Monday, January 28, 2013

The Impossible



THE IMPOSSIBLE: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, directed by Juan Antonio Bayona (114 min.)

The tsunami that hit the coast of Thailand and managed to make its way all the way to Coastal Africa is one of the deadliest natural disasters in history. The 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit in the middle of the Indian Ocean, sending a devastating tidal wave to Southeast Asia, killing over 280,000 unsuspecting civilians, locals and tourists alike. The Impossible tells the story of one family amid the chaotic events of late December 2004, when all seemed lost. Had I waited a week longer to make my top ten list for 2012 I would have definitely recognized The Impossible as one of the ten best of the year. It is a savage and unflinching film about tragedy, but a beautiful examination of human kindness with heart-wrenching performances not only from Oscar nominee Naomi Watts, but from everyone involved.

The events surrounding the family in the film are entirely true, and almost unbelievable. Almost. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor play Maria and Henry, and as we open they are traveling from Japan (where Henry works) to Thailand, vacationing with their three young boys off the coast for Christmas. Their family is not unfamiliar, with a pre-teen son, two much younger sons, and a general comfort with their life and work. Things seem fine for a few days as they celebrate Christmas in their resort and spend their days in the lush pools Oceanside. But the day after Christmas their lives, and the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians, would forever be changed.

The tsunami comes without much warning, save for a few fleeing birds and a rumble of the oncoming wave. It is fierce and violent and the ferocity of the waves can be felt through the screen as people are thrown to the ground and washed away and buildings and trees are destroyed in a roar of the angry ocean. The tsunami effects are startlingly realistic here, and the result is breathtaking. Maria watches as Henry and the two youngest boys are taken under by the wave before she is pummeled and fights to come up for air. She finds herself being swept along in a river of debris and broken trees that all feel and seem as dangerous as they must have been. Maria spots her oldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland) clinging for life and the two eventually find each other in the chaos.

The rest of the film deals with issues upon issues amid a myriad of confusion and disaster. Maria and Lucas sludge through the aftermath, struggling to find higher ground. But Maria is badly wounded and needs help. Meanwhile we discover Henry searching for them back at the resort, which now in shambles. The desperation of the situation resonates in the performances, and the impact of the tsunami goes beyond just this family and it takes a broader look at the carnage.

Maria and Lucas find help and are carted away to the hospital where Maria coaxes her son into trying to help people. Afraid to leave is mother, Lucas nevertheless obliges and finds great joy working to connect loved ones with one another. Naomi Watts is a force on the screen, her toughness shining through every scene as she struggles to stay alive and keep her son safe. But we cannot overlook the performance of young Tom Holland here, playing the older son Lucas. Holland is for all intents and purposes the lead in The Impossible, and the transformation he goes through from self-centered pre-teen to a young boy with a new view on humanity and life is a revelation.

Some have discredited The Impossible for focusing on a white family in a disaster which took many more lives of Thai locals. But this is one story in the orbit of a tragedy, and the local citizens are never minimized or ignored. This is a film about human will, about kindness, and about the small things we do in a moment of crisis which unites us as a race. It is easily one of the ten best films of the year.

A

Thursday, January 24, 2013

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Fargo (1996)

To think this story is true boggles the mind.  But at the same time that isn't the most important aspect of the film.  The opening title card informs us that this is all firmly based in fact, only the names have been changed to protect those close to the events.  But it doesn't matter, because once we become pulled into the universe of Fargo, truth becomes unimportant.  I don't think I needed the title card in the beginning, but it's there and it's fine.  Having the title card doesn't take away from what Fargo is, and that is a masterpiece.

Perhaps the most endearing quality of the writing/directing siblings Joel and Ethan Coen is their ability to create an entire universe of characters just a slight bit off center.  They have quirks and ticks, but they are firm realizations in their surroundings.  Nobody ever seems miscast or out of place in a Coen Brothers film.  In Fargo, The Coen Brothers take us into a world which is simultaneously unusual and ordinary, depending on your location.  The folks of these Northern towns have their own dialogue and slang and a strong sense of politeness which serves almost as an additional character.  Where better than to place a tale of murder, deception, greed, desperation, and pure idiocy, than in one of the most polite and welcoming regions of the country?

The plan seems simple: Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy, redefining the "louse" in cinema) is in need of some cash fast.  He hires two men to kidnap his wife and demand a ransom which will be paid by Jerry's wealthy father-in-law.  Jerry tells the two men the ransom will be $80,000 and he will split the cash.  Little do these two men know Jerry will tell his father-in-law, Wade, the kidnappers are demanding a million.  Seems Jerry's previous shady dealings have put him in a desperate place.  The two men, Carl and Gaear, are played by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormaire as one of the most brilliantly absurd odd couples in film history.  Carl is chatty, nervous and, well, Steve Buscemi.  Gaear is quiet, stern and, as it turns out, a psychopath.  Of course the kidnapping is clumsy and the aftermath brings about one problem after another.  There is a triple murder which brings into play the most important character in the film.

Marge Gunderson is the Sheriff in Brainerd, home of Paul Bunyan where the triple homicide occurred.  Played by Frances McDormand, who would go on to win the Oscar for Best Actress, Marge is a sharp investigator, outsmarting her less-than-competent deputy at the murder scene.  She also happens to be six or seven months pregnant, adding a subtle layer to her character.  Marge is the moral center of a film loaded with amoral characters, crooks and thieves and weasels.  Without her centering force in the film, Fargo may have devolved into a seedy crime flick with nobody to root for.  As it is, however, the film is a charmer even during its most violent moments thanks to Marge's insistent likability.

Fargo is essentially split into two narratives with threads connecting them.  There is the story of Carl and Gaear and the kidnapped wife, and there is Marge's investigation which leads her eventually to Jerry Lundegaard, who slowly unravels as the story progresses and more and more things go wrong.  The third act shows everything unraveling surrounding the kidnapping and Marge getting closer and closer to her answer.  What is so unique, then, about Fargo, is the universe created by the Coens.  It isn't simply a gimmick either, the creation of these loopy dialects and chipper personas.  The whole vibe created by the characters show a land snowbound, but happy.  To think anyone up here could murder anyone else seems shocking to the police and townsfolk in North Dakota. 

The politeness is also important in Marge's investigation, as a chance meeting one night with an old highschool friend, Ken, changes her opinion of Jerry Lundegaard.  Ken lies to Marge about a dead wife, and his deception shakes Marge's preconceived notion that perhaps Jerry isn't being as truthful as she initially thought.  It took a while to figure out where Marge's meeting with Ken fit, but the effectiveness is in Marge's eyes as she hears Ken's story was a sham.  The angle of politeness hides what is lurking in the dark hearts of some of these characters, and is a brilliant addition to the story.

Fargo was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and it would win one for Best Actress and Original Screenplay for Joel and Ethan Coen.  I would argue that Roger Deakins was robbed of a cinematography statue as well, as his stark and broad canvas of a snowbound Northern land is beautiful and at times very ominous.  Unfortunately, Fargo would lose Best Picture to The English Patient, a decision I would argue was incorrect, especially with the advantage of hindsight.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

MY TOP TEN OF 2012, And the Theme of Moving Forward

Scanning my list of my favorite films of the year, I see an overlying theme of moving forward, closing books on the past rather than looking back into them.  I notice themes of moving on, of breaking free of imprisonment, and of closure.  This theme is prevalent in at least eight of these films, with an outlier and another one with a different outlook on closure and salvation.  Regardless, I find myself more pleased with 2012 than I have been since maybe 2007.  There are some lasting films in here.


10) The Master - Do I feel a certain obligation to put Paul Thomas Anderson's latest on my list?  Perhaps.  But I think the larger reason it at least deserves to be acknowledged here is that is a fascinating, hypnotic movie that I don't quite understand yet.  It is enveloped in a sort of overwhelming opaqueness and mystery that must be looked at further.  What is obvious on the screen, however, are three great performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, and an underrated turn from Amy Adams who channels Lady Macbeth with chilling ease here.



9) Django Unchained - Quentin Tarantino's Spaghetti Slavery extravaganza has so many brilliant moments and so many stellar performances.  Django Unchained also has a handful of warts unfamiliar to QT's work.  It may be a bit uneven at times, and it may suffer from not enough time in the editing room.  But it seems like this could be a Tarantino film needs to grow and mature before it can be properly placed in his resume.  The job done by Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio - who, once again, is overlooked by the Academy - energize the picture and carry it through its low points.



 8) Cloud Atlas - Easily the most maligned and divisive picture of this year (this side of Ridley Scott's Prometheus), Cloud Atlas seemed to greatly polarize the masses and critics alike.  Some critics sited it as the worst of the year, which is utterly ridiculous.  I understand not liking it, what I don't understand is overlooking a million other films from 2012 staggeringly worse.  Cloud Atlas is beautiful and ambitious, and is some of the best work from Tom Hanks and Halle Berry in a long while.  And we mustn't overlook Jim Broadbent, dominating his multiple roles with energy and wit.  This is one that will take a while to digest as well.


7) The Grey - Remember way back, in January 2012, and the annual dumping ground for studios in Hollywood.  Except for the annual Liam Neeson winter release.  A couple of these Neeson releases (Unknown, Taken 2) went belly up, but The Grey is easily one of Neeson's best performances, right up there with Oskar Schindler.  Joe Carnahan's film is about fighting against the elements, but takes a much bleaker approach to its finale than most of the other pictures here.  Don't focus on CGI here, take a closer look at the relationships and performances, all top notch.


6) Killer Joe - This one is the aforementioned outlier of the bunch if you ask me.  Many of these films have deeper meaning inside their stories.  Not Killer Joe.  This is a piece of fascinating and outrageous pulp fiction with a performance from Matthew McConaughey I wasn't sure he still had hiding in him anymore.  It is like the most beautiful painting you will ever see... of Dogs Playing Poker.  The seediness and the depravity of the characters, from McConaughey on down to Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon - and a brilliant turn from young Juno Temple - inject the insanity with such brilliant humor and life.  Proof that William Friedkin still has his fastball.


5) Flight - If any film on this list succeeds through the power of its leading performance, it would have to be Flight.  Robert Zemeckis' return to live-action film making also revisits the themes in his 2000 film Cast Away.  And both films rely heavily on their leads.  Denzel Washington as the alcoholic, yet heroic, airline pilot is some of Washington's greatest work, most certainly his best in a decade.  Around Washington is the emotion and the depth and, of course, the energy in Zemeckis' direction.  With solid supporting roles from John Goodman, Bruce Greenwood, and a wonderful performance by Kelly Reilly, Flight is a film which has grown on me and lingered since I saw it.


4) Skyfall - I wasn't sure about Sam Mendes taking over as the new Bond action director.  Mendes' films are much more dramatic and morose than a Bond flick, and dramatic director Marc Forster was none too successful with Quantum of Solace.  But Mendes showed something I wanted to know in Skyfall; he can direct anything, any time.  Mendes adds maturity and style and, along with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, some of the most beautiful scenes in all of Bond lore.  And the third act is a stroke of genius in the picture, stripping away the facade of Bond for a more primeval brawl with Javier Bardem, one of the best of all Bond villains.


3) Life of Pi - Ang Lee has to be one of the more thoughtful and soulful directors working today.  This is the man, who, after all, transformed The Incredible Hulk into a cerebral existentialist narrative.  Life of Pi tackles faith and religion in the core of its story, and more than this it's the way this story is told with such amazing beauty.  It is a gorgeous film, a thrilling visual experience, complete with a cast of engaging characters and some seamless CGI.  Some of the themes may alienate viewers, but I encourage everyone to see for themselves and make their own conclusions.


2) Zero Dark Thirty - Controversy aside, let us look at Zero Dark Thirty for what it is, a procedural military thriller based on truths from the most infamous manhunt in history.  As this and this alone, you would be hard-pressed to find a film comparable in suspense and tension and captivating action.  Comparing this to Kathryn Bigelow's other Oscar heavy hitter, The Hurt Locker, would be a mistake two, like holding The Deer Hunter up against Platoon and comparing them.  Zero Dark Thirty is its own vision with its own brilliant story and a fantastic performance form Jessica Chastain, who will be tough to beat on Oscar night.


1) Silver Linings Playbook - If anyone is to challenge Jessica Chastain for Best Actress, it is here and it is Jennifer Lawrence.  Lawrence plays merely a part of an ensemble cast firing on all cylinders in David O. Russell's domestic dramedy.  Alongside Bradley Cooper and supported by Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver (all who were nominated as well), Silver Linings is an honest film about moving forward, and is painted not with the traditional rom-com brush but with its own, unique brush.  I am holding out hope that Silver Linings Playbook could end up surprising the masses on Oscar night, like certain films tend to do once in a while.


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty


ZERO DARK THIRTY: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, directed by Kathryn Bigelow (157 min.)

The following is based on first-hand accounts of true events.  This is what the opening title card of Zero Dark Thirty tells us; something along those lines I should say.  I don't concern myself much with nitpicking truths and controversies with the film to be honest.  Sure, certain things may have been embellished for the sake of dramatic effect, but maybe my optimism assures me most of the pieces in place are based in fact.  I don't imagine any large fictional leaps made in order to dramatize a story that is as dramatic and compelling as anything in modern American History.  World History to be more specific.  Zero Dark Thirty is telling the story of the World's most legendary manhunt, and it lives up to its source material.  This is an excellent film from start to finish.

We begin with a black-screen reference to 9/11, and we launch immediately into the search for Osama bin Laden.  We meet Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA operative, young and eager and determined to find and kill bin Laden.  She comes in as an observer first, standing by watching physical and mental torture of detainees by Dan (Jason Clarke, in a standout performance), as he employs all of those controversial methods in order to get an answer.  Water-boarding takes front and center early on and, politics aside, these are moments which pulled me into the severity of the narrative.  They set the tone and set the stakes for what is to come.

We all know the direction the manhunt went over the course of a decade, which is a tricky dance for director Kathryn Bigelow.  Some of the suspense could have been zapped in the hands of a lesser director, but Bigelow keeps us engaged.  As moments unfold over the years, even the more novice news historian can keep up through the CIA jargon and keep up with the investigation.  Moments like the 2005 London bus bombing and the bomb in Times Square in 2010 are highlighted to create a thread which drives the film forward over ten years.  The entire time it is Maya pursuing her target with unflinching determination and the advantage of a fresh approach.

It is Maya who pushes back at conventional thinking regarding the whereabouts of bin Laden.  Why would he be in the mountains, in a cave?  Is there the possibility he may be hiding in plain sight in the middle of town?  She thinks so, and she fights against her superiors, all men, including Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), the CIA director in the Middle East who thinks she is nuts.  Later she must convince the CIA Director played by James Gandolfini, and she takes on the challenges with the same determination she has carried with her throughout the manhunt.  The most compelling aspect of the story itself is how just one opposing opinion changed the entire game.  Maya's insistence is what got the ball rolling and got Seal Team 6 involved.

The offensive on the compound in Pakistan is the third act of the film, filled out with mostly nameless faces except Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt as Navy SEALs.  The attack is sloppy, but tense and quick.  All of the intensity of the film has led to this, a truly gripping finale to a story in which we all know the ending.  The two hours preceding the attack, the procedural aspect, is equally as gripping as these final moments.  Despite its jnown ending, the film still has some surprises along the way.  Credit Jessica Chastain for most of this; she is going to be tough to overtake on Oscar night it seems, and deservedly so.  Beyond Chastain the supporting performances are even and the pacing brisk for a movie that hits two-and-a-half hours.  And when we get to the end, to the final result, we get a moment with our hero much like the one in Bigelow's The Hurt Locker.  Comparing the two beyond that would be fruitless.

A


Sunday, January 13, 2013

Gangster Squad


GANGSTER SQUAD: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Directed by: Ruben Fleischer (110 min.)

I wish the brain trust behind Gangster Squad wouldn’t have watched so many movies. Then, perhaps, they wouldn’t have been so dead set on trying to squeeze every tired gangster-movie line, look, idea, or result into a two-hour window. Gangster Squad has promise at times, thanks in most part to a staggering cast of wonderful actors and a production design that is sleek and attractive. Everything looks and feels absolutely classy. But, alas, Gangster Squad spent entirely too much time marinating in the cliché factory.

As I said, the attraction here is the all-star cast doing their best to wade through the stale dialogue and telegraphed action. Josh Brolin plays Sergeant John O’Mara, an honest cop in the middle of a corrupt Post World War II Los Angeles. O’Mara has a deep-seeded desire to rub out the encroaching Mob in the form of Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, picking the scenery out of his teeth all the way throughout), a former boxer turned power-hungry gangster with a taste for blood, murder and mayhem. Cohen has a dream to run all of Los Angeles and he is well on his way to doing that with most of the policemen, lawmakers and judges in his back pocket. Any move O’Mara makes on Cohen is undercut by the officials on the Mob’s payroll.

Enter Nick Nolte as the police chief, Parker, a grizzled old vet of the Force who wants Cohen out of town just as much as O’Mara. He gives O’Mara the authority to… wait for it… “assemble a team.” The team will consist of four or five policemen who will go beyond the law to shut down Cohen’s operations all over town. This allows the film to fit in the obligatory assembly montage where O’Mara digs through police files and conjures up characters with one or two defining idiosyncrasies. There is the famous old Cowboy cop, a sharpshooter named Kennard (Robert Patrick), the surveillance guru (Giovanni Ribisi), the token Hispanic cop (Michael Pena, wasted here) and the token African-American cop (Anthony Mackie). Then there is Jerry Wooters, another War veteran who is more jaded with Cohen’s power over the city. Wooters, played by Ryan Gosling, is more concerned with drinking, hitting the night life and chasing “dames.” The one he has his eye on, Grace (Emma Stone) just so happens to be Mickey Cohen’s main squeeze, though she doesn’t want to be. Jerry and Grace have a romance throughout the film, but is luke warm to say the least.

The rest of Gangster Squad unfolds in predictable fashion. If the audience has seen films like The Untouchables (the mob film this one most closely resembles) then they will be one step ahead of the action and will grow increasingly bored as all the suspense is drained from the picture. The actors try, for the most part, to energize the film. But the clichés stack up on each other and the film buckles under the weight of “been there, done that.” Many of these talented actors are given very little interesting to do except for Gosling and Penn. Gosling oozes charm and magnetism, and Penn is really having a good time playing such a boisterous hood.

Gangster Squad is a showcase of art direction and production design, with everything sleek and smooth and golden brown. There may have been a good film in here somewhere had the screenplay gotten as much attention as the sets and the costumes, but the film as a whole doesn’t deliver. As the film neared the end I found myself curious if we had seen every cliché in the gangster genre. And then, a character throws his badge into the ocean and I was certain I had, in fact, seen them all.

C+

Thursday, January 10, 2013

OSCAR NOMINATIONS 2013: Quick hits, Grumblings, Praises


Well, here we are, and like every year at the Oscar nominations there are some surprises both pleasant and unpleasant.  There are snubs, shocking nominations, certain films take a hit, some gain momentum and so on.  These are just a few thoughts I had about the announcements this morning.

* Pencil in Lincoln as the frontrunner at this point, but arguably one of the lesser favorites in several years.  I spot a dark horse.

* This is a nice Best Picture pool.  I don't see any real pretenders like in previous years where Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close or The Blind Side butted in on better pictures.  I don't necessarily love all the nominees, but I respect each of them.

* The most glaring omissions must be Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow for Best Director.  Both their films, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, were considered strong contenders for Best Picture, and both were nominated.  But the directors getting the shaft is not a good sign for their chances now.  I was really hoping for them to get the nod.

* The Best Director category is all over the map, with the outlier being Behn Zeitlin for Beasts of The Southern Wild.  Congrats to him, though I was not impressed with the film overall.

* At least Tom Hooper wasn't nominated for Les Miserables.

* The Master grabbed three acting nominations from Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, but no directing or writing nominations for Paul Thomas Anderson.  Nothing else for The Master for that matter.  And as much as it pains me to say, I am okay with this.  Maybe cinematography and original score could have gone its way.  But The Master is not the best picture of the year, and it is not Anderson's best work.  It is the most interesting film of the year, but much too inaccessible and obtuse.

* Hugh Jackman for Best Actor for Les Mis stole a nomination from John Hawkes for The Sessions, especially since Helen Hunt grabbed a nom.

* Any nomination for Les Miserables this side of Anne Hathaway is undeserving.

* Supporting actor is another mess in my opinion.  Christoph Waltz is fantastic in Django Unchained, but I felt that was Leo DiCaprio's nomination and subsequent win (finally).  I can't grasp what it is about DiCaprio, but the Academy never seems to give him his due.

* Continuing on Supporting Actor, Alan Arkin didn't deserve his nomination for Argo, perhaps McConaughey could have gone there.  But, I must say it pleases me to see one Robert DeNiro back in a nominee pool for his stellar work in Silver Linings Playbook.  Welcome back, Bob.

* The big surprise in Supporting Actress is Jacki Weaver in Silver Linings Playbook.  She had very little screen time and very few lines.  But her surprising nomination leads me to what is the most encouraging aspect of these nominations...

* Lincoln led the field with 13 nominations and Life of Pi is a close second with 11.  Pi will rake in technical awards.  And as I mentioned, I respect Lincoln and I admire its craftsmanship, but it isn't my favorite.  In third place, surprisingly so, is Silver Linings Playbook with 8 nominations.  I am firmly Team Silver Linings.  I absolutely love Silver Linings Playbook.  It is the most engaging, entertaining, emotionally satisfying picture of the year.  I hope it sneaks in and steals the show on Oscar night.

* I feel better, more intrigued, and more engaged with Oscar this year than I have since maybe 2006.  This is a solid field and a nice list of nominees for the most part.  And I think Seth MacFarlane will light up Oscar night with a little youth and a little edgy humor.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

OSCAR PREDICTIONS 2013: Best Picture

There are three to four layers of the Best Picture race this year, and the field is trickier to pick these days since anywhere from five to ten films can be nominated.  There won't be five nominees, there will never be only five again, but there probably won't ever be ten.  I see seven nominees this time around...

PREDICTIONS


The four heavy hitters in the Best Picture category have a nice ring to them: Django, Argo, Zero, Lincoln.  Of all the four frontrunners, Argo has to be the leader in the clubhouse for Best Picture.  Hot on its heels is Spielberg's epic historical drama Lincoln, followed closely by Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's Bin Laden thriller.  I could see any of these three films taking away the prize.  Completing the quartet of frontrunners is Tarantino's Django Unchained, though I am not as confident in its chances to actually win the statue.


The next two, to get the tally up to six, could be any combination of films from The Master to Moonrise Kingdom to perhaps even Skyfall.  But unfortunately I see one of these spots belonging to Tom Hooper's overrated slog, Les Miserables.  The fifth slot belongs not to one of the aforementioned films, but David O. Russell's charming and wonderful Silver Linings Playbook.  I have no issue with this one, my personal favorite of 2012.


So if the cutoff is seven, that leaves one final slot and a whole slew of films vying for the slot.  Ang Lee's Life of Pi belongs here, and should grab this final slot.  Of course if there are eight, nine, or ten nominees, I expect an appearance by Wes Anderson and/or James Bond.  That being said, seven feels like a comfortable cutoff point for this year.

PREDICTIONS:

Lincoln
Argo
Zero Dark Thirty
Django Unchained
Les Miserables
Silver Linings Playbook
Life of Pi

Monday, January 7, 2013

OSCAR PREDICTIONS 2013: The Directors

Best Director might be the trickiest major category to assess given the new rules regarding Best Picture.  Anywhere from five to ten films may get a nomination for the big prize, but only five slots remain for Best Director.  Expect some newcomers along with some tried and true veterans.

BEST DIRECTOR


Two certainties, to me, represent the opposite ends of the spectrum.  First, there is Steven Spielberg, no stranger to Best Director nominations, and his stellar directorial effort putting together the historical drama Lincoln.  While I didn't connect on an emotional level with Lincoln, there is no denying Spielberg at the top of his game here with such an engrossing visual picture and wonderful acting.  Then there is Ben Affleck, who has shown real maturity as a director with his Iran-hostage thriller, Argo.  Again, I was not sold on the film as a whole, but Affleck's direction is sharp and succinct.



Ang Lee should get a spot here for Life of Pi, one of the more beautiful films I have seen in the last decade, and one of my favorites of 2012.  Kathryn Bigelow has blossomed into somewhat of an Academy darling after her win for The Hurt Locker.  And as much as the Academy doesn't like to acknowledge their love for a little controversy to drive ratings, Zero Dark Thirty comes with just enough backlash to drive the success of the film on Oscar night.  This leaves a fifth and final spot, and a few auteurs left to fill out the category.



I would like to think Paul Thomas Anderson would get the fifth slot for The Master.  A few months ago I would have said he was a lock for his hypnotizing, ambiguously religious film.  But then Quentin Tarantino came calling with Django Unchained, which has stolen some prestige from films like The Master.  It is Tarantino's slavery epic and, despite the aura around Tarantino as an edgy filmmaker, the Academy loves having him in the mix on Oscar night.

PREDICTIONS:

Steven Spielberg - Lincoln
Ben Affleck - Argo
Ang Lee - Life of Pi
Kathryn Bigelow - Zero Dark Thirty
Quentin Tarantino - Django Unchained

Sunday, January 6, 2013

OSCAR PREDICTIONS 2013: The Leads

Both of the lead acting categories have, as always, two or three strong contenders and two or three nominees whose nomination is the award.  Best Actor may seem deeper than Actress, as it usually is these days, but don't discount some of the fine female performances this year.  Two of which should be duking it out for the statue.


BEST ACTRESS

This two-horse race involves two vastly different performances.  First up is Jennifer Lawrence, who charmed her way through Silver Linings Playbook in one of the best performances of her early career.  She will most likely be in stiff competition with Jessica Chastain as Maya, the military brain behind the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty.  These are the frontrunners right now and I don't see much changing over the next month or so.

The rest of the field is wide open.  Marion Cotillard looks to be a safe bet for her role as a killer whale trainer in Rust and Bone, and I would suspect Emmanuelle Riva will get her nomination for Amour.  This leaves one spot and any number of possibilities, as usual.  There is Naomi Watts as the injured tourist in The Impossible, a film that seems to divide critics.  Kiera Knightley in her annual period-piece drama is also a possibility for Anna Karenina.  But the Academy also tends to fall in love with the standout youth performance from time to time.  That is why I see Quvenzhane Wallis nabbing this final slot for her role as the precocious youngster in Beasts of The Southern Wild.

PREDICTIONS:

Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook
Jessica Chastain - Zero Dark Thirty
Marion Cotillard - Rust and Bone
Emmanuelle Riva - Amour
Quvenzhane Wallis - Beasts of The Southern Wild


BEST ACTOR

Familiar faces and welcome new additions will make up this year's Best Actor race, one which I see as much more wide open than some.  Of course, there is Daniel Day-Lewis, who will vie for his record-setting third Best Actor statue playing Abraham Lincoln in the Spielberg drama.  But we mustn't ignore the momentum of certain other performances.  For my money, Denzel Washington deserves another Oscar for his portrayal of Whip Whitaker, a courageous alcoholic pilot in Robert Zemeckis' Flight.  And there is Jaoquin Phoenix and his hypnotizing turn as Freddie Quell in PTA's The Master.  He has more than an outside shot here.

The last two slots seem to be locked up more than in any other category.  John Hawkes will get the nomination for his role as a paraplegic in The Sessions, and Bradley Cooper will get his first, and much deserved, nomination for Silver Linings Playbook.  He deserves the nomination just as much as Lawrence, although he doesn't have as strong a chance to win.  That speaks more to the thin nature of the actress pool than it does Cooper's performance.

PREDICTIONS:

Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln
Denzel Washington - Flight
Joaquin Phoenix - The Master
John Hawkes - The Sessions
Bradley Cooper - Silver Linings Playbook 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

OSCAR PREDICTIONS 2013: Supporting Performances

As is typically the case with the supporting and lead roles, male performances are overloaded while female performances struggle to find enough quality roles.  That is a testament more to Hollywood than it is to actresses these days, as there are plenty of fine actresses but not enough roles. 


SUPPORTING ACTRESS

There are four certainties this year, and a toss up fifth spot for Best Supporting Actress.  The most certain bet you can find out there is Anne Hathaway pulling in her nomination for Les Miserables.  Her performance is a bright spot in an otherwise muddy picture.  Close on her heels has to be Amy Adams, an Academy darling, fer her role as a Lady Macbeth type in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master.  She is pivotal as a behind-the-scenes manipulator of The Cause.  Sally Field is a sure bet for her role as Mary Todd Lincoln, the manic first lady in Spielberg's Lincoln.  She is fascinating as one of the most fascinating first lady's in history.

Fourth here should be Helen Hunt for her role as a sexual surrogate for John Hawke's in The Sessions.  Hunt has been away from the spotlight as an actress for a while, and this should serve as a nice welcome back to the Oscar field.  This leaves the fifth spot, and a slew of lesser roles vying to fill out the category.  Some may think Nicole Kidman will be recognized for her turn as a sleazy southerner in The Paperboy, but the film was met with poor reviews and little fanfare.  Roles from Helena Bonham Carter and Samantha Barks in Les Miserables will be overlooked for Hathaway.  This leaves a few seasoned vets, Maggie Smith in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Judi Dench in Skyfall.  I would go with Dench, another critical darling, but I think this fifth spot belongs to Maggie Smith.

PREDICTIONS:

Anne Hathaway - Les Miserables
Amy Adams - The Master
Sally Field - Lincoln
Helen Hunt - The Sessions
Maggie Smith - The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel


SUPPORTING ACTOR

The field is absolutely loaded.  If I had my choice I would expand this category to possibly seven deserving nominees.  Of course there are a handful at the top, and two or three fighting for the last couple of nominations.  Tommy Lee Jones is a shoe in for a nomination in Lincoln, and deservedly so.  For a few months he seemed to be the ultimate winner, but Leonardo DiCaprio may have something to say about things before all is said and done.  DiCaprio lights up the screen as Calvin Candide in Django Unchained, and should be the favorite now.  Philip Seymour Hoffman should pick up a nomination for The Master as the leader of The Cause (not to mention a sexual and morally confused man).  Fourth in line is Alan Arkin, playing the fiery producer of Argo in Ben Affleck's drama.  I personally don't see anything deserving in his role, but it has the acclaim to carry him to a nomination.

And here I stand, conflicted.  Robert DeNiro delivers one of his best performances in over a decade as Pat Senior in Silver Linings Playbook.  But if he takes this fifth spot, that leaves Matthew McConaughey out in the cold in a year which saw McConaughey return to the greatness I always knew he had.  He has returned with a vengeance as an aging stripper in Magic Mike and a sociopathic cop in Killer Joe, and he seems to be staying on track in 2013.  I would absolutely love him getting this fifth nomination, so my emotion will go ahead and predict him as such.

PREDICTIONS:

Tommy Lee Jones - Lincoln
Leonardo DiCaprio - Django Unchained
Philip Seymour Hoffman - The Master
Alan Arkin - Argo
Matthew McConaughey - Magic Mike

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook



SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Directed by David O. Russell.  (120 min.)

Silver Linings Playbook may not be the best film of the year in a traditional sense.  It is not a grand epic or an historical docu-drama or something profound and transcendent.  But it is easily one of my favorite films of the year, because it is honest and true to itself.  It is also edgy, involving, humorous, at times very touching, at times very manic in its energy.  It all works together.  I suppose some cynics might point to certain aspects of the story to try and knock it down a peg, but I find this a very hard film for anyone to not like. 

At the center of David O. Russell's film stands Pat (Bradley Cooper) who we first meet as he is being taken out of a mental institute by his mother after the court-allotted 8 month sentence.  It seems Pat has always been bi-polar, undiagnosed until he caught his wife with another man and sent that man to the hospital.  His wife has since put a restraining order on Pat, but he ignores that because he is determined the two of them will reunite.  He works feverishly to convince himself he is better and doesn't need medication (even if it's clear he does), and has lost all that weight he thinks drove his wife away.  Which is why he spends a majority of the film jogging in sweats and a trash bag. 

Pat moves back in with his mother and his loving, concerned father whose obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles he uses as a way to communicate.  His father is played by Robert DeNiro in some of his finest work in over a decade.  Pat's mother and father watch him closely, worry at every turn he will explode once again even though he assures them he is fine.  He is "staying positive."  Nevertheless, certain triggers and obsessions send Pat back into brief moments of rage.  Cooper plays Pat with such tense, bottled-up intensity he seems like he is a split second away from throwing a chair.  But what he is doing is he is working desperately to channel his anger and manufacture it into some sort of positive energy.  He thinks his plan is going along swimmingly until, one night at his friend's house, he meets Tiffany.

Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) has her own troubled past which I won't mention here.  She is the sister of Pat's friend's wife, and is struggling to figure out how to make herself better.  Her history gave her a bit of a reputation around the neighborhood, and when Pat and Tiffany begin palling around everyone seems concerned.  But Pat is not there to romance Tiffany, he uses her for certain things, not malicious at all.  But Tiffany is wise to it and coerces Pat into being her dance partner at a local dance competition.  This is where the friendship between Pat and Tiffany begins to blossom in its own quirky, unhinged way.

I really don't want to dive into the plot developments anymore because I loved the third act as it came to me.  Silver Linings Playbook thrives on the honesty of its performances and the truth behind its story of fathers pushing anger to their sons, of fighting personal demons, and of moving forward in life when all seems lost.  This is the dramatic role I have been waiting for from Bradely Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence has to be the frontrunner at this point for Best Actress doesn't she?  The chemistry these two display absolutely carry the film.  These are performances I couldn't take my eyes away from, and with such satisfying supporting roles from DeNiro, John Ortiz as Pat's friend, and a surprising performance form Chris Tucker as a fellow mental patient, the screen is filled with energy and charm. 

Of course the direction from Russell is quality, but I cannot get out of here without mentioning his use of music.  He has always been on top of his game choosing his soundtrack and things are no different here.  There is a montage sequence that especially sticks out to me near the middle of the film, set to a song from Bob Dylan and a few friends.  I loved it, much like I loved the scenes and the stories and the film around it.

A