Friday, August 30, 2013

The Spectacular Now and The World's End

     From the Beginning to the End … and Back Again


              Review by Ken Burke      The Spectacular Now

A familiar-enough teenage romance, but there’s more substance (as well as substance abuse) in this one as the class clown and a quiet nerd find solace in each other.
          
                                                               The World's End
         
What begins as a pub-crawl by middle-agers attempting to resurrect their youth turns into a sci-fi alien/robot invasion comedy/action flick that’s too crazy not to appreciate.

[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews.  This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.

We also encourage you to check your tastes against ours with the summary of Two Guys reviews, which we update with each new posting.  But please be aware that the links we recommend in our reviews may have been removed or modified without our knowledge.  Other overall notations for this blog may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage.  Now, onward to illumination; you may want to protect your eyes from the brilliance.]

Carpe diem is from an ancient Latin poem by Horace (from the final years of the BC era), usually translated as “seize the day” (and celebrated as such in Dead Poet’s Society [Peter Wier, 1989]) while in a similar manner “living in the present” is a goal of many spiritual traditions that encourage us to make the most of each part of every aspect of today so as to move ourselves into a better, more-carefully-considered, more-fulfilling tomorrow.  However, our two films under consideration this week focus on a less-than-enthralling version of those concepts which amounts to simply “embrace the now”—not  because it helps you more clearly understand the deep mysteries of the universe still to be unmasked or to help you fully feel the power of the vast cosmos around you in order to get better in touch with the fundamental essence of life—but simply to soak up all the hedonistic pleasure you can grab in every moment of your existence as a means of justifying that existence to yourself or maybe just immunizing yourself to the challenges that life offers if we want to move beyond hedonism into something more mature, more fulfilling than getting drunk and/or high every day simply as a means of postponing the inevitable, whether that means the demands of obligation-centered society or simply learning something about ourselves that better justifies our lives than finding an empty bottle next to our faces when we finally wake up the next day.  The first of these cinematic explorations is James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now, which might be easy to dismiss as yet-another-teenage-coming-of-age story (because at its base level that’s all it is) if it weren’t so honestly written (an adaptation of Tim Tharp’s novel to the screenplay by Scott Neustradter and Michael H. Weber—the team that won a good number of writing awards for 500 Days of Summer [Marc Webb, 2009], another delightful romance with inherent problems for the participants) and enchantingly acted by its leads, Miles Teller as Sutter Keely and Shailene Woodley as Aimee Finecky (who, despite her name, isn’t finicky at all where Sutter is concerned but instead quickly responds to his advances because she’s as easily charmed by his carefree attitudes as is almost anyone else in their social circle), a loveable-but-unrespected class clown and a sweet-but-almost-invisible girl who rise above their own sense of inadequacies (admitted or not), the negotiated levels of support they get from their parents, and the dismissive attitudes of their peers to discover that’s there’s something substantial in their relationship, even when Sutter finds himself questioning whether he’s worthy of it.  

Sutter would welcome short-term memory loss because there’s nothing he feels he needs added to his existing repertoire of casual attitudes, smooth talk, and whisky-enhanced-jumbo-sized Thirst Master sodas (at least until he can get to a nighttime party somewhere in order to ingest a wider variety of stimulants or depressants—none of which seem to be even marginally difficult to obtain for this town’s teenagers, a situation that I don’t doubt is accurate for today but it’s so far removed from my relatively-innocent high school years [1963-1966] in summer-tourist-deluged Galveston, TX as to seem even beyond the realm of fiction, but if today’s kids can get access to this much “diversion” and still survive into adult life then more power to them, I guess), although he’d love to reunite with his luscious ex-girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), who’s moved on from Sutter’s “who needs tomorrow?” attitude to someone with better ambition and foresight, star athlete and class president Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi).  Sutter barely knows that Aimee exists until he wakes up from an especially-intense-breakup-driven-bender on a lawn where she’s delivering morning newspapers but then soon finds himself attracted to her decency, honesty, and desire-to-achieve aspirations (her ultimate goal after college is to work for NASA), helped along by mutual distain for their respective mothers (we hear Aimee’s mom carping at her off-screen but with Sutter we get the marvelous-but-toned-down-from-exhaustingly-working-multiple-shifts-at-the-local-hospital Jennifer Jason Leigh [sadly not seen enough by me in recent years in movie theatres, but she has kept herself busy in TV series Weeds and Revenge so ignorance of her career is no excuse on my part]) who ride tight herd on their offspring.

We get the easy understanding that Aimee’s mother is just a controlling bitch (who does things such as require her daughter to do the bulk of the work on the paper route while Mom collects most of the income), but with Leigh’s Sara the situation is a lot more complex (and reminds me of my own hassles with my mother back in Galveston who seemed to impose a lot more control on me than I cared to tolerate, only to find out years later that there was a lot of crime back in my home town in those days that I was completely unaware of so her constant check-in-with-me-every-time-you-change-locations wasn’t as anal as I assumed but more for my protection, although it was never explained to me as such until decades had passed) because what she’s trying to do is protect her son from his long-lost father (Kyle Chandler), who doesn’t live extremely far away in their native Georgia but whom she sees as a bad influence on her son because of his similar celebrate-the-now-ways (including infidelity) and seeming inability to provide any sort of reasonable role model for his son, given proof when Sutter and Aimee take a journey to locate him only to find that after a bit of terse conversation over a pitcher of beer that he slinks off with his latest girlfriend, leaving them hanging for the rest of the night (upon realizing this they drive back home to Sutter’s utter disgust), thereby convincing Sutter that his destiny is to be this type of bone-headed jerk, which encourages him to push Aimee away for her own good, finalized by his not showing up at the bus station when she goes away to college in Philadelphia, apparently rejecting her endless devotion to him despite his obvious flaws (even as a teenager she seems to personify what Willie Nelson and the late Waylon Jennings sang about long ago in “Good Hearted Woman,” which you can find a live version of at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNHg_dUSeMs, recorded in Nashville on May 15, 1987 [with a backup band that includes Chet Atkins, Mark Knopfler, Phil & Don Everly, Michael McDonald, and Emmy Lou Harris]).  Sutter is now all-too-well-aware that Dad’s “live-for-the-pleasure-of-the (spectacular, although Dad wouldn’t likely use such a high-priced word)-now” philosophy is what alienated his mother, lurks as a destructive aspect in him, and has manifested itself for far too long in his role as “good-time Charlie” among his senior class.  (Which is why I’d recommend as an appropriate musical interlude—as is my inclination—for this film the great America song “Ventura Highway” [from the 1972 Homecoming album], where the lead singer/character is trying to convince down-and-out Joe to follow him away from their dismal Waiting for Godot-type landscape [this play, written by the incomparable Samuel Becket, is soon to come to Broadway again with X-Men extraordinaire Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in repertory with Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land—also co-starring Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley in each work–so catch both if you can; more info at http://www.mckellen.com/stage/godot/broadway-2013/index.htm among other sources; I saw No Man’s Land in Berkeley recently and was astounded by the unmatched quality of both the writing and the acting] to a paradise where “the days are longer, the nights are stronger than moonshine,” an attitude that personifies what Sutter is trying to realize in The Spectacular Now even as Aimee and most everyone else in Sutter’s world is saying “Thanks a lot, son, just the same” as they look not to eternal escape but an acknowledgement of the realities they must face/accept/transcend rather than just assume that every day can be floated through in some level of drunken revelry.  A most pleasing visually-enhanced version of “Ventura Highway” illustrating the Pacific-coast-countryside-area can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7RbvGllJGxw but if you’d prefer a live version of the original 3 musicians—Gerry Beckley, Dewey Bunnell, Dan Peek—all born of British mothers while their American military fathers were stationed in England but then with time in the U.S. during later deployment, here’s a 1975 live performance at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQCjHC0m54E or if you’d prefer a more recent one after Peek left the group here’s a live version from September 2012 in Chicago at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFeUZxTry_A).  For far too long Sutter has lived each day assuming that “the free wind is blowin’ through [his] hair,” watching in delight for those “alligator lizards in the air” (based on cloud formations seen by Bunnell as a boy when his dad was stationed at Vandenberg AFB, in the general direction of Ventura), assuming that his charm and enthusiasm will bring him easily from one day to the next unchanging one.

But by the end of his largely-self-satisfied high-school career he begins to realize that the glory of day-by-day living is a slim platform to build a future on, especially when he comes to understand that such a hedonistic approach to life has left his father with little life to be satisfied with, his mother with a bitter attitude toward such constant irresponsibility, and Aimee despondent because of his self-imposed alienation from her as he finally acknowledges that his reckless behavior is a terrible incompatibility for the future she’s planned for herself, leaving him little hope of being part of it unless he can restructure his worldview to allow himself to be less of the “joke” image that Marcus confronts him with, although in a helpful rather than condescending manner (further, Sutter needs to justify to himself, if he can, that Aimee now gleefully swigs from her own flask—a graduation present from Sutter—and gives herself body and soul to him, a responsibility that he both accepts and is uncomfortable with). As my insightful wife Nina (it’s been awhile since I worked a mention of her into these reviews, yet another failing on my part) notes, it’s not that likely that someone as young and developmentally-inexperienced as Sutter would be able to see his way clear to a major revision of his outlook in just a few weeks (as opposed to a few years that would likely be marked by substance abuse, other failed relationships, and a lot of back-and-forth-battles with Mom over her restrictive approach to his ultimate encounter with Dad), but for fiction’s sake that’s what we get here as our sincerely-evolving protagonist finally understands that there’s more to his future than days-on-end-of-whiskey-spiked-sodas, that Cassidy truly cares for him but refuses to limit her own ambitions for a life beyond the restricted territory of her youth by getting too involved with a guy who’s headed for adolescent retread well into middle-age (if not beyond), and that refusing to get out of his comfort zone in order to make an effort to build something viable with Aimee is a huge waste of a potentially-fruitful future (she’s been willing from the beginning to “let go [her] heart, let go [her] head” in order to navigate even the roughest seas that Sutter prefers to sail into, just because she genuinely cares for him that much [and if you can stand a little more music at this point, I might as well cap off the case for Aimee’s devotion with David Gray’s “Babylon”—at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4hAE2ueGOpE—because it speaks so well to the realization that free-spirit-to-his-own-detriment Sutter finally comes to by the end of The Spectacular Now, as he gets over himself and follows Aimee to Philly where at least their young-adult hopes can get a fair exploration, even if they’re not meant to stay together beyond the eye-and-mind-opening challenges of freshman year in college).  As I’ve noted before, The Spectacular Now is potentially just another in an endless series of adolescent-themed dramas about how hard it is to move beyond our teenaged-inexperienced-but-cocky assumptions that satisfactory pleasure is ours for the taking (a common high-school attitude, often informed by far-too-little lived life and far too much of the “great” knowledge imparted by 18 years of artificially-constructed mass media messages and then just as often shot down to earth by the slings and arrows of outrageous young-adult fortunes, as articulated so marvelously in both The Graduate [Mike Nichols, 1967] and American Graffiti [George Lucas, 1973]), but the powerful embrace of the main protagonists’ roles by Teller and Woodley (along with excellent supporting work from everyone else in the cast) takes this example of wistful “Oh-to-be-young-again” situations into the realm of “I’ve actually been there/I could be one of those characters/this is all too accurate on how uncool we really were at 18 while acting like nothing could stop us from ruling the world” recognitions, allowing us to acknowledge the cute-but-unjustified-bravado of Sutter, the too-accepting-for-her-own-good-willingness-to-accommodate weakness in Aimee, and the self-aware-yet-scared-self-protective-stance of Cassidy as realities that these characters know deep down inside but would prefer not to own until circumstances force their hands, giving us further reason to appreciate the depth of these still-in-process people and the hard lessons they have to learn for themselves, reflective of similar encounters that many of us likely have experienced with a bit more distance from high-school graduation ceremonies.

The Spectacular Now still has a bit of the dreamy romantic hopefulness that allowed earlier audiences to feel confident that life beyond our home towns offered opportunities for growth, even if only Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) of all of his graduating ensemble was willing to seize the chance to transcend his local environment in American Graffiti, and that later life beyond college might also offer a chance to break loose from the expected directions of our upbringing, as shown in the dramatic conquest of the status quo in The Graduate.  But just as Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) and Elaine (Katharine Ross) ended their cinematic journey with troubled faces on a city bus, having no clue as to what was to come next for them nor useful skills or strategies as to how to deal with their now-unanchored-lives, Sutter and Aimee have no guarantee that their adolescent love will survive even the first confrontation of him having to find a livelihood in a city where her short-term future is set in place; hopefully, love will keep them together, but even if it doesn’t they’ve been willing to give fully of themselves to each other at a time in their lives when “now’ becomes connected to “will be” in their intentions, even though passing fancies of other romances or enticing career opportunities might easily rend them asunder, so we give them the encouraging benefit of the doubt and wonder if maybe they could return in an Up (Michael Apted’s project of following the lives of 14 Brits since 1964 when the subjects were 7 years old through a group of 8 films—so far—the most recent released in 2012) or Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight (Richard Linklater; 1995, 2004, 2013) fashion in a few years so that we can see what’s become of them.  That may be considerably more than any of the filmmakers or cast had in mind, but let me just put this out there that somewhere in the next 8 years (to split the 7- and 9-year gaps employed in the previous series noted above) it would be great to revisit Sutter and Aimee to see how they're evolving and whether their future “now” remains as so spectacular.

The “now” for Gary King (Simon Pegg) in The World’s End (Edgar Wright) sadly hasn’t changed a bit over the last couple of decades as the main goal in his alcohol-focused life is to get his old schoolmates together to return to their hometown of Newton Haven, England to conquer “The Golden Mile” challenge of a pint in each of the town’s 12 pubs (The First Post, The Old Familiar, The Famous Cock, the Cross Hands, The Good Companions, The Trusty Servant, The Two Headed Dog, The Mermaid, The Beehive, The King’s Head, The Hole in the Wall, and The World’s End) before passing out (they made it only through #9 on their previous attempt—June 22, 1990, leaving Gary unfulfilled in the way that only a rowdy man-child can be, as chronological and mental age continue to diverge throughout his “adulthood”).  In this photo the group has been re-assembled after a good bit of encouragement, conniving, and just plain lying by Gary (especially the part about this adventure being some sort of tribute to his dead mother—whose demise has been exaggerated as part of Gary’s strategy, causing discord among the questers later into the evening at a point where they’ve got more than enough troubles already), so from left we have real-estate agent Oliver Chamberlain (Martin Freeman), construction foreman Steven Prince (Paddy Considine), Gary, lawyer Andy Knightly (Nick Frost), and car salesman Peter Page (Eddie Marsan) off on the start of their attempt to realize Gary’s obsessive dream even though none of the rest of them are particularly keen on the concept, with Andy the biggest dissenter of all given that he’s been sober for 16 years, while carrying a grudge against Gary for past sins (Gary’s response to Andy’s decision to drink tap water at the pubs shows an equal amount of distain, that anyone would choose “f***in’ rain” over beer).  For those of you familiar with the previous collaborations of Wright, Pegg, and Frost—Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007), neither of which I’ve seen, believe it or not, but if they’re as funny as this one then I’ve got to catch up—The World’s End completes the so-called “Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy” (based on the appearance of wrappers from different types of this British ice-cream treat in each of the zany films), although neither the plot nor the characters here are carryovers from the previous works.  Of course, if this were merely a film about an over-aged kid trying to hang on to his youth while gleefully surrendering any hint of sobriety it could easily lend itself to the types of moral lessons embedded within the comedy and romance of The Spectacular Now; that’s not the case here because: (a) the comedy aspects are a lot broader so that even the essential final moral lesson about personal freedom comes off as more satire than life-lesson, (b) as we’ll see later in this exploration Gary seemingly learns little about life or maturing as he retains his Golden-Mile-conquest vision even after events that give new meaning to the descriptor “life-changing,” and (c) while the pub-crawl journey remains front and center in Gary’s mind throughout the entire narrative the real task here is for our protagonists to escape Newton Haven (certainly not a gathering place for intellects as refined as Isaac Newton’s if these 5 are indicative of the local I.Q.) alive, given that the town has been taken over by aliens and robot-facsimiles of the local residents.  Based on what I’ve now read of the previous Wright/Pegg/Frost collaborations I wouldn’t have expected anything less off-the-wall than this turn of events, but it does throw the film into completely different territory than the opening premise would lead us to believe about these 5 men simply trying to have a beer-rich night on the town.

Just to liven things up a bit further before the all-out human-robot war explodes we’re also introduced to Sam (Rosamund Pike), Ollie’s sister who has long been the desired mate of Steve, but his hopes of connecting with her have always been interrupted because she had sex with Gary on the long-ago night of the previous attempt at the Golden Mile, causing some animosity between her and the rest of her brother’s mates and a lingering reluctance to be around Gary (who wouldn’t mind having another go with her, no matter her mood).  As our intrepid “heroes” finally come to accept that somehow the familiar faces in Newton Haven have been replaced with android versions of the local populace (although they’re not as fully-“fleshed”-out as the type of androids we’d know from such sci-fi classics as Blade Runner [Ridley Scott, 1982] and The Terminator movies [beginning with James Cameron directing the first one in 1984] as we learn when Gary breaks one of their “skulls,” only to find it empty except for the outer shell, but they do have the consciousness—or a selective version of such—of the humans they’ve replaced so they’re not just mechanical task-assigned robots either, a term that these replacements—who do seem to understand their artificial existence and its characteristics—reject as meaning “slaves,” so Gary and crew end up calling them “blanks” [as in “fill in the …” when they can’t come up with an appropriate word], a term which goes global by the film’s final scenes), they also convince Sam (especially after she has a nasty physical encounter with a pair of twin “blanks,” who, like the ones encountered by Gary’s group, don’t want their secret to get out so they turn vicious on anyone who discovers and/or challenges them, a situation you don’t really want to be in because of their strength and resilience [after their limbs have been severed they seem to have the capacity to reattach them, just as they can remain mobile and aggressive even if their heads have been destroyed so it takes a complete annihilation to “terminate” any of them]).  Initially, Gary just wants Sam to escape which she does, but when she comes back to retrieve any of them still alive (through some deduction we learn that Ollie and Peter have been replaced with their surface appearances remaining the same in their new “blanks” because they’ve been “cloned” from the originals’ DNA to cover the seemingly flexible ceramic bodies, with blue fluid replacing blood, that the alien invaders have produced so as to keep the town stocked for normal appearances to the outside world as the cosmic invaders prepare for the subjugation of the whole human race, a project in place—coincidentally—since the night of the 1990 pub crawl attempt by Gary and company).  And what becomes of the human bodies, you ask?  That leads us to Soylent Green (Richard Fletcher, 1973) concepts, but there the title compound was the remains of people exterminated because of over-population and peddled clandestinely as nutritious food but in The World’s End the bodies are simply turned into agricultural mulch.

The situation in Newton Haven seems to lead us into Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956; Phillip Kaufman, 1978) territory, only these aliens didn’t originally intend to replace us, merely to convince us that living by their harmonious standards would be an improvement over our current condition; however, given that by the time the “blanks” are discovered during Gary’s night out with the boys only 3 actual humans remain in Newton Haven (the only ones who’ve attempted to cooperate in order to retain their organic existences) we find ourselves more in the domain of The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951; Scott Derrickson, 2008) where superior aliens have taken it upon themselves to conform us to their standards or else.  When Gary, Andy, and Steve finally find themselves at The World’s End they realize it’s the home base of the invaders who try to persuade our frantic warriors to stop smashing up the “blanks” and accept their offer of a tranquil lifestyle; they even tempt Gary and his survivors with the chance to live in eternal youth as “blank” versions of their younger selves with carefully-edited implanted memories of only the aspects of their lives that have given them pleasure.  Gary and his guys are having none of it, though, with a contemporary version of a “give me liberty or give me death” speech which, for some odd reason, frustrates the aliens enough to simply abandon Earth and give up their intention of taming our aggressive species, so they depart with a fury that levels Newton Haven just as Gary, Andy, Steve, and Sam escape the city limits (similar destructive departures happen all over the planet, where this infiltration has been in process ever since Gary’s group finished high school, destroying our electromagnetic-based technologies and plunging us into a contemporary version of the Dark Ages—a result similar to the outcome of Escape from L.A. [John Carpenter, 1996]).  Time passes and we end with Andy sitting with a group around a campfire explaining how the calamity happened, Sam and Steve finally together, and Gary leading the “blank” versions of his 4 friends into the remains of The First Post to attempt again the Golden Mile march, only to find that “blanks” aren’t welcome in human gatherings so they’re going to have to fight to get themselves served even though all they want is tap water (Gary’s finally gone on the wagon but he hasn’t lost his aggression, which did serve him well during his night of confrontation with Newton Haven’s “blanks”).  So, to great comic effect, Gary’s still stuck in 1990 consciousness no matter what the actual year is, a consciousness that continues to indulge in the “spectacular now,” even as he makes a mighty stand against overpowering forces to argue for “freedom,” although the only thing he seems to be free to do is indulge his primal needs even in his advancing years (at least Sutter Keely could claim adolescence as an excuse).

There’s nothing to get worked up about here, though, because The World’s End is clearly not intended to do more than throw us into increasingly-crazier situations with the goal of enjoying well-trained comic actors throw themselves into whatever extreme response is required (and Frost as Andy throws himself quite heartily into combat with the “blanks,” especially after he abandons sobriety in the face of annihilation—although his impassioned attempt to keep Gary from having that last pint at The World’s End in order to fight his obsessions and focus on more reasonable pursuits—such as getting the hell out of Newton Haven—seems as off-kilter as much of the rest of the supposed “message” of this film, especially given that he waits until Gary’s hand is on the tap handle in the last pub before offering his intervention [turns out it didn’t matter, as all that came of Gary’s decision to pour the pint anyway is no beer but instead a descent to below-floor-level where the final confrontation with the aliens occurs].  Clearly, this film is more about comedy than contemplation (even to the point of the replaced humans literally being empty-headed), although if you choose to ponder the possibilities raised there’s a discussion to be had as to whether the better life is one where you’re free to make all the mistakes available to you in hopes that something decent will emerge (as with Sam and Steve finally getting together or Andy’s troubled marriage improving after the catastrophe) or whether you can really be happier with a streamlined version of yourself—purged of all your traumas and regrets—operating within a mechanical “body” shell in a state of perpetual existence where you never age and are always surrounded by entities that you’re familiar and comfortable with (a position embraced by the “blanks,” and well-articulated by the Gary group’s well-satisfied former teacher, Guy Shepherd [Pierce Brosnan]; some might say it's the ultimate "spectacular now," but that's what the debate—if any—is all about).  This choice may seem like a no-brainer (or modified-brainer, where “blanks” are concerned), but stop laughing and drinking for a minute and think about it:  There may be much more to this decision that the blunt options imply, or, at least, the concept gives you something interesting to discuss with your mates when you start drinking again.  While you’re considering that conceptual conundrum, I’ll wrap up on my usual musical note by offering the rather-obvious “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” by R.E.M. from their 1987 Document album (I know I just used this in my review of This Is the End [Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg], posted on June 20, 2013, but it was a likely choice then as well as now and I’ve got a new link for you at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oIdPPVkkHYs illustrated with clips from various disaster movies).  Of course, if you just want obvious in spades then I’ll close with Willie Nelson’s “Whiskey River” (actually written by Johnny Bush but made famous by Willie with the 1973 Shotgun Willie album and countless live performances), dedicated to Gary King, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W_6Sugn4cvY (this version runs 5:29; you can find shorter options, but I prefer the longer ones that give all of the musicians more time to show their wares).  If you’re drinking along with Gary and Willie (well, maybe toking along is more appropriate if you’re on Willie’s bus) I’ll leave it to you if you prefer to freeze-dry the dreams and mindset of your youth or whether you favor joining in with Sutter and Andy in search of the ever-evolving challenges of adult (not adulterous; that brings us back full-circle to Sutter’s dad) life.  I’m choosing to plunge ahead to the unknown (to paraphrase my long-suffering mother [who was plagued by backaches and Democrats]—and I’m repeating myself here from a previous review as well—“I didn’t lose a thing in Galveston” [that I need to go back for])—but I will have a couple of drinks first before attempting to confront my personal “blanks,” the never-yielding software of Google Blogspot.


If you’d like to know more about The Spectacular Now here are some suggested links:



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1EY390s-CQY (27:40 min. interview with actors Miles Teller and Shailaine Woodley)



If you’d like to know more about The World’s End here are some suggested links.



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yi2laDjmbKg (47:53 interview with director Edgar Wright and actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost [Pegg and Wright also co-screenwriters] from San Diego Comic Con 2013)



As noted above, we encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, including our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control, as well as difficulties we’ve encountered with the Google RSS Feed Alert when used in conjunction with iGoogle and Google Reader.

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


Thursday, August 22, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler, 20 Feet from Stardom, and In a World ... (along with a brief mention of We're the Millers)


     Stand—or Sing—by Me and Love Will Keep Us Together
              
          Review by Ken Burke       Lee Daniels' The Butler
          
Forest Whitaker is a semi-fictionalized version of a servant at the White House through 4 decades, carefully witnessing the Civil Rights upheaval that shook this society.
              
                                                              20 Feet from Stardom
            
A rousing documentary about the unsung background harmonizers who bring life to live performances, including Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, and others.
           
                                                              In a World ...
         
Even in an hermetically-sealed industry such as voiceover talent for movie trailers and TV ads the star-lit aspirations rage high in Lake Bell’s marvelously inventive comedy.

[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews.  This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.

We also encourage you to check your tastes against ours with the summary of Two Guys reviews, which we update with each new posting.  But please be aware that the links we recommend in our reviews may have been removed or modified without our knowledge.  Other overall notations for this blog may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage.  Now, onward to illumination; you may want to protect your eyes from the brilliance.]

This week’s ramble will attempt to find reasonable commonality among 3 seemingly different films, but they all have the connection of being about people who have important roles to play in their specific milieus, albeit supporting roles where they’re not supposed to be recognized as individuals but are expected to fade into various levels of the background as someone/something more “important” commands our attention.  We begin with the one that offers the largest historical and conceptual sweep, Lee Daniels’ The Butler (not a case of director ego here but of corporate conflict as Warner Bros. insisted that this release not interfere with one of their titles—from 1916!—even though you can’t copyright a title, but given that both WB and … The Butler’s releasing group, The Weinstein Co., subscribe to the MPAA’s Title Registration Bureau there was a noisy problem resolved by adding in the director’s name), based on the true situation of African-American Eugene Allen serving as a butler at the White House from the last days of the Truman administration into the second Reagan term, in a role where he was expected to be quiet and servile during the most tumultuous period of civil rights expansion in American history since the abolition of slavery.  A lot has been changed from Allen’s life to that of fiction-inspired-by-fact Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker, although we also have Cecil at age 8 by Michael Rainey Jr. and age 15 by Aml Ameen) in this film, including starting his D.C. service 5 years later, with Eisenhower (Robin Williams—somewhat plausible), converting actual son Charles (Isaac White when younger, Elijah Kelley as a teenager) from a soldier who served in and returned from the Vietnam War into a victim of it to add emotional impact to the story of a society that barely treated his father as a human being as a young man yet was gladly willing to sacrifice his son to a war that his father never understood the reason for, and creating an older son, Louis (David Oyelowo), to allow for this offspring to offer direct challenges to Cecil’s seeming acceptance of accommodation—although within the ultimate center of U.S. power—when others of his race were demanding freedom, dignity, and full citizenship in the 1960s Civil Rights movement of lunch-counter sit-ins, interstate-bus Freedom Riders and marches in the South with resulting attacks from the KKK, riots following the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., along with the expectation that after some gains were made at home that similar changes should happen with our “allies,” such as South Africa with its horrible segregation policy of apartheid.  Essentially, the film explores the complex life of a man who as a young boy in 1926 Macon, GA watches his mother, Hattie Pearl (an almost unrecognizable Mariah Carey), be raped by the owner of a cotton farm, Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer), and his father, Earl (David Banner), shot dead by this man simply for barely registering anger and grief at the act, then is taken in by the landowner’s mother, Annabeth (Vanessa Redgrave), and groomed to be a “house n****r,” (although more out of a sense of obligation than true pity on her part for young Cecil’s situation) where he learned the essential attitude of a compliant “Negro”—“The room should feel empty when you’re in it”—a skill he internalized (even if he had to constantly deny to himself how degrading and self-effacing it was) but that served as an ongoing source of conflict with son Louis and likely some silent (at best) resentment from wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey; good to see you back on screen again, oh Queen of All Media).

While we get Presidents Ford and Carter only in actual news footage, the other POTUSes are played by a variety of well-known actors:  Kennedy by James Marsden, Johnson by Liev Schreiber (for me, the worst merge of actor and historical personage, but that’s surely open to debate because I’d say that the best is done by Marsden, offering a reasonable job of rising above the level of desperate-attempt impersonation), Nixon by John Cusack, and Reagan by Alan Rickman, along with wife Nancy by Jane Fonda … yes, you read that correctly … who’s the first First Lady ever, in 1986, to invite Cecil to attend a State Dinner as a guest rather than as a server.  The Black-Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994)-like situation here (one that Daniels admits he intended) implies that while Cecil never initiated an actual conversation with any of his bosses his restrained response to a question which he just happened to be in the right place to answer seems to have inspired some of them to various actions—Ike sending the troops to Little Rock to enforce the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that de-segregated public schools in the late 1950s, JFK using the resources of the federal government to respond to segregationist violence in the mid-1960s South—although his silent presence in the room with Nixon seemed to have no impact on the “benign neglect” policy toward Blacks not involved with Black enterprise (a strategy only intended to solicit votes, not change a racist society) nor on Reagan’s firm decision to veto any Congressional attempt to oppose racial injustice overseas (with such scenes it's clear where Daniels' political sympathies lie, but I fault him not because I'm there as well; others might not see it in the same light).  After years of harsh conflicts with Lewis over “Uncle Tom” pandering to White expectations vs. more active social action, father and son suffer a long-term break when Lewis joins Oakland’s Black Panthers and brings Angela Davis-lookalike girlfriend, Carol Hammie (Yaya Alafia), home for an explosive family dinner.  Reconciliation finally occurs after Lewis’ disillusionment with the Panthers, Charlie’s death abroad, and Cecil’s attendance at the State Dinner where he’s reviled by his fellow servants while understanding that his presence is merely a gesture rather than true acceptance so he chooses to retire, all of which leads to father and son arrested together at an anti-apartheid rally.  By the end of this history lesson Cecil has lived to see Obama elected which results in the long-serving butler being called back to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to meet the culmination of all that he had hoped would come from way back in the days when Eisenhower rose to the challenge set down by Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus.  In the process we get to see other famous actors tired of sitting on the sidelines as well (Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz) but none of their characters earn our quiet, enduring respect as successfully as Cecil, who balances pride in his country with a silent rage at how dishonest it was toward large segments of its citizenry.  

 Some will see the intended respect for Cecil and all the others who tolerated their lack of progress as being a situation that inevitably would change while the substantial strength of close family ties would offer them the familiar sustenance that we see represented with hearty helpings of fried chicken in scene after scene; others will see the presentation of this noble message and the justified chaos that confounded the restrained Lewises of the 20th century as overcooked corn, a series of melodramatic scenes that fail to articulate the real man behind all of this fictionalization who’s largely been lost within the need to offer audiences a summary of events that many of us have not experienced from the insiders’ perspectives.  Lee Daniels’ The Butler forces us to acknowledge how viciously racist U.S. history has been and give honor to those who opposed it (with excellent acting by those in the shadows of power even if the Presidential portrayals come off a bit absurd at times), all of which is important and commendable, but in trying to cram in so much within a roughly-standard 132 min. running time our ambitious director runs the risk of leaving us with the impression that everything in the lifetimes of ourselves back to our grandparents moved quickly and changed drastically, ultimately for the better.  If only it could have been that simple.

Unlike Daniels’ film, which respects the larger historical context that it represents but must—from running-time, dramatic impact, and story arc considerations—navigate a course that acknowledges but also reconstructs its source material, 20 Feet from Stardom (Morgan Neville) is a pure documentary with no re-stagings of its content events (although some might consider the final group song, in which a few of the principals—whose biographies we’ve witnessed over the previous 80 or so minutes—are intentionally brought together for one rousing finale of “Lean on Me,” a bit artificial because these women don’t normally sing as a unit in concerts but this film isn’t just an historical survey of their careers, instead more of a conceptual look at supporting vs. lead roles in the music business, in essence a celebration of a few really dynamic women and what they’ve contributed to decades of pop tunes, so arranging for them to further that celebration in acoustic as well as friendship harmony is a natural closing act for the premise here, with no artificial ingredients to worry about)20 Feet from Stardom at its simplest wants you to know the names of some very talented women because you’ve likely heard their voices for years but didn’t know who they were.  There are a few male singers with sound bites in the film also and certainly there are plenty of male backups in the biz, but the superb talent on display from these women (mostly Black, and not necessarily by chance in that the vocal training they received in the type of church choirs most of them grew up in likely provides a much more viable preparation for crossover into r&b/blues/gospel-influenced rock than does the type of vocalization that we get at the start of 20 Feet from Stardom from some 1950s White women harmonizing in a Perry Como TV show [I speak from some limited experience here, having been a member of the UT Austin Catholic Student Center Liturgy Singers much of the time from 1967-1977 while doing my various college degrees; we put a decent folk sound to more contemporary-style hymns but except for one rousing rendition of “Oh Happy Day” we never came close to the church-fueled energy the singers in this film produce]) provides all of the content we need for a most satisfying doc, and, besides, how many male backups can you name that deserve such a spotlight as the women featured here?  Besides, if you want White male singers—or even Black ones—their presence is easily available in the interviews or archival footage of the more-prominent, much-better-paid leads that these backup women have worked with since the 1960s:  among the testifiers praising/performing with their lesser-known collaborators are David Bowie, Ray Charles, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, and Stevie Wonder—although there are tributes from front-stage women as well such as Cheryl Crow (who’s done some backup work herself) and Bette Midler.  While there is a constantly-shifting focus (in order to interweave all of these extraordinary talents rather than just present a chronological timeline) among the main supporting singers (intentional oxymoron there), the film invariably gives its ultimate priority to Darlene Love (on the left in the photo below), not only because she was the unaccredited voice on hits of Phil Specter’s group, The Crystals (“He’s a Rebel, “He’s Sure the Boy I Love”), but also because she’s probably had the most successful solo career of them all and, I think, is the only one to be elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, inducted in 2011.

While I don’t mean to slight any of the others who get brief mention in 20 Feet from Stardom the other primary focus points beyond Darlene Love is on Merry Clayton (shown in the photo accompanying the previous paragraph; most famous for the Rolling Stones recording of “Gimme Shelter” from the 1969 Let It Bleed album), Lisa Fischer (most famous for singing “Gimme Shelter” on tour with the Stones since 1989—I saw her in person last May; while the New Jersey show from last December featured Lady Gaga in this duet I’d take Lisa’s version any day), The Waters Family (who’ve also provided voices for everything from Michael Jackson’s huge-hit Thriller to Disney movies to bird sounds in Avatar [James Cameron, 2009]), Judith Hill (who was also training with Jackson for the ill-fated “This Is It” tour), and Claudia Lennear (a former Ikette for Ike and Tina Turner, the only one of them to consciously—possibly regretfully—leave the music world because of difficult inconsistencies and now teaches Spanish [although Darlene Love recounts the slow years in her career when she turned to house cleaning for income]).  Taken together the collective talent of these incredible singers (and the others that I haven’t even given mention to, such as Táta Vega, who may be best known for her work with Elton John) gives you reason to see this film just for the thrill of hearing such stunning work all in one place as well as to admire the determination of these essentially-unknown-yet-aspiring-divas, both for continuing to strive for the stardom that they so richly deserve and for continuing to find work as they can in an industry that no longer focuses on the “wall of sound” approach of Specter and Motown, while often eliminating the need for backups in the recording process by the use of overdubs of the lead vocalists.  Therefore, these under-appreciated professionals often provide the personal support to each other that is lacking from large-audience appreciation, such as in the aforementioned “Lean On Me” performance in 20 Feet from Stardom where Love takes the lead, with support from Hill (center in the photo above), Fischer (right), and someone else who was in the film (and must be important in her own right to have been included in this quartet, but all we got on her were interviews rather than performances so I’m afraid her name slipped past me—an ID from anyone reading this would be most appreciated; sorry that the others behind Love are in soft focus and the shot is a bit dark but this is the only photo I could find that showed all of them together).  While I don’t have a clip of that specific performance I can offer you one just featuring Darlene (at http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=HhQd4BgyKvc), which I’ll use as my musical connection for all 3 of these reality-based/inspired offerings this week because this song sums up so much of what each of these works is about in terms of being a “background” presence even though the unheralded person has so much more to offer if allowed a foreground opportunity (as Love amply demonstrates in the clip).

Lake Bell’s (writer, director, lead actor) In a World … doesn’t share the historical inspiration of … The Butler, nor is it about actual figures on the margins of the entertainment industry as with 20 Feet … (although legendary voiceover talent Don LaFontaine [see the second clip recommended below in relation to this movie] serves as the standard by which all other accomplished and hopeful VO vocal actors judge their fictional performances; however, this movie does find a basis in an aspect of the real world that we’re all familiar with at least through osmosis and has some viability in being paired with the other 2 above by reminding us that like Cecil Gaines, Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, etc. there are others who contribute actively to the world we inhabit, often bringing pleasure to the experience of the situations that they are part of, but who will likely never be known by name to society at large although they have decent respect from those who share their largely-ignored presences, as long as the members of those inner circles don’t turn on each other for daring to rock the pecking order of established folks who’ve been paying dues longer or with more command that the brash newcomer on the scene).  Few in the VO world of movie trailers, commercials, and other brief aural guidances to a wide range of products and services would assume they could ever move up to on-screen stardom (unlike the more ambitious vocal talents we encounter in 20 Feet …), but those with enough self-assurance would like to at least see themselves as contenders for LaFontaine-replacement-status (he died in 2008), especially if his “In a world where …” trailer intros were to be revived, as is the central plot conflict of In a World …, as aspiring star Carol Solomon (Bell) is competing not only with egocentric Gustav Warner (Ken Marino)—although that doesn’t deter him from a sexual fling with her in order to dull her competitive spirit—but also with Gustov’s mentor, her own pompous father, Sam Soto (stage name, changed from Solomon; actor is Fred Melamed, convincingly conniving in the role), who’s never encouraged either of his daughters (the other one is Dani [Michaela Watkins], a concierge at a post L.A. hotel) to think that they could top his level of achievement.  Each of these characters comes with a love interest (for Carol, it’s Louis [Demetri Martin], sound engineer of her favorite recording studio; for Sam it’s his much younger paramour, Jamie [Alexandra Holden] who nicely rises above what we assume is her airhead persona at the conclusion; for Dani it’s husband Moe [Rob Corddry], although her indiscretion with a horny Irishman almost breaks them up; and for Gustav, it’s any full-length mirror he can find), which helps sustain them as the various relationships fall (back) into place, especially with Sam who finally acknowledges—after Jamie’s ultimatum—his daughters as he’s receiving the Golden Trailer lifetime achievement award, even after the humiliation of Carol beating him as the voice for the upcoming The Amazon Games quadrilogy (sometimes 3 books and their adaptations just aren’t enough for an effective series, as J.K. Rowling proved long ago)In a World … functions as bit of a movie-biz inside joke, but the writing is sharp and hilarious, the acting is always right on the mark, and the general pace of the easily-absorbed 93 min. makes for a satisfying encounter and departure (along with some useful cameos from the likes of Eva Longorio—playing herself getting accent coaching from Carol—and Geena Davis as Katherine Huling, producer of the Amazon films who reveals to Carol some inner politics of the industry she's not yet aware of, that she won the voiceover competition as a feminist statement from on high rather than with superior talent).  We can only hope to see more of Lake Bell pursuing future projects with such spirited enthusiasm as what we get with In a World …

While I won’t offer an official review of been-in-release-for-awhile We’re the Millers (Rawson Marshall Thurber), I will note that I have little interest in future projects of this sort and would likely give it at most 2 ½ of my precious 5 stars if offering a for-the-record rating (but given that I invested the time to see it I’ll pass along my comments in case it’s still lingering at a theatre near you).  Here the premise is completely opposite of anything we’re explored above regarding integrity, talent, and reasons for respect and recognition:  instead we get 4 of Denver’s lower lights attempting to smuggle a massive amount of marijuana into the U.S. from Mexico—Jason Sudeikis as David Clark, a low-level dealer suddenly on the hook to his distributor (Ed Helms as Brad Gurdlinger) for $43,000; Jennifer Aniston as Rose O’Reilly, a down-on-her-luck stripper who lives in David’s apartment building; Emma Roberts as Casey Mathis, a punky street kid; and Will Poulter as Kenny Rossmore, a naïve but lovable teenage virgin acquaintance of David’s (all of whom I admire for gamely pushing their silly roles as far as plausibly possible, but there’s only so far you can go with a concept like this).  Using the premise that border guards will be less likely to hassle a family in a huge RV, they pose as the Millers (for a price, of course, although semi-scuzzy David has the chance to make a much bigger score with this delivery than he’s revealed to his accomplices) when they make the run with more trouble past the border than at it, while consistently foul mouths, a genital sight gag that’s the grossest-looking thing since the cringe-inducing-zipper-fly scene in There’s Something about Mary (Bobby and Peter Farrelly, 1998), unending complications, and a final bonding bring them into the Witness Protection Program where their family charade can continue now that they’re all really fond of each other (we should be so lucky).  Some of the gross humor is pushed so far that you can’t help but laugh at it while the stereotypical Mexican drug thugs are just too silly to be truly offensive (at least to me, but then again I’m not Mexican so I’ll defer to the more appropriate among you).  Overall We’re the Millers just goes to show that while pure, unadulterated fiction doesn’t necessarily need the historical/actuality-stimulus of the films noted above to be effective some version of such a tactic might be useful with stories such as this that just spin and sputter wildly, not connected to much of anything except broad farce (which may be all you’re looking for in diversionary entertainment, but I’d rather go back for a second helping of Iron Man 3 [Shane Black; reviewed in our blog’s May 11, 2013 posting])—which got a measly 3 stars—than mess with the Millers again.  Instead, I encourage you to get energized with the fabulous vocalists of 20 Feet from Stardom or at least consider refreshing yourself on history too important to be ill-informed about in Lee Daniels’ The Butler.  And don't hire the Millers for any one-way hauling jobs or be prepared for the worst.

If you’d like to know more about Lee Daniels’ The Butler here are some suggested links:



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5oF9EqBQ448 (30 min. interview by Gayle King with director Lee Daniels and actors Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey—audio is a bit low at times)


If you’d like to know more about standing 20 Feet from Stardom here are some suggested links:



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGu_n05S5YM (10:43 interview from Sundance with director Morgan Neville and singers from the film Darlene Love and Merry Clayton)



If you’d like to know more about what it's like to be In a World … here are some suggested links:


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7QPMvj_xejg (5:26 mini-doc on the previous actual king of voiceovers, Don LaFontaine, who sets the standard for the characters of In a World …)



I know this doesn't support a full-fledged review, but if you’d like to know more about We’re the Millers anyway here are some suggested links:


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Vsy5KzsieQ&noredirect=1 (you might also appreciate this one—http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ps7O3Z6uxxo&noredirect=1–which retains the raunchiness of the original movie but you may have to sign in to confirm your age in order to watch it—Big Brother is always watching what you're watching in case you need to be watched)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMNoW1P3Xjg&noredirect=1 (starts with the same off-color version of the trailer above and then goes into a short interview—about 3 min.—with actors Jason Sudeikis, Jennifer Aniston, Emma Roberts, and Will Poulter conducted by my favorite off-the-wall video host, Houston’s own Jake Hamilton—which, gosh darn it, we don’t see much of this time, so you'll just have to be satisfied with a repeat version of some of George Carlin's unspeakable words for your best entertainment here; I'll offer you an excerpt from an R-rated version [Well, what else could it be?] of his routine at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vbZhpf3sQxQ, even though if I ever had any hope of a reprieve from Google on not allowing advertising on this site because of my occasional use of adults-only content this clip nails the coffin shut forever so be forewarned that Carlin's language may melt your ears)

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/were_the_millers/

http://www.metacritic.com/movie/were-the-millers


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P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.