REVIEW: The BFG

28 06 2016

The BFG PosterThink back to your favorite Spielberg movie. How did it open?

Jaws” began with the shark taking its first victim. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” had our hero creeping through the forest towards an unknown bounty. “E.T” started with the titular creature evading the authorities for the first time. “Saving Private Ryan” plunges us into war with the immersive, innovative D-Day sequence. Many chide the director for choosing stories that wrap up neatly and morally, but he certainly knows how to kick things off with a bang.

So given this penchant for great beginnings, it feels more than a little disorienting when Spielberg’s latest directorial outing, “The BFG,” opens on a relative whimper. The first fifteen minutes operate as an introduction to our two main characters, young London orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) and the towering “Big Friendly Giant” colloquially known as the BFG (the personage of Mark Rylance). Yet in that period, scarcely nothing comes to light about them.

We see that Sophie lurks around her orphanage unhappily in the wee hours of the morning. We can discern that the BFG quietly lurks around the streets of London, performing some unspecified action. It’s likely Sophie has sensed his presence before, and “The BFG” merely begins on the night in which they first make contact. But in order to sell her wonder and fear – or his menace – something else is needed. The first 10 pages of Melissa Matheson’s script might well have slipped out upon delivery to Spielberg. It just does not feel complete.

Without this base-level emotional entry point, “The BFG” must be experienced through the events rather than the characters. In this case, that might not be such a good thing. The film is probably Spielberg’s most sparsely plotted work since his first feature gig, 1971’s “Duel” (or, if you really want to dig deep in his archives, the most thinly plotted since the short film that provided the name for his production company, “Amblin'”). Most, if not all, of his movies thrive on a constant forward momentum that propels characters through physical, emotional and supernatural perils. “The BFG” mostly boils down to a spunky young girl exploring a new world with a timid, lovable giant who speaks as if his lines were spat out like a bad Google Translate result.

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REVIEW: Bridge of Spies

18 10 2015

Bridge of SpiesI’m young enough that I cannot remember a time when director Steven Spielberg’s name was not synonymous with cinematic excellence at the highest echelon. I am also of the age that I have never been able to experience the kind of film that earned him such a reputation in any manner other than through the lens of retrospection.

That is, until “Bridge of Spies” came along, the first Spielberg effort since 2005’s “Munich” that serves as an adequate calling card for a generation-defining artist.  Making the sort of mid-range budget ($40 million) adult drama that have all but gone the way of the dinosaur, he issues a strong reminder that his formidable skills should not be undervalued or underestimated.

It’s fitting, then, that this film should star Tom Hanks, another already minted national treasure whose cultural footprint often dwarfs the power of his work. While both director and actor could easily coast on their merits, neither does in “Bridge of Spies.” The film operates at an impeccably high level of craft and precision because Hanks and Spielberg flex their muscles so potently.  Calling it a return to form feels wrong since neither has precipitously declined, but this is clearly them at peak performance.

Hanks plays William Donovan, an idealistic Brooklyn lawyer given the thankless task of providing legal counsel in a sham trial meant as a PR play.  His client is Mark Rylance’s Rudolf Abel, a suspected Soviet spy captured at the peak of Cold War mania.  Donovan’s task recalls the central case in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and it’s a good thing that Hanks can channel Atticus Finch (pre-racism) so deftly.

Only a few actors could pull off this unironic, unashamed portrait of the nobility all Americans like to believe is woven into our national fabric.  Hanks, with his steady hand and calm resolve, makes a better case for the Constitution’s guiding light than anyone currently in public office.  In fact, many of them could learn a thing or two from Donovan regarding Edward Snowden, the Middle East, and immigration.

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REVIEW: Jurassic World

13 06 2015

“We want to be thrilled,” declares Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire to a set of interested investors at the beginning of “Jurassic World.”  One can easily imagine the very green director Colin Trevorrow, with only the indie charmer “Safety Not Guaranteed” under his belt, making the same kind of pitch to the corporate powers that be at Universal.

In a manner that recalls “22 Jump Street,” many lines at the opening of the film give a winking nod to the entire enterprise of jumpstarting a dormant franchise for a new audience.  In the 22 years the original “Jurassic Park” film hit the multiplex, a new style of action filmmaking has obliterated the level of craft in the genre.  These blockbusters – think Michael Bay and “Transformers” – operate under the philosophy of bigger, louder, harder, faster, stronger.

These films have become predictable, boring, and numbing.  We still marvel at the screen, sure, but we have come to expect the unexpected and see the extraordinary as ordinary.  “Jurassic World” invites that childlike sense of awe to rear its head once again after hibernating.  And in true Spielberg fashion, we receive the invitation quite literally through the perspective of a child.

The first time Trevorrow gives his audience a peek at the new Jurassic Park, now rebranded as Jurassic World, it comes as the young Gray (Ty Simpkins) pushes his way through the crowd to get to the front of a tramcar.  He sees the giant entry gates, and the score by Michael Giacchino swells to the tune John Williams made iconic years ago.  In the succession of shots that follows, we see the many amazing dinosaur attractions (along with a plethora of corporate sponsors) and know his wide-eyed wonder is not misplaced.

The visual effects from “Jurassic Park” were impressive at the time, yet they now look a little creaky and dated.  I cannot imagine what technological advances could improve the look of the dinosaurs in “Jurassic World,” which exhibit a breathtaking photorealism, though the CGI wizards will undeniably make me eat those words.

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Oscar Moment: Final 2012 Predictions, Part 4 (Directing)

8 01 2013

TWO MORE DAYS!  I’m slowly starting to lose my mind … or at least become so consumed with thinking about the Oscar nominations that I can think of little else.

See my predictions for Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay.

See my predictions for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress.

See my predictions for Best Actor and Best Actress.

Best Director

  1. Steven Spielberg, “Lincoln
  2. Kathryn Bigelow, “Zero Dark Thirty
  3. Ben Affleck, “Argo
  4. Tom Hooper, “Les Misérables
  5. David O. Russell, “Silver Linings Playbook

Kathryn Bigelow ZDTIn case you caught on, yes, I did intentionally structure my prediction breakdown so that I would get to publish post-Directors Guild nominations.  If you didn’t catch those this morning, they were Ben Affleck for “Argo,” Kathryn Bigelow for “Zero Dark Thirty,” Tom Hooper for “Les Misérables,” Ang Lee for “Life of Pi,” and Steven Spielberg for “Lincoln.”

It’s worth noting, though, that the DGA has perfectly matched the Academy’s nominees only twice since 2000.

Having said that, Spielberg, Affleck, and Bigelow are in.  I don’t think anyone will debate that.  Even as “Zero Dark Thirty” seems to have knocked aback with the fatuous claims of torture endorsement, Bigelow remains firmly in place.  Heck, I think any of these three could win.  Who knows, maybe we could even have … a split year!

Spielberg won Best Director in 1998 for “Saving Private Ryan” even though “Shakespeare in Love” won Best Picture.  Could a similar surprise be in store this year?

Bigelow’s direction has earned her tremendous accolades again.  She’s been the critical choice pick of the year, often times winning even when “Zero Dark Thirty” doesn’t take Best Picture.  Will she take the prize again for her follow-up to “The Hurt Locker” just three years after winning her first Oscar?

Argo Best Director

And if “Argo” surges and looks poised to win Best Picture, Ben Affleck will likely win Best Director.  I don’t think he would benefit from a split.

Beyond the three of them, it gets dicier.  If you assume there are seven “safe” Best Picture nominees, you have four men competing for two spots: Ang Lee for “Life of Pi,” David O. Russell for “Silver Linings Playbook,” Tom Hooper for “Les Misérables,” and Quentin Tarantino for “Django Unchained.”  That’s an impressive group that contains two winners and two nominees.

Some people seem to think “Les Misérables” is weak because the critics have defined people’s perceptions of the movie’s standing in the race.  This is “The King’s Speech” on steroids.  That movie beat the critical favorite, “The Social Network,” with no trouble at all.  And it didn’t need the critics groups at all; it only took one Best Picture prize.  Colin Firth was keeping the movie in discussion and taking most of the accolades, just as Anne Hathaway is doing now.

Hooper beat out David Fincher, who almost undeniably did more impressive work in “The Social Network,” in a year that perhaps more than ever screamed for a Picture-Director split.  If he can win for “The King’s Speech,” I don’t see how he doesn’t get nominated for “Les Misérables.”

Life of PiWhile many would say Ang Lee was just below the “big three,” I would say Hooper is far more secure.  I think the movie will play well with Academy voters, and I still think it could win Best Picture.  It will likely win three, if not four Golden Globes.  It could also win the ensemble award at SAG.  And if “Les Misérables” made them feel anywhere near as much as “The King’s Speech,” they know who pulled the strings of their tear ducts.  A nomination feels pretty secure to me.

“Life of Pi” support is fading.  Though I still think it will power through and get a Best Picture nomination, Fox seems to have dropped the ball on keeping the momentum going.  Lee did get nominations from HFPA and BFCA, albeit in a field of six for the latter.  And the DGA nod certainly helps.

But for all this talk of Lee getting a nomination for “Life of Pi” simply because it is incredibly ambitious or challenging do little to persuade me.  I know this is a totally different case, but that didn’t help Christopher Nolan for “Inception” in a tight year (the directing branch of the Academy loathes Nolan but likes Lee for some bizarre reason).  While he’s now in my good graces because of “Les Misérables,” artistic merit often takes a backseat to feel-good stories as shown by Hooper’s triumph in 2010 over Fincher and Aronofsky.

I can’t help but wonder if Lee will get the cold shoulder like David Fincher did last year for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”  That film was getting love from the guilds left and right but was largely shunned by the Academy, including high-profile snubs in Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay.  Is “Life of Pi” that technical marvel that guilds will admire but Academy members won’t quite appreciate as much?

LincolnHowever, the Academy directing branch, comprised of only about 300-400 members, is notoriously snooty, arty, high-minded, or whatever adjective you want to use.  So maybe that will benefit Ang Lee.  But often times, it’s a boon to someone they respect but has received little recognition leading up to the nominations   With their out of the blue selections, they often provide some of the biggest surprises on nomination morning.

The ultimate case was in 2001 when they nominated David Lynch for “Mulholland Drive,” a movie that received no other nominations.  But more recent and reasonable examples are Terrence Malick for “The Tree of Life,” Paul Greengrass for “United 93,” and Mike Leigh for “Vera Drake.”  I think the most likely person to snab this kind of nomination would be Paul Thomas Anderson for “The Master.”  As much as I’d love to see that happen, I doubt it will.

They also like to nominate directors with vision working in foreign languages.  In the past decade, we’ve seen Best Director nominees Julian Schnabel for “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” Fernando Meirelles for “City of God,” and Pedro Almodóvar for “Talk to Her.”  For that reason, we can’t count out Michael Haneke popping up for “Amour.”  It’s certainly had the critical plaudits to be a non-shocking surprise.

David O

Maybe they really respect and admire the vision of Tarantino in “Django Unchained.”  They’ve been fans twice before, providing him nominations for 1994’s “Pulp Fiction” and 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds.”  Both of those, however, were preceded by DGA nominations.  The Weinstein Company has been floating the excuse that his passing over is due to DVD screeners not going out to DGA members.

But I think it’s telling that the Academy will stay away.  His only major nomination so far has been from the Golden Globes, and it’s clear they were high on “Django Unchained.”  I think it has proven to be much more of an audience success than a critical or guild one, though it has supporters amongst those groups.  The “Inglourious Basterds” nod was looking good from the beginning; this time around has not been so fortuitous for Tarantino.

I don’t feel that PTA or Haneke are nearly as revered as Malick and thus have the power to displace a sure-fire Best Picture nominee.  With all my reservations about Tarantino and Lee, I’m left to predict David O. Russell for “Silver Linings Playbook.”  Though overlooked by the DGA and the HFPA, he was a Critics Choice nominee and (perhaps more importantly) a nominee for Best Director for “The Fighter” in 2010.

Academy voters are creatures of habit.  If something works for them once, it often works again.  Why do you think so-called “Oscar bait” was born?  Once the studios figured out their tastes, they play right into their wheelhouse time after time.  “Silver Linings Playbook” is very similar to “The Fighter” in terms of tone and emotional payoff.  The only real difference this year is that he has directed a comedy as opposed to a drama.  (Although there is little funnier than Charlene beating up Micky’s white-trash sisters.)

So it looks like I’ll be predicting a more conservative, sure-fire Best Picture nominees slate here.  I know it’s at odds with the whole notion that the season is one of the most unpredictable ever.  But I’ve watched for the signs (to quote “Silver Linings Playbook”) and don’t get the sense that anything radically wacky is going to happen in Best Director.





REVIEW: Lincoln

1 12 2012

I am by no means saying that “Lincoln” is not a smart movie.  I think the writing is very clever, the angle is interesting, and the words take the feel of political poetry.  And Daniel Day-Lewis gives a very meticulous and impressively restrained performance as the iconic 16th President.

But these two things do not necessarily a great movie make.  Director Steven Spielberg ultimately did not make a compelling argument as to why “Lincoln” is cinematic, and that is by far the most crucial component of a film’s success.  We don’t experience film on a page; we watch it on a screen.  And though I often sat wondering how much I would love to pore over Tony Kushner’s script, I never felt like I needed to see it on screen.  (Perhaps it would have been better served as a closet script, one meant to be read, not filmed.)

The history lesson is interesting in that it features a tight, narrow focus rather than the broad canvases in some of Spielberg’s earlier historical films such as “Schindler’s List” or “Amistad.”  Kushner’s grueling, often tedious procedural and insistance on parading new characters onto screen in rapid fire succession makes “Lincoln” feel more like an “Amistad,” meant to go straight into the DVD player in high school American history courses.  If it weren’t for the cavalcade of notable Oscar-recognized talent, it would feel no different than those dramatized History Channel specials that teachers show to give their students a break.

I have no problem with the Spielberg pendulum shifting towards education rather than entertainment and showmanship.  However, if such a changing dynamic is to work, Spielberg needed to shift his approach.  In “Lincoln,” he largely doesn’t.  In the first two hours of the film, we are bombarded with facts, details, and events.

Then, as the film comes to a close, the movie slows down and begins to amble.  We get generous close-ups of the people whose tireless efforts we have been following, as if Spielberg is telling us, “Here, feel for them … now!”  Perhaps after spending a semester watching all his films, I am hyperaware of his trademark shot and can fairly easily resist the pull.  But I wasn’t actively resisting or anything, they just didn’t work here.  The technique would have been great if “Lincoln” were more in the mold of “Schindler’s List” or “Saving Private Ryan,” histories built around deep emotions.  He can’t simply pull the technique out to achieve a similar effect for an entirely different film.

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Oscar Moment: Final 2012 Pre-Season Predictions, Part 1

27 11 2012

Best Picture

  1. Les Miserables
  2. Lincoln
  3. Argo
  4. Silver Linings Playbook
  5. Zero Dark Thirty
  6. The Master
  7. Beasts of the Southern Wild
  8. Life of Pi
  9. Moonrise Kingdom
  10. Amour

To quote “Les Miserables” itself, the time is now, the day is here.  Tom Hooper’s film has finally been revealed to critics and awards voters – and all reports indicate they are eating it up.  Shrewdly opening on Christmas Day, it will be an audience favorite undoubtedly as it opens wallets and tear ducts across the nation (and world).

It has its own merits, but this is the kind of movie that the Oscars eat up and nominate for EVERYTHING.  If we must call it so, let’s call it what it is: Oscar bait.  The nomination count should easily extend into double digits; the question before us now appears just how many nods it will rack up.

Tying the record of 14 is feasible, and even scoring 15 or 16 doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable at the moment.  With the exception of Best Original Score, pretty much every technical category is in play for “Les Miserables.”  And with weak years in the Supporting fields, it could easily score multiple nods in one or both.

But take a look at the record.  Both movies with 14 nominations won Best Picture.  5 out of the 9 films nominated for 13 Oscars won Best Picture, and 9 of the 15 films nominated for 12 Oscars won Best Picture.  I don’t think there’s any denying it though – “Les Miserables” will be the most nominated film of 2012.  And that will make it very tough to beat.

Of the other likely nominees, only “Lincoln” really stands a chance of getting 10 or more (perhaps “The Master” if it comes back roaring).  Everything seems to be going right for it at the moment.  The box office is great, the reviews are great, the press is great, and the timing could not be more perfect.  Spielberg struck a gold mine here.

This isn’t “Munich” and it isn’t “War Horse” where the Academy just defaulted to rewarding a Spielberg film with a Best Picture nomination out of an almost Pavlovian habit.  It’s got the support and the public conversation going for it in way not unlike “Schindler’s List” or “Saving Private Ryan.”  We can talk all we want about how timely “Argo” was, but it did not nearly enter the drinking water in a way that this film is.

More importantly, it is currently setting up an important dialectic should it be the main opponent for “Les Miserables:” the head and the heart.  “Les Miserables” is a movie of passion, one that makes you feel and weep.  Though I’d argue that it’s also quite brainy, “Lincoln” is the smarter movie in the more traditional, Oscar sense.  It boasts a thoughtful, well-wrought script by Tony Kushner and a rather controlled direction by Spielberg.

When this battle waged in 2010, Tom Hooper and “The King’s Speech” emerged victorious over David Fincher and “The Social Network.”  Since that was only two years ago, voters surely remember.  Will they fall face-first into another weepy, sentimental film from the same guy – or think twice and reward a living master.  These are the questions that keep me tossing and turning at night!

The past weekend also brought us “Zero Dark Thirty,” whose ambition and scope seem to make it a likely nominee at this point given the weak year and its impressive pedigree.  Reteaming director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, both winners for “The Hurt Locker,” seems to be a recipe for success and recognition.  But its length and apparently rigid procedural aspects should hold the passionate voters at bay and make a Best Picture nomination the win for the film.

We’re arriving at a point where the race is becoming more or less set in terms of nominees.  We know “Argo” and “Silver Linings Playbook” are almost assuredly going to make the cut.  However, unless they regain some steam from the precursor season, they probably won’t pose much of a serious threat for the win.

A lot of pundits have clumped “Life of Pi” with the two aforementioned movies.  While I don’t doubt the preponderance of critical and industry support for Ang Lee’s ambitious 3D film, the film seems to lack true and vocal champions.  Maybe the box office will continue to improve and the audience will override the lack of passion I’m sensing from the people who really matter in the Oscar season.  I’m placing it at the bottom of my list of predicted nominees for now, holding out for some reinforcement from the establishment.

And while a lot of people give the Academy flak for being too commercial and predictable, there are still plenty among their ranks who want film to be artistic and innovative.  These people got “The Tree of Life” a Best Picture nomination in 2011, and I suspect they’ll turn out in force for “The Master” this year.

Unless it just gets absolutely shafted the entire season, I’ll continue to predict Paul Thomas Anderson’s ambitious film until the nominations are revealed.  (They could go for “Amour,” as many are predicting, but I don’t buy it.  Too austere and too foreign.)

That gritty, spunky Sundance/festivals quotient (“Winter’s Bone,” “Precious“) is due to be filled again after taking a one-year hiatus.  I think the critics will bring “Beasts of the Southern Wild” back into consciousness and contention in a big way, doing their bit of good in 2012.  It has to cope with ineligibility for guild awards, but Benh Zeitlin’s film has the power to get in – it just has to be remembered.  (“Moonrise Kingdom” could also score a nomination, perhaps at the expense of “Beasts,” if it regains some heat in the early days of the season.)

For all those wondering where “Django Unchained” falls on my list, I refer you to this tweet by Kris Tapley: “Two weeks ago Django was three hours and 12 minutes long. They’ve experimented with it since, re-ordering scenes, etc. Down to the wire.” Yeah, it’s bound to disappoint.

Best Director

  1. Tom Hooper, “Les Miserables”
  2. Steven Spielberg, “Lincoln”
  3. Ben Affleck, “Argo”
  4. David O. Russell, “Silver Linings Playbook”
  5. Paul Thomas Anderson, “The Master”

Picture and Director nearly always go together, so it seems illogical for me to predict anyone other than Tom Hooper out front.  If Spielberg, Affleck, or (fingers crossed) Anderson start generating serious heat, I’ll reconsider.  But I’ve learned better than to opt for a split.

But I’ve learned better than to opt for a split. The Academy also doesn’t seem bothered by picking novices over experienced directors well-regarded throughout the industry.  They like what they like, and whoever delivers them the best movie is going to win Best Director.  Truffaut would be smiling if he were still with us because his auteur theory is etched in stone in AMPAS mentality.

2012 is going to be a year where voters are asked to deliberate if someone deserves to go down in history with a third victory.  We know they love Spielberg since he already has two trophies, and 5% of the Academy thought “War Horse” was the best movie of 2011 since it was nominated for Best Picture.

But does he deserve to join the ranks of William Wyler and Frank Capra as the third director to win three Oscars? His films are totally in their wheelhouse, so it could happen.  His next movie is “Robopocalypse,” so Academy voters may feel they are running out of chances to crown him King of Hollywood once again.  The “Lincoln” PR has been absurd in feting Spielberg, from the cover of Time to an address at Gettysburg.  He’s definitely formidable to win again.

I still wouldn’t count out Ben Affleck to win, especially if “Argo” holds on and starts winning big.  But if it’s “Les Miserables” and not Hooper, I think the Academy votes Spielberg over Affleck.

I doubted David O. Russell’s ability to muscle into the Best Director category in 2010.  Won’t be making that mistake in 2012.  Clearly his abrasiveness has not phased Oscar voters, and if “Silver Linings Playbook” is a big hit with them, he’s a shoo-in nominee.  Think “Juno” scoring a nod for Jason Reitman.

And I hold that the contingent that got Terrence Malick a nomination last year will give Paul Thomas Anderson a second Best Director nomination.  Because believe it or not, there are some people in the Academy who care about supporting the advancement of film.  It’s not as sizable as the contingent that cried at “The King’s Speech,” but it’s big enough to make this happen.





Classics Corner: Jaws

14 08 2012

Everyone thinks they know “Jaws” if they have ever stopped foot in water, be it a swimming pool or an ocean. There is always that joker who starts to hum two notes that speak volumes for the generations that grew up after 1975, inducing a sense of dread. John Williams’ iconic theme for “Jaws” has become synonymous with the menace of a shark attack, and it is remarkable to see how a simple theme can still be so evocative over three decades later.

However, to characterize an entire film by something so small is vastly unfair to the filmmaking expertise that provided the canvas for Williams to compose a masterstroke. Jaws derives its terror from places other than its non-diegetic soundtrack, namely the expert direction of Steven Spielberg. Watching his film in the present day might seem like an exercise in futility given how banal the plot seems to have become, yet it actually still plays quite well.

In an age saturated with horror films that substitute gore for thrills, Jaws scares all the more because Spielberg refuses to take the easy way out. While there is plenty of blood to still freak out the faint at heart, Spielberg opts for a much more deliberate, methodical approach that recalls Hitchcock more than it does Saw. Once the shark’s theme cues up, it is inevitable that someone is about to die … but Spielberg never lets the audience know when they are going to die until the Great White sinks its fangs into their flesh. He does not even reveal the shark in its entirety almost until the climax, slowly providing clues as to just how big the beast really is. His precision pays dividends, just as it did for Hitchcock and just as it still does for directors willing to take the time to get it right, such as J.J. Abrams in “Super 8.”

Although the shark may be the most recognizable part of Jaws, the attacks really only punctuate the domestic drama occurring ashore on the island of Amity. Police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), a cop from the city taking refuge in what he thought would be the quiescence of a small town, is tasked with maintaining order and calm when the massacres create massive unrest. The mayor tells him to do whatever it takes to keep the people safe, short of closing the beaches and running their summer’s economy. They hire scientist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) to help catch the beast, but it ultimately requires the expertise of marginalized seaman Quint (Robert Shaw), himself a shark attack survivor. The three men come from vastly different backgrounds, but their unlikely camaraderie provides a refreshingly human aspect to a movie otherwise defined by the atrocities of nature.

While it may be easy to think of Jaws as little more than just the two notes of terror, it is worth a first watch or rewatch to let the true horror and humanity shine through.