Movie Musings

by Dalton Boettcher

Blazing Saddles (1974)

It would be easy to write off Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles as a farcical comedy with absurd setups and set pieces—as easy as it is to laugh at its many quotable one-liners. But as the jokes linger and new setups arrive, the film opens and becomes a deeper, more nuanced picture than seen at first glance. Indeed, from the very beginning, Blazing Saddles stands as a satirical deconstruction of the American Western, poking fun at its improbably sharp-shooting gunslingers and exposing the ugly reality of its brothel beauties. But as we laugh freely at judicious jokes and cringe around contentious racial slurs, an unexpected harmonization of these two reactions occurs.

Certainly, the greatest establishment Blazing Saddles undermines is not the Western or the government or the Hollywood movie studio; but instead, racism—alive and well during its 1974 release, and unfortunately still kicking today. In fact, in the nearly-packed screening I recently attended at the lovely Heights Theater, I couldn’t help but wonder what, exactly, we were all laughing at. With a diverse crowd (in terms of social strata; not, unfortunately, race), there was a wide range of reactions to a number of jokes, half-jokes, and probably-not-jokes. But I wonder, with such a diverse group of writers (including Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor and Alan Uger) behind the film, if that’s not precisely the point? What better way to overcome the inhumane horror of the thing than by holding it up against the bludgeoning of sharp satire, where entire audiences—in on the joke or not—can laugh, laugh, laugh at the absurdity and ineptitude of such silly prejudice and puerile hatred.

It takes skill and deft artistry to make a line like “where the white women at?” work across all divisions of the audience—white and black, bigoted and open-minded—but that’s exactly what the writers and the essential Cleavon Little do here. And that dexterity—on display throughout Blazing Saddles—is probably the reason why the film has endured with such adoration for so long, appealing to diverse audiences in different times and in different places, laughing for their own reasons, but laughing just the same.

Obvious Child (2014)

As I sat in the dark waiting for Obvious Child to begin, I started to ponder the wonderful possibility filmmakers face when crafting an opening scene. It’s the first taste audiences get, setting the tone and providing impetus and direction for what’s to come. So what would writer-director Gillian Robespierre do with the opening scene of her first feature?

Let’s just say that if the rest of the film kept the laughs coming as hard and fast as they arrive in the opening, this would hands down be the funniest film of the year. Unfortunately (realistically), that doesn’t happen. Though maybe that’s a good thing, given the film’s taboo-busting take on abortion.

The obviously talented Jenny Slate fronts the film as Donna Stern, an openly raunchy stand-up comedian who by day works at a used bookstore (that’s about to close for good) and by night performs in a Brooklyn comedy club to a small crowd that includes regulars like her boyfriend (who’s about to dump her) and transients like a cute Christian fratboy (with whom she’s about to have rebound sex and conceive a child).

Luckily, Donna has separated but supportive parents and a rock solid friend in Nellie (an unassuming but integral Gaby Hoffmann), to whom she explains, “I remember seeing a condom, I just don’t know, like, what exactly it did…”

With frank, bawdy humor (that’s more refreshing than disrespectful) and a fast-paced heart worn openly on its sleeve, Obvious Child manages to strike some deep emotional chords after the humor tapers off. But after steamrolling the audience with rip-roaring laughter, the film ends emotionally unresolved, unfortunately leaning on typical rom-com tropes.

Still, this is a promising feature debut for Robespierre and a propulsive performance by Jenny Slate. I can’t help but recommend Obvious Child (its first half alone is worth seeing for your health), and I certainly look forward to what’s next for both of its principal ladies.

3/4

Life Itself (2014)

If I could look up at the screen and only see other people, I wouldn’t be so moved. But I can’t. I can’t go to the movies without seeing myself, my friends, my family, my future wife and the kids I hope to father someday. And so it is with Steve James’s Life Itself, a biographical documentary that plays as posthumous tribute to the late Roger Ebert.

Produced by Steve Zaillian and Martin Scorsese, the film uses Ebert’s memoir of the same name to provide some structure, while footage of Roger in the hospital in late 2012 and early 2013 and interviews with colleagues and loved ones after his death round out the poignant picture. But it’s also filled with never before seen footage and little known stories and an endless supply of heartfelt humor—much of it involving his At the Movies co-host Gene Siskel and their complex off-air relationship.

As a longtime reader and admirer of Ebert’s work, I had no problem engaging with the film; and with the talent of Steve James (whose Hoop Dreams Ebert and Siskel first championed on their show) passionately at work, I doubt many will. At my screening, the room was filled with open hearts and active minds, eager souls working to empathize and understand a little bit more about the hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears of another man, and perhaps even themselves.

3.5/4

Chef (2014)

Jon Favreau is one hell of a comedic actor, but the key ingredient in Chef—his latest film about a jaded cook who leaves a cushy restaurant gig for a cross-country food truck adventure with his young son (a charming EmJay Anthony)—is his ability to direct comedic actors. The camerawork and editing here are effortlessly unobtrusive, allowing a rich ensemble—including Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, Oliver Platt, Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson, and Robert Downey Jr.—to mix it up with ostensible improvisation and obvious joy.

And boy, does this thing rip. Jokes stack up on top of one another with such candor and grace that the experience is akin to an ice-cold lemonade in a dry summer heat. Though plagued by plotting that occasionally boils to the surface as contrivance, Chef’s humor is a refreshing constant. Even when, perhaps, Favreau’s writing tugs at the heartstrings just a little too heavily.

The 47-year-old father of three has always made room for sentiment in his work—quite obviously in Elf and even in his 1996 writing debut Swingers, though I’d argue it’s also there in Iron Man, just below the surface of Robert Downey Jr.’s playboy irreverence. Much like the characters he so often plays, Favreau’s work embraces love and emotion through rugged tenderness, with pervasive (and in many cases, vulgar) humor often little more than an adorable attempt to mask the giant heart that’s always beating just beneath. And darn it if we don’t all love him for it. If Favreau’s brand of (here, somewhat-refined) humor is truly akin to ice-cold refreshment, I say give me another glass. (Tasting notes: pairs well with passionate food porn, of which Chef presents plenty).

3.5/4

Locke (2014)

One car, one real-time trip, one on-screen character and a number of difficult phone calls. It takes the right actor and one heck of a performance to make a concept film like this work, and Tom Hardy—ostensibly under as much pressure as his eponymous Ivan Locke—turns in what may be the best performance of his career. Yes, this is the Tom Hardy who’s probably best known for his roles in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises and Inception, but he’s in completely different form here.

Ivan is a construction foreman managing the logistics of one of the largest cement pours in European history, and on the eve of the pour, he decides to take off and drive toward something he feels is more important—something, he says, that must be done. Almost immediately, it’s obvious that Ivan is pragmatic and level-headed (for me, making his character quite necessarily identifiable and investable), but these characteristics make his night drive somewhat of a puzzle. He soon calls his wife and boys to tell them he won’t make it home for the football match, but that only thickens the mystery of his motivations. Thankfully, writer/director Steven Knight doesn’t withhold the answer for some last-minute twist reveal. Instead, a forthcoming phone call soon affirms what audience members may have already begun to postulate; and like that, dramatic weight is dropped on screen, making the next 60 minutes some of the most richly character-revealing to ever unfold in such a sparse setting.

Not as much of an existential odyssey as, say, 1971’s Vanishing Point (which also features a man on a drive of unimaginable incitation), Locke’s journey is more of a self-affirming campaign that pits a man’s character and spirit against the consequence of past decisions, the ghosts of one’s past, and perhaps even fate. But does it only appeal to those of similar standing? That I can’t say for sure. I can say that a younger, not-engaged (to be wed, not with the film) version of myself probably wouldn’t have been as invested as I was at my screening. Undoubtedly, the film pivots on your ability to identify or at least empathize with Ivan. But if you can, you’re in for one of the most dramatic and revealing pieces of micro-budget filmmaking to ever grace the big screen. For in every Bluetooth-enabled phone call and in every tight and nuanced conversation, in each instruction, confession, and quavering assurance, there is every authentic ounce of human expression and coexistence. Complimenting Hardy’s paramount performance is some brilliantly understated camerawork from Knight, who shot the picture with three cameras over the course of five nights, with Hardy lugging down London freeways, of course. The result is as much of an experience of shared reality as anything, and with some skillfully taut editing from Justine Wright, Knight has no problem sustaining the enchanting spell for all of its 85 minute runtime.

4/4

Note to self (mild spoilers): When I’m inevitably pondering what to say or where to rank this at year-end, remember the moving scenes between Locke and his family; the additional empathy I felt with his wife and how she must be taking it; and his kids—oh those poor kids—not knowing what’s going on, with the joy and ecstasy of seeing their team win the big game cut by the pain and uncertainty of their mother’s tears and screams. And all this time, we’re stuck in the car with Locke, unable to do anything more. And that last conversation with his son, where Locke finally breaks down, but only visually—for the most part keeping it together with his voice while on the phone. It’s this contrast, of vocal assurance but visual despair, that almost took my breath away with some great empathetic wind. And it’s moments like this that I would call pure cinema. Not in the way of the French avant-garde movement aimed at returning the medium to its elements of vision and movement, but in a more complete and holistic sense. One where character and dialog mix with the visual and aural elements in some great and unreproducible concoction. And in that moment, you find yourself in someone else. And all at once, the greatest curse of human existence is removed as you begin see the world through new eyes.

Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)

Deep in the urban decay of Detroit, a reclusive musician lies on a musty couch. Halfway across the world in Tangier, his wife of nearly 150 years is also strung out. And a record spins in much the same way that director Jim Jarmusch’s camera tracks as extended dissolves blur the boundaries between it all. Welcome to Only Lovers Left Alive—a love story? Maybe, but one that’s certainly not short on romance.

Unless, of course, a hipster-kitsch aesthetic doesn’t fit your definition of the word. And perhaps this is where audiences will be divided. Certainly, there isn’t much going in the way of plot. The midpoint arrival of Mia Wasikowska’s character and her subsequent indulgence that kicks the film into its final act is the greatest bit of narrative advancement we get, but is it enough? One could argue that the outer thirds sag like some stale portrait in a museum, but then again, maybe that’s the conceit. Blow the dust off the typewriter and revel in the vintage guitars and the luscious vinyl and ahh! isn’t it romantic?

There are overtones of drug use and some mythological evocations of religion—our leading lovers (played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton) are named Adam and Eve, after all, but I’m also thinking of the film’s first blood-meal (dare I say communion) sequence—however, it’s the often-alluded-to clash of the aristocracy versus the masses (or vampires vs. zombies, if you will) that makes the film most alluring.

Confined in his self-restricted space, Adam is but a beat poet of the night, overwhelmed by the feedback loops of old creativity that keep repeating until it all just sounds the same. And while he’d like to believe that his beatnik past is far superior to the zombie hipsters of today, perhaps he’s not as removed as he imagines. Still, he possesses qualities that separate, like time, years of experience, and a basic respect for all that came before. Few youth have it today. Few could care less. But that all-important creativity that Adam so prides himself in? It hardly separates at all.

Near the end of the film, Adam witnesses a music performance in Tangier, and damn if he’s not inspired or at least reassured by the ability of standard mankind. It’s not all popcrap puppets with 40-word vocabularies; there’s depth and flair and real talent out there too.

Certainly, Jarmusch is a testament to that. Living on his own fringe of independent cinema, far from the bowels of Zombie Central—as his muse so affectionately refers to Los Angeles—the 61-year-old writer/director (whose work I cannot feign acquaintance with) seems right at home with Adam, perhaps even hanging his own idols’ portraits on the wall. And if the world truly isn’t all zombies, perhaps his mid-American mug will find itself on a dusty wall of fame someday, hanging in hip veneration for the beatnik lovers that once danced in the night.

3/4

Witching and Bitching (2013)

…and inducing uproarious laughter and delivering in the horror/creep-out department and not quite pulling it all together with a wholly satisfying conclusion, Spanish filmmaker Álex de la Iglesia’s horror-comedy is certainly worthy of a late night pairing with popcorn, beer and amenable friends. After a knockout first act in which our messianic protagonist (Hugo Silva) haplessly robs a jewelry store and makes a dubious escape with his daft accomplice and fighting-for-joint-custodied son, the film carries its momentum through the second act, where it introduces a not-quite-flawlessly-disguised group of cannibalistic witches, including (wouldn’t you know) a potential love interest. While not abandoning its absurd sense of humor as things take an inevitable turn south, Witching and Bitching nevertheless bogs down as it trudges through its CGI-intensive finale with irresolute ambition and direction. Still, the addition of such thematic ingredients as witching mythology, the clash of the sexes, and gender roles in modern society make this cinematic cauldron boil with fresh toad’s blood and the tears of innocent laughter.

3/4

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Ostensibly uninhibited by technological constraints, Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are uses costumed performers, animatronics, puppeteers, and a dash of CGI to seamlessly bring us inside the mind of its nine-year-old protagonist (wonderfully portrayed by Max Records). And while the film seems to exist as the product of pure imagination, the resulting narrative—loose and unrefined—reflects that of a child’s to a fault. Still, a small price to pay for a visionary ride from a director who clearly hasn’t lost his Rosebud (note a tender and evocative framing of Max’s mother, shot from Max’s fortified position under a table. Because who can’t recall lying under the loving presence of their mother?) Based on the Maurice Sendak picture book of the same name, featuring a lovely soundtrack from Karen O, and with Wild Things voiced by Paul Dano, Lauren Ambrose, Forest Whitaker, Catherine O’Hara, Chris Cooper, and (most notably) James Gandolfini, Where the Wild Things Are is a film full of internal discoveries for both adults and children alike.

3/4

Top 10 Films of 2013

2013 was quite a year for the movies. I saw 36 new releases, and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to write about them all (yes, even Safe Haven). As always, there are a handful I didn’t have the time to see, but I’m fairly confident that the following ten are a good representation of what the year had to offer. (Click through to my full musings if you’d like to read more of my thoughts on any film)

1. Her

For me, Spike Jonze’s Her is the film of 2013. With its barely-futuristic science fiction setting and a plot that presents human interaction in a world of modern technological convenience as its central conflict, it not only captures the zeitgeist of the times, but serves as a reminder for all mankind (past, present, and future) what it means to be human. Perhaps that’s why, while walking out of the theater, I held my significant other a little closer than usual.

2. Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis is the most singular film of 2013, with the voice of writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen echoing off every frame. The heavily-featured soundtrack by T-Bone Burnett is really great, so much so that I wondered if my estimation of the film improperly inflated after repeat listens. But a second viewing proved otherwise, as Inside Llewyn Davis is a rich and multifaceted film that for me—much like Llewyn’s description of a folk song (it’s never new and never gets old)—is an instant classic.

3. 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave is the most important film of 2013, and I’m a little surprised it’s coming in at my number three. But all three of these films are incredible pictures, and my arrangement may be little more than a function of the order in which I saw them. Steve McQueen’s direction here is truly some of the year’s best, and though he may lose the Oscar to Alfonso Cuarón for the sheer achievement that is Gravity, his unflinching work on 12 Years a Slave makes it the powerful experience that it is. Strong enough to make us change the way we see our past and reconsider the world we live in today, 12 Years a Slave is a film that deserves the Best Picture Oscar.

4. Gravity

What an achievement. Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is a technological feat, a directorial triumph, and a landmark in modern cinema. Though slightly marred by some clunky and sentimental writing, it shook up the box office as a much-needed return of the theatrical event. You can’t go to outer space in your living room, but at an IMAX screening of Gravity, you can come darn close.

5. Dallas Buyers Club

Two of the year’s best performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto combine with a delicate screenplay that juggles a number of difficult themes to make Dallas Buyers Club one of the best films from 2013. Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack’s writing skillfully balances sexuality, the AIDS epidemic, the political morality of the pharmaceutical industry and its regulatory environment, and the sheer act of living and loving in the face of mortality—all difficult, sensitive themes seldom addressed in the movies today, and rarely as pervasive as they are here. But it’s the transformative performances from McConaughey and Leto that most obviously make the film. Dallas Buyers Club is their story, and they carry it with both subtlety and panache, respect, and dignity.

6. Short Term 12

SXSW film fest favorite Short Term 12 is the most emotionally resonate film I’ve seen in quite a long time. In it, writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton gives us a number of empathetically-charged moments, many featuring the outstanding Brie Larson. But beyond all the tears of endearment, the real reason I loved this film was due to the well-written characters Cretton gives us. And there are so many of them, all rounded and complex and human in most every way. And when they make progress, it too feels honest—for every two steps forward we see another step back.

7. Philomena

How do you tell a story about two diametrically opposed characters with two completely different backgrounds and beliefs? You treat both sides with respect. That’s exactly what the Steve Coogan and Judi Dench characters do in Philomena, and it’s one of the reasons I so enjoyed the picture. Another is Dench’s title character, who’s so warm and endearing on screen that she makes me want to do away with some of my own bitterness and cynicism and embrace the joyous naiveté she so wondrously exudes.

8. Captain Phillips

This Paul Greengrass thriller is as gripping as any other movie from 2013 (Gravity included), and it concludes with one of the year’s best endings. Tom Hanks turns in what may be the best piece of acting in his career, but it wasn’t enough to garnish an Oscar nomination. That accolade goes to the film’s other captain, played by first-time actor Barkhad Abdi, who imbues his role with such vital humanity that it’s impossible to pin this film down as a simpleminded us-vs-them, get the bad guys and rescue our hero action flick. Captain Phillips is a film with compassion, humanity, and empathy. That it comes in as my number eight speaks to what a great year it was at the movies.

9. Nebraska

Alexander Payne’s Nebraska may be the 2013 film I most want to revisit. Chalk it up to Phedon Papamichael’s gorgeous black-and-white photography and Bob Nelson’s memorable characters, brought to life by such talent as Bruce Dern, June Squibb, Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk, and Stacy Keach. It’s a film that, despite possessing obvious first act flaws, has continued to warm up to me after leaving the theater. It’s an essential film in that, much like Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show that so clearly influences it, is more concerned with setting and character than plot or narrative progression.

10. Enough Said

Some films are so honest, so universal and true to life that we can’t help but see ourselves in them. Such was my experience with Enough Said. Two truly endearing performances from Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini were enough to keep me glued to the screen, wondering how the story of their two everyday characters would unfold. But it was writer/director Nicole Holofcener’s genuine screenplay and treatment that unexpectedly brought me to tears as Louis-Dreyfus’s character says goodbye to her college-bound daughter. It’s a moment we’ve seen in countless other films, but rarely has it had such emotional resonance. In a cinema where fiction is always masquerading as truth, this film is an unassuming masterpiece.


Honorable Mention: The Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese’s still got it), The Spectacular Now (young leads Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are worth keeping an eye on), and Spring Breakers (because James Franco. And that Britney Spears “Everytime” sequence.)

I also saw: Fruitvale Station, The Way Way Back, 42, American Hustle, August: Osage County, Blue is the Warmest Color, Blue Jasmine, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, The Conjuring, Don Jon, Iron Man 3, Last Vegas, Oblivion, The Place Beyond the Pines, Prisoners, Saving Mr. Banks, Side Effects, Warm Bodies, The Great Gatsby, All Is Lost, Gangster Squad, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and Safe Haven.

Short Term 12 (2013)

Grab some Kleenex. It’s gonna get dusty in here. If the movies are a vehicle of empathy, then Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 is some kind of advanced fighter jet, taking us to a foster care facility for at-risk teenagers (careful not to call them “underprivileged” as Rami Malek’s new-guy Nate mistakenly does) and piloted by the formidable Brie Larson. Her performance as Grace, a passionate and committed supervisor who’s hardly buried the ghosts from her own childhood, is one of the year’s best, and it’s a shame she’s only found recognition amongst critics circles and summer film festivals (she is up for an Independent Spirit Award on March 1st, however).

Grace lives and works with her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), but despite their close proximity, she manages to keep her distance, both physically and emotionally. She’s focused on the kids, of course, and so is Cretton’s film. Through their always-open (-by-statutory-requirement) doors, we see Louis (Kevin Hernandez) a young whippersnapper who hasn’t learned when to stop talking; Sammy (Alex Calloway), a brokenhearted youth who, despite Grace’s protest, has his toys and dolls ripped away by a social worker who believes it’s time for a lesson in letting go; and Marcus (Keith Stanfield), a quiet kid with an active mind who’s not ready to leave the facility when he soon turns 18. And in newcomer Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), Grace sees some of herself. Her arrival sets the second act in motion, and while Grace remains the driving force of the film, Jayden soon becomes her fuel.

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