Sunday, February 26, 2012

Best Picture: "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"

"'Look, teacher,' the New York Times reported a child shrilling as the Twin Towers were becoming pyres: 'the birds are on fire.' Here was a sweet, infantile rationalization for an uncommon sight: human beings who had hesitated too long between the alternatives of jumping to their deaths or being burned alive, and who were thus jumping and burning." – Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22

Directed by Stephen Daldry, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is perhaps the most controversial of the nine films nominated for this year's Oscar for Best Picture. I'm not sure it's best-of material; the young hero's emotional outbursts could have been toned down, and the last 10 minutes drift into syrupy Pay It Forward territory. But overall this is a very powerful film. I disagree with those who maintain it has somehow exploited our national tragedy. Like Pan's Labyrinth, it's a whimsical tale with a very dark heart, showing an imaginative child dealing with unimaginable horror.

From its opening moments, the movie confronts that horror head on. We see a man with a familiar face (it's Tom Hanks) falling from the World Trade Center. My initial reaction was, "You can't show that!" But then I realized what the movie was doing. That terrifying shot isn't meant to be taken literally; we're in the headspace of Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), the movie's preteen hero. This is Oskar imagining the fate of his father, who was killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

I'll grant that it's a risky proposition, but I don't see why this is an invalid or inappropriate subject to tackle. A lot of kids must have gone through the same kinds of emotions Oskar goes through in the days, months and years following 9/11. He refers to the day his father was killed as "the worst day," and is bewildered by the idea that "you can be killed by people who don't even know you." Putting us in his shoes is an easy way to give the audience's tear ducts a good workout, but do the filmmakers overreach or have him do or say anything that a gifted, intelligent little boy wouldn't in the wake of catastrophic loss? I don't think so.

The movie has been adapted from the bestseller by Jonathan Safran Foer. I've read none of his books and only one of his short stories, "The Sixth Borough," which I highly recommend you read and which I gather from Wikipedia is part of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. He's accused in some circles of making twee bullshit, but I think I'd enjoy most of his writing. I end up admiring most artists (like Wes Anderson) who have that charge leveled against them, if for no other reason than the sheer breadth of their creative resources. Foer's creativity is evident in Oskar's narration (having flipped through it, I know many of the lines in the film are taken directly from the novel), like when he talks about everyone swallowing microphones so we can listen to each other's heartbeats. And you can't say Foer doesn't know how to build a dramatic centerpiece; the secrets Oskar is hiding about the voicemails his father left on "the worst day" are absolutely devastating.

As mentioned earlier, Oskar can be a bit shrill at times, but I think that's more the director's fault than the actor who's playing him. Horn gives a performance that's extremely loud but incredibly convincing. 2011 was apparently beat-up-on-Tom Hanks year, which is unfortunate and unfair. The movie he starred in and directed last year, Larry Crowne, is about the sweetest, most harmless thing I can think of. I agree that his post-Cast Away filmography is spotty, but he's consistently made thoughtful choices; by no means has he sunk to the I'll-do-anything level of latter day Robert De Niro. This story needs an Everyman to give us the full weight of the 9/11 atrocities, and who better than Hanks? Best Supporting Actor nominee Max Von Sydow does fine work as an elderly man who befriends Oskar, though I find it amusing that this extraordinary Swedish actor, who possesses one of the most unforgettable accents in all of movies, has earned his second Oscar nomination for playing a mute. (Eleven Ingmar Bergman movies and only two nominations? Sheesh!) Maybe the filmmakers have successfully manipulated me, or maybe I'm just a sucker for movies that invite me on a tour of New York City. But I think Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is pretty underrated. It shouldn't (and won't) win Best Picture, but it's worth two hours of your time.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Best Picture: "The Artist"

With just a few days left before Oscar's big night, I've decided to review two nominees for Best Picture that I haven't blogged about yet: The Artist and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. A quick recap of what I think about the other nominees: Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life and War Horse all made my best of the year list. The Descendants is arguably the year's most overrated film; with Sideways and now this, director Alexander Payne seems to be making movies that appeal primarily to middle-aged movie critics. And while I wouldn't mind seeing Viola Davis or even Octavia Spencer take home the gold, I found The Help to be a problematic portrait of the civil rights era; you can read about said problems in my review.

In my next post I'll let you know what I think about Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. This time I'll be reviewing Michel Hazanavicius' silent romantic dramedy, The Artist. This is the year's frontrunner, and after finally seeing it I have no idea why. (Okay, I have a hunch; I'll get to that in a minute.) People I respect really love this film, and that combined with its reputation makes me want to revisit it to see if I can figure out what all the fuss was about. My impression right now is that this is a very minor film. It tells a story that's been told before (and with a lot more wit than Hazanavicius can muster).

Best Actor nominee Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a movie star whose refusal to make the leap from silent pictures to talkies leads to his ruin. George's downfall is contrasted with the rise of Peppy Miller (Supporting Actress nominee Berenice Bejo), a dancer whose killer moves send her shooting to the top in the earliest days of talkies. Djujardin and Bejo are both faultless, and indeed the movie is splendidly cast across the board. It was particularly nice to see Joel Murray (from One Crazy Summer) and Penelope Ann Miller, even though she appears in a thankless role. Hazanavicius has chosen performers with very expressive faces, so that the beats in each scene are always clear without the actors reading any lines.

That's not to say the movie doesn't have any dialogue. It crops up sporadically in the form of intertitles, providing what is perhaps the film's most moving moment: When a despondent George says of his beloved doggy/co-star, "If only he could talk." As the intertitles indicate, The Artist plays by the rules of an earlier era of filmmaking, which explains why there's not a whole lot of cutting in the dance and action scenes. Forced to think in strictly visual terms, Hazanavicius comes up with some real beauties. I'm especially fond of the scene where George and Peppy meet on a stairway; he's on the way down while she's on the way up, which is nice way of showing what's going on in the story.

Still, for a movie that's often described as a nonstop charmer, I found much of The Artist to be depressing. George spends much of the time moping around and pining for his glory days. I think the reason the film has failed to ignite at the box office has less to do with its silent method and more to do with Hazanavicius' failure to give us an endearing hero to root for. The story of the washed-up showbiz figure has been told countless times before – and in much more engaging fashion. Just look at the average Krusty the Klown episode of The Simpsons (especially "Krusty Gets Kancelled" and "The Last Temptation of Krust"), or Tim Burton's treatment of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood.

Burton’s Ed Wood shames this movie on all levels: as comedy, as period piece, as an emotional human story. Most of all, it shames The Artist on a technical level. Burton’s mid-‘90s masterpiece was a loving, visually impeccable tribute to Z-grade genre filmmaking. Hazanavicius doesn’t approach his material with the same sort of seriousness or panache. For example, he shot The Artist in color and converted it to black-and-white in post. When he employs silent movie techniques, it’s like he’s winking at the audience, as if to say, “Look at this cute thing we’re doing.” The entire movie is like Uggie the dog: It’s being cute for a gag.

So why is this featherweight film considered a lock for Best Picture? The answer starts with Harvey and ends with Weinstein. Back in the '90s, the movie mogul mastered the art of Oscar campaigning, so that whatever prestige picture Miramax had just released became, in the minds of voters, the crossword puzzle answer to, "What was the best film of the year?" I'll love him forever for championing filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Anthony Minghella, but Harvey seems to be up to his old tricks again. The Artist is not without its charms, but if it wins big on Sunday night it'll go down as the most eye-rolling choice since Paul Haggis' Crash.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

"The Grey"

 "The dead know only one thing: it is better to be alive." – Pvt. Joker, Full Metal Jacket

One of a handful of very satisfying movies to be released in the first several weeks of 2012, The Grey caught me completely by surprise. Liam Neeson's last few star vehicles (Taken, Unknown) have rebranded him as a cartoonish he-man. That image, along with the pumped up ads for The Grey, had prepared me for an all-out brawl between man and beast, something along the lines of the final scene of Legends of the Fall (in which Brat Pitt wrestles a grizzly) stretched to feature length. What I got instead was a remarkably contemplative action picture in which death is given its full weight, one that invites comparisons to John Boorman's classic Deliverance. Not bad for a movie directed by Joe Carnahan, a filmmaker I'd pretty much written off after his and Neeson's disastrous screen update of The A-Team.

The Grey is structured like a teen slasher flick, in which the characters are picked off one by one by a merciless foe. It's about a group of oil rig workers whose plane crashes in the Alaskan wild. Soon after, the men discover they've touched down in the hunting territory of a pack of gray wolves. These early scenes do an efficient job of explaining why the men are being hunted (they've crashed near the wolves' den), and of setting up the expertise of its main character, Ottway (Neeson), whose job it is to kill wolves that threaten the safety of the drilling team.

Deliverance and The Grey both tell stories of modern men tested in the woods by pre-civilized forces. They also share a subtext: payback for environmental atrocities. Boorman's city slickers go on vacation to enjoy the "last wild, untamed, unpolluted, unfucked-up river in the South," and end up encountering the mountain men whose home is being taken over by a power company. Similarly, the oil rig workers in The Grey are confronted by wild animals whose habitat is being threatened by the plundering of natural resources. What's different about the films is that, unlike Boorman's ill-fated vacationers, Ottway and company don't go from "soft" city men to backwoods survivalists; no, their main transformation is to go from breathing to not breathing.

I can think of few other films that depict death in such an unsettling, realistic fashion. Krzysztof Kieslowski's A Short Film About Killing comes to mind, as does the powerful, bizarre, stand-alone scene in David Lynch's Wild at Heart in which Lula (Laura Dern) and Sailor (Nicolas Cage) witness the final few moments of a teenage car crash victim. ("She died right in front of us, Sailor.") All of the killings in The Grey are shocking because these men are strong enough to work in the harshest conditions imaginable, and we're seeing their lives cut off in midstream. Two killings that stand out for me: the astonishing scene after the plane crashes where Ottway talks a man through his own death, and a drowning late in the film.

The latter scene is especially disturbing because the victim is fighting hard for his life, screaming at the top of his lungs underwater. It hits us really hard because we understand exactly what he's fighting for. For such a bleak film (one that takes an arguably atheistic stance on whether we're alone in the universe), The Grey places a very high value on family and emotional ties. These are what keep you tethered to the world. Thoughts of loved ones give a majority of these men the will to survive, and provide a final moment of grace and comfort for some of them before the inevitable.

The effects in the wolf attack scenes aren't always convincing, but you never doubt the degree to which the men are in danger. Carnahan and his cinematographer, Masanobu Takanayagi, capture the harsh beauty of the Alaskan wilderness. A post-credits scene is unnecessary, adding nothing more than a tally of the final body count.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Film Geekdom Awards, 2011

Best fight (between wizards): Harry Potter vs. Lord Voldemort, HP7: Part 2
Best fight (between Muggles): Steve vs. Burke, The Mechanic
Best villain: Lord Naritsugu, 13 Assassins

Best family film: Winnie the Pooh
Best soundtrack: Drive
Best duet: Annie and Helen sing "That's What Friends Are For" in Bridesmaids

Best original song: "Life's a Happy Song" by Bret McKenzie, The Muppets
Most overrated film: The Descendants
Most underrated film: 30 Minutes or Less

Harry Knowles award (for most juvenile film): Sucker Punch
Best reboot: X-Men: First Class
Best female performance: Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia

Best male performance: Andy Serkis, Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Best documentary: Into the Abyss
Best Christian-themed movie: Soul Surfer

Christopher Hitchens award (for skepticism): Paul
Best product placement: POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
Best 3D: Hugo

Best opening credits sequence: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Best sex: Ellen Page and Rainn Wilson, Super
Most generous nude scene: Nicky Whelan, Hall Pass

Most deserving of a wider audience: Terri
Grand Guignol award (for graphic violence): I Saw the Devil
Worst career turn: Indie darling David Gordon Green directs big-budget schlock (Your Highness, The Sitter)

Most likable character: Ned Rochlin, Our Idiot Brother
Least likable character: Abin Cooper, Red State
Most unexpected dinner guest: The Monkey Ghost, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Cutest couple: Mélanie Laurent and Ewan McGregor, Beginners
Most annoying couple: Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin, Like Crazy
Best ending: The West Memphis Three are freed after 18 years and 78 days behind bars in Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory