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 Mummy (**1/2) guesses wrong…a lot

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The Mummy – 2017

Director Alex Kurtzman
Screenplay  David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie, Dylan Kussman
Starring  Tom Cruise, Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance, Russell Crowe

Every summer, there is at least one movie that misses on an approximation of what a movie should be. Sahara is a great example of this. This year’s example might as well be The Mummy. Kurtzman’s bloated estimate of a movie doesn’t know if it’s an adventure movie that needs to be funny, or a comedy that needs to have adventure. If you throw an overarching drama in there, then you really got a mess. Wait, isn’t this supposed to be horror?

The film starts off with two adventurers who awkwardly end up finding an ancient tomb of an Egyptian princess (Boutella) who’s been erased from history because she wanted to rule a little too soon. This results in one of the adventurers (Johnson) becoming zombified and killing his commander (Vance) while en route somewhere with the casket of the princess. Then the plane they’re on crashes…man I am getting bored even recounting this…leaving the main adventurer (Cruise) dead after saving the life of science girl (Wallis). Then the real crazy stuff begins.

The rest of the first two acts finds Cruise and Wallis running around ancient Oxford England, among other places. They are trying to avoid the reconstituted princess and her zombies (including Johnson, who becomes some sort of Griffin Dunne American Zombie in London). They quickly realize that Cruise is not only hard to kill, but he is drawn to the mummy Boutella. Tough as he is, he still can’t beat her with a stick.

Enter Russell Crowe and his merry band of secret society soldiers. Crowe, whose name is Dr. Henry Jekyll. His main job is to give Cruise’s Nick Morton a bunch of exposition which translates into a welcome into the Universal Monster franchise, which he calls Prodigium.

One really hesitates to blame Cruise for the ineffectiveness of The Mummy. He gives it the old college try, even if he never quite fits into the role as a lovable rogue. The movie throws him around like a rag doll and gives him little motivation or character beyond being tethered to The Mummy. Anyone who’s hated Cruise might like this film, because he gets the unholy hell beaten out of him.

Wallis is the girl who gets to be smart and vulnerable. She runs along side Cruise for as long as she is able. As we know, no one can out run him, even if he does have tiny legs.

Who knows what Johnson is supposed to be. He’s a discipline, but he’s a buddy, and he’s also kind of a bad guy. In every iteration, he is more annoying than funny. That’s too bad.

Fortunately, as Ahmanet, Boutella at least feels like she has a plan. Hers is not exactly a menacing Mummy, but she is driven to succeed. So she’s got that going for her.

What is the point to a franchise of classic horror villains? We can’t let them win, but can’t exactly kill them off. So everything leading up to the end is just stuff that happens while we wait for the next film. At least in the Marvel Universe, we can kill off the bad guys once in a while. We can give points for originality here, but it sure doesn’t feel like a victory.

This film is messy, but it’s not a complete disaster. It guesses a lot and most of those guesses land awkwardly. One can wonder if that good line was by McQuarrie, or if the bad plot line was Koepp. Or if it would have been better but for second time director Kurtzman. The film is passable, but in no way can we consider it the solid basis for the Dark Universe franchise. The sense of adventure exhibited in this film could lead to something better. It’s a long shot, though.

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

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (***1/2) Needs desperate times…

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Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation – 2015

Written and Directed by Christopher McQuarrie
Starring Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Alec Baldwin

One of the funniest scenes in the entire M:I series takes place during the 3rd act. As the principal protagonists surround a person of interest, one of the good guys, Benji (Pegg) is kidnapped by some of the bad guys. Instantly, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) tells his right hand man, Luther Sticknell (Rhames) to stay with the suspect as Hunt and Brandt (Renner) chase after the people who have already placed Benji in the trunk and started driving off. It takes about five steps for a lumbering Sticknell to lose his target. Cruise and Brandt burst into the next scene running at full speed in the garage as the car pulls away. They give up the ghost about 15 steps in, and literally within the same distance, we see Sticknell – moving faster towards diabetes than his running takes him – huffing his way right into the scene. How in the world did Sticknell catch them? Well, McQuarrie did not want to wait for him, so he just had him there when he needed him. They don’t want to waste the celluloid to watch Rhames run in real time.

Ving Rhames has never been what one might call a small man, but it’s clear that in this film where the action is constant, the most appropriate place for his character is in front of a keyboard. Luckily for him, Benji and Brandt can do a few other things. Hunt…well, he does everything else. Full bore.

By now, everyone has caught up to speed with the M:I cast. What was a hit and largely miss first couple of films has, since Cruise met up with J.J. Abrams, taken a turn for the best. At that point, we got a more solid team to form around Cruise, with a movement towards solid, often physical comedy. The series peak of Ghost Protocol brought in Paula Patton and Renner, director Brad Bird placed each of the actors in a prime position to excel. If this left Rhames off the screen for the most part, it still hinted at things to come when he made an appearance at the end.

This time we have the same team except for Patton who is missed, even if the one major character opposite Cruise is Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust. She plays a Femme Fatale who is surprising for her abilities, her mysterious alliances and that she is over 30. Faust is always in step with Cruise, except when she is a step ahead. Their dance is one of the good things about Rogue Nation, as it gives Hunt a different type of counterpart. One that he trusts, but probably shouldn’t.

She is a double (or possibly triple) agent who is in deep with The Syndicate, which is the titular rogue nation of ex-agents that are going everywhere and doing everything bad. Sean Harris is their leader, Solomon Lane. He provides a creepy, if almost wimpy voice. He is mostly there to remind us that there is one guy that Hunt will face off in the end, after he passes all the other bad guys.

It’s going to be tough, though, because CIA director Alan Hunley (Baldwin) has just lobbied the Senate oversight committee that MIF should be disbanded. This leads to Brandt and Benji joining the CIA, Sticknell quitting and Hunt going off grid, as he works on the mystery of The Syndicate.

In spite of what you’ve heard, the mystery is not real hard to solve. Just following the rule that it’s probably because of a couple pompous Brits and a blowhard American, one will be able to surmise what is going on.

The fun of it all, though, is watching Cruise’s reckless enthusiasm and willingness to look clumsy and lucky as often as valiant and athletic. While there are no scenes in here that match the Burj Khalifa in Ghost Protocol, the airplane at the start of the film approaches it for comedic value and intensity. Still, the opening scene, the underwater scene and subsequent chase are as good as anything else in the series. If the film lets down in the last act, that’s okay. At some point soon, we have to feel a real sense of danger and, dare I say it, loss. If not, the films risk being too safe to be next level entertainment.crazy-underwater-stunt-in-the-new-mission-impossible

Pegg’s Benji is relied upon for much of the comic relief this time, and for the most part he delivers. The more he is used, the less effective he is overall. The film could have used a little more punch from Renner and Sticknell. The less I see of them, the more I wonder why have them in the film at all. If you can’t tell the kind of role Baldwin will play in an action film by now, just think of a Ving Rhames that doesn’t touch a computer. He is there mainly to provide an obstacle and occasional unwitting support. His role could have been played by anyone. Well, anyone but Andy Dick.

This is Cruise and Ferguson’s film, for worse and mostly better. In Faust, Hunt gets the female counterpart that was prominent in the first 2 films, but largely absent in the last 2. We can’t really count Monaghan, because she was not an agent, largely a target and she lasted more than one film. If the film is not as good as the two preceding it, it’s still one of the best films of the summer, and a worthy addition to the string. The effort Cruise puts into everything makes it remarkably breathtaking, even if there is never any thought that he’s ever not going to make it.

McQuarrie is not JJ Abrams, and he’s definitely not Brad Bird. His contributions behind the camera and the keyboard are incredibly solid, if equally safe. As a result, it’s not to the level we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from Tom Cruise’s signature series.

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

Edge Of Tomorrow (***1/2): Try, try again…

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Edge of Tomorrow – 2014

Director Doug Liman
Starring Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson, Noah Taylor
Screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth based on All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka

First thing’s first.  Edge of Tomorrow is a likable film.  Tom Cruise puts everything into it, just like usual.  Cruise’s Major William Cage is a mouthpiece for the military who is busted down to private and shown the front line despite his protestations.  This puts him in line to be the butt of ridicule and low expectations, just like the good old days.  And also like his past, Cruise gets to rise above those obstacles and the enemy as well.

Why is he busted down?  It’s the thinnest of excuses, but it amounts to “I don’t want to film the front line.”  So here he is, thrust into the midst of a disaster so bad, the big hero Vrataski (Blunt) of the war is decimated quickly. He outlasts her only long enough to kill one of the blue ones instead of the many red ones.  The blue ones are known as Alphas.  And their death triggers a reset of the day, time-wise by the Omega, who is the big brain of the attack.  The Alpha’s blood is mixed with his and this gives him the ability to reset as well.  Of course he too has to die to enact these resets.

This is not apparent to Cage until he gets together with Vrataski to compare notes.  This is something that Vrataski knows because she used to have the same ability, until…well, I will let you discover why.  She works to train Cage and at the same time they try to figure out how they can attack the Omega while avoiding  the Alpha.  This whole section of the film is handled cleverly enough to avoid being repetitive.  Still, its loud and the bad guys seem too animated to give a visceral feeling to the viewer.  Compare this to the street battle scenes in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and it becomes obvious what is lacking.

Cruise is good, but he’s treading over oft covered ground.  Blunt gives the strongest performance of the film, even if her character is an extension of her Devil Wears Prada self.  Paxton is more annoying than he’s been in a while.  Brendan Gleeson is very large for a general wearing camouflage.  Doug Liman does a great job with pacing, but like any director given the keys to the computer after so long, using traditional filming methods, he relies too awkwardly on the effects and the result is disconcerting.

Edge of Tomorrow works hard to please, even if at 113 minutes it still feels long.  That feeling is completely subjective.  The film has been well received by audiences and critics alike.  As much as I respect Cruise for his efforts to bring something new to the table each time out (even with his M:I sequels), this is not going to be one that I revisit all that often.

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

Jack the Giant Slayer another fairy tale with automatic weapons

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Jack The Giant Slayer – 2013

Directed by Bryan Singer
Starring Nicholas Hoult, Ewan McGregor, Eleanor Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Ian McShane, Bill Nighy, John Kassir, Ewan Bremner, Ralph Brown
Written by Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie, Dan Studney

Why is Bryan Singer directing a movie about a fairy tale?  Really.  The Usual Suspects. X-Men.  Valkyrie.  Now, a fairy tale.  Of course, it’s easy to forget Superman Returns.  Everyone else seems to have forgotten it.  Supposedly, this movie’s idea was proposed before the recent spate of  effects laden fairy tale films including Red Riding Hood, Snow White and the Huntsman, Hansel and Gretel, Alice in Wonderland, and Mirror Mirror.  All of these films, except for Snow White were bad.  This one has certain things going for it: Hoult, McShane, McGregor.  There’s one thing definitely not in its favor: Stanley Tucci as Stanley Tucci.  Another problem, quite obviously, is the fact that the giants look goofier than Harryhausen special effects.

Yes, there aree giants.  Plural.  There are a bunch of them.  Named, among other things, Fe, Fi, Fo and Fum.  This is not the only departure from the original tale, but as usual, most of them are in the spirit of expanding the tale.  Not for the sake of story.  Just the chance for extensive special effects.  The good news, however is that some of the giants interact like genuine characters.  I give credit to Bill Nighy, who, along with John Kassir plays the two-headed King Fallon.  One wishes that we had, perhaps, a Helen Mirren giant to go along with him.

What we get this time is a fairy tale within the fairy tale about the ancient King Eric, who saved the kingdom from giants before.  His bloodline survives, along with the tale, which eventually becomes so old it is no longer considered real.  This is an important lesson for the viewer, allowing the story tellers to preset the possibility of a reality to the tale known as Jack and the Beanstalk.  Whatever.  We really just know we can expect explosions, arrows, fire and death.

There always has to be some sort of automatic crossbow in these faux tales, and here is no exception.  At least this time we have the pleasure of seeing it stopped by a sling shot that shoots more than peas.  There are many inventive and somewhat unexpected deaths in the films.  Some folks you thought would stick around until the annoying end are offed in the first hour.  This makes the film more daring than most of its kind, and the benefit almost overcomes the lack of a real conclusive battle.

Hoult is excellent as the unexpected hero.  He has a real humble and honest charm that makes him a common day hero.  McGregor has an electric smile, and he puts it to good use here, along with the requisite blue screen skills he acquired in the 3 bad Star Wars films.  Ian McShane can be my king anytime.  Or my saloon owner.  It’s a joy to see him think things through.  It’s good to see Ralph Brown, of “85” fame from Alien3.  He is also in Stoker.   He’s a presence that adds a quiet, wonderful dimension to most films he is in.

Of the rest of cast, there is not much to say.  Just a bunch of (human) faces and (giant) voices.  It would have been nice to know the motives of the giants, or to find out some of their history.  Alas, it was not to be.  Oh, well.  They haven’t done 3 Little Pigs yet.  One wonders how they will fit the machine gun crossbow in there.

(*** out of *****)

Jack Reacher plays like a procedural with an edge

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Jack Reacher – 2012

Written and Directed by Christopher McQuarrie
Starring Tom Cruise, Jai Courtney, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, Werner Herzog, David Oyelowo, Robert Duvall, Alexia Fast

Taking on book franchises can be a tricky business.  One can run the risk of pissing off the fan base even before the movie is released.  Tom Cruise managed to do this by just not looking like the book’s subject.  It seems like a flimsy reason to move away from something, but readers are always the intended crowd for the film makers.  In reality, if you have a series that the readers have stuck with, you can expect that it is likely due to the stories.  In this sense, one can nail a steady audience of viewers by following the most translatable parts of the story onto the screen.  If they do this well enough, they can have the viewers and then even more readers.  It’s a win for the viewers, and a win for those looking to pump out product.

That Cruise has one working franchise is a minor miracle.  The way the first 2 Mission Impossible films turned out, there did not deserve to be a 3rd.  Then Cruise found J.J. Abrams and never looked back.  Upon finding out that he was moving into the role of Jack Reacher, one had to wonder who was stepping into the creative role that Abrams and his team, Orci and Kurtzman filled.  In the case of Jack Reacher, that spot is filled quite well with McQuarrie.  McQuarrie first came into the national consciousness with his script for The Usual Suspects, which netted him an Oscar in 1996.  He’s done some decent work since, including Valkyrie and Ghost Protocol, but he also dabbled in some crap, like The Tourist.  But even the venerable Julian Fellowes was tarred by that one.  His work here is above the latter drivel.  Far above that.

Having not read any of the Jack Reacher novels, I am at a loss to evaluate how well the movie follows the spirit of the book.  What one can say is the movie is smart, unsympathetic and daring.  Several innocent people perish in the first few frames, including children.

Tom Cruise has created a titular character who is hard-boiled, but not seething.  He never lets his passion get in the way of his instinct.  He’s been around many blocks to not comprehend what is expected of him.  His work as an MP lead to a career solving crimes under the blanket of anonymity.  He is kind of a one man A-Team, without the convictions.  He does very few things that do not make sense, so long as we disinclude the stupid mano a mano towards the end.  There is also a fair amount of luck involved when he does make mistakes that help make his character more human if not exactly flawed.

The mystery itself is rather predictable, but the way it is unfurled is entertaining nonetheless.  Some of the cast is intriguing, especially the inclusion of Jenkins, Duvall, and especially Herzog, who makes a rare appearance in front of the camera.  None of the 3 are wasted.  The rest of the cast, including Pike, has a limited appeal.

Jack Reacher clocks in at a lengthy 2:10.  They really could have shaved off at least 45 minutes and still maintained its appeal.  If they make more of these films, my guess is that they will have to be shorter.  We won’t need to know who he is, not that we really care.  As played by Cruise, Jack Reacher is what he wants us to see.

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