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

oscars

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.

 

 

Advertisements

Fences (*****) is powerful, unlimited

fences

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 *****)

Suicide Squad (***1/2) shall remain standing

ssquadharley

Suicide Squad – 2016

Writer and Director David Ayer
Starring Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnamen, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ike Barinholtz, Scott Eastwood, Cara Delevingne, Karen Fukuhara, Adam Beach, Alain Chanoine, Jared Leto

This movie barely got out of the gates before being slaughtered by reviews. Normally I don’t make a practice of mentioning other gasbags, because Lord knows I value my own gasbagging so much more. In the end, it all doesn’t matter too much. This time, I have to say, something dumb is afoot, and the stupidity is not on the screen.

Suicide Squad, for better or worse, is a latter day DC comic book film. The outlook is dark and more than a little hopeless. The characters are disposable, except for a few. The bad guys are an afterthought and a little too CGI heavy. The things that make one uncomfortable about portrayals in the largely sexist and violent, especially regarding The Joker (Leto) will find those same things here.

If you rule this film out because the word is that it is somehow equally miserable as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, you aren’t trying hard enough to enjoy life. In all fairness, those who did not take to that math problem of a film or it’s measurably better Director’s cut, there is a reason to approach cautiously any film in this Universe that they’ve put in Zack Snyder’s hands, as producer or otherwise.

That alone is not reason enough to avoid giving David Ayers a chance. The artist responsible for Training Day, End of Watch and Fury deserves your time. Suicide Squad would have been a worthless pile in many other hands.

The story starts in the wake of events that culminate with Superman’s death. We get a series of introductions as we get to see Federal Intelligence Operative Amanda Waller (Davis) reveal her plans. Some characters get two intross, one’s first meeting is strangely absent until they are on the tarmac. When we see what happens to this sinister agent, it becomes apparent why they did not invest too much time.

Waller’s plan is the formation of a team of “metahumans” who are the baddest of bad criminals that shall be used to accomplish missions for the government. In essence, her rationale is that they need people of extraordinary ability who can take out “the next Superman,” if that one turns out to be bad. If it seems a little thin, well, so did the comic book’s premise. Who’s counting though?

These agents of misfortune are given an offer they cannot refuse in any way, then they are pushed out into their first mission. Will things work out for this crew? When it does, will they get what they are promised? Well, yes to the first question. Of course. It’s the first of a kind of film franchise that they would love to continue. As for the second question, the amount everyone gets is directly proportional to how well this film does and whether refrained from signing a multi-picture deal.

The characters are numerous and differently talented. Some of these talents are useful, some are not as much. Most importantly, are they entertaining? In large part, they are. Robbie absolutely steals the film from her catbird seat. It’s a glorious thing that we get to see Harley Quinn in all of her glory, before she’s is relegated to second banana in a later film tied to The Joker’s insane and often wearying shenanigans. There are zero moments that her mad doctor graces the screen where she is not the character most worthy of our attention.

The only one close to Robbie’s magnetism is Will Smith, who gives his career a necessary jolt with his truly identifiable Deadshot. That he’s given multiple dimensions is not a surprise. He has the chops to pull off the anti-hero that we all can rally behind. He even overcomes a tired subplot of faux-tension with an overly antagonistic Flag (Kinnamen) with charisma beyond the contrivance.

Viola Davis is convincingly charmless and ruthless as Waller. Her acting ability is better than her type of character normally gets or deserves. There is a gravity prevalent that gives the viewer confidence that Waller has the intelligence to survive, so it makes up for the film’s lack of a compelling main villain.

There are drawbacks, to be sure, that keep this film closer to average than classic. First and foremost, Leto’s Joker barely registers. It’s not that this is a bad thing for this reviewer, as the more one heard about the Dallas’ Buyers Club Oscar Winner “method acting” for this role, the more troubled the production appeared. He has a handful of scenes that are pushed to the forefront. The biggest bouts of sexism occur when we look back on his history with Robbie’s Harley Quinn. Even if you know that’s their particular kink, it is not easy to process. There is even a scene with Common that makes absolutely no sense, which – one could suppose – is the point.

This seems to be the summer of villains who don’t do shit. We’ve had some horrible antagonists with Apocalypse,  Krall and now Enchantress (Delevigne). Their job, essentially is to make big plans with the thinnest of motivations. If that seems too much, they also need to wait long enough to for the plot to bring the good guys in the vicinity where, you know, the magic happens. The effects, and especially the dialogue for Delevigne’s Enchantress approaches comically bad. This is deadening to the momentum of each film. It makes one wonder if this is what is what is forcing Marvel’s hand in their re-evaluation of the Avengers Infinity Wars. Two movies of a charmless nemesis Thanos waiting for the inevitable just seems agonizing.

Fortunately this is countered by some excellent work by the less developed characters like El Diablo, Killer Croc and Boomerang (Hernandez, Akinnuoye-Agbaje). All three provide the film with some real entertainment during points in which the story battles inertia. Courtney is a big surprise. It’s rare that he finds a role that allows him to show any amount of charm. Hernandez’ work is especially fulfilling. The marriage of character and story for El Diablo is resonant enough that it gives yet another example of Ayer’s instinct for portraying Hispanic characters with a remarkable depth and clarity. He’s caucasian, just like this reviewer. With only my experiences to draw upon, his Hispanic male characters always resonate for me.

Other things to enjoy are the cameos. I will not go into detail, other than to let you know there are more than one and they do add dimension to the film. Hang on after the credits too past the incredibly apt Twenty-One Pilots song Heathens  and a wonderful collage.

Add up the positives, subtract the negatives and it’s an easy win for Suicide Squad. This movie, especially for Robbie and Smith’s performances, will be watchable for years. If you want to find stuff to hate about the story and film, you will have no problem doing so. If one is honest, the film is definitely likable, even if it does not approach classic overall.

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

Prisoners (****) exceeds the grasp of its flaws

Prisoners

Prisoners – 2013

Director Denis Villeneuve
Starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette
Screenplay Aaron Guzikowski

One could say that I am not a fan of Paul Dano or Melissa Leo.  They often play detestable creatures; almost always intentionally.  Many of the best parts of their films involve them losing or being hurt in some way.  When Dano starts getting beat up early and often in Prisoners, I am in hog heaven.  Like Jackman’s Keller Dover, I believe that Dano’s Alex Jones is the most vile type of person, wholly capable of the crime for which he’s been accused.  The crime is the abduction of Dover’s daughter Anna, and Joy Birch, the daughter of Franklin and Nancy (Howard and Davis).  He’s been caught in the vehicle that spotted in the area that they were last seen, and there is plenty of circumstantial evidence that hits the right eyes and ears at the right moments.

Soon enough, Jones is released and soon after he is kidnapped by Dover, who begins to torture the strangely mute adult child.  After Keller shows Franklin what he’s done, he coerces his complicity.  Soon after, the torture begins.  The feeling is sadly, angrily delicious.  Sure, the children’s whereabouts are not revealed, but it is quite obvious to anyone that he knows something of where they are.

Along this time, we meet Jones’ Aunt Holly.  She seems like any aunt of an idiot adult child.  She puts up with his eccentricities and explains what he’s like to live with to Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal).  Loki has a flawless record recovering children, which is a strange thing when you consider the odds.  His pursuit is hindered by his idiot boss Captain O’Malley (Duvall), but he manages to comb pretty thoroughly through some other cases along the way, gleaning seemingly inconsequential information.

About this time another suspect (Dastmalcian) comes to the fore.  Where this leads will be left for the viewer.

The performances of leads Jackman and Gyllenhaal are tense and finely conceived.  Gyllenhaal has the same type of freshness and desperate vibe shown in Fincher’s classic Zodiac. Jackman’s flawed honorable intent pieces together nicely with the moral of the story.  We feel his pain acutely, especially with his wife (Bello) moving right into a bedridden panic mode.  As a father, it is easy to identify with how his need to be a protector would transfer into malevolence after the chance for that has passed.

Davis and Howard are given the unique chance to show a different side of the victimized / victimizer angle.  Their reactions to finding out what Dover is doing is what many of us would do.

This is Jackman and Gyllenhaal’s movie, though, and they attack every minute of screen time they have as if there are really two little girls on the line.  The performances push the story through some gaps in reasoning and common sense.  It isn’t until the end that the lack of logic finally eats through an otherwise talented script.  While not having seen any of Villenueve’s directorial work before, this sharp and almost clinical effort ensures that I will, starting with Enemy.  If the work does not work in the most sensible manner, it does have grist as a thrilling morality tale.

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

Ender’s Game: Show Don’t Tell

enders-game-movie-poster

Ender’s Game – 2013

Director Gavin Hood
Starring Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin
Screenplay Gavin Hood based on the book Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

One cannot underestimate how badly I wanted for this venture to succeed.  After the heaping of vitriol the producers of the film withstood from those who felt that the book should be punished for the author’s faith views, one couldn’t help but root for the underdog.  The book is a masterpiece, only surpassed in the science fiction genre by the two that followed it.  It took years to get author Orson Scott Card’s buy off on an adaptation of his work, as most people who attempted it tried to make Ender older and give him a girlfriend.  Card would not settle until Gavin Hood presented his vision of Card’s Enderverse.  Most fans of the book (like me) accepted that if it worked for Card, it was worth a shot.

There have been many book series made into film series in the last few years.  Using The Lord of the Rings as a starting off point, it seems like a new series starting off every quarter.  One annoying trend with the more successful series has been to break the last book into two films.  It got ridiculous when Peter Jackson sliced The Hobbit into three parts, especially when the first part is such a bloated mess that went farther down the inside of a mountain than it did on a map.  After seeing the way the story for Ender’s Game was pared down, one can’t help but wonder if they should have divided this densely packed story into 6 parts.

That a lot of Ender’s Game takes place in the protagonist’s head is a daunting task to overcome.  They cast the right actor in Butterfield to play the contemplative, calculating and heartfelt protagonist.  His work on Hugo alone made him the choice, even if he was older.  There is action, but it is not an action film.  It is a story about morality, preparation, breaking down and building up.  The journey for the Andrew Wiggin is not an easy one.  There is no quarter given and there is only the faintest ray of light.

There are considerable swaths cut out of the story.  Some are easier to understand.  Peter and Valentine’s storyline is mostly dialogue and descriptions of opinion pieces.  As riveting as the literate version is, it would not translate well on the big screen.  The battle school had to be pared down a bit from the book.  Maybe they could cut a little of the dream sequences and video game.

Hood took out a lot, though, and really took it too far.  He made a point to verbalize some of the major plot points, but failed to adequately follow up on them by showing us what was happening internally within Ender.  He could have done this with Butterfield’s eyes alone.  Even more, we get word from Graff (an adequate, but somewhat muted Harrison Ford) and Anderson (a perfectly, if cross-gendered cast Viola Davis) what they want to have happen with the prodigy, and then we see things that are counter-intuitive to the expressed goals.

The scenario that best shows this is Mazer Rackham.  In one scene, he tells Ender that he is the enemy.  In the next scene, he’s as chatty as Obi-Wan Kenobi on the Millenium Falcon.  If it weren’t for his reading of the dialogue of the book, the character is an interesting one.  He is not given enough time to flesh out the full dimension of the character that the book had time to show.

In order to get much out of this version of the story, one would have to connect dots that are only very quickly inferred and barely exemplified visually.  The acting feels choppy and inconsistent, as if they are acting out portions of the story, and not a whole tale.  As we move through, it feels less like a movie and more like a puzzle to piece together.

Some characters are completely wasted.  Bean deserved to be more than a helpful buddy.  Peter, the future Hedgemon, no less, get’s one scene.  And no one ever wonders the significance of Peter forcing Ender to play the bug.  Then there are the Formics.  Such a beautiful enemy.  They deserved a voice that was more than the clicks that they were allowed.

There are some excellent points to the story that make it into the film.  First of all, the character of Anderson is actually improved as Viola Davis’ counter representation of Graff’s cold calculation.  The surprise of the last battle is held in tact.  It’s amazing, because I could almost guarantee it would have been drummed out by the test audience.

Ender’s Game is a noble effort.  It attempts to hold true to the ideals expressed by the author.  Telling us why characters do the things they do in the midst of decent action special effects is not the same as letting the characters and the filmmakers demonstrate the same.  When it arrives on video, perhaps there will be some more scenes to help flesh things out.

As it stands, the film feels like the Pink Floyd Greatest Hits collection.  Lots of great songs that lose their context when not played within the original album.

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

Forgotten Gem: Elmore Leonard’s Out of Sight – Made of stars

Out of Sight

Out of Sight – 1998

Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn, Dennis Farina, Don Cheadle, Albert Brooks, Samuel L. Jackson, Luis Guzman, Isaiah Washington, Catherine Keener, Nancy Allen, Viola Davis, Michael Keaton
Screenplay by Scott Frank, based on the novel by Elmore Leonard

There was a time, before I was married, when I insisted that Jennifer Lopez must be one of the greatest actresses alive.  She added an ethereal quality to Gregory Nava’s landmark film Mi Familia, made a name for herself in the otherwise mediocre Selena, and she was delightfully repulsive in Oliver Stone’s U-Turn.  Then there was this film.  Made at the start of Soderbergh’s most fruitful period (The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven would follow), Out of Sight is one of those rare films made post Star Wars era that proved its not always the effects that have to be specia.  Out of Sight has the gift of a powerful script, a director at the peak of his powers and an unparalleled cast each doing what they do best.

George Clooney is Jack Foley, a famous convicted bank robber.  has a thing for U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco (Lopez), and she has a thing for him.  The problem in this scenario is that they meet when Jack is in the process of escaping from prison.  Thrown into the trunk by Foley’s friend Buddy (Rhames), they strike up one of the great meetings in cinema history.  Clooney’s disarming and charming delivery work smoothly with Lopez’ though but tender Marshal.  She exhibits intelligence and sexual tension with no ambiguity.

The moment we meet her father (the brilliant Dennis Farina) we know why she is such a hard edge.  Their back and forth show a shared passion for law enforcement, but more for figuring out  anything and everything.  A big reason this movie works is for the relationship between these characters.  Leonard knows that the way one adds romance to any situation is to remove all excess from a scene.  This way, when we see her act, her actions are entirely with purpose.  The chemistry between Farina and Lopez would be the highlight of most films.  That it is not is a tribute to the director and the lead.

Clooney’s Foley is Sisco’s equal in terms of depth.  His journey of life is a labyrinth of bank robberies and prison stays, with a few escapes thrown in for good measure.  That he is capable of displaying a flawed romantic character in the classic Leonard mold is a strength.  His character melds completely with that of Lopez.  Soderbergh gives this layered performance much added depth with cuts that unravel his story as you need the information.

Rhames’ Buddy is one of his prototypical supporting roles, much like his Mission: Impossible turns along side Tom Cruise.  Steve Zahn gives one of his most memorable characters in the lightweight Glenn Michaels.  Albert Brooks is an excellent bag of sleaze as rich guy crook Richard Ripley.  Don Cheadle is so well cast as Maurice Miller that, until Hotel Rwanda, I was certain that he would pull out a shiv in every movie he was in.

Soderbergh is firing on all cylinders here.  His editing ability transcends Tarantino, given that he and Anne V. Coates cuts have exactly the feel of reading Elmore Leonard’s novels.  They are cold, precise and only containing the information needed to keep the story rolling along.  His lens work with Eliot Davis is flawless and spot on, especially in scenes like the hotel elevator / lobby  during the raid.

Scott Frank is an exceptional translator of Leonard’s words, with this film and the equally brilliant Get Shorty to his credit.  He leaves in everything that makes Leonard Leonard, allowing the characters to breathe and exude their brilliant gifts and flaws.  His most recent work, in The Wolverine, shows that he has not forgotten how to make a story flow through economy of character and dialogue.

Anyone wanting to break into the world of Elmore Leonard or Steven Soderbergh would best start here.  Once you have taken this in, you can pretty much go any direction for either artist.  Either way, this film should not be missed.

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

Beautiful Creatures is a sterile experience

beautiful-creatures-character-poster

Beautiful Creatures – 2013

Written and Directed by Richard LaGravenese
Starring Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Thomas Mann, Emma Thompson
Based on the book by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

First things first.  I hate the accent applied by Ehrenreich.  Normally bad accents don’t serve as much of a distraction, but this one sure does.  The actor is from Los Angeles, and not Gatlin, South Carolina.  Near as I can tell, his accent is from the belief that if you say anything fast enough, people will assume you know what you are doing.  The aggravation normally lessens as time goes on.  In this case, one could only imagine why the person wasn’t told to bag it and go with what got him the part.

Second is the story.  It’s a sped up version of Twilight.  I am sure it ran a little slower on the printed page, but it feels like we hit the end right about the time we find out that Lena (Englert) is a witch.  This is not just because it is predictable, we have several flash forwards, disguised as flashbacks to tell us what is bound to happen.  And then it just happens.

The South is reduced to a religious, ignorant and bigoted character with no room for nuance or differences.  The narrative even narrows the type of person down to ‘either too dumb to leave or too stuck to get away.’  There is another character, with panache and color.  They are, of course, witches and warlocks.  They have elegant clothes, nice decoration and a bigger vocabulary.

Even witches are divided into good and bad.  Who and why they split is not as relevant.  The important thing is that we know Lena is teetering on the precipice of good and bad and seemingly has to make a choice.  Is there a middle ground?  Not really.

As for acting talent, the script really does not need much.  Having Irons and Thompson present adds very little.  They are capable of great work, of course, but they can arrive for the paycheck as well as anyone.  They leave no real impression to the viewer who hasn’t seen them in something better.  Viola Davis does have some consistently effective moments in a pivotal role.  Her eyes are quite powerful, and they make up for a lot that isn’t present with the rest of the story.

As half of the featured couple, Englert is actually quite good in one of her first major roles.  She carries the relationship of Lena and Ethan, with Ehrenreich coming across as not much more than a horny rube who likes to cut covers off box and put them on a map.  There is a reason he does this, but it’s not all that poignant as it is goofy.

There is nothing all that bad about Beautiful Creatures.  The story is something one would expect from the teen genre from which it derives.  Whereas Twilight put its emphasis on hot romance, this film takes the story and makes it palatable for those who don’t want their kids to see a man’s bare chest before he turns into a Werewolf.  There is nothing here that is too offensive, but neither can we expect it to win any awards.  It’s from the familiar place of romance.  To quote Tracy Ullman: “They don’t know about us and they’ve never heard of love.”

But we have heard of this before.  Quite a few times.

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

I Don’t Have A Vote: Cool Papa E Picks The 84th Oscars

2012 Academy Awards

Please don’t let this be the year that the gimmicky French film wins.  I would prefer that the real masterpiece that took place in Paris, France take home the gold.  The rush to crown The Artist as Best Picture feels a little like the time we anointed Brokeback Mountain the movie of our times.  If it actually wins, then it will feel like when Out of Africa beat out The Color Purple: only one of those films has been watched since 1985.

The disappointments this year are in the omission of the last Harry Potter film, along with Take Shelter from the nominees list for Best Picture.  We easily could have done without War Horse, Moneyball and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close in this category.  This just shows the kind of clout Speilberg, Pitt and Hanks have that they get these as gimmes.

As a refresher from last year’s post, if a category is not covered here, it’s because I have not seen most of the films in that group, and, obviously, don’t care about the category.

Best Picture

The Artist, The DescendantsExtremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Hugo, Midnight in ParisThe HelpMoneyballWar Horse, The Tree of Life

My pick:  Out of this group, Hugo is the clear class of the bunch.  There are other good films here, The Help, The Descendants and The Tree of Life among them.  None of those, though, were better than Take Shelter.  Only Hugo achieves this, and it is the best 3D film ever.

Who will win: If The Artist wins, something is seriously wrong with Hollywood, because no one will be watching this film in a year.  For the self-congratulatory voters, however, this is the shiny object in their periphery.  Better still, it is a shiny object that they feel represents “tradition.”  It should be a dead heat between Hugo and The Help.  My money is on The Artist, though.  Something is seriously wrong with Hollywood.

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

My pick: Bashir gave a clinic in A Better Life.  Brad Pitt actually did better work this year in Tree of Life, but that was a supporting role, so the performance was ignored.  Clooney playing slightly against type is always fun.  The older he gets, the more ways he finds to go against type.  Soon, he will have no “type.”

Who will win: If The Artist wins best picture, it may be enough to divorce the voters from the idea of giving it to the French guy, who spoke not a word.  I think the Academy likes Clooney as much as I do.

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

My pick: Mara’s movie, while great, is derivative.  I still think of Noomi Rapace.  She should have been nominated for her work first.  Streep is great, but the Iron Lady is not enough to get the gold.  I haven’t liked Close much since Cookie’s Fortune showed me how unskilled she is when unrestrained.  I haven’t seen Williams as Marilyn.  If ever there was a clear standout, Davis should win for showing us how to be humble, graceful and a giant of a human being.

Who will win: Davis, with no question.  Streep is old reliable and could surprise.  From what I have been told, Mara does not interview well.  That and a violent movie about rape should keep her from the gold this time.

Best Supporting Actor
Kenneth Branagh, My Week With Marilyn
Jonah Hill, Moneyball
Nick Nolte, Warrior
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Max Von Sydow, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

My pick:  Nick Nolte’s performance in Warrior was incredibly poetic.  His skill has only increased with age.  Hill was fun in his fictional version of Paul DePodesta, and he really worked Sorkin’s dialogue.  I have to go with Nolte here.  I have to say, though, it was a true shame that Rickman was not nominated for his role of Snape.  He would have taken the Oscar, if so.

Who will win:  The shiny object in this category is the old gay guy dying of cancer who was faithful until his wife died.  Plummer is a great actor of many years.  This is his Sean Connery moment, albeit a slightly pinker version.  I would rather have given it to him for Star Trek VI, but hey, I am a different breed of cat.

Best Supporting Actress
Berenice Bejo, The Artist
Jessica Chastain, The Help
Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer, The Help

My pick:  Chastain is a wonderful actress who had many excellent roles this year.  3 of these, The Help, Tree of Life, and especially Take Shelter deserved nominations (the latter for Best Actress), but she lands in the one spot she can’t win.  Octavia Spencer is perhaps the best nominated performance of this year’s awards.  She made a lasting impression with The Help.  McCarthy was good, but undercut by fat chick clichés in Bridesmaids.

Who will win: I think that Spencer made the same impression on the voters that she made with me.

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

My pick: Payne and Malick had excellent movies, but Scorsese’s Hugo is a masterpiece.  This movie is right up there with Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Aviator and Taxi Driver as the best in his career.  Yeah, I know I did not include The Departed.  It’s good, but not on the level with his best.  Remember, Oscar is a shiny object.  The most impressive feat of the film, though, is Scorcese’s ability to weave a wonderful tale and while using unobtrusive 3D effects that actually help the story seem all the more real.

Who will win: It looks like The Artist’s director will take this one.  The only one that stands a chance is Scorsese.  Not a good one, though.

Best Original Screenplay
Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
JC Chandor, Margin Call
Asghar Farhadi, A Separation
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, Bridesmaids

My pick:  Out of this group, I have to go with Midnight in Paris.  Take Shelter should have been nominated and deserves the award, too.  Margin Call was nothing more than a depressing recap.  Bridesmaids was good, but the fat clichés knock it out for me.

Who will win: The Academy is big on Woody Allen.  He thinks like they do.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Alexander Payne, Nat Faxton, Jim Rash, The Descendants
John Logan, Hugo
George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon, The Ides of March
Aaron Sorkin, Steven Zaillian, Moneyball
Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straughn, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

My pick:  No contest.  As good as The Descendants is, Hugo is the best story of the nominations and it was written exquisitely.  The story is the history of movies itself.  There can be no better story than this for a movie lover.

Who will win: Odds have The Descendants.  I have to go with Hugo though.  What better way for Hollywood to celebrate itself than by this story?

Best Animated Feature
A Cat In Paris
Chico & Rita
Kung Fu Panda 2
Puss in Boots
Rango

My pick:  No question here.  Kung Fu Panda 2.  The story was a true continuation of the journey.  Remarkable and one of the 4 best animated features ever.  The great thing here is that Pixar was shut out after putting out that derivative pile of crap, Cars 2.  It’s only because I love everything else that Pixar has done (except Cars) that I celebrate this.  They always do better, and they deserved the shut out.

Who will win: Rango is probably going to take this.  It looked great, to be sure.  The story was about as original as Avatar, though.

Original Score

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

My pick: Howard Shore did a very skilful job combining the feelings and the tension with Hugo.  The Artist was a hodgepodge of stolen riffs from other movies.  They call it an homage, but that did not fare any better than Moulin Rouge for me.

Who will win:  The music for the silent film will probably win the day.

Best Original Song
Man or Muppet,” The Muppets; Music and Lyric by Bret McKenzie
Real in Rio,” Rio; Music by Sergio Mendes and Carlinhos Brown, Lyric by Siedah Garrett

My pick:  Easy.  McKenzie’s faux rock ballad perfectly encapsulated the glory of all things Muppet.  Ironically, that was not even as good as Life’s a Happy Song from the same movie.  Real in Rio is a nice song, but that’s about it.

Who will win:  Like I said.  Easy.

Best Achievement in Art Direction
The Artist
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Hugo
Midnight in Paris
War Horse

My pick: Before I saw Hugo, this award would have gone to the last Harry Potter.  My life is now infused with the images from Scorsese’s masterpiece.

Who will win:  Hugo should win, but The Artist could creep in.

Best Achievement in Cinematography
The Artist
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Hugo
The Tree of Life
War Horse

My pick:  Malick’s work was immaculate.  His nonsequiturs are amazingly filmed as they are puzzling.  I love Fincher camera work and The Artist sure does look good.  Nothing, however, holds a camera to Scorsese’s work in Hugo.

Who will win:  This is likely the one place that they reward Malick’s wonderful film.  Hugo or The Artist could surprise though.

Best Achievement in Costume Design
Anonymous
The Artist
Hugo
Jane Eyre
W.E.

My pick:  This is a contest between Hugo and The Artist.  Hugo’s costumes encompass all that The Artist’s presented, while bringing into it so much more.  Hugo.

Who will win:  This could go either way, but I am guessing that they go with The Artist.

Best Documentary Feature
Hell and Back Again
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
Pina
Undefeated

My pick:  Hell and Back Again.  Semper Fi.

Who will win:  Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory has traction.

Best Achievement in Film Editing

The Artist
The Descendants
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Hugo
Moneyball

My pick:  There are no wasted shot’s with Thelma Schoonmaker.  Hugo.

Who will win:  If the tide is with them, and I think it may well be, The Artist, will probably win.  If by some miracle, they judge on merit, Hugo will take it.

Best Achievement in Makeup
Albert Nobbs
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
The Iron Lady

My pick: Potter.

Who will win:  Potter.

Best Achievement in Sound Editing

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

My pick:  Hugo

Who will win: Hugo

Best Achievement in Sound Mixing
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Hugo
Moneyball
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
War Horse

My pick:  Hugo

Who will win:  Hugo

Best Achievement in Visual Effects
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Hugo
Real Steel
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Transformers: Dark of the Moon

My pick: Hugo should win this.  Apes was an excellent effort, but Scorsese’s work was conventional and groundbreaking simultaneously.

Who will win:  Unless there is a Hugo landslide, Rise of the Planet of the Apes should win.

The Help is better than a pie full

The Help – 2011

Directed by Tate Taylor
Starring
Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Sissy Spacek, Mike Vogel, Allison Janney, Mary Steenburgen
Written by  
Taylor  based on The Help by Kathryn Stockett

When thinking of how to view The Help, I think of it in terms of how to present The South during the Jim Crow era to a child who had never seen it.  For me, that jumping off point was The Great Santini, where Ben Meechum (Michael O’Keefe) befriended a black farmer (Stan Shaw) who ended up on the wrong side of a gun by movie’s end.  It was pretty intense stuff for a 9-year-old, but it stuck with me, and fit right in with my mind’s eye of the era when I saw Mississippi Burning almost a decade later.  While I don’t recommend anyone under 15 see the latter, The Help is right on par as a primer for anyone to get their first glimpse of our country’s longest national nightmare.  It is a sanitized version of the time, sure, but a story that raises important questions.

Based on the bestselling book of the same name, The Help, depicts a young, virtuous and well-meaning female reporter’s investigation into the lives of those who have lived with and served her family and those of her friends all of her life.  The woman named, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) just graduated from Ole Miss, is full of ideas of right and wrong.  Her eyes are opened when she catches the eyes of Aibileen Clark, a servant at her friend’s house, while listening to some seemingly innocent racists banter during a social event.

Black women who knew their place was not to question their “separate but equal status” and just do their job, catering to the every need of the adults and children who use them, for next to nothing.  They suffer indignation quietly, and if it is up to generic villain Hilly Holbrook (Howard), the separation will be all the less equal.  The main thrust for Holbrook, to have every home required to build an outside restroom for their black servants, as not to suffer the “different germs” that their servants surely carry with them.  Bearing in mind that these are the same people who raised them as children, and  are now raising their own children, the proposed legislation shows  that these laws are in no way based on anything substantive.  It’s pure vitriol.

Phelan and Clark get a chance to speak about another about an article she is writing about her “homemaker hints” article that she had recently begun writing for in the local paper.  From here Skeeter touches upon what she observed earlier.  At first, Aibileen protests, but subsequent events lead her to find her religion.  In doing so, she knows that the only way to do credit to her recently deceased son is to open up about the truth of it all.

In related events, Holbrook’s recently fired maid, Minnie Jackson (Spencer), having been ostracized in town, has no choice but to go to the one house that no other maid would dare work for.  When she gets there, she finds the most decent employer sometimes the one that has the worst reputation among the not so decent employers.  This employee (Chastain), considered white trash by Holbrook for reasons yet to be revealed, is actually a wonderful human being, and a very much-needed blessing for Jackson.  The rest will be left for you to discover.

The acting is this movie is as good as it gets for the delicate subject.  Spencer and Davis turn in the performances of their careers.  Both should be nominated, and I believe at least one of them will.  Less heralded, but equally deserving is Jessica Chastain, who’s Celia Foote provides a human counterpoint to Spencer’s vibrant Jackson. Their back and forth could have been a whole movie in and of itself.  This is the third excellent performance in a row for Chastain, after Tree of Life and The Debt.  I look forward to seeing what both of them do in the future, along with reviewing the films they have done in the past.

Stone is the right person in the right part, but this role does little to show her ability.  In somewhat of a thankless role, her job is to be the vessel through which we see more interesting characters.  Howard, after a career spent being the only Howard without any discernible entertaining talent, finally finds a job she can do well: domesticated evil witch.  Her performance actually contributes to the film, in a blithely comical way.

Howard’s performance is representative of the film.  The menace which was a part of the everyday life is limited to the failed dating life of a bitter southern housewife.  There are references to homes being destroyed, wives being beaten and other atrocities, but for the most part, everyone is safe, if inconvenienced.  Black men seem to be only available for yard work.

This is good, in a sense, if you want to make a point, without obliterating your kids’ delicate nature.  There is plenty enough time for that in the future.  In the way of introducing your child into the world of what is fair and not so fair, this is a solid first step.

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