Friday, February 28, 2014

Non-Stop


NON-STOP: Liam Neeson, Julianna Moore, directed by Jaume Collet-Sera (106 min.)

Non-Stop, the latest annual first-quarter action thriller from the always watchable Liam Neeson, isn't the type of movie to waste it's time on character development.  We have a plot to get to.  We meet our hero, Bill Marks (Neeson), pouring some bourbon in his coffee, taking a drink, and touching a picture of his little daughter before leaving his car at an airport parking lot.  That about sums up everything you need to know about Bill, who is a Federal Air Marshal on a flight to London.  He goes through security, carefully sizing up passengers and mentally ranking them on levels of suspicion, and helps coach a little girl flying solo onto the plane.  A scattered woman named Jen (Julianne Moore) sits down next to him.  Lights go down, people fall asleep.  And then, Bill gets a series of curious texts on his phone, informing him that unless $150 million is deposited into a certain account number, someone on the plane will die every twenty minutes.

Bill is immediately suspicious, and begins to quietly investigate although Jen seated next to him suspects something is happening.  Then, people begin dying, but not in the way one would expect.  One of the more creative ways is the way passengers begin dropping while simultaneously making it seem like Bill is responsible.  He communicates with his superiors on the ground who inform him the account number in the text is actually in his name.  I won't go into mechanics because that is all Non-Stop is about, the machinations of plot and mystery.  From the beginning the camera makes certain passengers a priority, and they reappear throughout as Bill's investigation gets more desperate.

There are whisperings, and nervous chatter among the flight attendants, and then Bill must address the passengers directly to try and find out who is behind these texts.  He grows more and more paranoid with everyone around him, including Jen, and suspects come and go as the camera and the story desires.  There are clever twists and turns within the machine that is Non-Stop, until the third act kicks into gear and the action and desperation hits eleven.  The guilty parties are revealed and suffer a bad case of the "talking killer syndrome" where they explain their entire list of motives instead of simply killing the hero.  The climax is wild and exciting, but completely ridiculous if you sit back and think about it.  But that's the thing, this isn't a film to think about; just take a deep breath and enjoy the ride.

All sorts of issues with logic come into play.  Once Bill's investigative techniques with certain passengers is sent to a news outlet on the ground via video phone, he is branded a Marshal-turned-terrorist and his alcoholism is laid out by reporters.  With such an unstable past, doesn't it seem strange Bill would get a job as an Air Marshal in the first place?  On top of that, this is the type of thriller where the killers/bad guys seem to be so many steps ahead of everyone else they should be tested for mental telepathy.  One specific plot point seems plausible only if the baddies had access to the plane before they even boarded, which is impossible in my book.  But despite all of that I kept telling myself "so what?  I'm enjoying myself here."

Neeson seems to pump out one of these action films in January or February every year, the best one of the bunch being The Grey (yes, better than Taken).  I like the idea of Neeson delivering some popcorn thrills in what is typically a flat and uninspired time of year for movies.  Non-Stop isn't one of the best of that small sample but it is certainly better than the drab and watered down Unknown.  Logical flaws aside, logical flaws stacked in a big, massive heap, this is a fine picture thanks in no small part to the dedication of Neeson to keep us entertained.

B-

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Harold Ramis: My Five Favorite Works


HAROLD RAMIS 1944 - 2014

A few weeks ago the world lost a brilliant and serious talent in Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Now, the world has lost one of the most brilliant comedic writers, directors, and actors of a generation where we saw comedy evolve into much more daring and, ultimately, classic films.  Harold Ramis was a man sometimes in front of the camera, but made his mark on comedy even more behind the camera, and in front of the typewriter.  Producer, director, writer, Harold Ramis died Monday due to complications from a rare blood disorder at the age of 69.  And there is no doubt he left his mark on the world, and left us all with plenty of laughter to carry on.

Everyone has a Ramis favorite, and it seems like everyone has a dark horse film that he played a part in that they liked more than most.  His reach stretched so far and touched so many lives in the comedy world, picking five of my favorites was certainly a tough task.  But here goes nothing...

5) Animal House (Writer) - Ramis, along with Douglas Kenney and Chris Miller, would write the ultimate college comedy in Animal House, a staple for each and every college student, a right of passage for fraternity kids.  John Landis directed, and Ramis' words still influence college comedies today.

4) Multiplicity (Director, Producer) - Multiplicity is arguably the most underrated, under appreciated comedy of the 90s, a wonderful physical comedy, a witty tale, complete with sharp commentary on the busy lives of all of us.

3) Groundhog Day (Director, Writer) - Twenty years ago, the term "Groundhog Day" was not a common metaphor for the day that will never end.  Thanks to the writing and directing of Ramis, and the performance from his lifelong friend Bill Murray, Groundhog Day transcended the silver screen to become a term used on a daily basis.

2) Ghostbusters (Writer, Actor) - Ramis worked with Dan Aykroyd and Rick Moranis to create one of the most iconic pictures of the 80s, a pop culture staple.  Ramis would step in front of the camera to play Egon, the no nonsense straight man to an array of funny men.  Ghostbusters is a legendary film, and its unfortunate the fabled third entry may never happen now.

1) Caddyshack (Director, Writer) - Caddyshack is arguably the most legendary comedy of all time, a consistently amusing, sometimes hilarious, occasionally gut busting satire of the rich golfers and the poor golf course workers.  Such a biting commentary of a die area of social types deserved a brilliant screenplay and wonderful actors.

I don't feel much conviction with my choices in this list, because as I am typing these out other works of Harold Ramis spring to mind.  That's the strength of his comedy and the breadth of his influence.  There is Analyze This, which is sharp and memorable, Stripes where Ramis starred, and his later pictures like The Ice Harvest and Bedazzled are sorely underrated.  And let's not dismiss Ghostbusters 2 as a sequel that failed; it may not have hit the mark compared to the first one, but it is assuredly a solid sequel.

Anyone who's familiar with American comedy films in the least has spent some time with the work of Harold Ramis.  That is a broad scope and an impressive reach for one man, who has most definitely made his mark on Hollywood, and helped redefined comedy for a generation.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Robocop


ROBOCOP: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, directed by Jose Padilha (108 min.)

I've learned to give up the fight against the remake.  Remakes, or re-"imaginings" of old, classic films of our youth are going to happen, no matter how high you or I might stand or how loudly we may shout.  Hollywood is a business, and they are selling brands, so to resist remakes is to push that boulder up the hill and never make it to the top.  That being said, would it kill these remakes to come with a little imagination, or a little energy, or maybe just an ounce of noticeable effort?  Where my eyes glaze over is when I watch a dull and lifeless remake of a far superior film.  The most recent version of Total Recall springs to mind, an unmitigated disaster of a remake.  The film had no heart and no soul and didn't try, hoping that super-duper CGI and loud noises would mask its inferiorities.  No such luck.

Remakes are almost never comparable to their predecessor, and most are just plain bad films from top to bottom.  I took all of these feelings in with me to see Robocop, the new version of a classic piece of 80s science fiction, which was full of wit and biting satire and gore and brutality.  I set the bar low from the start, then the PG-13 rating dropped said bar even lower.  But a funny thing started to happen to me early on in Robocop: I started actually watching this version.  So many times heading into these remakes it's easy to sit and scoff and compare each and every little thing to the original, because then it's easy to label this new version as inferior.  I was all ready to hold this version of Robocop right up next to the 1987 film and tear it to pieces, but director Jose Padilha and his cast would not allow it.

The story in its essence is still there.  Joel Kinnaman, taking over for Peter Weller, plays Alex Murphy. This time around, Murphy is not a greenhorn cop but a capable undercover detective working to bring down some organized crime in this futuristic Detroit.  One night he is nearly killed outside his home when a bomb explodes on his car, and his remains are offered up to a corporate machine looking to implement new robotic technology into the Detroit police force.

The Corporation, Omnicorp, is headed by a megalomaniac in training, Raymond Sellars, played with some verve by the criminally underemployed Michael Keaton.  Sellars wants to borrow from the robotic technology the American military has been using overseas to build a brand of new crime fighter the American people can get behind.  One could almost see a political run behind Sellars' motivations here.  Sellars is meeting resistance from a bureaucrat whose anti-robot stance is backed by a bill in Congress.  Sellars sees Murphy in the suit as a loophole, so he employs - or, maybe, twists the arm - of Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman) to build a robot suit around the remnants of Murphy.  His brain and head, his lungs, and his hand survived the blast, and they are encased in a hi-tech new version of the Robocop suit of armor.  It is slick and, most of all, not distracting in its differences from the original.  

Enough about the suit and the mechanics of the plot and so forth, what I admire more than anything about this new version of Robocop is, I think, the effort of everyone involved.  This is not a sleepwalking exercise or a cash grab by any means.  Real ideas are at work here, and I admire Padilha, the actors, and the writing team for giving it a shot.  Keaton is clearly having fun, and Oldman is solid as the soul of a film that could have easily had none.  This time around, we get much more of Murphy's family, his son and his wife played by Abbie Cornish.  There is also an interesting continual bit concerning Murphy's brain, his emotions, and his cognitive awareness throughout.  Rather than having the slate wiped clean from the get go, Murphy has to face the fact he is no longer truly human.  He will no longer be a normal father or husband.  While the satirical bite of the first film is mostly absent, Samuel L. Jackson has a recurring role as a television political analyst that heightens the geopolitical and corporate evildoer subtext of the picture.

Listen to that, talking about geopolitics and subtext while talking about a remake of Robocop!  I never would have thought such a thing.  Things aren't perfect by any means, mainly concerning the muddled and rather lukewarm presence of villains all the way through.  There is no big bad street criminal for Robo to fight.  Most of his police work is glossed over too.  But things aren't overwhelmed by a full-on CGI assault on the senses.  The effects are tasteful and used only when they need to be, allowing the viewer to take in the fact that they are seeing actual places and things rather than all green screens.

Maybe it was because my bar was set so low that I came out of Robocop with a nice feeling, but I don't think so.  There is a nice film and a competent remake here.  It isn't some sort of instant classic, and it won't have the pop culture personality of the original in twenty years, but I doubt anyone involved expected it to be.  They went in with the right attitude, and their energy in front of and behind the camera elevates what could have been a disaster to a pleasant February entertainment.  One of the best compliments these reboots can ask for is that the audience stopped thinking about the original somewhere along the way.  I definitely did early on in this new Robocop.  If remakes would try at least this much, they wouldn't be so unbearable for the most part.

B

Monday, February 10, 2014

TV Timeout: Why True Detective is Changing the Game Even More


I can only think of one other time where I deviated my content from the silver screen to turn attention to the happenings on television.  It was the early days of Breaking Bad when, after only a few episodes, I could see the sea change at hand, where smart television shows were shaping into extended films.  Breaking Bad mixed the small screen with the big better than anyone before, intensifying the drama, the human connection, and the cinematography of cinematic storytelling we have all seen in some of the best films of all time.  I say all of that to say this: HBO has landed on something as special and as unforgettable as Breaking Bad, their best show since The Sopranos.  It is True Detective, and while it exists on a network that is always ahead of the curve, last night's episode, number 4 of 8 of this first season, completely changed the game.

Let's slow down for a bit to unfold True Detective for those curious masses out there.  True Detective is unconventional in the fact that it is an anthology series.  This means that next season, there will be a new cast and a new set of circumstances.  We have seen this happen before in American Horror Story, only American Horror Story wishes it had compelling writing and fascinating characters like True Detective.  This debut season stars Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as Martin Hart and Rusty Chole, two detectives with wildly different backgrounds.  Harrelson's Hart is a family man with a wife and small children, though his friendliness with the bottle and the women have already begun to unravel his world.  McConaughey's Chole, on the other hand, is a much less transparent, much more complex character.

There is a murder which sets the plot in motion, an elaborate and satanic murder.  The murder occurs in 1996, and the series is framed by an interrogation of both Hart and Chole in the present day, in separate rooms at different times.  The framing of the series felt like a gimmick early on, but as we learn about these characters this season, things feel less and less like a gimmick.  In 1996, Hart is a company cop who can't keep his personal life in order, while Chole is detailed, disciplined, and working every minute to keep certain demons at bay.  One of the first and most effective skills of the story is its ability to set a stage, then flip everything.  Early on, McConaughey's character seems difficult and unapproachable, a hardnosed detective obsessed with his work and virtually unlikeable.  Harrelson's character comes across as a loving man who works hard in his job and has little patience for such an inaccessible person as Chole.

Then the tables begin to turn.  By the time episode four began last night, the tables had completely turned for me regarding the perception of these two men.  Through the first three episodes we have learned about both Chole and Hart.  We have learned about Chole's lost family, his dead child, and his ex-wife.  But there is still a mysterious edge to his police work.  Regarding Hart, we have discovered his alcoholism, his infidelity, as he has digressed into a more pathetic and less noble character.  It's almost as if the perception of these characters had flipped, with Chole blossoming into the more likable of the duo.  As the partners close in on their murder suspect, a very disturbing murderer to be sure, their personal lives seem to be heading in different directions. 

All the while there is the present-day narrative, still loaded with mystery.  We see Chole in the present day as a shell of a man with long hair and ragged skin, drinking Lone Star beer and mowing down cigarettes one after another.  Meanwhile, Hart's interrogation (with the same officers) shows Hart as a man who is put together.  Wearing a suit and tie, well kempt, Hart is the very opposite of what he has become in 1996.  The direction of the detectives interrogating both Hart and Chole are still a mystery, yet we are getting closer to understanding the deep and dark issues which drive said interrogations.

Which leads me to last night, where True Detective took on a new face and a new skin.  This is cinematic storytelling with the advantage of working with eight hours.  Without getting into too many details, Chole has decided to travel back into his old life and his old problems in order to infiltrate a biker gang to catch the murderer.  That is all I will say regarding plot, but what takes center stage in the final moments of True Detective is the cinematography.  There is a final climactic scene of episode four which becomes a six-minute uninterrupted shot.  Some of the greats have pulled off uninterrupted scenes in their greatest films.  We all remember Scorsese's shot in Goodfellas through the back of the Copacabana.  Alfonso Cuaron directed a fantastic extended shot beyond ten minutes in his Sci-fi masterpiece Children of Men.  This final moment in episode four of True Detective rivals both.  I know this is a bold statement, but anyone who takes the time to watch episode four will agree.  It is a scene you must see more than once to see everything, and to truly appreciate the craftsmanship at work.

I know I have skipped over so many wonderful elements of True Detective for the sake of time and space, including the great Michelle Monghan as Hart's wife, Maggie.  It isn't a new notion that television shows have taken cinematic cues, but here is a series which sharpens their skills better than any series before.  Yes, better than any series.  There are intricacies and idiosyncrasies of the series and the script that heighten each and every scene throughout, and there is no denying the power of True Detective.  It is a shame there are only four more episodes this year, and if they plan on changing characters and narratives next season, I suggest the powers that be bear down and work hard to match the incredible intensity of this debut.

Stay tuned for an episode breakdown from here on out...           

Thursday, February 6, 2014

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Capote (2005)

After the events of this weekend, I felt it was no better time to revisit Philip Seymour Hoffman's Oscar winning performance as Truman Capote in Bennett Miller's Capote.  It had been just over eight years since seeing the film in theaters, and I remembered very little.  I do remember being captivated by Hoffman's turn as the infamous American author, though underwhelmed by the film overall.  But a lot can happen to a person in eight years, and given the tragic and untimely death of Hoffman Sunday, there would be no better time to go back and watch Hoffman and, more importantly, watch the film surrounding him.

We meet Hoffman, as Truman Capote, one night in the typical bourgeoisie Manhattan dinner parties.  Capote is already famous, having placed himself in the limelight with his novel turned famous film, Breakfast at Tiffany's.  Hoffman absolutely becomes Capote from the get go, with the slick hair, the frail frame, and of course the fragile and effeminate voice.  It seemed impossible at the outset not to picture Hoffman in the role, but before long I almost forgot the reason for watching the film.

One morning in mid November, 1959, Truman catches an article in the newspaper about a murder in a small Kansas town, four people gunned down in their farmhouse.  Immediately, he decides his next book will be about the murders and the affect they had on this sleepy Midwestern villa.  He decides to visit the Kansas town with his friend and writing partner, Harper Lee (Katherine Keener), who was just about to hit the big time with her publication of To Kill a Mockingbird.  This Kansas town is unsettled, upset, a Norman Rockwell painting that is splitting at the seams.  The Sheriff in town, Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), is too upset by the murders.  Capote, on the other hand, is fascinated by the case and its impact on the town.  But when the murder suspects are caught, it is clear Capote's direction changes.

Two drifters, Perry Smith and Roy Church, are arrested and ultimately convicted of the crime.  Capote takes an immediate liking to Smith, for what reason we aren't sure at first.  But throughout the second and third acts of the film, Capote develops a relationship that goes beyond simple understanding to sympathy and acceptance.  Truman realizes the story he has on his hands and begins the journey from article to novel.  The end result would become In Cold Blood, the best non-fiction novel ever written.  What is so amazing is the notion that Capote knew it would be from e first word he typed.  The relationship Truman forges with Perry Smith is the focal point of the picture.  As Perry nears his ultimate fate, he and Capote become closer and begin to understand one another on a much more complex level.  There is attraction, sure, but there is also a kindred spirit between the two.  "It's like we were raised in the same house," Capote tells Harper Lee, "only I went out the front door and he went out the back."

Overall, Capote is a film which requires great patience and attention.  It is detailed, only not riddled with detail on the screen.  The art direction and sense of time and place are wonderful, but this is an actor's film.  The nuance of the film lies within the words of Hoffman, who disappears behind Truman Capote.  I don't think Capote is any sort of revelatory picture from top to bottom, but I do understand the powerful performance Hoffman delivers.  His ability to shed the gruff and unkempt persona he carried with him in so many roles is fascinating.  The voice is something to marvel, a great feat of physical acting, but the power of his performance is the way he can use this cartoonish voice to his advantage.  Never once does it feel satirical, or false.  It always rings true, which is the case with each and every Hoffman performance out there.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman: Sadness, Anger, and Five Wonderful Roles



PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN (1967-2014)

Some actors are movie stars, able to bank billion dollar films in a single bound.  Some are character actors, people we see and immediately recognize, though we cannot quite think of their name.  They bring comfort to us in films.  And then there are those actors who exist in between the vast chasm of anonymity and international superstardom, actors who so deftly perform in films both large and small.  This is where you would find Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the most brilliant, diverse actors of this generation, a man who could make us laugh, cry, wince, and who could captivate us in his roles, regardless of the film surrounding him.  Hoffman's mere presence in a picture would elevate the status of the movie for most.  Whatever his next role was going to be, you can bet I was anticipating the film.  And I wasn't alone.

Sunday morning, Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his Greenwich Village apartment, lying on the bathroom floor with a needle still in his arm and remnants of heroin on the floor beside him.  He was 46, and left three young children behind.  This description is curt and, I know, a little too direct for many people.  But I am angry today.  This is not the first artist to leave us too soon and it most certainly will not be the last.  Actors, musicians, artists, authors, all avenues of creative geniuses have either chosen to exit this earth too soon, or have done so mistakenly through poor life choices.  Hoffman had battled drug addiction for what seemed to be the majority of his life, coming forward a few years ago to say he still had issues with heroin.  I understand it is a crippling addiction, and I also understand that so many creative masterminds have created and been inspired while in the throes of a high.  But it does not change the fact that I am angry today.

I had seen Philip Seymour Hoffman act for many years before I even noticed him.  He was George the smarmy rich kid in Scent of a Woman, he was a charming schlub in Twister, and he appeared in films like Nobody's Fool, The Getaway, and Money for Nothing.  I had seen all those films, but I didn't pay attention to Hoffman's role in particular.  His breakout role came in the breakout film of Paul Thomas Anderson's career, Boogie Nights.  As Scotty, the gay, insecure loser of the 70s porn scene depicted in Anderson's fantastic film, Hoffman finally stood out and showed the sort of raw emotional power he could bring to a role.  This performance would allow Hoffman to corner the market on sad losers in films, as he would further show in films like the unsettling Happiness, Owning Mahoney, and Love Liza where he played a sad sack addicted to huffing gas. 

Only Hoffman was not simply a type.  In between playing lovable (and not so lovable) losers, Hoffman would further diversify as an actor.  His role as Brandt in The Big Lebowski was small but hilarious, as was his performance in Almost Famous as Lester Bangs, the editor of Cream magazine.  Hoffman would also star in Paul Thomas Anderson's next two films after Boogie Nights.  In Magnolia, Hoffman delivered such a touching performance as a desperate nurse trying to grant one last wish for his in-home patient, Earl Partridge (Jason Robards).  And in Punch Drunk Love, Hoffman once again channeled his comedic side as a sleazy mattress-store owner who ran a phone sex agency on the side.  I could go on and on about Hoffman's career and the marvelous films he helped create, but surely we all know the power of his artistry.

In 2005 Hoffman won his first and only Oscar, playing Truman Capote in Capote.  While the film is stilted and at times slow moving, Hoffman's performance in undeniable.  And then, wouldn't you know it, Hoffman followed up his Oscar winning artistic, indie performance by playing the baddie in Mission: Impossible III.  His performance is still the best villain of the entire franchise.  Hoffman would continue to flourish over the next seven years before his body was discovered yesterday morning, a sad sack lying lifeless on the bathroom floor.  It is such a shame when these things happen, and what is so maddening and what makes me so angry is that this type of thing could have been avoided.  Hoffman was clearly an intelligent man, a genius in his craft, and the fact that he could not shake such a nasty and dangerous habit points not to stupidity, but to selfishness and a narrow-minded outlook. 

I am mad at Hoffman because he was only 46, and he had three children under the age of eleven, and he had so many more opportunities to create and share his wonderful talents with the world.  And I am sad that we all lost such an amazing artist who should have had another thirty or forty years to spend entertaining us and watching his children grow.  I feel for his family, and I cannot imagine such a tragic end to someone so close to me.  Hoffman redefined acting so many times throughout his illustrious career, and should have had the opportunity to continue defining had he not been so shortsighted.  And what may be more upsetting than anything is the fact that this will certainly not be the last genius to leave this earth too soon.

The following five performances stand out in Hoffman's career, if that is even possible.  Narrowing his great roles down to five seems absurd, and maybe tomorrow this list will change.  But upon hearing of his death, these were the five roles that first sprang to mind...

5) Scotty in Boogie Nights - I touched on this earlier as Hoffman's breakout role.  Scotty is insecure, he wants to fit in, and he is madly in love with Dirk Diggler.  What a sad human being, and what a touching and sometimes uncomfortably amusing performance by Hoffman, who would carry this memorable performance with him into many more roles as the sad sack.

4) Phil Parma in Magnolia - Hoffman owed so much of his early career to Paul Thomas Anderson, who managed to place him in the perfect roles.  Phil Parma is arguably one of maybe two characters (John C. Reilly being the other) in Magnolia whose heart is pure and who does the right thing.  His desperate pleas as he tries to get his dying patient's son on the phone are some of the most emotionally moments in a highly emotional picture.

3) Andy in Before The Devil Knows You're Dead - This is a relatively unseen film, the last of the great Sidney Lumet, full of brilliant performances.  And Hoffman's turn as a drug-addicted financial manager for a Manhattan firm hits a little too close to home on this day.  Perhaps it was his knowledge of this man and his addictions that made his performance so wonderful.

2) Lancaster Dodd in The Master - A mysterious man in a mysterious film, Hoffman's final collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson is a stunner.  As Lancaster Dodd, the creator of a religion, Hoffman's budding friendship with Joaquin Phoenix's Freddie Quell is the heart of the picture.

1) Truman Capote in Capote - While it is not my favorite film of Hoffman's, his portrayal of Truman Capote is absolutely spot on.