Friday, December 28, 2012

Jack Reacher

JACK REACHER: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, Robert Duvall, Directed by Christopher McQuarrie (130 min.)

Jack Reacher plays like one long episode of NCIS.  It could be repackaged for a CBS Sunday night movie, and titles NCIS: Pittsburgh.  And that, at least to me, is not really a good thing.  This film is generic from top to bottom without much style or substance beyond surface matters, a surprisingly bland movie from the writer of The Usual Suspects.  It isn't a bad film necessarily, but it isn't a good one either.  It just... is.

Tom Cruise plays the title character, an ex-military policeman who left the service and promptly fell off the grid.  As the film opens, a mysterious sniper kills five seemingly random people walking along the river outside the Pittsburgh Pirates stadium.  This opening sequence is jarring given the recent events in Connecticut.  I felt uncomfortable watching these innocent people shot dead, but let's continue.  The man who kills these people (Jai Courtney) is setting up another man, James Barr (Joseph Sikora), and he does so in such a blatant way that the police apprehend Barr with a slam-dunk case.  Before long Barr is assaulted by fellow prisoners and left in a coma.  Enter defense attorney Helen, played by Rosamund Pike who is decidedly underwhelming here.

Helen's father is the District Attorney, Rodin (Richard Jenkins), and there is familial strife here which is left by the wayside.  Helen is in charge of defending Barr, and her lead investigator comes at the request of Barr himself before he is beaten senseless.  In his interrogation, Barr writes down a simple command for the police and the DA: "Get me Jack Reacher."

As I said before, Reacher is a man who disappears at the drop of the hat, with no credit history or mortgage or tax returns, no extra change of clothes for that matter.  Reacher is first certain that Barr is the killer given his history in the Army where he was a bit of an unhinged sniper.  But he and Helen begin snooping around and they discover there are larger, more devious entities behind these killings.  Their investigation makes them hot targets for seedy underworld lowlifes and crooks, led by The Zec, a German psychopath who has an interesting explanation for his missing fingers.  The Zec is played by none other than the eclectic director Werner Herzog in maybe the most befuddling casting move all year.

The proceedings of Jack Reacher are painfully routine and formulaic as Reacher digs deeper and must confront thugs and rubes and crooked officials along the way.  There is one watered-down chase scene in the middle and a few fist fights which carry the narrative to the final showdown that is as ordinary as can be.  Cruise seems to look as confused as to why he is here, and as I mentioned Rosamund Pike has one facial expression: wide-eyes, mouth open.  McQuarrie, who directed the vastly underrated The Way of the Gun as a follow up to his screenplay for The Usual Suspects, takes a step back as a director here, working from a script based on the novel by Lee Child.  The Jack Reacher character is apparently a recurring character in a series of books, and I am certain these books are the kind you buy and read on an airplane and immediately forget about once you land. 

And once the final reveal is uncovered, it was met by me with a sweeping feeling of apathy.  Oh, that's the twist?  Who cares?  Then, as if the generic tone hadn't been set up enough, Robert Duvall appears as the wily country boy who just so happens to be a lot of help in the end.  He is officially the kitchen sink of formula.  Now I respect Robert Duvall's earlier body of work, but has he not become the defacto old codger in films like this?  It seems he could do a little better.  But then again, so could Tom Cruise.


Thursday, December 27, 2012

Les Miserables

LES MISERABLES: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried (158 min.)

Before I get too far into this I feel it's my obligation to say I don't normally care for musicals.  I am exceedingly hard on the genre, as I find no real need for musicals.  They don't fit into my cinematic psyche.  I understand the greatness of West Side Story, of The Sound of Music, of Chicago.  I have seen them all, and I know what people like about them.  Personally, I cannot engage with them because characters breaking into song has never worked for me.  At the same time, I get it.  I promise I get it.  So I see musicals and I try my best to view them with an objective eye.  I say all that to say what I will say next.

Les Miserables is not one of the best films of the year.  Not even close.

Not because it is a musical.  Not because the acting is poor, or the songs don't work.  The live singing in the film is quite refreshing from the staged and choreographed songs of previous musicals (although Across the Universe employed this gimmick first).  The costumes and the settings are well done.  Even the acting is something to behold because of the mixture of singing and acting.  Never an easy task.  My issue lies within the rest of the film, the way it is shot and the way it comes across, as a sniveling and whimpering slog of a film with not much to root for.

Hugh Jackman is the draw, of course, playing Jean Valjean, the man imprisoned for five years after stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family.  Once freed, Valjean is a lost soul for some time, bouncing around between the poor streets of a post revolutionary France.  Finally, he decides to break from his parole and take on a new identity and, within eight years, is mayor of a small town.  All the while he must hide from the tireless Inspector Javert, played by Russell Crowe as a stone-faced lawman.  In this small villa, Valjean meets Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a timid young woman who is fired from her job, forced to sell her hair, her fillings, and ultimately her body in order to simply survive.  With such a celebrated story throughout the years, it is no surprise then that Fantine dies early in the picture, and Valjean takes it upon himself to care for her daughter, Cosette, played by Amanda Seyfried.  The cat-and-mouse between Valjean and Javert runs throughout the film as Valjean finds Cosette and, eventually, finds himself in the midst of a love triangle.

Here is a film with a background as epic as what is shown on the screen.  Based on the novel by Victor Hugo, the celebrated Broadway musical, and following a film adaptation in 1998, Les Miserables carries with it more prestige than any film I could imagine.  The scope of this Tom Hooper version aims for the stars, for the universe, and surely is grand.  But Hooper sabotages his own work, much in the way he did (in my humble opinion) with The King's Speech.  A grand film as such needs grandness in its camera, in its style and panache.  Hooper zooms in for close ups at an alarming rate.  It almost feels that the film is a collection of close ups strung together with choppy editing and quick shots.

Close ups are meant to emphasize certain aspects of a film and a moment, and should be used sparingly in intense or vital moments of the story.  Yet Hooper decides on using these shots endlessly, and when these wonderful actors are singing of their despair everything slows down, grows even more dire than what is needed, and is ultimately tiresome.  Pan out sometimes, show us the surroundings, mix up the cinematography a little.  Alas, this is what we have and the end result is, at least to this one musical Nazi, a cold and monotonous experience.


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

HOLIDAY MOVIE-REVIEW BONANZA: Number 1 - Django Unchained

DJANGO UNCHAINED: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson (166 min.)

We have come to a point now where a Quentin Tarantino film is going to be an "event" in the cinematic world each and every time one is released.  We have also reached a certain level of quality with Tarantino films, that we know each one will be good.  That is no longer the argument.  What is up for debate now is where his most recent film fits in his collective body of work, how good it is comparatively speaking.  I still don't quite know where I would place Django Unchained in the legend that has become Tarantino filmography.  There are moments of incomparable brilliance throughout, but it's as if the pieces in between those brilliant moments lulled me into a feeling of impatience.  Just when I was ready to discount the film, the structure and the mood would shift in just the right way.  Perhaps that is the genius at work here.

The easy way to describe Django Unchained is to call it Tarantino's "slavery film," much like Inglourious Basterds is casually labeled his "Nazi film."  Sure, that's the quickest way to sum up the events, but the richness of detail, of dialogue, of action and violence - and boy is violence aplenty here - is shortchanged in such a scant description.  Django is a slavery film, firmly against slavery but still not afraid of using that most offensive word a shocking amount of times.  But it also has some wonderful characters, strikingly (and unexpectedly) beautiful cinematography, and supporting performances for the ages.  And, as I mentioned before, if you squirm in your seat at the sound of the "N" word, look elsewhere.

Our hero, Django, is played by Jamie Foxx in one of his best perfromances since 2005 when he turned in the double whammie of Collateral and Ray.  Django is a slave in the opening scene, freed by Dr. King Schultz, a German dentist who is really a bounty hunter and needs Django to help him hunt down a band of scoundrels.  Christoph Waltz changes sides this time and plays the hero, or at least part of the hero, and owns his role as the dentist.  Django of course goes along with the good Doctor and is a free man.  The two bounty hunters collect their money along their adventures and, after some fire-side chats, Django discloses that his wife, Broomhilda, has been sold into slavery and taken to the "Candyland" plantation in Mississippi.  This plantation, the Candyland, is one each and every slave knows about, and is run by a rather flamboyant Southerner named Calvin Candide.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Candide, and he is one of two marvelous supporting performances in the picture.  He is a diabolical slave owner and a callous man, no doubt, but somehow through Tarantino's writing he is a charmer.  Delivered in a burgundy suit and darkened eyes, Candide is DiCaprio's finest work as an actor, and any Supporting Actor award which doesn't go his way is a mistake.  Unless, of course, that award winds up in the hand of Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the privileged house, ahem, "N," Candide's right-hand man.  Jackson hasn't had this much fun in a role in several years.

Nevertheless, the story involves Django and Dr. Schultz infiltrating the plantation of Candide and retrieving his wife, Broomhilda, played in a limited role by Kerry Washington.  The second half of the film involves the deceptive abilities of the dentist and his companion, and much blood is shed in the final act.  Of course, this is a major reduction of a Tarantino film, as each and every frame is loaded with detail of dialogue, texture, and humor.  And as usual there is a scene where food or beverage is a major player, focused upon like the cream in Inglourious Basterds or the screwdriver in Jackie Brown, or the five-dollar shake.  White cake means so much more to me now.

Django Unchained is a great, great film sometimes.  Then there are those moment in between the greatness which struggle.  Tarantino lulls me into a false sense of security, into a calmness of routine and monotony which is undercut by moments of extreme brilliance.  As soon as I feel myself getting tired or bored, something happens and the energy is picked back up.  I almost think that is his goal here, to suck us in then pull the rug out.  The performances here are not to be denied, as everyone top to bottom delivers.  But is the film, structurally, a sound bit of filmmaking?  Perhaps on a second glance things will come to light.  There is no denying Django Unchained is a good film, but give me some time and I will let you know if it's great or not.



Monday, December 17, 2012

OSCAR PREDICTIONS 2013: The Screenplays

Hard to believe it's already that time of year again.  The Oscars are right around the corner in 2013, and despite mine and your trepidations about the validity or the importance of the awards, the Academy Awards will always be an important celebration of cinema - important within the cinematic world that is.  I am trying to get past my 72% guessing accuracy this time around, having gone 25 of 35 the last two years.  As always, let's start with the screenplay nominations and, over the next few weeks, work out way through supporting and lead performances, directing, and Best Picture before the nominations are announced January 10th.


As is always the case, there are a few shoe ins in any category, and Best Adapted Screenplay is no exception.  The leader in the clubhouse has to be Argo, and the adapted screenplay from Chris Terrio.  This should be one of a handful of nominations for Ben Affleck's third feature.  Next in line, and not far behind Argo, is Tony Kushner's screenplay for Lincoln, based on the novel Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  The strength of Lincoln is in its dialogue, so this is a given nomination.

Beyond these two locks, I see four or five reasonable possibilities for the final three slots.  David Magee's adaptation of Life of Pi, one of the best films of the year, should get recognition here if the film is to make a good push for Best Picture.  The film which is picking up the most steam, the most buzz this awards season, has to be David O. Russell's adaptation of Silver Linings Playbook.  Expect his screenplay to grab a nomination, leaving one final spot.  This fifth spot should belong to Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  Smaller independent movies tend to get easier recognition in the screenplay department, so I could see either Perks or Lucy Ailbar and Ben Zeitlin's screenplay for Beasts of The Southern Wild picking up the nom.  But Beasts is less reliant on dialogue and more on performances, giving the edge to Perks in the end.


Chris Terrio - Argo 
Tony Kushner - Lincoln
Davis Magee - Life of Pi
Stephen Chbosky - The Perks of Being a Wallflower
David O. Russell - Silver Linings Playbook


Best Original Screenplay is clear cut in my opinion.  There are a few outliers, but the strength of the top five is too much to overlook.  Quentin Tarantino is a lock for Django Unchained and Mark Boal is for Zero Dark Thirty, as these two films are lining up to be the most nominated films of the year.  Paul Thomas Anderson's obtuse and mystifying dream known as The Master should get the third slot, though I don't see a big chance at victory.  Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola's Moonrise Kingdom screenplay s a fan and critical favorite, though not a favorite of your humble narrator.  The fifth spot is in flux, but Michael Haneke's Amour is in the midst of a groundswell at the moment and should get the fifth spot. 

A few sleepers include Rian Johnson's mind-bending script for Looper and John Gatlins intense study of alcoholism in Flight.  Though I think Flight's only nomination will belong to Denzel Washington.


Quentin Tarantino - Django Unchained
Mark Boal - Zero Dark Thirty
Paul Thomas Anderson - The Master
Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola - Moonrise Kingdom
Michael Haneke - Amour

Thursday, December 13, 2012

THURSDAY THROWBACK: The Addams Family (1991)

Sometimes films like The Addams Family tend to age poorly.  TV series adaptations are risky propositions most of the time anyway; consider the staleness of The Beverly Hillbillies to see where these adaptations can go wrong.  But I can say with some conviction that The Addams Family holds up after all these years, and might possibly have gotten better with age.  The energy, the humor, and even the effects show no signs of weariness like so many early 90s pictures.  I was pleasantly surprised.  Much of this can be attributed to the cast, but we cannot discount the inventiveness of Barry Sonnenfeld, directing his first feature film.

Although The Addams Family seems to be a film tailor-made for the talents of Tim Burton - who was approached but turned it down for other commitments - but it might be a good thing Burton didn't direct.  Barry Sonnenfeld keeps the film balanced and holds on to a slight sense of realism surrounding the wacky macabre family and their antics.  The late Raul Julia holds form as Gomez Addams, channeling the manic energy and sheer madness of the character made famous by John Astin in the 60s television series.  As Morticia, his Gothic love, Angelica Huston is marvelous.  The entire cast is rounded out well with Cristina Ricci as the somber young Wednesday, Jimmy Workman as Pugsley, Judith Malina as Ma-Ma, and Carel Struycken serving as great background decorations as the befuddled butler, Lurch.  But the real attraction, and the focal point of the plot here, involves Uncle Fester.

Fester, played by Christopher Lloyd, first appears as Gordon, son of the vindictive Abigail Craven (Elizabeth Wilson) .  Abigail is intent on getting her hands on the Addams' fortune and, teaming up with the hapless Addams lawyer Tully (Dan Hedaya), uses Gordon to impersonate Gomez's long-lost brother, Fester.  Of course we realize Gordon is, in fact, Fester, and an accident left him without a memory when he was taken in by Abigail.  Coming to this realization takes a great deal of time for Fester.

The antics are amped up as it has the advantages of filmmaking freedom.  All of the greatest hits are here, including both Cousin Itt and the family pet, Thing, a hand which is no longer stuck to a box as it was in the series.  Thanks to some special effects magic which holds up still today, Thing is free to roam the endless corridors of the Addams household.  On top of the enjoyable eye candy on display here, the writing is clever and on point.  Much of the magic of the series is brought into the script, written by Caroline Thompson and Larry Wilson, and all of the actors make this film a delightful experience still to this day.  Barry Sonnefeld would go on to direct the great sequel, Addams Family Values, and he matched the energy of this fun, original romp.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Rank 'Em: The Die Hard Franchise

Of all the franchises to come through Hollywood, the Die Hard films stand above them all for me. Generations before me would cite the early Star Wars films as their favorite; some would claim Indiana Jones brought them into the world of cinema as a youth. I grew up with John McClane saving citizens from certain death, and I fell more and more in love with these action films as I became an adult. Sure, it is more violent and crass and maybe not as widely regarded as these other franchises I have mentioned, but for my money there was not a more influential Hollywood storyline than the plight of John McClane. Of course, the Die Hard films vary in degrees of quality and some have not aged very well. But, at the same time, I know of at least one entry that has solidified itself as a modern American classic.

The newest entry, It’s a Good Day to Die Hard, will be released on Valentine’s Day of 2013, and the early trailers are nothing short of depressing. The franchise appears to have lost its way, to abandon its roots in order to get bigger and louder and less personal. But for now, let’s look back and see how the first four entries compare to one another…

4) Live Free or Die Hard – After seeing this fourth installment the first time I may have ranked it third in the franchise, but time has not been kind to “Die Hard 4.0.” It is amazing to me how dated a film from 2007 can appear, but Live Free made a big mistake in making technology so central to the story. This time, McClane is drawn out as an analog cop in a digital world. Technological advances have passed him by and he has no time for such things. He is given the menial task of protecting a computer hacker (Justin Long) from bigger and badder computer hackers intent on crashing the American economic system. Aside from the dated technology, the film is neutered in order to fit it inside a PG-13 frame. McClane’s “Yippee-kay-ay” line is muffled by gunfire, and the action has shot up up and away from any sense of reality. McClane fights an F-16 this time… give me a break. And to top things off, Timothy Olyphant’s villain, Thomas Gabriel, is a far cry from the other three villains in the franchise.

3) Die Hard 2 – I have always had a love/hate relationship throughout the years with this first sequel. Capitalizing on the success of the first film, producers went bigger and added many more bullets along the way. Taking over for brilliant action director John McTiernan is Renny Harlin, whose career is riddled with mediocrity. There are times where I really dislike Die Hard 2 for its flat action sequences and endless gunfire. But recently I have found it more enjoyable in a nostalgic sense. I enjoy the fact that McClane is under siege on Christmas once again, and we cannot discount the importance of Holly McClane (Bonnie Bedelia) in the proceedings. Keeping the action inside a closed arena, this time around an airport, is also a nice touch to keep the mood of the original intact. William Sadler is a solid follow up to Hans Gruber as well as Colonel Stuart. While it is nowhere near the brilliance of the original, Die Hard 2 has a few hits in between its misses.

2) Die Hard: With a Vengeance – What makes Die Hard 3 such a wonderful action film is the fact that John McTiernan is back behind the camera. You can see his work in the action sequences and the framing of the actors, something lacking from the previous two entries helmed by inferior directing talent. There is also a nice tie in with the original film, as the villain this time (the great Jeremy Irons) plays Hans Gruber’s brother, Simon. Intent on getting revenge while also robbing the Stock Exchange, Simon plays a clever cat-and-mouse game with McClane and his reluctant sidekick, Zeus (Samuel L. Jackson, really adding a level of intensity and humor to things). There is something else which plays into the success of the film on a personal level: the state of McClane. In these better entries, John is having personal problems. In the first one, he and Holly are estranged living apart. Here they are separated and John, finding comfort in the bottom of the bottle, has been suspended. While the arena has expanded from a single setting to New York City, there is still a great deal of intimacy given the fact that the villain is out to get John and the players are limited to three central roles.

1) Die Hard – There was never any question of which film would be atop the list. Die Hard is the perfect action movie, an American classic which also launched the career of Bruce Willis. Trapped in a skyscraper fighting off terrorists, all the while trying to save his estranged wife, John McClane redefined the action star as the decade would soon switch from the 80s to 90s. Where Stallone and Schwarzenegger used their biceps, Willis as McClane used his smarts, his wit, and his everyman personal to outsmart and outfight the villains. It brought about a more identifiable hero for audiences. And Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber is the penultimate action-film villain, a seething Euro killer. The action in Die Hard is balanced, never really reaching beyond a certain sense of reality. McClane has to use the building to defend himself; very rarely is he out in the open where bullets magically miss him. Die Hard changed the way action films were considered, and is one of the more important films of my childhood.  And we mustn't discount the importance of the film being set at Christmas, which adds a timeless quality to the film as a whole.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

FOREIGN CORNER: The Snowtown Murders (Australia)

John Bunting is the most notorious serial killer in the history of Australia. Beginning in 1992 and continuing through late 1998, Bunting killed 11 people, all of whom he considered deserving. He targeted suspected pedophiles and homosexuals in his spree, and in the late 90s he moved in with a mother and her sons where he soon had control over their minds, emotions, and manipulated one of the boys into aiding him in his murders. The Snowtown Murders is the story of Bunting, and is so effective, so chilling, so unnervingly well constructed, I hope to never see it again.

The film takes place in the slums north of Adelaide, where Elizabeth Harvey (Louise Harris) is a single mother to three boys. The days of these people consist of smoking cigarettes one after another and staring lifelessly into the expanse of Australia surrounding their neighborhood. The will to carry on is vacant in the eyes of these boys and this mother, and the grey sadness of their lives is exemplified by the dry palette of the camera. The trouble for this family exists long before John arrives; Jamie, the focus of the boys, is solemn and passive. He and his two younger brothers are molested by her sister’s boyfriend who lives across the street, and Jamie is regularly molested by his older brother, though he doesn’t do anything to stop the abuse. Lucas Pittaway plays Jamie as a lost soul, and perhaps it is his Australian heritage which emphasized his resemblance to Heath Ledger.

One day, out of the blue, John (Daniel Henshall) enters their lives. He appears one morning in the kitchen cooking breakfast and entertaining the family. John is a powerful personality and it is clear he is taking charge of the dynamic in the home. Before long he begins manipulating Jamie, encouraging him to retaliate for the wrong that has been pressed upon him. The way he asks questions and controls conversations make it seem like there is only one answer to everything. He mutilates kangaroos to throw the remains on the boyfriends’ front porch, he begins to change. Without any type of concerted effort – he is simply being himself – John has pulled Jamie into his orbit.

The chilling way in which John takes over the film is one of the great affecting techniques of the film. John begins seeking out his victims, murdering them in a bathtub and disposing of their bodies. The film becomes a battle of the powerful will of John against the weak, lifelessness of Jamie. He is passive and weak minded, and John preys upon the desperation of the family in order to fulfill what he sees as his duty. His victims “deserve it” in his mind and Jamie is powerless against the magnetism and ferocity percolating in the pure evil of John’s soul.

I do wish the film would have been a bit more clear, especially towards the end, but the vagueness of the actions in the conclusion still leave an effectively unsavory taste.

The Snowtown Murders is one of the most unsettling films I have ever seen. This is more brutal and unflinching than Larry Clark’s Bully, more gritty than Requiem for a Dream, more stressful than any film experience I have endured. But that is the goal of the picture; this is a study of a maniac whose charm and magnetic personality made him all the more dangerous. Imagine Charles Manson as a “hands on” leader of weaker minds and you have John Bunting. He is currently serving eleven life sentences for his murders, and Jamie will be eligible for parole in 2025, when he will be 45 years old. Here is a film with a specific duty from first time director Justin Kurzel. I don’t know if I am glad I saw it, but I have seen it, and I will never look at it again.