The Judge

Posted on October 9, 2014 at 6:00 pm

Copyright Warner Brothers 2014
Copyright Warner Brothers 2014

Robert Downey Jr. gives his best performance since “Chaplin” in “The Judge,” an absorbing story of family, redemption and home.

Downey co-produced and stars as Hank Palmer, a Chicago criminal defense attorney known for doing whatever it takes to get his clients a “not guilty” verdict. Hank relies on his two strengths and his belief in a third.  He has a restless intelligence that operates like a perpetual random radar signal going off in every direction at once.  As we will see in a sensational bar scene where he sizes up some guys heading towards him with fight in their eyes, Hank can size up a situation and formulate a dazzling verbal response in an instant.  But that same intelligence also makes him impatient and dismissive.

Hank also has a coping mechanism for keeping him focused that has worked very effectively.  It is basically not to think too much about anything but winning.  Other lawyers in the movie will talk about their view of the law — that it is a mechanism for making sure individuals take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, that it is the one place where everyone is equal.  Hank’s professional career has been dedicated pretty much to proving the opposite.

And Hank thinks of himself as a devoted father to his little girl, Lauren (Emma Tremblay of “The Giver”) because he loves her dearly, though, as his estranged wife points out, he cannot name her teachers, best friends, or favorite color.

These two skills and one inflated idea are what sustain Hank, and over the next seven months, he will have to give up all three to explore who he is, where he came from, and how these protective mechanisms are no longer keeping him safe but keeping him stuck. The greatest pleasure of this film is seeing Downey’s responses as a man who is very, very good at what he does learn that none of that is of any help to him.

We first see Hank taunting his opposing counsel in the courthouse men’s room. “I respect the law,” he says. “I’m just not encumbered by it.” He is representing a man he knows to be guilty of massive financial fraud. As the trial begins, he gets a message that his mother has died. Hank, who has assembled the life he thought would make him happy, a fancy home, a fancy car, a beautiful wife, will have to do something he has been avoiding for years. He will have to return to his small hometown, Carlinville, Indiana.  While it is his father who is a judge by profession, either could be the title character.  Hank has done a lot of judging of those around him and, like his father, he has found just about everyone not up to his standard.

The golden, elegiac tones provided by master cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and steeped in tradition, slightly formal soundtrack from Thomas Newman introduce us to the town. Hank pays his respects to his mother with his brothers, sweet-natured, developmentally disabled Dale (Jeremy Strong), who always carries his Super 8 movie camera, and Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), a once-promising athlete who was injured and stayed in town to run a tire store. His father, the judge (Robert Duvall), is presiding.  Hank watches from the balcony.  Some things never change.  His father still tells defendants that “Yeah” is not the way to speak in a courtroom.

But some things have changed.  The judge cannot remember the name of his longtime bailiff.  Hank suspects his father, sober for many years, may have started drinking again.

Hank is uncomfortable and feels unwelcome.  His old room has been used for storage.  He can barely find his bed.  His father and brothers barely speak to him.  Even an encounter with his high school girlfriend Samantha (Vera Farmiga, wonderfully earthy) cannot make him anything but out of place and eager to get away.

And then the judge is accused of murder.  The night of the funeral, he was driving in the rain.  A man riding a bicycle is dead, his blood on the judge’s fender. The dead man and the judge had a history.  Hank wants to defend his father, mostly because he is still hungry for his father’s approval and this will give him a chance to show the judge what he does best.  He may not be much to brag about outside the courtroom, but inside the court is where he lives.  That is something Hank and his dad share.

Co-writer and director David Dobkin is best known for wild, raunchy comedies like “The Wedding Crashers.”  Like Hank, and like the man who plays him, Dobkin here moves to the grown-up table with a rich, thoughtful, beautifully structured film, with moments of humor that are among the funniest you will see this year.  The jury selection scene is a treat all its own.

It would be enough just to get a chance to see Downey show how much more he is capable of than even his brilliant work as Tony Stark or in small gems like “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and “The Wonder Boys.”  Here he gives a master class in acting, never less than fully present in showing us Hank’s layers of protection and the deep yearning for connection they cannot hide.  The open-heartedness and vulnerability of this performance are deeply moving, a gift from Hank the character and from the man who plays him.  But this is an enormously wise and moving story, beautifully told.

Parents should know that this film has strong and crude language, sad deaths of parents, infidelity and divorce, serious car accidents with injuries and death (nothing explicit), graphic depiction of various bodily functions and fluids, gastrointestinal distress foilowing cancer treatment, sexual references, drinking and discussions of alcohol abuse and drug use

Family discussion: How were Hank and his father alike? What made it hard for them to get along?

If you like this, try: “The Client” and more films from Robert Downey, Jr. (“Chaplin,” “The Avengers”) and Robert Duvall (“The Apostle,” “Tender Mercies”)

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Courtroom Drama Family Issues

Interview: Katherine LaNasa of “Jayne Mansfield’s Car”

Posted on September 12, 2013 at 7:54 pm

Katherine LaNasa stars in “Jayne Mansfield’s Car,” a new 1960’s Southern family drama co-written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton.  LaNasa, Thornton, Kevin Bacon, and Robert Patrick play the children of a World War I veteran named Jim Caldwell (Robert Duvall).  When their mother dies in England, her British second husband (John Hurt) and his children (Frances O’Connor and Ray Stevenson) bring her body home to Alabama for her funeral.  The conflicts between and within the two families are sometimes comic, sometimes romantic, and sometimes painful.  LaNasa’s character, Donna, is a former beauty queen, the sister of three World War II veterans with varying physical and emotional scars, affectionate with her family and children but not very satisfied in her marriage.  The title of the film comes from Caldwell’s fondness for examining the scenes of car wrecks.  Jayne Mansfield's Car poster

Tell me how you first found out about this project.

Well, actually I was in Cannes with my son who was starring in Gus Van Sant’s movie, “Restless.” And I thought, well, this is what this comes to, I’m the mom of a well known actor.  I got a call about it and I decided to leave early. Henry was having a big time partying with Mick Jagger while I was sitting in my hotel, so I thought perhaps – oh he was about 20 at the time – so he was old enough, but I thought, oh I’m going back and audition and I’m so glad I did. And that’s how I came to find out about it. I was actually up for a smaller role – but the role just had scattered lines here and there, so Billy had me read the role of Donna in order to audition for the smaller role. He was actually being pressured to cast a movie star in the Donna role. So I just got really lucky.

How did you work on the Alabama accent to develop an authentic feel to it?

I am southern, from Louisiana, so that helped.  And I just based a little bit off of Lucas Black, from “Slingblade” .  There was something in the character of Donna that reminded me oddly of the boy character in Slingblade.”  There was a kind of unabashed sense of self – like his whole self was just very forward. I don’t feel that either of those characters had any shame. They just sort of were exactly who they were. And there was just that made me think about that kid in “Slingblade” when I started to work on the character of Donna. I kinda tried to morph that into Donna.  Then of course when she’s flirting turns into this whole other thing – with the voice down low – which my grandmother has a bit of that, and I also kinda wanted there to be this “hickiness” to the accent at times, like when I speak to my husband.  I’d say “Oh Jimbo” not that it was oh so grounded and soft and finished like people sometimes do when they do a Southern accent. I wanted it to have some of that twang that you hear in Lucas’ accent and a lot of the accents in the Deep South.

Your character had long and complicated histories with the other characters that were not always reflected in the dialogue.  What did you do to develop the family relationships and the back story with the other actors?

Billy said something to me at the beginning about the shooting that I thought was so informative and great which was “I think Donna is probably more herself in this town, where she has got to be a big star, because, seriously, she was Miss Alabama – she’s from this tiny town –I mean everybody’s gotta know Donna. Plus, sides the fact they are probably the richest people in town. And everybody liked her.”  And I thought – oh wow – how great it is to play a character that everyone loves. So, that was in my brain. It gave me permission to just have fun. And to just be well liked and just step into Donna the whole time that we were shooting. So the funny thing is that the relationships just started to become that while we were there. It’s like I was really the only female that was always around.  All the men would look to me to do the social planning. It got to the point where Billy’s wife was calling me to ask, could I take Billy’s son under my wing – into the fold – it’s like hilarious. I said, “You know, I’m not actually Donna.”  Ducall would refer to me as Donna.  I love to work that way because I thought, “My only job here is to just get to know my brothers. It’s to have a good time, be the well-liked center of attention and get to know these guys.” And I thought that that would read on film, the more that I got to know them. Billy is a very together-y guy. When he’s shooting, he likes for everyone to do stuff together and go listen to music together or have some beers and pizza together – he likes a lot of that.

When I first met Robert Patrick I died – he is so scary looking – he is a scary looking man. He has a cigar and he rides a motorcycle and in real life he mostly just wears black t-shirts.  If I had just shown up on the set to do that role with him, I think I would have played that scene completely differently. I would have felt like I had to stand up to him, which in a way – would make him look like he has more power.  When I realized that he was a sweetheart through hanging out with him so much I realized there’s this kinda soft inside to him – in his character as well – and that Donna wouldn’t be intimidated by him. Donna would just tell him to shut up.

I just let things come to me.  I personally like to hang out with people if I’m playing their mom, I’d like to go have lunch with the kid and I want to try to spend as much time with people that I can while we are working together if we’re supposed to have a familiar relationship with them because I think it reads.

My favorite scene with your character was the one where you were in bed with Philip because Donna has a lot more willingness to be honest than you normally see in a scene like that. So tell me a little bit about how that scene came together. 

That’s what I’m talking about, that same vibe that I got off that kid in “Slingblade.”  It’s really all so raw.  That complete, sort of unabashed lack of shame, there’s no dancing around it.  I really wanted to hit it –  to be pronounced.

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Actors Interview

Great Movie Moments: ‘The Apostle’ — Billy Bob Thornton Wants to Bulldoze a Church

Posted on September 15, 2011 at 8:00 am

As I wrote earlier, my new book, which should be out by the end of the year, is about some of my favorite movie moments.  I’m having a lot of fun writing about them but one thing I can’t do in a book is post the clips, so I’m going to post some of them here.  This is from “The Apostle.”  Robert Duvall wrote, directed, and stars in the story of a flawed man of faith who starts a church in a poor community.  In this scene, Billy Bob Thornton’s character, who is offended by a church with both black and white worshippers, arrives with a bulldozer to knock the church down.
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Great Movie Moments Spiritual films

Seven Days in Utopia

Posted on September 1, 2011 at 6:38 pm

Sports psychologist David L. Cook wrote a book called Seven Days in Utopia: Golf’s Sacred Journey about a young golfer who runs away after a meltdown at a big tournament, gets stuck in a small town, and meets a mentor who was once a champion and teaches him important lessons that he takes with him back to the next competition.

Doesn’t that sound a lot like Cars?

It’s still a good story.  And I give Cook and co-writer/director Matthew Dean Russell credit for avoiding some of the usual sports-as-metaphor details.  They refrained from making their main character spoiled or hot-headed.  Even more unusually, they refrained from making his father a monster.  Both are well-intentioned but misguided.  This eliminates the easiest routes to dramatic intensity but demonstrates a confidence in the characters that is most welcome.  It would be too much to say that adds subtlety to the story.  This story is not subtle in any way; its biggest failing is that it does not trust its audience enough.  It hammers its points home and then does it a few more times, and then a few more, just to make sure.  If only the filmmakers had trusted their audience as much as the movie’s teacher trusts his student.

Lucas Black (“Cold Mountain,” “Friday Night Lights“), who co-produced, plays Luke Chislom, a young golfer who has been driven all his life by his father.  When they get into an argument on a crucial shot in an important competition, Luke’s father walks off the course and Luke snaps his club in half and runs away.

Swerving to avoid a cow in the road, Luke crashes his car into a fence in the small town of Utopia, Texas.  While the car is being repaired, a local rancher named Johnny Crawford (Robert Duvall) offers to give him some golf lessons to help him “find his game.”  In true Mr. Miyagi “wax on, wax off” fashion, many of these lessons do not involve hitting a golf ball with a golf club.  They are lessons about focus, faith, patience, confidence, and grace.  They have Luke pitching washers, taking the controls of a plane, painting a picture, and literally burying the lies that hold him back.  And there’s a pretty girl in town who is training to be horse whisperer and seems to know something about whispering golfers as well.

Black is an engaging performer and he and Duvall have an easy, natural quality together and many scenes have a refreshingly quiet quality, not so much of volume but from a spirit of humility and sincerity.  Luke is a good kid, open to learning but not naive, and the film will reward those who are willing to give it a chance.


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Based on a book Drama Family Issues Spiritual films Sports

Crazy Heart

Posted on April 20, 2010 at 10:00 am

Jeff Bridges does not portray Bad Blake, a broken-down, once-successful country singer; he inhabits the role, showing us not just what is happening to the man on screen but everything, every success and every failure, every love and every loss that the man has had in his 57 years.

Blake once played arenas and was a mentor to Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), who is now a huge star. He once had money, and his own band. Now he is lucky to get a one-night gig at a bowling alley, with a pick-up band for back-up.

Bridges makes us feel that Blake is someone we have known and listened to all our lives, as though just last week, driving in the car, one of his old songs came on and we said, “You know, I really used to like that guy. Whatever happened to him?”

Like the songs Blake sings (from Stephen Bruton and T-Bone Burnett), the story feels completely authentic and fully lived. We know at the very beginning, as soon as Blake pulls up to the bowling alley parking lot that he is destined to disappoint everyone, and that he knows it, too. And yet, he still has the power to surprise us, to beguile us, to make us think, against our better judgment, that things might be different next time.

Did this happen because he drinks too much or does he drink too much because it happened? Probably both. Substance abusers, even those who have some self-awareness, maintain their denial by compartmentalizing so they can reassure themselves that there is some part of their life they are not messing up. We see what’s left of that with Blake when he is on stage. He may spend the rest of his life hiding from others and even himself how much of his energy goes into obtaining and drinking booze and recovering from drinking booze. But he holds onto what was precious to him. He may skip rehearsal and duck off stage to throw up in the middle of a big number, but he will do everything in his still-considerable power to deliver to the audience. He can still muster some grace on and off stage.

Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a single mother and aspiring journalist, interviews Blake for an article. There is a strong attraction between them, her for what he has been and him for what he sees of himself in her eyes. An unexpected setback gives them a break to explore what they might be to each other, and Blake’s genuine connection to her son makes Jean even more vulnerable. But anyone who’s ever listened to a country song knows why Blake’s first name is Bad.

And anyone who sees this movie will know why Bridges’ first name should be Good. One of our finest actors has been given one of his finest roles, and that makes this a very good film to see.

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Drama Musical Romance
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