Sunday, December 28, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Journey to Italy (1954)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #41

There comes a point in every celebrated filmmaker's career that they "sell out." It could be making a major Hollywood film when they were best known for their challenging indies, or it could be trying their hand at a genre that's radically different from what they've done before. Whatever it is, their defenders and fans decry the move, arguing that the filmmaker has sacrificed their creative integrity for the sake of making money. At best, the resulting film is treated as a misstep or a cash-in; at worst, it's career derailment, an artist losing his soul with no hope of ever regaining it. In other words: the best case is David Lynch, the worst case is M. Night Shyamalan.

Roberto Rossellini, by the early 1950s, had established himself as one of the premier voices of the Italian neorealist movement. Predating the French New Wave, the neorealist movement favored amateur performers, working-class characters, and small-scale stories. Rossellini made his name with Rome Open City (1945), which claimed the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film (the predecessor of the Palme d'Or) at the Cannes Film Festival in 1946. He continued to build his international acclaim until he committed a cardinal sin within the movement: in 1950, his film Stromboli starred none other than Hollywood star Ingrid Bergman. It kicked off a long-running collaboration between the two (they would be married, too, and had three children, including Isabella Rossellini), almost all of which would be commercially and critically unsuccessful in their time.


Journey to Italy committed even more neorealist sins than Stromboli had. In addition to casting Bergman, Rossellini cast Hollywood star George Sanders as her husband, the two of them playing an upper-class English couple coming to Italy to evaluate an estate left to them by a recently-deceased uncle. Yet despite all of this, French critics such as Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard - both of whom would become filmmakers themselves - hailed the film a masterpiece.

So how did such a radically un-neorealist film become heralded as "the first modern film?"

More after the jump.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Babadook (2014)

I don't really watch a lot of horror films. It's not because I don't have an appreciation for the genre, or because I think the films are "beneath" me or anything. I've written a couple of times about my tough history with the genre, but it basically boils down to me being a big ol' wuss. These films can get under my skin and give me serious nightmares. So if I watch a horror film, it's almost always in the comfort of my own home, where I feel safe, where I can tell myself "it's only a movie." In fact, before going to see The Babadook on December 12, the only horror film I had ever seen in a theater was Black Swan four years ago.

As it turns out, seeing The Babadook at the Carousel Theaters in Greensboro got me thinking about the optimal way to view the film. The film was screening in a corner of the theater known as the Bistro Lounge, which houses four significantly smaller auditoriums (I'd guess each could hold roughly 50 people). While the theater itself plays films both mainstream and independent, the Bistro Lounge usually screens the smaller films that wouldn't necessarily get played in other major theaters (it's the only theater in the Triad that's showing The Babadook).


So there I was, willingly leaving my home safety net to stray into a tiny, claustrophobic auditorium to watch a film that I had heard was both terrifying and brilliant. Three other patrons and myself were about to discover how true the film's tagline really is: "if it's in a word, or it's in a look, there's no getting rid of the Babadook."

More after the jump.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Foreign Language Finalist List: Let's Hear It For the Little Guys

Earlier today, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released the nine-film finalist list for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. This year, a record 83 films were submitted, meaning that the competition was going to be tight for the nine spots on this list. Moreover, this was the first year to utilize an executive committee that selects three of the nine films separately from the rest of the voting branch. We will likely never know what three films were the committee's choice, but it does account for some of the odd inclusions this year.

The biggest story, though, is who was omitted. Xavier Dolan's film Mommy, Canada's submission, failed to make the cut after being a huge festival hit, including winning the Jury Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Similarly, Winter's Sleep, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes for director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, was similarly overlooked, ending Turkey's chance at its first nomination. Another Cannes hit, Belgium's submission Two Days, One Night, also failed to make the cut, proving that the Academy is likely never going to "get" the Dardennes Brothers' films (despite wide international acclaim, they have yet to have a film nominated, or even be shortlisted). Finally, Golden Globe nominee Gett: The Trial of Vivian Ansalem (Israel) is absent, as are submissions from Oscar favorites such as France (Saint Laurent), Denmark (Sorrow and Joy), Germany (Beloved Sisters), and last year's winner, Italy (Human Capital). Interesting trivia: this will be the first year of the 2010s in which neither Denmark nor Canada will be nominated; those two have been favorites in the category for the past four years.

Those who did make the list, however, represent an eclectic mix of styles, genres, and nations, with three of the films in position to be their nations' first nomination. In alphabetical order by nation of origin, here are the nine finalists.

*Winning years in bold*

Wild Tales (Argentina)

Argentina's Oscar record: 6 nominations, 2 wins (1974, 1984, 1985, 1998, 2001, 2009)


In theory, director Damian Szifron's film - which premiered at Cannes earlier this year - seems like an odd pick for the Academy. It's essentially six short films interconnected by dark humor and violence, though they reportedly come together for an entertaining climax. It's not very often that you see a dark comedy make the cut, but the film was a big word-of-mouth hit at Cannes, and performed really well in Argentina as well. Just about everyone who's seen it loves it. It seems like a strong contender to pull a nomination.

Trivia: Argentina is the only non-European nation to have multiple wins in this category.

The rest, plus category predictions, after the jump.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

December 2014 Oscar Predictions: Entering the Void

Nature abhors a vacuum. This is a basic principle of physics, but it also applies to predicting Oscar nominations. With critics groups, SAG, and the Golden Globes all having presented their prizes and/or nominations, we're now deep into the thick of awards season, and the Oscar picture is starting to clarify.

And what is it we're seeing? Well, that's a good question. There seems to be a lot of open spaces in the major categories, including Best Adapted Screenplay and, surprisingly, just about every acting category except Best Actor. If this continues, we can probably expect some big surprises come January 15, if not from tight races then from the Academy's collective shrug of "well, that'll do."

There's still a good way to go, though, and big changes could still be in store. Here are some highlights from the new set of predictions, which you can see in full here.

BEST PICTURE

There's definitely been some major shakeups here. Unbroken being shut out by both the Globes and SAG have definitely broken (sorry) my faith in the film, while those groups' love of The Grand Budapest Hotel and Selma have elevated their profiles. Similarly, Wild has fallen off, namely because the film itself has been generating very little buzz outside of Reese Witherspoon's performance. Based on the accolades delivered so far, it would seem that Birdman and Boyhood are the safest locks here, with The Theory of Everything not far behind.


The biggest question marks remaining in this category are how Into the Woods, Whiplash, and A Most Violent Year will perform, as well as how many nominees there will actually be in this category. It honestly seems like we're on pace for nine nominees for the fourth consecutive year, but there could still be a shakeup here.

More after the jump.

Seth Rogen, "The Interview," and History Made

Who would have thought Seth Rogen and James Franco, of all people, would be the ones to incite a seismic change in international relations?

There's already been a lot written about Sony's decision yesterday to cancel the theatrical release of The Interview, Rogen and Franco's comedy about an entertainment journalist (Franco) and his producer (Rogen) who are tasked with assassinating North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un (played by Randall Park). The film, co-written and co-directed by Rogen and Evan Goldberg, has drawn a lot of attention, beginning with a threat from the North Korean government that there would be "massive retaliation" should the film be released. A few weeks ago, Sony Pictures - the film's distributor - became the victim of a massive cyber hack, with the hackers releasing everything from private emails to employees' personal information. Sony quickly walked back plans to release the film in Asia, then, after further threats, decided to pull the film entirely. Last night, the State Department confirmed that North Korea had ordered the attack.


I won't pretend to be an expert on the situation; I'm not particularly well-versed in the art of international relations, so I'll only say a little. It's clear, though, that this attack represents a sea change in the concept of national defense. Cyber-warfare is no longer the stuff of Hollywood fantasy (ironically), but rather a very real threat. We've entered a new phase in history where nations don't need complex weapons or nuclear capability to destroy one another. A few keystrokes on a computer is now enough to bring nations, companies, what-have-you to their knees. It's frightening, to say the least.

That a goofy comedy that has Rogen shove a rocket up his ass brought this about illustrates the power of art. I don't mean this to say that the film should have never been made; in fact, quite the opposite. I'm genuinely concerned about what precedent this sets in terms of films with controversial subject matter. By refusing to release the film, it demonstrates that the threat of violence can prevent any film from being seen. What's to stop, say, a group from demanding that a film that doesn't align with their politics be cancelled? Or, say, the government deciding that a film is "too risky" and prevents its release? The door for censorship-via-cyberterrorism has been opened, I fear, and I sincerely hope that this is not the case.

That being said, I'm almost certain that we have not seen the last of The Interview. Sony has invested too much money into this film to just let it disappear, and I believe that we'll see a DVD/Blu-Ray release at some point in the near future. Or, perhaps if Sony is wise, the company can land an exclusive streaming deal with Netflix or another streaming service. This film will see the light of day, whether the North Korean government wants it to or not.

No matter what, though, The Interview and Seth Rogen have landed their spots in the history books. Not bad for a guy with a rocket up his ass.

For some other perspectives, I recommend these articles from Hitfix's Drew McWeeny and The Film Experience's Nathaniel Rogers.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Late Spring (1949)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #15

It perhaps goes without saying that the nation of Japan was undergoing serious changes in 1949, when director Yasujiro Ozu's film Late Spring was produced and debuted. The nation was still reeling from its defeat in World War II, the cataclysmic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bomb, and the ongoing occupation of American forces. The occupiers were adamant about restricting anything that would be deemed "too Japanese," for fear of sparking another nationalistic streak and war effort. Coca-Cola signs along the beach were becoming the norm. Old traditions were giving way to new social norms, and the nation found itself in the midst of an identity crisis.


Late Spring, one of Ozu's most acclaimed films, deals with changing attitudes toward marriage in a very distinct, natural way. The film centers around Professor Shukichi Somiya (frequent Ozu collaborator Chishu Ryu) and his daughter, Noriko (Setsuko Hara), who serves as his caretaker. Shukichi, a widow, wonders if it is time for Noriko to be married, seeing as she is 27 now. Noriko has no interest in getting married; however, she agrees to meet with a few suitors at her Aunt Misa's (Haruko Sugimura) request, including her father's assistant, Hattori (Jun Usami), and a Tokyo University graduate, Satake. Noriko also struggles with the news that her father is interested in remarrying, a concept that she does not agree with.

Throughout the film, Ozu juxtaposes images of Western culture seeping into Japanese society, of modernity invading tradition. But Ozu makes his point not just through what is shown onscreen, but also the elements that are omitted from the narrative.

More after the jump.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

"A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing."

On first glance, this quote - taped to the mirror in actor Riggan Thomson's (Michael Keaton) dressing room - feels like an immediate deflection of criticism, both for Riggan and for the film itself (more on that later). But Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), the truly great new film from director Alejandro G. Inarritu, pushes the concept further, shaping itself into a thing that is not easy to define. It's difficult to say what kind of a thing it is, but there is so much to say of it.


The film centers on Riggan, an actor best known for playing the (fictional) comic-book superhero Birdman. It's been years since Riggan has last donned the cowl and cape, and now, having gone through public meltdowns and a divorce, he's trying to reclaim artistic credibility by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play based on Raymond Carver's short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." As the play begins previews, though, everything seems to be falling apart. His agent (Zach Galifinakis) is trying to appease him. He's recruited hot-headed, difficult-to-work-with actor Mike Shiner (hot-headed, difficult-to-work-with Edward Norton), to fill in a key role at the last minute. His fresh-out-of-rehab daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), is his sarcastic assistant. Mike has a troubled relationship with the show's lead actress, Lesley (Naomi Watts). And on top of it all, Riggan may be losing his grip on reality, hearing the gruff voice of his most iconic character in his head bringing him down.

There are a lot of meta-textual layers in this film, to the point that even Charlie Kaufman, the acclaimed screenwriter of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich, would have to be impressed. But the film is more than a showbiz inside-joke. It's a masterful work that uses the language of cinema to celebrate performance in all of its forms.

More after the jump.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The 72nd Annual Golden Globes Nominations

The nominations for the 72nd Annual Golden Globe Awards, aka the Starf*cker Awards, were announced this morning. I call them by that more derogatory term because, let's face it, the Globes are essentially a bastardization of the Oscars and the Emmys, only with more alcohol and nominees that are apparently based more on who they can get to walk their red carpet than any realistic merit Remember how Johnny Depp scored not one, but TWO nominations for Best Actor - Comedy/Musical in 2010? For Alice in Wonderland AND The Tourist? Never forget.





This year, there were some surprises to go along with the usual Oscar forerunners. The biggest is perhaps the complete exclusion of Unbroken, including Angelina Jolie for Best Director. Being left out at the Globes isn't always damaging - Crash managed to win an Oscar with very little Globes love - but it looks damaging nonetheless for the film's hopes. On the other end of the spectrum, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) ruled with seven nominations, possibly establishing it as a real threat for Oscar dominance.

On the television side, the Alphabet Networks found themselves pushed out here just as they were at the Emmys, with cable networks, Netflix, and even Amazon asserting their place in the quality television landscape. Perhaps the biggest surprise: five-time Best Comedy Series Emmy winner Modern Family was completely shut out, as was last year's victor in that category at the Globes, Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

The Golden Globes ceremony will be held on January 11. Below is a complete list of nominees, with commentary.

BEST PICTURE - DRAMA

Boyhood
Foxcatcher
The Imitation Game
Selma
The Theory of Everything

As previously stated, it's surprising that Unbroken couldn't pull it out here, especially since the film has been building some momentum lately. Interstellar is also a somewhat-surprising exclusion (Inception had scored a nod here in 2010), but given the heat around other films it's not that unexpected. The same can be said of Gone Girl, too, since the Globes tend to be drawn to big hits. Otherwise, Boyhood continues to steamroll through the awards season, and Selma is gaining the heat it needed to become a major player.

More after the jump.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The 57th Annual Grammy Award Nominations

The Grammys, perhaps rightfully, have a reputation for being ridiculous and unnecessary at best and aggressively blind to current pop tastes at worst. This is really true of any awards show, but the Grammys take the biggest lumps for it. This is namely because the music industry is so far-reaching that it's impossible to compile a selection of all the great music in a given 12-month period in general, much less fit them into five-to-six-nominee categories. So, naturally, just about every decision is going to be controversial in some way. C'est la Grammys.


Anyway, this year's nominees feature an interesting mix of sounds and artists, almost all of which had major pop success this past year. Beyonce, Sam Smith, and Pharrell Williams lead the nominees with six apiece, while a number of other artists - including Jack White, Iggy Azalea, Eric Church, Sia, and Usher - have four each. Here are the nominees for the four major general field categories.

RECORD OF THE YEAR
"Fancy," Iggy Azalea featuring Charli XCX
"Stay With Me (Darkchild Version)," Sam Smith
"Chandelier," Sia
"Shake It Off," Taylor Swift
"All About That Bass," Meghan Trainor

All of these songs made an appearance in the top 10 of Billboard's Hot 100 chart at some point this past year, so none of them come across as particularly surprising. Notable omissions "Happy," by Pharrell Williams, and "All of Me," by John Legend, were not eligible, having been released during the previous eligibility period (for the 57th Grammys, this is October 1, 2013 through September 30, 2014).

The rest after the jump.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Ambivalent Eight: A Tarantino Fan's Attempt to Anticipate "The Hateful Eight"

Earlier this month, the cast of Quentin Tarantino's upcoming Western The Hateful Eight was announced. As is to be expected, it is the kind of eclectic mix of underused performers, unsurprising frequent collaborators, and unexpected stars that have become the norm for Tarantino's films. It's a cast that includes:

- Bruce Dern as Confederate General Sanford Smithers
- Michael Madsen as "cowpuncher" Joe Gage
- Tim Roth as Oswaldo Mobray, "the hangman of Red Rock"
- Samuel L. Jackson as Major Marquis Warren, a former Union soldier-turned-bounty hunter
- Kurt Russell as John "The Hangman" Ruth, a bounty hunter
- Walton Goggins as Chris Mannix, the self-proclaimed new sheriff of Red Rock
- Demian Birchir as Bob, a shopkeeper
- Jennifer Jason Leigh as Daisy Domergue, a fugitive escorted by Ruth
- Channing Tatum as an unknown character, possibly a villain


I am a fan of Quentin Tarantino's films. I own all of them on DVD. I have rewatched most of them more times than I care to admit. The argument that he steals deliberately from the films he loves, and that's why he's not really that great as a director, never made sense to me. Of course he steals from those films; it's the pastiche of influences that he makes in each film that makes them feel so singular. If you want to see how singular and special Tarantino's talent is, just look at any number of Pulp Fiction knockoffs that came out in the wake of that film, then observe how none of them come close to approaching Tarantino's accomplishment. It's easy to copy, it's much harder to make the copy feel so vibrantly original.

So here's my confession: I find myself struggling to be excited about The Hateful Eight. I lay a large portion of the blame here on Django Unchained, but there's more to it than that.

More after the jump.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: The General (1926)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #34

In the discussion of City Lights in this column, Charlie Chaplin was identified as a standout director and silent film star who managed to retain creative control and box office success after the genesis of the sound era. His contemporary, Buster Keaton, the auteur and star behind The General, was one of the silent era's greatest innovators, pushing the medium forward through technical daring and elaborate action sequences. However, unlike Chaplin, Keaton fell victim to the changing times, only being re-evaluated in recent years as a unique talent.


The General, his 1926 film co-directed by Clyde Bruckman, was the film that, perhaps paradoxically, saw him operating at the peak of his artistic abilities and marked the beginning of the end for his career. The film follows Johnnie Gray (Keaton), a railroad engineer who tries to enlist for the Confederacy at the start of the American Civil War. He is denied, however, because his job is considered too valuable; his fiance, Annabelle (Marion Mack), refuses to speak with him until he's in uniform. When a group of Union officers steals his train, Johnnie accidentally stumbles upon a Union plan for attack, and must race against them to warn the Confederate troops and save Annabelle's life.

What the film does most impressively is in its technical aspects. Keaton was never one to shy away from going for big moments, and The General has several, serving as a silent would-be blockbuster had it not flopped.

More after the jump.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #6

The reputation for 2001: A Space Odyssey often precedes the film these days. The same can be said of director Stanley Kubrick, as well. Before making his science-fiction opus, Kubrick was already a known commodity, coming off a streak of well-recieved films that included the enormous Spartacus (1960), the controversial Lolita (1962), and the satirical Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). He was already becoming notorious for his perfectionist process of filming and desire to be in complete control of the project. In most ways, he was very close to becoming "Stanley Kubrick," the much-celebrated ideal of a great filmmaker.


It was 2001: A Space Odyssey that brought him to that level. The film is famous for its four-part structure, two of which feature no dialogue at all. It's best-known segment is the third, in which, on a mission to Jupiter, the ship's artificial intelligence HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) rebels against the ship's crew, including astronauts David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood). It's also well-known for its visual effects, then revolutionary and earned Kubrick his only Oscar win. But it is perhaps most notorious for how the film raises more questions than it answers, with a loose narrative spanning millions of years and only connected by large, black, rectangular monoliths.

Over the years, there have been numerous interpretations to what Kubrick's epic is really about. These interpretations range from the possibility/impossibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe to more bizarre theories, including proof that Kubrick helped fake the 1969 Apollo moon landing. A lot of the talk about "what it all means," though, causes some of Kubrick's more formal achievements to be overlooked. Particularly, the film's editing - courtesy of credited editor Gary Lovejoy - is remarkable in how it subverts conventional editing techniques, sticking to one crucial type of cut.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Short Takes: Godzilla, Belle, and Other Films Viewed October/November, 2014

Muppets Most Wanted (dir. James Bobin, 2014)


Truth be told, the Muppets' movies - much like The Muppet Show itself - have always been hit-or-miss,  living or dying by their human co-stars and impish humor in equal parts. The Muppets, the 2011 Disney reboot, succeeded largely thanks to the film's engagements with the Muppets' history and the affably goofy performances of Jason Segal and Amy Adams (themselves real-life Muppets). Muppets Most Wanted, the sequel to that film, doesn't quite fare as well.

Now reunited, the Muppets agree to stage a world tour with the help of Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais). Dominic, however, is in cahoots with Constantine, "the world's most dangerous frog" who bears an uncanny resemblance to Kermit the Frog. Constantine swaps places with Kermit, landing the latter in a Russian gulag run by Nadya (Tina Fey) while the former uses the tour as a front to stage a number of heists.

As before, there are songs courtesy of Bret McKenzie, the best being "I'll Give It To You (Cockatoo in Malibu)," a goofy lite-disco number. But there's little in the way of the anarchic glee that is the Muppets' hallmark, replaced by gentle gags attached to a thin plot that's been stretched to its breaking point. Of the human performers, Ty Burrell fares the best, playing an thoroughly incompetent Interpol agent who has charming buddy-comedy chemistry with Sam the Eagle (now with the CIA). Fey and Gervais, on the other hand, never quite fit in, perhaps because their brands of humor aren't quite suited for the Muppet brand. The Muppets never fail to get a laugh; there just aren't enough in this film to earn the title "most wanted." C+

More after the jump.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: City Lights (1931)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #50 (tied with Ugetsu monogatari and La Jetée)

By 1931, when multi-hypenate talent Charlie Chaplin finished City Lights, Hollywood had undergone the most seismic shift in film history. Al Jolson sang and danced his way into the national consciousness with The Jazz Singer in 1927, the first "talkie" picture, a film with synchronized sound (now the norm). In an instant, silent film stars were rendered obsolete. Theaters across the country began removing their orchestra pits as audiences demanded talkies. Musical extravaganzas became the norm, fully capitalizing on the popularity of sound. And with them came a new breed of movie star: theater actors suddenly made the jump to film, becoming bigger sensations than ever. Meanwhile, silent stars such as Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and others found themselves out of work, their voices becoming liabilities rather than assets to their schtick.


Chaplin, however, stubbornly refused to change. He insisted that City Lights be produced as a silent film, even as the form was virtually extinct. The film underwent multiple changes, beginning production in 1928, but one thing remained the same: it starred the Little Tramp, his incredibly popular comic creation. Even then, though, the film was never guaranteed to be a success; between City Lights and his previous film, The Circus (1928), the United States had fallen into the midst of the Great Depression, in addition to the rise of sound cinema. Nothing was certain for Chaplin.

And yet, the film ended up being one of Chaplin's most successful, both commercially and critically. By asserting himself as an artist in a nearly-extinct art form, Chaplin bloomed into his peak form.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Updated October 2014 Oscar Predictions: Here Come the Contenders

Now that we're into late October, things are finally starting to take shape in the Oscar race. A good bit of the contenders are now in theaters, and as a result we're beginning to separate the genuine articles (Birdman) from the wannabes (Men, Women, and Children, Jason Reitman's second flop of the year). The Gotham Awards have already announced their nominees, and soon everyone else will be following suit. So hold on to your hats, it's about to get crazy.

Here's a rundown of my reasoning for this month's updates. You can find my full list of predictions here or by clicking the "Academy Awards" tab under the banner at the top of the page.

BEST PICTURE

Fury takes a tumble out of the top ten, thanks to good-but-not-great reviews upon its opening. Don't count this WWII flick out of the race completely, though. It may not contend for any of the Big Eight categories, but it'll surely show up in some of the technicals, especially Sound Mixing and Sound Editing.

Theory of Everything: Felicity Jones (left) and Eddie Redmayne

Meanwhile, Theory of Everything leaps into the "locks" thanks to its steamrolling momentum at the moment. I'm not entirely convinced that it'll hold onto that lead, but at this point it seems like a legitimate contender for a number of top prizes.

More after the jump.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Gone Girl (2014)

*Full disclosure: I have not read Gillian Flynn's 2012 novel of the same name, though I understand that there are significant differences between the events of the novel and those in the film.*

She's called "Amazing Amy." Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) spent her childhood as a celebrity, serving the basis of the "Amazing Amy" children's books that her parents authored. Yet as Amy herself explains to then-boyfriend Nick (Ben Affleck), that version of her past is fabricated: where Amy failed to make the volleyball team, "Amazing Amy" was on the varsity team. Where Amy's life was complicated and often disappointing, "Amazing Amy" succeeded at just about everything she attempted. Her story was not her own. She was two different people: Amy Elliot Dunne and "Amazing Amy." But who is she really?


That bifurcation is important, because as a film Gone Girl is very interested in binary distinctions. When Amy disappears, Nick - now her husband of five years - is suspected of killing her. But what is the truth: Nick's claims that he didn't harm his wife, or the increasing mountain of evidence that he is responsible coupled with his erratic behavior?

More (spoiler-y details) after the jump.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Carrie Coon's Having an Excellent Year

Actress Carrie Coon is far from a household name. But thanks to a pair of terrific performances - one in a major blockbuster - it seems like the spotlight has finally found her.


You'd be forgiven for not really recognizing her at first. With only a handful of television guest spots to her name before this year, Coon spent most of her time on the stage, particularly with Chicago's esteemed Steppenwolf Theatre Company. There, she starred in a number of acclaimed productions, but the game-changer was starring in the role of Honey in Steppenwolf's 2010 production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. That production earned raves, eventually transferring to Broadway two years later with the Steppenwolf cast intact. There, the play earned three Tony awards, with Coon also receiving a nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Play.


Now she's reaping the benefits of that exposure. On the big screen, Coon made a huge impact in this month's Gone Girl, despite her limited screentime. As Nick Dunne's (Ben Affleck) twin sister Margo, Coon is given some the film's most darkly humorous lines, and she delivers them with just the right level of cutting sarcasm and genuine affection. More importantly, though, she takes a character that's designed to be the "voice of reason" for the audience and turns her into a real human being, one who is as biased and unreliable for the audience as anyone else on-screen. She leaves a lasting impression, which is an even greater accomplishment considering everything else that happens in the film.


On the small screen, she played a critical role in HBO's sci-fi literary adaptation The Leftovers, based on Tom Perrotta's novel of the same name. The show revolves around the lives of the people of Mapleton, New York, one year after 2% of the world's population suddenly vanished without a trace. Coon plays Nora, a woman whose entire family - husband and two kids - were taken in what's dubbed the "Sudden Departure." Naturally, she brings a lot of pathos to her few scenes in most episodes, but when she's front-and-center in the first season's sixth episode, "Guest," she delivers a phenomenal performance. The episode explores Nora's near-suicidal coping with her loss, her job with "Departure-Related Occupations and Practices," and her attempts to come to terms with her new reality. And Coon is nothing short of remarkable, a perfect blend of wit, despair, and curiosity that perfectly represents how unmoored Nora is in her own life. "Guest" is, without a doubt, the show's best hour so far by a long shot, and so much of the credit belongs to Coon.

As for what's next, all that's listed on her IMDB page is the second season of The Leftovers, which should air sometime next year. But given the quality of these performances, she should be getting her pick of offers right about now. Go ahead and familiarize yourself with her talent; if there's any justice, she should be showing up in a lot more in the future.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #50 (tied with City Lights and La Jetée)

As previously discussed, Japanese cinema made its breakthrough into the global conversation in the 1950s, namely thanks to the successes of filmmakers Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and Kenji Mizoguchi. While Kurosawa has maintained a legacy as a premiere filmmaker through the present, and Ozu has seen his reputation rise in estimation over the past few decades, Mizoguchi has curiously become an afterthought in discussions of Japanese cinema. The acclaim for Ugetsu Monogatari, routinely considered Mizoguchi's best film, can attest to this trend. The film claimed the Silver Lion Award for Best Direction at the 1953 Venice Film Festival, and landed in the top ten of Sight & Sound Magazine's decennial list of the greatest films of all time in 1962 and 1972. The film was actually more popular abroad than it was at home, a phenomenon that film historian Tadao Sato equates to the film (unintentionally) being marketed as representing an "exotic" Japan to Western audiences. Since those early days, however, Kurosawa and Ozu have dominated film classes about Japanese cinema, while Mizoguchi remains something of a curiosity that only hardcore cinephiles seek out (Roger Ebert and Martin Scorsese have been champions of the film in the present).


Ugetsu Monogatari deserves to be a greater part of that conversation, however. The film, set in the midst of a civil war in Omi Province in the 16th century, follows two couples that live along the shore of Lake Biwa. Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) is a potter who sees the ongoing role as an opportunity to increase his profits, though his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) warns him that doing so is dangerous. Similarly, Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa) wants to enlist and become a samurai warrior, but his wife Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) protests that he will get himself killed. When the raiding army invades their village, the couples flee together across the lake. An encounter with the lone survivor of an attack sees them split up, with each one facing the trials of war on their own.

At it's heart, Ugestu is a ghost story: the spirits of the fallen surround these characters, particularly Genjuro, who unwittingly marries deceased noblewoman Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo). However, the specter of Japan's then-recent bellicose past also haunts the film, and the result is a film with a startlingly feminist rebuttal to the bullheaded-masculinity of warfare.

More after the jump.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Boyhood (2014)

When the lights came up in the theater after the credits rolled, I didn't know what I felt. I had just seen Boyhood, director Richard Linklater's epic story of one boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), growing up from age 5 to age 18 and filmed over the course of 11 years. The reviews and articles that I had read before finally getting to see the film - over eight months after it's premiere at Sundance earlier this year - had promised an emotional, affirming, wholly unique experience, a touching film about growing up. It was universally affecting. I would be moved.

But here I was, making my way out of the theater unsure of how I felt. There was plenty to be impressed by, make no mistake about it. Watching the actors, especially Coltrane and Lorelai Linklater as Mason's sister Samantha, age onscreen is a remarkable sight. Like many Linklater films, there's a rambling structure to the narrative, reeling from one event to the next without necessarily providing clean-cut revolution. There's plenty of conversations about philosophical concepts and other intangible aspects of life, growing more sophisticated the older Mason gets. Patricia Arquette gives a stunning performance as Mason's mother, struggling to raise her family while making questionable choices in relationships. It all added up to a truly great film.


So why wasn't I feeling it? Where was the immense sadness and longing for childhood, the film's emotional impact on me?

More after the jump.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Short Takes: Films Seen in September/October, 2014

Medicine for Melancholy (dir. Barry Jenkins, 2008)


The easiest film to compare Jenkin's debut to is Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise (1995): both are talky tales of two strangers united by chance. But Medicine for Melancholy is decidedly its own, assured feature. Set in San Francisco, the film follows Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Jo (Tracey Heggins), who wake up together after a one-night stand. The two spend the next twenty-four hours together, discussing their world-views and the gentrification of the city. Politics play an important role, but they never distract from the central relationship between Micah and Jo. The hazy, washed-out cinematography gives the film a dreamlike quality. Cenac's and Heggins' easy chemistry is the film's secret weapon, though. There's a lot of pleasures to be found in these two chatting the day away. A-

Only Lovers Left Alive (dir. Jim Jarmush, 2014)


Only Lovers Left Alive - the latest film from indie journeyman Jim Jarmusch, could easily (and derivatively) described as a "hipster vampire film." Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a centuries-old vampire living in Detroit, recording dirge-like experimental rock songs and generally lamenting the human race. He calls on his lover, Eve (Tilda Swinton), to come visit him from Tangiers and comfort him in his latest fit of depression. When Eve's sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), comes to visit, she stirs up trouble for all three of them. As is to be expected in any Jarmusch film, there's not so much a "plot" here so much as a collection of interconnect scenes. This works in the films favor, giving time for the actors to breathe in their roles and bring these characters to life (or, not-life, as the case may be). Hiddleston and Swinton are predictably terrific, but it's Wasikowska who brings an unexpected jolt of energy to the proceedings. She nearly walks off with the movie. Even if the film doesn't necessarily go anywhere, it's a great deal of fun to spend two hours with these characters. A-

More after the jump.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Tokyo Story (1953)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #3

By the time filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu made Tokyo Story in 1953, Japanese cinema had already begun gathering international attention and acclaim. Akira Kurosawa was becoming a famous presence thanks to the success of Rashomon, while films from Teinosuke Kinugasa (Gate of Hell) and Kenji Mizoguchi  (Ugetsu monogatari) were causing stirs at various film festivals. However, Ozu wouldn't begin to receive the same level of attention outside of Japan until the 1970s, nearly ten years after his death in 1963. Ozu has since become one of the most well-regarded directors in the history of cinema, yet appreciation of his films is still a fairly recent phenomenon compared to that of his national contemporaries.

This isn't necessarily all that surprising. Ozu's filmmaking style was much less dynamic than Kurosawa's, and his films focused more on intimate family dramas and lighthearted comedies than the historical epics and samurai tales that Kurosawa crafted. Ozu was content to let his characters speak for themselves, trusting that their interpersonal relationships would be enough to keep audiences engaged. Ozu's films are contemplative and stylistically simple; it only seems appropriate, then, that he once described his role of director as "tofu-maker."


Tokyo Story is, at first glance, a relatively low-key picture, even for Ozu. Shukichi (Chrishu Ryu) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) Hirayama decide to leave their small town of Onomichi - and youngest daughter, Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa) - to visit their adult children in Tokyo: oldest son Koichi (So Yamamura), a pediatrician; elder daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura), a hairdresser; and widowed daughter-in-law, Noriko (Setsuko Hara). Their children welcome them, but only Noriko finds the time to entertain them during their visit. When they stop to visit their youngest son, Keizo (Shiro Osaka), in Osaka, Tomi falls ill, bringing the family back together in Onomichi.

Yet Tokyo Story, largely regarded as his masterpiece, betrays this surface simplicity and exposes why Ozu would go on to become such a highly-regarded filmmaker. It demonstrates the many ways that Ozu's style defied cinematic conventions of the day, even if he was only slightly tweaking them.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

"We Have to Go Back!:" "Lost" Ten Years Later

History is usually written in hindsight, long after the "important" event has passed. That's not unreasonable: there's no telling what the ripple effect of any given moment will be, so something seemingly insignificant at the present can later be considered a crucial turning point (and vice versa). In television, there's no way to really tell what programs will be hugely influential. Certainly, there was no indication that I Love Lucy, or The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or The Twilight Zone would still be so influential decades after their original airings. Shows that never became big hits - Star Trek, for example - saw the landscape remade in their image without really getting to benefit from it.


All of this is to say that before September 22, 2004, nobody would have assumed that Lost - which aired the first part of its pilot that night - would become one of the most talked-about, acclaimed, influential, and divisive dramas of the young 21st century. If anything, it seemed like a boondoggle. The pilot cost $14 million - a record at the time - and before it even aired, then-ABC president Lloyd Braun had been fired, much in part to his insistence on developing the show (he also came up with the original pitch of "Cast Away meets Survivor"). The show's ostensible lead, Jack Shepard, was played by Matthew Fox, at the time best known for Party of Five. Evangeline Lily, who played female lead Kate Austen, had no previous credits to her name. Arguably, the most famous members of the cast at the time were Dominic Monaghan, who played heroin-addict rock star Charlie, and Terry O'Quinn, playing the mysterious John Locke; the former had a minor role in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, while the latter was best known for the 1987 slasher flick The Stepfather (and a number of other  "that guy" roles). Just about everything about this show was a risk.

Yet if there's anything that defines the show's legacy, it's exactly that: risk. No other broadcast-network  show in the past decade has taken the kinds of risks that Lost did.

More after the jump.

Monday, September 29, 2014

September 2014 Oscar Predictions Update: "Theory of Everything" Rises, Screenplays Descend Into Madness

I apologize for the absence from this blog over the past month; I've been taking care of some other business that I will gladly share when the time is right. But I can't let the month close without an update to the Academy Awards predictions page, which you can view right here. The general field is beginning to shape up now that the contenders are making their world premieres, but it's still a long journey to January. Any number of "sure things" could slip, and who knows what unseen surprises lurk deep within the calendar. October should really start to make things more clear.

But for now, here's what's changed in my predictions for the top eight categories.

BEST PICTURE

No significant changes to this lineup. I had initially considered bumping Gone Girl down to the "if more than five…" tier, namely because I was having a moment of doubt about it. But then it opened rapturously at the New York Film Festival, so at least for now it remains a solid "lock." I can't help but also think that the Stephen Hawking biopic Theory of Everything might evolve into a contender in this category, but what would it replace? Of the ten films I have predicted, Fury is probably the weakest at the moment, but that could change when the film premieres.


Meanwhile, where is Inherent Vice going to fit into all of this? The Academy got on director Paul Thomas Anderson's wavelength for There Will Be Blood in 2007, his biggest Oscar hit to date. However, his follow-up, The Master, earned only three nominations in 2012, all of them for acting (all deserving, it should be noted). But his adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's neo-noir? There's no telling how the Academy - or anyone else, for that matter - is going to respond to it. It'll debut soon at the New York Film Festival, so maybe we'll start getting an idea about it soon.

BEST ACTRESS

Suite Francaise seems more like a 2015 release now, so Michelle Williams is out, and Felicity Jones (Theory of Everything) is in. I'm not entirely sold on her chances - she hasn't really had a chance to prove herself yet, despite the insistence from various corners that she's an exciting up-and-comer. At the very least, I have yet to be truly impressed by her work.

Since the premiere of Alzheimer's-drama Still Alice at Toronto earlier this month, Julianne Moore has become a serious contender to earn her fifth career nomination, perhaps even her first win. I'm not quite ready to co-sign, though. I love Moore and think she certainly deserves an Oscar at some point in her career, but the Academy has been weirdly averse to her (she hasn't been nominated since 2002, despite a number of great performances since then). Her win at Cannes earlier this year will be a boost, even though it was for a different film (proof of range/big year), but I just don't think it's going to be enough at the moment. We'll see how her campaign heats up.

Meanwhile, I still have a good feeling that Jessica Chastain is going to be nominated for one of her many films from this year, and A Most Violent Year feels like her best chance (Miss Julie hasn't impressed on the festival circuit, and the multiple cuts of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby will likely just cause confusion). Still, I'm not sure how the film itself is going to perform; if the Academy isn't into it, they may give her a pass as well.

More after the jump.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Taxi Driver (1976)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #31 (tied with The Godfather Part II)
"Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There's no escape. I'm God's lonely man."
-Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) 

The concept of masculinity - particularly what it means to be a man in America - is one of the most prevalent themes in American cinema. In fact, it may be more prevalent than ever today, given the numerous television shows and movies with "anti-heroes" at their center, almost all of them white men with varying degrees of questionable morality. But masculinity has been a foundation of film since its inception, and it's no coincidence that some of the most celebrated films of all time have very clear gender distinctions, often aligned with the male perspective. From the gangster films of the 1930s through the action films of the 1990s, "manliness" has been a key factor of many films.

Yet no filmmaker has made masculinity the thesis of their cinematic project quite the way that Martin Scorsese has. Scorsese's films are almost uniformly examinations of what happens when the protagonists' (hyper-)masculinity reaches a breaking point and the wake of destruction they subsequently leave behind. This isn't to say that all of Scorsese's films fit into this description; Kundun (1997) and Hugo (2011) are very different films with different concerns, the former telling the story of the Dalai Lama and the latter a family film set around the birth of cinema. But by and large, the majority of Scorsese's films concern ideas and expressions of masculinity, and the consequences of unchecked machismo.


There is perhaps no better introduction to Scorsese's project than Taxi Driver.

More after the jump.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: La Dolce Vita (1960)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #39 (tied with The 400 Blows)

In the previous edition of this column, Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura (1960) represented a turning point in the history of Italian cinema. The previous two decades had been dominated by the post-WWII reactionary movement known as Italian neorealism. Neorealism was marked by three basic tenets: films focused on working-class characters (often children), utilized non-professional actors, and were filmed almost exclusively on-location. Roberto Rossellini's Open City (1945) is often considered the landmark film in this style, and filmmakers such as Vittorio de Sica (Bicycle Thieves, 1948) and Luciano Visconti (Ossessione, 1943) became important representatives of the movement internationally. For a brief moment, Italian neorealism was the focal point of the world cinema scene, with films winning top prizes at various film festivals (including Cannes, where Open City shared the Palme d'Or with a number of other films).

L'Avventura wasn't a continuation of the neorealist tradition so much as it was a revival. After audiences reacted viciously toward neorealist films in the early 1950s (de Sica's 1952 film Umberto D. is often cited for this, with its disastrous box office and criticism from the Italian government), the movement quickly faded from the spotlight. Until Antonioni infused neorealist theory with modernist detachment, the film industry attempted to rebuild itself in Rome, allowing new, different voices to take center stage in Italian cinema.


The most influential - and easily most recognizable - filmmaker to emerge from this period was Federico Fellini, the visionary Italian director best known for La Strada (1954), 8 1/2 (1963), and La Dolce Vita (1960). It's the lattermost film - the subject of this week's column - that marks Fellini's transition from a curiosity to a global sensation, and it did so through the filmmaker's abandoning of his remaining neorealist trappings to fully embrace his flights of fancy.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Divergent (2014)

There's no avoiding this issue: there's no way to talk about Divergent without comparing it to The Hunger Games.

This, of course, is what studio Summit Entertainment wants. With Twilight having wrapped up, the studio was looking for their next huge young-adult franchise hit. And with The Hunger Games raking in hundreds of millions of dollars each year, why not pick another YA book series about a girl in a dystopian society who challenges her place in said society while being embroiled in the requisite love triangle/forbidden love?


But Divergent, based on the first book in Veronica Roth's trilogy, doesn't quite hit those notes like The Hunger Games does. Obviously, these are not the same stories. Divergent follows Tris (Shailene Woodley), a young girl born in a post-apocalyptic Chicago. Society has been divided into five "factions" based on personality traits: Abnegation (the ruling faction, known for generosity), Dauntless (the brave, serving as protectors), Erudite (the intelligent, who want to overthrow Abnegation), Amity (the friendly, working as farmers), and Candor (the honest, who are lawyers, naturally). Tris - born into Abnegation - chooses to join Dauntless after her aptitude test (this universe's version of Harry Potter's Sorting Hat) proves inconclusive. Tris is "divergent," meaning that she doesn't fit into any of the five factions, and therefore is a threat to the stability of this society.

The film aspires to be the next big dystopian adventure hit. But it fails in a few big ways.

More (mild spoilers) after the jump.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: The Matrix (1999)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

Fifteen years later, it's easy to forget how remarkable The Matrix was in the summer of 1999. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the countless number of films that have parodied, mimicked, or flat-out borrowed elements of this film prove the impact that it made. It's a fate that's not uncommon to these kinds of works, especially in the realm of fantasy or science fiction. After being mercilessly replicated, something like H.G. Welles' novel The War of the Worlds or ABC's television show Lost are bound to feel a bit like the imitators they spawned. And The Matrix didn't really do itself any favors with its two less-than-inspired sequels, The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003).


What sets The Matrix apart, then, and why it's a terrific choice for the fifth season finale of The Film Experience's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," is the one thing that its imitators never had: confidence in its hodgepodge of influences. This was a studio-backed blockbuster that dared to be weird and challenging at a time when those same studios were taking less and less chances on weirdness.

More after the jump.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Meet the 2014 Honorary Oscar Recipients

Every year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presents Honorary Oscars to members of the film community in recognition of their contributions to the medium. Though it would be ideal to just present these awards to people who have no previous nominations or wins, it doesn't always work out that way; in fact, two of this year's four recipients have multiple nominations and a win each to their names. The recipients will receive their awards at the Governors Awards on November 8.

Here are this year's honorees, three of which will receive Honorary Oscars and one who will receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.


Maureen O'Hara

O'Hara was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1920 and arrived in Hollywood when she was still a teenager, with her first significant role coming in Alfred Hitchcock's 1939 adventure film Jamaica Inn. She made a splash that same year with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in which she played Esmerelda opposite Charles Laughton's Quasimodo. From there she would have a lengthy career throughout the 1940s and 1950s, appearing in films ranging from Miracle on 34th Street (1947) to Sinbad the Sailor (1947), from A Woman's Secret (1949) to The Parent Trap (1961). She was also a favorite of director John Ford, who cast her in five of his films, including How Green Was My Valley (1941), Rio Grande (1950), and The Quiet Man (1952). Incredibly, despite her obvious talent, she was never nominated for an Oscar throughout her career. Her most recent screen credit is in The Last Dance (2000), a TV movie for CBS, as she retired earlier that year.

More after the jump

Friday, August 29, 2014

First Predictions for the 87th Academy Awards: The "Way Too Early" Edition

After a lot of hand-wringing and a typing marathon, I've finally updated the "Academy Awards" page here on the blog with the first predictions for this year's Oscars. Predicting the awards this early - before most of these films have premiered, and with some still filming - is a foolhardy endeavor, since right now all I have to go on is trends in Academy voting and how these films look on paper. The deeper we get into the season, the clearer the picture will get, as some films surprise where others crash and burn.

A few burning questions for this preliminary set of predictions:

Will the Best Actor category actually feature nothing but first-time nominees? So far, that seems to be the case. The only one of the top contenders that has previous nominations right now is Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel), and at the moment I'm not all that convinced that he can break into the category this year, as its an odd performance and the film came out way back in March. It's rare for an acting category to not have any previous nominees - the last time it happened was in 1999, in Best Supporting Actress (Chloe Sevigny, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Toni Collette, and winner Angelina Jolie). Can it happen again this year?

Who's going to be considered lead and who will go supporting? In recent decades, the Academy has shied away from considering co-leads as such; the last time it happened in Best Actress was in 1991 (Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, Thelma & Louise), and the last occurrence in Best Actor was in 1984 (F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce, Amadeus). The more common practice now is to promote one performance as the lead, then relegate the other ostensible leads to the supporting categories. For example, in 2005 Heath Ledger was nominated for Best Actor for Brokeback Mountain while Jake Gyllenhaal was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. An even more egregious example is 2010's True Grit, when the actual lead of the film - Hailee Steinfeld - was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, while Jeff Bridges landed a Best Actor nod for what's essentially an extended supporting role.

Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher. Will he be lead or supporting?

So how will things break this year for films like Foxcatcher, which has at least two lead roles (Channing Tatum and Steve Carell) and possibly a third (Mark Ruffalo)? Who will stand out in ensemble dramas like A Most Violent Year, Inherent Vice, and Into the Woods? In films about couples, which men will be considered leads while their female counterparts are relegated to supporting (I fear this is going to happen to Big Eyes, which given the subject would be unfortunate).

What films are going to end up being pushed to 2015? We still haven't heard much from Selma, Inherent Vice, and Carol, all of which have been filming and considered contenders. Also uncertain: Suite Francaise, Queen of the Desert, Suffragette, Mojave, Macbeth, Far From the Maddening Crowd, The Cobbler, Pawn Sacrifice, Dark Places, The Water Diviner. Will these films make out in time for consideration this year?

Check out the predictions here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Jodorowsky's Dune (2014) and Three Other Famous Unmade Films

Every year, there are tons of films that go unrealized. Filmmakers talk about potential projects, only to select one and leave others by the wayside. Eventually, they may revisit the idea years down the line. For example, Steven Spielberg first began work on Lincoln as early as 2005, with Liam Neeson in the lead, before finally getting the film made in 2012 (with Daniel Day-Lewis in Neeson's place). Others are never heard from again. Quentin Tarantino is perhaps the most famous director today for all of the projects he's said he'd make but has yet to break ground on, including The Vega Brothers and Kill Bill Volume 3.

But every once in a while, there's an unfinished film that becomes legendary. A film that seems so wild, so ambitious, so revolutionary that of course there's no way it could ever be made. Jodorowsky's Dune investigates one such film: the big-budget adaptation of Frank Herbert's seminal sci-fi novel by midnight-movie maestro Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo).

Jodorowsky

As director Frank Pavich pieces together Jodorowsky's insane vision through interviews with the director himself and his collaborators, it becomes clear that this film was always going to be far too ambitious. Jodorowsky sought out a creative team that was well-known within the artistic counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s, many of whom signed on without ever reading Herbert's novel (that includes Jodorowsky himself). Austrian conceptual artist H.R. Giger, British designer Chris Foss, and French comics artist Moëbius all contributed concept art for the film's spaceships and creatures; Moëbius even storyboarded the entire film. Dan O'Bannon, who had worked on John Carpenter's cult sci-fi flick Dark Star (1974), was brought on to handle the complex special effects. Pink Floyd and art-punk band Magma were in negotiations to provide the film's musical score. Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, David Carradine and Mick Jagger were hand-picked by Jodorowsky for roles, despite their expensive egos and difficult behavior. Overall, Jodorowsky wanted to create a film that would transcend every conventional notion of what cinema could do, all while mimicking the effects of hallucinogenic drugs.

Concept art by H.R. Giger

Naturally, every studio in Hollywood balked. As Pavich's documentary notes, the only key problem that each studio found with the film was Jodorowsky himself. They loved the concept, but the director was considered too much of a firebrand to take a risk on. The film never went before the cameras. But Pavich's film does a terrific job at showing how the film - or, rather, the massive book of concept art by Moëbius presented to the studios - would go on to influence some of the biggest sci-fi films of the past 40 years. For example: most of the crew would go on to work with Ridley Scott on 1979's Alien, which was written by O'Bannon with creatures designed by Giger. As it turns out, Jodorowsky's vision of making the most influential sci-fi film ever wasn't all that far off.

Of course, Dune did end up making it to the silver screen. Producer Dino De Laurentiis managed to procure the rights, and went with the "safe" choice of director David Lynch for his would-be blockbuster (this was easily the only time in history Lynch could be described as a "safe" choice). The 1984 film flopped, being considered by most to be a Star Wars ripoff (Lynch himself has publicly disowned the film). It's actually better than its reputation suggests, but it certainly pales in ambition to what Jodorowsky dreamed up.

So, since we're on the topic, here are three other famous unrealized films, and where they stand today:

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (late 1990s-present day)

Terry Gilliam's loose adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes' novel Don Quixote is probably more famous for its litany of biblical-scale setbacks than anything else. Originally conceived as the tale of a 21st-century man thrown back in time as Don Quixote's new sidekick, the film originally began shooting in 2000 with Jean Rochefort as Quixote and Johnny Depp as the time-traveller. However, the production was cancelled after a number of problems, including Rochefort's declining health and floods that destroyed sets and equipment. This production was immortalized in the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha. Since then, Gilliam has attempted to get the film off the ground multiple times, with Robert Duvall replacing Rochefort and Ewan McGregor subbing in for Depp. Funding continued to collapse, the film became embroiled in legal issues with the insurers for the original production, and Gilliam had to nearly cut his requested budget in half. Gilliam has recently stated that he would like to start production again soon - now with a drastically different plot - but it remains to be seen if he'll ever actually get it made.

Napoleon (late 1960s/early 1970s)

It's possible to create this list just from the projects that Stanley Kubrick never brought to fruition. But among them all, his epic biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte is perhaps the most famous. After the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Kubrick had done extensive research on the infamous French emperor, putting together a preliminary screenplay that covered the majority of Napoleon's conquests, and scouted locations throughout France and Romania. He had even secured the services of 50,000 Romanian soldiers for the film's major battle sequences. However, the failure of other Napoleon-related films at the time prevented studios from taking a risk on the project, Kubrick's research informed a significant portion of his 1975 film Barry Lyndon, and Napoleon was put on the back burner. Steven Spielberg has since stated that he would like to finish the project as a television miniseries, though little else has been heard about it since.

Superman Lives (mid-1990s)

Following the successes of Batman and Batman Returns, Warner Brothers was eager to pair director Tim Burton with another major DC Comics superhero: Superman. Kevin Smith was brought in to write the script, while Nicolas Cage was signed on to star as the Man of Steel. Screen tests were conducted, costumes were designed, and a teaser poster was even drawn up. The film was set to have the villain Braniac unleash a beast called Doomsday - most famous in the comics for killing Superman in their showdown. However, financial troubles dragged the production out, and when Burton left to do Sleepy Hollow (1999) instead, the film began to fall apart. There's a documentary about the film's fate currently in the works.

Jodorowsky's Dune: A-

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Emmy 2014 Recap: More of the Same

I'll be honest: this year's Emmys weren't very exciting. In each of the top series races, it seemed like there could be a tight competition, with old favorites giving way to newcomers such as Orange is the New Black or True Detective. Yet, in the end, voters went with those they were familiar with. Breaking Bad won almost every major award it was nominated for (losing only Best Director of a Drama), including Bryan Cranston's win in Best Actor in a Drama over presumed favorite Matthew McConaughey (True Detective). The comedy Emmys were similarly predictable, with Modern Family winning in the categories it has more or less dominated over the past five years. And in miniseries/movie, American Horror Story: Coven (which was bad) and Sherlock: His Last Vow (even worse) dominated. Nothing surprising.

Bryan Cranston

The ceremony itself was a bit of a drag, too. Seth Meyers was an amiable host, but I've never been all that partial to his snarky persona. None of the jokes really landed all that well, either, and the whole thing just lacked energy. But that's another ceremony in the bag. Better luck next year.

TRIVIA

  • All of the acting winners in comedy/drama series categories had won their respective award at least once in the last five years, with the only exception being Allison Janney.
  • By winning for the fifth year in a row, Modern Family matches the record for most series Emmy wins set by Fraiser.
  • Breaking Bad is the first show to win the Best Drama Series Emmy for its final season since The Sopranos in 2007. Those shows are also the only ones to accomplish this feat.
  • Aaron Paul is the first actor to win more than two Supporting Actor in a Drama Series Emmys, taking home his third. (Art Carney also won three - 1954, 1955, 1956 - but it was before the award for Supporting Actor was separated between genres). Paul is also the first to win three such Emmys for playing the same character on the same show.
  • Moira Walley-Beckett is the first woman to win an Emmy for Drama Writing on a solo credit in 20 years.
  • In the movie/miniseries category, American Horror Story: Coven and Sherlock: His Last Vow took home the most awards, but neither took their respective top prize. Coven lost to Fargo in Miniseries, while Sherlock lost to The Normal Heart for TV Movie.
A list of winners after the break.


Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Gone With The Wind (1939) - Part 2

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*
"I can't think about that right now. If I do, I'll go crazy. I'll think about it tomorrow."
- Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh)


There's no avoiding the march of time. The only way to survive in life is to move forward, to take both the happiness and the pain of the past and learn from them. Progress is going to happen whether you like it or not. Those who stick stubbornly to the past are doomed to be victims of it. You can choose to live in the past, but to do so is to live in a dream, a fantasy; it no longer exists. There is no going back. That's why ideas that were once accepted as the norm now exist only in textbooks and a few individuals here and there. Clinging to these ideals - especially ones that were never more than myths to begin with - will lead you to ruin. Adapt or die.


As the second half of Gone with the Wind begins, Scarlett seems to be adapting. She and her sisters are working desperately to stay alive and make the land of Tara plentiful again, but where Suellen (Evelyn Keyes) and Carreen (Ann Rutherford) complain about having to do so much work, Scarlett holds her head up and does what she has to. Her sisters don't understand why they have to work so hard; they never have before. The war seems to have hardened Scarlett, though; having to serve as the head of household has made her forget about the past and look ahead to what comes next. She's living in the present, at long last.

At least, until Ashley (Leslie Howard) comes home.

More after the jump.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Top Ten Shows Currently on Television: 2014 Edition

*With the Emmys coming up on August 25th, The Entertainment Junkie will be providing content related to major nominees, culminating in not one, but two top-ten lists. Welcome to Emmy Week.*

Last year, I marked the end of Emmy Week with a list of the top ten television shows on the air. This year, I decided to update that list. Two times makes it a new tradition right? Anyway, the criteria are simple: this list is limited only to shows that I regularly watch (obviously), it includes only scripted, "primetime" programs (meaning no miniseries or reality shows, not necessarily airing in primetime), and needs to be still in production/on-air. And with those criteria set, here are the new top ten shows currently on television.

With apologies to: Breaking Bad (no longer on the air, as per the qualifying requirements of this list); Mad Men (I never got a chance to catch up on the show's most recent season before compiling the list); The Leftovers (a compelling show, but not enough episodes for me to really consider it here); The Good Wife (I know I need to catch up, and I swear one day I will)

Honorable mentions (just missing the cut): Boardwalk Empire, Looking, Parks & Recreation, Homeland, Archer, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, House of Cards

10. New Girl (last year: #5)


Season two of New Girl ended remarkably, by burning past the "will they/won't they" between Jess (Zooey Deschanel) and Nick (Jake Johnson) and planting them firmly in "they will." Season three - the show's latest - picked up immediately afterward, with the characters wondering where to go next. The show seemed to be asking itself the same question, figuring out how to maintain the incredible chemistry of the ensemble while also changing the dynamics of their relationships. It wasn't always easy to watch, as the return of Coach (Damon Wayans Jr.) took time to grow and the "departure" of Schmidt (Max Greenfield) from the loft was amusing if inconsequential. But the show handled the Nick-Jess relationship well, and turned in a collection of episodes that could be dramatically relatable and laugh-out-loud funny at the same time. It remains one of television's most underrated comedies, with a crackerjack cast that can make just about anything funny.

9. The Middle (last year: #10)


The Middle came up to a difficult point in its run this year: oldest child Axl (Charlie McDermott) moved off to college, which distanced himself from the rest of the Heck family. "The College Years" are a pitfall that many television shows have fallen into over the years, yet The Middle handled it surprisingly well, keeping Axl in the loop either literally (constantly returning home for various reasons) or thematically. Growing up was the running theme for the show's fifth season, as all three Heck children - Axl, Sue (Eden Sher), and Brick (Atticus Shaffer) - navigated various stages of adolescence and explored who they are. Parents Frankie (Patricia Heaton) and Mike (Neil Flynn) faced the similar realization that it wouldn't be long before their children were out of the house for good. The Middle has long flown under-the-radar as ABC's best sitcom, providing huge laughs courtesy of its talented cast (Heaton and Sher being the MVPs) and its relatable slice-of-life vignettes. This season was the show's most emotionally resonant, in addition to being its best.

8. Game of Thrones (last year: #3)


In an effort to prevent the show from catching up to George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series upon which the show is based (five of his proposed seven novels have been published), showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have taken to dividing books across multiple seasons. Season four, then, represented the back-half of A Storm of Swords, and in many ways it felt like it. Most of this season's storylines felt like a collection of payoffs from the previous season instead of self-contained narratives, and there were so many in play at once that none were given too much room to breathe and grow. At worst, this season attempted to shock for the sake of shocking, such as the never-again-mentioned rape of Cersei (Lena Headley) and the parade of gruesome deaths. But at its best, this season proved why Game of Thrones remains one of television's best dramas. In particular, Daenerys Targaryan's (Emilia Clarke) march of liberation through Slaver's Bay has been a powerful, thoughtful examination of power and what it means to rule, proving that being leader requires more than idealism. Though this season lacked the cohesiveness of the rest of the show's run, it was nonetheless fascinating, thrilling, and wholly rewarding.

7. Masters of Sex (last year: unranked)


On the surface, Showtime's Masters of Sex looked like the network's attempt to replicate the success of Mad Men: a glossy, mid-20th-century setting and the built-in prestige factor of being based on the famous sex study conducted by Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) and his assistant, Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan). But make no mistake, this isn't a clone. The show's first season was a strong effort to make sense of sexuality and human relationships, and wisely focused more on the latter than the former. But what has really made Masters of Sex one of the best shows of the year are the performances: Sheen and Caplan are fantastic, and they're surrounded by terrific supporting turns by Beau Bridges, Teddy Sears, Julianne Nicholson, Annaleigh Ashford, Heléne York, Nicholas D'Agosto, and the phenomenal Allison Janney. The show is a stunning examination of sex and relationships, all with a warm, beating heart underneath.

6. Girls (last year: #4)


I wrote in my review of season three of Girls:
"…Girls has more in common with Louie than it does Seinfeld. Louie attempts to make Louis C.K.'s standup cinematic, and in the same vein, Girls could be seen as a collection of filmic essays and short stories involving the same characters."
This season, more than the previous two, found creator Lena Dunham adapting that short-story format. From Hannah's (Dunham) job at GQ Magazine and attempt to get her e-book together to Jessa's (Jemima Kirke) stint in rehab to Shoshanna's (Zosia Mamet) attempts to graduate from NYU to Marnie's (Allison Williams) general narcissism, this season's overarching narratives felt more like loose ties between episodes than anything else. The season (and series) reached a high-watermark with "Beach House," as all four main characters got together for a weekend together that ended in their relationships with each other more fractured than ever. If this season was about anything, it was about finding momentum in life, with all four women struggling to figure out what comes next in life. And it wasn't just the women, either, as Adam (Adam Driver) landed a role in a Broadway revival of Mother Courage and questioned where his relationship with Hannah was going. Girls still isn't the laugh-out-loud comedy people want it to be, but it is a searing portrait of finding your way in your 20s in the 21st century.

5. Hannibal (last year: #9)



The second season of Hannibal really felt more like two distinct mini-seasons. In the first half, Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) is imprisoned for the crimes Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) framed him for, with Will attempted to exact his revenge from his cell. The second half finds Will pairing with Margaret Verger (Katharine Isabelle), the sister of the deranged Mason Verger (Michael Pitt), to take down both Hannibal and Mason. This season was, in most ways, a marked improvement on the show's already-great first season, with more beautifully-shot grostequeries and disturbing plunges into the dark, twisted psyche of Will Graham. The performances, too, were universally strong, particularly Dancy, Mikkelsen, and Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford, the FBI head looking to protect Will and make a case against Hannibal. If there is one quibble with the season, it's that it struggles mightily with female characters, turning the most interesting women - like Alana Bloom (Caroline Dharvas) or Dr. Beverly Katz (Hettinene Park) - into sexual pawns or cannon fodder. If not for that, Hannibal could make a strong case for being the best show on television, period.

4. Bob's Burgers (last year: unranked)


Bob's Burgers is, without a doubt, the odd-one-out in FOX's animation lineup. It doesn't hail from the Seth McFarlane factory (Family Guy), nor is it The Simpsons. It's also far superior to either of those two shows in their current runs. The Belchers are, naturally, an unusual bunch: Bob (voice of H. Jon Benjamin, one of the funniest voices in animation) runs a boardwalk burger joint with the help of his wife Linda (John Roberts), who's prone to bursting into song, awkward oldest daughter Tina (Dan Mintz), obnoxious son Gene (Eugene Mirman), and troublemaking youngest daughter Louise (Kristen Schaal). It's a well-worn setup, but Bob's Burgers succeeds by making all of its characters just a little bit weirder, which in turn makes them all the more relatable. It's hard to watch Tina go through the pains of puberty without recognizing a bit of yourself in her. Moreover, the Belcher family may annoy one another, but there's never any doubt that this family loves each other and will do anything to help one another. In many ways, it's a lot like The Simpsons during its '90s heyday: lots of laughs mixed with a good dosage of heart.

3. Orange is the New Black (last year: unranked)


There were very few surprises on television this past year quite like Orange is the New Black. It wasn't exactly inspiring on paper: Jenji Kohan, best known for creating Weeds, would create a show based on Piper Kerman's memoir of her sentence in a women's prison, to be aired on Netflix. The two seasons that are currently available, though, are an absolute marvel. Using the character of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), an upper-middle-class white woman who ends up in Litchfield for a crime she commits with her drug-dealing girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon), the show enters a society where women are restricted in their rights and often abused at the hands of the predominantly-male guards and management. Sound familiar? The show works best as a study in gender, race, and sexuality and as a scathing critique of the American prison system and androcentric society. That's heavy, but it goes down easy thanks to the very best cast on television and the sharp writing, which can switch from comedic to tragic on a dime. It's safe to say there's nothing else like it on television.

2. Louie (last year: #1)


Season four of Louie was perhaps the toughest the show has yet produced. I've already written extensively about how this past season was an attempt by creator Louis C.K. to make his inner turmoil into something…well, if not watchable, then at least tangential. And at times it was close to be unwatchable in its awkwardness and refusal to provide any sorts of "laughs" the way a show defined as a "comedy" ostensibly should. It was nigh unbearable at times because it was so honest. It was C.K. bearing his soul, his fears, his personal dilemmas to us, and he pulled no punches in doing so. He wasn't afraid to make himself the bad guy. Episodes like "Model" seemed to be taking place entirely in Louie's (C.K.) head. It wasn't a particularly funny season. But it was a challenging, riveting, and wholly personal 14 episodes of a show that has been subverting television conventions since the beginning.

1. Veep (last year: #8)


For a long time in the creation of this list, I debated over which show would get the top spot. I mentally made cases for each of the top five shows on this list, whittling it down until it was just Louie and Veep. Two of television's top comedies are also the top shows. But when I finally had to make a choice, I decided on which show made me laugh harder than any other this year. I decided on the show that worked my brain just as much as my funny bone. I decided on the show that features the most loveably caustic, despicable people the medium of television has every produced (give or take the gang at Paddy's Pub). I decided on the show that I actively looked forward to the most week after week. I decided to cast my vote for Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Veep. This season saw the show blossom into a razor-sharp political satire, with each episode a high-wire act of vicious put-downs, quick jokes, and shit-eating comeuppance upon shit-eating comeuppance. Having Selina begin a new campaign for president was a stroke of genius, allowing creator Armando Iannucci and company to delightfully skewer election-year mayhem through any number of means. One episode spent its entire 30 minutes on Selina and her team trying to determine her stance on abortion, lampooning the political doublespeak that dominates Washington. Another - a crossover with Iannucci's previous show, BBC's The Thick of It - sent Selina to London, where she was clearly out of her element. The writing was as pointed as the barbs Selina's staff trade with one another, and the performances from the entire cast were nothing short of inspired. Some actual workers from Capitol Hill have said that Veep is the most accurate depiction of Washington on television. I don't know whether to be impressed with the show or terrified of the reality. Perhaps both. It's all the more reason why Veep tops this list as the best show currently on television.