Friday, April 22, 2011
Story and Screenplay Written by Reginald Rose
Directed by Sidney Lumet
“It’s the face. A face is just as compelling by a wall as it is next to a mountain. A movie is about a revelation in human nature."
-Sidney Lumet, 2005 interview on Turner Classic Movies
On April 9, 2011, the world of cinema lost one of its creative giants, Mr. Sidney Lumet, who passed away at the age of 86 from lymphoma.
For lovers of the cinema, his passing is a seismic one as he leaves a creative hole, the likes of which cannot be filled in the exact same way ever again. He was the quintessential “New York” filmmaker who was conceptually fearless with his attention to issues of social justice as well as the darkest corners of the human soul, all of which were filtered through his extremely notable attention to and relationship with actors, eliciting performances worth their weight in gold time and again. Thankfully for us, we are left with Lumet’s rich film legacy of over 40 films which include, and are not limited to “Serpico” (1973), “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), “Network” (1976), “The Wiz” (1979), “Deathtrap” (1982), “The Verdict” (1982) and his final film “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead” (2007). Any filmmaker would be honored to have made just any one of those titles and to think Sidney Lumet made them all and more. The man, his artistry and cinematic vision will be tremendously missed.
Recently on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel, I stumbled upon a Lumet film I have seen several times and have always found myself instantly caught up deeply inside its brilliance. On that particular night, I found myself enraptured once again in the dialogue, the intensity, and those incredible faces, all presented in the sparsest of settings and the starkness of black and white cinematography. In tribute to the great Sidney Lumet, I am so proud to revisit his debut film, “12 Angry Men.”
By now, the plot of “12 Angry Men” must be of the most familiar but just in case there are those who have not ever experienced this masterwork, I offer you the main storyline. 12 jurors, after hearing the final deliberations in a courtroom, retire to the sweltering Jury Room to deliberate whether a teenage boy from a city slum indeed stabbed and murdered his own Father in cold blood. Henry Fonda stars as Juror #8, initially the lone juror who issues a vote of “Not Guilty” and then spends the entirety of the film intensively questioning and re-questioning the facts and potential doubts of the case with his fellow jurors.
Alongside Fonda’s Juror #8, we share counsel with Juror #1/the Foreman (Martin Balsam), the observant elderly Juror #9 (Joseph Sweeney), the indifferent and passionate baseball fan Juror #7 (Jack Warden), the immigrant watchmaker Juror #11 (George Voskovec), the man who once grew up in the slums Juror #5 (Jack Klugman), the fastidious stockbroker and cool tempered Juror #4 (E.G. Marshall) and the explosively volatile Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb), among others. Without any names, and solely through the details of the case, we are given a window into the world of these men, their personalities, prejudices, failures, and unforgiving judgments as they all struggle to reach a unanimous decision concerning the fate of a boy none of them knows.
Compulsively watchable, Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men” is a compelling and electrifying experience fueled by an exquisite screenplay by Reginald Ross, and flawless performances from the entire cast. While Henry Fonda is the film’s anchor and serves as the film’s moral compass and greatest conscience, and Lee J. Cobb operates as the film’s primary antagonist, their performances would mean absolutely nothing if not for the other ten men that surround them. The work of the cast is the definition of “symbiotic” as there are no wasted words, gestures, or moments at any point and Lumet works with his cast with the ease of a grand master, a fact that continued to surprise me as, again dear readers, this was Lumet’s first film!
As I re-watched this film, I often found myself pondering which movie was the very first to utilize the conceit of exploring complex social issues and human nature within an enclosed setting. Certainly “12 Angry Men” could not have been the very first to utilize this technique but Lumet crafted his film in such an individualistic fashion that it often feels like the first of its kind. Perhaps that feeling is because it is a film that has been often imitated, referenced, re-made as episodes of various televisions series or even as another film in its own right.
As you all know so very well, my love for John Hughes’ library detention set of “The Breakfast Club” (1985) is endless but I am curious if Lumet’s classic, in any way, was a direct influence to Hughes as he conceived his ode to adolescence. Or how about Spike Lee’s beautiful and criminally underseen “Get On the Bus” (1996), the story of a group of African-American men traveling by bus to the Million Man March? That film, mostly set within the bus and filled top to bottom with conversations and revelations, provided us with an enormously profound and entertaining microcosm of the African-American community, and presented in the way that only Spike Lee knows how to deliver. Lee’s knowledge of film is encyclopedic and it would not be terribly far fetched to wonder if Lumet’s work had an influence, in regards to working within the tight visual space of a cross-country road trip and keeping the conversations flowing freely and in a completely naturalistic fashion.
In “12 Angry Men,” I loved how effortlessly Sidney Lumet explored the ever shifting social rules of peer pressure and how those rules extend themselves so far beyond the world of the playground or the high school hallways. Just watch the very first public vote of “Guilty/Not Guilty” at the outset of their deliberation, and watch which men immediately raise their hands to the other men who are obviously watching the responses of others. Then, view how the same men react during a secret ballot vote that occurs later in the film and view how bravery often emerges in silence and hiding.
I truly loved watching Klugman’s quiet and non-confrontational Juror #5 gain emerge from follower to one who eventually stands his ground. The meek, balding, bespectacled and nearly effeminate voiced Juror #2, as played by character actor John Fiedler was also a character I enjoyed seeing grow from one who is disregarded and even bullied into a man who discovers his courage and refuses to relinquish it. On the flipside are the domineering characters who find their comeuppance including one racist who is unilaterally put into his place.
Visually, I just continued to be impressed with how Lumet refused to be intimidated by a set that was this enclosed and small. With the exception of the opening and closing sequences and a short scene set inside of the jury room lavatory, the entire film is set and staged in the jury room, making for an experience that is taut, tight, and at times claustrophobic. You can almost feel the heat, humidity and stench of that room through osmosis and when Jack Warden finally gets the room fan to operate, you can instantly feel the breeze in the air, easing the tension just a bit. Brilliant!
Yet, the power the film holds conceptually is its greatest gift. While the film is now 54 years old, it could not be any more relevant in the 21st century. Truly an amazing feat as “12 Angry Men” also almost functions as an artifact of a very different period in our collective world history. As I watched, I found myself wondering if this film could even be made today considering the disintegrating status of our political discourse and our increasingly cynical and downright apathetic attitudes about justice, fairness, equality, the law, the role of government and our role within the government. On a deeper humane level, with the nature of our prejudices, has anything really changed at all over the years? The period of Lumet’s “12 Angry Men” is a time when irony and a certain jadedness did not rule the day, especially as the film is set within a pre-Vietnam, Watergate, political assassinations, Iran Contra, 9/11, Iraq war America. And yet, the clear principles of morality, ethics and humanity contained within this seemingly archaic film still hold firm and blindingly true.
Nearly three years ago, I was chosen for Jury Duty and like most everyone I have ever known, the thought of the task of having my life disrupted to take part in some case I just did not know or care about was disheartening to say the least. I followed the instructions to call during my required period of time to see if I had to report, always breathing a sigh of relief when the female computer voice on the other end of the phone line informed me that my services were not required for the time being.
But then, my number came up and grudgingly, I had to report for duty.
While my case was nothing nearly as lurid as a murder trial, I was chosen to serve on a Federal hearing involving monetary fraud. Over four days, I sat with thirteen others strangers in a quiet, comfortable and almost sleep inducing courtroom listening to one testimony after another and taking copious notes in the process. In addition to struggling with being unable to speak of the case in any way whenever we were released from the courtroom, I was struck by how difficult the act of listening and remaining focused actually is, as mountainous information was disseminated.
During one break as we all stretched in the Jury Room, the court clerk, a kind, diligent and extremely cheerful middle aged Hispanic woman arrived to offer some moments of conversation. She informed us of how she became a citizen of the United States, the process, the exam and most importantly, the pride she felt when she accomplished her goals. She further went on to express how fortunate we were to be able to have this opportunity to not only witness but to take an active role in our country’s judicial process. That this experience was a privilege not everyone has the chance to partake in and it was through her palpable enthusiasm and unshakable passion that I began to re-evaluate the experience in which I was chosen to participate.
This case was not designed to be an inconvenience to me and my life and responsibilities and I should not treat it as such. People, whose finances were swindled away, needed to have their day in court, their day to have their voices heard, to be represented and to hopefully be vindicated. By the time I discovered that I was an alternate, who ultimately did not have to serve in the final deliberation process, I had to admit to being disappointed that I was not able to see the experience through to its natural conclusion. It was anti-climactic certainly making for an experience that felt like a large puzzle that was completed except for one solitary piece lost forever. (And to not leave any lose ends for any of you, dear readers, the defendant in that case was correctly found guilty!)
As I watched “12 Angry Men” this time, that particular personal story flew to the forefront of my mind as Lumet’s messages became clearer than ever. Lumet urgently argues that we should not take the duties of our government and especially our judicial process for granted. As symbiotic as the performances within the film are to each other, we are symbiotic as a species, especially within a courtroom when we are called on to represent the law that is designed to protect us and treat us with equality. Our decisions, regardless of whatever responsibilities we have in our individual lives, has an effect upon others and we owe it to each other to represent in the exact way we would wish to be represented.
Some of the very best films do function purely as entertainment presented at the highest order. But so many times, the greatest films serve not only as entertainment, but as a mirror to the world in which we all live, forcing us to search ourselves, examine and re-examine our beliefs and ideals, possibly leaving us more enriched than we were when we first walked into the theater. “12 Angry Men” is one of those films that will challenge, provoke and engage you while enveloping you in a heated dramatic tale. It is not a film to be watched passively as it is designed to create a relationship and discussion with the viewer and I would find it extremely difficult to believe that anyone who watches this film would not find something recognizable within the people they know, their communities, and most importantly, themselves.
Like the best films that leave profound impacts across generations, I would like to think that the lasting legacy of “12 Angry Men” was purely organic. Frankly, how could Lumet, his cast and crew have known how to explicitly manufacture a film that would serve as a benchmark in cinematic art? So many films need time and history to gather its full impact. Others reach it instantly. And others fade into obscurity. “12 Angry Men” had a foot in two areas of cinematic waters as it was initially a critical success but a box office disappointment, truly finding its audience upon subsequent showings on television, making for the undisputed cinematic classic we know today.
“12 Angry Men” is a cinematic triumph that not only transcended its genre, and its era of the late 1950s, like the best of great art, it is a work that speaks to its time while serving as a work that is timeless.
Thank you, Sidney Lumet for the films, the art, the craftsmanship and your singular voice. For all those who love the movies, we will forever study at your feet.
Story by Tom McCarthy & Joe Tiboni
Written For The Screen and Directed by Tom McCarthy
** (two stars)
As I sat in my theater seat watching the end credit scroll of “Win Win,” the new film from Director Tom McCarthy, one elderly aisle mate passed by me and offered her initial reaction to me as she smiled, “Great movie, huh?” That comment was met with audible sounds of agreement by a younger couple who were also passing by me. I responded gently by offering my own take, an amiable, “It was OK.” As I eventually stood upright to leave the theater, another couple of elderly women walked past me on the theater steps and said to me, just as openly, “That was excellent, didn’t you think?” And again, just as amiably as before, I answered, “It was OK.” My response was greeted with a facial expression from one of the women that could only be described as “disbelief.” The three of us then engaged ourselves in a nice conversation about the film we had all experienced and then on our way out of the theater, the conversation transformed into a few more related subjects before we bid our farewells.
Now, I have to first say that I truly love moments like that. As I typically see films by myself, I do miss that opportunity to engage with someone immediately after seeing a movie, as I am usually only able to gather my thoughts and try to keep them at the forefront of my mind during the drive home anticipating the moment I can reunite with my computer so I can begin to compose a new review. I especially love it when I see a movie that has affected me in a positive manner so greatly that I just want to begin spreading the news. It was that very reaction I saw upon those few faces at the conclusion of “Win Win,” and yet, I did not have the same reaction for myself.
Dear readers, there is nothing bad or truly negative about “Win Win.” In fact, I have a feeling that that many of you, if you choose to see this film, will indeed be as positively affected as the patrons I spoke with. I will not discourage you from seeing it as it is a well written and directed film that offers fine performances from top to bottom with equal dollops of humor, drama, bittersweetness and honest stabs at depicting aspects of human nature. All of that being said, I felt it difficult to fully engage with the film as I just didn’t think that it went far enough to suit my sensibilities or even the furthest grasps of the story being presented in the first place. Essentially, “Win Win” is a smart crowd pleaser of a movie that was just a near miss for me.
Paul Giamatti stars as Mike Flaherty, a financially struggling New Jersey attorney desperately attempting to provide for his family, which includes the supportive and sharp Jackie (Amy Ryan) and two young daughters. Feeling so protective of his family and office secretary’s emotional security, Mike never fully divulges his increasingly dire monetary realities as he chooses to fix faulty plumbing, water heaters and cut down dead tress in the front yard himself rather than hire. The stress of holding himself together for the benefit of those he loves has led him into occasional and severe anxiety attacks.
At the New Providence High School, Mike volunteers as a wrestling coach along with Stephen (the eternally dour Jeffrey Tambor), an accountant with whom he shares office space. With the inadvertently ironic dubbing of “The Home Of Champions,” the perpetually losing team completely mirrors the slow downward spiral of Mike’s life, despite his best intentions.
One of Mike’s clients is wealthy Leo Poplar (Burt Young), now suffering the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s related dementia. Upon learning that Poplar’s legal guardian would earn $1500 per month, Mike announces in court that he would gladly appoint himself as legal guardian, solely to ensure that Poplar could still live within his own home. Yet, Mike sends Poplar to an assisted living facility and pockets the $1500 for himself, reasoning that the facility would take better care of the disoriented and volatile Leo Poplar and hey…desperate times…
One Sunday after attending church, Mike stops by Poplar’s home to discover a bleach blond haired teenager sitting upon his doorstep. The teenager is Poplar’s grandson Kyle Timmons (Alex Shaffer), who has run away from home, hoping to find solace away from his drug addicted Mother Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), now spending a stint in a rehab facility. Not wanting to leave this odd, reticent boy out on the streets, Mike and Jackie feel compelled to take Kyle into their own home and enroll him in school.
As Kyle observes the wrestling team, he asks Mike if he could spar with the other boys, a request which Mike allows and soon discovers that Kyle is a natural wrestling talent. Kyle joins the wrestling team and his excellent skills transforms the group into a winners. With Poplar in the assisted living facility, a winning high school wrestling team and an extra $1500 per month to work with, life for Mike seems to be leveling off and even ascending. That is until the intrusive hand of life’s consequences come knocking forcing Mike to face the realities of his actions and decisions.
At its best, “Win Win” is an ode to modern society morals, pathos, ethics and humanity while also serving as a film about a small collective of males trying to elicit their respective second chances in life and discover new resolves of what one character refers to as their “man strength.”
McCarty also injects into “Win Win” a relevant cultural commentary that has its cinematic finger on the pulse of American life in the 21st century just as much as Jason Reitman’s “Up In the Air” (2009) and David Fincher’s “The Social Network” (2010), while also exhibiting a light comedic touch. “Win Win” is about the serious sense of desperation that now permeates the middle class in regards to financial responsibilities and strains, which in turn can only tap into one’s deeper and primal fears of survival. The film also functions as a savvy “What Would You Do?” experience as Mike’s situation leads him to a personal and dangerous crossroads, allowing the audience to ask of themselves what choices would they have made if given the same or comparable circumstances.
All of the performances are strong in “Win Win” (although I wish that Amy Ryan’s role gave her a bit more to chomp on) and I must give special mention to Bobby Cannavale, who portrays Terry, Mike’s childhood friend, reeling from the pain of a recent divorce who finds new life in becoming an Assistant Coach for the wrestling team. And I must also give acclaim to David Thompson who portrays the gangly Stemler, Kyle’s wrestling teammate. Both Cannavale and Thompson give “Win Win” subtle and unexpected bursts of comedic energy and the sight of both actors made me perk upright with their presence.
Paul Giamatti gives an excellent performance and continues to find new ways of portraying and finding the individualistic souls of what is essentially the same character: the middle-aged sad sack. We can see how much he loves his family as much as we can see his regrets at choices not taken or dreams having fallen by the wayside. Even with his stint as a wrestling coach, he is partially living in the past glories of his youth as a scrappy teenaged wrestler and the future seemed so wide open. I could easily find empathy with this man who is only trying to live the life he has worked for and earned, especially in a world where all one has to do is turn on the television and see how the rich continue to attain mass fortunes while those in Mike’s position have to do more with less.
His relationship with Kyle is also filled with inherent ambiguity as we are meant to question what his exact intents with this troubled boy happen to be. Is he honestly discovering a love and responsibility for this young man or is he solely using the boy’s gifts as a wrestler to build up his own draining self-confidence?
All of this is very well and good and yet, I just felt so unsatisfied throughout much of this film and definitely by the film’s conclusion. This impression and reaction was especially surprising to me as McCarthy’s previous film was the powerfully humane film “The Visitor,” one of my Top Ten Favorite Films of 2008 and a film I HIGHLY RECOMMEND that you seek out at your local video store if you have not seen this film.
For the uninitiated, “The Visitor” featured veteran character actor Richard Jenkins in a brilliant starring performance as a widowed and emotionally closed Connecticut College Economics professor who discovers a young couple from Syria and Senegal squatting in his New York apartment. The threesome forge a tentative relationship, which eventually bring the professor an invitation to join an outdoor drum circle. As their collective friendship builds, the professor is eventually forced to confront the very real world issues he teaches but had previously been foreign to him. McCarthy presented the themes of identity, immigration, deportation, and race relations within the society of post 9/11 New York City in an unforced, non-didactic, fresh, vibrant, emotionally driven and undeniably humane fashion. The film simply unfolded so naturally, so unpredictably and it was also risky and constantly surprising, making for a film that was so beautifully painful it ached.
“Win Win,” by contrast, is an equally complex film that unfortunately seemed to be following some sort of a storytelling road map as all of the film’s crescendos and pitfalls unfolded in the most predictable fashions. Everything happens in the ways you think they will and that, in and of itself, would be fine but the characters have to be allowed to rise highly above any semblance of formula. To a degree they do, but ultimately, “Win Win” ends up being a movie about characters performing acts of great risk in a film that refuses to take any risks.
For a story that contains this much inherent discussion with moral and ethical issues. McCarthy doesn’t seem to want to wade confidently into the deeper, darker waters that is necessary, which makes for a film where the murkier elements are kept to the fringes and the solutions are too pat, too easy, and too simplistic. “Win Win” never confronts the proverbial “elephant in the room,” and it never wants to get its hands dirty. It was almost as if the experience of “The Visitor” was perhaps too draining to McCarthy and he just didn’t want to go through it all again.
Jason Reitman proved that one could make a dark film with a light touch with “Up In The Air” and I felt that McCarthy needed to jolt “Win Win” with the same commitment. The character of Mike Flaherty, while being a nice man who loves his family and prides himself on being a good lawyer, is indeed deeply involved with an embezzlement scheme. Serious, serious crime folks. But, McCarthy seems to want us to like this man so much that the truthfulness of his crimes are kept completely at arms length and are only mentioned in the film when it seems to have to bring it up. Remember the late film revelation about Jim Court (John Mahoney) in Cameron Crowe’s “Say Anything…” (1989)? That man had real and harsh consequences for his illicit actions and yet, his story and the honesty portrayed within his personal story did not derail or dovetail the film tonally.
Furthermore is Burt Young's character of Leo Poplar, who is completely marginalized. Yes, this is Mike Flaherty’s story and not necessarily Poplar’s but it is their relationship and Mike’s actions concerning Poplar’s health that truly sets this story in motion. And for some reason, we never really gather a sense of what Poplar’s experience is. Sure, he would rather be home than in assisted living, but aside from that information, we don’t really know anything about him, how he feels about his situation and most importantly, how he feels about Mike acting as his legal guardian. It’s a wasted opportunity and the film again feels as if it just does not want to travel down this road.
If by any chance any of you have seen Writer/Director Tamara Jenkins’ dark brother/sister comedy-drama “The Savages” (2007), you may recall that it is the Father’s painful descent into dementia that fuels the drama between the siblings played by Philip Seymour Hoffmann and Laura Linney. However, Jenkins made time for the Father, tragically played by Philip Bosco, and explored his emotional state as his mind slowly disintegrated. This particular and disturbing attention underpinned “The Savages” with an essential gravity, a weight that was criminally missing from “Win Win.”
“Win Win” is, by no means, a failure. It accomplishes what it sets out to do and from the overwhelmingly positive critical reaction, as well as the similar reaction from the viewers I saw it with, it’s possible that McCarthy accomplished his feats very well. I just wanted something deeper, stronger, better and much more emotionally affecting, honest and unmerciful.
And the more I think about it, I think I’ll go ahead and rent McCarthy’s “The Visitor” again.
Sunday, April 17, 2011
Written by Cameron Crowe
Produced by Cameron Crowe and Art Linson
Directed by Art Linson
When a creative person happens to reach an artistic crossroads, I wonder if that creative person realizes it at the time.
For this latest installment of “Savage Cinema Revisits,” I turn my attention to a filmmaker I have celebrated on this site ever since its inception. Writer/Director Cameron Crowe is a filmmaker whose work has touched me on such a profound level that it could only be described as “spiritual deliverance.” While not terribly prolific, his work over the years, including “Say Anything…” (1989), “Jerry Maguire” (1996), “Almost Famous” (2000) and “Vanilla Sky” (2001) are all hugely romantic works that have each spoken loudly to my soul as they have each detailed the passions and pains of characters trying to understand the love they have and share for music, their careers, and each other.
For me, the world is, for a time, a much better place when Cameron Crowe releases a film and this year may prove to be especially beautiful as Crowe is set to release not one, not even two, but three films! His first releases, arriving six years after the unfairly maligned “Elizabethtown” (2005) will include, “The Union,” a documentary the follows the recording process of Elton John and Leon Russell’s current duet album; “Pearl Jam Twenty,” a documentary chronicling the 20 year odyssey of the alternative rock giants and “We Bought A Zoo” starring Matt Damon in an adaptation of the Benjamin McKee memoir.
But before we blast into the future, we must return to Crowe’s cinematic past and discover that aforementioned crossroads I spoke of at this entry’s outset. After all of Cameron Crowe’s success and the fierce integrity that he has projected in his works as a consistent thematic thread, there remains one blemish upon his cinematic record. A blemish so apparently ugly that the film is the definition of a “rarity” on VHS and it does not exist on any DVD or Blu-Ray format at all. Most telling, if you happen to venture over to Crowe’s personal website, there is absolutely no mention of this film whatsoever. It is as if the film in question was never created and therefore never seen. However, dear readers, the film in question has been seen and every once in that proverbial blue moon, you just may catch it on a cable channel, just as I did about a month ago as I stumbled upon it while absently scrolling through the grid before heading off to bed for the night. The film, of which I have been speaking of so cryptically, is entitled “The Wild Life.”
Released in the late summer of 1984, just a few months after the release of John Hughes’ game changing “Sixteen Candles," “The Wild Life” was promoted as being some sort of a quasi-sequel to Crowe’s grand cinematic entrance (as directed by Amy Heckerling), “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” (1982). While Crowe’s name had not fully registered with me at the time (I was 15 in 1984), “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” had the personal glory of being the very first film about teenagers and designed for teenagers that I had latched myself onto.
A TREMENDOUS FIRST STEP
The legend of “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” is as follows. Cameron Crowe, after completing his adolescent journalistic tenure at Rolling Stone magazine at the age of 22 (as beautifully depicted in “Almost Famous”), utilized his still boyish looks to covertly enroll as a Senior at a California high school to investigate, report and compile a chronicle of the lives, loves, jobs and sexual exploits of the students. That chronicle became a beautifully written novel (which is currently out-of-print but WELL WORTH the hunt), which then became the now classic film, which is nothing less than the “American Graffiti” of the 1980s, as it launched the careers of many of that film’s participants, in front of and behind the camera (including Forest Whitaker and blink and you’ll miss them appearances by Anthony Edwards and even Nicolas Cage then using his given name of “Coppola”).
“Fast Times At Ridgemont High” told the story of a school year in the lives of a band of California teens who religiously convene for fun and employment at the local mall. Innocent Freshman Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh in her film debut) is best friends with the more experienced Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates), who coaches Stacy in the ways of sex and love in the cafeteria (the notorious carrot fellatio scene) as well as at work in a mall restaurant. Shy Mark “The Rat” Ratner (Brian Backer) receives his own sexual and romantic counsel from the school ticket scalper Mike Damone (an extraordinary Robert Romanus), dubbing his romantic technique, “The Attitude,” as classically explained, “’The Attitude’ dictates that you shouldn’t care whether she comes, stays, lays or prays. That whatever happens, you’re toes are still tappin’. When you have that, you have ‘The Attitude’.”
Judge Reinhold memorably portrayed Stacy’s older brother Brad Hamilton, a Senior B.M.O.C., with the perfect girlfriend, the prime employee position at All American Burger and deeply in love with his car, which he has dubbed “The Cruising Vessel.” Yet, his plans for an epic Senior Year implode with break-ups, unemployment and yes, that unforgettable sequence of private masturbation and public humiliation. And of course, in the most iconic role of the film, Sean Penn joyously starred as the perpetually tardy and perpetually stoned surfer Jeff Spicoli, whose eternal quest for “tasty waves” and a “cool buzz” are consistently challenged and thwarted by the uncompromising History teacher Mr. Hand (the late Ray Walston in an equally iconic performance that never compromised his character’s integrity).
“Fast Times At Ridgemont High” was a blast of cinematic sunshine teenagers that stood head and shoulders above every other release in the “teen sex” genre of the early 1980s. I happened to see it for the first time on a pay TV channel one year after its theatrical release, just mere weeks before I began high school, and I cherished it tremendously. While my Chicago upbringing and social circle did not resemble the antics depicted in the lives of these California teens, I somehow inherently knew that what I was watching, while extremely funny, raunchy and envelope pushing, was a defiantly honest presentation. A brief throwaway moment where a classroom of students all gleefully inhale a deep whiff of the potent ink from a mimeograph machine, I knew that this was a film that got the teenage experience completely correct.
Additionally, the film was not all bawdy fun and games and it also worked as a cultural commentary about a new generation of kids facing extremely adult issues they were obviously not prepared for or ready to handle during a tenuous developmental stage filled with endless emotional, physical and psychological transitions. Even the pre-requisite T&A of the genre had a subtle spin through the directorial eyes of Heckerling, who presented every sexual encounter in the film as one of uncertainly, embarrassment and ripe with true consequences, as seen mostly through Stacy’s abortion. It cannot be denied that it is quite difficult to gather much of a prurient delight in the sights of a completely naked Jennifer Jason Leigh when her suitor experiences premature ejaculation or when the object of your masturbatory fantasy (in this case, Phoebe Cates in what was reportedly the most paused sequence on VHS) walks in on you. Very clever, knowing and a perceptive way to circumvent the exploitation of teenage girls in that genre.
Furthermore, and according to the DVD commentary by Crowe and Heckerling, the grand success of that film was an organic one. The film originally received an X rating, ensuring the film would receive no advertising and would barely be released at all. After making the necessary edits (including a sequence full frontal male nudity—note the hypocrisy of the genre), the film garnered its R rating and was then released solely in a tiny number of California movie theaters. The teenagers spoke and loudly as the film earned nearly half of its film’s production budget in its opening weekend. Strong word of mouth ensured the film’s release nationwide and endless showings on cable and home video sales and rentals have cemented the film’s popularity and affection in pop culture.
Most importantly, the character of Jeff Spicoli and his trademark catch phrases of “Hey bud! Let’s party!!” or “Awesome!!! Totally awesome!”” are now pop culture standards and let’s face it, “Bill and Ted,” “Wayne and Garth,” and “Beavis and Butthead” would not exist if not for this happily stoned surfer dude. The shadow of Jeff Spicoli remains immense and still influential and the sight of the notoriously reticent Sean Penn in a “Fast Times” retrospective DVD special feature shows how much affection he still holds for this character.
Yes, that was a lengthy preamble to the main feature but I felt it necessary in order to give the main event, so to speak, its proper context. I again return to the word “organic” in describing the success and longevity of “Fast Times At Ridgemont High.” No one could have possibly known what the response to the film would have been at the time of its creation, or even moreso when Crowe wrote and published his original novel. The love for the film could not be manufactured. The proverbial lightning in the bottle could not be purposefully conjured. It just HAPPENED!
Of course, Hollywood being Hollywood, any success worth having is one to be repeated so Crowe was enlisted again, along with Producer/Director Art Linson, to create another ode to the teen years and produce a work the film’s one sheet poster promised would be “Something Even Faster” than “Fast Times At Ridgemont High.” And so, “The Wild Life” was born.
“The Wild Life” spends one week in the lives of five characters in their mid to later teens as they all wind down the final days of summer vacation in California. Eric Stoltz stars as Bill Conrad, a high school graduate, and bowling alley employee itching to begin his new life of young adulthood as a resident of the Club Horizon apartment complex (seeds of Crowe’s 1992 film “Singles” may have been planted here). His 15 year old brother Jim (Ilan Mitchell-Smith), is a petulant trouble maker burying his more sensitive sensibilities in favor of an unhealthy obsession with the 1960s and all things related to the Vietnam war, including a friendship with the mysterious war veteran Charlie (Randy Quaid). Bill is also nursing jealous feelings and a broken heart over Anita (Lea Thompson), the high school Senior he dumped prior to his graduation, employee of Donut City and who is now secretly having an affair with a lecherous, and married, police officer (Hart Bochner). Anita’s best friend is the extremely serious minded Eileen (Jenny Wright), who is also about to begin her Senior year of high school and is employed at a clothing store run by Harry (Rick Moranis), who has a crush upon her. But, Anita’s heart once belonged to her ex-boyfriend Tom Drake (the late Christopher Penn), high school Senior, local wrestling champion, Bill’s best friend and future apartment roommate and yes, completely irresponsible party animal, who is intent upon winning her heart back.
All of this seems to be right up Crowe’s alley, and truth be told, there are elements to admire about “The Wild Life.” The film possesses a fine cast, (three of whom would soon become part of John Hughes’ cinematic universe in 1985’s “Weird Science” and 1987’s “Some Kind Of Wonderful”), generally engaging characters, a surprising and welcome darker tone than “Fast Times” and the one and only film score by composed and performed by Edward Van Halen. And yet, all of the elements just did not fit together and as I have been writing fairly frequently, everything comes down to a matter of tone. It is the overall irregular tone of “The Wild Life” that ultimately derails it. Instead of the joyous euphoria that filled audiences at the conclusion of “Fast Times At Ridgemont High,” I distinctly remember exiting the movie theater screening of “The Wild Life” with nothing more than a confused shrug set to the tone of disinterested mumbles of the disappointed teenage audience that exited with me. I re-watched “The Wild Life” several times during my high school years and every now and again as I have viewed Cameron Crowe’s ascent in his wonderful filmmaking career and it continues to confound me as all of the parts just don’t fit together. Simply, it is uncomfortable viewing a film that has so much going for it just to see it fall. “The Wild Life” was a critical and box office failure to such a degree that it damaged Crowe’s film career just as it was truly beginning and Director Art Linson, who has continued his career as a Producer, never helmed another feature film again.
As Cameron Crowe once stated in a 1984 interview with The Movie Magazine, “A group of theatre owners even sent in a petition to the studio begging them to have us make Fast Times II. But I wanted to move forward, to take some growing-up steps and assume a slightly different focus.”
A-ha!! There it is. “The Wild Life” is a film that is at war with itself as Crowe’s higher artistic and storytelling ambitions clashed with the business side of Hollywood and the perceived baser pleasures of the lowest common denominator of the audience. Remember, Crowe did not direct this film. He was the screenwriter, traditionally and depressingly, the least important person upon a film set. And while he was one of the film’s Producers, who really knows how much artistic control he was able to enact as this was his second film experience and the gatekeepers were demanding “Fast Times II.”
For one thing, “The Wild Life” shows the differences of having a male Director in the still lucrative “teen sex” genre rather than a female Director. The film has it’s fair share of T&A, but without Amy Heckerling’s subversiveness at play, “The Wild Life” tastelessly comes off as just another “Porky’s” (1982). Tom Drake shows up at Eileen’s bedroom window ready to make yet another plea for her to take him back but not before we, the audience, gains a lengthy peepshow of Eileen undressing. And the less said about the truly regrettable and extended sequence set at the Les Girls strip club the better. But, worst of all is the film’s attitude about all women. They are all either sexual playthings, whiny or bitchy and whenever Crowe tries to inject true character into any of these women then more rowdy party antics via Tom Drake are ushered onto the screen so as not to let these joy-killers take up too much screen time.
Eileen is the film’s most forward thinking and conceived character (for this particular film genre during this particular time) and is easily the film’s most unfairly marginalized. At one point, before she and Anita take an evening out for themselves, she expresses that she would not ever get married until she had her career firmly in place and possessed her own money. A bold statement for the “teen sex genre” in 1984. But, most of her scenes are just variations of Eileen scrambling from Tom’s lusty grasps exclaiming that she can never get back together with him and that it’s over. It is as if all of Jenny Wright’s scenes as Eileen were left on the cutting room floor and it is a shame as she certainly presents a command and an authority much needed for a film like this.
Yet, upon watching “The Wild Life” again, I think the greatest problem of the film and the largest conceptual conflict is the function of Tom Drake as a character. It certainly is not the fault of Christopher Penn, who obviously threw himself into this role without abandon. And I am not certain the problem is necessarily down to Crowe’s screenwriting. Again, it is the tone. What are the filmmakers trying to say with this character? What do they think about this character? What is it that they want for us, the audience, to take away from this character? The conflict in this film rests heavily on Tom Drake’s shoulders.
As presented, Tom Drake is the life of the party and is always on the hunt for one. He is the untamed id, the uncontrollable “wild” of “The Wild Life,” and he is clearly designed to be a cinematic pied piper or Peter Pan, hoping for the teens in the audience to join him in reckless, raucous, endless drunken fun. But, Tom Drake is also insufferable and even as a teenager, I didn’t like this guy. Sort of like the trio of bad boys from Todd Phillips’ “The Hangover” (2009), this is the precisely the kind of male figure I would typically steer clear of and beyond that, Tom Drake is the kind of person I would steer clear of. He is a complete narcissist, a “man-baby,” an emotional infant who desires what he wants whenever he wants it and most importantly, regardless of any potential consequences for anyone else.
Tom is habitually late for his bowling alley job with Bill. He talks himself into being Bill’s roommate yet declines to do his fair share of the upkeep, grocery shopping and apartment finances. He is essentially an alcoholic who drives drunk everywhere. He has failed in his relationship with Eileen but desperately claims that he wants her back, but why? He asserts that she is engaged to him yet goes out on a bender at the strip club, holding parties at the apartment night after night. And in a bit of character description that is not terribly clear, it seems as if Tom Drake flunked his Senior Year of high school, and by the end of this fateful week, he is being forced to repeat it in the fall. The only stitch of ambition arrives in one line of dialogue where he bemoans his life in high school and wishes that he could be teaching wrestling to children. Beyond that, Tom Drake is a character with no goals, no virtue, no shame and no consideration for any other soul. But, he’s so fun, right? He can’t be all that bad. We’re supposed to cheer on his antics even as Bill gets evicted from the apartment he has been waiting to live in, right? I’m really not sure if that was what Cameron Crowe was going for but it seems that it was definitely what the movie studio wanted.
“The Wild Life” is an inorganic experience, one where we can see all of the work at attempting to catch that lightning in the bottle again, instead of allowing these characters to exist freely and allow the audience to embrace them for who they happen to be. Throughout the film, Tom Drake utters the short phrase, “It’s casual,” and it obviously feels as if the filmmakers were attempting to create a catchphrase and the result is phony. The party sequences are lugubrious in their length and devolve into a prefabricated chaos and the result is tiresome, weakening all of the characters and their situations. And by film’s end, as four of our characters return to high school for the beginning of another year and Van Halen’s synthesized score plays over the ending credits, we are simply left with a disinterested yawn. Is that all there is?
Cameron Crowe was faced with a major dilemma with the failure of “The Wild Life.” Would he soldier on with films that the Hollywood suits wanted or wound he follow his heart, his vision and his integrity, allowing the box office chips to fall where they may? Thank God for the arrival of James L. Brooks into Crowe’s life as he befriended the young, aspiring filmmaker when no one else would speak to him after the death of “The Wild Life.” For it is Brooks we have to thank for encouraging Crowe to follow his own singular voice and keep writing and to ultimately encourage him to make his directorial debut with a little film called “Say Anything…”
I wish more filmmakers would take the time to truly examine the kinds of films they are putting out into the world. Is it work they truly believe in? As Marcy Tidwell (Regina King) vehemently demands to know from Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise), “What do you stand for???”
I love the writing and films of Cameron Crowe because he stands for a pureness of heart, even if and especially when it goes against the grain. He creates openhearted works for us to be filled with and to interact with. And if we do not connect the first time, the films will wait patiently for us to try them again sometime in the future. He produces honest works of art that are of a certain rarity these days in our instant gratification and at times, morally and emotionally bankrupt society. They are uncompromisingly “uncool” and that’s what makes his films works to champion and hold above our heads just like Lloyd Dobler’s boom box. That glorious romanticism is exactly what has made his films endure.
If it took the experience of “The Wild Life” for him to reach a crossroads into becoming the filmmaker he is today, then it was a crossroads worth confronting.
Sunday, April 10, 2011
Story by Seth Lochhead
Screenplay Written by Seth Lochhead and David Farr
Directed by Joe Wright
**** (four stars)
Last year, I named Director Matthew Vaughn's hyper-violent comic book satire “Kick-Ass” as my least favorite film of the year. I certainly have no need to re-hash old wounds and cinematic slights but for the purpose of this review, I felt it necessary to bring up. You see, dear readers, among the many things I hated abut that movie, none was more serious to me than the character and depiction of the pre-pubescent psychopath Hit Girl, which to me felt to be nothing more than a gimmick and at its worst, an exercise in exploitation. Now, all that being said, I have to say that I do not have any problem with the idea of a young female psychopath as a rule. In regards to the art of cinematic storytelling, I believe that one could potentially make a film about nearly anything. But, it all comes down to the actual presentation.
In enormous contrast to “Kick-Ass,” “Hanna,” the new film from Director Joe Wright is a spectacular experience! It is a kinetic, hallucinogenic thriller that shows how the concept of a young female psychopath, trained to be an assassin by her Father, can work properly. It is the film not only “Kick-Ass” wished it could have been but it completely takes recent ho-hum, by the numbers action fare like Tony Scott’s “Unstoppable” and Phillip Noyce’s “Salt” and mops the floor with them both. The film, including its terrific action sequences, is designed to keep you off balance, upend you and alter your senses through its ferociously inventive cinematography, music score and other cinematic rabbits pulled from Wright’s bottomless hat. And yet, the film is no mindless romp of ultra-violence as the wonderfully compelling Saoirse Ronan, reuniting with Wright after their collaboration in “Atonement” (2007) provides the film and story with its pulse pounding soul. “Hanna” is by turns poetic, brutal, surreal, scary and just one rocket of a film and as this was my first 2011 film release I have seen this year, I am hoping that the high bar set by this movie bodes well for an equally impressive cinematic year.
The plot of “Hanna” is appropriately straightforward. Former CIA Operative Erik Heller (Eric Bana), lives in solitude with our titular heroine (Ronan) deep in the icy forests of Finland and has trained her, throughout her 15 years, to be an assassin. She has never come into contact with any other living soul or modern technology, has memorized a series of invented back stories and regardless of whatever situation she would ever find herself placed, she is feverishly instructed to “adapt or die.” As Hanna grows increasingly curious about the world outside of her frozen abode, and restless to discover the world on her own, Erik instructs her towards a ominous box with a switch and corresponding red light. Once that switch has been tripped, the flame haired and furiously tenacious CIA analyst Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett) would immediately be notified to their whereabouts and would begin to relentlessly hunt Erik and Hanna down, for the sole purpose of killing him and capturing her. And as Erik dangerously warns, “she will not stop.”
Deeming herself finally ready, Hanna trips the switch and the violent chase immediately begins. Erik departs for Germany, with the instructions to reunite at a predetermined location in Berlin while Hanna is then apprehended by Marissa’s team and taken to a CIA safe house in Morocco…but not for long. Hanna single-handedly slaughters members of Marissa’s crew, escapes the safe house and races to the Moroccan desert where she is taken in by a family of tourists, including a endlessly chatty teenage girl named Sophie (Jessica Barden).
From this point, Hanna’s survivalist odyssey involves her engagement with the previously unseen sights and sounds of the world, as well as confronting a team of mercenaries led by the fey Isaacs (Tom Hollander), and the deep secrets concerning her Father and her origin. All of these events lead to the inevitable and ultimate showdown between herself and Marissa.
As previously stated, “Hanna” is a electrifying experience that owes its high success to Wright’s endlessly inventive visual storytelling, high energy, excellent action sequences, which all throb along to a propulsive, percussive film score provided by The Chemical Brothers. Unlike most action films released today, that are essentially nothing more than a cacophony of special effects and punishing soundtracks designed to bludgeon an audience rather than to engage, “Hanna” contains a more European sensibility. It also earns many extra points from me by decidedly not conceding to the over-utilization of the dreaded “shaky cam” which therefore allows the story of the fights to be fully regarded in their visceral glory.
Most importantly, Wright understands that for his film to work at its best, it cannot solely function as grand style for the sake of exhibiting grand style and additionally, it needs to be firmly anchored by strong performances. If I may return to the my lukewarm responses to “Unstoppable” and “Salt” for a moment, I had lively conversations with some of you who enjoyed both of those films and even suggested that when it comes to films of that nature, perhaps the acting is not the most important factor. I respectfully disagree with that sentiment. For me, (and with rare exceptions) all of the stunts, explosions, fist fights and gun battles tend not to move me a whit without a story and especially actors of a caliber that will help me buy the fantasy that the filmmakers are attempting to sell. If that were not true, then just have the faceless stunt people play the roles.
Honestly, please try to imagine Steven Spielberg’s 1981 masterpiece “Raiders Of The Lost Ark,” and all of its near out of body action set pieces without the majesty of Harrison Ford to make even the most preposterous situations believable. Or how about Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman and the entire cast of John McTiernan’s original “Die Hard” (1988)? If not for them, that film would have been nothing more than brainless bullets of parade and not the modern action film classic that remains a highly influential piece of supreme entertainment. The right actors in the right roles, being the proper conduits for that screenplay and direction, will always elevate the material from mere pyrotechnics and ear crushing sound effects into cinematic gold. In “Hanna,” the right actors were indeed perfectly cast in the right roles.
Eric Bana, struck me as a younger Liam Neeson in his role as the brutally secretive Erik Heller. Like Neeson, Bana possesses a steadfast quality merged with a profound sense of being haunted by unthinkable demons. Yet when it is time to strike into action, he is the true definition of unstoppable as seen in one particular virtuoso fight sequence that pits him against several adversaries and Wright films in a nearly four minute, “Hitchcockian” long take. Outstanding!
As for Saorise Ronan and Cate Blanchett, I need to make this next observation in order to completely remark upon their stellar work.
As an action/spy film, “Hanna” definitely recalls other hyper-stylized thrillers like Luc Besson’s “La Femme Nikita” (1990), Tom Tykwer’s “Run Lola Run” (1998), Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” (2003/2004) and television’s “Alias.” Wright also employs a host of surrealistic touches that he dabbled with in his previous film, the excellent musically themed drama, “The Soloist” (2009), which makes this thriller often recall the dark cinematic visions of Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and especially director Ken Russell, famously (or notoriously) known for his singular wild visions in films like “Tommy” (1975), “Lisztomania” (1975) and “Altered States” (1981).
And even with all of this homage at play, “Hanna” firmly stands on its own two feet as a work with its own original voice because it owes its deliriously dangerous world to the primal and violent structure and storytelling of classic fairy tales. Simply described, “Hanna” is like a Grimm’s fairy tale acid trip. It’s Jason Bourne falling down the rabbit hole.
What is the story of “Hanna” than a fairytale? A young girl raised alone in the woods leaves her idyllic setting to see the world and throughout her journeys, she is confronted with a host of evils designed for her to unearth an inner resolve, emerging more mature, more “grown up” at its conclusion? Hanna is an embodiment of Sleeping Beauty/Alice/Goldilocks and other ingénues while Marissa is a hybrid of The Wicked Queen/The Wicked Witch/The Evil Stepmother and other darkly sexual tormentors. Even Erik is at times, the kindly woodcutter or even The Big Bad Wolf. And beyond the characters and story structure, Wright loads his film with fairy tale iconography, some overt, some quite subtle, which gives the film as a whole an added kick that only serves to enhance rather than distract.
Here is where the work of Cate Blanchett and Saorise Ronan shines brightest. Blanchett, armed with a vague southern accent, hair-trigger temper, explosive firearm skills and sinister green colored high heeled shoes, would be nothing more than a laughable cartoon if she did not fill the character of Marissa with disturbing malice and menace. Her performance reminded me a bit of Diane Ladd’s squeamish turn as the vengeful Mother in Lynch’s “Wild At Heart” (1990), which was itself a nightmarish revision of “The Wizard Of Oz” (1939).
But Ronan is golden with her performance as Hanna, again making her a young actress to watch very seriously. With her far away eyes, that can either suggest a moony detachment or cold blooded programmed fury, I could not think of a better actress to tackle this difficult role, as it has to not only extend beyond potential exploitation but it also has to create sympathy for a character who is a psychopath. Ronan (who also beautifully handled the difficult leading role in Peter Jackson’s controversial 2009 adaptation of “The Lovely Bones”) accomplishes this feat by giving Hanna a true sense of wonderment as she explores the world and endures the up and down cycle of innocence lost, found, and lost again. Hanna exists in a constant state of childlike wonderment, especially as she has her first experiences with hearing music—something her Father never exposed her to in the ice and snow of Finland. She experiences enjoyment, fragility, empathy, confusion, happiness and even love.
Despite her prowess as a stone cold killer she is not heartless as evidenced in her awkwardly tender scenes with the talkative Sophie. While Hanna’s nearly non-existent social skills might be Wright’s sly commentary on the potential negative effects of homeschooling, on very quiet nighttime scene between Hanna and Sophie is one of the most graceful and honest intimate moments between two teenage girls I have seen recently. And then Ronan is able to shift emotional gears effortlessly and seamlessly into those wild action sequences with her lithe frame that springs like a tightly wound coil into unforgiving and punishing shootouts, hand-to hand combat and relentless chases. Saorise Ronan is the real deal, folks and I am anxious to watch her grow into adult roles and see where her career will take her.
From beginning to end, “Hanna” is a standout motion picture that more than delivers the goods while making everything feel so fresh and vividly new. As I have said before, my lack of enthusiasm with the action genre, has at times, made me fear that perhaps I was growing out of something that I have enjoyed so much throughout my life of going to the movies. But, when I see a film of this high caliber, I realize again that it is not my age or level of maturity. It is just my response to how the film placed in front of me has been executed.
“Hanna” is executed brilliantly and with the precision of a perfectly aimed bullet to the brain.
Story by Alan R. Cohen & Alan Freedland
Screenplay Written by Alan R. Cohen & Alan Freedland and Adam Sztykiel & Todd Phillips
Directed by Todd Phillips
* (one star)
It’s a good thing that this film was not a sizeable box office hit because if it were, the John Hughes Estate would probably have sued for plagiarism!
Quickly stated, dear readers, director Todd Philips’ follow up to his mega-smash box office juggernaut “The Hangover” (2009), is a failure. An unmitigated, tone deaf and nearly humorless debacle made even worse for the shamelessly tepid attempt it made in trying to emulate a modern comedy masterpiece, the late Writer/Producer/Director John Hughes’ “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” (1987). “Due Date,” no matter what its intents may have been, is absolutely nowhere in the same league.
As with Hughes’ film, the plot of “Due Date,” is perfectly high concept as well as clearly and cleanly stated. Robert Downey Jr. stars as Peter Highman, a businessman desperately trying to return to Los Angeles from Atlanta for the birth of his first child, via a scheduled C-section, in a matter of days. But, of course, his chances are foiled at every turn by the bizarre circumstances enacted by the equally bizarre oaf, aspiring actor and “Two And A Half Men” enthusiast, Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis).
Perhaps the best way to begin to critique this film is to illustrate just how much of Hughes’ film was stolen…oops, I mean, how much of Hughes’ film inspired Phillips. No need for me to be nasty, or overprotective. “Due Date” is an homage, right? Let’s head ourselves to the checklist, shall we?
1. An uptight, middle aged businessman
2. A socially awkward misfit, inadvertent perpetrator of all manner of calamities, who also nurses a painful dark secret.
3. A chance and confrontational first meeting via an automobile.
4. An expulsion from an airplane.
5. A misplaced wallet.
6. A worried wife waiting at home.
7. Curious and contentious interactions with small town locals.
8. A series of seemingly unending calamities starring a rental car.
9. The two men becoming separated from each other only to be reunited.
10. The heartwarming conclusion, placing the newfound understanding between the two men at the forefront.
In fact, all that’s really missing the film are the three following items: a train, the comedy and a heart.
Obviously, John Hughes did not, in any way, invent the road comedy genre. I completely understand that. But, what he did do with the genre was to inject his personal style, his unique brand of humor, his unequalled brilliance with character and dialogue, his worldview and sense of humanity. In short, Hughes took a tried and true genre and made it his own. With “Due Date” however, the proceedings work as nothing more than grand larceny. Furthermore, it only re-asserts just exactly how wonderful a film “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” is and why it continues to endure nearly 25 years after its original release and the untimely passings of both Hughes and John Candy, whose hysterical and heartbreaking performance as shower curtain ring salesman Del Griffith gave that movie its tremendous soul. “Due Date,” on the contrary, is a soulless enterprise and despite a cute line of dialogue every once in a while, nothing sticks to the comedic ribs precisely because we have seen it all before and much, much better.
For a movie that essentially has two characters for the bulk of its running time, the storytelling contained within the characters is crucial and no matter how outlandish situations become, the characters will always root the adventures in some semblance of reality. In “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” Hughes worked at the peak of his creative powers as one of his greatest gifts was his attention to his characters, how they change and grow and the strict attention to who they are and their place in the world. The characters of Neal Page (played to petulant perfection by Steve Martin) and Del Griffith (Candy), throughout all of the obstacles and misadventures were essentially two sad middle-aged men reaching their perspective crossroads and emerging with a new outlook on the lives they lead. “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” is a film cemented in social comedy and possesses a profound understanding of human nature while also being an absolute scream.
With “Due Date,” the seeds of an excellent comedy are all firmly planted. It’s the execution that fails the project so tremendously. Now, it is absolutely no secret to any of you, dear readers, that I was not a fan in any way of “The Hangover.” But, what did work in that film (at least during the first time I saw it) was the construction of the story and the comic mystery that gave that film its strong engine. As outlandish as the situations became, everything snapped together snuggly and also seemed to function within a certain realm of possibility. In “Due Date,” the story is let off of the chain and becomes a proverbial live action cartoon leading Peter and Ethan into situations that never feel plausible and more than a bit over-written. Situations are beyond contrived, and they have absolutely no connective tissue with each other. These are sequences that truly feel as if they could only happen in the movies.
Take the scene where Peter and Ethan are ejected from traveling via airplane. The moment of expulsion arrives through a ridiculous misunderstanding concerning terrorists and bombs and concludes with Peter being shot by a rubber bullet. I think the simple flight delays due to inclement weather in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” was an acceptable enough hurdle for Hughes’ travelers. Why did Phillips think that he needed to up the ante to such a degree? It just felt so prefabricated and beyond that, it just wasn’t funny. Furthermore, there are the sequences involving the doomed rental car, which receives such damage in such a fatalistic fashion that I felt that Peter and Ethan should have been killed at least three times over. Nothing about this film felt remotely honest, therefore I couldn’t buy terribly much of the supposedly hilarious situations.
But, my discomfort with “Due Date” rested firmly with the characters, such as they are, of Peter and Ethan, which remain criminally shallow from start to finish. They are essentially the exact same people at the end of the film as they are at the beginning and never at any point do they elicit any finesse or flair, which is a shame as Phillips is indeed trying to create a character based comedy. Unfortunately, “Due Date” is the character based comedy that has no sense of characters. Going back to “The Hangover” for a moment, a major reason why I did not care for that film, aside from its derivative nature was the fact that I did not like any of the three main bad boys even for a minute. They did not appeal to me, they felt to be more than a little mean-spirited and I just did not find them to be characters I necessarily wanted to follow for two hours. “Due Date” carries the same problem. Robert Downey Jr., an actor I have admired for so long again gives the film his all but after a time, it is easy to see that Peter Highman, like the trio from "The Hangover" is just a prick and there’s not much about him to latch onto. After a time, Downey Jr. appeared to my eyes to be bored, as if we could see that sinking feeling, that moment of realization that the film he was working on was not going to pan out positively.
But, the biggest crime in the film is Zach Galifianakis. Don’t get me wrong, I like Zach Galifianakis. He indeed contains a certain off beat quality that threatens to spiral dangerously into extreme subversive anarchy and I like that about his persona as his monologues on “Saturday Night Live” have shown so brilliantly. But, as an actor, I think he is such a unique and idiosyncratic talent that filmmakers, aside from the talented crew behind the HBO series “Bored To Death,” have no idea of how to utilize and harness his talents. Phillips has cast Galifianakis in two released films (and this summer’s upcoming “The Hangover Part 2”) so far and he has essentially commandeered the same performance from him. In “Due Date,” Galifianakis’ Ethan Tremblay is nothing more than an extension of his role in “The Hangover,” just odder, stranger and again, the type of person that only exists in the movies. Ethan Tremblay is an endless non-sequitur, a prefabricated sideshow absurdity whose best friend is a masturbating dog. He is precisely the kind of self-congratulatory and self-conscious ball of quirkiness that I cannot stand in the movies, making him a character that just never felt like he could exist in the real world. Frankly, this character of Ethan often struck me as a bit of a cheat. That there was something deeply psychologically wrong with this guy yet the movie was not going to deal with it in any way. Yes, I do understand that this is a comedy and I am definitely not trying to make it more serious than it needs to be. But, Ethan Tremblay took the vaguely effeminate “man-child” conceit to such a degree that it felt to be more of an “SNL” sketch character like “Pat” for instance, than one who was housing the type of inner pain that this movie wants us to believe in.
And so another one bites the cinematic dust. To think, it actually took four writers to emerge with something this imitative and comically empty. My extremely negative reaction is not a vehement one. So to speak. Just a weary one. Weary at the glut of movies being made and released from week to week that are mere echoes of better work and exist just to have certain A list stars on the theater marquee.
I have no doubts that Downey Jr. and Galifianakis will rebound easily and often. But for Todd Phillips, I just think that it is time for him to truly wrestle with the forces of his creative process. He is a good filmmaker that knows how to present and produce an attractive motion picture. He is a craftsman that does not make shoddy work. But, I am hoping that he may one day even surprise me, as well as himself, by realizing that he can be inspired by and even worship the work of John Hughes, Ivan Reitman, Harold Ramis and John Landis without making his own work feel so profusely stolen, functioning as nothing more than the palest of carbon copies.
Wednesday, April 6, 2011
Written and Directed by Sofia Coppola
***1/2 (three and a half stars)
"Exquisitely bored in California..." -Pete Townshend ("Exquisitely Bored")
“A director makes only one movie in his life. Then, he breaks it into pieces and makes it again.” -Jean Renoir
I am of the understanding that the inscrutable, mercurial and inimitable Bill Murray does not possess a publicist. And while I am not entirely certain of this next tidbit, I also think that he is not represented by a Hollywood agency anymore as well. The current tale is essentially that if Hollywood industry types and filmmakers have a desire to reach Mr. Murray, there is simply one phone number, an 800 number at that, with an answering machine. As Murray himself explained in Dan Fierman’s GQ interview from August 2010, “I just sort of decide. I might listen and say, "Okay, why don't you put it on a piece of paper? Put it on a piece of paper, and if it's interesting, I'll call you back, and if it's not, I won't." It's exhausting otherwise. I don't want to have a relationship with someone if I'm not going to work with them. If you're talking about business, let's talk about business, but I don't want to hang out and bullshit.”
As I recount this true Hollywood tale, I have often wondered just what Murray experienced throughout his career and life that made him arrive at this groundbreaking decision and it could not have been more evident as I viewed a screening of “Somewhere,” the fourth film from Writer/Director Sofia Coppola, a quiet, poetic experience detailing the internal crossroads of bad boy movie star Johnny Marco (portrayed poignantly by Stephen Dorff) who has sequestered himself in California’s Chateau Marmont for a seemingly undetermined period of time and now faced with caring for his 11 year old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) after her Mother surprisingly exits, and with no plans to return anytime soon.
As with all of Coppola’s previous films, “Somewhere” is not driven by a plot or even much of a storyline. It is a film of atmosphere, mood and style all presented in an uncluttered matter of fact fashion, forcing audiences to connect the emotional dots. For some audience members, this controversial winner of the “Golden Lion,” the top prize at the 2010 Venice International Film Festival, may try your patience due to its languid pacing and complete lack of instant gratification or anything that actually happens. “Somewhere” is an uncompromising piece of work, almost defiantly sparse, and somehow as it ambled along, I found myself moved by the experience, as moved as I have ever been through all of Coppola’s previous films. And I am anxious to return for another viewing.
As “Somewhere” opens, we are given a lengthy static shot of a circular open road and the roaring racing engine sound of a black Ferrari. Behind the wheel sits Johnny Marco, driving round and round, effectively spinning his wheels and arriving nowhere. On this particular evening at the Chateau Marmont, he drunkenly slipped down a stairwell, breaking his wrist. Aside from that unusual incident, (and a press conference with Michelle Monaghan) its business as usual, such as it is, for Marco. He sits silently for indeterminate stretches of time in his suite. Coyly drinks and smokes in the restaurant not so inconspicuously behind his shades. He stands smoking upon his balcony, watching the traffic below, the billboards within his direct eyeline and the topless models in suites underneath. He receives occasional profanity ridden text messages from jilted lovers. And his nights typically end with him falling asleep to the joyless and surprisingly unerotic pole-dancing act by blond twins. A charmed life it ain’t.
Johnny’s eyes only seem to sparkle with the scheduled visits from his daughter Cleo. While definitely not much of an actual parent, he seems to honestly enjoy her company as he takes her to ice skating practice, plays several levels of Rock Band and enlists her as somewhat of a co-conspirator in his paranoid Hollywood traffic paparazzi games. And then, it’s time to return Cleo to her Mother and crawl back deeply into his somnambulant existence.
By the time Cleo’s Mother abandons her, leaving Johnny to deal with parental responsibilities before Cleo heads off for summer camp, he takes his daughter along to Italy for a scheduled publicity tour, which includes an appearance on an Italian awards telecast. Throughout every moment together, Johnny and Cleo are forced to face the respective trajectories of their lives as they each ponder their relationship with each other.
At first glance, “Somewhere” may appear to be a trite and predictable “pity poor me” exploration of the trappings of fame. But, in Coppola’s hands, she makes the soullessness of fame and the crushing ennui that ensues so rapturously artful. She is an American filmmaker with a European sensibility and “Somewhere” functions as a 21st century Cinema Verite, a completely naturalistic cinematic technique that Coppola utilizes with long sequences that play as real life, making the film resonate far beyond the world of actors and wealth into a film that is strikingly humane and relatable.
While “Somewhere” is equal to Coppola’s previous three films in thematic and emotional complexity, the film is easily her most minimalist to date. There is not much actual dialogue, and again nothing actually happens. Yet, unlike Writer/Director Noah Baumbach’s frustratingly laconic “Greenberg” from last year, Coppola knows how to drive her film internally so as to not allow her movie to feel as if you are watching paint dry. Coppola also knows how to just allow her film to breathe, allowing the film to sneak up upon you and before you know it, you have been affected by what you have been viewing and the result is subsequently haunting.
In regards to the epigraph from filmmaker Jean Renoir that opened this review, “Somewhere” is another variation of Coppola’s consistent themes of isolation and how that state of mind affects the highly introverted characters that populate her stories. “Somewhere” also functions as sort of a career summation of Sofia Coppola’s work thus far as the film encapsulates all of her previous three films key themes while forging ahead to make a new statement. Elle Fanning’s pre-pubescent porcelain beauty as Cleo recalls the doomed teenage girls and other’s perceptions of them in “The Virgin Suicides” (1999) and “Marie Antoinette” (2006) while Stephen Dorff’s hotel cocoon and fame driven isolation obviously echoes Bill Murray’s Japanese hotel refuge in “Lost In Translation” (2003).
“Somewhere” also places Coppola impeccable musical taste to the forefront. The film was reportedly inspired by and written to Phoenix’s ambient “Love Like A Sunset Parts 1 and 2,” (which does appear in the film) and her typically excellent song selections almost makes this film feel like side four of a great double album, with the shifting shades of sorrow and regret taking center stage.
And that is exactly where the weight of this piece arrives: the existential crisis of Johnny Marco and the sense of displacement he feels in his blessed life and how that displacement has been placed upon his child because of his fractured relationship with Cleo and her Mother. Coppola presents this film’s isolation so vividly through Marco as he is almost presented as a faceless movie star, despite his worldwide celebrity. Marco is typically in a constant state of dishevelment, inertia, and is often seen to be in bed or in a near narcoleptic state of falling in and out of sleep no matter what he is doing. One of the film’s most remarkable sequences in a section where Marco is having a old made of his head for a special effects section of the film he is working on. We see the entire process of how his head is encased within the mold and how only the holes of his nostrils remain open. As the mold sets and Marco waits, Coppola allows her camera to sit steadily upon his head, with the only audible sounds being his breathing. And then, the special effects team returns to take the mold from his head and we are shown the final results of the “elderly man” makeup on Marco’s face, a sight which truly shocks him. He has become a real world “Rip Van Winkle,” a man who has effectively slept through his entire life and what has he done with it?
Coppola also effectively illustrates the juxtaposition of being attracted by the luxurious wealth and sights (especially in the Italy sequences) yet we also see how everyone is jaded and everything is meaningless. Yet, Marco only comes to life through the simple moments of sharing gelato with Cleo but even those moments are tinged with melancholy as they both know those moments will not last. The weight of that reality of their Father/daughter relationship is now beginning to take a supreme toll…unless Johnny Marco is able to enact the profound changes that will reclaim his soul and forge a stronger relationship with Cleo.
Out of all four of Coppola films, “Somewhere” also struck me as being the most hopeful. The film’s final shot is the very one that immediately made me think of Bill Murray’s new status as the elusive Hollywood star people have such difficulty trying to locate and work with yet constantly pursue. I am feeling that whatever Murray’s life may be at this stage, it is the life completely of his choosing and control. Perhaps Johnny Marco’s experiences in Coppola’s work are those first baby steps to a new beginning and Coppola has presented it with her trademark eloquence.
I gently urge all of you to give this film a try and allow it to simply wash over you with the patience and warmth of the best sunset. Let it reveal itself to you and you may be surprised at how rewarded you may feel.
For those in Madison, WI, “Somewhere” has been held over for one more week at the Sundance Cinemas. For all of you the film will arrive on DVD April 19, 2011.
Friday, April 1, 2011
Based upon the novel Hard Sell: The Evolution Of A Viagra Salesman written by Jamie Reidy
Screenplay Written by Charles Randolph and Marshall Herskovitz & Edward Zwick
Directed by Edward Zwick
* ½ (one and a half stars)
At least they tried.
In all of the many concerns and complaints that I have shared with you concerning the status of modern American cinema, I have often lamented the times during which I have felt that the creative participants involved squandered their respective great fortunes at being visual storytellers by not even bothering to try and produce a work to the highest of their abilities. In addition to being a waste of talent, money and time, for the filmmakers and more importantly for the audience, I just cannot fathom why, oh why people would essentially thumb their collective noses at the chance to make a movie. As I stated in my year end reviews of 2010's “RED” and "Cop Out," placing the laconic performances of Bruce Willis firmly within my cross hairs, I will paraphrase those feelings to suit this over-reaching concept: For the money that these people are being paid, if they feel like slacking off once in awhile, that’s fine. Just DON’T MAKE A MOVIE! I can almost forgive a film that fails when the attempt is an honest one but when it doesn’t try, then why should I?
In the case of “Love And Other Drugs,” the latest film from Director Edward Zwick, I can say that the attempt to make a strong movie is an honest one. The film itself is filled with committed performances (although some to a detrimental degree-more on that later), a screenplay that does indeed contain complex characters, themes and dialogue that feels worked over and Zwick is certainly no hack when it comes to his directorial duties. Unfortunately, and despite all of the talent at work and more than willing to make an entertaining artistic statement filled with comedy, drama, heartache and cultural commentary, the stars were seriously not in alignment.
Set in 1996, “Love And Other Drugs” stars Jake Gyllenhaal in a performance of boundless (read: hyperactive) energy as Jamie Randall, a cocksure ne’er do well salesman, serial womanizer and family black sheep who becomes a pharmaceutical representative and rising star for the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. While attempting to gain a foot in the door in the offices of Dr. Knight (Hank Azaria), via the constant wooing of the doctor’s female staffers, Jaime meets his romantic match in the form of the inimitable Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway), a patient currently in the throes of the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. Maggie, immediately sensing Jamie’s considerable sleaziness (especially after having had taken a considerable and sadly noticeable gaze at Maggie’s breasts while posing as a medical assistant to Dr. Knight), reads him the riot act in the parking lot after she physically cleans his clock. This particular altercation is of course designed to depict the obvious attraction between the two and also of course, it leads Jaime and Maggie into the most seemingly realistic next phase of their relationship: a bout of wild sex that only occurs in the movies with thrown clothes, vocal abandon and two sweaty bodies laying on the floor breathlessly.
One empty sexual tryst flows into another and before you can say “cliché,” Jaime brings over lunch, conversation and the seeds of a growing conscience, three things that the ferociously proud Maggie vehemently rebuffs fearing an inevitable rejection once the glow of great sex fades and the reality of her debilitating and ultimately, fatal health takes center stage. And then, there is the matter of a new sex drug called Viagra that has reached the pharmaceutical market, creating an account that would send Jamie into the sales stratosphere with a endlessly lucrative positioning Chicago waiting in the wings. But the power of love is a grand force, isn’t it? Especially as Jaime discovers his soul, Maggie brings down her walls and each allowing love to guide their way towards each other.
In many ways, “Love And Other Drugs” contains absolutely no surprises and delivers a love story that plays out exactly as you may think it will. Jaime grows more compassionate as Maggie’s health begins to fail thus forcing her to keep her barriers and boundaries upright while Jaime valiantly performs the requisite soul searching in regards to his abilities to discover the best part of himself for both of their sakes. Essentially, if you have seen a movie love story then you are more than prepared for what is on display in this particular film. As with the best films that utilize overly familiar material and motivations, everything succeeds or fails in the overall presentation. What is surprising about “Love And Other Drugs” is that beneath the overly slick and frivolous veneer, Zwick certainly does have more serious issues on his mind, which I do believe he actively tries to monkey wrench into the film.
One element that I particularly enjoyed was witnessing the tools of the aggressive sales trade. Wooing receptionists notwithstanding, Zwick tosses in sometimes violently competitive salesmen to dumping samples from competitors in the trash and replacing them with your own company’s samples, accosting doctors immediately from the moment they exit their vehicles for work and always distributing gifts of pens. All of that is very clever material. Additionally, Oliver Platt, who has now made a career of portraying lascivious corporate supporting characters, somehow makes his now trademark role work brightly once again as Jamie’s sales partner and mentor.
Zwick’s cultural commentary was also an element that I enjoyed seeing as he seems to be offering a lament for a society growing increasingly dependant upon they very medications that they are unable to pay for due to rising insurance and health care costs. Furthermore, through the character of Dr. Knight, we also see how people who had once aligned themselves into a world through altruistic intentions have, over time, lost their souls after having the business side drown out a once noble worldview. Also, in one of the film’s quieter sequences Jamie and Maggie make some heartfelt confession to each other through the usage of a video camera. Perhaps that was a nod to our current fixation with revealing our souls through the tools of media instead of face-to-face.
In regards to the love story, while the character arc of Jamie is, again, predictable, I do have to give credit to Hathaway and the screenplay for giving her character of Maggie Murdock a hefty amount of emotional layers to sift through. Maggie’s occupation is that of an artist meaning that she lives in one of those gorgeously designed movie lofts that you wonder how in the world she could ever possibly afford to live in yet she is poor enough that she makes routine bus trips to Canada to purchase her medication at affordable costs. Her prickliness is completely understandable and almost valiant as she knows her life’s inevitable trajectory and relinquishing the little emotional control she has over a man who has been habitually unreliable is certain reckless. I appreciated the weight given to her emotional struggle, as I typically enjoy movie love stories more when there is truly something real at stake.
And yet, I still gave this film a harshly negative rating.
Well, for one thing, I have been a huge fan of Edward Zwick and his creative partner Marshall Herskovitz’s work since my teen years as I was somewhat obsessed with their television program “thirtysomething” and I was deeply affected by “About Last Night,” their 1986 adaptation of David Mamet’s “Sexual Perversity In Chicago.” I was struck by the literary quality to the writing and the intensely throughout introspective nature they gave to their characters and their emotional battles as they constantly attempted to figure out their respective places with their respective worlds.
With “Love And other Drugs,” I was actually very excited to see Zwick return to a more contemporary urban setting in film after a series of more historically based David Lean epics like “Glory” (1989), “The Last Samurai” (2003) and “Blood Diamond” (2006). Much had been written at the time of the film’s release concerning the amount of nudity on display in “Love And other Drugs” (yes, dear readers, Hathaway is topless for several scenes while Gyllenhaal is in his all-togethers aside from a certain appendage). This large amount of nudity was a tactic utilized very well in “About Last Night,” and I was looking forward to viewing a real, adult relationship on screen from Zwick’s perspective again. Perhaps this was an aspect of his career coming full circle to a degree.
Zwick is a filmmaker who flourishes when he works with a larger storytelling canvas for his film and his television work. His series, which also included the wonderful “Once And Again” and the untouchable “My So-Called Life” unfolded like Dickensian novels while his films evoked the wide sprawling sweep of the epics that have obviously inspired him. Very sadly, “Love And Other Drugs” feels more than a little truncated and could have used more of the conceptual sprawl that has elicited his best work.
The film is simply a tonal disaster as it spends so much time working itself up into a frenzy, in just under two hours, that not much sticks firmly. Nearly everything, from the rapidly paced 1930’s styled dialogue, to the drama to the truly desperate comedy (mostly represented through the vastly overused and irritating presence of Josh Gad's pseudo Jack Black styled performance as Jamie’s wealthy, sad sack, perpetually horny older brother) feels supremely forced. It was as if Zwick had no idea of what he wanted his film to be: a light romantic comedy, a wrenching love story, a medical drama, a buddy comedy, a disease themed tear-jerker or whatever else he felt needed to be thrown into the pot. The briskness of this film just completely sabotaged his storytelling gifts.
George Segal and the late Jill Clayburgh make “blink and you miss them” appearances as Jamie’s parents and I could not help but to wonder just why these two screen legends were cast and just mot given anything to do. Was more material filmed and then left on the editing room floor? Whatever the reason, their presence was wasted.
Jake Gyllenhaal is an actor that, for some reason, I have never entirely warmed up to. Yes, he has delivered fine work throughout his young career especially in Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” (2005) and David Fincher’s “Zodiac” (2007) but too often in “Love And other Drugs,” he seems like a bouncing boy playing dress up when I really felt like I needed a mature adult holding the reins. And frankly, Anne Hathaway would eat him alive.
Speaking of Ms. Hathaway, and despite the mash note I wrote to her in my recollection of this year’s otherwise awful Oscar telecast, she is a young actress that has proven, time and again, that she has the acting range to be able to tackle a variety of parts. And although in “Love And Other Drugs,” she indeed gives it her all, somehow, I didn’t connect wither as I felt that she may have been directed to push harder than she really needed to. There was more than enough inherent drama that it didn’t need the hyperbole, which made for a relationship that kept me at arms length when it should have been drawing me inwards.
And for what I did enjoy with the love story there was much that I was severely disappointed by. Jamie and Maggie’s romance is a complex relationship that deserved so much better than it was given, especially as it functions as a tale of monogamy at the dawn of Viagra and the decline of morals and ethics in late 20th century adult relationships. Everything is just wrapped in pretty bows and to me, it just felt so unfair to these characters and their situation to sideline them with every movie love story cliché in the book.
Even the film’s climactic romantic admission was predictable and too terribly sugary sweet for me to believe. In fact, those final moments made me think back to my beloved “Jerry Maguire” (1996) and the now eternally famous and endlessly parodied “You complete me"/You had me at ‘Hello’” sequence. I think why that sequence has endured for so terribly long is not simply through the soulful acting of Tom Cruise and Renee Zellweger but also through Cameron Crowe’s unquestionable romanticism which was displayed via his “go for broke” screenwriting. That sequence spoke to every beat of my heart and that is a rarity for me with movie love stories. I was beyond moved and that film has earned a place as being of the most romantic films I have ever seen. Watching those pitiful moments in “Love And Other Drugs,” a sequence that contains a level of romanticism it just had to earned at all, it showed just how difficult those sorts of scenes are to pull off successfully.
Yet, as I stated at this review’s outset, I greatly appreciate the effort as they all tried their very best to deliver the goods. “Love And other Drugs” is a failure to me but it was an honest failure, made through the best intentions and a trove of talent on display.
Not every film can be a winner but as long as filmmakers keep trying and failing and trying again, I will gladly sit through disappointments like this one than soulless garbage no one involved ever believed in.