Kevin Spacey: Separating the artist from the art

The summer of 1994 brought the death of two people in Los Angeles, California. I had never heard of either of these people before, but the aftermath brought the names of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman to the ears of most of America. Whether you have an opinion as to whether Nicole’s ex-husband, O.J., committed both murders, what can be agreed on is the very limited entertainment career of Simpson was over from that time on.

Worse for some, including me, is that the three movies he made that had any sort of repeat viewing value, The Naked Gun Trilogy, now sits in a sort of limbo on the shelf. I have not watched the series more than once since 1994, even through I transferred the collection from video cassette to DVD sometime in the early 2000’s.

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As I watched them all, the very enjoyable supporting performance of O.J. as the ironically named Detective Nordberg stood out like a sore thumb. He did some yeoman’s work there, seemingly taking an endless amount of bumps and bruises with a smile on his face. He’s always the loser, until the last film when he catches the baby and in his exuberance nearly spikes it on the ground in celebration.

I was never a huge fan of O.J. and I didn’t really consider him much of an actor, but those films I enjoyed. Not any more.

For Kevin Spacey, the library of films and his acting in them is much more extensive and talented. Again, regardless of your opinion of who he is and whether he did any of the things for which he is accused, the allegations and his own actions since they have surfaced have to have some sort of effect. Ridley Scott just made the decision to completely eradicate him from the upcoming film All the Money in the World in favor of Christopher Plummer.

The move is unprecedented in its complexity and ambition. He’s doing all of the reshoots and still plans to have the film released at its original December 22 date. Some see this as virtue signalling. Knowing that the film is being released in Awards season, however, points to another reason. This film would have no chance to get any sort of recognition in current form.

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Destined to become a trivia question

For another 2017 contender starring Spacey, there will be no such opportunity at revising history. Baby Driver is one of the best films of the year. And up until the moment these allegations began to surface, it was my favorite film this year. It was great for many reasons besides Spacey, but it was also great because of him. It will likely and somewhat unfairly sink into obscurity now.

The film as it stands works with the our present image of the artist that is Kevin Spacey. His character, Doc, is the leader of an ever changing group of thieves. The one constant is a young man, Baby, who is completely under his control. The story is about Baby’s discovery of life outside of Doc’s never-ending series of heists and onto his own life with someone he loves by his side.

That these robberies benefit Doc more than anyone and that Doc is a puppet master only benefits the experience of film for the viewer. We know Baby is a victim, just as we know Doc is really his abuser, as much, if not more than the other antagonists in the film. Kevin Spacey as a puppet master and a manipulator?  Who’d imagine…now more than ever.

The point is, few people will want to.

If one looks back on the career of Kevin Spacey, most of his films are good. Nearly all of his performances are great. I personally own copies of at least 8 of the films of which he’s been a major part.

Now begins life after Spacey’s been revealed for who he is at his worst.

For the films in which he plays a bad or somewhat unprincipled guy, one might be able to get through them. The films made where he’s a shining star, like Pay It Forward, The Negotiator, The Shipping News…well its not like anyone had talked about those films lately anyway.

The real test for Hollywood is what does one do with American Beauty? This is literally a film in which its Oscar Winning star is lustful of an underage teenager (Suvari) while literally being hunted down by a homosexual (spoiler alert). This film’s aggressive handling of social mores is not an easy watch to begin with. Even I got rid of it by 2005, after getting married and having two daughters. Does the Academy continue to recognize this film or does it fade into obscurity.

Likewise The Usual Suspects. Spacey’s performance was good enough to get a supporting Oscar, but how is it viewable now? I hadn’t watched it since the 90’s, but I always kind of knew it was there, for when I wanted to watch it in the future.

L.A. Confidential is a crucial film in many ways. Although Spacey isn’t technically one of the leads, his Det. Sgt. Jack Vincennes is a crucial supporting character and is possibly my favorite Spacey performance. His character is perfectly played. The smooth operator who has a chance to be real life hero. He is undone in site of the finish line, never to see true reward. This story is not his to be told, though, and the way it unfolds is a remarkable example of film making. Indeed, we’d never see Curtis Hanson come close to this height again.

For each of these films there are excellent performers beyond Spacey. Watching Crowe beat down a spouse abuser and threatening to “slap a kiddie raper” charge on him is an ironic start for the rising of his star, when the next scene features Spacey. Fortunately for the likes of Crowe, Guy Pearce, Annette Bening, and Robin Wright, they already have established careers before Spacey’s misdeeds came to light.

The people who took part in those films and the show House of Cards extend beyond established stars. Hundreds of people made their living off of these shows and films. What will happen to their future royalties?

What will happen to those who helped to create Spacey’s more recent work, including the unreleased Gore? This will have an affect, and that is unfair.

Just like everyone who worked on the classic trio of Leslie Nielsen films, who surely lost out numerous sales on home video when O.J. went through trial after trial asserting his innocence.

All of these works of art had people who depended on the works profits as some sort of living. They were deprived of this by actions they took no part in and most certainly did not condone.

Human nature takes its toll, however. We can’t control how we react to the image of two people viciously slaughtered while watching great comedies. Nor can we push the image of an older man taking advantage of younger actors while we try our best to work through any of myriad films or television shows of a prolific career.

For my part, L.A. Confidential loses none of its power. It’s such a rich and coldly cynical story, one can’t help but be overwhelmed by the vastness of its presentation of the deep undercurrent of sickness of Hollywood, California post WWII. That Spacey leads a dual life as police detective and star only serves to underscore how little anything has changed in the years since the story that is portrayed.

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The undercurrent of the undercurrent

If the Naked Gun films weighed on my morality in my 20’s, being almost 50 gives me pause in wondering how I will ultimately react to the work of Kevin Spacey.

I will not ever stop watching the films of David Fincher, even if I skip his work on House of Cards. The Usual Suspects, with its Director Singer also under a cloud of suspicion – might sit on the shelf a while longer. GlenGarry Glen Ross doesn’t  get as much viewing as it does referencing for most.

American Beauty, for all of it’s analysis if the deviance of modern America, is likely pretty much done. There was already too much going on in that film for comfortable evening viewing, much less a Sunday afternoon.

Horrible Bosses and its second film were never considered to be long lasting fare. It was for money, not for posterity. Superman Returns is all but forgotten at this point. If you liked A Bug’s Life, you are amazing, because most people can’t even remember that is the movie they released after the first Toy Story.

This brings us back to Baby Driver. It’s not a movie that deserves to be overlooked, though I am pretty sure it will be kicked to the awards curb. As it stands, I still think this film is one of the most incredibly well directed films of my lifetime. Kevin Spacey being abusive only makes it’s creation more apt and just as amazing.

Don’t let this man’s life outside of his art diminish the work others created in his presence.

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The Rules of August: Osage County

AOC

August: Osage County – 2013

Director John Wells
Starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham
Written by Tracy Letts

Rule #12: Meryl Streep will be nominated for an Oscar for 1 film per year at least

Rule #154: Old folks quoting people with tears running down their cheek  usually aren’t happy and won’t make it through the film.

Rule #492: It is unacceptable to use the term “Injun” unless you are looking bad from all the pills / booze you took.  It’s un-American, even in a movie taking place in  the heartland.

Rule #493: It’s not acting if you are only a little off-balance when high.

Rule #573: If Meryl dresses down, it’s an automatic nomination.

Rule #626: Only in dramas would a couple that is separated make a trip to appease an overbearing mother.  In real life, even if the couple was together, only the kid of the mother would bother making the trip, plus whichever of their kids that would need a sitter.

Rule #637: “In my day”  is usually spoken by someone who bugs the crap out of everybody, Cinema style.

Rule # 638: The sister that stays behind is usually unquestioning until the big scene at the end.

Rule #639: Usually the one who’s gone has an interesting past that will be revealed as people keep talking about him,

Rule #740: Everyone must make everything obvious when hinting about a separation.

Rule #777: The kid who is most dedicated never is the favorite.

Rule #778: The kid who is the favorite is the one that takes off and has a grudge.

Rule #823: “I think he’s gonna walk through that door anytime” means we’re not expecting him back anytime soon, if ever.  Oh, look, here comes the Sheriff, with light’s blaring.

Rule #825: If the mother has issues with everyone, the kid’s usually pretty reasonable.

Rule #882: It’s necessary to have at least one scene with loud music and incoherent rambling while dancing in a movie involving addiction.

Rule #14: Showing the body being prepped for a funeral with dramatic music playing in the background is known as filler.

Rule #887: The sports car with the annoying sibling usually get the parking spot closest to the camera.

Rule #892: Live for now translates into “I am the asshole of the family.”

Rule #893: Every story about going back home has posters from your childhood on the wall in your room.  no one ever uses the room that the kid left.

Rule #915: If you like a girl who is ten years younger, you’d definitely like one that is 14.

Rule #917: The A-hole in the sports car has to play obnoxious loud music in every driving scene, even if they were in the midst of a conversation.

Rule #928: “I’ll hook you up (with pot) later” translates into “I want to remove your inhibitions.”

Rule #943: There should only be one guy from England faking an American accent in a film about people who never leave the mid-west.

Rule #956: “Porking Pippi Longstocking” should not ever be used to describe anything.  Ever.

Rule #957: Full volume argument in the middle of the yard is not a way to keep the family from knowing you’ve separated, unless you are in a drama.

Rule #989: The kid that everyone discounts is of course the one that the smartest among them would be drawn to.

Rule #993: It’s unacceptable to eat without a dress coat on, but smoking…that’s just fine.

Rule #1042: The youngest one at the table is often the one that would not eat meat.  The floosie sister getting married in Miami is a possible second.

Rule #1044: Every drama based on a play has a big scene at the dinner table.  Tension: It’s what’s for dinner.

Rule #1052: “The crux of the biscuit” needs to be used more often.

Rule #1087: An attack in the living room must be balanced by compassion in the hayfield.

Rule #1117: There are body parts of your mother that should never be discussed.

Rule #1181: Dating your cousin is okay if you can’t breed.  Unless he’s more than your cousin.

Rule #1182: The more A-listers you have in a film, the more average the movie.

Rule #1189: Every family has a person that gives gifts as horrible as Violet’s mom.

Rule #1273: There seems to be an endless amount of time for mourning for all the characters in a drama…even if most jobs only give you 3 days.

Rule #1401: Everyone in the world wants to identify with Charlie and Ivy.

Rule #1404: Everyone in the world should identify with Chris Cooper.

Rule #1508: Everyone should have an employee like Johnna, willing to “Tune up” a perv.

Rule #1557: Julia Roberts should act unhinged more often.

Rule #1558: Meryl Streep can act any way she wants, and she always will.

(***1/2 out of *****)

The Town: You know I’m from Boston, right?

The Town – 2010

Director Ben Affleck
Starring Ben Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Rebecca Hall, Pete Postlethwaite, Chris Cooper, Blake Lively, Titus Welliver, Slaine, Owen Burke
Screenplay Affleck, Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard

There’s a moment in The Town where the 4 bank robbers, all Charlestown natives, are leaving the “switch car” dressed as Nuns with masks on.  Looking across the street, they see a police officer sitting in his stopped car, just staring.  They look at him, ponder, and the officer, knowing what is in store, chooses to look the other way.  The decision saves his life.  It’s the most riveting moment in the film filled with moments intended to be riveting.

It took a while to get motivated to see this film, given that the major artistic force behind the film is a guy whose career can best be described as spotty.  One can count on a single hand the number of Affleck performances that are worth seeing.  In fact, for me, Changing Lanes and Daredevil(for the attempt at a superhero flick more than the film itself) is just about the limit.

As for directing, Gone Baby Gone, was a decent start to things.  The talent involved and his willingness to loosen the reigns a bit was a benefit.  Then again, he wasn’t in that film.  Seeing his mug pop up in the trailer for The Town placed me in an awkward position.  Should one risk bad acting to see what could be a decent film?  The answer to that question is: of course.  The film is better than decent, and the acting ain’t half bad.

The good things about The Town is still, definitely the acting.  Jeremy Renner is reaching for rarefied air and he should be at the top of the heap soon.  This film is worth watching for his performance alone.  As a sociopath with a wavering loyalty gene, he marches through the film in a realistic and not overwhelmingly sentimental fashion.  As Jem, he does bad things, and not even for a real good reasons.  This is the kind of acting that will have him in front of our eyes until he is older than dirt.  The point in the movie alluded to earlier had me wondering most what he would do.  The fact that he avoided the “hot head” thing and did the prudent thing seals his character. Later on, when contemplating the relationship between he and his sister, Krista, it is much easier to understand his real motivation: and it’s not what one would assume.

Another great performance is that of the late Pete Postlethwaite.  His performance as the crime boss Fergie “The Florist” does more for the character than anything the screenplay provides.  Perhaps it’s that as the heavy in the film, he has only but one fat, middle-aged guy providing the intimidation and protection for him at the same time.  Any other actor would have made that arrangement seem naked to the world.  It’s a compliment to Postlethwaite’s ability that we get the feeling that there are other more dangerous forces lurking somewhere off-screen.

As the imprisoned father of MacRay (Affleck), Cooper gives a poignant performance in his lone scene.  His effortless misery pushes Affleck to another level that he rarely, if ever, has reached in the past.

Hamm and Welliver do well in their straight performances as the men in blue.  Hamm’s Special Agent Frawley of the FBI retains some of the slick charm he has employed so effectively for years on Mad Men.  One gets the feeling that were he not tasked with bringing these guys in, he could be running the show for the crooks.  Welliver, as Boston Officer Dino Ciampa is under used, as usual.  His performances are always on the periphery of something great.

The biggest weakness in The Town is the screaming lack of logic behind the film.  When it would be obvious to put a tail on the main, once kidnapped bank manager, Claire (Hall), even mentioned by more than one character.  Still, it doesn’t happen until the plot requires it. What’s more, once the task force has determined who their main suspects are, for some reason, they fail to put even the most casual stake out on them, in the midst of a robbery spree.

Hall’s performance is uneven, for the screenplay’s decision to give her most serious lapses in judgement, from the seemingly random bits of personal information that she shares with someone she barely knows, to her decision to just quit a couple of weeks after the trauma she suffered, then to her choices after she finds out what’s really going on.  There is no real sense that a real human being would choose to do these things, even if she is pretty with great lips.

For Affleck’s part, he pretty much plays it by the numbers.  He is somber when necessary and shows some flair when it’s time to move on his decisions.  One has a hard time picturing just what it is that would make him the leader of this troupe, as he is almost never seen planning or even contemplating his next assignment.  This film gives no sign that he will ever be anything more than a decent lead in a film, as there has been almost no movement on the needle since he first appeared on the big screen.  He’s really just a big, somber, jaw.  Anyone who doesn’t agree, just try to picture how much better this film would have been for all involved if his brother Casey had been in the lead.

The Town is a solid film, with well filmed action scenes that are not necessarily backed by any sort of logical premise.  The big push to make everything so home-grown down to the nicknames is getting a little old.  We get it, you’re not just from Boston, but a tough sub-section of Boston.  Going a little loose with the facts, like 300 bank robberies a year, when Massachusetts itself has around 100 as a state.  The acting is solid, though, and the characters allowed to breathe, for the most part.  There is a good amount of tension, especially in from the moment they think they are free in the last heist through the rest of the film.  A lot of clichés had to occur to get to the last act, but they don’t waste it.  It’s the best part of the film.

(***1/2 out of *****)