047: The Artist

I am not one to rag on Best Picture winners the day after the Academy Award show. I don’t always agree the Academy, but this year… I didn’t get around to watching The Artist before the ceremony, mainly because I love silent film so much. Watching movies like Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (239 min. version) and King Vidor’s The Crowd on the big screen remains very much one of my favorite cinematic experiences.

Another one of my favorite experiences with silent film was before Peter Jackson’s King Kong was released. I watched the original King Kong for the first time in preparation and it blew me away. So much so that I almost didn’t want to see the remake. It was still that good. My main problem with The Artist was that I thought it used the silent medium for its own advantage, and that seemed disingenuous to me.

Now, the day after The Artist won Best Picture at the 84th Academy Awards I decided to watch it after all. All the while trying to keep an open mind. And I am sad to say that I do not agree with the Academy’s decision on this one. If you take offense with the decision to give the Oscar for Best Picture to movies like Crash and Shakespeare in Love (a movie I love), then this time you should be upset as well. This is not the best picture of 2012, not by a long shot. Let’s not get into the whole debate whether Drive or Melancholia should have been nominated (they should have been), but movies like Moneyball, The Tree of Life and The Help are much better movies than this.

Don’t get me wrong, The Artist is a decent movie. It is shot beautifully in black and white and the lead, Jean Dujardin, is an excellent interpretation of the big stars of yesteryear. There is also a lot that doesn’t feel right about The Artist. For instance, although in black and white, the photography feels much too modern for it be a silent movie. If you go for this exercise of recreating the silent movies at the end of roaring ’20s, you should stick to the photography used back then. Now it just feels like a modern movie trying too hard to be a silent movie.

Another element I found to be incredibly annoying was the exaggerated gestures used by the cast. This is something a lot of people struggle with when watching a silent film and when you want people to fall in love with this old medium you shouldn’t highlight the aspect that is putting people off. This just adds to the feeling that this is more a pretensious art project than a product for the masses, which the movies ostensibly were and are.

The trouble with a movie like The Artist is that nobody dares to speak out against it. “Utterly absorbing”, “spellbinding love letter to silent cinema” and “smile-inducing entertainment” are but a few accolades that The Artist can add to its resume. I just don’t see it. It all feels like another one of those movies that were pushed really, really hard by Harvey Weinstein to be considered for an Oscar. And the Academy seems to be susceptible to this kind of extreme Oscar campaigning. As the Weinsteins have demonstrated several times in the last two decades.

What I see is a movie that tries so incredibly hard to be liked that it forgets to be a movie in the first place. The plot is actually really thin and borrows heavily from one of the greatest movies of all time, Singin’ in the Rain and even doesn’t hesitate to mimic Citizen Kane in one scene. It would have been much, much, much more interesting to have seen a story presented in this manner that didn’t rely so heavily on the history of talkies versus non-talkies. Movies about movies were, after all, not made back then, they made sprawling adventures, incredible dramas and inventive science fiction movies. Not here, regrettably.

As I said, I tried to keep an open mind about The Artist, something I did fairly well. I just can’t get around the fact that this movie is nice, but nowhere near the masterpiece everybody makes it out to be. I suggest you pick up a copy of the true greats of that era and leave this for what it is. In the years to come this will be the year in which The Artist stole the Oscar from a plethora of better movies.

> IMDb

046: Safe House

When South Africa hosted the World Championship Soccer in 2010 a lot of criticism was directed at the excessive cost of the stadiums that were built for the event. Everybody was curious how the organizers were going to earn the money to actually pay for these structures. In the new action thriller Safe House we see at least one of the ways to do this: let Hollywood tape their movies in and around the stadiums… probably for a decent fee.

South Africa’s Cape Town is a prominent backdrop for Safe House, but in all fairness, this could have been any other city. In this town there is an apartment owned by the CIA. In this apartment sits an agent who looks at screens all day and waits for something exciting to happen. This agent is Matt Weston, played by Ryan Reynolds, a lowly agent who just doesn’t seem to catch a break, because he is chomping at the bit to do some real CIA work. When ex-CIA agent and internationally wanted criminal Tobin Frost, played by Denzel Washington, is brought to the safe house, Matt gets a little more than he bargained for. A gang of criminals wants Tobin and crashes the safe house. Matt manages to escape with Tobin and they start a road trip that will lead them to the inevitable showdown that will or will not claim the lives of one of these guys.

Sounds pretty snappy and interesting, right? Well, think again. While Safe House doesn’t lack car chases, foot chases, shout-outs and so forth, it still manages to be fairly boring. It is always strange to realize you fell asleep during one of the loudest car chases I have (not) seen this year. It is just that these action sequences all meld together. They end up being a blur intercut by only a few scenes that could be categorized as character exposition. That blur could also be attributed to the way Safe House is shot. It utilizes the same shaky-camera-really-up-close technique perfected, but never surpassed, in the Bourne movies. The result is a movie that cuts a lot between shots and loses its focus in the process.

The interesting stuff happens when Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds get to play off each other. There is an innocence to Reynolds that is endearing and when Washington says to him at gunpoint, “I only kill professionals.”, you really feel the inexperience of Reynolds’ Matt. On the other hand there is Washington who comes across as the hardened criminal he is, but it wouldn’t be Denzel is he didn’t add a layer or two to his character. He is just one of those actors that always delivers even if the material doesn’t really lend itself to that end. At one point in the movie Denzel’s Tobin seems to be really tired by all that is going on and he seems glad to hang up the reins for a while. That doesn’t mean Denzel isn’t bad-ass. He surely is. When he takes down the criminals you almost feel bad for them, because they didn’t really stand a chance.

Safe House can be added to action thrillers like Man on Fire, Unstoppable and Training Day, in which Denzel Washington plays the antagonist. In fact, Safe House is very similar to Training Day. You have the veteran taking the novice under his wing to show the new guy the ropes. The big difference between Training Day and Safe House is the fact that Denzel’s character this time around has some redeemable aspects to him. I was not a fan of Training Day and I think Denzel’s Oscar was a little odd, but I would recommend that movie over Safe House. Oh, and Reynolds is always dependable in my eyes.

> IMDb

045: Seeking Justice

When you hear the title Seeking Justice (originally it was called The Hungry Rabbit Jumps, but that was dropped) it is not uncommon for you to think it is a Steven Seagal flick from the 90s. Unfortunately this is not the case. Seeking Justice is yet another nail in the coffin of Nicolas Cage’s career, a career that should have been abandoned by its owner years ago.

Nic Cage plays English teacher Will Gerrard whose wife is attacked one night. In the hospital he is approached by a man named Simon who proposes a Faustian pact. Simon will take care of the attacker for Will and then Will has to return the favor at a future time. Without asking what that favor will be Will agrees to the deal. Only to find out that Simon is not up to any good. Surprise. Surprise.

After Trespass this is yet another Nicolas Cage thriller that tries to bring a decent plot to fruition, but fails in the execution. There are some interesting questions that are asked in Seeking Justice. What do you do when you know the authorities are powerless to solve a crime? When is it time to take justice into your own hands? Well, a sane person would say never, but that would make for an even more boring movie. The problem with these questions is that the decision making process for Nic’s character is played out in a very short time. There is really no indication that police are going to be powerless to solve this crime. So Nic’s decision to invoke the help of Simon is totally unjustified.

When you compare a movie like Seeking Justice with movies like Death Wish or The Brave One, there is a fundamental difference. In the latter the vigilantes do the dirty work themselves, which makes for a very personal approach. In Seeking Justice an elaborate web is woven that is supposed to give more meaning to the way Simon and his cohorts go about their business. It should give their a better motive. But it doesn’t, it just shines a light on the city of New Orleans that promotes the idea that people down their are lazy and unwilling to clean up their city. This is not a city that was devastated by negligence and corruption. This is a city that was the victim of an enormous natural disaster that could hardly have been avoided. It takes years, decades even, to overcome a disaster like that and to use that as an excuse to frame your movie is downright insensitive and rude.

While the premise is mildly interesting and director Roger Donaldson (The Bank Job) keeps the movie going at a decent pace, nobody can keep this train wreck from colliding with the laws of common sense and film making. Especially in the third act the movie comes to a grinding halt. The word Seeking in the title is taken very seriously when Nic is literally seeking the truth behind everything that is going on. We see him go through the motions of piecing together the clues: visit people, run from people, escape from somewhere, find a clue, run a little and so forth. This could have been the kinetic conclusion that could have saved the movie, but in reality it just makes everything more ludicrous then it already was. Let’s just hope Nic’s finances are going to be in order soon, so he can go back to making decent movies and stop being the laughing stock of the movie industry. By now it’s not funny anymore, it’s just sad.

> IMDb

044: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Jonathan Safran Foer’s novels are a tough read. His use of language and structure make his novels interesting and challenging. Translating them to the screen is a challenge, to say the least. Liev Scheiber had a really hard time making Everything Is Illuminated into a movie. He had to drop a lot of material to fit Foer’s novel within the confines of a 106 minute movie, most of this material made the novel the extraordinary experience it was. The result was a flawed movie, at best.

Now the same happened to Foer’s second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a story that examined the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy in heartbreaking fashion. In Stephen Daldry’s adaptation something went terribly wrong. Instead of a heartwarming tale about the discovery of grief and loss, it has turned into a cutesy tale about an incredibly annoying kid who needs to learn some manners.

We follow Oskar Schell, whose father, Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks), was killed in the 9/11 attacks. He needs to deal with the loss of his father and one way for him to do this is to find someone with the name Black, because he finds a key in an envelope in his father’s closet with the word BLACK on it. This starts an unrelenting search across New York City, later helped by a mute old man, played by Max von Sydow. This would be interesting if it wasn’t for the kid. At first you accept some of his less attractive traits, mainly because he is a grieving person, and a grieving person is allowed some space to deal with these experiences. I know I got enough room to deal with the death of my own father.

But after forty-five minutes he starts to really get on your nerves. He is extremely rude to his mother (Sandra Bullock), he yells at regular people in a deli, and is generally unpleasant to just about everyone. After about ninety minutes he starts getting creepy, especially when he forces the old man to listen to his father’s phone messages, which he has hidden from his mother. This could have been an extremely affecting scene, but the look on the kid’s face kills every ounce of sympathy you could have for him.

It is astonishing how screenwriter Eric Roth (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Forrest Gump) could adapt Foer’s novel into this disappointing and overlong version. His screenplays always have a dreamlike quality to them, a quality that is totally misguided when handling such a devastating subject. The most interesting parts of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close are the scenes with Jeffrey Wright and Viola Davis, but regrettably these do little to salvage the rest of this terribly uneven exercise in overly sentimental film making.

One thing could be said for Schreiber’s Everything Is Illuminated: at least he got his half of the story right. He took the absurdity of the story and ran with it. This led to an amusing little movie. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close doesn’t reach that level, it’s just Extremely Long and Incredibly Annoying.

> IMDb

043: Alien

This is the sixth movie in my Ridley Scott retrospective.

Alien remains one of my favorite movies of all time. It is sci-fi horror at its best. Nonetheless I was rather late to the party on this one. To be honest, I was scared of its reputation and watching the trailer for James Cameron’s Aliens back in 1986 didn’t ease my nerves one bit for Alien. One late Saturday night Alien was on television and I couldn’t let this one go. Holy cow, was I blown away. Not because it was especially scary, but more because of the atmosphere in the movie, which is stifling and claustrophobic and really got to me.

Ridley Scott made Alien after The Duellists as his second feature length film. Although The Duellists is a decent movie, it was with Alien that Scott really upped his game. Scott started his career as a set designer and worked extensively in the field of commercials. He knew already perfectly how to design and light sets and this comes to fruition in Alien. He manages to create a world where, although it is set in a distant future, it absolutely feels like this could be today. Star Wars may have coined the phrase Used Future, but Alien expanded on this enormously. Everything is grimy, dirty and lived-in, except for some key locations, including the ‘birthing’ chamber at the beginning of the movie. The inclusion of a beautiful musical score by Jerry Goldsmith and you have the perfect storm.

It is this familiarity with our present day that really sold Alien to me. At every moment in the story you are totally invested in the plight of these doomed personnel who have to fight off this killing machine. Absolutely riveting. Another factor in the success of Alien was the way Scott played with suspense. He had the audacity to spend close to an hour with these characters before anything scary happens. This is totally unthinkable today. Does it feel dated and slow? No, not at all. Scott keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole time with stunning visuals and interesting people. People played by lesser known thespians at that time. This was Sigourney Weaver’s first big role and it cemented her career.

For this latest viewing I went back to the theatrical cut. Ridley Scott would not be Ridley Scott if he didn’t tinker with his movies at a later point. I don’t think the 2003 Director’s Cut adds much to the whole, though. The scene at the end where Ripley finds her crew-mates could be seen as a deleted scene and shouldn’t be in the movie. It just breaks the tension of the endgame.

Although I like the sequels made in subsequent years, I prefer Alien over these sequels. James Cameron, David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet were wise to choose a different tone for their movies, because Alien set a very high benchmark that those directors probably couldn’t have surpassed at those points in their careers. It is somewhat regrettable that Scott made Alien so early in his career, because a lot of his movies sadly don’t come close to the brilliance of this sci-fi horror adventure. Let’s hope the upcoming Prometheus proves me wrong.

> IMDb

042: The Three Musketeers

I have always been sort of a Paul W.S. Anderson apologist. His movies seem to walk a tightrope between extreme campiness and earnest filmmaking. Shopping was an admirable debut, Event Horizon is one of my favorite horror movies, Resident Evil is still a joy to behold, and even AVP: Alien Vs. Predator was a guilty pleasure. But sometimes even I can’t defend him.

In The Three Musketeers he takes his over the top filmmaking to a whole new level… and not in a good way. We start the movie with a heist on a vault where Leonardo Da Vinci’s designs are supposedly stored. Sounds interesting, but right of the bat Anderson starts going to extremes. This should be the time of the musketeers, which was the 17th century. Anderson decides to upgrade all costumes, weapons, sets and so forth to a more modern look. I’m sure this probably looked pretty good on paper, but in reality it just jars you out of a movie you’re not even invested in. Everything has this annoying steampunky feeling to it. Armored airships, rotating guns, elaborate traps it all feels terribly out of place.

Add to that a convoluted plot about musketeers going after some jewelry or something stolen by a British prick played by Orlando Bloom (when does he quit?) and his right hand played by Milla Jovovich (a favorite of Anderson). To be honest, I didn’t care one bit about the plot and have forgotten large chunks of it already. Nothing in this movie made me invest in it. Part of that was the really terrible dialogue and, more precise, the painfully awful attempts at comedy. There are some characters that are supposed to be comic relief, but they just make things worse.

The only thing I kind of liked were the animated pieces that clarified where we were geographically. These maps are populated by toys and little buildings and because the movie was made for 3D the camera sweeps across these giant playing fields. Nice work there. Otherwise avoid this and watch the 1993 version. At least that tries to look like a period piece.

> IMDb

041: The Color of Money

Back in the day I watched The Color of Money before watching The Hustler. I had no idea who Fast Eddie Felson was, but the movie had Tom Cruise, so I had to see it. I really, really liked Top Gun. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that The Hustler was a big part of watching The Color of Money. Now, I watched them both back to back and although the latter is not as good as the former, it is still an excellent film. It has actually aged rather well.

After 25 years we reconnect with Fast Eddie Felson. The last time we saw him he walked out of that poolhall with some money and a little bit of dignity. Now he is a hustling liquor salesmen who sells second grade spirits as if they were the finest drinks in the world. On one fateful night he sees a young guy (Tom Cruise) playing pool and decides to take him under his wing. Along with the young man’s girlfriend (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) he starts off on a roadtrip that will take them to Atlantic City for a high stakes pool tournament.

Paul Newman reprises his role as Fast Eddie and it is a delight to see him in this role again. After having been nominated for an Oscar numerous times (also for The Hustler), he finally won the coveted golden man. This older Eddie is much more calculated then the young Eddie. You never really know when Eddie is hustling somebody. Even when it seems to be clear that Eddie has been hustled by Amos, you still can’t entirely be sure that it wasn’t just a ploy to get Vincent riled up. The same sensibility was evident in The Hustler and it is to Scorsese’s credit that he manages to include this here. It is as if the director is hustling the audience while they are watching the movie. A brilliant move.

Also very good is Scorsese’s casting of Tom Cruise, who by that time was still building his career. Cruise is perfect for the role of Vincent. He is a young guy who has the world to conquer, but he needs to learn how to do that without getting getting sucked into a vortex of greed and hubris. You get the sense that a lot of Vincent is Cruise himself. He needs a mentor, and that’s where Eddie comes in, though it is never clear what Eddie’s intentions really are. Throw into the mix the dodgy and conniving girlfriend played by Mastrantonio, who wants the best for Vincent, no matter how, and you have a very potent mix.

The Color of Money is a movie that struck me as slow and cumbersome when I first saw it, but with a few more years under my belt and have watched The Hustler in a double feature I must say that Scorsese’s movie holds up very well. It is a compelling piece of work.

> IMDb