REVIEW: Everest

16 09 2015

EverestTowards the end of the lengthy expository section of “Everest,” journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) asks the question on everyone’s mind: “Why Everest?”  The film recounts a harrowing climb under the tutelage of mountain guide Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), who leads a group that does not necessarily look a typical band of sport climbers.  Knowing what exactly motivates them to reach the planet’s highest peak is a reasonable thing for an audience to wonder.

In this one moment perfectly set up for characters to bare their souls – the writer makes for a reasonable excuse to pose such an inquiry – “Everest” pretty much whiffs.  When accomplished scripters William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy cannot deliver on an obvious occasion to answer what deeper meaning this mountain has, it cannot help but disappoint.

So, in the absence of a satisfactory answer to Krakauer’s question, I would like to pose it myself – albeit with slightly different punctuation and inflection.  Why, “Everest?”

Why, “Everest,” must you include a maudlin, manipulative score that tells us exactly how to feel when we should feel it?  Granted, at least they got Dario Marianelli, so it sounds pretty.  But as I watched the film, my mind often drifted to thinking about how much more intense and visceral the experience would be with the score for “Gravity.”  Such impressionistic sounds and frightening dissonances could make the environment seem dauntingly alien.  The music meant to represent climbing the world’s tallest mountain should not resemble the score for any old drama.

Why, “Everest,” must you stubbornly insist on just portraying things that happen to people?  As Hall’s group summits, they face treacherous weather conditions that put their lives in peril.  But the snowstorm is just a snowstorm.  The film lacks any sort of overarching structure of conflict, like man vs. nature or man vs. man, to imbue the challenges with deeper meaning in the mold of “127 Hours.”  The struggles remain in the realm of the personal, not tapping some greater sense of collective fear.  It’s danger without any sense of dread for the audience.
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REVIEW: Low Down

9 12 2014

Low DownAs a general rule of thumb, I do not walk out of movies – or even turn them off when watching at home.  It’s a general sign of respect as well as perhaps a misplaced optimism.  You just never know when a movie might show the tiniest sign of redemption.

I was recently fortunate enough to receive an electronic screener link to view “Low Down,” which is now among the rare class of movies that I could not bring myself to finish.  The film is not actively, egregiously bad.  It is just never good, save a mildly impressive control of period atmosphere by first-time director Jeff Preiss.

I must have forgotten to hit the pause button when I left to get lunch or something because when I came back, I could not remember where I had stopped the screener.  As I was scrolling through different scenes, I honestly could not recall whether or not I had watched them.  “Low Down” left that soft of an impact on me.

I saw the writing on the wall when a character misquotes a line from Shakespeare (it’s “if music be the food of love,” not “fruit”) and no one, in front of or behind the camera, seems to bat an eyelid.  “Low Down” is a considerable squandering of talent, as it deploys the virtuosic John Hawkes as Joe Albany, a gifted jazz pianist struggling to kick a drug addiction.  Never seen that one before…

There are plenty of talented actors playing characters in his orbit, including Glenn Close as his mother.  But none is more disappointing to see go to waste than Elle Fanning, the talented young actress from “Somewhere” and “Super 8” who is well on her way to eclipsing her older sister.  She plays Joe’s daughter in what could arguably be considered a co-lead performance, yet she has little personality and might as well just be an accessory to her father.

I did, out of the mildest of curiosities, skip to the final scene of the film just to see the ultimate fates of the characters.  Spoiler alert: there’s nothing to spoil.  You know what’s coming, but I dare you to outlast the tedium of “Low Down” to make it there.  C-1halfstars





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

7 01 2013

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

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

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

Best Actor

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

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

DDL Dominance

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

Les Miz

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

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

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

Master

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Actress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rust and Bone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beasts

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

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

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

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

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





REVIEW: Lincoln

1 12 2012

I am by no means saying that “Lincoln” is not a smart movie.  I think the writing is very clever, the angle is interesting, and the words take the feel of political poetry.  And Daniel Day-Lewis gives a very meticulous and impressively restrained performance as the iconic 16th President.

But these two things do not necessarily a great movie make.  Director Steven Spielberg ultimately did not make a compelling argument as to why “Lincoln” is cinematic, and that is by far the most crucial component of a film’s success.  We don’t experience film on a page; we watch it on a screen.  And though I often sat wondering how much I would love to pore over Tony Kushner’s script, I never felt like I needed to see it on screen.  (Perhaps it would have been better served as a closet script, one meant to be read, not filmed.)

The history lesson is interesting in that it features a tight, narrow focus rather than the broad canvases in some of Spielberg’s earlier historical films such as “Schindler’s List” or “Amistad.”  Kushner’s grueling, often tedious procedural and insistance on parading new characters onto screen in rapid fire succession makes “Lincoln” feel more like an “Amistad,” meant to go straight into the DVD player in high school American history courses.  If it weren’t for the cavalcade of notable Oscar-recognized talent, it would feel no different than those dramatized History Channel specials that teachers show to give their students a break.

I have no problem with the Spielberg pendulum shifting towards education rather than entertainment and showmanship.  However, if such a changing dynamic is to work, Spielberg needed to shift his approach.  In “Lincoln,” he largely doesn’t.  In the first two hours of the film, we are bombarded with facts, details, and events.

Then, as the film comes to a close, the movie slows down and begins to amble.  We get generous close-ups of the people whose tireless efforts we have been following, as if Spielberg is telling us, “Here, feel for them … now!”  Perhaps after spending a semester watching all his films, I am hyperaware of his trademark shot and can fairly easily resist the pull.  But I wasn’t actively resisting or anything, they just didn’t work here.  The technique would have been great if “Lincoln” were more in the mold of “Schindler’s List” or “Saving Private Ryan,” histories built around deep emotions.  He can’t simply pull the technique out to achieve a similar effect for an entirely different film.

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REVIEW: The Sessions

20 11 2012

I went into “The Sessions” assuming it was tailor-made for Oscars, but I walked out assuming it was tailor-made to annoy me.  It’s as if writer/director Ben Lewin found the perfect characters for awards season glory – disabled poet/virgin, sex surrogate with a heart of gold, and a “hip” priest – and failed to explore them any further beyond an archetype.

I’m not quite sure who deserves the blame for the film’s total inability to connect, Lewin’s overly simplistic scripting and characterization or the actors for failing to fill in the gaps.  All things considered, these characters should be a slam dunk for Oscar nominees John Hawkes and William H. Macy and especially for Oscar winner Helen Hunt.  They play such sympathetic characters: Hawkes’ Mark O’Brien is a tender poet who merely wants to experience the ecstasy of sex that our culture trumpets so loudly, and Hunt’s Cheryl is a teacher of sexual form who finds herself looking to her clients to make her feel the appreciation she lacks at home.

“The Sessions” could have explored how the two found fulfillment in what they lacked, Mark from sex and Cheryl from intimacy.  However, Lewin keeps the movie operating on a mere surface level, aiming for “American Pie” style gags about sexual naïveté.  Mark O’Brien is really not all that different from Jason Biggs’ Jim Levenstein if you compared the two.  And I guess continuing the analogy, William H. Macy’s Catholic priest serves a very similar function as Jim’s dad, played by Eugene Levy, in terms of providing some inappropriate advice given their symbolic positions.

Especially given the physical commitment on display from the two leads, what with Hawkes only able to contort his head and Hunt taking off all the clothes and exposing the entirety of her body, the sitcom-esque nature of their characters are brought to light, exposed, and shamed.  If the actors are going to such drastic lengths to animate Mark and Cheryl, why could I not care the slightest bit for either of them?  Going for broke on “The Sessions,” which was already broke to begin with, didn’t pay off for the audience.  C+





Oscar Moment: First 2012 Predictions

5 08 2012

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

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

Best Picture:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





REVIEW: Contagion

3 01 2012

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

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

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

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