Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Brooklyn's Finest Casting Arrested By Procedural

Brooklyn's Finest


The title in Antonie Fuqua's latest film, Brooklyn's Finest, is a reference to police officers but I think it is more suited for the film's casting. The most significant thing about Finest is the number of actors that appear over the course of the film. It seemed like every two minutes a familiar actor makes their cameo on screen. I guess they all must have been really passionate about the material; it is just too bad that this same passion did not translate into a better film.

Brooklyn's Finest follows three separate police officers as they struggle with what their jobs have turned them into. Eddie (Richard Gere) is a seven days from retirement and wants to do his time and go home. Jaded by all that he has seen and done, Eddie struggles with alcohol addiction and his desire to commit suicide. Eddie's retirement plans our complicated when he is asked to show a new recruit the ropes. Sal (Ethan Hawke) is a narcotics officer struggling to provide for his family on a cop's salary. When the mold in Sal's home starts to make his wife (Lili Taylor) sick, Sal is determined to get his family into a new home at all cost. Even if that means stealing money from the drug dealers he arrests. Tango (Don Cheadle) is an undercover cop who has been under for far too long. He starts to question whether drug dealers like Caz (Wesley Snipes) are any worse than the upper police brass who care more about looking good in the papers than they do about crime on the streets.

As I mentioned above, the casting is really strong in this film. Richard Gere, Don Cheadle, and Ethan Hawke are all vastly talented actors who try their best to overcome the shortcomings of the material. Cheadle was the standout for me, though Hawke's story line does get the most screen time. Personally, it was nice to see Wesley Snipes back on the big screen in a significant role. He looked far more engaged here than he did in The Art of War II: Betrayal, which was the last film I saw Snipes in. The supporting players are equally strong with actors such as Vincent D'Onofrio, Ellen Barkin, Will Patton, Michael K. Williams, and pretty much the bulk of The Wire cast all taking small roles in the film. At times you will get so distracted by the actors on screen that you almost forget how formulaic the movie is.

Brooklyn's Finest strives to be a gritty cop drama were all the characters live in that grey area of life. The film even opens with a discussion on how sometimes breaking the law is actually a good thing for bad people to do in times of crisis. Yet the true murkiness is not found on the hard Brooklyn street but in the film's script. The picture is a slow burner that actually starts off very promising. Antonie Fuqua's film teases us at first, just when you think the payoff is about to happen...he decides to keep you dangling just a little longer. Unfortunately we are dangling for so long that Fuqua give us, unintentionally of course, a film with two endings. The first one is what I like to call the "false ending." It is the point in the film where, if the credits began roll, you would feel like you had a satisfying experience. I will not give away the details but will merely say it is the redemption moment for the characters. It is where they wake up and realize that they need to start making better choices.

The only problem with this style of ending is that it does not fit with the usual aesthetics of an Antonie Fuqua film. After seeing seven of his nine films, the one thing I have come to expect from Fuqua is some sort of shootout or action sequence to cap things off. A film is not over until the body count rises and the characters are all out of bullets. Which brings me to the preposterous final act of the film, or the "official ending" if you will. This is where all logic is thrown out the window and the men find themselves in the same housing complex in "Dirty Harry" mode . It is at this point in which both the story and the characters lose all credibility. By time the film ends we feel nothing for these characters or the situations they found themselves in. Brooklyn's Finest might have actually been a decent film without this ending. Sure it would still be formulaic but enjoyable nonetheless. Sadly the final act of the film is so bad that it is tough to recommend this film on any level.


Monday, March 29, 2010

Movie Marketing Monday

Movie Marketing Monday looks at the movie trailers and/or posters that caught my eye recently.


Animal Kingdom

One of the few trailers that I have seen recently that actually made me giddy. One of the best trailers out right now.





The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Nicolas Cage and Jerry Bruckheimer together again. Box office cash registers have already started rejoicing. While it does look better than I originally expected, the Cage factor knocks this down a few points for me.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Pitch the LAMB: Mutiny, I Promise You

The following is my submission for the Pitch the LAMB feature over at The Large Association of Movie Blogs site (aka. The LAMB). The genre for this month's Pitch the LAMB is Coming-of-Age and bloggers are encourage to come up with an idea for a movie in that genre style.

Mutiny, I Promise You

The Pitch: 17 year-old Frankie Heyward rarely sees eye to eye with his folks on anything. The only person who seems to truly get him is Alba Morris, a 37 year-old woman who he chats with online every night. Despite the fact that Alba is married with kids, Frankie believes that they are destined to be together. After a particularly heated argument with his parents, over the amount of time he spends on the computer each day, Frankie leaves home and in hopes of hitchhiking across the country to be with Alba.

Along his travels Frankie meets, and befriends, former movie child star Neil Cord. Although Neil has not landed a role in years, he refuses to accept that his fame has faded. Neil parties hard with no regard to the consequences of his actions. Through Neil, Frankie is introduced to an exciting world filled drugs, women, and booze. Frankie is mesmerized by this lifestyle at first but soon sees its darker side when a drug dealer, Douglas Dell, starts pursuing Neil for unpaid debts. Fearing for Neil’s life, Frankie pleads with Neil to just pay the money stating “he’s going to kill you”. Yet, unbeknownst to Frankie, Neil squander all his money away on years ago.

As the two young men travel across country, Frankie starts to question whether his life at home was as bad as he originally thought? Neil begins to realize, through his friendship with Frankie, that there is more to life than being admired by others. Sadly this realization comes too late for Neil as he is suddenly gunned down by Douglas Dell. “Hey Frankie…” would be the last words ever uttered out of Neil's mouth. By time Frankie reaches Alba’s house he is a changed man. Exhaust, both mentally and physically, Frankie can barely muster the energy to knock on Alba's front door. After all Frankie has witnessed and experienced, he now knows that there is no future with Alba. All Frankie wants is to use Alba’s phone to call his parents so that they can bring him home.

Possible Cast:
Frankie Heyward - Aaron Johnson
Neil Cord - Paul Dano
Douglas Dell -Bobby Cannavale
Alba Morris - Melissa McCarthy

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Alice's Land Left Me Wondering

Alice in Wonderland

Based on Lewis Carroll's two stories, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, as well as his poem "Jabberwocky", Tim Burton's latest film, Alice in Wonderland, is not short on source material...although it often feels that way at times. In this latest version of the classic story, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is 19 years-old who is tormented by the same recurring nightmare, of a strange land, since she was young girl. On the same day Alice receives a marriage proposal, from a man whom Alice does not love, she sees a strangely dress White Rabbit (Martin Sheen) scampering around in the garden. While chasing the rabbit Alice stumbles into a hole that transports her to the magical Wonderland. Alice has no recollection of the place, which she first visited when she was a child, and thinks it is all a dream. Yet the inhabitants of Wonderland, including the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), desperately need Alice to regain her memory. It has been foretold that Alice will dethrone the ruthless Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) by defeating the beast known as the Jabberwocky (Christopher Lee). Once the Jabberwocky is destroyed, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) can resume her rightful place as the true ruler of Wonderland.

Tim Burton is known for his surreal visuals and this film is no different. Alice in Wonderland’s greatest strength is the wonderful art direction and special effects. This is probably Burton's best looking film in years; even the minor details, such as the White Queen's soldiers having the heads of chess pieces, are a treat. If you exclude Stayne (Crispen Glover), who looks awkward in every scene he is in, it is tough to find fault with the outstanding visuals. The funny thing is, for a film that had such wonderful art direction, the 3D aspects were shockingly poor. I will not get on my usual soapbox about how 3D is a cash grab, as I have beating that horse to death. Regardless, I can easily see visual elements, like the seamless incorporation of the Cheshire Cat in many scenes, amazing audiences in either format.

Speaking of the Cheshire Cat, I thought Stephen Fry's voiceover work was near perfect. The same can also be said for Alan Rickman, who brings the Abosolom to life with a mystic charm. The interesting thing about Fry and Rickman's performances is how easily they steal scenes from the actors on screen. You know you have problems when the CGI characters are far more interesting than the human ones. Which brings me to one of the flaws with Alice in Wonderland; the film has too much talent and not enough use for them.

It is rare that you walk into a film starring Johnny Depp and walk away being more wowed by the supporting characters, like the aforementioned Fry and Rickman, yet that is exactly what happens here. While I liked the darker tone that Depp gave the Mad Hatter, his overall performance was surprisingly dull. I understand that Depp is trying to find a balance between exploring the root of Hatter’s madness and being the comic relief; but he often falls short on both parts. At times it felt like Johnny Depp was merely channeling the Scottish cousin of his Willy Wonka character from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The difference being that the Mad Hatter’s often mumbles large chunks of his dialogue. At first I thought I was merely burned out by the Depp/Burton pairing as this is the fourth straight film they have done together, and eighth film in total. Then I realized that even the new players to Tim Burton's world were not fairing much better.

Mia Wasikowska is a serviceable but ultimately forgettable Alice. Even when she final raises up and embraces her female independence, which the entire film is building towards, it does not carry the weight it should. We should be cheering Alice along her journey yet I found myself caring less about what happened to her as the film went along. I will say that Wasikowska was much better than Anne Hathaway, as she at least had things to do. Anne Hathaway, on the other hand, had to suffer through a painfully awkward performance as the White Queen. Hathaway serves no real purpose in the film other than to be the embodiment of good. Since the White Queen has sworn not to hurt a living thing, she is merely glides around all day with her dainty hands in the air. It is shame to see such a talented actress like Hathaway take on such a meaningless role.

The only on screen actor that really seems to fit the tone of the film is Helena Bonham Carter. As the Red Queen, Carter is a delight to watch in her small role. In a few short scenes she conveys a queen who is both ruthless and desperately in need of acceptance. If you take away Helena’s performance there is no other human character that really generates any interest. Alice’s family and friends are mere footnotes to the overall picture.

While the art direction, and a few key performances, keeps Alice in Wonderland afloat; the film, in the end, is much ado about nothing. Tim Burton’s version of the source material creates a beautiful but hollow world, which is probably why Alice found it so forgettable in the first place.



Monday, March 22, 2010

Movie Marketing Monday

Movie Marketing Monday looks at the movie trailers and/or posters that caught my eye recently.


The Switch

This film had me at Jason Bateman, though the rest of the cast is great as well. This is the first time since Friends With Money that I actually want to see a Jennifer Aniston film in theatres.



The Joneses

I saw The Joneses at TIFF last year. I will post my thoughts on it closer to the release date.




All trailers courtesy of traileraddict.com

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Your Informant Is Light On His Facts

The Informant!

The Informant! is to comedy what Hal Hartley’s Amateur is to action films. This is to say that the film has certain elements of the genre, but never immerse itself completely. In the end, the film is restricted by the director’s established aesthetics.

The film is a loose dramatization of the real-life events in which a high-ranking executives became one of the most notorious corporate whistle blowers in recent years. Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) is the president of Archer Daniels Midland’s (ADP) BioProducts division. ADP is a powerful company that specializes in corn…that’s right corn. When word gets out that ADP might be conducting illegal price fixing, Whitacre is enlisted by the FBI to gather as much evidence as possible. At first things look up for Whitacre as he becomes, in his mind at least, an exceptional sleuth. Yet as the FBI gets closer to exposing the price fixing issue, cracks begin to appear in Whitarce himself. As the FBI turn their gaze on Mark Whitacre, it becomes apparent Whitacre has many secrets of his own.

As I mentioned above, The Informant! is a comedy by Steven Soderbergh’s standards. It is not laugh out loud funny as, or anywhere near as good, Soderbergh’s brilliant film, Schizopolis. The Informant! is more of a dramedy that often strives for the lightness of the Ocean’s Eleven series, yet has the slowburn pacing of The Limey. It is as if Soderbergh is struggling with how much commercial appeal to give the film without sacrificing his independent roots. Personally, I would have prefer it if he had not tried so hard to walk that fine line between comedy and drama. Either go for a gripping tale ala Shattered Glass, or go straight comedy like Schizopolis.

The major issue I had with the film is that Steven Soderbergh takes so much delight in the absurdity of the situation that he glosses over many of the significant moments. The film glibly portrays Whitacre as a buffoon yet ignores the fact that he is actually a very smart man. It is tough to look at Whitacre as an idiot when comes from and ivy-league education, drives expensive cars, and pulls down a six figure salary. He is a man whose bipolar disorder is the catalyst for not only ADP's downfall but Whitacre's as well. Yes the situation Whitacre finds himself in are amusing; yet I could not help but feel slightly cheated by the end of the picture.

The most fascinating aspects of the story, in my opinion, are the price fixing and Whitacre’s motivations for working with the FBI for as long as he did. The bipolar element should heighten the overall complexities of these two situations from a cinematic stand point but, unfortunately, it does not. The Informant! felt like one long running gag where, by the end, you have learned nothing significant. Sure you laugh many moments but what is the point of telling Whitacre's story if you have nothing really relevant to say about it? The fact that Soderbergh uses an airy 1960’s sitcom-style tone in the film only helps to trivialize the whole film even further.

The one true gem in this film is Matt Damon. He, along with Soderbergh’s red-herring style of narration, is what keeps you interested in the film despite its many short comings. Damon really captures Whitacre's self absorb persona, especially in regards to the scenes where Whitacre gets to live out his fantasy of being a secret agent. At times it seems like Matt Damon is on a completely different level than everyone else. I found it odd that Soderbergh rounded out the supporting cast with talent comedians (e.g. Tom Papa, Tony Hale, Jonh McHale) yet had them all play it straight. Besides, Scott Bakula’s dimwitted FBI agent, there is not much for Damon to playoff of. While I was expecting another solid film from Steven Soderbergh, sadly, The Informant! left me feeling indifferent to both the price fixing scandal and Whitacre's life as a whole. The film had the potential to be something special but ended up being as forgettable as some of Whitacre's lies.


Monday, March 15, 2010

Ponyo Only Swims In Kiddie Pools

Ponyo

There are times when, regardless of how much you like the director or cast, you just have to throw your hands in the air and concede defeat. It is tough to do, I know, but we must all face that fact that some films are simply not made with you in mind. Ponyo is an example of this for me. Despite being made by animation legend Hayao Miyazaki, whose works I normally love, Ponyo is a film clearly designed for people ages five and under. Anyone older may find themselves contemplating the various ways to bang one's head against a wall.

Based on Hans Christian Andersen's classic tale, The Little Mermaid, Ponyo is a story about friendship and love. Sosuke (Frankie Jonas) is a five years-old boy who one day finds a goldfish, Ponyo (Noah Lindsey Cyrus), trapped in a jar near his home. Sosuke rescues Ponyo and treats her with the love and care that a pet goldfish deserves. Unbeknownst to Sosuke, Ponyo is no ordinary goldfish, her father (Liam Neeson) is a powerful wizard and her mother is the goddess of the sea (Cate Blancett). Ponyo soon falls in love with Sosuke and is determined to do anything to become human. Yet Ponyo does not realize the devastating consequences this may have on the world.

I was lucky enough to see Hayao Miyazaki in person, at the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival, when he held a brief Q & A session for his film Spirited Away. Miyazaki stated that after making films like Princess Mononoke, he wanted to make a film that his grandchildren could enjoy. Well if Spirited Away was made for his grandchildren, then I must assume that Ponyo is for his great-grandchildren. This is the only way I can see him justify this in coherent mess. Spirited Away was a film that did not talk down to the children who watched it. It offered several messages on family, duty, and love that both children and adults could understand. Ponyo is the exact opposite of this, Miyazaki tries to make grand statements about responsibility, love, taking care of the environment, etc. Yet opt to convey these messages by talking to core audience like they are babies. This uneven juxtaposition plagues the picture all the way to the very end.

On one hand Miyazaki revels in the innocence of youth and the friendships that often result from it. The relationship between Sosuke and Ponyo is similar to two kids at a family gathering. Inevitably one child, in this case Ponyo, will run around mimicking everything the other says and does. It may be annoying to the rest of us, but the kids are having fun in their own little world. It is this sense of play and abundant energy that Miyazaki wants children to cherish. Yet Miyazaki then turns around and gives Sosuke and Ponyo a quest which not only impacts their future together, but of the fate of the world as well. One of the most ridiculous scenes in the entire film comes when Sosuke's mom (Tina Fey) decides to leave Sosuke and Ponyo, at home alone, in the midst of a violent storm. Why does the mother leave? well she is worried about the folks in the retirement home where she works. Before leaving she gives Sosuke a speech regarding how, at age five, he is mature enough to take care of himself and keep Ponyo safe. Seriously. Worst mother of the year award goes to... .

Even if you are willing to ignore the ages of the two main characters in relation to the themes in the story, it is tough to ignore how sloppy the plot and overall editing is. Ponyo is heavy on childish repetition but slim on substance. The lack of a coherent plot is one of the most shocking aspects of the film. Especially when you consider the source material it is based on. The film often feels like it was thrown together last minute. Issues are raised but never followed through with, characters disappear for long periods of time, people make silly decisions for no other reason but to advance the story, etc.

The best examples of all the story and editing flaws become apparent when looking at the characters, like Fujimot (Neeson) for example, directly. Despite looking human, Fujimoto "dries out" when on land but still needs an air bubble to travel underwater. Fujimoto is in the house when Ponyo first tries to transform, yet somehow is nowhere to be found once Ponyo falls in the potions and sets the catastrophic events in motion. Also, one minute Fujimoto is determined to bring Ponyo home because her being human will set the world in flux. Yet, later on, Fujimoto and Gran Mamare (Blanchett) whittle the whole issue down to a "as long as he treats my daughter well, I'm fine with it" style discussion. Which makes the quest that Sosuke and Ponyo find themselves on seem rather pointless when you really think about it.

I know many will say that I am being too harsh on the film, but I refuse to use the "it's meant for kids" excuse to justify the film's many shortcomings. Hayao Miyazaki has proven in the past that he can make quality children's films that are full of substance and beautiful animation. Yet, with Ponyo, Miyazaki is merely relying on his wonderful animation skills to coast through. Unfortunately, it will take far more than pretty scenery to make Ponyo worth even a rental. While Miyazaki's overall track record speaks for itself, Ponyo is clearly one of his weakest films to date.


Friday, March 12, 2010

Don't Shoot The Messenger... He is Already Hurt


The Messenger

If The Hurt Locker had been released in 2008, shortly after its screening at The Toronto International Film Festival, would The Messenger have received more love from the Academy Awards this year? I could not help wonder about this after watching the film. Two nominations, for supporting actor and screenplay, seem far too slight for a film that runs circles around Best Picture contenders like The Blind Side. While The Messenger may not be as suspenseful, or as popular, as The Hurt Locker is; it packs a strong emotional punch that cannot be ignored.


After being injured in Iraq, Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is ordered to spend the remaining months of his military service in the Casualty Notification team. This particular division of the army is responsible for notifying next of kin when their loved ones, in the U.S. Army are killed while on duty. Montgomery would rather be back in Iraq with his squadron, instead of working with the rigid Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson). Stone is a veteran in the division and is responsible for showing Will the ropes. Despite their differences, Montgomery and Stone soon realize that they share an emotional pain which is directly linked to the war. Besides adjusting to a new role, Montgomery must also confront unexpected feelings that arise when he meets Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton), the wife a recently deceased officer.


Director Oren Moverman, who was the writer behind Jesus' Son and I'm Not There, subtly shows that the Iraq War not only has devastating ramifications for the troops overseas, but also their families and the soldiers still in America. We see the grief in the faces of every family member who is unfortunate enough to receive a visit from the Casualty Notification team. Montgomery and Stone's first visit to the Washington house is so emotionally charged that it is unfathomable how these men go through this five or six times each day. Even when the men are off duty, they still cannot escape the constant reminder of the sorrow due to war. There is a great scene in the film where Montgomery is having a drink at the local bar and observes a welcome home party for a returning soldier. Despite his best efforts to maintain the levity of the evening, the soldier clearly feels like a stranger in his own country. The soldier's awkward speech shows that he is not only struggling to come to terms with what he saw overseas, but also how foreign life outside of Iraq is. It is as if the soldier feels ashamed for being home while others are still fighting.


There is a level of guilt that sweeps through every single character like a virus in The Messenger. It is one of the most compelling, and heartbreaking, aspects of the film. Stone is riddle with guilt for things he was not able to do, and relationships that were ruined as a result. Some of the families Stone and Montgomery visit express guilt over how things ended with their loved ones before the war, and the fact that they will never have a chance to fix it. The interesting thing is that the guilt is not only associated with loss, but new beginnings as well. This is most evident in the Will/Olivia story arc. Not only must Montgomery cope with being alive; but he also feels guilt for both pushing his old flame (Jena Malone) into the arms of another man, and for falling for woman whose husband is a fallen soldier. Montgomery's guilt confines him like a prisoner in an increasingly shrinking cell. Olivia’s guilt, on the other hand, is more connected to society’s expectations of a recent widow. In Olivia’s eyes, the soldier she loved died, figuratively speaking, years ago after his personality changed upon returning from his second tour of duty. Although Olivia clearly has feelings for Will, she is constantly aware of what the neighbours and her son will think. There is a level of guilt that is associated with moving on too soon which makes Olivia as much of a prisoner as Will is.


Oren Moverman's script is excellently layered, yet never feels like it is preaching at the audience despite its subject matter. Moverman merely wants to show a side of war that often does not get featured on film. The performances in the film are outstanding. While Woody Harrelson's work received an Academy Award nomination, and rightfully so, it is astonishing that neither Ben Foster or Samantha Morton were recognized for their respective roles. Granted they probably would not have won against some of the big names this year, but at least their work would garner notice on a larger scale. Foster keeps getting better with each role, it is only a matter of time before people start to give him serious leading man status. Ben perfectly captures a man who is trying to maintain order on the outside, while being a complete wreck on the inside. Morton is one of those actresses who can make reading Dr. Seuss aloud worthy of an award. Her performance in this film is so subtle and honest, that it is easy for some to miss all of the brilliant nuances that she brings to the role. I have no doubt that if the role was "flashier", she would have been nominated. Regardless, do not let the lack of award buzz keep you away from The Messenger. The film may be small but it is filled with large, and poignant, moments.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Can You Dig It?: Procrastination, Acting School, Star Wars, etc.

Today I should:
A) Start packing for the move
B) Work on some last minute wedding stuff
C) Finally write my review of The Messenger
D) Procrastinate on all of the above and promote some other blogs.

Yep, when in doubt always opt for procrastination.

News and Notes:

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Directing An Award Breakthrough

The following was written for the Director's Chair # 6 over at The Large Association of Movie Blogs. Kathryn Bigelow and Jane Campion are selected as this month's featured directors.

In a few mere hours history may, and most likely will, take place at this year's Academy Awards. Kathryn Bigelow, director of The Hurt Locker, is poised to become the first woman ever to win the award for Best Director. While the award is deserved, the film is good though vastly overhyped, you cannot help but wonder why has it taken so long for the gender barrier to be broken? Also, is Bigelow really breaking through? Or merely being rewarded for making a film that appeals to the "old boys club" branch of the Academy?

The one comment that I have noticed a lot Oscar pundits say in favour of Kathryn Bigelow is that she, unlike other female directors, does not make the typical female driven films. Her films, with the exception of The Weight of Water, and the vastly underrated, Blue Steel (hey, it's a guilty pleasure flick), are often male driven adrenaline flicks. Whether it is the straight action of Point Break, the horror chills of Near Dark, or a science fiction thriller like Strange Days, Bigelow knows how to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. Yet to imply that Bigelow should win because she makes movies that predominately appeal to men is insulting to both Kathryn Bigelow and female directors in general.

This line of thought offers the subtle implication that Bigelow is not one of those "feminist" directors, like Jane Campion, simply because she doe not cater to the female gender. Which also assumes that women do not like genre flicks as much as men do. Worst of all, it makes female directors, who focus on female driven stories, seem somehow less deserving of the Best Director award. I believe you would be a fool to assume that Kathryn Bigelow is not on the same level of Jane Campion when it comes to championing female equality in film. To me Bigelow is the embodiment of the modern feminist movement in cinema. If you really think about it, the core of feminism has always been about gender equality. Kathryn Bigelow exemplifies this with her work behind the camera. She makes genre films as good as any male director and, best of all, you never feel the need to question the gender influence when watching her films. You approach Bigelow's work the same way you would approach any other action director's work.

Unlike Bigelow who thrives who behind the scenes, Jane Campion is one of the directors that believes in putting women in the forefront of the camera. Her films, which include Holy Smoke, The Piano, In the Cut, Portrait of a Lady, etc, often focus on strong female characters coming to terms with love, sexuality, and independence. Campion is often associated with period pieces though she has dabble in the horror/thriller genre with In the Cut. Although being nominated for the Best Director award in 1994 for her film The Piano, Campion, like other female nominated directors, had to settle for the Best Original Screenplay award. To be fair, Jane Campion was going up against Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List...no director stood a chance against that film. Regardless, is the fact that Campion specializes in female driven stories the reason she, or other female directors, have not won in the directing category? Do female directors need to start making more action films like Bigelow to get Academy Award notice?

I may be naive but I would like to believe that it will not resort to this. The merit of Kathryn Bigelow's work on The Hurt Locker speaks for itself. The Best Director race this year is one of the few cases where everyone nominated is equally deserving of the award. An argument can be made for why each one, yes, even James Cameron, should win the award. The Academy may have finally reached the beginning of a new era; soon we will no longer need to discuss gender or race at the awards. I hope this new age will be one where female directed works, featuring both male and female driven stories, are viewed as equals in the eyes of the Academy, and pundits alike, regardless of genre. It will not happen overnight mind you, as Best Director is one of the few areas where a couple more walls still need to be broken down, but the first positive steps towards change will hopefully happen tonight.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Lenny’s A Riot Without Carl Carlson

Lenny

The one thing I love about Academy Award season is the large amount of classic, and award nominated, movies that show on television. It is a chance to re-watch old favourites, and to discover previously unseen gems. It also allows us to reflect upon actors/actress whose have spent the majority of their careers delivering outstanding, and often defining, performances. Dustin Hoffman is the perfect example of this.

I had forgotten how great of an actor Dustin Hoffman was back in the sixties and seventies. This is not to say Hoffman is not a good actor today. On the contrary, he can still turn it on at a drop of a hat. Yet, when you review some of the films he starred in between 1967 to 1979, his work in that era is simply jaw dropping: The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Straw Dogs, Lenny, All the President's Men, Marathon Man, and Kramer vs. Kramer. The interesting thing is that Hoffman is often overlooked when discussing great actors. Although widely respected, he does not get the same amount love as other actors, like say Robert De Niro or Al Pacino, of that era. I wonder if this is because Hoffman often opts for playing the everyman instead of the more macho roles that De Niro and Pacino tend to take. I was thinking about this fact while watching Lenny for the first time last week.

Lenny, directed by Bob Fosse, is a biopic that looks at the life of Lenny Bruce (Dustin Hoffman), the most controversial comic of the 1960s. The film follows Lenny's as he goes from struggling stand-up comic to underground sensation. We see the ups and downs of his marriage to Honey (Valerie Perrine), a stripper, including their battle with addiction. Yet his marriage to Honey was the least of Bruce’s problems. As Lenny became more popular, the vulgarity he used in his shows became more scrutinized. This resulted in Lenny constantly being arrested on indecency charges. The numerous arrests not only started to damage Lenny’s professional career, but his mental state as well.

Dustin Hoffman is brilliant as Lenny Bruce, he brings a rogue-like charm to the role while never losing site of Bruce's humanity. Several of the best scenes in the movie are not Lenny's stand-up routines, which are great, but his interactions with his wife Honey. As Honey spirals out of control, we are constantly aware of the confliction growing inside Lenny. Bruce knows that she is bad news for both of them, yet he is responsible for making her the way she is. The fact that Hoffman and Perrine have great chemistry together only heightens the turbulent marriage on screen.

If the relationship between Lenny and Honey was not gripping enough, Fosse nicely juxtaposes Lenny’s stand-up routine with many key moments in Bruce’s life. Fosse slowly shows how the many court battles started to alter Lenny. Not only did Bruce’s jokes, and observations, become increasingly political; but the stress of the legal woes impacts his overall mental state as well. One of the most gut-wrenching moments comes when Lenny, who can no longer find work to pay his legal fees, is begging to be thrown in jail but the judge refuses.

It is fascinating watching Lenny in this day and age. Many of the things that Lenny Bruce got arrested for saying are considered tame by today's standards. The film is not just a reminder of how far society has changed in the last fifty years; but also, how much we take freedom of speech for granted. Through his tribulations Lenny Bruce inadvertently became one of the important pioneers of the free speech movement in the sixties. It was a burden that he did not want, but ultimately ended up carrying all the way to his grave. Without Lenny Bruce there would not be the likes of Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, Judd Apatow, etc. Heck, we probably would not even have Youtube or blogs. If you are looking for a movie to get you ready for Sunday’s Academy Award show, Lenny might be the film for you.