Monday, January 31, 2011

NICOLAS CAGE: The Idiot Savant of Hollywood

It’s time to step away from awards season for a moment and talk about something, or someone, who has been on my mind quite a bit of late: Nicolas Cage. A strange thing happened to me the other night when I watched the trailer for Drive Angry, Cage’s newest head-scratching schlock fest that appears to have no redeeming value as far as cinema is concerned. I changed my perception of the actor. Completely. To me, Cage is no longer some desperate, lost, confused actor wasting all of his talent in pictures that seem more awful than the last. To me he is no longer some sad former Oscar winner with no clue as to what makes a film good. I contend that Nicolas Cage, in all of his bewildering career choices and strange hair decisions, is some sort of warped genius, a mastermind of shit films that takes things to an entirely new level of camp insanity and does so without making apologies or delusions that what he is making is something special.

Two years ago I saw Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, and really didn’t like much of what I had seen. Some critics were hailing it as the ultimate Nicolas Cage experience, in so many words, so I figured maybe he had turned a corner in his career. But what I saw back then was more of the same nonsense. Cage was completely unhinged as a drug-addicted psychopath with a badge, spouting dialogue in some manic, uneven cadence and acting all types of crazy. The bastard had lost it, in my opinion. But looking back on the film now, I feel like I would have a different perspective on his performance and, thus, a different grade on the film itself. Because Nicolas Cage knows what he is doing when he makes these pictures. You cannot tell me he only gets sent scripts for films like Season of the Witch, or Bangkok Dangerous, or Ghost Rider, without the occasional brilliant screenplay mixed in. This is a man who turned arguably the finest performance of the nineties in Leaving Las Vegas and began the 2000s with a brilliant performance as two people in Adaptation. I know he gets scripts that are full of depth and emotion and with well-written characters amid what will be good films; films that will at least be discussed at Oscar time.

Sure, every once in a while Cage will try his hand at something serious, or something that could at least be considered sane. He was brilliant but overlooked in The Weather Man, as he was in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center and Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men. But those films are long gone now. They aren’t the films everyone thinks about when they think of Cage. They think of the Disneyed up National Treasure films, of Ghost Rider and its upcoming sequel, of Knowing, of The Wicker Man remake. These films are, without question, atrocious (except for Knowing, to me anyway). But look closer, look back at Cage in these films. Have you ever seen a performance so dedicated and so energized in such a bad film before? Cage is a bright individual, at a very basic level at least. He has eyes, and ears, and can process information, which is all you need to realize The Wicker Man remake is the very definition of “so bad it’s good.” So, again, Cage must be completely self aware of what he is doing, and so that gives him the freedom to go into these films without regard for what they become, or what becomes of him.

Consider Cage next to two other actors: Harrison Ford and Robert DeNiro. Now before you try and separate these two actors from Cage and say they are more accomplished, I would like to say DeNiro has two Oscar statues, Ford none with only one nomination. Sure, DeNiro may be the best ever, and Ford has some of the most admirable franchises in his corner, but to say that Cage is not on their level as far as prestige might be short sighted. Now think about the recent films of DeNiro and Ford, and how bored and disinterested they looked. I remember Ford in Firewall and Indiana Jones 4, where he looked tired and worked lazily through his lines. And DeNiro, fledgling along in tired films like Righteous Kill and 15 Minutes in recent years, looks like he would rather be doing anything other than what he is doing. But think about The Wicker Man for a second. Nicolas Cage had to either know beforehand or figure out in short order that he was in an awful remake with no chance at being a serious, prestigious picture. But instead of succumbing to the fact that The Wicker Man was drivel, Cage met the picture head on and carried his performance over the top. The result is an awful film, but one with self-mocking charm thanks to Cage’s idiotic energy. And that is what Cage brings to films that are clearly poor examples of anything substantial; energy, conviction, and an insane brilliance.

Nicolas Cage understands the films he is doing are what they are, not anything more and maybe sometimes a little less, so the fact that he would continue to dive head first into garbage cinema suggests that he is self aware and wants to meet the poor material with his explosive insanity and manic energy in order to make these films memorable in their own way. He is a highbrow B-movie star, an idiot savant in Hollywood. Of course this is all speculation, as nobody is in Cage’s mind but Cage himself. And if I were to imagine Cage’s mind it might be something involving Elvis, standing atop a mountain on one of Cage’s islands, wearing a Superman cape that is on fire, swinging a mace to fend off oncoming rabid unicorns being ridden by three-headed demons.

At least that’s what I see every time he tackles another ridiculous film.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

THURSDAY THROWBACK: The Woodsman (2004)

No matter what the situation, the circumstances, or the explanation, sexual assault against young boys and girls is an act that is seen as inexcusable and vile on any level. Pedophilia is looked down upon as the lowest and most disgusting of all crimes against humanity, and rightfully so. And that is the tough issue at the heart of The Woodsman, a film that creeps and crawls along through the life of a newly-paroled pedophile trying to, as he puts it, “feel normal” again. Normal to him is not having those awful feelings every time he sees a young girl.

Walter is played by Kevin Bacon, in what is arguably one of his finest, most nuanced performances of his long career. Walter is trying his best to get along as an ex-con without much attention. He gets a job with a sympathetic boss at a lumber yard (David Alan Grier, long time no see) and he works quietly and efficiently. He gets an apartment, one of the only in the city that will lease out to convicted felons. It just so happens to be next to a grade school. His brother-in-law, Carlos (Benjamin Bratt), will see him and will be friendly with him. His sister will not, mostly because she and Carlos have a twelve-year old girl. And so Walter shuffles through each and every day, riding the bus to work, working, and riding it back home. His discussions with his therapist (Michael Shannon) serve as an outlet but often turn contentious as Walter is clearly upset with his affliction. But no matter how much Walter wants to exist without drawing even the slightest bit of attention, the outside world works its way in.

At work he meets Vicki, a tough-minded girl among boys at the lumber yard who pretty much moves her way into Walter’s life. Vicki, played by Bacon’s real-life wife Kyra Sedgwick, is no nonsense in her approach to Walter. Sure, she is attracted to him, but in a crucial scene where the two are in bed and they tell each other their deepest and darkest secrets it is clear Vicki is attracted to damaged men. Their relationship is therapeutic for Walter, and even after he tells her the awful things he has done, there is a bit of distance that grows for a while before Vicki will no longer allow it. She wants to help Walter work his way through his disease and, thankfully, he lets her. Not everyone, however, is as helpful.

Mary-Kay, a secretary at the lumber yard played by Eve, is uneasy around Walter. She senses he is “damaged goods” and she goes snooping, eventually outing him at work and crushing an arena of calm in Walter’s life. His sanctuary of work, where he could calmly make his way through the day, has been shattered. All the while he is being leaned on by his parole officer, played by Mos Def. I would like to stop down for a minute to talk about Mos Def the actor. I enjoy his music to an extent, but I must say I wish Mos Def would act more often. He has a certain magnetism to his acting, a rhythm and a cadence to his speak that keeps me locked in to every word. Here, his Sergeant Lucas despises Walter, and we understand why, but his hatred feels more like oppression and that is key to making The Woodsman work. Walter is not drawn to create sympathy, but pity, and the way these outside influences crack the very measured façade he has been trying to create allows us to feel sorry for him but still recognize that he is a sick, troubled man who has done the most horrible of things.

There is a driving force in the plot involving the grade school and another suspected predator that I will not get into for fear of ruining the drama of the situation. But there is also an encounter with a young girl in the park that is the most pivotal moment of the entire film. I’ll say no more, but I will say the events that transpire will allow many viewers to make up their mind about Walter. At least a little bit.

The best thing director Nicole Kassell does with The Woodsman is she understands the story she is telling and she gets some of the best actors to play the right roles. Pedophilia is unforgiveable, hands down. That is a tough element to the story, and Kassell does not force sympathy for Walter. She does not make him a flawless, reformed protagonist for us to support. She creates a character that deserves our pity. She makes a decision to show Walter’s transgressions as a disease rather than a mental illness, and there is a difference. Perhaps Walter can change, or be cured of his disease, but maybe he should simply go away and die alone so children can be safe. But there are two moments for Walter I don’t want to detail where maybe we see the light at the end of the tunnel. Or maybe we see an ongoing issue, a diseased man whose disease has beaten him.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Quick Hits on the Oscar Nominations

* DON’T FORGET TO FILL OUT YOUR BALLOT TO THE RIGHT FOR A CHANCE TO WIN A BLURAY OR DVD OF THE BEST PIC NOMINEE OF YOUR CHOICE.

* I was 36 for 45 in the predictions of the major categories for the second straight year. That Nolan thing kept me from 37.

* I admire The Fighter, and I have no problem with it collecting as many awards as it can. But you cannot tell me that the directing job David O. Russell did is more intense, more comprehensive, more of a complex directing job than Christopher Nolan executed with Inception. I think his snub as director speaks more volumes towards Inception’s chance to win any big awards than it does anything else.

* Shutter Island: 0 nominations, The Wolfman: 1.

* Mark Ruffalo is probably the biggest surprise to me in the major acting categories. I would have liked to see Andrew Garfield there instead. But still, Ruffalo was solid in The Kids Are All Right, so this is a pretty mild objection I suppose.

* True Grit has a chance to win Best Picture now. 10 nominations is a big surprise. But there is something very “Best Picture”-esque about the Coen Brothers’ Western.

* This year’s Academy Awards are pretty white.

* I was surprised to see so many nominations go out for 127 Hours. It’s a very good picture, but I thought it might just get a screenplay and acting recognition.

* This is the first year I have seen all ten films already. And I think this is the first year most people who care have seen more than five. There are some art house films in there, but there are quite a few that have had their success at the box office (True Grit, Inception, Toy Story 3, Black Swan, The Fighter).

* Shutter Island: 0, Unstoppable: 1.

* Bravo, Winter’s Bone, and John Hawkes, a career character actor who is much deserving of his nomination.

* No Screenplay nomination for Black Swan surprises me. And it also does not bode well for any sort of Best Picture win chances. Not that it has many.

* Amy Adams is collecting nominations pretty quickly. That’s three now in a short period of time. Don’t count her out to upset the supporting actress category over Melissa Leo or Hailee Steinfeld.

* As clear cut as the nominations were for the most part, I could not accurately predict so many of these categories. Supporting actress, Actress, the screenplays, the technical awards… I usually have a better grasp on a front runner somewhere in here. Not this time around.

* Shutter Island: 0, Country Strong: 1.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

My Top 10 Films of the Year

This day of the 83rd Annual Academy Awards, I feel it is time to get my list for the ten best films of the year out there. The majority of these pictures you may have seen mentioned this morning at the ceremony in one capacity or another, and there is one I am certain was not included in any sort of nomination category. That’s why, of course, this is my personal list. After a slow start to the year, I found myself having to make some tough decisions by the end and ended up leaving at least two pictures off the list. Maybe I should have done the twelve best films of the year, but what would be the point I suppose:

10) Brooklyn’s Finest – Now, before you abandon me and stop reading this list, hear me out. Sure, Brooklyn’s Finest is just another police drama that was torn apart by critics and fell out of the multiplexes in a few short weeks, but I will forever defend this picture as a gritty and powerful genre exercise that does not skirt violence or nihilism for more cinematic conventions. Antoine Fuqua is at home in the world of corrupt police, and with three leads like Ethan Hawke, Richard Gere, and Don Cheadle, the performances alone are enough to elevate this picture beyond some sort of throwaway cliché factory. Sure, things happen in a certain way and in a certain predictable arch, but these characters involve you in their stories, they keep you interested, and the mood and dedication to the tone of Brooklyn’s Finest elevate it beyond typical cops and robbers drivel.

9) Winter’s Bone – Director Debra Granik was able to do something unique with Winter’s Bone. With her dedication to the setting and the mood of the film, taking audiences into the dark and unforgiving world of Southern Missouri, into a world of poverty and drugs and death and sadness, Granik was able to convey menace and tension by simply showing us this universe through dry palettes of gray and blue. Jennifer Lawrence is spot on as Ree, a young girl determined to find her father and save her family from eviction. She must dive deep into a backwoods mafia existence and her determination is the driving force in the drama. And John Hawkes as her uncle, Teardrop, is the perfect blend of menace and guilt, driven by an unspoken obligation to help her niece find her father, his brother. Winter’s Bone is a film well-deserving of its four nominations this morning.

8) 127 Hours – Danny Boyle has shown that he has his finger on the pulse of this new world we live in, where globalization and technology are bringing us together. This may seem out of nowhere when discussing the survival story of Aron Ralston, the focus of 127 Hours, but Boyle wants us to know this is a story for the new generations of thrill seekers and adventurers, and a story of survival that crosses any sort of cultural boundaries. Ralston, played by (nominee) James Franco, is a boundless outdoorsman who finds himself trapped behind a boulder in the middle of the canyons of Utah, where he is forced to sever his own arm in order to survive. There is a visceral energy to 127 Hours, despite the fact that the film takes place almost entirely in one setting.

7) The Fighter – Sure, on the surface The Fighter is a sports film about the one last chance for Micky Ward to make it big as a boxer. But this is not a sports film. The title itself is, in my opinion, more of a description of Ward’s struggles to free himself from those who are keeping him tied down and holding him back. Those are his controlling manager mother, played by Melissa Leo, and (more importantly) his drug-addicted half brother, Dicky, played marvelously by Christian Bale. Dicky thinks he is working on his big comeback, but it is clear his delusions and his claim to fame have warped his sense of reality; that, and the crippling crack addiction. It isn’t until Micky gets the firm support of Charlene, a no-nonsense bartender played by Amy Adams, in his corner is he able to stand up to his family and their restraints. The Fighter is a family drama first, a boxing picture second, and a rousing film about determination and family.

6) The Town – Aside from Jeremy Renner nabbing a nomination this morning for Supporting Actor, The Town went overlooked. That is unfortunate, as The Town is the finest crime drama of the year, and a clear indication that Ben Affleck has found his stride as a director and an actor. Affleck plays the head of a band of bank robbers in Charlestown, a suburb of Boston that is a breeding ground for criminals. He falls for a bank manager at the bank they rob in the opening sequence, and must balance his relationship with her, the itchy trigger finger of his best friend, Jem (Renner), and the heat being brought upon them by a dogged FBI Agent played by Jon Hamm. The best film of its kind since Heat in 1995, The Town is well acted, well told, and the action scenes are filmed with breathless, visceral energy.

5) True Grit – I don’t think this is much of a remake of the 1969 John Wayne film. This is an adaptation of the Charles Portis novel. Of course there are similarities in the pictures, some of the same dialogue, but the Coen Brothers decided to look directly into the novel to find their dialogue and their narrative. Jeff Bridges embodies Rooster Cogburn more effectively than Wayne did in his only Oscar-winning performance. And I suppose that is because he isn’t John Wayne. The cadence and rhythm of the dialogue is the best aspect of True Grit, and the comedy, suspense, and action all fall into line behind these wonderful words. And it is Hailee Steinfeld who steals the show as the precocious young Mattie Ross, determined to track down her father’s killer. All of the supporting players, from Matt Damon to Josh Brolin to Barry Pepper, add layers of intrigue and humor to a well-crafted, beautiful western.

4) Toy Story 3 – Pixar is officially infallible. Somehow, someway, they have produced a second sequel to an animated film that is a modern classic, and they have outdone both of the films to come before it. Toy Story 3 is a film with a heart and a soul that is the perfect balancing act. There are images and colors and humor and energy enough to keep children involved. But the film also deals with so many larger issues, issues of abandonment and aging and love and hate. The film teaches children to deal with these issues, whether they realize it or not, and it also keeps adults involved with winks to films like The Great Escape, of all things. Never before has there been an animated film so fully realized and so layered as Toy Story 3.

3) Inception – Christopher Nolan was robbed of his nomination earlier this morning for Best Director. On technical prowess and energy alone, Nolan should have been recognized. But, alas, he was looked over. The film itself still nabbed eight nominations, and deservedly so. Inception is the most inventive and mind-bending summer blockbuster of all time, a story that is magnificently crafted and complex, some think, to a fault. Leo Dicaprio handles the epic scope as a man who is hired to plant a dream inside of a man’s head, and Nolan takes this idea as far as he can take it before the story could unravel. Technically, Inception is a masterpiece, and with performances to back the power of the visual energy, it is one of the best films of 2010.

2) The Social Network – I just recently watched The Social Network again, and what a seamless film this is. This is a beautiful film with some of the most sly and subtle camera work I have ever seen. And on top of that, the subject matter, Mark Zuckerberg, is a modern day Charles Foster Kane, a man so obsessed with his ideas that he closes off everyone around him. The screenplay from Aaron Sorkin is a shoe in for Best Original Screenplay, and the energy and perfection of the words make this two-hour film with no big explosions or no over-the-top action fly by in a breeze of tension and drama. Jesse Eisengerg’s (nominated) performance is so key to the success of the film, and despite the objections of the real Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker – played in the film by Justin Timberlake – the characters David Fincher works to create for dramatic purposes are simply perfect.

1) Black Swan – What a pure experience this film was. I do not think Black Swan was the most perfect film of the year, but as pure movie-going experiences go I have not been so enthralled or spellbound in a film in years. Natalie Portman, who seems to have every muscle clenched at all times here, is nothing short of amazing as Nina Sayers, a ballerina undone by her own obsessions and the influence of her controlling mother (Barbara Hershey). Her competition comes in the form of her mental opposite, a free-wheeling, sexual muse played by Mila Kunis. Black Swan soon unravels into a confusing mix of what is real and what is not, and the chaos of the third act matches the melodramatic themes that run throughout the ballet world. There is suspense and scares and a surprising bit of humor, all orbiting around a study of madness that comes together to make Darren Aronofsky’s most mature and fully-realized work of his career.


HONORABLE MENTIONS go out to Martin Scorsese’s period thriller, Shutter Island, a study in atmosphere and dread with solid performances all around, and The Kids Are All Right, an unconventional family drama that was a big player at this morning’s Oscar nominations.

Monday, January 24, 2011

FOREIGN CORNER: Un Prophete (A Prophet) (2009)

Un Prophete begins, more or less, with a murder. There is a set up beforehand: a powerful gangster who basically runs a French prison forces a young, timid Arab to kill a witness. The witness is also Arab, so he is the only one who can get close enough to kill him. This young man, Malik, is scared and without friends or protection, and is given no other choice but to kill this man. Otherwise the man in charge, Cesar, will have him killed. If he does kill the man, Cesar will grant him protection. So the beginning of the story of Malik and his transformation from a scared weakling into a vicious killer begins with the murder. The scene is brutal and messy and thrilling and involving, a powerful buildup with a satisfying payoff. The problem then arises that everything to come afterward is not quite as interesting, and a heavy midsection is lacking any of the immediacy of this first act.

Malik goes through with the murder and gets Cesar on his side, but he is still a “dirty Arab” in the eyes of Cesar and his men. He is protected, but he is in charge of serving these men food and cleaning their dishes and doing their dirty work. Cesar has a firm grip on the prison and its inhabitants, including the warden and security. Played by Niels Arestrup, Cesar conveys menace in very few movements or words. He is always a threat on screen to do something immediate or say something dangerous. The way in which he informs Malik he will be killing the man is delivered in succinct, throwaway lines that sound all the more menacing because of their nonchalance. Arestrup is the strongest character in Un Prophete.

Eventually, Malik is awarded day passes where he is allowed to venture into town from 8 to 5, or thereabouts. This is, of course, beneficial for Cesar who forces Malik to do some dirty work for him on the outside. The only problem is, as Malik is taking care of Cesar’s business he is building his own with a friend who has gotten out before him. Malik is getting more and more powerful, until a moment when he is back behind bars indicates that the tides have shifted and he is the one in control of things. It is a great moment, quiet and hurtful for Cesar, that is one of several small moments in a picture that needs more big ones.

The murder itself is the strongest point in the picture and simultaneously the rest of the film’s downfall. Malik is trained how to hide a razor blade in his cheek so that, once he gets close enough, he can pop the blade out of his mouth and get the jugular. Of course things do not work out seamlessly, and Malik is caught in a struggle with the Arab witness. There is blood everywhere and Malik is trembling once the deed has been done, and we too feel a sense of pure relief because there has been almost thirty minutes of build up and suspense before this moment. This opening act of Un Prophete is thrilling and tense and has a fist-clenching payoff. However, the moments that follow slow down the momentum considerably. There is no other large moment like this one until very late in the picture. It is the soggy second act of the film that is the problem. I spent much of the picture waiting on that next big moment, the next outburst of violence that had been inadvertently promised early on. Alas, it was abandoned until the final moments of the film redeem it a little.

Director Jacques Audiard does an excellent job creating this world that exists within the French prison, a cold and dry world without the benefit of happiness or humanity. He also allows reactions to tell stories for these characters, rather than exposition. I especially enjoyed his choice to have the murdered Arab reappear to Malik throughout the picture. It brought some pathos to Malik's character without having to add any pointless dialogue or spoken inner thoughts. I only wish the center of the film was given a bit of time on a Stairmaster to tone up. There is too much flab in the center, and it weighs down a film that runs just over two and a half hours.

C+

Friday, January 21, 2011

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: In defense of Anne Hathaway, go away Armond White, and take Joe Johnston with you!

* A facebook post the other day shed some light on this whole Anne Hathaway as Catwoman issue. The one about ninety percent of fanboys out there object to fervently. A reply to my post discussed the Heath Ledger casting. Remember when that happened when he nailed down the role of The Joker? Remember how weird it seemed that the quiet indie actor from Brokeback Mountain was going to play the ultimate adversary to Batman? He seemed out of character at the time, but it is clear he was perfect for the role. I think there may be something here with Hathaway, otherwise Nolan would not cast her in such an important role. He obviously wants to do something fresh with the character, as he did with The Joker in The Dark Knight, so I will defer to Nolan on this one before making any judgments.

* Armond White, you are just an idiot. The man who blasts movies like Inception and praises movies like Jonah Hex – obviously on purpose – wouldn’t be so irritating and controversial if he didn’t have a prime critic job in this country, working for New York Press. That is a job that should have an actual critic, not someone looking to shock and draw attention to his own smugness and arrogance that seeps right through his ridiculous overwritten reviews. I keep hoping he will go over the deep end and judging by this slashfilm article, maybe he is closer than I thought.

* Yes, I think I will see Drive Angry 3D. Why? Because Nic Cage acknowledges this is a shit movie and that makes it, in turn, not a shit movie. He has to acknowledge that, right? Please?

* I wonder how many years we have to go before Pulp Fiction is remade. Think about it, movies like The Wild Bunch are being considered now. One of these days, maybe another twenty years or so, Tarantino’s watershed picture will be remade. Mark my words.

* Because in twenty years I don’t think anyone will remember I said this anyway, so if it doesn’t happen oh well…

* I am worried about both Marvel Pictures this summer. Thor makes me nervous because of the subject at hand. But Captain America makes me even more nervous because of two factors: Chris Evans and Joe Johnston. Evans is not a very good actor, it’s like he is entirely the smug and cocky half of Ryan Reynolds. Plus he was The Human Torch, but that’s another argument. And Joe Johnston, fresh off the worst film of 2010, The Wolfman, and has a portfolio that includes Jurassic Park III and Mighty Joe Young. How he keeps getting tent-pole pictures I have no idea.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Collateral (2004)

With Collateral, director Michael Mann takes a simple, unobtrusive plot, and fills it from top to bottom with interesting characters you will feel compelled to root for and against accordingly. Mann could have directed Collateral as a straight action thriller with all of the typical conventions of such a film. Instead, thankfully, Mann allows his characters to fill the story with their own histories, their individual motivations, their own opinions on life and death. This makes the action mean something when it happens. The patience in which Mann directs Collateral is evident from the very beginning, when we meet Max, our protagonist.

Max (Jamie Foxx) is a cab driver who insists this twelve-year stint is only temporary until he gets his limo business off the ground. That is what he tells his passenger, Annie, an attorney played by Jada Pinkett-Smith, when he picks her up from the airport. Max tries to lead Annie into a spot in the conversation where he can tell her the job is temporary and he can tell her about the limo business. His explanation feels rehearsed, because he has surely told everyone who gets into his cab this story. Max and Annie share a bit of casual flirting, a calm moment for them both that is quite charming, so much so that Annie gives Max her card for reasons they both know but do not acknowledge. This episode to start the film may feel out of place, but it turns out to be very vital, and a great contrast to what happens when Vincent gets into Max’s cab moments later.

Vincent, played by Tom Cruise, is a silver-haired man in a matching suit that seems focused, direct. Where Max and Annie flirted with unspoken text in a casual conversation, Vincent’s dialogue with Max early on is all business. And even though Vincent prods Max about his future plans, Max is not as quick to tell him his story. Max feels uneasy, and these little shifts in the tone of the dialogue are brilliant, subtle little movements in the script that flip everything from casual and flirty to foreboding. Upon arriving at Vincent’s destination, Vincent convinces Max to stick with him all night. He tells Max he has five stops to make, and will pay him six hundred dollars for the night. Max agrees, and waits for Vincent outside his first stop. That is when a body falls onto the hood of Max’s cab, smashing the windshield and sending Max into a frenzy. He figures out in short order that Vincent is responsible for this man’s death, and the cards are laid out on the table.

From there Collateral becomes a series of episodes tied together with conversations between Max and Vincent in the cab. They go from stop to stop and Vincent kills. But Collateral does not fall into convention, mostly because these are not flat characters. Vincent is a cold-blooded killer, a surgeon with a gun, but he is not really all business. We get glimpses of Vincent’s childhood, his surprising thoughtfulness on society and death. Even as he kills people, he understands the frailty of human life and existence. This is heavy material for a hired assassin in a thriller, but it is a welcome change.
The third stop for Max and Vincent is in a jazz club, in one of the most well-crafted episodes in the picture. The stop seems to be a break as Vincent and Max chat up the trumpet player after hours. The man talks about his experience meeting Miles Davis, even playing with him on the stage for twenty minutes, with great melancholy and longing. This is another character given more than what is expected, so when it comes time for Vincent to kill this man we feel something for him even though he has been on the screen for mere minutes. This stop in the jazz club also serves as a template for the broken rhythms of the plot, one that unfolds in small bits that all connect through the relationship of Max and Vincent inside the cab.

As the night grows longer, a determined police detective played by Mark Ruffalo, unrecognizable, is tightening his grip on the killings and the location of Max and Vincent. By the time these two stories converge in a thrilling nightclub sequence, we are so invested in these characters that the action takes on more meaning than any typical shoot-em-up. Mann is infamous for his attention to detail, and the detail of his storytelling is everywhere from the gritty, realized expanse of the LA night, to the positioning of Vincent behind Max in the cab, to the characters and their stories. And by the end of the picture, everything has come full circle and the climax goes from a darkened office building to a train flying around LA.

It doesn’t seem like Tom Cruise should work as Vincent, but he does more than that. Vincent is a cold sociopath, but we get small glimpses into his life to maybe understand why. Jamie Foxx, who was nominated for his role as Max, must be believable in order for the story to succeed, and Mann knows this. So when Max gets his hands on a gun, and must use it, he has to first figure out where the safety is as he fumbles with it in his hand. It is little elements like this, ones you may not consciously notice when you are watching, that make Collateral something more than your garden variety action thriller. There is humor, but not one liners, and there are characters who seem real in this world that Mann has so fully realized. The story itself plays like jazz, improvising, moving from one thing to the next, until it reaches its final notes.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

DVD Review: Buried

Paul Conroy wakes up in the dark, shifts around a bit, and soon realizes that he is inside a wooden box. A coffin. He searches with his hands and finds a zippo, and uses it to confirm his fear. There is a cell phone, his only connection to the outside world, and he soon discovers that the people who put him in this coffin are the ones who supplied the phone. Paul is a contracted truck driver in Iraq and his convoy was ambushed; he was taken hostage and buried and the terrorists are demanding money for his release. The next ninety minutes is a race against time that supplies the entire framework for Buried, one of the big hitters at last year’s Sundance Film Festival now on DVD, a somewhat effective thriller that falls apart in brief moments, then pulls itself back together with moments of great tension.

The phone Paul uses is in Arabic, as he feverishly runs through ideas of who to try and call. He calls his wife and gets the answering machine; calls her cell, gets the same. He dials 911 and gets a dispatcher in Ohio who is not helpful at all. The driving company that hired him supplied him with an emergency contact number, but it has been taken from his wallet. Paul goes through phases of frustration where he fights mightily to push himself out of the coffin, and phases of hopelessness. His captors call and demand the money, so that gives Paul a direction on the phone. Eventually he contacts the state department and gets in touch with someone who can help him; the only question, is can he get there in time before the air runs out?

I would like to think that if I were a 911 dispatcher and I got a call from a frantic man telling me he was buried in the desert in Iraq, regardless of whether or not I was across the world in Ohio, I would do what I could to get him connected with the police department or the FBI. The woman Paul gets in the film basically tells him she can’t do anything for him. And speaking of the FBI, once Paul gets an agent from Chicago on the phone, the agent is so suspicious and skeptical that the conversation quickly falls apart. And then there is his sister-in-law (I think), who is just about to go to the supermarket and really doesn’t want him yelling at her on the phone. Where I am going with this is, these are some of the most incompetent and non-helpful characters in a “situation” movie like this. I cannot honestly believe that these people would get a frantic phone call from someone telling them they can’t breathe because they have been buried alive and basically blow him off. Sure, it may be a fake call, but wouldn’t you want to err on the side of caution? These characters are irritating in their ignorance, and really pull the narrative thread apart. Rather than dealing with white-knuckle tension, I was rolling my eyes or shaking my head.

Amazingly, however, I was never bored with Buried. It is a film that exists exclusively inside a wooden coffin in the ground, and has only one actor, Ryan Reynolds. Director Rodrigo Cortes uses his camera in a way that would have made Hitchcock proud. He also uses seven different types of coffins that accentuate different angles and create different moods. There is one that is long and narrow to show off an unexpected visitor in the film’s most nerve-jangling moment, there is one that is tall and without a lid so that Cortes can pan up and out, there are wide ones and short ones, etcetera. This is how Cortes keeps us involved with Paul’s situation without us getting tired of sitting in a wooden box.

Buried may not be the tightest of thrillers. There are plenty of issues with logic, things Paul does that are nothing short of idiotic (I don’t think I would try and start a fire inside the coffin, for example, regardless of the motive), and characters on the phone who are way too nonchalant to feel believable given the circumstances. That being said, the tension is always there, and Paul goes through any number of situations regardless of the fact he is practically immobile. If anything, the film showed me that Ryan Reynolds has range as a performer. He is more than a dry, sarcastic looker. Reynolds is quite convincing as Paul even though his character has to do some stupid things. And without giving away anything, I will say the devotion to the finale is a bold stroke, another aspect that would have made Hitchcock proud.

B

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

OSCARS 2011 PREDICTIONS: Filmmakers and Features...

Now that the Academy has reverted to having ten nominees for Best Picture, it is a little tougher to figure out who will fill out the five spots in the Best Director category. There are three safe bets, a fourth that is not far behind, and the fifth spot is a complete free for all. The three heavy hitters in this category have also directed what I feel to be the three frontrunners to win Best Picture. First is Darren Aronofsky, who will finally get his first nomination for his amazing work on Black Swan. It is surprising that Aronofsky has yet to be nominated for either The Wrestler or Requiem for a Dream – films that have been recognized for their acting more than their overall direction – but he should definitely break through this year. And David Fincher should get his second nomination in three years with The Social Network. Fincher was nominated two years ago for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a film that went mostly overlooked all night. But this year, as the awards season rolls on, it is becoming more and more evident that Fincher is the favorite to win. Many people argue that Fincher did not do much other than direct a sociological drama, but there are several small details he has added to the film that audiences see and do not recognize. His direction is seamless, almost surgeon-like, making him the definite leader in the clubhouse over the other two directors in this top tier.

Coming in third is Tom Hooper, the director of The King’s Speech. Hooper is a relative newcomer to the category, and his crowd-pleasing film is hanging on to the top candidates for Best Picture. But there seems to be a recent loss of steam behind the film outside of Colin Firth’s inevitable Oscar win (see: Helena Bonham Carter losing supporting actress to Melissa Leo all over the place), so I feel like it may hurt Hooper’s chances. Next is Christopher Nolan, who surely will be recognized for the technical mastery of his epic summer mind-bender, Inception. Nolan is another director whose film has (criminally) lost some steam. Seemingly every year there is a film that gathers a handful of nominations and goes away empty handed for the most part (Gangs of New York, Benjamin Button, etc.), and I am getting the feeling that Nolan and his picture will be this year’s victim.

I cannot decipher a favorite to fill out the fifth and final spot for Best Director. I have a feeling the Coen Brothers will be left out for True Grit, simply because there are five spots and not six or seven. So it comes down to David O. Russell for The Fighter and Lisa Cholodenko for The Kids Are All Right. The toughest thing about this decision is the fact that both films have about the same amount of momentum. On one hand I would think Russell deserves the nomination, but I could find a handful of reasons why Cholodenko deserves the nod. The one advantage Cholodenko has, one that may get her the nomination over Russell, is the subject matter of her film and the fact that she is a female director. Last year, Kathryn Bigelow was the first female director to win the award for The Hurt Locker. It seems to me that, since the opportunity is presenting itself to the Academy, they will not want to pass on a chance to make the nominee pool at least a little diverse. That is why I feel Cholodenko will get the fifth spot over Russell. And don’t get me wrong, this won’t be simply because she is a female director; Cholodenko deserves to be recognized for her clever family dramedy.

BEST DIRECTOR PREDICTIONS (winner in bold)

Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan)
David Fincher (The Social Network)
Christopher Nolan (Inception)
Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech)
Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right)

BEST PICTURE

I feel supremely confident that the ten Best Picture nominees are foregone conclusions. There is little mystery here, aside from maybe one dark horse that could sneak into these consensus top ten films. As I mentioned earlier, the three top directors direct the three frontrunners to win Best Picture. There is Black Swan, The Social Network, and The King’s Speech. If these early awards shows are any indication, The Social Network is about a foot taller than the other two for the time being. Of course, the other two nominees for Best Director will see their films, The Kids Are All Right and Inception, nominated as well. So what about those nominees that are there simply to draw more attention to the telecast?


The remaining five pictures will include True Grit and Toy Story 3. Both of these films are very deserving of a nomination, but the box-office draw and the popularity of these pictures for general audiences are the biggest reasons why they will be recognized. The Academy must check off “crowd favorite” in this new ten-picture format, and they will do so with these films. They will need to check the “small art-house feature” category too, so the much-deserving Winter’s Bone will find a spot here. And The Fighter should also nab a very deserving nomination. Although the box office has not blown anyone away, it has been sure and steady at theaters, and the acting in the picture is top notch. The final spot will go to 127 Hours, a film that is hanging on by the thinnest of threads. The survival story seemed like a much safer bet back in October, but the strange distribution of the film – one that has seen it fall out of sight and mind for most – and the influx of other films at the end of the year have begun to overshadow 127 Hours. That leaves The Town, Ben Affleck’s stellar crime drama, the one wild card in this entire awards season, out in the cold.

BEST PICTURE PREDICTIONS (winner in bold)

The King’s Speech
Black Swan
Inception
The Kids Are All Right
The Social Network
True Grit
Winter’s Bone
127 Hours
The Fighter
Toy Story 3

NOMINATIONS ARE ANNOUNCED NEXT TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 25th. AND COMING UP NEXT TUESDAY, MY TOP TEN FILMS OF THE YEAR…

Monday, January 17, 2011

Observations from The 68th Annual Golden Globes

* I thought Ricky Gervais was pretty good. Controversial indeed, abrasive for sure, but I love the uncomfortable humor he puts these celebrities through. Although the final words about him being an atheist, while I don’t have a problem with him saying it, has to be the strangest dismount for an awards show ever.

* The tie for the two best speeches belonged to surprise winner Paul Giamatti and shoe in Colin Firth, with Natalie Portman’s funny reference to her fiancé coming in a close second.

* Aaron Sorkin’s speech was a little strange, but I liked it as well.

* It seems to me that Robert DeNiro has lightened up recently. Forever, he was seen as a shut in who didn’t enjoy personal interaction or interviews or just being around humans in general. But then he did Saturday Night Live. And then his acceptance speech for the Cecil B. Demille Award last night was really funny. Self deprecating and quick witted. It also reminded me that he was actually in a truck-driver movie called Jack Knife.

* Matt Damon’s introduction of DeNiro was spot on as well.

* Robert Downey Jr. is somehow, some way, the coolest motherfucker in Hollywood.

* I am glad Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right won Best Picture – Musical or Comedy. But then again, with films like Burlesque, The Tourist, and Alice in Wonderland up against it, the win couldn’t have felt all that satisfying.

* Melissa Leo winning supporting actress was a little bit of a surprise to me. I expected Helena Bonham Carter to win for The King’s Speech. It makes me re-think my Oscar picks for Supporting Actress.

* That being said, The Golden Globes are the biggest joke of the acting awards season, and are hardly ever a precursor to the Oscars.

Friday, January 14, 2011

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Dilemma Dilemmas and Fallen Oscar Stars...

* The part in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is down to Josh Lucas, Timothy Olyphant, and Adrian Brody. Please, lord, let it be Olyphant.

* I cannot believe Adrian Brody has an Oscar. This has to be the biggest fluke in Oscars history. Yes, bigger than Cuba Gooding, Jr., who was good in Boyz N Tha Hood and As Good As It Gets. Name one other film Adrian Brody has been in that has been any good. And don’t even try The Darjeeling Limited with me.

* One of the great things about a film like Black Swan is the fact that theories can develop from anything and go any direction. Check out this newest theory on slashfilm. It is interesting, but pretty thin. But like I said, that is the fun with a movie like Black Swan… trying to figure it out.

* Vince Vaughn needs to get away from these tame comedies. He is at his best when he can be crude and annoying. In my opinion, his three funniest roles are: Swingers, Made, and Wedding Crashers. All very crude and fast-talking and brilliantly comedic. These new domestic comedies are a step back for a comedic genius like Vaughn.

* And don’t even get me started on Ron Howard, the director of The Dilemma. He is having a post-Oscar slump like no director I have ever seen.

* Not to harp on The Dilemma even more, or the stars of the picture I suppose, but why has Jennifer Connelly reduced her career to being background decoration in films? I am sure she has nothing interesting to do in The Dilemma but look incredulously at Vince Vaughn and his antics. This is a talented, beautiful actress who deserves more.

* Since this has turned into a scatter shooting about fallen Oscar winners, let’s talk about Anthony Hopkins for a minute. The Rite looks like a generic religious thriller of the worst kind. I remember this the first time it was released as The Order starring Heath Ledger. Name five films that Hopkins has been the star of that are above average.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Dead Poets Society (1989)

Expectations can be tough. Expectations can drive a person, they can beat a person down, they can motivate or deter. And they are at the heart of Dead Poets Society, Peter Weir’s 1989 film about young impressionable minds under the immense pressure of expectations in a New England boarding school. The film focuses on a group of friends who orbit in and out of each others’ lives and problems one school year at Hamilton Preparatory School in the early 60s, a prestigious boarding school where only the best and finest students in the country attend. All of these teen boys are being groomed to be lawyers and doctors and politicians; there are no exceptions. School goes on, day by day, with empty, humdrum lectures. So when John Keating arrives to teach English at Hamilton, and he brings with him a new way of thinking and feeling and educating, he breaks these kids free of the expectations that bind them.

The teens we follow throughout the film include several peripheral characters, but focus mostly on three young boys. One is Neil, an energetic soul played by Robert Sean Leonard. Neil loves the theater, and falls quickly under Keating’s guise. But his father, a severely controlling man played by Kurtwood Smith, will not allow his son to stray from his education for this theater foolishness. He is to be a doctor, and that is the final word. Todd Anderson is the second of the three boys, a timid newcomer played by Ethan Hawke. This is Todd’s first year at Hamilton, so he is the outsider who must acclimate himself. It takes some strong influencing from Neil to help Todd feel welcome; it takes even more of a push from Keating to help Todd figure out who he is and where he belongs in his own world. The third boy we primarily follow is Knox Overstreet, a rebellious class clown played by Josh Charles who takes Keating’s words to heart, almost to a fault.

So what is it that Keating teaches these kids? It is, in so many words, how to live their own life. He teaches them to “seize the day,” to grab the moments they see in front of them so they do not pass by. Keating teaches them independence; something frowned upon a Hamilton where boys are groomed to be merely a handful of prestigious professions in their lives. Robin Williams plays Keating, but he plays him with measured restraint and skill. This is not the wired Williams, but the calm one who channels his manic energy into the characterization of a brilliant teacher. As Keating teaches these boys to be independent, they begin to rebel against the system of Hamilton, not through disobedience so much as through becoming free thinkers.

Neil soon becomes the focus of the picture. He secretly wins the part of Puck in the school’s presentation of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream." But when his father discovers what he has done, he tries to force Neil to withdraw. Neil refuses. This becomes a great moment of tension and strife in the narrative, and once a tragedy tears the school apart, it is Keating who must take the fall.

Expectations weigh heavily on the boys at Hamilton, and Keating serves first as a breath of fresh air for these kids. They can be expressive in Keating’s English classes, they can break free of the constraints of everyday student life, of lectures in history and French and science that allow them no room to be more than just students. Of course, the unorthodox teaching methods of Keating get him in trouble, but his impression has been made on these young minds. He has freed some of these young boys who may or may not go on to do great things with their new perspective on life.

Dead Poets Society could easily fall into the trappings of a melodrama, but director Peter Weir never allows the film to do this by keeping the action of these characters immediate and real. There are no grand speeches or outbursts, only real emotions and reactions. It is a rousing feel good experience at times, a stern opposition to authority at others, and a heartbreaking story in the end. But it is ultimately a story about expectations, and the way they can ruin young minds. These kids are expected to be one thing, but may secretly desire to be another. They only need inspiration from authority figures.

That is where the independent spirit of someone like John Keating comes into play.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Social Network: Citizen Kane 2.0, and The Film That Changed Dialogue

About a year ago, when news was going around that there was a “facebook movie” in production, the idea generated snickers and eye rolls. A movie, about silly facebook? This time-wasting website where people post pictures and link YouTube videos and tell everyone of their friends they are “waiting at the dentist’s office”? Well, as production built some steam, it was David Fincher who was named director of “the facebook movie.” Wait a minute, David Fincher? The director of Fight Club and Zodiac and Benjamin Button? David Fincher is big time. This wasn’t going to be a comedy or a parody of some sort. This “facebook movie” was somehow going to be a serious drama.

That made it seem even more ridiculous.

So this “facebook movie” gets a title, The Social Network, and we get a teaser trailer that is one of the best of its kind all year. Then buzz begins to build. This thing might actually be good. Better than good. But still, this is a movie about facebook! I just read on facebook a minute ago that one of my friends’ kids shit their pants for the third time today. How could even the great David Fincher make this movie legitimate? Well, by playing it straight, by collaborating with the great Aaron Sorkin on the screenplay, and by adding his usual Fincher style to the screen, the director was able to eschew any unintentional parody and create a watershed American picture.

I was watching The Office the other night – trust me, this is on task – and there was a scene where Ed Helms’ character, Andy, is talking to the doe-eyed receptionist. He is awkwardly handling the situation, as usual, and he mentions that he saw something she wrote on facebook and liked it. This is paraphrasing of course, but the most important part of the dialogue to me was Andy’s mention of facebook in a conversation that was not part of a punch line in a TV series devoted to piling punch lines on top of each other. Facebook was not part of the joke anymore. It is part of the dialogue now, not only in NBC comedy but in everyday life. Every once in a while you catch a conversation at a mall or a restaurant or something like that, and there will be two people saying that they saw each other on facebook, or they saw some pictures each other had posted. There are no giggles in the background anymore; this is just a conversation between two people. A year ago, maybe longer, facebook was something for teenagers and twenty-somethings. Parents and middle-aged adults may have been on facebook, but they did so timidly, without much advertisement in order to avoid being either squares to their children or creepy to, well, everyone. That isn’t the case anymore, and The Social Network understood the impact of the website just ahead of the curve. Just as facebook went from a joke or a punchline to something global; the standard.

I would credit The Social Network for moving this ideology of facebook forward. Of course, the picture is hovering around the $100 million mark, just below it, so I do not want to say the movie itself brought facebook along with a modest box-office intake like that. But at the same time, there has been a 60 Minutes piece on the real Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of facebook, in the last few months. There was an article in September on him. TIME Magazine named Zuckerberg the “person of the year.” Facebook has expanded greatly, and the creator himself is bordering on a household name now. These peripheral acknowledgements are, in my opinion, directly a result of the success of The Social Network. But, like I said, it is not just because everyone has seen the film, it is because the film is so well crafted, and the picture as a whole is so defining.

The Social Network has been compared, more or less, to Citizen Kane. Think about that for a moment. Citizen Kane is widely accepted as the best, most important film in cinematic history. The mere fact that the comparison has been made speaks volumes about the cultural impact of The Social Network. Here is a film about the desire for young adults in this new age to invent, to create, to become something on their own. No longer is the desire to graduate and get a job, but to create one. Everyone in this film secretly aspires to be Charles Foster Kane, whether they know Orson Welles' character or not. That is at the heart of Fincher’s masterwork. The film is full of cutthroats and young geniuses looking out for themselves, and is told in a mature, patient way that never allows the audience to see the proceedings with anything less than a straight face. Sure, there is comedy, but it is intentional, character driven comedy; nothing about the events that unfold are executed without the most extreme devotion.

The Social Network is maybe not my number one choice for the best film of the year (number two, actually), but I would acknowledge that it is the most important, impacting film in several. My number one choice for film of the year is more of a personal choice, as it should be. The Social Network changed the stigma of facebook from comedic and a little embarrassing (admit it) to something more regular in our lives and the way we communicate in business and in society. Had there been one false move in the picture, one misstep in the dialogue, everything could have changed. The tone of the film could have inadvertently changed, therein keeping facebook buried in the idea that it is something to “do,” but not really talk about. Alas, The Social Network did not slip up, and it has helped to change the face of, well, facebook. And this is why it will win Best Picture.

Citizen Kane didn’t even do that.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

OSCARS 2011 PREDICTIONS: The Leads

Over the last few years, the best actor category has greatly overwhelmed the best actress field. There have been a noticeable lack of powerful female roles of late, and the Oscars have suffered. All the while, the best actor category has been so loaded with meaty roles and talent that five nominations is just not enough. This year, again, there is a broad collection of possible nominees in the best actor pool, too many to make the final five without leaving someone out. But, for the first time in a long time, the lead actress pool seems stronger, more solid from top to bottom. It was finally a good year for rewarding and thoughtful female performances of all shapes and sizes, and just another steady year for the lead actors…

BEST ACTRESS

While there aren’t seven or eight possibilities for the best actress nominee pool, the five nominees out of six possible that I see are all strong performers who have all received their fair share of accolades for their roles. The top of the mountain right now might be Natalie Portman. It might be Annette Bening, depending on who you ask, but the consensus is these are the two frontrunners. For Portman, and her turn as a ballerina under severe pressure in Black Swan, it is the excess and the insanity and the anguish and the dedication of her performance that will nab her a nomination. Bening’s performance, as a wife struggling to keep her family happy and together in The Kids Are All Right, is the polar opposite. Bening’s role is understated and quietly compelling. Portman’s grandiose performance has her ahead of the pack in some circles, but it is Bening, the seasoned veteran who has never won Oscar (pay attention to that little fact), who may be her closest competition.

Running a close third will be Jennifer Lawrence, the tough teen at the center of Winter’s Bone. Lawrence has been recognized wherever there has been a chance, and her resolve and the level gaze of her character is the most vital part of “the little film that could.” If there is a dark horse in the category who might be able to sneak in and win, don’t overlook Lawrence. And Nicole Kidman should be welcomed back to the Academy with a nomination for Rabbit Hole. Her performance as a grieving mother seems much deserving, and will be the lone nomination for a film that has been mostly overlooked. That leaves the elusive fifth nominee spot, and what I feel to be two very deserving actresses vying to fill out the category.

First is Julianne Moore, who plays the unfaithful married partner to Annette Bening in The Kids Are All Right. While I do see the solid work of Bening in the film, it is Moore who I feel is the more deserving of the two. Her performance is more daring, meatier, and more impactful to the story. But alas, it will be Bening who gets the recognition. That leaves Michelle Willilams, and her strong work in Blue Valentine. Williams, playing half of a failing marriage, should edge out any of the competition and fill out this very strong lead actress category.

BEST ACTOR

I hate to say that the lead actor category is a foregone conclusion, but the lead actor category is a foregone conclusion. It is heavy with real people and real stories this year, and Colin Firth should win for his performance as a stuttering King George in The King’s Speech. Firth elevates what is, in my opinion, a mediocre movie. He does an excellent job with his character, and there is no doubt in my mind that he will be standing on the stage at the end of the night. That leaves four spots, and just about seven possible nominees. I think second in line is Jesse Eisenberg, playing Time’s Person of the Year Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. Eisenberg takes on the challenge of rapid-fire dialogue and near robotic calm as Zuckerberg and creates a compelling, if somewhat dislikeable, genius.

Next in line has to be James Franco, and his brave work as Aron Ralston in 127 Hours. As Ralston, the weekend warrior forced to sever his own arm after getting trapped behind a boulder, Franco has to act within himself, and by himself, for the majority of the film. Franco is one of Hollywood’s young stars, the real deal, and should enjoy being the first Oscars host to be nominated. After these first three nominees, the field begins to thin out considerably. I feel like Jeff Bridges is a solid bet to get the fourth spot for his role as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. While I see no scenario where Bridges could win his second Oscar in as many years, I do realize that he is brilliantly entertaining in True Grit, and the film itself has become the most popular, highest-grossing film in the field of possible best picture nominees.

One more slot, four possibilities. Where Michelle Williams will squeeze into the actress pool, I feel like Ryan Gosling will be one of a couple of odd men out for his part in Blue Valentine. Aaron Eckhart is a supreme longshot for his role in Rabbit Hole. As I said, Kidman will get the lone nomination for that picture. That leaves Mark Wahlberg and Robert Duvall. Wahlberg may be the only central performance in The Fighter left out of the nomination categories. That is not to say he is not good, he is, it’s just that his character is more acted upon by everyone else. Duvall, who plays the old coot at the heart of Get Low from earlier in the year, should just get the final nomination over Wahlberg.

BEST ACTRESS PREDICITONS (winner in bold)

Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone)
Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine)
Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right)
Natalie Portman (Black Swan)
Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole)

BEST ACTOR PREDICTIONS (winner in bold)

Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network)
Colin Firth (The King’s Speech)
Jeff Bridges (True Grit)
Robert Duvall (Get Low)
James Franco (127 Hours)

Friday, January 7, 2011

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Twilight Rants and Thor Fears

* Colin Farrell has stepped away from David Cronenberg’s next film to do Total Recall instead. That doesn’t bother me half as much as the fact that Robert Pattinson is replacing him. And I don’t want to hear about how Pattinson “isn’t that bad” of an actor. He is. It’s just that when he is next to the other two dopes in those movies he looks like Marlon Brando.

* Hey, Kristen Stewart… we get it! You’re all a shut in and you are shy and emo and stuff. Stop acting like you’re having a seizure trying to hide your face from cameras when you’re at an awards show. You need to be glad to be at an awards show, even one as asinine as The People’s Choice Awards because, once these Twilight movies are mercifully out of our lives, you will be too.

* Ok, I had to get that out of my system… moving on…

* Wait, how many more of these books are there? And are they splitting the last one into two movies because they think the books are on the same level as Harry Potter? The last book is just too epic and deep to put into one movie? These books should have been combined into one movie.

* I want this Three Stooges movie to happen. I don’t know why, I just do.

* Let the January releases begin: Country Strong, Season of the Witch… boy, oh boy.

* There sure seems to be a lot of Natalie Portman movies coming out in the next five months. I count four, in five months. Too many? Especially since there isn’t one that stands out as a solid film, not even Thor.

* And speaking of Thor, I have feared this film ever since Marvel announced The Avengers project a few years back. There is something about Iron Man, The Hulk, even Captain America, that audiences can identify with. Even though their stories are fantastic and unrealistic, there is something that grounds them in a tangible world for viewers to embrace. Thor is a Norse God who was cast out of the heavens by his father, Odin. There is much action in the celestial world, judging by the trailer, and I worry that Thor may be the box-office flop that makes The Avengers just an afterthought.

* But I want to see Thor, so maybe I will be wrong.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

DVD REVIEW: The Last Exorcism

The Last Exorcism is told as a documentary for a number of reasons, but the main reason is to introduce us to the main character in as little time as possible. That is not to say he is a dull character, he is quite the opposite, but the documentary style allows Reverend Cotton Marcus to speak directly to the camera, to lay out his motivations and tell us why he is who he is. Cotton is a preacher at a small, antiquated Louisiana church. But he is more of a performer than a man of God. He is theatrical as a preacher, preaching hellfire and brimstone in order to “make church fun.” Reverend Marcus is also a practicing exorcist, but he does not believe in them. His exorcisms are done with theatrics, pyrotechnics, soundtracks and fake smoke, though he feels that the mere display of such things is therapeutic enough for the subject to snap out of their so called “possessions” and return to the sane world. Cotton is a fraud, but one with a good heart. He decides to have a two-person documentary crew follow him on his final exorcism to see the production first hand.

The subject of this final exorcism is Nell Sweetser, a cheery sixteen-year old who lives on a farm with her father, Louis, and brother, Caleb. Nell has been killing livestock, a common citation in the letters Cotton receives, and she has been sleepwalking. Louis is in charge of her and her brother after their mother’s death, and has decided to home school Nell and keeps her close to his side and even closer to the Lord. Cotton arrives on the scene in his linen suit and with his silver tongue, performs the exorcism complete with a trembling bed and smoking cross, collects his money, and is on his way. Louis is grateful, Caleb, who has kept a close eye on Cotton the entire time, is skeptical. Cotton travels with the film crew back into town to stay at a motel for the night, thinking that they have collected all the footage for their documentary.

But that night, Nell appears at the motel, practically comatose and apparently ill. Cotton decides to take her to the hospital as he is still a devout skeptic. Not once does he think Nell may be truly possessed by a demon because, of course, that is all a mental problem that can be cured through false theatrics. From the hospital we follow the trio back out to the Sweetser farm, and certain truths begin to show themselves one at a time, until Cotton becomes convinced that there are things more sinister at work on this farm. Things both of this world and things of another. I feel like any more details will give away too much, but I will note that the narrative does an effective job of adding a twist, then another, then seemingly doubling back on itself until we reach a shocking conclusion. I hope that is confusing enough for you.

The Last Exorcism is the cinematic version of a fuse, lit first by the energetic and magnetic performance of Patrick Fabian as Cotton Marcus (what a name!). Marcus is a con man, but one with a genuinely good heart that gets him in trouble later on in the story. He has faith, but his faith is in the theatrical aspects of being a preacher. He preaches with such energy and fervor to convince his assembly that God is working through him. He is dishonest, but with honest intentions, and there is even a tiny subplot involving his disabled son and the desire for health insurance that adds that much more to his character. We like Cotton, even though he makes no argument against the fact that he is a phony. At the same time, Cotton acknowledges his surroundings, and the fact that Louisiana is a melting pot for religion and superstition, so his fantastical ways of preaching and exorcising works for his audiences. “Ask five people about ghost stories,” he tells the camera early on “and you will get ten stories.”

The fuse is lit by Cotton, and burns slowly as he travels to the Sweetser farm. Louis is a man lost without his wife, and a man whose devotion clouds his better judgment regarding Nell. Once the false exorcism is performed, and has clearly not worked, Louis decides to force Cotton to perform another exorcism through the threat of violence. The story continues to burn ever so slowly, but I found my heart racing steadily throughout the middle of the film until there is one twist, then another, and then the climax. The final moments of The Last Exorcism may have turned off some viewers. I must say, the climax is indeed shocking, but it worked for me. It was as if this slumbering beast had been boiling beneath the surface and was finally unleashed in the end.

If I had one issue with the picture itself, it would have to be the documentary style of filmmaking. Not that I didn’t enjoy that, I did quite a bit. I think the immediacy of the documentary style and the ingrained sense of realism attached to such a style was perfect for the narrative and made it that much more compelling and ultimately more frightening. But near the end, throughout the final act really, director Daniel Stamm appears to inadvertently abandon the style out of nowhere. Suddenly, we are given countless establishing shots of the farm to signal scene transitions, shots that are clearly not from the camera or the cameraman who has been a supporting character throughout. And a couple of times, very briefly, there are alternating shots of the same scene, as if there was another camera in the room. This may be a minor quibble, but I must admit it threw me off and took me out of the action for a moment. I don’t even know if Stamm realized that the decisions were either there or the effect they may have, that is how subtly they are done. Still, I wanted just one camera and one vantage point the entire time to keep the realism intact.

The Last Exorcism is beyond an effective thriller with some heart-pounding moments. Some may have bunched this picture in with other titles form the last few years, films like An American Haunting and A Haunting in Connecticut, but I would have to imagine this picture is head and shoulders above those. The effectiveness of the film begins with the conviction of Fabian as Cotton Marcus, one of the most fascinating characters of the year. There is an interesting element permeating throughout the story, ideas of what is real versus what could be corrected through psychological evaluations. Do demons really exist? Is there a clear answer at the end? I don’t know if it is clear or not (there is a glimpse of something that may tell the truth) but that is the beauty in it.

B+