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.