Red Carpet Radio 2014: Midday on the Oscars

[For those of you who missed the show, here is a link to the podcast: http://wypr.org/post/midday-film]

Rodricks Oscars 2014

Join Host Dan Rodricks and Midday Film Critics Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed – Chair and Professor, Department of Film/Video, Stevenson University – this Friday, February 28, at 1pm, when they will discuss the 2014 Oscars Race. You can find more details about this year’s nominees on my blog: https://chrisreedfilm.com/2014/01/17/oscar-nominations-2014/

Which films are your favorites to win? Which films mystify you by their inclusion? Tune in Friday to hear what we have to say, and add your voices to the conversation via email (midday@wypr.org) or phone (410-662-8780 locally, or toll-free at 1-866-661-9309). If you can’t listen live, then check out the podcast later by visiting the show’s site (http://wypr.org/programs/midday-dan-rodricks).

Thanks, as always, for your support! And stay tuned, as we’ll be back the very next week – 3/7/14, also at 1pm – for an hour-long tribute to the late great director Stanley Kubrick.

“00-Cinema: 50 Years of James Bond Films” @ PechaKucha Baltimore Vol. 2

Reed_00-Cinema_Slide01

Last night, I spoke at PechaKucha Baltimore, where one has to make a presentation using 20 slides, each of which is on the screen for 20 seconds. It is similar to Ignite Baltimore, where I have presented three times, except that one gets just 15 seconds per slide at Ignite. Here is the online link to the talk: http://www.pechakucha.org/presentations/oo-cinema

And here is the synopsis for my talk:

Over the past 50 years, the 007 franchise – the longest running film series ever created – has evolved to fit changing times. Whether you like Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Craig; all of the above or none of the above; love the series or hate the series; find it fascinating or exploitative; you probably have an opinion about Bond. Regardless of where you stand, there is no question that a close study of the 23 films produced by EON Productions can teach us a lot about the growth and development of cultural and filmmaking aesthetics since 1962. 

“Gloria” Bares All

Gloria

Gloria (Sebastián Lelio, 2013)

In the astonishing and powerful new film by Chilean director Sebastián Lelio, the luminous Paulina García – who won the Best Actress award at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival – plays the title character, a middle-aged divorcée on the lookout for romance and meaningful experiences. A devoted mother of adult children, Gloria lives alone, but has an active enough social life that involves married friends, her family, and the men she meets on her frequent trips to a local dance hall for older singles. She’s charming, but lonely (her divorce was over 10 years ago), and when she meets Rodolfo, a 60ish divorced man, she falls hard for him, and he for her. Unfortunately, Rodolfo proves to be less than he appears, and for the rest of the film Gloria must struggle to determine what is more important: her dignity and sense of self, or her fear of being alone. The final scene of the film – *spoiler alert* – shows her in the middle of a crowd at a friend’s wedding, dancing again, if alone, head raised high (as it is in the poster), her choice clear. She will be her own woman, come what may.

The movie may run 20 minutes longer than it should, but it’s still well worth watching. Not since the Brazilian documentary O Amor Natural have I seen a film that so vibrantly celebrates the sexuality of people over 20. García bares more than her soul: she and her male co-star bare their bodies, too, and copulate with abandon. It’s a shame that such scenes are a rarity in cinema – where toned bodies equal sex appeal, and everyone else can forget about desire – yet it’s a fact that anyone over a certain age (OK – any woman over a certain age) will have a hard time finding someone who looks like them presented as an object of desire.

Yet the film is about much more than sex. It’s about celebrating life, and making the decisions that suit you best. Last year’s Oscar-nominated No, about the anti-Pinochet referendum of the 1980s – showed us Chileans exercising their right to choose their leader. Gloria shows us one Chilean woman exercising her right to choose her own path.

“Robocop” Proves That More Is Less

Robocop

Robocop (José Padilha, 2014)

Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 Robocop was a masterful blend of violent action thriller and social satire. The film slyly flash-forwarded to a world where the proposed privatization of government functions proposed in the Reagan era had reached its apotheosis, where a major metropolitan area – Detroit – was effectively managed by a stateless corporation, beholden to no one. It showed us crony capitalism and greed at its most disturbing, all the while delivering one heck of a rush. Talk about having your cake and eating it, too: Verhoeven had – at that time – the great knack of embedding subversive subtext in works that, at first glance, appeared to be the most frivolous of confections. He did it again in Total Recall and tried to do it again in Basic Instinct, though by then he had been corrupted by the very fascist aesthetic he had once lampooned (which actually helped his Starship Troopers, but not the unwatchable Showgirls). In our current era of war-fought-by-mercenaries and financial crises where the top brass escapes accountability, we can look back at Verhoeven’s film and recognize its prescience.

The new Robocop, directed by José Padilha – a Brazilian filmmaker known primarily for his documentaries – tries for some of the same biting cultural commentary (albeit tailored for our current era), but never quite comes together as well as Verhoeven’s original. And though it has a (very) few good action sequences, it also mostly fails as a thriller. Whenever I watch a remake, reboot and/or sequel, I ask myself whether the film truly has a valid raison d’être: does it add something to the story, such as a fresh take or important character development, to make the enterprise worth it? The interesting thing here is that first-time screenwriter Joshua Zetumer (co-credited with the writers of the first film) does make a lot of changes, and adds significant back story to the life of the protagonist – super cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnamon from “The Killing“) – yet it somehow all adds up to less than the sum of its parts, not more.

Robocop opens and closes with Samuel L. Jackson as Pat Novak, a bombastic faux-patriot television host of the Fox News variety, and he functions throughout the film as a sort of twisted Greek chorus, commenting on the action with a sneer in his voice at every turn. It’s a wildly unsubtle performance, and when Jackson finally utters his trademark curse towards the end, it’s hard to wonder if Padilha didn’t cast him just so he could get that one punchline out of him. Whatever the reason, Jackson epitomizes the problems of the film: there may be more story, but it’s all exposition rather than action, and all dull, as a result. He also represents the director’s inability to set a consistent tone. The very first sounds of the movie are played underneath the MGM Roaring Lion Logo: instead of a roar, we hear what turns out to be Jackson’s Novak doing pre-broadcast vocal warm-ups. Yeah, it’s funny (sort of), but what does it have to do with the rest of the story?

Beyond Jackson, the cast is fairly watchable. Kinnamon holds his own as Murphy, though he lacks the jawline that helped make Peter Weller’s cyborg so visually memorable. Michael K. Williams (Omar from “The Wire“) is on hand as his partner, Lewis (played by Nancy Allen in the original), and Abbie Cornish (Bright StarStop-Loss) – a fine actress who deserves more – plays Murphy’s wife. Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel, and even Marianne Jean-Baptiste (the daughter in Secrets and Lies) round out the cast. Most do a fine job, and Keaton – as the corporate baddie – is fun to see strut his stuff. But nothing helps this misguided reboot rise above the mediocre.

For those of you unfamiliar with Robocop 1.0, here’s the skinny: Alex Murphy is a fine Detroit detective who gets too close to some very nasty gangsters, and is targeted for extermination. After a car bomb nearly kills him, his body is rushed to a high-tech lab. Murphy’s brain and vital organs are saved, but not much else, and after his wife gives consent, he is turned into an experimental cyborg. When he finally emerges from his induced coma, he must learn to adapt to a world in which he is part man, part machine (or, really, part computer). While he deals with this existential crisis, he is brought back to Detroit to fight crime (and help Keaton’s corporation sell similar military robots to the nation). Once he starts investigating his own murder, however, he uncovers a sinister plot that may – get this – lead all the way to the top . . .

I would forgive most of the story issues if the film were at least more successful as an action picture, but it (mostly) fails to deliver on those goods, as well. Perhaps it’s the fact that Kinnamon and Cornish spend so much time crying, rather than fighting, or that most of the battles look as if they were ripped off from the latest combat video games, but there isn’t a whole lot of tension in the air in the few moments when bullets actually fly. So go see the film if you must, and if you temper your expectations (and haven’t seen the 1987 original), you may enjoy yourself more than I did. Good luck!

“The Monuments Men,” or George Clooney’s very own “Ocean’s 7-Eleven”

Monuments Men

The Monuments Men (George Clooney, 2014)

The Monuments Men, the story of 7 middle-aged academics who enlist in the Allied-Forces military during World War II in order to save works of art pilfered by the Nazis, is George Clooney’s fifth feature film as Director. If you want to see the best of what he can do behind the camera, watch either Confessions of a Dangerous Mind or Good Night, and Good Luck (deservedly nominated for 6 Oscars). Don’t bother with this new effort. With its cast of well-known actors, caper-based plot and occasionally jaunty tone, it may bear a faint resemblance to the enjoyable Ocean’s Eleven franchise in which Clooney starred, but unlike those films, it fails to entertain or even tell a particularly compelling story. It’s more like a 7-Eleven convenience store: too many small, generic and ultimately unsatisfying items, but nothing of real substance. You leave feeling … vacant. Sure, there are a few giggles along the way, but that’s just not good enough.

Which is too bad, because the premise is not without promise. The Nazis, as they retreat from the Allies, take the most valuable collections of the Continent with them, hiding the work (for future retrieval) as they go. Will the great museums and private collections of Western Europe ever recover? Will some culture be forever lost? Granted, these stakes pale, somewhat, in contrast to the very real genocidal atrocities being committed simultaneously in concentration camps, but those other stories have already been told, and well (Schindler’s List and The Counterfeiters are among the many great films on the subject). If you’re going to make yet another film about World War II, why not find another angle? Sounds good to me!

The problem is that the film lacks any real structure (i.e., script). We never really get to know these guys and are asked to take at face value their investment (and expertise) in art. We are also asked to listen to George Clooney, as Frank Stokes (the group’s leader), tell us, over and over – in voiceover narration and speeches to his men – of the importance of these paintings and sculptures, while never being granted the opportunity to experience their glory and power for ourselves. This is a film that forgets that basic rule of storytelling (especially vital to the cinema): show, don’t tell.

The moment that best epitomizes this gaping central weakness of the film comes towards the end, as the Russians are approaching a town where our “Monuments Men” are desperately gathering valuable art from a recovered Nazi trove. The Allies have agreed to cede this territory to the Red Army, but our heroes won’t leave until they’ve packed all that they can take. We cut back and forth between Clooney and company and the Soviet jeeps and then . . . a dissolve. That’s right. And that’s it. Nothing more. They get away, and the Russians arrive too late. Ha, ha! What editing! What sense! What a mess!

Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and Jean Dujardin all co-star, and they’re all quite good (better than Clooney), with the exception of Blanchett’s terrible “French” accent. Given what happens (*spoiler alert*) to Dujardin’s character, however, it’s hard not to wonder if this entire exercise wasn’t just an elaborate plot by Clooney to exact revenge on the Frenchman for stealing the Best Actor Oscar (for The Artist) away from him (for The Descendants), two years ago. We’ll never know, bien sûr, but it would explain a lot. And speaking of Murray, I couldn’t help but think of his turn as FDR in the mediocre Hyde Park on Hudson in 2012 as I sat listening to the poor actor hired by Clooney to do a miserable imitation of our 32nd President. Bad as Hyde Park was, it was a notch above this. Go spend your money in a museum and support real art this weekend. Don’t bother with The Monuments Men.

2013 Movie Mishmash – Short Blurbs on 8 Films I Never Reviewed

Hey, folks – it’s a big deal that I present these 8 reviews NOT in alphabetical order (or any order, for that matter – wait, they actually appear to be in order of preference, so I lied). Enjoy!

Spring Breakers

Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2013)

Why is this one of my favorite films of 2013? Is it because I like watching nubile young women have sex and snort cocaine? If that were the case, then I’d love The Wolf of Wall Street (which I don’t). No, it’s because it manages to be one of those movies that truly has its coke – sorry, cake – and eats it, too. With smart writing, excellent performances (particularly from an almost unrecognizable James Franco, who should have snagged an Oscar nod), beautiful cinematography and brilliantly innovative editing, Spring Breakers is that rare creation: an intelligent and insightful exploitation film that uses its titillating story to make a larger point. In this case, writer/director Korine (Gummo) takes us on a sharp ride where his four female leads rob, cheat and kill their way to achieving their very own American dream. It’s the film Scorsese was trying (and failed) to make. Get ready for one hallucinatory ride!

Short Term 12

Short Term 12 (Destin Cretton, 2013)

Young writer/director Destin Cretton made a short film in 2008, also entitled Short Term 12, which won the 2009 Sundance Film Festival short film award. It was loosely based on experiences that Cretton, himself, had while working, post-college, in a foster-care facility for troubled youth (you can read more about that in this Slant Magazine interview from September, 2013). After directing his first feature-length film, I Am Not a Hipster, in 2012, Cretton returned to the previous story with a 96-minute version, which racked up many film festival awards throughout 2013. Had I seen it before last week, I would definitely have included it in my Top 20, if not my Top 10, of the year. Written with great subtlety of emotion and nuance of character, Short Term 12 features a breakout performance by its star, Brie Larson (“United States of Tara“) as Grace, the lead counselor at the short-term facility of the title. Never maudlin, frequently original, and always moving, Short Term 12 signals the arrival of a brilliant new filmmaker.

Hunt

The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg, 2012)

Nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film, Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt is easily the Danish writer/director’s best film since his 1998 “Dogme 95” masterpiece The Celebration. Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale) gives a harrowing performance as a man unjustly accused of pedophilia. The movie begins as a portrait of the tight-knit community in a small and peaceful Danish town, showing the men bonding over a shared passion for hunting and drinking. Mikkelsen plays Lucas, whose recent bitter divorce has left him alone and struggling to make ends meet as a kindergarten teacher. When the neglected young daughter of a friend makes a casual remark about Lucas’s anatomy (her older brother having flashed her an erect penis on his iPad), the entire town turns against Lucas, and he soon finds himself a hunted man. As a study of how quickly our civilization can come undone, the film is brilliant, if at times difficult to watch.

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt (Margarethe von Trotta, 2012)

Another terrific foreign movie – sadly, not nominated for an Oscar – is the German director Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt. A.O. Scott, writing in The New York Times, gave it a 5-star review (with which I wholeheartedly agree), and one of the points he makes is that there has rarely been a film so good at showing the power (and labor) of thinking. It’s true. We feel the intensity of Arendt’s intellect in every frame of the film. As portrayed by the marvelous Barbara Sukowa (Rosa Luxembourg), she is a dynamo of logic and fortitude. If you don’t know, Hannah Arendt was a well-known 20th-Century German-Jewish political philosopher, perhaps best remembered today for coining the phrase “banality of evil” in her (in)famous book (first published as a series of New Yorker articles) about the 1961 Adolph Eichmann trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem. Von Trotta has created more than a biopic; this is a portrait of a truth-seeker – compromised by the details of her personal life though she may have been (she had been a student and lover of Martin Heidegger, who later joined the Nazi party) – who forged her own path, critics be damned! It’s a great film about a great woman, by a great female director.

Blackfish

Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite, 2013)

Much to a lot of people’s surprise (including mine), Blackfish was not among the final 5 Oscar nominees for Best Documentary. I thought it was one of the best films of the year. As a hard-hitting look at the evils of large-marine-mammal-capture, the movie covers some similar ground to The Cove (which won the Best Documentary Oscar in 2010), yet manages to feel fresh and original . . . and uniquely horrifying. The movie takes as its departure point the 2010 killing of Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau by the orca Tilikum (who had killed before, apparently), and then examines the rise of Sea World and the inhumane conditions under which these orcas live, which can lead to the kind of psychopathic behavior seen in Tilikum. As an indictment of human behavior towards our marine brethren, the film is masterful, and with fewer shots of slaughter, it’s easier to watch then The Cove. Still, it does have one weakness, in that there is no one arguing on the side of Sea World among the interviewees. Then again, how does one make the case for savage captivity? It is a must-see.

Shadow Dancer

Shadow Dancer (James Marsh, 2012)

I’m not sure what happened to this movie. It barely opened in the United States, and then it was gone. Which is too bad, because it’s a pretty fine thriller. Starring Clive Owen (Children of Men) and Andrea Riseborough (Oblivion), among others, Shadow Dancer takes us on a journey into the complexities and nuances of the longstanding Anglo-Irish conflict. Owen plays Mac, an MI5 officer assigned to handle Riseborough’s Collette – whose family is deeply involved in the IRA – and to turn her into an informer. Directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire, winner of the 2009 Best Documentary Oscar), the movie features many taut set pieces that leave you on the edge of your seat. Marsh, as a documentarian, knows his way around a handheld camera, and keeps the action constantly in forward motion (without resorting to cheap jitters). If the film breaks down a bit at the end and squanders the audience’s goodwill through unnecessary contrivances, it’s still well worth watching.

Broken Circle Breakdown

The Broken Circle Breakdown (Felix Van Groeningen, 2012)

This may be one of the most original and unusual films I saw all year. As such, it is richly deserving of its Oscar nod for Best Foreign-Language film. Who knew that the phrase “Belgian Bluegrass” could hold such promise? I certainly had no idea. This also happens to be one of the most beautifully photographed – and acted – films of 2013, as well. It’s too bad that it completely breaks down (pun not intended; well maybe . . .) in the final third. Still, until it does fall apart, this story of love and loss among Flemish Bluegrass aficionados is extremely powerful. Adapted from a play by Johan Heldenbergh (who also plays the male lead), the movie tells the story of Didier (Heldenbergh) and Elise (an absolutely luminous Veerle Baetans), who meet, fall in love and have a child, all the while performing in a Bluegrass band. Their idyll is shattered, however, when their daughter becomes ill, and though the film manages for a while to walk a fine line between genuine tragedy and maudlin mayhem, it eventually crosses over irrevocably into the latter. Before it does, however, you will hear stunning music and shed a real tear (or two or three).

Grandmaster

The Grandmaster (Kar Wai Wong, 2013)

What can I say, really? This film counts as one of my biggest disappointments of 2013. I am a big admirer of Wong’s work, especially of Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love, yet I hated almost every frame of this movie. Normally a master visual stylist, Wong seems to have forgotten his craft here, resorting to cheap slow-motion tricks and backlit raindrops as substitutes for actual filmmaking. As work of art, it’s a bust. As a retelling of the story of Ip Man, it’s narratively incoherent. And while Wong’s elliptical style was so effective in a film like In the Mood for Love, leaving the romantic longing of the main characters unspoken, here his choice of subject matter demands some kind of script; anything to distract from the pretentious cinematography (which, somehow, has earned Philippe Le Sourd an Oscar nomination). To be avoided at all costs.