24 hours before I saw “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” I was sitting in a press screening of “The Wolf of Wall Street” for three straight hours of sex, drugs, profanity, and despicable behavior. Roughly an hour before I saw it, though, I was watching TCM’s broadcast of “White Christmas” with my family and listening to my parents ask once again where the nice movies are in theaters today.
It should be fairly obvious that “Walter Mitty” falls in line with the latter of the two aforementioned films; after all, it is based on a film from the 1940s. And following an evening of watching a candle stuck wedged between Leonardo DiCaprio’s butt cheeks (one of the few shenanigans I dare to write about), it was just nice to watch a good, clean family feature. Even though Ben Stiller’s film is nothing spectacular, its intermittently successful embrace from a bygone era is a nice change of pace.
Stiller, who also stars as the film’s titular character, does not drown the film in excessive sentimentality, often a hallmark of Hollywood’s golden age cinema. But perhaps it would have been welcome had it brought any charm, which is largely absent from this languidly paced film.
There were two clear paths to success for “Gangster Squad.” The first would be to follow the “L.A. Confidential” pattern and take a hardboiled approach to period criminality. Writer Will Beale crafts his screenplay with various neo-noir elements: the post-war moodiness and shadiness, a little bit of moral ambiguity, and of course, the femme fatale (Emma Stone’s red-haired dynamo Grace Faraday).
The second, and perhaps more reasonable, template would have been Brian DePalma’s 1987 “The Untouchables,” a movie that shares quite a few similarities with Ruben Fleischer’s “Gangster Squad.” There’s the borderline insane crime lord of a major city who just happens to be played by a two-time Oscar winner (Sean Penn now, Robert DeNiro then). Because of that de facto tyrant’s chokehold on that city, a team of top law enforcement officials is tasked with bringing him to his knees.
The only difference is Eliot Ness and the Untouchables stayed within the boundaries of the law. Josh Brolin’s John O’Mara, Ryan Gosling’s Jerry Wooters, and the rest of the titular merry band of extralegal avengers have no such regard for the rules. They go outside the law to stop a man who is above the law. But in such a drastically different detail, little new conclusions are ultimately reached.
“How much does your life weigh? Imagine for a second that you’re carrying a backpack. I want you to pack it with all the stuff that you have in your life… you start with the little things. The shelves, the drawers, the knickknacks, then you start adding larger stuff. Clothes, tabletop appliances, lamps, your TV… the backpack should be getting pretty heavy now.
You go bigger. Your couch, your car, your home… I want you to stuff it all into that backpack. Now I want you to fill it with people. Start with casual acquaintances, friends of friends, folks around the office… and then you move into the people you trust with your most intimate secrets.
Your brothers, your sisters, your children, your parents and finally your husband, your wife, your boyfriend, your girlfriend. You get them into that backpack, feel the weight of that bag. Make no mistake your relationships are the heaviest components in your life.”
“For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”
It was a pretty slow week as I was incredibly preoccupied running last second errands before leaving for college on Wednesday. Hopefully I won’t fall off the map too precipitously, but things might be running slow for a while – especially in terms of reviewing new releases.
I took this as an opportunity to run reviews for some older movies that tied into other releases this week. With Jessica Alba headlining the new “Spy Kids” movie, I reviewed her “Machete” and “Little Fockers” from 2010. James McAvoy’s “The Conspirator” hit video this week, so I took the opportunity to review “Gnomeo & Juliet,” the animated Shakespearean tale to which he lent his voice.
I also took a look at the September crop of releases, which has a few gems shining amidst the trash heap. Kris Tapley of “In Contention” just updated his Oscar predictions to include “Moneyball” as a probable nominee for Best Picture, Actor, and Supporting Actor. More reason to get excited. Click on the picture below to see the September preview post.
And the end of the week saw a lot of emphasis on Anne Hathaway as “One Day” opened in theaters. On Friday, the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” was “Rachel Getting Married,” Oscar-nominated because of her performance. On Saturday, I reviewed “One Day” and for the most part liked what I saw. Click the picture below to read the review.
Save a tree, read a blog. Unless you want to print out a review … in which case, you aren’t saving trees.
Don’t know that I agree with Tom Clift’s take on “Hanna,” but I’ll give you the opposite of my opinions before I unleash my review on the day it hits video in the U.S.
Alex Withrow at “And So It Begins” lists off some of the best beef between directors. It will seriously make you laugh – these filmmakers are no better than middle schoolers telling “your mama” jokes during recess.
“‘Studios remake these movies because they often already own the title,’ says Ammer. But it’s more than that. After all, it wouldn’t cost a studio any more money to hire a writer to write an original screenplay than it would to have him or her write one based on an older film. The real appeal of an old title is more superstitious: The studios use them, says Ammer, because ‘they know it’s worked in the past.’ Even though it’s an entirely different movie made by different people for a different generation, the idea is, hey, the title worked before, why not give it another shot? For all of Hollywood’s supposed liberalism, studios, like their audiences, are quite conservative. Genre is the most predictive aspect of a film’s future results, and then title, so why not double down? A remake of a successful genre film allows a studio the greatest possible risk reduction.”
In an interview with the French magazine Le Figaro, Sean Penn had this to say about Terrence Malick’s enigmatic film:
“I didn’t at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which is the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read. A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context! What’s more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.”
I’ll go ahead and add this disclaimer to those that love the movie or the fact-checking Gestapo that yes, I realize that’s not the full quote. But for the sake of this post, it’s easier to just analyze this part.
Where to begin? The fact that a two-time Academy Award winner would bash his own movie would be shocking even if it was a total sellout, but even I as a non-impressed watcher see “The Tree of Life” as anything but a sellout. It’s high art, just not the kind of art that was to my taste. He doesn’t exactly mince his words there, pretty openly stating his distaste for how his role in the movie turned out.
This is nothing new, of course. Adrien Brody complained when he was largely cut out of Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” – while I don’t like when whiners get their way, he certainly got it with Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” in 2002. But Penn’s statement goes far beyond just a diva fit, although I do think it dabbles in a sort of self-centered sensibility. He questions the very way that the movie was made! Keep in mind that Sean Penn has stepped behind the camera before, even turning out an all-time favorite of mine with “Into the Wild.”
Penn gets to the core of my issues with the movie. I’m even a little bit more flexible – I’d be fine without a conventional narrative. But Penn points out that the movie was incredibly disjointed. I’m sure that the movie was beautiful in Terence Malick’s head, just as Penn says it was beautiful on the page. Interestingly enough, I’ve heard from industry insiders that Malick shot the script with the dialogue, even allowing Jessica Chastain to speak. Then he would cut, walk over, and tell her to emote all of the dialogue just with her eyes. An interesting philosophy that produced an interesting end product.
Yet when everyone on set is not working in sync with the same vision towards a final product, the movie inevitably suffers. If an actor doesn’t understand his purpose on screen, how can he do a decent job? Moreover, how can he contribute anything to the movie? If a director can’t even articulate his vision to the people he entrusts to help him create art, how can he articulate it to an audience? I’ll inevitably be hit with the “it’s subjective” argument, but give it up here. You can’t honestly argue that Malick is such a visionary that he can’t even be on the same page with his fellow artists.
Even those that I’ve talked to who LOVE the film can at least admit that the Sean Penn segments were the weakest parts of the film, and the actor’s statements shed some light on why that is. An actor just existing on screen because a character exists on the page doesn’t make for compelling cinema if he doesn’t understand the basic objectives and motivations. It’s just … boring.
I guess my biggest question here is why didn’t Penn make a bigger fuss on the set? It seems kind of cowardly to whip out these harsh words now, potentially even in “too little, too late” territory for those who feel they’ve wasted their life watching the movie. I get the whole mindset that Malick is a genius and you don’t question him, but for such primal acting concerns as these, why wouldn’t you demand more from the master during production? If he was really that dissatisfied, why not walk off the movie? These problems Penn has should have been settled a long time ago, and by just bringing them up now, he’s either searching for attention or absolution for being the worst part of the movie.
Penn did close with this statement about the movie, something that I’d say I basically espouse:
“But it’s a film I recommend, as long as you go in without any preconceived ideas. It’s up to each person to find their own personal, emotional or spiritual connection to it. Those that do generally emerge very moved.”
I saw “The Tree of Life” almost three weeks before publishing this review, and ever since, I’ve been so conflicted as to how I would approach reviewing it. While I definitely wasn’t the biggest fan of the movie (more on that later), I didn’t want to insult those who loved it – and there were many of those, including the majority of critics. As an amateur blogger, I’m straddling a delicate line between critic and average moviegoer, and I’m usually seen as standing on one side or the other. But speaking as both, I recognize that writer/director Terrence Malick endowed his latest movie with a lot of meaning: for me, however, that meaning was hollow and ultimately didn’t parallel the amount of ambition on display.
I don’t care who you hear talking about how much they understand “The Tree of Life” or how much they realize every moment of the movie – unless they have a Ph.D. and have seen the movie multiple times, there is simply no way they can. The movie is too overwhelming in scope for anyone to fully digest, much less comprehend. Every frame is deliberate in its own right, and every image (except mopey Sean Penn) is endowed with an undeniable beauty by its creator, Terrence Malick.
But where I separate with the general critical consensus is that while I see the rapture of each shot, I don’t see them as contributing to the work as a whole. To borrow an expression, the whole was less than the sum of its parts. I have no doubt that in Terrence Malick’s head, this is an absolutely sublime movie, a thoughtful meditation on some of the biggest questions of humanity and religion. Yet somewhere between his mind and what my eyes saw on the screen, there was a great disconnect.
The New York Times ran a piece this week talking about the impact of celebrities on charitable work, talking specifically about Sean Penn’s work in Haiti and Brad Pitt’s work in New Orleans. Obviously, any celebrity who does work for charity is a good thing, as giving back is the right thing to do (this coming from a member of my school’s community service committee).
However, charity work has become a great PR stunt in recent years, and I feel at home in a generation full of skeptics who doubt the motivations of the celebrities at times. I feel like Sean Penn does these things out of the good of his heart, but he’s a radical at heart with some sort of secret political motivation. Pitt, on the other hand, I have little doubt is genuine since New Orleans is his home.
Anyways, for my personal connection to this article, I felt compelled to give to a charity after a celebrity sponsored it. I was 8 years old and obsessed with celebrity “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and developed a bit of a crush on Tyra Banks after she sat in the chair across from Regis Philbin. All the celebrities were playing for a charity, and hers was T-Zone. What the charity actually was I had no idea, but I wanted to make contact with Tyra Banks!
So I worked odd jobs around my house and neighborhood, gathering my profits in a Quaker Oats box. I wound up making about $65, which I enclosed along with a personal note for Tyra Banks to T-Zone. Hopefully they got something out of my small contribution. The moral of the story: the generation uncorrupted by skepticism can be inspired to do great things by celebrities they see working for charity!
It’s really a shame that we live in such a polarize political climate that we rush to affiliate any movie about current events with a political ideology. Because “Fair Game” tells the story of a woman and her husband who did their jobs and were led to be skeptical of the Bush administration based on their information, it has been labeled a liberal movie.
Yet what makes “Fair Game” one of the best movies I’ve seen this year is the fact that it is a politically conscious movie but not necessarily politically charged. It’s a movie that reminds us that the truth has no political affiliation, and it reaffirms the very American responsibility to stand up and voice our discontent when we see the government failing in its duties. Naomi Watt’s Valerie Plame Wilson does this in spite of one of the worst political climates for dissent in our history, and it’s a rousing profile in courage that will reinforce your sense of patriotic duty.
How is it possible for the story of a woman who dared to question the authority and logic of President George W. Bush to be patriotic? At first glance, the movie seems to be painting an incredibly cynical and unflattering portrait of the government. Without remorse, they ruin Plame’s career by outing her as a covert CIA agent. Under the leadership of Scooter Libby, the office of the Vice-President takes steps to discredit her and leave her without support to face the most powerful institution in the country.
How ready is America to embrace a movie that is pretty deprecating to our sense of patriotism? Doug Liman’s “Fair Game” will certainly show us if the bomb that was this March’s “Green Zone” was an anomaly or indicative of what to expect for movies about American involvement in Iraq. (Interestingly enough, both movies share a connection to the Bourne franchise through their directors – Liman took on the first installment in that series, and Paul Greengrass helmed the second and third movies before making “Green Zone.”)
The movie will probably make its two biggest power plays in the lead acting categories with two performances from prestige actors. Naomi Watts, who plays CIA spy Valerie Plame, was been nominated for Best Actress in 2003, and Sean Penn, who plays her husband, has won the prize twice. Both stand decent chances, but it’s a tight year in both fields, and they could easily get squeezed out.
With firmly established pack leaders like Annette Bening and Natalie Portman, Best Actress will surely be a tough field to crack for Watts. She’s strayed away from Oscar-type roles since her 2003 nomination for “21 Grams” save some mild buzz for “King Kong” in 2005. Watts is well-liked but hardly beloved; however,she has gotten a fair amount of buzz from the movie being shown at Cannes and other festivals; Guy Lodge of In Contention remarked: “Naomi Watts is ideally cast as Plame, really warming to her character as she becomes more imperiled.” Jeff Wells at Hollywood Experience was a whole lot more supportive:
“… I think this may be her finest performance yet. I think the reason I feel that way is because her role in this film as Valerie Plame is a truly challenging role because NOCs (Non-official cover – government intelligence operatives who assume covert roles in organizations without official ties to their government) are wallflowers by nature and are usually understated and quiet. They want be the least interesting person in the room and want to learn about you without you learning about them.”
I don’t think Sean Penn could win again just because of the virtual cap off at two Oscar wins. Three would put him at Jack Nicholson status, but even Jack received his Oscar with eight and twelve year gaps. A win for “Fair Game” would make three wins in seven years for Penn, which is, needless to say, a little excessive. But Meryl Streep has been nominated a whopping 11 times since her last win, so a nomination is by no means out of the question. He clearly has the respect and the praise to get him there (Sasha Stone of Awards Daily raved “he has so much charisma, such cinematic force one can hardly wrap one’s mind around it”), but it’s a pretty tight field as is. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get edged out by first-time nominees like Jesse Eisenberg and James Franco or one-time nominees like Colin Firth and Mark Wahlberg.
For the movie to have a shot at Best Picture, there needs to be some big buzz building around the opening to carry it through the season. It received mostly positive marks from its Cannes debut, but no one was jumping out of their seat in excitement. Emerging from the Bush era, “Fair Game” takes a look at how far we were willing to let the government take our freedom in exchange for security – and the victims of such policies. It’s not a sympathetic look at America, and neither was last year’s Best Picture winner “The Hurt Locker.” Are the politics of Oscar entering an era of confronting harsh realities?
It will need either an audience (which doesn’t seem too likely given the reception for other Iraq movies) or some strong critical allies to overcome what looks to be a fairly lackluster reception. It’s hard to get a best Picture nomination when you draw a remark like this from a major trade: “Greeted with solid applause and a smattering of boos after its first press screening, ‘Fair Game’ has an enjoyable opening hour before disintegrating into melodramatic hooey” (that would be Manohla Darghis of The New York Times).
The movie’s chances could be hurt by fledgling studio Summit Entertainment. As Kris Tapley of In Contention put it, “I’m curious to see how the studio will handle a campaign that doesn’t unfold serendipitously, as ‘The Hurt Locker’ seemed to do last year.” The campaign will need to be big and brassy to keep interest going for four months on this movie. Precursors are going to have to mention it frequently if it wants to nab a spot in the bottom 5 of Best Picture.
BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Actress (Watts)
OTHER POTENTIAL NOMINATIONS: Best Actor (Penn), Best Adapted Screenplay