Tuesday, December 28, 2010

I Am Love

I loved every single second of I Am Love. But… why?  Because 2010 has been the worst year for movies in the 11 years I’ve been reviewing films?  Nope.  Because it’s a foreign film?  Close, but nope.  Because it has a few steamy love scenes?  Closer, but still no.  Seriously, the reason I liked I Am Love is as simple a reason there is to offer: it’s a damn fine, nearly flawless film.

I Am Love was released stateside in June to very little success.  It only made it to a handful of theatres;  those who saw it, including critics, loved it. But most, including myself, paid it no mind and let it slip out of frame. 

As the year closes out, I had noticed that the film had made it on several critics’ top 10 lists. Thanks to Netflix on Demand, I was able to catch it last night.  When the credits cued, I was stunned and sat motionless for several minutes.  I let it sit and stew in my mind.  An hour later, I started the movie over again.  That’s the only time I’ve done that this year.

Here’s why. 

I Am Love is an Italian film starring an Oscar-winning Brit and several Italian actors you’ve never heard of.   It concerns a very wealthy family’s trials and tribulations during the course of a year or so.  And, like most films not made in America, it divulges very little exposition about who the characters are and what their motives will soon become.  The film forces you to figure everything out for yourself, much like if you came late to a dinner party and didn’t know many of the guests.

Because I had no idea what the film was about, and because, yes, figuring the plot elements out is part of the fun, I’m purposefully not going to disclose any further story details.  I’m not concerned with whether or not a three sentence plot description (like the awful ones you read on the back of DVD cases, or, yes, on the sleeves of Netflix films) makes you want to see the movie.  Instead, you should trust my judgment and spend two hours giving I Am Love your full and upmost attention.

Still need more?

How about Tilda Swinton, giving the performance of her already impressive career?  In the film, Switnon plays a Russian married to an Italian (she learned both languages for the part), who doesn’t speak a lick of English.  That’s about as challenging a linguistic task you can present to an actor, and Swinton nails it.

Also, I Am Love is the only film this year (other than Black Swan, of course) that is simply a pleasure to look at and listen to.  Each scene of the film, as directed masterfully by Luca Guadagnino, is lit with purpose.  It isn’t often that you can tell what a character is thinking, based solely on the lighting of a scene.  Same goes for the film’s musical score, a compilation of classic works by composer John Adams.  Adams’ jaunty-paced strings match perfectly with Guadagnino’s fluid (and at times, anxious) editing narrative.

I Am Love is a great film.  Granted, most of you are used to having every single detail explained about every single plot element and major character involved.  Hell, even great movies like Inception and The Social Network do that (although they do it well, unlike most).  If you’re a fan of foreign films, you’ll immediately be drawn to I Am Love.  If you’ve never ventured into the world of subtitles: be bold, take a chance and be patient.  You might even surprise yourself and watch it a second time. A

Monday, December 27, 2010

The King's Speech

The plot of The King's Speech sounds about as interesting as a cheesy BBC docudrama, which is to say, not interesting at all.

While Prince Albert (the remarkably evolving Colin Firth) is the son of the king, he begins to take speech therapies to help cure his debilitating stutter. He tries every method from a variety of different doctors but ultimately settles on a brash Australian man (a reliable Geoffrey Rush) with unorthodox strategies. Once King George VI ascends the throne due to an usual set of circumstances, the pressures culminate. Will he be able to successfully deliver his first radio war time speech? Stay tuned.

The King's Speech, as directed by Tom Hooper, who did wonders with the HBO miniseries John Adams, isn't a remarkably well made film. Hooper still has some things to learn about pacing, camera work, and balancing his narrative. The film is, however, remarkably well performed, producing some of the best screen acting work this year.

Colin Firth has a very hard thing to do: he has to make the audience care about his stutters and stammers. Think about it: when was the last time you saw a movie in which a stuttering character wasn't used as a punch line or for comic relief?

So when Firth stands at the podium, unable to force his way through the keynote speech at the closing ceremony of the 1925 British Empire Exhibition, we don't laugh. No, we don't dare. Instead, we instantaneously feel for this man. We silently whisper "come on, you can do it, just concentrate."

It may seem like a simple feat, to just gain sympathy from the audience, but it's far more layered than that. Firth, as he proved last year in his game-changing performance in A Single Man, is utterly fascinating to just watch.

Watch his eyes in his scenes of forced stammer, watch his mouth tremble when he senses what is coming. Watch his forehead wrinkle in subtle anguish. This is serious skill, saying everything about what the character is feeling, without saying a word. On the outside, he's keeping afloat (barely), but on the inside, he's a tortured, insecure mess.

Firth should start dusting off the Oscar acceptance speech he should've given last year.

What's the saying: a man is only as strong as the woman beside him? Couldn't be truer here, for both the characters and the actors playing them.

Helena Bonham Carter is one of those strange contemporary British actresses who is stuck in the wrong generation. She would've been far better suited in Hollywood's Golden Age, butting heads with Betty Davis and Joan Crawford. In her current career, she's managed some serious show-stopping performances, and some forgetful duds (mostly in her husband Tim Burton's films). But as Queen Elizabeth, Carter is a subtle revelation. She's everything her husband is afraid to be: strong willed, fierce, and unwavering. It's a performance of hopeful determination, and at times, tender mercy. There's a scene in the end, that I won't dare give away, in which her relief is shared by the audience. She's able to breathe, so we're able to breathe.

I loved (seriously, loved) Amy Adams in The Fighter, but she has some serious competition this awards season.

Then there's Geoffrey Rush, as sturdy as ever, delivering a performance of impeccable wit and candor. His no nonsense approach to his therapy is exactly what King George needs, and, coincidentally, exactly what the audience needs to stay enthralled in the film. Rush hasn't always made the best career choices, but no matter what he's in, he always makes his characters interesting.

As I mentioned, The King's Speech isn't flawlessly made, it feels convenient, a tad overlong and a little too bow wrapped, but it does boast some of year's best performances. Also, despite the idiotic, absurd R rating from the MPAA (for two extremely brief, in-no-way derogatory uses of foul language), The King's Speech will be appreciated by people of all ages. Finally, a movie you can take Grandma to that doesn't completely suck. B+ 

Saturday, December 25, 2010

TRON: Legacy

Most of the fathers I know love taking their kids to kid’s movies at the theatre.  Why?  Because the kids sit still while the dads nap.

My boss summed up a movie like TRON: Legacy best.  He explained to me that a movie like TRON wasn’t for someone with my tastes.  Gee, really?  The sole purpose of TRON, he said, was to keep annoying little brats (like his sons) entertained and quiet.  “You can’t imagine how blissful it is to have your four year old sit still and shut the hell up for a couple hours,” he told me.

On that criterion, I suppose TRON is useful.  For adult men at least.  But what about everyone else?  Male teenagers should enjoy this special effects wetdream, which could be dubbed the year’s movie that is Most Likely To Induce a Seizure. 

In TRON, a grown boy manages to enter the virtual world that his father (Jeff Bridges) created two decades ago.  How?  I have no idea.  Maybe if I saw the cult original things would be clearer.  But I haven’t, so they aren’t.

So here’s the skinny, while I hadn’t a clue what the hell was going on throughout the entire film, or was able to decipher a whole sentence of TRON lingo, I did appreciate the look of the alternate world that first time director Joseph Kosinski and his FX crew had created. 

But might I make a suggestion?  If you choose to see TRON: Legacy (and who’s blaming you, given the never ending piles of shit currently littering our theatres) then skip the 3D, which is unnoticeable and useless.  At least this movie had the balls to admit, via an opening title card, that most of its scenes were going to take place in 2D.

This 3D phase is serious bullshit.  Honestly, how many live action films have you seen in the past two years that have successful pulled off genuine 3D effects?  One.  It’s called Avatar. 

So, Dads, see TRON to entertain the kids and nap off.  Everyone else… Godspeed.  D

Thursday, December 23, 2010

True Grit

Joel and Ethan Coen, better than any current working filmmaker, are excellent at showing you something intriguing, without exactly knowing what the hell you’re looking at.  I don’t mean this figuratively, quite the opposite. 

Remember that shot in Fargo of a snow covered… what?  What the hell is it?  Are those lamp posts?  What the hell are we looking at?  It isn’t until pathetic ol’ William H. Macy stumbles by that we realize we’re looking at a bird’s eye view of a parking lot. It’s simple, but brilliant in its deception.  Same thing goes for the doorknob shot in No Country for Old Men.  We tilt our heads like curious dogs, wondering if that’s really Javier Bardem staring back at us.

True Grit opens with one of those shots. Something so ingenious in its originality, it’s damn-near impossible to explain in print.  It sets a deliberate tone: the Coen brothers know that you’ve most likely seen the 1969 John Wayne original True Grit, and that’s fine, because they’re going to give it to you in a very different way.

First off is casting Jeff Bridges (who worked for the Coen’s back in 1998 as The Dude) in the lead role of Rooster Cogburn, a U.S. Marshall hired by a feisty young girl to catch the man who killed her father in cold blood; otherwise known as the role that won John Wayne his only Oscar.  What a task Bridges has.  How do you recreate arguably the most famous movie character from arguably the most famous actor of all time?  Tricky.

With his deep, southpaw voice and dialogue laced with subtle humor, Bridges somehow, rather amazingly, makes Rooster his own.  No easy feat, and The Dude does it in stride.

As does 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, who delivers a star making, Oscar-worthy performance as Mattie Ross.  The whole point of the original film is to show that Mattie has just as much grit as Rooster. Kim Darby did a decent job in ’69, but Steinfeld manages to steal the show in each of her scenes (a compliment, considering she’s in every scene of the picture).

Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper all contribute worthy supporting performances to the landscape appeal of the film, but, as with most Coen brothers movies, it’s the brothers themselves that are the true players.

In a career that has spanned 25 years and several classics (Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, and on and on) the Coens have asserted themselves as some of the foremost American filmmakers of our time.  Everything about their films, regardless of whether or not you enjoy the content, is technically flawless.  The look (credit Coen vet Roger Deakins) the sound (credit Coen vet Carter Burwell) and the shape (credit Coen pseudonym Roderick Jaynes) are always top notch.  True Grit is no exception. 

Even if you’re a fan of the original, as I am, then you’ll enjoy this Coen revamp.  Seriously, when was the last time you actually liked a remake as much, or dare I say, more, than the original? A-

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

How Do You Know

Jesus, what an awful movie this is.  Seriously, absolute garbage.  The title, however, is utterly perfect: How Do You Know… when A-list actors are in over their heads, selling out way too hard?  How Do You Know… when a movie is so bad, it can actually make you nauseated?  How Do You Know… that How Do You Know is damn near the worst movie of the year?  Read on.

James L. Brooks is a notoriously slow writer.  He admits this often in interviews.  The result of his ass-dragging process has produced three of the most iconic films of the past 25 years.  From the Best Picture-winning Terms of Endearment to the superior Broadcast News to the endlessly watchable As Good as It Gets.  But remember Spanglish? Yeah, me either.

How Do You Know doesn’t even give you the luxury of not remembering it. Once you’ve seen it (and I really, truly hope that you don’t), you’re just going to be pissed that you wasted two hours of your life.  Hell, you may even demand a refund from the movie theatre manager.  Riots could start.  Cars could be overturned.  All in the name of God-awful cinema.

I brought up Brooks’ writing process for a reason. I have a sneaking suspicion that he is such a slow writer because it takes him months to come up with the catchy little kickers that his characters constantly blurt out.  The juicy one-liners that end most every spoken sentence.  Sometimes, this approach soars wonderfully (“You make me wanna be a better man.”), but most of the time, excuse me, everytime in How Do You Know, it falters miserably.

But that’s just one minor detail, surely you can overlook atrocious dialogue.  How about the plot, which puts a young, successful… executive?  I don’t know, his job is never made clear… in the midst of a federal investigation for… fraud?  I don’t know, it’s never really made clear.  He meets a tightly-wound professional softball player who is dating a sleazeball professional baseball player, and aimlessly tries to win her over.

Maybe this is right up your romantic comedy alley.  See it, I dare you.  But don’t blame me if you walk away feeling useless and queasy and pissed off that you didn’t get your money back.  Your gamble. F

The Tourist

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where a movie like The Tourist goes wrong.  All the ingredients add up: a great foreign director with a unique eye for the craft, an exotic setting, an on-paper witty script by two Oscar winners, and the two most famous actors currently working in movies.  What could go wrong?

Well, you can start with the fact that Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp look and act like they are phoning this movie in (Depp particularly; he just looks… stale).  Also, when a 103 minute film feels double that long, it isn’t very conducive to amiable results.

You’ve heard a variation of this plot a dozen times (maybe even this year): a sultry, elusive spy-type woman tricks an aimless American man into falling for her, so the woman can throw off the guys in dark suits tailing her every move.  Eh.  Of course people are not who they seem, curtains are pulled back, “twists” are introduced, etc etc.

Maybe this sounds intriguing to you, I don’t know.  It did to me (kind of), mostly because the film is directed by Florian Henckel von Dennersmarck who won an Oscar for directing the very brilliant The Lives of Others in 2006.  Intriguing though it may sound, The Tourist is a muddled, boring mess. 

Honestly, you can’t save your film by revealing plot “twists” that anyone with an IQ over 50 figured out five minutes into the movie.  No offense to those of you that didn’t, but come on, once you found out what those “twists" were, you rolled your eyes, admit it. D

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Fighter

Those hoping to be wowed by thrilling fighting scenes in a movie called The Fighter will apparently be sorely let down.  The boxing matches in David O. Russell’s new film are too sparse, clumsily edited, narrowly focused, and awkwardly shot.  Raging Bull this is not.  Why then, is The Fighter still such a good movie? 

The most obvious reason is the impeccable talent demonstrated effortlessly from each member of the cast.  

In The Fighter, Mark Wahlberg plays real life boxer “Irish” Micky Ward, a middle-lower class white guy from a crusty Boston neighborhood.  As Ward, Wahlberg never does anything showy.  There’s no fall-to-his-knees-and-cry moment, no extended monologue to serve as his Oscar clip.  Wahlberg, much like the real man, plays Ward as understated and soft spoken; a nice guy down on his luck.

On the flip side of that is Ward's mile-a-minute, crack-addicted half brother/boxing trainer, Dicky. Christian Bale, easily the most underrated actor currently working in cinema, plays Dicky flawlessly.  There’s the several pounds lost, the authentic boxing moves, the perfect Boston accent, the furious volcanic temper, the warranted shame; it’s all here, tightly encompassed into a performance that should surely generate several dozen awards.

While Bale is constantly overlooked for his performances, I’ve thought for several years that Amy Adams was too appreciated.  Junebug?  Okay.  Doubt?  Eh.  Julie & Julia?  Barf.  But as Ward’s foul mouthed love interest, Adams is an utter revelation. She is constantly  forced to go verbally pound for pound with Ward’s demented family (aside from Dicky, he has at least six bat shit sisters, most of which have different fathers).  It’s a performance of delicate warmth and no nonsense self-respect.  Definitely worth the praise.

As is Melissa Leo's, who plays Ward’s overbearing mother/manager.  With her moussed bleach blonde hair and atrocious post-‘80s wardrobe, Leo nails the constant bitterness and seldom moments of fleeting appreciation that are demanded of the complicated role.  Leo, as she’s proved in 21 Grams, Frozen River and Treme, is a real pro. No change here.

I’ve focused mostly on The Fighter’s acting for a very specific reason: it’s easily the best part of the film, which, unfortunately, carries a few flaws that the average viewer won’t be able to shake. I mentioned that the boxing scenes are anti-climatic and misguided; as is a fair portion of the scenes outside the ring. 

During the film’s many heated dialogue exchanges, I kept wondering when a point was going to be made, or a catharsis was going to be reached  Most of the film’s scenes run too long and aren’t evenly cut together.  I don’t mind slow; slow is fine if that is the constant pace.  What I don’t like is meandering, a word that popped into my head a few times during this film.

It isn’t enough to kill the movie, for my money the good here outweighs the bad, but it’s enough to call it a slight letdown.  No matter, if the role of Dicky gets Christian Bale to the Oscar podium, all will be forgiven.  B+

Inside Job

Inside Job does for the economy what Waiting for “Superman” did for education.  Both discuss in great, exhaustive detail  how a particular part of the American dream is crumbling.  Both expose blames and offer solutions.  And both are tedious, historical lessons that are better suited in very specific graduate school courses.

Inside Job attempts to pinpoint exactly how the global financial meltdown of 2008 occurred.  What happened, why did it happen, who made it happen, and what can we do to fix it?  The film starts off freshly paced and thoroughly examined, helped much in part to Matt Damon’s steady narration, but soon gets lost in translation.

During the film, terms like subprime lending, deregulation, housing bubble, predatory lending, capital and liquidly are thrown around, along with acronyms like CDO, CPD, FCIC, ARM and CRA; and that’s all fine and well, if you know what they all mean.  Me, I don’t have the slightest clue what any of that shit is, and it’s the job of director Charles Ferguson to make laymans like me understand, which… he doesn’t.

Inside Job is constantly busy, continually throwing nuggets of tight information our way, but it’s just too damn much.  I simply couldn’t keep up.  And much like Waiting for “Superman,” once Inside Job reaches its catharsis, it actually gets great.

During the last 20 minutes, Ferguson welcomingly begins to verbally attack the rich white men he is interviewing.  All of these men worked at one time, or perhaps still do, for a major financial system and/or the Bush administration, but are now employed by a major university.  Ferguson wants to know if it’s morally all right for someone to teach that a specific company, or administration, is good or bad, while actually being paid by that company.  Every single interviewee gets tongue tied, some even get pissed and threaten Ferguson.  This is thrilling stuff, and if these really are the fucks responsible for America’s economic collapse, then we feel a sense of vindication in watching them squirm. 

But by then, for me, it was too late. I had already checked out.  I was still trying to figure out the animated bar graph from 55 minutes ago.

Apparently I’m alone here.  Inside Job has been receiving rave reviews, and will likely win the Best Documentary Oscar, for its ability to indict those responsible for the current state of our economy (I mean, hell, Michael Moore couldn’t even do that).  And while I appreciate that, it doesn’t mean that I can magically comprehend the movie. Shame.  Documentaries are arguably my favorite type of films, but no matter the subject, they shouldn’t feel like a school lesson.  B-

Thursday, December 16, 2010

SAG nominations: more accurate than the Globes?

Unlike the Golden Globes, the Screen Actor's Guild awards (along with the writer's, director's and producer's guild awards) have a far better track record at handicapping potential Oscar nominees and winners.

With that in mind, I am quite surprised at some of the actors on the SAG shortlist (No Wahlberg or DiCaprio, but... Hilary Swank?). Here's a breakdown of the SAGs major categories.

Best Cast
Black Swan
The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech
The Social Network

Usually a good rule of thumb is that whatever film has the most nominations will end up winning this. So that'd be The Fighter or The King's Speech (who each have three). Overall, I'd chose The Social Network or Black Swan.
Some Social Network chums
Best Actor
Jeff Bridges- True Grit
Robert Duvall- Get Low
Jesse Eisenberg- The Social Network
Colin Firth- The King's Speech
James Franco- 127 Hours

Mark Wahlberg is the big exclusion here, having been bumped out by the surprising inclusion of Robert Duvall, who gave a subtly brilliant performance in the little-seen Get Low.  Also thought I'd see Leonardo DiCaprio for either Shutter Island or Inception. No matter, it's Firth's to lose either way.
Duvall in Get Low
Best Actress
Annette Bening- The Kids Are All Right
Nicole Kidman- Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence- Winter's Bone
Natalie Portman- Black Swan
Hilary Swank- Conviction

Swank? Really? What about Michelle Williams for Blue Valentine, or Julianne Moore for Kids Are All Right? My vote is, of course, for Portman, but I'm telling you, watch out for Lawrence, she could sneak away with it.

Portman in Black Swan
Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale- The Fighter
John Hawkes- Winter's Bone
Jeremy Renner- The Town
Mark Ruffalo- The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush- The King's Speech

Love seeing Hawkes here, but I'm all about Bale. Ruffalo is a worthy surprise, although I would've gone with Justin Timberlake or Andrew Garfield from The Social Network.
Hawkes in Winter's Bone
Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams- The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter- The King's Speech
Mila Kunis- Black Swan
Melissa Leo- The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld- True Grit

Props to 14-year-old Steinfeld, but it's Leo's to lose. Too bad Kunis' performance is too understated for most voters, her work in Black Swan was devilishly captivating.  
Kunis in Black Swan
For all the nominee's, including those in television, click here.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I Love You Phillip Morris

There are usually two main reasons why a film gets stuck in post-production, pre-release hell: the studio doesn't know how to market it, and it is just flat out bad.

I Love You Phillip Morris meets both criteria. I first saw this at Sundance nearly two years ago, and the time away hasn't made it any better. 

Jim Carrey, somewhere between Ace Ventura and Truman Burbank, plays real life hustler Steven Russell, a con man who hides his homosexuality from his wife before meeting the love of his life (played aimlessly by Ewan McGregor) during one of his many prison stints.

Russell is all lies. He steals, cheats, wrecks cars, flees the feds, recklessly spends money; all in the name of love.

It's an amusing premise, executed to utter disaster by first time directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. I Love You Phillip Morris may indeed be a true story, but the film plays out like a gay bastard stepchild of Catch Me If You Can, which is to say it's toneless, meandering, and seemingly lost in its first 10 minutes.

Too bad. Carrey seems to be into it, going all bent-wrist flaunt, even though McGregor appears to be phoning his role in. Look, I like Jim Carrey, but the fact is, he stretched far to deliver his excellent work in Eternal Sunshine, and since then, he's tried his hand at a number of other genres, failing each time.

I have no love for this Phillip Morris (which I'll slap with a D). No matter, seeing how it leaves your head the minute you leave the theatre.

Now, on to something else, and forgive me for getting a little graphic for those squeamish. 

In college I wrote an argumentative essay examining the absurdity surrounding the fact that Brokeback Mountain was being picketed and banned and despised for showing one 17 second, fully clothed love scene between two men. So now, five years later, why do we hear no dust-up about other film and television shows that contain far more explicit scenes? (Male scenes, that is. No one ever bitches about seeing two women hook up.)

Take an early scene in I Love You Phillip Morris, in which a very sweaty, very naked Jim Carrey nails some random dude from behind while his partner screams repeatedly for Carrey to "come in his ass."

Doesn't this offend the homophobes more than Heath Ledger spitting into his hand? I just don't get it. Maybe because Brokeback Mountain is actually a good film? Does that make a difference? I suppose there is no rhyme to the reason of those judgmental, uneducated few. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Golden Globes...(sigh)

Proof that the Golden Globes act as Hollywood's biggest party, and nothing more, is evident in this year's nominations for the "best" film, musical or comedy.

I didn't like Alice in Wonderland, but many of you did, so I'll let that slide. But Burlesque...? The Tourist....? Red?! Really? 

Look, the Globes serve a purpose: they're a perfectly decent hor'dourve to the Oscars. Hell, I usually agree with the Golden Globe winners more often than I do the Oscars, and the speeches are often much more colorful, thanks much in part to the constant flowing of the booze.

But they aren't credible, and rarely sway Oscar votes. Ninety some odd foreign journalists vote for the winners of the Golden Globes, which is a fancy way of saying that the awards are a contest of hype. Whoever has the most buzz on voting day, wins. Simple as that. 

But after the award's 2008 ceremony, in which Mickey Rourke, Colin Farrell, Kate Winslet, Sally Hawkins, Bruce Springsteen, Gabriel Bryne, and... Kate Winslet all took home trophies, my faith was temporarily restored.

Simply put: will I watch the Golden Globes? Hell yes. But I won't spend as much time mulling over them as others.

2010 Golden Globe nominees:

Motion Picture – Drama
Black Swan
The Fighter
The King's Speech
The Social Network

Solid list. I'm rooting for The Fighter to be good, but I doubt it'll dethrone Black Swan as my favorite film of the year.
Yup, that's Natalie Portman.
Best Director
Darren Aronofsky- Black Swan
David Fincher- The Social Network
Tom Hooper- The King's Speech
Christopher Nolan- Inception
David O. Russell- The Fighter

Although Black Swan is my favorite of the year, you simply cannot write off Nolan's game-changing vision. Inception is the 2001 of our time.
Christopher Nolan
Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy
Alice and Wonderland
The Kids Are All Right
The Tourist


Best Actor – Drama
Jesse Eisenberg- The Social Network
Colin Firth- The King's Speech
James Franco- 127 Hours
Ryan Gosling- Blue Valentine
Mark Wahlberg- The Fighter

Firth will win the Oscar without breaking a sweat, but the Globes often take more risks. Franco... maybe?
Colin Firth
Best Actress – Drama
Halle Berry- Frankie and Alice
Nicole Kidman- Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrenece- Winter's Bone
Natalie Portman- Black Swan
Michelle Williams- Blue Valentine

Portman's performance is the best acting of the year, so she gets my vote. But look out for Lawrence, her quiet, cold performance in the excellent Winter's Bone is being remembered, despite an early-year release.
Jennifer Lawrence
Best Actor – Musical or Comedy
Johnny Depp- The Tourist
Johnny Depp- Alice in Wonderland
Paul Giamatti- Barney's Version
Jake Gyllenhaal- Love and Other Drugs
Kevin Spacey- Casino Jack

Uhh. Uhhhhh. Spacey? As if. Depp's been nominated for 10 of these damn things. He'll probably take it for Alice.

Best Actress – Musical or Comedy
Annette Bening- The Kids Are All Right
Anne Hathaway- Love and Other Drugs
Angeline Jolie- The Tourist
Julianne Moore- The Kids Are All Right
Emma Stone- Easy A

It's Bening's Oscar to lose, but wouldn't it be great to see Stone nab the Globe?
Emma Stone in Easy A
Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale- The Fighter
Michael Douglas- Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
Andrew Garfield- The Social Network
Jeremy Renner- The Town
Geoffrey Rush- The King's Speech

Bale all the way. Although, Renner is more than worthy as well.

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams- The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter- The King's Speech
Mila Kunis- Black Swan
Melissa Leo- The Fighter
Jacki Weaver- Animal Kingdom

From what I hear, Leo is the Oscar frontrunner. But Kunis... damn. Damn.
Mellisa Leo and Christian Bale
Best Screenplay
127 Hours
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech
The Social Network

Inception should be rewarded for all of its flawless aspects (via Best Picture or Best Director). Give this to Aaron Sorkin, for his mile-a-minute Social Network script, arguably a character in and of itself.

Sorkin on The Social Network set

Original Score
127 Hours
Alice in Wonderland
The King's Speech
The Social Network

No Clint Mansell for Black Swan? Is there a typo here?

Every Television Category
Because most of these categories simply regurgitate the same nominee's every year, I chose not to handicap them.  But you can see all the categories here.

For more about this year's Oscar race, click here.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Black Swan

For two evenings last weekend, I sat crammed in standing room only movie theatres, witnessing what may very well be the best film of the year. Once wasn’t enough, you see.  Because the minute Black Swan was finished, the only thing I demanded of myself was that I see it again. Immediately.

Darren Aronofsky’s new ballerina-gone-mad headtrip is right up his alley.  He took a brief, but utterly brilliant detour with The Wrestler two years ago, and now he’s back to his warped ways, delivering a film that permeates with his unique eye for cinema.

In Black Swan, Natalie Portman plays Nina, the most dedicated, obsessive dancer in her ballet company, as is evident by her strict instructor’s choice to cast her as both the White and Black Swan in his Swan Lake reprisal.

Like many artists, it’s pressure that forms the basis of Nina’s downfall.  Pressure from Thomas, her no bullshit instructor (Vincent Cassell), pressure from a new dancer in the company (Mila Kunis), whose charming confidence is laced with her brimming sexuality, and pressure from Nina’s overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey).

Nina is wrapped in innocence and repression; the kind of woman who has never been given a chance to grow up.  Her mother, who not-so-coincidentally is always wearing black, dresses and undresses Nina, prepares all of her meals, and even keeps her room decorated with pink butterflies on the wallpaper and enough stuffed animals to fill a toy store.  As the various pressures culminate, Nina begins to implode, letting her stresses manifest themselves both physical and mentally.

Mild chaos ensues, narratives are reversed, characters are twisted and turned; all in the name of a first rate thriller.

The term tour de force is a common French expression used to describe an exceptional achievement by an artist.  It’s a phrase that only begins to make sense of Natalie Portman’s performance in this movie. As Nina, Portman gives the most controlled, dedicated performance of her impressive career (and probably, this entire year). Rarely letting Nina speak just an octave or two above a whisper, Portman’s cold, yet determined gaze is enough to hook any viewer.  Her shy, childlike take on Nina probably won’t land her an Oscar nomination, but her conviction during her many dance numbers could very well win her one.

Her dance sequences, pulled off with unwavering grace and discipline, demonstrate a performance of impeccable physical skill, rivaling that of Hilary Swank's in Million Dollar Baby (or any actor in any sports film, for that matter).  Portman’s physical transformation, losing what appear to be several pounds off her already slender frame, is a sight to behold.  Poetry in motion.

This helps, of course, because of gifted cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s fluid camera work, Clint Mansell’s operatic musical score, and a trio of solid supporting performances.

Vincent Cassel excels as the cunningly ruthless, yet sometimes compassionately sympathetic, Thomas.  It’s a tricky role, one that requires tonal shifts in every one of his scenes.  Likewise Mila Kunis, who thus far has used her flawless beauty to excel comedically, but here is finally given a chance to flex her dramatic acting chops.  Then there’s Barbara Hershey, who turns what could be a Carrie’s mother, they’re-all-gonna-laugh-at-you nutjob of a role into something far more layered.

Aronofsky doesn’t make simple films for simple people, instead, he challenges his viewers to except the fact that, however disturbing and discombobulated, his films will not escape your subconscious for days, weeks, months on end.

In a year filled with movies that say nothing, Black Swan is a revelation.  It’s a film so coated in sleek design and hidden tricks, that one time simply isn’t enough.  Like a great maestro hitting the crescendo of his final act, the applause for Black Swan continues well after its closing image.  In the words of Portman, that is to say, Nina: “Perfect.  It was perfect.” A+

Saturday, December 4, 2010

101 Cinematic Reasons Why I Love the 2000s

I recently discovered a list in which the author stated “100 reasons why I love film”.  I could give you 1,000, so instead I’m breaking it up by decade.  In no discernable order, here is an off the cuff list of why I loved movies in the first decade of the 21st century. Confused by one…just ask, man.

1. “Is that my daughter in there? IS THAT MY DAUGHTER IN THERE?!”

2. Brian Eno’s “An Ending (Ascent)” as used in Traffic (more here)

3. The introduction of Francis Xavier Slaughtery in 25th Hour

4. Brad Pitt’s inaudible “Thank You” in Babel (more here)

5. The dinner scene in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

6. Derek Luke in Antwone Fisher

7. “I’m an old, broken down piece of meat, and I’m alone.  And I deserve to be alone. I just... don’t want you to hate me.”


9. The opening credits of Adaptation.

10. “Okay so what am I doing?  Oh, I’m chasing this guy.  No… he’s… chasing me.”

11. Hattori Honzo’s steel

12. Naomi Watts as Betty Elms (and Diane Selwyn)

13. Heath Ledger in Monster’s Ball

14. Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain (more here)

15. Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight

16. The dialouge of this character at this moment:

17. A sea of hands hands desperately grab for the control stick. The plane descends faster and faster, the field below comes into clearer view. We pray the passengers get control.  But, of course, we know they won't.

18. The first 15 minutes of There Will Be Blood

19. The last 15 minutes of There Will Be Blood

20. The middle 130 minutes of There Will Be Blood

21. Monica Belluci walking into the red tunnel

22. The use of Richard Wagner’s “Das Rheingold: Vorspiel” in The New World

23. The name Carey Mulligan

24. “You’re a pianist?  Play.”

25. The three films of Alejandro González Iñárritu

26. William Hurt's one scene in A History of Violence


28. The fact that an Iwo Jima film from the Japanese POV is better than an Iwo Jima film from the American POV

29. Using dialogue as an afterthought in Hunger

30. The final scene of The Cove

31. The eyes of Marion Cotillard

32. Monique’s voice in the final scene of Precious

33. When Colin Firth sees something that excites him, the color hue of the film changes

34. Steven Soderbergh’s filmography (more here)

35. The events that lead to this man's nickname:

36.  Bill Murray screaming for help on an elliptical

37. The Rumble in the Jungle, as directed by Michael Mann

38. “Kiri kiri kiri kiri kiri kiri”

39. The Vengeance trilogy

40. A bully’s flapping legs as they glide across the surface of a swimming pool

41. Watching the Friedmans be captured

42. Eminem, Oscar winner

43. The Vietnam vet that steps onto the bus in Jarhead

44. “He made a disparaging remark about the Knicks at a party.”

45. Tom Hanks alone on an island

46. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing in The Departed

47. “Let Go,” by Frou Frou in Garden State

48. The rebirth of this man’s career: 

49. “I’m gonna grab a smoke you want a smoke what you don’t smoke what are you some kind of fitness freak huh go fuck yourself.”

50. The moment the gas station owner realizes his life depends on the fate of a coin toss

51. “Because I’m a fucking caveman!”

52. Rian Johnson’s Brick screenplay

53. Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Manic

54. Yo Yo Ma’s cello in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

55. “Girlie, tough ain’t enough.”

56. January 27, 2003: Oscar nominations are announced, a tiny film no one has seen gets four major nominations, it’s called City of God

57. The guy that made these movies: 

58. David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow

59. Colin Farrell quickly walking into a hospital as Mogwai’s “Auto Rock” plays

60. “I live in the American Gardens building on West 81st street.  My name is Patrick Bateman, I’m 27 years

61. The ever-evolving, and grossly underrated, career of Jeffrey Wright

62. Matt Damon’s final, silent scene in Syriana

63. “YES. YES. YES. YES.” 

64. The actor who played Walter Wade, Trevor Reznik, John Rolfe, Dieter Dengler, Alfred Borden, Melvin Purvis, Bruce Wayne and Patrick Bateman

65. Michael Mann shooting in HD

66. “…improvise, adapt to the environment, Darwin, shit happens, I Ching, whatever man, we gotta roll with it.”

67. Best Director, 2000

68. Best Director, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, 2002

69. Ray Charles, reborn in the form of Jamie Foxx

70. “Well… the time has come”—Barbara Streisand presenting the 2009 winner for Best Director

71. “I wish… you had… more time.”

72. Laine Hanson for Vice President

73. A kid unexpectedly picks up a phone, Eric Bana sprints toward the car, the bomb is triggered, it fails to explode.  Hitchcock would be jealous.

74. The performance of the woman on the right:

75. A man sitting on the beach, waiting for his father to come back in from a fishing trip.  Cue credits.

76. “I need you to make me ugly.”

77. A desperate man running in the street with his huge dog as a live version of “With or Without You” booms over the soundtrack

78. The wires are finally drawn, the narrative finally catches up with itself, we cut to black before slowly fading in on a picture of Philippe Petit walking on air

79. Billy Bob Thornton pissing himself in a Santa outfit

80. Eric Bana's final monologue in Black Hawk Down

81. The fact that Unbreakable is better than The Sixth Sense

83.Werner Herzog’s face as he listens to Timothy Treadwell be mauled to death

84. “I’m even in love with your anger! I’M IN LOVE WITH ANYTHING THAT LIVES!”

85. The “Mad World” montage in Donnie Darko

86. We open on a photograph of a contemporary Parisian street.  After a few minutes, a car drives by; we aren't looking at a photo, we're looking at a film clip.  After a few minutes, off camera dialouge is heard; we aren't looking at a real shot, we're looking at what the characters are looking at.  After a few minutes, the tape rewinds; we aren't looking at a live shot, we're looking at a videotape.

87. The final 5 minutes of Dogville

88. This cast:

89. Audrey Tautou hastily walking a blind man down the street, explaining in detail everything they pass

90. “Tiny Dancer” being sung on a tour bus

91. “Whoop that trick, get ‘em.”

92. Clive Owen escorting a mother and her newborn child out of a destroyed building

93. “Lying’s the most a girl can have without taking her clothes off.”

94. Jack Nicholson reading a letter from Ndugu

95. Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos

96. The events that transpire directly after this moment: 

97. Campbell Scott as Roger Swanson

98. Robin Williams with bleach-blonde hair

 99. “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane.”

100. “Silencio”

 101. “And then I woke up.”

“Answer” Key
I’ve gotten a lot of shit for being too enigmatic with some portions of my list. Below is a slight “answer” key. Slight because I’m only listing the movie for each corresponding number. To give more context would take the piss out of the whole thing.

1. Mystic River
7. The Wrestler
8. Requiem for a Dream
10. Memento
11. Kill Bill: Vol. 1
12. Mulholland Dr.
16. Punch-Drunk Love
17. United 93
21. Irreversible
24. The Pianist
25. Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel
27. Dancer in the Dark
28. Letters from Iwo Jima/Flags of Our Fathers
33. A Single Man
35. Chopper
36. Lost in Translation
37. Ali
38. Audition
39. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance
40. Let the Right One In
41. Capturing the Friedmans
42. 8 Mile
44. The Squid and the Whale
45. Cast Away
48. From top left: Planet Terror, No Country for Old Men, Milk, W.
49. The Departed
50. No Country for Old Men
51. Closer
55. Million Dollar Baby
57. Gus Vant Sant
58. Good Night and Good Luck
59. Miami Vice
60. American Psycho
63. Sexy Beast
64. Christian Bale
65. Ali, Collateral, Miami Vice, Public Enemies
66. Collateral
67. Steven Soderbergh, Traffic
68. Roman Polanski, Adrien Brody, Ronald Harwood, all for The Pianist
69. Ray
71. Man on Fire
72. The Contender
73. Munich
74. Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married
75. The Edge of Heaven
76. 25th Hour
77. Tell No One
78. Man on Wire
79. Bad Santa
83. Grizzly Man
84. In America
86. Cache
88. The Royal Tenenbaums
89. Amélie
90. Almost Famous
91. Hustle & Flow
92. Children of Men
93. Closer
94. About Schmidt
95. Monster
96. Eastern Promises
97. Roger Dodger
98. One Hour Photo
99. Before Sunset
100. Mulholland Dr.
101. No Country for Old Men

Friday, December 3, 2010

the Directors: Darren Aronofsky

He's only directed five feature films, yet his name is widely known.  He pioneered of his own fame by raising the money himself to fund his first whacked out feature, Pi.  Became an indie God with his sensationally influential Requiem for a Dream. Fought for half a decade to get his effects-heavy futuristic passion project The Fountain off the ground, then tossed out the mindfuck style he was known for with his quiet and humanizing film The Wrestler.  Next is Black Swan, which is already generating serious Oscar buzz for star Natalie Portman.  I’m posting this the night before I see Black Swan, and I'm not exactly (or hell, even partially) sure what it’s about.  But that's the best way to jump into Darren Aronofsky’s world: head first and blind.

π (1998)
This grainy, 16MM, high contrast indie makes up for its lacking production value with a wildly originally screenplay delivered with balls-to-the-wall, manic execution.  The film, about a tormented mathematician who may be a genius or insane or both, is short and to the point, but not without leaving an permanent stamp.  

Aronofsky’s first flick, justifiably, raised comparisons to David Lynch with early echoes of Kubrick.  It isn’t a perfect film, but it’s one hell of a start. A-

Interesting fact: Aronofsky and his crew filmed this entire movie guerilla style, with virtually no permits or permissions to shoot in some of New York City’s most public places.

Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Where to begin.  Some hail Aronofsky’s horrific modern day tale of addiction as a masterpiece, others dismiss it as tiresome performance art.  I lean more toward the former.  This is one of those notorious movies that you’ve heard so much about because, once you see it, you will never forget it.  Ellen Burstyn, in one of the best performances of the decade, coupled with Aronofsky’s game-changing editing and camera  techniques make for a highly disquieting, yet utterly convincing film.  Mix in all the other brutal shit, and you’ve got one of the most disturbing films of recent memory.  Unsettling though it may be, Requiem for a Dream is not to be missed.  Even if you don't think you can stomach it.  A

Interesting fact: Honestly, there’s just too much to list here.  My advice: listen to Aronofsky’s commentary on the DVD, it’s chock full of interesting facts, thereby making the film that much more impressive.  If you’ve never listened to a commentary track before, this is a great place to start.

The Fountain (2006)
Nope, Aronofsky didn’t take six years off before making this, in fact, he has long said that The Fountain was the film he was born to make.  Slugging through years of Hollywood studio purgatory, The Fountain was green lit and shut down and recast and terminated several times before Aronofsky finally got it off the ground.  The final result was an insightful and wildly debated film that spilt audiences and critics alike.  You either love it or you hate it.  Or, you simply choose not to understand it.  I like The Fountain, a lot.  I love the centuries-jumping narrative, the delicate performances, the deliberate use (or non-use) of sound, the sepia-hued cinematography,and so on.  The Fountain is a film that grows on you, so long as it give it a chance.  A-

Interesting fact: Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt were locked on to star, before dropping out due to production delays before Rachel Weisz, then Aronofsky finance, and Hugh Jackman (who Aronofsky will be directing in the new Wolverine film) took over.

The Wrestler (2008)
You’d think Aronofsky’s best film would be in the same vein as his others: warped, over-caffeinated, fantastical glimpses into underworlds.  But The Wrestler, the best film of 2008, is Aronofsky’s masterpiece.  Mickey Rourke, in a career-defining, robbed-of-an-Oscar performance, is perfectly cast as faded professional wrestler Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson.  We empathize with The Ram’s every decision, no matter how poor. Our hearts break at every false hope, every shed tear and glance of needed acceptance.  God bless Aronofsky for sticking it to the studio system and holding on for the movie he wanted to make, the result of which is a perfect two hours of American filmmaking.  A+

Interesting fact: No studio would back the often unreliable and hotheaded Rourke.  The bosses wanted Nicolas Cage, who was signed on to star, before relenting and helping convince the studio that Rourke was the only man for the role.

Black Swan (2010)

Loyal readers know I haven’t shut about this movie since I saw it in the beginning on December.  And for good reason.  It’s everything a contemporary movie should be: new, inventive, emotionally gripping, and wholly convincing.  Natalie Portman delivered the best acting performance of the year as a tortured ballet dancer, and she should be awarded accordingly.  Black Swan is the highlight of Darren Aronofsky’s already impeccable career.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: “Perfect.  It was perfect." A

Interesting fact: After Natalie Portman’s double claimed that the star only did “5 percent” of her full-body dance shots in the movie, Aronofsky sat down with his editor and did a shot count of all the scenes in which Portman did herself.  Aronofsky’s count was closer to 80 percent.