Monday, February 28, 2011

The 83rd Academy Awards: Rants and Ramblings... Mostly Rants.

* This is 1980 all over again. That year, one of the ten best films in the history of the business, Raging Bull, lost Best Director and Best Picture to Robert Redford and his small family drama, Ordinary People. Fast forward thirty years and scan over top ten lists. Ordinary People will not be on any of them. Raging Bull will be on almost all of them. That same thing will happen when we look back at last night’s proceedings. Time will judge these films differently. Not that The Social Network will be one of the ten best films of all time, but it is head and shoulders above The King's Speech in technical prowess, production values, writing, and directing. This was the work of the devil, Harvey Weinstein.

* I would have been at least partly satisfied if David Fincher would have won Best Director and The King’s Speech would have stolen Best Picture. But Tom Hooper? I slated him fourth or maybe fifth as far as director nominees this year. Can anyone tell me what Tom Hooper did with his direction of The King’s Speech that was worthy of an Oscar? The picture is straightforward, predictable, and filmed without much panache or innovativeness. Consider what was needed from Darren Aronofsky to film Black Swan, or the creative way David Fincher added character and seamless beauty to the look of The Social Network. Tom Hooper directed actors on a set. I hate to reduce things that way, but compared to the other directors in this category he did nothing impressive. This was a ridiculous upset.

* Steven Spielberg said it best: I cannot remember the quote verbatim, but he said something along the lines of “tonight, one of these ten films will be awarded the best picture of the year. The other films will join the likes of Citizen Kane and Raging Bull as films that didn’t win.” He mentioned a few more classics. Truer words were never spoken. Spielberg should have mentioned Saving Private Ryan.

* I did enjoy Colin Firth’s acceptance speech. I knew he would win and had not one problem. His performance was the best part of the film.

* There were a scant few good moments last night. Firth’s speech was good, Randy Newman’s speech for his win was quite funny, and Kirk Douglas almost stole the show.

* Christian Bale won, remeber? It seems like it was such a foregone conclusion that everyone has already forgotten about it. Bale has had an amazing career over the last decade, and he has done a lot recently to repair his image after the insane, unhinged tirade on the set of Terminator Salvation. His speech seemes like it was honest and from the heart and was another highlight of the evening.

* Melissa Leo really bothers me for some reason. I have seen her acceptance speeches this entire season and not one of them has felt genuine.

* Jennifer Lawrence looked amazing.

* As much as I feel the Academy Awards need to be progressive as far as choosing winners, the telecast must stop trying to trick up the hosting duties. Especially if they are going to get a spaced-out, disinterested James Franco and an energetic Anne Hathaway trying to compensate for Franco’s lazy, stiff delivery of absolutely everything. He didn’t seem drunk or high so much as he seemed sedated. And when Billy Crystal came out on stage, he went into his safe, yet effective and funny routine that he was known for so many years at the Oscars. It was like a breath of fresh air. Bring Billy Crystal back, Academy. You know you should. Of course, that probably means you won’t.

* I don’t need Celine Dion singing to me during the In Memoriam section. Why is she there anyway? The Titanic song is so far out of everyone’s consciousness, we don’t need a reminder.

* The Wolfman now has more Oscars to its credit than True Grit, 127 Hours, and Winter’s Bone combined. I mean… I get it. It’s makeup. I just think it’s funny.

* Now let’s move on from this disaster last night.


Saturday, February 26, 2011

Drive Angry

DRIVE ANGRY: Nicolas Cage, Amber Heard, Billy Burke, William Fitchner (104 min.)

Cult films must happen organically. One cannot set out to make a cult film because, as the term suggests, a film as such develops a following over time. It earns the status. Many of these films have poor box office numbers and gain a devoted fan base through a word of mouth and a second consideration. The Big Lebowski and Fight Club are two cult films that pop into my head, but sometimes cult films are of the “midnight drive-in” variety, meaning they are low on morality in certain ways. These grindhouse flicks have their own gaggle of devoted followers as well; ones who seek these films out and enjoy them with like-minded fans. Drive Angry, the new Nicolas Cage film, would like to fancy itself a midnight drive-in cult picture. But it didn’t happen organically over time, so there is a fundamental issue at hand that cannot be looked past. Despite the earnest dedication of Nic Cage and a few others in the face of absurdity, nothing can save this film from itself.

Cage plays John Milton (get it? It seems a reference to the author of Paradise Lost is a fairly high-brow in-joke given the circumstances, but I digress), a man or a spirit or something who escapes hell to track down the man responsible for his daughter’s death. This man, Jonah King (Billy Burke), is a satanic cult leader who plans on sacrificing a newborn on the next full moon for… something. It never really gets explained, and the details of Milton’s daughter’s death are a little fuzzy. Then again, fuzzy is a word that pops up continually when discussing Drive Angry.

Milton joins forces with Piper (Amber Heard), a swearing spitting waitress with a nice right hook and the necessary jean shorts. The duo travels from Colorado to Louisiana to stop Jonah from sacrificing the child. While they are in pursuit of Jonah, there is a man in pursuit of Milton: The Accountant. It is inferred that The Accountant is in charge of managing the souls in hell, and played by the great character actor William Fitchner, he is the most indelible part of the picture. Fitchner plays The Accountant as a dry and pragmatic specter in a suit, and is a joy to watch. He and Nicolas Cage try their damndest to keep this picture afloat. But alas, they are rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Drive Angry does have dedication to its motive, throwing splattered blood and severed limbs and shrapnel and topless women at the screen relentlessly. And it is all usually accompanied by some corny dialogue. And as I said, Fitchner and Cage are good (meaning as good as they should be given the circumstances). The problem is, more than anything else, the performance from Burke as Jonah King. Looking like a low-rent Elvis impersonator and sometimes flailing around like Val Kilmer’s Jim Morrison in The Doors, Burke is bland and uninteresting. Or maybe uninterested. Either way I struggled to stay involved when we focused on Jonah King. Burke is dry and forgettable and Amber heard isn’t all that interesting either.

And eventually the novelty of the whole thing wears thin. I wanted to like Drive Angry at a certain level, but found myself anxious for the closing credits as nothing happening really mattered to me eventually. Drive Angry wants to cut out the long years and effort it takes for a film to be a cult hit. It wants to show up with the credentials without doing any of the leg work. And this fundamental issue is the most glaring problem.


Friday, February 25, 2011

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Academy Awards Edition...

* Best Acceptance Speech: I would have to go with Tom Hanks’ first acceptance speech for his win for Philadelphia. It was heartfelt and heavy on emotion. And somewhat important. Maybe Cuba Gooding Jr. deserves a little recognition, but he has soiled his win so poorly I can’t justify giving him any credit for anything.

* Worst Acceptance Speech: Jennifer Connelly for A Beautiful Mind. Hands down. A robotic, emotionless speech from a piece of paper in her hand, one she stared at without looking up the entire time.

* Weirdest Acceptance Speech: Marlon Brando winning for The Godfather. Accepting the Oscar on his behalf was Sacheen Littlefeather. She spoke on behalf of Brando, who thought awards were unnecessary until the treatment of the Native Americans in this country improved. What? I don’t even think Brando cared one way or another, I think he just threw a dart at his “wheel of political issues.”

* This year is a tipping point for the Academy. Either they can stay the same as they always have, rewarding convention (The King’s Speech). Or they can move into the new progressive America and reward the picture of a new generation (The Social Network).

* I feel like Leonardo Dicaprio is the Academy’s newest Paul Newman. He will continue to rack up countless deserving nominations, some of which he should win. But his lifetime achievement award will come before his actual award.

* Darren Aronofsky is a long way away from winning Best Director. Just saying.

* If you want an upset win in really any category this year, pay close attention early on. The supporting acting awards are usually very soon in the telecast, and Supporting Actress might set the pace for more surprises. But if Melissa Leo wins, expect things to follow the script all night.

* Whoever wins editing this year will win Best Picture.

* I’m not sure how Black Swan didn’t pick up a nomination for Art Direction. This seems like a picture that exists because of the magnificent art direction.

* Whenever I am listing the ten Best Picture nominees, I always rifle through nine of them and forget The Kids Are All Right. I don’t know if that means anything, just something that always happens to me.


Thursday, February 24, 2011

BEST PICTURE BREAKDOWN: Mini Reviews of the Nominees, and Their Chances of Winning

BLACK SWAN – Darren Aronofsky’s most complete film is also a wild and wiry mess of emotion. Natalie Portman plays Nina, the ballerina pulled in a dozen different directions by her instructor, her controlling mother, and another dancer who becomes an object of obsession. As the screws tighten on Nina, her mask of sanity begins to crack and madness shines through in some shocking moments of psychological excess. Part thriller, part dramatic look at the tense world of ballet, part dark comedy, Black Swan is a thrilling film. It is also the most subjective film of the bunch, pulling the audience deep into this world that is foreign to most of us. CHANCES: I don’t see Black Swan winning, although it may be currently third in line. It is a little too bizarre for the tight-knit Academy voters, though it is my choice for best of the year.

THE FIGHTER – I have said repeatedly that The Fighter is barely a sports film. It is a film about the struggles of a very extreme family. Mark Wahlberg is Micky Ward, The Fighter, but I feel he is fighting against his family more than anyone in the boxing ring. Christian Bale plays his brother Dicky, a former boxer himself who has become consumed with crack addiction. As soon as Bale shows up on the screen you know you are about to see an Oscar-winning performance. Not because it is a baiting performance but because Bale is simply that good. The orbiting cast of The Fighter includes Melissa Leo as Micky and Dicky’s managing mother and Amy Adams as Micky’s tough talking girlfriend. The Fighter is an excellent family drama but an average boxing film. Luckily, the family elements are powerful enough to elevate the picture. CHANCES: The Fighter will be rewarded in the Supporting Actor category. I see no scenario where it wins Best Picture.

INCEPTION – The technical wizardry of Inception serves as damnation for the Academy and the huge mistake they’ve made in not nominating Christopher Nolan for Best Director. If there ever was a film to be recognized for structure and creation, it is Inception. This twisting and turning thriller starring Leo Dicaprio as a man in charge of planting an idea in a man’s dream has a structure that is nothing short of mind blowing. Involving layers of dreams, subtle nuances of each level, and an expansive cast of quality actors, Inception is the blockbuster for the thinking person. It is a smart film that also happens to be loaded with action and thrills and a massive box-office haul. CHANCES: Had Christopher Nolan been nominated for Best Director, I would think Inception would have a better chance at winning it all. And if you were to ask me in the summer I would have said nothing would top Inception. But sitting here today, I don’t see it having much of a chance.

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT – Director Lisa Cholodenko had a very clear and concise direction for The Kids Are All Right, and she executed the film masterfully. The film involves a married lesbian couple in California with two children. The children seek out their sperm-donor father, a flaky Bohemian played by Mark Ruffalo. The meeting brings these people together and begins to disrupt a family unit that seemed content at the time. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play the married couple with amazing ease and believability, and Mark Ruffalo’s performance nabbed him a Supporting Actor nomination. The strength here is in the cast in a film that otherwise would not interest me. The subject matter is just a certain distance from me, but Cholodenko does an effective job of making this picture about a family, and not about a gay family. CHANCES: This is another film that has no honest chance due to the fact Cholodenko was not nominated. The nomination is the win.

THE KING’S SPEECH – Okay, here we go. The King’s Speech has the honor of picking up the most nominations with twelve. The film, about King George VI overcoming his debilitating stutter through the help of a speech therapist and the support of his wife, Elizabeth, is a nice film about perseverance and courage in the face of adversity. But what exactly does it have to say that is new or original? The King’s Speech is decidedly British, and by this I mean it is a little cold and distant and intricately detailed. But the film is a bit of a bore. Colin Firth deserves his nomination, and he deserves his inevitable win this Sunday night, but overall The King’s Speech is small and stunted. CHANCES: This is one of a very tight two-horse race, and as we sit The King’s Speech appears to have the momentum and a very good chance at winning. I can only hope the Academy doesn’t play it this safe.

127 HOURS – Danny Boyle’s electric adventure film about Aron Ralston, the weekend warrior trapped behind a boulder and forced to sever his own arm in order to survive, is a compelling and intimate film. If you want to see an interesting film about courage and perseverance in the face of real adversity, then this is the film you should see. James Franco has the honor of being the first host to be nominated for Best Actor. Franco is obviously the most important aspect of a film that focuses on his character the entire time, and he shines in this role. Boyle does some fascinating things with his camera and with the story, showing us the imagination of Ralston and what he does to stay sane. Some people would argue the film is gimmicky, but the gimmicks serve a very specific purpose. CHANCES: 127 Hours won’t win Best Picture. It is too small and will be overwhelmed by much larger, more talked about films.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK – It feels like David Fincher’s career has been on a trajectory to this point, when he would finally direct his masterwork, his most complete and mature film. The Social Network is technically sound with a flawless narrative structure. On the surface, The Social Network is about Mark Zuckerberg, the genius behind facebook who started a revolution and changed the way we interact as a society while leaving friends and colleagues in his wake. But at a deeper level, The Social Network is a film that defines a generation, one that shows us the mindset of the college student today. Creating a career is easier than getting one. These words transcend the film, and put a stamp on the picture as something very special and timeless. CHANCES: If the Academy knows what is good for them they will reward The Social Network with Best Picture. This is the other horse at the front of the race, and the one that deserves to win. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

TOY STORY 3 - It is hard to imagine a second sequel to any film being this good. Even The Godfather Part III stumbled far away from its predecessors. But Toy Story 3 is the most complete and most interesting of the three because it deals with so many more issues that go beyond your typical animated film. This time around, Andy is moving away to college and the toys are left at the mercy of either the dumpster or a day-care facility. Toy Story 3 deals with fears of abandonment and loneliness unlike most live-action films with the same thematic direction. And the picture also pulls off the perfect balance of being a children’s film while managing to reference adult issues and even classic adult films like The Great Escape. CHANCES: Toy Story 3 will win Best Animated Film, but it simply will not win Best Picture. I can’t imagine an animated film ever winning top prize.

TRUE GRIT – The Coen Brothers go out West in their remake of the 1969 film that got John Wayne his only Oscar statue. That being said, this True Grit is less a remake of that film and more of an adaptation of the Charles Portis novel. What is so enjoyable about True Grit, aside from the expected Coen Brothers flair, is the dialogue. There is a rhythm and a flow to the dialogue in True Grit that makes it feel fresh and original despite the fact it is entrenched as a genre picture. Jeff Bridges embodies Rooster Cogburn as a smelly drunk and is so much more convincing in this role than John Wayne, who always carried with him a certain vanity and characterization about himself that would not allow him to distance from his persona. CHANCES: Don’t count out True Grit. This might be the biggest threat to either The Social Network or The King’s Speech after getting ten nominations.

WINTER’S BONE – The smallest of the nominated films is not the smallest on emotion. Winter’s Bone peels back the notion of the Ozark Mountains in Southern Missouri and shows us an underbelly of poverty and drugs that are rarely seen. Jennifer Lawrence plays our protagonist, a young girl determined to find her father who skipped bail and save her family’s home. Winter’s Bone succeeds in grit and grime and realism more than it does in narrative momentum. The characters in this film seep out of the screen and deliver powerful types, and John Hawkes’ performance as Teardrop is quietly devastating at times. CHANCES: Winter’s Bone has already won its award, sneaking in as a Best Picture nominee. There is no real chance here, and the fact it was nominated does more to open doors for director Debra Granik and Lawrence in the future.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Tragedy Auteur

From all accounts, pictures and interviews, Alejandro González Iñárritu seems like a fairly happy guy. He is often smiling, very welcoming. His films, on the other hand, are quite the opposite of his demeanor. Iñárritu directs some of the bleakest, most emotionally-draining films of the new millennium, films that also happen to be tragically beautiful and marvelous stories. They are soaked in sadness, but the emotional impact of their narratives is something quite special. Iñárritu has a visual style that defines his pictures, a gritty and deep-focus look that pulls the very dire human emotion from each and every frame. I just don’t understand why he is so sad.

Born in Mexico City, Iñárritu studied communications in college while becoming a radio host at the same time. Music has always been his first love but he soon began to study directing in a variety of locales before starting Z films with a few colleagues. Z Films became the largest in Mexico and allowed Iñárritu to begin directing features. For the next five years Iñárritu would work on drafts of three stories, all of which became the same film, Amores Perros, in 2000. Translated as “Life is a Bitch,” Amores Perros flashed on the scene like a tidal wave of violence and emotion. The story focuses on dog-fighting communities in Mexico City and is a brutal and unflinching look at this world. So much so that the disclaimer “no animals were harmed during this picture” was put in the opening credits rather than at the end of the final credits. For a dog lover, Amores Perros is a very difficult endeavor. But I see the morbid beauty in Iñárritu’s camera.

Amores Perros would become a sensation, and Iñárritu would go on to win the Critics Week Grand Prize at Cannes. The film was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards that year. Amores Perros opened the door to Hollywood for Iñárritu, and from here he would direct yet another depressing drama, 21 Grams. Starring Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benicio Del Toro, 21 Grams was another interwoven story about a tragedy that travels across family lives. 21 Grams is Iñárritu’s best film in my opinion, loaded with both subtle and powerful dramatic performances. Watts and Del Toro received Academy Awards nominations for their performances. Two years after 21 Grams, in 2006, Iñárritu would direct his most successful, but least effective picture, Babel.

Where 21 Grams dealt with a very intimate group of interwoven storylines, Babel would take the template and expand it to a global level. It involves a young Moroccan boy firing a rifle in the desert, accidentally hitting an American tourist in the shoulder and causing a global ripple of events. Starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as the American tourists in Morocco, Babel travels across ethnic boundaries to show how communication breakdowns become international strife. You can really see Iñárritu’s studies of communications in the nuts and bolts of Babel. Upon seeing this film in the theater I left unimpressed. But I have since seen it two or three more times and despite that fact I still feel the Japanese storyline is tacked on, the picture has made more of an impact on me. I see the power in the story; I just don’t buy into the way things tie together.

Iñárritu’s most recent film, Biutiful, is nominated again for Best Foreign Language film at this year’s Academy Awards. Javier Bardem, the film’s star, is also nominated for Best Actor. It is stunning to me that these two men have not collaborated before as their materials seem made for one another. But why so sad? In an interview with IGN Iñárritu hints at some of the reasons why he may direct pictures like this. He is a very political person, though he has no wish to explore politicians. Through his films, Iñárritu is able to express thoughts and fears that sometimes consume him. His pictures serve as catharsis for his ever-working mental state. While this may not explain fully his desire to make us feel sadness and tragedy in his works, perhaps it sheds some light on the man behind the camera and what he is trying to tell us all with his powerfully bleak pictures, all of which have their own bit of beauty.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

ACADEMY AWARDS REVISIONIST HISTORY: Fixing the Best Picture Winners of the 2000s

With the first Academy Awards of the new decade just a few days away it seems like the right time to look back at the last decade’s Best Picture winners with a little bit of revisionist history in mind. We all know the Academy doesn’t get it right all the time, and once in a while a film will be passed over for a different one with the right amount of momentum and political lobbying in its corner. Time is the great equalizer, however, and we can revisit nominees and consider them in a different, more balanced light. Of course, some of these corrections you see here are simply personal choices. The year I have listed next to the Awards presentation represents the year in film, not the year the show was broadcast…

NOMINEES/WINNER: Chocolat * Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon * Erin Brockovich * Traffic / Gladiator
I still think the Academy got the right winner this year. At the time I had stronger feelings for Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic. While it is still a good film, time has aged it a bit and it feels over produced at times. Gladiator is a rousing epic film, a perfect film for the Academy to honor, and it still holds up as a robust action adventure with some truly marvelous performances. And I cannot believe Chocolat was nominated for Best Picture. WINNER: GLADIATOR

NOMINEES/WINNER: Gosford Park * In the Bedroom * Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring * Moulin Rouge! / A Beautiful Mind
A Beautiful Mind has aged like milk, and looks from this distance like pure Oscar bait. Having seen this film again a few months ago I had not any of the same feelings I had back in 2001. The whole endeavor feels manufactured and manipulated to get Ron Howard his statue. Out of the remaining four I would have to give the nod to In the Bedroom, the intimate family drama. In the Bedroom is heavy and morose but one of the most compelling films of the decade, and it stands the test of time better than any other picture in this category. WINNER: IN THE BEDROOM

NOMINEES/WINNER: Gangs of New York * The Hours * The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers * The Pianist / Chicago

If you were to ask me which film should have won Best Picture over Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Chicago, I would have to say take your pick. In the lowest-rated Oscar telecast in history, one of the weakest films to ever win took home the big prize. Meanwhile, Martin Scorsese’s passion project Gangs of New York is shut out in ten categories. Not that it is Scorsese’s best work, but it is still a better film than Chicago. Other than Gangs, however, The Pianist might be the best film of the bunch. Roman Polanski’s World War II drama had already surprised everyone with Best Director and Actor wins, so I think a Best Picture nod would have completed the night. WINNER: THE PIANIST

NOMINEES/WINNER: Lost in Translation * Mystic River * Master and Commander * Seasbiscuit / The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

For three years, Peter Jackson and his team laid in wait for this night, when the cumulative effort of The Lord of the Rings would be rewarded with a Best Picture win. The rest of the nominees stood no chance on this night. And I understand it. I don’t agree with the winner here, but I understand the winner. I cannot for the life of me see why Master and Commander or Seabiscuit deserved nominations. But Lost in Translation is a fantastic film, and Mystic River is one of the best of the decade. Although Eastwood’s films have not stood the test of time for me, Mystic River is his best achievement as a director since Unforgiven in 1992. WINNER: MYSTIC RIVER

NOMINEES/WINNER: The Aviator * Finding Neverland * Ray * Sideways / Million Dollar Baby

This year has to win the award for fewest letters making up the nominees. Too bad the Academy went with the longest one. Million Dollar Baby feels trite and manipulative at this distance. The boxing picture screams overrated, and feels like a makeup award for Mystic River the year before. Ray and Finding Neverland have no business in the pool for me, and The Aviator is missing a few pieces to make it perfect. But Sideways, Alexander Payne’s endearing dramedy, will forever hold up in my opinion. WINNER: SIDEWAYS

NOMINEES/WINNER: Brokeback Mountain * Capote * Good Night, and Good Luck * Munich / Crash

For all of its posturing and progressive rhetoric, Hollywood still fears certain issues. This was to be the year that a film like Brokeback Mountain would break through a sort of invisible ceiling in Hollywood, where a picture about gay relationships would win the top prize. But alas, lobbying and pressure from the right people swayed enough voters, and Crash shocked the world with a win. Crash is not only one of the worst films to ever win Best Picture, but it is simply a poor film. It is heavy-handed and obvious, without nuance or any semblance of realism regarding race relations. This is one of the biggest misfires in Oscar history. WINNER: BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN

NOMINEES/WINNER: Babel * Letters from Iwo Jima * Little Miss Sunshine * The Queen / The Departed

This was Martin Scorsese’s year, finally, and say what you will about the merits of The Departed it was clearly the Best Picture out of the nominees. It may not be Scorsese’s best, but that ship sailed in 1980 with Raging Bull and again in 1990 with Goodfellas. If ever there was a makeup award that deserved to be handed out, it was this year. And to top it off, The Departed holds up as a great crime drama. WINNER: THE DEPARTED

NOMINEES/WINNER: Atonement * Michael Clayton * Juno * There Will Be Blood / No Country for Old Men

Even though this was another low-rated telecast for the Academy, 2007 was a fantastic year for quality films. Aside from Atonement, each of these pictures stands on its own as a fantastic film. I really have no issue with No Country winning the big award, but this is perhaps my most personal decision. In my opinion, There Will Be Blood will age better than No Country, and is one of three or four best American films ever made. WINNER: THERE WILL BE BLOOD

NOMINEES/WINNER: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button * Milk * The Reader * Frost/Nixon / Slumdog Millionaire

This was the beginning of what looks like a trend of screwing Christopher Nolan. The Dark Knight not even getting a nomination is criminal. Instead, the fifth and final nomination spot went to The Reader, one of the most drab and forgettable pieces of garbage I can remember being nominated. This year’s nominees were a scattered group, with none of them really registering as unforgettable aside from Danny Boyle’s kinetic, inventive drama Slumdog Millionaire. The Academy made the only choice they could make given the grouping. WINNER: SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (THE DARK KNIGHT, really)

NOMINEES/WINNER: Avatar * The Blind Side * District 9 * An Education * Inglourious Basterds * Precious * A Serious Man * Up * Up in the Air / The Hurt Locker

Last year the Academy returned to ten nominees for the first time in decades, and the result was a higher-rated telecast. This was their aim all along, and to that I hold no disregard. Sure, The Blind Side didn’t deserve a nomination in the grand scheme of things, but it was there to bring popularity to the proceeding and there is nothing wrong with that in my opinion. Avatar did not win, which is the real justice here. The Hurt Locker is a fine war film, the best one surrounding the conflict in the Middle East, but even a year later it feels less impactful. I wanted Inglourious Basterds to win all along. Tarantino’s World War II fantasy is marvelously written and a beautiful picture full of pure cinematic splendor. WINNER: INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS

Let’s see what this year has in store, and if the Academy gets it right…

Monday, February 21, 2011


UNKNOWN: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn (110 min.)

Liam Neeson is enjoying a late career renaissance as an action hero. And it makes sense to me; Neeson is large and limber and has the voice and disposition to be a tough guy for sure. In his latest early-year thriller, Unknown, Neeson takes a different approach to the action although the results are more of the same we have all seen before in other films, some better than this one. Others not as good. Unknown is one of those films where something catastrophic happens to our protagonist while he is in a foreign land and he must fight overwhelming evidence, odds, and threats to discover the truth. This is a film in the same vain as Frantic starring Harrison Ford and the Bourne films. Consider it sort of a combination of the two.

Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris, and as the film opens he is traveling to snowy Berlin with his wife, Elizabeth (January Jones), to a Biotechnology conference. Upon arrival Harris realizes he left his briefcase on the curb at the airport. This is his most important bit of luggage we find out, so why would he be so careless as to leave it on the curb? Never mind that. Harris hops into a cab and urges the driver, Gina (Diane Kruger), to step on it. Then chaos unfolds on the roadway in front of the cab, Gina must swerve to avoid falling refrigerators and sliding bikers and winds up smashing through a guardrail and into the river below. She saves Martin from the back seat and promptly flees the scene where Martin barely survives. Four days later Martin wakes up in a hospital to find that nobody has been looking for him.

He talks his way out of the hospital and works his way back to the hotel to find Elizabeth at a party. She has no idea who he is, claims she has never met him, and introduces the “real” Dr. Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn). And the plot is underway as Martin must try and piece together his fractured memory. He gets kicked out of the hotel, finds there are shady characters on his tail, works hard to track down Gina who has been fired from the cab company. Martin remains thoroughly confused as he tries to figure things out, but when an above average car chase breaks out on the streets of Berlin, perhaps the audience begins to figure out a few things before Martin.

Neeson is devoted to the material, and in that Unknown stays above mediocrity. And Diane Kruger, last seen by most American audiences in Inglourious Basterds, stays in step with Neeson throughout the action. I wonder about the merits of January Jones though. Jones is excellent in Mad Men, but I wonder if she has any sort of range beyond Betty Draper. Jones delivers her lines with an odd monotone pitch that goes beyond mediocre acting and just feels weird.

Unknown starts out very well, but then dissolves a bit into convention by the end of the story. Once everything is explained most of the tension dissipates in a reveal that left me lukewarm. The picture looks fantastic if anything else. The cold and grey Berlin is a great setting for a thriller in this ilk, as the city can go from shady and dank to posh and glamorous quite easily. Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who directed Orphan, does a good job of avoiding any CGI where it isn’t needed (which is becoming more of a problem for me in any films really). But the action in the films is just, well, action. It serves a purpose to the story and there are some definite tense moments but nothing really stands out.


Sunday, February 20, 2011

DVD REVIEW: Unstoppable

Remember the sequence in Speed where the passengers on the bus discover the bridge they are on is unfinished, and they must jump a fifty-foot gap in order to stay alive? That was an utterly preposterous sequence. There was not one shred of realism in that portion of a film that was based in a realistic world. But did it bother you? It didn’t bother me. I went with it. I chuckled, sure, and shook my head, but in the end I took it for what it was and embellished the willingness of director Jan De Bont to go through with the whole thing. Now if you can bring that sort of attitude into Unstoppable, Tony Scott’s newest full-throttle action thriller, then you will find yourself thoroughly entertained in the face of absurdities and idiotic behavior.

But first: the plot. This won’t take long. There is a train on the loose, one roughly the length of the Chrysler building and loaded with toxic chemicals. It is flying across the countryside of Pennsylvania towards towns that are increasingly more populated. And in the largest town, there is an elevated portion of the track that curves so severely that the train will not stay on its rails and surely fly into fuel-storage tanks just off the tracks, killing thousands. Now let us put the pieces in place, and by pieces I mean our characters.

Most importantly there is Frank, the seasoned railroad vet played by Denzel Washington, and Will, the young rookie with a fortuitous last name played by Chris Pine. Frank and Will are our heroes of the story, two men at different points in their lives and with different personal issues that eventually unite them. Frank and Will have to first dodge the runaway train and then take it upon themselves to try and catch up with it and slow it down. They have the support of Connie, the plucky railroad manager on the other end of the line played by Rosario Dawson. Connie is the one, you know the one, running around the control room with technicians all around trying to help as much as she can. Frank and Will do not have the support, however, of the bureaucrats. Oh those pesky suits.

The head suit in this picture is Galvin, the owner of the train who wants to stop it instead of derail it in the middle of nowhere because he is consumed by the financial aspects. He even calls his boss who is – wait for it – on the golf course and agrees to not destroy the train. The big wigs in Unstoppable are following a very tight formula of being narrow-minded assholes, and they are devoted to said formula. It makes one question if they would really act this way in this situation. And aside from the bureaucrats in play I must say the news coverage of the dilemma is quite ridiculous. These news anchors and media teams know the names of everyone involved much too quickly and their explanations of the issues at hand seem, well, like they were written in some sort of screenplay. The explanations don’t sound like news reports, they sound like pure exposition from a Hollywood script, and they are the biggest distraction of all.

But enough complaining. Movies like Unstoppable, where the action is the important part, need these issues I think. If an action movie like this is done well (meaning not overloaded with CGI and corny effects, but existing through real pyrotechnics and heavy metal collisions), the ridiculous characterizations of external influences like media members and bureaucrats add to the fun. You guffaw at these people and roll your eyes at their stupidity but where would you be in a film like this without someone to yell at or to roll your eyes? The more important part is the action, and in Unstoppable the action is intense, nerve-jangling, simply thrilling. The train itself personifies a villain, its furious red engine barreling through crossings and plowing through trailers and railroad cars without wavering. It almost feels like a movie monster at times. This is a testament to director Tony Scott and his ability to keep us entertained from start to finish.

Chris Pine is serviceable as Will but it is Denzel Washington’s gravitas and some surprisingly solid work from Rosario Dawson that round out the human players in this action picture. Washington has the ability to take an over-the-top premise and series of events – regardless of whether or not this scenario began in some true tale – and add his own charm and magnetism and subtle wit to make us believe what we are seeing. Frank has been around the block, and he is smarter than everyone else on the screen, but his arrogance doesn’t spoil his charm. This is what makes Denzel Washington one of our finest actors.

Tony Scott knows what it takes to make an action film better than most (I’m lookin’ at you, Michael Bay). He uses real items and real places and employs actual filmmaking to tell his stories rather than sit behind a monitor and watch green screens all day. Unstoppable is full of explosions and big crashes too, but unlike any number of summer films you will see this year there is a sense of spatial coherency that makes everything easier to follow, and thus more involving. And Scott’s stories feel like they are about real people. They are all “manly men” for the most part but they are also gritty and worn to give them an edge and give us someone to root for. And he is no stranger to ridiculous characters floating around the periphery of his stories. But, as I mentioned earlier, his ability to make the action effective saves his pictures from mediocrity. He has his own moment like the one in Speed where the train is threatening to derail on the elevated tracks and teeters on one side. Is this believable? Probably not. But is it thrilling? Absolutely. And isn’t that really the point?


Friday, February 18, 2011

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Kate Hudson Fail, Truffant and Hitchcock, and the Oscar race tightens...

* Remember when Kate Hudson was in Almost Famous, and got nominated for an Oscar? Remember how we all thought she was going to be one of the next great actresses? Seems like another lifetime ago.

* There has been twelve hours of uncovered audio from a conversation between Francois Truffant and Alfred Hitchcock. This is the film nerd equivalent of finding the Holy Grail. You can check it out here.

* I Am Number Four = Twilight directed by a Michael Bay clone and produced by Michael Bay. No thanks.

* What looked like a very cut-and-dried Oscar year a few months ago is turning out to have several intriguing races. The Supporting Actress race feels tighter and tighter, with Melissa Leo not running away from Hailee Steinfeld or Helena Bonham Carter. And even though The King’s Speech has pulled in front of The Social Network for Best Picture, I feel like it is a shaky lead.

* It seems like there are already some problems with Zack Snyder’s Superman, mainly with the third act of the screenplay. I don’t see good things for this film, but I hope I am wrong.

* I think Liam Neeson is our most underrated actor aside from Ethan Hawke. I’m not sure about this new one, Unknown, but the guy has been on the screen for so long and done so many things, yet he still gets looked past. This is Oskar Schindler we’re talking about!

* Anyone who goes to see Big Momma’s: Like Father, Like Son, should be allowed to see only this movie at the theater for the rest of the year. I don’t want to accidentally run across one of them when I go to the movies.

* I don’t think that made sense, but you get my drift.

* “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once in a while… you could miss it.” – Ferris Bueller

Thursday, February 17, 2011

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Days of Heaven (1978)

Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven is a film that lingers in your mind’s eye long after you first see it. It is the most beautiful film I have ever seen. Malick has always been a visual director, but one who manages to tell compelling stories amidst natural beauty no matter what the setting, be it South Dakota (Badlands), primitive America (The New World), or World War II (The Thin Red Line). Days of Heaven revolves around a love triangle early in the twentieth century, and exists mainly in exteriors of the Texas plains. The characters appear primarily as images on a canvas, and their story seems to be told through panels of wide-angle shots. As the story evolves, Days of Heaven tells about love and loss and jealousy and steep in biblical references by the end. And it is all so very beautiful.

Richard Gere plays Bill, a blue-collar worker who one day gets into an argument with a foreman at the steel mill where he works outside of Chicago. He kills the foreman, purely a mistake, and flees. Bill hears of the wheat harvest in Texas and gathers up his girlfriend, Abby (Brooke Adams), his sister, Linda, and hops on a train. This is where one of the most striking images can be seen in Days of Heaven as the train rolls along a bridge across a deep ravine. The shot took my breath away, and served as a symbol to me of the images to follow. It is a shot that represents these characters’ passage into the Texas plains where the majority of the film lives.

Once the three get a job working the harvest, Bill tells everyone Abby is his sister. I still do not know fully the motivation behind this other than he wants to change his profile from Chicago for fear of being found out as a murderer. The harvest is on the farm of a single man, called simply through the narration of young Linda “the famer.” The Farmer spots Abby and is smitten with her. He wants her to stay with him after the harvest and live with him at his ominous mansion that is almost always in the background of the exterior shots, seemingly watching over the events. Bill overhears a conversation The Farmer has with his doctor where the doctor tells him he has but a year to live, so he persuades Abby to take up with The Farmer because when he dies she could get the money and the three of them would be set. Of course this plan sounds good at first, but becomes complicated once The Farmer and Abby marry and seem to be falling in love.

Told through the detached narration of young Linda purposefully stunts the emotional events of the central story. This is a tale told through the eyes of a young girl, which is why we never get a name for The Farmer. His name doesn’t matter to Linda. The narration mirrors that of Sissy Spacek in Badlands, Malick’s first feature, in its detached rhythms. Malick’s central characters are always observers, feeling almost like objective storytellers, and although Linda is rarely seen in the picture she is always there, always telling. The characters in the films exist as pieces of a naturalistic puzzle more than people separate of the world around them. It is nature that soon takes center stage when a plague of grasshoppers threatens to ruin the farm, and is the start of the climactic events that lead to more tragedy.

Days of Heaven was nominated for four Academy Awards and deservedly won Best Cinematography. The score from Ennio Morricone, also nominated, will haunt you much like the vast expansive images of the Texas plains that seem to blend into the skyline at the horizon. This is a film about so many themes, and Texas is a perfect setting. It tells the viewer of a place where there is so much room to roam, but never a pace to hide from your past or your desire.