PRISONERS



<!–[if !mso]>st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } <![endif]–>

For the 2011 Oscars, Canadian director Denis Villenvue’s film Incendies (a puzzle film about twin brother and sister who find out they are closer to their unknown father and brother than they thought) was nominated for best foreign language film.  In punishment for his sins, Villenvue was given the movie Prisoners to make.  
Actually, I don’t know if this is accurate or not.  As far as I really know, this was Villenvue’s pet project from beginning to end.  But it sure feels like proof of that anecdote by Michael Haneke who came to the U.S. and was presented with a screenplay so outside his purview, he asked (and I paraphrase), “Is this what Hollywood is?  You come here and they just give you whatever screenplay they have lying around in a drawer” (a viewpoint that seemed proven as far as I was concerned when the dynamic Korean filmmaker Chan-wook Park was given the embarrassing screenplay of Stoker to make). 
There is one good scene in Prisoners, a routine thriller about child abduction written by relatively newcomer Aaron Guzikowski.  It comes early on with Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki (Loki?  Okay, sure, why not) interacting with a waitress at a Chinese restaurant.  They talk about animal signs and fortune cookies and it has nothing to do with anything, but it is witty and fun.  But after that (and before that as well), everything goes downhill rather quickly.  It plays with religious imagery, but that all feels clichéd and under dramatized.  And the movie brings nothing new to the genre, seeming to have no real purpose for existence, even the purpose of a movie that does nothing, but does it very, very well.
Prisoners is a one note film.  It starts at a relatively high point of tension (even before anything happens) and pretty much stays there the whole time.  Everyone seems so angry in the film.  Hugh Jackman, trying a bit too hard to play against type as everyman working class father Dover, feels angry from the opening shot (both literally and figuratively, but you’ll have to see the movie to get the pun).   And the scenes with Loki at the police station are so filled with furious confrontation, it feels like an episode of Law & Order: SVU (I never knew how anyone could stand working with anyone in that show, they were all so unprofessionally mean to each other).  Even the weather is angry; it’s always overcast, raining or snowing.  And when there’s no place for anyone to go, when they do go there, it tends to become camp, over the top and unintentionally funny.
There’s only one really effective performance in the move and that is Wayne Duvall as the Captain at Loki’s precinct.  He’s one of those, I know I’ve seen him a million times before, though I can’t quite place where, actor.  And he is spot on.  But everyone else, Jackman, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, the unrecognizable Melissa Leo and Len Cariou (or maybe I just didn’t want to recognize them), and the unfortunately recognizable Paul Dano, just can’t do much with what they’re given.  At least Mario Bello, as Dover’s wife, is lucky enough to have a character so traumatized she takes sleeping pills and is out for most of the film.
Because I and my friends could never become emotionally involved in the movie (though our eyebrows got plenty of exercise as we rolled them over and over again), all that was left for us was to wait, and wait…and wait, until we find out who did it.  And because we could never become emotionally involved, all we did afterwards was pick apart the plot (a highly convoluted one by the time it’s over, a bit too clever perhaps than was necessary, but it did seem to hold together).  If we had been riveted by what was going on and so involved with the characters and what they were going through, we probably wouldn’t have cared about the details so much (especially a particularly hysterical one at the end where Loki has the choice of calling 911 for help or speeding to get a little girl to a hospital down a crowded freeway during a deluge of a rainstorm while in danger of blacking out from being shot—guess which one he chooses?).   
I do hope that as far as Villenvue is concerned, this was a take the money and run movie and that he’ll next return to his roots and make something that means something to him and not to some producer’s profit sheet.  We can only hope.

OBLIVION and THE ATTACK



<!–[if !mso]>st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } <![endif]–>

Oblivion is the new Tom Cruise sci-fi blockbuster, a description that may seem triply redundant.  Basically, it’s a bunch of “who didn’t see that coming” and a couple of “no real surprises there” and a few too many turnings to my friend and asking, “do you have any idea what’s going on here” (his reply, “I think so”, probably isn’t the sort of confident response the writers, Joseph Kosinski—who also directed, Karl Gadjusek and Michael Ardnt, were hoping for, though in their defense I don’t know whether I found the story hard to follow because it’s convolutedly written; or because I was so bored my mind kept wandering and I missed a plot point here and there; or both).
The basic premise has to do with some sort of yadda, yadda, yadda in which the earth it attacked by aliens and the moon is blown up making the earth uninhabitable.  After winning the war the people of earth moved to…no, you know what?  Forget it.  I’m sorry, but I’m not going to summarize it.  It’s just not worth it the money they’re paying me (okay, no one’s paying me anything, but it isn’t worth the money they would pay me if they were paying me, which they aren’t, so…).
Anyway, suffice it to say that our world is now one of those apocalyptic wastelands.  But even worse, it’s now filled with bland characters saying bland things in a bland plot.  I’d say the CGI is stunning, but we’re now grading on a curve and it’s no worse and no better than any other recent apocalyptic film (though I think the scenes of Cruise on a motorcycle speeding across the New York City desert looked a bit, well, cheesy to me).  The thumping, thunderous music by Anthony Gonzales, M.8.3. and Joseph Trapanese may not be great or original, but it’s nice to have someone trying to create a little tension here.  The production design by Darren Gilford includes a streamlined, glass house suspended in the sky (I’d say it was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, but this one is an engineering marvel).   The cast includes Melissa Leo and Morgan Freeman for reasons as impenetrable as the plot (I hope it was for the paycheck).
The ending is a bit odd.  For a movie that seems to want to hold up the uniqueness of man and the importance of their survival, it finales on the dubious moral note (and a rather offensive one to me) that the death of a man is irrelevant as long as he has a clone hanging around.  It’s also borderline ludicrous since all I could think is “boy, is Julia…” (oh, right, uh, see, Julia is this character who..okay, she’s, uh…no, you know what, again, forget it, I’m not going to explain this part of the plot either), “boy, is Julia going to be surprised when all the other Tom Cruises show up”.   I could also make a joke about Tom Cruise and clones and isn’t he one already, etc., but I won’t since that sort of humor is beneath me. 
If you must see an apocalyptic movie, don’t see this one, see It’s a Disaster.  Even if you musn’t see an apocalyptic movie, see It’s a Disaster. 
What would do if you discovered out of nowhere and with no hint or clue to prepare you that your spouse was a terrorist.  No, take it a step further.  What would you do if he or she is a suicide bomber and has just killed a large number of people, including children?  That’s the basic premise of the new, breathtaking drama, The Attack.
Amin Jaafari is a Palestinian and a secular Muslim fully integrated into Israeli society.  He’s also a celebrated and well known doctor working at a major hospital.  The story begins with him receiving the most prestigious award one can receive as a doctor.  The next day, after a bomb explodes, he’s on the front lines in the ER, refusing to let even one child die.  He’s a saint.  No, the writers Ziad Doueiri, who also directed, and Joelle Touma are trying to do a little bit more here.  Amin is a credit to his race.  At the award ceremony he gives a speech Hattie McDaniel would have been proud of at the 1939 Oscars.  He’s Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s coming to Dinner.  And though you like and admire him, there is also something about this noble doctor that makes you squirm just a little bit.
And then it happens.  After the blast and the hard day in the ER, Amin is called back to the hospital to identify a body; his wife, who is suspected of being the person who set off the bomb that sent all the people to the hospital that he saved.  He’s then taken in for questioning, but eventually released when it seems clear he had no idea that his wife was involved in anything.  The story is then about his trying to understand why his wife would do what she did.
The Attack is not a perfect film.  It has structural issues.  When Amin finds out about his wife, he has to go through the denial stage of death twice.  First he has to accept that his wife is dead, then he has to accept that she did what the authorities claim she did.  This slows the pacing down a bit because until he does that, he can’t go on his Citizen Kane/Mask of Dimitrios quest of going from person to person to find the answers he needs   The result is a middle section that tends to stall for awhile.   But the forward momentum soon recovers, grabbing you like the first part of the movie does, refusing to let go. 
Amin is played by Ali Suliman who gives a masterful and deeply empathetic performance as the beleaguered doctor.  By the end, his character is abandoned by everyone, both the Palestinians whose cause is not his cause, and the Israelis who claimed they would never desert him, but eventually make him realize that he will always be a Palestinian to them.
The Attack is a movie that should be seen.  Oblivion is one that should not.
Tell me what you think.
For more reviews, check out my blog at http://howardcasner.blogspot.com

FLIGHT



<!–[if !mso]>st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } <![endif]–>

Flight, the new film from writer John Gatins and director Robert Zemeckis, has an incredible set piece near the beginning of the movie in which a pilot (Denzel Washington) is forced to crash land a plane in nightmare conditions by making it roll 360 degrees (flying upside down for awhile) and coming down on a field near a church about ready to do some Sunday go to meeting baptisms.  It’s an amazing technical feat (and not just the landing, but the filming as well) and it’s an exhilarating start.  When this section is over, the movie sets up an equally incredible enigma: Whip, the pilot, was drunk and had cocaine in his system when he performed this unbelievable stunt; but that wasn’t the cause of the crash.  And Whip’s handling of the landing was something that ten other pilots couldn’t have done sober.  So the whole movie seems more than ready to tackle issues and questions brought up by this fascinating conundrum.
And then the movie becomes…something else, something else entirely, and something that has nothing to do with either the crash landing or what sort of punishment should be given to a pilot who is able to make a miraculous landing (Gatins’ words, not mine) while drunk.   It actually becomes a rather routine, formulaic The Lost Weekend, The Days of Wine and Roses, When a Man Loves a Woman, Clean and Sober (fill in with your favorite film in the genre) story about an alcoholic.
Six people died in the crash and a huge number of people were seriously injured.  But is this their story or is the story about the crash and what it means?  No.  Believe it or not, all of this is chopped liver.  All of this is a macguffin, because the only reason for any of this, the only purpose for all these deaths, the only purpose of the crash, the only reason for all this destruction is so that Whip will start going to AA.
I’m not kidding.  I am totally serious.  And to back up this idea, there’s a ton of talk about God in the movie and whether everything is preordained or has a purpose, whether everything that happens is just part of an overall plan.  To be fair, all this mention of God at times tends to be a bit metaphorical in that whenever the big guy’s name is mentioned, He’s a stand in for all the unforeseen and uncontrollable things that happen in life, as when destruction from a hurricane is an “act of God”.   But still.
And it’s not that the movie is without its positive aspects.   But oddly enough, it’s not when the film focuses on Whip’s journey, but when it focuses on the issues related to the crash that the movie really comes to life.  Both Don Cheadle, as a long suffering lawyer, and Peter Gerety, as the owner of the airline, stand out as the few who really seem to understand what is really going on and that the meaning of the crash is the crash and that Whip’s journey is actually a hindrance and just getting in the way of the real issues.  When Gerety tells everybody off, I thought, finally, someone who really gets what it’s all about. 
Washington is fine as Whip, but he’s always a lot more fun when he’s playing anti-heroes like here, people you would not want to meet in a darkened alleyway.  Melissa Leo also makes her mark at the end because, like Cheadle and Gerety, she’s in a different movie.  The low point, though, has to be John Goodman as Whip’s connection.  Goodman is one of our finest character actors, but here, as in Argo and some other recent films, he’s been reduced to playing, well, John Goodman roles, and he deserves better.
In all fairness, I should point out that many in the audience around me were deeply moved.  But I just couldn’t join in.   For me, if truth be told, I was bit offended.  Here I thought that Leibnitz and the philosophy of “the best of all possible worlds” ended with Voltaire’s ruthless satire Candide.   But apparently not.  No matter how awful things are, no matter how many people die, no matter how much destruction there is, it’s okay, because there’s always a silver lining.   People can die, but their death has meaning because it helped someone enter a recovery program.  Really. 

THE WOMEN: Predictions for Academy Award nominations and awards: Actress and Supporting Actress


As is the case for most of the categories, most of the noms have pretty much already been determined and there’s little that can be done to stop the runaway train, outside one of the potentials being arrested as a child murderer. Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right), Natalie Portman (The Black Swan) and Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) are in with the in crowd, Lawrence especially after her award for Breakthrough Performance from the National Board of Review. However, the fight for who will actually win is between Bening and Portman. I believe the award will go to Bening, because, as the cliché has it, it’s her time. Portman has many supporters, but she’s still new to the whole awards thingy and I believe the Academy will want to make her earn a few more dues before giving her a statuette.

The final two spots are a bit up for grabs. Nicole Kidman will probably be number four for the Rabbit Hole, the best and most interesting work she’s done in some time, even if the movie is just an excellent okay picture. The only hesitation here is that the movie has yet to open, plus an additional caveat listed below.

As for the last spot, it’s between Leslie Manville for Another Year and Tilda Swinton for I Am Love. I believe that most people have now forgotten about I Am Love, which means that if the Academy is looking for another art house nominee to add to Lawrence’s nom, they will probably go for Manville, a movie that hasn’t opened yet. Manville won the National Board of Review, which can’t hurt, and Mike Leigh, who directed the film, has a pretty good track record in getting his actors nominations. Which means, poor Tilda Swinton. I’m not sure why Swinton is being so overlooked. She won an Oscar, for God’s sake, yet she can’t get no respect for Julia last year, and this year, it looks like it’s a no go for I Am Love. It probably didn’t help that her movie wasn’t the Italian entry in the foreign language category. It would probably also help if her movies were released later in the year. What may make the final determination here is the end of year critics’ awards, which might turn the tide in someone’s favor.

Julianne Moore is also in the “can’t get no respect” situation as well. Last year she was overlooked for a nom for A Single Man for some ungodly reason. This year, she may be left out in the cold for The Kids Are All Right. There’s some talk of pushing her for Supporting Actress, which may be her only hope. Sally Hawkins has a chance of getting an apology nomination for Made in Dagenham after not getting a slot for Happy-Go-Lucky, but though some people like her latest film, it’s not really getting the buzz. The same for Anne Hathaway in Love and Other Drugs; no one seems to really hate it, but no one is responding to it either. I think most people have forgotten that Secretariat has come out, which probably dooms Diane Lane (one of our most underrated actresses). Blue Valentine hasn’t opened yet, so it’s hard to say how Michelle Williams will do. She’s done an incredible job of making everyone forget she was ever in Dawson’s Creek, but I’m getting the feeling her chances will be hurt by the “do I really have to see one more film for Oscar consideration, and such a downer one at that” situation. At the same time, Weinstein is distributing the movie, and it’s never good to count a Weinstein movie out of the running. Noomi Rapace is also being touted for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but she seems to be getting lost in the shuffle; what actually may not have helped is the releasing of all three movies in one year—voters may wonder which one they’re supposed to nominate her for or even forget that the first one was even released this year.

However, there is one possibility of a huge monkey wrench: Helen Mirren in the Tempest. She’s liked; she’s playing a part written for a man (and written by Shakespeare); and it’s the sort of part that, if it takes movie goers by storm, could get her a last minute nomination. If it happens, this may spell doom for Nicole Kidman.

At this point, the Supporting Actress is the most suspense filled because there is no clear front runner. The most definite nominees as of now are Helena Bonham Carter (a lot of fun in The King’s Speech); Melissa Leo (for The Fighter, which hasn’t opened yet); Diane Weist (wonderful, simply wonderful, in the Rabbit Hole); and finally Jacki Weaver, who seems a sure shot at a nom because of her National Board of Review win for The Animal Kingdom. My friend Jerry in Chicago thinks it will go to Bonham Carter who will be swept up in the wins for The King’s Speech and because some might consider it her time. I’m going to go for Melissa Leo because I think the Academy has been dying to give her an award ever since Frozen River and since she is a character actress and not a lead, there may not be enough possibilities in the future; it may be now or never. Though Diane Weist is very moving in Rabbit Hole, the nom is all she’ll get. And as for Jacki Weaver, who quite possibly deserves it, well, let’s face it, it’s an Australian Film, and the Academy is loath to give an acting award, especially a supporting one, to a film made outside of the U.S., unless it’s England (the Commonwealth doesn’t count).

For the fifth nomination, many names are being tossed about, but the two who have the greatest chance are Julianne Moore for The Kids Are All Right, if she is pushed for the position, and Hailee Steinfeld, for the unreleased True Grit. Right now, I’d say Steinfeld has the momentum, but it does depend on who well received the movie is.