Nashville

NashvilleDirector: Robert Altman

Writer: John Tewkesbury

Cast: Keith Carradine, Karen Black, Geraldine Chaplin, Henry Gibson, Shelley Duvall, and Lily Tomlin

I recently saw Nashville and feel that it is an important movie and has sort of been forgotten over time. Nashville is Robert Altman’s epic study of American culture, politics, religion, and show business. Altman explores the shallowness of American life, the emptiness of politics, the superficiality of religion, and the pure commercialism of show business by following the inter-twined lives of twenty-four characters during a five-day period in Nashville, Tennessee. These themes not only serve as guidelines to appreciating Nashville, but also they are themes vital and present in American society. Powerful and poetic imagery, style, and use of many aural and visual hallmarks aid the expression of these themes that Altman has developed throughout his history as a filmmaker.

The beginning of the film immediately introduces the audience to two of these themes: commercialism and political emptiness. The opening credits to the film are in the style of a stereotypical hard sell television commercial for a country/western album of “twenty-four of your very favorite stars.” The screen is full of attention getting devices with constant movement of images and words in all different directions symbolizing the confusion and uncertainty that the American public constantly faces. Altman’s brilliant trademark use of sound comes into play here as he overlaps at least three layers of sound during this sequence. All at once the audience hears music, lyrics, and the announcer confusing the viewer as to what he or she should be listening. This feeling of confusion is echoed when the announcer making this obviously commercialistic sales pitch ironically says, “… twenty-four, count’em, twenty-four of your very favorite stars…right before your very eyes without commercial interruption,” implying that what he is saying is not “commercial interruption.” After the opening credits, the film opens at the headquarters of the independent (Replacement Party) candidate Hal Philip Walker. Several of the stereotypes that go with politics are present: his truck is red, white, and blue, the slogan is “New Roots for the Nation,” a very general and empty political statement. However, once his voice is heard over the loud speaker, the audience is introduced to an obviously anti-establishment, anti-bureaucracy campaign. Also important to this scene are the obvious abundance of signs and billboards scattered all around the street. Here Altman actually puts the two themes of commercialism and politics against each other. Walker’s campaign van is just part of a sea of commercialism all competing for the attention of the viewer.

Probably the most important theme and message that Altman tries to illustrate is the shallowness of modern American culture. Altman does not say that all of America is shallow, but he tells the audience that this particular view is quite present in society. He personifies this view with Opal (Geradine Chaplin), a BBC reporter who is working on a documentary about (what else?) American culture. Altman uses Opal to relay this view because, as a journalist, she is part of the media where much of the world gets its information and creates its own views about life and society. Unfortunately and ironically, Opal is completely clueless about this subject and there are several instances in the film that make the audience aware of this fact. The first and most obvious instance is that Opal is British. A foreign or “alien” female character is a common element in several of Altman’s films (The Player, Mccabe and Mrs. Miller). Altman uses foreigners to play certain roles in his films, when he wants to create a distance between those characters and the world around them. Opal is completely oblivious to the reality of the society around her. She is constantly drawn toward the fake glitzy surface of American culture like when she interrupts Haven’s son, Buddy’s, song at Haven’s party to go talk to Elliot Gould, a famous actor. She thus denies Buddy his chance to sing, and her chance to report the reality of being the son of a superstar. Another way Opal personifies the shallowness of American culture is during the scene outside the recording booth, where a black gospel choir is being led enthusiastically by white gospel singer Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin). Opal, instead of appreciating this particular American music style, immediately asks if Linnea is a missionary and then exaggerates the situation to the point where she sees the black singers as “tribalistic.” This is an amazingly shallow statement and symbolizes the presence of racism in modern society. Yet another example of Opal’s personification takes place in the big traffic jam sequence. Opal describes the pile up using her own cliches saying that she “saw a leg sticking out,” or “It’s America. Those cars smashing into each other and all those mangled corpses.” She fails to recognize the truth of the situation and describes this small non-fatal pile up for the benefit of her own reporting. Instead, she makes it into a large gruesome crash which metaphors what she believes is “America.” One final example of how Opal represents a view of imperviousness to real evidence about the true nature and culture of America is during the assassination scene at the end of the film. During the tragic and symbolic assassination of Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely), Opal momentarily steps away and misses the whole thing. She then must ask people around her “what happened,” confirming her neglect for what is going on around her. Altman shows this view of how some people are oblivious to what is actually happening around them to be one of valid concern.

There is one common theme that connects nearly every character in Nashville and that is religion. Religion in Nashville is very superficial and no one really seems to have a particularly strong grasp on his or her faith. Altman shows his careful craft of editing during the church scene where he crosscuts between four simultaneous Sunday services. In each of the services it seems that many of the characters treat church as just another performance. At Haven’s (Henry Gibson) service he stands in the choir and sings very egotistically and loudly. He is actually trying to show off and out-sing the church chorus. Linnea directs a gospel choir at her service and Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown) joins in from a pew separate from the choir as if he were doing a special performance for an audience. Lastly there is Barbara Jean’s service where she sings about herself, pouring her heart out in a slow emotional gospel tune. “ All of these characters hold a very superficial view of religion and take part in it only if they can be seen and heard.

Several of the other characters in the film are indirectly connected with religion. For example, in the scene directly preceding the church sequence, Tom (Keith Carradine) is shown in bed with his band mate, ironically named, Mary (Cristina Raines). Mary has her head on Tom’s chest as she mouths the words “I love you.” The camera slowly moves up and focuses on a Jesus-looking Tom with his long hair and short beard. Altman then cuts to a large stain glass portrait of Jesus Christ at one of the church services the next day. This ironic juxtaposition symbolizes sex versus salvation, again mocking true faith in religion. Another indirect religious connection is with Opal. After the church sequence the scene switches to an auto junkyard. The bells from the church can be heard faintly in the distance as the audience sees Opal rambling on about a pretentious religious meaning she is attempting to gather from a yard of rusty old cars: “I’m wandering in a graveyard. The dead here have no crosses nor tombstones nor wreaths to sing of their past glory, but lie in rotting, decaying, rusted heaps. Their innards ripped out by greedy vultures’ hands. Their vast, vacant skeletons sadly sighing to the sky. The rust on their bodies is the color of dried blood – dried blood. I’m reminded of, of an elephant’s secret burial ground. Yes…These cars are trying to communicate. Oh cars, are you trying to tell me something? Are you trying to convey to me some secret?” Opal, as always, makes no sense and definitely shows little knowledge about the subject of religion and salvation.

Robert Altman’s Nashville is a brilliant and poignant commentary on America that focuses on some of the more prevalent and common themes in society. Altman puts his own personal touch on these issues and themes and creates an epic critique of American ideals and integrity. A

Nashville is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 39 minutes.

Total Recall

ImageTotal Recall is forced to answer the same question posed by another remake from this summer, The Amazing Spiderman. That question is, we’ve seen this done well already, what more can this film offer? Spiderman surprised us, but Total Recall does not. I must admit, I have not seen the original Total Recall since 1993, and all I remember is that it was clever, it was on Mars, and there was a girl with three breasts. In this 2012 remake, I’m afraid only the latter is true.

Total Recall is visually incredible. Great precision was clearly taken to create this degraded and oppressive future society. Blade Runner appears to be an inspiration, and that’s a good thing. Kate Beckinsale succeeds most above the other actors at compelling the audience when she’s on the screen; she can really kick some ass. Acting isn’t what Total Recall strives for anyway, I mean Arnold Schwartzenegger was the lead in the 1990 version. The major problem with Total Recall is that it isn’t thoughtful enough. The original spent more time and energy developing the idea of what would happen if you could be supplied with memories. This premise is hardly dealt with and that’s such a disappointment. Also, this film just wasn’t violent enough. Sure there are fight scenes and ridiculous amounts of gunfire, but it all felt artificial, which makes the movie feel tame. I did enjoy Total Recall as 2 hours of Summer Sci-Fi escapism, but nothing more. The film makers certainly should not be content with this. If you’re going to remake an already great film, take a risk, be creative, give it purpose, make it feel new. Don’t simplify it, water it down, and make us wish Rekall was real. C-

Savages

ImageIs Savages pulp? Yes. Is Savages fiction? Oh God I hope so. But Savages is definitely not Pulp Fiction, despite its desperate attempt to be, including casting John Travolta. Savages is a gritty, hard-core examination of the cut-throat high pressure, high stakes game of marijuana cartels. Wait, what? Marijuana cartels? Oliver Stone crafts a screenplay, with help from Don Winslow who penned the source material, that does explain this unorthodox cartel’s extremely violent nature. The story is actually very simple. Young marijuana entrepreneurs gain the attention of a major drug cartel who kidnaps their shared girlfriend in order to force their hand to deal with them. Those entrepreneurs are played by Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson. The shared girlfriend who drags her nails across the chalkboard with flat acting and dreadful voiceover is played lumberingly by Blake Lively. Why they want her back is the film’s biggest mystery. Her character, O, is named after Hamlet’s deranged, suicidal lost love and she hints from the first line of the movie that she may not be alive at the end, providing some powerful wishful thinking. The biggest problem with Savages is the same with most Oliver Stone movies that don’t work, its agenda. Now, this time there is no political agenda; instead it’s a “look how edgy I am” agenda. This agenda is completely fulfilled by putting the viewers out of their misery with one of the worst endings in recent memory.

I could go on about what doesn’t work in this movie, but I feel the point is made. Instead, I’ll quickly mention the things that do work. Benicio Del Toro’s character is introduced with brutal gusto. Also, the film is mostly in focus, even during the ridiculous number of close ups. That’s about it. I am looking forward to the next great Oliver Stone movie; this just wasn’t it. D-

The Dark Knight Rises

Dark Knight RisesDirector: Christopher Nolan

Screenwriters: Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan

Cast: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman

The Dark Knight Rises is a fitting end to one of the strongest trilogies in cinema history. There is so much to appreciate in this film. The menacing tone that lies beneath the surface of Gotham City is felt for all of its 165 minutes. Rises is set eight years after The Dark Knight. Gotham has cleaned up its act due to the events surrounding the false-martyrdom of the fallen “white knight,” Harvey Dent. Nolan uses this perfect atmosphere to resurrect (from the Lazarus pit?) a brilliantly executed return of the League of Shadows helmed by the extremely effective new villain, Bane. The historically epic mission of Ra’s Al Ghul is not complete, and so the battle over mankind’s capacity for redemption wages on. While the plot is engaging, and in my opinion – the best of the three, there is little use discussing it here. Film goers should avoid knowing much else about the events of this movie; in fact a “clean slate” is quite desirable for both the characters on the screen and the viewers in front of it.

Nolan may be slightly criticized for following a bit of a formula for his ambitious and ultra anticipated conclusion to his Batman series, but what a formula! Nolan introduces multiple new characters and effortlessly crafts his story in a way that gives them all their own moments, leaving us wanting even more and perhaps even a tear in our eyes. Veterans Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman each shine bright and make way as Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, and Tom Hardy join the impressive cast along side our central hero portrayed once again with fervor by Christian Bale. I think, taken as a whole, what Christopher Nolan can by most proud of is that he has captured the attention of a massive audience and taught them that escapist entertainment can be thoughtful and precise. He may present some of this grandiose and complex content in a simplified and somewhat self-important/preachy way, but he achieves his grand design of getting us all thinking about our own morality, our limits, and our duties. This is miles beyond what any other so-called “comic book” movie has achieved or has even been capable of so far. I am excited to see where Nolan takes his journey from here and I hope he continues to deepen his material and his relationships with this core group of actors. A

Ted

ImageThe feeling you get after watching Ted is the same feeling you get after watching your son’s team get “mercied” at a little league game. You give them credit for finishing it, but it’s best if you never speak of it again. Seth MacFarlane dreamed up an idea with infinite potential, but he did not deliver as a director or as the character of Ted. MacFarlane most likely felt nervous to leave his comfort zone of TV, especially after a decade of “animation domination,” and it shows in Ted. That is probably why his directorial debut looks and feels like a television show. With scene after scene to static shots, voice overs, and corny “Family Guy” style interlude music between scenes, it is hard to allow the “mise en cene” to work its magic. This is a warmed up rewrite of thousands of other comedies where the protagonist man-child waits too long to grow up and suffers the consequences of life. Of course a new gimmick is introduced in the form of a raunchy (but I argue not raunchy enough) talking teddy bear, however that wears off quickly and nothing else fills the void except some very obscure pop culture references.
MacFarlane has been extremely successful at what he does, however his reputation as a unique presence in the field has been overshadowed by South Park and The Simpsons for his entire career, both of which went to the theater with successful versions of their respective shows. Ted marked an opportunity for MacFarlane to prove he definitely as talented as the creators of those shows by formulating something new, but it falls short. On a side note, surpassing Trey Parker and Matt Stone as pioneers will probably never happen.
Mark Wahlberg is adequate and Mila Kunis is basically a prop. Perhaps I’m being too hard on Ted, but the fact remains that as a fan of comedy, I do not want to see the bar being lowered for what passes for acceptable films of this genre. There are some funny moments in Ted, my favorite being in the film’s opening scene where the bear is discovered to be alive by young John’s parents. More episodes like this would have been preferred to formulaic events where characters fall into stereotypical character flaws. Overall, I wish Ted had a little more going for it. Unfortunately, when the final inning was over, I was more than ready to avoid eye contact and head for the door. C-

The Amazing Spiderman

ImageThe Amazing Spiderman does a very good job bringing Spiderman back into the spotlight. Many people have speculated whether a “re-boot” of Spiderman is a good idea so soon after the previous films directed by Sam Raimi. There certainly does not seem to be a waning of interest in superhero movies, but what The Amazing Spiderman further proves, is that these stories are so strong and potentially captivating that, if done well, people will be interested no matter how familiar the source material is. I was prepared to find The Amazing Spiderman stale or uninspired. Mark Webb, however, has created a stylish rendition of Spiderman’s origin that is well paced and feels fresh and fun. I think Webb benefited from Raimi’s original trilogy. While this is not a sequel in any way, Webb does seem to be aware of Raimi’s more wide ranged comedic tone and plays this series closer to the vest including some of the more intricate details from the original Marvel comic books. This is not unlike Christopher Nolan’s re-imagining of the Batman story after its complete meltdown. This Peter Parker is more “real.”. He isn’t a loser he isn’t a “cool kid.” instead he’s a quiet genius and this film holds Parker’s intellect in as high esteem as his anticipated super powers. A Spiderman movie can never achieve a level or morality and realism the Nolan has achieved with his Batman films, but that’s not this story. What Webb does is set up a story that unlocks our childish wonder of heroism and does it with panache. Andrew Garfield fits the role very well. He is charming, awkward, funny, and talented. Emma Stone is given little to work with in this film as Gwen Stacy, but she saves the role in her usual fashion. The supporting cast is top notch as well including a Stan Lee cameo that may be his best yet. Overall, the debate on whether this movie was necessary can be settled, no. I hesitate to call any one movie necessary, but The Amazing Spiderman definitely deserves to exist without any superfluous criticism that wouldn’t be levied on the next Superhero action movie. A-

To Rome With Love

ImageWoody Allen’s To Rome with Love is the latest in his series of cinematic love letters to his favorite European cities. Allen’s latter portion of his career has seen a renaissance in terms of inspiration and fresh takes on familiar, yet intriguing, themes (Whatever Works excluded). This film comes on the heels of his greatest box office success of his career, Midnight in Paris. Consequently, To Rome with Love becomes a sort of paradox. On one hand, it’s nice to see Woody Allen enjoying some major attention again, but like so many of Allen’s characters, it would be terrible to see that attention affect his outlook or disposition since this film will no doubt be compared to Midnight in Paris. After ‘Midnight’s‘ success, the anticipation level for Allen’s next film was higher than average since it charmed so many people, many of which were not typical Woody Allen fans. This film meets that anticipation with bizarre unease, as it may not satisfy many of Allen’s recent converts, which is exactly what it needs to do.

Allen has blended his new Euro-flare with a picaresque film that feels very much like that of his satirical style of earlier days rather than the more playful mood of recent. To me, this is great. I enjoy Woody Allen’s skewed and informed views on love, celebrity, and fate; it’s a gift to fans. The film is composed of four unrelated stories that do not really intersect or even exist in the same time frame, yet the viewer is challenged to deconstruct them down to their thematic commonalities. When all is said and done, each story presents a separate character study and morality play, each seamlessly jumping back and forth without losing the viewer. Some stories are stronger than others, but all have something to say worth saying, and they all offer at least one good solid laugh. I think Ellen Page’s character Monica stands out as the most intriguing. Monica’s sexually charged wildly independent character is talked about before she appears, and the set up does not lead one to think “Ellen Page.” She is very well written and Page is great delivering Allen’s characteristically faux-intellectual free spirit female artist dialogue. Ironically, over-analysis is not what To Rome With Love deserves, although analysis is a major theme. It should not be compared to Midnight in Paris, but rather it should rest on its own merits which are substantial. B+

Prometheus

ImageWhile the conversations surrounding Ridley Scott’s new film Prometheus are mostly about its relationship to Scott’s early sci-fi horror masterpiece, Alien (1979), there is an unavoidable comparison to be made to an earlier classic: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. A scene near the beginning of the film includes a Kubrickian juxtaposition where robot “David” (Michael Fassbender) speaks with a HAL 9000-esque computer to wake up the Prometheus’s 17 man crew from cryo-sleep (a scene reminiscent to Alien, of course). This sets the tone for the film, which has always been one of director Ridley Scott’s strengths. The tone of Prometheus is at first pensive. The film’s momentum is firmly rooted in the mythology of man’s existence. This is not an unusual thematic trapping for sci-fi/horror, but this time it feels fresh. The Alien universe provides curiosity and character development that allows for some unique and clever insights on this idea. Prometheus is also a great looking film. The film opens with beautiful landscapes and Scott’s slow moving, sometimes static, floating camera movements both accentuate the pensive tone and allow the viewer to have time to appreciate and enjoy the film’s look. This is not to say Prometheus is not without its intensity. Plenty of scenes are punctuated by gripping suspense and cringe-worthy extra-terrestrial horror (it is a 17 man crew, or should I say was). The cast is well chosen from the soulless Michael Fassbender to the charismatic and surprisingly effective Noomi Rapace as Dr. Elizabeth Shaw. Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers is an intriguingly mysterious character as well. All in all, Prometheus delivers, and as its namesake suggests, not without catastrophic results. A-