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.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003)


THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (DIR: PETER JACKSON) (SCR: JACKSON, FRAN WALSH & PHILIPPA BOYENS)

The Academy's choice of Peter Jackson's THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING as the best picture of 2003 is significant on several levels: it was the first win ever for a film in the fantasy/adventure genre, the second win for a sequel (the first being GODFATHER II in 1974), and the first for a third film in a series, and it was also the first film since 1997's TITANIC to top the box office for the year while also winning best picture.  In many ways, its victory seemed inevitable because it was the last chance to give a best picture award to a film series that obviously impressed Oscar voters from the very start (the first two films in the series, THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING and THE TWO TOWERS had already won six awards between them).  Personally,  I find all three films highly entertaining, and really about as good as big budget main stream Hollywood filmmaking can get.  And while I don't think that THE RETURN OF THE KING is the best in the series, it still an exciting and great looking adventure movie, with effects that still impress ten years later.

It all began in 1936 when English Oxford professor JRR Tolkien published a book that he had initially written only for his own children called THE HOBBIT.  Its success with both children and adults led to the inevitable sequel, the massive, and much more serious novel,  THE LORD OF THE RINGS.  (When it was originally published in 1954,  the book publishers demanded it be cut into three separate novels, THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, THE TWO TOWERS, and THE RETURN OF THE KING).  Influenced by  the ancient poem BEOWULF, his own Catholic beliefs and European mythology in general, the books became massively successful, and they have never stopped finding an audience, becoming some of the most widely read novels of the twentieth century.
Given their popularity, a film version of the novels would seem inevitable, and the film rights of the novels were purchased by United Artists as far back as the late 1960's, but the enormous difficulty of bringing a fantasy world full of magical creatures to the screen seemed insurmountable.   In 1978 animator Ralph Bakshi made a feature length animated version that covered the entire first book and half of the second, but the film was a disappointment (although Jackson has admitted to using some of its imagery in his films).  A made for TV followup in 1980, not worked on by Bakshi, was far worse, reducing the story to a simple kiddie film.  Finally, in the 1990's, it looked like special effects had advanced to the level where Tolkien's middle earth could finally be brought to the screen properly. At least that's what New Zealand born director Peter Jackson thought while making the 1996 horror comedy THE FRIGHTENERS, especially because he had just formed a special effects company called Weta, and Tolkien's novels seemed like an ideal challenge.  So, Jackson and his writing partner Fran Walsh began trying to sort out the rights for the film; it took so long that at one point, it appeared that Jackson was going to make his dream project, a remake of KING KONG, first. (He would eventually make that  film in 2005). But, finally at New Line pictures, Jackson got what he wanted: three separate films, to be shot in New Zealand,  mostly all at once,  with each film being released a year apart.  It was a massive undertaking, with Jackson pressured to produce a film series that would satisfy both long term fans of Tolkien and a new generation of movie goers who may never have heard of the novels.  Along with that, the films would have to have huge budgets, requiring numerous location shooting, thousands of extras in full costumes and makeup and of course cutting edge special effects.  (It was such a massive undertaking that there were often four or five separate film units shooting footage simultaneously) Fortunately for New Line and Jackson, the first film, THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, was a huge hit from the get go; its popularity led to New Line allowing him to film more scenes  and add effects for the second and third films, making them even more visually impressive than the first.  By the time THE RETURN OF THE KING was released in 2003, its success was guaranteed, and it would go on to make $357,000,000; the overall budget for all three films was around $300,000.  It would also get 14 Academy Award nominations, winning 11 in all, tying it with TITANIC and BEN HUR for most overall wins.

As the film opens, Frodo (Elijah Wood)  Sam (Sean Astin) and the treacherous Gollum (Andy Serkis) are making their way to Mordor to destroy the evil Sauron's  ring of power that Frodo is carrying.  Meanwhile, their friends Aragorn (Vigo Mortinsen) and Gandalf (Ian McCellen) work to defend the castle of Gondor from the orc hordes of Sauron.

Elijah Wood & Scott Astin

Jackson has often referred to all three films singularly as "the film", and if one watches all three films together in a marathon viewing, you can see his point.  The three films really do function as one big movie, and if the scope of the films grows, with more characters and settings, along with big battles leading to even bigger ones, it seems like a natural progression.  And Jackson gets so much of it right, from the casting to the effects, that the films have gone beyond just being hits of their era to timeless movies that new generations of fans will gladly grab on to, not unlike George Lucas's original STAR WARS trilogy. And like Lucas, Jackson really created a lived in, detailed fantasy world.  And the effects not only looked great, they created real characters, like Gollum and Tree Beard.  In finding the right actors for the films, Jackson went with the right performers instead of trying to find big name stars, and every role rings true; you're never reminded that these are actors responding  to green screens and computer generated monsters. From Ian McKellen's wise Gandalf to the likable comic relief of Merry and Pippin (Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd), the film is fully of immediately recognizable and likable characters.   And while the dialogue occasionally seems a bit stilted, ("So passes Denethor, son of Ecthelion.") the actors clearly respect the material and play it straight, with good results.

The battle of  Gondor


Of all the various subplots and characters that run through all three films, the one that really holds the story together is the charming relationship between Wood's troubled Frodo and Astin's ever faithful Sam; yes, in movies full of epic battles and monsters, the real heart and soul of the story lies in the sweetness of these two unlikely heroes.  Astin seems to almost radiate goodness and decency as Sam, and over the course of the three movies we will see him follow Frodo anywhere, bravely fighting off orcs and (in one of the most exciting moments of the entire series) a horrifying giant spider; if the script gives Sam  one too many speeches about how much he loves and misses the Shire, Astin delivers them well enough to never lose the audience's affection.  And at one point, when Frodo wrongly believes Gollum over Sam,  and pushes Sam away, it's probably the most moving moment of any of the films.


While I have much praise for the films overall, looked at individually, THE RETURN OF THE KING is my least favorite.  THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING has some charming scenes in the Shire and introduces the main characters nicely, along with having the memorable image of the demonic balrog creature.  THE TWO TOWERS brings in the wonderfully pathetic character of Gollum, along with the lovable tree like ent creatures.  And while all three films have their slow moments (too much time is given to the dull love story between Aragorn and the pallid elven woman Arwen [Liv Tyler]), the third really drags towards the end, with one fake ending after another. Even the film's final image, that of a small round door being shut, seems like a lame way to end a big epic tale. And while the big battle of Gondor  in THE RETURN OF THE KING is exciting, it pales in comparison to the great battle of Helm's Deep in THE TWO TOWERS.  Also, Christopher Lee's wonderful villan Saurmon is sorely missed in the third film, with the glowing eye of Sauron making far less of an impression.  (Oddly, the extended DVD version of THE RETURN OF THE KING has a nice scene early on where we see the final fate of Sauron, which was strangely cut from the theatrical version.  Why Jackson cut this effective scene when he had so much more he should have cut seems unbelievable to me).  Also, even as a child reading the original book, I have a problem with Frodo and Sam disguising themselves as orcs so easily while travelling in Mordor (the hideous orcs make great villans, but just how dumb are they?). Still, THE RETURN OF THE KING has a lot of great things in it, from Sam's aforementioned run in with a giant spider, to the gloriously shot final moments of Gollum as he slides into lava while still grasping at the ring.  So it's still a good ending to the story, false endings and all.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

Even if THE RETURN OF THE KING is the least of THE LORD OF THE RINGS films, it's perfectly understandable that the Academy wanted to reward Jackson's work on all three films by naming it best picture.  And while other, quality, smaller scaled films like AMERICAN SPLENDOR and LOST IN TRANSLATION were also released in 2003, given that it was the last chance to reward Jackson's epic, I'm certainly not going to argue with the Academy on this one.