Personal Pantheon: The Royal Tenenbaums – 2001

“I’ve always wanted to be a Tenenbaum, you know…it doesn’t mean what it used to though, does it?”

In the opening moments of “The Royal Tenenbaums,” the third film from writer/director Wes Anderson, there are four familiar elements that immediately jump out. First, there is the warm, gravelly tone of Alec Baldwin’s voice, providing novelistic narration. The second element is the New York skyline in the background. The third element is Mark Mothersbaugh’s score re-appropriating the unforgettable, wistful chords of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” The final element of familiarity comes when Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) tells his three children that he and their mother Etheline (Anjelica Houston) are getting a divorce. That’s a kind of pain that far too many people (myself excluded) know too well.

That song choice, as many musical cues are in Wes Anderson films, is crucial. Paul McCartney wrote “Hey Jude” as a consolation for John Lennon’s son Julian, during his father’s ugly divorce. McCartney told “Jude” to take a sad song and make it better, and for a few years at least Chas (Ben Stiller), Richie (Luke Wilson) and adopted sister Margo Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow) turn their sad song into almost absurd levels of precociousness. Chas becomes a real estate whiz, Margo tosses off plays faster than she chain-smokes, and Richie becomes a tennis wunderkind.

But that sadness doesn’t stay away forever. Adulthood, and the specific brand of melancholy, brings these brilliant siblings back down to Earth, down to the level of their rapscallion of a father, who has a plan to return to his family’s good graces. It’s the tribulations of this odd, troubled but ultimately endearing family that gives “Royal Tenenbaums” its funny, deeply profound kick.

And what a family. Etheline is an archaeologist who in turn transforms raising children into a science, writing a book about the Tenenbaum siblings. It’s not a surprise that she and Royal separated (they never officially ended their marriage). Royal, a former lawyer, is a freeloader, a conniver trying to give what’s left of his life some autumnal luster by reinstating himself as patriarch, and putting the kibosh on his wife’s impending second marriage to accountant Henry Sherman (Danny Glover) by telling everyone that he’s dying of stomach cancer. His children are all in various states of melancholy. Chas’ wife died a year earlier, and he’s become obsessed with keeping his sons Ari and Uzi safe from various acts of God via insanely elaborate fire drills. Margo loses both a finger and inspiration for writing theater. She’s married to Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), a mild-mannered, bearded intellectual who doesn’t even begin to understand Margo’s inner workings. Richie has exiled himself aboard a yacht, having retired from tennis following a breakdown stemming from the unrequited love he has for his adopted sister Margo.

Matt Zoller Seitz’s video essays on Anderson’s oeuvre and especially this film explain beautifully everything that is going on in this film, not just in the story but in Anderson’s instantly recognizable directorial vision. Anderson is an acquired taste, no doubt about it, but there is so much to explore in the movies he creates. “Tenenbaums,” with its chapter headings and narration, is designed to feel like a novel, and it is just as rich and detailed as a great piece of American literature. Anderson is a truly extraordinary storyteller, and this film is his “Born to Run,” his “Rubber Soul” or “Highway 61 Revisited”; an example of a young artist swinging for the fences and succeeding in pushing his formidable skills to dizzying new heights.

Ever the control freak, every aspect of this film feels tailor made by its creators. The clothes the Tenenbaums wear that seem to have come out of a 1970s thrift store, the music choices which sample everything from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” to the Velvet Underground and The Ramones, and the outsider’s view of New York City itself, with made up addresses (like the 375th Street Y) and hilarious avoidance of famous landmarks. This isn’t Scorsese’s New York; Anderson approaches the city as an idea more than a real place, filled with Salinger-esque intellectuals. But what I love about all of Anderson’s films is that he captures something that is so hard to put on-screen: the idea that this world existed before the movie chronicling it. What I mean is that the film conveys a shared, lived-in experience among its characters and environment.

For example, take the Tenenbaum house, that three story estate on the corner of the fictional Archer Avenue. Every room in the house, especially the bedrooms, is burnished with the personality of the Tenenbaums. Decor is Anderson’s version of prose; what we take in from Robert Yeoman’s camera gliding west-to-east across the screen gives us  the same sort of information that a passage in a book does. Re-reading a book is like re-watching a film; we pick up on subtext, lines of dialogue, etc. that deepen the work over time.

“Royal Tenenbaums” is filled with that information. There’s Richie, still wearing his Bjorn Borg tennis headband, as a marker of what he lost when Margo broke his heart by marrying someone else. In Paltrow’s performance Margo is obsessed with being an enigma. She keeps her smoking a secret even though she doesn’t have to, she has lived multiple lives all over the world, looking for something. Inspiration, happiness, Rolling Stones bootlegs, who knows.There’s something otherworldly about her; she’s also having an affair with Eli Cash (Owen Wilson, who also co-wrote the script), a childhood friend who writes terrible revisionist Western novels and is addicted to drugs, which supplants an even older addiction to the Tenenbaum family.  perhaps that’s why Richie is so obsessed with her. Chas, despite being a financial expert,who quickly turns his bedroom into a satellite office, is consumed by grief over the death of his wife, as well as bitterness toward his father; manifested in a BB lodged underneath one of his knuckles. This BB was fired amid a loss of trust, trust that Chas never rekindled.

Royal himself is the center of this eccentric universe of longing. He is a conniver, a philanderer. He’s a bastard, but not a heartless one. The thing that makes him, and Hackman’s brilliantly nuanced portrayal, so interesting is that he truly does love his family. He’s a lovable scoundrel, trying to manufacture his own narrative. He’s like “Rushmore”‘s Max Fischer in that fashion.

There is a lot going on in this film. It’s a low-key epic that jams in everything Anderson ever wanted to do as a filmmaker. This film is frequently hilarious, but this film has a core of darkness; all that sadness spills over, in Richie’s case it spills over into the bathroom sink (this scene is set to Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay,” which adds immeasurable poignancy given Smith’s own fate). Anderson writes in deadpan bursts, but his gift for casting allows him to find actors that know how to fill these brief exchanges with depths of feeling. The entire ensemble is extraordinary, even more so is the director himself. The gorgeous cinematography, the impeccable use of slow motion and tracking shots. I have a hard time deciding which Wes Anderson film is my favorite; there’s the inside-out coming-of-age fable in “Rushmore,” the gleefully absurd oceanic dive into the grieving process that is “Life Aquatic.” Even the stop-motion animated caper about familial responsibility that is “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Sic Transit Gloria, “Glory Fades,”  is a Latin phrase in “Rushmore,” but it could be the slogan for all of these films, or even be printed on the Tenenbaum family crest. There are those who find Anderson’s films artificial, stiff and insufferably “twee” or precious. The guy’s got his own rhythm, but there is one scene where I knew I was permanently dialed into his frequency.

Richie is back from sea, waiting at the airport. The Green Line bus pulls in and Margo, his obsession, they even ran away to an art museum as kids, steps off. The world slows down. The distorted picking of Jackson Browne’s guitar starts up, and the deep German-accented voice of Nico comes in singing “These Days.” Margo approaches the screen, bathed in sunlight, a rare, slight smile across her face, in slow motion. Richie is transfixed, a close-up of his face fills the screen.  We can see the longing in his eyes, even behind the oversized sunglasses. Even beyond the technical brilliance, there is a level of understanding of these characters that reverberates off the screen. This is one of my favorite scenes ever because it is a reminder of what makes movies great, especially this one. It doesn’t matter if characters, don’t look like we do, talk like we do, act like we do. After everything else, the Tenenbaums  feel like we do.


Personal Pantheon: Magnolia – 1999

“And if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite your whole territory with frogs.” -Exodus 8:2

The book says, “We might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”

Ricky Jay tells us of three stories about death; a suicide attempt, an freak occurrence involving a plane and a scuba diver, and a murder/mugging committed by three men who share the name of the scene of the crime. All of these are built upon extreme coincidence, but he argues that it isn’t wise to reduce everything to a “matter of chance.”

There are countless films that detail the effects that simple actions humans take may reverberate on others in ways we can’t possibly predict. Most of those movies (such as “Crash,” “Babel”) suck. They twist themselves into knots trying to bring all of the people and events together, the contrivances squeezing out any larger statements about destiny, faith, etc.

But what happens if you pour in Biblical references, generational bitterness, child abuse and cosmic sing-alongs to Aimee Mann songs? Paul Thomas Anderson, America’s preeminent filmmaking genius decided in 1999, at the spry age of 29 to follow up “Boogie Nights” with something even more audacious than the fall of a porno community; an operatic storm called “Magnolia,” a three-hour opus capturing the lives of broken people of different ages and stations over one stormy day in Los Angeles. What he came up with is one of the most unique and ambitious modern American movies, which stands out because in 2013 “unique” and “ambitious” are becoming scarce adjectives in Hollywood.

All of Anderson’s films are first and foremost about people; specifically how people exploit each other for ungainly needs. There is Daniel Plainview exploiting his son in “There Will Be Blood” to gain sympathy from prospective commoners waiting to be swindled. “Punch-Drunk Love” sees Adam Sandler get abused by his sisters which adds to his anti-social behavior. This trend has never been writ larger than in “Magnolia,” which looks at, among numerous other sociological concerns, how this parasitic treatment of children, spouses, etc. causes damage across generations.

Jimmy Gator (given a tragic weariness by Philip Baker Hall) is the dying host of the quiz show “What Do Kids Know?”; with only two months to live, he tries to reach out to his estranged daughter Claudia (Melora Waters) a high-strung wreck who tries to numb the pain of this troubled family history with sex and cocaine, but may have a chance of salvation when she meets Jim ( John C. Reilly, who can do soulful doofus better than anybody ), a good-hearted but lonely and painfully naive cop who sees right past the wreckage of Claudia’s personal life and starts to feel something for her.

“Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith (a heartbreaking William H. Macy) is a hapless former winner of “What Do Kids Know?” who’s been struck by lightning and horrible luck ever since his parents stole his prize money and left him with nothing but lust for a local bartender, who Donnie tries to impress by getting unnecessary braces for his teeth.

Stanley (Jeremy Blackman, one of the best child performances I’ve ever seen) is the current child prodigy dominating the show, forced by his cruel father (Michael Bowen) to sacrifice his own happiness to compete for prize money he will likely never see. The show’s producer Earl Partridge (the great Jason Robards in his final performance) is on his deathbed, ravaged with cancer, being taken care of by his devoted nurse Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his guilt-stricken wife Linda (a mannered but ultimately devastating Julianne Moore), who disappears into a sea of pills to quell her guilt over the numerous infidelities she’s committed. Earl has one dying wish: to reconcile with his estranged son Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise, blowing up his movie-star persona), a misogynist lunatic who teaches a seminar called “Seek and Destroy,” telling impotent men to “respect the cock and tame the cunt.” But a TV interview will unleash emotional turmoil he’s kept under lock and key his entire life.

And on top of all the hell these people are going through, gray clouds are forming over the City of Angels.

For the next three hours, “Magnolia” depicts the enlightenment and in some cases damnation of these wayward souls. This film feels like a modern opera, with its grand emotional crescendos, and a thundering score by Jon Brion. It isn’t an accident that a segment of Mozart’s “Carmen” shows up on the soundtrack as well. But the focus on this movie is about how these characters deal with turmoil created by the people around them, especially when children are involved.

Take Jimmy Gator, who has a truckload of demons to go along with his Emmys. His attempt to reconcile with his daughter Claudia fails, and he can’t stand the fact that he is near death and he’s going to spend the rest of his time going through the duldrums of hosting this showcase to exploit spoiled child prodigies. The bags under Hall’s basset hound eyes seem to get bigger scene by scene. Throw in the secrets he’s keeping from his wife (Melinda Dillon) and we have a man who wants to atone for his past mistakes, both as a parent and as a husband, but he isn’t prepared for the blowback.

Claudia is a shattered mess. She screams madness at her father when he confesses that he’s dying, and the cocaine she inhales like crazy makes her seem like a feral animal, who blasts Aimee Mann to drown out the nightmares of her past and present. Jim comes to her apartment to see about a noise complaint, and all of Claudia’s jittering, high-strung tendencies seem to bounce off him. He tries to do good in the world, but he is lost within his own optimism. A young black boy delivers rap that contains information about a recent murder to him, but he doesn’t hear it, he gets hung up over the racial slurs and the profanity. He is well-meaning, but he can’t seem to process what’s really happening with Claudia, or the world around him.

This is one of the primary themes of “Magnolia”: people trying to do the right thing (at least their idea of it) and finding that it may actually make things worse, specifically the bonds between children and their parents. Such as when Phil tries to contact Frank to reconcile with Earl, who is finally coming to terms with how horribly he treated his family for much of his life. Much to the chagrin of Linda. Linda can no longer live with herself, her guilt over cheating on Earl while cancer ravages him is breaking her down, typified by a scene where she goes on a hysterical screed against some judgmental pharmacists.

Then there are the other children in this movie. Stanley is a genius, able to answer all of the ridiculously complicated questions on “What Do Kids Know” before Gator even finishes reading them. But he’s tired of it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jeremy Blackman’s face bears a strange resemblance to Maria Falconetti’s in Carl Dreyer’s immortal 1928 silent film “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” Both are the subjects of great suffering; Stanley is forced by his asshat of a father (Michael Bowen) to be on this show and the other kid contestants make him answer all of the questions. It’s when the producers refuse to let Stanley go to the bathroom during the show that he finally breaks down and has his own personal reckoning. Blackman’s performance is amazing; his expressive, pale face able to represent all sorts of sadness, embarrassment and frustration.

Donnie Smith does not get to publicly destroy the show that defined and ruined his life. He sits in a bar longing for a bartender who doesn’t even notice him, he just lost his job and he engages in a philosophical debate with an older patron (Henry Gibson), who also has feelings for the bartender. Donnie is what may happen to Stanley if he confuses exploitation with happiness. The patron warns Donnie that it’s “dangerous to confuse children with angels.” But what Donnie and Anderson are arguing for in “Magnolia” is that this is bullshit; the destruction of children’s lives can have reverberations across decades.

None more so than one Frank T.J. Mackey. His “Seduce and Destroy” seminar teaches men to destroy any and all feeling toward women; they are meant for sex and nothing more. One poster says to think of them as “sperm receptacles.” The seminar scenes are powered by the crazed energy that only Tom Cruise can bring. But then during a TV interview with an intrepid reporter his past, and his own nature, are exposed as lies. I single out Cruise because his performance, far and away the best he’s ever given, is emblematic for the whole movie. Not because Anderson slowly deconstructs and explodes Cruise’s singular movie-star charisma. Mackey is, like Stanley, Donnie and Claudia, a scared, broken and angry child, forced to take care of his dying mother as a teenager and then watch her die while his father abandoned them, then spent his life teaching others not to have emotional connections with women; it’s how he avoids catharsis, by turning everyone around him into sociopaths. Mackey’s confrontation with Earl (given a powerful, Lear-like portrayal by Robards, who died not long after the film’s release) is shattering. Mackey becomes a boy, howling for love and approval, knowing he will never get it.

P.T. Anderson was 29 when he made this movie, and already his command of the medium was breathtaking. Later films like “The Master” and “There Will Be Blood” were slowed-down, almost eerie in their minimalism. But “Magnolia” shows Anderson still in pastiche mode, with odes to Scorsese and especially Robert Altman showing up repeatedly. But this mournful, operatic tale is bursting with energy. I’m amazed that cinematographer Robert Elswit didn’t collapse from exhaustion on the set, since the camerawork is so dizzying; zooming, circling, tracking and all sorts of other gymnastics in service of the wunderkind Anderson’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink vision. His use of music is also peerless, with the Wagnerian heft of Brion’s score and the jaunty melancholy in Aimee Mann’s original songs.

Anderson’s craft, in concert with his screenplay, shows a filmmaker who cares deeply about people, whether they be decent, monstrous, dying or all of the above. These lives build toward happiness and despair, typified by the group sing along to Mann’s “Wise Up,” a piano-driven plea for inner strength. We think we know how these stories are going to wrap up.

And then “chance” intervenes, and something extraordinary happens.

The Biblical downpour that closes this film strikes some as pretentious and nonsensical. But it makes total sense, not just because of the allusions in countless scenes to the quote from Exodus at the top of this review. It hits home that something cosmic, maybe God or maybe just unusual weather patterns, can intrude on humanity when we least expect it. Some of these people find peace in the storm’s wake; others find death, damnation, abandonment. Anderson is our generation’s most gifted director and “Magnolia” is still his wildest and most profoundly human film to date because it throws everything that encompasses the human experience into the world of these characters, both literally and figuratively raining it down upon them. The only thing we can do in the face of chance and wild coincidence is to bring an umbrella.

Personal Pantheon: The Age of Innocence – 1993

“You gave me my first glimpse of a real life. Then you asked me to go on with the false one.”

Martin Scorsese said once that he considers “The Age of Innocence,” his 1993 adaptation of Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about forbidden love and the rigidness of New York aristocracy in the 1870’s, to be his most violent film. That’s saying something for the man behind the blood-soaked masterpieces such as “Goodfellas” and “Taxi Driver.” What Scorsese is referring to is emotional violence, which there was plenty of in New York high society at the time, unwilling to break free from the bonds of European expectations.

But in this story of forbidden love, guilt and trying and failing to break free from a mob-like social system, Scorsese crafts one of his greatest films, one that actually fits into his filmography like a finely powdered glove even though it looks like a Masterpiece Theatre-aping outlier on first glance. Why was Scorsese the perfect choice for this material? Because he understands how high and low classes of people, particularly in New York, abuse and collide with each other. There isn’t a syllable of profanity, a single drop of blood or bullet fired in this film, which works as an uptown companion piece with “Goodfellas.” But these unpaved streets can be just as mean.

Newland Archer (the peerless Daniel Day-Lewis) seems to have it all figured out. He’s a successful lawyer and he’s about to be married to May Welland (Winona Ryder) the perfectly pleasant heiress to another branch of the aristocratic tree. He is content to spend the rest of his days immersed in his countless books, trips to the opera house, annual balls and the streams of gossip that make teenage girls look infinitely respectful of discretion in comparison. But a pale, blue-eyed lightning bolt is about to strike this small, impenetrable universe in the person of Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer in her finest hour), who has just fled Europe and the tyrannical count she married in the hopes of being welcomed back by her family, which of course sends ripples of scandal through the upper crust. Ellen is a free thinker, with a clear idea of what she wants with an admittedly naive understanding of how her behavior affects her family.

Newland is instantly captivated by her; we get a sense that he’s growing tired of the minutia that dominates the lives of this aristocracy, and Ellen is the manifestation of everything he wants to express but can’t. Ellen lights a romantic fire in him that May, however innocent and safe she may be, does not. His attraction to her is organic, not another piece of familial business.

This may sound like “First World Problems: 1870s Edition.” And one may wonder why a director who makes movies about criminal underworlds and unchecked male aggression would be so interested in the delicate business Wharton’s novel dealt with. But the brilliance of Scorsese’s adaptation, which he co-wrote with Jay Cocks, is that this story fits his auteurist characteristics perfectly. The aristocracy isn’t far removed from the Mob families in “Mean Streets” or “Goodfellas.”  They distrust outsiders, they are lorded over by their own version of the Five Families, with Mrs. Mingot (played by the great Miriam Margolyes) as a corpulent Don Corleone who is the perfect grandmother on the surface but is utterly ruthless underneath the jewelry and pomeranians. Their stuffy adherence to being proper does little to mask their lack of mercy when it comes to radical practices like divorce, speaking out of turn, etc.

In that way, Newland Archer isn’t too far off from Henry Hill in “Goodfellas.” They may be polar opposites in personality and temperament, but they are both men who slowly realize that the world that protects them is indeed a prison. Henry gets out due to selfishness and saving his own ass, but Newland’s awakening is spurred on by his burning desire for Ellen, which begins as a curious attraction and morphs into all-consuming love that consumes his tempered nature, like nothing before. “The Age of Innocence” isn’t a spiritual cousin of “Goodfellas” just in theme, but also in form. The latter film is often cited as Scorsese’s stylistic showpiece, but “Age” is just as stylish, with Michael Ballhaus’ camera swirling and observing like an unseen character, with splashes of yellow and the trademark blood red enveloping the screen to create a film that transcends any and all period-piece stereotypes to create something truly alive, perhaps the most emotionally expressive filmmaking Scorsese has ever done. It’s got all the trademarks; the camera glides like a dancer over every scene, Thelma Schoonmaker’s peerless editing creates a whirlwind of imagery, Elmer Bernstein’s moving score has an air of tragedy underneath those groaning cellos and in a masterstroke of narrative technique, there is voice-over narration from Joanne Woodward, who drops in and reads passages from the book, adding to the foreignness of this world, and how vital it is for Newland and Ellen to make their own way through it.

The narration could’ve been a deadly gambit, but voiceover perfectly suits Scorsese’s style, with his use of fragmented editing and montage. It’s reminiscent of the narration in Orson Welles’ “Magnificent Ambersons” in how it captures the melancholy. But for all the bravura flourishes and subtle wit with how Scorsese and Wharton make fun of the painfully trivial dinner conversations these people have, this is a story of three people on different sections of the complacency spectrum. Day-Lewis (the best actor alive, in my opinion) slowly builds Newland’s disregard for his universe. He never has to raise his voice to get across the guilt, frustration and aching sadness that builds up within him. Subtle gestures define him; the emptiness in his smile whenever he is intimate with May contrasts with the passion in his eyes whenever he is with Ellen. Day-Lewis can disappear into an exaggerated character better than anyone, but his naturalistic approach is the antithesis of his more operatic performances in “Gangs of New York” and “There Will Be Blood,” and all the more effective for it. We see a man who starts to feel trapped by the oversized ballrooms and perfectly tailored suits.

It’s understandable how one would be willing to throw a life away for the Countess Olenska (the prototypical Manic Pixie Dream Girl), especially in this environment. Pfeiffer is brilliant in capturing what is alluring about Ellen; her independence, her amusement over how pointless this lifestyle really is, her disinterest in making sure she has everyone’s approval. But she also nails what is flawed about this woman; the aristocracy game is rigged, especially with women seeking a divorce, forcing Ellen to depend on those who despise her for financial support, especially when her estranged husband makes attempts at buying her back. She’s like Harvey Keitel’s epileptic girlfriend in “Mean Streets;” kept in chains by the ruling party because of her differences. At first she tries to resist Newland’s pining, out of respect for her cousin May. But she can’t resist, as she finally has someone who is just as self-aware and beyond the New York environment as she is. Their passion finally manifests physically, in a beautiful scene in a claustrophobic carriage where Newland takes one of her cloves off and gently kisses her exposed hand; it’s the most erotic display of affection these two can share under these circumstances. Newland asks her to run away with him where gossip and propriety mean nothing, to which she responds “Where is that country?” Newland thinks he can ease his passion for Ellen by moving up his wedding date with May, but he knows deep down this may be fruitless.

Those watching this for the first time may be put off by Ryder’s performance as May, but as the story unfolds you realize how deliberate the more annoying qualities about May; her ever-present smile, her disinterest in anything outside of her immediate worldview, the overbearing wide-eyed innocence that emanates from how she speaks, looks, etc., really are. Newland and May tell themselves their marriage isn’t arranged, but this is a fool’s errand. Newland definitely cares for May, and he tries to leave her out of his personal turmoil. But May isn’t as dumb as she looks; she’s a product of this restrictive environment, and as we learn that May has a final turn of the screw that ruins Newland’s dreams for freedom and reveals a near Machiavellian cunning. Ryder’s performance grows in power as this 1% Mafia basically “whacks” this romantic dissent, underlining the cold irony of the film’s title.

All of this culminates in one of the best scenes in any Scorsese movie; an older Newland is in Paris with his oldest son Ted (Robert Sean Leonard), who is about to be married. He tells Newland that before May died, she told him that the children were safe with Newland, “once when she asked you to, you gave up the thing you wanted most.” Newland responds simply: “She never asked me.” This emotional crescendo is underlined by the final shot, with Newland once more walking away from the possibility of true love, on that overcast street in Paris.

“The Age of Innocence” is one of the great modern romances because unlike the virulent sickness that is Nicholas Sparks, this is a tragic love story with adult concerns, that isn’t wrapped up in bromides or cheap tear-jerking. This film is as vibrant and emotionally bruising as Martin Scorsese’s more celebrated work because it too is a collision between desire and duty, an expose of an idealic world that is only idealic if you leave your beating heart at the door, and gunfire is replaced by whispers.


Personal Pantheon: Blood Simple – 1985

“Now, in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else… that’s the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas, an’ down here… you’re on your own.”

Not surprising for a pair of Jewish filmmakers, but Joel and Ethan Coen’s best movies have always contained some Old Testament-style judgment of their characters. Their best work is rife with crime, immoral behavior, adultery and ignoring or betraying your fellow man. If you go after some illicit money in one of their movies, chances are you’ll only be alive for another 100 minutes or so.

There is a certain kind of crime story that the Coens have been tinkering with for over 30 years: it usually involves people on the low end of the intelligence totem pole trying to procure some money for their own needs or to punish someone else, a plan which then goes disastrously wrong and the murderers, thieves and cheating hearts usually face outlandish forms of divine retribution. They perfected several distinct versions of this story with “Fargo,” the Cormac McCarthy adaptation “No Country for Old Men,” “The Big Lebowski” and the criminally underseen “The Man Who Wasn’t There” all come to mind, but everything these gleefully perverse siblings have done to secure their place in the Pantheon of modern American directors can be traced back to the Texas-scuzz noir of “Blood Simple,” their 1985 debut that stands as a launching pad for their singular brand of damnation.

Set in a non-descript, sweltering town somewhere in Texas, “Blood Simple” is about Marty (Dan Hedaya, a master of glowering sleaze) a local bartender who suspects his young wife Abby (Frances McDormand, still in ingenue mode, making her film debut), may be cheating on him with Ray (John Getz, playing a classic B-movie lunkhead) one of his dim-witted bartenders. He then does what all loving husbands concerned about their spouses do; hire Visser (a terrifying M. Emmett Walsh) the seediest private detective in history, to follow Ray and Abby and then kill them both. There’s a $10,000 price for ending this unholy matrimony, and Visser has a plan that really comes down to common sense; why do you need to keep someone alive after they pay you, especially if they’ll go to jail along with you if you get caught? It’s at this point when the Coens love of Murphy’s Law (everything that can go wrong, probably will) goes into overdrive and the lives of all these people are destroyed with reckless abandon, with allusions to Wilder, Kubrick and even Sam Raimi’s “The Evil Dead” (which the Coens worked on).

“Blood Simple” is a great showcase of the time before the Coens became elder statesmen; this is there “Mean Streets,” their “Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle.” They’re not afraid to swing the camera every which way knowing that they have the storytelling mastery to justify every stylistic flourish. This material is the pulpiest of pulp, and you can see its influence in films like “Pulp Fiction” and other works from the American indie resurgence of the late 80’s/early 90’s.

What I love about the Coens work, especially in “Blood Simple” is how merciless they are in showing how easily crime can turn to disaster; they’ve figured out how to make idiocy visceral. Ray, who’s not exactly on MENSA’s short list (Getz is a bit wooden, but it’s perfect for the character), must dispose of a body in a public place, while the blood pools all around him. The blood in this film doesn’t quite look like real blood. It’s darker, more viscous, impossible to completely wash away (Barry Sonnenfeld, back before he was a director, was one hell of a cinematographer and this is a gorgeously shot movie, despite the shoestring budget). Ray tries to clean up the blood with his windbreaker, but it just smears it around. As he moves the body, blood drips on the floor. He hides the body in his car, and it seeps through the blankets he laid over the seats. Even bigger problem; what if the corpse is still living? The Coens’ perspective on crime is summed up perfectly in this sequence: crime is bad, but more importantly, it’s a hell of a lot of work, that will probably turn you into a paranoid, sweaty mess.

This movie is plenty sweaty, but it’s the farthest thing from a mess. “Blood Simple” is so tightly constructed you can see every vein and tendon of its structure. The camerawork is impeccable, even when it indulges in the swooping tracking shots that their friend Sam Raimi used liberally in “The Evil Dead.” Their penchant for locational beauty is also fully-formed, using the hazy Texas landscape to great effect, and creating indelible images as simple as light and smoke pouring through bullet holes in the Hitchcock-aping finale.  Nobody writes dialogue like these two, and this is some of their leanest, most naturalistic writing, not leaning too heavily on philosophical allegory like some of their later films have. They also get great performances. Frances McDormand, Joel Coen’s wife and on-screen muse, had not yet become the steely, confident actress who was able to bring characters like Marge Gunderson in “Fargo” to life, but she acquits herself admirably for a first-time leading lady, bringing just the right amount of terror and sexuality to this lustful housewife. You can’t really blame her for cheating on Marty, especially since Hedaya makes him such a desperate, angry and pathetic louse, with his glower and short temper likely over-compensating for his impotency.

Looming over all of them? M. Emmett Walsh, a disgusting yet affable monster as Visser. Flies buzz around his sweat-stained suit and hat; in fact he sweats so copiously it feels like you can smell him through the screen. Visser is like the crazy redneck uncle of “No Country for Old Men’s” Anton Chigurh, but no less homicidal, endlessly pursuing anyone who inconveniences him or threatens his financial opportunities, while taking time to tell anecdotes about the meaning of true love or the socioeconomic structure of Soviet Russia.

Visser isn’t the only thing that bears hallmarks of what the Coens would hone to diamond-like perfection as their careers went on. The scene with Ray moving the body is done again in Fargo. The shot of somebody’s feet blocking out the light coming through the bottom of the door is also re-used in “No Country.” “Blood Simple” remains an immense pleasure because we are seeing the blueprint of a filmmaking oeuvre that 28 years later has let to be duplicated. This opening shot is a masterpiece because of the beautiful filmmaking, the amazing dialogue, the archetype-destroying characters. But it’s the first chapter of the story these two sons of Minnesota haven’t stopped telling. Crime will not only destroy you, but these insane siblings, like Visser in that great final shot, will be laughing at all the madness.

Personal Pantheon: The Hurt Locker – 2009

“War is a drug.”

That quote, which is the first thing we see in Kathryne Bigelow’s Oscar-winning film “The Hurt Locker,” establishes the mission statement for the whole movie. In Baghdad, circa 2004, the bomb disposal unit of the Army’s Bravo Company has just lost their by-the-book team leader (Guy Pearce) to a roadside bomb. His replacement is a true wild-card: Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), who treats each bomb he encounters as another opportunity to receive the hit of adrenaline that comes with defusing it; it makes him feel more alive than any of this fellow soldiers. It’s his own personal kind of combat high.

“The Hurt Locker” is fairly unusual as far as modern war movies go. It doesn’t really have much of a plot, it doesn’t feature grand speeches on the nature of heroism in the face of war and its main characters aren’t exactly the most noble group of guys. I saw first saw this film around the time its Oscar blitz, and I appreciated what it tried to do, but I didn’t fully embrace what the film tried to do. Last night I watched it for the first time since 2010, and after 130 sense-pulverizing minutes, the staggering achievement of Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal came into full fruition. “The Hurt Locker” is a war film that deals with the affects war can have on those in it. Some are consumed by it, and some become addicted to it (hence the opening quote).

Sgt. James, played with a haunted swagger by Renner in his career-making role, lives for his job as a bomb-defusing god. While his comrades’ nerves are on a tightrope, he lives for the threat of going up in flames if just one of the tangle of wires is removed improperly. He is a true daredevil; he turns off his radio, refuses to wear the enormous protective suit and treats any and all safety protocols like a nuisance, much to the chagrin of Sgt. Sanborn (another great performance by Anthony Mackie), who just wants the team to make it through the final 38 days of their rotation in one piece. The third volatile piece of this team is Specialist Owen Eldridge (a surprisingly effective Brian Geraghty), who frequently meets with a counselor to discuss his unease over constantly being confronted with life and death; war electrifies James, but it does the opposite to Eldridge. This trio runs the gamut of perspectives when it comes to war.

The film’s structure, and by extension Boal’s Oscar-winning script, appears to be fairly bare-bones. We see this team going on mission after mission, trying to stay above the Iraq war’s deadly grind. But this episodic structure contains multitudes. “The Hurt Locker” works masterfully as both an action movie and as a character study of these three damaged men, with Boal’s journalistic background and Bigelow’s virtuoso filmmaking technique working perfectly in sync.

Boal’s script specifically wisely avoids the quicksand of sanctimony and easy political judgments that claimed so many of the other films about the Iraq war. “The Hurt Locker” is about a job, not a holy mission. That is personified in Sgt. James, who is about as far removed from typical war movie protagonists, like “Saving Private Ryan’s” Captain Miller, as you can get. Both men have families back home, but James isn’t driven by his estranged wife and newborn son. He lives for the rush of defeating death, not for the comforts of family. He keeps the fuses of the bombs he’s defused under his bed, trophies of his conquests over mortality, to go along with the frag scars that cover his chest. He’s not a hero, he’s a sociopath. This man needs the war, but he’s not completely closed off from humanity. He does try to help Eldridge overcome his fears when they stake out a sniper, and he befriends “Beckham,” a teenage boy who sells bootleg DVDs. His humanity is put on the back burner, replaced by his junkie-like need to play chicken with death.

“The Hurt Locker” is a masterpiece of “show don’t tell.” And with how Bigelow presents the ungodly suspense that comes with defusing bombs, this movie really fucking shows. This is one of the last decades’ most explosive displays of filmmaking artistry. Hand-held cameras are everywhere, but in stark contrast to so many other modern action movies, this film is incredibly coherent. The rattles of gunfire, the sweat-soaked dismantling of the roadside bombs, even the eerily quiet showdown with the desert sniper are all wrung dry of all the suspense they can possibly deliver, as scenes from every conceivable direction are piled on top of each other to knock us senseless. You are right along with the team’s internal and external chaos. Bigelow throws a hand-grenade into the boys club of action movie directors and masters the form, reigniting her stagnant career and reminding everyone that the former Mrs. James Cameron is a great film artist in her own right.

James and his team slowly descend further into their own hell, and when a personal tragedy finally rattles James, his resolve goes haywire, and what each of these men thought about their situation changes drastically. The performances by Mackie and Geraghty, two sides of a conscience that Sgt. James has surpressed, and the brilliant work by Renner as a man who becomes so dependent on the risk of combat that he grows numb to his own family, are extraordinary. They complete the achievement of the film’s goal to present the hell of war in as straightforward a fashion as possible. It all culminates with the film’s coda, with James lost in that endless supermarket, the minutia of domestic life more harrowing than anything in Iraq. He’s a slave to the rush, as exemplified by the smile on his face in the film’s final shot. War is a drug, and there is no detox for him.

Personal Pantheon: Brick – 2006

“No, bulls would gum it. They’d flash their dusty standards at the wide-eyes and probably find some yegg to pin, probably even the right one. But they’d trample the real tracks and scare the real players back into their holes, and if we’re doing this I want the whole story. No cops, not for a bit.”

There is a reason film noir will never die as a film genre: noir is a perfectly cinematic world, littered with dark shadows, characters who are ambiguous, tragic and electric at the same time, the thrill of the detective’s chase and the criminals they are chasing, and language so pungent and stylized that the words feel more like bullets than the ones fired from the ever-present guns.

But like all genres, noir can get stagnant; occasionally you need a visionary’s perspective to bring it back to life, and bring something new to the table. “The Maltese Falcon,” both Dashiell Hammett’s novel and John Huston’s film, exposed the fragility of human decency in the face of greed. “Chinatown” saw Roman Polanski and writer Robert Towne re-wire it for America’s early-70’s hangover and the apathy and cynicism that defined it. Curtis Hanson’s “L.A. Confidential” taunted the notion of “heroism” by finding it in the cess-pool of corruption, and Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” shattered investigative procedure and narrative continuity into a million pieces that the central character could never re-assemble. In 2006, a first-time filmmaker named Rian Johnson made a little movie called “Brick,” which did something even more audacious: set a hard-boiled Chandler-esque detective story in a modern-day California high school.

That notion may sound ridiculous at first. How could crime noir work in a California high school, two things that have nothing in common? I mean, noir is defined by a wide-ranging gallery of characters and personalities, social hierarchies, backstabbing, double-crosses, a language so stylized and filled with slang that it sounds indecipherable to . Johnson finally made that connection too, and the greatness of “Brick” comes from these two settings coming together like interlocking jigsaw pieces.

Our gumshoe/dick/shamus/detective in this story is Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who we first meet crouched in mourning outside of a sewer tunnel, with the dead body of a young blonde girl at his feet. Flash back a couple of days and we see Brendan, who is still a high school student, receiving a panicked phone call from Emily, his ex-girlfriend who had recently gone missing, saying that she was in trouble. She says she was involved with something involving “the pin” and a “bad brick.” Brendan, who likens himself to be an investigator, starts asking around the various cliques in his high school, a wide-ranging lions den of jocks, actresses and junkies, looking for any piece of information. The only ally in his quest is The Brain (Matt O’Leary), the nerd who basically lives in the library to look up information for Brendan. As Brendan tries to find out more about Emily, and the dangerous world she was sucked into that sealed her fate, he gets sucked into a labyrinth of mistrust and cons.

That labyrinth, consisting of every element that this high school world is built upon, is the strength of “Brick.” Rian Johnson obviously knows his crime noir, specifically Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but he also knows how to tie this dark, grown-up genre to a high school setting. The basic conceit behind that is very simple: teenagers think high school can be a dangerous, nefarious battleground. In “Brick,” high school  actually is a dangerous, nefarious battleground. All it takes are some stakes the make this movie’s genre cocktail work.

The first thing that jumps out at you in “Brick” is the language. Noir dialogue is tough, fast, and bares little resemblance to how people actually talk. Cops are “bulls,” men are “yeggs,” women are “dames” so on and so forth. It is all delivered lightning fast; the dialogue flies so fast and the plot gets so complex that if you’re watching it for the first time you might actually need to turn on subtitles. Johnson isn’t going to hold your hand through the whole film. Noirs of the ’40s and ’50s trusted audiences to keep up with the story; “Brick” doesn’t spell anything out; which means when things do come together, there is a greater impact in watching the puzzle unfurl.

With an extremely limited budget, “Brick” is a marvel of DIY-filmmaking. Rian Johnson obviously knew that Hollywood cranked out hundreds of super low-budget noirs (a movement known as Poverty Row), so he realized that it didn’t take a ton of resources to create this world. “Brick” is evocatively shot, with the washed-out colors and looming shadows in the long hallways of the high school suggest the moral ambiguity and creeping menace that constantly surrounds these characters. A strange, deceptively simple score also adds to the low-key cool that makes up this film; but none of it feels like a put-on, since the eclectic cast of characters illuminate a devastating emotional core that keeps “Brick” from being a pretentious stunt.

And this is one hell of a cast of characters. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in his breakout role, inhabits Brendan like a second skin. It’s a captivating, intuitive performance that takes the best elements of the detectives of the past, specifically Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon,” while making Brendan the perfect conduit for this somewhat surreal universe.  He has a very interesting look to him; his glasses bring into focus eyes that seem to take in everything in sight, his clothes look like there a size to big, he gets the shit kicked out of him several times and just keeps coming. Despite his meager appearance, Gordon-Levitt puts so much conviction and gravitas into Brendan with such little apparent effort; that naturalism has fed into one of the most extraordinary and diverse streaks of acting excellence over the last half decade (please, please check out “The Lookout” and especially “50/50”). The kid from Angels in the Outfield is all grown up.

Brendan is in almost every frame of this movie, so he is our guide through this strange, alternate high-school universe. The typical high school cliques: the jocks, the theater geeks, the stoners, are all treated like self-contained gangs, similar to a typical criminal underworld. The mystery of Emily’s disappearance has Brendan interacting with all of them, trying to piece together the strange phone call that is his only clue. He reports to the vice principal (played by Richard Roundtree, that’s right, Shaft himself), who treats him like a police chief treats a renegade detective. He gets beaten down by cocky football players, seduced by duplicitous actresses, hunted by drug-dealing lackies of The Pin (Lukas Haas), and of course runs into a femme fatale: Laura (Nora Zehetner), a member of the “upper crust” of rich kids. Laura is a mystery. She’s a member of the group that may have played a part in Emily’s disappearance, but she seems interested in helping Brendan, whose only other ally is Brain (O’Leary is very solid as a deliberately one-dimensional character) and . The character of Laura, and Zehetner’s performance, reminded me of Mary Astor as Bridget O’Shaughnessy, also from “The Maltese Falcon.” Like Sam Spade with Bridget, Brendan knows that he can’t trust Laura, but he doesn’t have a choice; he also knows how much of a mistake this can be, and the finale finds him coming to terms with her actions, and his own feelings for her, in a way that leaves them both shattered.

That darkness that creeps in, as Brendan fights to find the truth behind the fate of Emily’s damaged, fragile soul (De Ravin, who was one of the weak points of “Lost,” is surprisingly effective with only a couple of scenes), and tries to avoid the schemes of The Pin (Haas is extremely creepy, channeling Peter Lorre) is why “Brick” is a triumph, not a stunt. High schoolers can be as jaded and cynical as the adults in this genre. Johnson kick-started his career in style, throwing the rules right out of the window. “Brick” isn’t about kids playing dress up: it’s about recognizing that this genre can stretch from back alleys to cafeterias, from rain-soaked streets to locker rooms. Outsiders dealing with life and death can come from anywhere.

Personal Pantheon: Adventureland – 2009

“Nobody ever wins a giant-ass panda.”

There are many things that can run through the mind of a college graduate in the weeks following commencement. There is the Everest-sized mountain of student loans on the horizon, the debate over whether or not to find a terrible job to save some money as opposed to finding one in your desired field, realizing that maybe you should’ve majored in something else when you had the chance, how much money you will need to get out of your parents’ house, etc. There is an adjustment period that stems from the fact that for the first time since you were four years old, the entire year hasn’t already been mapped out by educational endeavors. After the pomp and circumstance, one may ask themselves: now what the fuck do I do?

Few movies capture these emotions more perfectly than Greg Mottola’s, autobiographical, bittersweet comedy “Adventureland.” Even though it takes place at a rundown Pittsburgh amusement park in 1987, it provides characters and problems that can’t be constrained by nostalgic window-dressing. I fell in love with this movie before the Miramax logo even left the screen: the anthemic swagger within the opening riff of The Replacement’s “Bastards of Young” gives a taste of the film’s frustrated yet spirited atmosphere (Note to Hollywood: if you want me to love a movie, stick The Replacements and Big Star on the soundtrack).

In that song, Paul Westerberg sings “God, what a mess, on the ladder of success/Where you take one step and miss the whole first rung.” These words will be an apt description of James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg). He’s just graduated from college with a degree in literature studies. James is very intelligent, socially awkward and refuses to lower his standards for women; so of course he is still a virgin. He plans on spending the summer in Europe with his friends and getting a Master’s degree in journalism at Columbia in the fall. These plans hit a snag when James’ dad is transferred to another job and is unable to help James pay for his trip and school. James is forced to cancel his trip to Europe and find a summer job, which as every college graduate knows, is easier said than done. He is forced to settle for a job running games at Adventureland, the run-down local amusement park, run by SNL cast members Bill Hader and Kirsten Wiig. All the rides at this place are in various states of disrepair, and nearly all the games are rigged, mostly because the owners can’t afford to buy more prizes. Here is where he meets Joel (Martin Starr, stealing scenes with little to no effort), a sarcastic intellectual who dryly and bluntly observes the ridiculousness of his surroundings, and Em (Kristen Stewart), the easy-going, detached girl who quickly steals James’ heart. But Em is at first more interested in Connell (Ryan Reynolds, playing against type), the older maintenance man who puts on a pathetic facade of coolness (he claims to have played with Lou Reed).

The film is about how these unique characters interact with each other over one very tumultuous summer at this faded, run-down park. There are two key components that make “Adventureland” transcend the trappings of an overy familiar genre. The biggest being the overwhelming sense of authenticity in the film’s time and place. Mottola based the story on his own experiences working at a similar park in Long Island after he graduated from college in the mid-80’s, so the movie feels like a rich slice of life. Adventureland the park almost becomes a character itself; you can smell the fried corn dogs and cotton candy and hear the creaks of the rusted-out rides, along with the horrid mid-80’s music blaring from the fading speakers all day long. But this film can appeal to anyone who had to work a summer job. I worked at a Mobil gas station the summer before I left for college, and I had to deal with situations similar to what James has to deal with: uncooperative customers, music repeated so much you start to think the company is playing it just to punish you (in this film it was the immortal “Amadeus” by   Falco, while I had to put up with “Hotel California” by The Eagles for 3 months), but I never developed a relationship with one of my co-workers like James and Em do. Everything about this movie feels lived-in, not sterile. Even though it takes place in 1987, the movie isn’t defined by 80’s nostalgia. There are some digs at the music and fashion of the time, but they don’t dominate the story, they become part of the overall landscape. The soundtrack is dominated by 80’s alt-rock, some of the greatest music ever made, which adds to the movie’s wistful, funny and charming spirit.

But the other major component that makes the film so great and so relatable are the characters themselves. Em, James and Joel are all college-age; the fact that everyone in this movie is out of high school adds a level of maturity and wisdom, as well as dramatic heft. All of the adults are clueless and self-obsessed, they have no connection to the generation they gave birth too. Also, none of these characters really know how they want to proceed in life. James has plans to be a travel journalist, but he tells these plans to people like he spent weeks memorizing them. You can imagine the bullet points next each statement he makes about following in Charles Dickens’ footsteps and whatnot. James would be insufferable if Eisenberg didn’t nail this character exactly right, but thankfully he does. He plays James like a watered-down mix of Holden Caulfield and Woody Allen, although with slightly better people skills. His funny and nuanced portrayal creates a character who finds that the real world can’t be studied in a literature class. His relationship with Em opens up his worldview, even though he doesn’t know how to make it work all the time, which leads to him being tempted by the flirtatious Lisa P (Margarita Levieva). She isn’t put off by James’ sweet and cerebral nature nor his sexual inexperience. She’s attending NYU, but she is also lost and confused. Her mother is dead and she is stuck at home with a wildly conceited stepmother, and she finds a release in her sexual encounters with Connell, who is 10 years older, married and is living off a faded and fraudulent notion that his experience makes him the epitome of cool (Reynolds doesn’t get enough to do, but his low-key work does add some dimension to this scumbag).

Kristen Stewart continues to get a bad rap as an actress. She is terrible in the Twilight movies, but that’s because she is horribly miscast, her passivity doesn’t work in the overheated sexual turmoil that dominates those movies (and because Bella is one of the worst characters in the history of books and movies, but that’s another discussion). But in films as diverse as David Fincher’s “Panic Room” and Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild,” her subtle, minimalist approach can speak volumes. Her work in “Adventureland” is among her best,  hiding a world of hurt, confusion and disappointment behind her sullen exterior. Her bond with James is the soul of the movie, since these two characters find what they are looking for in each other.

Most of the movie’s comedy comes from Martin Starr as Joel. His cutting, deadpan wit and obsession with obscure literature convey another relatable aspect of post-college life: not being able to find an outlet for you field of study and other interests. Not a lot of job opportunities for experts on Russian literature. Starr finds the unbridled frustration beneath all the humor.

I feel like this movie hasn’t been seen by enough people. This film was marketed as another teen sex comedy, similar to “Superbad” (also directed by Mottola). But “Adventureland” is so much more than that. It is a comedy at heart, one that is funny, wise, sad and quietly moving, because it laces with humor at the expense of its time and place with experience and grace. Coming-of-age stories continue to be relevant because everybody can find one to their liking; the raging rebel with too many causes that is Holden Caulfield in “Catcher in the Rye,” the overachieving, odd Max Fischer in “Rushmore,” the precocious journalist that is William Miller in “Almost Famous.” Now that I’ve graduated, “Adventureland” is more relatable and knowing than ever. John Lennon once said that life is what happens to you when you’re making other plans. These characters have other plans, and “Adventureland” documents all the life that comes out of them. Just remember that nobody ever wins a giant-ass panda.

Below are some of my favorite songs from this movie. If you don’t love The Replacements, I feel sorry for you.