Sunday, July 20, 2014

RIP JAMES GARNER, A ONE-OF-A-KIND MAVERICK

Original caricature of James Garner by Jeff York (copyright 2014).
A friend asked me in college once if I’d ever been in a physical fight. I had numerous tussles with my brother, of course, but my friend pressed me further. When I realized I had never lifted a finger or fist to anyone, I answered him, “No, I have not. I’ve always avoided fighting by taking Jim Garner’s way out.”

The characters that the marvelous actor James Garner played were always great talkers. And their silver tongues were always able to talk the way out of a fight. I thought that was a pretty good way to approach such conflicts, especially since I wore glasses. And it wasn’t the only thing I’d learned from Garner, who passed away yesterday, July 19th. I learned a pretty darn good idea of what a man should be.

And James Garner was indeed a one-of-a-kind leading man. He was not only a good talker, but he projected morals, smarts, and savvy about the world around him. He looked good in jeans, and a suit, and especially in a plaid blazer. He charmed women by actually talking to them. No strong, silent bullshit from Garner, no, this man knew what he wanted and wasn’t afraid to say it. To a lady. To anybody.

That was especially novel at a time, in the late 50’s and early 60’s, when most leading men coming out of the Actors Studio were mumbling introverts who bottled up their feelings. Or they were working class blokes, raging through England, drinking hard and raising hell. Garner chose a path counter to those trends. He was tall and brawny without having to brawl. He was clever and verbally dexterous and could articulate how he felt. And he was a gentleman, respectful of women and more often than not, the kind of man who treated them as equals. What man wouldn’t want to be like that?


I think it’s interesting that in most of his roles, whether on the big or small screen, from THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963) to THE ROCKFORD FILES (1974-1980), he played heroes who proved their mettle while rarely having to press the metal to the floor or raise a firearm. Thus, Garner was a maverick really, in more than just the name of his most famous character. He was a man who made better choices, more civilized ones, a man who was strong enough to be humble, courageous enough to hold his fists at his side.

And at a time when westerns like WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE and GUNSMOKE were reigning on TV, Garner established his prevailing screen persona as Bret Maverick in the series MAVERICK (1957-1962), a man of the west who loathed conflict, despised violence, and tried to get his way through dialogue. It is interesting how little gunplay there was on the show. It was a thinking man’s western really, and Garner was the perfect brain to lead it. 
James Garner as the title character in MAVERICK (1957)
Garner could’ve been another Clint Eastwood or James Arness or Steve McQueen. He was tall, built, and rugged looking with a square jaw, dark hair and an all-American machismo. But when he opened up his mouth, that twangy drawl of his came out and it exemplified brains, not brawn. He was the new American male, no matter what the period was that he was playing in. And he knew how to be old school masculine along with new age sensitive.

And no matter what role he played, he made audiences relate to his characters. He didn’t want to fight. Who did? He could romance Julie Andrews and pal around with Steve McQueen. Who wouldn’t want to do that? And he suggested decency even if he was playing con artists. Even in something like THE SKIN GAME (1971), he may have been using Lou Gossett as a fake slave to bilk people out of their money, but when push came to shove, it was Garner's character who took the whipping in place of his charge. Garner may have played slippery here and there, but he was almost always the most moral and grounded person in the room.
James Garner in THE ROCKFORD FILES (1978)
And he turned other clichés on their head too. When he played Jim Rockford in the groundbreaking TV series THE ROCKFORD FILES, he turned the private dick role into something wholly modern as well. Rockford wasn’t a great cop, or hot with the ladies. He was as far away from James Bond or Perry Mason or Sam Spade as a law enforcer could be. Rockford struggled to make ends meet. He lived in a trailer, with his aging dad. And when a bad guy punched him, it hurt. And it hurt for days. Garner showed how dangerous the procedural job was, at a time when law enforcement on TV was presented as unimpeachable. THE ROCKFORD FILES was another maverick show, and was a huge hit. And again, it proved that Garner had a way of making an audience relate to the modernity of the American male.

Garner made it all cool. Heck, he even made hawking Polaroid cameras into 30-second works of art. His rapport with Marianne Hartley in dozens of commercials made for one of the best campaigns in the history of advertising. Hartley credits Garner with establishing her career. And she said he always made sure that she had the better lines, and was showcased as being just as strong, pithy and delightful as her more famous costar. Garner talked the talk, and walked the walk.
James Garner with Julie Andrews in VICTOR/VICTORIA (1982)
My personal favorite of all of Garner’s efforts was when he was asked to combine his modern male persona with the clichés of Hollywood macho for Blake Edwards’ musical masterpiece VICTOR/VICTORIA (1982). As King Marchand, the knowing and wily gangster from Chicago, he falls hard for Victoria (Julie Andrews) the seductive songstress in a Parisian cabaret. When Victoria ‘reveals’ herself to be a man, it throws King because a guy like him isn’t supposed to fall for a guy.

As the man who would be King, Garner is really the heart of the show as it is his character that has the largest character arc. He goes from a man who knows exactly who he is to a man who isn’t certain who he’s in love with, or the kind of man he himself could be. As King accepts that his crush could be a man, he softens. And as he dates Victoria, established as a woman, but still determined to keep up the ruse in public, Garner was comically brilliant as a man struggling to fit into society’s version of a couple.

If you’ve never seen it, it could not be any timelier, with the whole issue of gay marriage and rights. Garner’s character loses all he has for the woman he loves even if the world thinks he’s in love with a man. Tell me, how many actors other than Garner could make such a character warm, likable, funny and heartbreaking? I can’t think of one who could equal him.
James Garner with Gena Rowlands in THE NOTEBOOK (2004)
His list of wonderful credits of men dealing with their mortality and vulnerability are too long to list here but suffice it to say TV movies like MY NAME IS BILL W (1989), HEARTSOUNDS (1984) and BARBARIANS AT THE GATE (1993), as well as big screen vehicles like THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY (1964), MURPHY’S ROMANCE (1985), and THE NOTEBOOK (2004) showcased Garner’s complex take on what it means to be a man, time and time again.

I still haven’t been in a fistfight. I still wear glasses and they’ve never been broken. And I walk and talk with the help of James Garner. He died yesterday at 86, and he left a fascinating legacy that will be talked about forever. And that’s saying something, especially for a silver-tongued guy like Jim.
James Garner with his Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award in 2005.

Friday, July 11, 2014

THE SEVEN BEST THINGS IN THE HORROR GENRE FROM THE FIRST SIX MONTHS OF 2014

So far, 2014 has turned out to be quite a rich year in horror. From the big screen to the small, there have been some true genre standouts worthy of lauding halfway through the year. Here are the seven best things to happen in horror these past six months.


ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE
Horror that challenges clichés and creates monsters worthy of empathy is rare, but Jim Jarmusch’s latest film does just that. He takes the exhausted lore of vampire and finds new meaning as he tells the story of an old, married couple of bloodsuckers who’ve lost the will to get through another century. Adam and Eve (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton) mourn the losses piled up in our modern era, including the desolation of Detroit and the deterioration of popular music. It’s a story that’s both poignant and blackly comic. And it’s also one of the more romantic films in some time, as you really want this couple to stay together for eternity.


EVA GREEN IN PENNY DREADFUL
Perhaps it premiered too late in the television season to capture Emmy voters’ attention, but Eva Green should have been announced as a Best Actress in a Drama nominee yesterday. (Tatiana Maslany for ORPHAN BLACK and Vera Farmiga for BATES MOTEL too, for that matter.) John Logan’s ambitious new TV series for Showtime wasn’t perfect in its first eight episodes, but Green was. Her performance as Vanessa Ives was utterly captivating, whether flirting with Dorian Gray, betraying her best friend, or channeling the devil during a séance. Hopefully, she’ll be scooping up lots of awards in the coming years.


ENEMY
Unceremoniously dumped on VOD this past spring, this sharp psychological thriller should’ve gotten a national release. Instead, it only played on the big screen in New York City. Nonetheless, it’s one of the year’s best films and a must-see for thriller and horror fans. This is a shrewd work with a lot to say about the dangers of the male ego. Jake Gyllenhaal plays both an anxious college prof and his Lothario doppelganger, and it’s the performance of his career so far. Further fun with the movie can be had by exploring the various dissertations of its meaning online. The best one is by blogger/critic Chris Stuckmann, and it’s available on YouTube (http://bit.ly/1pECF27).


OCULUS
There aren’t many horror movies that cast the protagonist as the true monster of the piece, but this one does. Sure, there’s a demon in the mirror that’s haunted a few generations of the population, but survivor Kaylie is eminently more frightening. Karen Gillan gives one of the year’s best horror performances as the terrifying sis who drags her reluctant brother (Brenton Thwaites) into her scheme to destroy the demonic mirror. And it will be their undoing. The dread throughout is edge-of-your-seat palpable.  

Original caricature of Mads Mikkelsen in HANNIBAL by Jeff York (copyright 2013)
MADS MIKKELSEN IN HANNIBAL
HANNIBAL is an extraordinarily well-done series on NBC, and even Anthony Hopkins fans are recognizing how good Mikkelsen’s take on Dr. Hannibal Lecter is. He (ahem) carves out his own unique take on the role. He’s elegant, soft-spoken and full of sly, European charm. And yet, his sartorial shrink is absolutely terrifying throughout (http://bit.ly/W4ZCTt). You never know if he’s going to slice up dinner or a dinner guest. In a show that has A+ writing, acting, direction and production design, his work might be the most delicious achievement of all.


FROM DUSK TILL DAWN
El Rey Network’s FROM DUSK TILL DAWN aced its freshman season, bettering its pulpy movie origins. The story of the Gekko brothers and their dangerous trek across the border in Mexico turned out to be a ton of fun. But it also added some genuine seriousness to the mix, and that made it all the better than Robert Rodriguez' original 1996 thriller. The writing took lots of unexpected twists and turns. The characterizations of every player was deepened. And the ensemble was terrific throughout, handling the violence and the quieter moments with equal aplomb. The second season can't get here fast enough!


HORROR ON VOD
Certain horror movies don’t enjoy a wide release due to their smaller distribution deals. However, almost every new frightener eventually makes an appearance on VOD these days. And we horror aficionados are all the luckier for it. Such little gems like GRAND PIANO (with a superbly nervous performance by Elijah Wood), AFFLICTED, THE DEN, LUCKY BASTARD, CHEAP THRILLS and ANNA have done the genre proud. And their filmmakers are truly talents to be reckoned with. Let's hope they get bigger launches and bigger audiences next time out.

There were other television shows of note too this year including BATES MOTEL which finished a very strong sophomore year this past spring. AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN continued Ryan Murphy's brilliant horror reign on TV with a whopping 17 Emmy nominations. And SLEEPY HOLLOW turned out to be the surprise hit of the 2013-2014 TV season with its clever mix of the American Revolution and the 'Grand Guignol'.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga in BATES MOTEL (copyright 2014) 
The next six months hold great potential too with the debut of movies like DRACULA UNTOLD, THE GREEN INFERNO and a sequel to THE WOMAN IN BLACK. And new seasons of the aforementioned TV shows aren't long off, including the fifth season of THE WALKING DEAD premiering in October. That’s a lot of horror to look forward to. So much, it’s almost scary. 

THE SIX BEST THINGS FROM THE FIRST SIX MONTHS OF 2014 MOVIES

Despite a summer that hasn’t yielded a breakthrough hit like IRON MAN or THE HANGOVER from years past, it has showcased some quality sequels and independents that merit attention. In fact, the first six months of the year have had some truly special films and it buoys my spirits for the remainder of 2014. Here then is my list of the exceptional:


THE LEGO MOVIE

I don’t know what Disney, Pixar or any other animator has in store for movie audiences during the remainder of 2014, but right now THE LEGO MOVIE is not only deserving of the animation Oscar, but it’s also a cinch to make a lot of Top 10 lists. Mine included. For me, this film was the biggest cinematic surprise since THE ARTIST. Like that film, I had no expectations of greatness for THE LEGO MOVIE and yet was delighted from the first moment to its last. This ‘kids picture’ has outrageous wit, splashy action and shockingly clever characterization that would be the envy of any adult feature. And it can brag of having the largest ratio of laughs per minute onscreen of any movie since AIRPLANE in 1980.


ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE

I love horror that challenges the clichés of the genre and makes you care about the characters, even when they’re the ‘monsters’. Jim Jarmusch’s latest showcases an old married couple, and by old I mean they’ve been married for centuries, struggling to make sense of a modern world. Adam and Eve (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton) are vampires who mourn the loss of life in a desolate Detroit while yearning to find a reason to keep on living. It’s poignant, blackly comic and one of the more romantic genre pictures to come along in some time. (And you can read my full appreciation here http://bit.ly/VUaKlN)


 SHAILENE WOODLEY IN THE FAULT IN OUR STARS

Speaking of romance, Woodley could melt the coldest of hearts as she demonstrates in this smart and affecting weepie. She was okay launching the DIVERGENT franchise in the spring, but her work in this summer love story was sublime. Like she did in THE DESCENDANTS, Woodley made an average teen girl extraordinarily compelling. She’s so naturalistic, unself-conscious, and breezy as an actress, that she not only is a breath of fresh air onscreen, but her accessibility takes your breath away.

Original caricature of THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL starring Ralph Fiennes by Jeff York (copyright 2014).
RALPH FIENNES IN THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

Not only is Wes Anderson’s latest one of the year’s better films, it has a comedic performance in it by Ralph Fiennes that should be remembered come awards season. He was hilarious as a slapstick fop, a worthy successor to the likes of Peter Sellers and Jack Lemmon, but he made his concierge into a tragic figure too, reeling from a society that lost its sense of propriety.


ENEMY

This superb psychological thriller was dumped on VOD months ago, with nary a theatrical run in New York to talk about. The rest of the nation was denied seeing this smart dissertation on the male ego by director Denis Villeneuve (PRISONERS). You can read my full exploration of the movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal in my previous post (http://bit.ly/1q42NYV), but suffice it to say it’s a film chock full of vivid images of anger, fear and despair. Its imagery of spiders has been debated online but they’re symbols of inescapable webs that a noncommittal man sees in his relationships with the opposite sex. It’s a demanding work that should be seen by anyone interested in smart cinema.


ALEXANDRE DESPLAT

My favorite film composer is having a banner year, and there’s still six months left! He has written terrific scores for four 2014 films including THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, GODZILLA, THE MONUMENTS MEN and VENUS IN FUR. He has yet to win an Oscar despite nominations for PHILOMENA, ARGO, THE KING’S SPEECH, THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, and THE QUEEN. Let’s hope that he takes the gold this year. I’m ready to give it to him for his score for Wes Anderson’s latest. Its music buoyantly moves the farce along and pulls at the heartstrings with its poignancy too. Desplat is a genius with range and daring. And his work is so brilliant you don’t need the images to enjoy his soundtracks.


Those are the highlights of the year for me. What blew your skirt up? Share your thoughts here and let’s hope the next six months are as rich.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

"ENEMY " IS THE BEST THRILLER OF THE YEAR


You know what the best film of 2014 is that you've never even heard of? ENEMY, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. It's a psychological thriller that will stick in your brain for a long time. I'm still obsessing over it, and that's why I'm writing about it today.

ENEMY was unceremoniously released this past Tuesday on DVD, but it is deserving of much, much more. Certainly, it’s worthy of your 2-hour rental after it failed to garner a wide release. The latest from Denis Villeneuve, who directed the tense hit PRISONERS last year, played only at film festivals and briefly in New York this past March. That’s an utter shame, considering it is one of the best films of 2014.

Perhaps movies about the mind or those heavy with symbolism don’t stand a chance in this modern era that too often spoon feeds movie audiences. And ENEMY is a complex, layered film with a narrative chock full of fantasies, nightmares, and visions of gigantic spiders. It could almost be a horror movie.

Jake Gyllenhaal does his greatest film work in two roles in ENEMY.
And in many ways, it is just that, but it’s not a scary movie in the typical sense. There are no monolithic monsters or drooling beasts chasing down innocent victims here, despite the spider scenes. Instead, the monster is the male ego.

Gyllenhaal plays two roles here and in doing so, he’s done the best film work of his career. (He won’t be remembered come Oscar time, but he should be.) He plays a history professor named Adam, obsessing in his classroom over and over again about dictatorial regimes dominating society. He shambles around the campus, on edge, hands in his pockets, worrying about something. What is it that is eating at him so?
'The two Jakes' play a scene together as Anthony intimidates his stalker Adam in ENEMY.
Then one day he rents a movie to get out of his head, and discovers an actor in it who could be his twin. Is it indeed his doppelganger? Could it be a long lost brother? Adam becomes obsessed with this ‘twin’ and starts stalking him. He discovers that the actor, named Anthony, is quite different from him. He’s got a nice apartment, a warm, lovely and very pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon, in what should have been a star making role), and a swagger to his step that Adam sorely lacks. Adam works up the courage to meet him but when they confront each other at a local motel, Adam runs away.

It’s at this point in the movie that the true themes start to appear. Tense scenes with Adam’s mother (a stoic Isabella Rosselini), his lover (Melanie Laurent), and Anthony’s wife Helen suggest that the prof has a screw loose. Everything, including the city, seems to start closing in around him after that. And then the aforementioned spider visuals start popping up everywhere, along with haunting images of dangerous sex and dictatorships.
Canadian actress Sarah Gadon plays Helen, a woman trying to make sense of her husband's obsessions.
It’s all shot to be utterly frightening, and could give most horror movies a run for their money with the camera angles and editing often suggesting a fever dream or a nagging nightmare. Nicolas Bolduc is the cinematographer responsible for the incredible photographing of this film and he gives the locations of Toronto a muggy, claustrophobic feel like it’s never had before on film. The suspenseful score, written by Danny Bensi and Saunder Juriaans, keeps the dread going too with a throbbing sense of foreboding throughout.

And Javier Gullon’s taut script doesn’t waste a moment or line, and it’s a credit to him and director Villeneuve that they don’t feel the obligation to explain everything to the nth degree. This is a smart film that assumes the best in an audience. It merely asks you to pay attention to every moment, every action, and every image. Believe me when I tell you that wedding rings, phone calls, and repetition have seldom been used to better effect as harbingers of danger in a movie.
One of the haunting 'spider' images from the movie ENEMY.
Without giving away any spoilers here, I will tell you that there has been a ton of debate online over the film’s true meaning, and in particular, what the stunning last scene of the movie reveals. That startling end is actually quite obvious, but some reviewers have grossly misinterpreted it, like this misguided dissertation from Slate magazine (http://slate.me/1lSC25i).

The director said it best himself when he told IndieWire.com this: “In each scene, we are dealing on two levels, the narrative levels, which is like reality, and like a subconscious level where it’s like dealing with the part of the subconscious of the character.” (You can find the full interview here http://bit.ly/1yRWHMT.) But if you really need every bit explained, check out blogger Chris Stuckmann’s thorough and entertaining discourse on ENEMY on his page at YouTube (http://bit.ly/1pECF27).


This is a movie that might have been too intellectual for the Cineplex masses, but if you’re a horror buff or love to be nailed to the edge of your seat by a good thriller, you’ll really like this creepy film. It’s a frightening character study of a man who desires that which he doesn’t need, and is too foolish to embrace all that is staring him right in the face. Life haunts him, and I think this film will haunt you too.