Monday, May 9, 2016

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Director: Frank Lloyd                                       Writers: Talbot Jennings & Jules Furthman
Film Score: Herbert Stothart                            Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Starring: Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, Franchot Tone and Donald Crisp

From the moment Herbert Stothart’s frenetic music comes up beneath the MGM logo and a male choir sings lustily behind the opening credits of Mutiny on the Bounty, there’s a sense that MGM is in a desperate chase to catch up with Warner Brothers’ Captain Blood, though that certainly wasn’t the case as both films were produced during the same time period of time and Warners’ film was released a month later. MGM needn’t have worried, however. Even though the Errol Flynn swashbuckler was far superior in nearly every respect, Louis B. Mayer’s picture, with its combination of historical pedigree and prestige actors, earned for the studio its third best picture Oscar in seven years. The film was based on the first two volumes of The Bounty Trilogy by Charles Nordhoff and James Hall, the most recent of which had been published just two years before. Jules Furthman and Carey Wilson wrote the original screenplay, but producer Irving Thalberg brought in Talbot Jennings to rewrite it more to his liking. Interestingly, while the film earned several other nominations, including best director, screenplay and score, it failed to win an award in any other category. The Informer from RKO was the big winner at the Oscars that year.

The film begins in 1787, as the H.M.S. Bounty lies in port preparing to sail to Tahiti. Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian is seen marching through the streets with sailors behind him. He’s leading a press gang to procure additional sailors from a local pub for the voyage, including the recently married Eddie Quillan. From there the scene shifts to the aristocracy, where Henry Stephenson explains to Spring Byington why her son, Franchot Tone, must do his duty and go to sea for two years. Onboard the ship the sailors and their women are celebrating but when Quillan attempts to escape, Gable cheers him up instead of bawling him out. Nevertheless, when Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh comes aboard he orders all of the women and peddlers off. Herbert Mundin, the cook and comedy relief, has a bad feeling about him. Tone’s enthusiasm is also tested when Laughton has a man flogged, even though he’s already dead. Experienced sailor Donald Crips has a few choice words to say about it, under his breath and Quillan eagerly joins him in his hatred of the captain. Vernon Downing, on the other hand, is the one officer who enjoys meting out Laughton’s punishments. Gable tries to give Laughton some advice about dealing with the men, but Laughton believes that only fear can control the “rascals and pirates” that he has for a crew. On the way to the Cape of Good Hope, the captain’s penchant for punishment becomes and anathema to the men.

The film actually skips one of the most arduous parts of the voyage, the unsuccessful attempt to round the tip of South America. The ship turns east, stopping on Cape Horn in Africa, food and then continues through the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, Laughton’s capricious discipline rankling the men, including the officers, and especially Gable. Just as things are about to come to a boil, the ship reaches Tahiti and things cool down for a while. Once the king of the island convinces the captain to let Gable come ashore and join Tone--who is writing a Tahitian dictionary--he falls in love with the king’s granddaughter. The breaking point comes on the way back, when the breadfruit plants they’ve come for are given all of the water and the men are left to suffer at the hands of Laughton’s increasing cruelty--behavior that is expressly intended to get Gable to snap. Unfortunately for Laughton, the rest of the crew is in accord with him and he is left with no one to defend him. He’s set adrift with some of his men, and the iconic image of the mutineers tossing the breadfruit from the stern is one that would be repeated in every film version of the story. Though there are several places in the film that diverge from the original history, the story remains a powerful one centuries later. And it’s probably that aspect of the film that earned it the Academy Award, because it’s difficult today to see how it could have lost to Captain Blood, which was also nominated for the same award.

This film was the only time in Academy history that three actors in a picture were nominated for best actor, Laughton, Gable, and Tone. Laughton’s Blye is a crazed megalomaniac who won’t listen to reason. Gable, on the other hand is . . . Clark Gable, but it works. Tone was almost a necessary alternate protagonist, because Gable’s character actually breaks the law, no matter how morally right it was, and he probably does the better job of the three. His youthful idealism, shattered by Laughton’s character is the focal point of the film. Much of the story is reduced to a few set pieces and the overall brevity of the piece precludes any genuine sense of wrestling with the morality of taking the ship. But it is in keeping with the mid-thirties style of filmmaking though, again, it pales in comparison to Captain Blood. MGM spent the astronomical amount of two million on the picture, but were rewarded with grosses exceeding four million. Ultimately, Mutiny on the Bounty is an interesting historical film, and has a terrific group of character actors as well as stars, but it’s not a swashbuckler in the traditional sense and that’s what keeps it from being a truly great film. And while it might outrage a lot of fans, the 1962 remake with Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard is probably the better film.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Déjà Vu (2006)

Director: Tony Scott                                       Writers: Bill Marsilii & Terry Rossio
Film Score: Harry Gregson-Williams             Cinematography: Paul Cameron
Starring: Russell Crowe, Paula Patton, Val Kilmer and Jim Caviezel

For all the talk about black actors being discriminated against in Hollywood--and there is still a looong way to go--you have to hand it to Denzel Washington. The guy has handled his career brilliantly. He’s not after Academy Awards, though he’s already earned two from his six nominations, and regularly appears in films that are of low quality, though they have tremendous box office appeal, and has been able to completely transcend racial distinctions in a business that is still fraught with controversy. Déjà Vu, directed by Tony Scott, is just one in a string of unique crime dramas that the star seems drawn to. This is a good one, a high-tech version of Otto Preminger’s Laura. The film was shot in New Orleans just one year after Hurricane Katrina, and the director had to delay the production in order to shoot there rather than on Long Island where the screenplay was originally set. Everyone involved, however, thought it a worthwhile endeavor to bring much needed cash into the area. Scott and Washington have a long history, going back to Crimson Tide and Man on Fire before this film, and The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 after. And while the screenwriters were unhappy with the changes that Scott made to the script, the film is a masterpiece of time travel fiction combined with the romanticism of the 1944 original that delivers a satisfying story in both genres.

The film opens on busloads of navy sailors meeting wives, girlfriends, and family members for a trip across the Mississippi river to the French Quarter in New Orleans for the Fat Tuesday celebration. Also on the ferry are members of a grade school field trip and non-military families. From the Crescent City Bridge a man watches the ferry and then leaves. Shortly after a ferry worker discovers a pickup truck with no license plates and shortly after the entire ferry explodes, killing most of those onboard. Denzel Washington as an ATF agent comes to the scene, visibly disturbed by the body bags, finds evidence of the detonator washed up onshore and residue of the explosive itself underneath the bridge. Back at the office he spots the man on the bridge on the surveillance tapes, and calls back a woman who left a message with a fellow agent. Meanwhile, FBI agent Bruce Greenwood is put in charge of the investigation and Val Kilmer is his man on the ground. When the burned body of Paula Patton is discovered washed up across the river an hour before the explosion, he goes to her apartment and finds the words “U Can Save Her” spelled out on magnets on the fridge and blood on the floor. Listening back to her phone messages, he’s spooked to hear his own voice when he called her back earlier in the day.

Things become personal when Washington is told his partner, Matt Craven, was on the ferry. This is just the angle Greenwood and Kilmer need to pull Washington in to a special investigative unit. Little does he know, however, that his job will be to go back in time. The fascinating aspect of the story is that he doesn’t travel back as an individual. The device, run by the military, is able to go four and a half days back in time, anywhere on earth, but can only be viewed once. With three days to go before they can see the explosion again, Washington tells them to go to Patton’s house. It’s here that the film transforms into something like Laura, with Washington becoming obsessed with Patton, convinced that only in watching her life can they catch the killer. The film is science-fiction, but only in the strictest sense at first. Developer Adam Goldberg tells Washington it’s based on surveillance satellites and the data takes four days to assemble. But after watching Patton for a couple of days, Washington sends the beam of a laser pointer into the past where Patton sees it, and Goldberg is forced into telling Washington that they’ve accidentally discovered a wrinkle in time. They can’t send humans back, but Washington tells them to send a piece of paper back, to him, so that he can solve the crime before the ferry blows up.

One of the things that Denzel Washington has is an ability to effortlessly demonstrate his intense emotionally connection of his character in a way that has few peers. And he doesn’t try to hide it. The visible internal conflict within his character is incredibly realistic. But the screenplay is what makes the film. At one point Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio give Washington a variation of his “tell me like I’m a five-year-old” speech from Philadelphia when he’s trying to get information from the scientists. But they also give Goldberg a couple of terrific pop culture references, one is when Washington yells at him and Goldberg references Airplane when he says, “Looks like I picked a bad week to stop snorting hash,” and another when they’re sending the note through and he references SNL by yelling, “I need more cowbell.” The second half is a rollercoaster ride that would do a disservice to the film to reveal. Suffice it to say, nothing is as it initially seems, and just when it seems it’s over it keeps on going. Jim Caviezel, no stranger to time travel films after starring in Frequency, switches things up by playing the villain here, but all of the principals are exceptional. The ending is absolutely incredible, in all of its meanings, and rewards all of the two hours and five minutes of running time. Déjà Vu is an incredibly entertaining combination of crime drama and time travel that earns my highest recommendation.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Million Dollar Arm (2014)

Director: Craig Gillespie                                Writer: Thomas McCarthy
Film Score: A.R. Rahman                             Cinematography: Gyula Pados
Starring: Jon Hamm, Lake Bell, Alan Arkin, Bill Paxton and Aasif Mandvi

It’s pretty obvious that Million Dollar Arm is a Disney film, but it is still an absolutely delightful tale. Part Slumdog Millionaire and part Jerry Maguire, it’s the true story of a down-on-his-luck sports agent who decides to put on a contest in India to look for hidden pitching talent that he can then market to Major League Baseball. Disney has a rich history with corny sports stories, though fictional fantasies like Angels in the Outfield are not nearly as successful as true stories like The Rookie. This is one of the later. The film is based on the story of J.B. Bernstein, a sports agent who worked his way up in the business on the advertising end, first in general advertising and then with Major League Soccer and the Upper Deck baseball card company. It wasn’t until he began doing marketing campaigns for a high profile sports agency that he eventually branched off into athlete representation on his own, as agent for the likes of Barry Sanders, Emmett Smith, and Barry Bonds. The idea for the film began with the video footage taken of his two Indian pitchers, which led to the commission of a screenplay telling their story. Eventually Disney acquired the rights, had their own screenplay written by Thomas McCarthy, and handed the project over to director Craig Gillespie who had previously filmed the remake of Fright Night for Dreamworks.

The story begins with a close up on sports agent Jon Hamm making a pitch to football sensation Rey Maualuga. But it’s not. He’s just practicing for partner Aasif Mandvi, who is almost overly enthusiastic. But the real pitch to Maualuga goes south when the player says he’s been talking with another agency who can give him a million in cash just to sign. Hamm, broke, has no way to match the offer. Intensely frustrated, Hamm can’t even pay the rent on his office space because all of his major clients have retired. He knows of a Chinese investor, Tzi Ma, looking for opportunities in sports with overseas talent, but not how to utilize it. Then, in a wonderful scene, Hamm is watching television alone and on adjacent channels are Britain’s Got Talent and the cricket match. This gives him the hook he’s been looking for with Ma, a contest in India to find a pitcher with enough talent to sign a major league baseball contract. Ma likes the idea, but wants Hamm to get a player signed in one year instead of the two he originally proposed. Of course Hamm, desperate, agrees, and the hunt is on. The first thing they need is a trainer willing to teach their prospects to throw. Bill Paxton, an eccentric coach with unorthodox teaching methods, is finally convinced to take on the project. They also need a major league scout to go along on the trip to India to accurately assess the prospects and help select the winners of the contest, aptly named, "The Million Dollar Arm." The only one willing to go, however, is the cantankerous Alan Arkin.

At the same time all of this is happening, Hamm is renting out the bungalow in the rear of his expensive house to Lake Bell, a beautiful med school student with whom he has little more than a landlord-tenant relationship with, and he asks her to look after the place while he’s gone. One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is the trip through India looking for pitchers. The biggest shock for Hamm once he’s over there, however, is the extremely slow throwing speeds the Indian’s have. But a couple of boys, Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal, show promise, and have what Arkin calls “juice.” The real story takes place when the boys are brought to the States, both in terms of culture shock and separation from home as well as their ups and downs preparing for a big league tryout. Bell is the one who helps them adjust to their new reality, and along the way she provides a lot of advice to Hamm about taking his responsibility for the boys seriously rather than seeing them as simply a means to raising money for his agency. Two threads weave themselves together in the end, Hamm’s realization about the human element of his project in the two boys that he has come to see as more than just clients, and his affection for Bell who helps him overcome his obsession with work and embrace life in a way that he never imagined for himself.

The casting for the film is certainly a large part of its success. Jon Hamm is perfect as the Type-A businessman precisely because he is so charming and doesn’t give off that kind of vibe. It makes his ultimate transformation that much more believable. Lake Bell is also exactly right as the woman who is attracted to Hamm, but absolutely refuses to be sucked into his lifestyle. She makes it clear that he will have to come to her by demonstrating a side of himself that he didn’t know existed. The two boys, Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal, are also the best possible choices as they exude a charm and naiveté that is essential for the story. The other Indian actor, Pitobash Tripathy, playing comedy relief as the unpaid assistant and translator for the boys, does an exceptional job as well. Alan Arkin is, of course, a comedic master, while Bill Paxton's surprisingly subtle performance is extremely effective. Though the film breaks no new ground, relying on tropes that have been honed by Disney into something one critic called their, “inspirational sports formula,” it still delivers a fresh take on the genre and wrings the expected sentiment in a way that doesn’t feel forced. Craig Gillespie’s work is solid and smart. His setups are deceptively simple and yet capture a mood that is just right for the piece. The entire Indian segment in the first half of the film is extremely well done, and sets the artistic tone for the rest of the picture. Million Dollar Arm is a feel-good film that delivers, and for fans of the genre it comes highly recommended.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Zodiac (2007)

Director: David Fincher                                Writer: James Vanderbilt
Film Score: David Shire                               Cinematography: Harris Savides
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr. and Anthony Edwards

Zodiac is such a well-made film. It could really be the template for all historical, true-crime dramas. In many ways it has the same gravitas as Capote from two years earlier. But dealing with the early seventies, in terms of wardrobe and set design, this is much more impressive. It all makes sense, though, knowing that David Fincher is the director. Fincher has slowly accrued a body of work over the last twenty years that will no doubt earn him--if not a lifetime achievement Oscar--then the accolades that go along with such an honor. Hopefully it will be while he is still alive. The film is the story of the Zodiac killer who was responsible for a several murders in the late sixties and early seventies in and around the San Francisco area. The screenplay is based on the book by Robert Graysmith who was a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle. During the time of the murders the newspaper received many letters from the killer, and coded messages that fascinated Graysmith. He befriended reporter Paul Avery, who covered the story, and became obsessed with the case, so much so that he allowed his life to fall apart because he couldn’t let go of trying to figure out who the real killer was. Jake Gyllenhaal portrays Graysmith and does an excellent job conveying the unique personality of the obsessive artist who can’t rest until he finds the killer.

The film begins on July 4th, 1969 in Vallejo, California with Ciara Hughes and Lee Norris being shot by an unknown man at a secluded parking spot. Hughes is killed, but Norris survives. The scene then jumps ahead a month to Jake Gyllenhaal getting his young son ready for school in the morning. At work, the first letter from the Zodiac killer arrives and the editorial department, John Getz and reporter Robert Downey Jr. among them, has to decide what to do about it as the killer demands that his letter be published. When a couple in Salinas figure out the substitution cypher, Gyllenhaal connects the contents of the message with the film The Most Dangerous Game. Six months later another couple is attacked and killed in Napa, and when a cabbie is shot in San Francisco, police detectives Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards take over the investigation on all the connected cases claimed by the Zodiac killer. But the case soon becomes a nightmare when the two try to coordinate with the other jurisdictions in the area. Police sergeant Elias Koteas is happy to help, but others aren’t so eager. At the same time the obsessive Gyllenhaal and the laid back Downey form a sort of odd couple making their own parallel investigation--with no help from the SFPD. It’s not until a year and a half later that Ruffalo and Edwards find a suspect they like, John Carroll Lynch, and yet they still have a tough time convincing a judge to get a search warrant.

At this point a major time shift takes place, with a terrific CGI sequence in which the TransAmerica tower goes up in a time lapse of a bout thirty seconds. Lynch is eventually brought in, but the handwriting doesn’t match and they have to let him go. Another four years goes by and Edwards quits homicide, Downey is fired and moves to Sacramento, and Gyllenhaal is still obsessing over the case. What happens next is miraculous. Gyllenhaal goes to see Ruffalo, who is still frustrated by not being able to make any headway at all, and so he begins illegally feeing information to Gyllenhaal. But it works and that’s when things finally break open. There are so many things to like about this film. The muted tones and color manipulation of the images are spot on. While the obvious urge is to overdo the wardrobe, similar to something like Milk, by subduing the wild colors and exaggerated lines of the clothing of the day the emphasis here remains where it should be, on the actors and the story. Another brilliant aspect of the film is the use of popular music of the time by sound designer Ren Klyce. Where other films about the seventies seem to use the music of the decade indiscriminately--American Hustle comes to mind--there is a great sense of care at work here, selecting songs that not only are from that exact year but fit the mood of the scenes as well. And, of course, Fincher’s direction is tremendous. Despite the intensity of the drama unfolding, Fincher reins in the actor’s reaction to it, replicating the muted colors and sounds that accompany them.

All of the performances are first rate and, it must be said, Fincher knows how to get the best from even veteran actors. It was especially nice to see Anthony Edwards in a feature role at the end of his lengthy residence on the television show E.R. In addition to those mentioned above, character actor Philip Baker Hall plays a handwriting expert, Brian Cox plays defense lawyer Melvin Belli, and Chloë Sevigny does a convincing turn as Gyllenhaal’s new wife. And Fincher manages to elicit a delicious bit of suspense with Charles Fleischer. In fact, the first half of the film, while the killer is still active, is nowhere near as gripping as when Gyllenhall inches ever closer to the true identity of the killer in the second half. Fincher is a director who likes lots of takes, and some of the actors weren’t comfortable with that, but in the end the actor’s patience is rewarded when the performances on the screen match the care put into the rest of the production. Even before production Fincher, producer Brad Fischer and screenwriter James Vanderbilt actually conducted their own investigation into the case because Fincher was concerned that they were going to accuse someone of the crimes on film and wanted to be sure that the ending was credible. The film was ignored at Oscar time, probably because it wasn’t ready to release until after nominations had closed and couldn’t be considered until the end of the following year. Nevertheless, Zodiac is a captivating piece of cinema and yet another example of the excellence of David Fincher.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Hours Till Daylight (2015)

Director: Jon Garcia                                      Writer: Jon Garcia
Film Score: Skip Vonkuske                           Cinematography: Jon Garcia
Starring: Quinn Allan, Sarah Jannet Parish, Carlos Sepulveda and Vannessa Vasquez

After finishing post production on his intense, human drama The Falls, Portland director Jon Garcia took the star from his first film, Tandem Hearts, back to his home state of Texas to shoot a supernatural thriller. The result is The Hours Till Daylight, a film about a new kind of onscreen horror, a “familiar spirit”--probably a corruption of the phrase familial spirit--that haunts a particular family down through the generations. Quinn Allan, a veteran of independent Portland filmmaking, stars in the production, and along with a group of talented local actors Garcia has produced an effective horror film that manages to find new territory to mine in a seemingly depleted genre. Garcia’s screenplay is refreshing in that it eschews Hollywood tropes and clichés to focus on something unique, a spirit that is not unknown or mysterious, but one that is intimately familiar to the protagonist. Therefore the conflict in the film isn’t about what it is or where it’s coming from, but what to do about it. In this respect it reminds me of my favorite ghost story of all time, The Changeling, with George C. Scott. After the fear and shock of discovery wears off, Scott does everything in his power to assist the ghost in resolving the wrong that had been done to him. Likewise, after generations of fear and denial, Quinn Allen takes matters into his own hands to end his personal haunting once and for all, even at the cost of his own life.

The film begins with a beautifully composed shot of Quinn Allan and his pregnant wife, Sarah Jannet Parish, but the scene quickly cuts to Allan getting into his car and pounding the wheel in anguish. After driving off, Allan flashes back to his childhood, and his terror at knowing that evil spirits came out at night while he was powerless to stop them. Back in the present, his mother calls and chides him for leaving Parish at home alone, and tells him not to go back to his childhood house. But Allan has lived too much of his life in fear and is resolved to do something to end it. Other flashbacks show the young boy playing with his sister, Jonathan Carter Thomas and Auburn Taylor Thomas, who are excellent as the children. While his mother, Vannessa Vasquez, did what she could to allay the young boy’s fears, his father, Carlos Sepulveda, chose denial as his way of coping with the family secret. A particularly chilling moment comes when Sepulveda tells his son that there’s nothing to be afraid of, then adds that if he ignores it, it will ignore him. Ultimately, however, his denial doesn’t work. Arguments between Vasquez and Sepulveda appear to be about other things, but the children know the tension is really caused by the spirit in their lives. The children suffer real, physical abuse at the hands of the spirit, abuse that ends in tragedy.

In the current timeline there is a secondary flashback to just prior to the car trip. Sarah Jannet Parish suffers from Quinn Allan’s inability to sleep during the night. He keeps the lights on and Parish begins to lose patience with him. But when he finally relents and leaves her alone in the bedroom to sleep, the spirit attacks her. It’s a heart-pounding sequence and explains his desperate determination to do something about it. The audience eventually learns that Allan is on his way to seek help from Dan Braverman, a drug lord who also happens to be an old curandero, holed up in his nondescript, apartment-like bedroom. But as powerful as he is, there’s a feeling that the world has passed Braverman by, and that in helping Allan he is also reclaiming a part of his own forgotten past. The most impressive aspect of the film is the acting involved by all the principals. Quinn Allan has always been a solid actor but here he seems to be coming into his own, less interested in the camera than in fully inhabiting his character. Garcia’s lines are well written, to be sure, but it still takes an actor to transform them into something convincing. Allan has achieved that here, and his work in the climactic battle is his best on film so far. Vannessa Vasquez and Carlos Sepulveda also feel like inspired casting as the parents. The camera loves Vasquez’s face in the subjective pov shots, daring the audience not to want her as their own mother, while former Major League baseball player Carlos Sepulveda is the perfect model of the stern, macho male, whose love for his family is almost completely subsumed in his concern for their safety.

The supporting cast is equally well chosen. Jonathan and Auburn Thomas as the children are about as good as it gets. They don’t play cute with the camera but instead add yet another layer of believability to the story. And while Sarah Jannet Parish doesn’t get a lot of screen time, she works incredibly well with Allan in their one scene together. One of the benefits of independent filmmaking is that a director can allow his screenplay to unfold at his own pace. Garcia spends a lot of time in flashback, perhaps too much. At one point there is a lengthy section that might have been better served by cutting back to Allan in the car once or twice. But looked at another way, the multi-generational story can be seen not as a flashback at all, but a separate episode that is less about providing backstory than it is its own special horror involving the children. The flashback sequences also make use of the subjective point of view, and this can be problematic as well because of how artificial it feels for the viewer. There’s some obvious irony in that because the intent is that it’s supposed to put the viewer in the character’s place, but film grammar doesn’t work that way and never really has. Fortunately, Garcia mixes those subjective point of view shots with plenty of objective shots of the children, and is able to avoid having it become a distraction.

One of Garcia’s leaps forward from his previous films is in the use of music on the soundtrack. Instead of soundtracks heavily laden with pop tunes and pre-recorded music, there’s a much greater sense of a thoroughly composed soundtrack, highlighted by the brilliant work of cellist Skip VonKuske in bringing an entirely new musical pallet to the film. And it’s also clear the director understands the use of sound effects necessary to heighten tension in horror films. Assisting Garcia on the sound design is Hollywood veteran John Neff who has had a lengthy association with David Lynch and has done a masterful job of weaving all the sound elements together. But what really stands out in the film is the use of special effects. Rather than beating the viewer over the head with them, the effects in the beginning are subtle and allowed to increase in intensity as the film progresses. The visual effects in the climax seem particularly fresh, frightening without going overboard, and enhancing the strong verisimilitude of the entire production. The Hours Till Daylight is another powerful example of John Garcia’s seemingly unlimited creative energy, as well as a haunting supernatural thriller that is as satisfying as it is scary.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Music and Lyrics (2007)

Director: Marc Lawrence                                  Writer: Marc Lawrence
Film Score: Adam Schlesinger                         Cinematography: Xavier Grobet
Starring: Hugh Grant, Drew Barrymore, Brad Garrett and Kristen Johnston

I don’t like Drew Barrymore and never really have, probably because of her continued association with Adam Sandler. Still, even actors I don’t like to watch usually make one film that I really like. For Barrymore, this is it. Music and Lyrics also features a long-in-the-tooth Hugh Grant, already forty-seven at the time the film was released trying to work out a relationship with the thirty-two year old Barrymore. His days as a lead in a romantic comedy should have been over, but director Marc Lawrence makes it work for him, just barely. All of the leads are good, and aided by a nice comedic bit part from Aasif Mandvi. What isn’t just good, however, but great, is the soundtrack. Not only are the eighties throwbacks spot on, but the modern songs ring true as well. The centerpiece of the film is the song “Way Back Into Love” which Grant and Barrymore write, and composer Adam Schlesinger does a terrific job with a simplistic melody and lyrics to create something that genuinely pulls in listeners of all ages. In fact, all of the composers should be commended, as the soundtrack album itself went to number sixty-three on the album charts. There are only two films which boast songwriting for a specific period that are as good, the first is The Idolmaker, which emulates the pre-Beatles early sixties to perfection. The other is Tom Hanks’ early-Beatles, mid-sixties era That Thing You Do. The soundtrack to this film deserves to stand among those as one of the great homages to a musical era ever put on film.

The film begins with an absolutely stunning recreation of an eighties video, complete with synthesized music and lame story line, just the way they did it in the mid-eighties. Hugh Grant plays the has-been keyboard player from the group Pop. His partner in the group has gone on to major success while Grant has been left behind. His manager, Brad Garrett, does his best to get him work but it’s slim pickings for forgotten eighties bands. It turns out, however, that one of the current teen singing idols, Haley Bennett, wants to meet with him and Garrett has a good feeling about it. Meanwhile, Drew Barrymore shows up as a ditz who is replacing Grant’s usually plant-waterer, but after she accidentally pricks her finger on a cactus she winds up leaving in a rush. That evening, when Bennett meets with Grant she wants to commission a song from him. At first he’s enthused to rework one of his old chestnuts, but she wants something new, something fresh, and that puts Grant into a panic. He wrote the music for Pop, but has no idea how to write lyrics. Garrett puts him in touch with lyricist Jason Antoon who has the grimmest outlook imaginable, and while Grant is trying to steer him toward something more suitable for the title Bennett has given him, “Way Back Into Love,” Barrymore throws something out unconsciously while she’s watering the plants that Grant loves. With the pressure on, he ditches Antoon and decides to get Barrymore to write his lyrics. And that’s where the romcom nightmare begins.

It turns out that Barrymore is a writer, but only when she’s in the mood. And that, it seems, is not an easy task. She’s been traumatized by a past relationship with a college English professor who has written a Lolita-esque book about his relationship with her. She also has a sister, Kristen Johnston, who runs a diet program business and has a massive crush on Grant. They only have a week to write the song and, to top things off, they wind up in bed together, which complicates the already complicated even further. While there are certain aspects of the film that are difficult to swallow--the whole Lolita relationship is the worst, and almost painful to watch--one fact is undeniable, and that is that Marc Lawrence’s screenplay saves the day. He had worked with Grant previously on Two Weeks Notice, as well as later on the middle-age romcom The Rewrite, and has a real handle on the dry and self-deprecating humor of the actor, so much so that the writing is almost solely worth watching the film for. The technical side of the film is also impressive. In addition to the wonderful soundtrack, the set design is tremendous. Not only the New York apartment scenes, but the concert and the L.A. studio sets are perfect. Lawrence and his cinematographer Xavier Grobet come up with interesting shot selection and lighting throughout. But at the end of the day it the inspirational nature of the story line that is undeniable. Music and Lyrics is one of those improbable films that shouldn’t really work, but succeeds beyond the audience’s wildest expectations. It’s that good.

Friday, March 4, 2016

El Dorado (1966)

Director: Howard Hawks                                  Writer: Leigh Brackett
Film Score: Nelson Riddle                               Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Starring: John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Charlene Hold and Ed Asner

Though El Dorado has an impressive pedigree, directed by Howard Hawks and starring John Wayne, the story seems pretty shopworn, even back in 1966. Ed Asner comes to a small town after the Civil War and buys up all the property available. He builds a ranch and after a few years runs low on water. The problem is the guy who owns the land that controls the water, R.G. Reynolds, was there first and Asner wants it any way he can get it. The film begins with Asner hiring John Wayne as a gun hand, but when Wayne rides into town the sheriff, his old partner, Robert Mitchum, tells him what’s really going on and so Wayne tells Asner he’s not going to work for him. It sets up a typical battle between the amoral rancher and the law-abiding landowners. Of course things are never that simple. One wrinkle is that Wayne and Mitchum are in love with the same woman, Charlene Hold, and there is some obvious history between the two of them that will only gradually be revealed as the film goes on, and will probably threaten to break their united front against Asner. Unfortunately Wayne gets on the wrong side of Reynolds when he accidentally kills one of his boys, Johnny Crawford. His daughter, Michele Cary, tries to kill Wayne but only manages to lodge a bullet near his spine that the local doc, Paul Fix, won’t go near. And that’s just the first act.

Wayne decides to leave town, and the story picks up seven months later, with Wayne riding into another town and meeting James Caan as a knife thrower who kills one of the men from Christopher George’s gang. It turns out George has accepted the job from Asner in El Dorado that Wayne turned down. When he tells Wayne that Mitchum has hit the bottle to get over a woman, Wayne sets out to help him as well as repay his debt to Reynolds, with Caan tagging along. During the fifties, TV westerns attempted to emulate those on the big screen. But with the advent of color and several western television series, sixties features seem to look more like their small screen counterparts. The primary reason for this is that the majority of the film was shot on the studio lot. It’s not a major flaw, but it’s certainly noticeable. The other thing that is noticeable is the overwhelming sense of déjà vu that accompanies the film. Throughout the picture, but especially during the scenes in the town jail with Robert Mitchum, the story seems highly reminiscent of Rio Bravo, which Hawks had directed seven years earlier. The reason for this begins with the fact that when Leigh Brackett was given the original novel by Harry Brown, entitled The Stars in their Course, she felt it was the best screenplay she had ever written. Then she gave it to Hawks and he rejected it, forcing her to write what she called The Son of Rio Bravo Rides Again. Hawks apparently had no problem with rehashing scenes and even entire plots that had worked well before, especially if he thought he could do it better.

For much of Hawks’ career he worked as an independent filmmaker, so in addition to complete control of the screenplay he also didn’t have anyone to answer to as long as he stayed under budget and the film runs a little long at just over two hours. It could have benefitted by being tightened up in the editing room. Other than that, however, El Dorado is definitely an improvement over the earlier film, especially in terms of the supporting actors for Wayne. Robert Mitchum and James Caan are monumentally better than Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson. If anything suffers in terms of acting, it’s Wayne himself. John Wayne wasn’t at his top form for this picture, and it shows. He flubs lines, or forgets them halfway through. His gruffness is even more extreme than usual, and as a result his morality comes off as belligerent rather than honorable. Arthur Hunnicutt is along as the comedy relief, and it’s a relief that he doesn’t play it over the top as this kind of part is played in so many westerns. The film score by Nelson Riddle is good for the most part, that is until he allows a sixties ethos to sneak into the film during the ambush at the church. While it may lack some of the vitality of Rio Bravo and the story seems to lag at times, El Dorado is a solid sixties western and one of Howard Hawks’ more enjoyable westerns.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

True Story (2015)

Director: Rupert Goold                                    Writer: Rupert Goold & David Kajganich
Film Score: Marco Beltrame                            Cinematography: Masanobu Takayanagi
Starring: Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones and Robert John Burke

I have to say I’m not a fan of Jonah Hill and his stupid movies. By stupid I don’t mean the adjective but instead a kind of film, one that is juvenile and anti-intellectual and has no redeeming value, even entertainment value. James Frnco has made his share of those as well, so . . . not a lot of motivation going in. The sole point of entry for me into this film was Hill’s appearance in Moneyball with Brad Pitt. It was an impressive performance that earned him a supporting actor nomination at the Oscars that year. Then he made the inexplicable choice of appearing in The Wolf of Wall Street--the Martin Scorsese version of a stupid movie, but a stupid movie nonetheless--and was nominated yet again. Fortunately, this film is a serious drama like the former, and so I decided to give it a chance. True Story is . . . the true story of murderer Christian Longo and the disgraced New York Times writer, Michael Finkel, who told his story in the book of the same name. Jonah Hill, as well as the rest of the cast, is very good. Rupert Goold, in his directorial debut is equally good behind the camera as he is in writing the screenplay. The film received mixed reviews, but it seems more than likely this is because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what the film was really attempting to do, which was to avoid the clichés and standard tropes typical in this type of story.

The film opens on a Teddy Bear falling into a suitcase in slow motion. Also in the suitcase, as it is being zipped up, is a motionless little girl. The next shot shows the suitcase submerged in water, followed by it being taken on a gurney to the morgue. Even the pathologist is horrified. From there the scene cuts to Jonah Hill in Africa conducting an interview as part of his job for the New York Times. Then things shift to Mexico, with James Franco in a church chatting up a beautiful German tourist. He tells her he’s a journalist for the New York Times--and gives her Jonah Hill’s name as his own--then takes her to his hotel room where the police arrive a short time later. Hill is obviously the real journalist. He is seen at the Times, his editor Gretchen Mol pressuring him to meet a deadline, but when his piece is published it comes out that he made up some of the things that he wrote about and he is fired. At the same time, when the camera cuts back to Franco he is now in prison, while Hill goes home to Montana to lick his wounds. Hill’s wife, Felicity Jones, works for the university, and after she leaves for work Hill tries calling editors but learns that he’s been blackballed because of his unethical behavior. Then a call from an Oregon reporter tells him of Franco’s arrest, how he killed his entire family in Oregon--his wife and three small children--as well as Franco’s use of Hill’s name. So Hill hops the next plane to the Oregon coast.

After meeting the reporter, Hill writes to Franco in prison, asking to meet with him, and he agrees. It turns out Franco has read all of Hill’s work, including the last story, and while he’s been inundated with requests from news organizations, he wants Hill to write about him. Hill later receives a sheaf of papers on which Franco has written his life story and Hill begins to wonder if he is actually innocent of the crime. Then they begin working together on what Hill believes will be a book. The bulk of the film is made up of their discussions together, Hill attempting to get the truth out of Franco, while Franco wants to be taught how to write more creatively. It’s certainly a fascinating story, but all sorts of associations come up, from the jailhouse interviews in Capote or Dead Man Walking, to the kind of cat-and-mouse deception evident in The Mean Season or Primal Fear. Franco makes an incredibly sympathetic murderer, which is exactly how he wants to portray himself to Hill. And Hill, of course, is the perfect person to believe him, a journalist who has been caught in a lie and is desperate to make good with the kind of story--a book no less--that will get him right back into the limelight. It’s an edge of suspense that is exceedingly sublime. Nothing overt, just a sneaking suspicion that clouds the whole relationship between the two for the audience.

Director Rupert Goold has a unique style that is quite interesting. He likes lots of close-ups, but very close, almost the way an independent filmmaker would frame his shots, and uses a lens that distorts the images slightly giving them a subtle fisheye look. The scenes with Franco alone in his cell are punctuated with flashbacks of him with his family, idealized scenes that are atmospheric but give nothing away. The set design is also interesting. Both the newspaper in New York as well as the jail and courtroom in Oregon are a stark white, with the images manipulated to heighten the brightness even further. Hill’s home in Montana, meanwhile, is full of warm earth tones, wood polished to a burnished orange, dark floors and furniture. Despite these manipulations, there’s an overwhelming sense of reality that the picture is imbued with, especially in Goold’s screenplay. The same goes for Robert John Burke who plays a local police officer who wants Hill to cooperate with them before the trial begins. Felicity Jones also does a very nice job of being concerned for Hill’s complete belief in Franco while still refusing to indulge in clichéd negative behaviors with him. In fact, the film is full of subtlety, and that’s what makes it great. It’s not reactionary, but Goold flatly refuses to give in to standard plot and character devices, and in doing so he has made a tremendous work of art that deserves to be understood rather than dismissed. True Story comes highly recommended.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Academy Awards 2016

Of course the thing everyone was holding their collective breath for was wondering what Chris Rock would say after so many black filmmakers boycotted the Oscars because there were no blacks nominated for the major awards--for two years running now. And he did not disappoint. The first surprise, however, happened before he took the stage. The opening of the program was a lengthy montage of every major film released during the past year. It was actually fairly impressive. When Chris Rock took to the stage he addressed the controversy head on. At times the audience was startled into silence, but he forged ahead, ending on the fact that there simply needs to be more opportunities given to blacks. He was nervous, to be sure, but he was also funny and said what needed to be said. But the thing is, he didn’t let it go after that, and kept right on hammering away at it. Another montage in which black comedians were inserted via computer graphics into some of last year’s films was terrifically funny, while a Black History Month piece honoring, who else but Jack Black, was wonderfully clever. Rock also did a piece outside a movie theater in Compton with black moviegoers, that was a stark reminder of how artistically divided the country really is.

The next big surprise was the order of the awards. Usually the first award goes to best supporting actor, and then there is a long spell of minor awards before the rest of the major awards at the end of the show. This year, however, the conceit was that the order would attempt to follow the filmmaking process itself by starting with the writers. The first award was for original screenplay, a category that even included a nomination for an animated film. The award went to Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy for Spotlight, the film about the Boston Globe’s exposure of the Catholic Church and the molestation of boys by priests. Next, for adapted screenplay, Charles Randolph and Randall McCay won for The Big Short, about the housing crash in 2008, adapted from the book by Michael Lewis of Moneyball fame. After that the first of the acting awards was given out, shoehorned in among the more technical awards, and best supporting actress went to Swedish actress Alicia Vikander for her performance in the British film The Danish Girl.

Costume design was up next, an award that usually goes to a costume or historical drama, though not usually for science-fiction or other challenging wardrobes, so it was a surprise that the Oscar went to Jenny Beavan for Mad Max: Fury Road. She had won previously back in 1987 for a more traditional historical drama, A Room with a View. Production design, an incredibly unsung award, was given to Colin Gibson and Lisa Thompson for Mad Max: Fury Road yet again. Make up and hairstyling went to Lesley Vanderwalt, Elka Wardega and Damian Martin, making it a clean sweep for Mad Max in the visual design awards. This led, quite naturally, to the award for cinematography. The Oscar went for the third year in a row to Emmanuel Lubezki, this time for his work on The Revenant. After the film is shot, it must be edited, and this award was given to Margaret Sixel and continued the dominance of Mad Max on the technical side of the awards. Sound editing went to Mark Mangini and David White, again for Mad Max, while sound mixing completed the sweep for Mad Max, going to the team of Chris Jenkins, Gregg Rudloff and Ben Osmo. Visual effects, formerly known as special effects, broke the streak and went to the team of Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris, Mark Ardington and Sara Bennett for Ex Machina, a British sci-fi film about robots with artificial intelligence.

The animated film categories were next, beginning with a tedious intro by the minions. The short film award went to Bear Story from Chile. The feature category was introduced by Pixar’s Woody and Buzz and was won by, no surprise, Pixar’s Inside Out. From here it was on to another award for acting, best supporting actor. The obvious sentimental favorite was Sylvester Stalone for Creed, but the award went to Mark Rylance in Stephen Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies for playing a captured Russian spy. Louis C.K. did a terrific introduction to the documentary short subject. The winner was A Girl in the River, about the hundreds of women who are killed in Pakistan because of “honor” every year and one who survived. The feature documentary award was given to Amy, a documentary about the late R&B singer Amy Winehouse. Honorary awards that were given out the previous November went to Gena Rowlands and Spike Lee, and the humanitarian award went to Debbie Reynolds. Vice President Joe Biden even made an appearance making an appeal for stopping sexual abuse on college campuses across the country in conjunction with the film The Hunting Ground.

Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, an African-American herself, made her speech about how the Academy is working toward making the steps necessary to reflect the diversity that is inherent not only in the country but in the worldwide audience as well. This year’s memoriam of actors and filmmakers who died in the last year was especially poignant because of the well-known names among them. The roll included actors Robert Loggia, Alan Rickman, Lizabeth Scott, Christopher Lee, Maureen O’Hara, Omar Sharif, Dean Jones, Alex Rocco, and Leonard Nimoy, director Wes Craven, composer James Horner, writers James White and Melissa Mattheson, film critic Richard Corliss, and producer Jerry Weintraub. The winner for live action short film was given next, and went to the British film Stutterer, while best foreign language film was given to the Hungarian Holocaust film Son of Saul. Best film score was won by the great Ennio Moricone, an award that was long overdue, for his work on Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. And best song from a film went to “Writing’s on the Wall” from yet another James Bond film, Spectre. One of the other new wrinkles in the program was that many of the nominees submitted lists of people they wanted to acknowledge and when the winners were called they scrolled beneath them as the made their way to the stage. But by this point the show was it was supposed to be over, and yet there were still all of the major awards to go.

The big four were still held until the very end. The best director Oscar was awarded to Alejandro Iñárritu for the second year in a row, this time for the historical drama The Revenant. Iñárritu had also won two others the previous year, for best picture and best screenplay, making his total four Oscars in two years. The award for best actress went to Brie Larson for an incredibly dramatic performance in the film Room, about a woman who has been held captive with her young son who was fathered by her captor. Next came the award for best actor, the well-deserved Oscar going to Leonardo DiCaprio for his performance in The Revenant. His speech about the dangers of climate change was warmly received. And in the spirit of social relevance, Morgan Freeman introduced the best picture award, going to Spotlight for its portrayal of Boston’s major newspaper to uncover the scandal in the Catholic Church, and the second year in a row that Michael Keaton starred in the best picture. Now that’s a comeback. All things considered, it was a good show, and the fact that DiCaprio won even sits well with me. He’s old enough now, and done enough work, that he certainly earned it. If there was a disappointment it was that Sly Stalone didn’t win, but at least Ennio Moricone was given the recognition he richly deserves. And I’m excited to take a look at Spotlight and review it for next year’s show.

Birdman (2014)

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu                   Writer: Nicolás Giacobone
Film Score: Antonio Sanchez                              Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Starring: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton and Zach Galifianakis

It had been a long time since it happened last. It was probably when Slumdog Millionaire won over Benjamin Button and The Reader the last time I felt that the wrong film had won for best picture. But it happened again last year. The Academy certainly took me by surprise when they chose Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) as best picture, especially with films like Boyhood and American Sniper to choose from. But after finally watching the film, it all sadly makes sense. While it’s not as utterly offensive as something like Paul Anderson’s Magnolia, it still manages to measure pretty high on the pretentiousness Richter scale. The one good thing about Anderson’s film, though, was that it was ignored at Oscar time. Birdman was the big winner a year ago, because Academy voters were sucked into the cult of different-is-better, and didn’t look closely enough at what was in the film and what it was really doing. The premise is interesting, and the technical effort is laudable, but the actual product isn’t very entertaining, and that’s a shame. Iñárritu also won a statuette for his direction, and Emmanuel Lubezki for cinematography, both well deserved. But handing out Oscars to the writing team of Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., and Amando Bo, as well as Iñárritu for what is an incredibly pedestrian story, was the real low point of the last year’s ceremonies.

Michael Keaton plays a film actor best known for a series of films where he played the superhero Birdman. But once he had left the franchise his career had fallen on hard times. When the film begins he’s a few days away from opening a play on Broadway, one that he wrote based on the writings of Raymond Carver. When his co-star, Jeremy Shamos, is injured on the stage his female co-star, Naomi Watts, tells him that her boyfriend, Edward Norton, can play the part. Norton is a veteran New York actor and immediately begins shaping the material to suit him. Meanwhile the other female lead in the play, Keaton’s girlfriend Andrea Riseborough, tells him she’s pregnant, and his daughter who is acting as his personal assistant, Emma Stone, is spewing vitriol at him because of her unhappy childhood. Keaton’s lawyer, Zach Galifianakis, is attempting to keep the three-ring circus going so that they can put on a show, but the personalities involved aren’t making it easy. At one point, because Norton doesn’t have real gin in his glass, he tanks the preview and Keaton is ready to close the show. But Galifianakis is desperate not to lose the star’s money, while Watts is desperate to finally have a chance at some notoriety, and Norton engineers the press to make it seem that he’s the star of the show.

What critics liked about the film was primarily the gimmick of presenting the story in one sustained take, in the manner of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. While the technique--with the aid of modern computer assistance--is interesting for a while, it soon becomes wearying as the camera chases characters through the hallways of the theater and out on the street. The camera is always moving, relentless, and in the pacing of the film there is absolutely no room to breath. But Iñárritu’s concept goes beyond Hitchcock, and also uses techniques explored, with better results, in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, where passages of time are also woven into the narrative without cutting away from the scene in progress. It is an impressive feat, with actors walking in and out of the scene seemingly in real time, but with no time for the viewer to process information it loses its impact rather quickly and turns into a narrative assault. More than anything else, however, the screenplay is the weakest part of the film. There is a tremendous feeling of having seen all of this before. The aging actor struggling to make something important of his career and the newcomer angling to steal his spotlight is straight out of All About Eve. And the dissolution of Keaton’s relationship with Riseborough, the dissolution of Norton and Watts’ relationship, and the burgeoning relationships between Riseborough and Watts as well as Norton and Stone seem so trite and overly familiar they are almost insulting to the viewer.

There are a few bright spots, however. The acting, for the most part, is quite good. It’s terrific to see Michael Keaton play a character that seems as if it could mirror his own journey. And Edward Norton is magnificent in the way he pushes everyone around him into doing extraordinary work. On the down side, most of the rest of the cast are interchangeable with other similar actors, and Emma Stone’s emotional rants are incredibly tedious. The one aspect of the film that is intriguing is that Keaton actually seems to possess some real super powers. But rather than do anything with it, Iñárritu lets it simply lie there without exploration, part of a magical realist sensibility that promises much but fails to deliver on that promise. Another missed opportunity is the subtle criticism of popular movie culture and social media. When Keaton talks about “missing” his daughter’s birthday party because he was videotaping it, there is so much more to be said that falls by the wayside. Even the incredible drum score by Antonio Sanchez is undercut by classical music selections later on in the film. In spite of all the negatives, it really is an impressive piece of filmmaking, but ultimately Birdman is a film that is less than the sum of its parts and is a disappointing best picture winner.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Taken (2008)

Director: Pierre Morel                                     Writers: Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen
Film Score: Nathaniel Méchaly                       Cinematography: Michel Abramowicz
Starring: Liam Neeson, Famke Janssen, Olivier Rabourdin and Maggie Grace

My reaction to films like this is decidedly mixed. On the one hand it’s a tremendous action thriller. The recent trend in European stories and films that really began in earnest with Luc Besson’s The Transporter, have been thoroughly enjoyable, and it’s no coincidence that Besson is responsible for this film as well. On the other hand there’s the subject matter. Sex slavery and sex tourism have become a moral blight on our age. This should be a difficult film for anyone to watch, and if it isn’t then there’s something wrong with us that it’s not more disturbing. Taken deals with the abduction of young girls in Europe who are then drugged and used as sex slaves until they are no longer profitable and then killed and disposed of, vanished without a trace. In this respect it is similar to a number of modern films that have the same flaw. Of course it’s great to see someone rescued from a horrifying situation. 12 Years a Slave did it with slavery in the antebellum South, and The Monuments Men did it with stolen art works during World War Two. But what about the art that wasn’t saved, the slaves that weren’t freed, and the many young women violated in the most dehumanizing way of all? While we walk out of the movie theater buoyed in spirit, those real women the film was based on are still being repeatedly raped and murdered. Movies are a powerful art form, with the ability to shape the way we understand our world. Let’s just hope that in the process of being entertained that we don’t become inured to the real tragedies being portrayed in our fictional adventures.

Liam Neeson is a retired CIA operative who is divorced and trying desperately to hold on to his relationship with his teenage daughter, Maggie Grace, especially now that his ex-wife, Framke Janssen, has remarried and she has a rich step-father. One of the things Grace wants to do is take a trip with her girlfriend, Katie Cassidy, to Paris, which Neeson says is out of the question. He doesn’t have any specific fears, but knows that teenage girls alone in Europe are in a lot of danger. But when his overprotective nature threatens to drive her away, he relents, against his better judgment. Of course, once in Paris the two girls are befriended by Nicholas Giraud, who shares a taxi with them and thus learns where they are staying and that they are alone. Before the two have even unpacked they are accosted by armed men who come to kidnap them. Grace manages to stay hidden long enough to call Neeson, and after she’s captured he has a brief conversation with her captor, Arben Bajraktaraj, to the effect that he has skills and will hunt him down and kill him. Naturally the Bajraktaraj thinks this is impossible and hangs up. But he doesn’t know Neeson is true to his word. Neeson gets help from his former CIA buddy Leland Orser, and then once in Paris from a police friend, Olivier Rabourdin. From this point on the film becomes a cartoon of impossibilities in which Neeson not only finds Bajraktaraj, but gets closer and closer to Grace without getting himself killed.

The story is an original one by Luc Besson. Director Pierre Morel was Besson’s cinematographer on the first Transporter film and on the fourth installment of his French Taxi franchise, and Besson’s company produced the film. Jeff Bridges was the original choice for the lead role, and when he backed out the film was offered to Neeson. Though the actor had worked in Batman Begins by Christopher Nolan, Taken was the first real action film he had appeared in. It was something the actor wanted to try, but it would then lead to a number of such films, including Unknown and The Grey, as well as two sequels to this film and a new direction in his career. As is the case in Besson’s action films, the pace is frenetic and the actions scenes, including car chases, are carefully edited montages that can convey anything from claustrophobia to desolation in Neeson’s pursuit of his daughter. Not unlike the character he plays, this is Neeson’s film all the way. He is relentless and he becomes more humorous as the film goes along. This is especially true in the scene where he tortures Bajraktaraj for information about Grace. The only other actor worthy of mention is Olivier Rabourdin, whose part in the plot is a nice twist. Mercifully, Maggie Grace is only in the first part of the film as she was already twenty-five when the film was shot, and it’s obvious. Her overacting trying to play a teenager is pretty bad.

One thing that’s incredibly refreshing about European action heroes is that there’s no moral angst or handwringing involved. Unlike the heroes in American films--Salt is a prime example, where Angelina Jolie never actually kills anyone--their European counterparts are only interested in getting the job done. Neeson is happy to shoot guys in the back to avoid being killed himself, or allow a subject to die from torture when he’s sure he has all the information he needs. But vicarious participation in revenge, I learned as far back as Frederick Barton’s review of Mississippi Burning, is not something that should sit well with us. Nor is the fact that, while Neeson is hell bent on getting his daughter back, thousands of girls are left to suffer a fate she doesn’t have to. And yet the film does nothing to acknowledge their suffering or even offer the slightest hope that the situation can be ameliorated by the authorities. Certainly good people in police departments all over Europe are doing everything they can to fight this pestilence. Or are they? Watching this film, it’s difficult to know. Increasingly, modern films are celebrating the individual rescue at the expense of the human cost of the problem. It’s too bad Neeson isn’t crying over the lost girls in this picture the way he did for the lost Jews in Schindler’s List. Nevertheless, Taken is an entertaining thriller that deserves its popularity. Let’s just hope we don’t forget the big picture in the process.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Looper (2012)

Director: Rian Johnson                                    Writer: Rian Johnson
Film Score: Nathan Johnson                           Cinematography: Steve Yedlin
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt and Jeff Daniels

I had heard about Looper when it first came out, but I wasn’t prepared for how odd Joseph Gordon-Levitt looked, and it bothered me for quite a while . . . until I finally realized he was supposed to look like a young Bruce Willis. After that, the makeup seemed pretty impressive--though really, Bruce Willis always looked like Bruce Willis when he was young, and not a bit like Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Writer-director Rian Johnson had done couple of minor films and directed a couple of episodes of Breaking Bad, but this is really his breakout film. What will become of him as a result remains to be seen. His science-fiction crime drama has a lot of problems in terms of the central conflict and understanding the narrative, but it is fun to watch. The film opens with Gordon-Levitt waiting in a field in front of a tarp spread out on the grass. After a minute he readies his sawed-off shotgun and suddenly a man appears, hooded and bound on his knees, whereupon Gordon-Levitt promptly shoots him and disposes of the body. The narrative begins thirty years in the future, a time when time-travel is not possible. But it is invented thirty years after that and immediately outlawed. So organized crime secretly uses it to get rid of enemies by sending them to the past where people like Gordon-Levitt dispose of them.

Along with the bodies are ingots of silver that the loopers--the hit men from the past--exchange at a pawnshop for the money of their day. The current time period is a dystopia of sorts, with the inhabitants of Earth mostly poor, except for the loopers. Gordon-Levitt picks up a fellow looper, the high-strung Paul Dano, to go out one night and he begins levitating a quarter, introducing another element of the plot: telekinesis. It’s something that comes into play later, but means nothing early on. Where things become complicated is the idea of “closing the loop.” The future mob knows that at some point the killers from the past will eventually age to the point where they coexist with the future timeline. To avoid that, as well as the ability of aging loopers to inform on their illegal activities, including time travel, they send the older version of the looper back to the past to be killed by themselves, thus completing the circle. Their “suicide” even comes complete with a large supply of silver to keep the looper comfortable until the future catches up with him. When a frightened Dano comes to Gordon-Levitt’s door one night he confesses that he let his loop “run.” The answer to that is simple for the mob, but it’s not killing Dano.

In the signature moment of the film, a really nice scene, Dano’s older self, Frank Brennan, is on the run and suddenly he notices his arm has been heavily scared with a message telling him where to be in 15 minutes. It means that they have his younger self and have cut him to convey the message. He doesn’t heed the warning and then notices that his fingers are vanishing one at a time. It’s a harrowing discovery about what is gradually happening to his younger self. Now driving as fast as he can to get to the meeting, he loses his nose and then a foot, causing him to crash. By the time he crawls to the doorway his legs and arms have disappear, and he’s shot by Noah Segan while a surgeon in the background finishes amputating Dano. When it’s Gordon-Levitt’s turn to have his loop closed, he hesitates because Bruce Willis isn’t wearing a hood. Willis gets his back turned in time and the shotgun blast hits the silver, then he throws a bar and reaches Gordon-Levitt and knocks him out. When he wakes up, he has a note from Willis on him telling him to hop a train and run. Instead he heads back to his apartment, but the mob has beat him to it and kills him trying to escape. But that is just his imagination wondering what would happen if he doesn’t kill Willis, and when he really does arrive he kills him, takes his money, and then begins to live out his thirty years.

But the story is only a half-hour old at this point and the remaining two-thirds of the film, while thrilling, is almost like a different movie when the two meet Emily Blunt and her son. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a passable job as Bruce Willis, though it must be said that there are long stretches in the beginning where it’s easy to forget that’s who he is. Some of the actors--like present mob hit man Noah Segan and especially the eye-roll inducing Jeff Daniels as the present mob boss--are not very good. But the dialogue is believable, for the most part, and the acting by all the principals is solid. Bruce Willis is in more of a supporting role, which is a good thing. Emily Blunt does a nice job with the American accent, and Pierce Gagnon does a magnificent turn as her telekinetic son. The story is an original one by Rian Johnson and, while the climax seems a little too reminiscent of Firestarter, the ending is breathtaking. It’s an impressive idea. Rather than spending a lot of time on the nuances of time travel, Johnson wanted to make a character driven film, and in that he succeeded. The images have some nice color tinting, washed out in the daytime but difficult to replicate in the night shots, and a serviceable but unmemorable score by Johnson’s cousin, Nathan Johnson. Overall, however, Looper is a tremendous accomplishment and one that gets even better on repeated viewings. It comes highly recommended.