Monday, November 4, 2013

October 2013

GRAVITY (2013)
      In an era when expectations for movies have sunk lower than ever, the hope of being truly awe-struck by a big-screen event is pretty slim. But when a larger-than-life yet seemingly possible story is told well—the last time for me was the apocalyptic “Melancholia”—the results are an exhilarating cinematic experience. Few films fit that description better than “Gravity,” the tense space thriller from master filmmaker Alfonzo Cuarón, director of the best “Harry Potter” (“Prisoner of Azkaban) and “Children of Men.”

     Along with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and his special effects team, Cuarón creates the most realistic movie depiction of outer space I’ve seen, making the vastness tangible and the emptiness frightening as three space station astronauts repair the Hubble Telescope.

      While Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), the civilian scientist of the group, and Shariff (Phaldut Sharma) are doing repairs, veteran space walker Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is swapping tales of romantic conquests with Mission Control in Houston. Walking about in space seems like nothing special, even with Earth looming thousands of miles below, until debris from a Soviet missile comes flying toward them.

     From that moment on, there isn’t a moment to breath as the film goes from terrifying to simply exhausting in its unrelenting intensity. The filmmaking is spectacular, exemplified by a long, riveting shot that slowly moves toward Ryan and her look of sheer fear until it seamlessly is inside her helmet and showing her point of view, the reality of her terror. It is a clip we will be watching for as long as they make movies and is unquestionably the finest moment in Bullock’s career. Wordlessly, she puts a face to the unimaginable: alone, in the middle of the nothingness of space, confronting almost certain death.

      There is no point to dissect the plot further, except to say that the movie’s stunning 3-D images are matched by a thoughtful, nail-biting, yet down to earth script by the director and his brother Jonás.

      Clooney is entertaining as the cynical, quietly heroic space veteran, but this is Bullock’s film. Forget her cloying Oscar-winning performance in “The Blind Side” or all those cookie-cutter comedies, the acting chops she displays in “Gravity” have rarely been hinted at over her 20-year career. This is a complex, demanding role and she delivers a performance equal to the overwhelmingly emotional, thrill-ride of a movie. Simply put, “Gravity” is something special.

      Watching “The Story of Film,” which I wrote about at length last month, has reminded me that I should write more often about the films and filmmakers that modern cinema is built upon. Between the new releases and older offbeat pictures, I plan to re-watch an important, must-see film and find something new to say about it.

      No better place to start than with John Ford, the influential director who made at least one (usually more) great film in every decade from the 1920s to the ‘60s. His works had a major impact on virtually every filmmaker that followed him—from Orson Welles to Steven Spielberg. When Welles explained that to prepare for his film debut, “Citizen Kane,” he watched “Stagecoach” 40 times because he liked “the old masters…by which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford,” he spoke for all of Hollywood.

     As much as I admire the morality tales of heroism and the glorious vistas of Monument Valley that marked his Westerns of the 1940s and ‘50s, it was his pre-war films that are most interesting. He turned out films of all genres, yet imbuing them all with his innovative style and emphasis on strong characters, often outcasts who are required to prove their worthiness.

       “The Long Voyage Home,” a magnificent, underappreciated Ford film, presents slice-of-life episodes about the seamen aboard the Glencairn, a vessel transporting goods during World War II. The rogue gallery aboard the ship are led by Driscoll (Thomas Mitchell), the hard-drinking, fun-loving tough guy who takes no guff from anyone and Yank (Ward Bond), the equally tough American in a crew of mostly Irishmen who has a steak of sentimentality in him. Both of these ubiquitous supporting players of the era do some of the best acting of their career in the film. (Ford often takes hits for allowing the occasional hammy, sentimental performance to creep into his films, but he’s also guided some of the most subtle work every put on screen.)

       Based on four short plays by Eugene O’Neill, the events are mostly small affairs—though at one point they are attacked by enemy planes—but all go to Ford’s and O’Neill’s concerns: the working class, the men at the bottom of the (in this case) boat who have few options in life yet find a way to enjoy themselves and take pride in their work. The film could be seen as a part of a Ford trilogy of working people: “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940) tells of those working the land; “How Green Was My Valley” (1941), of coal miners below earth; and “Long Voyage Home” profiles men of the sea.

       Along with “Stagecoach,” this film is clearly one of the key building blocks of “Citizen Kane,” as it was the picture shot by Gregg Toland immediately before starting his collaboration with Welles. In “Long Voyage Home,” this innovative cinematographer does things that are equal to or surpass his landmark work in “Kane”; the use of deep focus, unusual camera placement,  continual shots that allow the action to unfold in the frame, shooting in cramped quarters; and slow, dramatic panning. More than once, Toland and Ford place the camera on the deck of the Glencairn, showing the men at the other end while the waves flood the deck during a vicious storm. Toland’s use of light and the fog makes “Long Voyage Home” look more like the 1930s work of France’s Jean Renoir or earlier masterpieces by German’s F.W. Murnau, but nothing like anything being done in 1940 Hollywood.

     Ford’s cast, in addition to Mitchell and Ward, is impeccable: newly minted star John Wayne plays Ole Olson, the Swedish farm boy anxious to return to the arms of his mother; Ian Hunter as a mysterious Englishman who is mistakenly accused by his mates of being a spy; John Qualen as the wide-eyed, talkative protector of Ole; and Barry Fitzgerald and Arthur Shields, real life lookalike brothers, playing lifelong seamen who have accept their place in the world.        

       The weakest act of the film is its last. The overlong sequence takes place after they put into port at a tavern where schemers are trying to smuggle drunken men into service on another cargo ship. It gets repetitive and doesn’t have the poetry of the scenes at sea, but supplies the film with a poignant, sobering ending that is equal parts Ford and O’Neill.

      Filled with raw emotions and characters nursing the scars of difficult lives, “The Long Voyage Home” earned an Academy Award nomination for best picture in 1940, alongside Ford’s better remembered, more “American” film “The Grapes of Wrath.”  Whether Ford was turning out another popular classic or a less commercial personal film, he brought a combination of daring visual filmmaking and cinematic truth in his portrayals of humanity that few directors can lay claim to. 

     How can you beat this combination? This movie brings together Paul Greengrass, among the most skillful action directors in the world; Tom Hanks, one of Hollywood’s most charismatic stars; and a script based on the high-profile 2009 kidnapping of a U.S. cargo ship captain by Somali pirates. Yet the results are far less stellar.

       Hanks plays Phillips, a no-nonsense captain whose unarmed ship is boarded by four armed Somalis while the boat is transporting goods down the East African coast. Slick maneuvers by Phillips and the crew nearly end the standoff, but instead leads to the pirates holding Phillips for ransom.

      The problems with the film begin with the surprisingly undramatic story it tells.  In part because the conflicting parties are limited by their language difference, but also because of a lackluster script that does go beyond the basic plot points, the film remains stuck in neutral for most of its two hours and 15 minutes.

     The second half of the picture focuses on the Navy battleship and a team of SEALs, who are charged with ending the international incident. In this section, Greengrass tries to replicate the style he perfected in “United 93,” his powerful, heartwrenching dramatization of the events of September 11. Detailing the process and decisions involved in a rescue operation worked brilliantly when the stakes were enormous in “United 93,” but seems like overkill when dealing with one incident of piracy with little political or social impact.

      Adding to the general flatness of the film is the casting of amateurs as the Somalis—understandable that it might be hard to find experience Somali-American actors—who mostly overact and never come off as dangerous as the film wants them to seem. Hanks is not given much to do as Phillips, essentially trying to assuage his kidnappers with the heartfelt sincerity over and over again.

    The final act takes at least 20 minutes longer than it should to resolve the incident and then keeps going with an unnecessary, somewhat uncomfortable coda.

      Loose ends, unsatisfying characterizations and lackluster dialogue mar the script (by Bill Ray, director of “Shattered Glass,” working from Phillips’ book) and leave us with a film that’s all potential and little substance.

OBLIVION (2013) and JACK REACHER (2012)
    Tom Cruise….didn’t he used to be a big star? I’m far from a Tom Cruise basher—I enjoy his adventures as Ethan Hunt in the “Mission: Impossible” franchise and admire his performances in “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989), “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999) and “Collateral” (2004)—yet he has come to define what’s wrong with Hollywood moviemaking.

     Like Hollywood, he no longer needs to make films that get much of a buzz in this country; any second-rate action movie with his name on it is a guaranteed international hit. Cruise remains a big star, just not in his homeland.

      His latest, “Oblivion” is a better-oiled machine than most, but it moves at such a glacial pace that it’s best to plan a multi-tasking activity while watching.

      Set on a futuristic Earth that we're told has been ravished by a war with aliens, this introspective film follows Jack (Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) as they patrol the planet for lingering alien insurrections. Since earthlings have all been relocated to a moon of Jupiter, I just barely understood why anyone cared what happened on their former home, now a desolate hunk of dirt.

The first sign that something isn't right is that the memories of both Jack and Victoria have been wiped as part of the relocation plan. But Jack keeps remembering snippets of a former life, which moves into overdrive when space capsules from a long-ago mission are brought back to Earth. Slowly, very slowly, Jack learns that he's being used in a big way and that nothing is what it seems.

Director Joseph Kosinski, who made his debut with “TRON: Legacy”—another film overloaded with ideas but confusingly constructed, is working from his own graphic novel in “Oblivion” yet fails to maintain any sense of pacing or tone. Still the plot, after it finally kicks in, is involving and there is plenty to like about Cruise's character, especially when he’s hanging out in his “old Earth” resort that he’s fashioned for himself.

  Touches of “Blade Runner” and old “Twilight Zone” episodes makes “Oblivion” worth the slugglish start, along with nice performances from Olga Kurylenko (”To the Wonder”) and the always reliable Morgan Freeman.

  “Jack Reacher,” on the other hand, feels like a product of the 1980s that should have starred Arnold or Sly. Based on one of the series of Reacher crime novels by Lee Childs, the film opens with a lone gunman shooting from a parking lot across the Allegheny River from PNC baseball park in Pittsburgh and killing five seemingly random people.

 Conveniently placed clues (wink, wink) lead the police to a mentally unstable former military sniper, but once Reacher joins the defense lawyer (Rosamund Pike, talking and acting as if it’s 1954 and she’s Doris Day) doubts arise. Reacher is the typical tough guy outsider (maybe the grandson of Clint Eastwood’s “man with no name”) who is both fearless and smart as a whip. Other than the always photogenic Steel City and the bizarre appearance of Werner Herzog as an evil construction mogul, the film is a waste of time.

  At 51, Cruise is at the crossroads of his career: he either holds on to his action cred until he’s an embarrassment or shifts into the kind of roles that have made Brad Pitt and George Clooney (both similar in age and acting ability to Cruise) so successful. But as long as he pines for those international dollars (Mission: Impossible 5” is in the works), he’ll become less and less relevant.

SIDE EFFECTS (2013) and
     The latest efforts from director Steven Soderbergh could have been packaged as “horror stories of prescription drugs.” While chronicling the final years of Liberace, “Behind the Candelabra” most pointedly explores the side effects of the drugs the pianist’s companion Scott Thorson takes as he goes from beloved to puppet. Meanwhile “Side Effects” goes straight at the issue, offering a critical appraisal of the psychiatric industry’s use of prescriptions.

      Mara Rooney plays Emily, who, while taking a new anti-depression drug prescribed by her psychologist Dr. Banks (Jude Law), stabs her husband (Channing Tatum, star of the director’s “Magic Mike”) to death. While she gets sent to a mental institute (rather than prison) because of the drug’s supposed “side effects,” Banks career is ruined as he becomes obsessed with understanding this woman and how the drug led to her unconsciously killing her husband. Complicating matters is Emily’s former psychologist (Catherine Zeta-Jones, who has dealt with depression of her own), who remains close to Emily.

     Rooney gives another complex, intense performance, proving she’s didn’t just luck into a great role in her Oscar-nominated “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” She’s a live wire who, at age 28, can dominate the screen. Law, who seems to have lost his star-actor status in recent years, is solid as a sincere doctor who watches as his entire life collapses around him.

     Part social commentary, part old-fashioned mystery, “Side Effects” may have too many moving parts to be completely entertaining, but it’s well written (Scott Z. Burns), continuing to surprise right to the end.

     Soderbergh has proclaimed that “Side Effects,” his 24th feature, will be his final theatrical release. This pronouncement came around the same time as his failed attempt to sell “Beyond the Candelabra” to the studios, ending with it being released as an HBO movie, so I’m not sure how much credence to give his retirement. But I sympathize with his frustrations: “Candelabra” is more compelling and better acted than 80 percent of features. Were the studios fearful of releasing a film with two major stars as gay lovers? Surely, Sean Penn’s acclaim for “Milk” ended those doubts.

     Nevertheless, “Candelabra” is fascinating look at this popular entertainer, whose fan base (mostly middle-age women) remained blindly unaware of his lifestyle, even as he goes through a series of “protégés.” Scott is an unassuming farm boy, longing to be a veterinarian, who is introduced to the 50something Liberace after a show in Las Vegas. In no time flat, he goes from admiring fan to the famous man’s lover.

      I certainly can’t vouch for the authenticity of “Candelabra,” as it details Liberace’s extraordinary vanity, his unreasonable jealousy and the outlandish demands he makes on Scott (at one point, having him undergo plastic surgery to look more like a young Liberace). But I can say that Michael Douglas gives an extraordinary performance as Liberace, nailing the speech patterns and gestures (for those who grew up in the 1960s and ‘70s, the pianist was ubiquitous on television) and extending the on-stage indulgence to off-stage. Who knows what the real Lee, as he was known to him friends, was like—the story is based on Thorson’s book—yet Richard LaGravenese’s (“The Fisher King”) script rings true.  

      Douglas certainly would have scored an Oscar nomination if this had been released theatrical; he did take home the Emmy for his work. Yet Matt Damon has the tougher role. Scott is a pitiful figure but also a victim whose sincere love for Liberace is taken advantage of by the older, privileged man. 

     This is a blunt, sometimes ugly look at one of the most famous entertainers of the second half of the 20th century, yet it never feels unfair or one-sided (except, perhaps, when it deals with the drugs prescribed to Scott after his plastic surgery). Soderbergh treats their love as something real, even as it always feels minutes away from breaking.

     Let’s hope Soderbergh isn’t serious about stepping away from directing: he’s one of the few directors left in Hollywood who does exactly what he wants and possesses the skills to make films that are both serious and entertaining.

     Richard Linklater is a patient filmmaker. He waited nine years to continue the story of Jesse and Celine that he introduced in the 1995 film “Before Sunrise.” This unlikely romance is sealed in the 2004 sequel “Before Sunset” when the American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) returns to Paris to promote the book he penned about the couple’s one-day romance years earlier and he reconnects with Céline (Julie Delpy).

      Now, after another nine-year hiatus, the couple is married with twin girls, having just spent a summer vacation on a Greek island with Jesse’s son from his first marriage. While their disagreements at first seem like typical married couple spats, they grow into real issues and emotional discussions about the strength of their commitment to the marriage.

     The script, again by Linklater and the two actors, is filled with smart, insightful observations on married life, relationships with children and the nature of men and women, yet it never sounds like something you’d say. Neither Hawke nor Delpy, both perfect as these characters in the earlier films, convinced me that they were anything more than actors reciting lines. Maybe the script is just a bit too didactic to be authentic or possibly the actors have lost interest in these people, but the arguments and less shrill discussions never felt real to me. It was all just an act.

      If you haven’t seen, “Before Sunset,” rent it, but skip the latest installment. In another nine years, I’m counting on this trio to resuscitate this fascinating project.     

      Nothing appeals to film critics more than a big-budget Hollywood director who goes slumming into the world of independent filmmaking. The previously mentioned Steven Soderbergh and Richard Linklater are prime examples of successfully going back and forth between these two very different approaches to moviemaking. Josh Whedon, veteran TV and film writer turned action director for the megahit “The Avengers,” has countered expectations by directing a black-and-white, unadorned production of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”

      The results are little more than a high-end home movie featuring contemporary dress and settings (it was shot at his home) while retaining the original verse of the Bard. This comedy of errors tells the story of two couples who come together during a long weekend at the grand estate of the region’s governor. Here the men are decked out in expensive suits and seem to be rival businessmen, while the women are ill-defined objects of desire and little else.

       In my sophomore English classes, I've had students make 10-minutes videos doing scenes from "Julius Caesar" and the acting wasn't much worse than in this version of "Much Ado." The film features slightly familiar faces Clark Gregg (Leonato), Reed Diamond (Don Pedro), Alexis Denisof (Benedick), Amy Aker (Beatrice) and Fran Kranz (Claudio), who all seem uncomfortable with Shakespeare's words. Only Jillian Morgese, in her first major role, gives the impression of understanding her character. Hero, the desperately-in-love young maiden, is at the center of the play’s plot, the story’s “Juliet.”

        Under Whedon’s direction, the action plods along until the final act of clever revenge against those who break up Hero and Claudio impending marriage. For much of the movie, I felt as if I was watching a gathering of soap opera actors making their first attempt at Shakespeare. “Ouch” is all I can say.

      For a much more amusing and accomplished version of the play, rent Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 version starring Denzel Washington and Emma Thompson.