REVIEW: The Immigrant

1 07 2014

immigrant_noquote_finalCannes Film Festival – Official Competition, 2013

Over a year ago, I had the distinct honor to attend a panel in memory of my hero in the realm of film criticism, the late Roger Ebert, in Cannes.  His widow, Chaz, was in attendance a little over a month after his passing.  We all took a “500 Thumbs Up for Roger” picture (if you like a good Where’s Waldo puzzle, try to find me in this picture) and signed a book letting Chaz know how much her husband meant to everyone who cherishes film.

But it was not the words that I left her that mattered that day; rather, it was the words she left me and everyone else in attendance.  Kicking off the panel, she remarked, “Roger said that the cinema expands your imagination.  And when it’s done well, what it will do is allow the individual to be transported beyond linear boundaries and to take you to a world that you hadn’t seen before and allow you inside and outside to become a better person.”

People that take the time to write seriously about these illusionary worlds of light, shadow, and pixel have most likely achieved this exhilarating narrative transport.  It’s a difficult and thus extremely rare feat for a film to pull off.  Yet the sensation feeds the soul in such a sublime manner that it’s worth seeking out even if it means wading through seemingly endless mediocrity.

By year’s end, I manage to let the awards hype delude myself into thinking I have experienced this transcendent feeling multiple times.  In actuality, however, these little miracles only occur every few years or so.  I’m overjoyed to report that James Gray’s “The Immigrant” is one such film.

Most movies nowadays return me to the same spot from which I departed.  This masterpiece, on the other hand, picked me up at one place and deposited me at a higher ground.  The story of “The Immigrant” alone left me feeling spiritually enriched.  The complete package assembled by producer, writer, and director Gray left me renewed and reaffirmed in the power of the cinema.  I remain so stunned in slack-jawed awe at this exquisitely beautiful work that few words can fully capture my strong sentiments.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Blood Ties

22 06 2014

Blood TiesCannes Film Festival – Out of Competition, 2013

It’s clear from the beginning of “Blood Ties” that Guillaume Canet’s English-language feature debut is a Scorsese-lite New York ensemble drama.  Still, to so successfully channel a modern master right out of the gate is pretty impressive.  While Canet’s direction is hardly novel, he always keeps the film fun and compelling.

His ’70s saga follows the exploits of the two Pierzynski brothers squaring off on opposite sides of the law, Chris (Clive Owen) the criminal and Frank (Billy Crudup) the cop.  If the premise sounds familiar, well, it is.  In fact, the film is co-written by Canet with the help of James Gray, who himself wrote/directed a very similar tale of fraternal opposition called “We Own the Night” back in 2007.

Yet even though it felt like I knew these characters from other movies, they still thrilled me.  Gray, a consummate crafter of familial tension, completely nails the tricky dynamics between Chris and Frank.  They have always been pitted against each other, so a natural rivalry has been fostered between them.  Yet underneath it all, there’s the undeniable pull of – wait for it – blood ties that every so often overpowers all else.

Clive Owen is once again dastardly convincing in a brutish role, recalling his gripping performance in “Inside Man.”  However, it’s Billy Crudup who really carries the movie with a quiet strength.  He never really got a role to showcase all the talent he showed in “Almost Famous,” and now, 14 years later, Crudup arrives again with a bang. Read the rest of this entry »





Oscar Moment: Final 2012 Predictions, Part 3 (Leading)

7 01 2013

Only three days until Oscar nominations are announced!  It’s so weird to have them this early … I feel like I barely predicted at all this year.  Nonetheless, it’s time to lock in my final picks!  Today, it’s one last glimpse at the leading acting categories.

See my predictions for Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay.

See my predictions for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress.

Best Actor

  1. Daniel Day-Lewis, “Lincoln
  2. Hugh Jackman, “Les Misérables
  3. Bradley Cooper, “Silver Linings Playbook
  4. John Hawkes, “The Sessions
  5. Denzel Washington, “Flight

I was wrong, this is Daniel Day-Lewis’ race to lose.  My gosh, he is winning everything!  Look at this chart of dominance.  It turns Anne Hathaway’s dream to shame.

DDL Dominance

He’s going to come charging into the Kodak Theatre to get that record-setting third Oscar for Best Actor.  This is like Phillip Seymour Hoffman for “Capote,” Forest Whitaker for “The Last King of Scotland,” and … well, Daniel Day-Lewis for “There Will Be Blood” levels of momentum.

Les Miz

If anyone takes him down, though, it’s going to be Hugh Jackman.  He had many doubters until the film was unveiled, and he’s taken the big three nods from BFCA, SAG, and HFPA.  He will almost certainly win the Golden Globe.  Maybe, just maybe, he can stage an Adrian Brody-esque upset.

The nomination will likely be the win for Bradley Cooper, who has triumphantly exceeded expectations in “Silver Linings Playbook” and likely redefined how the industry sees him.  Well done, sir.  I’m pleased that a clear path to a nomination emerged with Critics’ Choice, SAG, and Golden Globe recognition.  I thought it might be a more uphill climb, but I have been very pleasantly surprised.

Beyond DDL, Jackman, and Cooper, my certainty stops.  I am almost positive the final two nominees will be John Hawkes for “The Sessions” and Denzel Washington in “Flight.”  They were feted by BFCA, SAG, and HFPA.  Joaquin Phoenix, on the other hand, missed with SAG and will likely be left out in the cold (much to my chagrin).

Master

I’m on the record as being nonplussed by Hawkes and Washington, though I greatly admire many other performances by the two actors.  For my money, Phoenix was the best performance of the year.  Several others have seen what I have seen, and he’s picked up a few critics’ groups notices.  He was also nominated by the Golden Globes, albeit in the segregated drama category, and the Critics’ Choice Awards, which had six nominees.

Sadly, it looks like Phoenix will follow the trajectory of Michael Fassbender’s work in “Shame,” my favorite performance of 2011.  Fassbender and Phoenix were both winners of the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival.  Their work was widely acclaimed, and their movies were polarizing.  They won Best Actor from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association among several other prizes.  They picked up key nominations from BFCA and HFPA, but their SAG snub raised some red flags.

FlightPhoenix’s journey will likely end the same way Fassbender’s did.  Repelling the Academy, Fassbender was left on the outside looking in at the Best Actor category.  Phoenix shouldn’t mind being put in the same position, however, because he hates awards season and thinks the Oscars are BS.

So it looks like I’ll be predicting the SAG nominees to repeat five-for-five.  Boring, disappointing, I know.  But there’s nothing screaming to go against conventional wisdom here.

I don’t think Richard Gere for “Arbitrage,” Jack Black for “Bernie,” Denis Lavant for “Holy Motors,” Jean-Louis Trintignant for “Amour,” or Anthony Hopkins for “Hitchcock” really have much of a chance.  Each has a few respective laurels, but the frontrunning five are just too strong for there to be a major surprise.

Then again, last year gave us not only Demian Bichir but an out-of-nowhere nod for Gary Oldman.  So we’ll just have to see.  Maybe the Academy has a few tricks up its sleeve in 2012 that we just have no way to forecast.

Best Actress

  1. Jessica Chastain, “Zero Dark Thirty
  2. Jennifer Lawrence, “Silver Linings Playbook
  3. Naomi Watts, “The Impossible”
  4. Marion Cotillard, “Rust and Bone
  5. Quvenzhané Wallis, “Beasts of the Southern Wild

Zero Dark Thirty FYCThe dynamics at the top of the race have changed little over the past month.  It’s still a Chastain vs. Lawrence cage match, and I think we won’t really know until the envelope is opened.  They will go head-to-head at the Critics’ Choice Awards and the SAG Awards, but Viola Davis won both of those last year and lost the Oscar.  The Golden Globe will do nothing to clear up the picture as they will compete in separate categories.  I give Chastain the edge now.

But below Chastain and Lawrence, so much is fluctuating.  This is the most fluid acting category of the four in 2012, capable of many unsurprising surprises.  And if any race is suggesting that conventional wisdom and historical precedent simply won’t do, this would be it.

It would seem that Naomi Watts and Marion Cotillard would be assured nominations for “The Impossible” and “Rust and Bone,” respectively.  They’ve scored the BFCA, SAG, and HFPA hat trick of nominations, just about the best safety net you can have.  Both also look to be the only nominations for their respective movies as “The Impossible” missed the cut for visual effects and France chose “The Intouchables” over “Rust and Bone” to compete in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

WattsI’m much more bullish on Watts, a prior nominee for “21 Grams” back in 2003, perhaps because I haven’t seen the movie yet and can visualize her more as a statistic (sorry for the bluntness, but that’s the name of the game).  I’ve read that “The Impossible” has really played the guild circuit, ginning up admiration for Watts and the cast along the way.  She got a high-profile shout-out from a mere acquaintance, Reese Witherspoon, in Entertainment Weekly that a lot of people saw.

For whatever reason, she just seems very strong to me.  The movie seems like the emotional tour de force they look for in leading performances for women.

Having said that, Marion Cotillard shows the same level of emotional devastation, just on a more subtle level.  If she hadn’t won for a French language performance, I’d be hesitant to think she could be nominated for one.  But she has, and I feel a hunch that the Oscars won’t snub her brilliant performance.  Apparently, the Academy voters really responded to “Rust and Bone,” and if that’s the case, why wouldn’t they nominate its star?

So I’ll go ahead and predict that Watts and Cotillard make it, although I could see a foreseeable outcome where one gets knocked out.  I doubt they slap these precursors in the face so hard that both get turned away.

HitchcockSAG’s fifth nominee was Helen Mirren for “Hitchcock,” who also landed a Golden Globe nod.  Mirren has become a recent darling of the Academy.  I got fooled once by not predicting her in 2009 for “The Last Station,” and a part of me thinks I might be making the same mistake again.  Check out how eerily similar these two cases of Helen Mirren in Best Actress contention are:

“Common sense would say it is going to Helen Mirren for ‘The Last Station.’  She has the respect; we know because she won this award three short years ago.  She has been nominated by the SAG and the Golden Globes, two very crucial precursors.  But she has no victories and, more importantly, no passionate supporters.”

Going back and reading this is actually kind of scary because this year, she has SAG and HFPA in her corner … and basically no one else, unless you put a lot of stock in the prognosticating abilities of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association.  The movies even received the same lukewarm reception: “Hitchcock” got a 66% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while “The Last Station” scored a 70% fresh.

I fear that the British contingent, which was a major part in making a Best Actor nomination for Gary Oldman in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” a reality, might be muddling our ability to make a prediction here.  Will this sizable portion of the Academy come through and give Mirren a fourth nomination in seven years?  I’m not picking Mirren because a 5-for-5 match with SAG just doesn’t feel right for this field rife with contenders.  (And especially with the men looking likely to perfectly align with SAG.)

RivaPerhaps that same European bloc of voters will be split among several other contenders from across the sea.  The French Cotillard could steal some European love, as could the British-Australian Watts.  Emmanuelle Riva could also make a play for that contingent for her work in “Amour.”

The Critics’ Choice nominee has quite a case to make for her nomination.  At 85, she’s a respected figure from the French New Wave that many recognize and respect.  Sony Pictures Classics has even gotten her to do some press for the film, including an in-depth session with The New York Times that’s well worth a read.  Many critics’ groups have aligned behind her, including such notable groups from Boston, Los Angeles, New York Online, and the National Society of Film Critics.  Perhaps worth noting, she won the European Film Award for Best Actress.

But why did SAG and the Golden Globes overlook Riva?  Neither are particularly xenophobic; the Globes’ dramatic actress category has seen a number of foreign-language nominees, including a rather strange nod for Kristin Scott Thomas in 2008 for “I’ve Loved You So Long.”  And at her age, it would seem that the SAG would want to bow down at her feet, and at the very least nominate her!

Rust and Bone

I can’t predict Riva with these two high-profile misses.  Perhaps she will be the exception, but I think her nomination is a pipe dream of critics.  She’s the Sally Hawkins for “Happy-Go-Lucky” of the year, a nominee that they try to make happen but just doesn’t click with the Academy.

Even less likely is British actress Rachel Weisz, in play for “The Deep Blue Sea” thanks to the New York Film Critics Circle reminding voters that her movie exists.  A March release automatically faces an uphill climb for a nomination since it has to fight to be remembered, and the Golden Globes did reward her performance.  Perhaps she’s the big surprise, but a SAG nomination would have been the more helpful precursor notice to pick up.

Also feted by the Golden Globes was Judi Dench for “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”  This wouldn’t really be worth mentioning if it wasn’t … well, Judi Dench.  However, the movie is more likely to see recognition in the Best Supporting Actress category for Maggie Smith.  For that matter, Dench is more likely to see recognition in that category as well for her work in “Skyfall.”

And now, we arrive at our final contender, Quvenzhané Wallis for her extraordinary performance in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”  Now 9, the pint-sized but spunky Wallis would be the youngest Best Actress nominee ever.  Even more impressive is that she was 6 when the movie was shot.

However, at the moment, she’s going virtually unnoticed.  Could Scott MacDonald have been right in his article on The Atlantic?

“Though she’s nine now, she was a mere six when the film was shot. To put it another way, she was not quite seven, which is the year developmental psychologists like to refer to as the age of reason: when kids start making decisions based on logic and causality. I’m no psych expert, but it seems to me this might be the sensible cut-off point for acting plaudits.

Acting requires some intentionality on the part of the actor, some conscious effort to adopt a persona other than his or her own. Even adult actors who get criticized for “playing themselves” are engaged in a series of more or less conscious decisions about how best to be themselves onscreen. A young child, meanwhile, likely isn’t thinking at all about how to be herself, let alone a character. She’s a kid, and she just ‘is.’”

Beasts

So is that it?  Have most considered her too young and written off her candidacy?  MacDonald did note that 8-year-old Justin Henry was nominated for “Kramer vs. Kramer,” so a nomination wouldn’t be entirely unprecedented.  But all she’s netted is a Critics Choice nod for Best Actress and a handful of breakout performer awards.

We will never know if she had a shot with SAG because the non-union production “Beasts of the Southern Wild” was ruled ineligible to compete.  However, the novelty of her contention should have been enough to attract the Golden Globes, but they totally snubbed the entire film.  I already floated the “too American” rationale for its exclusion, citing “True Grit” as an example, but the snub is really troubling.

The Oscars do love young nominees, though.  There have been plenty of pre-pubescent nominees in Academy history, most recently Abigail Breslin for “Little Miss Sunshine.”  Saiorse Ronan and Hailee Steinfeld, though quite a bit older than Willis, nonetheless were nominees.  And in 2003, lest we forget, 13-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes’ performance in “Whale Rider” knocked out Nicole Kidman for “Cold Mountain” and Scarlett Johansson for “Lost in Translation.”  The young are often a force to be reckoned with at the Oscars.

I’ll lay out that Wallis would be a shocking Best Actress nominee.  If I was thinking by rules and precedents, the obvious pick would be Mirren.  If I was attempting to focus on just this season, I might have to go with Riva.  Yet I’m going with Wallis on little more than a gut feeling that maybe the Academy’s hearts were taken by a precocious tyke.

Check back tomorrow, January 8, to see my final predictions for Best Director!





Oscar Moment: First 2012 Predictions

5 08 2012

It’s never too early to start guessing, right?  With Cannes yielding little to start Oscar conversation, the pressure is on for the fall to deliver in a big way.  Film festivals in Venice, Toronto, and Telluride will begin to churn out candidates and weed out pretenders in just a few weeks now.  Then a number of big-name films that forewent the festival circuit will have to face the gauntlet of critics and audiences. By the time the year-end lists start rolling off the presses, the game will be predictable and boring.  So let’s speculate now while it’s still fun and actually involves educated guessing!

UPDATE 8/6: I can’t let these picks become dated within hours of them being posted, so I’ve replaced my predictions that included “The Great Gatsby.”

Best Picture:

  1. The Master
  2. Les Miserables
  3. Lincoln
  4. Life of Pi
  5. Django Unchained
  6. Beasts of the Southern Wild
  7. Moonrise Kingdom
  8. Argo
  9. The Great Gatsby Zero Dark Thirty
  10. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

“The Master” just seems like the movie of the year to me from this distance.  Tom Cruise has seen the movie and HATES it, that’s enough for me.  If the movie is really going to take on Scientology, it could really be a pop culture centerpiece for the fall.

Starring Joaquin Phoenix returning from his bizarre performance art stunt in “I’m Still Here,” Philip Seymour Hoffman fresh off two major supporting roles in Oscar-nominated films in 2011, and three-time Best Supporting Actress bridesmaid Amy Adams, it could certainly be a force to reckon with in the acting categories.  It’s also a period piece that could register impressively in the technical categories.

Oh, and it’s written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.  In the ’90s, his films “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” each scored him a Best Original Screenplay nomination.  In 2007, “There Will Be Blood” scored him nominations for writing, directing, and producing since the film was up for Best Picture.  The argument will be made – convincingly by the Weinstein Company, no less – that Anderson’s time has come.

Indeed, it has.  The narrative is in place.  It can easily score over 10 nominations and march towards victory.  The film just needs to not suck.  And according to people at the first public showing on Friday (a surprise screening after a showing of “The Shining” in Los Angeles), it doesn’t suck.  It’s awesome.

Though of course, that path won’t be uncontested.  However, three out of the last five Best Picture winners – “No Country for Old Men,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” and “The Artist” – asserted their dominance from the beginning of the season and never looked back.  So who knows?! As the triumph of “The King’s Speech” showed us in 2010, Oscar bait isn’t dead.  In fact, it’s thriving … and there is still a big portion of the Academy that succumbs to it.

In 2011, “War Horse” and “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” both cracked the Best Picture field despite facing a number of harsh critics and tepid response from other industry groups.  Nonetheless, the Academy likes what it likes and refuses to apologize for it. So I doubt they will think twice about nominating “Les Miserables” for Best Picture.  The Tony Award-winning musical has everything that could possibly ever appeal to an Academy member: drama, emotion, catharsis, noble prostitutes, solid acting, historical setting, impressive craftwork … and it’s directed by Tom Hooper, the man who made them feel so good they gave him Best Director for a movie that required very little directing.

Granted, everyone thought “Chicago” was going to usher in a new Renaissance for American film adaptations of musical theater.  While the Golden Globes seem to be relishing in all the musicals, the Academy has ignored “The Phantom of the Opera,” “The Producers,” “Dreamgirls,” “Hairspray,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Mamma Mia,” and “Nine” (all of which were Best Picture nominees in the Musical/Comedy field for HFPA).

“Dreamgirls” was even being tipped to win in 2006 and was a surprise snub on nomination morning (“Nine” could also have cracked the field in 2009).  So musicals are still iffy, but “Les Miserables” is in a league of its own.  Those other musicals are nice, but none are based on a Victor Hugo novel.  The story is made to win awards.

Also falling in the bait category is Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” starring Daniel Day-Lewis as one of America’s greatest presidents.  Spielberg’s films since “Schindler’s List” have practically all been presumptive frontrunners, yet “Saving Private Ryan” is his only film afterwards to win an Oscar.  “Munich” and “War Horse” have both slid in on residual respect, but how far does that go?  Do they still owe a man who has won Best Director twice?  Helmed eight Best Picture nominees?

The same questions can be asked of Day-Lewis, who clearly has a ton of respect as shown by his two Best Actor trophies.  However, the Academy felt no shame in shutting him out of the 2009 Best Actor race in favor of first-time nominee Jeremy Renner.  Granted, Renner’s “The Hurt Locker” was worlds better than Day-Lewis’ “Nine,” but it’s still fair to wonder if the Academy is done with him like they are done with Clint Eastwood.  Unless you are Meryl Streep or Jack Nicholson (or John Williams), two is basically the magic number.

People have been raving about Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” since its presentation of footage at CinemaCon back in the spring, and I think the coupling of a respected, Oscar-winning director tackling 3D will be the “Hugo” of 2012.  It will also probably score no acting nominations and plenty of tech nods like Scorsese’s 5-time winner from last year.

Beyond those four heavy-hitters, it’s anyone’s guess. Perhaps I guessed the overdue writer/director incorrectly, and the Academy will choose to fete Quentin Tarantino for “Django Unchained.”  People counted out “Inglourious Basterds,” and it wound up with eight nominations.

Beasts of the Southern Wild” has certainly proven to be the art-house hit of the year, winning major prizes at Sundance and Cannes, stealing critics’ hearts, and racking up enough money to where it can’t be dismissed as totally esoteric.  There’s certainly precedent for a summer indie favorite to sneak into the Best Picture field – “Winter’s Bone” in 2010 and “The Tree of Life” in 2011.  It will need the critics groups to come out in favor for it in a big way or the pint-sized star Quvenzhané Wallis to be a unanimous and strong first-choice in the Best Actress race.

Some people think the inclusion of “Beasts” might leave out the other summer indie sleeper hit, “Moonrise Kingdom.”  To that I say, look to last year when “Midnight in Paris,” a funny crowd-pleaser, cracked the same field with “The Tree of Life.”  I think the Academy could decide the time is here to honor Wes Anderson’s peculiar gifts.  If they could accept “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Juno,” I see no reason why “Moonrise Kingdom” couldn’t be a Best Picture nominee.

“Argo” could also be a sleeper to watch in this race.  Ben Affleck’s directorial skills are definitely improving with each movie, and his last film, “The Town,” was definitely just on the outside looking in at the 2010 Best Picture field.  Could getting out of his native country of Boston put him in the race this time?  We’ll know after its Toronto premiere.

Baz Luhrmannn’s singular work “Moulin Rouge” tickled the Academy’s fancy in 2001.  His 2008 “Australia,” a more refined, baity piece, only netted a Best Costume Design nomination.  Which will his adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” be?  My gut says a hit like “Moulin Rouge” because I’m so in love with the source material, but that love could be blinding me.  This will either be a big hit or a big flop.

And who knows if the Academy field will extend to ten this year, but I’ll go ahead and predict ten.  Could lighting strike for the fourth time for Peter Jackson with “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey?”  Will “Hyde Park on Hudson” be more than just a feel-good biopic?  Can Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises” finally get the franchise the recognition it deserves?

These are big “if”s, so I’m just going to choose safe (because my wild-card predictions in years past have spawned picks of “It’s Complicated” and “Never Let Me Go”) and predict Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty.”  It could be bold, daring, and thrilling if it succeeds.  The expectations will be high since the production has been so guarded.  But if it works, it could be a major player.

And for the hell of it, why not say that the decidedly middling “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” becomes the low-brow film that makes the cut and makes me curse the Academy once more. Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: The Dark Knight Rises

29 07 2012

I don’t force every domestic drama I see to stand up to “American Beauty.”  Nor do I weigh every romantic comedy against “Annie Hall.”  So in a sense, why should I make a superhero movie stand up to “The Dark Knight?”  I consider it every bit as paradigmatic as the two previously mentioned Best Picture winners, so an apples-to-apples comparison is hardly even possible.  It’s more like apples-to-Garden of Eden fruit.

Indeed, a number of directors have tried to make their genre films a little more in the mold of Christopher Nolan’s iconic tale of the Caped Crusader, such as Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man 2” and Matthew Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class,” to little success.  Yet even “The Dark Knight Rises,” the sequel to the revolutionary film itself, can’t recreate its magic nor cast a comparable spell.  Perhaps its time to declare those heights unattainable to avoid further disappointments.  If Christopher Nolan himself can’t reach them, surely it is time for Hollywood to find its next golden goose.

“The Dark Knight Rises” also has the added disadvantage of being scrutinized as a Nolan film, not merely a post-”Dark Knight” facsimile.  Coming off an incredible decade of filmmaking (five supremely acclaimed films: “Memento,”  “Batman Begins,”  “The Prestige,”  “The Dark Knight,” and “Inception“), it is hardly premature to call him the Millenial equivalent of Steven Spielberg.  His movies are so good that they have merited many a repeat viewing, allowing dedicated fans to really analyze what makes his work so exceptional.  Now, it’s immediately recognizable when his films are not up to the sky-high standard he has set for himself.  For instance, in the opening scene of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Rust and Bone

20 05 2012

Cannes Film Festival

Getting down to the core of our humanity (or the bone, if you will) is a difficult and unsavory task, but you may hardly notice just how rough it can be until Jacques Audiard has released you from his grasp when the credits of “Rust and Bone” roll.  His cinematic paean to the resilience of the human spirit takes two characters down to their most starkly naked vulnerability, putting them through an emotional and physical gauntlet that tries them as well as the audience.  The end of the tunnel may not be brightly lit or accompanied by tremendous fanfare, but it reinvigorates and revitalizes in a way that only a truly great movie can.

With two phenomenal actors, Matthias Schoenaerts, on the way up after last year’s Oscar-nominated “Bullhead,” and Marion Cotillard, who continues to prove movie after movie that “La Vie En Rose” was no fluke, “Rust and Bone” aims for painful areas of the psyche.  Failure, loss, disappointment, desperation, and adversity are all sores opened by the movie, and it continues to stick a finger in them when it would be far less painful to just think about them being there.  Yet it is precisely this wrenching of the soul that gives the film power and emphasis.  In a cinematic climate where misfortune has evolved from beyond a niche and is moving towards an entire genre in and of itself, it takes a lot for a movie to distinguish itself from the pack.

And believe me, from now on when I think of films about the mettle it takes to overcome immense tribulations, “Rust and Bone” will shoot to the front of my mind.  And that’s not just because Marion Cotillard is proudly sporting two limbs instead of four for the majority of the film.  Audiard, who also co-wrote the film, finds a natural way to intertwine two disparate tales of suffering into a satisfying and believable romance without hokey stunts or sensationalism.

Her Stephanie is a former whale trainer at the French equivalent of SeaWorld turned Cannes penthouse-dweller after a tragic accident in the water.  His Alain is a well-meaning but deadbeat dad as well as street fighter for cash on the side just to get by.  They meet at the beginning of the film when Alain kicks Stephanie out of the bar after she starts a fight; while it’s a strange connection, apparently it was enough for her to call him when she gets lonely in her insurance claim-purchased apartment.

Sure, the precipitating event may be a little bit of a stretch, but what ensues as they build an incredible rapport to shelter each other from pain makes up for the lack of believability of their inception.  Cotillard and Schoenaerts don’t sport a typical romantic chemistry, but they feel all the more real and human because of it.  Both meet the emotional demands of the script, exposing themselves both spiritually and physically to each other and to the audience.  (Translation from serious movie critic pRose: they are naked a lot, sometimes maybe even a little gratuitously.)  Together with their bold helmer Audiard, they boldly go where few will go and bring us out in a hardly glorious but nevertheless moving affirmation of the ability of humans to be courageous and to change.  B+ /





REVIEW: Contagion

3 01 2012

While talking to a friend who was on the fence about seeing “Contagion,” I threw out the following selling point without really even thinking: “It’s a Steven Soderbergh movie.”  Then I recoiled for a second and actually thought about what that meant.  Granted, I haven’t seen his watershed indie “Sex, Lies & Videotape,” but when I look back at his filmography, I wouldn’t label many of them directorial triumphs.  “The Informant!” succeeds mostly because of Matt Damon, “Erin Brockovich” is 100% Julia Roberts, and the slickness of the “Ocean’s” series is what made them popular.  “Traffic” is, I suppose, although I don’t think I would recommend that.

So a Soderbergh movie with a cast of eight Oscar nominees (so many that two didn’t even make the poster) had no shot at being a director’s movie … or so I thought.  Surprisingly, this is a movie where Steven Soderbergh is the biggest and most brightly shining of all the stars.  He’s in total control of this vehicle, setting the mood from the first frame and then keeping it an even-keeled movie even when Scott Z. Burns’ script goes a little haywire.

In a time where hyperlink cinema has become a hackneyed plot device, Soderbergh, one of the pioneers of the style with “Traffic,” reminds us why it’s even around in the first place.  These stories can be linked across countries because technology and globalization has made us linked into a common destiny. Yet in the decade since “Traffic,” several events have linked us as well: 9/11 and various disease threats, such as SARS and the swine flu scare.  A thin thread of paranoia connects us all, and Soderbergh gently reveals to us that this link exists in the opening stages of the film.  And then he proceeds to vibrate that thread at pulse-pounding frequencies with his unflinching realism to then make sure we feel that uncomfortable pit in our stomach every single second of the film.

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REVIEW: Midnight in Paris

6 06 2011

For devoted Woody Allen fans like myself, who will watch anything the insanely prolific writer/director puts his name on, watching him make virtually the same neurotic film over and over again is bearable.  For such fans, it’s a joy to watch Allen (or some other poor schmuck of a surrogate when he’s too old to play himself) bumble through life clinging on to his defeatist worldview.  For others, though, the filmmaker’s consistent nervous babbling has lost its charm and have thus tuned out Allen’s faithful annual output.

However, Allen has done something miraculous with his latest film, “Midnight in Paris.”  He has made a movie that satisfies both camps with wit, charm, and creativity.  It still has that burst of zany energy that the Allen faithful adore but tones down the nihilism so that the disenchanted or neophyte Allen fans can focus on the film’s ideas and not on their querulous complaints.  In other words, it’s a movie made to be seen outside the director’s normal niche audience but can still win that crowd over with its warmth and ingenuity.

Not to mention that many fans and foes alike have also been looking forward to Allen making a movie like “Midnight in Paris” for many years.  At 75, Allen is entering his sixth decade of filmmaking and has shown little indication of budging from the tenants of his philosophy, rarely subjecting them to challenges, criticism, or reproach.  But as he enters what are sure to be the twilight years of his film career, Allen hints in his latest film at a level of maturity we rarely see from the director.  He puts his views under a microscope in “Midnight in Paris” and analyzes their practicality in the modern world, ultimately producing some very interesting and unexpected conclusions.

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Know Your Nominees: “Inception”

4 02 2011

The Oscars are a great cultural conversation for all to participate in, but it’s all too easy to only have surface knowledge of the nominees.  It’s all too easy to know “Black Swan” as the ballet movie, “The Fighter” as the boxing movie, and “The Social Network” as the Facebook movie.  But don’t you want to know more and stun your friends with your knowledge of the movies in the weeks leading up to the awards and ultimately during the broadcast itself?

That’s what my KNOW YOUR NOMINEES series hopes to do.  Every three days, I’ll feature ten interesting facts about the ten Best Picture nominees of 2010 that would be fascinating to pepper into any conversation.  My hope is that you will come away with an enhanced appreciation of the movies but also enjoy learning strange and interesting things about them.

So, as we proceed in alphabetical order, our next stop on the tour is “Inception.”

So what was the inception of “Inception?”  According to director/screenwriter Christopher Nolan, the movie began as a heist film mainly as a way to provide entertainment and exposition for the complicated dream structure.  But concerned with the cold emotional detachment to the characters in a heist film, he began to add the hero’s story to get the audience to connect with the movie.

What’s real and what isn’t was a big talking point about “Inception,” but it may interest you to know what was shot on location (real) and what was shot on a soundstage or studio lot (not real).  The snow fortress was a built set, as was Saito’s castle. With a few other exceptions, most scenes were shot on location in Tokyo, Paris, Mombasa, Los Angeles, and a small town in Nolan’s home country, England.

How about that spectacular anti-gravity fight scene in the hotel hallway.  According to Christopher Nolan, Joseph Gordon-Levitt did all his own stunts for the scene, only using a double out of necessity for one scene.  The scene was done by creating a spinning set, not through CG.

Another fantastically well-executed scene of mind-blowing visual proportions was the scene at the Parisian café where the city implodes.  How did they shoot that?  According to cinematographer Wally Pfister, they used a camera that captures 1,500 frames per second (in contrast to the average camera which captures 24) to create the slow-motion effect.  In post-production, the visuals team added effects to make the objects look like they were floating.  (Everything was shot out of air cannons for the explosion effect.)

Throughout the second half of the movie, we saw plenty of the van falling off the bridge.  But what you might not know about this scene is that it took months to film and entire days were dedicated to the shot.  But it gets better: the van was shot out of an air cannon and when the van hit the water, the actors actually had to stay underwater for four to five minutes holding their breath and taking air from a tank.  How’s that for dedication?

The ensemble cast turned out perfectly, but it wasn’t always what it was.  Before shooting, Evan Rachel Wood was slated to play Ariadne but dropped out and the role went to Ellen Page.  Another big casting shift was the exit of James Franco, who was originally cast to play Arthur, due to scheduling issues; the role ultimately went to Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Fans of Marion Cotillard got a chuckle when they heard “Non, je ne regrette rien,” the closing song of the film “La Vie En Rose” which won her an Oscar for Best Actress.  The title means “No, I regret nothing” when translated literally into English.  Was it a clever nod to her previous role?  Actually, no.  Nolan and composer Hans Zimmer chose the song before Cotillard became attached to the project because of its booming rhythmic qualities, not because of its association with the actress.

Many people have seen “Inception” as a metaphor for filmmaking, and Nolan has said that these musings aren’t entirely off-base.  But the craft he was most interested in exploring was architecture.  In an interview with WiReD, he stated, “I’m very interested in the similarities or analogies between the way in which we experience a three–dimensional space that an architect has created and the way in which an audience experiences a cinematic narrative that constructs a three–dimensional -reality from a two-dimensional medium—assembled shot by shot. I think there’s a narrative component to architecture that’s kind of fascinating.”

NEWS FLASH: The kids at the end of the movie are not the same as the ones before! Adjust your explanations of “Inception” as necessary.

Don’t worry, no top theories here.  Only some insight on where the idea came from – not exactly inception.  Nolan gave a top as a gift to his wife and then rediscovered it, incorporating it into “Inception.”  The one used in the movie was symbolically designed by the prop department to represent Cobb’s universe.

Check back on February 7 as the KNOW YOUR NOMINEES series continues with “The Kids Are All Right.”





Random Factoid #406

7 09 2010

I have no intention of seeing “Piranha 3D” … really, ever.  But for the sequel (which seems strange to already plan given the movie’s lackluster box office receipts), I might be kind of interested.  The folks running the marketing may have come up with the greatest way for moviegoers to participate in creating a movie.  Sorry, I just couldn’t bring myself to say art.

Listen to this proposition (via Cinematical):

We already know a sequel to Alexandre Aja’s rebooting of the “Piranha” series is in the works, and now comes news that The Weinstein Company is planning to let the fans get involved with the story development.

The as yet untitled sequel will take a page out of the Paranormal Activity playbook — not by asking viewers to demand the film, but instead letting them vote on which celebrity they’d love to see turn up in the sequel and die a horrible death. Sounds fun to me — and the possibilities are endless!

The author of the post suggested some great dramatic actors like Meryl Streep, Judi Dench, or Robert DeNiro.  If I had to cast my vote, and I think I will because the opportunity is just too good to pass up, I would choose someone very unlikely to ever take such a role.

So here are my picks.  For female, I’d love to see Tilda Swinton do it because she is so serious about everything.  She stated her days as a “Hollywood spy” are over, which would make taking this role all the more hilarious.  Female runner-up is Marion Cotillard, mainly because I want to see how great a swimsuit they could put her in (hey, I am a guy).  And for the same reason, I’d love to see Leonardo DiCaprio do it as well because like Swinton, he’s made editorial headlines for his stubborn insistence to only take on intensely dramatic roles.  Runner-up for males would be Steve Carell, but only if he played Michael Scott.  The real exit of Michael from “The Office” – he goes on a beach vacation and winds up getting mauled by piranha.





My “Interview with a LAMBpire”

13 08 2010

I got a cool feature over at the LAMB this week thanks to winning May’s “Cast the LAMB” for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Andrew from “Encore Entertainment” is bringing back an old feature from the LAMB archives called “Interview with a LAMBpire.”  All great puns and wordplay aside, it’s a great idea and nice reward for the win.

I’m going to make you go over to the LAMB and check out the interview, but here’s an excerpt from the interview:

Andrew: Annette Bening was one of the actors you chose for your winning LAMB Casting Entry. Is there any type of role you’d like to Annette tackle that she hasn’t so far?

Marshall: Really raunchy comedy – The Kids Are All Right doesn’t count because she in essence played Carolyn Burnham from American Beauty. It should be something tasteful (I’m not telling her to star in the latest spoof from two of the six writers of Scary Movie), but something that is going to shock us. We should still think that she’s giving a great performance; however, I’d also love us to think, “THAT is the woman from American Beauty? Wow.”

I talk about Marion Cotillard, Jason Reitman, school, and all sorts of other things.  So head on over by clicking the picture below!





Random Factoid #356

19 07 2010

I thought that perhaps Christopher Nolan had performed inception on me and that I might start having dreams about the movie.  Surprisingly, it hasn’t happened.  Mal hasn’t jumped out to kill me … yet.

But I have started to feel like I’ve been hallucinating – or in a dream – a little bit more often than usual.  Almost as soon as I left the theater, I feel like a pedestrian came out of nowhere and walked in front of my car.  A projection?  Doubtful.

And then there was the other day when I was reading my book out in the sunshine.  A cloud had covered up the sun for a little while, but then I felt those rays hitting me with their fiery Houston intensity.  I looked up and saw the cloud – moving in the opposite direction as if it had just done a 180.  A paradox?  Perhaps.

No one try to shoot me to wake me up or anything.  Now I know all these weird moments from here on out I will blame on “Inception.”





REVIEW: Inception

16 07 2010

Filmmaking is about creation.

The creation of a character, a couple; a feeling, a frame; a narrative, a novelty; a relationship, a romance; a moment, a mystery.  Have no doubt about it, filmmaking is creation, no matter the size of the budget or scope.

But there are very few filmmakers with the knowledge, the willpower, and the vision to create a world.  We all remember the first time we stepped into the galaxy far, far away that George Lucas took us to in “Star Wars.”  Recent examples include The Wachowski Brothers leading us into the world of “The Matrix,” Peter Jackson lifting Middle Earth off the page and displaying it before our very own eyes in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and, very recently, James Cameron giving us a crystal-clear, in-our-face look at Pandora in “Avatar.”

And now, with the release of “Inception,” we can officially add Christopher Nolan to that impressive list of filmmakers.  He unravels before our very own eyes what he envisions to be the world of the dream.  It’s an incredibly complex world, governed by a set of rules that have graver implications that we could ever imagine.  Only he holds the keys to unlocking the secrets of his creation, and he tantalizingly dangles them before our eyes.

Yet he also challenges us to use just the sight of them to figure it out for ourselves.  I have no doubt he left us clues throughout the movie, but it’s not possible to catch them your first time.  You are simply too awe-struck by what’s on the screen, too busy puzzling out the intricacies of the plot, and too preoccupied trying to stay ahead of Nolan to go a layer deeper.  And to go that extra mile, to find what’s really bubbling under the surface of “Inception,” you will have already dug to a great depth.  Some people won’t even be willing to go that far, and they will feel left in the dust by the movie, like a kindergartener sitting in a calculus class.  But Nolan doesn’t design it for those people, making it an even sweeter treat for those willing to take their mind on a journey it won’t always understand.

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REVIEW: Nine

30 12 2009

About midway through “Nine,” Stephanie, the Vogue reporter played by the ravishing Kate Hudson, informs us that “style is the new content” for her readers.  Applying that quotation to Rob Marshall’s latest film adaptation of a Tony Award-winning musical, the movie is a flashy work of pure artistry that dazzles the eye.  While style is a crucial part of “Nine,” the movie will be remembered for its phenomenal cast who turn in mostly solid performances but are thwarted by inept direction.

The movie’s story is indirectly based on the life of Italian film director Frederico Fellini, yet it seems to now have some striking parallels to the recent downfall of Tiger Woods.  Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a beloved director, yet his last two films have been somewhat underwhelming.  He hopes to steer himself back on the path to success with a new film, “Italia.”  However, he is in such mental anguish because he cannot commit himself to anything or anyone.  Guido has a gorgeous wife, Luisa (Marion Cotillard) at home whom he constantly neglects in favor of the temptress Carla (Penelope Cruz).

And the problems with women don’t end there.  He has to deal with his indignantly querulous muse (Nicole Kidman), an American reporter who is quite the flirt (Hudson), a sassy costume designer and old friend who can sense the torment (Judi Dench), and his mother (Sophia Loren) whose legacy still haunts him.  As Guido tries to find inspiration through these women, bouncing between past and present, he only finds himself more conflicted and lost.  One major success of “Nine” is using cinematic devices like choppy editing and constant changes between black and white and color to show this torture.  Daniel Day-Lewis is plenty capable of showing it as well, although his voice lacks some of the vocal power that the Broadway actors had in this part.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (November 20, 2009)

20 11 2009

If you wonder why Marion Cotillard has risen to fame so meteorically, going from a no-name to marquis name in two short years, look no further than the “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” “La Vie en Rose.”  Cotillard envelops herself in the persona of Edith Piaf, France’s greatest popular singer, and the Academy wisely took notice and bestowed the Best Actress statue on her in 2007.  Even if the movie isn’t your cup of tea, the performance will absolutely floor you.  She engrosses herself in Piaf from head to toe; every movement radiates her complete confidence and comfort in the role.

The film chronicles the life of Piaf from her deplorable days on the streets of France up to her last breaths and all the breathtaking highs and tragic lows that occur between.  It presents the events as a broken narrative, mainly presenting the events as memories from an older Piaf.  However, there are three distinct timelines running through “La Vie En Rose.”  The first follows Piaf from her days being fostered by a caring prostitute at a brothel near the end of the Great War to her final performance, the second from the beginnings of her morphine addiction to the collapse of her health, the third from her days feebly eking out the energy to live to her death.  The timelines often overlapped, resulting in some sequential confusion, but Cotillard wows with such finesse that the missteps can be easily overlooked.

A decision I found interesting in the film was the omission of subtitles during Piaf’s songs.  But if you don’t realize it before the thrilling climax, Cotillard’s acting tells you everything you need to know.  Her eyes, her face, her hands, and her body get the feeling across perfectly.  And in the film’s final scene, when she sings “Non, je ne regrette rien” in a decrepit state, you feel every emotion in those two minutes that you have felt throughout the whole movie.  All the happiness, fame, sadness, and tragedy of Piaf’s life pours out poignantly because Cotillard makes them palpable.  I later learned that the title literally means, “No, I Have No Regrets,” and the lyrics express overcoming the grief and sorrow and turning it into strength.  The song is a compelling and prodigiously moving way to cap off a ravishing performance by Cotillard.  This is easily the best female performance of this decade, and it will undeniably remembered for decades to come as a mammoth achievement of acting.








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