Monday, August 29, 2011

Who Runs the World? Girls: VMAs 2011

I don't actually care about the VMAs. For one, it's an award bestowed to the best in music videos by a network that barely even plays music videos anymore. This is compounded by the fact that the winners are selected by MTV viewers, a group that, as the network's own Teen Mom and 16 & Pregnant have shown, is remarkable for making good decisions. The ceremony itself is more about performances than it is for awards, so let's treat it the same way here and talk about who did what.

I've discussed Lady Gaga here before, and there was no doubt that whatever she did last night would be polarizing. And so she opened the show, doing a strange greaser impression before ripping into "You & I," complete with Queen's Brian May. While the performance could have been tighter (losing the dancers would have helped), it was still fantastic, proof that Gaga can rock and hopefully pushing Born This Way's best track further up the pop charts. Gaga does have this problem, which became very evident last night: she can't really surprise us anymore live since we expect it. A female performer dressing as a man wasn't even all that surprising 50 years ago, much less so today.

Kanye West & Jay-Z's performance of "Otis" was a fun bit, but ultimately it didn't give us anything new. They like hanging out together, so, good for them.

Adele, on the other hand, gave us exactly what we would have expected: a stark, raw performance of her new single "Someone Like You." I'm really glad she didn't do "Rolling in the Deep," because that would have been too easy, and it gave the audience an idea of how truly powerful her voice is. I really hope "Someone Like You" takes off after last night: I'd hate to see such real talent be reduced to a trendy one-hit wonder.

Beyonce performed as well, but more importantly, she's pregnant, which has already postponed work on that unnecessary A Star is Born remake. And everyone's made Destiny's Child jokes. Hardy-har-har. But "Love on Top" was a soulful blast.

I missed the Britney Spears tribute (really?). The other tribute, to Amy Winehouse, was a well-meaning failure. It's not that "Valerie" isn't a great song, it's just that Bruno Mars wasn't really the right choice for such a performance. Obviously Adele was the best choice, but of course she couldn't do it. But was Joss Stone not available?

Chris Brown isn't a very good singer, actor, or human being, but the man can dance, and I'm glad his performance highlighted that fact.

I vaguely remember Pitbull being there too.

And then, finally, there was Lil Wayne, who's spirited performance was enjoyable and, more importantly, signaled the release of Tha Carter IV (finally!).

Overall, it just wasn't a terribly exciting show. And it was very awkward the way Jessie J, the broken-footed house band, had advertisements thrown over her during the transitions. But at least MTV realized that there was no reason to pretend that they needed an MC, though Kevin Hart more or less did that job anyway.

As for the winners, it's pretty much what you'd expect. Notable, however, is that women ruled the night, as a female artist took home 11 of 15 Moonmen. Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" video, like a blockbuster epic at the Oscars, took home the most trophies with three, all of which were technicals that weren't open to public voting. Katy Perry received three awards as well, including Video of the Year, and Lady Gaga nabbed two awards. You can see the full list of winners below.

"Firework," Katy Perry

"Born This Way," Lady Gaga

"U Smile," Justin Bieber

"Super Bass," Nicki Minaj

"Till the World Ends," Britney Spears

"Walk," Foo Fighters

"E.T.," Katy Perry feat. Kanye West

"Rolling in the Deep," Adele

"Run the World (Girls)," Beyonce

"Rolling in the Deep," Adele

"Make Some Noise," Beastie Boys

"Rolling in the Deep," Adele

"E.T.," Katy Perry feat. Kanye West

"Born This Way," Lady Gaga

Friday, August 26, 2011

Trailer Roundup: Silence, Carnage & Rum

That's right folks, it's time for a new set of trailers, once again from a pair of Oscar hopefuls. It is that time of the year after all, and thankfully we're finally starting to catch some glimpses at these films. Check them out below.

The Artist (in theaters 11/25/11)

The whole point of a trailer is to excite the audience, creating an awareness of the film's release and building anticipation for it. No trailer this year has been so successful for me than this one, Michel Hazanavicius' silent film about a Hollywood star in the silent era who is undone by both the young actress he falls for and the advent of sound. The first thing you notice is how impressively authentic to the look of the Silent Era this film is (all the way down to the 1.33:1 aspect ratio), suggesting that Hazanavicius' direction could be nothing short of incredible. Then there's Cannes Best Actor winner Jean Dujardin's emotive performance, a truly remarkable feat that gives me faith that this film can indeed sustain it's silent gimmick for its entire runtime. And of course, there's the dancing, the score (surely the back half is original?), and the appearances by John Goodman and James Cromwell. Hopefully the film will live up to its incredible promise.

The Rum Diary (in theaters 10/28/11)

I have my reservations about this one. Ever since Johnny Depp gave us Captain Jack Sparrow in 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, he seems to have been running on autopilot, rarely reaching the creative heights of his '90s output, as if he had spent all of his talents into that one film. It certainly doesn't help that he's essentially playing Hunter S. Thompson again here - the film is based on Thompson's roman a clef of the same name. However, there is the promise that maybe this will be different, and despite a few quirks, it does seem to be a more subdued performance from Depp, which is certainly refreshing. And the supporting cast of Richard Jenkins and the trust-me-she's-got-potential Amber Heard is intriguing. I guess time will tell what comes of this.

Carnage (in theaters 12/16/11)

Despite the disappointment of Marvel fans everywhere, I'm very much excited to see how director Roman Polanski brings this bitingly sharp play to the big screen. The cast alone - Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz (12 Oscar nominations combined!) - was enough to catch my eye, but then they came up with this amazing poster. Now the first look at some footage has surfaced, and it's enticing. Winslet gets most of the big moments in this spot, though there is evidence here to suggest that the rest of the cast also nails the delicate balance of comedy and drama that the play toed. This spot makes a convincing argument that this will be the acting showcase of the year, and I'll be first in line for it.

What about you? Excited about any of these?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Yes, Women ARE Funny: Hollywood's Latest Realization

A recent article at Movies Today proclaimed this to be "the summer of raunchy women." Indeed, the multiplexes saw a surprising (and welcome) number of movies in which women weren't the girlfriends, either air-headed and bikini-clad or bitchy and belittling; they cursed, they crapped in sinks, and they sexually assaulted their male employees. These movies turned out to be big hits, causing everyone to celebrate that, hooray, women are actually funny! It's one of those brain-dead observations that Hollywood makes every now and then and pats itself on the back before throwing out a few rip-offs and returning to its normal ways. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I have very little faith that we'll see too many more "women behaving badly" comedies in the future: all it takes is one of them to fail, and Hollywood will proclaim, "little lady, this is men's work," and then greenlight three more Hangover sequels. (Yes, I do get perhaps more-than-a-little angry about how unequal Hollywood is, but that's for another day).

However, there's something more disturbing in this article to me. Toward the end, writer Michael Aliva asks us:
"The question is, do we need to see more? Isn’t it enough that women have proven it can pull off raunchy, sleazy comedy as well as the men? Perhaps the growing stable of female comedy talent in the film and television industry would be better served trying to raise the bar on comedy, instead of continually lowering it."
There's a multitude things wrong with this statement. First of all is his implication that now that women have "proven" that they can be just as raunchy as men, they don't need to do such comedies anymore. I can understand if such sophomoric comedy is not really Aliva's preference (it's not mine either), but I see no reason why this genre can't continue to feature women in the lead. As this summer proved, there's obviously an audience out there for this kind of film.

There's also the implication that such comedy is considered "lowering the bar." Granted, I'm not the audience for these movies, but at the same time there are times when they are exactly what I like to see. I'm personally not well known among my friends for my classy, sophisticated jokes: I get pretty dirty too. Comedy's greatest strength is also it's greatest weakness: it's subjective, and what appeals to one person may not to another. And raunch, when well executed, can be comedic genius. There is no form of comedy that's inherently different from another, it's just a matter of taste.

Thankfully, Aliva doesn't proclaim women to be above raunchy comedy, as I have seen elsewhere. This issue brings to mind an AV Club article by the great Steven Hyden that asks if filmmakers have a moral responsibility in the films they make (actually, it's about pop culture in general, but film plays an important role both in the article and historically). My answer to that quandry is of course not, it's well within the filmmaker's right to make his characters as deplorable or honorable as he sees fit. Therefore, it is perfectly acceptable to see women, such as Cameron Diaz's gold-digging, over-sexed character in Bad Teacher, acting terribly, because let's face it: awful behavior is exclusive to either gender.

Ultimately, what I'm saying here is that yes, women are funny, they can be raunchy, and there's no reason why comedies can't reflect that. Hopefully we'll see plenty of hilarious ladies doing every variety of comedy in the mainstream future.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Looking for Posters?

Partly inspired by the big poster sale that goes on around here when school starts again, partly inspired by a lack of anything meaningful to say today, here are posters for some upcoming movies that I'm in love with. Enjoy.


Martha Marcy May Marlene
Supposedly, these are working QR codes that access an exclusive trailer. So if you have a smartphone, check it out. Also: love the quote on the John Hawkes version.

I've already got this one listed as a potential Best Picture nominee this year. I really love the Warhol effect they've got going here. Hopefully the film will be just as colorful, acting-wise.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Source Code (2011)

Back in 2009, director Duncan Jones made a small, gripping sci-fi think-piece called Moon, which featured an outstanding performance by Sam Rockwell as an astronaut who may be losing his mind toward the end of a long stay (alone) on the moon. The film made quite a splash, and established Jones as a director who can make accessible cerebral sci-fi. Source Code is Jones' follow-up, and like Moon, it toys with the idea of a man isolated and confined, only this time he has a flashier cast, Groundhog Day-meets-Rashomon plot, and less substance.

Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a soldier who participates in a secret military project: thanks to new technology and physics, he is able to enter the memories of a victim of a terrorist attack on a Chicago train. His mission: find the bomb and the bomber in order to prevent a much larger attack. However, he only has eight minutes every time he enters the "source code," and therefore must return to the train over and over to find the bomber. Within the code, he finds himself falling for one of the doomed passengers, Christina (Michelle Monaghan), which complicates his mission. He also suspects that his superiors (Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright) are hiding something from him, as they avoid answering his questions about why he's isolated in a capsule and what the source code really is.

At 93 minutes, the film moves along at a refreshingly brisk pace, avoiding the kind of bloat that would have surely dragged it down. Instead, there's plenty of action, as the train gets to explode over and over until Colter can find the bomber. Jones proves that Moon was no fluke: he finds inventive ways to change the action on the train subtly every time Colter goes back into the source code, allowing for many different situations to play out within the same eight minutes. And he raises the film's major themes without explicitly calling attention to them: the toil reliving tragedy takes on Colter's mind, for one, mines the same claustrophobic territory that Jones explored so memorably in Moon. And questions of fate are given a better, more thoughtful examination here than they were in The Adjustment Bureau. Of course, all of this is anchored by a typically-charismatic turn by Gyllenhaal, who's not doing incredible work but does serve as a compelling protagonist.

Unfortunately, the same doesn't go for all of the actors. Monaghan is given the thankless role of one-dimensional love interest, and though she and Gyllenhaal have a little chemistry, it's not enough to make us really care about them as a couple. Similarly, the very talented Farmiga and Wright are ultimately exposition machines, explaining the situations and the source code without actually having real characters to play. It's a shame to see the two of them wasted like this, and even though they both get some moments in the end to do something with their roles, it's too little too late. That's really the biggest quibble I have with Source Code as a whole: there's never really any time to create characters, with the exception of Colter. The result is that the film tickles the brain, but misses the heart.

That's not necessarily a knock against Source Code. It's a great little sci-fi thriller, one that will one day be seen as a minor gem in an increasingly bloated genre. There may not be much heart, and not much in the way of female characters (something this genre is severely in need of more of), but it's an exciting and thoughtful film. B+/B

*I haven't quite decided on the grade yet. I'll change it when I decide.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Oscar Predictions: August 2011

That's right, ladies and gentlemen, as the summer winds down, it's time to start thinking Oscar. Even though the awards season is just about to begin, it's still stupid early to begin making predictions, since many of the main contenders have yet to be seen. But stupid is what I do best, and I'm foolhardy enough to begin calling the major races. As I did last year, I will be guessing Best Picture, Director, and all four acting races. This year, though, I'm adding two major changes. The first is that, as an aspiring screenwriter myself, it makes sense that I should keep a close watch on the writing categories; so behold, predictions for both Adapted and Original Screenplays!

The second change is in Best Picture. As you know (and you should if you read this blog), the rules for Best Picture have changed, and there can be anywhere between five and ten nominees each year. Therefore I'm going to be using the following system for predicting the category: films with titles in RED are the five I think are the most likely to be nominated, while BLUE signifies a strong contender and YELLOW indicates a maybe guess. I originally thought of doing numerical rankings, but I'm not good enough/enough of an insider to really be able to rank a film's likelihood. Hopefully the color-coding system will be easy to read (I'll try to group the same-colors together), so let me know if you like the system or not.

As always, these predictions are based on buzz, not on actual viewings of the films. This will change in time, as once again I'm going to try to see as many contenders as I can this year.

J. Edgar

War Horse

The Ides of March

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

The Descendants

The Artist

Midnight in Paris

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The Tree of Life


There are two obvious nominees in here: J. Edgar, a biopic of J. Edgar Hoover starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Clint Eastwood, and War Horse, the Steven Spielberg-directed WWI epic with a trailer that practically doubles as a FYC ad. Unless the films end up being huge disappointments, these two are practically guaranteed and are the clear front-runners. The Ides of March features George Clooney both in front of and behind the camera, and reunites much of the creative team behind Good Night, and Good Luck., Clooney's 2005 BP nominee, so it seems likely that it will earn a nomination of its own. The Descendants is Alexander Payne's long-awaited follow-up to Sideways (nominated for BP in 2004), and if the Academy is still in love with him (and I suspect they are), he'll pick up another one. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has all the makings of a contender: based on a best-selling novel, starry cast (Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock), prestigious director (Stephen Daldry), and difficult subject matter (9/11). I'll be surprised if it's not nominated. The Artist was the darling of Cannes, though I wonder if a silent film can really gain that much traction stateside. It seems likely that the Academy will want to honor Midnight in Paris now that it's Woody Allen's biggest hit, but you never know, since he seems to have fallen out of their favor a bit in the past decade. Espionage thrillers have never done well in BP, but Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy seems like the kind of film that can land those needed first-place votes, especially given its talented cast. Though The Tree of Life won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year, it's proven to be a very polarizing film: it's going to need a lot of fans in the Academy to get a nomination here. Carnage seems like a great choice on paper (the main quartet has a combined 12 Oscar nominations), but there's a lot that could go horribly wrong here: the delicate tone of the play on which its based, miscast roles, dullness. It'll have to prove itself to be nominated. Of course, it's possible that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo could easily land in here if it's a huge hit, critically and financially.

Clint Eastwood, J. Edgar

Steven Spielberg, War Horse

Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist

Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life

George Clooney, The Ides of March

The safest bets here are Eastwood and Spielberg, Oscar favorites who are each looking to add a third trophy to their collections. Of course, that's to say nothing of their very bait-y films. Hazanavicius seems likely for a nomination even if his film isn't; directing a black-and-white silent film is certainly the kind of creative move that the Academy will want to reward, especially if the film is as good as festival-goers say it is. Malick and Clooney are my wild card guesses. The Tree of Life was very much a director's film, and Malick has the reputation to turn his labor of love into an Oscar nomination. Clooney has been nominated before, and if the film turns out to be as good as it promises to be, I suspect he'll pick up a directing nod for his effort. However, I may be underestimating Stephen Daldry (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close): he's only made four films in his career, but he's picked up an Oscar nomination for every film so far. Can he go four-for-four this year? Another question: how will voters receive David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and will he be in the conversation? Or does he even want to be?

George Clooney, The Descendants

Leonardo DiCaprio, J. Edgar

Ryan Gosling, The Ides of March

Jean Dujardin, The Artist

Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Clooney could be having a banner year this year, and since he's been nominated every other year since 2005, he's up for another; working for Alexander Payne certainly doesn't hurt either. Buzz is building that this could be the year DiCaprio finally wins an Oscar, so I highly doubt he'll miss out on a nomination unless the movie absolutely bombs. Gosling has three great things on his side: a meaty role as a political spin-man, a slew of other great performances this year (Crazy Stupid Love and Drive), and his momentum from his should-have-been-nominated performance in Blue Valentine last year. Dujardin won the Actor prize at Cannes this past year, and if the film really connects here, he seems likely for an Oscar nomination as well. Oldman has never been nominated, making him the new head of the Long Overdue Club. However, if Oscar still proves to be allergic to him, Moneyball's Brad Pitt, A Dangerous Method's Michael Fassbender (having his own breakout year), and Take Shelter's Michael Shannon are waiting in the wings.

Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady

Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs

Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene

Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk about Kevin

Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Streep is a sure-thing: she's playing a famous person (Margaret Thatcher), she's a near-spitting image, and of course she's Meryl Streep. Done and done. Close was an Oscar favorite in the '80s, and with a meaty role as a cross-dresser in 19th Century Ireland, she's likely to pick up another nomination. The only caveat: will the film come out this year? The breakouts of Sundance were Olsen and Felicity Jones (Like Crazy); however, I suspect Olsen will grab the nomination for playing a young girl who gets involved in a dangerous cult. And yes, she is the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley. Swinton is without a doubt one of the most talented actresses in the world, and given that We Need to Talk about Kevin is more conventional fare than she usually picks up, she seems poised for another nomination (she won Supporting Actress in 2007 for Michael Clayton, her only previous nomination). Though cases can be made for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close's Sandra Bullock, A Dangerous Method's Kiera Knightley, My Week with Marilyn's Michelle Williams and Melancholia's Kirsten Dunst (a Cannes winner for Best Actress), I'm giving the last spot to Mara. She has the career heat (that memorable opening scene in The Social Network!), and remember that Noomi Rapace received buzz for this role last year in Swedish. If there's still a lot of love for Lisbeth Salandar, count on Mara to pick up the nomination.

Albert Brooks, Drive

Christopher Plummer, Beginners

Viggo Mortensen, A Dangerous Method

Kenneth Branagh, My Week with Marilyn 
(sorry, I couldn't find an official still from the movie)

Jim Broadbent, The Iron Lady

I'm going with Brooks because reviews of Drive have singled him out as being electrifying as a murderous mobster, and if there's one thing the Academy loves, it's terrific against-type performances. Plummer has also received raves for his performance as a newly-out widow, but his nomination will depend on whether the film can maintain traction nearly seven months after it's release. I haven't been keen on predicting anyone from A Dangerous Method, but Mortensen seems like the most likely contender, since his field is much less crowded (it's not that I don't think the film will be bad, it's that I don't think it will get much notice). Another thing the Academy loves is actors playing other actors, and it seems highly unlikely, on paper at least, that they'd pass over Branagh playing Laurence Olivier. Broadbent's the riskiest of the bunch: yes, he already has an Oscar (for this category in 2001 for Iris), but he's a master of subtle supporting work, which rarely grabs the Academy's attention (they prefer showy and loud). If not him, expect it to be The Ides of March's Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

Octavia Spencer, The Help

Vanessa Redgrave, Coriolanus

Andrea Riseborough, W.E.

Marisa Tomei, The Ides of March

Viola Davis, The Help

It's not unusual for this category to feature multiple nominees from the same film; if that's the case this year, expect The Help's Spencer and Davis to nab nominations. However, there are rumors that Davis will campaign as lead; since it's so hard to tell this early whether a role is lead or supporting (or, rather, if they'll campaign as lead or supporting) expect these predictions to look pretty different next month. Redgrave is a legend and is rumored to be great in Coriolanus, so count on her being nominated (unless, of course, the film misses a 2011 release). Tomei seems to be having a great year, and I suspect she'll be rewarded for her performance as a journalist in The Ides of March. Riseborough, you'll remember, was an early favorite last year when Brighton Rock was scheduled for a 2010 release. This year she's Wallis Simpson in Madonna's buzzy film; if the Oscars are still in a royal mood after The King's Speech, she's in.

A Dangerous Method; screenplay by Christopher Hampton (based on his play The Talking Cure)

War Horse; screenplay by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall (based on the book by Michael Morpurgo)

The Descendants; screenplay by Nat Faxon, Alexander Payne and Jim Rash (based on the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings)

The Ides of March; screenplay by George Clooney and Grant Heslov (based on the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon)

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; screenplay by Eric Roth (based on the book by Jonathan Safran Foer)

Hampton is a previous nominee and winner for Dangerous Liasions, and it seems likely that even if the film doesn't catch on, a screenplay nomination is possible. Payne is often nominated for his screenplays, though he's working without longtime writing partner Jim Taylor this time around. Clooney and Heslov were previously nominated for their work on Good Night, and Good Luck., and if they manage to maintain Willison's brilliant morality tale, they'll be nominated again. The subject matter that Roth is working with is touchy and prescient, and since he's an Academy favorite (he won in 1994 for Forrest Gump), it seems likely that he'll be nominated. Curtis and Hall are the tricky ones: will War Horse be perceived as a well-scripted film, or will the focus fall on its visuals? Other contenders here include Carnage, We Bought a Zoo, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Moneyball, Albert Nobbs, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Midnight in Paris; written by Woody Allen

J. Edgar; written by Dustin Lance Black

The Iron Lady; written by Abi Morgan & Michael Hirst

Like Crazy; written by Drake Doremus & Ben York Jones

Bridesmaids; written by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumulo

Allen is the undisputed king of this category, and though he's only been nominated once in the past 10 years (2005, Match Point), surely they'll be willing to reward him with another nomination for having the biggest hit of his career. Often, the Academy will throw love to biopics that aren't listed as adapted; that looks to be the case for both J. Edgar (written by Milk's Black) and The Iron Lady. This is also the place where indie darlings pick up their Oscar recognition, so I'm guessing Like Crazy will pick up a nomination (though it could go to Martha Marcy May Marlene). Huge hit comedies tend to do well here as well, so I suspect the fifth nomination will end up going to Bridesmaids, which is still the talk of the town three months after its release. Other contenders: The Artist, 50/50, Young Adult, Beginners, Take Shelter, W.E.