Saturday, July 26, 2014

N.Y.P.D. 1968

Two films from 1968 - Madigan, directed by Don Siegel and The Detective, directed by Gordon Douglas - are Hollywood offerings that paint a city in decay, one in which the police department must mete out their special kind of justice. Their work is difficult, both mentally and morally and if they aren't exactly on the up and up, well, that's a by-product of living among the filth.

Today and for the past decade or so, New York City has enjoyed a positive public relations message - the city is vibrant, dynamic and beautiful. We know this wasn't always the case. Having never lived in New York City, I'm not someone who can tell anyone about the situation of the Big Apple back in the 1960s. My opinion was formed by newspaper articles, television reports and yes, films of that day. It wasn't a pretty picture.

Now of course, these films were meant to entertain, so the bad guys aren't just criminals, they're rather warped. In fact, most of the city dwellers in these films are a bit off kilter. Madigan tells a lieutenant that the criminal he is after "has peculiar sexual habits, to put it mildly." "Well so has half the population," notes the lieutenant. Speaking about a teenage girl who's a drug addict, Detective Joe Leland (Frank Sinatra) in The Detective tells his superior, "The whole town is crawling with kids just like her. Same age, all going the same route. Part of the great society."

Naturally these kids that Leland refers to aren't growing up in a paradise. Both films depict urban decay with streets cluttered with dingy tenement buildings, the insides of which are dominated by tiny apartments and dimly lit corridors. The police headquarters aren't much better; the offices are highlighted by dull green walls, often with peeling paint, while the oak desks and drab filing cabinets add little to brighten the atmosphere.

Interestingly, the rare instances of handsome living and working quarters are places where the ordinary city dweller is not seen. The opening sequence of The Detective happens in a posh apartment, complete with numerous art treasures, of a homosexual who has been beaten to death. In Madigan, the look of the police commissioner's office with its plush carpeting and expensive wood paneling is in stark contrast to the depressing nature of the working environment of the detectives.

But much in the way that the upscale apartment in The Detective is the scene of a variant lifestyle - and a brutal murder - so too the office of commissioner Anthony Russell (Henry Fonda) in Madigan is often the site for conduct unbecoming. Investigations of wire taps and slush funds are discussed here, away from the detectives. The deals that are made here, many of which are not by the book, are further signs of how the police do their job in the big city.

Is it any wonder then that the personal lives of these officers are screwed up? In The Detective, Leland meets Karen (Lee Remick), a beautiful woman who is at home at the theater as she is at a football game. Initially, their relationship is something out of a fairy tale, but it soon disintregates, as Karen starts to see other men. Likewise in Madigan, the title character has less than a storybook relationship, as he rarely sees his wife Julia (Inger Stevens), who endlessly complains about this to her husband. Later in the film, she herself will become passionate with one of her husband's colleagues as he's off chasing a criminal. Even commissioner Russell is not the upscale citizen he seems; he is carrying on an affair with a married woman.

Time spent at home for the policemen is very brief, as generally, it's to have a cocktail, sex or a nap (rarely do they have time to get several hours of sleep). In Madigan, there is one brief scene where we view Madigan and his partner Rocco Bonaro (Harry Guardino) use the cots installed in a small room upstairs from their offices. The police are constantly on edge here, as there is a new crime every day, so rest from their daily chores must be brief. Not surprisingly, the one good night's sleep that Madigan gets in this film is at the apartment of a lounge singer he accompanies home. Although he doesn't have sex with her, no doubt his sleep is peaceful, as he doesn't have to argue with his wife, at least for one evening.

Given this restless lifestyle, the detectives have little patience for the varied criminals they encounter. During a scene in a bar, Madigan accuses a man who looks like the criminal his partner and he are after. He looks a bit like him, but when Madigan realizes his mistake, he apologizes. The man is outraged and shouts at the detective, who immediately thrusts the man back into his seat. Watching this, you have to imagine that lack of sleep or not, Madigan has done something similar countless times. No one winds up getting hurt - except for their sense of pride - so in the end, Madigan and his colleagues can do what they want.

In The Detective, Leland does have the moral standards to question some of the police behavior, as in a scene where he tells another detective who is pushing around a suspect who is a homosexual to take it easy, saying, "these people are not murderers." In another scene, Leland tells a fellow detective to stop his interrogation of a suspect who has been forced to remove his clothes at the police department. "You son of a bitch. What kind of department do you think we're running here?" His attitude is at odds with his fellow lawmen, giving him the identity of a loner. Solving three homicides in one week, as is detailed in this story, may earn him a promotion, but his sense of trying to do the right thing drives a wedge between his colleagues and him.

At the end of The Detective, Leland has quit the police force, stating to his captain that "there are things worth fighting for and I can't fight them here." The last scene of Madigan has commissioner Russell and chief inspector Charles Kane (James Whitmore) discussing tomorrow's problems just minutes after the death of one of their detectives. Two conclusions that are different, but in reality, the message is the same - individuals will come and go through the ranks of the police department, but the questionable code that defines this body will remain intact. "If you bust me," Detective Curran (Ralph Meeker) tells Leland, "you'll have to bust half the department for being on the take." In this urban jungle that was New York City in 1968, the beat goes on.

Friday, July 4, 2014

An Early Capra Success

Before Frank Capra enjoyed great critical and popular acclaim with such films as It Happened One Night (1934), You Can't Take it With You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), he had directed more than twenty feature films of various subject matter, from documentary-like studies to romances to comedies. One of his best early films, one of three he directed in 1931, was The Miracle Woman, starring one of his favorites leading ladies, Barbara Stanwyck.

With a screenplay by Jo Swerling (he would later write some additional dialogue for Capra's 1946 classic It's a Wonderful Life), adapted from the play "Bless You Sister" written by John Meehan, the film is about a female evangelist, loosely based on Aimee Semple McPherson, the famed celebrity preacher of the 1920s and '30s.

As the film opens, the title character, named Florence Fallon (portrayed with typical gusto by Stanwyck), steps up to the pulpit to deliver her minister father's last sermon before an overflow crowd at church. Her father has been ill for some time and is too weak to deliver his message of love and understanding.

However, Fallon has sad news to tell the church goers - her father passed away in her arms just a few minutes earlier. She then turns on them assembled, telling them they did not take the advice of her father - or God - and lead Christian lives. In a scene that most assuredly inspired John Huston and Tennessee Williams for the opening of their film The Night of the Iguana (1964), Fallon calls out the worshipers, threatening to name the adulterers among the group. The flock rush out of the church, stunned at what they are hearing.

A shady businessman named Bob Hornsby (Sam Hardy) approaches Fallon after this, telling her that with her knowledge of the Bible, she can have a career as a preacher, "as there is money in religion." Alone and uncertain of her future, Fallon agrees to work for him; soon she is preaching her sermons on nationwide radio.

We then meet the other main character in this story, a young blind man named John Carson (David Manners), who lost his sight in the war. He has now turned to writing music, but despondent over being rejected time and time again, he decides to commit suicide. Capra nicely depicts this scene, as when he opens his window to jump out, he hears a radio broadcast of Fallon, speaking about how man has a backbone and can make his own decisions, unlike the simplest creatures. Carson is inspired by this message and decides not to end his life.

Carson knows he must meet this woman who saved his life, so he attends one of her revival meetings. Fallon at one point walks into a cage filled with lions and asks the congregation if one of them will show their faith and enter in the cage with her. Carson is the one individual who does so; Fallon, who has never seen this man before, is impressed, especially as he is blind, yet she thinks nothing more than that, as she believes this will be the only encounter between them.

Thus the two main characters are brought together; both need someone in their lives, so they turn to each other. Fallon is especially touched when she learns that Carson chose not to end his life because of her words; knowing this, she starts to doubt herself, as she feels guilty about misleading the public who view her "miracles" on cripples, who in reality are nothing more than a trained band of actors hired by Hornsby.

Carson and Fallon start to see each other more often; during one scene in his apartment, he shows her his dummy named Al. Carson is a fine ventriloquist with a very funny act and Fallon loves his routine, which only endears him more to her. I love this interplay in the film, not only for its lighthearted nature, but also the deeper message of a man who cannot see needing an alter ego to talk for him. This is also a nice counterpart to the theme of a woman who speaks to the masses, yet in reality, talks to no one.

This leads to a lovely scene later in the film at Carson's apartment when he wants to profess his love for Fallon. He tells her that Al has something to say to her. But just after Al starts to speak Carson's heartfelt words, he stops. Fallon gets up from the table and Carson follows her; this is done in total silence, with no music and with a static camera. Capra filmed this as simply as he could, so the emotions when they embrace are devastatingly emotional. It's one of the most tender moments realized in any Capra film.

The film ends with a crowd scene that would be repeated to some degree in Capra's 1941 film Meet John Doe (interestingly enough, that film also deals with an individual who must pass himself off as someone he's not and starts to doubt his purpose in life). The truth and decency of humanity so often communicated in Capra's work are once again the redeeming qualities of the two main characters in this story. As the film ends, Fallon does not enjoy the fame she embraced for a short time, but she has done the proper thing and has found true happiness and redemption.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Directors on their Craft

"I am a typed director. If I made Cinderella, the audience would immediately be looking for a body in the coach." - Alfred Hitchcock

"There was always part of me that wanted to be an old-time director. But I couldn't do that. I'm not a pro." - Martin Scorsese

"My tendency as an actor was to correct people, was to say, 'What if we tried it this way? What if we tried it that way?' That's a terrible habit for an actor, but that's a good habit for a director. So I became a director." - David Mamet

"You do the best job you can. You take it step by step. It's hard enough to make a movie. If it works, that's great. If it means something beyond the moment to somebody, they can take it, and if it lasts through the years, we'll see." - Oliver Stone

"I can make a better living as an actor than I can as a director. Though I certainly would prefer to be directing movies."  - Sean Penn

"You know, I became a director out of necessity. I was writing comedies and I couldn't find anybody to deliver it correctly." - Albert Brooks

"The film of tomorrow will resemble the person who made it and the number of spectators will be proportional to the number of friends the director has." - Fran├žois Truffaut

"The kindest thing a director can do is to look with open eyes at everything." - Alexander Payne

"The only reason you make a movie is not to make or set out to make a good or bad movie, it's just to see what you learn for the next one." - Alfonso Cuaron

"If there's specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can't change my gender and I refuse to stop making movies." - Kathryn Bigelow

"I have a feeling, a gut feeling, that I'll be making pretty good movies the rest of my life." - Paul Thomas Anderson

"For me, being a director is about watching, not about telling people what to do. Or maybe it's like being a mirror; if they didn't have me to look at, they wouldn't be able to put their makeup on." - Jane Campion

"A lot of the films I've made probably could have worked just as well 50 years ago and that's just because I have a lot of old-fashioned values." - Steven Spielberg

"The first work of the director is to set a mood so that the actor's work can take place, so that the actor can create. And in order to do that, you have to communicate, communicate with the actors. Direction is about communication on all levels." William Friedkin

"In the future, everybody is going to be a director. Somebody's got to live a real life, so we have something to make a movie about." - Cameron Crowe

"I believe that filmmaking - as, probably is everything - is a game you should play with all your cards and all your dice and whatever else you've got. So each time I make a movie, I give it everything I have. I think everyone should and I think everyone should do everything that way." - Francis Ford Coppola

"A good director's not sure when he gets on the set what he's going to do." - Elia Kazan

"I think it would be very boring dramatically to have a film where everybody was a lawyer or doctor and had no faults. To me, the most important thing is to be truthful." - Spike Lee

"A film is never really any good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet." - Orson Welles

"Usually when I'm making a movie, what I have in mind first for the visuals, is how we can stage the scenes to bring them more to life in the most interesting way, and then how can we make a world for the story that the audience hasn't quite been in before." - Wes Anderson

"Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else's dreams?" - Tim Burton


To close, my favorite line ever from a director about making moves...

"The directing of a picture involves coming out of your individual loneliness and taking a controlling part in putting together a small world. A picture is made. You put a frame around it. And one day you die. That is all there is to it." - John Huston

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Academy Awards - Look at the Bright Side

Let's face it - the Academy Awards ceremony, despite all its glitz and celebrity watching has become a pretty boring event for some time now. One of the reasons is that there are rarely any surprises in store when it comes to opening the envelopes and announcing the winners.

So the best advice I can give for making it through the broadcast - yes, I'll watch, though each year I tell myself not to - is to embrace the winners and enjoy some possible new trends. For example, it's pretty obvious that Alfonso Cuaron will win Best Director for his stunning work on Gravity (even though this is not his best film - that distinction goes to Children of Men); having won the Golden Globe and Directors' Guild Award, the Academy will certainly follow suit. So no surprise there, but at least we can look on this as a tribute to the filmmakers of Mexico, where some of the world's most dynamic cinema has emerged over the past decade. Of course, Gravity has nothing to do with Mexico, but perhaps the idea of a Mexican film director winning an Oscar will bring more attention to that country's film industry and even inspire some Mexican filmmakers to follow their dream, so that's a wonderful thing.

Likewise, Lupita Nyong'o appears to be a shoe-in for Best Supporting Actress; deservedly so, as her performance was heartbreaking. So perhaps her award will spur on other African performers to pursue a career (interestingly, although she is of Kenyan descent, she was born in Mexico City; quite a year for Mexico in the Oscars!).

Will this finally be the year that Alexandre Desplat wins an Oscar?

It seems to me there are only a few major awards (I'm not counting short subjects or documentaries here) where there is even a glimmer of suspense as to who will win. One of those is for Best Original Score. Here are the nominees:

The Book Thief - John Williams
Gravity - Steven Price
Her - William Butler and Owen Pallett
Philomena - Alexandre Desplat
Saving Mr. Banks - Thomas Newman

My analysis is that only one of these scores has no chance of winning and that's Williams' work for The Book Thief. This is a bit ironic, as Williams is, of course, the dean of film composers and one of the craft's greatest artists. But he won't win this year for two main reasons: first, very few people saw this film and for those that did, it was received poorly and secondly, everyone thinks of Williams as Steven Spielberg's composer - he's not about to win an Oscar late in his career for one of his minor works for another director.

Price has a chance for his score for Gravity, if only for the fact that this film will be one of the big winners on Oscar night; that often translates to an award. So it's possible, especially as this score is hard to miss - translation, it's a LOUD score, one that irked me and ruined a few memorable scenes. The Academy has screwed up so often in this category over the years (think of Jerry Goldsmith and Alex North and two other composers I'm about to mention) and you realize that excellence as far as a musical score often has little to do with awards; if a score is noticed (and it's difficult to miss this score), that's a major factor. So it's definitely possible for Price to win, but I think the Academy will look elsewhere.

So that leaves three scores and I think their composers all have very good chances to pick up their first Academy Award. For Her, Butler and Pallett composed a minimalist score that is very pretty and proper for the wistful, romantic tone of this film. I liked the score, especially as it did not call attention to itself, but as this is not a particularly "musical" film, I think the Academy will not give this score the award.

So interestingly, the Oscar comes down to two veteran composers, both of whom have been nominated on several occasions. The first is Desplat, who I believe is the finest film composer working today on a regular basis - I say regular basis, as 82-year old John Williams is understandably cutting down on his work schedule. Desplat, who has been nominated for six Oscars, has never won; this despite impressive scores for films such as The King's Speech, The Queen and Argo (for which he was Oscar-nominated) along with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and Zero:Dark Thirty; these last two, absolutely brilliant scores, which were somehow not nominated.

Desplat reminds one of the Golden Age of Hollywood film scores, with lush strings and full orchestral accompaniment, a la great composers such as Franz Waxman, Alex North, Miklos Rosza, Jerry Goldsmith or John Williams. Yet one reason he hasn't won is that this type of score hasn't been recognized by the Academy as of late; think of the Oscar going to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for their electronic pulsations for 2010's The Social Network. So perhaps the Academy, in an effort to be more "hip" has decided to shy away from traditionalism for this category.

Yet, Desplat has another nomination and I think he may finally win, as his score for Philomena, is a beautiful piece of work, a sensitive score that brilliantly communicates the emotional tone of this film. It would be a bit ironic if he did finally win an Oscar for this score, as it is a quiet, subdued piece of work, unlike the grand scores he's composed in the past. It's quite possible that the voters did not notice this score (as opposed to the music in Gravity), so they could deny Desplat again.

That leaves Thomas Newman for his score for Saving Mr. Banks. Newman is from a family of Oscar-wining composers; his father Alfred won nine Oscars, while his cousin Randy has won two Academy Awards. Newman has been nominated eleven times without winning; a few of his nominations include his memorable scores for The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty and WALL-E.

His score for Saving Mr. Banks is a gem, as he composed some of the loveliest melodies in his career. Especially memorable are his themes for Travers Goff as well as for the closing titles. This would be a well-deserved win for Mr. Newman.

Yet I just don't see him winning for two reasons. First, his score probably will be lost among all the songs from Mary Poppins in this film. Secondly, the recent controversy about Walt Disney will turn off some voters, so once again, I believe Newman will be denied.

So the Oscar will finally go to Alexandre Desplat and I will be thrilled! (By the way, why wasn't Alex Ebert nominated for his haunting score for All is Lost?)

I believe the only other major category where there is some doubt over the winner is for Best Original Screenplay. I'd love to see Bob Nelson (Nebraska) or Spike Jonze (Her) win; the former for his offbeat, charming script that features a lot of priceless small, everyday moments, the latter for his wildly imaginative script about a man falling in love with his operating system. Then there's the excellent script of Dallas Buyer's Club by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack and of course, let's not forget that Woody Allen is up for his screenplay for Blue Jasmine; he's an Academy favorite and he's won for this category before.

But I think the award will go to Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell for American Hustle for several reasons. It is an excellent screenplay, beautifully organized with numerous memorable characters. He's also an Academy favorite, as several of his films (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook) have won Oscars. Also, this film is nominated for 10 Oscars this year, so you'd have to believe that the voters will not shut out this work, as most of the other nominees for this film will likely not hear their name called that evening as a winner.

So American Hustle will win the Best Original Screenplay in a close vote - this is almost always one of the most competitive categories with excellent nominations - but I'd vote for Spike Jonze for Her.

By the way, for the major categories (the part with very few, if any surprises):

Best Actor  - Matthew McConaughey - Dallas Buyers' Club (great performance from an actor just starting to realize his potential. He should receive the biggest ovation of the evening).

Best Actress  - Kate Blanchett - Blue Jasmine - I'm hoping for an upset here and will be cheering for Judi Dench in Philomena, but after a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors' Guild award, Blanchett will capture the Oscar.

Best Supporting Actor - Jared Leto - Dallas Buyers' Club - Another great performance and another wonderful ovation when his name is read.

Best Supporting Actress - Lupita Nyong'o - 12 Years a Slave  - discussed above. Just great work on her part.

Best Picture - 12 Years a Slave

Finally, a note about Best Cinematography, which will undoubtedly be awarded to Emmanuel Lubezki for Gravity. There would be more than a touch of irony in this award, one that has eluded the cinematographer on five other occasions. He will finally be recognized here for his work in a film that displays his lighting as well as technical prowess; in my opinion however, this is not his most beautiful-looking film in terms of pure visuals - that would be Tree of Life (directed by Terence Malick). However, this is a visually stunning film on many levels as well as being a very popular work with audiences and critics alike, so Lubeszki will finally win an Oscar. By the way, he was born in Mexico City - what a years for Mexican-born filmmakers!

Of course, this means that once again, Roger Deakins will not win an Academy Award; assuming this happens, this will be the 11th nomination for Deakins without an award. He is clearly one of the two greatest working directors of photography that have not won an Oscar; the other being Emmanuel Lubezki. This year, Deakins is up for the film Prisoners and his moody, nighttime photography - especially during a manic drive to the hospital in the pouring rain by one of the movie's principal characters - is brilliant. But few people saw the film and, well, he's up against Lubezki for the award. Wait til' next year, Roger (maybe). By the way, Deakins, who's turned in remarkable work on such films as The Shawshank Redemption, The Reader, Revolutionary Road, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (a textbook in cinematography and one of the most beautiful looking films of all time, in my opinion) as well as several films for the Coen Brothers, including O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn't There and No Country for Old Men has won several other awards in his career, the most prominent being the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers, the highest honor for a director of photography.

As far as the other nominees, I'd vote for either Phedon Papamicheal for his amazing black and white photography of Nebraska or Bruno Delbonnel for Inside Llewyn Davis. I think both of these films are more in line with great cinematography and I'd be happy to see either man win. But it will be Lubezki's time for an award and it's certainly overdue.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Things I Loved in Cinema -2013

In my last post, I listed my top films for 2013. Now, a look back at a number of performances, lines of dialogue and other things I loved about last year at the cinema.

Lead Performances- There were many first-rate performances, but none as captivating as Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club. McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof, a heterosexual man who became infected with the HIV virus in the 1990s and fought the government at every turn to bring in medication for his condition. McConaughey is the center of this film and we root for him, despite the fact that his character is a pretty mean S.O.B. How nice to see McConaughey take on serious roles over the past few years; we all knew he had great charisma, so it's a rewarding experience to see him deliver a rousing performance.

Another great acting turn was delivered by Chiwitel Ejiofor, as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave; the actor brings a fierce, but quiet determination to the role. He's simply perfect.

Judi Dench was nothing short of brilliant as the title character in Philomena, the true story of an Irish woman who had her young son taken from her some fifty years in the past. Dench is so honest and so moving in this film in a manner that befits her simple character. She has had such a wonderful career and this role is a defining one.

Bravo also to Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) and Bruce Dern (Nebraska); the former being the best thing (along with Jonah Hill) in this mess of a film and the latter giving a moving performance that is the highlight of a long career. A lesser actor could have really brought out the pathos in the role of Woody Grant, but Dern does a marvelous job realizing the strength and pride of his character.

One has to note the performance of Robert Redford in All is Lost as one of the three or four best from last year; this was a physically demanding role for the actor and he was up to it at every moment. Certainly his rugged image helped lend emotion to this role, but Redford turned this into a performance of minute detail; here was a man who was going through a life and death crisis, yet he kept to the work at hand.

Finally, a tip of the cap to Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks) - is she ever less than excellent? (She was unfairly passed over for an Academy Award nomination) and Oscar Isaac for his natural performance as the title character in Inside Llewyn Davis. Without a strong performance from the lead, this film wouldn't have worked, despite the beautiful direction from the Coen Brothers. Isaac is definitely an actor to watch.

Supporting Performances - One need look no further than 12 Years a Slave to find two of the strongest supporting performances from last year. Lupita Nyong'o was heartbreaking as a slave who had to endure a much worse fate than her fellow captives. Michael Fassbender was unforgettable as the plantation owner who treated his slaves in a most degrading manner. In a role that could have been identified by emoting, Fassbender was a model of restraint.

Jared Leto gave the most sublime supporting performance of the year in Dallas Buyers Club, a quiet contrast to the explosiveness of Matthew McConaughey's lead. Leto's character, Rayon, a cross-dressing AIDS patient, may look pathetic, but Leto gives us a complex individual with quiet pride and a stubbornness to continue his fight. If he does win the Oscar, as expected, it will be most deserved.

Another film with two beautiful supporting performances was Nebraska; the two actors were June Squibb, as Kate (wife of Woody Grant, played by Bruce Dern) and Will Forte as David (Woody's son). Squibb has perfect comedic timing - she's hilarious - and Forte gives an empathetic and natural performance, playing off Dern's slightly crazed ways. Great acting is often about listening and Forte listens beautifully in this film; it's a shame he wasn't nominated for an Oscar.

Other notable supporting performances included Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips), Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street - such energy and humor he brought to the role!), Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner (American Hustle), Colin Farrell (a gem of a performance in Saving Mr. Banks) and of course, John Goodman (Inside Llewyn Davis - when will the Academy notice the brilliant work of this man?).

Cinematography - Alfonso Cuaron and his director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki continue to amaze; first it was 2006's Children of Men and now it's the mind-blowing sequences of Gravity (exactly how did they achieve the P.O.V. shot from within Sandra Bullock's space helmet?). These two continue to forge new paths visually; if nothing else, Gravity is the most remarkable visual achievement in many years and takes cinema to a new level.

Other marvelous achievements in cinematography in 2013 included Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis); Phedon Papamichael (Nebraska - he actually shot grain to help achieve a more realistic black and white film look); Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave- shot with film, not digitally - haunting images, many shot just before sundown); John Schwartzman (Saving Mr. Banks); Hoyte van Hoytema (Her); Barry Ackroyd (Captain Phillips), Roger Deakins (Prisoners) and Frank DeMarco and Peter Zuccarini (All is Lost).

Sequences - Just about any sequence from Nebraska featuring both Bruce Dern and Will Forte, especially the one at the railroad tracks where they search for Dern's teeth.

The impromptu dance between Amy Adams and Christian Bale at the dry cleaners in American Hustle.

The remarkable opening shot (10-11 minutes) of Gravity.

The final confrontation at the convent in Philomena.

Chiwitel Ejiofor trying to write a letter with the pigment from a blackberry in 12 Years a Slave.

The "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank" sequence, beautifully edited, from Saving Mr. Banks.

The "breakup" sequence on the steps in Her.

The opening sequence of Inside Llewyn Davis, in which Oscar Isaac performs "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me." The photography and direction immediately put the viewer into the mood and the times of the early 1960s folk movement.

Dialogue - A few of the best lines of the year:

"Everybody at the bottom crosses paths eventually in a pool of desperation and you're waiting for them." - Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) to Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), American Hustle

"I always wanted a brand new truck." - Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), Nebraska

"Do you mind if I look through your hard drive?" - the voice of Samantha, the operating system (Scarlett Johansson), Her

"Why would I do such work? Why would I kill people? I didn't have to. One word from me and they're all dead." - Ibrahim Sinik as himself in The Art of Killing

"Now you'll stay there until you learn the art of subtlety." - P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) speaking to a large stuffed Mickey Mouse doll she has just put in the corner of her hotel room.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Best Films of 2013

2013 was an excellent year for the cinema, especially American films. Let's get right to my list of the year's best films.

1) Inside Llewyn Davis (directed by Joel and Ethan Coen). After almost thirty years of giving us unique films, the Coen brothers are still making singular works of art. Inside Llewyn Davis may just be their most personal film to date; a look at a down and out folk singer in the early 1960s, this is a sublime film, an episodic tale that details the difficulties of achieving success. We are presented with a not-so-sympathetic loner who is often his own worst enemy, yet we identify and root for this character, as he's honest to a fault. The direction of the Coens has never been so accomplished, so effortless, as they tell this offbeat story honestly, without having to resort to oblique camera angles. At times funny (the song "Please Mr. Kennedy" is hilarious and the recording of this song is marvelously performed and directed), at times typically Coen-esque in its weirdness (John Goodman's character) and at times haunting (the scenes of the title character baring his soul in his folk club performances), this is the year's most charming and unusual film.

2) Saving Mr. Banks (directed by John Lee Hancock). Yes, this film is that good. Ostensibly the story of how P. L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins, came to work with the Disney studios - primarily Walt's creative team - this goes far beyond that level, giving us flashbacks of Travers' life as a little girl in Australia. Her relationship with her father - at first joyous and then filled with heartbreak - becomes the source of her emotional journey within herself as she writes her famous tome. A wonderful performance by Emma Thompson (how was she not nominated for an Academy Award?), an underrated one from Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and marvelous supporting turns from Colin Farrell as Travers Goff (P.L. Travers' father) and Annie Rose Buckley as the young P.L. Travers. Sensitively directed by John Lee Hancock (the opening and closing bookend shots are beautiful), gorgeous cinematography by John Schwartzman (he could have easily been nominated for an Oscar), beautifully edited by Mark Livolsi (who definitely should have received an Academy Award nomination; the "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank sequence with its cross-cutting is prime evidence of that); also a touching score by Thomas Newman (especially his cue for Travers Goff). The most delightful surprise for me at the cinema this past year.

3) Her - Writer/director Spike Jonze takes the time-honored story of the lonely guy and sets it in the near future, where said guy falls in love with his computer's operating system. This is quite an original take on love as sensitive Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who is quite incapable of expressing his emotions to fellow humans, opens his heart to Samantha (the voice of Scarlett Johansson), his techo-crush. Jonze comments on many things in this film, especially how tied in we are to technology, so much so that even though we talk to our fellow man, we rarely communicate. The look of the film - with its pinks, oranges and browns - is quite eye catching - and in the end, we have been treated to a beautifully told, imaginative, offbeat, haunting love story.

4) 12 Years a Slave (directed by Steve McQueen) - This is a powerful film, not because it deals with slavery, but because of this particular story of bondage. Based on the titular book by Solomon Northup, a free man who was abducted into slavery, this is a brilliantly told tale of what this character must deal with in order to survive. Thus we are not given a sweeping statement about the evils of slavery as a system, but rather a gripping personal story of restraint and understanding amidst terrible conditions; to my way of thinking, this approach leaves the viewer with a more immediate punch to the gut. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a marvelous, multi-layered performance as Northup; other standouts are by Michael Fassbender as a plantation owner filed with rage and hate and Lupita Nyong'o, who movingly portrays a female slave who is treated with great shame by Fassbender's character (she should win Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards; this was a superb performance). Beautifully photographed by Sean Bobbitt, especially the scenes set just before sundown that lend a haunting tone to the film (he should have been nominated for an Oscar), this was a technically wondrous film - kudos also to editor Joe Walker, production designer Adam Stockhausen and costume designer Patricia Norris - this is an excellent recreation of this era in America. How important it was for McQueen and his collaborators to bring this little-known story to the big screen so future generations would never forget.

5) My Sweet Pepper Land (directed by Hineer Saleem) The story of a young man and a woman from Kurdistan: Baran (Korkmaz Arslan), a former war hero, who takes on the role of chief of police in a small town near the border with Turkey and Iraq, and Govend (Golshifteh Farahani), a single woman who wants to teach the children of this village. While they have the greatest intentions in mind, they are constantly rebuffed by the elders of this land who are tied to their ancient traditions. The dialogue and action are simply told and though we are watching the story of a vastly different culture than ours in America, we identify and sympathize with these two individuals, as we come to know their uncertainties of their lives. Inevitably, they turn to each other for support and love. This is a gentle, moving film that is understated, thanks to the sensitive direction by Saleem. Winner of the Gold Hugo for Best Feature Film at the 2013 Chicago International Film Festival.

6) All is Lost (directed by J.C. Chandor) - A story as old as time - a man (in this case, Our Man) lost at sea, doing everything he can to stay alive. Robert Redford lends a brilliant performance, one that calls upon him to use his wits and brawn as he battles the elements (this is a demanding role; at 77, Redford is more than up to the challenge.) This is pure cinema, a film with virtually no spoken language, save for a brief opening monologue by Redford and then later, one well-chosen obscenity. Director Chandor is quite adept at creating visual turmoil on the character's small boat and life raft; he is ably assisted in this by cinematographers Frank DeMarco and Peter Zuccarini. Alex Ebert's minimalist score is another major element of this film, as it lends the proper emotional tone; this is a score that one almost doesn't notice (certainly the Academy didn't, as it was unfairly passed over for an Oscar nomination.) While this film succeeds on its most basic level as a story of survival, it is the religious, almost existential tone of life and death that elevates this into a moving work of art.

7) Nebraska - (directed by Alexander Payne). A tale of a husband, wife and son who finally get to know each other after a lifetime of disillusion. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), who is showing slight signs of dementia in his seventies, receives a letter saying he has won a million dollars in a contest. His cantankerous wife Kate (June Squibb, in a hilarious performance) and his son David (Will Forte) try and convince Woody that he hasn't won anything, but to no avail. So David drives Woody from his home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to collect his "winnings" and along the way, they come to communicate with each other as never before. Bob Nelson's original script is clever and wistful and is populated with any number of unique characters, who add to the offbeat tone of this work. Payne captures the ironies and beauties of this story equally well; the emotions he presents are honest and well-earned. The black and white photography by Phedon Papamichael alternates in tone between shimmering and bleak; his work is a perfect synopsis of this charming film in which small actions mean a great deal.

8) The Act of Killing (directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, co-directed by Christine Cynn and Anonymous) A truly original work, at times bizarre, at times stomach-churning, but always fascinating, this is the story of a few individuals who oversaw the killings of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Indonesians in the 1965-1966 military uprising in that country. Director Oppenheimer interviews these men - now in their seventies - about their roles at that time and finds that most feel little remorse about their acts, as they have moved on in their lives, marrying and fathering children (one of these killers talks about his experiences in a voice over as he goes shopping with his family in a high-end mall). Oppenheimer also has these individuals recreate the killings and they are glad to oblige, making a film-within-a-film that is brutally detailed. Taking the chances it does, The Act of Killing is a startling and historically important documentary.

9) You Will Be My Son - Tu seras mon fils - (directed by Gilles Legrand) Although this film's year of creation is listed as 2011 on, it had its first commercial run in the United States in 2013; hence its inclusion in this list. A stubborn proprietor of a wine estate in Bordeaux looks to the son of his vineyard manager to run his operation; in doing so, he discredits his own son. Niels Arestrup, gives a memorable performance as Paul, the winery owner; here is a man who revels in his past glories, yet is sparing in his love toward others. Arestrup is currently one of cinema's greatest actors and I hope he will enjoy even greater success outside of Europe. The tale has elements of the Cain and Abel story as well as that of John Steinbeck's East of Eden, as far as the privileged son pitted against the son who is not loved. There is also a nice element in the screenplay about the passage of time, both in regards to a wine improving after years in the bottle as well as individuals inheriting wisdom from one's elders. The film argues that with time, understanding another's viewpoint is the key to living a successful life.

10) I Will Be Murdered (directed by Julian Webster) A documentary about the 2009 killing of Rodrigo Rosenberg, a lawyer in Guatemala, who opposed the philosophy of president Alvaro Colom Caballeros. Rosenberg, in a effort to arouse his fellow citizens, produced a short video in which he predicted his own assassination at the hands of the government; that video, shown on national television within days of his death, created a national sensation. Very well directed by Webster, who details the latter half of the film with the facts of the investigation of the murder; shocking secrets are slowly revealed and things are not as they seem on either side. A gripping thriller.

11) Philomena (directed by Stephen Frears) The true story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an Irish woman who had her five year-old son taken from her by the nuns at the convent/school where she was forced to work when she was a young woman. The story takes place some fifty years later as she is assisted in her search for the truth by Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a former BBC reporter, who desperately needs some meaning in his life. The two characters by their very nature - Lee with her basic goodness and Sixsmith with his organizational talent - help the other get through an emotional time in their lives, resulting in a moving friendship. Dench delivers a magnificent performance as a quiet woman who never abandons her Catholic faith nor her belief in the goodness of her fellow man; this is one of the finest moments in her treasured career. Coogan offers a natural performance that works beautifully here; he also penned the screenplay which is filled with perfectly realized dialogue, be it about the big picture or some small, touching moments. Effortlessly directed by Frears, this film goes straight to the heart without underlining the emotions of the story.

12 (tie) The Verdict (directed by Jan Verheyen). A successful corporate man in Belgium suddenly has his life changed when his wife is brutally murdered. The police capture the suspect, but because of a judicial technicality, he is released, causing public outrage and a need in the victim to seek retribution by any means possible. Excellent performances throughout, especially by Koen de Bouw as Luc Segers, the victim and Johan Leysen, as his attorney. Verheyen directs with a cool, detached vision and his overhead shots in the courtroom sequence are reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock. Verheyen also wrote the screenplay, which contains some of the finest trial closing arguments ever presented in cinematic history. The ending is ambiguous - was this man, as well as society in general - served justice?

12) (tie) The Armstrong Lie (directed by Alex Gibney) Leading documentarian Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side) tackles the sorry story of cyclist Lance Armstrong, who admitted his cheating ways that helped him win seven consecutive titles at the Tour de France. As usual, Gibney takes a very complex story and organizes it elegantly; on its own, this makes for a riveting documentary. But this is also a look at how Armstrong deceived the filmmaker, who asked him to record his efforts to win another title without the use of banned substances. It is on this level that the viewer is forced to look at just how big the Armstrong lie really was. The film also addresses how we revere sports champions and how we as a public almost need these celebrity athletes in our world. Gibney does more than criticize Armstrong, as he also focuses on his early triumphs as well as his battle with cancer and his charity work, so his portrait is a complete one. But he also deals with journalists and teammates that opposed him for years before the truth finally was revealed; to Gibney, these dedicated souls are the heroes of this unfortunate tale.

Honorable mention: American Hustle, Gravity, Dallas Buyers Club, The Motel Life

Most disappointing film: The Wolf of Wall Street

Other bests:

Performance by an actor: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Performance by an actress: Judi Dench, Philomena

Supporting actor: (tie) Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers ClubMichael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave

Supporting actress: Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave

Director: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave

Original Screenplay: Spike Jonze, Her

Adapted Screeplay: John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave

Cinematography: (tie) Phedon Papamichael, Nebraska; Bruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis

Editing: Alfonso Cuaron and Mark Sanger, Gravity

Original Score: Alex Ebert, All is Lost

Original Song: T Bone Burnett, Justin Timberlake, Ethan and Joel Coen, Ed Rush, George Cromarty, "Please Mr. Kennedy" - Inside Llewyn Davis

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Finding Love in a most unusual way

I've always thought that the saying "There's nothing new under the sun," was only true in general, especially when it comes to the cinema. Yes, we've seen romantic comedies, political thrillers, war films, historical epics, etc. etc. before, but thanks to a lot of creative people, we are treated to new ways to tell these stories. In Her, writer/director Spike Jonze takes the time-honored story of the lonely guy and manages to create one of the most unique, charming and insightful films of this or recent years.

Her tells the story of Theodore Twombly, an insightful, funny man (Joaquin Phoenix) whose profession is writing deeply felt letters for customers at a company called The offices of this firm are immaculate, with spacious working quarters all done up in bright reds, pinks and pastels - no doubt to put the employees in a relaxing mood in order to promote their finest work (the production design of K.K. Barrett is quite eye-catching). There is a need for this company, the movie seems to be saying somewhat subconsciously, because most people are unable to express their inner feelings, as they spend too much time obsessed with technology, be it video games or the latest electronic gadgets designed to make communication easier with their fellow man.

Twombly is excellent at what he does, yet he can't seem to express his own inner emotions to real people; he is going through a divorce as we meet him. He has one female friend, a co-worker named Amy (Amy Adams) whom he can talk to, but that's about it. He spends a lot of time at home, usually with technology; one of his delights is playing a video game with a foul-mouthed ghost that has more personality than he does. As for sex, he resorts at one point to a phone call with a woman who simulates an orgasm and asks him to do some rather kinky things.

Notice the orange, pink and brown colors that make up the world of the not-too-distant future.

Clearly, Theodore needs something new in his life and he finds it when he purchases an operating system - OS1 - that provides the user with a virtual assistant; in this case, it is a "woman" named Samantha who is the voice that will communicate with Theodore and help him organize his email and, as it turns out, his life in general. Scarlett Johansson, provides the voice of Samantha, and she's wonderful at this role, as she's smart, sexy, funny and unpredictable (what red-blooded man wouldn't be interested in her?) 

At first, Samantha does the menial tasks that she is trained to do (she mentions that she can read a book in 1/200th of a second), but soon, she expresses her feelings toward Theodore. Though he's a little unsure at first, it doesn't take him long to do the same for her. He truly is in love.

What I admire about this film is the world that Spike Jonze gives us. When Theodore lets his co-workers know that he's having a relationship with his operating system, they accept it and want to know more about his new love. Jonze comments on how normal technology is in our lives, so this sort of relationship doesn't seem out of place. The very fact that Theodore is at his happiest in his life when he talking to Samantha is a clever analysis of how phony face-to-face conversations have become in our world - how many people have anything truly clever to say anymore when faced with everyday dialogue with friends and colleagues? Indeed, Theodore, who is so talented when writing letters for someone else he's never even met, only opens up his true feelings when speaking to his operating system. (In a clever piece of business, he purchases a pocket-sized computer with a small oval opening, which represents an eye, so Samantha can "see" the real world for herself. It's Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but in a more personal, sensitive approach).

Joaquin Phoenix's performance as Theodore is a wonder, as he gives us a man who is vulnerable, confused, at times happy, often sad. Given the uniqueness of this story, this is a challenging role and Phoenix delivers one of his best performances, one that is 180 degrees opposite from the dominating individual he portrayed in last year's The Master.

Credit also to director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema, whose soft-light, slightly dreamy lighting creates the perfect tone for this slightly futuristic look. This is an entirely different vista than the one the Swiss-born cinematographer gave us in 2011's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a film that was graced with harsh office lighting and dimly lit residences. Here is a supremely talented craftsman at the height of his talent.

But of course, this is the baby of Spike Jonze, who's directed such wonderfully irreverent films as Adaptation (2002) and Being John Malkovich (1999). Both of those films were written by someone else, but here Jonze wrote the screenplay and it's both a touching love story as well as a biting social commentary. His direction is sensitive, as he presents us with all the ironies and romantic inspirations of the story without being too blunt.

At one point Samantha tells Theodore, "I'm evolving just like you." Their relationship has to grow or it will die and it's a key to understanding this sincerely-felt tale. Real life as we know it today is bittersweet, so why should it be any different in the future?