Adrien Brody

The Thin Red Line (1998, Terrence Malick)

The Thin Red Line is about fear, beauty, solitude, loneliness. Director Malick’s approach is, frankly, staggering. Thin Red Line is an odd film to talk about because in most ways, it’s my favorite film. One of the great things about a good movie–not even an excellent or an amazing movie, but a good movie (and quite a few bad ones)–is being able to return to it as one matures, learns, comprehends and to appreciate it on additional levels. Returning to Thin Red Line for the first time in many years, I discovered it works in all those ways. Knowing more about film informs it, knowing more about history informs it, knowing more about narrative informs it, knowing more about owls informs it. Film is not static. Film ages with everything else. It grows, it contracts, it makes people laugh at the wrong moment. Malick acknowledges the film’s majesty. He does not give Nick Nolte a big part as a blowhard because he isn’t acknowledging the perfection in that casting choice. He does it because Nolte can do this part and he can make it phenomenal.

So much of the film is about the acting but not the actors. Malick doesn’t let the viewer identify with the characters by actor, rather by emotional impact. The film has frequent–often constant–narration from a variety of characters. I don’t even think the main narrator is ever identified, not for sure, because the viewer is the main narrator. He or she goes through the film as presented, through the fear, through the beauty, the solitude, the loneliness, and comes to this conclusion. To the film’s conclusion.

Or the narrator is just John Dee Smith. Though, if Smith is the narrator, Malick manages to turn the viewer into a Southern boy with an abusive stepfather and bad teeth, because there’s no difference. Malick doesn’t use characters in that manner. Even with Ben Chaplin’s officer turned private, whose entire internal life is about his wife back home, his details aren’t as important as how he reacts with them in frame. Because Thin Red Line isn’t some grand, sweeping melodrama, it’s an intensely focused, intensely personal film, emphasis on the film. Malick’s far more in the Eisenstein school of collision–basically how the presentation of shots and their editing, not necessarily their content, can be used to create emotion in the viewer–than something like David Lean or anyone else. It’s a lyrical assault.

Only Malick is using the content. He’s using the visual content of these beautiful, tropical Eden. He’s using the narrative content of a war movie. He’s using the audial content of the narrators. And he collides them, he separates them, he compares them. Thin Red Line is like going to an island of World War II reenactors and taking acid. And you’re invisible. And everyone looks like a famous person. Malick is speaking directly to the viewer and creating this setting for the viewer’s personal edification.

Malick strips the community out of The Thin Red Line. The way he structures the first act, the way he structures the first half–he’s removing the viewer’s sense of community, sense of stability. It’s far more personal. The poetic narration, separated so much from the characters or the setting, engages with the viewer. Malick is using the narrative content to echo the emotions created by the film’s visuals. Pardon my passive voice.

This sort of tempo isn’t unique to the film or to Malick. It’s the rhythm of good filmmaking. But Malick is playing different music and getting the same emotional beats. He’s got two movies playing side by side, one top of one another, completely transparent. And they’re jointly the film.

Like I said.

Staggering.

Malick gets some phenomenal performances out of his cast. Nolte, Chaplin, top-billed Sean Penn, Elias Koteas, Dash Mihok, John Cusack’s great in his small role. Woody Harrelson too. Though differently.

And then there’s Jim Caviezel. He doesn’t exactly play the film’s lead, but he does play the character who the audience spends the film trying to understand. It’s not clear if Malick thinks Caviezel’s the most interesting guy around; the film’s pretty even between Caviezel, Chaplin and then Nolte and Koteas in the stuff of epical importance. Oh, and then Mihok. He’s got a fairly large part.

But Malick posits he is showing the viewer the world through Caviezel’s character’s perspective. Not his eyes. His perspective (which allows for subplots). And Malick uses that particular perspective with the visual aspects of the film. The narrative level is far looser; Malick’s ability to naturally follow Caviezel around, especially as he inserts himself into the story, is skillful filmmaking. Malick, Caviezel, the other actors, the editors, they do a great job.

The editors are real important for Thin Red Line. Leslie Jones, Saar Klein, Billy Weber. The cuts in the film are sublime. The editors understand Malick’s narrative needs–for example, introducing the characters to the viewer–but also the need to actively force the viewer to make his or her own connections. Thin Red Line has a steep learning curve and unforgiving blind corners.

(Sorry, I needed a good mixed metaphor).

The first time I saw The Thin Red Line, I saw it again immediately following. Opening night. Returning to it over fifteen years later, I’m terrified at the prospective of an immediate rewatch. It’s too much. I like it too much. The Thin Red Line is my Nietzschean abyss. I just can’t too much.

This time watching it–I’d forgotten a lot–I really noticed the change in the weather. The clouds moving across the soldiers. That detail pulled me in. And I can see the film doing it, beckoning me, but it doesn’t matter. Creating something so focused, so controlled, yet so open, so welcoming… it’s just another amazing part of the film and Malick’s filmmaking here.

I also noticed, this time, Caviezel’s character has a Japanese alter ego.

Wonder what I’ll notice next time.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Terrence Malick; screenplay by Malick, based on the novel by James Jones; director of photography, John Toll; edited by Billy Weber, Saar Klein and Leslie Jones; music by Hans Zimmer; production designer, Jack Fisk; produced by Robert Michael Geisler, John Roberdeau and Grant Hill; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Sean Penn (First Sgt. Edward Welsh), John Travolta (Barr), James Caviezel (Private Witt), Adrien Brody (Corporal Fife), Elias Koteas (Capt. James Staros), Nick Nolte (Lieut. Col. Gordon Tall), Ben Chaplin (Private Bell), Dash Mihok (Private First Class Doll), Arie Verveen (Private Dale), David Harrod (Corporal Queen), John C. Reilly (Mess Sergeant Storm), John Cusack (Capt. John Gaff), Larry Romano (Private Mazzi), Tim Blake Nelson (Private Tills), Woody Harrelson (Staff Sergeant Keck), George Clooney (Capt. Charles Bosche) and John Savage (McCron).


Liberty Heights (1999, Barry Levinson)

Liberty Heights is about protagonist Ben Foster's last year in high school. Levinson never puts it in such simple terms because the film is about quiet, deliberate, but perceivable life events. Every moment in the film's memorable because Levinson is going through these people's memorable moments of the year. Of course, he never forecasts the film will take place over a year. Heights is an epical story, lyrically told.

Levinson splits the film primarily between Foster and Adrien Brody, as his older brother. But Joe Mantegna, as their father, and Orlando Jones, as Mantenga's business antagonist, also get some of the individual focus. So Levinson, along with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, editor Stu Linder and composer Andrea Morricone have to figure out how to identify these moments for the characters. Through the sound, the light, everything has to be perfect because of Levinson's approach.

It seems like a precarious approach–to set up a film to only have intense scenes; even scenes with Foster watching television or Brody talking to a friend, they all have to be intense in some way or another. Morricone's score is gorgeous and exuberant, but Levinson also uses contemporary popular music to get the scenes done too.

The performances are essential. Foster, Brody, Jones. All three are phenomenal. Bebe Neuwirth's great as Foster and Brody's mother, Rebekah Johnson is excellent as Foster's friend. The entire supporting cast is perfect.

Heights is simultaneously ambitious in its filmmaking, but also in its sincerity. It never hits a false note.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Barry Levinson; director of photography, Christopher Doyle; edited by Stu Linder; music by Andrea Morricone; production designer, Vincent Peranio; produced by Levinson and Paula Weinstein; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Adrien Brody (Van Kurtzman), Ben Foster (Ben Kurtzman), Rebekah Johnson (Sylvia), David Krumholtz (Yussel), Bebe Neuwirth (Ada Kurtzman), Orlando Jones (Little Melvin), Richard Kline (Charlie), Vincent Guastaferro (Pete), Justin Chambers (Trey Tobelseted), Carolyn Murphy (Dubbie), James Pickens Jr. (Sylvia’s Father), Frania Rubinek (Grandma Rose), Anthony Anderson (Scribbles), Kiersten Warren (Annie the Stripper), Evan Neumann (Sheldon), Kevin Sussman (Alan Joseph Zuckerman), Gerry Rosenthal (Murray), Shane West (Ted) and Joe Mantegna (Nate Kurtzman).


Detachment (2011, Tony Kaye)

Detachment is not a message film. Kaye gives it a pseudo-documentary feel and does presents definite thesis about the public education in the United States. Except Detachment isn’t really about that message… it’s about how that setting specifically affects Adrien Brody’s protagonist.

Until the final sequence anyway; it’s one sequence too many. Kaye flubs on an ideal finish because he’s got too many endings and tries too hard to make the important message one fit. Until then, though, Detachment is nearly flawless.

Carl Lund’s script is brilliantly structured. Brody is a short-term substitute teacher. The film opens with him taking a thirty day assignment, giving the film a definite timeline. Lund and Kaye then bring other elements into Brody’s sphere, such as a fetching fellow teacher (Christina Hendricks) and, more importantly, a teenage prostitute (Sami Gayle). Detachment never shirks from its more difficult scenes, even though Kaye does sometimes get too frantic. The film presents Brody with a couple exceptionally difficult scenes and he essays them indescribably well.

He and Gayle’s story arc informs on his arc as the sub, while Brody’s solo arc with his dying grandfather, Louis Zorich, informs back on both. Absolutely brilliant character study plotting.

Kaye’s direction is good, his photography is better. James Caan is the most dynamic in the supporting cast, but Blythe Danner, William Petersen and Lucy Liu are all excellent too. Gayle’s great.

Detachment‘s not perfect… but there are a lot of perfect things about it. It’s an achievement.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed and photographed by Tony Kaye; written by Carl Lund; edited by Barry Alexander Brown and Geoffrey Richman; music by The Newton Brothers; production designer, Jade Healy; produced by Greg Shapiro, Lund, Bingo Gubelmann, Chris Papavasiliou, Austin Stark and Benji Kohn; released by Tribeca Film.

Starring Adrien Brody (Henry Barthes), Sami Gayle (Erica), Betty Kaye (Meredith), Louis Zorich (Grampa), Marcia Gay Harden (Principal Carol Dearden), James Caan (Mr. Charles Seaboldt), Christina Hendricks (Ms. Sarah Madison), Lucy Liu (Dr. Doris Parker), Blythe Danner (Ms. Perkins), Tim Blake Nelson (Mr. Wiatt), William Petersen (Mr. Sarge Kepler), Bryan Cranston (Mr. Dearden) and Isiah Whitlock Jr. (Mr. Mathias).


Midnight in Paris (2011, Woody Allen)

Midnight in Paris is one of Allen’s single stroke films. There are some painters in it, so using the paint stroke metaphor works rather nicely. The film’s about one thing; it’s about Owen Wilson’s Hollywood screenwriter who wants to be a novelist learning to take an active role in his life. There’s a lot going on around him—a whole lot, but it slowly becomes clear that one aspect is the salient one.

In the film, Allen continues to search for his perfect stand-in and Wilson does a good job. It’s hard to say how much of Wilson’s personal situation plays into the perception of him as mildly tragic, though it’s always present. Probably doesn’t hurt he wrote some great scripts too.

The film has its quietly profound moments, nothing too neon. There are a lot of literary references, some art ones, a couple film ones. It helps if one knows them. Allen is enjoying himself and not worrying too much about anything else. The subject matter is one he’s interested in and doesn’t care if the audience can’t keep up. It’s closer to his absurdist seventies comedies than anything has been for a while in that way.

And he gets an absolutely amazing performance from Michael Sheen. Also great is Adrien Brody in his one scene.

Marion Cotillard, Kathy Bates and Corey Stoll are all good. Rachel McAdams has too little to do, but does it well.

With Darius Khondji’s luscious photography, it’s a wondrously self-indulgent feast.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Woody Allen; director of photography, Darius Khondji; edited by Alisa Lepselter; production designer, Anne Seibel; produced by Letty Aronson, Jaume Roures and Stephen Tenenbaum; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Owen Wilson (Gil), Rachel McAdams (Inez), Marion Cotillard (Adriana), Michael Sheen (Paul), Corey Stoll (Hemingway), Kurt Fuller (John), Mimi Kennedy (Helen), Carla Bruni (Museum Guide), Kathy Bates (Gertrude Stein), Tom Hiddleston (Scott), Alison Pill (Zelda), Marcial Di Fonzo Bo (Pablo) and Adrien Brody (Dali).


Predators (2010, Nimród Antal)

How’s this one for a double standard? When director Robert Rodriguez made Desperado, he demanded a Mexican actress (Salma Hayek) play a Mexican character (against studio wishes). When producer Robert Rodriguez made Predators, he cast a Brazilian actress (Alice Braga) as an Israeli character… Braga’s fantastic in Predators, but really… why isn’t anyone crying foul?

Predators is a semi-remake, semi-sequel. It’s a sequel to the events in the original, but basically remakes it in structure. I’m sure the filmmakers would call it homage, but I’m not sure, for example, John Debney’s score contains one note not from Alan Silvestri’s score for the original. It doesn’t matter because it’s fast paced and rather well-directed. A lot of it is really poorly plotted–screenwriters Litvak and Finch are apparently completely incapable of coming up with a surprising turn of events. I guess Rodriguez, as producer, didn’t care enough to hire a soap writer to get some twists and turns in it.

The film’s rather well-cast, which helps a lot. Adrien Brody’s muscle man turn is solid; he should probably play a similar role in a real movie. I already mentioned Braga. Walton Goggins is great but wasted. Oleg Taktarov impressed. The other two names–Topher Grace and Laurence Fishburne–are problematic. Fishburne does a good job in an undercooked role. Grace is just playing the same characters he’s played before, though I suppose (for the most part) less annoyingly.

Did I already mention Antal does a great job?

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Nimród Antal; written by Alex Litvak and Michael Finch, based on characters created by Jim Thomas and John Thomas; director of photography, Gyula Pados; edited by Dan Zimmerman; music by John Debney; production designers, Steve Joyner and Caylah Eddleblute; produced by Robert Rodriguez, John Davis and Elizabeth Avellán; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Adrien Brody (Royce), Laurence Fishburne (Noland), Topher Grace (Edwin), Alice Braga (Isabelle), Louis Ozawa Changchien (Hanzo), Walton Goggins (Stans), Oleg Taktarov (Nikolai), Mahershalalhashbaz Ali (Mombasa) and Danny Trejo (Cuchillo).


King Kong (2005, Peter Jackson)

I’ll be honest–I didn’t make it very far, considering its length, into King Kong. I sat through a lot. I sat through the opening Great Depression montage, which was shockingly bad. The people who assailed Michael Bay for his glitzy Pearl Harbor gave Jackson a free pass for Kong? It’s obscene. I sat through the terrible CG. “Grand Theft Auto IV” looks better. Jackson draws attention to Kong‘s unbelievable backdrops in a way I can’t believe any modern filmmaker would. CG isn’t a new tool anymore and Jackson’s bad, 1990s video game CG is terribly misused. It’s incompetent.

I sat though the film opening with Naomi Watts, who’s weak. The tone for the film during her scenes seems to have been lifted from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, a goofy cartoon rendition of the 1930s. I sat through Jack Black. His first scene, combined with James Newton Howard’s pervasive, intrusive score and Jackson and company’s script, mocks the original film. It’s stunning how it degrades and dismisses the original–but it later gets much, much worse.

Peter Jackson’s King Kong is pure, big Hollywood camp. There’s nothing else to call it.

I also sat through some of the worst filmmaking I’ve ever seen in a film not ridiculed by critics and audiences alike. The scene where Watts walks up the plank… she hesitates–it’s such a big momentous, life-changing event (something the viewer might know from that lame original Jackson so enjoys mocking). Then it gets worse. Jackson goes to close-up on her feet making the step.

But that one isn’t even the worst I saw. The slow motion close-up of Adrien Brody typing out Skull Island–ominously, of course–with each key getting a zoom, is even worse. Jackson doesn’t have any respect for his own script, which is kind of interesting, I suppose, but not particularly.

Watts and Brody, from what I saw, have absolutely no chemistry together. The fault lies with both of them. She isn’t very good and he looks incredibly embarrassed.

Black’s worse than I thought he’d be. He mugs constantly.

Both Evan Parke and Thomas Kretschmann seem to be good. Maybe their performances crap out after I stopped watching.

Oh, I never did get around to why I stopped watching.

There’s some foreshadowing to the event–the ship, the Venture, is out of Surabaya. I’m nearly positive Surabaya is never mentioned in the 1933 original. The 1976 remake–ridiculed by critics as campy and disrespectful of the original–opens in Surabaya. Whatever, I figured it was a coincidence.

Until Jackson rips off a monologue from the 1976 version. I didn’t let it finish. I stopped the film.

King Kong isn’t just worse than I expected, it’s worse than I could have imagined. Why Jackson chose to remake a film he doesn’t–almost forty minutes in to his remake–appear to have any regard for (save the opening title design), is inexplicable.

His direction isn’t bad. There’s some enthusiasm (but not much) and I’m sure he thinks his CG looks good.

The writing is awful, unbearable as it turns out.

I really did expect to sit through this one when I started it (it’s so bad, I’ve forgotten the last film I turned off). Then, fifteen minutes into it, I thought I’d at least make it until the big CG ape showed up. But there’s no point. It’s complete crap and a spit in the eye of the original. Jackson doesn’t even have a narrative–much less an artistic approach–his Kong exists to laugh at the original.

I know Jackson wanted Fay Wray to deliver the “it was beauty killed the beast” line at the end (she passed away before filming started, I believe). Would she have done it after Jackson spent three hours sneering her version?

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Jackson; written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Jackson, based on the story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace; director of photography, Andrew Lesnie; edited by Jamie Selkirk and Jabez Olssen; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Grant Major; produced by Jan Blenkin, Carolynne Cunningham, Walsh and Jackson; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Naomi Watts (Ann Darrow), Jack Black (Carl Denham), Adrien Brody (Jack Driscoll), Thomas Kretschmann (Captain Englehorn), Colin Hanks (Preston), Jamie Bell (Jimmy), Evan Parke (Hayes), Kyle Chandler (Bruce Baxter) and Andy Serkis (Lumpy).


Bullet (1996, Julien Temple)

The tragedy of Mickey Rourke is not his failed mainstream career. Rather, it’s how he’s never been able to get any filmmakers of note involved in his vanity projects. Bullet‘s an incredibly ambitious, sensitive film… or, with the right production team, it would have been. What remains hints at what could have been–the film’s a character study, a comedy free American family drama (a rarity)–but Rourke’s inability to get notable filmmakers interested consigned it to direct-to-video status. Tupac Shakur’s name might have helped its commercial possibilities, but while Rourke is playing five years younger than his age, Shakur’s playing ten years older. It’s like Julien Temple forget to direct Shakur.

The film’s about three “families.” First and foremost is Rourke’s relationship with brothers Adrien Brody, Ted Levine and their parents. Someone coming home with Bullet, expecting a direct-to-video action shoot ’em up, would be bewildered by where the film goes in its first act, establishing this broken family unit. The film starts with Rourke’s release from prison, but Levine’s a Vietnam vet suffering from schizophrenia, while Brody’s a floundering painter. The film keeps returning to the family, showing these beautifully vulnerable moments–particularly Brody and Levine, but also parents Jerry Grayson and Suzanne Shepherd. Rourke and Shepherd have a wonderful scene together at the end of the second act. There’s a real attempt to take this potentially exploitative subject and give it agonizing depth. The film drowns the viewer in sadness.

There’s also Rourke’s friendship with John Enos III. Enos is a soap actor, but he’s kind of perfect in this film as a primping womanizer. (Enos also provides Bullet‘s only moments of comic relief). But as goofy as Enos gets–the scene listening to “I’m Too Sexy” would be perfect had Julien Temple not screwed up the end–Rourke approaches the friendship from this incredibly humanist perspective. Rourke’s character–the career drug addict who steals from family to score–occasionally reveals these startlingly beautiful moments of human regard. He and Enos have this one amazing scene.

The last relationship is the most problematic. Bullet is also supposed to be about childhood friends Shakur, Rourke and Matthew Powers all grown up, now competing in their respective criminal enterprises. Bullet only runs ninety-five minutes, so there really isn’t time for this subplot. It would work fine as character backstory, but it’s like no one told Shakur about it. His character makes absolutely no sense, which seems out of place for the film. So much of Bullet is about making the viewer understand why these people are they way they are (even if exact events aren’t described).

Besides Shakur, the big problem is Julien Temple. Bullet‘s highly stylized thanks to all Temple’s music video work and he can compose some fine shots. He just can’t string them together into a scene. His attempts at action scenes are awkward and painful to watch. The editor, Niven Howie, has to share some of the blame–there’s one particular scene when Brody runs into someone. The way Temple shot it and Howie edited it, it appears Brody aimed for the guy. Except… the script makes it clear he did not. So maybe Temple didn’t read the script either.

Rourke’s performance is outstanding, no shock, but Ted Levine’s better. His character could easily be too much, too cartoonish, but Levine makes him real. The scenes with Levine and Shepherd are just great.

I’ve seen Bullet a couple times before–and had the same reaction each time–but as time passes and American cinema abandons adult dramas… Rourke’s unfulfilled potential gets increasingly more tragic.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Julien Temple; written by Mickey Rourke and Bruce Rubenstein; director of photography, Crescenzo Notarile; edited by Niven Howie; production designer, Christopher Nowak; produced by John Flock; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Mickey Rourke (Butch Stein), Adrien Brody (Ruby Stein), John Enos III (Lester), Ted Levine (Louis Stein), Jerry Grayson (Sol Stein), Suzanne Shepherd (Cookie Stein), Matthew Powers (Paddy), Jerry Dean (Fingers), Larry Romano (Frankie Eyelashes) and Tupac Shakur (Tank).


Hollywoodland (2006, Allen Coulter)

Hollywoodland is not a narrative mess. It’d be a far more interesting (and far less boring) two hours if it were. Instead, Paul Bernbaum’s plotting is intentional and considered. Neither Bernbaum nor director Allen Coulter seem to understand the problems with having two protagonists, not having anything to do with each other, juxtaposed for a couple hours, however.

It starts really strong, with Adrien Brody fantastic as the glib private detective. He has a solid sidekick and love interest in Caroline Dhavernas and Coulter does do a great job giving Hollywoodland the right feel. The lack of a definite time period–Hollywoodland takes place in 1959, but the flashbacks seem to go back ten years–really hurts it. I guess that aside will be the segue into the flashbacks. The first few, which chronicle Ben Affleck’s career woes and romance with Diane Lane, aren’t bad. Then it becomes clear Diane Lane isn’t actually going to be in the film very much and her mediocre acting quickly descends into shrillness as she tries again for an Oscar. She’s not the worst (Bob Hoskins is far, far worse), but she becomes rather tiresome.

Affleck, on the other hand, deserves his own two hour film, not just this one’s poorly framed flashbacks. He’s great–better, as time goes on, than Brody. Because the movie eventually falls apart, as Brody’s story turns into the standard failed father, disillusioned detective bit. The end’s just awful.

Michael Berenbaum’s cinematography is wonderful, giving the film both rich color but also sharpness. The score’s good. It’s a well-produced film, not question, the script is just bad. The beginning–the script’s–is great, particularly in the dialogue and the way people interact. These qualities disappear quickly (it’s almost like the opening got worked on and nothing else got revised).

Jeffrey DeMunn’s good, Lois Smith’s good, even Robin Tunney’s good. Molly Parker is criminally wasted.

The big problem with Hollywoodland–conceptually–is in its approach. It’s a mystery about the death of George Reeves, but then goes and reveals his death is actually nowhere near as interesting as his life.

Luckily, it’s long enough and starts to go bad around ninety-five minutes, maybe sooner, so I wasn’t disappointed by the ending… just glad it was finally over.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Allen Coulter; written by Paul Bernbaum; director of photography, Jonathan Freeman; edited by Michael Berenbaum; music by Marcelo Zarvos; production designer, Leslie McDonald; produced by Glenn Williamson; released by Focus Features.

Starring Adrien Brody (Louis Simo), Diane Lane (Toni Mannix), Ben Affleck (George Reeves), Bob Hoskins (Eddie Mannix), Robin Tunney (Leonore Lemmon), Kathleen Robertson (Carol Van Ronkel), Lois Smith (Helen Bessolo), Phillip MacKenzie (Bill Bliss), Larry Cedar (Chester Sinclair), Caroline Dhavernas (Kit Holliday), Jeffrey DeMunn (Art Weissman), Joe Spano (Howard Strickling), Kevin Hare (Robert Condon) and Molly Parker (Laurie Simo).


King of the Hill (1993, Steven Soderbergh)

Two major things about Soderbergh’s approach to a memoir adaptation. They’re somewhat connected, so I might not manage to separate them out. King of the Hill has no frame, it has no narration. It has no context. It does not feel, at all, like a “true” story because there’s no attempt to classify itself as a true story. It drops the viewer right in, gives he or she a subtitle notating the setting and time and nothing else. Soderbergh creates, at times, a stylistic euphoria–starts right at the beginning doing it even, maybe the third or fourth scene–and the approach makes King of the Hill different. Even though it’s based on a memoir, by never involving “reality,” Soderbergh makes the plot’s conclusion unsure. Anything could happen.

As innocuous as the story might sometimes get–since Jesse Bradford’s protagonist is so self-sufficient it’s hard to remember he’s thirteen–Soderbergh infuses the film with a constant danger. Sometimes the danger is age-appropriate, sometimes it’s a lot bigger. Around the midway point, I had to remind myself Soderbergh was not telling a story about his youth. I had to remind myself Soderbergh wasn’t alive during the film’s time period, it wasn’t based on his childhood–the film envelops the viewer. Soderbergh immediately establishes his characters and then everything else is experienced at Bradford’s pace. Characters enter and leave the story, with the entire story through Bradford’s perspective. The viewer occasionally gets other things, very brief glimpses from other character’s perspectives, but the whole show is Bradford, which might be why he’s never been able to follow it up.

The other performances are excellent too, with Adrien Brody in the film’s flashiest role. Soderbergh’s cinematic storytelling here is accomplished, there’s no other word. He incites the viewer to figure things out by a character’s presence, not to be cute, but because a successful King of the Hill viewer is a participatory viewer. It might by with the film did so terribly. Also good are Cameron Boyd as Bradford’s brother; Amber Benson as his friend–I find I’m not enumerating the adults as much, which is because of the way the film portrays them. It’s difficult to put them, having just watched the film, in an easy to discuss context. Spalding Gray is quite good in his small part as is Kristin Griffith in her two scenes.

The film’s character relationships are complicated and hard to unravel. Soderbergh manages moments of severe gravity with silence from the characters and Cliff Martinez’s delicate score. Martinez and Soderbergh seem to take some of the tone–and the music’s effect on the tone–from Badlands, which is an odd influence for a movie about a kid–King of the Hill is not a kid’s movie at all. It isn’t a feel good movie. It’s a sometimes unsettling film about survival and self-sufficience. Without ever using the word “depression,” Soderbergh has made one of the best films about the Great Depression.

It’s kind of like Maugham with kids (and in America and during the Great Depression).

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed and edited by Steven Soderbergh; screenplay by Soderbergh, based on a memoir by A.E. Hotchner; director of photography, Elliot Davis; music by Cliff Martinez; production designer, Gary Frutkoff; produced by Albert Berger, Barbara Maltby and Ron Yerxa; released by Gramercy Pictures.

Starring Jesse Bradford (Aaron), Jeroen Krabbé (Mr. Kurlander), Lisa Eichhorn (Mrs. Kurlander), Karen Allen (Miss Mathey), Spalding Gray (Mr. Mungo), Elizabeth McGovern (Lydia), Cameron Boyd (Sullivan Kurlander), Adrien Brody (Lester Silverstone), Joe Chrest (Ben), John McConnell (‘Big Butt’ Burns), Amber Benson (Ella McShane), Kristin Griffith (Mrs. McShane), Chris Samples (Billy Thompson), Peggy Freisen (Mrs. Thompson), Katherine Heigl (Christina Sebastian) and John Durbin (Mr. Sandoz).


The Darjeeling Limited (2007, Wes Anderson)

The first sequence in The Darjeeling Limited suggests a far worse film than Anderson actually delivers. A frantic taxi race to a train station with Bill Murray suggests Anderson has become–well, I really don’t know who, but someone who miscasts incredibly. Besides the Murray cameo coming off like Anderson fulfilling his image, the taxi race also features really fast editing… suggesting Darjeeling is going to be, just like The Life Aquatic, more in love with the Anderson composition and editing than actual storytelling content. It gets better quickly, but it’s still empty. The glib answer is Anderson obviously needs Owen Wilson co-writing, but The Darjeeling Limited provides various other reasons….

The film does feature the best lead character since Bottle Rocket, in this case, Adrien Brody’s. Brody definitely becomes the main character after a specific plot twist, but long before it occurs, he’s the one. For a simple reason too. Because Owen Wilson is playing the standard Owen Wilson in a Wes Anderson film role and because Jason Schwartzman is playing… well, Schwartzman isn’t really playing anyone. He never learned, apparently, to act. But he’s generally fine, even though his most frequent form of emoting is mugging knowingly at the camera. Wilson’s good, occasionally even touching with Schwartzman and Brody, but it’s not a stretch. It’s the kind of role he’d do in a television commercial.

Anderson released a prologue to Darjeeling online and the film annoyingly starts with a reminder to go and watch it, then the film proceeds to directly reference it… which is more annoying than Murray’s dumb cameo and the second cameo (though this one turns out all right) combined. It really does feel like Anderson’s turning in to the hipster Kevin Smith with Darjeeling, particularly the use of Schwartzman and his vapid character. It takes the entire movie (ninety minutes) to figure out what Schwartzman’s supposed to be doing and he co-wrote the screenplay.

Did I already mention Brody’s absolutely fantastic, a really wonderful performance in what turns out to be a wonderful role? I think I did.

Darjeeling is also very funny. I’m not sure who wrote the best jokes, but they’re played more for audience response than Anderson usually tries for. They keep the movie going.

When the film gets really good for a while, really effective, it’s unfortunately in a moment the film cannot close on. Instead, it keeps going and going, trying everything it can to force a satisfactory conclusion. The one it comes too, unfortunately, is cheap and awkward, like Anderson wasn’t ready to stop writing the characters yet.

Strictly speaking about Anderson’s direction–and not his writing–Darjeeling shows off how good a director he’s become. Unfortunately, his writing has become lazy. In order to allow his characters this adventure, Anderson makes them limitlessly wealthy. It gets annoying after a while, after the third crack about the six thousand dollar belt.

Because Brody’s not central throughout (in many ways, it’s Anderson’s most traditional film), it’s… like I said, a little empty overall. And people do too much for laughs, say too much for them, don’t say too much for them.

It’s a fine enough film–with some excellent scenes in it–but Anderson very obviously needs different co-writers.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Wes Anderson; written by Anderson, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman; director of photography, Robert D. Yeoman; edited by Andrew Weisblum; production designer, Mark Friedberg; produced by Anderson, Scott Rudin, Coppola and Lydia Dean Pilcher; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Owen Wilson (Francis), Adrien Brody (Peter), Jason Schwartzman (Jack), Amara Karan (Rita), Wallace Wolodarsky (Brendan), Waris Ahluwalia (The Chief Steward), Irfan Khan (The Father), Barbet Schroeder (The Mechanic), Camilla Rutherford (Alice), Bill Murray (The Businessman) and Anjelica Huston (Patricia).


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