Monday, June 12, 2017

DEAR ACADEMY, GIVE DONALD SUTHERLAND AN HONORARY OSCAR

Original caricature by Jeff York of Donald Sutherland. (copyright 2017)

Dear Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,

This is my fifth and final open letter suggesting candidates who are long overdue for Academy recognition. In the past weeks, I have made the case for the following artists to receive the honorary Governors Award: filmmaker David Lynch, actress Catherine Deneuve, actor Kurt Russell, and filmmaker Ridley Scott. My last nomination is an actor who’s been a star since the 1960's. Drama, comedy, farce, thrillers, sci-fi, horror - he’s thrived in them all. This character actor is one of Hollywood’s best and most prolific, and his IMDB page lists over 200 credits. Yet, remarkably, this living legend has yet to receive a single Oscar nomination. This oversight must be corrected immediately by bestowing the 2017 Governors Award upon Donald Sutherland.

From 1967, when he broke through with his unforgettable supporting turn in THE DIRTY DOZEN, Sutherland has played both leading man and featured player. And he's done so in dozens upon dozens of critically acclaimed films and box office hits. Here is just a portion of his extraordinary credits: M*A*S*H, START THE REVOLUTION WITHOUT ME, KELLY’S HEROES, ALEX IN WONDERLAND, KLUTE, DON’T LOOK NOW, THE DAY OF THE LOCUST, ANIMAL HOUSE, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, ORDINARY PEOPLE, A DRY WHITE SEASON, EYE OF THE NEEDLE, BACKDRAFT, JFK, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION, DISCLOSURE, OUTBREAK, A TIME TO KILL, COLD MOUNTAIN, PRIDE & PREJUDICE, HORRIBLE BOSSES, and THE HUNGER GAMES quartet.

He's done extraordinary work on television too, winning Emmys for two of his inspired turns -  CITIZEN X (1995) and THE PATH TO WAR (2002), both on HBO. In fact, it's hard to go a month without seeing Sutherland appearing on a screen somewhere in something. He chalks up close to six credits a year, bouncing back and forth between mediums. He is a constantly in-demand talent, even now at 81. He can play heroes or villains, lunatics or professors, government men or revolutionaries. His acting legacy is so vast he's even the patriarch of an esteemed acting family. He is the father of Kiefer Sutherland (24 and DESIGNATED SURVIVOR) and the grandfather of Sarah Sutherland (VEEP).

So, what is it about Donald Sutherland that makes him so extraordinary, and why does he continue to work so often? For starters, even his physicality has range. His tall, slim frame has always been able to suggest dignified masculinity or even a willowy feline quality. And his soft, husky voice can strike a tone that is commanding or the near opposite - ethereal. He’s able to cover a lot of ground with such attributes. He can convince audiences he’s a surgeon (M*A*S*H) or a lawyer (A TIME TO KILL) or a spy (EYE OF THE NEEDLE). He can play officious (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) or someone unhinged (DAY OF THE LOCUST). He can play straight (DON'T LOOK NOW) or fop (START THE REVOLUTION WITHOUT ME).

What I like best about Sutherland is that despite having one of the most soulful and distinct voices in the history of cinema, one that is constantly employed as a voice-over, it is his non-verbal acting that    remains the most compelling. He is an actor who specializes in reacting, and his reactions constitute some of the best onscreen acting ever. Just watch any Sutherland performance and you will see an actor truly playing off the other actors. He is a consummate listener, always paying attention, always thinking before speaking. His ability to give so much of a performance without words would have made him a great silent movie star if he were born a few decades earlier. 

Take for example his exemplary performance as the title character in KLUTE (1971). Yes, Jane Fonda played prostitute Bree Daniels to strident, panicked perfection and received a richly deserved Oscar for it, but it could have come off as too much if it wasn't for Sutherland balancing her with his quiet strengths in each scene. As Detective John Klute, he listened, observed, and held in reserve his feelings as Fonda delivered her acidic quips and unzipped that stunning sequined dress. 

It's called Klute because it's a fish out of water story as a small-town detective searches NYC for his missing family friend, a man with big secrets. (One of them is that he was a john of Bree's.) At times, playing off the mouthy, sexually forward Bree, Klute could almost seem wimpy, but it's his quiet resolve to keep focused on the case and not lose himself in the muck of the Big Apple that keeps the audience with him. Sutherland had Klute listen and think before speaking in almost every scene. Watch how Fonda plays off of his hesitancy, which allowed her vulnerability to shine through more as she waits for his reaction. It’s the first of many times that Sutherland would imbue his characters with so much while saying so little, and raise the stakes of every player opposite him.

Sutherland pulled off a similar feat in 1980’s ORDINARY PEOPLE. In Robert Redford’s directorial debut about a well-to-do Lake Forest family coming apart at the seams after the oldest teen son drowns in a boating accident, Sutherland was cast as the quiet patriarch Calvin. Again, those he played off had the bigger, showier roles. The protagonist in the story is Conrad (Tim Hutton), the son who blames himself for his brother’s death and cut his own wrists when that pain became too unbearable. The antagonist in the story is mother Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), a perfectionist seething with resentment that her world has been usurped by death, shame and Conrad's suicide attempt. Attempting to hold them all together is Calvin, but not able to connect with either of them. 

Again, Sutherland’s is a largely reactive performance. His son’s erratic behavior gives Calvin pause as he tries to figure out the best way to approach “Connie” without ruffling his feathers. And Beth’s brittleness spurs Conrad to walk around her on egg shells, uncertain what to say as she rants. At one point, she suggests that she and Calvin go to London alone for Christmas, leaving their son behind. That doesn’t sit well with Calvin as he realizes her selfishness. When he gently pushes back, she becomes more strident, insisting she wants this one to be "a nice Christmas.” Sutherland hesitates for a moment before delivering Calvin’s response, “I want them all to be nice Christmases.” Sutherland makes sure that the audience understands the uncertain waters that his character is negotiating too. 

In the last third of the story, Conrad is on his way to being whole again. He learns to forgive himself for surviving the accident, as well as his mother for her shortcomings. Beth does not change. Her resentment grows more pungent. And Calvin realizes that she is holding them all back. He quietly tells her he no longer loves her and it's devastating. Beth leaves, leaving Calvin a single parent. And in the final scene, we see how Calvin has grown. He's honest with his wife and his son, telling them both hard truths they need to hear. His change is the final piece in the puzzle, and the arc should have gotten Sutherland an Oscar. The fact that he didn't even get nominated is a testament to a lack of justice and judgment amongst too many voters. 

And in case there was any doubt what Redford thought of Sutherland’s extraordinary work in this film, watch the scene where Calvin visits Conrad’s psychotherapist (Judd Hirsch). It is a confession scene and the first time in the film that the sacrificing Calvin puts his own feelings first. As he shares his thoughts, Redford keeps the camera on Sutherland for most of the five-minute exchange Calvin starts by hesitating to tell the whole truth, but as he talks, his monologue full of telling, meaningful pauses, starts to be more forthcoming. It is one of the Best Picture winner’s finest scenes, and it’s all Sutherland’s really, as he daringly peels away all of Calvin’s selflessness and formality, layer by layer, until the grief-drenched man is revealed. It still knocks my socks off today.

Over the last few decades, the silver-haired, and often bearded Sutherland has done superlative work too, mostly in supporting roles. He was superb playing the na├»ve art dealer taken in by Will Smith’s confidence man in SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION (1993); stole his one scene from Robert De Niro and Billy Baldwin as he rendered the smilingly cordial arsonist up for parole in BACKDRAFT (1991); and most recently, made for one calmly maleficent villain hounding Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss in THE HUNGER GAMES (2012) and its three sequels. For my money, his finest supporting was that of the mysterious CIA operative called “MR. X” in Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991). In it, he gives his most verbose performance ever, and it’s startling to see Sutherland use words so forcefully.

X enters the film at the beginning of the third act, with the purpose of telling Kevin Costner’s well-meaning but ill-prepared New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison what he needs to know about a conspiracy at the heart of the assassination. Against the backdrop of all the towering monuments in Washington, D.C., Sutherland’s X explains all the intricate links and details illuminating the collusion. It's a big scene, spanning some 12 pages of monologue, and Sutherland is riveting spelling it all out.

The actor's forceful, calm authority gives it such power. He may have convinced tons of skeptics out there that the CIA was behind it all. But whether you believe in the story or not, Sutherland makes it seem all too real and it plays as one of the scariest scenes in any film the past 30 years. What makes it even more affecting is how Sutherland slumps on the park bench at the end, spent, and beaten down. He makes sure we see that this disillusioned patriot takes no joy in telling his tale.

As Sutherland has aged, he is often called on to play such authority. He can play the good guy, and then with just a few degrees of difference, he can turn it into malevolence. His performances are always that masterful. So many critics, peers, and pundits are stupefied that he's never been nominated for an Oscar. It's time to change that this year. The Academy should bestow their 2017 Governors Award upon Mr. Donald Sutherland. 

Sincerely,
Jeff York

Film critic for The Establishing Shot
Host of the Page 2 Screen podcast for the International Screenwriters Association
Member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

THE 10 BEST THINGS ABOUT WONDER WOMAN

Original caricature by Jeff York of Gal Gadot as WONDER WOMAN
Why has the new big screen version of WONDER WOMAN struck a chord with so, so many?

Perhaps it has something to do with loyal fans waiting for decades for a WW movie and their joy at seeing it materialize so spectacularly. Maybe it’s because Gal Gadot already won audiences over with her scene-stealing turn in last year’s otherwise dour BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE and fans were ready for more of her clever take on the role. Certainly, a lot of it had to do with talented filmmaker Patty Jenkins avoiding the dark, aloof tone that has characterized the DC style for too many big screen outings now.

No matter, the WONDER WOMAN movie did huge box office its opening weekend and was the number one film worldwide. Praise for the movie was near universal too, holding at a 93% “certified fresh” rating at RottenTomatoes.com. I believe that there are many factors that contributed to its sterling success, probably too many to list in this blog. Still, I can think of ten right off the bat that made it so wondrous. (Warning: Spoilers lie ahead.)

WONDER WOMAN IS AN OPTIMIST
The vicious snark of Deadpool is hilarious. As is Tony Stark’s glib banter. And I understand why Batman is so dark and dour – his parents were killed in front of him – I get it. But Princess Diana (AKA Wonder Woman) is earnest, kind, and a believer in humanity. She’s no cynic trying to keep an ugly world at bay. She wears her heart on her sleeve and that makes her unique in the superhero movie world. It also makes her quite the elixir considering the depressing news dominating our newsfeed almost daily these days.

GAL GADOT IS TRULY FUNNY
Not only was Allan Heinberg's WONDER WOMAN script exceedingly clever, but Gadot manages to be many things - heroic, relatable, and yes, very funny. She plays the ‘fish out of water’ angle of the story here with great line readings and expert physical humor. Particularly memorable is when she struggles to feel comfortable in the confining dress styles of the early 20th Century. Her acting achievement in this film reminded me a lot of what Christopher Reeve did when he took on SUPERMAN in 1978. He made being stalwart incredibly appealing as he portrayed his confident Kal-El side, but he also showed real comic chops vamping as Kal-El's corny and klutzy Clark Kent. Diana doesn't create such an alter-ego, but as Gadot plays the role, she is always noble and pure, and the actress knows how to make such affectations often appear humorous, especially as she doesn't quite understand all the cynicism around her. Here’s hoping that Gadot is an early Best Actress Oscar contender for her complex, nuanced, and truly accomplished performance in this equally amazing movie.

PATTY JENKINS DID A SUPER JOB DIRECTING IT
It’s great that Jenkins was chosen to helm the film as there has been too much of a white, male, fanboy sensibility permeating comic book adaptations. Her natural insights into knowing how to fight the good fight in the male dominated business of Hollywood clearly helped her understanding of the Amazon princess’ resistance to the prejudices of global patriarchy. But the fact is, Jenkins is a great director no matter what her sex. She knows how to keep the focus on story, let the characters drive the action, and shoot set pieces with clear and clean through lines. Jenkins also knows that while such set pieces are rousing, she takes the stand that war is still hell. She never loses sight of that in how the battles are shot. Jenkins better be handed the sequel, and she should be fielding dozens upon dozens of other offers after this singular achievement. 

WONDER WOMAN IS NOT OGLED
Sure, too many male characters make remarks about Diana's looks in the film. One even wants to be dropped on her home island because his lust is elevated by the idea that everyone there would be just like her. And yes, Steve Trevor makes Diana wear glasses to hide her beauty, which is a bit sexist as well. Such moments are my only real quibbles with the film, but at least Patty Jenkins' camera never ogles her. There are no lecherous POV's or up-the-skirt shots like a few that made their way into BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN. Jenkins made sure to keep such things at bay. Even Wonder Woman's costume doesn't have the plunging neckline like it did in the comic books and the Lynda Carter TV series from the 70's. This movie is all the better for avoiding easy sexism. And frankly, so is the audience. 

CHRIS PINE BREAKS YOUR HEART
When Chris Pine was announced as Steve Trevor, we knew he’d ace the funny aspects of the flying ace. (He's an expert comic performer - just check out his roles in SMOKIN’ ACES and INTO THE WOODS.) But who knew he’d break our hearts here? When he dances with Diana in the snow and confesses he has no idea what a normal life is like, there is such sadness in his admission that it creates a lump in one’s throat. And Pine does his best screen acting ever when Trevor sacrifices himself by taking out the threat of the bombs on that big plane in the third act. As he realizes doing so will win the war, his face shows pride, but then it turns to fear at the prospect of dying, and ultimately, he looks sad as he wonders if Diana heard him tell her he loves her. It made me cry. I'll bet it made everyone watching in theaters cry. Such a moving movie moment. Here’s hoping Pine's an early contender for an Oscar too.

THE STAKES OF WORLD WAR I GROUND THE STORY
There's nothing wrong with fighting the Loki’s of the galaxy, or made-up blob monsters mixing Kryptonite with Lex Luthor’s DNA, but a genuine historical war adds so much weight. In “The war to end all wars”, millions died or returned home maimed, and Jenkins makes sure we are keenly aware of such stakes at play throughout WONDER WOMAN. 

THE VILLAINS ARE TRULY VILLAINOUS
David Thewlis, Danny Huston, and Elena Anaya have all played villainous characters before and they’re so very good at it. Here, they also play baddies, and they truly know how to bring out a character's evil side. Action movies need strong bad guys. The success of good vs. evil stories depend on them. This film knows that and wrote three, count 'em three, truly vicious and evil adversaries into the story for our intrepid heroine to fight.

THE ACTION SCENES REFLECT DIANA'S CHARACTER
Sure, there’s plenty of Zach Snyder's slow-motion tropes to accentuate the action here. He did develop the story and produce the film, after all. But here, when Jenkins slows the action down, it’s not done to show off filmmaking technique, it's to highlight Diana’s strategic fighting style. The Amazonian isn’t out to be a killing machine, she's out to stop more carnage. That's why she doesn't slaughter at will. Instead she is shown tripping up opponents by sliding their legs out from under them with hers. Diana often takes away their weapons too, or smashes them, rendering them useless as well. She also just knocks out a lot of the German soldiers. Granted, Diana does kill some, but by and large, her fighting remains humane.

THE BACKSTORY IS FASCINATING
Often a backstory can bog down a movie, but in this one it’s utterly  fascinating. The island of women could be a film all its own. All their training, the legend of Zeus and Ares, the hierarchy - it makes for a great narrative wholly on its own before Steve Trevor’s plane bothers to crash into the island’s waters. And in future films, if Diana ever returns home, it will be a welcome addition to future tellings.  

NONETHELESS, SHE PERSISTED
Could the timing of a strong woman persisting, and winning come at a more appropriate time? Whether it was Ariana Grande returning to Manchester after the horrors of the London concert bombing, or his female victims united against Bill Cosby in court, or Angela Merkel emerging as the leader of the western world when Trump dumped all over NATO and pulled the USA out of the Paris accord agreement, this week was all about women standing tall and showing incredible heroism. Interestingly, Gal Gadot described feminism as equality, essentially stating that the word stands for people recognizing women as equals. Diana/Wonder Woman certainly demonstrated her leadership and equality to any male on screen, if not her downright superiority in every way. So many women demonstrate similar strengths all day long in every capacity throughout the world too. Thus, WONDER WOMAN is truly capturing the zeitgeist of the moment. She is that moment.

TWO NEW MOVIES MAKE THE NUMBER ONE MISTAKE THAT HORROR FILMS MAKE


In the five years that I was the Chicago Horror Movie Examiner, while that online newspaper was in existence, I saw a lot of scary films. Thus, watching anything labeling itself a frightener helped me identify what makes horror work on a macro level, as well as a micro one. Many horror movies could boast of quality budgets, high production values, and expert acting, yet if the script was problematic, none of that mattered. As the adage goes, "If it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage." And in all my years as a fan of horror, long before being paid to critique such movies, I realized that the single most egregious mistake a horror piece could make was creating characters that acted too stupid to truly invest in. 

Unfortunately, two new frighteners that just opened make that critical error, repeatedly. There is much to recommend in both IT COMES AT NIGHT and AWAKENING THE ZODIAC, as they’re well done on several levels, but they have filled their stories with stupid characters that act inanely. Rather than covering my eyes in fear, I was rolling them in frustration.

IT COMES AT NIGHT is actually an exceptionally well-shot and acted one, written and directed by Trey Edward Shults in his feature debut. Unfortunately, his movie makes a lot of rookie mistakes and ultimately crumbles apart. In fact, for me, he makes an unforgivable error right off the bat in his very title. Qualifying something as "It", a pronoun, suggests that there will be some sort of monster or entity attacking from the darkness. It conjures up B-movie type horror, to be perfectly honest. This film isn't like that though, and even worse, there is no "it" that comes at night, but rather, just a person who gets the plot rolling. To suggest he's an "it" is misleading and rather egregious. Why play games with the title, especially when your horror movie aims to be a more serious work. It's trying to be a savvy dissertation on desperate people in a nihilistic apocalypse tale, but the title belies that. 

Indeed, Shults’ story introduces his audience to a lone family that has boarded up their woodland house to keep out some sort of scourge that has swept the nation. Thus, these survivors rarely go outside, and they don gas masks when they believe the society crippling contagion to be at its most threatening. That’s how we are introduced to dad Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their 17-year-old son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.). They are wearing masks to prevent being infected as they prepare to mercy kill Sarah's infected father. Grandpa (David Pendleton) is rolled outside in a wheelbarrow, laid in a shallow grave, and shot in the head. To ensure his disease doesn't becomes airborne or infest the land, they burn his corpse. So far, quite good. But almost immediately after that, these hitherto smart people start displaying incredible acts of utter stupidity.

Late one night, an intruder breaks into their home. He’s crafty, given that there’s only one entrance to this elaborate two-story cabin, and everything else is boarded up. But he smartly finds entry, but is stupidly loud in his entrance. The clanking and clomping about Will (Christopher Abbott) happens to be out searching for food and supplies, but would any thief enter an unknown house with such racket? I don't think so. It's dumb, and it's there just to create a scare. But it's overplayed. Then when he's caught by Paul et al., Will makes no effort to communicate with them in a proper way that would explain his need for supplies given the landscape and crisis. Instead, he says little which allows Paul, also acting rashly, to drag Will out to the woods, tie him to a tree, cover his mouth with duct tape, and cover his head with a bag. 

Now, wouldn’t Paul want to know what’s going on? Immediately? He could ask who Will is, or if maybe there's news of a cure or something else to stem the tide of death sweeping the land. Perhaps Paul could ask if Will was trying to warn him of worse marauders out there. But none of this seems to enter the patriarch's mind, a man whom we later find out, is a teacher. If he's an educator, then why not let Will educate him on his motives? Paul also has a rifle which definitely gives him him an upper hand, but he acts like a dumb rube lynching a man he knows precious little about. Worse yet, he essentially leaves him out in the wilderness to die. That is not rational behavior, it doesn't help Paul's family, and it turns audience sympathies against him. Ten minutes into the film and the filmmaker is already leaving too many questions for an audience.  

And why on earth does Paul cover Will's mouth with duct tape? His screams are still heard from all around, even though his words aren't legible. Indeed, his noisiness would invite other human marauders, let alone wild animals looking for food too. Such actions even agitate the family pooch, who barks loudly and creates even more unnecessary noise. Are these people really that unthinking?

The next morning, Paul does decide to interrogate his prisoner as he's survived the night, and finds out that Paul has a family nearby. He also has goats and chickens. Will offers to comingle his fare with Paul, and Paul accepts his offer. Soon, Will’s wife Kim (Riley Keough) and young boy Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) are moving onto the grounds, along with their animals. They’re now one big family, and in a rather corny montage, we seem them becoming friends, but the happy days don’t last long.  

From there, this brood of characters start to do dumb things that invite their ruin and lose audience empathy. These people are supposed to be cagey survivors who’ve lasted by being shrewd and careful, yet they drag the dog with them wherever they go. He makes noise constantly and shows a tendency to be uncontrollable, so why take him out? For protection? Good heavens, they already have rifles, so what the hell are they doing? The true reason he’s taken out is so Shults can have him escape and become an easy victim in lazy horror storytelling. It's one of the easiest things to do in a horror movie, and anyone with even a passing familiarity with Blake Snyder, or the genre of horror, should know better than to so blithely sacrifice the family pet.

It’s also silly that Shults' script has Travis wander around the house at night constantly, turning him into one creepy voyeur. In doing so, Travis develops a crush on Kim. He listens to her make love to Will  and that builds his lust more. Travis even flirts with Kim when he gets the chance to be alone with her, but to what purpose? It feels like manufactured conflict, not genuine character behavior, especially considering that they’re in the middle of an apocalypse, and that Kim also happens to be a happily married woman. Travis' youth shouldn’t be an excuse for such asinine behavior. He is written as the weak link, but Shults overplays the youth's stupidity at almost every turn. Travis is too weak, cowardly, and disrespectful to give a shit about. 

Travis' most absurd behavior comes in the third act. He stupidly wanders into the quarantined room where grandpa died and finds Andrew there. The boy appears to be in a trance, muttering to himself. The room was locked and covered in plastic, to keep any contagion cloistered, but Travis enters anyway. Then he takes Andrew by the hand and returns him to his room. Does any of that make sense? Lives are at stake and yet the film continues to have its characters act less like people and more like the next certain victim as the contrived plotting now demands.

Then, when the two families discover what happened with Travis and Andrew, they agree to quarantine the families to see if one or the other is now infected. But does that stop Travis from disobeying such instructions? Of course not. He hears an argument between Will and Kim, thusly choosing to investigate on his own without waking his folks. Why, oh why, wasn’t he the one who ran away and became infected instead of the dog two reels back?

At the climax, the numbskull behavior reaches its zenith, as tempers flare, cool heads fail, and the rifles come out. Now all the character perform inanely, most egregious being Sarah who has an opportunity to shoot Will as he pummels Paul's head with the butt of his rifle and doesn't until four or five blows are administered. How can one root for such imbeciles?

The fact is, we can't. Horror fans, at least the truly discerning ones, the smarter audiences, have grown too sophisticated for such pandering to violence and contrivances in stories. We have been laughing at idiots who enter a room they shouldn’t in horror movies for decades and decades now. Hell, Edgar Wright parodied it in GRINDHOUSE back in 2007 with his faux trailer for “Don’t!” Filmmakers should know better. 

Horror franchises like FRIDAY THE 13th and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET started to suffer when audiences started cheering for Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger to prevail because their victims acted too stupidly to care for. If they're too dumb they just become more fools to be slaughtered. If they're smart, then their fate means something. The best horror has characters that act exceptionally clever in combating whatever evil they’re up against, be it Ripley in the ALIEN franchise, Charley Brewster in FRIGHT NIGHT, or even the comical Ash in the EVIL DEAD trilogy. The quickest way for horror to go south is to fill it with one idiotic character after another. 

It’s a shame really, as Shults clearly has talent. He knows how to build dread, edit suspense, and direct his able cast. But his amateur script, full of plot holes a semi-truck could drive through, ruins the good things he’s got going here. Horror movies are always going to need victims, but the key is to have them act as smart as possible and not be too easy of prey. When the audience starts groaning over their asinine behavior, you’ve lost them. And in horror, when you lose your audience, you’re dead.


The other horror movie that shouldn’t have made so many rookie mistakes is AWAKENING THE ZODIAC. (It's in theaters in select cities and on VOD all over the nation right now.) Indeed, a premise that promises the return of the legendary Zodiac killer should play as a natural for the genre. During the late 60’s and early 70’s, the serial killer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay area with a series of murders and called himself the Zodiac, made him one of the most feared bogeyman in the annals of true crime. He was clever, changing his M.O. to throw off investigators, and he was cocky, taunting the public and press with letters boasting of his ‘achievements.’ Heck, the arrogant prick even called into a crime show once to banter with famed California attorney Melvin Belli. The fact that the Zodiac was never caught, and that there have been dozens of theories about just who he was, gives any filmmaker a lot of license to play in the sub-genre known as “historical faction.” And indeed, this horror movie mines from such to explore a serial killer being chased some 50 years after his heyday. 

Unfortunately, this one in less interested in truly examining the Zodiac and his crimes in a meaningful way. It mostly just scratches the surface of what he did, and what history is discussed is done mostly through heavy-handed expositional dialogue. Sure, the Zodiac's infamous ciphers show up and breaking their code becomes a key part of the plot here, but the film's real interest lies elsewhere, mostly in the shabby and shambling comedy of the two main characters playing detective as they hunt for the aged killer. 

The story purports that the Zodiac migrated east after his spree of death and violence on the west coast, and that somehow he laid roots in Virginia. Even more amazing here is that the plot hinges on the idea that the killer made home movies of his exploits. Still, most incredibly, the story would have us believe that the Zodiac would keep them sequestered in an old storage locker. Really? His greatest crimes, documented, but left to rot in a box somewhere?  Wouldn't such valuables be kept close, especially since their discovery turns the old killer back into a crafty menace hoping to keep them secret? 

The people that discover the dusty old films happen to be a local married couple who are down on their luck, and the crux of the film deals with their escapades as amateur sleuths. Mick (Shane West) and Zoe Branson (Leslie Bibb) are supposed to be low-income hicks, but of course they're ridiculously good-looking and fit, thus rendering the casting off right from the contract signing. The two characters live in a trailer park, and are looking for a big score to save their meager pocketbooks. Mick blows three months’ rent to buy the contents of that abandoned storage locker hoping to find jewelry or antiques that will deliver a big pay day. Instead, they find the Zodiac home movies and hopes for big bucks becomes a real possibility. 

They take their findings to crusty friend Harvey (Matt Craven), and together the three start investigating the locker's history, as well as that of the notoriously famous fiend who's in the films. From there, they start heading out to town, asking all sorts of questions about the Zodiac and in doing, create quite a spectacle. Rather than being subtle and clever, the three act like virtual bulls in a china shop, pissing off locals, drawing oodles of attention to themselves, and attracting the obvious interests of the hidden killer. 

And to make matters where, the whole time they're investigating their precious find, Mick and Zoe are constantly fighting. Clearly, what director Jonathan Archer was going for here, along with his fellow screenwriter colleagues Jennifer Archer and Mike Horrigan, was for banter a la that of the bickering detective couples at the heart of MOONLIGHTING or REMINGTON STEELE. But the quips and zingers that Mick and Zoe fling at each other barely pass for the cornball wit one would've found on an old episode of HEE-HAW. It's all rube comedy, with dropping g's and feisty folk galavanting about in cut-off shorts and shirts, but it betrays the needs of the horror plot. Granted, Mick and Zoe aren't meant to be Holmes and Watson, but did they have to be so much like Holmes and Yo-Yo? (If you get that reference, you know your 70's trivia!)

West and Bibb are capable actors, attractive in their chemistry as well, but they overplay the shtick. After a few reels, the film starts to feel less and less like a thriller and more like a straining romantic comedy. To make the film play even sillier, the script unwisely only introduces two possible suspects as the aged Zodiac. It's dumb to only have two characters in their late 70's, knowing that's how old the Zodiac would be today. The audience surely will figure out who's who at least 30 minutes before these two yokels do.  

Sadly, there are few genuine scares in the film as well, and those that are there feel feeble. They tend towards the cliched as well. Before Harvey can tell anyone that he’s figured out the cipher, he’s offed by the Zodiac, of course. And when Mick calls Zoe to tell her that he’s discovered that the man she’s chasing down the road is the genuine article, she can’t be bothered to listen and conveniently hangs up her cell. All the better to keep her clueless, of course, as the plot demands. Then, at the end, the filmmakers trot out one of the oldest and most mildew-infested tropes of the genre. They resurrect the Zodiac a couple of times even after he's been "killed." I guess they'd rather have him act like Jason Voorhees than an actual true crime human being, but still, why doesn't anyone shoot the bad guy twice in these things to ensure he's dead?  

AWAKENING THE ZODIAC doesn’t aim particularly high, that's true, and perhaps I'm being too hard on it. It aims to be merely a ‘feel good’ thriller, something you might enjoy at a drive-in theater during the dog days of summer, and not a worthy companion piece to David Fincher's ambitious classic from 2007. But can’t a drive-in movie be smarter than this? Can't the characters, even if they're country bumpkins, act smarter than a fourth grader?

A lot of horror fans may accept such shortcomings, satisfied with a few good bumps in the night and one or two chills down their spine, but horror should aim higher. Creating a sense of dread throughout, writing characters that are smart foils for the monsters, and placing all of them in a genuine battle of wits for their lives - these are the signs of elevated genre. Filmmakers should care enough to bring their A game, even if they're making a B movie. 

Friday, June 2, 2017

A CHURCHILL AS YOU’VE NEVER SEEN HIM BEFORE


In 1950, Time magazine didn’t choose a “Man of the Year” for their cover story. They decided upon a “Man of the Half Century.” That man, declared by Time’s editors, was the one they deemed as having the most impact on the world for the first fifty years from 1900-1945. They wrote about his contribution, this way, as he helped stem the chaos of the first half of the 20th century:
“As the Twentieth Century plunged on, long-familiar bearings were lost in the mists of change. Some of the age's great leaders called for more & more speed ahead; some tried to reverse the course. Winston Churchill had a different function: his chief contribution was to warn of rocks ahead, and to lead the rescue parties. He was not the man who designed the ship; what he did was to launch the lifeboats. That a free world survived in 1950, with a hope of more progress and less calamity, was due in large measure to his exertions.” 
No wonder Winston Churchill, Time's Man of the Half Century,  continues to fascinate. According to IMDB.com there are no fewer than 67 titles centering on his legacy, in documentary form, as well as scripted dramas. And in our current cinematic age of one superhero movie after the next, it’s important to realize who the real heroes of the world have been, and perhaps that is what drove the filmmakers to once again tell a story about a man who indeed saved the world. Yet, this new take, a theatrical release simply entitled CHURCHILL, is a very different take on the man's heroics. It focuses on the fears and foibles of the man Time lauded for calling out the "rescue parties." 

Written by Alex von Tunzelman, directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, and starring veteran character actor Brian Cox in the title role, CHURCHILL presents a much different picture of “The British Bulldog” than we’ve ever seen before. Cox manages to physically embody the man almost perfectly, in all the ways one would expect.  He's got the gate, the weight, the facial expressions, the way Churchill exclaimed "victory", or held his cigar down pat. There are shots of him in the film that are utterly uncanny in conjuring up the WWII leader, that's how good his resemblance is. The differences from other portrayals exists in the inner portrayal. Cox's Churchill is wildly different from what most other portrayals. The range of emotions, from pride to panic, make this a wholly arresting and daringly new take on the venerable movie bio favorite. And it's often exceedingly hard to watch. The Churchill here is fallible to a fault, petty and rash, and battling more inner demons that Regan in THE EXORCIST. 

In most scripted takes on Churchill, he is almost always portrayed as the irascible yet stalwart statesman. Strong, certain, a bit of a curmudgeon, blunt and righteous in his honesty. This is the Churchill that Time magazine honored, and that most historians focus on, but this showcases more than just that. This explores more of a man torn between duty and dread, history and the future, and how it was ripping him apart inside. It's not a cradle-to-grave biography, but rather one focusing on a specific and short period in a person's life. The focus here is on the battles Churchill had with the other leaders on the Allied side as they readied for the riskiest invasion of the war effort - D-Day. 


There have been many explorations of that famous battle as well onscreen, but few have shown the discourse between the leaders plotting the strategic game-changer that D-Day turned out to be as it is presented here. Tunzelman’s and Teplitzky’s effort shines a light on the frenzy and almost panic seizing Churchill in his worries about the timing and effectiveness of such a large scale invasion. And frankly, as presented here, that Herculean-sized battle was almost as ginormous as the fight raging within the Prime Minister.

Churchill suffered from depression, what he liked to call “his black dog", and according to today's knowledge regarding various mental states, his condition seemed to have been a classic case of bipolar disorder. Thus, this film presents Churchill as both bulldog and black dog. And it's hard to watch. It's quite alarming to see him on edge so dramatically. It's even frightening to watch this man we think of as so stalwart, with his sweat and panic stressing him out so completely. It is in many ways, incessantly unflattering. He's portrayed here as willy-nilly, raw-nerved, and snappish in his arguments with other leaders. His worries that the invasion could be a trap, or another version of World War I’s disastrous Gallipoli, and it propels him to lash out all his contemporaries like a bull in a china shop. Yes, he was a soldier who saw way too much death and destruction in his youth, and commanded the disaster at Gallipoli, but what are we to make of the man who started to stave off Hitler early on, before American got off its duff and joined the war effort, shown here as he all but spits and sputters his fear of battle in the war room? 

Is this truly Churchill? Indeed, his depression was at times all-consuming. Still, this film pushes this little known part of his story to the forefront and downplays much of his history as the brilliant PM he indeed was. Despite many films and television efforts showcasing parts of Churchill's crotchety temperament, whether it was in award-winning turns by Albert Finney or Brendon Gleeson, none have made the lovable Brit so unattractive. 

At one point in the film, Churchill goes toe-to-toe with General Dwight Eisenhower (John Slattery), commander of the U.S. and Allied Forces, in a private conversation. The American regards his British partner as an unstable old fool or even worse, a leader who's completely lost his mojo. Was it as bad as this scene suggests? Historical biopics onscreen necessitate filling in the blanks for conversations not wholly documented, but this one is unlike most you've seen before. The two men seem bitchy and even petty with each other, and it isn't helped by the fact that Ike is played in a somewhat dismissive and superior way by Slattery. (He's still channeling too much of that Roger Sterling one-percenter smarm from MAD MEN.) Some of their dialogue together seems trite, on-the-nose, and petty in a high school sort of way. But it's showcasing the fallibility of these two men. They aren't just world leaders, they're also men with egos and insecurities. 


Historian Tunzelman's screenplay may be reaching in places like this, but his desire is to show something different than before. He aims to show just how Churchill’s mental condition affected all that he was doing, even in private conversations about strategy with Ike. Tunzelman shows the ravaged, exhausted and worried Churchill at every turn. And in making his conversation with Eisenhower play the way it does, it renders every moment of Churchill's battle with depression one that could easily lose his friends and allies. 

Some have criticized this film for being over-the-top in both how hysterical Churchill is often portrayed in such instances, as well as how some of those scenes have ‘actorly' written all over them. And indeed, veteran actor Cox tears into such scenes with sheer gusto, underlining his character's neediness with every word, gesture and arched eyebrow. It's a shocking portrayal due to the fact that Cox is usually such a restrained presence onscreen.

His screen roles tend towards the intensely quiet villain type. Be it his droll, menacingly bland delivery as the original Hannibal Lecter in MANHUNTER (1986), or his cordial ruthlessness as William Stryker in X-MEN 2 (2003), or even his CIA spook world-weary assessment of everything in THE BOURNE SUPREMACY (2004), Cox almost always underplays, and to great effect. Here though, he pitches his performance loud and manic, often overheating. It comes off as too much a lot of the time, especially when Teplitzky keeps his camera close to his actors’ faces. Still, it’s clear what Cox and Teplitzky have in mind. They're wanting us to be uncomfortable. They want us to feel as discombobulated as the Churchill we're being asked to identify with. They're going for something bigger and more daring here, and Cox bravely gives it his all. And it's enthralling, even if at times, it seems off-putting.  (BTW…it’s interesting that John Lithgow is winning awards for his portrayal of an old, conflicted Churchill wracked with a similar fears and shaky emotions on THE CROWN for Netflix. We’ll see if Cox fares as well come awards-time for his harried take. Hopefully, he will merit serious consideration.)

Cox’s scenes with Miranda Richardson as his wife Clementine play very well and may be the best in the film. Relying on his wife for her no-nonsense approach and often blunt assessment of him, Churchill is more recognizable. And likable too. The two are wondrous together and Richardson seems to bring out a tenderness in Cox that makes his Churchill even more fascinating and complex. Interestingly, both veteran thespians remind us with their bold and brave portrayals just how much higher they both should be on the list of the world's greatest actors. They are two of our absolute finest and have been for decades. It's great to see these two, who should be household names, given such juicy, starring roles here. They deserve them. And then some.


The cinematography by David Higgs, the production design headed up by Chris Roope, and the costuming from Bartholomew Cariss are all strong, as you’d expect them to be in a historical epic. But even here, Teplitzky pushes them to make things as startling as his story. Higgs uses lots of poetic, even esoteric, slow-motion images to convey metaphors for Churchill’s wandering psyche. Churchill’s tossed and rolling hat by the sea could almost earn a supporting performance credit. Some of the costuming is just as on-the-nose as that derby that's rollicking in the sand, out of control. Yes, Churchill schlepping around in his skivvies serves to show his everydayness and his vulnerability, but it plays a bit comical. It's  by design, of course, all part of this very different kind of bio. This is a warts and all depiction, even going so far as to put a few more blemishes on those warts.  

In some ways, this film reminded me of THIRTEEN DAYS, the 2000 historical drama starring Kevin Costner and Bruce Greenwood. That film, written by David Self and directed by Roger Donaldson, portrayed JFK’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 as an often petty, uncertain, and manic conversation between leaders trying their best to stave off a nuclear holocaust with Russia, but not always showing maturity and rationality in attempting to. One can argue about certain aspects of that historical portrait as well, but like here, it was intended to show that heroes from history must always be regarded as real people, fallible and vulnerable. CHURCHILL, like that effort, doesn't want to present statues of demigod-like heroes, or dry Smithsonian documents under glass. Instead, such biopics aims to make history breathe, seething with vigor and vividness, and all the more incredible for just how human a drama they were. 

The meaningfulness of CHURCHILL, opening today, is two-fold. First, it showcases a leader with all sorts of terrible problems and issues nonetheless rising to the occasion and doing the proper and righteous thing on the world stage. And two, considering what happened with NATO and the Paris accords this past week, this new film arrives with a timeliness that could not be more uncanny. Churchill's story here should be required viewing as a primer for our current American President as he deals with friends and foes on that world stage. Is it possible to upload the film into his Twitter feed? 

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

DEAR ACADEMY, GIVE RIDLEY SCOTT AN HONORARY OSCAR

Original caricature by Jeff York of filmmaker Ridley Scott (copyright 2017)

Dear Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,

This is my fourth in a series of five open letters intended to place certain worthy candidates on your radar for this year's Governors Award. In the past weeks I have presented the following who are long overdue for some Oscar love: filmmaker David Lynch, actress Catherine Deneuve, and actor Kurt Russell. My fourth candidate is a man who truly stands as one of the greatest multi-hyphenates in all of show business. He’s a director, producer, writer, production designer, and also, one of the biggest game changers that the film world has ever seen. He is Sir Ridley Scott. 

Scott has been nominated three times for the Best Director Oscar, yet hasn't won, even though one of his epics won Best Picture - GLADIATOR. With 40 plus film-directing credits to his name, three writing credits, and 123 producer credits listed on his IMDB page, Scott is clearly one of the giants in the industry. He’s thrived all over television too, producing all sorts of shows, specials, movies and documentaries. (He's won two Emmys there and been nominated an additional seven times.) And as if all of that isn’t enough for this over-achiever, Scott has given us one icon after another onscreen, from the Xenomorph to Ripley to Replicants to Maximus to Thelma and Louise. 

Scott is now 79, yet he is still going strong. He has no fewer than 59 projects in development according to IMDBPro.com. Whew! ALIEN: COVENANT, just out this summer, is the third movie he's directed in that franchise and the series is almost 40 years old now. Scott's name on any project makes it a big deal and ensures attention, even a series in its 38th year. And just watch the renewed attention that BLADE RUNNER will get later this season when the eagerly awaited sequel BLADE RUNNER 2049 opens. Scott directed the former, now considered a classic, and he executive produces the latter. 

Science fiction isn't the only place he's thrived of course. Few directors have had as vast a resume as he does, nor have they directed as many different types of films as Scott. He's directed dozens of impressive films and in just about every genre too, from science fiction (THE MARTIAN) to action/adventure (BLACKHAWK DOWN) to thrillers (BODY OF LIES) to character studies (AMERICAN GANGSTER) to historical epics (GLADIATOR).   

One of the great things about Scott as a director is how he has toiled in genre without ever condescending to it. And with ALIEN and BLADE RUNNER, he created extraordinary works at a time when science fiction films weren't prestige films the way they are today after the impact of STAR WARS and STAR TREK on the big screen. In fact, the sci-fi genre was still considered the realm of B-movies back in the 70's and early 80's, but Scott's artistry helped change all that. He approached the genre with his A-game, and the world of movies were immeasurably better for his devotion and craft.

In fact, what Scott did with ALIEN usurped so much of what one expects from sci-fi-fi or horror. For starters, Scott strove to cast his monster movie with established and respected character actors, not cheap talent, and thus he chose the likes of Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright and Harry Dean Stanton. He also put John Hurt and Ian Holm, theatrically trained UK actors in key parts too. Most significantly, he cast an unknown for the lead of Ripley - newcomer Sigourney Weaver. Because she was a newbie, audiences didn't know what to make of her character. Was she good, bad, what? Scott wanted to keep us guessing and out of sorts. He clearly loved that Dan O'Bannon's script screwed with storytelling conventions left and right, even killing off the stalwart captain so early in the film. Scott enhanced that great conceit even further by casting handsome, well-known leading man Tom Skerritt in the part.

Another brilliant move of Scott's was how he treated the space ship in ALIEN. Gone was the gleaming futuristic sterility of Kubrick or Roddenberry. Scott's spaceship looked used and even grimy. He gave it all a lived in look and it helped to ground things and make it all more relatable. He also shrewdly contracted artist H.R. Giger to create the alien creature and design the interiors of the Nostromo ship as well. Giger's monster was complex, yet streamlined. It had a simple dolphin-esque snout but then when it opened its mouth two sets of vicious, gnashing teeth were revealed. No one had seen anything quite like it.And Giger's ship interiors were just as menacing as the monster. The ship's passageways were dark, ornate and full of claustrophobic, creepy corridors. Even the exposed bric-a-brac looked similar to the alien's skeletal structure. It made for a perfect camouflage that the intrepid and sinister villain could disappear into.   

Scott also amped up the film's sound design, replacing typical orchestral underscoring with something more guttural, animalistic, and unsettling. Gone were orchestral melodies and recognizable strings. Instead, he instructed veteran film composer Jerry Goldsmith to unleash a cacophony of harsh noises, synthesized tones, and repeating rhythms. The score is also just as impressive for its silences. If no one can hear you scream in space, then it was clearly Scott's conceit that silence was just as terrifying while you waited for something awful to happen. 

And what Scott gleaned from others only enhanced his efforts in ALIEN. Wisely following the "less is more" example that Steven Spielberg so brilliantly employed in 1975’s JAWS, Scott chose to show very little of his alien during the story, despite Giger's elaborately detailed vision. We never get a full shot of the alien until the very end, and while it's terrifying, the parts of his whole were just as effective. 

And then of course, there is BLADE RUNNER, Scott's brilliant meditation on man, machines, and the future of humanity. The film was widely panned and misunderstood upon its release in 1982, considered far too bleak and depressing. But now, audiences and critics have caught up to Scott's vision and it's recognized as a masterful accomplishment. 

 Scott again created a complete and complex world in BLADE RUNNER. His landscape was full of rich details and crowded layers of buildings and skyscrapers. He imbued his setting with a bleakness, constantly under the threat of rain. And he buttressed the glamour of neon and giant, alluring outdoor advertisements up against the city's gloomy citizenry moping around underneath. It was an awful world, rendered even worse by a false narrative of beauty hawking pills and getaways. The film is a tragic poem really in its way, mourning the loss of humanity in a too crowded and too technically obsessed society. It was prophetic and moving, and it may very well be Scott's finest achievement.

There were many others that shone too. BLACKHAWK DOWN stands as one of the most lauded war films of the last 30 years. WHITE SQUALL  and G.I. JANE are tense, character studies that are only becoming more and more appreciated with each new year. Even THE COUNSELOR, a film that many hated when it came out in 2013, looks better with repeated viewings. (It's certainly one of the most tense examinations of greed and gullibility ever to appear on screen.) And of course, GLADIATOR not only won tons of prizes, but it reinvented the sword and sandal epic, spawning a host of imitators on the big and small screen. Did you also know that Scott, in the middle of his burgeoning film career in the 80's found time to direct the most popular Super Bowl commercial of all time? That's right, he is the man who brought us the game-changing spot "1984" from Apple. 

Scott has received all sorts of acclaim throughout his career, and two years ago many pundits and Oscar experts expected him to be the frontrunner for Best Picture and Best Director with THE MARTIAN. His ticking clock thriller about a man lost in space not only was one of 2015's most critically lauded films, with a fresh score of 92% at RottenTomatoes.com, but it was also a humongous hit. It racked up $228 million in the USA during its theatrical run, and $552 million overall worldwide. And even though it won big at the Golden Globes and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, Scott was passed over in the Best Director category. He did receive a nod for producing THE MARTIAN, as it was a Best Picture nominee, but when the film failed to garner a directing nod for Scott, the film's shot at the top prize diminished and it finished an Oscar-less also-ran. 

The Academy did show him some big love when GLADIATOR took Best Picture of course, but  but the award for Best Director that year went to Steven Soderbergh (TRAFFIC). Interestingly, in the three times that Scott has been nominated for a Best Director Oscar, all the genres have been different. He was nominated for BLACKHAWK DOWN in 2001, and 10 years before that, for his exemplary character study THELMA & LOUISE.

On the face of it, THELMA & LOUISE probably seems the least likely to be a Ridley Scott film. After all, it was a small character piece, a two-hander really, and its two main characters were women. Scott's films often overflow with testosterone, but not here. This film was about friendship and women fighting for their rights in society. In picking such a project, Scott boldly tread into new waters. Yet, even as different as this project was for him, the results he mined were again spectacular. Both Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis were up for Best Actress, and the film was an instant hit, striking a true chord in society. It also started a crucial dialogue in the nation about women, their right to say "no", and their stature in a modern world still filled with far too much prejudice and patriarchy. 

Callie Khouri wrote a bold and daring Oscar-winning script, and Scott's direction matched it the whole way. His direction combined the tension of a chase picture with the heartfelt examination of the tender friendship between the two female characters. And despite the exceptional cinematography and production design on display here once again, as after all, this was a Ridley Scott film, this outing played differently. Scott kept everything very close to the actors, using his camera to concentrate on their faces. That was his story here and Scott reigned in his showmanship for some of his most affecting work.

And at the climax, when Thelma and Louise make their uncompromising choice to end their lives by driving into the canyon rather than surrender, Scott heightened its shock and poignancy. He shoots their suicide as heroic, in slow motion, with the music rising to underline their unwillingness to kowtow.  Khouri's script was a brilliant middle finger to the tropes of typical Hollywood narrative, let alone male-dominated society,  and Scott went right along with her over that cliff. It was a big ending, outrageous really, and boy, did it play. It still is one of the greatest and most audacious finishes ever to a film.



Throughout his forty years, Ridley Scott has been an artist and filmmaker pushing the boundaries of what the medium can do, where stories can go, what genre means, and how characters act in their environments. He is an impeccable craftsman, and few can match his talent to frame, light, edit, or choreograph characters in their surroundings. Scott could still easily win an Oscar outright in competition, yet as he approaches his 80th year it's time to honor him for his lifetime of brilliant work. He's already been knighted by the Queen. Isn't it time the Academy bestowed a career-capper of their own upon this incredible filmmaker?  

Sincerely,
Jeff York

Film critic for The Establishing Shot
Host of the Page 2 Screen podcast for the International Screenwriters Association
Member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle