Underseen Movie: ‘Sarah’s Key’ – A Unique Look at the Effects of the Holocaust

Sarah’s Key” is what some would say is yet another movie dealing with the Holocaust and its impact on us all, but do not be fooled into thinking it is going to be the same old thing. Based on the novel “Her Name Was Sarah” by Tatiana de Rosnay, it ventures into this dark part of history from a different perspective as we watch the French army and bureaucracy aiding the Nazi party as they rounded up Jews and shipped them to Auschwitz; this event was called the Vel’ d’Hiv’ Roundup. As the story moves back and forth in time from 1942 to 2009, American journalist Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) works to solve a decades-old mystery which can no longer remain hidden, and these days we are all sick of things remaining hidden.

In 2009, Julia has moved into an apartment with her French husband and teenage daughter. She had previously written a celebrated article about the Vel’ d’Hiv’ Roundup, and he soon learns her husband inherited the apartment from his grandparents who came into possession of it during the 1940’s. From there, she becomes obsessed in learning about the apartment’s history, and she learns it was the scene of an unspeakable incident. Finding out the truth about this incident, however, proves to be extremely difficult as her family sees it as too damaging to reveal to the world at large.

Julia’s main focus is centered on a young girl named Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) who hid her little brother Michel in a closet to keep him from getting rounded up by the Nazis along with everyone else. She makes him promise to stay in the closet until she returns, and she takes with her the only key which can unlock it. But Sarah soon realizes no one will be going back home anytime soon, and she escapes her captors in a desperate attempt to save Michel before it’s too late.

Like Stephen Daldry did with “The Reader,” director Gilles Paquet-Brenner makes the transitions between the past and present feel seamless to where it never feels jarring. He also avoids turning “Sarah’s Key” into a schmaltz fest begging for Oscar consideration which is quite the relief. By getting naturalistic performances from the cast, he creates an atmosphere which feels real and not exaggerated for effect. You end up getting caught up so emotionally in the story and its characters to where you do not feel like you’re watching just any motion picture.

Thomas is an amazing actress who never gets the same acclaim actresses like Meryl Streep or Viola Davis do on a regular basis. Maybe it is because her acting is not as theatrical, but Thomas’ strength is in inhabiting characters to where you never catch her acting. She pulls off a flawless American accent to where she makes the act look effortless, and she speaks fluent French ever so beautifully.

Attention must also be paid to Mélusine Mayance who gives a very believable performance as the young Sarah. Called upon to portray a child going through horribly nightmarish circumstances, Mayance holds her own amongst the adults, and she breaks your heart through her utter commitment to the character she portrays. Throughout, she makes you share Sarah’s desperation in getting to her little brother before someone else does, and she makes you feel her accomplishments and disappointments in every which way.

“Sarah’s Key” is one of those movies I find it hard to find any fault with it. Everything seems to fit together perfectly, and nothing ever appears superfluous to the story. While it treads the well-worn ground of Holocaust movies and of what happened to millions of Jews, it finds an interesting angle by looking at the complicity of the French in this atrocity. It never did get much of a release as it spent little time in theaters near you, and you will probably be hearing about it more about on physical and digital media. Here is hoping that it finds a bigger audience than the one it has already gotten to date.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Hot Fuzz’ – A Ralph Report Video Vault Selection

HERE COME THE FUZZ!!!

Hot Fuzz” comes from the makers of “Shaun of The Dead,” one of the funniest comedies of the 2000’s. The great thing about that one is how it featured very well drawn our characters who we come to care about, and it makes the laughs all the heartier. Most spoofs and satires suck these days because they try too hard to make you laugh instead of playing it straight like the actors did in “Airplane!” Director Edgar Wright brings it back to this as it gives you characters to follow from start to finish while you laugh your ass off throughout.

“Hot Fuzz” proves to be every bit as hilarious as “Shaun of the Dead” as it mines genres for an infinite amount of glee while giving us characters to care about. This film’s main target is the Jerry Bruckheimer action movies of the 1990’s as well as others like “Point Break,” Silent Rage” and “Bad Boys II.” These films were also the target of the “South Park” creators when they made “Team America: World Police.” But while “Team America” held nothing back in its gleeful viciousness, this one is more well-intentioned and even funnier in the process.

“Hot Fuzz” stars Simon Pegg as Nicholas Angel, the best police officer in the London Metropolitan police force. Nicholas holds the record for the most arrests of any officer, but his superiors have decided to transfer him to the countryside. The problem is he is so good at his job that he has inadvertently made his fellow officers look bad in the process. This is bad for the department’s image, so they end up transferring him to Sanford, a town far off in the countryside where nothing much happens.

Sanford is a rather lax town where the police there easily look over such matters as underage drinking and shoplifting. Regardless of what they guilty have done, they don’t spend more than an hour in jail. Nicholas gets off to a quick start in a hilarious scene where he busts just about everyone in a bar because they are underage. But while he does the right thing, he also drives out the pub’s business. Whenever Nicholas does something right, being the stiff by-the-book officer he is, he ends up getting punished by doing the most menial duties an officer can do.

Along the way, he ends up getting partnered with an overweight and action film buff named Police Constable Danny Butterman. Played by Nick Frost, you could say he is playing the same character he portrayed “Shaun of The Dead,” but he is still hilarious here so, seriously, who cares? Danny romanticizes about living the life of action he sees in “Point Break” and “Bad Boys II.” When he meets Nicholas Angel, he believes Nicholas has come from a city where he has seen a similar kind of action. Nicholas, however, comes from a world where police work is nowhere as exciting and bombastic as it is in motion pictures. It’s serious work with very little action. That is, until several “accidents” end up occurring in Sanford which its residents are quick to easily dismiss. But Nicholas is too smart to pass these events off as accidents when it involves the value of the land and the fact that the evidence does not match up.

“Hot Fuzz” is an enjoyable movie throughout, and it never drags. Even the usher who introduced the movie to us when I saw it at Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood said it was the best thing playing there at that point. The usher was absolutely right as Wright and his cast and fellow filmmakers and actors prove to be more than up to giving us an endless barrage of laughs we can never get enough of.

What drives me nuts about movie comedies these days is you can see the jokes coming from a mile away, and this makes me constantly roll my eyes in severe frustration. Wright and company, on the other hand, give us unforgettably hilarious moments which sneak up on you when you least expect it. There are many movie references here which might have gone over the head of many in the audience. How well you can pick them out depends how big of a movie buff you are.

The most enjoyable part of “Hot Fuzz” for me was towards the end when everything turns into the bombastic and explosion filled action spectacular which is your typical Bruckheimer film. Everything blowing up around the characters, all the bad guys shooting guns and many bullets expended, but they somehow keep missing the good guys even when they have a scope on their rifles. Our heroes flying in the air while shooting their guns off like they somehow jumped into a John Woo movie. Seeing a lot of this was a huge kick and had me laughing endlessly. Completely over the top, and the movie does not take itself as seriously as Nicholas Angel takes himself as a police officer.

Of course, there are many other great performances here. Oscar winning actor Jim Broadbent plays Inspector Frank Butterman. He plays it with the kind of gleeful ease which has been on display in the many roles he has played before and after this one, let alone his scene-stealing turn in “Moulin Rouge” (“Like a Virgin” will never be the same).

One guy who is truly great here, and I was so glad to see him back in action after what feels like a long time, is Timothy Dalton. He of course is the short-lived successor to Roger Moore as James Bond, and one of the more underrated 007 actors if you ask me. He has one of the most comedically driest of roles here as Simon Skinner, whose guilt Nicholas can spot from miles and miles away while all the other police officers in town walk around with blinders over their eyes. The smirk on Dalton’s face is an image which stayed with me long after this film ended, and it makes me believe he would have given us a more well-rounded Bond in future installments had Pierce Brosnan not replaced him so soon.

As Nicholas Angel, Pegg plays a character who is very much the opposite of the one he played in “Shaun of The Dead.” He is a straight arrow here, one of the men who can’t help but have a huge stick up his rigid ass. For a while, it looked like he would be playing the same character over and over again after I saw him in “Mission Impossible III,” but he proved to us here that there is much more to him than what we had seen up to this point.

Steve Ashton of “The Ralph Report” was right, this film is full of a plethora of talented character actors. There’s Paddy Considine who does one of the best double takes here that I have ever seen any actor give. I first became consciously aware of Olivia Coleman when I watched her in “The Favourite,” but her appearance here as the sole female police officer in Sanford is probably the first thing I ever saw her in. and she is ever so delightful here. Then there is Martin Freeman who can play just about any character he wants to whether it is in this film or something like “Love Actually.” And as for Bill Nighy… Well, you can never go wrong with an actor like him.

Whether or not you think “Hot Fuzz” is better or worse than “Shaun of the Dead” or even “The World’s End” is irrelevant because it is a total blast from start to finish. The “Three Flavours Cornetto” trilogy has given us nothing but endless entertainment, and “Hot Fuzz” is merely one of several examples. Just remember this, when a character tells us “This shit just got real,” it has far more meaning here than it ever did in “Bad Boys II.”

* * * * out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Ran’

I pride myself on having a vast knowledge of movies. While my many of my friends stumble across a movie they don’t recognize, I am usually quick to name it even if I have never watched it before. Everyone is amazed at how I could know such things. Still, when it comes to older movies and the great filmmakers who ever lived, there are still many I need to catch up on.

One of those filmmakers I really need to catch up on is Akira Kurosawa who is considered by many to one of the greatest of all time. Until I saw “Ran,”, the only movie of his I had previously watched was “The Seven Samurai” which really is one of greatest movies ever made. Of course, I got exposed to the American remake, “The Magnificent Seven,” beforehand, but anyway.

“Ran” was the very last movie Kurosawa made on such an epic scale, and as amazing as it looked when it was first released, this is even more the case more than 30 years later. Kurosawa clearly had the power to request literally thousands of extras, and it is easy to see well-dressed studio executives looking at him to where, had he made this movie today, would have asked him:

“Can’t you just add all these people in with CGI? Wouldn’t it be easier and cheaper just to hire like 50 guys instead of 1200?”

If they didn’t ask them that, they would obviously come up with the obvious solution:

“We’ll solve it in post!”

Looking at the title and scenes from the movie trailer, I figured the title “Ran” meant the main characters were running from certain doom throughout like it was a big chase. This should show you what I know about the Japanese language, and that is not much. “Ran” actually means “revolt” or “chaos,” and Kurosawa’s movie is filled with so much of both to where this is ends up being a cinematic experience both physically and emotionally draining.

Kurosawa based the story on the legends of the daimyo Mori Motonari and of how he had three sons who were intensely loyal to him. This led him to look at the story a little differently and say the following:

“When I read that three arrows together are invincible, that’s not true. I started doubting, and that’s when I started thinking: the house was prosperous and the sons were courageous. What if this fascinating man had bad sons?”

Of course, anyone familiar with William Shakespeare will say that “Ran” is heavily influenced by the tragedy of “King Lear.” Indeed, the story very much resembles that of “King Lear” as we watch a powerful leader abdicate his throne, and he ends up being betrayed by his own blood in the process.

The powerful leader at the center of “Ran” is Hidetora, leader of the Ichimonji clan. The story starts with Hidetora abdicating his throne to his three sons Taro, Jiro, and Saburo. The majority of the power is given to Taro who is his eldest son, and Jiro and Saburo are ordered by their father to support him no matter what. Saburo, however, does not agree with Hidetora’s decision to disperse all of his powers, reminding him how his kingdom came about through his own treachery and massacre of others. Hidetora starts acting all uppity as if he’s a superstar celebrity who is not used to hearing the word “no” much, and he banishes Saburo from the clan as well as his servant Tango who speaks in Saburo’s defense. It’s amazing what breaking three arrows together can do to a man’s ego.

From there, it is a vicious downfall for Hidetora as he is banished from his kingdom ever so coldly. Many characters here profess to believe in a god, be it Buddha or someone else, and they pray for their assistance in this little world which is quickly collapsing. If there is a god watching over them, he, or she, is blind to their sufferings or deaf to their endless prayers. Hence, this is quite a bleak movie from a thematic and visual standpoint.

After watching “Ran,” I was compelled to learn more about it. While researching the movie more deeply, It turns out “King Lear” never really entered Kurosawa’s mind until he was deep into pre-production. Along the way, he did incorporate different elements of the play into it, and he had this to say about Shakespeare’s classic tragedy:

“What has always troubled me about ‘King Lear’ is that Shakespeare gives his characters no past. … In Ran, I have tried to give Lear a history.”

Now this is what gives Hidetora, among others characters, such gravity throughout the nearly three-hour running time. He was not a leader who earned his kingdom through family succession, but through the pillaging of villages and murdering those who were against them. Perhaps he would like to forget this, but his power and family are forever stained by his deeds, and he is reminded of this in the most painful of ways.

With this in mind, it is no wonder two of Hidetora’s three sons end up turning against him. What his legacy has taught them is you can’t get anywhere in life without beating the crap out of the other guy and stealing everything he and his followers have. Only Saburo is fearless and selfless in telling him this and of pointing out the fact he will always be seen as a killer. Saburo at least cares enough to tell him this instead of just sucking up to him like his brothers do. Some people hear the word “yes” once too often when they need some others say “no” every once in a while.

As we see Hidetora losing his mind and in a state of disbelief, I was reminded of Will Munny, Clint Eastwood character from “Unforgiven.” Both these characters become sick, and in their feverish state they become haunted by the lives they ended ever so coldly. They have tried to convince themselves they are not the same people they once were, and Hidetora appears to develop amnesia in an effort to block his mind of his past deeds. But nightmares abound in his sleep reminding him of the price he has yet to pay. You could even compare this character to Anakin Skywalker who becomes the very thing he fought against in “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.” In the process of trying to prevent the love of his life from dying, he gives up everything he believes in. Hidetora believes that by passing the leadership duties to his oldest son his clan will continue to prosper. The more we fear of something bad happening, the more likely that bad thing will happen.

Taking this into account makes me realize one of the most important elements in the Kurosawa movies I have seen; they are very dependent on the depth of their characters as much as they are on spectacle. Granted, this is only the second movie of his I have seen, but it feels like just enough to understand why his cinematic works made such a strong impression on Steven Spielberg and George Lucas (“The Hidden Fortress” is said to have been a huge influence on “Star Wars”). Most movies today are just about spectacle, and the characters are usually a distant second to it. But it is this focus on character which makes “Ran” so involving and gives its epic scope much more meaning.

But let’s talk about the spectacle of “Ran” which is incredible to say the least. One of the key sequences is the horrific massacre which takes place at the third castle where Hidetora takes refuge. What really struck me was how Kurosawa put Tōru Takemitsu’s music score over the sounds of violence perpetrated by his sons as it gives what is being presented to us with far more emotional power. Takemitsu’s music further illustrates the immense tragedy tearing this powerful clan apart which leaves Hidetora in an endless state of shock. Without the music, it would still be a cinematic high mark of capturing battle on celluloid, but it would not have the same effect.

The bloodbath of the massacre is made all the more vivid by Kurosawa as “Ran” was made long before the advent of CGI effects. With this sequence, Kurosawa brilliantly captures the ugliness and viciousness of war, and of the cruel nature which dominates these characters’ humanity.

All the acting is nothing short of excellent from as the entire cast invests each of their characters with various complexities which allow them to surprise us in unexpected ways. Hidetora is played by Tatsuya Nakadai, and he immerses himself completely into playing a man whose own pride and self-righteousness proves to be his undoing. Without saying a word in the last half of the massacre, Hidetora communicates his utter regret of his thoughtless decision making which has led to the decimation of what he once had. Nakadai makes Hidetora’s eventual descent into madness all the more vivid, and his performance never ever descends into camp.

I also loved Mieko Harada’s performance as Lady Kaede, Kurosawa’s version of Lady Macbeth. Through her deceitful ways, viciousness and endless manipulation, she always seems to get her way and turn the men around her into quivering jelly. Harada’s moments onscreen are among my favorites as she exploits the fears of the men around her and seduces them despite their mistrust of her. Never let it be said that Kurosawa ever writes weak roles for women because it certainly isn’t the case here. Lady Kaede wants to maintain her high status in the clan, and she is ruthless in how she pursues it.

You could say they don’t make movies like “Ran” anymore, but it did come out in a time when they weren’t being made much. For many, it serves as the culmination of all his talents, of what he has accomplished in his career, and of all the struggle and tears he shed while making this movie. During the making of “Ran,” Kurosawa’s wife passed away. By the time he got around to shooting the movie after working on the script for ten years, he was almost completely blind. Regardless of these setbacks, nothing stopped him from making this movie.

Years after its release, “Ran” stands as one of the classic movies from one of the best filmmakers ever. No one can or should doubt the heart and soul Kurosawa put into it for years and years, and getting to see it on the silver screen was a real treat. When all is said and done, the silver screen is where this movie belongs.

* * * * out of * * * *

Michael Pena on Getting Real in David Ayer’s ‘End of Watch’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012.

Actor Michael Peña has already played a few cops in his career, but in David Ayer’s “End of Watch” he gets to play his most realistic one yet. It also marks the biggest role Peña has had so far in a career which has seen him give excellent performances in “Crash,” “World Trade Center” and “Observe and Report.” Taking on the role of LAPD officer Mike Zavala reminded Peña of his days growing up in Chicago, and his preparation proved to be far more intense than he ever expected it to be.

Peña grew up in a particularly rough area of Chicago where the lure of gang life was always strong. The actor, however, said he “never wanted to be in a gang” and that he “didn’t want to follow anybody’s orders” as he always thought of himself as an individual even when he was really little. Still, playing Mike Zavala brought up a lot of memories of those days:

“I grew up in the ghetto, and the thing is when there were problems, I knew when to get away. But police go to the problems,” said Peña. “I didn’t do that growing up. Seeing it through Jake (Gyllenhaal’s) eyes, it re-ignited what I always knew, but I guess I had buried it. I’ve been living in Hollywood for the past 15 years. And reality just smacks you in the face – that feeling of potential danger everywhere.”

Like his co-star Jake Gyllenhaal, Peña spent five months training with the Los Angeles Police Department which included ride-alongs which lasted 12 hours a day. There was also a good dose of weapons training, martial arts, boxing workouts, and lugging around chest cameras which were also called body cams.

“We did so many damn ride-alongs, dude,” said Peña. “At first it’s brand new, it’s awesome, and it’s amazing. You almost glamorize it in a way. Then you do ten more, and you start getting a little bored. Then ten more after that, you really get into the spirit of it. It was almost like a sport. We really wanted to get into the mindset of what it’s like to be a police officer.”

As for the body cams, Peña remembered them being “so heavy” and “gnarly.” It turned out though that some of the hardest things he had to do in “End of Watch” were not actually physical.

“I was driving a whole bunch,” Peña said. “Then you have the director (David Ayer) in back, which can be pretty nerve-wracking. Sometimes I didn’t know where life began and where the acting started.”

Pena and Gyllenhaal had never worked together before making “End of Watch,” and it apparently took some time to get the sense of brotherhood two cops can have.

“It took three months to click,” said Peña. “There’s a lot of pressure to play like brothers. We had to spend a lot of time together to opening up to each other as well as tactical training, rehearsing. Three months later we had a good rapport and we put that in the movie.”

It was also all the hard-hitting dialogue which Ayer came up with that made the working relationship between Peña’s and Gyllenhaal’s characters feels like a real brotherhood. Peña also admitted he and Gyllenhaal did very little in the way of improvisation on the set as neither of them wanted to mess with the director’s script.

“Nine times out of 10, you aren’t going to come up with something better,” Peña said.

Peña has certainly earned his moment in the spotlight, having given one memorable performance after another. His terrific work in “End of Watch” is not only a major step forward for him, but it also allows him to break through certain barriers which have been placed upon actors throughout the years:

“The script was written for actors like Jake Gyllenhaal and me – a Latin dude. It had to be a Latin dude, there is so much Latin (material) in it. Ten years ago, I don’t know if that would have been the case. I don’t know if it would have been so easy to do.”

SOURCES:

Brian Brooks, “‘End of Watch’ Star Michael Peña Sees Racial Barriers Coming Down in Hollywood,” Movieline.com, September 19, 2012.

Chris Vognar, “Michael Peña on ‘End of Watch:’ ‘We did so many damn ride-alongs,’” The Dallas Morning News, September 21, 2012.

Madeleine Marr, “Talking to ‘End of Watch’ star Michael Peña,” The Miami Herald, September 20, 2012.

Jake Gyllenhaal on His Intense Police Training for ‘End of Watch’

As Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officer Brian Taylor, actor Jake Gyllenhaal finally gets to play a cop for the first time in “End of Watch.” Written and directed by former South Central Los Angeles resident David Ayers, the movie follows two young police officers played by Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena who are marked for death by a notorious cartel after they confiscate money and firearms from them. Although it was shot in 22 days on a budget of just $7 million, Gyllenhaal did not skimp on the details and went through a seriously intense preparation which extended far beyond him simply getting a buzz cut.

Gyllenhaal underwent five months of serious training with the LAPD, and this included going on 12-hour ride-alongs through various crime-ridden neighborhoods. These ride-alongs had a schedule which started at 4:00 p.m. and went through to 4 a.m., and he went on them as much as three times a week.

“On my first ride-along in Inglewood, someone was murdered. We were the second car on the scene,” Gyllenhaal said of his experience. “That was definitely a wakeup call. We were involved in stolen vehicle chases. You see domestic violence, disputes that turn violent. You really see your city differently after that.”

Gyllenhaal admitted to getting a little nervous at times as he and the police rode up on crimes involving domestic disputes, attempted murders and stolen cars. The actor pointed out, however, that he was with some pretty amazing officers who made him feel very protected in such a dangerous environment. In addition, he went to a dojo in the mornings for fight training and also got a lot of exposure to weapons and tactical training as well.

“We did training with live ammunition and training with the SWAT Team a few times a week for six-hour sessions,” Gyllenhaal said. “We had to learn tactic exercises and moving exercises with live ammo and then we did fight training in Echo Park. David Ayer, our director, his best friend has a dojo, so we trained there in MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighting too. Eventually, after getting the crap beaten out of you and being on the street, you start to actually come into the role and feeling like you really can play the part.”

But one of the most interesting stories regarding his preparation to play Officer Brian Taylor involved him getting shot by a taser.

“I did get tased. We were at the police academy, and they asked us if we wanted to try it out and me being me said, ‘Yeah, of course, yeah!’ Actually, they gave us a choice between pepper spray and being tased,” Gyllenhaal recollected.

When it came to choosing getting tased or pepper sprayed, Gyllenhaal’s decision proved to be a well-informed one:

“Pepper spray is long and painful, it lasts for like 45 minutes and the taser just lasts for five second,” Gyllenhaal said. “But afterwards it’s actually kind of relaxing. After you’ve had thousands and thousands of volts of electricity going through your body.”

It looks like Gyllenhaal’s preparation for “End of Watch” has really paid off as he is getting some of the best reviews of his career. It is clear playing a police officer has had a tremendous impact on him as he talked of the stigma cops constantly deal with when they are out on the street in uniform. He has also gone on to say how the experience of making this movie has completely transformed not just his idea of law enforcement but of Los Angeles as well. When all is said and done, watching this film will do the same for the audience.

SOURCES:

Colin Covert, “Jake Gyllenhaal’s education on the mean streets,” Star Tribune, September 22, 2012.

Zac Shull, “Q&A: Jake Gyllenhaal Talks ‘End of Watch,’ Training with Police & If He Gets Pass for Speeding,” Baller Status, September 21, 2012.

Justin Harp, “Jake Gyllenhaal: ‘I was tased while preparing for End of Watch,'” Digital Spy, September 18, 2012.

‘Burn After Reading’ – Another Darkly Comedic Film From the Coen Brothers

WRITER’S NOTE: Ralph Garman selected this as his Video Vault pick on the August 14, 2020 episode of “The Ralph Report.” It was an excellent selection on his part.

WOW! That was quick! Following Joel and Ethan Coen’s Oscar-winning masterpiece “No Country for Old Men” in 2007, they gave us their follow-up of “Burn After Reading” a short later. Some filmmakers take their sweet time following up a cinematic triumph of theirs, but the Coens did not want to waste any time. This film follows the tradition of them making a movie which is the polar opposite of what they previously gave us. Most reviews at the time mentioned of how the Coens went from making “Fargo” to giving us “The Big Lebowski,” and how they went from “The Man Who Wasn’t There” to “Intolerable Cruelty.” With these brothers, it is always important to expect the unexpected because they are never out to do the same thing twice.

I’m not going to bother comparing “Burn After Reading” to “No Country for Old Men” because the only thing these two have in common is they were made by the same people. It’s like comparing the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup” to Lars Von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves,” and this threatens to say more about the critic than it does about the films themselves. This particular one is more of a lightweight effort you could ever expect from the Coens, and it is a reminder of how hysterically dark their comedy can get.

“Burn After Reading” is a crazy movie to say the least, and it does not really have a plot as much as it does a plethora of characters who are unleashed on us through a selfish act of utter stupidity. As a result, there is no rug of any kind which can tie this room of a movie together. The main drive of the action comes from Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) who discovers a disk at the gym he works at which contains classified information from a former CIA operative, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich). Along with his fellow co-worker, Linda Litzke (the always fantastic Frances McDormand), they both connive to act as “good Samaritans” and give the disk back to Osborne, providing he pays them several thousands of dollars as a reward. Naturally, this plan, which was not given much thought to begin with, goes awry and involves many others in this scheme, all of whom are never entirely sure of what they have gotten themselves into, or of whom they can trust.

Let’s look at the characters, shall we? Chad is a personal trainer at the Hardbodies gym who is, to put it mildly, rather dense and not playing with a full deck. His manager, Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins) doesn’t want to get involved in this blackmail plan, but he simultaneously has a huge unrequited crush on Linda, and she is upset because her insurance won’t cover the various forms of plastic surgery she wants to get. In the meantime, she is going through the motions of internet dating and ends up meeting Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). Harry is actually married and in the midst of an affair with Osborne’s wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), and she herself is planning to divorce her husband who is now in the midst of writing his memoirs. In the midst of all this, CIA Officer Palmer DeBakey Smith (David Rasche) reports to his superior (the priceless J.K. Simmons) of the goings on, and of the ways they are going to keep this all under wraps.

Are you with me so far? Clearly, this is a movie which will benefit from more than one viewing to keep up with everything. Like I said, there is no real plot to speak of, other than the blackmail of Osborne Cox. While in some movies this would be an Achilles heel, it works for the Coens as it allows you to keep guessing as to what will happen next. Just when you think you know where things are going, it has another surprise up its sleeve. There were moments both funny and shocking, and I was eager to see what would happen next.

“Burn After Reading” combines a lot of actors the Coen brothers have worked with over the years like George Clooney and Frances McDormand, and they also got to add newcomers to their strange cinematic universe like John Malkovich and Brad Pitt. It’s a kick to see all these actors let their hair down in a film which was never meant to be taken seriously by anyone.

The most inspired performance in this movie comes from Pitt. Clean shaven, thin, buff, and an avid bicycle rider, his character is a hilarious creation of a physically fit moron who has no clear idea of just how in over his head he is. It was funniest performance since his ultimate stoner of a character, Floyd, in “True Romance.”

Another one who is a huge kick to watch here is Clooney as he blows away just every bit of coolness in his system to play an increasingly neurotic philanderer who is always on the verge of anaphylactic shock as he keeps warning everyone he hangs out with about his life-threatening allergies. To see Clooney let loose here is a reminder of how he constantly tries in real life to not take himself too seriously. It also makes you wonder if he and Swinton will ever be in a movie together where they play characters who have a healthy relationship with one another. Keep in mind, they previously appeared together in “Michael Clayton.”

It’s actually a shock to realize this is the first time Malkovich has ever worked with the Coen brothers. He lets it all out here as a CIA operative who quits his job after being demoted in part because of his drinking problem. To see this actor go completely nuts at all the complete idiots he has to deal with is such a hoot. Not many actors can play a character who is quick to absorb the situation they are in and yet still remain in the dark when it comes to the truth of the matter. Malkovich may prefer the stage to the silver screen, but it is always great to see him do something like this.

Frances McDormand gives this movie one of its most lovable characters, in a manner of speaking, as she makes Linda into someone who wants to be free of the ravages of getting older. Seriously, give McDormand the smallest role in a movie, and she always succeeds in making it one of the most unforgettable. If you would like further proof of this, check her out in John Sayles’ “Lonestar.”

Richard Jenkins ends up giving us perhaps the saddest character here, and it is one we hope we don’t end up being. You know, that one person who is forever punished eternally with the pangs of unrequited love. Throughout, Jenkins shows you in his eyes of how much he wants to be with Linda, and he reminds us of how he remains one of the most dependable character actors working in movies.

And I loved the scenes between Rasche and Simmons in the offices of the CIA and how flippant they seemed about the situations which occurred here. I have yet to see another movie where you have CIA members seeming rather laid back in the decisions they make. It never comes down to doing what is best for their country, but of how to make this strange chain of events not get too overwhelming or hectic. Their inconvenience is the biggest problem because it involves secrets getting out, and of more responsibility and paperwork. Seriously, who wants that?

“Burn After Reading” may not be on the same comedic level of brilliance like “The Big Lebowski” or “Raising Arizona,” but it sure is a lot of fun and filled with more daring and originality than many movies which came out in 2008. Many have described it as a “trifle” from the Coens, but you have to admire what they accomplished here as it never fails to entertain from start to finish. We can also take comfort in the fact that these brothers continue to entertain and enthrall us from one film to the next, and their artistic brilliance never lets us down.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

If You Like ‘Ford v Ferrari,’ Check Out ‘Senna’

Senna movie poster

To call “Senna” a brilliant documentary is not enough. You will get sucked so deeply into the life of motor-racing champion Ayrton Senna to where you will not ever feel like you are watching his life from a distance. It also shows all sides of this man to where he is shown to be complex and unlike any other race car driver in Formula One. His death during a race in 1994 still saddens many after more than a decade, and after watching “Senna” you will clearly understand why.

Director Asif Kapadia really lucked out as he had access to so much footage from Senna’s life both in and out of cars. We have racing footage of course, but there is also home video footage showing him to be a sublime individual and a genuinely nice guy. Kapadia succeeds in making “Senna” feel like we are spending time with a friend and not just another racing superstar.

Compared to others in racing, Senna comes across as being surprisingly humble and shy. No matter how many championships he won, fame never seemed to go to his head, and this is saying a lot. His personality ends up getting contrasted sharply with his fellow racer Alain Prost, and their intense rivalry becomes a big focus here. Prost comes off at first as being very full of himself, particularly while he is being interviews by a female journalist, and we come to see how his biggest strength is also Senna’s chief weakness: mastering the politics of Formula One. It becomes hard not to be on Senna’s side as their rivalry becomes increasingly bitter. While Senna proves to be ruthless on the race track, he is deeply spiritual and not ignorant of the fact he is as mortal as anyone else.

The racing sequences are exhilarating as we watch Senna do things with a race car no one else could. His brilliance while driving in the rain made him especially unique in Formula One, and it is astonishing to learn he never got hurt while driving in this weather. His donations to improve the conditions in Brazil never feels like a publicity stunt, but instead proof of how fiercely loyal he was to his native country.

But the documentary’s most unnerving sequence occurs a day before Senna’s tragic death when fellow racer Roland Ratzenberger was killed on the exact same track at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Senna becomes deeply upset at what has happened and vows to improve safety on all race courses, something he sadly never got to live to carry out. Watching it feels very eerie as we know the fate which awaits him, and even then, we find ourselves hoping and praying for a different outcome.

What makes “Senna” unlike your average documentary is while most are far removed from their main subject, Kapadia brings you up close and personal. Throughout its running time, Ayrton Senna is alive and not just another dead racer forever relegated to the past. It does not matter in the slightest if you are a fan of car racing or not. “Senna” is as enthralling as the best racing movies ever made as you experience it more than watch it, and it gives us a great respect for this racer even as it leaves us very sad that he left us at such a young age (he was only 34). But seeing him here alive once again gives us a great opportunity to know a man many of us never got the chance to in real life.

So, if you liked “Ford v Ferrari,” be sure to give this one a look. And if you did not like “Ford v Ferrari,” see “Senna” anyway.

* * * * out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: Another great documentary by Asif Kapadia, and it is as great as this one, is “Amy” which serves as a much needed eulogy to the late singer Amy Winehouse.

‘Deadfall’ is an Effective Thriller with Strong Performances and Beautiful Cinematography

Deadfall movie poster

Deadfall” is a riveting thriller which held my attention from beginning to end, and sometimes that’s all I ask of certain movies. This one came out under the radar back in 2012, premiering on VOD first and then debuting in a few theaters, and it is no surprise in didn’t catch on with audiences as a result. But while it may not break any new ground in the crime drama genre, and I did have a couple of issues with the script, I did admire the performances from the entire cast. Also, director Stefan Ruzowitzky does strong work in keeping the level of tension high throughout the proceedings, and this is enough for me to give the movie a solid recommendation.

“Deadfall” opens with Addison (Eric Bana) and his sister Liza (Olivia Wilde) driving through a snowy landscape while on their way to the Canadian border. They have just robbed a casino which didn’t go exactly as planned (things like that never do), and their situation gets even more precarious when their car crashes which forces them to split up. The car crash which opens the movie is a hair raiser and pretty nasty, and it reminded me of how deer are more fascinated with oncoming headlights than they have any right to be.

Meanwhile, Jay (Charlie Hunnam) has just been released from prison and is contemplating the possibility of meeting up with his parents June (Sissy Spacek) and Chet (Kris Kristofferson) for Thanksgiving dinner. But things get bad for him as well after he accidently injures a former colleague severely, and he ends up on the run rather than run the risk of going back to jail. While driving through blizzard conditions he comes across Liza who is shivering due to the lack of warm clothes, and he quickly saves her from freezing to death. From there, you know all these characters’ paths will eventually cross with one another by the movie’s end.

The first thing I want to point out is how beautiful the cinematography in “Deadfall” is. It was shot in Canada and director of photography Shane Hurlbut does incredible work in capturing the snow’s beauty as well as how unforgivingly punishing it can be. Even as I watched this in a very nice air-conditioned screening room, I found myself wanting to put my jacket on. This became even more so while watching poor Olivia Wilde walk through a blizzard while wearing a miniskirt. After watching her in “Deadfall,” you cannot say she is not brave actress.

As for the performances, the best one was given by Eric Bana as Addison. The actor has left an indelible impression on us in movies like “Chopper,” “Black Hawk Down” and “Munich,” and he makes Addison a very charming bad guy. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Addison’s a psycho and someone we would all be best to keep our distance from but you can also understand why some of the characters in “Deadfall” hang out with him a lot longer than they should. Bana proves to be very unpredictable in the role, and you can never be sure at certain times if he’s going to be naughty or nice.

Wilde also delivers a strong performance as Liza, and she once again proves what a fiercely intelligent actress she is. Throughout “Deadfall,” we watch as she takes Liza from seeming like a lost girl to becoming a person whose confidence in their self continues to build. The relationship Liza ends up developing with Jay helps start the process of freeing her from Addison’s Svengali hold, and Wilde creates a fascinating portrait of a woman who manages to come into her own by the movie’s end.

Charlie Hunnam, best known for his work on the television show “Sons of Anarchy,” looks appropriately tough in the role of Jay. As we watch him getting released from prison at the movie’s start, he looks more than capable of boxing any opponent into complete submission. But the strength of Hunnam’s performance comes from those shades of vulnerability which his character cannot keep hidden. While prison has made him hard, it has not robbed him of his soul. Jay has made some foolish mistakes in his life, but Hunnam makes you care about him to where you cannot help but be deeply involved in his plight.

Kate Mara is also very good here as police officer Hannah, but she is unfortunately saddled with a father who treats her poorly because she’s a girl. Treat Williams plays Hannah’s dad, but while he’s always good, his character feels like an unnecessary addition to “Deadfall.” All we see him do is talk down to his daughter even when we can tell she is absolutely right about everything she sees going on. It’s the stupidity of characters like which really gets on my nerves.

You also have to give credit to Ruzowitzky for taking the time to cast Sissy Spacek and Kris Kristofferson as Jay’s parents. It’s astonishing to realize these two actors have never worked together before, and they bring an authentic down to earth flavor which helps ground the movie’s story in a reality we can recognize. Kristofferson’s part is a little underwritten, but it’s still fun to watch him here.

“Deadfall” ends on a somewhat frustrating note as there are a lot of loose ends left over and the fates of certain characters are left unresolved. Still, I found it to be a very entertaining movie thanks in large part to the terrific performances of the entire cast. And yes, the cinematography was incredibly beautiful, and especially for a movie which cost only $12 million to make. It alone reminds me to bring layers of clothing the next time I visit a blizzard-ridden city as I have been spoiled by the sunny California weather for far too long.

* * * out of * * * *

CLICK HERE TO CHECK OUT THE INTERVIEW I DID WITH STEFAN RUZOWITZKY FOR WE GOT THIS COVERED.

Olivia Wilde Discusses Playing Liza in ‘Deadfall’

Olivia Wilde in Deadfall

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2012.

Olivia Wilde might seem like just another pretty face in Hollywood, but she continues to give the characters she plays a strong intelligence they might not otherwise have. If you look at her performances in “Tron: Legacy” and “Cowboys & Aliens,” you will realize she has put a tremendous amount of thought in how she approaches her roles to where you leave the theater incapable of forgetting the effect she had on you. The latest example of this is “Deadfall” in which she portrays Liza, the sister of Addison (Eric Bana) whom she is on the run with after a casino heist gone wrong.

Deadfall movie poster

For Wilde, the role of Liza represented a huge departure for her. She had just finished playing Dr. Remy “Thirteen” Hadley on the television show “House,” and Liza took her in a completely different direction.

“Liza was so different from anything I’d ever played before, and I think I was really attracted to playing someone a little more broken,” Wilde said to Sophie A. Schillaci of The Hollywood Reporter. “I had spent many years on ‘House’ playing this very tough woman. I had played tough women in movies, and I realized that was something I was gravitating toward because it’s probably something I aspire to. But I’m interested in exploring people who really don’t have their act together completely.”

At the beginning of “Deadfall,” Addison and Liza’s car crashes in the snow which forces them to separate and go on the run towards the Canadian border. Liza, wearing little more than a miniskirt, almost freezes to death until former boxer Jay (Charlie Hunnam) rescues and later starts up a relationship with her. I got to attend the movie’s press conference at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, and it was fascinating to hear Wilde talk about the relationships Liza had with each of these men and how deeply they affected her.

“Well I think with Addison she’s a perpetual child, she’ll always be his little Liza,” Wilde said. “So that established what the dynamic was like in that she’s very dependent on him. She’s terrified of him and yet she is still very drawn to him. But the romance between Jay and Liza allows her to be a woman, and you really see her coming into her own. So naturally in the writing they were very different relationships, and that kind of did the work for me.”

There was also the question of how deep the relationship between Addison and Liza went. At the start of the movie they look to be as close as a brother and sister can be, but as the story continues it looks like there is a lot of sexual tension between them. While it is not entirely clear if their relationship is an incestuous one, a kiss the two share at a Thanksgiving dinner seems to imply there might be. This led Wilde to talk more about the research she did for this role.

“That (kiss) kind of underlined the tension between them,” Wilde said. “I heard someone say that the relationship between passion and rage is very close, and there’s a violence to our upbringing in our lives that I think could just easily fall over into sex. It was really helpful to read about incestuous relationships and to know quite a lot about how that tends to happen, and yet it’s a very subtle part of the film. There are only one or two spots where it’s hinted at, and I’m glad we didn’t over explain it because it does leave it a bit of a mystery, but it adds so much to the story.”

All actors need to take the time to research the similarities and differences between them and the characters they play. For Wilde, it made her realize that her life could have been much different if she was more like Liza in “Deadfall.”

“I feel very lucky to not be Liza,” Wilde told Jay Stone of the National Post. “It makes me really appreciate having a very loving family and healthy upbringing and not having been abused. It’s a horrible problem that exists in many families. One of the reasons we’re doing this as actors is to reflect humanity, to show these types of people on screen and bring light to them in a certain sense.”

We’re going to see a lot more of Olivia Wilde in the future. Up next for her is “The Longest Week” in which she stars opposite Jason Bateman, “Black Dog, Red Dog” with James Franco and Chloe Sevigny, “Her” directed by Spike Jonze, and “Drinking Buddies” which is the project she is most excited about being a part of. As long as Wilde continues to bring that same level of thoughtfulness and intelligence she brings to movies like “Deadfall,” we will have so much to look forward to.

SOURCES:

Sophie A. Schillaci, “Olivia Wilde Sheds Her ‘Tough Woman’ Image for ‘Broken’ Character in ‘Deadfall’ (Video),” The Hollywood Reporter, December 7, 2012.

Ben Kenber, “Interview with the Cast and Director of Deadfall,” We Got This Covered, December 7, 2012.

Jay Stone, “Deadfall’s Olivia Wilde feels ‘lucky not to be Liza,'” National Post, December 7, 2012.

‘Cold Pursuit’ is Far More Devious Than the Average Liam Neeson Film

Cold Pursuit movie poster

I went into “Cold Pursuit” believing it would be a typical Liam Neeson action film and a cross between “Taken” and “Death Wish.” Heck, it feels like Neeson has been doing the same movie over and over in recent years as he keeps playing characters who are either out to rescue their children or avenge the loss of a loved one. As we watch Neeson operate heavy machinery in a place which looks infinitely colder than the one he traversed in “The Grey,” I kept waiting for him to say, “I have a particular set of snow plows I have acquired over a very long career…”

Indeed, “Cold Pursuit” has the attributes of the average Neeson action flick, but I was surprised to see it also has a wonderfully twisted sense of humor. Even as the violence gets increasingly brutal and the blood flows more frequently, I found myself laughing endlessly as Neeson’s quest for revenge inadvertently sets off a war between rival gangs intent on protecting their own self-interests. As a result, this film was and was not what I expected, and as it went on I had no idea of the twists and turns the story would end up taking.

Neeson plays Nels Coxman, an ordinary man who lives a quiet life with his wife Grace (Laura Dern) and son Kyle (Micheál Richardson) in the small Colorado town of Kehoe. As “Cold Pursuit” begins, Nels has been given Kehoe’s Citizen of the Year award, something he accepts quite humbly as he considers his job as a snowplow driver nothing particularly special. Nels is also revealed to be a quiet man as his wife encourages him to speak more regularly at the dinner table and use as many words as President Abraham Lincoln said during his address at Gettysburg.

It doesn’t take long for tragedy to strike when Kyle dies of a heroin overdose. Nels refuses to believe his son could ever be a drug addict even when the police, long since hardened by the morbid work they do, remark how parents always say that. From there, the movie does not slow down as Nels goes from being the town’s key citizen to a vigilante as cold as the frosty weather he works in on a daily basis. Seeing him do deadly deeds either with a snowplow or a sawed-off rifle made me think of a line between Chevy Chase and Tim Matheson from “Fletch:”

“You shoot me, you’re liable to lose a lot of these humanitarian awards.”

Neeson inhabits the role of Nels as effectively as any he has played in the past, and I could tell he was having a lot of fun with this particular character from start to finish. Unlike the government agents and trained snipers he has played previously, Nels is nothing like them as he truly is an ordinary guy caught up in a situation he has no control over. At one point he even tells his brother, Brock “Wingman” Coxman (William Forsythe), how he learned about disposing dead bodies from a crime novel he once read.

“Cold Pursuit” also introduces to one of the slimiest and most comical drug kingpins I have seen in some time, Trevor “Viking” Calcote. Trevor is played by Tom Bateman in an inspired performance as he makes this drug dealer as brutal as he is hilariously hypocritical. While he shows no remorse in offing another human being, he is equally intense when it comes to making sure his son learns all he can about life from William Golding’s classic novel “The Lord of the Flies” while eating foods which do not contain the slightest ounce of high fructose corn syrup.

What intrigued me most about “Cold Pursuit” was how Nels’ quest for vengeance ends up triggering a turf war between drug dealers and American Indian gang members. In the process, we are subtly reminded of how America was stolen from the Indians (they are called Native Americans for a reason folks) and that the word “reservation” has more than one meaning. In this small Colorado town, a bad review on Yelp or Trip Advisor can be every bit as damaging as a bullet. This all results in a motion picture with a body count somewhere in between Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” and John Woo’s “Hard Boiled.”

“Cold Pursuit” is a remake of the 2014 Norwegian thriller “In Order of Disappearance” which starred Stellan Skarsgard, and both films were directed by the same man, Hans Petter Moland. Learning of this made me wonder if Moland would fall intro the same trap George Sluizer did when he remade “The Vanishing” in America and changed the ending to disastrous effect. However, it looks like little was loss in the translation as this remake retains much of the brutality and black humor of the original. This was a giant relief to me after witnessing the misbegotten remake of “Miss Bala” which all but neutered the original for the sake of a PG-13 rating. Unlike “Miss Bala,” this film is anything but generic.

If there is any issue I have with this film, it is the inescapable fact that Laura Dern is completely wasted here. She is always a welcome appearance in anything she appears in, but she disappears from “Cold Pursuit” way too soon to where I wondered why they bothered casting her at all. Frankly, I am getting sick of seeing Dern reduced to playing the helpless housewife whose love is wasted on male characters who fail to return it in equal measure. She deserves much better.

Still, I was pleasantly surprised by “Cold Pursuit” as it proves to be an effective thriller and a twisted delight. For those who like their humor especially black, this is a film worth checking out as it features everything including a child who knows all there is to know about the Stockholm Syndrome. More importantly, it features female characters played by Emmy Rossum and Julia Jones who are far stronger than their male counterparts who are too caught up in their own jealousy and self-interest. The scene where Jones shows how she has her ex-husband by the balls, literally and figuratively speaking, is one which will never be quickly forgotten.

* * * ½ out of * * * *