Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween

I really wanted to find the time to do a more appropriate Halloween-themed post, particularly about FX's batshit-crazy, not-good-but-completely-watchable train-wreck otherwise known as American Horror Story (I swear I will write about it soon). But thanks to time commitments, instead enjoy these links to previous horror-related posts on this blog. Have a happy Halloween!

Antichrist (2009)
Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Jesus Camp (2006) - don't scoff. It's a pretty harrowing look at the same kind of religious extremism we claim we're fighting in the Middle East.
Aliens (1986), Jaws (1975), and The Exorcist (1973)
"Days Gone Bye," The Walking Dead (2010)
Monsters (2010)
The Thing (1982)
Splice (2010)
Black Swan (2010)
127 Hours (2010)

Features/Other Ariticles:
Thoughts on the World War Z film that's still in production. Have you read the book? It's a personal favorite of mine.

Hah, remember when Tobin Bell was convinced Saw was going to go on until the end of time? It turns out that Paranormal Activity has picked up it's "it's not Halloween without us!" model.

The Alien 3 that never was. Contrary to popular belief, the David Fincher version isn't really all that terrible, but it was never going to live up to the greatness that was Aliens.

Career assessments of the Twilight stars. As we've seen, none of them have been able to really open a movie on their own. Such is the price you pay for being a franchise star (I suspect Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame will have similar pitfalls when The Woman in Black opens in February.).

A David Lynch think-piece. He's a master of this genre without ever being considered a horror director.

Five movies that scare me stupid. So true, though I think since I've written this list I'd have to add The Ring to it. There's a reason everyone started remaking J-Horror movies, and that's it.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Best Vincent Price GIF You'll See All Day

Thank you JA at MNPP for leading me to this Tumblr.

Mylo Xyloto: Welcome Back, Coldplay

I don't think I've actually discussed it much here, but I'm a huge Coldplay fan. And if you believe what the band says, that's a masochistic badge of honor, worn bravely in the face of a public that they claim makes them "the most hated band in the world." That's definitely an exaggeration (open question: who is the most hated band in the world?), but there's no denying that there's a large contingency of the population who love to openly bash them. For me personally, the reasons that Coldplay are so hated are the same reasons that I love them: they wear their hearts on their sleeves, singing sweeping songs of love and heartbreak earnestly and sincerely. There's no cynicism in their music, no darkness, just hope, optimism, and most importantly, free-flowing, unabashed emotion. It's music that moves you to your very spirit, and for me the experience of listening to Coldplay (and especially seeing them live) is absolutely pentecostal.

Mylo Xyloto, the band's fifth album, was released this past Monday, and so far I've probably listened to it front-to-back approximately eight times. It's radically different from the organic, impressionist sound heard on the band's previous effort, 2008 masterpiece Viva la Vida or Death and All of His Friends, which was itself a radical change from the piano-powered sound of the band's first three albums. Here, the band plays with squiggly synths and thudding hip-hop-esque beats. The band claims they were inspired by 1980s American graffiti, which does sound pretentious but the influences of Talking Heads, Depeche Mode, and New Order here are pretty obvious.

That's rather admirable for a band as massively successful as Coldplay, to sonically experiment and push yourself artistically. And it works out just fine: lead single "Every Teardrop is a Waterfall" has the kind of title that people who mock Coldplay would have given the song, but it's a joie de vivre outpouring of the healing power of music, while current smash "Paradise" is a massive wall of sound bursting with big emotions and an even bigger chorus. Soon-to-be hit "Princess of China" features Rihanna, which seems odd but actually works out fine. And power rockers "Hurts Like Heaven," "Charlie Brown," and "Don't Let It Break Your Heart" are the kinds of music-as-cathartic-release songs that the band specializes in. For a slower pace, "Us Against the World" is a lilting ballad, while "Up in Flames" is moody minimalism.

Coldplay - Princess Of China (feat. Rihanna) by DJ ERM

The one band that Coldplay is constantly compared with is U2. By that analogy, if Viva la Vida was their Joshua Tree (and I believe it is), then Mylo Xyloto is their Achtung Baby. The jury's still out on it's place in the catalogue, but it's certainly one of the finest albums of the year so far.

Coldplay - Us Against the World by Silen Transitions

What are your thoughts?

The Ides of March (2011)

Politics is a dirty game. It's also a contradictory game, one that pretends to founded on ideals and principles on the surface but thrives on backroom deals, blackmail, and mudslinging; whatever it takes to win. That's the irony of American politics: candidates claim their integrity and honesty, but not a single one of them is completely honest. It's dignity as disguise.

At least, this is the position that George Clooney's new political thriller, The Ides of March, takes. Clooney, who directs and co-wrote the film with Grant Heslov and playwright Beau Willimon, plays Gov. Mike Morris, a Democrat presidential contender hoping to lock down his party's nomination with a win at the Ohio primaries. He has a crack team behind him, lead by old pro Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and young hotshot Steven (Ryan Gosling). Steven is an idealist, claiming that he won't say or do anything he "doesn't believe in." That idealism is tested, however, as events unfold in Ohio that have ramifications that could derail the entire campaign, not to mention the lives of everyone involved.

He's only made four films so far, and they've been pretty spotty at times, but Clooney is actually a pretty incredible director. He may not have a stylistic visual flair, but he sure knows how to compose a scene and make it crackle, as he does over and over again here. There aren't many twists here that should come as a major surprise in theory, but Clooney manages to not only build tension but make those twists pop out of nowhere, making them particularly effective and revelatory. Give credit for this to the excellent script, based on Willimon's hit 2008 play Farragut North (itself inspired by his time working for Howard Dean's ill-fated campaign in 2004), which manages to get it's points across without being heavy-handed, preachy, or obvious. He also makes great use of shadows, at times making the film seem like the marriage of political thriller and film noir. Perhaps the film's greatest miracle is how apolitical it is for a political film: by focusing solely on the Democrats, Clooney let's us see them as flawed, perhaps even despicable beings, and never uses the film as a platform for liberal preaching. He's looking specifically at politics in general, a bold and ultimately very intelligent move at a time when the nation's political fervor is becoming increasing heated as we approach election year. Clooney has a bright future ahead of him as a director if he can bring this level of skill to all his films.

It helps, of course, that the cast is one of the best of the year. Gosling, who's already turned in two great performances this year, is charismatic and smooth as ever, playing his spin-meister role with convincing energy. And when Steven begins to crumble, it's impossible to take your eyes off him (not that you'd want to anyway). Clooney himself is great as an Obama-esque figure, but unlike our president he gives off a hint of malice just under the surface. Evan Rachel Wood, as pretty much the main female character in the film (I know politics is still very much a man's game, but surely there could have been more prominent women here?), is a delight, and Marisa Tomei's few scenes let her ooze oily charm as a New York Times reporter trying to get a good scoop. The two best performances, though, come from two of the most dynamic character actors working today. Paul Giamatti is fantastic as a rival campaign leader who makes an offer to Steven, perfectly embodying the cynicism of the game. And Hoffman is absolutely electric as Paul, the foul-mouthed campaign veteran trying to land Morris a vital senator's endorsement. A confrontation scene with Steven allows Hoffman to give a grand monologue with surprising restraint, a welcome change from an actor who sometimes goes too over-the-top.

The film takes it's name from that ill-fated day that Caesar was warned to beware. He was lucky, though: for the characters of Ides of March, there is no warning for the backstabbing and betrayal that's to come. The result is a terrific political thriller that I'll dare say belongs in the same ranks as All the President's Men. A+

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Bad Teacher (2011)

What hath Will Ferrell wrought?

In what will forever be known as The Summer We Discovered Women Can Be Funny (because Hollywood never remembers that), it would seem like the proper comparison for Bad Teacher would be Bridesmaids, that pink-paletted monolith of hilarious women. But I'm not going to compare them for two very appropriate reasons: 1) Bad Teacher was already finished by the time Bridesmaids came out, so the latter's success had no influence on the former's existence and 2) I haven't yet seen Bridesmaids. The more appropriate comparison this film might actually be Anchorman.

Easy now, stay with me here.

Anchorman was the prototype for every Will Ferrell movie that's been made since then, or at least his big, mainstream comedies. Ferrell stars as a dolt in a professional situation who has a shallow goal and a complete disregard for those around him, usually populated by broad comic stereotypes. There's also usually a kitschy love story involved as well, which doesn't really matter, because the people want to see Ferrell's boorish behavior.

The same goes for Bad Teacher, only with the genders flipped. Cameron Diaz stars as Elizabeth, a gold-digging middle school teacher who's been dumped by her rich boyfriend. She decides to save up her money for breast implants, and proceeds to scheme for ways to get the money while serving as a lazy, couldn't-give-less-of-a-crap educator. However, there's a John Hughes-esque love triangle when Elizabeth falls for Scott (Justin Timberlake), the new hot-nerd teacher with a family fortune, while ignoring the advances of put-upon gym teacher Russell (Jason Segel, who seems to be the go-to guy for romantic sad-sacks). On top of all this is her rival, Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch), who's goal is to have her fired.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, both of The Office fame, have crafted a script that doesn't so much bow to convention so much as nonchalantly toss it at us, like bored zookeepers making their rounds. It's a dull affair, and director Jake Kasdan (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) doesn't do much to liven it up. Neither do the actors, most of which seem to be coasting through the film to their paychecks. I've never been of the persuasion that Diaz is a particularly good actress, and she doesn't convince me otherwise here. Segel gets a few bits here and there, but the real life of the film is Timberlake, who admirably sells a goofy, awkward charm that belongs in a better film.

Perhaps the film's worst quality, though, is that it's not funny nor entertaining. Sure, pretty much everyone gets to say one foul-mouthed line, and Elizabeth does go to extreme lengths to get what she wants, but it's all profanity for profanity's sake. The ultimately-sanitized ending is tonally off-putting, seemingly dropped in from another movie. All of this wouldn't be as bad, though, if the characters weren't so completely unlikable. We're never given a reason to care about any of them, so the film's forced scenes of lessons-learned and ultimate-comeuppance ring hollow.

There are worse films than Bad Teacher out there. But for a film who's tagline is "eat me," it's awfully toothless. C-

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Oscar Predictions: October 2011

Oscar season is finally heating up now, with hopeful films opening almost every week, some with promise, some borderline delusional (I'm looking at you, "Shakespeare was a fraud BOOM GO THE CANNONS!!!" Anonymous). So with a new month of activity comes a new set of predictions.

War Horse

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

The Artist

The Descendants

Midnight in Paris

J. Edgar

The Ides of March

The Help



A couple of major changes here this month, but mostly just shuffling things around. After opening to weak box office and good-but-not-great reviews, The Ides of March is no longer a sure thing to me. It's still a strong contender, and if it campaigns well, it should stay in the discussion easily. I've dropped J. Edgar too, after a not-very-impressive trailer and troubled screenings seem to indicate that this could fail to live up to it's frontrunner status. However, I'm not necessarily convinced that it's out of the picture completely: if there's more than five nominees, it could easily get in. It's probably foolish to stick with Drive, but it still strikes me as the kind of film that gets #1 votes, and though its somewhat faded it's still got passionate fans (I count myself among them). I've wrestled with myself on whether to include Moneyball or Hugo, since both have received stellar reviews, but in the end I see voters leaning toward the soulful sports story over the family film. Extremely Loud's trailer gives off a cathartic feel that makes it a real threat, and with the continuing love for The Artist, at this point I can't see it missing a nomination. Out of all the films seen so far, it may even by the frontrunner.

Clint Eastwood, J. Edgar

Steven Spielberg, War Horse

Alexander Payne, The Descendants

Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist

Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris

I'm finally including Allen: at this point it seems like they're going to honor his terrific comeback here as well, the first time since 1994 (if he's nominated, of course). I still think that directors such as Steve McQueen (Shame, which is picking up heat that will probably never cross over to voters thanks to that pesky NC-17) and Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) do have a real chance at a nomination, but those films are also polarizing, which may cost them. Bennett Miller (Moneyball) and Stephen Daldry (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close) could take Eastwood's spot if his film doesn't play well, but for now I'm going to assume he's still got a shot.

George Clooney, The Descendants

Jean Dujardin, The Artist

Leonardo DiCaprio, J. Edgar

Brad Pitt, Moneyball

Michael Shannon, Take Shelter

The big change-up here: I've dropped Ryan Gosling (The Ides of March) after he failed to get "best-in-show" reviews, and instead of going with, say, Woody Harrelson (Rampart), I'm willing to place my bets on Shannon, the superb character actor who is earning raves for his possibly-schizophrenic father. Every once in a while, the Academy likes to honor a character actor who makes the jump to lead in a smaller film (see: Richard Jenkins, 2008; Philip Seymour Hoffman, 2005), and Shannon seems primed for another nomination. Gosling is still in contention, though, as is Harrelson.

Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady

Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs

Viola Davis, The Help

Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene

Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

A part of me really wanted to include Charlize Theron for Young Adult, since the trailer promises to showcase her demented funny bone. Unfortunately, I a) don't think that the Academy is going to spring for Theron in funny, not-physically-deglamed mode and b) can't bring myself to drop any of these women just yet. Davis is the closest thing to a lock in this category, and Olsen's earning raves as well; the rest will see their futures' cemented soon when their films debut. If you're wondering why Michelle Williams isn't here, it's because the middling reviews for My Week with Marilyn don't convince me that she's going to get into this very competitive category this time around.

Albert Brooks, Drive

Kenneth Branagh, My Week with Marilyn

Christopher Plummer, Beginners

Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Ides of March

Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

It seems like every month brings significant change to this category, perhaps because it's even more nebulous than usual. Hoffman steals the show in Ides of March, and he's likely to earn his fourth career nomination for the effort. The Academy has a soft spot for old-men-befriending-children roles, especially when they're played by legends like Sydow, so I'd be surprised if he doesn't make the cut. We'll see what next month brings.

Octavia Spencer, The Help

Vanessa Redgrave, Coriolanus

Sandra Bullock, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Shailene Woodley, The Descendants

Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs

Early reviews of Albert Nobbs have singled out McTeer as a scene-stealer, and with a juicy role like hers, it'd be foolish to bet against her in this race. The only one I don't feel completely confident in is Woodley, who could fall through to Jessica Chastain (honestly, any of her six films from this year, but The Help seems most likely). But given Alexander Payne's track record in this category, she seems primed for a nomination.

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

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

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

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

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; screenplay by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughn (based on the novel by John Le Carre)

Moneyball is the strongest challenger here, and should War Horse or Extremely Loud fail to live up to expectations it will easily take a spot on the shortlist. I'm not necessarily a firm believer in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's Oscar chances - it looks too dark and violent for the Academy's taste - but if it gets enough heat, then screenwriter Steve Zallian could find himself a double nominee this year (he wrote Moneyball as well, with last year's winner Aaron Sorkin).

Midnight in Paris; written by Woody Allen

Bridesmaids; written by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumulo

Young Adult; written by Diablo Cody

Take Shelter; written by Jeff Nichols

The Artist; written by Michel Hazanavicius

I'm finally ready to admit that The Artist, a silent film, is likely to be nominated for it's screenplay. Based on the glowing reviews of the film, it seems unlikely at this point that they'd pass it over here. Making it even more likely is Like Crazy's recent faltering, receiving mixed reviews at several festivals that will probably keep it out this year. I'm also taking a risk and dropping J. Edgar from the lineup; the film has lost a lot of momentum and if it doesn't wow audiences then it's not going to make the cut, even with Oscar-winning writer Dustin Lance Black handling the script. Instead, I'm going with Take Shelter, since smaller independent films usually do well here (2008: Frozen River, 2009: The Messenger, 2010: Winter's Bone), and it's received ecstatic reviews so far. It'll need a good campaign to stay alive through the harsh months of November and December, but the recent Gotham nomination looks like a promising start.