Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Short Takes: Shadow of a Doubt, Fruitvale Station, and More

Shadow of a Doubt (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1943)

In terms of Hitchcock's oeuvre, Shadow of a Doubt is not remembered as one of the best, if it's even remembered at all (film scholars seem to like it more than casual fans). But the film deserves to be seen, since it's a taut thriller with a killer (I'm sorry) hook. Young Charlie (Teresa Wright) adores her Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten), not just because she's named after him but because she believes him to be the most outstanding representative of humanity. However, Uncle Charlie may not be so great: in fact, she discovers, he may be the Merry Widower, a serial killer who murders wealthy widows and steals their riches. The film doesn't have much in the way of suspense around whether this is true: it's obvious from the first frame Uncle Charlie occupies that he's your killer. But the film does get a lot of mileage out of Charlie learning the truth about her uncle, then dodging his attempts to silence her permanently. Working from a script co-written by none other than Thornton Wilder (Our Town, the play you no doubt read at some point in grade school), Hitchcock works his usual magic as a director, and Cotten is appropriately chilling as he let's the cracks in his facade show. However, it just never lifts itself to be considered among the director's very best films. (Best Shot hereB+

Heavenly Creatures (dir. Peter Jackson, 1994)

Leave it to Peter Jackson to turn what could have been a standard true-crime/exploitation film into a imaginative, brilliant study of two young girls in a passionate more-than-friendship. Based on a true event from 1950s New Zealand, the story involves Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynsky, in her film debut), an angsty loner who becomes fast friends with new British student Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet, also making her debut). The girls develop there own fantasy world, Borovnia, where they are free to create the world they wish to live in. As their friendship blossoms into something more, their parents become concerned (homosexuality being a major taboo at the time), and the girls plot to murder Pauline's mother. Though it could have easily sank into B-movie territory, Jackson handles the central relationship deftly, treating both girls with dignity and their relationship as something normal and not sinister. The Borovnia show his flair with creating fantasy worlds (which, of course, would be evident on a much larger scale in the Lord of the Rings trilogy), and inventiveness in direction. Most impressive, though, are the two leads: both actresses are nothing short of astonishing, and seem to arrive as fully-developed talents that their later careers would demonstrate. A

Rock of Ages (dir. Adam Shankman, 2012)

There's a moment about halfway through the film where Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) croons a verse of Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is" to Rolling Stone reporter Constance Stack's (Malin Ackerman) nearly-bare ass. That image pretty much sums up the entire tone of the film. Rock of Ages wants to have it both ways, being complete sincere while also being naughty and hedonistic, not unlike the '80s hair-metal songs the characters break into. And also not unlike those songs, it's never as good as it thinks it is. Based on the hit Broadway show, the film chronicles life at the Bourbon Room, a hot Sunset Strip nightclub where rock 'n' roll reigns supreme. With the exception of Cruise, who fully embodies his rock-star persona, almost everyone is miscast, from Catherine Zeta-Jones as an anti-rock crusader to Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand as the club owners. Most damaging, though, are the leads; Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta are fatally dull, with no chemistry...with just about anyone, most notably the camera. The film soars when it puts together numbers like Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive," but those moments come way too few and far between. C-

Fruitvale Station (dir. Steve Coogler, 2013)

Fruitvale Station has remarkable timing: based on the true story of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old single father who, on New Year's Eve 2008, was fatally shot by a transit officer at the titular railway station in Oakland, California, the film premiered this past summer just as George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. That timing made what was already designed as an "Important Picture" even more relevant: racism is still simmering within our society, and an overt expression of that is the high number of deaths of unarmed, young black men by law enforcement or those claiming "self-defense." The message desperately needs to be heard. The film, though, is a flawed-but-well-meaning portrait of a man felled too soon. First-time feature director Steve Coogler (who also wrote the screenplay) shows us Oscar (Michael B. Jordan, best known for TV's The Wire and Friday Night Lights) on the final day of his life, as he tries to get his life on the right track. Jordan gives a star-making performance; given his age and previous experience (plus a crowded field), he likely won't be nominated for a Best Actor nomination, but he's more than deserving of one. Meloine Diaz finds shades in the otherwise-dull "supporting girlfriend" role that make her Sophia intriguing, and Octavia Spencer - as Oscar's mother - gets a gut-wrenching scene in a flashback involving visiting Oscar in prison. Though Oscar is perhaps presented as a little too saintly to be believably human on paper, Jordan imbues him with nothing but vital humanity, and though we know how this story ends, the final act is no less shocking or heartbreaking. It's not a perfect movie, but it definitely is an important one. B+

Spring Breakers (dir. Harmony Korine, 2013)

"Spring break forever, bitches!" With that mission statement, Harmony Korine's latest tale of nihilistic debauchery delves into the sunny beaches of Florida, where every year tons of college-age individuals descend upon the shores for non-stop drinking, partying, and sex. Faith (Selena Gomez) joins her rowdier friends Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine) on spring break after the latter three rob a local restaurant for money. After landing in jail, they're bailed out by Alien (James Franco), a gangster/drug dealer/rapper who takes a special interest in them. From there, things descend into the kind of beautifully-shot moral depravity that only Korine can make. The entire film is splashed in Day-Glo colors, resulting in some arresting images while unbelievable acts occur on screen. In many ways, the film is equivalent to any given episode of American Horror Story: if you give it a single thought, it all falls apart, but in the moment it's so gloriously bonkers it's narrative flaws are forgiven. Two highlights: Franco's wacked-out performance and a perfectly madcap scene scored to Britney Spears' "Everytime." It's the kind of simultaneously amazing/terrible/batshit film that has to be seen to be believed. (Best Shot coming 9/4) A+/B-/F all at once

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (dir. George Roy Hill, 1969)

A buddy comedy dressed up as a Western, the film follows the (mostly) true exploits of the eponymous outlaws (played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford, respectively) as they flee the United States for Bolivia. The two leads have impeccable chemistry, and many of their sarcastic one-liners land perfectly. The film does reach for some tonal changes, namely whenever there's an act of extreme violence: those shifts can sometimes be jarring, particularly when they come abruptly. But most of the film is easy-going fun, and manages to pay homage to the classic Westerns of old Hollywood (namely in the astounding cinematography, courtesy Conrad L. Hall) while subverting those same films in exciting ways. Plus, Newman and Redford together is obviously never a bad thing. And you're probably already humming "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head." (Best Shot here) A-

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

*This post is in participation with The Film Experience's Hit Me With Your Best Shot.*

Right from the very beginning, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid has its tongue placed firmly in cheek:

The film came out at an interesting time in the history of American cinema. The influence of the European new waves (particularly French and Italian) was just starting to reverberate around Hollywood, particularly in films such as 1967's Bonnie & Clyde (if you're interested in learning more about this period and that particular film, I highly recommend Mark Harris' indispensable Pictures at a Revolution). Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid fits nicely into the new tradition: much of the film feels like the "new" Hollywood dialoguing with - and subverting - "old" Hollywood traditions. 

Director George Roy Hill and screenwriter William Goldman structure the film around the idea that this is a Western based on the true story of legendary outlaws Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and their gang, the Wild Bunch (the film changed the name to the "Hole in the Wall Gang" to avoid confusion with another 1969 Western, The Wild Bunch). The film follows the two as they go for one last robbery in the States, then follows them as they flee to Bolivia, where there will be new banks and payrolls to steal from (or, you know, maybe turn over a new leaf).

But instead of playing it straight, the film functions more as a buddy comedy disguised as Western. Throughout the film, Butch (Paul Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford) let loose with the one-liners, dark sarcasm, and playful bickering, an irreverent tone that is only occasionally broken by bursts of "bullet ballet" violence (characters getting shot in slow-motion, much like the infamous ending of Bonnie & Clyde). In this regard, it helps to have Newman and Redford in the leads: their easy chemistry creates a very believable friendship, and both - obviously - are more than capable of handling the film's comedic and dramatic requests. Neither one was Oscar nominated for this film (though, in all fairness, neither give career-best performances here), but there's no denying that they sure do make the screen prettier together.

However, much of the credit for the film's beautiful visuals belongs to Conrad L. Hall, the legendary cinematographer (Cool Hand Luke, American Beauty, Road to Perdition). Though the film plays as a subversion of the classic Hollywood Western, it would never work without Hall shooting it in the style of those very Westerns. The introductions of our titular characters are even shot though a sepia filter, giving them the appearance of an Old West photograph from a wanted poster:

Butch is seen peering through a window at the bank across the street...

...while sharp-shooting Sundance (Robert Redford) is playing cards against a couple of rough-and-tumble types.

Though the film will eventually switch to a more contemporary color palette after the beginning, Hall (who won an Oscar for his work here) continues to paint a number of scenes using Western styles, with numerous colors coming splashed across the open plains and towering vistas. Nothing in the film would look out of place in a traditional Western, and the results are nothing short of incredible. See these selections:

Butch and Sundance attempting to outrun the law across a gorgeous sunset...

And, in my choice for Best Shot, perch at dusk, overlooking the plain as blue mountains rise out of the distance. It's a stunning image, iconic in it's own right while paying homage to the films that inspired it. That's what the best of the "new independent" films of the late-'60s and early-'70s did: presented what had become tired and commonplace and made it crackle in new, subversive, exciting ways.

Other great shots:

I never really did say anything about the famous "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" sequence, where Butch and Etta (Katharine Ross) - who's involved with Sundance - ride a bicycle through the countryside. More than an entertaining diversion, it demonstrates how Etta is torn between the two men: one she is with, and one that she wants. I think that's more evident in this shot, though, from late in the film, in which she runs out to hug them both at the same time, rather than Sundance, then Butch. Ross delivers a fine performance, but she's absent for much of the film - this is Butch and Sundance's story. I also just love the lighting in this shot.

And of course, the final image: a return to sepia, a still frame drowned in the sound of hailing bullets.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Oscar Predictions: August 2013 (The Way-Too-Early Edition)

As we state every year, August is way too early to start doling out Oscar predictions: most of the contending films haven't even been screened yet! However, that's no excuse for us to go ahead and speculate on what might be in this year's race. So here are my predictions - well, educated guesses - as to what we might see on the official ballots in January.

*For BEST PICTURE: Red indicates "locks," aka the most likely suspects (if only five nominees); Blue indicates solid choices if more than five nominees; Yellow indicates films likely to receive first-place votes but may not make the final five-to-ten nominee field.*

See the full predictions after the jump.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

*This post is in participation with The Film Experience's Hit Me With Your Best Shot*

I think we all have that one relative whom we think the world of. In our eyes, especially at a young age, this person is infallible. They're everything we want to be when we grow up, outstanding examples of everything we should strive to be, and we can't possibly imagine them having any sort of fault or secret. Which is what makes it so difficult, as we get older, to learn that they were, just like the rest of us, tragically human. Personally speaking, I have that relative: I never really thought of him as my favorite, but that didn't hurt any less when, as an adult, he failed me in a terrible way.

In Shadow of a Doubt, that relative is Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten), the man that young Charlie (Teresa Young) was named for and looks up to. In fact, everyone in her family - and the entire town of Santa Rosa, apparently - have nothing but the utmost adoration for him. However, Uncle Charlie isn't nearly what he seems - in fact, he may be the Merry Widower, a serial killer who murders rich old widows and steals their possessions. Charlie seems to already be harboring suspicions thanks to her uncle's odd behavior, and two detectives following him from New York certainly aren't helping matters.

When people list the great films of Alfred Hitchcock, Shadow of a Doubt rarely pops up in that discussion. And certainly, this doesn't belong in the same rarified air as Vertigo, Psycho, or Rebecca (in terms of quality, it's more in line with, say, Rope). However, working from a script from acclaimed playwright Thornton Wilder (Our Town, the high school literature staple of American theatre), Sally Benson, and Alma Reville (from an original story by Gordon McDonell), Hitchcock's typically strong visual style is present at every turn here.

The most obvious choice for Best Shot comes early in the film, as Uncle Charlie's train pulls into the station in Santa Rosa where his relatives await him. A dark plume of smoke pours out of the train, a harbinger of the doom to come (according to Hitch himself), and the train's shadow is cast over Charlie's younger brother. It's an extremely prominent and gorgeously designed visual, so I was tempted to make it my selection, but I also felt like maybe it was just a tad too obvious.

My biggest complaint about this film is that Uncle Charlie's guilt is never really in question, from the audience's point-of-view. The big revelation that, yes, he is the Merry Widower is not necessarily a surprising revelation; though there's doubt as to his identity among the characters in the film, Hitchcock pretty much telegraphs Uncle Charlie's crimes from the very first frame he occupies, and is pretty unrelenting in making sure we're aware of his guilt. To be fair, Cotten's performance anchors the audience both in his guilt and, oddly in those early scenes, in making us want to be wrong about him. However, when he makes his speech about the women of New York at the dinner table, the words from Wilder, et. al.'s script and Cotten's performance eliminate any doubt:

The cities are full of women, middle-aged widows, husbands, dead husbands who've spent their lives making fortunes working and working. And then they die and leave their money to their wives, their silly wives. And what do the wives do, these useless women? You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands, drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night, smelling of money, proud of their jewelry but of nothing else. Horrible, faded, fat, greedy women. Are they human or are they fat, wheezing animals, hmmm? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?
Yeah, he's definitely your killer.

But even if there's no shred of doubt among the audience, the characters have theirs. Charlie has been suspicious, but refuses to believe that her uncle is a killer. However, she goes to the library - at the behest of Detective Jack Graham (MacDonald Carey) - to find a newspaper that Uncle Charlie hasn't gotten to first. It's there that she discovers what she's refused to believe: all the evidence points to her uncle as the Merry Widower, and it all falls into place in her mind. Which leads to my choice for Best Shot:

The camera pulls out into a long, overhead shot, with Charlie diminished in the empty library. The closeness she once felt for her uncle - the supposedly unbreakable bond that they held - has been shattered. She couldn't feel anymore distant from him now, and the camera's retreat reflects that in a powerful way.

Other great shots:

Hitchcock was famous for always making a cameo in his films; that's him on the left, riding the same train as Uncle Charlie. He's revealed to have every spade in the deck in his hands, too, the lucky devil.

One of the film's dark running gags is Charlie's father and his coworker, Herb, being fans of pulpy crime novels and entertaining ideas of how they would kill one another. It almost feels like a wry commentary on how we get so obsessed in crimes that become tabloid sensations, as we speculate "well, if I did it..." Doesn't it?