REVIEW: “In the Heat of the Night”

HEAT poster

“They call me Mister Tibbs.” When Virgil utters this classic line to Chief Gillespie in 1967’s “In the Heat of the Night”, the racial tensions have already been well-defined. And while the movie is a police drama/murder mystery, it’s the racial contention between a black Philadelphia police detective and the small Mississippi town that makes the film truly memorable. “In the Heat of the Night” won five Academy Awards including Best Picture and inspired two sequels and a popular TV series. But it’s the movie’s statement on 1960’s Southern racism and it’s strong black lead character that causes it to be recognized as a ground-breaking film.

The movie takes place in the small fictional town of Sparta, Mississippi. While out on patrol a deputy comes across the body of a wealthy business man. After ruling that the man was murdered, Police Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) sends a deputy to look around town. While checking out the train station, the deputy comes across a black man sitting inside. Unjustly assuming the man is the killer, the deputy arrests him and brings him to the station. The man informs Chief Gillespie that his name is Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) and he’s a homicide detective from Philadelphia. Virgil’s captain back in Philly recommends that he stay in Sparta and help with the murder investigation. Neither Virgil or Gillespie like the idea yet they both agree.  But the case may never be solved due the incompetence of the police department and the numerous racial barriers that keep Tibbs from accomplishing anything.

HEAT1

Even though this is a crime drama, the murder mystery itself never feels all that important. The investigation spends most of its time looking in the wrong directions and when the killer is finally revealed it feels too convenient. This is the movie’s one significant shortcoming. A tighter more engaging mystery would have added another intense dimension to the story. But it could easily be argued that the murder mystery is simply a backdrop to the greater story of a small town police chief and a big city detective breaking down the walls of racism while dealing with their own personal biases. Steiger and Poitier are great together and watching their complex and often times abrasive relationship unfold provides us with the movie’s best moments.

The great attention given to the town and its citizens is another thing that makes the movie work. The small town South is perfectly captured and there was never a time I questioned its genuineness for a second. From its assortment of main street stores to its rundown parts of town, the film succeeds in providing the perfect setting. But while we saw the current day South we also catch a glimpse of the old South during a scene in which Gillespie and Tibbs go to question a rich plantation owner named Endicott. The drive up to the main house is lined with cotton fields filled with black workers and it almost feels as though the movie has moved back in time. This also leads to the famous scene where Endicott slaps Tibbs once he realizes he is being questioned for the murder. Tibbs slaps him back, something unheard of in that day. Tibbs’ physical retaliation drew attention from around the country once the movie was released and it marked an interesting turn in the way many movies treated black characters.

“In the Heat of the Night” certainly gets points for its head-on approach to the topic of racism. It also manages to keep the audience engaged by first getting us invested in Virgil Tibbs, then showing us the racially fueled obstacles and dangers that he was up against in Sparta, Mississippi. We also get a fantastic character in Chief Gillespie and it’s fascinating to watch him evolve as he fights with the community expectations and his own inner struggles. The small town vibe permeates every single scene and the hot and humid Southern summer makes everything sweatier and grimier. It’s just unfortunate that the murder mystery never feels as serious or as threatening as it should have been. That’s the only thing holding down “In the Heat of the Night”. But it’s something that did make a difference for me.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW : “No Country for Old Men”

Joel and Ethan Coen have established themselves as some of the best filmmakers in the business. Their wide creative range and unique storytelling style has given us great films from several genres. Yet there are several common threads woven throughout a Coen brothers picture and one of the greatest compliments I can give them is that you know a Coen brothers movie when you see it. “No Country for Old Men” is my personal favorite of all of their films and that’s saying a lot. Winner of four Oscars including Best Picture, “No Country for Old Men” examines several themes that the brothers frequently explore while incorporating their familiar quirkiness, dark humor, and gritty violence. But the film is also unlike any of the Coen’s other work and that uniqueness gives it its own special voice.

Adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, “No Country for Old Men” stays pretty faithful to the book. It could be called a crime thriller or even a modern-day western. It’s rugged look and tone gives this modern tale of violence an almost old west feel. But that plays to one fascinating subtext to the film. It is a movie about the evolution of violence and the moral callousness at its root. It says “things aren’t like the used to be” but from a more broken and defeated point of view. But there is much more to the film than that. It’s also a story of choices and consequences, old versus new, and chance versus fate. I’m being rather vague on all of these but let’s just say the ideas are interwoven throughout the movie.

Set in West Texas during the early 1980’s, the story opens with Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbling across a drug deal gone wrong while hunting one day. Among the blood-soaked bodies and bullet-riddled pickup trucks, he finds a lone but wounded survivor begging for water. Having no water Llewelyn leaves him. Before leaving he finds another body with a satchel full of money. Faced with the first of many key decisions that drive the story, he grabs the satchel and leaves the scene. Several ill-advised decisions later, Llewelyn finds himself on the run from the Mexican cartel and more notably a psychopathic hired hitman named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Tommy Lee Jones plays Ed Tom Bell, a small town Texas sheriff following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. He and his deputy find the busted drug deal and Llewelyn’s abandoned truck and start trying to put the pieces together. The rest of the story focuses on the triangle of Llewelyn, Chigurh, and Sheriff Bell. And even though they share practically no screen time together, their lives slowly become intricately connected.

As with every Coen brothers film the casting is impeccable. Almost every performance is pitch-perfect and there is rarely a moment where the characters feel false. Josh Brolin not only looks the part of Llewelyn Moss but his flawless accent, the delivery of his lines, and west Texas mannerisms nail his character. He is perfectly complimented by a subtle and reserved performance by Kelly Macdonald who plays his wife Carla Jean. She’s simple but sweet and you are drawn to her as she’s drawn into Llewelyn’s situation. I also loved Tommy Lee Jones’ work as Ed Tom Bell. He’s the perfect choice for a small town Texas sheriff and I was enthralled with how he flawlessly embodied his character. Even Woody Harrelson has a small but great role as a rival hired gun looking for the missing drug money. But the best performance may be from Javier Bardem (who captured the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role). He may sport the worst haircut in film history but he’s also one of the most chilling and brutal villains on film . Even with his amoral propensity for violence, he’s fascinating to watch and the film’s best moments are when he’s on-screen.

“No Country for Old Men” is also a technical gem. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, a long-time Coen collaborator, uses his camera to create a dark and dirty world but one grounded in a true sense of realism. The sparse, dusty landscapes provide the perfect canvas for the Coens to create their violent world. The action scenes are ferocious but even in their brutality they never seem gratuitous. Instead they feel perfectly in context. I also loved the Coen’s use of sound, or in many instances their lack of it. Many scenes feature no background music instead relying on natural ambience. Several intense scenes feature no music or dialogue yet it’s the silence that really thickens the tension. While the Coen’s can sometimes be a little, for lack of a better word, wild with their filmmaking, every thing here feels a little more tightly structured and controlled.

The Coens have made many good films and they have a style that’s undeniable. You may like or dislike their approach to filmmaking but you have to respect it. Their unique vision is stamped all over this film. The violence is startling, the pacing is perfect, and there is just the right amount of dark comedy. You’ll wince in one scene and laugh out loud in the next one. “No Country for Old Men” is a brilliantly written adaptation and a beautifully crafted film. It’s one of those movies that features several scenes that will always stick with me. It’s also helped by some truly searing performances led by Bardem’s memorable work. I understand that this film may not appeal to everyone but for me this is a masterpiece. It’s a lesson in expert filmmaking and cinematic creativity. It’s also a movie I can watch over and over and never grow tired of it. Yes, it’s one of my favorite movies of all time. There, I said it!

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5 STARSs

5STAR K&M

“WAR HORSE” – 3 1/2 STARS

“War Horse” is a Steven Spielberg movie throughout. It’s broad in scope, has huge production value, and soaked in melodrama. Spielberg produced and directed this war time period film and it features beautiful locations and several large-scale action scenes and set pieces. He has made several of these ambitious war pictures before so he’s in familiar territory. But his biggest challenge is taking a horse and making him the main star while keeping the audience engaged for the movie’s two and a half hour running time. “War Horse” does succeed in several areas but it never completely captures or maintains the emotional charge that it aims for.

Based on a 1982 children’s book, “War Horse” follows a very special young colt who is unwisely bought at an auction by a struggling farmer who is supposed to be buying a bigger, stronger plow horse. The farmer’s wife is furious with the purchase but their young son Albert promises to raise and train the horse who he names Joey to eventually plow their hard, rocky farm plot. The family hits even harder times and circumstances arise that sees Joey thrust into the onset of World War I. “War Horse” never stays in the same place very long and becomes a collection of brief short stories about the people Joey encounters including a military officer heading to war, two young brothers reluctantly serving on the German front, and an elderly French farmer and his granddaughter. There are several other scenes featuring other characters but the one constant throughout is Joey.

This storytelling technique works good in the broad sense. Joey is certainly an incredible animal and I couldn’t help but stay interested regardless of the convenience that dictates many of his situations. I particularly enjoyed the story of Joey and the military officer played wonderfully by Tom Hiddleston. Equally good were the scenes with the French Farmer played by the fantastic French actor Niels Arestrup and his young granddaughter Emilie played by the lovely Celine Buckens. These are the films best scenes and I can’t help but wish we could have gotten more from these characters. But as I mentioned, Joey is the real star and I was amazed that Spielberg was able to draw so much character out of his lead. As many as eight different horses played the part of Joey and even though the director uses several instances of emotional manipulation, the horse we get on-screen held my interest throughout.

But there was something missing in the movie. It’s clear what the movie wants to be but I could never get as emotionally invested as I was supposed to be. Some of the tugs at our heart-strings felt a bit artificial and there are several animal movie clichés that the movie fully embraces. It was also rather predictable in some areas and I found myself figuring out things well before they culminated on the screen. As with many Spielberg pictures, subtly isn’t a strong point and his attempts to bring tears feel heavy on delivery but light in effect. And with a movie that is striving to be an emotionally driven family drama, that hurts the film.

Flaws aside, “War Horse” is a very watchable film and even flirts with occasional greatness. As expected, it’s technically sound with some beautiful camera work, fantastic locations, and crisp editing. I loved the shots of the English countryside and the dank, muddy, war-torn areas are perfectly fitting. All the performances are solid and some of the character stories are great. There is a lot of charm and heart in “War Horse” but there are also several cheap and lazy attempts to bring out the tissues. It’s a good movie and one that I would certainly watch again. But I can’t help feel that with a tighter script and a slightly different approach, “War Horse” could have been a serious Oscar contender.

The 2012 Oscar Nominees Announced…

 

The 2012 Academy Award nominations have been announced and, just as expected, there is plenty to talk about. This year’s list features several snubs, several surprises, and several Academy misfires. But then again, isn’t that what we’ve come to expect? And isn’t that just one of the things that makes the Oscar conversation that much better? Here is the list of the nominees for “The Big 5” categories. My prediction (not my personal favorite) will be in bold print but as always, it’s subject to change. There will be a lots of interviews and promotions over the next few weeks but here is how I think things will turn out:

Actress In A Supporting Role

THE NOMINEES:

Bérénice Bejo (The Artist)
Jessica Chastain (The Help)
Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids)
Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs)
Octavia Spencer (The Help)

I know we all like mystery and surprises when it comes to Oscar night but I don’t see there being any here. Octavia Spencer has dominated this category in the pre-Oscar awards shows and I don’t see this as being any different. Of this group I would have a hard time voting against her. I felt Jessica Chastain had the best female supporting performance of the year but it wasn’t for “The Help”. Her work in “The Tree of Life” was better but her very best work was in the underappreciated film “Take Shelter”. That was the best female supporting performance. But for Oscar night, expect it to be Octavia Spencer.

Actor In A Supporting Role

THE NOMINEES:

Kenneth Branagh (My Week with Marilyn)
Jonah Hill (Moneyball)
Nick Nolte (Warrior)
Christopher Plummer (Beginners)
Max von Sydow (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close)

I LOVED seeing Nick Nolte get a nod for his work in “Warrior”. It was my favorite male supporting performance of the year and it was the best work Nolte has done in years. Unfortunately Plummer has this category all but locked. Everything has pointed to Plummer and there is nothing about this list of nominees that would make me think otherwise. That being said, I’ll still be rooting for Nolte.

Actress In A Leading Role

THE NOMINEES:

Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs)
Viola Davis (The Help)
Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady)
Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn)

This is one of the most intriguing categories of the night. Meryl Streep has gotten all of the pre-Oscar awards show buzz but don’t count out Viola Davis. Many are trying to hype up the two person race but I think for good reason. Streep may be hurt by the fact that “The Iron Lady” is a very sub par movie and while “The Help” had its flaws, it’s a better picture. My personal favorite performance of the year was from Juliette Binoche for “Certified Copy” but out of this group I would prefer Davis. But my gut tells me Streep is the favorite.

Actor In A Leading Role

THE NOMINEES:

Demián Bichir (A Better Life)
George Clooney (The Descendants)
Jean Dujardin (The Artist)
Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)
Brad Pitt (Moneyball)

Once again my personal favorite of the year is left out. I thought Michael Shannon was nothing short of brilliant for “Take Shelter” but there are some really strong performances in this group. I love seeing Bichir nominated but he has no shot. Oldman was fantastic but he has no chance. Brad Pitt gave the second best performance of his career and his second best performance of the year in “Moneyball” but he won’t win. It all comes down to Clooney and Dujardin. While Shannon was my favorite male performance of the year, Dujardin was a close second. Clooney was fantastic even though “The Descendants” wasn’t as polished as many think. Of this group I would love to see Dujardin take home the gold. But I think Clooney carried his movie and has enough charm in Hollywood to win on Oscar night.

Best Picture

THE NOMINEES:

The Artist (Thomas Langmann, Producer)
The Descendants (Jim Burke, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, Producers)
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Scott Rudin, Producer)
The Help (Brunson Green, Chris Columbus and Michael Barnathan, Producers)
Hugo (Graham King and Martin Scorsese, Producers)
Midnight in Paris (Letty Aronson and Stephen Tenenbaum, Producers)
Moneyball (Michael De Luca, Rachael Horovitz and Brad Pitt, Producers)
The Tree of Life (Nominees to be determined)
War Horse (Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, Producers)

My favorite film of 2011 was “The Tree of Life” but “The Artist” was right behind it. Michel Hazanavicius creates a gorgeous film from start to finish and I think it will win on Oscar night. But it’s not a done deal just yet. “The Descendants” is high on many lists and has a good shot at winning. While I loved many of the other movies (specifically “Midnight in Paris”, “Hugo”, “Moneyball”, and of course “The Tree of Life”), this is a two-horse race and at the end of the day I feel “The Artist” will win Best Picture and I’m fine with that.