Catching Up With: Boyhood – 2014

 

“I was open to pain and crossed by the rain and I walked on a crooked crutch
I strolled all alone through a fallout zone and come out with my soul untouched
I hid in the clouded wrath of the crowd, but when they said, “Sit down,” I stood up
Ooh… growin’ up.”

-Bruce Springsteen

Richard Linklater loves time, or at least he loves making films in which people reckon with moments past, currently happening or about to happen off on some indeterminate horizon. Whether it’s high-schoolers trapped in Texas and the mid-70’s in “Dazed and Confused,” two tourists gallivanting across Europe and the stages of romance in the “Before” trilogy, Linklater has no issue letting his camera just hang back and watch two people wax nostalgically, poetically, fearfully, hopefully, whatever kind of wax it is, this Texan auteur thinks it’s necessary to capture it on celluloid if it has any connection to the stasis they find themselves in (or wish they found themselves in).

In my situation, three years out of college, working a retail job beneath the degree that’s gathering dust in some corner of your parent’s house, looking for some kind of release from said job and the lifeless, alien hometown you find yourself trapped in, it’s not a huge imposition to gather some kind of perspective on how you get to this point, not out of regret, but because 26 is an age in which you finally get an opportunity to do so. So it’s not hard to empathize with Linklater’s modus operandi as a writer/director.

In “Boyhood,” the justly-acclaimed, beautifully composed and profound new film from the Texan auteur, Linklater wanted to give that screw one extra, audacious turn. In 2002, he took a young boy named Ellar Coltrane, his own daughter Lorelei, and Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, as their on-screen parents and filmed them for a few days a year every year until 2013, to tell a story of a boy named Mason growing up and actually aging before our eyes. Not just a coming-of-age story, but a becoming-of-age.

The late Roger Ebert often referred to movies as the great “empathy machine.” “Boyhood” rebuilds the machine from the ground up in it’s accumulation, never a compression, of the experiences that Mason has from pre-adolescence to the onset of manhood. But the enormous undertaking that is the film’s structure is just a blueprint. It is a truly great film because it’s filled with Linklater’s wit, his wonderful eye for time and place, his graceful, flowing dialogue, his unassuming style; those are what you need to build a movie. It’s not a slice of life, it’s the entire pie.

In 2002, we meet Coltrane as Mason when he’s six years old, underneath the endless Texas sky and the earnest jangle of Coldplay’s “Yellow.” His mother and father are divorced, the former going back to school to be a teacher and rebuild her life, the latter an amateur musician who sees his kids as playmates more than he sees them as parental responsibility. His smart-ass older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) is right along with him, filling in Mason’s watchfulness with brattiness that evolves into sardonic wit. And…that’s about it. Those wishing for traditional plots to needlessly pick apart can look elsewhere; the film’s few attempts at providing old-fashioned conflict, which is whenever Mason’s mom finds a new suitor or husband who turns out to be an alcoholic malcontent, are its clumsiest moments. This film doesn’t need melodrama, it succeeds because the central conceit, watching these people change as their lives go on in the movie and real life, brings about unprecedented emotional crescendos.

“Boyhood”‘s structure never gets in the way of its journey; it folds into it and compliments it seamlessly. The first time Mason and his family move to a new city, we get a shot of Mason’s friend waving him goodbye as their car passes. We see him painting over the height measurements on the wall of their old house. We see Masons’s face a couple years later, seething in a barber’s chair when his stepfather forces him to get a buzzcut to look “less like a little girl.” Mason and Samantha take in a Houston Astros game with their dad, their hairstyles change along with their tastes in music, on and on. Linklater matter-of-factly seams together these moments in away that feels, in the early stretches of the film when Mason is still a little kid, a tad choppy, but everything this movie does, from the structure of the script, the length of scenes, the musical cues, is all part of Linklater’s master plan: capturing the feeling of memory and putting it on screen. This is why the scenes where Mason and Samantha are pre-adolescents in elementary school feel shorter, more confined. Later on when Mason goes to high school and then college, scenes get longer; dialogue becomes more florid, the ambience becomes more distinct. We remember events that happened more recently with more clarity, so the film mirrors that process. We remember whatever ubiquitous novelty or manufactured pop songs were playing on the radio. Once you take in “Boyhood” and process it as you’re watching it, its power grows exponentially in a way I’ve never seen in a movie.

Also, you must add in the fact that although Linklater had some semblance of a script and shape he wanted the film to take, a lot of it is flying blind. The arcs of Mason’s parents are easier to handle. Patricia Arquette gives quiet strength and dignity to Mason’s mother Olivia, a woman desperately trying to hold her family unit together, despite her lapses in judgment. Mason Sr., given jittery, rascally warmth by a never-better Ethan Hawke feels more like an overgrown kid than a father, but Hawke’s own boyish appearance diminishes over time, as his character grows up right alongside his son. But Coltrane is the wild-card. Cast when he was 7-years-old with no acting experience, he starts the film as a non-descript kid, calmly observing the changes to the world around him (Linklater uses music and insert shots of gadgetry and other pop paraphernalia to capture the passage of time better than any title card could). But Mason, as teenagers are known to do whether they like it or not, becomes the true product of his parents and environment. He takes a liking to photography, and has an off-kilter political perspective. Coltrane becomes more comfortable in front of the camera and his performance deepens immensely (Lorelei Linklater as Samantha retreats as the film goes along, however). The film takes full-flight once this protagonist becomes a full-fledged character; since Linklater didn’t know what kind of actor he was going to have, he had to tweak the film’s progression on the fly; the film itself grows and learns as its characters do. This symbiotic relationship between the film’s presentation and its making is something to behold.

“Boyhood” is also a love letter to Texas; schools have their own pledge of allegiance. Mason receives a Bible and a rifle from his grandparents on his birthday. It’s a state home to endless hills and the sub-bohemian paradise that is Austin. A haven for outsider art and Confederate flags in equal measure. Few filmmakers make locations come to life more than Linklater does. Where you are has a direct relationship with who you are.

“Boyhood”‘s ramshackle yet hugely ambitious construction does nothing to drown out the film’s beautiful observance, it’s detailed depictions of everyday life, the heft that is built from personal experience. It’s 12-year-journey is its own complete beast. Richard Linklater’s greatest achievement is a series of landmarks, which is only fitting since the movie deserves to become a landmark itself.

Advertisements

Catching Up With: Inside Llewyn Davis – 2013

American movies are littered with stories of artists trying make their way through the world, serving their muse and by obvious extension, their art. These films, mostly biopics such as “Ray” and “Walk the Line” contrive the plight of their gifted protagonists, as we see how their art is strengthened and defined by the world around them and the people they meet.

“Inside Llewyn Davis,” although it is a completely fictional account of the titular also-ran folk singer played by the extraordinary Oscar Isaac, finds writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen putting the kibosh on any notion of traditional artistic perseverance. The Coens never make it easy for their characters, who in turn don’t exactly do a lot to help themselves and this magnificent film, one of the duo’s very best, is no exception.

So who is Llewyn Davis? Llewyn is having a difficult time figuring that out himself, in the harsh New York City winter in 1961. We first meet him at the legendary Gaslight Cafe, the cramped, smoke-filled room that was the hub of the early 60’s folk music revival. Llewyn is up on stage singing a song called “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” Oscar Isaac has a piercing, vulnerable tenor that captures the resignation in this song; this is the story of a man who has given up on his place in the world. Davis can sympathize; his singing partner Mike Timlin has recently died, and Davis gets beaten up in an alley behind the cafe by a mysterious figure.

But Llewyn isn’t a criminal or a half-wit like a lot of other protagonists in the Coens’ work. Llewyn Davis is actually a bit of a prick. His first solo album is dead in the water, and he spends his nights going from couch to couch in apartments belonging to people who barely tolerate him, specifically his ex-girlfriend Jean (a volcanic Carey Mulligan, spewing profanity like bullets), who casually informs him that she may be pregnant with Llewyn’s child and wants an abortion as soon as possible.

Llewyn is clearly talented; having the gorgeous soundtrack curated by T-Bone Burnett doesn’t hurt. He goes on about how folk music needs to be pure, that commerce isn’t his main goal. He acts like his art has no price, but that doesn’t stop him from singing backup on “Please Mr. Kennedy,” the brilliantly awful, paranoid farce of a song written by Jean’s new boyfriend Jim (Justin Timberlake, his high nasally croon fitting this folk setting like a glove). Mr. Davis is one of countless musicians through the generations who have failed to realize that art and commerce have always been intertwined. Artists who have an inflated notion of their own authenticity, usually don’t have a lot of walking around money. Llewyn’s only companion is the stubborn cat belonging to his old friends the Gorfeins, which the film gleefully suggests is a symbol for Llewyn’s plight but never actually becomes one.

Llewyn Davis is a man out of time, money, friends, collaborators, etc. That’s who he is in the context of his small little world. But who is he in the sense that the Coen brothers, feel the need to chronicle this specific world, at this specific time? It could be because Joel and Ethan are two wise-ass Jewish kids from Minnesota, and the New York folk scene in 1961 was about to be turned upside down by another wise-ass Jewish kid from Minnesota, thus changing the fortunes of countless real-life Llewyn Davis’? Is is about a man who doesn’t realize that being an artist doesn’t excuse you from the responsibilities that the less-enlightened “squares” have to deal with every day?

It could be all of these things, it could be just empty projection. Llewyn might be the cat, he might not be. The Coens like to get philosophical in their work, but never in this specific fashion. “Inside Llewyn Davis” most resembles “Barton Fink,” the Coens’ 1991 masterpiece that found another unlikable artist in a New York screenwriter played by John Turturro, who was crippled by writer’s block because he closed himself off to the common men around him (personified by John Goodman, who also appears in this film as a heroine-addicted jazz snob who abhors folk music). That film found the filmmaking duo literally spewing Hellfire and allegorical allusions to the rise of fascism to get their point across. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a much quieter, more wistful movie. Fink was a hack, his writer’s block being born out of his ignorance of the world around him, thus rendering him with nothing to say. Davis doesn’t have writer’s block; he has a category of gorgeous folk songs (expertly used in interludes that reveal more about these characters and bring on emotional breakthroughs previously unseen in the Coens’ filmography, but still laced with their own brand of arsenic). He has existence block, dismissing anything outside of his art, not realizing until he goes on a trek to Chicago to meet with a powerful record executive (F. Murray Abraham) that art and commence are always intertwined, the music business being…an actual business.

This film may look aimless, as we watched this bearded misanthrope bum around Greenwich Village trying make some money and find a bed to sleep in. But this film, apart from the endless philosophical and thematic readings that can be found within the soft-focus beauty of the world cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel makes out of New York City, has the reliable pleasures found in all of the Coen brothers’ work. The dialogue which comes at a rhythm set to a time scale no other screenwriter can crack. The memorable faces and hilarious supporting turns (particularly from Stark Sands from an impossibly earnest Army cadet and Garrett Hedlund as a Kerouac-esque loner who represents the culture shock about to hit the folk scene), the immaculately structured story, the touches of surrealism in the scenes that bookend the film and the great performances, particularly by Oscar Isaac in what should be a breakout role, bringing misanthropic grace to this starving artist.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” isn’t just about failure; it deals with how failure is born, whether it’s out of losing your musical collaborator, ignoring the realities of your chosen field, brushing aside the needs and wants of the people around you. It’s appropriate that “Like a Rolling Stone,” a song Bob Dylan (who makes an appearance of sorts at the end of the film) wrote after leaving acoustic folk in the dust, describes Davis quite well: out on his own, like a complete unknown, no direction home. But the Coens portray this man’s plight with strange wisdom, not lunatic subjugation like in their early work. That’s one of countless reasons why “Inside Llewyn Davis” is one of their greatest achievements.

Grade: A

Catching Up With: Frances Ha – 2013

The quarter-life crisis is hard to capture on film. Unless you are burdened by some horrible personal tragedy, life in your mid-20’s after you graduate from college is hard to make into interesting comedy or drama, because in the big picture it’s pretty insignificant in the spectrum of life. But director Noah Baumbach took a stab at it anyway with “Frances Ha,” a black-and-white comedy about an eccentric, 27-year-old woman with a degree in modern dance named Frances (the wonderful Greta Gerwig, who also co-wrote the script with Baumbach), who tries and fails to get her shit together in a romantic but still foreboding New York City. This is a character study, since there is nothing in this film beyond the perspective of Frances, as we are invited to observe a few weeks in her life, which undergoes several upheavals.

Frances is an understudy in a local dance company. It doesn’t matter at first, since the streets of Brooklyn are her stage, as she joyously pirouettes through the masses. She shares an apartment with Sophie (Micky Sumner), and they have a friendship that’s described as being like “a lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex.” Frances is so committed to her relationship with Frances that she breaks up with her boyfriend after refusing to move in with him. Unfortunately, Sophie is moving in to her boyfriend’s apartment, leaving Frances out on her own for the first time in her adult life.

Frances is a fascinating character. She has a naivete about her, but she isn’t quite dumb. She’s a free-spirit who’s constricted by her surroundings and her own immaturity. In other words, she’s a human being. Greta Gerwig, full aware that this is a role perfect for a budding movie star, deftly brings all of Frances’ hang-ups to life. She has a face Norma Desmond would approve of; expressive, imperfect, awkward, yet still beguiling. Gerwig personifies unconventionality.

A more glib title for this film would be “Living Arrangements: The Movie” since that’s what Frances goes through after Sophie leaves her behind. She moves in with two pretentious artists (Adam Driver and Michael Zegen) who are just as immature as she is but are far more stable. She briefly lives with one of her fellow dancers, which after a disastrous dinner with her family inspires her to spend a whopping two days in Paris, most of which is dealing with the jet lag. Frances is stuck in that post-college limbo that ensnares a lot of us recent graduates. You don’t know what to do will your life until the “rest of your life” phase kicks in. Along with that is the fear that the “rest of your life” phase is happening right now.

“Frances Ha” registered strongly with me, since I’m in a similar stage in my life as our dear Frances. Peers thinking your old at 27 (25, in my case). Having friendships weaken when one of them matures faster than the other. Lying about  and embellishing your career prospects when the real adults ask about them. Going on spontaneous trips or misaventures only to immediately realize they were pretty fucking stupid ideas. What Baumbach and Gerwig do with Frances is not play up her misfortunes to the point where they seem petty to those outside of her demographic. This movie never says “poor me.” Frances isn’t destitute. She’s in a city bursting with opportunities. Guys, find her “undateable,” but the movie doesn’t delve into her love life, and thank God for that. “Frances Ha” has moments of sadness and discomfort, but it isn’t a drama. It’s a comedy; a spirited, even joyous one, in some moments. Scenes where Frances experiences a setback, such as a heartbreaking phone call with Sophie during which both friends are concealing personal miseries, end in punchlines, or non sequiters. “Frances Ha” doesn’t have, or need, much plot. It has dancing in the streets. It has David Bowie crooning about “Modern Love,” even though Frances doesn’t find any, at least not in this film. It’s a love letter to an imposing city that is also a romantic one, even in lo-fi digital black and white.

That’s what makes “Frances Ha” such a unique character study.  It doesn’t have the raw sexuality or darkness of the similar HBO show “Girls” (which Adam Driver also appears in) but it doesn’t need it. Baumbach and Gerwig don’t need to show us rock bottom. Their film is about possibilities, both good and bad. The film’s title is a reference to a punchline revealed in the final shot, which I won’t reveal here, but it sums up the movie perfectly. Frances is a dreamer who doesn’t fit neatly into reality, but she’s willing to make herself fit. And to do that, you have to literally and figuratively look back and laugh.

Grade: A-

Catching Up With: Iron Man 3 – 2013

Marvel isn’t just playing with house money with the stratospheric success of their recent shared-universe collection of movies, they’re playing with a house GDP that could probably stabilize Eastern Europe and Africa for the next decade. Even though the movies themselves have been hit-or-miss, I do appreciate that they’re willing to futz with the formula from time to time, bringing in people like Joss Whedon and Kenneth Branagh to give these shiny, robust superhero stories a bit of outside flavor. “The Avengers” soared because Whedon turned a group of superheroes into the “Scooby Gang” from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” on steroids, the comradery and smart dialogue leaving a deeper imprint than the requisite CGI explosions.

Enter Shane Black, who’s like Whedon’s cynical, slightly burnt-out older brother, and “Iron Man 3,” which reunites Black with Iron Man himself Robert Downey Jr. eight years after the ingenious, underrated “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” reignited the careers of both men. What makes “Iron Man 3” such an incredible surprise isn’t just because Downey as Tony Stark and the director/co-writer Black work in perfect concert with each other, and reignite the series after the disappointing clusterfuck/crime against cinema that was “Iron Man 2.” Black doesn’t just put a smidge of his personality into this film. He’s practically a sleeper cell in how he gleefully subverts the tired formulas that Marvel and modern blockbusters traffic in far too often. This is a hilarious, wildly entertaining 130-minute middle finger to the shackles of mainstream Hollywood and the insane expectations of comic book fans themselves.

Taking place around Christmas (as Black joints tend to do for some reason), the film finds Tony Stark in a bad way. He’s still reeling from his brush with death at the end of “The Avengers,” and the onset of panic attacks has deflated his patented narcissism quite a bit. As a result, his obsession with Iron Man further consumes him, with his collection of armor suits now up to 42 different designs. The televised threats and terrorist acts committed by the mysterious Mandarin (Ben Kingsley, who is brilliant in ways I won’t reveal here).  Tony’s distressing behavior doesn’t sit well with his girl Friday Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, once again, given some surprising new things to do this time), who also has to deal with a fellow technology entrepreneur Aldrich Killian (the always welcome Guy Pearce) who has created a substance called the Extremis, which can regenerate limbs with the unfortunate side-effect of turning the soldiers who use it into walking bombs.

Those are the familiar globs of ridiculous plot that define all of these Marvel films, but “Iron Man 3” becomes decidedly unfamiliar when the Mandarin launches a personal attack at Tony, which leaves him alone in Tennessee with a busted suit and a precocious kid named Harley (Ty Simpkins, a total natural on-screen) to keep him company. This is when the film really takes off, thanks to the witty, razor sharp script by Drew Pearce and the director Black, one of the finest crafters of dialogue we have, going all the way back to the first “Lethal Weapon.” The middle section with Stark trapped in this small town might be the best stretch of any Marvel film. Downey is brilliant; he’s a natural for Black’s dialogue, especially in the scenes with Simpkins, which swerve away from any child-sidekick cliches, allowing the film to probe into Tony Stark as a broken, vulnerable man for the first time in the series. The last movie drowned Downey in hollow sarcasm, the snark destroying any semblance of tension. This film works because it does have some semblance of thematic resonance, with a voiceover from Downey explaining how “we all make our own demons.” This explains the motivations for Killian’s insane plan, the reasons why the scientist who created the evil technology (an underused Rebecca Hall) would give up on doing good in the world and the final, ingenious and hysterical final twist regarding the origins of the Mandarin himself.

That right there is the bedrock for what makes “Iron Man 3” such a surprise; watching Shane Black give the genre’s old cliches the gleeful shellacking they deserve. Tony makes fun of Harley for not having a dad; Pepper gets to be the hero herself for a while, giving a female character something meaningful to do. The twist involving the Mandarin has pissed off a substantial portion of the Internet, but reverence to source material has held many comic book movies back, a mistake this movie doesn’t make.

Black and Pearce’s dialogue is infinitely more combustible and exhiliarating than the onslaught of explosions we get at the end of the film. But Black has a confident touch with the action scenes, his personality still intact within them, particularly in an airborne rescue mission following the explosion of Air Force One. The film does faulter toward the end when it tries to serve two masters, with the director’s barely-concealed contempt for the superhero mythology and Marvel’s insistent urge to blow up everything in yet another fireworks display of good versus evil. But Downey, particularly working with Don Cheadle as Col. Rhodes who gets decked out as the red white and blue Iron Patriot, is so much fun to watch, his cruel charisma the perfect test subject for the film’s more deconstructive passages.

“Iron Man 3” is such a blast because for a while it shows Marvel is willing to let some subversion creep into their cinematic assembly line. This is a money-making machine first and foremost, but there’s an exhilarating kick to watching Shane Black and Robert Downey Jr. fuck wit h the wiring.

Grade: A-

Catching Up With: All About Eve – 1950

Since it is a medium and world dominated by larger-than-life people, situations and obviously egos, it makes sense that the backstage shenanigans of great theater would make…great theater. “All About Eve,” Joseph Mankiewicz’s spectacular, acid-soaked love letter/brutal deconstruction of the high society of New York theater in the ’50’s is perhaps the most iconic, well-known movie about this world, and deservedly so. The allure of fame, and how it is dispersed like a warped form of currency, is covered so extensively that it might as well be tracked by the New York Stock Exchange. The story of a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed ingenue from Wisconsin who becomes the usurper of the career of middle-aged Broadway legend Margo Channing (Bette Davis, a legend in real life) is eternally wicked stuff, especially in world built by Mankiewicz and this incomparable stable of actors.

This allegedly wholesome climber is the title character, Eve Harrington (Ann Baxter), who treats the grand stage of Broadway like a second home. She idolizes Margo, watching every performance of the middlebrow play written by Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe) she’s trapped in even though she’s way too old to play a young, murderess wife. Eve makes her way back stage, thanks to Richards’ sweet-natured, worldly wife Karen (a wonderful Celeste Holm). Eve’s chronicle of idolatry and slaving away in a brewery in Milwaukee, along with her constant digressions about the overpowering awesomeness of Ms. Channing, captivates Margo, and she hires Eve as her assistant, But Eve has plans that go beyond picking up Margo’s cigarette butts and scheduling appointments. She wants the spotlight that seems to follow Margo everywhere she goes.

We don’t get any scenes of Margo acting in her play, but we don’t need it. This film is about the performances these people give in the world around the stage, in their secretive inner lives. Writer/director Mankiewicz apparently knew very little about the world of stage acting, but as a Hollywood lifer he did know how the powerful and egotistical bounced off each other, so the minor details about stage craft didn’t matter. What does matter? The film’s screenplay, and how we should all bow down to it. Good dialogue can liven up a conventional narrative; great dialogue can be a special kind of music. We get just as much of a charge from listening to it as the actors must get when they deliver it. Witty, brutal, satirizing Hollywood at every opportunity, every line just crackles, bringing every aspect of this world to life. There’s Addison DeWitt, played by George Sanders who was literally the voice of caustic wit, as the cynical theater critic whose daily newspaper column can shoot a career into the stratosphere and bring it crashing back to Earth by the evening edition, who has a taste for vapid, dull ingenues (Marilyn Monroe in her film debut). There’s Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), the ambitious stiff of a director with aspirations toward Hollywood, who is Margo’s lover and plaything in equal measure. The Richards’ are the voices of reason, but even they can’t bend to the will of the massive self-regard that exudes from everyone around them.

At the center of this self-obsessed storm of sarcasm and duplicity? Eve and Margo. Bette Davis treats the Mankiewicz dialogue like the feast it is, and tears through it with reckless abandon. Margo Channing isn’t that far off from Davis’ off-screen persona. Chain-smoking, drowning herself in martinis, running on bitterness as deep as the crow’s feet around her enormous, iconic saucer-like eyes, Davis rips through any pre-conceived notions that stars are eternal and idols of romanticism. It’s a deconstruction of what happens to actresses of a certain age. 1950 was also the year of “Sunset Boulevard,” where Gloria Swanson portrayed a silent film star who blew way past irrelevance into full-on madness. Margo isn’t crazy. She’s demanding, paranoid, intimidating for sure. But these two performances were a shock to Hollywood’s hollow, cruel system. Margo isn’t in the “pictures,” but the hurt that 40-year-old actresses feel in this world is still an inconvenient truth in contemporary pop culture as well. It’s a performance that is also an autopsy.

But the film is “All About Eve,” as DeWitt tells us in the film’s prologue, where the blood drawn from Eve’s carnivorous vocational escalation is writ on the faces of everyone at the awards banquet honoring her meteoric rise as an actress. Ann Baxter’s performance is hard to grasp at first. She seems mannered, calculated, not as much at ease with Mankiewicz’s peerless dialogue as everyone else. But that may be deliberate. We are just as puzzled and intrigued by her as Margo and co. are. She’s constantly underestimating herself, even though she goes from being Margo’s assistant, to her understudy, to being, well, basically Margo herself through Machiavellian machinations. Baxter’s performance grows in power as her ambition escalates. It’s hard to compete with a performance as ferocious and magnetic as Davis’ but Eve is the reason why Margo is so fascinating. Eve Harrington is a product of fandom turned virile, but also of the contrast that dominates the peformance industry; young taking over old, fresh replacing the stale.

“All About Eve” came at a time when Hollywood films started to examine what the cogs of the entertainment industry do to those who built it. There are plenty of Margo Channings in the world, but even more Eve Harringtons. For everyone involved, at a certain point that red curtain starts to resemble a guillotine.

Grade: A

Catching Up With: Lawrence of Arabia – 1962

Ever since the formative years and peak glories of the Ottoman Empire all the way up to the current quagmire surrounding Syria, the Middle East has been a troubled, confounding, cloudy and altogether fascinating section of Earth, and humanity in general. Centuries of infighting, war and the sometimes dubious and damaging involvement of Western nations and their interests have created vast tumult and uncertainty, as endless and unforgiving as the ever-present sun and deserts.  T.E. Lawrence, the legendary British officer in World War 1 who played an enormous role in Arabia’s revolution against Turkey, is a part of that history and the subject of David Lean’s Oscar-hoarding 1962 masterpiece “Lawrence of Arabia.” It’s taken me a long time to get around to seeing this movie. This is one of the most beloved films ever made, so part of me was expecting a predictable slice of old-school Hollywood epicness, a chronicle of how Lawrence (as played by Peter O’Toole in his first film role) became a hero to the Arabian nations for helping to destroy the thousand-year might of the Turks and their empire. But “Lawrence of Arabia,” to its enormous benefit, avoids the endless quicksand of cliches at every opportunity. Lean’s film is truly awe-inspiring, but it’s also a clear-eyed portrait of the Middle East quagmire, a portrait of a man destroyed by good intentions and his own insurmountable flaws and ambition. There is little heroism to be found in the expanse of the Arabian desert and the 227-minute running time. We do get the eccentricities and failings of a British officer blown up to gargantuan size.

We meet T.E. Lawrence at the British Army’s outpost in Cairo. Flamboyant, thoughtful, a devious twinkle behind his ocean-blue eyes, amused by the absurd rigidity of British process, we can tell already that he’s an outlier among the others dedicated to queen and country. His superiors send him to Arabia to seek out Prince Feisal (Alec Guiness, transcending the obvious racial difference with an expert showcase in sly pragmatism) and observe his modest but deeply impassioned rebellion. Lawrence is basically from another universe. A white, eccentric Brit among bleeding-heart Arabian rebels, he’s intrigued by this mission but he still doesn’t fully understand it, until he meets the black-robed, no-nonsense all-around badass Sherif Ali (a ferocious Omar Sharif) and the oppurtunistic, fiery Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), and becomes more fully invested in the cause and becomes a larger-than-life figure who of course becomes a hero, the great white hope who gave these Middle Eastern rebels the wisdom and intelligence necessary to achieve their freedom, and is fondly remembered by his peers after he dies in the motorcycle accident that opens the film.

Oh wait, that’s not what happens at all (not completely, anyway). Lawrence remains an enigma upon his death, and this film refuses to ignore the major, troubling flaws that defined one T.E. Lawrence. This guy is both righteous and problematic, and the director Lean and screenwriters Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson make him, and the Western nations who continue to get into conflicts they don’t fully understand eat it for 225 minutes of epic, 65mm film glory.

“Lawrence of Arabia” is one of the most beloved films ever made, a spot near the top of enough film lists to rival the numbers of the rebel army that Lawrence eventually leads. But this doesn’t feel like any of the bloated, stilted, self-serious to the point of absurdity studio epics that dominated film at the time. This film blows the likes of “Ben-Hur,” “The Ten Commandments” and the like out of the water because it’s a big, enormous film (perhaps the greatest showcase for the wonders of the widescreen format) but it doesn’t feel like one. It doesn’t have a God-like hero; it has a brave, foolish, deeply flawed man, whose damaged qualities escalate as we move deeper into the endless desert at the deliberate four-hour pace Lean and co. march by. It’s not romantic sweep or grand proclamations that drive “Lawrence of Arabia,” it’s about the weakness of people and the politics they can be shackled by.

Of course, Peter O’Toole is the blue-eyed center of this morally ambiguous sandstorm. His performance as the strange, elliptical and constantly evolving T.E. Lawrence is truly something to behold. Smart-ass, sadist, hero, snake, broken shell who looks upon what this Arabic revolt has done to him, for better or worse; this character looms large over film history because of how captivating the anti-hero still is. Don Draper on “Mad Men,” Walter White on “Breaking Bad,” even a little Malcolm Reynolds from “Firefly” are all contemporary manifestations of the troubling charisma that defines O’Toole’s interpretation of Lawrence. There’s one key scene that teases an explanation for Lawrence’s actions comes when Sherif asks him why he has a different last name than his father; Lawrence explains that he is a bastard, unable to become a lord or hold any title of esteem in his own country.

This rebuttal to the notions of simplistic heroism gives the film its eternal kick; the expansive panoramic vision and beautifully filmed battle scenes are just an added bonus. David Lean’s other wartime masterpiece “The Bridge on the River Kwai” was also about stubborn, doomed British men who thought they were doing the right thing but were really losing their souls. “Lawrence of Arabia” is the same thing, but it is more imprecise as to whether it’s hero really is that. Lawrence’s role becomes an obsession; his blinding white robes become dirtier over time, as do his motivations. Compassion becomes an obsession, he is a microcosm for the cruelty of imperialism. “Lawrence of Arabia” is all-encompassing, but its aims are smaller. It’s a massive character study, an allegory for political meddling, a story of what happens when a man who can’t lead himself tries to lead an army to freedom. In a modern film age when movie heroes are uncomplicated, “likable” and saddled with pointless romances and great speeches about a responsibility, this film is thorny, uncertain, relentless, triumphant and deeply tragic. That’s why it still feels, for lack of a better word, damn revolutionary.

Grade: A

Catching Up With: Hellboy II: The Golden Army – 2008

The biggest problem with Guillermo Del Toro’s first “Hellboy” movie, which chronicles the world-saving adventures of a blood-red, de-horned demon behemoth played by Ron Perlman who protects the world he is destined to destroy, was that for all of the craziness surrounding the character and the director’s imagination, there was too much convention, typified by Rupert Evans’ dull FBI agent and the lifeless love triangle involving the human flamethrower Liz (Selma Blair).

Thankfully “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” the sequel that came four years later, jettisons anything resembling conventional or rudimentary. In fact, this film makes it’s already lively predecessor look like “My Dinner with Andre.” This sequel is bigger in scope, funnier, weirder and just more audacious in its execution when compared to other comic book movies. More often than not this feels less like a movie and more like a 120-minute excursion into Guillermo Del Toro’s extraordinarily vivid imagination.

“The Golden Army” finds the FBI-commissioned team dedicated to fighting the paranormal, still consisting of Hellboy, the intelligent fish-man psychic Abe Sapien (once again played by Doug Jones, who also replaces David Hyde Pierce on vocal duties) and the fire-wielding, emotionally troubled Liz (Selma Blair, more comfortable but still an uneven performance), finding it more difficult to keep their identities a secret. This problem comes to a head after an attack on a New York museum that results in mass destruction and the reveal of Hellboy and company to the world. But the compromise of their team’s identity is nothing compared to the plans of one Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) the elvish Albino offspring of Marilyn Manson, who is looking for the missing pieces that make up a crown that will summon the Golden Army, mechanical beasts that will take back the world for mystical creatures, who aren’t pleased about being banished to forests. Oh, and the also have to contend with their new handler, Johann Krauss, who suffers from the unfortunate afflictions of being turned into vapor and being voiced by Seth MacFarlane.

Although Nuada is a more interesting villain than Rasputin was in the first movie, his plan is mere structure for Del Toro, cinematographer Guillermo Navarro and his design team to unleash every insane visual idea they’ve ever had. We get more of a look at the beasts that invade our world, and they are a wonder to behold. There is no CGI here, practical costumes and effects bring these sometimes funny sometimes horrifying but always fascinating monsters to life. The scene in an underground “troll market” is packed to the breaking point with these beasts. In fact, the entire movie is packed to the breaking point with everything that Del Toro, who wrote the script with Mike Mignola (who created the original comic book) wanted to throw into the original but was sidetracked by the utterly pointless John Meyers subplot (he was sent to Antarctica in this one, thank God for small favors). This film is definitely lighter in tone, but it’s the greater piece of cinematic execution. The characters are given more to do (Perlman is still a natural as the titular character), we learn more about the world they do battle with, and we get more set pieces, which are executed with almost balletic precision. The epic final confrontation between Hellboy’s team and the Golden Army is truly spectacular, with swords, robots, and gunfire all thrown into a phantasmagorical maelstrom; that same energy that powered the first movie feels like its been pumped with steroids.

This movie feels more like a fusion of Mignola’s original and Del Toro’s obsessions than the first movie, diving into the deep end with a set-piece involving a massive tree-demon thing that chases Hellboy through New York City while he carries a baby, and a hilarious scene where Abe and Hellboy drown their sorrows in booze and Barry Manilow, and then must do battle with Nuada in their own home.

“Hellboy II: The Golden Army” doesn’t have the emotional or allegorical heft of his greatest works like “The Devil’s Backbone” or “Pan’s Labyrinth”, but in a way this film is his “Goodfellas”: an ecstatic showpiece for all of his skills and obsessions; it’s the rare sequel that isn’t designed for inflated box office grosses: it was created to inflate the idiosyncrasies of its creators and its hero.

Grade: B+