The Search for Authenticity: URBAN COWBOY at 40

Time and time again, in the early days of his stardom, matinee idol John Travolta used his newfound celebrity completely dismantling the idea of the matinee idol. The Irish-Italian from New Jersey with the cleft chin, the broad smile, and the endless charm, figured out a way to subvert his golden looks by diving headlong into characters with open-faced insecurities. Think about the way Travolta’s machismo is undercut repeatedly in Saturday Night Fever and Grease, the two biggest hits of his youth.

And through it all, Travolta was always charming, always funny, all the while totally undercutting these anachronistic notions of masculinity and coming through on the other side as a new version of a man, smarter and stronger. And in 1980, he took that same vibe to the south, to Houston, Texas, and to a legendary honky-tonk nightclub. He attacks the faults of his own iconography head on in Urban Cowboy, which never received quite the same broad fanfare of Saturday Night Fever or Grease. In many ways, though, it’s the best of the three.

Or maybe I’m just too close to Urban Cowboy, but I don’t think so. The people in director James Bridges’ smoky brown melodrama resemble the photos of my own parents in the years before I was born (Urban Cowboy is a year older than I am). The pearl snap shirts and feathered cowboy hats were in my dad’s closet, and the songs of Charlie Daniels and Johnny Lee colored my youth. And yes, my parents loved this movie because they identified; one of my earliest movie memories is standing my parents’ living room seeing John Travolta, hungover and beat up, dangling from scaffolding.

My parents never split up and got entangled with an ex-con prison rodeo psychopath in a mesh shirt, mind you, but this world was alive for me as I grew up. And those ne’er do wells were always on the periphery back in those days in Texas. My closeness does create bias, but it also gives me an advantage over someone from the Northeast digesting the material in this movie, just as the people who grew up in Brooklyn in 1977 better understand the world of Tony Manero. My experience growing up and seeing this world as it evolved over the 1980s allows me to vouch for the spot on authenticity, which the performances sell right from the start.

John Travolta’s Bud is a little older than Tony, or Danny Zuko in Grease. He’s ready to shed his youthful skin and be an adult. He doesn’t care about his hair, because it’s going to be under a cowboy hat. He yearns to be an authentic, hard-working cowboy, and that earnest desire is palpable in the early scenes as Bud leaves his modest family home and heads to Houston to work hard, and party hard. But he’s a little rough around the edges for this new brand of urban wrangler; he’s from the country and only tagging along with his uncle the first time he visits Gilley’s Honky Tonk and sees the world he wants to infiltrate. That’s where he meets Sissy.

Debra Winger was just becoming a star in 1980. She was 25, and she still had An Officer and a Gentleman and Terms of Endearment in her future, but all that fire and sexual energy was alive and well in Urban Cowboy. Winger is an equal with Travolta, and Sissy is just as eager to please and just as uncertain how to actually be an adult. She makes mistakes, they both make mistakes, but we know almost immediately from their steamy first dance montage, that they will end up together in the end. That isn’t the draw of the movie, it’s the characters and the world of wannabe cowboys crossing paths with something beyond their fun moonlighting at Gilley’s, someone dangerous like Scott Glenn’s reptilian villain, Wes Hightower.

Glenn was just about out of Hollywood at the time. His ego had gotten him into fights with directors and executives, and he was ready to write it off when James Bridges called him and knew that if he played this character he would never have to audition for a role again. Everything about Wes is everything Bud is not; he’s confident and dangerous, and he can fight and he has a dark appeal that lures in young Sissy. Glenn’s Wes is a tremendous disruptor, and a monster, and Sissy learns these lessons the hard way.

Both Bud and Sissy lose each other to other affairs in the middle of the movie, and they both realize the grass is not, in fact, greener on the other side. Everything about their affairs eventually exposes itself to be a fraud, one more perilously than the other. Madolyn Smith Osborne’s socialite, Pam, is the high society comfort Bud thinks he wants, but he eventually realizes that high rise parties and silk sheets don’t have that authenticity he so eager sought when he first pulled into the big city. Urban Cowboy is the most honest portrayal of a relationship and how people have to grow and find common ground while not forcing change on the other person, and in that regard, it is as authentic as the world Bud seeks.

Beyond the story of the film is the rich atmosphere of Gilley’s, a rowdy honky tonk bar started by Mickey Gilley and club promoter Sherwood Cryer in 1970. For a decade, Gilley’s reputation grew, and the country western music and dance scene was slowly crawling across parts of America. Hollywood knew this world was ripe for a story, and the hype surrounding Urban Cowboy carried it to a sizable $46 million box office. The film itself never received the praise of Saturday Night Fever or Grease, but it deserves to stand shoulder to shoulder with Travolta’s disco nightclub odyssey.

And it’s certainly better than Grease.

TENET Needs to Stay Put

The scenario is too enticing to ignore: Christopher Nolan, one of the most vocal proponents of the cinema – and an outspoken fanboy of the value of the cinematic experience in general – is set to release an epic, time-bending thriller in a few weeks, in a future that is unknown, at a moment where the film’s presence may very well save movie theaters.

That last statement felt hyperbolic at first, but I’ve thought about it and I don’t think it is. Tenet could realistically be the bridge between our current stasis as a “moviegoing” society, and a return to a normalcy as we ascend the stairs, step by step, to get back to our lives. And for some of us out there, “our lives” includes the freedom to escape to a dark theater for a couple of hours. Theaters, which were already struggling, have a chance to save themselves here, and Nolan’s film would be a perfect test of the new functionality of a theater. Set for a July 17 release, Tenet should absolutely stay put.

Let’s start with the undeniable truth behind all of this… Tenet looks incredible. Ten years after Inception, Christopher Nolan is back in his own head with another labyrinthine epic, this time with John David Washington and Robert Pattinson playing… someone? There are no character names on the imdb page, and the synopsis is just as bewildering as the trailer. This is an event film, just as every Nolan film has been since 2005, and it’s the perfect way for theaters to responsibly open their doors.

I haven’t been interested in the quarantine, or the impact of COVID on “the culture,” or whatever. No thanks. I am interested, however, in returning to a version of the normal world fairy soon. Most of us are interested in this, excluding the Extremely Online crowd. And there is a way for theaters to coordinate and open en masse with Tenet. Implementing new safety measures, enforcing social distancing, requiring masks in the lobby, hand sanitizer stations – you know the list, the one where responsible action is taken to begin functioning as a society once again – can all be put in place in theaters across the planet. Then, auditorium capacity is reduced to 50%, maybe even 40, and on the weekend of July 17 Tenet opens on every screen.

Think about a normal day at a movie theater, even in the summer; almost all of the auditoriums are under 50% capacity because of normal diminishing traffic for movies in week 3, 4, 5 of their release. With one highly-anticipated movie to show, the screen would likely be no more full or scant than they would on a normal day. It could work, and it might fail, but it’s better than nothing. If theaters see success in these first couple of weeks after this new “soft” opening, then more new movies can begin to schedule their releases, and gradually we go back to the world as we knew it. This all depends, of course, on whether or not society is on board.

Personally, I think we are.

Since the pandemic has become a stupid political game in just under six months, it’s difficult to weed through the nonsense and think rationally about the statistics that generally paint a more optimistic picture, like the recent data from the CDC that suggests the mortality rate is .05%. There has been bad news, and death, and panic, and everything was really weird for two months or so, no doubt. And we should all continue to be vigilant and respectful. But now the gears of society are grinding again, all over the world, and progress is being made every day towards treatments and vaccines and a general realization that this thing doesn’t spread as fast and furious as once thought. Now, surfaces aren’t a threat. I don’t really want to stir a debate on the state of the pandemic because, yes, it’s stupid and political now, and I don’t like bringing all that junk into this space that I cherish. But this is a big crossover moment between the two topics, and I’m confident there is a way through this to the other side.

The motto cannot be to stay locked in your homes forever, or venture out and everyone’s parents and grandparents will perish by the millions. It is simply no longer the rational conclusion to re-opening. Things are improving, unless you get your information from a tainted source that wants things to be worse; besides, who knows what sort of knowledge and information we have at our disposal in six more weeks. Think about where we were, collectively, six weeks ago, then the six weeks before that. It isn’t just boredom ending the pandemic, its information and CDC updates, and in another six weeks there will likely be even better progress and more information about COVID-19. The desire to stay locked down, to write an open letter to Christopher Nolan begging him to not release his movie because it will cause mass death and disease, simply doesn’t feel like reality anymore.

Let us not forget the precursor to the potential Nolan rescue project, and that is the grimy Russell Crowe Hitcher riff, Unhinged, which some theaters are tentatively planning for a July 1 release. Now, Unhinged is borderline VOD already, a delightfully trashy-looking bag of junk food that I would have no problem seeing in July, but it’s not the sort of litmus test theaters need for the state of their business moving forward. They need a big tentpole to test the waters.

If you don’t think it’s safe, don’t go out. But don’t shame people for being responsible and living their lives, given the new information we receive daily. There have been polls that seem to indicate nobody will go back to the theaters if they opened now, but those polls likely aren’t focused on the right groups. Don’t just ask the general public – most of them weren’t going anyway – ask members of a movie discount club through a chain, or die-hard fans of local theaters, if they want to return, and you will certainly get a different number. If Tenet holds strong, it could reap the benefits of being the only show in town; it will also (likely) benefit from being a terrific thriller that captures audience imagination. Chris Nolan has redefined the cinematic experience before, we just need him to do it now more than ever.

I’ll buy a ticket.

Make No Mistake, CAPONE Flirts With Greatness

SPOILERS: I plan on discussing certain elements of this movie that should be seen without any prior knowledge. There isn’t much to spoil, but just be warned that I will be discussing the magic tricks that are part of this unique experience. 

There is a fifteen-minute dream sequence early in the second half of Capone, Josh Trank’s wildly subversive and eerie biopic of the famed gangster’s last year, and it signifies that our syphilitic host has suffered a stroke, and might be dying. The idea of a fifteen-minute stretch of detached nightmare imagery in the middle of a story about a gangster’s final days is certainly nothing new, and deserving of an eye roll. Just another contrived moment of introspection from an infamous, condemned man, lazy storytelling, etc. That is, until the sequence happens; when Tom Hardy’s craggy, cursed take on an American super villain gone to seed shuffles down the aisle to join Louis Armstrong on stage for a rendition of “Blueberry Hill” in a buzzing, whirring, disorienting concert hall… I must tell you, dear reader, I was all in.

Capone was never going to be a wide release, though it did have a few hundred theaters scheduled. This was always going to be a quiet return for the director, who has somehow crawled out from under his 2015 Fantastic Four calamity. It’s easy, on the outside looking in, to compare Capone to the 2018 VOD gangster biopic Gotti, John Travolta’s wretched, idiotic, cloying pile of garbage that was seemingly formed in a sentient irony lab and directed by “E” from Entourage. The only reason to see Gotti is for the laughs, and even then it’s not worth it; comparing Capone to that disaster is a fallacy, through and through, because this is no ordinary VOD slapdash effort by Trank and his team, and this is absolutely no cheap dime-store performance from one Tom Hardy.

Capone tells the story of the infamous Chicago gangster’s final year of his life, after his imprisonment for income-tax evasion, and after syphilis has virtually rotted his brain and his body. No longer deemed a threat to society, Capone – known strictly as “Fonse” here – is released from Alcatraz and moves down to his Miami mansion, where he wastes away under the spying eyes of the FBI, and under the care of his eternally suffering wife, Mae, played with remarkable sympathy and pathos by the wonderful Linda Cardellini.

Fonse is basically non functioning as a human being when we meet him in Trank’s haunted nightmare. Early in the film I kept anticipating moments of flashback, where we witness Hardy as a young Al Capone, cracking skulls and taking on Eliot Ness, but after twenty minutes, then thirty minutes, I realized those scenes were not coming. It changed my perspective on what I was seeing, and how the rules of conventional biopics – where these moments of a dying old man would serve as a framing device to slip into past glory – were not going to apply here. No, I was stuck here, trapped in this mansion overrun with statues of gods and angels and gargoyles, this spooky, creaky purgatory. Not only that, I was trapped with the most disgusting human being on the face of the earth.

It was an invigorating feeling.

Hardy’s Capone soils himself twice, he spits and vomits and hacks and the whites of his eyes are soaked with blood. He never is without a stogie burnt almost down to his swollen lips – until he suffers the stroke and his doctor, played by Kyle MacLachlan(!), encourages him to just… well… chew a carrot instead. The poison in Al Capone’s soul and the illness in his blood is barely contained anymore, and Hardy shuffles around the house, paranoid and confused. His family is around, as is his mysterious friend Johnny, played by Matt Dillon. Johnny takes him fishing, and when a gator swipes his catch, Capone blasts the gator with a shotgun. It’s insane, but this is all insane, so it works. Somehow, despite everything working against it, Capone is borderline brilliant in weird and invigorating ways.

The dream sequence preceding Fonse’s stroke and ultimate death is, quite literally, fifteen minutes, and it never feels arduous, because it just keeps getting stranger. The score, from rapper El-P, buzzes and hums and makes nothing ever feel right or normal, or just okay. Most of Capone functions like a horror film, in fact, and had this been released in 1978 with Gene Hackman in the role and John Frankenheimer behind the camera, it might very well be considered a hidden classic. That’s not to say Josh Trank is John Frankenheimer, but he clearly knows how to assemble a film (he’s credited as editor as well) that is original and fresh and often hypnotic. The story itself is formless, and the plot about missing money doesn’t matter at all, because this isn’t a suspenseful thriller about lost fortune. It’s an oblique portrait of a monster gone mad.

Trank was lucky to nab Tom Hardy for this role. There is no actor working today that I would want to watch dissolve into a puddle of insane bile more than Hardy, who manages to shape this wildly hyperbolic characterization into an avant-garde work from a movie star who knows how to find his own insane frequency in every role. Tom Hardy is unlike any living actor, a madman who men want to be and women want to stare at, a dog-loving Brit who veers outside of the Hollywood system while simultaneously meeting the beauty and the possibilities of its craft head on, and giving his audience everything they want to see.

Capone will definitely annoy some people; it will absolutely bore some, and it might even confuse more people than not. But that’s not as much a fault of Trank’s film as it is of expectations. There are those aforementioned rules about the structure of biopics, where we need to see the subject at his or her peak, and we need to watch their rise and fall. Capone is intentionally absent of those moments, and maybe by the second time Fonse soils himself – during FBI questioning, no less – some audience members will head for the virtual exit. That’s fine, because it’s not for everyone, and it isn’t hard to see how it might revolt some people. Those people will miss the finale, and that has to be seen to be believed.

If you’re willing to get on Trank’s wavelength – and you’re starving for something new that feels like a real movie again – you might find Capone to be the most exciting viewing experience of 2020, a madhouse movie that devolves into chaos; a movie about being stuck at home that, yes, feels very timely.

Defending THE BEACH (2000)

As the 20th century came to a close and the world waited anxiously for the Y2K calamity that never happened, there was no bigger movie star – no bigger celebrity – in the world than Leonardo DiCaprio. As a 23-year old with cutting eyes and matinee idol hair, DiCaprio stormed the cultural landscape in 1997 with James Cameron’s Titanic, a film that simultaneously cemented his status as a movie star, a box-office certainty, and one of the brilliant young actors of a new generation.

Titanic was such a success that MGM rushed DiCaprio’s The Man in The Iron Mask into theaters four months later… it opened in second place behind Titanic, still king of the box-office world AFTER THREE MONTHS. DiCaprio held the top two spots at the box office in the spring of 1998, and from there the expectations were insurmountable. Though he popped up in Woody Allen’s low key lark Celebrity that fall, DiCaprio’s “real” next release – after more than a year of gracing the cover of just about every magazine across the globe – was Danny Boyle’s The Beach.

Based on Alex Garland’s engrossing 1996 novel of the same name, The Beach was right in Danny Boyle’s tech/pop wheelhouse, a fast-paced thriller about narcissistic Westerners who disrupt an island oasis, exposing the darkness hidden beneath. But the hype surrounding the movie was all about Leo, who plays Richard, the audience’s guide into the dark heart of a society that’s sprung up in paradise. The problem was The Beach – an esoteric R-rated picture with a mean streak and truly despicable characters from top to bottom – was not exactly what the young women of America were looking for from their new matinee idol. That’s why it opened strong in February of 2000 with $15 million, and immediately fell off a cliff; the next weekend it plummeted to seventh place, down 46%, and it shriveled and shrank out of sight, failing to crack $40 million.

Poor word of mouth doomed any chances The Beach had of being successful, and the critical reception at the time branded it a misfire, regardless of box office. Ebert gave it a two-star shrug, Elvis Mitchell called it “unsubstantial.” It was a middling reception across the board, dismissed as unwieldy and unfocused, full of garbage humans. I remember the almost palpable sense of bewilderment in a theater full of teenaged girls when Richard hallucinates himself in a video game, and the squirming discomfort when the victim of a brutal shark attack is left to die in the woods, out of earshot from utopia. This was the new hero of Tiger Beat nation, tripping balls and ruining paradise in a weird and ugly thriller, and you could almost feel the disappointment in the cinema.

The expectation for Leo DiCaprio to continue starring in $300 million blockbusters in the aftermath of Titanic was foolish, not only because it was never going to be sustainable, but because it ignores everything that came before Cameron’s epic. DiCaprio was always more interested in darkness, examining the discomfort of youth in This Boys Life and The Basketball Diaries; he earned his first Oscar nomination playing a mentally handicapped kid in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, one of the most fringe indie dramas to break through into the mainstream. But after Titanic, those films were pushed aside by the majority of Leo’s new fans. They wanted him to be charming, and critics wanted him to be elite, and with The Beach it’s clear DiCaprio wanted no part of the pedestal.

What other explanation is there for DiCaprio to take on Richard, a character with his head so far up his own ass, there’s no way to make him work as a sympathetic guide? Richard’s existential, upper-middle class jaunt to Thailand to try and “feel alive” is a disgustingly glib reason to get this wannabe adventurer in the middle of the action, and it’s all intentional. We aren’t supposed to side with Richard in most scenarios. When he meets Daffy (Robert Carlisle), a broken refugee of the island utopia, he is immediately a passive observer to the events happening all around him. He thinks nothing of using the map Daffy’s left him, or telling other American tourists about the map, or inviting Françoise and Étienne (Virginie Ledoyen and Guillaume Canet) along for the ride, because he sucks, and he’s supposed to suck.

The introduction of Françoise and Étienne does little to alleviate Richard’s despicable vibe; they’re both just as narcissistic as Richard, and the only reason Richard wanted to invite them to begin with is to try and steal Françoise away – which he succeeds in doing. Because, again, these people suck. The way in which they are insufferable is Boyle’s plan, to pull us into this bleak faux paradise with bleak, faux human beings who can’t see anything past the nose on their own face. It’s always a challenge to tell a story through the eyes of characters nobody likes, and that mixed with the fact that DiCaprio arrived on the scene with his own baggage explains why The Beach was rejected on sight.

The politics and the economy of the island, run by Tilda Swinton’s benevolent dictator, Sal, is the meat of the picture, and it’s exciting to watch our trio of young idiot travelers as they swim and jump and stumble upon this pristine beach bay, surrounded by mountains and trees – and surrounded by fields of marijuana plants that are guarded by a murderous, armed militia with whom Sal and the members of paradise have made a pact: no more members from the mainland. The falsity of everything about this world is exposed in a matter of weeks, over a series of increasingly disturbing events, and as Richard falls out of favor with the ragtag society, things slip into a darkness that will wind up destroying everything.

And it should.

Alex Garland’s story is a criticism of human society in general, and The Beach leans into this theme to the point where it turned off viewers. After years of Garland’s work infiltrating pop culture – namely in recent years with Annihilation and Ex Machina – we know his opinion on humankind. In Garland’s view, people will never be able to find utopia because, if they do, they will be there, and they will eventually ruin it. It’s obvious, too, why the environmental angle to such a bleak indictment of humankind enticed a young, environmentally-conscious Leo DiCaprio. He was beginning to grow more and more concerned with environmental action, and he wanted to push back against everything Titanic brought him at the same time, to dig deep into a grossly egotistic bad guy and tell a story about greed and arrogance; and so he found Boyle’s wild, energetic picture to work through his new angst.

It isn’t a perfect film by any means – calling it “actually good” might be a stretch – but one thing The Beach has never been is dull or uninteresting. It’s messy and it’s difficult to watch for a multitude of reasons, but that isn’t an outright dismissal. There is still plenty to enjoy on a visual level, and the thriller elements all work to create an uneasy threat. Considering the era, and where Leo was as an actor, and expectations, and pushback against those expectations, The Beach also takes on a certain perverse charm twenty years down the road. I would certainly appreciate the arrival of something this wild and unhinged today.

Forgotten Films Archive, #1: Jonathan Glazer’s BIRTH (2004)

Once in a while a film full of stars, loaded with promise and equipped with a wide release plan, will come and go without making so much s a ripple in the zeitgeist, lost in the infinite growing back catalogue of cinema. Sometimes, these flippant dismissals are warranted; other times, they’re confounding. Occasionally, but rarely, there is a specific reason that upended a film’s fate. Many movies simply fall victim to time, shoved out of the limelight as more powerful and celebrated works eat up the ever-shrinking bandwidth of our cinematic history. 

Sure, there are films that never see the light of day; there are B-movies and schlock and midnight movies that most audiences never know exist; that’s not for this space. To be forgotten, the film must have been known, at least to a certain degree. It had expectations that were never met. Big stars, competent marketing, a promising young director, a legendary auteur… these were the films given their moment in the multiplexes, and for whatever reason seemed to disappear from the collective consciousness. 

And, most important of all, these are great films we should no longer overlook. 

Jonathan Glazer’s 2000 feature debut, Sexy Beast, was a small stick of dynamite in the still fertile indie film landscape that had exploded in the nineties, and had started to carry over into the new millennium. Glazer was, like so many new directors of this era, a former music video director making the leap to film. David Fincher did it, Michael Bay did it, Antoine Fuqua, Spike Jonze… Jonathan Glazer did it in his own unique way. Sexy Beast is a gonzo ride, and the London-born filmmaker blends his proper English pop sensibilities with a strong sense of place, maintaining an unflinching, open gaze on his characters, squirming under pressure. Sir Ben Kingsley earned a much-deserved Oscar nomination as the feral maniac criminal Don Logan, who upends the serene countryside retirement of his former colleague, Gal (Ray Winstone).

Glazer’s follow up, Birth, arrived on the scene in 2004, with what turned out to be an insurmountable plot point to contextualize, a “fatal hangup” if you will. It opened in twelfth place that October with $1.7 million; it ended its run with an anaemic $5 million domestic haul and $14 million total, against a $20 million budget. Then it was shoved off and forgotten as a weird, niche misfire. Just another sophomore slump, chalk it up to audience distaste. The plot, and the eventual direction of said plot, were a turn off for too many, plain and simple.

As for that plot: a ten-year old boy (Cameron Bright) shows up at the posh Central Park apartment of a widow, Anna, played by Nicole Kidman. It’s been, oddly enough, ten years since her husband, Sean, died suddenly while jogging one snowy afternoon – the tragedy is shown in the incredible opening credits sequence, a Prologue, set to Alexandre Desplat’s melodic, prickly score that sets the table for the cold mood to come. This is another version of the icy, threateningly elitist world of Rosemary’s Baby, and Kidman’s pixie crop only intensifies those shared vibes.

The boy tells Anna he is, in fact, Sean, her dead husband reincarnated. Anna – newly engaged to Joseph, another upper crust socialite played by Danny Huston – is understandably reluctant at first. She dismisses the boy, shrugs it all off, deflects questions from her controlling mother, played by Lauren Bacall, who was still absolutely on top of her game in 2004. Soon, however, curiosity gets the better of Anna. A relationship forms, and disaster begins to simmer.

Birth soon veers into situations that were met with a certain level of disgust upon release. There is a bathtub scene involving Anna and young Sean, a controversial moment that drew much of the ire of critics at the time. The thought of any relationship developing between Kidman’s character and a young boy drove audiences to look elsewhere. The trailer seemed willing to push the idea that Kidman is somehow falling in love with the boy. Words like “ick factor” and “exploitative” sprang up in reviews and drove the film’s chances into the ground before it had a chance to stand on its own merit.*

This is, and never was, the intention of Glazer’s film. From here on there will be spoilers, because this is my interpretation of what really happens. Sean is Anna’s husband reincarnated, but the reincarnated version of Sean is now only ten. This ten-year old Sean has only the purest memories of his truest love: Anna. He is just now pulling in these memories, as he reaches adolescence, which is why his memories are spotty and require visual aid. When adult Sean was still alive, however, he was having an affair with his sister-in-law, Clara, played by Anne Heche. The fact that Sean, once he felt this compulsion to revisit his old life, went to Anna instead of Clara, is proof enough to Clara that this isn’t real, that he’s not really Sean. It’s also enough to, eventually, change young Sean’s mind, and allow Anna to return to her life free of his insistences that they be together some day.

Sean visiting Anna instead of Clara is proof of only one thing: Sean loved Anna, and his feelings for Clara were fleeting, stupid feelings. They didn’t carry over, they don’t carve out a permanent pathway through someone’s soul the way true, real love can do. Those feelings aren’t pure enough for a boy of ten. That’s the message of Birth, the primal, deep-seeded nature of love, and when you’re able to surrender yourself to the film, to invest in these proper, manicured lives, and consider the way these elitists would handle such a bizarre occurrence, Glazer’s story will sink its teeth into you. My theory of the end result is ignoring so many wonderful touches – and wonderful performances – that occur between the prologue and the last shots of Anna, distraught in her wedding dress, crying in Joseph’s arms on the beach.

Heche is wonderful as the cold Clara; Bacall is sturdy and and young Cameron Bright, who remains stoic and detached, never emotionally invested the way the adults tend to be, is a captivating spectral presence. Bright’s performance gives this new Sean an alien quality, which serves as another buffer between reality and what unfolds. But it’s Danny Huston’s volatile turn as Joseph that brings the film to life in the second half. Huston had a brilliant run of work in the mid-2000s, from this to The Proposition, to Children of Men; here, he plays things cool, until he doesn’t play it cool anymore at just the right time with an absolutely electric meltdown. Huston nails the balancing act in a role that could have easily devolved into some ill-fitting, mustache-twirling villainy.

Birth is a complex story with layers to consider, not an exploitative thriller coasting by on one shocking moment. The bathtub scene is a chilly, eerily erotic moment, but it never exploits Cameron Bright, or his performance, and it’s framed and executed with enough taste and respect for the power of implication. Also – and this is key – it’s young Sean who arrives and gets into the tub with Anna. Had that been reversed, intention would be skewed, and that uncomfortable revulsion would be understandable. As it is, however, the scene is perfectly unsettling, a glimpse at how desire can overtake logical thought.

Kidman handles the scene with the same reserve she handles every moment in this brilliant performance, which requires her to shift from cold to curious in as few moves as possible. She doesn’t dare show emotion in this world, but eventually things become unshakable. There is a single-take zoom on Anna’s face at the symphony that lasts two minutes, and as she considers the things she’s recently discovered about young Sean, the camera pushes in, and Kidman gives us every emotion we need – and then some – with some remarkable face acting.

It took nine years for Glazer to release his next film, Under the Skin, which is widely considered a quiet masterpiece. Scarlett Johansson’s succubus alien is disturbing and cold, and the aesthetic DNA from Glazer’s previous films is present. It’s a more digestible film than Birth – the idea of an alien woman luring scummy men into a nebulous liquid trap is more appealing than Nicole Kidman sharing a bath with a ten-year old. But that dismissive summation ignores the depth and the taste of Birth, an underrated, simmering thriller, a masterpiece in its own weird, tricky way.


* Even old reviews  of Birth seem to have been scrubbed from the A.V. Club and Entertainment Weekly, as neither of those quotes from metacritic were linked to the original review.

25 Years of BAD BOYS, 25 Years of Michael Bay

It’s been an interesting quarter century of action cinema. Ever since the white heat of Jean Claude Van-Damme and Steven Seagal began to cool in the mid-90s, the genre has gone through a variety of phases. For a brief moment, the end of the millennium belonged to John Woo, who brought his balletic gunplay and white doves from Hong Kong with Hard Target, Broken Arrow, and Face/Off. In the wake of 9/11, action was no laughing matter, stone serious Bourne films and prestige, Oscar-winning war films. Then superheroes took over the market, until an indestructible merchant of death named John Wick grabbed his fair share.

Meanwhile, over in his own corner, unfettered and unchanging through it all, is Michael Bay. It’s been 25 years since the music-video workhorse took his talents to the big screen, with two pop culture sensations making their own respective leaps into the blockbuster stratosphere; things only got crazier from there. Bad Boys is tricky to analyze after all these years, after Michael Bay has reshaped much of the action landscape, and after a career full of insanely awful movies that still, somehow, manage to be so disciplined in vision and specific in style that they are exactly what they are supposed to be. There’s too much Michael Bay baggage to assess anything Bad Boys achieves or where it falls short, because what was once fresh and exciting and new is now old hat.

do have a distinct memory of seeing Bad Boys with my friend Corey at the United Artists 6 in town, having no prior knowledge of this music video director. I knew what that rushing desert road and the lighting strike announcing the presence of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer meant, but Bay was just some hired gun in 1995, no Tony Scott. I remember being absolutely head-over-heels in love with Bad Boys as a fifteen-year old, because I was right at the sweet spot of the demographic. Martin Lawrence was hilarious, Will Smith was a badass, and the jokes rained down between the bullets and car chases. There are still some great chases in Bad Boys, and some of the jokes don’t feel corny as hell (though many do). At the time Bay was still operating like a music video director, barely free of that scene, and I was a satisfied teenager when I left the theater that day, no doubt. Little did I know Michael Bay would be front and center through my adolescence, for better or worse.

His next film, The Rock, may still be his best movie. It’s big and bold and every major player in the cast – Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, Ed Harris – is on board with the absurdity, which sells everything. It plays like a James Cameron film, albeit one with a little more sleaze and swearing. The Alcatraz setting is fully realized, and it was an early indication that Michael Bay was going to have a signature style, one that… sort of mutated… more than it evolved over time. Two years after The Rock, he hit the jackpot with Bruce Willis and an ensemble of young stars in Armageddon – quite possibly the early, first peak of Michael Bay dumb insanity – to the tune of $554.6 million.

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That isn’t to say Armageddon isn’t fun, and surprisingly emotional… at least it was to yours truly as a teenager entering the world. Yeah, I may have had something in my eye during Bruce’s farewell to Liv Tyler, so what? Armageddon is a blast, and it’s loud and funny and it never stops moving long enough for anyone to consider what may actually be happening. In only three movies’ time, Michael Bay reached a level of obnoxious auteur audacity, forever impossible for any of his peers to emulate. He’d cornered the market on action cranked up to eleven, action overflowing with enough gags and stunts to mask the laundry list of flaws.

Bay took a shot at prestigious historical drama in May of 2001 with Pearl Harbor, a truly amazing piece of cinema Roger Ebert so perfectly labeled “a two-hour movie squeezed into three hours.” All Bay cared about was the attack sequence, a chaotic CGI smorgasbord of dogfights and explosions that fills nearly an hour of screen time. The bigger issue was the romantic triangle covering two more hours, a stodgy wannabe Titanic melodrama with a trio of ill-equipped actors (Kate Beckinsale? Ben Affleck?! JOSH HARTNETT!!!), of which I dare anyone to remember a single second.

Turns out, none of it mattered anyway, because the Japanese attack on our military was shown with such a bold, arrogant sensationalism, that it put butts in seats and earned $450 million worldwide. It was Memorial Day, of course this garish misrepresentation of American history would sell like gangbusters. Bay won in spite of making an indefensibly bad movie, but thankfully he was smart enough to realize historical epics weren’t going to be his bag (I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt here). His next film was Bad Boys II, the final stage in the evolution (or mutation?) of Bay as a trash action auteur with an endless budget and plenty of horrible taste to somehow transcend offensiveness and achieve untouchable autonomy.

Bad Boys II was a huge hit, of course, one I haven’t seen from start to finish since the theater. I understand there are fans out there, and while I do understand that this wild-ass sequel is a perfect distillation of everything Michael Bay represents, I simply do not have the time. It doesn’t offend me, there are just too may movies I haven’t seen to spend 150 minutes in that chaos. Taking offense to his work is a fool’s errand, and by never changing his stripes, Michael Bay’s brand has become bulletproof. It’s pretty racist, sure, it objectifies women and has a Klan rally and rats fucking, yeah yeah… nobody cares. Especially Michael Bay.

The sequel was a solid enough hit to justify its existence, but Bay was clearly ready to pivot, having poured everything but the kitchen sink into the bombast of BBII. He somehow quietly snuck The Island into theaters, a modest attempt to ratchet back and focus at least a little more on plot and storytelling. The Island was a decent enough thriller with an interesting cast, but it was an odd choice for Bay and a flop, and it has to be one of the most forgotten movies of the 21st century.

After his first financial stumble, an amazing feat when you consider the preceding candidates, Michael Bay launched the biggest, loudest, most obnoxious metal-crunching franchise in the history of cinema. The original Tranformers is a fun action movie with a dedicated Shia LaBeouf performance, and if there ever were a muse for Michael Bay it was early 2000s Megan Fox. The rest of the movies are impossible to discern from each other if you stumble upon one on TV and LaBeouf or Mark Wahlberg isn’t on the screen; even then, if you see Mark Wahlberg and his silly long hair, is there any way to tell if it’s the fourth or fifth movie? There isn’t.

Occasionally, in between increasingly frenetic and incomprehensible Transformers sequels, Michael Bay tried his hand at more “serious” action fare with Pain and Gain, a pitch-black comedy that has become shorthand for the “Bay being serious” defense. Pain and Gain is a fine enough movie, entertaining and some of the black comedy is an entirely different frequency than so much of Bay’s vapid tomfoolery, but nobody sits down to watch this again the same way they return to Bad Boys or Armageddon or even Transformers.

In 2016, the Year The Country Couldn’t Handle, Bay went serious again, deathly serious this time around, as he adapted the Benghazi book 13 Hours into a feature film starring newly-minted action star John Krasinski. It came and went, laughed off by smug media and only a minor blip on the radar in January of that year. It appeared that Michael Bay was receding from the top of the mountain, his brand of hyperactive juvenile action having run its course in the blockbuster space.

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Bay’s latest film, 6 Underground, found what appeared to be a sizable audience on Netflix last year, and it was a return to the early days of dumb jokes and assholes blowing things up. Ryan Reynolds is the perfect smarmy cypher for the director. This sort of action is where Bay is most comfortable, and most reliable. No matter how annoying his aesthetic has become, or how tiresome his movies grew as the years became decades, there is no denying he belongs in the same discussion as Scorsese, as Coppola, as De Palma, et. al., when it comes to auteur theory. Michael Bay’s films are so succinctly his, so unabashedly belonging to their author, that every wannabe Bay filmmaker is spotted and exposed almost immediately. Often imitated, never duplicated.

Throughout every step of the action movie evolution, Michael Bay has been around, doing his own thing, because he reached the final form of what Tony Scott and the Bruckheimer/Simpson steamroller started in the 80s. It’s easy to dunk on Bay because he’s a towering, world-renowned douchebag and he’s a little sexist and he’s a poisonous potion of smooth-brained American alchemy… but for any film fan in or around my age to claim they weren’t in a seat opening weekend for The Rock or Armageddon, lapping up every ounce of raunchy juvenile wit and absorbing the thump of every fireball shooting a car ten feet in the air, that’s revisionist history. Plain and simple.

People have tried to emulate what Michael Bay is doing for 25 years, but they’ve failed, washed up on the shore of imitators while the brash adventurer soldiers on, leaping from tough action auteur to prestige epic absurdity to robots in disguise, and never slowing down, never giving a damn what one single critic says about his movies. Currently, he’s tied to the long gestating Robopocalypse adaptation, but that’s bounced from one director to another, and who knows what will become of that. Who knows what will be next for any of us, but whatever comes out on the other side, I imagine Michael Bay will still be there, doing his thing, like it or not.

NIXON is Oliver Stone’s Greatest Film

For almost a decade, by 1995, Oliver Stone had firmly secured his share of the zeitgeist as the angst-ridden, conspiracy-fueled, brilliantly bilateral cinematic voice of American politics and culture. He won his Oscars in the spring of 1987 for his Vietnam melodrama Platoon, and he’d seen acclaim and financial success in equal measure with his 1991 hit, the conspiratorial kaleidoscope JFK. A few years later, Stone managed to win the box office with a true work of madness, the hyper-violent (and styled within an inch of its life) indictment of media sensationalism, Natural Born Killers. Stone was on a roll with critics, and had been somewhat reliable at the box office, so news of a film on the tumultuous life and presidency of Richard Nixon sounded like another homerun for a man who had been putting his own tensile spin on the timeline of our country.

It may have been too late. Nixon was released in 1995 and was an immediate dud. Reviews were mostly positive but uninspiring – Ebert praised it as “one of the year’s best” – but general audiences had moved on from Stone’s freewheeling historical narratives, especially in the aftermath of JFK, a film that’s entire existence is fueled by the endless reach of paranoia that had shaped the narrative of the Kennedy assassination for three decades. With Nixon, it appeared Stone was getting docked for speculation, but the speculation was part of the story with the Kennedy assassination, and perhaps even more a part of the story when it comes to Nixon.

Of all Stone’s films – some terrific, some trashy fun, some downright terrible – I keep coming back to Nixon, and am now convinced of its greatness. It’s the sweet spot for Stone, where his impulsive youthful urges are still prevalent, but tamped down slightly in order to focus on a proper character study. The story of Richard Nixon was the perfect material for a 48-year old Stone; too perfect, perhaps many decided. Stone spinning yarns about the rise and fall of a paranoid, crooked Republican president through the lens of a dozen different film stocks and manic cuts and spiraling conspiracies may have been too on the nose for audiences, so they passed, and Nixon stumbled across the finish line with a paltry $13.6 million domestic gross. International sales bumped the take to $34 million, which was still more than $10 million shy of its budget.

Time can not only improve some films, it can quickly erase the failures of their opening weekend and how much money they made. A film is only a flop for a short while, but if it’s good enough, it will transcend financial shortcomings and stand on its own as a piece of art. Nixon is the rare epic that is able to overcome a stigma of failure, because it’s Oliver Stone at his most balanced, and most considerate. His film follows Richard Milhous Nixon – played by Anthony Hopkins, who wisely sidesteps physical mimicry in his performance – as he rises and falls over his political career. His Quaker upbringing and the death of two brothers at the hands of tuberculosis is visited in flashback, and his defeat at the hand of handsome young John Kennedy in 1960 is an early focal point.

The meat of the picture – Nixon’s presidency, his mishandling of Vietnam, and the Watergate scandal –  is the most compelling stretch of filmmaking in Stone’s career. It begins hopeful and energetic, but along the way as the bombs fall and the evidence against an increasingly manic Nixon mounts, that positive energy seamlessly transitions to an ominous, threatening collapse of one man’s idea of America, and of the America he could have shaped. The shadows grow tall and the walls narrow on Nixon. This second act evolution moves like a montage into the third, but it stays focused and engaging, thanks to the richness of Robert Richardson’s cinematography, and to the rousing score from John Williams, a symphony of hope buried beneath inescapable sadness.

On all sides of Anthony Hopkins are marvelous supporting performances, but that almost goes without saying when it comes to Oliver Stone and his brand of epic. James Woods is great as Nixon sycophant and political strategist, Bob Haldeman. Paul Sorvino is saddled with the toughest role as Henry Kissinger, whose mumbling delivery has been parodied into infinity, but Sorvino steers through as best as anyone could. Ed Harris, E.G. Marshall, David Paymer, David Hyde Pierce, and J.T. Walsh fill in the margins, and Mary Steenburgen lingers over the entire picture as a spectral Hannah Nixon, Richard’s domineering and deeply religious mother. Bob Hoskins has a handful of scenes as J. Edgar Hoover, and he’s never not unsettling.

Joan Allen plays Pat Nixon as an enigma who was never on board with her husband’s political career, though she always managed to come around because she loved her husband. Their relationship is the b-plot of Nixon, a strange romance that evolves and devolves over the years. Stone’s film is as emotionally complex and unsettled as its subject, and Anthony Hopkins knows how to pull us in without veering into parody. Hopkins isn’t wearing a prosthetic nose or some elaborate makeup to look exactly like Nixon. Instead, he’s representing Nixon’s energy, always nervous and always moving, like a shark, and he nails the voice. There are a number of great moments for Hopkins scattered throughout, where Stone shines a light on Nixon’s jealousy of Kennedy, his rich historical knowledge of the office of the president, his anger at the press and his disdain for the youth in revolt, but the scene where he chats up Vietnam protestors outside of the Lincoln Memorial tips the scales. It’s a brilliant moment, and it informs the rest of the film in both directions. Set in tight and medium shots, with bright white lights washing out the edges of the frame and painting the entire monument in a mournful silver/gray, Stone and Richardson capture the surreal nature of this night. There are different variations on this tale, and it’s certainly been sensationalized over the years. Such is the case with the history of Richard Nixon, and history in general, which makes many of the 1995 criticisms of Nixon more irrelevant now than ever.

Consistent criticisms of Oliver Stone have always revolved around his “irresponsibility with the truth,” or something along those lines. JFK was derided by some for spilling all these conspiracy plots out into the screen while masquerading as a pseudo-biopic on Jim Garrison and his infamous trial. But JFK was always about the conspiracy theories, not about what really did or didn’t happen. It’s a film whose only fuel is conspiracy, which is why Nixon, while it plays fast-and-loose with documented history, has the advantage over JFK. The conspiratorial narratives pile on top of each other in JFK until the story underneath becomes impenetrable. It’s easy to lose sight of Kevin Costner by the end. In Nixon, however, Stone has the advantage of one central character who is practically in every scene, and who keeps the center from spinning out of control. Hopkins is never off camera, or so it seems, and the decision to allow Hopkins’ acting abilities convey character in lieu of makeup effects eliminates any and all opportunity for distraction or mockery.

As much as I love the melodrama of Platoon and the time-capsule style of Wall Street, as much as Talk Radio and JFK stir the senses, as captivating as Natural Born Killers is, I never revisit any of Oliver Stone’s films as much as I do Nixon. There is something cathartic about its lengthy runtime where everything, fact or fiction, is laid out on the table. At the time of its release, another knock on the film was the fact that an outspoken liberal with conspiratorial inclinations would certainly tell only one side of the story; however, much like he did to a less-successful degree with W. in 2008, Stone took one of his longstanding targets of criticism and muted his anger to allow room for sympathy. Nixon has a level of humanity in Stone’s film that the real man never had in the news clips I saw growing up or in the historical texts, a humanity which makes his flaws hit harder, and cut deeper. Had Nixon been played as a sweaty, smiling, out-of-control madman, the film would buckle under that weight.

Stone’s desire to put everything he can into a fully-formed biopic makes it forever re-watchable, and as the Williams score swells and subsides, I find myself pulled into the vortex of a complicated man in complicated times. There are certainly parallels to the modern political landscape, and mileage may vary depending on what you think of the president or the media, but there’s little value in applying a dramatic retelling of another era of American history through the lens of 2020. Everyone gets it, we don’t have to tie it all together. Don’t we do that enough already?

STRAIGHT TIME, the Perfect Double Feature for UNCUT GEMS

New movies can be invigorating because they’re original, or because they’re a welcome change to the status quo, or they spring from the imagination of a thrilling new filmmaker; but even with originality, there will always be the perfect double feature pairing somewhere in cinema’s past. Every movie shares an unshakable bond with another movie, or movies, from another time. Part of the beauty of film is recognizing the references and spotting thematic and visual overlap, even in the most inventive new works. Linking DNA as it spans decades is an important historical exercise, and one of the best ways to examine the connective tissue of film history is to screen two movies – maybe even three, maybe four, maybe a dozen for a marathon – back to back, to appreciate the influence the past has on the present. Often times, seeing two films together enriches the experience of both.

There are plenty of films that might pair well with Uncut Gems, the Safdie Brothers 2019 high-wire follow up to Good Time starring Adam Sandler in a career best performance. Sandler’s Howard “Howie” Ratner is a jeweler addicted to the chase in all its many forms, robbing Peter to pay Paul until all the apostles are on his tail. He’s hooked on gambling, whether it’s with his money or his life, and he has a tough time getting out of his own way. His wife doesn’t trust him, his kids hate him, his peers are frustrated with his excuses, and his new pal Kevin Garnett doesn’t exactly respect his wishes. And yet, all Howie wants in the world, all he needs, is for this one last winning bet to pay off, so he can square his debts and hit the road and be set free of this hamster wheel on which he’s trapped.

None of the potential Uncut Gems double feature ideas share the same burning desire for deliverance, or revel in the same theater of desperation, as Ulu Grosbard’s hardnosed reform story gone awry, 1978’s Straight Time. In Grosbard’s story, adapted from Edward Bunker’s novel of the same name, our hapless Sisyphus is Dustin Hoffman’s Max Dembo, an ex-con who can’t catch a break no matter how hard he tries. Fresh out of prison for burglary, Max is in The System now, the institutionalization showing in his thousand-yard stare, but prison hasn’t killed him yet. He still wants a normal life, and he’s determined to find a way.

Max is trying his best to slide through on the straight-and-narrow with a job and an apartment, all the while obstacles pop up in front of him like the springboard bad guys on a shooting range. No matter how earnestly he pleads or how hard he tries, he’s always running uphill, always fighting to avoid incarceration. His parole officer (M. Emmet Walsh) doesn’t believe in him, his friend (Gary Busey, at his most southern) is a fuckup who only gets him in trouble, his partner (Harry Dean Stanton) is a complete wild card, and all the straight gigs in the world can’t keep Max’s eyes off the quick score. Eventually, out of desperation, and after some impulsive decisions, he falls back into his old ways.

Max and Howie share the common bond of men who have let their world get away from them, who walk the razor’s edge between life and death – or at least a hefty prison sentence – from sunup to well beyond sundown. It’s not a stretch to imagine Hoffman’s hangdog loser and Sandler’s two-bit hustler cooking up a scheme together in some parallel universe. Straight Time and Uncut Gems are kindred cinematic spirits, no doubt, both portraits of men unraveling and pressure mounting, but where they truly connect is where the women come into play.

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Both films have a touching romance beneath their escalating, chaotic narratives. In Straight Time it is Theresa Russell’s Jenny, the employment office clerk, who sees the good in Max; she also sees some of the bad, which is probably why she’s drawn to him in the first place. When Max backslides into his life of crime, Jenny doesn’t flinch, not at first. She sticks with him, excited by the prospect of adventure and pulled into this sad man’s world, a naïve young girl without life experience, imagining herself as Bonnie Parker. Jenny is helplessly charmed by this hapless underdog, and that sort of carefree romanticism permeates both stories.

The biggest surprise in Uncut Gems is not Adam Sandler, but Julia Fox as Howie’s doting mistress, Julia. She works with him, she sees him struggling, but she loves and supports him at every step, a bright young beacon of hope exhilarated by her man’s unstable lifestyle. Fox is the beating heart of the film, a vibrant and crucial detail to Howie’s plight, as is Jenny for Max. These are smart, beautiful women entranced by men on the edge, fighting to stay afloat. The fact that both of these anxiety-ridden crime dramas take the time to develop such similar romances – albeit ones with different endings – is enough to forever link them.

The Safdie Brothers only mentioned Straight Time once, in passing, during their round of interviews for Uncut Gems, but it’s undeniably a neon, late-night cousin to Ulu Grosbard’s daylight desolation. It’s the flipside of the coin. That’s why it fits so perfectly as a double feature. Play Straight Time first, in the evening slot, then roll the reels on Gems right after, as the clock flirts with midnight, and the similarities will shine. Not only that, but the differences between the two movies will compliment each other in all the right ways, namely in the aesthetics and energy of direction. As Max’s world spirals out of control, the city expands and abandons him; when the proverbial shit hits the fan for Howie, the sidewalks narrow and the oppressive walls of Gotham close in. Almost all of Straight Time takes place in the bright SoCal sunshine, while Uncut Gems revels in the night.

One film is also decidedly more cynical than the other, but even that analysis involves the subjective experience, and could change from person to person. In both films, the essence of their respective final scenes and our protagonist’s outcomes can be taken in one of two ways, as a net gain or a net loss. We root for Howard and Max, and dismay at so many of their choices, but we likely absolve both of them with varying degrees of empathy. The glass if half full, or it’s half empty, and seeing Straight Time and Uncut Gems in a double feature may even have the power to change the way you feel about Max Dembo, or Howard Ratner, while you watch them ice skate uphill.