Saturday, March 13, 2010
Welcome to "Saturday Night at the Movies," a weekly feature in which I'll share a full-length movie, available for honest-to-God free on the Internet, that gets the ol' JB stamp of approval.
For our inaugural film, I've grabbed Howard Hawks' immortal "His Girl Friday," starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Adapted by Charles Lederer from the classic play "The Front Page," by the great Ben Hecht and Charles McCarthur, "His Girl Friday" is just about as perfect a motion picture as you'll see: witty dialogue, whiskey-soaked newsroom atmosphere, screwball comedy timing, bang bang bang. If you haven't ever seen it, well, put aside 91 minutes.
If you don't wanna watch on the computer, hit up just about any discount chain store; it's in the public domain, so you can get ahold of a DVD of it for a buck or so.
Friday, March 12, 2010
Thursday, March 11, 2010
We get the tip-off early on that Mike Scotti is more than a Marine lieutenant who happened to grab a video camera on his way to fight in the Middle East. As he packs his bags for his deployment to Iraq in January 2003, he tells us that he broke his previous camera when he strapped it to his body while rappelling out of a chopper. “But I got the shot, though,” he grins. That’s not something a soldier shooting home movies says. That’s filmmaker talk.Director Kristian Fraga’s Severe Clear assembled the hours of tapes Scotti shot in 2003, as his company traveled the Persia Gulf to Kuwait, and through Iraq as part of the first push to Baghdad. In its specific focus on that moment of the War on Terror, it’s something like a non-fiction version of Generation Kill. As with that show, it offers an honest and gloss-free look at the men on the ground—presumably thanks to Scotti’s status as a member of the company, his fellow troops feel free to be themselves, so it often feels like we’re eavesdropping, catching these guys with their guards down. “I think every marine is inherently loyal and a little bit crazy,” he notes, and there’s no evidence to the contrary here.
Though Scotti is not the credited writer/director, Fraga takes great pains to present his story as a first-person narrative; the footage of his mission is supplemented by voice-overs of journal entries and letters home. It lives in the present tense with him—he does not comment from the vantage point of the present day, either to the comments over others (those infuriatingly inaccurate Bush, Cheney, and Powell clips are allowed to speak for themselves) or himself. That makes the voice-overs about why he’s there all the more unfortunate; he carries a picture of a high school friend who died in the 9/11 attacks as a reminder of why they’re there (“I just have to look at my picture of Beth and I know we’re doing the right thing”), talks of the mission being “revenge” and “payback for September 11th,” and asserts, “there will be no debate once we find Saddam’s weapons.”
By the end of the film, he will have some different things to say. You start to sense the frustration of the marines early on, as they point out their weak equipment, or when, in the midst of an unsuccessful translation attempt, Scotti remarks into camera, “Note to Secretary of Defense: next time we invade a country, you might wanna send a couple more guys who speak the native fucking language.” By the end of the film, as his frustration mounts, Fraga allows himself a few ironic counterpoints, like playing Rumsfeld’s “henny penny the sky is falling” comments over chaotic video of looting, bloodshed, and bodies in the Iraqi streets. Those moments pack a punch, as do the unfortunate truths of Scotti’s final letter home from Iraq.
There is, unsurprisingly, an abundance of handheld footage, and folks who get woozy from a surplus of that would be well-advised to stay away. Some of the post-production filmmaking is a little sloppy as well—there are clear mistakes and occasional typos in the subtitles (you “breathe in” air, not “breath in”), which are frequently required because of the poor audio quality from the built-in condenser microphones typical of handheld consumer cameras.
There’s also the issue of overkill; there has been, as you might have noticed, an overabundance of Iraq-related documentaries over the past several years, from the intellectual policy analysis of No End in Sight to the media analysis of Control Room to the investigations of Standard Operating Procedure and Ghosts of Abu Ghraib to the personal profiles of The Ground Truth and Body of War to the partisan bomb-tossing of Uncovered and Fahrenheit 9/11. Even this kind of up-close, handheld account of the conflict has been done before, in films like Gunner Palace. To be frank, there’s a glut of these movies, and this late in the game, a documentary has to be extraordinarily powerful, or gut-wrenching, or moving, in order to stick out from that pack. Severe Clear isn’t quite that good. But it does have some keen insights and valuable footage, and it conveys a palpable sense (the fires, the bodies, the smells) of its subjects’ day-to-day lives.
"Severe Clear" opens Friday, March 12 in limited release.
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
The film’s critics might ask what the hell any of that has to do with David Foster Wallace, whose book inspired the film, and that’s a question I don’t have an answer to, since I haven’t read the book (a confession which may negate this entire review in the eyes of some readers). Too often, criticism of a literary adaptation is couched in how well the film is adapted, rather than how well the film stands on its own merits; I can’t judge if Krasinkski’s screenplay is faithful to the source material, but I can judge how well it works as its own beast.
In fact, it feels more like an adaptation of a play than of a book—it has the rhythm, efficiency, and brute force of early Mamet (particularly Sexual Perversity in Chicago), and it has a very theatrical mood (that’s meant as a compliment), particularly in the stylized language of its many smart monologues and an extended (and rather brilliant) duet scene between Christopher Meloni and Denis O’Hare. This is not to say that the picture is stagey or claustrophobic—indeed, the debuting director is clearly having fun playing with form, exploiting inventive voice-over and circular editing like a kid playing with a new toy.
Wallace’s book was a collection of short stories, which Krasinski expands into a full narrative by creating the character of Sara Quinn (Julianne Nicholson), the unnamed interviewer of the original, now a graduate student pondering the male psyche. Some of the title interviews are just that, a man in a room, talking into a microphone; others are overheard, or pontifications by the men in her life, including her thesis advisor (Timothy Hutton), a neighbor (Will Arnett), and, most devastatingly, a recent ex (played by Krasinski himself).
In fact, the film is stocked with excellent actors; Josh Charles, Bobby Cannavale, Ben Shenkman, SNL’s Will Forte, and the great Clarke Peters (aka Lester Freamon on The Wire) drop in, and all of them get a tasty chunk of Wallace’s text to chew on. Krasinski runs into trouble when he gets into more conventional dialogue scenes; they often don’t have the same zing as the monologues, and some of the connective tissue is awfully tentative. But Nicholson’s understated performance helps; with her cropped hair, open, blank face, and dry wit, she’s perfectly cast.
The first half of the film is more successful than the second; early on, it functions primarily as a comedy (albeit a dark and occasionally disturbing one), with the laughs often found less in the sharp turns of phrase and more in the perfectly-timed pauses and half-beats. The back half of the picture, in which Krasinski starts to take the material more seriously, has some problems; an extended piece with Frankie Faison talking about his father works just fine as a self-contained short film but doesn’t have jack squat to do with the rest of the movie, though the difficult sequence that follows (a sharply-sliced combination of several confrontations with a combative, repulsive student) is undeniably effective.
Krasinski does make one critical mistake at the film’s end, by casting himself as the “subject” who must deliver the monologue that Sara finds most personally annihilating. He’s a terrific comic actor (a fact proven, week in and week out, on The Office), but he’s just not up to the job here; the speech, as he performs it, sounds “written” in a way that none of the other actors’ did. The smart play would have been to swap roles with Chris Messina (Krasinski’s Away We Go co-star), who is good if underutilized in a comic encounter early in the film. But Krasinski, the actor, coming up short doesn’t derail the notable accomplishment of Krasinski, the writer/director.
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is far from perfect, and a more disciplined adaptation could have possibly been cleaner, tighter, more fluent. But it might have lacked the fire and ingenuity of Krasinski’s passion project. This is an actor who could probably keep making easy payday projects like License to Wed until the cows come home, but instead, he put together a risky, difficult project by an author who most directors consider unfilmable. That counts for something.
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
I finally saw The Blind Side over the weekend; frankly, were it not the sole remaining Best Picture nominee that I’d missed, and Sandra Bullock not the odds-on favorite for Best Actress, I would probably have never seen it at all. When the trailers debuted last fall, the whole thing just had a pungent Radio vibe about it; there was a “been there, done that” air to the entire enterprise. But familiarity breeds profit, and The Blind Side became Warner’s fall sleeper hit, scoring an astonishing $250 million box office haul and a robust 70% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
As far as the movie itself goes, it’s nothing special. It delivers on about the level it’s expected to—a laugh here, a tear there, so on and so forth, it’s a true story, and it is a remarkable one. John Lee Hancock’s direction is capable if uninspired; his primary gift appears to be with actors. Bullock is, indeed, very good (if nowhere near as memorable as fellow nominees Gabby Sidibe or Carey Mulligan), though I wonder why no one is singing the praises of Quinton Aaron, who is wonderful as Michael Oher. Tim McGraw is also solid as Bullock’s husband (seriously, this guy can quit his day job), and little Jae Head, as S.J., has a nice screen presence that dances up to cutesy without crossing the line.
So, yeah, as an entertainment, it’s fine. What’s not so good, and what is getting surprisingly little ink, is the film’s troubling racial undertones. Put in simple terms, it is the story of a young, good-hearted black man who is abandoned by all of the irresponsible black people in his life, and is only saved from the cesspool of the ghetto by the Tuohys, rich white Christian Republican family that takes a shine to him. Fine, fine, we’re used to that kind of thing in movies. Where The Blind Side steps further is in its attitudes towards every other black person in the film—there is, it seems, no one of his own race who is not standing in Michael’s way, and the remaining black characters are either grossly negligent, maliciously obstructive, or out-and-out criminals.
Michael gets into his upscale Christian school with the help of family friend “Big Tony”, but that affable black man doesn’t hesitate to put Michael out on the streets when his shrewish (off-screen) girlfriend objects to him sleeping on their couch. His absentee father commits suicide, and his transient mother is a drug addict who, we’re told, has begat roughly a dozen children. But that’s not enough—when the NCAA suspects that Michael may have been taken in by the Tuohys as part of an elaborate recruiting scheme, it’s a black woman who stands between him and a rosy future.
Look, I know it’s a true story. And for all I know, maybe that woman was African-American. But maybe we could fudge that part? Maybe one person trying to keep the brother down could be white? I’m just saying.
Oh, no, right, there’s Leigh Ann’s friends. Early in the film, after the Tuohys have taken Michael in, she’s out to lunch with her fancy white rich lady friends. They exist in a movie like this only to be vile racist stereotypes, and they fill the job nicely. To wit: they express their concerns to Leigh Ann that big black Michael will prey on her sweet white 16-year-old daughter. It’s a ridiculous notion (big, gentle Michael, in the spirit of the “Magical Negroes” of The Green Mile or Bagger Vance, is apparently an entirely asexual creature, and a big laugh comes later when we’re told how much he disliked a college recruiter who took him to a strip club), but hey, it’s the ultimate white nightmare, from back in Birth of a Nation, and must be given its due. Leigh Ann is horrified, and rightfully so. She walks out of the restaurant in a huff.
But consider a scene late in the film, when Michael has let that mean NCAA lady fill his head with notions about the Tuohys’ motives and gone wandering back to the projects. We saw him and Leigh Ann make an earlier visit to this project, which is inhabited solely by thugs (not an auntie or granny in sight). This time, he is invited into the apartment of the gang leader, who makes small talk for maybe sixty seconds before inquiring about his new white family, his “white mama,” and asking, you guessed it, if he’s got a sister. He then proceeds, lewdly and graphically, to explain how he would take advantage of such a situation.
Keep in mind as you’re watching this occur that, aside from the two scenes with that mean NCAA lady, these are his only meaningful onscreen interactions with other black characters in the entire film. (When he encounters a long-lost brother in a restaurant, we observe the wordless scene through a window, as the Tuohys do.) And what do those black characters do? They immediately act exactly as Leigh Ann’s racist friends assume they do. The movie, it seems, is just as racist as her friends are.
Again, The Blind Side is skillfully made, and well acted. But they’re playing with a loaded deck here. In the film’s repulsive closing voice-over, Leigh Ann bemoans the losses of so many other talented athletes who were unable to escape the trap of the projects. Her point is well-taken—there are too many gifted children (and not just athletes, but scholars, artists, musicians, writers) crippled by economic circumstances and institutional racism, born into circumstances beyond their control and lacking the resources and/or encouragement to shake them. These are serious problems, and require serious solutions. That last voice-over seems to think that all those poor black kids needed to find was a nice white family to save them.
Monday, March 8, 2010
Some of his tropes have grown a bit tiresome as well--his children's story-style narration has overstayed its welcome, and while they dig up some awfully good stock and educational footage, the opening interspersion of an historical film about the fall of ancient Rome with recent news footage is too heavy-handed, even for Moore. But once those early stumbles are cast aside and the divisive director gets down to business, he assembles his finest, and most effective, motion picture in years.
Since its explosion just over a year ago, the global and national financial crisis has fallen prey to mindless partisanship and the 24-hour news cycle; the path to disaster was such a ridiculously convoluted one that most people have arrived at answers and explanations that are just too easy. What Moore's film provides is some much-needed contextualization. He goes all the way back to the "good old days," to the comparatively debt-free and comfortable 1950s and 1960s, before bringing us up to the Carter and Reagan administrations (and the dangerous influence of Reagan's Treasury Secretary, Donald Regan). Clinton gets off a little easy (Glass-Steagall was repealed on his watch, after all), but Moore does get in some well-aimed parting shots at his old nemesis, George W. Bush.
Once the history has been filled in, the second act of the picture wanders a bit, though each of the detours is fascinating. We're told about the "PA Child Care" scandal, in which two judges were given kickbacks for sending kids, many of them minor offenders, for extended stays in a state-funded private juvenile facility. We're given some mighty scary information about how grossly underpaid airline pilots are. And, most disturbingly, there is an extended, shocking section on (often secret) life insurance policies taken out by corporations on their employees (called, crassly, "dead peasant" insurance).
These somewhat scattershot examples of reprehensible behavior motivated solely by greed leads to his stunning, but ultimately somewhat logical, thesis: that capitalism is a scam, a bill of goods that's been sold by the wealthiest 1% to the rest of us, a "plutonomy," as explicitly outlined in a series of leaked internal Citigroup memos from 2006. From there, he travels to the epicenter of American greed: Wall Street, where it takes a bit of work to come up with a plain-English explanation of how the housing crisis, and particularly the home loan implosion, happened.
This section of the film, an examination of the fall of the house of cards, is riveting, fierce, and angry ("What the fuck happened?" Moore asks one of his financial experts, pointedly). Simply put, it will make you furious. But the best is yet to come--the sequence dealing with the fall 2008 bailout (a move that Moore likens to rich banking interests "stealing the silverware on their way out" of the Bush White House) is thrilling, beautifully cut, and one of the finest pieces of work the filmmaker has put to celluloid. Breathlessly intercutting news footage, Congressional floor speeches, and virulent analysis, Moore calls that bailout a heist--and constructs the sequence accordingly. And then he builds it to a beautiful comic payoff, with a scene reminiscent of his unfortunately short-lived TV series The Awful Truth (I wouldn't have minded a cameo from our old friend Crackers, the Corporate Crime-Fighting Chicken). The closing scenes find Moore at his most bitter and yet most hopeful, and amount to nothing less than a call to arms and a rally for revolution. And his final images (which have unfortunately been spoiled by some reviews and--bafflingly--Overture Films' own publicity photos) and voice-over are powerful and heartfelt.
Capitalism: A Love Story is a long film (perhaps a touch too long), but it is rich and thoughtful, and--notably--isn't merely a partisan screed (as some of his other works have been, for better or worse). Yes, there was plenty of proof, even at the time of the film's theatrical release, that the Obama election wasn't going to lead to the kind of financial reform we so desperately need (after all, he appointed Tim Geitner), and Moore kind of lets that go. But he also gives it to Chris Dodd with both barrels, and indicts the Democratic leadership for their complicity in the bailout. Nitpicks aside, this is a smart, funny, entertaining picture, and it couldn't be more timely. It's Moore at his best--rambling, undisciplined, and utterly brilliant.
"Capitalism: A Love Story" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, March 9th. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review at DVD Talk.
- Salon apparently took it upon themselves to clear up last night's big controversies. Their piece on that awk-ward angling at the mic by the winners of Best Documentary Short is fascinating and telling; there's big drama even in little movies. Also good-- their analysis of Mo'Nique's semi-controversial "talent vs. politics" comments. Gawker covered some of the evening's other mysteries.
- Some good live commentaries happening last night, particularly The Awl's liveblog, Gawker's post-mortem, and the Twitterings of Rob Corddry and Paul F. Tompkins. And not to blow my own horn, but I didn't do too bad myself.
- I only did predictions for five of the catagories last night, but I went 4 for 5, for whatever the hell that's worth. Had I expanded to Adapted Screenplay or Foreign Film, I'd have been wrong more.
- For many, the highlight of the snoozy night was the post-show debut of the new Iron Man 2 trailer. I think I speak for many when I say: Can't. Fucking. Wait.
Sunday, March 7, 2010
BEST PICTURE: It remains a two-horse race between Bigelow’s bomb diffusers and Cameron’s big smurf cats. All of the precedent-setters (save for the Golden Globes) went with The Hurt Locker, but the Oscars are a different ball of wax—money talks big in that room, and Avatar made a lot of people a lot of money. Add in the perceived political faux pas of the “email scandal,” and I think it’s gonna be an Avatar win, making it the worst movie to win Best Picture since Crash.
PICK: Up in the Air
BEST ACTOR: If anybody but Bridges takes it, it’ll be the upset of the night. Bet the farm on it.
PICK AND PREDICTION: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
BEST ACTRESS: The consensus seems to be that Sandra Bullock is going to be the winner here, and it’s got that “well, she’s been doing it a long time and she’s good in that, so what the hell” vibe about it, so she probably will win. And while it’s a good performance, there’s nothing special about it—certainly not compared to Gabourey Sidibe in Precious or Carey Mulligan in An Education. I’d like Gabby to win; let’s be honest, it’s not like she’s going to have a million more opportunities to do this kind of work, while Bullock will work forever whether or not she has a gold statue.
PICK: Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
PREDICTION: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Cristoph Waltz has won pretty much every lead-up award. He will win this one too. About the only one who even touches him is Woody Harrelson, and while I can’t deny the power of his performance in The Messenger, there’s no getting around how great Waltz is as “the Jew Hunter.”
PICK AND PREDICTION: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Again, not a weak one in the bunch, but Mo’Nique will win this one—it’ll be the one that they throw to Precious, and a fine reward for a rich, beautifully modulated performance. My personal preference at the beginning of the awards season was Anna Kendrick, but after watching both films again on Blu-ray, I’m leaning towards the inevitable winner myself.
PICK AND PREDICTION: Mo’Nique, Precious
BEST DIRECTOR: Here’s where The Hurt Locker will get its due—and, at long last, a female filmmaker will win Best Director. (Bigelow’s only the fourth female nominee. Jesus Christ.) Cameron is a long, long shot—nobody wants to hear another “king of the world” speech—but if he does pull this one off, then it’s a sweep, and Avatar’s Best Picture win is a lock.
PICK AND PREDICTION: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
I’ll be watching from work, and trying not to shout at the computer when The White Ribbon beats A Prophet for Best Foreign Film. Happy watching!