BURN: One Year on the Front Lines of the Battle to Save Detroit



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BURN: One Year on the Front Lines of the Battle to Save Detroit is the new documentary by Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez that focuses mainly on one fire station in Detroit as well as on the city’s new fire chief.  The movie is for those who have seen Scary Movie 4 and thought that the after and before pictures of Detroit under attack by Martians was a joke.  Apparently, it’s not.  Detroit has the most fires per capita in the U.S. and things don’t look like they are going to get better any time soon.
The movie holds your attention and there are moving moments as well as some strong character studies of a young fire fighter now confined to a wheelchair and who will never fight fires again and an old timer who is going to retire at the end of the movie.   There’s also an interesting character study of Donald Austin, the Executive Fire Commissioner: he comes across as rather foolish and in over his head and one wonders if he would have agreed to be in the movie if he had realized what the results would have been.   And it’s all set against some harrowing scenes of fires blazing away and men putting themselves in harms way.
But in the end, it feels as something is missing that prevents it from being more than it is.  In many ways, it feels like a movie searching for a message or focus, caught between being a character study of first responders and a study of what exactly is wrong with the fire department in Detroit.  And this rock and hard place is understandable.  No matter how much the filmmakers may have wanted it to be only a character study, it’s impossible for them to get away from the serious issues facing Detroit.  It just keeps sticking its ugly head in.
And Detroit is in trouble.  Besides the fire per capita issue, Detroit has lost a third or more of its population; there are 80,000 abandoned buildings; fire equipment is in need of repair and there’s no money to keep them from constantly breaking down or for purchasing new ones; and the fire fighters have to take second jobs just to make ends meet.   As the filmmakers show the city, it looks like the perfect location for someone wanting to make a movie about a post-apocalypse America.
And this is where the movie really gets frustrating as it slowly, but irretrievably, becomes a film about a problem that has no solution.  The fire fighters blame the city and government and the Fire Chief blames the fire fighters.  But what is really odd here is that the filmmakers, for whatever reason, never ask the Mayor, the City Council, the local media, the state government, any experts, anybody else at all about what is really going on.  It just seems odd that if that if almost half of the movie is going to be about Detroit falling apart and how handicapped the fire department is, that the filmmakers wouldn’t really go for it.  Instead it comes across more as a documentary that, as a friend of mine says, just doesn’t have enough meat to it.
The film is divided into four sections, one for each season of the year.  The final section is fall.  This section is filled with upbeat images of hope and people finding new possibilities in their futures.  But it’s too late and to be ruthlessly honest, it’s a bunch of hokum.  Nothing’s changed.  The problems are still there looming as large as they were before.  It may say fall in the subtitles, but on screen, it’s basically no different than the winter the whole story started with.  The ending here doesn’t feel like a reflection of everything the documentary has said before.   It feels more like an ending based on a business decision, something to make the audience feel good when they leave the theater.  It may make a difference at the box office, but all it really does is let the causes of Detroit’s problems off the hook—the last image for the audience is not “something must be done”; instead, it’s more of, “yes, it’s horrible, but we’re the people and we’ll get by”.

ANALYSIS OF THE 2012 BEST ACTOR OSCAR RACE


For my next Oscar entry, I will now turn to the Best Actor race.   There is an irony here.  This is stacking up to be a weak year for movies and for nominations in all categories.  At the same time, the Best Actor race is quickly becoming not just crowded, but overcrowded. 
Of course, this always happens.  No matter what else, Hollywood and movies are so male oriented that no matter how weak a year it is in movies, the men always come out ahead.  As Spencer Tracy said when he was asked whether he should get top billing over his female co-star, This isn’t the Titanic (though there are some in the industry who are suggesting we might be reaching suck a critical stage—but that’s a different story).  At the same time, this weakness will probably have some effect even on this category and that is on who will win.
DANIEL DAY LEWIS (Lincoln):  At this point, there seems to be only one sure thing (the bet your grandmother’s farm on it, etc.) and that is Daniel Day Lewis will be doing a threepeat by winning the Oscar for Lincoln.   Normally, getting a third Oscar period, especially in this short a period of time, is almost impossible.  But as was mentioned, this is a weak year for nominations.  This means there is a lot of competition to be nominated, but not to win.  In addition, it’s what’s called a gimmick nomination—Lewis is playing a real person (ole honest Abe) and it’s a big budget film directed by Steven Spielberg.   Nuff said.
JOAQUIN PHOENIX (The Master):  Lewis’s only real competition and as the days near the voting deadline, we’ll see if the forward momentum leaves Lewis (or Lewis peaks too soon) and it goes to Phoenix.  When it comes to The Master, the critics love it, but the regular people (who vote for the Oscars) don’t seem to so much.  But Phoenix’s performance is about the only thing anyone agrees on, so he should easily receive a nom. 
RICHARD GERE (Arbitrage): Almost a sure thing.  The industry has been wanting to give Gere a nomination for some time (especially starting with Chicago).  He’s not a great actor, but he’s now been around a long time, paid his dues, and gives solid performances in solid movies.  He also has never rested on his looks, but has continually picked roles that stretch him (or try to stretch him—when it comes down to it, he’s not Gumby, damn it).  Gere  is the sort of actor that Hollywood respects, but can almost never give an Oscar to, but they do look to try to give him a nomination at some point so they get it over with so they never have to worry about it again.  For references, this is like John Wayne—who did go on to win one, so you never know; Gene Kelly; Dennis Hopper, etc.   It’s what is called a career award or nomination in industry parlance.
Special note: there generally aren’t any women that come to mind that fit this sort of nomination—women rarely get career Oscars or career noms.  Their nominations almost invariably come from an appreciation of their performance (make whatever social comment you want here). 
That’s as far as I can go right now.  The rest are still unknown quantities.  Jean Louis Trintignant was considered a shoe in for Michael Hanake’s Amour, but he now may get lost in the last minute shuffle.   The others being considered are getting good buzz, but are to some degree still unknown quantities or it’s still unclear how people are responding to the performance.  This includes:  John Hawkes (The Sessions—very good buzz); Denzel Washington (Flight—getting really good buzz and Washington doesn’t do badly come Oscar time); Hugh Jackman (after years of whining at not being cast in a musical, he finally has been, but I never predict when it comes to movie musicals until they open—movie musicals are too likely to crash and burn); Bradley Cooper (The Silver Linings Playbook—unknown quantity, though the previews look a little too formulaic and sentimental for my tastes); Anthony Hopkins (unknown quantity and he doesn’t particularly look like Hitchcock); Bill Murray (Hyde Park on the Hudson—it didn’t work when he went tres serious in The Razor’s Edge, but maybe second time’s the charm). 
That’s it right now, but like in the presidential elections, polls change daily, so keep checking back in.

NEW YORK TIMES ARTICLE ON THE FUTURE OF MOVIES


This is an interesting article, but it misses one of the major points–it doesn’t matter what the movies do to attract an audience–as long as ticket prices are so high and keep getting higher and movie theaters like Arclight and Sundance open and make going to movies something special to do rather than something everybody does on a regular basis, the industry will put itself out of business or become like Opera, poetry and theater, an elite form of entertainment.  And you can’t save an industry by telling people they should do something–that’s like trying to get kids to eat their broccoli because it’s good for them.
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/29/movies/hollywood-seeks-to-slow-cultural-shift-to-tv.html?smid=fb-share

OSCARS 2012


As an addendum to my best picture race analysis for the Oscars, I called Argo the Mitt Romney film and Beats of the Southern Wild the Barack Obama film.  But I realized after thinking if over more, that this is true only aesthetically.  Ironically, from a thematic standpoint, it’s the reverse.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is about a group of fiercely independent people who celebrate constantly in a very patriotic manner and who want absolutely nothing to do with the government or receive help from any outside group—the perfect Romney demographic.  Meanwhile, Argo is about  a group of people who want to avoid using violence and sending in troops to solve an issue in the Middle East, rather using a consensus building approach by joining forces with another country (here Canada) and solving the problem in a more subtle way, which makes it more the Obama picture.

OSCARS 2012


It’s getting to be that time of the year, so I’m going to start my annual blogs on the Oscars.  I know, I know.  It’s the one baited breath thing you’ve been waiting all year to hear about.  Well, you can finally stop thinking about the election and really grapple with something important now.  No need to thank me.  It’s just what I do. 

These entries will be quick and off the top of my head, so my thoughts will change as time goes on.  This entry will deal with best picture.

By now, I usually know what’s going to win top dog.  But this year, I was really stymied for a long time and even now I’m not totally sure.  I’m not certain why things are so up in the air this year.  Maybe it’s because it’s been one of the worst years for movies in the U.S. and it’s been hard for anything to really galvanize people.   But it does look like things are starting to gel. 

Argo:   The Mitt Romney of the noms.  As of right now, this is the lead to win best picture (though I think the Presidential election will come out differently).  It has all the right qualifications.  It’s perfectly middle brow, i.e., it makes the audience think it’s edgy, takes chances, is very serious, really grapples with important subject matter, when in reality, it’s a safe, above average action/thriller.  Very retro, but gets the job done.  It also is a box office hit, but not such a hit that people think it’s a studio time waster like The Avengers or The Amazing Spider-Man.  It also has some nice selling points from a marketing standpoint.  First, it’s based on a true story and a true story that most people are unaware of; and it’s a great story, one of those, if it hadn’t really happened, no one would ever believe it had (even if it didn’t really, exactly happen the way it happened in the movie).  Second, Ben Affleck’s acting career had seriously stalled, then he became a director, and is now finally getting new respect, so it’s something of a come back story.  Third, it’s topical—well, topical for a Hollywood story; it takes place in the Middle East, though as was mentioned above, it doesn’t really tell us that much or give us any serious insight into what’s going on over there.  The writer and director are having too good a time entertaining us to do something like that.

Beasts of the Southern Wild:  The Barack Obama of the noms (though, again, I personally think the election will go a different way than the Oscars).  The indie darling of the year.  It probably should win best picture, but will have to settle for a best picture, actress (the youngest ever), screenplay and maybe supporting actor and director nom.  This is the movie that does something and takes the art of filmmaking forward, unlike Argo that is very old school, very George Bush.   It has a great grass roots organization behind it; after all this time, it’s like the Energizer Bunny: it just keeps going and going and going.  It came from nowhere and worked its way up to the top on sheer quality alone.

The Master: a tough call.  The critics love it, but not many others seem to, and it’s the others that vote for the nominations.  In a year of only five noms, I would say this wouldn’t have a chance, but it’s the sort of love it or hate it that the new rules of possibly up to ten noms is made for and it may slip in.  Whether it will get a directing nod is much more difficult to say.  Should get a best actor nom no matter what (Joachim Phoenix) and possibly supporting actor and actress (Hoffman and Adams).

Les Miserables: There is a certain set of films that is impossible to make a guess on until they open.  These are movies that are so big, have such high expectations, have so much “talent” associated with them, that everyone thinks they are a sure thing until they open when most of them crash and burn.  This is especially true of musicals.  I refuse to make any sort of guess until people who have seen it (regular people, not critics) start reacting to it.  Remember Nine?  I’m not making that mistake again.

Lincoln:  See above for Les Miserables.  The previews make it look ponderous, overstuff and self-important.  But it’s Steven Spielberg, so who knows, it might also be entertaining.  It’s suppose to win a best actor for Daniel Day Lewis (beginning to look like one of the few sure things right now), and some possible supporting noms.  Expect to see it in the top ten even if it’s awful simply because it’s Spielberg.

Django Unchained:  In a year of five, probably no way, but in a year of up to ten?  Maybe.  The problem is that it’s by Tarantino.  Tarantino is one of our greatest filmmakers, but he’s a very serious filmmaker who doesn’t makes serious films.  They do nothing, but do it absolutely brilliantly.  This, I think, makes it difficult for the Academy to actually nominate him.  The exceptions were Inglorious Basterds which was about the heavy subject of WWII, Nazism and the Holocaust, and Pulp Fiction which was something people hadn’t really seen before and made people see movies in a different way (and was a film noir, which helped).  Django is basically a Spaghetti Western, so there you have it.  Also, people seem a little uneasy right now whether it’s going to work.

Silver Linings Playbook: It’s been getting a lot of good buzz, but the previews make it look incredibly formulaic and sentimental, so until it opens, it’s an unknown quantity.

Arbitrage:  Not on anybody’s radar right now, but don’t count it out.  It’s the sort of well made, unambitious, entertaining movie that wins voters over.  It’s just fun and there’s often a movie on the list that is just fun.

Moonrise Kingdom:  The, “Oh, yeah, right, I remember that movie, I loved it, but whatever happened to it” film of the year.  People have even forgotten it opened this year and it’s been overshadowed by Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Amour:  A shoe-in for awhile, but it’s also the Austrian entry in the Foreign Language Film category so that may cut against it.  I still think it might have a chance since we have up to ten movies to nom.  It’s very different from Haneke’s other films, so the voters may feel safe in voting for it.  It also may get a best actor and actress nom, as well as screenplay.

Life of Pi, Flight, Zero Dark Thirty, The Hobbit are all too unknown quantities right now.

FRANKENWEENIE, THE PAPERBOY, SISTER



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Frankenweenie is the full length version of director Tim Burton’s short film called, astonishingly enough, Frankenweenie.  The 87 minute version is written by Leonard Ripps and directed by the aforesaid Burton.  Like the short film, the story here is your basic boy meets dog, boy loses dog, boy gets dog, but with a Mary Shelley twist.  Victor, a young boy in high school (who for some odd reason starts out as a filmmaker and then suddenly switches a third of the way through to become a scientific genius, a standard trope in Hollywood these days, I guess), figures out a way to bring his pet dog Sparky back to life after it is hit and killed by a car.  While this version is not boring and is enjoyable enough, I can’t bring myself to say it’s much more than that.  The short was clever and refreshing.  The full length feels a bit padded and bloated, filled with some extra monsters created the same way Victor brings Sparky back to life, but with no real explanation as to why they turn out so differently than Sparky does (other than that the story needed padding).  The strongest aspects of the movie are some beautiful miniatures (Rick Heinrichs, Tim Browning and Alexandra Walker did the production design and art direction) of an Andy Griffith like home town filled with Leave it to Beaver houses, as well as stark and effective black and white photography that makes you think the story might turn into a duck and cover educational film at any moment (the time period is the ‘50’s).  The city the story takes place in is called New Holland—it’s unclear why since no one is Dutch.  Well, there actually is a reason—it’s to justify the existence of a windmill so the climax can mimic that other movie with Boris Karloff.  In the short, the windmill was located in a miniature golf course—a cleverness this version often lacks.
The Paperboy is a southern melodrama that out Gothics William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Tennessee Williams put together (the various fetishes dramatized here read like a typical night out at a German S&M bar with water sports not of the Olympic kind and Black on White bondage and torture).  Though Nicole Kidman is in it, it’s Zac Efron who is sexually exploited here with the writers (Peter Dexter, who also wrote the book the screenplay is based on, and Lee Daniels, who also directs) going out of their way to film him in tighty-whities and shorts (in all fairness, Matthew McConaughey also bares his butt a couple of times, but I suspect that that’s only because it’s a standard clause in his contract).   The movie starts out well, but soon loses its way and finally seems to stop going anywhere.  This may be because it feels as if something is missing at the core of the story.  It’s about two reporters (the aforesaid McConaughey, and David Oyelowo, as a somewhat fey version of Sidney Poitier) investigating the conviction of a man on death row in the home town of McConaughey’s character.  What’s missing is a compelling or convincing reason why they care, or perhaps more importantly, why their paper, and only their paper, cares.  Without this, it’s unclear that anything is at stake and the tension quickly seeps out of the story, with it all becoming a tough swamp to slog through, both literally and figuratively.  No one gives a bad performance, while Kidman and John Cusack (as the weirdo on death row) giving the strongest.  To be honest, McConaughey does push his bit a bit too much, as he is wont to do, but Efron in the title role (he plays McConaughey’s younger brother) is surprisingly good, until he has to really emote; but even then, he does well enough for the circumstances.  In the end, though, the story is never quite believable, especially a Governor’s pardon resulting from a newspaper story based on anonymous sources that is obviously full of lies (hey, it could happen).  The movie might have worked a little better if everybody, including Dexter and Daniels, were having a bit more fun with it (or any fun at all), but no, everyone is deathly serious here.  So, if a ranking would help, when all is said and done, this is no Killer Joe, which in its turn is no The Killer Inside Me.
Sister is the Swiss entry in the Academy Award foreign language film category.  Written by Antoine Jaccoud, Gilles Taurand and the director Ursula Meier, it’s a very solid and at times moving character study of Simon, a young teenager who goes to a resort in the nearby mountains and steals equipment and skis and sells them to make money to support himself and his sister.   Simon is played by Kacey Mottet Klein, who handles the role as capably as his character steals.  You may not approve of what he does, but you have to admire his lack of self pity, his self reliance and his Trump-like entrepreneurship.   The story grows in strength once the big reveal is, well, revealed, and matters get far more complicated, both emotionally and practically.  There are strong guest turns by Sweet Sixteen/Red Road’s Martin Compson and The X-Files Gillian Anderson.  The somewhat downbeat subject matter ends on a glimmer of hope, slim as it may be.