Category Archives: Road Movie

SIFF 2012: The Most Fun I’ve Ever Had With My Pants On **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 2, 2012)

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I am chagrined to learn via Mr. Google that I did not invent the phrase “emo road trip”, but I wish that it be noted that I came up with it on my own while watching The Most Fun I’ve Ever Had with My Pants On. So anyway, this EMO ROAD TRIP movie, (making its world premiere at SIFF) is from first time director Drew Denny (a member of L.A. indie pop band Big Whup). Denny casts herself as a free-spirited young woman who drags her uptight BFF (Sarah Hagen) along to help scatter her father’s ashes between L.A. and Austin (I’m surprised the film wasn’t premiered at SXSW). There are some lovely moments between Denny and Hagen, who are natural and convincing as childhood friends still in the process of defining themselves as adults. It’s sort of Thelma and Louise meets HBO’s Girls. I felt the film could have used tightening, but overall an impressive debut, beautifully photographed (it’s hard to mess up those inherently cinematic American Southwest vistas).

The Haole and the IV: The Descendents ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 26, 2011)

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In the course of (what passes for) my “career” as a movie critic, I have avowed to avoid the trite phrase “heartwarming family film”. Well, so much for principles. The Descendants is a heartwarming family film. There, I said it. Now, let me qualify that. Since it is directed by Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways) it is a heartwarming family film riddled with dysfunction and middle-aged angst (which is how I prefer my heartwarming family films, thank you very much). Think of it as Terms of Endearment goes Hawaiian.

Despite the lush and verdant setting, Payne wastes no time hinting that there is trouble in Paradise. People who live in Hawaii get cancer, feel pain and encounter their own fair share of potholes as they caterwaul down the road of life, like anyone else. That is the gist of an internal monologue, delivered by Matt King (George Clooney), as he holds vigil in an ICU, where his wife (Patricia Hastie) lies in a coma, gravely injured from a water-skiing mishap. As he contemplates the maze of IV tubes and such keeping his wife alive, Matt, like anyone staring into the Abyss, begins taking inventory of his life up to now.

After all, what family doesn’t have its ups and downs? On the “up” side, Matt is financially set for life, as an heir to and executor for a sizable chunk of prime, undeveloped land on Kauai, held in a family trust (thanks to genuine Hawaiian royalty buried in the woodpile a ways back). On the “down” side, his workaholic nature has precipitated emotional distance from his wife and two daughters. His 17-year old, the sullen and combative Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) is at boarding school; and precocious 10-year old Scottie (Amara Miller) is in hot water for antics like cyber-bullying a classmate, and bringing disturbing photos of her comatose mother to school.

In the past, Matt’s wife has served as the buffer between him and the day-to-day daughterly drama, but now that she is incapacitated, it’s all landed in his lap. He may be a respected pillar of the community, but now finds himself akin to the proverbial deer in the headlights. After awkwardly putting out Scottie’s fires, Matt decides that he will need to enlist the assistance of her older sister for riot control.

Besides, he figures it would be best to keep both of his girls close by, should the worst happen. As if this weren’t enough on his plate, Matt is also up against a pending deadline to sell the family’s land to a real estate developer. He is being egged on by a sizable coterie of cousins who (a couple anti-development dissenters aside) are eager to milk this potential cash cow for all its worth.

Then, the bombshell lands. The bombardiers are his daughters, who let it slip that, completely unbeknownst to Dad, Mom had been getting a little action on the side with a younger man (Matthew Lillard). And he’s a real estate agent, no less (shades of American Beauty). Poor Matt. He’s no sooner steeled himself for the looming possibility of becoming a grieving widower who must stay strong for his kids, but instead finds himself cast as a blindsided cuckold.

Flummoxed, Matt demands confirmation from his wife’s friends, who fess up. Although he has no real idea what he wants to say (or do) to him, Matt nonetheless decides that he must track down his wife’s lover (it’s a guy thing). With Scottie, Alexandra and her boyfriend (Nick Krause) in tow, he embarks on the patented Alexander Payne Road Trip, which in this case involves hopping a quick flight to Kauai.

While the setup may feel somewhat familiar (like the aforementioned American Beauty meets Little Miss Sunshine), or even rote, in Payne’s hands it is anything but. Yes, on one level it’s another soaper about a middle-aged male heading for a meltdown, but every time you think you’ve got it sussed, Payne keeps pitching curve balls.

His script (which he co-adapted with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings) consistently hits the sweet spot between comedy and drama, giving us characters who, in spite of (or perhaps, due to) their contradictions and flaws, are people to whom we can all easily relate to. The film also showcases Clooney’s best work in years; it’s the closest he has come thus far to proving that he may indeed be this generation’s Cary Grant, after all.

This is one of the first  knockouts on the autumn release calendar, and one of the best films I’ve seen this year. There are many reasons to recommend it, not the least of which is a bevy of fine performances from the entire cast. Lillard shows surprising depth, and it’s a hoot to watch veteran character actors like Robert Forster and Beau Bridges doing that voodoo that they do so well. I also like the way Payne subtly utilizes the Hawaiian landscapes like another character in the story, much in the same manner he employed the California wine country milieu in Sideways. After all, it is only when human beings are set against the simple perfection of an orchid (or a grape) that we are truly exposed as the silly, needlessly self-absorbed and ultimately inconsequential creatures that we really are.

Sinners and saints: Salvation Boulevard *1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 30, 2011)

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Salvation Boulevard is precisely the type of black comedy/social satire/noirish morality play that the Coen brothers excel at. Unfortunately, the Coen brothers didn’t direct it. Or write it. However, I will hand it to writer-director George Ratliff-it does take a special kind of skill to so effectively squander the potential of a cast that includes Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Connelly, Marisa Tomei and Ed Harris.

Kinnear plays ex-Deadhead Carl, a member of a megachurch who has traded the tie-dye and Thai Stick of hippiedom for the sackcloth and ashes of born-again Christendom. Well, maybe not completely (is there really such a thing as an “ex”-Deadhead?), because you get the impression that his wife Gwen (Connelly) is the one who really wears the piety in the family.

Gwen is slavishly devoted to the edicts of the church’s charismatic leader, Pastor Dan (Brosnan), a slick hustler with ambitions to build his own “city on a hill” (more as a monument to himself, than to the Lord-one suspects). Their teen daughter (Isabelle Fuhrman) is apprehensive about Mom’s push to psych her up for taking her “vows” at an upcoming “purity ball”. Meanwhile, malleable Carl just goes with the flow.

One evening, following a televised debate at the megachurch between Pastor Dan and guest speaker Dr. Blaylock (Harris), a famous atheist writer, Carl ends up driving the pastor to the doctor’s home for a nightcap. In the midst of a conversation about the possibilities of the two men co-authoring a book, Pastor Dan accidentally shoots Dr. Blaylock in the head while handling an antique pistol (oops!), leaving the writer alive, but in a coma.

Carl, of course, wants to do the right thing and call the police immediately; but the silver-tongued pastor persuades him to hold off until they get back to the church. Yes, Carl is being set up to be the fall guy-and by the time he realizes it, Pastor Dan, with no shortage of worshipful toadies at his disposal, has the upper hand. No one believes Carl’s side of the story, even Gwen (she chalks it up as a “hallucination”-maybe a relapse to his druggie DFH past). He finally finds a sympathetic ear in a female church security guard (Tomei) who bonds with him as a fellow Deadhead.

Once the pair (seemingly the only two sane and likable characters in the story) hit the highway in a VW van, with the evil heavies from the church in hot pursuit, you would think that you are now in for a darkly amusing “road movie”, chockablock with wacky vignettes fueled by the colorful characters encountered along the way. You would think.

But it is at this point in the film that Ratliff (and his co-writer Douglas Stone) make a fatal mistake. Well, two. First, Tomei’s character gets dropped like a rock-which is too bad, because the only time the film really came alive for me was when she was onscreen. Secondly, from the moment Carl is abruptly kidnapped by a Mexican drug lord (don’t ask) the whole narrative gets hijacked as well, grinding the entire film to a thudding halt.

I’m not sure what happened here; but most of the cast (with the exception of Tomei) sleepwalk through the film (and these are usually reliable actors). Bad direction? Not enough direction? Weak script? All of the above? Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint.

Whatever the root cause, the end product is forced and flat; it’s like a lame network sitcom making a futile attempt to be as hip as, say, Weeds. I had also greatly anticipated the re-pairing of Brosnan and Kinnear, who made a perfect tag team in the 2005 black comedy, The Matador. But alas, it was not to be. Another unpardonable sin-the megachurch phenom is so ripe for a satirical takedown, and that opportunity is blown as well. So I am afraid I have to say: “Praise the Lord and pass the multiplex” on this one.

SIFF 2011: Magic Trip ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 4, 2011)

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Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place is the latest from the prolific  Alex Gibney, and a good companion piece to his 2008 doc Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson. If you’ve never read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, this is the next best thing to  “being there”.  Waaay out “there”.  We’re talking the original Magical Mystery Tour, the one that kicked off that disunited state of mind glibly referred to by those who were not “there” as The Sixties.

In 1964, author Ken Kesey, who had been involved with the infamous CIA-sponsored 1959 psychoactive drug research program at Stanford, assembled a group of friends (including hipster saint/speed freak Neal Cassady) for a cross-country bus trip/consciousness-raising experiment that would come to be known as the maiden voyage for the “Merry Pranksters”. Kesey was prescient enough to document the trip with hours of film and audio recordings, but never got around to organizing it all as a narrative.

Gibney proves himself up to the task; as well as connecting all the (micro) dots between the Beats, the Pranksters, Leary, the Dead and beyond (the beyond). It’s a fascinating new angle on a well-beaten path. BTW…I know what you Gen X-ers and Millennials are thinking: “Oh please god,  not yet another documentary about the Boomers and their halcyon  days!” But hey man, give this piece a chance.

SIFF 2011: The Trip ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 28, 2011)

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Pared down into feature film length from the 6-episode BBC TV series of the same name, Michael Winterbottom’s film is essentially a highlight reel of that show-which is not to denigrate it, because it is the most genuinely hilarious comedy I’ve seen in many a moon. The levity is due in no small part to Winterbottom’s two stars-Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, basically playing themselves in this mashup of Sideways and My Dinner With Andre.

Coogan is asked by a British newspaper to take a “restaurant tour” of England’s bucolic Lake District, and review the eateries. He initially plans to take his girlfriend along, but since their relationship is going through a rocky period, he asks his pal, fellow actor Brydon, to accompany him. This simple narrative setup is basically an excuse to sit back and enjoy Coogan and Brydon’s brilliant comic riffing (much of it feels improvised) on everything from relationships to the “proper” way to do Michael Caine impressions. There’s some unexpected poignancy-but for the most part, it’s pure comedy gold.

Sturm and twang: Crazy Heart ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 9, 2010)

Ev’rything’s agin’ me and it’s got me down
If I jumped in the river I would prob’ly drown
No matter how I struggle and strive
I’ll never get out of this world alive
.

-Hank Williams

I think I stumped Mr. Google. For the life of me, I can’t pin down the name of the artist who wrote and/or sang my favorite country song of all time. Let me qualify that. That would be my favorite country song title, which is “I’m Gonna Build Me a Bar in the Back of My Car and Drive Myself to Drink” (I believe it came out circa ‘78, if that helps jog memory). At any rate, after watching Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart, I can visualize the film’s protagonist, “Bad” Blake (Jeff Bridges) as that songwriter. This guy is a country song-with a pocketful of whiskey and a lifetime full of heartache and regret.

Look in the dictionary under “has-been country musicians” and you’ll see an 8×10 of Bad Blake. Take a little whiff of the accompanying “scratch’n’sniff” card, and you’ll catch a pungent mélange of stale beer, cigarettes, musty nightclubs and cheap motel rooms.

Tooling around the Southwest in his antiquated, “lucky” Suburban, Blake’s life is a never-ending series of shithole one-nighters (in the film’s opening scene, his name gets second billing to a league tournament on a bowling alley sign, which reminded me of the visual gag from This is Spinal Tap with the amusement park marquee touting “Puppet show…and Spinal Tap”).

Keeping his road expenses to a minimum, he tours solo, using pickup bands to back him at each location. Eschewing rehearsals and sound checks, he spends his off hours brushing up on his ornithology (e.g. Wild Turkey, Old Crow and Eagle Rare). Somehow, he still manages to get through his performances. Oh, on occasion, the band has to vamp while he slips out to vomit in the alley-but that’s showbiz.

His love life is in similar disarray; it is a trail of broken hearts, one-night stands with groupies, an adult son whom he has not seen since infancy and a handful of exes (who may, or may not, live in Texas). His romance with the bottle is his longest-standing relationship.

Enter a small-town newspaper reporter named Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a divorcee with a 4-year old son. A piano player who is backing Bad at one of his gigs asks Bad to grant her an interview as a favor. Preferring his fans to remember him as he was “back in the day”, the initially reluctant interviewee becomes much more enthusiastic once he meets the winsome young woman. Sparks fly, and the heat, as they say, is on.

Bad starts feeling much more enthusiastic about life in general; he surprises his long-suffering booking agent by agreeing to bury the hatchet with Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), a former protégé who is now a country superstar, and open a stadium show for him. Things are looking up. But as anyone who has seen more than one film about an alcoholic knows, it’s about this point where you begin to brace for the fall (“How’s he going to fuck it up? Pass the popcorn”).

So, is this just another “narcissistic, self-destructive musician who has hit rock-bottom but just needs the love of a good woman to put him on the road to redemption” story? Well, yes. And no. Writer-director Cooper’s script (adapted from the original novel by Thomas Cobb) does travel down some dusty and well-worn country roads, but thankfully avoids some of the usual clichés before it takes us home. For instance, there are no barroom brawls, and nary even one scene shot in a trailer park (that was refreshing). Yes, we’ve seen this story before, but we don’t always get to see it with such a great cast.

There’s a lot of Oscar buzz about Bridges’ performance, although if truth be told I wouldn’t necessarily consider it the best thing he has ever done. But if anyone deserves a statuette for a consistently fine body of work, it would be Jeff Bridges. He’s got a good shot; if history has taught us anything, it’s that Oscar loves drunks (and nuns, according to Kate Winslet in a classic episode of Extras).

Robert Duvall has a small but memorable role; he and Bridges are a joy to watch together. Gyllenhaal is excellent, although her part feels a little underwritten. Bridges does his own singing, and he isn’t half-bad. Crazy Heart may be a small and simple film, but it has a big heart…like a good country song.

Of carnies and Calvary: Stigmata ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo in 2010)

Stigmata (aka Estigmas) is a film that is so visually intoxicating, striking in tone and steeped in atmosphere, that one is compelled to overlook (forgive?) its relatively thin narrative and decidedly glacial pacing. Based on the graphic novel by Lorenzo Mattotti and Claudio Piersanti, the film is directed by Adan Aliaga.

In his acting debut, champion Spanish shot-putter Manuel Martinez stars as the central character, Bruno, a classic “gentle giant” (replete with the requisite heart of gold) who wakes up one morning with mysterious, painless wounds in both hands, which proceed to bleed copiously and continuously. Naturally, this makes him an instant social pariah. He finds refuge with a carnival, where true love, tragedy and redemption transpire.

I assume much of the simmering angst and sublimated religious subtext will resonate more strongly with my Catholic brethren (although, as a Jew, I can sort of empathize). I was reminded of Fellini’s La Strada, with a few echoes of Lynch’s The Elephant Man as well. Pere Pueyo’s B & W cinematography is outstanding, and Aliaga is a talent to keep an eye on.

Blu-ray reissue: Paris, Texas ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 4, 2010)

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Paris, Texas – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

What is it with European filmmakers and their obsession with the American West? Perhaps it’s all that wide open space, interpreted by the creative eye as a blank, limitless canvas. At any rate, director Wim Wenders and DP Robby Muller paint themselves a lovely desert Southwest landscape for this enigmatic, languidly paced 1984 melodrama (written by Sam Shepard and L.M. Kit Carson). With Shepard on board, you know that the protagonist is going to be a troubled, troubled man-and nothing says “rode hard and put up wet” like the careworn tributaries of Harry Dean Stanton’s weather-beaten face.

In his career-best performance,  Stanton portrays a man who has been missing for 4 years after abandoning his wife (Nastassja Kinski) and their young son. One day he reappears, with a tight-lipped countenance and a 1000-yard stare that tells you this guy is on a return trip from out where Jesus lost his shoes. Now it’s up to his brother (Dean Stockwell) to help him assemble the jigsaw. Stanton delivers an astonishing monologue in the film’s denouement that reminds us what a good actor does.

Criterion’s Blu-ray features a crystalline transfer, and the dynamic audio does Ry Cooder’s mournful slide guitar proud.

SIFF 2010: Bran Nue Dae **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 5, 2010)

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I know what you’re thinking- “Enough, already with the Aboriginal musical-comedies!” I’m being facetious, of course; to the best of my knowledge, the Spell-check-challenged Australian import Bran Nue Dae is the first (and don’t go making up titles like Jimmy B: Bring on da Chant, Bring on da Axe in the comments section to try and fool me, either). So how does it fare? Well, it has all the sizzle of a potential audience-pleaser (especially when you consider the sizable number of sunny-side-up romps that have come out of Australia over the last decade or two), but unfortunately, the steak is a bit under-cooked.

Set in the late 1960s, the wafer-thin narrative offers up a sort of Aboriginal variation on Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows. In the sleepy little port town of Broome, a young Aboriginal named Willie (Rocky McKenzie) is conflicted between pleasing his religiously zealous mother (Ningali Lawford), who is pushing him toward the priesthood, and his raging teenage hormones, who are urging him that he needs to start investigating if his longtime friendship with the lovely Rosie (Jessica Mauboy) comes with a benefit package. Just when things start to get interesting between them, mom packs Willie off for another year at his Catholic school in distant Perth.

It’s not long, however, before Willie’s yearnings for Rosie, combined with the tyrannical rule of mean old Father Benedictus (an ultra-hammy Geoffrey Rush) overwhelm him, and he runs away. As Willie makes his way back to Broome, he has encounters with the requisite Whitman’s Road Movie Assortment of colorful goofballs, eventually hooking up with a young hippie couple (driving a VW bus, of course) and a hobo with a heart of gold (Ernie Dingo, stealing all of his scenes). Hilarity (and exuberant singing and dancing) ensues.

I really wanted to like this film (especially since I’ve always had a soft spot for stories centered on Aboriginal culture) but I’m not sure I can give it a hearty endorsement. There was a lot to like about it; particularly the easygoing charm of the young leads and Dingo’s engaging performance. I think the filmmaker’s hearts were in the right place…but…I was distracted by the sloppy editing (which tends to work against the choreography) and almost unforgivably bad lip-syncing for some of the numbers. While some of the songs were catchy, others were cringe-worthy. Then again, I’m not a huge fan of musicals; if you are a diehard, you might be more forgiving.