Sunday, January 31, 2016
In such an outstanding year for movies, "Bridge of Spies" is the sort of film that tends to get overlooked. It doesn't have a flashy subject, or the hot new thing as a star or director, and it's a historical piece about an embarrassing Cold War event that many people would just as soon forget.
It got an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, but I don't think anyone considers it a serious contender. Nor should it be, but it's a very good picture that deserves some attention on video.
Tom Hanks plays James B. Donovan, an insurance lawyer from Brooklyn who finds himself thrown into the kettle of geopolitical politics. First it's being selected to represent Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Ryland, in a wry performance that got its own Oscar nod), basically because nobody else wants the job. He tries his hardest -- which annoys some of his colleagues -- and convinces the government not to execute Abel since they might need him someday.
Someday arrives a few years later when American pilot Gary Powers is shot down over the Soviet Union in the infamous U-2 incident and held prisoner. Donovan is sent to Berlin to negotiate an exchange, Abel for Powers, but in the overheated era of nuclear standoff, the government can't officially acknowledge his role as their representative.
He's essentially freelancing it with his rear end exposed, making daily trips across the Berlin Wall with briefcase in hand to haggle with a bizarre array of Russians and Germans. Complicating things, the East Germans have captured an American student on trumped-up spying changes. Donovan takes it upon himself to free him too: "Two for one" is his mantra.
It's a potboiler political thriller, more about the threat of violence and dire consequences than the actual depiction of them. Director Steven Spielberg and screenwriters Matt Charman, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen turn the screws at just the right pressure, with Hanks spectacular as always as the well-meaning everyman thrust into extraordinary circumstances.
Bonus features are OK, though Spielberg shows his typical disregard for filmmaker commentary tracks. There are four making-of mini-documentaries: "Berlin 1961: Re-creating The Divide," "U-2 Spy Plane," "Spy Swap: Looking Back On The Final Act" and "A Case Of The Cold War: Bridge of Spies."
Thursday, January 28, 2016
I was not a fan of “Kung Fu Panda 2.” It seemed like an indulgent sequel made for the sake of having a sequel (not to mention critic-proof box office $$$). I enjoyed being able to brag that I’d never walked out of a movie or fallen asleep during one; after “Panda 2,” I could no longer assert the latter.
So I’m happy to report “Kung Fu Panda 3” is a return to joyous form. Perhaps because it’s been nearly five years since the last one, the filmmakers took a little time to figure out what they wanted to do on a third go-round. Here Po (Jack Black), the tubby bear who became the unlikely choice to hold the mantle of the mighty and beneficent Dragon Warrior, gets to rediscover his roots and find his true inner panda.
If you’ll recall (I didn’t), at the end of “2” we see an older panda in a remote mountain village having a transcendent moment: “My son is alive!” Now the old man turns up in Po’s village looking for him, voiced agreeably by Bryan Cranston. Of course, because these movies are comedies first, the two don’t recognize each other -- despite being the only pandas around.
Needless to say, the reunion gets happier from there. Though not for Po’s goose adoptive dad (emotively voiced by James Hong), who feels threatened by a competing paternal figure. Especially when Po decamps to the hidden panda village to learn the secret of controlling his ch’i.
That’s the Chinese word for the energy source for all living things, which according to legend the pandas used to heal the sick and wounded -- in between downing mountains of food. (Think “The Force,” but with dumplings.)
They need a master of ch’i because there’s a new baddie on the horizon: Kai, a power-mad bull who was banished to the spirit realm 500 years ago by Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), the turtle kung fu master who first anointed Po. Snortingly voiced by J.K. Simmons, Kai has found a way back to the mortal world by stealing the ch’i of Oogway and the other masters.
Other familiar characters return, notably the Ferocious Five (now simply called The Five): stern Tigress (Angelina Jolie), wisecracking Mantis (Seth Rogen), as well as Viper (Lucy Liu), Monkey (Jackie Chan) and Crane (David Cross), whose personalities sort of get pushed to the sides. Wise-but-crotchety Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and his pupils try to make a stand against Kai, but like the others get their spirit absorbed by him and turned into jade zombies, which Po quickly dubs “jombies.”
Directed by Jennifer Yuh and Alessandro Carloni from a screenplay by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger – who have been script men for all three films -- “Kung Fu Panda 3” has the same nice mix of martial arts action, humor and tugging emotions as the first movie.
For instance, one of the running jokes is that Kai announces himself wherever he goes as this infamous world-conquering destroyer, but nobody’s ever heard of him. And, of course, there are plenty of bits about Po’s fellow pandas being self-indulgent feasters and slackers -- they prefer rolling down hills to walking.
When Po sees even the little pandas putting away the grub he quips, “I’ve always felt like I wasn’t eating up to my full potential.”
This is one of those animated flicks intended for kids but with enough cleverness and little flourishes to keep the adults fully engaged, too.
Wednesday, January 27, 2016
Five nuns in the West Bank are enjoying their evening meal in proscribed silence when trouble comes knocking -- literally. A family of Jews has crashed their car into their statue of the Virgin and need help. They're a stereotypical group of fast-talking folks who trade insults freely. The man blames his mother and her incontinence for the crash, which has come on the cusp of Shabbat, when Jews are not allowed to operate modern machinery. His wife hectors him mercilessly, and the elderly woman screams at them both. The nuns must break their vow of silence in order to offer help... reluctantly, at least at first. A funny and wry take on a volatile part of the world.
Just a stunning and powerful portrait of the Kosovo war from the perspective of two boys. Albanians living largely among Serbs, Oki (Andi Bajgora) and Petrit (Lum Veseli) must negotiate a difficult daily landscape of unclear loyalties. Their mountain landscape is gorgeous but often inhospitable. Petrit, big and bluff, takes to selling drugs to the Serbian soldiers. Oki, who has just bought a treasured bike after saving for a year, is doubtful of their trustworthiness. Things come to a head in a way filled with tragedy, and hopefulness. Writer/director Jamie Donoughue clearly has a future.
Matthew Needham is terrific as Greenwood, a young British man with a crippling stutter. He has long observant soliloquies inside his head -- narrated by Needham in a sonorous baritone -- but can barely communicate with the outside world. "Reclusive typography invisible to the naked eye, communication skills of an infant, excels in the art of self-pity." He's even learning sign language in order to avoid talking. Greenwood's been carrying on a six-month online relationship with a woman, Ellie (Chloe Pirrie), but when she comes to town and wants to speak face-to-face, he jumps down a rabbit hole of self-doubt. The ending's a little pat, but writer/director Benjamin Cleary understands character dynamics in tightly bookended spaces.
Alles Wird Gut (Everything Will Be OK)
In this disturbing drama from Germany, a divorced father picks up his 8-year-old daughter for a visitation trip. He seems normal and kind, but there are little signs of unease. Like the way the man fails to acknowledge the mother and stepfather. His dowdy little car contrasted to their sleek black BMW. The way he tells the girl to not speak around other adults as he goes about some errands – including obtaining an emergency passport for her. We know where this is heading, and are unsettled. This film can be very hard to watch, and deliberately so, but it’s well worth the time and emotional investment. The actors, Simon Schwarz and Julia Pointner, are just so heartbreaking and true.
An Arab woman, Feda (Layla Alizada), joins U.S. forces in Afghanistan as an interpreter in what will be the most momentous first day on the job imaginable. Her unit goes to arrest a suspected bomb-maker (Alain Washnevsky) but the man’s wife (Alexia Pearl) goes into labor. The baby is stuck in a breech birth, and since a man cannot touch her it is up to Feda to save the child and mother. Harrowing, intense and emotional, it’s a terrific single act of anguish. Director Henry Hughes, who co-wrote the story with Dawn DeVoe, carefully apportions the suspense and empathy.
Sanjay’s Super Team
This terrific short from Walt Disney showcases one of their rising animation stars, Sanjay Patel, who directed “Sanjay’s Super Team” based on his own childhood as an Indian-American. Obsessed with super-heroes and TV, he at first does not heed his father’s call to Hindu prayers. Then in a daydream he manages to morph the three primary protectors of the faith with super-powered beings who do battle with a shadowy villain. It’s a lovely commentary on melding traditional spiritual outlooks with modern technology, and entertaining to boot.
World of Tomorrow
Writer/director Don Hertzfeldt was previously nominated in this same category 15 years ago, so hopefully his persistence will pay off. It might just with this trenchantly funny/depressing look into the future of one little Earth girl, Emily, told in deceptively simple stick figure drawings. She is contacted by her third-generation clone from hundreds of years into the future, who shows how people in the future live through the collected memories of their forebears in the “Outernet,” a Matrix-like neural landscape of the mind. Clone Emily tells tales of her life, such as falling in love with a moon rock and later an alien hatchling, and a clone named David created with no brain so he could reside in a museum for patrons to watch him age. “Now is the envy of all of the dead,” she instructs Emily Prime, who’s too young and giddily cheerful to grasp any of it. It’s the blackest of humor, but glows with imagination.
An impressive-looking bit of animation, created essentially by a single person (Richard Williams), manages to shock and disturb but fails to find any deeper meaning in its spare 8 minutes. We open with beautiful pastel pencil drawings of nature, bees pollinating and such, and then a butterfly flies past four warriors seemingly stuck out of time. They slash and rend each other horribly – gosh knows how many red pencils Williams used up – for little purpose that we can divine. Aesthetically wonderful, but detached from any kind of narrative or moral sensibility.
Just a lovely and heartbreaking piece from Chile, beautifully told in a combination of computer-generated and simulated stop-motion animation. A tired old bear works as a street barker selling visions into his amazing little mechanical diorama, which relates the tale of his life through herky-jerky metal figures and scenes. He is separated from his family during the Pinochet dictatorship and forced to perform in a degrading circus act, tottering around on a tricycle while juggling balls. Then one day a new daredevil act offers a chance of escape and reuniting – or so he hopes. Gorgeously made and full of pathos.
We Can’t Live Without Cosmos
During the Cold War, two Soviet cosmonauts train hard to be selected for the space program, but find plenty of time for play and whimsy, too. Their oddball antics are frowned upon, but their diligence is rewarded and they get the chance to ride a rocket. But only one can be launched at a time, and the possibility of disaster and separation looms. Told in simplistic cartoony animation with clean lines, it’s an engaging portrait of friendship amidst a sterile militaristic setting. Just because we reach for the stars doesn’t mean we have to forfeit our humanity.
Additional (non-nominated) films in program:
“If I Was God”
“The Short Story of a Fox and a Mouse”
“The Loneliest Spotlight”
Trailer BEAR STORY / HISTORIA DE UN OSO from Punkrobot Studio on Vimeo.
Sunday, January 24, 2016
Asa Butterfield shines in this earnest drama about a super-smart British kid whose math skills far outpace his social ones. Nathan is an autistic lad who gets a chance to join his country’s team on the international math Olympiad. It’s an opportunity of a lifetime, perhaps the entryway to the highest tiers of academia, but his shy manner and trouble relating with other teens also makes it a forbidding challenge.
First-time feature film director Morgan Matthews and screenwriter James Graham show their inexperience, layering in too many supporting characters and tertiary storylines. It’s not these background players are uninteresting – exactly the opposite, in fact.
For instance, Rafe Spall as Nathan’s mentor, a former Olympiad now battling multiple sclerosis, is so compelling that he steals too much of the spotlight from the main character. He almost needs his own movie. Then the filmmakers have the teacher start a romance with Mathan’s mum, played by the great Sally Hawkins, which just comes across as distracting and even creepy.
Still, the film finds its footing once Nathan and his team arrives in China, where they begin a friendly contest of wills with the home team. The boy tries to incorporate himself with his teammates but struggles, especially with the strong-willed Luke (Jake Davies). Meanwhile, Zhang Mei (Jo Yang) of the Chinese team offers her friendship … and perhaps something more, which Nathan is wholly unequipped to deal with.
“A Brilliant Young Mind” is a flawed but worthy cinematic effort. Too many movies nowadays give us lazy stories and unoriginal characters. Here’s a film that tries to do too much.
Alas, the film is being released on video without bonus features of any kind.
Friday, January 22, 2016
Well, he's certainly dirty alright.
If you were expecting the presence of acclaimed actor Robert De Niro to having a taming effect on this raunch-and-roll party, think again. De Niro plays a hard-partying gramps who has just lost his wife of 40 years, and decamps to Florida with his grandson to let his inner 21-year-old out.
On her deathbed, he insists, she told him to get out there and live the life he wants, and now he's carrying through on that pledge -- and not even waiting until her body is cold to do it.
De Niro plays Dick Kelly, a retired Army guy who, by his own acknowledgement, was an awful father. His son (Dermot Mulroney) turned into an uptight jerk, and now third generation Kelly Jason (Zac Efron) is following in his footsteps. He's already a junior associate in his dad's corporate law firm, more concerned with forming LLCs and getting married to a controlling rich witch (Julianne Hough) than pursuing his dreams.
Protesting the suspension of his driver's license due to cataracts, Dick shames Jason into driving him from Atlanta down to Boca Raton, with a few "stops" along the way. They play golf, chase some girls, head to Daytona for spring break, chase more girls, drink a lot, drug a lot, get into some fights and maybe, just maybe, learn some life lessons.
If it sounds like a goofball bender, a young-meets-old version of "The Hangover," that's because it is. Director Dan Mazer and script man John Phillips keep things loose and fast-paced. It may be 102 minutes of debauchery, but it's got just a smidgen of class.
Along the way they hook up with a threesome of hotties: Shadia (Zoey Deutch), who shared a freshman photography class with Jason and is interested in another exposure; Lenore (Aubrey Plaza), a slutty girl with a thing for oldsters; and Bradley (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman), a fabulous gay black man who can't tell if the crass grandpa is pulling his leg or not.
Both De Niro and Efron show off a considerable amount of skin in the movie, proving that the 72-year-old screen legend still has a body of iron, and that the 28-year-old Efron is a frequent patron at the hair waxing salon. There's also a bed-sharing scene that ups the ante from a similar one in "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" -- though with some stunt, uh, body parts, methinks.
One of the running jokes is how lax law enforcement is in Florida. Jason Mantzoukas plays Tan Pam, who runs a souvenir shop that's just a front for his drug operation. He fires pistols randomly -- "This entire state is licensed as a gun range!" -- and has endeared himself to the local cops so much that they pat him on the head and tell him to run along whenever he does something bad, like selling meth to 8th-graders.
It's a weird kabob of a movie, one bite tasty and the next one foul, though there's probably enough good to recommend if you're into this sort of thing. Just know what you're getting: this grandfather isn't cantankerous, he's one crude dude.
Thursday, January 21, 2016
I think we all know the essential ingredients of these science fiction young adult book-to-film adaptions by now:
- Post-apocalyptic dystopia
- Female protagonist who's "not special" but is really the Chosen One
- Teen (and younger) recruits inducted into military-style training and combat
- Smirking adult overlord pulling the strings
- Supernatural abilities/challenges
- An inordinate number of dreamy boys wandering about
It's dragged down by a glum sameness, and the sense that it's a cut-rate knockoff.
Genre pictures tend to be formulaic, but these YA sci-fi movies literally seem to be built on an identical formula from which filmmakers seem afraid to diverge.
In all of them, though, what's constant is that young people hold the key to the world's salvation. And that love will find a way to insert itself into the proceedings, whether it belongs there or not.
Chloë Grace Moretz, one of the most interesting film actors under age 20, plays Cassie Sullivan, a self-described ordinary kid in an ordinary town. Then a giant alien spaceship appears over the Earth one day, uncommunicative and mysterious. The intentions of "The Others" -- really original name, idn't it? -- are soon made clear by a series of attacks aimed at wiping out humans while preserving the planet.
First an electromagnetic pulse takes out all our tech. Then rising waters flood the cities near the coast or major lakes. Then a super version of avian flu. And so on, until not that many people are left, struggling to survive -- and competing to do it. A shocking opening scene shows Cassie blowing away a wounded guy.
"How do you rid the world of humans? First your rid the humans of their humanity," she narrates.
The fifth and final wave is the most devious: the Others, which are described as bug-like parasites, infiltrate human hosts and send them out to kill remaining survivors.
Luckily, the Army has finally gotten its act together and come to the rescue. They arrive at the refugee camp where Cassie and her family are living, with promises of shelter, protection and training for the final fight to come. It seems kids make the best recruits because it's easier to detect whether they've been infected than adults.
Maria Bellow plays a hardcase sergeant with a deathly pallor who shows the youngsters the ugly face of the enemy. The commander is the stern but charismatic Colonel Vosch (Liev Schreiber). Cassie herself gets left behind during the roundup, but her young brother Sammy (Zackary Arthur) is taken. She's determined to be reunited with him but there are... setbacks.
Nick Robinson plays Ben Parish, who was Cassie's big crush back in high school before the Others came. Now he's selected as squadron leader, though he butts heads with headstrong emo ragegirl Ringer (Maika Monroe).
Meanwhile, Cassie is wounded and nursed back to health by Evan Walker (Alex Roe), whose dimples blow away even Ben's. He's living in the woods by himself, but has some secrets for Cassie to discover.
There's a big twist about two-thirds of the way through the film, which I guessed pretty early in the going, and you probably will, too. Also a somewhat smaller twist... which is also telegraphed in a major way.
Director J Blakeson -- that's sic; he's too cool for punctuation, apparently -- and a trio of screenwriters keep things moving at a brisk pace, and manage to present reasonably distinct characters. Moretz is the strong point, able to reflects aspects of vulnerability and determination without seeming like a two-dimensional movie construct.
The kissy stuff is just death, though, interrupting the plot just as it's getting into third gear.
I haven't read the novel by Rick Yancey upon which it was based, but it's no surprise that it is a trilogy like its YA sci-fi brethren. So that means if you're looking for a satisfying conclusion to this story, we're just getting rolling here.
Assuming, that is, "The 5th Wave" does well enough to recoup its $38 million budget -- about half that of the first "Hunger Games" and "Divergent" movies -- and post a reasonable profit. Which isn't a sure thing: just in the past three years cinematic adaptations of "Mortal Instruments," "The Host" and "The Giver" all had modest-to-weak debuts that doomed the chance of sequels.
Based on this movie, I'd put the chances of a 6th wave at 50/50 at best.
Monday, January 18, 2016
Circa 1940 Preston Sturges was one of Hollywood's most successful screenwriters who really yearned to direct. He was getting paid $2,500 a week -- that's north of $2 million a year in today's dollars -- to churn out screwball comedies and rehashed plots, hating every minute of it. So Sturges sold his script for "The Great McGinty" for $10 on the condition that he be allowed to direct it himself.
(Rather than hiding this fact, Paramount actually promoted it as part of the film's marketing push.)
In the short term Paramount seemed to get the better end of it, as "The Great McGinty" was a decent hint and Sturges won the Academy Award for Original Screenplay -- undoubtedly the lowest-paid Oscar-winning gig ever. But Sturges got what he wanted, a director's seat, and went on to a well-respected, if not particularly lengthy, career behind the camera ("Sullivan's Travels," "Unfaithfully Yours").
"McGinty" is interesting to me for three reasons. It's one of the few leading roles by Brian Donlevy, who usually played supporting parts as crooks and tough guys, most notably as the cruel Sergeant Markoff in "Beau Geste." He had one of those angled faces that, like Martin Landau, seemed almost cartoonishly villainous from a distance, but upon closer inspection was actually breathtakingly beautiful. He's effective and charming here as a lug who makes it big, then loses it all.
Second, the movie uses a storytelling framing device set many years after and thousands of miles away from the central plot, which was a pretty novel premise in 1940. ("Citizen Kane" would go on to employ it soon after.)
But most intriguingly, "McGinty" seems to fly in the face of the Production Code, which more or less mandated that reproachable behavior always be punished in the movies, and acts of goodness are invariably rewarded in the end, even if it takes awhile. ("It's a Wonderful Life" being the classic example.)
Here, the main character is a lout and a thief who becomes a state governor through outright graft and corruption. Happiness and status accrue to him the more rotten he is, including a show marriage that turns into a genuine love affair and close ties with her adopted children. But when he goes straight and attempts to do something honest for the first time ever, his entire life immediately comes crashing down.
McGinty hightails it to a remote country and becomes a bartender at a seedy dive, pouring out cheap booze along with his own story to troubled pilgrims. The wife and kids? Utterly abandoned. If you're expecting a last-minute reunion where the woman walks into his gin joint to reassure the audience everything turned out OK in the end, you'll be waiting a long time.
What's the takeaway here? It's better to be honest, but if you're a crook you'd best stay a crook?
At a spare 81 minutes, "The Great McGinty" flies by at a breakneck pace. It almost seems like one minute Dan McGinty (Donlevy) is a street bum who earns a wad of cash by going from precinct to precinct to vote for the mayor dozens of times, to becoming the mayor himself and then the governor.
The best and funniest part is the second act as McGinty becomes the collections enforcer for the local mob boss (Akim Tamiroff) -- credited, simply, as "The Boss" -- who keeps the politicians in his pocket. The Boss is bemused by the pug-nosed nobody who dares to punch him back when punched. The two form an odd brotherly relationship, exchanging brash displays of masculinity and always ready to throw down in fisticuffs at any disagreement.
McGinty buys himself an outlandish striped suit and sets out to collect outstanding debts for The Boss. He uses his fists when provoked, but shows a gift of gab, talking an elderly female psychic out of $200 by pointing out the risks to her own future. This leads to a stint as city alderman, handing out contracts for bribes.
When the longtime Mayor (Arthur Hoyt) becomes outdated for the reform-minded times, McGinty is picked as the golden boy. Since women have recently gotten the vote -- an indication the main story is set in the 1920s -- McGinty needs to be a family man. His secretary, Catherine (Muriel Angelus), volunteers for the duty, pointing out it will mutually benefit each of them -- though she fails to mention her two urchins until after the wedding vows are sealed.
Of course, once McGinty feels he is "free" of The Boss' influence, he starts listening to Catherine's urging to shut down the tenements and pass new child labor laws. The Boss doesn't take kindly to the insurrection, leading to a throwdown right in the new governor's office.
I quite enjoyed "The Greaty McGinty," though it's obviously a minor work in the oeuvre of Preston Sturges. It's the rare movie that would have been better if it were longer and slower. Still, it got him through the studio's door, gave Donlevy one of his most memorable roles and delivered a subtle middle finger to the rigid filmmaking mores of the day.
Sunday, January 17, 2016
“Straight Outta Compton” is getting a lot of buzz about landing an Oscar nomination for Best Picture -- we’ll know by the time you’re reading this -- which is an intriguing idea.
While it’s not among my top picks for best films of 2015, it was certainly a very good one, an exploration of the gritty early days of “gangsta rap.” And certainly the Academy has a regrettable history of ignoring African-American stories and filmmakers.
Director F. Gary Gray and screenwriters Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman are essentially doing the “authorized biography” version of rap icons N.W.A., as Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, the two enduring giants of the group, are producers on the film. Cube’s real-life son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., even plays his daddy (and does a standout job).
At first glance it might seem like a typical rise-and-fall story of musical success, with egos and nefarious hangers-on leading to strife and disbandment. The middle section of the movie is a bit bloated, with an overindulgence of scenes of hard partying and female flesh displayed.
But what makes “Compton” rise above is the meaty substance at the heart of the story. These were real South L.A. black kids, surrounded by drugs, violence and police brutality, and their songs were an angry shout to an uncaring world about the reality of their plight.
The cast is rounded out by Corey Hawkins as Dre, represented here as the artistic purist; Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, the hardest of the hardcore and doomed mogul; R. Marcos Taylor as Suge Knight, who muscles his way into a lucrative game; and Paul Giamatti as Jerry Heller, the white manager who put the group on the map, and made sure he got rich for it.
(Not surprisingly, the film has been freshly sued by Heller.)
You can buy the film as either the theatrical version or an unrated director’s cut that adds about 20 minutes to the runtime.
Bonus features include deleted scenes (including one song performance), feature length commentary track with Gray, and a half-dozen making-of featurettes on filming in Compton, the group’s formation and cultural impact, and more.
Thursday, January 14, 2016
My quickly dashed-off thoughts on the 2016 Academy Awards nominees. See the full list here.
In such a standout year for movies, this year's Oscar nominations were destined to be remembered more for who was left out than who got the nod. In almost every category, you could swap out the entire field for five other nominees and still feel good about the list.
People are grumbling about the lack of non-white acting nominees, but it's merely reflective of the roles they get.
Will Smith was just OK in the over-earnest "Concussion," and Samuel L. Jackson was hurt by the argument over whether he was a lead or supporting in "Hateful Eight." Only omission here that really burns is Idris Elba, who was just commanding in "Beasts of No Nation" But did you really think the fogey Academy votes were going to go for a Netflix movie?
Not a whole lot of great roles for black women this year (which, unfortunately, you can say about most years).
Don't worry, though -- plenty of white people got snubbed, too. No Jacob Tremblay for "Room," no Ridley Scott for "The Martian," no Michael Keaton for "Spotlight," no Aaron Sorkin for "Steve Jobs," no Quentin Tarantino for "The Hateful Eight" -- the list goes on.
The LGBTQ community is crowing about "their movies" not getting a Best Picture nod. "The Danish Girl" and "Carol" had months of audacious hype, then people actually saw the films and the buzz petered out quickly. Eddie Redmayne's chance to be the first repeat Best Actor since Tom Hanks in the 1990s seems dead, with Leonardo set to take it all.
"Danish Girl" is a good not great movie, and "Carol" is simply an overwrought borefest. It's funny that people are complaining about "Brooklyn" getting the love despite being "old-fashioned." I'd argue "Carol" is even more antiquated in its tone, performances and storytelling tropes. Cate Blanchett still has a chance of winning, though, but my pick is Brie Larson.
Glad to see "The Big Short" and "Room" score big. "Spotlight" seems like it's fading in the Best Picture race. There's respect but not love for the film. "The Revenant" is quite good but didn't make my Top 10. Right now it seems the favorite for a big sweep.
I'm unsure why "The End of the Tour" never broke out. Great little picture that seemed destined to score a boatload of Oscar noms. Career-changer for Jason Segel -- or so I thought. Back to the buffoon comedies...
No Michael Shannon for "99 Homes" is just a travesty. Easily the standout supporting male performance of the year. I was also hoping the lovely "Mr. Holmes" and "Love & Mercy" would rise to the top, but just too little box office and attention.
This year marks 50 -- count 'em, fitty -- nominations for composer John Williams. "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is hardly his best, but it's nice to see such a milestone for a guy so important to the movie biz. His biggest competition is another legend, Italian Ennio Morricone.
A few things to be mad about in this year's list, but no screaming injustices. Except maybe Elba and Shannon...
If you're looking for politics in "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi," then you'll be searching awhile. Told in the vérité style of "Black Hawk Down" and "Lone Survivor," this gripping war drama from director Michael Bay aims only to capture the on-the-ground events of the terrorist attack on the U.S. embassy outpost in Libya on Sept. 11, 2012.
Although that night has proved ample fodder for presidential politics, congressional hearings and more, Bay and screenwriter Chuck Hogan doggedly stick to the account from the book by Mitchell Zuckoff, who interviewed the Annex Security Team, which defended the compound and tried (unsuccessfully) to rescue Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
The team consisted of CIA employees and ex-military contractors tasked with guarding them. Bay, known for the rambling special effects-heavy "Transformers" films and the like, ditches the fancy trappings and focuses on the rough human camaraderie of soldiers who have left any causes behind and simply fight for each other.
Others will get the glory and the medals, but their reward is "We get to go home," says Jack Silva, a fairly recent arrival to the mission played by John Krasinski. He serves as the audience's eyes and ears.
Bay and Hogan immerse us in the world of the grunts, who live in an untidy compound about a mile down the road from the lush, clean proto-embassy. They share the space with a couple dozen CIA operatives, who are portrayed as eggheads whom the soldiers must guard with jock-like disdain -- former football gods forced to ferry around the math nerds.
"What are all the Jason Bournes doing downstairs?" one snidely asks during a break in the firefight.
At first, the six members of the team are hard to distinguish from each other, all bearded and scary with grim senses of humor. But the cast and crew show us bits of humanity in between the bluster -- the stolen video chats with kids, regretful longing for absent wives, and so on.
James Badge Dale plays the leader, "Rone" Woods, who battles daily with the nebbishy CIA station chief (David Costabile). The spook resents the intrusion these security guys have on their intelligence gathering, even complaining about their grunting exercising outside his window. It's he who refuses to let the elite soldiers rush over to the embassy, dooming Stevens, but he's just following orders from above.
The sprawling battle sequences grab you by the shirt, first the rescue mission to the embassy and then the rigid defense of their own annex. Forced to give up the computer-generated protagonists, Bay proves adept at putting us in the shoes of the flesh-and-blood ones. The scariest moments are not when the bullets are flying, but as the soldiers watch strange men approaching the compound, not knowing if they're friend or foe.
Being a decided member of the nerd class, I might be inclined to disfavor a movie where the beefy soldiers are brazenly glorified while the thinking types are seen as insufferable fools. But "13 Hours" is less about pointing fingers than putting some unheralded guys on pedestals. It's a riveting tale of reaching for heroism amid the chaos.
Sunday, January 10, 2016
“The Martian” was formulaic, but also innovative. Those things don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
This space adventure story cribbed its plot from “Gravity,” “Cast Away” and similar tales of a person stranded in an inhospitable location and forced to innovate to stay alive and keep their body, and soul, nourished. Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, a botanist stranded on Mars when a storm forces the evacuation of the rest of his team, who mistake him for dead.
But the film also took the unusual tack – borrowed from the novel by Andy Weir – of making this an incredibly joyful and even humorous journey. Even as we fret about Watney’s chances of living, since it will take any rescue mission years to reach him, we’re charmed by his easy humor and self-awareness.
Talking into video cameras for the sake of the mission logs, Damon makes jokes about becoming a “space pirate” when he borrows some international equipment, and records his efforts to grow food using some ingenious (but gross) techniques.
The film is essentially divided into two halves: the first mostly concentrates on Watney’s struggle to survive, and the second on the NASA scientists back on Earth trying to come up with a way to save him. This structure ends up being very important to the film’s success: we spend an hour getting to know Watney, so we can decide he’s worth the herculean effort to save him in the second hour.
Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard give us a humanistic disaster flick, filled with just enough darkness and peril for us to appreciate the light and laughter. Sometimes familiar stories can show a new and compelling face with the right turn.
Video extras are decent, though the lack of a definitive making-of documentary or commentary track is a bit vexing. The Blu-ray edition comes with a gag reel, gallery of production still photos, and a half-dozen or so featurettes focusing on translating the novel, casting the film, creating costumes and sets, and more.
Wednesday, January 6, 2016
I was not a fan of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s work on “Birdman,” which won the Academy Awards for Best Picture, screenplay and directing. I felt the filmmaker undermined Michael Keaton’s masterful performance with his (over)long takes and tracking shots. It stole our attention from the story and performance in favor of the direction, screaming “look at me!”
Iñárritu uses many of the same techniques in “The Revenant,” but much more modestly and effectively. In relating the harrowing story of a frontier trapper mauled by a bear and left for dead by his companions, the director employs his considerable skillset in service to the main character rather than for its own sake.
As Hugh Glass literally crawls hundreds of miles along the ground or plunges into angry icy rivers to escape those who would murder him, the camera work heightens his peril by making it a shared experience. It’s also one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s most compelling performances, and a largely wordless one.
The final result is an exemplary iteration of an old-school form of “you are there” adventure filmmaking that has seen a resurgence with films like “Gravity,” putting the audience right into the action next to the main character. I’m not sure if the film amounts to anything more than a grim and enthralling tale of existential survival, but I admired it for what it is.
Based on a true story, as translated by the “historical novel” by Michael Punke, the screenplay by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith is narratively similar to last summer’s “Mad Max: Fury Road,” in that it begins right in the middle of the action and barely stops. Characters reveal their inner selves through their behavior, not speeches.
A trapping and hunting expedition led by Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) is ambushed by American Indians who want the pelts for themselves – and resent the interlopers fouling their ancestral grounds. Also, the chief (a quietly powerful Duane Howard) searches for his daughter, kidnapped by white men.
Many are killed, but due to Glass’ level-headed leadership they manage to escape downriver, including his own teenage son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), who is part Indian. Flashbacks and rumors divulge that Glass himself lived among the native people for many years, until his wife was killed by French soldiers. This does not endear him to his fellows.
Then Glass, the lead scout, is horrendously wounded when he chances upon a mother grizzly protecting her cubs. It’s hard stuff to watch as a man is tossed around like a rag doll, even harder when his clothes are removed to reveal ghastly rents in his flesh.
Glass seems sure to die, and John Fitzgerald, a self-serving member of the party played with morose charisma by Tom Hardy, urges them to put Glass out of his misery, as the Indians are still in pursuit. But Henry offers a large bounty to anyone who will stay behind with Glass until he dies, then give a proper burial.
Fitzgerald volunteers to join Hawk and another boy, Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), in guarding the man. But greed and fear lead to tragic results, and Glass wakes from his coma to find himself all alone, near death and without any tools or provisions. All he can do is scrape his bones along the rugged ground.
This section is just merciless to watch, a proud man reduced to a wasted expanse of bloody flesh and a few primordial instincts. At one point Glass finds some clean water to drink, but discovers that it leaks out of his torn throat before it can make its way down his gullet. He perseveres, and persists.
“The Revenant” is an enthralling film to look upon, nearly monochromatic and with a sort of spare, harsh beauty. I suspect this movie will divide audiences, many of whom will not care for its wintry tale of death and revenge. For those who can appreciate bleakness, it’s a haunting vision that lingers.
Monday, January 4, 2016
"The Collector" is an early iteration on the cinematic trend of serial killer as main character, in which we're nudged to identify with the evildoer as much as his victim. It was controversial in its time, despite three Academy Award nominations, though now this sort of thing is quite common.
Hannibal Lecter is a bona fide franchise unto himself these days, with books and movies/TV shows of diminishing returns, artistically if not financially. According to Thomas Harris' own well-established timeline, Hannibal would be in his 80s by now -- his dining habits more threatened by tooth decay than law enforcement intrusions, perhaps.
In one of his early roles, Terrence Stamp plays Freddie Clegg, a young former bank clerk and amateur entomologist. A timid social outcast among his fellow Brits with an almost childlike grasp on social interaction, Freddie won £71,000 in a football pool -- about $1.5 million in today's dollars -- and spends his days carefree with a butterfly net in his hands, catching and killing them and placing them in elaborate displays.
With more resources, his ambitions grow grander and grimmer.
During his wanderings he stumbles upon a magnificent ancient country home and, finding a stone basement with a large hidden room, decides on the spot to buy it. According to the narration by Freddie, he more or less intended to use it so he could kidnap Miranda Grey, a girl from his hometown of Reading, now an art student in London, upon whom he developed a schoolboy crush. In his delusional thinking, by forcing their proximity she could get to know him better and, thereby, fall in love with him.
Needless to say, Miranda is disinclined to fall into the arms of her abductor.
The film, one of the last directed by William Wyler, was based on the debut novel of John Fowles, who went on to pen "The Magus," "The French Lieutenant's Woman" and other notable works. ("Magus" was actually written first, published third.)
It is unread by me, but from what I've gathered the book jumps from Freddie's first-person perspective to Miranda's and back again. The screenplay by Stanley Mann, John Kohn and an uncredited Terry Southern follows the novel pretty closely, and went on to earn an Oscar nomination, as did Wyler and Samantha Eggar, who plays Miranda.
It's interesting that Eggar's performance was recognized -- she actually won the Golden Globe -- and Stamp's was not, as he is quite affecting as the naive-yet-chilling Freddie. Through the story we see the evolution from disturbed young man to malevolent force, and how he views himself as a victim even as his proclivities as a victimizer are nourished through this experience.
An interesting side note is that Stamp and Eggar knew each other from acting school, and he actually asked her on a date and was rebuffed. Wyler made a point of ignoring her on set while giving all of his attention to Stamp, in an obvious ploy to heighten her sense of alienation.
After the rote opening of Miranda's abduction, the story sets into a pattern. Freddie opens the door to the basement, which vaguely resembles the interior of a medieval church, dressed to the nines in an expensive suit and bearing food, books, art supplies, etc. The room has been outfitted with nice furniture, chests of clothes and toiletries, with a single heat lamp to fight the chill. He behaves like the concierge of an upscale hotel, asking after her health and inquiring of her wants, and trying to deflect the most obvious question at hand.
After her initial shock, she tries various methods of escape, learns his true motives, and negotiates her way down to 11 days of captivity. Needless to say when the time comes, Freddie decides to extend her visit a little longer. After she makes half-hearted attempts at friendship, he scorns her for trying to fool him. Finally Miranda tries to seduce Freddie -- who's almost certainly a virgin -- and he loses all respect for her. No matter what she does, she loses.
There's one wonderfully tense scene where a neighbor of Freddie's comes by to introduce himself and highlight some of the architectural aspects of his new home, such as a hidey-hole where wayward monks were hidden. (We assume this will become a key plot point, but it never happens.) Meanwhile, Miranda is tied up naked in the upstairs bathroom, and manages to use one foot to turn on the bathtub tab and flood the room. We watch the puddle grow larger, pool in the landing, and wander toward the speaking figures below. Terrific Hitchcock-ian tension.
Miranda finally gets the upper hand and manages to bash Freddie in the head with a shovel, but can't bring herself to deliver the final blow. He recovers and she is recaptured, and things lead to a dark denouement.
The coda is downright chilling: Freddie is tooling around London in his box van again, narrating. He ponders whether things turning out poorly was his fault, but decides all the blame belongs to Miranda, with her fancy friends and la-dee-dah ideas. He resolves to try again with somebody closer to his own social background and station, and we watch a young nurse walk past, unawares.
"The Collector" works as a character study and crime procedural, though it's not necessarily a great piece of filmmaking. Story-wise it exists on the superficial level and never explores deeper and potentially more disturbing topics, such as male/female gender roles or Freddie's upbringing. But it's still a worthwhile precursor to a killer theme that's become much more popular today.
Sunday, January 3, 2016
I was delighted to see Mark Ruffalo receive a Golden Globe nomination for his leading role in “Infinitely Polar Bear,” even though I’m a bit dubious about the awards shindig organized by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association -- a group I contend is more theoretical than actual.
That’s because this is the sort of tiny independent film that deserves to be recognized, and nominations like this can help the movie find an audience on video.
Written and directed by Maya Forbes based on her actual 1970s childhood, “Polar Bear” is the portrait of an unstable but loving dad as viewed by his daughters. Cameron is a super-smart educated guy who can’t hold down a job because he’s manic-depressive. Mom Maggie (Zoe Saldana) has decided she needs a break from the chaos, and departs to New York for 18 months to get her master’s degree.
In the meantime, Cameron has to play full-time dad to the girls. That would be hard enough on its own, but his manic episodes, along with the interracial makeup of the family, adds additional pressure. Cameron is the sort of guy who sometimes forgets to wear pants, talks to himself and spreads their cramped apartments with piles of broken stuff he intends to repair (and occasionally does).
Ruffalo’s one of the best actors working in film today, and he gives a textured performance that goes beyond the outsized behavior tics and showy moments we usually see from of this sort of role. Ruffalo doesn’t give any big “Academy Award clip” speeches because Cameron is too distracted to concentrate on any one thing for too long.
That may hurt his chances at Oscar gold, but maybe a little bling from foreign film journalists would make for a nice consolation prize.
Bonus features are not expansive but are hefty, anchored by a feature-length commentary track that includes Forbes, Ruffalo and Wally Wolodarsky -- who is Forbes’ husband and a producer. (Their daughter also plays one of the girls.) I always love it when actors participate with filmmakers on commentaries, especially movies that are entirely performance-driven like this one.
There are also deleted scenes and a Q&A with cast and crew from the Los Angeles Film Festival.