SECRET IN THEIR EYES (2015)

November 19, 2015

secret in their eyes Greetings again from the darkness. Why, Billy Ray, why? It’s not surprising that Hollywood green-lighted the Americanization of the 2010 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film, El secreto de sus ojos. That original from Argentina is exemplary filmmaking and a thoroughly entertaining and compelling mystery-thriller; a must-see for any true film lover. Even if an Oscar-studded cast is hired (2 Oscar winners, 8 nominations), the guiding inspiration for a remake should be more than losing the subtitles and filming Julia Roberts without make-up.

The story balances two timelines spanning 13 years. Jess (Ms. Roberts) is an investigator who works with FBI Agent Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Assistant District Attorney Claire (Nicole Kidman), and a blustering District Attorney played by Alfred Molina. When Jess’ daughter is brutally murdered, the investigation is impacted by the suspect’s role as a department snitch. When we catch up all those years later, the unrequited attraction between now former FBI Agent Ray and now DA Claire is as strong as ever; Jess’ appearance is on par with someone suffering from a terminal illness, and the murder still hovers over these characters as if it had occurred last week.

It’s a fascinating story that was handled superbly in the original, yet mostly comes across as uninspired in this latest project. At times, it’s even a bit confusing in how the two eras are handled. The score from Emilio Kauderer and a couple of fine scenes from Ms. Roberts (although she gets no credit here for appearing sans-makeup) are the best parts of this one. Otherwise, Mr. Ejiofor (usually a fine actor) goes over-the-top, while Ms. Kidman is simply miscast and unable to generate the proficiency required for her position. Other support work comes courtesy of Dean Norris (“Breaking Bad”), Michael Kelly (“House of Cards”) and Zoe Graham.

Other than lacking the grit and realism of the original, the editing and camera work (so exceptional in the first version) at times come off as amateurish this time around. The soccer/futbol sequence from the original is replaced with Dodgers baseball (Chavez Ravine and Vin Scully) and a link to former Manager Walter Alston. Normally that would be considered an improvement, but again, these fall short and fail to generate the necessary suspense. A weak impersonation of the famous long-tracking shot certainly doesn’t help.

For anyone who hasn’t seen writer/director Juan Jose Campanella’s (an Executive Producer here) excellent original, this version from Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) might prove interesting enough; however, those same folks are strongly encouraged to instead track down the original, and experience the emotional depth and filmmaking expertise that made it such a worthy Oscar winner.

watch the trailer:

 

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CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013)

October 13, 2013

capt phillips1 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Paul Greengrass seems to thrive on finding the line for unbearable tension and hectic, claustrophobic action. He gained fame for helming The Bourne Supremacy and The Borne Ultimatum, but this one has more in common with his excellent United 93. Somehow he keeps us gripping the armrests despite knowing full well how the story ends. That is a talented filmmaker.

What adds to the stressed-filled fun here is that the world’s greatest everyman, Tom Hanks, meets his match with fire-eyed Somalian pirate Muse, played by first time actor Barkhad Abdi. The scenes pitting these two against each capt phillips2other are fascinating studies and the perfect example of vastly different worlds colliding. Hanks plays Captain Phillips, who is charged with guiding the cargo ship Maersk Alabama through the pirate filled waters. Phillips is not the warmest of guys, but seems to be a competent captain with respect from the crew.

Most of us remember watching on TV in 2009 as the 5 day sequence ended thanks to yet another perfectly executed Navy SEALs rescue mission. Greengrass does a terrific job of reenacting this moment. The other two moments that are sure to leave an impression both involve Mr. Hanks. The initial scene on the bridge as the pirates assume control of the ship … when Muse tells Phillips that he is now the captain, we see a flash of surrender in Phillips’ face. A stunning scene for both Hanks and Abdi (and congrats to Abdi for going toe to toe with the acting legend). The other scene worthy of discussion occurs after the rescue as Captain Phillips is escorted to sick bay to be checked out. His “in shock” actions are startling and very brave for an actor. Some may argue that Hanks took it too far, but I would encourage you to imagine yourself in that lifeboat and determine just how courageous you would be. Abdi also has a scene where he first discovers capt phillips3this is an American ship. He reacts as if he has won the lottery.  Since he is now serving time in a US prison, he has probably figured out that American roads are not paved with gold.

It was interesting to see how Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray (The Hunger Games) provide the contrast of the pressure the warlords put on the poverty stricken Somalian citizens and the high-tech, global view of the shipping company and crew.  This same contrast is apparent in the pirates vs. Phillips intrigue.  The film also begins with a peek at Phillips’ personal life and marriage (wife played by Catherine Keener).  We see the signs of a long-term relationship between people who communicate by talking around an issue (their kid and Phillips’ risky job).

Some scandal surrounds this story as there is a lawsuit against Maersk and Phillips brought by members of the crew. The contention being that Phillips knowingly steered the ship too close to the pirate waters in order to save time and money. Phillips went on to write a best selling book recounting the ordeal and he also returned to his job as ship captain. Hanks was the perfect choice to play Phillips as the story is more about a regular guy being thrust into an extraordinary situation. Phillips is no superhero … he doesn’t disarm four pirates. Instead, he uses guts and a will to live …  characteristics we all hope we would exhibit should we ever find ourselves in such a traumatic situation.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy tension-packed, based on a true story movies with expert acting

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you prefer light-hearted Tom Hanks (Big, Larry Crowne) to heavy-drama Tom Hanks (Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan)

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TzU3UJuV80w

 


THE HUNGER GAMES (2012)

April 3, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Having not read the Young Adult novels of Suzanne Collins, my comments will be limited to the movie only and not a comparison to the books. The screenplay was a joint affair courtesy Ms. Collins, Billy Ray, and director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit). Whether or not you read the books, you surely know that this has been an anticipated film version in the vein of Twilight and Harry Potter. My analysis is that it falls short of Harry and is superior to the vamps.

What this film definitely is … proof that Jennifer Lawrence is for real. She burst onto the scene in her Oscar nominated turn in Winter’s Bone and once again, her squirrel recipes come in handy. Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, a tough as nails and very resourceful resident of the dirt poor District 12. She provides for her little sis and their emotionally vacant mother, and does so by honing her bow and arrow skills hunting in the vast woodlands.

 Without going into too much detail, the dystopian world of Panem is divided into 12 districts and a Capitol. As a combination entertainment and price for previous rebellion, an annual lottery is held to select a boy and girl from each district … “tributes” to their community. Those drawing the proverbial short straw are entered into a brutal fight to the death, where 23 are to be killed and one left standing. In the 74th annual Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to take the place of her little sister. So she and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, The Kids are All Right) are whisked away to the Capitol to meet their mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a one time winner who now celebrates daily by downing as much booze as possible.

 In stark contrast to the hopeless community from which they arrive, the Capitol is a gleaming, bright-colored land of enchantment filled with wildly costumed residents seemingly bored by the atrocity of the annual event. Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, American Beauty) is the man in charge of staging and manipulating the event for the highest possible ratings and entertainment value. He carries out his duties while sporting a very unique satanic beard, unlike you have seen before.

After prepping from a futuristic Tom Ford named Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), the tributes appear in front of a futuristic Ryan Seacrest played by the flamboyant Stanley Tucci. His Caesar Flickerman is charged with interviewing so as to help the audience make a connection. Nothing like humanizing the prey.

 It takes a full hour, but the actual Hunger Games finally begin. Quickly the faceless characters disappear and the game of brutality and brains begins. Lawrence is truly a standout here since she has tremendous ability as an actress, and sells her athletic ability quite well. I can’t say I was as taken by Mr. Hutcherson, who spends most of the film looking like a wounded puppy.

While the PG-13 rating keeps it from becoming a gore fest, I found the action sequences to be quite entertaining. More interesting to me was how the story and characters are posed so that a viewer might interpret meaning in just about any manner one cares to twist. There are political views and human nature traits and commentary on the Reality TV world that are primed for claiming … regardless of one’s opinion. To me, that’s a weakness. I would rather the story take a stand and make a statement. But then I remind myself that this is the first in a trilogy of Young Adult stories. It’s not designed for deep thought. The movie succeeds in reaching the goal of producing a strong young female character in a world run amok.

The movie and story seems a mash-up of The Running Man (1987) and Japan’s Battle Royale (2000), but do deliver some other interesting characters, notably Donald Sutherland as the viscious President, Elizabeth Banks as the colorful PR expert Effie Trinket.  T Bone Burnett teams with James Newton Howard for the music, and the Tracker Jackers will definitely cross your mind the next time you have a wasp nest to deal with.  The missed opportunities with political commentary and a more in-depth love story do not harm the entertainment value here, and the box office success guarantees we will see “Catching Fire” and “Mockingjay” to finish out the trilogy.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you read the books (haha … like you haven’t already seen the movie at least twice) OR you want to follow the career of Jennifer Lawrence (super star in the making)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting an incredibly intense, socio-political commentary OR a satanic looking beard could cause nightmares

watch the trailer: