Category Archives: Movies

Bill Cunningham New York (2010)

My wife and I have been skipping over this movie in our Instant Queue for a while.  Finally, we were looking for something to watch with our fifteen-year-old daughter, who is obsessed with New York and photography.  What a pleasant discovery!  If eligible, I look for it to be nominated for an Oscar this year.

The best documentaries are the ones that leave you feeling like you’ve had a religious experience – that you’ve either just encountered a holy person or experienced a conversion to some new cause or idea that had been previously unexplored.  The best documentaries transcend the subject matter and touch another place altogether – that spiritual place.  And so it is with Bill Cunningham New York, a delightful documentary directed by Richard Press about the octogenarian New York Times photojournalist who comes across as a monastic figure whose sanctuary is couture.

Prior to seeing the picture, I didn’t know Bill Cunningham’s work, but being a longtime reader of the New York Times, I was aware of his street photos, which have been a regular feature in the Style section for over thirty years, and the tension between ubiquity (he’s a respected sage in the fashion industry) and anonymity (he’s a discreet man who shuns the spotlight and money in order to enjoy guiltless freedom in what he does) is at the core of the movie and the man.

Cunningham was born and raised in Boston, and retains the distinctive accent where Central Park becomes Central Pahk.  After dropping out of Harvard, he moved to New York, where an uncle who worked for Bonwit Teller, the high-end department store, took him in and got him a job as a stock boy.  Cunningham’s interest in fashion worried his family, who no-doubt feared that he was gay.  Finally, tiring of his family’s pressure to get a “straight” job, Cunningham moved out of his uncle’s place in 1949 and found an empty space on East 52nd street where he set up a hat shop and designed under the name William J.

After a hitch in the army, Cunningham came back to New York where he began his career in journalism.  He got on with Women’s Wear Daily, and was given carte blanche to write about whatever interested him.  When WWD wouldn’t publish a piece he’d written about Courreges, the French designer, he quit.

In the 60’s, Cunningham worked for the Chicago Tribune in their New York office.  In 1966, he met a photographer named David Montgomery.  When Cunningham expressed an interest in taking pictures, Montgomery gave him an Olympus Pen-D half frame camera and told him to use it like a notebook.  Thus equipped, he entered a new phase of his career.

Cunningham took Montgomery’s advice to heart, and it was during this time, as he was getting acquainted with the camera, that he had an epiphany.  He wrote about this moment in a 2002 piece for the Times – “I realized that you didn’t know anything unless you photographed the shows and the street, to see how people interpreted what designers hoped they would buy.  I realized that the street was the missing ingredient.”  That realization, that the street was where fashion was worked out, led to an obsession with the streets of Manhattan, which became a kind of laboratory for Cunningham, who documented the daily fashion experiments, looking for patterns.

In the 70’s, Cunningham started taking photographs for the Times, but it wasn’t until 1978 – after a chance encounter with Greta Garbo and a nutria coat she was wearing – that he landed his current gig, covering the streets and the galas and the shows – the Bill Cunningham holy trinity of fashion.

 Bill Cunningham New York is a mixture of talking head interviews, decades old archival footage of Cunningham, and present day coverage of the man on his daily rounds.  Amazingly, Cunningham – nearly 80 at the filming of the picture – still gets around Manhattan on his trademark bicycle, moving from street corner to street corner to capture a few frames of some article of clothing or an accessory that catches his eye.

The man who emerges from all of this attention is a purist completely uninterested in industry politics, self-promotion, or celebrity.  For him, it’s all about the clothes…of others.  Cunningham lives a Spartan existence.  His apartment is a tiny studio at Carnegie Hall that has no kitchen or bathroom (he showers and takes care of other business in a common bathroom in the hallway).  He sleeps on a makeshift cot.  The rest of the living space is occupied not with furniture and art, but filing cabinets filled with prints and negatives – his experiments.

Cunningham dresses conservatively, and could easily be mistaken for a retired professor or accountant but for his trademark blue smock.  Some years ago, he stumbled across the smock – designed for institutional use – in a department store section devoted to uniforms.  It’s a light jacket that Cunningham favors for its many pockets (to hold film and other paraphernalia) and rugged construction (his camera, which dangles from his neck like a giant medallion, is hell on coats).  It looks like something Chairman Mao might have favored.

Cunningham has stripped his life down to the essentials so that he can devote as much of himself as possible to the documentation of what people are wearing.  He’s that rare person who, early on, discovered his calling, and has let nothing distract him from it.  Seeing him at Carnegie Hall Towers, once can’t help but view him as a kind of secular monk and Carnegie Hall as his monastery.  Cunningham and his elderly neighbors, nearly forgotten artists from the mid-twentieth century, are as delightfully anachronistic as an encounter with a Franciscan monk or the Amish.

The difference with Cunningham is that, though he may not be of the world, he’s definitely in the world.  We see him in the offices of the Times, playfully bantering with co-workers.  We see him in Paris at a major show, where a young gate-keeper keeps in out on the sidewalk until an older co-worker pushes her aside, declaring Cunningham to be “the most important man on earth.”  We see him on the street, dialed in like method actor or ballplayer, looking for that thing.

Bill Cunningham New York has blown the cover of its subject, but his loss of anonymity is our great gain.

Click HERE to listen to Bill Cunningham’s weekly “On The Street” audio feature.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (2011)

Let me start off by saying that when Conan O’Brien was kicked to the curb by NBC, I was with Team Coco.  I’ve got nothing against Jay Leno, but Conan O’Brien is as funny as it gets as far as the late night guys go.  And that includes Letterman.

That said, I’m kind of confused about Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, a documentary about O’Brien’s Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour, which was his reaction to the split from NBC.  In return for something like $40 million, he had to stay away from TV for six months.  The film has the familiar characters – O’Brien, Andy Richter, and even the Masturbating Bear – and much of the manic energy of both of his previous late night shows, but what’s missing is the humor.  Maybe that’s the point – the tour was fueled as much by anger as it was by a need to be in front of an audience.

What we do see is O’Brien bitching and moaning about everything from NBC to Jay Leno to burning himself out with too much “ON” time and not enough down time while on tour.  It’s O’Brien being human, but there’s also a sense of it being a different kind of performance than being the funny guy.  There are no real talking head interviews.  It’s shot in the direct cinema style of D.A. Pennebaker, a la Don’t Look Back, the documentary about Dylan’s 1965 tour of England.  But unlike Pennebaker’s classic, I didn’t feel like Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop added up to much.

O’Brien’s a hardworking man, for sure.  The tour, which consisted of 44 shows, wound all over the lower 48, with very little time off for the cast and crew.  Even on days off, O’Brien usually arranged an impromptu show or entertained fans – often to the point of losing his voice.  The tour was a wild success, seeming to sell out in every town, with loyal fans waiting and waiting to get some time with the object of their obsession.  Through it all, O’Brien smiles for the fans, then kvetches in private.  I just don’t know which was fake and which was real.

Watching Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, I was reminded of Otto von Bismarck who supposedly once said “Laws are like sausages.  Better not to see them being made.”  Perhaps the same applies for carefully orchestrated comedy tours.

Phyllis and Harold (2008)

In our youth-obsessed culture, something awful happens to people of a certain age.  We take away their humanity.  Once white hair and wrinkles achieve a certain critical mass, we tend to think of the individual as a mute, taxidermied version of a once vital family member who gets only minimal attention.  And when a couple makes it to this stage, they’re looked upon as cute and cuddly – we assume happiness and harmony.

Not so with Phyllis and Harold, a captivating documentary by Cindy Kleine.  It’s an unflinching portrait of her parents’ marriage of nearly 60 years that was anything but a storybook romance – and couldn’t be told until after the death of her father.

It opens slyly with a scene of Phyllis and Harold Kleine in the kitchen, going about their day-to-day routine.  They bicker.  They tease.  They’re cute.  And then, there’s a cut to Kleine, who addresses the camera and tells us that for as long as she can remember she’s been trying to figure out who these people are and why they were together.  The answers unfold as a kind of 20th century suburban tragedy.

Harold emerges as a kind of World War II era everyman – a dentist version of the guys on Mad Men – confident and primed for success in the upper end of the post-war middle class, determined to provide his wife and two daughters with all the material comfort he can afford.  He exhaustively documented his family’s life, taking photographs and home movies of daily events and the globetrotting vacations he lavished on his wife.  His version of their life together is a happy one.

Phyllis has a different take altogether.  From her first words, Phyllis paints a picture of regret, of having settled.  It’s a naked confession that blows the movie wide open and turns it into something completely other than what I expected.  The source of regret is an affair with a married man that began before she married Harold, but carried on into their first years as husband and wife.

Kleine interviews her parents separately, and what is striking is how alike they view the facts of their marriage, but how differently the meaning.  Their interviews are intercut to a chilling effect – underscoring how people so close for so long can yet be miles apart.

Phyllis ended the affair after five years, unwilling to walk out and unable to live with the stress of a double-life.  “I didn’t see how you could build a building on such a hurtful relationship – all the hurt we would inflict,” she said.  The man “disappeared to California.  But I never stopped thinking about him.”

Harold, oblivious to the affair, focused on his career and a string of real estate investments, while Phyllis decorated the house and focused on their social life.  Their housekeeper took care of the girls and was a source of comfort in the midst of their parents’ constant battles.  The Kleines come across as a family in a David Sedaris story.  Phyllis systematically turned her daughters against her father through the use of secrets – withholding information from Harold that would anger or hurt him – so that, despite her emotional distance, the three were unified by a common enemy.

I would have liked to have heard more about Harold – gotten his side of the story – but I understand why Kleine gave a pat explanation for him and pushed him to the background.  Secrets.  That, and her mother’s interviews are mesmerizing.  There’s a confessional quality to them that borders on the voyeuristic to watch – her emotions ranging from shame and regret to pure joy as she reflects on her true love.  It’s a rare glimpse into an aspect of marriage that’s almost never explored this honestly.

Harold never learned of his wife’s secret.  He died during the making of the documentary, alleviating his youngest daughter of the burden of what to do with such hurtful material.  And with him out of the way, the daughters help orchestrate a reunion with the man who siphoned off so much of their mother’s attention over the years.  It made me want to know more about Harold – what he did to make it so easy for his daughters to discount the betrayal and facilitate their mother’s wishes.

It’s easy to judge, but I’m betting we all walk around with secrets, shame, and guilt that we never confess.  Cindy Kleine has given us a document of one woman’s unrepentant confession, and though it may be painful to watch, it’s impossible to turn away.

 

Candyman: The David Klein Story (2010)

This weekend, my wife and I wanted to watch something with our daughters, ages 11 and 7.  The image of a Jelly Belly jellybean caught my attention, and I used this delightful movie to introduce the kids to documentaries.  They loved it.

Candyman David KleinEarly in Candyman, the wonderful documentary from Costa Botes, David Klein, the inventor of Jelly Belly gourmet jellybeans makes an admission – “I regret the day I came up with them, I really do.  Why?  Because they ruined my life.”  For the rest of the story, we learn how that could be so – how the invention of a candy that revolutionized the industry – and made millions of dollars – could be seen as a curse to the man who should have become Willy Wonka incarnate.

In the early 70’s, David Klein graduated from the UCLA law school.  He was a brilliant student, but forsook the law for his true passion – candy.  He threw himself into the business, applying the same brilliance that catapulted him to the top of his class to the sale and distribution of candy and nuts.  Before long, he was a fixture in Southern California, an honest, hard-working man, who not only sold candy, but also dreamed up new products.

In 1976, the Jelly Belly was born – and should have died a quick death – but Klein’s chutzpah, mixed with hard work and serendipity, combined to overcome the initial obstacles and become a cultural phenomenon when Ronald Reagan made them a staple of his White House.  In all of this there was Klein, tirelessly (and shamelessly) promoting the product for anyone willing to cover it.

It’s often at the moment of our greatest achievement that the seeds of our destruction are born, and such is the case with Klein.  Around the time of the Reagan endorsement, demand for Jelly Bellies was such that there was a one-year wait-list.  Klein’s manufacturing partner wanted to expand their factory, but without ownership of the Jelly Belly trademark, financing was iffy.  The CEO called a meeting to attempt to buy the company from Klein, and in a decision that, from the comfort of my couch, is insane, Klein sold out for 4.8 million dollars – without a lawyer present to represent him.

At the time, Klein was young and had an elderly partner that was ready to retire.  He figured there would be other genius ideas, but to-date, they haven’t arrived.  Instead, Klein sank into depression, having sold off his baby at a ridiculously under-valued price.  It’s a fascinating piece of storytelling.

Candyman could easily be seen as tragedy, but for the spirit of its subject.  Klein’s son Bert co-produced the movie, which explains the volume of home movies, photographs, and interviews with family and friends that exude a labor-of-love quality.  What emerges is a kind, honest, resilient family man who has spent his career putting others first, even to his own detriment.

Obituary: G.D. Spradlin

G.D. Spradlin, whose successful acting career  included playing a crooked Nevada senator in The Godfather: Part 2, died last Sunday at his home in California.  He was ninety.

Gervase Duan Spradlin was born in rural Oklahoma in 1920.  He earned a degree in education from the University of Oklahoma and taught for a brief period just before the outbreak of World War II, where he served in China.  After the war, Spradlin earned his law degree and quickly rose through the ranks of the legal team for Phillips Petroleum.  In the early fifties, he started his own oil company, struck it rich, and retired by the end of the decade.  After trying his hand in politics, Spradlin became interested in acting – now in his forties – when his daughter started auditioning for local productions.  He soon moved to Los Angeles, where he broke into the business playing guest roles on many of the popular series of that era.  His big break came when he was cast as Senator Pat Geary in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part 2.  After that, he mostly played authority figures in films like One On One, Apocalypse Now, North Dallas Forty, and finally, in Dick, Spradlin’s last movie, where he played famed newspaper editor Ben Bradlee.

If you grew up in the ‘70’s and watched a lot of TV and movies, then you might have a negative reaction at seeing Spradlin’s photo – not because of his appearance, but by how effectively he portrayed men who were the embodiment of “the system” gone wrong.

In The Godfather: Part 2, watch how Senator Geary seamlessly glides from glad-handing politician to tough-talking power broker and back again at the beginning of the story when he meets with Michael Corleone.  It’s a chilling portrayal of corruption that perfectly and more nakedly mirrors Michael’s own slide into darkness.

Godfather 2 was released during the Watergate era, and as that incident forever wiped away our insistence on the goodness of our elected officials, Spradlin’s performance eerily anticipates a cascade of scandals that have now become cliché.

 One On One is a movie that’s largely forgotten now, but because of its star, teen heart-throb Robbie Benson, it was a surprise hit in 1977.  The movie is a coming-of-age tale about a bumpkin (Benson) who earns a scholarship to a large basketball factory, much like UK or North Carolina.  Spradlin plays the coach, a my-way-or-the-highway dictator who is equal parts Wooden and Patton.  Spradlin’s coach resorts to brutal tactics to get the attention of, and ultimately scare off, Benson’s character, who must learn to be a man.

One On One is an interesting time capsule.  The way the student athletes are given preferential treatment with grades and jobs is played as absurd comedy, but it wasn’t long afterwards that programs like UK were being hit with crippling penalties for doing pretty much the same thing.  Leading the charge is Spradlin, the coach as CEO.

For Apocalypse Now, Spradlin teamed up with Coppola once again for a small but powerful role as the General who gives Martin Sheen his orders to kill a fellow officer, played by Marlon Brando.

Spradlin is effective as the polished professional soldier who can quote Lincoln on the fly, exhibit a courtly manner, and disarm the nervous junior officer with a warm sense of humor – all to mask a sense of desperation in how to handle one of their own, who has seemingly gone mad, a victim of the fog of war.

Spradlin looked the part, probably relying on his experiences as a soldier and high-powered attorney, to be a stand in for The Military.  He sets the tone for the movie, even if it becomes discordant when contrasted with the madness to come.

Finally, there’s North Dallas Forty, the freewheeling comedy based on America’s Team – the Dallas Cowboys of the 1970’s.  Spradlin is B.A. Strothers, a stand-in for Tom Landry, the successful but distant coach of the team.

Who better to play the buttoned-down, IBM-like innovator than Spradlin?  He was perfect as a cold and calculating numbers crunching leader whose allegiance was to data over something as unquantifiable as heart or big play capability.

In the late seventies, football was well into becoming the money-generating behemoth it is today, and North Dallas Forty was a light-hearted attack on how the fun was being bled from the league in favor of turning it into Big Business.  Spradlin’s portrayal of the Landry-esque coach perfectly embodies this transition from seat-of-the-pants entrepreneurialism to corporate sameness.

Rarely has an actor so successfully monopolized a niche for himself.  In an era that worships the chameleon-like abilities of a Daniel Day Lewis, it’s nice to take a moment and honor the career of an actor who supported great film talents of his era with equal craft.

The Tree of Life

Tree of Life movie posterLast Friday, I was in New York helping a friend celebrate his 40th birthday, and after a long day of walking all over Brooklyn and the Lower East Side, we headed over to the Landmark Sunshine Cinema on Houston Street to rest our feet while we took in Terrence Malick’s much-anticipated The Tree of Life.

My friend had no idea what he was getting himself into.

As I paid for my ticket, I asked the girl on the other side of the glass if she’d seen the movie.  Her eyes lit up as she nodded and said “Oh yeah.”  I asked her what she thought about it, and she said it was the “most Malick of all his movies.”  I smiled and nodded back to her as I walked away, anxious to see how that assessment would play out.

Much has been written about Malick’s style of movie making, which is typified by loosely constructed narratives that do not adhere to traditional rhythms.  Rather, his stories are like a child’s meandering exploration of a new environment, following whatever catches his attention.  They are also marked by beautifully captured images, especially of nature, that sometimes overwhelm the senses.  This was used to great effect in The Thin Red Line, where shots of blowing grass were allowed to linger for many beats past what would be considered normal, only to be shattered by explosions of gunfire or bursting shells.  Malick also makes frequent use of voice-over narration by his characters.  It’s often used novelistically, to take us inside the minds of the characters, usually as they wrestle with philosophical questions.

Malick’s fans see these characteristics as great strengths that set him apart from an increasingly formulaic style of film making that places little value on intellectual adventurism and any other kind of risk-taking.  His detractors, like Richard Schickel find these traits tedious, pretentious, and self-indulgent, a kind of pseudo-intellectualism that is impossible to stomach.

And so it is with The Tree of Life, Malick’s most ambitious film, which took the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, despite drawing boos from the audience at its screening.

It’s an impressionistic story that contrasts the tragedy of one American family against the backdrop of the relentless march of time – putting into greater perspective the things that consume us and distract us from the bigger picture, namely of our God.

It’s a theme that many have found – and will continue to find – offensive, or simple-minded at best.  But it’s the desperate questions that Malick’s characters ask themselves in quiet moments of pain, regret, or remorse that hound most of us, I think.

The movie opens with a quote from Job 38:4,7 – “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth…when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted with joy?”

This passage is a key to understanding the movie. As these characters suffer – as we all do – there is a bigger picture, another view of the problem, but we are often too consumed with our problems, to the point of navel gazing, to lift our heads up for a different point-of-view.

The first images of the film are of the Mother (Jessica Chastain), going from a young girl to grown woman, and over the popcorn-like flashes of her life, we hear the adult version of herself telling us that “there are two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace.”

And with that, we have the central conflict of the family we will come to know.

But first, there is that tragedy.  Years later, as the Mother’s sons have become young men, there is a telegram delivered to her house, informing the Mother that her middle son has been killed.  How this is, we never learn.  Nor is it even important.  She collapses under the weight of this news until finally, she gathers herself so she can tell the Father (Brad Pitt), who is traveling.

Cut to the present, where we meet Jack (Sean Penn, in a brooding role that has become all to familiar to his fans), a successful looking architect who is married and lives in a very nice home, wears nice suits, and works in a high-rise building in what looks like Houston, Texas.  He lights a candle.  Is it the anniversary of this event?  We don’t know.  But he is out of sorts.  He talks to the Father and confesses that he thinks of his dead brother every day of his life.  He’s stuck, unable to get beyond this tragedy, this great hurt.  In voice-over, we hear Jack ask where this all began, and it is here that Malick takes us all the way back – to the very beginning, when the foundations of the earth were laid.

This passage, which is to be expanded and turned into an IMAX documentary at some future point, is Malick’s interpretation of how the earth came to be.  To bring this vision to life, he employed the talents of Douglas Trumbull, who worked with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey.  It is a long passage that conveys us from nothingness to the violent forces that resulted in a world that eventually produced the dinosaurs, some of which are recreated with startling realism on beaches and in forests and rivers.

At the conclusion of this passage, we are transported to 1950’s era Waco, Texas, where we meet the rest of the O’Brien family.

The Mother is the embodiment of the way of grace.  She is a beautiful woman, earthy and nurturing, who is often photographed as she hugs, kisses, caresses, or comforts her boys with a reassuring touch to the shoulder or arm.  She holds back none of her love, and encourages her sons to do the same.  At one point she warns, “unless you love, your life will flash by.”

At the other pole is the Father, who practices the way of nature and worries that his wife is making the boys soft.  In response he over-compensates, never missing a teachable opportunity to drive home his philosophy of self-determinism.  He’ll live to regret this, lamenting the fact that while he was busy grabbing at life he missed “the glory,” a term that is also used in The Thin Red Line to describe God, or at least the way of grace.

In the middle are the boys, with the story being told from the point-of-view of Jack, the oldest.  Vignettes from the life of this family spill onto the screen like old snapshots, painting painfully accurate portraits of pre-adolescent angst and parental ham-fistedness.  It’s to Malick’s great credit that I found myself identifying equally with Jack and the Father (I have three children of my own).  So close are Malick’s observations that I spent a good deal of the movie wiping away tears, connecting this fiction with my own experiences.

We see young Jack, as he teeters over the line from childhood innocence to the world of adult awareness, where those early recognitions of parental imperfection are often met with harsh judgments and resentment.  But Malick wisely avoids the trap of making the Father a monster.  Instead, he is a flawed creature, equally capable of moments of great tenderness and monstrous cruelty, motivated by his personal frustrations and a fear of what might befall his children.  Pitt plays this middle ground wonderfully, coming at his family from a place of good intentions gone awry as he erupts into fits of anger at the transgression of his rules.  He is a man of his time, trained for one thing – to provide for his family materially.  To nurture or even encourage an emotional intimacy with his sons seems to be equal parts impossible and distasteful to him.

And so the rhythm of this middle section of the movie is the daily life of a middle class American family, punctuated by the milestones that we can all recognize: school crushes, fighting and playing in the neighborhood, pulling weeds, climbing trees, and getting into trouble for seemingly random things.  It’s a passage of love, hurt, laughing, and crying – and through it all, we hear the voices of Jack, the Mother, and the Father as they struggle to makes sense of this life, and these key moments that can’t be shaken.

Speaking of acting, praise must be given to Hunter McCracken (young Jack) and Laramie Eppler (middle child R.L.), non-professional actors who do a splendid job of inhabiting the boys and playing many key childhood moments with truth and grace.

Finally, after too short a visit with the O’Briens, we are brought back to the present.  And it’s after Jack has ruminated on these moments – in the context of all that has gone on before them in the grand scheme of time – that he is able to move on.

Malick concludes this God-soaked film with a passage that I won’t spoil here.  All I’ll say is that The Tree of Life is truly the most Malick of all Malick’s movies.  The girl at the ticket booth was correct, and I can’t remember being more moved by a film than I was by this beautiful story.

I wish I could see it again, to better organize my thoughts, but I’m back in Louisville where this film won’t soon come, so I’ll have to make do with this.

Top 10 Favorite Movies of All-Time: #5 The Royal Tenenbaums

Depending on when you ask, I might say that The Royal Tenenbaums is my favorite movie ever.  The third feature directed by Wes Anderson and written by Anderson and Owen Wilson is about as perfect as a movie can get for me.

In case you’ve never seen The Royal Tenenbaums, here’s kind of how it breaks down (spoiler alert – skip ahead 10 paragraphs if you don’t want to know the plot):

The movie opens with an extended introduction to the characters.  It’s about a family from a place that looks like New York, but isn’t exactly New York.  Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) and Etheline Tenenbaum (Angelica Huston) had two sons – Richie (Luke Wilson) and Chas (Ben Stiller) – and adopted a daughter, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow).  Royal abandoned the family and left Etheline to raise the children on her own.

The children, prodigies in tennis (Richie), playwriting (Margot), and business (Chas), all peaked shortly after Royal left the family, and have been stuck ever since.

The action of the movie takes place 22 years after Royal’s departure.  He’s just been kicked out of the fancy hotel where he’s lived for years.  He’s broke.  As this is taking place, Etheline gets a marriage proposal from her longtime accountant and bridge partner Henry Sherman (Danny Glover).

The family butler, Pagoda (Kumar Pallana), informs Royal of the proposal.  Royal doesn’t want her to get married, and cooks up a scheme to maintain the status quo.

Meanwhile, the children’s problems come to a head, one-by-one, and they move back into their old home with Etheline.  Chas, on the verge of a crack-up after the death of his wife in a plane crash, brings his two sons with him.  Margot leaves her husband, noted neurologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), but is having an affair with family friend Eli Cash (Owen Wilson).  Richie is the last to arrive (he’s been avoiding Margot because he’s in love with her), and Royal quickly enlists him, his favorite, to convince Etheline to allow him to move back into the house.

Royal’s presence is a major disruption.  Royal sees no problem in offering unsolicited advice to his kids, whom he hasn’t seen in many years.  He also condescends to Henry in a borderline racist manner.  Henry suspects that he’s faking his illness and looks for clues to prove his point.  Royal seems to enjoy being back in the midst of his family, even if they don’t all reciprocate.

Finally, Henry finds the proof he’s looking for, and exposes Royal in front of the entire family, which gets him and Kumar kicked out of the house.

Instead of being defeated, Royal experiences the loss that his family must have felt at his leaving them all those years ago, and he becomes determined to win back their love.  Hackman’s performance is wildly underrated.  He’s marvelous as the scoundrel Royal, keeping us rooting for him even though we maybe shouldn’t.

The third act of the movie finds Royal mending fences and making attempts to reconcile himself to his children, ultimately succeeding in winning them back one-by-one and helping them to get on with their lives.  Royal does end up dying, but not before salvaging his family legacy, which is something we should all shoot for.

So, what’s so great about this movie?  I’ll restrict myself to just a few reasons.

First, there’s Wes Anderson.  His imagination and point-of-view are so seductive to me.  He has a child-like way of portraying the worlds of his movies without being childish or simplistic.  Far from it.  The Royal Tenenbaums, despite all the visual flourishes, is a knowing take on the fallout of broken homes and how important an intact, functioning family is, especially on children.  The movie was inspired by his own experiences in a broken home at the insistence of Owen Wilson, whom he met in college.

Anderson has a sophisticated grasp of the history of cinema.  He reminds me of Bob Dylan in that he’s this film geek who’s absorbed an encyclopedia’s worth of influences – in interviews, he’s always referencing movies he’s seen that have influenced his movies, and he points out how he’s quoted them in his own movies – but rather than being a copy-cat of his heroes, he actually transcends them by combining their influence with his own vision to make something completely original.

Anderson has cultivated a style that is so uniquely his as to be easily spoofed: the omnipresent Futura font in all of his films, the artful use of montage sequences, an obsessive fascination with the tiniest of details (take inventory of the inside of Richie’s tent for just one example), the fantastic soundtracks, and finally, the quirky characters.  I love it all.

Quick side-note:  Independent cinema has always been populated by quirky characters, but one might trace the current epidemic of quirkiness in even the most mainstream of movies to the success of Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998), and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), all directed by Anderson and co-written with Wilson.  It could be said that Anderson and Quentin Tarrantino are the most influential directors of the last 15 years, having spawned a plague of imitators.

In addition to his style, I love his creation of a kind of altnernate universe New York in The Royal Tenenbaums.  Anderson is from Texas, and I like to think that he fantasized about New York for years before actually moving and working there, and the version of the city we see in the movie is like the way a kid might have imagined the city having read about it in books and experienced it in movies and TV shows before actually seeing it in person.  No actual places are used, and even places that are familiar, like the Waldorf Astoria hotel, are given alternate names (The Lindbergh Palace Hotel).  When you take the stylized costuming of the characters, combined with alt.NewYork, you end up with a kind of fairytale story.  And it works.

Speaking of New York, another great thing about The Royal Tenenbaums are the literary trappings of the movie.  From the first frame, the movie is sold as a kind of adaptation of a book called “The Royal Tenebaums,” as the book is checked out of a library old-school style with the pocket and card and stamp.  The scenes are even set up with inserts that are designed to look like the chapter headings of the faux book – the sentence fragments we see are actually the scene headings from the script.  In addition to this, the precocity of the children, combined with the New York setting and their upper class interests, are reminiscent of J.D. Salinger’s Glass family.  They are similarly eccentric and jacked-up.

Finally, there’s the aforementioned use of montage.  Anderson has been compared to Martin Scorcese.  In fact, Scorcese himself has called Anderson the next Scorcese, which may strike some as weird.  I won’t get into that here, but I would like to compare Anderson’s use of music and montage with Scorcese, who has obviously influenced him (and a whole host of other film makers).

My second favorite moment in The Royal Tenenbaums is when Margot steps off the bus as she’s meeting Richie at the boat docks.  He sees her from where he sits, and as she steps down, the action goes to slow-motion and Nico’s “These Days” plays as she moves toward him.  Richie’s in love with Margot, and this device perfectly captures that sense of longing that Richie feels for his half-sister.

Compare that scene with a famous moment from Mean Streets, Scorcese’s explosive debut.  Johnny Boy’s (Robert DeNiro) entrance to the bar where he and his friends hang out is just as emblematic of Johnny Boy as Anderson’s scene is for what it does.  The action is also in slow motion as Johnny Boy enters with a girl on each arm and a silly grin on his face as the opening riff of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” plays.  His best friend and protector Charlie (Harvey Keitel) watches him approach (a la Richie Tenenbaum).  The lights in the bar bathe them all in blood red (foreshadowing?).

The scenes line up as though Anderson is tipping his cap to the maestro, something he freely admits to doing elsewhere with other directors and other movies.  And just as Scorcese has become the master of using motage sequences, juxtaposed with perfect music, to advance his stories, so too has Anderson (my favorite Anderson montage sequence is the opening of Rushmore, where we see all the clubs that Max belongs to).

From its perfect three-act structure to the perfect touch writing to the acting, and, at last, to the directing, The Royal Tenenbaums is a high-point of American movie-making, and it confirmed Wes Anderson’s place as an important director – not just in America, but on the international stage.

2011 Academy Award Predictions

Here are my final Oscar predictions for 2011:

Best Picture: The Social Network

Best Director: David Fincher

Best Actor: Colin Firth

Best Actress: Natalie Portman

Best Supporting Actor: Geoffrey Rush

Best Supporting Actress: Melissa Leo

Best Original Screenplay: The King’s Speech

Best Adapted Screenplay: The Social Network

Best Animated Feature: Toy Story 3

Best Documentary Feature: Exit Through the Gift Shop

2011 Academy Award Predictions: Best Supporting Actor

For a while it seemed like Christian Bale was running away with the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, but after seeing some of the competition, I think the race might be pretty tight.

I haven’t seen The Town, so I can’t really comment on Jeremy Renner’s performance.  It doesn’t suck to be him, these days, with two nominations in as many years.

Mark Ruffalo doesn’t seem like he belongs in this group.  The Kids Are All Right is a wildly overrated movie that could have made some very interesting observations, but instead, chose a path riddled with clichés.  His performance seems like one I’ve seen him give in more than one other movie, say You Can Count on Me, for example.

All the way through Winter’s Bone, I kept wondering where I’d seen the guy who played Teardrop.  It wasn’t until I was able to look him up on IMDB that I was reminded of Me And You And Everyone We Know, an oddball indie romance.  Look him up yourself, and you’ll no doubt be nodding at the list of movies you’ve seen where he’s one of these supporting characters who looks like he might have been plucked off the street – which is a compliment, because he’s so authentic.

In Winter’s Bone, he plays the unpredictable uncle of Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree.  He’s a man who’s as likely to punch his niece in the mouth as to hug her – it just depends on how he’s approached.  Hawkes perfectly blends paranoia, anger, larceny, and a sense of primal justice to become a very unlikely hero.

I’d love to see him walk away with the Oscar, but I’m afraid the numbers are against him.

Much has been written about Christian Bale’s performance in The Fighter, and it is a very impressive performance – almost showy in that old-fashioned, 1950’s way where performances often veered towards the over-the-top (see Paul Newman in Somebody Up There Likes Me).

His preparation to play Dicky Eklund reminded me of the stories about DeNiro’s preparation to play Jake LaMotta in The Raging Bull – exhaustive observation of physical tics and habits, drawn from hours of conversation and note taking.  It’s a dedication and work ethic that is tiring just thinking about it, and it has paid off huge for a guy who wasn’t even the first choice for the role.

Later tonight, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon might be wondering, “What if…?”

I have a feeling that Geoffrey Rush is going to sneak in and walk away with the Academy Award tonight.  He’s marvelous in The King’s Speech as Lionel Logue, the man who not only shows King George VI how to overcome a horrible stutter, he shows him how to be a friend.

It’s a well written character that gives Rush much room to flesh out a three-dimensional man who, despite his failure a Shakespearean acting is a highly skilled therapist.  In a fine monologue, Rush defends his lack of formal training with an account of his wartime experience helping shell-shocked World War I veterans regain their speech after witnesses unspeakable horrors.

Choosing a best performance in any category is really a fool’s errand, especially with the performances of Rush, Bale, and Hawkes.  Give it to Rush by a nose.

2011 Academy Award Predictions: Best Supporting Actress

I love the supporting actor and actress awards.  This is where the Academy likes to surprise us.  In 1984, Haing Ngor won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing Dith Pran, a Cambodian journalist working with American journalist Sydney Schanberg, in The Killing Fields.  And oh yeah, Ngor himself experienced the same killing fields of the character he portrayed.  He himself was a Cambodian refugee, and lost a wife and child to the Khmer Rouge.  If all that weren’t enough, Ngor was trained as a physician, not a doctor, and The Killing Fields was his first role.

Though there may not be a story like Ngor’s in this year’s field, there is room for a big upset.

Jacki Weaver’s nomination for Animal Kingdom came out of left field, and I haven’t seen the movie.  Weaver has a long career in Australian cinema dating back to Picnic at Hanging Rock.  In Animal Kingdom, she plays Smurf, a kind of godmother of a crime family.  The film has been in limited release, and a victory on Sunday would be a major upset.

Amy Adams takes a turn away from the sunny characters she’s best remembered for in movies like Junebug and Enchanted.  In The Fighter, she plays Charlene, the working class girlfriend of boxer Micky Ward.  Among the obstacles she has to overcome are Micky’s mom and sisters, who are straight out of hell.  Look for her to get KO’d on Oscar night and walk away empty handed.

Helena Bonham Carter was born for costume dramas.  From A Room With a View to The King’s Speech, she has appeared in so many historical dramas as to seem born in another time.  In The King’s Speech, she plays Elizabeth, the Duchess of York.  Her husband, the future King George VI, suffers from a severe stutter that hampers his ability to lead in a new age, where the radio has become as important as looking regal in uniform on horseback.

Though her husband has resigned himself to obscurity, Bonham Carter stays on the lookout for help until she finds Lionel Logue, a highly unorthodox speech therapist who comes highly recommended.

Thus begins her effort of orchestrating and cheerleading as her husband is subjected to an invasive course of therapy that not only breaks down his affliction but also the social structures that keep commoners like Logue at a great distance.

It’s a delightful performance, but not enough to take home the trophy.

Many kids have won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, like Tatum O’Neal (Paper Moon), Anna Paquin (The Piano), and Mary Badham (To Kill a Mockingbird), which has to make Hailee Steinfeld and her family feel like she has a pretty good shot for her performance in True Grit.

She more than holds her own onscreen with Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and a supporting cast that includes Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper.  It’s an impressive debut because not only is she in just about every scene, she has to speak her dialogue in an archaic, 19th century dialect devoid of contractions and slang.  Mattie is a precocious adolescent who worships her murdered father and applies her devotion to seeing his murderer (Brolin) hanged.  Her sense of justice is forged from a Protestantism steeped in blood and sin and judgment.  That said, she plays the role straight, allowing for an ironic humor to bleed into every scene.  True Grit is a very funny movie.

I’ll be crossing my fingers, hoping for an upset, but I’m – or rather I am – afraid that the award is predestined to do home with another.

That other is Melissa Leo, who plays Alice, the matriarch of the Ward family in The Fighter.  Alice Ward is a manipulative woman who will use anything at her disposal to impose her will.  In addition to her boxing boys, she’s raised seven daughters who are like something from Shakespeare or Greek Drama.

This nomination is the second in three years for Leo, who was nominated for Best Actress in 2008 for her role as Ray in Frozen River. It’s a vindication of sorts for an actress who is undeniably talented, but also carries a difficult reputation.

Leo is a force of nature in The Fighter, and like Alice’s younger son Micky, she won’t be denied her title.  Pencil her in as the Oscar winner.