Tuesday, January 31, 2012


I am not necessarily here to discuss numbers in this new 2012 segment. Film’s Best Years is something which has been rattling around in my head for some time. I wasn’t sure how to approach it; maybe I am still a little uncertain. Every year in film has its own claim for greatness because, well, there are great films out every year. But sometimes retrospective examinations of the past make certain years in film stick out among the masses. Some years have the advantage of bringing about big change, of introducing new important faces, and ushering in a new wave of filmmaking styles. Some years are simply loaded with great and important films.

I thought of this segment with 1994 in mind because it has long stuck out in my mind as a big, important, pivotal year in film, and a year with a strong contingency of greatness. 1994 brought about great shifts in the power of independent film. It also introduced the world to new talent both in front of and behind the camera. A good litmus test for the strength of a year is to look at the Best Picture nominees. If there doesn’t seem to be an outlier in the group, a film that doesn’t belong in hindsight, then you can start there and work your way out. I did this with 1994 and, when compared to its immediate surrounding years, it stands out as something altogether unique.


When you think about the early rise of Jim Carrey, the way he burst onto the scene in the early nineties as the funniest of funny men, the Jerry Lewis of a new generation, what are the three films one would point to as the defining birth of his career? He started with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, went into the special-effects extravaganza The Mask, and solidified his place as the top comedic actor with Dumb and Dumber, arguably one of the three greatest comedies of the nineties. Amazingly, all three of these films were released in 1994 in the order above. There was hardly enough time to acknowledge what we had on our hands after Ace Ventura was released before The Mask debuted in the summer. By the time Dumb and Dumber hit theaters in the fall, Carrey’s star had risen higher than anyone else that year.


The Sundance Film Festival had been around for a few years, picking up steam as it ushered in new faces and techniques of filmmaking by fresh new faces. 1994 reaped the benefits of this new movement, serving as the exclamation point on the strength of independent cinema. Early in the year, Ben Stiller’s small comedy Reality Bites tapped into the angst of the aimless twenty-something and became a small sensation. It was a statement picture about the current malaise of American youth, a fight against the system that ended with no real answers. When you hear “My Sharona,” is there anything you think of before you think of Winona Ryder and company dancing in the 7-11?

Reality Bites was simply the beginning of a long year of independent films that would change the way studios operate. Later that year, the world was introduced to the low-budget talents of Kevin Smith, and his debut picture Clerks. Continuing the twenty-something malaise that drove Reality Bites, Smith’s black and white indie spent a day in the life of small-time clerks in video and convenience stores, working to make a buck and spending their days talking about the strange clientele, labor workers on the Death Star, and playing hockey on the roof. The personal touches in Smith’s work and the realism of the screenplay, which never bothered for grandiose storytelling, was a fresh new approach to the status quo at the time. Clerks birthed the career of Kevin Smith, and it opened the doors for more experimental storytelling which had disappeared in the 80s. There was also a little independent film named Four Weddings and a Funeral that made it all the way to a Best Picture nominee on Oscar night. It may have been the most important independent film had it not been for an eccentric human movie encyclopedia named Quentin Tarantino.


Quentin Tarantino made waves in 1992 with Reservoir Dogs, the deconstructionist crime drama, but in 1994 that wave grew into an overwhelming tsunami. Pulp Fiction dominated the Cannes Film Festival that year and was picked up by Miramax studios for distribution in the States. Aside from making Miramax the heaviest hitter of the year, Pulp Fiction changed the way films were made, perceived, and considered. The non-linear storytelling, the sharp dialogue, the violence, the humor, the music… Tarantino had delivered the perfect film. It’s difficult to gauge the impact of Pulp Fiction from this distance, but I remember the sensation it caused across Hollywood. Imitators are still trying to recreate the magic of Pulp Fiction and always falling short. Pulp Fiction resurrected the career of John Travolta and took over the awards season with nominations aplenty. But, as Tarantino acknowledged, it kept “getting its ass kicked” by a certain simpleton from Greenbow, Alabama.


Pulp Fiction grabbed one of the five Oscar nominations in 1994, and deservedly so. But it was not going to beat out Forrest Gump, the historical crowd pleaser starring Tom Hanks, a star more powerful than just about anyone at the time on the heels of his Oscar for Philadelphia. Hanks would win his second consecutive statue playing Forrest Gump. The picture has its detractors these days, but that is bound to happen with a film that swept awards season and was generally loved by the masses. Sometimes it isn’t cool to like what everyone likes. It may not be my personal favorite from 1994, but I see nothing wrong with a film of such epic scope, full of comedy and sadness and history unlike anything we’ve ever seen, winning the top prize.

Aside from Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump, and the aforementioned Four Wedding and a Funeral picking up Best Picture noms, there were two more lucky films. The first is Quiz Show, arguably the finest directorial effort from Robert Redford – miles better than Ordinary People in my mind. And somehow, some way, outside of the revolution of Pulp Fiction and the power of Forrest Gump, 1994 had what is widely considered the favorite film of the general population: The Shawshank Redemption. It is my favorite film, however cliché that may sound, and has been atop IMDB’s top 250 for, well, forever. The Shawshank Redemption is a timeless tale of hope and salvation that has endured and improved over the years. It also jumpstarted the career of Frank Darabont.


The summer movie season brought about one of the most thrilling action films of the decade in Speed, which subsequently catapulted Sandra Bullock’s career. Tim Burton released his finest, most mature work in Ed Wood, a slick black and white film about the schlock director. Oliver Stone stirred up great controversy with his ultra-violent media satire Natural Born Killers. We got to see Brandon Lee’s posthumous comic noir The Crow, following his on-set accidental death. And James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger teamed up once again for True Lies, a wild action spectacle.

As I said, just about every year has their claim to fame. But once in a while certain years jump out at you. 1994 did a lot to revolutionize the film industry. It birthed the biggest comedy sensation of the decade in Jim Carrey, resurrected careers, jumpstarted careers, and ushered independent cinema into a new age. It takes time to observe a year in film, to look at it from a distance and recognize what it says about the industry as a whole. There have been years before and since 1994 that are as big, as special, and as impactful. We will get one of those next time.

Monday, January 30, 2012

A Dangerous Method

A DANGEROUS METHOD: Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen, Keira Knightly (93 min.)

While Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung may have been the two biggest pioneers of psychoanalytic discourse, the fathers of the twentieth century, perhaps their story is not the most interesting narrative to deliver to the screen. But David Cronenberg does his best. A Dangerous Method suggests something wicked or threatening with a title like that, and although there are certain moments in the picture where you see flashes of the Cronenberg we all know and love, the film as a whole may not entirely resonate beyond a single viewing. Nothing sticks nearly as much as the theories Freud and Jung practiced, defined, and perfected as the calendar ushered in the Industrial Age across the World.

This is a film reliant on performances as it is heavy on dialogue and the tension and evolution within conversations. The three central performances keep the film alive. Michael Fassbender stars as Carl Jung who, as the film opens, has taken on a new patient. Keira Knightley plays Sabina Spielrein, a woman perceived by the primitive medicine of the time as completely mad. Sabina must be carried into the hospital, writhing and screaming and contorting her body against the oppressive doctors and nurses. She screams and she throws her jaw out, almost as if her insides are fighting for escape. Jung decides to try a new practice on Sabina, the “talking cure” introduced by Sigmund Freud a few years earlier. The technique eventually works, Sabina is cured, and she soon works in the university as a colleague. Only her cure brings about certain insatiable sexual desires, and Jung cannot resist temptation despite the growing family he has begun with his wife.

As Jung falls into an affair with Sabina, he visits Sigmund Freud in Vienna to discuss the case. Freud is played by Viggo Mortensen as the measured and level-headed observer he most surely was. Freud and Jung discuss the future of psychoanalysis; where Freud believes they must stick to the theories of sexual repression and the explainable, Jung argues for expansion of the beliefs and introduction of more spiritual, or more coincidental, twists of fate and mystical thoughts. Freud believes this is unsafe as the detractors will surely pounce on any mysticism they introduce. Meanwhile, Sabina is creating her own theories of psychoanalysis and bringing her experience as a patient to the table.

The second half of A Dangerous Method centers on the power struggle between Freud and Jung, and the burgeoning career of Herr Spielrein. Only there is a noticeable lack of any real tension in the film. These two proper men never raise their voice or confront one another beyond epistolary communication. Seeing these men write polite letters back and forth is not particularly compelling. I know this is the way these men communicated in the early 1900s, but it fails to translate into anything meaningful or impacting on the screen.

The performances are very much the highlight of the picture. As Jung, Fassbender shows us a man constrained, whose own beliefs are brought into question by the arrival of Sabina. He feels desires, but cannot act on them because it is against his practices. Mortensen as Freud is all careful measurement and calm, and his confidence works as a threat to Jung’s uncertainty. Knightly is almost too much to handle in the early scenes as Sabina writhes and screams and wails against the established medical practices. But her character undergoes the biggest and most pronounced transformation. The power struggle between these three characters should have been more gripping, but the calmness and rigid social obedience stifles any real tension.

Cronenberg is a brilliant director whose best work focuses on the struggle between the body and the mind within his characters. He feels like the best man for the job. Only the film ties his hands in how freely he can operate in his own techniques. There are flashes of the discomfort and unease Cronenberg pulls off so wonderfully in most of his work, namely in the masochism of the Jung and Spielrein sexual relationship. And yet, A Dangerous Method does not feel as dangerous or tense as it should. The dialogue is handled well but grows tiresome at times. This is a marvelous picture in look and ambition and performances, but when the necessity for tension arrives things don’t quite work.


Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Grey

THE GREY: Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts (117 min.)

There exists a subgenre of action thrillers where Man is pitted against Nature in various ways.  These pictures can involve the plight of Man against the harsh elements, a battle against a certain beast, or perhaps both.  We all are familiar with these films and have surely seen one or more.  But I have never seen anything quite like The Grey.  It is one of the fiercest, most unforgiving, most nerve-rattling thrillers of its kind, a relentless action adventure that is as consistently tense as anything I can remember.  But there is something more at work in The Grey.  Somehow, this film manages to slow down the gears of kinetic thrills long enough to touch on philosophical musings about God, death, endurance and the struggle to survive.  And it all, somehow, worked for me.  Sharp discussions of existentialism and theology are at work against the backdrop of a pitiless environment.  That, and a few dozen bloodthirsty wolves.

Liam Neeson, the enduring and late-blooming action hero, an action star as bankable as any these days, stars at Ottway.  Ottway lives and works in a remote outpost as a sniper, protecting oil-drillers from wolves, shooting them before they can pounce on unsuspecting laborers.  "A job at the end of the World."  And Ottway, like most of the rogues gallery of drillers, has left a certain life behind for one reason or another, we aren't quite sure why.  This drilling outpost exists somewhere above Anchorage, Alaska, where the only men who could possibly be looking for and getting jobs are men hiding from something or trying to repair their lives through solitude.  These men board a plane one night headed back to Anchorage, apparently on some sort of leave.  But they never make it.  The plane crashes and scatter survivors throughout the wreckage.

Plane crashes have been dramatized in film before, but I challenge anyone to make a sequence more visually terrifying than the crash director Joe Carnahan pulls off here.  I found myself clenching my armrests, holding my breath as the disorientation overwhelmed the screen.  And once the plane settles into the snowbound landscape, Ottway gathers together the survivors to build a fire, check for more surviving passengers, and look for food.  And I must say the aftermath of the horrendous crash is no less intense.  The survivors are, in part, a cross section of personalities and types like always.  There is the African-American, the level-headed sidekick, the argumentative ex-con, the idiot, the weakling... Some of the actors are recognizable, like Dermot Mulroney and Dallas Roberts (keep an eye on Dallas Roberts, I see big things for him).  Others not as much.  But they each have a character to bring to the story, and they have layers and backgrounds and mannerisms all their own, not stolen from the Supporting Character Five and Dime on a studio back lot.  I was fascinated by each in their own way, each at their own time.

The previews show us that Ottway and his men are being hunted by a pack of wolves.  These wolves are relentless and sometimes they seem almost sadistic in their assault on the survivors.  The wolves themselves were done through the magic of CGI, understandable because of the things they are asked to do.  But Carnahan handles the wolves perfectly, never concentrating of focusing on them quite long enough for their computer generation to be a distraction or pull you out of the film.  As these wolves show a pack mentality, so do the men as they fight to stay alive and unfrozen.  But there are other things which get these men; they aren't just picked off one by one by monstrous wolves.  Don't get me wrong, some of them are, but these characters drop off in various ways.  And one of the last to perish does so in a way that is quite daring for a genre film.  

There are brave choices all throughout The Grey, namely with the discussions these men have about faith and life and death, and where they stand on such heady subjects.  And yet, here they are, on alert constantly and threatened from all sides by vicious canine hunters.  It is a tricky balancing act between action and philosophy, but Carnahan nails them both with an intensity and a certain weight to the words of these scared men.  Neeson is wonderful in his lead role, but this is an ensemble piece which relies on the strength of the actors around him.  I didn't see a weak link in the group. 

The philosophical stretches might alienate a Saturday evening crowd, but The Grey is a smart action thriller, the very best of its kind of film.  It is a relief to see Carnahan return to his gritty roots, when he was directing Narc instead of Smokin' Aces.  He uses the brutal landscape of Northern Canada (where it was filmed) to isolate these men in an oppressive world of violent snow storms, imposing mountains, and dense forests.  Grey is most certainly the color of this desolate world.  The Grey may seem like your standard Man vs. Wild thriller, along the lines of pictures like The Edge or Cliffhanger, but forget about those films.  This is something all its own, something much heavier and more substantial, and not another January release I will soon forget.  


Friday, January 27, 2012


* You know what would be a good movie to give the 3D treatment? The Neverending Story.

* You know what is going to become a tired trend? Re-releasing old movies in 3D. Especially with Disney. I don’t need Pinocchio’s nose to come out of the screen at me.

* I think I figured out what has been missing from recent Wes Anderson movies: soul. Rushmore and The Royal Tennenbaums had a sweet center and an emotional pull that has since been absent. It was there in The Fantastic Mr. Fox, but not in his live action pictures like The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited. I hope Moonrise Kingdom brings that back.

* Still not happy about the Fassbender snub earlier this week. Same goes for Kirsten Dunst, though I didn’t have her as a shoe in. She still deserved a nomination for Melancholia.

* Sam Worthington is Russell Crowe without talent or intrigue.

* Remember Daredevil? What a dumb movie.

* You know what’s worse than Daredevil? The fact that studio execs thought it was a great idea to spin off a mediocre superhero movie with Elektra.

* Keep an eye out for Ferris Bueller in the Super Bowl commercial breaks.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Manhattan (1979)

I have never understood the mindset of people who reject black and white films. These people have a stigma that because a film is shot in black and white it will be dull, uninteresting, or it is too old. They are missing some of the more beautifully composed works of art cinema has to offer. Such is the case with Woody Allen’s love letter to the city of his life, Manhattan. Here is a film which would significantly diminish in quality and impact had it been filmed in color. Cinematographer Gordon Willis paints his black and white canvas of Manhattan with striking imagery and wonderfully sharp contrast. The result is an enchanting ode to the city Allen loves most. The opening montage, voiced over by Allen’s character as he starts and stops narrating, bounces from one Manhattan landmark to the next. We see the Guggenheim, the Carnegie, Greenwich, Central Park, and it is all tied together in a shot of the city under fireworks. All to the tune of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” a melody that is seemingly one in the same with New York City. It is a captivating introduction.

The story he tells involves adults acting as adolescents, with the most mature character of all being a seventeen-year old girl. Allen plays Isaac as an overgrown child, content in his own wit and intellect, using it as a shield. Isaac is dating Tracy, a seventeen-year old played by Mariel Hemingway. His last wife, Jill (Meryl Streep), left him for another woman and is writing a tell all about their relationship. And Isaac spends the majority of his time with Tracy telling her they need to break up, that there is no future for a 42-year old and a teen. Meanwhile, Isaac’s friend, Yale (Michael Murphy) is married but has fallen into an affair with Mary (Diane Keaton), and is scared he has begun falling for her. These characters occupy the greatest hits of Manhattan. Yale leaves Mary, and Isaac strikes up a relationship after breaking up with Tracy at, with all intended irony, a soda fountain. While Keaton’s Mary is less eccentric and flighty than her Annie Hall, you catch glimpses of her energy in Mary. I especially enjoyed their banter early on, when they are each with their initial lovers at an art exhibit and Isaac and Mary cannot agree on which pieces they enjoyed.

The older characters in Manhattan occupy a sort of reluctant adult world where they hide their emotions behind their intelligence. Yale feels like a hopeless wayward adult, Isaac more of a realist. But neither of them have the maturity of Tracy or even Mary. It has always been a credit to Allen’s writing that he creates wonderfully sharp and detailed female characters. It seems a foregone conclusion that a female actress from his films will get an Oscar nomination, and many have won. Keaton in Annie Hall, Dianne Wiest in Hannah and Her Sisters, Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona; here, Marial Hemingway received her only Oscar nomination. Her character carries the most level gaze of all involved.

The star of Manhattan is, as I mentioned, the camera of Gordon Willis. There are a handful of shots that are among the best of all black and white films. They are subtle, as in the shots of Isaac’s sparsely-lit apartment, overt like the scene where Isaac and Mary sit on the park bench under the imposing Brooklyn Bridge. The characters seem secondary to the environment, and their lives feel decidedly defined by the city itself. Allen has been and always will be an acquired taste, but Manhattan is a picture which deserves a look regardless of your opinions on the man himself. Maybe if the naysayers of black and white were to give Gordon Willis’ work a chance, they would change their tune. Maybe to Gershwin.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


Sometimes it’s difficult to objectively review a movie when the movie in question affects you on a deeper level than most. Sometimes emotions take over, and you find yourself caught up in the plight of these characters without noticing the nuances and the details of the film itself. It could be the performances, or perhaps it might be that somewhere in the recesses of your own memory you identify with these characters and their situation. This is where I found myself while watching 50/50, the oh-so rare “cancer comedy” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen. This is a film which uses humor as a defense mechanism, and also as a way to pull the audience into the story before the strong emotions of the situation take over. And you find yourself completely lost in the lives of these people and invested to a point where camerawork and style choices don’t matter much. I don’t know if my review of 50/50 is an accurate and objective look at the film as a whole more than it might be an emotional reaction to a film that I fell in love with.

Gordon-Levitt stars as Adam, a programmer for a Seattle public radio. Adam is perhaps the safest 27-year old on the planet; he exercises, he rarely drinks, he doesn’t smoke. Hell, he doesn’t even drive because “it’s the fifth leading cause of death.” So imagine the irony of Adam’s life when he is diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer and given a fifty percent chance of survival. Adam’s best friend since high school is Kyle, a slightly less squared away young man played by Seth Rogen. Kyle is the funny man to Adam’s straight persona, and when he learns of Adam’s diagnosis he has a slight freak out but never abandons his friend. The same thing cannot be said for Adam’s girlfriend, Rachael, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, who gradually drifts away from Adam as his disease becomes too much.

Adam begins his chemotherapy and decides to shave his head before it starts falling out. Kyle sees this as an opportunity for the two of them to score girls. He may use Adam’s illness to his advantage out at the bar, but he never comes off as completely selfish. At least to me. Kyle is a good friend, and we get confirmation of this in a later scene. While Adam endures the chemotherapy he strikes up a relationship with two older cancer patients (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer) and also tries to keep his suffocating mother (Angelica Huston) at bay. All the while, he strikes up a heartfelt doctor-patient relationship with Katherine (Anna Kendrick), a young grief counselor who takes a liking to Adam.

50/50 is a wonderfully comedic film most of the time. Adam uses dry humor while Kyle uses his relentless energy and sharp wit to deal with the fact his friend might die. But as the film works its way into the third act, there is an overwhelming emotional draw that deeply affected me. Nothing is manipulative here; the emotion comes from a genuine place and never tries to make the audience cry. But it still does, a true testament to the screenplay by Will Reiser whose own battle with cancer inspired this semi-true tale. I was reminded of my own friends, my own experiences with cancer in my family, and there is a moment of truth scene near the end that is sweet and quietly devastating.

Maybe 50/50 could be better to some people, I don’t know. Some people may not care for the Rogen character, but I felt like it was just the right amount of Seth Rogen. Not too much, not too little. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues to impress as Adam, whose range of emotion is spot on. Maybe there are flaws with 50/50 as a film. But to me, here I was completely swept up in Adam’s story, pulled into the emotions of the film and managing to laugh all the way to the end. It is a crime that Will Reiser’s screenplay wasn’t nominated for Best Original Screenplay, but I don’t imagine it matters much to him. I know it didn’t change my opinion of the film.


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

THE 84TH ANNUAL ACADEMY AWARDS: A Look at the Nominees, Suprises, Rants, Thoughts...

33 out of 44. For the last two years I have been 35 for 45 in my Oscar predictions, so I suppose I am staying close. And yet again, for another year the Academy has decided to stay safe and irrelevant while still keeping us interested just enough to tune in on February 26th. There are some disastrous missteps this year, far outweighing the pleasant surprises.

We ended up with nine BEST PICTURE nominees in this new format, where there could be anywhere from five to ten. I was 8 out of 9, but there should only have been 7 to begin with. War Horse received no other major nominations but somehow picked up a Best Picture nod. This makes no sense. And if War Horse was to receive a nomination, they should have ended at eight. But alas, in a surprising move the Academy pegged Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close for the ninth slot; here is a film with a paltry 48% rating on the Tomatometer. Someone explain this to me. And don’t tell me it’s the Tom Hanks effect, because he’s been in better films.

BEST DIRECTOR is the one category where I was 5 for 5, and I have no qualms about any of the nominations. I only wish Terrence Malick and Woody Allen would show up to the ceremony.

BEST ACTOR is disgustingly baffling and pleasantly surprising at the same time. Three nominees, Jean Dujardin, Brad Pitt and George Clooney, are expected nominees. And then the pleasant surprise is Gary Oldman, receiving his first ever nomination for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. While I didn’t have him pegged as a nominee I am very excited for Mr. Oldman, one of the finest character actors of a generation. Which leads me to the stomach-turning shock of the entire nomination field: Demián Bichir for the small and relatively unnoticed A Better Life. While I am sure Mr. Bichir is solid in his performance, and I do remember rumblings about his performance when the film was released, you will never be able to convince me anything he does in the picture rivals a single second of Michael Fassbender’s performance in Shame.

I simply cannot believe the Academy snubbed Fassbender. Here is the finest performance from an actor all year, and one of the most daring and unsettling turns in several years. And once again, the Academy shows they are frightened of uncomfortable films with edgy subject matter. This is a move of pure cowardice and narrow-minded idiocy by an institution which exists to reward the best of the year in their respective category. Had Daniel Day Lewis been in the role, he would pick up a nomination and immediately be the frontrunner for the award. This is purely unforgiveable. The Shame belongs on the Academy’s shoulders.

I picked 4 out of 5 in the BEST ACTRESS category, missing on Rooney Mara for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I may not have had her but I do think she deserves a nomination. It was a tough role, and Mara disappears into the role. I am pulling for Michelle Williams.

SUPPORTING ACTOR got me at 3 for 5. While I didn’t have Jonah Hill pegged as a nominee, much like Rooney Mara I think he deserves it. The wild card here is Max Von Sydow for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Again, 48% overall rating on the Tomatometer.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS went about the way I expected, as I was 4 for 5, with Janet McTeer surprising me for Albert Nobbs. She doesn’t really have a chance in my opinion, I think this statue belongs to Octavia Spencer.

Some more quick thoughts about the nominations…

* When announcing Best Supporting Actress and Jessica Chastain was announced, the picture was not of her in The Help, but The Tree of Life. Honest mistake, sure, but a telling mistake.

* Leonardo DiCaprio may have been snubbed for J. Edgar, but if her slot was taken by Gary Oldman I am just fine with that. DiCaprio has time and better movies in his future.

* George Clooney looks like the frontrunner for Best Actor, but without Fassbender in the field I am pulling for Brad Pitt all the way.

* Too bad Albert Brooks wasn’t nominated for Drive, but it’s really no big letdown. He was good in a great film, but whatever.

* People are really upset about Drive not getting more than a single sound award. Wake up! Drive was never going to be a contender. It’s far too obtuse for Academy voters.

* Rango should win Best Animated Feature. And it’s the first time in a long time Pixar has been shut out.

* A Separation is the Best Foreign Language winner. No question about it.


Saturday, January 21, 2012


HAYWIRE: Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas (93 min.)

Steven Soderbergh has more fun leaping in between genres than any other director around.  From big budget heist films, to small experimental films, to social dramas, to remakes and tales small and large in science fiction and reality, Soderbergh is an auteur who cannot be pidgeonholed.  His latest venture, Haywire, stars an actress with no formal acting experience.  She is Gina Carano, a retired Mixed Martial Arts superstar who Soderbergh saw perform one night and pursued her for the role.  With the physicality of such a role you can see why Soderbergh wanted her for the demanding part.  It doesn't hurt that Carano is quite beautiful, and can act just enough to carry a film like Haywire, which skirts a fine line between substance and hollowness. Unfortunately, falls on the side of the latter too often to be memorable, despite an amazing cast.

The plot is all too familiar: Carano is Mallory Kane, one of those super secret operatives for one of those fringe government contracting companies where big deals are made and people are "extracted" or "taken care of."  You know the ones, just scan the history of these genre pictures and you will see two dozen secret agencies like this one.  Mallory is the best in the business, a smooth and incredibly athletic killing machine.  Which is what we see her do most.  The film opens with Mallory defending herself against Aaron (Channing Tatum, taking the time to use facial expressions for once), another agent who was with her in Barcelona where something apparently went wrong.  She escapes Aaron's initial attack and while on the run she delivers the details of her story to the passenger of the car she snagged (Michael Angarano).  There was the job in Barcelona, then the job in Ireland where she was double crossed by another agent (Michale Fassbender) and her boss and former lover, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor).  Another fight breaks out between Mallory and Fassbender's character, Paul, in a hotel room.  These fight sequences are the highlight of the picture as Soderbergh allows them to unfold organically without any background score or accentuated punching noises.

These fight scenes also show Carano's ability to take some heavy hitting.  She is a physical specimen who seems to be able to handle any of the men who come at her.  Mallory works her way back to Kenneth and tries to figure out who is behind the double cross.  Is it Kenneth alone?  Or could it be the shady government contact played by Michael Douglas?  Perhaps it is the Hispanic big wig without a past - or much of a present - played by Antonio Banderas.  The only person Mallory can trust is her father, played by Bill Paxton.  This is an impressive cast, one of the best ensembles I can remember, but these players are given so very little to do.  Aside from Fassbender and McGregor, these satellite roles could have been played by anyone and it would not have mattered. 

The solution to the plot doesn't really matter, and the person behind the conspiracy is a little bit of a letdown because he is the character who has said the least and been on screen the fewest.  And, thanks to the Economy of Characters theory where there are no unnecessary characters in any given narrative, once the story reaches the end of the third act the person responsible is pretty much the only one left.  Now I have been a little hard on Haywire, I know, because I expect so much more from any Soderbergh picture.  But through all the faults of the film I do think it is entertaining and it moves at a brisk clip.  Carano is the female answer to Jason Statham, and she can throw her athletic frame around with just about anybody in my opinion.  I just wanted something more than a hollow shell of an action film.  Let's get to know Mallory a little more, or maybe the villains a little more.  Flesh this picture out and give it some heft, and you might have something memorable here.  As it is, however, I don't think I will remember it much.


Friday, January 20, 2012

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: John Singleton, Movie Character Names, and New Releases

* I just realized, John Singleton directed the Taylor Lautner disaster Abduction. John Singleton?!? This guy directed Boyz in Tha Hood

* I guess John Singleton “the director of Higher Learning” makes sense compared to Abduction. Higher Learning is a terrible, heavy-handed, obvious, cliché-laden movie.

* I think Denzel Washington gets bored and agrees to do generic action films like Safe House in his spare time. Either that or he has a beach house he’s looking to pay off.

* Denzel’s name in Safe House is Tobin Frost? Really? That’s worse than Cameron Poe. Nobody in the universe is legitimately named Tobin Frost.

* Nicolas Cage, aside from having the most insane list of roles in his life, has had the most unrealistic character names. Look at this list: Memphis Raines, Cameron Poe, Balthazar Blake, Yuri Orlov, Castor Troy, Dr. Stanley Goodspeed, Sailor Ripley, H.I. McDunnough… It is an astounding list of quirky names.

* A lot of people think Johnny Utah, Keanu Reeves’ character from Point Break, is a bad character name. I happen to think it is one of the best, right up there with Han Solo and Vito Corleone.

* Red Tails will be the biggest disaster of the year. It kills me when period films use modern music in their trailers, like Red Tails and their use of Dubstep or somebody in the TV spots. Terrible.

* Man on a Ledge? More like… Meh on a Ledge. Sam Worthington has proven to me to have very little as a box-office draw. Or talent.

* If you want a successful January action film, either hire Liam Neeson (The Grey) or get a great director like Steven Soderbergh to direct it (Haywire).

Thursday, January 19, 2012

DVD REVIEW: The Ides of March

George Clooney has a story to tell in The Ides of March, one many may not care to hear. It is about the jaded and cynical world of American politics, where the only thing accomplished these days is double crossing, controversy, scandal, and the sacrifice of morals and values in order to win at any cost. This is the direction many in America are beginning to take as they grow weary of political posturing and smear campaigns in favor of pushing forward with real ideas on how to fix the country, and the characters here represent various levels of cynicism. From the idealist to the morally bankrupt, The Ides of March displays a myriad of players, none of whom arrive on the scene without their own agenda. All of this is framed in a tightly wound drama with a wonderfully metaphorical camera and just enough elements of a thriller to propel the narrative.

The hero of our story is Stephen Meyers, a young campaign assistant played by Ryan Gosling. Stephen works on the campaign of Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (Clooney), and Stephen believes in Morris’ words. He has faith in the ideas Morris has for the country and is firmly in his corner. Morris’ campaign manager is Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a campaign vet whose seen just about everything and is much more jaded to the proceedings. Paul’s adversary, working for the other Governor in the Democratic primary, is Tom Duffy (Paul GIamatti), and is cut from the same cloth. These two seasoned veterans have seen so much more than Stephen and understand that a campaign is not about ideas. It’s about the ability to double cross and manipulate.

The battleground is the Ohio primary, where Morris and the opposing governor from Arkansas jockey for position. Stephen feels like Morris has a grasp on the state, but Paul is less certain. Paul wants them to cut their losses and move on. It is about this time Stephen starts a fling with Molly, a bright young intern on the campaign played by Evan Rachel Wood. Stephen and Molly’s scenes are well written, charming, and we soon discover Molly has just as many skeletons in her closet as everyone else. Without giving away much, I will say Stephen becomes compromised as he is pulled in every imaginable direction by Morris, Molly, and Tom Duffy, who reaches out to him with a chance to switch sides and “work for the eventual winner.”

I cannot imagine a better cast for this picture. Ryan Gosling is arguably the finest new movie star in Hollywood, able to move in and out of any role while keeping the traits and energy that make him who he is as a bankable asset. Hoffman and Giamatti never share the screen, but these are two actors whose career and daringness appear to mirror one another. They each get their monologue moments as they lay out the cynical world of political campaigning. Clooney as Morris is not much more than a chess piece for the men who run the show; there is a telling scene early on where Morris is forced to make a decision between standing for what he believes in or accepting the endorsement of a Senator he disagrees with in order to win. It shows how bleak the American political process is when the division between morals and victory is defined. Add in Marisa Tomei as a plucky reporter looking for a scoop, and The Ides of March is a lineup of wonderful and convincing performances from some of the best talent Hollywood has to offer.

Clooney directs The Ides of March not as an epic, but at a briskly paced political drama. Yet he still takes his time, allowing his camera to tell a story on top of the narrative. His use of light and shadow, and a wonderful utilization of a giant American flag at one point, tell me that Clooney has paid attention to the directors of the past. There are any number of beautiful and telling shots here, and the opening credit sequence is a clear throwback to the political thrillers which littered the landscape of seventies cinema. The Ides of March may have a cynical heart, but I fear it is simply telling us all the truth. And maybe we don’t want to hear that right now.


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

OSCAR PREDICTIONS 2012: Best Picture

There are but a few sure things in this world from year to year, and this year’s first certainty is the The Artist will be one of the five-to-ten Best Picture nominees. Here is your frontrunner for Best Picture, an art-house picture with a full head of steam heading into the Oscars and a handful of Golden Globes in its back pocket. Hot on the heels of The Artist, lying in the weeds waiting to steal the statue, is Alexander Payne’s family drama The Descendants. I may have issues with The Artist being the leader in the clubhouse, but I have a real problem with Payne’s film sitting in a close second. There are a dozen better pictures out there this year. Alas, it is not my decision, and I can see no way The Descendants is left off the ballot.

And what of this new format for Best Picture where the number of nominees can vary anywhere from five to ten films based on the number of first-place votes? Some reject the idea, but to me it seems the most logical. Sometimes there are only five films, but rarely are there ten deserving of Best Picture status. These last few years – a reaction to The Dark Knight arguably being the sixth film left out on Awards night in 2008 – The Academy opted to have a solid ten nominees. That allowed films like District 9 and The Blind Side to call themselves Best Picture hopefuls. This is the only logical response to a fluctuating medium of quality from year to year. I suppose the best way to try and predict, then, is to list from 1 to 10 the films I think have a chance at a nomination.

Numbers one and two are, respectively, The Artist and The Descendants. After that, it’s anybody’s guess as to who is in and who is out. There is a set number of films with a shot, but only eight possible slots left. I am fairly certain the big crowd pleaser of the year, The Help, will grab a nomination. Alongside The Help will be Hugo, one of the most beautiful films of the year which also happens to have the prestige of one Martin Scorsese in its corner. And I don’t see any way the Academy can ignore The Tree of Life. This is too big a film, too ambitious to be overlooked. This fills out the minimum five slots, but I have a feeling there will be more than just the minimum because of the strong year.

Midnight in Paris should get a spot for many of the same reasons Hugo should. Woody Allen is Hollywood royalty, and he has made a wonderfully charming picture that deserves recognition. And there is Moneyball, the rare sports film handles with class and delivered with prestige. It also happens to be solid entertainment. After Moneyball, however, the field thins considerably. I can see the nominee list stopping at seven. But if the field expands to ten, these final three slots could go in any order of Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and a whole bevy of films at ten. For the sake of argument, let’s put the comedy sensation Bridesmaids here. If there is to be ten slots, I fully expect a recognizable crowd pleaser with a broad reach to fill out the category and draw in bigger numbers on February 26. That leaves small pictures like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Drive, Melancholia, and The Ides of March out in the cold. Though I wouldn’t expect any of those aforementioned outsiders to have much of a chance either way.

1. The Artist
2. The Descendants
3. The Help
4. Hugo
5. The Tree of Life
6. Midnight in Paris
7. Moneyball (and this is where I see the cutoff)
8. War Horse
9. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
10. Bridesmaids

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

OSCAR PREDICTIONS 2012: Best Director

The two sure bets this year in the Best Director category could not be more diverse. The first one is enjoying his first taste of fame, and is an unknown in the world of the Academy. The second is an American treasure, a legendary filmmaker we have come to love for the past forty years. Michel Hazanavicius is the auteur behind The Artist, this season’s breakout favorite to take home a bevy of nominations and awards. The silent film surely took a deft touch behind the camera, and the French director Hazanavicius has done a job deserving of his first nomination. And then there is Martin Scorsese, a long time favorite of the Academy who won his first (and incredibly delayed) statue in 2006 for The Departed. Scorsese’s film, Hugo, is another picture sure to grab several nominations, and Scorsese is a definite lock here.

The next three slots are wide open. Woody Allen, who this year released his best film in decades with Midnight in Paris, has an excellent chance at nabbing this third slot. Allen has found new inspiration filming in Europe, and Midnight in Paris is the summation of his romantic eye for the city and the country. Next in line is Alexander Payne for The Descendants. Payne’s film is another favorite to win Best Picture, so his nomination in this category is the next best thing to a lock. Payne does a great job balancing the family narrative in The Descendants although I don’t see what is so wonderful or unforgettable about the film to be honest.

And here we are, once again, at the fifth slot. And like the acting categories, we have a list of hopeful directors. David Fincher has an outside shot for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, about as much as Steven Spielberg does for War Horse. But a bit of backlash towards both these films hinders their chances. Tate Taylor has the crowd-pleaser card in his corner with The Help. Bennett Miller has the advantage of his film, Moneyball, being both a crowd pleaser and a wonderful film. But if the Academy wants to take this category seriously, and I like to think they do, then this fifth and final slot belongs to Terrence Malick. The Tree of Life is the most ambitious film of the year, one of the most ambitious works in the history of film. Malick won’t win, but he should at least pick up a nomination. That is, if the Academy wants to take themselves seriously.

Michel Hazanavicius - The Artist
Martin Scorsese - Hugo
Woody Allen - Midnight in Paris
Alexander Payne - The Descendants
Terrence Malick - The Tree of Life

Monday, January 16, 2012

Looking back at the GOLDEN GLOBES

* After last night, it looks like the two frontrunners to win Best Picture this year will be The Artist and The Descendants. I am not a fan of this. I did put The Artist in my top ten, but down at sixth right where I think it belongs. There are a handful of films quite a bit better than The Artist.

* The Artist is a film that will not stand the test of time I fear. Much like Chicago or A Beautiful Mind, its quality doesn’t seem to have staying power. I sit here and say all this but I assure you, I think it deserves nominations. It is good. Great? Not quite.

* Jean Dujardin accepting his award kind of ruins the surprise of The Artist, doesn’t it?

* On to The Descendants. I can see the love for The Artist, but for the life of me I see nothing in The Descendants worth so much acclaim. It’s a nice movie, but frivolous and forgettable. I just do not see what is so great about it.

* There is no universe where George Clooney gives a better performance than Michael Fassbender in Shame. Completely incorrect.

* Clooney is still the best movie star out there though. Walking out with the cane to poke fun at Brad Pitt was great.

* Ricky Gervais was pretty solid. I thought he kept things under control last night but was still just the right amount of offensive.

* Christopher Plummer – “to my wife, whose beauty and bravery haunts me still.” What an awesome line. I hope either Plummer wins the Oscar, or it’s Albert Brooks for Drive. Right now, Plummer looks like the leader in the clubhouse.

* Seth Rogen, regarding Kate Beckinsale, his walk-out partner – “I am trying to hide a massive erection.” Line of the night.

* Nice seeing Jeremy Irons out there last night. It’s been a long time.

* Nice try at making a joke Gerard Butler, but nobody really cares about you.

* I am sorry, I love Kate Winslet – and Guy Pearce for that matter – but Mildred Pierce is unbearably dull.

* I never really have an opinion about the TV winners. I feel like they care even less than the film crowd about these wins. They want Emmys.

* The Lifetime Achievement Award to Morgan Freeman was a fantastic moment in the broadcast. Freeman is so prolific, it’s easy to sometimes forget how brilliant he usually is in his roles.

* Congrats Martin Scorsese. Everything you win, you deserve.

Friday, January 13, 2012

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Golden Globe Thoughts, January Releases, and Director Style Concerns

* The Golden Globes are the most fun of all the ceremonies. But the award doesn’t really mean much. It’s very odd, because it isn’t necessarily a clue to the Academy Award nominations or a prestigious award on its own. But still, they do it right. It’s light and loose and Ricky Gervais should be great again.

* I think the Golden Globes need to update their statue. It’s very drab and cumbersome and old fashioned.

* Just the thought of Contraband makes me drowsy. To be in such good shape, Mark Wahlberg really is lazy sometimes.

* Thinking about Joyful Noise completes the task… Right into a movie coma for me.

* Laziness in Hollywood is hitting a new high these days. Now, instead of remaking or rebooting, studios have decided on regurgitating their classics. Beauty and the Beast is back, but look it’s in 3D… This will be the most unnecessary thing until April when Titanic returns in 3D.

* The “community” (which I will now use to encompass movie-related twitter folks, websites, and the like) is abuzz with the new Wes Anderson trailer, Moonrise Kingdom. It looks wonderful, but that doesn’t always make it so with Anderson.

* It’s hard sometimes for directors to keep originality afloat in their films when they have a very specific style and technique and aesthetic directive. Every quirk and signature grows stale. The most obvious case of this is Tim Burton, whose career has been on a continuous loop of Goth remakes now for a decade. This fate could be in front of Wes Anderson, I fear. Directors need a signature style, but they have to diversify within their comfort zone to keep things fresh.

* Look at Scorsese for instance; deliberate style, uniqueness in his films.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

THURSDAY THROWBACK: The Night of The Hunter (1955)

The Night of The Hunter is an exercise in the purity of filmmaking. It is a seamless, beautiful American picture, a taut thriller, full of artistic expression and wonderful performances and moments of striking beauty. But it is often overlooked much like its star, Robert Mitchum, who never received the accolades of his peers like Cary Grant. Mitchum was, often times, the anti-hero in Hollywood who made his career in film noir playing the villain. He was rough around the edges and never carried with him that polished sheen of Grant or someone like William Holden. And yet, here he is in his finest film role playing an enthusiastic man of God, a slick pastor who uses his religion as a mask to disguise his wickedness.

Mitchum plays Pastor Harry Powell, a man who might quote the scripture as he is committing a murder. And after his crime, he might have a conversation with God about why he had to do what he did. This is where we meet him anyway, driving a stolen car speaking to the sky, telling God his reasons for his sin. Before long, the pastor is arrested and sentenced to 30 days in jail for stealing the car. In prison he shares a cell with Ben Harper (Peter Graves), a father and husband destroyed by the depression who kills a man and is condemned to death. Before he was arrested, however, Harper stashed away $10,000 where only his young son and daughter know the location. Pastor Harry gets wind of this and decides to pay Harper’s family a visit once he gets out of prison.

Ben Harper’s family lives in a river town that looks like the inspiration for those Hallmark Holiday village collections. Pastor Harry romances the widow of Ben Harper, Willa, played by Shelley Winters as a tightly-wound window teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Before long, Pastor Harry has married Willa and begun his extended interrogation of the children, John and Pearl, who refuse to tell him the whereabouts of the cash. Pastor Harry’s inquiries start slowly, but they build and intensify. It is no spoiler to say that Pastor Harry kills Willa by drowning her in the river that runs alongside the town, because the reveal of her death is the most memorable shot in the entire picture. The death of Willa sends the children fleeing in a wooden boat, down the river with Pastor Harry tracking them on the banks of the river.

This journey down the river adopts a dreamlike state that has permeated every scene in The Night of The Hunter. Here, the dream takes over, as spider webs and toads and rabbits appear in the foreground like monsters, dwarfing the children in the boat. They eventually make it to the next town and are taken in by Miss Cooper (Lillian Gish) who runs an orphanage of sorts and is a stern, loving mother figure. Gish takes on the Pastor as he arrives in town and tries to work his way into this extended family much like he did with Willa and the children. Mitchum’s Max Cady from Cape Fear began creeping into my head as Pastor Harry tries to smooth talk his way into the family by approaching the eldest of the children under the eye of Miss Cooper.

The Night of The Hunter is a straightforward tale delivered with flashes of brilliance in the cinematography and art direction. The sharp angles and oppressive nature of the house where Willa and the Harper children live creates a certain horror element, and Mitchum’s pastor is the perfect villain for this created world. The knuckles of his hands, the right reading L-O-V-E and the left reading H-A-T-E, have been immortalized by anything from Bruce Springsteen to Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. As the children fall deeper into the nightmare hold of Pastor Harry, so the elements of the narrative grow more extraordinary until they come out of it on the other end of the river. Where things feel safe again under the watchful eye of Miss Cooper. Her faith is stronger inside than anything the Pastor may offer through lies and deception.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

OSCAR PREDICTIONS 2012: Best Actor and Actress


In my opinion, the Best Actress race has four locks and another five hopefuls looking to steal that fifth slot. But there are no frontrunners for the win that I can see from this distance. Of the four locks, three of the names are arguably the most familiar of faces. The least familiar of the locks will be Viola Davis, a sure nominee for her role as Aibileen Clark in The Help. Davis deserves recognition, and her strong performance is the real anchor in the film. Michelle Williams, seemingly nominated for an Oscar annually these days, will pick up a nomination for playing Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn. I am not quite sure if it’s her year to win, but if she keeps accumulating these nominations her time will surely come soon.

Of course, most years you don’t get far from the Best Actress pool before you find Meryl Streep. Streep will undoubtedly get a nomination for her role as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, but the weakness of the overall film will keep her from winning; same thing goes for a Best Actor hopeful we’ll get into later. Rounding out the four surefire nominees is Tilda Swinton, a regular these days much like Michelle Williams (though Swinton did break through a few years ago with a win for Michael Clayton). Swinton stars as Eve, the troubled mother who is the focus of a disturbed son in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Swinton is a strong actress, and might very well be the frontrunner at this point.

And now we have a handful of hopefuls with only one slot left. Longshots include Charlize Theron for Young Adult, Elizabeth Olsen for Martha Marcy May Marlene, and Kirsten Dunst for Melancholia (though I wish Dunst had better than an outside chance because she is captivating in the role). Any of these three women would be a surprise nomination. This final slot appears to be a fight between a rookie and a seasoned vet. Rooney Mara may very well grab the fifth nomination for nailing down her role as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. But I do think she will be edged out by cagey nominee vet Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs. It’s astounding Close has never won – she was nominated four times in five years in the 80s – and I think the Academy might sneak her in.

Viola Davis – The Help
Michelle Williams – My Week With Marilyn
Meryl Streep – The Iron Lady
Tilda Swinton – We Need to Talk About Kevin
Glenn Close – Albert Nobbs


If there is ever a category where we get the winner and everyone else, it is the Best Actor category. Daniel Day-Lewis, Jamie Foxx, Colin Firth… most of the time the statue is all but decided by the time the nominations are released. I don’t see anyone head and shoulders above the pack this year. If anyone is like that at this point in the process I would point to George Clooney for The Descendants. Clooney is an Academy darling, and his role as Matt King, the conflicted father and businessman in Alexander Payne’s family drama has gotten the most publicity thus far. I don’t think he deserves to win the Oscar, but that’s for another day.

Clooney’s good buddy Brad Pitt seems to be a sure bet now, playing Billy Beane in the crowd-pleasing Moneyball. Having recently seen Moneyball a second time, I firmly endorse Pitt as a nominee. The Pitt-Clooney dynamic is sure to draw in the bigger ratings, something the Academy struggles to find year in and year out. But for my money, it is Michael Fassbender, the rising star in the field, who deserves both the nomination and the win for Shame. Fassbender exploded on the scene this year with a handful of diverse roles. And as Brandon, a man crippled by his sex addiction and shut off from any true human contact, Fassbender dominates a tough film with a compelling and inwardly dominating performance.

Much like Meryl Streep in the Best Actress field, Leonardo Dicaprio will find himself with a nomination for playing the title role in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar. But the mediocrity of the film will keep him seated when the winner was announced. I had high hopes for Leo this year; I thought J. Edgar would finally get him the statue he deserves. Alas, the film was a letdown. There is decidedly less mystery revolving around the fifth and final spot here. Gary Oldman has a shot for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, as does Michael Shannon for Take Shelter. But I am certain Jean Dujardin will get the fifth spot for playing silent film star George Valentin in The Artist. This is the film with the most momentum at this point, so he seems to be a safe bet for filling out the Best Actor category.

George Clooney – The Descendants
Brad Pitt – Moneyball
Michael Fassbender – Shame
Leonardo Dicaprio – J. Edgar
Jean Dujardin – The Artist