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Welcome to the Rileys (2010)
An unbalanced, poorly edited, poorly directed family drama
** Very light spoilers in this review **
I saw Welcome to the Rileys as an advance screening in New York on October 21st, 2010. The movie was introduced to the audience as a James Gandolfini vehicle that involves a stripper. Really, that was it. Imagine my shock and horror when the credits rolled some 90 minutes (which felt like 3 hours) later - that this was a Jake Scott film and that Ally Sheedy starred in it (for all but 60 seconds).
I could write a lot about the annoying continuity errors and editing mistakes. I won't. The problem with this movie is the screenplay, the direction, the music, the pacing, and even some of the photography.
James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo deliver excellent, sympathetic performances. But they are misdirected. They play a husband and wife living in Indianapolis. James Gandolfini sometimes has a southern accent, and sometimes reverts to his native Jersey accent. This is not his fault. It's Tony Scott's. Gandolfini plays Doug Riley, a money-wasting, risk-taking, yet also oddly grounded and disciplined plumbing supply salesman.
Melissa Leo's character, Lois, is a traumatized, sad, lonely woman who has been married to Mr. Riley for 29 years. We don't know how long she has refused to go outside, but it is well established (perhaps too established) that she has not left the house since the Riley's teenage daughter died in a fiery car accident. We get a glimpse of the auto accident's aftermath in the film's first shot. However, this being a Gandolfini movie, the audience will be forgiven for wondering if the burning Lincoln Town Car is a flash forward to a movie-ending car bomb. Maybe that's a stretch, but how was I supposed to know that the burning car was a flashback? I blame the director.
But back to Melissa Leo's character. Doug Riley goes on a business trip to New Orleans, but leaves a lot of emotional healing left unfinished at home. Following an emotionally empty phone conversation with Doug, Lois finally builds up her courage to leave her house and drive over 1,000 miles to have a much needed talk with her road warrior husband. But Jake Scott's misdirection appears once again. Being homebound for over 10 years, Lois is understandably clumsy and socially awkward. But is it played for laughs or is it supposed to be depressing and sad? The audience went from chuckles to silence multiple times during her 'escape' sequence. We see her taking many pills before heading out. She tries to get comfortable in her husband's Cadillac, but falls asleep before she can start the engine (did the pills do this? is this some timid suicide attempt?). She finally gets on the road and talks to a creepy man in a diner. The movie almost portrays the conversation as a positive step for her, as if being hit upon by a 50 year old guy who looks like Dennis Miller's brother is a nice thing.
I think the screenwriter was trying to tell us that she is socially inexperienced and vulnerable so it makes us uncomfortable to watch her fail to tell the man to leave her alone. But I also sense that Jake Scott had no clue what he wanted, and so we see a slow conversation that even includes the characters saying 'bye' to each other (clearly a more skilled director and editor would have cut that seconds earlier).
Welcome to the Rileys contains many strange moments like this, in which characters each say "bye" to each other multiple times over the phone, or showing characters hanging up a phone. This movie simply does not follow standard cinema grammar. It would be wonderful if it was done to make us feel uncomfortable and prevent us from picking up the film's beat and pacing. But I think it is simply poor directing and editing.
Doesn't anyone watch the entire film in the editing room anymore? Don't they burn a DVD and watch the rough cut at home? Do they watch it a couple of times, sit on it for a weekend, and then watch it again? In a Criterion interview for his 2008 film Che, Steven Soderbergh expressed his opinion that a declining number of directors watch their movie from beginning to end during the editing process. I agree with him.
Did the filmmakers really need to cut out Ally Sheedy's character, but include every phone conversation -from first ring to hang up- simply to extend the film to 90 minutes? Did they really have a shortage of exterior establishing shots, so when we cut from one interior scene to another, we would understand that the location has changed? Think I'm kidding? Watch the movie (if you can get past the awful dialogue of the early diner scene 3 minutes in). I know very little about filmmaking, but was there a Second Unit and if so, what was their work to party ratio?
And when Mrs. and Mr. Riley finally have their reunion in New Orleans, there is zero emotional impact. There is a long build-up to the reunion, but then nothing happens when they finally embrace. In fact, their fighting scenes have more passion and truth than any of their embraces. Again, I blame the director.
A poor product like this should not earn Jake Scott a feature director's chair anytime soon. He is a skilled TV commercial and music video director. But this a terrible film. It makes one of his father's least successful films, Matchstick Men (2003), look very good in comparison (and remember that film had a similar parent-daughter theme running through it).
Do you want to see a slow family drama done really well? Watch Mike Leigh's Another Year (2010). It has some of the same themes of compassion and nurturing. And note just how better edited, directed, and paced that film is compared to this terribly mismanaged drama.
Solitary Man (2009)
Michael Delivers a great performance in an unbalanced, uneven character study
It is rare for an American film to give us a despicable protagonist from beginning to end, but that is one of the notable achievements of Solitary Man (2009), the latest opus from Brian Koppleman and David Levien, the talented writers who gave us the very entertaining Rounders (1998) and Oceans 13 (2007). They have created a character who speaks his mind and will not hesitate to harm or manipulate others. I just wish the film lived-up to its quality beginning and ending. The middle of the film has clichés and lulls that could have been ironed-out. Nevertheless, Solitary Man is superior to two other films this year about white men going through late-life crises, Paper Man and Multiple Sarcasms.
The movie starts out very well. Dialogue is crisp and the static, medium-long shots quickly establish the film's clean aesthetic. We are immediately introduced to Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas), a disgraced, unemployed, womanizing 60 year-old man who ruled a tri-state network of auto dealerships in the 80s and 90s. But now, he carries more pounds and no net worth (as Gordon Gekko might say). His dealerships were caught running a leasing scam that screwed both customers and the auto manufacturer. FTC fine and legal fees have washed him out. But he is no less bitter, cantankerous or cynical. Nor is he willing to grow up, a primary theme of this character study.
No sooner do we see him run away from prescribed heart tests, Ben agrees to escort his girlfriend's 18 year-old daughter, Allyson (played by British starlet Imogen Poots), to his ala mater in Massachusetts to grease her application interview and assure her acceptance. The movie treats us to two excellent scenes that should raise most viewers' expectations. First, Ben and Allyson exchange rapid-fire put downs and flirtations at the airport while other middle-aged businessmen stare at Ben in a mixture of envy and discomfort. Second, we're treated to one of the movie's best lines as Ben gets into a scuffle with a student on the quad. So far, so good. At times, the film has a beautiful mix of comedy, drama, and shamelessness that most guys (myself included) should like.
But the middle of the movie goes soft, it seems. Ben's life begins to tear at the seams, which is well established and directed. But the plot has him going back to his old campus with his tail between his legs. That would be fine if he was going to work for the university (he was a major donor when his businesses were at their peak). But the film chooses the uncomfortable comedy route of the dirty old man on campus. as Ben reconnects with his wiser sage (a refreshingly calm Danny DeVito), takes a job at his diner, and ends up embarrassing himself at more than one kegger. While I agree that the plot required him to go into exile out of New York City, I was a little disappointed to see his ex-wife (Susan Sarandon) disappear for a long stretch in the film, while his daughter (jenna Fischer) gets a boost of screen time in a contrived and somewhat false subplot. Jesse Eisenberg (Zombieland) makes a few appearances as a sophomore hoping to make Ben his mentor. We see time and again how Ben is a poor role model, and often his own worst enemy. But what could have been a satisfying on-campus subplot seemed to be where the movie ground to a halt, and ended up being as awkward and aloof as Eisenberg's character.
After some thought, I think I know why this film didn't work for me. I don't think Ben's back story was effectively presented. Quite often, he is told (and therefore we are informed) of his past actions by his daughter and ex-wife. We are introduced to Ben well after his late-life crisis has begun. I wonder if the film would have been better served by a prologue scene, or an earlier staring point (with the frat parties cut out towards the end). When Ben speaks to others, the film works. When others describe Ben's past to him (with the notable exceptions of Sarandon and DeVito) the film seems to suffer.
Artists are free to make decisions, of course. But I was a little surprised to learn that Levien stepped-aside and let Koppleman do most of the writing. They had toyed with this story for years. But I wonder if they had reviewed the script enough. They are clearly talented, experienced writers who know how to speed-up stories through the middle act (does anyone remember the blazingly-fast set-up in Oceans Thirteen?). But with Solitary Man, they set out to make a small independent film their way, at their pace. That, plus the non-Hollywood ending deserves a lot of credit. But perhaps such a strong performance by Douglas deserved a firmer and less clichéd second act. His character needed time in exile to build a respectable comeback. But instead he spent most of his time with characters and subplots that diminished his presence and the audience's enjoyment of the film. Having an unlikable character complete a personal journey is no easy task (see Mike Leigh's Naked (1993) to appreciate it done wonderfully). But I fear that Koppleman and Levien set a high bar that they could not reach half of the time in this film.
Lake of Fire (2006)
A moving and intimate documentary
I think this documentary would be far more balanced if it were expanded into a TV miniseries. The theatrical version presents the logical arguments from both sides of this massive issue, but it also shows over an hour of the footage related to the violence committed by the most irrational anti-abortion individuals and organizations. In that way, it seemed to me that the most sensationalist, visceral footage was being left in the theatrical release to make it more entertaining.
And yet, there are incredible moments in the film that are not sensationalist, or unfair to the anti-abortion side. For example, the film begins at the Capitol Mall in 1993, with a peaceful protest aganst abortion, with participants sharing stores and speaking out. A male speaker was microphoned beautifully and we see and feel his genuine emotion, even if it seems irrational to supporters of abortion such as myself. (I should add that the sound in this movie is first-rate - voices in various mediums are captured beautifully, so much so, I was conscious of just how good the audio was). And another example of the film being fair to the anti-abortion side was showing us how a ministry in Dallas was able to befriend Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe) and give her a happier life. It clearly shows how the pro-abortion side failed her. The "Jesus Freaks" didn't snatch her away. The pro-abortion side let her go while we are all into ourselves celebrating the legalization of abortion. She was home alone, receiving death threats, afraid to go out. And who came to her aid? Not my side. Amazing how this film reveals that (there is a shot in this movie that just has to be seen to be believed - you will know it when you see it....it shows Norma McCorvey at her new job....pay attention, it is amazing).
The film ends with a real procedure performed on a woman in Minneapolis who is less than 10 weeks pregnant. We see everything, including the blob of tissue that is taken from her womb. But more important, we see a 5 minute shot of her, telling us how she is relieved and tired, but also saddened and in emotional pain. It brought the theater to tears, and I can see how people on both sides of the issue will find some vindication in that final shot. On one hand, the patient is clearly relieved and has no regrets. On the other hand, she is saddened because she has made a momentous decision to choose her life over the life of an unknown child (a 'what if'). It is incredibly powerful film-making.
I thought if Errol Morris sees this, he might kick himself. He has spent 30 years making documentaries and still has not gotten a shot like that in the can. He's still the best documentary maker out there. But to hear Tony Kaye tell the audience in the Q&A that this labor of love is the result of a happy accident after being drawn into a major issue in US society, that's amazing. Great art is often the result of an accident or taking a risk. This is one such example.
This film gives us John Ford / Sergio Leone-like close-ups of faces. That, and the impressive audio, make this a very intimate work.
Everyone who sees this movie wishes it had more information. For example, the Catholic pro-abortion activist featured in the film was ex-communicated from the Church. Would have helped to be told that? I would think so. I would have wanted some clarification on the age of the fetus' shown. There is a graphic abortion early in the film that shows what looks like a 20-weeker having a procedure done. The fetus is torn apart, and we see eyes, legs, hands, feet. I would want movie goers to know that this is a BIG fetus and doctors don't see this every week in the OR or clinic. The vast majority of abortions are done before 10 weeks, in a short procedure in a clinic. And most states have a 22-week limit on abortion. Bet you didn't know that. The anti-abortion side wants you to believe that abortions are legal until the day before birth. That is not true at all. 22 weeks.
So you can see that I wanted more details. Everyone wanted more details. One audience member wanted to see more women being shown on the anti-abortion side. I know they are out there, but like the clinic patient who agreed to be filmed, they are very difficult to find.