DETROIT (2017) – Powerful Portrait of 1967 Detroit Race Riots

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DetroitMovie

The best part about DETROIT (2017), director Kathryn Bigelow’s powerful portrait of race riots in 1967 Detroit, is that it doesn’t play like a movie at all.  It comes off as raw live footage, transporting its audience to 1967 Detroit as witnesses to the horror which occurred during that time.  It’s based on a true event which happened at the Algiers Motel in Detroit.

In DETROIT, you won’t find traditional characterizations, main characters with background stories and depth, a plot with a neat and tidy story arc, or anything else that makes you think you are watching a movie.  You will find horror and revulsion.

The centerpiece of the movie is a brutal and misguided police interrogation inside a hotel which leads to the deaths of three black men.  This wince-inducing sequence takes up a sizable chunk of the movie.  It’ll leave you squirming in your seat, wishing it would just end, but it doesn’t end.  It goes on, and as such, it’s one of the more riveting sequences in a movie I’ve seen in a long while.  Not only are the Detroit police tactics disturbing, but the fact that everyone else on the scene— the State Police, the National Guard soldiers— look the other way is equally sickening.

DETROIT opens at the outset of the 1967 race riots in Detroit, and then follows a group of characters whose fate becomes connected when they cross paths at the Algiers Motel. When someone shoots a toy gun in the vicinity of the National Guard soldiers on the street, it’s mistaken for sniper fire.  The Detroit police descend upon the hotel with the soldiers, and the police interrogation begins.

Top-billed John Boyega plays a young black man named Dismukes who’s working multiple jobs to make ends meet.  One of the jobs he holds is as a security officer in a building across the street from the Algiers Motel.  Dismukes has a good head on his shoulders, and early on he brings coffee to the National Guard soldiers, alerting them that he’s across the street guarding the building, letting them know that if things go down, he’s on their side, which is exactly what happens when the “sniper fire” draws the authorities to the Algiers Motel.

Dismukes is on the scene as well.  He views it as his duty to keep as many people alive as possible, and so he goes out of his way to play level-headed peacemaker, which in this case, since he also allows the police violence to continue, may not have been the best idea.  Dismukes is accused later by his black brethren of being an “Uncle Tom.”

Since there aren’t any lead roles here, fans of John Boyega might be disappointed that he’s not in this one more, but it’s still a much meatier role than when we saw Boyega last, in THE CIRCLE (2017), which really wasted Boyega’s talent.  He does a nice job here as Dismukes.  I found Boyega’s performance reminiscent of a young Denzel Washington.

The other big name in the cast is Anthony Mackie, who plays a former soldier recently home from Vietnam named Greene who finds himself among the interrogated.  It’s a good performance by Mackie, and the scene where he decides he won’t lay down for the police is a potent moment.  It’s also jarring to watch this character, someone who fought in Vietnam and survived, beaten back home in the United States by officers of the Detroit police department.

One of the better performances in the movie belongs to Algee Smith as Larry, a young singer whose group’s performance was cancelled by the riots.  The group becomes separated, and Larry and his friend Fred (Jacob Latimore) find themselves at the motel. Smith nails the emotions, from fear to disillusionment to eventually anger.  Likewise, Jacob Latimore is very good as Fred, who like the rest of the black men forced against the wall during the interrogation, becomes more and more terrified as the night goes on.

But the most memorable performance in the film just might belong to Will Poulter as the racist Detroit police officer Krauss. You can’t take your eyes off this guy.  He’s that despicable.  This might be a break-out role for Poulter, who starred in THE MAZE RUNNER (2014) and was in THE REVENANT (2015), but I remember Poulter most for his role as Jennifer Aniston’s and Jason Sudekis’ son in the comedy WE’RE THE MILLERS (2013).  Poulter’s work here is about as far removed from his comic work in WE’RE THE MILLERS as you can get.

Likewise, Ben O’Toole is nearly as chilling as Krauss’ partner Flynn.  They’re the epitome of racist police officers.

And while DETROIT doesn’t paint a positive picture of the Detroit police, it does show that these two officers did not represent the entire department.  During the movie, we see other white officers helping black people, and we see other white officers chastising Krauss’ motivations.  The problem is, and this is where the film remains true to life, that while most did not share Krauss’ views towards blacks, no one felt strong enough to do anything about it.  This film is every bit as much about those who turned a blind eye on the proceedings as those like Krauss who instigated them.

There are also two strong performances by Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever as two white women, Julie and Karen, staying at the motel.  When they are found with the black men, they are accused by the police as being whores.  They endure both verbal abuse and in Julie’s case physical abuse, as the police strip her top from her.

The screenplay by Mark Boal is first-rate, which is no surprise, since Boal also wrote the screenplays to the two other critically acclaimed movies directed by Kathryn Bigelow, THE HURT LOCKER (2008) and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012).  The dialogue is superb, the situations tense, and the characters while not fleshed out in the traditional way are all very real.

Director Kathryn Bigelow makes full use of her camera, from painful close-ups to terse hand-held camera work during chase scenes.  She also captures the race riot streets of 1967 Detroit.  I really felt as if I had been transported back to this volatile time.

I would imagine Bigelow will receive some backlash regarding this movie, as it’s a rather one-sided interpretation, and the police are not on the bright side of this one.  But the reality is, racism still exists, and until it doesn’t, stories like this need to be told.

DETROIT is a superior movie, a powerful movie, and one that is even more disturbing because it takes place in a country that is known for its freedom and its rights, but as shown in this movie, those freedom and rights don’t extend to everybody.

—END—

DUNKIRK (2017) – Innovative Movie Brings Miraculous World War II Rescue to Life

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dunkirk-movie-poster

Forget everything you know about traditional storytelling.

DUNKIRK (2017), the new World War II movie by writer/director Christopher Nolan, changes the rules and then some.

As he has been known to do in the past, Christopher Nolan tells this story in a nonlinear fashion, and he does it with a minimum of dialogue and character development.  Yet, the film doesn’t suffer for it.  Nolan has called DUNKIRK his most experimental film, and I would have to agree.

In an interview, Nolan described the soldiers’ experiences at Dunkirk in three parts: those on the beach were there a week, the rescue on the water took a day, and the planes in the air had fuel for one hour.  To tell this story,  Nolan separates it into these three parts- the week on the beach, the day at sea, and the crucial hour in the air, but he does this in a nonlinear fashion, meaning all three events are shown happening concurrently and interspersed with each other.  Surprisingly, the result isn’t confusing. Instead, this bold use of time generates heightened tension and maximum suspense.

DUNKIRK tells the amazing story of the rescue of 338,000 British soldiers from the French port town of Dunkirk in events which transpired from May 26 – June 4, 1940.  The soldiers were surrounded by German forces and the only escape was by sea, which was covered by German planes.  In effect, there was no escape.

However, in what turned out to be a stroke of genius, instead of sending the navy, the British authorities sent out a call for civilian ships to go to Dunkirk, which they did and they miraculously rescued the soldiers.  The smaller civilian ships had the advantage of being able to navigate the shallow waters off the beaches of Dunkirk.  And while militarily speaking Dunkirk was a massive failure, one big surrender and escape mission, in terms of morale, it became a major turning point in the war.  Had the British soldiers been captured, Germany would have advanced, most likely on their way to a successful invasion of Great Britain.  But the soldiers escaped to fight another day, and Churchill turned the event on its head, claiming a moral victory and using it to espouse the spirit of resistance.

On land, the movie follows a young soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) on the beaches of Dunkirk as he attempts with his fellow soldiers to survive long enough to be rescued.  On the sea, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) set off in their small ship to Dunkirk to assist with the rescue.  And in the air, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) do their best to fend off the German planes long enough for the rescue to be a success.

It’s a dramatic yet simple story told in an innovative way by Christopher Nolan. While my favorite Christopher Nolan film remains THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) with INTERSTELLAR (2014) a close second, his work here on DUNKIRK rivals both these movies.

Of course, the film that set the bar for war movies remains Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998).  Is DUNKIRK as disturbing as SAVING PRIVATE RYAN?  No, but it doesn’t have to be.  It’s an effective movie in its own right.

And while the opening moments of DUNKIRK are not as in-your-face horrific as the opening in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, it’s still intense and sets the tone for the rest of the movie.  Young Tommy’s early escapes from death are riveting and tense.  The film is rated PG-13 and as such you won’t see much bloodshed, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  R-rated movies these days use CGI blood which often looks fake. There’s nothing fake looking about DUNKIRK.  It all looks very real.

Christopher Nolan purposely chose unknown actors to portray the soldiers on the beach, and there is a minimal of dialogue.  We learn nothing about Tommy’s background, and he and his fellow soldiers do little more than looked dazed, exhausted, and frightened, which is exactly how they are supposed to look.  In most other movies, this lack of character development and lack of dialogue would be troubling, but not so here.  Here in DUNKIRK it comes off as authentic and real.

As such, Fionn Whitehead is effective and believable as Tommy, a character we know little about but we still want him to survive.  All we need to know is he’s on that beach and needs to get home.  In this situation, that’s enough to make his character work.

Aneurin Barnard is equally as good as Gibson, a French soldier Tommy befriends as they try to escape.  Since Gibson is French and speaks no English, he speaks in the movie even less than Tommy.  One Direction band member Harry Styles plays Alex, a soldier Tommy and Gibson rescue.  Styles gives Alex more personality than any other soldier in the film, and he makes Alex a cynical young man who gives away Gibson’s secret, that he is a French soldier impersonating a British one in order to be rescued by the British.

The folks on the boat probably deliver the best performances in the movie.  Mark Rylance is excellent as Mr. Dawson, the man who we learn later lost a son to the war and seems to embrace this mission as a way to save all his other “sons.”  Tom Glynn-Carney as Dawson’s son Peter and Barry Keoghan as Peter’s friend George also have some fine moments.

And Cillian Murphy is very good as the first soldier rescued by Dawson.  Shell-shocked, he resists their attempt to go to Dunkirk to rescue more soldiers.  He does not want to go back, as he is convinced they will die.

Once again, Tom Hardy is playing a role with a minimum of dialogue and with his face covered.  I’m starting to get used to Hardy playing roles where we can’t see his face, from Bane in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012) to Mad Max in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015). As pilot Farrier he only has a handful of lines here.  But that doesn’t stop Hardy from delivering a memorable performance.

Jack Lowden is also very good as Farrier’s fellow pilot Collins.

And while he’s not in the movie a whole lot, Kenneth Branagh also makes his mark as the well-respected Commander Bolton.

In another buck of traditional storytelling, there isn’t a major woman character to be found, but again, it doesn’t hurt this powerhouse movie.

There are a lot of riveting sequences. Tommy’s initial escape from German soldiers gets the film off to a tense start. The sequence where Tommy, Gibson and Alex hide out in an abandoned ship stranded on the beach during low tide just before it is used as target practice by the German soldiers is as suspenseful as it gets.

Scenes of ships being bombed and sunk are harrowing and cinematic.  And the editing during the climactic sequence is second to none.  It’s one of the more suspenseful last acts to a movie I’ve seen in a while.

Nolan also makes full use of sound.  When the planes attack, the sound effects are loud and harsh.  They make you want to cover your ears.  In short, during the battle scenes in DUNKIRK, the audience truly feels as if they are part of the battle.  You’ll want to duck for cover.

Sure, I could have used a bit more dialogue and character development.  Perhaps that would have made this movie perfect for me.  But as it stands, it’s still a pretty remarkable film.

DUNKIRK is a harrowing adventure, a rousing look at a pivotal moment in history, a rescue that had it not happened, would have changed the future of western civilization because the Nazis most likely would have conquered England and France, and who knows what would have happened after that.

But that’s not what happened, thanks to the herculean efforts of hundreds of civilians and their small ships, who against all odds rescued 338,000 trapped British soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk.

DUNKIRK tells this improbable story in mind-bending fashion, thanks to the innovative efforts of Christopher Nolan, one of the most talented writer/directors working today.

It’s history brought to life by a gifted filmmaker and storyteller.

—END—

BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015) BRINGS HISTORICAL MOMENT TO LIFE

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Movie Review:  BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015)

By bridge_of_spies

Michael Arruda

 

Tom Hanks is sensational in BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015), Steven Spielberg’s compelling Cold War thriller based on the true story of an American lawyer who defends an accused Soviet spy.

Sure, Hanks is almost always good, but even so, this is probably my favorite Hanks’ performances in quite some time.  While he was very good in CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013) I enjoyed him more here in BRIDGE OF SPIES.  It might be my favorite Hanks’ performance since way back when in APOLLO 13 (1995).

BRIDGE OF SPIES opens in 1957 with the arrest of accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance).  The U.S. government asks insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) to defend him, and Donovan reluctantly agrees.  It quickly becomes clear to Donovan that the U.S. justice system has already made up its mind about Abel’s guilt, and he is heavily criticized for putting up a valid defense for the man. This does not sit well with Donovan, and the more pressure he receives to just show up and let Abel be found guilty, the harder he works at defending Abel.

During this process, Donovan gets to know Abel quite well and a friendship of mutual respect develops.  Later, when Air Force Lieutenant Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down and captured for the Soviets, a trade is suggested, Powers for Abel.  The CIA asks Donovan to broker the trade, and to travel to East Berlin to do it.  It’s a sensitive operation, as neither government will publicly acknowledge what’s going on, and so Donovan will be working in East Berlin on his own.  Because of his feelings for Abel, Donovan agrees, and he finds himself embroiled in Cold War espionage as he has to deal with the Soviets, the East Germans, the lack of public support from the U.S., and his growing fear that by arranging this deal he might be sending Abel to his death at the hand of the Soviets.

The main reason to see BRIDGE OF SPIES is Tom Hanks because he delivers his best acting performance in years, but there are also plenty of other reasons to see it as well.

For starters, the director is Steven Spielberg.  It’s hard to say if BRIDGE OF SPIES is better than Spielberg’s previous effort, LINCOLN (2012), a movie I liked a lot.  It’s certainly equally as good.  In some ways, it is better, as it definitely generates more suspense and drama than LINCOLN did.  In terms of historical dramas, they’re on equal footing, but BRIDGE OF SPIES is paced slightly better and is definitely more intriguing.  Both films feature phenomenal acting performances by their two lead actors, Tom Hanks here, and Daniel Day Lewis in LINCOLN.

In BRIDGE OF SPIES, Spielberg painstakingly recreates the Cold War period and thoroughly captures the feel of the time.  Sets, costumes, and make-up are all topnotch, and the images memorable, some of them haunting, like the scene where Hanks witnesses the barbaric activity at the Berlin Wall from a passenger train.

The acting is superb throughout, with the other stand-out besides Hanks being Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel.  The scene where he recounts the story from his childhood about his father’s friend, who he relates to Hanks’ James Donovan, is another of the film’s highlights.

The screenplay by Matt Charman and Ethan and Joel Coen pretty much tells a straightforward story with the emphasis placed on James Donovan and how this ordeal both changed and shaped his life.  It also details Donovan’s relationship with Rudolf Abel, and how the two men developed a mutual respect for one another.  It’s a gripping historical drama, and it’s honest and direct.  Don’t expect the quirkiness of some of Ethan and Joel Coen’s other movies, like FARGO (1996) and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007).

BRIDGE OF SPIES is the whole package.  It’s got one of the all-time best directors in Steven Spielberg at the helm, phenomenal acting led by Tom Hanks, a superb script, and cinematography worthy of an artistic painting.  It’s a satisfying cinematic event that is both entertaining and rewarding.  Moreover, it succeeds in bringing a moment in our history to life.

BRIDGE OF SPIES is one bridge you’ll definitely want to cross.

—END—

LIVE! FROM THE OSCARS!

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ellen-degeneres-to-hos-86th-annual-academy-awardsLive!  From the Oscars!

 

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Michael Arruda

No, I’m not live at the Oscars, but I am writing this while I sit at home and watch the Oscars on TV, so it’s the next best thing!

Okay, here we go.  Here’s my coverage of the 86th Academy Awards hosted by Ellen DeGeneres on March 2, 2014.  So, if you missed it and would like to know how it all went down, or if you watched it and perhaps missed something, well, read on!

Let’s get started.

Okay, Ellen’s opening monologue, not bad.  She was entertaining and funny, as always.   However, as opening monologues go, it was low key and wasn’t anything memorable.

She did inform us that the theme of tonight’s Awards ceremony is heroes.  Hmm.  I wonder if Marvel’s The Avengers will show up?

Let’s get right to the Awards.  Anne Hathaway presents the Nominees for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, and the winner is:  Jared Leto, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB.  Leto just gave a terrific speech, one of the best Oscar speeches I’ve ever heard.  Seriously!  Very impressed.

Next up, Jim Carrey calls out Bruce Dern in the audience, since Dern’s up for an Oscar, and Carrey does a nice Bruce Dern impersonation, sufficiently intense and scary, bringing back memories of Dern’s early years.  Carrey next introduces a montage on animated movies showcasing animated heroes.  Nothing amazing.  Most of the film clips are from recent animated films.

The song “Happy” from DESPICABLE ME 2 is performed.

Catherine Martin wins for Best Costume Design for THE GREAT GATSBY.  This comes as no surprise, as GATSBY showcased some great costumes.  Martin is the wife of director Baz Luhrmann.  Who knew?

Make-up & Hair Styling- DALLAS BUYERS CLUB wins for Best Make-up & Hair Styling.

I hear Indiana Jones music.  Hey, look!  Here comes Harrison Ford.  Ford is on stage to introduce the first three nominees for Best Picture:  AMERICAN HUSTLE, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET.

Wow, Ford looks exhausted.  He can barely read the cue cards.  It looks like he started partying early.

Channing Tatum introduces Awards that were awarded earlier.

Next up, it’s Matthew McConaughey and— Kim Novak?  Wow.  I haven’t seen Novak in a while.  Not since VERTIGO (1958).  Just kidding, of course, but really, it’s been a while.  McConaughey and Novak are presenting the Animation Awards.  Hate to say it, but Novak looks like she was animated in a Pixar movie.  Way too much plastic surgery. Very sad.  That’s how it looks, anyway.

Best Animated Short Film goes to MR. HUBLOT, and Best Animated Feature Film goes to Disney’s FROZEN, no doubt sending children who are still awake into an enthusiastic frenzy.  From what I hear, the kiddos are nuts about this movie.

Hey look!  There’s Bill Murray in the audience.  Good to see him.

Sally Field’s on stage paying tribute to everyday heroes.  Here comes a film montage.  Seriously, it’s a nice montage, featuring a lot of good movies, including 42 and THE UNTOUCHABLES.

Emma Watson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are on stage to present the Award for Best Visual Effects, and the Winner is: GRAVITY.  I definitely agree with this choice.  GRAVITY had phenomenal special effects.  It looked like it was shot on location- in space.

Time for a performance of “The Moon Song” from HER, one of the nominees for Best Original Song.

Okay, it’s 9:30.  We’re 60 minutes into the program, and so far, it’s been a rather plain uneventful show.

Kate Hudson and Jason Sudekis present the nominees for Best Live Action Short Film, and the winner is:  HELIUM.

THE LADY IN NUMBER 6: MUSIC SAVED MY LIFE wins Best Documentary Short.

Bradley Cooper presents the nominees for BEST DOCUMENTARY.  The winner is 20 FEET FROM STARDOM.

 

I’m yawning at this point and regretting my choice not to watch THE WALKING DEAD tonight.

Speaking of amazing TV shows, Kevin Spacey is in character as he makes some references to his Netflix TV show HOUSE OF CARDS before he presents the Governor’s Awards, which were already presented earlier.  Angela Lansbury, at 88 years old and returning to London Stage won one of the awards, Steve Martin won another, and Piero Tosi won for his costume designs.  The Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award went to Angelina Jolie.

Best Foreign Language Film goes to Italy’s THE GREAT BEAUTY.

Tyler Perry introduces the next three Best Picture nominees, NEBRASKA, HER, and GRAVITY.

Brad Pitt introduces U2, as they’re on stage to perform “Ordinary Love” from MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM.  Wow.  A really riveting performance.  They got the crowd up on their feet and received a nice standing ovation.

Ellen – oh yeah!  I almost forgot she was hosting this thing— goofs around and takes a star-studded group photo for Twitter.  She wants to record the highest viewed tweet ever.  A pretty funny and playful bit.

Next up, it’s the Scientific and Technical awards.  Quick!  Time for a bathroom break!

Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron, looking absolutely gorgeous in an amazing dress, present the nominees for Best Sound Mixing, and the winner is:  GRAVITY.  Another well-deserved win for GRAVITY.  The film had crisp sharp sound, and it also boasted an effective lack of sound, as it truly captured the silence in space.

Best Sound Editing goes to:  GRAVITY.  Hmm.  GRAVITY is starting to accumulate the awards.

Christoph Waltz presents the nominees for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, and the winner is:  Lupita Nyong’o for 12 YEARS A SLAVE.  Nice win for Nyong’o, and a nice speech as well.

Ellen’s goofing around again, as she asks her audience if they’re hungry, and when they say yes, she says she’s going to order pizza.  She then adds that “I don’t have any money.”   A funny gag.

Time to return to seriousness, as Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first African American president of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, steps onto the stage for a serious speech about seriousness.  Seriously, the obligatory speech by the Academy president is no laughing matter.

Back to the awards.  GRAVITY wins Best Cinematography.  GRAVITY wins Best Film Editing.  GRAVITY continues to win big tonight.

Whoopi Goldberg takes the stage, and she’s there to honor THE WIZARD OF OZ, as back in 1939 Judy Garland won an Honorary Juvenile Oscar, and to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the award, we get to see a nice montage honoring THE WIZARD OF OZ as well as recognizing her three children, who are in the audience, including Liza Minelli.

Time for a commercial break.  Hey, there’s a really cool Godzilla – Snickers commercial.  It’s actually quite humorous, and even better, it includes quick plug for new GODZILLA movie coming out in May.

We return to the Awards to find Ellen DeGeneres dressed as Glenda the Good Witch from THE WIZARD OF OZ, which gets a good laugh from the audience.

Jennifer Gardner and Benedict Cumberbatch present the award for Best Production Design, and the winner is:  THE GREAT GATSBY.  Wow, GRAVITY didn’t win an award.  Glad GATSBY won, as it’s an incredibly visual movie.

Chris Evans – Captain America himself – introduces a montage of movie heroes.  A fun montage, full of popular movie heroes, including John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator (remember when he was a villain?), Sylvester Stallone as Rocky, to name a few, and plenty of superheroes, including Iron Man, Captain America, and the rest of the Avengers, and Superman from MAN OF STEEL, although I was disappointed that there were no clips of Christopher Reeve as Superman.

James Bond made it in twice, with the famous “I expect you to die!” scene from GOLDFINGER, featuring Sean Connery as Bond, and also a clip of the current James Bond, Daniel Craig.

A couple of horror movie heroes made it into the sequence, Roy Scheider from JAWS and Sigourney Weaver from ALIEN.

Glenn Close introduces the famous “In memoriam” montage, where the Academy remembers the artists who passed away in 2014.  Here is a partial list:  Karen Black, James Gandolfini, Paul Walker, Annette Funicello, Peter O’Toole, Ray Harryhausen—very glad Harryhausen was included here-, Sid Caesar, Roger Ebert, Shirley Temple, Joan Fontaine, Harold Ramis, Richard Matheson, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The montage concludes with Bette Midler coming on stage and singing “Wind Beneath my Wings.” As you would expect, Midler received a standing ovation.

It’s now 11:00, which means the show has reached the 2 ½ hour mark, and so far there have been only a few major awards given out.  Let’s get this show moving already!

Ellen announces “We just crashed Twitter with our group photo!”  She’s overjoyed.

Goldie Hawn introduces the final three Best Picture nominees:  PHILOMENA, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, and 12 YEARS A SLAVE.  Hawn looks almost as bad as Kim Novak, and by bad, I mean that she’s obviously had too much work done on her face.  I wish these actresses would just allow themselves to age naturally.  They would look so much better.  She looks like a victim in a mad scientist movie.  Very sad.

John Travolta – who’s actually looking pretty good here – introduces the song “Let it Go” from FROZEN.

Jamie Fox and Jessica Biel present the award for Best Original Score, and the winner is: — what a surprise!GRAVITY, music composed by Steven Price.

For Best Original Song, the winner is “Let it Go” from FROZEN.

Now it’s time for the homestretch, as it’s just the major awards left, which is good, because it’s 11:20 and I’m getting sleepy, and I have to get up at 5:30 tomorrow for work.

Ellen is now running through the audience to collect money for the pizza, which she has already handed out, and so we’ve seen celebrities like Harrison Ford eating take-out pizza at the Oscars.  Ellen gets money from Kevin Spacey and Brad Pitt, who she hits up for extra since he’s there for more than one movie.

Robert De Niro and Penelope Cruz present the award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and the winner is:  12 YEARS A SLAVE.  Could this be the beginning of Big Awards Sweep for 12 YEARS?

And for Best Original Screenplay, the winner is:  HER, screenplay by Spike Jonze.

It has not been a good night for AMERICAN HUSTLE.  Just sayin.

Angelina Jolie & Sidney Poitier come out to announce the award for Best Director.  Jolie thanks Poitier for his groundbreaking work over the years, and says to him:  “We’re in your debt.”  And Poitier tells the audience, “Please keep up the wonderful work.”  Poitier looks old and frail, but at least he looks old and natural.

The winner for Best Director goes to Alfonso Cuaron for GRAVITY.   Wow.  This one surprised me.  I thought Steve McQueen would win for 12 YEARS A SLAVE.  This has turned out to be a really big night for GRAVITY.

Daniel Day Lewis presents the Best Actress Award, and the winner is:  Cate Blanchett for BLUE JASMINE – I didn’t see BLUE JASMINE, but I like Blanchett a lot, so I’m glad she won.  And even though both Sandra Bullock and Amy Adams were very good in their roles, I’ve seen them better in other movies.

Blanchett gives an energetic speech, making a nice plug for movies with women in the lead roles, and for movies about women, saying they are not just niches, that audiences really want to see these kinds of movies and more importantly that they make money.

Jennifer Lawrence, looking great tonight, presents the Best Actor award, and the winner is:  Matthew McConaughey for the DALLAS BUYERS CLUB.  This comes as no surprise.  Glad he won.

Will Smith presents the Award for Best Picture.  Nothing against Smith, but he’s the best you can get to present Best Picture?  How about Steven Spielberg?  Clint Eastwood?   Morgan Freeman?  Some other elder statesman or giant of the genre?  Anyway, the winner is:  12 YEARS A SLAVE.  Nice choice.

Well, as the show ends, it’s midnight- and with that, I can now go to bed.  A big night for GRAVITY as it wins 7 Awards, and AMERICAN HUSTLE ends up getting shut out.

Well, that’s all she wrote.  Good night everybody!

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

THE SEARCHERS – THE MAKING OF AN AMERICAN LEGEND By Glenn Frankel – Comprehensive But Tedious History of John Ford’s Classic Western

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The Searchers - CoverWhat I’m Reading – The Searchers – The Making Of An American Legend By Glenn Frankel

Book Review by MICHAEL ARRUDA

 

 

THE SEARCHERS (1956) directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, is one of my favorite westerns of all time, and it’s the reason I picked up The Searchers – The Making Of An American Legend by Glenn Frankel, an exhaustive and meticulously researched volume on the entire story behind the movie THE SEARCHERS.  And I mean the entire story.

 

The Searchers – The Making Of An American Legend covers the historical events on which the movie THE SEARCHERS was based, from the slaughter of the Parker family by the Comanche Indians in East Texas in 1836, to the abduction of nine year-old Cynthia Ann Parker, to the grueling search for her and other abducted family members by her uncle James Parker, to the story of her half-Comanche son Quanah Parker who would later become Chief of the Comanches.

 

It then moves to the story of how western author Alan Lemay wrote the western novel The Searchers in 1953, and eventually recounts the events behind the making of the movie, THE SEARCHERS, chronicling John Ford’s domination on the set and his cantankerous relationship with his actors and crew, including John Wayne.  Wayne, like others who worked with Ford multiple times, appreciated the director’s genius and looked past his social shortcomings in order to be involved in the high quality movies Ford continually made.

 

It’s a fascinating story, and author Frankel seems to cover every last inch of it.  It’s an exhaustive piece of research.  Unfortunately for the reader, it’s also a bit exhausting. 

 

While I enjoyed learning about every aspect of this story, I nonetheless struggled to get through this 343 page volume.  The prose reads like a textbook and hardly stimulates the imagination.  While I was impressed with the amount of research and detail here, sometimes it was a bit much.  I felt as if John Ford had discovered a new lunch recipe for his crew, Frankel would have spent an entire chapter devoted to how he found the recipe, who wrote it, its origins, and the cultural implications of the recipe, and where that recipe is today.  In short, a lot of the writing here is overkill.  This is not to imply that Frankel spent time on trivial matters, but to emphasize the point that his research here is all-encompassing, to the point where sometimes you wish you could skip over about 10 pages to get to the next topic.

 

The book begins with the historical account of the massacre of the Parker family.  This is a particularly brutal part of the book, as the Comanche massacres are described in gory detail.  Frankel takes the bold stand not to sugarcoat the conflict between the Comanches and the settlers, and he makes the point when describing the Comanche attacks that these folks don’t fit into the politically correct view of Native Americans we espouse today:

 

Still, by the mid-eighteenth century the Comanche had become the most relentless and feared war machine in the Southwest.  They butchered their prisoners- torturing, amputating, eviscerating, mutilating, decapitating, and scalping- for entertainment, for prestige as warriors, and for the belief that to destroy the body of an enemy was to doom his soul to eternal limbo.

The intense brutality reflected the harsh conditions Comanches faced.  Food and other resources were scarce.

 

The modern image of Indians- nurtured by the Native American rights movement, revisionist historians, and the film DANCE WITH WOLVES– has been one of profoundly spiritual and environmentally friendly genocide victims seeking harmony with the land and humankind.  But the Comanches were nobody’s victims and no one’s friends.  They were magnificent, brutal, and relentless.

 

The book goes on to describe the sad tragic fate of Cynthia Ann Parker, how she was ripped from her home and taken by the Comanches.  It describes her initial hardships with the Comanches, and tells how eventually she became a welcomed member of their community, accepted their culture, and had children.  The Cynthia Ann Parker story concludes just as tragically, as she’s eventually “rescued” and returned to white civilization against her will, ripped away from her children.  She lived the rest of her days yearning for her children, and she died never learning their fate or ever being reunited with them.

 

The next part of the book follows Cynthia’s son Quanah who would grow to adulthood and become a famous Comanche chief.  Quanah lived in a time when Indian raids had ended, and Native Americans were forced to live on reservations.  Quanah did quite well for himself, cooperating with the United States government and taking full advantage of the system.  He would spend his life trying to honor the life of his deceased mother, Cynthia Ann Parker.

 

The story of Cynthia Ann Parker became legend and was recounted over the years with Cynthia known to Americans as a tragic figure. 

 

When author Alan Lemay chose to write his novel The Searchers, he decided to focus on the man doing the searching rather than the victim, Cynthia Ann, and thus he focused on the uncle, James Parker.  In reality, James Parker searched for a short time before eventually giving up, unlike the character in Lemay’s novel, who ultimately finds Cynthia Ann.

 

The book concludes with John Ford choosing The Searchers for the subject of his next movie, and by far, this movie account is the most readable part of the book.  But by this time, my interest had waned because the first two thirds were a labor to get through.  Again, the content was thought-provoking, but the textbook prose dull.

 

I enjoyed the account of the making of the movie the most, although it was not fun learning about Ford’s domineering personality, and the way he often tormented his cast and crew.

 

It was also interesting to read how THE SEARCHERS failed to catch on when it was first released, not earning the critical acclaim that most people involved with the film expected. It wasn’t nominated for any Oscars, nor did it earn an immediate reputation as being anything more than just a John Wayne western.

 

The critical acclaim came much later, as only recently has the film been recognized as one of the best westerns ever made.  Frankel also argues that the film was slow to be recognized because of the presence of John Wayne, whose right wing tendencies often turned off intellectuals who would have otherwise seen the film for what it was.

 

Audiences also missed the dark themes of THE SEARCHERS back in 1956.  Accepting THE SEARCHERS as just another John Wayne movie, audiences in 1956 seemed to miss the gravity and racism which Wayne gave the character of Ethan Edwards, which went relatively unnoticed for decades.

 

Frankel includes some fascinating tidbits.  For example, how Buddy Holly and his drummer Jerry Allison wrote the song “That’ll Be The Day” after seeing THE SEARCHERS at the movies, because “that’ll be the day” is the catch phrase John Wayne uses multiple times in the movie.  The song would later be the first demo recording by the Beatles.

 

The Searchers – The Making Of An American Legend is an exhaustive and comprehensive look at the making of the movie THE SEARCHERS, and at the legend on which it was based.  It’s everything you wanted to know about the back story to THE SEARCHERS and more. 

 

However, in spite of the fact that it’s full of facts and anecdotes, it’s not a fun read.  It’s challenging to get through this encyclopedic volume which really could have benefitted from some humor or creative prose to stimulate the reader’s imagination.  I enjoyed the content but not the style.

 

It also doesn’t help that the real life Cynthia Ann Parker story is so tragic and depressing.  This disheartening content adds to the difficulty of getting through the first half of the book.  And while the second half is definitely more enjoyable for film buffs, this story is dark as well, as John Ford, in spite of being a genius filmmaker, is described here as a man that you really wouldn’t want to spend time around.

 

I liked The Searchers – The Making Of An American Legend  in spite of these drawbacks, but I can’t deny that in terms of reading pleasure, it was about as enjoyable as working on a movie set run by John Ford.

 

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Tom Hanks’ First-Rate Performance Leads CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

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captain-phillips-posterMovie Review:  CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013)

by

Michael Arruda

 

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013) almost wowed me.

 

It’s exciting enough, and Tom Hanks certainly delivers a first-rate performance in the lead role, but once again, it’s a case where a movie’s trailer reveals too much information about the film’s plot.  I pretty much knew the entire story going into the theater because I had seen the trailer.  There were few surprises left.

 

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is based on the true story of the hijacking of an American ship by Somali pirates in 2009, the first time an American vessel had been hijacked in two hundred years.

 

Tom Hanks plays Captain Richard Phillips, the captain of a cargo ship, the U.S. Maersk Alabama.  Captain Phillips is a competent captain, and once his ship is in international waters near Somalia, he immediately instructs his crew to go through the proper drills because he’s aware of the frequent pirate activity in the area.  His fears are quickly confirmed, as armed pirates are spotted racing towards the ship.

 

Phillips orders the ship to take evasive maneuvers, and the crew use hoses to fend off the pirates, but it’s not enough as a small group of armed Somalian pirates make it on board.  At this point, Phillips orders the ship into full lockdown, where the crew hides to avoid becoming hostages.

 

The pirates are led by a young man named Muse (Barkhad Abdi) who is trying to prove his mettle by taking on such a huge ship. Phillips offers to give them the $30,000 that’s in their safe, but that’s not enough for Muse.  He decides to search the rest of the ship for the crew and other treasures. 

 

Muse is driven by the need to bring back large amounts of money to the armed lords pulling the strings in Somalia. 

 

When things go wrong, Muse and his pirates take Captain Phillips hostage and leave the ship in a lifeboat, where they are pursued by the U.S. Navy who has orders to do whatever it takes to prevent Phillips from reaching Somalia.

 

All of this was pretty much shown in the film’s trailer.  The only thing in doubt was how it would end, and based on my memory of the real event back in 2009, I had a pretty good idea where things would go.

 

That’s not to say I didn’t like CAPTAIN PHILLIPS.  It’s just that I would have enjoyed it more had I not seen so much of it already before I paid for my ticket.

 

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS sinks or swims with Tom Hanks, and since he turns in his usual strong performance, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS doesn’t sink.  As the movie goes along, and things grow tenser, Hank’s performance intensifies as well.  The emotions he experiences reminded me somewhat of what Sandra Bullock’s character goes through in the recent movie GRAVITY (2013).  Now, GRAVITY is a much more stylish and original film than CAPTAIN PHILLIPS and as such I enjoyed it more, but in terms of acting, Hanks’ performance is right up there with Bullock’s. 

 

Barkhad Abdi in his first acting performance is pretty darn good as Muse, but the fact of the matter is I never felt much sympathy for Muse and his pirates, nor was I that interested in their back story.  While the movie does show us a little bit of what their life was like in Somalia, it doesn’t show us enough.

 

Nonetheless, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS tells a riveting story, and it’s told in a straightforward linear manner by director Paul Greengrass, with the suspense gradually building towards a very tense conclusion.  That being said, I enjoyed last year’s ARGO (2012) much better than CAPTAIN PHILLIPS.   ARGO knocked the ball out of the park when it came to building up the tension, and it simply had a more interesting story to tell.

 

Director Greengrass actually scored higher on the suspense meter with his BOURNE movies, as he directed THE BOURNE SUPREMACY (2004) and THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM (2007), the second and third movies in the Matt Damon Bourne series.  Greengrass also directed UNITED 93 (2006) and GREEN ZONE (2010), a thriller about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so he’s no stranger to films about current events.

 

The screenplay by Billy Ray, based on the book “A Captain’s Duty:  Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea” by Richard Phillips, tells a straightforward story which does a nice job with the human element.  Not only do we get inside the head of Captain Phillips and feel his fear, but we also get a good sense of how afraid the crew felt.  That being said, we don’t really get to know any of the other crew members all that well.  Captain Phillips is pretty much it.

 

That’s because Ray’s screenplay also builds itself around the pirates.  The second most developed character in the movie is the lead pirate Muse.  Ray didn’t seem to be building sympathy for Muse and his motives as much as an understanding.  In this regard, Ray succeeds.  I had a pretty good understanding of Muse’s motives.  I just didn’t feel much sympathy for him. 

 

Ray also worked on the screenplay to THE HUNGER GAMES (2012) a movie that did a better job fleshing out its characters and telling its story.  I liked CAPTAIN PHILLIPS well enough.  I just didn’t love it.

 

The best part of the movie by far is Tom Hanks’ performance, and he gets better as the film goes along and his character faces more and more peril. The rest of the movie, the acting, the actual story, direction, and the screenplay are all above average, but what’s missing is edge-of-your-seat suspense and characters you can both root for and sympathize with.  These latter two elements are several notches below what Hanks brings to the film.  It’s too bad because Hanks brings quite a lot. 

 

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS reminds us that even though our world is changing dramatically, human beings still remain trapped in situations in which they have little control, often leading them to make decisions to harm others for profit.  In this regard, the world hasn’t changed much at all.

 

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DiCaprio Shines In Early Role in THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK (1998) -Streaming Video Review by Michael Arruda

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the-man-in-the-iron-mask-movie-poster-1998-Streaming Video Review:  THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK (1998)

by

Michael Arruda

Today, with a so many movies available at the drop of a hat thanks to streaming video, one of the things I like to do is go back and catch early performances of some of today’s most popular performers.

With that in mind, as a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio, in such recent films as THE GREAT GATSBY (2013), DJANGO UNCHAINED (2013), and THE DEPARTED (2006), it was fun to turn back the clock and catch one of his earlier performances in THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK (1998), now available on streaming video.

In THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK, Leonardo DiCaprio plays the dual role of King Louis XIV and his twin brother Philippe, the titled man in the iron mask.

Young King Louis XIV (Leonardo DiCaprio) rules France with an iron fist, keeping the country poor, starving and miserable.  The now retired three musketeers, Aramis (Jeremy Irons), Athos (John Malkovich) and Porthos (Gerard Depardieu) understand that a change is needed in order to save the country.  Only D’Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne) remains loyal to the king.

It’s discovered that the mysterious imprisoned man in the iron mask is really the king’s twin brother, and Aramis hatches a plot to free the man and then switch him with the real king in order to restore sanity to the crown.  And of course, young Philippe (Leonardo DiCaprio) is everything his twin brother is not:  sensitive, caring, and thoughtful.

As the three musketeers reunite to carry out their plan to replace the king with his identical twin in order to save France, D’Artagnan finds himself pitted against his former friends, with orders from the king to do whatever is necessary to stop the plot from happening, even if it means killing his former associates.

THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK is a decent enough movie, and it’s fairly entertaining, but I didn’t find it anywhere near as fun as the Richard Lester’s 1970s romps THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1973) and THE FOUR MUSKETEERS (1974).

I watched it specifically to catch an earlier DiCaprio performance that I had missed the first time around way back when in 1998, and in this regard, I wasn’t disappointed.  While I prefer the DiCaprio of today, he’s actually quite good here in the dual role of King Louis XIV and his poor brother Philippe.

Of the two roles, I preferred him as the evil king, as his performance is a nice foreshadowing of things to come, specifically his role as the sinister Calvin Candie in DJANGO UNCHAINED.  He’s good as Philippe as well, but Louis XIV is certainly the meatier role, and much more satisfying to watch.

The rest of the cast is decent, as they should be, considering the quality of the actors involved here.  Jeremy Irons makes a respectable Aramis, and he’s strong throughout the movie, but I could give or take Gerard Depardieu as Porthos.  Only John Malkovich truly stands out in a very sincere and riveting performance as Athos, who’s anguished in this story because the king had his son murdered.

Gabriel Byrne isn’t bad as D’Artagan, but I’ve seen him better in other movies.

THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK was written and directed by Randall Wallace.  Wallace also wrote the screenplay for the Mel Gibson epic BRAVEHEART (1995).  His screenplay for THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK, based on the novels by Alexandre Dumas, is adequate enough.  It tells an entertaining story but falls short of accomplishing anything grand.  It’s not hopping and humorous like the Richard Lester films from the 1970s, nor is it riveting enough to be considered a rousing adventure in its own right.  It plays like a straightforward historical drama, and there’s nothing wrong with this, but in the same breath, it didn’t wow me either.

THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK looks fine— it’s a great looking period piece with excellent sets and colorful costumes— but don’t expect many exciting action sequences.  While there is sword play here and there, none of it is all that electrifying.

The film is driven by its acting performances, and is carried by the presence of an ensemble of veteran actors.  Among these actors was an up and coming youngster- Leonardo DiCaprio- who probably, with the exception of John Malkovich, delivers the best performance in the movie.  It’s a nice precursor to DiCaprio’s future roles which so far, have taken him along the very successful road to stardom, where now he’s the one who is the accomplished veteran actor.

While I can’t say that I loved THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK, I did enjoy it, and I did have fun watching the Leonardo DiCaprio of a decade ago begin to strut his stuff.

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