Sunday, August 24, 2014

Film Reviews: August 24, 2014

Here is a summary of the films reviewed on today's show:

In an odd way, The Giver is an example of the very thing that the novel was railing against; this is a high profile feature film that attempts to commoditize and capitalize something ephemeral and emotional, forcing a complex text into the box of a mass market young adult movie adaptation. The result is cold, flat, and plastic.

The bar for the Expendables movies is low but somehow the filmmakers of the third (and hopefully last) installment have managed to limbo under it. It’s amazing that an action film written, starring and produced by the director of Rambo and the bulk of the Rocky series could fail this spectacularly.

What If is a fine picture. It does not break much new ground and it is ultimately a routine walkthrough of the romantic comedy formula but it’s done with such humor and has such great characters that its makers are able to overcome their reliance on conventions.

Let’s Be Cops is a better movie than its advertising campaign lets on. The movie has credible characters and a story that mostly comes together. It also manages to be a little subversive, even if the filmmakers dull that edge in their efforts to make the film more commercial.

Joe is a film that didn’t get much of a theatrical release but it deserves to be more widely seen now that it is available for home viewing. This film has a gritty style and some terrific performances, giving rising star Tye Sheridan a chance to shine and allowing Nicolas Cage to remind us why he became a star.

Remember you can find full text of every review featured on Sounds of Cinema at the review archive.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Remembering Robin Williams

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema featured a look back at the career of Robin Williams, who passed away on August 11, 2014. As an actor, his career was uneven, with very good titles offset by some very bad ones. But unlike a lot of other comics who made the transition to the silver screen, Robin Williams was a terrific actor and he did drama and comedy equally well. In time most of his lesser works will fade away and what we will be left with are some extraordinary films and performances.

Robin Williams was born in 1951 in Chicago and grew up in Illinois, Michigan, and later in California. After high school he attended Claremont McKenna College but left when he was awarded a scholarship to attend Julliard School in New York City, where his classmates included actors Christopher Reeve and William Hurt. Williams never finished his studies at Julliard and dropped out in his junior year to pursue work in standup comedy.

Williams began performing standup in the mid-1970s. His appearances attracted the attention of TV producer George Schlatter who recruited Williams to appear on a reboot of Laugh-In in 1977. Although Laugh-In wasn’t a big success, his appearance on that show as well as his live stand up work caught the attention of the producers of the television show Happy Days. They had a special episode in mind in which Fonzie (Henry Winkler) met an alien named Mork. With Williams in the guest star role, the interaction between Fonzie and Mork was television gold and led to the spinoff sitcom series Mork and Mindy, which premiered in 1982 and aired for four seasons. This show turned Robin Williams into a star.

After making his big screen debut in Robert Altman's Popeye in 1980, Robin Williams' was cast as the lead in 1982’s The World According to Garp. Based on the novel by John Irving, Williams plays an aspiring writer who has a complicated relationship with his mother and her friends and acquaintances.  This film is uneven but the role offered an early indication of Williams’ potential as an actor. Although he was a comic genius on the stage, most of Williams’ greatest cinematic performances were primarily in dramatic roles.

Following his role in The World According to Garp in 1982, Robin Williams continued to get work as an actor but he was cast in mostly forgettable movies like Moscow on the Hudson (1984) and Club Paradise (1986).  Although his film work at this point wasn’t especially impressive, Williams continued to perform on stage including several televised standup comedy specials and regular appearances on television talk shows. This was where Robin Williams really made his mark. The free form style of standup played to Williams’ strengths as a performer and allowed him to unleash his associative, fast paced, and anarchic comic style. This standup work cultivated Robin Williams’ public image as an unpredictable and subversive comedic force and that set the stage for him to give the performance in the film that, above all others, defines and encapsulates his talents: Good Morning Vietnam.

If Robin Williams’ filmography had to be condensed to a single motion picture, Good Morning, Vietnam is it. The first half of the movie showcases his comedy and, if it’s not obvious from the movie itself, much of Williams’ on-air bits were of the actor’s own making. The comedy of Robin Williams is most widely recognized for its maniacal energy and free association but there is another critical aspect to his style and it’s very important to Good Morning, Vietnam. Williams’ comedy possessed a dark undercurrent. He regularly made his own struggles with depression and substance abuse a part of his act and in this movie he is able to take the war that is going on just out of sight—and is gradually creeping closer to the radio station—and puts a comic spin on it. Although the first half of Good Morning, Vietnam is quite funny and even though the movie is frequently categorized as a comedy, it features a stunning reversal in its second half as Adrian Cronauer faces the devastation of the war. After this reversal, Robin Williams is called upon to deliver a performance in the second half of the movie that is as dramatic as the first half was humorous and the actor does that by conveying a tremendous amount of pathos without resorting to sentimentality. As Cronauer, Robin Williams plays a moral person in a situation where moral distinctions are blurred. It’s that juxtaposition and entanglement of comedy and tragedy that makes Good Morning, Vietnam the essential Robin Williams feature film.

Following the success of Good Morning, Vietnam, Robin Williams had a series of dramatic roles during the late 1980s and early 90s that constitute some of his best work including his performances in 1990’s Awakenings and 1991’s The Fisher King. Among this run of dramatic roles, most iconic was his portrayal of English professor John Keating in 1989’s Dead Poets Society. Williams played a poetry instructor whose passion and unorthodox teaching style puts him at odds with school administration while inspiring his students. The movie is more than a little sentimental but it’s also a favorite among Williams’ fans and in news reports of his death it was one of the titles most frequently sampled. The fact that the movie earned nearly $100 million domestically in 1989 is extraordinary when you remember that it’s a movie about poetry.

Throughout the 1990s Robin Williams’ career turned another corner and he became a fixture of family movies. Throughout the decade he had parts in movies like Hook, Aladdin, Ferngully, Toys, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Jumanji. Critical reactions to these movies were mixed but they were extremely profitable. At the time it seemed strange that a performer who had worked on such prestigious films as Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poet’s Society and whose humor was often very blue would work on what were disparagingly regarded as kid’s films. But in retrospect Williams’ involvement makes perfect sense. Even in his later years, Robin Williams had a youthful vitality and a rebellious comic sense that was perfect for a young audience. In the wake of Williams’ death, Salon columnist Daniel D’Addario wrote that Robin Williams was one of the most important figures in the childhood of the millennial generation.

Among the many family films that Robin Williams participated in, one of the most popular was his role as the genie in Disney’s Aladdin. This particular film stands out not only among Williams’ family pictures but among his filmography as a whole. There was an inherent conundrum to Robin Williams’ acting career. He was at his best when he was allowed to improvise but filmmaking generally does not allow for that and the craft requires actors to hit their marks and stay within the boundaries of the script. Those restrictions, combined with Williams’ tendency to overwhelm his fellow performers, sometimes held the actor back. With Aladdin, Williams voiced a character who was able to bend with the actor’s riffs and many critics have remarked that animation was the only form that was able to keep up with his talents.  

When Robin Williams wasn’t making family movies he was generally either doing standup shows or he was in dramas in which he played sensitive professionals as in Awakenings and Dead Poets Society. However, Williams also had the capacity to play villainous characters. Supposedly he lobbied for the role of The Joker in 1989’s Batman, although that part ultimately went to Jack Nicholson. Williams had just a few villainous role in his career but they were distinguished and coincidentally all were in films released in 2002. In the black comedy Death to Smoochy, Robin Williams starred opposite Edward Norton as competitive hosts of a children’s television program. He was also cast as a murder suspect in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia and that same year he played an obsessive film developer in One Hour Photo. Williams’ work on One Hour Photo would be one of the most praised of his career. Although this foray into villainy was limited, it’s another indication of Robin Williams’ impressive range as an actor.

One of Robin Williams last great roles came in his collaboration with Bobcat Goldthwait in 2009's World's Greatest Dad. The film channels several of Williams' previous films including Good Morning, Vietnam, Death to Smoochy, and Dead Poets Society but as disjointed as that combination sounds the film works as an audacious black comedy. The taboo subject matter was indicative of Williams' willingness to take creative risks.

Comedians are not generally recognized by the Hollywood awards circuit unless they circumvent their comic image and play a dramatic role. Robin Williams had been alternately taking roles in comedic and dramatic films for his entire career so it was not a tremendous surprise when he took on the role of a psychologist in 1998’s Good Will Hunting. The role was not altogether different from parts he had played before in movies like Awakenings and Dead Poets Society but Williams’ fame helped shine a light on a movie that audiences might otherwise have passed on. The film was one of the most celebrated projects of Robin Williams’ career and he was given an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

In his final years, Robin Williams was involved in work of all kinds from vocal performances in the Happy Feet movies to sitcom work on The Crazy Ones to dramatic roles in The Butler as well as packing auditoriums with his standup comedy shows. In life, and now in memory, he remains one of the most iconic and singular talents in the history of Hollywood.

Since news of his death went public there has been a tremendous show of grief from those who knew him and from those who appreciated his work. Robin Williams was one of the greats and the outpouring of tributes from such a wide swath of voices is a testament to that greatness. Along with Charlie Chaplin, Williams was the essential tragic clown and his ability as a comic to make audiences laugh at the troubles of our lives, including the violence and madness of the world, as well as his ability as an actor to imbue his characters with such pathos and empathy, made him a rare talent. His work was a paradoxical combination of caustic anarchism and emphatic humanism. The connection that audiences had with Williams was due—at least in part—to his acknowledgement of the pain that is inherent to being alive. Robin Williams’ death was so devastating to so many because he was able to take that pain and turn it into laughter.

Robin Williams is gone and the world feels less funny without him. But while mourning the loss is appropriate, lives ought to be judged upon what’s left behind. In Robin Williams’ case he’s left us an impressive body of work, much of which is destined to last the test of time. And in that sense, the joy that Robin Williams brought as a comic, an actor, and a performer is immortal and will outlive our own transitory pain.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Film Reviews: August 3, 2014

Here is a summary of the films reviewed on today's show:

Hercules is a compromised picture. Pieces of this film hint that it could have been much better but this year’s other Hercules movie proves that it could have been much worse. Ultimately, the filmmakers tried to create a fun popcorn adventure and this Hercules succeeds at being exactly that.

Lucy is not a great movie but it’s so weird and executed with such energy and creativity that it mostly overcomes the flaws of its storytelling and its many lapses in credibility. Lucy may befuddle mainstream audiences and annoy serious science fiction viewers but it’s also poised to amass a cult following.

Miral is a flawed movie but it is deserving of some distinction simply based on the fact that its filmmakers approach a fraught topic with intelligence and sensitivity. There aren’t many movies about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Miral takes the bold step of suggesting how it might be dealt with in feature films.

Full reviews can be found in the Sounds of Cinema review archive.