Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Irvin Kershner and the EMPIRE: What the Late Director Did to Make Episode V the Best of All

"I think it went beyond 'Star Wars'. You had some humor, you got to know the characters a little better. I saw it as the second movement in an opera. That's why I wanted some of the things slower. And it ends in a way that you can't wait to see or to hear the vivace, the allegretto. I didn't have a climax at the end. I had an emotional climax."

No matter what he did before or after 1980, director Irvin Kershner - who passed away at the age of 87 this weekend - immortalized himself in the pantheon of cinema with The Empire Strikes Back. Kershner, one of George Lucas’s instructors at the USC film school and an offspring of the Roger Corman clan, reluctantly took the directing job at first, but without his keen eye and his ability to infuse themes of human weakness and dark tragic elements, Star Wars: Episode V may not have ever been considered not only the best sequel ever made, but the most complete and amazing science-fiction fantasies ever constructed. But what is it about The Empire Strikes Back that makes it feel so complete and so captivating?

Perhaps it is the fact that Empire equals the second act of a single film. Consider the set up, the action, and the conclusion of a conventional three-act narrative. The heart of a picture is where things are revealed, where characters begin their transformation, and where the story itself really picks up steam. That is promising in theory, but the characters must be given depth in order for the audience to care about the events at hand. That is where Empire excels over the rest of the Star Wars pictures. Consider the budding flirtation between Han and Leia, the early signs from Luke that he may have the force, the re-establishing drive of the Empire behind a determined Darth Vader; all of these elements are in play, and the momentum of these characters and situations is what gives the picture its heartbeat. In Episode IV, the audience had to meet these characters. Everything was very new and fresh and the base of the story had not been yet established. By the time we pick up the action on Hoth we know these characters, their dispositions, and their situations. It is time to watch them blossom as human beings in this world.

And speaking of Hoth, the change from the deserts of Tattooine to the snow planet for the opening battle is a subtle but effective move for the story. Empire is the only film in the franchsie that does not have a single moment on the desert planet. From sun-bleached yellows and browns we get cold blues and grays. This deft touch by Kershner, putting his visual stamp on the opening sequences, also indicates the darker, more brooding atmosphere of Empire when compared to A New Hope. Empire is all about introducing the viewer to new worlds in the Star Wars universe. The cloud city is another example, as is the swamp planet Grentarik in the Degobah System where we meet Yoda. This brings me to yet another element of Empire that makes it so captivating: the introduction of new characters that include Yoda, Boba Fett, and Lando Calrissian. This new blood infuses new energy and life into the story. And these characters are all pivotal in their own way.
These elements are what make the rare great sequels better than the original. This is what is so effective with The Godfather Part II, with The Dark Knight, and certainly with The Empire Strikes Back. But it is also Kershner’s firm grasp on a tone for the film that set it apart from the other Star Wars films. Empire is decidedly more dark and ominous in its gray palette and mood. The shift in tone is a welcome one for the narrative, as the events that unfold here fit the menacing nature of Kershner’s visual choices.

The darkest and most sinister plot device is, of course, the revelation at the end. Take a moment to consider the daringness of such a revelation. For nearly two films, the audience has been operating under a certain assumption, a black-and-white division of good and evil that has their loyalties set. So when Vader reveals to the injured Skywalker near the end of the picture that he is, in fact, Luke’s father, everything that had been preconceived by the audience up to that point now must be re-evaluated. It is a bold stroke of genius by George Lucas, but the execution of the scene is what is so memorable. The way Vader is towering over Luke, wounded and without escape at the edge of the plank, conveys the emotional charge of such news. It puts Vader in control of Luke, and changes perception of both of these characters. Vader is no longer a robot, Luke no longer a green Jedi without a past. The one scene unfolds so many more elements; elements of Greek tragedy are now in play, areas of gray have been exposed, and things are forever changed. That is the most powerful turning point in the entire franchise, and the penultimate moment that makes Empire the best of the franchise and arguably one of the best films of all time.

Irvin Kershner devoted over two years to the direction of The Empire Strikes Back. The film ran over budget and had a number of production issues, none of which were detrimental or out of the ordinary. Kershner also took the original treatment from George Lucas and worked for a considerable amount of time in developing the characters. Kershner has said that he was not as interested in the hardware and effects of the Star Wars universe, and was more interested in fleshing out the characters. His work on the people at the heart of the story paid off, and his fingerprint on these elements of Empire are what make it so unique. Lucas has never been a writer of characters so much as events, and the influence of Kershner is undeniable.

Kershner would never again reach the heights of The Empire Strikes Back in his career, although he did direct another sequel to a successful science-fiction franchise when he directed Robocop 2 in 1990. While nowhere near as impacting as the original, Robocop 2 has its own ultra-violent charm. Kershner needed not to make another picture after Empire if he didn’t get the urge, as his direction in Empire is what sets it above and beyond any of the other five entries into the franchise and cements Episode V as a staple of classic American cinema.

1923-2010

Monday, November 29, 2010

127 Hours

127 HOURS: James Franco, Kate Mara, Amber Tamblyn (93 min.)

Would you be able to do it? That is the question surrounding 127 Hours, a question so personal and thought-provoking for everyone who sees it that they are automatically drawn in by the situation and the events of the story even though they may have never been hiking a day in their life. Would you be able to do what Aron Ralston did? Ralston, the thrill-seeking weekend warrior at the heart of Danny Boyle’s electric new film, is the young man who gets his right arm trapped between a rock wall and a boulder in a Utah canyon and, after exhausting every option and running dangerously low on water and supplies, is forced to sever his own arm with a cheap mutli-tool blade and escape to find help. The description of the events is gruesome, no doubt, but the story surrounding it is a truly compelling tale of survival and determination, and the film is one of those perfect combinations of director and actor that come along only every few years it seems.

James Franco plays Aron Ralston. Aron is an eccentric adventurer, a free-spirited hiker and biker who might just be a little off center mentally. He is charming though, as evidenced by his encounter with two young female hikers in the Utah canyons played by Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn. Aron helps the two lost women find their route, but he manages to take them on an exhilarating detour that involves tight spaces, blind faith, and a beautiful blue oasis beneath the surface. Once he gets them where they need to be, he takes off on his own again where he is most comfortable. Unfortunately he has told nobody where he is headed, not his mom and dad, not the two young women, not his boss at work; so when he slips while climbing down into a crevice and a boulder follows his tumble, smashing and trapping his right arm, he quickly surmises that no one will come to find him here.

And so Aron is trapped. He fights the boulder, struggles to move it over and over, even creating a pulley system that fails. He has only a little bit of water, enough he imagines to get him through three or four days. He documents his struggle on the camcorder, even saying his goodbyes to his mother and father. The picture becomes us, the audience, trapped in this crevice with Aron as he battles the elements, the bugs, and his own slipping sanity. He entertains himself because, well, he has to. He imagines himself in other places, with the two women at a party they invited him to, in a former time with his ex-girlfriend; he even imagines that a rain comes and washes him free. Anything to keep his mind off the situation.

The decision to cut off his arm comes gradually, as a last resort. He even tries a few times unsuccessfully. He jokes to his mother on the camcorder that even though the cheap multi-tool made in China was a nice stocking stuffer and it came with a handy little flashlight, it isn’t helping things right now. The moment finally comes as Aron reaches his most desperate. Much has been made of the scene where Aron does finally sever his arm. While it is surely one of the most gruesome and nausea-inducing moments in recent history, the moment is filmed kinetically and is mercifully brief. The event comes and goes, and leaves your palms sweating, but it is so important to the picture. It is the moment the audience has known about the entire time, so when it happens no matter how much mental preparation you have put yourself through, it is not enough. Would you be able to do it? I don’t know if I could make it.

Danny Boyle understands his stories and his subject better than almost any director working today. Boyle films with a twenty-first century energy and fervor that keeps the momentum at a furious clip and the subject at hand. He understands, too, his audience. The opening and closing sequences are quick cuts of large crowds, all nationalities, celebrating and praying and fighting and hugging; this is not only a story about an American named Aron Ralston. Rather, it is a human story for anyone interested across the globe. Boyle masterfully attacks any subject with any nationality, be it Scottish drug addicts or British apocalypse or Indian kids living in poverty or a lone adventurer trapped in a canyon alone and nearing death, and makes it a tale for everyone to absorb in their own way. But Boyle’s direction would be all for naught without the right actor filling the role, and in 127 Hours he has the perfect on-screen counterpart in James Franco.

Franco, the most diverse talent this country has to offer (he is a short-fiction writer, working on his Ph.D at Yale in English, an interpretive stage actor, and a soap star in his spare time) gives the performance of his career. He plays Ralston as slightly off center, but always believable and compelling. When Ralston is fighting against the boulder, struggling to break free, you can feel the despair in your chest. You can feel yourself struggling right along with him. And when that moment comes that he is free, and he makes his way into the sunlight, that rush of adrenaline you feel is because of Franco, and because of his conviction in the role of Ralston. So rare is it that an actor can carry a movie on his own; Tom Hanks in Cast Away kept coming to mind while watching 127 Hours. And Franco has proven that he is fully capable of captivating an audience on his own. Oscar worthy indeed.

So could you do it? If your life depended on it and you were at your wits end, could you work through tissue and tendons and bone with a dull blade to free yourself? I kept telling myself I would, even as I watched Ralston do it on screen. But then a moment hits in the middle of his “operation.” You will know the moment I am talking about. The pain exemplified by a sound effect and the look on Ralston’s face might be the point for me when things reach a breaking point and I cannot continue. Then again, perhaps I could fight through the unbearable pain in order to save my own life.

But after seeing this, I would probably just use the buddy system.

A

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

MOVIES IN THE MARGINS: The Last Samurai (2003)

So what about those movies that aren’t completely good, but aren’t necessarily bad either? There are perhaps more of them out there than any other type of film that is decidedly excellent or completely awful. Mediocrity is a wide range in Hollywood. Sometimes movies work on one level, but fail at another, and fall into the margins that lie between greatness mediocrity, and disaster. The Last Samurai is one such example…

Director Edward Zwick has stepped out of his comfort zone with his new film, Love and Other Drugs, releasing today. Zwick has always been recognized as a director not of the romantic, terminal-illness drama/comedy, but of historical epics like Glory, Legends of the Fall, Defiance, and the Japanese period epic, The Last Samurai. Released in 2003, The Last Samurai was met with mostly strong reviews and a decent box-office run, but has since been generally forgotten. It, like many of Zwick’s films, is overlooked in the pantheon of historical battle cinema, and maybe there are a few reasons for this.

Tom Cruise stars as Nathan Algren, a drunken former Military hero, one of the biggest heroes of the Civil War who has been reduced to public appearances that he prefers to coast through in a haze of whisky. He is hired, and takes the job for the money, to train Americans to help the Japanese emperor fend off Samurai who do not want Japan to move into the modern ways of the world. There is a samurai leader, Katsumoto, played by then newcomer to American film Ken Watanabe. He and his men storm a training compound and he captures Nathan. He didn’t kill Nathan because he wants to know who his enemy is. Nathan is a poor representation at first, withdrawing from alcohol, but once he tears down his walls of reluctance he begins to understand and sympathize with the simple ideas of honor and courage that the samurai live by. Death is not the worst for these samurai, but dishonor.

As you might imagine, Nathan finds himself with a deep-seeded respect and admiration for the samurai way, and ends up defending them against the emperor and the impending modernization of their life. The film is part history, part spiritual journey for Nathan, and all about understanding and courage in the face of political influence.

WHAT WORKS: First of all, The Last Samurai is a beautifully shot film. The locations in Japan are rich and broad and the authenticity of the picture really went a long way as far as my own visual enjoyment. Senses of place are vital for The Last Samurai, and aside from the expansive locales, the intimate settings – a Japanese bedroom, a village road, a temple – are all equally as important. Zwick also manages to stage the battle sequences, one-on-one fights, and a crafty bullying session in the rain with the ease of a master knowing his subject. The battle sequences at the end of the film are right on par with the great moments in Gladiator and Braveheart.

Aside from the cinematography and the visual storytelling, this is Ken Watanabe’s real introduction to American audiences. Watanabe is a soulful actor, and his limited English is not muddled, but stern and concise. As Katsumoto, Watanabe gives his samurai the heart of a lion and the mind of a philosopher, adding so many more dimensions to his character than the typical foreign warrior in an American film. His moments with Cruise, where they discuss codes and honor and the samurai discipline, are very intimate and thoughtful and vital to the narrative.

WHAT DOESN’T: Tom Cruise. Well, not that Tom Cruise doesn’t work, he just doesn’t seem completely right for the part. There is a problem I have always had with Cruise playing a character in a period piece. Tom Cruise looks like a modern American man, no matter how you shape him or how you grow his beard or his hair. He thrives in modern roles like Jerry Maguire, Magnolia, or Mission: Impossible, because I believe his character. When he steps into another world like the one in The Last Samurai, I feel a little like this is Tom Cruise playing Tom Cruise playing Nathan Aglren. There is a wall there in front of my suspension of disbelief that I cannot break through. That being said, Cruise does a nice job with the material, I just cannot get past the fact that it is Tom Cruise.

Take Gladiator and Braveheart as two close examples. In Gladiator, was there any problem believing that Russell Crowe was the fearless warrior of the Roman army? He had the look he needed to play the part convincingly. In Braveheart, was there ever any question that Mel Gibson was William Wallace? Never. These men have a look that pulls off the world-weary fighter, the determined soldier. Cruise, for whatever reason, doesn’t fit into that mold.
The Last Samurai is never grouped together with those two films because it has a shortcoming or two. But that is not to say it is not a powerful and exciting film. In the least it is a wonder to look at, and the performances from Wantanabe and the supporting cast help to disguise any deficiencies Cruise may have playing a leader of men.

Monday, November 22, 2010

DVD REVIEW: Winter's Bone

WINTER'S BONE: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes (100 min.)

Sometimes, a film thrives on location shoots. With certain stories, recreating sets in a studio or in the Southern California environment just does not translate as effectively as going to the source of the action and filming there. Such is the case with Winter’s Bone, this year’s Sundance winner for Best Picture and Best Screenplay, and a film that is ratcheting up its Oscar push. The picture is filmed, exists, in the Ozark Mountains of Southern Missouri and Northwest Arkansas, where life and society have moved on and left these people behind. The locations of Winter’s Bone give it a texture and a feel that cannot be duplicated anywhere else in the country, and the authenticity of the story drive the actions and the characters, who could be mistaken for locals if you didn’t recognize them from other movies.

The story focuses on Ree Dolly, a seventeen-year old played by newcomer Jennifer Lawrence. Ree’s plight does not feel uncommon in this part of the world; her father has just been released from prison for cooking meth, her mother is at home but vacant, mute, broken by this life, which leaves Ree to take care of her two younger siblings. She teaches them how to cook, how to hunt squirrel, how to survive in case she is never around. It is hard to imagine a place this out of touch with the modern world, but if you were to drive around this region you could find a place just like it, a place that is plagued by poverty, drug labs, and a region that is trapped in an alternate reality from the one most of us recognize.

Ree’s father has skipped bail, and according to the local law enforcement and a bondsman he must show up for his hearing in a week or Ree and her mother and her brother and sister will lose the ramshackle house they occupy. It was apparently the only thing Ree’s father could put up to post bail, and even it wouldn’t cover the entire thing. Determined to not lose her land or her house, Ree sets out to find her father, a journey that takes her into an even shadier underbelly of drug runners, crooks, and thieves. She asks Teardrop, her father’s brother, to help find him. Teardrop is played by the great character actor John Hawkes, who sinks himself into this role of a seedy drug addict. At first, Teardrop is more than reluctant to help Ree. But his reluctance soon transforms into a sense of obligation and guilt, and he eventually becomes Ree’s closest companion in her quest.

The two aspects of Winter’s Bone that keep the meandering plot afloat are, as I mentioned before, the locations, and the central performances from Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes. Lawrence, as Ree, is magnetic as a stern young girl who is surprisingly smart given her situation. Lawrence has a look of an aged woman inside the body of a teenager, and her gaze is captivating as she stands toe to toe with a motley crew of drug pushers and what comes off as backwoods mafia. Hawkes is quietly powerful, heartbreaking at times. You can feel the weight of guilt and sadness in Teardrop’s eyes, and the way his sunken face tells the audience his past is stunning.

Winter’s Bone sometimes loses its forward momentum as Ree’s journey takes her from one dilapidated shack in the woods to another, but that is manageable because of the compelling characters director Debra Granik paints. She also handles these back woods and the grey, dying palette of winter and sadness marvelously. The odyssey of Ree, you soon begin to realize, has but one end, although the final decision by Ree to prove that she has found her father and get her house back surely has ramifications that will haunt her, and us, forever.

B+

Saturday, November 20, 2010

SUMMER 2011 TRAILER FACE OFF

Two of the more anticipated releases for summer 2011 have just released their first trailers. One, a beloved comic book superhero film, Green Lantern; the other, a graphic novel adaptation with a cult following and a dynamite premise, Cowboys and Aliens. Both have the potential to be next summer's biggest hits, but I would argue that one seems more promising than the other after the first looks here...





What are your thoughts on both? Which looks better at first glance?

Friday, November 19, 2010

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: A Tale of Two Trailers, John McTiernan, and can James Bond Save the Lion?

* I don’t have a very good feeling after seeing the new teaser for Green Lantern. The mask looks very distracting as it is CGI for some strange reason. And the lighthearted comedy doesn’t sit well with me either. The tone is all wrong. Also, I kept thinking about Robert Towne’s Meteor Man when I was watching it: never a good thing.

* On the flip side of that coin, the new trailer for Cowboys and Aliens is amazing. It’s pretty overwhelming to see Jon Favreau, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, and Steven Spielberg in the title cards for one movie. The tone is right, the actors (Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde) seem perfect. There is a better than outside chance this will be next summer’s biggest hit.

* Better it than Transformers 3.

* If Iron Man 2 is the worst Jon Favreau can get, he might be the sane world’s counterpunch to Michael Bay. Smart, fun, coherent, non-racist, non-sexist action director.

* MGM’s future as a company rests solely on the shoulders of James Bond. After agreeing to pay off creditors with stock options to avoid bankruptcy, the success of this strategy depends on MGM’s successful films. And that begins and ends with a new James Bond with Daniel Craig. If the picture fails, it is likely MGM will fail.

* That being said, MGM cannot hire another Mark Forster type director and create another Quantum of Solace disaster. One of the five worst Bond flicks ever.

* I don’t know how well Sam Mendes can do with action, but I don’t think they need a director like him. They need someone like Tony Scott or…

* John McTiernan needs a comeback film. After spending time behind bars because he is a bit paranoid and a little crazy – see the story here – McTiernan needs to get back to directing action films. His portfolio includes Die Hard 1 and 3, Predator, The Hunt for Red October… and Rollerball. But hey, nobody’s perfect. But he may be too much of a liability to direct a film that is trying to rescue a Hollywood icon.

* McTiernan also directed Last Action Hero, and I implore people to go back and look at this film. One of the more misunderstood parodies in history.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Dead Calm (1989)

Dead Calm is one of those films that deal with the fear of isolation, with the dread that something goes horribly wrong and there will be nobody there to help. Nobody to help because, in this case, the characters of Dead Calm are in the middle of the ocean. Two ships are drifting towards each other in an extended shot that reminds one of the long shot in Lawrence of Arabia where a man on a horse appears as a speck on the horizon and gradually grows until he reaches the foreground. The drifting of these two boats, out in the massive, expansive emptiness that is the Pacific Ocean, into each other creates tension before you even realize what is going on or what the dynamics are on these two vessels. So when things begin to unfold, there is already a set amount of stress planted in our mind that only enhances the tension from thereon.

Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman play John and Rae, a married couple who have decided to take an extended boat trip across the ocean to try and cope with the death of their son in a car accident that Rae survived. As evidenced by an early nightmare sequence, the trip is not working so far. Before long they spot a ship on the horizon that appears abandoned and severely weather beaten. There is someone rowing their way to John and Rae’s boat, and who appears is Hughie, who seems to be frightened and in shock from a supposed food poisoning outbreak on the ship that left the rest of the passengers dead. And the ship is taking on water, sinking fast.

Out of curiosity, John decides to row over and inspect the ship, leaving Rae on the boat with Hughie who has been locked in the cabin. John discovers that the other passengers did not die from food poisoning. They were murdered by Hughie, who escapes the cabin and wrestles control of the boat from Rae just before John can make it back. He hurls himself at the side of the boat, misses the ledge, and is spat out into the water by the propellers. The rest of the picture is split into two stories. On the one hand, Rae must deal with Hughie. On the other, John works feverishly to get the sinking boat up and running so that he may catch up with his wife.

Hughie is played by Billy Zane, and is vital in the success of the story. Hughie is clearly unhinged, and the manic, twitching energy from Zane is unnerving at times. He seemingly takes over the boat and works to create a strange domestic dynamic between him and Rae. Out of fear for her life, Rae obliges at times, but is always trying to find a way to turn the tables. The set of the boat is perfect for suspense; there are but a few places to go and really no place to hide. The psychological tug and pull between Rae and Hughie is the center of this story, and Zane and a young Kidman have a chemistry of hatred and fear. Director Phillip Noyce allows Zane the freedom to act, at times, completely insane, and he stages a few interesting scenes to show Hughie’s instability. One such scene is just when Hughie has taken control of the boat and knocked Rae unconscious and hanging off the side. Once Rae comes to, she observes Hughie dancing alone atop the boat to a walkman singing a Tim O’Connor song. The scene is jarring given the circumstances, and the shift in mood paired with the breezy music is a great moment of psychological misdirection. It is clear that Hughie is not stable.

There are moments in Dead Calm that have to exist, even though they are dumb moves by the protagonists. The fact that John leaves Rae on the boat with Hughie is questionable, but there is at least the argument that Hughie was left locked away. There are times when all that needed to happen was a character needed to pull a trigger and the film would be over. Then again, if that happened, there would be no movie, so you are stuck with head-scratching choices to keep the movie afloat. These moments are not enough to ruin a great thriller like Dead Calm, however. In suspense pictures like this, there will always be moments when the audience scoffs at the characters for their bad decisions. I would argue that is part of the fun.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

TUESDAY TOP 10: Best Courtroom Dramas

The courtroom is perfect for tension and drama in cinema. With a fixed set, a subject matter that, no matter what its origin, is bound to create tense moments and scenes of great dialogue, the courtroom drama has forever been a staple of Hollywood. The best thing about this subgenre is despite the very familiar settings and actions, these pictures almost always approach a different subject, a different social issue, or a different type of crime. That is the beauty of the courtroom drama…

10) A Time to Kill – Joel Schumacher may be one of the most irritating directors of all time, but on occasion he gets things right and the result is a film like A Time to Kill, the film that put Matthew McConaughey on the map. Now that may not seem like a blessing for most, putting McConaughey on the map and all, but in A Time to Kill he was magnificent. He plays Jake Brigance, a Mississippi attorney defending a poor black man (Sam Jackson) who took it upon himself to kill the two racist white men who raped his young daughter. A Time to Kill, for my money, is the best John Grisham adaptation to hit the screen. The solid performances across the board and the pure sense of place – you can almost feel the sweat and the humidity these characters are dealing with – help keep the occasional melodramatic moments from being manipulative. And the speech from McConaughey is still his finest moment as an actor. Again, take that for what you will.

9) The Accused – This 80s courtroom drama earned Jodie Foster her first Oscar for Best Actress. Foster plays Sarah, a woman who is gang-raped in a local bar by three men in front of a crowd of cheering onlookers. Character is the focus of The Accused, as Sarah’s attackers are given a light sentence due to her “questionable character.” Sarah is a bit of a barfly who may have asked for it in the eyes of the jurors. So she implores the help of a rigid, upstanding female attorney played by Kelly McGillis to convict the crowd of onlookers. The Accused has some uncomfortable moments, and an excellent performance from Jodie Foster and McGillis, two female leads that are physically and emotionally opposites. There are the moments one comes to expect from a film like this, including the investigation that leads the McGillis character into Sarah’s world, the threats, and the eventual justice that is vital to the success of the picture.

8) Primal Fear – Richard Gere plays Martin Vail, a hotshot attorney who switched from prosecutor to defender for the money and the fame. His ego is what gets him to take the case of a young altar boy who is accused of murdering a well-known priest. Edward Norton, in the role that put him on the map (a lot of that in these types of films), plays Aaron, the young, seemingly innocent altar boy accused of murder. The deck is stacked against Vail in this case, a true challenge that he relishes. What is ultimately seen as unwinnable takes one surprising turn, only to be followed by one of the great twist endings in film history. As good as Gere is in playing the cocky attorney, this movie belongs to Norton and his astounding performance. Primal Fear is a movie with a twist, but not a film that relies solely on the end to be compelling.

7) Inherit the Wind – This courtroom drama from 1960 is one of the most important, most well known of its kind. It is also the only picture on this list that comes from a true story. The narrative follows a famous case from 1925, when a teacher was arrested for teaching the theory of evolution in the classroom. Although the names were changed, a large majority of the screenplay was taken directly from the transcripts of the debate between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan. Spencer Tracy plays the defense attorney Henry Drummond, Frederick March plays Matthew Brady, the prosecutor, and Gene Kelly stars as the judge in the courtroom. This is a film where some of the screens biggest legends are allowed to give grand speeches and put on a show. What might be so amazing about Inherit the Wind is how the subject matter, even though it was lifted from 1925, might happen somewhere in this country today given America’s narrow-minded outlook on evolution.

6) Presumed Innocent – Scott Turrow was John Grisham before anyone really knew who John Grisham was. His courtroom novel, Presumed Innocent, was a smash hit and a regular on the New York Times bestseller list for an historic amount of time, so it was expected to be turned into a feature film. Harrison Ford stars as Rusty Sabich, an attorney accused of murdering a young woman who worked for the firm, a woman with whom he had an affair a few years earlier; a bit of information everyone knows. The dynamic then becomes that the prosecutor is the one being prosecuted, and must clear his name of the crime. Presumed Innocent also has a fantastic twist at the end of the trial, when everything seems to have been figured out, and one that many already knew having read the book. But that doesn’t take anything away from the dramatic impact of those final moments.

5) Philadelphia – Most courtroom dramas deal with violent crimes, mainly because they are the most compelling for the screen. Some, like Inherit the Wind, deal with true cases of injustice. Others, like Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, are important social dramas that belong to a specific time and place. Tom Hanks, in his first Oscar-winning role, plays Andrew Beckett, a gay lawyer with AIDS who is wrongfully terminated from a firm of conservative older men who have no understanding of the disease. Beckett hires a homophobic small-time attorney, played with great conviction by Denzel Washington, to defend him. 1993 was a time when AIDS was still something everyone feared because they knew nothing about it, and Philadelphia helped to put a recognizable face on the issue. Despite its social awareness and commentary, Philadelphia is a powerful film, and a powerfully sad story that will forever resonate as equal parts importance and emotion.

4) A Few Good Men – If I were to give A Few Good Men, Rob Reiner’s military courtroom epic, a one-word review, I would have to go with “robust.” Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, about two young soldiers who, acting under orders from their superiors, accidentally killed a weaker Marine, is loaded to the brim with extended speeches and moments of compelling grandstanding for every actor involved. So what makes it so robust is the fact that the central roles are filled out by some of the biggest names in Hollywood history. Tom Cruise plays the cocky young attorney going after Nathan Jessup, the superior to these soldiers and one of the most decorated Marines in America. Cruise has his moments, but it is the performance from Jack Nicholson we all remember. And the orbiting roles, filled out by Kevin Bacon, Keifer Sutherland, and Demi Moore, give this film some very deserving energy and fire and passion that propels the story.

3) The Verdict – Where A Few Good Men deals with large issues on a grand scale, The Verdict is the very antithesis of such a story. The Verdict is one of Paul Newman’s finest performances, and while the story itself may seem familiar to today’s audiences, in 1982 the narrative arc was not as played out. Newman plays Frank Galvin, a hopeless alcoholic who spends his days shamelessly trolling funeral homes and soliciting for personal-injury cases. He takes on a medical malpractice suit and, rather than settling, decides to take the case to trial. Here is the moment when he finds salvation and turns his life and his career around. The Verdict is a powerful character study thanks to Newman’s magnetic performance, and is a compelling courtroom drama thanks to the seamless direction from Sidney Lumet, one of the most overlooked directors of all time. And, believe it or not, we aren’t done with Lumet on this list.

2) To Kill a Mockingbird – It is very rare that an adaptation of a novel becomes as well respected and well known as the novel itself. But that is the case with To Kill a Mockingbird, a classic American film adapted from Harper Lee’s classic American novel. The film stars Gregory Peck, in a performance that got him an Oscar, as Atticus Finch, an attorney defending a black man in the south from an undeserved rape charge. At the same time, Finch must teach his children about tolerance in the face of open racism at school and in the town. To Kill a Mockingbird has everything courtroom dramas thrive on, including social issues, magnetic performances, and great tension. It is the best of the bunch for most people, a classic film that will forever be shown in English classes across the country, but it isn’t quite as engrossing to me as the number one picture on this list.

1) 12 Angry Men – Like I said, we weren’t finished with Sidney Lumet quite yet. 12 Angry Men, based on a play by Reginald Rose, is an exercise in claustrophobic tension, tolerance, and understanding. The film does not focus on the courtroom, which is never even seen. Instead, it focus on the jury deliberation room and the twelve men in charge of deciding the fate of one Spanish-American boy accused of murdering his father. Eleven of the men have no doubt that the boy is guilty, but one man has questions. The one man, played to perfection by Henry Fonda, raises questions, bucks the pressure, and the film unfolds as a series of mini debates that all begin to come to fruition despite the resistence of some of the jurors. 12 Angry Men is captivating, yet simple, and what is so interesting technically is the way Lumet directs. He begins with wide lenses, showing the entire room and the jurors, and as the tension slowly intensifies, the lenses become narrower and the room becomes smaller. A true classic.

Monday, November 15, 2010

EARLY REVIEW: All Good Things

ALL GOOD THINGS: Ryan Gosling, Kirsten Dunst, Frank Langella (101 min.)

Reviewing films that are based on true events are sometimes tricky. If you don’t like the way something is done, the way a character is acting, or the events that transpire, you cannot necessarily attack it in the same way you could if it were straight fiction. Don’t like the characterization of this person or that person? Well, that is how they were in real life. So you can see where sometimes your hands are tied. I ran into some of these problems while watching All Good Things, the new “true crime” film starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst that will hit theaters December 3rd. The story revolves around one of the most infamous unsolved murder/missing persons cases in New York history, and while compelling at times, the film itself is plagued with loose ends, unexplained actions, and a departure from the focus of the story that kills momentum. Even if it is really the way things happened.

Gosling plays David Marks, the black sheep of one of the wealthiest real-estate owners in New York. We first meet David as an old man, on trial, telling the story through his testimony and the facts stated by the attorney doing the cross examination. David’s father, Sanford (Frank Langella), scolds him constantly for his lack of direction and apathy regarding the family business. Seemingly out of protest, David marries Katie, an innocent and genteel young girl played by Dunst. Katie is smitten with David, and despite the cold reception from his father she stands beside him. For a while.

Something isn’t quite right with David. He becomes distant, cold, disturbing. He doesn’t want children. When Katie turns up pregnant he forces her to get an abortion. He can force her into submission, make her do things because he basically owns her. If she were to get a divorce she would get nothing, have nothing, because all of David’s wealth is tied up in family trusts that cannot be touched. Katie is stuck and relies on her friend, Lauren (a surprising Kristen Wiig) to get her through. Unfortunately, Lauren’s form of coping involves cocaine. Katie becomes a bit strung out. You can sense her desperation with her situation, and I don’t blame her. David’s 180 degree shift in attitude comes out of nowhere, and is never really explained other than a few hints at his overbearing father and his troubled childhood. There is a ton of psychological damage here, and I would have liked to go deeper with David’s character before things got as weird as they did.

Katie disappears in 1982, and her missing persons case is still open to this day. David abandons New York and moves to Galveston, where he wants to disappear. So he dresses like a woman and lives a life of unbelievable solitude in a small apartment. Here, he befriends an older loon, Melvin, played by the great character actor Philip Baker Hall. He and Melvin develop a very odd friendship, one that David controls to the point where he has Melvin travel to Los Angeles and take care of a loose end that is key in understanding the events of the story. But once David moves to Galveston, and the narrative turns into one about David and Melvin, the focus of the film is completely altered. Once the New York thread is abandoned, and Katie is out of the picture, I found it hard to stay focused on the events at hand. And it didn’t help that what happened in Galveston is so bizarre that I was too busy scratching my head to concentrate on what was happening.

That being said, Ryan Gosling is fantastic in this strange role, one that will probably go unnoticed around Awards season. David is a quiet person, whose calmness turns dark and ominous seemingly overnight. Gosling handles the transformation perfectly, and keeps us interested even when things get too strange to care about. And Kirsten Dunst takes an otherwise flat character and adds some pathos necessary to create a vital, sympathetic character. Director Andrew Jarecki does some interesting things with his camera, creating some very moody set pieces and some moments that will get under your skin regardless of your interest in the plight of these characters.

The things I didn’t like were unavoidable in All Good Things because they were true. But that doesn’t excuse the story from having characters do things without explanation, or have certain scenes after each other that you have a hard time figuring out time and place. One character walks out to a garage in the rain, the next scene is a different character looking at what I thought was a different garage in the rain. Or maybe not. And David’s actions are hinted at, but never validated. I know it’s all true, but that is no excuse for skirting clarity.

C+

Friday, November 12, 2010

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: The Best Director Race, not including Paul Haggis and Peter Jackson...

* I think I need to start figuring out these Girl With movies/books.

* I am not sure what I think of Chris Pine yet. He was good in Star Trek, but I don’t know if he has anything else.

* I don’t know what most people think, but I do not care, at all, about The Hobbit and when or if it is going to be filmed. Every day, seemingly every hour, there is something new going on with The Hobbit. Who cares?! Let the project die. We already had to fight through three seven-hour long borefests. Yeah, I said it.

* Also, Peter Jackson is perhaps the most overrated director since, well, George Lucas. I guess that makes sense in a way.

* I haven’t seen 127 Hours yet, but I think James Franco is one of the most underappreciated young talents in Hollywood. He can do anything, he can play any part, and he has started to show that more and more since Spider-Man. Sure, he was terrible in Spider-Man 3, but everyone was. But Franco showed range in Milk, humor in Pineapple Express, and he will probably get a Best Actor nod for 127 Hours.

* The best director race, as of now, is down to three names I think: Danny Boyle, David Fincher, and Christopher Nolan. Boyle already won for Slumdog Millionaire, so he might have the longest odds of the three. Then again, somebody completely different may win. I think it’s down to these three. I’m rambling.

* The sequel and remake news is taking over any avenue of film news out there. It is spiraling out of control. From sequels, to remakes, to adaptations, to foreign films coming to America… Pretty soon the Best Original Screenplay category at the Oscars won’t be a category. They will just give the statue to the person who can think of an original screenplay in that calendar year.

* Now I don’t know about Paul Hackis, er, Haggis’s new film, The Next Three Days, but I would put a lot of money on the fact that Russell Crowe’s wife is guilty of whatever murder she is accused of committing. Why? Because that is the obvious answer, and Paul Haggis is a director of the obvious and the overbearing and doesn’t believe in subtlety. Paul Haggis might be more overrated than Peter Jackson, if more people didn’t see through him already.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: Tony Scott, the Other Scott Brother

Whenever accolades are being handed out, whatever the case may be, one Scott brother seems to get more recognition and more praise: Ridley Scott. And I suppose the praise is justified. Ridley Scott has won an Oscar for directing Gladiator, and he has created some legendary films including Blade Runner and Alien. But we mustn’t forget about Tony Scott, the more consistent and consistently entertaining director of the two. Tony has made his own fair share of classics, albeit classics in a much more modern American sense. Films that will never be at the top of an AFI list, but iconic American pictures that stand on their own merits.

Tony Scott was born in 1944 in North Shields. He is the younger of the two, and got his first directing experience through Ridley’s struggling television commercial company, RSA. He directed countless television commercials throughout his early career before directing his feature-film debut, The Hunger, a contemporary vampire picture starring David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve. The film failed at the box office, and Scott was left without a follow up project for three years, until Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, two of the very few admirers of The Hunger, signed Scott to direct Top Gun. And the rest is history.

Top Gun was a critical and commercial success, and launched the career of Scott as well as Tom Cruise. Scott went from untouchable to A-list overnight, and opted to direct Beverly Hills Cop II as his next feature. While the tone of BHC2 was drastically different, and the palette much more gritty, the sequel still carried some of the charm of the original and managed to accelerate the action and the violence. But the sequel was a critical bomb. Following BHC2, Scott directed a smaller, more intimate picture, Revenge, starring Kevin Costner and Madeline Stowe. Revenge came and went and is generally forgotten. As the calendar turned to the nineties, Scott did not slow down despite his struggles with consistency as a director.

In 1990, Scott rejoined the production team of Simpson and Bruckheimer, and reteamed with Tom Cruise to direct Days of Thunder, a cheesy Nascar action film that is pretty ridiculous but still entertaining on a surface level. From there, I feel like Scott turned a corner in my eyes. Say what you will about The Last Boyscout, the action thriller starring Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans, the film is high-octane, intense, and rife with humor. The plot revolving around the corruption of pro football was also a nice tie in and an effective narrative thread for the action. In 1992, Scott would forever cement himself as a quality film director. At least in my eyes. Scott directed the Quentin Tarantino-scripted picture True Romance, an action adventure fashioned like a male fantasy. Starring Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Christopher Walken, Brad Pitt, Dennis Hopper, and many others, True Romance was met with mixed reviews but soon gathered steam as a cult classic. The film is one of my favorites, a kinetic blend of violence, wit, and energy.

The mid nineties saw Scott hit the lowest of low with the dreadful Robert DeNiro Wesley Snipes thriller, The Fan, and saw him rebound with the Will Smith thriller Enemy of the State. Before those two pictures, Scott directed a fantastic submarine thriller, Crimson Tide. In the 2000s, Scott seemed to change his direction behind the camera, opting for a much more frenetic style of editing and filming. Man on Fire, starring Denzel Washington, is a solid thriller, but over-edited. I would have enjoyed it even more had Scott not chosen to have the camera move endlessly without remorse. Domino, a similar film in technique, did not fare as well as even Man on Fire. Luckily, with Déjà vu in 2006, again starring Denzel Washington, Scott toned things down and allowed the story to tell itself. Last year, Scott directed The Taking of Pelham 123, a remake of a forgettable seventies action film. The film again starred Denzel Washington, alongside John Travolta as the villain. Pelham is a solid action film, but mostly forgettable. This weekend, Scott is back with Washington, telling the story of a runaway train in Unstoppable.

Tony Scott may be the second Scott brother most people name when discussing directing careers. But if you were to consider the volume of Scott’s work against the more recent failures of Ridley, I would argue that Tony has been more consistently entertaining throughout the years. Always one to take camerawork and filming to the edge, one thing you will never be with Scott’s work is bored. I cannot say the same for recent Ridley Scott pictures.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

TUESDAY TOP 10: The Coolest Actors of All Time

Cool may have different definitions to different people, but when talking about cool actors, there are a handful of names that should come to mind every time. Cool is an attitude, a swagger, a disposition that exudes confidence. Cool actors don’t take shit from anyone. They're the guys you wanna have a beer with. They get the girl, or they get their revenge, or they win the day more often than not… That’s what makes them cool.

10) Samuel L. Jackson – Sure, Sam Jackson has been overexposed to the point of parody in recent years. He is more annoying these days when he appears, mostly because the picture he is in will be garbage more often than not. But Jackson has a lifetime pass. He got this pass in 1994, when he embodied the bible-quoting assassin Jules Winfield in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, a film that redefined what cool was in cinema.

9) Charles Bronson – Charlie Bronson is an iconic badass from film history. Aside from making a living killing goons in a million Death Wish films, Bronson was also a big player in The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven. With his steely-eyed gaze and smoky voice, Bronson exudes a threatening persona to any bad guy roaming free out there.

8) Robert Mitchum – Although he spent a lot of time as an actor playing the villain, Robert Mitchum’s basset-hound look and droll bass vocals brings about an aura of calmness and ease that makes it clear he doesn’t give a damn what anybody thinks. He also manages to be an effective villain in films like Cape Fear and Night of the Hunter, where his wickedness somehow adds to his magnetism as a cool actor.

7) Bruce Willlis – The film version of a Timex watch, Willis takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Willis has made a living, ever since 1988, being the supreme badass on screen. He is the toughest cool guy on the list. It isn’t necessarily his fashion sense or his calmness or his grace under pressure, it is his ability to take down the biggest and baddest of the villain world. It started with Hans Gruber and hasn’t stopped for the last twenty plus years.

6) Sean Connery – Connery is the epitome of smooth as silk. Perhaps it is all in the voice, but there is a reason this Scottish actor has always been considered one of the coolest actors of all time. Say what you will about Daniel Craig, but Connery embodied the James Bond we have known and loved for decades now, and nobody has been able to pull it off better. And aside from Bond, was there ever a bigger badass cop in the gangster genre than Malone from The Untouchables?

5) John Wayne – We all know John Wayne. Even if you haven’t seen any of his films, which many people have not, you still know John Wayne. He was the embodiment of American coolness for several decades in the middle of the twentieth century. Be it a cowboy or a soldier, Wayne’s lumbering physique and slow southern drawl, boastful and echoing, always announced his presence in a film. Never an actor to show range, because the only trait he needed was toughness.

4) Clint Eastwood – Now I’m not talking about Clint Eastwood, master auteur. What I am referring to is Eastwood the actor, The Man With No Name who rode into town and straightened things out with his own code. I am talking about Harry Callahan, Dirty Harry, who shot first and asked questions later. Or maybe he didn’t ask questions. What was the point of asking any questions when you know you’re right? You know the answers. That is the Eastwood I am referring to, the man who took the reins from John Wayne as American icon.

3) Jack Nicholson – There is only one white American male that can wear his sunglasses inside or out, any time of the day or night, and not look like a complete idiot. That man is Jack. He doesn’t even need his last name, most people will know who you are talking about if you just say… “Jack.” Regardless of the oddness of his role or the range of his incredible acting, Nicholson will forever be one of the coolest actors, a ladykiller and a tough guy in one package.

2) Paul Newman – Newman may be the nicest guy on the list, but that is because he had such a natural coolness that made his acting and his magnetism seem effortless. From Cool Hand Luke to Fast Eddie Felson in The Hustler, all the way to his later roles in films like Nobody’s Fool, Newman always seemed to be a step ahead of his challengers. Perhaps it was in that blue-eyed gaze, or that smirk, or the way he walked into a room. Whatever it was, Newman had it.

1) Steve McQueen – McQueen is, and always will be, one of the coolest motherfuckers to step in front of the camera. Aside from playing the tough guy in roles like Bullitt and The Getaway, Steve McQueen was a fashion icon for his time (and for our time really). His look still influences the American male. And he operated for most people under the age-old saying “women wanted him, men wanted to be him.” And if this wasn’t enough, McQueen was also an avid racer. Just another layer to add onto his legendary, iconic status as the coolest actor of all time.