Director in Focus: John Sayles – Silver City



Silver City (2004, dir. John Sayles)
Starring Chris Cooper, Richard Dreyfus, Danny Huston, Mary Kay Place, Tim Roth, Thora Birch, Maria Bello, Miguel Ferrer, Billy Zane, Michael Murphy, Kris Kristofferson, Daryl Hannah

John Sayles is not shy about his politics, and this film is definitely the work of a bleeding heart liberal. I myself am a fellow bleeding heart so I sympathize with the sentiments of the picture. However, it is a piece of cinema made out of anger and frustration and, while those elements have helped make great art, they cause Silver City to feel overly bitter and despondent, and way too didactic.

The movie opens on the filming a campaign commercial for gubernatorial hopeful Dickie Pilager (Cooper), the dim-witted son of a former governor of Colorado now believing he can win the seat. Sound familiar? Cooper’s performance, obviously modeled on President George W. Bush was very well done and, as much as I like Josh Brolin, made me wish we could have seen Cooper in Oliver Stone’s W.  During the filming of this commercial, as Pilager casts a rod into the crystalline lake in the frame, he pulls up a hand belonging to a body left in the water. Immediately, Pilager’s campaign manager (Dreyfus) thinks someone is setting Pilager up and hires a detective agency to investigate. The investigator is Danny O’Brien (Huston), a former news reporter who is less than enthusiastic at first. As he journeys deeper he becomes obsessed with Pilager’s connection to a multi-corporate mogul Wes Benteen (Kristoffersen).

On paper, this sounds like a great concept. But it fails, and it fails badly. Huston is completely unnatural in the leading role, proving to me he needs to keep to the supporting ones. I can’t figure out if it was the dialogue or actor, but he comes incredibly stiff and forced in his performance. And with Danny O’Brien as the character we are following, it makes the film that much more painful to get through. Cooper and Dreyfus deliver great performances, but aren’t in enough of the movie to make it work. I would have preferred that it had focused on the Pilager character’s campaign more and been a satire of President Bush. Instead, we get a poorly made activist film where metaphors are incredibly shallow.

The film made me feel very conflicted, as every political note it touches I am right there in support of. But it proves that when views are expressed too overtly they bog a film down. The film takes it self too seriously for the majority of the time, and when it does attempt to go light, such as when Daryl Hannah’s tough hippie character is introduced, the humor feels hollow and tainted by Sayles bitterness. Not the best work of this director; he CAN make great films about his political views (Matewan for example).

Next up: Sunshine State and my final thoughts on John Sayles.

Cinematic Television – The Comedies

In the last decade the ante has been upped on both network and cable television. While channels go the cheap route of “reality” tv, they have also worked to develop higher quality scripted series. These higher quality series have a lot more in common with film, than previous television programs. They employ complex cinematography, a higher caliber of acting, and a devotion on the part of viewers to following longform story arcs, not “done in one” stand alone episodes. We’ll be looking at some of these series that have really stood out for me, starting with

The Comedies


Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000, created by Judd Apatow and Paul Feig)
Starring Linda Cardellini, Jason Segal, James Franco, Seth Rogen, Busy Phillips, John Francis Daley, Samm Levine, Martin Starr, Joe Flaherty, Becky Ann Baker

This can be marked as the beginning of the Apatow movement in contemporary comedy. The series was broadcast by a less than enthused NBC, who seemed to go out of their way to air episodes out of order and move the series around the schedule without letting viewers know. The series gained a following when it was reran on Fox Family and then when it was released on DVD in the last few years. The premise follows the Weir sibling, Lindsay (the Freak) and Sam (the Geek) as they go through a year of changes in 1980. Lindsay, a straight-A student and member of the Math-letes, starts hanging out with a group of classic rock loving stoners, and Sam deals with his desire to lose his childish geek image and win the heart of his long time crush. Unlike other nostalgia based programming, there is no maudlin sentiment here. The emotions and resolutions to stories feel honest and real. Characters have parents who are incredibly flawed, and those flaws don’t go away at the end of the episode. One episode in particular deals with a cheating parent, the episode ends on a very ambiguous note. If you haven’t discovered this gem, I highly recommend you hunt it down.


Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000 – present, created by Larry David)
Starring Larry David, Cheryl Hines, Jeff Garlin, Susie Essman
Featuring Richard Lewis, Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen, Bob Einstein, Shelly Berman, Vivica A. Fox, Wanda Sykes, J.B. Smoove, Paul Dooley, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jason Alexander, Jerry Seinfeld, Michael Richards, Kaitlin Olsen, Paul Mazursky, Richard Kind, Ben Stiller, Mel Brooks

If you enjoyed Seinfeld, then Curb Your Enthusiasm will blow your mind. The neurotic basis of George Costanza, Larry David, has created a series in which he plays himself as a buffoon constantly getting into awkward situations based on the misunderstanding of other or, more often than not, David’s own hang ups about minutiae. The series is one of the few to really capture improv comedy working right. A lot of comedies have followed since and don’t seem to have actors of the high level working in them that Curb does. A typical episode of Curb might involve Larry getting into an argument with a wheelchair bound man about using the handicapped toilet stall, followed by him inadvertently insulting a lesbian receptionist about she and her partner’s desire to adopt a Chinese baby. The jokes are never played as mocking these people, but rather comes from David’s desire to see all characters, regardless of their specificities, shown as jerks. He sees that people are more or less jerks when it comes down to it, and how he plays this out is hilarious.


Arrested Development (2003-2006, created by Mitchell Hurwitz)
Starring Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Portia de Rossi, Tony Hale, Michael Cera, Alia Shawkat, Jessica Walter, Jeffrey Tambor, David Cross, Ron Howard
Featuring Liza Minelli, Ed Begley, Jr., Henry Winkler, Mae Whitman, Judy Greer

There has never been a more complex, layered, and enjoyable comedy on network television than Arrested Development. From the moment it debuted, Fox seemed to have little interest in it, while viewers and critics loved the hell out of this show. The premise is that George Bluth, owner of the Bluth Corporation is arrested for violating trading laws and his son, Michael finds he’s now in charge of the company and the self-absorbed and moronic family around him. Every actor is bringing their A game here, and the casting is spot on. There are no other actors who could play this character so over the top and still be endearing. The series also incorporates a large number of cameos and employs many of the players from HBO’s Mr. Show (Cross was one of the creators of that skit comedy series). Since the cancellation of series, network television comedy has never seemed as promising to me. A featuring film continuing the adventures of the Bluth family is in the works and set to be released next year, here’s hoping it can live up to the series.


Eastbound and Down (2009 – present, created by Jody Hill)
Starring Danny McBride, Andrew Daly, John Hawkes, Katy Mixon, Ben Best, Jennifer Irwin
Featuring Will Ferrell, Craig Robinson

From the minds behind The Foot Fist Way and Observe & Report, comes this amazing HBO comedy series. Kenny Powers, a blatant parody of ignorant, racist Atlanta Brave John Rocker, is thrown out of Major League Baseball after being caught using steroids. He returns to his hometown in North Carolina where he becomes a substitute PE teacher at the same middle school his high school sweetheart works at. Kenny goes about abusing the hospitality of his brother and family, treating the middle school principal like a jerk, and ingesting an unhealthy amount of drugs. The highlight of the series comes when Kenny deals with local car dealer Ashley Schaeffer (Ferrell) which culminates in an insane pitching demonstration. The entire first season plays out like an extended movie, with a series finale that could serve as a perfect ending.


Bored to Death (2009 – present, created by Jonathan Ames)
Starring Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis, Ted Danson
Featuring Olivia Thirlby, Oliver Platt, John Hodgman, Bebe Neuwirth, Jenny Slate

This HBO series is a sort of comedic version of Paul Auster’s City of Glass novel. Schwartzman playing a writer named Jonathan Ames (meta, eh?), loses his girlfriend and out of boredom posts a craiglist ad as an unlicensed private eye. He begins to get cases and finds himself getting caught up in the fun of it. He typically incorporates his indie comic book artist friend (Galifiankis) and pot smoking boss (Danson) on the cases as well. The series has a much more muted sense of comedy than Eastbound and Down, one of the best aspects of HBO’s comedy programming. They do a very good job of balancing multiple styles, yet never lose their quality.

Newbie Wednesday – The Men Who Stare At Goats


The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009, dir. Grant Heslov)

Starring Ewan McGregor, George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Lang
If you remember the jokingly done reports in the media about prisoners of war in Iraq being exposed to Barney the Dinosaur’s “I Love You” song on a loop, then you have already heard of the writing of reporter Bob Wilton. In a mix of fantasy and reality we get this very suspect account of a secret unit of the U.S. Army, in operation since the Vietnam War. Director Heslov doesn’t deliver a film of any great magnitude, it has its moments, and we end up with a very quirky, very uneven comedy.
Bob Wilton is an Ann Arbor, MI reporter who ends up just outside of Iraq as the war is breaking out. Months earlier he interviewed an odd man who claimed to have been a psychic in the employ of the Army. By chance, Wilton runs in Lyn Cassady (Clooney), the man the interviewee claimed had been the best in their unit. Wilton and Lyn begin a strange journey across Iraq that ends with figures from Lyn’s past reappearing and culminating in an LSD fueled finale.
Jeff Bridges plays a ultra hippie, Bill Django, the founder of the New Earth Army, the unit devoted to using peace and love to combat enemy troops. A lot of these ideas won’t seem far fetched if you know anything about the experimentation the military has done on the paranormal for combat purposes. The film even brings up the infamous MKULTRA experiments done by the CIA on soldiers and civilians alike, where psychotropic drugs were added to water without the subjects’ knowledge and their reactions were recorded.
I never found myself laughing during this film, a few grins here and there, but was never really impressed with anything I saw. The film seems to not know what it wants to be: a satire of the army, a satire of the new age movement, a commentary on the absurdity of this current and all war. Because of this lack of a “thesis statement” the film seems to wander aimlessly with no point at the end. Coupled with very amateurish voice over (a big no-no unless you know how to do it right) and an original score that felt cheap, its a film that could easily be missed without regret.

Seventies Saturdays – A Wedding


A Wedding (1978, dir. Robert Altman)

Starring Carol Burnett, Geraldine Chaplin, Mia Farrow, Paul Dooley, Desi Arnez Jr, Lillian Gish, Lauren Hutton
The old money and the nouveau riche come together when Dino Correlli and Margaret “Muffin” Brenner get married. And while the film may be called A Wedding, the majority of its two hours take place in the reception. Of all Altman’s comedies, I don’t think I ever laughed as harder than I laughed at this picture. All of his stylistic flourishes are there (zoom ins, overlapping dialogue, language play) yet they are delivered with such madcap humor. I kept thinking of classic 1930s farces as the confusion and misunderstandings increased during the film. And it’s a amazing that with 48 characters I never felt like anyone was ignored. Every personality is apparent and you feel like you are sitting in on a real reception where the groom and bride’s families are hiding some major dislike.
The Correllis are a mix of an Italian businessman, Luigi, who married into a rich Floridian family of all daughters. He is made caretaker of the estate by his mother in law, Nettie on the condition that none of his family, whom are in with the mafia, are allowed to step foot in the house. The Brenners are from trucking money, Liam “Snooks” Brenner (Dooley) having made a fortune on coast to coast trucking. From the get-go there are numerous cultural clashes involving wealth, ethnicity, and class. It’s also apparent that there has been some illicit trysts going on between the maid of honor, Buffy Brenner (Farrow) and the groom as well as many other guests at the reception.
The best parts of the film are where information in exchanged but with the context completely misinterpreted. Early on in the film Nettie passes away and her other son in law, Dr. Jules decides to keep it secret so as not to ruin the festivities. Of course the information leaks and dozens of family members relay it a real life version of the Telephone game. The wedding planner (Chaplin) runs the show with an iron fist, making sure both staff and guests follow strict and traditional wedding protocol, assigning ludicrous acronyms (Father of the Bride becomes FoB, Mother of the Groom is MoG) to be more efficient. Snooks Brenner is uncomfortably close to his daughter Buffy and ignores his wife, Tulip (Burnett) so that he can spend more time with his pride and joy. The best moment comes when Tulip is seduced by Corelli family member, Mac, who convinces her to join him in an excursion to the family’s greenhouse. This is interrupted by the arrival of the half-dozen children of Burnett’s born again brother-in-law.
The film is never completely a comedy, none of Altman’s movies are ever one genre, but it is apparent that there was much silly joy in making this film. Altman developed a system of wireless microphones that allowed him to not interrupt large scenes, but rather pull volume up and down on the conversations he wished to focus on. It’s this genius move that makes it so the director never interrupts the flow of productive acting and works with Altman’s naturalist intent for his films during this period. I would say that even if you have passed Altman over as a director you might enjoy, this is one of his few films that I believe could appeal to a larger audience.

Wild Card Tuesday – Reality Bites


Reality Bites (1994, dir. Ben Stiller)

Starring Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Ben Stiller, Janeane Garafalo, Steve Zhan, Swoosie Kurtz, John Mahoney
Have you ever gone back and read some piece of poetry or short story you wrote as an adolescent or early 20-something and cringed at how naive and oblivious its sentiments and ideas were? A similar feeling is felt when watching Ben Stiller’s directorial debut 16 years past its time. Intended to be a thesis statement of post-grad Generation X, Reality Bites feels like the standard love triangle movie with a 90s-grunge facade.
Our protagonist is Lelaina, a wannabe documentarian and resident of Austin, TX who wants to produce work of substance about real life issues. She employed by an inane morning show who cannot stand her and lives a typical pseudo-slacker existence with her roommate (Garafalo) and their two guy friends (Hawke and Zahn). Into Lelaina’s life steps Michael (Stiller), an upper class yuppie and executive for a music television channel “like MTV but edgier”. Hawke’s Troy becomes jealous of Michael’s presence and thus the love triangle centered around poor Lelaina.
The deck is unfairly stacked in Troy’s favor from the get go as the film plays into every romantic stereotype in the book. Troy is the philosophy reading, lead singer in a grunge band, pretentious artsy guy who has typical abandonment issues (dad left when he was young and Troy had been rebellious ever since as a result). Michael is a materialistic geek who “just doesn’t get” the “real” disaffected Gen X youth. I found myself rolling my eyes an unusual number of times because of how broad these characters are played. Not for a second did I believe Lelaina would end up with anyone BUT Troy. The film telegraphs this from the characters’ first scene together.
At the time, this film may have felt surprisingly fresh but now it feels like an attempt to cram everything that defined the 90s slacker type into an hour and half. That doesn’t leave much room for honest character development. The two poignant moments in the film (Garafalo’s AIDs scare and Zahn coming out to his mother) last all of a few seconds and then its back to the completely uninteresting trails and tribulations of Lelaina. The characters seem to be oblivious to how terrible they are at their lives: for a documentary filmmaker Lelaina doesn’t know how to hold a camera that isn’t askew and Troy is complete and utter asshat. At the end, the love story here feels like it has as much depth as the Twilight films.

Wild Card Tuesday – Gentlemen Broncos


Gentlemen Broncos (2009, dir. Jard Hess)
Starring Michael Angarano, Jemaine Clement, Sam Rockwell, Jennifer Coolidge, Mike White, Halley Feiffer, Hector Jimenez

In 2006, after he had been hired to develop the score for Nacho Libre, singer-songwriter Beck said of director Jared Hess, “No filmmaker since Fellini has had such an eye for amazing characters”. That’s a pretty strong statement to make about a filmmaker who had only released one feature film at the time. And while Nacho Libre left me wanting for the disjointed narrative of Napoleon Dynamite, Gentlemen Broncos has shown me exactly what Beck was seeing.
It may come as no surprise at how much I loved Broncos as it definitely hit me where I live. The film’s protagonist, Benjamin Purvis (Angarano) is a homeschooled, amateur science fiction writer who has developed a novel based on his late father. He attends a young writers conference with a group of fellow homeschooled students from his co-op and meets his idol, Ronald Chevalier (Clement) who proceeds to steal Benjamin’s story and change key details to hide the theft. Simultaneously, Benjamin sells the film rights of his novel to an incredibly amateur filmmaking duo, one of whom has romantic intentions on Ben.
The level of the theatrical grotesque in this film is so incredibly over the top. As bizarre as this world is, it feels so familiar and fleshed out. There are so many rich details and background pieces of minutiae that part of me didn’t want to leave this universe. Added to all of this are dramatized excerpts from both Benjamin and Chevalier’s versions of Yeast Lords (the name of the stolen novel). In both versions Sam Rockwell plays the protagonist and proves once again why he is one of the most talented actors working today. In Benjamin’s version he plays the hero as a gruff, Southern accented redneck and in Chevalier’s is a lisping, albino.
Aside from Rockwell, there were many great performances, in particular Hector Jimenz (also in Nacho Libre). I have no idea what sort of acting choices Jimenez made for his role as Lonnie Donaho, the auteur responsible for making over 80 films (most of them trailers he tells us) but they result in one of the strangest characters I have ever seen on the big screen. The moment I knew Lonnie would be one of my favorite characters to pop up in the film comes early on. He and Tabitha (Fieffer), Benjamin’s love interest, take a seat next to Ben on the bus heading to the writers conference. Tabitha asks Ben to give her a hand massage, and as he does Lonnie proceeds to blow in Tabitha’s ear with a sound resembling a clogged vacuum cleaner.
Jared Hess, and his wife and writing partner Jerusha, have renewed my hope in their work. They come across as a combination of the clean, crisp filmmaking of Wes Anderson and the love of the mundanely bizarre of Tim & Eric. I think Nacho Libre’s flaws came from having a third party intervene and make rewrites to make the film more “palatable” for mainstream audiences. Hess isn’t built to make mainstream cinema and the more freedom he is allowed to pursue his skewed vision of middle America the better.

Film 2010 #6 – Youth in Revolt

Youth in Revolt (2009, dir. Miguel Arteta)
Starring Michael Cera, Steve Buscemi, Jean Smart, Ray Liotta, Zach Galafinakis, Justin Long

In 2003, Arrested Development debuted on Fox, and introduced America to the nebbish, nervous comedic talent of Michael Cera. He made George Michael one of the most lovable sad sacks in television history. With the series’ cancellation, Cera would go on to star in the Apatow-produced Superbad, wherein he reprised the George Michael personality. Since then, Cera’s stock had begun to drop as it appears he’s becoming typecast in a very disconcerting way. Youth in Revolt appears to be a partial attempt at breaking out of that mold, but sadly only reconfirms Cera’s career may have an early expiration date without some drastically different roles.

Based on the novel Youth in Revolt: The Journals of Nick Twisp by C.D. Payne, the film follows high schooler Nick Twisp, an intellectual lad who, despite his deft use of language, is unable to relate to his classmates. His life is transplanted to a trailer park miles away after his mother’s current beau scams some Navy men. Twisp meets the francophiliac Sheeni Saunders who becomes his object of obsession and leads to a series of catastrophic incidents.

Twisp is a strange mix of Cera’s afformentioned George Michael and the wise cracking of Ferris Bueller. Whereas, Bueller possessed an abundance of confidence about his plans, Twisp manages to mutter clever comebacks under his breath and awkward hatches schemes. I felt that Cera was probably of the mind that this film would help him break the typecasting he’s undergoing, but once on set he was coerced into going through the same muttery shtick that has defined his career so far.

Director Miguel Arteta is best known for indie pics Chuck and Buck (2000) and The Good Girl (2002), and since then has worked primarily in television (Ugly Betty, Freaks and Geeks, Six Feet Under). Because of Arteta’s background in the indie film scene of the late 90s/early 00s, Youth in Revolt has a the feel of those low budget pictures. The way in which things spiral continuously downward for Twisp felt to me like many indie black comedies. While, Arteta is very skilled at directing he offers few inspiring visual twists, aside for a couple stop motion animation sequences, that don’t add much to the film.

Youth in Revolt is not a bad film, but it feels like an opportunity missed. The material provided the opportunity for Cera to truly break free of the audience’s expectations, but it seems the filmmakers were too scared to attempt that. At the end of the day it will provide a few chuckles, but doesn’t contain much beyond that.