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Rating History

Almost Famous
Almost Famous (2000)
6 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

My favourite scenes in "Almost Famous" are those shared between Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and 15-year-old burgeoning rock journalist William Miller (Patrick Fugit). William is based on director Cameron Crowe, while Bangs is based on Bangs, the rock critic best know for putting Creem magazine on the map. He died at 33 of a drug overdose. In "Almost Famous", Bangs is just enough of a legend in his own mind to mentor young William, who looks looks up to Bangs' writing but not his lifestyle. Both are uncool characters, separated by years of trying to be cool.

The images of "Almost Famous" that jump immediately to mind, other than the hopeful eyes of Zooey Deschanel encouraging her little brother to find his own path, are the shots of the bands performing, of the groupies dancing in hotel rooms, of hangers-on clad in glam and hippie clothing, of Russell (Billy Crudup) high on acid, perched on a rooftop above a suburban Topeka swimming pool. But the film surprises me each time with its well written drama and comedic moments apart from the zany band adventures. The egos of the men, the destruction of a stadium gate, the knowing glances and smirks of Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) are all grounded by William and his life, his innocence, his uncool, his mother (Frances McDormand). He is the character people in the real world relate to.

That's important, because so many moments in "Almost Famous" would be insufferable if William weren't around to watch them happen. Russell has a ridiculous argument with Jeff (Jason Lee) about a t-shirt before storming off, determined to find something "real." He and William end up at a party, where William tries his best to protect him, only for his rock star hero to yell in his face in a drug-induced rage. None of these guys are worth caring about, busy as they are caring about themselves, trading women for beer and offering insincere, hackneyed philosophies into the microphone about music that every fan wants to hear.

"Friendship is the booze they feed you," Bangs tells William over the phone one lonely night. "They want you to get drunk on feeling like you belong." Stillwater have long ago accepted their status as music gods down to the detail of which member carries the mystique and which has the presence. Jeff and Russell are the type of rock stars who have never not belonged a day in their life, a dying breed of mid-70's up-and-comers who can play instruments and mimic their heroes from the 60's, but don't yet know that in a matter of a few years America will be hungry for punk rock, songs written by pissed off kids fed up with flower children and slickly produced arena rock.

Crowe indeed wrote for Rolling Stone as a teenager, experienced the touring lifestyle of Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers Band and interviewed many others, some mentioned with fanatic gusto by the groupies, who never seem to stop moving until they're on the road. One kid played by Jay Baruchel looks as though he's so into Zeppelin that he could keel over momentarily. Hudson is luminous in the film, mysterious and wild, intelligent, treating her own vulnerability like a Vaudeville joke. There is a beautiful moment when William loses his virginity to three aggressive women. Hudson beams at him from across the room as though she were an onlooking ethereal presence, waving goodbye with a smile moments before the certain look in William's innocent eyes goes away, never to return.

There is the music, scenes in which actors sing "Tiny Dancer" en masse, artist names identified as though their mythology is being written before the eyes. Little bits of Bowie and Simon and Garfunkel play in the background, providing a language to things unsaid. Band-aid Sapphire (Fairuza Balk) draws a well spoken line between fans and those who simply cling to celebrities: "They don't even know what it is to be a fan, to truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts."

Though I don't own an Elton John record, I recognize the sentiment. I have an extensive music collection, but it's been a while since music has meant a lot to me. When "Almost Famous" was released in 2000, I was making a new mix tape every month, packed with songs from CDs I'd recently purchased. And older stuff, too - songs I already knew by heart that I'd mix in just to hear them in a brand new context. I didn't grow up in circumstances where putting on a vinyl of "Tommy" by the Who would give me a look at my future. But I do remember my first few albums well, cherishing them like extensions of myself, hearing songs and forgetting to breathe.

It felt like I belonged to something greater. Music affords that to the uncool. "If you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends." Sage advice, that. But the record stores are disappearing. Where are the lonely going to turn? What will a film like "Almost Famous" look like 100 years from now? Hopelessly dated, perhaps, after those who remember what rock n' roll really felt like have all passed on. The rock star won't be cool forever. Stillwater, a band that never was in the first place, will appear a relic. But that desire to connect with a song is universal. Crowe puts his passion for that connection more poignantly here than he has anywhere else in his work, and he does it by uniting the song with the moment a kid realizes that nothing stays the same.

M (1931)
6 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

"M" is an unsettling film, a collection of images that don't seem to quite know how to relate to the accompanying sounds, forming a relationship that is hesitant and tense. An early talkie and German director Fritz Lang's first sound picture, "M" is still silent by about a third, its moments of eerie tranquility seeping through the cracks of Lang's experiments with spoken dialogue and noise.

The film's prologue, in which a young girl is abducted by a whistling lecher, ends with shots of her ball and balloon shown free of her grasp before the screen fades to black. Sound is heard before the picture returns. Newsies are yelling to promote their headlines. The entirety of Berlin is made aware of a man who stalks children. Everyone seems a suspect as mob intolerance begins to grow. The crowds in "M" don't simply talk; they scream angrily in peals of terror, mishear what is said, assume the worst of explanations. When the child murderer writes to the press in a crude cursive script, his taunting words are plastered on the front of newspapers for the entire city to see and fear.

Hans Beckert, played by the manic looking Peter Lorre in the actor's premiere starring role, is first seen testing his expression in a mirror as his personality is described in voiceover. Early in his film, Lang uses sound to describe, to explain and, most importantly, to assume. Thousands claim to know the murderer, each voicing his own preconceptions of how a man like Beckert must look and behave. These days, with its multiple sequences of stratagems and methodologies, "M" is regarded widely as a blueprint for the police procedural. German film scholar Anton Kaes cites no less than "Law and Order" on the Criterion edition's commentary track.

Above all, however, "M" is most fascinating in its portrayal of a haunting transitional state of social being for Germany as it sat positioned between two wars. First World War veterans are reduced to street beggars as children are seen gazing into shop windows at microcosms of thriving infrastructure - wooden cranes that lift and amusement park rides that spin. Proletariat mothers are reduced to grieving messes over the loss of their children while their husbands are nowhere to be seen. In fact, male characters are all but relegated to units of authority removed wholly from the familial, forming their own societies of law and the criminal respectively. They are alike in many ways, chief among them order and morality.

In an early draft of "M", Hans Beckert was a war veteran, a soldier turned serial killer with a developed taste for ending a life. In the final version, he is a mutant, an oddity without relation, consequently regarded as a common enemy. While criminal mastermind Schränker (Gustaf Gründgens) and homicide inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) debate their methods for re-instituting their own brands of order in Berlin via crosscuts, it still comes as a bit of a surprise when Schränker announces his intention to stop Beckert in his tracks. After all, he's a criminal too. Schränker and his ilk are fed up with constant police raids, a ruse to convince the public that an effort is being made to catch Beckert. The killer could be next door. To compete and fill multiple editions, the media are doing all they can to stoke the fires of paranoia.

Lang pays fetishistic attention to inventory and arsenals, repeatedly laying out collections that range from violent weaponry to types of clothing accessories and time pieces. In doing so he makes "M" a bits-and-pieces film in which small collections must be taken together for cohesion. It is reflected further in the use of sound. In Alan Crosland's "The Jazz Singer", music was included as not only a striking feature but as a catalyst to that film's narrative. "M" contains almost no music apart from Beckert's oft-repeated and creepy whistling of a section of Edvard Grieg's "Peer Gynt" suite. Recognized by a blind man, the only character tuned in exclusively to the aural, the act of creating sound leads to Beckert's discovery.

And what of the famous letter? That is Lang's hand shown in close-up, marking himself with the consonant that will soon be branded onto Beckert's jacket. "M" contains a selection of scenes in which off-screen characters make their presence known by reaching their hand into the frame and placing it on a shoulder, thereby constantly drawing attention what is unseen and always lurking. But why an "M"? It stands for Mörder (murderer), and while Lang changed his original title from "Die Mörder sind unter uns" (The Murderers are Among Us), it was done for marketing purposes, not fear of Nazi persecution.

"M" is also a symbol, easily identifiable and unchanging in a reflection. When Beckert sees his jacket in a mirror, his expression differs greatly from the first time he is shown staring at himself with perverse fascination. It has changed to one of fear, seeing himself in the incontestable way he is seen by others. Every truth about his sickness has been identified and pressed upon him for all to see. Once a loner in a crowd, he has been picked out like a child in a game of elimination.

Peter Kürten, the serial killer dubbed the "Vampire of Düsseldorf" by the local media, was put to death in 1931, one of the few killers given the death penalty in the era of the Weimar Republic. Those calling "M" a supportive tract on the death penalty ignore Lang's attempts to portray Lorre as pitiable as the actor thrashes about before a gang of hundreds of criminals, "experts in the rule of law" who believe that death is the only justifiable punishment.

The penultimate scene, in which Lorre delivers one of the cinema's great monologues, is characterized by a rampant and compelling brand of hypocrisy. Beckert exhibits a self-aware sickness that provokes little sympathy from the biased jury, but a certain amount in the viewer, who is suddenly a judge over the proceedings. As the criminals move ever closer toward satiating their collective bloodlust, Lang gives one more indication of sound's power over the image: Beckert covers his ears in desperation, hoping, ironically, that justice will be done.

Bad Lieutenant
6 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

"Bad Lieutenant" may be Harvey Keitel's crowning moment as a badass, heightened by the ferocity of his character's drive to mess up his life as much as possible. Nameless, angry and addicted, the lieutenant behaves like a nihilistic Dirty Harry, or Paul Kersey if he had tried to take revenge on himself. After watching Keitel in "Mean Streets" recently, I've gained a new respect for his ability as an actor. This is a brave performance, one that took sheer guts.

In one scene, Keitel stands totally exposed before the camera with his arms outstretched and weeping, high as a kite in the company of two prostitutes. How has this man reached such a low point? He has kids, a badge, a place to sleep at night. Though he wears a wedding ring prominently, his wife (Peggy Gormley) is rarely shown, and they certainly don't converse. The lieutenant is shown waking up on the couch at home in a hungover daze while his family gazes at him solemnly, as though they've already begun their grieving process.

Director and co-writer Abel Ferrara knows we've seen this archetype before. Whatever the reason for the lieutenant's decline, he is heading straight for the bottom, his ethical failures typified in scene after scene. I was fascinated by the film's abandon in capturing the fall as Keitel gambles, smokes and injects drugs, attempts to steal drugs from a crime scene, engages in illicit sex, forces two women to get him off, laughs in an indignant bookie's face, snorts cocaine off of a picture of his kids, shoots his pistol at his car radio and takes stolen cash from a pair of robbers rather than arresting them. The film received an NC-17 rating on its release. Certain scenes remain hard to watch, yet are compelling in their rawness.

Keitel is gloriously over the top in the midst of it all, culminating in a scene in a church, where a vision of Christ (Paul Hipp) appears before him. Keitel howls like a wounded animal, crawling on his hands and knees and pleading for forgiveness. Emotions of guilt and sadness have swelled to the bursting point in this figure, who bets thousands on the Dodgers but can no longer dodge the consequences of his actions. He collapses next to a kneeling nun (Frankie Thorn), a rape victim who has forgiven her attackers. Disheveled and nearly broken, he demands her explanation, not because he can't understand but because he desperately wants to forgive himself.

In not revealing too much about the lieutenant's character beyond his self-destructive behaviour, Ferrara and co-writers Victor Argo, Paul Calderon and Zoë Lund simplified a formula, letting only its most affecting parts bristle on screen. It works because of Keitel's commitment. The lieutenant is bad by virtue of his actions, but he is also hurt and unable to fully turn away from his faith. In the end, he redeems himself by action and is fittingly relieved of his misery.

"We eat away at ourselves until there's nothing left but appetite," the lieutenant is told in a drug-induced haze by a fellow junkie (Lund). A position of power can take hold of a weak-willed individual. That power can come to feel deserved, leaving justice as an afterthought. Bad things can start to seem rational in a career that can bend toward moral ambivalence. In "Mean Streets", Keitel held his hand over an open flame to get himself used to the fires of hell. In "Bad Lieutenant", he plays a man already in hell, dousing the flames with liquor in a vain attempt to extinguish them.

Brothers (2009)
6 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

"Brothers" is a perfect example of how trailers and advertising can promise one story, yet deliver another unexpectedly, and fortunately. Capt. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) goes off to fight in Afghanistan. His chopper crashes and he is presumed dead. His widow Grace (Natalie Portman) is left to raise their two daughters alone. Sam's brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) steps in to help out and a romance seems to blossom. They discover that Sam is still alive. He returns and there's a dramatic and emotional showdown.

Yes, and no. As the film opens, Sam has not yet gone to war. He drives out to county lockup to pick up Tommy, who has just served time for robbing a bank. The reunited family sits down to dinner whereupon Tommy endures the disappointment of his father Hank (Sam Shepard), a Vietnam War veteran. Overseas, Sam is taken prisoner by a group of insurgents, locked away in cavernous cells and forced to commit an unspeakable act. His family, presuming him dead, tries their best to pick up the pieces. Grace keeps his wedding ring on a chain around her neck and refuses to open his in-case-of letter. Hank and Tommy reconcile as best they can. The girls, Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare), come to adore their uncle, who remodels their kitchen, takes them ice skating and engages them in snowball fights.

The film's chief tension is Sam's fate, but in the meantime, Tommy is becoming a persuasive stand-in. His relationship with the girls and Isabelle in particular progresses naturally and believably. Consider a scene in which the two discuss sibling rivalry. Tommy's empathy for Isabelle is necessary in his becoming a better person, getting over his bitterness toward his own father and recognizing the value of family. It also contributes convincingly to how the girls react when their father returns.

When Sam gets off the plane, he doesn't look quite right, staring intensely straight ahead as though the world could fall apart at any moment. His rigid shoulder posture has gone from the effect of subordination to out and out paranoia. He paces through his home in the middle of the night with a loaded gun in his hand. He rearranges the drinking glasses in a kitchen cabinet with precision. He notices how relatively happy his family has been in his absence and assumes the worst about Tommy and Grace, reacting alternately with perverse glee and volcanic anger. Yes, the two shared a kiss. But look at how the aftermath of that moment is written and performed by Gyllenhaal and Portman, not for titillation but for complete honesty.

There is an intriguing and dramatic contrast between the horrors that Sam experiences and Tommy's search for involvement on parole, the former portraying a thorough lack of human decency and the latter championing it. In an effective turn as a reformed scumbag, Gyllenhaal ably carries most of the weight until Sam's return, whereupon Maguire offers some of the best work of his career, putting everyone in the room on edge as they try to tread lightly around his psychosis. David Benioff's adapted screenplay never allows glimpses at what could become of these characters, only that a very real and obscure danger hangs in the air that no one is entirely prepared to answer to.

Gyllenhaal and Maguire are two actors of similar look and stature and a film in which they play brothers seemed inevitable. They compliment each other well, with Maguire lending a wiriness and discipline in his performance that counterbalances Gyllenhaal's toughness and heart. Portman is also great, letting her character get attached to Tommy gradually while carefully gauging where her emotions take her, communicating them wisely in scenes where her devastation over Sam floods her decisions.

Ideologically, the honourable soldier fights to end fighting with the hope that not a soul in the free world will ever experience the things they experience. Attempting to put what they endure into words seems an impossible task. Untold cities of despair, hatred and loss may be constructed inside those who undergo torture and find themselves forced to live with it. "You can't train a person to watch somebody die," one character observes, implying that while the part of Sam that values life has been violently disrupted, his loved ones will never know how it became so.

"Brothers" is one of the best of the year, a narrative that took me over with measured force and left me feeling uneasy. It is a film about how post-traumatic stress disorder can affect not only the soldier who suffers it, but the people he cares for, those who patted him on the back and called him a hero as he took his leave. Like Staff Sergeant William James in "The Hurt Locker" earlier this year, Sam can't adapt to civilian life once he is taken out of theatre. "No one understands," he explains to his commanding officer. Even Hank, the veteran, can't tell Sam the words that will make what he has experienced go away. To a painful extent, it never will.

Everybody's Fine
6 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

I haven't see "Stanno tutti bene", the Italian film on which Kirk Jones' "Everybody's Fine" is based, but noticing that it starred Marcello Mastroianni in the De Niro role made me smile. De Niro is one of the great actors, capable of a part like this, but Mastroianni had an indelible expression that communicated tired humour in the face of life's obstacles. I think of Mastroianni visiting his children, looking at the people they've become with cocked eyebrows and raising his hand as if sarcastically accepting applause.

In the original, the character of Frank Goode was an opera enthusiast, his children named after opera characters, his efforts to reconnect with them the stuff of operatic tragedy. The plot has been shoehorned in by Jones to fit a modern America suburban old timer whose kids have migrated away from home to find different degrees of success. Frank's (De Niro) wife passed less than a year ago. She was the one the kids talked to, while he spent his moments apart from work raising them to be the best at their interests.

Conclusions reached from going out into the world and becoming one's own person can be hard to break to a parent with their own set of ethics and set-in-stone beliefs. Amy (Kate Beckinsale) is having marital problems. Robert (Sam Rockwell) has told his dad he conducts orchestras when he merely bangs a drum. Rosie (Drew Barrymore) isn't certain if she likes girls or boys. And then there's David (Austin Lysy), who everybody but Frank knows the truth about.

I come from a family of four kids and recognized certain details that Jones gets right, such as the conspiratorial efforts to keep bad news from the person each is trying to both protect and impress. David is in trouble in Mexico. His siblings make excuses to avoid visiting Frank so that they won't have to lie to his face. After years spent trying to raise the perfect family, they don't think he can take it. Frank takes it upon himself to visit them, even though years of coating telephone wires in PVC has left his lungs in bad shape.

It's a nifty metaphor - Frank spent his working life sealing lines of communication, yet he can't communicate with his kids. He proudly shows off thousands of miles of his work to a stranger on a train. But this is where Jones' script starts to falter. His symbolism is obvious to the point of violation. Hurricane Alice is destroying the coast. A passenger informs him, "My name is Alice. It's Greek for 'truth'." Get it? The truth is going to come on like a violent storm and disrupt things.

Frank still sees his grown children as kids. Jones chooses to represent Frank's outlook by switching his actors with toddler counterparts. Little Amy disappears behind a staircase and when she reemerges, it's Kate Beckinsale! It's a motif that Jones repeats ad nauseum near to the point of farce, leading to a completely surreal hallucinatory scene in which Frank confronts the subconscious constructions of his children as storm clouds gather.

The biggest and final misstep is David's fate, which is lazy, emotionally exploitative and borderline cruel. The film cries out for reconciliation, stomps all over it and then tries to justify its necessity. I wanted to like Frank, but he's so turned in on himself that he seems beyond hope. There is a desire in him to change his old approach to fatherhood, and Jones tacks on the obligatory bittersweet ending, but the fact that Frank has been ravaged by his lackluster abilities as a father drives a dagger deep into the good will of the film's final scene.

There are moments of poignancy, my favourite among them a scene in which Frank encounters a homeless youth (Brendan Sexton III) and offers to lend a compassionate hand. But for every well envisioned moment, there's a trite interjection of past-voice narration, dialogue from years ago that is heard in order to stoke an empathy for regret. I enjoyed the Frank-Robert exchange the most, as Rockwell provides an accurate portrayal of a son who has spent his whole life trying to both impress his father and convince himself that he doesn't have to.

Though the performances are fine overall, the fault lies squarely in the dismal screenplay. Similar in theme, Alexander Payne's superior "About Schmidt" worked in part because Schmidt's attitudes and desires came from character rather than character type - Jones seems to simply skim the surface, hitting emotional notes with scenes evoking death and memory without giving them depth. Families are tough. Everyone thinks they know what's best. The strength of that bond should offer anyone the opportunity to have their mind changed. Frank's mind is not simply changed. It's beaten with a baseball bat and left for dead.