March 21, 2011
Comedy, Drama, Film
About Schmidt, Alexander Payne, Dermot Mulroney, Election, Film, film music, Hope Davis, Jack Nicholson, Jim Taylor, June Squibb, Kathy Bates, Louis Begley, movies, Omaha, Oscars, picture, poster, review, Rolfe Kent, score, Sideways, soundtrack
Alexander Payne is one of Hollywood’s unsung heroes, the man behind several top-notch drama films produced at the turn of the millennium, films that often take an unconventional look behind the mores of our accepted society. To follow up to the excellent “Election,” Payne takes us once more to Omaha, Nebraska to tell the story of a man examining his life on retirement, questioning what purpose he has served in this transient world and what difference he has made. Despite containing fewer satyrical aspects than its predecessor, “About Schmidt” nevertheless manages to be much more than just a comedy about old age and senility or, for that matter, a vehicle for its lead to show off the wackiness with which he so often performs. It is an examination and a reflection though with a keen eye for humour and cynicism and based on the novel of the same name written by Louis Begley.
After working at an insurance company all his life, Warren R. Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) finds that life after retirement isn’t all it’s made out to be. Yes, he and his wife Helen (June Squibb) have been married 42 years and own one hell of a camper-van, but Warren is increasingly frustrated with his empty life. As a distraction of sorts, he sponsors an African child Ndugu Umbo and through letters tries to pour out all the ill feelings in himself. When his wife dies however, he sets out to stop his daughter Jeannie’s (Hope Davis) marriage to Randall Hertzell (Dermot Mulroney with craziest hair and beard), a mattress salesman of whom Schmidt highly disapproves. His journey, in the aforementioned, oversized vehicle, becomes one of self-discovery as he revisits the important stations in his life, the house of his birth and his Alma Mater amongst others. These are of course the roles that Jack Nicholson loves to have fun with, and not for anything was this performance Oscar nominated. While he still gets the chance to play a deranged sleaze, the genius of his dual performance lie in his lengthy monologues with himself, providing not only great laughs but hit right on the man’s frustration and loneliness. Nicholson is spellbinding to watch both within comedy mode and without. He is the star of the show and while this does take away from the rest of the cast to a certain extent, the film wishes to show Schmidt’s journey and this is thus justified.
Proceedings get increasingly out of hand with the arrival of Randall’s relatives in the lead-up to the film’s climax. Led by Kathy Bates, they are a troupe of hippyish characters and the absolute opposite of everything the hardworking and conservative Schmidt stands for. Warren’s acceptance of their identity is never forced in a stereotypical direction by Payne and his screenwriting partner Jim Taylor however, rather sinking into obscurity just like Schmidt himself as he realises his whole life has had no meaning. The emotional distance between him and those around is painful to watch but neither does the script dwell on this, inserting a stab of comedy at the craziest of moments. The pictures, particularly the scenes in Omaha, have been desaturated, giving the film an atmosphere of gloom jarringly at odds with the comedy, just as intended. And while the colours do brighten on occasion, they are at one with Schmidt’s dejected feelings. Certain similarities with Payne’s other films will certainly be spotted by his fans. Overall, “About Schmidt” remains one of the most curious and at the same time accomplished films of the last decade. Not quite as captivating as “Sideways” perhaps – that film being the pinnacle of Alexander Payne’s talents – but certainly one to return to.
For “About Schmidt” Payne’s regular composer Rolfe Kent wrote a selection of themes that are instantly recognisable on film and separately on album. Led by a mainly string ensemble and notable appearances of bassoon, Kent’s score exhibits the quirky charms and diversity of the character’s emotions. The main ideas are presented in sequence in “The End Credits of About Schmidt” and consist of the fullest and greatest performance of the themes. However, the melodies have a remarkable ability to be used in countless different thematic settings, from tender harp solos to an off-beat, almost russian styled march in “The Fury of Schmidt.” The soundtrack to this film is a hidden gem (a very rare album to boot) and is very easily enjoyable. Kent’s superior thematic variations make this a score for repeat listens and can only be awarded the highest rating.
With “About Schmidt” Jack Nicholson has once again proved why he is one of the acting world’s top dogs. If his performance were to be the only reason to watch the film, it would doubtlessly be more than worth it. Combined with Payne’s excellent screenplay and direction, it becomes an outstanding film and constitutes the sort of solid drama the Hollywood is still capable of producing. Very much recommended.
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January 13, 2011
Comedy, Film, Romance
As Good As It Gets, Film, film music, Hans Zimmer, How do You Know, Jack Nicholson, James L. Brooks, movies, Oscars, Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd, picture, poster, Reese Witherspoon, review, score, soundtrack, Spanglish
James L. Brooks has cranked out some really great romantic comedies in times gone by, culminating in the Oscar nominated “As Good As It Gets” in 1997. “How Do You Know” marks his return to the genre after a six year hiatus and it seems that like his protagonist, the master is somewhat past the top of his game. For while cleverly managing to avoid many of the pitfalls that make up other rom-com fluff, some of the film’s blunders are nearly as unforgivable as the lack of punctuation in its title. That said, “How Do You Know” is very watchable, even likeable, if one is able to ignore Brook’s attempts to pointedly squeeze out a serious emotional message in order to escape convention, an attempt that comes across much too plumply.
Reese Witherspoon plays Lisa, an international softball player past her prime. At the age of 31, she is unceremoniously dumped from the team and ends up in a limbo of sorts, between job, further education and romantic involvement. As a distraction she launches into an affair with womanising and overly-narcissistic Baseball pro Matty (Owen Wilson), a relationship that is set to yo-yo from the outset. At the same time she ends up on a blind date with George (Paul Rudd) who is at a similar low-point in life, unemployed, broke and pursued by US Government lawyers for financial irregularities in the company owned by his father (Jack Nicholson). A premise like this spells formulaic in the extreme, but Brooks channels different, more unusual paths, creating an uncomfortable situation comedy with romance often sidelined to make way for reflections on life. But this is exactly where “How Do You Know” hits stormy waters: Witherspoon and Rudd have enough comic chops between them to carry the film but the screenplay is incapable of creating enough laughs to sustain a running time of over two hours. The heroine spends most of her time sporting an awkward crooked smile and (admittedly cute) puppy eyes, generally feeling sorry for herself rather than being truly funny. Considering Brooks wrote the part especially for Witherspoon, it’s a shame her talent couldn’t have been exploited more. Rudd meanwhile is likeable and has fun with his scenes but isn’t able to pull a rabbit from an empty hat either.
Even the great Jack Nicholson, who relishes roles like these and usually has enormous fun, is given a part so cold he can’t ham up to his usual deranged comic self. Instead he comes across as completely soulless and deserving of some prison time to think about his misdemeanours. Really the only reason you would want to watch this movie is for Owen Wilson’s surprisingly hilarious turn. He gets to be dumb and self centred and truly capable of love at the same time, and even though we know he doesn’t stand a chance at the end, we can’t help but like the guy. But for every scene he’s onscreen, there’s a half-rendered sub-plot wasting our time, like Witherspoon’s Softball coach, a part confused and confusing. And when in the end, some order finally comes to proceedings, the credits roll. It’s a wasted opportunity in many ways, of a good premise and of fine acting talent, the sort of film that generates paycheques in between other projects for these actors but will soon end on the dumpster end of the Hollywood conveyer belt.
Between scoring huge blockbuster movies, Hans Zimmer maintains a healthy career writing for romantic comedies and is a regular Brooks collaborator. Both “As Good As It Gets” and “Spanglish” proved excellent assignments for the composer, yielding some truly enjoyable music. His approach to “How Do You Know” to similar to the above and his Nancy Meyers works, though limited mainly to the lush strings. Pleasant by all accounts, nothing we haven’t heard before but nothing trying to be either. No soundtrack has been released, and probably won’t be considering the film’s abysmal performance at the US box-office. As it is, the music complements the film nicely but stays relatively anonymous in the background amid some popular song placement.
Overall, “How Do You Know” just about manages to stay afloat due solely to Owen Wilson. The rest of the cast perform adequately so the blame must be laid at the feet of James L. Brooks. Because we know what he is capable of writing, this can only count as a disappointment to his fans.
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October 12, 2010
Casino, Dropkick Murphys, Film, film music, Gangs of New York, Goodfellas, Howard Shore, Infernal Affairs, Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Scorsese, Martin Sheen, Matt Damon, movies, Oscars, picture, review, score, The Age of Innocence, The Aviator, The Departed, Vera Farmiga, William Monahan
It’s been a while since Martin Scorsese has made a gangster movie. After 1990’s “Goodfellas” and 1995’s “Casino” the legendary director’s output has been largely dramatic: Films like “The Age of Innocence”, “Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator” have allowed him to broaden his palette somewhat and to work with new talent like Leonardo DiCaprio who is by now almost as big a Scorsese trademark as Robert deNiro. It’s not to say that these films aren’t good, no in fact they’re very good but it somehow seemed inevitable that one day Scorsese would return to his film-making roots of the gangster or mobster genre. His 2006 film “The Departed” is such a throwback in many ways, combining the best of vintage and “new” Scorsese and while it may not quite reach the heights of some of those other classics, “The Departed” nevertheless has a pretty good shot at it. It certainly justified the long-awaited Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards for the director, deserved recognition from an association that has passed over his pictures many times in the past.
Adapted from the 2002 Hong Kong film “Infernal Affairs”, the screenplay by William Monahan (“Kingdom of Heaven”) is a masterpiece of storytelling and intrigue, focusing on the ongoing war between the Boston PD and the Irish-American Mafia led by mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) in the city. Both sides employ moles to infiltrate the other, on one side undercover cop Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), on the other state detective Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) who secretly works for Costello. Their double lives are led on a knife’s edge, a dangerous game of cat and mouse that threatens to explode at every turn – and does. Each man’s journey up the ranks is fascinating to follow, Damon’s charming and charismatic but ultimately deceiving and brutal Sullivan an excellent counterpoint to Costigan who needs to prove himself loyal to the mobsters who suspect a rat, but is running on empty inside. And both always living in the shadow of Frank Costello. This is of course true of the actors as well: both Damon and DiCaprio give performances that rank among the best of their careers. Jack Nicholson however, plays these kind of roles with such relish and a deranged, sleazy charm that he can hold the breath of any audience with ease, his Costello is unpredictable, chilling and quite frankly very, very scary.
The movie belongs to three leads, mainly Nicholson, no question but Scorsese has still managed to assemble an awesome supporting cast as well: Martin Sheen is always excellent, here as Police Captain Queenan as is Ray Winstone in the role of Costello’s closest ally Mr. French. Meanwhile, Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg throw enough insults at each other to fill a book. Wahlberg is particularly bad-ass and the very final scene is worth waiting for just for him. Graphic violence of this magnitude has always been one of Scorsese’s calling cards as well and things do frequently boil over: Action set-pieces are expertly staged and often gruesomely displayed. With the exception of a dirty computer processor deal and some drug running however, criminal activities are placed somewhat in the background. It could therefore be argued that it’s not a classic Mafia movie per se as we never really get under the skin to see how exactly this crime world ticks. But that was hardly the intent because Scorsese has shown us that before and he makes it clear that the focus should (rightly) be on the infiltration stories. To facilitate this, Vera Farmiga’s character Madolyn is significant, acting as the only link between the two moles – unknowingly of course. In many ways she and DiCaprio provide most of the film’s emotional anchor for the viewers.
Martin Scorsese has always been very specific when choosing music to accompany his pictures, often personally putting together a mix-tape of songs, including one that then becomes the film’s signature. Here it’s “Shipping Out to Boston” by the Dropkick Murphy’s and its Irish and rock roots fit perfectly with the mood of the film. Not as immediately audible is the original score courtesy of Scorsese’s current composer of choice Howard Shore. The score consists of an excellent selection of tango and guitar (both electric and acoustic) pieces, despite there being no Latin influences in the story. It’s a complete departure (no pun intended…) from all of Shore’s previous work, those expecting to hear some horror-like dissonance or something LotR-esque could be disappointed but really it’s the mark of a master musical chameleon. Call it a curiosity if you will but for some reason it just works in the film and makes for an excellent album listen. Two are available, one with songs and two score tracks, the other a score only CD. You can read my full review of “The Departed” soundtrack here.
A stellar cast and an outstanding screenplay put this film right at the top of a year of excellent films, many of which could have been Oscar winners in other years. However awards hype aside, “The Departed” confirms that Scorsese still rules the roost with gangster pictures and while the film may not cover much new ground in its exploration of the crime underworld, it remains one of his most entertaining films ever. And really, that’s saying something!
I’m writing a lot of 5 star reviews lately. Then again I’d like to recommend the films I do like. Would you like a more even balance of stars? Let me know by leaving a comment any time. Please also follow me on twitter or subscribe to the RSS feed. Until next time, all the best and thanks for reading!