Friday, October 17, 2014
It's been a week since I saw this movie. I'm sorry about being late on the post, it has been a tough week here at KAMAD. We lost a four legged member of the family and while getting out of the house to a movie relieved some of the depression, I could just not find the enthusiasm to write. It will probably never stop hurting but I am a lot more functional a week later so I thought I better get to this before I gave up on it entirely. This is one of those rare films that come around now, a straight dramatic story driven by the performances of the stars. There are a few twists but none of them are "Gone Girl" head slams. The story set up is pretty simple. Professionally successful but personally screwed up hot shot lawyer Robert Downey Jr. gets word that his mother has passed away and he travels back to the home town he escaped from for her funeral. The town is not the only thing that he was running from, Hank also has been avoiding his father Joseph. A stern family man in Hank's memory and an iron willed judge for the community. While home and tentatively negotiating the troubled waters of his family, Hank is forced to stand up for his father who may have been involved in a deadly accident that was more than an accident.
Robert Duvall is "the Judge" and his relationship with his son Hank is the core of the movie. There is a mystery and a murder trial, but that is all in aid of forcing these two to confront the past and come to some form of detente while they still can. The two stars are as sharp as can be in their parts. Each plays the defensive victim and the recriminating accuser from time to time. While Downey has the biggest slice of dialogue and action, Duvall's character is the focus of the story. As the plot unfurls, we discover layers of character and story that give Joseph Palmer a lot more development than he gets from simply donning the robes of office. Legal dramas have played fast and loose with courtroom procedure since movies first started and this is no exception. Imagine if you had someone that you resented in the witness chair and you wanted to both protect them and at the same time uncover some personal history under oath. It would never play in a real court but on the set of a Hollywood drama, it is the kind of thing that justifies making the movie in the first place. The script is really not great. In fact, I swear I saw the same plot a couple of weeks ago in a comedy. A son returns home to deal with the death of a parent. Unresolved conflicts with siblings bubble to the surface, tension exists, a mentally challenged character utters wise things, an old girlfriend get tossed into the mix and issues of paternity and trust come up every few minutes. Just like the comedy "This is Where I leave You",there is another curve thrown at you almost to a five minute metronome. Just to be sure that it is taken dramatically, "The Judge" also throws in a tornado.
The supporting cast is also good. Vincent D'Onofrio is the big brother who has a tragic past and the burden of looking out for the family as a sandwich adult. His wife and kids are in the movie but I don't think they had any lines. Most of D'Onofrio's work is done non-verbally and he is best in those scenes where he shrugs his shoulders or looks at his brother with a meaningful glance. Vera Farmiga is the old girlfriend abandoned by Hank and now much more in control than she was twenty years earlier. Billy Bob Thornton can almost steal a movie with his eyebrows and he attempts it here. As the prosecutor going after "The Judge" he initially seems to be a malevolent force for Downey to overcome but as the trial plays out, he is a needed foil for the Judge and the son to be able to confront their demons. By the way Hollywood, more Billy Bob Thornton please.
The problems with the movie are the potboiler plot and the need to fit in several turns that give each of the lead actors some chances to shine. Downey gets to have a romantic clinch with Farmiga, that ends because he has questions and doubts that he is doing the right thing. His young daughter is used to give him the warmth that he lacks in any other aspect of the characters life. She also gives Duvall an opportunity to show the warmth that Hank always wished for but never felt he was getting from his dad. There is a traumatic scene in the bathroom as the ailing Judge fails to keep his secrets from his son because his body is failing him. The courtroom scene with Duvall on the stand and Downey asking questions is the lynchpin of the movie and it works well enough to keep us involved. When the Judge recalls the words that the dead man spoke to him, I personally would have been fine if Joseph Palmer had gone all Denzel on him.
"The Judge" is a solid piece of entertainment that can't reach greatness because of the overblown plot and the cliche strewn story line. The actors in the film elevate it to slightly above average, but the performances themselves are also handicapped by a script that lays it on way too thick. So on the charge of being overly dramatic, I find "The Judge" guilty. I hereby sentence it to limited box office success and no awards season potential. It is not a bad film, but Downey and Duvall are accessories to cinematic excess that means that their chance to work together here is less successful than any movie fan would hope for.
Wednesday, October 8, 2014
I did not see all of these movies but I saw several. I remeber the ads they would take out in the trades to announce the biggest signing of a star or the next package deal. These were the Go Go guys of the 80s. I look forward to seeing this film.
Friday, October 3, 2014
Thrillers are a genre that need quality people in them to excel. Once in a while a film that has been tossed together will leave a mark, but true works of suspense need the kind of professional touch that comes from confidence in the field and the contributions of skilled actors and technicians. In the mid part of the last century we had Alfred Hitchcock. In the early part of the new millennium, David Fincher has stepped forward to supply the kind of bubbling, slow burning , suspense piece that audiences will crave. In the last twenty years he has made a half dozen films that rely on tension more than action, plot more than flash and performances that reflect reality more than theatricality. "Gone Girl" is another success in this line of suspense films with clever plot twists and a creeping sense of isolation as the story moves toward it's resolution. This movie is backed by several strong performances and a visual style that makes the audience feel haunted like it was a cloudy day, even when there is bright sunshine around.
The screenplay was written by the author of the novel that the movie is based on, Gillian Flynn. Adapting a novel to screen is always more complicated than people think. I'm not sure what her attitude was toward making a film out of her story but she has done an admirable job in forging an effective film. With the exception of the last five minutes , I could easily follow and appreciate the plot twists and story line. The tone of the ending seems right to me, especially given several foreshadowing scenes in the film. It was just the final motivation that fuels that exit tone that was not entirely clear to me. After having spent almost two and a half hours setting it up, the exit felt rushed and much less comprehensible than all of the main parts of this story filled with reversals. The director has the shots right and the mood is appropriately foreboding, but the script leaves it unclear why our main character makes the final decision that completes the film.
I have always enjoyed Ben Affleck as an actor. I know he is often criticized as a callow personality, overwhelmed by the material he is in, but he also has charm and a winning face and that has rescued him many times. His most serious role in his own "Argo" is a demonstration that he has chops and not just good looks. He uses both of those gifts in this film and helps make a convoluted and potentially unbelievable story much more grounded. Nick Dunne is a fairly likable guy who gets the Scott Peterson treatment from the media when his wife Amy vanishes. The film starts off without giving us any clues as to whether he really is involved or not in the disappearance. As events play out we discover that he is not as affable or admirable as he first seems. We learn that he has secrets, but also that his secrets probably have little to do with the event, but that will never be the way it is seen by the media. A large part of the tension in the film is driven by the tabloid like coverage of his wife's vanishing. A Nancy Grace doppelganger pursues the story and leads the social media lynch mob that is ready to convict Nick in the killing of his wife. As the film unfolds we do get some rival views of the marriage itself. It seems to have gone sour in the economic turndown and Amy has her own demons that fuel those problems. Since I made the decision not to read the book before seeing the film, I think it is safe to say that knowing the story would undermine some of the pleasures of the film. There are five or six smart twists that all work without undermining the things that come in front of them. Those who read the book can admire the adaption, those who went in blind like me can thrill at the surprises.
The technical choices that help make the movie work as a suspense film will be recognizable as Fincher specialties. The camera movements are slow and steady and fluid. There is stillness in a great many sequences in the movie. The background score by previous collaborators Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor is moody and dissonant. The color and lighting are crisp but subdued to just this side of muted. When there is violence, the camera does not look away any more than it did in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo". There are two or three great scenes where a character tells us everything we need to know without it being shown, It would have been easy to let the camera fill in as a character narrates, but Fincher chooses to let the voice and face of the character tell the story and it works really well. A long interlude at a decrepit motel reminded me of the basement scene in "Zodiac". The characters we encounter are sometime more than they first appear to be. I won't give away anything but I think audiences who responded to those earlier films will not be disappointed here.
Special mention must be made of the performance by Rosamund Pike. She has been given one of the great female characters of the last few years to play. Her work as a chilly upper east-side elite, drawn into a warm romance with a misplaced mid-westerner is very believable. Even more believable is her emerging brittleness and renewed frost as the marriage seems to fall out of the narrative that she has in her own head. Her character's mother took her weaknesses as a child and turned them into a fictional alter ego that became world famous. That makes what follows seem almost inevitable and Pike sells the sense of entitlement and superiority perfectly. There are a number of male leading roles that have been touted already for awards season, this is the first woman's role that breaks out of the pack and will demand a salute from her fellow actors at the end of the year, well done. Others in the cast are also excellent; Carrie Coon who plays Nick's loyal twin sister, Neil Patrick Harris is flinty and disturbed as a former beau ill used by Amy in high school, Kim Dickens portrays the detective pursuing the evidence rather than the man and she seems very authentic.
This is an audience pleasing suspense thriller assembled by the modern authority on that genre. If Hitchcock, DePalma, Lynch and the Cohen Brothers are on your regular watchlists, than you will be glad to spend two and a half hours puzzling out the plot, admiring the performances and feeling satisfied with the logic of the twists in this terrific film. If you have not read the book, stay away from any stories that might contain spoilers. The most satisfying parts of the experience are the the clever turns that all drive the story rather than merely shifting it's narrative.
Wednesday, October 1, 2014
22 Ridiculously Amazing 007 Posters for James Bond Films
My blogging colleague from "It Rains...You get Wet" shared this link with me on Facebook. These are really nice and politically incorrect. Check them out, you will be impressed with the artist.
Real Bond fans will notice that the motif for the poster above is from the book rather than the movie.
Saturday, September 27, 2014
Many people may be drawn to this film by it's roots. It is based on a popular TV show from more than twenty years ago. I knew of the show but I never watched it, not because it did not sound interesting, but because as a one hour drama in the good old days, you'd have to watch it with commercial and on a weekly basis, and I just did not have time for that in my life at that point. What brought me to the movie is almost certainly what will bring most of the rest of the audience this week: Denzel Washington being a badass.
I mentioned in my review of "A Soldier's Story" on the 30 Years on Project, that Denzel has become my favorite working actor. He has the intelligence, looks and attitude that make him the kind of character that I can usually appreciate in a film, even when he is not a good guy. When he plays the flawed good man in a bad situation, it always feels on screen to me that the other characters are encountering a venemous snake and they are ignoring the rattle. A decade ago, he was in one of my favorite revenge driven movies, "Man on Fire", playing almost the same character. Then it was young Dakota Fanning that he was defending but in today's movie it is Chloë Grace Moretz. He is a skilled ex-C.I.A. operative, trying to live a life without the violence that he knew but he is pulled back in. The bare bones of the story are similar to a dozen other revenge based thrillers that also use the hook of ex- black opps guys. Everyone from Rambo to Bryan Mills seems to have a special set of skills that the audience wants to see them use.
My theory is that a movie like this is almost an inverted horror film. There is an implacable monster that is capable of killing everything in it's path. Where we cringe at the terror imposed on teen age lovers by hockey mask wearing slashers, we cheer when the monster is on our side. We want the deaths of the evil antagonists to be gruesome because we know that justice, unlike in real life, is being served to them. Robert McCall may not be a spiritual monster, but in his wake are as many bodies and horrifying deaths as you will find at Crystal Lake. Instead of averting our eyes and sinking back into our seats, as we would in the horror film, a revenge film pulls us in and moves us to the edge of the seat as if cheering on our gridiron heroes. It helps when the single minded killer is on the side of the righteous. If you look up the word "Righteous" in the dictionary, there will be a picture of Denzel starring at you with that very expression on his face.
The movie builds slowly, with pieces of character coming in a bit at a time. The meticulous nature of Robert McCall is a warning that he is not the avuncular co-worker and mentor that he at first seems. His friendly kidding with the other guys at the Home Mart store belies his true nature. We have seen in his apartment that he lives life almost as an ascetic. The furnishings are sparse, the routine is severe and there are no symbols of worldly pleasure except for the collection of books that he is working his way through. He is a strong judge of character but he is not judgmental. His words to the young man he is coaching into a security position are direct and honest and he lets Ralphie decide for himself how to proceed when faced with a weakness. The young prostitute that he converses with in the 24 hour diner in the middle of the night gets the same treatment. He is direct, honest, and friendly without becoming close, and he never scolds her. It is when he realizes that she can't make the choice for herself that he gets involved.
There are several nice story elements in the movie that are not associated with the violent action. I like the fact that Robert can sleep once he has taken some action. I thought the image of the diner at night was clearly modeled after the well known boulevard of broken dreams variation of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks. All of that however is secondary to the bursts of violence that we are there to see and which arrive in very satisfying variations. The confrontation with the first set of gangsters is vividly gruesome and the smack talk that Denzel delivers to the one leader of the gang is notable for how it reflects the nature of the character that we have come to know. This episode is a prelude to a series of acts which will lead the audience to more and more satisfaction concerning the story of good versus evil. I've heard some suggest that we are addicted to on-screen violence, but the truth is, that we don't necessarily crave a higher or greater level of violence so much as we want a greater amount of satisfaction with the comeuppance that evil gets.
Maybe I have a personal flaw in liking this type of film. From a moral perspective, many might find it reprehensible. In the equation of justice that these types of movies seek to provide, I think they usually play to our better selves rather than the morbid part of our character. That being said, a corkscrew and a power drill are like paintbrushes in the hands of a character like Robert McCall. The actor who brings us this work of strange ethically questionable components, should also get some of the credit. If the movie features Denzel Washington killing people, and those people deserve to die, put me down for a ticket. The only thing I did not like much about this movie was the poster.
Sunday, September 21, 2014
Every year over a million high school kids play American Football. Every year more than 70,000 play in college. That is a lot of young men being exposed to the game that is sometimes seen as physically brutal and socially backwards. In the last few weeks at both the professional level and the Collegiate world, there have been a number of embarrassing stories about the behavior of players of America's favorite game. There is a bombardment of statistical data being dug up on the injuries that playing the sport can do on the body, especially to the brain. The game has been played for over a hundred years and still there are elements to it that change, evolve, get criticized and ignored. The President has said that if he had a son, he would not let him play football. There may be a time when enlightened do-gooders manage to remove the game from the culture through lawsuits, over-hyped hysteria, and the gentile chipping away that occurs as our civilization changes. Should that happen, the big question we should be asking ourselves is, What will we lose?
The answer to that question is contained in almost every football movie that treats the game seriously as opposed to a way to get laughs. Even those that are focused on getting us to giggle a bit , sometimes point to the reason football matters. It is a game, that in the right hands, teaches it's players about responsibility, hard work, teamwork and the values of competition and sportsmanship. Those goals have been subverted from time to time, but for every incident of a coach who places winning over all else, there are dozens of coaches who really are teachers. This movie is a story about one of those guys. Bob Ladouceur is the coach of a high school program in Concord California (The home of my buddy Dan). The school is a private Catholic school that had no history of success in football and he turned them into perennial champs who had a twelve year 151 game winning streak. Ladouceur is one of the good guys and he tries to make his kids good guys as well.
Film hipsters will hate this movie for the cliches and wholesome values that it espouses, while largely ignoring some of the other aspects of football that make it more compelling, like the hard hits. This movie does have a preachiness about it that can't be denied, but I'm not sure that the life lesson overshadows all the other things the movie has going for it. There are a good number of football sequences that build suspense the way these movies do. Director Thomas Carter has been associated with a number of movies and TV shows with sports based themes. I remember watching him as the basketball player Heywood in the late seventies TV show, "The White Shadow". Even as a young actor he was interested in directing and he has a credit for that program to show for it. His movie "Coach Carter" focuses on a similar role model in the nearby area of Richmond California but it focused on basketball. Carter knows how a sports film works, and he can hit the keys effectively, the question is whether he can riff successfully enough to make this more than a prefunctory sports movie. I thought he did in a number of ways.
The main adults in the story are played by professionals who know how to do their jobs. Just as the movie emphasizes teamwork, no one here is trying to make themselves bigger than the story being told. It would have been easy for Carter to let Jim Caviezel shout and emote and try to build histrionic moments on film. There is an excellent speech delivered at the funeral for one of his players that has very effective moments in the language. Caviezel is subdued and honest in the way he speaks. At the end of the film, there is a clip from the actual service and the real Coach Ladoucuer, and he is also honest. The real life setting was more raucous however, and the film version works better with the themes the movie is emphasizing. Laura Dern and Michael Chiklis lend appropriate support and they are surrounded by a cast of young actors who look like they could be the high school team, and they are all excellent as well. The only over the top performance comes from Clancy Brown as a frustrated father, living through his son's accomplishments. Brown does what he is told, it is the writing that goes a little overboard here.
There are a thousand testimonials to guys like Bob Ladouceur, teachers who made a difference in a young man's life. Speak to anyone involved in team sports and they will have those kind of stories. Football however, requires a stronger force to be exerted. The dedication and practice that goes into playing that sport is not comparable to any other sport. The degree to which the players have to rely on one another is not like any other sport. Maybe the world is littered with films like "Remember the Titans" and "We are Marshall", but every generation of fans deserves to have a film of their own. I don't find it obnoxious that this movie is filled with references to biblical passages and stories. They are the kind of faith based lessons that are not found enough in mainstream movies, so if you want something different, consider that as the unique contribution of this film.