Friday, December 30, 2011

In Character: Viola Davis

Viola Davis, the one scene wonder. She gets in, leaves her indelible mark, and gets out. And that’s pretty much the way it has been for Davis throughout her film career, she pops up for a scene or two, then leaves just as quickly as she arrived. The thing is, once she shows up, regardless of how long she’s around, she is impossible to forget. With such precious seconds of screentime, Viola Davis captivates in each and every one of them. And really, what more can you ask from a character actor?

Five Essential Roles
Law and Order: Criminal Intent - Badge (2002)
Sergeant Terry Randolph
Viola Davis is known for playing quiet, commanding characters, always looking to instill what’s right. Sgt. Terry Randolph is no such character. In her brief, one episode arc on Criminal Intent, Davis played an ex cop who kills people for money. And not just petty drug dealers and low level criminals, Randolph offs entire families just so she can put her adolescent kids through private school.

Two scenes in particular stand out from the episode: one allows Davis to unleash an educated monologue that rips the detective hunting her to shreds. She’s confident yet calm, and one hundred percent correct. The other scene is the moment Davis realizes she’s caught and lunges into a pathetic ploy for understanding. You haven’t witnessed desperation until you’ve observed a pleading Viola Davis.

Far From Heaven (2002)
As Sybil, the head maid of the Whitaker household, Davis isn’t given much to do in Far From Heaven, but when she’s onscreen, she’s effective as all hell.

In one subtly intense moment, Sybil informs Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) that the daughter of the black man Cathy has not-so secretly fallen for, has been brutally victimize. Without thinking, Cathy heads for the door. As she’s about to leave, Sybil asks her if she thinks Cathy is making the right decision. Sybil isn’t that direct (most black women weren’t in the ‘50s), but she gets her point across. The look on Davis’ face as Moore leaves the home is a perfect mixture of respect and foolishness; the rare voice of truth in the film.

World Trade Center (2006)
Mother in Hospital
As I’ve mentioned before in this column, the best part about Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center is the supporting performances. None better than Viola Davis, who in one minute and 50 seconds, achieves an emotional peak unmet by any of the film’s other characters.

While Maria Bello paces anxiously in a hospital waiting room, she begins talking with a woman whose son was an elevator operator in the south tower.  As their conversation develops, the anonymous woman admits that the last conversation she had with her son was a spiteful one, yelling at him for being late to dinner. And then, in a way only Viola Davis seems to know how, she slowly begins to crumble and break down, as if withering away in the middle of the hospital.  She knows she’s never going to see her son again, but she’s there anyway. It’s as authentic a moment as anything you’re likely to find in a film based on 9/11. Utterly devastating.

Doubt (2008)
Mrs. Miller
John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt isn’t a very good movie, but the four core performances all justify their respective Oscar nominations. Meryl Streep, Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman dominate the majority of the screentime, but again, it’s Viola Davis who steals the show.

In her single scene, Davis portrays the mother of a boy who may have been sexually abused. She’s at first confused, then scared, then angry. She’s not angry at the suspected pedophilic priest, mind you, but rather at the nun relaying the information. She begs and pleads that Sister Aloysius keep her mouth shut about the alleged abuse. If word spreads, the boy may not only fail to graduate, but he may be in physical danger at the hands of his biological father.

So what we have is the mother of a victimized son, begging for silence. She blames her son, she blames the nun, she blames herself, she blames her husband; she blames everyone except who is to blame. It’s a phenomenal emotional arc, achieved in just over seven minutes. Where was her Oscar?

The Help (2011)
Aibileen Clark
I’ve been a rather outspoken critic of The Help since its release. In fact, just recently I called it the most overrated film of 2011. But while the film is directed as nothing more than a glorified Hallmark movie, I’ve given just credit to some of the performances from the get-go, namely Jessica Chastain and Viola Davis. Without those two performances, the film would’ve been a total wash.

I honestly enjoy that way Davis plays Aibileen. She’s stern with strong morals; a woman beyond her time, finally ready to speak out.  Again, while this character could’ve benefited much better from a more fleshed out script, I think you can expect Davis’ name to be called come Oscar night. Credit owed where credit is due.

The Best of the Best
Antwone Fisher (2002)
Eva May
I’ve talked a lot about how Davis has made a career out of achieving greatness in just one scene, a notion that is epitomized in her performance as the mother of the titular character in Denzel Washington’s Antwone Fisher.

Antwone Fisher, for reasons I will explain fully a couple of days from now, is a truly great film. It’s a film about the hardships of remembering, and the catharsis of forgiving. It’s also, more or less, about a search, and how what you’re looking for is usually great, until you actually find it.

So when Antwone Fisher (played flawlessly by Derek Luke) finally meets his birth mother, Eva May, he’s given a reaction that is heartbreakingly unexpected.  When he introduces himself to Eva, she takes off down a hallway, running into the living room. Running, as she has her entire life.

What follows is a perfectly timed, immaculately articulated, and faultlessly played scene between Luke and Davis. Luke goes into a brief, inspired monologue about how proud he is of the man he’s become, and how she deserves none of the credit. Davis, very wisely, says nothing. Her words are exchanged in her shifting shoulders, her grimaced face, and her slow, harden tears.

In his director’s commentary for the film, Washington says that they filmed that scene in just one day. Davis stayed in character the whole time, and when the scene was done, she went to her trailer, changed, then left the set without telling anyone. That’s interesting. I’d be curious to know more. But, for now, I’m fine with letting Davis’ face do the talking.

Other Notable Roles
In Solaris
Traffic (2000)
Solaris (2002)
Syriana (2005)
Disturbia (2007)
State of Play (2009)
United States of Tara (2010)
Eat Pray Love (2010)
Trust (2011)
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)

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

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy begins with a moderately thrilling covert spy mission gone awry, the details of which are left hazy and unexplained, which is a fairly accurate way to describe the film in general. Purposefully paced and laboriously detailed, Tinker Tailor is a film that doesn’t concern itself with the often-useless art of explanation; its heart is in the captivation. Blink here or lose attention there, and you’re likely to be gone.

Usually, this is precisely my kind of film, one that tells its story with zero exposition, a curvy narrative and is backed by stellar performances. Tinker Tailor, however, never managed to grab me the way most moody thrillers do. I kept hoping it would be more like Syriana, not a somewhat more accomplished Good Sheppard.

Best to start with the film’s plot, which was by far its most lacking aspect.

After Agent Prideaux (Mark Strong) is killed in the aforementioned mission, the leader of the super-secret spy organization he worked for, who is known only as Control (John Hurt) is forced out, along with his right hand man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman). After Control passes away, Smiley is recruited by a British official to find a mole within his old organization. If it seems like I’m skimming on details, well, it isn’t from lack of trying. The truth is, I didn’t really have a clue what was happening during extended sequences in the film. The British official that hires Smiley – no idea who he was… an aide for the Prime Minister, maybe. The good looking guy who shows up with details on who the mole is – no idea how he knows what he knows.

All of this, mind you, is done on purpose. Director Tomas Alfredson (who directed the similarly paced Let the Right One In) is interested in throwing you directly into this back-alley world, causing you to play catch-up. Problem is, when there’s this much catching up to do, one can lose interest rather quickly.
I’m being a little too harsh. While Tinker Tailor has its plot faults, damn near everything else about it is executed seamlessly. The film’s moody, grey look suits the material exceptionally well, while the assembled cast is a who’s-who of talented British characters actors including Strong, Hurt, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Firth, Simon McBurney, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, and the man himself, Gary Oldman.

I am a huge admirer of Gary Oldman’s, and it is great to see him headline a film at this stage of his career, but I must admit – with subtle heartbreak –  that the film simply doesn’t live up to the standards Oldman has set for himself. Don’t get me wrong, Oldman is perfect as Smiley, but the material gives him nothing to do. In short, I now see why Oldman is being left off of award’s shortlists. (Point in fact, I'm not entirely sure I would add George Smiley to Oldman's most essential roles.)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a film that would benefit greatly from multiple viewings, I just simply don’t have the need to. Dark, subtle and moody are typically my game, but now that I’ve let the film digest for a few days, no lasting impressions remain. B-

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Artist

You know what it takes to make a silent black and white film, shot in standard aspect ratio, set in the 1920s, starring no one you’ve ever heard of? Balls the size of Gibraltar, and an immense amount of talent. The former I can only assume French director Michel Hazanavicius has, the latter, however, is obvious, given what is conveyed in his somewhat miraculous The Artist.

In 1927, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the hottest movie star in Hollywood. Everything he does – his acting, his dancing, his B-movie swashbuckling – is gold. The man simply cannot miss. And on top of it all, he seems genuinely nice and appropriately proud of what he does; none of the arrogant, megalomania movie star nonsense that so littered the time period (and, still does, to a degree).

After the premiere of his most recent film, he quite literally bumps into Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) an unassuming nobody who is suddenly thrust into the limelight after her chance encounter with George. Two years later, both people have lived a reversal of fortune. Refusing to jump on the talkie bandwagon, George casts himself into angst-ridden retirement, while Peppy becomes the hottest young actress in town. The two maintain a touch-and-go friendship while George crumbles and Peppy soars.

Now, the most prominent aspect of The Artist is obviously the simplicity in which its story is told. I don’t know the exact number of years, but The Artist is easily the most acclaimed silent film that’s been released in decades. It’s a feat that deserves specific recognition, considering that, in today’s world of mindlessly successful action blockbusters, silent films have more going against them any other genre.
To make a silent film work, a few things are needed that may not seem as fundamental in a talking picture. Music is one, production design is another, not to mention a captivating story, dynamic actors and a fresh take on an ancient method. The Artist has all of them, from Ludovic Bource’s insanely catchy rat-a-tat-tat score, to Guillaume Schiffman’s gorgeously fluid camera, to Laurence Bennett’s plush feel; everything excels where it needs to excel, which brings me to the film’s two anchors.

I’ve never seen, nor heard of, French actor Jean Dujardin and Argentinian actress Bérénice Bejo, and I'm honestly thankful that I was unfamiliar with them. In George’s case specifically, we benefit greatly from not knowing what the real man sounds like. The fact that he is convinced wholeheartedly that America has virtually no interest in hearing his voice is utterly heartbreaking, a quality Dujardin conveys with electric energy.  George is a demanding role, both physically and emotionally, and I do not care to find a single fault in Dujardin’s performance. In short, he deserves every bit of praise that’s currently being floated his way.

Likewise, and perhaps more so, Bérénice Bejo, who plays Peppy with a refreshing, unapologetic kindness that is stunningly whimsical. Bejo, who is married to Hazanavicius in real life, has eyes that speak more words than most actors can say in five movies. She is, in a word, flawless.
Now, all praise aside, it must be said that I do not consider The Artist a perfect film. It is accomplished, there’s no arguing that, but it has its faults. The primary one is its pacing and runtime. According to IMDb, the film is 100 minutes long, which is interesting, because it felt much longer than that. I can’t say that there were scenes that were expendable, but after an hour and a half, I found myself ready to move on. This isn’t because I’m not a fan of silent films, in fact, I’m a great admirer of them, I simply felt the story could’ve been played out a little faster.

Don’t let these minor burdens detract you from the fact that The Artist will surely be among the most nominated films for this year’s Oscars. In fact, months ago, I predicted it would win Picture, Director, and Actor (might as well throw Supporting Actress in the mix as well). Bold predications, but ones I currently stand by.

One final thing: about 20 minutes into the film, I correctly predicting its ending. Usually, I find this to be a fault of the movie, but when an ending is this satisfactory, how can one complain? B+

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Dangerous Method

Creating a movie based on the tumultuous relationship between the two most famous shrinks of all time, starring two of the best contemporary actors around, helmed by a director of great, unique vision should’ve been gold. Sadly, David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method is leftover coal from a bully's stocking. It’s a series of barely linked, misguided scenes that run on about as long as the first sentence of this review.

I know where things go wrong in the film, but I’d be very interested to know if this final result is the product Cronenberg was looking for, as it is his weakest film since, hell… M. Butterfly?  A shame, given the talent that was available to him.

A Dangerous Method tells the story of how Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), pioneered a psychological practice initially implemented by his mentor, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). Jung thought it a noble idea to sit a patient down, and let him or her simply talk. Hopefully, Freud envisioned, their talking would be a sort of catharsis, which was a success, given that that is the basic principle of psychoanalysis as it is today.

But the film is also about Jung’s affair with his once horribly disturbed, Russian-Jew patient, Sabina (Keira Knightley), and how he helped cure her, in part, by living out sexual fantasies she had of her father.

But the film is also about Freud and Jung’s initial father/son kinship, and how it grew into a spiteful mess.  But the film is also about Jung’s bland relationship with his tired wife, Emma. Oh, and Vincent Cassel shows up for a handful of scenes as a sex-crazed psychologist (I think), who helps convince Jung that it’s okay to bone one of his patients.

So, basically, A Dangerous Method is about a lot of things, yet it executes none of them well. Equal time is given to each subplot, when the film would be far better off just sticking with the most riveting segments (those involving Jung and Sabina, and Jung and Freud). Had Cronenberg and Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher Hampton slimmed their scale, we could be dealing with a far better film.

Fassbender, Mortensen, and Knightley are all great, no question, but they’re given next to nothing to work with. Endless amounts of intangible dialogue that result to a horribly anticlimactic third act. Even the few love scenes between Fassbender and Knightley are unerotic and stiff, and not in a good way.

After taking five years off following his great Eastern Promises and his masterful A History of Violence, I had high hopes for Cronenberg’s new venture. Maybe his next flick, Cosmospolis, starring Robert Pattinson, will be a return to form. Or, given the star, maybe not. C-

Sunday, December 25, 2011

We Bought a Zoo

Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo is by far the most egregious waste of time you can spend this holiday season, in a movie theater, that is. It’s overly long, incredibly boring, laughably acted, and just all around inexpertly staged. It’s didactic to the point of nausea; possibly suitable for grandma, but useless to most anyone who gets a basic enjoyment out of movies.

The film tells the (kind of) true story of Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) who after losing his wife to cancer, quits his job (look, a Jerry Maguire moment!), and moves his playful young daughter and rebellious teenage son away from their quaint little town to a farmhouse far out in the country. When Benjamin purchases his new home, you see, he inherits a medium-sized zoo, its animals, its few employees, and so on.

Benjamin thinks the idea of buying a zoo sounds like a fresh start, so he spends his life savings getting the zoo ready for its seasonal grand opening. This includes countless, endless, laborious, painstakingly long scenes of Benjamin and Co. getting into Capra-esque hiccups, such as letting hundreds of snakes out of their box, talking a lion (or was it a tiger?... hell if I care to remember) off of a rock, arguing with teenage angst, dodging flirts from the head zoo worker, and, worst among them, trying to get the zoo approved and licensed by a cartoon caricature of a “villain” (played with shameful indifference by John Michael Higgins, an often humorous character actor).

Look, the holidays are all about coming together and, if not only for a moment, forgetting the baggage and past regrets and simply enjoying time with your family. I get that. And, as mentioned, if you’re looking for a cinematic outing that the whole family can partake in, then I’m sure We Bought a Zoo will do just fine. But seriously, what the hell kind of recommendation is that? If I were a major film critic, my quote for submission to be tagged on this film’s movie poster may be something like: “The Least Offensive Film of the Holiday Season!”

In short, We Bought a Zoo’s heart is in the right place, but so was the heart of Crowe’s last film, the equally disastrous Elizabethtown.

I saw We Bought a Zoo when it screened for one night, the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The sold out theater was packed with families eager to enjoy a film together; basically, the film’s target audience. So when the scene in which Damon engages in an extended argument with his onscreen son occured, it doesn’t speak very favorably of the film to note that the majority of those in attendance were laughing audibly. What was happening on screen was not meant to be funny, but god was it ever. D

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Expectations are deadly, and hype is killer. You can try to tone it down and forget what you know, but no matter your level of denial, if you’ve seen the Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, you’re bound to compare it to David Fincher’s new undertaking.

Many didn’t see the Noomi Rapace-starring original but many have read Stieg Larsson’s impossibly popular novel on which it is based. Me? I saw the original film last year, then read the book. Then I saw the other two films and left their respective novels unread. So basically, my knowledge of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a scattered mindfuck that I can’t exactly articulate into coherent sentences.  Lucky for me (and for you) Fincher’s new flick lays it all out in a way that is sleek, daring and ungodly refreshing.

Necessary plot explanation: the film tells the story of shamed journalist Mikael Blomkvist, who after being convicted for libeling a crooked businessman, is hired by the head of the incredibly wealthy Vanger family to find out who killed a young Vanger girl 40 years ago. During this, the film cross-cuts Blomkvist’s story with Lisbeth Salander’s, a goth punk badass hacker with a photographic memory and zero tolerance for bullshit. Soon enough, through a set of unusual circumstances, Blomkvist and Salander are working together on the Vanger case, and we’re off and running.

The plot, while easy enough to crudely summarize in a paragraph, is maddeningly intricate. There are dozens of Vanger family members to keep track of, and limitless names to recall, not too mention the Blomkvist/Salander storylines to pull apart. So instead of picking and prodding, let’s get to the good stuff, shall we?
David Fincher, once again, has pulled off a bit of a miracle. He’s made the serial killer film interesting again (twice), made computer coding and depositions enthralling, and now he takes a beloved piece of modern literature and puts his own unique stamp of brilliance on it. The result is a film that is perfectly in tune in look, feel, sound, design; you name it. Much like his seamless Social Network (aka, the movie that should’ve won him a Best Director Oscar), The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is appropriately dark yet undeniably alive.

You can credit much of this to Daniel Craig, who, as Blomkvist, is as good as he’s ever been – like James Bond, minus the attitude, and real. But honestly, Larsson’s material is for (and propelled by) Lisbeth, and goddamn if Rooney Mara doesn’t deliver.  What Mara does here is, in a word, revelatory. Aside from her three brief, vivid scenes in The Social Network, Mara’s filmography has been limited to girl-next-door sidekicks, which she should now feel free to give a middle finger to, as her career is about to drastically change.

Last year, I boldly said that Noomi Rapace’s portrayal of Lisbeth Salander was the best female acting performance of the year. (To be fair, Rapace was afforded to flesh Lisbeth out over three films, but looking only at the first film, I stand by my statement.) Needless to say, I didn’t think Mara could pull it off.  And, in a way, she doesn’t.  Mara isn’t impersonating Rapace’s performance, she’s putting her own spin on it. There are a lot of similarities between the two but, like the movies themselves, there are radical differences that make them stand apart.
One in particular that I found most welcoming in Fincher’s version was the subtle, gentle kinship that forms between Craig’s Blomkvist and Mara’s Salander. This would fail miserably if the actors’ chemistry wasn’t as flawless as it is, so to say their work together merely succeeds is one of the grandest understatements in movies released this year.

If you’re completely new to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (and oh how lucky you are), then know that this is a rough film based on rough material. The film's tagline, “The Feel Bad Movie of Christmas,” is accurate. We’re dealing with some seedy, deranged people who live disturbed lives. Many may not like the film’s ending (I’m not sure how I feel about it either), but if Fincher gets what he wants and is able to create two sequels, then we’re looking at one hell of an intensely sinister franchise, anchored by a ferocious leading lady, who may, by the end of this, prove to be as good as they get. A-

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Young Adult

This year may as well be dubbed the year of great female performances in otherwise mediocre films.  Viola Davis (and Jessica Chastain) in The Help, Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn, Shailene Woodley in The Descendants, Anjelica Huston in 50/50 and, if early reviews are any indication, Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady and Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs.

Okay, to be fair, a good number of these films surpass mediocrity, but the point I’m trying to make is that all of these performances far exceed the movies they are in. And that’s a pretty accurate way to describe Charlize Theron’s flawless work in Jason Reitman’s good film, Young Adult.

Mavis Gary is a complete and utter bitch, a label that is self-described and shared by others all the same. She’s crude, manipulative, beyond selfish, and only interested in getting whatever she wants whenever she wants it, which, for the film’s purposes, is her high school flame, Buddy.

When Mavis, who makes a living as a successful ghost writer for a popular young adult book series, finds out that Buddy is a recent father, she leaves Minneapolis for a self-imposed reunion in the small Minnesota town where she grew up. Once in town, she stops at nothing to win Buddy’s heart back; lying, drinking, wheeling and dealing her way though sneakily vicious encounter after sneakily vicious encounter.

Mavis, you see, is completely delusional. There were a few times during the film when I seriously questioned her sanity. She’s obviously psychologically unwell, but her honest delusions of grandeur come off, at times, as wildly schizophrenic. This isn’t a fault of the film, mind you, simply because there is a heavy-hitting ass kicker at the helm.

As Mavis, Charlize Theron delivers her best performance since Monster, which is to say, the second best performance she’s ever done.  Mavis is a character that is so far beyond the point of redemption, that it makes it impossible to not appreciate Theron’s work a great deal. It’s a huge risk – taking on a character that no one is expected to like, but Theron nails it with bewildered gusto.  There are many scenes I could discuss in praise of the performance, but one that must be mentioned is Mavis’ inevitable public flip out. We’ve seen this scene a hundred times, but the way Theron plays it is honestly unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Anything less than an Oscar nomination would be insulting.
Young Adult, it must be said, is the best thing Diablo Cody has ever written. Although she (undeservedly, in my opinion) won an Oscar for her Juno screenplay, her witty banter has never suited her characters better than it does in Young Adult. The dialogue she provides Theron, as well as Patton Oswalt (as Mavis' unlikely friend), and Patrick Wilson (as the innocent Buddy), works perfectly.

Now, while Theron’s performance should be more than enough to get you in the theater, it is far more accomplished than the film itself. Jason Reitman knows how to make good movies; he’s done it twice, with Thank You For Smoking and Juno, and achieved greatness once, with Up in the Air.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with Young Adult, but it is a film that relies solely on its lead performance to hold your interest. I saw the movie two days ago and cannot think to comment on its score, cinematography, production design, etc. It’s a good film, but no match for its leading lady’s wit. B

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

In my Tower Heist review last month, I bitched and moaned at great lengths about the current state of film criticism. I griped (via inspiration from Owen Gleiberman’s essay) that action films are mostly being judged on the It is what it is model. This way of thinking is, to me, incredibly dangerous. No need to go over why (again), but while watching the latest installment of Mission: Impossible, it was precisely that way of thinking that allowed me to defend the movie in my head.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (the forth in the series) isn’t a game-changer, but then again, it isn’t really trying to be. Its plot is uselessly complicated yet laughably clichéd (there are evil Russians, nukes, and… well, need I say more?), its acting is mostly phoned in and its action is long, loud and frequently exciting. In short, it’s exactly what you’d expect from a Mission: Impossible film.

Now, how is this different from Tower Heist, or, say any of the Transformers films? Why can’t I simply take them for what they are and enjoy them? Because Tower Heist and the Transformers movies are crap. Plain and simple. They’re dumb, obnoxious and more or less incomprehensible. They lack exactly what Mission: Impossible has a great deal of: fun.

There’s something undeniably fun about watching a past-his-prime Tom Cruise scale down and up and around the tallest building in the world, or Jeremy Renner flexing his shit in designer suits, looking all badass and ready to hop-to. It’s amusing to see a chase scene (because every M: I film must have a chase scene) flipped on its head by adding a very thick cloud of sand. Basically, Mission: Impossible is straightforward fun. Sure, the IMAX experience probably helped fuel my joy, but massive screen or not, I had a good time with it.

Now, don’t take my praise as exaggerated – the movie has many many problems. I stopped paying attention to its mindless expository dialogue about halfway through, and hoped the film could entertain me enough with its stunts to make for a useful experience (it did). Tom Cruise is past the point of “so bad he’s good,” because the dude is just plain bad, and the final fight scene is a never-ending bore that’ll have you looking at your watch.

To summize: if you want to spend your $10+ on a perfectly decent action film (or, if you want to take a break from the heavy-handed Oscar bait), Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is perfectly suited for you. Your money and time are well spent, and you can get on with the rest of your day and never have to think of it again; because afterall, it is what it is. B-

Thursday, December 15, 2011

In Character: Gary Oldman

It’s difficult for me to label Gary Oldman as a character actor. The man is so talented and broad, that I have a hard time believing people when they tell me they don’t know who he is.  If that is the case, if Oldman honestly remains unknown to people, then he very well may be the best character actor that’s ever lived.

Everyone has seen a Gary Oldman performance. The trick is: you may not have known who you were watching. The thugged-out pimp from True Romance is also the Russian terrorist from Air Force One. The same guy that played Dracula so convincingly also (maybe) killed JFK.

My point is, Gary Oldman is the ultimate chameleon; he transforms himself (in look, style, voice, whatever) in every single role he does.  Picking six best performances of Oldman’s is nearly impossible, and I’m sure his current role in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will rank high among his best work. So instead of letting that film be thrown into the mix, I’m publishing this before I’ve seen Tinker Tailor.

After the first few installments of In Character, suggestions for possible actors to highlight came pouring in. Gary Oldman was always at the top of everyone’s list.

Here’s why.

Five Essential Roles
Sid and Nancy (1986)
Sid Vicious
For his first starring role, Gary Oldman played Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious in a way the biopic had never seen: as a frenzied, unapologetic madman. I’ve seen heroin addiction depicted to varying degrees of gruesomeness on film, but rarely have I seen it pushed as far as Oldman goes here. Watching Sid and Nancy is like watching an HBO documentary on the Sex Pistols; it feels that real.

Sid and Nancy isn’t a great film. For me, its flaws are noticeable and noteworthy. While it may not rank among the best biopics made, director Alex Cox took a huge risk in casting relative unknown Oldman in the lead role. And thank God he did, because without Sid Vicious, we may not have had what was to follow.

JFK (1991)
Lee Harvey Oswald
I’ve never seen the real Lee Harvey Oswald in motion. I’ve never heard him speak or proclaim his innocence. I’ve only seen a few still images of him after he was arrested for killing the 35th President of the United States. If I were to see or hear Oswald, however, I’d like to think that Gary Oldman’s incarnation of him is spot on.

In Oliver Stone’s masterpiece, Oldman plays Oswald as timid rat. A guy who has just committed our country’s greatest crime, yet chooses to act coy about it. Why? Because according to Oswald, he’s innocent. A front man for a much larger, much more complex scheme that landed JFK dead.

Equally as thrilling as Oldman’s early, mousey scenes are the flashback sequences that occur later in the film, depicting Oswald as a one of the many masterminds in the assassination. It’s a credit to Stone’s storytelling, and Oldman's reimaging, that the film’s complicated story plays out as seamlessly as it does. For instance, we flinch as we watch Oswald before the killing, almost wishing that he wasn’t dumb enough to see that the rug is about to be pulled out from under him. And boy was it ever.

True Romance (1993)
Drexl Spivey
I could make a very effortless, very convincing argument that Oldman’s six minutes of screentime in True Romance represent the best acting of his career. And if I write about it much longer, that just may happen.

As the ghetto-talking, dreadlock-sporting, Chinese-eating pimp Drexl Spivey, Oldman is a foul-mouthed force of nature. He’s funny, ferocious, and completely unpredictable. By donning a leopard skin robe, gold teeth and a scarred face, it would be incredibly easy to play Drexl as a stereotypical thug. But Oldman, with help from Tony Scott’s direction and Quentin Tarantino’s writing, knows what he’s doing. He pushes the role far, but not so far as to become laughable.

In a movie filled with excellent cameo appearances, Oldman ranks highest among them. It’s the mark of a truly great character actor: get in, get out, stay remembered.

Murder in the First (1995)
Milton Glenn
When I was 11 years old, I saw a movie that horrified me beyond words. Nightmares were had, mild panic attacks occurred; I was scared in ways I never had been. By that point in my life, I had seen the supposed scariest movies of all time, the Halloweens and Exorcists, but Murder in the First terrified me in ways I still cannot fully articulate.  Know why? Gary fucking Oldman.

Murder on the First is loosely based on the life of convict Henri Young (Kevin Bacon), who in the mid 1930s tried to escape from Alcatraz with a few other inmates. The standard punishment for trying to escape was 19 days in solitary confinement. Young, the film depicts, was left to rot in the hole for more than three years. That should be punishment enough. Should be. Enter Oldman.

As Alcatraz’s Warden, Oldman is a sadistic madman with no real motive, only vengeful lust. He treats Young as his play toy, chaining him up and beating him unconscious whenever he feels like it. As Glenn, Oldman makes Bob Gunton’s Warden in The Shawshank Redemption look like a cabbage patch kid. While shaving one day, Warden Glenn has the urge to teach Young some discipline. What follows is a convincing, detailed argument about the practicalities of rehabilitation. The conversation seems to resonate with Young, but just to be sure, Glenn slices the prisoner’s Achilles tendon with his straight razor.

Murder in the First isn’t a very good movie. It has the stamp of a seriously amateur filmmaker, and as a result, it was moved from its Oscar-friendly December release date to January purgatory. That’s a shame, because while the film isn’t particular great, Oldman (and Bacon) are great in it.

Oldman’s Warden Glenn gave me months worth of nightmares, buckets worth of cold sweats, and a lifetime of appreciation. Sadistic though he may be, this is truly great acting.

The Dark Knight (2008)
Lt. Jim Gordon
It’s funny, the first time I saw Batman Begins, I had no idea that the good-natured cop was being played by Gary Oldman. Once it clicked, I kept waiting for Officer Gordon to do something horrible.  When you’re known for playing heroin addicts and psychopathic killers and presidential assassins, expecting the bad is only natural.

And it is this mentality that makes Lt. Jim Gordon such a memorable character. Oldman wasn’t given much to do in Christopher Nolan’s first Batman retelling, it was later in The Dark Knight that Gordon was given his fair due.

Oldman plays Gordon as an incorruptible, grounded man, a perfect juxtaposition from the other manic cast of characters in Nolan’s Batman films.  Let me put it this way: it’s pretty rare for a movie theater audience to cheer aloud during a super hero film at something that has nothing to do with the super hero. But when Gordon (who is assumed dead) rips off his SWAT mask after pinning The Joker on the asphalt, that’s about all we can do.

The Best of the Best
The Contender (2000)
Shelly Runyon
When you talk about the best Gary Oldman performances, you end up talking about a lot of slimy, ruthless men, none better than Shelly Runyon, a Congressman who is as callous as they come.

After the Vice President dies, Democratic President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) proposes that Democratic Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) takes the job. Before that can happen, she must meet the approval of a committee led by Republican Congressman Shelly Runyon. Problem is, Runyon doesn’t like Hansen. He doesn’t like her liberal politics, her no-meat eating habits, her cool demeanor, and so on. So basically, Runyon stops at nothing to discredit Hanson, revealing a spineless snake of a man interested in nothing more than a little political gain. He’s like Daniel Plainview, but instead of oil, Runyon’s thirst for greed lies in politics.

If you’ve seen The Contender, you know some of the things Runyon does to attack Hanson, both publically and privately. You know about the lies he starts, the rumors he spreads and the relationships he rips apart.  And you also know that he does this with gleeful joy. And that’s where the beauty of Oldman’s performance lies. Runyon is fully aware of what he is doing (the man is obviously extremely intelligent), and he only seems prouder in himself for doing it so well.

The Contender was grossly underrated and save Oscar nominations for Allen and Bridges, it was inadequately received among critics and audiences. It’s a shame that Oldman got into a bit of a pissing match with director Rod Lurie and the studio (Oldman wanted to be campaigned for Best Actor, the studio pushed for Supporting, Oldman received nothing), because Shelly Runyon would’ve been the perfect performance to boast as Oldman’s first Oscar nomination. The fact that he has yet to receive one is simply mind boggling.

There’s a scene late in the film in which President Evans publicly calls Runyon out in front of hundreds of people. As Evans does this, Runyon slowly stands up and begins to slither out of the room. Slithering in that perfect way that only Gary Oldman seems capable of doing.

Other Notable Roles
In Hannibal
State of Grace (1990)
Dracula (1992)
Leon: The Professional (1994)
Immortal Beloved (1994)
Basquiat (1996)
The Fifth Element (1997)
Air Force One (1997)
Hannibal (2001)
Batman Begins (2005)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

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

Golden Globes Nominations: Better, but Not Great

The minute I saw the Screen Actors Guild nominations yesterday, I tweeted that the Golden Globe shortlist would be infinitely better. (To be fair, how could it not?) Yet despite a mild surge in correctness, the Globe nominations, in my mind, don’t fully reflect the greatness that the films of 2011 bestowed on us.

For the record: I detest the Golden Globes. It is basically 90 people voting on the movie and performance that has the most hype at that given time. However, with Ricky Gervais at the helm yet again, you can expect one goddamn hell of a show.

Best Picture: Drama
The Descendants
The Help
The Ides of March
War Horse
The older I get, the less I care about Best Picture. I think the award is often about hype and campaigning more than anything else. My point is, aside from Hugo, none of these films will be on my Top 10 (or 15) list of the year. These nominees don’t surprise me, as they are all extremely safe.

Best Director
Woody Allen – Midnight in Paris
George Clooney – The Ides of March
Michel Hazanavicius – The Artist
Alexander Payne – The Descendants
Martin Scorsese – Hugo
Woody Allen is a nice surprise, while Clooney is a huge shock. Definitely thought Spielberg would’ve gotten a spot here. Or Nicolas Winding Refn. Or Steve McQueen. I can dream, can’t I?

Best Actor: Drama
George Clooney – The Descendants
Leonardo DiCaprio – J. Edgar
Jean Dujardin – The Artist
Michael Fassbender – Shame
Ryan Gosling – The Ides of March
And here it is, the category that instantly discredits the absurdity of the SAG awards this year. With the nominations of Fassbender and Gosling, validation (however so slight), has been issued. Look, I know they have no chance at winning, but to see them earn an Oscar nomination would be incredible. Here’s to seriously hoping their nominations here can generate the proper amount of buzz.

Also... so, is Gary Oldman officially out?

Best Actress: Drama
Glenn Close – Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis – The Help
Rooney Mara – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Meryl Streep – The Iron Lady
Tilda Swinton – We Need To Talk About Kevin
Rooney. Mara. Oh how I love that she is here, and I haven’t even seen the damn film yet. Again, she’ll never win (this is Davis’ or Streep’s), but the recognition is nice.

Best Picture: Comedy
The Artist
Midnight in Paris
My Week with Marilyn
I don’t remember 50/50 being very funny (or very good), but no matter, The Artist will win this without breaking a sweat.

Best Actor: Comedy
Jean Dujardin – The Artist
Brendan Gleeson – The Guard
Joseph Gordon-Levitt – 50/50
Ryan Gosling – Crazy, Stupid, Love
Owen Wilson – Midnight in Paris
Gosling was the only worthy part of Crazy, Stupid, Love, so it’s nice to see him here (and as the only double acting nominee of the lot). Also, Gleeson – what a nice treat. Still, Dujardin’s for the taking.

Best Actress: Comedy
Jodie Foster - Carnage
Charlize Theron – Young Adult
Kristen Wiig – Bridesmaids
Michelle Williams – My Week with Marilyn
Kate Winslet – Carnage
Nothing negative to say. Can’t wait to see Young Adult and Carnage.

Best Supporting Actor
Kenneth Branagh – My Week with Marilyn
Albert Brooks – Drive
Jonah Hill – Moneyball
Viggo Mortensen – A Dangerous Method
Christopher Plummer – Beginners
The good: Albert Brooks. The bad: no Ben Kingsley, which I just don’t get it. Kingsley did inarguable wonders in Hugo. I am at a complete loss as to why his performance is being overlooked.

Best Supporting Actress
Bérénice Bejo – The Artist
Jessica Chastain – The Help
Janet McTeer- Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer – The Help
Shailene Woodley – The Descendants
The good: Shailene Woodley. The bad: no Carey Mulligan. Love that Chastain is being recognized (as she was really, to me, the only worthy part of a lame film). But Mulligan deserves to be here.

You can check out the full list of Golden Globe nominees here, but what does everything think… are the Globes a step up from the SAGs? Who (or what) do you most want to see nominated come Oscar time?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Screen Actors Guild Nominations: Snubs Abound

As I sit in my office at work, I’m staring dumbfounded at my computer screen. Moments ago, the Screen Actors Guild announced their nominations for their 2011 awards, and I find myself at a complete loss - not by what was left in, but by what was left out.

I understand the whole awards conundrum: you can only nominate five, which, in years like this one, can be extremely difficult. But still, the omissions from the SAG shortlist are startling. If the Oscar nominations look at all like this, I will be very displeased.

Male Actor in a Leading Role
Demián Bichir – A Better Life
George Clooney – The Descendants
Leonardo DiCaprio – J. Edgar
Jean Dujardin – The Artist
Brad Pitt – Moneyball
I was a very early champion for Bichir’s performance in A Better Life, and I am extremely happy to see it here. Likewise Leonardo DiCaprio, who did the best he could with very weak material. But are they better than Michael Fassbender (Shame), Ryan Gosling (Drive), or Michael Shannon (Take Shelter)? No, they simply are not. Maybe those three films (also, add Woody Harrelson’s Rampart performance into the mix) are stuck in films that are too different for voters.

Also, no Gary Oldman?

Female Actor in a Leading Role
Glenn Close – Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis – The Help
Meryl Streep – The Iron Lady
Tilda Swinton – We Need To Talk About Kevin
Michelle Williams – My Week with Marilyn
Everything here seems on the up and up, but no Charlize Theron surprises me. I haven’t seen Albert Nobbs, but I assumed Theron (or Elizabeth Olsen for her MMMM performance) would take Glenn Close’s spot.

Male Actor in a Supporting Role
Kenneth Branagh – My Week with Marilyn
Armie Hammer – J. Edgar
Jonah Hill – Moneyball
Nick Nolte – Warrior
Christopher Plummer – Beginners
By far the most egregious offense committed by the Screen Actors Guild was its failure to nominate Albert Brooks for his revelatory performance in Drive.  Bernie Ross was a vengeful force of nature, and to say Jonah Hill did a better acting job than Albert Brooks is imply laughable. Also, replace Hammer with John Hawkes.

UPDATE: It was recently brought to my attention that I failed to acknowledge SAGs colossal screw up of leaving Ben Kingsley's Hugo performance off this list. Kingsley delivered the best supporting actor performance I've seen this year. The fact that he is not here is, again, baffling.

Female Actor in a Supporting Role
Bérénice Bejo – The Artist
Jessica Chastain – The Help
Melissa McCarthy – Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer- Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer – The Help
Two huge snubs here: Carey Mulligan (for Drive or preferably Shame), and more obviously, Shailene Woodley for The Descendants. I suppose I can understand why Mulligan didn’t make the list (both films may prove to be too dark for serious award’s attention), but Woodley stole the show in Alexander Payne’s film. Give her Spencer’s nod.

Cast in a Motion Picture
The Artist
The Descendants
The Help
Midnight in Paris

This is a pretty weak category this year. I have nothing to gripe about, but the only film I’d like to not win, probably will.

See the full list of nominations here, including the ones for TV, which I don’t really care about (except Friday Night Lights – clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose).

What are SAGs biggest snubs in your book? Do you think SAG nominations will reflect the Oscars?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Into the Abyss

One of the best courses I took in college was Crime Theory: The Reasoning Behind American Crime. Throughout the semester, my professor focused largely on one guy.  This guy, whose name currently escapes me, spent the better part of his career retracing the steps of 100 African Americans.

Basically, he picked 100 black people at random and retraced their family origins as far back as he could. The result? Ninety two of the people had ancestors that were slaves. That’s where the chain ended. The point was, if a boy was born the child of slaves, he was born with nothing. He would have to fight and claw his entire life to make ends meet. His sons would probably have to do the same. His son’s sons would probably have to do the same, and so on.

In short, the man’s theory was that if you’re born into a life of poverty, you’re going to do whatever you can to make a buck, often resorting to a life of crime. Imprisonment becomes natural, crimes are committed, then paid for, then committed, and a cycle is soon born.

I mention this not because Werner Herzog’s new riveting documentary has to do with African American crime (in fact, I don’t think there’s a single black person in the film), but rather because this theory helps convey why the subjects of Into the Abyss acted the way they acted. And why they are where they are.

Several years ago, Michael Perry and his friend Jason Burkett went to an acquaintance's house with the intention of stealing his Camaro. When they realized the acquaintance wasn’t home, Perry and Burkett killed his mother. They left the gated community, dumped the body, returned to the gated community, found that the community was… gated, waited for their acquaintance at the gate, kidnapped him and his friend, took them to the woods, and killed them in the dirt.  Then they went to a bar and bragged about it.
Michael Perry
When Herzog meets up with Perry and Burkett, Perry is eight days away from being put to death, and Burkett is fresh into a 40-year sentence for his crimes.  As we get to know the criminals more (through interviews with them and the people that know them) we learn that they are wildly unintelligent, arrogant, unapologetic, and completely misguided. Herzog knows this, and herein lies the limitless genius of one of the best filmmakers that has ever lived.

Early in the film, Herzog says to Perry (off camera, he is never on screen in the film), “I don’t have to like you, but you are a human being, and no human being deserves to be killed.” By telling the audience this, Herzog makes his stance on the death penalty very clear, but we soon learn that that matters little. What matters is the act of listening. Observing. More than any current documentary filmmaker, Herzog is capable of letting his subjects reveal themselves by doing very little. His questions are never accusatory, his editing never chooses sides. He is an observer, first and foremost.
Jason Burkett 
And what he observes in Into the Abyss is nothing short of remarkable.  Here, Herzog discovers a subsection of America (that of the white trash population) that certainly has his interest piqued. Aside from Perry and Burkett, he observes a host of characters that knew and loved and detested Perry and Burkett. I won’t reveal what is said in the interviews, but it’s important to reveal how Herzog gets them to say it.

Herzog is the only filmmaker that can ask a question like, “Tell me about an encounter with the squirrels,” and evoke a shocking emotional response. He does this by asking, then shutting the hell up. He doesn’t interrupt, he just let’s his camera roll, long after the subject is finished responding. It is those moments that make a Herzog film so touching and poignant.
Herzog filming Into the Abyss
Werner Herzog is one of my favorite filmmakers, second only to Ingmar Bergman. He has a prolific filmography of both documentaries and feature films, yet each one is unique, interesting, and often breathtaking. Into the Abyss is the second remarkable documentary he’s released this year; a fine accomplishment for any filmmaker, let alone one who’s going to be 70 next year.

Often times, while watching a movie that disturbs us, we remind ourselves that, “It’s just a movie.” I had to do that a few times during Into the Abyss, not because the content is graphic (the film is PG-13) but because everything these characters are saying is entirely true. People actually live like this. This is what they were born into. It’s the only life they know. That is far more disturbing to me than anything I’d find in a horror film. A-