REVIEW: A Separation

4 03 2012

It’s interesting to see the parallels between the last two movies awarded the Best Foreign Language Film prize at the Academy Awards, last year’s “In a Better World” and the most recent winner, “A Separation.”  Both are very broad, universal tales that provide a richly humanistic exploration of important themes.  The former took on revenge, and the latter tackled honesty.

But the wonder of “A Separation” is that it manages to simultaneously tell a rich tale grounded in common experience and one that is distinctly Iranian.  By exploring how his culture could very well be a microcosm for the entire world, writer/director Asghar Farhadi probably could not have come at a better moment.  In his acceptance speech, he relished the moment as it promoted an image of the country beyond their crazy leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  The Iranians battle their society but also themselves, just as we all do; Farhadi remarked, “I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, a people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.”

Really, that’s the core of his movie, too.  All the characters know the way to be a better person, but there are personal and social forces holding them back from doing the right thing.  Whether it’s their pride, their zeal, their lifestyle, or their religion, “A Separation” is an excellent chronicle of people consciously missing the mark.

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Weekend Update, Oscar Edition – January 8, 2012

8 01 2012

“The funny thing about winning an Academy Award is that this will always be synonymous with my name from here on in.  It will be Oscar-winner George Clooney, Sexiest Man Alive 1997, Batman died in a freak accident…”

– George Clooney accepting the Academy Award for “Syriana,” 2006

“I grew up in a place called Alcobendas where this was not a very realistic dream.  And always on the night of the Academy Awards, I stayed up to watch the show.  And I always felt that this ceremony was a moment of unity for the world because art – in any form – is, has been, and will always be our universal language.”

– Penélope Cruz accepting the Academy Award for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” 2009

“Did I really earn this, or did I just wear y’all down?”

– Sandra Bullock accepting the Academy Award for “The Blind Side,” 2010

Why the Oscars?  Why the attention?

I had planned a whole, in-depth analysis here … but then I got sick today.  I want to get something up, so let me lead off with this: the Oscars are about setting the tone for an industry.  It’s about making and rewarding careers.  It’s about celebrating the best of an industry.  It’s about capturing a moment in time, reminding future generations of what the year meant to those who lived through it.

Revised Predictions

Best Picture

  1. The Artist
  2. The Descendants
  3. The Help
  4. War Horse
  5. Midnight in Paris
  6. Hugo
  7. Moneyball
  8. The Tree of Life
  9. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  10. Bridesmaids

As far as I’m concerned, the top six aren’t going to change.  “Moneyball” may or may not make it in, given the passion for the movie that may or may not exist.  And “The Tree of Life” could sneak in as the top choice of many voters, but I don’t feel comfortable predicting that, nor do I think the late surge of “Dragon Tattoo” love will translate into a Best Picture nomination.

Now, onto the state of the race. It looks like 2008 all over again in the Oscar race.  The little movie that could then was “Slumdog Millionaire.”  It was a consensus critical favorite and won the BFCA (Critic’s Choice), then trumped the more conventional Globes play “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” in the drama category, and capped off its all-around sweep by taking the SAG ensemble prize without having any big stars to boast … and then pretty much every guild too just for fun.  You could say “Button” or “Milk” posed a serious threat – and “The Dark Knight” might have been a formidable foe had it not been snubbed – but everyone knew it was “Slumdog” all the way.

Similarly, in 2011, the oh-so-typical Oscar movie yet anything BUT typical “The Artist” looks about ready to lap the competition.  It’s been the critical darling of the year but doen’t have the unanimity that “The Social Network” had last year.  Thus, it has become their gentle suggestion of the best movie of the year, not like the mandate that backfired last year.  It has been scoring everywhere it needs to score – a field-leading 11 nominations at the Critics Choice Awards including Best Picture (which it will most likely win), a field-leading 6 nominations at the Golden Globes including Best Picture, and 3 nominations at the SAG Awards including Best Ensemble.  Now all it needs to do is start winning things to make it undeniable.

Running closely behind is Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants,” which looks to be the “Milk” of 2011 as it seems to be the favorite for both the Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay trophies.  It could win Best Picture; indeed, it seems likely to win Best Picture in the drama category at the Golden Globes.  But in a year where nostalgia and an old-fashioned yearning for movies to take us out of our misery – not face it – could hurt this movie which is already burdened by comparisons to Payne’s last film, “Sideways.”

Then again, having a virtual monopoly on the brain vote may help “The Descendants” because the heart vote is being tugged in a number of directions.  “The Help” makes a big case as it’s a period piece (Oscars love the past), it’s a feel-good movie (“The King’s Speech” won last year), it has real audience support ($169 million), and it has the actors behind it.  Davis and Spencer are both serious threats to win their categories, and I would definitely consider “The Help” to be the favorite for the coveted SAG ensemble prize.  Given how well-acted the movie is down to its core, this may be the movie that rallies the biggest branch of the Academy.  But if “The Artist” wins that award, I would consider the race to be pretty much over.

There’s also the case to be made for “Hugo,” which harkens back to the pioneering days of moviemaking, and “War Horse,” which reminds all who see it of the weepy sentimentality and soaring scopes of a John Ford picture.  But with neither making blockbuster cash and neither getting a single nomination from the SAG, it’s really hard to see either mounting a serious threat.  It’s particularly problematic for “War Horse” as it missed a Best Director nomination for Spielberg at the Globes and a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination with the WGA.  Spielberg’s legendary status will likely get him into the Best Director field at the Oscars, but not having a screenplay nomination will be problematic.  Not since “Titanic” in 1997 has a movie won Best Picture without having a nominated screenplay, and only once in the last 10 years did the Best Picture winner not also win a Best Screenplay Oscar.

The acting thing is also an issue as it’s pretty rare for a movie to win Best Picture without an acting nomination.  The last time two times it happened was with “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” – both of which had the actors’ support as shown by their wins in the SAG ensemble category yet were consensus favorites anyways.  The nomination may be the prize for these movies.

As a final word on the category, don’t count out “Midnight in Paris.”  It’s been flying under the radar, but it could win Best Picture in the comedy category at the Golden Globes.  Woody Allen has won the category twice before, and this is his tenth film nominated for Best Picture overall.  It’s also his fifth Best Director nomination and sixth Best Screenplay nomination.  All this talk about career rewards for Spielberg and Scorsese need to be equally focused on Woody Allen.  The movie has scored with the SAG, PGA, and WGA – so there’s no reason to take this movie lightly.

Best Director

  1. Michel Hazanavicius, “The Artist”
  2. Alexander Payne, “The Descendants”
  3. Martin Scorsese, “Hugo”
  4. Steven Spielberg, “War Horse”
  5. Woody Allen, “Midnight in Paris”

It’s never wise to predict a split Picture-Director ticket … even when the director is as widely regarded as David Fincher, who may come into play as a dark horse for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”  But in my mind, the top four is set with Hazanavicius, Payne, Scorsese, and Spielberg, who were all BFCA nominees (and all but Spielberg were HFPA nominees).  Woody Allen, to me, seems like the logical fifth nominee.  The director’s branch has nominated him six times, four of which were not a complement to a Best Picture nomination.  They like him, even when they don’t like his movie.  While Terrence Malick may have crafted a more ambitious, director-driven movie, I still don’t see them opting for him over Allen.

Best Actor

  1. George Clooney, “The Descendants”
  2. Brad Pitt, “Moneyball”
  3. Jean Dujardin, “The Artist”
  4. Michael Fassbender, “Shame”
  5. Leonardo DiCaprio, “J. Edgar”

The top three are locked in after getting nominations from the BFCA, SAG, and HFPA.  Fassbender can’t be put in the same category since he missed with the SAG, the group with the most overlap with Academy voters, but he seems pretty safe given that the nomination would be a reward for his ubiquity just as much as his performance.  In addition, physical commitment to a role always plays well with the actors branch; see nominations for James Franco in “127 Hours” and Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler” as proof.  “Last Tango in Paris,” another controversial NC-17 film, received a nomination for its leading actor back in 1973.   However, his name was Marlon Brando.

Leonardo DiCaprio, after garnering notices from all three of the major groups, would normally be considered a lock.  But here’s my hangup on predicting him: this is a category that almost always requires a quality movie behind a quality performance.  You have to look back to ten years ago when you saw a movie with a Rotten Tomatoes score below 70% – “Ali” at 67% and “I Am Sam” at a staggeringly (and unfairly) low 34%.  “J. Edgar” currently stands at 42% on the review aggregator. Not since 2005 has anyone with nominations for BFCA, SAG, and HFPA missed an Oscar nomination in this category, and that was previous winner Russell Crowe who was up this time for “Cinderella Man.”  It also happened to Paul Giamatti for “Sideways” in 2004, the victim of Clint Eastwood coming out of nowhere and scoring a nomination thanks to the rising tide of “Million Dollar Baby.”

But if DiCaprio misses, who gets in?  Ryan Gosling is having a great year but his two performances could cancel each other out, and neither “Drive” nor “The Ides of March” seem to have much momentum.  There isn’t consensus either on which is the more deserving performance; BFCA nominated him for “Drive” while HFPA nominated him for “The Ides of March.” I feel like this is prime territory for a dark horse candidate to rise … but who will it be?  Michael Shannon for “Take Shelter?”  Joseph Gordon-Levitt for “50/50?”  Woody Harrelson for “Rampart?”  Or will SAG nominee, but still underdog, Demian Bichir capitalize on the actor’s love for his work in “A Better Life?”  Unfortunately, there’s not much opportunity for any of these candidates to gain traction in the race, so you either go smart and pick Leo here or go with a hunch.

Best Actress

  1. Viola Davis, “The Help”
  2. Meryl Streep, “The Iron Lady”
  3. Michelle Williams, “My Week with Marilyn”
  4. Tilda Swinton, “We Need to Talk About Kevin”
  5. Rooney Mara, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

For the past 15 years, the SAG field has provided a clue to at least 4 of the 5 eventual nominees for Best Actress at the Oscars.  The top four in the field – Davis, Streep, Williams, and Swinton – have all scored nominations from the BFCA, SAG, and HFPA.  Then, the plot thickens. The way I see it, there are three actresses competing for that final slot.  History says go with the SAG nominee, which is Glenn Close in “Albert Nobbs.”  But Charlize Theron is also a threat for “Young Adult” after cracking the field for both the BFCA and HFPA.

And I definitely don’t think anyone can count out Golden Globe nominee Rooney Mara for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”  People sensed the passion wasn’t there for this film, but it’s been stealthily building a healthy résumé throughout the season.  It was one of the top ten movies for the National Board of Review and the American Film Institute; this week, it was nominated by both the Producers Guild and the Writers Guild.

The movie has supporters where “Albert Nobbs,” which currently sits at 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, has few. But love from producers, directors, and critics doesn’t provide any direct aid to Mara, who must be nominated by her peers in the acting branch of the Academy.  They may be more inclined to vote for Glenn Close because she’s a five-time nominee who worked tirelessly for three decades to get this story on screen, whereas Mara is making her first big splash (and will likely have two other chances to be nominated for this role) and Theron seems to have had her moment in the sun.

Here’s an interesting mini-trend I’ve picked up on: since 2003, only once has the Academy not included an actress under the age of 30 in the field.  Michelle Williams is now 31, so only Mara (or dark horses Felicity Jones and Elizabeth Olsen) fills this new quotient.

Best Supporting Actor

  1. Christopher Plummer, “Beginners”
  2. Kenneth Branagh, “My Week with Marilyn”
  3. Albert Brooks, “Drive”
  4. Jonah Hill, “Moneyball”
  5. Brad Pitt, “The Tree of Life”

At once, this is the most solid and the most fluctuating race this year.  The frontrunner still is – and has been since June – Christopher Plummer for his incredible turn in “Beginners.”  I don’t really think anyone else has a prayer because this is both a sentimental, Lifetime Achievement Oscar (think Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin) and a consensus pick (think Tim Robbins and Javier Bardem).  Of course, this assumes that he will steamroll to wins from the BFCA, SAG, and HFPA, a scenario which I think is incredibly likely.

Branagh is the only other sure-fire nominee after scoring nominations from all three of the big organizations thus far.  Brooks also seems pretty secure, although the SAG omission raises some eyebrows since the Oscars have matched the SAG five in this category for the past two years.  I would also say that given the support for “Moneyball,” Jonah Hill seems like a decent bet after SAG and HFPA nominations.  It’s that very support and presence that I think is the X-factor for him and perhaps the nail in the coffin for Nick Nolte, whose movie “Warrior” is totally absent on the precursor scene.

As for that final slot, I’m going gusty and saying it will be Brad Pitt in “The Tree of Life.”  I don’t see why this performance can’t ride in on the coattails of his sure-fire nominated one in “Moneyball.”  And it would make Pitt both a competitor and a co-star of Jonah Hill; how awesome would that be?  Dark horse nominees, unnoticed by the big three organizations, happen in this category – look to Michael Shannon in “Revolutionary Road,” William Hurt in “A History of Violence,” Alan Alda in “The Aviator,” Djimon Hounsou in “In America.”  But this is a gusty pick; smart money always goes the SAG five.

Best Supporting Actress

  1. Berenice Bejo, “The Artist”
  2. Octavia Spencer, “The Help”
  3. Jessica Chastain, “The Help”
  4. Janet McTeer, “Albert Nobbs”
  5. Shailene Woodley, “The Descendants”

BFCA/HFPA/SAG only agreed on Bejo, Spencer, and Chastain.  This is the only category where, to my knowledge, getting all three of these nominations does not ensure a nomination.  Last year, Mila Kunis missed for “Black Swan,” and Cameron Diaz missed in 2001 for “Vanilla Sky.”  It happens, although I’d say that that was more of a character judgement disapproving of some of their other, non-Academy friendly projects.  None of these actresses seem to be at risk for a similar fate.

I’d call Bejo the frontrunner because there might be some vote-splitting for the scene-stealing Spencer and the year-stealing ubiquitous Chastain.  If Viola Davis emerges as the one to beat for Best Actress, I would guess that the urgency to reward one of the ladies of “The Help” here will go down.

The race gets murkier beyond that, though, as the three organizations differed on how to fill those final two slots.  BFCA went Melissa McCarthy in “Bridesmaids” and Shailene Woodley in “The Descendants” (they nominate six, so Carey Mulligan was also in there for “Shame”).  SAG went McCarthy and Janet McTeer in “Albert Nobbs.”  HFPA went Woodley and McTeer.  Again, the rule is usually to follow SAG … but I just don’t think Melissa McCarthy can manage a nomination because comedic actresses just aren’t usually the Academy’s cup of tea.  I think the only precedent is Robert Downey Jr. being nominated for “Tropic Thunder,” but that was a lot more daring and probing of a performance.  McCarthy just – drains her plumbing in a sink.

McTeer disappears in her role (so I’ve heard) and Woodley is in the #2 movie of the year.  I think those are my other two.

Best Original Screenplay

  1. Midnight in Paris
  2. The Artist
  3. Bridesmaids
  4. Win Win
  5. 50/50

Here is where I think the surprising “Bridesmaids” love – among the top movies feted by the AFI, SAG, HPFA, PGA, and WGA – will register.  It’s a well-written movie where the comedy is so heavily in the dialogue and the plot; while Apatow movies have yet to show up here, there has to be a first time for everything.

“Midnight in Paris” and “The Artist” are slam-dunk nominees destined to duke it out until the end, unless “The Artist” just pulls away and can’t be stopped.  I hope the WGA nominees “Win Win” and “50/50” translate their success there into Oscar nominations, but this category could go a number of directions.  It’s hard to imagine that they would spring for a slate of five comedic nominees, but it could very well happen.

There’s a chance that “The Tree of Life,” thinly plotted as it is, will show up here.  “Beginners” is also an option; “Margin Call” could surprise.  It was a very good year for original screenplays, so many things are fair game.

Best Adapted Screenplay

  1. The Descendants
  2. Moneyball
  3. The Help
  4. Hugo
  5. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

“The Descendants” is about to lap the field here; barring a huge surge for “Moneyball” (which would make Aaron Sorkin a back-to-back winner), I don’t see anything standing between Alexander Payne and a second Academy Award win in this category.

As for the rest of the field, it’s kind of a mess.  I went with the WGA five here, which subbed the surging “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” for the sagging “War Horse.”  (Funny enough, that would make Steven Zaillian nominee again in the category – the Oscars are seeing double this year!)

I think Tate Taylor, who will most likely miss for Best Director, can earn a nomination here for his work adapting “The Help.”

And while “Hugo” is a director’s movie, I don’t see why hot scribe John Logan (who also penned “Rango” and “Coriolanus” this year) can’t score a nomination.

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” ineligible at the WGA, could also sneak in for a nomination given its labyrinthine plot.  But given its total radio silence during the season, I’m seeing that as a long shot at best.

Tune in this time next week for my LIVE BLOGGING of the Golden Globes!





(Once Again Belated) Weekend Update – August 17, 2011

17 08 2011

“What is comedy? Comedy is the art of making people laugh without making them puke.”

– Steve Martin

“I am thankful for laughter, except when milk comes out of my nose.”

– Woody Allen

There’s a MASSIVE analysis of comedy down at the bottom.  Please read and comment or I’ll feel like all my hard work was for nothing.

In case you missed it…

I gave two stellar reviews this week for summer closers “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and “The Help” as well as major kudos to Dominic Cooper’s performance in “The Devil’s Double.”  Things were not so rosy for “Final Destination 5,” “Another Earth,” or “30 Minutes or Less.”  Speaking of the latter, this week’s “F.I.L.M.” was “Roger Dodger,” the film debut of Jesse Eisenberg.

Recommended Reading

Here’s some of the good stuff I was reading.  If you don’t like to read, then why are you on my site?

Sunday Funnies

The New York Latino Film Festival’s ad campaign revolved around movie clichés and implausibilities, and they nail some of the stuff we just accept spot on.  (via /Film)

The Inadvertent Activist

On Monday, I noticed a humongous uptick in traffic.  Naturally, I got a little skeptical, especially when a lot of the hits were coming from Facebook.  Then I started getting a lot of redirects from a site called R-Word.org.  I had heard of this site before, but in case you haven’t, here’s a video that succinctly states their mission:

They saw that I had called out the filmmakers of “The Change-Up” in my review for senselessly using these people as the butt of a joke.  Some people are calling for radical action, and they have done a good job of making their voices heard.  But as offensive as it is, the writers have the right to free speech and can say it if they want.  The joke falls flat in the movie, and if you do for some reason decide to see it after my D+ review, use it as a reminder to eradicate the word from your casual vernacular. If you want more information on this campaign, click the picture below.

An R-Rated Renaissance?

In The Los Angeles Times back in July, Steven Zeitchik asked this question, “How deep will the R-rated renaissance run?”  He cites the statistic that 2011 is “the first year ever that at least four R-rated comedies have topped [$75 million].

I’d like to respond back with this question: is this what a Renaissance supposed to look like?  Because all I see is one comedic gem shining amidst a surplus of lackluster and forgettable others.  Just because there has been a great quantity hardly means there has been great quality.  Before I jump into my own analysis, I’d like to review my reviews of the seven R-rated comedies of summer 2011.

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REVIEW: Little Fockers

14 08 2011

I don’t have much to say in regards to “Little Fockers.”  It’s a tacked-on sequel that has all the same characters as its two predecessors but little of its humor.  The movie will inevitably be dwarfed in comparison to the two titans of the series, but you get a few more laughs out of the Byrne-Focker “circle of trust” and some people at Universal made a lot of money.  It’s a bittersweet win-win, right?

In case you hadn’t noticed that Robert DeNiro has fallen far and sold out since his legendary pairing with director Martin Scorsese, “Little Fockers” gives the two-time Oscar winner the chance do a tongue in cheek mockery of himself.  35 years ago, he was the younger version of the Godfather.  Now, he’s searching for – the worst pun of the series – the Godfocker!  At least DeNiro can let it roll off his back and joke about it as the series that once could have anyone rollicking in laughter – even on TBS reruns – resorts to straight-to-DVD territory.

Unlike “Meet the Parents” (and “Meet the Fockers” to a lesser extent), which tackled relevant and relatable social topics in a funny but truthful way, “Little Fockers” goes for potty humor and adolescent immaturity to hide the changing landscape of the series.  With a new director, a new writer, and a total lack of effort, these aren’t the same Fockers.  But as Hollywood has yet to learn, you can’t hide a lack of enthusiasm from all corners on a movie set.  Even when you throw in a beauty like Jessica Alba or enhance the role of funnyman Owen Wilson, people notice when they aren’t laughing in a comedy movie.

So if you’re willing to dumb yourself down a little or happen to be in the mood for guilty, stupid laughs, “Little Fockers” may lightly graze your funnybone.  But the heyday of this series is long in the past, as are the glory days of Robert DeNiro.  Wait, I think I see his self-respect in the rearview mirror as well!  C+ / 





REVIEW: The Help

9 08 2011

Cynics would say a movie like “The Help” is just a slightly high-brow appeal to white paternalism and guilt, an ex post facto vindication of prevalent attitudes thanks to some mettlesome few (an appeal that “To Kill A Mockingbird” may or may not have ridden to classic status).  But I challenge the cynics to sit through the movie and not be moved.  Because whether it’s set in the past, present, or future, a movie about courage that is well-written, pristinely directed, and impressively acted can be nothing but moving and inspiring.

The movie is being released in a time frame in the cinematic calendar year usually reserved for light chick lit, and while “The Help” will definitely appeal to women, it’s hardly flippant or breezy.  The movie tackles prejudice, both beyond and within the realm of race, and other issues that still affect women to this day.  Director Tate Taylor, a childhood friend of author Kathryn Stockett, gives them the treatment they deserve while also retaining that page-turner bliss that comes only from reading a great novel, a rarity in adaptations nowadays.  He captures not just a moment in time but larger, universal truths about human reactions to injustice, be they from the side of they oppressed or the oppressors.

Had he not appreciated how each self-contained storyline affected the work as a whole, “The Help” would be a bloated, convoluted haul of a film.  Taylor flows seamlessly between the stories of Aibileen (Viola Davis) and her nearly surrogate mothering of young Mae Mobley while her real parents neglect her, Minnie (Octavia Spencer) and her new job cleaning and practically nannying the air-headed but goodhearted Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), Skeeter (Emma Stone) and her rebellious challenging of social and cultural norms for young white women, and Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), the scared white woman pushing “separate but equal” nearly a decade after it was ruled unconstitutional.  With some help from a fabulous ensemble of dedicated actresses, all the stories feel complete by the end, and none shines excessively brighter than the others.

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REVIEW: Life Above All

24 07 2011

It’s entirely possible to agree with a movie’s message but not like the movie itself.  Case in point, “Life Above All.”  A South African export, the film tells the story of a young girl’s struggle to keep her family together in the face of her young sister’s death and mother’s diagnosis of AIDS, knowing that the prejudices of her village would tear them apart if she fails.  It’s a journey of courage, but director Oliver Schmitz find countless ways to devalue it for us by surrounding her journey with average, boring filmmaking.

Had it moved at a quicker pace, not spent so much time on expository details, introduced the characters in a more coherent manner, or put some emotion into the first two acts, the movie could have been a tour de force.  Although the AIDS pandemic has begun to die down in the United States, it is still ravaging an Africa where myths about the medical condition still abound.  The present day setting of “Life Above All” makes the community’s attitudes, which resemble ’80s televangelists who claimed AIDS was a plague from God, all the more frightening.  However, Schmitz never gives the movie the searing universality it needs, instead concentrating too much on the minutiae of South African society.

But alas, I was given so little reason to care that I don’t think the movie deserves my speculation on its could have beens.  The story is utterly lacking in the pathos it needs to convey the power of the narrative, and by the end, the worthiness of the effort to read the entire movie in subtitles was dubious.  While I can see the value in the protagonist’s crusade for normalcy amidst crisis and the expose of misplaced South African views of AIDS, I sat through the duration of “Life Above All” feeling incredibly nonplussed – and I think impassioned and inspired was what Schmitz was aiming for.  C+ / 





REVIEW: Buck

20 07 2011

There’s nothing terribly wrong with “Buck,” Cindy Meehl’s documentary about the real “horse whisperer” Buck Brannaman.  It’s a little story of a tortured soul who finds his calling in being gentle and humane, told with tenderness and compassion.  Using the pretty standard biographical documentarian style, it weaves back and forth between Buck’s present day giving unorthodox horse training clinics and his past, both painful and glorious.

But while this is all good and nice, I spent most of the movie wondering why I was watching it on the silver screen as opposed to a 22-inch screen in my kitchen.  The small scale of “Buck” makes it feel like a double-length Animal Planet special that you save on TiVo for a few months before playing.  You can even feel the built-in commercial breaks!  Meehl’s small-scale filmmaking seems targeted towards a niche audience (even more so than the independent film community) because it lacks universality.  When the most profound insight offered in the film is Buck saying “your horse is a mirror to your soul,” you know it’s only going to strike a chord with a select few out there.

I’m not one to demand that a documentary expose vast injustice (like “The Cove“) or hypothesize about massive financial meltdowns (like “Inside Job“); they can be just as powerful by narrowing their lens on a smaller subject.  However, this narrowing should always be to widen our perspective, not limit it.  Buck Brannaman, noble gentleman and very interesting figure that he is, simply doesn’t feel like a microcosm of anything.  He’s fun to watch like a skin-deep Barbara Walters special, but he lacks a certain cinematic quality that makes “Buck” underwhelm.  B- / 





Classics Corner: “High Noon”

7 06 2011

After the Coen Brothers made the Western cool again with their remake of “True Grit,” I decided it was about time I brushed up on some classics of the fabled American genre.  And, unsurprisingly, I was reminded of why so many of them bear the label classic – because they actually are timeless, with lessons and ideas that can apply to any generation of moviewatchers.  From what I saw, the best of the bunch has to be “High Noon,” a movie that in time could join my all-time favorites.

The premise is simple (and very unlike most movies the genre); the set-up, short and sweet.  Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is the retiring marshal of the town of Hadleyville, and at noon, three criminals will return to his town with the intent to kill him for putting them away.  The townspeople encourage him to hurry out in the hope that his departure will keep them out of harm’s way.  But Kane sees it as his problem to solve, and he stays put to face the imminent challenge.

Kane then goes through the town, looking for citizens willing to help him stop the criminals.  While everyone wants to keep their town safe and on principle want to give aid, ultimately no one will pick up their gun and defend their town.  As the high noon shadow falls over the town, it is Kane alone who must stand and fight for the lives of the people he no longer has to protect.

Just like “Modern Times,” the subject of last month’s Classics Corner column, “High Noon” is such an incredibly rewarding movie to watch because it captures a moment in time and then uses that moment to highlight some universally timeless truths about the human condition.  When analyzed against the backdrop of 1952, the year it was released, the allegory is very clear.  The people of Hadleyville are representative of another western community beginning with the letter H, Hollywood, who were afraid to stand up for themselves and their basic rights when Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee were sanctioning an era of blacklisting in the industry.

Looking back in hindsight, it’s easy to see that McCarthyism is a stain on our history and anyone in 2011 would stand up to such violations of civil rights.  But with McCarthy at the height of his power at the time of the movie’s release, it was certainly easier said than done.  Kane embodies the spirit of the times – a man who wants to protect the livelihood of his fellow townspeople but cannot get them to stop cowering in fear.  As the saying goes, freedom doesn’t come free, and Kane is the only one who seems to understand that.

But Kane is more than just the unspoken thoughts of screenwriters in 1952; however, in the moment, the heated political debates surrounding McCarthyism and blacklisting clouded people’s view of it.  Kane is not a sheriff embodying the liberal ideas of the time – and in case you are narrow-minded enough to be fooled, this was a favorite movie of Republican Presidents Eisenhower and Reagan.  He is a man driven by duty even when it isn’t necessary.  He is a protector of liberty even when he stands alone.  He puts his life on the line even when the people he protects have left him out to dry.

More than just a vision of 1952, Sheriff Will Kane is the paradigm of American citizenship and virtue, a champion of the blessings of democracy willing to make sacrifices to ensure its efficacy.  Such uprightness is what all of us should aspire to achieve, be we American or of any other nationality (the Polish democratic group Solidarity used Kane as a powerful image in the country’s first free elections).  And when the movie comes to a halt, I like to imagine that if Kane had a last line, he’d reiterate the words of the great Benjamin Franklin: “Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.”





Know Your Nominees: “The Kids Are All Right”

7 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 “The Kids Are All Right.”

“The Kids Are All Right” is set in Los Angeles, fairly obviously although not entirely prominently.  But according to writer/director Lisa Choldenko, the movie was originally set in New York.  The availability of Annette Bening, however, was contingent on moving production to Los Angeles.  Cholodenko decided to rewrite the script with the setting changing coasts, and she claims that it helped bring the characters more to life.

Cholodenko also claims that the movie is slightly autobiographical, mainly at the beginning as she and her partner in real life were looking to be impregnated by a sperm donor.  In walks co-writer Stuart Blumberg, who was a sperm donor himself.  He wondered what children he brought into the world, and the two of them came up with what we now know as “The Kids Are All Right.”  In 2006, the movie was nearly greenlit for production – but Cholodenko became pregnant and shelved the project for family matters.

The revision process was also grueling.  The initial draft took a month to write, and as we know, nothing is perfect the first time.  So Cholodenko and Blumberg re-wrote every character, scene, and line at least 10 times.

Who was the first actor onto the project?  Several years before production began on “The Kids Are All Right,” Julianne Moore met Cholodenko and expressed her admiration for the director’s work.  The two kept in touch, and Cholodenko sent Moore the script for her next movie around 2004, which the high-profile actress was attached to for many years.

When Annette Bening came aboard the project later, Cholodenko has stated the she retouched the script to make the character fit Bening better.  The character Nic that we see in the movie better serves a vessel for her voice.

Mark Ruffalo received his first Academy Award nomination for his role in “The Kids Are All Right,” but it might interest you to know that he intially turned down the role.  He was cast sequentially after Moore and Bening, and he was approved from a list that Cholodenko had made for potential actors to play the character.  After his initial refusal, Moore used her personal relationship with Ruffalo, who she starred with in “Blindness,” to reel the actor in, even texting his wife.

How did the kids come aboard?  Cholodenko chose Mia Wasikowska after seeing her work in HBO’s “In Treatment.” On the other hand, her on-screen sibling didn’t have it quite so easy.  Josh Hutcherson received got the script and auditioned for the role.  I guess “Zathura” wasn’t quite convincing enough…

Indie movies are, by their nature, independently financed.  But for the quality of filmmaking you get from “The Kids Are All Right,” you’d be surprised how rushed the schedule was.  The entire movie was filmed in 23 days. And as for the budget, the movie was made on $5 million; according to Ruffalo, the stars made almost no money just like virtually any indie movie.  Oh, and they only had five days to rehearse.

Unlike “The Social Network,” which was shot word-for-word for Aaron Sorkin’s script, “The Kids Are All Right” underwent some metamorphosis during the filming process.  Two scenes were added during the shoot, and the last line of the movie that appears in the final version wasn’t written until pre-production.

Ok, and what about the movie’s politics?  Lisa Cholodenko acknowledges that the political climate in which “The Kids Are All Right” is being released in makes most people believe that it has an agenda.  But in numerous interviews, she has stated that she did not see this as a gay movie.  What she wanted to get at with the movie was something more universal.  It’s a movie about family in any way, shape, or form.  All the stars said they didn’t need to do any research on same-sex parenting because they approached it like any family movie.

Check back on February 10 as the KNOW YOUR NOMINEES series continues with “The King’s Speech.”





REVIEW: The Dilemma

12 01 2011

The whole premise of deciding whether or not to tell a friend that their wife is cheating on them sounds like something that would make a good episode of “Full House” or “Everybody Loves Raymond.”  The whole thought process is something perfectly suited to sustain a 22-minute sitcom episode.  However, “The Dilemma” takes that setup and stretches it out to nearly two hours, and all it does is prolong the pain.

Ronny (Vince Vaughn) catches Geneva (Winona Ryder) two-timing her husband and his best friend Nick (Kevin James).  Unsure of whether to meddle or not, he weighs his options carefully but finds physical pain instead of answers and decisions.  The choice is harder to make since the two buddies are business partners under a great deal of stress to deliver big and Ronny is also wrestling with proposing to his girlfiend Beth (Jennifer Connelly).

The longer he delays, the harder it gets to make the decision.  It ultimately results in all four parties revealing and uncovering long-held secrets, which are of course nothing surprising or profound to viewers.  For this reason, “The Dilemma” is quite a bit darker and more solemn than most comedies hitting theaters nowadays.  Perhaps the strange tone is what attracted Ron Howard to direct the film, an Academy Award winner with a curious fascination at having a versatile resumé.  He’s much better at directing such unremarkable and controlled period pieces, where he’s actually capable of making a decent connection with the audience, than he is at directing comedy.

Both Vaughn and James bring a game face to the movie, but their physical and vocal humor is ultimately stifled by an artificial layer of dramatic importance and a poor script.  They get into it, sure, yet they are undermined by either poor dialogue or ridiculous situations.  It’s like these two dynamite comedic forces are trapped in sitcom reruns and aren’t sure whether to escape or adjust their acting style.  The duo desperately needs to return to the R-rated comedy genre which is perfectly able to harness their energy and turn it into side-splitting laughter.  (And, for that matter, Channing Tatum needs to leave acting altogether and just go back to modeling.)

It’s pretty sad for any movie when its legacy will ultimately be not what’s on film, but the fuss over an unsavory epithet for homosexuals in the trailer will likely be the only thing worth remembering about the movie in the years to come.  Ron Howard and Universal gave us a conversation topic in October 2010, yet in January 2011, they didn’t follow up by delivering a quality movie.  By the time you escape from the tepid grasp of “The Dilemma,” you’ll feel as if you’ve watched a highlight reel of failed jokes and cringe-worthy moments.  C-





10 for ’10: Best Movies (The Challenge)

31 12 2010

Catch up with the idea behind this series here.

By the time the clock runs down on 2010, I will have seen over 90 movies.  Most of them were average, nothing special but nothing horrible.  An alarming number were downright terrible.  But, as always, there are enough gems that shine above the coal to fill out a top 10 list.  It wasn’t quite as agonizing a process this year, but that’s beside the point.  I want to leave 2010 smiling because, for the most part, it was a good year for the movies – provided you were willing to look off the beaten path.

What I found in common with these 10 special movies released in 2010 was a challenge.  Each movie, in an entirely different way, issued a challenge to the moviegoer.  These movies weren’t complacent just providing two hours of escapism; they went so far as to engage our minds, hearts, and souls in the moviegoing experience.  They provided something that stuck with me, the movie watcher and reviewer, long after they ended and will continue to stick with me well into 2011.

So, here’s to the challenge, here’s to 2010, and here’s to movies!

#10

Easy A
(A Challenge to High School)
Directed by Will Gluck
Written by Bert V. Royal
Starring Emma Stone, Penn Badgley, and Amanda Bynes

It was about time that a movie like “Easy A” came along and perfectly encapsulated what it’s like to be a high school student in the era of texting and Facebook.  I was scared that my generation wasn’t going to get a Hollywood spotlight until twenty years later, and that would make us look like some kind of hokey antiques like the kids in “Grease.”  What makes “Easy A” so brilliant is how it incorporates the modern with the past, be it as distant as the Puritans or as recent as the Breakfast Club, to show how fundamentally different the high school experience has changed even since 2004’s “Mean Girls.”

For me, very few moments were so beautifully authentic this year as the movie’s high-speed mapping of the rumor mill, which now moves at the speed of light (or a 3G connection).  Propaganda posters after World War II suggested that loose lips cost lives, but in 2010, “Easy A” shows how it can cost reputations, something much more precious in high school.  Technology may have evolved, but high school hasn’t.  Society may have improved thanks to these innovations, so why haven’t we?

#9

Rabbit Hole
(A Challenge to Coping)
Directed by John Cameron Mitchell
Written by David Lindsey-Abaire
Starring Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, and Dianne Weist

Grief is either overdone or understated.  In “Rabbit Hole,” it’s presented in a manner so raw that it manages to be both at the same time, making for one of the most moving experiences of the year.  A story about a husband and wife, played to brilliance by Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart, grieving their lost child, the movie shows many ways to cope.  Kidman’s Becca wants to move on, Eckhart’s Howie wants to live with it, and in the middle of it all is Becca’s mother, played by Dianne Weist, offering her advice on how to get to the peaceful state in which she resides.  There’s no answer to the question of who handles it best or which way is best; in fact, there’s not even an attempt to answer it.  But there’s something beautiful about an unanswered question, and maybe that’s why the grace of “Rabbit Hole” has stuck with me for so long.

#8

Get Him to the Greek
(A Challenge to Remain Silent)
Written and Directed by Nicholas Stoller
Starring Jonah Hill, Russell Brand, and Sean Combs

Okay, you can forget the challenge here.  It’s not coming from “Get Him to the Greek,” it’s coming from me – I dare you not to laugh at this movie.  Between the dynamite comedic pairing of Jonah Hill and Russell Brand, the scene-stealing farce that is Sean Combs’ foul-mouthed music exec Sergio, the ridiculous and totally awesome music of Infant Sorrow, and the hilarious situations that drive the movie, “Get Him to the Greek” was my favorite comedy of 2010.  It’s filled with endless quotables and capable of many repeat viewings without any diminishing laughter.

#7

Fair Game
(A Challenge to Patriotism)
Directed by Doug Liman
Written by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth
Starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn

Rather than fall into the pile of scathing movies about America’s involvement in Iraq, “Fair Game” takes its anger in a fresh and different direction and funnels it into something constructive.  The story of Valerie Plame Wilson, a scapegoat for the federal government in the wake of their exposure, is meant to rouse us, not to dismay us.  We are proud that there are still people in this country who believe in the Constitution and the principles on which we were founded, and staying silent is simply not an option.  While it hits you with rage, the knockout punch is of pride in Valerie and her courage to stand up for herself.  “Fair Game” stands out as an exuberant flag-waving fan while all other movies of the same vein just mope in dreary cynicism.

#6

Inside Job
(A Challenge to Care)
Written and Directed by Charles Ferguson
Narrated by Matt Damon

Who is responsible for the financial collapse of 2008?  Charles Ferguson lets us know who he thinks in the activist epilogue, which you can more or less disregard if you choose to do so, but in the hour and 40 minutes prior, he points the finger at just about everyone possible.  Including us.  Sure, there were many factors leading to a worldwide meltdown of the economy that were out of our control, but a little bit of oversight, we could have seen it coming.  By his systematic explanation of everything you need to know to understand what went down (call it “Global Meltdown for Dummies” if you must), he is challenging us to be the oversight that was lacking two years ago.  And judging by how things have developed since then, we are going to need a whole lot of it.

#5

Inception
(A Challenge to Imagination)
Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Marion Cotillard

For as much as I love the four movies I’m ranking ahead of “Inception,” none had such a monumental impact on the way movies are perceived and made quite like it.  Christopher Nolan successfully redefined what imagination means for millions of moviegoers, many of whom had to see the movie multiple times to figure out what was going on in his labyrinthian dreamscape.  With a massive spending allowance, he brought the spectacle to life and managed not treat the audience like children, which proved to be one of the most thrilling and psychologically satisfying experiences ever.  If a movie like this can’t change the fabric of filmmaking, maybe we are headed for the dark ages like Roger Ebert cries.

#4

The Social Network
(A Challenge to Modernity)
Directed by David Fincher
Written by Aaron Sorkin
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, and Justin Timberlake

As an old adage goes, “Every time history repeats itself, the price goes up.”  David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s “The Social Network” may appear to be a movie planted in the digital era, but as has been said many times, it’s a movie about age-old themes like power, greed, and betrayal.  In essence, we’ve seen it before.  Yet retold as the story of the site we visit every day, it’s fascinating.  And it’s sublime thanks to brilliantly sculpted characters who never fit traditional hero/villain roles driving the narrative.  However, this is not just a rehash; it’s a brilliant cautionary tale for our times about individuality, innovation, and solitude.  “The Social Network,” along with its cryptic leading man Mark Zuckerberg, is the best movie of 2010 for serious conversation that’s relevant away from the screen and out of the theater.

#3

Toy Story 3
(A Challenge to Feel)
Directed by Lee Unkrich
Written by Michael Arndt
Voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, and Joan Cusack

So maybe the whole prison escape plot wasn’t the most original thing in the world.  But “Toy Story 3” has a heart so big that nothing else matters.  I have no shame in admitting that I cried like the child that the movie made me feel like.  For the last 20 minutes of the movie, I felt the most beautiful mix of nostalgia, sadness, and joy that may just be the most powerful potion Pixar has brewed.  To be my age and watch this movie is like an ultimate realization that childhood can’t last forever.  But the tears aren’t just mourning, they are happy as the torch is passed to a new generation.  I pray, for their sake, that no technology can ever replace the comfort that a toy and a little bit of imagination can bring to any child.

#2

127 Hours
(A Challenge to Live)
Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy
Starring James Franco

Life-affirming isn’t a word I get to use to describe movies very often, and that’s precisely what makes “127 Hours” one of the most special experiences of 2010.  The perfect combination of Danny Boyle’s superhuman directing with James Franco’s rawly human acting makes for a movie experience defying the odds.  Who would have thought that a movie about a man losing his arm would be the movie that made me most glad to be alive?  The movie that made me most appreciative for the relationships in my life?  The movie that took me on the most gut-wrenching yet blissfully rewarding roller-coaster ride?  I don’t know if I’ll be able to watch “127 Hours” again, but I’m so glad I watched at least once because it truly was a movie I’ll never forget.

#1

Black Swan
(A Challenge to EVERYTHING)
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John MacLaughlin
Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, and Vincent Cassel

It’s such a fantastic irony that “Black Swan” is a movie about the inability of humans to achieve perfection, yet Darren Aronofsky’s movie is the closest thing to cinematic perfection in 2010.  Behind Natalie Portman, who delivers one of the finest, if not the finest, performances I’ve ever seen from any actress, the movie soars to heights that I had previously thought unfathomable.  It challenges just about every cinematic boundary that still exists and then proceeds to demolish them.  But “Black Swan” doesn’t just destroy these boundaries for fun; it’s a purposeful and intelligent movie that gives a reason to change the boundaries of cinema for better and for good.  Fearless director Darren Aronofsky choreographs a master ballet of a movie that weaves together horror, beauty, and psychological breakdown with such poise that you’ll wonder why every movie can’t be as thrilling as his.  “Black Swan” is a glorious exaltation of cinema and a monumental achievement that will go down in history.





Random Factoid #521

31 12 2010

(OK, busted, this factoid was actually published in 2011.  So what.)

If you’ll look up a few posts, assuming you are looking at this factoid from the home page, you’ll see what I named the Best Picture of 2010: “Black Swan.”  However, even though it’s my favorite movie of the year, I still take caution when recommending it.  I guess you could say this post is partially inspired by EW‘s film critic Lisa Schwarzbaum, who wrote this insightful piece this week that hits home for every movie reviewer:

When faced with a request for my off-duty opinion (which is to say, a market recommendation), I shift pleasantly and agreeably to the role of consumer advocate. If you like ______ (Jeff Bridges? ’80s videogame nostalgia? Katherine Heigl?), you’ll like _______. And if you don’t like _________ (war movies? chick flicks? Katherine Heigl?), then you won’t like _______. And at the party, in the elevator, or in the dentist’s chair, I become more of a guide than a critic. Someone asks, “How’s Black Swan?” and I answer, “Delirious. Voluptuous. Mad and grand and I liked it but…how do you feel about crazy ballet movies? Because this one isnuts.” Someone else asks, “How is Made in Dagenham?” and I reply, “It’s a perky British retro labor story, starring perky Sally Hawkins, very cute and uplifting.” What I don’t say is “It made my teeth hurt.”

So, my conundrum with “Black Swan” is that I can’t really recommend it to any adults simply because of how horrifying and edgy the content is.  It’s a movie meant to be adored by the insatiable “gimme more, gimme everything” crowd populated mostly by people my age.  For adults … yeah, well, 20 years ago most of them would have liked it.  It’s excruciating to say something is my favorite movie of the year but still not be able to recommend it to certain people.

The Los Angeles Times also saw this age divide and wrote this:

… critics about 50 or younger have embraced the horror-ballet combination almost universally: Michael Phillips (“an exciting fairy tale for grown-ups”), Andrew O’ Hehir (“a memorable near-masterpiece”) and Manohla Dargis (“shocking, funny and touching”), to name a few. Not so at the other end of the age spectrum. Some older critics liked it, but plenty didn’t. David Denby, the L.A. Times’ Kenneth Turan (“You won’t be having a lot of fun at ‘Black Swan’ “), Rex Reed and Kirk Honeycutt (“trying to coax a horror-thriller out of the world of ballet doesn’t begin to work for Darren Aronofsky”) wrote skeptical or scathing reviews.

Yes, I’m sure there are many older filmgoers who appreciate the film’s not-inconsiderable charms. But think of it this way. If you’ve seen it and are in a younger demographic, there’s a good chance you’ll suggest it to a friend. But would you recommend it to someone in their 60s or 70s? My own mother — who is, well, I’ll only say not younger than 50 — is a studious fan of both ballet and art-house movies. She told me recently she’s very interested in “Black Swan.” I encouraged her to see it, then immediately began sputtering qualifications.

What’s behind a split like this? Younger filmgoers, many of them coming of age after the worst of the Cold War and in a time of moral  relativism, might say their generation is better designed to tolerate ambiguity. And “Black Swan” dwells in a place of deep ambiguity — in its combination of genres, in its schizophrenic tone (is it high art or low camp?), in the very fabric of the film, in which we’re never sure how much is real and how much is imagined.

It feels strange and borderline paradoxical to unabashedly recommend a movie with discretion.  “If you can handle it, you’ll love it,” I say, “but if you can’t, then it’s going to a rough experience.”  But such is the beauty of the human race, I guess.  Not everyone has the same tastes.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (November 26, 2010)

26 11 2010

It’s Black Friday!  While my shopping today was limited to Amazon.com, there’s something more to celebrate … IT’S CHRISTMAS TIME!  (Officially, at least!)

What better way to celebrate than by watching a Christmas movie?  May I propose “Love Actually,” my pick for this week’s “F.I.L.M.”  It gets you in the holiday spirit like no other with its abundant tales of all sorts of different loves in the Christmas season.  This isn’t a traditional Christmas movie in the tradition of “Elf” or “The Santa Clause,” but the holiday plays such an integral role in the storyline that it’s hard to call it anything else.  It reminds you of the joys of the Christmas season so well that it’s become a sort of traditional holiday kick-off for my family.

Platonic love, impossible love, irresponsible love, mourning love, familial love, interlingual love, desperate love – you name it, this movie offers it.  Some might call it overambitious or cluttered, but I think Richard Curtis’ script is an enormously satisfying blend of love that makes flawless connections between its characters.  He packs the movie full of humor and heart, tied with a bow of such irresistible charm that you’ll wish every gift under the Christmas tree could provide such joy.

All your favorite Brits (and Laura Linney) are feeling the bliss and pain of love in overdrive with all the madness surrounding the holidays catches them.  The perpetually single Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) is undeniably attracted to one of the women working for him (Martine McCutcheon), which makes for a difficult situation.  The clumsy writer Jamie (Colin Firth) finds himself falling for his Portuguese housekeeper while working France, despite the fact that neither can speak the same language.

Sarah (Linney) is madly in love with her co-worker Karl (Rodrigo Santoro) but can never work up the courage to say anything.  Daniel (Liam Neeson) is mourning the death of his long-suffering wife while trying to help his young stepson get noticed by his crush.  Karen (Emma Thompson) is trying to put on a happy face for her family while her husband (Alan Rickman) isn’t being entirely honest about his affairs.

And playing behind it all, there’s washed-up and rehabbed rock star Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) trying to reclaim his former glory by shamelessly converting an old song into Christmas jam, “Christmas Is All Around.”  He’s a hilariously self-depracating mess, making ill-advised remarks like, “Kids, don’t buy drugs; become a celebrity and they’ll give them to you for FREE!”  Nighy delivers one of those divine, once-in-a-decade comedic performances, and he absolutely steals the movie.

I didn’t even touch on about half of the storylines in the story, not to mention the subplots.  There’s just so much there for everyone in “Love Actually” that it’s practically irresistible.  While you might not click with one storyline, there are a dozen others that you are bound to love!  Like the poster says, it’s the “ultimate romantic comedy,” and you’ll be amazed at how entertaining and fun Richard Curtis and his army of British actors can make the dying genre.





Random Factoid #465

5 11 2010

“We don’t have an obligation to give consumers what they want when they want it.”

That’s a real quote from a studio executive, and if this profit-hungry motivation doesn’t have you up in flames, I don’t know what will.

I understand that the movie industry is losing money across the board (so much for the cries of recession-proof, eh?), but taking advantage of your consumers is NOT the way to make up the deficit.  According to /Film, this is the state of the industry:

“Despite a few prominent successes at the box office this year, the industry is in a state of financial turmoil, with DVD sales cratering, Blu-Ray sales not compensating, and the rise of rental companies like Netflix and Redbox, offering consumers a way to see a movie for cheap.”

I think Netflix and Redbox are great (I have become avid users of both this year), and with the latter announcing plans to go digital, the future is not in discs anymore.  It’s on the Internet.

Universal, Fox, and Warner Bros. have all been skeptics of the new frontier, waiting four weeks to release their movies digitally out of fear that it will affect DVD sales.  They are only about to get worse, according to /Film.  A Warner Bros. executive said, “To be honest, I think [the window] a little short today versus what we probably need … that will get revisited as those deals expire.”  And to make matters worse, they plan on limiting the movies released to Netflix instant streaming, which is quickly becoming their most used feature.

I buy few DVDs anymore, and thanks to iTunes and Netflix offering HD rentals and streaming, I don’t feel the need to buy a Blu-Ray player.  We are entering the digital age of movies, and it’s time that the studios embrace it.  I have embraced it, so should they.  There will always be a place for these discs, although first it will be in the dust and soon after in a museum next to the VHS tapes and LaserDiscs.

(For all those desiring a more business-savvy approach to this topic, check out the great piece that The Los Angeles Times ran a few weeks ago.)





Oscar Moment: “Alice in Wonderland”

30 10 2010

I’m sorry, did someone say “Best Picture nominee ‘Alice in Wonderland?'”  Are we talking about the Tim Burton version?

I don’t know what they are smoking over at Disney’s awards department, but apparently someone thought it was a good idea to launch an all-out awards push for “Alice in Wonderland” for Best Picture.  As some blogger put it, “I guess a billion dollars does buy you anything.”

If Disney had put out an FYC ad asking voters to remember the costumes, the visual effects, and the set design of the movie, I would be just fine.  But an ad asking voters to consider the movie for Best Picture and other major categories?  Get real.  This is a movie that was completely dismissed by critics, scoring a 51% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 53 on Metacritic.  I gave the movie a generous C, which in retrospect may have been too lenient.  Here’s an excerpt from my review to give you a slight taste of my feelings about the movie:

Burton said that his intention was to “try and make Alice feel more like a story as opposed to a series of events” because he never felt an emotional connection between the characters in the original.  In this respect, his version is an utter disaster.  I saw exactly the opposite of what he intended: Alice wandering from place to place with absolutely no plot building.

Just because “Avatar” was a good-looking movie that made a lot of money and got a Best Picture nomination does not mean that the formula works for every good-looking movie that makes a lot of money.  “Avatar” was a good movie, certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and reached universal acclaim status on Metacritic.  Disney has a bona fide Best Picture contender in “Toy Story 3,” and it could very well win if their cards are played right.  Why on earth they feel like wasting a penny on a movie that I think has no shot in hell at receiving an Oscar nomination is totally beyond me.

I expect the movie to pick up a few tech nominations and maybe win a few guild prizes.  However, if “Alice in Wonderland” gets a Best Picture nomination, it will be the final nail in the Academy’s coffin of irrelevance.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Makeup, Best Visual Effects

OTHER POSSIBLE NOMINATIONS: Best Picture (?)