Wednesday, September 21, 2016


As the month draws to a close I have a few random thoughts circulating around in my head regarding the movie industry, so I thought I’d share them here today with you. Here are 10 of 'em:

Filmmaker Curtis Hanson died Tuesday, and his greatest film was easily his adaptation of James Ellroy's classic noir novel L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. As I think about it, it remains one of my five favorite films. And also to this day, it remains one of only two films to have swept all four of the major film critics group in its year. It won Best Picture from the New York Film Critics, the LA Film Critics, the National Board of Review, and the National Society of Film Critics in 1997. (SCHINDLER’S LIST was the only other one that did it, in 1993.) And yet the Oscars gave their Best Picture in 1997 to TITANIC, and not Hanson's classic. What a shame.

Speaking of Oscars and shames, why has Tom Hanks been overlooked so often recently? He was passed over for a Best Actor nomination for both CAPTAIN PHILLIPS and BRIDGE OF SPIES, and if the Academy ignores his work in SULLY, it will be a true shame. Few are as good as he is at portraying the inner struggle of decent men in a time of conflict, but his subtle talents may be lost on voters who favor more emotive performances.  

A lot of click bait has asked that lately, but they always ask such things when a horror movie doesn’t perform quite as well at the box office as expected. Granted, horror usually slays at the box office, but films like BLAIR WITCH underperform because they’re not good, not because horror is in decline. DON’T BREATHE has done very well this past month, due to it being well-made, unique, and serving up characters we care about. If horror directors do that, then the genre need never be eulogized.  

Sure, sometimes his films are over-the-top or on-the-nose, but who else is tackling the subjects that he is? His niche as political filmmaker is actually quite refreshing compared to too many directors and producers out there who only want to traffic in tentpoles or superhero flicks. His latest film SNOWDEN may be a bit straight by Stone’s standards, but it’s a compelling piece nonetheless. Not only does he paint a complex portrait of the famed whistleblower, but his film asks the audience to reckon that it may be all too compliant in letting our privacy continually be invaded in the name of "security."

Original caricature by Jeff York of THE AVENGERS (Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg) copyright  2016
Don’t get me wrong, I like the Marvel superhero bunch, but when I hear the name "Avengers" I think this - “Mrs. Peel, we’re needed.” Perhaps I am old school. But if you ever saw Emma Peel, you’d forget Black Widow.

Did any summer film really enter the zeitgeist this year? I mean, are we quoting any film over and over again, or still thinking about, examining it, and dissecting it from top to bottom? However, everyone is still obsessing about the Netflix series STRANGER THINGS, aren’t they? Audiences just can’t seem to get enough of it. Fan art is everywhere. Speculation about the second season is at full throttle. Even the “Uptown Funk” performance by three of the kids from the cast before the Emmy telecast has gone viral all over the web. So will the project that every studio in town turned down except for Netflix teach movie moguls a lesson? It should. They should realize that genre scripts have mass appeal, period pieces are not a turn-off, and yes, adult fare can stars kids. I doubt Tinsel Town will get it wholly, but hey, stranger things have occurred…

There was a time not long ago that movie trailers practically gave away the entire film. It was almost as if the studios wanted to coddle the audience into feeling smarter than they were so they could enter the theater with some weird advantage over their friends who hadn’t seen the trailer. Whatever the dumb reason was, if not that one, too many trailers gave away the story. But now, trailers are getting slyer and keeping up more of the mystery. Take a gander at the new trailer for PASSENGERS starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt ( It sets up the premise, yes, and shows some great moments, of course, but it doesn’t give away too much. There are even fleeting shots of Andy Garcia and Laurence Fishbone towards the end, and who knows what they’re doing there. All that makes me really want to see this movie. When you hold things back from the audience, you whet their appetites even more.

Veteran actor Donald Sutherland...still without an Oscar.
At this year’s special November ceremony, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences will be acknowledging four great careers that never got any due from Oscar.  Receiving special trophies will be movie star Jackie Chan, veteran casting agent Lyn Stalmaster, and filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. Editor Anne V. Coates already won in competition for LAWRENCE OF ARABIA in 1962, but she will being honored additionally for her seven-decade career. (She edited THE PICKWICK PAPERS in 1952!) It’s nice that they’re honoring Coates again, but there are those who have never won so it would be even nicer to see the Academy tap those folks. How about recognizing Catherine Deneuve, Donald Sutherland, Glenn Close, Tom Cruise, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and director Ridley Scott? They’ve all been major and important players for decades, and yet they all remain Oscar-less. So show them some due, Academy. Put them on your slate for next year.

Francis Coppola
Those who follow this blog know that that award is a preoccupation of mine. Off the list of potential possibilities, I’d love to see Robert Redford or Michael Caine receive the AFI accolade, but the venerable group could also honor the likes of Francis Coppola, Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman or Diane Keaton. I’ve floated all those names before. I should mention that the organization did finally pick composer John Willliams after many lobbied for him, including me. In fact, when he was picked, they emailed me to tell me and thank me for being his champion. (How cool was that?) So, you never know. My money is on Caine. 


When it came to honoring diversity and truly worthy recipients, the Emmys absolutely rocked this year. Host Jimmy Kimmel and the producers of the telecast also put on one helluva show as well. Let’s hope the Oscars are just as good come February.

Saturday, September 10, 2016


Original caricature by Jeff York of Sarah Gadon in INDIGNATION (copyright 2016).

Before April of 2015, how many moviegoers knew who actress Alicia Vikander was? But then, when EX MACHINA opened later that month and became a huge hit for such a small film - it was the number one film in limited release its opening weekend - the world knew her. Suddenly, Vikander became the new “It Girl.” Eight months later THE DANISH GIRL opened, Vikander received more raves, and she was on her way to a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Things can happen quickly for a talented ingénue.

This year’s Alicia Vikander may very well be Sarah Gadon. You may not have heard of her yet, or even seen her perform, but she’s been appearing in a lot of high profile roles over the last couple of years and her latest is in this year’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s acclaimed 2008 novel INDIGNATION. It may be the film that finally gets her the acclaim and fame she deserves.

Gadon should have been a major star three years ago. She won kudos and a Best Supporting Actress Genie Award (the Canadian Oscar) for her role as Jake Gyllenhaal’s conflicted wife in ENEMY. Playing the pregnant Helen, she conveyed strength, vulnerability and suspicion over the actions of her man and his doppelganger. (Actually, it was the same man. The twist of the story is that it's the two sides of her wayward hubby.) Unfortunately, for as great as that film was, few got to appreciate her sharp performance in it because the distributor barely opened it in New York and LA, let alone the fly-over states.

Sarah Gadon in ENEMY (2013).
Still, Hollywood did take notice and kept casting her in prominent roles. The young actress nabbed the role of Vlad’s bride in DRACULA UNTOLD last year. And then she received a ton of acclaim this year for her ingénue role as Sadie in Hulu’s first miniseries 11-22-63. Based on the Stephen King bestseller about a man who time-travels back to the early '60’s to stop the Kennedy assassination, she took “the girl” part and turned an almost cliche role into something slyer and fierce. Gadon infuses all of the roles with a similar backbone. She may be often cast in the wife or girlfriend role, but she always brings more to the part than is written on the page.

Gadon uses her beautiful, wide-set eyes to convey all the intelligence and strength inside her. It’s what makes even her most vulnerable roles unique. Her characters are often dealing with dominating males, but there is always something going on in those eyes. Something shrewd, something wise and knowing. And she may be petite, standing only 5’3”, but her body language is steady, grounded, and mature. She may play young women, but they're never spring chickens.

Sarah Gadon with James Franco in this year's Hulu miniseries 11-22-63.
Her arsenal of talent is now on full display in INDIGNATION, the best role she’s had yet. She plays Olivia Hutton, one of Philip Roth’s most fascinating female characters, a woman both reticent and aggressive, careful, yet blithe. It’s one of the best performances in a film this year and it helps make INDIGNATION one of the year’s best films as well.

Philip Roth is a tricky writer to adapt to the screen because his prose describing characters’ inner thoughts cannot be brought to the screen unless the soundtrack were to be filled with narration. But such techniques go against the grain of the first rule of moviemaking - show, don’t tell. But this adaptation works brilliantly because while it doesn’t recreate Roth’s words, it does faithfully convey the characters’ thoughts through nuanced and detailed performances that tell us everything. And the scenes and the editing lets these characters breathe, taking time to convey their words, and the camera never cuts away from a face that is thinking. In fact, it's one of the shrewdest editing jobs in a film this year for how long it lingers on characters after they've stopped talking. All the better to show the audience each character's own reaction to what they just said.

Writer/director James Schamus really understands the material here, and in Gadon he has an amazing actress who gets it too. And he truly understands what makes her so powerful onscreen. He understands that Gadon's physicality, her face, and her eyes tell the audience so, so much. Especially when she is speaking nary a word. She's great at dialogue, but she says more without it.

Sarah Gadon as Olivia Hutton in INDIGNATION.
INDIGNATION is a mournful tale, almost an elegy really, about the rise and fall of a young Jewish student during his first year of college. The title comes from the resentment that Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) feels as he’s expected to conform to school rules, as well as the demands from his smothering New Jersey parents (Danny Burstein, Linda Emond) even though they're thousands of miles away. And in that freshman year, in his battles with authority, he makes some very immature decisions. They’re decisions that end up ruining his life, as well as that of Olivia.

Marcus first notices her in the college library. Her one leg is propped over the arm of a chair as she casually reads her textbook. The gentle swaying of it back and forth mesmerizes him. To such an uptight virgin as Marcus, her relaxed sensuality is both alluring and a bit off-putting. His burgeoning lust wants her, but the respectable kosher butcher's boy in him doesn’t like that a woman is quite that overt. (This is a constant theme of Roth’s throughout his writing, the battle between desire and decorum.)

Sarah Gadon with Logan Lerman in INDIGNATION.
To observe her, Olivia appears to be the all-American girl. But she isn't. She may be perfectly dressed, with her cute sweaters, poodle skirts and saddle shoes, but that's just window dressing. Meanwhile, her eyes convey a worldliness that is not so innocent. They actually betray her complex and damaged past from the time before she entered college. And all of this, Gadon juxtaposes exquisitely in her performance.

She gets to play such a range in this character, a far more complex ingenue than is usually seen onscreen. Sometimes Olivia’s eyes are innocent, and then in a flash, her carnality comes through, like when she decides to perform fellatio on a shocked Marcus at the end of their first date on campus. But mostly Olivia's eyes convey sadder emotions swirling around in her head. Those eyes look away with great pain as she recounts her suicide attempt to him. They're incredulous when he pushes her away, even when they're getting along and their rapport is unmistakable. They see a lot and express a lot. And Gadon is in step with every one of her character's moods.

Marcus, on the other hand, has difficulty managing his feelings. He desires her, yet he resents her sexual proclivity. He enjoys her company as a friend, but part of him seems to like her for the idea of challenging his parents as she's a shiksha. And even when she becomes his bonafide girlfriend, doting on him in the hospital after his appendix bursts, he still cannot bring himself to be honest with anyone about just how he feels about her. He rejects her in so many ways throughout the story and it's heartbreaking.

Gadon and Lerman in INDIGNATION.
Roth always imbues his work with  heavy symbolism. Indeed, Olivia may be the most obvious of symbols in INDIGNATION. She represents the modern world, a forward-thinking, progressive new age that Marcus cannot fathom entirely, let alone embrace. He may want to defy his old school parents, but he clings to plenty of remnants from their archaic belief system too.

And the flowers that she brings to Marcus in the hospital are a perfect symbol for their relationship. She nurtures the flowers, always placing them in pitchers, and arranging them just so. She nurtures their relationship too. And both the flowers and their coupling come to fruition in that hospital room. The roses open up, as does Marcus. He and Olivia share an intimacy not seen before - one of mind, body and soul. But flowers don’t last very long, do they? What a brilliant symbol of how quickly their life together will wither as well.

Gadon is amazing in these scenes, conveying all kinds of emotion. Interestingly, most every scene she has is a reaction scene. She is reacting to what Marcus puts out and sometimes it's very contradictory. Her eyes watch his, searching for something definitive, but it’s almost no use as he cannot commit to one way of acting or another. Marcus just doesn’t realize how wonderful she is, and he continues to push her away, even when you think he may be finally committing. He's a coward in many ways, failing to stand up to his mother who wants him to leave Olivia because of her past and her reputation as a troubled girl. He fails to defend her, himself, and dooms their relationship. And in doing so, he dooms her. 

Filmmaker James Schamus with Gadon and Lerman on set.
He also dooms himself, of course. At the end, Marcus’ mistakes wreck everything. His battles with the dean (Tracy Letts) get him expelled. His loathing of his family for their interference causes him to run away and join the war in Korea. And his rejection of Olivia hurls her towards a nervous breakdown and a complete withdrawal from school. All of this will become apparent to him, but it's a self-awareness he only achieves from beyond the grave.

And yet, at the end, we mostly feel sorry for Olivia. The way she’s written and the way Gadon plays her makes the audience feel the most for her. She was worth fighting for. Certainly more so than Marcus’ battle over Bertrand Russell, or the idea of shirking his clinging parents, or joining the war effort to fight a misguided conflict in Asia. When the film ends, the audience is left bereft, contemplating this well-meaning woman whom Marcus hurt so terribly. We think of her, and the great performance by Sarah Gadon playing her. Her characterization of Olivia Hutton will haunt us for a very, very long time. 

Actress Sarah Gadon walks the red carpet.

Sunday, September 4, 2016


Filmmaker Brian De Palma today.
Like so many movies released, the documentary DE PALMA, about the filmmaker Brian De Palma, only opened nationally in New York and Los Angeles back on June 10. For those of us elsewhere in the country, we had to wait until it became available on VOD just two weeks ago. And while it was worth the wait, it barely scratches the surface about who Brian De Palma is as a movie auteur and what his films mean in the history of cinema. If anything, the 110-minute film, mostly consisting of De Palma sitting and facing the camera while telling us amusing anecdotes about his movies, is like an extended appetizer course. It’s tasty, but not much of a meal.

Even the clips included are short and out-of-context. It’s truly a film that only the most devoted of De Palma fans will likely appreciate, those who know his resume backwards and forwards. But for those who may be unfamiliar with his legacy, the documentary may strike them as shockingly shorthand. It needs narration, more history, more context, even a POV from filmmakers Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow who created this love letter to one of their idols. As filmmaking documentaries go, this one can’t really hold a candle to a 2-hour A & E biography.

Sissy Spacek in CARRIE (1976)
What it does do well is present a wry and curmudgeonly storyteller in De Palma as he recounts the films in his directing career, and the highs and lows it took to make them. He tells of his many battles to get what’s onscreen up there, whether they were conflicts within the studio system or with his stars. It presents a world weary man, who’s seen too much in his fifty years as a filmmaker, but what it doesn’t give the viewer much of is a vivid portrait of his exquisite work. Still, if it moves audiences to seek out his films, then it has accomplished a lot. But for those out there only vaguely familiar with him, this documentary will not illuminate De Palma nearly enough.

That’s a shame because De Palma is one of America’s foremost filmmakers, an important player across some five decades of film now. There were few auteurs whom Pauline Kael championed more in the 70’s and 80’s. His arresting visual style and controversial subject matter found within his movies always caused a stir and created tons of buzz. He was a household name then. And rightfully so. De Palma films were big deals and always garnered a lot of attention.

Why? For starters, De Palma’s work was never, ever boring. More often than not, his work was stunning to watch. It was utterly enthralling cinema with a technician's expertise that few could match. In fact, there were few moviemakers who could hold a candle to De Palma's camerawork, editing, and scoring. He was masterful at telling stories filled with suspense, and he was also a true provocateur. His films were about sex, rendered boldly, without compromise, whether it was a girl's first period (CARRIE) or an out-of-work actor's lurid fantasies (BODY DOUBLE). 

Many great filmmakers came out of that time period, and the likes of Spielberg, Scorsese, Lucas and Coppola were friends and contemporaries of De Palma's. He was almost as big a deal as they were then, and he was certainly one of the directors that audiences and critics looked forward to standing in line for. How many people even know that today? Anyone under 30?

Al Pacino in SCARFACE (1981)
Thus, to tell the story of such a man and the quality of his resume requires more than a scant two hours. And to cover his 25 or so films in a documentary subjugates them merely to a sort of greatest hits list, with little more than a behind-the-scenes story or two, or a humorous anecdote to go along with the clips. It's just not enough, and actually stands as a bit wobbly in structure.  

A movie like THE UNTOUCHABLES probably could have its own documentary, but here in this one, it gets about equal time as all the others, and it feels too short. What we learn from De Palma's tidbits here is little more than a quick telling of De Niro not wanting to learn his lines, as well as how the director had to improvise the staircase scene. But such a classic needs more time to talk about than that. And while it's hilarious when the director talks about OBSESSION and how cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond complained that the overly tan Cliff Robertson blended into the woodwork in his set-ups, again, such films feel shortchanged by their brief appearances in the doc.

Worth more screen time as well, and some truly lively debate, is the polarizing reputation that De Palma has earned with both critics and audiences alike over the years. Indeed, much of his resume could be described as hit or miss. He certainly is able to ace genre time and time again, with the likes of horror (CARRIE) and thrillers (DRESSED TO KILL), but much of his work over the last 20 years has wholly missed anything near that of a classic. And are his films important? That's a question about his work that always shadows it.  

Granted, they said the same of Hitchcock in his era, and look at his reputation today. Still, De Palma is not nearly as important a filmmaker as Hitchcock, but he is better than many people give him credit as being. And it’s nice to see a documentary attempting to restore some of the gusto to his reputation. 

Andy Garcia in THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987)
After all, there are few filmmakers of any generation who have created such a distinctive and recognizable visual style onscreen as De Palma. The gliding Steadicam floating from one room to another, like those in DRESSED TO KILL or THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, is not only pure cinematic storytelling, it’s pure De Palma. The use of a split screen to tell two sides of a story simultaneously in SISTERS and DRESSED TO KILL became an instantly recognizable signature of the filmmaker too. And what other director has created so many cat and mouse set-pieces with little or no dialogue other than De Palma? Hitchcock, yes, but for such an important director as the Master of Suspense, De Palma observes that few people pay much homage to him in their filmmaking. He admits to stealing quite generously from Hitch. Steal from the best, isn't that what they say? 

And yet, even though De Palma is a consummate technical director, and one whose themes of sexuality, perversion, power and corruption onscreen have few parallels, there are so many that still utterly loathe De Palma. They’ll tell you that he uses his impressive techniques as a crutch, or too often in the service of weak material. If only he had spent as much time on the scripts of such duds as THE BLACK DAHLIA or FEMME FATALE, he would’ve turned them into winners. They’ll also argue that he’s too obsessive with fetishizing women, or even destroying them, as evidenced by what many see as outright misogyny in so many of his pictures. Only a director who hates women, they’ll argue, would have Angie Dickinson sliced up so brutally in that elevator, or offed Deborah Shelton with an 18” drill.

Angie Dickinson in DRESSED TO KILL (1981)
Indeed, De Palma has overdone some of the violence. Worse yet, he's bungled a lot of good material he had to work with. He turned some that should have been sure shots into misfires, like James Ellroy’s finest detective novel. There’s a great movie, or miniseries, to be made of THE BLACK DAHLIA, but De Palma’s version wasn’t it. It’s hard to argue with such mistakes, yet he’s often elevated lurid scripts to something resembling art. SCARFACE is filled with over-the-top violence and some performances that edge into stereotypes, yet De Palma turned much of the pulp into poetry. There's an elegance to his camerawork, even if it's showing Al Pacino mowing down dozens of assassins with his "little friend."

And quick (!), name an action scene from the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie franchise. You came up with Tom Cruise hanging by those wires, didn’t you? That was the first in the series, directed by De Palma, and it's still the most memorable. The fact is De Palma probably doesn’t get nearly enough credit for so much of what he's accomplished as a great filmmaker, not just as a great visualist. 

He certainly doesn’t get nearly the praise he deserves for the amazing work he gets out of many of his actors. He guided Sean Connery to a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for THE UNTOUCHABLES. Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie got nominations for their work in CARRIE under De Palma's direction. And he was the first among directors to champion a young Bobby De Niro in comedies like GREETINGS and HI, MOM! 

Melanie Griffith and Craig Wasson in BODY DOUBLE (1984)
De Palma also was the first big time director to give big film roles to John Lithgow, Dennis Franz, Paul Williams, Amy Irving, Nancy Allen, and Keith Gordon. He also did wonders to change a lot of people’s minds about the talents of Angie Dickinson and Melanie Griffith, winning them multiple supporting actress awards for their work in DRESSED TO KILL and BODY DOUBLE, respectively. And he saved Michelle Pfeiffer from the trash heap of Hollywood after the debacle that was GREASE 2, with a career-changing turn as Tony Montana’s wife in SCARFACE.

It was also De Palma who had the vision to bring Bernard Herrmann out of retirement and guide him to create a few more outstanding film scores. Sure, Scorsese hired Herrmann to score TAXI DRIVER in 1976, but De Palma utilized him that same year for OBSESSION, and actually hired him to write the music to accompany his Margot Kidder thriller SISTERS three years earlier. De Palma relates many such stories in the documentary, and it’s rather sad as he does so with an air of realization that people don’t know that he did such things. They think he’s just the guy who mainstreamed voyeurism at the cinema. But anyone who loves movies needs to know of the impact he has had on film. This documentary may have shortcomings, but it at least sets the record straight. 

Tom Cruise in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1996)
De Palma may not be quite in the sphere as those famed contemporaries of his from the 70’s, but he has created great films. Many of them. Who'd argue with the place in cinematic history that CARRIE, THE UNTOUCHABLES, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and DRESSED TO KILL own, along with cult classics that continue to build their fandom like PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, BLOW OUT, THE FURY, and OBSESSION. And if you are moved to rent De Palma’s CASUALTIES OF WAR, SISTERS, or CARLITO’S WAY after viewing the documentary, you might just realize that those are a whole helluva lot better than they get credit for as well.  

When De Palma is firing on all cylinders, he is truly masterful. And even though he’s 75 now, one hopes he still may have a movie or two left in him. His wit and intelligence are so clearly on display in this documentary, as he holds the audience in the palm of his hand, simply telling you about his adventures in the screen trade. If he can do that sitting in front of the camera, imagine what he can still do behind it.