Death Wish (2018)

I love a revenge film. The catharsis and emotional satisfaction that comes from seeing justice being played out against reprehensible people is pleasing at the most base level. I think most people recognize that films like these are fantasies and not guidebooks on how to act. I can’t say on an intellectual level that vigilante action is something we should approve of, but for two hours in a movie theater it can be very therapeutic.

The original version of “Death Wish” from 1974 was one of the most controversial films of it’s time. It was also commercially successful. So much so that the character returned in a series of decreasingly relevant and quality sequels. It was a film of the moment, when urban crime was overwhelming cities and turning them into dystopian outposts in the real world, not some fictional future. The script for this remake is written in a manner to play off of that paranoia, but do so in a modern context. Screenwriter Joe Carnahan has mixed the urban danger zone that Chicago has become with the suburban setting occupied by the protagonist and his family. This changes the way the character might be perceived and it allows the fear of random violence to be part of a more contemporary story.

Another important change in the plot involves the lead now being a trauma surgeon rather than an architect. The avenging grim reaper now has a pipeline of bad guys coming through the emergency room, they provide him with a link to specific criminals. Charles Bronson’s character was not seeking the specific criminals that destroyed his family, he had become a moral cudgel to thrash the unrepentant criminal element in a somewhat random manner. He actually begins to bait criminals into their actions to be able to take them out. Bruce Willis does engage in a couple of random acts of vigilantism, but he mostly is pursuing leads that will bring him in contact with the particular gang that robbed and murdered at his house. The criminals in this film are an organized crew with a plan and an M.O.

Bruce Willis has been making straight to streaming movies for the last five years and his enthusiasm as an actor is not very apparent in most of this movie. He still has enough charisma to make us watch in some sequences but he seems to be disengaged in some of the others. It is only when he starts killing people that he seems to come to life in the film. His sequences with the family or interacting with the police lack the edginess and sarcastic humor that mark his other roles. Vincent D’Onofrio is his brother, and it is not clear in any way how he is essential to the plot. There are a couple of scenes near the end where the brothers confront some emotional issues between them, and D’Onofrio seems like he is effortlessly creating a character while Willis is just standing there.

However, director Eli Roth, has managed to inject some life into this film by making Dr. Paul Kersey, a relentless inquisitor and fledgling killer. In the original film, Bronson gets inspired by a visit to Arizona where a business contact encourages him to take up shooting. Dr. Kersey goes to Texas to bury his wife, and it is his father-in-law who inspires him indirectly by pulling to the side of the dirt road they are coming back from the graveside on, and unloading his rifle at a couple of poachers on his ranch. Coincidences become the staring point for his human hunting expedition when he recognizes a trauma patient as the kid who worked as a parking valet at his families favorite restaurant. Add a cell phone and a dropped firearm and he becomes a hooded FBI unto himself.

Roth is known for the horror films that he has made and his touch with gore is clearly visible in many spots in this film. Kersey as a doctor, knows exactly how to torture someone to get information that he needs and Roth is happy to show us the process. There are brains splattered in a couple of scenes so the violence quotient is pretty high. Early in the film, there is a set up of a device that becomes pivotal in the climax of the story. Progressives are going to hate this film but the NRA might want to use it as a commercial for membership. The unfortunate real world events that have brought gun issues to the center of national attention recently, may find that the narrative they are creating about semi-automatic weapons, will be problematic to those who have an interest in owning them for a variety of reasons other than creating mayhem.

The film lacks the grit and social relevance of the 70s original but tries to compensate with plot twists and higher levels of violence. The cop character in this movie is not as interesting as the Vincent Guardina cop in the original, but the perspective is effectively conveyed in a much more casual and subtle manner. If Bruce could manage to put just a little more effort into the non-action scenes, this could potentially be another franchise for a few years. Whether or not that happens, the revenge story is basic, brutal and as politically incorrect as you can imagine. All reasons for me to like the film at least.

 

[Sunday Screening, Late Post]

 

AMC Best Picture Showcase Day 2

So just a few random thoughts on the Best Picture Selections this year. Last week we watched two films with Lucas Hedges back to back. He was in “Lady Bird” and “Three Billboards”. Timothée Chalamet was in “Lady Bird” and today’s “Call Me By Your Name”.  Nick Searcy was in “Three Billboards” and “The Shape of Water”. Today we had Bradley Whitford in back to back “The Post” and “Get Out”. Finally Michael Stuhlbarg was in “The Shape of Water, “Call Me By Your Name” and “The Post”. These actors have got to have great agents to get into the top pictures of the year not just once, but two and three times.

“Phantom Thread” and “The Post” were the two films I needed to catch up on, and while I admired them both, I don’t see either of them as a likely winner in the big category. “Phantom Thread” lacks anybody likable in the cast of characters, and “The Post” is so traditional that it won this award two years ago when it was called “Spotlight”.

Speaking of actors who appeared back to back in some of the films on the program, we had a historical event do exactly the same thing. “Dunkirk” was followed by “Darkest Hour” and it was almost as if Joe Wright’s film was just another segment of the Christopher Nolan film. It’s Title Card would read Parliament: Two Weeks.

I feel confident in my choice of “Dunkirk” as the best film of last year but I am not at all confident that the Academy will go along with me. 

Dunkirk   Christopher Nolan’s film was the most visually impressive, forward moving, and meaningful film of the lot. Listening to the score and watching how he masterfully integrated three separate time lines into a single narrative with clever overlaps and great timing, I know that this was the best directing job this year. Nothing against Guillermo Del Toro, but this complex story, logistical nightmare and historical memorial is simple better constructed than the odd fish love story. This is a film that tells a real historical story that will last long after the fashion of the fairy tale set in a mythological era in U.S. history, is a charming oddity. 

Some people complain that the characters here are not well developed, that is true. This however is not a character piece but a prism on the events that were taking place during a military disaster that became a turning point in a manner that was most unexpected. 

Darkest Hour  This film was even stronger the second time I saw it. The first viewing I was overpowered by Gary Oldman’s performance. He will surely be the winner in the acting category. I admired the film before but I have come to really respect it on this second encounter. Joe Wright manages to make a tale of political intrigue into a fascinating study of a character and the country who’s character he came to represent for the duration of the war. The one clumsy moment is a scene set in an underground train car. The only reason it is clumsy is that it feels so distinct from everything else, like a deliberate movie moment. That shows that the rest of the movie does exist as something more than the typical fare.  But even that scene works emotionally because it bespeaks of a real sense of what the British people felt at the time. 

Call Me By Your Name  I am being a little facetious when I say this film is a pain in the neck. That’s because in the first half I went to sleep and got a crick that is staining my muscles still. My least favorite of the nominees, this film is slow moving, meandering and confounding. I felt like I was listening to a play frequently, with dialogue written eloquently but sounding artificial. A couple of podcasters that I listen to love this film and especially the sequence with Michael Stuhlbarg as the father of Elio, consoling his son on the “special” friendship he had with Oliver. It ends on s deliberately false note when the Dad tells his son that he doesn’t think that Mom knows about the nature of their friendship. The mom had just picked up a near weeping Elio at the train station and she dropped hints for the previous hour that she knew how special Elio thought Oliver was. When Mr. Perlman says he never had a relationship with anyone like Elio had with Oliver, we can believe him because he so obtusely ignores how insightful his wife is. This will probably win the Screenplay Award, and it shouldn’t, if it takes the big prize I might yell loud enough to ruin my voice for a month.  

The Post  So this was the one new film we saw on day two. This has the phrase “Oscar Bait” pasted all over it. It features Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, a ton of high end supporting players and it was directed by Steven Spielberg. The subject matter concerns the fight of the press against preemptive shut down of news publication. It is a first amendment issue that was understandably important, yet at the same time it ignores some pretty egregious behavior. We can always applaud someone after the fact when their actions seem just and there was no blow-back,  but there were issues regarding the acquisition of the Pentagon Papers that probably still need to be discussed.  Spielberg and co-screenwriters Josh Singer and Liz Hannah, manage to make a bureaucratic legal process look and sound like a courtroom drama with some mystery tied in.  Singer in particular is working on familiar ground since he won an Academy Award two years ago for a very similarly structured newspaper story “Spotlight”.

This is supposed to be a resistance film, about the Media vs. the President in a time when everyone wants to be standing up to the current administration. The parallels are not really there to give this much resonance. This is a two hour commercial for the Washington Post and the heavy handed feminist slant in some of the visuals makes it feel too much like a lecture at times. That said, it is well made and the John Williams score is excellent as usual. Because “Bridge of Spies” and “Spotlight” are just a couple of years old however, this feels like it is old territory and not quite as distinctive as it needs to be. 

Get Out  This one is the outlier. You rarely get a horror film nominated for Best Picture, but if you do, it is usually more of a big budget film. This Jordan Peele written and directed film seemed to come in under the radar, it made a huge splash, and it is getting some end of the year accolades. The intersectionality of this film is in keeping with all the film buffs who are much more woke than I am. I just enjoyed the twist and the characters in the film. Rod from TSA is a saving grace that adds more straightforward humor to the mix. Instead of a haunted house we get a upscale suburban plantation. The need for subtlety on the race subject is probably eliminated by the DNA of the movie. Being an outsider in an nearly all white environment makes Chris, our lead character played by nominated actor Daniel Kaluuya, mildly uncomfortable but also keenly aware of how different the culture he is visiting is. 

While most people will consider the “Sunken Place” to be the most horrifying image in the film, to me it is the silent auction with bingo cards. We still don’t know what is going on, but the suggestion is truly awful. Seeing it for a second time, I could pay more attention to some of the interesting choices that were made. Grandma and  Grandpa are certainly clever twists, although it seems strange that for the duration of Chris being a guest, the force required to hold those characters would be counter-intuitive to the actual plan. The creepy factor also takes Chris a little too long to respond to. His buddy is right, and he should be listening to him sooner. There is an outside chance this could take the award, the voting system gives weight to the number of ballots a film appears on, and this would be a popular ad to the list but not necessarily high on the list. Should it when I expect to see some “Get Out” Memes that mine the fertile teen speak use of the terminology. 

As an aside, let me rant about the misquotes being used to decorate the entry way to the theater. Both “Cool Hand Luke” and “Jaws” are misquoted in the floor below.