Friday, December 31, 2010

2010: The Year in Music

As the year winds down, its time to reflect upon it, and judge it for what it brought. Musically, it was a rich year, with some truly terrific songs and albums. I'm not usually one for reviewing music, but since I do have my Radio Daze column, I figured I might as well share with you the songs and albums that moved me this year. Enjoy.
"On Melancholy Hill," Gorillaz

Gorillaz is probably the best animated electro-rock band out there right now, not that that's a thick field. But they've been consistently good since their 2001 debut, and Plastic Beach, their third album, was no exception this year. If every song wasn't as instantly catchy as 2005's Demon Days, they were still interesting sonic experiences. The standout track, though, was "On Melancholy Hill," a terrific pop nugget marked by a propulsive beat and chirpy synth. The song feels perfect for the soundtrack to a whimsical romance, with its refrain of "when you're close to me" making the yearning plea for companionship. Its arguably the best song Gorillaz have ever recorded.
"Like a Prayer," Glee Cast

As television, Glee has had a rough year in 2010, as you can read in my season two Glee-caps. But musically, the show has continued to produce decent to excellent covers. But just like last year's "Don't Stop Believin'," only one song this year proved to be truly transcendent. Glee has always operated best when doing '80s songs and Broadway showstoppers, and Madonna is a holy mixture of both, with a voice that shines through her songs. "Like A Prayer" saw the Glee cast turn Madonna's classic into a full-on gospel revival, lifting the spirit while entertaining the ears. Its a truly incredible performance, and certainly one of the show's musical high points.
"Teqkilla," M.I.A.

M.I.A. took a bad knock for her new album, /\/\/\Y/\, this year. After finding commercial success with "Paper Planes," she intentionally made a dense, radio-unfriendly album full of fuzzed-out vocals, squiggling synths, and thudding beats. Every song is a new experiment, and more often than not they work. "Teqkilla" is one of the album's best tracks, with a busy, almost-industrial sound covering up M.I.A.'s lyrics. Its a song that should be off-putting and skippable, but is actually oddly dancable and enjoyable. Though, if you do check out her album, be sure to give "Born Free," "Tell Me Why," and "It Takes a Muscle" as well.
"Fuck You," Cee-Lo Green
Cee-Lo Green has never been one to play by mainstream rules; just look at his work in Goodie Mob and Gnarls Barkley for proof. But nothing could have prepared us for this: a deliciously profane pop song that takes its angry lyrics and throws them over a bouncy, retro-soul beat to create a genuinely perfect song. What's even more stunning is that the song managed to become a radio hit, even showing up on Glee to be covered by none other than Gwyneth Paltrow. If that's not a testament of how enjoyable this song truly is, nothing is.
"Dog Days Are Over," Florence + the Machine
This is kind of cheat, since this song appears on her 2009 album Lungs. But its hard to ignore: its an exciting song with primal drums and chamber music instrumentation. But the real star is Florence Welch's beautiful, out-sized voice, a wonderous instrument that carries the song higher and farther than otherwise possible. There's a great music video for the song too, but its her live performances that showcase what really makes her special.
"Tangerine," Big Boi featuring T.I.
For some reason, the Grammys completely ignored Big Boi's excellent solo album Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, which is the best album Outkast never made. And one of the album's many standouts is this slow-rolling, sensual piece of ATL rap, as Big Boi and T.I. trade verses about a stripper named Tangerine. Its Southern rap at its best, only marred by the question of what it would be if Andre 3000 had participated. I think its time for an Outkast reunion!
"Drop the World," Lil' Wayne and Eminem

Lil' Wayne had a more difficult year this year than he did before. A solid portion of the year was spent in jail, but he still managed to release two albums this year. "Drop the World" is the standout from the first, Rebirth. Rebirth was an experiment in making a rock album, one that was an interesting experiment that hopefully Wayne has gotten out of his system. But this song finds him rapping in fine form, skipping the crunchy guitars and rock cliches for pure rage. More significantly, months before Recovery debuted, Eminem made his real comeback here, spitting one of the year's most fierce and incredible verses. He steals the song, and in the process announced that he's back in peak form.
Nicki Minaj guest verses

At the beginning of the year, Drake was supposed to land as rap's hottest new act of 2010, and he did indeed release a terrific album and prove to be an exciting new voice with a refreshing sound (he reaped a Best New Artist Grammy nomination for it). But by year's end, it was Nicki Minaj who earned that title, with a well-received album of her own and numerous guest spots that made you forget the song belonged to someone else. From Lil' Wayne's "Knockout" to Ludacris' "My Chick Bad" to Trey Songz's "Bottoms Up," Minaj destroyed songs with her spitfire style and multiple personas. Perhaps none was better than her verse on Kanye West's "Monster," which is mercifully extended to let her cram even more stunning wordplay into the song. Here's hoping her 2011 will be just as good. And speaking of Mr. West.....
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West

Kanye West is a genius. There, I said it, and I'm not ashamed of it. He released the best album of the year even though he began 2010 the object of everyone's hatred. But he came back just by being himself. And My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is an album to truly behold, easily his best yet. After the stark minimalism of 2008's criminally underrated 808s and Heartbreak, West goes the opposite direction here and makes everything as big and epic as possible. Gargantuan choirs, blasting horns, thumping basslines, pianos; everything here is ramped up. The guest list, too, is massive, including Drake, Kid Cudi, Rihanna, Jay-Z, Raekwon, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, Dwele, Pusha T, Fergie, Alicia Keys, John Legend, Elton John, Bon Iver, Ryan Leslie, Gil Scott-Heron, Chris Rock, and La Roux. And thematically, West is not shying away from boasting, but he shows a new self-awareness, as seen in the awe-inspiring "Runaway:" only West could make "let's have a toast for the douchebags" both a celebration and a self-reflection. "All of the Lights" is a bold declaration, "Monster" is a summit of terrific rappers, and "Devil in a New Dress" has a fierce guitar part. Then there's "Lost in the World," the album closer that serves as a perfect culmination of the entire album. This is to say nothing of the music videos its spawned, from the "moving portrait" of "Power" to the 35-minute short film for "Runaway," easily the best music video of the year. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is West's Barbaric Yawp, his cry from his own Mt. Olympus over the roofs of the world. Or, to put it in West's own words, "every superhero needs his own theme music." Indeed.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

True Grit (2010)

I have never seen the 1969 True Grit, in which John Wayne won an Oscar for his portrayal of US Marshal "Rooster" Cogburn, a surly, inebriated lawman who's hired by the young Mattie Ross to find her father's killer. But from what I've heard about it, its the corn-pone, sentimental Western that Hollywood was cranking out in those days, with country star Glen Campbell playing the role of Texas Ranger La Beouf and singing the title song. Its not the kind of film you'd expect the Coen Brothers to remake.
Instead, they chose to stick closer to Charles Portis' novel than the movie. The story is still the same: 14-year-old Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) comes to Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to convince him to join her in hunting down her father's killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). La Beouf (Matt Damon) is also looking for Chaney, and figures that he's probably riding with Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) and his gang. The uneasy alliance go out into Indian Territory to find them, with plenty of adventure to follow.
Tonally, the film doesn't feel out of place in the Coen's oeuvre. It features their usual blend of quirky characters and dark humor, with gorgeous cinematography courtesy of Roger Deakins. Plus, several of their films have felt like they were inspired by Westerns (No Country for Old Men, for example), so to see them do a straight Western is interesting. However, True Grit doesn't feel as immediate as many of their more recent films. Its very good, don't get me wrong, but it just doesn't have the sense of Coen mischief that, say, A Serious Man or The Man Who Wasn't There had. In fact, there's a certain sentimentality that's been rare in the Coen filmography, which has been marked by a dark theme of meaninglessness, particularly meaningless violence (and though that's lightly here, its merely a footnote). This doesn't necessarily make True Grit a bad film; its a great film, but for a Coens' film, it just feels...off.
The reunion of Jeff Bridges and the Coens is plenty funny, but its no The Big Lebowski. Damon's La Beouf is almost pedophilic, as he shameless flirts with a 14-year-old girl. Though, it should be noted that Ross is no ordinary 14-year-old. She's confident, strong-willed, and all-business, wise beyond her years but still with a lot of maturing to go. And in the hands of Hailee Steinfeld, she's a wonder to behold, and Steinfeld plays her with the kind of serious acting chops that one usually doesn't expect from a child star. Its a bravura (lead) performance from a future star. And Ross is a terrific example of something the Coens don't often get praise for: they can create some terrific roles for actresses. Just look at Marge Gunderson in Fargo for proof.
All in all, True Grit is an excellent film, and certainly one of the best Westerns of the last few years. But its hard to watch it and not wish it had been something more.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Have a happy holidays everyone, and be safe!
When I return, expect reviews of True Grit, Blood Done Sign My Name, Exit Through the Gift Shop, and potentially more.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Splice (2010)

The mysteries of human life can be very frightening. There's so much we don't know about our DNA, and what it holds, that there's nothing really out of the realm of possibility. Though DNA was unknown in her day, Mary Shelley wrote her playing-God masterpiece Frankenstein about the troubles one can encounter when manipulating human life. In today's age, the debates over the ethics of genetics rage on, and Splice wants to offer a solid glimpse into genetic horror, but is unfortunately mangled in the end.
Splice is about two brilliant genetic splicers, Clive (Adrian Brody) and Else (Sarah Polley), who have been working on a genetic breakthrough: the creation of new creatures that can produce a protein valuable to human medicine. However, when they learn that their splicing facility is being shut down, they decide to break the rules and add human DNA to the splicing, creating a creature that is part human. The pair plan to kill it, but when Else starts developing maternal feelings for it, it becomes a responsibility that is dangerous in more ways than they ever imagined.
The film gets off to a terrific start, with a great premise and solid chemistry between Brody and Polley; they're a rare screen horror pairing (or, honestly, screen pairing in general) that you can believe would be attracted to one another. They're both shamelessly geeky, proud nerds who flaunt their intelligence as their defining characteristic. The creatures they create legally, Fred and Ginger, and the illicit Dren are deliciously grotesque creations, legitimately creepy and unsettling. Director Vincenzo Natali (who co-wrote the script with Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor) is like a commercialized hybrid of David Lynch and David Cronenberg, lending the proceedings disgusting gore and a skillful blend of themes as he taps into the ethics of genetic splicing, the fear of what lurks with us, and, most impressively, the horror that is raising a child. Splice succeeds best on this front, as Dren becomes a surrogate child for Clive and Else, and they face the same kinds of problems that the parents of "normal" children face. Its a clever move for the film to take, and one that I wish the film would have explored further.
Unfortunately, the whole thing falls apart in the third act. As Dren grows up, she becomes more and more volatile, since she's now entering her teen and adult year. This leads to some interesting ideas; but the film decides that the best of them is for Clive to have sex with the creature. From here, what could have been delightfully weird just becomes stupid, with a lame final act and a revelation that's a groaner (even though it shouldn't have been). The film just completely throws everything it had been building towards out for a mediocre "horror" finale that ditches the logic and character development it had been building in the rest of the film. It could, and should, have been transcendent. Instead it just falls on its face.
Splice is two-thirds of a great cerebral horror film, one that could have ranked among the ranks of the best. Instead, it ends up squandering that promise to be one of the most disappointing films of the year.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Can Natalie Portman Really Win an Oscar?

That's a pretty lofty question to title a blog post with, especially since we're still 35 days (as of publishing) from the announcement of Oscar nominations, with even more time waiting until the actual ceremony. But since these are the kinds of things I like to think about, and since this month's LAMB Acting School is all about Natalie Portman, let's take a look at her odds and the components of a nomination and win.
Portman is, of course, in the running for Best Actress for her role in Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky's new horror film about a ballerina who may be losing her mind because of (in spite of?) her landing the lead role in a new production of Swan Lake (my review here). And when it comes to Oscar nominations, one part of it is the performance. And Portman has never been better than she is here. She brings the character of Nina to illustrious life, and her mental collapse is nothing short of astonishing. Portman utilizes her talent and puts it to good use: she's fragile and always on the verge of breaking, as if one little chip could completely shatter here. And then, when that chip comes, her obsessive worry and panic overcomes her, and Portman never lets the audience go as her transformation progresses. By the end of the film, we hardly recognize her as the character she was in the beginning. Its a bravura performance from Portman, and if the Oscars were determined by performance alone, she would be more than deserving.
Of course, your career matters too when you're pursuing an Oscar. The amazing thing about Portman is that she's only 29 years old, and yet is more or less a veteran actress, having a career that began in 1994 in Luc Bresson's The Professional. In that film, it was obvious that she was talented, but no one could have imagined how much. Bit parts in Heat and Mars Attacks! kept her in the spotlight, until she got the role that would truly make her a star, Queen Padme Amidala in George Lucas' abominations, I mean, Star Wars prequel trilogy. And the prequels are a perfect representation of what's been wrong with Portman's career: she often finds herself in movies that are less deserving of her talents. Star Wars had her standing around, brushing her hair and looking contemplative, probably thinking of how she ended up with whiny, wooden Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker. Since then, Portman's not been averse to popcorn flicks, as she appeared in the troubled V for Vendetta in 2006 and the royal teen soap The Other Boylan Girl in 2008. In between these films, though, Portman has made some terrific films, such as Garden State, in which she marveled as Zach Braff's epilepsy-afflicted love interest Sam, or Cold Mountain, in which she had a small supporting part as a widow. But perhaps her best performance in these films was in Closer, in which she played a stripper named Alice and earned her first Oscar nomination for Supporting Actress. She's a marvel to behold in this film, substituting actual nudity for raw emotional nakedness, and she's easily the second-best part of the film (the best being Clive Owen).
(from top) The Professional, Garden State, and Closer
When you look at it like that, you'll see that Portman, despite being in the business for so long, might just be getting started. Unless you look at her next three projects, which are worrisome. First there's her Ashton Kutcher sex comedy No Strings Attached, which, based on the trailer, looks like a terrible waste of her talents (though co-starring with Kutcher seems to do that to everyone). Then there's Your Highness, a pot comedy that could be goofy great or awful. And the first trailers for Thor don't offer much promise, and I'm not sure Portman's first foray into superhero films will be a worthwhile trip (side note: Thor's a Norse god, not a superhero, so why does Marvel treat him like one? Ugh). This is part of what worries me about Portman's Oscar chances this year: she could suffer from the Norbit effect. For those of you who don't know, in 2006 Eddie Murphy was the odds-on favorite to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his revelatory performance in Dreamgirls. But in early 2007, Murphy released Norbit just as voters were starting to cast their ballots. The movie was a critical and commercial bomb, and when the ceremony was held, it was Alan Arkin (nominated for Little Miss Sunshine), and not Murphy, who was announced the winner, and many felt that Norbit was the cause of this. Unfortunately for Portman, No Strings Attached has a January 11 release date, which shouldn't cost her a nomination, but if voters think this is representation of her career direction, they may choose to honor someone else, such as Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right) or Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone).
That's nothing to smile about, Natalie.
Then, of course, there are Portman's demographic advantages. She's 29, which means she's in her prime Best-Actress-winning years. Her film is receiving just as many raves as she is, and she worked with one of the most unique and visionary directors in Hollywood, which will certainly work in her favor. Plus, she's been sweeping the precursor awards, winning several critics' prizes and racking up nominations at the Golden Globes and SAG Awards. The trick for Portman will be to continue winning, and to make sure the focus stays on her Black Swan performance and doesn't drift to her other films. If someone else were to gain the momentum, it could cost her the Oscar.
Portman's career encapsulates my opinion of her: she's extremely talented, but only so often is given the opportunity to truly showcase those talents. It could be a testament to the limited and often thankless roles that are available to women at her age in Hollywood (romantic comedies and big-budget sidekicks) that she has to take roles opposite Ashton Kutcher (was Katherine Heigl busy?) and an Australian soap opera star who makes no attempt to hide his accent despite playing a Norse god after finally landing an opportunity to push herself artistically. Here's hoping that the lovely Natalie Portman finds more demanding, rewarding roles in the future, and doesn't end up taking the path to rom-com hell.
Will she win the Oscar? Right now, she's the favorite, but only time will tell if she will be crowned come February.

The Fighter (2010)

The Fighter is the true story of boxer "Irish" Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg), the brother of the "Pride of Lowell" Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), who famously knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard in a fight but has since spiraled into crack addiction. Mickey is struggling as a fighter, namely because his manager and promoter are his mother, Alice (Melissa Leo) and Dicky himself. Mickey's a family guy, but that becomes complicated when Dicky lands in jail and he starts dating Charlene (Amy Adams), a hardscrabble bartender who gets him to re-evaluate his life. Meanwhile, an HBO documentary supposedly about Dicky's comeback (but actually about his crack addiction) brings shame to the entire town of Lowell, Massachusetts.
The Fighter, interestingly enough, was originally supposed to be directed by Darren Aronofsky as a kind of sequel-in-spirit to The Wrestler. Instead, it was directed by David O. Russell, arguably for the better. I say this not because I don't think Aronofsky would have made a terrible movie, but because it doesn't immediately fit into the Aronofsky filmography thematically. Russell, however, brings it to vibrant life, mainly by choosing to focus less on the actual boxing matches and more on the behind-the-scenes family dynamics. And those dynamics are potent. Mickey wants to please his family, but the film suggest that his family - Alice, Dicky, and the gaggle of big-haired sisters - are the reason he's not a successful boxer. Charlene suggests this, followed by his father (a terrific Jack McGee), and the resulting battle between the two sides gives for some powerful emotional moments.
Which brings me to Wahlberg's excellent performance, which has been derided by many for being blank or stilted. I want to argue a defense for it. Wahlberg is indeed a little "blank" in this film, but I believe there are two reasons for this. The first is that his performance is not nearly as dynamic, explosive, and attention-grabbing as those of the people surrounding him. Christian Bale has once again dropped an astonishing amount of weight for his role, but he completely disappears into Dicky, giving an amazing performance that, when the real Dicky appears during the credits, you can hardly tell the difference. Melissa Leo reaches delicious heights as Alice, the overbearing matriarch of the clan that just can't let go control of her son(s), especially not to another woman. And Amy Adams is gloriously against type, bringing a roughness, malice, and unexpected sexuality to the role; her monologue towards the end of the film (no spoilers here, sorry) is one of the finest moments in film this year. And then there are the locals of Lowell, who bring a unique flavor to the film and make it seem all the more realistic.
The second reason Wahlberg's performance might be considered lesser is that Mickey, the story suggests, doesn't really have an identity of his own. There are only a few moments when the "real" Mickey comes through, such as when he wants to quit boxing or is forced to choose between his family and Charlene. But for the most part, Mickey is a man who's defined by the choices everyone around him makes for him, which makes the film's finale one of the more interesting "triumphant" endings for a sports film: is this what Mickey really wants, and how much of the credit actually goes to him? Therefore I justify Wahlberg's performance by saying that Mickey really is blank, a block of marble being carved by the various sculptors that are his family. In that light, Wahlberg's portrayal is bold and fascinating, not "blank."
The Fighter is a study of family dynamics disguised as a sports film. Its an interesting portrait of a man who has little control of his own life, and a pretty terrific film to boot.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Black Swan (2010)

The ballet, despite its reputation for grace, elegance, and sophistication, is really a very primal art form. Emotions and ideas are expressed not in images on a canvas or in two people acting and reacting to each other verbally, but through the movements of the human body. The ballerinas who perform these acts have to be in peak physical shape, and every motion, every look, has to convey emotion rawly. That's the awesome power of dance: its the most engaging, exciting, and, well, real expression of emotion and of self there is. Dance is the ultimate unleashing of one's self, letting go to instinct rather than control.
This, of course, is one of the themes of Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky's brilliant new film. The film is about Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a ballerina who lands the plumb dual role of the White Swan and the Black Swan in a production of Swan Lake. Her director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), thinks she's perfect for the White Swan, but needs to let go mentally and sexually in order to better portray the Black Swan. Another ballerina, Lily (Mila Kunis), more embodies the Black Swan, and Nina worries that she'll be replaced. Nina's mom (Barbara Hershey) is a former ballerina, and in her own completely overbearing way is edging Nina on to practice and secure the role. But Nina's starting to break down from everything, leading to...I won't spoil it any further.
Do not, by any circumstances, be fooled into thinking this is the "psychological/psychosexual thriller" that the film has been marketed as. This isn't a polite ballerina drama with some rough edges. This is a HORROR film. Unfortunately, "horror" is such a stigmatized term nowadays, as most modern horror films are made up of either cheap scares or one set-piece trying to out-gross the one before it (here's looking at you, Saw). These are horror films, yes, but there's nothing truly scary about them; whatever fear you had, or whatever effect the film had, disappears as soon as the lights come on. Black Swan, however, is a perfect example of a true horror film, the kind of film that every horror movie should be. Nina's possible mental breakdown consumes the entire film, and thanks to Aronofsky's bold direction and cinematographer Matthew Libatique's gorgeous, unsettling hand-held camerawork, that breakdown creeps into the audience as well. The film constantly questions what is real, making for a rewarding (though thoroughly disturbing) experience, if you're willing to take that descent into madness. Nina's transformation from uptight, "good" girl to an unrestrained "bad" girl, from White Swan to Black Swan, presents the most basic and effective horror device in the film: there are no monsters coming to get us, because WE are the monsters, the untapped potential within us. And in the process, Black Swan accomplishes what other great horror films such as The Exorcist or The Silence of the Lambs did: the cuts you to the core, and stays there, like a nightmare you can't shake, no matter how hard you try.
I've long been a fan of Darren Aronofsky's films. My first was The Fountain, a film that's terribly underrated, and afterwards I explored the dark depths of Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Wrestler. And there is one theme that runs through Aronofsky's filmography: obsession, particularly obsession to the point of self-destruction. Black Swan is no exception to this. And Aronofsky does an amazing job creating a visual language that makes the film so effective. He uses mirrors as a way of reflecting on the character, as there are mirrors in almost every location in the film. Throughout the film, Nina (the White Swan) is usually in light colors, whereas Lily (the Black Swan; she could also be Nina's repressed female id, in a Freudian perspective) is in dark colors. And then there's the way he highlights the violence of ballet, not just mental but also physical: close-ups of toe-points, back muscles contorting into various positions, the way the body is punished through these motions. All of these things only add to the disturbing horror of the film, and it just further shows the brilliance of Aronofsky.
Notice the color scheme
As for performances, the cast could not be better. Portman is a revelation, finally making good on the promise she's shown in the past. She's never been better than this, and the way she portrays Nina's collapse is nothing short of breathtaking. Aronofsky has brought out the best in her, and hopefully the two will team up again sometime. Cassel makes for a wonderful pervy director, making good use of his unconventional good looks and charisma. Hershey has a terrific role as Nina's monster mom, and she plays it with just the right amount of over-the-top theatricality that chills the bone. I never thought I'd say this, because I absolutely despise That '70s Show, but Kunis is extraordinary; like Portman, maybe she just needs the right roles and right directors to shine. And Winona Ryder makes the most of her five minutes of screentime with a terrific performance as a forced-to-retire ballerina, getting one of the films most visually disturbing scenes.
I want to reiterate that this is indeed a horror film, and not the typical kind; this film is legitimately disturbing, and I don't recommend it to anyone that's squeamish. But it is one of, if not the, best film of the year, and if you're willing to give it a try, by all means do. Its a one-of-a-kind experience.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Screen Actors Guild Nominations

Believe it or not, before the expansion to a 10-wide field, these were the best Oscar predictors around: you could count on at least four out of every five nominees in each category to be Oscar nominated as well. This year's nominees continue to solidify the nominees we've been assuming all along, and unlike the Globes, they seemed to have seen True Grit.
BEST ENSEMBLE (FILM)
Black Swan
The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech
The Social Network
Don't be surprised by the lack of Inception: though the acting was aces, the film's focus wasn't really on the acting. This is, however, a major nomination for Black Swan, which, acting-wise, has only been seen as the Natalie Portman show. This recognition for the rest of its cast will go a long way toward assisting its Oscar chances. Otherwise, nothing too surprising here; these are all terrific ensembles.
BEST ACTOR
Jeff Bridges, True Grit
Robert Duvall, Get Low
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Colin Firth, The King's Speech
James Franco, 127 Hours
I'm surprised that the SAGs snubbed Ryan Gosling, since he has so much respect amongst his peers (these are actors honoring actors, by the way). But this a big boost to both Bridges's and Duvall's campaigns.
BEST ACTRESS
Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone
Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Hilary Swank, Conviction
Perhaps Swank isn't out of the running after all, and the Actress race is more hotly contested than I assumed? Still no Manville...
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Christian Bale, The Fighter
John Hawkes, Winter's Bone
Jeremy Renner, The Town
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech
This is the nomination Ruffalo needed: hopefully Oscar will be reminded to take notice of his terrific performance. I really want Hawkes to be nominated too, since he was really good in his film, but Winter's Bone's acting focus has mostly been on Lawrence, and Oscar will probably want to recognize Andrew Garfield instead.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Amy Adams, The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter, The King's Speech
Mila Kunis, Black Swan
Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
This is Kunis's third major nomination this week, but I still don't think she'll be nominated for an Oscar. Still, her mention here further's Black Swan's chances, and there's nothing wrong with that.
BEST STUNT ENSEMBLE
Green Zone
Inception
Robin Hood
Every few years adding this category to the Oscars is discussed, and its always declined. Which is a shame, because I think that stunt-work should be recognized (though, as you'll see below, there are five TV stunt nominations compared to three film: what?).
BEST ENSEMBLE (DRAMA SERIES)
Boardwalk Empire
The Closer
Dexter
The Good Wife
Mad Men
I'm sad that Lost wasn't included for its final season: the ensemble on that show was so terrific. However, with the exception of The Closer (save for the always-delightful J.K. Simmons), these are some really great ensembles. I'm really glad that Dexter was nominated here: yes, the show is all about Michael C. Hall's Dexter, but all of the supporting players are just as good, and without them the show just wouldn't be as interesting.
BEST ENSEMBLE (COMEDY SERIES)
30 Rock
Glee
Hot in Cleveland
Modern Family
The Office
Is Hot in Cleveland really all that good? I've never seen it, mainly because I've got Betty White fatigue (I never really thought she was that incredible anyway), and because the basic premise sounds like an extension of a joke from 30 Rock last year. But this definitely belongs to either 30 Rock or Modern Family: both shows' casts strike brilliant balances of comedic styles, and carry what could be shaky material to comedy greatness.
BEST ACTOR (DRAMA SERIES)
Steve Buscemi, Boardwalk Empire
Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad
Michael C. Hall, Dexter
Jon Hamm, Mad Men
Hugh Laurie, House
I like House. Or rather, I liked House. I still watch it, and Laurie is the main reason why, as he gives the character more layers and nuance than he really deserves anymore. I think the show has gone on too long, given its repetitive plots, uninteresting patients, and lack of meaningful development (aside from the House/Cuddy relationship). Its time for House to hang up the stethoscope before things get really ugly.
BEST ACTRESS (DRAMA SERIES)
Glenn Close, Damages
Mariska Hargitay, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife
Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men
Kyra Sedgwick, The Closer
Four of these women are on procedurals, which aren't necessarily an actor's paradise. Surely there were better performances in non-lady-cop shows? What about Connie Britton on Friday Night Lights?
BEST ACTOR (COMEDY SERIES)
Alec Baldwin, 3o Rock
Ty Burrell, Modern Family
Steve Carell, The Office
Chris Colfer, Glee
Ed O'Neill, Modern Family
The SAGs don't have supporting categories for its television awards, though you could make arguments that O'Neill, Burrell, and Colfer are leads on their respective shows. This category is aces, especially the underappreciated O'Neill, who delivers some of Modern Family's greatest lines with a wonderful, toss-off deadpan.
BEST ACTRESS (COMEDY SERIES)
Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie
Tina Fey, 30 Rock
Jane Lynch, Glee
Sofia Vergara, Modern Family
Betty White, Hot in Cleveland
Again, I've got White fatigue, so I'm not wild about her nomination. I know Lynch is still terrific, but I'd like Vergara to be recognized for the considerable talent she brings to the show (she's hilarious in her second language!).
BEST ACTOR (MINISERIES/TV MOVIE)
John Goodman, You Don't Know Jack
Al Pacino, You Don't Know Jack
Dennis Quaid, The Special Relationship
Edgar Ramirez, Carlos
Patrick Stewart, Macbeth (Great Performances)
I guess Carlos is officially television? I can't tell anymore.
BEST ACTRESS (MINISERIES/TV MOVIE)
Claire Danes, Temple Grandin
Catherine O'Hara, Temple Grandin
Julia Ormond, Temple Grandin
Winona Ryder, When Love is Not Enough: The Lois Wilson Story
Susan Sarandon, You Don't Know Jack
They really loved Temple Grandin, huh? I didn't realize Ryder had done a TV movie: she should really have a better career than she has now (though she is in Black Swan, so she has that to brag about). At least there's no Jennifer Love Hewitt, like a certain other awards ceremony.
BEST STUNT ENSEMBLE (TELEVISION)
Burn Notice
CSI: NY
Dexter
Southland
True Blood
I didn't really think I would like Burn Notice, but after watching a marathon of the show over Thanksgiving, its actually delightful escapist entertainment: don't expect deep thought or moral ambiguity, just fun and action amidst the sun and surf of Miami.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Radio Daze Vol. 3: November/December 2010

The third edition of this popular series (the last entry had over 150 page views) is based on the Billboard chart for the week of December 18, 2010.
1. "Firework," Katy Perry
Released as a single for the "It Gets Better" campaign in response to the recent teen suicides, "Firework" begins with a verse of platitudes that are pretty cliched and, oddly, conjure images of American Beauty ("Do you feel like a plastic bag/Blowin' in the wind"), making it seem like another half-decent Perry track. But then the bridge comes in, with its stirring strings and Perry's voice finding a good key, and when the chorus's propulsive beat and soaring vocals hit, pop nirvana is achieved. I've stated before that I'm not Perry's biggest fan, but this is easily one of her best songs yet, and if she can find this kind of pure pop bliss in the future, I might just be a convert. A-
2. "Raise Your Glass," Pink
Pink's got an interesting place in the pop world: she found success early in her career with the Mizundastood album, but then disappeared until finding huge success recently. She's a unique pop star as well, with her edgy-punk look, deep, throaty voice, and angry undertone to otherwise giddy dance-pop. "Raise Your Glass" is a party anthem, and Pink makes it sound like a fun time, but there's nothing that really sets this song apart from her other songs; in fact, this is the kind of jam she could do in her sleep. Its a little disappointing to her not put a different spin on the material, but that's not to say its a terrible song: its still dancable and, in Pink's own strange way, fun. B
3. "What's My Name," Rihanna featuring Drake
I've mentioned before that Rihanna doesn't really have her own personality, musically; she just does what the song needs and moves on to the next one. On "What's My Name," she at least gets to be vaguely Caribbean (she is from Barbados), with the song's breezy reggae riddims and her island accent. The song is all about sex, of course, but she sells it with competency. And Drake, arguably one of the best working rappers today, gives a pretty solid guest verse with some bizarre lines ("The square root of 69 is eight-something" - he's technically not wrong). Overall, the effect is a song that's enjoyable enough while it lasts, but doesn't really stick in the mind. B-
4. "The Time (Dirty Bit)," Black Eyed Peas
The Black Eyed Peas are about as commercial, mainstream pop as you can get: every song they record is designed to find radio success, and its a formula that's worked for them, given that their last release, The E.N.D., sold 12 million copies worldwide, produced five Top 10 radio hits, and won three Grammys, on top of an Album of the Year nomination at that awards show and performing the halftime show at this year's Super Bowl. "The Time (Dirty Bit)" is the first single from they're new album, The Beginning, and features a prominent sample from "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" from Dirty Dancing on top of a bouncing Euroclub beat. The Peas' usual dumbed-down, party-all-the-time "rapping" hasn't improved in the slightest, and as a whole the song doesn't quite operate on the same level as, say, dumb-fun "Boom Boom Pow" or transcendent "I Gotta Feeling." C+
5. "Grenade," Bruno Mars
Bruno Mars is the man of the moment: he's got seven Grammy nominations and a number of radio hits, including this propulsive number. Mars isn't the strongest vocalist, especially when he's straining to reach those high notes, but "Grenade" works well as a chastisement of a woman for not feeling the same as he does toward her. His songwriting, on the other hand, is strong work, and he's crafted a terrific pop number in the process. And if you like this song, check out the rest of his album: he's just getting started. B+
6. "Only Girl (In The World)," Rihanna
I'm going to stand by my original assessment of this song and say that it sounds like it was rejected by Beyonce and picked up by Rihanna instead. I've listened to her new album, Loud, in full since the last Radio Daze post, and a lot of her songs actually sound like they were written for someone else. "Cheers (Drink to That)" sounds like it was written with Pink in mind, and "Raining Men" sounds like it was leftover from Destiny's Child; only "Love the Way You Lie Part II" sounds like it was made specifically for her. C+
7. "Just the Way You Are," Bruno Mars
I stand by my assessment of this repeat from the last entry too: its a fun, sweet little love song that shows off the charms of Mars's songwriting abilities. A
8. "We R Who We R," Ke$ha
The inevitable return of Ke$ha, the herpes of pop stars. There's a number of things not to like about this song, from her usual Valley-girl-pseudo-rapping to the half-baked Casio beats. There's a few things about her lyrics that are ridiculous, too: Ke$ha, I don't think you need to worry about hipsters falling in love with you, you're not their type. This has been attached to "It Gets Better" as well, though I highly doubt the images Ke$ha conjures up here are the kind that the gay community wants attached to it: "Got that glitter on my eyes/stockings ripped all up the sides" and "I'm telling you about the shit we do/Selling our clothes, sleeping in cars/Dressin' it down, hittin' on dudes (hard)" are just a few of the choice lyrics here. Take the good with the bad, I suppose. D
9. "Just A Dream," Nelly
Another returning song from the previous edition, I'm actually surprised by the legs this song has had. Nelly's album and subsequent singles haven't found this level of success (yet), but I'm glad that he's back, and that people are embracing him again. As for my take on the song, it holds up: I like the contemplative direction, and it works as a whole. A-
10. "Bottoms Up," Trey Songz featuring Nicki Minaj
There are plenty of people out there that like Trey Songz. I'm not one of them. He hasn't done anything that's truly impressed me, and he's more or less Chris Brown, R. Kelly, and Usher all rolled up into one R&B package. And on this party jam, he doesn't impress much. Who does, and who saves this song from mediocrity, is Nicki Minaj, the most exciting new rapper of the year. In her guest verse, she demonstrates the ferocity and literacy that have made her such a terrific presence, and she single-handedly steals the song from Songz. Check out Minaj's new album, Pink Friday, for more examples of her talents, and especially don't miss her impressive, beat-killing guest verse on Kanye West's "Monster" - when it comes to rhyming, that's exactly what she is. Song: B-, Nicki: A

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)

When I was a kid, I read the Chronicles of Narnia in order one summer; I remember they were all included in a single, mammoth volume. One of my favorites (aside from the epic The Last Battle) was Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the fifth book in the series, in which the two younger Pevensie children - Edmund and Lucy - join the ship as it sails to defeat evil and ends up near Aslan's Country. Its also the last book to feature any of the Pevensie children as children, making it a bittersweet goodbye to the characters who started it all. It goes without saying, then, that I was looking forward to the movie version, and, unfortunately, found it equal parts disappointing and engaging.
The film follows Edmund (Skander Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) as they return to Narnia for a third time, this time bringing their annoying cousin Eustace Scrubb (Will Poulter) with them. They board the Dawn Treader, captained by none other than King Caspian (Ben Barnes), and set sail to investigate the disappearances of Caspian's father's friends. Along the way, they discover that Narnians on the Lone Islands have also gone missing, the result of a green mist that keeps coming. Its up to the Dawn Treader crew to find the seven swords of the lords Caspian is looking for, and defeat the evil that lurks on the Dark Island.
Between the second Narnia film, Prince Caspian, and this one, a lot of behind-the-scenes changes have occurred. When Caspian didn't make much money back in 2008 (and seeing that it came out between two of the year's biggest films, Iron Man and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, that's not too surprising), Disney sold the franchise to 20th Century Fox, which produced this installment. The director of the previous two films, Andrew Adamson also left, with Michael Apted (best known for his 7 Up documentary series and James Bond film The World Is Not Enough) taking the reigns.
The film seems to suffer from this change of direction. Apted's decision to use a handheld camera for most of the film is weird, since it doesn't add much to the film except for the storm scenes on the ship. Its also significantly shorter than the two previous films, and it shows seeing as how the film seems to be missing important parts of the story. There's no time for character development or beneficial pacing in the story; the film skips from beginning to middle to end, shoving character arcs into one-or-two-minute scenes, if at all. Worst of all is Eustace: Poulter's appropriately annoying, with a Holly Hunter-doing-a-Cockney-accent voice, but his transformation into nobility is so rushed that it doesn't give the appropriate impact.
The film also hammers home the Christian undertones more than the previous films; I have nothing wrong with said undertones, since the books were a Christian allegory, but with such unsubtle lines as "We have nothing if not faith," it comes off as more preachy. Rule number one of cinema: show, don't tell, and this film breaks that rule in this regard. Honestly, the film series has always worked best when it works as a fantasy tale, focusing on those elements and letting other themes come from within them, and this film seems to have forgotten that.
The film finally kicks into gear in its second half, when the wheels stop spinning and the quest really begins. Though the action doesn't match that of the epic battles of the first two films, the showdown with a sea serpent in the Dark Island is an exciting piece that works well. And Tilda Swinton (or at least a digital image of her) shows up as the White Witch, and seeing Swinton in anything is always its own reward. And the scene at Aslan's Country is genuienely bittersweet and almost touching, finally capturing the magic that Narnia has promised.
Narnia has always received from some bad knocks as a fantasy series, namely because it came out in the wake of the Godfather of fantasy films: the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As a result, Narnia's been called a LOTR knockoff, but take a look at the films without that context and you can see the groundwork for a terrific fantasy series in its own right. I personally enjoyed the first two Narnia films, which makes me sad that this one didn't work. Given its paltry opening weekend and the previous film's financial hardship, the future of the franchise seems to be in danger (IMDb still lists The Silver Chair, based on the sixth book, as in development). Voyage of the Dawn Treader seemingly tries to fix the "problems" of the first two films, but instead just ends up being the most disappointing entry in the series.

Oscar Predictions: December 2010

We're coming down to the end for these: the nominations will be announced in a little more than month, and with all of the critics awards (and yesterday's Golden Globes, to an extent), the categories are beginning to take shape. As you'll notice, not much has changed between last month's predictions and this months; there haven't been any truly shocking challengers to the front-runners like there were last year. But its not over yet, so who knows what will actually happen.
BEST PICTURE
127 Hours
The Kids Are All Right
Toy Story 3
Inception
The King's Speech
The Social Network
The Fighter
True Grit
Winter's Bone
Black Swan
There you have it: I'm finally convinced, based on the 12 nominations it garnered at the BFCAs and its Golden Globe nominations, that Black Swan will be nominated for Best Picture. This is most likely going to be the final lineup, but The Town, Another Year, Blue Valentine, and The Way Back are all waiting in the wings, and any one of them could manage to sneak in. In fact, I wouldn't even count out Hereafter; the film may have gotten terrible reviews, but the Oscars have a soft-spot for Clint Eastwood and sappy melodramas, so it wouldn't surprise me, though its an epic longshot. The film most in trouble, based on reviews, is True Grit, since its reviews range from ecstatic praise to it-was-okay; a film with a more passionate fan base could squeak past it.
BEST DIRECTOR
Tom Hooper, The King's Speech
Christopher Nolan, Inception
David Fincher, The Social Network
Danny Boyle, 127 Hours
Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
The way I see it, the first four men are pretty comfortably locked into place here (especially Fincher, who's won practically every directing award thus far), with only Boyle's place in any immediate danger, seeing as how his film is quickly becoming the Franco show (but I have faith that the Academy will open to him). For that fifth spot, its most likely a two-way battle between Aronofsky and The Fighter's David O. Russell (who I had here last month): the latter's film is picking up momentum and ecstatic reviews, but his prickly past behavior will probably turn some voters off to him. Aronofsky is a director who should have a few nominations at this point, and I think they'll finally reward him this year for his unique work. Fun fact: The Fighter was originally supposed to be directed by Aronofsky as a quasi-sequel to The Wrestler, but he dropped out to do...Black Swan.
BEST ACTOR
James Franco, 127 Hours
Colin Firth, The King's Speech
Mark Wahlberg, The Fighter
Jeff Bridges, True Grit
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Given the amount of awards and nominations that Eisenberg has been receiving, I think its finally time for me to recognize him as an Oscar contender. But who to evict from the lineup? Robert Duvall's campaign has slowed significantly, so I've chosen him to be left out, but Jeff Bridges isn't safe by any means. Neither, really, is Mark Wahlberg, since practically everyone else involved in the film is getting all the attention, but with the film's momentum, I'm sticking with him (interesting note: last night I had a dream that I went to go see The Fighter and was upset that the first 90 minutes of the film didn't have Wahlberg in them at all, that it was all about Melissa Leo and Christian Bale. Subliminal message based on the awards attention?). Waiting in the wings is Duvall, Ryan Gosling, and longshot Leonardo DiCaprio (for either Inception or Shutter Island, he's got campaigns for both).
BEST ACTRESS
Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
Lesley Manville, Another Year
Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone
I haven't made any changes, since this is more or less what we've been seeing all season. The absence of Manville in recent awards has been troubling, but I don't think the Oscars will be able to resist her scene-stealing (possibly scenery-chewy) performance, especially since its in a Mike Leigh film - Oscar likes actresses in his films, except when they don't (see: Sally Hawkins, Happy-G0-Lucky, 2008). I'm still hoping that Anne Hathaway (Love & Other Drugs) and Julianne Moore (The Kids Are All Right) can squeeze in, but unfortunately that just doesn't seem like a possibility anymore.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Christian Bale, The Fighter
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech
Andrew Garfield, The Social Network
Jeremy Renner, The Town
I really hate to drop Rockwell from the lineup, but his film and campaign are going nowhere, and despite a few nominations, he's just not getting enough attention. Who is, on the other hand, is Renner, who did a bang-up job in The Town and will probably reap his second Oscar nod in as many years for the role. Who could take his spot? Well, Rockwell could, but Bill Murray (Get Low) and Ed Harris (The Way Back) are good for career honors if people remember or see their films, respectively.
Also, speaking of Bale, check out this delightful video of him singing the Powerpuff Girls theme song:
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Helena Bonham Carter, The King's Speech
Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom
Amy Adams, The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
Let me start by saying that, given that she's the narrator, catalyst for the film's action, and featured in most of the film, Steinfeld is not, by definition, a supporting actress, but a lead. That being said, she stands a better chance of being nominated here (she's 14; youngest Supporting Actress nominee: Tatum O'Neal (10 when she was nominated in 1973) that in lead (youngest nominee: Keisha Castle-Hughes, 16 in 2003); it would be nice to pretend that age doesn't matter at the Oscars, but it does, especially when it comes to women (check it out here). Otherwise, it seems like this category has finally found its shape, with the first four showing up in just about every group's nominations.