REVIEW: The Descendants

14 03 2012

Mixing comedy and drama is a perilous task, but Alexander Payne makes it look like he could do it in his sleep in his remarkable new film “The Descendants.”  An absolute triumph of writing and directing, he finds the humor in the tragic situations and gravity in the funniest moments.  His pathos is unconventional and unexpected, leaving his words and messages lingering in your head for days.

Just like some of Payne’s previous films like “Election” and “About Schmidt,” he chooses to tell the story through the eyes of a prickly protagonist.  In “The Descendants,” it’s Matt King (George Clooney), the owner of a massive Hawaiian land inheritance.  After his unfaithful wife lapses into a coma after a freak boating accident, Matt must come to terms that he has been absent as the head of his family.  His role as the “understudy” comes to bite him in the butt as he is forced to assume both parenting roles actively on short notice.

Payne’s screenplay (which he co-wrote with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) begins its narrations through voice-overs from Matt that illuminate his thoughts.  We get a chance to fully grasp his frustrations, his anxieties, and his fears before we really get down in the mud with him during these trying times.  The narration slowly disappears as the movie progresses, but that hardly means we lose our connection to Matt.  Instead, Payne wisely trusts leading man George Clooney to take over control of communicating his character to the audience.

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Oscar Moment: Final 2011 Predictions!

23 01 2012

Well, folks … guesswork is almost over.  In a little over 12 hours, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) will announce their nominations for the best of the best of 2011.  We’ve had plenty of nominations and winners to give us an idea of what’s to come tomorrow morning.  I’ve done plenty of analyzing the categories, but I think now I just have to go with a mix of gut and knowledge.

Best Picture

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

I’m feeling only six Best Picture nominees this year.  (For those who don’t know about the new rules and regulations of the category, the Best Picture field is now an elastic number of nominees between five and ten.  In order to be nominated for Best Picture, a movie needs to receive at least five percent of the number one votes.)  The top five are very obvious.

I would say “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” takes the sixth spot because it’s the only other plausible nominee with enough guild support (sorry “Bridesmaids”).  If we learned anything from 2010, it was that the guilds still win out in the end.  “War Horse” has been far too silent on the guild front and hasn’t made nearly enough money to be a smashing success.  Plus, there’s an opportunity – and a likelihood – that they can give him another Oscar win in the Best Animated Feature category for “The Adventures of Tintin.” “The Tree of Life” has the critical support, but I don’t think that’s enough to break it into this race.  Oscar voters aren’t critics.

Best Director

  1. Michel Hazanavicius, “The Artist”
  2. Martin Scorsese, “Hugo”
  3. Alexander Payne, “The Descendants”
  4. Woody Allen, “Midnight in Paris”
  5. David Fincher, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

The top three are rock solid locks.  Woody Allen seems very inevitable given the widespread love for his movie and that the directors have nominated him six times before.  The last slot could go any number of ways – Fincher like the DGA picked, Malick like every critic proclaimed from the rooftop, Spielberg if “War Horse” actually makes a strong showing, or maybe even Tate Taylor if they really love “The Help.”

Looking at history, the lone director slot comes when there’s a particularly unknown director for a well-liked movie: Joe Wright missing for “Atonement,” Jonathan Dayton/Valerie Faris missing for “Little Miss Sunshine,” Marc Forster missing for “Finding Neverland,” and Gary Ross for “Seabiscuit.”  So I think it’s safe to say that the vulnerable director of a leading movie is Tate Taylor.  But who gets the slot?

I would say look to the DGA, but looking over their nominees, they do a better job of picking the Best Picture five than they do picking Best Director.  So thus I glean from their slate that “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” has the strength to crack the Best Picture field, but Fincher might not necessarily show up here again.  My brain says go with Malick since lone director nominees usually represent far-out, well-directed artsy films.  But my gut says Fincher gets it, if for no other reason that Hollywood seems to have found its new anointed golden director and just wants to shower him with awards for everything.

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”

Best Actor is, on the whole, a very conservative category.  Save the occasional Tommy Lee Jones for “In the Valley of Elah” or Javier Bardem for “Biutiful,” it almost always unfolds according to plan – no matter how boring that plan may be.  So yes, I still pick Michael Fassbender for “Shame” even though there has been some skepticism raised recently.  And yes, I will even defend Leonardo DiCaprio who stars in what will surely be one of the most maligned movies of 2011 to receive an Oscar nomination.  This year, he accumulated the three most important precursor nominations.  And he managed to get nominated in 2006 even when he had two performances in play.  They like him, and I think that (unfortunately) they’ll probably reward him with another nomination.

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”

Yes, even though she missed with the BFCA and SAG, I have confidence that the late surge of support for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” can net a nomination for Rooney Mara over Glenn Close.  I don’t think “Albert Nobbs” has much buzz about it anymore, and even though they like Glenn Close, there are a lot of quotients that Mara would fill.  She’s under 30 and hasn’t been nominated before; you have to go back to 1994 to find a year where the Best Actress category was all prior nominees.  Thus, I rest my case and cross my fingers.

Best Supporting Actor

  1. Christopher Plummer, “Beginners”
  2. Albert Brooks, “Drive”
  3. Kenneth Branagh, “My Week with Marilyn”
  4. Jonah Hill, “Moneyball”
  5. Armie Hammer, “J. Edgar”

I only feel sure of the top pick Plummer; the next three are fairly vulnerable; the fifth spot could go any number of ways.  I still can’t predict Nolte for “Warrior,” and maybe it’s because I can’t separate my dislike of the movie from the nomination process.  I just don’t think the performance was good, and I’m hopeful that the Academy will validate my opinion.  It could be Brad Pitt as a double nominee for “The Tree of Life;” it could be Ben Kingsley sneaking in for “Hugo;” it could be SAG nominee Armie Hammer for “J. Edgar.”  When in doubt, go with SAG, I guess.

Best Supporting Actress

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

Someone else suggested the Woodley comparison to Andrew Garfield’s snub for “The Social Network,” and I’m dreading that it might be the case.  But I really have a hard time picking Melissa McCarthy for a nomination, even if she was a SAG nominee.  I just don’t see it happening.  I don’t think the performance is enough of a stand-out to break the funny woman barrier at the Oscars.  The nomination could be a symbolic vote, but I think traditional performances win the day.

Best Original Screenplay

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

This category always has some surprises up its sleeve for nomination morning, so I don’t know how confident I feel picking so close to the WGA nominations.  I think “Bridesmaids” will see the prize for its remarkable awards run here, and I think “Win Win” has built up enough steam to get in too.  “50/50” has the WGA nom but not much else going for it.  Some say “A Separation” takes its enormous buzz and makes a showing here, but I think the drama of choice will be “Beginners.”  Just another gut feeling.

Best Adapted Screenplay

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

Four Best Picture nominees will be adapted, so I feel like those will make it in over some arguably “better written” or “more loved” work.  And “Moneyball” has too much acclaim and steam to ignore; it could win even if it doesn’t get a Best Picture nomination.

So that’s what I think!  What about you?  Anything you are hoping for?  Rooting against?





Weekend Update – Golden Globes 2011 Live Blog!

15 01 2012

4:00 P.M.  E! has already started their Golden Globe coverage, so I guess it’s time for me to begin as well!  Time for the best of Hollywood (and television) to come out and get rewarded (or robbed).  Predictions will slowly trickle in as the stars grace the red carpet, but I’ll be writing from the arrivals to the awards to Ricky Gervais’ harsh quips.  With recaps, opinions, and insights, make “Marshall and the Movies” your companion for the Golden Globes!

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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!





F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 6, 2012)

6 01 2012

With previous Oscar winners George Clooney and Tilda Swinton coasting towards another nomination for “The Descendants” and “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” respectively, it’s as good a time as ever to feature a movie they starred in together, Tony Gilroy’s “Michael Clayton.”  The 2007 Best Picture nominee (and winner for Swinton’s performance) is a gripping legal thriller that never takes you farther than a deposition room but provides legitimate fodder for thought beyond the annals of the court.  Gilroy presents three characters, played by Clooney, Swinton, and Tom Wilkinson, who each must consider what place morality and truthfulness has in their lives and in their jobs as lawyers.

It all begins with Jerry Maguire-esque moment of awakening for Wilkinson’s Arthur Edens, an incredibly respected New York attorney, who suddenly realizes that he no longer wishes to deny his conscience by representing UNorth in a class action lawsuit that violates his ethics.  After meeting with the victims of the company’s agrochemical products, the class action suit suddenly gets a human face for him … and Arthur feels the need to purge this skin of falseness so urgently that he strips naked in the middle of a deposition room.

While Arthur has a history of mental shakiness, Clooney’s Michael Clayton, the fixer for their firm Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, knows that there’s something more to the meltdown that a few chemical issues.  Michael, facing staggering debt from a failed restaurant and questioning the value of his job, is forced into a rigorous self-examination that Clooney animates with the perfect balance of internalized and externalized emotion.  He proves himself to be one of the best, if not THE best, actor of his generation at exploring tortured souls.  He realizes Michael’s flaws so vividly but finds some hidden nobility so we care about the journey even while vacillating on our opinion of the character.

Meanwhile, the scene stealer is Swinton’s Karen Crowder, the general counsel for UNorth.  She’s an über-Type A perfectionist who labors and frets over the smallest of details and really has no idea how to handle a situation like Arthur’s, which threatens to undo years of litigation and jeopardize millions of the company’s dollars – not to mention their reputation.  As he descends into madness (or a divine clarity depending on where you stand), she descends into a professional hell where her off-the-record, back-alley decisions make the difference for the fate of the lawsuit.  Karen, like the rest of the characters in the movie, are so richly written by Gilroy, who uses them to explore complex issues without ever being preachy or turning “Michael Clayton” into a silly morality play. In an era where “Inside Job” shows the actual moral bankruptcy of corporate America, the four-year-old movie remains incredibly relevant.





Oscar Moment – First Predictions for 2011

29 11 2011

Best Picture

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

If we thought 2010 was a year that people most needed cinema to make them feel good, 2011 looks to be even more so.  That’s why it just seems right for a movie like ‘The Artist” to sweep in and take Best Picture.  It’s got the happy factor, the B&W factor, the silent film factor, and the nostalgia factor all going for it.  I have yet to see it, but even if I were somehow not to like it, I could still be content with this winning Best Picture because it would affirm the power of the prize.  When they reward risky, out-of-the-box movies, Hollywood responds by thinking even more creatively.  When they reward movies like “The King’s Speech,” studios start focus grouping the hell out of their contenders to perfectly calculate Oscar success.

There are other narratives to reckon with too, however.  Perennial Oscar favorite Steven Spielberg charges back onto the scene with “War Horse,” which coupled with box office success could wallop a hard knockout punch.  If audiences and critics decide it’s “Saving Private Ryan” good, I’ll have to seriously reevaluate.  Then there’s also Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” the biggest hit ever from the workhorse director.  It’s fun and funny while still making you think – the best of both Oscar worlds, if you will.  Right now, I can’t see Best Picture going to any other movie than these three.

However, don’t count out “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.”  It has yet to screen for anyone, but that’s one heck of a book.  The delay makes pundits uneasy, but with AMPAS golden boy Stephen Daldry at the helm, Eric Roth with the pen, and a Tom Hanks-Sandra Bullock combo on screen, this would have to be a total bomb not to score with them.

I also expect “The Help” and “The Descendants” to find enough of a base of support to garner a nomination.  And I can’t help but feel that people are severely underestimating “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”  It’s David Fincher.

On the fringe, though, are three movies that could easily break into the field – Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball,” and Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.”  Each have their weaknesses, so we’ll just have to see how they hold up through precursor season.  That’s the fun of it!

Best Director

  1. Steven Spielberg, “War Horse”
  2. Woody Allen, “Midnight in Paris”
  3. Michael Hazanavicius, “The Artist”
  4. Stephen Daldry, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”
  5. Alexander Payne, “The Descendants”

Here’s where ballot manipulation will start to muddle the waters.  Michael Hazanavicius, director of “The Artist,” is largely unknown, but Harvey Weinstein will have him making rounds on the circuit to cure lack of name recognition.  He got Tom Hooper a win last year at the expense of widely renowned David Fincher.  If “The Artist” appears headed for a sweep, it will have to take this category too.

But if “The Artist” and “War Horse” have the same group of fans, I see it likely that they honor the latter by voting for the iconic director to take home his third Academy Award for Best Director.  Woody Allen could also benefit from his legendary status, although I would bet they tip their hat to “Midnight in Paris” in the writing categories.  (As for the other two nominees, it’s never smart to bet against Payne or Daldry.)

Best Actor

  1. George Clooney, “The Descendants”
  2. Jean Dujardin, “The Artist”
  3. Brad Pitt, “Moneyball”
  4. Michael Fassbender, “Shame”
  5. Michael Shannon, “Take Shelter”

Can the “he’s a leading man, not a supporting actor” logic prevail to give George Clooney another Oscar?  I think that’s going to be the message from Fox Searchlight, and the starpower may be their only weapon to fend off the irresistible Jean Dujardin in “The Artist.”  I suspect it may already be down to these two, and wouldn’t it be exciting if we had another showdown like Penn-Rourke in 2008?

Meanwhile, I’m starting to think Brad Pitt is a lock for “Moneyball,” and Michael Fassbender’s daring performance in “Shame” will likely pick up some steam with release and exposure (no pun intended).  As for that final slot, I’m going daring and choosing Michael Shannon, who apparently turns in a very flashy performance in “Take Shelter” that I think might overpower Gary Oldman’s purportedly understated work in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”  But we’ll just have to see.

Best Actress

  1. Meryl Streep, “The Iron Lady”
  2. Rooney Mara, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”
  3. Viola Davis, “The Help”
  4. Michelle Williams, “My Week with Marilyn”
  5. Glenn Close, “Albert Nobbs”

My gut tells me that Streep will take the day here and win her first Oscar in 30 years.  The role is baity enough, the time is right, we may have never appreciated Meryl more.  But the fact that the film won’t open to audiences until next year makes it hard to gain audience support.

That’s why her biggest competitors may be two women headlining huge commercial vehicles, Rooney Mara in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and Viola Davis in “The Help.”  While Davis has Oprah and a sentimental vote behind her, Mara may be a huge threat because Lisbeth Salander is an intense, grueling role that demands a tremendous amount of physical commitment.  And let’s not forget that Oscar likes his leading women young.

Michelle Williams could make a big surge if “My Week with Marilyn” becomes an audience favorite with expansion.  Ditto for Charlize Theron in “Young Adult,” who has been left off the charts in favor of Glenn Close in “Albert Nobbs.”  If it weren’t for her name and her passion for the project, I would have chosen Theron or Elizabeth Olsen in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” for that final slot.  But Roadside Attractions is going to need to work overtime to revive the Streep vs. Close dialectic this month because it died rather quickly.

Best Supporting Actor

  1. Christopher Plummer, “Beginners”
  2. Patton Oswalt, “Young Adult”
  3. Max von Sydow, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”
  4. Jonah Hill, “Moneyball”
  5. Ben Kingsley, “Hugo”

I have absolutely no idea what to make of this field as everyone, except Plummer, could be totally out by next week.  Could the sentimental lifetime achievement faction of the Oscar voters shamelessly bare their teeth to honor the 81-year-old star?  At this point, that’s my best guess.  However, there could be another emerging storyline that will take over the Oscar narrative.

Could the lifetime achievement award be, in fact, for Max von Sydow in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close?”  I see it as extremely likely given that the movie definitely needs one acting nomination with the talent involved, and Bullock could end up falling off the radar.  Patton Oswalt in “Young Adult” could make a case for funnymen who don’t typically do very well in the category.

My last two picks are just educated guesses, more just flinging mud at the wall than anything.  If “Moneyball” is a homerun with Academy voters, Jonah Hill could find himself on base in the category.  Same with Ben Kingsley in “Hugo,” who seems to be emerging late as a serious contender, particularly if the critical masses adoring Scorsese’s latest sound off loudly for him and the movie.

Best Supporting Actress

  1. Bérénice Bejo, “The Artist”
  2. Octavia Spencer, “The Help”
  3. Sandra Bullock, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”
  4. Shailene Woodley, “The Descendants”
  5. Carey Mulligan, “Shame”

I’m counting on big love for “The Artist” to make the unknown Bérénice Bejo an Academy Award winner.  Again, she has to battle unknown status, but her biggest challenger will likely be another unknown, Octavia Spencer in “The Help.”  Since “The Artist” is much more likely to take home the big prize, I think Bejo is more likely to ride on her film’s coattails to victory.  I’d hate to demean her with the term tack-on, but think Jennifer Connelly winning for “A Beautiful Mind” and Catherine Zeta-Jones winning for “Chicago.”  To justify Best Picture, maybe voters will decide it needs an acting win as well.

Two years after winning Best Actress for “The Blind Side,” Sandra Bullock looks to factor back into the Oscar scheme for “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.”  If Von Sydow isn’t showy enough, look for her to make a big rise simply due to the power associated with her name.  On the other hand, you have someone like Shailene Woodley who will likely ride in on the strength of her performance and the strength of her movie.  I don’t quite think her CV, consisting almost entirely of ABC Family’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” is going to impress many voters.

For that last slot, I’ve picked Carey Mulligan in “Shame” over the much heralded performance of Vanessa Redgrave in “Coriolanus.”  I will most likely look back and call myself an idiot, but I just get the sinking sensation that people are not taking her seriously enough.  She reportedly bares it all, literally and figuratively, in a role that showcases the talents that wooed voters two years ago in “An Education.”  But just like last year, the picture is very, very unclear.

Best Original Screenplay

  1. Midnight in Paris
  2. The Artist
  3. Young Adult
  4. Win Win
  5. Martha Marcy May Marlene

It’s really a shame that even with the number of really impressive original screenplays this year, the Academy will likely settle for standard fare. I’m still counting on golden boy Woody Allen to pull through here, but if “The Artist” is poised for a sweep, I don’t see how it can not take an award for its writing.  Only three films in the past decade have taken Best Picture without a win in the Screenplay category.

As for the rest of the field, it could fall any number of ways.  I’d say the safest third slot would be for “Young Adult,” which is written by 2007 winner Diablo Cody.  But as for those last two movies, I just picked two of my favorites from this year in the prayer that they have a chance.  I can dream, can’t I?

Best Adapted Screenplay

  1. The Descendants
  2. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
  3. War Horse
  4. Moneyball
  5. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Scribe Alexander Payne is an Academy darling, winner in 2004 for his adaptation of “Sideways” as well as nominee in 1999 for his work on the script for “Election.”  I think until otherwise informed, it’s not smart to bet against him.

But there are plenty of other Oscar winners vying for glory here.  Eric Roth, winner for “Forrest Gump” and nominee for three other films, is in the race with “Extremely Loud and Incredible Close.”  Jonathan Safran Foer’s book is quite eccentric and would be a quite a challenge to adapt; even if the movie doesn’t quite hit home with the Academy, I see a nomination here as practically inevitable.  “War Horse” is written by two previous nominees, and while the writing seems to be a lesser component of the movie, a nomination seems assured.

“Moneyball” is written by last year’s winner, Aaron Sorkin, as well as Steven Zaillian, winner in 1993 for his work on “Schindler’s List.”  Zaillian could even pull double duty as a nominee as I’m predicting, on a whim, that his adaptation of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” will also factor into the race.





REVIEW: The Ides of March

8 10 2011

George Clooney’s “The Ides of March” makes plenty of references to the brokenness of the American political system, something you can observe by merely turning on the news nowadays.  But perhaps the most problematic indicator of the nation’s shortcomings is how easily the film can be read as a black comedy.  Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov’s script is chock full of cruel ironies, many of which are veiled references to various political scandals.  And the very liberal Clooney is all too happy to throw Bill Clinton, and to some extent, Barack Obama, under the bus.

In an era where Congressmen send lewd pictures over Twitter, governors have foreign mistresses, and presidents act improperly with interns, is it possible that we’ve become so desensitized to scandal that we have just accepted that the system will fail us?  “The Ides of March,” with its grandiose plot of political intrigue, seems to imply yes by the lengths it has to go to shock us.  And in 2011, when public opinion seems to have turned against the establishment, this may be the movie people watch in the future to see American disillusionment and the failure of Obama’s hope and change rhetoric.

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