Friday, December 23, 2011

THE HEART OF THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO

Did you know that the original title for Stieg Larsson’s international bestseller The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was Men Who Hate Women? That, right there, is reason enough for a remake. That theme is worth bringing to a broader film audience, and let’s be honest, there are only so many Americans who are going to see the original Swedish language film version. (It’s not just that the distribution of foreign films is narrow, it’s that too many filmgoers in this country don’t want to read subtitles.) So, the more people who get to see this dark and political story, the better. And it is very political. Sexual politics is precisely what’s at stake in Larsson’s story.
Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander in the American remake of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.
Larsson’s female lead is Lisbeth Salander, the asocial, bisexual, hacker/investigator who became a new folk hero to 65 million readers. In the story, she joins forces with disgraced journalist Mikael Blomqvist to solve the mystery of a rich girl’s disappearance decades ago. Along the way, they also end up solving a series of related serial murders perpetrated upon young women. Larsson, who died from a heart attack in 2004, in his time was considered to be a liberal writer with a pro-feminism agenda, and it’s clear to anyone who’s read the book that that’s true. Many of the male characters populating his fiction are rapists and misogynists. And even his hero Mikael Blomqvist is not quite as honorable towards women as one would wish.

In the book, he’s quite the ladies’ man and doesn’t hesitate to blur the boundaries between his professional and personal lives. He even sleeps with his magazine’s married editor. And when he works with Lisbeth, they too become involved sexually. And it turns into something more intimate. It turns into admiration, affection, and yes, a form of loving.

That depth of feeling between the two main characters was missing from the first movie. Despite it being a terrific adaptation, and featuring a stunning performance by Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth, it didn’t show Lisbeth falling for Blomqvist. She’s never that vulnerable with her heart. This film version kept her tough and impenetrable, her character hardened by the brutality of men throughout her troubled life; from her abusive father to her sadistic guardian to various male thugs she encounters in her punk world. That informed Rapace’s performance and dominated it. And her Lisbeth always had the upper hand with Blomqvist. She not only helped him solve the mysteries, but she saved him from being killed by the serial killer. And at the end, she even helps him prove that the businessman Blomqvist ‘libeled’ was indeed just as dirty as the journalist suspected he was. Lisbeth really triggers the man’s downfall and restores Blomqvist’s good name. That is in keeping with the plot of the book. And director David Fincher and screenwriter Steve Zaillian have kept all that in their American version as well.
But what the Swedish version did not show, and the American film does, is the part of the book’s story that shows Lisbeth getting her heart broken. In the book and the American film, she still keeps Blomqvist at arms’ length, but she does fall for him. She let him in her head, her body and her heart. Her love for him is demonstrated by the purchase of an expensive leather jacket for Blomqvist as her Christmas gift to him. In the last pages of the book, and the last moments on screen in Fincher’s version, Lisbeth goes to his office to present the gift to him and then discovers him walking down the street, hand in hand, with his editor. They’re back together and Lisbeth is the last to know. It breaks her heart. And his easy dismissal of something so precious to her is the last straw for Lisbeth. She tosses the gift into a dumpster and shuts down permanently. It’s a devastating moment. And one where Larsson is telling the audience, along with Fincher and Zaillian in their screen version, that men victimize women over and over again. Not all are serial killers, and Blomqvist is essentially a good man, but he still stabs Lisbeth in the heart with his callousness. 

And that is what gives the American remake an extra layer of power that the Swedish original did not. And why everyone should see it, even those who know the book and the excellent Swedish film. They should also see it for Rooney Mara’s haunted and haunting performance. She brings all of Lisbeth’s personality to life, from the surliness to the loathing of societal pleasantries to the broken heart at the end.
What Rooney Mara looks like in real life.
Mara achieves something else that Rapace couldn’t. Because the Swedish actress has dark hair, eyes and features, and a tight, boyish body, she looked pretty authentic as the scrappy little Lisbeth. Mara on the other hand, is a willowy and beautiful with big, blue eyes and an ample chest and wide hips. She is more in costume because of it and it helps show how Lisbeth is hiding too.

At the end of the movie, when Lisbeth dons a blond wig and fashion-plate wardrobe disguise to put the nail in Blomqvist’s nemesis’ coffin, the scene is revelatory. This is what Lisbeth/Mara would look like if she played to her natural feminine beauty. She diminishes her own looks, arming herself in a Gothic ruse, to keep men away who would too easily want her just because she’s pretty. It’s a man’s world and a pretty girl always can find a place at the table. But Lisbeth doesn’t want any part of such shallow and surface acceptance.

She thought she found someone different in Blomqvist, someone who cared for her because he knew and respected her brains, body and soul. But she was wrong. And Mara shows how humiliating it is to be betrayed like that. When she sees Blomqvist cheating on her, her eyes fill with tears instantly. But then just as quickly, she tosses the gift away, and rides off on her motorcycle. The roar of the engine echoes the howl in her aching heart. Larsson, even in the piece’s denouement, reminds us of his original title. Too often men treat women with some form of hatred. Blomqvist isn’t a misogynist, but his callousness about Lisbeth’s affections murder what’s left of her wounded heart. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

WHAT'S REALLY GOING ON BETWEEN SHERLOCK HOLMES & DR. WATSON?

Is it possible for society, or Hollywood, to look at a man in his mid-40’s, who’s unmarried and asexual, without assuming he must be homosexual? That’s one of the questions that ran through my mind as I watched the new movie SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS. While the issue of Holmes sexuality has dogged the fictional character for decades now, it seems to have reached a new zenith in this sequel to the Robert Downey Jr. hit from 2009. Director Guy Ritchie and his screenwriters Michele & Kiernan Mulroney have dialed up the gay quotient here so dramatically that this one borders on being a mincing, drag show.
Robert Downey, Jr. in drag in SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS


During the press junket for the first film, Downey Jr. said he played Holmes as a homosexual. Various studio personnel associated with the picture quickly denied that, suggesting that Downey Jr. was only joking, but that interpretation does seem quite likely. And in A GAME OF SHADOWS, his performance has become an utter caricature.

In the most sniggering and blatant scene in the manic and over-produced sequel, Holmes interrupts the wedding night of his partner and friend Dr. Watson (Jude Law). He breaks into the newlywed’s private cabin on their honeymoon train to warn them of eminent danger heading their way from nemesis Professor Moriarity. To get on the train, and get past Moriarity’s minions, Holmes dresses in disguise, as is the want of the character. But the disguise he chooses here is female. And he makes for one ugly woman, as he hasn’t even bothered to shave his three-day Bohemian beard. Holmes then proceeds to throw Mrs. Watson off the train, saying it is for her safety. What it really does is allow Holmes to keep his hold on Watson. They even end up rolling around on the floor in a fight, which leads to them striking some positions belonging to the Kama Sutra. If anyone is going to project coitus with Watson, by God it’s going to be Holmes! And it will be played for sniggering chuckles that laugh at the character rather than laugh with him. It’s not too far off the bad comedic taste demonstrated by Adam Sandler in his recent cross-dressing debacle JACK & JILL.
Robert Downey in his first outing as SHERLOCK HOLMES two years ago.


So, is director Ritchie being a naughty schoolboy or is he being a bit homophobic? We know that Ritchie loves the world of macho men and thugs as evidenced by his body of work, but I won’t presume to provide a qualified psychological evaluation of his motives here. All I know is what shows up on the screen. And what has dominated his two Holmes movies now is a character that is quite ridiculous. He certainly doesn’t resemble the Holmes that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote. In addition to be overtly fey, Holmes here answers most of his conflicts with fisticuffs or martial arts, rather than little gray cells. I know that this franchise is trying to bring new fans into the Holmes fold, but do they have to be the TRANSFORMERS fans and the Willis and Stallone crowd?

Interpreting Holmes as gay could make for an interesting movie even though that was never the intent of Conan Doyle’s writing. The foundation of Holmes’ relationship with Dr. Watson in those original stories was that the consulting detective needed a roommate to help him pay the rent. And Watson was struggling to make ends meet in his medical practice so it made logical sense for them to move in together. And of course, the real reason Watson is there is to write Holmes’ stories. His first-hand accounts give the mysteries an immediacy that a third-person narrator could not.

Billy Wilder toyed with the possibility of a gay Holmes in his 1970 film THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. In that original story, not based on any actual one Conan Doyle wrote, a Russian ballerina wants Holmes to father her child, but to get out of that task, he tells her that he and Watson are 'involved.' Holmes wasn’t necessarily admitting to being gay, he was really just being anti-social. And shutting her fantasies down in the most immediate way. What was really Holmes' motivations was that he didn’t want to get that close to anyone, male or female.
Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke as Holmes & Watson in the British TV series from the 80's.


In the 1980’s British TV series THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, the finest adaptation of the Conan Doyle stories ever produced, the characters of Holmes and Watson were played as only friends. Even though Jeremy Brett, the best Holmes ever, was a bisexual, he never let that color his interpretation of the character. The way he related to his Watson’s (First David Burke, then later in the series, Edward Hardwicke) was based solely on what was there in Conan Doyle’s stories. His Holmes was prickly, arrogant, cocaine-addled, and mercurial, for sure, but he wasn’t gay. He didn’t notice a woman’s beauty, like that of his client in “The Sign of Four”, because Holmes rarely had time to register anything that wasn’t directly related to a case.
Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch in SHERLOCK on BBC TV.


In SHERLOCK, the one-year-old BBC series that places the titular detective in the modern world, that Holmes is much closer to Brett’s interpretation than that of Downey Jr. Played by the sublime Benedict Cumberbatch, his Sherlock is brilliant, brusque and anti-social, with no time for boys or girls as he is utterly obsessed by his job solving crimes. And his relationship with Watson (Martin Freeman) is more friendly and respectful than has often been portrayed in past versions, but there is nothing between them that suggests gay subtext. In this new telling, the homosexuality is that of villain Moriarity. He has not only admiration for his nemesis Holmes but also a bit of a man-crush on him as well.

Which brings us back to Guy Ritchie’s version. What is driving his take on Holmes which has led him to allow the character to become such a caricature? Does he essentially view the Holmes tales as comedies? Ripe for parody? Or has all that testosterone filling up his gangster movies gotten to him? Is he obsessed with men? Could the explanation for these strained and over-the-top forays be that elementary?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

THE BEST IN HORROR 2011


It’s that time of year, when movie critics start compiling their 10 Best lists. I'll compile mine as soon as I see all there is to see. (And God knows I'm still waiting for THE ARTIST, which was supposed to open here last weekend, but got pushed back 'til the 23rd. Sigh.) But for right now, I’m going to laud what I think was the best in horror this past year. In addition to writing this movie blog each week, I am also the horror movie critic for the Chicago Examiner online. (www.examiner.com) And I'm a big horror fan. So even though this is a movie blog, I'm going to note the high points of horror from this past year, on both the big screen and the small one. 

Here then are my first annual Scary’s. (Be afraid, Emmy’s and Tony’s. Be very afraid.)

The Scary for Best TV Horror
AMERICAN HORROR STORY is not only the best achievement in horror on TV this year, but for my money, it’s better than any scary movie I saw on the big screen in 2011. It’s not only pushed the limits of what TV can do, but what the horror genre can be anywhere. It’s a character-driven, dense and serious dissertation on what real evil is. And its horror is a million miles from the torture porn and buckets of blood still preoccupying big screen horror filmmakers. AMERICAN HORROR STORY knows that the real monsters are those who look like the family next door and yet are as vicious and horrible as any otherworldly creature. This is a haunted house tale, but all the ghosts stuffed into its eccentric LA home cannot compete with the mortals living in and around it: Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton & Taissa Farmiga as the twisted nuclear family, or Jessica Lange and Denis O’Hare as the interloping neighbors. And in a show that each week indicts some of America’s greatest homegrown villains, like the Manson girls or Richard Speck or those Columbine teens, that is really saying something. At first, I wondered how this show could go on week after week. Wouldn’t the family want to move out of such a dreadful place? But the more you watch, the more you realize, they’re perfect there. Hell, they’re home!
The Scary for Best Film Horror
One would not readily associate the name Pedro Almodovar with horror but this year he tread into the genre and walked away with the most disturbing frightfest of the year. His THE SKIN I LIVE IN is a modern day “Frankenstein” tale, deceptively beautiful and brightly lit, with all the lush, glamorous characteristics of Spain’s most famous filmmaker. But make no mistake, this story is not a pretty picture. It’s a tale of revenge and obsession. It’s about control, and the lengths one will go to attain it. Antonio Banderas plays the silky and suave plastic surgeon, willing to do all kinds of monstrous things to wield power. He keeps the beautiful Vera (Elena Anaya) trapped as a prisoner in his modern mansion, subjecting her to all forms of horrible medical experiments and procedures.  Towards the end of the film, the revelations of what he’s actually doing in the name of science are truly jaw-dropping. This movie shows that dark alleys and cobwebs aren’t needed to create horror. All that’s needed is one evil monster wreaking havoc, even if it’s one as handsome as Banderas.

The Scary for Best TV Horror Performance by an Actress
Jessica Lange gives a performance each week on AMERICAN HORROR STORY that is one part Blanche Dubois, one part Marilyn Monroe, and sprinkled with a generous helping of Carrie’s religious zealot mom. She plays Constance Langdon, the Southern belle and failed film ingénue who now spends her day inflicting harm on everyone in her web. She is the show’s greatest monster, throwing out vicious lines and smiling like the Chesire cat as she spews her bile. But despite the fact that Constance oozes sin, secrets and severity with each jaunty step, she is also a hurt little girl who was chewed up by Hollywood and spit out decades ago. Lange turns her into a tragic figure, one that can be seething, but is more often than not, rather sympathetic. She illustrates that those who know what hurt is deliver it best. Lange should win a lot of awards for this role. I’ll start by giving her my Scary for the year’s best female performance.


The Scary for Best Film Horror Performance by an Actor
The remake of FRIGHT NIGHT delighted me and that’s no small feat considering I am a huge fan of the original film from 1985. However, one of the things I liked even more in the new version here was the portrayal by Colin Farrell as Jerry, the vampire next door. He doesn’t play this vampire as a whispering ghoul, haunted by his never-ending existence. Instead he plays it like he's a kid who's delighted he gets to stay up all night, way past his bedtime. He’s loose, sly, a smile always forming at the corners of his mouth, he's like a car salesman who wants to get you in a blood red sports car. Farrell has become a really good actor, slipping off the leading man expectations plaguing him a decade ago. Here he’s enjoying playing a rich character, and as an actor, it makes him fearless and very funny. (This and his turn in HORRIBLE BOSSES made it a banner year for the Irishman.) Despite good reviews, this excellent horror film bombed at the box office. It’s now out on DVD, and you should check out this cheeky frightener featuring this luridly lovable performance by Farrell.

And now for some smaller, but still wonderfully horrific, Scary Awards:

The Scary for Best Score – Alberto Iglesias for THE SKIN I LIVE IN. Two great scores this year, his other being the one for TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY. Bravo, sir!

The Scary for Best Credit Sequence – AMERICAN HORROR STORY. The live babies are as scary as the dead ones in this minute of film that perfectly sets up the show's tone.


The Scary for Best Single Moment of Terror – INSIDIOUS. The shot above is what I'm talking about. See the movie and you'll jump out of your seat!

The Scary for Most Realistic Frightener – CONTAGION. I’m washing my hands 10 times a day now. At least. Thanks a lot, director Steven Soderbergh.

The Scary for Best Visual Effects – RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. It should be a lock for the Oscar too.

The Scary for Best Supporting Performance – Jennifer Carpenter on DEXTER. Deb is so good, she should have her own show. And Carpenter should have at least one Emmy.

The Scary for Best Horror Shorts  Fewdio.com Its short horror tales scare more in mere minutes than most full-length horror movies. Some in mere seconds. Amazing.

The Scary for Best Laughs in a Horror Movie – FRIGHT NIGHT. Though if we're talking unintentional laughs, then hands down it would have to be TWILIGHT: BREAKING DAWN, PART 1. What a horror that flick was, just not in the way they wanted it to be.

Well, that’s it for this year. It truly was a great year for horror on TV, what with AMERICAN HORROR STORY, THE WALKING DEAD and TRUE BLOOD. As for horror at the movies? Mmm, not so much. Frankly, I thought some of the GOP debates were more disturbing than most of this year’s horror films. I’m ready for some change we can believe in at the Cineplex. The New Year does look promising already though. The new UK trailer for THE WOMAN IN BLACK is incredibly eerie. Click this link and see what I mean. 

So I’m anxiously awaiting the new year. Scare me, 2012! 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

FEAST OR FAMINE AT YOUR LOCAL CINEPLEX

A funny thing happened on the way to the movies over Thanksgiving. I realized that the major releases, across the nation including Chicagoland, were kids movies. Not surprising as the kids had a four-day weekend. But so did the adults. So why was MY WEEK WITH MARILYN the only major movie release aimed at the over-10 crowd opening that week in the Windy City? I’m all for the likes of HUGO, THE MUPPETS, HAPPY FEET 2 and ARTHUR CHRISTMAS, but really? Only one adult movie?


There is a science to marketing and distributing movies. A copy of a movie costs about 2 grand these days so only so many movies are going to be released on 3000 screens at a time. Movies like TWILIGHT. (Sigh.) And I know there are all kinds of deals that have to be made with theater chains and distributors to help get a movie to market. And I know people who run studios have degrees in business and have probably estimated a movie’s opening within a decimal point of its potential audience, best release date and ROI.

However…

That means precious little to me as a film fan.


All I know is there are weeks where nothing adult-oriented comes out. Or, even worse, studios release dozens of films in the last two weeks of the year for those Oscar voters, and it’s overwhelming to try and rush out and see everything. It seems to be either feast or famine.

Now, this weekend, here in Chicago, we’re getting two adult-appeal movies with THE ARTIST and YOUNG ADULT. Then next week, three big movies open: TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, A DANGEROUS METHOD and SHERLOCK HOLMES: GAME OF SHADOWS. And then after that it’s a free-for-all with close to a dozen new films opening up. Does that make sense? Do you think all those movies will find an audience in the one or two days over the holidays that people might have time to go to the movies? Of course not. Sadly, some will be DOA financially because of a glutted market disabling their chances of finding an audience.

And it doesn’t have to be this way. There are so many weekends during the autumnal months where virtually nothing opens but cheesy horror movies. Why couldn’t TINKER TAILOR open then? It was released in England during that season and did huge business. Why wait until the last two weeks of December to release a film like that when it could easily get lost amongst the overcrowded holiday field?


The answer is Oscar. The studio releasing TINKER TAILOR thinks more award nominations will come their way if they are closer to the end of the year for those Academy members with short-term memories. But THE DESCENDANTS opened over a month ago and it’s still a sure-fire nominee in many major categories. MONEYBALL opened way before that and is figuring in 10 best lists across the board, as well as awards voting, and will likely get some major Oscar nominations too. Is it Oscar driving these releases? Or cowardice? Or some insane sense of tradition?

Whatever the data tells them, the studios will continue to glut the summer and Christmas seasons because that's the way it's always done. Small films will struggle to find a proper audience with little real studio backing. And when all is said and done, good movies will be lost. Adult audiences will be insulted. And smaller markets like Sacramento or Milwaukee will continue to get treated like they're second-class citizenry.

Merry Christmas to you. From Hollywood.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

MY FAVORITE "SCROOGES"


Oh, the weather outside is frightful. And in Christmas movies, things can get pretty disagreeable too. In fact, there are any number of ‘Scrooges’ working against the holiday spirit in these Christmas-themed classics that you should revisit this season. They provide an entertaining sourness to counter all the holiday sweets and eggnog. Here are my personal faves: 

Alistair Sim as Scrooge in A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1951)

There have been some pretty good Ebenezer’s over the years: Reginald Owen and Albert Finney on the big screen, George C. Scott and Patrick Stewart on the small screen, even Mr. Magoo made for a fun miser in his hour-long cartoon special. But no Scrooge is as sublime as that of Alistair Sim. Mostly known as a comic actor, his Scrooge is surprisingly dramatic. Sim doesn’t play the character as a feeble, crotchety old man but rather, as a cold and ruthless businessmen. He speaks slowly and softly, staring at his prey with his big, unblinking eyes. And Sim brings one thing to the party that no other actor has done nearly as well: the sense of Scrooge’s self-loathing based on his tragic past. He’s a lost soul, unable to embrace the holiday or any human being because he’s been burned so badly in the past. But when Scrooge finally sees the light, Sim’s performance breaks out in comic joy that will have you grinning from ear to ear, equal to his toothy grin. It’s one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema and it’s easily the best Scrooge ever.

Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in DIE HARD (1988)

People often forget that this seminal action picture from the Eighties takes place against the backdrop of an office Christmas party in LA. The ‘Scrooge’ in this one is terrorist Hans Gruber who crashes the shebang hoping to steal the millions in bearer bonds located in the company’s vault. Alan Rickman’s screen debut as Hans is an auspicious one. He created an instant classic in urbane villainy that’s a perfect foil to Bruce Willis’ blue-collar cop out to stop him. Rickman practically purrs every one of his lines. He’s the best Bond villain never to appear in a Bond film! Hearing him instruct his henchman to “Shoot. The. Glass.” to stop a barefooted Willis from a clean getaway is both chilling and hilarious. Hans is a villain who enjoys the sound of his malevolent voice, and Rickman is an actor who knows how to milk each word for maximum effect.


Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in BATMAN RETURNS (1992) 

Here’s another villain toying with Christmas, only this time it’s a kitten with a whip! Tim Burton cleverly placed his big Batman sequel against the backdrop of Gotham City Christmas festivities. The set pieces are almost as frigid as the three-coldhearted villains battling Batman (Michael Keaton) – Penguin (Danny DeVito), tycoon Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) and Catwoman. Like Sim as Scrooge, Pfeiffer’s baddie is filled with inner-hatred and despair. She’s not only clawed, she’s flawed, playing a damaged woman taking out revenge on the men who broke her. The cat disguise allows her to be as animalistic as the brutal beasts lording over her. It’s not just a comic book film, it’s a dissertation on how women are treated by a misogynistic society. Not for nothing is Bruce Wayne’s curtain line, “Peace on earth. Good will toward men…and women.”
Bill Nighy is at the top left amongst the many stars in the cast of LOVE, ACTUALLY.

Bill Nighy as Billy Mack in LOVE, ACTUALLY (2003)

Bill Nighy earns most of the big laughs in this popular Christmas comedy from writer/director Richard Curtis. He gives a knowing, droll performance as Billy Mack, a rock star in his late sixties hoping to reach the top of the pop charts again with a cynical and turgid Christmas remix of a past rock classic. But Nighy doesn’t play this holiday misanthrope as a jerk or a desperate fool, but rather as a world-weary performer who understands that exploitation and art are all part of the same fame game. He knows that Christmas is filled with crass commercialism, heck, he just wants his slice of the gingerbread. And he delivers every cynical bon mot about the season with a rocker’s residual drug haze, as if his tongue cannot quite move fast enough to get out all the snark in his brain. Of course this Scrooge has a transformation as well, but not because his song hits # 1. He comes to understand that the season is about love, actually, and that having a friend and manager like Joe (Gregor Fisher) along for the rollercoaster ride makes all the up’s and down’s worth it. 

Ralph Bellamy & Don Ameche as The Duke Brothers in TRADING PLACES (1983)

Okay, technically it’s six Scrooges what with these last two, but really Randolph & Mortimer Duke (Bellamy & Ameche, respectively) serve as one Machiavellian unit. This septuagenarian duo is so filthy rich the only way they get their kicks is by betting on things like whether or not a personality is formed by nature or nurture. Thus, they decide to force rich company man Louis Winthorpe (Dan Aykroyd) to trade places with street hustler Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) and see the fall-out. It’s a modern version of “The Prince & The Pauper” with the Duke’s malevolently pulling all the strings. These Philly stock market barons at the top of the 1% are so ruthless and cold they’d make ol’ Ebenezer blush. But what makes these villains so much delicious is in the casting. Both Bellamy and Ameche made Hollywood Golden Age careers out of playing good guys and to see them here, ripping into their bad guy roles, well that is a Christmas gift unto itself.



Well, those are my favorite holiday baddies. Who are yours? I’d love to hear your picks so please share with The Establishing Shot and let’s keep the conversation going.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

LET US GIVE THANKS


2011 has not been a stellar year for movies. Any season that showcases Adam Sandler playing his twin sister is more than a little suspect. However, there is plenty to be thankful for during this Thanksgiving season. Thus, here is what I’m thankful for at the movies this year. (And luckily there’s still a month filled with promise left!)
Jessica Chastain
THE NEW INGENUES
Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Lawrence, Shailene Woodley, Elizabeth Olson, Felicity Jones, Amber Heard. Actresses as talented as they are beautiful. And these young women really made a mark in movies this year.

THE HELP
And speaking of Jessica Chastain, she was one of the many superb actresses, along with Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney and the legendary Cicely Tyson, who were showcased in this moving drama sure to find room for a number of them in the Oscars this year.

GEORGE CLOONEY
Look at the amazing body of work he's done in just the last 13 years: OUT OF SIGHT, O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU, OCEAN’S ELEVEN, GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, SYRIANA, MICHAEL CLAYTON, UP IN THE AIR, THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX, THE IDES OF MARCH and the gentle character study THE DESCENDANTS, currently in theaters. Clooney knows exactly how to pick 'em. And what he's good at. And indeed he is very, very good.

HARRY POTTER’S FANTASTIC FINALE
Eight films. Eight successes. Bravo on a stirring, epic finale.

PUSS ‘N BOOTS
Nice to see a cat as a hero on screen instead of an easy kill in a horror movie.

SKINNY COW TREATS AT THE AMC THEATER CHAIN
Ice cream - always good. Low fat ice cream - always less guilt.
AWESOME MOVIE POSTERS
They are too few and far in between but those like the ones for TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY prove that you can capture the essence of the story, show off your star, and create something resembling art while advertising a movie.

WOODY ALLEN
He’s almost 76 and still making almost a movie every year. And MIDNIGHT IN PARIS was a sublime comedy about art, love and finding one’s self. I predict another screenplay Oscar for the Woodman.

MICHAEL FASSBENDER
Maybe the leading man of the moment. And perhaps the next James Bond. If he wants it.

RYAN GOSLING
Maybe the leading man of the moment. And perhaps the next McQueen. If he wants it. 

MICHELLE WILLIAMS
I haven’t seen her do Marilyn yet but everything she does is a zillion years from DAWSON’S CREEK, isn’t it?

GOOD COMIC BOOK MOVIES
THOR. X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. CAPTAIN AMERICA. Almost made me forget COWBOYS & ALIENS and THE GREEN LANTERN. Almost.

SMALL MOVIES WITH BIG IMPACT
So nice to see the likes of indie pictures like MARGIN CALL and MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE finding audiences and making money. I wish every studio would make ten of these a year. 

OSCAR SHOW SANITY
Brian Grazer. Billy Crystal. Thank you.
Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya in Pedro Almodovar's THE SKIN I LIVE IN

VETERANS STILL DOING GREAT WORK
Pedro Almodovar challenged audiences and himself by making a horror movie with THE SKIN I LIVE IN. John Williams is still writing stirring scores as is evidenced from the released WAR HORSE tracks. And Christopher Plummer may finally win an Oscar for his touching and witty turn as a septuagenarian man coming out of the closet and finding love in BEGINNERS. Bravo, one and all!

THIS YEAR'S BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR CATEGORY
As I just said this year might finally be Plummer’s to take this category, but look at some of these other potential nominees: Albert Brooks (DRIVE), Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman or George Clooney (THE IDES OF MARCH), Alan Rickman (HARRY POTTER & THE DEATHLY HALLOWS), Robert Forster (THE DESCENDANTS), Nick Nolte (WARRIOR), Patton Oswalt (YOUNG ADULT), Kevin Spacey (MARGIN CALL), John Hawkes (MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE), Kenneth Branagh (MY WEEK WITH MARILYN), Brad Pitt (THE TREE OF LIFE), Jonah Hill (MONEYBALL). And all the gentlemen from TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY – Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, John Hurt, Ciaran Hinds, and Colin Firth. Whew! What a banner year.

See. A lot to be thankful for already. So, what are you thankful for at the cinema this year? Share your thoughts and let’s keep the conversation going.

Monday, November 14, 2011

THE PROBLEM WITH BIOPICS

John Huston once famously said that 90% of a film’s success comes down to the casting. No matter how good the script is or how expert the talent is behind the scenes, if an audience doesn’t believe the people saying the lines, the picture is doomed. In the case of the movie J. EDGAR that just opened, bad casting does it in. While the film is a noble effort, polished and well-produced in many regards, Leonardo DiCaprio simply is too young and earnest and frankly, too handsome, to play the role of the small, ugly prick that J.Edgar Hoover was. His casting doomed the film before a frame of film was run through the camera.
Leonardo DiCaprio buried under heavy makeup to play J. EDGAR (2011)
But it isn’t all DiCaprio’s fault. There are many other problems with the movie as well. Clint Eastwood’s natural laconic inclinations don’t really fit the story of a man who is so shamelessly driven and obsessive. Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay misses huge chapters of Hoover’s sins, particularly his denial of the existence of the Mafia for the better part of 40 years. And the old age makeup used on the players is distracting and does no favors to any of them. In fact, J. EDGAR may serve as a poster child for all the problems of biopics. It is one of the trickiest genres to do well and almost all of those that fail do so for the same obvious reasons. Here then are the five biggest issues that every biopic flails and fails because of.
Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in THE AVIATOR (2004)
CASTING THE WRONG ACTORS
Someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Giamatti would not only have been better for the role of J.Edgar, but they even evoke him more physically. Again, DiCaprio is too young, too tall and attractive to pull off the role of the bulldog of a man. Neither Hoffman and Giamatti are typically handsome leading men and I’ll bet that insight would have enabled them to understand how Hoover felt standing on the outside looking in, while the handsome Kennedy’s ruled. DiCaprio is a very good actor but he has been cast a number of times in movies that require age or perspective that he clearly doesn’t have yet. Or isn't able to translate. His has been a charmed life since his youth and it's hard to conjure villainy or desperation when you're that successful so young. His role as renegade Howard Hughes in THE AVIATOR (2004) was only a partial success as he couldn't quite capture all of Hughes' take-no-prisoners style in his younger days or the outsized craziness of his waning years.
DiCaprio with Armie Hammer in J. EDGAR (2011)
SUFFOCATING ACTORS UNDER HEAVY MAKEUP
You know how when you watch a really good Pixar movie, you can’t help but forget it’s animated after 10 minutes because its story is so involving? Well, it’s exactly the opposite when movies trap young actors under ridiculously heavy makeup. One can’t help but dwell on it the whole time as it makes actors look so different as to appear alien. Or worse! In the case of Armie Hammer, his old age makeup in J. EDGAR made him look like a burn victim. He was buried under so much rubber he could barely register any facial movement. And DiCaprio didn’t fare much better. The huge baldhead piece he wears pinches his features into the center so that he looks like a dyspeptic Halloween pumpkin. It created laughs in all the wrong places. 
Max von Sydow, before and after THE EXORCIST (1973)
One of the best make-up jobs at aging someone was done for THE EXORCIST (1973). The legendary Dick Smith aged the fortysomething Max von Sydow into the seventysomething Father Merrin. Smith didn’t add layers and layers of rubber but rather merely added a thin layer of dry wrinkles contoured to the natural planes of von Sydow’s face. It’s still one of the best aging jobs ever. And a lesson lost on the immobile faces in J.EDGAR. They are almost as fake and frightening as the mask Ryan Gosling wore in DRIVE this year.
Julie Andrews as Maria von Trapp in THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965)
TELLING THE STORY CRADLE TO GRAVE
Any time a biopic starts with an old geezer recounting his story and then flashes back to childhood, the movie is usually already in trouble. The simple fact is that most movies only have a couple of hours to tell their story and to try and cover a span of 70-80 years is a foolish undertaking. Rather than cram that much story into a movie the filmmakers would be better doing a TV miniseries where a narrative of 4-8 hours can cover that many decades efficiently.
Peter O'Toole in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)
The best biopics are those that use only a portion of a subject’s life to inform us of the person’s history. Movies like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962), CAPOTE (2005), heck, even THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965), were better film biographies because they highlighted a small section of their subject’s life. 
George C. Scott as the title character in PATTON (1970)
TOO MUCH SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL
Another great shortcoming of J.EDGAR is that it tries to create too much sympathy for an utter scoundrel. He was on the wrong side of so much of history: he bugged the bedrooms of civil rights leaders JFK and MLK; he railroaded too many suspected of being anarchists or Communists; he turned his back on organized crime for decades. It’s hard to feel a great deal of pity for such a man. Even if he was closeted and torn up inside by his own secrets. Yet Black’s script and Clint’s tinkling maudlin piano score treat Hoover as a rather tragic figure. Well, he’s no Nixon, a villain who you can’t help but pity. Hoover’s closer to Patton - a prick and a half who took righteousness and turned it into something dark and awful. Despite all the patriotic trappings of the movie PATTON (1970), the film made no mistake about painting its out-of-control general as an egotist run dangerously amuck. Movies about bad-asses can make just as fascinating biopics as telling the story of saints. But filmmakers feel the urge to round out their characters and sometimes that renders them either false or wishy-washy. Hoover was monstrous but that conceit doesn’t come through nearly enough in the movie.
Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in WALK THE LINE (2005)
FAKE VOICES REEK OF HIGH SCHOOL PLAYS
One of the things I loved about WALK THE LINE (2005) is that director James Mangold didn’t force stars Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon to lip-synch the songs of Johnny Cash and June Carter. Instead, he let them use their own voices to sing and that got at the essence of the music without becoming an outright imitation. When J.EDGAR starts out with DiCaprio doing a crotchety old man voice, it rings false. If Eastwood had simply directed DiCaprio to use his own voice but soften it some and slow it down in the more mature scenes of Hoover, I think DiCaprio would have given a much more effective performance.
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote in CAPOTE (2005)
Sometimes an actor should imitate the subject's voice, particularly if the voice is so well-known. But even in the case of an impressionist’s favorite like Truman Capote, Philip Seymour Hoffman opted for a subtler rendering of the famous man’s lisp. He modified his own voice to make it more feminine but he never caricatured Capote into a mincing queen or a Vegas parody the way comics David Frye and Rich Little did in the 70’s.
Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in MILK (2008)
Allegedly, period pictures are more difficult to get greenlit in Hollywood because of their expense and the inability of the teen movie audience to relate to anything older than 10 years ago. That may be true, but I think that too often period pictures ask the filmmakers and actors to put themselves into the shoes of people they don’t know very well, and to do so they rely on all sorts of crutches or tricks like affected speech, silly costuming and distracting makeup. I hope that the failures of J. EDGAR don’t discourage other film biographies from being made. Dustin Lance Black's Oscar winner MILK is proof that if you cast ‘em right, you’re 90% there.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

THE PROBLEM WITH THE ACADEMY & BRETT RATNER

Up until this last week, lame filmmaking was probably what most would consider Brett Ratner’s greatest sin. But then in the past week he went on the record making some truly atrocious comments about gays and actress Olivia Munn. In an interview during the press junket for his latest film TOWER HEIST, Ratner was asked if he rehearsed his actors and he responded, “Rehearsing’s for fags.” Previously that week he qualified rumors of a past relationship with Munn by bragging, “I banged her a few times, but I forgot her.” Shortly after, Ratner apologized for both statements. And he copped to not ever having had a sexual relationship with Munn.  
Both host Eddie Murphy and producer Brett Ratner departed the Oscars show this week.

The comments were especially egregious since Ratner had just been hired to produce next year’s Academy Awards show. Hollywood’s most prestigious event of the year didn’t need that kind of awful press. Thus, Ratner was fired immediately.

Only he wasn’t.

Academy President Tom Sherak decided to let Ratner’s apology be enough and thus let him keep his job. Well, not surprisingly, that didn’t sit well with a lot of people in Hollywood. The outcry in 24 hours was such that Ratner was forced to resign. My question is why wasn’t he fired outright? Why did Sherak not act decisively and make the easy and wholly justified choice?

It may seem naïve to expect people in Tinseltown to act righteously, but we should. Discouraging prejudice of any kind so abhorrent should be a no-brainer. And such talk must be deemed punishable. Ratner apologized, yes, but he still should have been fired. And Sherak should have done so before the public outcry forced everyone’s hand. If Ratner’s slurs had been of a racial or religious kind, would Sherak have waffled? I doubt it.

In some respects, Sherak’s handling of the whole affair was as ridiculous as Ratner’s running off at the mouth. Then, when Eddie Murphy quit as host of the show, to form a silly and ersatz sense of solidarity with his TOWER HEIST director, Sherak had a full-blown disaster on his hands. He quickly and wisely hired veteran producer  Brian Grazer, a beloved man in Hollywood, to helm the upcoming show. And now Billy Crystal is on board to host too. Good choices both. Let’s hope that the rest of the Academy's decisions this year continue to burnish the industry's reputation rather than tarnish it.