Sunday, January 29, 2012

Man on A Ledge: A Review (Review #329)


Jump They Say...

I'm not going to bash Man On A Ledge.  If one watches it, one will enjoy it, but there's a caveat to that.  One must completely forget that there isn't much in terms of acting and that if one thinks about the plot, everything is both remarkably predictable and far-fetched.

Nick Cassidy (Sam Worthington) nervously checks into the Roosevelt Hotel, has a meal, wipes his fingerprints off everything, and walks out on the ledge (hence the title).  It doesn't take long for someone to see him, and soon the police come to stop the jumper.  At first, it's Detective Jack Dougherty (Ed Burns), but Nick makes an unusual request: he wants to speak to Detective Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks) or he indeed will jump.  Mercer, emotionally broken from a failed rescue attempt of another jumper, is all but dragged to the Roosevelt.  She isn't happy about it, and neither is Officer Marcus (Titus Welliver), the growly head of the rescue squad. 

As it turns out, not happy either is Nick's former partner, Mike Ackerman (Anthony Mackie), who wonders what exactly is going on.  However, one person is extremely happy about all this: gutter journalist Suzie Morales (Kyra Sedgwick...yes, The Closer's own Kyra Sedgwick as Suzie Morales.  Process that for a minute). 

We quickly learn (primarily through flashbacks) that Nick is a fugitive: a former cop who was convicted of stealing the Monarch Diamond, which he was suppose to be protecting, from the owner, real estate tycoon David Englander (Ed Harris).  Nick goes to prison, but makes a daring escape when he's allowed to go to his father's funeral, which forces him to beat up his own brother, Joey (Billy Elliot--I mean, Jamie Bell).  Now on the lam, he's on the ledge.  As these types of films require a good twist or more to make things interesting, we get the first one rather quickly: Nick's suicidal act is really one gigantic ruse.  In reality, it's all part of a master plan to prove Nick's innocence.

How, pray tell?  Well, by proving the Monarch was never stolen in the first place!  How is this done?  By breaking into Englander's vault of course.  While Nick distracts the police by being on the ledge, Joey and his girlfriend Angie (Genesis Rodriguez) will break into the building, steal the diamond, and prove Englander faked the robbery for the insurance money.  As time begins to run short for the Cassidy brothers, Englander is not too worried, at first, about the goings-on.  This is because he has certain police on his payroll.  Two guesses...

As the situation unfolds, Mercer and Doughtery finally learn who the man they know as "J. Walker" (why that name made me laugh is anyone's guess but oddly, that name IS a clue), Mercer believes him, we get a few more twists in the break-in and the Monarch Diamond, and eventually the bad cops are revealed, the good ones do their jobs, the Cassidys prove what needed to be proven, and an older valet at the hotel (Bill Sadler) proves unusually helpful to the two boys.  Wonder what that was all about? 

I can't help having a touch of cynicism on Man On A Ledge only because during the film, so much of Pablo F. Fenjves' screenplay was pretty obvious.  When it comes to Nick's "daring" escape, I almost immediately saw through it.  The same goes for the most helpful valet.  And here is where I fault Man On A Ledge: everything in it is so amazingly predictable that the attempts to have these "shocking twists" don't pan out because they aren't shocking at all.  They're not exactly predictable in that one waits for them, but they aren't surprising.  If I was able to figure them out really quickly, then anyone should. 

Moreover, Man On A Ledge does what a lot of disposable action/thrillers do: they depend on a great many moments of fortuitous coincidences to occur.  We depend on everything in the plan going off without a hitch (something that rarely happens) and which appears even harder given how almost inept Angie and Joey are at the actual break-in.  I figure to pull of this elaborate heist, there would have to have been rehearsals and a casing of the joint.  How Joey or Angie could get at the complications of breaking into the vault where apparently no one ever goes (not even a guard on the floor where said vault is...or even anyone on that floor from the looks of it) we know not.  WHY Englander would keep this very valuable there rather than his mansion, or a Swiss vault, or HOW the Cassidys knew he kept it there, we know not.  In one crucial moment, in order to cover up the explosion of breaking in, Nick is literally inches from falling over, but pulls back in the nick of time.  Why or how not one of them considered that maybe, just maybe...he actually could go over, again, we know not.

Man On A Ledge also requires something else: a certain degree of stupidity to make it work.  Internal Affairs may be investigating and suspect certain rogue cops to be in cahoots with Englander, so of course they're going to let the same cops take charge of the situation of someone who at one point was working for them.  Even though Nick Cassidy is a cop-turned-criminal, amazingly no one (Doughterty, Mercer, or Marcus) ever recognizes his face until the DNA proof comes in via a cigarette. 

I think it's the far-fetched nature of Man On A Ledge more than anything else that pushes the film down.  Granted, I know the movie isn't going for much other than entertainment in its hour and forty-odd minute running time, and if I forget that I'm not suppose to think I can clearly enjoy it.  However, I can't get those little things like plot or acting out of my measuring system: not if I figure things out well in advance, and not if I can't believe some of the performances.

Asger Leth certainly didn't take much care in how he directed his actors.  You can see this with people such as Ed Burns (a man who has built his entire acting career on being the quintessential sarcastic New Yorker).  I figure we aren't suppose to care much about Doughtery's life outside the job, but here, I could almost sense Burns thinking, "I say these words, I get paid, I'm outta here".  Harris was just reveling in his ability to play the evil 1 Percenter (though I was surprised at how thin he was) and since we really don't need to go into his background (he throws gifts at people, so we know he's evil) the less we see this an an epic confrontation between the 'good cop framed' and the 'bad guy', the better.

I also note that during the standoff at the Roosevelt, a man (who looked either homeless or who had wandered over from Occupy Wall Street--sometimes hard to tell the difference) was shouting something about how the rich guys weren't the ones going to jail.  How this mattered to anything that was going on I know not, but it might have been a nice touch to see a group of people on the street with drums chanting "This Is What Democracy Looks Like" to Suzie Morales' camera, a moment of humor in the film.  Yet I digress.

It was nice to see Billy Elliot going for a bit of humor whenever he and his girlfriend start doing witty sniping at each other during the robbery (though one wonders whether, again, it made sense that they would choose this particularly tense time to do their version of a Burns & Allen routine), though again, one wonders how easily Joey was captured (or was it all part of the plan...) and when he and Nick had their 'fight', I said to myself, "FAKE!".  The second worst performance was Sedgwick, who was not only grossly miscast as the Latina Suzie Morales (the audience I was with laughed several times, mostly in good nature, in Man On A Ledge, but the biggest laughter came when Sedgwick emphasized her character's last name...the majority-Hispanic audience I figure for some reason just couldn't buy the woman most identified with the South as a member of La Raza) but while we saw she was a predatory character she was really superfluous to the story.

The worst performance was from Worthington, an actor that continues to struggle to be convincing.  In all the films of his that I've seen: Avatar, the remake of Clash of the Titans, Terminator: Salvation, and The Debt, Worthington isn't called on to be a person of full range.  Well, maybe in The Debt he was slightly better than he has been before, but by and large Worthington just has such a hard time expressing any kind of emotion on screen (or completely losing his Australian accent).  He appears to be a cross between Taylor Lautner and Robert Pattinson: someone who is being built up to be a big action star (Lautner) but who is also a more serious actor (Pattinson).  The fact that neither Lautner or Pattinson have actually done anything close to a performance doesn't bode well for them, but given that Worthington is still stumbling in his efforts to find a range doesn't bode well for him either.

Man On A Ledge isn't by any means a bad film and certainly not the worst film of 2012.   It's dumb but in a slightly entertaining way (if of course you're willing to forget that people aren't bringing their A-Game to the film and the story itself is highly contrived, ridiculous, far-fetched, and built on far too many happy turns of fortune to be believed).  I figure Man On A Ledge knows what it is, doesn't pretend to be anything else, doesn't aspire to be anything else, and for that I don't fault it.  Really, if it weren't for the film's predictability, I would have enjoyed it more.  Did I enjoy Man On A Ledge?  Slightly, but not enough for me to take a dive for it.


Saturday, January 28, 2012

Sarah's Key: A Review


La Clé D'Un Passé Tragique...

The films involving the Holocaust have almost universally revolved, rightly, around the actual victims inside the camps.  It isn't often films deal with those on the outside: not collaborators but those living during the Nazi occupation, who weren't party to the horrors around them but who still go through some of the consequences that are almost beyond bearable.  Sarah's Key takes us to where few Holocaust-related films have gone to: to those who were neither perpetrators or straight-out victims but who still, generations later, bear the scars of the most monstrous and inhuman era in recorded history. 

Sarah's Key has two intertwining stories from 2009 and 1942.  In the present-day, American journalist and expatriate Julia (Kristen Scott Thomas) has decided to do a feature-length article about the roundup of French Jews in Paris under the Occupation.  She has her own problems: a French husband named Betrand (Frédéric Pierrot) who is deeply immersed in business and not to thrilled to find he is going to be a father again, and a teenage daughter. 

Her research gets into the story of young Sarah Starzynski.  She is one of the thousands rounded up by the French police where she, her father and mother are held at the Vel' d'Hiv bicycle track.  The conditions are inhuman: little water, no bathrooms, and desperate people committing suicide.  In a fateful move, Sarah gets her younger brother Michel to hide in a secret room at their Parisian flat, with Sarah taking the key.  Her early story involves her desperate attempt to get back to the flat and let Michel out.  On her journey back, she is forcibly separated from her parents, escapes with another girl with the help of a French camp guard, and taken in by a kindly French couple.  Once Sarah does arrive back at her old home, the discovery of Michel, while unseen, is still a horror.

It's now, during Julia's research, that she makes a shocking discovery of her own: it is her husband's family who had taken the apartment and her father-in-law and his father who are there when Sarah bursts in to find what remains of enfant Michel.  I should make clear that her in-laws were thoroughly unaware of Michel's existence and that the secret behind Sarah's Key was kept by Betrand's father and grandfather.  Said father-in-law, Eduard Tezac (Michel Duchaussoy) would have preferred for this to have been buried with him as it was buried with his father, but Julia is determined to find out what happened to Sarah, who was not listed as having been murdered by the Nazi or Vichy regimes.

Eduard tells Julia that his father had kept in touch with Sarah's adopted family, and from here she tracks down Sarah's story.  Sarah functions, but sinks into bouts of melancholia.  Eventually she leaves for America, and marries.  At first Julia believes she's found THE Sarah, but we learn that the Mrs. Rainsferd she's tracked down is the SECOND Mrs. Rainsferd.  Sarah Rainsferd had died in the 1960s in a car accident.  At first, it appears to be the end of Julia's search, until the second Mrs. Rainsferd tells her Sarah and her husband Richard had a son.  Now Julia goes from Brooklyn to Florence, where William Rainsferd (Aidan Quinn) at first rejects the idea that his mother Sarah Rainsferd is also Sarah Strazynski: Jew.  Eventually, his father Richard, close to death, tells him of Sarah's background and Jewish ancestry.

In the coda, we go to 2011.  Julia is now divorced from Betrand and living back in New York with her new daughter.  She reunites with William, who tells her he's met Sarah's French adopted family.  He also learns that Julia's infant daughter is named Sarah.

The theme of Sarah's Key can be summed up by what a minor character (a historian who gives Julia information about the Vel' D'Hiv roundup) tells her: if you look into it, you don't come out unscathed.  Any film about a difficult subject, ranging from the Shoah to slavery to September 11th, has already a heavy burden to it.  The positive thing about Sarah's Key is that this little-known story is handled on an intimate level.  In other words, rather than attempt to give us a grand overview of what occurred during the Vichy regime, the film instead does two things right: one, it keeps us focused on one particular family and two, it balances remarkably well the stories of Sarah and Julia without shortchanging one or the other.

Major credit for this is due to director Gilles Paquet-Brenner (who also co-wrote the screenplay based on Tatiana De Rosnay's novel with Serge Joncour).  Whenever we go from 1942 to 2009, the transitions flow easy and are rarely jarring.  The film also allows us to understand that Julia is not just doing research on Sarah's story and that there is nothing outside of that for her.  Instead, we see that she is a full person: marital problems, problems with her in-laws, all these things allow us into her private life.  Where in other films the research may have overwhelmed her private life to where it becomes all-consuming, Sarah's Key allows us to have those respites and see Julia has troubles of her own which would make an interesting story in and of itself.

It truly is incredible that after her splash in The English Patient, Kristen Scott Thomas hasn't been as big a star as her talents should have made her.  She is perfect in both English and French, and even more remarkable is the fact that her American accent is flawless.  Scott Thomas underplays Julia, never going for big emotional moments but instead registering her horror, her anger, in small ways.  For example, when she discovers both what actually happened to Michel and that her own father-in-law knew the truth about Sarah, her reaction is one of shock and horror, but it's never big.  Instead, it is almost quite, which makes it all the more tragic.

Credit should also be given to Mélusine Mayance as the younger Sarah.  She has a very difficult task: to make Sarah an average girl, one with fear but also with a determination to rescue her brother at all costs.  Her best moment is when she finally comes back to the apartment: her racing up to get to him as fast as possible actually inspires a fleeting moment of hope, while her discovery of Michel's ultimate fate is all the more horrifying and haunting.  Even though we never actually see Michel, Paquet-Brenner creates a scene where what we can see in our own mind is far more horrifying than what could have been shown.  He showed great restraint in what was already a gruesome scenario, and Mayance carried that off brilliantly.

In the smallest of roles, Quinn is an actor that really should work more.  Like Scott Thomas, Quinn in his few brief moments does a good job of making his William someone who can't quite come to terms that everything he knew about his mother was not true. 

It really isn't until the war's end where Sarah's Key starts to flag, as if the story was becoming exhausted.  I got the sense that once we found that Sarah left for America, we were rushing headlong to end it all (no pun intended).  The momentum was lost, and it became a series of 'hit this point, then this point, then that point'.  Throwing in the second Mrs. Rainferd, then throwing in the unknown son, then throwing in his discovery of his mother's secret past...again, it appeared as if everyone was rushing.

A minor fault I found to an overall engrossing film.  Sarah's Key isn't about the actual crimes perpetrated by the Nazis and their Vichy collaborators.  Instead, it's about those who are caught up in horrifying situations not of their doing, and that there were victims of all types.  It is about how the truth may set one free, but how it can also be a painful and traumatic experience for those who were indirectly affected by things beyond their control.  In Sarah's Key, there are few if any villains, but rather all sorts of collateral damage to acts of unspeakable evil.  Then again, even if it causes tremendous pain, these evils must be spoken of, lest we forget...


Thursday, January 26, 2012

Moneyball: A Review


Although I don't follow baseball, I agree with Billy Beane in Moneyball: there is a romanticism to the game.  There is a magic to the game, full of figures that become larger than life: from the nobility of Lou Gehrig and the stoicism of Joe DiMaggio right down to the final triumph of the Red Sox after a seemingly eternal World Series drought.  Moneyball is the story of the little team that almost could, and in particular their general manager who decided that the only way to tackle seemingly insurmountable odds against him was to merely change the rules.

Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) has some great players with his Oakland Athletics (or A's in the parlance of sports): with Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi on his roster, the A's make it to the American League Division playoffs against the mighty (and heavily financed) New York Yankees.  We start with the A's coming short, they lose.  Not only do they lose the game (and the chance to go on to the World Series), but they also lose their star players: both Damon and Giambi go for greener pastures.

With a low roster and the smallest budget in baseball, Beane knows he won't be able to buy expensive players.  While on a trip to Cleveland to see about trading players, he comes across Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale economics grad who has faith in statistics.  More specifically, a belief that a good team can be had with a small budget by crunching the numbers of underused and undervalued players, measuring their statistics (averages, number of hits and runs) and by combining them, come out with a winning team.  Beane is highly intrigued by this idea, and with it a chance to both shake up how things are done and perhaps to get a winning team.

Beane charges full-steam ahead, with only Brand on his side.  His decision to get unorthodox players based not on their looks or their popularity but based solely on the numbers horrifies just around everyone on the A's recruiting board.  The A's manager Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffmann) thinks the idea is idiotic and won't play the team Beane champions, instead going with the ones he thinks will win the games.

At first, things go badly for the A's.  The team is floundering and Beane is held to blame. However, after Beane forces Howe's hand to play the team that he and Brand put together, the A's start having a series of success.  The A's start winning game after game after game...going for an all-time record of 20 straight wins, including a dramatic win over the Kansas City Royals, where the A's started out with an eleven-point lead to blowing it into an eleven-all tie and a dramatic homerun in the final inning.  However, Beane won't be satisfied until the A's win the last game...which they don't. 

Coupled with all this are scenes from Beane's private life: both his relationship with his daughter (along with his ex-wife and her new husband--a non-baseball watcher) and from his past as a prospective baseball phenom who gave up a scholarship to Stanford for a chance to play in the Majors only to find his pro ball career coming to an ignoble end. 

Moneyball is a film that is not strictly about baseball, in particular because we don't see all that much baseball playing in the film itself.  Instead, the film is about Beane himself: about his efforts to try something different in order to achieve his goal of winning a World Series.  On another level, Moneyball is a film about a man who loves the game and wants to leave his mark on it, if not on the field itself at least then on how to do more with less.

As portrayed by Pitt, Billy Beane is above all a realist, someone who knows the limits he faces and also knows the system doesn't work.  Beane is aware that he can't outspend the other teams, so he needs to find another way.  When he comes across Brand's numbers-crunching, it appears to be the answer.  Pitt's Beane is a remarkably controlled individual, rarely expressing anger but making his frustrations clear about how his method, of which he has full confidence in, is constantly thwarted by small minds determined to stick with what they know even if the results will be the same.

Pitt also excels in his scenes outside the field, in particular with his daughter.  We see the genuine love he has for her, and thanks to that we have a fully-rounded individual who sees baseball as his job (one he wants to do the very best at) but whose life is his family.  He also brings a sadness to Beane, whenever we see his past as a Major League player.  Beane has been all but bred to play the game, and has been told by the scouts that he has the skills to be among the greats.  However, his career on the field proved otherwise.  In a small but excellent scene, Beane over the phone asks Brand if he would have drafted Beane right out of high school.  After an uncomfortable pause, Brand tells him he would have taken Beane in the ninth round, if at all.  Knowing what he knows about his career and seeing Brand won't sugarcoat the truth to him, we see into both their characters: both are honest, direct, and interested only in winning.

Hoffmann has a small role, but he makes the most of it.  He also maintains great control, but his Howe makes it clear he doesn't see things the way Beane and Brand do, so he does as he thinks right.  Jonah Hill moves away from his schlub-comic persona to be a remarkably quiet schlub, a person who is slightly insecure among all the athletes but who has full confidence in his numbers.  Granted, oftentimes he appears to just be staring, but at least he's not trying to make us laugh, so that's a plus.

Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin (both Oscar winners in the adapted screenplay category) adapted Michael Lewis' nonfiction book (with story by Stan Chervin) and did a great job in translating it by focusing less on the actual results of the games and more on the human drama.  You have this team made up of the likes of David Justice (Stephen Bishop) a player once a big star but whose age is seen as a handicap and who is looking for one last shot, and Scott Hatterberg (Chris Pratt) another player dismissed but who sees in the A's a chance to rise to a great one.

Bennett Miller doesn't spend much time on the games themselves, however, when we do see the game (in particular the A's/Royals game) we do get beautiful moments that speak to that 'magic' baseball has (even for those who don't know what shortstop and outfield mean).  As he did with Capote, he doesn't have such things as a distracting score or various story threads.  While he gives certain characters their moments, by keeping the focus on Beane (both professional and personal) Moneyball becomes less a movie about baseball than a movie about a man who is determined to make a success out of what he's been given.

I can't find anything particularly bad with Moneyball save for the fact that as good as the film is, I couldn't get passionate about it.  It might have been due to the fact that while efficient, Moneyball doesn't attempt to be inspirational.   Like the numbers game it emphasizes, the film does its job, does it well, but doesn't stir the emotions.  In short, I don't think Moneyball is a bad film.  I just didn't get inspired by it, didn't get a sense that I should care all that much about Billy Beane or the A's (even if I happen to favor the Dodgers myself).

Actually, that's not entirely true.  I did get inspired in one respect.  Given how much emphasis there was in getting value for money, I began to wonder what would happen if Hollywood started adapting the same facts and figures to their lineup of stars.  In short, what would happen if the studios found out certain stars were overpaid and underperforming, then started hiring actors, writers, directors, who could make a good film but with limited budgets while cutting the same who weren't.  Now THAT'S a film I would cheer for.

Born 1962


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Oscars 2012 Review

Well, now we have the official nominations for the 84th annual Academy Awards. 

Is it the 84th already?  It seems only yesterday that Snow White was dancing with Rob Lowe.

We find that Hugo has 11 nominations, the most of any film, followed closely by The Artist's 10.  The Artist was going to get nominated.  That's no surprise.  It does mean that it now becomes the first silent film to earn a Best Picture nomination since 1929's The Patriot (sadly a lost film). 

Now, for some reactions.  Let's start with the so-called 'minor categories'.  My choices are in red.


The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
War Horse

If it's a reward for the LOUDEST film, it would be Transformers.  This category tends to go to the loudest. However, Hugo I think of the nominated films is the best one to integrate sound into the story. It had some good moments of sound (in particular two train collisions).  I am surprised that The Artist DIDN'T get a sound nomination, especially considering that when sound was used, it was used remarkably well and effectively. 

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
War Horse

Why do I think Moneyball is the oddball (no pun intended) in this category?  On this one, I gravitate towards the war movie.  Again, another puzzle as to why The Artist isn't listed here.  Granted, it is a silent picture, but again, what sound there is in the film is mixed in well. 


Albert Nobbs
Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Part II
The Iron Lady

If you look at Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, the make-up doesn't just get Baroness Thatcher's actual appearance so well.  It also looks natural.  In short, when we get the old Thatcher, the make-up work looks authentic, and that's the hallmark of good make-up work. 


The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement
God is the Bigger Elvis
Incident in New Baghdad
Saving Face
The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom

It's almost a given that a Documentary Short Subject will have a film about the civil rights movement.  This is a case of 'we haven't seen any of them', but the film about the Japanese tsunami of 2011 appears to be the odds-on favorite.  If the nominees don't involve the civil rights movement, the winner is either an anti-Iraq Intervention film or one involving natural disasters. 


Hell and Back Again
If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Movement
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
Unlike previous years, I have actually seen at least two of the nominees (which I consider a step up).  It's a personal disappointment that such brilliant films like Page One: Inside the New York Times, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and especially my Number 2 film of 2011 (Senna) did not make the short list.  The Documentary Feature branch in my opinion is turning into a joke: they have failed to nominate among other films Hoop Dreams or Grizzly Man.  One wonders what exactly they look for when watching the films.  Still, the overall choices aren't bad.  I've heard great things about Pina, and Undefeated is a thrilling film about a down-but-not-out high school football team.  However, for my tastes the engrossing story of Daniel McGowan from my Number 7 film of 2011 is simply too good. 

The Shore
Time Freak
Tuba Atlantic

Sad but that I haven't seen any of them.  Back when the Academy was established and for many, many years past that, theaters would routinely show short films before the feature.  Now, we get commercials for breast enlargements and community colleges (along with regular commercials.  Maybe we should create a Best Commercial category).  In any case, I would rather see any of the above films rather than some woman holding a pair of cantaloupes up to her chest to the surprise of her dim-witted husband.  I'm hoping YouTube will be more helpful. 

The Fantasic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
La Luna
A Morning Stroll
Wild Life

This is a case where I might have seen one of the animated films (which again, would be a better use of my time than boobs selling boobs).  Yes, people used to see cartoons before the feature (before our dulled society decided cartoons were for children...obviously those who think that aren't too familiar with Japanese anime.  Sit through Grave of the Fireflies and tell me that's for children).  Yes, perhaps YouTube will be a place to find some of these...worth a look.  However, in this case I WILL make a pick, only because the title appears so intriguing. 


A Cat in Paris
Chico & Rita
Kung Fu Panda 2
Puss In Boots

I can imagine the head-scratching with the first two.  This is a "WHAT?!" situation: I don't think many people have heard of either A Cat in Paris or Chico & Rita.  They didn't have the selling point of something like Happy Feet 2 or Cars 2.  It reminds me of when The Book of Kells received a surprise nomination in this category last year.  I fault people for not being more adventurous in their film-viewing.  I also fault the studios for not trusting said audiences and dumbing things down tremendously.  Now, while I haven't seen any of them I would pick Puss In Boots only because I get a stronger sense that it would know what it is: both a prequel and a spoof of Zorro


Bullhead (Belgium)
Monsieur Lazhar (Canada)
A Separation (Iran)
Footnote (Israel)
In Darkness (Poland)

So what if the Iranian government crushed the Green Revolution and wants to destroy fellow nominee Israel?  From what I've heard, everyone appears crazy over A Separation, and I expect it will transcend politics to win.  Whether or not it should...I cannot say for sure.


Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Part II
Real Steel
Rise of Planet of the Apes
Transfomers: Dark of the Moon

I have to give it to Hugo ONLY because it is the only movie that managed to make 3-D work.  However, both Real Steel and Rise of Planet of the Apes would be worthy choices: the former integrated the rock 'em sock 'em robots so well, and the latter is a showcase for motion-capture technology. 


The Artist
Harry Potter & The Deadly Hallows: Part II
Midnight in Paris
War Horse

It's a tough one between Hugo and Harry.  The sets of Hugo are beautiful but the ones for Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows were brilliant in bringing the end of Hogwarts to life.  However, in the end I opted for beauty, in particular the recreations of the Melies films. 


The Artist
Jane Eyre

What can I say?  My Number One film of 2011 received exactly ONE nomination, so you think I'd vote for anything else? 

The Artist (Michael Hazanavicius)
Bridesmaids (Anne Mumolo and Kristen Wiig)
Margin Call (J.C. Chandor)
Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)

First, I cannot for the life of me understand why people, my fellow critics in particular, are enthralled with Bridesmaids, thinking it the Citizen Kane of comedies.  Frankly, I think the film is wildly overrated: with the exception of Wiig's meltdown on the plane I don't remember laughing in this 'comedy'.  Moreover, I simply cannot believe the Academy will give an Oscar to a movie where a woman defecated in a sink and in a wedding dress in the middle of the street.  Ain't gonna happen.  For myself, I found Woody Allen's script inventive, playful, and a return to form. 

The Descendants (Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash)
Hugo (John Logan)
The Ides of March (George Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Beau Willimon)
Moneyball (Steven Zaillian & Aaron Sorkin, story by Stan Chervin)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Bridget O'Connor and Peter Staughan)

I'm at a loss to say whether The Descendants is a good film since it's one of two Best Picture nominees I haven't seen (it's waiting for me patiently).  Now, of the others, I found Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy the best of them: it engaged my mind, and unlike other people (perhaps some of my colleagues) I didn't find the plot confusing. 


The Artist
The Descendants
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

How is it that I am unimpressed with this list?  Moneyball?  Again, a movie I though was good but a bit overpraised.  Hugo was a bit too long (and the fact I thought they could have cut almost all of 'comedic genius' Sasha Baron Cohen doesn't help).  For that, I would pick The Artist in how well the story flowed (especially sans sound). 


The Artist (Guillaume Schiffman)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Jeff Cronenweth)
Hugo (Robert Richardson)
The Tree of Life (Emmanuel Lubezki)
War Horse  (Janusz Kaminski)

As much as I detest The Tree of Life (and believe me, I HATED this film) about the only good thing I found in it was the cinematography.  Its imagery of Creation is beautiful...almost like a nature documentary.  I'm not one to dismiss the good I find in a bad film (even one that causes my fellow critics to masturbate though I simply don't know why).  Hence, my own selection.


The Adventures of Tintin (John Williams)
The Artist (Ludovic Bource)
Hugo (Howard Shore)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Alberto Iglesias)
War Horse (John Williams)

I liked the music of Tintin (though I though there was too much of it).  I see that the controversy over the use of the music from Vertigo didn't interfere with The Artist getting a nomination.  In a silent film, the music is more important than almost anything because it all but carries the film.  How could I not pick the score (even if Hugo is a fierce second)?


Man or Muppet (music & lyrics by Bret McKenzie)  The Muppets
Real in Rio (music by Sergio Mendes & Carlinhos Brown, lyrics by Siedha Garrett) Rio*

THIS IS A JOKE!  THIS IS A DAMN JOKE!  The Academy clearly has no idea what it's doing, or they somehow left out all the nominees.  First, only TWO nominees?!  I managed to easily find FIVE, so how they arrived with just two is insane!  Second, of all the songs from The Muppets, they had to pick one of the DUMBEST?!  I remember Man or Muppet, and I though it was deliberately stupid (and one of the worst of the songs).  Life's A Happy Song (while deliberately cutesy) is far more memorable. 

The idea that Star-Spangled Man from Captain America: The First Avenger or The Living Proof from The Help weren't deemed worthy of a nomination will be one of those moments when people will look back and say, really, Man or Muppet?  I haven't heard Real in Rio, but I'm picking it just as a protest vote. 


Kenneth Branagh (My Week With Marilyn)
Jonah Hill (Moneyball)
Nick Nolte (Warrior)
Christopher Plummer (Beginners)
Max von Sydow (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close)

I can't wait for the ads for 21 Jump Street or the DVD of The Sitter that taut "Oscar nominee Jonah Hill".  If I picked the Oscar, I'd be tempted to give it to the surprise nominee (and a pleasant surprise it is).  It was a moving performance of a man seeking redemption, but a slight edge is gained for Branagh doing a great turn as Laurence Olivier, getting both his on-screen performance in The Prince & The Showgirl and his off-screen rage so well.


Bérénice Bejo (The Artist)
Jessica Chastain (The Help)
Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids)
Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs)
Octavia Spencer (The Help)

Chastain got this nomination in lieu of not being able to be nominated for everything she was in (I'm surprised she didn't appear in those breast enlargement commercials before the films.).  I really think of those listed, as much as McCarthy was a highlight of the wildly overrated Bridesmaids, it's Spencer's both comic and sad turn as the outwardly strong Minny that should be rewarded.  Besides, if I don't vote for her, she might send me some pie...

Demian Bichir (A Better Life)
George Clooney (The Descendants)
Jean Dujardin (The Artist)
Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)
Brad Pitt (Moneyball)

For my money, I'm THRILLED that Bichir's turn as the immigrant attempting to provide for his son was rewarded.  I also figure that if Pitt didn't get something for The Tree of Life, Moneyball would do. A tough one with Bichir in the mix, but I narrow it down to Dujardin and Oldman.  However, if I were to pick, I have to go for Oldman: he was so understated yet fully commanded the screen whenever he was on.  Besides, doesn't he just deserve one because he's basically been good in almost everything and has yet to be rewarded? 


Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs)
Viola Davis (The Help)
Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo)
Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady)
Michelle Williams (My Week With Marilyn)

Tough, tough, tough.  Really between Davis and Streep.  I though Streep was perfect as Margaret Thatcher, but I was so moved by Davis (again, like Oldman, another performance where so much was said with just their face). 


Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)
Alexander Payne (The Descendants)
Martin Scorsese (Hugo)
Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris)
Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life)

Of all the directors, there isn't a bad choice save Malick.  I'm glad he could tell his deeply personal story, but it's unfortunate that it's a story only HE fully got.  However, any director who used 3-D to the full and best effect, he (or she) gets my vote.


The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
The Help
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
War Horse

The big surprise is Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.  It's been critically derided, and my brother Gabe (who saw it with his girlfriend, which makes me wonder WHY they would consider a September 11th film would be a good date film) said it wasn't that good.  In fact, it appears Extremely a flop (the second for Tom Hanks).  No Bridesmaids, no Harry Potter, so perhaps we should be thankful for small miracles.  Of the ones nominated, I would pick Hugo: a film that is both a loving homage to the history of film and a subtle cry to save our film legacy.

This, again, is just a recap of the nominees and my immediate reactions along with my own picks if it were up to me.  I haven't seen two of the Best Picture nominees: one is waiting for me, one was just released nationally.  I feel that this is not the time to predict which ones will win.  Besides, I have MY own selections to consider.

Ultimately, I know myself, and I will eventually make my predictions.  I also may change my mind on the ones I have selected now.  Let's see how things turn out February 26. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

Red Tails: A Review


Those Daring Black Men in Their Flying Machines...

The Tuskegee Airmen deserve all the accolades and honors that a most grateful nation can bestow for their true heroism, both in the theater of war and for breaking down barriers towards fulfilling the American promise of  "equality for all".  In 2021, the United States Mint will issue its final National Parks Commemorative Quarters: for the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.  Red Tails is the feature film that details the rise of the Tuskegee Airmen, and to its credit it isn't a dry history lesson.  To its detriment, it isn't much else.

It's Italy, 1944, and the Negro airmen don't have much to do in terms of actually engaging the enemy.  If they do, it's really more by accident and persistence than by direct orders.  This frustrates the pilots: the more sober (but ironically enough, alcoholic) flight commander Marty "Easy" Julian and his wingman, hot-shot and hot-tempered Joe "Lightning" Little (David Oyelowo).  This issue of not only not being able to engage the enemy but being given second-rate planes frustrates the other pilots: the devout "Deacon/Deke" Watkins (Marcus T. Paulk), the comical Samuel "Joker" George (Elijah Kelley) and equally amusing Andrew "Smokey" Salem (R & B star Ne-Yo), and the youngster Ray "Junior" Gannon (Tristan Wilds) who would rather go by another nom de guerre: "Ray-Gun". 

Their commanding officers, Colonel A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) and Major Emmanuel Stance (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) constantly fight to get the airmen better equipment and actual combat duty, despite the resistance of barely concealed racist Colonel Mortamus (Bryan Cranston).  Despite the obstacles, the necessity of war forces their situation: Major General Luntz (Gerald McRaney) needs dependable escorts for his flying fortresses, and the Tuskegee Airmen appear to be able to do the job.  With that, the Tuskegee Airmen finally take full flight.  To mark themselves as distinct (apart from their skin color), the defiant men paint their airplane tails red.

Somewhere along the way in Red Tails, we get other story threads: there is a little romance between Lighting and an Italian signorina named Sofia (Daniela Ruah), some pilots don't make it to V-E Day, Easy's alcoholism grows while remaining remarkably hidden save for Lighting, and Junior falls behind enemy lines and ends up in Stalag 17 (technically Stalag 19, but given how the story goes, you might as well have William Holden in the next bunk).  We end with the Red Tails achieving what they had earned by deeds: the salute of their white military leaders.

Somehow, the idea of bringing the story of the Tuskegee Airmen to the big screen appears to be a no-brainer.  It's a story with action, adventure, romance, and the bonus of personal courage despite unfair obstacles.  Red Tails, however, drops the ball slightly by not giving the characters anything to do when they are on the ground. 

On has to give enormous credit to director Anthony Hemingway (and his producer, one George Lucas) for creating simply wonderful moments of aerial combat.  Red Tails opens with a spectacular dogfight that to my mind was highly reminiscent of those from the epic Wings, and whenever we see the Airmen fighting the Germans or taking on the Nazi war machine be it over land or sea, the film is wildly impressive and exciting. 

It's only when we get on the ground that Red Tails loses its way.  Every time we are suppose to get the human lives behind the Tuskegee Airmen, we are loaded up with stock characters: the religious man, the comic, the by-the-book leader, the hotshot "Maverick" (pun intended) and the rookie.  Moreover, Aaron McGruder and John Ridley's screenplay (based on a story by Ridley) at times almost becomes unintentionally comical.  As I looked over my notes, I somehow managed to write the phrases "Easy on the booze" and "Lightning crashes", only realizing later that they both sound like awful puns but in fact are an accurate description of the events in the film. 

Moreover, the plot appears to be a patchwork of other World War II films.  I mentioned that the subplot of Ray "Ray-Gun" Gannon being in a prisoner of war camp appeared to be almost out of Stalag 17, but then we go to a quick shift into The Great Escape and as unbelievable as it sounds, even a hint of Pearl Harbor.   Allow me a closer examination of this subplot.

In the two hours of Red Tails, it isn't until about an hour into it that Junior has to bail out and is captured.  He then goes into the camp, meets with the stalag leader, then we go back to the other Airmen, and then after a long absence, we see him about to escape the P.O.W. camp.  What really happened between Junior's capture and his escape?  How did he manage to be part of this masterplan?  How did he get the things they needed to get out?  Did he build any genuine friendships?  Oddly, a whole movie could have been made just out of Ray-Gun's exploits, but because we simply had too many characters with only a few having any story threads, the film had no choice but to jump around and give us only the sketchiest of details. 

Moreover the details we do get are remarkably boring and only stop to slow the film down.   The romance between Lightning and Sofia appeared to be almost rammed in because all good war films require a love story, and Easy's frustrations of having to live up to his father's high expectations (along with his functional alcoholism) again are touched on but not explored.  It's as if Red Tails only wants to give us the thinnest information about the various pilots in order to give them a touch of a backstory. 

I fault the screenplay for most of Red Tails' failures to be as good as it could have been.  I counted four 'inspirational speeches', all given by Howard, as part of the problem.  His Colonel Bullard had obviously risen high in the Army, but in Red Tails, his chief purpose was to rally the troops by giving inspiring messages to them (Terence Blanchard's score only emphasizes how 'important' and 'inspiring' the Colonel's words are suppose to be).

My biggest issue with Red Tails is that we never really got to know the characters.  What kind of men were they?  Did they have fear?  Did they have hope that things would improve?  What about their interpersonal relations?  Aside from Lighting's romance with Sofia, one would have almost thought all of them were monks given their lack of love lives.  Aside from Deacon you would have little indication that they had much of a faith system.  Aside from Easy's hinted father issues you'd think all their families (from parents to wives to children) were non-existant. 

Again and again, we don't get much of an idea of who the men are, and that is among Red Tails' biggest wasted opportunities.   One has to admire the thrilling fight sequences (which were exciting and well-done), but on the whole, by not giving much attention to the Tuskegee Airmen as men, we see a film that could have been great, or even very good.  At the moment, it's merely passable, and for most of Red Tails, you can be entertained and enjoy the film (despite its flaws).

I was ready to give Red Tails a barely passing grade because it wasn't terrible but not as good as it could have been.  That is, until we got to near the end, when we get a terrible and unfair twist with a character that is plain cheating and frankly opens up a great deal of questions involving points of logic.  I refer to this as a Pearl Harbor situation: you've been led to believe a character has died in war only to have him pop back up very much alive and looking even better than when we last saw him.  At that point, I actually said out loud, "Oh, come on!" because it didn't work.  Add to that, it didn't make any sense: we've been given that character's dogtags, for heaven's sake, and told that they should be given to Easy 'in case he didn't make it'.  It's only fair to assume he didn't make it.  However, somehow he actually made it, which begs the question: did the guy who brought said dogtags to Easy realize that character wasn't dead or was he so dumb that he thought he was?  How did he know he was dead?  Was it all part of a practical joke?

I call such plot devices 'cheating', which is something the Tuskegee Airmen did not do.  You can't fault the film for good intentions and a noble outlook.  You CAN fault them for bungling the job.  Again: something the Tuskegee Airmen did not do.

The Tuskegee Airmen
True American Heroes

Their story needs to be told and just needs a better movie to do so.


Glee: The 3-D Concert Movie. A Review (Review #325)


Once, I was asked to watch Glee, a television show about a high school glee club.  I did: I saw the first half of the first season, up to Sectionals (which, based from my academic years, kept referring to as Regionals, but I digress).  I was not enamored with it like all my other church friends were, and I put that up to the fact that, unlike them, I have seen actual musicals, good musicals, not warmed-over pop songs shoehorned into whatever plot is thrown in.   Granted, I did find things in Glee (at least the first half of the first season) that were good: some of the acting, a few character arcs, and some of the actual singing and musical staging. 

However, as time has gone by, I believe my views on Glee have grown harder and harsher: I could up to a point tolerate how the songs were jammed into the story rather than be allowed to flow naturally. However, Glee became a willing victim of its own excess and press: ALL THOSE GUEST STARS!  THEME WEEKS!  A SPINOFF WHERE THEY LOOKED FOR THE NEXT GUEST CHARACTER!  REPETITIOUS STORIES! It was turning into an odd version of American Idol.  Of course, I had long maintained that Glee was basically The O.C. meets Cop Rock, but at least for the first year or so critics salivated to what they saw as 'originality'.   It is only now, that the ratings have gone down, the enthusiasm has gone way down among the 'Gleeks', and I predict that within two to three years, Glee will have its swan song.

On another occasion, I will offer my own views on the phenomenon that was Glee (past tense), but for now, my tired eyes and ears turn to Glee: The 3-D Concert Movie.  More than anything else, this may be the apex of its shameless self-promotion and belief in its own brilliance, this idea that Glee is the Citizen Kane of television programming and its creator, Ryan Murphy, the Orson Welles of the small screen...and we know what happened to Orson Welles, don't we? 

Despite it being a popular show (curiously enough, with born-again Christian youth groups who don't appear bothered by the open homosexuality and premarital sex abounding on it), I really don't believe people were calling en masse for a film version of Glee.  However, we got it, and its a curious creature: part concert film, part informercial.  We get what one would expect on Glee: a bunch of young adults (and in Cory Monteith's case, a nearly-thirty-year-old passing as a high school student...who said 21 Jump Street was unrealistic) doing a series of covers of songs ranging from Aretha Franklin to Lady Gaga, but we also throw in interviews with the members of their cult (said Gleeks) telling us variations of "Glee saved my life". 

Somehow, Glee isn't just a television show.  It's a source of salvation.

If you're a fan of the show, you at least have an advantage over those of us who didn't watch after Finn discovers Puck is the father of Finn's girlfriend Quinn's illegitimate child (despite Finn being technically a virgin).  At least you know who is who (as much as he's promoted as the next Icon of Stage and Screen, I'm still not exactly sure who Chord Overstreet is, let alone what his character, or even character's name, is, or why his character is important, or what exactly is suppose to make him such a superstar).   All these people going on stage, their adoring fans screaming as if in a revival, are a blur to those of us who don't see Glee as entertainment or salvation. 

I think this is why Glee: The 3-D Concert Movie, is really so hard for those not in the know to embrace.  The show itself is perplexing, and the movie doesn't bother to try to set anything in context.  It assumes you are already immersed in the Glee-World, and if you're not, it keeps you out...just like the Cheerios (see, I DO know a few things).  How ironic that a spectacle like Glee: The 3-D Movie (which is ostensibly about inclusion) does everything to keep non-Gleeks as outcasts among the sparkles and showstoppers. 

Here's the best way to break down Glee: The 3-D's about the money, honey.  Glee 3-D is ostensibly a concert film where we see the various actors perform the songs they (re)made famous.  However, as I was watching, it was becoming harder and harder to figure out whether I was watching the actual actors or the characters doing the songs. 

This comes courtesy of the way director Kevin Tancharoen put the actual show together.  We get a great many performances (I counted a total of 20 songs--must have been an inordinately long evening) but very little that would indicate that those on stage were portraying the characters.  We get a few hints in the forms of what appear to be sketches between them addressing each other by their character's names (and for those of us not with the "in crowd", we really don't know who or what they are) but it's clear that Glee 3-D isn't interested in actually telling a story or integrating the songs into any story.

Not unlike the show itself. 

What I can say about the actual musical performances were that there were hit and miss.  What I always say about Glee is that they are warmed-over covers, a bit like having a good karaoke singer perform.  They are just doing the song, not actually giving a performance. 

The best (or worst) example is whenever Lea Michele (who I get the impression that she believes herself to be a true legend) attempts to do her very damnest to be the new Barbra Streisand in not one but two musical numbers (Don't Rain on My Parade from Funny Girl and the duet of Get Happy/Happy Days Are Here Again first done by Judy Garland and Streisand).  It isn't that she isn't without some talent, it's just for me that as hard as she tries Michele ISN'T Streisand.  Moreover, it makes things more confusing when the backstage footage has her playing her character of Rachel but some of her other castmates appear to be playing themselves.

As for some of the others, they ranged from the bizarre (Mark Salling as Puck singing an ode to fat girls--who knew he was a chubby-chaser) to the downright perverse (Heather Morris' cover of Britney Spears' I'm A Slave 4 U looked like it was a porn moment for the dads.  Yes, I am aware that she was recreating Spears' performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, but given that she is suppose to be playing a high school student, it does make things awfully unseemly when men who appear to be in their 50s are cheering like tween girls at Justin Bieber) and flat-out pointless.  I'd also like to say that, sorry bad a singer as Brit-Brit may be, she's miles ahead of you.

Given that I come to Glee 3-D with barely a knowledge of who is who or what is what, I found Kevin McHale to be the weakest singer.  He had not one but two big numbers (a cover of Michael Jackson's PYT-Pretty Young Things and Men Without Hats' Safety Dance).  The first was nothing special, but I have always found the second to be a mechanical, robotic rendition--and with not a great voice.  I digress to point out that it might nice for his character of Artie to imagine he can walk out of his wheelchair with the greatest of ease (given McHale is not handicapped): must be so nice for all those in wheelchairs who don't have that luxury to just get up and walk away.

Allow me again to point out that there are some remarkably creepy moments.  During the show we get endless shots of the fans squealing with delight whenever one of their favorites gets up and gets down.  Somehow, I can't understand how people well past middle age could be waving their foam fingers up in the air like they just don't care.  I felt sad for them: all these men cheering on people old enough to be their grandkids as if they were actual members of New Directions. 

Honestly, Grow UP!

Now, in the mix of all the song and dance, we get a trio of 'inspirational' stories intercut within Glee 3-D.  There is Janae, the midget cheerleader (she called herself a midget, so don't get on my case), Josey, the Asperger's Syndrome-afflicted fan who found a release to be social via Glee, and Trenton, who saw in Chris Colfer's character of Kurt a role model which allowed him to come out as a proud gay teen.  Every so often we cut to their stories (although how exactly Safety Dance connects with midget cheerleader Janae becoming Prom Queen one never figures out).  It's nice to see Janae, Josey, and Trenton (I'm fighting the temptation to say I seriously doubt anyone would have thought he was ever IN the closet, but I digress) doing well for themselves, and they may all put their better lives to being the result of Glee, but Glee 3-D again doesn't make a connection between their stories and the performances.

The stories in fact only appear to be there to point out just how important Glee believes itself to be, how the world is a better place because of it.  My view is that no television program could ever be that important.

Finally, I want to point out to Kellen Sarmiento, the "Mini-Warbler" who has become famous for being able to imitate an imitation, in this case Darren Criss' rendition of Katy Perry's Teenage Dream (which I'm led to believe is the Citizen Kane of Glee musical numbers).  It might just be me, but someone, a five-year-old singing "Let's go all the way tonight/No regrets, just love" doesn't look looks creepy.  Or am I wrong to think a toddler singing "let you put your hands on my, in my skin-tight jeans" may just be a bit weird?

One more thing: as in almost all 3-D films, really, what was there in Glee: 3-D that made such tricks necessary? 

Glee celebrates the outsider, the unpopular kids, the 'losers'.  It's a strange thing that Glee: 3-D did everything to keep those who aren't part of New Directions out of the loop.  If you are a Gleek (and trust me, within five years you won't be), Glee: 3-D may thrill you.  For those of us who are more Academic Decathlon than Glee Club, everything about Glee: 3-D is like Glee the show: one-note.


Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows Review


Holmes and His Little Shadow...

Allow me, for a moment, to regale you with a tale of London...giddy London, as the Great Morrissey would sing.  When I went to London (for the first time, I hope), there was only ONE must-stop on my list.  I could go to the Tower of London, or Buckingham Palace, or the Churchill Museum & War Cabinet Rooms, or the West End, or the Globe and would not think much if I missed any of them (hence my idea of going back).  However, there was ONE place, one Holy Shrine if you will, that I HAD to call on when there.

221 B Baker Street.

At long last, I would go to the home of Mr. Sherlock Holmes.  After finding my way around the Underground, I managed to find the Baker Street station, and after a few blocks of going the wrong way, I finally arrived.  I must have spend a good two hours there, marvelling at all the sights of this most sacred of spaces for a devoted Holmes fan as myself.  I also spent more than a few pounds there, and yes, I got a deerstalker cap.  I also got a derby, and wore it proudly...until I was told it made me look like I was pimping with Biggie Smalls.  I don't know how...I got a medium.

While there, I saw several postcards and such.  I think I saw some images of Basil Rathbone, and most certainly of Jeremy Brett (the definitive Holmes in my view).  Now, this was before producer/writer Stephen Moffat of the longtime science-fiction program River Song (formerly known as Doctor Who) fame came up with Sherlock, so I have no idea if Benedict Cumberbatch now graces the same apartments of Holmes and the loyal Dr. Watson. 

However, what I DON'T remember was seeing any pictures of Robert Downey, Jr. and/or Jude Law.  I suspect it is because Sherlock Holmes was a piece of crap that bastardized the entire Holmesian canon, and to have anything related to Guy Ritchie's mess of a film would be an insult to the memory of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Or maybe I missed them. 

In any case, seeing how Sherlock Holmes was such a hit (despite it bearing no real relation with the Conan Doyle stories save for the use of the character's names), it stood to reason that there would be another Sherlock Holmes movie.  Thus, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.  Longtime readers will know that I always say that whenever you see a colon in the title, it's a clear indication that those behind that particular film will make more of them.  Given that, it's not surprising that A Game of Shadows would be the first of perhaps many sequels. 

What IS surprising is that somehow, despite their best efforts, they managed to make an even WORSE film than the first. 

The plot of A Game of Shadows may be convoluted and idiotic on screen, but elementary to describe (allow me a few moments of levity): it's a remake of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in all but name.  Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris) is planning to start a world war and profit from it.  It's up to his 'intellectual equal Sherlock Holmes (Downey, Jr.) to stop him.  To aid him is Dr. John Watson (Law) who doesn't want to help at all but finds himself doing so anyway...even if it means nearly missing his own wedding to Mary (Kelly Reilly).  Holmes also has the wit and wisdom of his older brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry), a vague figure in government, while Professor Moriarty has expert assassin Colonel Sebastian Moran (Paul Anderson).

I'd like to stop for a moment to say seeing it was Colonel Moran in A Game of Shadow was about the only genuine surprise I had while watching. 

Into this mix comes Gypsy Queen Simza (original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Noomi Rapace).  She's there for the thinnest of reasons, as is American criminal mistress Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams, fulfilling what I guess was some contractual obligation to pop in for what was basically a pointless and contrived cameo). 

Well, anyway Moriarty is going to start a war, Holmes is going to stop him, Watson is going to have his honeymoon ruined, and Rapace is going to make her American film debut. 

That's about it in the story department.

A Game of Shadows appears desperate to go out of its way to be as idiotic and nonsensical as possible.  We never ever stop to actually find out what is going on because Ritchie and his scribes (Michele and Kieran Mulroney) don't really care about an actual plot with such unnecessary things as motivation or even coherence.  Instead, all they want is to use Holmes and Company for one mindless action scene after another--logic be damned.  The truly important thing, Ritchie believes, is to show us his prowess with slow-motion.

And oh, how he shows us again and again how it will all turn out.  As I watched A Game of Shadows, I kept referring to these as Holmes' 'psychic moments' because he wasn't actually deducing something.  He was really predicting how something would turn out.  That had the effect of essentially removing the mystery out of the situation (pun slightly intended).  I counted a total of six of these 'psychic moments', though we see that in the final one Moriarty is equally blessed with such abilities.  I figure this is how Moriarty is Holmes' equal and the 'Napoleon of Crime' in Holmes' words.

Somehow, the performances weren't there.  They certainly weren't there for the women: McAdams disappears (perhaps forever) within the first ten to fifteen minutes, Reilly isn't there for more than that (and treated rather badly to boot) and Rapace has such a blank expression throughout A Game of Shadows.  Perhaps she was trying to figure out what exactly the plot or or how her character related to anything to do with the film altogether. 

I give some compliments to Harris (who actually would make a good President Grant in terms of appearance I thought) who was the calm and calculating villain, but Downey was a gigantic disappointment as Holmes.  I will go on record to say that he will never be as good as Basil Rathbone and certainly nowhere near Jeremy Brett (perhaps not even Cumberbatch--and his Holmes is suppose to be a 21st Century update!) but at least in the first Sherlock Holmes he was more fun.  Here, he appears to think he should mix a little bit of humor (such as dressing in drag) with a far more serious tone (and a weaker British accent).  At one point, Downey, Jr. actually looked like The Joker from The Dark Knight.

Law isn't as good as he was in Sherlock Holmes, and I suppose it is because the material really isn't there.  Equally useless is Fry (and I'll leave it up to you if you think Fry is generally useless in general or not).  Any thought that this man is suppose to be some intellectual giant was pretty much abandoned when he blamed Polish Catholics for starting the Holocaust, but now it is completely gone.  You can't be intelligent if you think we want to see a nude scene with Fry's bulbous body flapping about, let alone pay for such horrors .  I've long argued that Fry is perceived as an intellectual purely based on his voice and speech intonations.  I figure he's smarter than I am, but really, really think we want to see see YOU naked?

Even the little things I liked in the first Sherlock Holmes (such as Hans Zimmer's zippy score) were watered down and irrelevant in A Game of Shadows.  What is suppose to be an epic escape into the forest turns instead into a showcase for more slow-motion, which dilutes everything.

I noticed that I've put in two water references, and I think it fitting.  After all, in the opening we get the hint that Watson is writing The Final Problem, which for you non-Holmesian readers (and I suspect the majority of those watching the screening I attended were), is the story where Sherlock Holmes meets his end at the Reichenbach Falls, taking Professor Moriarty with him.

In this case, I don't necessary object to the sequel they are so nakedly (or should I say, Fry-ingly) announcing.  After all, The Adventure of the Empty House, the Sherlock Holmes story that basically 'resurrected' Holmes from the dead, starts out from the ending of The Final Problem (which I figure the Mulroneys used as a basis for A Game of Shadows). 

In terms of The Canon, it makes sense.  In terms of finance for more Sherlock Holmes films, it makes sense.  In terms of A Game of Shadows, it makes no sense because the film made one important and vital change from The Final Problem.  In the latter, Watson did not actually witness Holmes' final battle with his arch nemesis.  In the former, he most certainly did.  Tricky thing this.

A Game of Shadows is just a way to ruin Sherlock Holmes' reputation among current film-goers who may never watch the Jeremy Brett series or the Basil Rathbone films (not having seen Sherlock, I'm in no position to say whether or not Moffat is destroying Sherlock Holmes the way he is determined to destroy Doctor Who, but now I digress).  There is nothing in A Game of Shadows that is really Sherlock Holmes.  It really Guy Ritchie adapting his signature fascination with the criminal underworld to a Victorian/Edwardian setting.  A Game of Shadows in the end is SINO: Sherlock In Name Only.

This man was a great writer who created a great character.  He deserves so much better and so do we.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Sixteen Best Films of 2011

Actually, I did manage to find more than Ten Best films of 2011.  That being the case, I'm going to push it the Sixteen Best films of 2011.  Is that cheating?  Perhaps.  It is a good sign that we managed to find enough good films to praise.  It matches the number of awful films I found, so without further ado, let's pick out our Sixteen Best Films of 2011.  Not all have been reviewed, but all have been seen.

Fast Five
I have a reputation as a film snob.  That, my friends, is a false image.  I freely and openly confess that I am a HUGE fan of the Fast & Furious franchise (even the much-maligned Tokyo Drift).  Fast Five knows what it is: cool cars, hot chicks, wild action.  It is a film that seeks only to give me a good adrenaline rush, and I enjoy the mixture of elaborate heists and beautiful women and great cars. 

Is it deep?  No.  Is it entertaining?  Yes, Yes, and YES.  Even better, I found the resolution to be remarkably logical, and while I know that there will be another Fast & Furious movie, it is a rare treat that I actually am looking forward to seeing another Fast & Furious film.  There's something to be said about good, goofy fun.

If a film set out to give me a good scare, Insidious then should be counted as a smashing success.  I don't get scared in movies, so I didn't jump during Insidious.  However, I recognize that the audience was totally in the grips of the film, and they really were getting into the horror of the film.

What I found positive in Insidious is that it was scary without being overtly graphic.  There wasn't the gory nature of other horror films (such as the Saw and/or Hostel series).  Instead, it was mood, it was quick jumps that brought the terror in Insidious.  I think it's acknowledged that the ending didn't work, lessening the impact of the film.  However, if a good scare (one that might leave you awake at night) is what you're looking for, Insidious truly fits the bill. 

I should say that the one thing I didn't believe in Contagion is the idea that a plague such as the one presented would have led to a total breakdown of society.  However, in building suspense and tension as to the growing virus destroying the world, Contagion was wildly effective.  This was a killer that could strike anywhere and almost anyone. 

Again, there was a logic to how the plague spread, and how such a crisis brought out the best and worst in people.  Some were heroic, some were self-serving, some were a mixture of both.  Again, here the ending was a touch too much, almost a slam against industry that didn't need to go that way by making the whole thing ironic.  However, with its great cast, its strong story and directing, and the great score, Contagion worked on almost every level.

One of the best things about Contagion (the score) was also one of the best things about Drive.  No surprise given that it had the same composer (Cliff Martinez).  As much as I might ridicule avant-garde actor Ryan Gosling (namely by referring to him as 'avant-garde actor Ryan Gosling' for his penchant to be in films that are dark and edgy and get away from being a former Mouseketeer), he is a great actor.  Drive is proof enough.  It's difficult to do what avant-garde actor Gosling did: to express so much by being so quiet, but his character is so opaque that he doesn't even have a name.  This blankness is really all there is to him, a hollow man who passes no view on the morality of his actions.

That is, until he meets someone who might break through his emotional walls.  Oddly, it isn't strictly the woman, but her child.  It isn't a surprise to see that 'one last job' go wildly wrong, but Drive has an intense story and made an intellectual feature: it's The Fast & The Furious for the intellectual set.  Throw in a villainous turn by comic Albert Brooks (showing there's more to him than intellectual humor), and you have a fine, well-acted, and remarkably exciting cross of action and thought.

Win Win
The family drama involving a troubled teen can be hokey and maudlin, but Win Win manages to skirt that by giving all the characters relatable flaws.  Even though Paul Giamatti's character does unethical things, we don't see him as a villain.  You also have a great performance from Alex Shaffer as the taciturn teen who, minus his troubled upbringing, is in many ways an average teen.

Win Win kept a good balance between the human comedy of how the characters behaved towards each other and in their actions with a tender story of people learning from their mistakes.  My favorite moment is really a small one.  Shaffer's Kyle is about to leave, knowing how Mike has used his grandfather to get some cash.  Amy Ryan's character (Mike's wife) starts to leave, only to stop and tell Kyle that they love him.  Any other movie would have made it a big moment, overblown with sentimentality.  Instead, because it was so short and direct, it made it all so real.

Horrible Bosses
In a year that had a cavalcade of lousy comedies that dulled your brain (Just Go With It, Larry Crowne, The Change-UpThe Hangover Part II), it was good to see a comedy that actually was funny and that even worked (no pun intended).  Horrible Bosses was something that people could relate to (up to a point), but by making everything so exaggerated they could get away with it.

What made Horrible Bosses funnier than all the other comedies this year is that all the characters were amazingly idiotic or insane, so we always knew that despite their best efforts, they were all going to fail spectacularly.  Moreover, there was a logic to the plot (albeit a ridiculous one), and some wild turns that made sense but still brought out laughter.  Granted, there was a touch too much bathroom humor, but unfortunately that is par for the course today.  However, hearing that there will be a Horrible Bosses II (or 2 if you like) has me extremely worried: sometimes, it's best to leave a good thing alone. 

I can't believe we are  not at the Top Ten Film of 2011.  Well, here we go.

Captain America: The First Avenger
This was a year where we had many films based on comic book characters.  Some were truly atrocious (Green Lantern), some were good but in my view overrated (X-Men: First Class, Thor), and then there was Captain America (full title, Captain America: The First Avenger, in order to signal there would be more Captain America films and to not upset those who wouldn't like a shamelessly patriotic character).  What then made Captain America the best comic book adaptation of 2011?

Well, the fact that it knew what it was: a comic book movie.  It went against the grain of most present-day comic book adaptations in that its lead wasn't dark, brooding, highly troubled.  Steve Rogers was actually eager to do something for his country.  There was an optimism to Captain America.  The villain was clear-cut with no moral shadings.  Finally, the film was openly and unabashedly fun.  No great moral crisis, no depression.  It had action, it had romance, it even did something up to now seemingly impossible: it made Chris Evans actually act!  That in itself is a miracle.  The ending didn't work for me: it was a tie-in to the massive Avengers this year, but minus that, Captain America worked...and it has a damn catchy song in Star-Spangled Man.

Midnight In Paris
Woody, it's so nice to have you back where you belong.  One had worried whether the Woodster had anything left in him.  Trust him to turn nostalgia into box office gold...and an actual comedy.  Midnight in Paris was a return to form for Woody Allen, who showed that he could still have an inventive idea or two rattling in his mind.

Owen Wilson would appear to be a good faux-Woody, but his nasal twang and slightly dim persona actually made the performance all the more better as the man who yearns for the Lost Generation of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, manages to actually find it, only to discover the past isn't how one remembers it.  I could have done without the stereotypical shrill fiancee and her boorish parents (Allen may not be the best person to take moral stands against others...just a hint), but at its heart Midnight in Paris is a nostalgic trip that reminds us nostalgia is not clear-cut. 

Finally, I should point out that in smaller roles we can see just how good some actors can be: Adrien Brody as Salvador Dalí, Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, and especially Tom Hiddleton (Loki himself!) as F. Scott Fitzgerald.  That kid has a bright future ahead of him. 

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
I've heard a lot of nonsense about, "it's too complicated; it's too confusing; you won't understand it".  To that I say...damn balderdash!  I'm hardly a high intellectual, but I didn't have a hard time following the plot.  The same was said about Inception, and frankly I understood everything going on (even if the open-ending didn't please the audience I was with, but now I digress). 

For those still concerned that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy may be too opaque to follow, I offer this: it's an intellectual spy thriller, and espionage isn't suppose to be obvious.  In the same way avant-garde actor Ryan Gosling said so much by saying/doing so little, so does Gary Oldman (in one of his greatest screen performances) tell us so much about George Smiley with his perfectly controlled performance.  Tinker Tailor is a smorgasbord of brilliant screen actors: John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, and Colin Firth, all doing their best to show who is boss (and the younger ones like Hardy and especially Cumberbatch--one to keep your eye on-- keeping up with some of the very best).  There isn't a false note, one off performance within the film. 

I am aware that there were more Smiley stories from John Le Carré, and while Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy ends with the faintest suggestion that there might be a sequel, this may be the first time I don't object to seeing more of The Circus. 

If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
This documentary is one that thoroughly snuck up on me.  As I watched it, I thought the story of the rise and fall of the environment group the Earth Liberation Front became a deeply personal story of one man: Daniel McGowan.  His story was a sad one: young man with a good heart gets radicalized (in his mind, for the good cause of saving the planet), and becomes emeshed in a group that destroys private property.  The group itself begins to become too radical, but the government brings it down before acts of vandalism and arson become acts of actual violence.

As the days and weeks went, If A Tree Falls continued to grow on me (no pun intended).  I was haunted by the story, and especially McGowan, who seemed to be a genuinely nice person who just got himself into something wrong, perhaps with the best of intentions but which still brought a lot of fear and destruction.  However, the film had me asking things about myself.  My reaction to what happened to protesters in Oregon at the hands of the police appalled me, but then again, so did the protester's acts in Seattle.  A great thing about If A Tree Falls is that it doesn't attempt to rationalize or lionize the actions of the ELF: we get to hear from the investigators (shown to be the efficient people they are) and those whose lumber mills were attacked (not the greedy monsters the ELF and their sympathizers paint them as). 

At its heart, If A Tree Falls is about knowing people like McGowan and seeing him not as a monstrous, evil terrorist, but as merely a man, no different than you or me save for his actions. We at the end of If A Tree Falls have to ask if McGowan really is on the same level as an al-Qaeda or Taliban member. Damn but that I ended up liking McGowan (even if I fiercely reject and condemn his work with the ELF).  If I were to ever take some sort of political stance, it would be for a Presidential pardon for Daniel McGowan... 

The Help
Another film that snuck up on me despite all my instincts.  I didn't want to like The Help: I have a reaction against sweet stories of people overcoming.  However, it is so difficult not to get emotional when Viola Davis' Aibileen tells you about the death of her only son.  With just her voice, her face, it all but has you overwhelmed with tears. 

The Help has the benefit of great performances: not just from Davis, but Octavia Spenser as the bold Minny, Bryce Dallas Howard as the malicious Miss Hilly, and It-Girl Jessica Chastain as the naive/ignorant white trash Miss Celia.  Frankly, I didn't care one bit for Emma Stone's main character of Skeeter (I found her irritating and had no interest in her story: love or otherwise).  However, I think it is important in the Age of Obama to remember it wasn't all that long ago when blacks were legally kept down, and that it did take courage to start to stand up and say, "I Am Somebody". 

And a bit of pie never hurt either...

I didn't think that Pariah would be as good as it was, given how it touches a lot of what Precious took on: a young black woman in New York coming to her own.  However, unlike Precious, Pariah had an added hurdle: she wasn't just coming to her own, she was coming out. 

Alike (pronounced A-Lee-Kay) has a remarkably difficult journey: not just to acknowledge her homosexuality to her parents, or even to herself, but to find out exactly who she is.  When she's with her butch friends, she is masculine in her attire and manner (even going by Lee).  With her family, she is more feminine (even if her parents can't admit to themselves the truth they already know).  Alike has the burden of first love and first love lost, but at the end, she finds out that she doesn't have to fit either image put before her.  She is herself, and her journey is about to start.  Her final poem about being broken, being open, being's simply some of the most beautiful dialogue I've heard all year.

The Artist
My little film-loving heart thrills at the phrase, "one of the best films of 2011 is a silent film".  Technically, The Artist ISN'T an all-silent film: there is some sound (including when we get to hear Jean Dujardin's obvious French accent).  However, The Artist proves what I have long argued about silent film in general: it is a beautiful thing, it isn't full of exagerrated acting, and the lack of dialogue is hardly missed.

The Artist has so much going for it: proof of how acting, true acting, doesn't need translations, the joy of films, that we can overlook some of its flaws (in particular the use of the Love Theme from Vertigo).  I don't know how good Mr. Dujardin or Miss Berenice Bejo's English is (the former from France, the latter from Argentina), but what you see on the screen is undeniable: great performances speak for themselves.

If I hadn't seen it, I wouldn't have believed it: a 3-D children's Martin Scorsese.  This is Martin Scorsese: the guy from Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Departed.  His bread and butter is the chronicling of the underbelly of society, so how he'd make a 3-D children's movie?

Here's how: he's Martin Scorsese--genius.  He also is Martin Scorsese: unabashed film enthusiast.  Hugo is a love letter to the early days of cinema, where it was done by literal magicians (such as French film pioneer Georges Mélies.  The loving recreation of Mélies' studio and films are a tribute by one brilliant filmmaker to another.  We also couldn't help notice how Scorsese introduced the importance of film preservation into the story (and do it so well).

Yes, it is amazing to see a man best know for gritty images of the criminal underworld give us such a lovely portrait of youth and childhood innocence, but really, what can't Scorsese NOT do?  Hugo has the added bonus of being (with the possible exception of Avatar) the only 3-D film where the 3-D didn't interfere with the story or appear out of place.  There wasn't any 'thrusting out to the audience' images...instead, for me, the most beautiful and brilliant 3-D image will be of a snowy Parisian night...

I would never have thought that a documentary about a Formula One driver would have been not only so compelling, but so thrilling and ultimately so moving.  I figure there are thousands if not millions of Americans (even sports buffs) who have never heard of Ayrton Senna, but Senna is something that does what appears as impossible as one of his races: moves you emotionally.

Documentaries can be a hard sell, but Senna makes brilliant use of the thousands of hours of archival footage (even when we see our hero with Xuxa: the most voluptuous of children's television hosts) to make his life story a remarkable journey: both of Ayrton's soul and his races.   Soon, we thoroughly forget we're watching a documentary because we get caught up in the thrill of the race, the antagonism with Senna's racing rivals, his passion for his beloved Brazil and her people, and finally the great heartbreak of his death.

It is a sign of Senna's brilliance that it never feels like anything other than a real movie: we never see it as a dry recitation of facts.  It helps that Ayrton Senna's life was never dry.  While a feature film of his life is possible (I imagine Zachary Levi or Andrew Garfield would make strong candidates), it might not be believed that such a man could have achieved what Ayrton Senna achieved.  Senna, the documentary, may simply be too good to be remade as a feature.

And choice for the Best Picture of 2011...

Jane Eyre
Few movies have stayed with me, continued deep in my memory, as Jane Eyre.  I saw this movie in April, and nearly a year later, I still get swept away into its romantic, brooding, Gothic story.  Jane Eyre still haunts me, still moves me, still remains in my memory, dazzling me with its sweeping romance. 

While Michael Fassbender is causing my fellow critics to masturbate over his role in Shame (perhaps literally--I have no way of knowing their predilections), I still argue that was not his best performance this year.  Perhaps Fassbender, or as I lovingly call him: Fassie Bare-All, will earn a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Shame; however, I predict he WILL NOT WIN. 

How do I know?  Well, first, his competition will be fierce (I suspect Gary Oldman will be in the running for his first-ever nomination for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Jean Dujardin will have older voters enchanted for his silent turn in The Artist).  Second, and most important: said older Academy members WILL NEVER VOTE for a guy who is seeing totally naked on screen.  I argued that many Academy members would never countenance seeing a clip of Fassbender jerking off in a montage with other Best Actor winners like James Stewart, Clark Gable, Laurence Olivier, or Colin Firth.  Yes, I'm sure they won't actually have a clip of him masturbating on screen (or getting a blow job from some random guy at a gay bar), but despite Hollywood's reputation there is a strong conservative element inside the Academy itself.  After all, there were some Academy members who wouldn't even watch Brokeback Mountain because of the 'gay cowboy sex', let alone vote it Best Picture (hence, Crash). 

However, when it comes to Fassie we are rather spoiled for choice: not only was he the sex addict in Shame, he also reinvigorated the mutant Magneto in X-Men: First Class (which I wasn't crazy about), the kinky Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method (which I've yet to see), and the mysterious, romantic, brooding Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre.  For my money, it was the latter that was his best performance.

I don't normally say this about another man, but damn it's true: Michael Fassbender was SO DREAMY!

Actually, the real revelation in Jane Eyre is my secret love: Mia Wasikowska.  She was the perfect California teen in The Kids Are All Right (overrated), and when she took on our heroine, I thought, 'oh, she's British and can do a good American accent'.  Then I find she's actually Australian, and decide then and there that she is our generation's Meryl Streep.  I don't think I was ever as overwhelmed by a performance as I was with Wasikowska.  Even in films I don't like (Alice in Wonderland, for example), I cannot help but admire and love Mia Wasikowska for her extraordinary range.

Throw in great performances from Dame Judi Dench (Brother Gabe's secret love...inside joke), and even Billy Elliot himself, Jamie Bell, and one of the best adaptations of a literary work becomes the film I went absolutely mad for (almost mad enough to put me in the attic).  I was totally wrapped in the film at the onset and when it was over, I truly wanted more.  I confess to never having read the book, but if it's as good as the movie, it deserves its reputation as a literary classic.

When Mr. Rochester tells Jane, "you transfix me quite", I could have said the same about Jane Eyre: my choice for the Best Picture of 2011.