Friday, October 29, 2010

Monster Performances

          So you’re expecting me to write about Bogart in -Blanca, Tom Hanks as Gump, or Jimmy Stewart’s Wonderful Life (or even Harrison Ford as Indy, which I was tempted to do).  Not goanna happen.

            To break with cliché and ignore all the “100 Best” lists, I give you a little panegyric on two of the greatest performances in the last decade that I’ve seen this year.

Charlize Theron’s Monster

          I had heard about it on the radio when I was a school kid: the beautiful Charlize Theron people then knew as the knock-out blonde in so-so films like The Italian Job, That Thing You Do, The Devil’s Advocate and Might Joe Young suddenly broke out.  She gained 30 pounds, wore prosthetic teeth, and embodied the real life character Aileen Wuornos, a convicted serial killer, becoming the first (South) African to receive an Oscar.[1]  And damn, she was freaky.

          It’s the role that Roger Ebert calls “one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema.”[2]

          The film follows the real life story of Aileen, a highway prostitute, abused all her life, street wise, and tough as nails.  Aileen meets and falls in love with a girl, the mysteriously beautiful Christina Ricci (of Sleepy Hollow and Casper fame), and is motivated to change.  She does, going on a killing spree out of paranoia after being brutally raped within an inch of her life.

          It goes without saying it’s in many ways grotesque – prostitution, lesbian sex, serial murders, abuse, etc.; but in the same breath don’t deny the realities of life.

          Charles Dickens’ works were criticized by “fine upstanding Christians” for characters such as the prostitute Nancy in Oliver Twist and even the great (drunkard and blackmailer) Sydney Carton of Two Cities.  These plot-turning sinners were the basis of the epic triumph so-called “good people” would have nothing of.  As if all good actions should be done by outwardly morally fine looking people.  As if such a thing were possible.

          Monster leaves the viewer with a heart (and stomach for gruesomeness for that matter) immensely distraught at the terrors of the world that help shape society’s monsters, and compassion for those who tragically choose to be them.

          Theron’s performance is an entire bookshelf on the human condition, not to mention an acting feat that will not be matched.

A friend of the real life Aileen commented on the film:

The mood swings Charlize Theron portrays are perfect, as are the mannerisms, body language, clothes, teeth, complexion, hair, the body fat, manner of speaking, that strutting walk and just everything. It was absolutely uncanny. You never forget someone like that, and then when they pop up alive like that again. It was just unreal.[3]

          My dad once said, you know a great actor (or actress) when you no longer see them but the person they are portraying and you are convinced the character is real.

          Theron’s monster does just that and is a great film indeed.

George Clooney, Syriana

          I was never a fan of George Clooney until the Ocean’s movies.  Always thought he was a soft ladies man and nothing more.

          Well, the rumors are true: on film at least, he is thee cool dude of dudes.

          Recently I raved about him in Up in the Air, but even that performance is nothing compared to his previous and entirely different role as Bob Barnes in Syriana.

          Watching George look like a Taliban sheik throughout the first five minutes of the film, you quickly realize his character is not your average Bob.  Trained, experienced, an incredibly talented and capable field agent, Bob is brought back to the States after a job gone wrong to be grilled by pee-brained, soft-handed, white collar Pentagon execs who tell Bob he’s all wrong about everything they’ve never seen for themselves.  Just the look George Clooney gives them is to die for.

          Though the film draws out as another bullshit “we’re over there for the oil” speech with the talented Matt Damon, between Bourne’s, never breaking out due to flat script restraints, Clooney delivers!  “Powerful!” doesn’t describe the magnetism of his role as a man trying to grab a desk job for what was his family sent on a last mission that tears him between risking all for what he believes is right and the prospect of a sophistic failure.

          Though the movie is otherwise flat, Clooney’s chasm more than earns the Best Supporting Oscar.  His final blank climatic stare spoke all the magic words.

          Though I refuse to be manipulated in my opinion by a golden statue, the Oscars prove to be generally good guides in terms of artistry.  Both Clooney’s and Theron’s roles are extremely abnormal, both for them and for film period; which is where extraordinary acting tends to show.

          Like Hanks in just about anything, Gump tending to be the favorite, they broke the mold and successfully played their anti-typecast, which I believe is the only door to real superstardom.

          Perhaps DiCaprio’s continued breakthrough as adult actor in Inception will be up for role awards this year.  But for now, nothing drop dead great on the radar.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Up in the Crazy Locker

          There are no opening credits, not even a title.[1]

          You just sit there watching a relatively routine situation unfold in the streets of some Iraqi town: a handful of soldiers playing with high tech toys, playing soldier, like you may have when you were a kid.

          But this is supposed to be real.

          Distracted – was that Guy Pearce?  Yes (had to wait until the end credits to find out though).  Something’s goanna happen.  This movie didn’t get Best Picture for nothin’.

          Needless to say, watching last year’s Oscar winner, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, by the time you’ve gotten through the movie red-zone (those first 10 minutes that tell you if you’re going to hate a movie), you’re on the edge of your seat.  And good luck getting comfortable.

          So if you’re wondering about the title, this blog is about three movies I liked from last year’s Oscars.

The Hurt Locker


      So you’re getting ready for whatever and it opens with a quote.  Bullshit, you imagine.  (Of course, when I say “you,” I mean me.)

          The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.
-      Chris Hedges[2]

It all fades save for the last five words, and you (I) can just guess where all this is going.

And was anyone else like, “Who the hell is Chris Hedges?”  Just say “yes,” so I don’t feel so ignorant.  I’m not up on my liberal political bloggers.  (He’s a liberal political blogger; got some awards, probably for being a liberal political blogger.)

And if you’re not already queued in, you won’t know this whole movie is another attempt to shove the liberal anti-war bs down your throat.  Just like “Full Metal Jacket,” “Platoon,” “Apocalypse Now,” and – do I dare stoop to mention – “The Green Zone,” to name a few.  Perhaps Spielberg is the only one to show something good can come from standing up to the bad guys in his immortal “Saving Private Ryan.”

If you haven’t caught on now, I’m no liberal.  I’m no pacifist either.  But this blog is about movies, not politics so you may use strong words asking why I’m talking about this.

I loved this movie despite its bullshit message, that’s why.  And that’s a pretty big achievement.  That’s why I’d give it my vote for the Best Pic 2010 anyday.

HL is Kathryn Bigelow’s big moment: her success story after big shot actor movies like K-19: The Widowmaker, which I did go see just because Harrison Ford was in it – making her the first woman director ever to win that Oscar.[3]  And I agree wholeheartedly (unless there was a bs award from the Democrats) with Norman Gelman when his says she “deserves every award she won for The Hurt Locker.”[4]

The cinematography is excellent; the story, strong on a tight plot; the acting, superb (the lead, Renner, gets nominated for Best Actor in a magnetic performance)[5]; the directing, well, we all know about the directing.  With the exception of the opening quote, which story-wise was well placed, don’t get me wrong, the movie illustrates the “show, don’t tell” key film principle better than I’ve seen in a long while.  Masterful work Kathryn.

The film is written by freelance writer Mark Boal, who was attached to an American bomb squad in Iraq as a journalist in 2004.[ibid]  Despite his on scene experience, vets highly criticized the film’s (lack of) realism.

Iraq and Afghanistan combat vet and author, Brandon Friedman called the sequences “nonsensical,” still labeling the film as the “high-tension, well-made, action movie” it is.[ibid]

Army of Dude blogger Alex Horton, infantry Iraq vet writes, “the way the team goes about their mission is completely absurd,” and in the next breath, “the best Iraq movie to date.”[ibid]

A reviewer from The Air Force Times said:

[The lead character's] swagger would put a whole team at risk. Our team leaders don't have that kind of invincibility complex, and if they do, they aren't allowed to operate. A team leader's first priority is getting his team home in one piece.[ibid]

So in other words, great job Bigelow; bad boy Boal.

HL makes it seem like a nut like Sergeant Bill James is everything the military wants you to be; whereas in real life, a son-of-a-gun like that would be walking home in a heartbeat.  That’s what pisses me off.

But certainly, the best film of the year.

Up in the Air

          A movie that made my day and maybe my whole week.  (You can quote me on that.)

That’s how good Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air is.

The film stars George Clooney as a “career transition counselor” who spends most of his life flying from place to place firing people.  Clooney’s characteristic calm-cool rockets his performance as a man with no human ties, whose lifetime ambition is to earn 10 million air-miles – the perfect guy to fire you’re employees without wrinkling the Clooney eyebrow.

On the way he bumps into a very green hot-shot executive (Anna Kendrick) and a “mysterious fortysomething” Alex (Vera Farmiga), who seems to be living the feminist ideal, with whom Bingham develops a very “casual sexual relationship.”[6]

Within the almost magical twists and turns of the film, Bingham is led to question all he doesn’t stand for.

“The movie is about the examination of a philosophy,” says the talented Juno and Thank You For Smoking filmmaker, Reitman, “What if you decided to live hub to hub, with nothing, nobody?”[ibid]  This film shows you just that.

Both Kendrick and Farmiga were nominated for best supporting actress, the film receiving a total of six Oscar nom’s and zero awards.  Shame.  Clooney is excellent, himself nominated for top man[ibid], though his performance isn’t as indescribable as his 2006 Best Supporting winner, Syriana.[7]

Bit parts by fellows such as The Hangover’s Zach Galifianakis (whose 20 seconds make you laugh your slacks off) greatly add to the film.  Jason Bateman, the new movie everywhere man, lands well here.[8]

Roger the-buffman-of-movie-buff’s Ebert gives the film four stars.

"This isn't a comedy,” he says, “If it were, it would be hard to laugh in these last days of 2009. Nor is it a tragedy. It's an observant look at how a man does a job.”[ibid]

In short, Reitman, called the modern Frank Capra, paints a masterwork with a message that really matters to the down-and-out people of today.  I just hope Roger won’t kill me for enjoying it.

Crazy Heart

          My least favorite of the three but by far my favorite performance: Jeff Bridges stars in the “finally” role that lands him the little gold statue.

          Crazy Heart is the story of a near-washed up country legend trying to cope with the ailments of his profession: a new wave of music, a loved one left behind, and the various vices celebrities are prone to.

          The story harkens back to Robert Duvall’s 1984 Oscar role in Tender Mercies, a better film and a lower-key actor; nonetheless powerful though.  Duvall produces and bit parts in Crazy Heart.[9]

          Heart is carried by Bridges magnanimous performance, a recap and shine of his 1998 Big Lebowski “Dude” that won him a cult following (me being among them), a role he seems to continue to play frequently (The Men Who Stare At Goats, 2009).[10]

          "Bridges is exceptional here,” says Brian Orndof, “it's the movie itself that's less urgent and awkwardly defined, throttling his impressively discombobulated performance, leaving one to wonder why there's even a plot to Heart in the first place."[11]

          “[It’s] the generosity of Bridge’s performance [that] puts us in a forgiving mood,” says the Toronto Star’s Linda Barnard.[ibid]

          Along the way, Bridge’s Bad Blake runs into Maggie Gyllenhaal,[12] sister of also famous Jake, who is nominated for a Best Supporting Actress.  Viewers will remember her as the worst part of The Dark Knight (sorry Maggie, when you died in that movie I was emotionally confused); but she does very well in CH.

          Also popping up is Colin Farrell, surprisingly well cast as the plastic hot, new country singer-prick everybody’s crazy about, who “learned all he knows” from Bad Blake.  He covers his Dublin accent with a western one quite well, but otherwise, the talented actor doesn’t really have to act.

          Crazy Heart’s music is exceptional, although I enjoyed the initial classic hit Blake is too drunk to sing in Act One much more than the resolving final number.

          All in all, it is well worth the watch.

          My Oscar theory is that at the end of the year filmmakers shove their award-bound movies in theaters just to show that their opinion of judges’ memories is not quite high.  It tends to work I think, save for Hurt Locker’s welcome upset over Bigelow’s ex, James Cameron, and his Titanic sinking Avatar.

          So nothing on my radar for the 83rd Academy Awards, save for maybe The Social Network that is hitting the top of opinion charts all around[13]; that and Ben Afflect’s The Town, also starring Hurt Locker’s incredible Jeremy Renner – both of which I haven’t seen yet.  [Insert strong words.]

          So, while I go crazy waiting for someone to send me a platinum free-movie-anytime theater pass, right now the Oscars are up in the air.

          (My address is available upon request.)

Saturday, October 9, 2010

That Guy Ritchie

          Chances are, if you are watching a film and suddenly a bunch of buddies with British accents fly across the screen while the camera barrel rolls under falling shotgun shells with loud heavy music cranking in the background, you’re watching a Guy Ritchie movie.

          That’s roaight, mate.

          Ten years ago, he took the world by surprise with his independent film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, grabbing #38 on the well-respected British magazine Total Film’s best Brit films of all time.[1]  Incidentally, he later married (and recently divorced) his sponsor for the film: Madonna.[2]

          Lock, Stock well deserved all the fame it got.  With slick writing, hilarious fun, in-your-face violence, and a rockin’ score to boot, it more than put Ritchie on the map, securing Hollywood contracts for him for the rest of his life.

          His cinematography was new, gritty, and fun; his acting direction superb.  It was Ritchie’s Lock, Stock that introduced the world to its new action hero: world class diver and martial artist Jason Statham[3], whose backflip in Smoking Barrels, along with most of his stunts, was his own.

          In one of the best “buddy” films you will ever see, Statham and pals shoot, play, and drink their way through a rowdy underworld adventure, with acting chemistry that could only be the work of a fresh, highly-talented director.
          Who would have known that same director was dyslexic, expelled from high school, and skipped film school because all the ex-student films were “boring”?[4]  Truth to that: Spielberg also dropped out of college and went back to graduate during the success of his 21st blockbuster Minority Report (three decades and four Oscars later)[5], to appease his father and reassure his kids.  (Quentin Tarantino also skipped film school.)  And speaking of ex-film student bore, am I alone to love the Cohen brothers’ movies but get that “we tried to make it perfect” annoying feeling when I watch them?

          In any case, after Lock, Stock earned him MTV’s Best New Filmmaker Award[ibid], Hollywood went to Guy with top actors such as Brad Pitt and Oscar winner Benicio Del Torro for his Snatch, another fast-paced stylist caper.  Pitt’s performance as the “ideally cast Irishman whose accent is so thick even Brits can’t understand him,”[6] a similar strength he showed in his Devil’s Own role opposite Harrison Ford, gives a powerful punch to the film as the surprising fighter.  Ritchie’s resolution of the film combining underwater film techniques with fight slo-mo is like nothing you have ever seen and truly knocks your socks off!

          But Guy’s films began to lose their newness after that.  His 2008 RocknRolla, though visually stimulating with a smart Tom Wilkinson, replays the same tricks that Guy showed us in Snatch and Lock, Stock: criminal buddies against a high-rise mob boss who screwed them in the first place with various queers and quirks in the mix.  (Although this time, one of those is the hot and talented Thandie Newton.)  Gerard Butler takes the lead but fails to convince as the action serial hot rod.  We almost imagine his Phantom mask to magically appear along with his bloodied Spartan 300 sword.

          RnR’s greatest moment was its end: a relief from the cliché we all knew was now Ritchie’s own; but at the same time, a truly masterful tease for a second film we perhaps doubt could win us over.

          Which brings us Sherlock Holmes, Ritchie’s biggest box office hit by far raking in over $500 million[7], second that year only to James Cameron’s Avatar, which beat his own Titanic as the current top overall grosser.  Guy seemed the natural directorial pick for Holmes due to the overlaying themes of his films: crime and London.  Ritchie’s vision of the film was “very contemporary as far as the tone and texture,” being “a relatively long time since there’s been a film version that people embraced.”[ibid]

          Embraced it was, by movie goers at least.  Downey, Jr.’s masterful acting gave a new lease on life to the character many envision to be tall, rigid, and un-fun.  (I especially enjoyed the Ritchie-Downey pre-fight monologues.)

“The less I thought about Sherlock Holmes, the more I liked [it],” said The Sun Time’s Roger Ebert, perhaps the most respected critic in the business.

“[It] is cheerfully revisionist,” he said, commenting on the modern spin, “The great detective, who has survived so much, can certainly shrug off a few special effects.”[8]

Special effects are the first of Richie’s dangers.  At 41 years old, Ritchie is poised for a long and continuously successful film career.  His fans are ravenous, but will eat him up if he succumbs to the crutches of overly-CG spectacles and if he won’t stop writing himself into the wall of his own re-used plot.

It seems this talented filmmaker, the acclaimed screenwriter of Christopher Nolan’s complicated Memento, has a lot of new tricks still to pull.  And as anticipation for his 2011 Sherlock sequel mounts Rotten Tomatoes charts at 93,[9] we hope all his upcoming films will prove his masterful work thus far to have been “elementary.”