Latest Blog Posts

by Bill Gibron

29 May 2008

It’s clear that, if music provides the soundtrack to our lives, movies make up the mental scrapbook. While we are a far more aural than visual race, we do tend to take certain films at face value. We’ll shiver at the thought of a shower after Psycho, or become the wariest of beach goers after Spielberg bares his Jaws. Yet we don’t typically take the actual image with us. Instead, a motion picture is filed away as a feeling in our cultural cabinet, lovingly recalled whenever a similar scene or sequence pops up. For the young boys of a small English town, Sylvester Stallone’s unhinged Vietnam vet with a personal vendetta and a wondrous way with weaponry becomes a symbol of their social coming of age. The reverence and need for a remake forms the basis for Son of Rambow, an effervescent look back at one director’s post-punk past.

Will Proudfoot lives a very sheltered life. As a member of the Plymouth Brethren religious sect, he is not allowed to watch TV, listen to modern music, or befriend his classmates. Quite by accident, he makes the acquaintance of school bad boy Lee Carter. Initially, the relationship is very one sided. Lee takes advantage of Will, and Will is too inexperienced to know any better. The duo begins work on a homemade movie, inspired by the recent release of First Blood, starring Sylvester Stallone. Entitled “Son of Rambow”, it incorporates many of Will’s wildest fantasies, mostly concerning the recent death of his father. As the boys make their mini action epic, they draw the attention of a French exchange student named Didier. He also wants to star in the film. On a far more serious note, Will’s work outside the order gets the attention of the elders. They warn the Proudfoots - end this association, or face expulsion.

Wistful and a little wonky, playfully recreating a fanciful early ‘80s UK summer, Son of Rambow definitely feels like someone’s personal experiences reinterpreted for public consumption. Writer/director Garth Jennings, last heard from helming the underappreciated big screen version of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, takes snapshots from his childhood, mixes them with some intriguing local color, and paints a glorious canvas of an era unsure of itself, punk plowing into pop without a Blitz kid’s concern for style or substance. There are sequences of sumptuous reminiscence here, times when we literally get lost in the unique time and place that Jennings is portraying. At other instances, things become so pat and predictable that the forewarning undermines the wistfulness at play.

It goes without saying that the stars of this particular piece are the young actors at the center of the story. As the irascible Lee Carter, Will Poulter seems pulled directly out of a primer on purposefully angry young lads. He’s Butch from Our Gang given a slightly cockney bent, and he’s totally believable, even when slightly schizophrenic in his motivations and mannerisms. We may not believe in his ability as a future filmmaker, but we do get the impression that he’s dedicated, and when personal push comes to shove, quite loyal. Of the duo, young Bill Milner definitely has the harder role. His perplexed Will Proudfoot is walking, talking fundamentalist naiveté, desperate to break out of his religious restrictions, but unable to achieve the proper perspective. For him, the world is one big animated adventure just waiting to be had. Gullibility is hard to sell, especially in these all-knowing ‘naughts’. But Milner makes us believe, even if his ideas are a bit babyish.

Indeed, the whole moviemaking subtext steals some of Son of Rambow‘s potency. When Will and Lee are recreating overly aggressive action scenes and steroided stunts, we instantly anticipate the physical comedy. It may be rote shtick, but it is mostly satisfying. Where the film really flies is in its mix tape mapping of the early ‘80s. Sure, the song selection is all over the Top of the Pops terrain (“I Just Can’t Get Enough” by Depeche Mode never shared chart time with Sioxsie and the Banshee’s “Peek a Boo”), and the fashions scream of the broadest epoch generalization, but Jennings does a jolly job of capturing a moment when the dour depression of before seemed to open into an optimist, anything goes giddiness. It’s nostalgia, but its knowing, not knotty.

Perhaps the most intriguing material is left more or less unexplored. The Plymouth Brethren may appear like any other sect, starved of rationality as they use the Bible as the basis for every one of their often unconscionable decisions. And there is an interesting plotpoint when Will’s mother lets slip her secret love of a certain 45 rpm record. But we don’t get much more than mean-spirited reprimands and a leader who clearly lusts for the passive Proudfoot widow. Not much is made out of the missing father either - he is dead, but the details appear shrouded in a lack of clarity that makes his absence lack the standard cinematic impact. We want more of this material, to really understand the last act decision made by the family. But Son of Rambow is not interested in intricacy. It’s satisfied with a more slapdash approach.

Not that we as an audience mind, really. This is clearly a movie where the sum of all parts transcends the individual problems with each particular narrative thread. When mixed together with Didier’s pseudo stash, Plastic Bertrand panache (he’s an odd addition to this story, to be sure), Lee Carter’s old folks home front, Will’s wonderfully cartoonish flights of fancy, and the Monty Python meets misery of our heroes’ school situation, the manic movie making really zings. Certainly this is an incomplete effort, leaving more questions than clear cut conclusions, and the required wrap seems too easy given all that’s gone before. But there is also a bubbly exuberance that really reminds one of their youth and all its awkward awakening glory. This is one Son that any source could be proud of. 

by Bill Gibron

29 May 2008

The art of suspense is dead, or at the very least, dying. Few in post-modern filmmaking know how to establish dread without drowning it in gore or just boring us to death. Part of the reason lies in how cinematically complex the basic bloodless thriller must be. It has to work on the psychological, as well as the physiological and pragmatic levels. As Hitchcock accurately stated, the viewer must be invariably linked to the fate of characters they just met, and may know more than. It’s all a matter of timing and talent. Tossing grue at the screen is as easy as opening up a can of red paint. Getting audiences to grip the edge of their seats stands as a rare motion picture accomplishment.

It’s one that the new so-called shocker The Strangers strives for, over and over again. It’s so desperate to drag us through a tense little exercise in creepy cat and mouse that it all but misses the reason these movies succeed. After an especially hard night of romance and rejection, young couple James Hoyt and Kristen McKay retreat to his isolated family vacation home. As they regroup, they sense something is amiss. Suddenly, there’s a knock at the door. Even though it’s four o’clock in the morning, they answer the door. There, in the darkness, a young girl asks if ‘Tamara’ is home. Slightly belligerent, she barely takes “No” for an answer. Without warning, the house is suddenly besieged by a trio of masked assailants. Their purpose seems simply enough - torture and kill the panicked pair.

The Strangers is a deadly dull experience in boredom, strangled by two cinematic stumbling blocks - one external and one of its own unfortunate making. Outwardly, this movie can’t help but compare unfavorably to the brilliant French thriller from last year, Ils (otherwise known as Them to American audiences). So similar story-wise as to almost be exact, and utilizing a far more interesting set-up and payoff, filmmakers David Moreau and Xavier Palud really delivered the goods. We cared about the characters in that eerie little experiment in ambient noises and unseen threats. Even if the ending went a bit gonzo, we still enjoyed every spine tingling, bone chilling moment of the ride.

The second factor is completely within writer/director Bryan Bertino’s control. Instead of starting the movie off inauspiciously, allowing the tale of our crumbling couple to organically meld into the stark and subtle serial killer material to come, The Strangers shoots itself in the foot by following a lame-brained Texas Chainsaw Massacre style preamble. As our super serious voice over narrator drones on, we are told of the terror to come.  Even worse, Bertino then starts the narrative at the end, giving us horrific, hint filled glimpses of what will occur. A more successful conceit would have been to remove the first five minutes and give us nothing more than the effective shot of stars Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman in silent sadness, tears streaming down their faces. Advanced warning of their fate turns everything stale.

Not that there’s much to go on once the Manson Family by way of The Town That Dreaded Sundown shows up. Dressed in slightly unsettling costumes that conceal their identity, our mindless murderers are purposefully given no backstory or motive. The most we learn is that James and Kristen have been chosen because “they were home”. It’s a wonderfully evocative line, but Bertino does nothing with it. Similarly, the house in question is never established as a place of shelter, or safety, or scares. Ils at least let its brooding Romanian estate be as much a surprise of escape opportunities and fatalistic dead ends as a cinematic backdrop. In The Strangers, all we get is a barn, a backyard, and a ranch style design right out of the ‘70s.

In addition, Bertino completely misunderstands the use of sound as a way of securing shivers. Our couple has some of the oddest taste in music ever established in a horror film. They seem to enjoy a combination of Lester Roadhog Moran and His Cadillac Cowboys, The Shaggs, and a diseased Little Jimmy Dickens. The atonal drone of the cracked country music that plays during the fright sequences is so annoying as to cause outright anger - and nothing destroys suspense quicker than a rising urge to kill the record player. Also, Bertino misses a golden opportunity to add some ambience to his efforts. The wooded exterior should have provided some ample unexplained angst. Instead, even the aural cues are obvious.

As for the acting, Tyler and Speedman are given little to do, instantly moving from morose to victim mode in the span of a few seconds. They never provide a sense of individual urgency, capable of anything to make sure they survive. Instead, they huddle into corners and whine, whimper, and wince. We never develop any real sympathy for them, so as a result, we don’t care if they live or die. Our killers are another conundrum all together. Purposefully oblique, they come across as deadly dolls without a single sinister bone in their persistent hunter horror personas. Even when Bertino unmasks them and offers his downbeat denouement, the performances never play into genre ideals.

Of course, The Strangers is the kind of film that would welcome such unpredictability. You can just see some suit reading the script and thinking “Wow, this sure beats all that bloody torture porn being pushed right now.” Sadly, an alternative is not necessarily a salve, or in extremes, a salvation. Just because John Carpenter changed the movie macabre dynamic with his slasher homage to the Master of Suspense doesn’t mean that 2008 is looking for the same cinematic redeemer. Bryan Bertino may believe he is onto one Hell of a shouting-back-at-the-screen audience participation thrill ride. All easily frightened fans aside, The Strangers is destined to be mildly favored and then forgotten. It doesn’t have enough heft to warrant macabre staying power.   


by Chris Barsanti

29 May 2008

After all the rumors and innuendos about the various now-defunct shows of HBO’s Golden Age—you know, the ones that ruined us for the increasingly decrepit art of cinema—being turned into theatrical fare, the film of Sex and the City is finally upon us, and its success (or lack thereof) could well determine whether or not we will see the continuing multiplex adventures of Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen, and Jimmy McNulty. Obviously there is no single template that HBO would have to follow for film versions of any of these shows, but if such a thing did in fact happen, there are worse models they could follow than Sex and the City. In his wrapup to the half-hour groundbreaker of a sitcom that began on HBO a full ten years ago, writer/director Michael Patrick King takes about two or three season finales’ worth of tears and OMG jawdroppers and whacks them together into a big, sloppy, gooey sundae of a film that is, for better or for worse, just like the show … only longer.

The magnifier of cinematic size does things to the new adventures of this quartet of middle-aged Manhattan ladies, mostly of an unfortunate variety. While it’s all well and good to catch up with them a few years after the show’s conclusion, the pratfalls and complications of a half-hour TV show can seem either trivial or downright crude in a film. The show’s penchant for the occasional bit of embarrassing physical humor is played up here (a protruding gut when one of the ladies overeats to quell her anxieties, rumblings when another has bowel issues) but not in a way that comments on women’s insecurities, simply as a way of playing gross-out for the back row.

It also doesn’t help that King has shot and edited Sex and the City just like the show, only with cruddier cinematography and lousier music cues; where there should be glitz and perfection is only bad lighting, hand-me-down sets, and the occasional visible boom microphone darting down from above. For a story so obsessed with style and glamour, the end result is depressingly downmarket in appearance, looking like the poor second cousin of The Devil Wears Prada (which updated the show’s considerations of women and work so well that it almost makes this film entirely redundant).

All that being said, the whole point of the Sex and the City film was not to make a lasting piece of art, but simply to squeeze more life out of some characters that its audience couldn’t quite let go of, being sick to death of watching the butchered episodes re-running endlessly on TBS. On that front, at least, the film succeeds for the most part, concentrating on running the ladies through an obstacle course of betrayal and dashed expectations, dangling the rose of a happy ending continually just out of their grasp.

For those who have been dragged to the theater by friends or spouses and have never seen the show, a recap of the characters’ basic traits is quickly (if not deftly) handled by clip montages during the opening credits. After that, it’s back to the basics of making love last in the big mean city. In short: Charlotte (Kristin Davis) is living in married bliss, Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is out in Hollywood managing her boyfriend’s career, Miranda’s (Cynthia Nixon) marriage to Steve (David Eigenberg) is struggling, and Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) is moving in with Mr. Big, aka John (Chris Noth).

After a rough opening section where things go just a little too smoothly for too long, the hammer gets dropped and three of the women fall into their own little puddles of discontent. About a half-hour in, King finds the right rhythmic mix of discord, romance, and humor, after which the remainder of this surprisingly long film (148 minutes?) zips along with due speed. There are rough patches where it feels as though the script is struggling to shift from one episode to the next, and a surprising number of the characters are given little to do. Charlotte and Samantha play essentially one note and plotline for the entire film, while Steve and Mr. Big (practically the only male characters from the show to have left much of any impression) are only given the minimum necessary lines to break Miranda and Carrie’s hearts, not enough to give people new to the story any idea why these women care for them.

We all know that Sex and the City is really all about Carrie—one of the only freelance writers in New York who apparently can afford to hire an assistant (Jennifer Hudson, flat)—and her search for romantic bliss but was it really necessary to make Miranda even more of a miserable, cynical shrew? There’s a real ugliness to King’s treatment of Miranda, one of the only women here who evinces any intellect, but that’s par for the course with the show, and since the film is nothing but a retread anyway (Sex and the City: The Further Adventures of Carrie) such mean-spiritedness shouldn’t come as any surprise.

As a well-calculated remix of an enduring television landmark, Sex and the City fits the bill, leaving naught but a quickly dissipating champagne buzz. The fact that it stands well above just about any romantic comedy that’s been popped out of the Hollywood jello-mold in the last year or so isn’t so much of a compliment as it is a sign of how devalued the genre is.

by Bill Gibron

28 May 2008

Revisiting Annie Hall the other evening, this critic was struck at how mature and well meaning the movie was. At the time of its release, it was heralded as a breakout work for its writer/director Woody Allen, and ushered in a change in the comedian’s cinematic style. Where once he favored outlandish farce, narratives loaded with sight gags, one liners, and silent era physical shtick, this new approach combined sly social commentary with a growing urban angst. He would soon be criticized for his overreliance on the psychological foibles of his characters, but Hall made it all seem so fresh, so inviting, so clearly contemporary and of the moment.
Allen’s Oscar winner was a critical constant banging at the back the brain while sitting through the otherwise appalling Sex and the City film the other evening. Surrounded by contest winners who were decked out in their Tampa interpretation of New York couture, and harangued by radio personnel making sure that every man in the screening felt uncomfortable, it was clear that this particular night at the cinema was reserved for the ladies. Now, there is nothing wrong with gearing a movie - or a film oriented event - around a single fanbase. Star Wars has been guilty of milking the ever-gullible geek long before mannequin Skywalker was in short pants.  But there is something unsettling about the whole Sex sect - and the proof parades itself proudly during this movie’s mindboggling two hour and thirty five minute running time.

Let’s not address the TV series here. A long running sitcom/comedy/cable show contains years worth of plot points and character development. Arguing that Carrie Bradshaw used to be ‘this’, or that Samantha Jones would never do ‘that’ is like pointing out that the Simpsons used to be more realistic back in the mid ‘80s. Nothing stays the same forever, and if it did, viewers would be decrying the lack of change. For the sake of this piece, let’s look at how the four main characters are portrayed in the film. As an additional part of this dissection, we will also look at the supporting players within their sphere of influence. By analyzing both sides of the interpersonal paradigm, by seeing the ‘who’ along with the ‘who cares’, we can see how bereft of entertainment this dynamic really is.

Let’s start with Sex heroine Carrie Bradshaw, author, columnist, fashion plate, hopeless romantic, and absolute rotter. It’s not that she does things that are blatantly amoral - and she does - it’s that she bathes them in a sugary sweet coating of complete and utter shamelessness. At the beginning of the film, she makes cow eyes at ‘man’friend Mr. Big so that he’ll buy her a luxury Manhattan penthouse. Then, after getting her dream home, she pushes the brazen babe meter a single step further by demanding a new walk -in closet. Her man has just shelled out several mill to get her a pad she doesn’t need or deserve, and she requests remodeling. A little later on, during a particularly sour time in her life, she settles a problem by shopping. If materialism were a salve, Carrie would be Neo-friggin-sporin.

But this is only her outer evil. Inside, she’s a 40 year old emotional virgin. You’d think that someone who writes about the bedroom foibles of a complex urban demographic would understand a little something about the affairs of the heart. Instead, she’s the whiny Goth gal in Gucci heels, complaining that the world has gypped her once again. When her big narrative twist occurs, her reaction is so brattish that it requires a Super Nanny to bring her back to modern maturity. Such a savior comes in the guise of Jennifer Hudson’s “saint” Louise. As a personal assistant, she’s all webpages and day planners. As the typical person of color who teaches the Caucasian how to sync up with their soul, she’s pure Hollywood hokum.

So is Big. Limited to a small percentage of screen time - after all, your average Sex and the City fan isn’t interested in the problems of GUYS - we get companionship as a combination of carnal satisfaction and cash machine. Nothing is out of his price range, unless it’s understanding what women really want. His first hour faux pas which drives the next 85 minutes (yeesh) is not derived as much from fear as from fantasy. Like the Grimms roadmap this flawed fairytale takes, Big has to bungle something if only to make the resolution that’s much more mushy. Apparently, devotees of this half-assed Harlequin shite aren’t satisfied until they’re squirting out a few dozen Croc tears. So Big is the clichéd catalyst, the necessary Fabio to the film’s rom com cover artlessness.

As the broken record with an equal amount of irredeemablity, Miranda Hobbes is hopeless. All throughout this supposed grrl power struggle, her educated lawyer whines like a mofo. Every few minutes, she is pointing out her professional status to a seemingly uncaring clique. Carrie and the gals want to go out and drink. Miranda reminds them that she’s an attorney with a real job (guess that puts you in your place Miss Lady of Letters). Samantha suggests something a tad kinkier, and Ms. Hobbes is yanking out the business card. Even as her marriage is falling apart (in pure “it’s his fault” formulaics), she restates her career gal goals. It’s almost as if she is trying to convince herself that there’s an actual excuse for her pathetic party pooper status. Usually, there isn’t.

Of course, the Brooklyn-ese bartender she’s married to doesn’t make her any more sympathetic. He’s a weak little cuss, deciding that the best way to handle a little bedroom rejection is to find another sack to settle in. Naturally, he just adds fuel to Miranda’s misery. Leave it to a movie like Sex and the City to take two of its most formidable, linked to the real world women and turn them into characters out of something by a batty Barbara Carlton. The whole last hour of this overlong film focuses on how both Carrie and Miranda learn to forgive. Both need a whole lot of convincing, and it’s here where writer/director Michael Patrick King shows his true colors. Men love to think that females are the crueler, more spiteful members of the human race. It verifies their frequent self-imposed (and necessitated) feelings of inadequacy. Sex and the City gives these thoughts horrible haute complicity.

If there is a weak link in this loathsomeness, it’s Charlotte York. She’s more than happy to throw her erectile dysfunctional past behind her for the sake of a million bucks and a paid-for flat. Now, life is all about the adopted Asian baby and the happily emasculated husband. Whenever she’s onscreen, she’s like a harpy who finally found a guy who enjoyed her controlling harangues. Harry Goldenblatt is so non-macho his shaved head looks like a baby’s bottom, the spouse shorn of anything remotely resembling gender or power. It’s safe to say that Charlotte’s only contribution to this noxious narrative is a high pitched scream every time something supposedly shocking/sensational happens. The rest of the time, she’s Suzy Homemaker with a bigger bank account. 

Which leaves us, lastly, with saggy Samantha Jones. Here’s Sex‘s strangest dichotomy, an older gal who believes the best way to safeguard her self-esteem and self-import is to sleep around, a proud panther who preys on anything with a crotch and a credit card. In a post-feminist world where women argue for their inner goddess, she’s Medusa. Instead of treating her body like a temple, Samantha prefers a more tract house approach. Every time she spits out her pro-whore stance, you can literally see her friends doing an inner eye roll. It’s like listening to your grandmother defend her love of gansta rap. Not only is Miranda out of touch, she’s out of excuses. By the time an inevitable sequel rolls around, she’ll be working at one of the many Nevada ‘ranches’, defending her choice as “hers” to make.

The best way to understand this otherwise incomprehensible slag is to examine her five year relationship with hunky soap star Jerry “Smith” Jerrod. In the film, Samantha acts as his manager. She dotes on him while shuttling back and forth between the coasts. He is hopelessly devoted, and never even hints at straying or being unfaithful. He even coughs up $50K for a gaudy ring that Samantha wanted for herself. Yet every time our horndog heroine sees her lothario next door neighbor drilling the local talent, she’s awash in nookie nostalgia. Pining away for penis is one thing - everyone has urges. But Samantha is willing to throw away Mr. Right for Mr. Right Now. And her justification - she loves herself too much to compromise her feelings. Not too selfish, huh?

One of the main arguments made against Woody Allen’s New York stories, and something like Annie Hall specifically, is that his characters are all too self-absorbed and neurotic, masking their problems in clever quips and prosaic picture book patina. If that’s the case, Sex and the City is Narcissus with a standing reservation at the Blue Water Grill. Where the ‘70s classic combined its stereotypes with satire to break new ground in both areas, this post-millennial mess is just fake wish fulfillment funny business. When these gals undermine each other, it’s usually at a ‘yo momma’ level, and when they try to express themselves seriously, they’re like high school sophomores giving an oral book report. The hemming and hawing is horrific.

Clearly, a movie like this is going to do its job. It is merely required to preach to a congregation that already knows the sermon and can recite the responsorial by heart. The characters aren’t supposed to be realistic because, like, it’s all make-believe and pretend, right? Carrie Bradshaw and her pals are just idealized representations of what women think about when they get that elusive free moment to themselves, the visualization of their literal one chance to dream. So what if the end result is something reprehensible morally, romantically, socially, and aesthetically? A guy-based fantasy would barely make it past the looser than normal standards of the Internet’s porn community. This is just tit for tat, for tit.

Yet in Annie Hall, and later Manhattan, a true artist like Woody Allen found a way to make similar material sing. His heroine was also after her own sense of self, sleeping around toward part of it, selfishly rationalizing her way toward the rest. The men she met were also superfluous and subjective, props in a play that would eventually leave her alone, unsettled, but satisfied. There was no need for pie in the sky hyperbole - the real world offered its own delights - and the mindless purchasing of “things” never satiated a single broken heart or dream. Some might argue that this is nothing but personal progress, sisters doing it for themselves some thirty years later. If Sex and the City: The Movie represents the revolutionary, the hostilities are already over - and nobody won.

by Bill Gibron

26 May 2008

He got his start like most pre post-modern moviemakers, via the still struggle medium of ‘50s/‘60s television. There, his approach was allowed to take root and flourish. He had actually begun his career as an actor, appearing in productions for such stalwart shows as Playhouse 90, The Twilight Zone, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Before that, he had studied his craft with the famous teacher Sanford Meisner. Not bad for an Indiana boy born of troubled first generation Russian immigrant parents. His father was a boxer turned druggist, his mother was an alcoholic who died when Sydney was 16. Now, with his own passing from stomach cancer at age 73, Hollywood has lost one of its solid cinematic artists.

Pollack first came to prominence after a stint onstage, when he co-stared with future lifelong friend Robert Redford in the film War Hunt. The two formed an instant bond and would go on to work together for nearly 45 years, Pollack directing his pal in the films This Property is Condemned, Jeremiah Johnson, The Way We Were, Three Days of the Condor, The Electric Horseman, Out of Africa, and Havana. In fact, over the course of his career, Pollack featured Redford in nearly a third of the 20 movies he made. He also worked regularly with such old school stars as Burt Lancaster (The Scalphunters, Castle Keep) and Robert Mitchum (The Yakuza), and later made two films with contemporary macho man Harrison Ford (Random Hearts and the Sabrina redux).

Like Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer, Pollack brought the dramatic intensity of his days in the theater and TV to the fledgling revolution occurring in film. His style could best be summed up by the brilliant social commentary They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Set within a Depression era dance-a-thon, and featuring fiery performances by Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, and Oscar Winner Gig Young, Pollack uncovered the simmering unease of the era, perfectly reflecting the film’s contemporary 1969 mirror message. His movies were like that - quiet and subtle, selling their conceits in perfectly modulated performances and expertly helmed scenes. And like his fellow filmmakers of the era, Pollack wasn’t afraid to try.

He did so with the old fashioned romance The Way We Were, though that movie also tackled subjects like racism and political unrest. Jeremiah Johnson was a pure post-modern Western, an anti-establishment look at one man defying nature to live at personal peace. Three Days of the Condor took the Watergate hangover and cast it as part of an international intelligence Cold War malaise, while The Electric Horseman argued against fame and for those who would sidestep the spotlight to live freely, and happily. Many of the heroes in Pollack’s films defy the odds to be their own person, be it the US ex-pat caught up in Castro’s Cuban revolution, or a young associate taking on a crew of crooked lawyers.

As an actor, Pollack frequently blurred the line between good and evil. In what is perhaps his most memorable turn, he was the confused agent in Tootsie who can’t understand Dustin Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey, and frankly, doesn’t want to. Conned into playing the part by the superstar himself, the director gives an amazingly unhinged turn. In Woody Allen’s searing Husbands and Wives, Pollack is the midlife crisis middle ager who tears his bimbette girlfriend down every chance he gets. He’s horrific and abusive. When Harvey Keitel couldn’t continue on with Stanley Kubrick’s arduous shooting schedule, Pollack stepped in and essayed the role of Victor Ziegler in Eyes Wide Shut, and most recently, he was George Clooney’s image conscious boss in the thriller Michael Clayton.

Oddly enough, his peak probably came in the early ‘80s when Out of Africa took home seven Academy Awards, including one for Pollack as Best Director. He had been nominated before - and definitely deserved the statues - for Tootsie and They Shoot Horses, but the epic Meryl Streep/Robert Redford weeper was the kind of effort that Oscar is naturally drawn to. After that success, his follow-up Havana flopped, and while The Firm was a hit (thanks to Tom Cruise and the John Grisham pedigree), Sabrina and Random Hearts also tanked.

The Interpreter, a 2005 suspense piece starring Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn, was the director’s last fiction film, and first foray behind the lens in nearly six years. During his absence, which was more or less self imposed, Pollack had played producer, adding titles like The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Quiet American, and Cold Mountain to his resume. The recent death of collaborator and friend Anthony Minghella hit Pollack hard. It wasn’t the first time tragedy had hit so close to home. In the early ‘90s, Steven, Pollack’s only son with wife Claire Griswold (they met at the Neighborhood Theater in New York, and were married for nearly 50 years) died in a light plane crash.

Today, the director is survived by his spouse, two daughters, and six grandchildren. Oddly enough, Pollack himself was an avid pilot, flying his own private aircraft. It was a trait he shared with co-star John Travolta when the two appeared in A Civil Action together. In 2006, the director offered up what would be his last film - the unlikely documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry. When asked to describe the allure of the subject matter, the filmmaker was deceptively honest. Apparently, Pollack was so intrigued by his first glimpse of the famed Guggenheim Museum that he became psychologically obsessed with the architect and his body of work.

It’s safe to say that, like this love letter to an unsung builder and dreamer, most of Sydney Pollack’s films were missives to men and women marginalized and unsung - and usually undeservingly so. He championed the underdog and understood the human foibles inside the heroic. As a filmmaker, he was approachable and affable, eager to teach and pass on what he knew. While no one is suggesting his films changed the course of cinema, they did establish a kind of abject professionalism that many of his compatriots from the ‘60s and ‘70s couldn’t command. He didn’t set out to deconstruct the medium or revise it into his own aesthetic likeness. Instead, Sydney Pollack made solid, substantive films. His is an onscreen voice and a behind the scenes presence that the artform will sorely miss. 

//Mixed media

Robert DeLong Upgraded for 'In the Cards' (Rough Trade Photos + Tour Dates)

// Notes from the Road

"Robert DeLong ups his musical game with his new album In the Cards and his live show gets a boost too.

READ the article