Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Nothing ventured, nothing gained

J. Edgar is an overlong, ultra serious biography of J. Edgar Hoover, the man who ran the FBI with an iron fist for more than four decades. As it stands, this film would be a failure from any filmmaker, but as Clint Eastwood directed it, it has to be considered a major disappointment.

As you might expect from Eastwood, this is a handsome-looking film with outstanding production design, appropriately moody cinematography and impressive costume design. Eastwood has done a first-rate job recreating scenes from the 1930s through the early 1970s, but all of that is eye candy, given his plodding direction. Eastwood has always taken his time telling his stories and he does so here again (the movie is two hours and seventeen minutes long), but to little or no avail, as the story just doesn't have much dramatic tension to hold our interest.

Eastwood seems content merely recreating famous incidents in Hoover's life and to be sure, the careful analysis of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping makes for interesting viewing, especially with the subplot of Hoover lobbying Congress to make kidnapping a federal crime, so his bureau could take over the case and grab any potential headlines.

But many other sequences are merely filmed recreations (complete with some obvious CGIs) that serve merely as moments in this man's life. It's a little like flipping through a deck of cards - when you're finished, what did you accomplish? When you think about the way that Eastwood told the heartbreaking story of Japanese and American soldiers in Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), you can hardly believe this is the same filmmaker.

Yes, Leonardo DiCaprio is very good as Hoover (does he ever give a less than interesting performance?), although I preferred his turn in The Aviator (2004). I also liked the honest way that the film deals with the homosexual relationship between Hoover and Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), who was second in command to Hoover at the FBI for many years. Their penultimate scene together at a dinner at Tolson's home late in each other's life, where they express their feelings for each other, is sensitively written (Dustin Lance Black who authored the screenplay for Milk in 2008, performed those chores here) and directed and scored by Eastwood.

But truly interesting scenes like this one are too rare in this film. Eastwood and Black went for too much of an historical angle here, while a more pointed personal analysis would have been welcome. There's even a brief scene that answers the controversy of Hoover as a cross dresser. This could have been a much-talked about scene, but as it's presented in the film, it simply feels tacked on.

When I saw Gran Torino (2008), I thought to myself that this would have been the perfect closing act in Clint Eastwood's directorial career, as it summed up much of what he has been saying in his films for forty years. I hope I can change my mind soon and see one more great film from Eastwood, because he hasn't been in top form lately (last year's Hereafter was rather dull). This film, as serious and as well-intentioned as it may be, doesn't break any new ground and worse off, has Eastwood play it safe in his directorial choices. Given that, one wonders why Eastwood made the film in the first place, unless he was attracted to the private world of his main character. Whatever the reason, J Edgar is a rather uninspired film.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Loss of a Musical Legend

Uan Rasey (1921-2011) 
Photo by Tony Gieske

Whenever a celebrated film director or actor dies, the authors of film blogs write their appropriate tributes. But it's rarely that way when a cinematographer, editor or other technician passes away. I'd like to remedy that with this post, as I note the recent death of Uan Rasey.

I realize that few of you reading this post have ever heard of Uan Rasey, but you have certainly heard him perform. Rasey played trumpet for hundreds - perhaps thousands - of films, with perhaps his most famous performances in the films An American in Paris (1951) and Chinatown (1974). If he only played on those two films, his reputation would be forever remembered, but add to that his performances on the soundtracks for such movies as Singin' in the Rain (1951) and Gigi (1958), when he was first chair trumpeter for the MGM orchestra as well as West Side Story (1961), My Fair Lady (1964) and Taxi Driver (1976) and you have a remarkable body of work.

Rasey, who taught himself how to play trumpet with the help of a $9 instruction booklet from Montgomery Ward, was also a celebrated teacher of trumpet. Among his most famous students were the jazz trumpeters Arturo Sandoval and Jack Shelton.

As I'm not a musician, I can only say so much in this tribute, so let's have his playing do the talking, so to speak. Here is his solo from Chinatown, as he plays the main theme, composed by the great Jerry Goldsmith.

I've read several descriptions of this performance by Rasey, with terms such as "sexy", "steamy" and "smoky" to describe his playing of this gorgeous theme. Call it what you want, it's certainly one of the most memorable solo trumpets I've ever heard in a film score!

Rasey passed away in late September of this year and as I mentioned earlier in this post, that news was largely ignored by film bloggers. Thankfully, we have the soundtracks of so many great films Uan Rasey performed on to recall his influence as one of the greatest trumpeters ever to work in Hollywood.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Last Rites of Joe May

I am rerunning an earlier review of The Last Rites of Joe May, which opens today (Friday, Nov. 25) at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago for a one-week run.

You may have met someone like Joe May at one point in your life. He's a helluva guy, but don't tell him that- he thinks he's just a regular fella. He does the right thing, bottom line, even if his actions may get him in trouble. He's also one of the most memorable characters you'll see this year in film and you'll remember him for a long time, thanks to a dazzling performance by Dennis Farina.

The Last Rites of Joe May was written and directed by Joe Maggio, who also performed those tasks for Bitter Feast (2010) and Paper Covers Rock (2008) among others. For Last Rites, Maggio has created a character that we feel for from the start; in his sixties, Joe May is being released from the hospital after a seven-week battle with pneumonia. But apparently Joe forgot to tell his landlord, who thought he either died or moved away, so the landlord has thrown all of Joe's belongings away and has rented his apartment to a single mother named Jenny (Jamie Allman). She's not exactly doing great financially, as we see her pilfer the small orange juice containers that her patients at a nearby hospital don't consume. She's raising a young daughter named Angelina (Meredith Droeger), who never knew her father.

The individual stories of these three slowly start to intertwine, as Joe agrees to share the apartment with Jenny and Angelina, as he will pay part of the rent each month. Now that Joe has a place to stay again, he can go back to his old friends and try make a few extra bucks. He's been a small time crook, fencing watches and radios on the street, but in his heart, he believes he can truly make a lot of money, if only the right situation comes along.

                            Photo by Jay Silver

Meanwhile, we learn that Jenny has a boyfriend who beats her from time to time. When Joe sees him for the first time, he tells him to leave or he'll call the cops. Trouble is, he's a police detective, so there's little that Jenny or Joe can do to stop him. All Joe can do is try and comfort her, but that's not an easy thing for a rough and tumble guy like him. In one scene she asks him if he would hold her, to which Joe replies, "I don't think that's a good idea."

Joe however does start to look after Angelina, tucking her in bed at night and chatting with her at breakfast. She's thrilled to have a father figure in her life and she asks if Joe will have breakfast with her the next morning and the one after that. It's a simple scene, but a critical one in the film and it's one of several moving moments.

There are several factors as to why this film captures our attention from the first frame. Much of the credit goes to Maggio for his script, which has a honest ring to it and is never forced. Every character, from the three major players to the ones with small roles, talk just like you'd expect them to. This is a street drama at its most basic, taking places in the ethnic restaurants, alleyways and neighborhood bars of Chicago and it sounds just right. One other note about the script: Joe May swears a lot in this movie and he'll swear at anyone. It's not for shock value - it's just the way he's talked for most of his life and it's part of this character's charm as well as a good deal of the film's humor. There is one line that Joe May yells at a cabdriver (I won't give it away) that is one of the funniest lines I've heard in a film in years - you may fall out of your seat when you hear it!

The visuals are another reason why this film is so strong, so realistic. I've lived in Chicago my entire life and I love the look of this film. This is not about the lakefront or tall buildings - only the tops of skyscrapers are visible in a couple shots - but rather the snow-covered streets of Halsted Street in winter time. There's a cool, blue tone to the cinematography which fits the visuals perfectly and gives the film a bit of a bleak look. There are several marvelous shots here; the two I loved the most are the #8 bus on Halsted under a viaduct on a windswept snowy evening, while the other has Angelina and Joe swinging a pole around on their roof in order to scatter his pigeons in flight, as they are released from their coops. This last shot is quite hypnotic as well as being lovely to look at; it's also a tender moment between Joe and Angelina, as their affection for each other grows.

I've read, by the way, that Dennis Farina himself had a major influence in having this movie shot in Chicago. The film was originally scheduled to be shot in New York City, but Farina, a native Chicagoan, asked Maggio about doing it in his (Farina's) hometown. Once Maggio and his team scouted out some of Chicago neighborhoods, the decision was made to film in Chicago and a few minor script changes were made.

So a first-rate script and just-right visuals (as well as an impressive bare-bones original score by Lindsay Marcus) are among the strong points of The Last Rites of Joe May, but above all, it is the performance by Dennis Farina as the title character that ties everything together. I've always liked Farina for the honest emotions he displays in his roles - everything about his work has been just right. He looks perfect for the part with his thick grey hair and time-worn face and he finds a nice balance between quiet frustration and explosive bursts of temper. It is quite proper to use the cliché that he was born to play this part, but it's entirely accurate in this case. Dennis Farina is simply great as Joe May and for my money, it's the performance of his career.

Honestly written and acted, The Last Rites of Joe May is primarily a quiet film about a man who only wants to continue doing things as he's always done them. It is a wonderful piece of work and one that I highly recommend.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Need for Journalism

Page One: Inside the New York Times is an engaging, important documentary that is an inner look at how the editors and reporters at America's most famous newspaper are dealing with a vital question - is journalism, the kind of journalism that the Times and several of the country's best daily papers provide - still relevant in today's digital and electronic world?

Directed by Andrew Rossi, who applies a journalistic, fact-gathering approach, the film focuses on a few individuals that give the paper its essence today. One of those is David Carr, a former drug addict who turned his life around at the age of 31 and has become one of the paper's finest reporters. Carr has a unique sense of humor to say the least. He's self deprecating, but he's also ready to pounce on someone who makes fun of him or his paper. At times he comes across as a smart ass, know-it-all, but in the final analysis, he's very loyal to his friends and his bosses and is one helluva reporter and writer.

David Carr (l.) with Bruce Headlam, media desk editor

Another important character in this story is Brian Stelter, who was 22 years old when he was hired by the Times as a media reporter. Stelter, who constantly updates his Twitter account with news leads he assembles all day long, is the new face of journalism at the paper, someone who approaches his job in an entirely different direction than Carr and other investigative reporters. For Stelter, it's a question of why wouldn't a journalist be on Twitter, while for Carr, it's his belief that "Stelter was a robot assembled to destroy me." 

It's this multidimensional way of journalism that is now standard operating procedure at the Times. Rossi argues that social media has - at least for the short term - saved the paper. The death of several excellent American newspapers is noted in the film and the question of could the New York Times be next is dealt with for much of the second half of this film. One television reporter notes how the paper's trading value is $3 per share, which is less than the cost of the Sunday edition. We also view scenes of a few employees - some of them with decades of experience at the paper, being let go as the managing editor had to make the tough call of which 100 employees would be eliminated in cost-cutting measures. Could the paper go out of business?

Given the ways that the public can access information these days, the answer to that question is certainly, yes, it could. To that end, we witness how the reporters and editors at the Times are doing everything they can to stay relevant; the online edition is the most read of its kind in the country and Carr notes how there are dozens of videos each week on this site, thus giving readers who prefer visuals to words their fix for facts and opinions.

The recent WikiLeaks situation is dissected in great detail in the film. The editors examine these documents and videos and ask themselves if these would indeed be harmful or not before they make the decision to publish them. One point worth noting here is that Rossi does not question the fact that the Times seemed to be a willing partner for Julian Assange, editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, when they became his partner in crime, so to speak, by publishing these reports over the course of several weeks in late 2010. Whether you believe the paper was serving the public's need to know or thought that this was an improper use of journalism, it certainly seems that the editors at the Times made this determination based on staying relevant; as this news was being broadcast all over television and the internet, the decision makers at the paper clearly wanted to stay in the game and keep readers thinking about the need for the Times.

This aside, I recommend the film quite highly, especially for its look at how journalists do their job. One of the most absorbing sequences deals with Carr and how he breaks the news about the new management team at the Chicago Tribune. The new owner admitted he was not a newspaper man, but clearly a business man interested primarily in money, who then went ahead and hired a former radio general manager to run the paper. It was a disaster in the making which only became worse when Carr learned that several female employees complained of sexual harassment at their workplace. 

Carr makes dozens of phone calls, gathers all the information, shares what he knows with his editor and gets the OK to write the story. He did his job magnificently - I still recall the day that story was issued and I emailed it to dozens of friends who lived in Chicago or once lived in Chicago. The details of the article were shocking, especially for a once-great paper such as the Tribune and within weeks, the management team resigned. Yes, print journalism still has the power to change things and when reporters  like David Carr are given the freedom to do their job, the power of the printed word can be devastating.

We are left to wonder how long the New York Times will exist as we know it. Change has come to the paper and Rossi argues that this change has pumped new life into the publication and has certainly staved off its death knoll. But for how long?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

All Me- Winfred Rembert

Chain Gang - The Ditch, Winfred Rembert (2005)

All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert is an illuminating documentary about a black artist who lived through the racial strife of the south in the 1960s and who today creates strikingly original artworks that recall his own struggles as well as those of his friends and counterparts. In the process of this film, we meet a remarkable man who has gone from poverty to the status of a celebrated artisan, all the while remaining someone who has retained his simple country heritage.

The film is directed by Vivian Ducat, a native New Yorker, who has produced a number of films in England and in America over the past twenty years; these ranged from series episodes for the BBC to 
an episode of The American Experience for PBS. In early 2010, she attended a show of Rembert's works at a gallery in New York, where she met the artist. Impressed by his craft as well as his storytelling ability, she decided to make a short film about him and soon afterward got the news that she would direct and produce a feature-length documentary on Rembert.

Ducat has made a highly entertaining film about Rembert and it's clear watching the film that she believes this is a truly special man whose life story needed to be chronicled. Rembert, now 65, grew up in the small rural town of Cuthbert, Georgia and was given away at birth to a great aunt. He spent much of his youth and early adulthood working in the local peanut and cotton fields and this time clearly meant a lot to him, as many of his works portray scenes of workers "toiling"- as he likes to describe it - at their work.

Rembert was impressed by the speeches he heard from Martin Luther King, Jr and decided to attend a civil rights demonstration; he was jailed for this and after escaping, he was then strung up by a local gang who were ready to kill him. This part of the film is told by Rembert in clear, stirring detail, as we see some of his works depicting this act.

He survived, but was forced to work on a chain gang for several years. While in prison, he drew scenes of his life's experiences and started to experiment with art on leather. Later on, he would make small pieces of jewelry and even a jacket for his children, who were the envy of all their friends when they wore these pieces of art. Encouraged by this, Rembert continued with his craft, eventually catching the attention of some influential individuals along the way who were able to help fund his studio work.

Chain Gang Picking Cotton (2004)

Rembert creates by starting with a drawing that he then reproduces on a leather canvas by numerous hand tools, among them a number of small hammers and picks. He then illustrates the canvas with dyes, as paint would crack on leather if folded. Along the way, Ducat includes several scenes of Rembert at work and it's fascinating to watch this unusual handiwork of the artist.

The director also includes a scene where Rembert speaks to college students about his experiences from decades past and about how ugly racial tensions were in the Deep South. It's interesting to see the reactions of the students, most of whom probably have never met anyone who has been a first-person witness to that time.

There are many scenes that focus on Cuthbert, as we see what the town looks like today and watch and listen to some of Rembert's boyhood friends. We also see what the artist's current life is like, as he lives near Yale University (where his first one-man show took place) in a simple neighborhood where he can roast a pig or play a little pick-up basketball with friends (he still has a few slick moves at his age!).

But it's small town Georgia that still means so much to Winfred Rembert and the film concludes with his art being moved from a gallery in New York City to a special show in Albany, GA, not far from Cuthbert. "Nothing compares to coming back home... I'm here and I'm somebody," the artist says.

His journey is complete and has a nice circular nature to it, from a poor background to a celebrated artist; from the simplicity of a humble town in Georgia to the rich interiors of a New York City gallery and finally back home again. All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert is a nicely detailed look at one special man's path in life, one that has a few more chapters to be written.

All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert won a silver plaque in the documentary category at the 2011 Chicago International Film Festival. The film's next showing will be on Saturday, November 12 at the Albany, GA Civil Rights Institute for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Albany, Georgia Movement.