Sunday, October 19, 2014

Backdraft (1991)

3 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Effects, Sound Effects Editing - Gary Rydstrom and Richard Hymns
Nomination: Best Effects, Visual Effects - Mikael Salomon, Allen Hall, Clay Pinney, and Scott Farrar
Nomination: Best Sound - Gary Summers, Randy Thom, Gary Rydstrom, and Glenn Williams

Firefighter GIF

I was seven years old when Backdraft was released, and though my parents - in a rare but understandable moment of parental censorship - did not allow me to see the film, I lost many nights of sleep while dreaming of my house burning in the fires shown in the trailer for Backdraft and experienced at the Backdraft attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood.  While countless films and television shows have had scenes of dramatic fires since Backdraft, none have felt as real or dangerous. 

One of the best remembered (and most ridiculed by real firefighters) lines from Backdraft comes from Robert De Niro's character Donald Rimgale: "(Fire is) a living thing.  It breathes, it eats, and it hates."  Yes, this line is goofy and overtly anthropomorphic, but it accurately describes the film's fires.  The team of Mikael Salmon, Allen Hall, Clay Pinney, and Scott Farrar did outstanding work in creating the film's fire scenes.  Though computer-generated effects can offer cinematic experiences that could never be produced by conventional effects, there's something about traditional effects that hasn't yet been replicated by computers.  The fire scenes are dramatic in large part because the audience knows that real people are running through the fires as the scene is being filmed.  Yes, they are stuntmen, but they are in much more danger than an actor in front of a green screen.  Director Ron Howard and the effects team, working with the sound effects team of Gary Rydstrom and Richard Hymns, do wonderful work together in creating suspenseful, exciting, and oddly beautiful action sequences.

The scenes without fires, however, were not nearly as successful.  One of the film's very first decisions - casting Kurt Russell in the dual roles of a father and a son - left me questioning Howard's judgment, and the bad decisions keep coming.  William Baldwin's performance is easily mockable, the motivations behind the actions of characters are as silly as they are confusing.  The film's biggest issue is that there are just too many plotlines, causing the film to wander.  I loved De Niro's Rimgale, and would have gladly watched a film about his inspections of fires.  Donald Sutherland is equal parts campy and scary, and J.T. Walsh is as great as always.  Each of these characters could have been the protagonist of a film, and it's hard not to get the sense that any of these films would have offered a more compelling story than Backdraft.  

The main story of the film, the rivalry and battles between brothers Steven and Brian (Russell and Baldwin, respectively), isn't terribly interesting.  We've seen these brotherly battles before and since, and there are no surprises here.  I always enjoy Kurt Russell, and his screen presence is undeniable, but with a weak script and a co-star that is fighting far above his weight class, Russell can't do much.

The structure is a mess, the acting is uneven, and the personification of fire all drag the film down.  Yet with the one-two punch of unforgettable action sequences and the gifted trio of De Niro, Sutherland, and Walsh, I'll never change the channel when Backdraft is on TV.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Oscar Isaac and Justin Timberlake in Inside Llewyn Davis
Photo: Alison Rosa ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC

2 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Achievement in Cinematography - Bruno Delbonnel
Nomination: Best Achievement in Sound Mixing - Skip Lievsay, Greg Orloff, and Peter F. Kurland

Since watching Inside Llewyn Davis, I have read several glowing reviews and articles about the film, searching for an explanation of what I missed.  The vast majority of critics and thinkers about film, including several who I deeply respect, loved Inside Llewyn Davis, praising the Coen Brothers for the moody and ambiguous nature of this brooding film.  Though I loved a few aspects of the film - especially its musical performances - and take no exception with its two nominations, I still feel that I must be missing something.  I thought Inside Llewyn Davis was a terrible film.

This shouldn't be the case.  I have more Bob Dylan songs in my iTunes library than any other artist, and have many tracks by Dave Van Ronk and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, the two primary models for the film's protagonist.  I watched Martin Scorsese's epic Bob Dylan documentary while vacationing in the Bahamas, choosing to watch black and white footage on my iPad rather than gaze at the technicolor beaches.  I blazed through Greil Marcus's often rambling but never boring discourse on Dylan, and have inhaled every tale of the early days of the New York folk scene.  This was a film that was made for me, and yet I hated it.

Joel Coen said, perhaps speciously, that the film "doesn't really have a plot," which is why they "threw the cat in," referring to an ongoing element of the plot in which Llewyn loses his friends' cat.  It's hard to know if Coen was just being glib, and he and his brother have certainly made similar dismissive comments about their other films.  Yet the comment is all too true regarding Inside Llewyn Davis.  The lack of a plot isn't the problem, it's the thrown in elements.  We are left to watch Llewyn wander, sabotaging himself and making more poor choices than a prom queen in a slasher film.  We don't know what drives these self-destructive choices, we don't know why he's making the choices, and, as a result, we don't care about the choices.  Something meaningful is clearly happening to Llewyn, but we're never let in on the secret.

The film would be almost completely unwatchable if it weren't for Bruno Delbonnel's moody cinematography and the wonderful music produced by T Bone Burnett.  When a film features musicians as its subjects, the importance of the music is elevated, and T Bone Burnett was both the obvious and perfect choice to handle the film's music.  The recurring folk standard "Dink's Song" is lovely throughout, and is at its best when duetted by Oscar Isaac and Marcus Mumford.  Several other songs are simultaneously evocative of their era and completely original, but "Please Mr. Kennedy" is by far the most memorable.  Sung by Isaac, Justin Timberlake, and Adam Driver, the song is a desperately needed moment of levity in the film, and one of the film's true delights.  

The Coen Brothers are never boring, and I have always found their worst films compulsively watchable.  Inside Llewyn Davis made me question this.  The film is saved, to an extent, by its music; without the Cafe Wha?-esque music, I'm not sure I could have made it through Inside Llewyn Davis.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (2013)

Johnny Knoxville in Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
Photo Courtesy Paramount Pictures

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling: Stephen Prouty

Had Stephen Prouty won the Academy Award for his work on Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, it would have supplanted Three 6 Mafia's victory for the song "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp" as the oddest victory in Oscars history.  Sadly, we missed out on this opportunity for true weirdness when the Academy gave the nod to Adruitha Lee and Robin Matthews for Dallas Buyers Club, the only "serious" film of the three nominees.

What is interesting about the makeup work in Bad Grandpa is that it is the only one of the three nominees, and one of the few films ever made, to have actual and tangible proof of the success of its makeup work.  Bad Grandpa is the type of fake documentary that puts a made-up character in the real world, and thus the reactions of everyone except the film's stars are genuine.  While we don't know how many of the people approached by Johnny Knoxville saw through his disguise, we know that at least several people were fooled by Prouty's makeup, even while standing just a few feet from Knoxville.

Yet despite its realism, Prouty's work was in no way deserving of the Oscar, and not just because of the moronic film of which it was a part.  While the work is technically impressive, there have been countless films that have successfully employed aging makeup, and Bad Grandpa doesn't push the form forward in any meaningful way.  While Knoxville's transformation was impressive, it doesn't compare to the transformation of Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger or Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club.

At this point in my review, I am pretty proud of the fact that I have written three paragraphs and included just one reference to the lameness that is Bad Grandpa.  I don't see myself as one of the stuffy old critics unable to appreciate the juvenile humor of the film.  In fact, I am a member of the generation reared on Jackass, and I will gladly admit that I have often laughed at their stunts.  However, what is successful in a brief television show often is not successful in a feature film, and the humor from seeing a fake old man act grossly wears thin all too quickly.

I found myself thinking about Borat, a film that I loved with a similar premise: an actor plays a character who acts inappropriately in real-world situations, causing actual people to respond with horror.  I started to wonder how I could love Borat but hate Bad Grandpa.  Was it just that the jokes were funnier?  That seemed too simple.

The truth is, Bad Grandpa and Borat are very different films, despite their seeming similarities.  Borat is a complete joke, while Bad Grandpa is just a setup without a punchline.  What makes Borat so funny isn't just the ridiculous things he do, but the reactions that his behavior solicits.  The character of Borat is so disarming that the people Sacha Baron Cohen interacts with slowly begin to reveal who they truly are.  This moment, in which people show a side of their true selves to the camera, is where the best humor of Borat comes from.  Yes, his ridiculous questions to his driving instructor about women driving are funny.  But the punchline isn't Borat's questions, but the reveal of who the instructor really is through his response.  Bad Grandpa, on the other hand, finds little humor in the response.  Most of the people that Knoxville interacts with just look at him with horror or laugh uncomfortably.  Yes, Knoxville's behavior and dialogue is ridiculous and sometimes funny, but without a meaningful response, it's just a setup with no punchline.

It has been awhile since I've seen Borat, and if nothing else, I'm glad Bad Grandpa made me recall and appreciate that far superior film.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Captain Phillips (2013)

Barkhad Abdi Captain Phillips
Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips. Photo Courtesy Sony Pictures

6 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Motion Picture of the Year - Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti, and Michael De Luca
Nomination: Best Performance By an Actor in a Supporting Role - Barkhad Abdi
Nomination: Best Achievement in Film Editing - Christopher Rouse
Nomination: Best Achievement in Sound Editing - Oliver Tarney
Nomination: Best Achievement in Sound Mixing - Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor, Mike Prestwood Smith, and Chris Munro
Nomination: Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay - Billy Ray

I expected to hate Captain Phillips.

I'm not sure why this was the case.  There might not be a working actor with a better "lifetime batting average" than Tom Hanks (though Larry Crowne was bad enough to impugn his credibility for awhile), Paul Greengrass is a talented director with a strong individual voice, and the true story of Captain Richard Phillips is the stuff of which great suspense films are made.  Maybe it was the bland title of the film, the long running time, or my reluctance to sit through any film in which a non-New Englander attempts to perform the accent.  If nothing else, the name Billy Ray on the screenplay should have been enough to give me faith in the film, as Ray wrote and directed two of my favorite political suspense films of the past few decades, Breach and Shattered Glass.  While my concern about the film's running time was well founded, the filmmaking team behind Captain Phillips more than assuaged the rest of my films, and Captain Phillips was one of the films of 2013 that I most enjoyed.

Captain Phillips is really two films.  The first is the story of the takeover of the Maersk Alabama by Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and his team of Somali pirates and the response of Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) and his crew.  This section takes up approximately half of the running time, and Ray's script beautifully and methodically reveals the characters through the rising action.  Lesser screenwriters write two kinds of scenes: scenes that move the plot forward and scenes that develop characters.  Like the best writers, nearly every scene in Ray's screenplay does both.  Christopher Rouse's editing is superb in these scenes, and the first half of the film flies by with Rouse's editing and Greengrass's sharp direction.

The second half of the film begins (minor spoiler alert to follow) once the attempt to trade the captive Muse for Phillips is botched, resulting the pirates escaping with Phillips as their hostage onto a lifeboat. Though there are some wonderful moments of suspense and emotional drama in these scenes, the film loses its momentum.  The suspense of these scenes is not nearly as intense as in the first half of the film.  The script shifts its focus from the relationship between Muse and Phillips to a greater focus on "Will Captain Phillips survive or not?"  Because Captain Phillips is based a true story and Phillips was prominent in the news after the highjacking, the suspense of the film evaporates.  Hanks, however, is brilliant in these scenes, portraying deep vulnerability even as he performs the bravest of acts.  His final scene of the film is one of the great moments of a legendary acting career, and in another year might have been enough to secure him his sixth Academy Award nomination.

The revelation of the film is Barkhad Abdi, appearing in his first film after previously working in mobile phone sales and limousine driving.  Abdi is an untrained actor, but I never would have guessed this if not for the fact that it was mentioned a thousand times in the month before the Academy Awards.  Abdi walks with a natural swagger that belies his slight frame, yet also shows a vulnerability similar to that of Hanks.  This is the type of role that is probably going to be career-defining rather than career-making, but Abdi is brimming with talent and will hopefully continue to find opportunities to develop as an actor.

Phillips and Muse are two men who have very few choices available to them to support themselves and their loved ones, and though the film never forgives the acts of piracy and violence, it does successfully provide context to the actions of the pirates that elevate them from stock villains to developed characters.  This allows them to be fully realized foils to Phillips, and the interactions between the men provide just as much suspense as the film's most action-oriented scenes.

Captain Phillips didn't have much of a chance in the technical categories, with Gravity dominating the below-the-line awards.  I can't argue with the voting of the Academy.  Captain Phillips was the second or third best in each of the six categories for which it was nominated, but wasn't the best in any category.  Rouse's editing work is the one possible exception to this, but it's hard to argue with the absolutely brilliant editing work by Alfonso Cuaron and Mark Sanger for Gravity.

If you can ignore the bland title and the occasionally suspect accent voiced by Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips is a wonderful and memorable film well deserving of the six Oscar nominations it received.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

20 Feet from Stardom (2013)

Jo Lawry, Judith Hill, and Lisa Fischer from 20 Feet from Stardom
Photo Courtesy

1 Nomination, 1 Win

Win: Best Documentary, Features

It has long been a truism that if you are having difficulty picking the winner of either the Best Documentary Feature or Best Documentary Short Subject in your Oscar pool, choose the film that deals with the subject of the Holocaust or AIDS.  Rather than judging the film that best documents its subject, the Academy has a tendency to reward the film that tackles the most serious subject.

For this reason, it has been surprising that the Academy has bestowed its Best Documentary Feature award to crowd-pleasing documentaries about musicians for the past two years, first to Searching for Sugar Man and then to 20 Feet From Stardom.  While I thought that Searching for Sugar Man was an enjoyable but underwhelming documentary and that the Oscar should have gone to David France's How to Survive a Plague, 20 Feet From Stardom is an absolutely wonderful documentary that is much deeper and it first appears to be.

20 Feet from Stardom Poster
Photo Courtesy of
Director Morgan Neville, a veteran of documentaries on the subject of music (he has made documentaries about Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, and Stax Records), both follows the current lives and documents the long careers of several of the most notable backup singers in the history of popular music, including Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Taga Vega, and several others.  These women, though largely unknown to the majority of music lovers, have played essential roles in some of the most significant records ever made, with perhaps the best example being Merry Clayton's searing vocals on "Gimme Shelter" by the Rolling Stones.  Neville documents how these women came to become unknown legends of the music industry, the significant challenges they faced as they grew older and the music industry evolved, and celebrates their accomplishments.

But while the film at first seems to be merely an attempt to rectify the lack of attention these women have received by celebrating their contributions to music on film, Morgan Neville uses this story to explore the idea of how our dreams evolve as we get older, and how we either adapt or fail to respond to the unexpected directions our lives takes us.  None of the women profiled in this film set out to be backup singers, and each did so only to support themselves while they continued to seek their own stardom.  As the title suggests, these women stood a mere twenty feet from the stars they sang behind, but so much more separated them than physical distance.  For whatever reason, these women never became the superstars that they believed they would become, and it certainly wasn't due to a lack of talent, as they were more talented than many of the stars they supported.  As Sting explains in the film, to become a star requires more than just talent and hard work, and there is some essence that these women just did not have.

As their own attempts at stardom faltered, some of the women were able to accept this about themselves and were content to be great backup singers, while others could never give up on their dream of becoming true stars.  Few people achieve exactly what they dreamed they would when they were young, and we all to some degree accept unexpected roles for ourselves and must decide how we will respond.  While few of us achieve our exact dreams, few get even 20 feet from these dreams, and what these women accomplished and the legacies they made for themselves are truly incredible.

20 Feet from Stardom is a celebration of the amazing careers of these women, even if these careers are far different from what they dreamed of for themselves.


Monday, June 16, 2014

Interview with Academy Award Nominee Jeffrey Karoff, Director of CaveDigger

Jeffrey Karoff, Director of CaveDigger, in a Ra cave
Jeffrey Karoff, Academy Award nominated director of CaveDigger

Of all of the Academy Award nominated films I watched last year, none surprised me more than Jeffrey Karoff's CaveDigger, nominated for Best Documentary Short Subject.  Prior to watching the film, I was unaware that the art of cavedigging even existed, let alone that there was a practitioner capable of such awe-inspring beauty as what the film's protagonist Ra produces.  Karoff's film is unlike anything I have seen before, and I give it my highest possible recommendation.  CaveDigger can be viewed on Amazon, Vimeo, and iTunes.  Links to all three formats are available here.

Jeffrey Karoff was generous enough to speak with me about CaveDigger and his experience as an Academy Award nominee.  

First, can you briefly tell me a little bit about CaveDigger, how you found out about Ra's work, and why you decided to tell this story?

I met two of the principal characters in the film, Shel and Liz, during the time they'd commissioned a Paulette cave and while Liz was battling cancer. The cave in progress was astonishing and its sheer visual, visceral impact made it seem ripe subject matter for film. But even after I launched into the filmmaking I wasn't sure what story I was telling beyond the glory of Ra's work. It wasn't until I was well into the process that I stumbled upon a recurring theme that included Shel and Liz's consternation with Ra's process, and an age-old artist/patron conflict.

At what point after you started screening CaveDigger did you start to realize that an Academy Award nomination was a real possibility? 

Ra in his cave, from Oscar nominee CaveDigger

Never. I was entering a lot of festivals and completing the Academy qualifications was really a continuation of that festival-entry process.  I knew that CaveDigger was the kind of serious subject matter that the Academy might appreciate, so it wasn't entirely a Hail Mary, but I didn't actually think it would be nominated. But there was a turning point that led me to submit the film: At my very first screening to an invited audience, another filmmaker, Alex Rotaru, told me I should shorten CaveDigger from 47 mins to under 40 and submit it to the Academy as a short because, he said, "...the Academy eats this stuff up." I thought he was smoking crack, and I had no intention of going back into the edit bay after so many months of labor to get it finished. Weeks later, Sandra Ruch, a consultant who was helping me navigate the festival terrain, again suggested I shorten the film to allow it to compete as a short in all festivals. That was the push I needed, and I did so. Shortening the film, obviously, was a terrific idea.

How did you find out you had been nominated for an Oscar?  What was your reaction?

I had a colleague who was at the Academy on the day. She'd told me that she would text me the second she found out, 'yes' or 'no'. The phone buzzed -- my wife looked at the text and broke into tears of joy. I shot it all on my iPhone. It was a stunning day.

Did you attend the pre-Oscar ceremony luncheon for all of the nominees?  This luncheon famously mixes up people from all of the categories at the various tables.  Who did you dine with?  Any good stories from the luncheon?

Just about every nominee, in every category and including me, was at that luncheon. I sat at a table with Jeff Pope, one of the writers from Philomena, and right next to Bradley Cooper, who was kind and funny and interested in my film. He told me a great story about living with his mother, a version of which I heard a few days later on Ellen.

Were you particularly starstruck by anyone at the Oscars?  What was it like to walk the red carpet? 

I'm not starstruck. But I am an admirer and appreciator of talent. I was able to thank personally, for what I consider gifts, Scorsese, Amy Adams, and Roger Deakins. And Bradley Cooper, whose performance in American Hustle was outstanding. I approached all these people at the luncheon, which was more intimate and presented an easy environment in which to interact.

Other than your own film, if you were an Academy member, which of the films in your category would you have voted for?

My favorite was Edgar Barens' Prison Terminal. Important subject matter, sensitively handled. Our culture has a 'throw away the key' mentality about prisoners. Edgar's film humanized even capital criminals. I found the genuine affection amongst the men deeply moving.

What does it mean to you to have the title "Academy Award Nominee" for the rest of your life?

It's not bad. Really not bad.

What's next for you?  Are you working on any films?

I have a couple of doc projects swirling, but for the moment I'm at my day job, directing commercials and fundraising films. I just finished a mini doc for Robin Hood Foundation, a NYC-based philanthropic organization, about New York's immigrant population. They showed it at their annual fundraiser and brought in about $60mil that night.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Man Who Skied Down Everest (1975)

1 Win, 1 Nomination

Win: Best Documentary, Features - F.R. Crawley, James Hager, and Dale Hartleben

The Man Who Skied Down Everest features one of the most heart-stopping and terrifying sequences I have ever seen on film, in which a man skis 6,600 feet down the tallest mountain on the planet in just two minutes and twenty seconds before falling 1,320 feet and finally arresting his fall just 250 feet from a deadly crevasse.  Unfortunately, that sequence doesn't come for more than an hour into the film, and the first hour isn't terribly compelling despite truly horrendous circumstances that should have led to a far more interesting narrative.

Directors Bruce Nyznik and Lawrence Schiller documented Japan's Yuichiro Miura's incredible effort not only to ski down Mount Everest, but first to ascend it, no small task.  Climbing Mount Everest is a slow and deliberate process in which climbers must methodically climb the mountain, stopping frequently along the way in order to acclimate to the altitude.  This process is depicted in painstaking detail, but because the film doesn't allow the audience to get to know the people on the expedition in a meaningful way, the periods of inactivity grind the film to a dragging pace.  The narrator, Douglas Rain (who should sound familiar to those who have seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which he voiced HAL), tells the audience of the dangers and hardships, but this is an example of the pitfall of telling rather than showing.

The 1970 Japan Everest Expedition of which Yuichiro Miura was a part was an ambitious effort to ascend the mountain the mountain's southwest face in addition to Miura's ski, and resulted in one of the worst tragedies in the mountain's history.  Eight Sherpa climbers died in an avalanche during the ascent, and this horrendous event, the reaction of the Sherpa community that followed, and their resolve to carry on are emotional and touching.

Perhaps a more apt title for the film would have been The Man Who Slowly and Methodically Climbed Up Everest and Also Skied Down.  Any successful effort to climb Mount Everest is an exciting event worthy of documenting, but several more recent films have captured this far more successfully than The Man Who Skied Down Everest.  The footage of Miura's descent down the mountain is shocking and jawdropping, but seems almost beside the point after the rest of the film.  Still, the film is worth watching for this sequence alone, and any mountain climbing geek like myself will enjoy The Man Who Skied Down Everest.