Thursday, February 26, 2015

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Once Upon a Time in America

Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America is the best gangster film that never was, at least for a while. Upon its release in 1984, American studios were scared to death of the four hour running time, so they butchered Leone's vision. While the original debuted in Cannes to wide praise, the American version was chopped down to two-and-a-half hours, and was utterly baffling to audiences. Large chunks of the story which were crucial to the film - as literally every moment is crucial in the end - were cut, causing confusion and poor character development.

Eventually, the original version was released on home video, clocking in at 224 minutes. It clarified many things for American audiences and it was finally recognized as a great film. Now, a bluray version of the film, Leone's director's cut that he originally intended, clocks in at 251 minutes, and is the complete masterpiece.

The film is an odyssey of young boys who become young men, and eventually some make it to old age. All the while this crew of men seem hard-wired for violence, to run the streets of a prohibition New York, and to stomp out their competition. Robert De Niro plays Noodles, are entry into the story, whom we see near the beginning in an opium den while other men are employing violence to hunt him down. The opening sequence is virtuoso, with moments of shocking violence, and a phone which rings 24 times, brilliantly creating a thread between timelines.

James Woods is Max, the hotheaded hood of the group who, over the course of several decades, struggles with Noodles for power. All of the tropes of gangster cinema are here, including double crosses, speakeasies, and fast women of the twenties and thirties. But the film also has deeply complex characters, and it manages to create wholly despicable humans who keep the momentum of a four hour film going. Despite it's run time, Once Upon a Time in America never drags, it never feels that long.

Friday, February 20, 2015

2015 Oscar Thoughts, Predictions

Two days away from one of my favorite nights of the year, despite the annual negativity surrounding the Academy Awards. Now, I understand everything at the Oscars is politically charged, and there are films and performances every year that may be arguably better than those nominated. I don't care, though. Part of the Academy Awards process is the bitching, the shock at snubs, the triumph of your favorite film getting noticed. 

Stanley Kubrick never won an Oscar, neither did Cary Grant, or Alfred Hitchcock, the list goes on. But that doesn't take away from Oscar Night, not for me anyway. I take the Oscars as a celebration of the year of films, and I enjoy seeing who wins and what they say. It will always be important to me, no matter how little the snarky modern media dismisses the entire process.

This year, I feel especially excited, because personal favorites of mine are all over these lists. Let's take a look at who I think SHOULD win, and who WILL win Sunday night.


BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Nominees: Emma Stone (Birdman), Patricia Arquette (Boyhood), Meryl Streep (Into The Woods), Laura Dern (Wild), Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game)

I am convinced the Academy is now trolling the public with their Meryl Streep nominations. Streep has been nominated 17 times in her career, and I feel like the last half dozen, aside from her win for The Iron Lady, haven't been necessary. I was glad to see Laura Dern recognized for her heartfelt supporting performance alongside Reese Witherspoon, and Emma Stone is much deserved. Knightley feels like filler to me, and the frontrunner is, deservedly, Arquette. She delivers a performance that is untouchable, mature, and rich in depth and emotion. And, if the awards season to this point is any indication, Arquette will run away with this statue.

SHOULD WIN: Arquette     WILL WIN: Arquette


BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Nominees: Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher), Edward Norton (Birdman), J.K. Simmons (Whiplash), Robert Duvall (The Judge), Ethan Hawke (Boyhood)

I don't see an undeserving nominee on this list, except maybe Duvall, although his performance does elevate the otherwise standard The Judge. If J.K. Simmons weren't nominated, I could see any of the other actors winning the Oscar. But Simmons is there, and his electric performance in Whiplash is deserving of frontrunner status. Much like Arquette, Simmons has this thing locked up.

SHOULD WIN: Simmons     WILL WIN: Simmons 


BEST ACTRESS

Nominees: Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night), Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), Reese Witherspoon (Wild), Julianne Moore (Still Alice), Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl)

There is a wealth of wonderful performances this year in the Best Actress category, but it is already apparent that Julianne Moore is taking this home. I never saw Cotillard's performance, and many haven't, but both Witherspoon and Rosamund Pike are spot on in their roles. Of those two, Pike absolutely deserves to win Best Actress for her multi-layered, brilliant performance in Gone Girl. The film is nothing without her. Alas, this is Moore's year, and she deserves the award perhaps for her fantastic career and four previous nominations, which the Academy is want to do. 

SHOULD WIN: Pike     WILL WIN: Moore


BEST ACTOR

Nominees: Michael Keaton (Birdman), Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), Bradley Cooper (American Sniper), Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)

I have been a cult fan of Michael Keaton for twenty years, and I'm not the only one in this fan club. Keaton absolutely deserves this award for an emotional and challenging performance in Birdman. It would make my night, because it would finally validate Keaton to the world as the great actor I always knew he was. But now, during awards season, there is a creepy, crawly outlier who seems to be stealing the spotlight from Keaton. His name is Eddie Redmayne, who took home the SAG Award over Keaton. Here's to hoping that is an anomaly. I believe it is, and I believe the likeability of Keaton the man will push him across the finish line. 

SHOULD WIN: Keaton     WILL WIN: Keaton


BEST DIRECTOR

Nominees: Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game), Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher), Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman), Richard Linklater (Boyhood), Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel)

I wonder what a director like Bennett Miller thinks, having gotten a nomination for his stolid direction of Foxcatcher, only to see the film he directed shut out of the Best Picture category. Weird. The race really comes down to two director, Iñárritu, whose camera works magic with Birdman, and Linklater, whose patience and will drove him to finish Boyhood after twelve years. I am torn on this, but I think Linklater and his film, despite the predictable negative publicity that always follows frontrunners this time of year, will take home the big prizes.

SHOULD WIN: Linklater     WILL WIN: Linklater


BEST PICTURE

Nominees: Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, American Sniper, Birdman, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash

I love that Whiplash got a nomination, it's a great film. But it doesn't stand a chance. This race comes down to the same directors with the best chance to win Best Director. I absolutely love Birdman, and it is a great film. However, Boyhood is a timeless instant classic, something which transcends filmmaking, and touches the core of every person on the planet. If they allow it. Boyhood should win, and it most certainly will.

OTHER NOMINEES AND PREDICTIONS (in bold):

Animated Feature
“Big Hero 6” Don Hall, Chris Williams and Roy Conli
“The Boxtrolls” Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable and Travis Knight
“How to Train Your Dragon 2” Dean DeBlois and Bonnie Arnold
“Song of the Sea” Tomm Moore and Paul Young
“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” Isao Takahata and Yoshiaki Nishimura
Adapted Screenplay
“American Sniper” Written by Jason Hall
“The Imitation Game” Written by Graham Moore
“Inherent Vice” Written for the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson
“The Theory of Everything” Screenplay by Anthony McCarten
“Whiplash” Written by Damien Chazelle
Original Screenplay
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo
“Boyhood” Written by Richard Linklater
“Foxcatcher” Written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Screenplay by Wes Anderson; Story by Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness
“Nightcrawler” Written by Dan Gilroy
Cinematography
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Emmanuel Lubezki
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Robert Yeoman
“Ida” Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski
“Mr. Turner” Dick Pope
“Unbroken” Roger Deakins
Costume Design
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Milena Canonero
“Inherent Vice” Mark Bridges
“Into the Woods” Colleen Atwood
“Maleficent” Anna B. Sheppard and Jane Clive
“Mr. Turner” Jacqueline Durran
Documentary Feature
“CitizenFour” Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutzky
“Finding Vivian Maier” John Maloof and Charlie Siskel
“Last Days in Vietnam” Rory Kennedy and Keven McAlester
“The Salt of the Earth” Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and David Rosier
“Virunga” Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara
Documentary Short Subject
“Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1” Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Dana Perry
“Joanna” Aneta Kopacz
“Our Curse” Tomasz Sliwinski and Maciej Slesicki
“The Reaper (La Parka)” Gabriel Serra Arguello
“White Earth” J. Christian Jensen
Film Editing
“American Sniper” Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach
“Boyhood” Sandra Adair
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Barney Pilling
“The Imitation Game” William Goldenberg
“Whiplash” Tom Cross
Foreign Language Film
“Ida” Poland
“Leviathan” Russia
“Tangerines” Estonia
“Timbuktu” Mauritania
“Wild Tales” Argentina
Makeup and Hairstyling
“Foxcatcher” Bill Corso and Dennis Liddiard
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Frances Hannon and Mark Coulier
“Guardians of the Galaxy” Elizabeth Yianni-Georgiou and David White
Original Score
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Alexandre Desplat
“The Imitation Game” Alexandre Desplat
“Interstellar” Hans Zimmer
“Mr. Turner” Gary Yershon
“The Theory of Everything” Jóhann Jóhannsson
Original Song
“Everything Is Awesome” from “The Lego Movie”
Music and Lyric by Shawn Patterson
“Glory” from “Selma”
Music and Lyric by John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn

“Grateful” from “Beyond the Lights”
Music and Lyric by Diane Warren
“I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from “Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me”
Music and Lyric by Glen Campbell and Julian Raymond
“Lost Stars” from “Begin Again”
Music and Lyric by Gregg Alexander and Danielle Brisebois
Production Design
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Production Design: Adam Stockhausen; Set Decoration: Anna Pinnock
“The Imitation Game” Production Design: Maria Djurkovic; Set Decoration: Tatiana Macdonald
“Interstellar” Production Design: Nathan Crowley; Set Decoration: Gary Fettis
“Into the Woods” Production Design: Dennis Gassner; Set Decoration: Anna Pinnock
“Mr. Turner” Production Design: Suzie Davies; Set Decoration: Charlotte Watts
Animated Short Film
“The Bigger Picture” Daisy Jacobs and Christopher Hees
“The Dam Keeper” Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi
“Feast” Patrick Osborne and Kristina Reed
“Me and My Moulton” Torill Kove
“A Single Life” Joris Oprins
Live Action Short Film
“Aya” Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis
“Boogaloo and Graham” Michael Lennox and Ronan Blaney
“Butter Lamp (La Lampe Au Beurre De Yak)” Hu Wei and Julien Féret
“Parvaneh” Talkhon Hamzavi and Stefan Eichenberger
“The Phone Call” Mat Kirkby and James Lucas
Sound Editing
“American Sniper” Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Martín Hernández and Aaron Glascock
“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” Brent Burge and Jason Canovas
“Interstellar” Richard King
“Unbroken” Becky Sullivan and Andrew DeCristofaro
Sound Mixing
“American Sniper” John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff and Walt Martin
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño and Thomas Varga
“Interstellar” Gary A. Rizzo, Gregg Landaker and Mark Weingarten
“Unbroken” Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño and David Lee
“Whiplash” Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins and Thomas Curley
Visual Effects
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” Dan DeLeeuw, Russell Earl, Bryan Grill and Dan Sudick
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett and Erik Winquist
“Guardians of the Galaxy” Stephane Ceretti, Nicolas Aithadi, Jonathan Fawkner and Paul Corbould
“Interstellar” Paul Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter and Scott Fisher
“X-Men: Days of Future Past” Richard Stammers, Lou Pecora, Tim Crosbie and Cameron Waldbauer

Friday, February 6, 2015

Jupiter Ascending



JUPITER ASCENDING: Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, directed by The Wachowskis. (125 min.)

There are stages one must go through when they are dealing with a terrible movie that magically becomes greatness in its own whacked out way. The first stage is apprehension, which arrives when the lights dim and you are afraid of how bad the movie might actually be. Next comes realization, usually not long after apprehension; this is the point where you realize that the film is, in fact, garbage. The third stage is disbelief, as dialogue and actions fly at your face with such incomprehensible ineptitude that you simply cannot fathom what you are seeing. Stage three is often accompanied with "mouth agape" syndrome.

The final stage of the process is delirium, brought on by the film's unnecessary length and absurdity overwhelming you to a point where you laugh at times not indented to be funny. Eventually, the laughter comes fast and furious, and it gets audible in the theater by the end until you finally stumble back into the light of day, squint your eyes in the welcoming sun, and realize it is all over, and that it might have actually been worth it to see something so bad.

These four stages of the "so-bad-it's-good" affliction may not be more prevalent in any other time in my life than they were in Jupiter Ascending. The Wachowski's must have had a good time storyboarding the film and creating all of the elaborate visual sci-fi elements. Fun does translate to the screen, though not in the way I imagine the Wachowski's intended. There are some earnest attempts at a space opera here, but the absurdity overwhelms throughout, and one very special performance sends everything over the top.

Mila Kunis is the title character, Jupiter, your typical daughter of a Michael Bay-esque stereotyped Russian immigrant family who lives in a rundown Brownstone and cleans toilets for a living. Her and her mother and her aunt, or some other woman, have a cleaning business, but Jupiter seems to just clean toilets. This peasant of the planet is, of course, the reincarnation of a queen that rules the most prolific and wealthy family in the universe, the Abrasax clan, a family of three heirs who own planets and harvest them in order to keep their youth and live for centuries. The two male heirs, Titus (Douglas Booth) and Balem (Eddie Redmayne) are trying to get their hands on Jupiter for their own reasons, none of which are very clear because the exposition of the film is seemingly pieced together by a schizophrenic.

Enter Caine Wise, a bounty hunter (I think) who saves Jupiter from certain death and fights the entire film to keep her out of the hands of the Abrasax brothers. Wise comes with some pointy ears, tribal tattoos, and a pair of gravity-manipulating roller skates. I promise. Caine Wise is somewhat of an outcast, as the hero will often be, and he is a "splice" who was bred with a dog. "I am more like a dog than I am like you," he tells Jupiter, even though he looks like Channing Tatum with pointy ears and a blonde beard and nothing at all like a dog. He was cast out of wherever for biting a guy. Again, I promise this is the movie.

So here are Jupiter and Caine fighting against all these creatures and alien figures trying to get her, but with no real motivation clear enough to care about. They seek the help of an old friend of Caine, played by Sean Bean. He turns out to be deceptive, then not deceptive, because he is Sean Bean so why else would he be here?

When filmmakers iron out a sic-fi universe, they often times overload the screen with critters and characters to a point of saturation, to create a viable other world. This worked in Star Wars, when the idea was fresh, but now all of these extemporaneous characters are nothing more than a distraction. There are CGI lizards (why are they lizards? Don't lizards need heat and sun? They are in space), aliens who resemble the alien sightings we all know from this planet's history, and humans in makeup with no practical application to the environment. I kept wondering, why do these people look this way? What is the reason for their appearance? It doesn't matter though.

The film reeks of an over-edited studio production that was delayed, as this one was. There are large gaps in the story where exposition was undoubtedly cut out along with action scenes to shorten the picture. There is an early scene where the top of the Sears Tower in Chicago is destroyed, but Caine assures Jupiter it will be repaired in minutes. Cut to a scene of the building being repaired, seen through the back of a car window about 100 miles away. It's impossible to even see what's happening, surely there was a scene close up that was edited out. Later in the film, Jupiter arrives at one of the many set pieces and threatens the heir, Titus, with legal ramifications and tax laws he has broken. Only, there is no scene explanation as to how or when Jupiter learned these laws so precisely. Those are merely one of a handful of confusing transitions.

Then, right in the middle of the film, this queen of the most powerful planet in the universe has to have her identification verified, so she has to go through a DMV/State employee bureaucracy system that resembles an annoying journey you might have going through a county courthouse to pay property taxes or something. The sequence is so out of place, so satirical, and so entrenched in American-esque problems (remember, this is another PLANET in an entirely different SOLAR SYSTEM, not Brooklyn), I felt for a moment I was in the middle of The Fifth Element.  

And I have made it far enough before talking about the real star of the show, Mr. Eddie Redmayne. Redmayne plays Balem Abrasax, the most wicked heir to the Abrasax family. This is some kind of amazingly awful performance, an acting job so astoundingly absurd it might have Nicolas Cage shaking his head. Redmayne speaks with some sort of raspy whisper, and his voice shakes as if his character is always fighting off the flu. But then, out of nowhere, he will shout, his voice will crack, and he will flutter his hands. There are also those moments in the film when he is trying to be tough, but a swift knee to the groin or a gunshot will send him crumbling to the ground, screaming like a petulant 10-year old. It is an amazing, hilarious performance from Redmayne, one that deserves audible laughter who must be praying that Academy members don't stumble into a theater and check out this thing before making their final Best Actor vote for the Oscars this month. There are big gaps in the film where Redmayne is absent, and I think the Wachowski's realized the turd that was floating in the middle of their Jupiter Ascending toilet bowl and edited out larger chunks of his performance. Too bad.

I feel strange giving Jupiter Ascending any sort of letter grade, because it deserves all of them. So let's just say if gets an F for being truly awful, but an A+ for being awful enough to be amazing...