Sunday, September 07, 2014

Summerflix, Part 1

I knew it had been a while since I'd written one of these, but I didn't realize it had been that long.  This goes all the way back to Memorial Day, so let's consider this the summer review.

The Company You Keep - Solid, thoughtful thriller directed by and starring Robert Redford.  You could call it the flip side of "The Big Chill" - it's about a group of adults who, like the protagonists in Chill, were together at the University of Michigan during the late sixties.  But unlike their counterparts, the characters in "The Company You Keep" were deep into Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground, and after a bank robbery they organized left a security guard dead, they scattered across the country, trying to lead their lives while keeping the past dead and buried.

Redford plays Jim Grant, who has led a relatively quiet life in Albany, New York as a public interest lawyer.  But when one of his old friends (well played by Susan Sarandon) is captured, the peeling of the onion begins, and Grant is soon on the run trying to find his old comrades for reasons that don't become entirely clear (but are reasonably easy to guess) until late in the film.  He's got a hotshot reporter (they still make those?) on his trail, but Grant is smart, and hasn't gone undiscovered for as long as he has for no reason.

Redford is good, although I was distracted by the fact that he's about 10 years too old to play the role.  The cast overall is pretty spectacular, featuring some of the best character actors of our time - Stanley Tucci, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Terrence Howard, Richard Jenkins, Sam Elliot, Brendan Gleeson, Stephen Root - all of whom are good to excellent.  Shia LaBeouf doesn't ruin the movie as the young reporter, and Anna Kendrick is thrown in as an FBI agent for no particular reason.  But best of all is Julie Christie, who is terrific as the lone former radical who remains unapologetic and defiant.

One could argue that the ending is a little pat, but at the same time I think it's one that was earned.

Almost Famous - I can't believe I've never seen this before, given my well established obsessions with rock music and Rolling Stone magazine.  Directed by Cameron Crowe, it ostensibly tells his story, about how he came to write for the legendary magazine (back in the days when it was still creating the legend) when he was 15 years old.  It's entertaining, and the depictions of RS stalwarts like Jann S. Wenner, David Felton and Ben Fong-Torres are amusing (if inaccurate, if Greil Marcus is to be believed, and since he was there at the time, I believe him).  Seeing the late Philip Seymour Hoffman portray the late Lester Bangs is both funny and sad at the same time.  The depiction of the fictional band Stillwater is fine, especially in the scene when it appears they're all going down in a small plane and Billy Crudup starts singing "Peggy Sue" - which may have been the one time during the movie that I laughed out loud.  Where Crowe misfires are the elements of the story featuring his mother, which are a waste, and the elements featuring the groupies, which I'm pretty sure are an outright lie.  If not a lie, certainly inconsistent with an RS article he wrote in the mid-seventies where he spoke of "almost" being seduced after a concert - and opting to listen to Steely Dan instead.

Kill Your Darlings - Daniel Radcliffe is the star and does just fine as Allen Ginsberg, but after seeing this, it's pretty clear that Dane DeHaan is the actor.  It's hard to put your finger on it - he's certainly not what you would call classically handsome, but in both this and "Chronicle" (haven't seen the most recent Spider Man flick yet), he's the guy that draws your attention; the guy is who absolutely riveting from start to finish.  For those who don't know, this is based on a true story, when Ginsberg was at Columbia in the 1940s at the same time as William S. Burroughs (played in amusing fashion by Ben Foster) and Lucien Carr, the character played by DeHaan.  Suffice to say, their college years weren't quite like yours and mine, and certainly not like anything you saw in "Animal House."  It may be a little hard for some to relate to, but it's never less than fascinating.

Enough Said - Wow - a romantic comedy for adults where the characters act like real people?  Yes, such a thing still exists.  "Enough Said" is terrific entertainment, a movie that allows its characters to have their warts and all, and sometimes even embrace them.  Both Julia-Louis Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini are terrific, as are supporting characters like Catherine Keener and Toni Collette.  It really makes you sad for the loss of Gandolfini, because he clearly had the ability to do a lot more than Tony Soprano.  In this movie he wants to be with someone, but at the same time, he is what he is, and he's not sure how much he wants to change in order to make that happen.  Louis-Dreyfus is the perfect match for him, even if it does take the two a while to realize that (hey, it is a romantic comedy, after all).

In a World... - "Delightful" is the word that comes to mind.  Lake Bell pulls off the hat trick here by writing, directing and starring in the film, which is "about" the movie voice-over profession but could probably be applied to just about any offbeat entertainment industry function.  Even though there is plenty in the premise that is outrageous, it's another movie that feels populated by real people, complete with flaws and all.  The main story is about the competition between Carol, the voice coach played by Bell, for the right to be the voice artist on the trailer for an upcoming blockbuster film.  Of course, she's in competition for the role against her father, a legend in the business, and his protege, who is way more smug than any one human should be.  But there are other threads going on, one featuring Demetri Martin as a studio guy with a crush on Carol, and Carol's sister and her husband, played perfectly by Michaela Watkins and Rob Corddry.  It's all good, and all fun.

12 Angry Men - I'm sure it's to my discredit that I've never seen this before.  Released in 1957, it regularly appears near the top of polls ranking the top movies of all time, and it's not hard to see why.  When you watch a film like this, you're almost overwhelmed (if not intimidated) by the history that surrounds it.  The director?  Sidney Lumet, just one of the greatest American directors of our time (naming just a few of his films - The Verdict, Prince of the City, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Fail-Safe).  The star?  Henry Fonda, just one of the greatest American actors of all time.  But just look at some of the rest of this cast:

Lee J. Cobb
Martin Balsam
E.G. Marshall
Jack Klugman
John Fiedler
Edward Binns
Jack Warden
Ed Begley
Robert Webber

Amazing.    The story is simple, these men are the 12 jurors in a murder trial, and nearly the entire film takes place in the jury room as they deliberate.  The first vote taken is 11-1 for conviction, and that's when things get interesting.  And not just in the story - interesting in how each actor approaches his role, and the methods and techniques they use to put their characters across.  It's film history.

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