now in theatres.

Tom Cruise is the spirit of the 1980s incarnate. This is not necessarily a good thing, unless you’re the kind of person who voted for Ronald Reagan twice and would have jumped at the chance to do it a third time. The ‘70s and ’60s produced a number of movie stars who cultivated images as rebels or outsiders who, one way or another, were unable to make peace with authority and at odds with the status quo. But so did the patriotic ‘40s and the bland, gray-flannel-suit ‘50s; maybe it spoke well of the general mental health and confidence level of Americans of that time that the culture was able to accommodate Brando and Bogart and John Garfield and James Dean alongside such uncomplicated hero figures as Charlton Heston, John Wayne, and Rock Hudson. (Nowadays, Film Studies majors will happily step up to explain that the rock-ribbed all-American types were dizzyingly complicated figures themselves, from Wayne the psychotic racist hero of The Searchers to the closeted gay man Rock Hudson playing all those characters who were defined by the lust they inspired in Douglas Sirk heroines and Doris Day, but that is definitely not how either their fans or the stars themselves saw them at the time.)

In the ‘80s, a lot of Americans felt so disoriented and dispirited over the changes the country had gone through that they wanted to believe in a return to a nonexistent time when Leave It to Beaver was reality TV. The desire must have been very strong, because there are people who, ten years after Reagan’s death, still honor his memory by talking about the president who turned the national debt radioactive and sold arms to Iran as part of a secret, illegal foreign policy strategy as a straight shooter who kept the purse strings tight and never deigned to negotiate with rogue nations. It was in this cultural climate that Cruise, along with Eddie Murphy and Sylvester Stallone, became the biggest box-office draws of the decade by making movies in which they won. It didn’t matter that much what they won; the movies were pure, abstract celebrations of winning, of being top dog, pure and simple, and although the movies tried to adhere to the genre convention that winners win after overcoming great odds, Murphy, in particular, seemed very impatient with maintaining the pretense that anyone could ever stop him from winning or might even briefly keep up with him in a battle of wits. (Stallone, a wizened veteran compared to the other two, had become a star via a movie, Rocky, in which his character “won” something—self-respect, his manhood, the love of a good woman, like that—by losing a big boxing match. If Stallone was once tolerant of anything less than winning 100%, he got over it. Released late in November 1976, after Jimmy Carter was elected president but before he took office, Rocky is a transitional film; it has one foot in the ‘70s and one in the moment before the ‘80s began but after Americans had started to feel that it had had enough bitter post-imperial self-reflection to do it for awhile.)

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Return to Greatness: Al Pacino in Manglehorn

As the title character in David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn, a lonely, irascible locksmith in a small Texas city, Al Pacino gives a display of battered grandeur. After too many years of outsize, hammy acting, usually in movies unworthy of his gifts (including the one that finally won him an Oscar, Scent of a Woman in 1992), Pacino has lately returned, somewhat mysteriously, to the understated style, dense with turbulent, conflicted feeling, that placed him at the top of his generation in The Godfather I and II and Scarecrow. I’ve sometimes enjoyed the coarse, ranting, kinetic Pacino that replaced his early deep-dyed Method persona – certainly in Dog Day Afternoon, which he was magnificent in, and also in Sea of Love and Carlito’s Way and City Hall – and I’ve loved him on stage as Shylock (a role he’d botched earlier on screen) and O’Neill’s Hughie and Teach in American Buffalo. But his work in The Humbling and now in Manglehorn has a mournfulness and contemplativeness that take us back to Michael Corleone but have deepened with age and are responsive in new ways (ironic humor in The Humbling, solitariness and haunted nostalgia and sudden, unpredictable bursts of anger) to the unremitting presence of adversity. Though their styles are widely different, what Pacino pulls off in these pictures reminds me of Burt Lancaster’s accomplishments in his late sixties, in movies like Atlantic City and Cattle Annie and Little Britches. (Pacino turned seventy-five this year.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Swingin’ Sixties: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (Photo by Daniel Smith, Warner Bros. Pictures)

The bar for espionage antics in 2015 has been raised unreasonably high by Ethan Hunt and his Impossible Missions Force, so I wasn’t sure at all that an old-fashioned Cold War caper like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. could even compete. Sure, it was the first film by Guy Ritchie since his Robert Downey Jr-led Sherlock Holmes sequel, A Game of Shadows, and sure, the trailer promised a heaping helping of old-school charm and mid-60s mod fashion. But is that enough to put it in the ring with what is, in my opinion, the best action spy thriller in recent memory?

Monday, August 24, 2015

Sweet Charity: Manhattan Waif

Julie Martell (centre) with the cast of Sweet Charity, at Niagara-on-the-Lake's Shaw Festival. (Photo by David Cooper)

The 1966 musical Sweet Charity is built around a debased modern version of a fairy-tale heroine, an eternally optimistic New York taxi dancer who falls for men who invariably let her down. The book, which Neil Simon based on the great Fellini movie Nights of Cabiria, employs the Manhattan setting to localize Charity’s story, just as Fellini made use of Rome; one episode, where Charity, in the right place at the right time, finds herself on an improbable date with a dishy Italian superstar who’s just quarreled with his paramour, is straight out of the film. But Simon and the songwriters, Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, and the director-choreographer, Bob Fosse – who conceived the project as a vehicle for his frequent muse and one-time wife Gwen Verdon, a magnificent show dancer with an endearing cracked voice full of burgundy bubbles – softened the narrative. Cabiria (played, unforgettably, by Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina), is a hooker who pictures herself living out the last act of a romance; the first man who treats her like a lady, Oscar (François Périer), turns out to be a thief who swindles her out of her life savings. (One of Fellini’s coups is the way he uses a pair of props, a cigarette and a pair of shades, to suggest a sinister side to Oscar moments before Cabiria intuits his true intentions.) In the musical, Oscar is a timid, earnest fellow Charity connects with when they’re trapped in an elevator together; their courtship takes them all over the city, including a hippie church and Coney Island).

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Racism in Alive in America: Part Two

Part One of this piece appeared on Critics at Large on Sunday, August 16.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
                                                   ― William Faulkner

Jim Grimsley's contention that “We reserve our special ideological fury for blackness” suffuses Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. If the tone in most of Grimsley’s How I Shed My Skin is a gentle wistfulness, the mood that percolates throughout Between the World is one of anger, desperation and fear, punctuated by flashes of love for his teenage son, Samori. Coates, the author of the memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, has written in the form of a letter to his son about what it means to be a black man in America today. “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage.” The violence to which Coates refers encompasses slavery, the terror of Jim Crow, and police brutality right up to the present moment, much of it covered by Grimsley. But Coates’ prose has a much more personal edginess to it as he has internalized and lived that history. The power of his writing in part derives from his capacity to dissolve the distinctions between the past and the present where one seamlessly flows into the other. Read the lyrical passages in Between the World and Me where he urges his son to not only respect all other living human beings but also to extend it to individuals once enslaved.

Coates insists that no amount of false morality about “personal responsibility” on the part of African Americans can shield them from lethal violence. Right from the outset when he attempts to help Samori grapple with his feelings after the police officer in Ferguson who killed Michael Brown was not indicted, Coates refuses to comfort his son or the white reader for whom this book is really intended, with “praise anthems [or] old Negro spirituals.” “There is no uplifting way” to tell the hard realities about brutality in America. Instead of bromides about racial progress, he can only offer the need for struggle, as he sets out to explore the question of how to “live free in this black body” when “black people controlled nothing, least of all the fate of their bodies, which could be commandeered by the police; which could be erased by the guns, which were so profligate; which could be raped, beaten, jailed.” As a result of his own life experiences, he believed he was in a war “for the possession of his body, and this would be the war of his whole life.” This is not a book for those whose only touchstone for improving race relations is Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech or for anyone who wants to see America through the prism of what Coates calls the “Dream” of “perfect houses with nice lawns.”