Film

Everybody Wants Some!!, Midnight Special, I Saw the Light, Born to Be Blue, King Georges, Ran

EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!

TCR-Steve-at-the-Movies-v3With Richard Linklater’s latest, Everybody Wants Some!!, I’ve never had more fun watching a film about guys I never would have hung out with in college. Set in 1980, on the brink of a new school year at an unnamed southeast Texas university, the film follows the exploits of the school’s winning baseball team—apparently the only winning sports team on campus—as a handful of freshmen recruits meet their upper-class counterparts in a pair of raggedy off-campus houses where the team lives like heathens but form a bro-chemistry that in undeniably appealing and hilarious.

Although Linklater himself has billed the film as a “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused, this movie does less jumping around from group to group and focuses primarily on the team’s exploits, which seem more Animal House than The Bad News Bears. We join the fray through the eyes of freshman Jake (Blake Jenner, in his first film after appearing most recently in “Glee” and “Supergirl”), a talented pitcher with a sensitive side that makes him one of the better-adjusted guys on the team. The houses are filled with a phenomenal array of college types, all filtered through the jockular filter. All of the actors are terrific, but there are few standout performances from Tyler Hoechlin as the uber-cocky McReynolds, who hates pitchers but seems to become an unofficial mentor to Jake; Will Brittain’s Billy Autry, Jake’s roommate with a hometown girlfriend and a nearly impenetrable Texas accent; and Wyatt Russell’s Willoughby, an epic stoner and spiritual leader of the team, who seems wise beyond his years for reason.

This being a Richard Linklater film, the details are what sell the ’80s period experience. It goes without saying that music isn’t just background noise in Everybody Wants Some!!; it’s a force that binds. And it being Texas, there’s a wondrous blend of music styles that the players find themselves surrounded by. At the house, they listen to “classic” rock from the decade before, but they also venture out to clubs where they dance to disco, do-si-do to country western, and even land up in a punk club, which scares a few of them. Hell, there’s an entire sequence near the beginning where a carful of these knuckleheads rap along to the Sugar Hill Gang. Linklater captures a series of turning points in the music of this era, and it makes those of us who were alive at the time a chance to get nostalgic and feel cutting edge (we weren’t, but it’s still a good feeling). Beyond the specific music choices, Linklater’s details extend into everything from girlie wall posters and pinball and early arcade games to classic cars, clothes and hairstyles.

Everybody Wants Some!! is also a bit of a love story, with the slightly more mature Jake falling for a bright young woman named Beverly (Zoey Deutch). It should come as no surprise that most of the players (including Jake) hook up with baseball groupies on their first night back to school, but Beverly makes an impression on Jake early on, and as he gets to know her over the course of the weekend, it’s clear he has feelings for her, which his teammates razz him about relentlessly.

As much as I love to keep intellectualizing Linklater’s choices as a filmmaker, his greatest contribution to Everybody Wants Some!! is letting the raunch run free. For better or worse (I vote Better), this movie is about dirty jokes, ruthless pranks, drinking to excess, and chasing ladies in ass-hugging shorts and tight t-shirts. There something of a science and an art to all of these vices, and on that level, the film most resembles what Linklater accomplished in Dazed and Confused. There is something about watching the psychological tormenting of these young freshmen that goes beyond amusing and into the realm of the necessary. Perhaps we’re simply more tolerant of the bad behavior because it’s this director at the helm, but I don’t think that’s it. He understands this behavior as a right of passage, a gauntlet that young people must pass through to form lasting friendships and figure out how their adult lives advance beyond the teenage years.

Above all else, Everybody Wants Some!! is funny, but that doesn’t stop it from daring to be contemplative, passionate about the era, and even sweet at times. I love it when a filmmaker sets out to do something with a specific work and not only achieves that goal but shows growth and maturity, even when profiling stupid behavior and immaturity at its finest. And coming on the heals of Boyhood and Before Midnight, this film proves that Linklater is at his creative peak as a storyteller who has a complete grasp on the building blocks of youth and how that sets the foundation for what comes next.

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

I love and admire Midnight Special so much, I’m tempted not to talk about it at all. Instead, I’d rather just ask you to trust me, because I feel supremely confident that this title will end up on my Top 10 of 2016 list somewhere, and I want nothing more than to share it with you. If I could, I would literally take you by your stubborn hand, drag you to the nearest art house or multiplex playing it, and drop you in a comfy seat with some popcorn and watch it again with you. I suppose the Q&A screening I did for the film a few weeks ago (with writer-director Jeff Nichols and co-star Joel Edgerton) counts as a version of showing it to people, except those people didn’t pay to see it. I want you to spend your hard-earned money on a film worth every penny, one that you will treasure like a valued friend for going to see it.

On the surface, Midnight Special is a science fiction story about a young boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher from St. Vincent) who has special powers that are indescribable, mostly because something different seems to happen every time they manifest. The only constant seems to be that his eyes glow so bright and with such intensity that messages are sent into the minds of whomever he happens to be looking at. Alton has spent his childhood living in a Mormon-like religious community, led by elder Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), who is so sure that the boy is a prophet that the entire structure and gospel of the community is rearranged around Alton’s schedule and messages. It’s eerie to think that an established religion could be so fluid, but therein lies part of Nichols’ commentary about organized spirituality.

When we actually meet Alton, he’s been taken out of the community by his father Roy (Nichols’ regular Michael Shannon, who also starred in the writer-director’s works Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud), and it’s just in time because federal officials raid the compound looking for the boy. The investigation into Alton’s whereabouts and what he can do fall into the hands of an Agent Sevier (Adam Driver), whose distinctly French name gives me no choice but to assume that his eager, friendly and knowledgeable character is, in some part, based on Francois Truffaut’s character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Meanwhile, Roy and Alton are accompanied by Roy’s childhood buddy Lucas (Joel Edgerton), whom Roy hasn’t seen since he moved into the compound as a child, but their bond is somehow strong, and Lucas is fine not asking questions.

Nichols is so precise and careful about how he unwraps his mysteries surrounding Dalton, and with each new scene we learn a bit more, and slowly the pieces start to come together, even if he doesn’t quite give us enough to answer the bigger questions until the last possible minute. The slowly mounting tension levels seem to peak when either the government gets close to our fugitives or members of the compound (Bill Camp and Scott Haze) do. We’re never quite sure which is worse, but we know that we don’t want either to get Alton. The boy’s gifts have lead Roy to believe that he needs to be in a very specific place at a very specific time and date, so all else is secondary to him. Their adventure brings them briefly back to Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), and a clearer picture of how Alton’s parents figured into the goings on at the compound.

Although it plays as great science fiction, Midnight Special is a family drama with scattered sci-fi elements. More specifically, this is an epic father-son adventure story that warms us to the idea that any parent would do the same for their kid, even if he might be an alien or a superhero or something else entirely. There is something wonderfully innocent about the film, and something deeply mature and emotional as well. Nichols doesn’t forget to have fun in the genre. Driver, in particular, is quite amusing in subtle ways, and every scene with him—especially one where he gets to interrogate Alton—is quite entertaining.

In the end, whatever Alton is and whatever his purpose might be ultimately doesn’t matter. It’s about a father and son spending time together before everything in their lives changes. Midnight Special is captivating and thought-provoking, with a core of the magic that makes genre films so universally appealing. The film isn’t just great; it’s whole-heartedly enriching, dramatically satisfying, and a beauty to look at. It’s the complete package, people. So start lining up, and I’ll meet you there.

I SAW THE LIGHT

You might presume that a biography film of someone with the chart-topping success that Hank Williams had in the 1940s and early part of the ’50s would be an easy one to get right. You just let the familiar (and maybe a few less popular) tunes play, re-create a few career and life highlights and lowlights, address the vices—women, alcohol, drugs—that ravaged his health and started to destroy his reputation and career, and you’ve got yourself a solid movie, due in large part to a haunting portrayal of Williams by Tom Hiddleston (the Thor movies, Crimson Peak, Only Lovers Left Alive), whose uncanny resemblance to the singer is essential.

But what writer-director Marc Abraham does instead is present us with moments from a time in Williams’ life when he was just beginning to get famous until his untimely death at age 29. The songs are fairly well represented, beginning with an a cappella version of Williams performing “Cold, Cold Heart” under a single spotlight with a barely visible audience surrounding him. The moment is key because it establishes right away that Hiddleston is doing his own singing. It also captures Williams as the man alone, despite having millions of fans, and it forces us to listen to the powerfully painful poetry that made up so many of Williams’ sad songs. Two scenes later, we see Williams in the real world, in a honky tonk filled with all types of folks, from bored husbands to wives who have a crush on the singer with the crooked smile. The camera doesn’t begin on Hank; it moves through the crowd, studying faces and slowly makes its way to the stage, where Williams is waiting with his cowboy hat so low on his brow that you can barely see his eyes. For all the issues I have with the film, the opening few scenes are fantastic.

The greatest overall problem with I Saw the Light is the lack of transitions. We go from bad event to good event to bad event with no real sense of how one moment impacted the next, if it did at all. And while I appreciate that Abraham was allowing the audience to make the connections for ourselves and not guide us through the story by the hand, a little guidance would have been appreciated. The filmmaker isn’t interested in setting up a tale that establishes: “This is why Hank Williams was the way he was.” There’s even an amusing line from Williams’ mother Lillie (Cherry Jones) who declares that she knows he’s her son only because she was there when he was born, but even she doesn’t know where his singing and songwriting gift came from. Fair enough, but give us something to hang our metaphorical hat on.

A lot can be forgiven because of how strong Hiddleston’s work is here. When Williams first appears on his beloved Grand Ole Opry radio program, he’s smiling so big, the audience listening in could probably see it. In fact, all of the live performances are mesmerizing, watching the actor inhabit the singer, swinging his hips just enough to get the crowd going, wearing ridiculous fringe-laden Western wear, and eyeing the crowd and backstage area looking for a would-be female conquest. One of the best performance moments in the movie doesn’t even involve a song. It’s a Dallas show where Williams is so strung out that he comes to the microphone sweating, sunken, invoking the name and poetry of his alter-ego Luke the Drifter, a character who some believe was closer to the real Williams than the popular hillbilly singer.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Elizabeth Olsen’s brave and bold portrayal of Williams’ wife Audrey, who pushed him and managed his career quite successfully. She was an outspoken woman in a time when such women were frowned upon. She also fancied herself a singer, which she was not, and this caused additional friction between Hank and potential booking agents. She tried to be a forgiving wife when it came to cheating, but when they had their first child, she wanted a stable environment that Hank simply couldn’t provide. But again, transitions become a problem with I Saw the Light. There’s a brief sequence that shows Williams detoxing in rehab and swearing he’s sober in order to win Audrey back. A few scenes later at a holiday party, Hank has a drink in his hand. I’m assuming that he proved himself just enough that when he did pick up a beer, Audrey let it slide. She makes some vague comment about cutting him off, but that’s it. Something feels like it’s missing, and a great deal of the film feels like we’re going from A to C while removing B because we need to get to D quicker.

If the film was rushing to another big performance piece, I might forgive these dropouts, but often Abraham is taking us to another moment of establishing characters (which I’m normally all in favor of). As a result, the pacing of the film feels choppy and uneven at times. There are also a couple of moments where we see what appear to be interviews with people in Williams’ professional life, such as Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford), who gives us a little insight into career happenings, but those moments feel like inserts placed within the story to give us exposition. It’s classic tell-don’t-show, and it gives us nothing essential. Strangely enough, the one scene featuring an actual journalist (David Krumholtz) gives us the least amount of exposition and a great deal of vital internal details into Williams’ dark mindset. He’s clearly miserable doing the interview, and eventually it falls apart when the writer digs too deep into his personal life, but it’s a critical scene that reveals how Williams saw himself and how he believed his admirers saw him as well.

I liked that we got glimpses of other women important to his life, including girlfriend Bobbie Jett (Wrenn Schmidt) and his second wife Billie Jean Jones (Maddie Hasson), who seemed like a step in the right direction for Hank, since she was young and would take no crap from him. I Saw the Light gets so much right that it’s almost a bigger disappointment that it can’t make the pieces fit together more convincingly. There are zero issues with the performances or the misty, slightly worn-out cinematography by Dante Spinotti (Heat, L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys). The issues lie in the screenplay and perhaps somewhat in the editing, but without working pieces, there’s little an editor can do. Go for the music and try not to focus too hard on the rest. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

BORN TO BE BLUE

It’s become weirdly poisonous to do “cradle-to-grave” film biographies any more. I still think there is some value to that style of storytelling, but regardless, nobody really does them any longer outside of the documentary realm. Instead, filmmakers tend to focus on one or two key periods in an artist’s life on which to concentrate (see the Brian Wilson story told in Love & Mercy as an example, or the upcoming Miles Ahead about music re-inventor Miles Davis). This week’s other big music biopic, the Hank Williams’ story I Saw the Light, only tackles the singer-songwriter’s fame years. Quite wisely, Born to Be Blue shines the spotlight on perhaps the most painful and difficult years in the life of jazz horn player and singer Chet Baker (a career-best performance from Ethan Hawke).

Baker had an array of troubles by the time the 1960s were in full swing. The Prince of Cool was a dedicated heroin addict, and he had his teeth beaten out of his head under shady circumstances, effectively ending his career and forcing him to relearn to play the trumpet with false teeth if he ever hoped to recapture his former glory of soft, seductive playing that typified the West Coast jazz movement. Baker also wasn’t much respected by other jazz greats. When he played shows in New York, cats like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie would come see him, with mixed reactions. Writer-director Robert Budreau (That Beautiful Somewhere) paints Baker as both a victim of circumstance, lacking in confidence that his silky, polished sound would ever be accepted by the mostly white jazz greats, and a man who needed drugs to cope with his problems and fears.

Hawke is extraordinary in Born to Be Blue. His face and expressions convey a sense that Baker was always on the brink of crying or otherwise falling apart, especially when he was afraid of never playing again. You look at Hawke’s Baker and you understand why people wanted to help him, and it wasn’t just because he was a moving player. He looked lost and afraid, and they wanted to steer him in the right direction. Two major figures in his life emerge in the film. Selma’s Carmen Ejogo plays Jane, an actress Baker meets and instantly falls in love with. His desire to clean up comes from her, and while he relearned the trumpet, he stayed off heroin because he wanted to be his best for her. Also in his corner, reluctantly at times, is Callum Keith Rennie, who plays friend and rising record exec Dick, who set Baker up in a place to rehearse, get his stage legs back, and prepare for an audition so that Baker can get a record contract again and start playing sizable gigs.

Born to Be Blue doesn’t rely entirely on facts and nothing but, and it doesn’t hurt the experience in any way. There’s a running thread through the beginning of the film that involves a never-made Dino De Laurentis-produced film about Baker starring Baker. It’s a black-and-white picture that we see glimpses of, and it’s clear that that movie would have been a melodramatic fiction. Budreau uses it as a means to separate the overly simplified version of Baker’s story with something a little closer to the emotional truth, and it’s an idea that works beautifully. My biggest complaint with the film is that the device vanishes much too soon in the running time. Still, it’s impossible to deny Hawke’s devastating work here, supported by a surprisingly well-written female character for Ejogo to inhabit. If you see just one music biopic this month, this would be my choice. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Born to Be Blue star Ethan Hawke and writer-director Robert Budreau, go to Ain’t It Cool News.

KING GEORGES

The onslaught of documentaries about chefs and famous restaurants isn’t surprising at all since the concept of the celebrity chef is a fairly modern development thanks to dozens of popular reality shows. But one of the first master chefs to make his name in America was Georges Perrier, whose world famous Le Bec-Fin restaurant in Philadelphia was designated the top restaurant in the United States for almost more years than can be documented. Perrier brought the concept of elegant French cooking (and its accompanying high prices) to America, along with its emphasis on succulent sauces and elaborate decor (including a pair of massive chandeliers in a relatively small space).

From first-time feature director (and long-time doc producer) Erika Frankel, King Georges spends many months with the master chef in a period in the restaurant’s history where it began to feel the impact of a declining economy. He announces the venue is finally going to shut his doors, but an outpouring from both local dignitaries and peers from around the world causes a change of heart, and he decides to keep things going a while longer, with his faithful sous chef and partner Nicholas Elmi (who went on to win “Top Chef” not long ago), who has long been the clear heir apparent to run Le Bec-Fin when Georges finally stepped down.

There’s not getting around that Chef Georges possesses a fiery personality. His rants aimed at his staff are well known and well documented in this movie. The four-letter words and other completely inappropriate insults are hurled as masterfully and liberally as the cream and salt he likes to add to his sauces when the other cooks aren’t looking. It’s sometimes horrifying to watch the staff sit quietly and absorb the insults, but they all agree that it’s the most effective way to learn from this perfection-oriented master. The mild-mannered Elmi seems to have the most well-balanced life of the two, with a wife and young child, while Perrier talks of losing his family as a result of being only truly married to his work. Elmi gets a kick out of his friend’s emotional eruptions, even when they’re aimed at him, and that seems to be the force that binds them.

Director Frankel has access to some incredible archival footage and photos, including Perrier’s many talk show appearances. He was the toast of the town for decades but the 2000s brought a changing tide in young foodies’ tastes. It’s impossible not to notice that most of Le Bec-Fin’s customers are much older, dressed to the nines, and probably wouldn’t get caught dead in a restaurant that focuses on molecular gastronomy. At the film’s heart is a father-son relationship between Georges and Nicholas; they depend and lean on each other in such a sweet way. But they’re also clearly enabling each other’s excesses and vices in the kitchen and in life. King Georges takes us into the secret world of a master chef’s kitchen and allows us to engage with the very human folks that dwell there. The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center

RAN

Translated from the Japanese, “Ran” means “chaos” as well as “revolt,” both of which are wholly appropriate when describing the scenes created by the master Akira Kurosawa in what might be his greatest work. Taking nearly 10 years of his life to build sets, create handmade costumes, and storyboard every shot as individual painting suitable for framing, and enduring the loss of his wife during production, Kurosawa tells a story loosely based on Shakespeare’s King Lear (but ancient samurai legends are also at play), with an old warrior father, Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) dividing his kingdom among his three sons Taro (Akira Terao), Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), and Saburo (Daisuke Ryu).

He thinks his actions will keep his family name strong and unified, but instead his stepping down and dividing the territory sets off a series of violent and bloody wars between the brothers, none of whom want anything to do with the Hidetora any longer. The film is peppered with memorable performances and characterizations, with nearly every scene done in long shots that explore the impossibly haunting landscape (much of which is shot on and around Mt. Fuji). Using more than 1,000 extras and hundreds of horses, it’s impossible to fathom any other director pulling off sequences of such beauty and horror.

Two particular standout performances belong to Mieko Harada as eldest son Taro’s wife, Lady Kaede, whose paranoia and scheming rivals that of Lady Macbeth, and Pita’s work as the Lord’s fool Kyoami, who speaks the truth to his master through biting comedy and acrobatics. As much as one might be tempted to see Ran as only a visual experience, which is absolutely a huge part of its appeal, the emotional components to the story are equally explosive. The screen is often filled with color (from the detailed costumes to the elaborate sets), but none are quite as bright as the blood that is spilled across the screen during the battle scenes. But it’s Hidetora’s descent into madness and grief that paints the most vibrant images on the screen. At one point when all seems lost to him, he pales and appears like a ghost in his own castle as it burns down around him. His emerging from the smoke and fire is one of the most memorable images in film history.

Kurosawa is my absolute favorite director, but Ran belongs to the ages. People talk about great cinema as a collection of moments with great scenes in so many wonderful films, but Ran is an experience that lives in its 162-minute entirely. You can’t pull out individual scenes; it needs to be taken in as a whole. Touring the country now is a new 4K digital restoration of the work, and I firmly believe that if you haven’t seen this movie on the big screen then you haven’t seen the finest that film has to offer in its purest form. This restoration opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Categories: Film, Screens

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