Thursday, February 28, 2013

Don't Stop Snitchin'

Professional wrestlers crossing the chasm into acting has been around for so long, we’ve don’t realize just how much they’ve influenced the films we enjoy. Many have had nice, profitable careers in the film industry, or at the very least have owned one big, memorable role that has survived the test of time. Jesse “The Body” Ventura (Predator), “Rowdy” Roddy Piper (They Live), Andre “The Giant” Roussimoff (Princess Bride) and Hulk Hogan (Mr. Nanny) all proved their adaptability outside of the squared circle back in the eighties and nineties. In more recent years however, talents such as John Cena (The Marine) have struggled to break through into the mainstream. But while many have failed to make it big, one that stands as an unquestioned success and is undeniably the poster child for such transitions is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who first surfaced as a performer for World Wrestling Entertainment (then World Wrestling Federation) back in 1995. As a multiple-time World Champion, Johnson gained such a following that when he finally did go over to making movies in 2001’s The Mummy Returns, his popularity garnered him almost instant success. Like Hogan and Arnold Schwarzenegger (who of course was a world-renowned bodybuilder before he turned to acting) before him, he peppered his roles with variety, switching between heavy action (Walking Tall) to family fare (The Tooth Fairy), and while some of his projects have flown well under the radar, for the most part Johnson has been successful thanks to his rich charisma, a willingness to experiment and an actual talent for performing in the medium.

These abilities work heavily in favor of Snitch, the first wide-released feature film from stuntman-turned-director Ric Roman Waugh. In it, Johnson plays John Matthews, a successful businessman and father whose son Jason (Rafi Gavron) is arrested in connection with conspiracy to distribute ecstasy, and is looking at ten years in prison unless he agrees to flip evidence on any other drug dealers in order to reduce his sentence. This is difficult as Jason doesn’t actually know any other lawbreakers, except for the “friend” who pointed a finger at him. Desperate to get his son safely out of prison, Johnson makes a deal with prosecuting attorney Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon) and goes undercover to gain evidence on suspected drug dealers, thanks to an introduction by reformed ex-con Daniel James (Joe Bernthal). While John manages to infiltrate the criminal underworld, he is surprised to be scouted by the Mexican drug cartel who wants to use his company’s big rigs to transport drugs and money. While success in implicating such high-ranking drug lords would get Jason freed immediately, John might not live long enough to see it happen.

One aspect you might not expect to be Snitch’s strong suit is its acting core, but that’s one of its surprising advantages. While Johnson is at times noticeably larger than his co-stars, he never pretends to be some kind of avenging warrior, but instead does everything he can to portray a perfectly normal man whose only worldly concerns are the stability of his business and the safety of his family. His fellow actors also lend considerable depth to what could have been one-note characters, and while none are adequately explored, many of them stand out due to the strength of their performances. Bernthal and Michael K. Williams work wonders at playing past and present criminal types, while on the other side of the law are talented character actors Sarandon and Barry Pepper as a Congress-aspiring prosecutor and hard-nosed DEA agent, respectively. Finally, Benjamin Bratt plays delightfully against type as a drug cartel enforcer making things more difficult for everybody. Waugh does a great job not only in casting his people but setting up clues that hint to the backgrounds of his characters without feeling the need to outright explain every little detail concerning their lives. This ability to actually pace the development of characters is a welcome change from the norm, and with Johnson leading a very competent cast, all you need is a good story for them to carry.

Surprisingly, while the trailer might make you think that Snitch is an action-heavy, character-light story playing to the same crowds that have avoided Bullet to the Head or The Last Stand in the past month, the truth is that this movie is more character-driven drama than testosterone-fueled action flick. This isn’t to say that the movie is boring; just the opposite, in fact. There are only two scenes approaching heavy action, and neither is enormously essential to the film as a whole. Both of those scenes are easily overshadowed by great character-building scenes and a righteous tale bemoaning the controversial (and of questionable effectiveness) Mandatory Minimum laws, which are the main focus of the tale. While the screenplay (by Justin Haythe and then rewritten by Waugh) isn’t as book-smart or realistic as, say, HBO’s crime series The Wire, it does feel surprisingly researched and very, very clever in the way it parcels out information. For instance, we never see first-hand what happens to John’s son during his stay in prison, and we only get a glimpse during his parents’ brief visits. The story is not without its miscues; everything moves a bit too quickly, and believability was cut way back in packing a LOT of plot into a sub-two-hour experience. In fact, Snitch might have worked better as a television miniseries than it does as a feature film, perhaps on one of the more forward-thinking networks like AMC or the aforementioned HBO.

But regardless of what it could or should be, Snitch is what it is: a smart (but not incomprehensible), fun (but not silly), thoroughly entertaining movie trip. It’s an “important message” movie, and while it’s one of the better-done ones in recent memory, you still have to accept and take into account that this might not be the movie you imagined going in. Though it may not be the best or most enjoyable of his films, Johnson proves once again that talent is talent, no matter the source. Maybe not a must-see in theaters, but it does come up at #6 for the year, and can calm your Rock-craving until the new GI Joe movie hits or Fast and Furious 6 comes out this summer. At the very least, this is one you won’t regret giving a shot when the time is right.

Monday, February 25, 2013

I Dreamed a Dream: A Hello, Mr. Anderson Oscar Recap

There has been a struggle the past few years when it comes to the annual television presentation of the the Academy Awards. Every year, sponsors and reviewers bemoan a distinct lack of young viewers, with the audience slowly getting higher up in average age. In an attempt to appeal to these elusive men and women, a number of appeals have been made, starting with the expansion of films eligible for the Best Picture award in 2009 and then turning to younger, more appealing Oscar hosts. In 2011 the Academy brought in James Franco and Anne Hathaway in an attempt to appear "young and hip", and just last year the show was going to be directed by popular hack Brett Ratner and hosted by Eddie Murphy until Ratner's unfortunate gay slur incident, which necessitated a quick turn to old reliable Billy Crystal. Yesterday it was Family Guy and Ted creator Seth MacFarlane who got the call, easily the most controversial selection of the modern era. In the meantime, the organization proceeded to nominate art films and critical darlings while blockbusters and sci-fi titles continued to get the shaft recognition-wise. But while Sunday was still business as usual, did it at least take some steps in the right direction?

Let's look at MacFarlane's contribution first. There was never any doubt as to the host's controversial nature, and he made good on that threat by tossing out a few bon mots at the earliest opportunity, including a good one at eventual Best Picture winner Argo's director Ben Affleck. But while MacFarlane at first appeared intent on not holding back any punches, Oscar politics got involved (or perhaps he just displayed some common sense as to what was expected of him) and he started holding back. His opening sequence was decent, highlighted by William Shatner as James Kirk and both a mini softshoe bit with the host, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Daniel Radcliffe and a dance scene featuring the talents of Charlize Theron and Channing Tatum (No, not Magic Mike style). While he still had a few winners in the humor department, MacFarlane too often seemed to be trying to appease everyone, and when you combine that with his generally hit-or-miss jokes, it wasn't always good. He got in a few good jibes, but for the most part he played it safe. That said, he was still the best host the show has had in years (not counting the Hathaway half of two years past), thanks in no small part to his self-deprecating style, genuinely good timing and the ability to actually belt a tune on occasion. With the exception of an opening that took far too long, there's really not much to complain about.

Tommy Lee Jones: one of the night's many non-winners.
The rest of the night was a cross between awesome musical performances, middling sidebars and tributes, and upset after upset for the award winners (at least as far as my picks went, anyway...). On the musical side, we got performances from the cast of Les Miserables (and their Oscar-nominated song "Suddenly"), Catherine Zeta-Jones showing off her gams in a song from Chicago (which was celebrating its 10'th anniversary), Jennifer Hudson busting her ass to deliver her iconic bit from Dreamgirls, and eventual Original Song winner Adele barely breaking a sweat in delivering her masterful "Skyfall". The performances were not all great, with the Chicago performance - while still fun - coming off as a bit cluttered on the stage, and the tribute to the music of James Bond (for the franchise's 50'th anniversary) a bit underwhelming. I know that Bond movies feature explosions, but when the focus is supposed to be on the music, it hurts when the sound effects overshadow what you're trying to celebrate. It's an example of how director Don Mischer was perhaps a bit overtaxed in his duties. More often than not, the music ran overlong, and at one point the viewers at home plain missed the beginning of one segment. Technically speaking, the show had its share of faults. Not so much that it was a disaster, but enough mistakes were made that Mischer - who has directed his share of public events in the past - likely won't be invited back next year.

That she tripped wasn't so shocking as much as that she could sit down in the first place.

The show also wasn't nearly as predictable as many (myself included) thought it would be. Political thriller Zero Dark Thirty, whom many considered to be the best movie of 2012, only took home one award, tying Skyfall in the Sound Editing category. Silver Linings Playbook also disappointed, the romantic comedy puling out only one trophy. It should be noted however that the one award SLP managed to snag was a major one, with Jennifer Lawrence upsetting ZD30's favored Jessica Chastain and three other talented performers in a very crowded Best Actress category. Other surprises included Christoph Waltz (Best Supporting Actor), Quentin Tarantino (Original Screenplay for Django), the overrated Brave (Animated Feature) and especially Ang Lee winning Best Director, which for a few moments convinced us that Life of Pi might actually take home the night's big prize. Life of Pi was indeed the belle of the ball, though Argo managed to eke out some major victories, almost as if the Academy was apologizing for snubbing Ben Affleck in the Director category. Sure, some awards were easy to see coming, between Daniel Day-Lewis' foregone Best Actor win (he both gave a lovely speech and got the biggest laugh of the night), Anne Hathaway's much-deserved Best Supporting Actress win and Life of Pi's many technical achievements, but for the most part it was an open field of potential that was insanely difficult to navigate cleanly.

Adele is simply amazing.
Perhaps the biggest upset of the night was that there was no real underdog to steal the show. Sure, Adele and Anne Hathaway had tearful acceptance speeches, but rarely did anybody unexpected step up and claim the spotlight for themselves in any meaningful, lasting way. Worse was how minor award winners were sped off the stage if their speeches dared cross the 30-second mark, while Hathaway was given all the time in the world to say everything she needed to between sobs. Unlike in years past, when a minor filmmaker would surprise everybody with a profound, moving and slightly corny speech, nobody really stood out. There were plenty of older men with shoulder-length white hair, but nobody really made a stand as someone to watch, and they will all likely end up forgotten by this time next year. That is, with the possible exception of Affleck, who gave most of the speech for Best Picture winner Argo. Simultaneously he was the same nervous young man who had co-won the Oscar for Good Will Hunting fifteen years ago and a grateful veteran who was acutely aware of just how fortunate his Hollywood career has been. Let me definitely say this; Good for him.

Affleck is about to get down.
As a final note, it's time to check my score for this year's Oscar picks that I selected last night... I'm not afraid to tell you I'm nervous about the results, as I know of a few high-profile misses that likely tanked my score. Well, here goes...

Award                               My Pick                            Winner                             Result
Best Picture                       Argo                                  Argo                                Hit!
Best Director                     Steven Spielberg                Ang Lee                          Miss!
Best Actor                         Daniel Day-:Lewis             Daniel Day-Lewis             Hit!
Best Actress                      Jessica Chastain                 Jennifer Lawrence           Miss!
Best Supporting Actor       Tommy Lee Jones              Christoph Waltz               Miss!
Best Supporting Actress    Anne Hathaway                 Anne Hathaway                Hit!
Best Original Screenplay    Django: Unchained            Django: Unchained            Hit!
Best Adapted Screenplay   Lincoln                             Argo                                Miss!
Best Animated Feature      Wreck-It Ralph                  Brave                              Miss!
Best Foreign Film               Amour                              Amour                              Hit!
Best Documentary Ft.        Searching for Sugarman     Searching for Sugarman     Hit!
Best Documentary Shrt.     Mondays at Racine            Innocente                         Miss!
Best Live Action Short       Curfew                              Curfew                              Hit!
Best Animated Short          Paperman                          Paperman                          Hit!
Best Original Score            Life of Pi                            Life of Pi                           Hit!
Best Original Song             Skyfall                               Skyfall                               Hit!
Best Sound Editing             Zero Dark Thirty             (t) Zero Dark Thirty/Skyfall  Hit! (kinda)
Best Sound Mixing             Lincoln                              Les Miserables                 Miss!
Best Production Design      Life of Pi                            Lincoln                             Miss!
Best Cinematography         Life of Pi                            Life of Pi                           Hit!
Best Makeup and Hair       The Hobbit                        Les Miserables                 Miss!
Best Costume Design         Les Miserables                  Anna Karenina                  Miss!
Best Film Editing                Zero Dark Thirty               Argo                                 Miss!
Best Visual Effects              Life of Pi                           Life of Pi                           Hit!

Despite my griping, I've actually had my most successful pack of selections to date, scoring 13 out of a possible 24! Even if I only gave myself half a point for the Sound Editing tie, I'd still have beaten my personal record, and gotten over half of the awards right for the first time! Zero Dark Thirty disappointed and Argo surprised, but overall the Academy Awards came out alright. How did your favorites perform?