The top of the box office draws for 2006 would tell you that it was the year of the sequel (four of the top six earners, including top dog Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead’s Man Chest, which ran away from the rest of the field, were sequels of some variety), but do a little inspecting of your own and you’ll find that though it required a little more digging than usual, there was indeed good film to be had.
In no particular order…
Thank You For Smoking
Good cinematic satire has turned into an endangered species, but the debut effort from Jason Reitman (son of Ivan Reitman, of Ghostbusters and Stripes fame) does quite a bit more than just keep it on life support. Aaron Eckhart plays Nick Naylor, a grinning, wisecracking hired gun for Big Tobacco, a resilient SOB who not only stumps for the cigarette industry, but does it with whip-smart cunning and a remorseless smile. Buoyed sympathetically in his profession by his other “Merchants of Death,” or “MoD” Squad, (David Koechner and Maria Bello, keeping her clothes on here), Naylor balances life as a single father (a single father in the movies?! Get out…) as well as the moral quandary that comes with essentially advocating a person’s right to kill themselves slowly. It’s bleak and funny, but swings much wider towards the funny, thanks to Eckhart and entertaining guest shots by Rob Lowe, Sam Elliott, William H. Macy as the legislation-happy Senator, and the always-fantastic J.K. Simmons playing a close variant of his J. Jonah Jameson character from the Spider-Man movies.
Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center may have been the more populist of the year’s two 9/11 pictures, but Paul Greengrass’s United 93 is the one more likely to last as a direct and downright frightening historical document of the worst terror attack ever on the American mainland. Shooting almost entirely on the plane itself, and appropriately using a cast of unknowns, including a remarkable performance by actual FAA director Ben Sliney (who was actually at his first day on the job on 9/11/01), the film doesn’t flinch for an instant. Greengrass (who also directed The Bourne Supremacy as well as Bloody Sunday, a harrowing dramatization of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre) ramps up the intensity almost from the opening frame, and while it never lets up, it never feels artificial or sentimental in any way. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film more genuinely tense in which I already knew the ending. Everything here is as it should be. If it leaves you all the more jolted for it, then it has served its purpose.
A Prairie Home Companion
In the year’s most fitting nadir, what turned out to be Robert Altman’s final film had all the signposts of his classic work, and dropped in a beautifully-executed subtext about the prospects of facing death. Altman’s trademark long takes and overlapping dialogue fits the controlled chaos of Garrison Keillor’s live radio program flawlessly, the perfect partner to Keillor’s penchant for low-key Midwestern charm and understated wit. Kevin Kline steals the show as a tweaked version of Keillor’s fictional private detective Guy Noir, filling the role of the radio show’s offstage security manager and the film’s narrator. I’d imagine that Oscar will forget about Kevin once that time comes around, but he manages both the surface slapstick and deeper nuance with equal aplomb. The ensemble cast, with names galore, is clearly having too much fun here, and it’s only right that things wind up as warm and reassuring as they are. Even as it is still a movie about sadness and death.
The Lake House
The Lake House is not a perfect movie. In fact, it’s far from it. Some will be so bothered by the lack of explanation regarding the main plot mechanism that they won’t be able to partake in everything else without a grain of salt. Some others might be utterly consumed with the fact that Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock are back on screen together. What it loses in exposition and other peripheral distractions, however, it more than makes up for in charm, a grounded spirit and some tremendously gorgeous visuals. It’s also not often that you find a realistically-framed theme of urban alienation and detachment tacked onto a revivalist romance with an old-school spirit, but The Lake House pulls it off nicely. It’s engrossing, attractive, and oddly convincing, even if it gets there in a very circuitous manner. It’s all proof that artistic achievement and imperfection need not be mutually exclusive.
After casting her as the femme fatale in his big “comeback” picture, Match Point, Woody Allen stumbled upon his most effective muse in decades. Scarlett Johansson, takes what would at first glance appear to be standard later-era Allen fare and elevates it to a film that’s about fourteen times funnier than it has any right to be. Woody himself even seems to be taking a cue from his unlikely protégé, as she one-ups the master of neuroses with a performance that stays safely stowed away on this side of parody. She may be slightly, say, “unbelievable” to some, cast as a bumbling, nerdish foil, but there are those of us who are willing to overlook such a taken liberty and use the same adjective in another context. With an able-bodied apprentice at his side, Woody’s set-’em-up-and-knock-’em-down punchlines are also much more focused and sharp. The result? Something that is closer to classic Woody than we’ve seen in quite a while.
Allen Coulter’s biopic of sorts, about original TV Superman George Reeves (Ben Affleck) and his fall from grace, brings the goods in terms of setting and mood, but it’s what you don’t expect that sets it apart. Most refreshingly, it resists the trappings of the conventional murder mystery by keeping the emphasis squarely on the players, and using an unconventional and uncanny sense of order to spin the story around once it approaches standardist territory. Adrien Brody, after the inevitable post-Oscar lull, gets in a punchy turn as Louis Simo, a fictional private investigator whose moxie and determination clashes with a clear lack of initial instinct. He almost steals the film entirely out from under the likes of Bob Hoskins and Diane Lane, which is no small feat in itself. Don’t go expecting any answers, because you won’t get them. You will, however, find yourself hard-pressed to not get wrapped up in such a compelling group of characters.
Little Miss Sunshine
The year’s most genuinely likable film by a rather wide margin, Little Miss Sunshine was a refreshing breath of humanity in the midst of a year that found filmmakers running away in droves from pictures that weren’t meant to be mere distractions from our horrendously oppressive society. Boasting a weary, melancholic worldview and group of actors who have a wonderful chemistry together (the unlikeliest being Steve Carell in full-on depressive mope mode, and thoroughly convincing at it), Little Miss Sunshine coagulates into the ideal screwball road movie, a pitch-perfect portrayal of a family of deeply-flawed people fighting like hell against themselves and their circumstances just to give one of them a chance at success. Think of it as “The Pursuit of Happyness” for the ever-so-slightly-cynical crowd, a crowd who would never in good conscience bring themselves to go see that movie in the company of other folks who might actually see them.
Stranger Than Fiction
After a handful of halfhearted attempts to play Will Ferrell against his traditional school of generic frat-boy comedy, Stranger Than Fiction is the first film to catch that understated, off-kilter charm in a bottle. He plays it straight as Harold Crick, a mildly (that is to say, completely) reserved auditor for the IRS, who wakes up one day to find his life being narrated by author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson). Call it Kaufman-lite if you want, but it is nonetheless observant and keen to the foibles of everyday modern life, as well as the plight of the struggling artist. It’s a decidedly grown-up comedy-drama in the best sense of both terms, mincing neither themes nor comedic opportunity, keeping the story fully in focus while dolloping out the quirk in fair enough measure. Ferrell’s normal audience will be left baffled (think Adam Sandler with Punch Drunk Love), but anyone who is willing to warm up to a Ferrell movie that features the likes of Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman will enjoy it to the hilt. [Read our review]
It’s hard to say exactly when the Bond movies became irrelevant, but it’s not a stretch to say that the franchise needed a facelift after Pierce Brosnan winked his way through four of them in seven years. After hemming and hawing that seemed far too self-involved for a series seemingly on its deathbed, Daniel Craig was chosen as the new Bond, and boy, did they get it right. Craig (above), along with the best new Bond girl in a couple of eons, Eva Green (oy glaven!), and even a smashing variation on the theme by Chris Cornell represent a return to a more natural, effervescent, even gritty sensibility that had been lacking at least since Sean Connery left the first time. It revels in Bond’s arch Britishness, rather than pointlessly softening it for American audiences. The action setpieces are exquisite, and the icy, understated exchanges (they’re more staredowns, actually) between Bond and Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) have a lingering Cold War-ish flavor to them. It’s all more than enough to make one forget the first, “unofficial” version of Casino Royale from 1967 with David Niven and Peter Sellers. Wait, they already did.
Speaking of arch Britishness, hiding inside what would otherwise be a starch-ridden, straight-faced docudrama of British government circa Princess Diana’s death lies a surprisingly funny and compelling portrayal of pride and history clashing with charisma and progress. You’ve heard enough about Helen Mirren’s performance to know that she was more or less born to play Queen Elizabeth, and everyone is right, but she gets inspired help from Michael Sheen as an earnest, newly-elected Tony Blair. Watching the political dynamic between the Queen’s staid, conservative Monarchy and Blair’s aggressively modernist administration is nothing short of fascinating, as is the surprising evolution of attitudes between the two. Forgive yourself the initial trepidation of seeing something that on the surface appears to be dry and humorless, because in the end it very convincingly proves itself to be very much the opposite on both counts.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Fight Club, and the Quest For Authenticity
An exploration of the struggles in constructing an authentic self
As with any of Quentin Tarantino’s films, his ninth is a fountain of hot-takes. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has something for everybody with an opinion about just about anything. The film has touched off conversations about #MeToo, nostalgia, Christianity, and foot fetishism. In short, I fully understand that the last thing anybody needs is yet another angle on this movie.
Nonetheless, I would like to propose that Tarantino’s latest is not only the sweetest, most optimistic film of his career, it’s also a rather profound exploration of the struggles in constructing an authentic self. By looking at this film’s use of doubling, and by contrasting it with how doubling functions in David Fincher’s Fight Club, I want to argue that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood offers unexpected wisdom about the possibility of finding authenticity in a world of artifice, even as it creates an artificial past.
The film is utterly unique in Tarantino’s catalog, lacking (until the ending) the gruesome violence that characterizes so many of his films. The specter of that violence still hangs over this film and adds a lot of juicy tension to scenes like Cliff’s visit to Spahn Ranch. One has come to expect carnage in scenes like this in the past, and Tarantino masterfully uses that expectation to create a scene that is a masterclass in suspense.
Once Upon a Time‘s directorial craftsmanship is joined by absolutely stellar performances across the board. Leonardo DiCaprio’s lead performance as Rick Dalton is a complex web of rage, vulnerability, and desperation and should earn the actor an Oscar nomination if there is any justice. Likewise, Margot Robbie is simply dazzling as Sharon Tate and, like the film itself, she makes the viewer long for a world in which Tate survived Charles Manson’s impotent rage.
It is Brad Pitt as Rick’s stunt-double, Cliff Booth, that I want to focus this analysis on, however. Pitt’s performance pairs nicely with DiCaprio’s and his characterization of Cliff is a kind of negative to DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton. For all Dalton’s frantic, nervous desperation, Pitt’s Cliff is a rock of bemused stoicism, and the two performances feed seamlessly off one another. So seamlessly that they function as two parts of a single whole, which is of primary concern to the film, I argue.
The doubling of Cliff and Rick offers substantial food for thought about the nature of identity in this film, and I want to suggest that Once Upon a Time says something important about personal redemption. Some viewers have dismissed Tarantino’s latest as mere wish-fulfillment, but others, such as David Bentley Hart, see a sincere moral imagination in the film’s re-imagination of the Manson tragedy, and its attempt at crafting an alternative narrative that redeems the broken past through art. Hart’s reading of the film seems right to me and I think that central to the film’s power is Rick Dalton’s process of reconciliation with himself. He struggles with being two people at once, the biological Rick Dalton, and the Hollywood creation “Rick Dalton.”
DiCaprio’s Dalton is an amalgam of an old-Hollywood system actor. He is part Clint Eastwood, part James Arness, and part John Wayne. He is meant to be taken as an archetype of an actor who is a product of a star-driven system. Whatever role Dalton was playing, he was, for his audience, “Rick Dalton,” and his strength was in delivering on the expectations that system created. The problem with that for Dalton is that he became a fictional version of himself in the process. His individual identity, as an artist and as a man, was lost, replaced with the product “Rick Dalton” that was crafted and sold by the entertainment industry. And as Hollywood began transitioning away from the system in which this was successful, Dalton experienced a profound identity crisis.
The forging of that artificial identity required the pairing of Rick with Cliff, his confidant, and stunt double. “Rick Dalton” could not very well be an action hero if he could not fall off a horse. However, to do so would eventually bear a heavy toll upon Rick Dalton. Cliff, the rugged stunt man, could bear the physical burdens that made the on-screen persona possible.
The resulting partnership was a two-sided coin for Dalton. Sure it made the creation of “Rick Dalton” possible, but it stunted the human development of Rick Dalton, and in the midst of epochal changes in the industry threatened his very existence. Cliff made Rick look powerful on-screen, but off-screen, Dalton’s life became similarly dependent upon Cliff, who could not fix his own TV antenna or even drive his own car. To create the heroic, powerful “Rick Dalton,” Rick Dalton became nothing but a spider-web of powerlessness and anxiety.
“Rick Dalton’s” power resided fully in Cliff’s preternaturally capable hands. He may or may not have killed his wife, but he is a master stuntman nonetheless, an expert driver, a skilled handyman, and he even beat Bruce Lee in a fight. This is all before his near single-handed massacre of the Manson family at the film’s climax. In short, the power he brings to the creation of “Rick Dalton” is dangerous, with a mystical violence lying just below the grinning, calm surface he presents. He is the id to Dalton’s superego and together, they form a precarious ego.
Here a comparison to Fight Club is in order.
David Fincher’s 1999 adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel also dealt with a character split into two halves. The crafted persona of “The Narrator” (Edward Norton) comes to depend on the unbridled violence of his other half, Tyler Durden (performed by, coincidently or not, our own Brad Pitt). Durden is the id to The Narrator’s out-of-control superego, and he frees the depressed white-collar worker from the constraints put on him by consumer society, supposedly connecting him back to his state as a “natural man.”
Like Rick Dalton, The Narrator lives a life curated for success in the machinery of his industry. The demands of this effort eventually replaces any authenticity his life might contain with a manicured performance. His is a kind of simulacrum rather than a man.
Here is precisely where Once Upon a Time in Hollywood diverges from Fight Club, however, and the change helps make Tarantino’s film far more optimistic than Fincher’s.
For Fight Club’s Narrator, Pitt’s Tyler Durden is a hammer used to destroy the carefully curated image. Trapped in a consumer nightmare existence, Norton’s character invents a psychic projection of himself that frees him from the shackles of his inauthentic lifestyle. What many viewers of the film miss, however, is that, despite the apparent ethical move toward authenticity, what this actually results in is a kind of fascist movement (today we might call the Fight Club an Alt-Right group) based on a mythology of the past. In short, The Narrator and Durden replace one form of inauthenticity with another.
Once Upon a Time inverts the relationship between Pitt and his double. Here, the free and violent Cliff is not the solution to Rick’s problem of inauthenticity, he helps facilitate it in the first place. (One other major difference is, of course, that here Pitt’s character literally exists and is not a psychic manifestation of The Narrator’s subconscious). When, at the film’s end, Rick and Cliff amicably part, both are given the new opportunity to exist without dependency upon the other in this optimistic fantasy world in which Old Hollywood and New Hollywood come together without the violent fracture of the Manson murders.
The difference is significant. Because Cliff is not leading Rick from one artificial life to another, Rick is free from his codependency upon his stunt man and free to create a whole version of himself.
And as it turns out, Rick is a good actor. In the film’s third act, while separated from Cliff, he blossoms in his craft. Hired by a director who breaks with practices of the system that created “Rick Dalton,” Rick is forced to act, not merely perform “Rick Dalton.” DiCaprio’s performance in these scenes are the moral centerpiece of the film and we see a transformation in Dalton. Freed of the constructed identity that created “Rick Dalton,” including his id, Cliff, he sheds the confines of the old system and metamorphoses into an actor that may one day star in Roman Polanski films of an imagined New Hollywood.
Film Review: Hobbs & Shaw
If you’ve already got the volume at 11, you might as well blast it to oblivion
It is hard to believe that 2001’s The Fast & The Furious was just a film about the underground culture of street racing. Fast forward nearly 20 years later and the films have gotten so ridiculous that the only logical next step for the film series is to blast it into space. Our endless appetite for the series has seen us grown accustomed to cars taking planes out of the sky (Fast 6), cars jumping from one building to another (Fast 7), and cars being remotely controlled to act like a pack of mechanical wild dogs (Fast 8). Ridiculous is not a barrier the film series will ever brake for and so it brings us to this, the biggest spin-off the series has seen, Hobbs & Shaw.
When the chemistry between The Rock and Jason Statham proved magic in Fast 8, it only took The Rock butting heads with Vin Diesel to see that logically, the series needed a freshness to it. Who better than Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham? Well, as Hobbs & Shaw proves, if you’ve already got the volume at 11, you might as well blast it to oblivion as the film cares not for subtlety, pouring gasoline on the fire. The film sees the addition of Idris Elba as supervillain Brixton Lore and the effervescent Vanessa Kirby as Hattie Shaw, the sister of Statham’s character. Both characters fit in superbly well to the colorful, over-the-top personas of the series, but with one difference; they haven’t worn thin yet and are extremely likable. The film benefits greatly from the absence of Vin Diesel’s dopey head and the majority of the dopey Fast “family”, instead taking the Fast and Furious formula and giving it a spit shine, turning it sideways, and sticking it right up… well, you know the drill.
Hobbs (Johnson) and Shaw (Statham) play the unlikeliest (but most charismatic) buddy cop twosome since the days of Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte. Unexpectedly, this film is really quite hilarious- with the two swapping one-liners and jibes that keeps the film light and funny. The two are tasked with stopping global genocide at the hands of the megalomaniacal terrorist organization known as Etheon. The “face” of Etheon is superhuman Brixton Lore (Elba), an agent left for dead and turned into a weaponized cyborg-esque villain using genetic engineering. He’s the “black Superman” as he says, and he’s got an array of tech and gadgets (including a transforming, autonomous motorbike that would have found itself at home in a Transformers movie) that are part of Etheon’s plan to rid the world of the “weak”.
Etheon are after a deadly virus that is in possession of Hattie Shaw and what ensues is the expected cinematic equivalent of flexing your muscles and undoing the top few buttons of your blouse soundtracked to explosions, fast machines, and zippy dialogue. Director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2) keeps things by the book, and visually it’s all very on brand with the film series. But it is the chemistry and likability of the stars- namely Kirby, Statham, and Johnson- that keeps Hobbs & Shaw light on its feet, big with its set pieces, and never a chore. Kirby, in particular, has shown that her action chops are as deadly as her acting chops (is it too late to make her Black Widow? Or maybe just put her in all the action films). She never spends the film waiting to be rescued and is often the one quelling the childish, but hilarious quarrelling between Statham and Johnson.
The film trades the tired Fast family for real blood family, and while we still get the whole “family” and “heart” spiel that Vin Diesel loves to harp on about in these films, there is definitely a welcome change to the last few films. In fact, the Fast films haven’t been this fun in a long time. Unlike the last few, Hobbs & Shaw knows that the stakes of the film are global, but never does it take that too seriously and we the audience never feel too burdened by the ridiculousness of it all. There are some great cameos (two unexpected stars pop up that add the right comedic touches, plus Helen Mirren is always brilliant) and while the changing of scenery to Samoa is reminiscent of the previous Fast family vacations to South America et al, there’s something spiritual about this trip.
In the end, you don’t even have to turn your brain off because the film is soaked in charm and lightness that makes for a fun, smart enough romp that keeps its two-plus hour run time feeling like quite a breeze. Hobbs & Shaw is what this film series desperately needed. And while we can’t say the appeal will still be there when we’re inevitably sitting through Hobbs & Shaw 2, 3, 4, 5… we can say that for now, we’ll live this life one spin-off at a time.
HOBBS & SHAW
Directed by: David Leitch
Written by: Chris Morgan, Drew Pearce
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Vanessa Kirby, Idris Elba, Helen Mirren
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Run time: 135 minutes