Thursday, September 29, 2011

THURSDAY THROWBACK: The 25th Anniversary of Platoon (1986)

The Vietnam Conflict lends itself to dramatic filmmaking, mostly because it is the most controversial and disastrous war in our nation’s history. It is a dark period in our lineage, and in the years immediately after Vietnam there were a handful of pictures telling the story of the battles in the Southeast Asia. The most notable was Apocalypse Now. Eleven years after the war ended for this country, Oliver Stone released Platoon. America had been able to digest the conflict and form opinions, and Stone’s retelling of the war – a semi-autobiographical story about his time spent in Vietnam – was a visceral film experience. Where Apocalypse Now brilliantly dealt with the war on an abstract level, Platoon shone an unflinching light on the brutality of war, on the personalities at war, and how we never even had a chance over there.

Oliver Stone was a Yale student when he dropped out to go to Vietnam. It felt right to him to go over there; he didn’t think his affluence and a life of privilege should exclude him from fighting alongside his peers. Platoon is a fictionalized tale of what he witnessed. In the picture, Charlie Sheen plays the Stone character, Chris, a wealthy kid who volunteers for a tour in Vietnam. As the fresh meat, Chris’ life isn’t as valuable to the members of the platoon because he hasn’t put in his time. He struggles to find his footing with the other men, some who separate him by racial lines and others who shun him because they have been hardened by killing. Chris soon discovers the platoon itself is split in half.

The platoon is led by two Sergeants, Barnes and Elias. Barnes, played by Tom Berenger, is a career killer, his face a mashed up sack of scar tissue. Barnes lives for war and feeds of the violence and death. Elias is his polar opposite, a democratic leader of men played by Willem Dafoe. Elias is pragmatic about the duties assigned to him and his men and he is simply making his way through this hell to come out safe in the end. He and Barnes do not see eye to eye on anything, and their tension trickles down to the men in the platoon. The men who support Barnes are the gung-ho fighters who see Vietnam as an opportunity to collect metals and kills. The men on “Team Elias” understand the war is a sham. Barnes and company spend time in the barracks embracing their lot in life. Elias and his supporters hide out in a bunker smoking pot and shutting out the horrors around them, trying to find happiness.

Chris finds comfort in Elias and his men. As the platoon travels across Vietnam they are thrust into firefights and village raids. As these events unfold, the rift between the two sides grows more pronounced and tensions become almost unbearable. Nobody is safe. In a pivotal scene in a village, Barnes goes to any and every extreme to get information from the elders about the location of their soldiers, even threatening to kill a young Vietnamese girl. The tensions boiling below the surface explode and the dynamic between the sides is forever set. It is a horrific scene, one which shows how, even though we are all human, some of us reside in much darker places of the mind.

Platoon steadily becomes less about the enemy and more about the tension of the men. Stone handles the material perfectly, and the dichotomy he creates within the platoon somewhat represents the American stance on the war. This country was split between supporters and detractors, and Platoon shows that it wasn’t only the politicians and the population who disagreed; the opinions on what we were doing and why we were there was prevalent within the lives of these soldiers as well.

Berenger and Dafoe, who were both nominated for their roles, are compelling in such different ways. As Barnes, Berenger is a wicked man whose soul has been taken away by countless years in the military. Barnes cannot be killed, according to the men in the platoon, and Barnes embraces this steel-hearted mentality. As Elias, Dafoe holds tight to his humanity and leads with the compassion he feels is necessary to keep his men sane. Neither Berenger nor Dafoe would win the Oscar, and I think that is the way it had to be. Platoon, however, would take home Academy Awards for Best Picture, as well as Best Director, Editing and Sound. The success of Platoon was a testament to Stone’s handling of the subject, and his insider knowledge. It was also released at a distance from Vietnam, where opinions were formed. Of course, those opinions may be vastly on the side of Elias and his men, but don’t discount those supporters of Barnes. They may still be around.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What's With The Oranges?

One small thing I enjoy about film history is the hidden meanings in things, no matter how big or small. Directors often insert motifs in their pictures, be it in the dialogue or – what is more common – in the set design or prop department. For example, Martin Scorsese’s employment of and X pattern throughout The Departed indicates a character in danger or a character nearing death. Keep an eye out for them the next time you see it. In Punch Drunk Love, Paul Thomas Anderson uses a very specific color scheme and the use of very deliberate colors throughout to indicate certain moods or states for his characters. But what is arguably the most recognizable and most inherently-used motif is the insertion of oranges.

The “orange motif” began – as well as I can see – in The Godfather films (now keep in mind spoilers are ahead). In the original Godfather film, Don Corelone (Marlon Brando) is gunned down in the street at a fruit stand where he is picking oranges. As he falls to the ground under a hail of bullets his sack of oranges spills out into the street. Later in the picture, Don Corleone dies in his garden, having just peeled an orange. This motif appears again in the sequels, most notably in the elaborate assassination attempt in The Godfather Part III, where the heads of the mafia are attacked by a helicopter; there in the middle of the table is a bowl of oranges.

The myth of the oranges was a motif unique to The Godfather films, but has since been scattered throughout those directors who were students of Coppola’s films. In Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, a bowl of oranges can be seen at the kitchen table where Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) meets his tragic end. In Children of Men, the midwife is eating an orange in the car just before it is attacked and Julianne Moore’s character is killed. Darren Aronofsky also employed oranges in Requiem for a Dream. Harry and Ty (Jared Leto and Marlon Wayans) go to a supermarket to score smack in bulk. The infamous druglord sits in the back of an orange truck, peeling oranges while junkies and small-time dealers try and get their hands on the product. It isn’t long before there is a shootout, sending everyone scrambling. The appearance of oranges in film, as you can see, indicates tragedy for a character or disaster for any number of characters.

But why oranges? There is any number of theories floating around about the use of oranges in The Godfather spelling disaster. They range from the very pragmatic excuse that the orange showed up nicely against the dark palette of the film, all the way to the argument that orange is the indicating color of fall, or The Fall, which represents a time of death or dying in film and literature. That may seem a bit of a reach, but perhaps the former, most simple excuse here, transformed into the complexities of the latter. Francis Ford Coppola has indicated, in the DVD commentary of The Godfather, that it began as an accident but became a motif. And that is all it takes for something simple, something as mundane as citrus, to become a legendary cinematic prop that has been handed down throughout the years.

Maybe the “orange motif” has been analyzed too much. But, for me, that is some of the fun about film, the way they can pull us in even beyond the stories and the events.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Moneyball

MONEYBALL: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman (124 min.)

Baseball has, and will always be, the most romanticized of the sports. It is a metaphor for romance, even sex, and is often portrayed as such in film. But Moneyball is not one of those films. It sees the romanticism in baseball and strips away the falsehood of these notions. Sure, it still holds baseball in a somewhat magical regard at times, showing us the fervor of an energetic crowd and the power of a clutch hit, but it recognizes the business aspect of the sport all the while. There is a balance at work in Moneyball, between reality and dream, between what has always been the status quo and what has become the new way of thinking. That is where the story lies.

Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, the eccentric, inwardly intense General Manager of the Oakland Athletics. We see him first on the night of Oakland’s Divisional Series loss to the New York Yankees in 2001, followed closely by his Athletics being gutted as his best players go to the big market teams with unlimited cash to pay. Beane is then forced into an impossible role; replace those players and build a winner with about a third of the payroll. Between a rock and a hard place, Beane nabs a lowly analyst from the Cleveland Indians, Peter Brand (jonah Hill), who seems to have an entirely new approach to finding value in cheaper players. Brand’s theory is in the numbers, small-ball statistics that fly in the face of talent scouts and ages of experiences.

Beane and Brand challenge the talent scouts behind the scenes. Here is a group of old timers who judge players based on how they look in a uniform, how the ball sounds when it hits their bat, and whether or not they have an ugly girlfriend (ugly girlfriend means no confidence, ditch him!). Brand focuses on runs, and his equations and statistics lead him to on base percentage. You get on base, you score runs, you win. Beane throws himself completely behind Brand’s theories, and begins to assemble a ragtag bunch of castoffs and has beens to stand up to tradition. This does not sit well with the old brass in the room, nor does it agree with the philosophies of the red-assed manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who refuses to give in to Beane’s requests.

Most of the players, save for a few brief scenes, are not given much personality or character development, and this is intentional to emphasize the business aspect of the game. Beane himself doesn’t watch the games in person. He either listens to them in the bowels of the stadium, driving around in his car, or watches them on a television in the weight room. Of course, after a rough start, the Athletics go on an historic run where they set the record for most consecutive wins in American League history at 20. This is where the baseball begins to take over the film, and where the two aspects of the narrative click together.

Moneyball is much like the Oakland Athletics themselves; it starts slow, spinning its wheels without a sharp dramatic pull to keep momentum moving forward. But once it find its stride, Moneyball blossoms into a film with surprising depth and insight into not only baseball, but life. Beane is, of course, the focus of the picture. Brad Pitt is a marvelous actor, outshadowed by his celebrity sometimes, and he doesn’t disappoint as Billy Beane.

I won’t pretend to know a single thing about Billy Beane outside of name association, so Pitt’s portrayal is all I know. We learn through flashbacks that Beane’s drive comes from being a first round pick and failing as a player, driven less by his love of winning and more by his hatred of losing again. Pitt’s acting is very much an inward performance, with frustration and tension boiling just beneath the surface. He often struggles to find the right words, has small outbursts of emotion, and only seems to be calm in those touching moments we get with him and his daughter. Jonah Hill shows he has a different gear as Brand, a calm and quiet numbers cruncher who has great chemistry with Pitt’s Beane.

Moneyball transforms itself much like the team it’s representing. Of course there are fictional liberties taken with the story, adapted from the Michael Lewis book by Steven Zaillian and the great Aaron Sorkin, but I suspect they are minimal. It manages to, as a film, capture some of the romanticism of baseball but still pulls back that curtain to show us it is still a business. These players are still business commodities, even though they bring so much joy and pain to the fans of their team. “It’s hard not to romanticized baseball” Billy Beane says more than once. He knows, so do we. But maybe we need to just go with it sometimes and embrace the romance.

B+

Monday, September 26, 2011

Director Swells: Are We On The Verge of A New Crop?

Directors seem to arrive on the scene in groups. Quality directors, that is. Every year there could be another Brett Ratner or Zack Snyder making a splash and coasting off success. But, seemingly over a span of two or three years every decade, there is a marked insurgence of the true auteur. Directors with true vision and a unique way of storytelling are rare in Hollywood. It isn’t really that they are a dying breed; their types of films are not easy to fund. Because Hollywood is a big money machine, and the film of the auteur doesn’t necessarily generate enough income to please studio execs. Money is thrown at the feet of Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg, while the younger crowd with the fresh faces must scratch and claw to get funding. It has been over a decade since our last true influx of new directorial talent in cinema; perhaps we are seeing that door open once again.

Consider the late 80s and early 90s; Steven Soderbergh made a splash with his sexually-charged voyeur fim, Sex, Lies and Videotape, one of the biggest indie-film hits of all time that spawned countless rip-offs. It put Soderbergh on the map, and made him a household name for good. A few years later, the world was introduced to Quentin Tarantino. Reservoir Dogs was a small film, and appreciation has grown throughout the years. But it was his 1994 Cannes sensation, Pulp Fiction, that made him who he is today and subsequently changed the face of film. Soderbergh and Tarantino were the fresh young faces of the directorial insurgence in the late 80s early 90s. Jim Jarmusch had been around for a few years, but really took the independent-film growth and made himself a bigger, more promising career.

The late 90s saw yet another growth of directors, headed by three of the best in the business working today. First, there was 1997, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s seminal Boogie Nights, a wonderful and brilliant film about the 70s porn industry. Showing his Robert Altman influence, Anderson also showed his uncanny ability to create a marvelous and unique film all his own, juggling a sprawling cast and epic storyline. A year later, a small film named Pi made a splash at Sundance. The paranoia-fueled math thriller (try selling that) was directed by Darren Aronofsky, who showed the prowess he had behind the camera on a shoestring budget. Aronofsky would break down barriers of style and kinetic energy with his follow up, Requiem for a Dream. 2000 would introduce the world to Christopher Nolan, and his film Memento. Although he had directed a small film, Following, a few years before (same goes for Anderson and his debut film, Hard Eight), it was Memento, the mind-bending noir thriller, which caught fire and opened the door for Nolan to become the director of the finest Batman films the world has ever seen. And in the meantime, Nolan has managed to make great films in between Batmans.

This would be the last true director boom. It has been too long for new talent in Hollywood. But I think perhaps we are on the precipice of a new uprising. After seeing Drive, I have confidence in the career of Nicholas Winding Refn. It is very early, but Refn shows an ability to manipulate his own personal film history into something unique on the screen. His early film, Bronson, may gather steam now after Drive has become a considerable hit. I see nothing but positive things for Refn, and I look forward to his next film. Hollywood needs these independent films to pick up steam and transform into that rarest of entities: the indie film that finds commercial success. And now, well, we need more directors to follow Refn into success.

Hollywood falls in love with big budget and big action and big money. But sometimes an influx of quality is necessary to create balance once again. These independent directors, ones who will not eschew their vision for studio heads without an ounce of film talent, they may find it difficult to get their films made. But the best ones do, and they lend each other their success. Without the boom of indie films in the late 80s, without the success of Sex, Lies and Videotape, maybe Pulp Fiction never gets made. Without Anderson does Aronofsky find an audience? Without Requiem for a Dream, does Memento have a say? I assume they would, but they needed each other to get made. Maybe now, after Drive, more doors will be open for smaller, fresh directors to place their stamp on Hollywood.

Friday, September 23, 2011

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Drive, Refn, Shawshank, Scarface

* I must say I am pretty proud of September for the first time in a long time. What is usually a wasteland of garbage is turning into a formidable month of quality films. The top of the heap is Drive.

* We are about due for a director insurgence. They come in waves, about 6-8 years apart it seems. The early nineties, then the late nineties each had their own crop. I feel like Nicholas Winding Refn is the leader of a new pack. The more I think about Drive, and about his very early career, the more I am reminded of Quentin Tarantino.

* Not that Drive is as influential as Pulp Fiction. Or that Bronson is as memorable Reservoir Dogs. But they do have the energy and creativity of a fresh new face behind the camera.

* Drive is the number one selling soundtrack on iTunes.

* The latest film classic to be raped by the remake patrol will be… Scarface. Now, this is an interesting scenario. The 1983 Al Pacino film is actually a remake of a 1932 version. But everyone, especially the “gangstas” of the world, cite Pacino’s version as a classic. I personally think it’s pretty overrated. But I still don’t think we need a remake.

* Paul Thomas Anderson takes entirely too much time in between his films. I am in desperate need of his next one.

* It is amazing to me how directors like PTA and Aronofsky have to scratch and claw to get their films made, and they take forever, but hacks like Brett Ratner have screenplays and bags of money thrown at their feet. What a backwards system. But it’s the public’s fault, because they are generally morons.

* Happy birthday Shawshank Redemption. You are now old enough to get into your own movie.
* Even though I was 13 at the time, I was pretty cognoscente of films and film status in 1994. Hell, I saw Pulp Fiction. But I don’t remember The Shawshank Redemption at all. Hard to believe now.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

DVD REVIEW: Bridesmaids

Kristen Wiig has long been the steady force in Saturday Night Live, carrying the torch after Will Ferrell as the funniest cast member. She is always willing to go that extra mile to make her character memorable. But for a while I have been waiting for Wiig to make that next step, and it is clear she has done that very thing with Bridesmaids, the buddy chick flick she stars in and wrote. Of course, Bridesmaids proves raunchy comedy isn’t simply for the boys, you’ve all heard that. But Wiig’s screenplay also explores female relationships and how they ebb and flow throughout lifetimes. All the while she never leaves romance behind. But let’s not be mistaken here, this picture is damn funny before it is anything else.

Wiig stars as Annie, a hopeless woman drifting disastrously towards middle age. Her business, a bakery, failed in the recession, she lives with two kooky roommates from another galaxy, she has a poor job, and she has a sexual relationship with a rich douche bag (Jon Hamm, loving his cameo and nailing every note perfectly) who cannot wait to get her out of his house once the deed is done. When Annie’s lifelong best friend, Lillian (Maya Rudolph) announces she is getting engaged, Annie is at once happy and panicking that she will lose her friend. Naturally, Lillian puts Annie in charge of the wedding as her maid of honor, but it cannot be that easy.

We soon meet the bridal party which is, as you could imagine, made up of some drastically diverse characters. There is Becca (The Office’s Ellie Kemper) a Pixar-loving innocent, Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey) the exhausted housewife overloaded with derelict kids, and there is Megan, the sister of the groom played by Melissa McCarthy. McCarthy comes dangerously close to running away with the film with her great comedic rhythm. Annie’s biggest issue in this bridal party, however, is the ice-queen Whitney (Jessica St. Clair), an impeccable and wealthy socialite who desperately wants to be in charge of the wedding and challenges Annie and Lillian’s friendship in a very passive aggressive tone. Especially in an early scene where they each fight to have the last word to the crowd.

Bridesmaids is set up as a conventional buddy comedy, and yes the women as the stars do add freshness. But Wiig and director Paul Feig don’t allow the picture to lose its heart. This is also a film about friendships and jealousy unintentionally rearing its head. There are some hilarious individual scenes throughout the film. The airplane sequence sticks out the most to me; the fitting after some bad Brazilian food I could have done without. But regardless of the hefty laughs, Bridesmaids manages to keep a story moving.

I didn’t expect to become as involved with Annie’s budding flirtation with Rhodes, the Irish State Trooper played by Chris O’Dowd. O’Dowd is a fresh face in the rom-com department and brings his own charm to a female-centric film. I found his scenes with Annie to be very heartfelt and well executed. I look forward to seeing O’Dowd in future roles.

Like any movie with Judd Apatow’s fingerprints somewhere on it, Bridesmaids might go on just a hair too long and overextend itself from time to time, but these are really nitpicky items. Overall the laughs are consistent and the performances are all pitch perfect. It’s a shame Rudolph wasn’t given more to do, but her role as the bride paints her into that corner of being acted upon more than acting. Wiig should turn into a star following this effort. I do mean a star as an actress, but perhaps I mean even more so as a writer.

B+

Monday, September 19, 2011

Drive

DRIVE: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Christina Hendricks (100 min.)

The driver drives. He doesn’t carry a gun; he doesn’t help commit the crime. He doesn’t wait. He drives. And that is about all we know of him. He is the hero of Drive, the new crime drama from Nicolas Winding Refn, an ambitious, thrilling, and compelling picture that borders on genius at times as it tries new things in a familiar realm. What an unexpected delight is Drive, a film unlike anything I could have imagined or expected. If you are looking for adrenaline fueled films with fiery explosions, slack dialogue, and music telling you how to feel, look elsewhere. If you want to be surprised within every frame, see Drive.

Ryan Gosling plays the driver. We never get his name. The closest thing we get is “the kid,” a name his makeshift mentor, Shannon (Bryan Cranston, with hair), gives him. The driver lives to be behind the wheel, feeling more comfortable there than in any sort of domestic setting. When he isn’t working with cars, he is driving them as a stunt driver for the movies. He also happens to moonlight as a getaway driver for crooks looking to pick up a score. He waits for five minutes, does nothing but drives. He is the best at what he does. Shannon wants him to drive a race car for him, a car financially backed by Bernie and Nino, two ruthless gangsters. Nino is a hothead played by Ron Perlman, Bernie is the pragmatic but sadistic big wig, a former producer played by Albert Brooks.

The driver meets his neighbor from down the hall, a sweet and reserved cherub named Irene (Carey Mulligan). Irene has a young son whose father is in prison. The driver feels drawn to Irene and her son, Benicio (Kaden Leos), wanting to do nothing more than protect them from, well, he isn’t sure at first. But when the husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac,) reappears with gangsters threatening to kill him and his family, the driver makes the decision to help Standard pull off a heist so he, Irene, and Bencicio can be free and clear of any danger. Of course, things unravel in a double cross and the driver is left to pick up the pieces.

This may all sound like your typical action thriller scenario. And perhaps it is in a very basic sense. But where Drive separates itself is in the brilliance of its execution. While we learn nothing about the driver, those around him are fleshed out enough to propel him through the picture and give his goals some weight. We feel the sense of urgency he has in protecting Irene and Benicio. Gosling has that uncanny ability to do so much by doing so very little. All we need is a look or a grin or a wide-eyed gaze to understand his motivation. I am convinced, after seeing him do comedy, drama, quirk, and now action, there is nothing Gosling cannot do. Albert Brooks’ Bernie is the type of performance Supporting Actor statues are made for. Bernie is reluctantly psychotic, but psychotic nonetheless, making him all the more menacing. Brooks is a man who has made his career playing the overlooked funnyman. Here he is not overlooked, he is monstrous and coldly vicious.

Drive is also, surprisingly, a beautiful film. The production values exceed anything you may have seen in this genre in the past. Many have cited Michael Mann films like Thief and Collateral, and these are definite inspirations for Winding Refn. But he brings to the film his own style, his own flair. The Los Angeles night is a character in and of itself, a hypnotizing landscape of light and shadow, and will always be the perfect setting for a crime drama.

Drive is a fresh take on a familiar genre, an ambitious and engrossing film. Sure, there are outbursts of brutal and horrific violence, but they are earned by the patience of the direction and the screenplay from Hossein Amini, adapted from the novel by James Sallis. And these outbursts are choreographed with some originality, not simply shot with a nauseating handheld. And I must make mention of Refn’s musical choices. It would be easy to simply insert a score from earlier crime dramas, to just plug in an iPod and let it do the work. But Refn opts to use a synthetic score, heightening the 80s feel of the picture to a static, energetic level. And his song choices are daring to say the least; they are decisions that could ruin a film if they were not chosen and inserted perfectly. Fortunately, they are.

A

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Straw Dogs

STRAW DOGS: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgard (110 min.)

Straw Dogs is a remake of a Sam Peckinpah film of the same name, and is basically a carbon copy, save for a few unique ingredients. I liken a remake like this to a new chef doing a legendary chef’s concoction, but adding a spice here and there to make it his own. Take the story out of the English countryside and place it in Deep South, make our hero not a mathematician but a screenwriter, and you have the root of the differences between the original and this new version. But, at the same time, here is not a stale remake without any inspiration. No, director Rod Lurie has injected some energy and some of his own creative panache into the proceedings. The result is a unique experience, a remake that might be on the same level as the original.

James Marsden plays David Sumner (in the original this was Dustin Hoffman), a screenwriter who moves back to the small hometown of his wife, Amy (Kate Bosworth), to work on his latest script. Blackwater is the typical southern town we have all seen in films throughout the years, a town revolving around a bar, a church, and a high school football team. Everyone in Blackwater has or will remain there for the rest of their lives. Which is why they are all so proud of Amy for moving out to Hollywood to be an actress. David, of course, sticks out like a sore thumb. He is an intellectual in white shoes and with clean hands, something the locals frown upon in secret behind his back. At first.

Amy’s old high school boyfriend is Charlie (True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgard), a hulking construction foreman who seems harmless enough at first. Charlie and his crew have bid on the repairs to Amy’s barn. David tries to get in good with Charlie and his crew but you can tell he is condescending to them even when he isn’t trying. David and Amy settle in at the family home where David begins writing. It isn’t long before tension begins to build between the burly roofers, their loud music and scattered work schedule, and David and his classical music. The line is clearly drawn in the sand, and the film revolves around these characters reaching that line and crossing it.

Straw Dogs is about what violence lies within man when they are pushed to the breaking point. Charlie and the ruffians begin torturing poor David with psychological warfare and they clearly have plans for Amy the entire time. There is also a subplot of the wiry, insane former football coach, played by James Woods, and his daughter’s flirtation with the mentally handicapped man in town which funnels its way into the story of David and Charlie. This is all the same as it was in the original, only with the backdrop of high school football.

I found the acting to be rather inspired here, more than I had originally expected. James Marsden may not always appear in the best films, but are those films ever bad because of his performance? I’d say no. As David, Marsden keeps things calm and steady even when the final twenty minutes dissolves into a furious bloodletting when Charlie and his men try and invade their home. Something the new Straw Dogs successfully changes is it gives Amy more of a personality. Kate Bosworth has a much more substantial and fleshed-out presence than Susan George from the original. And Skarsgard is solid as Charlie, a menacing figure in size who always seems to be smirking because, well, he knows the score and you don’t.

Straw Dogs is fresh even though it is a direct remake of the Peckinpah classic. There is, it turns out, a way to do these remakes with some class and some energy so they don’t feel like tired retreads with second-rate actors (I’m looking at you, Chainsaw Massacre remakes). This is very much like the remake of Last house on the Left, a film that doesn’t have advantage of being first, but makes the best of what it has in being second.

B+

Friday, September 16, 2011

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Off Limit Remakes, Moneyball Issues, and a SAVE MICHAEL KEATON t shirt.

* I am feeling better today about this Straw Dogs remake than I ever have.

* It’s time to watch Unforgiven again.

* Albert Brooks has always been an underrated actor playing underappreciated character in his films. Maybe he can get a little anger out in Drive.

* I don’t know where the line is for remaking films. Surely remaking something like The Godfather or Casablanca is off limits (surely, right?), but where should remakes stop? Rumors are floating around about a Point Break remake. For me, personally, this is the line. Right here.

* But seriously… they wouldn’t remake Casablanca would they?

* I was going to pick up the Star Wars blurays this afternoon. But somewhere along the way it started to feel like a waste of money.

* Moneyball looks like a good film, and a good character study about real people that exists in the world of baseball. But I have an issue with the entire premise of Moneyball; it never worked. The Oakland A’s never won a World Series. They are currently 12 games behind the Texas Rangers in their division, where they typically reside. So making a big deal out of how Billy Beane and company constructed their team seems like the wrong direction.

* And I mean… really… The Godfather will never be remade will it?

* I think I might make some “Save Michael Keaton” shirts, and maybe put a picture of him in White Noise on the front. The guy deserves better.

*But really… it’s Casablanca… come on!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Broadcast News (1987)

James L. Brooks has never really been lauded as a great director throughout his career. When it comes time to make lists, one would be hard pressed to find Brooks near the top. But James L. Brooks has been a steady force in Hollywood for decades. While he hasn’t been prolific as a director, his writing and producing career spans far and wide. His films are never flashy, but always of the highest quality. Brooks’ most celebrated film is the 1983 Best Picture winner Terms of Endearment; his most popular the Jack Nicholson comedy As Good As It Gets. If you are familiar with these films, you are familiar with the whimsical charm and atmosphere of a Brooks film; they are pictures about people.

In between Terms of Endearment and As Good As It Gets, Brooks wrote, produced, and directed Broadcast News, about a trio of news media workers with drastically different approaches to their craft. William Hurt is Tom Grunick, an impossibly handsome news anchor who also happens to be impossibly dense. Grunick has never really “understood” the news stories he is reading, never been the brightest one in the room (rarely is he in the top three brightest, even when there are only three people in the room), but because of his good looks and charm with the ladies, Tom is fast tracked into top stories and lead anchor status. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Aaron Altman. Aaron, played by the wonderful and underrated Albert Brooks, graduated high school at 15. He is a brain, and a genuine news man concerned with quality over fluff pieces. Aaron holds a great deal of disdain for Tom, and he doesn’t hide it in some amusing scenes between the two.

The lady in the middle is Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), a hard-working producer who makes time every morning to sob uncontrollably, be it at her desk or her hotel room or a boat dock. Jane lives to work, has no room in her life for social activity or relationships, and doesn’t even notice that Aaron is completely smitten with her. Of course, when Tom appears at her news station she begins to reconsider her social life. She, like most of the women, is attracted to Tom. She doesn’t realize Aaron is in love with her, but we do. The bulk of the story revolves around the working relationship of these three people, and the way they are diametrically opposed to one another in work and in life. Jane tries desperately to make herself appealing to Tom, who is too dumb to notice for quite some time. All the while Aaron is waiting in the wings, constantly being stepped over because he doesn’t have those matinee-idol looks.

Broadcast News also pays close attention to the pressures of the job. Aaron wants to weekend anchor, but Tom has that job. So when everyone at the station is looking to get out of work to head to a company party one weekend, Aaron gets his chance. His anchoring stint unravels as Aaron sweats uncontrollably, causing all sorts of chaos with makeup and staff in between shots. This is maybe the best sequence in the entire film, and shows the deftness of James L. Brooks the writer. When the sweat first appears the scene is tragic and pitiful, you feel sorry for Aaron. But it soon grows hysterical thanks to the timing of Albert Brooks. The sweat disaster shows Aaron he is better at reporting, where he is comfortable, instead of being an anchor.

The picture has great focus and skill in showing us the inner workings of the nightly news. All of the performances are fantastic. There is a clever recurring cameo from Jack Nicholson as a legendary news anchor who floats around as a specter, seen mostly in reaction shots on the television. Hurt, Hunter, and Brooks would all be nominated, and Broadcast News would end up with seven Academy Awards. Although it wouldn’t win any up against the great The Last Emperor that year, Broadcast News is a charming, often funny, sometimes heartfelt film. It never dives headfirst into romantic implications, because these characters never dive headfirst themselves. They are simply too busy.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

THE DEFENSE CALLS: Dances With Wolves (1990)

I know what many of you are thinking. And yes, this segment is typically reserved for films with poor ratings that I feel need a second or third or fourth chance, or films I simply defend because I want to. So why is a film that is the second highest-grossing Western of all time and a film which won seven Academy Awards in need of a defense? Well, hindsight is a tricky animal. Over the last twenty years, the opinions regarding Dances With Wolves have steadily waned, but for the wrong reasons. Most of the growing resentment towards Kevin Costner’s sprawling epic adventure film has to do with Martin Scorsese.

In 1990, the closest competition for Dances With Wolves for Best Picture was Goodfellas. Martin Scorsese’s seminal gangster picture would lose on that night, but would subsequently be rewarded with a groundswell of admiration. It is one of the best gangster pictures ever made, one of the finest films of the decade, there is no denying that. But along the way, the love for Goodfellas would transform itself into derision towards Dances With Wolves. Believe me, I am responsible for that as much as anyone. If there were a committee to head the protests I would be the chairman. But I have since realized a few things. First of all, Dances With Wolves deserved the Oscar it won for Best Picture. And Goodfellas deserves its place in history as one of the best films of all time.

Dances With Wolves is everything the Academy loves about films and filmmaking. It is a beautifully-shot, wonderfully acted, authentic and heartfelt film about the frontier. The sprawl of a film like Dances With Wolves is the very material the Oscars have gushed over for decades, and that will never change. The bigger and more epic the better. Goodfellas, on the other hand, is tight and small and gritty and visceral, maybe a bit too violent for Oscar when held up against an historical epic. So it didn’t win Best Picture, it isn’t the first time the best film – in the truest sense of the word – didn’t win. And it definitely wasn’t the last.

But Dances With Wolves is, in its own right, a very important picture. It changed perception of Native Americans in Hollywood. Until that moment Native Americans were portrayed as savage killers, where the white settlers were peaceful and civilized. We all know this was not the case, and the screenplay from Michael Blake acknowledges this by making the white soldiers and settlers appropriately villainous. The depiction of the Sioux Indians in Dances With Wolves is one of even temperament and understanding, and Costner eschewed traditional filmmaking by hiring Native American actors and teaching them to speak in the true Sioux language. This authenticity adds a layer of drama and humor to the film.

There is no genre of film which has been declared dead more than the Western. It seems every few years the Western is pronounced dead, meaning the films make no money and audiences have no interest in seeing them. The late 80s were a peak time for the “Dead Western” era, and Dances With Wolves is responsible for reviving the genre once again. Only this time, the Western was revived and re-imagined with an authentic approach. Gone were the days of haughty language and villainous Indians for the sake of villainy. Without the authenticity of Dances With Wolves, there would have been no Unforgiven, no Maverick, no more Western films in the 90s when the genre saw an uptick in quality.

Part of the overwhelming admiration for Goodfellas and the swelling disdain towards Dances With Wolves is the aura of Martin Scorsese, who was also beaten by Kevin Costner for Best Director. Since then, Scorsese has continued to revolutionize film as the most important American director. Costner has faltered. And this is that hindsight thing I mentioned before. Sure, Goodfellas may be seen as one of the best films of all time, surely one of the greatest films of the decade, but we should no longer allow that to detract from the importance and the impact of Dances With Wolves.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Ranking the Star Wars Saga

It’s almost here. After years of waiting and much anticipation, the Star Wars saga will find its way to bluray in special edition box sets. There is much controversy surrounding the constant tinkering of George Lucas and his incessant need to adjust and re-adjust and add and alter his films. For the most part there is a cavernous valley between the old films and the prequels as far as quality, with maybe one exception. Maybe not. So how do these films stack up against one another? Six films, six wildly different results…

6) Episode I: The Phantom Menace – After years of feverish anticipation and months of super-fan hype, George Lucas finally released his first of three prequel films, The Phantom Menace, charting the life of Anakin Skywalker as he would grow to become Darth Vader. Maybe when it was released in 1999, the hype machine was just too much to overcome as fans flocked to the cinema and drove the box-office numbers through the roof. Too bad the film was terrible, because nobody realized it for a few years it seems. The Phantom Menace is a dull, forgettable film with no interesting dialogue or characters or conflicts. And the massive marketing surrounding the film, appearing all over Taco Bell value menus and Pepsi bottles, soured the end result that much more. And of course, we are introduced to Public Enemy No. 1, the worst most idiotic character in the entire pantheon, Jar-Jar Binks.

5) Episode II: Attack of the Clones – It was apparent as this second episode in the new trilogy was released that Lucas was simply trying to figure out ways to introduce fan favorites from the original films. This time around, we get to see Jango Fett and a young Boba Fett, the bounty hunters. We are also introduced to Anakin Skywalker as a young adult Jedi. Anakin is played by Hayden Christensen, and as he romances Padme (Natalie Portman, who might regret being in these films in hindsight) we are supposed to see him growing more conflicted as a character. Instead, we get Anakin the cry baby, scowling and sulking all over the screen and whining to whoever will listen. That usually means Obi Won (Ewan McGregor), who seems put out by the whole thing. Part of the problem may be the writing, but I feel like most of the problem is Christensen, who is one of the worst actors to ever undertake such an important role.

4) Episode VI: Return of the Jedi – What is, in a narrative sense, the final act of the saga is the final film of the originals. Return of the Jedi has some iconic moments (gold bikini) and some good action (pod chase on Endor), as well as the advantage of closure. But along the way we discover some chinks in the George Lucas armor; around the time those cute little Ewoks make an appearance. The Ewoks seem to undermine the tone of Return of the Jedi, where everything is boiling over and Luke, now in full Jedi mode and hurtling to a showdown with Darth Vader, means nothing but business from the beginning. The Ewoks take everything to a playful and cute direction in the middle of all this closure. Sure, Return of the Jedi may be better than any of the new films, but I put it here behind Episode III because of those pesky Ewoks.

3) Episode III: Revenge of the Sith – As a film, maybe Revenge of the Sith isn’t as good as Return of the Jedi, but with all of the loose ends being tied up in this third installment of the newer trilogy, I felt it deserved a little more recognition. We get to finally see how Darth Vader physically became Vader, how the Jedi alliance fell to the empire, and how these characters in the original films wound up scattered all over the galaxy. There is definitely a darker tone to Sith, and watching all of these moments tie up is a joy. But there are some issues here as well. There are several issues that might pale in comparison to Episodes I and II, but they are issues nonetheless. First, there is the fact Hayden Christensen is still the lead actor. There is no avoiding his inability to perform and not look like a sulking child. And of course there is the dreaded scream from Darth Vader. You know the one I’m talking about… What a poor move that almost undercuts everything in the film before it. Nevertheless, Sith has the advantage of tying up these lose ends, and that makes it compelling.

2) Episode IV: A New Hope – The vastness in quality between Episode III and Episode IV is wide enough to drive the Millennium Falcon through. This is the film which started it all, and introduced us to a world we had never seen before and one which would change the landscape of Hollywood and filmmaking forever. We meet all of these iconic characters, from Luke Skywalker to Darth Vader to the great Han Solo (Harrison Ford). There is an undeniable charm and whimsy and adventurous spirit to the original Star Wars, and there is something endearing about watching this one the first time. Every character is wonderfully realized and the chemistry on the screen translates perfectly. If you notice the writing in these last two films here, you will see real dialogue and flawless structure; perhaps the biggest downfall of the more recent trilogy.

1) Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back – Ironically, the best Star Wars film ever made, and one of the best science-fiction films of all time, wasn’t even directed by George Lucas. The late Irvin Kirschner was behind the camera for Empire, a pitch-perfect film in tone, mood, action, and in the evolution of these characters. The middle film of trilogies can be tricky because of the responsibility. Things must evolve on pace, and revelations must be made which drive the final film to closure. Empire nails everything it is supposed to, and along the way introduces us to the beautiful ice planet, Hoth, and Cloud City where the bulk of the third act takes place. Empire also has the line that changes the saga forever: “I am your father.” This revelation comes out of left field and alters the trajectory of these characters. It is a bold stroke of genius, one that is unmatched in the saga. The Empire Strikes Back is the Star Wars saga at the height of its power.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Adaptation. (2002)

Adaptation is about a real-life writer with a fictional twin brother, struggling to write a fictional screenplay based on a real non-fiction novel written by a woman whose own fictional narrative with the subject of her non-fiction book crosses paths with the writer and his fictional twin in the end. If you can understand this, then you can understand Charlie Kaufman, the writer and star of Adaptation. Only Kaufman is portrayed by Nicolas Cage. But I am getting ahead of myself. Adaptation is about fiction and non-fiction, about storylines which intersect in the real world and the world imagined on screen. Here is maybe the most brilliant screenplay ever produced, one which unfolds in a furious whimsy, with vivacious imagination and humor and, well, just about everything it takes to make a movie this wonderful.

Cage is Charlie Kaufman, a screenwriter and socially awkward hermit with poor self confidence and just about every misanthropic idiosyncrasy one person could have. His twin brother, Donald, is aloof and in love with the world and all the clichés of moviemaking. We open on Charlie in a Hollywood restaurant where an agent (Tilda Swinton) is pitching him a film idea: an adaptation of the Susan Orleans non-fiction book, The Orchid Thief. Kaufman takes the job but soon discovers there is no real narrative arch to the novel. He suffers for weeks trying to find the right jumping off point and the right voice. Meanwhile, Donald is writing his own screenplay about a serial killer with multiple personalities. Donald tortures Charlie, unintentionally, with his cliché ideas about his story and bangs away at his script while Charlie suffers. The back and forth between Cage, playing both roles, is the meat of the film and is simply wonderful.

Simultaneously, we get the story of Susan Orleans, the author played by Meryl Streep, as she researches in Southern Florida swamplands and writes her book about John Laroche, a con man and a swindler played by Chris Cooper (who would win the Oscar for his performance). But even though he uses Native Americans to swipe rare orchids from the swamps, and even though he is a bit of a lowlife, Laroche is charming and soulful. Even without his front two teeth which were knocked out in a fateful car accident, and his mullet and moustache, there is something genuine in him. Orleans finds something magnetic about Laroche and his dedication to his craft. There is a great deal of contrast between the Manhattan lifestyle of Orleans and her black-clad socialites, and the rawness and reality surrounding Laroche.

Somewhere along the way, as Charlie tries and fails and tries and fails, the “book” portion of the Orleans narrative ends and the relationship between Laroche and Orleans continues, until the stories intersect. Because Charlie writes himself into the screenplay and subsequently begins writing the film the audience has been watching halfway through the film itself. It is an ingenious move by the real-life Kaufman and not something just any writer could pull off. And as the story goes, we discover in the most subtle way that the final act was written not by Charlie, but by Donald. As the picture turns into a suspense thriller complete with a chase sequence, it’s clear Donald is the one behind the events and not Charlie. Even though both Charlie and Donald are in the middle of the action. Brilliance.

Nicolas Cage is at his absolute best as Charlie and Donald Kaufman. Sometimes you forget this is the same actor playing both roles because of the wild diversity in their personalities. This had to be a challenge for Cage to work double duty. It’s a shame he seems no longer capable of films and performances like this. Everyone involved is on top of their game, because they have to keep up with the screenplay and they are clearly enjoying the proceedings. Director Spike Jonze is a perfect fit for the picture, carrying with him the sensibilities of Charlie Kaufman. Adaptation is a wonderful film to absorb, and easier to understand and follow than it may seem. It is a film bucking up against the cliché screenplays and films littering Hollywood, even though it turns into one in the end. But in this context the chase sequence and action are there for a specific purpose. It is fiction about non-fiction, but then again how much different are the two to begin with?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

ACTOR PROFILES: Jeff Daniels

Sometimes actors appear in films and make you feel good about the film you’re watching. That’s what Jeff Daniels does for me. Whether he is hero or villain, goofball or slime ball, Daniels is a consistently convincing actor with more range than most might think. Underrated is a term that follows Jeff Daniels through almost all of his roles. Perhaps it’s due to the fact he was the brighter of the Dumb and Dumber duo that Daniels’ other work goes mostly overlooked. But Daniels is into his fourth decade of work now. And even though his career consists of supporting roles, every once in a while Daniels finds a way to shine in a lead. I guess what I’m getting at is that Jeff Daniels can do just about anything a film asks him to do, and do it well.

Jeff Daniels was born in Athens, Georgia, and grew up in Michigan where his family owned a lumber company he would be working at today had it not been for acting. He attended Central Michigan and then Eastern Michigan, studying in their theater programs. For years, Daniels perfected his craft as a stage performer before landing his first significant film role in Ragtime, playing P.C. O’Donnell. Two years later, in 1983, Daniels’ big break was playing Flap Horton, the emotionally confused and dishonest husband to Debra Winger in the Oscar winning hit Terms of Endearment. Daniels’ career would take off from here, getting his first Golden Globe nomination two years later starring in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo. Daniels’ theater company is named The Purple Rose.

In 1986, Daniels starred as Charles Driggs in the criminally underrated Jonathan Demme road picture Something Wild. Driggs is an everyman, Mr. Middle America yuppie, who is kidnapped by a free-spirited woman (Melanie Griffith) and taken to her high school reunion. Demme’s picture is a fun and crafty adventure film with some great humor, and fortunately has found a new life on DVD after being released in the Criterion Collection. Daniels would keep very busy over the next several years, bouncing back and forth between stage and screen, before taking on another lead role in Frank Marshall’s Arachnophobia, the film responsible for making myself and many other kids at that age deathly afraid of spiders.

1994 was a big year for Daniels. He starred alongside Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in Speed, the high-octane action film that was the sensation of the summer movie season. Later that year, Daniels would cement himself in everyone’s mind playing Harry Dunne opposite Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber. While this film was definitely Carrey’s vehicle as he was the biggest star in Hollywood at the time, Daniels carried his portion of the film and delivered plenty of laughs. While it is a signature film for Daniels, it’s a little unfortunate Daniels is most remembered for this role as his career is one of the more diverse careers around. For years after Dumb and Dumber, Daniels would star in big films like 101 Dalmations and Pleasentville while still making time for small budget and forgotten films like 2 Days in The Valley, Blood Work, and Imaginary Heroes.

Daniels has not slowed this decade, appearing in small but strong films like State of Play, The Lookout, Away We Go, and Good Night, and Good Luck. But for my money, Daniels’ best role is in Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical dramedy The Squid and the Whale. Daniels played Bernard Berkman, a pompous English professor in love with himself more than his family is in love with him. This is a challenging role, and Berkman an unlikeable character. But Daniels managed to balance the despicable aspects of his character while still honing in on the humanity as Berkman struggles to keep his ego in check and manage his troubled sons. Daniels was criminally overlooked for this role in Oscar season, but I imagine Daniels is used to being overlooked in his career.