Sunday, February 24, 2013

Final 85th Oscar Winner Predictions

     This doesn't really need a preface, does it?  Cross your fingers (or webbed feet, or whatever) and check out my live tweets tonight during the ceremony.

  Best Picture: Argo
         alternate: Silver Linings Playbook
         wild card: Amour
          should have been nominated: The Dark Knight Rises

  Best Director: Steven Spielberg - Lincoln
          alternate: David O Russell - Silver Linings Playbook
          wild card: Michael Haneke - Amour
          should have been nominated:  Christopher Nolan - Dark Knight Returns (sorry, Mr. Affleck, you were great)

  Best Actor: um...Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln
          alternate:  Hugh Jackman - Les Miserables
          wild card:  Bradley Cooper - Silver Linings Playbook
          should have been nominated:  Richard Gere - Arbitrage

  Best Actress: Emmanuelle Riva - Amour
          alternate: Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook
          wild card: Jessica Chastain - Zero Dark Thirty
          should have been nominated: Marion Cotillard - Rust and Bone

  Best Supporting Actor: Robert DeNiro - Silver Linings Playbook
          alternate: Tommy Lee Jones - Lincoln
          wild card: Phillip Seymour Hoffman - The Master
          should have been nominated: Dwight Henry - Beasts of the Southern Wild

  Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway - Les Miserables
          alternate: Sally Field - Lincoln
          wild card: Jackie Weaver - Silver Linings Playbook
          should have been nominated: Salma Hayek - Savages

  Best Original Screenplay: Amour
          alternate: Django Unchained
          wild card: Zero Dark Thirty
          should have been nominated: Looper

  Best Adapted Screenplay: Argo
          alternate: Lincoln
          wild card: Silver Linings Playbook
          should have been nominated: The Dark Knight Rises

  Best Animated Feature:  Wreck-It Ralph
          alternate: Frankenweenie
          wild card: Brave
          should have been nominated: A Liar's Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python's
        Graham Chapman

  Best Documentary Feature: Searching For Sugarman
           alternate: Gatekeepers
           wild card: 5 Broken Cameras
           should have been nominated: Queen of Versailles

  Best Foreign Language Film: Amour
           alternate: No
           wild card: War Witch
           should have been nominated: Rust and Bone

  Best Cinematography: Life of Pi
          alternate: Skyfall
          wild card: Lincoln
          should have been nominated: Beasts of the Southern Wild

  Best Editing: Argo
          alternate: Zero Dark Thirty
          wild card: Life of Pi
          should have been nominated: Cloud Atlas

  Best Production Design: Anna Karenina
           alternate: Les Miserables
           wild card: Life of Pi
           should have been nominated: Cloud Atlas

  Best Costume Design: Anna Karenina
            alternate: Les Miserables
            wild card: Mirror Mirror
            should have been nominated: A Royal Affair

  Best Make-Up and Hairstyling: Les Miserables
             alternate: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
             wild card: Hitchcock
             should have been nominated: Cloud Atlas

  Best Score: Life of Pi
              alternate: Skyfall
              wild card: Lincoln
              should have been nominated: Beasts of the Southern Wild

  Best Song: Skyfall - "Skyfall"
              alternate: Les Miserables - "Suddenly"
              wild card: Ted - "Everybody Needs a Best Friend"
              should have been nominated: numerous numbers from Lawless & Django Unchained

  Best Sound Editing: Skyfall
               alternate: Life of Pi
               wild card: Argo
               should have been nominated: The Dark Knight Returns

  Best Sound Mixing: Les Miserables
                alternate: Skyfall
                wild card: Argo
                should have been nominated: The Impossible

  Best Visual Effects: Life of Pi
                 alternate: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
                 wild card: Marvel's Avengers

  Short Film Animated: Paperman
                 alternate: Head Over Heels
                 wild card: Adam and Dog
  Short Film Live-Action: Buzkashi Boys
                  alternate: Curfew
                  wild card: Death of a Shadow
  Short Film Documentary: Innocente
                  alternate: Open Heart
                  wild card: Mondays at Racine

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Oscar Winner Buzz and Predictions - Picture & Director

     We're almost there, my little tadpoles.  In less than thirty-six hours, another Awards will have come and gone, and the cycle will start anew (well, it already did at Sundance, but we'll talk about that next week).  This will be my final category by category analysis article, but these are still not my official predictions and I still have a few more posts to go before the ceremony.  With all that I still have to do in mind, lets's get started...

Best Director
     The buzz says...
  1.(1) Steven Spielberg - Lincoln
  2.(2) Ang Lee - Life of Pi
  3.(5) David O Russell - Silver Linings Playbook
  4.(10) Michael Haneke - Amour
  5.(9) Benh Zeitlen - Beasts of the Southern Wild
  Leaving the Rankings: Ben Affleck - Argo, Katherine Bigelow - Zero Dark Thirty, Tom Hooper - Les Miserables, Paul Thomas Anderson - The Master, Quentin Tarantino - Django Unchained
     And my thoughts...
  1. Steven Spielberg - Lincoln...I'm pretty shaky on this call, but it DOES seem like the most logical choice. Two previous wins should not be as prohibitive to Spielberg as they might seem, considering the length and depth of his body of work.  The quality of his final product is (while not MY favorite film represented here) inarguable.  Even in the filmography of one of the greatest, it is a stand out.
  2. Michael Haneke - Amour...Any other year, I would never be putting the foreign language film director second, but I think that the votes will be widely split here, and passions for both the director and his film run high.  We'll just have to see.
  3. David O Russell - Silver Linings Playbook...Mostly because he seems to be gaining momentum and you should never count out the influence of producer Harvey Weinstein.
  4. Ang Lee - Life of Pi...Just a few short weeks ago, I would have placed Mr. Lee's odds much higher, and the director's buzz and accolades were everywhere just last month.  Since then...????
  5. Benh Zeitlin - Beasts of the Southern Wild...I would LOVE to have placed this brilliant young newcomer higher on the list, but even a big old "Beast"iac (I'm coining it) like me has to admit that of all the nominees in this category, his victory would surprise me the most.

Best Picture
     Buzz would have it...
  1.(2) Argo
  2.(1) Lincoln
  3.(5) Silver Linings Playbook
  4.(3) Zero Dark Thirty
  5.(4) Les Miserables
  6.(6) Life of Pi
  7.(7) Beasts of the Southern Wild
  8.(11) Amour
  9.(10) Django Unchained
  Leaving the rankings:  The Master, Moonrise Kingdom, Flight, Anna Karenina, The Dark Knigt Rises, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Impossible, The Sessions, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Skyfall, Hitchcock
     And of course, I go my own way...a little...
  1. Argo...It won the Globe, the Critics Choice, SAG ensemble, the Producers Guild, the Director's Guild and the Writer's Guild.  Yes, it would be first film in a long time (since Driving Miss Daisy) to win Best Picture without a corresponding directorial nomination, but it would the first one ever to win all the awards I just mentioned and not win the Oscar.  Plus, everyone feels really bad for director Ben Affleck after his snub and this is the only way they have to honor him.
  2. Silver Linings Playbook...The only thing that MIGHT upset this basket is the influence of papa Weinstein, so I'm going with this as the alternate...for now.
  3. Lincoln...It has the most nominations, but that doesn't mean as much as it used to.  Also, it is a film that most people respect more than they passionately love and that could hurt in preferential voting system like the one used for this category.
  4. Amour...Again, passions run high for both the film and director and it is quite possibly the most critically acclaimed movie represented, so...
  5. Life of Pi...This film obviously has widespread support (with 11 nominations), but it is far more likely to be honored for its technical achievements.
  6. Django Unchained...Again, its a passion vote, and Tarantino is well loved, but it probably won't happen this year.
  7. Beasts of the Southern Wild...I put it this high on the list only because the film has few detractors and those who love it do so absolutely.
  8. Zero Dark Thirty...After making out like a bandit in the early critics award, the film seems to have quietly slipped out of competition immediately.
  9. Les Miserables...Of all the films, this is the only one that has actually elicited great disdain from some.

    And that's all the categories.  Expect me to return shortly when I will be giving you my buzz-meter's final prediction, then I'll give picks based on how I would vote, and finally you'll be getting my final predictions.

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Friday, February 22, 2013

Oscar Winners Predictions & Buzz - Foreign Films

     I tried to wait until I could see the Live-Action Shorts before I did this next post, but I'm not sure that I'm going to have the opportunity (and time is running out before the Oscars).  So (as always) the buzz rankings come first with previous rankings listed in parenthesis.  My relative shots in the dark follow on the second lists...

Live-Action Short
  1.(1) Curfew - Shawn Christensen
  2.(4) Asad - Bryan Buckley & Mino Jarjoura
  3.(8) Buzkashi Boys - Sam French & Ariel Nasr
  4.(2) Death of a Shadow - Tom Van Avermaet & Ellen De Waele
  5.(6) Henry - Yan England
  Leaving the Rankings: When You Find Me, 9 Meter, The Night Shift Belongs To The Stars, Salar, Kiluna-Kigali
     None of the nominees this year have any previous nominations, so no one gets through because they are viewed as overdue, which makes this a real crap shoot.  Still, I'm gonna say...
  1. Buzkashi Boys...Curfew still leads in buzz by a fair margin, but I sense a change in the air and this film has had the most dramatic rise in buzz in the final minutes of the game.
  2. Asad...Same as above only slightly less exponential increase in buzz.
  3. Curfew...Which isn't to say that the film that has held front runner status since the short list was announced doesn't still have a great shot.
  4. Death of a Shadow...This film's steady decline in buzz would have landed it at number five on my list if not for the appearance of international star Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone, Bullhead) in its cast.
  5. Henry...Absolutely no one seems to think that this picture is going to win, and its mild surprise of a nomination doesn't seem to have changed that one little bit.

Foreign Language Film
  1.(1) Austria - Amour
  2.(3) Denmark - A Royal Affair
  3.(4) Chile - No
  4.(7) Canada - War Witch
  5.(8) Norway - Kon-Tiki
  Leaving the Rankings:  France - The Intouchables, Romania - Beyond the Hills, Iceland - The Deep
     The more obscure (to American audiences) that the films are in a category, the more difficult it usually is to predict  a winner, and thus the Foreign Film field is often rife with upset potential.  However,  when there is a clear cut high profile front runner without any real competition...
  1. Amour...It is very difficult to imagine that Amour will not win Best Foreign Language film.  First, it is the only contender from a film maker who directed a previous nominee.  Second, it was by far the most acclaimed international player on the 2012 film festival circuit.  Most importantly, however, it has four nominations outside of this category, demonstrating widespread Academy support of the sort that non-English language films rarely enjoy.  In fact, in the last forty years of Oscar history, only 4 non-English language films have garnered Best Picture nominations.  Of those, two films made it through the often capricious Foreign Language Film selection process to a nomination (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon & Life Is Beautiful) also won the category.
  2. War Witch...IF something WERE to upset in this category, it would most likely be something that came out of nowhere, rather than a film that people have been weighing against Amour all year long.  This film, premiering near the end of the major festivals, fits that bill.  In addition, this is Canada's third nomination in a row, with no wins...ever.  This could lead to some sentiment that the nation's film industry is overdue for some love.
  3. No...IF something that has long been considered an "other contender" for this category upset, I think it most likely that it would be No.  The film has been divisive, but those who love it, LOVE IT.  The fact that it earned a nomination over much more generally digestible films, such as France's The Intouchables indicate that enough people fell on the "LOVE IT" side to seriously the race.
  4. Kon-Tiki...We're really getting into the ludicrously small probabilities here.  This film is nearly as much of a tertiary contender now as it was before the nominations.
  5. A Royal Affair...A very good film that inspires more "like" than "love".  It has been thought of for over six months now as one of the films that would probably get the chance to lose to Amour.  Sometimes early buzz is right on.

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Monday, February 18, 2013

Oscar Winners Predictions & Buzz - Actor & Actress

     With just under a week left until the Academy Awards we are rapidly running out of time.  Fortunately, I'm also running out of categories to cover.  As always, the buzz appears first, with former rankings appearing in parenthesis.  I'll try to find something new to say on the second lists. Let's start with the boring race...

Best Actor
  1.(1) Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln
  2.(5) Hugh Jackman - Les Miserables
  3.(3) Joaquin Phoenix - The Master
  4.(4) Denzel Washington - Flight
  5.(6) Bradley Cooper - Silver Linings Playbook
  Leaving the Rankings:  John Hawkes - The Sessions, Anthony Hopkins - Hitchcock, Richard Gere - Arbitrage, Bill Murray - Hyde Park On Hudson, Jean-Louis Trintignent - Amour
     I don't really have ALL that much to change here...
  1. Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln...The only reason that I call this a boring race is because we've had the same front runner ALL year, and KNOWN he would be the winner since the movie premiered.  There is certainly nothing boring about his performance; it is a marvel.  Congratulations to Mr. Day-Lewis as he becomes the first man ever to win three Best Actor Oscars.  I can't begrudge you.
  2. Hugh Jackman - Les Miserables...Nobody really has a serious shot at dethroning Lincoln in this category, but Jackman DOES give a transforming, probably career changing turn in this film.  Sadly, it looks like earning his first nomination will have to suffice for this year.
  3. Bradley Cooper - Silver Linings Playbook...Another first time nominee whose career has probably just changed forever.  Buzz for the film has surged of late, and you never know with the Weinstein Company handling the campaign.
  4. Joaquin Phoenix - The Master...Every now and then (for reasons unknown), the Academy suddenly takes a shine to someone who has thumbed their nose at the Oscars.  Just ask Woody Allen.  Phoenix's comments left him on the outside looking in for the entire awards cycle, but there is a MINUTE chance that forgiveness might come at the last second.  Of course, you could argue that it already did when they gave him the nomination.
  5. Denzel Washington - Flight...Mr. Washington gave a GREAT performance in an okay film, and the Academy giving him his sixth nomination for it certainly indicates that they are open to the idea of awarding him with that uber-rare third win...someday.

Best Actress
  1.(1) Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook
  2.(2) Jessica Chastain - Zero Dark Thirty
  3.(5) Emmanuelle Riva - Amour
  4.(4) Quvenzhane Wallis - Beasts of the Southern Wild
  5.(6) Naomi Watts - The Impossible
  Leaving the Rankings:  Marion Cotillard - Rust and Bone, Keira Knightley - Anna Karenina, Helen Mirren - Hitchcock, Rachel Weisz - The Deep Blue Sea
     This race is so wide open, I can't even believe it.  Let me explain...
  1. Emmanuelle Riva - Amour...It was several month back when I first heard the idea proposed that Lawrence and Chastain might cancel each other out, leaving room for Riva (or Wallis, it was thought at the time) to slide in and take the victory.  I scoffed, but Riva's momentum in the last few weeks has been incredible.  I'm still not SURE that it will be enough to secure a win, but it's looking more likely by the hour.
  2. Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook...Of course, Riva had a LOT of ground to cover to catch the awards train that has been JLAWRENCE2012.  It is quite possible that this highly talented actress will still walk home with the gold.
  3. Jessica Chastain - Zero Dark Thirty...That being said, Ms. Chastain is still in this race too, and I might be predicting her to win by Saturday.
  4. Naomi Watts - The Impossible...Ms. Watts has gotten a lot of very vocal support within the industry, but I think her buzz just got going too late.  Still, in a year where the votes are going to be all over the place anyway, anything is possible.
  5. Quvenzhane Wallis - Beasts of the Southern Wild...Still might be my personal favorite of the year, but she's young and working with director Steve McQueen this year ensures she doesn't disappear after one film.  Still, the film has a lot of love.

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Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Habit: A Much Expected Returning

     Yeah, everybody loved director Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  It elevated the fantasy genre to new heights and raised the bar on special effects forever.  I can't imagine that anyone was all that surprised when it was announced that he was going to follow the series up with another Middle Earth adaptation, this time of The Hobbit.  Part One (An Unexpected Journey) was pretty much exactly what I was expecting.  Your expectations should be roundly met as well, unless you were expecting The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
     Many have criticized this film for being less "adult" than its predecessors, and it is.  In its defense, however, the source novel was aimed at a much younger audience.  Jackson and crew could not have been true to the material without incorporating such a tonal shift.  There was some groan worthy, juvenile humor (dwarves falling in doorway, a goblin king falling from the sky right on cue), and some of the sing song scenes made me squirm in my seat in anticipation for their conclusions.  The dishwashing sequence is particularly tiresome.  The very survival of the entire band of dwarfs stretched believability in a couple of scenes that would have involved a death in a less family friendly story.  None of these "precious" touches kept me from enjoying the film for what it was, and they may well have increased the enjoyment of many younger viewers.
     The other, possibly more valid complaint is that The Hobbit was expanded from a two part adaptation to a trilogy more for financial considerations than artistic ones.  I'm sure there is at least a grain of truth to this, and much of the first half of An Unexpected Journey felt a little padded.  However, the film does end in sort of a perfect point in the story, one that creates a fully developed and completed narrative arc within the greater framework.  There was no need for this film to be quite as long as it was, however.  Some fat could easily have been trimmed from the first hour (or at least held in reserve for the Blu-ray Bonus Edition, when viewers can impose an intermission).
     Now that we have addressed the movie's alleged shortcomings, we can talk about some of the undeniably excellent elements.  We all know that Captain Jackson runs a tight ship, and technically the film is virtually flawless.  The visual effects may be a little less innovative than the first time around but are no less impressive.  I actually think that the team has improved upon its previous techniques for creating the illusion of height differential among Middle Earth's myriad humanoid species.  Gandalf looks like a virtual giant near the hobbits and dwarfs, who walk under archways with ease that he must duck in order to pass. Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton & R. Christopher White are to be congratulated on their well deserved Oscar nomination.
     Likewise, Production Designer Dan Hennah and Set Decorator Simon Bright should sleep well at night, secure in the knowledge that their nomination was well deserved.  The sets were absolutely stunning and made me really want to visit New Zealand.  While I might question the entire Make-Up and Hairstyling nomination list this year, the work done here is certainly more deserving than at least one of its current competitors (I haven't seen Les Miserables yet).  Andrew Lesnie's cinematography, Howard Shore's musical composition, and the work done by the sound team are all also highly worthy of praise.
     The acting in this film is uniformly strong.  In the early scenes of the film, I had my doubts about Martin Freeman's ability to make Bilbo as engaging a protagonist as Frodo was, but he grew on me considerably as the story unfolded.  The actors who play the dwarfs function well as an ensemble (Peter Hambleton being a bit of a stand out).  The greatest treat, however, was the return of old friends like Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, and especially Ian McKellen in the roles they have now been associated with for years.  Even Elijah Wood makes a brief cameo in the prologue.
     If the film drags just a bit at the beginning, the last hour more than makes up for it.  The riddling contest is worth the price of admission, with Andy Serkis's Gollum continuing to prove that motion capture work can have a soul.  The chase through the Goblin Kingdom is equally fantastic and proved incredibly entertaining.  The film ends in a perfect mini-resolution of sorts, and (thanks to smart directorial choices like reserving the image of Smaug in his full glory for later installments) leaves the viewer hungry for more.  Family friendly fare?  Certainly.  Some of the smartest, most well made family fare you are likely to find at the theater this year.  4 of 5 stars.

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The Great Zac Efron Film Festival of 2012

     No, I'm not some nutty super-fan of High School Musical (I've never even seen it, honestly).  I'm just a simple Movie Frog who saw two movies featuring the former teen heart-throb in a row that actually impressed me with how far he has come.  I quickly figured out a third that was also released this year to make a full set of DVD reviews, and voila...The Great Zac Efron Film Festival of 2012.  It's better than it sounds...

  Liberal Arts - I was already a fan of Josh Radnor because of his work on TV's How I Met Your Mother, so I was very interested in what I thought was his cinematic writing/directing debut, Liberal Arts (which he also stars in).  His true debut was an even smaller film called HappyThankYouMorePlease, which was on my "to watch" list at some point back in 2010, but I somehow never connected it to him in that sense.  I'll have to go back and check it out.  As for Liberal Arts, it may not have gotten unanimous critical approval, but I quite liked it.
     It doesn't hurt that Radnor and I are close to the same age (he's a COUPLE of years younger), and it's easy to relate to the things that he goes through in his life.  In this film, he plays Jesse, a man in his mid-30's, who begins a nostalgic season when asked to speak at the retirement party of his favorite college professor.  I think this film does a fine job of portraying the difficulties that modern man faces when making the undeniable transition from young adulthood to adulthood.
     The film is propped up by a tremendous supporting cast.  Richard Jenkins (as said favorite professor) continues to be one of the most under-appreciated character actors in Hollywood.  Allison Janney plays the teacher that Jesse always had a crush on as equal parts shameless vamp and snide intellectual:  the sexy librarian's scary big sister.  Elizabeth Olsen plays the young student who develops a crush on Jesse like she's been training for this her entire life.  Of course, considering her family, she was probably training in utero.
     The great, unforeseen, exciting surprise of this film came in the form of Zac Efron.  I am always highly skeptical of anyone who started out as a teen idol.  For that matter, anyone who started out on Nickelodeon, in a boy band, on a reality show, or on the cover of Teen People is seen as a somewhat circumspect casting choice for anything other than a cameo as themselves presented in an ironic manner.  Every now and then Justin Timberlake appears in The Social Network or Mark Wahlberg shows up in Boogie Nights.  I'm not saying that Zac hit it out of the fence quite like that, but he is swinging for the rafters. (I just met my sports analogy quota for the year.  Check back for more in 2014.)  I KNEW this kid that he plays in school.  I was very impressed.  I'm starting to think that I may have to add a most improved category for this year's Froggy awards.
     All in all, I enjoyed this picture far more than I expected to.  The last third of the film, when Jesse decides to grow up again, lags a bit, but this is thematically consistent.  After all, the workaday adult world does suffer a bit for luster when compared to the brilliant hues of late adolescence.  "Nobody feels like an adult".  Indeed.  Josh Radnor shows room for improvement as a cinematic auteur, but nevertheless demonstrates great insight and promise.  4 1/2 of 5 stars.

  The Paperboy - I was such a fan of Precious, director Lee Daniel's difficult but unbelievably powerful breakout film from 2009, that his follow up feature The Paperboy started the year as one of my most anticipated films.  Even after it was mostly skewered on the festival circuit, I held out hope that I would see the brilliance that others had missed.  I regret to say that, while not a terrible film, it is something of a step backwards for this highly talented director.
     Of course, when Mr. Daniels made Precious. he had an excellent Oscar winning screenplay from Jeffrey Fletcher to work with.  This time, he decided to write the adaptation himself in collaboration with Peter Dexter, who wrote the source novel.  Unfortunately, the screenplay was the weakest element of this film, and the main reason that it didn't quite come together.  The story often seemed to be seedy for the sake of seediness, or provocative simply to be so, without really serving the development of plot, character, or thematic interests.  Clumsily overt foreshadowing kept me far from the edge of my seat.  I saw all the twists coming a mile away that could have been thrilling if I had only caught on at the last moment.  Like Precious, it was hard to watch at times, but not so much because of how much I cared for the characters, but because I just didn't care to know some of these things about them.
     I DID grow to care about the characters to some extent, however, because there was some great acting in this film.  Yes, in a film starring Zac Efron, that I rented when it and Liberal Arts were the only things in the kiosk on my viewing list that I hadn't seen.  Thus was born the theme of this post.  Zac actually carries himself quite well in this movie too, dammit.  The scariest part, and the hardest to admit is that after watching him run around in his underwear for half of the film I began to see real sex appeal that could go far beyond little girl teen idol fan rags.
     Matthew McConaughey CONTINUES to have a FANTASTIC year. As Efron's older brother, he is a man of many secrets.  He actually manages a lot of subtlety in an overblown world.  I had whispers at the back of my head, but I didn't really KNOW what was going on with him until he was ready to tell me.  David Oyelowo, who plays his writing partner, has one of the most complicated roles in the film, and played all the layers quite distinctly and brilliantly.  I am mostly interested in a repeat viewing of The Paperboy to pay closer attention to these two men's performances armed with the knowledge of the things that they hide.
     Two other actors had no choice but to fully embrace the cartoonish nature of the caricatures they were being asked to play.  Both made the wise choice to go all out and just make it work for them.  This is the best thing that I have seen from John Cusack in some time and I take back several of the things that I said when I reviewed The Raven.  I have never been so pleased to eat crow.  Nicole Kidman gives one of the bravest performances of the year.  It is equal parts infinite power and audacious improbability, yet somehow I believe her.  She even makes me sympathize with her and feel a little slimy for doing so.  Yeah, it's that bad.  And yes, she's that good.
     Macy Gray is an inspired choice for narration, especially in a pulpy thing like this.  She has such an endlessly interesting voice, smooth and gravelly at the same time.  Scott Glenn as Efron's father, and Nealla Gordon as his power-mongering girlfriend, create thoroughly despicable personas that play ignorance so earnestly that they remain pitiable.
     I'm going to say that if you have delicate sensibilities, you should skip this one.  Otherwise, it's worth watching for the ensemble cast, which ALMOST overcomes the problems inherent in the script.  The production values are otherwise still quite high.  I have great hope that Lee Daniels will redeem himself as a writer on his next project:  The Butler (2013?).  This time out he will be working in tandem with actor turned writer Danny Strong (fresh off a prime time Emmy win for the hit HBO original picture Game Change) in a production with more quality talent than any ensemble this side of an Altman film (if you don't know who that is, go rent Short Cuts and The Player right now!!!).  As for The Paperboy...3 1/2 of 5 stars.

  The Lorax - I had not really planned on watching The Lorax at this point, knowing that its Animated Feature hopes were dashed, but I needed a third film to fill this post and this was the least of all possible evils.  I quite liked Despicable Me, so I was hoping that director Chris Renaud's follow-up might yield similar fruit.
     Unfortunately, The Lorax suffers from the same problem that most Dr. Seuss adaptations suffer from.  It requires a lot of padding to make a feature length production out of one of these stories and the additional writing never lives up to the source material.  What's worse, in this case, they have taken a clever little allegory about environmental concerns and turned it into such a preachy diatribe that it would make Al Gore want to start a land fill in protest.
     The voice over work is a very mixed bag.  Suffice it to say that as a leading lady Taylor Swift inspires far less growth as an actor for Mr. Efron than did Nicole Kidman.  Danny DeVito's work as the Lorax may have actually been phoned in, although it was perfectly sufficient.
     The film's greatest redeeming grace is Betty White playing a delightful animated version of herself.  She is adorable, sprightly, mischievous, and incredibly vital. "Your grandma is so cool!"  Indeed.
      The Lorax does end on a somewhat touching, if slightly saccharine note, and has a good message.  I just feel it would have benefited from a little more subtlety.  3 of 5 stars.

Related articles:  Seeking the Queen Raven (The Raven review)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Oscar Winners Predictions & Buzz - Supporting Players

     One of these races is even more set in stone than last time, while the other is even more up for grabs.  As always, buzz rankings come first, with previous placements listed in parenthesis (see how far Jacki Weaver has come in this race?).  My commentary closes out each category.  Ladies first...

Supporting Actress
  1.(1) Anne Hathaway - Les Miserables
  2.(2) Sally Field - Lincoln
  3.(4) Amy Adams - The Master
  4.(3) Helen Hunt - The Sessions
  5.(9) Jacki Weaver - Silver Linings Playbook
  Leaving the rankings:  Maggie Smith - The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Ann Dowd - Compliance, Samantha Barks - Les Miserables, Nicole Kidman - The Paperboy, Judi Dench - Skyfall
     There are about seven categories that I feel are such done deals that I could predict the winner today with great confidence.  This is one of them...
  1. Anne Hathaway - Les Miserables...She won all four of the major precursors and has yet to win an Oscar.  I'd say the time to dream her dream is right now.
  2. Sally Field - Lincoln...She has never lost and she won this year with the Boston and New York critics, but I'm afraid that is probably all she's gonna get.
  3. Jacki Weaver - Silver Linings Playbook...Weinstein is pushing this film hard enough that this upset seems SLIGHTLY more probable than the remaining two scenarios while still being nearly impossible.
  4. Helen Hunt - The Sessions...Like Ms. Field, I believe that Ms. Hunt will have her first experience at LOSING an Oscar race this year.
  5. Amy Adams - The Master...With four nominations and no wins, she is arguably the most overdue competitor in the race, but with The Weinstein Co. concentrating its 11th hour campaign tactics around Silver Linings, she seems likely to stay that way.

Supporting Actor
  1.(2) Tommy Lee Jones - Lincoln
  2.(3) Robert DeNiro - Silver Linings Playbook
  3.(8) Christoph Waltz - Django Unchained
  4.(1) Philip Seymour Hoffman - The Master
  5.(5) Alan Arkin - Argo
  Leaving the Rankings:  Leonardo DiCaprio - Django Unchained, Matthew McConaughey - Magic Mike, Dwight Henry - Beasts of the Southern Wild, Javier Bardem - Skyfall, John Goodman - Argo
     I'm not sure I'll feel ready to call this category the night before the Oscars, but right now I'm feeling...
  1. Robert DeNiro - Silver Linings Playbook...Oddly enough, he hasn't won anything yet, just been nominated everywhere.  He's been omnipresent the last couple of weeks though, and it is easy to picture the beloved veteran "getting his turn" in a year when the wins have been spread around among most of his fellow nominees already.
  2. Christoph Waltz - Django Unchained...Although if you go by wins, Waltz took the Globe and BAFTA and has the forward momentum, being something of a surprise contender who's won almost everything he's been up for.
  3. Tommy Lee Jones - Lincoln...Which is certainly not to discount the fact that this is VERY much a three way race and Jones's SAG winning performance is one of the best of his career.
  4. Philip Seymour Hoffman - The Master...Another fantastic performance, but Weinstein isn't pushing this film as hard as Silver or Django, and that Critics Choice victory seems like a long time ago.
  5. Alan Arkin - Argo...Lucky to be here instead of co-star John Goodman.

Related Articles:   Oscar Winner Predictions & Buzz: Of Snubs and Triumphs (preview), Musical Techs (Score and Song), Noisy Techs (Sound Editing & Sound Mixing), Pretty People Techs (Costume Design & Make-Up and Hairstyling), Pretty Picture Techs (Cinematography & Production Design), Finishing Touch Techs (Editing & Visual Effects), Toons of Any Length (Animated Feature & Animated Short), Docs of Any Length (Documentary Feature & Documentary Short), Screenplays (Adapted & Original), I Think You "Argo"ing to Love It!"Lincoln" PerksBest That the Summer Wields? (Beasts of the Southern Wild review), Acting Master Classes in Private "Sessions"Didn't Quite Take "Flight"Can You "Master" Your Nature?The Best Huntsman's Shadow (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel review), 23? You Don't Play Like A Sequel Over 2! (Skyfall review), Where Did the Magic Spider Go? (Magic Mike review), 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Oscar Winners Predictions & Buzz - Screenplays

     So we're gonna skip Foreign Language Film and Live-Action shorts for a moment (is there an echo in here?) as I am hoping to see the Live-Action Shorts later tonight (fingers crossed).  In the meantime, we shall  forge forward into the top eight categories.  It would be nice to know what The Writer's Guild will do first, but at least the Scripter Award was already announced.  As always, the buzz rankings appear on the first list with previous rankings listed in parenthesis.  My humble opinions come hopping after...

Adapted Screenplay
  1.(1) Lincoln - Tony Kushner
  2.(2) Argo - Chris Terrio
  3.(3) Silver Linings Playbook - David O Russell
  4.(5) Life of Pi - David Magee
  5.(4) Beasts of the Southern Wild - Benh Zeitlen & Lucy Alibar
  Leaving the Rankings:  Les Miserables, The Sessions, Anna Karenina, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Cloud Atlas
     It's difficult to argue with the buzz too much.  It's definitely still a three way race, however.  For now, I'll say...
  1. Silver Linings Playbook...I may well switch in my final predictions, but this film just won the BAFTA, whose voting body overlaps with the Academy.  It also won the National Board of Review.
  2. Argo...Argomania could carry Chris Terrio to a win.  The recent Scripter victory didn't hurt.
  3. Lincoln...Tony Kushner is clearly well respected and he did win the Critics Choice, but the film seems to be losing its foothold on the top of THIS mountain.
  4. Beasts of the Southern Wild...Benh Zeitlin  and Lucy Alibar are still a wild card.  They have won SOME sort of recognition from almost every critics group imaginable.  With no "outstanding newcomer" award to shuffle off on the film, and no clear front runner in this category, anything could happen. Especially this year.
  5. Life of Pi...As difficult as this adaptation must have been to write, and despite the fact that he and Kushner are the only scribes on this list with previous writing nominations, I think that David Magee will have to console himself with being that much more overdue next time.

Original Screenplay
  1.(4) Django Unchained - Quentin Tarantino
  2.(5) Amour - Michael Haneke
  3.(2) Zero Dark Thirty - Mark Boal
  4.(3) Moonrise Kingdom - Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola
  5.(7) Flight - John Gatins
  Leaving the Rankings:  The Master, Looper, Promised Land, Middle of Nowhere, Seven Psychopaths
     It's difficult for me to take any nominee list that excludes Looper too seriously, but I shall try to remain objective...
  1. Amour...Usually when a Foreign Film receives multiple nods it wins somewhere outside of the Foreign Language Film category.  I may chicken out and pick Django in my final predictions, but for now I feel like mixing this up.
  2. Django...Of course, it's difficult to argue with the three time nominee and former winner who already took home The Critics Choice, BAFTA, and Golden Globe.  Um....
  3. Moonrise Kingdom...IF this film were to win the Writer's Guild Award I could MAYBE see it picking up the momentum to win in this category.  It is Anderson's second writing nomination, Coppola's first.
  4. Zero Dark Thirty...Considering that Boal just won for the Hurt Locker and the Academy's tendency to distance themselves from TOO much controversy, I'm having an increasingly difficult time seeing a win for this picture here.
  5. Flight.. Mr. Gatins should consider himself very lucky to be nominated.

Related Articles:  Oscar Winner Predictions & Buzz: Of Snubs and Triumphs (preview), Musical Techs (Score and Song), Noisy Techs (Sound Editing & Sound Mixing), Pretty People Techs (Costume Design & Make-Up and Hairstyling), Pretty Picture Techs (Cinematography & Production Design), Finishing Touch Techs (Editing & Visual Effects), Toons of Any Length (Animated Feature & Animated Short), Docs of Any Length (Documentary Feature & Documentary Short), I Think You "Argo"ing to Love It!"Lincoln" PerksFantasy "Life of Pi"Best That the Summer Wields? (Beasts of the Southern Wild review), Acting Master Classes in Private "Sessions"Anna Conundruma (Anna Karenina review), Cloudy Connections (Cloud Atlas review), Promarlius Kingdom (Moonrise Kingdom review), Didn't Quite Take "Flight"Can You "Master" Your Nature?Twist Until You Are Loopey? (Looper review), Premise Grand (Promised Land review)

Monday, February 11, 2013

Rent and Honed

     Three years ago I was rooting for A Prophet.  I have great respect for writer/director Michael Haneke (whose current film, Amour, has five Oscar nominations) and really, really like The White Ribbon (which was up against A Prophet in Best Foreign Language Film).  Still, I was rooting for writer/director Jaques Audiard's brutal prison set crime drama all the way.  To say that I was looking forward to his follow up, Rust and Bone, is an understatement, especially when you consider that it stars two of my favorite international acting talents.  For those who are expecting something similar to the director's former Oscar contender, you are in for a major surprise.
     Rust and Bone is a total departure for Audiard, a love story, albeit one born more in violence and tragedy than candy and roses.  It is a delightfully non-formulaic romance that tells as much of its story in subtext as in narrative.  While co-stars Corinne Masiero and Bouli Lanners lend able support (and child star Armand Verdure is very near perfection), the film belongs to Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts and  the story of how their characters, Stephanie and Ali, come into each other's lives.  Their chemistry is vibrant, complicated, and wholly believable.  The stew of elements involved in their budding relationship actually results in maybe the best cinematic first kiss scene ever, far more cathartic than the run of the mill.
     No matter what language Ms. Cotillard is acting in, she continues to be one of the most consistantly flawless performers working today.  She can convey any range or depth of emotion required of her, without histrionics, but her glances are still louder than a shout.  Her character, Stephanie, is a trainer of Orcas who loses her legs in a horrible accident on the job.  Stephanie is a creature of the water. It is the source of her vocation and the site of her greatest tragedy.  She is portrayed in the opening credits as being underwater and it is where her story always changes.
     Stephanie meets Michael just before her accident and they begin to spend time together soon after she gets out of the hospital.  He carries her, quite literally, throughout the early days of her healing process.  He returns her to the water which is the first phase of her rebirth.  When she is finally able to stand again, the sight of it gives him the courage to win impossible fights. Thus begins the phase of the movie that focuses on Ali.
     The idea of little deaths and rebirths over the course of life is a major theme of this film, and for this most unromantic of romances to end well, both of our protagonists must face serious transitions.  If anything, Ali is more damaged than Stephanie when the two of them meet, but his damage is on the inside.  Schoenaerts is really unrivaled at playing vulnerable, sensitive men who cover up their tender natures with rage and physical intimidation.  Ali is no carbon copy of the actor's performance in Bullhead, however.  This role is far more tempered.  He plays a man who is merely frightened and walled off, not one in a narcotic induced emotional melt down.  Note: he's much sexier this way.
     If Stephanie is a creature of the water, then Ali is one of ice, which (appropriately enough) is exactly the same thing yet entirely different.  He is trying to learn to be a father and to be something to Stephanie that he has no idea how to be.  He did not even realize how much of himself he was missing.  She supports him and carries him as much as he will let her, but there is still ice around much of his heart.
     IF this pair is to have a happy ending, Ali will have to break through not only this metaphorical ice, but physical ice as well in order to reach the water on the other side.  Both battles cannot be won without permanent scars, but it is the ONLY way that his rebirth can occur.
    The entire production is very strong here.  I particularly loved cinematographer Stephane Fontaine's work.  The movie contains some extraordinary imagery, especially a final trip back to the water that Stephanie takes on her own new legs (you'll know it when you see it).  The score is also extraordinary and integrated into the film seamlessly.  Little surprise there; it was composed by Alexandre Desplat.
     If you haven''t figured it out, this is another of my favorite films of the year.  I found it RICHLY rewarding and I KNOW that it will be worth re-watching in the future.  I don't know how Cotillard was ignored by the Academy this year, but it is their loss.  Audiard and Schoenaerts are fast becoming names whose attachment to a project excites me as much as anyone working in American cinema.  5 of 5 stars.

Related Articles: Above All, Like a Bullheaded Man (Bullhead review)

Sunday, February 10, 2013

To Rome, Sugarweenie!

     In today's post we cover a charming if flawed little comedy from an aging master and my current picks to win two Academy Awards:  Animated Feature and Documentary Feature.  It's gonna get a little saccharine in here before the post is through, but we'll ease you in with something semi-sweet...

  To Rome With Love - Well, I wasn't really expecting Woody Allen to pull off something as successful as Midnight in Paris two years in a row, and in all honesty, he didn't.  This is less one feature film than a collection of short films interwoven together with careful editing, but bearing no relation to each other except that they all occur in the city of Rome, Italy  and that themes of fame and infidelity run throughout.  I'm not sure that Woody was even trying to say anything to profound on the subjects.  The picture is really a light comedy.  I'm just going to review each vignette briefly, and then we'll average all the scores together.
      I guess we should start with the narrator character, although he's almost not worth mentioning. He was completely unneeded, added nothing to the film, and was actually quite annoying.  1 1/2 of 5 stars...
     One vignette involved a young Italian couple who come to the big city, both have little "adventures" without each other, then come back together and decide to move back to the small village they came from.  Penelope Cruz is able to elevate the quality of these segments a bit as a prostitute, but this story is a silly sex farce at best that presents an unusually realistic, if questionably optimistic, take on adultery.  Fortunately, this was my least favorite of the four story lines.  3 of 5 stars...
     Next up is a story line in which Alec Baldwin plays a man reliving his experiences from many years ago with Jesse Eisenberg playing the younger version of himself.  Baldwin seems a little stiff here, a little awkward, as does the plot device of his constant presence. Conversely, Eisenberg is excellent as the younger version of
Baldwin/surrogate Woody.  He doesn't try to imitate the director's standard delivery (as many others have done) but somehow gets the feel of it better than any other younger actor I have seen.  I would love to see him play lead in an Allen film.  3 1/2 of 5 stars.
    Of course, no one can do Woody as well as Woody, and his presence onscreen made the scenes that he was in a delight even if the premise of his story line was stolen from an old episode of The Flintstones.  Judy Davis is great as his wife and Mr. Allen saved all his best lines for their interactions.  "I can't unclench when flying.  I'm an atheist."  "That's right.  You have the only brain with 3 ids."  3 1/2 of 5 stars.
     My favorite vignette was the rumination on fame starring Roberto Benini.  Life is Beautiful is one of my all time favorite films, and I felt that this was the first time that I have seen some of the magic of his performance in that film recaptured.  Oh, and I agree Mr. Allen...The Tree of Life was much better than the King's Speech.  4 1/2 of 5 stars.
     Let's just say that this averages out to about...3 1/2 of 5 stars.

  Frankenweenie - In the short history of The Movie Frog I have poked gentle fun at Disney, it is true.  This year, however, they seem to have decided to take back the world of animation in a HUGE way, with three of the very best animated films of 2012:  Wreck-It Ralph, Paperman, and now Frankenweenie.  Of course, Frankenweenie is really a TIM BURTON picture that Disney produced, his stamp and style are all over the thing.  Still, one has to give the company credit for realizing what a mistake they made letting the director get away the first time.
     As for Burton, this is the best thing he's done since Sweeney Todd without question and is something of a return to form, although it remains to be seen if this will translate to a live action film or not.  I credit much of his success here to the fact that he finally made a movie based on his own original ideas, something he hasn't done since Corpse Bride (2005) and Big Fish (2003).  This constant "Burtonizing" of adapted concepts produces very uneven results.  Occasionally you get Sweeney, Batman, or Pee-Wee.  More often, you get Apes, Alice or Shadows.
     There are so many really nice touches in this film.  The constant homages to the classic Frankenstein films (and other classic horror movies) belie the film maker's great love for these early pictures and the genre.  They likely flew over the heads of most children (who ARE the film's primary target audience), but were much appreciated by this viewer.
     The picture is FUNNY, too.  The bit with the precognitive cat is great.  The first time Sparky drinks after he comes back almost made me wet my pants.  I don't want to give away ALL the best jokes, but there are many.
     Of course, it never hurts to have fantastic voice talent attached to a project like this, and this cast had it to spare.  Catherine O'Hare and Martin Short are predictably hilarious and versatile in multiple roles.  Martin Landau plays shades of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood as the spooky science teacher.  Charlie Tahan (the ghost kid from Charlie St. Cloud) leads the cast ably as young Victor.  I've always found Atticus Shaffer to be the best thing about the TV show The Middle and he is PERFECT as Edgar "E" Gore.
     The greatest treat, though, is having Winona Ryder working again with the director who made her the first time.  It brought me back to the first magical glimpses of Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice...sigh...5 of 5 stars.

  Searching For Sugarman - This documentary is about Rodriguez, the great American singer/songwriter from the early seventies.  What?  You say you've never heard of him?  Neither had I.  Neither had  hardly anyone else in this country before this film was made.
      "So what?", you say. America, no one had heard of him, but he was a super-star in South Africa, one whose music helped to spark a protest movement against Apartheid.  Only he never knew it.  After two albums, he stopped recording.
     So begins the search for Rodriguez, a story with enough twists and turns to take you places you never expected by the time the journey is over.  The film gives you much to ruminate on.  It is an inspiring story of how a great artist's work will always find its intended audience, whether or not the artist even knows who they are.  While watching the film I couldn't help but marvel at how easily fate can be thwarted or altered, and how it often fights to reassert itself when the time is right.
     I risk breaking my own spoiler rule if I say too much more, but the film packs just as much emotion as thoughtfulness, aided superbly by the soundtrack of Rodriguez's music.  His work is haunting, powerful and poetic.  It is utilized brilliantly to underscore both the thematic and emotional significance of nearly every scene in the film.  I would have loved this picture simply for how it functioned as a video music album, but believe me, there's a lot more going on here.  5 of 5 stars.

Related Articles:  If It Ain't Wrecked (Wreck-It Ralph & Paperman reviews), Oscar Winners Predictions & Buzz: Toons of Any Length (Animated Feature & Animated Short), Docs of Any Length (Documentary Feature & Documentary Short)

Friday, February 8, 2013

Oscar Winners Predictions & Buzz - Docs of Any Length

     Well, I've seen none of the shorts and four of the features as far as our Documentary nominees go, but I'll do my best to size up these always confounding categories.  As always, the buzz comes first with previous rankings in parenthesis.  My best guesses let loose on the second list in each category.

Documentary Short Subject
  1.(1) Open Heart
  2.(4) Inocente
  3.(3) Mondays at Racine
  4.(7) Kings Point
  5.(5) Redemption
  Leaving the Rankings:  The Education of Mohammad Hussein, Paraiso, The Perfect Fit
     I don't really know, but let's play like I do...
  1. Inocente...The genre categories are notorious for come from behind victories (well, maybe not animated feature) and this film seems to have a lot of forward momentum at present. It does not quite have the front runner's buzz yet, but there seems to be a distinct slow down at the top.
  2. Open Heart...This doc has been at the front of the pack pretty much since the short list was announced but I sense that just recently it has been losing steam in that regard.  It still has time to rebound (and no one ever knows anything with the shorts anyway), but for now I'm dropping it to number two.
  3. Kings Point...Like Inocente, this short seems to have some real last minute momentum going, so I'm going to leap frog it in much the same manner.
  4. Mondays at Racine...Like Open Heart, this was an early favorite that seems to be losing buzz.
  5. Redemption...And this one has always seemed like the afterthought.

Documentary Feature
  1.(1) Searching For Sugar Man
  2.(3) The Gatekeepers
  3.(2) How To Survive a Plague
  4.(6) The Invisible War
  5. 5 Broken Cameras
  Leaving the Rankings:  Bully, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, The Imposter, Ai Wei-Wei: Never Sorry, The House I Live In, Detropia
     I feel a little more confidant in my choices with the features...
  1. Searching For Sugarman...It's always risky to pick the obvious choice in this category, but this year feels more like The Cove and less like Project Nim.  The full Academy is in on the voting for the win and probably twice as many of them have SEEN this picture than have seen any of its competitors.  Plus, it's a really excellent documentary.
  2. 5 Broken Cameras...Y'know, this film wasn't even on the radar before the nominations, even after it made the short list.  In that respect it reminds me of that nominee last year, what was it?  Oh, yeah, Undefeated.
  3. The Gatekeepers...As this film filters out into wider release, it just seems to grow in prestige and buzz.  Like "Cameras", it also focuses on the Middle East, which seems to be a big part of this year's Oscar narrative.
  4. How To Survive a Plague...I loved this film, but its buzz has been waning in the last few weeks.  For some reason, I think its out of the running.
  5. The Invisible War...Of the four nominees I have seen (still waiting on Gatekeepers to hit Atlanta theaters), I found this one to be the weakest (although still highly recommendable).  It was an early front runner, but has been steadily lagging further and further behind the leaders for several months now.

     And that is my best current take on the documentaries (although I reserve the right to change everything in my final predictions).  Next up:  Foreign Language Film and Short Subject - Live Action...Froggy

Related Articles:  Oscar Winner Predictions & Buzz: Of Snubs and Triumphs (preview), Musical Techs (Score and Song), Noisy Techs (Sound Editing & Sound Mixing), Pretty People Techs (Costume Design & Make-Up and Hairstyling), Pretty Picture Techs (Cinematography & Production Design), Finishing Touch Techs (Editing & Visual Effects), Toons of Any Length (Animated Feature & Animated Short) Surviving the Alps is a Rush (How To Survive a Plague review), Henry's Invisible Arbitrage (The Invisible War review)

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Oscar Winners Predictions and Buzz - Toons of Any Length

     I apologize that this final round of category-by-category analysis got delayed but I was trying to catch the shorts in theaters before I proceeded.  I STILL haven't seen them, but the Oscars are seventeen days away now & I MUST get moving before these articles become obsolete.  As always, the buzz comes first with previous rankings listed in parenthesis.  Then I'll give you a piece of my mind (but please give it back, I'm not sure how many more I can spare)...

Short Subject - Animated
  1(1). Paperman
  2(2). Adam and Dog
  3.(8) Head Over Heels
  4.(4) Maggie Simpson in The Longest Daycare
  5.(10) Fresh Guacamole
  Leaving the Rankings:  The Eagleman Stag, Dripped, Fall of the House of Usher, Combustible, Tram
     I HAVE actually seen two of these, so I actually have SOME clue, just not much.  Still, if I HAD to hazard a guess (and I do), I'd say...
  1. Paperman...Disney hasn't won this award in a long time but this film has more buzz than all the other contenders combined.  This category usually tries to reward up and coming film makers (always looking to help create the next Aardman Studios), but with Wreck-It Ralph or Frankenweenie poised to take Feature, this might well be the year that the Academy get some serious Disney love going.  Plus, the toon is really magnificent for something so brief and it does show the most innovation in the field of anything the Mouse House has done in ages.
  2. Head Over Heels...However, this category is often won by something that wasn't on any body's radar until nomination morning.  This picture has gone from being an afterthought on the short list to one of the most talked about pictures in this race.  That sort of forward momentum cannot be discounted.
  3. Adam and Dog...This was the early "high brow" favorite contender to challenge Paperman and Daycare, but it seems to be losing that title to Head Over Heels.
  4. Fresh Guacamole...Nobody expects this to win, but I've seen it.  It is so creative and innovative that I can't help but believe it stands a slim chance.  "Fresh" indeed!
  5. Maggie Simpson in The Longest Daycare...Everybody loves The Simpsons, but if the Academy sees fit to reward a "name brand" short in this category, I have to believe it will be the ground breaking Paperman.

Animated Feature
  1.(4) Wreck-It Ralph
  2.(2) Frankenweenie
  3.(1) Brave
  4.(3) Paranorman
  5.(9) The Pirates!  Band of Misfits
  Leaving the Rankings:  Rise of the Guardians, The Painting, From Up On Poppy Hill, The Rabbi's Cat, Madagascar 3
     I'm gonna go with...
  1. Frankenweenie...Yeah, Ralph seems to have victory momentum at the moment, and Brave was made by Pixar (nuff said), but Frankenweenie is gonna win BAFTA (the British Academy Awards) and this is still a golden opportunity for the Academy to recognize Tim Burton not only for this film, but for his body of work (recent additions notwithstanding).  For the moment, I'm gonna stick to my guns.
  2. Wreck-It Ralph...That being said, Wreck-It Ralph was a really good picture and I will not be at all indignant with the Academy if it wins.  Disney has really had their best year in a long time.
  3. Brave...Yes, it won the Globe and it's Pixar, but it is hardly their best effort.  I may be a fool to go against this one, but I'm betting on the parent company this year.
  4. Paranorman...This film certainly has its fans (I like it better than Brave myself), but it has lost an awful lot of momentum in the last few months and I think it is out of the running.
  5. The Pirates! Band of Misfits...I love Aardman studios but there's no way in hell that they are winning this year.  I still haven't seen the G-Kids submissions, but its hard to believe that this film beat them all out for a nomination.  Maybe four possibilities was too much for the upstart distributor.

     I'll be back in short order with the documentaries...Froggy

Related Articles:  Oscar Winner Predictions & Buzz: Of Snubs and Triumphs (preview), Musical Techs (Score and Song), Noisy Techs (Sound Editing & Sound Mixing), Pretty People Techs (Costume Design & Make-Up and Hairstyling), Pretty Picture Techs (Cinematography & Production Design), Finishing Touch Techs (Editing & Visual Effects), If It Ain't Wrecked... (Wreck-It Ralph & Paperman reviews), Elena's Brave Law (Brave review), The Perfect Para-Killer (Paranorman review), Bernie! On a Ledge of Misfits (Pirates! Band of Misfits review)

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

"Lincoln" Perks

     Lights rise on the nation's sixteenth President sitting and speaking with two black soldiers.  He asks them questions in a tone that is patient, kind, and just a little paternal.  One soldier is shamelessly servile, almost pandering in a way that irritated one friend of mine, making him feel as if his race was represented as being too worshipful of Lincoln.  The other soldier, though, was hard on the president, asking him difficult questions, many that Abe was unprepared to answer without more thought.  Two white soldiers march up and seem a little dismissive of their "compatriots of color" (if you will).  Lincoln asks the new arrivals if they can recite what he said at Gettysburg and the boys try to stumble through it, but Lincoln ends up having to help them with the first few lines before sending everyone on their way.  As the soldier's walk off, the one who had given Lincoln a hard time can be heard finishing the speech, effortlessly and word for word.  It is obvious that while he continues to hold the President accountable for upholding them, the words themselves he holds in a certain reverence.  So begins Lincoln, setting the tone for all that is to follow.  It is a film that is full of big ideas, and gives you much to ponder.  It avoids becoming TOO ponderous, however, because it is also a movie with a big heart, kept under tight wraps, but leaking little golden veins of sentimentality.
     The intellectual meat of the picture (and there is a lot, questions in conundrums in ethical puzzles) must undeniably be accredited to screenwriter Tony Kushner's rather inspired script.  This is only Mr. Kushner's second screenplay (he also collaborated with Spielberg on Munich), but he was already well known as a playwright because of the two Angels in America plays (which are amazing, maybe I'll review the excellent HBO adaptation in a later article).  Here he tells a story of great men, fighting battles of great import, but without cleaning it all up to make it more palatable.  It feels more history than mythology in a way that movies about beloved historical figures rarely do.  This was a man who had to compromise and had to occasionally bend his own ethical principals in a microcosmic manner to maintain the path to his goal in the bigger picture.  Lincoln is a pensive, talky film, but one that has worthwhile things to say.
     Steven Spielberg works best when his tone is respectable but flirting with cheese.  Sometimes he flirts heavily (Raiders, ET), sometimes he's a little more subtle (Close Encounters, Saving Private Ryan) and every great once in a while he's able to keep his heart in check enough to be really, really coy about it (Schindler's List, and now Lincoln).  Spielberg is like a great conductor here.  He assembled the best orchestral team you could ask for, was given a great composition to lead them through and then weaves the sounds together like the seasoned master that he is when at his best.
     It is almost a given at this point that Daniel Day-Lewis is going to win an Oscar for Lincoln.  Loathe as I am to go along with awards that were practically bestowed months ahead of time based on "brand name" alone, I have to admit that he's one of the favored contenders in The Froggies when I get to the Best of 2012 series in a couple of months.  It's an amazing performance, in which this true master thespian completely transforms into the man he portrays.  Great attention has obviously been given to every aspect of what he does onscreen:  the accent, the posture, every movement of the muscles around his eyes.  He takes Abraham Lincoln, the most loved and hated American figure of his day, and makes him so affable and funny even among those who despise him.  At the same time you can never look at the man without seeing the weight he feels upon his shoulders and his soul.
     I admit, I am a bit biased in the following assessment.  I love Sally Field.  But I think that if I were entirely objective, I would still love her performance in this picture.  I can think of no other actress better suited for the sort of high melodrama inherent in the character of Mary Todd Lincoln.  Her Mary is a woman of such simultaneous fragility and strength that she seems almost surreal, but you absolutely believe in her.  There is this one party scene where her and Tommy Lee Jones go at it that is one of the real high lights of the film for me.
     Speaking of Mr. Jones, he is having a great year.  He may have gotten famous for playing tough guys, but it is films like No Country For Old Men, Hope Springs, and now Lincoln in which he really shines, playing tough guys who are only tough because they must be to protect their more tender, secret hearts.  I really think that his work in those three films may be his best ever for me.  This actor is proving to be like a fine wine, and he excels in roles that require wisdom and maturity.  His portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens boasts plenty of both.
     In a year of impressive ensemble pieces, Lincoln is easily among the best.  David Strathairn is marvelously officious.  James Spader makes incredibly good use of his screen time as a despicable fellow working for the good guys, partnered ably by John Hawkes.  Hal Holbrook, Jackie Earle Haley, Walton Goggins...I could go on.  I do feel that Joseph Gordon-Levitt's role as Lincoln's son was less well developed than he could have been.  Only in his scenes do I feel as if the drama gets a little less restrained.  I wouldn't call his work weak, but it is one of the film's aspects that bears the least strength.
   The production team on Lincoln did a fantastic job.  All elements are impressive to the active observer, yet far from obtrusive to the passive one.  The picture received six craft nods, and Joanna Johnston (Costume Design), Michael Kahn (Editing), John Williams (Score), Rick Carter (Production Design) & Jim Erickson (Set Decoration, also covered under the Production Design nomination) and the Sound Mixing team of Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom & Ronald Judkins all made award worthy contributions to this film.  I'm still confounded that the excellent make-up work went unrewarded.
     What really blew me away unexpectedly was the work of master cinematographer Janusz Kaminski.  I never expected a film that was so packed with scenes of deals being struck in cigar smoke filled back rooms could be the sort of visually stimulating experience that this movie was.  The use of light in Lincoln is brilliant, the use of the shadows that abound in a world where the only light comes from candles, lanterns, and the sun.  Even the aforementioned cigar smoke (as it filters through candlelight and frames the characters hazily) is used in each shot to glorious effect.  There is a dream sequence early on in the picture that may be the most beautiful imagery I have seen on film this year.  This is simply one of the most brilliantly shot films of 2012.  I should never have underestimated it so quickly.
     Which, in truth, is kind of how I feel about the whole project.  I was very, very slow to begin taking Lincoln seriously in this Oscar race.  It never cracked my top ten Best Picture contenders until it previewed to great acclaim.  Even then, it took a long time to creep up that list.  You must forgive me.  War Horse was like the unattractive love child of Shenandoah & Old Yeller by comparison to this piece.    Spielberg has come back with a true vengeance, giving us one of his best, a film that never goes in for the big cry.  Instead it bombards the mind, and then plucks gently at the heartstrings with a surgeon's pinpoint precision. 5 of 5 stars.
Related posts:  The Sound Hope Sparks (Hope Springs review), Oscar Winner Predictions & Buzz: Of Snubs and Triumphs (preview), Musical Techs (Score and Song), Noisy Techs (Sound Editing & Sound Mixing), Pretty People Techs (Costume Design & Make-Up and Hairstyling), Pretty Picture Techs (Cinematography & Production Design), Finishing Touch Techs (Editing & Visual Effects)

Monday, February 4, 2013

Never Trouble With the Cosmopolitans

     In today's round of DVD reviews we cover a baseball road movie, a documentary about an artist and activist & David Cronenberg's rather odd (imagine) 2012 offering.  Might as well start there...

  Cosmopolis - From The Fly to A Dangerous Method, a film from director David Cronenberg is always a unique experience, and his latest is certainly no exception.  Almost the entire picture takes place inside a limousine being driven around a city in riot on the way to a haircut.  Seriously.  It's a very talky film, while also an overtly sexual film.  I guess not getting any for three and a half of five films in his former franchise left Robert Pattinson a little horny.  Oh, and yes, it stars Robert Pattinson.
     The script has a lot of brilliant ideas but is a little labored.  It is difficult to build drama in the back of a limousine, even with a host of interesting characters popping in and out from scene to scene.  The dialogue is also a little stilted, almost like the characters are speaking in verse.  It was a little like the dialogue in the television show Deadwood in this regard, but the rhythms were more jagged, less fluid.
      I'm not sure if this was a help or hindrance to star Pattinson.  At times he seemed to struggle with his lines, but it is perhaps this struggle that helped him to achieve a much greater depth of characterization than I've ever seen from the actor before.  I'm sure that working with such a seasoned director, known for pulling new things out of his actors, didn't hurt.  While it was a far from perfect performance, he's strongly in the running for most improved actor of the year.  I'm not sure that I buy him as a Wall Street whiz kid, but I came a lot closer than I expected.
      Both Juliette Binoche and Paul Giamatti find the text less of an obstacle, and are able to make the odd phrasing their own (and English isn't even Ms. Binoche's first language).  She plays an older woman who both works and occasionally sleeps with Eric (Pattinson).  The scene she shares with him is the first high point of the film.  Giamatti comes in very near the end, but plays a pivotal role.  Oddly, some of Pattinson's worst work is opposite this accomplished thespian.  Maybe Mr. Giamatti intimidated him.
     The real stand out of the film, however, is Samantha Morten.  She absolutely shines as Eric's minister of theory.  Her scene with him in the limo is without a doubt the high point of the whole movie.  She owns this style of dialogue, sounds like she has spoken this way her entire life.  Much of the thematic core of the film arises from her and Eric's interaction.  Her character, though very passive, comes across as both incredibly brilliant and slightly unhinged.
     Before I finish with the cast, I should also mention virtual unknown Sarah Gadon, who plays Eric's new and newly estranged wife Elise.  If anyone gives Ms. Morten a run for her money it is Gadon, who plays frigidity with steamy chemistry.  You could cut the tension in her scenes with a knife (if it was REALLY sharp). Really observant movie geeks might remember her as Emma Jung in A Dangerous Method...vaguely.  I hope this role gets her some attention, she's a beautiful girl whose talent shows great promise.
     Finally, the production is just as sleek and stylish as you would expect a Cronenberg film to be.  His team managed to make the film far more interesting visually than any film with such a stifling primary location should be.  The interior of the car is absolutely stunning to look at.  More impressive, however, are the images passing by in the windows, revealing the exterior of the city.  Cinematographer Peter Suschitzsky (The Empire Strikes Back, Eastern Promises) did a fantastic job on this movie.
      While Cosmopolis didn't score big with critics or at the box office, I found it to be an admirable effort, well worth checking out.  I expect it was an unusually difficult story to adapt.  The casting of Pattinson was also a huge risk.  It is refreshing to see successful directors who aren't afraid to continue to push and challenge themselves.  Available on DVD.  4 of 5 stars.

  Trouble With the Curve - Clint Eastwood was supposedly done with acting after Gran Turino, but it seems that, like the Rolling Stones, he retires only as a prelude to the next reunion tour.  I'm not sure if his return to the big screen is an effort to help longtime producer Robert Lorenz out with his first directing project or just an attempt to stay relevant after the travesty that was J Edgar.  Whichever his motivation, I am sorry to say that Trouble With the Curve roundly failed to achieve either of these two possible goals.  The film was a forgettable, predictable mess.
     The problems start with the script of first time screenwriter Randy Brown.  The screenplay is trite in dialogue, formulaic in plot structure.  The whole concept is such a cliche:  little girl loses her mother young and grows up a tomboy, constantly seeking the approval of a father who feels like he has no idea how to raise a girl.  Now all grown up, she must try to come to terms with her aging father and their relationship.  Stop me if you've heard this one before.  Try to venture out of the cave you live in occasionally if you haven't.
     Of course, even such a hackneyed concept could be spun into gold if the take on it was fresh enough.  Unfortunately, this picture's individual scenes and the actor's lines are so stale that your matronly aunt would be too embarrassed to serve them as fruitcake.  "You are my sunshine" is used as the theme song of the movie, but with none of the delicious irony employed in Primary Colors.  Eastwood actually sings it to his dead wife at her graveside.  Matthew Lillard made real steps toward respectability last year with a small but pivotal role in The Descendants.  After having to deliver the line "But she's a girl!" to imply that Adams' character knows nothing about baseball with serious indignation like a mid-twentieth century fourth grader picking a kick-ball team, he might as well go back to playing Shaggy.  They actually worked the film's title, word for word, into the penultimate scene of the film.
     It would be nice to blame all the film's shortcomings on the script, but it is painfully obvious that the actors are given no quality direction either.  Justin Timberlake has proven to have real potential as an actor, but he is practically aimless here.  Eastwood actually regresses to the crusty monotone delivery of his Dirty Harry days throughout most of his scenes.  Amy Adams, apparently better equipped to operate rudderless (or maybe ignore bad advice), fares a little better, but even she has trouble making lines like "Because I'm a girl?" fly believably in 2012.
     This is usually the point in this sort of review when I point out the one or two things that redeem the movie somewhat......................I got nothin.  Available on DVD.  1 of 5 stars.

  Ai Wei-Wei:  Never Sorry - I personally found 2011's crop of documentaries to be a little weaker than the year before, but I'm happy to report that 2012 seems to be rebounding most successfully.  Documentaries about famous artistic personalities seem to be particularly flourishing this season with Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, Oscar front runner Searching For Sugarman, and director Alison Klayman's debut film:  Ai Wei-Wei: Never Sorry.  If I did not know that this slickly made and inspiring picture was her first, I would never believe it.
     Like Jiro, Ai Wei-Wei is a fascinating character, but of an entirely different nature.  He is mischievous and gleeful, yet this playful inner child is just one side of his personality.  An artist who became world famous for his work on the Beijing Olympics, he has used that fame to fight for personal and artistic freedoms amid the stifling culture of his homeland.  He has held the government accountable in a way that few Chinese citizens could ever manage, utilizing social media to shine a light on China for all the world to see.  He is deadly serious about the causes that matter to him, but approaches it all with humor and an all encompassing love for humanity.  As much as he has been made to suffer for his efforts, he certainly appears to enjoy being the gadfly, the instigator, the idealist, the example, and the jester.
     Unlike many docs of this nature, Never Sorry is far more than just a portrait of an interesting artistic personality.  It is an interesting commentary on the place of the artist in the world, and the power of art to change it.  Wei-Wei IS an example, and this film is every bit as much of an inspiration to fight for what is important to you as How to Survive a Plague.  The two films are also alike in that they delve deeply into the meaning and purpose of self sacrifice in our contemporary world.
     Never Sorry is also an interesting look into the culture of modern China and the fight for personal liberties in a culture that has long kept them subjugated to the will of the state.  It bears some interesting correlations to many of this year's narrative films thematically, particularly A Royal Affair which illustrates a turning point in the history of western Europe during which many idealists were facing many of the same struggles that Ai-Wei Wei faces in the China of the present day.
     To his credit, Wei-Wei never seems to let any of these weighty concerns keep his inner child from coming out to play.  He does a silly little dance over the closing credits of the film, his gift back to all of those who have contributed money toward his activism induced legal expenses.  I highly recommend this film.  Available on DVD and Netflix Instant Play.  4 1/2 of 5 stars.

Related Posts:  Martha's Certified Method (A Dangerous Method review), Jiro Waltzes With Vampires (Jiro Dreams of Sushi review), Surviving the Alps is a Rush (How To Survive a Plague review),  To Royal Effect (A Royal Affair Review)