Thursday, February 28, 2013

THURSDAY THROWBACK: A Simple Plan (1998)

It's funny the way some films can fade from the collective consciousness over time.  I would be willing to bet that if someone were asked to name a film from either Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, or director Sam Raimi, A Simple Plan would not be top of mind.  But it is arguably their best individual work, a magnificently tense and suspenseful character study about the way morality can dissolve under intense pressure and paranoia.  Seeing it again after at least a decade, I found myself drawn into the vortex of these characters and caught up in their desperation as bad decisions compound on top of each other until the whole thing comes crashing down.

We often hypothesize about what would happen if we found a large sum of money.  If we won the lottery or stumbled upon a hefty bag of hundred dollar bills, what would we do?  Of course these scenarios we cook up are always positive, but rarely do they seem to work out that way and even more rare that they ever happen to begin with.  But this is where we find Hank, Jacob, and Lou, three ordinary men who happen upon a small jet crashed and covered in snow one winter afternoon.  In the private plane, aside from a corpse, the three men discover a duffel bag with millions of dollars in cash.  They convince themselves this is drug money, or cash used for unseemly gains, and this helps influence them to keep the cash, split it, and tell nobody.  The plan seems, well, simple enough.  But as personalities begin shining through, paranoia mounts, and tension escalates.

Hank, played by Bill Paxton, is the most squared away of the trio.  He has a comfortable life in a nice home, works at the feed store in town, and has a loving wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda), who is expecting their first child.  Hank sees this new-found wealth as an opportunity to live comfortably, happy well into old age.  It is one less worry for his young and growing family.  Jacob is Hank's brother, an unintelligent and homely loser played by Billy Bob Thornton behind chunky eyeglasses, pale skin and a shock of stringy hair.  Jacob goes along with the plan early with great excitement with giddiness of a child.  We find out later in a sad and touching scene between Jacob and Hank that Jacob just wants love.  He wants to kiss a girl some time in his life, and he hopes this money will help him achieve such a simple goal.  Lou (the great character actor Brent Briscoe), on the other hand, is adrift in life, in debt and alcoholic and perhaps more desperate for the cash than any of them.

There is a murder.  Then a cover up.  Things begin happening and the three men begin to unravel under the pressure of unexpected wealth.  Sarah thinks Hank needs to take back $500,000 so nobody will come looking for the money.  Lou disagrees.  The degeneration of these characters is the focus of the picture, as problems create other problems, and a plan to set up one of the three goes horribly awry.  There are external elements which heighten the thriller elements of A Simple Plan.  A mysterious man from the FBI (Gary Cole) appears and claims to be looking for the plane.  This simple plan grows worse until the decisions of these men have corrupted them to the core.

This is the finest work in Bill Paxton's career.  He thrives playing the everyman, an innocent and naive square thrust into extreme circumstances.  Hank has more to lose than anyone, and his desperation coupled with a superior intelligence over the other two men put him in a unique spot.  Billy Bob Thornton has delivered in some great films, and this is right there at the top of his long career.  Nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar here, Thornton embodies Jacob as someone we all knew in high school who grew up to go nowhere and have no one.  Aside from the thriller aspects of the film this is a fantastic character study, an examination of what greed and desperation can do to the soul.  The winter setting, snowy and quiet and isolated from the rest of the world, adds wonderful and ominous texture.

A Simple Plan is quite a departure for Sam Raimi, who made his name on the low-budget Evil Dead franchise and the Spider Man trilogy in the 2000s.  This is proof he can branch out into more adult fare, as he handles the elements of a straight thriller and a compelling human drama as well as most who venture into this genre.  A Simple Plan grabbed the Thornton nomination as well as a Screenplay nod at the 1998 Academy Awards, but still seems to fall by the wayside in the careers of those involved.  That doesn't make it any less brilliant.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The 85th Academy Awards: Recapping a Bizarre, Disjointed Ceremony

The 85th Annual Academy Awards was one of the strangest and most uneven telecasts I can remember in the last twenty years of watching the ceremony.  I wrote last week about giving The Oscars a break and enjoying them as a celebration of film.  That was before I knew what the producers of the show had in mind. Easily one of the more laborious and slow-moving broadcasts in Oscar history, the decisions by the producers of the show are baffling, and the awards themselves seemed to be voted by throwing darts at a dartboard.

Seth MacFarlane was the host, and he began the show with great creativity and humor that was equally cutting and witty.  But his 18-minute opening sequence, co-starring William Shatner as Captain Kirk from the future, went on entirely too long.  Going on too long was the theme of the night.  MacFarlane seemed at ease in my opinion, and his quips throughout the night at least generated a laugh.  For some inexplicable reason, this Academy Awards presentation carried with it a theme of celebrating "the best musicals of the last decade."  That celebration included a grand total of three films: Chicago, Dreamgirls, and Les Miserables.  Which brings me to Chicago, inexplicably one of the stars of the show.

Chicago won Best Picture at the 2003 Oscars, and two different musical numbers celebrated this fact.  But Chicago, and the telecast in 2003, is still the lowest-rated show in the history of the Awards.  Which makes celebrating the mediocre musical all the more baffling.  Music was a big player on the night, but instead of having all five original songs performed we got a Chicago musical number from Catherine Zeta-Jones and a Dreamgirls song from Jennifer Hudson.  Then, we had two of the original songs performed and the other three merely mentioned in passing.  It makes no sense whatsoever.  These musical numbers were drab and lifeless and carried the length of the ceremony well beyond three hours.  There is no reason why The Oscars should run past the three-hour mark, and there was an unimaginable amount of fat needed to be trimmed from the proceedings.

And now to the awards.  The lack of momentum must be, at least in part, due to the scattered awards.  I am all for surprises, and Christoph Waltz and Ang Lee were the largest shockers of the night, but none of the big films of the night could gain any traction as director and picture and all the technical awards were scattered about.  If Argo is the Best Picture, how is it that Ben Affleck is not nominated?  Beats me.  And the winners of the night all delivered lackluster acceptance speeches, aside from Daniel Day-Lewis and Ben Affleck who had great wit and comedy and humble, warm deliveries.

This was one of the worst Academy Awards I have ever seen, and the producers behind the scenes must learn from this to try and trim the fat for next year.  And the themes must make sense in the future.  Otherwise, the ratings will continue to plummet.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

THURSDAY THROWBACK: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

In the history of The Academy Awards, only three films belong in the "Big Five Club."  The five major awards in this "Big Five" are Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay.  The first to take this was the 1934 comedy It Happened One Night starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.  In 1991, the most surprising winner of the Big Five was Jonathan Demme's masterpiece, The Silence of the Lambs, which grabbed all five in a tidal wave of momentum.  In between these two there was One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Milos Forman's adaptation of Ken Kesey's anti-establishment novel about a mental institution.  Cuckoo's Nest was a sensation on Oscar night, but it also served as a turning point there in the mid seventies.  It is the signal of a powerful shift that had been developing early in the decade.  This was the film to change the face of the final five years of the 70s.  But let's not get ahead of ourselves before taking a look as the brilliance of Forman's film.

Cuckoo's Nest stars Jack Nicholson in one of his handful of iconic roles.  Here, he is Randall Patrick McMurphy, a scoundrel with great energy and wit and sarcasm and a slight hint of a violent past.  The doctor reading his charges cites laziness, attitude, and speaking out of turn as reasons for his recent commitment to the institute.  Reasons for a man to be insane?  Hardly, but the long list of assault charges might do the trick.  McMurphy is being observed in the hospital to see if he does in fact have a mental illness, or if he is pulling one over on the prison guards (his previous stop) in order to get out of work.

The mental hospital is a wonderful canvas for a picture, but also one riddled with landmines of cliche, insensitivity, mockery and emotional sappiness.  Those things are avoided in this institute as rules and duties are set early on.  Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) is in control, and there is very little debate.  Ratched feels that he mental superiority over the truly insane embers of the hospital , and she uses her sense of prowess to control the inmates fully.  Her hair is not accidentally shaped with horns, matching her devious eyebrows.  She preaches routine, playing classical music a little louder than necessary to ensure dominance.  As dangerous as McMurphy seems on the outside it is Ratched's entire presence that is the true threat to the patients and, if we are to stretch the meanings beyond the camera, to society.  She represents the establishment, and is nothing more than evil at her core.

The true looneys in the bin include young Christopher Lloyd and Danny DeVito, and an entire collection of eccentrics whose humor is handled with enough honesty to avoid mockery.  Ratched can handle these men, but this is where McMurphy poses a problem to her domineering control over the group.  He sees through her, and Ratched gets a read on him very early on, and the stage is basically set for the rest of the narrative.  When the first group meeting in the film unravels and patients are taken away kicking and screaming, McMurphy and Ratched stare at each other, a challenge from her to him.  It was Ratched who allowed the group to deteriorate   "See if you think you can get these patients out of the palm of my hand," she thinks with a smug glint in her eye.  "Because you can't."  Oh but he does, he usurps his own meeting along the way which shows how much of a threat he may actually be to Ratched's control.

McMurphy also befriends, gradually and with great determination, a Native American who has been locked up for no other reason than he is a mute, and his large stature must be threatening to the "normal" folks in society.  I am convinced that McMurphy sees the Indian, Big Chief, for who he is, a normal person.  He knows inside the giant man is not a crazy man but a quiet man whose never been allowed to wake up his soul.  McMurphy takes his energy and his charm to all the members of his new family of mental patients and, in one of the more bombastic moves of the film, manages to get everyone out of the hospital and on a sailboat.  His antics increase, tensions arise, until we see, alas, that Nurse Ratched gets her way.  The state of the inmates grows dour at times, and darkness takes over.  Some of the final events of the film may state that the system won, but when you consider the plight of the Indian "Cheif," then perhaps the film tells us of one man finding freedom from societal controls.

Ken Kesey, the father of LSD, had clear intentions when he wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and those intentions translate to the screen.  In Kesey's mind and in his writing the patients are not the insane ones and they are fighting against the system which disagreed with mind alteration.  The only reason they are insane, in Kesey's mind, is because they stand up against the system.  This makes Nurse Ratchet the very embodiment of "the system," which explains her unflinching determination to stay the course.  Ratchet is government control personified within the walls of a mad house.  Even the daily medication could represent the drugs for the patients to escape their oppression.

In 1984, Milos Forman fell one award shy of grabbing yet another Big Five win.  Amadeus won all except Best Actress, where there was no nominee in place.  Along with the Big Five win, Cuckoo's Nest also signifies the first Oscar for Michael Douglas, who produced, and would go on to win Best Actor in 1988 for Wall Street.  And consider the way Cuckoo's Nest signified a shift in the seventies, a decade when Hollywood was overturned and reborn through the likes of Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese, Friedkin, and Forman.  While Coppola was raking in awards for the Godfather films early in the decade, and those films most definitely signified a new wave in American filmmaking.  But they still managed to follow a traditional formula; they only elevated everything to masterpiece level.  Aside from the first two Godfather's winning in the early seventies there was Patton, The French Connection, and The Sting, all films whose roots exist in a world before the decade of change.

Cuckoo's Nest is a snapshot of a decade in turmoil, where Vietnam was sour on everyone's lips and a great deal of governmental distrust permeated everyday life.  With its win, the new film momvement of the seventies has arrived, and the win created a landfall over the rest of the decade.  Rocky would beat the odds, Annie Hall's unconventional narrative overtook even Star Wars, and The Deer Hunter told a story of the Vietnam war in shocking and unusual ways regarding structure.  I point to Cuckoo's Nest as the film to blow the doors wide open on the 70s new wave movement.

Why We Should Lighten Up on The Oscars.

We have plenty of time to be cynical about any number of things in this world.  Society as a whole has grown skeptical, paranoid, and suspect of just about everything these days, and the Academy Awards have suffered from the shift.  So many things trump The Oscars in this world of overt cynicism, but for the purposes of this piece let's look at the Granddaddy of awards season.

It's all political now.  The Academy is afraid of certain films.  These movies are boring and the Oscars are boring.  The divide between society and the Academy is a gulf.  The awards don't matter.  These are all arguments against the importance, or the relevance, of the Academy Awards.  In this age of judge, jury, and executioner at the tip of everyone's opinionated fingertips, films and filmmaking have taken on something entirely different from even five years ago.  With this new instant-gratification media - most of which I celebrate as an effective means of news and debate - negative vibes are much easier to push on the collective thought process.  No longer is it glitz and glamour, but mocking and sarcasm and waiting for someone somewhere to slip up.  Let the night be what it is meant to be, a celebration of an art.

I say lighten up.  For twenty plus years now I have been in front of my TV tuning in to the Oscars.  Surely as a ten-year old it seemed strange to my parents, but they obliged when I wanted to see as many of the movies as I was allowed and pay close attention to who won what.  Oscar Night is a big deal for me, not because of the fashion or the celebrity red carpet, but because it is an annual celebration of the medium I love more than any other artistic outlet.  Film is an important thing in my life for reasons I have never been able to eloquently explain.  And I see the Oscars in a more positive light than most people.  Not because I buy every Oscar win and succumb to the film as the greatest of the year, but because I enjoy the finality, the closure of another year of film.

There is a slim chance my favorite film from 2012, Silver Linings Playbook (an unpopular fave I am gathering), will not win Best Picture.  Does that mean I have to stop calling it my favorite of the year?  Hardly.  There were great films like Looper, Killer Joe, Skyfall, and summer films like The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers which aren't big players on Oscar night, and that sometimes turns people away.  I like all of the aforementioned films, some are great, and the fact they aren't nominated for much, if at all, is okay with me.  It doesn't deter me from seeing who wins out of who wasn't snubbed.  Storylines always abound at The Oscars, as predictions and snubs and surprises almost always snag some category along the way.  There is something for you to like.

That might be an unpopular opinion, but there is something for everyone out there most years.  Think about it, of the nine films nominated there is more than likely one most people have seen.  It cuts a wide cross section with history, fantasy, drama and suspense.  I don't think it's possible for a person to dislike all of the nine nominated films, and if they do then The Oscars aren't for them anyway.  The snide remarks about The Oscars feel misdirected or unnecessary for a show that s merely a salute to filmmaking in general.  True, the Awards themselves may not matter to us, to you, but to the actors and writers and producers and technicians they mean they have succeeded.  These are the awards we all get at our own jobs for various achievements, only Hollywood's work exists in a public forum.

If you don't like The Oscars for these reasons, then maybe you shouldn't watch.  I say go in with an open mind and a positive outlook.  Don't allow the sarcasm or cynicism invade into your enjoyment.  I am not particularly pleased with each and every nominee, there are snubs all over the map, but that is part of the strategic inner workings of The Oscars as a whole.  Surprises aren't always there either, but the possibility of a surprise exists and propels the drama of the awards themselves.  I have always enjoyed The Oscars and to be honest very little of my personal film preference has shifted because of them over the years.  Lincoln wins Best Picture?  Not my favorite, but I understand, because it is a technical and historical masterpiece.  This is the point, to let The Oscars happen, absorb the year-end wrap up, and go into the proceedings with the mindset of someone who loves films and enjoys looking back at many of the great films of the past year.  

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Mini-Reviews: 2012 Best Picture Nominees

Amour - Very few films about aging, love, and loss are as unflinching or unforgiving as Michael Haneke's Amour.  This is a deeply sad film, one of the saddest things I have ever seen from this distance.  And it hits home with so many of us across the globe.  Emmanuelle Riva is much deserving of her Oscar nomination as Anne, a loving mother and wife and former piano teacher who suffers a health setback and physically diminishes over the remaining months of her life.  But we mustn't slight the performance from Jean-Louis Trintignant as Georges, the struggling husband and father left to tend to his wife as she gradually loses hope.  This is an emotionally devastating picture, but one that seems claustrophobic at times, extended to unnecessary lengths at others.  But Amour is real and honest and tough to watch in all the right ways.  B+

Argo - Hollywood loves a true story, especially when the truth trumps anything that can be dreamed up in the fiction factory.  Argo is one of those tales, a gripping thriller about the Iranian Hostage situation in 1980, and a hair-brained plan to free six escaped Americans.  Ben Affleck, who also directed, plays tony Mendes, whose plan is to hire well-known Hollywood producers and makeup men to set up a fake science fiction film in Iran and use this disguise to smuggle the hostages to freedom.  Affleck has mastered his abilities as a director and his lack of a nomination is more of an embarrassment for the Academy than a slight to Affleck (who has been winning directing awards left and right).  Argo didn't resonate with me all the way through, the thrills didn't quite reach the heights I had hoped, but I acknowledge the power of its directing.  B

Beasts of The Southern Wild - This third entry into the nominee pool didn't connect with me either.  Quvenzhane Wallis is undoubtedly brilliant as Hushpuppy, the precocious youth on the poverty-stricken island of Bath, south of New Orleans.  There is a fascinating world on the island, where people live simply with the knowledge they could be swept away by the next hurricane at any moment.  This allows them a certain freedom most do not possess.  Hushpuppy contends with her firecracker of a father and the melting ice caps raising the seas all around her with a steadfast determination and will perhaps only an innocent child could own in her incorruptible soul.  The story is one about love and bravery but where I have a problem is in the direction from Behn Zeitlin, whos camera is much too unstable and shaky and unfocused to engage with the events.  B-

Django Unchained - Quentin Tarantino is one of a kind, we all know that.  His new kick is to re-write history with his own flair and wit after the success of Inglourious Basterds in 2009.  Django Unchained is his rebuttal to the travesties of slavery, and is even more Gonzo than his Nazi rewrite.  And while it doesn't come close to the level of Tarantino's Basterds - or most of his other work if we're being honest - minor Tarantino is better than most work out there.  Certain sequences are stretched beyond reasonable lengths and QT's own cameo is a major disctraction.  Of course there is more good than bad, including all the performances from Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, and Leonardo DiCaprio who was overlooked once again for an Oscar nomination. One of these days maybe he will get what has been coming to him his entire career.  B+

Les Miserables - I don't really want to spend a lot of time on Les Miserables because, to be honest, this is a poor film that has gotten poorer with time.  I can't imagine how much I might dislike this thing five years down the road.  A remake of an adaptation of a dismal play with poor songs and very little to enjoy should not be here, and Tom Hooper films Les Miserables in the worst way imaginable.  Everything is a close up, and the lack of scope smothers everything and drowns out anything these actors are trying to do.  And as I mentioned the songs are weak at best, narrating events and falling into repitition.  Live singing or no, if the lyrics are watered down then what's the difference?  There always seems to be a film that doesn't deserve a nomination and there is no doubt that film in 2012 is Les Miserables. C-

Life of Pi - Finally, we reach one of my favorite films of the year.  Most of the time my top ten of the year matches up with the majority of Oscars picks, but this time around not even half of the films made my list.  Life of Pi was high on my personal rankings, because it is a beautiful and engaging film about religion and personal human faith.  All the performances are top nothc, but arguably the best one of the bunch is a CGI Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker through a fluky accident.  Ang Lee pours so much emotion in his films it seems to seep through the screen, and Life of Pi is no different than his previous films.  The cinematography and the art direction bests anything else in the nominee pool this year, I only wonder if it will have enough momentum to pick up some wins this Sunday.  A    

Lincoln - This film and Argo have to be the frontrunners for Best Picture coming into the stretch run.  Steven Spileberg's Lincoln is like a living, breathing history book about the sixteenth President and his fight to pass the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery.  Daniel-Day Lewis embodies the President seamlessly, almost expectedly, and he is the favorite for Best Actor as he always is when he's nominated.  Beyond Daniel-Day Lewis is a cast of brilliant actors and performances, including nominee Sally Field and nominee Tommy Lee Jones, who has the most fiery role as Thaddeus Stevens, whos dedication to passing the law runs deeper than most.  For all of its undeniable beauty and art direction and the wonderful performances, Lincoln still comes off cold and distant.  I wasn't as emotionally engaged as some were.  But if it does end up winning Best Picture, I understand why.  B

Silver Linings Playbook - For whatever reason - I blame cynicism - Silver Linings Playbook is getting the bulk of the Oscar backlash this year.  In my opinion David O. Russell's touching story of mental illness, love, and moving on is a wonderful film.  It is my favorite of 2012.  Bradley Cooper finally shows us what he can do as an actor, something I always knew he had in him, and Jennifer Lawrence continues to impress in just about every role.  And welcome back from the depths of movie hell, Robert DeNiro.  As the father here, DeNiro reminds us all that he can still pull off meaty and emotional roles despite his current decline.  The charm and the wit are honest and moving in Silver Linings Playbook, the story is fun and brisk and often very emotional.  And we mustn't overlook the soundtrack, one of the better ones of the year.  A

Zero Dark Thirty - Another historical film to be nominated this year, Zero Dark Thirty doesn't take us as far back as Argo or Lincoln, but it carries us back merely a couple of years to the killing of Osama Bin Laden.  The suspense of a story we all know the ending to relies on the events leading up to the siege, and director Kathryn Bigelow manages to keep us on the edge of our seat; which is the main reason her directing snub might be more baffling than Ben Affleck.  Jessica Chastain as Maya, the steadfast and determined CIA operative whose quick thinking changed the hunt for Public Enemy #1, carries the film.  Her nomination is deserved, as is her current status as odds-on favorite.  And even the final moments, where we know the conclusion, are some of the most riveting moments in 2012 cinema.  A

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Good Day to Die Hard

A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD: Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney, directed by John Moore (98 min.)

A Good Day to Die Hard, the fifth entry into the John McClane franchise, fails on just about every level concerning what made this franchise so legendary over the years. This person inhabiting this character I have grown up with no longer exists. I have a close relationship with the Die Hard series, I pin it as my most defining, and here I feel like something has been ripped away from my childhood. The John McClane I remember was a normal man who felt pain, whose sarcasm felt natural and easy, who used intuition and cunning to outsmart the villains in front of him. This John McClane has no resemblance of our original hero. Here is a cartoon character in a carton movie with no heart, no logic, no wit, and nothing beyond its glossy surface.

I refuse to acknowledge this as a Die Hard film.

Bruce Willis is back, of course, as John McClane, the New York cop who manages to stumble into one catastrophic terrorist attack after another. But Bruce looks tired, disinterested from the weak opening all the way to the final freeze frame. McClane gets word that his wayward son, Jack (Jai Courtney), has been arrested in Russia, and he heads overseas to help him out. John and his son have not been friendly over the years, have not spoken in forever, and the relationship is beyond strained. Which leads me to my first issue where the events of these recent Die Hard films don’t match up: so you’re telling me the man who saved his wife from certain death twice, saved New York, and saved his teenage daughter, is a poor father obsessed with his work? And this guy has not been there for his kids, but he is flying all the way to Russia to bail his son out? I don’t buy it.

Naturally, as soon as McClane lands in Russia basically a gunfight and car chase breaks out involving his son and a witness to protect who has access to “the file.” You know the one, the McGuffin in just about every action movie of this ilk. The plot is water thin and nothing more than a thread to push forward the nauseating and over-the-top action. Cars crash in creative ways, buildings explode, and we get no less than TWO separate scenes involving a battle chopper blasting apart a building. In 98 minutes director John Moore (who butchered Max Payne and Behind Enemy Lines prior to this) can’t manage to avoid action scene duplication. McClane and his son pull of obscene stunts which were not a part of the first three films. Sure, Die Hard With a Vengeance has its own absurdity, but it still fits within the framework of the story and our hero feels real pain. Remember how broken and beaten McClane was at the end of the third film? That doesn’t exist here.

Most of the dialogue is lost in the shuffle, and Willis’ wisecracks fall flat one after another because they are forced and unfunny. In the original film especially, the emotional pull lies within John reconciling with his wife. Even in the second or third film the stakes felt real to an extent. Here, they try that same thing with John trying to make things right with his kid, but there is little impact because we now know these characters aren’t real. We knew they were acting before, but it was less obvious. And these films thrive on their villains, which is why the first and third films (starring Alan Rickman and Jeremy Irons as the villains, respectively) are the strongest. Die Hard: Mission to Moscow doesn’t really have a clear villain. It is this person at one point, another one as the story goes along, and a “behind-the-scenes” villain is wiped out without ever having an impact.

Since John McClane has morphed into a cartoon character, feeling little pain after flipping TWO cars (another repeat action sequence) or falling through rows and rows of scaffolding after leaping through a window, then there is little reason to care about him, what he is doing, or what he says. And by the time he is being swung around in the air by a car hanging off the back of a helicopter, I had given up. If their truly is a sixth film in the works, things must be readjusted. And can we please, for the love of god, forgive John McTienran (who directed the first and third in the franchise) of his legal issues and get him back behind the camera?


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

BLU Review: Sinister

Horror films are tricky.  The genre is an easy route into Hollywood, but at the same time it is one of the most difficult genres to work in because it evolves more than anything else.  Horror films can try anything and the odds are it has been done before.  This conundrum leaves us in the middle, where most horror films fall these days.  Sinister, while it is much stronger than most of the recent entries, sequels and found-footage disasters, cannot fight its way out of the middle.  There is creativity here, solid work from the actors involved, and some "jump" moments.  It cobbles together elements of horror films past to tell its own story, but the story somehow circles back into familiarity.

Ethan Hawke stars as Ellison Oswalt, a true-crime writer with a wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), and two young children.  Ellison is moving the family into a new house as the film opens, but apparently something devious lives in this home's past.  A gruesome crime occurred inside the house and everyone in the town knows the story.  Which explains why the people in town disapprove of Ellison's decision and the police stand outside on moving day warning him not to move in.  The ominous warnings of the townsfolk: check.

All seems normal for a while as Ellison begins investigating the crimes and falls deep into his writing.  He begins drinking, which proves itself to be a past issue.  Imagine Hawke's Ellison as a more under control Jack Torrance.  One night, Ellison finds a mysterious box in the attic containing snuff films of shocking murders in the home  There is a family hung from the tree in the backyard, another family burned alive in their car in the garage, an incident involving the pool, and so on and so forth.  The Super 8 films are gruesome and altogether horrific, one of the better elements of the film.  Ellison becomes obsessed with the videos, and before long he notices a thread carrying through them all: the face.

The face is demonic black and white with wicked eyes and a shock of black hair.  Ellison digs deeper and deeper and his family loses sight of him in the everyday.  Strange things start happening around the house involving voices, dogs, those thing that go pump in the night, and a number of visions or nightmares from Ellison.  All sound familiar?  Well, it is and it isn't.  The direction of Sinister may be familiar but the end result carries with it some surprise and certain elements that are not quite as familiar as the journey.

The production values of Sinister are top notch, and the mood and tone of the picture is perfect given the subject.  Ethan Hawke, always reliable, is most believable in these roles of selfish but passionate, intellectual men.  Ellison loves his family, but he thirsts for his own success to return and this blinds him from certain danger.  As Tracy, the relatively unknown Juliet Rylance carries her own with Hawke and the two make a convincing couple.  Both children get their time but it is Michael Hall D'Addario as the confused young Trevor who dominates in his performance.  Sinister has many of the building blocks of the horror genre, and perhaps at times it over-delivers.  But all this being said, everything winds up a little too familiar.


Sunday, February 10, 2013

Side Effects

SIDE EFFECTS: Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Channing Tatum, Catherine Zeta-Jones, directed by Steven Soderbergh (106 min.)

Steven Soderbergh has informed everyone Side Effects will be his last theatrical film; later this year his Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, will come to HBO starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. We’ll see about that. Soderbergh is merely 50, and hopefully after a few years he will get the urge to return to the chair. I admire Soderbergh’s willingness to step out of comfort zones and try new things wherever he can find room. I haven’t always loved his films, but none of them ever seemed offensively bad. And even though I mention his willingness to step outside a certain realm from time to time, Side Effects is firmly within Soderbergh’s comfort zone. In the tradition of his groundbreaking sex, lies, and videotape, it is a throwback to the psychosexual thrillers of the 90s where upper-middle class yuppies are threatened and lives compromised.

Rooney Mara, an old soul with such peculiar beauty and mannerisms, plays Emily Taylor. She is married to Martin (Channing Tatum) who, as we open on their story is being released from prison for insider trading. Martin’s arrest sent Emily’s life into a wicked spiral of depression, which is understandable as her life was ripped away from her, but he is out now and they move forward. Only it is clear Emily is not over her depression, and she begins acting out. She causes an accident in her car and is sent to the hospital where she meets a psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks, played with reserve by a purposefully less engaging Jude Law.

Dr. Banks seems like a compassionate and good man, and he wants to help Emily. He is married with a stepson and a growing practice in Manhattan. “Did you try and hurt yourself today?” he asks, with genuine concern. Emily is released from the hospital but promises to have weekly sessions with Banks so he can try to cure her of her depression. Banks consults Emily’s former psychiatrist, Dr. Siebert, played by Catherine Zeta- Jones in a solid return to form in a smaller role. Banks prescribes Emily some medication which works sometimes and doesn’t work others. She asks not to be on Zoloft anymore, and she wants to try a new drug her friend told her about, Ablixa. Banks obliges and the new drug appears to be having quite the positive reaction for her at first. Ablixa stimulates the mind and blocks out depression. Emily’s sex life with Martin improves and her mood reverses. But it turns out Ablixa has some nasty side effects.

I don’t want to get into much more of the plot because following along is the fun of it all. Even the mention of the slightest substantial development could give something away. Soderbergh doesn’t reveal too much, and he is balanced with his camera work. Every character and scene is shot at an angle, low or high left or right, keeping every character in a suspicious light. He utilizes natural lighting better than any director maybe in the history of cinema, and here is no exception. Soderbergh knows how to frame his actors against lamps and in doorways hidden in shadow. In a film like The Informant it doesn’t make as much sense as it does here, within the walls of a seductive thriller.

That being said, something feels slight about the whole thing. The performances are all quality; it is some of the best work from Jude Law and Zeta- Jones in years. And yet, even the most dangerous aspects of the thriller don’t feel dangerous. The stakes don’t feel as high as they should for everyone involved, and even a character death doesn’t feel as powerful as it should. This is a slick and entertaining thriller, and fun to guess along with as the plot twists and turns, but it’s more gloss really than anything along the lines of Fatal Attraction or even sex, lies, and videotape. Side Effects is most certainly a welcome change this month for moviegoers tired of 80s has-been action stars, lukewarm horrors, and unfunny comedies that have been filling the multiplexes early in 2013. Had it been released during awards season, it would have been buried.


Thursday, February 7, 2013

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Rumble Fish (1983)

Francis Ford Coppola has always been a true innovator, an art-house filmmaker whose art exceeds most directors.  While he is most remembered for his grand epic work in the Godfather films, he has built more of a career on artistic expression, style, and a little bit of insanity along the way.  Apocalypse Now is grand, but haunting and offbeat; there is The Conversation, The Outsiders, and of course Rumble Fish, all leaning more towards the small art-house productions he tries still to this day.  We are nearing the 30th Anniversary of Rumble Fish, arguably Coppola's most expressionistic film, a dreamlike picture that sings like the scattered notes of a jazz song across the screen.  As fresh as it feels today I can't imagine the response back in 1983.  It might be the very definition of "not for everyone," but what films really are?

Rumble Fish stars Matt Dillon as Rusty James, the leader of a ragtag group of street hoods.  Rusty's hoodlum friends include a young Nicolas Cage and Chris Penn, and Vincent Spano.  The others look up to Rusty because he can take care of himself in a gang fight, has energy and charm, and preaches about times when street gangs were alive.  Rusty is a purist who rejects drugs; his idea of street gangs involves honor and history and brotherhood.  He has modeled his life after his older brother, simply called The Motorcycle Boy, played by a young and intense Mickey Rourke.  Rusty deifies him, so it is a tough message for Rusty once The Motorcycle Boy reappears after being in California for two years and tries to talk Rusty out of the gang lifestyle.

When he isn't spending his time wasting time, Rusty has a girlfriend, Patty (Diane Lane), who knows her own angles and a drunk for a father (Dennis Hopper in his signature character type: drunken pops).  But what he has more than anything is angst.  The energy of the film is in the visual aesthetics.  Rumble Fish doesn't bother having any sort of thread to carry throughout the film.  Things happen like fights, break ins, sex, booze, but there is no tangible arch.  Having this isn't always a necessity if you plan on telling your story through stylistic embellishment.  Coppola has a firm grasp on what he is doing here.

Shot in crisp and clean black and white, Rumble Fish then employs almost theatrical techniques like smoke machines, obvious choreography, characters levitating, and a wonderful stream of consciousness for our hero.  One montage early on has Rusty imagining Patty dressed suggestively in various school rooms throughout the day.  I couldn't imagine a better way to show where the mind of a teenager is all day.  Later a fight breaks out, smoke billows furiously, and the flashing of subway lines work like lightning across the action.  The time period is also intentionally vague, giving the film an air of timelessness that may not work in a more direct narrative film.

What is Rumble Fish about?  Well, it is a story about a teenager coming to terms with himself, but the canvas is more important.  The city is nondescript, the characters are fascinating.  I see pieces of West Side Story in Rumble Fish, and then the angles and energy and chances being taken send me to Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing, which came out six years later.  The Last Picture Show carries some of the same weight in its themes.  But that is neither here nor there; Coppola gets great work from such a talented young cast the same way he did in The Outsiders.  I feel like the fans of Fellini and a young Jean-Luc Godard might recognize Rumble Fish as Coppola's foray into the world of these European directors.  It may not be for everyone, but there is nothing wrong with that.