Friday, January 27, 2017

The Age of Adaline

Magic realism is characterized by fantastical elements incorporated into an otherwise realistic world. Depicting it in films is a tricky thing. These films often require you to take a leap of faith and trust that the filmmaker knows what they’re doing. They are often immersed in romantic, sometimes nostalgic notions – think Midnight in Paris (2011) where the protagonist finds himself in 1920s Paris every day at midnight, hobnobbing with legendary artists. Filmmakers like Terry Gilliam and Guillermo del Toro are masters of this kind of storytelling, but if it’s not done right you’ve got something akin to the ponderous bore that is The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000). Get it right and you’ve got a classic like Field of Dreams (1989).

In recent years, a little-seen film called The Age of Adaline (2015) was an excellent example of magic realism in the form of immortality of its eponymous character and how it is both a blessing and mostly a curse for them. It was a modest box office hit and received mixed reviews but Blake Lively’s engaging performance and the romance at the heart of the story really resonated and stayed with me.

In 1937, Adaline Bowman (Lively) is involved in a freak car accident that makes her immortal, stuck at 29 years old. She leads as normal a life as she can, raising her daughter and moving around, assuming fake identities in order to elude attention. It understandably puts a strain on their relationship as she watches her child grow old while she remains the same.

Adaline is very careful, changing her identity every decade and not letting anyone get too close to her until one swanky New Year’s Eve party where she meets Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman). Initially, it is nothing more than a lingering look across a packed ballroom only for them to meet in the elevator where they engage in some clever light banter (“I just wanted to spend 27 floors with you,” he tells her in the lobby.). She’s amused by his playful persistence while he’s intrigued by her undeniable beauty and intelligence, but she skillfully dodges his flirtations. After all, she’s been doing it longer than he’s been alive.

As fate would have it, Adaline and Ellis’ paths cross again when he donates a collection of expensive first edition books to the archives of the library where she works. He even brings her “some flowers” – Daisy Miller, Dandelion Wine, and White Oleander, which is an amusingly clever gesture. He wears down her resolve and she agrees to go out on a date with him. The rest of the film plays out Adaline’s dilemma – does she tell this man she is falling in love with her secret – with a significant plot twist halfway through that puts their budding relationship in jeopardy.

Blake Lively effortlessly conveys the wise-beyond-her-years Adaline without overstating it. The actress has a natural grace and beauty that is stunning to watch but she infuses her character with a subtle, haunted quality of someone that has lived many lifetimes and is something of a lonely figure unable to let anyone get too close as she will be unable to explain why she doesn’t age without sounding like a crazy person. Lively plays someone who is immortal but doesn’t opt for the alien-like otherness that some actors are tempted to go for with these kinds of roles, instead playing a fully-realized character that is warm but guarded.

The meet-cut scenes between Adaline and Ellis are well handled by director Lee Toland Krieger and well written by screenwriters J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz with Michiel Huisman excelling as the charming Ellis who meets his match with the enigmatic Adaline. He’s good-looking, witty and a sincere idealist, whom she finds quite an appealing package. It’s not hard to understand why the usually cautious Adaline begins to fall in love with Ellis. Huisman plays him as a warm-hearted romantic that matches her love of history and literature. He also shows an excellent capacity for light comedy, injecting a given scene with a witty line delivery or an amusing reaction to something someone else says or does.

I like how their relationship develops gradually. They don’t sleep together on the first date. They actually take the time and get to know each other – well, she gets to know him as he talks about his family. There’s a delicious warmth to these scenes as we root for these two intriguing characters to make it work. For a film like this to work the two lead characters have to be perfectly cast and have chemistry together. Fortunately, The Age of Adaline succeeds on both of these counts.

The real surprise of this film is Harrison Ford popping up in a significant supporting role. For years, he’s been phoning in performances and looking uninterested unless he was playing Indiana Jones or Han Solo. He plays Ellis’ father and it is a juicy part that allows him to really sink his teeth into it. He does, delivering a wonderfully layered, heartfelt performance. Ever the gracious actor, he plays well off the rest of the cast, especially Lively because of the unique connection between their characters.

This is particularly evident in an engaging scene where Ellis takes Adaline up to his family’s house for the weekend and one night they play Trivial Pursuit. The interplay between Ford, Kathy Baker, who plays his wife, Amanda Crew, who plays his daughter, and Huisman is well done and believable, right down to the in-jokes and playful needling between them. It is scenes like this that ground the film and make us care about what happens to the characters.

I like that The Age of Adaline addresses the problematic effects of immortality in a scene between Adaline and her now old daughter (Ellen Burstyn) who says that she’s thinking of moving to a retirement community in Arizona much to her mother’s chagrin. Both actresses play this scene quite well as the mother/daughter friction plays out between two people that, visually, look like they should swap roles.


The Age of Adaline is a nuanced, romantic story fused with the notion of immortality in a way that feels genuine and not some gimmick devised to separate it from other films of its ilk, avoiding the usual romantic clichés in a way that feels fresh. Krieger does this in a way that doesn’t insult your intelligence while enveloping it in an austere look and framing reminiscent of David Fincher but with a lot more warmth and this draws you into the cinematic world he has created. It is saddled with too much voiceover narration that, at times, is clumsily written, but it exists to further enhance the fairy tale vibe of the film. Less is more should’ve been the directive in that department. That being said, The Age of Adaline was a small film that sadly flew under a lot of people’s radar. It stayed with me as its characters and story resonated in a way that was pleasantly surprising. It stayed with me for days and that rarely happens. That’s when you know a film has worked its magic on you.

Friday, January 20, 2017

O.C. and Stiggs

The 1980s was not an easy decade for Robert Altman. After enjoying a fantastic run of films in the 1970s that included the likes of McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), California Split (1974), and Nashville (1975), he effectively burned his bridges with the Hollywood studios with Popeye (1980) and found work in Europe and took to adapting stage plays for the big screen through independent financing. In the early ‘80s, National Lampoon magazine published wild stories about two troublemaking teenagers named Oliver Cromwell “O.C.” Ogilvie and Mark Stiggs, written by Tod Carroll and Ted Mann.

I don’t know if it was Altman’s agent’s idea or the director saw all these successful teen comedies being made and decided to try one himself, but O.C. and Stiggs (1987) was an ill fit to say the least – one that has its charms and its moments, but definitely a cinematic oddity in the man’s filmography. He didn’t care for the genre and turned this indifference into a movie that was a biting satire of the genre. Not surprisingly, nobody liked it and the movie quickly disappeared. Even among Altman fans it has few supporters and with good reason.

O.C. (Daniel Jenkins) and Stiggs (Neill Barry) are suburban teens and avid practical jokers that live in Phoenix, Arizona. The main target of their gags is the Schwab family, a decadent, materialistic clan headed by Randall Schwab (Paul Dooley), an arrogant blowhard who sells insurance. The mother (Jane Curtin) is a drunk, their son (Jon Cryer) is a gullible idiot while their daughter is about to get married. The source of the boys’ ire towards the Schwabs stems from Randall cancelling O.C.’s grandfather’s (Ray Walston) retirement insurance thus denying him the ability to have assisted care. The movie recounts O.C. and Stiggs’ summer spent terrorizing the Schwabs.

In some respects, O.C. and Stiggs are like teenage versions of Hawkeye and Trapper John from M*A*S*H (1970). Both feature clever hipsters but the latter were also brilliant surgeons whereas the former are only good at one thing – staging elaborate practical jokes. In M*A*S*H, the two surgeons were fighting against authority and the absurdity of war while O.C. and Stiggs are fighting against materialism and mediocrity as represented by the Schwabs with their bad fashion sense and gaudy décor – the epitome of the “ugly American.”

The problem with O.C. and Stiggs is the central characters. They aren’t particularly interesting. Their obsession with pulling endless practical jokes on the Schwabs seems mean-spirited at times with Stiggs embodying the spirit of them while O.C. is given scenes away from his friend that flesh out his character a little bit – at least we get some insight into his behavior. They aren’t as cool as they think they are – they have no friends and no girlfriends thanks to their obnoxious behavior. The teen pranksters are rebelling against the mind-numbing banality of suburbia and the “Greed is good” era of Reaganomics. There is an attempt to provide some kind of motivation for why these kids do what they do. Stiggs’ dad is cheating on his wife while O.C.’s grandfather is unemployed and possibly senile. No wonder they spend all their time together devising elaborate schemes. It is a form of escape from their mundane surroundings.

This movie sees Altman in an extremely playful mood with the same kind of fast and loose structure as California Split, which also features two freewheeling pals careening from one crazy encounter to another. A crazed, babbling Dennis Hopper even pops up as a burnt out Vietnam vet. It’s as if his photographer character from Apocalypse Now (1979) had somehow made it out of Kurtz’s compound and came back to the United States. The boys cross paths with a Schwab neighbor played with effortless cool by Martin Mull. At one point, Stiggs asks him what he does and he replies without missing a beat, “Well, basically I drink and make a lot of money.” Unfortunately, he disappears as quickly as he was introduced but thankfully, and inexplicably, shows up later at a sports-themed restaurant opposite Bob Uecker playing himself, rattling off athletes’ names indiscriminately.

There are some enjoyable moments, like a rare instance of seriousness when we see O.C. having breakfast with his grandfather and we see how the latter’s health affects the former. His jokey demeanor is a façade to cover his rather bleak home life. Another wonderful moment comes when O.C. dances with a beautiful girl (Cynthia Nixon) at the Schwab wedding – a nod to classic Hollywood cinema by way of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It isn’t enough to keep this uneven movie together.

The characters of O.C. and Stiggs, created by Tod Carroll and Ted Mann, were one of the most popular features in National Lampoon magazine. Their last appearance – in the October 1982 issue – would go on to provide the basis for the movie’s screenplay. Jeffrey Katzenberg over at Paramount Studios loved the stories of these crazy kids and wanted to make them into a movie. A script was written by Carroll and Mann and Sylvester Stallone even briefly flirted with the project.

Young, up-and-coming producer Peter Newman was assigned the project and was able to get Mike Nichols interested in directing but his numerous commitments on Broadway forced him to bow out. Newman had gotten friendly with Robert Altman and pitched the project to him. He was looking for work at the time. MGM, still licking their wounds from the Heaven’s Gate (1980) debacle, were desperate to make a successful teen comedy. Freddie Fields, Altman’s former agent, became the head of MGM at a time when the director was on the outs with Hollywood studios. He agreed to hire Altman to make O.C. and Stiggs but only for $8 million or less and that he promised to shoot the script (the director was notorious for throwing out the script and improvising dialogue). Two months later, Altman was in Phoenix, Arizona in the middle of summer of 1983 where temperatures soared to 120 degrees, making a movie he wasn’t jazzed about doing.

When Altman showed the movie to MGM, their executives didn’t like it and Newman said, “That’s one of the few instances where Bob didn’t want to hang around and fight the fight. He didn’t finish that movie. The studio finished that movie.” This certainly explains the final product and the odd push-pull of style vs. content. Neither Carroll and Mann nor the movie’s two young leads were happy with the final product. To make matters worse, MGM was in financial trouble and so the movie sat on the shelf for years until 1988 where it was screened at the Film Forum in New York City for a week.

There is something oddly fascinating watching Altman apply his trademark aesthetic to the ‘80s teen comedy. While O.C. and Stiggs pull pranks on the hapless Schwabs, the director bombards the soundtrack with multiple layers of sound and overlapping dialogue, and his slow, roaming camera gradually zooms in on something that strikes his fancy. Altman flips the ‘80s teen comedy on its head. He even refuses to populate the film’s soundtrack with trendy New Wave music, instead opting for the catchy African music of King Sunny Ade. No wonder people hated this movie when it came out. Clearly Altman did not grasp the original source material (or didn’t even bother to read it) and just did his own thing.

O.C. and Stiggs is what happens when you pair up a filmmaker with a genre he has no affinity for and the results are, at times, amusing. At some point, you either surrender yourself to the goofiness of the whole enterprise or resist this maddeningly frustrating effort. Aesthetically, it is typical Altman fare but content-wise he’s out of his depth: sometimes, this can result in a fascinating train wreck or a big ol’ bore. This movie falls somewhere in-between. I can’t totally dismiss it but I don’t watch it very often either. This one is for Altman completists only.


SOURCES

Stephenson, Hunter. “Let O.C. and Stiggs Live.” Apology Magazine.


Zuckoff, Mitchell. Robert Altman: An Oral Biography.Vintage. 2010.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

It finally happened. The Star Wars franchise released its first ever, non-chapter offshoot movie, the first in a planned anthology series. In this day and age, where all the studios in Hollywood now follow Marvel’s lead by trying to build their own lucrative franchises complete with interlocking movies, Lucasfilm have followed up the wildly successful Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), which is essentially a prequel to Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope (1977). If you recall, at the beginning of that movie, Princess Leia gave R2-D2 the stolen plans to the Death Star in the hopes that Obi-Wan Kenobi would get and take them to the Rebellion. Rogue One chronicles how these plans were stolen in the first place. Is this movie a simple cash-grab and a really expensive piece of fan fiction or does it stand on its own merits that justify its existence?

As a child, Jyn Erso witnessed her mother (Valene Kane) killed on orders from Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), an Imperial Military officer that “persuades” her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), to continue his work on the Death Star, a massive space station capable of destroying entire planets. Jyn (Felicity Jones) grows up with an understandable hatred for the Empire. This makes her an obvious recruit for the Rebellion but initially she’s not interested, even after they rescue her from an Imperial prison.

They soon offer her a deal: accompany intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) to a planet called Jedha where renegade Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) is holding a captive Imperial cargo pilot by the name of Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) sent by Jyn’s father. Andor assembles a rag-tag group to undertake a mission with impossible odds a la The Dirty Dozen (1967), among them Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a blind warrior, and his best friend Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), a Rebel warrior and mercenary. They are introduced in an impressively staged sequence where Imwe single-handedly takes out a platoon of Imperial Stormtroopers with only a staff.

Right from the get-go, Rogue One establishes a decidedly dark tone with the murder of Jyn’s mother and then the tense mood on the Imperial-occupied Jedha that boils over when Saw’s warriors attack an Imperial blockade in a busy city area. Most significantly, there’s the apocalyptic image of a Jedha city obliterated by a test blast from the Death Star. This is a war movie with plenty of casualties and a grim tone to match. That’s not to say there aren’t moments of levity, like the give and take between Imwe and Malbus (these guys need their own movie), and the sarcastic retorts from K-2S0 (Alan Tudyk), an Imperial enforcer droid that has been reprogrammed by Andor.

The cast is uniformly excellent with Felicity Jones and Diego Luna as particularly memorable leads. Fresh from her Academy Award nominated turn in The Theory of Everything (2014), she shows an impressive versatility as a rugged fighter but with a touching vulnerability when it comes to her father. Jyn joins the ranks of strong female characters in the Star Wars universe. Luna matches her as the Rebellion fighter with a checkered past that is only hinted at but it clearly motivates his actions. The actor does an excellent job at conveying this in his performance.

Other notable performances include veteran martial artist Donnie Yen as a blind, quasi Jedi and Alan Tudyk as a pessimistic droid. The former instills the movie with tantalizing references to the Force while the latter makes C3P0 seem positively cheerful in comparison. Character actor extraordinaire Ben Mendelsohn is quite strong as the Imperial officer in charge of the Death Star and gets some meaty scenes involving his character navigating the treacherous waters of Imperial politics that provide fascinating insight into the bureaucratic machinations of the Empire.

The attention to period detail is fantastic as the uniforms for both Rebels and the Empire are faithfully recreated as are their various vehicles, from X-Wings to Star Destroyers while also incorporating ones we haven’t seen before. This ensures that Rogue One fits seamlessly with the Original Trilogy movies. This isn’t done as merely an exercise in nostalgia – although, fans of those movies will have fun spotting the occasional Easter egg here and there, but actually incorporated into the very fabric of the story.

My good friend and fellow writer Noah Chinn argued in his review for Rogue One that there is a “tonal mismatch” that creates a jarring effect when compared to the rest of franchise. He points out that in the other movies there was always a glimmer hope. Even with its darkest installment, Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005), there was hope at the end – not so much with Rogue One, which ends on a nihilistic bummer. I didn’t have a problem with this – as an adult, which is Noah’s point. But what if I saw it as a child? Would have it emotionally scarred me? That being said, at the risk of sounding like an old fart, kids these days are coddled too much and the ending of Rogue One teaches them the power of self-sacrifice, of giving everything you have for something you believe in. Judging by the box office receipts of this movie, audiences don’t seem to have a problem with the dark tone of the movie either. Perhaps Rogue One is simply reflecting the times in which we live in and people are responding to it.


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It is a testimony to how involved I became in these characters and their story, even though I ultimately know what happens – the Death Star is destroyed – I didn’t know what happened to the characters I had never seen before, that I became invested in their respective fates. Rogue One is a much darker, dare I say, nihilistic movie than any of the other ones in the Star Wars franchise. It is also one of the best. I can’t imagine it being made under Lucas’ watch, which may upset purists, but now freed of his control it has allowed the new brain-trust to make bold moves and if this movie is any indication of what is in store for future standalone movies, fans are in for a real treat.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Once Upon a Time in the West

After making The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966), Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone decided to stop making westerns and began work on what would become Once Upon a Time in America (1984), a period gangster epic. Paramount Pictures, however, approached him with a tantalizing offer that he could not refuse: access to legendary actor Henry Fonda to make a western with a substantial budget. Leone had always wanted to work with Fonda – his favorite actor – and accepted the offer. The end result was a cinematic masterpiece – a brooding meditation on the end of the Wild West as symbolized by the construction of a railroad that represented the ushering in of a new way of life. More than any of his other westerns, Once Upon a Time in the West is an unabashed love letter to the genre.

The film begins with three men waiting for a train to arrive at a desolate, crudely constructed station. In typical Leone fashion, there is very little dialogue with only atmospheric sound, which creates a sense of impending dread as it becomes apparent that they’re waiting for someone to arrive and kill them. The director expertly plays on our expectations as we know what’s going to happen but he delays it for as long as he can, milking it for every ounce of tension. It isn’t until their target finally disembarks that music is finally heard and it is that of a lonesome harmonica as played by the mysterious man – latter dubbed Harmonica (Charles Bronson) – who efficiently dispatches them but is also tagged by one of their bullets.

Frank (Fonda) is an amoral killer that guns down a man and his three children in cold blood because the land they’re on is very valuable to Mr. Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), a railroad tycoon that employs him. Unbeknownst to them, the man’s beautiful wife, Jill (Claudia Cardinale) arrives in town to start a new life with him. Leone uses her first appearance to beautifully orchestrate the introduction of the town of Flagstone that has been built up around the railroad via a tracking shot that follows her from the train to the station and going right into an establishing shot of the town with Ennio Morricone’s soaring, evocative score all in one smooth camera move.

Jill’s trip to her new family’s homestead gives Leone a chance to show the breathtaking vistas of Monument Valley, immortalized in so many John Ford westerns. Leone masterfully shows the scale of this famous landmark as he juxtaposes its size against Jill’s miniscule horse and buggy. En route, she crosses paths with a grungy bandit named Cheyenne (Jason Robards) who has been framed by Frank in the killing of Jill’s family. She is told to build a railway station and a small town on her property by the time the track’s construction crew arrives or she loses the land. The rest of the film plays out her struggle, Cheyenne’s desire for revenge and Harmonica’s mysterious motivations that involve Frank.

One of the things that separates Once Upon a Time in the West from Leone’s other westerns is that it is a meditation on violence. Whereas The Good, The Bad and the Ugly featured many people being gunned down rather indiscriminately, Leone dwells on the effects of it in Once Upon a Time in the West as evident in the scene where Jill arrives at her new family’s ranch only to see their dead bodies laid out. Leone lets the scene breathe, lingering on Jill’s reaction as she takes it all in. Claudia Cardinale’s acting in this scene is impressive as she has to rely on her expressive face to convey Jill’s emotions. As a result, we empathize with her and care about what happens to Jill throughout the film. We are invested in her plight.

Jill is the heart and soul of Once Upon a Time in the West – quite a significant development for Leone as all of his previous films featured male protagonists. She manages to not only survive in the harsh environment of the west but also navigates the treacherous waters of a male-dominated society. Cardinale instills Jill with a formidable inner strength and a strong will that allows her to endure evil men like Frank and gain the respect of men like Cheyenne and Harmonica. The actress does an excellent job of conveying the arc of her character as Jill goes from widow to savvy businesswoman.

The most underrated performance in the film is that of Jason Robards as the ne’er-do-well bandit Cheyenne. Initially, he seems to be out for himself but he does have a code that he follows – he doesn’t kill children – and this absolves him of the death of Jill’s family. Robards has a memorable moment with Cardinale in a scene between their characters where Cheyenne says to Jill, “You know, Jill, you remind me of my mother. She was the biggest whore in Alameda and the finest woman that ever lived. Whoever my father was – for an hour or for a month – he must have been a happy man.” There’s a bit of the lovable rogue in this character as evident in the impish way he takes out three of Morton’s henchmen on the man’s train that is as clever as it is deadly (I also love how he calls Morton, “Mr. Choo-Choo.”).

Perhaps the biggest revelation is Henry Fonda’s performance. Known mostly for playing moral, upstanding men in films up to that point, he plays an irredeemable killer that has no problem gunning down women and children. It is all in those piercing, cold blue eyes of his, which Leone captures in close-ups to chilling effect. Frank is at his creepiest when he rapes Jill, speaking to her seductive tones as he toys with keeping her alive. He plays the dastardly villain that you can wait to see get his comeuppance.

Watching Once Upon a Time in the West again was a potent reminder of how good an actor Charles Bronson was in the right role. Much like contemporary Clint Eastwood, he had a limited range but knew how to work within it. Harmonica speaks little in the film but doesn’t have to because he works best as an enigmatic figure. For most of the film we don’t know why he wants to kill Frank except for some past offence that gradually comes into focus as the film progresses until all is revealed during the climactic showdown. Harmonica’s storyline represents the repercussions of violence for he is the living embodiment of karma as he reminds Frank of all the people he’s killed over the years. He’s the one time that Frank let someone live – a mistake he didn’t make again – and it has come back to haunt him.

They say that the eyes are the window to the soul and Leone certainly understands this with the many close-ups he has of actors’ faces, lingering on their expressions, from weathered hired guns to the fresh face of a beautiful widow, and, most significantly, the ways to convey what their characters are feeling.

If Cheyenne, Frank and Harmonica represent the old way of doing things – through violence and intimidation – then Jill represents the new way – building something from nothing through an honest day’s work. There is an important exchange between Frank and Morton that illustrates the transition from the old way of doing things to the new as the tycoon says, “How does it feel sitting behind that desk, Frank?” The gunslinger replies, “It’s almost like holding a gun. Only much more powerful.” This scene shows that Frank is self-aware; he knows that his way of dealing with problems is on its way out and that big business, as represented by men like Morton, are the future.

Once Upon a Time in the West is a more somber film than The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, which is a triumphant celebration of the western, while the former is a eulogy of the genre. With it, Leone took it as far as he could. By showing the end of the Wild West, of a certain way of life led by men like Cheyenne, Frank and Harmonica, the filmmaker was saying goodbye to the genre. If those three men represent “something to do with death,” as Cheyenne pufgvcvfts it, then Jill represents life and so it is rather fitting that the film ends with her giving the men working on her station water, providing them with sustenance so that they can continue building a soon to be thriving town out in the middle of nowhere.


Of course, Once Upon a Time in the West wasn’t Leone’s last western as he went on to direct Duck, You Sucker! (1971), a fine film in its own right, but after the masterpiece that was the previous effort, it feels a tad unnecessary. Leone would finally make his last film, the gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America, where he did for that genre what he did for the western – make it completely his own in a way that feels like a personal, artistic statement.