Thursday, January 28, 2010

Final Oscar Analysis, Part 3: Tech Categories

Alright, y'all. Last day of predictions here. ...Until Monday, anyway. I'll be quite sparing on the commentary (where 'quite sparing' here means mostly none), as tech awards are notoriously difficult to predict, and any words of wisdom I could provide would have only been made up on the spot to fill space. Plus, not many people know or care who might get nominated for Art Direction, or Sound Effects Editing, or other things that are highly interesting to me, but less interesting to the sane. So here we go.

Art Direction
My Predictions:
Inglourious Basterds
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Sherlock Holmes
Star Trek
or: The Lovely Bones, A Single Man
I'm going out on a limb here predicting two sci-fi films. I'd expect at least one to miss, and it's not going to be Avatar (though some are skeptical on its nomination chances here), so look for Star Trek to lose out to The Lovely Bones, A Single Man, or even Where the Wild Things Are. Or Nine. So many options.

Costume Design
Inglourious Basterds
The Young Victoria
Bright Star
An Education
or: Sherlock Holmes, Julie and Julia, Coco Avant Chanel
It's probably a mistake to predict An Education here, but I've had a hunch since I saw the film, and I'm sticking with it for now. Any of the other three I listed could easily sneak in, and Bright Star or Nine could easily sneak out. Watch for a surprise nomination for Avatar here if the Academy goes insane.

Visual Effects
Star Trek
District 9
or: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Terminator Salvation
I can't see any of these three missing. District 9 is the most vulnerable, but all three were critically acclaimed and huge hits, whereas Transformers, the next closest in the race, was almost universally hated (by people with taste, that is). Fun fact: this category whittles down potential nominees to a seven film shortlist from which the nominees are chosen. In addition to the five titles I already discussed, the other two films on the shortlist are 2012 and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Both have no chance, but it's nice to make it that far, I suppose.

Star Trek
District 9
The Road
or: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
It's really just a heat between The Road and Imaginarium. The other two are in for sure. The reason I'm so sure it's only between four films is that this category also creates a seven film shortlist, and the other movies (Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, The Young Victoria, Il Divo) are just about inconceivable as nominees. Then again, I would have said Click and Norbit were inconceivable as nominees. Sometimes this branch nominates terrible movies.

Film Editing
The Hurt Locker
Up in the Air
Inglourious Basterds
District 9
or: Star Trek, Precious
This category is worthy of notice, because only eight films (It Happened One Night, The Life of Emile Zola, The Best Years of Our Lives, Marty, Tom Jones, A Man For All Seasons, Annie Hall, Ordinary People) have ever won best picture without a nomination in this category, and the last time it happened was in 1980. So, I'm not saying that you can't win best picture without a nomination here. It's just not likely. That being said, I don't think District 9, Star Trek, or Precious has a chance to win best picture. The Academy just likes to fill this category out with action movies.

The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
The White Ribbon
or: A Single Man, Bright Star
I'd like to take Nine out of the top 5 here, but it doesn't seem likely. No one remembers Bright Star, and people, for whatever reason, seem unwilling to recognize the lensing brilliance of A Single Man. I've heard rumors that Avatar will miss here because of its largely digital imagery, but I doubt it. The film draws so much of its power from its visuals; I'm sure the Academy will take notice.

Original Score
The Informant!
A Single Man
The Fantastic Mr. Fox
or: Sherlock Holmes, Bright Star, The Last Station, The Road
This category is so difficult to predict. Up, Avatar, and The Informant! are in. I'm guessing with my heart on the last two. I love those particular scores, but I acknowledge that they probably won't make it in. For now, however, I'm keeping them in my top 5.

Sound Mixing
The Hurt Locker
Star Trek
District 9
Inglourious Basterds
or: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Sherlock Holmes, Up
I should probably have Transformers in the top 5 here, but I'm holding onto the hope that the Academy will realize that Transformers had a shoddy mixing job, regardless of the quality of the elements mixed. We could be surprised, however, by a complete left-field contender. Who, after all, would have predicted Wanted being nominated in the sound categories last year?

Sound Effects Editing
Star Trek
The Hurt Locker
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
or: District 9, Inglourious Basterds
I really feel like District 9 will find its way into the nominees in this category, but I just can't figure out which film it would replace. My heart says Transformers, but my mind suggest Up. Still, Pixar films have a wonderful track record with this category, so I don't know. It'll be a surprise.

Original Song
"The Weary Kind"-Crazy Heart
"Almost There"-The Princess and the Frog
"Cinema Italiano"-Nine
"I See You"-Avatar
"(I Want To) Come Home"-Everybody's Fine
or: "Down in New Orleans"-The Princess and the Frog, "Take it All"-Nine
I hate predicting this category. There's no guarantee that there will be five nominees (because of the weird nomination process here, anywhere from two to five songs can be nominated), and the music branch is notorious for snubbing the big, obvious contenders (last year's "The Wrestler," anyone?), so I really have no idea. I picked four obvious ones, then assumed that voters would choose Paul McCartney (who wrote the song from Everybody's Fine). I'm probably wrong. Luckily, I don't care: this category is mostly worthless.

Animated Film
The Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Princess and the Frog
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs
or: Ponyo
Only the last spot is up for grabs. Will the Academy go populist with Meatballs, or will they favor more international fare with Ponyo? I'm gonna have to go with populist on this one, even if the Academy has loved Miyazaki in the past.

Foreign Language Film
The White Ribbon-Germany
A Prophet-France
The Secrets of Her Eyes-Argentina
Samson and Delilah-Australia
or: Winter in Wartime-The Netherlands, Kelin-Kazakhstan
I can't say much on this subject, as I haven't seen any of these films. The White Ribbon and A Prophet have been sweeping international film awards, Samson and Delilah has been stirring up buzz on the indie circuit, and Israel is experiencing a film renaissance of sorts. This category is all kinds of schizophrenic, though. Voters never can decide what they want. This category makes a nine film shortlist from which to select nominees. The other two possible films are The Milk of Sorrow from Peru, and The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner from Bulgaria. Gotta be my favorite title of the year. Naming your film that takes balls.

Documentary Feature
Food, Inc.
The Cove
Mugabe and the White African
The Beaches of Agnes
Every Little Step
or: Under Our Skin, Burma VJ, Valentino: The Last Emperor
Here's another category that I can't approach intelligently, even though The Cove, Food, Inc., Every Little Step, and Valentino: The Last Emperor are at the rental company that I frequent. Oh well. I picked the films with the most positive buzz, and then went for an indie suggestion with The Beaches of Agnes. We'll see.

That's it, folks. Tune in Monday for my final (and by final, I really mean it this time) Oscar predictions, then again on Tuesday to see how my predictions match up to the actual nominations.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Final Oscar Analysis, Part 2: Acting Categories

So here's how it is, campers. The words you're reading are my official third attempt to write this blog entry. Two times previous, I've gotten almost to the end of the post, and my blog, in its infinite wisdom, has chosen to erase my entry. I love technology. I guess the point I'm trying to get across is that I'm just not capable/willing to write all the commentary for a third time. I'm offering up my predictions for the acting categories. If you want commentary on a particular race, ask for it in the comments and I'll give it. Until then...I really don't want to write the whole thing all over again. For a third time. Here we go.

Lead Actor
My predictions, in order of likelihood:
Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
George Clooney, Up in the Air
Colin Firth, A Single Man
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
or: Sharlto Copley, District 9, Michael Stuhlbarg, A Serious Man

Lead Actress
My predictions, in order of likelihood:
Meryl Streep, Julie and Julia
Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
Helen Mirren, The Last Station
or: Zoe Saldana, Avatar, Emily Blunt, The Young Victoria

Supporting Actor
My predictions, in order of likelihood:
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones
Christian McKay, Me and Orson Welles
Christopher Plummer, The Last Station
or: Alfred Molina, An Education, Anthony Mackie, The Hurt Locker

Supporting Actress
My predictions, in order of likelihood:
Mo'Nique, Precious
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
Samantha Morton, The Messenger
Melanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds
or: Julianne Moore, A Single Man, Diane Kruger, Inglourious Basterds

There we go. Sorry for the lack of commentary. It's just...three times. I'm too grumpy at this blog post to do it competently anymore. Maybe I'll offer up some commentary with my final predictions on Monday. Anywho, tomorrow I'll wrap this up with the tech categories. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A Final Oscar Analysis, Part 1: Major Categories

Hey y'all.
It's that time again. Oscar nominations come out one week from today, and, as such, I figured I'd lay down some commentary on the major races, as well as some predictions. I'll put my final predictions up Monday morning. Things could very well change (in my mind) between now and then, so we'll see. For now, let's take a look at where the race is at.

Best Picture
Most everyone on the web who concerns themselves with this sort of thing agrees that there are five locks, and five slots wide open. I'm certainly not going to make any waves on the subject. These five films will all make it in, barring something incredibly, incredibly unforeseen:

The Hurt Locker (won Producers Guild Award, nominated for SAG ensemble award, Writers Guild Award, Golden Globe, won a mess of critics awards, including the Broadcast Film Critics, LA, New York, Boston, Chicago, etc.)

Avatar (won the Golden Globe for best picture and director, nominated for Producers Guild, Writers Guild, a mess of critics awards. Also a box office phenomenon which just became the highest grossing film ever world-wide, and is poised to take the domestic box office title within two weeks.)

Inglourious Basterds (won SAG ensemble awards, nominated for Producers Guild, Golden Globe, BFCA, many other critical citations.)

Up in the Air (though it didn't have the steam some think it did, but still has been nominated for Golden Globe, Producers Guild, Writers Guild, BFCA, etc.)

Precious (Also not as big a contender as predicted. Still nominated for, you guessed it, the Golden Globe, Producers Guild, Writers Guild, SAG ensemble award, BFCA, etc.)

These five films are in. The Hurt Locker is a highly regarded critical success, Avatar is too big to ignore, Inglorious Basterds is Quentin Tarantino's reward for a long career, and Up in the Air and Precious were both very well received.

Five more slots, then. Honestly, I have no clue what films will actually succeed here. I have hunches, admittedly, and some decent leads, but any of the seven films I'm about to list could score here, as could any number of surprise contenders. It's a mystery. The seven films that are most likely to make it, in alphabetical order:

An Education: Lone Scherfig's coming-of-age drama represents international cinema here. It's (mostly) loved, critically acclaimed, and sports a fantastic cast. The buzz is fairly quiet, and the film is small, but I'm still expecting it to get in.

District 9: That's right. You read that correctly. This little film that could has surpassed even the highest expectations, landing many a guild notice (including the all-important Producers Guild) and critical rave. While I can't quite connect with this film the way most people apparently can, I'd still love to see it show up here, if only because it's so very not traditional Oscar fare.

Invictus: Speaking of traditional Oscar fare...No one seems to like this movie that much, yet it has still somehow garnered some awards traction. I'd like to think that the Academy will look past this safe, boring effort in favor of better work, but God knows the Academy does love pitching to the middle.

The Messenger: This is the only film on the list that I haven't seen, but I'm rooting for it anyway. Oren Moverman's tiny debut drama earned rave reviews, and is supposed to be just fantastic. The problem? It's very, very small. Most people didn't see this film. It's hard to get nominated for awards when your film hasn't been seen.

A Serious Man: The Coen Brothers' latest foray into darkness has many a passionate follower, and passion counts in the Academy's preference-based balloting system (explanation: voters submit ten films in order of preference. #1 rankings count more than #7 rankings). This could easily make it in.

Star Trek: Once again, you've read correctly. Star Trek is just the kind of big commercial and critical success that the expansion of the best picture field was done to include. A big problem, however. The big commercial and critical success slot has already been filled by Avatar, and District 9 is putting a stronger showing in as far as sci-fi films go.

Up: Pixar has been flirting with this category the whole decade. With the expansion of the field, it will almost be heresy for Up to miss here. Still, some people like The Fantastic Mr. Fox better, and chances are we'll only see one animated film make the cut.

In my humble opinion, our best picture slate will be comprised of ten of these twelve films. Still, there are a couple films playing in the shadows that might spoil my prognosticating. They are: (500) Days of Summer, Crazy Heart, The White Ribbon, A Single Man, Nine, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Do I see any of these making it? Not at all. Still, you never know...
My predicted 10, in order of likelihood:
The Hurt Locker
Inglorious Basterds
Up in the Air
An Education
A Serious Man
District 9
The Messenger

I know, I'm probably crazy leaving Invictus out of the mix (the Academy has to have at least one middlebrow, boring nominee. That's always the rule), especially in favor of The Messenger. If anything's beating Invictus, it's probably Star Trek. But hell. I'm feeling optimistic right now.

Best Director
Ahhh. This one is easier. We have three locks, and four directors fighting for spots.
The locks:
Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
James Cameron, Avatar
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds

These three are in. End of discussion.
Next? Some bloggers are arguing that Jason Reitman (Up in the Air) isn't as stable as we think, but the hell with that. Sorry, he's in. That leaves one spot open. The most likely contenders:
Lee Daniels, Precious. While he's taken some flac for this film, it's still quite successful. Voters might be looking to honor the film across the board.
Clint Eastwood, Invictus. Once again, the middlebrow may carry the day here. The Academy does love them some Clint. If he gets nominated, I'll going to have to cap someone. No lie.
Neil Blomkamp, District 9. This movie keeps popping up, and, regardless of its genre, it would be foolishness to exclude it from major conversations. Plus, Blomkamp's getting most of the credit for making District 9 something special. If it weren't so anti-Academy aesthetic, I'd say he's in for sure. I wouldn't be surprised, though. Other film-makers with a tiny chance:
Joel and Ethan Coen, A Serious Man
Michael Haneke, The White Ribbon
Lone Scherfig, An Education
My predicted five:
Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
James Cameron, Avatar
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Jason Reitman, Up in the Air
Lee Daniels, Precious
Once again, I'm probably silly for not predicting Invictus, but I just can't predict that movie. It's too hard.

Original Screenplay
This one's easy. It's been the same five films since square one, and, barring surprises, will be the same five films on nomination morning. They are:
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
A Serious Man
(500) Days of Summer

I'd say that (500) Days of Summer is vulnerable here, but not too vulnerable. If anything kicks it out, it will be The Messenger, which is (allegedly) spectacularly written, but a very small film. Or, perhaps Avatar; I know the screenplay isn't very good, but if the Academy goes completely nuts for this film, expect it to show up here.
My predictions:
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
A Serious Man
(500) Days of Summer

Adapted Screenplay
This one isn't as easy. There are three definites here, films which cannon conceivably miss:
An Education
Up in the Air
Past that, however, is anybody's guess. Here are some possibilities:
Crazy Heart: Though most reviews I've read cite this movie for its cliched and trite screenplay, it's still found some love. I don't want it to happen, but it might.
District 9: This film has really found a following. Screenplay would be a great place to honor this film.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox: The people that love this film really, really love it. If it's expected to compete with Up for Animated Film, it needs to show up here (unless, of course, Up doesn't get into its screenplay category either, in which case it's anybody's game).
In the Loop: This film is probably too small. Its script is supposed to be pretty great, and it's gotten a few notices, but my guess is not enough voters will have seen it.
Invictus: Middlebrow. Enough Said.
Julie and Julia: Another possibility. Adapting two books isn't easy, and voters might reward Nora Ephron for that.
Star Trek: Yup. If it makes it into Best Picture, it could easily show up here.
My Predictions:
Up in the Air
An Education
District 9
Crazy Heart
or: The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Invictus, Julie and Julia

It's really too hard to say at this point. I doubt I'll have any more insight in a week, either. Oh well. Them's the breaks.

That's it for now, I suppose. I'll do the acting categories tomorrow, and the tech categories the day after. Until then!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

In Appreciation/Defense of James Cameron

So, there seems to be some sort of Avatar backlash building on the horizon, so I thought I'd take a moment to praise James Cameron, and, to an extent, defend my viewpoint on his latest offering/career in general. Cameron is an ubiquitous enough director that anyone who reads this should have at least passing familiarity with his filmography. His films are as follows:

Avatar (2009)

Titanic (1997)

True Lies (1994)

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

The Abyss (1989)

Aliens (1986)

The Terminator (1984)

Of this list, I've seen everything but The Abyss and The Terminator. I should obviously get to viewing the latter, as I've seen all of the four-film series but the first. The former, however, seems to be lesser Cameron (pretty, technically innovative, a little bit silly), so I'm fine with having not seen it for now, though it is on my rental queue.
If I'm forced to describe James Cameron as a film-maker in exactly one word, that one word is...

Gigantic, solid brass balls.
There's no two ways around it. No other film-maker working today can come close to the sheer cinematic chutzpah that Cameron possesses. Look at his filmography: he plays almost exclusively in the science fiction sandbox; the most notoriously difficult genre to make, and even more difficulty to be taken seriously. What else do his films have in common? They're big. Hell, epic. People throw that word around like confetti, but James Cameron earns it, while almost no one else working does (I say almost, because Peter Jackson earns it when he wants to, as does Zhang Yimou).
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that Cameron's films are good, regardless of actual quality, because of his cinematic daring. He's had some less-than-stellar outings (True Lies being the best evidence of this). Nor am I saying that his films are masterpieces. Indeed, Cameron's writing is hopelessly mediocre.
No, what I'm asking you to consider is his unadulterated cinematic talent. Think of his films as images. Not words. And what images he creates. Cameron is renowned for pushing the ball, technologically and visually. The Terminator, though it failed to play to wide audiences in its debut, showcased the fascinating possibilities incumbent to combining computer-generated imagery with live-action models. Aliens did so too, as well as laying the foundations for animatronics in film that Jurassic Park would so memorably capitalize on. The Abyss and Terminator 2 were some of the first films to utilize completely CG renderings: the liquid terminator from the latter film is still one of the most iconic and impressive technical achievements in recent film history.
So far, Cameron's just been warming up. Playing around. Stretching his legs. Now comes Titanic, a film for which Cameron literally reconstructed the famous ocean liner in anal-retentive detail, then proceeded to flood it, tossing stuntmen at the ocean with reckless abandon. New filming techniques were invented (most notable involving crane/tracking work), and Cameron succeeded in creating some of the most harrowing and exciting footage ever to grace the silver screen. And then, his magnum opus: Avatar. A film that took eleven years to make, Cameron's latest film redefined visual effects capabilities within the confines of dramatic storytelling. Advancements in motion-capture performance, filming digital environments, and 3-D camerawork all owe their genesis to Cameron's single-minded film-making.
One can easily break down Cameron's filmography into two groups: the fantastical and the realistic. Please note that I'm not discussing subject matter here. For instance, I would label Titanic as fantastic, whereas I would label Aliens as realistic. The difference lies in the stylistic choices, coupled with contrasting themes. Cameron's fantastical films (Avatar, Titanic, T 2, The Abyss) have a painterly quality to them, almost impressionistic. The cinematographic style lends a sense of mysticism to the work, allowing Cameron to work within one of his favorite themes: finding the surreal and mystical in the everyday world. This is most obviously manifested in Avatar, in which Cameron creates a fantastic world for his events; indeed, Avatar could also be filed under his realist category, in that it takes a realist approach to a completely fantastical environment. In these films, Cameron reminds me most of a young Jean Cocteau, a French New Wave director whose films were surreal, hypnotic even (a good example of this is his 1946 masterpiece, La Belle et la Bete). Cameron's realist perspective, owes more the Italian Neo-Realism/cinema verite movement. Aliens, despite the plot involving space marines sent to do battle with carnivorous extraterrestrials, plays like documentary footage. His edits are laser-focused, and his cinematography prioritizes function over form. Though it might be cinephile heresy to suggest this, Cameron's realist works bring to mind the filmography of famed Italian Neo-realist Vittorio De Sicca, whose Ladri di Biciclete is frequently shortlisted as one of the greatest films ever made. Indeed, all of Cameron's films are thematic cousins of the Neo-Realist movement, whose goal was to record a day in the life of a man to whom nothing ever happens. De Sicca takes liberties with this: in Ladri di Biciclete, a man is forced, by poverty and the hand of fate, to become a criminal, on the same day that he himself is victimized by crime. Almost all of Cameron's characters could be described as 'every-men'; normal people thrust into extraordinary circumstance. Sarah Connor in The Terminator; a regular woman beset by androids from the future. Ellen Ripley in Aliens; a ship-worker-cum-warrior woman. Rose Duwitt-Bukater in Titanic; rich girl who finds herself bridging a socioeconomic gap whilst dying of hypothermia. Jake Sully in Avatar; a marine who becomes the champion of an alien race. Cameron embraces Neo-Realist themes while rejecting the movement's anti-cinema aesthetic.
Now, allow me a brief tangent. King Kong. 1933. Poor acting, ridiculous script, ham-handedly directed. And routinely included in film conversation as the father of cinema as we know it today. The point of King Kong wasn't its story or its acting: the point was that someone ballsy was trying something completely new. Look at Star Wars: the plot (young man takes on a journey, learns new skills, defeats the bad guys) is as old as spoken word, but Star Wars is undeniably one of the most influential films of our time. Which brings us to Avatar. Not a very original story. Not a great script. But that's the point. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his review of Titanic, "you don't take a $200 million dollar film as your opportunity to reinvent the story-telling wheel." The point of Avatar, or many of Cameron's other films, isn't the snappy dialogue. The point is that a gutsy individual is attempting to take a step into the future of film-making. That's how the medium is advanced: a director has the courage to try something entirely new.
I admit that I might be biased in this area. Both of my earliest cinematic memories involve Cameron films (the first film I remember seeing in theaters was Titanic, and the first film I remember seeing on my own was the Alien trilogy, featuring a trifecta of talented directors: Ridley Scott, James Cameron, and David Fincher. Analyzing that series, and its stylistic changes, would make a great blog post, but I digress). Still, I can't help but notice something: the worst reviews of Avatar are coming from regular film-goers, whereas pretentious cinephiles like myself are going nuts for the film. Isn't this the inverse of the norm? Aren't regular film-goers supposed to fawn over blockbusters, while pretentious cinephiles turn up their noses and hit the arthouse theaters? What's happening? Here's my best guess: When I watch Avatar, I don't just see a movie. I see 110 years of film-makers taking one giant step forward. I see film history being made. If I'm still writing about films in fifty years, I'll look back fondly on 2009 as a year, like 1939, 1967, or 1977, in which film-making took one big step forward. And hey, I realize that I shouldn't evaluate a film based on its historical significance, but I'm only human, and I love movies more than I love most people. So seeing my favorite art medium begin a new phase of evolution in the space of a three-hour film is just about one of the most exciting, worthwhile things I can imagine. It doesn't matter that the script makes me laugh, or the acting isn't exactly masterclass: I'm watching cinema advance itself. And that's a hell of a thing to watch.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Review: The Fantastic Mr. Fox

The Fantastic Mr. Fox
This movie is, well...fantastic. Magical, even. Wes Anderson proves that, once again, animated films are no longer 'just for kids,' rather, a fascinating medium in which anything is possible. This is one of the year's most entertaining, clever, and heartfelt films.
The fantastic Mr. Fox is reformed. His days as a chicken thief ended with the birth of his son, and now he spends his time writing a weekly column that no one reads. Unable to deny his true nature, however, Mr. Fox plans one last grand heist (three heists, really, but who's counting?) to relive the glory days. What he didn't count on however, is the reactions of his victims, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. The human world declares all-out war on Mr. Fox and his fellow animals, leading to a conflict both epic and sublimely ridiculous.
I love this movie. A lot. I love the way that it skips lightly over so many genres, both satirizing them and playing into them: in this film we can find evidence of the great caper movies a la Steve McQueen, a hint of the John Hughes teenager movie, a tiny bit of West Side Story, and, in my favorite flourish, a shootout on Main Street straight out of the best Spaghetti Westerns. In a lesser film, these switches could be detrimental to narrative and tonal continuity, but somehow, improbably, Wes Anderson makes every segment work in the context of the other.
Speaking of Wes Anderson: he wrote the script, and what a great script it is. Not only is it sharp as a tack and full of quirky humor, but it also contains wonderful moments of truth, and, dare I say, emotional honesty. I humbly submit this line for your consideration:

Mr. Fox: Who am I, Kylie?
Kylie: Who how? How what?
Mr. Fox: Why a fox? Why not a horse, or a beetle, or a bald eagle? I'm saying this more as, like, existentialism, you know? Who am I? And how can a fox be happy without, you'll forgive the expression, a chicken in its teeth?
Kylie: I don't know what you're talking about, but it sounds illegal.

What on earth is that doing in a kids' movie? The answer, of course, is that this isn't a kids' movie. It can be appreciated by anyone with enough film-going maturity to ignore the stereotypes associated with animation and simply evaluate it as a piece of work. Those who can do that won't be disappointed.
The film looks fantastic. I, for one, am absolutely astounded by any form of stop-motion animation, so when a feature-length stop-motion animation film comes along, I have all that I can do to keep from losing it. Admittedly, this year's other stop motion flick, Coraline, is more visually complicated, but The Fantastic Mr. Fox is still wonderful to look at. Worthy of particular notice are the impeccable costumes (all the animals are straight out of GQ-Rural Edition). Also highly enjoyable is Alexandre Duplat's gleeful score, which utilizes snapping, whistling, and 'small instruments' like banjos, chimes, and spoons. Yes. Spoons. It's a great mix of fun orchestration and simple, resonant musical themes.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox is endlessly enjoyable, well-paced, and one hell of a ride. On top of that, it's smart, witty, and emotionally resonant. This is one of the best movies of the year.

Review: The Lovely Bones

The Lovely Bones

I'll just go ahead and say it: The Lovely Bones should have been better. It draws from wonderful, sincerely affecting source material, it features an incredibly talented cast, and boasts the work of a wonderful technical crew. So how did this film seem so...unfullfilling? Sadly, I have no choice but to lay most of the blame on Peter Jackson. Though, I suppose if one has the balls to write, direct, and produce a film, one must be prepared to shoulder the burden if the film fails. Because, really, who else is there to blame?
The Lovely Bones attempts to tackle life, death, and everything that comes after. Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan, of Atonement fame) seems destined for a bright future, until her hopes and dreams are swiftly and cruelly ended by neighborhood serial killer George Harvey (Stanley Tucci). The film follows her grieving family (featuring Rachel Weisz and Mark Wahlberg as mom and dad) and killer on Earth, as well as attempting to create an afterlife for Susie.
There is such great material here, but the film fails to take advantage of it from the first step onward. My first issue is the script. The book, written by Alice Sebold, is chock-full of complexities, unafraid to shy away from the harsh realities of death and grief, and unwilling to whitewash its protagonists. Now, let me get this straight: I'm not one of the people who thinks that Jackson should have shown the murder in graphic detail (for those of you who don't know, Jackson caught some crap for refusing to show the rape/murder of a fourteen year old girl on screen). The scene is horrific enough in the book; filming it truthfully would have been impossible. Instead, I applaud Jackson for his decency and faith in the audience. No, what bugs me is what else he doesn't show: as mentioned before, the book is full of complexities regarding what grief drives people to do, how children manage to cope when their parents aren't, sexuality and smallmindedness, and the sad reality that out-of-sight-out-of-mind applies to the dead, as well. Instead, the script attempts to turn the story into a whodunit crime story, laced with supernatural elements and, of all things, screwball comedy. Seriously. I'm not sure who thought of the idea, but this film is going to win every award in the "worst use of Susan Sarandon in a cleaning montage" category. The Lovely Bones is incredibly uneven, tonally speaking, and, as such, keeps the emotionally honest moments (of which there are many) from gaining too much traction.
The cast, in general, puts on a great show. Most notable is the fantastically talented young actress Saoirse Ronan. In Atonement, she found a breakthrough role that earned her an Oscar nomination at the age of fifteen. In The Lovely Bones, she proves that she isn't a one hit wonder. Instead, Ronan shows that her gifts have only deepened and improved considerably in the past two years. It's a fantastic performance, given what she has to work with. Rachel Weisz also works wonders with her underwritten and undervalued part. Her grieving mother is instantly believable and heartbreaking. Hell, even Susan Sarandon turns Grandma Lynn, who is written as a terrible caricature, into an almost three-dimensional person. Unfortunately, the men in the cast don't fare as well. Stanley Tucci has received multiple accolades for his performance, but I, for one, saw nothing incredibly special. Tucci is appropriately chilling, and more than a little creepy, but that's it. We've seen serial killer before. It's a good performance, but nothing groundbreaking. Likewise, Mark Wahlberg struggles with the largest adult character in the film. Sure, Marky Mark ain't bad, but he just doesn't have the dramatic chops to tackle this role yet.
As I said earlier, the technical crew is spectacular, and their efforts shine through well. I'm particularly fond of Andrew Lesnie's impressionistic cinematography, though the set design, makeup, and visual effects are all properly otherworldly as well. My only complaint on this front concerns the original score by U2 producer Brian Eno. Eno's score has some beautiful themes, and is full of wonderfully resonant music, but every now and again, he throws in some sort of ridiculous freestyle guitar that, while at home with U2, completely destroys any scene it occupies.
The Lovely Bones isn't a bad movie. Indeed, it has many great moments (the scenes in which Susie's parents are first informed that their daughter wasn't found, or the moment where Susie meets all the other girls Harvey killed are particularly affecting), but the film itself is undermined by an overly simplistic take on the story, and a surprisingly inept directorial turn. This film had the potential to be great, but it sure didn't capitalize on it.

Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

As you may or may not have noticed by now, I have a thing for directors. If a film is made by a director I dislike, I have trouble praising the film, regardless of its strengths. If a film is made by a director I love, I tend to look more kindly at its various faults. I realize that the goal of a reviewer should always be objectivity, but, alas, on the subject of directors, objectivity is something I just can't achieve. How, you ask, does this pertain to The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus in any way?
Well, simply put, I'm not very fond of director Terry Gilliam. In films, I generally prefer substance over style, or at least some substance to balance the style, and readers, Gilliam is all style. Gilliam's films are, by nature, loud, frenetic, confusing, and caving in under their own ferocious weight. All of this could be fine, however, if Gilliam saw fit to write films with storytelling heft, or emotional honesty. Sadly, he doesn't, and, as such, his films amount to nothing more than large, somewhat pretty piles of nothing.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus tells the story of the titular M.D. (Christopher Plummer), an immortal conjurer whose multiple deals with the devil have left him in a pickle, a word which here means 'he's sold his daughter to the devil in exchange for magic and crap.' The magic in question? Why, Parnassus's Imaginarium, which allows him to enter the imagination of passers-by, forcing them to engage in a spiritual battle between the venerable Parnassus, and the Devil (Tom Waits), who is, for all intents and purposes in this film, a silent melodrama villain, complete with thin mustache and a sneer. His archaic lifestyle is thrown into chaos, however, when Tony (Heath Ledger) comes into the picture. A man with a dark past, but full of businessman-like ideas, Tony reboots the Imaginarium just in time for a final duel with the devil to save Parnassus's daughter.
All this makes some sense, I suppose, and could even be compelling in the right hands. This film is not compelling, however. Not by any stretch of the imagination. And my, does the imagination stretch in this film. The scenes set within the Imaginarium are visually striking and clever enough, but fail to take really take advantage of a location in which absolutely anything is possible, nor do the Imaginarium scenes ever add up to anything within the confines of the film's plot. The real-world scenes also contain moments of visual beauty. It's obvious that Gilliam is trying his best to create something mind-bending and altogether new here, but I can't help but think of other films this year (Avatar or The Lovely Bones) that create more interesting and plausible new worlds, or other films (like A Single Man, District 9, or Coraline) that find the mystical or unique in the real world far more capably than The Imaginarium does. In short? The film fails on its own terms.
It's a pity that this is Heath Ledger's last film. Ledger does his damnedest with the role, and he makes more out of it than it had to be, but it's just a shame that he didn't get one more great role. I think I'll just pretend The Dark Knight was the last film he did. Christopher Plummer, as well, does the most with what he's given, which, of course, isn't much. Particularly cloying is Verne Troyer, the little person of reality TV fame. I'd like to introduce a truism here which I would like film-makers to take to heart: the presence of a dwarf itself simply isn't funny. You can't just put a dwarf on screen and assume that the comedy will happen by itself. Take In Bruges for instance. Funny things happen that involve a dwarf. But you aren't laughing simply because there's a dwarf on screen. That's called a sideshow, and most people grow out of that. So please: if you really must include a dwarf in your screenplay, give the poor fellow something to do other than be short.
Overall, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a complete and utter failure, redeemed slightly by mildly interesting visuals and some not entirely terrible acting. Is this enough to warrant a viewing? Not in the slightest. The only draw I imagine that this film will have is the final performance of Heath Ledger. Reader, do yourself a favor: if you want to see Heath Ledger's last performance, go rent The Dark Knight. It will be time much better spent.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Review: A Single Man

A Single Man

My God. What a pretty, pretty movie. If nothing else, see this film for its style. Debut director Tom Ford comes to the world of film as a fashion designer, and it shows. This film is a gorgeous little wind-up toy of a film, whose striking images are made all the more resonant for its emotional depth and complexity. A Single Man is a scalpel: it cuts close and hard.
George Falconer (Colin Firth) is disintegrating. A closeted gay man in repressive 1962 L.A., his lover Jim (Matthew Goode) has died in a car-crash, but he must continue to live as per normal. Each morning, he wakes up and takes time to "become George," aka don the appearance of the kind of man that should be a professor in the early 60s. The film takes place over the course of one day, and this day, he adds one extra step to his routine: he puts a gun in his briefcase. Whether he intends to kill himself or someone else is not immediately evident. What is evident, however, is that George is drowning, no one can see it, and he is unable to draw any attention to himself to get help.
One cannot talk about this film without giving proper credit to the lead performance by Colin Firth. Firth's character is a fascinating study in facades of perfection to cover up inner turmoil. Firth's George Falconer is always immaculate, well-spoken, and bland: exactly what he needs to be to blend in. When we see him alone, however, we see him begin to disintegrate. Even with others, cracks begin to show: my personal favorite is the speech he gives to his class. He teaches Aldous Huxley, and one of his students asks if the author is an Anti-Semite. Firth's character goes on a tangent about fearing minorities, and how the scariest minorities are the ones who can pretend to be like everyone else. It's a great piece of acting and writing, (most notably the end, where Falconer lists a few of the real fears in the world), but also a great director's showpiece and a great scene in general. Notice how the camera picks out two students in the class. Watch how uncomfortable they become when their professor starts talking about hiding in plain sight.
I can't believe this is director Tom Ford's first film. A Single Man shows a remarkable mastery of the craft, demonstrating all the subtleties and nuances that are an enigma to lesser directors. First and foremost, A Single Man is a style piece. The film constantly experiments with different levels of color saturation, editing techniques, sound, and compositions. Yet, miraculously, it isn't to the detriment of the film. Somehow, the style serves to deepen the emotions portrayed onscreen. Notice how the color changes when something beautiful or honest enters George's life, and notice how the film finds evocations of his dead lover in everything around him (my favorite has to be how everyone's eyes change colors to match the color of his lover's).
I have yet to mention the production design, which is impeccably gorgeous, or the music, which is heart-breaking in its quiet longing and intensity. All this would be for naught, however, without the solid emotional anchor of Colin Firth. His performance, in conjunction with the stylistic musings of Tom Ford, allow this film to achieve greatness.

(I have to link to the trailer, just to give you some idea of the kind of film this is:
I also highly recommend previewing the soundtrack on iTunes, which is just one of the best soundtracks you'll hear all year. My favorites: George's Waltz, Swimming, Snow, Stillness of the Mind, and Going Somewhere, though you really can't go wrong here.)

Review: Brothers


There are moments in Brothers that hint at a good film that could have been made from this material. Those moments are lost, however, like piglets in a meat-packing plant: quickly, brutally, so horrifically that any positive memories are burned away by the slaughter you witnessed. Brothers is terrible. No, not just terrible: offensive. Offensive that it thought it could take on the material it attempts, and offensive that it all but reams the material with its startlingly inane delivery.
Brothers, directed by Jim Sheridan, is based on a 2004 Danish film of the same name. It follows Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire), a marine who goes missing in Afghanistan and is presumed dead. The film jumps between his experience as a POW with the experience of his wife (Natalie Portman), children, and brother (Jake Gyllenhaal), who must fix the whole that his (supposed) death has created.
Portman and Gyllenhaal do as much as they can. My God, do they try. And you know, for a few minutes, they almost succeed. Some of the scenes involving Sam's wife and brother are tender, emotionally honest, and (almost) dramatically fulfilling. Then Jim Sheridan, a usually competent director, destroys any attempts at legitimacy with his ridiculous sense of juxtaposition. The quiet domestic scenes are harshly cut with the Afghanistan scenes, which are poorly made, gratuitously bloodthirsty, and melodramatic. Sheridan doesn't even have the good sense to let individual scenes play out before switching locales: this film contains a scene in which two young children are making pancakes. We see them making pancakes, then talking to Gyllenhaal's character. Quick cut to Tobey Maguire's friend having hot irons pressed into his skin. Back to the pancakes. The children show them to mommy. Cut back to Afghanistan. Questions are asked during torture. Cut back to the kitchen. Mommy seems pleased. Perhaps I'm not looking into this enough, but I see absolutely no narrative or stylistic advantage to editing these scenes together. Perhaps Jim Sheridan is trying to show that children cooking is similar to torture. Perhaps pancakes and branding irons are both tools of horror. We'll never know. Assuming, however, that his goal wasn't to liken pancake batter to sizzling flesh, all the film achieves is losing the narrative and dramatic thread of both scenes. Neither scene works, because the other scene continues to interrupt it. And it doesn't help that the Afghanistan scenes are so bad.
Which leads us to Tobey Maguire. Maybe this is a personal shortcoming of mine, but I just can't take Tobey Maguire seriously as an actor, and frankly, this film doesn't exactly help change my mind. Maguire puts on his serious face lots, and there are many close-ups of angry stares, jutting jaws, and half-grins, and we even get some shrieking and keening, but it's all a whole lot of nothing. Maguire's performance is like a bad melodrama: if people aren't booing and hissing in your theater, they certainly should be.
Brothers' greatest sin, however, is arrogance. It takes very heavy, dark material (war widows, torture, POWs, grief, growing up with one parent, etc.), and takes a gigantic dump on them. I'm not saying one must approach these things with complete reverence and awe, but for the love of Cthulu, don't make them ridiculous. Brothers is so over the top that it destroys any chance it has of saying something intelligent, or hell, of even looking intelligent. Instead, what it does is cheapen the experiences of the people who have to go through the hell of being a POW, or losing a loved one in a war, by reducing all of it to exploitative schlock. And I just can't forgive the film for that. Maybe I'm being too hard on the film's positive aspects, but the fact of the matter is it raises its yo-yo finger to real pain and goes for banal melodrama.

Review: The Young Victoria

The Young Victoria

The Young Victoria probably just isn't my cup of tea. There's nothing really to hate here, and even a few things to like, but, alas, I find it impossible to work myself up about this piece. It's rather nice, but completely pointless.
The Young Victoria chronicles the early life of Queen Victoria (Emily Blunt), the second to last of the English Hanoverian line. The film details her early struggles with an attempted forced regency, aka giving up the throne for purposes of age, health, and experience, and later, her romance with potential suitor Albert (Rupert Friend). Together they experience many fan-waving, tea-swilling, and throne-sitting shenanigans. Which is all very well and good, but here is the signature problem for me, I suppose: I am not an Anglophile. I believe history can be incredibly interesting, or incredibly dull, depending on the treatment thereof. I simply don't have any vested interest in young Victoria going into the film, and director Jean-Marc Vallee doesn't see fit to provide me with any interest either. His touch is reverent, serious, and staid, except for a few moments in which he, for reasons unknown, decides to lift stylistic tips from music video directors. So, The Young Victoria, tonally speaking, alternates between the Victorian Recreation Skit club and Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance." While this sounds fun enough on paper, in practice it's very, very difficult to compellingly realize. Sophia Coppola chose to follow a similar pseudo-hipster music video track with Marie Antoinette. Coppola, however, had the guts to aim for straight-out anachronism, whereas Vallee's Victoria spends too much time attempting to please historical purists. What results is a strikingly uneven film.
Admittedly, Vallee doesn't get much help from the screenplay. Writer, Julian Fellowes, whose Gosford Park is one of the best screenplay in recent memory, seems at a loss for any sense of depth or interest here. Instead, he force-feeds the audience with characters explaining to the nth degree things that everyone around them already knows, whilst liberally spicing the film with nauseatingly ham-fisted symbolism ('why, they're...They're...Playing Chess!'). The Young Victoria desperately needed a script doctor, though one suspects that any visit to the doctor would result in the cinematic equivalent of euthanasia.
Films of this period can normally boast lavish technical details. Not so for The Young Victoria. The production and costume design is nice enough, I suppose, but hardly feels inspired. There's no evidence of the wicked creative flair that graced the costumes of last year's Victoria equivalent, The Duchess, nor do the sets ever feel more than hallowed locations, or, heaven forbid, community theater backdrops. The film's overall look is also rather pedestrian. And we have yet to mention the music, which is, lightly put, overbearing ('is the audience not crying yet? Turn up the STRINGS! Make them play LOUD! The STRINGS are LOUD because THIS IS SAD.').
And yet, the film doesn't fall flat on its face due to wonderful turns from the two principles, Rupert Friend and, most notably, Emily Blunt. Jim Broadbent also turns in a fantastic performance in a role that is little more than an extended cameo. Blunt and Broadbent are wonderfully talented actors, and deserve all credit for their proficiency, as I doubt the director gave them much to work with.
So there you have it. Not great. Rather disposable. Disappears immediately after viewing. There's no real reason to seek this one out, but, if you must, I suppose you won't hate it.