I Don’t Have A Vote: The 89th Annual Oscars – You are ruining Everything

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89th Annual Oscars – You’re Ruining Everything

Save us, Jimmy Kimmel. Save us.

This year, with all that’s going on in the rest of the world, we need movies more than ever as a distraction. Awards shows in the modern era normally have a certain amount of politics thrown in, but Meryl Streep’s  flatulent performance at the Globes really ruined it for a lot of people, including our entire house. One can hope they don’t hand her a microphone this year, but this is unlikely.

My heart was set even further asunder when I saw how good a speech can be. George Kennedy is not everyone’s first thought as an Oscar winner. And that also included George Kennedy.

Could you imagine anyone winning the award Post Halle Berry handling it with such grace? It beats talking about saving the planet from climate change and then flying off in a lear jet to go spend time on one’s yacht any day.

My wife wants to skip it. My youngest daughter wants to watch Jimmy. So do I. Looks like we’re going to have to rely on our DVR so we can cut the crap and enjoy the crappy spectacle.

As a result of that one complete overindulgence, I nearly lost the will to tell you what I liked best this year. This is as close to forcing it as writing comes for me. There was some good things in the movies this year though, and I think we need to talk about it.

My pick for the best in film this year is a lot closer to what the Academy picked this year. I can almost see it from here when there are no clouds at night. It’s somewhere behind Pluto.

So I will give everyone my take on who I would have won the awards. Often it’s someone who isn’t on the board, and that is okay. This follows with who I think should win of the nominees. I hope you find some way to enjoy some movies that may not be mentioned at all tonight.

Best Film:

I gave my highest rating to Hacksaw Ridge, Fences,  The Girl With All The Gifts, Loving and Captain America: Civil WarArrival and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story almost got there, too. That’s a pretty good year. Of these films, the one that I think accomplished the most is McCarthy’s take on an apocalyptic vision. In under two hours we see one of the most brilliant philosophical musings about moving forward as a species ever placed in such a humble package. If you haven’t seen it and you can stomach a zombie film that discusses and understands Schrödinger’s Cat, you should.

Of the nominees:

I need to go with Fences. It’s the best of those films. La La Land will likely win. Most winners for best picture ended up being just above average (at ***1/2 stars) for me.

Best Director: 

Arrival accomplished the most amazing thing this year in its approach to sci-fi. We have as many heady subjects going on as are occurring in The Girl With All The Gifts, and most importantly, Villeneuve works carefully with his team to avoid any of the tropes that we see in even the best sci-fi. It’s lone weakness of circular logic is insignificant when one considers we are going back to the most basic form of communication to ponder some of the deepest philosophical and heart-wrenching truths of human existence. His work here, along with an incredibly dense (if short) career’s worth of work places him just above McCarthy.

Of the nominees: 

Villeneuve. Gibson has created a powerful film that seems at once of its time and timeless, but I have to defer to the power of Villeneuve’s simple choices.

Best Actor:

Andrew Garfield has a great performance as a man driven by impulses that many can’t understand. Denzel Washington has the kind of vulnerable performance that he’s never done before. My favorite performance of the year is Ryan Gosling in…The Nice Guys. I spent much of La La Land realizing how good he had been and subsequently went home and watched it again. His range therein moves from incomparable weenie, to overwrought widower, horrible father to great father. If there were ever a performer that completely absorbed Shane Black’s vision, this is it.

Of the nominees:

Garfield may never be nominated again, and it would be nice to see him win. But there is no way he was better than Washington.

Best Actress:

Sennia Nanua has what I consider the most memorable and poignant performance of the year. Her journey from complete innocence to an understanding of her role in the advancement of humanity is one that I will not forget.

Of the nominees:

I am so hopeful that Ruth Negga wins this category for Loving. Her performance is the best of those that I saw. What I have seen of Huppert’s performance in Elle intrigues me. WeMissE has me thinking I need to watch this film today. But dear God, whatever you do, don’t give this to Streep.

Best Supporting Actor: 

Russell Hornsby and Stephen Henderson keep coming to my mind for their divergent takes on the sons of Troy Maxson in Fences. Both present incredibly resonant reactions to a father who is different to both of them and continues to change. I didn’t expect to be so enamored with their bit roles, but they really help to bring the story into focus with their performances. No one can take this award from Mahershala Ali, though.

Of the nominees: 

Ali.I love Shannon. He really made chicken salad here. Bridges is great here, too. But he’s done this guy before, even if the ending of this film pushes him to another level.

Best Supporting Actress:

There really can be no other discussion beyond who is second best. Davis has this award locked and she deserves it. This is a performance of the ages.

Of the nominees:

Davis. Just don’t thank Meryl Streep.

Best Original Screenplay:

Hell or High Water has about the best ending of any film this year. The only one that was better is Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy’s Rogue One A Star Wars Story. It’s remarkable achievements include creating a cast of original characters, making A New Hope‘s weaknesses disappear, and adding to the mythology while detracting the dorkiness factor. It’s truly a remarkable achievement in a series I had given up on seeing a good script from.

Of the nominees:

La La Land has a good script, but of this group, the best one I have seen is Hell or High Water. Sheridan is on a roll.

Best Adapted Screenplay:

This truly is a race between Fences, The Girl with All the Gifts and Arrival. The difference here is that the former is almost entirely word for word from the original. There is no real adapting, because it is perfect the way it is. Arrival is has had some work done, but then there is that circular logic thing. I enjoy both of them so much, it’s literally a tossup. Either of them will not be forgotten. My pick is The Girl with All the Gifts. It’s an extraordinary story that could be understood by kids as well as adults, even if the subject matter can be gruesome.

Of the nominees: 

Same here, though I give Arrival a slight edge since Wilson has already taken home some pretty impressive accolades (including 2 Pulitzer Prizes, one for this) and he would not be around to pick up the trophy, since he passed 12 years ago.

Best Cinematography:

Arrival and La La Land are both fantastic in this category. Simon Duggan’s work in Hacksaw Ridge is extraordinary. The work that stands out for me is Ben Davis’ seamless blend of effects and imagery in Doctor Strange. It’s one thing to push forward the incredible work done in dimensional photography in Inception. It’s quite another to completely replicate the remarkable comic book look shot for shot.

Of the nominees: 

This is one category I think La La Land should win.

Best Animated Film:

Moana is another in the long line of Disney Princess films that will resonate for generations. Sure it misunderstands the purpose of promoting a woman is to make her look good without denigrating men, but damn the visuals are exquisite and the songs are catchy. Zootopia is a really good movie too, but it’s preaching so much, the good stuff is harder to detect while trying to weave out the bad. For this reason, I have to go with the art of Kubo and the 2 Strings.

Of the nominees:

Kubo

I don’t know if I will ever stop watching this celebration of movies. As bad as it usually is each year, it’s still the best thing we have to mark the passage of a year in the age of film. It really helps if Jimmy Kimmel is on his game, though. We need him more than ever this year.

 

 

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Fences (*****) is powerful, unlimited

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Fences – 2016

Director Denzel Washington
Screenplay August Wilson
Starring Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney

Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in.

There is a bushel of truth to be gleaned from observing the lives intersecting inside of Fences. There is almost certainly as much bullshit, too. The start of the film has an extremely flawed protagonist Troy Maxson (Washington) coming home from work with his friend Jim Bono (Henderson). Troy is spilling out the stories as fast as he can. Once in a while, Jim will point out little truths about Troy. Troy brushes them aside in time for them to arrive at his home and starts up with the bullshit stories again, this time with his loving wife Rose (Davis) jumping in and out of them with her own tolerant asides to the story. Troy’s stories are not complete fabrications. We get nuggets of true feeling scattered throughout. Even Rose knows to dust a little here and there. All parties know not to damage the illusion of happiness though.

Soon we see Troy’s son – Lyons (Hornsby) from his first marriage, before he spent 15 years in prison. Lyons wants to borrow some money from Troy. Troy is filled with indignant bluster. Rose gives it to Lyons. Troy’s relationship with Lyons could use some work that only a woman who is not his mother is willing to put in. This is a bad sign, but not nearly as bad as what is going on with Troy and Rose’s son, Cory (Henderson). Cory is a star athlete for his high school, and he’s getting some looks by colleges for a possible scholarships. Troy puts pressure on Cory to hold a job, go to high school and work around the house before he can play football, and is ready to pounce when he makes a choice to consolidate any of the options to focus on another. That Troy was once a baseball prospect himself before the leagues were integrated has something to do with this vitriol. Not knowing how to count his blessings and be supportive is another.

We also meet Troy’s brother, Gabriel, who suffered an injury in the Second World War. This injury has made him daft, but it also allowed a settlement that allowed Troy to buy a down payment on the house that he’s been paying on ever since. This was a source of concern for Troy when he had Gabriel living with him. It’s a source of embarrassment now that Gabriel decided he wanted to live down the street.

Troy is a classic Greek figure. He is king of his fragile domain and has a weary hold on what little he has been able to put together from scratch. He is on the verge of making a breakthrough in life when he makes a decision that begins to tear it all down.

It is then that we discover the true backbone of the story and the kingdom, now in shambles, has been Rose all along. Her work has been taken for granted, and so has her heart. She is bigger than Troy, though, in almost every measure.

Washington is as brave an actor as we have been blessed with in many generations. Here he is no different. His choice to absorb the flawed protagonist and make him good, but not all the way good is gutsy. Even more a risk is to allow him to be honest enough to embrace his faults, but not wise enough to understand his true purpose as a husband and a father. Troy is like many men I have known – including my father. He’s a man with faults I also struggle to overcome.

Washington’s best move – hands down – is giving the role of Rose to another of our greatest actors. Davis completely absorbs the role of the woman taken for granted. The breadth of her pain and despair is etched upon every line of her face and captured in the small of her back when she leans over in between chores. I have known this woman in my life, too. It wouldn’t be tough to guess of whom I might be speaking.

The conflict between Troy and his children – as well the constant salve being applied by Rose – gives another powerful demonstration of a truism that doesn’t have to be true. He won’t commit to a relationship with one. He is overbearing to the point of cruelty with another. He is too late for all of them. Who hasn’t felt this as a child and later wondered if they’ve repeated the mistake as a parent?

The rest of the cast is stellar and the story is exceptionally told. If there is a weakness, it’s in the obvious feel of a play rather than a film. This can be forgiven, though. Most probably would not have seen it otherwise. This is definitely one of the best films of the year, with a story that needs to be told, until men can learn from mistakes they see rather than just the ones they make themselves.

(***** out of *****)

The Magnificent Seven (****) is star power at its best

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Magnificent 7 – 2016

Director Antoine Fuqua
Screenplay Nic Pizzolatto, Richard Wenk based on Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa,
Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Starring  Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-Hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard, Matt Bomer, Sean Bridgers

In all fairness, I didn’t really care to see this movie. Washington has been in several good but nowhere near great films lately and I thought I would wait until it was released on video. When I came upon an extra 4 hours, I decided it was the best thing I hadn’t seen yet to pass the time. It was a grand decision.

Let’s be clear, nothing I watched in the span of 133 minutes is anything close to original. It’s the basis of most of the Westerns ever released, even if this version is properly accredited to Kurosawa’s original classic.

What one gets in a movie like this is the opportunity to try on a comfortable story with the flavors of the moment. The two primary ingredients this time, Washington and Pratt, are given the privilege of filling well worn characters with their own version of the trope. They are marvelous, but surprisingly aren’t even the best performers in the story.

That honor is awarded to Bennett and Lee. Who they play is not as important as how they play the roles. Both are fearless in attacking their roles with a fierceness rarely seen in retread stories. Bennett is the wronged woman Emma Cullen, stepping up when everyone steps back. She’s never expected her life to be rolled over by the likes of Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard) and she’ll be damned if she takes it laying down, like the rest of the residents of her mining town Rose Creek are all too willing to do. Emma heads to the nearest town in search of help. She ends up with Warrant Officer Sam Chisolm (Washington), who accepts the opportunity at vengeance because he wants a crack at Bogue.

Chisolm gathers up the dangerously loquacious Josh Faraday (Pratt) and together they gather the United Nations of anti-heroes to come along and help. This group includes Hawke’s dangerous yet shell shocked sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux. Robicheaux just happens to be doing the Every Which Way But Loose tour with his friend Billy Rocks (Lee). To say Rocks is good with knives would be like saying Quigley’s only good with rifles. Frankley, the dude can master every type of weapon imaginable.

By far the strangest addition to the group is D’Onofrio’s grizzled old kook trapper Jack Horne. The tone of voice used from the onset is shades of latter day Brando. That voice morphs into something different, but equally indecipherable when they get to Rose Creek. As much as he needs subtitles to be understood, D’Onofrio has mastered the skill of holding the camera’s gaze. It’s not a wasted performance by any means. Let’s just say I had to acquire the taste.

Mexican outlaw (Garcia-Rulfo) is represented as more than an a brown person with an accent. His character is given some gravitas and actually fits in well with Pratt’s goofball persona, without losing any of his stoic demeanor.

Only the rogue Comanche (Sensmeier) comes closest to being a trivia question here. His motivations are never clear enough to explain his desire to join the group, especially after nearly every one of them pulls a gun on him at first meeting when it’s obvious he’s not a threat in the slightest.

Pratt makes a bit of a comeback here, after floundering a bit with Jurassic World. Even if he’s merely a more dangerous version of Star Lord, he gets the best moments of the script and never flounders the opportunity.

Washington, as usual, gets the straight man role and flourishes. He’s not been a supporting actor in so many years, it’s hard to expect that he would develop any tics at this point. He’s got the charisma of Eastwood, but he doesn’t have to rely on a snarl. He’s the most reliable actor of the last 20 years and this is a performance that brings him glory without having to do more than flex his tiniest acting muscles. His leader outshines the one note Brenner and equals Shimura’s original. What’s most incredible is that what he’s doing doesn’t even feel like acting. It’s just who he seems to be.

Sarsgaard gives us some good old greasy evil. He’s despicable and he has style. He walks on the good side of Ribisiville. That’s a good thing, because until I saw this, I didn’t know one could pull off a stylish version of Ribisi.

The best thing about this story is Lee. He continues to shine in everything he’s in. He exceeds the grasp of his caricature here. He’s just supposed to throw knives. Instead he brings charisma to every scene he’s in, while bringing depth to Hawke’s already good performance. He is the spice that moves the needle to near greatness.

Fuqua continues to succeed in Hollywood, when critics keep comparing him to Denzel’s Oscar vehicle Training Day. He turns huge profits with most projects and his actors love working for him. Working with True Detective writer Pizzolato serves the best instincts of both. There is no downtime here. This is the best PG-13 violence I have witnessed in a film. It looks dangerous and the humor works without removing the tension.

Even if you are not a fan of the recent spate of pale remakes that come along with every generation, this update is worth your time. It will take a spot in my collection, to be sure. Right after Kurosawa.

(**** out of *****)

The Equalizer (***1/2) is brutal art in motion

Equalizer

The Equalizer – 2014

Director Antoine Fuqua
Starring Denzel Washington,  Marton Csokas, Chloë Grace Moretz, David Harbour, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo
Screenplay Richard Wenk based on the TV Show by Richard Lindheim and Michael Sloane

The Equalizer is the type of story that would have agonized one to watch if it had been created by lesser talents than Fuqua and especially Denzel. Bearing only the slightest resemblance to the smooth performance of Edward Woodward in the 80’s TV show, Washington plays Robert McCall, a retired CIA SAD agent who finds himself siding with the underdog, leading him to exact vigilante justice when the situation requires his help. His actions lead to the disposal of Russian mafia wing. This brings the attention of the mafia boss, who then sends in an enforcer (Csokas) to find McCall’s identity and exact revenge.

The neither the script nor the acting is going to win any awards. Washington is gives an effective performance as a man who’s constantly balancing the morality of his actions versus the weight of his past. This is the kind of performance we have come to expect from him, but nobody even comes close to the skill he exhibits in giving the audience a window to his soul, but only the narrowest of views.

Combine this with Fuqua’s undeniable talent for perspective and beautiful scenery of even the most grotesque of situations, and you have a film worthy of multiple viewings. I never realized that one could make the reflection of water running down a street in a rainstorm work multiple times to set the mood of a film. Much of the film takes place in the dark, or through night vision, but it all works in a cohesive fashion, much in contrast to the jarring style presented in Washington’s other “protect the innocent” thriller, the completely awful Man on Fire.

Csokas provides a worthy counter balance to Washington’s character, and he has the skill to carry the lunkhead actors forced to fall for every feint presented in the film. Of course this is countered by the collection of victims the story lines up for McCall to rescue. Even Moretz gets sucked up into that void. Melissa Leo finally plays against her repulsive type as one of McCall’s old partners. Pullman also surprises as her husband and fellow retired agent. Their time in the story is so brief, it intrigues the viewer as to the potential of a sequel.

The last 1/3 of the film is a series of set ups for McCall to knock down. There is never any doubt who is going to win after we find that he is making “an exception” to his promise to not do bad stuff made to a woman no longer in his life. He has an overweight buddy who dreams of being a security guard. Once we see him handling a gun late in the film, it’s not too hard to imagine how much use he gets out of that gun by the end of the film. One hint: he ain’t Reginald Vel Johnson.

This is all augmented by Fuqua’s indelible skill in presenting Washington’s McCall as a man who tries hard not to enjoy the process of taking out bad guys with extreme prejudice. Watching the look in his eyes as he stares at a man whose life is ending by a barbed wire noose is all you need to understand the depth of contrast in this man’s character. The inventiveness of the dispatching of bad guys has more character than those who are knocked off, but wow, it all looks so cool.

Ultimately, the strength of this film is limited by its supporting characters. As good as Washington and Fuqua are, they don’t add as much flesh to the story as needed to overcome the script’s lack of depth. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. It just means it’s not a great one.

(***1/2 out of *****)

2 Guns: Not enough bullets

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2 Guns – 2013

Director Baltasar Kormákur
Starring Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg, Paula Patton, Bill Paxton, Fred Ward, James Marsden, Edward James Olmos, Robert John Burke
Screenplay Blake Masters based on the book by Steven Grant

There is a lot of star power in this film.  Personality just jumps off the screen at every turn.  We have Wahlberg somewhere between the knowing novice of his early films (Boogie Nights and the underrated Traveller) and the humorless quick study of his later work (The Italian Job, Contraband and Broken City).  Denzel, well, he’s Denzel.  There is not any real variance in his performances, but the subtleties are like no others.  One can always find time for Paula Patton.  Edward James Olmos is not in nearly enough.  He should work 24/7.  Paxton had me at “We just got our assess kicked, Pal!”

Even with all of this, 2 Guns is just so so.  That two undercover operatives from 2 different organizations can get so deep without figuring each other out is a stretch. Then they steal 43 million from another organization?  Suspension of disbelief can only be pushed so far.  Then there is the deception.  Everyone is double-crossing everyone, and somehow the ones they are deceiving get together to double cross our heroes.  It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World of guns and money.

It’s an entertaining film.  It’s not really memorable.  That one can be a fan of the two principal actors and still be nonplussed should tell you something.  Clint Eastwood, John Wayne and Toshiro Mifune made films like this and no one thinks any less of their careers in retrospect.  You probably won’t regret seeing it.  You probably won’t remember it after.

(*** out of *****)

I Don’t Have A Vote: Cool Papa E thinks the 85th Oscars Suck

80th Academy Awards Rehearsals Monday

I have to admit it.  Once I found out it wasn’t happening, I wasn’t interested,  The list of nominees arrived on January 10 and Samuel L. Jackson’s name was not among them.  There is no good reason for it, either.  Within the list of nominees, even the guy from his own movie, Christoph Waltz, didn’t do as good a job as Jackson’s groundbreaking portrayal as Stephen, the sadistic house slave intent on keeping things just as they are.  The moment I found that he wasn’t nominated, the wind went from my sails.  I had no wish to round out the rest of the nominated performances and movies.

Whatever they got going in the Oscars, it isn’t as a representative for movie goers.  Even when they almost get it right (they nominated Hugo last year) they end up getting it horribly wrong by giving the win to a film was an unfunny joke last year and is just a sad reality one year later.  And no, I didn’t name that movie…and you can’t remember it.

Equally ridiculous is that they nominate up to 10 films in a year, which was brought upon by the snubbing of The Dark Knight in 2009.  Immediately one can rule out 5 of them, as they still only have 5 directors nominated.  Each year the winner for Director has been from the winning Movie.

This year, we have a lot of the same people we see every year: Speilberg, Ang Lee, Daniel Day-Lewis, Denzel, Waltz, Sally Field, Anne Hathaway, Arkin, Philip Seymour Hofffman, and even DeNiro is back.  Ben Affleck is getting much of the publicity for his “snub” as director.  I am not even sure Argo gets beyond TV Movie status, as far as interest goes.

There are a few new faces, such as Zeitlin and his crew from Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Wallis’ nomination, like the rest of the participants of this mediocre movie, feel like the tip one gives the shoe shine boy.   In the end, they get a nickel and the Academy gets the shine.  Critics fall for it every time.  We should be thankful that Wes Anderson doesn’t work for Steven Spielberg, lest his diabolically boring Moonrise Kingdom be nominated, too.

The biggest stain on the Academy, though is the omission of Take Shelter from last year’s show.  It was a film that should have swept the Movie, Director, Actor (Shannon), Actress (Chastain) and Screenplay (Jeff Nichols, who is also the director).  Nichols is a guy who doesn’t work for anyone.  He just makes good films.  The makers of Man of Steel (including another oft ignored filmmaker, Christopher Nolan) knew well enough to cast Shannon as their villain in the tent pole film of the summer, but they are just here to make good movies, not to win awards.

Which brings me back to Jackson.  No other actor has made more money for their studios than Jackson.  2013 was no exception, either, with his roles in The Avengers and Django Unchained.  I don’t think anyone will question the artistic integrity of these films, either.  They are films that connect on every level.

So for those who care, you can have your Oscars.  For me they lose more relevance every year.  To try to predict the winner would be akin to guessing what voters who love Spielberg and Hanks can accept winning: the key words are  “safe” and “liberal.”

My short list of predictions is as follows:

Film: Lincoln
Director: Spielberg
Actor: Day-Lewis
Actress: Lawrence
Supporting Actor: Arkin, DeNiro for “safe” and Hoffman if they go “liberal”
Supporting Actress: Hathaway
Original Screenplay: Boal
Adapted Screenplay: Kushner, Goodwin
Animated Feature: Wreck-It Ralph

My short list of who should have won, regardless of nomination:

Film: Liberal Arts (ironic, I know, but it’s more than liberal: it actually has ideals and morals)
Director: Joss Whedon, The Avengers
Actor: Josh Radnor, Liberal Arts
Actress: Anna Kendrick, Pitch Perfect
Supporting Actor: Jackson, Django Unchained
Supporting Actress: Judi Dench, Skyfall
Original Screenplay: Josh Radnor, Liberal Arts
Adapted Screenplay: Ol Parker, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Animated Feature: Brave

For the reasons behind my choices, please click the links for follow the reviews.  These are based on films I have watched, rather than those I was told to watch.  Experience tells me that  I can catch up with the “winners” later.

Flight just begs “For Your Consideration”

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Flight – 2012

Director Robert Zmeckis
Starring  Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Don Cheadle, Melissa Leo, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood
Screenplay John Gatnis

Look who's flying by...
Look who’s flying by…

There is a pall hanging over every scene of Flight.  Two stories are told.  One is that of William “Whip” Whitaker, an Airline pilot who has copious amounts of booze, coke and sex (with one of the stewardesses).  The other is a more humble Nicole, a photographer whose world fell apart when her mother died of cancer, and through an addiction to heroin ends up overdosed.  As she is being carted out of her apartment by the medics, Captain Whitaker’s plane flies overhead.  Only it’s upside down.

The plane crashes, but it’s due to Whip’s amazing presence of his impaired mind that allows almost all the passengers to survive.  Whip ends up in the same hospital as Nicole.  They meet in the stairwell while sneaking from their two rooms for a smoke.  Their smoke leads to a relationship that is less fire than smoldering embers.  It is fueled and hampered by their state.

Temptation
Temptation

She wants to get better, and can anonymously afford to do so.  He is mired in the potential for litigation and jail time.  He has several people on his side, wanting for him to evade responsibility.  The Lawyer for the Airline Hugh Lang (Cheadle) comes forward with a toxicology report that shows the truth, and that is just the beginning.    His friend and former copilot Charlie (Greenwood) provides another voice of support that is pretty much ignored by the still using Whip.  Even Nicole tries to get him to commit to AA.  He stubbornly refuses to change, even after it’s too late.

John Goodman plays Harling Mays, his dealer and seeming chemical magician.  His works are a little hard to understand, but a welcome relief in a film so otherwise unrelentingly dreary.

Washington’s performance is somewhat of an enigma.  We see him move from functional addict to completely miserable louse who is trying to gather his life together.  He is a master of his craft at this point.  When Gatnis’ script and Zmeckis’ direction applies pressure that would smother many other actors, he gives a solid performance that keeps the story interesting.  It is doubtful that this movie could have done nearly as well without him.

Zmeckis has been down this way before, in terms of tone.  After a career of light-hearted comedies, he scored big time with Forrest Gump and then all of a sudden turned heavy.  Films like Contact, What Lies Beneath and especially Cast Away were all weighted down with heavy themes and oppression.   After an experiment with creepy animation in Beowulf, The Holiday Express and A Christmas Carol, this is his return to live acting.  Like the airplane, it lands, with most of the overwrought but competent story in tact.  But oh, what a sequence that plane crash is.  It just stays grounded after that.

Zmeckis and Washington wring several good performances, especially from Reilly, Cheadle and Tamara Tunie, who plays stewardess and crash survivor Margaret Thomason.  The movie is good, but not great.  It’s just what one would expect in Oscar season, but Washington is the only one who deserves the consideration.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Forgotten Gem: Déjà Vu is pure, delightful hogwash

Déjà Vu – 2006

Director Tony Scott
Starring Denzel Washington, Val Kilmer, Jim Caviezel, Paula Patton, Bruce Greenwood, Adam Goldberg
Screenplay Bill Marsilii, Terry Rosso

When I discovered that Tony Scott had taken his own life, I felt conflicted.  He had directed some of the most overrated pulp (Top Gun, Days of Thunder, Man on Fire) I had ever seen, with a style so abrasive that it made me bristle.  On the other hand, he was a director that appealed to many good to great actors, like Denzel Washington, Gene Hackman, Val Kilmer and Tom Cruise.  Washington in particular did 5 films with him.  Most of these films were above average, mainly due to his influence and the way that Scott handled actors on the undercard.  Déjà Vu is a great example of both of these aspects.

Washington is ATF Special Agent Doug Carlin, who is brought in on two cases and in his efforts, finds a causal connection between them that is not what anyone else would expect.  Finding out about a body that washed ashore around the time of an explosion that destroys a ferry fully loaded with people, Carlin finds that the floater Claire Kuchever (Patton) was actually found an hour before the detonation.  He concludes that he needs to center the investigation on her.  This is where the movie discovers 4 wheel drive and goes completely off-road.

FBI Special Agent Paul Pryzwarra (Kilmer), also on the task force, is impressed with what he sees of Carlin and offers him a spot on another team.  The concept behind this team is a convoluted device called “Snow White,” which, through modern technology (you know, Google Earth-n-stuff) allows the team to look about 4.25 days in the past and view things from every angle and sound.  As they concentrate their efforts on Claire, they make a discovery which catapults Carlin from observer into a participant.

Washington’s performance is extraordinary, even for the material.  He specializes in being an observer, and this film allows him to do this in spades.  There is a moment early on, during an autopsy that shows the chemistry between actor and director and the character actors.  As the coroner is going over the report on the body of Kuchever, Carlin places his gloved finger on her mouth.  The coroner jumps at the breach of professional etiquette.  Washington, as Carlin, handles this delicately, allowing the coroner, along with us, to see that what he noticed was duct tape that had been placed over her mouth.  The coroner, played by veteran actor Brian Howe, is allowed the luxury of not over reacting to his gaffe.  A lesser director would have persisted in having the coroner overreact and for Carlin to dismiss him arrogantly.  Scott and Washington together always recognized that every professional actor and their characters have professional pride.  When they allow this to be preserved, everyone benefits.

Everyone, I should say, except Adam Goldberg, who plays the inventor Dr. Denny.  Goldberg, a notorious scenery chewer, almost obliterates the chemistry by himself alone.  His one liners are questionably written, but performed absolutely horribly.  It’s one thing to be an asshole, it’s another thing to be unwatchable.  Nonetheless, the strength of the rest of the cast helps to overcome the drawback.

Kilmer is so understated, he is mostly unrecognizable here.  There is no swagger, a bunch of humility and none of the excess weight.  Bruce Greenwood is always solid and here, as the agent in charge, is no exception.  Alexander is the conscience of the team, with a direct, honest and considerate commentary or reaction to the events as she sees them.

As the bad guy, Caviezel is pure gun nut crazy.  His performance, set to evoke comparisons to Timothy McVeigh, is accented with Caviezel’s ability to find the serious in every situation.  No grandstanding, just straight up, man-on-a-mission style determination. Another plus for the plot is that there is no blatant attempt to tie politics into the mix.  That would be a mistake.  Scott recognized that crazy does not have to come from one of the two sides of politics.  It makes its own way.

Paula Patton is one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen on film.  She is able to express innocence, confusion and determination at once.  This is the first movie I remember seeing her in, and she’s been good in everything I have seen her in since.  Her reactions to the absurdities of the plot are essential to our suspension of disbelief.

And there is much here to not believe.  Borrowing very loosely from Einstein’s Rosen Bridge theory of wormholes, the sci-fi plays fast and loose with reality, but it’s a means to an end. The story lines connect nicely, even if they are telegraphed a bit too often.  Washington and Patton are show great chemistry in the last act, even with enough self-referential moments to qualify as a Star Wars prequel.

Scott, for his part, allows the film to breathe, which is a rare move for him.  Films like Man on Fire, riddled with so many quick cuts, would be cause to give some of our more vulnerable folks epileptic fits.  One could never decide if they were watching a music video or a kaleidoscope lens.  There are some spectacular explosions here, just like one would expect in a Bruckheimer production.  This time, Scott lets our eyes linger on the depth of the flames.  The lingering camera also helps to help the characterization of Carlin.  If the shots are choppy, it doesn’t matter how long Washington’s eyes linger on something.  We’d be too motion sick to tell.  It’s hard to tell how much better Scott’s overall repertoire would have been had he limited his use of such visual massacres.

Tony Scott turned a corner with Déjà Vu.  His warmth began to show through and his works, while still somewhat awash with occasional bravado, became more human.  This reached a high point of simplicity with his last film, Unstoppable, and I wonder where it would have gone from there.  His death was a loss of a good director getting better.

Safe House: Bullets, Crunching Metal and Quick Cuts

Safe House – 2012

Directed by Daniel Espinosa
Starring Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard,  Rubén Blades, Robert Patrick, Liam Cunningham
Screenplay by  David Guggenheim

“I need to find out who this Matt Weston is right now…” is a demand made by CIA Deputy Director Harlan Whitford.  This after the safe house in which Weston (Ryan Reynolds in doe-eyed mode) and rogue agent Tobin Frost (Washington) resides is blown apart by the bad guys, with everyone in it except themselves, shot all to hell.  It would seem that since Weston has been a low-level agent for years, it would not be too hard to figure out his history or credentials.

Frost, who’s been “off the grid” for many years is wanted for “espionage” in several countries.  He’s involved with some junk at the beginning of the film that gives us a sense of ambiguity as to his intentions, but when he surrenders himself to the American consulate in Cape Town, we’re pretty sure he’s a good bad guy.  He’s only had one Training Day, after all.  Even in the trailer one can tell this is another role that will likely trade on that performance.

Back at headquarters, we have Agents Barlow (Gleeson) and Linklater (Farmiga).  Previous experience with both actors and the Bourne movies gives us a decent idea which of them is the turncoat.  No need to get into that now, though, there are still plenty of budget dollars to blow sky-high.

Safe House is, essentially, a chase movie showing you many of the sights of Cape Town South Africa.  It is a beautiful city, and Reynolds and Washington are beautiful people.  What could be wrong about letting the tape roll a while?

Washington has reached the point in his career where he can afford to make decent action films that, without his participation would be substandard.  Reynolds is one of many young bucks who have seen themselves opposite Washington in recent years, learning the ropes dramatically, through much risk to themselves and others.

The key phrase Weston picks up from Frost is “You’ve done a fine job.  We’ll take it from here.”  After he hears someone in the CIA say this, Weston knows he is going to be spending more time running for his life.  He immediately goes to his girlfriend and confesses that he has been lying to her about his job, and has her take off to Johannesburg.  After some angry “you lied to me” slapping, they go their seperate ways.

Frost, meanwhile, goes about solving his dilemma in the bowels of Cape Town.  The chemistry between Reynolds and Washington is aided by the fact that the script demands that they spend crucial time apart, in order for Weston to develop on his own.  Washington is the equivalent of John Wayne, Toshiro Mifune or Harrison Ford by now: a finished product that requires only the slightest tweak to make the plot slightly more interesting.

Safe House will be enjoyable to most people who demand that their movies be loud, predictable and the good guys win, with an acceptable amount of loss.  It’s conventional, sure, and Denzel could do more challenging stuff, but what the hell.

(***1/2 out of *****)