Friday, December 27, 2013

ARE THE OSCARS STILL RELEVANT?



I often have a cynical take on the annual Academy Awards broadcast, finding myself comparing it to the super bowl: both have absurd amounts of hype and analysis, culminating in a broadcast that goes on for far too long, has lousy musical numbers at the half way point, and tries to wring suspense out of which extremely well paid group of people will beat out another extremely well paid group of people.  Really, do we need to heap even more fame and adulation on movie stars who already are wallowing in it?
And yet, if you think that cinema is an art form with an enormous potential to entertain and enlighten, as I do, then the idea of the Oscars is not a bad one.  For most of the year, coverage of movies in the media is all about which films are making money and which ones aren't, with movies being seen more as a product than an art form. But the Oscars at least allows Hollywood, for one night a year, to admit that while movie making is a money driven business like any other, it is also about creating art.  Even with the reality of studios aggressively marketing for nominations, there is still a sense that the awards are about praising the best movies, even if they don't make a lot of money.  When SHINDLER'S LIST won best picture in 1993, for example, it made less money at the box office than movies like MRS DOUBTFIRE and THE PELICAN BRIEF, but it's a film that will be looked back on decades later while those lesser films are long forgotten, so it's victory was perfectly logical.  And more importantly, Oscar glory can shine attention on unknown films and make them more popular, leading to Hollywood having more incentive to make films like those.  I remember that back in 1996 there was some surprise that four out of the five best picture nominations were independent movies (THE ENGLISH PATIENT, SECRETS AND LIES, SHINE, FARGO) with only one big budget star vehicle represented (JERRY MAGUIRE), but I say, so what?  If independently produced films, (with their smaller budgets and more challenging stories) were making better films than the big studios that year, (and I think they were) isn't it right for the Academy to represent that?  And putting it simply, if it weren't for the Oscars, the big studios would almost never make interesting and challenging films at all.  Why?  It's simply a question of changing audience demographics.
To fully understand this, it's best to go back to the beginning; when the Academy was first formed way back in 1927, movies were a popular but much maligned art form, with many people looking down on them or seeing them as indecent.  By rewarding what they felt were the best films of the year, Hollywood hoped to make movies more acceptable.  This explains why many best picture winners from the 1930's, (like say, 1937's THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA or 1933's CAVALCADE)   are forgotten today; they were seen as "important" and "relevant" at the time, the kind of movies that Hollywood felt it should be making, but they seem dull and stuffy now.  Meanwhile, more enduring films from that era that were also popular in their day, like 1933's KING KONG, 1931's FRANKENSTEIN, or  the Astaire Rogers films, were never given best picture awards, and they were rarely even nominated.  But, with the enforcement of the movie production code, which limited what could and could not be shown on screen, and the growing acceptance of films as a respectable art form, the Academy started awarding more popular entertainments, culminating in 1939's  enormously successful GONE WITH THE WIND also winning best picture.


Admit it, you're probably drawing a blank on these two

For years after that the Academy would often reward financially successful films with Oscar glory; discerning between "art" and "popularity" wasn't necessary.  But that all began to change in the 1950's with the rise of television.  It's hard to believe today, but TV was once seen as the enemy of Hollywood, so much so that some believed that movies themselves would die out.  The studios responded to the challenge by  luring audiences with gimmicks like 3-D and Cinemascope.  But something else happened; Hollywood discovered that while parents were more likely to stay home and watch TV at night, their teenage sons and daughters were more likely to go out to see movies on dates.  That meant that for the first time ever, films could be made explicitly for the teenage audience and still make money.  For years, few films were ever made about teenagers, and those that were, (like the Mickey Rooney starring ANDY HARDY movies) made sure that the parents in the film were wise  and thoughtful and that the teens were, at worst, misguided, and not severely troubled. That all changed in the 50's; now James Dean in 1955's REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE could get involved in actual crimes (like knife fights), while his ineffectual parents were now part of the problem instead of the solution.  The rise of rock and roll added to wave of films that catered to younger audiences, and not surprisingly,  the older Oscar voters began to reward films that were clearly for grown ups and not necessarily box office hits. While a best picture win could certainly give a boost to a film's box office, films that were already popular before the awards were often ignored.
That trend continues to this day, and may even be more dramatic now; the simple fact of the matter is that the demographic who go to the most movies in the theater today are young men and teenage boys, so, generally speaking, most mainstream films need to play to their interests.  And, in my opinion, young men and teenage boys usually have pretty lousy taste, preferring loud, dumb special effect movies where lots of things go boom, or loud, dumb comedies where grown men act like obnoxious bratty children.  I'm not saying I hate all mainstream films (for a while there, the Pixar studio showed that a film could have broad appeal, box office success, and still be excellent), it's just that the pattern  recently has been that for the first ten months of the year, Hollywood tends to release mostly dire mainstream movies, followed by two months of Oscar contenders rolling into theaters like a breath of fresh air, welcoming audiences interested in something more original or challenging.  Without the Oscars, it's likely that the only kind of movies that get made are ones for that young adult male audience who flock to see the TRANSFORMERS movies, and that would really be a shame.  So, I guess what I'm saying is that I'll take the Oscar broadcast, as long and overblown as it is, as long as I get to see films like 12 YEARS A SLAVE.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

ARGO (2012)


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ARGO (DIR: BEN AFFLECK) (SCR: CHRIS TERRIO, BASED ON A SECTION OF "THE MASTER OF DISGUISE" BY TONY MENDEZ AND THE WIRED MAGAZINE ARTICLE "THE GREAT ESCAPE" BY JOSHUAH BEARMAN)

The 2012 Oscar nominees had some of the most controversial choices in it's history; of the ten films nominated, three were historical films (Steven Spielberg's LINCOLN, Ben Affleck's ARGO and Kathryn Bigelow's ZERO DARK THIRTY) that were all criticized for inaccuracies, and the latter two of those films delved into the confrontational modern relationship between the US and the Middle East, which inevitably led to even more condemnation.  The most uproar was directed  at  ZERO DARK THIRTY, which portrayed the US military's hunting and killing of Terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden as an exciting thriller, but that also appeared to imply that that that search for Bin Laden was aided by the torture of terrorist suspects, a highly disputed point.  The anger at the film's portrayal of "enhanced interrogation techniques" even spilled over to the halls of congress.  Therefore, on the night of the Oscar broadcast, there was more than a little tension.  Would the Academy embrace such a divisive film?  At first, it appeared that ARGO and ZERO DARK THIRTY may have split the vote, allowing Ang Lee's far less incendiary  LIFE OF PI to possibly sneak in.   When Lee's film won Oscars for  its score, special effects and cinematography, followed by Lee himself best winning for best director, (his second win) it certainly seemed a possibility.  But, instead the award went to ARGO, the less controversial of the two films.  It's victory was really understandable; while Bigelow's film dealt with recent history, ARGO's late 1970's setting allowed for more perspective, and therefore its harsh look at Iran could be seen as criticism from a distance.  More importantly,  Affleck's film is just a really good, entertaining movie, with not only effectively done period settings and plenty of tension, but surprising amounts of humor, throw in some nice satire of Hollywood producers that the Academy could surely identify with, and its victory seemed more and more likely.  It's also a nice comeback success story for its director and star Ben Affleck, who, after winning a best original screenplay award for GOOD WILL HUNTING in 1997, had drifted into lackluster roles and tabloid controversy, before returning as a surprisingly effective director with 2007's GONE BABY GONE.

The film's story began when, in 2007, writer Joshuah Bearman wrote an article called "The Great Escape" for WIRED magazine, based on just declassified documents about a CIA operation to rescue American hostages trapped in Iran in 1979 after that country's revolution. Producers David Klawans, George Clooney and Grant Heslov bought the rights to the story, and in 2011 Affleck was brought on to direct, co produce and star in the film as CIA agent Tony Mendez.  Filming was accomplished quickly, with Istanbul standing in for Iran and the scenes at CIA headquarters shot on location in Washington DC.  Considering the films time period, Affleck consciously tried to capture the look of a 1970's film, even going so far as to blow up the film to increase its graininess. With strong reviews and word of mouth, the $44,000,000 film returned $136,000,000 in the US.

John Goodman, Alan Arkin, & Ben Affleck


Starting in 1979, it begins with the overthrow of the Iranian government and the taking of American diplomats as hostages.  Six of them manage to escape to the Canadian embassy, but it appears its only a matter of time before the Iranian government discovers where they are.  At the CIA, agent Tony Mendez (Affleck), comes up with the idea of creating a fake Hollywood movie that would send producers and crew members to Iran to pretend to be scouting locations.  Working with Hollywood producer Lester Seigel (Alan Arkin), Mendez travels to Iran, and after many moments of tension, he and his fake crew manage to bluff their way back into the US.

Other than attempting to capture the look of a 70's movie, Affleck directoral style here is straightforward and no nonsense; never flashy, he trusts that the tense story and the fine performances should always be at the forefront of the film, and he's right.  The editing together of authentic news reel footage with new scenes is seamless and effective, and I also like the constant usage of real TV news broadcasts from that era to show just how heavy the hostage crisis loomed over the country.  Director Affleck is also good at changing the film's tone when CIA agent Tony goes to Hollywood and seeks the help of makeup artist John Chambers (based on a real person, who did the makeup for the original PLANET OF THE APES movies, played by John Goodman) and movie producer Lester Seigel (made up for the movie) and the film becomes very funny, signaled by seeing Goodman's character at work on a loving recreation of a "b" sci-fi movie set complete with cheesy monster. All of the Hollywood scenes are great fun, and both Goodman and Arkin seem to having a ball playing brash, profane, wise cracking men who sign on to make a fake movie partly out of patriotic duty and partly for a lark.  The funniest moment comes when, in a delightful in joke, cynical makeup man John tells director Affleck's character,  "You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day."

But despite the good humor, the film never lets us forget that it's all in service to a deadly serious (and very risky) plan, and once Tony travels to Iran, the tension never lets up.  There's a marvelous scene in which Tony has to take the six diplomats with him to pretend to scout locations, and they are forced to slowly drive thorough a loud protest that could turn violent at any moment; even if you know how the film ends, it's a chilling moment.  And many other moments in the film are just as pulse pounding, from the children slowly piecing together shredded pictures of the ambassadors that could give them away, to the casual but threatening tone of the soldiers at the airport, the film is an excellent example of how the constant threat of violence can be more suspenseful in a movie than actual acts of violence.

Affleck's lead performance in the film mirrors his no nonsense style of direction; his character is a tight lipped professional who has to wear a poker face through much of the film.  He knows that the audience will immediately admire his character  for so willingly putting his own life on the line to save others, so he doesn't have to play for sympathy. And even in the scenes with his family, Affleck thankfully avoids maudlin sentiment.  That goes for the rest of the cast, who, (except for the funny mugging of Goodman and Arkin) play characters who accept the seriousness of their situation with stoic realism, from the endangered ambassadors to Bryan Cranston's tough CIA chief Jack O'Donnell.

Except for one faithful maid, all of the Iranian characters in the film are portrayed negatively; while that is perhaps to be expected given the nature of the story, it still may have been nice to see some people in Iran who aren't threatening.  However, to the film's credit, the CIA's direct involvement in the overthrow of democratically elected Iranian leader Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 and the fall out from that overthrow is clearly mentioned at the beginning of the film.

Ben Afflick & Bryan

I've already mentioned that the film has taken some criticism for its inaccuracies; while most of these are just small things done to build up the tension  I do have a small problem with some: for example, the film states that the British and New Zealand embassies turned away the six American diplomats, when in fact they both did provide some help, and former President Jimmy Carter himself, while praising the film, said that he thought the Canadian Embassy should have been given more credit in carrying out the plan.   But I don't think these are fatal flaws.  One problem I do have is that, while I've mentioned how much I enjoy the movie's constant tension, I think it goes too far by having Iranian soldiers literally chasing after the plane with our heroes on it just as it takes off; this is, of course, all Hollywood fiction, and it feels like it.  Not surprisingly, the real diplomats got away with more than mere seconds to spare.  Still, in a film with so many well done suspense scenes, one that milks the tension a little too much is forgivable.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

This is a tough call for me: although I can't find much to fault with ARGO, I think that Ang Lee's LIFE OF PI is just a shade better.  Lee's film manages to be a beautiful looking adventure story while also having an interesting philosophical take on religion.  But ARGO is a fine choice.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

THE ARTIST (2011)


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THE ARTIST (DIR: MICHEL HAZANAVICIUS) (SCR:  MICHEL HAZANAVICIUS)

THE ARTIST was the first (mostly) silent film to win the Best Picture award since the first Academy Award ceremony way back in 1927 picked WINGS; in fact, it was the first silent film to get a wide release at all in America since Mel Brooks's amusing parody SILENT MOVIE in 1976.  Even more unusual is that, despite it's Hollywood setting, it's production began in France, making it the only French film to ever breakthrough to mainstream audiences in America.  And with good reason, THE ARTIST was clearly a labor of love for director Michel Hazanavicius, who put so much work into the film's look and style to make sure it was authentic to the era it was set in.  And while it's not my personal favorite film of 2011, I still find it charming and lovely, with a great score by Ludovic Bource and excellent camera work by Guilliaume Schiffman.
Making an homage to silent Hollywood films had been a dream of Paris born director Hazanavicius for years.  After making two successful spy spoofs (OSS 177: CAIRO, NEST OF SPIES, in 2006, and OSS 177: LOST IN RIO in 2009), he finally was able to get studio interest.  He wrote a screenplay based loosely on the careers of silent film stars like John Gilbert and Douglas Fairbanks, and cast stars Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, both of whom  he had worked with before in his spy movies, to play the leads.  The film was funded by different French studios and shot entirely in Hollywood, with as many authentic historical locations being utilized as possible; even the house that silent star Mary Pickford once lived was used. Hazanavicius made sure during filming to not use any modern camera techniques (like zoom lenses) and even shot the film at a slightly different speed than normal to give the action a more sped up look, like an authentic silent film.  The film was shot in thirty five days at a budget of around $15,000,000; it would go on to make around $45,000,000 in the US alone.
It's story begins in 1927, when silent film idol George Valentine(Dujardin) accidentally bumps into pretty young fan Peppy Miller (Bejo) at a movie premier and then smilingly introduces her to the press.  When Peppy tries to use her sudden celebrity to become a star herself, George himself demands that the studio hire her as an extra.  When sound films start to become popular George dismisses them as a fad and produces his own silent film, which flops, meanwhile Peppy's star keeps rising.  A destitute George auctions off all his possessions, and even considers suicide, but Peppy, who never forgot how he helped make her famous, stops him and demands that the studio cast him as her leading man in a big musical.


Jean Dujardin & Berenice Bejo


For the most part, THE ARTIST is simply a joy to watch, and its affection for old Hollywood films shines through in every frame.  Along with introducing a whole new audience to the joys of silent cinema, it also features in joke references to old movies (both sound and silent) for film buffs.  The use of silent film techniques throughout the film, like irises and superimposed images, is very effective. (I especially like the juxtaposition of superimposed images that flood the screen during Peppy's rise to fame.)   The movie cleverly opens with a showing of George's latest movie, an adventure film that has him being tortured with electrical  bolts (not unlike the kind that brought Frankenstein's monster to life); he responds to the torture by yelling through title card, "I won't talk!", an amusing bit of foreshadowing.  That kind of wit runs through the whole movie, and reaches an apex when George, during a nightmare, suddenly begins to hear all the sounds around him, while he himself is still silent; the scene builds slowly, with the sound of a glass being placed on a counter making a clink noise, to the building of various noises, until it climaxes with a horrified George being laughed at by passing show girls and then hearing a feather land on the ground with a loud bang.   Along with being a fun scene, it nicely summarizes the fear that ran through Hollywood as sound films quickly took over and stars suddenly had to scramble to adjust.  Another nice bit of foreshadowing comes when George's self directed and financed silent movie plays to an almost empty theater and ends with him slowly dying in quicksand!
It's interesting to note that George's similarities to John Gilbert and Douglas Fairbanks is more than a physical resemblance;  Gilbert and Fairbanks were both matinee idols who had trouble adjusting to sound film, and Gilbert's role in the 1933 Greta Garbo starring film QUEEN CRISTINA came because former lover Garbo demanded he be cast, just like Peppy does in THE ARTIST.  Sadly, neither of them made the kind of comeback that George does in the film.

John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks & Jean Dujardin


Jean Dujardin won an Oscar for best actor for his work here, and with his good looks, pencil mustache and immediate charm, it's easy to see why.  He really is the perfect embodiment of those dashing old stars, the kind of man who looks equally at home in a Zorro outfit or a dinner jacket.  And Dujardin's performance and Hazanavicius's script wield his likablity carefully; at first, George Valentin is far from perfect.  He's a glory hound who soaks up applause from an opening night audience alone before introducing his leading lady, and who has a large portrait of himself in his mansion that he waves to; he also clearly is no faithful husband to his long suffering wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller).  But we still see George as a good person, partly because he helps along Peppy's career (I love the detail of him putting a beauty spot on her face to make her distinctive), and also because he has an adorable little dog named Jack that he's very affectionate with (he even takes Jack to a movie at one point!).  So the audience feels for him even as his ego leads him to produce his own silent film, which leads to his financial ruin, and the film's inevitable happy ending is touching now that he's learned a lesson in hubris.
As for Berenice Bejo as the well named Peppy, well, let's just say that it is no surprise that she's director Hazanavicius's wife!  Peppy is almost too good to be true; an absolute doll who gains fame and fortune but never lets it go to her head, and who always admires George and never forgets his helping her even when he's down and out.  Whether she's doing a energetic dance number or sneaking into George's dressing room to hug his coat, Bejo is never less than enchanting.  The rest of the film is also well cast, and I particularly like John Goodman as cigar chomping studio head Al Zimmer, who has a priceless reaction to Peppy blackmailing him into hiring back George.
My main problem with the film is that the story is a little too simple and predictable; at times it feels a bit stretched thin, with later scenes starting to drag and become repetitive.  The fact that George has to be saved from suicide twice (once by little Jack, making like Rin Tin Tin, saving him from a fire he started, and again by Peppy stopping him from shooting himself) shows a certain lack of originality in the filmmaking, and I think a subplot or two could have served the film well.  But I feel hard hearted to be criticizing such a good natured movie that's in love with cinema itself, so I still greatly enjoy the film, and I think it's a good movie to show kids if you want to introduce them to the early days of movies.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

As much as I enjoy this film, it wasn't my favorite of that year.  I think two old masters of filmmaking both did even better work that year: first there's Woody Allen's charming and funny MIDNIGHT IN PARIS and Martin Scorsase's gorgeous and moving HUGO (which, like THE ARTIST, looked back fondly on the early days of filmmaking).  Still, THE ARTIST is definitely not a poor decision by the Academy, and given that both Allen and Scorsase had won for previous films, I can't complain too much.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

THE KING'S SPEECH (2010)



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THE KING'S SPEECH  DIR: TOM HOOPER SCR: DAVID SEIDLER

In 2011 the Academy started the new decade off with a bit of a throwback;  Tom Hooper's THE KING'S SPEECH, is the kind of handsome English period piece that won so many awards back in the 1960's.  Which isn't to say it's a bad film, it's just that it so positively drips with uplift and importance that at times it can be overbearing, and I sometimes find it too stately and too enamored with its English royal characters.  While I think overall it's a fine film, it's not my favorite of that year.

Screenwriter David Seidler first got the idea for the film years earlier; as a child in England, Seidler had a stammer that he eventually overcame, inspired by King George VI's overcoming of his stammer.  Years later, Seidler wanted to turn that king's story into a movie.  In the 1970's and 80's he researched the story, eventually meeting with the king's son and widow.  The widow requested that he not do the story until after her death because it brought back painful memories for her , and he agreed.  She passed in 2002 and he began work on the story again three years later.  Eventually he wrote a script that almost became a play before English director Tom Hooper became interested.  Eventually the English Bedlam Productions studio agreed to finance the film with help from the UK Film Council.  Hugh Grant and Paul Bettany were both considered for the role of the king before Colin Firth, riding high after a netting a best actor nomination for his previous role in A SINGLE MAN, was cast, with the highly respected Helena Bonham Carter signed up to play his wife.  Meanwhile the part of the king's Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue, seemed perfect for well known Australian actor Geoffrey Rush, who was quickly brought in.  Working with a tight budget of around $15,000,000, production designer and set designer Eve Stewart and Judy Farr, along with costume designer Jenny Beavan managed to all do impressive work and help deliver a good looking film, shot entirely in different English locations.  Thanks to strong word of mouth and reviews, the film would go on to gross almost $140,000,000 in the US alone.

Helena Bonham Carter, Colin Firth & Geoffrey Rush

   Beginning in 1925, we see Prince Albert, the Duke of York and the second son of King George V(Firth), stammer his way painfully through a speech heard around the world.  His wife Elizabeth (Carter) convinces him to see unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue (Rush) who slowly but surely works  with him.  When King George V (Micheal Gambon) dies, Albert's older brother Edward (Guy Pierce) abdicates the throne to marry a twice divorced American, forcing Albert onto the throne.  When war is declared with Germany, Lionel helps Albert give a rousing speech to the whole country.

Considering the formulaic story and often serious tone of the major world events happening in the film, it's a relief that Seidler's script is filled with welcome witty lines for its talented English cast to say.  I love the way that Micheal Gambon's king, remarking on how the royalty are expected to behave,  angrily says "This family is reduced to those lowest, basest of all creatures, we've become actors!".  This reaches a high point when Lionel gets Albert to swear repeatedly to loosen him up, which unfortunately caused this otherwise clean film to get an R rating. It was worth it to show such a funny and bonding moment for Lionel and Albert.
While THE KING'S SPEECH is a number of things, at its heart its a mismatched buddy movie, with the uptight, wealthy English royal Albert forced to work with the lower class, eccentric  Australian Lionel, who refuses to show the Duke the respect he's used to (he calls the Duke "Bertie"!).  Inevitably the two men's differences cause them to clash at first (There's a nice visualization of that as Albert looks so out of place as he sits in front of a worn down wall in Lionel's office), but they eventually learn to trust and respect one another, and Lionel even gets Albert to open up about the abusive nanny he had as a child.  Rush is a delight as the Shakespeare loving, mildly eccentric Lionel, who knows when to praise Albert and when to anger him.  As Albert, Firth won a best Actor award for his work, and he is very good in his ability to make the audience wince every time his stammer acts up, and one can really sense the frustration this obviously intelligent man has in simply being unable to express himself.   And of course his chemistry with  Rush is likable and believable, as are the romantic sparks between him and Helena Bonham Carter, who brings great warmth to the standard role of the supporting wife.  And the film is nicely filled out with good performances from actors like Timothy Spall as a humorous Winston Churchill and Guy Pierce as Albert's selfish brother Edward.

Colin Firth

The film's final scenes are a big build up to the king's first big speech now that war has been declared with Germany, and Hooper loads up the tension, making it seem like Albert approaching a seemingly huge microphone is practically entering a lion's den.  The inevitable power of the speech is shown through a montage of various English people (rich and poor, soldier and servant) listening in; while the images are lovely here,  I can't help thinking that Hooper and Seidler are overselling the speech and heroism of Albert (who is called brave more than once in the film).  Although I can understand that the royalty still meant something to many people in England,  I can't quite say that I agree that one man over coming his stammer can really be put on the same level as soldiers heading off to fight and die, king or not.  I will freely admit that, having grown up in a country without royalty, I sometimes find movies that praise them like this a bit hard to swallow.  People in other countries are free to disagree.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

I've already said that I enjoyed other movies from 2010 more than this one: I think films like THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT, WINTER'S BONE, TOY STORY 3 and my personal favorite, David Fincher's THE SOCIAL NETWORK are all superior.  But THE KING'S SPEECH is a solid and well made film, so it certainly isn't a poor choice.

Monday, August 5, 2013

THE HURT LOCKER (2009)


THE HURT LOCKER(DIR: KATHRYN BIGELOW) (SCR: MARK BOAL)

In 2009 Kathryn Bigelow's war film finally ended the hold male directors had on best picture winning films (Bigelow also won a best director award, another first).  It was also nice to see a low budget independent film winning the award instead of the mega budgeted sci-fi hit AVATAR, which was, ironically enough, directed by James Cameron, Bigelow's ex husband, and who also pushed her into directing THE HURT LOCKER in the first place.
The idea for the film came from reports by journalist Mark Boal, who was embedded with a bomb squad in Iraq during the 2004 invasion. Boal had worked with Bigelow before, and emailed her about his experiences in Iraq often.  A year later she and Boal worked on a script; up until then, Bigelow was known for directing glossy action films like 1991's POINT BREAK, but she wisely went for a more realistic feel for this film.  For the three leads she cast actors that were mostly unknown (Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Garaghty) who all trained with the military before shooting began.  The film was shot in the country of Jordan, just a few miles from the Iraq border, and actual Iraqi refugees were cast to play the various Iraqi characters  in the film.  Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd used multiple hand held cameras often shooting at the same time to catch all the action, and a whopping two hundred hours of film was shot before editing.  Despite the sweltering heat, the film was finished quickly on a budget of around $15,000,000; it's gross in the US would only be slightly higher than that, and in fact, if you adjust for inflation, its the lowest grossing best picture winner ever.  (This may have been due to the film's September release date, long before Oscar nominations could have helped at the box office.)

Set in 2004, THE HURT LOCKER is about three American soldier bomb squad members in Iraq: William James (Renner) the new leader, Sergeant JT Sanborn (Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldrige (Garaghty).  William is brought in to replace the team's original leader (Guy Pierce) who is killed by an explosive in the film's opening scene.  William, a hardened veteran who had perviously served in Afghanistan, has a tendency to take chances, which upsets both of the other men; Sanborn even openly considers killing him with an explosive and making it look like an accident.  Eventually, the men bond and survive several dangerous experiences that harden all of them.  At the end of their tour,  Owen is wounded, and Sanborn admits he can't take the war anymore.  But when William returns home to his wife and son,  he misses the excitement of duty.  At the film's end he returns to Iraq.

Anthony Mackie and Jeremy Renner


Upon the film's release, some actual Iraq war veterans criticized the film's realism, finding various flaws in tactics and character actions.   (Considering that 1978's best picture winner THE DEER HUNTER had many openly surreal scenes involving the Viet Nam war, that probably wasn't a big problem for the Academy).  Having never been near a battlefield in my life, I can't really comment on that, but the fact of the matter is that the film feels real, and that it brings home the Iraq war in ways that news broadcasts and reports can't totally capture.  One of the film's real strengths lies in the almost constant tension that arrises in the many combat scenes; the sense that a gunshot or explosion could come from almost anywhere, and that innocent looking person walking towards you could be trying to kill you.  The jerky camera work and intense performances capture all the difficulty of modern urban warfare.

Although we occasionally hear the soldiers complaining about their situation (Owen Eldrige says at one point "Pretty much the bottom line is, if you're in Iraq, you're dead."), it's obvious that Bigelow and Boal didn't want to make a political film; so there is no conversation of the rightness or wrongness of the Iraq invasion, instead the film just plunges us into the middle of the conflict and shows us the day to day dangers that the American soldiers on the ground were facing.  I think this is the right decision; since the war was still raging while the film was being made, any kind of politicking could have been  outdated by the time of the film's release, so it's better to just show the chaos of the war to the audience and leave the speeches to others.

The Stunning opening bomb blast

Along with showing the violence in Iraq,  the film also looks at the mentality of the natural born soldier.  The film opens with a quote from war correspondent Chris Hedges: "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug."  And the audience understands that addiction through the film's gripping action scenes, which are exciting to us even as we fear for the lives of the characters (the slow motion explosion that opens the film is both horrifying and strangely beautiful). We also understand that addiction through the character of William James, a man who willingly puts himself into dangerous situations, defusing bombs that could  explode any second and pursuing possible enemies into unsafe territory, because he clearly loves the rush of adrenaline.  And he doesn't care how he gets that rush, openly threatening the lives of Owen and Sanborn with his reckless ways.  Even when he engages in some good natured wrestling with Sanborn, it inevitably ends with him going too far and Sanborn pulling a knife on him.  We can almost understand why Sanborn openly considers killing him at one point; such men are dangerous.  Like many addicts, William himself can't seem to understand his own addiction; in one of the film's more powerful moments, Owen rages at William over the fact that his recklessness has resulted in Owen being badly injured.  William's response to Owen's anger is just blank silence, because he knows there is no answer.  And when William briefly returns home to his wife and child, he realizes that he should be satisfied just being around them, but it isn't enough for him;  he has to return to Iraq.  In many ways he is the embodiment of the "real Americans" who "love the sting of battle" that General George S Patton so memorably talked about in the 1970 best picture winner PATTON.

Not everything in the film works: although some scenes with William befriending a local Iraqi kid that he dubs "Beckham" (Christopher Sayegh) are nicely done and show William's more tender side, they lead to an odd series of events.  First, while inspecting a suspicious building, William finds a body that he thinks is Beckham's, which angers him so much that he goes alone and out of uniform in the Iraqi city to try find who's responsible.  In the film's strangest scene, he winds up in a room with an English speaking Iraqi professor(Nabil Koni)  who says he's glad to see him, and assumes he's from the CIA.  But before the two men can talk, the professor's wife comes home and verbally berates William until he leaves and heads back to the base.  The scene seems to be trying to reach some meaning that it doesn't seem to get; even more unusual, William later discovers that the body he saw was not Beckham's, which renders his whole trip into the city pointless.  While I don't think the film needed this whole sequence, it does give the audience a chance to see the city outside of just being a combat zone, with normal Iraqi people going about their business, so on that level they're interesting if not necessary to the film's plot.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

While 2009 gave us a very different (and wildly entertaining) war film with Quentin Tarantino's WWII epic INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, I think that Bigelow's visceral war film was the clear best picture winner of that year.


Sunday, July 28, 2013

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008)


SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (DIR: DANNY BOYLE & LOVELEEN TANDEN) (SCR: SIMON BEAUFOY, BASED ON THE NOVEL Q &A BY VIKAS SWARUP)

The victory for the film SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE was a nice surprise; here was a low budget film, heavily influenced by a foreign film gene most Americans had never heard of (Bollywood)with no Hollywood stars and set in a foreign country that was recused from a direct to DVD release to become a sleeper hit, echoing in many ways the underdog success of the film's hero.  While I prefer certain parts of the film more than others, I still think it ranks as a terrific movie, with a never dull story and good, naturalistic performances from the whole cast.

It's journey to the screen began when the novel Q AND A was published in 2005 by Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup.  A year later screenwriter Simon Beaufoy began to adapt the novel and travelled to India to spend time in the slums and interview the children who lived there.  British film companies Celador Films and Film4 Productions showed the script to English director Danny Boyle, who was excited to work with Beaufoy, having enjoyed his 1997 film THE FULL MONTY. Casting directors were sent to the slums of Indian city Mumbai to find authentic street children to perform in the film, while English born TV actor Dev Patel and model Freida Pinto were hired to play the lead adult roles.  One of the casting directors, Loveleen Tanden, suggested that she translate some of the dialogue in the film into Hindi to add to its authenticity; Boyle agreed, and eventually had Tanden co direct the film with him.  The film was shot entirely on location in Mumbai and other parts of India.  When the film was completed, it eventually came into the possession of  the Warner Brothers studio, who had little faith in the film; after almost releasing it to DVD, the studio made a theatrical distribution deal with FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES.  Thanks to positive word of mouth and strong reviews the movie grew to be a sizable hit, making over $140,000,000 on a budget of only around $15,000,000.



Dev Patel & Freida Pinto


 Set in modern day Mumbai, the film's story is about young Jamal (Patel), a quiz show contestant who is accused of cheating and arrested and interrogated by a police Sergeant and inspector (Saurabh Shukla and Irrfan Khan),  to defend himself, he tells his life story; explaining that he and his brother grew orphan street urchins, and how, as if by fate, he knows the answers to all the questions he's being asked on the quiz show because they happen to be about actual experiences in his life.  Through the flashbacks, we hear how Jamal's brother Salim (Madhu Mattal) has become a gangster, while Latika (Pinto), the love of his life, has been forced into prostitution.  The sergeant belives Jamal and lets him go; he returns to the show, wins, and is reunited with Latika.
Danny Boyle's first became a well known director in 1996 with the highly entertaining cult hit TRAINSPOTTING, and he uses a similar cinematic style in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, one in which he contrasts stark, realistic shots with highly stylized ones that  highlight the emotional states of the characters. So there are many sudden unexpected  shifts in lighting, camera angles or film speed; giving both films an exciting feeling, and an often mesmerizing look.  Combine that with thumping, electronic soundtracks and you have a bracing, distinctly modern look for both films.
The film is well cast; with his broad features and constantly earnest expression Dev Patel is an actor that the audience automatically roots for as Jamal, and it's certainly believable that he would become a media sensation in India.  As for Pinto as his love interest Latika, her main job is look pretty and unattainable, both of which she does well.  I also really enjoy Anil Kapoor as the game show host  Prem Kumar, with his perfect on camera smarm hiding a much darker side.

Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail & Ayush Mahesh Khedakar

But the film's real scene stealing stars are it's charming, funny and engaging child actors. Hiring real slum dwelling kids to basically play versions of themselves works wonderfully, as they are natural performers who impress us with their resilience, intelligence and resourcefulness as they try to survive in a tough, adult world that usually either ignores or exploits them.   I love the way we see little Jamal(Ayush Mahesh Khedakar)  become an inadvertent guide at the Taj Mahal, making up stories as he goes, and I even like the silly gross out scene in which he literally wades through an out house to get a movie star's  autograph.  I like the kids in this movie so much, that I think the film really loses something in the latter parts when they grow up and the story moves away from being a homage to the survivor instincts of children and becomes more of a standard "lovers in danger" story.

There has been some criticism of this film's attitude towards the slum kids, with some Indians feeling that it exaggerated the worst aspects of Indian's impoverished, while others have taken exception with the film's upbeat ending; it is, perhaps, a bit odd that a film that can feature a moment as harrowing as a small child being blinded could end with a classic happy "love conquers all" kind of ending(complete with a great, feel good dance number in a train station).  Speaking as someone who's never been to India, I have to say that the tone of the film doesn't bother me, because, despite the modern locations, this story is essentially a fairy tale, a fact that its many stylized moments makes clear.  Is it, say,  believable that Jamal could possibly track down Latika in a city as big as Mumbai?  Not at all, but in the context of the film, it works.  The movie's theme, stated more than once, is "it is written", implying that Jamal's rise from poor orphan to wealthy celebrity is fated, and, not unlike a character out of a  Charles Dickens novel, his happy ending, after much trial and tribulation,  is inevitable.  It can also be related to the idea of karma, with Jamal, who has strived to be a good person, being rewarded while his brother Salim, who is a criminal, and who has often mistreated Jamal, getting his just deserts by dying in a hail of bullets at the exact moment that Jamal wins on the game show (although there clearly is some redemption for Salim as well, because he dies freeing Latika).  So, while I can understand why some people in India may be bothered by the film's portrayal of their homeland as slum ridden and violent, I imagine most audiences will not take the story as some kind of serious document of modern day India and just enjoy it for what it is.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

While I'd be tempted to give the best picture award to Gus Van Sant's excellent MILK, which charts the rise of the modern gay rights movement and features a great performance by Sean Penn, or to Pixar's delightful WALL-E, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is so stylish and entertaining to watch that I won't argue with the Academy much.


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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007)




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NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (DIR: JOEL & ETHAN COEN) (SCR: BY THE COENS, BASED ON THE NOVEL OF THE SAME NAME BY CORMAN MC CARTHY)

The Academy's pick for best picture of 2007 was  quite an unusual choice; NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN was a violent thriller with eccentric touches, hardly the kind of uplifting material that tends to win Oscars.  What's more, it directors were cult figures known for their often oddball films; after debuting in 1984 with the highly entertaining Hitchcockian  BLOOD SIMPLE, Joel and Ethan Coen had fashioned idiosyncratic careers that often involved updating and playing with classic film genres (like their 1990 gangster film pastiche MILLER'S CROSSING).  Working in independent films that were generally highly regarded by critics, it was inevitable that the two brothers would break through into the mainstream enough to get the notice of the Academy, as they finally did in 1996, when their crime comedy FARGO was nominated for seven Oscars and won two.  While I personally think that FARGO is a better film than NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, the latter film is certainly exciting and well crafted, along with it featuring one of the most memorable villains in movie history.

Before it was a movie, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN was a book published by author Cormac Mc Carthy in 2005.  Shortly after its publication, producer Scott Rudin bought the rights to the book and suggested it as a project for the Coens. Although they had never adapted a novel before, the brothers admired the book (Joel later explained that he liked the fact that "Mc Carthy never followed through on formula expectations.") and agreed to write and direct it.  Their script kept very close to the source novel, with only a few minor points and some dialogue removed.  Gruff actor Tommy Lee Jones was cast perfectly as aging sheriff Ed Tom Bell, and Javier Bardem, who was at first afraid of playing a violent character, was brought on to play psychotic hit man Anton Chigurh.  Finally, Josh Brolin, after lobbying hard for the role, was given the part of Lleweyln Moss.  Shot on locations like Sante Fe and Albuquerque,  the film was quickly completed on a budget of $25,000,000.  After a slow opening(it's opening weekend saw it grossing only around $1,000,000), NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN would grown into a sizable hit, eventually making around $74,000,000.

Javier Bardem


Set in 1980, and located in West Texas, it tells the story of Llewelyn Moss(Brolin), a wielder who, while hunting deer, stumbles onto the aftermath of a drug deal gone terribly wrong.  He eventually steals a briefcase full of money.  This eventually leads to him being chased down by hit man Anton Chigurh (Bardem).  Meanwhile, local sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Jones) attempts to chase down both men.  Chigurh and Moss play cat and mouse for a while, until Llewelyn is killed by a Mexican gang.

Despite the modern setting, this film is in many ways a western, with its sweeping shots of the plains and valleys of Texas and its horse riding law men.  (The Coens freely admitted to being influenced by famed western director Sam Peckinpah, and this film's theme of the aging lawman who longs for retirement is reminiscent of Peckinpah's RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY).  And like many westerns, it's story deals with serious, dark, brooding and desperate men who live outside the law, being pursued by a equally serious sheriff.  The film has long, heavy scenes without dialogue and the world of the film is one where sudden, brutal violence can break out at any moment (Anton shoots people without a moment's hesitation).
For the first hour and half, the plot follows a standard (if well done) action format, with Llewelyn staying just one step ahead of the relentless Anton; there's an electrifying shoot out between the two of them have that leaves both of them bloodied and that features Llewelyn piloting a truck that Anton is quickly blowing apart piece by piece.  But then the film takes an odd left turn: after building up to the standard violent face off between the hunter and the hunted, the story is resolved when Llewelyn is killed by a Mexican gang.   Killing your film's main character off in such a surprising way (he doesn't even die on screen!) is a daring move for the film (and the source novel) to take, and while I'm generally in favor of stories that challenge their audience by throwing out the standard formula, I find the last half hour of the film a bit lifeless without the usual kind of resolution.  Killing off the Brolin character in such a cavalier manner after building our sympathy for him hurts the film, and I think it would have been more effective to at least show Brolin being killed by the gang instead of just the aftermath.  Equally surprising is that the sheriff also fails to catch up to Anton, whose character has a much more unexpected  resolution: after Llewelyn's death, Anton hunts down his wife Carla (Kelly MacDonald) and threatens to kill her, and then, in another unresolved moment, we see him leave her house without knowing whether or not has killed her.  Then he gets in a car accident and flees the scene, bloody but unbowed.  It's an unlikely way for a brutal killer to exit a film, wounded but free.  I suppose one can interpret this as showing his character as some kind of unkillable force of nature, one that can only be slowed down but never stopped, like death itself, but I personally would have preferred a more conventional finish for such a horrible person.  I should mention that I enjoyed the film more on repeat viewings when I knew about the unconventional ending and could just relax and enjoy the performances without worrying about the story.  I also realize that confounding audience expectations is the whole point of the last part of the film, and that it was that aspect of the novel that appealed to the Coens in the first place, since monkeying with standard genre conventions is often their forte', still I prefer the way that they played with those same kind of conventions in the film FARGO while still giving the audience a satisfying ending.  It's OK to tinker with formulas, but too much tinkering can leave an audience confused and unfulfilled.

Josh Brolin


Brolin and Jones both play their roles so naturally that they feel written for them; Brolin has an immediate likability and easily handles the many moments in which he has no dialogue.  Jones, meanwhile, uses his standard grumpy charm well, especially in the last few scenes of the film when he has to deliver some pretty long patches of dialogue.  But the most memorable character in the film is, of course, Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh; I've already mentioned that his character seems like a force of nature, and that certainly seems to be the way Bardem chose to play with him.  With his dispassionate gaze, ugly hair cut and flat tone of voice, Anton often seems completely detached from the world around him (I love the way that he singlemindedly lurches through a pharmacy to steal medicine after blowing up a truck outside to distract the clerks).  But there are other moments when he seems to be enjoying himself; in the film's most memorable scene, he interrogates a store owner and then flips a coin and tells the man to call it, implying that his life hangs in the balance. ("What's the most you ever lost on a coin toss?").  Clearly this cruel man, whom we've already seen strangle a cop with hand cuffs, enjoys playing god with another man's life for no reason.  Bardem won a best supporting actor award for his work here, and it's easy to see why; he's one of the most chilling movie villains ever, right up with there with Hannibal Lecter and Norman  Bates.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

While I still have some reservations about this film's later moments, I still think it's a strong and well made thriller.  But I don't think it was the best film of that year, not when PT Anderson's wonderful THERE WILL BE BLOOD was released, along with two terrific animated films, Brad Bird's RATATOUILLE and Marjene Satrapi's PERSEPOLIS. Still, as a long time fan of the Coens, I can't argue with them getting some Oscar love...

Thursday, July 18, 2013

THE DEPARTED (2006)

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THE DEPARTED (DIR: MARTIN SCORSASE) (SCR: WILLIAM  MONAHAN, BASED ON THE MOVIE INFERNAL AFFAIRS, WRITTEN BY ALAN MAK AND FELIX CHONG).

The best picture award for THE DEPARTED was unusual for two reasons: the first is that is was a remake of a foreign film, only the second best picture winner to ever be so (the first was 1958's GIGI, which was originally done in France in 1948).  The second, more important reason, is that it was the first best picture winner for director Martin Scorsase, who also received an award for best director.   Despite having made critically acclaimed films for years, and being nominated a whopping six times before, he had never won a directing Oscar before.  Personally, I don't think this is his best film (I prefer 1991's GOODFELLAS), but's it's still a wildly entertaining movie, well acted, tense and exciting.  If its victory was just a make up call,  the Oscar voters certainly could have done worse.

Before there was THE DEPARTED there was INFERNAL AFFAIRS, a 2002 Hong Kong action film directed by Andrew Lau and Alan  Mak.  It was very successful in its homeland and was given a limited theatrical release in  the US.  Three years later the Hollywood Warner Brothers studio thought it had potential as an American remake, and screen writer William Monahan was hired to write the script, changing the Hong Kong setting of the original to his home town of Boston, and basing Irish American gangster Frank Costello on real life South Boston mobster James "Whitey" Bulger.  When Martin Scorsase was brought on to direct the film, it seemed like a logical choice given his penchant for making violent films about organized crime (this would be his fifth film in that genre).  Interestingly, Scorsase did not even know that the film was a remake until after he signed on to it, and he wisely avoided watching the original until after he was done making it.  Scorsase quickly cast Leonardo DiCaprio who had previously worked with the director on 2002's GANGS OF NEW YORK and 2004's THE AVIATOR in the prominent role of undercover officer Billy Costigan.  For the part of that character's counterpart, undercover gangster Colin Sullivan, Matt Damon was cast.   Jack Nicholson reportedly turned down the role of mob boss Frank Costello at first , but he eventually was won over by Scorsase, Monohan and DiCaprio, mainly because he hadn't played a villain in a while.   Other talented veteran actors like Alec Baldwin, Mark Whalberg and Martin Sheen were added, and the film was set.  To save money, the film was shot mostly in New York City, but enough location work was done in Boston to make it seem authentic.  It's final budget was around $90,000,000, and it would go on to make around $130,000,000; it was (and still is) Scorsase's biggest money making film.

It's plot revolves around two young men,  Colin(Damon), who since childhood has forged a bond with mob boss Frank (Nicholson), and Billy(DiCaprio), a police academy graduate who's running from his family's crime connections.  Frank has Colin join the police force to give him information on their movements against his mob, while the police have Billy pretend to get thrown out of the police academy and work his way into Frank's organization to help build a case against him.  Both men prove to be good at their chosen roles, quickly rising in the ranks. For a while Colin gives Frank just enough information to keep him ahead of the police,  but when he is unable to stop a raid on a drug deal Frank is making, Colin shoots Frank himself and chooses to remain a cop.  Unfortunately for him, when he brings Billy in to relive him of his undercover operation, Billy figures out who he is, leading to an inevitable show down between the two fakers.

Jack Nicholson & Leonardo DiCaprio

In many ways, this is all classic Scorsase territory; not only is it another organized crime film, but it features his patented urban setting and  characters who are almost all intense, angry, foul mouthed men who are always one step away from acting out violently towards almost anyone around them (even the cops get in fist fights with each other).  It also has the classic Rolling Stones song "Gimmie Shelter"  on the soundtrack, which he had used twice before in other films.  But there are some differences: for one, the Boston setting is far from his usual mean streets of New York location, and, more importantly, the film's plot is much more tricky and complex than the plots his usual films are.  (Scorsase himself would joke that THE DEPARTED won because "This is the first film I've done with a plot.").  And for that we must give credit to Alan Mak and Felix Chong's excellent screen writing work on INFERNAL AFFAIRS, because it's there that the premise of parallel stories concerning an under cover cop and an under cover mobster, along with all the various complications that ensue, was first born, and Monahan's script often stays close to the original.  (Scorsase may not have seen the original, but a scene in which a police chief is thrown from a building looks very similar to the same moment from the earlier film). Still, while INFERNAL AFFAIRS is a good, well made film, THE DEPARTED, with it's bigger budget, better style and more memorable performances,  is a superior remake, with all the original ideas of the earlier film amped up to eleven as only a Hollywood film can.  The film maintains an excellent sense of tension throughout , as both Colin and Billy are constantly in jeopardy of being exposed, and I love the irony of both of them being so good at their secret identities that they are given the task of finding out who's leaking information when it's they themselves that are.  My favorite scene in the film comes when Colin directs a raid on a illegal deal Frank is making from the police station while also finding ways to tip off Frank about what's coming.  It's a marvelous game of cat and mouse with an amusing pay off (Frank flees the scene by boat) and we can't help admiring Colin's ingenuity, as he blows the bust  and diverts blame on to someone else, even if he is the bad guy in the story.

Given that Nicholson and Scorsase are two icons of 70's filmmaking, it's surprising that this was the first film they ever worked together on, and Nicholson responds by giving a classic, funny, over the top performance of a purely evil man as only he can.  The film opens with him rhapsodizing to the audience about  the history of Boston's organized crime and announcing "I don't want to be a product of my environment, I want my environment to be a product of me."  In the first scene we see him shaking down a coffee shop owner for protection money while leering at the owner's  teenage daughter, and then his acting  just gets bigger!  Scorsase allowed him to improvise, and he responds with crazy, wonderful moments like when he literally showers some prostitutes with handfuls of cocaine, or when he flashes Colin with a dildo in a porn theater.  When he appears in one scene wearing a shirt spattered in blood, it hardly seems surprising!  Even Frank's death scene is a manic bit of arm throwing and eye rolling;  Nicholson is so enthralling and amusing in the film that his somewhat premature death, although essential to the story, drains some of the life from the movie.  Fortunately, all of the other performers in the film are very good, if less dynamic.  I especially like Damon's performance, as he plays off his all American likability to hide his real identity.  Vera Farmiga is also a stand out as the only woman to wade into the testosterone pool of the movie, and she responds by strongly holding her own with Damon and DiCaprio, torn between the two men without knowing that the cop is really a criminal and the criminal is really a cop.  And I especially like the cold glare she gives to Damon when she finds out who he really is.

Lenardo DiCaprio & Vera Farmiga


If the film has a flaw, it's that it's visuals are not as striking as some as some of Scorsase's other films.  Oh, it's certainly not a bad looking film, but it lacks the stately, poetic tracking shots that can be found in his earlier films like 1990's GOODFELLAS and 1993's AGE OF INNOCENCE.  This is a bit of a surprise given that THE DEPARTED is shot by Micheal Ballhaus, the same cinematographer who worked on those earlier films.  Perhaps Scorsase felt that a plot intensive film like this should spend less time on distracting visuals, and if that 's the case, I really can't argue with that reasoning.  And honestly, saying a film isn't good looking enough isn't much of a criticism anyway.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

While there were other fine films made in 2006, like LITTLE CHILDREN and PAN'S LABYRINTH, I certainly have no problem with Scorsase finally being awarded for this enthralling and thrilling film. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

CRASH (2005)




CRASH (DIR: PAUL HAGGIS) (SCR:HAGGIS & BOBBY MORESCO)

The televised Oscar broadcast on March 5th. 2006 presented one of the few truly dramatic and exciting Oscar races ever:when Paul Haggis's CRASH was announced, there was an audible gasp from the audience, and presenter Jack Nicholson looked positively stunned.  Haggis's film was a controversial choice not only for its subject matter (the always tricky issue of race in modern day America), but also because of  the film that  it beat, Ang Lee's BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN.  Even before its release, Lee's film had been both lionized by liberals and attacked by conservatives because it was an epic love story between two men (and not just any men, cowboys, who had always been seen as the ultimate in American masculinity). And the fact that BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN was a box office and critical success that  was nominated by the Academy for 8 Oscars seemed to be more than just a reflection of its quality; it also felt like an open defiance of the presidency of George W Bush, who had, just one year earlier, won reelection partly on the strength of his stated desire to add an anti-gay marriage amendment to the constitution.  So, for once there was genuine tension (and a decidedly political tone)  on Oscar night, as the question was raised; would the mostly older Oscar voters actually call a  gay love story the best film of the year?  The political tone of the awards was set almost right away, when SYRIANA star and best supporting actor winner George Clooney gave an acceptance speech in which he eloquently defended Hollywood's progressive views, a veiled reference to Lee's film.  At first it looked like it was BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN's night, as it won three awards, including one for its script and another for director Lee.  But then CRASH  snuck in and "stole" the award, which lead to a strong backlash against the film, and to this day it's often called the worst best picture choice ever (which is way over the top, did these people see 1956's THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH?!).  Also, another reason that CRASH won may simply be that the Los Angeles setting of the film struck a chord with the Academy voters who mostly reside there.
Forgetting all the controversy and just looking at CRASH by itself, I think the film is actually very good.  It's use of interlocking stories is always interesting (if sometimes implausible), and Haggis is to be applauded for tackling such difficult subject matter.   While I don't think it was the best film of that year, it deserves far more credit than its poor reputation gets.

Haggis first had the idea for the movie after he was carjacked while returning some movies to a video store.  He later wondered what the carjackers would think of the videotapes  of European art films that they stole with the car.  This eventually led him to write a script with Bobby Moresco about the different ways that people of different ethnicities interact in Los Angeles.  Bringing in respected actors like Sandra Bullock and Don Cheadle (who also co-produced) help him raise the money for the film, which was made on a tiny budget (by Hollywood standards)  of around  $6,000,000, and shot in a brisk 36 days. Haggis even  sometimes shot scenes in his own home and car  to help reduce costs.  The film went on to make over $53,000,000, and while that was certainly an impressive return on its investment, it was also the lowest money making best picture winner since THE LAST EMPEROR IN 1987.

Terence Howard


CRASH's ambitious script attempts to tell multiple stories in a specific place and time to try to catch the tenor of that place as a whole; it's a style similar to excellent films like Spike Lee's DO THE RIGHT THING(1989), Robert Altman's SHORT CUTS (1991), P T Anderson's MAGNOLIA(1999) (which, much like this film, linked disparate characters together through moody musical montages) , and when done well, as I think it is here, viewing this kind of film can be a thought provoking and innervating experience, one that does not fall into the usual predictable Hollywood formula. For a film like this to work, casting is essential; because no one in the film is a lead character, we have to accept them all right away and see them as well rounded people in just a few short scenes.  Thankfully, Haggis's cast are solid down the line; Mat Dillon, playing bigoted cop turned hero John,  was the only cast member to be nominated for best supporting actor, but really any of them could have been. Terence Howard is a real standout as Cameron, a successful TV director who suffers a series of racially motivated injustices and slights that slowly push him to the edge.  Sandra Bullock is also very good, as a high strung rich woman who can't control her prejudices.  And I really enjoy the interplay between rapper Ludacris and Laurenz Tate playing thieves and best friends Anthony and Peter; Anthony's long winded discussions about race are equal parts truth and paranoia,  giving him some of the film's most thoughtful and funny lines (and in a great in joke, he refers to rappers as "mumbling idiots"!).  Occasionally the dialogue feels too didactic, especially when, late in the film,  political figure Flanagan (William Fitchner) launches into a racial speech in front of a cop that only pertains slightly to what they're talking about.  But for the most part, the actors are all right on the mark, and Haggis even gets a good serious performance from Tony Danza as a TV producer who has an uncomfortable conversation with Cameron.

 The film opens with Cheadle, playing police detective Graham,  who has just gotten in a car accident, talking aloud about the unique nature of LA, and he ends with the words "we crash into each other, just so we can feel something", and while the poetic nature of his speech seems a heavy handed way to start a film, it does  hit on a harsh truth about a city where many residents only interact with people they don't know during car accidents,  and where, despite its enormous diversity, people live in mostly segregated communities.  As the film shows, this segregation makes nearly every interaction with people of other ethnicities difficult; it's often hard to begin without making assumptions about others, and sometimes those assumptions are true.  This is effectively shown early in the film when Bullock's character is clearly intimidated by Anthony and Peter,  two young black men walking towards her.  Moments later the two men car jack her.  Later, she assumes that a Latino locksmith (Micheal Pena) working at her house is a gang member, but he turns out to be a perfectly nice guy.  The world of the film is peopled with characters who are neither entirely good or bad, and even when bad things are done, there's always some reason behind the actions.  And while the film does have some uplifting moments, and shows that even the most prejudiced of people can overcome those prejudices, there are still no easy answers.  This is clearly shown by the juxtaposition of images at the film's end: first we see a young Asian man, who has never seen America before, awed at the number of choices available to him in a store, reminding us how, even with all its flaws, the US is still a desirable destination for people all around the world.  But this idyllic sight is quickly followed by yet another car accident, which results in people spewing racial sterotypes at each other as the film fades out.  The best and the worst of America fully displayed.

Larenz Tate & Ludacris

I mentioned earlier than no one in the film is entirely bad, but actually, that's not completely true; the only Asian people we see for any length of time is a married couple (Alexis Rhee and Greg Joung Paik)who turn out to be part of a human trafficking operation.  This caused some anger, given that  in a film that strives so hard to show even handed, complicated characters of different ethnicities (even including  mostly positive portrayals of Middle Eastern people), would allow Asians to only be represented by criminals.  I think this is a good point, and that Haggis should have found some way to work in another  Asian character or two to provide some balance.  This leads to a broader problem I have with the film; I think it's too short.  While just under two hours is plenty of time for most movies, here the film's broad canvas leads to some parts of it feeling under developed.  For example, Cheadle's character investigates a possible racially motivated shooting that becomes far more complicated than it would first appear to be; there's enough meat in this story for an entire film of its own, and here its resolution feels too quick and neat.  Still, criticizing a film for being too ambitious seems unfair, and I imagine its length has something to do with its low budget,  so I don't consider that much of a failing.

Many people have criticized the film's use of coincidence to link the characters together; this appears mostly in the connection between Dillon's cop character  John and Cameron's wife Christine (Thandie Newton).  Early in the film, after seeing Christine and Cameron engaging in a sex act while driving, John pulls them over and molests Christine while frisking her.  The very next day, John comes to the rescue at a car accident, and finds himself saving Christine from a burning car.  The notion that these two people could run into each other twice in such a short period of time in a city as big as Los Angeles
is hard to swallow, but so what?  Although CRASH is often realistic, it's clearly not intended to be taken as a documentary; as with almost all movies, some suspension of disbelief is necessary.  And the scene works as an extension of one of the main themes of the film: that people can surprise you.  That a stereotypically racist LA cop can also be the kind of guy who will bravely dive back into a burning car to save the life of a black woman. Furthermore, along with fitting into the film's larger point, I find the scene exciting, dramatic and extremely well played by both actors.
The other almost inevitable criticism of the film was that, despite its attempts at taking a harsh look at racism, it is itself racist.  Things get even tricky because Haggis himself is caucasian, which may make his writing and directing of non white characters in racially charged situations suspect in some people's eyes.   Generally, I don't think it's fair to say that writers and directors can't create characters of different ethnicities  than their own, not to mention that actors can always put their own spin on the characters, as the cast does in this film.  As for CRASH,  I think that the film hits at some hard truths, showing that race relations in America are indeed often difficult and that stereotypes persist because they sometimes have a grain of truth to them.  So what if many of the nonwhite characters in the film have flawed or outright criminal  behavior, the white characters suffer from the same kind of flaws, nobody in the film is perfect.  So, excepting the aforementioned Asian characters, I think Haggis's film is honest in its portrayals and well intentioned in its message that race is an inescapable factor in America today.

 SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

I think it's clear that I'm a fan of this film, and in fact I do think it's a better film than BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (although I did enjoy that too). But I think the best film of the year was yet another film that was controversial: Steven Speilberg's outstanding MUNICH, one of his more underrated but better films.

Friday, June 14, 2013

MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004)


MILLION DOLLAR BABY (DIR: CLINT EASTWOOD) (SCR: PAUL HAGGIS, BASED ON THE SHORT STORY COLLECTION ROPE BURNS:STORIES FROM THE CORNER BY FX TOOLE)

Clint Eastwood's MILLION DOLLAR BABY was his second win for best picture since 1992's THE UNFORGIVEN, and it's also the third sports picture to win ever (the first was ROCKY in 1976, and then CHARIOTS OF FIRE in 1982; interestingly, two of them are boxing films).  Like its scrappy heroine, the film's history had a nice underdog quality to it, going from a long term unmade project to a surprise hit and best picture winner (not without some controversy, which I'll talk about later).  But, while I find much to admire in the film, it's often heavy handed characterizations and story make it fall far from greatness in my book, and I think several better films were made that year.

The movie began as a short story collection written by former boxing trainer Jerry Boyd under the name FX Toole in 2000.  Movie star Angelica Huston loved the book and took it to producer Albert S. Ruddy, hoping to direct it herself, but by the time he got the rights she had moved on to other things.  The project bounced around for several years, and eventually Paul Haggis, who had mostly worked in TV at that point, wanted to write and direct it.  He thought that Clint Eastwood would be perfect for the role of the grizzled fight trainer Frankie Dunn, and Eastwood liked both the role and the script so much that he asked Haggis to allow him to direct it, which Haggis quickly agreed to.  Sandra Bullock and Ashley Judd were both considered before Hilary Swank was chosen for the role of Maggie Fitzgerald, while Eastwood's former costar Morgan Freeman was cast as Frankie's partner, Eddie Dupris.  Despite Eastwood's name and prestige, the film still had trouble getting financed, but eventually a deal was struck in which the Warner Brothers studio would put up $15,000,000 and the smaller Lakeshore Entertainment studio would throw in around the same amount.  Eastwood shot the film quickly, in his customary fashion, and buoyed by mostly positive reviews and word of mouth, it would go on to make around $100,000,000.

Clint Eastwood & Hillary Swank

It tells the story of Maggie Fitzgerald(Swank), a waitress from Missouri, who longs to become a boxer.  She begs long time boxing coach Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) to coach her.  He at first refuses, but eventually, after some prodding by his assistent Eddie Dupris (Freeman), he agrees.  Maggie goes from one victory to another, but tragedy strikes when she badly injured in a title bout and winds up paralyzed  in a hospital bed.  Grief stricken, she asks Frankie to help her commit suicide.

Eastwood and cinematographer  Tom Stern used stark, harsh lighting to give the film a gritty, realistic look that works well for the story.  Even the fight scenes avoid flashiness, using slow motion only once, during the final, fatal blow that poor Maggie takes.  The non glossy style keeps the movie from lapsing to overt sentiment, even towards the end when the story gets sadder and sadder.  I also like the way that Haggis's script uses Eddie's voice over narration, which never tells too much and is often poetic in nature ("sometimes the best way to deliver a punch is to step back... but step back too far and you ain't fighting at all.").  And while perhaps overlong, (a subplot about dim witted boxer Danger Barch [Jay Baruchel] befriending Eddie doesn't really add much to the film) the movie builds nicely to a moving climax.
Unfortunately, it falters in some of it's characters:  I dislike the way that the champ, Billie "The Blue Bear" (Lucia Rijker), is portrayed as such a horrible villain who openly cheats, and Eastwood indulges in one of the film's more excessive moments when Billie arrives for the title fight by rising up from the shadows like some kind of demon while scary music plays. That moment also telegraphs the tragic end of the fight too obviously, and I personally think that that  ending would have been more powerful if it just happened in the normal course of a fight instead of coming from a cheap shot; the first time I saw the film I just knew that the fight was going to end badly, because Billie's cheating had been so clearly established.  I would have preferred to have been surprised.  And even worse than the champ character  is the portrayal of Maggie's mother Earline by Margo Martindale, a ludicrously broad stereotype of a poor, lazy, white trash, welfare cheat, who has literally gotten fat off the government. (Clearly, Eastwood's conservative politics played a role here).  How unlikeable a woman is she?  The first time we see her, she yells at her daughter for buying her a house.  The second time we see her, she puts off seeing her ailing daughter to go to Disneyland, and then proceeds to try to get her  to sign her money away.  She even goes out of her way to remind Maggie that she lost her fight!  And along with her mother, Maggie's brother in law is a thuggish ex-convict and her sister a baby toting dimwit, adding to the white trash stereotypes. Even though they only appears in two scenes, these ridiculous characters hurt the film as a whole; although they are supposed to show everything that  Maggie  is striving to avoid becoming, I think it would have been better for her to have had no family at all, or at least not have them all be such monsters.

Morgan Freeman

Despite these reservations, I find much to enjoy in the film: the three central characters of Frankie, Eddie and Maggie are all so likable, and so well played by their respective actors, that I find myself completely on their side and cheering every victory for Maggie, even though I'm not a sports fan.  It's great to see Eastwood and Freeman working together again twelve years after THE UNFORGIVEN, and they immediately have a humorous macho chemistry; thankfully, Freeman is given a much meatier role here, (he won a best supporting actor award for it) and is wonderful in the scene when he recounts for Maggie the fight that lost his sight in one of his eyes, accepting his fate without regret.  But the film's central relationship is between Maggie and Frankie, and while I think perhaps there is a little too obvious symmetry in their lives (he has an estranged daughter that returns his letters unopened, she still misses her father who died when she was a child), they have such a natural and winning chemistry together, the aging tough guy and the feisty tom girl, that it's impossible for me not to be moved by it.  Swank, who won her second best actress award (her first was for 1999's BOYS DON'T CRY) meets the first criteria for the role by making for a believable boxer (she clearly trained hard for the film), but beyond that, she makes Maggie a sweet, good natured but determined character, who eventually gets Frankie to train her through sheer force of will. Swank is also very good after Maggie is paralyzed, accepting her fate the same way that Eddie did, with no regrets; she even underplays the moment when she first asks Frankie to end her life, talking in a forceful but quiet tone, knowing full well what she's asking. At first, Eastwood seems to be playing yet another of his standard tough guy roles, full of crankiness and glaring.  But as he gets closer to Maggie, he shows a genuinely tender side of himself, and he even cries as he admits to his priest (Brian O'Byrne) that he's considering giving in to Maggie's suicidal wishes.

Now, as to the final scenes in which Frankie kills Maggie, they sparked much controversy, with conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Medvid claiming that they were essentially endorsing the idea of euthanasia; oddly enough, these arguments were launched as "liberal Hollywood does it again" despite Eastwood's conservative views. In any event,  however one feels about that issue, I think it's unfair to characterize the film as propaganda, seeing as how Maggie is not even paralyzed until ninety minutes into the film, and even then, she only first asks Frankie to kill her twenty minutes after that.  Maggie's handicap and suffering is really just one part of the whole film.  That said, the film clearly sees Frankie's actions as an act of mercy, and he and Maggie share a tender moment in which he finally tells her what the nickname he gave her means ("Mo Chuisle", gaelic for "my darling, and my blood"), and kisses her on the cheek before giving her a lethal injection.  Personally, I find the scene moving and well acted (even if it's absurdly implausible; there's no way that Frankie could get away with that in a hospital), and I can understand both of the characters motivations, even if I don't necessary agree with them. Therefore, I think it's an ending that is true to the characters and the world they live in, and I have no problem with it.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

Despite my mostly positive feelings about the film, I don't think it was the best of the year, not when better films like THE HOTEL RHWANDA, THE INCREDIBLES and my favorite, THE ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, were all released.  But, MILLION DOLLAR BABY is  a good pick, mainly thanks to the excellent interplay between the leads.