Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Looking Ahead at 2012

2012 seems to have gotten off to a slower start than recent years.  January and February are traditionally dumping grounds for Hollywood, but this year sticks out as more of a wasteland than most.  The Grey is clearly the best film thus far, and it may very well be one of the best of the year when all is said and done.  But we are heading into March now, and studios will start dropping their pre-summer season films as we head into April, then the summer season kicks off (it seems to be getting earlier every year).  Disney is releasing John Carter in just over a week, and despite the ridiculous trailers the early buzz is surprisingly positive.  21 Jump Street will try and fight through an atrocious trailer to bring in big bucks in March as well.  Same goes for the highly unnecessary Wrath of the Titans.  Before you know it, awards season will be on the lips and minds of everyone.  There is still promise in 2012, some big films and some small ones like always; let's just try and sort through some of the highlights.


Titanic will be re-released in April in 3D, and it is quite sad that a fifteen-year old film will be the biggest release of the month.  And then, right around the corner is Marvel's Avengers, a project that has been in the works for over four years and five different films.  There is almost an obligation for fans of Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, and Captain America to see the final result.  I am less than enthused about the film to be honest, it doesn't move the needle for me in the early previews.

On the heels of the Avengers is Tim Burton's latest Burtonized remake, Dark Shadows starring, of ocurse, Johnny Depp.  I have grown weary of Burton's fillms recently.  He should work on fresh material rather than taking old work and skewing the angles.  We also get Water Transformers in May.  The official title is Battleship, but let's call a spade a spade; the film looks ridiculous.  And then there is Men in Black III at the end of the month, reteaming Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, and Josh Brolin as a young version of Jones.  I must say the trailers are promising, and I never noticed how Brolin is a dead ringer for Jones as a young man. 

Everyone is anticipating a certain superhero film in July, but we mustn't look past the biggest release - in my opinion - in June.  Ridley Scott returns to outer space with Prometheus, a semi-prequel hybrid to his Alien film.  This is, without a doubt, my most anticipated fillm of the summer season.  The trailers are stunning, and the viral marketing campaign intriguing.  Check out the viral video here:

And then, in July, Christopher Nolan ends his Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises.  Film fans across the globe are foaming at the mouth to see how it all ends.  I am exctied as well, but I would like everyone reading this to temper their enthusiasm just a smidge.  Countless times I have heard the question "how will he make it better than The Dark Knight?"  It is a mistake to go into this film believing Nolan will top The Dark Knight, the greatest superhero film of all time.  Consider TDKR as its own film, standing on its own two legs.  The football sequence in the trailer worries me a little, but then again Heath Ledger cast as The Joker had me concerned as well.  That turned out okay.

There are other big films in the summer of course - The Amazing Spider Man, the Total Recall remake, and The Bourne Legacy (which looks rather good) - but I must move on for the sake of time.

Once we get past the Halloween releases of Paranormal Activity 4, yes 4, and Halloween in 3D (groan), awards season will be in full swing.  Now, the last two months of the year are not without big-budget releases.  The most intriguing has to be Skyfall, the next James Bond film starring Daniel Craig.  Quantum of Solace turned out to be one of the worst of the franchise, but there is hope here.  Sam Mendes is directing, an interesting choice for sure as this is miles out of his comfort zone of family drama.  The experiement didn't work when they brough in Marc Forster for Quantum, but I have a little more faith in Mendes as a director.  December has the Brad Pitt apocolypse drama World War Z, based on the bestselling novel, and Peter Jackson will release The Hobbit.  Don't count out The Hobbit for Best Picture.

There could be an argument that the Oscars for next year will belong to Steven Spielberg, as Lincoln will be released in December.  Starring Daniel Day Lewis as the president, Sally Field as his wife, and a who's who of prestigious character actors and big stars, Lincoln feels absolutely poised to dominate awards season.  But there are a few other films in the mix we mustn't forget about.  There is the Kathryn Bigelow thriller Kill Bin Laden, a timely story if there ever was one.  And there is Baz Luhrmann's version of The Great Gatsby starring Leonardo Dicaprio, Tobey Maguire, and Carey Mulligan.  The Great Gatsby is my favorite novel, one of the most important of the 20th century, and the credentials of this film cannot be overlooked.

And we will not forget about Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino's Civil War film.  Tarantino can work in any genre, tell any story, and make it his own.  Here is yet another film starring Leonardo Dicaprio who is poised to have another great year after being relatively absent in 2011. 

Before I wrap up though, I must mention one Paul Thomas Anderson.  It is amazing to me that such a brilliant filmmaker has such a tough time finding financing for his projects.  Anderson has been working on The Master for a few years now, going in and out of production and casting, but now he is working feversihly it appears.  The film follows a young drifter in the 50s who is seduced by a man who has created his own faith.  The cast rivals Lincoln, with Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Laura Dern set to star.  The only thing is the release date, which is still up in the air.  I would imagine Anderson is aiming for a December release in time for awards season, and if this is the case you can forget about any other film topping Anderson's as my most anticipated. 

Monday, February 27, 2012

Oscars 2012: Thoughts and Feelings, and Growing Impatience

Let me just get this out of the way before I go into the broadcast: if you have so many problems with the Academy Awards, if you hate Billy Crystal and his jokes, if nothing is funny to you, if every choice they make is the wrong choice, if the films winning the awards have all of a sudden become the worst films of the year, stay off twitter and stay off the broadcast.  The incessant bitching and moaning about every little detail of every second has gotten out of hand.  Sure, some things were executed poorly and a few things weren't that funny, but according the twitter the Oscars should be canceled.  Except, all of the people constantly bitching will be discussing the Oscars next year, they will lobby for their favorite films to be noinated, then when the nominations come out they will promptly explain how the Oscars don't really matter and they are a waste of time.  A waste of time these same people have been wasting the last three months. 

If you have hated The Artist all along, then that is quite alright.  But if you hated The Artist once it became the frontrunner for Best Picture, you are a complete asshole.  And, once again, all of the people complaining non stop about Billy Crystal's routine must have already forgotten the disaster that was James Franco and Anne Hathaway last year.  Crystal was fine, he was the Oscar host not a Presidential candidate.  Relax.

And another thing, let's all stop griping about the montages.  The Academy Awards are here to celebrate films.  The celebration of the films may be even more important than the awards being handed out.  Embrace the montages and stop throwing a fit about something as harmless as a few film clips on a night where films are being recognized.  And by the way, Mr. Patton Oswalt, don't go on your twitter feed to ridicule the montages and the skits if you recorded a piece to be played later on that night... in a montage!  There are things to point out that didn't end up working, but the complaining non stop about each and every little detail has gotten out of hand.  The only thing which warranted real complaints was the awful microphone feedback that was never corrected.  Absurd.

A few thoughts on the show:

* Before the show Sacha Baron Cohen appeared on E! as The Dictator, his new film character, and poured an urn of ashes all over Ryan Seacrest.  There is a time and a place for things, but the prank wasn't funny, was ill-conceived, and it was a bad idea from Cohen.  He should have been there celebrating Hugo, not making it about him.

* And really, why does everyone hate Ryan Seacrest?  I have never understood that.

* I don't think the Robert Downey Jr. bit with Gwyneth Paltrow worked as well as they wanted.  Paltrow doesn't have the right comedic timing.

* Emma Stone was quite funny when she presented with Ben Stiller, who played it straight perfectly.  Best presenters of the night.

* From twitter last night: "When did Will Ferrell get invited to the Oscars?"  Well, I'm pretty sure he's been there at least three other times.  My oh my how the negative Nancy's forget the past when it's inconvenient for their aimless point.

* Hugo started off on fire and fizzed out, but I am pleased with the five technical awards it won.  It's easily the most beautiful picture of the year.  I would have liked a split between director and picture with Scorsese getting his second statue.  It's amazing to me how in love the Academy is with Scorsese's films but can't manage to reward him personally.

* Although I was pulling for Brad Pitt, Jean Dujardin was more than solid in The Artist.

* Meryl Streep was a bit of a surprise, as odd as that sounds.

* Speech of the night: Christopher Plummer.

* It's a shame that Moneyball was shut out all night.  I was hoping The Descendants would be the big film to get shut out, but it stole the Adapted Screenplay from Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian's Moneyball script.

* The Cirque De Soleil bit was a little odd.

* Now it's time to move on, forget about the Oscars for a few months until Awards Season fires up once again.  Then we can go through the bitching and moaning another year.  It's a shame so many film fans cannot embrace the night for what it is, a celebration of movies.  My favorite film of the year wasn't even nominated.  Just because The Artist won the big award doesn't mean it has to now be your personal favorite.  I still enjoy Oscar night every year.  Get over yourselves.

Friday, February 24, 2012

THE 84th ACADEMY AWARDS: Final Thoughts and Predictions

It's just about that time, and I have been waiting as long as I could to get my final thoughts out regarding these Academy Awards.  I am pulling for a few surprises.  It's been quite a long time since any big earth-shattering upsets, unless you count The Hurt Locker beating Avatar.  I don't; I had it pegged in 2009.  I am hoping for some upsets in the acting categories, and I see a split in director and picture, at least I hope I do.  The Artist seems to be the overwhelming favorite, and I don't think much will change in that regard.  But I also think the awards will be greatly divided among a handful of pictures.  There will be no film to win six or more Oscars that I can see, but a few might get pretty close.

THE SCREENPLAYS - Adapted Screenplay is top heavy with the Descendants, Moneyball, and Hugo sticking out above The Ides of March and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  Of the three frontrunners, each have a certain Academy prestige in their corner.  Last year's winner Aaron Sorkin, teamed with Steven Zallian in adapting Moneyball, should be the big winner for turning a seemingly unfilmable book into a compelling sports drama.  The Descendants has the power of past winner Alexander Payne, and Hugo has one Martin Scorsese in it's corner.  I don't have a good grasp on which one will win, but The Descendants seems to be trending downward while Moneyball is picking up steam.  Hugo will clean up in the technical areas in my opinion, so I think through simple elimination, Sorkin and Zaillian should win.  SHOULD WIN: Moneyball.  WILL WIN: Moneyball.

I understand there still needs to be a screenplay for a silent film, but The Artist has a script under fifty pages.  It's a compelling story for sure, but I don't think it will win.  Margin Call is a widely unseen picture.  A Separation has an outside chance as it is practically a shoe in for Best Foreign Language Film.  Bridesmaids is a fan favorite which managed to fit in with the Screenplay nominees, but a great deal of the film is ad-libbed and strays from any script.  And then there is Midnight in Paris, written by Woody Allen.  It is his best comedy in decades, and the Academy absolutely loves Mr. Allen.  I feel like this is his to, deservedly, win.  SHOULD WIN: Midnight in Paris.  WILL WIN: Midnight in Paris.

THE SUPPORTING PLAYERS - Supporting Actress is more of a foregone conclusion that it has been in the past.  Typically, if there is an upset in the four acting categories you can point to Supporting Actress.  Berenice Bejo is wonderful in The Artist, but her performance feels like an afterthought to the rest of the picture's nominees.  Jessica Chastain, nominated for The Help, deserved a nomination but not for this role.  Janet McTeer has no realistic chance here for her role in Albert Nobbs because the film is mediocre at best.  Of course, there is Melissa McCarthy, who could be the upset pick for Bridesmaids, but I think this statue belongs to Octavia Spencer for her fiery and memorable performance in The HelpSHOULD WIN: Octavia Spencer.  WILL WIN: Spencer.

Supporting Actor should be relatively devoid of drama as well.  Kenneth Branagh deserved his nomination playing Laurence Olivier in My Week With Marilyn, but I can't see him stealing the statue.  Nick Nolte is back in Warrior, and much like Branagh I can't see him accepting the award.  Congratulations to Jonah hill for his well-deserved nomination here, though he is a newcomer to the Oscars and he might have a few more shots as he matures.  Max von Sydow did not deserve a nomination for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close because that film deserved no nominations.  This leaves Christopher Plummer, the aged thespian who has been in wonderful pictures throughout the years.  His performance in Beginners is tailor-made for the Oscar.  SHOULD WIN: Christopher Plummer.  WILL WIN: Plummer.

ACTOR AND ACTRESS - Both of the lead categories have more intrigue than normal.  Best Actress is a toss up to me.  Viola Davis appears to be the favorite here for her work in The Help, but I could see Michelle Williams upset for My Week With Marilyn.  Williams has been flirting with the Oscar for several years and that might stir up enough momentum.  It's an outside chance.  I don't see Glenn Close winning because, again, Albert Nobbs is mediocre.  Rooney Mara deserved her nomination, and that is a win for her this time around.  She will be back.  Which leaves Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.  She could win, she very well might, but I don't think she should.  Through default, this belongs to Davis when all is said and done.  SHOULD WIN: Viola Davis.  WILL WIN: Davis.

Anything could really happen in Best Actor outside of Gary Oldman or Demian Bichir winning for their roles.  George Clooney was once the frontrunner, but The Descendants has been tailing off recently.  And while I understand and greatly admire Jean Dujardin for his performance in The Artist, I am pulling for Brad Pitt.  Pitt has been a fantastic actor for a long time, and his role in Moneyball as the enigmatic Billy Beane is one of his best.  It is subtle and very nuanced.  That being said, Dujardin has been lobbying greatly for his nomination, and he will probably pull off the win Sunday night.  SHOULD WIN: Brad Pitt.  WILL WIN: Jean Dujardin. 

BEST DIRECTOR - I see Alexander Payne as the outside in this category, mostly because I think The Descendants is a painfully average picture.  He won't upset the field.  Terrence Malick might deserve a win for the ambition and wonderful serenity of The Tree of Life, but he won't be on hand and I don't feel like the Academy is ready to hand him a statue quite yet.  Woody Allen won't be in attendance either, and I think his Oscar for Midnight in Paris will be in the screenplay.  There may be a split this year between Picture and Director, which sometimes happens.  Michel Hazanavicius is a strong newcomer and The Artist should win Best Picture.  But Martin Scorsese is a legend, an national treasure, and his ability to branch out and direct a film like Hugo just adds to his personal prestige.  Marty has a lot of friends in Hollywood, and he deserves another statue on his mantle.  SHOULD WIN: Martin Scorsese.  WILL WIN: Scorsese.

BEST PICTURE - For the sake of time, and referring to what I wrote about Tuesday, let's just eliminate five Best Picture nominees because of their lack of an Editing nomination:  War Horse, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Midnight in Paris, The Help, and The Tree of Life.  This is a shame for Midnight in Paris and The Tree of Life, but history is working against them.  This leaves The Descendants, which is fading, Moneyball, which doesn't have much of a chance at winning the biggest award of the night, Hugo, and The Artist.  These last two films will battle for technical awards all night, though if my split theory is to stay in play I think The Artist will surprise nobody by winning the big award Sunday night.  SHOULD WIN: The Tree of Life.  WILL WIN: The Artist.

PREDICTING THE REST (winner in gold)

EDITING                                                               CINEMATOGRAPHY
The Artist                                                               The Artist
The Descendants                                                    The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo                        Hugo
Hugo                                                                        The Tree of Life
Moneyball                                                               War Horse

ART DIRECTION                                                 COSTUME DESIGN
The Artist                                                                Anonymous
Harry Potter                                                           The Artist
Hugo                                                                        Hugo
Midnight in Paris                                                   Jayne Eyre
War Horse                                                              W.E.

Hell and Back Again                                             The Barber of Birmingham
If a Tree Falls                                                        God is Bigger Than Elvis
Paradise Lost 3                                                      Incident in New Baghdad
Pina                                                                         Saving Face
Undefeated                                                             The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom

ANIMATED FEATURE                                      ANIMATED SHORT
A Cat in Paris                                                        Dimanche/Sunday
Chico & Rita                                                         The Fantastic Flying Books...
Kung Fu Panda 2                                                  La Luna
Rango                                                                     A Morning Stroll
Puss in Boots                                                         Wild Life

LIVE ACTION SHORT                                      FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Pentecost                                                                Bullhead
Raju                                                                        Monsieur  Lazhar
The Shore                                                              A Separation
Time Freak                                                            Footnote
Tuba Atlantic                                                        In Darkness

ORIGINAL SCORE                                            ORIGINAL SONG
The Adventures of Tintin                                    "Man or Muppet" The Muppets
The Artist                                                              "Real in Rio Rio
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
War Horse

MAKEUP                                                              VISUAL EFFECTS
Albert Nobbs                                                         Harry Potter
Harry Potter                                                          Hugo
The Iron Lady                                                       Real Steel
                                                                                Rise of The Planet of The Apes
                                                                                Transformers 3

SOUND MIXING                                                 SOUND EDITING
Drive                                                                      The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo                       Hugo
Hugo                                                                       Moneyball
Transformers 3                                                     Transformers 3
War Horse                                                             War Horse

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

DVD REVIEW: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Nothing about Martha Marcy May Marlene suggests the work of a rookie star and a first-time director.  There is a real motivation and superior craftsmanship, a consistent feeling of dread, and some fine performances.  Though it may be a bit cold and a little too distant at times, I was unsettled throughout the film, all the way up to the ambiguous final shot that may be the best of the entire picture.  The star is not the film itself, however, but the performances, first and foremost from Elizabeth Olson, the younger daughter of the waifish Olsen twins.  She plays Martha.  She also plays Marcy May.  And, in a sense, she is Marlene.  To understand the bewildering aspects of the picture, look no further than the title itself.

The film revolves around the confusing and brainwashed world of young Martha, one of a dozen or so women living at a remote farm.  The farm is a cult, run by the omnipresent Patrick (John Hawkes), a master manipulator who controls the women and systematically rapes them as a right of passage.  Something went wrong with Martha as a younger woman, something left intentionally ambiguous which led her to the farm.  It may be hard to understand how women find themself in this world, living under the rule of this psychopath.  But it is clear the women on this farm have all come from a place where they felt no love or respect.  Patrick shapes their mind into believing he is giving them something they never had before, and something they always wanted. 

The women, and a handful of men, are referred to as "the family."  They all have chores, the women all sleep in the same room and share the same clothes.  They eat only after the men are finished.  There are a few young children on the farm, all boys.  Martha informs a newcomer that they are all Patrick's children, and he "only has boys."  This line, like many delivered in the scenes on the farm, raises disturbing questions about what may have happened to the females.

There is a past and a present in the film.  In the present, Martha has escaped the farm and called her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) for help.  Lucy takes Martha in to live with her and her husband, Ted, an architect played quite well by Hugh Dancy.  Lucy and Ted live in a massive lakeside home, and appear to be comfortable despite the regular stresses of work and beginning a family.  But Martha is clearly disturbed and needs help.  Lucy never hears the story from Martha, but her complete lack of sexual boundaries - her penchant for swimming nude or coming in to lay with Lucy and Ted while they are having sex - and her confusing outbursts suggest severe mental confusion.  the past, Martha's life on the farm, bleeds through into the present like a seeping bloodstain.  Often times, Martha grows confused as her memories invade her present.  Lucy and Ted remain calm for a while and try and help Martha adjust, but it soon becomes too much to handle.

Martha is her name.  Marcy May was her name on the farm, given to her in throwaway fashion by Patrick.  Marlene is the name of every woman on the farm when they answer the phone.  This is a movie that has true motivation, filmed with a stark contrast where background light invades foreground color.  Elizabeth Olson is a fascinating young actor, a moon-faced beauty who shows pain and confusion better than any young actresses.  This would have been a film for Maggie Gyllenhaal ten years ago.  And John Hawkes floats like a specter of dread throughout the scenes on the farm.  He may not be on screen often, but there is a sense he is always just outside the frame.  And the song he writes and sings for Marcy May is a hypnotic moment in the picture where you begin to understand the pull of Patrick's mystique.

Martha Marcy May Marlene was written and directed by Sean Durkin, and is his debut feature.  That is astounding.  Durkin has a firm grasp on the tone of his film, and uses sound like a seasoned vet.  The film may be too distant at times.  I would have liked just a bit more fleshing out with a few characters, scenes, and situations.  But there is no denying the captivating spell this film can cast over a viewer.  And like I mentioned, that final shot, quick and ambiguous, is a complete summation of the quiet threat throughout the entire picture.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Science of Best Picture: Best Film Editing

The science of Best Picture, more often than not, comes down to the Editing category. Even in these recent years of more than five Best picture nominees, you need not look any further than the Best Editing field to spot the eventual winner. Over the last twenty years, going all the way back to The Silence of the Lambs, the eventual Best Picture winner has been in the Editing category every year. Twelve times it has won. Editing is arguably the most important technical category, maybe this side of cinematography, and the way a film is pieced together can make or break the effectiveness of the picture. Great editing is harder to identify than poor editing, and understandably so. Only when a film’s editing choices want to be noticed should they be noticed; otherwise, editing flare is a poor distraction in a film that cannot stand on its own merit.

This year, there are nine nominees for Best Picture and the standard five nominees for Best Editing. Of those five editing nominees, only four are Best Picture contenders; The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the only outlier. Form will always hold in this theory – always – so right off the top you can eliminate five Best Picture hopefuls: The Help, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Tree of Life, War Horse, and Midnight in Paris. In some of the instances – The Tree of Life and Midnight in Paris specifically – this omission is a shame as they are both excellent films deserving of the top award. But the four nominees in the category have their own argument.

The four double nominees are The Artist, Hugo, Moneyball, and The Descendants. It is no coincidence these are already the four films with the best chance of winning. As far as editing is concerned, The Descendants does not deserve the nomination. While the editing was surely wonderful in the picture, nothing in the film relies on timing or energy or detail regarding cuts or movement. The Tree of Life deserved a nomination here. Moneyball had to contend with baseball, and any sports movie done well does not create distractions with their sports/action sequences. Hugo is edited, of course, by Thelma Schoonmaker, who has been Martin Scorsese’s editor since Raging Bull. Schoonmaker has been nominated an astounding seven times and has won three, and her seventh nomination for Hugo is well deserved.

But the editing in The Artist is a unique case. Michel Hazanavicius and Anne-Sophie Bion had to frame the picture like a silent film, so the editing process had to incorporate modern technology while still creating a film that looked and felt old in the framework. It is quite an achievement by the pair, as The Artist feels seamlessly and perfectly antiquated in all the right ways. I see no scenario where Havanavicius and Bion do not win Best Editing. This pushes The Artist head and shoulders above the other three hopefuls.

By the time Oscar night rolls around the Best Picture race usually feels like a foregone conclusion. Pay close attention to Best Editing once again, because here is where The Artist will announce itself as the winner. The only upset I can see here is the great Thelma Schoonmaker stealing the award for her work in Hugo. As I mentioned, twelve times out of twenty Best Picture has coincided with Best Editing, so if Schoonmaker manages the upset Hugo has only an outside chance at taking home the big award. In my opinion, it still wouldn’t be enough to pry the Oscar away from The Artist.

Friday, February 17, 2012

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Nicolas Cage Quick Hits, Good Actors in Bad Movies

* For some strange reason I am compelled to see Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. And I couldn’t even make it through the first one.

* I don’t know how you can hate Nicolas Cage, regardless of his terrible movies. Even in his terrible movies, Cage is undeniably magnetic. He has to be the strangest human being ever.

* It’s hard to process the fact that the man responsible for one of the best, most complete performances of the 90s (Leaving Las Vegas) has been in Bangkok Dangerous, Season of the Witch, Drive Angry, Next, and a whole series of complete shit.

* No matter how terrible his movies are, Nicolas Cage is still one film away from another Oscar statue. That’s how good he really is.

* I still contend that Knowing is a great science fiction movie.

* The last movie I had to turn off because it was so bad: Killer Elite. Last night. What a confusing mess. I had so much more hope for Clive Owen’s mustache. Everybody involved with this movie is better than this movie, even Jason Statham.

* Forrest Whitaker should do more movies. The guy won an Oscar and kind of disappeared.

* Shouldn’t Chris Pine be doing better films than This Means War? Shouldn’t Tom Hardy be doing the same thing? Hell, what is Reese Witherspoon’s deal?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Training Day (2001)

Seeing Denzel Washington in Safe House last week, I found myself longing for the Denzel Washington I remember in Training Day. For a time, after he won the Academy Award for playing the inherently wicked Detective Alonzo Harris, I couldn’t bring myself to agree with the decision. This was a cop film, an action thriller, and Washington was just playing a familiar villain. I didn’t see what was so special about his performance at the time. But I have seen Training Day a half dozen times since then and in each viewing Washington’s performance gets richer and more compelling. And watching him sleepwalk through a variation of the Harris role in Safe House, it only strengthens Training Day as a whole.

The film works like a jigsaw puzzle Harris is putting together. His most important piece is Jake Hoyt, an idealistic young detective played by Ethan Hawke. Jake plays by the rules, and he sees an opportunity to join forces with Harris as a chance to better his career and become a big shot. He wants to make a better life for his family, his wife and newborn daughter. Alonzo Harris is somewhat of a legendary detective in Los Angeles, and Jake seems overmatched by him from the moment he walks into the diner to begin his first day.

From the moment Washington appears on screen as Harris, dressed in black leather and a skull cap, it immediately becomes his film. Alonzo Harris is a dominating personality. His “office” is a confiscated black Impala with hydraulics he cruises around in through the toughest streets of the city. Alonzo “keeps it real” and plans on showing Jake the ropes through the school of hard knocks. He spits out rhetoric about the street faster than Jake can process. Alonzo takes Jake on a small-time drug bust that appears at first to be nothing more than a display of his power, threatening some college students and snatching up the weed they just bought. The bust seems arbitrary enough, but when Alonzo forces Jake to smoke the weed it’s clear there is more going on. Jake refuses until Alonzo stops his car in an intersection and forces him at gunpoint to partake. “If I was a drug dealer,” he tells Jake, “you’d be dead.” It’s only after Jake smokes the weed that Alonzo tells him it was laced with PCP.

When Jake spots a young girl being raped in an alley, he jumps out of the car and instinctively apprehends the two men. Alonzo, clearly annoyed, sadistically abuses the two men and lets them go despite Jake’s objections. At first, this scene feels like just another moment in a day growing more hectic with every turn; but it is apparent that Alonzo has a plan and a schedule and these two thugs raping this girl were not part of said plan. He doesn’t have time to take care of the punks, he has things to do. Jake is helplessly pulled into Alonzo’s web as they visit an old informant friend (Scott Glenn), bust a crack dealer (Snoop Dogg), stop off to see what appears to be Alonzo’s second family, and visit a home in South Central Los Angeles that dissolves into a shootout with local gang members. Everything is a piece in Alonzo’s puzzle.

The third act unfolds into chaos as Alonzo’s plan comes to fruition. The reveal ties everything together brilliantly and raises the film to another level. Jake finds himself in a precarious situation, and his life is spared by a coincidence that may seem a bit much. But the coincidence is key for the film to work. Characters must undergo transformation of some sort for a film to work, and Ethan Hawke’s role evolves from a wide-eyed newbie to a hardened, beaten, desperate cop. Hawke’s Supporting Actor nomination was well deserved. Alonzo’s evolution is more subtle – though very few things are in Training Day – but it is there. He claims to own the streets, but his ownership is a façade put in place by the abuse of his badge. People in the community don’t necessarily fear Alonzo; they avoid him.

On the surface, Training Day is a crime drama about an evil cop; but it becomes so much more than an action thriller. It is about a plan, an intricate series of details that come together in a rousing final act. The power of Denzel Washington’s performance is undeniable from this distance; he absolutely owns the picture. It’s a shame a poor performance makes one long for his acting in Training Day. Or maybe it isn’t, maybe it’s that much more of a testament to the energy of this film.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Mini-Reviews of the 2011 Best Picture Nominees

Every year I like to go back and write mini reviews of the Best Picture candidates as we near Oscar night. I have had time now to either see them more than once, or I have had time to let them gestate and my opinion solidify. For the most part, save for a few minor adjustments along the way, my initial reaction and grade (my THEN grade) matches what I feel about the film today (NOW).

The Artist – It’s almost hard to imagine that, in a digital age of green screens, blockbusters, and shrinking audience attention spans, here is a silent film that might win 2011. The Artist is a charming, elegant throwback picture that I enjoyed maybe a little more the first time around. Don’t get me wrong, the performances from Jean Dujardin as the reluctant silent film star George Valentin and Berenice Bejo as Peppy Miller, the talkie sensation passing him by, are marvelous. And the film is still great entertainment with noticeable heart and energy. Though it could have been trimmed in the middle a bit. Director Michel Hazanavicius has tapped into nostalgia better than any other director, even two masterminds who find their nostalgic pictures on this nominee list as well. Even if you have an aversion for silent cinema, you deserve to give this one a chance. THEN: A / NOW: A-

The Descendants – This is a film I still don’t understand. Director Alexander Payne has always been a wonderful, insightful writer, and his ability to cut into the emotions of men on the verge of a breakdown has always been his forte. He doesn’t steer from that formula with The Descendants. George Clooney plays Matt King, heir to an empire in Hawaii trying to make land deals while managing his troubled kids and dying wife. The recipe seems tailor-made for Payne, and I suppose since we are talking about the film here it worked out well. But I never engaged with the story the way I did with any of Payne’s other work. The humor didn’t resonate for me, and I felt like the narrative ran out of steam significantly near the end of the second act. It was a fine movie, but not deserving of these accolades in my opinion. THEN: B- / NOW: B-

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – This disastrous picture is confounding in its ineptness. I hated this film from the top down. A borderline autistic boy loses his father in 9/11 and begins searching for the lock to a mysterious key he found after his death. This sends him on a citywide exploration, where he talks his way into people’s homes and, eventually, takes with him an elderly man staying in his grandmother’s spare bedroom on these adventures. The old man is a mute, played by Max von Sydow. If you take the time to wrap your head around the preposterous plot and faulty logic, then consider the hatefulness of the characters. The boy is rude and curt, the mother (Sandra Bullock) is vacant and mainly exists for the son to be mean to her. And on top of it all, director Stephen Daldry shamelessly uses 9/11 to manipulate the audience into false tears. What a ridiculous nomination this is… THEN: F / NOW: F

The Help – Filling out this year’s feel-good nomination for Best Picture is a crowd-pleasing drama from a crowd-pleasing book about race relations in the 60s South. The Help is loaded with wonderful female performances, from Emma Stone as the lead, to Bryce Dallas Howard as the evil socialite, to Jessica Chastain as the naïve Southern Belle, to Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer (both nominated) as the black maids struggling against racism. The film itself plays it a little safe for my tastes, opting to mask the darker aspects of the racism in order to keep things close enough to the surface to appeal to a wide audience. I cannot totally fault The Help for avoiding darker themes because it set out to fill up the theaters. It is harmless overall, but maybe it should have been a bit more harmful when all is said and done. THEN: B+ / NOW: B

Hugo – Upon hearing that Martin Scorsese was going to direct a children’s film, I was immediately filled with a great curiosity. This was going to be no regular kid’s flick. After seeing Hugo, I realized that Martin Scorsese had directed something so very unique and magical it may be too important to categorize as your typical toddler fare. Hugo is not a kid’s movie in the traditional sense; it is a love letter to the birthplace of films and filmmaking. On one level, it is about a young boy (Asa Butterfield) without a family living in a Paris train station. On another level, Hugo serves as a reminder of where film was born. The first half is a personal metaphor for Scorsese as a young child while the second half is a carefully crafted look at what Scorsese loves more than anything in the world. It is a beautiful picture in every sense of the word. THEN: A- / NOW: A

Midnight in Paris – The third film to dabble in nostalgia is Woody Allen’s finest film in twenty years. He did have Match Point a few years ago, but Midnight in Paris is, fittingly, vintage Woody. It is a quick-witted comedy with one of his best doppelgangers of all time in Owen Wilson. Wilson plays an anxious writer who is whisked away to Paris in the 20s, where he finds great joy in rubbing elbows with literary giants like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Midnight in Paris is a look at how we all feel, that there was another place in time where we belong outside of the present. And it also says that perhaps we shouldn’t feel this way. But rather than take a bleak approach, Allen takes on these themes with his standard high-toned comedy. I was overwhelmed by Midnight in Paris at first, and I still find it to be an excellent picture even though it may not be as overwhelming. THEN: A+ / NOW: A

Moneyball – This movie wasn’t supposed to work on the screen. An adaptation from a book about number crunching in baseball should not translate into any sort of compelling drama for a feature film. But the people involved in the production of Moneyball defied convention and created one of the better sports movies in a long, long time. Credit director Bennet Miller for putting all the pieces in place to deliver a compelling drama. Brad Pitt delivers one of his finest performances as Billy Beane, the troubled, driven, enigmatic general manager of the low-income Oakland Athletics, and Jonah Hill shows range nobody could have predicted as Beane’s right-hand man, Peter Brand. Both deserved their Oscar nominations, and for my money Pitt should win the statue. It’s a shame there wasn’t room for Miller in the Best Director category. THEN: B+ / NOW: A

The Tree of Life – The most shapeless and awe-inspiring film on the list could not be denied by the Academy, despite their penchant for overlooking daring films without borders. Terrence Malick’s passionate look at life, on all levels from the creation of the universe to the end of the human mind, is a rousing and emotional journey through what makes us who we are. Though it may have a tough time with its bookend narrative starring Sean Penn as a lost adult, the heart of the picture is one of the finest examinations of family life ever put on film. Upon my initial viewing I couldn’t give The Tree of Life a rating because nothing seemed right. But having seen it again, and despite the ambiguity of the Penn performance, there is no denying the fact that Malick has eschewed convention to show us just what a film can be deep down in our minds and hearts. THEN: NA / NOW: A

War Horse – And now for the one film on this entire list that didn’t move the needle one way or another for me. I am firmly in the middle on this film, one of the blandest of all Spielberg pictures. Based on a London play, War Horse tells the milquetoast story about a young boy and his horse, who is drafted into World War I and goes on an improbable journey back to the boy. The battle scenes are occasionally stirring, but there is never much emotional attachment. The cinematography from Janusz Kaminski has a clear goal, to harken back to the John Ford epics of yesteryear. But it doesn’t help the forward momentum of the film, which never resonates the way the score tried to make it resonate. I don’t see a reason for this picture being here, but hey, it’s not the worst one on this list. I’m looking at you, Daldry. THEN: C+ / NOW: C

9. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
8. War Horse
7. The Descendants
6. The Help
5. The Artist
4. Moneyball
3. Hugo
2. Midnight in Paris
1. The Tree of Life

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Last year, I went back through the 2000s and adjusted the Best Picture winners from the decade with the advantage of hindsight. I took the nominees, reexamined them, and picked who should have won. You can check that list out here . This time around, let’s hop back one more decade to the 90s, a pretty solid, pretty groundbreaking decade for film overall. Surprisingly, the Academy awarded the right nominee more than once or twice, a pretty good average for them. But there are some glaring mistakes, oversights, and corrections that need to be made.


WINNER: DANCES WITH WOLVES. This was a loaded year to kick off the new decade, with fairly strong nominees from top to bottom. We all love Dances With Wolves, okay? Let’s get that out of the way. But there is a more deserving film here, we all know this too. Awakenings is a strong film on an emotional level, but not Best Picture caliber. Same thing can be said for Ghost, the box-office smash of the group that couldn’t be denied a nomination. The Godfather, Part III is, of course, a Godfather film so the fact it picked up a nomination in spite of its many flaws speaks more towards the respect of the franchise than the quality of this individual entry. No, this year should have belonged to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, his entry into the list of the 90s best films. It is one of his best movies, one of the finest gangster films of all time, and should have been recognized as such. Alas, the Academy cannot pass up a good historical epic. CORRECT WINNER: GOODFELLAS.


WINNER: THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. No qualms here. The night the awards were handed out there may have been some shock and surprise that The Silence of the Lambs brought in the big five (Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, Screenplay), but it doesn’t seem out of the question now at all. It is one of the best films of the decade without question. Up against films like Bugsy and The Prince of Tides, The Silence of the Lambs stands apart. Oliver Stone’s JFK was a solid entry into the list, as was Beauty and the Beast, which broke ground becoming the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture. But neither of these latter films carried the impact of Hannibal Lector. CORRECT WINNER: THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.


WINNER: UNFORGIVEN. Again, the Academy chose correct in picking Clint Eastwood’s magnificent Western opus. Unforgiven is another excellent picture deserving of the award. The field is significantly thinner for 1992, with Howard’s End and Scent of a Woman seeming less deserving of a nomination these days than they were at the time. A Few Good Men is a tense courtroom drama and probably the most quotable of the bunch. Not deserving of the award however. The Crying Game was a film riding on a wave of controversy at the time, hence the nom. But I challenge anyone to put it in the twenty best films of the 90s. Unforgiven definitely deserved everything it received, and maybe more. CORRECT WINNER: UNFORGIVEN.


WINNER: SCHINDLER’S LIST. The Academy was on a roll in the early 90s, picking right time and again. And there was no denying Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust epic, a deeply personal film that is one of the most unforgettable pictures of all time. Heartbreaking and beautiful, Schindler’s List had no real competition in a decidedly foreign field that included In The Name of The Father, The Piano, and The Remains of the Day. None of these films held a candle to Schindler’s List. The Fugitive, the fifth entry into the group, was the box-office hit of the year and an excellent picture in its own right. But again, there is no way it was going to beat Spielberg’s film. It is a great film; it just came out in the wrong year. CORRECT WINNER: SCHINDLER’S LIST.


WINNER: FORREST GUMP. Boy oh boy, what a year! I’m not sure if there is a correct answer for 1994 when you consider the field. Forrest Gump was the crowd pleaser of the decade, and a great historical film. It’s well rounded and well acted. But look at these nominees. Four Weddings and a Funeral never really deserved the win, but a nomination made sense. And Quiz Show was a small film that has since gotten smaller. But Pulp Fiction revolutionized the film industry at the time, and The Shawshank Redemption is widely considered the world’s “favorite” film according to imdb. My heart wants to go with Shawshank as the correct winner, but my brain is making me go with Quentin Tarantino’s game changer. On an emotional and personal level, Shawshank is the deserving winner; but if logic is to prevail, there wasn’t a more important picture in the entire decade than Pulp Fiction. CORRECT WINNER: PULP FICTION.


WINNER: BRAVEHEART. Here is another year where one film stood above the rest. Braveheart is a stirring battle epic which most assuredly deserved Best Picture. I don’t see anything here that stands on the same level as Mel Gibson’s film. Il Postino was a strange entry into the field, one film that I have still never seen. Babe is a sweet film with wonderful heart, but Best Picture? I think not. Sense and Sensibility, much like Howard’s End, is mostly a forgettable piece of period fiction. Apollo 13 was a rousing adventure based on a terrifying true story, and it continued the run of Tom Hanks’ great films. But, much like Schindler’s List and The Fugitive, Apollo 13 was no match for the power of William Wallace and Braveheart as an epic masterpiece. CORRECT WINNER: BRAVEHEART.


WINNER: THE ENGLISH PATIENT. I have tried to make it all the way through The English Patient, honestly I have. It is a terrible bore. I am with Elaine on this one. 1996 was another thin year for Best Pictures. Shine is forgettable outside the performance from Geoffrey Rush. Jerry Maguire is a charming film, and still fun to watch, but I cannot imagine prefacing Jerry Maguire with “Best Picture Winner.” Secret & Lies is, yet again, a film that has faded from our memories. But then there is Fargo, the quirky crime drama from the Coen Brothers. Fargo is an excellent film, one which is head and shoulders above the field in 1996. It has more staying power than any of the other films, and is a true testament to the freshness and originaly of Joel and Ethan Coen’s direction. CORRECT WINNER: FARGO.


WINNER: TITANIC. There really was no denying Titanic. Say what you will about the film, it deserves the win on technical prowess alone. Titanic is not just the best film of 1997, it is a transcendent picture that will forever be recognized as perhaps more than just another movie. 1997 was a stronger year than the last few, with a handful of deserving nominees. LA Confidential is arguably right behind Titanic on the list in terms of quality. As Good As It Gets is a solid film as well, and was given love with Actor and Actress statues for Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt. The Full Monty rode a wave of popularity all the way to Oscar night, and Good Will Hunting introduced the world, formally, to Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. The Awards were spread evenly throughout the night for all of these films, but I still contend they got Best Picture right. There was no other choice. CORRECT WINNER: TITANIC.


WINNER: SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE. I need to try and keep my blood pressure in check while I work through this disastrous year. Shakespeare in Love is a farce, a sham of a Best Picture winner that won on the lobbying strength of its producer, Harvey Weinstein. It is better than Life is Beautiful, no doubt, and more lasting than Elizabeth. But we all remember the two World War II films that came out that year. The Thin Red Line is an excellent ensemble war film from Terrence Malick, better than stupid Shakespeare in Love. But the winner in my mind, and in most people’s minds, should be Saving Private Ryan. What a complete mishandling by the Academy to overlook Spielberg’s masterpiece, his second in the decade. Saving Private Ryan was one of the biggest mistakes Oscar has ever made. Ever. Okay, I have to stop now. CORRECT WINNER: SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.


WINNER: AMERICAN BEAUTY. This is a tricky year, because I think the Academy went with the only option it could go with even though I am not quite convinced American Beauty was the best film of the year. It was definitely the most discussed, and it is still a very good picture. It is better than The Cider House Rules, more lasting than The Green Mile, and maybe a better overall film than The Sixth Sense. But still, The Sixth Sense is a good film. Maybe the disappearance of M. Night Shyamalan has ruined it a bit for me. I am going to go with a personal favorite from this year, Michael Mann’s true-life drama The Insider, about Jeff Wigand the whistleblower who took on big tobacco. It is a wonderfully tense and intricate drama, and one I would pick up to watch again before I grabbed my copy of American Beauty. CORRECT WINNER: THE INSIDER.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Safe House

SAFE HOUSE: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds (114 min.)

The screenplay for Safe House must have been written one day when there was a fire sale at the spy-thriller division of the cliché company. Here is a movie with not one single new idea, not even in its direction. Now, it isn’t just the worst movie or anything, but I challenge anyone to find an original thought. Or how about an original shot or a fresh look? Find me something, anything, that doesn’t make this film look and seem as lazy as I know it is. If this was a picture without Denzel Washington, relying solely on Ryan Reynolds to carry the action, there would be little hope at all.

Reynolds plays Matt Weston, the eager young CIA agent looking to get his big break. But for the time being he paces anxiously around a safe house in Cape Town, South Africa, burning through lonely hours dreaming of being a real agent. You know this character, believe me. One afternoon Matt gets a call from headquarters in Langley (seen numerous times in the swooping overhead shot we all recognize) informing him he will have a house guest. It is one Tobin Frost (Washington), a rogue CIA agent who is marked as a traitor and has been on the run for almost a decade. So imagine everyone’s surprise when Frost turns himself in to the American Consulate in South Africa. The decision is made to get Frost to the safe house immediately because he might have some bad dudes after him.

From here we get the obligatory bureaucratic speeches from the “command center” back at Langley, where three central characters toss around plot details and exposition on everything without much regard for originality or creative delivery. Frost “tested off the charts” before he “went rogue.” Weston “went to Yale,” and “was picked out of Yale Law School.” Of course he was. I imagined, during these scenes back at Langley, the film being muted and filling in the dialogue myself. I’ll bet I could mute these scenes, speak for the characters, and start the sound back up having not missed one “important” element of the story. What makes this whole side story that much more offensive is the fact these three characters are played by great talent. Sam Shepard is the ambiguous head of the CIA, Vera Farmiga is This Agent Over Here, and Brendan Gleeson is That Agent Over There. Three immensely talented actors shoveling through this thankless dialogue? Say it ain’t so.

Anyways, back to Cape Town where the safe house has been attacked and the team responsible for bringing Frost in is getting mowed down left and right. Weston has to think fast, so he gets Frost out of the safe house and into the trunk of a car while he flees the baddies in a car chase without much originality. And you know the drill from here. Weston sees this as his big break as he tries to get Frost secured at another safe house with the nameless baddies on his tail and Frost getting into his head. We also need to figure out who the traitor is who gave away Frost’s location; but anyone who’s been at least awake so far knows who the turncoat is because, well, it couldn’t be anyone else.

The big attraction here is Denzel Washington as the not-so-bad villain (you have to be able to discern this much from the previews) running circles around Ryan Reynolds’ Matt. But Denzel seems a little bored with his character, like he is too good for this material. And he is. I don’t really have anything against Ryan Reynolds, but I don’t think he has very much as an actor. As Weston, Reynolds spends most of his time fighting back tears it seems, or thinking really hard about things, or trying to look as tough as possible. Whatever he is trying to convey it doesn’t really work. Everyone is just playing a part in a plot-driven thriller without putting any real energy towards their characters’ story.

I grew increasingly less interested in Safe House as the story plodded along to the obvious conclusion. What was the motivation for this film? It must be a quick money grab for everyone. Director Daniel Espinosa saturates the screen with color and grit and fast-moving cameras, I almost don’t believe Tony Scott wasn’t involved in this film somewhere along the way. Everything here is paint by numbers; and it doesn’t matter how rich and deep the colors are if the picture is the same thing you’ve seen a hundred times before in better films.


Friday, February 10, 2012

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Taking a Look at the week's 2 big trailers: Bourne and Spidey

* Two big trailers come out this week, The Amazing Spiderman and The Bourne Legacy. We’ll get to the former in a moment, but what about this Bourne film with no Matt Damon?

* When I heard they were working on a fourth Bourne film I was not pleased. The Bourne Ultimatum ended a perfect trilogy and was symmetrical with the beginning of the franchise. Having Damon reprise a role in a story that had clearly been tied together was absurd. But then, the brain trust of the franchise decided to go a new direction, with a new action star: Jeremy Renner.

* The powers that be have clearly figured out a way to keep this Bourne franchise moving forward with energy, life, and grit. The trailer for The Bourne Legacy instills me with great confidence; the supporting players from the original films are back, and the plot seems to explain this shift in character perfectly. Consider me on board.

* Now, as for this Spiderman business. I don’t really know what to do with it yet. Even after this first full trailer, I am conflicted.

* There is a darker tone to the picture. This is not happy-go-lucky Peter Parker from the earlier films. I feel like the story is trying too hard to give Spiderman a dark past similar to Batman. Actually, it couldn’t be more similar: parents mysteriously killed, driven to defend the masses, yadda yadda yadda…

* Spiderman is not Batman. He’s Spiderman.

* I do like the idea of having The Lizard as Spidey’s villain to oppose in this new version. The character appeared in Spider-Man 2, played by Dylan Baker, but his transformation was never addressed. Instead they had to vomit out Spider-Man 3.

* I’ll stay in Camp Skeptic on this one for now…

Thursday, February 9, 2012

THURSDAY THROWBACK: The Killing (1955)

It’s odd to watch The Killing knowing the mind behind the camera. There are certain recognizable traits in this early Stanley Kubrick crime drama, traits which Kubrick would later define all the way to the point where “Kubrickian” is a word accepted in the dialogue of film analysis and theory. Right next to “Hitchcockian.” And yet, it still feels static or undefined when it is considered as a film from Kubrick. He had directed one smaller noir picture (Killer’s Kiss) before The Killing, co-directed another film that was a bit of a disaster, but this is widely accepted as Stanley Kubrick’s movie to get him recognized and get him into the system of Hollywood; to get him to the point where he could call his own shots. As we now know, it worked, but in 1955 The Killing surely must have been an odd film for the general public.

Kubrick’s caper film functions like a machine of plot and technical mastery, where the characters are no more than chess pieces in a match. The board in this case is a horse-racing track, where a group of men devise a plan to nab $2 million cash on one of the biggest race days of the year. Sterling Hayden, who would appear later in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove as General Jack Ripper, plays idea man Johnny Clay. He has a money man, Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippin), a crooked cop on his side, and a few contacts on the inside. One of Clay’s inside men is a cashier played by Elishia Cook, a man destined to play cuckolds and fools his entire career. Cook is George, who’s married to Fay (Colleen Gray), a tramp and a money-hungry floozy who runs roughshod over George on a regular basis.

Clay dispatches the plan of the heist which involves a great number of moving parts. Outside of the five main men, Clay has hired individual contractors to pull off various jobs on the day of the robbery, including a sniper shot at a horse and a fist fight with security. The pieces are set in place and put in motion, if only Fay didn’t overhear the planned heist and tell her lover, a hood named Val (Vince Edwards) who plans on making his own luck.

The Killing moves briefly, at an 83-minute clip, as it exists to show this heist in and of itself. There is no time wasted on development, as Kubrick sees these men not as characters but, as I have said, pieces. Puzzle pieces, chess pieces, parts of a whole. The narration is direct, seemingly ripped from the Dragnet TV series as it divulges times and places more than thoughts or actions. Some may see The Killing as strictly robotic, but this is Kubrick’s plan all along. Even in his later career, when he was directing masterpieces more frequently than most directors were making films, Kubrick used his characters more than he allowed them to grow or move organically, outside the restrictions of the narrative. Think about the pitch and tone of Barry Lyndon's voice, or the conversations in 2001. The early use of this mechanical technique Kubrick later mastered is evident in The Killing.

I almost think The Killing ends too quickly, only I don’t know what else there is to say about the story. We have been there, seen the robbery, the aftermath, and here we rest. The pieces have been put into place. Endgame has been achieved.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE: Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Thomas Horn (129 min.)

I definitely had a strong reaction to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Stephen Daldry’s 9/11 drama that surprised everyone by getting the ninth and final Best Picture nomination this year. But it surely wasn’t the reaction the filmmakers were aiming for. There were no tears, only anger. Yes, as I sat watching this drama unfold, I grew increasingly angry with its cloying nature, deliberate manipulation of events, utter ignorance of logic, and occasional bad taste. I sat in awe of what I was seeing, trying to find out if this story was a real thing, something that talented people truly supported and had confidence in throughout production. There is a vast difference between a film that is simply bad and one that is bad on an offensive and pretentious level as high as this.

The film, based on a novel of the same name (I hear the novel is wonderful but I can’t imagine it being the case), focuses on Oskar Schell, a curious young boy who loses his father in the attacks on September 11. His father, seen in steady flashbacks, is played by Tom Hanks who doesn’t bother conveying a single human emotion. He is beyond the Father of The Year. Thomas Schell embodies every perfect human quality and never wavers from the desire to be so very perfect, so very flawless, that it makes his death in the twin towers that much more devastating. Oskar has a mild form of autism; his tests for Aspergers Syndrome were “inconclusive.” So Thomas spent seemingly all his time and energy setting up reconnaissance missions for young Oskar, laying out clues to mysteries which force him to talk to people. These reconnaissance missions send Oskar out into Manhattan where he visits with hobos and street people on a regular basis. Logic flaw number one.

On 9/11, Oskar discovers his father’s fate through a series of six messages which grow increasingly desperate. These messages are milked for all they’re worth throughout the picture. Oskar decides to hide the messages from his distant mother (Sandra Bullock), who apparently has never met her son before. He is consistently vindictive to his poor mom. One evening as Oskar is in his father’s closet he finds a key in a small envelope with the name “Black” written on it. He is certain this key is another clue to a new mission, and he will stop at nothing to find the matching lock for this key. The bellman of his building (John Goodman) suggests maybe Black is a person’s name, leading Oskar to the phone book where he finds 472 Blacks listed in the New York area. So without any regard for his mother – the only time he really speaks to her is to be a hateful shit – or his own safety or any logic, Oskar sets out to talk to all of these people and see if they might have known his father.

And, wouldn’t you know it, the first person he talks to will turn out to be the most important figure in his search. It is Abby Black, a troubled wife played by Viola Davis who does what she can with her ridiculous role. Oskar knocks on the door and talks his way into Abby’s home, where he is oblivious to the domestic troubles between her and her husband (Geoffrey Wright). She cannot initially help him, so he leaves but not before rudely taking a picture of Abby, who is crying and hiding her face. This was the first of very uncomfortable exchanges in the film. Oskar takes pictures of the people he meets with an antique camera and develops the pictures one by one. That would really be tiring I imagine.

Soon, Oskar takes on a companion, a mute living in his grandmother’s spare bedroom across the street, to help him on his search. Take some time to absorb that description, and then tell me this world in which these people live is supposed to be an accurate representation of reality. The mute is played by Max won Sydow, who communicates through a notepad and “Yes” and “No” tattooed on his palms for ease. This type of character might be perfect for literary fiction, but as represented in a film it is kitschy and ridiculous. And there is, I suppose, a mystery surrounding the identity of this man, but anyone who is paying even a little attention should be able to figure it out before the characters.

From the start, there is no room for logic in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I could never buy into the fact that Oskar, a pre-teen with mild autism, would be allowed by his wonderful father and callous mother to wander the streets of Manhattan all day every day, skipping school and harassing a wide cross section of the New York population. The complete disregard for anything true in Oskar’s trek grew increasingly maddening. Thomas Horn, a child Jeopardy champion, is supposedly good in the role depending on where you read. I found him to be a rude little jerk on a regular basis, autism or no autism. And all of his little quirks, counting his steps and using a tambourine for balance (or something) and counting his lies, ring completely false and contrived. None of the performances here ring true in any way, especially Bullock whose character pulls off one of the most audaciously offensive 180s in film history during the third act.

As for the use of 9/11, well, it took just about everything in my power not to walk out when the twin towers, inserted with CGI and the billowing clouds of smoke we all recognize, were used along with some key music to force the audience into a certain reaction. And later, when Oskar shows us pictures he has studied of people falling out of the towers, another manipulative move, I had just about had it. I would say the pictures were the breaking point for me, but I had long reached that several scenes earlier. And, on top of the bad taste and manipulative narrative structure, the film is a terrible bore. When emotionally impacting moments are the foundation of a film and those moments don’t deliver, you are left with a film that does nothing or says nothing. There are worse films, sure, but none that are this bad surrounded by so much recognition. Here is a shameful film. I don’t know what makes me angrier, the fact that this film exists, or the fact that the Academy, paying no attention to general consensus, nominated a movie based solely on the fact that it stars Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, and the twin towers. There’s no accounting for taste, I suppose.