Academy DVD Screener Round-Up!

5 12 2011

In Hollywood, there are two types of people: those who’ve risen through the ranks, paid dues, gained industry-wide respect and been recognized with membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences… and then there are assholes like Steven Spielblog who go over to the homes of A.M.P.A.S. members, and watch all their Oscar-season screener DVD’s. This past weekend, I shamelessly devoured a metric ton of them. Here’s my report:

J.J. Abrams (right) directs SUPER 8

With SUPER 8, J.J. Abrams attempts the acrobatic feat of remaking every single Steven Spielberg film all at once, and again proves that he’s a better student of film than he is a filmmaker. Lose the near-constant lens flare and chock-a-block nostalgia, and the story here barely qualifies as a full one. Not for adults, anyway. As a Spiel-worshipper, I should say that it’s commendable that Abrams made a children’s film that’s meant to be a contiguous addition to the 80’s Amblin catalogue (with the man’s name on it, no less,) and if SUPER 8 turns kids onto CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, well, terrific. But in every other way, this is just a faithful footnote that strikes a grown-up fan as puny alongside the classics.

Johnny Depp as Donald Rumsfeld in THE RUM DIARY

Johnny Depp does Hunter S. Thompson proud in his portrayal of Paul Kemp, the protagonist of Thompson’s long-gestating semi-autobiographical novel THE RUM DIARY. The meandering but likeable film built around him has its highs (Richard Jenkins) and lows (Amber Heard,) but it hangs together – barely – as a result of a few choice lines, some priceless Depp deadpanning, and perfect costuming by the great Colleen Atwood. Still, crack open a Webster’s to the word “rental,” and this is what you’ll see.

Yeah, didn't make it to this part.

I didn’t make it through PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES. I shut it off. And no I will not apologize. Next!

The stuffy, overlong biopic J. EDGAR relies on the same narrative framing device as screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s last film, MILK. It’s the “OK now let me tell you my side of the story” approach, in which the main character actually says the line “OK now let me tell you my side of the story” (or some minor variation of it,) and we then launch into a series of flashbacks. In J. EDGAR’s case, the flashbacks fare better than the ‘present day’ material, if only because in the role of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Leonardo DiCaprio’s aging make-up is so hilariously wrong. The only believable aging anywhere in J. EDGAR is on America’s childhood crush Lea Thompson, who shows up in a small role. Lea, bless her, now without aid looks almost exactly like Lorraine McFly circa 1985 in BACK TO THE FUTURE. For your consideration in the category of Best Makeup: Time!

THE SKIN I LIVE IN is so good, you too may lick your TV screen.

Take Hitchcock’s VERTIGO, turn the ‘that’s fucked up, yo’ meter to eleven and dub it en Español, and you’ve got an idea of the treat you’re in for with Pedro Almodóvar’s newest, THE SKIN I LIVE IN. In SKIN, Antonio Banderas stars as an obsessive doctor whose live-in experiment (the gorgeous Elena Anaya) holds a dark secret… dot dot dot. Only Almodovar could pull something as twisted as this off and still make it so darkly hilarious, which does with typical style. THE SKIN I LIVE IN is weirder than anything he’s done in years, and what it lacks in the empathy of one of his masterworks like ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER, it makes up for in inspired macabre suspense. I loved it.

When brothers fight, we ALL win.

A manly melodrama, or “man-o-drama,” Gavin O’Connor’s WARRIOR casts Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as estranged brothers who enter an ultimate fighting championship in Atlantic City. Hardy’s the brooding/brawny Iraq vet, Edgerton the family man who can’t pay his mortgage, so he turns to professional bludgeoning. (And what’s more American than that?) The fighting on display is repetitive, but no matter, it’s the brothers’ emotions and motivations that take center stage, and in that arena WARRIOR clicks, particularly when booze-battling father Nick Nolte’s on screen. He makes a believable pops to both, and a believable alcoholic too, turning in his best work since AFFLICTION. But WARRIOR’s a film primarily for guys who think ‘Affliction’ is a clothing brand. Don’t worry, it’s safe to cry here, Ed Hardy Boys. No one will see you weeping inside the UFC cage…

Evil nazi gynecologist Jesper Christensen in THE DEBT

It’s no secret my favorite genre is ‘sexy nazi hunt thriller,’ so John Madden’s THE DEBT lands squarely in my sweet spot. It’s a suspenseful piece that builds to a gripping climax, with a superb cast playing characters in early days and later (Jessica Chastain turns into Helen Mirren, Martin Csokas turns into Tom Wilkinson and Sam Worthington turns into Ciaran Hinds,) a choice on Madden’s part that underscores the sense that our heroes’ dealings with the brutal Surgeon of Birkenau (Jesper Christensen) totally change them as human beings. Even so, the back-and-forth is just this side of distracting, with one too may inconsistent accents – and, you know, the fact that Sam Worthington looks absolutely nothing like Ciaran Hinds. But regardless of your affection for the ‘sexy nazi hunt thriller,’ this one’s worth your money. Or in my case, it’s worth – free! Ah, the joys of watching someone else’s Academy screeners! Sincerely, boo-yah.


Don’t fuggedabout DONNIE BRASCO

7 12 2009

After an all-day GODFATHER marathon on Thanksgiving, and a subsequent jonesin’ for another mob movie high, I happened upon 1997’s sleeper DONNIE BRASCO last night, and couldn’t take my eyes off it. Starring a pre-super-duper-stardom Johnny Depp as an undercover FBI agent stuck between his family and The Family, it’s not GODFATHER PART II, but it’s a haunting film, and one worth revisiting for a few reasons:


Firstly, there’s Mister Al Pacino, in one of his best showings of the last two decades. (ANGELS IN AMERICA’s a rival – but then, it’s not a theatrically-released film, is it? HM?) He’s fantastic here in a very non-Pacino role, as Lefty Ruggiero, a Mafioso, but by no stretch a power player. Michael Corleone he is not. And though director Mike Newell introduces him in mid-self-aggrandizement, the rest of the film chips away at the delusions of Lefty, revealing him as the Cosa Nostra equivalent of a middle-class working stiff. Absent are the toothy outbursts that have defined too many late-period Pacino-formances. Lefty’s a shlub, and Pacino’s performance is hypnotic in the dimension he lends this shlubbery. His last scene of the piece is a muted master class in naturalist shading that stands alongside his superior early work.

Secondly, the score by Patrick Doyle is outstanding. Doyle’s a composer who knows from epic (check out his work in Kenneth Branagh’s maximalist HAMLET, or in Cuaron’s minimalist GREAT EXPECTATIONS,) yet here he largely holds back, giving his sublime main theme “Donnie and Lefty” all the more bada-bing-bada-bam-boom when it hits at film’s end. This is one credit roll that keeps you in your seat.

Thirdly, Anne Heche does a great deal in a somewhat rote role of the wife losing touch with her husband as he slips deeper into his undercover persona. Yes, Anne Heche. With the shrill off-screen antics that have since dwarfed her actual career, it’s easy to overlook the woman’s chops, and in “Donnie Brasco,” she hits the perfect note, so desperate to connect, though never pathetic in her attempts to hold on. Don’t get me wrong; Anne Heche should go away forever – but here, it’s easy to see why she was once upon a time ‘one to watch.’ So, watch. Then you can go right back to dismissing her. As of the end of this sentence, I already have…

What was most striking re-watching DONNIE BRASCO at the end of the ’00’s, however, is how ahead of the Sopranos curve it was, particularly in terms of depicting the degrading day-to-day of a mobster. Sure, we’ve spent the better part of this decade watching Paulie Walnuts and Christopher Moltisanti struggle with the banal/evil duties of the family soldier, but Pacino’s Lefty is avant garde of the whole Satriale’s gang.


Two years before Tony took his crown, British director Newell came at the central issues of Los Sopranos – duty, alienation, and betrayal – with a calculated remove that an American shooter weaned on Scorsese and Coppola might not have been able to pull off. Witness a scene in which a very young-looking Paul Giamatti, playing an FBI surveillance technician, prods “Donnie” on the definitions of “fuggedaboutit” (a term that found new life as a t-shirt slogan during the Sopranos’ heyday.) Newell, an outsider himself – and a bit of a chameleon, as established filmmakers go – succeeded in making a film that remains fascinating twelve years on, because it asks questions of Mafia culture, rather than revel in, or glorify it.