The opening moments where we are smack dab in the thick of a test flight thrusting Neil Armstong above the earth’s atmosphere are among the most thrilling I’ve felt since Dunkirk, all sound and fury and rattling nuts and bolts and creaking ship hulls. But when not relishing in the “in the moment” nitty-gritty details of how we got to the moon, the filmmakers take a huge gamble by positing (with some poetic license) that the primary motive behind Neil Armstrong’s push to the be the first man on the moon was perhaps grief – namely finding a way to process the death of his two-year old daughter, but also the grief over the astronauts who lost their lives in earlier failed missions. It worked for this viewer (and new dad) but it makes for a surprisingly somber tale colored with a psychological complexity I was not expecting.
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.
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
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.
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
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 –
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.”
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
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
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 –
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
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