Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Twist Until You Are Loopey!

     I said in my review for Argo that any REALLY good film has one (or two) aspects that seem to stand out as its strongest suit.  Looper IS such a film, and its strongest suit is definitely the script.  After I had seen the trailers, I felt like they had given all the twists away ahead of time.  Not even half.  Looper is the most surprising thriller that I have seen in a long time.  Every time I thought that I had it all figured out, it slapped me in the face and told me that thought is WRONG!  Although your perceptions became unexpectedly skewed at every turn it always made the pieces fit together more sensibly.  Of course, some pretty wild coincidences are thrown in for good measure, but it IS a movie about time travel and the inherent paradoxes it can bring, so some leeway must be given in this area.
     Writer/director Rian Johnson has been sitting out of the directing game since 2008, when his second feature, "The Brothers Bloom", failed to achieve the same sort of critical reception that his debut feature "Brick" had met with, despite his access to a much higher profile cast.  In Looper, he has reteamed with Brick star Joseph Gordon-Levitt to phenomenal effect for both men.  Johnson comes back strong, pulling the very best out of both his story and his actors.
     Speaking of the actors, this is the best dramatic turn that we've seen from Bruce Willis in over a decade.  All of his trademark swagger from his younger days fits the older version of Joe well (I'm going to avoid giving away any of the plot as much as possible, but Willis plays the older version of the character played by Gordon-Levitt.)  Yet, the more grizzled demeanor that age has given him also fits the character perfectly making a well rounded yet believable combination.
     Joseph Gordon-Levitt will probably not even make most of the conversations about the Best Actor race this year for his work in Looper (supporting nods for sci-fi, maybe, but leads?, forget it), but he undoubtedly should be.  The production used some fantastic, subtle, prosthetic make-up tricks to make JGL look a little more like a young version of  Willis (major kudos to artists Jamie Kelman and Kazuhiro Tsuji), but Gordon-Levitt REALLY makes you believe it is true.  He gets Willis's posture, speech patterns, facial expressions, hand gestures, and just about every mannerism down perfectly.  It's a little creepy, but absolutely amazing to watch.
     Emily Blunt is getting Best Supporting Actress buzz for this film as well, and while it still seems like a bit of a long shot, she is very deserving.  I would also like to commend Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, and child actor Pierce Gagnon who all impressed in smaller roles.
     Looper  is a film with much greater thematic depth than you really expect a film of its type to possess.  Early on Joe (JGL) faces quandries that force him to choose between selfishness and charity.  In coming face to face with his older self, he becomes consumed by matters of fate versus free will as well as the meaning and nature of identity.  Emily Blunt's side of the tale calls to mind serious thought on the old nature versus nurture debate, as well as expanding upon themes of love and sacrifice.  By the film's end, Joe is faced with pretty much the same question that he faces in the beginning, but with higher odds and a better view of the big picture.
     Yes, Looper is a shoot-em up, sci-fi, action thriller, but it is the best, most profound one that I've seen made by someone other than Christopher Nolan in a long time.  If it were up to me, the film would be in serious consideration for at least seven Academy Award nominations including Best Picture. Owing to its genre, it might get one to three, with Original Screenplay and Make-Up seeming the most likely as of this writing.  Still..Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Aliens, Twelve Monkeys, Inception, and...Looper, seriously.  5 of 5 stars.

Related Posts: Sept. Oscar Buzz and Predictions -Picture, I Think You "Argo"ing to Love It

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Best Huntsman's Shadow

     In this edition of  DVD reviews we focus on three high profile pictures:  a film adaptation of a cult classic TV show, a star studded re-imagining of a classic fairy tale, and a surprising box office smash about a bunch of aging Brits (who knew they were so marketable?).  One of them is even a long shot best picture contender.  And it is...

  The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - This is not the most well crafted or best written film that you will see this year, but it is easy to see why it was so much more successful than anyone anticipated.  It is basically 2012's The Help, but with old people instead of women as the marginalized acting pool from which they snagged their tremendously talented ensemble cast.  They had me at Judi Dench and Maggie Smith.  When you add in Tom Wilkinson and the rest of the cast, it's hard not to fall in love with this picture a little bit.
     Wilkinson, Dent, and the rest of the veteran cast are fantastic, by the way, but it is Maggie Smith who has the most dramatic character arc and really steals the show.  She's having a really good year.  The only member of the cast who disappoints to an extent is Dev Patel.  I loved Mr. Patel's much more toned down work in Slumdog Millionaire, but here he seems prone to histrionic parallel hand gestures.  Perhaps working with such seasoned pros was intimidating and he's merely overcompensating;  it's hard to say.
     There is also some interesting camera work at play here.  Much of the scenery of the Indian countryside is quite beautiful.  Although I do think the Best Picture hype is mostly hyperbole, there is a lot in this film that is enjoyable.  "Hotel" is no masterpiece, but I do recommend checking it out.  4 of 5*

  Snow White and the Huntsman - This film is sort of the flip side of Mirror Mirror (or, if you insist, the mirror version).  Whereas Mirror Mirror took the Snow White myth and tried (unsuccessfully) to craft a more light hearted and fun take on the story, this movie tries to make the tale as dark and serious as possible.  The result is a somewhat mixed bag, but definitely a much stronger effort than "that other Snow White flick". 
     Let's begin with the REALLY positive.  Charlize Theron does a marvelous job as Ravena, the evil queen.  She is gorgeous, sinister, and captivating to watch.  Her scenes actually achieve the desired tonal quality, much closer to the flavor of the original folk tale than any other screen adaptation that I am aware of.  Chris Hemsworth is also perfectly respectable as the Huntsman.   For someone who has appeared only in genre films (Avengers, Cabin In the Woods), this young actor has made a very impressive showing this year.
     "Huntsman" is also a very impressive film visually.  Cinematographer Greig Fraser, Production Designer Dominic Watkins, and Costume Designer Colleen Atwood are all to be congratulated on excellent work here.  The Visual Effects are also quite captivating in places, not necessarily innovative, but containing a high level of quality and creativity.
     I also quite enjoyed that the dwarfs were allowed to take themselves a little more seriously than is usually the case in cinematic versions of the story.  Rather than use little people the director opted to use visual effects and normal sized actors, a few familiar faces vaguely recognizable among them.
     Kristen Stewart's performance in the former of the title roles was an element that ran hot and cold with me.  She was actually best when she said nothing, such as a short, beautiful scene between her and a giant forest beast.  At other times, her often stilted line readings spoiled scenes that would otherwise have packed much more power.  She delivers a far stronger performance than Sam Spruell, however, who is far too overblown as the queen's brother for the tone of the rest of the film.
     The film's greatest fault is probably that they didn't quite get the script quite where it should have been.  Some of the innovations were interesting, but there just weren't enough "wow" moments for the really great big budget summer blockbuster that this was meant to be.  It is worth checking out once, though.  Theron's performance alone is enough to warrant that.  ***1/2 of 5*

Dark Shadows -  For those of you not old enough to remember, there was a time when hearing that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp doing a film together elicited the thought, "I wonder how great this one is going to be?"  Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood were really great movies (and Sweeney Todd and Corpse Bride were no slouches either), but Willy Wonka and the Chocalate Factory and Alice In Wonderland have evinced a troubling trend for these very talented gentlemen's collaborative efforts. I regret to report that their latest effort is not bucking that trend.
     When adapting a slightly campy television show for the cinema, there are two advisable approaches.  Either do a film that seriously tries to recapture the true character of the show (The Fugitive, The Adams Family), or do one that completely spoofs it (The Brady Bunch, 21 Jump Street).  Burton's Dark Shadows does neither, but runs a middle line that makes the story both impossible to take seriously, and yet more unintentionally than purposefully funny.
     As for Depp, this great character actor (and when he's on it, nobody's better) crafts a character mostly on widening his eyes dramatically and drumming his fingers.  I was once in a production of Moliere's Imaginary Invalid where the director had to take my cane away because I had become so mesmerized at playing the prop that it became a play about a cane.  Depp is sort of like that with those exaggerated finger nails.
     The saddest thing is that Michelle Pfeiffer (who could use and deserves a major comeback) is great in this, and will probably reap no benefit from it.  The picture got an extra half star from me in her honor.
     I really wish that Burton would go back to doing the kind of brilliant original stories that first made him a force to be reckoned with back in the nineties.  None of his adaptations (save maybe Sweeney Todd) can hold a candle to those early, original works.  The man is obviously very creative but trying to force every remake with an element of fantasy into the mold of the man's personal dream world is not really unlocking his great potential as a director.  I'm planning on catching Frankenweenie early Halloween day and praying for a whiff of classic Burton.  2 of 5*

                                                                             Until we meet again,

Related Posts:  Sept. Oscar Buzz and Predictions - The Techs: Part 1, Part 2, Screenplays, Supporting Performers, Best Actor and Actress, Directors, and Picture, Being Margaret's Mirror (Mirror Mirror review), 21 Chronicled Footnotes (21 Jump Street review)

I Think You "Argo"ing to Love It!

     So, if you read The Movie Frog on any kind of regular basis, you know that my taste in films tends to run toward the bizarre and experimental.  The more a film seems tailor made for popular consumption and wide spread audience appeal, the less likely I am to find it all that memorable (unless it's a picture about my favorite comic book character of all time, in which case all bets are off).  So, even though I really enjoyed The Town, I wasn't sure that I was going to be nearly as fond of Argo as the majority of critics were on the film festival circuit.  I am pleased to report that, despite myself, I absolutely loved the film, even though it is perfectly suited for mass appreciation, and is definitely a film that you can share with friends who are in no way film snobs.
     Most REALLY good to great movies have one or two elements that rise above all the other wonderful things about them to really knock your socks off and bring the victory home.  In The Dark Knight rises it is the marriage of spectacle and character development.  In Beasts of the Southern Wild it is the subtext and the performance of the young lead.  In The Master it is the cinematography and the three lead performances.  Argo's strongest suit?  Pacing.
     Argo is a complex two hour film that seems to go by like an hour and ten minutes of easily digestible popcorn entertainment.  You can't do that without the careful collaboration of an extremely skilled directorial/editorial team.  Ben Affleck began proving his chops as a director straight out of the gate and has improved with each successive outing.  In this, only his third film, he really delivers like a master at the top of his game.  All the elements come together beautifully, every scene and every shot are given their just due and nothing more, and every member of the ensemble cast fits perfectly with every other (more on that in a bit).  Of course, he could not have delivered such a well timed product without the help of a terrific editor.  William Goldenberg, twice nominated by the Academy for Seabisquit and The Insider, fits that bill perfectly, exceeding the expectations of his professional pedigree.  Both men should be strong contenders for not only Oscar nominations, but wins, unless Goldberg cancels himself out with the double duty he pulled editing both this film and the upcoming Zero Dark Thirty.
     The second most amazing thing about Argo is the tonal shift halfway through the film.  The first half of the movie is very witty, downright comic at times.  Midway through it really kicks into suspense thriller mode without seeming at all like two different films.  The transition is so smooth that you don't even realize it has happened until you've been sitting on the edge of your seat for fifteen minutes.  This is to the credit of Mr. Affleck once again, and first time feature screen writer Chris Terrio.  They accomplish this with subtlety and realism in both phases.  The laughs are never farcical or detracting in any way from the seriousness of the situation.  Likewise, the second part is a thriller in the tradition of Hitchcock: quiet tension, ulitimately far more stressful to watch than any car chase.  Stressful in a good and entertaining way.
     The third best aspect of this movie is the fantastic ensemble cast.  It is Ben Affleck's best acting performance yet.  When the company of the film is discussed John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, and Alan Arkin are always cited (as they should be, all tremendous), but the accolades are deserved by a much larger group than just the four principles.  There are no less than a dozen familiar faces (although some like Victor Garber and Zeljko Ivanek are much more acclaimed for their work on television than in film) that bring so much more to the small roles they play than would normally accompany an eighth or ninth billing.
     It's very difficult, in fact, to find much fault with Argo, at least upon my initial viewing.  Aspects such as the production design may find more trouble getting awards attention due to it being a period piece from so relatively recent in history, but it FELT like the late seventies, every bit of it.  At the end of the movie they show side by side pictures of the actors and the real life individuals that they portray.  It was a true testament not only to the work done by the casting department, but also the attention paid to detail in the costuming, make-up, and hair design.
     When I last updated my Best Picture and Best Director predictions, I had Argo at number one in both categories.  Now that I've seen the film, I have no reason to doubt those instincts.  It is both an extraordinarily good picture and an easily accessible one.  Ben Affleck's comeback story is pretty irresistible, even to a jaded Movie Frog such as myself.  This is shaping up to be a great year for cinema, in a wide variety of types of film.  5 out of 5*

Related posts:  Best the the Summer Wields? (review of Beasts of the Southern Wild), Sept. Oscar Buzz and Predictions - The Techs: Part 1, Part 2, Screenplays, Supporting Performers, Best Actor and Actress, Directors, and Picture. Can You Master Your Nature? (Master review), The Dark Knight Transcends

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Classic Cinema Series # 1 - Casablanca

     First of all, I must apologize that it has taken me months since the announcement that this series of articles was coming to get started.  After I first began to think of what to write about films that so much has been said about already, I began to get a little intimidated by the project.  I did force myself slowly through the process of putting this first one together.  I'm sure I'll adapt the format of these with time, but with some template to work from, hopefully these will get easier as I go along.  So it should come as no surprise to anyone that number one in the classic cinema series is:

(Warner Brothers, 1942)
Part One - Credits
  Director:  Michael Curtiz - also known for:  Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Mildred Pierce (1945), White Christmas (1954)

  Principle Cast:
     Humphrey Bogart - also known for:  Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), Dark Victory (1939), The Maltese Falcon (1941), To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The African Queen (1951), The Caine Mutiny (1954), Sabrina (1954), The Barefoot Contessa (1954)
     Ingrid Bergman - also known for:  Intermezzo (1936), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), Gaslight (1944), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), Murder On the Orient Express (1974)
     Paul Henreid - also known for:  Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
     Claude Rains - also known for:  The Invisible Man (1933), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939), The Wolf Man (1941), Notorious (1946),  Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
     Conrad Veidt - also known for: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Man Who Laughs (1928), The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
     Sydney Greenstreet - also known for:  The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Verdict (1946)
     Peter Lorre - also known for:  M (1931), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), The Verdict (1946), The Raven (1963)
     S.Z. Sakall - also known for:  The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), Ball of Fire (1941). Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
     John Qualen - also known for:  His Girl Friday (1940), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Knute Rockne All American (1940), The Searchers (1956), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962)
     Dooley Wilson

  Writers:  (interestingly, the only twins to ever co-write an Oscar winning script)
     Julius J. Epstein -  also known for: Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
     Philip G. Epstein - same
     Howard Koch
  Cinematography:  Arthur Edison - also known for: The Thief of Bagdad (1924), All Quiet On the Western Front (1930), Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), The Maltese Falcon (1941)
  Original Music:  Max Steiner - also known for: King Kong (1933), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), Jezebel (1938), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), Dark Victory (1939), Gone With The Wind (1939), Seargent York (1941), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945), The Big Sleep (1946), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), White Heat (1949), The Caine Mutiny (1954), The Searchers (1956)
  Editor:  Owen Marks - also known for Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), White Heat (1949), East of Eden (1955)
Part Two - Awards
   Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (The Oscars)

        Won:  Best Picture
                   Best Director
                   Best Screenplay
        Nominated:  Best Actor (Bogart)
                             Best Supporting Actor (Raines)
                             Best Cinematography - Black and White
                             Best Editing
                             Best Score
  National Board of Review
       Top Ten Films of 1943
  National Film Registry
       Inducted in 1989
  New York Film Critics Circle
       2nd Place - Actor (Bogart)
       3rd Place - Actress (Bergman)
Part Three - Famous Quotes
     It is worth noting that although many classic movies have a famous quote or two attached, Casablanca is one of most quoted and quotable films in history.  Just a smattering of lines you probably know whether you've seen the picture or not...

  - "Play it, Sam.  Play As Time Goes By"
  - "Here's looking at you, kid."
  - "We'll always have Paris."
  - "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
  - "I stick my neck out for nobody."
  - "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine."
  - "Round up the usual suspects."
  - "I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."
Part Four - A Brief Synopses
  Genres:  Drama, Romance, War (bits of Comedy, even)
  Rated:  Approved
     During World War II, Casablanca became an important transit point for those trying to escape the Nazis and start a life in The New World.  Opposition spokesman and symbol of the fight for freedom Victor Lazlo and his wife Ilsa wind up there for just such purposes.  Unfortunately, the letters of transit they need to escape have fallen into the hands of Rick, proprieter of the local Rick's Cafe Americano.  Unfortunately, because Rick and Ilsa share a past that may or may not be finished.  Everyone's loyalties are tested, and sacrifices must be made.
Part Five - Interesting Tid-Bits
   - The timing of the film is historically interesting.  The Warner Brothers' reader assigned to evaluate the play "Everybody Comes To Rick's" that the film is based on started that assignment the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed.  The film adaptation was originally scheduled to be released in Spring of 1943 but was bumped up to a limited release in New York on November 26th, 1942, mere weeks after the Allied invasion of North Africa, when Morocco was already on everyone's minds.  "As Exciting as the Landing at Casablanca!", the posters read.  It went into wide release on January 23, 1943 to coincide with Churchill and Roosevelt's famous Casablanca conference.
  - Casablanca cost a reported $950,000 to make.  Not only was this a hugely expensive production for the time, but it was a full $100,000 over budget.
  - A few facts about Bogart and Casablanca....The film was a turning point in Bogey's career.  Up until this point he had mostly played heavies; Casablanca was his first romantic lead.  Like Rick, Bogart was a chess enthusiast.  The game he plays against himself in the film was an actual game he was playing by mail at the time.  Bogart was a good two inches shorter than Bergman which led to some creative camera work used to mask the difference in height.
  - More notable bits about Dooley Wilson and the character of Sam...Supposedly a musician in a Parisian cafe inspired the character of Sam, which in turn sparked the whole story of "Everybody Comes To Rick's".  Wilson was the only member of the cast who had ever actually been to Casablanca.  Wilson was a drummer, who didn't actually play the piano at all.  The character of Sam was almost turned into a woman, as Hazel Scott, Lena Horne, and Ella Fitzgerald were all considered briefly for the role.  Sadly, Wilson was only paid about $500 a day for his role in the film.
  - The use of music in prominent in the film.  However, of all the songs performed in the movie, only "Knock On Wood" was an original composition.  Despite not being original to Casablanca, "As Time Goes By" was still ranked #2 on the American Film Institute's "100 Years...100 Songs" list.
  - Casablanca is often noted as being one of the best examples of Film Noire in terms of cinematography.  The use of shadows is especially notable, as many of them take the shape of prison bars, crucifixes, and the Cross of Lorraine (the symbol of the Free French forces).  It has even been leaked that some of the shadows were actually painted on the set rather than cast by light.
  - The film is notable for the internationality of its cast and crew.  Warner Brothers claimed that no less than 34 nationalities were represented.  Many feel that the tone and emotion of the film were enhanced greatly by the presence of so many true refugees from Nazi controlled portions of Europe.
  - Although it may seem tame by today's standards, the film did meet with censorship when first released.  Besides screenings in Northern Africa by the Office of War Information, the Production Code Administration almost made the producers cut Ilsa's line "Victor Lazlo is my husband, and was, even when I knew you in Paris" out.  They did force the film maker's to change Renault's line, "You enjoy war!  I enjoy women!" so that he said "like" instead of "enjoy" to tone down his sexual exploitations.
  - Screenings of Casablanca on college campuses during exams is an American tradition, reportedly started at Harvard.
  - References to the film run rampant in American pop culture.  Two unmistakable examples are the titles of the films "Play it Again, Sam" and "The Usual Suspects".
Part Six - My Review
      So, what do you write about a film that has been discussed and lauded for seventy years?  Is it a timeless classic about love, loyalty, honor, and sacrifice or the greatest piece of corn-pone pro-war propoganda ever visited upon the American public?  Well, the answer is yes...and yes.  It is all of those things and more.
     It is, first and foremost, a classic story of love and sacrifice, almost biblical in the way that it is layed out.  Lazlo is the Christ-like figure.  He has sacrificed everything: his safety, his freedom, and the purpose of his life to the cause of inspiring others to rise up and fight the Nazis.  The only sacrifice he will not make is leaving behind the woman that he loves.  Ilsa is his inspiration and the thing that keeps him going.
     In turn, Lazlo's example of ultimate sacrifice inspires others to sacrifice for the greater good as well.  His ability to inspire is demonstrated most dramatically and obviously in the scene where he leads all the patrons of Rick's in song.  You can see in the faces of everyone joining in all the pain, fear, and uncertainty of living in a world turned upside down fade away to be replaced by a greater sense of pride and purpose.  It is a very powerful moment in the film.  However, this man's greater power is in how he impactss and inspires individuals from Ilsa, to Rick, to Renault.  Rick has every reason to despise the man, yet it is not just Ilsa that leads him to break precedent and have a drink with the couple.
     Is the film a little corny?  Well, yes, but only in the best tradition of the time.  The dialogue is fantastic, but when every other line is a zinger, it does stretch believability a bit.  No city has ever been populated by that many people who are that witty that much of the time.  Yet the wordplay at work here is part of the genius of the film as well, and a big part of what makes multiple viewings so rewarding,  It seems that one can never run out of clever quips to discover that go by too quickly to catch them all the first time.
     Of course, one cannot discuss Casablanca without raving a bit about the fantastic cast, maybe one of the greatest ensembles ever assembled.  Henreid, Greenstreet, Lorre, and Wilson are all spectacular.  S.Z. Sakall is easy to overlook as the waiter Carl, but he adds so much to the proceedings with very little screen time.  I'm sure some people would disagree with me, but the one weaker link in the chain is Bergman who can be a little muggy and melodramatic in places.  Bogart, and especially Rains are simply brilliant.  They have the most dramatic character arcs and change the most throughout the course of the film, and it is all handled so believably.  Every character is a fully realized human, with strengths and flaws that the viewer can fully relate to.  Even the modern viewer.
     Upon this most recent viewing (my fifth or sixth), it strikes me how central friendship is to the story of Casablanca, particularly that of Rick and Renault.  Rick ends the film talking about the friendship "beginning", but it seems that it is place from the start.  The two alternately meddle in each other's lives and look the other way for each other the way that old friends who value each other tend to do throughout the picture,  It is this mutual admiration upon which the film's end hinges, totally changing the outcome of the final scene.  It is only then, when both men have all cards out on the table, that they are able to acknowledge this.
     If you have never seen the film, you are woefully lacking in your knowledge of cinematic history.  Correct yourself right now.  If it has been a while, give it another look.  I find something different each time.  Of course I give this film 5 of 5*.  It is one of the great staples of the medium.

     And it is done.  Number one in the Classic Cinema Series finally in the can.  Next time out we stick to this time period with the film that many hold up as the yardstick to measure all great cinema by, created by one of the classic auteurs.  Hopefully I will be a little prompter now that I've gotten my feet wet (so to speak).


Related posts:  Classic Cinema Series - Preview

Monsieur Cat-Hunter

     In this round of DVD reviews we cover a Norwegian thriller about an art thief, an animated French feature about an art thief, and a French Canadian drama about a teacher with a haunted past.  Let's get hoppin...

  Headhunters - Why does it seem like in recent years European cinema has made much better action thrillers than has American?  Probably because it has.  But what is the reason for this?  Upon reflection, I think that it is because that instead of giving us generic, superhuman "Action Heroes", they give us protagonists who are less than extraordinary men and thrust them into situations that are anything but ordinary.  It changes the viewer's perception from "I could never do that.  I'd be dead.", to "Could I do that?  In his situation, would I be dead?", which is a much more engaging state of mind.  Which brings us to Headhunters.
     Headhunters is a Norwegian thriller about a corporate headhunter who is also an art thief on the side.  He is mostly the planner and procurer of information though, not a man accustomed to gun fights and  car chases.  He is also plagued by his own insecurities, especially pertaining to his diminutive stature.  It is a well written script that is far less predictable than most action films. Both Roger (the headhunter) and the viewer are tricked more than once along the way.  I am unfamiliar with the previous works of director Morten Tyldum, but will be less than surprised if Hollywood scoops him up to make English language features in short order.
      Star Aksel Hennie is already rumored to be in the next Die Hard installment (What is it called?  Die Predictably?).  I hope that he can bring some of the depth of characterization apparent here to an American action franchise, but we'll have to wait and see about that.  As for his performance in this film, it is excellent.  He really makes the picture, crafting a real human being who we care about (flaws and all) enough to actually spend much of this movie on the edge of our proverbial seats.  4 of 5*

  Monsieur Lazhar - Yes, I finally have seen the final Foreign Language Film nominee from last year's Academy Awards.  This was the fourth feature as writer and director for emerging French Canadian film maker Phillipe Falardeau.  When I first read the synopses for this film, I must admit that my first reaction was, "Oh...ANOTHER inspirational teacher movie, JUST what cinema needs."
I am happy to report, however, that this movie went a good deal beyond that formula, and was a wholly original experience to watch.  While I may not have been blown away quite enough to run out and find Falardeau's first three films, I am quite interested in seeing where the young auteur goes from here.  The script is masterfully crafted; the way it is composed you never quite realize how much is being said until you get very close to the end of the movie and the big picture begins to come into focus.
     However, Mr. Falardeau cannot take sole credit for the success of Monsieur Lazhar.  He gets an exceptional lead performance out of Mohamed Fellag in the title role.  A native of Algeria, Mr Fellag now resides in France, where he is building a name as an actor and writer on both stage and screen.  His performance here is excellent and gives the movie more of a sense of reality than this sort of film usually possesses.  He is full of passion, but never overblown in a way that is contrary to the dignity of Bachir Lazhar's station.
     The two principle actors amongst his twelve to thirteen year old students also give tremendous performances, especially when you consider their youth.  Sophie Nelisse, in particular, gives an exceptional performance, exuding maturity without trying to ape adulthood.  Emilien Neron as Simon seems a little less complex, but maybe that's just because boys mature more slowly.  Both of them would have placed well in my Best of 2011 rankings for Best Juvenile Performer had I seen Monsieur Lazhar in time to include them.
     While I wouldn't say that this movie provided ample competition to A Seperation in the Foreign Film category (nothing did, not even my beloved Bullhead), it was definitely one of the stronger also-rans.  What could easily have become a story we've seen a thousand times before, a "Goodbye Monsieur Chips", if you will, proved instead to be a thoughtful and thought provoking commentary on personal tragedy and grief, and how experiencing such things can mold one into a person better prepared to shepherd others through comparable experiences.  It moved me and I had no idea that it would until about fifteen minutes from the end.  A strong 4 1/2 of 5*.

  A Cat in Paris - It would have been particularly nice if I could have caught this final Animated Feature nominee from last year's Oscars BEFORE I finished the Best of 2011 series.  I would have been able to compose a respectable top five animated feature list without having to dip into the shorts to come up with five movies I could actually recommend.  While this debut feature about a house pet with a daring double life from French co-directors Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol (the latter of whom also wrote the screenplay) is not a perfect film, it was still delightful and a lot of fun.
     I did have a few reservations.  At first, the hand drawn animation seemed a little primitive, but as the film went on, I began to see it as a moving graphic novel.  I think it was the marvelous use of light and shadow that eventually won me over visually.
     The script is pretty predictable.  I had a fairly clear idea of where it was headed ten minutes in.  However, there were several clever little surprises along the way.  The story's strongest element was the interesting characters, who were very well developed for an animated film, especially one that is barely over an hour long.
     By the end of the picture, I didn't care that it turned out mostly as I expected.  In fact, I cheered it on to the finish.  It's also family friendly, a great choice to share with any kids you know who could use a viewing option crafted with care and intelligence.  4 of 5*

     Next time around, we'll be covering much more commercial fare, but don't fret film snobs, there's still a couple of pics I'd recommend in the mix.  See you then.


Related Posts:  Best of 2011 Conclusion - The Genres

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Can You Master Your Nature?

     I've just had the most extraordinary three day personal film festival.  I saw eight films including my third, fourth, and fifth five star productions for the year (and two four and a half star pictures).  In rapid succession, I saw The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Snow White and the Huntsmen, Dark Shadows, The Master, Argo, Marley, Looper, and Moonrise Kingdom.  Now, I have to start churning out some reviews before they (and the set of three DVD reviews I was already due to write) all start getting mixed up in my head.  How strange, then, that the one I'm going to start with is the one that I feel the least prepared to write about after a single viewing.
     Many pictures reveal hidden meanings and layers upon multiple viewings, but every now and then you see a film that you know you were completely unable to absorb completely the first time out.  That's why I watched The Tree of Life three times through before I returned the DVD.  It took that much exposure to really grasp the film.  I felt that way when I watched Beasts of the Southern Wild in the theater earlier this year.  I knew the moment that it ended that the first half of the film would make a lot more sense thematically after seeing how it ended, and the end would make more sense after seeing the first part again.  Still waiting.  This is exactly how I felt as I left the theater at the end of The Master.
     Paul Thomas Anderson is an amazing auteur.  It is almost impossible to believe that this is only his sixth film.  It lives up to its predecessors in every way.  His attention to detail, nuance, and tone is always deliberate and precise.  His ability to draw character out of allegory and allegory out of character is nearly unmatched, comparable to Altman.  Anderson never insults the intelligence of his audience, leaving some of the work up to the viewer.  This, of course, turns some viewers off.  Those who appreciate this kind of challenge, however, will find themselves richly rewarded for their keen attention.
     The look of this picture is exquisite.  High praise is in order for cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., production designers David Crank and Jack Fisk, and costumer Mark Bridges.  Johnny Greenwood's score was sort of erratic and a bit jarring.  I don't know if it will be at all the Academy's thing, but I thought that it did an excellent job of punctuating the action and drama without calling undue attention to itself.
     Which brings us to the actors.  Anderson has a real talent for large ensemble casts.  But while many fine performances were given by actors in smaller roles (Jesse Plemons, Ambyr Childers, Rami Malek, and Laura Dern), this film focused apologetically upon the three figures at its dramatic center.  They are almost id, ego, and super-ego.
     We meet Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell first.  Phoenix is almost unrecognizable inside the Freddie character.  He is a beast of a man, simian in poster, primitive in his reactions, and totally lacking in self control.  Everything about the famously eccentric Mr. Phoenix's performance conveys this:  the tone and laziness of diction with which he speaks, the way he holds his face, the way he looks down or away from people when he speaks to them, and everything about the way he moves and positions his body.  It is the best performance I have ever seen from this actor and deserves every bit of praise that has previously been heaped upon it.
     His polar (and we do mean polar) opposite in this trinity is Amy Adams as Peggy Dodd.  She is one cool character, all poise and reason.  You see glimpses of the fire underneath, but only what she wants you to see.  In The Fighter, Adams showed she had range beyond sweetness and innocence, but she was still essentially a brassy little girl.  Here, she shows that she can play a sophisticated woman, one with morally murky motivations, one who can master the Master.  Again, my favorite performance by this actress ever.
     Finally, you have the man caught between them, Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd.  He is certainly charismatic as the would be cult leader, and at first seems as polished and controlled as his wife, but you can tell as the film progresses that there is something deep inside him that is very much like Freddy.  I can't wait to re watch this powerful performance at a later date and see what clues I missed to this double nature in the first half of the movie.
      As I said before, I'm still sorting out the film thematically.  Perhaps I'll find an excuse to go into greater detail on that later in the season, after a second viewing.  Much of the film, however, was very similar to Beasts of the Southern Wild except flipped on its head.  Whereas Hushpuppy was raised to accept her animal nature and place within the natural world, Lancaster tries to teach Freddy to separate himself from the animal kingdom and rely on pure detached intellect.  It doesn't work for Freddy, and it doesn't seem to really be working for Lancaster.  In fact, you wonder at times which of them is failing to teach the other what they really need to know.
     This film could prove to be too weird for the Academy, but its hard to imagine it not DESERVING Best Picture and Director kudos.  Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, and Original Screenplay still seem like no-brainers for this film.  All of the craft categories I mentioned above could be in play as well as Editing if Picture and Director come through.
      This film may prove to be too dark or cerebral for some tastes, but I found it thoroughly enjoyable, enriching, and tightly crafted.  Anderson's legacy as a brilliant auteur is intact, and some very talented performers have shown us sides of themselves we've never had the pleasure of viewing before.  I left the theater very pleased.  5 of 5 stars.

Related posts:  Best the the Summer Wields? (review of Beasts of the Southern Wild), Sept. Oscar Buzz and Predictions - The Techs: Part 1, Part 2, Screenplays, Supporting Performers, Best Actor and Actress, Directors, and Picture

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Hysterical Peace of Purgatory

     In this round of reviews we will cover a family dramedy with a groovy vibe, the story of the most popular gag gift in history, and a documentary about injustice and vindication.  We shall begin with...

Hysteria - You would think that the story of the invention of the first vibrator as a medical tool would be an outrageous comedy.  Unfortunately, director Tanya Wexler's third feature film turns out to be more of a predictable and run of the mill romcom.  The quality of the cast (Maggie Gyllenhall, Hugh Dancy, Jonathen Pryce, Felicity Jones) does elevate the film slightly, but the script by Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer contains few surprises (or even laughs) for them to work with.  If the film has one saving grace, it is Rupert Everett's performance as Edmund St. John-Smythe which often threatens to steal the film.  Of course, its not the first time we've seen Mr. Everett play the slightly buttoned up gay man.  If you liked him in My Best Friend's Wedding, then you'll like him here, but don't expect it to be anything new.  2 1/2 of 5 stars.

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory - I really wish that I had seen the first two installments in this trilogy.  I feel as if I would be better suited to judge how effectively this one wraps things up.  Still, judging it on its own merit (and it does stand well on its own as an individual piece), it is actually a pretty excellent documentary that works on a number of different levels. 
     First off, it works as an interestingly structured relation of a straight news and history piece.  I'm sure that elements of the story and investigation were covered in much greater detail in the previous installments, but I felt like I was given a complete understanding of the story.  However, it was edited together so skillfully that it felt more like a narrative tale than a newscast.
     Secondly, it works as a heartfelt human drama.  So many of the characters involved experienced great change and growth over the twenty plus years during which this saga played out.  We watch the three boys grow up.  Damien Wayne Echols starts out as a bitter, dark teen, who gives off an air that suggests he could possibly be guilty, but evolves into an eloquent and polished young man, humbled by decades of imprisonment.  Early on in his efforts to free himself, he points the finger of blame at one of the victim's fathers, who himself evolves from a grieving parent furious with the three into an activist for justice, desperate to see them released.
     Finally, it works as a thematic exploration of injustice inside and outside of the U.S. criminal justice system.  On this level it ends ominously indeed, as the boys are forced to plead guilty in order to gain their freedom, suggesting that the system is only interested in dispensing real justice when it can cover its own ass in the process.
     Documentarians Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky should be proud of themselves, not only for crafting a masterful documentary (which they did), but for the role they played in getting the West Memphis Three released.  There can be no clearer example of art's ability to help change the world for the better and to show society a mirror to judge itself by.  4 1/2 of 5 stars.

Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding - Director Bruce Beresford has been making feature films for forty years and the only time he's approached A-list status was with Driving Miss Daisy back in 1989.  While this fairly formulaic romantic family dramedy is unlikely to elevate him to those heights again, it did provide some very entertaining and touching moments, owing to its very talented trio of leading ladies, representing three generations of American actresses.
     The film centers on a stuffy, conservative, newly divorcing mom who takes her two mostly grown children to meet the hippy grandmother they have never known in (of all places) Woodstock, New York.  The plot proceeds about like you'd expect, not even bothering to walk us through the romantic comedy conventions so much as give us an early glance of the obligatory love interests and jump right into the family drama.
     This turns out to be a blessing because it is with the cast, particularly Olsen, Keener, and Fonda, that this movie shines.  Olsen has burst onto the scene barely out of childhood and in two years proven herself a force to be reckoned with.  Keener really came into her own in her thirties and forties.  Both women shine here, but the real jewel in the movie's crown is Fonda.
     I always found Fonda's performances during her early hey-day to be largely overrated, but have found her work in recent years much more impressive.  This is perhaps my favorite turn of hers yet.  The rest of the cast does the best they can with what they have been given, but Fonda's energy and total surrender to her character transcend the limitations of the somewhat stilted script, making a real person out of what was written as a caricature.  It is mostly due to her work that I recommend this film.  3 1/2 of 5 stars.

     And that's it for this round of DVD reviews.  Join me next time for my first "All Foreign Film" installment in a while.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Sep, hell, Oct Oscar Buzz and Predictions - Picture

     And this is what it all comes down to.  As I said in the Best Director post, this is shaping up to be a very strong year for films.  I would say that there are actually at least twenty films with at least a ghost of a chance at a Best Picture nomination this year.  Blogosphere activism is actually all over the map.  I love it.  I feel like there is still plenty of time for surprises and upsets.  As things currently stand...

Best Picture
     As always, June standings are listed in parenthesis.  The buzz awards...
  1.(2)  The Master
  2.(12) Argo
  3.(1) Lincoln
  4.(5) Beasts of the Southern Wild
  5.(3) Les Miserables
  6.(13) Life of Pi
  7.(20) Silver Linings Playbook
  8.(7) Zero Dark Thirty
  9.(4) Django Unchained
  10.(19) Moonrise Kingdom

  11.(10) Anna Karenina
  12.(6) The Dark Knight Rises
  13. Amour
  14.(9) The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
  15.(14) The Sessions
  16.(11) Hyde Park On Hudson
  17. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
  18. Flight
  19. Cloud Atlas
  20. The Impossible
  Leaving the Rankings:  The Great Gatsby, Brave, Lawless, Killing Them Softly, To The Wonder
     It's pretty difficult to argue with those top seven right now (unless you take the "Nobody's Seen Les Miserables" yet tact, which I won't), so don't be surprised when my top seven merely shuffle them around a bit.  Most of the films above that didn't make my list do have some shot, although I think that Hyde Park On Hudson is probably completely out of the running.  That being said...
  1. Argo...I feel like I should go see this before I finish this article.  Oh, well...This is currently the most critically acclaimed English language narrative film of the year to my knowledge.  Ben Affleck is a young man that Oscar made an investment in long ago when no one had ever heard his name.  This could be the year that investment truly matures.
  2. Les Miserables...Source material, live singing, clips that blow you away, and a director who won the Academy Award with his last film.  I've been out on this limb for this picture since the beginning of the year.  Unless it breaks, I ain't coming down.
  3. Silver Linings Playbook...It is increasingly likely that this will prove to be the Weinstein's most Oscar-friendly horse in this race.  That's enough for me.
  4. The Master...But you had better believe they intend to have two horses in it.
  5. Beasts of the Southern Wild...This film keeps slipping down most pundit's lists, but I'm expecting support for it to rally when the DVD and Blu-ray drop.  It may be the most unique thing going this year.  That doesn't usually spell a win, but it should mean a nod.
  6. Lincoln...Most critics have responded positively so far, but no one seems all THAT enthusiastic either.  It's pedigree alone could get it in, but this is shaping up to be a tough year.
  7. Life of Pi...Reactions have been either mildly or wildly positive, but it sounds a little weird and cosmic for AMPAS's usual tastes.  Of course, that didn't stop The Tree of Life and this is apparently far more accessible (not to mention plotted).
  8. The Promised Land...I love Gus Van Sant.  I'm expecting great things.
  9. Zero Dark Thirty...This is THE stealth contender of the year.  Just when everyone started to forget about it, highly promising promotional materials started slipping in.  The tone of the film is evident even in its PR approach.
  10. Inside Llewyn Davis...Is this getting a qualifying run?  I can't believe I'm the ONLY person whose radar it is still on.  Hello?  The Coens?  Those Coens?
  11. Django Unchained...Will Harvey Weinstein actually split his efforts three ways in this race?  Does Tarantino even need him to?  ??????????????
  12. Amour...Although I was calling this a contender back in June, I actually think that being named Austria's Foreign Language Film submission lessens it's chances.  Often, when a non-English language film breaks in to the top races, it is due to a snub in Foreign Language.  Still possible, though.
  13. The Impossible...Festival reviews have been quite good.  Still, an adventure disaster flick faces an uphill battle with the Academy even in a year when the competition is weaker.
  14. Moonrise Kingdom...This film has been universally LIKED but if stronger contenders continue to emerge the bar may wind up a little too high this year.
  15. Cloud Atlas...Seems more likely to just get below the line recognition, but this film does elicit great passion in its admirers, and a strong opening at the box office could change the game here.
  16. Hitchcock...Probably more likely for acting nods, but we'll have to wait and see when it screens at AFI fest.
  17. The Sessions...It would need strong box office to transcend the acting races despite strong reviews.
  18. Looper...Another film that is highly respected but likely to suffer from genre discrimination.
  19. The Dark Knight Rises...It was a nice dream, but even if it deserves it (which it probably does)...sigh.
  20, Middle of Nowhere...I believe in the influence of the blogger who is trying to start a grass roots campaign for this one and that is all I have to say.

     And that's it for this round of updated predictions.  I should be back on this horse sometime around Thanksgiving with another set of updates.  Until then, I'll be watching the buzz and hopefully several of the contending films.

Related Posts:  Sept. Oscar Buzz and Predictions - The Techs: Part 1, Part 2, The Genres, Screenplays, Supporting Performers, Best Actor and Actress, Foreign Films, June Oscar Buzz and Predictions - The Big Two, Best That the Summer Wields? (Beasts of the Southern Wilds review), The Dark Knight Transcends

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Froggy's 13 Day Halloween Film Festival

     Okay, so Halloween is and has always been one of my favorite holidays and it has been far too many years since I actually celebrated it.  I plan to change that this year.  I have already requested off my day job, and am invited to a party that night.  I am fully intending to go whether my invited date decides to go or not (you know who you are, and, yes, you are definitely still invited).  Unless I end up co-ordinating something with someone else, I might just go as The Movie Frog.  I'll post pics if I do.
  To help me (and all the rest of you stuck in this swamp) to get more in the holiday mood, I have compiled a Halloween Film Festival for the end of October.  I have chosen thirteen (my FAVORITE number) movies to feature this year starting on October 19th and running right through the big night.  Below you will find the full list with (I promise) minimal commentary so that you can start planning right away.  This is not an all time top horror movies list, nor a countdown of that sort, although I did save the very best ones for right at the end.  I tried to pick a variety.  I hope you enjoy them.  I have.

19th - Halloween  (1978, PG-13)
     Why not start with the obvious, I often say (and do).  John Carpenter's classic slasher about crazed killer Michael Myers is one of the absolute classics of the genre.  It would be worth revisiting even without Jamie Lee Curtis cast in the role that made her famous.

20th - Labyrinth (1986, PG)
     I wanted to include a couple of very family friendly options on this list (I think kids get into Halloween too, right?) and I've always had a real soft spot for this Jim Henson directed spooky fantasy musical.  It stars David Bowie (who is QUITE good as the goblin king), and a very young Jennifer Connelly.  "You remind me of the babe."

21rst - The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
     This silent era classic is visually stunning (especially for the period), with effects and perspective work way ahead of its time.  It's also rather eerie.

22nd - The Lost Boys (1987, R)
     Groan if you must.  Yes, its a mid-80's Corey and Corey vehicle, but it is the best movie they made by a mile.  Jason Patrick and a brilliant Keifer Sutherland (best thing he did before 24, hands down), with Dianne Wiest.  They are all trapped in a small sea-side town with vampires, and a carnival, and a great soundtrack.  Twilight eat your still beating heart out.

23rd - Poltergeist (1982, PG)
     This was the first horror movie that I used cable television to sneak and watch and it scared the crap out of my tiny self.  Trees, clowns, steak, swimming pools, nothing is sacred.  One of my favorite haunted house movies ever.  The performance of Zelda Rubinstien as Tangina is worth the price of admission alone.  "All are welcome in the light!"

24th - Rope (1948)
     In my opinion, the most under rated of all of Hitchcock's films, this subtle thriller is probably the least obvious inclusion on this list.  It is not an overt horror flick, nor does it have any supernatural element.  It's a creepy piece of work, though, and Jimmy Stewart playing it sinister is absolutely terrifying.

25th - The Cabin in the Woods (2012, R)
     I absolutely loved this Joss Whedon produced and written flick. It had much of the spirit of his television shows (included some familiar faces for longtime fans), a young central cast led by Chris Hemsworth, and cameos galore.  It even had some great self aware humor, good scares, and a twist or two.

26th - 28 Days Later  (2002, R)
     When a great director takes on a genre film like this and actually makes it work, there is just nothing better.  Starring Cillian Murphy, this Danny Boyle scream fest is maybe my favorite zombie film of all time.  Really scary.

27th - Rosemary's Baby (1968, R)
     Speaking of great directors...Roman Polanski creates a real mindf--- of a thriller in this mysterious and subtle work of art.  Ruth Gordon steals the show...among other things.

28th - Pan's Labyrinth (2006, R)
     In this Spanish language feature, auteur Guillermo del Toro creates one of the most imaginative and twisted worlds ever brought to the screen.  Inspired horror fantasy.

29th - Frankenstein (1931)
     Frank Whales' classic original remains the best screen adaptation of the classic film ever.  As touching as it is terrifying (not so much because of the monster), it is always worth another look.

30th - The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993, PG)
     Tim Burton's first effort to dip his hand into animation remains his best.  Fascinating characters, memorable songs, and an absolutely gorgeous and singular world to get lost in.  Share it with any kids that are convenient.

31rst - The Shining (1980, R)
     After the trick or treating is over, the adults can try to drift off to sleep while checking into the Overlook with Stanley Kubrick's re-imagining of the classic Steven King story.  One of Nicholson's most famous roles, and one of the best scary movies ever.  Look out for the two little girls....

     So, if I go as the Movie Frog...I promise pictures.  Have a Halloween!!!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Sept(like) Oscar Buzz and Predictions - Director

     This year seems to be producing an unusual number of films that are enjoying widespread critical acclaim:  Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Dark Knight Rises, Moonrise Kingdom, Argo, Silver Linings Playbook, Amore, The Sessions, The Master, Middle of Nowhere, Lincoln, and Life of Pi all fit this mold and we still have Les Miserables, Flight, Django Unchained, The Promised Land, Hitchcock, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Zero Dark Thirty looming as giant question marks.  As such, the top prizes seem far more wide open than normal this late into film festival season.  To me, this also makes things MUCH more exciting.  I'm not getting bored with this year's race yet.  It keeps getting better...

Best Director
      As always, previous rankings will appear in parenthesis.  The buzz would have us think...
  1.(2) Paul Thomas Anderson - The Master
  2. Ben Affleck - Argo
  3.(1) Steven Spielberg - Lincoln
  4.(4) Tom Hooper - Les Miserables
  5. David O. Russell - Silver Linings Playbook

  6.(9) Ang Lee - Life of Pi
  7.(6) Katheryn Bigelow - Zero Dark Thirty
  8.(3) Quentin Tarantino - Django Unchained
  9. Ben Zeitlin - Beasts of the Southern Wild
  10.(8) Joe Wright - Anna Karenina 
  Leaving the Rankings: Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises), Baz Luhrman (The Great Gatsby), Roger Michell (Hyde Park On Hudson)
      I, however, am seeing things a bit more like this...
  1. Ben Affleck - Argo...This film is rapidly becoming the best reviewed mainstream effort of the year.  The momentum is with Affleck career wise.  He's done a brilliant job of recreating himself from a failing actor to a successful director.  Gone Baby Gone was well received and exceeded all expectations.  Then The Town became a serious contender for a slot on the Best Picture list but barely failed to make the cut.  Now, with Argo, Affleck has finally delivered on his early promise in a way that clearly transcends his previous efforts.  The only thing is...
  2. Tom Hooper - Les Miserables...The best musical never adapted to film comes to the big screen helmed by returning Best Director champ Tom Hooper with an incredible cast singing live.  Unless he just got it wrong, all wrong, this has to be the one to beat.
  3. Ang Lee - Life of Pi...This much lauded picture seems to stretch the boundaries of storytelling both visual and narrative in a way that is bound to impress many in this branch.  This would be the Oscar winning director's third film he would be recognized in this manner for.
  4. Paul Thomas Anderson - The Master...I think that ultimately this film may prove a little too weird to TAKE the top prize, but it is still rather likely in my mind that the director will find a nomination here.  Amazingly, this would only be his second nomination in this category.
  5. Ben Zeitlen - Beasts of the Southern Wild...This film's buzz has waned a bit for the moment, but I can't help but think that a whole lot of new people are going to be exposed to this brilliant little gem when the DVD drops.  I find it ingenious.  If the Academy honors one director who came out of nowhere this year, it will be Zeitlin.

  6. David O. Russell - Silver Linings Playbook...Considering how badly Harvey will want the AMPAS to give him a win this year, maybe I should trade Russell and Anderson.
  7. Kathryn Bigelow - Zero Dark Thirty...The more I see of the promotional materials, the more excited I get about this film.  If Bigelow knocks it out of the park, it's hard to imagine Oscar not giving a second nod to the only woman ever to win this category.
  8. Gus Van-Sant - The Promised Land...I just have a feeling about this one.  It's been a while since the twice nominated director made it to the big show, but I still think he's got some great rabbits left to pull.
  9. Steven Spielberg - Lincoln...The film has gotten good early reviews (certainly indicating a higher overall quality than War Horse) and will probably get a Best Picture nod, but with six nominations (two of which he won) under his belt, has Mr. Spielberg really exceeded any one's expectations THAT greatly with this movie?
  10. The Coen Brothers - Inside Llewyn Davis...Because it would be foolish to ever count them out when no one has even seen the film.
Related posts:  Related Articles: Sept. Oscar Buzz and Predictions - The Techs: Part 1, Part 2, The Genres, Screenplays, Supporting Performers, Best Actor and Actress, Foreign Films, June Oscar Buzz and Predictions - The Big Two, Best That the Summer Wields? (Beasts of the Southern Wilds review)

Sept(esque) Oscar Buzz and Predictions - Foreign Films

     I am soooooo glad that I decided to put this off until after the complete long list of accepted submissions was released.  If I had tried to predict this category back when I did Documentary Feature and Animated Feature last month, a couple of my top choices wouldn't have even been in the running by now.  I am even more excited by the fact that this year saw a record 71 qualifying submissions despite the sad and obvious omissions of constant competitor Egypt and (not)returning champion Iran.  Making this a separate post is further delaying the end of this series, so let's get started...

Best Foreign Language Film
     The buzz says...
  1. Austria - Amore
  2. France - Intouchables
  3. Chile - No
  4. Romania - Beyond the Hills
  5. Denmark - A Royal Affair

  6. Canada - War Witch
  7. Germany - Barbara
  8. Australia - Lore
  9. Isreal - Fill the Void
  10. Switzerland - Sister
     It's really hard to call this category, as there are always shocking upsets and omissions each time the list is whittled down.  My best guesses, however, would go something like this...
  1, Austria - Amore...Director Michael Haneke is already beloved in the Academy and many were surprised when his film The White Ribbon failed to win this category two years ago.  Amore won Palme D'or at Cannes and is the most critically acclaimed film on the international film festival scene this year.  It COULD even break into the Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actress, and/or Actor awards this year.  It would be a shoo-in to win this category this year if not for...
  2. France - Intouchables...The top non-English language film at both the American and international box offices this year is being backed by Harvey Weinstein.  If anything can derail a beloved auteur with the best reviewed film of the year, it would be a Weinstein campaign implying that Amour is not Austrian enough, since it is in FRENCH using actors who rose to prominence in the FRENCH cinema.  A national cinema that gave us best picture winner The Artist, but which hasn't been rewarded in this category since 1992.  A cinema that gave us international sensation (that many Academy members have likely seen already), the Intouchables.
  3. Denmark - A Royal Affair...This winner at Berlin for Best Actor (for Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), and Best Screenplay has been given a highly publicized (for a non-English feature) stateside release in early November, perfectly primed for Oscar fueled box office.  Rising international stars Mads Mikelson and Alicia Vikander shouldn't hurt its take either.  It could go into short list season as one of the most highly known and viewed films on the ballot.
  4. Canada - War Witch...Every year I seem to not give Canada enough credit and they sneak in at the last minute.  This year, I seem to see them coming clearly, though, with this winner of Best Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival.  Star Rachel Mwanza also received Best Actress accolades at both Tribeca and Berlin for her work on the film.  This would be three years in a row for Canada, but at the moment I see no reason not to call this one a good bet.
  5. South Korea - Pieta...There are usually at least a couple of internationally celebrated auteurs with films in this category.  Michael Haneke's film Amour is almost certain to fill one of those slots.  Another could belong to writer/director Ki-duk Kim (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring)'s latest effort, Pieta.  South Korea as a nation seems extremely overdue for some love in this category.  A nomination here would be their first.

  6. Isreal - Fill the Void...Isreal has been a mainstay of this category in recent years.  Fill the Void won two secondary awards at Venice, but has met with first rate critical response across the Festival circuit.  First time auteur Rama Burshtein has buzz as a major new international film maker.
  7. Australia - Lore...With little connection to the culture of the country that submitted it, this film could be an innocent bystander whose chances get hurt by the allegations sure to be hurled at Amour.  Still, it does seem to have the most rapidly building buzz of all these films at the moment, so who knows?
  8. Romania - Beyond the Hills...Another celebrated auteur, Cristian Mungiu, directed this film which brought home Best Screenplay (for Mungiu), and Best Actress (shared by co-leads Stratan and Flutur).  However, every year one or two celebrated festival darlings just disappear when the short list is announced.  Could this film suffer that fate?
  9. Phillipines - Bwakaw...I throw this film in largely because it is experiencing a sudden surge of love on the net which could easily translate into a feasible Oscar campaign, especially at this early stage of the game.
  10.  No - Chile...Yeah it is the third most buzzed about film on this list at the moment, but it is divisive.  Still, it is much beloved by those who fall on the positive side of that divide, and it boasts the star power of Gael Garcia Bernal to boost its chances of being SEEN, but I'm not sold on its chances.  I must say that it IS on my own personal list of films to see this year.

     And that's where things stand in this uber-difficult race to predict.  I'll be back shortly with Best Director.

Related Articles:  Sept. Oscar Buzz and Predictions - The Techs: Part 1Part 2The GenresScreenplaysSupporting PerformersBest Actor and ActressJune Oscar Buzz and Predictions - The Genres

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Sept(ish) Oscar Buzz and Predictions - Actor and Actress

     We are closing in on the end of this series of updates, but the buzz has been flying so fast and furious that I can barely keep up with it.  Today we will be covering the Lead Acting awards, and the stories between the two categories could not be more dissimilar this year.  You'll see what I mean...

Best Actor
     This category is shaping up to be very competitive this year with a long crowded list of viable contenders that just seems to swell further with each film that debuts or announces a last minute entry into this year's race.  Two nominations seem pretty solidly set.  Another is largely believed to be set in stone, but it is from a film no one has seen yet, so I still consider it a pretty big question mark.  The final two slots could go to any of a dozen worthy (or presumed worthy in all likelihood, sight unseen) performances, which leaves a LOT of wiggle room for prognosticators like me.  The buzz at present is led by these gentlemen...(as always, numbers in parenthesis indicate June ranking)
  1.(1)  Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln
  2.(3) John Hawkes - The Sessions
  3. Joaquin Phoenix - The Master
  4.(2) Bill Murray - Hyde Park On Hudson
  5.(5) Hugh Jackman - Les Miserables

  6.(4) Phillip Seymour Hoffman - The Master
  7.(10) Bradley Cooper - Silver Linings Playbook
  8. Denzel Washington - Flight
  9.(7) Clint Eastwood - Trouble With the Curve
  10.(6) Jamie Foxx - Django Unchained
  Leaving the Rankings:  Brad Pitt - Killing Them Softly, Ryan Gosling - Place Beyond the Pines
     I'm leaning more this way, though...
  1. Joaquin Phoenix - The Master...Backed by the Weinsteins, won Best Actor at Venice, and giving what many critics have already called the performance of a lifetime...this nomination is in the bag.  Being a two time nominee with no win under his belt can only help.
  2. John Hawkes - The Sessions...Universally praised on the festival circuit, Mr. Hawkes can likely expect to receive his second nomination this year.
  3. Bradley Cooper - Harvey Weinstein will likely be pushing Phoenix for the win here, but that doesn't mean that he won't want a second horse in the race.  Critics in Toronto were almost unanimous in the opinion that this film is Cooper's best work yet.  Demonstrating growth as an artist is an excellent way to secure your first nomination.
  4.  Hugh Jackman - Les Miserables...I simply cannot bet against my favorite musical of all time succeeding, and the whole thing hinges on this role, played by a respected and well liked actor who has never been nominated before...singing live.
  5. Matt Damon - Promised Land...I had a very hard time deciding who to put in this slot, but Oscar loves a good Oscar story and the symmetry of the dual writing and acting credits to his double nominations for Good Will Hunting may be too much of a parallel for the Academy to pass up.  Mr. Damon has yet to win (in the acting categories), although this would be his third nomination.

  6. Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln...I know that the credentials seem amazing, and the likeness is incredible, but though DDL has been nominated four times (and won twice!), he doesn't get in EVERY time he appears in a film...only about forty per cent.  Of course, he could easily make the final five, but for now, I'm keeping him on the rim.
  7. Anthony Hopkins - Hitchcock...This film's eligibility is still such a new reality, that it remains a total question mark.  If its a hit, it could easily be the vehicle by which this veteran former winner secures his fifth Academy Award nomination.
  8. Denzel Washington - Flight...Denzel is usually great even in mediocre films, and it does look like he will get a lot of scenery to chew, but with two wins and three more nominations already under his belt at a relatively young age, might the Academy decide to wait to give him a sixth nod?
  9. Jamie Foxx - Django Unchained...I have little doubt that this will be one of my favorite performances of the year, but with two other horses in the Best Actor race, will the Weinsteins divide their resources to push through a third?
  10. Michael Shannon - The Iceman...Although Shannon's work here has been lauded heartily on the Festival circuit, the film itself has been less favorably reviewed and is going to receive and NC-17 rating.  If they failed to give him his second nod last year for Take Shelter (my favorite leading male performance of 2011), which was odd but far less controversial, I have my doubts that the AMPAS will choose to bestow it for this, much as I might well feel they should.
     But that is hardly the width and breadth of true possibilities this year:  Richard Gere (Arbitrage), Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), Jean Louis Trintignant (Amour), Jake Gyllenhall (End of Watch), Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi), and, yes, Bill Murray (Hyde Park On Hudson) are all still truly feasible possibilities at this point.

Best Actress
    By contrast, the Best Actress race this year seems to be struggling to come up with contenders.  Many of the ladies perceived to be major threats early on in the year have had their films delayed to next year (Sandra Bullock, Carey Mulligan), received mixed reviews, had campaigns built as Supporting Actress contenders, or turned out to have much less prominent roles than once suspected.  Studios, sensing the vacuum, are scrambling to provide impressive last minute possibilities, but the buzz currently runs like this...
  1.(1)  Keira Knightley - Anna Karenina
  2.(7) Quvenzhane Wallis - Beasts of the Southern Wild
  3.(5) Marion Cotillard - Rust and Bone
  4. Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook
  5.(2) Helen Hunt - The Sessions

  6.(3) Laura Linney - Hyde Park On Hudson
  7.(4) Viola Davis - Won't Back Down
  8.(10) Emmanuelle Riva - Amour
  9. Naomi Watts - The Impossible
  10.(8) Merryl Streep - Hope Springs
  Leaving the Rankings:  Carey Mulligan - The Great Gatsby, Mia Wasikowska
     Several things have happened to torpedo the chances of several of the actresses on this list.  Laura Linney's part in "Hyde" was damned by faint praise, apparently not providing the actress with substantial enough opportunity to demonstrate her considerable talents. Won't Back Down looks schmaltzier the more we see of it, but even though this could be overcome, word is that Davis may not be the main character (although that didn't stop her campaign last year).  Word is that Helen Hunt IS going to be actively campaigned, but in Supporting Actress (where she could actually find the road more difficult, but, oh well).  Even Knightley, who had been considered the front runner up until "Anna" debuted, seems to be drawing reservedly positive reviews, and her lead in buzz is slipping rapidly.  Bearing these (and other) things in mind, I struggled to put together this list.  Numbers one through three I feel pretty confident about, especially one and two.  After that, it's hard to say right now.
  1. Quvenzhane Wallis - Beasts of the Southern Wild...Although it seems less likely that she'll win than it did a couple of months ago, I have to believe that if the Academy gives this film anything (and surely it will), it will be a nomination for the young Ms. Wallis.  First, its a great story:  she becomes the youngest Best Actress nominee ever.  She's a brand new face; this is her first film.  Aside from all that, the fact is that she gives one of the most nuanced, powerful, believable, and...elemental...seriously...performances that I've seen in a long time.  I've never seen a child actor carry a film this impressively.  Ever.
  2. Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook...Ms. Lawrence is only in the number two slot because "Silver" has yet to open.  Word from the festival circuit has been universally exuberant even among the few naysayers who were more reserved about the film as a whole.  With a nomination already under her belt for Winter's Bone (if you haven't seen it, shame on you), and the sudden fame provided by her impressive work in The Hunger Games earlier this year, many feel that she might be the one to win it this year.
  3. Marion Cotillard - Rust and Bone...No critic, that I'm aware of, has really even held back in their praise of Ms. Cotillard's performance in this film, even those who hated the film, which has been divisive.  However, those who loved it did so fervently.  France's choice NOT to submit the film for the Foreign Language competition may actually improve her chances, as it gives director Audiard's fervent fan base a chance to recognize the movie through her instead.
  4. Maggie Smith - Quartet...Like I said, I'm sort of shooting in the dark from here on, but:  1. The    film is under distribution by the Weinsteins.  Harvey often gives a serious push towards establishing a secondary nominee in each category.  2. She is HOT.  She has had the most dramatically blossoming post-Potter career so far, from her multiple Emmy winning work in Downtown Abbey, to the surprising box office success of Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  At 77, she is nearly as popular as she ever has been.  3. She is easily the most widely praised aspect of this mostly well received film.  The only downside is that with two wins and four additional nominations, she is not exactly working the overdue factor.
  5. Naomi Watts - The Impossible....Many feel that she is overdue for a second nomination, and she is easily the most widely praised aspect of this surprisingly well reviewed (at film festivals) picture.  Exceeding expectations is always a plus, and few took her, or the film's, chances too seriously until it was seen.  Now, she's the scrappy underdog contender, whose buzz is entirely organic.

  6. Helen Mirren - Hitchcock...She is the great question mark.  No one has seen the film.  It entered this year's race a few weeks ago like a strategic strike, and no one is entirely certain what prompted the move.  Surely it was rushed in because it suddenly seemed well poised to be a serious contender in some major race, and Actress is probably the one that seems to have the fewest strong  candidates at the moment.  Oh, and she is Oscar winner and four time nominee Helen Mirren.
  7. Keira Knightley - Anna Karenina...Many feel that Ms. Knightley is due a second nomination, but many don't.  She is a divisive actress as a rule, and her performance in this particular movie has not exactly broken said rule.  Unless the field suddenly becomes much more crowded with actresses whose work has received widely enthusiastic praise, however, she IS still a possibility.
  8. Emmanuelle Riva - Amour...This may be the most internationally renowned performance of the year in the movie that is far and away the front runner to win Foreign Language Film and a real possibility as a Best Picture nominee.  She would also be the oldest ever nominee in this category which would bookend well with Ms. Wallis.  The thing that gives me pause is that a nomination for her would either mean that two actresses get in for non-English language roles this year or Ms. Cotillard gets left out.
  9. Elle Fanning - Ginger and Rosa...Although much of the word on this film from the festival circuit has been less than enthusiastic, Ms. Fanning's performance has almost always been noted as being the film's saving grace, and she has been steadily building a solid little body of work.
  10. Judi Dench - The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel...The film did make a LOT of money, she is highly beloved within the Academy, and you just never know.  However, she does have a LOT of competition for the beloved veteran slot(s) this year.
     And that's the way I see it right now.  Sorry for the slight slow down in production, we'll try and knock out the rest of this series in short order.

Related posts:  September Oscar Buzz and Predictions - The Techs Part One, and Part 2The GenresScreenplays, and Supporting Performers;