Category: Film

Starring Sam Shepard, Dennis Quaid, Ed Harris, Barbara Hershey, Fred Ward

Written for the Screen and Directed by Philip J. Kaufman; adapted from the book of the same name by Tom Wolfe

Cinematography by Caleb Deschanel

A soaring multifaceted love letter to the early aeronauts and astronauts of NASA’s early days (and their wives), and an arresting celluloid journey through the many styles and tricks of film photography, THE RIGHT STUFF is one of America’s finest films.
The adaptation from the massive Tom Wolfe opus was understandably complicated, with legendary writer William Goldman dropping out after disagreements with director Kaufman, who eventually wrote the entire script himself; the film and it’s varied themes becoming a personal piece for him.
The cast is an ensemble of actors whose careers were subsequently launched: Scott Glenn as Alan Shepard, Ed Harris as the immortal John Glenn, Fred Willard as tragic Gus Grissom, Dennis Quaid is one of his finest roles as jokester Gordo Cooper, and the list goes on, with great small parts from Jeff Goldblum, Harry Shearer and The Band drummer Levon Helm, who narrates.
The heart of the film, and the bookend for the astronauts’ exploits, however, is aviation hero Chuck Yeager, the near-mythological perfect pilot, who broke the sound barrier and became the progenitor of the Mercury Seven. Sam Shepard plays Yeager not as the Evil Knievel of the skies, but a 20th century cowboy who took the job as ace war hero and then, a record breaking aviator, as calmly and unassumingly as a man driving to an office job. His love story with fiery wife Glennis (Barbara Hershey) in the film adds luster to the slightly fantastical Homeric allegories of Yeager and his death-defying peers shredding the skies above tiny, rustic Edwards Air Force base and the watering hole where dead pilots’ pictures line the walls. British film historian David Thomson picked up on Kaufman’s relative obsession with Yeager as part of the film (a small presence in the Wolfe book):
“I think Kaufman picked Shepard for the way he represents the movie star as real man and existentialist … a man in a leather jacket on a horse meeting a jet plane in the desert. That is an arresting image, and Shepard is all that Kaufman wanted in The Right Stuff.”

In STUFF, then-thirty-nine year old Caleb Deschanel received the first of his six (and still counting) Oscar nominations for cinematography, and it’s perhaps his most impressive work in an incredible career. From Yeager’s first stunning bursting of the sound barrier to his fiery attempt at the altitude record years later, Deschanel utilized breathtaking combinations of real-time 1950s and 60s aircrafts in flight, models, matte work and clever backdrop work. In between, the film is chock full of memorable imagery: a comically troubling melange of failed attempts at rocket take-offs, a trippy (and true to life) orbital journey with John Glenn when he sees “fireflies” outside the capsule window and his memorable, nerve-shattering re-entry, in which he hums patriotic tunes to calm himself, the instantly silly, but then strangely perfect feather-dance sequence played to Debussy’s Clair de Lune, bringing the fraternal camaraderie of each Mercury Seven astronaut to a sobering, tearful conclusion, and, finally, the last ride of Yeager, volunteering to set a new altitude record in a state-of-the-art jet. Flying straight vertical at ungodly speed, Yeager reaches and pierces the stratosphere to the edge of space, seeing nothing but dark and stars and for one startling moment crossing the threshold between worlds and becoming an astronaut himself…
Crash-landing moments later, Shepard’s Yeager walks away from the burning hulk, his flightsuit and broken helmet covered with burnt oil, a knowing smile on his face. STUFF is a ride for the ages.

Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz, Rebecca Hall

Written and Directed by Woody Allen

Woody Allen’s affections for England and its complicated (and apparently murderous) social scene has come through in his last three films, but he travels south in Europe for this naughty, sexy romp that details a summer two American friends come to Barcelona and find themselves in a situation that makes them question their own stance on love and relationships.

Impossibly gorgeous Scarlett Johansson (a quote from Bernardo Bertolucci, director of The Dreamers comes to mind, where he called starring actress Eva Green “so beautiful it’s indecent”) is Cristina, free-spirited, often blithe and unwilling to compromise her non-traditional feelings on the silliness of love.  Her friend from college is soon-to-be-married Vicky, played by Rebecca Hall, a pretty, reservedly traditional girl who tends to say things like “guys, let’s not get into one of those turgid categorical imperative arguments”. Her deceptively cliché part is mainly due to Allen’s role-writing, but the only thing that’s turgid (synonyms include pompous and pretentious, words already that are rampant in the film’s dialogue) is to assume that twenty-something college girls talk like that.  But scripts were never meant to perfectly reflect how we actually talk.  How boring would that be?

At a restaurant the two of them are greeted by Juan Antonio, played by Javier Bardem, who makes a startling and frank offer.  From here the film embarks on a torrid and often-strange sex adventure that embroils the two Americans into the life of Juan Antonio and his old flame, Maria Elena, wildly portrayed by Penelope Cruz, for which she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2009.

Juan Antonio is casual, frank, and unapologetic about the bohemian life he lives and what he wants out of it, which Bardem channels wonderfully. And although he feels free to live his life the way he wants, he is constantly recalling his ex-wife and eternal flame, Maria Elena, who stabbed him the last time the two fought and ended their relationship.

Johansson and Hall do their jobs well, but no chemistry is as explosive as that of Bardem and Cruz’s, two Spanish actors familiar with each other and completely in their element.  Cruz, who I always felt was bogged down by bad translation in her English-speaking roles, shines here as Maria Elena, a raven-haired dynamite of a woman possessed and impassioned by nearly everything she does and, like Juan Antonio, is never apologetic for it.

As the plot thickens and begins to leave viewers wondering just how it will end, and just who Bardem will end up with, I thought back on the last Allen film I had watched, Cassandra’s Dream, and feared that a tacked-on, rushed ending would cheaply wind up the ending.  But Vicky Cristina Barcelona, while not what I would call a deep film, is intriguing in its delicate little unforeseens.  Vicky is made out to be the predictable one at the film’s outset, having already structured her life and going through any and all lengths to stay in her comfort zone while in Barcelona – but it’s really Cristina who is the predictable one, whose nonconformity and purposeful unconventionalism in love and life is really a transparent , immature façade that shows itself at the film’s conclusion.

And the very ending, where Vicky, having always been smitten with Juan Antonio, goes to his casa and nearly falls prey to his advances and her yearnings, is wonderfully unpredictable and imaginative. The last two mentioned adjectives are always what I look for in a Woody Allen movie, and it pleases me to no end when directors stay true to the themes and characteristics that made their earlier films so enjoyable.  Now, does that make me too traditional?

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Cassandra’s Dream (2007)

Ewan McGregor, Colin Farrell, Tom Wilkinson, Haley Atwell, Sally Hawkins

Written and Directed by Woody Allen

Following Match Point (2005), without a doubt my favorite Woody Allen movie after Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Allen reunited with gorgeous Scarlett Johansson for the travesty that was Scoop (2006) and then made Cassandra’s Dream the next year, staying in England to shoot.

Cassandra’s Dream seems to be a hole-in-the-wall for most critics, mostly due to the fact that its storyline meanders down the same path between violence, choice and the strength, or weakness, of family as does Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (also 2007).  The latter is purported to be the better movie by virtually all big-name critics, and I’m not one to argue, but Cassandra shouldn’t be left adrift in favor of barely-better film unfortunately released in the same year.

Blue-collar gambler/drinker Colin Farrell and easily-dazzled, wishing-he-was-a-big-shot Ewan McGregor are brothers in suburban London, content with the small things in life, like a nice boat they just splurged on, thanks to the winning streak that Farrell had accumulated at the dog races.  But money proves to be of lingering importance, a theme in many Allen movies, and the boys take advantage of a reunion with wealthy plastic surgeon uncle Tom Wilkinson, in from L.A. for the week.  What they don’t expect is that old uncle has a proposition for them that they didn’t expect, but promises the solution to all their money woes.

The climax of the film involves the perpetration of this proposed deed, and from there a film that had prided itself on its symbiotic success of great writing and great actors’ delivery of such writing somewhat dissolves.  McGregor easily forgets the deed, his mind flush with thoughts of imminent success and pleasing his new, gorgeous actress girlfriend, played by Atwell. But Farrell not so much, and he proves to be a convenient moral thorn in the side of McGregor and Wilkinson, which leads to a much-rushed and also convenient ending aided by yet another murderous proposition by the good uncle.

The film could have afforded an extra fifteen or twenty minute lengthening, to fill in the gaps of the too-rushed conclusion, and to allow more time to develop the agonizing choice McGregor’s character is facing, achieved expertly by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in the conclusion/resolution of Match Point.

It’s a shame when films dissolve, albeit quickly, towards the end, and I’m usually at a loss as to what causes this, whether it be pestering producers, bad weather, actor/director scuffles or illness. Cassandra’s Dream (the name of the sailing vessel that begins and ends the film) is a good movie, but only a decent one in the prestigious filmography of Woody Allen.  It has all the makings of an excellent film: great, exciting writing, vivacious young actors who love their job, theme-filled plots of the bonds of blood and the allure of becoming rich, and the always-engrossing choice that inevitably makes or breaks the protagonist(s).

But Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as the brothers, does the same thing, but with more choice, more thematic plot, and more inescapable tragedy, but only does it better.  It’s s shame Cassandra’s Dream can only be discussed anymore through that lens, but such a thing can easily happen if the navigation one followed through half the movie is cast off (or lost in storm) before the ending.

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Subterranean Homesick Filmgoer

I’m Not There (2007)

Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Christian Bale

Directed by Todd Haynes

(from top left to bottom right) Christian Bale, Ben Whishaw, the late Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Marcus Carl Franklin, Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan

At once incredibly creative, and a great gaggle of performances – my favorites being Heath Ledger and the incomporable Cate Blanchett – make for some compelling scenes. But the movie doesn’t make a damn bit of sense to those who don’t fawn at every tidbit of information concerning Dylan’s life and story, or have a greater knowledge of his complete discography than they have of the current Presidential cabinet.

I like Bob Dylan as much as the next person. I have about six or seven songs of his that I absolutely love and am finding more everyday. He’s one of the most poignant and compelling figures to ever involve themselves in music. But that doesn’t make this movie entertaining. “I’m Not There” plays itself out like an indie biopic produced by the Weinsteins (which it probably is); like an abstract painting that four or five “experts” deign the greatest thing to grace this earth while we’re all left scratching our heads. It’s a strange dream of a movie that leaves me wondering whether or not i’d have rather spent the past two hours and ten minutes listening to Nashville Skyline over and over again instead of milling around in my brain to make sense of this mess.

Dylan has become such a revered part of popular culture that to mention his name and the statement “i don’t really like his music” in the same sentence can give you a lifetime of dirty looks. Well I like Dylan, but I don’t like this.

Pictures from and, respectively.

Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl

Directed by Tom Tykwer

I was pleasantly surprised, to the point of shock, with this one. Thanks to the trailer and the widely-circulated posters (Clive Owen grimacing while firing an Uzi one handed, Naomi Watts clinging to his black coat)

This picture says a thousand words, just all of them misleading

I figured it would be just some heavy-handed, poorly-written attempt to show some international banking conspiracy, with only one protagonist (Clive Owen) who knows the truth, and isn’t afraid to shoot everyone just to prove points.

But then I saw it was directed by Tom Tykwer, and the man who directed Heaven ain’t going to direct some run-of-the-mill action movie. The plot was presented in a very realistic, terrifying manner. The world is a scary place, and it isn’t too much of a stretch to think that a banking firm has it’s hands in a whole manner of gun-smuggling, arms running, and god knows what else. Money is power, and one little Interpol agent who swiftly uncovers the truth isn’t going to stand in their way.

Great, quick-moving but thoughtful plot, featuring a frantic, bloody and sensational shoot-out in New York’s Guggenheim Museum, the climax of an immensely suspenseful cat-and-mouse chase through the streets. I love being pleasantly – or any kind of – surprised by a new movie, especially when more often i’m so disappointed by them.

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Look Back in Anger (1959)

Richard Burton, Mary Ure, Claire Bloom, Gary Raymond

Directed by Tony Richardson

Besides “Equus” (1977), this to me is the one movie that cements Richard Burton’s legendary status as one of the acting professions greatest auteurs. Made in 1959, at the “start” of Richard Burton’s rise to Hollywood fame (he was almost 40 when the film was made) “Look Back in Anger” begins the pattern of Burton’s self-loathsome, alcoholic and abusive portrayals that come to represent, perhaps unfairly, his most successful films.

Stylishly adapted and directed from the John Osborne play by Tony Richardson, Burton is Jimmy Porter, a jazz trumpeter and self-destructive masochist whose only real joy in life is demeaning and belittling his delicate, emotionally catatonic wife, Alison, played by Mary Ure. A visit from her friend, Helen, who Jimmy despises even more, leads to a consuming, dialogue-rich drama of mental, emotional awakenings for Jimmy. Films adapted from plays have the advantage of clear-cut, engrossing dialogue that establish strong characters and plots.

In Look Back in Anger, its main leads are all gifted, experienced stage thespians. Ure reprises her role as Alison from the play, and Claire Bloom uses her considerable talent to play Helen, a woman torn between her friendship with Alison, and her mixed hatred and desire for Jimmy. Burton is the star, a role and position he knows well and will continue to accrue in his career. He is vicious, deprecating and scathing in his vitriol. He hates himself, his life, and everyone around him. No one but Burton could play such a role convincingly.

While the film’s end may seem somewhat unrealistic, its themes of forgiveness and fatalistic romance surprising and almost unwelcome, Look Back in Anger is one of the great stage adaptations of the 50s and 60s, of which there were many gems. In terms of Burton’s Hollywood chronology, this small film cemented his status as a film actor on the rise and is a must-watch for fans of Burton, fans of stage adaptations, or just fans of strong film.

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