Monday, February 27, 2012

Post-Oscar Thoughts

I was saying to a friend just before last night's Oscar telecast that I could not see both Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis winning for their performances in The Help. I won't say it was naive of folks to think that both of these fine actresses would walk away with the gold (especially in light of Streep's singular leading lady performance in The Iron Lady, the kind of picture the Academy loves ... biopics) but it was overly optimistic of fans of The Help to think it possible. It just wasn't going to happen. I would not diminish neither Spencer's nor Davis's performances by saying that while different they were still quite similar and maybe too similar for Academy voters looking to make a statement. Those folks would have prefered the spiky Minny to the more resigned Aibileen, I think. (Hollywood loves to reward roles that stand up to the man ... remember Denzel Washington Oscar win in a supporting role for his performance as the beaten but never bowed former slave in Glory?) Also, in terms of pure heft of performances, Davis's Aibileen was essentially a crucial but supporting role. The star of the film was actually Emma Stone, the narrative was told through her and it was she who defined the action. The film producers wanted to recognize Davis (as resourceful and reliable an actress as Hollywood will allow) with a nod and helped build the buzz about a possible win. They could not put both Davis and Spencer up for supporting actress -- they would have cancelled each other out. But I think putting Davis up for leading actress probably was in the end unfair to her ... in light of the weight of not just Madame Streep's performance but the other three women who OWNED and were the FACES of the pictures they were in. Davis, though important to The Help, didn't really own that film. In the end, as a nominee, Davis will be considered for membership in the Academy. They would be fools not to issue that invitation today for the mileage the motion picture industry got and will continue to get out her and The Help.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Grey

Joe Carnahan's The Grey is only incidentally about a group of men who survive a deadly aircraft crash in the Alaskan wilderness. For me, that event is only backdrop for a fascinating exploration of what it means to be alive and our relationship with our present ... not so much about what comes next. Liam Neeson is on camera for 90 percent of this film and much of that time his face fills the frame -- brows knit in concentration, indignation, terror. He is Ottway, the leader of a dwindling group of oil field workers who walked away from the crash. He leads their efforts to fend off the attacks of menacing wolves (which are to be read more as metaphorical representations of life's exigencies) and the night's numbing cold (that long last sleep that awaits us all). Yes, members of the small band fall one-by-one but that's not the story ... it's how the men are changed by each of these deaths that was far more interesting to me. One of the most powerful scenes -- there are a dozen enormously thought-provoking moments in this picture -- comes just after the plane crashes and Neeson's Ottway gently guides a fatally injured oilman into the warm arms of death with his voice. It's a masterfully crafted scene, played in extreme closeup, the camera trained on eyes, scraggy beards, bloody hands. It will be imprinted on your brain.

I'd put off seeing this film because I found the trailer so unappetizing -- another survivor adventure. But The Grey is actually Carnahan's poetic essay on the meaning of life. Do see it.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Shame

British director Steve McQueen's Shame is wonderful in the conventional sense -- intensely artful directing and powerful performances -- but it is unconventionally wonderful, as well, because it expertly mixes static resignation and frantic discomfiture. It's a movie about people not being comfortable in their own skins, even as they bare that skin to the world. The lead characters, Brandon Sullivan (a mesmerizing Michael Fassbender) and his sister Sissy (an equally terrific Carrie Mulligan), are driven by some unseen and unspoken past events into lustful rages that make them toxic to others, each other and to themselves. Brandon is a sex addict who works in an office with computers and lots of glass (it doesn't really matter what he does; he's just brilliant at it) and he spends a great deal of time scrolling the Internet for porn and stalking the streets of New York for willing sex partners. Sissy is a needy and clingy possible nymphomaniac just arrived in the Big Apple from L.A., where she was involved with a man who, apparently, she can't live with or without. McQueen films Mulligan in extreme close up singing the entirely of New York, New York in a lethargic meter that, like so much else in this film, will test the viewer's patience but will reward that patience when something will click and the device will become apparent. It's voyeurism. McQueen films interactions between characters so deliberately and at such great length (think John Cassavetes if he'd stripped his casts naked) that what at first is enticing eventually becomes distasteful. An early scene between Brandon and an unnamed female passenger on the subway transpires without a word being uttered, just glances between the two. The woman is at first flattered by his attention, then she's allured, but as Sullivan's gaze is unwavering, she loses her seductive pout and feels menaced by him. It's a brilliant scene in a film loaded with them but because Fassbender's prominent member is on display in a few scenes it will not be for every taste. It's a film about sex but it is decidedly not sexy.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Safe House

Denzel Washington fascinates me. More accurately, Denzel Washington's career fascinates me. He's one of a handful of A-list Hollywood African Americans who have maintained their box office appeal through savvy choices. He's done TV (St. Elsewhere) and Shakespeare (Much Ado About Nothing) and Spike Lee (a lot) and has never, in my opinion, appeared in, backed or directed a truly bad film. Many of his films are thoughtful explorations of human relations and weakness (Fallen) and many of them are richly textured examinations of black life in America (Antwone Fisher) more than a few are have the military as a backdrop. Some are decidedly weaker than others but each is boosted, considerably, by the sheer discipline of Washington performances. He's a force of nature -- but not an earthquake. He's more like a Hurricane. (Couldn't resist.) In the last decade or so, he's paired up with good to excellent B to B+ list Hollywood heartthrobs -- Ethan Hawke in Training Day, Chris Pine in Unstoppable and now Ryan Reynolds in Daniel Espinosa's Safe House, a good film with a mountainous body count and a story that is frustratingly incomplete. Washington plays a rogue CIA agent who for about a decade has been acquiring and selling secrets about undercover operations sponsored by the U.S. and its allies. Reynolds is the safe house "housekeeper" in Cape Town, South Africa, charged with delivering Washington's Tobin Frost to Langley when Frost turns himself in to the American consulate after a failed attempt on his life. The action is pretty much confined to Cape Town but there's plenty of it, maybe more than is actually needed. The story -- which owes a huge debt to the Bourne trilogy -- desperately needs more quiet moments between Washington and Reynolds, who is splendid, so that the audience can actually feel what's happening between these two men because that's where the real spy vs. spy story is. As a side note, who knew Berg of Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place would turn into such a fine actor? I didn't but Reynolds delivers.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Chronicle

Josh Trank's Chronicle is not an easy film to assess. It succeeds on a couple of cinematic levels -- as well-crafted sci-fi / teen angst -- but it falls short on other more elusive levels, I think. It's the story of a trio of friends who find a mysterious glowing rock in a cavern in suburban Seattle and subsequently develop the ability to move objects through force of will. The boys (played winningly by Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell and Michael B. Jordon) have fun videotaping (chronicling?) the exploration of their new powers. They bond and win some much needed affirmation for damaged young Andrew (DeHaan), who is brutalized by his drunken father even as his mother lies slowly dying in the family's living room. Trank's narrative is tight and fresh and the early super power sequences are clever and seamless. But, then, matters turn, jarringly dark. It's not so much that the outcome is unforeseen; it's telegraphed well and often from the beginning. It's more that it's unrelentingly, terribly grim. Chronicle is well made, no question, but it's so dark it's hard to see the point it's trying to make. I would NOT recommend taking young children to this film.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Wire Season 2 Epsiode 7: Backwash

The Wire Season 2 Episode 7: Backwash. The relationship between dock worker Nick Sobotka and his feckless cousin Ziggy is one of the more interesting in the second season and mirrors the familial tragedies found in the Barksdale clan. Casting the towering Pablo Schreiber as Nick and the comparatively diminutive James Ransone (whose acting was often too cartoonish by half) as Ziggy was smart and the stark difference in their physical presence signalled (perhaps to pointedly) the differences in their personalities, as well. Nick's physicality demands respect; Ziggy's, derision, which he receives in mounds. When Nick takes over the little piece of drug dealing action that his cousin tried to foster, Ziggy fumes and pouts. Ziggy has been bested by his tall, handsome cousin, and moves on to more reckless dealings that, inevitably, lead to his downfall. And, to add injury to injury, the loyal and industrious Nick is closer to Ziggy's father, union boss Frank Sobotka, than Ziggy is himself. What's a boy got to do to get his father's attention? Kill somebody?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

I'd never seen Mike Newell's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire before last night and enjoyed watching the Brit who went on the direct the nightmare that was The Prince of Persia deliver some decent thrills in what is pretty much a pudgy transitional film in the ordinarily lean and mean Potter series. Having not read the book I don't know if the problem lies in the source material, the screenplay or Newell's interpretation of either or both but it's not as nimble as the other entries -- particularly the cappers released last year. Still, the film moves the saga of the wizard boy / messiah along responsibly and we finally get a look at "he who must not be named" -- a scenery chomping Ralph Fiennes in his now-familiar Lon Chaney skeletal death mask. But in the final analysis, I found it entertaining though unremarkable.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Woman in Black

Surely someone with Daniel Radcliffe's star power could have picked a weightier post-Potter vehicle than James Watkins' beautifully art directed but amateurish period ghost story "The Woman in Black." Radcliffe (how many hundreds of millions of dollars is his face worth?) plays Arthur Kipps, a young London attorney during the early years of the last century who receives an ultimatum from his boss to get his act together or move on. Kipps, the widowed father of a 4-year-old, accepts the challenge to travel to the remote home of a deceased client, read through her papers, and get the estate, Eel Marsh, ready for sale. Kipps leaves his son in the care of the nanny and travels by train to the village of Crythin Gifford, where the residents tell him there's no room in the inn, he's not welcome and that he should take the first train back to London ... or else. Kipps refuses, preferring to stay employed, and, of course, the disquieted, bitter spirit of the lady of the title runs amok killing villagers as she goes. Aside from the predictability of the narrative, problems with the film begin with Kipps holding out a shilling to bribe a carriage driver to take him out to Eel Marsh. After cutting to the driver, the camera returns to Kipps who is now holding a significantly larger coin. It's a bush league continuity gaffe but when combined with nonsensical points of view, inexplicable 5 o'clock shadows on Radcliffe's boyish cheeks and mysteriously vanishing pets, it's scary how bad this movie is.

Queen & Slim

In the soon to be iconic photograph from Melina Matsoukas's distressing Queen & Slim, stars Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith...