Category Archives: Billy

Cameron Crowe and the Law of Diminishing Returns

Let me preface this by saying that the films of Cameron Crowe have meant a great deal to me. Say Anything…, Singles, Jerry Maguire and especially Almost Famous all pass the TNT test. (The true test of a great film being whether or not you can sit through the film on a network like TNT, commercials and all.) They are few and far between, but I never fail to circle my calendar when a new release date is announced. When We Bought a Zoo came around the Bay Area some time after Christmas, it was the first of six films I saw in one 36 hour period in order to catch up with the onslaught of holiday releases.

Tangent: This is nothing new to me. In my younger years I made it a ritual to see movies in huge doses. The holidays made this easy due to the sheer number of films released and the idle time Christmas break affords you as a teenager. However, the older I get, the less fun it has become until this year when it became a downright war of attrition. I was so exhausted and my ass was so sore that I completely scrapped the story I had planned to write detailing the experience and contemplated never going to see another movie again. Hyperbolic and in the end untrue, yes, but when you’re fighting to stay awake during a 10pm showing of War Horse, these are the things you think about.

Anyways, back to We Bought a Zoo. It is not a good film. Sure, Matt Damon and his luscious head of hair are very winning as per usual, but the the combination of a very, very, very tired “Dirty Dozen” Aesthetic and Scarlett Johannson’s single note delivery/lack of depth, the film left me feeling manipulated and a little cold.  The film’s title says all you need to know about the film, but I digress. A recently widowed father drags his two precocious children (Imagine that!) to a decrepit zoo, where they meet a band of (wait for it…) rough-around-the-edges, yet, extremely lovable animal lovers and embark on a voyage of self discovery in which everyone in the film learns something and transforms into their very best selves (Pure saccharine.) Of course this kind (the worst kind) of filmmaking is completely justified simply because it’s based on a true story. Hey, everyone loves to needs a good cry.

Tangent #2: On Scarlett Johannson: Man, what happened? All the promise and vulnerability displayed in Ghost World and Lost in Translation has been laid to waste in horrible film after horrible film. Check out her imdb page; with the exception of the work she did with Woody Allen, it reads like the Razzie nominations.)

Unfortunately,We Bought a Zoo is just another example of the ever growing problem as it pertains to Cameron Crowe’s career as a writer/director. In a canon that peaked with Almost Famous, each film that has followed has felt increasingly shallow and derivative. Vanilla Sky, in which Crowe tried to install his pop sensibilities into philosophical science fiction was a movie I loved this film upon first seeing it, but watching it now, a stiff breeze could blow it over. I mean really, are we really expected to care about a rich playboy without scruples, who screws over the wrong girl? Follwing “Sky” was Elizabethtown, which I have constantly referred to as either the film I liked a lot more when it was called Garden State or the film in which we realized that Orlando Bloom will never be a movie star.

Tangent #3: I don’t want to get all meta on you, but Elizabethtown feels derivative of a film that itself owed a lot to earlier Crowe films. Garden State even nailed the use of popular music to push the story forward. An aspect of filmmaking Crowe has mastered. Go figure. 

While even the most ardent lover of Crowe’s films would attest, none of his movies are perfect (Though, Almost Famous comes pretty damn close.) By in large Crowe’s films are made up of one indelible moment after another that imprints itself on your subconscious. I can’t tell you how many times, I have thrown in Say Anything… just to watch the exchange between Cusack and Mahoney during the dinner sequence or Cusack’s steely defiance in the scene with the jukebox. I always get a chuckle at the truth he mines in the scene in Jerry Maguire in which a euphoric Tom Cruise scans the radio dial to find the right soundtrack to what he’s feeling and lands on Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” and I cannot tell you how many times I have sung along to “Tiny Dancer” with the cast of Almost Famous. Never has a filmmaker had such a knack for creating scenes so funny, so painfully truthful that they keep you coming back for more. Not that Vanilla Sky or Elizabethtown are without moments like these. I defy anyone to find finer approximations of what burgeoning romance feels like than in the courtship between Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz in “Sky” (Man, “Solsbury Hill” is a great fucking song!) or the telephone conversation between Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst in “Elizabethtown” (Yet, another great use of music and my introduction to Ryan Adams.) Moments like these are fleeting and they simply do not carry the film.

In We Bought a Zoo, he seems to be searching for these moments, never quite finding them, instead relying on Matt Damon’s toothy smile and a well timed music cue.  Due to my love of his earlier films, I’m still rooting for Cameron Crowe, so here’s to hoping he gets his groove back.

We Bought a Zoo is out on DVD and Blu-ray today. Rent it from Redbox, get it delivered by Netflix, but under no circumstances buy it. I don’t care what Wal-Mart is selling it for.

Because You Never Saw It: Young Adult

My wife and I saw Young Adult back in January. Being fans of the filmmakers involved; Jason Reitman directing, a script by Diablo Cody and a cast led by Charlize Theron, Patrick Wilson and Patton Oswalt, it was a film we both anticipated upon first learning about its impending release. We were not fooled by the advertising campaign of the film. Despite the fact that it was shrouded under the guise of being ostensibly a comedy, I had read that the film was in fact much darker than the trailer suggested and mined some fairly heavy territory. Having faith in the pedigree of the principles involved we took our seats at the Cinearts in Pleasant Hill (the last real hope for American Cinema) and gave Young Adult a shot.

The film revolves around a woman named Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron.) She is a writer of cookie cutter YA fiction and to say that she is a malcontent is an understatement. She drinks too much, has nary a good thing to say to or about anyone and uses what’s left of her good looks to get what she wants. Upon receiving an email announcing the wife of her ex-boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson,) had just given birth to their first child, she is prompted to go back to her home town and win Buddy back. What follows is one uncomfortable situation after another in which a deluded, almost always drunk Mavis tries to rekindle her their long forgotten romance, completely oblivious to the trail of destruction she leaves in her wake.

My wife and I left the theater feeling sucker punched. My wife, who takes everything at face value and thinks totally in terms of entertainment value, hated the film. She thought it was a depressing mess with a rash of hopeless characters occupying the screen without moral compass or any redeemable characteristics. I gave the film a lot more rope, but could not disagree with her. While her opinion was shared, my criticism went a little deeper than that. My initial reaction to the film was that I had never seen a film more self-conscious of itself. The screenplay seemed to be a desperate attempt at a complete 180 for Diablo Cody. The idealistic and witty banter that filled the scripts for Juno and her work on the TV show United States of Tara and was supplanted by incessant negativity and the dreariest of world views. Reitman, who has proven himself an apt craftsman, carving a nice place for himself outside of his father’s shadow, had apparently decided to throw out anything he felt would be conventional opting instead for the path of most resistance. The film seems to go out of its way to buck any sort of trend you see in most films, there is no growth amongst the main characters and there is nothing even remotely close to a resolution.

Had I written this review back in January, it probably would have ended there. But, a few weeks ago I happened upon a discussion of the film on the podcast, WTF with Marc Maron. Maron loved the film and his argument was compelling enough to entice me to give the film another go. The second viewing was a completely different experience. While the film is by no means a masterpiece, I did develop an appreciation for it. I discovered that one of major reasons I disliked the film initially was the very aspect of the human condition it was trying to shine a light on. One of the major themes of the film is cynicism and the effect it has on our growth as people. It’s much easier to reject something as deficient rather than to spend the amount of time necessary to understand what it is it’s trying to say. I’m certainly not immune to doing this. I’m constantly at war with myself in an attempt to slow the fuck down and simplify. Life is overwhelming and can be quite painful and the last thing we want is to have that notion fed to us via what we choose as entertainment. Young Adult is not a comfortable viewing experience. It doesn’t exist to give you answers to the questions it asks of the audience. It leaves you, squirming in your seat, with a choice: Take the easy way out and discard the film, which is what I did after my first viewing. Or sit in the shit of it, as I did the second time around and appreciate it for not taking shortcuts or tacking on a happy ending.

I’m paraphrasing Marc Maron when I sum up what I think Young Adult is about and what I grew to enjoy about it: Life isn’t always about the funny, or the entertaining for that matter. Sometimes life is about the sad. And that ain’t so bad.

SIDEBAR: Holy shit! All that word vomit without pointing out two crucial elements of the film. Charlize Theron is an actress of amazing range and skill. I have a ton of respect for her performance in Monster, but, I think that the film was far too reliant on the physical transformation and the makeup used to make Theron look like the source material. In Young Adult, Theron is allowed to look like herself and give a performance that makes her every bit as ugly as she looked in Monster. Monster may have earned her an Oscar, but in Young Adult she may have painted her masterpiece. Furthermore, Patton Oswalt is the secret weapon of this film. Not unlike his performance in the little seen Big Fan, he is an absolute revelation as someone who has endured more pain, both physically and emotionally, that any man should bear. I may be overstating a bit because this performance is wildly different than his comic performance, but it’s fantastic nonetheless.

The Curious Case of Jessica Chastain

This original idea for this piece was for me to catch up on and review the three Jessica Chastain performances that didn’t receive as much attention as her portrayals in The Help and Tree of Life. I got through The Debt well enough, but around the halfway point of Take Shelter a different angle occurred to me. It wasn’t until I finished with Coriolanus that the thesis solidified enough  and I decided to roll with that.

First, allow me to give you a brief rundown of the five films that Jessica Chastain was featured in throughout the course of 2011:

The Help: In which she plays a hopelessly inept housewife (suffering) who takes the credit for the food and work of her housekeeper played by Octavia Spencer (In her Oscar-winning role.) I written about this film before: not my favorite.

Tree of Life: In which she plays a 1960’s housewife (suffering). A loving wife and mother whose philosophy on life are the crux of the film’s major themes and lie in stark contrast to the beliefs of her husband (played by Brad Pitt.)

Tangent #1: Once in a blue moon there comes a film that perplexes me so fully that I literally have to watch the film over and over again as a sort of punishment or half-assed attempt to understand it. Mulholland Drive was the last film in which this happened. Tree of Life definitely falls under this category. Needless to say, the brief synopsis is pure conjecture and I feel a little stupid even writing it.

Coriolanus: In which she plays the wife (suffering) of the title character (Ralph Fiennes) and most deal with the fact that her husband’s relationship with his mother is a wee bit (to put it lightly) inappropriate.

Tangent #2: I love Shakespeare. One summer, I obsessively read and in some cases reread every single one of his plays. While, I don’t think this is news to anyone, but it bears repeating: Coriolanus, along with Titus Andronicus, may be the toughest to get through.

Take Shelter: In which she plays the wife (suffering) of a man whose laden schizophrenia is slowly bubbling to the surface.

Tangent #3: Man, Michael Sheen is a fucking great actor. If Michael Fassbender not getting an Oscar nomination for “Shame” was the biggest snub of the year, Sheen’s performance in Take Shelter may be the second biggest.

The Debt: In which she plays the younger version of Helen Mirren, who plays a former Israeli Intelligence Agent who has been keeping a very big secret. Oh yeah, and she’s the long-suffering wife of a fellow Intelligence officer.

Tangent #4: I had higher hopes for this movie, given the cast and the pedigree of the filmmakers behind it (Bill Madden directing, a screenplay by Matthew Vaughn.) It’s a perfectly watchable thriller, however, at about the halfway mark of the film, I found myself manicuring my Amazon wish list (It’s compulsive… I hope I’m not alone.)

Wait for it…read it again…see the pattern.

This may seem like I’m the first guy to knock what has been an extraordinary year for the lady, but I’m not. In fact, it’s just opposite. Looking at the broad strokes, the similarities are certainly there, but what Chastain has done with every performance is simply remarkable. She is able with great subtlety and economy to mine the different shades of the human condition as it pertains to women. While she has essentially played the same role in all five films, she has ranged from electric exuberance to unflinching resolve to extreme pain. If watched in succession, it’s not entirely impossible to think of Chastain’s five performances as one large all-encompassing performance.

With so much heat around her, the possibilities are endless as are the paychecks. At this point, the fork in the road is upon her. Turn one direction and you go by way of Kate Hudson and make one dispensable romantic comedy after another until you whither away into obscurity and are only known for which rock star you are currently fucking. Turn the other direction and co tine to make interesting choices, win a couple of Oscars and transform into the second coming of Meryl Streep. Selfishly, I hope she chooses the latter. I realize that’s a high bar to set, but after a year like the one Ms. Chastain had, it’s hard not to see it coming. In 2011, Ms. Chastain may very well have painted her masterpiece, what will she do for an encore?

Replay of Cinema Recon LIVE!

We just wrapped our live Cinema Recon broadcast of the 84th Annual Academy Awards! We started right on time at 4:00pst and powered all the way through until nearly 5 hours later, when The Artist was announced as the 2011 Best Picture!

Thank you so much to everyone who tuned in and participated in our first big live event! We had such a great time putting on the live show, we’d love to do another as soon as possible. It will course always comes down to what the listeners (now viewers!) want, so if you liked this show, please drop us a line and tell us what you thought!

Didn’t catch the show? Wanna listen again? You can view the epic Cinema Recon 2012 Oscar commentary below!

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The Oscars 2012 part 1

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Cinema Recon’s LIVE Oscar Event!

It will be a red carpet affair this February 26th (This Sunday!) @ 4:00 PST at the Cinema Recon Studios in San Ramon!  Join us for a special episode where we will bring you our commentary of the 84th Annual Academy Awards LIVE and uninterrupted!

Watching us is easier than you can possibly imagine!  Do you have a computer?  Do you have a TV?  Then you’re ready to invite Cinema Recon into your living room for Oscar night! (Disclaimer: If you do not have a computer OR a TV, we are sorry, but we don’t want poor people listening to our show)

Here’s everything you need to know:

  • You can watch us LIVE on by going here during the event
  • Or, you can watch LIVE on our Ustream channel by going here during the event
  • Paul, Jake, Cassie and Billy will be ranting and raving continuously through the entire event, even during the commercials!
  • There is about a 3 second delay between our broadcast and what you will hear/see, so we recommend pausing your DVR for a couple of seconds to sync up our banter with the Awards
  • Don’t wanna watch us all by your lonesome??  Come on over to the Cinema Recon Studios: San Ramon!  We will trade hilarity for beer!

See you this Sunday!!

For Your Consideration: A Separation

Note to the Reader: I do not feel sufficiently informed about Iran and its population to accurately depict everything this movie is trying to say, but here goes nothing.

A man and a woman, married and living in Iran, state their cases to an offscreen mediator. The woman wants a divorce. She has worked diligently to obtain visas for her and her husband so they can take their 11-year-old daughter out of the country. The husband’s father has Alzheimer’s and can’t leave he can’t leave him in such a condition. The woman wants a better life for a her daughter, but she can’t take her daughter with her without her husband’s permission. The mediator rules that the woman doesn’t have good reason to divorce her husband and tells them to work it out. There is no Due Process and no appeals. This is the mediator’s ruling and she must live with it.

A Separation is a film about a family living in a culture and a country that is in transition. They live in a culture of absolutes that is crashing into a world where there is anything but. Technology is casting an ever-widening net and information has become more readily available. With the proliferation of information comes education and with education comes a sense of freedom, unknown to many only a few years before. In Iran, a largely muslim nation, the outside world’s sphere of influence is seeping into the culture. The country is desperately trying to hold onto some semblance of the Old World, but the ball is already speeding downhill. Hard questions about the very nature of their society are being asked. The roles of men and women, once indoctrinated and impenetrable, are changing more and more each day. Even their religion, which was once the guiding force of their lives and their moral compass has become pliable as they try to reconcile what they were forced to believe and what they have come to learn for themselves.

To say that A Separation is purely about a tectonic shift in culture would be a an injustice to film. In truth it’s about so much more. About half way through the film the shifts gears into something very different from what you set out watching. It would be a crime to give anything away, but it’s riveting to be sure. Not only does the second half of the film reinforce the thesis of the film, but calls into question the idea of what truth is and shows the path of destruction left in wake of mankind’s propensity for extreme hubris.*

A Separation is the odds on favorite to take home the Best Foreign Film Academy Award and it’s easy to see why. It is an important, intense piece of film making. Unfolding like a morality play in an alternate universe. It takes place in a world we know, in a time that feels familiar. But, as the film progresses the subtle differences shine through and we realize just how great the divide is between the world I know as an American and the world as depicted in the film.**

*I apologize for the flowery language, but this post was a bitch to write.

**It needed to be written though. It’s a good goddamn movie.

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