Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Directors: Postscript

I realized just now that I've been ranking my preferences in each Oscar category, just like I would if I were a voter in the Academy (oh how I wish I was), but I have not done so for the directors. I wrote a piece on them, praised their merits, but didn't think to rank them. This will be rectified now with the presentation of my ballot:
  1. Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
  2. James Cameron, Avatar
  3. Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
  4. Jason Reitman, Up in the Air
  5. Lee Daniels, Precious
In the coming week, since it is Oscar Week (!), I'm hoping I can start posting my ballots for the other categories. I haven't seen every single nominated movie, and I'm going to have to rely on some unconventional methods to make my judgments (like stills from the movie, trailers, etc.). I will try this week to see all of the Foreign Language films, as well as the shorts, but what doesn't get seen in time just doesn't get seen in time. In that case, I will make amendments when I see them, so lookout for that throughout the year.
As an update, in the major categories I'm three films away from seeing every nominee: Invictus (Morgan Freeman, Actor and Matt Damon, Supporting Actor), Nine (Penelope Cruz, Supporting Actress), and In the Loop (Adapted Screenplay). Wish me luck!

The Lovely Bones (2009)

One of the most difficult things about seeing a movie that’s been in theatres for a while is putting the critics’ reviews out of my mind. I love to see what the critics have to say before seeing a movie, especially if it’s a movie that I haven’t been waiting anxiously for and therefore am unsure if I really want to see it. The Lovely Bones was one of these movies. I had heard pretty terrible reviews from most critics, which made me nervous when I finally bought my ticket. I figured I’d go in, see if Stanley Tucci is really that good, and then watch something else when I got back home to rinse the bad taste out of my mouth.
But The Lovely Bones was actually a good movie; scratch that, a great movie. It is a weepie, and it does stray into saccharine sentimentality at times, but more importantly it’s a meditation on death that only Peter Jackson could deliver. Based on the novel by Alice Sebold, the film tells the story of 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Saorise Ronan), who is murdered in a cornfield by one of her neighbors, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci). Susie watches from the In-Between, a kind of fantastic purgatory, as her family (Mark Wahlberg plays her dad, Rachel Weisz her mom, Rose McIver her younger sister and Susan Sarandon in a bit part as her grandmother) falls apart in their struggle to move on. Susie can either ascend into heaven and make letting go easier for the people she left behind or she can stay in the In-Between and watch them cling to her memory and perhaps seek revenge.
The In-Between is the kind of place that comes straight from the imagination of director/co-writer Peter Jackson, along with his WETA Workshop. It’s a beautifully-rendered, artistically magnificent world that allows Susie to explore her death and the events following it. In one particularly interesting scene, she wanders into a room to discover George in a bathtub, her blood mixed in with the mud on the floor. It’s here that she discovers her death, and her resolve to not let go of her life begins.
The In-Between
Ronan plays Susie with a maturity that is far beyond her years (she first proved this in her Oscar-nominated turn as Briony Tallis in 2007’s Atonement). Though her hypnotic voiceovers tended to become annoying, her onscreen performance bristled with vibrancy: she has a great career ahead of her as a leading actress, and should avoid the fate of obscurity that traps many child actors. And I will defend Wahlberg’s performance as her dad: sent to the edge of obsession, his Jack Salmon is an excellent portrait of a grieving father wishing he had his daughter back.
Tucci, though, truly shines in his creepily familiar performance as George. He plays him like the friendly man next door who’s just a little off, but not enough to notice. George is also an obsessive, a man driven by his dark urges, and what makes him so much more chilling is how perfectly he blends in with a crowd; he’s the one no one expects. The film’s treats George as the villain, who of course he is, but it never fully punishes him blatantly or immediately. As Susie notices from the In-Between, George burns on the inside, until his urges strike again.
He looks so trusting, so friendly....
One of the biggest complaints about the film is that it doesn’t depict the murder itself, but rather cuts directly to the afterlife. I, on the other hand, am glad they left her death out. Susie is dismembered and then placed in a safe, which George keeps in his house. Showing the murder and dismemberment would have felt cheap and exploitative in a film like this, and Jackson was wise to avoid it. Jackson’s direction continues to be top-notch here, and though many may argue, I don’t think he’s made a misstep yet in his post-Lord of the Rings career (in fact, King Kong was my favorite movie of 2005). Jackson’s visual flair is one of his strongest points, but similar to Quentin Tarantino, not enough is said about his gift with actors. Rarely do his films feature sagging performances, and this one is no different.
The films only weak point is that at times it can get too sentimental and verge on cheese. At some points, particularly in Susie’s voiceovers (which the film definitely could have done without), the dialogue becomes stale, the music swells with power strings, and the film loses some of its emotional punch. The film is at its best when it ruminates on the importance of letting go and moving on, though in the end, when the lights come up, it’s hard to let go of the film itself.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Oscars 2009: Best Original Screenplay

As a writer, I always enjoy seeing the screenplay nominations. It’s in these nominees that one can discover talented writers, who otherwise never really get much attention. Here Christopher Harwood, William Monahan, and Woody Allen are superstars, with only the latter being a true marquee name. However, my favorite of the two is the original screenplay. Part of this is my personal opinion on adapted screenplays and the “lack of creativity” in Hollywood, and another is that I myself write original stories.
This year’s original screenplay category is an interesting one. Whereas last year there were two surprising snubs (don’t get me wrong, Frozen River’s Courtney Hunt and In Bruges’ Martin McDonagh were pleasant surprises, but nothing for Rachel Getting Married’s Jenny Lumet or Vicky Christina Barcelona’s Woody Allen, an Oscar favorite?), this year there was only one such tragedy: Scott Neustadter’s and Michael H. Weber’s phenomenal screenplay for (500) Days of Summer. But that’s a rant for another time.
The current war in Iraq is a popular topic. Mark Boal’s script for The Hurt Locker is true to his journalist past, presenting the soldiers through an action-based apolitical lens rather than sermonizing for or against the war. He presents the war as it is: a slow-burning conflict that isn’t always epic battles, but guerrilla attacks executed through remote means. In contrast, Oren Moverman’s and Alessandro Camon’s screenplay for The Messenger brings the war home, choosing to focus on a pair of soldiers in the Army Casualty Notification program. These men are still featured as manly-men, but instead of seeing the active toll the battlefield takes, here we see what happens when they return home.
The remaining screenplays tackle a variety of themes. Up, written by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, with a story by Docter, Peterson, and Thomas McCarthy, continues Pixar’s screenplay winning streak by presenting a story that can appeal to both children and adults and concerns the universal themes of love, loss, and following your dreams. A Serious Man, on the other hand, follows the traditional theme of meaninglessness that writers Joel and Ethan Coen routinely explore, this time with dark comedy. And Quentin Tarantino’s gonzo script for Inglourious Basterds provides a surprising rumination on revenge and its consequences without sacrificing any Tarantinoisms and rewriting history in the process.
My ballot is as follows:
  1. Inglourious Basterds, written by Quentin Tarantino
  2. Up, written by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson; story by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, and Thomas McCarthy
  3. The Hurt Locker, written by Mark Boal
  4. The Messenger, written by Oren Moverman and Alessandro Camon
  5. A Serious Man, written by Joel and Ethan Coen
1. What do you think? Comments more than welcome.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Oscars 2009: Best Actress

We all know the complaints about women in Hollywood: women over 40 don't get good roles, women in general don't get good roles that don't involve them breaking down in tears , women are only leads in romantic comedies, regal dramas or horror films. But believe it or not, there are actually great female roles, and strong, gifted actresses who portray them, as evidenced by this year's Best Actress field.
This year's field is certainly better than last year's (Kate Winslet was horribly miscast in The Reader, and Angelina Jolie was atrocious in the endlessly unbearable Changeling). There's a great variety of roles, too, ranging from a teen mother who's illiterate and abused (Sidibe) to the famous Julia Child (Streep).
The breakdown:
  • I'm not Sandra Bullock's biggest fan, and I don't think she was particularly amazing in The Blind Side. I guess its nomination-worthy, but its certainly the weakest performance in the group.
  • Carey Mulligan was wonderful in An Education. Her beyond-her-years cleverness balanced well with her youthful innocence in a glorious performance.
  • Gabourey Sidibe was the revelation of the year, with her heartbreaking, powerful performance in Precious. I hope she gets superb roles outside her stereotype as the overweight minority in the future.
  • Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren seem to always be reliable. I'm not a huge fan of a good number of Streep's performances (Music of the Heart and Mamma Mia come to mind), but she's been on something of a winning streak lately (The Devil Wears Prada, Doubt, and now Julie & Julia). Mirren has a gift that's hard to ignore, especially when it comes to playing strong women (look no further than The Queen).
It took me a lot of internal debate to formulate my final ballot, particularly amongst the fantastic top three. I finally came to these conclusions:
Best Actress
  1. Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
  2. Helen Mirren, The Last Station
  3. Carey Mulligan, An Education
  4. Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
  5. Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Agree? Disagree? Comment please.

The Messenger (2009)

There is a moment in The Messenger, a film about two soldiers whose sole mission is to notify family members that their loved one was killed in combat, where SSG Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) and Cpt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) go on a fishing trip. It's a simple scene, culminating in the two of them getting in a fight with a couple of jet skiers, but it encapsulates everything that the film is about: how loss and grief can change a person, more so when he ignores and hides that change.
The film presents its military men as gruff, red-blooded Americans, the toughest of the tough guys. Even though there are no bullets flying, no bombs going off, these two men face the toughest action they've ever scene: the emotional turmoil they deliver to unsuspecting families. They are required to follow a strict set of rules during these encounters, and must stick to a script. Its these moments that the film delivers its true emotional core: as the people they visit fall apart in front of them (Steve Buscemi's part is the most memorable), Montgomery and Stone have to remain stone-faced and mechanical. The irony of that is that even in their private lives they maintain that act, refusing to yield to emotion in front of anyone, especially each other.
Harrelson's performance has rightly earned raves, as his Cpt. Stone is easily the most complexly entertaining character in the film. He's a womanizing hardliner who is secretly disgraced, and Harrelson gives the the role just enough levity to get us to sympathize with him. He's basically playing a more serious version of Tallahassee from Zombieland.
Ben Foster, on the other hand, deals with a much tricker part. His SSG Montgomery is a decorated war hero with a reckless streak, and doesn't have much control over his personal life. His story contains the screenplay's, written by director Oren Moverman and Alessandro Camon, biggest weakness: romance. Both Montgomery's relationship with his now-engaged ex-girlfriend (Jena Malone) and his new relationship with an army widow (Samantha Morton) feel way too forced and out of place in the story. Foster delivers a fine performance throughout, though, which really makes me wonder why he hasn't been given more lead roles.
The Messenger is a film about loss, duty, and macho masculinity. Its a fine film that works best when Foster and Harrelson share the screen, hiding their emotions behind their facades.
Note: It was recently announced that Moverman will be directing a Kurt Cobain biopic as his next film. Given the introspective approach he takes in this film, he seems like an excellent choice to tackle such an introverted subject.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"Even He Thinks He's Christ": The Last Station (2009)

When it comes to historical fiction, its imperative that historical subjects be portrayed in a realistic way that is true to the figure, and fictional characters as believable to the time period. The Last Station, which is based on a novel by Jay Parini, does just this but leaves out one crucial element: energy.
Don't let the smiles fool you.
The Last Station focuses on a young man named Valentin (James McAvoy), who served as Leo Tolstoy's assistant during the final years of his life. Valentin is a noble Tolstoyian, dedicating his life to "the movement" and desiring nothing more than Tolstoy's favor. Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) turns out to be a handful; even more so his wife, Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren), who is trying to convince her husband not to hand over the rights of his works to the Russian people via Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), the sly leader of "the movement."
Adapted and directed by newcomer Michael Hoffman, the film is wildly uneven. When the action focuses on Valentin and his life inside the Tolstoyian community, the film lags. This is not really McAvoy's or Kerry Condon's, who plays his illicit lover, fault; the characters and action are merely uninteresting. It's hard to decipher whether Valentin's tics are there to provide comic relief or to make him seem more "human;" either way, they're really just annoying. And McAvoy and Condon barely have any chemistry, which is a major hindrance in the believability of their coupling.
It's when the film focuses on the Tolstoys that things really get interesting. This can be attributed to the phenomenal performances by veteran actors Plummer and Mirren, who certainly have the best on-screen chemistry I've seen this year. Plummer portrays Tolstoy as a complex old man, a prophet who doesn't believe his own words. He sees his life in front of him but chooses to give the reins to those around him rather than control it himself. There's a real charm in Plummer's eyes, and his Tolstoy is one of his finest performances. Mirren injects Sofya with just the right amount of melodrama; her performance teeters on camp but gracefully avoids crossing that line. She's a woman who refuses to be ignored, and wants her husband to love her again. Mirren is reliably fantastic, and succeeds in making sure that once the lights come back on, we all remember Sofya.
The Last Station makes a noble attempt to tell the story of the Tolstoys through both the family themselves and through an outside observer, but fails to be consistently compelling. It's the veteran actors who save it from becoming a total bore.

"No Place for the Weary Kind": Crazy Heart (2009)

People love a great redemption story. We love to see a down-on-his-luck, irascible character find his way back to the big time. In this respect Crazy Heart does not disappoint.
The film tells the story of legendary country singer Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), who recently has fallen into a rut: he's stuck performing in bars and bowling alleys, and hasn't written any new material in years. He's also a chain-smoking, hard-drinking rambler who travels from one gig to another alone in his truck. When he meets Janie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a single mother and reporter in Santa Fe, he not only falls in love but finds the woman who can redeem him.
Bridges does a phenomenal job playing Bad, lending a gravitas to him that makes the character seem ever more real. He mumbles many of his lines, which is sometimes hard to understand, but its acceptable since its true to the character. Gyllenhaal, too, is in fine form; her dewy eyes convey a long history of pain and loss, yet hope that she may have finally found a good man. Robert Duvall shows up for a fun bit part as Blake's buddy, and Colin Farrell plays a new country singer whom Blake mentored. I should say that Farrell is a much better actor than people give him credit for; unlike his closest comparison, Orlando Bloom, Farrell has proven that he is much more than a pretty face, and has chosen roles that challenge his abilities. There's a great future in store for him at this rate.
The most interesting aspect of Crazy Heart, though, is that it ultimately plays like this year's The Wrestler. Its a tale of redemption, with a main character who's estranged from his child, and seeks redemption through the one thing they've always been good at. The main character in both films is played by an actor who gives a "career-best" performance, and both managed to snag Supporting Actress nominations out of nowhere (admit it, you didn't see Marisa Tomei coming any more than you saw Maggie Gyllenhaal). Throughout the film, I couldn't help making the comparison. And for the record, I prefer Mickey Rourke and The Wrestler to Jeff Bridges and Crazy Heart (Bridges' best role to date: The Dude in The Big Lebowski).
Overall, Crazy Heart is a fine, if somewhat pedestrian, film, buoyed by its excellent performances and rollicking soundtrack.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"It takes time for me in the morning to become George": A Single Man (2009)

Gay cinema has been a difficult medium to explore. Most films involving a gay main character follow one of two paths: either they play up the high camp to make an over-the-top spectacle, or they get bogged down in heavy-handed melodrama that makes it seem like being gay is the greatest tragedy anyone could ever face. But every once in while, a film is made that avoids both paths and blazes a new one: a strong gay central character that isn't defined by his sexuality, and a film that focuses on his story rather than his partners. A Single Man was this kind of film.
The film takes place in Southern California in the 1960s, where George Falconer (Colin Firth), a college professor, is dealing with the loss of his partner, Jim, to a horrific car accident. Following the course of one day, George has decided this will be his last day on Earth, intending to kill himself that night. The film presents George as a man with nothing left emotionally, an empty shell of a man who, despite the temptations of both his best friend Charley (Julianne Moore) and his student Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), cannot muster the will to carry on without Jim.
Oh, but what a magnificent empty shell that is! Firth squeezes so many dimensions into George, and portrays him to such heartbreaking effect, its impossible not to feel his pain, especially in one of the earliest, and best, scenes: a flashback to when George first receives the call that Jim has died. Firth's tone implies that it is only a mere discomfort (in order to not reveal their secret relationship), but in his face is the devastation that he really feels. Its a top-notch performance from Firth, the best I've seen so far this year.
Julianne Moore plays it loose as Charley, George's best friend and former love interest before he became interested in men. Charley, a heavy drinker and leisurely gossip, still pines for George, but must relent to the fact that what they once had will never be again. It's a fine performance from the always-great Moore.
The true breakthrough here, though, is director/co-writer Tom Ford, the former fashion designer for Gucci. Ford layers the production with intricate period detail, complete with the proper '60s make-up and color palate. His attention to detail is a marvel, but more so is his fantastic use of color in the cinematography. Throughout the film, while the rest of the world is painted in the most vibrant color, George is almost always seen through a filter of grays, a beautiful artistic representation of the mood of the characters. Its depressing to see that Ford's direction has been ignored all awards season; look for him to create a glorious career as a director in the future.
A Single Man is a gorgeous meditation on the life of a man who's lost his love; gay or straight, its a heartbreaking love story that knows its characters and keeps its heart in the right place.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Oscars 2009: Best Picture

It's official. I've succeeded.
For the first time ever, I have seen all of the Best Picture nominees before Oscar night. For a cinephile like me, living in such a secluded corner of the nation, this is a monumental occasion. I feel so accomplished, not to mention like a real Oscar expert now. I can pass judgement legitimately, without having to retract myself later. And for the second year in a row, I will see the Best Picture winner before Oscar night. Score!
Anyway, here's my personal rankings for Best Picture if I were voting.
1. Inglourious Basterds
2. Up in the Air
3. An Education
4. Up
5. Avatar
6. District 9
7. The Hurt Locker
8. Precious
9. A Serious Man
10. The Blind Side
Don't let the rankings fool you; I truly loved the top 8 (A Serious Man is still ambivalent to me, and no matter how hard I try, I cannot accept the oversimplification of The Blind Side). In retrospect, I wonder if I should move The Hurt Locker up more, but I can't find a film above it that I like less. Overall it was just a fantastic year, and most of these are really amazing choices. I wouldn't mind if any of the top 8 won; The Blind Side would irritate me, while A Serious Man would just confuse me more.

"How Very British": An Education (2009)

There are some filmmakers who can make you believe that they've lived in one area all of their lives by the way they portray it, but then turn out to be from somewhere completely different. Examples of this would be Krysztof Kielslowski's Trois Couleurs trilogy, Sam Mendes' studied portraits of American life, and Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns. An Education is perhaps the most British film of the year, but its surprising to learn that its under the steady hand of Danish director Lone Scherfig.
An Education takes place in swinging '60s London, focusing on young schoolgirl Jenny (Carey Mulligan). Jenny is the epitome of the new youth generation that emerged both in the United States and Europe during the '60s: she's a French-loving, literature-reading young girl who dreams of studying English literature and seeing the world. However, her strict, conservative father (Alfred Molina) is stringent about her getting into Oxford, and insists that she focus on her schoolwork instead of extra activities (except, of course, youth orchestra, since that will look good to the Board of Admissions). Jenny's world is broadened when she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), an older man who is apparently everything she ever wanted, and shows Jenny the world.
The film's title of course has two meanings: Jenny is trying to get an education in academics through Oxford, but she is also learning from David the realities of the world she is growing into and will be forced to live in outside of school. Its a classic coming-of-age tale, but avoids the usual trappings of such films by staying true to the nature of the characters, allowing Jenny to become a full-fledged woman with multiple dimensions rather than become a caricature of youthful ignorance.
This is the result of three fantastic elements coming together: actress, writer, and director. Carey Mulligan shines as Jenny, her wide, glistening eyes taking in the world she's entered with amazement, but also never once letting herself become vulnerable. She's constantly referred to as "clever," and Mulligan herself is an incredibly clever actress, letting Jenny screw up royally without letting her lose any of her dignity. If there was ever a portrait of what a real, strong woman looks like, Mulligan's Jenny is just that. Of course, writer Nick Hornby's excellent adaptation of Lynn Barber's memoir provides excellent dimension to all the characters, always keeping the dialogue interesting and fluid. And Scherfig's naturalistic direction is painted with the flourishes of '60s London, giving the film a lively, exciting atmosphere as we get to see the world the way Jenny does: fresh, new, and wonderful.
Yes, that is the man who was once Doc Ock.
In what is perhaps the most criminally underrated performance of the year, Alfred Molina shines as Jenny's strict-but-loving father. He never falters in his performance, giving the character the uptight-dad side without sacrificing the genuine care and love for his daughter. He is a conflicted man, seduced by David just as much as Jenny is, and creates a complicated portrait of a father of a young girl growing up.
An Education's a deft, excellently-crafted film, brimming with the possibilities of growing up without ignoring the consequences.

"Sy Ableman!?": A Serious Man (2009)

Over the past week, I should have been able to post eight new blog posts. But between my prolific movie watching (as stress relief) and the mountain of work that I've had to do, I haven't been able to post at all. It's a terrible tragedy. But all will be rectified, now that everything's slowed down.
As part of my personal campaign to see all of the major Oscar nominees, I saw A Serious Man last weekend thanks to Netflix. For those not in the know, A Serious Man is the story of Larry Glopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish professor in 1960s Minnesota whose life is imploding, and he is powerless to stop it. His wife is leaving him for Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), much to Larry's surprise; his estranged brother (Richard Kind) is getting in trouble for his gambling habit; his kids are unruly; and to top it all off, he is being bribed by one of his students while he is also awaiting to hear if he's gained his tenure. Larry is forced to figure out why everything is happening to him.
Of course, this being a Coen Brothers movie, there is no reason for Larry's suffering. Thus the film is like a modern, very Jewish retelling of the story of Job. The Coens are famous for their love of meaninglessness, a theme that's been in all of their films but has become especially prevalent as of late (No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading played meaningless violence for tension and laughs, respectively). Larry serves as an excellent vessel for their nihilism, as he goes from rabbi to rabbi searching for answers and finding none. The Coens' screenplay is vibrant and true to their natures, and the characters are never just a culmination of the story, especially Larry, who is given enough depth that you can understand him as a man rather than a target.
Larry would not be so interesting without the bravura performance by Stuhlbarg, a stage veteran. Its amazing that he hasn't received much attention for this role, despite being an early contender for the Oscar. Richard Kind is also excellent as Uncle Arthur, though I've always liked him in anything (Scrub's Mr. Corman is my personal favorite).
This is a polarizing film, though, especially when you consider how it begins and how it ends. Since I am against spoiling, I'll just discuss the former. The film begins in what appears to be medieval Eastern Europe, and relates the Jewish folk tale of the dybbuk, a demon that inhabits the body of a person until it is religiously exorcised. The beginning seems out of place at first, until the Coens are bold enough to make you wonder: is Larry possessed by a dybbuk? Once again, no easy answer is coming, though its never really not answered either (confused?). The film is very love it or hate it, and I'm more on the middle, kind of confused part. Do I completely understand it? Of course not. But I am impressed by it, and its another entry in the Coens' current win streak.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Blind Side (2009)

I apologize for the unoriginal titles lately. That will be fixed soon, since hopefully my subsequent posts will be written when I am not half-conscious.
Last night I saw The Blind Side, as part of my ongoing quest to see as many Oscar-nominated films as possible before the March 7 ceremony (I've now seen eight of the ten Best Picture nominees). I have to admit, last week I blasted the film in my Oscar preview without having seen it, which was not good of me, and I apologize.
Now that I have seen it, I can blast it guilt-free and with evidence.
The film tells the remarkable true story of Michael Oher, who rose from homelessness in early-aughts Memphis to become a first-round NFL draft pick as a left tackle from the University of Mississippi, thanks in part to the Tuhoy family for taking him in and raising him as their own son. Through it all, Oher conquers his rough beginnings to succeed in both school and football.
Oher's story is incredible, but The Blind Side embellishes it with so much inspirational-sports-movie-sentimentality that one has to wonder whether or not Oher himself is a Hollywood creation. At first, no one but the Tuhoys believe in him, as his teachers all give up on him as soon as they see him. His mother, of course, is a victim of drug abuse who is never painted with a bad note, and even though the projects that Oher comes from are supposed to be the roughest in Memphis, they come off as nothing worse than a place for people who like to act tough to hang out and just, you know, chill.
The Tuhoys themselves are one of the more well-off families in Memphis. Lee Ann, played by Sandra Bullock, runs the household, while her husband Sean, played by an unrecognizable Tim McGraw, merely smiles and supports her. In fact, no one really questions Lee Ann, and that's mostly because she won't let them. Their children, Collins and SJ, are models of good behavior. The Tuhoys are perfect. Way too perfect.
Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw
And that's where the movie hits one of its two big sour notes. Its true that Oher and the Tuhoys come from two different sides of town, but the movie presents them as so different that they might as well be from different planets. The Tuhoys are able to provide Oher with everything with ease, even a brand new truck. There's no conflict there: the Tuhoys accept him and he accepts them without question. It's as if he needs them in order to rise above his situation.
Which brings me to my biggest complaint. In my Oscar post I called The Blind Side "racist," and indeed it is, though I'm positive its unintentional. At one point, while Lee Ann is dining with friends, one of them asks her, "Are you sure its know...white guilt?" The way The Blind Side presents Oher's story is that its totally white guilt. Its difficult to ignore as you watch the movie and notice that Michael Oher is the only black character in the whole movie that you're supposed to like, with the rest being the antagonists that he is up against. Again, I'm sure its not intentional, but even the best intentions don't cover the racial overtones of the film.
This can mostly be blamed on director John Lee Hancock's script, which often feels like a mash-up of sports movie cliches. His pedestrian direction does the film no favors either, though he does know how to stage a good football game. And even though I've said nothing too good about the movie so far, I will give it some credit: you will be moved by Oher's success, and want to cheer him on as he progresses.
Quinton Aaron's performance as Oher is a mixed bag. As a relative newcomer, Aaron plays Oher as a gentle, mostly mute giant. For the first half of the movie he doesn't do or say much, and kind of feels like a racial caricature (there it is again) of a homeless black teenager. Once Oher begins to open up, Aaron does too, giving hints at what the film could have been.
Instead, a lot of the film's focus is on Lee Ann Tuhoy. Bullock, as I have said before, is not one of my favorite actresses, but she gives a good performance here as she doesn't play so much as become Lee Ann. Lee Ann is a fascinating character, but the film never felt as if it wanted to delve deep into who Lee Ann really is; instead, we just get the same basic mannerisms and insight of her. You can tell Bullock is making the best of what she's given, and the film could have used a little more exploration of what makes Lee Ann tick. Is it an Oscar-worthy performance? Maybe; I still have some more snubbed performances to see. But its a lot better than what Bullock's career has consisted of previously, and who knows, maybe I'll warm to her in the future.
It's easy to see why The Blind Side was so popular: it played straight to America's heartland, full of inspiration and good old fashioned values. The problem is, its rote with cliche and plays way too safe, proving to be a mishandled opportunity to tell a truly incredible story.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Up in the Air (2009)

So its about five days late, and I apologize for that, but things got stacked up and, well, you know how it is. Last Thursday I managed to go out and see Up in the Air. For those of you who don't know, the film is about Ryan Bingham, a true company man who lives on the road, going from city to city to fire people. He loves his lifestyle, and when he's threatened to be grounded permanently thanks to a new online system, he takes the system's creator, Natalie Keener, on the road with him to show her what it is that he's actually doing.
Of course everybody's talking about how the film is timely, featuring actual victims of the recent recession as those who are being fired. However, its timely in more ways than that. Throughout the film, I couldn't help but notice how co-writer/director Jason Reitman didn't seem so interested in corporate downsizing, but rather in the way technology is replacing human connection in our daily lives. Natalie's new system allows Ryan and his co-workers to fire people via webcam, rather than going out to personally do it. The idea behind this is that it will save money by cutting travel costs, but at what risk to the unemployed's mental stability?
In fact, the main theme of Up in the Air is that people need human connection in order to truly thrive. Ryan himself resembles the predicament Natalie introduces. He lives alone in a barely-furnished apartment in Omaha, which he rarely comes home to. He spends most of his year alone in various airports and hotels. He doesn't bother to keep in touch with his family, and until he meets Alex Goran, he has no interest in romance either. He even gives self-help seminars on the side where he encourages people to distance themselves from others, because its his philosophy that to be totally happy is to be totally alone. But as he falls for Ryan, becomes a father figure to Natalie, and deals with his sister's upcoming wedding, he has to question that philosophy. In short, human connection is inevitable; we can never truly be alone.
This is a theme that Reitman handles deftly. In his screenplay, co-written by Sheldon Turner, he neither condemns nor approves of Ryan's lifestyle; he just presents it to us. He manages to make this life seem exciting, with each airport becoming an almost exotic location, and depressing simultaneously. And the decision to use real recently unemployed for the firings was a fantastic one; some things you just can't fake.
George Clooney plays Ryan with a kind of jerky grace, making his character brutally honest but never unlikeable. He may be a cad, but he's a lovable cad. I did notice, however, that Ryan Bingham is an awful lot like Michael Clayton, and that same idea of company-man-changes-his-philosophy-and-therefore-his-life is also there, but the differences are distinct enough to set the characters apart. Besides, the film rests on Clooney's performance, and he delivers a stellar one.
It's the women, though, that elevate the film beyond being just a character piece (though it would have been a fantastic one). Holding her own against Clooney is Vera Farmiga, who plays Alex Goran. Alex is Ryan, to paraphrase the movie, "with a vagina," a fellow frequent flier who also chooses to be alone. Farmiga brings a powerful sensuality to the screen, making it easy to understand why Ryan would fall so hard for her. Their chemistry together is electric, especially in their first scene, where they compare hotel key cards and privilege cards. She proves to be a fantastic foil for Ryan, and Farmiga prevents the role from ever falling into cliche.
Previously best known for her small role in the Twilight films as what seems to be the only other human being in wherever Washington, Anna Kendrick proves to be the true breakout of the film, and perhaps even the year. Kendrick, with her tight ponytail and adorably mousy features, plays Natalie as a college grad with a confident exterior who is insecure on the inside. It could have easily been an unspectacular role, but Kendrick inflects her performance with so much depth, humor, and believabilty that she just about steals every scene she's in. You can feel her pain every time she makes a difficult firing, each one wearing away a little more of the hardened emotional shell she's wrapped herself up in. And perhaps most amazingly, she holds her own against seasoned vets like Clooney, Farmiga, and J.K. Simmons (a Reitman favorite, who gives a memorable cameo as one of the firees). Here's hoping she continues to find roles like this one that allow her to showcase her fierce talent, rather than squander it among sparkling vampires and bad-CGI werewolves.
Overall, Up in the Air was one of the best films I've seen all year. Deserving of its Best Picture nomination? Definitely.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Oscars 2009: Best Director

Tonight I finally had the opportunity to see Up in the Air, which was a fantastic film. However, I'm going to do a write-up on it tomorrow, when it's had more time to sink in. Instead, it has provided me with another opportunity: I have now officially witnessed the work of all five directing nominees at this year's Oscars. For those who don't know, I don't live in the kind of market where Oscar nominees tend to play, so anytime I get the chance, I have to take it. It's a pity, to be sure, for a cinephile like myself, but I do the best I can.
Now, on to the directors. The one word that everyone has been using in regards to this year's race, even in the beginning, is "diversity." When the awards season first started, it was pretty obvious that this wasn't going to be the usual five-older-white-men category that it usually is. There were not one, not two, but three women with significant chances of being nominated (Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion, Lone Scherfig), a first for the category. And in the end, demographically, the nominees include three white men, one white woman, and one openly-gay black man. But the point I want to make is that the category is refreshingly diverse more than just demographically; this year's nominees represent five different directing styles, each unique to the director. In a way, it's a year of auteurs, when studio mainstays like last year's Ron Howard and Stephen Daldry (the first of whom I do admire, don't get me wrong; the latter, not so much) give way to directors whose films are instantly recognizable as just that: their films.
Take, for example, James Cameron. One can argue that Cameron does not fit the auteur bill, because his films are usually very expensive (Titanic and Avatar both required two studios to fund), and are definitely products of the studio. But Cameron has his own unique fingerprint: you can tell that you are watching a Cameron film because it's so grandiose and expansive. Cameron, as a director, injects every film he makes with a head-on stylistic attitude, crafting worlds one never would have expected. Though his films do not always feature incredible performances, they are visual feasts. Just think about the Hallelujah Mountains in Avatar, the ship sinking into the ocean in Titanic, or the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Cameron's style is one of epic, vast proportions, and this grand scale characterizes all of his films. In short, he is basically a modern-day Cecil B. DeMille.
On the flip side of the action coin is Kathryn Bigelow, who coincidentally is Cameron's ex-wife (its point that the media makes sure is bludgeoned into our skulls). Whereas Cameron's motif is exhilarating action sequences, Bigelow layers her action with enough tension to make one's heart stop. As evidenced in The Hurt Locker, the action may not be grand displays of flair, but the stakes are just as high, if not higher. Bigelow's direction involves precision acting and tight camera control; the audience doesn't just watch the action, but becomes a part of it. We feel the thrill of adrenaline Jeremy Renner's SFC James feels, as well as the nerve-wracking anxiety that Anthony Mackie's Sgt. Sanborn feels. And this isn't just in The Hurt Locker; all of Bigelow's films, from Near Dark to Point Break to K-19 have had this same tension-driven direction.
Perhaps the truest auteur of them all, Quentin Tarantino's style is certainly one of the most distinct in cinema. In fact, its impossible to watch a Tarantino film without being conscious that what you are watching was made by Tarantino. His films are characterized by how heavily stylized they truly are, a combination of French New Wave, American B-movies, and whatever else he happens to like at the time of filming, whether it be heist films (Reservoir Dogs), blaxploitation (Jackie Brown), or kung-fu movies (Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2). And his trademark style and quick-witted, pop-culture-reference-laden dialogue are all over Inglourious Basterds, his gonzo revisionist World War II movie. However, his films aren't just about style; there is great substance behind each one, most notably in the stellar performances he elicits from every member of his cast.
Jason Reitman, too, is a very stylistic director. One look at Thank You For Smoking, Juno, or Up in the Air and you'll see his pop-art influences shine through. He always manages to bring out the best of his actors, and his style fits the serio-comic tone of his films. What sets Reitman apart is that he doesn't use his shots for ironic purposes; rather, his images of planes taking off or high school track runners are imperative to the atmosphere he is creating. Reitman film's are also thematically similar in that they all deal with a character who is living in a state of disconnect from the rest of the world, and in order to be happy must make a connection to another human being. Reitman delivers indie-style films without the irony that marks so many of today's indie films.
And finally there is Lee Daniels, who has one of the more interesting backstories of this year's nominees: he starting working in Hollywood as a casting director, later moving up to producer before finally becoming a director (Precious is only his second film; interesting, if random, fact: no director among this year's nominees has made more than ten films). His history shows in his method of directing, too. Daniels is not a visual director; though Precious contains some fantastic visual sequences, they are more achievements in editing than in directing. Rather, Daniels' strength as a director lays in his ability to bring out career-topping performances from his actors. Every actor in Precious is at the top of his game, from newcomer Gabourey Sidibe to the awe-inspiring Mo'Nique; even Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz give fantastic performances (and we've seen how bad they can be). Precious' great acting is a testament to Daniels' understanding of how to direct actors, allowing the characters to breathe and focusing on them rather than on their environments.
Who do I think is the best director of the bunch? The diversity of styles here makes that a difficult question to love, because honestly, I love them all. Comparing Daniels to Cameron is like comparing apples to oranges. Which is why I think this year, no matter who actually takes home the statuette, all five of these fantastic cinematic voices are winners.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Oh Happy Day

So today has pretty much been one of the happiest days of my life. The Oscar nominations were finally announced, I learned in my Global Cinema class that my professor's sister is friends with one of Lou Reed's dominatrices, and the campus dining hall brought back M&M cookies thanks to my protests (little victories, friends, little victories). And to top it all off....
...the greatest show in the history of television (yeah, I said it) returns for its final season. I'm so excited!
Anyway, just a few updates. My Oscar obsession is really going to take over for the next month, so expect near-daily posts about the nominees and various thoughts I come up with as the ceremony gets closer. The week before the ceremony, I'll be posting my predicted winners, as well as who I think should win (though how much of the nominees I actually see is in question). I should also be hitting the theatres and my Netflix queue, so expect some reviews; I may even start reviewing the films I watch for Global Cinema, so look out for that. On one last note, I will be live-blogging the Oscars this year, so be sure to check back here during the ceremony!

The Blind Side Blinds Oscars

Now that I've posted the announced nominees, and the full list has been posted, I can give a more formal response. Looking over the ballot, there are quite a few surprises this year, including the very-populist nomination of The Blind Side (once again proving that Oscar loves a feel-good story, even if its schmaltzy and racist). However, not all of the surprises are terrible; in fact, many of them are quite pleasant. And they are...
The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
A Serious Man
Up in the Air
I already gave my opinion of The Blind Side, but I'll say it again: boo! This was definitely chosen because it made a lot of money, and therefore was popular, which was the whole point of going to 10 pictures anyway. District 9 is a pleasant, and shocking, surprise for an award that usually goes out of its way to avoid sci-fi; instead, it nominated two in the same year (Avatar). Otherwise, its the same set of films that's been bandied around for the last few months. I should mention that I was 8/10 (A Serious Man turned out to be a good choice). Notable exceptions: Invictus (maybe Clint Eastwood's not such a golden boy after all) and Nine (I guess the Weinsteins decided to give up on this one and focus on Basterds). And, perhaps the best news in this, no upset by The Hangover!
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Colin Firth, A Single Man
George Clooney, Up in the Air
Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker
I'm glad the Academy decided to honor Renner for his fantastic, naturalistic performance in The Hurt Locker. This category hasn't really changed much in the past few weeks, so there's nothing really else to say about it.
Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
Helen Mirren, The Last Station
Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
To all you future actors/filmmakers, the best way to get the Academy's attention is to make a movie about driving around the ghetto, picking up black kids, and "turn their lives around." Just kidding (but seriously). This is Streep's 16th nomination, a remarkable feat indeed, but she hasn't won since Sophie's Choice in 1982. Helen Mirren is probably the least talked-about nominee this whole season, even though everyone predicted her nomination. And congrats to the newcomers, Mulligan and Sidibe, here's hoping your careers blossom after this.
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Matt Damon, Invictus
Christopher Plummer, The Last Station
Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones
Plummer finally got his first Oscar nomination, which is great considering the monumental career he's had. This too is pretty much what everyone was expecting. Was predicting the Oscars really that easy this year?
Penelope Cruz, Nine
Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Mo'Nique, Precious
Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crazy Heart
Crazy Heart must have some influential supporters, because Gyllenhaal has barely been mentioned this entire season, and has now suddenly earned an Oscar (she joins her brother Jake now, who was nominated in 2005 for Supporting Actor in Brokeback Mountain). I figured an upset would happen in this category, if anywhere, but I thought for sure one of the Basterds women would take the 5th spot. Another surprise here is Cruz; yes, I did pick her all year, but just recently I began to think it was a fool's errand. I'm glad I was wrong about that. By the way, I'm 19/20 in the acting categories. I'm proud.
James Cameron, Avatar
Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Lee Daniels, Precious
Jason Reitman, Up in the Air
I wonder if Best Picture hadn't expanded, would these directors' films have been the nominees? Who knows. This is a very diverse group, not only demographically (Bigelow's a woman, Daniels is black), but (more importantly) in subject matter: the rousing epic, the tense war drama, the gonzo revisionist war drama, the difficult inspirational drama, and the timely dramedy. It's a good selection of talent and material.
Terri Thatchell & Neill Blomkamp, District 9
Nick Hornby, An Education
Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, Tony Roche, In the Loop
Geoffrey Fletcher, Precious
Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air
This is certainly an interesting group for a number of reasons. First of all, District 9 and In the Loop are great surprises, though they replaced great work in Fantastic Mr. Fox (written by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach) and, surprisingly, kept Invictus out of another category. Fun fact of the day: Jason Reitman is the only writer in this category with a previous Oscar nomination, and none of them have ever been nominated for writing.
Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman, The Messenger
Joel & Ethan Coen, A Serious Man
Bob Peterson, Pete Docter; story by Peterson, Docter, Tom McCarthy, Up
The Messenger is an interesting surprise here. But it also means that the biggest snub of the year belongs to (500) Days of Summer, which despite its support and quality and reinvention of the romantic comedy failed to receive a single nomination. Not cool, Oscar. It's otherwise a great set of nominees. And typical for a James Cameron feature: no nomination for Avatar.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Princess and the Frog
The Secret of Kells
I haven't seen (or really heard of) The Secret of Kells until now, so I'll have to check that out. Animation's banner year is well-represented here.
Ajami, Israel
El Secreto de Sus Ojos, Argentina
The Milk of Sorrow, Peru
Un Prophete, France
The White Ribbon, Germany
So the Foreign Language Oscar committee didn't screw up this year. Yay! Latin American cinema is well-represented here, with Peru earning its first Oscar nomination. And Israel and Germany continue to dominate the category as they have for the last decade, though if Israel doesn't win this year, they will move past Poland as the country with the most Oscar nominations without a win.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Sherlock Holmes
The Young Victoria
Now that we're down to the technicals, expect Avatar to show up everywhere possible. This is a good set of nominees, I think. They all certainly had a visual flair about them, particularly Parnassus and Avatar.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
The White Ribbon
I actually expected Harry Potter to be an Art Direction nominee, but the cinematography in it was fantastic (remember the bridge scene?). Again, I think all of these are solid choices.
Bright Star
Coco Before Chanel
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
The Young Victoria
I'm a little sad to not see Inglourious Basterds in here, but happy to not see Avatar's CGI loincloths here (the Costume Designers Guild nominated it- look it up!). But of course this is mostly standard period-piece work, nothing out of the ordinary.
Burma VJ
The Cove
Food, Inc.
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Eisenberg and the Pentagon Papers
Which Way Home
The usual relevant topics are covered (environmentalism, US government, immigration, consumerism, human rights issues), and the set looks good. I personally enjoyed Food, Inc., and thought it was eye-opening. I love a good documentary from time to time, you know. Notable absences: Anvil! The Story of Anvil, which was ignored for who-knows-why, Capitalism: A Love Story, which was not released in the eligibility period, and Religulous, which was released in the eligibility period but may have been too far back to be remembered. Shame.
China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Shichuan Province
The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner
The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant
Music by Prudence
Rabbit a la Berlin
Again, the subjects are relevant, and the Short category usually has some interesting stuff in it. I'll have to check these out.
District 9
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
These are all fantastic choices, with each one utilizing the editing process in a creative way that best services the movie. I love the cuts in Precious (though most people would disagree) and the tension created in The Hurt Locker. And of course there's always great editing in any Tarantino film.
Il Divo
Star Trek
The Young Victoria
No The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus? Interesting. Also interesting is Star Trek; I'm trying to think of something other than Nero's tattoos that made it so great. I don't really know how I feel about this category.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Hurt Locker
Sherlock Holmes
Up's score was beautiful, especially during the "life montage" scene. Holmes and Avatar's were exciting, and The Hurt Locker's added to the tension of the film. I haven't heard Fantastic Mr. Fox's (though I will soon).
"Almost There," The Princess and the Frog
"Down in New Orleans," The Princess and the Frog
"Loin de Paname," Paris 36
"Take It All," Nine
"The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart)," Crazy Heart
First of all, the fact that this category has five nominees is amazing (this is such a random, difficult, and frustrating category). The new rule that a single film can't have more than two nominees here can be seen in effect, since otherwise The Princess and the Frog would probably have three, if not more, nominations instead; Oscar loves Disney here. I have never heard of Paris 36, so there's another one to look up.
French Roast
Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty
The Lady and the Reaper (La Dama y la Muerte)
A Matter of Loaf and Death
I like short films, and I'll try to find these somewhere. On a sad note, there's no Pixar here this year.
The Door
Instead of Abracadabra
Miracle Fish
The New Tenants
I'll have to find these too.
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Star Trek
The sound awards usually go hand-in-hand, with only one or two differences between them. All of these films have exceptional sound quality, so I'm content with them.
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Star Trek
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
And so Transformers earns more Razzies than Oscars this year. Easy come, easy go, I suppose.
District 9
Star Trek
These are all great nominees. The effects in Star Trek were spectacular, but really didn't extend beyond standard blockbuster level. District 9 was innovative in its integration of the aliens into documentary-esque footage, which was amazing. And everyone knows that Avatar has some of the most jaw-droppingly wonderful images ever put to film.
Like them? Hate them? Comment please.

And the Nominees Are...

I actually managed to get out of bed at 8:30 this morning to watch the livestream of the the Oscar announcements. I've never actually been this involved in the awards season before, so this is so freaking exciting to me!
Anne Hathaway looks good for 5:30 PST. That's a good start.
Supporting Actress nominees are Mo'Nique, Anna Kendrick, Vera Farmiga, Penelope Cruz, and....MAGGIE GYLLENAAL???????
Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Christopher Plummer, Matt Damon, Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson. Nothing we didn't expect here.
Actress: Sandra Bullock, Helen Mirren, Carey Mulligan, Gabourey Sidibe, Meryl Streep. So far I'm 14/15.
Actor: Jeff Bridges, George Clooney, Morgan Freeman, Colin Firth, Jeremy Renner. Still no other surprises.
Director: James Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow, Lee Daniels, Quentin Tarantino, Jason Reitman. My faith in Daniels has paid off!
Original Screenplay: Inglourious Basterds, Up, The Hurt Locker, The Messenger, A Serious Man.
Adapted Screenplay: District 9, An Education, In the Loop, Up in the Air, Precious
Best Picture: Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, Up, Up in the Air, The Hurt Locker, A Serious Man, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, An Education
Plenty to talk about once the full nominees are out. Check back soon!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Oscar Nominations Tomorrow!

As you can see, Meryl is just as excited as I am. Check back tomorrow (probably afternoon) for my reactions.