DGA Nominations: Lee Daniels and Tarantino In; Clint Squeezed Out

Precious director Lee Daniels has become the first African-American nominee for a Director’s Guild of America award.

Daniels was one of five directors nominated for awards this morning, including James Cameron for Avatar, Jason Reitman for Up in the Air, Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds, and Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker.

Surprisingly absent from the list: Veteran director Clint Eastwood, whose Invictus has picked up glowing reviews and wound up on several year-end Top 10 lists. Eastwood previously received three DGA nominations; he won for Million Dollar Baby and Unforgiven.

Cameron won in 1997 for Titanic. This year’s other DGA nominees are first-timers. All except Daniels were nominated for Golden Globes, along with Eastwood, and all are expected to land Oscar nominations.

Bigelow, Cameron’s ex-wife, is the seventh woman to land a DGA nomination.

The DGA winner has gone on to receive the Oscar for best picture all but six times since the awards were launched in 1949, according to a column published today by Los Angeles Times writer Tom O’Neil.

The winner will be announced Jan. 30 in Los Angeles.

The Last House on the Left (movie review)

last-house

Here’s my “director’s cut” review of Last House, also available at the online sites of two print publications (scroll to bottom for links).

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The Last House on the Left

Stars Tony Goldwyn, Monica Potter, Garrett Dillahunt. Directed by Dennis Iliadis. Written by Adam Elleca and Carl Ellsworth. 105 minutes. Rated R.

Grade: D

Blame it on the Mansons. Or, rather, the sensationalistic press coverage of that California cult family’s bloody 1969 killing spree in the Hollywood hills. Three years later, Wes Craven combined the home-invasion theme with story inspiration from Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, and attached a happy — okay, just satisfyingly vengeful — ending, whereby the killers paid for their sins before going to hell.

The resultant low-budget horror thriller, The Last House on the Left, attracted wide notoriety and generated censorship challenges for Craven and producer Sean S. Cunningham. The two later helmed franchise starters A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, respectively; they deserve partial blame for slasher films and, by extension, that genre’s spawn, torture porn.

Still stomach-turning after all these years, Last House is back, with a suspenseful and well-made if utterly gruesome remake produced by Craven and Cunningham. The graphic violence is facilitated by a microwave, a garbage disposal, a hammer, a fireplace poker, and pistols, among other sharp objects, household appliances and standard weapons.

Director Dennis Iliadis (Hardcore) handily establishes the setting, a roomy, lived-in lake house owned by friendly, caring physician John Collingwood (Tony Goldwyn) and his coolly efficient wife Emma (Monica Potter), who are still reeling from the loss of their son Ben.

The idyllic retreat comes complete with separate guest lodging and a little red boat house. Later, one of the baddies, envying the family’s comfortable lifestyle, asks Emma, “How many houses do you own?” So are the filmmakers commenting on extreme class warfare, as demonstrated when the have nots, represented by these out-of-luck thugs, attempt to forcibly take what they want, including a well-to-do family’s child and home?

As in the original, two girls, the Collingwoods’ daughter Mari (Sara Paxton) and her friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac) are out enjoying themselves — this time, getting high on “premium weed” with a shy young guy, Justin (Spencer Treat Clark), they befriend at a small-town convenience store — when they unwittingly stumble into hard-as-nails criminals.

The latter trio’s bloodlust has already been established in a quick prologue, during which one of the nasties escapes from the confines of a police car.

Justin’s dad, Krug (Garret Dillahunt) is the vicious, nominally handsome leader of the gang, which also includes his more hyperactive brother, Francis (Aaron Paul) and their bisexual sidekick Sadie (Riki Lindhome). Krug decides that he can’t let the girls live, and takes them deep into the woods to do his dirty work.

Iliadis creates genuine dread and suspense during the run-up to the attack on the girls, and over the course of the extended battle between the Collingwoods and the cretins. Two moments are striking due to the impressive intensity of the actors’ performances — first, when Justin is physically sickened after seeing a photo of one of the brutalized girls, and second, when the Collingwoods are struck with bewilderment, sheer terror and then righteous anger after realizing that their daughter’s attackers are right there, under their noses, in the guest house across the way. Yep, the predators are about to become the prey.

Then again, there’s the torture sequence, an uncomfortably extended ordeal that’s shot rather matter-of-factly, with the camera mostly unblinking as the victims are variously punched, knifed and raped by their captors. After being made voyeuristically complicit in the relentless debasement of women and then being asked to exult in the subsequent gory payback, some viewers are likely to feel brutalized and debased themselves. Just asking, but, who was this movie made for, and why?

An ugly, mean-spirited exploitation film is an ugly, mean-spirited exploitation film, even when informed by a certain fondness for the lore and conventions of an oddly cherished genre.

Handy review quote for studio publicists in need of a blurb: Last House is the must-miss movie of the season.

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Read this review (shorter version) in Las Vegas City Life here.

Watchmen: Brutal, Fascistic, Overlong (movie review)

watchmenThe critics have spoken, and most are underwhelmed and put off by Watchmen: So far, it’s notched a score of 49 (out of 100) on Metacritic, and a 64% at Rotten Tomatoes. That’s called a failing grade.

Yes, “there are … flashes of visual brilliance,” as Peter Travers accurately observes in his review for Rolling Stone.”(Creator Alan) Moore recalled his four years of toil on the 12-issue DC Comics series as ‘slam-dancing with a bunch of rhinos.’ That description also fits watching the movie, which stumbles and sometimes falls on its top-heavy ambitions.”

But Anthony Lane, the far more insightful critic for The New Yorker, gets to the heart of what’s wrong with this bombastic, overcooked turkey: “The problem is that (director Zack) Snyder, following Moore, is so insanely aroused by the look of vengeance, and by the stylized application of physical power, that the film ends up twice as fascistic as the forces it wishes to lampoon.” Lane’s review.

Below is my review.

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WATCHMEN

Stars Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Matthew Goode, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Malin Akerman, Carla Gugino, Matt Frewer. Directed by Zack Snyder. Written by David Hayter and Alex Tse. 160 minutes. Rated R.

Grade: C-

Call me crazy. But I’m guessing that reading the graphic novel Watchmen is a prerequisite for fully appreciating the lovingly and expertly photographed brutality of the film adaptation.

On display: A prisoner’s arms are lopped off by a chainsaw; a child murderer’s skull is repeatedly hacked with an axe; vicious dogs fight over the remains of a little girl’s leg; a group of thugs are blown apart in a nightclub, their guts exploding and then left dripping from the ceiling; a female superhero’s face is bloodied and her body bruised during an attempted rape. Not to mention the repeat shots of one motion-capture character’s blue-tinted, dangling, uh, appendage.

Those are among the startling, strikingly ugly images that creep across the screen in Watchmen, directed by Zack Snyder (300) and written by David Hayter and Alex Tse with an overabundance of reverence for the original work, acclaimed for its complexity, smarts and use of imagination.

Its author, Alan Moore, probably won’t appreciate all that effort — Moore, who has called his comic book “unfilmable” and disassociated himself from the movie, said, in response to an update on the production, “Do we need any more sh—y films in this world?”

That’s a good question to ask about Watchmen, as Snyder’s skewed-superhero movie, at 160 minutes, is overlong, loud, grim, often nonsensical and willing to place beloved pop, rock and folk songs — Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence” — into odd settings, benefitting neither the songs nor the film.

Aside from hardcore fans of the graphic novel, and 18-to-25-year-old guys looking for nearly three hours’ worth of extreme violence and raunchy sex at the local cineplex, who, exactly, was this movie made for?

The credit sequence, following an impressively photographed fight marked by whooshing sound effects and capped with a spectacular slow-motion crash through plate glass and a short fall from a high-rise, suggests good things to come.

Snyder unfurls a series of still shots and clips that track the progress of the Minutemen, a group of crime-fighters, from their beginnings in the 1940s — when they organized in response to masked gangs of villains — through the present, 1985.

The story’s alternative history has it that the U.S. won the Vietnam War, and Nixon (Robert Wisden), having won a third term in 1976, is still in office. The Watchmen, the Minutemen’s superhero successors, are experiencing various degrees of dysfunction.

Although the plot spins off in a dozen or so rather incongruous directions, the story halfway focuses on a central mystery: Who killed the Comedian, born Eddie Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the trigger-happy, woman-abusing least likable of the Watchmen, and are his old colleagues next on the list?

Potential suspects include all of the superfriends, er, superfrenemies. On the nice-guy end of the spectrum is Nite Owl II, known to his intimates as Dan (Patrick Wilson), an aw-shucks fellow who spends much time taking off his Clark Kent glasses and wiping them clean, and occasionally goes down to his Bat Cave-like basement to admire his old, rubbery, Batman-like costume.

watchmen-2The object of his affection is Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), better known as Laurie, bodacious brunette who enjoys sex with two superheroes. Her most recent main squeeze is that aforementioned blue man, Dr. Manhattan (variously, Billy Crudup and a digital representation of the actor), a fit and trim, wisdom-dispensing fellow who practices nudism; he became an all-powerful being after a terrible accident in a physics lab, and went on to singlehandedly defeat the Vietcong.

Suicide is painless, apparently, for one unfortunate character in the film, but exposition isn’t, as there are two more Watchmen to watch out for.

Rorschach (Jackie Earl Haley, reuniting with Little Children cast member Wilson) is a psycho killer with a bizarre, ever-changing mask and a raspy voice about halfway between Clint Eastwood and the Batman of The Dark Knight; both films, as well as 300, are products of L.A.’s Legendary Pictures. Adrian, also known as Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), is a handsome dressed-for-success guy who prefers an icy HQ and, like the others, may be holding a secret or two.

Watchmen, making liberal use of flashbacks, follows its characters to various homes, haunts and hideouts, and hurls headlong toward a conclusion regarding potential nuclear annihilation.

Along the way, there are sequences set on Mars, at a burning apartment building, and in a prison. There, the creepy, indestructible Rorschach, intensely disliked by the facility’s inmates, gets off one of the script’s best lines: “None of you seem to understand. I’m not locked in here with you. You’re locked in here with me.”

Many viewers will experience a sensation similar to that experienced by Rorschach’s fellow prisoners: Is early release an option?

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A variation of the above review appears on the web site of Jacksonville  paper Folio Weekly.

New DVDs: Changeling; Flash of Genius; Choke; More

Changeling (Universal, widescreen, $29.98) DVD of the Week

— feature, 140 mins; rated R

changelingThe first and least accomplished of last year’s Clint Eastwood films*,   Changeling, set in the Los Angeles of the 1920s,  features an Oscar-nominated performance by Angelina Jolie.

Jolie, in another turn as a real-life character (she played Mariane Pearl in 2007’s A Mighty Heart), is Christine Collins, whose 9-year-old son suddenly vanishes.

The LAPD, steeped in corruption, instead of working the case brings another boy — a street urchin, not Walter — back to Collins. Why the wrong kid? So that the department, in a hasty attempt to repair its heavily damaged reputation, can trumpet its success at solving the case and gain a little good PR.

Collins, of course, despite assurances to the contrary, protests that her son is still missing. For her troubles, she gets a quick trip to a mental ward, and public humiliation to boot. Her only ally, for a while, is a stiff-collared minister played by John Malkovich; his attacks on police misdoings reach thousands via his radio broadcasts.

There’s plenty of grist here for a terrific neo-noir film, ala L.A. Confidential — bone-deep corruption in the police force,  a sycophantic press, a force for good that may or may not be in the fight to boost his own celebrity, a few good cops, evil running rampant, a vintage-sounding score (composed by Eastwood) with mournful trumpet ballads on the soundtrack.

Eastwood, not surprisingly, gets the period feel right, and Jolie effectively gives her all to a somewhat undercooked character. And yet, Changeling is oddly misshapen, shifting from a tale of a missing child and police corruption to another story, about an emotionally/mentally damaged murderer of children, played to sickening effect by Jason Butler Harner.

The resulting trials – of the killer and the police department – take place simultaneously in film time, along the way causing the movie to nearly, but not quite, overstay its welcome. Call Changeling another smoothly professional, craftsmanlike effort from Eastwood, a veteran director who retains a knack for expert storytelling.

DVD extras:

  • “Partners in Crime: Clint Eastwood and Angelina Jolie”
  • “The Common Thread: Angelina Jolie Becomes Christine Collins”

*(The second, superior Eastwood film released last year was Gran Torino)

Also released this week:

flashFlash of Genius (Universal, $29.98), the “true” story of the man who invented the intermittent windshield wiper. Oddly, it’s more compelling than it sounds, largely due to Greg Kinnear’s surprisingly nuanced performance as a gifted engineer determined to fight for recognition for his achievement – even at the expense of his marriage and his sanity. Also stars Lauren Graham, Dermot Mulroney and Alan Alda.  Extras: Audio commentary by director Marc Abraham; deleted scenes.

chokeChoke (Fox, $27.98), a willfully quirky, occasionally funny, decidedly adult-oriented comic drama, adapted from the book by Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club). Sam Rockwell is a sex addict and con artist on a quest to find his father — he’s choking on his urges and his mixed-up identity, and he’s literally choking on pieces of food, stuck in his throat in hopes that a wealthy restaurant patron will save him, and then shower him with sympathy checks. Clark Gregg, making his directorial debut, strains for a mix of edgy indie comedy and Judd Apatow slackerdom. But the seams are showing. Also stars the reliably offbeat Anjelica Huston, Kelly MacDonald, and Brad William Henke. Extras: Very funny, very crude audio commentary by Gregg and Rockwell; “A Conversation with Clark Gregg and Chuck Palahniuk; deleted scenes; gag reel; more.

Also out:

Body of Lies (Warner Bros., $22.99)

Hobson’s Choice (Criterion, $39.95)

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (Sony, $27.98)

I Served the King of England (Sony, $28.96)

Quarantine (Sony, $28.96)