Sunday, June 28, 2009

Forgotten Films of the Nineties Series: A Perfect World

The decade of the nineties is, without a doubt, one of the two most important and pivotal decades of American cinema, the other being the diametrically explosive and minimalistic seventies. In the nineties, special effects evolved beyond anything we had seen before, the narrative itself was deconstructed thanks to a young ingénue named Quentin Tarantino, small independent films and character studies that had been somewhat abandoned in the eighties found their footing and brought about fascinating young directors like Paul Thomas Anderson and Frank Darabont and David Fincher, and large spectacles became larger than ever before. With such an important, bustling, loaded decade of great films, there are of course some quite deserving pictures that slipped in the cracks. Some films, some even from prominent directors, were wedged in between great films that caught national attention and kept these smaller films from gathering their necessary volume of praise and recognition. Here now is the first in a series of forgotten films of the nineties, movies that, had they been released at another time, or in another era, may have garnered more general consideration:


A year after taking home the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director for Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood returned behind the camera and directed a small, yet effective film that disappeared amidst the afterglow of his Western opus. The film was A Perfect World, an intimate blend of action, adventure, fatherhood, and violence that came and went without much fanfare, but should be recognized for its power and the everlasting themes of violence and parenthood that permeate beneath a strong bit of storytelling from Eastwood and others involved.

Set in the early sixties, the film stars Kevin Costner (just two years removed from taking home his own set of statues for Dances With Wolves) as Butch Haynes, a criminal who, as we see in the opening of the film, escapes a Texas prison with an accomplice that he doesn’t much care for. It isn’t long before the two escaped cons end up in a small town at daybreak. For lack of a better option, Butch and his accomplice kidnap a young boy from his family, a family consisting of a mother and two older sisters, and flee in a stolen car.

The kidnapping catches statewide attention and United States Marshal Red Garnett (Eastwood), a confident, seasoned Texas diplomat, is assigned to bring the boy in safely. With the assistance of a young, confident criminologist (Laura Dern) and a team of deputies and federal agents, Red is in hot pursuit. What is set in place here is a perfect formula for a cat and mouse chase film across the plains of Texas, but what unfolds is much more intimate, and much more impacting than any formula picture.

It isn’t long before Butch dispatches of his fellow escapee, leaving him and the young boy, Phillip, to travel across the plains of Texas. This is where the meat of the story takes place, as Butch and Phillip become familiar at first, friendly as the days go along, accomplices at times, and ultimately adversaries once a certain amount of threat becomes inevitable. Phillip is played by T.J. Lowther, an actor whom we don’t see much of beyond this picture, but who was perfect in this role. Young Phillip is a sheltered boy, held under a tight rule by his deeply religious mother who won’t allow things such as celebrating Halloween. Phillip also has no father in his home, which is where Butch obviously steps in.

Costner portrays Butch as a hardened criminal, a murderer, one who still knows right from wrong but never had much of a shot of being a good person his whole life. He understands violence, and somewhere in his head he has separated the notion of killing from the core motivations of violence. Butch never had a father figure in his life; at least not one worth his salt, and he recognizes that lack of guidance in young Phillip. The bond these two fatherless figures share therein creates a bond that will ultimately unravel in the face of a society and rules that takes a back seat during the second act of the film, a second act that sees Phillip grow and evolve, and sees Butch find a human side that was undoubtedly repressed during his numerous long stints behind bars.

More than an examination on fatherhood, namely fatherhood during the middle of the twentieth century, A Perfect World is an interesting commentary on the nature of “true” violence. There is violence against children more than once in this film, and Eastwood chooses to display these acts completely on the screen. However, the shootings take place off camera, recognizable only by the sound of a gunshot. In doing this, Eastwood places more importance on domestic, physical abuse than gun violence, something greatly exploited in the eighties and nineties in Hollywood. The violence against children enrages Butch, giving the viewer a further glimpse both into his own father’s abuse, as well as explaining how someone so caring and sympathetic toward Phillip could have been conditioned to be a violent man.

Eastwood filmed A Perfect World primarily during the day, and the camera captured the sun-bleached starkness of a rural Texas Autumn. He also manages to get the best performance of Kevin Costner’s career. While the end of the film may be inevitable, it is the journey that captures the audience and does the almost impossible job of creating sympathy and fright in the single existing character of Butch Haynes.

On the heels of Unforgiven, Eastwood’s Texas road drama became lost in the shuffle and overwhelmed by films seen as much more intriguing. A Perfect World had none of the controversy of The Crying Game, none of the immediate social importance of Philadelphia, none of the built in fan base of Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones’ The Fugitive, and none of the overwhelmingly powerful scope of Schindler’s List, all films that were the staples of important 1993 cinema. Nevertheless, Eastwood was able to capture a time and a place, as well as an attitude and indictment, of parenthood and violence in rural America with a pitch perfect film with a title that, after viewing the film, carries its own melancholic impact...

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen: Shia LeBeouf, Megan Fox, Tyrese Gibson (147 min.)

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, this year's Michael Bay sensory assault, might be the most un-enjoyable Bay debacle thus far (yes, even more than Bad Boys II). Too long, too loud, too confusing, just too much: that seems to be Bay’s remedy for films that lack any real substance.
Too long: I am not sure what Michael Bay thinks he has on his hands, but Transformers is a toy franchise turned worldwide blockbuster, it is not a war epic deserving of nearly two and a half hours. Thirty minutes could have easily been trimmed from this film, but not that it would make it any better. The added time only convolutes the plot, something about the Autobots employing again the help of Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf) and Mikaela (overly objectified Megan Fox) to fight the evil Decepticons in what amounts to a chase film. This chase film inexplicably winds up in Egypt, where Pyramids are all but ruined by flailing, crashing hunks of metal that are so complex and so detailed that they turn into balls of indiscernible scrap. And these fights seem to last for half an hour at a time, numbing the senses so that my mind began wandering.
Too loud: I don’t quite understand how a film can be louder than other films. Perhaps it was the electronic screeching metal sounds that gave me the biggest headache. Perhaps it was the relentless explosions one after another, coupled with LeBeouf shouting various transformers’ names in despair, followed by more shouting from Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson, the two stock military characters who yell things like “WE GOT A FIGHT COMING OUR WAY” and “AW HELL NAW!” Nauseating.
Too confusing: The storyline doesn’t really matter here, just that the Decepticons are pissed and fight the Autobots, and humans outrun explosions and shout and don’t really do much else. Oh there is a plot here, just don’t ask me to tell you anything about it, because it is so confusing and unnecessarily convoluted and overshadowed by explosions and metal hitting metal that I couldn't map it out if you gave me an hour.
Just too much: Everything about Transformers 2 is vastly inferior to the original, one with a little panache and a little humor that separated the intense fight sequences. I am not asking for Academy Awards here, just for something comprehensible and enojoying. Instead, all I got out of thismovie was a headache. It is staggering to even sit here and try and explain how mind numbing and obnoxious this film is from opening to close. Not that it really matters what these reviews say: the picture made $60 million in one day. So, regardless of the obscene level of hack-ness that is being put on display here from Michael Bay, Bay can simply point to the scoreboard at the end of the day.


Monday, June 22, 2009

FIRST LOOK! Depp, Carter, and Hathaway in Burton's 'Alice'

These are the first images of Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen, and Anne Hathaway as the White Queen in Tim Burton's adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. I don't know, but it seems like the source material was made for Burton:

Mann's Most Memorable

Mann’s Most Memorable:
A Look Back at the Top Five Films of Michael Mann

When the general public likes to discuss the best directors working in the last twenty plus years, Chicago native Michael Mann is often left off the short list, and sometimes forgotten altogether. For some reason, even in Mann’s most shining hours the director is overlooked, as are his films for the most part. However, with Public Enemies - the true story of the rise of the FBI and John Dillinger starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale - just on the horizon, and surrounded by positive buzz, it is time to think about Mann once again, and take a look at his five best efforts as a filmmaker up to this point:

5) Manhunter (1986) – Often overlooked, Manhunter is the true introduction to the masses of Hannibal Lector. Five years before Silence of the Lambs, Bryan Cox took the role of Lector in the TV adaptation of Thomas Harris’ first Lector novel, Red Dragon. But more than Cox’s icy interpretation of Lector was Mann’s attempt to create a mood and a looming sense of dread, especially when filming the chilling, sterile murder scenes. With William Petersen as detective Will Graham and Tom Noonan as the twisted killer Frances Dolarhyde, this film has become perhaps the only made for TV movie that has transcended the purgatory of made for TV indifference.

4) Collateral (2004) - This is Mann’s leanest, meanest thriller that was somehow able to transform Tom Cruise into a silver-haired sociopathic killer without seeming ridiculous. Cruise, as Vincent takes Cab Driver Max (a subdued Jamie Foxx) on a wild ride across the Los Angeles night as he assassinates his contractor’s opposition one at a time. Mann keeps the tension intimate between Vincent and Max while allowing the audience to glimpse into small slivers of pathos that deepen the two men’s back story. Situations change, the two men are forced to evolve, until Max is pushed into an unfamiliar role. Collateral is non stop suspense, and the bursts of violence that take place are breathtaking in their intimacy and efficiency, creating a near-perfect balance of thrills and thought.

3) The Last of the Mohicans (1992) – This is Mann’s one and only foray into period drama, and he must have known that in doing so he would have to assemble an all star cast to mask his unfamiliarity with the subject matter: Enter Daniel Day-Lewis. Mann’s eighteenth-century adventure winds up being a thrilling chase film, as well as a glimpse into a part of American history that is, at times, overlooked. What makes the picture so powerful are the supporting performances of the fair-skinned Madeline Stowe as the love interest, and the stoic, firm performance of Wes Studi as the villainous Indian, Magua.

2) The Insider (1999) – The choice between two and one was difficult, as The Insider should truly be 1b rather than 2. Considering the plot – the true story of corporate whistle blower Jeffrey Wigand, a former tobacco company scientist who shared insider health information with sixty minutes – most would not see a compelling drama from that distance. However, with a frumpy Russell Crowe doing the best work of his career as Wigand and Al Pacino playing Lowell Bergman, the tenacious "60 Minutes" producer who goes to bat for Wigand, the tension begins to mount as the situation becomes more and more precarious. Throw in Christopher Plummer with a dynamite performance as the aggressively intense Mike Wallace, and Mann’s film, in hindsight, perhaps deserved the Academy Award for Best Picture over the somewhat contrived American Beauty.

1) Heat (1996) – What I consider to be the last great work from Robert DeNiro is also the best, most criminally underappreciated film in Michael Mann’s career. This epic Los Angeles crime saga that is as intense as it is thoughtful, as exciting as it is patient, was inexplicably forgotten during Awards season. Everything works in this story, about two men (Al Pacino and DeNiro, both at the top of their game) leading two crews in opposition to each other, two men so dedicated to their crafts and hell bent on outsmarting each other that they forget about those who are most important in their personal lives, is packed to the gills with supporting performances for the ages, including Val Kilmer, Ashley Judd, Tom Sizemore, Natalie Portman, and a slew of perfectly cast character actors. Perhaps the best supporting player here is the city of Los Angeles, a sprawling metropolis, one that Mann is able to exploit its scope and breadth to represent these two men’s distant lives. Once again, Mann is not in a hurry to get to the action, so when these set pieces are unveiled in the context of the story, especially a harrowing gunfight in the streets of LA that tops all other gun battles for cinematic supremacy, they carry a much heavier weight. This is, to go into cheap cliché mode, The Citizen Kane of Police Dramas, a film painted on an epic canvas with an intimate, thoughtful soul to keep it grounded.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 123

Take the Ride
The Taking of Pelham 123: Denzel Washington, John Travolta (105 min.)

As a remake of a marginally memorable 1974 film, Tony Scott's new high-intensity, high-anxiety urban thriller, Pelham 123 (which I will shorten for my own sanity) is, on so many levels, an excellent and tense thriller. But on so many other levels, Pelham can be beyond frustrating. This is a manic summer action movie, as schizophrenic as they come, but nevertheless Pelham is a definite adrenaline rush and a trip worth taking.
The plot is formula: an angry ex-con, Ryder (a handlebar mustachioed John Travolta), with the help of a small crew of henchmen, hijacks a subway train and in doing so takes 19 hostages. His demand is $10 million in an hour before he starts picking off the passengers. He tells this to Walter Garber, played with excellent gravitas by a portly Denzel Washington, a demoted dispatcher, an "everyman" with no experience in hostage negotiation. Which is why Ryder takes a liking to Walter from the get go.
And so the story is set into motion. The plot is merely a device, as mechanical as the subway train where half of the story takes place, to allow these two actors to verbally spar. As the story unfolds more and more small glimpses of each character are given time. Walter has the appearance, at first, of a wholesome family man, but he has his own problems involving a scandal that got him demoted to dispatcher in the first place. It may be cliché to say "hero and villain are the same," but in Pelham this age-old idea holds true even more so as more is discovered about Ryder's past.
As I said, this is a manic picture, often times brilliant, occasionally maddening. Of course the performances of the two leads are the draw. Washington, doing subtle here, flourishes in this role. He allows the Walter character to be a flawed, yet likeable. Washington has always been able to fall into whatever role he is in, and he never lets that flashy smile remind the audience that we are watching an actor. Travolta is not playing subtle here. Travolta, tattooed and fierce looking, is angry, foul-mouthed, sociopathic, and just plain pissed off. It's clear that Travolta took the notion of playing the bad guy to the next level, as even when he soars up and out of character at times, it's still quite fun to watch. The two actors bounce off one another with vigor and conviction, keeping the story pushing forward.
Aside from the two leads, the supporting cast is surprisingly not stereotypical, as is usually the case with action thrillers. First, there is James Gandolfini, still fighting frantically to escape from under the shadow of Tony Soprano. Gandolfini plays the mayor, and he plays him with a hint of Giuliani with a majority of Bloomberg. He services this character well, and becomes more charming as the story moves along. There is also John Turturro as Camonetti, the hostage negotiator. This type of character, the third-party intruder as I like to call them, is typically a jerk, someone who wants to come in and control things and ignore everything that has happened prior. But not Turturro. His character is quite refreshing, as he is a level-headed negotiator with actual appreciation for the work Walter has put into the situation. Rounding out the recognizable supporting cast is the ridiculously underused Luis Guzman, whose role as Ramos, a fellow henchman, is completely ignored.
While the performances keep the story engaging, Tony Scott tries his best to derail the suspense at times. Although Scott has calmed his camera work from the days of Man on Fire and Domino, he still has not gotten it totally under control. There are still unnecessary rotating 360 degree camera shots where it is not needed, and there is the annoying bird’s-eye bouncing camera, or whatever it is, that takes the audience right out of the action. And, for whatever reason, Scott is not really concerned with the laws of gravity when he films car crashes. The crashes are minimal, but for god’s sake when a car is T-boned it doesn’t flip end over end for fifty yards or fly into the air. These are just a few of the technical details of Pelham that add up and begin to distract from the story.
The climactic chase sequence in Pelham is well done and truly invigorating, only to flatten out in the films final few sequences. It’s hard to avoid formula when you try and tie up a film like this, but I would like to think there was a better final showdown than the one that they decided to go with. Either way, Pelham 123 is worth the price of admission. Seeing two actors like Travolta and Washington spar on the screen help to mask the films collection of defects, and elevate this above a passable summer popcorn flick.



Up: Voices of Ed Asner, Delory Lindo, Christopher Plummer (96 min.)

Last year, Pixar films, Wall-E, was much debated as a possible Best Picture contender, and while it did miss out on that nomination, it took home the Best Animated Feature award by a wide margin. It seems that every year, Pixar films have grown heavier and heavier on the lips of those who choose to debate on that year’s best films. This year should be no different, and perhaps could be the breakthrough to the Best Picture category Pixar has been looking for, as Up is absolutely the finest movie that has been released thus far in 2009. It feels strange to say that about an animated feature, especially since I found Wall-E rather underwhelming, despite the critical acclaim. And The Incredibles never thrilled me the way it did most. But Up, in every way that I could imagine, was the most complete, fulfilling movie-going experience I have had all year.

The film focuses on Carl Fredriksen, voiced by the indelible Ed Asner, a character we meet as a young boy who dreams of adventure and exploration. Carl meets and falls in love with Ellie, a young girl whose adventurous spirit matches his perfectly. The two fall in love, marry, and live their life happily together, only to have Ellie pass away before Carl. All of this takes place in a touching opening montage that is both informative and completely heartbreaking. And now, Carl is alone in the house that Ellie and he lived their lives together, a house that is being surrounded by industry. Carl is being forced out of his home by cold construction workers and progressive businessmen in sleek black suits. Carl is bitter, he is alone, and he misses Ellie.

Refusing to give in and move into a retirement community, Carl – who spent his life as a balloon salesman at the local zoo – decides to tie what seem like millions of balloons to his home and fly away into the air, his destination being a waterfall in South America where he and Ellie vowed to live one day. But as his house detaches from the ground and lifts into the air he soon discovers he is not alone. A young “wilderness explorer” Russell, was on his porch and is now along for the ride. As you can imagine, the two get off to a rough start, only to both grow as the story unfolds. Russell never had that “father figure” all young boys need in their life, though he finds it in elderly Carl as the story moves along and the danger and excitement heighten.

This aforementioned story involves a mythical bird, a dastardly explorer Carl idolized as a youth, as well as a slew of dogs, all of whom belong to said explorer, and all of whom have electronic collars that convey their thoughts into human speech. Some of the funniest moments in the picture come from these dogs, as I had to take off my 3-D glasses to wipe away tears of laughter when the leader of the “pack” first speaks. Aside form the great comedic lines and situations, there is a heart and soul flowing beneath Up that is even stronger than any Pixar film that came before it.

The magic of this film, more than anything, is the way it made me feel as an adult. I found myself whisked away by the look and the adventure in the film, practically smiling the entire time; other times in laughter so intense I had to stop to catch my breath. But at the same time, I also was aware of the larger themes permeating the story, themes that may have passed over the heads of the younger kids, but themes that I feel could get to those children above six or seven. Ideas about youth, mortality, the importance of the small things in life, even infertility; all of these things are touched on throughout the story, but there is also great sentimentality followed by perfect humor, none of which seems forced or contrived to get a laugh out of the youngest viewers. There are no fart jokes in Up. Yet, those youngest ones still laughed in the theater. I felt like I was watching an animated classic, feeling like a child, but with all of the world knowledge I have as an adult, thus allowing me to absorb every detail that directors Pete Doctor and Bob Peterson put into the story.

I can fairly say Up has crossed that boundary that Pixar films have never been able to cross. For me anyway. That boundary is the one that separates animated films from live action, the boundary that essentially keeps animated films from being nominated for Best Picture. Not this time, though. Up is a triumph on any and every level you wish to place it on, and a flawless animated film that deserves its spot atop the list of the best at the end of the year.