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.