Spotlight on The Independent Arts: The Better Angels

Better Angels 3

A. J. Edwards, a student and artistic son of Terrence Malick, opens his debut film with cold, haunting shots of the Lincoln Memorial.  A crackling Malickian voice-over of a backwoods fella talkin’ bout being Lincoln’s cousin and having lived with him for a spell when he was just a boy in Indiana begins to shape the story as the image moves to a rambling creak.  Water is transporting us back in time, back into a dream, and we’re suddenly there watching young Abe make his way in the world.  The film ends just a brief 90 minutes later with a chilling bookend…a nicely appointed cabin in Illinois (a clear step-up from the backwoods cabins of his father) where that same warbling cousin waxes about the moment Lincoln’s beloved stepmother (Diane Kruger) learns of his passing.  It’s the grand beautiful stuff of myth.

Watching The Better Angels and comparing it to the work of Malick is akin to comparing painters from the same family.  One can’t help but think of the generations of Wyeths or Renoirs.  Edwards does something Malick never did – he films in black and white – but the movements and framing and pacing and focus are eerily the same.  A low shot panning up to an open gate…or door…or window.  The actors and actresses moving about as if in interpretative dance.  Beautiful music.  Ethereal cinematography of nature.  There’s one shot of Lincoln’s mother (Brit Marling) on her death-bed where Edwards actually photographs her last breath…you see it hang in the air after her exhale, and its captured in a perfect light.  Dust and smoke and light…the black and white photography does wonders for all that Edwards and Malick love to capture.

Continue reading

Advertisements

Going Back to the Bridge in Selma

Selma

Like two of the other most ballyhooed films from 2014 (Boyhood and Birdman), Selma is a really good film that has been a bit oversold.  I suppose if one is going to overrate a film, it might as well be one as noble as this, but in the slightly paraphrased words of my girlfriend, “I just wish they would’ve gotten the facts straight and given this girl a little more gospel.”  There’s something curiously missing from Ava DuVernay’s intelligently directed and reverent biopic of our nation’s most celebrated reverend and Civil Rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., despite many convenient current parallels reminding informed viewers there is still so much work to be done.  That missing piece is the call to action.

Standing tall in the film are DuVernay’s depiction of the most harrowing events (from the bombing of the four little girls in the church and the violent police suppression of the first attempt to march across the bridge out of Selma towards Montgomery, to the quieter but equally disturbing moments showing the casually institutionalized hate-fueled suppression of the right to vote in court houses across the Deep South) and, naturally, David Oyelowo’s commanding performance as MLK.

DuVernay, taking a cue from Spielberg’s Lincoln, does a commendable job showing the slow tension-building behind-the-scenes process of what it takes to organize a meaningful march against injustice and how that can be used as a tool to raise public sentiment for the passing of legislation (in this case, the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965).  The tenants of nonviolent protest are on glorious display here, showing how powerfully effective yet dangerous it can be, as it coaxes the irrational radicals out into the open light of day where those watching on the sidelines are suddenly spurred to stand up because they are left with no other option once violence erupts against the peaceful marchers.

Sadly, Paul Webb’s uneven screenplay betrays both DuVernay’s skills and Oyelowo’s passionate portrayal as the writer plays loose with some key facts and insists on fitting King into the archetypal mold of a leader riddled with self-doubt.  Continue reading

Battle of the British Biopics: Mr. Turner, The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game

Below is The Spin on three end of the year awards hopefuls…all British biopics about tortured geniuses that when viewed together represent the best and worst of classic Oscar-bait.

Mr. Turner

First up is the finely pedigreed Mr. Turner from Academy darling writer/director Mike Leigh detailing the waning years of famed eccentric proto-Impressionist maritime artist J. M. W. Turner.  The film contains a lot of what one comes to expect from a Leigh project: Timothy Spall superb in the lead role, gritty yet refined attention to realism, fantastic supporting turns from a sometimes improvising cast, and excellent dialogue (the dark, dry, British humor runs delightfully amuck here).  The film also contains some surprises, most notably the perfectly lit cinematography from Dick Pope who photographs the film like a moving painting, masterfully capturing the scenes and environments (the approach of a retired warship he would later paint coming into harbor while Turner and his friends row out to meet it is fantastically rendered) that inspired Turner’s art. Continue reading

Book to Film Adaptations I Would Love to See

2014 marks the year two of my favorite novels will finally reach the silver screen:  the oddly still kept under wraps adaptation of Ron Rash’s Serena (from Oscar-winning director Susanne Bier and staring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper), and Saul Dibb’s Oscar-baiting adaptation of Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise (well- cast with Michelle Williams and Kristen Scott Thomas).  Which made me think…what other recent or favorite reads are ripe for cinematic plucking?

Heart of a Tiger by Herschel Cobb

Ty Cobb Sliding

A young boy in the 1950’s struggles to find hope and happiness under the harsh shadows of his rage-fueled father and alcoholic mother.  In his loving grandfather he finds refuge and meaning in life.

Sounds like a trite, sachrine, run-of-the-mill, triumph over child abuse tale…except for one thing.  That loving grandfather was none other than Tyrus R. Cobb – statistically speaking the greatest baseball player of all time; American myth; and generally regarded as a world-class mean-spirited son-of-a-bitch who drove his baseball spikes into opponents, beat up fans in the stands, and was a racist, alcoholic hell-raiser.  Part of his scandal are the tall-tales that have been taken as fact, and most people seem to forget that his savvy business mind (he was a great investor in the early days of Coca-Cola) allowed him to, in old age, be a great benefactor to many good causes – from giving no-strings-attached monetary gifts to down-and-out former teammates to a scholarship fund for impoverished Georgian kids that to this day continues to fund higher education for thousands of children.  He also apparently took a shining to the children of his loose-cannon son after the son died of a heart-attack.

Herschel’s Cobb memoir is colored through the lens of a kid who loved his grandfather, so yeah, there’s a bias, but a clever screenwriter could intertwine the uplift of the book with the more colorful moments from Cobb’s legendary playing days, maybe even glimpses into Ty’s own childhood – layers upon layers, flashbacks upon flashbacks – that could weave an epic character arc of a multi-faceted man who saw the darkness in himself, recognized the cruelty of others, and attempted to rescue his grandchildren from it all and stop the cycle of abuse.  Baseball, nostalgia, dysfunctional families, tortured childhoods and redemption – it’s the stuff of great drama.  Take an up-and-coming director like Jeff Nichols who is no stranger to the themes, put some make-up and a Southern accent on Michael Shannon so he can take the lead role, and voila…you could have a gritty, sentimental barn-burner on your hands.

I mean, c’mon, wouldn’t you love to see Michael Shannon utter this famous Cobb quote to his grandson?

“I had to fight all my life to survive. They were all against me… but I beat them and left them in the ditch.”

Continue reading

The Iron Lady Goes Haywire

Excuse me, gentlemen, I make the decisions around here! Now give me my Oscar!

 

Hey, bub, I might not ever win an Oscar, but I will kick your ass!

 
Meryl Streep and Gina Carano might have more in common than meets the eye.  One is an acting legend taking on her umpteenth role in Phyllida Lloyd’s Margaret Thatcher biopic, The Iron Lady.  The other is a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) star who many are saying has no business acting as the lead in her first film, Steven Soderbergh’s artsy actioner Haywire.  But both women make a clear statement and create a commanding presence in their respective films with Streep rising above her film’s faults while Carano rises above her own.  Neither of their films could operate or entertain without them. Continue reading

Elizabeth R You Free for Dinner?

Okay, Caveman, what will it be tonight? Bison steaks?

 

Would her Majesty care for a spot of tea after whuppin' Spain's Armada-Ass?

 

Go ahead and smile, Mr. Greene, I'll pour the scotch.

 
The concept is simple: You can go back in time and meet ten people (either in their prime or near their deathbed) and share one meal with them where you can ask them anything, and they have to give you honest answers. Who would it be? Who would you want to separate the myth from the fact and finally set the record straight? Whose head would you want to crawl inside and find what made them tick? Who do you admire and just want to spend some time with shooting the breeze?

The idea for this sprang from an unlikely place. To make a short story long….it all started with that damnable Netflix!

With a dearth of interesting new titles to fill my Netflix queue, I’ve relied on their recommendation algorithm to unearth previous works unbeknownst to me. Thus into my instant queue popped Elizabeth R – a 6-part BBC/Masterpiece Theater miniseries from 1971 starring Glenda Jackson in the title role. Continue reading

J. Edgar Snoozer

Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy in J. Edgar

Clint Eastwood’s latest Oscar grab bag, J. Edgar, is proof positive of how a bad screenplay can sink even the sturdiest of ships.

Aimlessly leap-frogging around a fifty year time span covering the entire career of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio, delivering a workmanlike performance), Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay utilizes the clichéd framework of the title character dictating his memoirs.  In an attempt to cover so much 20th century history, the story touches on so many things that it ends up enlightening nothing.  Half-hearted efforts to give us glimpses into Hoover’s psyche and background (Surprise! He had a domineering mother represented by a phoned-in performance from Judi Dench) shed little light on the rumors that have always been out there.  Was he a closeted homosexual?  Probably.  Was he a cross-dresser?  Probably not.  The film tries to anchor itself around his relationships with Clyde Tolson (Arnie Hammer – almost comical in his depiction) and his long-suffering secretary Helen Gandy (played admirably by the long-suffering Naomi Watts who seems to always get these thankless supporting gigs in high-profile disappointments) – but neither are treated in any kind of sophisticated way and we’re left with surface-level treatments of these characters who obviously (in their own different ways) loved and were ruled by Hoover. Continue reading

The Starting Nine

In honor of Opening Day, we now present to you…

The Schleicher Spin’s Guide to the Best Baseball Films:

*In the Outfield:

Left Field –

Cobb (1994) – This biopic did not fare well upon release.  However, Tommy Lee Jones gives an Oscar-worthy performance in a film not about baseball but instead about one of the meanest SOB’s to ever live – who just also happened to be one of the greatest baseball players of all time.  It makes for a fascinating character study.

Center Field –

Are you Madonna? There's no Madonnas in baseball!

A League of Their Own (1992) – This excellent ensemble drama and family film teaches history while preaching about girl power.  Any young player of the game can find much to be inspired by here.

Right Field –

The Sandlot (1993) – This is another kid’s favorite that celebrates the joy of the game and endless summers running amuck in the neighborhood. Continue reading

Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace

Why, yes, Mr. Hitler, I do object.

Character driven historical dramas used as vehicles for acting showcases have long been the bread and butter of many an Oscar campaign.  The King’s Speech is one such throw-back picture, harkening to a simpler time when entertainment was good and pure.  It’s 100% by-the-numbers bread and butter…but it’s that really good bread, you know the kind that is crusty on the outside and warm and tender inside, and the butter, it’s like that really fancy kind infused with garlic and stuff. 

It’s the dawn of WWII in England, and the royals are still reeling from the Wallis Simpson scandal.  After his brother abdicates the throne, King George VI (Colin Firth – not looking, but certainly acting the hell out of the part) reluctantly takes charge while cowering in fear of a life-long stutter.  With the help of his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter, still damn good when not stuck in Tim Burton films) he finds an unlikely speech therapist in the Australian Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush in his wheelhouse) to help him overcome his stammering.  Continue reading

The Fighting Irish

We’ve been lured by urban settings before – places so vivid they become a character in and of themselves:  Dickensian London, James Joyce’s Dublin, Scorsese’s New York…and now, in recent years we’ve found a great attraction to Affleckted Boston.  Movies like The Departed, Gone Baby Gone and this year’s The Town have taken us there before.  Ben Affleck may have nothing to do with this latest, The Fighter, but he’s been the greatest purveyor of this white trash squalor, and it runs amuck in David O. Russell’s fact based tale surrounding Micky Ward’s struggle to rise above his roots in the Lowell subsection of Boston to become a champion boxer. Continue reading