OPINION: The Cinema of Casey Anthony

5 07 2011

I know that I’m a movie blogger by name, but if you’ll allow me a brief aside, I’d like to address a different field altogether.  I, like many Americans this summer, have been following the developments in the trial of Casey Anthony.  Today, to the shock (and disgust) of many captivated American television watchers, she was acquitted of murdering her two-year-old daughter, Caylee.

I will inevitably catch heat for this, but I do not sit in front of my computer typing this post in dismay.  Just a day after 311 million Americans celebrated the preservation of the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that so many men have died for, the trial by jury guaranteed to all citizens in the Bill of Rights produced a verdict of not guilty.  Regardless how much Nancy Grace or Bill O’Reilly told us she is guilty, or will continue to tell us she is guilty, we have to trust the American legal system here.  We have to trust that these jurors listened to the evidence and made the right call.

But this post isn’t about the woman in the courtroom, it’s about the people that watched her courtesy of the courtroom cameras.  I learned a lot about how Americans view concepts of justice, vengeance, and entertainment, three ingredients that can make be quite poisonous when mixed.  Quite frankly, what I’ve seen over the past month should have the Founding Fathers rolling over in their graves.  This cannot be the America they wanted to create.

Just last Christmas, “True Grit” was an unprecedented success, grossing $171 million, scoring nearly unanimous critical support, and raking in 10 Academy Award nominations.  The Coens’ film grapples with the tricky question of revenge; in the movie, Hailee Steinfeld’s spunky 14-year-old Mattie Ross embarks on a journey to kill Tom Chaney, the man who murdered her father in cold blood.  She is seen as the hero of the film, and when she ultimately succeeds, the audience cheers.  The character representing justice, Matt Damon’s LeBoeuf, is a clown that is mostly mocked by the audience.

While the Coen Brothers likely expected this to play mostly for their usual niche audience, the excellent film wound up entering the mainstream and playing well into February and March in most theaters.  Not to insult the average moviegoer, but I don’t think that many of them understood that “True Grit” is supposed to be a meditation on the merit of retribution, not a vindication of it.  The movie is just ENTERTAINMENT, and the Coens deliver a cinematic vengeance that excites inside a theater.  But outside that theater, we aren’t meant to feel inspired to deliver payback in such a dramatic fashion.

Which brings me to the matter in question here, the Casey Anthony trial.  How does an ordinary 25-year-old mother from Orlando, Florida become “The Social Media Trial of the Century,” according to Time?  How does she grace the cover of People alongside Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and Jennifer Aniston?  Simply put, people want VENGEANCE.  They want to see the death of Caylee Anthony avenged, and they want blood to pay for it.

How do I feel so confident in making this statement?  Because most people didn’t need a trial or the deliberations of a jury to reach their own verdict; they just went ahead and pronounced her guilty.  Bill O’Reilly even said, “She is as guilty as they come.”  Although it is not specifically codified in the Constitution, it is considered a part of common law and an American virtue that someone is presumed innocent until proven guilty.  Everyone has the right to due process of law.  Everyone has the right to a trial by jury.  It is not up to people watching the trial on Fox News from their couch, nor is it up to those catching glimpse on CNN from the water-cooler.

But how can Americans have strayed so far from the ideals of our Founding Fathers?  In my opinion, it’s the means of information that induce such expectations for violent ends.  It’s a tired argument, I know.  Let’s blame the media and putting cameras in courtrooms for everything!  But in this case, the drive for ratings and good television has muddled the distinction between justice and vengeance by adding entertainment to the mix.  We have become convinced that the American legal system is only doing its job when it’s convicting people because there is too much crime in this country for punishment to be spared.

All of those title cards for coverage of the Casey Anthony trial, no matter what channel you watched, read “JUSTICE FOR CAYLEE.”  But it was never about justice for them, it was about retribution for her.  They found a woman who represented all sorts of bad parenting and immoral behavior, two things they could prove without a trial.  They made the trial about the condemnation of a woman more for her lack of scruples and less for her action since the case was based largely on circumstantial evidence.  They wasted no time calling her a representative of all evil in society.

This, to any well-versed film watcher, echoes the message of “Chicago,” Rob Marshall’s 2002 Best Picture winning musical movie.  Richard Gere’s Billy Flynn is a master of the media; in the number “We Both Reached for the Gun,” he is shown manipulating everyone literally as marionette puppets, holding their strings and making them dance.  He is the best lawyer in Chicago because he can turn the tide of public opinion in favor of his merry murderesses, thus providing a nice complement to evidence that suggests, but doesn’t prove, their innocence.  Billy has a mastery of the courtroom too and manages to get false acquittals for Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) and Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) because he knows one fact: “This trial … the whole world … it’s all … show business.”

Here is a perfect study of opposites: Roxie is a victim of culture’s evils, while Casey Anthony was made to represent them.  The media tried to make her trial a proxy trial for her behavior.  But it’s not; it’s about her actions, and the jury could not find in evidence that her actions included murdering her daughter.  It makes for good television to focus on her unscrupulous behavior in the wake of her daughter’s disappearance, but it does not make for a trial in the American judicial system.

While I’m indulging in pessimism at the moment, I don’t believe this condemnation is a final verdict on America’s fate.  Now perhaps more than ever, I think “12 Angry Men” rings true and relevant.  The movie revolves around a twelve man jury deliberating a case based on reasonable doubt, not unlike the Casey Anthony trial.  When they enter the deliberation move, it seems that all will vote guilty.  However, one juror known as #8, played by the noble Henry Fonda, votes in dissent.  Over the course of Sidney Lumet’s movie, #8 tries to convince the other jurors that their mental picture of the defendant is not enough to justify a vote.  As he so eloquently puts it, “It’s not easy to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first …We’re talking about somebody’s life here.”

With the death penalty on the table for Casey Anthony, she found herself in a position very similar to that of the Puerto Rican man in the movie.  But thanks to one noble juryman, he was saved.  As #8 struggles to change the rest of the jury’s mind, they take a second look at the evidence that seems to tell one story yet find that it tells another one – a story where the defendant is innocent.  When there are only three holdouts, #8 makes this speech that gets straight to the heart of the trial that has been the center of American attention for months:

“It’s very hard to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this. And no matter where you run into it, prejudice obscures the truth. Well, I don’t think any real damage has been done here. Because I don’t really know what the truth is. No one ever will, I suppose. Nine of us now seem to feel that the defendant is innocent, but we’re just gambling on probabilities. We may be wrong. We may be trying to return a guilty man to the community. No one can really know. But we have a reasonable doubt, and this is a safeguard which has enormous value to our system. No jury can declare a man guilty unless it’s sure.”

Perhaps Casey Anthony is guilty.  That’s what many Americans still think in spite of this verdict.  But how many of us have come to this decision based on piecing together the evidence presented in court?  I’m going to guess very few of us have.  However, whatever notions I may have had about Casey Anthony thanks to Fox News or CNN have been wiped clean today with the jury’s verdict.  I’m not sure if the deliberations played out like “12 Angry Men” or if they took on another shape or form entirely.  Yet I am going to trust that however they came to their verdict, it is the right one.  And if you believe in the justice system that our Founding Fathers envisioned is morally right, then you must scorn notions of retribution and entertainment and believe in their verdict too.

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Random Factoid #554

2 02 2011

February could be a lot worse, but I’m wondering if I’ll bother to open my wallet for a 2011 release (thanks to the godsend that is free screenings, I have yet to pay for a movie that opens this year) any time this month.  Do studios really just want everyone to go see “The King’s Speech” and “True Grit” again, enough so that they’ll dump “The Roommate” and “Sanctum” on us?  There are few rays of mainstream hope, mainly emanating from “I Am Number Four.”

Elisabeth Rappe of Film.com shares in my lamenting:

“February is the dumping ground for bad films. If a film is originally set for a particular date — say, October 5, 2011 — and is suddenly yanked and shoved into February, it is the death knell. You know it’s not going to be worth your time or money to see, and the reason we know this is because we’ve been lured to many a lousy winter film in the past. Go back just 10 years, and you’ll see that February has boasted such great films as ‘Reindeer Games,’ ‘Snow Day,’ ‘Down to Earth,’ ‘Valentine,’ ‘Hannibal,’ ‘Rollerball,’ ‘Daredevil,’ ‘How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,’ ‘Against the Ropes’ … the list just goes on and on into sheer dollar bin misery. The box-office returns tell a sad state of desperation. ‘Snow Day’ opened at No. 3 on February 11, 2000, and it wasn’t because it was a good film, it’s because there was nothing else to see.

The entire month is a pretty bleak slate, but the real DOA date has been distilled to the fine point of the first weekend of February. These aren’t just bad films, they’re the worst of any given year. Search them at random. February 2, 2005: ‘Unleashed.’ February 3, 2006: ‘When a Stranger Calls.’ February 1, 2008: ‘Over Her Dead Body,’ ‘Strange Wilderness,’ and ‘The Eye’. Wretched. Just wretched.

Why is poor February, who never did anything to anyone, the land of the lousy film? Why is its first weekend a cinematic graveyard? Hollywood might tell me that it’s traditionally a time of poor returns, that polling shows audiences like to see ‘Captain America’ in summertime, and that it’s too far out to risk releasing an award contender. (Not always so. ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ was released on February 14, 1991, and went on to win Best Picture. ‘Shakespeare in Love’ was a January 1999 release. It can happen.)

Considering that studios are becoming more and more desperate to milk the box-office dollar, and there are only so many weeks to the summer season, why not start using February to unload a few of your flashiest popcorn flicks? Instead of jockeying for a good July date, why not release a Harry Potter or a Transformers in February? Would audiences truly shy away from seeing a Transformers movie simply because it was released in winter? A good and bankable film doesn’t need a historic summer weekend. It just needs a screen. Considering more and more films are being made simply on name recognition — hence the lust for remakes or big comic book properties — it stands to reason that audiences would flock to Superman in February.”

I think it’s about time that studios ditched the whole “open everything big in summer” mentality.  Sleeper hits like “Taken” and “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” have shown that audiences are willing to flock to movies with good buzz in the winter, and prestige pics like “Shutter Island” can open well and have staying power with very few quality alternatives.

Quite frankly, I’m ready for 2011 to start making a name for itself.  I’m running out of 2010 movies to see again while I wait.





Random Factoid #532

11 01 2011

Remember what your parents told you about courtesy?  Well, I have proof that it works.

Over a month ago, I was searching Paramount’s 2010 “For Your Consideration” site and saw that an email had to be sent to one of their employees to access the scripts to their biggest movies, “The Fighter” and “True Grit.”  I’m not a member of a guild, surprisingly, so I knew it would be a long shot for me to get my hands on a copy of these scripts.

But it never hurts to ask, so I sent a polite email to their communications manager explaining who I was, why I wanted the scripts, and how I could ultimately “help” their campaign.  This was December 6.

Today, January 11, at 12:34 A.M., I received the first indication that my email had even been read.  It was a reply from the manager with no text or message, just the two scripts which I had requested attached to the email!  So even though I am not a voting member of the SAG or DGA or WGA or PGA (four voting bodies which have nominated “The Fighter”), I have the script for it AND “True Grit!”

Might I say they are both fantastic!  So it just goes to show you that an email, some courtesy, and no fear of rejection can get you farther than you expected.





REVIEW: True Grit

5 01 2011

I haven’t seen the 1969 John Wayne “True Grit,” so I can’t really put the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit” into that context or perspective.  What I can do, however, is look at it as just another one of their movies that just happens to be a second film adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel.  As it turns out, the movie fits in perfectly with all the rest of the Coen canon.  After some of their high-brow humor hit a sour note for me, I’m glad to see them return to form in the kind of movie they are best cut out to make.

Everything moviegoers have come to love in the directing duo over the last quarter-century is on full display in “True Grit.”  The nihilism, the bleakness, the dark humor, the biting dialogue, the crazy and three-dimensional characters are all there in full force.  While it may not be the high point for the Coens, the movie is definitely an exclamation point on their careers thus far.

The truest grit of the movie belongs to 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a tenacious Southern girl who can talk fast enough to make your head spin around, drive one heck of a bargain, and make your jaw drop with her rugged tenacity.  She’s looking for a way to avenge her father’s murderer, the lawless drunk Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin).  Mattie looks to a U.S. Marshal that fits a similar description, the unreliable, uncomely Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges).

But she’s also not the only one hunting Chaney; Mattie also has to contend with LaBeouf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger with a voice uncannily similar to Matthew McConaughey’s and so dead-set on doing his job that he’s about as big of a joke as Matthew McConaughey.  LaBeouf and Cogburn assume they are a two-man searching party, but Mattie, insistent on seeing justice done herself, tags along much to their chagrin.  The three cross into the Indian Territory, enduring much lifeless terrain on Cheney’s trail.

Read the rest of this entry »





Random Factoid #525

4 01 2011

Have you heard the one about Matt Damon and the abs double?  It sounds like a great joke to use at a bar.  Here’s the story from Cinematical:

“During the end credits of ‘True Grit’, [Scott] Feinberg noticed a credit given to a Buster Coen for being Matt Damon’s Abs Double.

Seems strange since you don’t see Matt Damon’s abs in the film, especially because they’re covered up in layers of Texas Ranger clothing, and so during a post-screening Q&A Feinberg asked Damon what was up with the credit. Turns out Ethan Coen’s 15-year-old son Buster had helped out on the film serving as an assistant to the script supervisor, but didn’t want to be known as that in the credits. When asked what he wanted his credit to be, the kid indicated that he wanted to be known as Matt Damon’s Abs Double.”

What an awesome way to credit yourself in a movie.  I want to find Buster and give him a pat on the back and a handshake.

This story led me to think, of course, how would I credit myself in a movie if I were ever to have some small role in the making of one.  I’d clearly have to one-up Buster.  “Official movie blogger,” perhaps?  Any other ideas?  I’m running pretty slim today…





10 for ’10: Performances

30 12 2010

Catch up with the idea behind this series here.

It’s impossible to celebrate a year in film without mentioning the performances that riveted us.  Without further ado or fanfare, here are the 10 actors who reminded me of the power of their craft with their work in 2010.

Women

Amy Adams as Charlene Fleming in “The Fighter

My original review:
Adams, usually the delightfully effervescent charmer, plays gritty and unapologetic in “The Fighter” and pulls it off to Oscar-worthy standards.  She’s able to pull off just about any sort of character she takes, and the tenacious Charlene is different than anything we’ve ever seen her do before.  It’s exciting to see an actress nowadays who isn’t content with finding one adjective to act and then carve themselves a niche, and Adams is quickly proving herself one of the most versatile actresses of our day.

Reflection:
Amy Adams has wowed me in a variety of different roles, from her unassuming nun in “Doubt” to the ditzy princess in “Enchanted.”  Yet as Charlene, I think she may have hit the most beautiful note in her career so far with her heartfelt conversation with Bale’s Dickie on her front porch.  As she reflects on her life and her good intentions, it’s such a wonderful moment filled with every ounce of sincerity that she has to give.

Barbara Hershey as Erica Sayers in Black Swan

My original review:
The best of the supporting bunch [in “Black Swan”] is by far and away Hershey as the pushy and demanding stage mom.  Such roles often become stock characters; however, Hershey takes the role in frightening and invigorating new directions.

Reflection:
There wasn’t a more frightening performance this year than Hershey as Natalie Portman’s mother.  There’s a whole lot of subtext that Hershey has to act, perhaps a whole hidden backstory as director Darren Aronofsky alluded to, and that’s usually a daunting task for actors to pull off.  Hershey shows no dust from her long hiatus from acting, keeping us scared and entranced at the same time.

Julianne Moore as Jules in “The Kids Are All Right

My original review:
It’s Julianne Moore who absolutely brings down the house [in “The Kids Are All Right”].  As the more flighty, free-spirited Jules, she wins our hearts from the get-go, even if her antics only illicit groans from her other half.  The character is very complex as she begins reeling from Paul’s introduction, exploring sides of herself she didn’t know even existed.  It’s glorious to watch Moore dig deeper and deeper into her character as the movie goes on.  She’s responsible for some of the movie’s funniest moments but also for its most effective emotional scene.  Academy, take note.

Reflection:
Throughout the awards season, many pundits have thrown out that Annette Bening’s role in “The Kids Are All Right” is the character the audience is meant to sympathize with and thus makes her the better candidate for Best Actress.  Without dragging politics into it, I found Julianne Moore’s Jules the more sympathetic character and, by the end, the only one I actually cared about.  Moore has delivered so many fantastic performances, but what makes this one stand head and shoulders over the rest is her total emotional engagement in the role.  We feel her torment, her frustration, and her confusion so profoundly because of how engrossed she is in the character.  And what she puts in, we get out of the performance.

Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers in “Black Swan

My original review:
The star of the show is Portman, and “Black Swan” is made all the more fascinating by how Nina’s development mirrors her performance.  Much like Nina must lose herself in the role of the Swan Princess, Portman absolutely disappears into her character.  It’s a shocking and startling transformation due to Portman’s dedication to learning the craft of ballet and her impeccable acting.  The movie stands as a testament to the fact that she is one of the best emerging actresses of her generation, and her flawless showing here deserves to be minted in history alongside the greatest of all time.  Portman gives a once-in-a-lifetime performance, and to miss it would be to deny yourself the chance to see as close to perfection as is cinematically possible.

Reflection:
Perfect.  It was perfect.

Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross in “True Grit”

Reflection:
I have yet to review “True Grit,” but when I do, expect the highest of praise for newcomer Hailee Steinfeld.  There are very few actors that can spit out period dialogue at lightning speed with confidence, and there are probably even fewer that can do the same with the dialogue of the Coen Brothers.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do both so well, a feat that would impress me from an Academy Award-winning actress but floors me when I consider that this is a debut performer.  At such a young age, she has a complete and total mastery of her character’s deepest desires and feelings, and such a strong presence out in front of “True Grit” makes it a movie and a performance I won’t soon forget.

Men

Christian Bale as Dickie Ecklund in The Fighter

My original review:
The knockout punch of “The Fighter” is the performance of Christian Bale, a totally authentic portrayal of a drug addict, former boxer, jealous trainer – and all simultaneously.  He doesn’t act or perform as the real life Dickie Ecklund so much as he becomes him and inhabits him.  Every twitch, every word is meticulously planned by Bale, who slimmed down from his Batman physique to play the gaunt Dickie.

Reflection:
“The Fighter” is Micky Ward’s story, but it’s Dickie Ecklund’s movie.  Bale, completely lost in the character, brings together all of his strengths to deliver what could be the quintessential performance of his career.  It shows his physical commitment, his uncompromising authenticity, and a strangely pervasive sense of heart that’s often a little rough around the edges.

Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network

My original review:
Eisenberg nails all the eccentricities of the fast-talking technological wiz, and the nuances in his portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg will captivate for endless viewings.

Reflection:
Who is Mark Zuckerberg?  After “The Social Network” was released, millions of people were left trying to answer the question.  Is he the savior of the Internet and the symbol of a new era, or is he the force that will inadvertently bring it down and destroy all the comforts of our former lives?  What makes this screen version of Zuckerberg so captivating is that Jesse Eisenberg doesn’t attempt to answer this question.  Eisenberg gets to the core of what he thinks is motivating Zuckerberg, going so deep that no bias or opinion can color his interpretation.  Then, he lays it all out on the screen and leaves it up to the viewer to decide who Mark Zuckerberg is.  With the magazine TIME naming the entrepreneur their person of the year, Eisenberg may have made Mark Zuckerberg the folk hero of the digital age.

Colin Firth as King George VI in “The King’s Speech

My original review:
It’s Firth’s show in the flashy role of King George, a character that must be inhabited, not just performed.  Firth nails it, getting inside every thought and stammer of the king.  He doesn’t just brush the surface as many actors playing historical figures do; he makes George vulnerable and sentimental.  Firth’s poignant performance reminds us that what we should be looking for in movies like this is heart.

Reflections:
The royal family of England always feels so distant on film, living a life filmmakers believe is so different that ours that they have to put them in an ivory tower.  Yet Colin Firth, armed with a fantastically written human being by the name of King George VI, tears their mythological status down brick by brick until his royal figure is so down to earth that he feels like an old friend.  The movie wouldn’t have been half as inspiring had Firth not brought such an enormously relatable pathos to the role.

James Franco as Aron Ralston in “127 Hours

My original review:
There’s never a dull or wasted moment to be found in the movie thanks to Franco’s sublime and enlightened performance.  While shooting on location, Boyle consistently had him act in character for 20 minutes straight and then relied on the editor to find 30 seconds to make it into the final cut.  This total immersion into Ralston’s desperation makes Franco all the more raw and moving.

Reflection:
The blasting score, fancy editing, and flashy cinematography of “127 Hours” can only go so far to make a static movie work.  It requires a dynamic actor, both heartbreaking and heartwarming, that we can stick with until the bitter end.  James Franco does just that and more as he makes pain and hope so tangible and so authentic that the movie never feels anything less than real.  If anyone ever had a doubt that we need actors more than ever, Franco’s flawless work is all that’s needed to silence any critic.

Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin in “The Social Network

My original review:
Andrew Garfield as the upright Saverin is a force to be reckoned with, a true presence throughout the movie with his very likable charm.  For just that reason, he makes it wrenching to watch the inevitable turn when Saverin gets cheated.

Reflection:
While Zuckerberg’s prickly exterior prevents us from ever liking him too much, Andrew Garfield endows Eduardo Saverin with a sharp mind, firm beliefs, and a strong moral compass, making us fall head over heels for his character.  He’s an irresistible force on the screen, the good angel resting on Zuckerberg’s right shoulder whispering in his ear to follow common wisdom.  The movie’s emotional climax wouldn’t work if we weren’t rooting for Saverin the entire time, and when he explodes with anger, you’ll want to jump in the frame and punch the jerks who wronged him.





Random Factoid #516

26 12 2010

It looks like Halloween came early (or two months late).

In Fort Smith, Arkansas, the setting of “True Grit,” 500 dedicated fans donned eye-patches like Rooster Cogburn, the character played by John Wayne in the 1969 original and Jeff Bridges in the 2010 update, to celebrate the release of the Coen Brothers’ adaptation.  They recited lines from the movie (as can be seen in the video below) and had a grand old time.  According to Cinema Blend, “the town is the place where more Marshals worked, died and were buried than anywhere else in the United States.”

Cogburn might be one of the most Halloween costume-worthy characters of 2010 not counting your obvious comic-book characters.  Personally, if I would dress up as any cinematic character of 2010, I’d take Mark Zuckerberg.  Get a heinous turn-of-the-millenia Gap sweatshirt, pajama pants, and Adidas sandals, and maybe stick a sign on my back that said “Facebook me!”