Saturday, November 22, 2014
I had the great privilege for a short time in my life to be part of a musical ensemble that was led by a director who refused to settle for mediocrity. I don’t have any memories of him praising our work or telling us we performed well. Maybe he did sometimes, but that’s not what stands out. What remains in my mind about those four years was his sense of striving, his brow-beating us to work harder and achieve more, his sarcasm when we underperformed out of laziness or weariness. Some might think of him as somewhat abusive. There was no shortage of tears during the year and he was at times prone to inappropriately berating his students. And we were just kids, after all. But what we achieved musically, spiritually, and socially is something that has gone unmatched in my adult life. A lot of students came out of that experience encouraged to go on to music school. Some of them are professional musicians. They all have him to thank in at least some small part for it.
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
My history with A Simple Plan is very special. In 1998 I had seen lots of excellent movies that I really admired, but had yet to find a perfect 10. On New Year’s Eve I saw three movies. One of them was Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan, a movie I didn’t have any significant expectations for outside of being interested in Billy Bob Thornton and the premise of the film: three ordinary men find a bag full of money. What should they do with it? It was probably about halfway to two thirds of the way through when I had a realization that the film was on its way to my standard of perfection if only it could avoid any third act missteps. And then it made it. It arrived to the end and Scott B. Smith, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel, had made all the right choices and I stood in awe of this minor little film that was simply astounding.
It had been a very long time since I’d last seen Disney’s Aladdin. I was inspired to take another look at it because of the tragically too soon death of Robin Williams a few months ago. I’m not sure there’s any other Disney animated film that leans so heavily on the voice talent of one particular actor the way Aladdin does. That’s not to say it has nothing else going for it, but Williams’ voice work as the genie is so memorable, it’s hard not to think of the film as a Robin Williams vehicle rather than one in long and proud tradition of animated feature films.
Tuesday, November 18, 2014
I always admired Jake Gyllenhaal’s talent as an actor. His performance in Prisoners demonstrated a real step up in his game, after which I realized he had even more to offer. But now he stars as Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler, which features a Gyllenhaal performance that blew me away like I didn’t think possible. That’s pretty impressive considering his body of work.
We first see Bloom at night, concealed in darkness. He’s clipping the metal chain link of a fence. A security guard stops him. He maintains a friendly, though slightly awkward interaction with the guard. We think he might be able to talk his way out of the situation when suddenly he attacks. Next he’s driving along, the back of his truck loaded with scrap metal, including the chain link, and his wrist bearing the watch that he spied on the guard. The minor violence of the scene leaves such an impression because this young man comes across as so unassuming and physically harmless.
Friday, November 14, 2014
As an obvious companion piece to Wag the Dog, which I revisited recently, I decided to take another look at Primary Colors, the 1998 film based on a novel that was an embellished and somewhat fictionalized version of Bill Clinton’s first primary campaign for the presidency. Wag the Dog was a year earlier, but both strike at the heart of late 90s political climate, albeit in very different ways. The first film has, in man way, improved with age, while Primary Colors has become a bit more dated. Wag the Dog remains more relevant today than does Primary Colors. That’s not the fault of director Mike Nichols or Elaine May, who adapted the screenplay (and scored an Oscar nomination, I should point out), but it is a fact that can’t be avoided in any updated conversation about the movie.
Sunday, November 9, 2014
I can’t say with any certainty what it was like to live through the summer of 1977 in New York City because I wasn’t born yet, but Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam tries to capture it, or at least some stylized and possibly fantasy version of it. It was one of the hottest summers ever in the city with temperatures soaring above 100 degrees, leading to brown-outs and an eventual blackout. There was a serial killer on the prowl, gunning people down as they sat in their cars at night. Lee’s movie makes it seem like all the killings happened during those few months, but in reality they started a year earlier and were well spread out chronologically with only a couple of the shootings occurring that summer, although Lee includes recreations of nearly all of them scattered throughout the film.
Saturday, November 8, 2014
The extent to which I thoroughly enjoy and absolutely love Miller’s Crossing can hardly be put into words. It is by far my favorite Coen brothers film even if I don’t think it their greatest achievement. But I get a thrill every time I watch it, and that’s about ten or a dozen times over a period of nearly twenty years. I think Miller’s Crossing arrived on my radar at a particularly impressionable time in my development as a cinephile. It was pre-Fargo and so prior to the Coens being almost household names. I was also just very recently enamored with Quentin Tarantino, although had yet to discover Sam Raimi. I don’t even think I knew about the Coens as filmmakers yet. Raising Arizona had played on TV and I’d seen it, but I had no idea who was responsible. There was no IMDb in my world yet.