Thursday, April 25, 2013

Favorite Films: "Terms of Endearment"

What everyone remembers, 30 years later, is the big "plot twist" about two-thirds of the way through 1983's Terms of Endearment. View the movie again through new eyes -- like I got to do at a recent screening hosted by the American Film Institute -- and the plot doesn't seem so twisty.

Terms of Endearment is bookended by two funerals.  One of them, anyone who's seen the movie (or even heard of it, likely) knows all about, but the other one is easy to forget even though it really is at the heart of the story: the husband of Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) and the father of Emma Greenway (Debra Winger) has just died.  He's virtually never mentioned again, but his death is what drives mother and daughter so close together they practically fuse into one.

You might recall these two women as being strong.  They are certainly vivid characters, and they certainly have forceful personalities.  But they can't function without each other.  Even when Aurora does a hateful thing and refuses to attend her daughter's wedding, both of them understand that it's about showing love and respect for each other.

"I always think of us as fighting," Aurora says to her daughter, who answers, cuttingly, "That's because you're never satisfied with me."  Neither can ever be satisfied with each other because they are mirrors of each other, one appearing before the other and reflecting back every shortcoming.  Their dissatisfaction springs from their deep, unyielding love.

These may be two of the best, most honest female characters ever written for the big screen, which can't be a big surprise since Terms of Endearment was the directorial debut of its screenwriter James L. Brooks, who also wrote and directed TV's best female character, Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  In Terms of Endearment, he takes characters from a novel that was also written by a man (Larry McMurtry) and reveals two of the most complex, thoughtful women in film history.

Complex, indeed -- keep in mind that one of the film's central plot points pivots around Emma's decision to have an affair with a mild-mannered banker (John Lithgow), partly out of boredom, partly out of suspicion that her frequent-failure husband Flap (Jeff Daniels) is carrying on himself.  She tells this to Aurora, who's having her own dalliance with the wacko astronaut who lives next door (Jack Nicholson).  And they both talk about it.  They don't judge each other, and the film doesn't dwell on these conversations, but they are both fully aware that they are flawed as humans.

Aurora is proper and frequently stern.  Emma is looser and a bit rebellious, but cut very clearly from the same cloth.  When these women don't approve of behavior, they make themselves known -- and it is what endears them to the men who can't help but fall for them.  There are a lot of affairs and flings happening in Terms of Endearment, but the central relationships remain rock-solid.  The film follows people who genuinely love each other -- Aurora and the astronaut, Emma and Flap, Aurora and Emma -- even though they very often can't stand each other.

For much of the film, we're carried along by the loosest of stories: Aurora doesn't approve of Emma's husband, she marries him anyway, mother and daughter rack up astronomical pre-cell-phone long-distance bills, and then ...

Aurora falls in love, quite unexpectedly and against her better judgment.  Flap gets a job and moves the growing family.  And something else happens.  It happens as naturally and effortlessly as the rest of the film, and quite matter-of-factly: By the time we realize what's going on, the plot has moved far ahead of us.  It simply accepts that this development is part of the lives we are watching.

And that, ultimately, is the supreme beauty of Terms of Endearment: It is an effortless movie.  Everything works, the dialogue, the straightforward (but carefully crafted) style, the exquisite acting by everyone involved.  There's not a single unbelievable moment.  There's not a single easy laugh -- or easy tear.  They're earned, legitimately and richly.

Watching Terms of Endearment, I was struck by how funny it is, not just in the early, more carefree moments, but all the way through to the end.  It's a movie that understands how we use humor to shield us and to embolden us, to mask our feelings and to convey our feelings.  It doesn't try to be funny, it just finds humor in even the darkest situation -- humor that springs from the recognition of these characters as mild variations on people we all know, very likely ourselves.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

"The Place Beyond the Pines"

 3.5 / 5 

In the first shot of The Place Beyond the Pines, stunt motorcyclist Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) bursts out of his trailer in a traveling carnival that's passing through Schenectady, New York.  He's a bleached-blond raw nerve who fidgets and smokes and locks eyes with a sultry woman in the crowd.

They have a past together, and it's central to the ambitious, three-part story in a sprawling, ambitious movie that gets off to such a roaring start, overstuffed with adrenaline and emotion, from which it never quite recovers.

The three sections of The Place Beyond the Pines are all connected to these two people and their deep, genuine love and passion for each other.  Luke and the woman, Romina (Eva Mendes), have a son -- one he didn't know existed.  Hurt, curious, scared and proud, Luke decides in a flash that he's going to be part of the boy's life, no matter what.

Luke will do whatever it takes to give the little boy the things he didn't have, including a father's love, even if it means resorting to crime.  He doesn't think about the consequences of that decision, or of pretty much any decision -- so he can't know just how profound and long-lasting they'll be.

A botched robbery leads to an armed confrontation with a local cop (Bradley Cooper), who in turn makes his own fateful, split-second decision.  It's another momentary incident with ripples that will be felt across generations.

The sins of the fathers weigh heavily on the minds of director Derek Cianfrance and his co-screenwriters Ben Coccio and Darius Marder.  The Place Beyond the Pines takes place over more than a decade and a half, considering the consequences of actions that happen in the blink of an eye.  It's a more grounded, less chaotic version, in a sense, of Paul Thomas Anderson's unforgettable Magnolia, a big, messy movie drunk on possibility.

The Place Beyond the Pines is more mannered for much of its running time, much more circumspect and sometimes too mannered.  Though violence always simmers under the surface, the movie never quite feels as dangerous or unpredictable as in its first hour.  Gosling is white-hot, his Luke so tortured by his own limitations that, unbound, anything is possible.

By comparison, Cooper is buttoned-down and safe.  That's not to say his story isn't compelling -- it is, but in a completely different way, and after the hand-drawn tattoos and fiery temper of Gosling, Cooper comes across as comparatively bland.

The final third stumbles as it tries to draw the first two parts together to make a grand statement about the way crime and violence perpetuate themselves.  It would be unfair to reveal up front just who they play, but Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen, the two young actors who spring to the forefront here are in over their heads. Following in the footsteps of first Gosling then Cooper, they simply aren't commanding presences, and the movie suffers for its strict adherence to its structure.  (You keep waiting for a Gosling flashback that never comes.)

Other actors, particularly Mendes and the stunningly creepy Ben Mendelsohn, are well-used, while others like Bruce Greenwood and especially Ray Liotta -- playing exactly the kind of role you expect Ray Liotta to play -- seem out of place.

The overall result is a curious one: Gosling's Luke is a character whose outsized personality is intended to be felt throughout the story, even when he's not on screen.  Gosling delivers a towering, dazzling performance.  The only problem is, it's too towering.  The Place Beyond the Pines is one-third stunning and brilliant, two-thirds very good; but compared with stunning and brilliant, very good almost doesn't seem enough.

Viewed April 13, 2013 -- Arclight Hollywood


Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Screen Darkens: Farewell, Roger Ebert

Today, I lost a friend I never met.

But Roger Ebert had the uncanny ability to make everyone feel they were listening to their best friend -- their smartest, wittiest and sometimes most irritating friend -- urge them to share his passion, feel his enthusiasm, argue with his opinions.

Ebert died today, and with him went the certitude of his thoughts, the disarming and unbelievable intelligence he brought to even the simplest of ideas.  Whether in his prolific, Pulitzer Prize-winning writing or his fiery arguments (and just as passionate agreements) with rival film critic Gene Siskel, Ebert condensed and often simplified -- without dumbing down -- complex and frequently challenging views.

When Ebert reviewed films, he did so neither with the sensibilities of a pop-culture enthusiast nor with the highbrow elitism of a film theorist.  He rarely discussed a movie's artistic genesis, the oeuvre of an artist, the composition or intent of a filmmaker.

He just told you whether he liked a movie or not.

Behind his judgment was the enthusiasm of a young boy riding high on adventure, a man aware of life's pitfalls, a celebrity-in-his-own-right who hob-nobbed with the biggest names, an ink-stained journalist who cared about words.

He could be cultured, he could be simple, he could be outrageously smart, he could be silly.  Though he could not have been untouched by his own status, he rarely let his position and accomplishments affect his views on movies.  He just knew what he liked -- and what he didn't.  More often than not, it aligned with what other Americans liked and didn't.

Ebert could be scathing, he could tell everyone from his platform, "I hated, hated, hated this movie."  He could become practically rabid in his zeal to tear down or build up a movie that inspired passion in him.  And then he would listen to the other point of view, most famously represented by slightly more upscale Siskel, and share it or attack it with equal fervor.

Just the way you do when you go to movies.

He didn't care about the budget of a movie (well, almost never), he didn't care about the stars or the political and corporate machinations that went into making a movie.  He just wanted you to see the good ones, steer clear of the bad ones -- and sometimes secretly enjoy a wretched one.

My moviegoing life was shaped by Ebert.  Siskel, too, absolutely, but it is Ebert we mourn today (and Siskel we remember -- an irony the longtime foes would probably both hate and relish), and mourn him we should.  We often lose people.  We often lose people with great ideas or who have made great accomplishments.  So rarely do we lose a voice.

Ebert helped me understand that it was OK to like a film everyone else despised, to find magic in the flickering lights of the theater even when others saw something different.  He helped me learn that the best way to analyze a movie wasn't through its mise-en-scene, its cinematography, its editing or the artistic sensibilities of its director; the best way to analyze a movie was by deciding whether you liked it or didn't, and being able to articulate that.

"No good movie is too long, and no bad movie is short enough," Ebert famously said.  I think of that phrase a lot when I look at the running time on a DVD box and think, "I can't sit through a three-hour movie."  But he was right, not just about long (good) movies, but about other kinds of films: documentaries, which can show you a different way; lengthy films and foreign films, because they can transport you to places you never dreamed possible; independent films, because they remind you not everyone sees things the same way.  He was right about bad films, too -- short bad films, long bad films, or successful and popular bad films: Life's too short.

Ebert's certainly was.

Roger Ebert was always right about movies.  Even when he was wrong, he was right.