Monday, April 25, 2011

A Life in Film: Sidney Lumet (1924-2011)

We were all saddened by the recent death of master filmmaker Sidney Lumet. In my books, he ranks as the second best director of all time (behind Martin Scorsese). Each one of his films is a must-watch for any film buff. Every one of his films has a certain flair and attention to detail, yet none of them are the same movie. Even Hitchcock and Scorsese have made films that are basically the same movie with different characters. With Lumet, he never stayed in the same realm. One of the great crimes in Academy history is never giving Lumet a Best Director Oscar. He was nominated four times for groundbreaking films, yet he never came out on top. He had four Best Picture nominations in his career, yet none of them won. Looking back on it, is there any way that Network should have lost to Rocky? 12 Angry Men to The Bridge on the River Kwai? Dog Day Afternoon to Cuckoo’s Nest? I do not know of anyone that would say those losses were justified.

Lumet was perhaps the best director at working with actors in film history. He had a knack for pulling performances out of his actors that we never thought would have been possible, and they were characters whose depths were never approached again by those actors. Classic examples of this are Nick Nolte in Q&A, Paul Newman in The Verdict, Vin Diesel in Find Me Guilty, and the list goes on and on. He transformed actors into characters. Actors would work with Lumet to expand their range and do something that had never done before. Who would have thought Al Pacino, fresh off playing Michael Corleone, could have shown such vulnerability like he did in Dog Day Afternoon? Who would have thought the typically shy and nervous Philip Seymour Hoffman could have pulled off such a raging portrayal of human evil like he did in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead? Then there is William Holden, one of the most beloved Hollywood heartthrobs of all time, and then he gets his part in Network, playing an older, more self-aware and broken-down version of his heroic characters from the ‘50s. These characters are nothing like the image these actors had built up to that point. These all-time great performances have to be attributed to Lumet’s keen eye for spotting potential image-shattering qualities in his actors.

A common critique of Lumet’s work was that he did not make his films visually interesting enough to be considered a top-level director. He was not a great stylist, some claimed. He did not use exotic sets, crazy camera gimmicks, or long tracking shots. His camera almost always focused in on his actors’ faces, and he let them tell the story. However, he was able to use his unique style to his advantage and create some of the most suspenseful films in existence. 12 Angry Men is one of the most astonishing directorial debuts of all time. Essentially, the entire film takes place in one room, and the audience is left completely breathless, even more so than after 90% of most action films made recently. Nothing is special about how the film is shot or produced. What makes the film truly spectacular is the performances, the attention to detail, and the aura in the room. This cannot be attributed to anyone else but the director at the helm.

My favorite Lumet film, Serpico, takes the police genre and flips it. He got Al Pacino to give his best performance and one of the ten best performances in history. The rage and humanity of his shamed character are completely realized, and Lumet’s ability to just sit back and portray normal life on screen is something to truly be marveled at. Four years later came Network, one of the most important and timeless movies of the 1970s. Not only did Holden give some of his finest work, but Peter Finch gave one of the greatest and most unforgettable portrayals of the last 25 years. Yes, most of Lumet’s films are blessed with terrific screenplays, but if they were in other hands, they would not have been as effective on screen. It is Lumet’s humanism and how he told the stories that made his films so compelling, so breathtaking, and so true.

To put his career in perspective, I will go with a few lists. There is only so much you can say about one of the strongest voices ever in film. Here are his best achievements as a director:


5. Paul Newman – The Verdict

4. River Phoenix – Running on Empty

3. Faye Dunaway – Network

2. Al Pacino – Dog Day Afternoon

1. Al Pacino – Serpico


5. Lee J. Cobb – 12 Angry Men

4. Nick Nolte – Q&A

3. John Cazale – Dog Day Afternoon

2. Peter Finch – Network

1. Lindsay Crouse – The Verdict


5. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

4. 12 Angry Men

3. Network

2. Dog Day Afternoon

1. Serpico

Mr. Lumet will be remembered as one of the all time greats. Never has a director had a run quite like Lumet did in the mid 70s, with Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network, all coming within 4 years of each other. Even his smaller films like Find Me Guilty are terrific in their own ways, and I have yet to see one of his films that did not feature at least one Oscar-worthy performance in it. Even Family Business had Lumet regular Sean Connery in a hilarious role that could have easily garnered a Golden Globe nomination had the film been more popular. By the way, is that not the strangest three generation family (Connery, Dustin Hoffman, Matthew Broderick) ever cast in film? I think so.

Anyway, Sidney Lumet is a major part of what got me so interested in film. After watching Network and Dog Day Afternoon for the first time, I was hooked. Now, I am on a personal quest to seek out and watch each one of the gifts that he left us throughout his career (yes, even The Wiz). He ended his career on such a high note, with the underrated and criminally underseen films Find Me Guilty and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. I cannot help but wonder which tremendous story he might have told next.

RIP Sidney Lumet

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Films to look forward to in 2011

Now that we are about four and a half months into 2011 and we only have had one truly great film get released (Cedar Rapids), which was limited, I decided to stop looking at the present and start looking forward to my most anticipated films of the year. Everything so far seems to be slightly underwhelming or just average when taking into account the talent involved. As much as the studios would like to disagree, there are still not too many notable films in the first few months of the year, which is reinforced by the fact that early year box office results are significantly down compared to past years.

So, I have broken this up into a handful of categories, and then I will give my top 10 most anticipated films of the year overall. Enjoy.


5. Now, written by Andrew Niccol

4. Young Adult, written by Diablo Cody

3. Red State, written by Kevin Smith

2. We Bought a Zoo, written by Cameron Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna

1. Jeff Who Lives at Home, written by Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass


5. Captain America: The First Avenger

4. Larry Crowne

3. Cowboys & Aliens

2. Kung Fu Panda 2

1. Super 8


5. Crazy, Stupid, Love

4. Bad Teacher

3. Our Idiot Brother

2. Horrible Bosses

1. 30 Minutes or Less


5. Ryan Gosling – The Ides of March

4. Michelle Williams – My Week with Marilyn

3. Michael Fassbender – A Dangerous Method

2. Seth Rogen – Take This Waltz

1. Rooney Mara – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo


10. Young Adult

Directed by: Jason Reitman

Plot: Soon after her divorce, a fiction writer returns to her home in small-town Minnesota, looking to rekindle a romance with her ex-boyfriend, who is now married with kids.

Cast: Patrick Wilson, Charlize Theron, J.K. Simmons, Patton Oswalt

Release Date: None yet

9. Red State

Directed by: Kevin Smith

Plot: Set in Middle America, a group of teens receive an online invitation for sex, though they soon encounter fundamentalists with a much more sinister agenda.

Cast: Michael Parks, Melissa Leo, Michael Angarano, Stephen Root, John Goodman

Release Date: October 19

8. Super 8

Directed by: J.J. Abrams

Plot: In the summer of 1979, a group of friends in a small Ohio town witness a catastrophic train crash while making a super 8 movie and soon suspect that it was not an accident.

Cast: Elle Fanning, Ron Eldard, Noah Emmerich

Release Date: June 10

7. Moneyball

Directed by: Bennett Miller

Plot: The story of Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane's successful attempt to put together a baseball club on a budget by employing computer-generated analysis to draft his players.

Cast: Brad Pitt, Robin Wright, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman

Release Date: September 23

6. Jeff Who Lives at Home

Directed by: Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass

Plot: When he leaves his house on a seemingly banal errand for his disgruntled mother, Jeff discovers that the universe might be sending him signals about the nature of his destiny.

Cast: Jason Segel, Judy Greer, Ed Helms, Susan Sarandon, Katie Aselton

Release Date: None yet

5. Contagion

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

Plot: An action-thriller centered on the threat posed by a deadly disease and an international team of doctors contracted by the CDC to deal with the outbreak.

Cast: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, John Hawkes, Elliot Gould

Release Date: October 21

4. We Bought a Zoo

Directed by: Cameron Crowe

Plot: Set in Southern California, a father moves his young family to the countryside to renovate and re-open a struggling zoo.

Cast: Matt Damon, Elle Fanning, Scarlett Johansson, Patrick Fugit, Thomas Haden Church

Release Date: December 23

3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Directed by: David Fincher

Plot: A journalist is aided in his search for a woman who has been missing for forty years by a young female hacker.

Cast: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Robin Wright, Stellen Skarsgard, Embeth Davitz, Chrisopher Plummer

Release Date: December 21

2. Hugo Cabret

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Plot: Set in 1930s Paris, an orphan who lives in the walls of a train station is wrapped up in a mystery involving his late father and an automaton.

Cast: Asa Butterfield, Johnny Depp, Chloe Moretz, Jude Law, Emily Mortimer, Jude Law, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lee, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ray Winstone, Richard Griffiths, Michael Stuhlbarg

Release Date: November 23

1. The Tree of Life

Directed by: Terrence Malick

Plot: The story centers on a family with three boys in the 1950s. The eldest son witnesses the loss of innocence.

Cast: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain

Release Date: May 27

One that I feel bad about not mentioning is the new Alexander Payne film The Descendents. He has not made a film since my third favorite film of all time (Sideways), so I am sure that this one will be amazing. I know I am completely alone in not anticipating The Hangover Part II (the first one sucked) or the new Harry Potter movie (I have not seen any of the previous ones). The new Mission: Impossible movie should be cool with Brad Bird taking over the project, but that is not coming out until December. It could be a slow summer waiting for all of these films to come out. Plus, the summer just does not seem to have as many bankable movies. It will be interesting, though, much more interesting than what we are seeing currently at least.

So, did I miss anything? What are you most looking forward to?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Cat Run (2011) Review

Directed by John Stockwell

So, I went to see this movie with an open mind. I had no idea what it was about or who was in it. All I knew is that the poster outside the theater looked like a cross between Middle Men and James Bond, and for some reason, that was enough for me. Now that I saw it, I don’t know why I hadn’t heard of it. There were no TV spots or pre-film trailers for it. There were virtually no advertisements anywhere, even though it has some potential for a decent target market. I saw it with one other person, and we were the only people in the theater late on a Sunday night. And even though the film is stuffed with as many flaws as it is with topless women and severed body parts, we had a blast watching it.

The story is pretty nuts. There is a big government cover-up involving a murder. Catarina (Paz Vega) is a high-end prostitute who has some key information that could bring out the truth. Anthony (Scott Mechlowicz) and Julian (Alphonso McAuley) are a couple guys who unwittingly stumble upon becoming private investigators, which immediately leads them to Catarina. They become her protectors from an insane, cold-blooded contract-killer named Helen (Oscar-nominee Janet McTeer), who was hired to make sure that she says nothing. That is about as well as I could explain it (or comprehend it for that matter). There is so much more random stuff going on, but that is the basic story.

The film is directed by John Stockwell, who hasn’t really made a good movie. His most famous ones are Blue Crush and Into the Blue, which is funny considering those are two movies that are all about looking good, when this movie is about as ugly as you could imagine. He does have a thing for beautiful women, though, but that is beyond the point. It is put together really oddly. There are a ton of just misplaced scenes that feel like they are from another movie. The whole film is like this, almost like a series of sketches or really interesting ideas that were thrown at the screen in an incomprehensible order, all the time sort of following one storyline…or a couple interlocking ones. I am not really sure.

The best part of the movie is Janet McTeer. It is one of the most insane roles an Oscar nominee of her caliber has ever done. Her Anton Chigurh-channeling assassin is as cool of a character as I have seen in 2011 so far. Her killing is always…creative. I would almost like to see a spin-off centered completely on her character. Paz Vega is always nice to see (and look at). Her character is exactly what you would expect, but she is a real actress and gives some life to it. Scott Mechlowicz (of Eurotrip and Mean Creek fame) is a very cool character, and he plays it nicely. Imagine Timberlake’s Sean Parker, but even more of a care-free attitude about everything. Alphonso McAuley is funny in his young Chris Tucker-channeling role. D.L. Hughley shows up as a man with no legs and one arm. Karel Roden slides into his menacing role seemlessly. Christopher McDonald is a scene-stealer as usual. It is an interesting cast, but even more of an interesting collection of quirky characters. Their lack of chemistry and awesome individual lines and scenes make for hilarity of the highest order, sometimes.

Now, what is this movie exactly? I couldn’t tell you. It is like a cross between Rush Hour, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and the Guy Ritchie British gangster films, while given a very thorough grindhouse touch. Some parts will definitely bring to mind some classic exploitation films. The violence is relentless and over-the-top, but so is everything else about the movie. It almost seems like it fits. The movie wraps up in a strangely mellow way. Everything about this movie is just so different than anything else out right now. I am glad that I had the lack of better judgment to give this movie a look.

So, should you see this movie? That’s a tough question. The thing is that if you go to the theater, you will probably be the only one there. Somehow, with all that lack of marketing, the film got a semi-wide release. It was playing in 103 theaters on its opening weekend and finished in a cool 55th place for the weekend box office, just three spots below this year’s Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Language Film In a Better World (4 screens). Its per-screen average was just $291, the second-lowest of any film that made more than $1000 over the weekend. For obvious reasons, people just aren’t seeing this movie. The distributors did an egregious job at marketing it. So, my advice is rent it, grab a beer, and watch it late at night with a group of friends. It will be a killer time-waster and a very entertaining way to spend a lame rainy night indoors. It is as funny as anything I have seen this year, and after watching it, all I could say about it was that it was so messy and just ruthlessly entertaining. That’s about all you can ask for from a B movie like this. I say that it is worth it, but maybe that’s just me.

Rating: 2.5 stars