Sunday, March 9, 2014
Director: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Robert Redford
Running Time: 106 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
It's practically impossible to watch All is Lost without feeling the urge to compare it to Gravity. Both are survival stories that see their protagonist forced to fend for themselves in a battle against the elements and a race against time. But there are also key differences, the least of which being the setting or gender of the main character. While Gravity tells us everything we need to know about Sandra Bullock's Dr. Ryan Stone and more than a few things we didn't, this film's everyman (known simply in the credits as "our man") is just that. He's never given a name and we know next to nothing of his backstory. At the risk of trouncing one film to prop up another, I couldn't help but wonder why writer/director J.C. Chandor's approach to similar material seems so much more effective. But the reason is abundantly clear the second we see Robert Redford's aging visage on screen. He'll be doing all the work. Any backstory or superflulous details will have to be projected onto the story by imaginative viewers observing his actions. What he doesn't say is where the story's power lies, testing that screenwriting theory that often the best scripts have the most amount of white space on the page.
The picture is as sparse and bare bones as it gets. At least Bullock had some company for a little while. This is Redford vs. The Sea. But don't dare call him the film's "star," as doing so implies we're getting a movie star turn that again exploits the actor's charisma, charm, or personality. This is instead the systematic deconstruction of all that, displacing the boyishly handsome "Sundance Kid" persona he's been most identified with over the years with a broken down old man. In this film Redford looks every last day of his 77 years and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that, as this time he answers the call, addressing the most popular career criticism leveled against him. That he doesn't take any risks. His response is a performance that's stripped, not only of all words, but all vanity.
We join the adventure mid-crisis as Redford's anonymous seaman is lost somewhere in the Indian Ocean and awakens to discover his boat has collided with a shipping container, which has ripped a hole in the hull. And that's just the start of his troubles, as he's lost all navigational and communication systems and has little success patching up the damaged ship. Much of his time is spent putting band-aids on problems, both literally and figuratively, and contending with elements, such as a monster storm that tests his and the ship's capacity for survival. As the days wear on and the possibility of rescue seems less and less likely, the presumably inexperienced protagonist must rely on his own ingenuity to fight the ravages of nature as time takes its toll, physically and emotionally wearing him down.
To say that Redford "holds the screen" or "carries" this would be the cinematic understatement of the year. There's literally no one else in it, and aside from an opening narration and one screamed expletive, there are no spoken lines. What's so impressive is how he manages to do so much with that, both through his facial expressions and the character's exacting calculations in coming up with ideas to prolong survival. We can see and sense the wheels turning inside his head and are capable of determining a great deal about him as a person with no information dispensed to us at all. The best aspect of the performance are all the things he hints that are never revealed. It's not necessary to have a scene showing how he got out there or shoehorn flashbacks because Redford makes you imagine them. You can picture the stubborn man leaving on this trip thinking he has everything under control when in actuality the situation couldn't be further out of his hands. We can assume his boat, the "Virginia Jean" is named after a loved one. Wife? Daughter? Granddaughter? Whatever that relationship is, we're given tiny clues it's been strained before he set sail. We know nothing because Chandor knows whatever we cook up in our heads will be more powerful than simply being told about it. He trusts us, but importantly, trusts Redford to fill in those blanks.
For the most part, "our man" seems unemotional and confident, at least until things get very bad, and even then, he does a rather impressive job keeping it together. Still, it wouldn't take an experienced sailor to notice he doesn't know what he's doing, much like Gravity's Dr. Stone. But the key difference lies in the fact that while Bullock's character is equally incompetent, she's unwisely portrayed as an emotional mess, highlighting the film's weakness for spelling things out in big, bold letters. Redford's character makes some dumb decisions, but he never comes off looking like a fool because it stems from this false pride and ego we can't ever really get a handle on. That's a very subtle choice, and a lot more intriguing than a tacked on backstory involving a deceased child intended to trigger audience sympathy. That decision ultimately cements this as more a story about humanity and survival than visual effects and technical wonder (which Gravity does provide in truckloads). The technical achievements are primarily in sound, joining Redford in co-piloting a picture with no dialogue, but plenty of noises that make you feel as if you're on the boat with this man fighting for his life. The score (provided by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros' Alex Ebert) does the rest of that work and it's haunting, used in just the right doses.
It's hard not to view the Academy's snub of Redford as disgraceful and potentially one of the rare oversights where they'll actually look back in regret. So much of the film's narrative and central character is intertwined with the actor's personal history and career that you can't help but draw a comparison to Mickey Rourke's nominated role in The Wrestler. An older actor thought to be past his prime fighting to survive and battling back, reminding us why he was so respected to begin. That this film came Chandor, the director of 2011's Margin Call is particularly ironic when you consider how talky and dialogue-driven that film was. This has an ending that will undoubtedly infuriate some who prefer pat conclusions that fail to ask anything of its audience. Even if he whole survival story card has been admittedly overplayed of late with Life of Pi, Gravity and Captain Phillips all causing audience fatigue with the genre, this is too well executed to ignore. The best survival stories are always about more than just survival. By choosing to say nothing, All is Lost ends up saying much more than most movies with supposedly greater ambitions.
Monday, March 3, 2014
Does it speak to my interest in this year's telecast that I didn't bother watching any of the red carpet show?
Even just to laugh at it?
Wait, Jennifer Lawrence fell...again?
Wasn't it a relief not to open the show with a tiresome musical number?
After getting too many of them in recent years, wasn't the absence of musical numbers entirely a relief?
How long before people start complaining they want Seth MacFarlane back?
Is anyone ever going to cut the Oscar host a break?
Isn't it really a thankless job?
How about that Liza Minnelli joke?
Wasn't Jennifer Lawrence a great sport?
Aren't her facial reactions great?
Wasn't the Jonah Hill joke funny?
Didn't Ellen do a good job of keeping the monologue short and sweet?
Don't you wish the rest of the show moved as rapidly?
All things considered, didn't she open this pretty well?
Would you have guessed his win would be the first of many, many appearances Jared Leto would make throughout the night?
How about Pharrell's hat?
Was it really wise of me to assume the Academy would give makeup to a film titled, "Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa?"
Could Harrison Ford come off any grumpier and bored if he tried?
Wouldn't JGL and Emma Watson make a good on-screen couple?
Wait... Kim Novak?!
Does it look like maybe she's had a little work done?
When she came out with McConaughey did you think she was the Yellow King?
Does Gravity insure that everyone will at least correctly predict every technical category?
Why does it look weird seeing U2 performing at the Oscars?
But isn't it nice having actual performances of the nominated songs again?
Does anyone miss dopey musical numbers that would have taken its place?
Did you notice Jared Leto inviting himself into the selfie?
Did you catch Liza Minnelli trying and failing to squeeze in?
Was it just not her night?
Don't we love her anyway since she's Lucille Austero?
Given her recurring vertigo, would she have been a better choice to present with Kim Novak?
Does someone saying they're going to make something the most "retweeted ever" just make you not want to reweet it?
Am I contributing to that epidemic by reposting it above?
Was there really any doubt which photo I'd use?
Does Kevin Spacey win the Oscar for Best photobomb?
Shouldn't he host the show next year...as Frank Underwood?
Michael B. Jordan and Kristen B. Ell?
Can you believe Christoph Waltz is already a two-time Supporting Actor winner?
For the same role?
Was Lupita Nyong'o's acceptance speech on of the few memorably emotional ones in recent years?
Was seeing all these stars deciding on pizza funnier than it had any right being?
Didn't Ellen really commit to that entire bit in an admirable way?
Do we now know the only thing that makes Harrison Ford smile?
Did the whole pizza bit work because it actually looked like everyone was having fun at this event for a change?
Did you see how into it Martin Scorsese was?
Were you as hungry for pizza as I was?
Was Bill Murray's shout-out to Harold Ramis the most moving moment of the night or what?
Isn't is amazing that even here Murray can still shock and delight us?
How do we live in a world where neither of those guys have won an Oscar?
Does anything say The Wizard The Oz more than a performance from Pink?
What's with this whole "heroes" theme?
Should the In Memoriam segment be renamed the "What obscure person was left out so everyone can complain on Twitter" award?
Wasn't it heartbreaking seeing Roger Ebert, James Gandolfini, Harold Ramis and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the montage?
Wasn't Sarah Jones' passing handled strangely, with a message telling us to just go to the web site?
Shouldn't they get credit for at least doing something on such short notice?
When Bette Midler came out did the heroes theme only then start to make a bit more sense?
Did I ever tell you you're my hero?
That you're everything I wish I could be?
Is everyone who went out on a limb to pick Her for Original Screenplay feeling pretty good?
Doesn't Cuaron come off as a great guy?
Did anyone really think Cate Blanchett wouldn't thank Woody Allen?
Do people who think she shouldn't need to get some perspective that we're honoring the work?
Is McConaughey the only Best Actor winner with his own legitimate catchphrase?
Isn't that kind of cool?
Is Will Smith the only Razzie winner to have presented Best Picture the following day?
Didn't the pacing of the show kind of hit a snag in the last hour and a half?
What does it say when keeping it under four hours is an accomplishment?
12 Years an Oscar telecast?
Am I in shock I missed only two categories the entire night?
Am I glad I adjusted my predictions before the show?
Can you believe how many wins Gravity had without taking Best Picture?
Did American Hustle really just get completely shut out?
Despite being hit or miss at times, is Ellen the first host in a while to actually earn a return invite?
Doesn't it seem like we have the same complaints and discussions about the Oscars every year?
Given this year's crop of films, is the 7 percent rise in viewership proof this show was as entertaining as it could have possibly been?
Friday, February 28, 2014
That I only realized a few days ago that the Academy Awards were this Sunday can't be a great sign, either for my attentiveness or the nominated films, which just haven't filled me with the same level of enthusiasm as last year's crop of contenders. And moviegoers unfortunately seem to be agreeing, as the majority of the films have seen far less of a box office bump than expected. It seems like just yesterday everyone was furiously debating Zero Dark Thirty, arguing whether Argo was a worthy Best Picture winner and speculating at Jennifer Lawrence's chances of taking home Best Actress. For me, there's been little of that excitement surrounding this year's race and I've even been a bit let down by some of the more popular nominees.
The good news is that this race is the most unpredictable it's been in a while, with the eventual Best Picture winner hardly set in stone, even as we head down the final stretch. But as much as we all like to complain that our favorites are left out, these are some great films here, and we should be thankful that the Academy (for all the criticism they receive) do shine a much needed spotlight on quality work. As for the actual show, I just hope it isn't a slog and we're in for some real surprises. Having not yet seen all the nominees, I'm mostly dispensing with the "should win" in favor of attempting to get inside the mind of an Oscar voter (as scary as that seems) and predicting what will. Below are those predictions, along with some accompanying analysis for the major categories.
“12 Years a Slave”
“Dallas Buyers Club”
“The Wolf of Wall Street”
*American Hustle feels like it's out of the game, having peaked too early and lacking the necessary substance to take home the big prize. With Nebraska and Dallas Buyers Club, their nominations are reward enough, while "Philomania" definitely won't be runnin' wild on Oscar night. The overpraised Her just isn't the type of movie that wins Best Picture. The Wolf of Wall Street completely deserves it but is too polarizing and Captain Phillips is unfortunately most voters' second or third choice. This leaves two contenders that each face some obstacles. 12 Years a Slave covers a topic that might be too difficult for (primarily white, older) voters to stomach and Gravity is an effects-driven 3D movie that doesn't hold up as well at home. What's promising for its chances is that while the film's set set in space, it isn't science fiction, nor does it contain a single idea worthy of discussion afterwards. Sadly, this makes it an ideal winner.
When in doubt, the Oscars always go for the safest, least offensive choice. In theory, the uplifting Gravity should take it. But something's stopping me from picking it. I just can't see the Academy choosing a big budget, high-grossing, 3D space movie as Best Picture. There's just not enough depth to it. 12 Years is important, epic and historical and we know from past years that's a "can't miss" proposition for voters. They can feel good about themselves rewarding it, while Gravity picks up all the technical awards and Cuaron wins for Director.
David O. Russell, “American Hustle”
Alfonso Cuaron, “Gravity”
Alexander Payne, “Nebraska”
Steve McQueen, “12 Years a Slave”
Martin Scorsese, “The Wolf of Wall Street”
*Cuaron's going to win this and I'm not so sure how I feel about that considering his direction of Bullock actually prevented the actress from giving a performance that would've insured her a second Oscar. Also, with these types of effects driven vehicles, we're never sure how much of its success can be attributed to the visual effects team. In this case, it's likely a lot. But no other director here (aside from maybe McQueen) stands much of a chance. David O. Russell's day is coming. Just not yet. The Best Picture and Director categories "usually" match but I'm thinking this will be one of those strange years we have a split. The situation definitely call for it.
Christian Bale, “American Hustle”
Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”
Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Wolf of Wall Street”
Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”
Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”
*Alright, alright, alright. For McConaughey, this Oscar will be as much a reward for The Lincoln Lawyer, Magic Mike, Bernie, Killer Joe, The Paperboy, Mud, The Wolf of Wall Street and that little show he has on HBO as it is for Dallas Buyers Club. He's essentially getting a career achievement award for three years worth of work in which he resuscitated a career clinging to life support. Few would argue he deserves it. So does Leo, but McConaughey's riding all the momentum now. He can put this Oscar on a mantle where it'll await company from the Emmy he'll receive for True Detective, which most will be watching instead of this telecast.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Barkhad Abdi, “Captain Phillips”
Bradley Cooper, “American Hustle”
Michael Fassbender, “12 Years a Slave”
Jonah Hill, “The Wolf of Wall Street”
Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club”
*This one should be wide open, but it isn't. In a perfect world, Jonah Hill would win, but most voters probably think a second nomination is reward enough for now. No biggie. In a couple of years he'll probably be nominated for his role as suspected 1996 Olympic park bomber Richard Jewell (in a movie I've been patiently waiting 18 long years for someone to make). So there's that to look forward to. But this one belongs to Leto, who's playing a transgender with AIDS. With a part like that, does it even matter how the performance was? There's also a built-in comeback story, with the actor/musician having not made a film in 6 years. He'll win easily.
Amy Adams, “American Hustle”
Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”
Sandra Bullock, “Gravity”
Judi Dench, “Philomena”
Meryl Streep, “August: Osage County”
*Even more of a lock than Best Actor. It's Cate Blanchett's to lose, regardless of whatever Woody Allen did or didn't do twenty years ago. Bullock won too recently. Streep's mandatory inclusion for anything is starting to become the Academy's longest running joke at this point. Dench is actually a bigger threat than people think, while 5 (!) time nominee Amy Adams is probably Blanchett's stiffest competition. She won't win though. Blanchett's performance is just too strong. That they're rewarding an excellent actress who deserves recognition is just icing on the cake. This outcome was a foregone conclusion months ago.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”
Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”
June Squibb, “Nebraska”
Julia Roberts, “August: Osage County”
Sally Hawkins, “Blue Jasmine”
*In a category famous for upsets, this is the night's closest race. Any of these women can win (well, except Julia Roberts). It's really between J-Law and Nyong'o and it's very, very close. On one hand, I can't see them giving Lawrence an Oscar two years in a row. Then again, it's Jennifer Lawrence. But you'd figure this is as good a category as any to reward 12 Years, while also endorsing a promising newcomer. I'm going with Nyong'o but using a pencil. I could easily change my mind before the show.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
“American Hustle” – Written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell
“Blue Jasmine” – Written by Woody Allen
“Her” – Written by Spike Jonze
“Nebraska” – Written by Bob Nelson
“Dallas Buyers Club” – Written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack
* I guess we'll leave the debate as to whether Blue Jasmine should even qualify as an original screenplay for another time. This is very close between American Hustle and Her, with the latter having an edge since Jonze's script is ultimately what that film's best remembered for. With Hustle, it's more the performances. I'm not even that big a fan of Her but will have to admit the screenplay is incredibly inventive and intelligent. If it deserves to win anything, it's this.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
“Before Midnight” – Written by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
“Captain Phillips” – Screenplay by Billy Ray
“Philomena” – Screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope
“12 Years a Slave” – Screenplay by John Ridley
“The Wolf of Wall Street” – Screenplay by Terence Winter
*This and Best Editing are the categories Captain Phillips really has a chance at. But once again you can file a potential 12 Years victory here under "it has to get something else," if it also wins Best Picture. Similarly, Adapted Screenplay seems like a worthy consolation prize should the film fall short in the bigger categories.
“The Grandmaster” Phillipe Le Sourd
“Gravity” Emmanuel Lubezki
“Inside Llewyn Davis” Bruno Delbonnel
“Nebraska” Phedon Papamichael
“Prisoners” Roger A. Deakins
*This seems as good a time as any for the Academy to create some kind of separate category for effects driven films. Of course, the big joke is that we already have that category. It's called "Best Visual Effects." I'm just not sure how comfortable I am having the great Roger Deakins lose for the 11th time to a movie mostly shot on sound stages against a green screen while other deserving contenders like Spring Breakers, Rush and The Bling Ring are left out altogether. It just seems more like technology than cinematography. I'm fine with them honoring it. Just not here. Which means Lubezski will probably win.
BEST ORIGINAL SONG
“Alone Yet Not Alone” from “Alone Yet Not Alone”
Music by Bruce Broughton; Lyric by Dennis Spiegel
“Happy” from “Despicable Me 2”
Music and Lyric by Pharrell Williams
“Let It Go” from “Frozen”
Music and Lyric by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
“The Moon Song” from “Her”
Music by Karen O; Lyric by Karen O and Spike Jonze
“Ordinary Love” from “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”
Music by Paul Hewson, Dave Evans, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen; Lyric by Paul Hewson
*Now that everyone has heard Pharrell's "Happy" and knows how good it is, it's kind of unbelievable voters would even consider giving this to anything else. But that's the Academy for you. Frozen's probably winning, even if I hope I'm wrong. It also wouldn't surprise me if U2 pulls this off given the prestige factor. This and the Documentary category are the only instances where I can honestly say the Academy infuriates me by consistently failing to nominate the best contenders and making head-scratching decisions on an annual basis. Luckily, the original songs are actually being performed on the show this year. I just wish (with the exception of "Happy") that they were better.
BEST ANIMATED FILM
“Despicable Me 2”
“Ernest and Celestine”
“The Wind Rises”
BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Michael Wilkinson, “American Hustle”
William Chang Suk Ping, “The Grandmaster”
Catherine Martin, “The Great Gatsby”
Michael O’Connor, “The Invisible Woman”
Patricia Norris, “12 Years a Slave”
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
“The Act of Killing”Joshua Oppenheimer and Signe Byrge Sørensen
“Cutie and the Boxer” Zachary Heinzerling and Lydia Dean Pilcher
“Dirty Wars” Richard Rowley and Jeremy Scahill
“The Square” Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer
“20 Feet from Stardom” Nominees to be determined
BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT
“CaveDigger” Jeffrey Karoff
“Facing Fear” Jason Cohen
“Karama Has No Walls” Sara Ishaq
“The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life” Malcolm Clarke and Nicholas Reed
“Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall” Edgar Barens
BEST FILM EDITING
“American Hustle” Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers and Alan Baumgarten
“Captain Phillips” Christopher Rouse
“Dallas Buyers Club” John Mac McMurphy and Martin Pensa
“Gravity” Alfonso Cuarón and Mark Sanger
“12 Years a Slave” Joe Walker
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
“The Broken Circle Breakdown,” Belgium
“The Great Beauty,” Italy
“The Hunt,” Denmark
“The Missing Picture,” Cambodia
BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
“Dallas Buyers Club” Adruitha Lee and Robin Mathews
“Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa” Stephen Prouty
“The Lone Ranger” Joel Harlow and Gloria Pasqua-Casny
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
John Williams, “The Book Thief”
Steven Price, “Gravity”
William Butler and Owen Pallett, “Her”
Alexandre Desplat, “Philomena”
Thomas Newman, “Saving Mr. Banks”
BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Production Design: Judy Becker; Set Decoration: Heather Loeffler
Production Design: Andy Nicholson; Set Decoration: Rosie Goodwin and Joanne Woollard
“The Great Gatsby”
Production Design: Catherine Martin; Set Decoration: Beverley Dunn
Production Design: K.K. Barrett; Set Decoration: Gene Serdena
“12 Years a Slave”
Production Design: Adam Stockhausen; Set Decoration: Alice Baker
BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM
“Feral” Daniel Sousa and Dan Golden
“Get a Horse!” Lauren MacMullan and Dorothy McKim
“Mr. Hublot” Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares
“Possessions” Shuhei Morita
“Room on the Broom” Max Lang and Jan Lachauer
BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM
“Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)” Esteban Crespo
“Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just before Losing Everything)” Xavier Legrand and Alexandre Gavras
“Helium” Anders Walter and Kim Magnusson
“Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)” Selma Vilhunen and Kirsikka Saari
“The Voorman Problem” Mark Gill and Baldwin Li
BEST SOUND EDITING
“All Is Lost” Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hymns
“Captain Phillips” Oliver Tarney
“Gravity” Glenn Freemantle
“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” Brent Burge
“Lone Survivor” Wylie Stateman
BEST SOUND MIXING
“Captain Phillips” Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor, Mike Prestwood Smith and Chris Munro
“Gravity” Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead and Chris Munro
“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” Christopher Boyes, Michael Hedges, Michael Semanick and Tony Johnson
“Inside Llewyn Davis” Skip Lievsay, Greg Orloff and Peter F. Kurland
“Lone Survivor” Andy Koyama, Beau Borders and David Brownlow
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
“Gravity” Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk and Neil Corbould
“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton and Eric Reynolds
“Iron Man 3” Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Erik Nash and Dan Sudick
“The Lone Ranger” Tim Alexander, Gary Brozenich, Edson Williams and John Frazier
“Star Trek Into Darkness” Roger Guyett, Patrick Tubach, Ben Grossmann and Burt Dalton
Sunday, February 23, 2014
Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Pierfrancesco Favino, David Calder, Natalie Dormer
Running Time: 122 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Fear is a pro athlete's worst enemy. Once it enters the equation trouble usually follows. But it's only when you've realized it's there that it's really over. There's a great scene in Ron Howard's Formula One motor racing drama, Rush, depicting that. Austrian driver Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) tells his new wife that he'll be a worse driver now because he's happy and has something to lose. It's the defining moment of the film because it's that little sliver of doubt creeping in that every competitor fights against. Niki's nemesis, Englishman James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) rarely has such thoughts, or when he does, quickly dismisses them by vomiting before the race. The movie is about their rivalry during the 1976 season that saw Lauda being pulled from a flaming Ferrari while Hunt fought to accumulate enough points to catch up and take his crown. And neither is particularly likable, to the point that your opinion on who the bigger jerk is may waver from scene to scene.
There's nothing in screenwriter Peter Morgan's script that shamelessly tugs at the heartstrings or depicts either driver as a hero. In fact, an argument can be made that the opposite stance is being taken with a thoughtful, sometimes cutthroat examination of why these guys would risk their lives and how that adrenaline rush of cheating death can become as addictive as a drug. It isn't your typical sports drama and doesn't end like one either, taking the cliche of that last "Big Race" and flipping it on its head. The stance it takes is gutsy and it's because of that lack of manipulation that viewers will come away with more respect for these two than they would if their story were given the typical Hollywoodization. Based on a true story, it feels like it actually is one, taking a straightforward, biographical approach without playing any games. That this comes from the writer/director team behind Frost/Nixon strangely makes sense, as it's also about two unlikely rivals thrown together by circumstance and history. One of the most sumptuously shot films of the year, it plays like a great, feature-length 30 for 30 on steroids.
The film begins 8 years prior to that legendary 1976 season as the two drivers couldn't possibly have more contrasting personalities, philosophies and attitudes both on and off the track. Hunt is a womanizing, hard partying rock star-like racer who lives for the rush while Lauda is a cold, calculating technician and expert strategist out there to get the job done. They detest one another almost immediately, with each representing what the other can't stand about the sport. We see how they eventually became heated rivals, with an arrogant Lauda buying his way into competition but still fighting for the respect he feels is owed to him while the freewheeling James Hunt is already racking up victories. Soon, the tide turns with James playing catch up and struggling to find a team that will take him because of his reckless behavior. Their feud rages on, exchanging victories and losses until it becomes less about being world champion than beating the other, regardless of the toll it takes on their personal lives and marriages. At least until the German Grand Prix, which ends up being the race that changes everything.
What's captured so well by Ron Howard is how two athletes at the apex of their profession can simultaneously hate and respect each other. The one thing no one wishes on a fellow competitor under any circumstances happens to Niki Lauda, with the fiery crash itself playing as a nightmare that's almost impossible to watch, as a burning inferno engulfs him for a good minute. A minute that may as well be an eternity for him. How he survived a crash like that at all (in 1976 no less) is astonishing in itself, but what unfolds in its aftermath can't be spoiled other than to say it drastically changes their rivalry and relationship in completely unexpected ways. Even the circumstances leading up to the crash are so odd I'm not even sure I'd believe it if it wasn't based on a true story.
Much acclaim has rightfully gone to Daniel Brühl for his portrayal of the stubborn, almost pathologically mechanical Lauda and what's great about the performance is how it doesn't give us some cookie-cutter sports hero who overcame the odds or shy away from diving into the uglier, obsessive aspects of his personality. Hemsworth deserves more credit than he's getting as Hunt because while it's unquestionably an example of perfect casting (think Thor in a race car), he never plays the guy as a brainless lug. As crazy as Hunt was, he manages to do something that borders on being subtle and sympathetic, especially as the film wears on. Both men have their inner demons and its scripted and edited to put them on equal footing, playing as kind of a dual biopic that short changes neither athlete.
As Hunt's wife Suzy, Olivia Wilde isn't given a whole lot to do, but even that strangely makes sense given the driver's lifestyle and penchant for collecting women as hood ornaments. But in her few scenes, the retro looking Wilde definitely makes an impact, as she usually does. The idea that he would get married as some kind of misguided attempt at normalcy and stability is interesting. Hunt was who he was and even she acknowledges that trying to change that is a lost cause. Lauda's relationship with his wife Marlene (a really great Alexandra Maria Lara) is justifiably given more emphasis since it's pushed to the limit through tragedy. Their relationship ultimately becomes the centerpiece of the picture and deserves to be because it's handled in a realistic manner that doesn't insult the viewer's intelligence or extol false messages of hope and perseverance. It earns its stripes by simply being honest from the moment the two meet to when Lauda is fighting for his life in the hospital.
Both men are confronted with the question of whether this is worth their lives and while it should seem obvious how dangerous a sport this is, this is a film that really shows it, with the camera taking you into the car to feel the terror and exhilaration. Oscar winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle shooting it in this hazy, vintage style befitting the story, action and time period, giving it a look that resembles nothing else Ron Howard's ever made. Hans Zimmer's score might not soar to the spectacularly over-the-top heights of his synth-heavy composition for Days of Thunder, but this isn't that kind of movie, despite the shared subject matter. It's unlikely anyone would confuse the two films on any other grounds either, and as much as I love Thunder, it's tough to defend it on grounds other than as a cheesy, guilty pleasure that's very much of its time. This feels more timeless, and with little guilt attached to enjoying it, regardless of whether or not you're familiar with the sport. Nothing is too "inside," as its effectiveness comes in setting a universal story within the racing world.
As a deadly serious examination of the sport that still somehow finds room for some subtle humor in the rivalry, Morgan's script takes giant creative liberties with the drivers' real life relationship (they were actually good friends), but those choices are defensible in bringing to the surface greater truths about their differing approaches to the sport and their lives. The film bravely posits that it isn't a coincidence which one of these men survived, with Hunt clearly subscribing to the Neil Young philosophy that it's better to burn out than fade away. The highest compliment to Rush is when we're eventually shown actual footage of Hunt and Lauda I still thought I was watching a dramatization. It's the kind of authenticity every sports film strives for, but so very rarely achieves.
Sunday, February 16, 2014
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale, Louis C.K., Andrew Dice Clay, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tammy Blanchard, Max Casella
Running Time: 98 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
It's somewhat ironic that Woody Allen's most tolerable film in years centers around an intolerable character. At least to the other characters. But to us she's compelling and even at points captivating. Observing the actions of the title character in Blue Jasmine is comparable to watching a train wreck. That's a change of pace since the most toxic element in any Woody Allen film is usually him, whether he's in front of the camera or not. He hasn't made what could be considered a truly great film in decades despite turning out one feature a year like clockwork. Sometimes it feels like he's making them just to make them and keep working even if he doesn't have anything important to say. More frustratingly, it's not like any of these films are awful, as that might be some indication he's really going for it. Instead, most have been mediocre or even occasionally forgettable.
Aside from a powerhouse lead performance of alarming proportions, it's tough to say Blue Jasmine necessarily breaks the Woody mold but it's definitely stronger and more interesting than Whatever Works, To Rome With Love and the overpraised Midnight in Paris. Coming from someone who far prefers him tackling drama, there's more than enough drama to spare here, while still offering a spattering of laughs, most of which are dark and uncomfortable. He's good at this stuff and should do character studies more often, even if this can't exactly be considered an "original screenplay" in any way, shape or form. There are direct sequels and remakes that have less in common with their source than this script does with Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. Luckily, it was probably due for an update anyway, so at least it's given a good one.
Rich socialite Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett) has recently fallen on hard times, as her former husband, New York financier Hal Francis (Alec Baldwin) was sent to prison for fraud, forcing her to move to San Francisco to stay with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Through flashbacks, we're given important glimpses of Jasmine's marriage to Hal and her relationship with Ginger and then husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), both of whom she looked down on at the time as lower class degenerates. Year later, Jasmine's attitude remains mostly the same even as Ginger has since moved on with a mechanic named Chili (Bobby Cannavale). Battling her own history of mental illness and emotional instability, Jasmine wastes little time popping pills, drinking heavily, mocking her sister's lifestyle choices and insulting her friends. But the true horror comes when she actually has to go out and get a real job. It isn't until she meets and falls for wealthy, widowed diplomat Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) that she's given a fresh chance at happiness.
Complex in both conception and execution, the title character is the reason it all works. Part protagonist, part antagonist, Jasmine could have easily been written or performed as a cliche of upper class entitlement, or worse yet, a crazed sociopath. And while there will undoubtedly still be those who think she qualifies as both, Blanchett brings a lot more to it than that, despite it being the type of performance that couldn't be classified as subtle. Being sickened by Jasmine's actions is a given, but the actress forces us into believing she might actually have potential as a human being if she weren't so self-absorbed and superficial. That both she and Ginger were adopted is an important detail since they're so different no one would possibly believe they're sisters otherwise, which is an underlying (if not overlying) source of tension in their relationship. It's clear from their interactions Jasmine was always the favorite growing up and it's even more plainly obvious Ginger is only her sister when she needs something. And yet, frustratingly, Jasmine's observations that her sister is wasting her life and potential are spot on. She pretty much is.
Hawkins portrays an often clueless and naive woman who's settling in every aspect of her life, especially when it comes to romance. It's rare having a supporting character (especially a familiar type like the put upon sister) that's as well developed as the lead and Hawkins deserves much of that credit. Torn between the hot-tempered Chili and a guy named Al (Louis C.K.) who she meets at a party and carries on an affair, both alternately straddle the line between caring, sensitive guys and total losers. The truth probably resides somewhere in between, but the exuberant Cannavale is one of the best things in this and the thrill of seeing Louis C.K. in a Woody Allen movie, even in such a small dose, doesn't disappoint. It also really gets the mind racing about how great it would be if Louie were given the same opportunity as Larry David to carry his own Allen vehicle.
There have been raves for Andrew Dice Clay's performance and while he is surprisingly solid in a small, but pivotal role, I can't help but think much of that praise stems from the shock of not only seeing the controversial comic in a quality film, but managing to hold his own. Still, it's a casting masterstroke as Augie's very existence in the story serves as set-up for a huge, climactic scene in the third act where Jasmine's past indiscretions catch up with her. Baldwin's sleazy as ever as her lying, philandering, Madoff-like ex-husband, but it's Blanchett doing most of the work, devouring scenes left and right.
As heinous as Jasmine seems, the actress does seem to work up a considerable amount of empathy for her given her situation isn't one that naturally elicits much (if any) sympathy at all. By society's standards, she was on top of the world and used to living a certain lifestyle so it only makes sense she would break when it all comes crashing down. Her foray into the working world as a receptionist for an overexcited dentist (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) reveals almost as much about the character as it does Allen himself, who's been justifiably accused of being out of touch with the rest of society (an office without computers?) It's also interesting how the San Francisco setting feels and looks no different than the director's detours overseas to Paris or Rome. This shares the basic feel of every other recent Woody movie, but it's darker in tone and centered around a performance leagues ahead of what we're used to in his usual outings.
When we eventually learn the exact circumstances of her former husband's downfall, there's even more to talk about and Blanchett's work somehow seems even more intricate in retrospect. The worst thing that could happen to her is being teased with a shot at reclaiming the wealth and privilege she originally relished and still yearns for. For all her deception and shame to try to cover up her previous life, we still see how Sarsgaard's wealthy diplomat would fall for her class, beauty and sophistication, even as she unintentionally works as hard as possible to sabotage herself. She's the kind of person whose compliments even seem like backhanded insults.
It's difficult not to respect Allen for refusing to compromise by letting the character arrive at some sudden self-realization that would feel false for someone as emotionally unstable as she. Everything is particularly twisted and unpleasant, which comes as a relief from a director not exactly known for his risk taking in recent years. While there's nothing particularly surprising about Blue Jasmine aside from that and Blanchett's barn burning turn, it marks the first time in a while there are actually issues to contemplate and discuss coming out of a Woody Allen picture.
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
Director: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Catherine Keener, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, David Warshofsky, Corey Johnson, Chris Mulkey
Running Time: 134 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Imagine my surprise when I'm almost halfway through Captain Phillips and the realization dawns on me that I'm not even close to the final thirty minutes everyone's talking about and the suspense has already reached unbearable, pulse-pounding levels. And this is knowing what's going to happen. Or so we think. We actually know very little aside from the fact that in 2009 Captain Richard Phillips and his crew were hijacked in the Indian Ocean by Somalian pirates, he was taken hostage, and lived to write about it. That book is the basis for this film, vividly brought to life by Paul Greengrass (United 93). How much of what ends up on screen resembles the actual incident will tiredly be the subject for much debate, but that has little to do with the finished product, which is nearly a masterpiece.
We've been through this before with Zero Dark Thirty, when intelligent discussion devolved into political mudslinging as its detractors attempted to make the filmmakers and audiences somehow feel guilty about the U.S. capturing and killing Osama bin Laden. I'm all for empathy and understanding, but is anyone else more than a little disturbed that this film's worth is being judged on how compassionately the Somalian pirates are portrayed? The same Somalian pirates who hijacked an American cargo ship and took its captain hostage at gunpoint. Greengrass going the extra mile to try to depict them as something more than one-dimensional monsters is probably giving them better treatment than they deserve based on their actions. If anything, those involved in the making of this picture should be commended for managing to invest the story with this much humanity without sacrificing any of the true event's intensity. But the big question is: How on Earth was Tom Hanks not nominated for this?
From the opening scene, Hanks plays Boston native Richard Phillips, captain of the MV Maersk Alabama container ship, as a born leader. That leadership will be severely tested when four armed pirates led by Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) take control of the ship off the coast of Somalia and he has to take whatever measures necessary to protect his crew and make them feel like they're in control, while still somehow maintaining a certain degree of control himself. What plays out is not only a severe culture clash, with the pirates' motivations remaining vague, even sometimes to them. To say their plan wasn't well thought out doesn't even begin to cover it, but despite the sloppy execution (or rather because of it) the ordeal seems that much more dangerous for the Americans. These Somalians may not know what they're doing, how to do it, and fail to grasp the magnitude of what they're attempting to pull off, but at least they have unpredictability and intimidation on their side. Also in their favor is that Phillips' crew is unarmed and must rely only on ship hoses as weaponry, deeming their numbers advantage useless.
Even, for a brief time, when it seems the defending crew is in control, they're really not. That's when a crucial decision from Phillips turns this into a gripping single location thriller with his life on the line, as well as the pride of pirates who demand to be taken seriously and refuse to be made fools of by America. Since Phillips is played by Hanks, a national treasure and maybe the single most likable performer we have, it isn't difficult to be on pins and needles worrying about the character's safety regardless of our knowledge of events. But Hanks (adopting a New England accent), never plays on that connection, instead offering up a harrowing depiction of a very scared man trying to do his best under dire circumstances and struggling to keep it together. At many points he has to use social engineering to guide the actions of his captors without them knowing, all while the U.S. Navy is poised and ready to intervene. As the situation escalates and Phillips' life is put in greater danger by the minute, their presence becomes more prominent. The Navy has a plan. Even backup plans. The pirates are only running on instinct.
In what's ultimately a battle of wills between the two captains who couldn't be more different in both values and background, both must still find a way to communicate so they can get out of this what they want. For Phillips, it's survival. For Muse, it's money and respect. Out of necessity, the relationship that develops between the two is an adversarial one, but also fraught with tension as each tries to manipulate the other to gain the upper hand. Phillips is successful simply because he's so much smarter, which is through no fault of Muse's own. And that's really where the culture clash in Billy Ray's Oscar nominated screenplay comes into play, as Muse and his crew are too prideful to truly grasp how much of a disadvantage they're at as the situation escalates past the point of no return.
Barkhad Abdi has never acted a day in his life before this film, but you see why he'd be cast on sheer presence alone. While he may not look like a physical threat, there's an aura of danger surrounding him and Abdi conveys it without losing sight of the real person underneath, in his own way struggling for survival just as Phillips is. He's so believable and scary opposite his scenes with Hanks that it's almost easy to overlook his fellow pirates, played by Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali, who contribute just as much at times. Especially Abdirahman, who plays the hotheaded Bilal as an uncontrollable monster prone to terrifying fits of rage. He's the one that can't be manipulated, operating purely on bitterness and hatred. But even he has moments where we glimpse beneath the surface to sense the real deep seeded source of that frustration. Ironically, we know the least about Phillips, aside from a brief scene at the beginning with he and his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) that neither adds or detracts from the proceedings. Everything we learn about this man's character is uncovered through the life and death situation he finds himself in. As for all the shaky cam, it didn't bother me one bit, as I was too engulfed in the events unfolding in front of me to even consider the technique used to deliver it. It's like you're right there.
Yes, the United States military and Captain Phillips are depicted as heroes in this situation because that's exactly what they were. It's one of the few things we know as fact, and also happens to work as a compelling dramatization on film. If the roles were reversed, and Americans were the initial aggressors, the same would hold true. One of the movie's greatest strengths is that it does make you consider that scenario and put the instigators actions into context. But Greengrass has no obligation to portray them "sympathetically," regardless of their history or background, of which only a documentary should be expected to thoroughly explore. All bets were off when they boarded that ship armed and ready to commit violence.
What it also shares with Zero Dark Thirty (besides providing a dramatic recreation of incredibly recent history) is a final scene that just ripped me apart. It's the very definition of "sticking the landing," going a step further to explore the aftermath with an indescribable few minutes that features the best acting of Tom Hanks' career and highlights the potential benefits of casting a trained military professional if the role warrants it. But it's really everything leading up to that scene that makes it pack the well-earned, emotional punch it does. "Based on a true story" is often a dreaded tagline but Captain Phillips isn't merely a visual retelling of an important, almost unbelievable event. It's an experience that challenges the viewer debate and consider the thoughts, feelings and motivations of everyone involved in it.
Sunday, February 9, 2014
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette
Running Time: 153 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Prisoners is one of those thrillers where you can't really reveal anything. The plot is so full of twists and turns that even a basic description risks revealing too much. It's common knowledge that when children are abducted the chances of finding them greatly decreases with each passing minute. This film is about what happens during those passing minutes to the victims' families, the detective assigned to the case and the primary suspect. Having him in custody is merely the start of this strange, twisted journey that doesn't qualify as the run-of-the-mill mainstream suspense thriller or police procedural it was advertised as. Some will claim it does, and that director Denis Villeneuve, writer Aaron Guzikowski and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins are just doing a really good job hiding it. And if they are, more power to them. But I'd argue Prisoners does bend quite a few rules, keeping you on the edge of your seat for two and a half hours without a clue what could happen from one minute to the next. And yet it never overstays its welcome since those involved seem to know exactly what they're doing, as an overwhelming sense of competence engulfs the project, making it impossible to not be swept along for the ride.
When Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his family attend Thanksgiving dinner with their neighbors, the Birches, both families' young daughters, Anna and Joy, go out for a walk. They don't return. The only clue is an old RV parked on the street belonging to a mentally disabled young man named Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who has an IQ of a ten-year-old and lives with his aunt, Holly (Melissa Leo). He's clearly the prime suspect, but when the detective in charge of the case, David Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), brings him in for questioning, it's discovered they don't have nearly enough to hold him. That's when an enraged Dover decides to take the law into his own hands and deal with Alex himself. Things start to get ugly as Loki suddenly has three equally difficult jobs in finding the abductor, locating the girls and managing an out of control Dover, who's hell bent on finding his daughter his way, without the authorities' help. With hardly any support from his superiors, Loki must piece together a series of bizarre clues and evidence, just as another suspect emerges who's somehow even creepier than Alex. Minutes turn to hours and then to days, and with that comes the increased chance this will turn from an abduction case to a murder investigation, and the search will soon be for bodies.
What's atypical here is that the main suspect's guilt is in legitimate doubt for nearly entire length of the picture, to the point that your suspicion of Alex literally wavers from one scene to the next. At first, Dover seems like an irrational hothead so worked up by his daughter's abduction that he's willing to go after the only person who emerges as a believable suspect. While that's at least partially true, he discovers a few pieces of seemingly irrefutable evidence that causes him to (somewhat justifiably) fly off the deep end at the news of his release from custody. Dover may not be an easy character to like, but he's an easier one to root for because it's impossible not to feel for a father put in that situation. If nothing else, you have to respect his consistency even when his methods are flawed. And there's also the very real possibility he's right and that the police squandered the one lead they had..Jackman's an actor known for his natural charm and charisma but it's completely buried here to the point of invisibility. In its place is the pure anger and intensity of a man who will stop at nothing to find his daughter, no matter how much his vigilantism is frowned upon by his overmedicated wife Grace (Maria Bello) and Joy's parents, Franklin and Nancy (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis). You've never seen Jackman like this as the role is a complete 180 from most of what he's tackled before, challenging our perceptions of what we thought him capable of in a leading role.
Gyllenhaal is in full Zodiac mode as Detective Loki, with the key exception being that he's playing as actual cop this time around and the character has a much harder, experienced edge to him. It definitely deserves its place in the "Glylenhaal of Fame" of performances right alongside his work in Zodiac, Donnie Darko and Source Code. Loki's definitely the hero of the story, rarely misstepping in the face of seemingly impossible odds and tangled webs of circumstantial clues. Just as we doubt Alex's involvement, of equal doubt is whether this detective can even crack the case. While much of that uncertainty comes from the twisty plot, credit should also be extended to Paul Dano's unnerving performance as Alex, which fluctuates so wildly between pure creepiness and an almost childlike innocence that we begin to seriously second guess our understanding of the character's motivations. Has he really been falsely accused or is this a superbly calculated performance within a performance? An almost entirely mute Dano never tips his hand too far in either direction with Alex's behavior, all while spending three quarters of the film under physical assault and abuse.
Cold and calculating in both tone and execution, this almost feels like a more mainstream B-side to David Fincher's Zodiac or Se7en. This is especially noticeable in the rain-drenched, darkened setting, which Roger Deakins lights to make as much of a character as any of the actual characters inhabiting it. What starts as a relatively simple case evolves into something increasingly complex and morally ambiguous. That the title "prisoners" could reasonably refer to any number of characters speaks to the script's ingenuity. But more importantly, the the movie speaks to every parent's worst nightmare in capturing the horror of a child abduction in middle class suburbia. Then it goes ten steps further, concluding with a chilling, unshakeable final shot befitting the strongest thriller of the year. Endings are always tough, but this one absolutely nails it, combing just the right mixture of ambiguity and closure. The only worry in revisiting the film is that the revelations are so surprising you'd wonder how multiple viewings could impact the appreciation of how well it narratively holds together. Luckily though, despite carrying a lot of plot, Prisoners gets all the other small, important details right that most thrillers of recent years haven't even bothered with.