One of the unfortunates of this column only being published once a month (which is down from the original rate of twice of month, which was starting to become more a chore than a pleasure) is that I usually don’t get to comment on things that have just happened. This is particularly true when an actor, filmmaker, writer or anyone along those lines happens to die. Through no fault of their, they usually don’t die at the same time I’m writing this. That leaves me open to writing obituaries. I’ve done that in the past, but honestly, I find it kind of depressing. I can comment on death, but I don’t want a head space that anticipates the possibility of having to write about it on any given day.
Drunk Monkeys already has an excellent obituary on James Gandolfini. I highly recommend you give it a look. I’m not the guy to mark every famous name who leaves the planet, but it’s impossible not to ignore them. Especially those that involve names that had some sort of influence on my life, even if they were just exceptionally good at their craft. I would be lying, if I said James Gandolfini was a huge influence on me in any way. But he was an exceptional, often underrated character actor.
Gandolfini was primarily known for The Sopranos, and it is fine that he was. The infuriatingly vague ending aside, the intense mob drama was a revolutionary step forward on HBO’s part. It was one the shows that proved HBO was essential to anyone who wanted to see powerful, intense television with few restrictions. It helped to serve notice to network television that anything they could do, HBO and similar networks could potentially do better (and they have done this repeatedly by now). Other shows before and after The Sopranos helped with this thought, but the influence ofThe Sopranos is already profound. It deserves the myriad of honors and accolades it continues to receive.
And Gandolfini was a big part of that. He found variations and mixtures of humor, rage, grief, honor, love, and intense suffering in every single episode of the series. Even the weakest offerings for The Sopranos (and there weren’t many) had these things. This series will likely be what he’s remembered for, and that’s cool.
His film career wasn’t spectacular, but it’s filled with a number of memorable performances, many that qualify as brilliant, and it’s worth remembering as much The Sopranos. He played the none-too-bright mob thug more than once, especially in the early years of his career (I’ve always liked his one big scene with Travolta in Get Shorty), but his fame on The Sopranos occasionally gave him the opportunity to go a little beyond that. It’s safe to say that he was generally typecast, but he was able to find a lot of range through strong performances in films like 8mm, The Man Who Wasn’t There,Welcome to the Rileys, Where the Wild Things Are, Romance and Cigarettes, Zero Dark Thirty, Killing Them Softly, and others. He had a particular strength for playing wounded men being slowly destroyed by their pride. Some of these characters on paper are strictly one-note personalities. Gandolfini proved with many of these characters that a good actor could find something to give them humanity and definition.
James Gandolfini may have played characters with a multitude of casting possibilities, but there will nonetheless never be an actor with the distinct personality and talent he lent to those characters.
In 2014, we will see the last role he filmed in Animal Rescue. It’s impossible not to be extremely saddened by that. However, as long The Sopranos remains relevant, people will discover his work in film. That’s a minor comfort, but it’s still something.
This is the End (2013): B-
If you’re like me, you’ll go into This is the End feeling presumptuous. You’re not expecting much of a story. Even though there is indeed a plot revolving largely around a group of actors who frequently work together (Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, and Danny McBride) trying to survive the unexpected (isn’t that always the way?) arrival of the apocalypse. You assume the story is just there to play host to what will hopefully be a spectacular, featuring an assortment of comedic actors who have all proven their chemistry together in past movies. That assumption isn’t altogether wrong, but it’s not completely accurate either. The story for This is the End isn’t perfect, and it loses a little steam towards the end, but it’s still a lot stronger than the trailers will lead you to believe. Much of the movie focuses on the main cast trying to survive the world ending and each other, but the plot is not just some static entity that needs the actors to fill it up. This is the End actually moves through a variety of plot points, and doesn’t simply rely on Rogen and company to keep everything afloat. If this sounds like a strange thing to focus on, that’s just because I was honestly impressed with what Rogen and Evan Goldberg (in their fourth collaboration) came up with. Still, the main attraction for This is the End is to see all of these people interact with each other in ways that will hit comedy pay dirt over and over again. Emma Watson in particular almost steals the whole thing. Impressively, in spite of a huge cast (there are several notable, often-hysterical cameos) that strives to keep the laughs rolling, while also earnestly attempting to tell a worthwhile doomsday story, everything fits quite well. The jokes work far more often than not, and everyone’s favorite (mine is Craig Robinson) in the main cast gets plenty to do. In a summer movie scene that’s lacking in decent comedies, This is the End is more than welcome to pick up the slack. It does, and the movie’s success at being such a tour-de-force is something that’s worth being impressed by.
Only the Lonely (1991): B-
Essentially a remake of the classic film Marty, Only the Lonely was one of John Candy’s efforts to prove he was more than just a loveable, heavyset goober. It was a film persona that gave him career success, but it also typecast him for most of his unfortunately short film career. Those who have seen any of Candy’s SCTV characters know his comedic range reached much further than he usually got credit for. Only the Lonely gave Candy the kind of character he usually played, but it was also an opportunity to do something with more serious moments thrown in. As a spiritual remake of Marty, Only the Lonely is definitely inferior. It’s a sluggish, unimpressive retelling, and it’s not entirely hard to understand why the movie is not remembered by a lot of people 22 years later. The strong score listed above for Only the Lonely is almost entirely because of the cast. Candy makes the most of one of the only opportunities he would ever get to be more than just an amicable buffoon. The believable, charming relationship his character develops with a shy funeral home cosmetician (Ally Sheedy), as well as the mildly dysfunctional relationship he shares with his mother (the great Maureen O’Hara) are pretty much the only things keeping this movie alive. They do such a good job of that, it’s easy to suggest Only the Lonely to any John Candy fans who never got around to seeing this. Not seeing Marty first might even make you like the rest of the movie.
Autumn Sonata (1978): A-
Bergman movies are famously heavy, heavy films to tackle. Autumn Sonata, made in Norway while the filmmaker was having tax headaches in Sweden, is no different. Yet it’s also one of his most straightforward offerings. The film’s main thread of intense family dysfunction coming to a nuclear blast of a boil is easy to keep up with (if you don’t usually dig on these kinds of movies). Of course, it’s a Bergman film, so there are a lot of other cinematic, theological (which are not as intense here as they are in movies like The Seventh Seal), and psychological (music plays a big part in that psychology) elements at play, but you don’t need those things to be absolutely mesmerized by that main thread. The movie is just a little over 90 minutes, but it feels much longer than that. The story is of a world-renowned concert pianist (Ingrid Bergman, in what would be her final film performance) being forced to finally face the consequences of her selfish life, during a reunion with her two adult children (Liv Ullmann and Lena Nyman) after several years of relative silence. Most of the movie’s time is spent on the awkwardness between Ullmann and Bergman, which then becomes a pained effort at closeness, which soon goes from there to become a horrific ceremony of trying to cleanse deep, festering emotional wounds. We watch the destruction behind Ullmann rattling Bergman again and again with one awful, painful revelation after, and in doing so we are forced to endure the agonizingly organic development of their time together. It proves, as much then as it did now, that Ingrid Bergman was one of the finest actresses of any generation. Ullmann also proves with every last one of her scarred, furious lines that she is the perfect half to the two-punch intensity of this film. Halvar Björk, as Liv Ullmann’s husband, also deserves a lot of credit, for giving us a quiet, sad performance that manages to not be swallowed up by Ullmann or Bergman. Family disorder and destruction is natural fodder for film. Autumn Sonata is one of the finest, most harrowing examples of this ever made. With Autumn Sonata, it’s very easy to just there afterwards. It takes a minute to process what you’ve just seen.
The Last Airbender (2010): F-
When M. Night Shyamalan’s interpretation of Nickelodeon’s extremely popular Anime series came out, I was at a grocery store one in Savannah, GA one night with friends. They had just seen the film, discussing things like the wretched 3D effects, and although I tried to follow the conversation, a blinding migraine made that impossible. I finally watched the film a couple of weeks ago, and I can pretty confidently say that I would have been fine, if all I had in terms of being able to discuss the movie with others was the story I just told. Trying to work through a level of agony that later caused me to blackout, while also trying to listen to my friends review the film (they didn’t like it either), has proven to be far more entertaining than The Last Airbender was. I won’t waste your time on trying to explain the plot, the characters (I don’t hold the child actors personally responsible for how bad this movie was, but they still sucked pretty bad along with the rest of cast), or why this fails every level of humanity. I won’t go into those things, because if you haven’t seen the movie yet, I don’t want you to. If you have to see The Last Airbender, then at least have the good sense to buy the RiffTrax commentary. If The Last Airbender is remembered for anything, it will be for standing tall as one of the most profane examples of whitewashing in modern film history.
John Dies at the End (2012): A
On the strength of deserved cult classics like Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep, Don Coscarelli knows how to give a weird story the cinematic treatment it deserves. Based on David Wong’s novel John Dies at the End, Coscarelli revels in the opportunity to bring one of the most bizarre horror comedies in recent memory to life. John Dies at the End throws a lot of wonderfully weird things at the wall. You have slackers (Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes), a skeptical reporter (Paul Giamatti, clearly having the time of his life with his first visit to the horror genre), a TV psychic (Clancy Brown), a determined cop (Glynn Turman), a living drug called soy sauce that grants psychic powers (amongst other things), a heroic dog, zombies, ghosts, alternate dimensions, and religious cults. There’s more comedy than horror here, but that’s not a bad thing. A lot of the humor in John Dies at the End is in the way the film is fearlessly determined to make you question what you’ve just seen at every turn (such as the delightful, but absolutely random cameo with Phantasm star Angus Schrimm). Coscarelli fans will know exactly what they’re getting themselves into. Those who haven’t seen the director’s past films (and you should) may want to proceed with a little caution. How much you love this movie depends on how much you’re willing to surrender to Coscarelli’s “Well, why the hell not” approach to adapting Wong’s novel. If you can leave disbelief at the door, John Dies at the End will be one of the most enjoyable, deranged thrill rides you’ve taken in quite some time. A friend of mine described it as “The TV show Supernatural on enough cocaine to kill the 1970’s version of Robert Evans”, and I think that sums it up beautifully.