Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Wizard of Oz

5 Stars

I caught a screening of the 1939 masterpiece The Wizard of Oz. The Wizard of Oz is one of my favorite films. It is a film so wonderfully scripted, so beautifully performed, and so utterly charming that it has not only achieved classic status, it defies objective criticism of its technical defects.

Filming The Wizard of Oz must have been a terrible experience. The film began under the direction of Norman Taurog (the youngest director to ever win an Academy Award for 1931’s Skippy), before being replaced by Richard Thorpe. Thorpe shot for only two weeks before Buddy Ebsen’s reaction to the makeup for his role as the Tin Man shut down production. When production resumed, George Cukor (director of The Philadelphia Story, Adam’s Rib, and My Fair Lady) was tapped to succeed him. Cukor left the production without actually producing any usable footage in order to direct Gone with the Wind, and Victor Fleming came on to put The Wizard of Oz together. (Victor Fleming would later replace Cukor on Gone with the Wind as well).

The revolving cast of directors is apparent to a careful observer of the film. Camera angles swing wildly. The film is edited sloppily with actors in radically different body positions between takes. At one point, the characters of Scarecrow, Dorothy, and Tin Man are arranged from left to right in that order. Reshoots were done with the characters arranged Tin Man, Dorothy, Scarecrow in that order from left to right. Fleming and his editors simply turned the film over. The characters were in the correct order, but appear as startling mirror images of themselves from the previous take. The Tin Man’s hat points in the wrong direction. The buttons on everyone’s clothes have migrated to the other side of their bodies. It’s the type of sloppiness that would produce withering critique from critics and cinema lovers in any other context, but The Wizard of Oz endures.

The Wizard of Oz endures because it is so good in all the artistic categories that its technical failures are meaningless. Like Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz has flavored our language, giving us phrases like “Follow the Yellow Brick Road, There’s No Place Like Home, Pay No Attention to that Man Behind the Curtain, and of course, I Don’t Think We’re in Kansas Anymore.” Even minor parts of The Wizard of Oz, like the Flying Monkeys, are so iconic that they get name checked more than 70 years later in The Avengers. It’s got staying power. The music is just as effective. You would be hard pressed to go anywhere in the English speaking world and find people unfamiliar with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead,” or “If I Only had a Brain.”

The Wizard of Oz is also a testament to gathering the right cast. It features one of the greatest film casts ever assembled. Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Burt Lahr, and Margaret Hamilton bring Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Wicked Witch of the West to life. Hamilton, in fact, plays the most awesome and frightening witch yet committed to screen.

But, the true staying power of The Wizard of Oz is that it tells a timeless tale of growing up, and finding the hidden powers within yourself that you might not be sure you possess. The Wizard of Oz knows that this process of self-discovery is not simple. It’s a sometimes terrifying, arduous, circuitous, and occasionally dangerous. In other words, unlike many children’s movies released since 1939, it has stakes.

The Wizard of Oz is and remains one of the best films ever made. I never tire of seeing it, and I relished the opportunity to see it on the big screen. If you ever get the chance, I hope you take the opportunity to follow the yellow brick road.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Best of the 2000s: 25th Hour

2 Stars

25th Hour is a below average script that almost became an above average film because of its casting. Then, 25th Hour captured the minds of America’s film critics because it was one of the first movies after the events of September 11, 2001 to visually depict the urban scar ground zero became for the next 13 years.

25th Hour tells the story of Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) and his last twenty-four hours before he goes to prison for selling drugs. He visits his old high school where Jacob (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) now teaches English and pines for a 17 year old high school student (Anna Paquin). His criminal contacts arrange a party for him at a club in New York City. Jacob and Monty’s other friend, Frank (Barry Pepper) attends. So does Monty’s girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson). To the extent that this movie contains a plot, it concerns whether and how Monty can avoid being raped in prison. Occasionally people opine about whether Naturelle turned Monty in to the authorities, but it’s mostly the prison rape discussions.

I don’t mean to make light of prison rape. It’s a real problem. It would make a fine topic for a movie to treat with intelligence. Unfortunately, David Benioff’s script approaches this topic with all the finesse of a ninth grader in the high school gym locker room. He paints us a surprisingly facile look at a man’s last twenty-four hours of freedom. Then again, it’s probably all you can expect from the man who penned X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

Most of the film centers on Monty, Jacob, and Frank, three men who don’t seem to have outgrown high school. These three men are disgusting slobs. Frank’s manners are an atrocious parody of the jerk boyfriend from the beginning of a rom com. Jacob’s taste in women hasn’t changed since he was a junior in high school so he’s still pining after those pretty young things, and Monty’s no better seeing as he picked up Naturelle when she was still in high school. These three men worry about prison mostly because it is the place where rape happens, but they're less than a stone’s throw from being statutory rapists themselves. If Benioff had a point to make about that, he forgot to actually make it.

Reviewers at the time, and again in their best of the decade lists, gave Spike Lee and 25th Hour a lot of credit for “weaving the scars of 9/11 into the film.” I guess that’s true, if you count dumping long establishing shots of the irreparably damaged skyline and work crews at ground zero into the movie as “weaving the scars of 9/11 into the film.” There is no thematic connection between 9/11 and Monty's story that I can discern.

I would give 25th Hour a worse rating, but the cast comes close to nearly salvaging 25th Hour on several occasions. Norton and Dawson have real chemistry. The flashbacks to their romance are great. Hoffman and Pepper do solid work in scenes where they criticize each other’s naïveté and cynicism by turns. Norton proves that he can monologue into a mirror just as well as anybody who isn’t named Robert De Niro has a right to, and Brian Cox, portraying Monty’s father, ends the movie with a surprisingly touching and emotional last few minutes that these characters do not deserve.

Why did Spike Lee choose this material? A couple of reasons. First, it provided a great opportunity to criticize the war on drugs. That's fine. I think there are legitimate critiques of America's drug policy. I think honorable people can disagree about whether or not to criminalize drugs or to find another way to regulate the use of drugs from something like a public health perspective. That said, Monty is a bad man. He is actually trafficking drugs. He is profiting off of other people's misery. He deserves to be punished, and seven years in prison doesn't seem that outrageous. How else can you punish drug dealers? Probation? Good idea, I'm sure Monty would hate having to hang out in his lavish uptown apartment with his beautiful girlfriend and tons of money. The second thing that I think attracted Lee to this project was the scene where Monty unleashes a monologue into the mirror. The dialogue here could be from any of Spike Lee's movies. Benioff was probably inspired in part by Spike Lee's filmography when he wrote that scene in his novel.

I didn’t like 25th Hour very much. I like it less the more that I think of it. I started this review giving it 3.5 stars and slowly knocked a star and a half off of it as I put my thoughts into words. That said, even though I didn’t like the movie, a lot of people did. Four critics put it on the best of the decade list. I’ll bet not one of them has watched it since 2002 though.

25th Hour finds itself on this list because 4 of the 37 reviewers listed it among their top ten films of the decade. It might be awhile before the next review, because I need to find a copy of In the Mood for Love.

From Out in the Void


Monday, September 7, 2015

Best of the 2000s: Ratatouille

5 Stars

I first encountered Rataouille a few years ago. I came upon the film already in progress and watched 45 minutes to an hour of it before I had to leave. That hour of film captured my imagination. I have often recounted discovering this beautiful, oddly specific, and deeply affecting film about a rat who wants to be a chef entirely by accident. Ratatouille is a fantastic film. I’m so very glad that I’ve finally had the chance to see it all the way through.

Remy (Patton Oswalt) is a rat, but he is unlike all the other rats in his family and his clan. He has an excellent sense of smell, able to detect individual ingredients or poisons in food with a single sniff, and he's also got a taste for fine French cuisine. Against the advice of his family and friends, Remy begins to spend time in human kitchens where he encounters the commercials and cook books of the great, recently deceased, French Chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett). Gusteau’s motto is “Anyone can cook,” and Remy takes this to heart. After a disaster separates him from his clan, he travels to Paris, finds his way to Gusteau’s restaurant, and forges an unlikely friendship with Linguini (Lou Romano), a young garbage boy. By working together, Remy and Linguini become a renowned chef and catch the eye and the ire of Paris’ most discerning food critic, Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole). Impressing Ego tests not only their ability to cook, but their very ability to maintain their friendship.

Where should I begin to praise this movie? To begin with, it looks fantastic. The animation is wonderful. Whether Pixar is creating the squalor of a rats' nest, the hectic bustle of a kitchen, the busy streets, or the beautiful vistas of Paris Ratatouille does it in just the right way. When characters are running for their lives, Ratatouille is exactly the right mix of exciting and amusing. The scenes in kitchens make me hungry, and the scenes where Remy and Linguini learn to communicate with one another and work together are both tender and funny. They ultimately settle on an arrangement where Remy sits on Linguini’s head beneath his chef’s hat and controls Linguini’s actions by pulling on various clumps of his hair. Ratatouille takes full advantage of this by turning Linguini into a human sized marionette to capitalize on the opportunities for physical comedy.

Ratatouille’s characters are so physically expressive that it would almost work as a silent film. That said, I don’t think that I can overstate the contributions of the talented voice work or Michael Giacchino’s score. Patton Oswalt has emerged in the last decade as a sort of Nerd prophet, appearing in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and delivering a nine minute “100% improvised” Star Wars-MCU-Clash of the Titans crossover pitch on Parks and Recreation. Oswalt’s nerd-prophet routine has obscured the second aspect of his last decade, where he has delivered deeply touching and sympathetic performances in unexpected places like Young Adult and here in Ratatouille. Oswalt invests Remy’s love of food and desire to be a chef with the same nerd-prophet enthusiasm. He dives deep, describing cheese and grapes in rhapsodic verse, his voice rising to a crescendo and increasing in pace until Remy swallows his food and collapses breathless from the experience of taste. Oswalt’s performance is nicely complemented by the melodious, villainous, purr of Peter O’Toole’s Anton Ego who is just the right flavor of comically threatening. And every single scene in Ratatouille is brought even more to life by Giacchino’s score, cribbing from jazz, baroque, and even traditional Fench evening songs, Giacchino’s score is a celebration of all the flavors of music he can bring to your ear.

Like The Incredibles, Ratatouille is directed by Brad Bird. Also, like The Incredibles, I detect Brad Bird’s politics in Ratatouille. Remy has a motto: “A Chef Makes, A Thief Takes,” and Remy exhorts himself to “be a maker, not a taker.” However, unlike The Incredibles Remy mostly engages in this talk in a dialogue with the imaginary ghost of Chef Gusteau. He is using these mantras to convince himself to be the best version of himself. The heroes of The Incredibles spent a lot of time using libertarian/objectivist rhetoric to complain about "ordinary people" rather than improve themselves. As a result, I’m far more comfortable with Bird’s philosophy leaking into his script in Ratatouille. It seems much less self-serving.

I also really appreciated how generous Ratatouille was to its characters. Anton Ego could have been a one note villain, but Ratatouille provides him with a back story and a shocking amount of grace in the final reel.

Ratatouille is not the film I would have selected off the menu at my local multiplex. That said, having discovered it by accident and examined it in more detail, I’m happy to report that Ratatouille is a sweet and satisfying cinematic dish. Don’t take my word for it, open up that dusty bottle of Mourvedre you’ve been saving and give Ratatouille a taste.

Ratatouille finds itself on this list because it was chosen as one of the best movies of the 2000s by at least four critics, but never named number one. If you’re watching along with me on this tour of the 2000s, I’m going to skip the next two films on my list, In the Mood for Love and Cache, and watch 25th Hour next. 25th Hour, like Ratatouille, was named one of the best films of the decade by four critics, and never at number one. In the Mood for Love and Cache were likewise selected by four critics, but each of those films was also named the number one film by at least one critic.

From Out in the Void


Thursday, September 3, 2015

Best of the 2000s: The Departed

5 Stars

In my review of The Hurt Locker, I mentioned that my next review would be of Ratatouille because it was the next film on my list. Apparently, I can’t read lists. The next film on my list was The Departed.

Fortunately, The Departed is an absolutely tremendous film. Scorsese took the Hong Kong Infernal Affairs film trilogy, the true story of Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, and his own personal obsessions with fatherhood and masculinity and put them through the blender. What came out is almost too rich to be believed, but it proves to be one of the best crime epics of the 21st century.

Set in Boston, The Departed tracks the careers of two Irish cops. One, a corrupt double agent, Sullivan, (Matt Damon) placed in the Massachusetts State Police by the gangster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), and the other an undercover cop, Costigan, (Leonardo DiCaprio) placed in Costello’s organization by his superiors (Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg). As Costello and the Staties slowly become aware that each has been compromised by the other, the two moles are pitted in a deadly race to discover each other’s identity.

Despite my misgivings about The Wolf of Wall Street, I’m generally a fan of Scorsese’s work. That said, once every decade or so, Scorsese turns in a picture that is a cut above the rest of his generally high quality output. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Departed. What links these films is that Scorsese strips his subjects of their glamour and lays bare their scars, emotions, and insecurities producing high quality character drama to complement a barn burning plot, exciting score, memorable dialogue and fantastic performances.

The Departed is on a whole other level. Unlike the other features on his list, The Departed has a larger cast of prominent characters. The screenplay, by William Monahan, deftly manages this expansive roster, providing every character with believable motivations and histories. The Departed feels richer and more layered than Scorsese’s other crime epics. The larger cast permits Scorsese and Monahan to build fascinating connections between scenes. Characters lie to save their lives, to keep things on an even keel, to preserve their fragile egos, to justify their choices, but frankly, they lie because when their truths are laid bare none of the other characters can live with them.

Scorsese was at the top of his game here. He used music, mood, lighting, the city of Boston, and even the letter X to create beauty, romance, and tension. He capitalized on a seemingly never ending gold mine of acting talent, and made improvements on the source material. The original Infernal Affairs featured two prominent female roles, but Scorsese trimmed them down into one, Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga). As a result, Scorsese’s characters are dangerously close to each other nearly all the time. It also gives Farmiga a more interesting and conflicted character to play, and she makes the most of it.

As a viewer, I love a movie that rewards a careful viewing. The Departed does just that. The whole movie turns on small details, the location of an envelope or the exact number of an address. In scenes where someone is about to die, the set design features at least one appearance of the letter X. These details are used to subtly build suspense, and clue in impassioned viewers that the stakes are rising.

Gangsters are great on the silver screen, and The Departed is one of the movies that proves it. I could write a book about how much I loved The Departed, but instead, I’ll simply state that it is without doubt one of the best films of the 2000s.

The Departed finds itself on this list because four reviewers placed it on their list of the best films of the decade. An honor it shares with the next film I’m going to review which is really Ratatouille.

From Out of the Void


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Void Zone Episode 151, or "Internet Slap Fats."

In this exciting episode of the Void Zone, Nick opines about what screenwriters should be doing, Brit expresses his (unpopular) love for DC Comics, and Dakota discusses gateway anime.

Also, they review Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods, Persepolis, and American Ultra.

Get it here or stream it below!

Monday, August 31, 2015

Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation

4 Stars

Late in the fifth entry in the Mission: Impossible film franchise, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) finds himself sitting across the table from Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). She tells Hunt that he has three choices. First, he can capture her and turn her in. Second, he can take the “red box” and let her go, so that he can use the red box to capture Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). Third, the two of them can run away together. It’s in that moment that I realized that the Mission: Impossible film series has become the perfect metaphor for Tom Cruise. In every single one of these movies, Ethan Hunt is disavowed. Then he spends the rest of the movie putting himself in grave danger to save the very people who have abandoned him. America has disavowed Tom Cruise, but he hasn’t given up trying to entertain us. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation makes me hope he never gives up.

As Rogue Nation begins, the director of the CIA (Alec Baldwin) is attempting to close down the Impossible Mission Force (IMF) once and for all. Meanwhile, Ethan Hunt has discovered that a top secret criminal organization known as the Syndicate has infiltrated the American government at the highest levels. In order to stop the Syndicate, he becomes a rogue agent himself. The American government disavows him, and now, without an agency, Hunt must uncover the Syndicate’s plan and capture its members.

Rogue Nation is pretty good. The now 53-year-old Cruise proves remarkably spry, delivering a credible performance in an incredibly physically demanding role. Rogue Nation doesn’t exactly break new ground here. In fact, one of the things that I liked best about Rogue Nation was that it made reference to some of the earlier films in the franchise. The concepts of a NOC list (from Mission: Impossible) and a “rabbit’s foot” (Mission: Impossible III) both have small roles to play (in ways that are nicely understated). Rogue nation even manages to riff on the discussion of how they only need Hunt to do impossible things (originally brought up in Mission: Impossible II), and the cartoon silliness and brinksmanship of Ghost Protocol serves as the inspiration for the CIA’s frustration with the IMF here.

Writer-Director Christopher McQuarrie seems to have found a way to use Cruise (having previously used him to great effect in Edge of Tomorrow and, I'm assured, good effect in Jack Reacher). McQuarrie has also found a female star, Rebecca Ferguson, who he and Cruise should invest in. She brings a spark to the character of Ilsa Faust that has been missing from some of the female leads in previous Missions: Impossible. As always the action set pieces are spectacular and Cruise carries them out with aplomb and apparent glee.

The returning cast: Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, and Jeremy Renner are really good together. Despite the fact that the Mission: Impossible franchise has become less serious over the last twenty years (a welcome bucking of modern film trends), I appreciate that the franchise has allowed its characters to develop meaningful relationships with each other that inform how they act.

If anything, Rogue Nation proves that the Mission: Impossible franchise still has gas in the tank. Cruise has announced a sixth and seventh film. There have been rumors since Jeremy Renner joined the franchise that he might one day inherit it from Cruise, but to me that seems like the truly impossible mission. Cruise is the physical manifestation of this franchise, and, given the revolving door of directors and writers, he is the auteuristic force behind it. Cruise may eventually have to give this up, but I’m grateful that he’s chosen to accept a few last missions.

Of course all these missions are really one for Mr. Cruise. His mission is to get back into America's good graces. Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to let him. Choose to accept him, America. Go see Rogue Nation, and then rent Edge of Tomorrow.

From Out in the Void

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Best of the 2000s: The Hurt Locker

5 Stars

The most successful films about our modern wars have tended to be overtly political (Fahrenheit 911), the memoiristic (Lone Survivor, American Sniper), or directed by Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty, The Hurt Locker). The problem with the overtly political movies is that they allow their purpose to overwhelm their plot (yes, Fahrenheit 911 has a plot, it’s about how an annoying fat guy spent two hours telling us how he defeated George W. Bush). The problem with the memoiristic films is that memoirists are concerned mostly with themselves and neglect the wider story, which means that the films based on memoirs have uninteresting side characters and uncompelling villains. The problem with the Kathryn Bigelow war movies is that there aren’t enough of them.

The Hurt Locker is quite simply a great movie. Bigelow and her writer, Mark Boal, do not try to recreate the war in Iraq as it is. Instead, they use it as a canvas to tell a story about the nation and the people who fought that war. It's as much about how the war is perceived, as it is about how the war is or was. The Hurt Locker centers on a three-man explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) squad led by Sgt. First Class William James (Jeremy Renner). James is a bomb disposal expert. On the surface, he’s exactly the wrong man for such a job. He isn’t patient. He isn’t careful. He isn’t studious. But he has something far more necessary – the ability – no the desire to constantly stare death in the face. James’ methods don’t sit well with Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) or Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). Sanborn is a disciplined soldier, and Eldridge vacillates between being too frightened of death and too resigned to it for much of the film.

Most of The Hurt Locker’s run time is devoted to these three men crammed together in a Humvee confronting a threat that could kill them at any time. In these passages, Bigelow seems most inspired not by other war films, but by Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Each bomb James and his team neutralizes demonstrates their bravery and the bomb makers terrible creativity.

Renner and Mackie are superb. In many ways, it’s a shame that these two men have gone on to become so much more famous than they were at the time. In 2008, they were free to completely disappear into these roles. That said, you see precisely why they’ve both emerged as some of our best modern actors here. They deliver performances that run the emotional gamut, and, I think, accurately depict how men who are strong most frequently betray their vulnerabilities.

However, the most striking aspect of The Hurt Locker is its final few passages. We are jolted out of the Humvee, and sent back to the States. James has a house, cleans his gutters, goes grocery shopping with his wife (Evangeline Lilly), and takes care of his child. He seems able enough here, but never as confident or at home as he seemed disarming bombs in Iraq. I knew it was coming, but I was shocked at how much relief I felt to see Sgt. James strolling down a Baghdadi street in a bomb disposal suit once again.

As with all films, there is a certain necessary unreality to The Hurt Locker. For instance, I don’t think military EOD teams are autonomous three man units wandering around disposing bombs. That said, I do think that for a certain kind of man (and a certain kind of politician) war actually is peace. The Hurt Locker makes me think about that in the context of our modern conflicts. It provokes those thoughts in the context of a compelling story. It makes the political and the geopolitical extremely personal, which is why it is one of the best films of the 2000s.

The Hurt Locker finds itself on this list because 4 of the 37 critics listed it as one of the best films of the decade. No critics surveyed chose it as number one. It shares that distinction with Zodiac, Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Incredibles, and my next feature, Ratatouille.

From Out in the Void,