Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What the Guilds Tell Us

Now that the major Guild Awards have been handed out, we have as firm a grasp on who (and what) will win Oscars next month as we’re likely to get.

Sure, we still have the British-favored BAFTA awards, and the remarkably fun Indie Sprit Awards to get through, but those have little to no impact on who takes home Oscars.

By looking at who has won Guild Awards, we’re likely to see this year’s Oscar winners. Note: The Writer’s Guild Awards are on Feb. 21, which matter none to Oscar voters, as voting will have ceased by then.

Producers/Directors Guild
The Artist, and its director, Michel Hazanavicius, recently took home their respective Guild honors, and they are the clear front-runner for Best Picture and Best Director. I’ve heard talk of The Descendants stealing Picture, and Scorsese possibly nabbing Director, but expect the first silent film nominated in 82 years to take home top honors.

Screen Actors Guild
Best Actor
Up until Sunday night, George Clooney seemed like a lock for his emotionally effective work in The Descendants, but with stateside newcomer Jean Dujardin winning the SAG for The Artist, I think he is currently ahead. Is it possible for voters to write-in potential winners? If so, I’d like to champion a Fassbender steal.

Best Actress
Don’t pay attention to the Golden Globes, Viola Davis is going to receive one of the longest Oscar standing ovations in years once her name is called as the winner of Best Actress.

Best Supporting Actor
Christopher Plummer. Next.

Best Supporting Actress
Of the major categories, this is always the hardest to handicap. Marisa Tomei beat Vanessa Redgrave, Anna Paquin trumped Holly Hunter, Juliette Binoche stunned Lauren Bacall, Kim Basinger beat Gloria Stuart; Marcia Gay Harden, Tilda Swinton – all genuine surprises. No matter, expect Octavia Spencer to win this as expected, unless Bérénice Bejo rides The Artist’s hype, or Melissa McCarthy reminds voters that it’s okay to give out awards for funny performances.

Best Original Screenplay
This is will be the quickest speech of the night, as Woody Allen won’t be there to accept his award.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Aaron Sorkin is favored for a repeat win for his work on Moneyball with Steven Zaillian (who won for writing Schindler’s List). But I see Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash winning for their Descendants script. Either, or.

BAFTAs will air Feb. 12
Indie Spirit Awards, per usual, will air the night before the Oscars, on Feb. 25

Saturday, January 28, 2012

101 Cinematic Reasons Why I Love the ‘70s

1. “Chapter One. He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion. Eh uh, no, make that he, he romanticized it all out of proportion. Better. To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin. Uh, no, let me start this over.” 

2. “The Korova milkbar sold milk-plus, milk plus vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom, which is what we were drinking. This would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of the old ultra-violence. 

3. “You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets.”

4. This opening shot:













5. Woodstein

6. Harriet Andersson as Agnes

7. Ingrid Thulin as Karin

8. Liv Ullmann as Maria

9. Kari Sylwan as Anna

10. The Kisnki/Herzog collaboration

11. The fact that All the President’s Men won the Oscar for Best Sound


13. The repulsiveness of Noah Cross

14. “You see this? This is this.”

15. This image:










16. The camera pans over to his hands. He reaches in his coat for an antacid tablet. As he brings the tablet to his mouth, the camera follows his hands to reveal his face. We’ve seen him before, but it’s as if we’re seeing him for the first time. The jacket. The pale skin. The mohawk. Here is…

17. The wickedly clever editing in The Conformist

18. The fact that, after 40 years, the chase scene in The French Connection still amazes

19. “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

20. “Luca Brassi sleeps with the fishes.”

21. “Leave the gun, take the cannolis.”

22. “Why are the curtains open?”

23. “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”

24. “I knew it was you, Fredo, you broke my heart.”

25. “I WAS STEPPED OVER!”

26. The tollbooth.

27. The horse’s head.

28. Hyman Roth.

29. The impossibly impeccable, but far too brief career of John Cazale:




















30. “I'm 42 and she's 17. I'm older than her father, can you believe that? I'm dating a girl, wherein, I can beat up her father.” 

31. All 281 flawless minutes of Scenes From a Marriage


33. “Well I’m the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?”

34. “THEY’RE ALL GONNA LAUGH AT YOU!”

35. James Earl Jones’ voice

36. Sonny talking on the phone with Leon

37. This room:














38. The many filmmaking tricks that are revealed in Day for Night

39. Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence – the very best female acting performance I’ve ever seen

40. “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

41. Jon Voight and Ned Beatty stopping their canoe on a river bank, and the subsequent horror that follows

42. How Ingrid Thulin makes smiling at her husband one of the most haunting images I’ve ever seen

43. The relationship between Emmi and Ali

44. “Now you get to play the game.”

45. The fact that The Sting still manages to trick me

46. “THE POWER OF CHRIST COMPELS YOU!”












47. R.P. McMurphy offering Chief a stick of gum

48. Barry Lyndon dueling with Lord Bullingdon

49. The fact that Rocky loses the fight


51. “…one shot.”

52. With his newfound, Best Picture-winning success, Woody Allen does precisely what nobody wants him to do and makes a masterful drama

53. The sound of a heart pounding in Midnight Express












55. The fact that Robert De Niro won an acting Oscar while in competition with the guy that taught him how to act

56. The stitches scene in Kramer vs. Kramer

57. 1941 is released, and we’re all reminded that no one, including Steven Spielberg, is perfect

58. Peter Faulk splitting a six pack with his two pre-teen kids

59. Bergman, Ingmar finally working with Bergman, Ingrid:













60. “Can I confess something? I tell you this as an artist, I think you'll understand. Sometimes when I'm driving on the road at night… I see two headlights coming toward me. Fast. I have this sudden impulse to turn the wheel quickly, head-on into the oncoming car. I can anticipate the explosion. The sound of shattering glass. The flames rising out of the flowing gasoline.” 

61. The cameos in Nashville 

62. “You can either surf or you can fight!”

63. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

64. “It smelled like…”

65. Basically everything Robert Duvall says and does in Apocalypse Now

66. Chicken salad sandwich:












67. “$20?! Let’s go da movies!”

68. The football game in M*A*S*H

69. Best Documentary Feature, 1974

70. Every single frame of McCabe & Mrs. Miller

71. The fact that this film is still my favorite Herzog film:




















72. The remarkably accurate character introduction of Johnny Boy

73. “Viddy well, little brother. Viddy well.”

74. “What the hell you wanna go and fuck around with that river for?” “Because it’s there.”

75. Runners up: Brando, Nicholson, Pacino, Redford. Winner: Lemmon

76. The impossibility of choosing the more impressive filmography: Pacino or De Niro

77. The fact that the scariest scene in the film is little Reagan getting poked and prodded with needles

78. Max who?












79. The fearlessness of Cybill Shepherd’s performance in The Last Picture Show

80. George Lucas releases American Graffiti, the best film he’s ever made

81. “Making a film is like a stagecoach ride in the old west. When you start, you are hoping for a pleasant trip. By the halfway point, you just hope to survive.”

82. Hal Ashby’s filmography

83. Hercule Poirot’s final monologue

84. The slow motion bar scene cut to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”

85. “He'd kill us if he got the chance.”












86. Foreman’s audacity of mixing real mental patients with actors

87. “ATTICA ATTICA!”

88. “Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up.”

89. Beatrice Straight’s five minutes of screentime

90. “Is it safe?”

91. The quiet, unobtrusive observation of Harlan County, U.S.A.

92. The way Jason Miller jerks his hands away from a mental patient in The Exorcist

93. "I am the Wrath of God."
















94. Best Foreign Film, 1972

95. Jimi Hendrix doing the Star-Spangled Banner 

96. “Sex and death - two things that come once in a lifetime... but at least after death, you're not nauseous.

97. “Don…Corleone.”

98. “How do I look?” “You look great.”

99. “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”

100. “The horror…the horror”

101. “I was cured all right.”

101 Cinematic Reasons Why I Love the ‘2000s

'70s Answers

1. Manhattan
2. A Clockwork Orange
3. Mean Streets
4. Barry Lyndon
5. All The President’s Men
6-9. Cries and Whispers
12. Shaft
13. Chinatown
14. The Deer Hunter
15. Patton
16. Taxi Driver
19-21. The Godfather
22-25. The Godfather Part II
26-27. The Godfather
28. The Godfather Part II
30. Manhattan
32. Jaws
33. Taxi Driver
34. Carrie
35. Star Wars
36. Dog Day Afternoon
37. Cries and Whispers
40. Network
41. Deliverance
42. Cries and Whispers
43. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
44. Deliverance
46. The Exorcist
47. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
50. Saturday Night Fever
51. The Deer Hunter
52. Interiors
54. Network
55. The Godfather Part II
58. A Woman Under the Influence
59. Autumn Sonata
60. Annie Hall
62-64. Apocalypse Now
66. Five Easy Pieces
67. Mean Streets
69. Hearts and Minds
71. Woyzeck
72. Mean Streets
73. A Clockwork Orange
74. Deliverance
75. Save the Tiger
77. The Exorcist
78. Nosferatu the Vampyre
81. Day for Night
83. Murder on the Orient Express
84. Mean Streets
85. The Conversation
86. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
87. Dog Day Afternoon
88. Taxi Driver
89. Network
90. Marathon Man
93. Aguirre, the Wrath of God
94. Cries and Whispers
95. Woodstock
96. Sleeper
97. The Godfather
98. Kramer vs. Kramer
99. Chinatown
100. Apocalypse Now
101. A Clockwork Orange 

Friday, January 27, 2012

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close represents all that is bad among the wasteful critical darlings of this year’s awards season. It’s more needlessly sentimental than The Help, duller and more didactic than War Horse, and more boring than My Week With Marilyn, Albert Nobbs and The Iron Lady combined. In short, the film is a perfect cinematic encapsulation of everything that went wrong in 2011.

After his father (Tom Hanks) dies in the World Trader Center on “the worst day,” ten-year-old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) spends a year or so trapped worse than ever in the isolation of his tortured mind. (Oskar clearly has some form of Asperger’s syndrome, despite his incessant claims otherwise.) Then one day, between epic bouts of scrapbooking, ripping out his skin, hiding in his closet, and telling his mother (Sandra Bullock) that he wishes she was dead, Oskar finds a small key in his father’s closest.

In no time, Oskar is thumbing through phone books, writing down every instance of the name Black (which was printed on the envelope where the key was found), and soon sets off on a journey to find what the key unlocks.

And this is the exact moment where the film lost me. I had put up with Oskar’s constant manic-depressive episodes, Sandra Bullock’s look-at-me-I’m-really-trying acting and Tom Hanks’ futile performance, but when Oskar stood on a rock in Central Park and announced to us, via arguably the most annoying narration in the history of cinema, that he was going to visit every person with a Black surname in New York and its surrounding boroughs, I all but checked out.

For starters, because Oskar is afraid of seemingly everything, including public transportation, he opts to walk to the hundreds of “Black” homes. His first stop is in Brooklyn. Now, let’s think about this. A walk from the edge of Central Park to the edge of Brooklyn via the Williamsburg Bridge would take roughly two hours, even longer for a ten-year-old. So that’s minimum four hours (there and back) for one home. But considering the film’s fondness for montage, Oskar appears to hit about 10 homes a day. Continuity, so it seems, is not this film’s strongest quality.
As directed by the always well-intentioned Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours, The Reader), Extremely Loud is an excessively long, terribly annoying, cringe-worthy misfire. Not even the likes of Max von Sydow (as a mute neighbor who accompanies Oskar on some of his journey) can save the film from its many weaknesses. (For the record, von Sydow earned his Supporting Actor nomination, but not above the likes of Albert Brooks and Ben Kingsley.)

The film, it must be said, has a resolution that I found oddly satisfying, which only managed to anger me more. Toward the end, Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright, two actors who have no idea how to do wrong, are relied on to deliver, which they do, and then some. But what’s five good minutes stuck underneath 120 minutes of pure garbage? Damaged goods, that’s what.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

In Character: Guy Pearce

Ask me who my favorite living actor is and, without very much thought, I may quite easily say Guy Pearce.  I’ll see anything he’s in, doesn’t matter. Why? Because whether it’s a shitty Adam Sandler flick, a generic action movie, a psychological masterpiece, or a Best Picture-winning war film, Pearce makes it worthwhile.

He’s also, as you’ll see, arguably our greatest living chameleon. His voice, hair, build, mannerisms; it all varies by role. Rarely does he resemble what he actually looks like, or who he actually is. And, no offense to the real man, but I’m perfectly okay with that.

Five Essential Roles
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
Adam Whitley/Felicia Jollygoodfellow
Interestingly enough, the most recent Guy Pearce performance I’ve seen is the one that put him on the map, and damn if it isn’t a dozy. As a loud-mouthed, free-spirited drag queen, Pearce presents something quite unlike anything he’s done.  

For starters: he’s actually funny. Don’t get me wrong, I love Guy Pearce, but the dude doesn’t exactly have a penchant for taking on overly humorous characters. Adam (or Felicia), however, is bloody hysterical. Really, who else can turn a flashback about being molested by their father into a genuinely hilarious gag? Adam, like the film as a whole, is funny, outrageous, and when appropriate, pleasantly sincere.

L.A. Confidential (1997)
Edmund J. Exley       
Pearce’s breakout role (at least in America) was as the straight-laced, wildly intelligent Ed Exley in Curtis Hanson’s masterful crime thriller. As Exley, Pearce is the constant voice of reason – a man unwilling to bend the rules, until his incredibly corrupt police department forces him to.

I love Spacey’s Jack Vincennes and Crowe's Bud White, but no character captivates me more here than Exley. In fact, Pearce is responsible for the film’s best, most crucial moment, when Exley calmly tells Spacey why he became a cop.

“Rollo Tomasi,” Pearce says.

“Is there more to that, or am I supposed to guess?” Spacey asks.

Oh yeah, lots.

The Proposition (2005)
Charlie Burns
The Proposition, as Pearce has said in interviews, is by far his favorite of all the films he has done. Fitting, given how brilliant (and brilliantly badass) it is.

The proposition in question is simple: Stanley, a stern, diligent lawman, tells Charlie Burns, the middle brother of a ferocious family of outlaws, that he has nine days to kill his older, psychopathic brother, Arthur – if not, Stanley will kill Charlie’s younger brother Mikey. So the gaunt, despondent Charlie sets off to find a man who cannot be found, exposing himself to a host of violent and thrilling situations.

The Proposition is a very good (and curiously overlooked) film. It’s shocking in its violence, unrelenting in its style, and fierce in its acting. Toward the end of the film, Pearce commits an unexpected act of violence that is followed by possibly the single greatest line delivery of his career. No need to spoil it here, but if you’re a fan of Pearce (or movies in general), The Proposition is not to be missed.

The Hurt Locker (2009)
Staff Sgt. Matt Thompson
Considering Pearce is in Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Picture winner for a matter of seconds, his character may seem an odd choice for this list. But Staff Sgt. Matt Thompson is precisely the type of performance that allows a character actor to thrive.

When I first saw The Hurt Locker, I knew next to nothing about the plot, and had virtually no knowledge of who starred in it. When Guy Pearce showed up in the very first scene, I was immediately enthralled. (Never mind that he’s gone just as quickly, because, you know, war is hell.) Many times in this series, I've mentioned that the mark of a truly great character actor is the ability to get in, get out, and leave your indelible mark.

Case in point.

Animal Kingdom (2010)
Sgt. Nathan Leckie
Much like The Proposition, Animal Kingdom is a far-too-hidden Australian wonder that will surely please anyone who views it.  The movie tells the story of the Cody family, a small group of people who lie, cheat, steal, kill, in order to fuel their criminal lifestyle.

The movie is full of deplorable (yet impossibly charismatic) characters, and by the time Guy Pearce shows up, some seriously heavy shit has gone down.  In short, I was expecting Pearce to follow suit and play one of the many crooked cops we see in the film, and it was wholly refreshing to observe the contrary. Sgt. Leckie, for all intents and purposes, is an earnest, straight shooter.  He aims to do good and instill justice, nothing more.

Leckie’s sense of determined purpose is much needed against the scum that occupies most of the film. The character could play as ordinary and boring, but not in Pearce’s hands. In fact, his controlled, heated conversation with Jacki Weaver near the end of the film is one of the movie’s best moments. He’s cool, calm and collected, but always on the edge of losing it. A true marvel of a performance.

The Best of the Best
Memento (2001)
Leonard Shelby
It’s undeniable: Guy Pearce’s most known performance is also his best. Leonard, for those unknown , is desperately trying to track down his wife’s killer. Problem is, he cannot retain new memories. To offset this condition, as he prefers to call it, he follows strict guidelines, taking scrupulous notes, shooting multiple Polaroid’s, and tattooing vital facts onto his body.

Memento, on paper, relies solely on its gimmick of playing in reverse order. Many films of this nature attempt to survive on its tricky narrative device, but writer/director Christopher Nolan is too smart for that, which is confirmed by his casting, among other things.  

I’ve always thought that Guy Pearce plays Leonard like a cute, lost, blonde, puppy relying on animal instinct to figure something out. He beats, he chases, and he kills innocent people, yet we always root for him, which is where the genius of Nolan’s film lies. We sympathize with a killer because we know that he thinks he’s doing the right thing. Every depraved action is done out of love and justice.

Leonard is funny (“I don’t, feel… drunk"), frightening (“I want my FUCKIN’ LIFE BACK"), clever (“No he’s… chasing me"), and, perhaps most significantly, terrifying. The final scene of this film (so, really the beginning) perfectly explains Leonard’s motivations for the story we’ve just witnessed. The information he has, accurate or otherwise, is entirely brought on himself. It’s an ingenious trick pulled off by Nolan’s tense script and fluid direction, as well as Pearce’s unrelenting madness.

Now, where was I?

Other Notable Roles
In Factory Girl
Ravenous (1999)
Rules of Engagement (2000)
The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)
The Hard Word (2002)
Factory Girl (2006)
First Snow (2006)
The Road (2009)
The King’s Speech (2010)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

2012 Oscar Nominations

I’ve long since written off this year’s Oscars, declaring that they will be as boring and predictable as last year’s, but the recent announcement of the 84th annual Academy Award nominations has me at a loss for words.

They are, in short, the most baffling, misguided set of nominations that I can remember. Were there highlights? Sure, I suppose. But the lack of certainly outweighs the positives.  Don’t expect a lot of Oscar talk from me over the next month, because, really, who wants to blab about something so painfully awful?

Best Picture
The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
The Help
Hugo
Midnight in Paris
Moneyball
The Tree of Life
War Horse
Yes, it is nice to see The Tree of Life here, and although I’m willing to put aside my complete abhorrence for War Horse and The Help, did voters actually see Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close? It was extremely boring and incredibly idiotic.

Best Director
Woody Allen – Midnight in Paris
Michel Hazanavicius – The Artist
Terrence Malick – The Tree of Life
Alexander Payne – The Descendants
Martin Scorsese – Hugo
Malick is a genuine surprise. A surprise that hasn’t a chance at hell at winning. But, hey, it’s the thought that counts, right?

Best Actor
Demián Bichir – A Better Life
George Clooney – The Descendants
Jean Dujardin – The Artist
Gary Oldman – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Brad Pitt – Moneyball
Yep, I loved Demián Bichir in A Better Life, I thought it was one of the great, unspoken performances of last year. And I’m also very glad that Oldman gets to celebrate his first Oscar nomination this morning. But were they (or anyone else on in this category) better than Michael Fassbender in Shame? No, they were not. By far the Academy’s most egregious oversight in years.

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
Not much to say here, as it was either going to be the equally deserving Mara or Tilda Swinton (for We Need to Talk About Kevin) who took the fifth spot in the category that Viola Davis is going to (justly) win.

Best Supporting Actor
Kenneth Branagh – My Week With Marilyn
Jonah Hill – Moneyball
Nick Nolte – Warrior
Christopher Plummer – Beginners
Max Von Sydow – Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Did you all know that Jonah Hill did a better job than Albert Brooks in Drive? Yeah, me either.

Best Supporting Actress
Bérénice Bejo – The Artist
Jessica Chastain – The Help
Melissa McCarthy – Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer – Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer – The Help
Hey, Shailene Woodley, you were the best part of your film and deserve to be here more than any of the actual nominees. Better luck next time.

Best Original Screenplay
Woody Allen – Midnight in Paris
J.C. Chandor – Margin Call
Michel Hazanivicius – The Artist
Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig – Bridesmaids
Asghar Farhadi – A Separation
Margin Call was so plain and ordinary (okay, the acting was great), that I didn’t even bother to review it. Tom McCarthy (Win Win), Mike Mills (Beginners), and, you know, Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan (Shame), are much more deserving to be here.

Best Adapted Screenplay
George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon – The Ides of March
John Logan – Hugo
Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash – The Descendants
Aaron Sorkin & Steven Zaillian – Moneyball
Peter Straughan & Bridget O’Connor – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
 All solid scripts, no bitching to be had. I’m losing steam here anyway.

Best Cinematography
Jeff Cronenweth – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Janusz Kaminski – War Horse
Emmanuel Lubezki – The Tree of Life
Robert Richardson – Hugo
Guillaume Schiffman – The Aritst
Well, at least Lubezki made the cut. But will he win? No, of course not. Don’t be silly.

Best Score
Ludovic Bource – The Artist
Alberto Iglesias – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Howard Shore – Hugo
John Williams – War Horse
John Williams – The Adventures of Tintin
I knew Harry Escott’s masterful, simplistic Shame score wouldn’t be recognized here, but no Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Yeah, I’m done writing about these nominations.

Click here for a full list of the nominations. But be warned: it only gets worse.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Haywire

I dig Steven Soderbergh. I’ve seen every one of his films, listened to every director’s commentary he’s recorded, driven absurd distances to sit in on lectures he’s given, and so on. I love the overall composition of his films, from his choice of fonts (which he spends days mulling over), his varied use of lenses and filters, his penchant for non-linear storytelling – I love it all. And while he’s made some less-than-mediocre films, I’d spend two hours watching a Soderbergh flick that documents the complexities of the phone book. If his name is on it, I’m seeing it.

Lucky for me (and everyone, really) his new Haywire is pure Soderberghian bliss. It’s his first all-out action film, and it’s exactly what you’d expect from an auteur capable of remarkable flare and unparalleled restraint. It’s the kind of action flick where the fight scenes are viewed in medium shot, by a mostly unmoving camera, and void of the distractions of lambasting music and exaggerated sound effects. The man shoots (and synchs) fights exactly how fights look and sound. Now, tell me, when the hell was the last time you saw a movie do that? The Bourne Identity this is not.

In Haywire, Mallory (ex-MMA fighter Gina Carano, in a deeply controlled debut) is a Special Ops asskicker on the run from the people she used to work for. Why her former employers want her dead is initially, purposefully lost on us – it’s how they go about silencing her that makes for such compelling cinema.

Now, this being a Lem Dobbs-scripted Soderbergh flick (the two recorded the most infamous director’s commentary of all time for The Limey, the execution of which they disagreed on, to put it kindly), the content is complicated and deliberate. Attention is demanded, names must be remembered, and notions of plot holes are to be ignored. If the film holds something back, it’s because Soderbergh and Co. want it held back. My point is, Haywire is a tad bit ingenious in its storytelling, and to ruin that here would be cruel.
I will say that throughout her ordeal, Mallory is in the company of some thoroughly fleshed out characters, played by actors at the top of their game. There’s an excellent Channing Tatum (yes, excellent) as Mallory’s one-time partner, Ewan McGregor as her cold boss, Bill Paxton as her levelheaded father, Antonio Banderas as a quiet high-level exec, Michael Douglas as a government pusher, and then who shows up but Michael Fucking Fassbender, the man currently occupying the position of Coolest Person on the Planet.

Carano and Fassbender occupy the film’s most thrilling minutes, starting with a playful game of cat and mouse that results in a fight scene rivaling any from recent memory. Punches are not pulled; this is the real deal, and, much like the movie as a whole, I loved every minute of it. A-

Friday, January 20, 2012

My Favorite Scene: He Got Game

Warning: Critical plot details will be divulged in this post.

I love everything about Spike Lee’s masterful basketball drama, He Got Game. I love the simplicity of its plot, the virtuoso performances by unlikely actors, the original Public Enemy songs juxtaposed with Aaron Copland’s classic movements, the crisp, fluid camerawork – everything.

Although the film failed to find an audience and ignite critical praise, it still baffles me that when Lee’s films are discussed, He Got Game is often considered a noble failure. I couldn’t disagree more, in fact, I think it is one of the best, most personal films of his career.

A little background, for those unfamiliar. Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington) is serving time in Attica prison for accidentally killing his wife. Soon into the film, the Warden advises Jake that if he can convince his son, Jesus (Ray Allen), a basketball phenom with Michael Jordan-like talent, to go to the Governor’s alma mater, Big State, then Jake will be released from prison early. Problem is, Jesus has been estranged from Jake since he went away, casually stating a few times to his friends and family that he “has no father.” Despite this, Jake is released from prison for one week (under strict supervision) to talk his son into going Big State.

For the next two hours, Lee’s film chronicles a tumultuous father and son rivalry, while detailing the highs and lows of a star on the rise. And after failing to convince Jesus to enroll in Big State, the two meet on an outdoor basketball court, where Jake proposes a finally hail Mary idea. One on one, father and son. If Jake wins, Jesus goes to Big State, if he loses, he’ll leave Jesus alone indefinitely. The terms are agreed upon and what follows is the most exhilarating six minutes of basketball ever captured on film.
The scene is filled with obvious metaphorical undertones – the teacher becomes the student, to the victor goes the spoils, and so on – but taking it at face value is worthy enough.

When the game begins, Jake is the obvious aggressor, outplaying his son with each passing point, his skill peaking at his impossible third basket, when he rolls the ball off his let forearm, before laying it up into the hoop. Slowly but surely, Jesus, who remains levelheaded and even-tempered throughout the game, as any serious athlete would, begins to wear Jake down, shooting everything and missing nearly nothing. And this is wear the scene really takes off.

As Jake grows increasingly fatigued, Copland’s music begins to perfectly emulate Jake’s sense of commitment, grief, and ultimate shame, while the cinematography’s oft-implored slow motion heightens the overall sentiment.

It’s difficult to articulate the emotion that is evoked from me during this scene. The appeal for forgiveness from Jake, for example, that’s suggested in lines like, “Everything you got you got from me,” is utterly heartbreaking. Or how I am inexplicably moved by the words, “I ain’t givin’ up, I’m teachin’, brother, I’m teachin’.”
Once Jake loses the game, and literally picks himself up off the floor, he holds his arms up in a final, devastating plea for understanding.  What follows is the moment that I want to draw particular attention to.

I am equipped with a particularly filthy mouth. Despite having an extensive vocabulary and healthy vernacular, I choose to curse, and curse often. Nothing is off limits, provided that no one is being offended. I say this because, I do not shy away from any spoken word, except what is commonly referred to as the “n” word. I don’t say it, I don’t sing it, I don’t like hearing it. I don’t tolerate it from friends who are trying to be funny or trying to “relate.” It’s a word that, quite simply, repulses me, which is what makes the final line of this scene so effective.

Standing defeated in the middle of the court, Jake looks at his son and tells him to, “Look out for yourself, look out for your sister. You ain’t gotta worry about me no more.” And then comes the most significant line of the film, and perhaps, the single best line of dialogue Spike Lee has ever written. “But you get that hatred out your heart, boy. Or you gonna end up just another n____. Like your father.”
Although Jesus’ facial expression doesn’t change, that line from his father clearly has an impact on him. (It should be noted that as Jesus, Ray Allen, then a rookie for the Milwaukee Bucks, delivers the best film performance by an athlete in the history of cinema.) As the camera gracefully tracks Jake walking away, he is soon forced to turn around and face his son directly; which is where, I think, Jesus finally accepts all that he and his father have been through. 

I strongly caution that only repeat viewers watch the scene provided below. To watch it without the context of the rest of the film would be a real shame. Much like Jesus, you may get it, but all the pieces will have yet to fall into place.


Fore more of My Favorite Scenes, click here.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

In Character: Shea Whigham

With his bug eyes, short stature, and uniquely raspy, southern drawl, Shea Whigham has asserted himself as one of the best, most revered character actors in contemporary film (in my world, at least).

Whigham has made a career playing hilarious and terrifying supporting characters (or, in some cases, both). Whether he’s starring in one of television’s most popular dramas, or appearing for roughly 20 seconds mumbling different variations for the word “whoa,” Whigham always stays imprinted in the viewers' mind.

Because of his appearance, Whigham typically manages to get a laugh from the audience, no matter what he’s doing. Fair enough, but for me, he’s gone from being “that guy” that’s popped up in various flicks, to an actor that will singlehandedly propel me to see a film. I love Shea Whigham, and here’s why you should too.

Five Essential Roles
All the Real Girls (2003)
Tip
In David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls, Paul (Paul Schneider), a self-described womanizer, falls for Noel (Zooey Deschanel), which his best friend (also Noel’s brother), Tip, doesn’t appreciate all too much.

As Tip, Whigham embodies all of the characteristics he’s come to be best known for. Initially, Tip is a kind, small-town bumpkin. He wears his jean jacket tight and his long hair high. But after Paul and Noel start dating, he goes from the envious buddy (envious of how often his friend gets laid), to the protective older brother. This lends itself to several tumultuous scenes, which ultimately helps the movie end how it must end.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (2009)
Justin
Whigham is in two very brief scenes of Werner Herzog’s mad-ass-crazy corrupt cop flick, the first of which steals the entire picture.  After slapping Eva Mendes around (off screen), Whigham is bum-rushed by Mendes’ cop boyfriend (played with miraculous mania by Nicolas Cage), who insults Whigham’s heritage. What follows is one of the most hilariously executed “monologues” of contemporary cinema. 

Whigham steps away from Cage and very calmly says: “Whoooa, whooa, whoa whoa whoa whoa, Terry. Whoa. Big mistake. Aw yeah. Whoa whoa whoa whoa. Big. Mistake. Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa…whoa. OH YEAH.”

I’m often criticized by my friends for not having an open enough sense of humor in regards to film. I don’t find funny movies funny, I’m often told. This is because most comedies (and virtually all sitcoms) try too hard for the joke, which, to me, detracts from the proposed humor. Whigham isn’t going for the joke here; he’s just a puny, whacked-out thug, talking in grunts. That, my friends, is comedy.

Boardwalk Empire (2010-present)
Sherriff Eli Thompson
Whigham has hit moderate acclaim as Steve Buscemi's ignorant, diminutive brother, Eli, in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. In season one, after Eli was shot while collecting money, his character took on a new emotional depth, far beyond the wimpy sidekick routine that the material had previously allowed.

But it was in season two that Eli was given his moment to shine. Plotting ruthlessly (and rather uselessly) against his brother, proved to be some of the most exciting moments in the series. What makes this work is that Eli is simply too dumb to know he’s being played. Played by his brother, by the guys looking to push his brother out – everyone.

Whigham is known for playing seemingly aloof characters, which is all well and good, considering how skillfully he plays them. But none are more effective than his Eli. “Ignorance is bliss,” certainly does not ring true here.

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)
Dwayne “DJ” Corliss
Appearing for a handful of scenes as a jailhouse snitch willing to lie on the stand for a modest payout, Whigham’s DJ is by far the best part of the completely decent Lincoln Lawyer. In fact, watching a relaxed, deadpan Whigman on the stand as he rats out Ryan Phillippe’s character, marks one of the best scenes of Whigman’s career.

“Are you incarcerated at this time?” Josh Lucas’ prosecuting attorney asks DJ. “Um… no, now I’m just in a courtroom.”

Later, when Matthew McConaughey accuses him of being a snitch, Whigham, with his insanely long sideburns and perfectly slicked-back hair, holds up his hands and replies, “People talk to me, I’m a friendly guy.”

DJ’s antics manage to get a few chuckles from the people in the courtroom, and they got even more from the people in the movie theater. I’d like to think his dialogue was improvised (“Uhhh 1989... I was high a lot, I can’t – I can’t recall much.”) but that could just be wishful thinking on my part.

Take Shelter (2011)
Dewart
Whigham isn’t in Jeff Nichols’ terrific thriller that much, but he’s an ever-effective voice of reason in the brief time he is on screen. As Dewart’s best friend, Curtis, slowly begins to lose his sanity, Dewart initially instills a sense of calm admiration, drunkenly complimenting Curtis on how “good” his life is.  Later, as Curtis begins to go off the rails at various construction sites the two work on, Dewart urges his friend (with genuinely pitiful concern) to seek help.

But perhaps it’s Dewart’s final scene, in which he publically accosts and physically attacks Curtis, that is his best. In his brief time in the film, Whigham goes from being a comforting presence, to a concerned friend, to a feared enemy.

Take Shelter contains many unsettling moments, mostly in the mind of Curtis’ subconscious. But in the film’s reality, I was never more afraid then during Dewart's attack on his friend. I had no idea what he was going to do next. It’s that kind of suspense that an actor, role permitting, should try to keep the audience locked into.

The Best of the Best
Tigerland (2000)
Private Wilson
From the onset of Joel Schumacher’s incredibly small, but no less brilliant, boot camp film, Pvt. Wilson has it out for Pvt. Roland Bozz (Colin Farrell). Wilson doesn’t like Bozz’s insubordination, his smooth charm, his intimidating intelligence, and so on. So, in his not-so-typical psychopathic repression, Wilson elects to do something about it.

In one scene, Wilson frantically attacks Bozz, then, after getting his ass kicked, calmly demands an apology. He’s the kind of PTSD-ridden soldier who identifies war as a drug. Problem is, he has yet to fight in any war. His war is in his head. We never find out why he is the way he is, but we fear Wilson every single moment he’s onscreen.

Late in the film, Wilson, during a training exercise, attempts to shoot Bozz at point blank range. The gun misfires. Wilson is sent home, everyone else is sent to Tigerland, an incredibly rigorous training facility. I won’t say how or under what circumstances, but know that Wilson does indeed show up again, the result of which is one of the most horrifying encapsulations of internal hell that I’ve ever seen.

Because Tigerland was such a low budget film, and because newcomer Farrell (justly) took most of its hype, I didn’t really take notice of Whigham until a few years ago. When I realized he was Pvt. Wilson, my respect for him as an actor increased tenfold. A great performance by one of the most versatile character actors in the game.

Other Notable Roles
In Wriscutters
Lords of Dogtown (2005)
First Snow (2006)
Wriscutters: A Love Story (2006)
Pride and Glory (2008)
Fast & Furious (2009)
Machete (2010)
The Conspirator (2011)

Previous installments of In Character include:
Viola Davis
Gary Oldman
David Morse
Michael Shannon
Emily Mortimer
John Hawkes
Jeffrey Wright
Elias Koteas
David Strathairn