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The “Killing” of John Cassavetes

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True film-critic’s confession: I’ve never been able to sit through an entire John Cassavetes movie. For years, I’ve heard fellow cineastes as well as screenwriters, directors and actors — mostly actors, now that I think of it — singing Cassavetes’ praises for his emotionally raw, rough, real dramas that blazed a trail for a generation of independent filmmakers who followed. But every time I’ve tried to watch, say, Minnie and Moskowitz or A Woman Under the Influence (admittedly, in edited versions on TV), I quickly grew tired of enduring scenes of men and women drinking, crying and yelling at each other. If I wanted to see that, I wouldn’t have gotten divorced. (Personal note to my ex-wife’s lawyer: That’s a joke.)

But I had a first date with a filmmaker/professor this week who mentioned in her online profile that she’s a huge fan of ’70s cinema (as am I), so I thought I’d impress her by taking her to see Cassavetes’ 1976 crime drama The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. And I loved it. And she hated it. She admitted to me afterwards that she shared my previously held view that Cassavetes was overrated. Here’s true critical heresy: I enjoyed son Nick Cassavetes’ tearjerker The Notebook, in large part because of the performances by his mother (and John’s muse) Gena Rowlands and James Garner, more than anything I’d seen by his dad.

Until now. Maybe Bookie‘s gangster trappings captivated me more than any of Cassavetes’ domestic dramas, but I was absolutely riveted. Ben Gazzara, who’s such a perfect stand-in for Cassavetes that I momentarily forgot he wasn’t the filmmaker himself, stars as a seedy L.A. strip-club owner who gets himself deep in gambling debts to a group of mobsters, including the great character actor Timothy Carey (from Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing and Paths of Glory), a proto-Nicolas Cage before he went off the rails, as well as Cassavetes regular Seymour Cassel.

To reduce what he owes, Gazzara reluctantly agrees to, yes, kill a Chinese bookie, and the sequence in which he tracks down his target and escapes the crime scene is thrillingly shot and edited, while still allowing the story to breathe in a way that today’s cut-within-an-inch-of-their-lives action flicks like Jason Bourne never do.

The original version of Bookie ran two and a quarter hours, but Cassavetes wisely recut it to a tight 108 minutes (or at least I thought it was tight; my date’s first words as we walked out was, “I never thought it would end!”). Much of the lost footage came from scenes of the performers at Gazzara’s Crazy Horse West nightclub, a troupe of frequently naked women and a bizarro singer named Mr. Sophistication, played by Meade Roberts. Fun fact: Back in the late ’80s, I tried to take a New School screenwriting course taught by Mr. Roberts, who had cowritten two failed films with Tennessee Williams in the ’50s, The Fugitive Kind and Summer and Smoke, but dropped it after only one session because I found him to be nearly as pretentious as my classmates (who inexplicably almost all named Platoon as their favorite film).

Maybe I should’ve given Roberts another chance. I’m ready to give Cassavetes one.

Is Matt Damon a Natural “Bourne” Killer?

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I’ve never been a huge fan of Matt Damon’s Bourne franchise, yet I’ve seen all four of the previous films, including 2012’s The Bourne Legacy, when he was not-too-ably replaced by Jeremy Renner. So I went into Jason Bourne — which marks Damon’s return to the series, along with Paul Greengrass, who directed the superior second and third installments —with modest expectations. And they were met… eventually.

The first hour of Jason Bourne (which runs just over two hours) is slow. There’s a lot of running, and people typing on computers. Run a little, type a little, run a little, type a little, run a lot, type a little more. Damon’s titular rogue CIA agent has rediscovered his true identity before he was brainwashed and turned into a professional killer, but he’s trying to figure out who murdered his father long ago during an alleged terrorist attack in Beirut. The CIA, via evil director Tommy Lee Jones and his seemingly sympathetic-to-Bourne protegee, played by Alicia Vikander, are trying to track him down and bring him  in from the proverbial cold (or maybe just put him on ice)

The action jumps around a lot between countries—England, Iceland, the Balkans (where Jason is inexplicably earning his living as a bare-knuckle boxer as the film opens)—before it finally settles in Las Vegas, of all places. And that’s where the fun begins. It’s the site of a tech convention where Jones (who looks more like a Shar-Pei with each passing year) is set to share a panel with a social-media magnate (Riz Ahmed from HBO’s excellent The Night Of) who might blow the lid off a secret CIA surveillance program.

Much mayhem ensues as Damon’s Bourne is pursued by the CIA’s top assassin (Vincent Cassel), and there’s an unfortunate echo of recent real-life events in Nice as the French actor wreaks havoc in an armored truck among crowds on the Strip, plowing into the Riviera casino. But Greengrass knows how to direct action—his hand-to-hand combat scenes are cut so quickly, the editing feels like its own act of violence. There’s relatively little gunplay, which may be no surprise considering Damon’s controversial remarks in favor of gun control.

There’s also relatively little character development, but one doesn’t go to a Bourne movie for the dialogue. And in a summer when females’ suitability as action heroes (or at least Ghostbusters) has been heatedly debated, Vikander’s character is a refreshing revelation. She’s not a sex object—she never even lets her hair down from the clip that holds it—and she’s just as much of a badass as the boys. The Bourne series has always been like a stripped-down version of 007, and she fits right in. She’s no Bond girl. She’s a Bourne woman.

Did “Cafe Society” Give Me a Woody?

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For 25 years, I’ve had a tradition of seeing Woody Allen movies on opening day at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema on the Upper West Side of Manhattan — the heart of Woody Allen country. It’s the only theater I’ve ever seen that sells smoked salmon sandwiches on rye, and lets you spread your own shmear. Sometimes (To Rome with Love, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), the sandwich is the highlight of the occasion. Other times (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Sweet and Lowdown), it’s the ideal combination of movie and snack. At least the lox never disappoints.

Neither does Woody’s latest movie, Cafe Society, I’m pleased to report. It’s more Blue Jasmine than Irrational Man. Jesse Eisenberg, who makes a much better Woody stand-in here than he did in Rome, stars as a straight-outta-the-Bronx 1930s boy who heads to Hollywood looking for work. He hits up his uncle (a stellar Steve Carell), a powerful agent, and promptly falls for his secretary, Veronica (Kristen Stewart, who grew on me). A romantic triangle ensues, and the film plays out as a sophisticated dramedy of manners.

Classic Woody themes — some might say obsessions — emerge: the superiority of New York City over Los Angeles, May-December romances, Judaism vs. Christianity, the emptiness of showbiz. But they’re given a new sheen thanks to Vittorio Storaro’s sleek cinematography and Santo Loquasto’s lavish production design, and Woody’s use of Swing Era jazz has rarely been so well-suited to his story.

The damn-near-flawless ensemble includes Jeannie Berlin (who’s also outstanding on HBO’s new limited series The Night Of) as Eisenberg’s lovably kvetching mother, Corey Stoll (whose Hemingway was the best thing about the overrated Midnight in Paris) as his gangster brother, and great Scot Ken Stott as his long-suffering dad. Even Blake Lively acquits herself well in a relatively minor role late in the film.

Is Cafe Society one of Woody Allen’s all-time greatest films? Nope, it’s second-tier, but it’s still a refreshingly civilized and solid movie for grownups in a summer laden with letdowns like Ghostbusters and The Infiltrator. As Woody says, the heart wants what it wants, and sometimes mine just wants a good old-fashioned movie movie and a smoked salmon sammie.

“Ghostbusters”: Should You Be Afraid?

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Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones are funny people. In various combinations, they’ve all made me laugh until I can’t breathe on Saturday Night Live, in Bridesmaids, and elsewhere. The reason why their Ghostbusters reboot is more of a bust than a boom, comedically speaking, isn’t because they’re women. It’s because the screenwriters, Katie Dipold and director Paul Feig, didn’t provide them with gutbusting material.

“It’s not terrible,” as Melissa McCarthy’s character says right before the film’s closing credits (which, by the way, are its highlight — they move nimbly in a way the rest of the movie doesn’t). But it’s far from great. The 1984 version is no masterpiece, but it delivers big laughs — think “It’s the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man,” or “Dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!” The new movie references that line, among other nods to the original. With the exception of the seemingly retired Rick Moranis, all the old familiar faces, including the late Harold Ramis, pop up briefly. But they, too, aren’t given gags worthy of their talent.

The new Ghostbusters has its strengths. The special effects are stellar; for once, I was glad that I spent the extra money to see a movie in 3D. And it delivers real scares, but the scream-with-laughter-versus-just-plain-scream ratio is way off. I chuckled mildly about five times in the nearly two-hour film. That’s not nearly enough.

This is a movie that’s constantly on the verge of being hilarious. Promising situations are set up, you can feel a big yuk coming, and then… nothing. The lines aren’t quite right. You can see all the actors toiling to make these lackluster bits shine, but they’re working with unpolishable turds.

It’s a shame: I really wanted to love the new Ghostbusters, and not just because I don’t want to be lumped in with the message-board misogynists who damned it based only on the trailer. But it turns out the best jokes really were in that underwhelming clip, although they do play a little more amusingly in context.

Remaking Ghostbusters with such a talented cast —which also includes SNL‘s brilliant Cecily Strong as an aide to the Mayor (blandly played by Andy Garcia) and Chris Hemsworth as the team’s ridiculously asinine receptionist — seemed like a genuinely good idea to me, and I’ve enjoyed all of Feig’s other films: The Heat (which Dipold wrote), Spy and especially Bridesmaids. But the movie robs its performers of opportunities to play to their strengths.

McCarthy is the most gifted physical comedian of her generation, but her CGI-enhanced pratfalls feel fake, so they truly fall flat. Wiig’s character is so buttoned-down that you keep waiting for her to cut loose like she did in Bridesmaids, but it only happens in a brief dance scene with Hemsworth. McKinnon and Jones do what they can to put their own spin on their characters, but they’re stuck with a script so sketchy, it wouldn’t make the cut at an SNL dress rehearsal.

Who you gonna call? Get me rewrite!

Bryan Cranston’s “Infiltrator”: Just Say No?

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I was talking with my former Entertainment Weekly colleague Jennifer Keishin Armstrong about her new book Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything when the topic of Jason Alexander’s lackluster post-Seinfeld career came up. “He needs to do a gritty cable drama—then maybe he could break out,” she said. “He needs to pull a Cranston.”

I immediately knew what she meant: Bryan Cranston, once known only as hapless dad Hal on Malcolm in the Middle, reinvented himself as a powerhouse dramatic actor with his tour de force as milquetoast science teacher-turned-murderous meth kingpin Walter White on Breaking Bad. Without that role, Cranston would’ve never been cast in the lead role of the new film The Infiltrator as Robert Mazur, a federal agent who went undercover in the Medellin cartel during the “Just Say No” Reagan Era. One can only wish Cranston had just said no to this script.

It’s not terrible. The plot gets murky and convoluted, but individual scenes (like one tense sequence in which Mazur’s cover is almost blown during an anniversary dinner with his wife) crackle with life, and Cranston is never less than compelling. The supporting cast—especially John Leguizamo as Mazur’s loose-cannon coworker and The Bridge‘s Diane Kruger as a fellow agent who poses as Mazur’s fiancee—is solid.

But it’s impossible not to measure The Infiltrator against Breaking Bad. They’re both stories about seemingly meek guys (Mazur started out as an accountant) who assume a bad-ass persona after getting involved with the narcotics trade. While it’s undeniably an apples-to-oranges comparison—Bad ran for six seasons, The Infiltrator runs just over two hours—you’re still left wanting more when the movie is over.

Working from a script by his mother, Ellen Brown Furman, director Brad Furman never quite gets inside Mazur’s head to explain why he’d forgo a full retirement package to risk his family’s life by attempting to bring down Pablo Escobar’s evil empire. The Infiltrator is a huge improvement on the younger Furman’s last film, Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake’s instantly forgettable Runner, Runner. But it’s still not as effortlessly entertaining as his breakout directorial effort, The Lincoln Lawyer.

As for Cranston, The Infiltrator marks a step up from his overrated and inexplicably Oscar-nominated caricature in Trumbo, but it’s nowhere near the the same league as his transformative turn as LBJ in All the Way, which won him a Tony and will no doubt win him an Emmy (his fifth!) for the HBO film version. The Infiltrator is more like Half the Way. It’s Breaking Meh.

Why Critics Couldn’t Keep Up with “Jones”

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I just got back from seeing Free State of Jones at my local theater, which now offers $5 tickets on Tuesdays. I didn’t want to spend more on it because a) I felt burned after shelling out $13.50 to endure The Legend of Tarzan yesterday and b) it earned only 43 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. I should know better than to trust that website, because who cares about an aggregate of people’s opinions if most are idiots?

That’s the only explanation I can come up with for why critics didn’t get behind Jones while raving about crap like A Bigger Splash (89% “fresh”!). This is a “good, moving, complicated film”—as The New York Times‘ Vincent Canby, a critic I respected, described another Civil War epic, 1989’s Glory—and it needed the support of cinephiles as it swam upstream against such big fish as Finding Dory. Sure, some serious writers like The New York Times‘ A.O. Scott  appreciated cowriter-director Gary Ross’ important saga, but others who shall remain nameless complained about its length and grandiloquent tone (actually, they didn’t use the word grandiloquent—they probably don’t know what it means).

I’m here to testify: Ignore the lemmings’ groupthink. Free State of Jones is well worth your $5, or $13.50, for that matter. Matthew McConaughey gets back on track after his Interstellar misstep with a towering performance as Newton Knight, a Confederate deserter who led a rebellion against the rebels from within the Deep South. Ross deftly stages both harrowing battle sequences and tender scenes of intimacy between Knight and the two women in his life, his wife (Keri Russell) and a freed slave (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who became his soulmate for life. A fascinating parallel plot tracks the court case of one of Knight’s descendants (Brian Lee Franklin), who was tried for breaking miscegenation laws because he was believed to be one-eighth African-American and married a white woman in 1940s Mississippi.

The supporting cast includes such standouts as House of Cards‘ Mahershala Ali as a man namethfrnd Moses who’s freed from the literal yoke of slavery and becomes a voting-rights activist, Rectify‘s electrifying Sean Bridgers as one of Knight’s ex-Confederate comrades, and an actor named Thomas Francis Murphy (left), who has a face that looks like it came straight from one of Matthew Brady’s Civil War photographs, as a sadistic Southern officer. I must confess I’d never heard of Murphy before, but I promise you I will never forget his visage, especially during his character’s climactic battle with McConaughey’s Knight.

So please, I urge you, exercise your freedom as a moviegoer and see Free State of Jones in the aftermath of this year’s Independence Day — and no, I don’t mean the horrendous Resurgence, which I sadly paid to see last weekend due to a Moviefone snafu. You can’t trust any of these websites, I tell ya! Well, except this one…

Which Skarsgård is the True Står?

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True confession: I just walked out after enduring 45 laughably awful minutes of The Legend of Tarzan, the latest ill-fated attempt to make Edgar Rice Burroughs’ ape man swing again. Even though I paid extra for the 3-D glasses, the tale felt frustratingly one-dimensional: stolid and dull. Actors as vivid as Samuel L. Jackson and an all-but-mustache-twirling Christoph Waltz seemed lost in the jungle. One wonders what their frequent collaborator Quentin Tarantino could’ve done with this material; instead it fell to David Yates, probably as a thank you from Warner Bros. for keeping the Harry Potter franchise on track in its final four installments (and a pricey thank-you it was—the film reportedly cost $180 million to make and another $100 million+ to market).

The most disappointing part of The Legend of Tarzan—or at least of the part I could stomach— was Alexander Skarsgård (hey, I figured out how to make that little circle over the a!) in the title role. When first we see him, he’s sipping tea with his pinky up in the air, like a civilized gentleman, you see. But once he heads home to Africa in a convoluted plot involving diamonds, slavery and Margot Robbie doing an annoying American accent as Jane, he still seems like a stiff. One wishes the ex-True Blood vamp could summon some of the animalistic swagger of Robbie’s Wolf of Wall Street leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio.

Or of Skarsgård’s own fåther (sorry, those little circles are so much fun to make!), Stellan, in another film that hit theaters over the Fourth of July weekend, Our Kind of Traitor. The John Le Carré adaptation also gets off to a slow start—not much happens in the first hour, as a poetics professor (a surprisingly bland Ewan McGregor) and his lawyer wife (Naomie Harris, who’s at least got more to do here than as 007’s freshly minted Miss Moneypenny) get mixed up with money-laundering Russian mobsters. But Stellan’s infectiously sleazy turn as a nogoodnik carries you along and helps sell the far-fetched conceit that McGregor and Harris would become bodyguards for the gangster and his family once the bullets finally start flying. It’s also refreshing to hear Homeland casualty/Billions liability Damian Lewis not doing an American accent for a change as the MI6 operative who becomes their ally.

As Le Carré adaptations go, Our Kind of Traitor falls somewhere below Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (either the Alec Guinness miniseries or the Gary Oldman film) and the underrated Phillip Seymour Hoffman posthumous release A Most Wanted Man, not to mention the recent miniseries The Night Manager, with a memorably evil Hugh Laurie. Yet when the plot ultimately kicks in, you’ll be glad you stuck with it. Maybe I would’ve said the same about Tarzan if I hadn’t run yelling from the theater like Carol Burnett.  

By the way, there’s a superior elder Skarsgård vehicle coming soon: In Order of Disappearance (due in theaters and on VOD August 26). The Swedish actor plays Nils Dickman, a Norwegian snowplow driver—stay with me here—determined to knock off the drug dealers who killed his son via a staged heroin overdose.

Set against a snowy white backdrop, this stylized revenge story plays as a very black comedy, but Stellan (okay, I’m finally tired of making all those little circles) keeps it grounded in a gritty reality. Never for a second do you believe he’s anyone but a grieving father determined to avenge his beloved son’s murder. But with his flowing blond tresses, chiseled bod, and ridiculously limited range, Alexander reminded me less of Tarzan than of Fabio. In short: I can’t believe he’s not better.

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